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Sensing Sally: Sally Taylor, daughter of James Taylor & Carly Simon, creates art for all the senses

For the longest time—even now, still—Sally Taylor perceives the Berkshires through a song written and sung by her dad, James Taylor. She sits back in a chair in a room within MASS MoCA’s Kidspace and begins to hum the melody, then sings a few lines: “The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting, with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go …”

Those lyrics helped define the Berkshires for her. “The only way I really had access to the Berkshires as a kid was through my dad’s songs,” says Taylor. “And so, I had a certain version of what the Berkshires was—for me it’s always had this sparkling snow, the sun shining on this huge field in front of a farmhouse, and there’s a guy, you see it from his perspective in the car: this gleaming field of snow and realizing that he’s just leaving, but he has this incredible journey that he’s going to take. … This is the first time I have ever mentioned it—this has lived with me exclusively as my touchstone to the Berkshires.”

It is that shared singular experience that seems reflective of Taylor’s long-running Consenses project. Set to become the most involving exhibition at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace, her “Come to Your Senses” opens June 23 with a performance in the evening that includes her mother, Carly Simon, and her brother, Ben Taylor.

The project asks visual artists, poets, dancers, musicians, perfumers (yes, perfumers), chefs, and sculptors to use one another’s art as a catalyst to create their own work. The project is the capstone of Kidspace’s “Art 4 Change” project that encourages visitors and students in its school-partnership program to approach complex problem-solving through art experiences that help develop positive habits of mind—empathy, optimism, and courage.

Laura Thompson, director of education and curator of Kidspace, visited Martha’s Vineyard, where Taylor held the first Consenses exhibition, and she knew right away it was something for Kidspace, a gallery and studio that addresses timely social issues with a spin appropriate for children. Last spring, 50 children from North Adams, Savoy, Florida, and Clarksburg gathered in Kidspace with Taylor, who asked them to create two paintings using the prompts “joy” and “fear,” and then write about their artwork.

Before they even picked up a paintbrush, Taylor assured the students that there was no right or wrong to what they created. She told them to close their eyes, have a pencil in hand, and a piece of paper in front of them, and ask themselves: “What would fear taste like if it were a flavor? What would it feel like as a texture? What would it be as a weather system? What would it look like if it were a painting?” She did the same process with “joy.”

One child wrote: “Fear is sticky. It is large rocks. It is fire. It is the sound of thunder. It is the last petal falling. My pain of this is fear of darkness and large spiders. This is something trying to escape. Trying to escape from terror.” Another wrote of joy: “If joy were a flavor it would be cotton candy. It would be pink and light and smell like lemons on a sunny day. It would be confetti, balloons, night mist and starlight in the night sky. My painting is a starry night with confetti over it. It gives me joy because it reminds me of bright colors in the world.”

From 100 drawings, six paintings were selected to be exhibited in “chains” for love, courage, joy, sadness, freedom, and fear. Taylor asked artists from various media and genres to interpret one another’s artwork in the vein of a game of “telephone.” For example, a musician interprets the painting in song, a dancer interprets the song, a perfumer interprets the dance, and so on. None of the artists are privy to the identities of the other participants or knows what other art is in the chain. There were 12 musicians, seven dancers, six poets, three photographers, three painters, three perfumers, a tea maker, a chef, two sculptors, three animators, and five set designers involved. The artists came from various realms and included Taylor’s parents, who each wrote a song using a child’s painting as prompt, and also described, in writing, their impressions of the artwork.

On the evening of the June 23 opening of “Come to Your Senses,” there will be an intimate one-night-only concert featuring acoustic performances by Sally Taylor, Carly Simon, Ben Taylor, his fiancée Sophie Hiller, former Fugees John Forté, a dance performance by Alison Manning and Jesse Keller, and even perfume to pass around. The children who created the artwork also will be on hand.

The Consenses idea germinated when Taylor was playing at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, New York, in 1999. “I was out one night performing in the spotlight and I knew that there were people around me and I felt so alone,” she recalls. “I could only communicate a slice of my experience to these people, and what if there were a bigger experience that I could give them so we could feel more connected?”

It made her think of an Indian fable describing six blind men who happen upon an elephant. Each man explores a separate section of the animal’s body and independently concludes what the object must be: the first man, holding the elephant’s tail, determines the elephant is a rope; the second man, exploring a leg, decides the elephant must be a tree; the third man, examining an ear, insists the elephant is a fan. The discourse grows contentious, each righteous about his own perception. It was only when a king appears and suggests the men stop fighting and listen to one another that the elephant’s larger identity emerges.

“What I decided is that maybe the language of art could expose more and keep people in a curious place before they make determinations. That’s what I saw as the beauty of art—it asks you to confront the mystery in a way that’s palatable. It gives you a longer time to take a breath.”

Taylor is bringing Consenses into classrooms on Martha’s Vineyard, where most of her family lives. (Taylor lives in Cambridge with her husband and their ten-year-old son.) She also has created a curriculum where students are asked to photograph something that reflects a word they’re given. The teacher gives the photo to a classmate to translate into music, then movement the following week, then poetry, sculpture, and so on. Next year, the curriculum will be available online for teacher training.

At the MASS MoCA performance for “Come to Your Senses,” the strand for “love” will become a family affair. “You’ll see the chain unfold on stage,” says Taylor. This is kind of a big deal for Simon, described by Taylor as the type of person who is open and vulnerable and welcoming to all. But she doesn’t like to perform—actually, her mother is terrified of the stage, says Taylor, who has assured Simon that it will be like sitting in their living room. Her dad will be touring, but Taylor is hoping he will perform there in the winter.

“I try to help my mother understand that we are here as a family; we are here doing what we do every single day, which is play guitar, chill out, laugh a lot, say whatever is on our mind, and act like a family. And this will be exactly that, but with people watching,” says Taylor. “When the three of us are harmonizing, it’s that feeling that you get when you get the puzzle piece to fit in after the 25th piece that you have tried have not worked, and you feel like, thank God that fits, and you get to see the color, get to see the picture actually come together.”

Her discussion moves to the Berkshires, which she thinks of as her quiet place, where she visits her dad. “My mom has always been a seeker,” says Taylor, “but my dad has always been interested in the nature of humanity and what makes us persist. He really just gave me deep curiosity about stepping over the side of normal into the mystery. If you step off the cliff into the abyss, because that’s what life is, you should not try to build a parachute for yourself. You should look down and recognize there is no ground and that you are flying and make the most of that. My dad is kind of magical in that way.” And, indeed, so is his daughter.

Carly Simon on Love: If the painting I interpreted were a color it would be yellow. It would be sun trying to shine through the mist on a London morning. It would be weightless. If itwere a sound it would be a carnival in a distant town. If it were an object it would be a diary found under a mattress. The painting for me is the smell you find in an old closet where your mother’s bridal dress is hanging. I wrote: “I am a girl, going to a ball in a gown that’s been hanging for years in the hall. In an old garment bag, that once was my mother’s. It smells of sweet roses at the end of the summer.” At first the painting was about the sadness that comes from hiding and low self esteem but in the end it became about trying to find the sun within.

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