A very special one-of-a-kind artistic moment happened in Sheridan last month. The occasion was the finale of Elizabeth Gilbert’s keynote speech at the wonderful FAB conference at Sheridan College on April 12. (If you haven’t attended this conference yet, I highly recommend making plans to go next year!) Everyone I run into who was there says the same thing: it was a truly magical evening — very much in keeping with Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.”
After her rousing talk and conversation with Sarah Heuck Sinclair, Gilbert told the audience that her favorite hobby is karaoke. “So, pull out your cellphones and find the lyrics to John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads,’” she instructed us. Suddenly, singer and composer Sarah Sample came onstage joined by two other amazing musicians, Mai Bloomfield and Mona Tavakoli. With their guidance, the whole auditorium erupted in song. “Almost heaven, West Virginia…”
It didn’t matter how well you could sing. All of us became one joyful chorus for those brilliant performers on stage. The result was an extraordinary sense of community and shared happiness. We went out into the night laughing and filled with hope. Gilbert, who has twice been a Ucross artist, has a new novel coming out in June, “City of Girls.” It recently received a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Perfect…a page-turner with heart, complete with a potent message of fulfillment and happiness.” Can’t wait!
The conference was the first time I’d heard Sarah Sample’s beautiful voice and music. Since then, I’ve been listening to her recent CD “Redwing.” (It was voted Best Wyoming Album of 2018 by Wyoming Public Radio.) At the FAB luncheon, Sample told a beautiful story about the writing of the title song, which refers to a flock of red-winged blackbirds she encountered when she first arrived in Wyoming. It reminded me how much the natural world is connected to the making of great art. The birds touched Sarah’s soul, and in turn, she has touched ours, through her music. As she puts it in her CD notes, “This album is about second chances, the hard and hopeful parts of life, and the red wings of blackbirds.”
At Ucross, it’s easy to get excited about music and birds, too. This past week we’ve been watching a great horned owl and her three owlets near our office. We see connections between nature and artists all the time.
One Ucross composer who was also inspired by birds is Ellen Rowe, a jazz pianist and professor at the University of Michigan. Rowe was in residence at Ucross during the spring of 2017. Her newly released CD with the Ellen Rowe Octet is “Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion,” which includes “Song of the Meadowlark.” She explains, “My cabin opened out onto a stunning high plains vista complete with creeks, tall grasses and lots of attendant birds. My mother was an avid birder and encouraged me to listen for birdcalls as we hiked in the White Mountains of New England. The song of the western meadowlark was ubiquitous in that part of Wyoming and as a gift to the Ucross Foundation, I wove it into a jazz waltz.”
It’s an amazing CD, with all female jazz musicians, and is a tribute to some of Rowe’s women heroes — Sojourner Truth, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Geri Allen, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Michelle Obama, Dian Fossey and Billie Jean King. How lucky we are to be surrounded by such highly creative people, abundant bird life as well as bird lovers like our friends at Audubon. And we’re lucky to be part of a community that is ready to rise up together in spontaneous song, on a memorable spring night in Wyoming.
Sharon Dynak is the president of the Ucross Foundation.