There was a time when Julie Ann Otis would deny that her art is political. But when a colleague put the question to her several years ago, she had to face the truth.
“Every single piece that I went back and read … I was like, ‘Oh, that is so political,” the Somerville-based artist and coaching consultant recalls. She looked through pieces she’d written about personal autonomy, consumerism, organized religion and more. “It’s all political and obviously political, but I had never considered it that way before.”
These small opportunities to shift the context are at the foundation of Otis’s work as an artist and as an “active receptivity” coach, a practice that uses meditation and writing, among other things, to help people find their more mindful and compassionate selves. She started writing poetry around 2011, when her life was falling apart. She was getting out of a long-term relationship—moving out of the house that she co-owned with this man, leaving behind the car they shared. It was like “falling into the hot magma of the earth to be born again,” she says. She spent some time traveling as far as Bali, Indonesia, practicing meditation and body-based work, and would later go on to a few writing residencies.
The culmination of these experiences shines through her exhibit “Miraculous Invisible,” which she recently exhibited at Bloc 11 Cafe. Otis created the work at a recent artist residency at The Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska, a rural town with a population of less than 250. Each morning, she’d climb to the top of a large barn to watch the sunrise, then sit down at an Olympia typewriter her father bought in a yard sale days before she arrived at the farm and prepare for a flood of poetry.
“It comes through me, and it’s done. There’s no tinkering, there’s no wordsmithing, there’s no thinking about it,” she says. “I feel like the words have nothing to do with me. I just sit down, I open the space and it comes through.”
When the poems were done, she’d nail them somewhere, on a fence or wall, and photograph them. The prints—which are large and small and predominantly one-of-a-kind—are what make up the exhibit. They tackle subjects of all kinds. Some are humorous, like a piece that reads like a housing ad looking for a live-in ghost. A few are referential to the great city of Somerville, 617 area code and all. Others are personal or political or both. “Hail Mary,” a black and white print of a page nailed to a dried up wall with flaking paint, reads: “might’n’t she murder the / myth of meekness / stand up and proclaim revolution / that would be a most / useful woman for me.”
Otis remembers grieving the day after President Trump was elected. But on election day itself, as millions of people were earning their “I voted!” stickers, she was on the Boston Common, talking to people for a performance art piece. In her “Election Therapy Booth,” she listened and she wrote, typewriter poised on a small folding table between her and her “clients.” She heard heartache and a profound sadness from people on both sides of the political divide, as well as what she calls a reclamation of citizenship, of “being an active voice and an active body in the political process.”
Most of all, she found something very tender. “Almost everyone voiced huge sadness about the chasm that they are experiencing between themselves and other family members or themselves and all these people that they don’t understand who are voting another way,” she says. “Everybody who sat down said, ‘This is what I want more of. I want to be heard; I want to be able to hear other people,’ and I think that latter desire is even stronger.”
It’s a hopeful takeaway from a day that plunged many American voters into a state of fear and despair, feelings that were quickly replaced by outrage and defiance as President Donald Trump’s pen ran over order after executive order. But in spite—or perhaps because—of the distress some have felt in the wake of the election, there are those, including Otis, who see the outline of an opportunity. They wonder, if Hillary Clinton had won, whether we’d see the kind of political engagement that seems to have emerged since November. In any case, Otis feels ready for whatever may come.
“This is what we’ve been preparing for. Like, this is it. This is the call. I could not have picked a more perfect villain. I could not have architected a more perfect opportunity for a creative, peace-mongering revolution,” she says, recalling a recent conversation with a colleague. “I’m not saying if I could time travel I wouldn’t change a few things, you know. Because we don’t have to go through a giant upheaval in order to have peace. It’s just, you know, after really talking to my colleague, it was like, right, this is the opportunity. This is what we’ve been training for.”
When Otis spoke to us in early February, she was just about to embark on a month of coordinated phone calls related to her coaching work. They would focus on “claiming a meaningful context within which to do this work that leads to greater joy and ease instead of burnout and despair,” what she calls “radical sufficiency.” Asked what others who are searching for meaning in these divisive times can do, she says she couldn’t prescribe the same thing to everyone. Some people might want to try meditation, others a social media fast—she says it’s hard to say unless she’s met you. But she does have a couple of rules for the revolution.
“Don’t bother showing up to the revolution if you’re not going to do it with a sense of humor, and if you’re not going to do it with a multigenerational perspective. Cause you’re going to need to draw on the strength of many, many generations that came before you, and you’re going to need to do this work for the benefit of generations long after you’re gone,” she says. “If you’re expecting results today, tomorrow, next week or in this 8-hour news cycle, you are going to be very disappointed. But if you can connect yourself with the possible implications of how this work will affect people 100 or 200 years from now, it’s going to be an incredibly rewarding and peaceful action.”
This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.