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Sparking creativity

Multidisciplinary art collective SPARK! Creative Lab explores belongingness through a radically collaborative new performance piece with Oklahoma Contemporary.


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The artists of SPARK! Creative Lab are as diverse as Oklahoma City possibly can be, but when they come together to hold a workshop or performance, their attire is entirely uniform.

Wearing bold, red coveralls that recall traditionally blue-collar industries, they emphasize the collective’s unified voice. SPARK! celebrates the differences within its roster while reminding that deep down, everyone shares in the cosmic lifeblood that runs through the veins of humanity. Unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive concepts.

Formed in 2021, SPARK! Creative Lab is a certified non-profit founded by performing artist and live composer Nicole Poole that began engaging with the greater community through improvised pop-up performances during the pandemic. Dancers, musicians, poets, visual artists, actors, filmmakers, and more gathered in outdoor public spaces like Scissortail Park and Film Row’s Paramount exterior to create and document on-the-spot artistic compositions with the public.

The collective’s first major commissioned piece is YIELD: We Belong to the Land for Oklahoma Contemporary, a “ten-week creative investigation into concepts of place and belonging in Oklahoma City” as the organization’s website states. It is co-directed by Poole and SPARK! production coordinator Jessica Ray, the latter of whom specializes in dance, choreography, and film. Taking inspiration from sculptural installation Nature, Sweet Nature by artist Maren Hassinger, the project has been coming to life for weeks through a series of deeply experienced collaborative sessions, some of which are open to public participation.

YIELD is a huge lesson in collaboration,” Ray said. “We are navigating multiple disciplines and bringing them together to present a work, and while that’s happening, we’ve also committed to hearing the public and listening to community ideas and responses. In that, there is so much to carry, but in that weight and responsibility, there has been so much joy in realizing that the main point to this process is process.”

The process started with an open dialogue between SPARK!, the public, and a prestigious nine-person panel of local anthropologists, historians, and conservators of richly diverse backgrounds including Dr. Elisha Oliver, Dr. Bob Blackburn, and Dr. Henrietta Mann. Considering that famous but rarely dissected line from the musical Oklahoma!, “We know we belong to the land,” the panelists discussed the complex myriad of ways that the people of Oklahoma City coexist with the land. From this raw material of cultural, historical, and environmental meditation came an innovative method of artistic processing.

“The public was asked to contribute real-time written reflections and responses to what they were hearing which ‘yielded’ about 150 index cards of material. Tony Tee & I then got together and curated these into a six-stanza collaborative poem that almost wrote itself,” Poole said, naming the Oklahoma hip-hop father figure better known as DJ Nymasis. “It is a stunning snapshot of who we are as a community and what we hold to be important right now.”

The poem, in turn, is being used to inform the forthcoming debut performance of YIELD, which will be held at Oklahoma Contemporary’s sculpture garden on May 26. Like every other aspect of this project, it will be free and open to public collaboration.

“The audience will be led through a journey of the poem, which is also a journey from independence to interdependence,” Poole said. “So they’ll go from being spectators to integral components of the piece.”

There is still time to join in the cultivation of YIELD. Following recent workshops centered around dance, music, and theater, Oklahoma Contemporary is holding two more opportunities for the public to work with SPARK!. May 8 will focus on visual artmaking through recycling, and May 14 will bring the piece’s multidisciplinary elements together in a final workshop before the debut. Spaces are limited to 12 participants ages 15 years and older, so advanced signups are strongly encouraged.

It may seem intimidating to collaborate with a company of seasoned, accomplished artists, but SPARK! is remarkable in its no-barrier methodology. To make a meaningful contribution, participants need not be schooled in any artistic discipline. It may even be better that way.

AhKamaye Perry, who creates psychospiritual hip-hop as Changing FrEQencies, creates outside the boundaries of formal music education.

“The open creative playfulness drew me in,” Perry said. “Collaborating with the artists of SPARK! has been super fun and educational.”

SPARK! provides a unique creative environment where her unconventional artistic process can coexist with the likes of company member J. Cruise Berry, a pianist and composer who thrives in the intricacies of music theory.

The linchpin of SPARK! is Poole’s approach to extemporaneous composition. She is one of the few people in the world who is certified in a technique called soundpainting.

“It’s a specialized sign language that allows instant communication between artists to create or sculpt material on the spot,” Poole said. “It was created by composer Walter Thompson, who I have had the extreme good fortune of working with since the mid-1990s … With over 1,500 gestures, soundpainting allows us to connect on a deeply creative level that transcends [speech].”

Though rich with potential complexities, soundpainting is so intuitive that almost anyone can readily pick up on the basics. While its namesake implies auditory art forms, the framework was designed with dancers, actors, and visual artists in mind. Poole has expanded it to include spoken word and elements of hip-hop.

“In all, the creative impulse is the same with everyone; we just translate it differently,” Poole said. “It’s deeply gratifying to watch local artists sink their teeth into deep collaboration and dialogue about creation.”

While the nonprofit has made great strides to tear down cultural and economic walls in the arts, SPARK! Creative Lab never does so at the exploitation of its artists. Everyone involved earns a living wage through the work that goes into each session. In this light, the collective’s industrial red uniforms make perfect sense.

“First and foremost, artists are workers — beyond entertainment and commodity, we work to inspire imagination and metaphoric thought,” Poole said. “We’re sort of repairmen for the spiritual elevator, if you will.”


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