A Lab for the Spirit by Oleg Kagan

After we worked so well together in the Creativity Lab, Joe Gutesha, center, served as the line producer for my documentary on creative placemaking in Akumal, Mexico. Here he is collecting a media release signature from an impromptu interviewee.

ed. note: Oleg Kagan is the Community Outreach Coordinator for Los Angeles County Public Libraries. He was an instrumental collaborator in developing and presenting Topanga Author’s Group events, including the TRANSPORT Topanga Literary Festival.

Joe Gutesha had been feeling disconnected from himself and the world after returning from a whirlwind two-months in New York, his first time there. The 22-year-old poet was working at a local gourmet food store and house-sitting, but his poetry had stalled. “I couldn’t focus,” Joe said in an interview, “I felt alone, but not in a good way.” And then, seemingly out of nowhere, he got a text from Kim Zanti, Director of Catalyst Muse, asking if he wanted to be part of a “process of creation” as an assistant and a collaborator. The opportunity could plug Joe back in; it was a chance to be part of something exciting with a person he respected. 

This wasn’t the first time the two had worked together. Several years prior, Joe had been among the core group of community members who organized the Transport Topanga Literary Festival, a two-day event founded by Kim and held at the local library. Despite being the youngest of the collaborators, Joe felt gratified at having his ideas heard and validated by “…older, literary types.” That acceptance carried over to meetings of the Topanga Authors Group (TAG), where the young writer participated as an equal with accomplished authors and artists. Since Kim had been the facilitator of these opportunities, her request re-ignited Joe’s earlier feelings of empowerment.

Initially, for Kim, the purpose of hiring a studio assistant was to get help with the physical elements of repurposing a shed into an art studio — hanging art, shifting objects, light carpentry — while she engaged in the art-making. But as she explored the idea further, this changed. Inspiration came from the Creativity Lab devised by Bob Bates, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Inner-City Arts, a safe, creative space for children in LA’s downtown. Kim coordinated several research projects there and was especially inspired by the Creativity Lab sessions, which were team taught by teachers with varied expertise. At the Lab, students come from many schools to invent and build, collaborating with each other and reflecting on their work. “Through experimentation, problem solving, persevering, and reworking, they are drawn more deeply into their own creativity,” explains the Inner-City Arts webpage. Thus, the role of studio assistant became intern, became co-creator. For Kim, Joe’s openness to ideas made him the obvious choice. “He was open to novel experiences,” she recalled, “During Transport Topanga, Joe never balked at an idea. He took ideas and made them his own.”  

Catalyst Muse’s first private creativity lab was also an important landmark for Kim’s personal journey; throughout the decades of her professional experience as an arts administrator, she subsumed her own creative drive in support of others. Recent years saw her in a tornado of change, going from a long-term and steady job as the Associate Director of the Center for Research on Creativity (CRoC) to the coordinating force behind the organization following the death of its founder, creativity researcher James Catterall, to a student at SUNY Buffalo where she earned a Master’s Degree in Creativity Studies while simultaneously embracing entrepreneurship by starting her own company. Coming out of this maelstrom, Kim realized that it was necessary for the person whose life’s work had been to cultivate the creativity of others to align with her own inspiration. It was her time to be an artist.

Their first Thursday morning meeting was a hike to Topanga Canyon’s Eagle Rock, which had recently suffered a devastating brushfire. The path through charred vegetation felt like a metaphor for regeneration, new beginnings. The subsequent nine Thursdays found the pair working together, three hours at a time, to create art from found objects, discuss poetry and literary ideas, and engage in other activities both profound and mundane, in a process that successfully turned Kim’s unused out-building into a functioning studio (dubbed “The Sheddio”). Their time often began with a meeting over coffee and some bread, cheese, and fruit and ended with contemplative journaling. In between, they worked. Entering the studio, you might find them with their heads together combining a baseball catcher’s mask with a backgammon board and a heart-shaped rock in a mixed media piece that comments on, according to Joe, “how we guard our hearts.” Just as likely, you would find them working at opposite ends of the room in silence, alone together. “You share a process,” Kim commented, “and if it’s a good process. You let the process do the work.”

Both participants soon found that their time together went far beyond the tasks at hand. Conversations, which were wide-ranging and free of pretense, cultivated a nurturing atmosphere allowing each to develop into themselves without fear. For Joe, it was the mentorship of an experienced person that finally allowed him to feel that a future as a poet and artist was possible. After his overwhelming New York sojourn followed by the solitude of an unfamiliar house “…working with Kim was the perfect volume.”

For Kim, it was self-trust kindled by unconditional acceptance that gave her the confidence to finish long-awaited pieces. Indeed, Kim said, “working with Joe allowed me to observe him and myself co-creating a process that gave me new energy and ideas. I felt how fluid the line is between teaching, learning, facilitating, and simply being curious and creative in a studio.”

Beyond tangible outcomes, it was clear that there was something special at play in Kim and Joe’s work together during the summer of 2021. Surely, their shared history played a part in their mutual chemistry, as well as a common need for a safe creative environment. And just the same, it is impossible to ignore the deliberate actions that fostered their work: Clear objectives, a structured schedule, and consistent reflection all aided in building a scaffolding for creativity to flourish. And flourish it did.

When asked what he left the experience with, Joe responded, “A more self-assured spirit…I had previously struggled daily with what to do, but ended the internship feeling vibrant and alive,” he paused and added: “By the end of it, I felt bigger.”

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