Lance Wileman is a fixture at Minneapolis’ Kingfield Farmers Market where most people know him simply as “the balloon man.” Every Sunday, Lance delights kids and their parents with his animal kingdom of balloon creations. And even though Lance has his regulars, a lot of people don’t know that much about him, let alone his name. This story was produced for KFAI’s Minneculture.
In August 2015, I participated in KCRW’s third annual 24-hour radio race where radio producers all over the world sign up to make a radio story in under 24 hours, just for fun (and a chance to win some stuff, but that’s not really the point). I did the race with my friend Britta Greene, who’s a radio producer at Minnesota Public Radio and also a Transom Story Workshop grad. We met the day before the race to brainstorm ideas and somehow ended up listening to a slew of old voicemail messages from my dad, including one message that was different from the rest — but not a good kind of different, at least to my ears.
When this year’s race them — “time change” — was announced the next day, Britta suggested using my dad’s voicemails as the starting point for our story. Halfway through the competition, (essentially at midnight in Minneapolis), KCRW announced a bonus element — the Blanche DuBois Streetcar Named Desire quote: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” With that, we changed the ending of our story.
It was great fun to do the race, even though it involved an awkward interview with my dad about mortality. Radio is an excuse to have those conversations, and also to stay up really late searching for music beds on Free Music Archive. We didn’t win anything, but as team Nothing Ventured we didn’t set out to be winners, only completers, and also to have some radio fun, which we did.
You can check out all of the 2015 KCRW radio race stories here and the winners here.
Minnesota Style Chronicles: Herbert Stead has been volunteering as a greeter at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for the last four to five years. A native of Rhode Island, Herbert came to Minnesota decades ago to work in the airline industry and is now retired. He conceived of this outfit himself — from the Chesterfield coat to the white gloves and black top hat. You can’t see it in the picture, but he’s wearing English riding boots he bought from the J. Peterman catalogue. His sartorial creativity isn’t inspired by a love of menswear. It turns out that people are the point. “It’s just people,” he told me. “People love it!”
Saint Paul artist Nate Christopherson likes working by himself while surrounded by the humming buzz of people. That’s why you might find him drawing alone in a coffee shop. Nate is an illustrator, wood engraver, printmaker, and charter school teacher. He used to have a studio, but he didn’t get as much done there.
I met Nate about six months ago at Kopplins Coffee in Saint Paul, Minnesota. While everyone else there that day was either plugged into laptops or chatting with friends, Nate stood out with his analogue sketchbook and magic marker. I didn’t know Nate, but I asked if I could interview him about his work and he said yes.
That day, Nate was refining a prep illustration for a wood engraving. I noticed what looked like a child’s crayon markings etched across the page. I learned that Nate has two children, a boy and a girl, who are both under the age of four. His daughter had recently become obsessed with hexagons, so he’d been drawing a lot of those. He told me that having kids has changed him as an artist in some pretty fundamental ways.
“A lot of what I do has to go on top of being a parent. My kids are often all over my sketchbook, and that’s kind of cool because I think it’s a document of our story.”
Before he was a dad, those solitary hours Nate spent drawing in coffee shops were accompanied by a tinge of loneliness. Now, it’s rare for him to be alone.
Nate also used to wrestle over his identity and calling as an artist. Those feelings have softened with age. He’s clear-eyed that dabbling in projects just for fun can’t be part of his artistic equation. Put simply, whatever work he does needs to bring in a pay check of some kind. Nate’s younger self would have agonized about that, but the Nate of today is simply grateful to get paid to make stuff with this hands. “This is not something most people get to do,” Nate says. “I’m really happy I just get to sit here and draw for a little bit.”
You can listen to an edited version of my interview with Nate here:
I just see what happens to people when they sing together. It’s an old way of being humans together and we don’t do that much anymore. — Barbara McAfee
As a kid, I loved to sing, but I never did any serious voice study. There was a brief moment where I even sang on stage with Bob from Sesame Street when I was in the fourth grade. But mostly singing was a fun thing to do at summer camp, or later as an adult, in the privacy of my car while listening to Erykah Badu.
I remember auditioning for some kind of choir in college, but I didn’t get in. By that point, my singing ship had sailed. I had no ability to read music, and I couldn’t reliably sing on key. The choir rejection was disappointing but not devastating. Soon I discovered dance as a hobby, and I didn’t think much about finding ways to sing together with other people.
Then in the deep, dark Minnesota winter of 2011, a friend told me about a monthly community sing called Singing in the Light. You could just show up, even if you had no singing skills whatsoever. I decided to check it out.
Singing in the Light is run by singer-songwriter Barbara McAfee. She’s always reminding the group that there’s no way to be wrong in the space. If you sing off key, who cares? If you mess up the harmony, no big whoop. It’s not about perfection or rehearsing for a performance. The point is to make music with and and for each other right then and there, and also to (God forbid) have some fun.
That first time I went to Singing in the Light, I wept like a baby. It was such a relief to use my voice and not be judged. I could make mistakes and it didn’t matter. I think as adults we’re horribly starved for those kind of experiences. As Barbara says, this collective fixation on perfection has us wearing girdles all the time.
I was curious what Singing in the Light has meant to the other people who’ve shown up for it. So I decided to make this radio story to find out. It turns out that I’m not alone in my reasons for wanting to sing with strangers.
Editor’s note: This radio story originally aired in October 2014 on KFAI community radio in Minneapolis and was produced with support from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Many thanks to Catherine Winter for her editorial guidance.
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