The September 16 interactive screening of #ARTempowers at King Street Station began with a surprise admission from Tay and Val, the two filmmakers. Despite years of creating groundbreaking TV shows in their native Singapore and travelling to unearth stories about dreams from people all over the world, prior to the making of this film—an anthology of documentary shorts about four Washington State artists—Tay confesses that “We never thought of ourselves as artists.”
Yet it’s this freshness of perspective about what it means to be artist that makes #ARTempowers relatable and memorable. In fact, #ARTempowers only came into existence because of Tay and Val’s willingness to claim their work as art, a story that begins in 2013.
That year, they had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest after a deeply disappointing stint in Los Angeles, where they’d taken their “I Believe That Dreams Can Come True” presentation, a multimedia story they’d been filming and showing as they went from city to city across the globe. “Here we’d arrived in America, the land of dreams, and for the first time ever we experienced no support” Tay recalled. “We were in shock. It was such a contradiction.”
The two women shared their story with Carina Del Rosario, a Seattle-based working artist. Del Rosario encouraged them to apply for grants in order to get support for their work—and keep touching more lives. “We didn’t think we’d qualify,” said Val, “but Carina said ‘you have a story to tell that needs to be heard, and a unique way you tell it. That makes you artists.’”
“Being an artist just isn’t considered a respectable profession in Singapore, where we’re from” Val said. “We thought of ourselves as film directors and producers. We thought of ourselves as media professionals with a message to share. But artists? No, we’d never thought of ourselves as artists at all.”
Still skeptical but buoyed by Del Rosario’s support, Tay and Val set about transforming who they believed themselves to be. They submitted grant applications. Much to their surprise and delight, they received those grants, and 4Culture got behind the creation of #ARTempowers. Soon thereafter, Tay and Val met and assembled the diverse group of artists who agreed to participate in their project. The filming began in 2014.
One of the first artists to sign on was Seattle spoken word artist Troy Osaki. “He was intimidating with all his chains and fast talking,” admits Val as she narrates Osaki’s introduction in the documentary, “but I immediately knew I had to have him.” The footage weaves together his electric performances—where he reads poetry about the discouragement he faces as a first-year law student, and dreams of advancing civil liberties feeling unreachable—along with Osaki’s reflection about what it was like growing up with Seattle Youth Speaks, an organization that “took me in and showed me that they cared, not just about helping me find my voice and using it, but cared about my whole personhood.” Throughout the film, Osaki, as well as the three other featured artists poet Sharon Williams; poet Savanah Jordan; and violinist Swil Kanim, share compelling vignettes about being at crossroads in their lives, and how they turned to their craft to redeem themselves and brought unexpected light to the lives of those around them.
In a sense, the entire film project is to all artists (as well as the audience) what Seattle Youth Speaks was to Osaki: a tender yet strong holding space for anyone who’s emerging into their voice and their power to affect the world around them. Though the film was shot in 2014-2015, Tay and Val held onto it, until the opportunity to share it as part of the 2017 Seattle Design Week, aptly themed POWER, emerged.
“We knew this was the right time to bring these incredible stories into the world” said Val. The timing of #ARTempowers release adds to a sense of culmination, of multiple stories converging into one, one that is as politically charged as it is personally poignant, disruptive as it is eloquent, and ultimately above all, an uplifting call for all to believe in the power of their voices, their dreams, their art.
Information about Tay and Val’s multimedia storytelling adventures can be found at ibelievedreamscancometrue.com. More information about writer and poet Troy Osaki’s art and advocacy work can be found on troyosaki.tumblr.com.