Jameela F. Dallis: Educator, Writer and Jewelry Maker
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Jameela F. Dallis, teaches, researches, and writes about a range of literature and cultural studies. She received her PhD in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2016 and is now a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Jameela has been writing poetry and sharing stories since childhood and has been reading Tarot for over 17 years. Last winter, she recorded poems accompanied by musicians Ken Moshesh and Jeff Herrick; this spring, she submitted a poetic essay on writing and Tarot and a chapbook titled “Princess of Swords” for publication. She has previously published scholarly book chapters on the Caribbean Gothic in Shani Mootoo's work and on Tarot in fiction by Angela Carter. A woman of many talents and interests, Jameela is also a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) who paints, illustrates, makes jewelry, and officiates weddings. Visit her website, jameeladallis.com, for more information.
You’re an individual who does a lot of creative things. You make jewelry, you’re an English professor, you’re a writer and you practice tarot.
And I’m a yoga teacher.
And you’re a yoga teacher. Amazing!
How do you find that all those different things connect? And do they feed off each other? How do they work together?
I would say that they all have a sense of creating narrative or disseminating narrative or organizing thoughts in a way that is like narrative. Narrative is what connects them all.
Some people might ask how is teaching yoga like narrative? or how is making jewelry like narrative? It’s all inspired by an idea and then I build that idea. And so teaching a yoga class is like scripting a narrative. There’s structure, there are things that make sense for your body [in terms of] warming up and opening. And so I have a template that I plug things into and [subsequently] that relates to a theme and [then] that theme structures the narrative. A piece of jewelry is similar. This necklace I have on is inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. It began by looking at a painting and thinking that I’d really like to make a necklace that incorporated [that painting]. And thinking about the materials. And then when I write about the necklace there’s that narrative but it’s also like I’m wearing that narrative as well.
Did you ever think that you had to be just one thing?
No. And a lot of people have suggested that I pick one thing to do but I can’t do that. I stick with things that bring me joy, bring others joy and somehow still stretch me.
What do you like best about the different types of art or creativity that you do?
They are all a means to freedom and survival.
What does living a creative life mean to you?
I guess I’ll start off with an easy answer: it means everything. I would feel very depressed and defeated if I couldn’t have the space to create in some way. I don’t always have the time that I want to devote to certain projects. But if I didn’t always have a few things going on I would just feel bored. Feel disconnected. Creativity is a way to connect not just to myself but to others as well. People can see themselves in your work.
How do you think we can get this country, also the world, to value creativity more highly and what would our world look like if we did?
That’s a question I’ve thought about many times. Part of it is through public education, through ways that the public can access art that aren’t overly expensive, that aren’t exclusive in terms of the kind of art that’s displayed, not making people feel like they aren’t included or reflected. Not every exhibit can speak to everyone but [we should strive to] have a space where the public is welcome.
Academia can bridge these gaps by engaging in more public intellectualism. I see that some of the universities around there are doing that, which is good, but it should have been happening a long time ago in a way that brings critical thinking, the humanities and the creation of art, and any sort of interdisciplinary forms of expression to the mainstream. Where people aren’t having to pay 60 or 80 dollars for a ticket.
So access. Inclusivity. A diverse offering. But it needs to start also in schools. Public schools. Not just private or charter or magnet schools. We really need to fund arts education again. And it needs to be part of our core curriculum
There’s all this research that proves that when you experience art and you’re able to express your own creativity you think more critically. And that’s so important for our country and our world. And it’s also a way to connect across barriers of language, age, race, religion, ethnicity. Art is a way we can cross those perceived divides.
And what do you think our world would look like if this happened?
In our particular country I think we’d have a very different administration. I’ll leave it at that. There would be more emphasis on evidence and connection rather than sensationalism when it came to politics and how other important decisions are made. And in terms of the world over, I want to say there’d be less conflict. If people are able to connect with something else or someone else there’s less space for othering, for seeing people as completely separate.
What are some creative challenges you’ve come up against and how have you moved through them - or have you?
Time. Time management is one of the biggest things. The more you do the less time you have for everything else. You have more meetings, more events, it’s harder to take that down time. And so the other thing is money. Having enough. And when you’re always working to make more the balance is hard.
I’ve been wanting to get into metalsmithing but it’s been cost prohibitive. So I am always prioritizing what I can do now that’s more accessible. For me that’s been poetry. And I just started a new job as a visiting assistant professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
I’m teaching a 4-week yoga series which combines tarot with art and a little bit of literature. That’s all the things that I do! So I just got lucky. And that happened through a connection with a local curator Angel Dozier. I found [that opportunity] through social media. So you have to kind of also be out there. And so that takes a lot of energy.
In order to manage that you have to space out time for yourself. For me that means sometimes I’ll stay in bed until noon reading a book, sketching, drawing. Sometimes that means I don’t leave my house the whole day, I don’t talk to anybody or call anybody. And that’s what I need. And it’s also about boundaries. Learning how to say no. And that’s something I’m still learning. And I’m still learning procrastination. A lot of my best scholarly writing has happened 12 hours before the deadline. Balance is always a work in progress.
I think boundaries can be hard for people in the arts because there’s not always as much of a discernable value system placed on them. I saw this tweet the other day by this humor essayist I enjoy Sloane Crosley that said “New doctor spent upwards of 15 minutes of our appointment asking me for publishing advice so I looked offended and gobsmacked and said "well, this is awkward!" when he demanded cash for medical advice.”
Exactly - you have to value your time and what you have to offer.
What’s the role of the artist within their community?
I’ll answer this with a quotation. It’s about change as a theme. This is inspired by Octavia Butler and her character Laura’s thoughts on change. “We cannot and will not cling to stasis, inertia or mourn the status quo when the tide is moving with the unstoppable and undeniable force of change, of freedom. We must embrace, accept, create and foster change.”
That’s so much a part of my work as an artist – moving with the tide of progress and going forward. And a lot of my art is – in subtle and not so subtle ways – invested in activism, from the people that I cite or create. Those are all political acts. I do believe in creating art for arts sake, but politics and art are not separate for me. My role is to help facilitate freedom.
What are some creative influences?
That’s gonna be such a long list. Art is my first love.
Some of the longest standing influences …. David Bowie. My first intro to Bowie was in the movie Labyrinth. I would rent it every single weekend. And I remember the smell from the video store. That really set a lot of other things in place. My PhD dissertation work in English Literature is on the gothic and so I look at 18thand 19thcentury gothic aesthetics and contemporary work by Caribbean, American and British female authors, looking at how that sense of haunting and terror is carried out into the present. So I would say that Labyrinthhad something to do with it.
Everything about me is either Frida Kahlo or David Bowie. Kahlo because she was able to create despite her pain. She expressed herself through her pain. She always said she wasn’t a surrealist, she just painted what she knew. And that’s powerful. And she’s even an inspiration [when it comes to my] aesthetic.
Gustav Klimt. Toni Morrison, particularly her book Jazz. All of these people are rebels in their own way. Gwendolyn Brooks, especially her poemThe Mother. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Seais one of my favorite novels. Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Alexander Calder, Joy Harjo, Natasha Trethaway, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Zitkala-Sa who wrote about her experience being a Native American woman at the turn of the century. Yevgeny Zamyatinwho wrote the novel We, which was suppressed in Russia for either 60 or 80 years and then was translated into English and is the inspiration for books like Brave New World and lots of other dystopian novels.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative?
Don’t be afraid of not being perfect. There’s no such thing as perfection.