Coronavirus in Oklahoma: OKC artist Nicole Poole brainstorms innovative art projects during pandemic
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Thursday's Life & Style section of The Oklahoman.
Making magic: Multidisciplinary OKC artist Nicole Poole creates innovative art projects during pandemic
From creating whimsical chalk drawings and recruiting friends to speak words of loving care to enlisting artists for an afternoon of performances on demand and even dressing up in a unicorn costume for an impromptu disco, Nicole Poole has stayed busy the past six months creating moments of exuberant artistic expression.
"Ah, it's just joy. It's that delightful disruption that just makes me so happy. That's my love language," she said. "Following the 'yes,' that's important for me and collaborating with people, getting energy from people, (asking) 'what do people need?' 'How can I make a positive impact on the world with my creativity?'
"Anything to keep me from cleaning the kitchen again," she added with a laugh.
A globe-trotting Oklahoma City theater artist, soundpainter and voiceover actor, Poole has been experimenting with creative ways during the coronavirus pandemic to brighten the lives of her neighbors, community and fellow artists. She will be the ringleader on Saturday of "You Are Here," an afternoon of small performances for one-person audiences throughout downtown Oklahoma City that is just the latest innovative project on her slate.
"You go up, and there's going to be a chair 6 feet in front of the performer. If that chair is empty, you sit down and you get your very own short performance. (Right now) we can't go to the symphony, we can't go to the ballet, we can't go to the theater, but we can still engage with that sense of magic that performing artists can bring - and it's free. Tips are wildly encouraged, but it's free," she said.
"There's an immediacy and an intimacy of live performance that is just important to our culture. It's hard-wired in our DNA - and we can't have that right now. And performing artists are hit really hard, with gigs, classes, all of it, canceled."
Finding her place
An Oklahoma native, Poole moved back to Oklahoma City full time in 2016, three years after the death of her father, respected Norman-based painter O. Gail Poole. As trustee of the O. Gail Poole Collection, her focus the past few years has been on preserving his legacy and showing his work, culminating in January with the premiere of the exhibition "Sideshow" at Norman's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.
"Having this museum show settled a part of my soul to allow me to be like, 'OK, I've done good work for Dad. I can rest for a little bit and let me work on my own thing,'" she said. "For a very long time, I struggled to figure out what my place here was."
Last year, she enrolled in a new program called Creative Catalyst through the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, learning to develop as an artist-leader, artist-innovator and artist-entrepreneur.
"For me, it was a game changer. All of my life, I've been a creative, and I love it. My career has been collaborating with people, but I always just kind of waited for the phone to ring. And, luckily, I hung out with people who made cool things happen," she said. "I had a few projects here and there, but I never really thought that was available to me, to make my own stuff happen. If I was on stage with somebody else, I'd rock it, but it just didn't occur to me that I could do that. ... So, that just started busting stuff open for me."
She was in Geneva, Switzerland, performing with Kollecti’F, an international, multidisciplinary collective of five women artists, when the coronavirus pandemic upended the globe.
"I got back to the U.S. on March 9 and I think it was the 12th that all of the borders closed," Poole said. "I really look forward to performing again, but in the meantime, I'm trying to find things to do that don't depend on people gathering."
One of her first pandemic projects was "We Are Very Close," a collaboration with French multidisciplinary artist Angélique Cormier. After losing a friend to COVID-19, Cormier released in spring a soothing video called "On est tout près," which featured her original orchestral compositions and her performing with her signature large-scale origami works overlaid with people speaking words of love and care in French.
"I've lost a dear friend of mine during the COVID (pandemic), and we were not able to visit him in hospital on his last days. That was hard. Doctors offered to his family and friends the possibility to give them recordings of voicemail, so he could at least hear us. After this experience, locked in my apartment in Lyon, I thought, 'Well, I have to do something larger about that.' Everyone needs to hear love and care, especially when one is alone and sick. So, I had this idea," Cormier said in an email. "I had a precise intention that was to give the chance to send love and solidarity messages to the people locked in hospitals, far from their loved ones, who could not go and visit them due to security restrictions."
Poole proposed making an English-language version called "We Are Very Close," recruiting speakers from across Oklahoma as well as from New York; Los Angeles; London; Madrid; Springdale, Arkansas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
"What was great is I'm getting all of these voicemails on my phone of all of my friends saying the words to me, 'I love you,' 'We love you,' 'We are with you,' 'We are here for you,' 'We care for you,'" Poole said. "Just listening to the voicemail messages made me weep, because I felt so isolated - and suddenly I'm not."
She sent the recordings to Cormier, who released in summer the English-language video.
"I think it's always great when people from different cultures can come together and collaborate on a project or have a unity of vision for a creative endeavor. Nicole has been a great friend to the organization at Oklahoma Contemporary and personally, so when she called and invited me to participate - especially as she asked me just to record a few sentences into my phone - I was happy to participate," said Jeremiah Matthew Davis, artistic director of Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center and one of the speakers.
"Just the feelings of being seen, heard and understood I think are ones that we can never take for granted, and I think the goal of the project is really noble, seeking to provide some sort of solace amidst all the darkness and the chaos we're going through."
Messages in the park
Along with participating as one of the readers in Oklahoma Contemporary's epic live-stream reading of the new English-language translation of "The Odyssey," Poole has been spending much of her summer creating an array of art in Edgemere Park, which is near her house.
When the "shelter in place" orders were initially issued, she schemed with Kiona Millirons, executive director of Oklahoma City Girls Art School, and Molly O'Connor, assistant director of the Oklahoma Arts Council, put together a Walk Silly Zone, complete with official-looking signage.
"It was freaking awesome. I could see it from my porch, and to see people walking - even people by themselves - they'd be jogging or walking along and they would just break out and bust out moves, just crazy stuff, performing for each other and performing for themselves. And people really loved that," Poole said.
She started a "free advice" table and a Lonely Actor's Story Hour, but the artistic endeavor that seemed to resonate most was the series of positive messages she began scrawling in chalk along the park's sidewalks.
"I started asking my neighbors to tell me things that they would like to hear ... and anybody who stopped me while I was chalking, I'd ask them the same question," she said. "I looked up how to do calligraphy and how to do shading, and I started doing these quotes from my neighbors, because if they needed to hear it, chances are everybody else needed to hear it, too."
She eventually progressed from writing messages like "You're magical" and "You are loved" to creating droll chalk drawings of birds, mice, butterflies and the like and even started an Instagram account for the project @wordsmiff405.
"(Flaming Lips frontman) Wayne Coyne was walking around the neighborhood in July and shot a picture of this (drawing) and sent it out to all of his people, and my phone started blowing up. I've got over 600 followers now, and that just makes me want to get better," Poole said. "It's for me as much as it is for other people. Suddenly, I'm part of a community now. I know my neighbors. If I turn on the TV, and the TV is like, 'Ah! Everybody hates each other,' I go to the park and I know so many people by name. And I think, 'OK, I can't control the world, but I do have a choice with how I engage with my neighbors.' So, that's what I'm trying to do."
When she saw a call for proposals for micro-grants through Downtown OKC Initiatives and Urban Land Institute of Oklahoma, Poole decided to apply with an idea akin to her Lonely Actor's Story Hour, where she reads children's books to anyone who wanders by and wants to listen.
But instead of her performing herself, she decide to showcase "performing artists here who make Oklahoma City part of the vibrant community it is - and they can't be seen right now." She took recommendations from friends and recruited a roster that includes storytellers Al Bostick and Angie LaPaglia, the Groovemeant Community street dancers, musician Stephen Salewon, Katelyn Prewitt and Emma Torres of Perpetual Motion Dance Company and more.
They will be giving performances on demand for audiences of one from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday in various locations around downtown OKC, which people can pinpoint on an online interactive map. Poole said the theme of all the performances will be love, joy and connection.
O'Connor will be performing her "Heart to Heart Consultations with Dr. Molliver," playing her alter ego, who is a "Psychic-eye-artrist who believes that art can save lives. Through her extensive research and art-practice, Dr. Molliver has invented a ground breaking arte-depressant, Prescription Painting Pills."
"The audience member is playing the role of a patient or just somebody looking to improve their overall well-being. ... She uses her intuition to read the patients, and she has, of course, some quirky questions that she'll be asking. And she'll be working to create an interactive art experience with the patient," O'Connor said of her performance.
"The thing that Nicole seems most passionate about is creating performance that is unusual or that is out of the box. ... Her experience working with artists around the world and seeing places around the globe through her work, she wants to bring some of those things she's seen elsewhere back here to her home state and create fun chaos."
After "You Are Here," Poole said she is planning a series of impromptu dance appearances in her recently acquired unicorn costume, more moments of "delightful disruption" and artistic absurdity inspired by her years living and riding the subway in New York City.
"Nobody's engaging until at some point, inevitably, the doors will open and something ridiculous will happen - either someone behaving in a ridiculous way or a performance or a domestic dispute that is just absurd - and suddenly, everybody's looking at each other like 'Are you seeing this? Because I'm seeing this and this is funny.' ... Those are my favorite moments," she said.
"Artists help us make meaning. They help us make sense of the world in a nonverbal, non-logical way. And they bring magic. Without them, good Lord, it's just all Zoom meetings."
"You Are Here" mini performances
When: 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Around downtown Oklahoma City.
Information and interactive map: www.nicolepoole.com/you-are-here.