Conversations Among Trees

By Liv, JAC Intern

Recently, JAC had the privilege to speak simultaneously with Tim Reed and Spoon Jackson. Spoon is an award-winning author and poet whose artistic projects include everything from zines to podcasts. He is featured in Tomorrow’s Ken: Portraits of Lives Affected by Incarceration, the seven-part video series created by Tim Reed, a composer and music professor at Manchester University in Indiana. Continue reading to learn more about the creative, collaborative process between the two artists.

“Rainbow Buffalos,” Spoon Jackson

Four minutes prior to our scheduled interview time, my phone screen lit up with the number I’ve come to recognize as Spoon Jackson’s, calling from the California State Prison. As we talked about our mornings, I placed my phone to the left of the laptop where we would soon be joined by Tim Reed, creator of Tomorrow’s Ken: Portraits of Lives Affected by Incarceration. It was our innovative attempt at a three-way call – or four-way call, if you include the automated voice Spoon calls the “Computer Lady,” who interrupted periodically to remind us we were being monitored and recorded.

Tim, a composer and music professor at Manchester University, began assembling the seven-part video series Tomorrow’s Ken while on sabbatical last year. The title references Spoon’s poem “Yesterday’s Ken,” which contemplates Spoon’s past views and beliefs. “This project has changed my perspective,” Tim said, “so it’s kind of an aspirational title, in the hope that other people might have their perspective shifted a little bit as well…I always want to make sure that I give credit to Spoon for where the title came from.”

Tim’s humble acknowledgment of the origin of his inspiration and his dedication to allowing each person interviewed full editorial control over their video set the tone for his creative process. “I didn’t want to be another in a long line of people who take the stories and experiences of folks who are incarcerated and just use it however they want,” he explained. “Once somebody has material from an interview or something like that, they don’t have a whole lot of ability to control or respond to how that material is used.” His commitment to ensuring that each video reflected the nature and wishes of its subject shaped the project’s trajectory, setting it apart through its intention and care. 

“Untitled,” Spoon Jackson

However, receiving feedback from those inside prison proved to be a creative challenge in and of itself, especially because communication restrictions vary by facility. “Some folks can receive video, while some people can’t receive any kind of text, and it’s all snail mail. Some people have tablets, some people might have one kiosk that they share with, you know, 200 other people…With a couple of folks there, I haven’t been able to send them anything.” In those instances, Tim received feedback from a contact on the outside who the video’s subject trusted to make editorial decisions on their behalf.

Spoon could receive video clips, but only 30 seconds at a time, so Tim sent him 40-some video segments throughout their collaboration. Through this process, though, Spoon revealed his equal commitment to uplifting Tim’s artistic vision. “This is his project, and I want his touch to be in the way he needs to mold those three art forms together – the music and the poetry and the artwork – and that’s what’s important to me,” he said. 

Clips of Spoon reading his poetry punctuate his storytelling against the backdrop of his own drawings, while Tim’s music sets a contemplative tone in the background. The talents of the two artists fortify one another, each art form enriched by the addition of the other. “It’s blended together in a way that allows people to step into the drawing, allows people to step into the poetry, and allows people to step into the music,” Spoon remarked. “That’s what art is supposed to be about.”

“Untitled,” Spoon Jackson

We talked for some time about the inclination to tell a story and the search for the best medium through which to tell it. Though Spoon has worked with many different art forms, poetry is his primary medium for storytelling. It was also the first medium that he “thought (his story) in.”

“Metaphors and similes are primitive language in man,” he explained. “And it’s simple. It’s not trying to be esoteric or trying to have some double meaning like politicians do.”

“I considered myself some sort of great poet when I was younger,” Tim said, chuckling, when I asked him about the artistic mediums that he’s dabbled in, “and then I realized that maybe I was not quite as suited for that as I thought at the time.” Nowadays, Tim views narrative as an important component of his music. He carefully composed the music for each of the Tomorrow’s Ken videos, adding a unique, individualized touch.

“It was really different from if I was just composing a piece of music on its own, because this was more of responding to something that’s already there,” Tim said, explaining his composition process. “I started by creating a rough edit of the audio from the phone calls. And then I would just improvise a lot – like playing along with it at the piano. And then I started to record little bits, and kind of create a framework for it. From there, it was just sort of adding color and texture and things like that. So it was a lot more time listening than actually adding stuff, if that makes sense.”

Outside of Tomorrow’s Ken and other narrative-based composing, Tim draws inspiration from his spiritual orientation, which he describes as a Western Buddhist approach. He bases many of his pieces on the Dhammapada, a foundational Buddhist text. Though Spoon doesn’t align with a particular religion, he says he is “inspired by people that do.”

“Purple Trees,” Spoon Jackson

“I can’t subscribe to any man-made religion,” he says. “But I believe in the wind, I believe in Mother Earth, I believe in the stars and the sky. I believe in the sun.” In the prison yard, Spoon assembled what he calls his “bird sanctuary”: a garden made of materials he collected in prison, painted with peanut butter to attract the animals. His affinity for the natural world reveals itself through his poetry. “Especially trees,” he said. “I love trees. They have their own kingdom and their own community.”

Spoon explained how trees have the ability to communicate with one another. I recently read the same thing – that they can send out “distress signals” when faced with disease or insects, and that other trees will modify their responses to help support the tree in danger. I had always thought of plants as competitive beings, but it turns out they’re quite collectivistic.

It’s been on my mind lately: the networks of support and community that exist beneath the surface. As Spoon hung up from his facility in California, and I ended the Zoom call with Tim from my room in Virginia, I thought of the trees.

The videos of Tomorrow’s Ken: Portraits of Lives Affected by Incarceration can be viewed here, along with more information about the project. To read Spoon’s poetry and see the projects he’s working on, follow his Instagram account @spoonjackson or visit his website.

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