Nirupa Umapathy, Nashik, India, 2017, photo credit: Bjorn Maroten
Galen: This song of ours, this immutable pathway leading into and out of us, is a puzzle indeed. When and how did the idea of creating Salons for Life come to you, and has this ‘roadmap’ you’ve co-created through collaborations with others help define your voice?
Nirupa: Creativity I have come to realize is a community-fed fountain. Meaning no idea is original. It is more a thread in a larger tapestry. While the spurt of an idea or the thrust to shape it can be terrifically idiosyncratic and the practice itself, very personal— any creative project is a sublime act or result of co-creation. I recognized early in 2017 that the more I was in conversation and had the chance to witness diverse practices and ways of living, the more the tapestry wove itself. This pre-meditated exposure became a part of my creative method.
The salons as a word did not come into my front-brain consciousness until July of 2017. I had been experimenting with self-teaching aspects of life design, applying design-thinking principles to the act of daily living. I was so astounded seeing how an individual can be emboldened to take a literal and figurative pathway to change, that I cold-emailed Kathy Davies, who taught life design at Stanford. It was her idea to start the prototype of life design micro-meets; she called them salons. This was the pre-cursor to Salons for Life.
I did many versions of these, mostly virtual and found that gathering with a shared purpose unlocks self and group discovery so intimately and safely, that in those few hours when we are mirrors to each other, we reignite and come home to a fundamental human right—being seen and heard.
The Salons Project is a co-created experience and is so by design. The concept—its end use and format—has been tested, keeping the human in the center, as design-thinking calls for. So all participants—the storyteller or the artist, the audience and the facilitator—have provided insights that have helped coalesce what the salons are: co-learning communities that gather under the shared context of learning when we first activate reflection on a theme. For example, political displacement, and through conversation what this might mean from a personal to a social level. The goal is to stretch the roadmap further for micro-actions, where we implement from our awareness, meditation, to hopefully guided action.
One of the most significant departures from our past has been moving away from zero-sum processes where ownership of production is controlled and staked. Every act of the salon is a co-created manifestation where outcomes are not always known; there is only a mutual intention to gather mindfully and a framework with shared values and principles that guide our action. It is democratic where authority is shared and where expertise is not delegated. It is the wisdom of our experience that rises—our capacity as both teachers and learners. This is real-life university.
Galen: I certainly believe the concept of mutually creating a spiritual space, if you will, from which the results of collaborative ideation become more durably beneficial is a good idea; reciprocity abhors ownership.
I’ve been swimming, often floundering, most of my life in this vast and endurable sea of creative expression, confronting art’s paradox, that ambiguity of purpose, of being both subject and object. I return to my reason for the Journal interviews: Why Art Matters. The stunning miracle of human imagination, it seems to me, is that, like snowflakes, no two minds can be the same…and yet…somehow, and for some reason, we’re soldered into one necklace of light. As you travel further into your Nirupa-spirit, whether through revelations from Salon for Life or from the quantum discovery of Nirupa’s Voice, leading it out into the world as Gift, how do you see it intertwining and why does it matter?
Nirupa: How I love that: reciprocity abhors ownership. Inherent then, in reciprocity, is trust—a deep faith in which freedom as well abides, a non-zero sum kind of open sky, freedom that the skies and mountains, the plants and trees inhabit.
The most divine gift that has been given me is the lack of a language and knowledge in the subject matter of art. And in this boundless space, I remain blissfully not in the know, unable to smart label, unable to analyze and think my way forward.
I was so racked up with anxiety as I began this journey into writing more earnestly in 2018, so quick I was to want the purpose behind the pen; it defied me and I am so grateful it did. The answers never came.
Only looking back, I realize that the act of writing is an intertwining, an entanglement with the deepest parts of yourself that will not surface except under the willful scratches of the pen—the hand—and as I see glimpses of a poem or letters that have nowhere but to drop on the page, it is more the outpouring of something that sits in collective memory that I feel to be a strange kind of conjuring, a witchcraft that will forever defy any of the manicured output my striving mind wants to push forth. And in this sublime outpouring—in a certain madness that can only be unedited—I have a hunch that it does not matter where the reader and the writer begin or end.
Galen: I do so agree with your understanding that this divine gift of creative imagination inhabits a world beyond knowledge. Things and ideas we express are but inferential acts of faith. Keep your hunches well-fed and the animal of your crafting hungry. Thank you, Nirupa, for this conversation.