We recently had the honor of presenting two performers from like-minded organizations, Daniel Wilson from Bridgeworks in Oregon and Matt Butler from Art That Serves in New York City. They took time from a busy touring schedule to perform a Bread & Roses concert for seniors in assisted living at Alma Via in San Rafael.
Daniel played songs from his Johnny Cash Tribute Show that he regularly performs at prisons throughout the state of Oregon. Familiar tunes such as Ring of Fire, Walk the Line and I Still Miss Someone thrilled the overflow crowd at the facility. He also sang well-known crowd-pleasers such as Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again and Kris Kristofferson’s Me & Bobby McGee.
Matt followed with a couple of songs ending with everyone singing along to John Denver’s Country Roads. He brings music to incarcerated audiences in the state of New York and also has a touring stage show called “Restless Son” based on his experiences bringing music programs for those in detention.
Producer Marian Hubler sat down with them afterward to find out more about how they started their nonprofit organizations and why it was important for them to volunteer for Bread & Roses while they were on tour in California. We look forward to presenting them again in the future when they are back in the Bay Area.
MH: How did you come to Marin County to perform at Alma Via for Bread & Roses? What benefits did you receive from the experience?
DW: When the opportunity presented itself to tour with Matt Butler’s Reckless Son one-man show, I immediately reached out to Bread & Roses to see if there were some facilities that Bridgeworks could visit while in the area. We wanted to have a chance to meet you and learn first-hand how you run your program. We have been inspired by the breadth and longevity of what Bread & Roses does for people who have limited access to live performances. We really admire the work Bread & Roses does and so it was really great to have an opportunity to play along and be a part of how you do it.
MB: I connected with Danny and his partner Tracy at Bridgeworks Oregon this past spring when I visited Portland for a taping of Live Wire Radio. The two of them also bring musical performances into prisons and we actually held three concerts at Oregon prisons that first week I met them. The week of the Atria performance, we linked up in California to bring a performance into both San Quentin Prison and Elmwood Correctional in Milpitas. The performance at Atria Tamalpais was a surprise bonus. I was nervous about the experience because so much of my material is geared toward the incarcerated, I had no idea what I would be able to offer. I realized pretty quickly that I was overthinking things and was grateful to just have some fun playing some of my favorite campfire songs. It was an opportunity to bring some joyfulness to a very appreciative group!
MH: How did you find out about Bread & Roses initially and what did you know about our organization before coming to the Bay Area?
DW: After touring Oregon prisons singing Cash’s music, I did some research as to how to play inside Folsom and San Quentin prisons. It didn’t take long to find that all roads led to Bread & Roses.
MB: Danny was my introduction to Bread & Roses, and I was humbled, to say the least, after looking into the organization’s history and range of services. I think this work can seem like such a revelation when you first experience it that it’s hard to imagine others have been doing this service so prominently for so long. That being said, it’s comforting to realize you’re part of a larger tradition and that there is a collective wisdom and experience to tap into and draw inspiration from.
MH What inspired you to start your nonprofit organizations?
TS: Two old college friends (one an artist and the other a musician) had a conversation about playing Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison album from start to finish as a singular piece of work. In the same breath, the idea of playing that record inside prison made the project more interesting to both. Fast forward, to one concert leading to several, and all of a sudden my partner and I were touring Oregon prisons playing this show that introduced Cash’s biography alongside the music. Meeting people inside and recognizing the power that music and storytelling had to transform prison spaces became the anchor for each subsequent project. By the third year of leap-frogging projects, it became clear to both of us that we wanted to develop ongoing, sustainable programming for people in Oregon prisons. A few adults in custody encouraged us to become carded at Oregon State Penitentiary, and so Bridgeworks Oregon was formed to help us structure our work.
MB: At first, it just seemed like a necessary move from a fiscal standpoint. I had begun receiving donations early as 2017 from individuals and institutions in order to cover expenses for my jail and prison performances and creating a 501c3 seemed necessary. It wasn’t until I started receiving messages from other artists asking about how they could perform a similar service that I started to think about a larger vision for Art That Serves. Similarly, I started to realize how much the experience of performing for the incarcerated was transforming me as both an artist and as a person and how much of a gift it had been, and I felt compelled to pay that gift forward. Others should have this same opportunity, and I knew developing Art That Serves into a more robust organization could facilitate that.
MH: How did you launch your career as a performing artist and what was your principal motivation for aligning your creative art with social healing?
DW: I studied piano for most of my life, but it wasn’t until my kids were teenagers, that I picked up a guitar and started writing songs. About that time, I put together a band and played shows around town. The music was a counter-balance to my career. Listening to Cash’s Folsom Prison record captured my attention. Reading about his concerts inside really struck a chord with me. Once I started going inside prisons playing music, and shaking hands with people, hearing stories, I realized that helping this community made sense to me.
MB: I’ve been a musician and a performer since I was a teenager, but at that age I can’t say my ambition was any kind of social healing, or at least not in the sense that I understand that term now. I do, however, think I always wanted to help or inspire people. Truthfully, I feel like I’ve more or less stumbled into doing what I’m doing now and that I never had any deliberate plan. My first performance in a correctional facility came about loosely through a documentary film that I was working on music for, and I had no idea the impact it would have on me. I’d never felt like I’d been so graciously received by an audience, that I’d been quite as ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ by a group before, and I was immediately hooked. I think to some degree that’s how they felt as well, like someone saw them and was willing to show up for them when they might have otherwise felt forgotten about. I think that’s the magic of those shows, we affirm each other’s value and dignity just through a mutual presence.
MH: As a performer with a like-minded vision, what do you see is the greatest need and opportunity for creative artists in the future to connect with and facilitate transformation for those who are isolated?
TS: When you enter an institutional living space, you can’t help but notice how hungry people are for connection. We benefit as much from the company of strangers as from the people in our day-to-day lives. It is an opportunity to tell your story to a new person — a new audience to laugh at your jokes. The individual social interaction becomes an important part of the entire performance. Humans want to be seen and heard! In our Bridgeworks events, we operate as a team trying to meet as many folks as possible before a chord is ever played. This community building warms up the audience — and it sends a powerful message: We are here because we want to meet you! Your story matters and the performance we are making, we are making together. We want the audience to feel like they can clap and sing, if they are inspired. They can be loose and ask questions. We want to bring in fresh ideas and energy to a place that can feel static. Because of that, each time we go into a space, we have an experience that we remember and enjoy. We have stories to tell to the outside world of the folks we have met. In doing so, events are generative and they lead to new and exciting ideas. New songs, new pieces of writing — energy is reciprocated.
MB: I think first and foremost people need to know that it’s even a possibility. While I’m not the biggest proponent of social media, I experienced first-hand how surprised and subsequently inspired other artists were when they saw my posts about the work I was doing. The first questions were always “how do I do that?” or “how can I help?” The next part is figuring out how to answer those two questions. I think mentorship of some kind is very important. Not only is it a logistically complex thing to figure out, but performing for incarcerated or otherwise isolated populations requires a certain sensitivity, it requires respect, humility and self-awareness. Also, establishing ways for less experienced artists to study and learn from more experienced ones would go a long way. Speaking in less hierarchical terms, a way for artists to share their knowledge with the goal of learning from each other, to create a network and a forum for “best practices” would be tremendous.
Captions: (Top) Matt Butler from Art That Serves and Daniel Wilson from Bridgeworks at Alma Via in San Rafael.
(Bottom) Daniel Wilson plays songs from his Johnny Cash show for the seniors at Alma Via.
Photos by Janet Franklin