Matt Lara

Creativity
  • En Memoria at the Pomona Fairplex

    Last weekend I walked through the Pomona Fairplex, which is local to me, for En Memoria. This was a special Dia de los Muertos celebration that combines the traditional altar-making with Southern California lowrider culture.

    Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has made a huge re-emergence in popular culture lately, though it is considered a rather sacred holiday in Latino cultures. Being of part Mexican decent, it is a holiday that was lost to me by a few generations. My dad's side of the family didn't celebrate it much when they were growing up, mostly because they were looking to assimilate to standard white American culture at the time. Celebrating an holiday, traditionally held in a cemetary adorned with elaborate decorations and altars, wasn't the thing to do.

    The celebration, usually held around November 2, involves constructing complex altars (ofrendas) honoring deceased family and friends. The altars are decorated with skull motifs, marigolds, and favorite foods of those who have passed. Sugar skulls are also a tradional treat served.

    Though I grew up with an appreciation for certain Mexican culture, like ballet folklorico, this holiday was never quite on my radar until the last few years. It has become hugely popular again, which has prompted some backlash from Latino communities raising concerned about cultural appropriation. In the age of social media, many have referred to it as the "Mexican Halloween", which it most certainly is not. To some, it has become a hipster holiday purely for social media content and to adopt the traditions and decor that many communities consider to be sacred.

    It was for this reason that I sought out a celebration that was not only close to my home, but more off the beaten path. As opposed to hipsters and LA-types wandering around on an extended Halloween weekend, it was mainly families, communities, and lowrider enthusiasts.

    Lowrider culture is something I know nothing about, not that I knew anything about cars to begin with. Walking through the celebration, camera in hand, I found an appreciation for the creative effort that goes into creating these vehicles, despite the environmental impact. The tradition of altar making and lowrider culture really seemed to go hand-in-hand.

    As I reconnect to this holiday, I still feel like much more of an observer. At first I had reservations about even taking my camera. Why go and take pictures? Just for Instagram shots? I realized there are several ways to appreciate something. Photography is not only my livelihood, but it is a means by which I can open windows into places and experiences I know little about.

    This was the community altar at En Memoria. A place for everyon ein the community to honor a loved one who has passed. This to me is what the celebration was truly about. While I walked the space alone, I felt the strong presence of community and art. On my way out they had local Pomona artists creating graffiti art right in front of the people, reminding us that the death of loved ones can also inspire new life through creativity.

    Like I mentioned above, many communities consider this holiday to be sacred. With the rapid commercialization of it, I encourage anyone wishing to partake to do their research and learn how to respectfully honor this tradition.

    En Memoria was presented by Mi Poco LA, featuring local artists and vendors.

  • I'm not an ideas person

    I have been making more of an effort to post more on this blog, even though I'm fairly certain few peopel read it. For some reason I am drawn to this process, trying to flesh out a more meaningful presence on the internet in an attempt to better share the million things I am about.

    Ideas have never come easily to me. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever been an ideas person. I have a good friend who can think up something clever, funny, and interesting at the drop of a hat. I realized that I've becomg much more of an observer. I think that's why I enjoy street photography, and why people tend to hire me to shoot events in a photojournalistic style.

    I enjoy the spontaneity, and the thrill of finding a decent moment even in the most bland of situations. Waiting at the DMV becomes a chance to explore. I've been known to stop a number of times on a routine drive home to snap a few shots.

    So while I may not be bringing up any major new ideas in this space, you might see a number of everyday moments, some street photography, and maybe a few ideas explored.

  • Breaking Through Artifice

    I come from a musical theatre background. I'm still fairly obsessed with musicals, although I can't keep up with all of them like I used to. I've been fortunate enough to be in many local and professional shows, and I've seen many shows on Broadway. Like a lot of young theatre kids, I graduated with a BFA in Musical Theatre and spent a few years in New York City trying to break into show business as a dancer and singer. I didn't get very far, though I consider myself lucky to have been able to live in Manhattan just a few steps away from most of the auditions, shows, events, and nightlife I could ever want.

    Trying to become a professional musical theatre actor involves a level of artifice. You have to sort of construct this machine-like persona about you. You have to know your musical theatre skills--from tap dancing, to hip hop, to opperetta--and you have to know how to keep your wig on while leaping across the stage in high heels. You have to be in tip-top physical shape, and appear to be a ready-to-go powerhouse doing eight shows a week.

    Like I said, I didn't make it very far. I had fun, but found it impossible to keep up. Much of the actor's life is about appearing to be successful. You always want to be making it look like you're working on something, or wrapping up a big project, or signing with a big agency. Of course, that is rarely the case.

    Becoming a photographer has allowed me to work through that persona of artifice. Though my work is often commercial, it requires me to be an authentic person in the moment. The same with my journey with dance since my musical theatre days. I study contemporary dance now, which is still challenging, but often doesn't require you to push your body to the extremes that jazz, tap, and ballet do. I'm not forcing a giant plastered smile in contemporary, I am trying to find a grounded sense of movement.

    Both of these art forms have become conduits for my own self to show through without that machine man thing going on. I am slowly learning to break down the walls a bit--those walls that I thought I had to have in order to be a professional. I don't have to be a powerhouse at all times, though I still work hard. And there is authenticity in vulnerability. Bit by bit, I let down those facades that I spent so many years trying to uphold.

    I still dream of having that big musical theatre moment, but my photography and dance performances are still incredibly satiating for me. I encourage people to find that space because really, you can't rely on artifice forever. I've learned in life that people want at least a peek at the real you deep down. Discover it, nurture it, and find a way to let it come through.

  • How to deal with creative blocks

    The most important thing to remember about feeling blocked creatively is that we all get there from time to time. I am someone who has had many different creative pursuits over the years--musical theatre, dance, photography, content creating, marketing, and activism--and throughout every season of every career I've gone after I have hit moments where I felt I just couldn't come up with a decent idea to save my life.

    Thankfully, I learned early on how to deal with these moments. There are a few simple tools and tricks (if you prefer to think of them as that) that I learned almost right away. Nothing I'm about to say is original, by the way. Still, even I have to remind myself that these few basic practices exist and can be easily executed as soon as you stop reading this.

    I picked up The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron when I was a sophomore in college and it's a book that I think anyone who considers themselves even slightly creative should read. It's a 12-week course on unblocking creative potential. If 12 weeks sounds intimidating, don't worry. The program is designed to be done in and around your everyday life. It's less of a bootcamp and more of a daily practice. Cameron lays out three simple tools:

    1. Morning Pages. This is where the daily practice part comes in which is simply writing three pages in a journal first thing in the morning. That's three pages of longhand writing with a pen and notebook. (No typing allowed.) Cameron talks more about this in her books and on her website, but basically the point of this is clear your mind of clutter while the act of physically writing gives you a point of focus. I'll admit doing the Morning Pages every morning can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially as social media seems to continue to eat my brain. It's a simple tool that is very effective when used longterm.

    2. Artist Dates. This is a fun one. An artist date is where you take yourself out on a solo excursion of your choice. In my experience, the easier the date the better. Visit a new coffee shop. Walk through a public garden. Stop a random library in a neighboring town. You can turn your Artist Date into a weekend road trip if you like. Word of advice, don't stand yourself up. The point of the Artist Date is so "fill the well" with experiences you wouldn't normally have. You want to break the usual routine here.

    3. Walking. Cameron talks about walking only a little bit in The Artist's Way, but she expands on it in her later books. Take a walk. It can be a 10-minute walk on the lunch break, or over an hour through a hiking trail. Walking is free, easy, doesn't require much effort. If it does require some effort, it is an legitimate form of exercise--so it's good for you. This is honestly the tool I would turn to most often. If all else fails, take a walk.

    Like I said, none of these tools are new so I can't take any credit for them. But in all of my creative pursuits they have been the reliable friends that see me through. It's important to remember that none of this is meant to be complicated. I believe we are inherintly creative creatures, so utilizing the most basic functions of thinking, of walking, of experiencing life ought to bring us back to that more naturally creative state.

    Another thing to remember about creative blocks. Artists are sensitive. We are awake and alert to our environments. We tend to think we can somehow power through blockages by staying up until three in the morning and pounding out ideas. In my experience, that tends to make things worse. I'm a sensitive guy and when I'm feeling stuck, that's my cue to step away from the desk and go do something else--I wash the dishes, I garden, I talk a walk.

    Also, if your job is to create stuff on a daily basis and things are just not flowing my best advice would be to keep a file on hand for these very moments. Your file can be physical or digital (or both) and the idea is to always be adding to it. Copy down passages from books, articles, lines from movies. Tear pages from magazines. Save paint colors you like, song lyrics, or random fabric samples. Digital files are easiest to keep, but for me the physical act of touching and handling a source for ideas is important. Index cards are more easily shifted around a work space than windows shifted around your computer screen. This may be my dance background talking, but physicality is a great conductor of creativity.

    That's all I have for now. Like I said, the point of all of this is keep it simple. Don't over complicate things. Step one is acknowledging that you are blocked, the rest is more or less self care.

    Matt