A Conversation with Kelsey Montague about #WhatLiftsYou

Taylor Swift in front of Kelsey Montague Wings – @taylorswift

Kelsey Montague toiled in the artistic trenches for years before this moment. In an interview for Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Kelsey spoke about rejections from art gallery after art gallery and how she finally decided to create her own artistic path. Like many of us, she avidly followed the dark political work of artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey but Kelsey wanted to make her own statement, something positive and uplifting.

Kelsey painted her first set of wings on a New York City corner in Nolita and added the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou. Taylor Swift took the above picture and posted it to her Instagram account. A day later people stood in lines down the block to take their own winged pictures. Just like that, Kelsey Montague was on the map. And while obviously Taylor Swift has massive influence and social media frenzies create viral sensations, I like to think it’s also an instance of artists reaching out and helping each other up.

Because now Kelsey and her wings are a worldwide phenomenon.

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

I caught up with Kelsey a few weeks ago to ask her some questions.

Gypsy Queen: You’ve spoken before about your public street murals and how your wings were inspired in part by your grandfather’s artwork and his connection to birds. But how did you come up with the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou?

Kelsey Montague: I wanted to give people the opportunity to reflect on what is most important to them and that is how the hashtag #WhatLiftsYou was born. I also wanted to encourage people to post something positive on social media. There is an epidemic of cyber bullying online and I wanted my work to counter that.

GQ: Knowing that your public street art could disappear over time, does it matter to you that what you create won’t survive?

KM: I want it to survive long enough that it makes an impact in the community but I also kind of like the transient nature of street art. I think the fact it will eventually disappear gives it a kind of specialness.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

 

GQ: Your #WhatLiftsYou interactive wings are very inspirational in a time that feels very emotionally charged, politically and socially. Do you feel that street art has the power to make positive changes right now, even in the face of all this turmoil?

KM: Absolutely. Again I think that street art should get us to ask important questions of ourselves and our world. What Lifts You really is about constantly reflecting on what is truly important in your life and escaping, for a moment, the negativity that surrounds us.

GQ: You’ve created a new hashtag, #WhatUnitesUs. What kind of subject matter do you plan to use for these murals?

KM: I want to focus on love as a superpower. My first #WhatUnitesUs mural features hearts coming from a person’s hands. I want people to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences and our power to spread love.

GQ: Did Trump’s election have an effect on your art? Or your artistic choices?

KM: I launched the #WhatUnitesUs campaign to give people a chance to reflect on our similarities instead of our differences, in response to such a divisive election.

Art by Kelsey Montague – San Diego, CA

GQ: Have you noticed a change in the art community since the election?

KM: I think the street art movement has continued to grow and gain steam in the wake of the election. I think that communities are even more open to street art because the need for beauty and comfort in our communities is so strong right now!

GQ: If you could send a message to the nation right now, what would it be?

KM: Let’s unite around our similarities, instead of fighting about our differences.

GQ: What’s next for you?

KM: I’m working on continuing to spread the #WhatUnitesUs and the #WhatLiftsYou message around the world this year! I’m also working on some cool projects and interesting products.

Thank you so much for your time, Kelsey!

If you’re want to track down Kelsey’s murals you can see a list here on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.

If you’re in India, South Africa, Los Angeles, Miami or San Francisco, Kelsey will be coming to town to paint murals somewhere near you. Just look for the wings!

Art by Kelsey Montague – Nashville, TN

Nick Walker and the Problem of Vandalism

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Had you asked me two months ago to pick an American city with a thriving arts community, I never would have picked Indianapolis.

In fact, if you’d asked me for my general impressions of Indiana I would have said “Midwest, corn… something about cars?” Maybe also sports??? The Pacers ring a bell. Art would never have crossed my mind, but that’s why the company CityWay exists —to change our minds about what Indianapolis has to offer.

Much like WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY, CityWay in Indianapolis uses art and charity to bring diverse communities together. Once a year it hosts IndyDoDay, a day where they to encourage the people of Indianapolis to get out and get involved in a project in their neighborhood so they can “get to know their neighbors, take ownership of their neighborhoods, and take care of one another.” They also partner with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, commissioning artists and bringing art to public spaces.

CityWay worked with The Alexander, a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, to curate the hotel’s art collection. They filled the hotel with the kind of edgy-but-tasteful contemporary art pieces that edgy-but-tasteful people adore and put together a gorgeous lobby bar designed by Jorge Pardo.

All of the hotel art was well received but then they invited the British artist Nick Walker to tag the hotel’s parking garage. For some reason, this was a bridge too far.

Now admittedly, it’s unusual to pay an artist lots of money to intentionally create a space that looks graffitied.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, this is what Nick Walker does. He came up in the same British graffiti movement as Banksy, the most (in)famous graffiti artist there ever was. Walker has the same irreverent approach with his stencils, although his work is much less political than Banksy.

Walker’s main character is a formally dressed bowler hat-wearing character called Vandal. And most of Walker’s murals focus around the act of creating art.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Here’s the Vandal with his paint can

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And his paint dusting plane

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this chica with her spray paint missiles

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

And I love it. I love the artwork, the themes, the color scheme, and that it’s in a parking garage next to a high end hotel. It’s an unusual place to put commissioned artwork and moreover, it’s a clever way to put the gallery artist crowd and the street art appreciators in proximity and give them exposure to each other’s art.

Except not everyone agrees with me. I found the public response puzzling, to say the least.

In an article I can only describe as snarky, Katherine Brooks, the senior arts & culture editor for the Huffington Post, described Walker as “Banksy-esque,”  which no one would argue considering they were influenced by the same graffiti school. Despite that connection, somehow she makes it sound like Walker is simply an imitator. And then Brooks calls Walker’s work “lowbrow basement art.”

Oh snap!

This article in the Indy alternative newspaper NUVO is generally more positive, but also notes the irony of an highly-paid street artist whose main character is a Vandal “co-opting [the] graffiti culture.”

And that seems more to the point, doesn’t it?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

However, Walker isn’t coopting the graffiti culture, he is a graffiti artist. Back in the 80’s he painted buildings illegally, just like all the other graffiti artists of that era. Walker’s work still references street art politics and vandalism and he still paints on public buildings but now he’s also a big deal art guy selling prints and paintings for thousands of dollars and he gets invited to tag up shi-shi hotel parking garages. Apparently that’s not ok? Apparently he’s only allowed to be an illegal vandalizing graffiti artist wherein he can paint whatever he wants or he’s allowed to be a big deal gallery artist but then he has to change his style and subject matter to suit the venue.

Walker is clearly aware that his artwork gets people’s knickers in a twist. He says:

“At the end of the day, ‘vandal’ is a taboo word…It’s a word everyone associates with graffiti. Everyone says if you paint graffiti it’s vandalism, or they used to before it became more of an acceptable art form.”

Therein lies the crux of the dilemma, right?

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Graffiti used to be considered vandalism. It was cool because it was an art form created by outsiders and rebels and revolutionaries who flouted the law.

Graffiti artists were braver and crazier than the rest of us and their work was even more precious and fleeting because of the government’s power to eradicate it immediately and jail the artist. Anyone who believed in their art form strongly enough to risk imprisonment was inspiring.

But now… it’s different. Today street artists are invited to paint. They’re paid and often paid well, and their work is coveted by private collectors. Formerly repudiated artists now show their work in posh galleries and museums and their work is chiseled off of public walls and sold at auction for a zillion dollars.

So where does that leave us?

Is street art still a form of rebellious expression?

Is graffiti still outsider art if it’s supported by big companies and museums?

And more importantly, if street art no longer is outsider art, does it lose its impact?

I don’t have answers for these questions. Yet.

However, hear this: Nick Walker worked long and hard to get here and he outlasted thousands of other graffiti artists in the process. Moreover, his artwork is badass and if people pay him a zillion dollars for it, then good on him.

We should all be so lucky.

Art by Nick Walker – Indianapolis, IN

Tigers, Trump and the Internet – A Conversation with Dustin Spagnola

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael – Detroit, MI

I first saw Dustin Spagnola’s work in the Grand River Creative Corridor of Detroit. Ever since Trump was elected in November, I’ve been increasingly interested in the reactions of the artistic community to our newly charged political and social atmosphere. I reached out to Dustin Spagnola to get his thoughts on the current climate and he took some time out to talk to me.

The conversation below has been edited for length.

Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

3/11/17

Gypsy Queen: It seems that the piece that you’re best known for is the mural of Bush holding the mask of Obama. And then I saw different one you made of Hitler holding a mask of Trump. A reviewer said these two pieces look like “old boss same as the new boss.” Is that fair?

Dustin Spagnola: Yep.

GQ: And in that case, what’s the point if all we’re doing is repeating ourselves?

Spagnola: That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know. I can tell you about those images, which might be an easier way to understand what I think about that kind of stuff.

GQ: Yes, please.

Spagnola: So those images are based off a piece of poster art created in 1968 in Paris, France during the student uprising at the Sorbonne. The students took over their art department and printing room and they made a bunch of political art and someone made a print that was an image of Hitler holding a mask of de Gaulle, the French president.

When Obama got elected, I decided to make an image of Bush holding an Obama mask, which was really signifying “same shit, different day” but also, I felt it was a much softer critique of the system than comparing the president to Hitler, whom we universally view not as a person but as a monster.

I was really surprised at the kick-back that got because a lot of people were really upset about it. And I voted for Obama twice. Obama was a president who did a lot of good things and a lot of bad things and he was a leftist and a talking head, a visionary. And there’s also a cult of personality attached to him. So a lot of people got really upset about me comparing Obama to Bush, which I found very interesting personally. I feel that as a free thinker and someone who tries to have an open mind about things, comparing one president to the next is not exactly a big jump, to say the least. It’s kind of a logical linear progression.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

So when Trump got elected, a bunch of people around me were obviously very upset and I thought “Well, it’s a great time to make some political art”, which is one of the things that I really love to do. So I decided to just recreate the poster that I based the Bush Obama image on. I replaced de Gaulle’s face with Trump’s face and I literally used the exact original image of Hitler to pay homage to that original image.

Art by Atelier Populaire (left) and Dustin Spagnola (right)

And maybe to answer your bigger question about what the artists think, I have to say that most artists are leftists, and a lot of them are leftists who actually fall very far on the left end of the spectrum, like me and a lot of people that I know who are really more like radicals or anarchists. And we look at the two party system and it looks like business as usual and we think “Well this shit doesn’t work for anyone, except for the people in charge.” I think most of the population doesn’t really have as extreme or radical of views as we do but I think that’s the root of our problem. I think there’s a hierarchy in place that is very very unfair, to say the least.

GQ: So when you paint something that’s very pointedly political, especially when you’re recreating something or paying homage to it, are you looking for a particular reaction? Or just a reaction? In your ideal world, what do people do when they see your artwork?

Spagnola: I can’t really speak for anyone else but for me it’s about contributing to a dialogue and making images that resonate with people. We live in the United States and I’m allowed to think whatever way I want to and I’m allowed to say whatever I want and I’m allowed to paint pictures of whatever I want. For me the conversation that I’m interested in having is just throwing that shit out there and letting other people talk about it.

Sometimes I make things that aren’t political and I hope that those things affect people also. I hope they make people feel a certain way, that it makes someone’s day better or gives them an opportunity to stop for a moment and take a picture. Or maybe it inspires someone to paint something of their own.

I would hope that on some level the images spur conversation and dialogue between people that I don’t know. That I’ll never even meet.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: You paint street art, which I use as a very broad umbrella term for painted public art outside, but then you also show in galleries and museums and you have fine art canvases for sale. Do you prefer one mode of expression to another?

Spagnola: It’s a good thing to have art, whether it’s on a canvas or on a wall. And for me, I enjoy traveling and I like painting pictures and murals, I like seeing murals, I enjoy street art and graffiti. But I also really enjoy canvases and galleries and museums. I like showing in them and I feel like they’re kinda two sides of the same coin. Galleries and museums are certainly not the be-all-end-all of the art world. I think in a lot of ways street art and the internet surpass them.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

Street art fits in a different context and reaches more people and people engage with it differently. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead a life style where I can choose to get in my vehicle and go to another state and paint a wall and meet people there who paint or organize events around painting. I’ve personally really been welcomed into a lot of communities that I don’t think I would have met otherwise and I’ve made great friends. And there’s something really awesome about that.

GQ: I feel that the internet has had a lot to do with the rise of what I call the street art revolution, which is the current outpouring of public painted art everywhere all over the world, because the internet has extended the reach of the average person. For instance, I can see things in Moscow without ever going there.

Spagnola: Right. The internet makes everything more accessible to the common viewer. But remember that graffiti and murals and street art all existed prior to the internet. And people have been fans of it for a long time, even pre-internet. But with the rise of the internet and cell phones that are computers with cameras in your pocket, now people can engage in and regurgitate “the spectacle”, as Guy Debord would say.

We see it and we want to understand it, and we want to be a part of it and interact with it but then really we just take a picture of it and put it on Instagram.

It makes us feel like we’re doing something because we get positive feed back from our peers. And that’s cool. But it’s like I was saying before, I hope that one of the other things that happens is that people talk. That they consider the images and then decide to make their own.

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: When you’ve been invited to paint, have you ever had people put parameters on your subject matter?

Spagnola: All the time. People love to say “no sex, no violence, no politics.” All the time.

GQ: Do you abide by that?

Spagnola: Yeah, usually. That’s why a lot of my public work isn’t political. I painted a lot of tigers because I was trying to find a subject that was interesting to me. And tigers are beautiful and interesting but I probably would have been painting pictures of cops shooting black people or something. Because that’s the reality.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: When did you get started painting publicly?

Spagnola: Maybe around 2009 or 2011? I went down to Miami to do a gallery show, and I saw a lot of murals and that got me excited about painting murals. Just seeing the scale that people were working on. You can paint things that are 30’ high and 60’ wide and immerse the viewer and it really changes the experience of the viewer. Because if it were a 2’ x 4’ painting, it might be a really nice painting but it’s just not going to do the same thing.

GQ: Like the difference between seeing a painting in a museum and seeing a replica in a book. Even if the replica is perfect, the scale makes all the difference.

Spagnola: yeah, scale is really important.

GQ: You use your real name, Dustin Spagnola, to tag your street art murals. Have you ever felt you needed anonymity or wanted to choose a name that wasn’t your name?

Spagnola: No. I thought about it but it just seemed kind of fake to me. I’m not a graffiti kid and that’s what graffiti kids do. I’m not out breaking the law. I don’t like cops so I give them no reasons to talk to me. In general, I paint in spots where I have permission. And I know it’s not romantic or cool in the eyes of a lot of people who enjoy graffiti but that’s pretty ok. I’m just a normal person who is realistic about shit.

Art by Dustin Spagnola – http://www.dustinspagnola.com

GQ: You live in Asheville NC. Is there a good-sized artistic community there?

Spagnola: Oh yes. Most people here are artists, of different stripes, and this town is rapidly gentrifying. There are a lot of people moving here who aren’t artists and property values changing drastically. But this community has largely been shaped by the people who are artists. It’s a good place to paint. You can get a wall here pretty easily if you want.

GQ: What’s next for you?

Spagnola: I’m in the middle of learning to make films right now. I’m actually working on a short film at the moment and I’m going out to do some filming next week. Not that I’m giving anything else up but I’m learning a new medium. Because I want to.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Dustin. It was a pleasure and you gave me some interesting things to think about.

If you would like to know more about Dustin Spagnola and his work, you can find him on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Follow Your Heart – Dustin Spagnola, http://www.dustinspagnola.com

Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures used in this piece were borrowed from Dustin Spagnola’s website with his permission.

WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY

Art by Icy and Sot – Rochester, NY

Believing in the healing power of pictures, Dr. Ian Wilson, a radiologist and former graffiti artist from Brooklyn, in 2011 initiated the WALL/THERAPY project in Rochester, NY.

“The idea behind the project last year was to inspire the youth in the community to believe in something, anything,” Wilson said in a 2012 interview with Rochester’s City Newspaper “Because so many really don’t have any belief in anything, whether it’s the value of their own life, or their future….I wanted to produce something that spoke to them specifically, to charge them to believe in something.”

Art by Omen – Rochester, NY

Untitled (Chained Eagle) by Liqen – Rochester, NY

An international, all-star group of artists accepted Wilson’s invitation to come paint, and all of the buildings involved in the WALL/THERAPY project donated their walls. The public reception was so positive that the WALL/THERAPY project has grown every year since 2011, bringing over 100 murals to this modest sized city.

Fight Club by Conor Harrington – Rochester, NY

Art by Joe Guy Allard and Matthew Roberts – Rochester, NY

And then it actually worked.

In a 2015 In-Training article depicting some of the social challenges unique to Rochester, editor-in-chief Ria Pal says, “The murals proved to be an organic way to desegregate the city, bring new customers to small businesses, create dialogue, encourage residents from different areas to take pride in their neighborhoods and rediscover the city… No one would call WALL\THERAPY a panacea, but it does seem to be one successful way to mobilize once-stagnant neighborhoods and foster stewardship.”

Art by Mr PRVRT – Rochester, NY

 

“Color creates energy, energy creates inspiration, inspiration creates change.”

– WALL/THERAPY

 

While the public art is stunning, the WALL/THERAPY project goes deeper than the surface of the beautiful murals themselves. Wilson partnered the artistic endeavor with his other business—the Synthesis Collaborative, a company dedicated to providing radiology services and equipment to the developing world.

Got that?

One lone guy from Brooklyn simultaneously is providing colorful inspiration to kids and communities in Rochester, stimulating imaginations, and providing them with hope and a sense of what’s possible, while he also facilitates X-ray images of sick people in the developing world to help provide diagnostics, health, hope, and thus a longer life.

By this equation one could say pictures + hope = possibility.

Sleeping Bears by ROA – Rochester, NY

I was born white and English-speaking in America. I have a college education and a good job and I see a lot of art, so I thought I knew what I was looking at. But after Rochester and my experience reading, researching and experiencing WALL/THERAPY, I’ll never look at public art in the same way again.

Where I once simply saw beautiful pictures, I now always will wonder about the kids walking by these murals and dreaming of a better lives, lives they always will be able to link back to a mural and their first artistic taste of a wider world, beyond the limits of their own neighborhood.

Rhapsody by Faith47 – Rochester, NY

The Street Art Revolution

Art by Guido Van Helten - Reykjavik, Iceland

Art by Guido Van Helten – Reykjavik, Iceland

Not long ago I had dinner with close college friends so we could bemoan the election results. All my friends were sure we were in for four years of bullshit, but I shared an idea that only recently had occurred to me:

What if the next four years also brings an explosion of incredible art?

As protest. As a means of speaking truth to power. As a vehicle for rage and outrage, solidarity and organizing, grief and hope and persistence.

Historically art has thrived under oppression. When artists have to scrape and work and struggle, art acquires depth and context. It becomes a sounding board for expression that becomes urgent and relevant. Give artists something to fight for or against—boundaries to exceed, trespass, or transgress—and we get better art.

For the last nine years, I’ve been working as a wardrobe supervisor on tour with Broadway musicals. I’m on the road 52 weeks a year and I don’t have a home. I live in hotel rooms and when I’m not working, I travel for fun.

For the first couple years of my touring life, I was a tourist. I made an effort to visit all the must-see places in every city. I ate at the hot restaurants and experienced the tourist attractions that made each city unique. This is “been there, done that” traveling—experiencing a city as a microcosm.

But nearly a decade on, I’m looking for a different kind of traveling. I want to see the world in a broader context. I want to find the things that unite us, particularly now when my home country feels so fractured, practically pulsating with outrage.

The great Paul Bowles says this: “I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

Untethered, perpetually homeless and belonging nowhere grants me an unusual perspective. I see a lot of the world. More than most people. And because of that, I notice and pay attention to things that most locals no longer see.

For the last two years I’ve been noticing, documenting, and contemplating the rise of street art across the nation and around the world. In every city I visit, I see huge, beautiful murals on public buildings, often funded by governments and massive corporations.

Art by Charley Harper - Cincinnati, OH

Art by Charley Harper – Cincinnati, OH

It feels like, rather suddenly, everywhere I look there are street art expos and fairs and celebrations and paintings and other forms of street art such as wheat paste, stencils, and stickers. It’s as if there were a cultural earthquake and myriad new public works of art are the aftershocks.

I grew up in an age when public (spray) painted art was called “graffiti”—a dirty word. Graffiti was found on buildings in “dangerous” neighborhoods, signifying gang territory. Municipal governments bonded together, seemingly unified in their hatred of graffiti art and its artists, labeling them vandals and passing legislation aimed at eliminating such defiant forms of artistic public expression.

These days, however, I see street artists everywhere expressing themselves publicly in staggeringly beautiful, powerful ways. And cities throughout the world are protecting, promoting, and funding their efforts, turning public, urban art into a boon rather than a bane.

Street art is ephemeral. It’s exposed to the elements and it fades and chips. People paint over it and build things that block it or demolish the buildings where the art lives. I love the transient aspect of this art form. For all the times that street art is a public roar of defiance and a statement of intent, it’s also quite delicate and disappears quickly.

Wheat paste Stick-Up - Chicago, IL

Wheat paste Stick-Up – Chicago, IL

I’m in a different city every week, and I’ve realized of late what an unusual lens this street art revolution affords me. Every city promotes different kinds of art and displays that art in a unique way. Some of the artwork is explicitly political in nature and some of it is utterly mystifying, yet each city contains street art treasures that say much about the spirit of the people who live there. In all my years of travel, street art is one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever discovered to experience a city.

Here’s an important caveat: I am never on the crest of the wave when it comes to trends or trendspotting. I’m late to every party in life and in the virtual world, so I am very aware that the artistic revolution I perceive has been happening for much longer than I’ve realized.

But I see it now.

It’s February and we’re more than a month into a new presidential administration and a commander-in-chief nobody knows how to handle. No one knows how much to protest and how much to sit tight and wait. And yet, there are many artists who have made up their minds, decided what to say and how to say it and art is exploding.

Everywhere.

Paul Bowles also says, “Before there can be change there must be discontent.”

Well, we’ve arrived. I can’t remember an age of discontent quite like this one. But with it has come change. Massive colorful powerful artistic change.

I want to explore these works of street art, document them, think about them, and remember them for posterity. I want to be a repository for this artistic roar and watch the echoes change the world long after the edifices on which they were created have crumbled and the artwork itself physically has disappeared.

Street art is changing the world as we know it. I’m going to start writing about the revolution here.

More to come.

Art by Natalia Rak - Providence, RI

Art by Natalia Rak – Providence, RI

Kava and a Lovo on Ono Island

We chose Ono Island for our first stop in Fiji. On the map, Ono is a specific island northeast of Kadavu on the southern edge of Fiji. In reality, there are a zillion little islands out here. Some appear on maps and others exist only in reality. We asked the locals the names of these other islands and they said “Ono.” They’re all called Ono? Ono is a group word and not a singular word? Are these questions only foreigners ask?

I never really sorted this out.

What I do know is that the big island of Ono has 3 resorts, 6 villages and no roads connecting any of them. Each little occupied unit hugs the coast separately from the others and is accessed only by boat. The middle of the island is mountainous and covered with trees and when I asked what’s there, the Fijians shrugged and said “no one goes there.”

That’s incomprehensible to an American. Do you mean there’s beautiful island property, up high on a hill and out of the range of hurricanes and typhoons? It has a 360 view of the South Pacific and no one has built a giant mansion on it and carved out a private road? How can this be?

The Fijians laughed when I said that, which is why this place is so great. Because no one thinks like that. Everyone wants access to the ocean so they live close to it. No one needs a road because they all have boats. Why build on top of the hill?

Why indeed.

Mai Dive resort is one of the primary resorts on Ono Island. It’s a tiny place with a 16 person capacity when it’s chock full up. This is a terrible picture to show you the scale

Mai Dive Ono Island

And a better one of the inside of our little ocean front cabin (called a burre)

Mai Dive Ono Island

And then a jealousy inducing view from our porch

Mai Dive Ono Island

The ocean was literally right there and this is me sitting in that tree on the right of the picture above, an epic overgrown place perfect for climbing

Fiji tree

Every resort in Fiji has a food plan. You can custom it for allergies or preferences – Dani is vegan, for instance – but  you don’t get choices or a menu. You sit down family style with everyone in the resort, and they serve you food. Fortunately, the food at Mai Dive was some of the best we had all trip. This is a lunch of fish cakes on watercress. Doesn’t it look scrumptious?

Mai Dive Ono Island

Mai Dive has a staff of 14 who did everything in their power to make us comfortable. These sweet ladies were the best

Mai Dive Ono Island

They were hilarious and so friendly. When you live in a tiny place with 30 other people, you spend a lot of time hanging out with them, hearing about their families and watching them interact.

Dani and I spent 5 days on Ono. We dove in the mornings and sat on our porch reading in the afternoons. We taught ourselves to play gin rummy, we saw a giant sky full of stars with no light pollution, we met a great American couple from San Diego that we’ll see again this fall, and some raucous Aussies that fought us for the last bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

It was super chill and easy until Friday night when the Mai Dive crew cooked us a lovo, a big Fijian feast cooked on hot rocks buried in the sand. Dani and I expressed avid interest in this feast so the lovo chefs – Ahmet and Waise – came to get us every time they moved to the next stage so we could watch that whole process from the beginning fire

Lovo fire on Ono Island

To the piling of insulating leaves and shoots

Lovo on Ono Island

then meat wrapped in foil – chicken, beef and pork – followed by taro root and plantains

Lovo on Ono IslandAnd then the whole shebang covered by palm fronds. They said that the traditional covering is banana leaves, not palm fronds, but they don’t have banana trees on this island so they improvised

Lovo on Ono Island

And then a tarp and sand.

Lovo on Ono Island

After which we left it to cook for a couple hours and whiled away the time with a little kava!

Kava is the root of a pepper plant native to the South Pacific. It’s dried, pounded and soaked in water to make a traditional drink. Many Fijian’s drink this instead of alcohol. There’s a lot of hysterical writing warning foreigners off of kava lest they hallucinate, get addicted and never leave the island like some kind of lotus eaters.

Here’s the reality: It looks like dirty water

Kava on Ono Island

And tastes earthy and a little spicy but not particularly unpleasant. The drink sizes come in low tide, high tide and tsunami, you clap once to receive the drink and three times when you finish it.

drinking kava on Ono IslandI felt a tingling in my tongue and lips when I drank it. It has a mildly narcotic effect so everything slows down a bit in the middle of the kava ceremony and some people report really vivid dreams afterwards. I didn’t get dreams but I don’t often remember my dreams anyway.

The great thing about kava is the community. Everyone sits cross-legged on the ground around the kava bowl

Kava on Ono Island

you share a common drink and talk or play music in between drinks. It’s fun and easy and there’s always lots of laughter.

Sai on Ono Island

After a few cups of kava, it was time to unbury the lovo

Lovo on Ono Island

and eat it!

Lovo on Ono Island

Doesn’t it look romantic? This night ranks at the top of my most favorite memories of Fiji.

And Ono ranks as my most favorite island in all of Fiji. Were I to come back, I’d head straight to Mai Dive. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Thank you to Jason the owner, Joe and Joanna the managers, Ahmet, Emily, Sai, Koleta and all of the kitchen staff, Dee and Waise the dive instructors… All incredible. The diving was also spectacular and I’ll devote a whole post to that.

Mai Dive on Ono Island

Vinaka vakalevu, Mai Dive!

Welcome to Fiji!

I’m doing a lot of international travel this year. Obviously.

I get a lot of questions about how this is possible so here are the basics: I’m on tour with a theatre show and I have no home. When I’m working, I travel with the show and live in hotel rooms.

This year on this particular show, we’ve had several weeks of layoff where our show isn’t booked anywhere. Because I’m a homeless person, I have to go somewhere when the show is dark and I’m not working. Fortunately, I’m well paid so I can choose where I go.

Now I could/can/do also choose to spend my non-working time visiting friends and family. But I can also choose to go out of the country. It’s all money and time and effort no matter what I choose.

This is not your average lifestyle. Obviously. And because it’s not “normal” it has a lot of downsides and pitfalls and difficulties that regular people never have to think about on a daily basis. Plus a life of constant travel can be exhausting and stressful and time consuming. But the upsides are incredible. I’ve been out of the country three times this year and it’s only July. And because of my job, it is easier for me to travel than your average person because I’m already in the travel groove. I don’t have to transition from “normal” life to “traveling” life.

So that’s the story. I travel a lot because I want to. And because I have to, given the structure of my job and my life. But mostly, I just love it. I want to see the world and I’d rather spend my money going places and having adventures than buying a big screen TV and a hot car.

So, that said, we had a three week layoff recently and I went to Fiji with my friend Dani, who is also a homeless touring theatre person with an insatiable desire to see the world. She’s a super cool chick, we hang out together a lot at work and I knew we’d be good traveling companions.

We chose Fiji by literally googling “best places to visit in 2016.” Fiji was in the top 10. I’m a scuba diver and Dani wanted to get certified. Who doesn’t love an island vacation? It seemed like a perfect choice.

But the first thing we had to do was get there.

Bee-tee-dubs, Fiji is FAR AWAY from the USA. Like super far. We got a flight out of Los Angeles, into Nadi – the capital of Fiji – and it was a 12 hour direct flight. But we weren’t in Los Angeles, we were in Denver; so, we had to get a connecting flight to LA.

Since we were arriving in Nadi at 545am, we opted not to stay in that city and instead to go to one of the smaller more remote islands so we could start diving immediately. Of course a “small remote” island means no airport so our connecting flight took us to a neighboring island and then we were promised a boat transfer by our resort.

Here’s our travel “day” to Fiji in an abbreviated fashion:

Monday 330pm: arrive at Denver airport.

Monday 450pm: Fly to LAX

3 hour layover – eat dinner, make phone calls, enjoy the last of our cellular access.

1030pm: board plane for Fiji

1045pm: take sleeping aids and sleep – uncomfortably – through a 1am “dinner service,” several beverage services and crossing the internal date line at 45,000 feet

Tuesday: never happened.

Wednesday 4am – breakfast

Wednesday 545am – land in Nadi

We then faced a long customs line, which we jumped because we had a connecting flight, got our passports stamped and changed money. Fijian money is so pretty!

Fijian money

brushed our teeth and found the wee domestic terminal with plastic lawn furniture

Nadi domestic terminal

Got on a 20 seat plane

plane to kadavuFlew over verdant green islands

Fiji

Fiji

and 37 minutes later we landed on Kadavu in front of a very classy airport situation

Dani in Kadavu

We were met by Zachy, a delightful representative from the resort who helped us drag our luggage down a dirt road

Kadavu island

He hauled it down a stony embankment before hoisting each suitcase to his shoulder and wading out thru the surf to put it in the boat.

Kadavu

You know you’re traveling with the right person when you travel 23 hours straight to what feels like the end of the world but STILL isn’t the end of your travel day because you still have a boat trip and instead of being mad, you race each other to get your shoes off (Dani wins) and laugh saying “this is absolutely perfect!” And then you roll up your pants and wade out to the boat

Dani on Kadavu

We spent 2 hours zipping through the South Pacific Ocean before finally landing on Ono Island.

South Pacific

Total travel time: 25 hours

Travel conveyances: one car, one train, one shuttle bus, one boat, three planes

Days lost: Tuesday

Sunset? Perfect.

Fiji sunset

Welcome to Fiji!