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Advice for artists & writers from Olympics sculptor, Rosa Serra

Last week, over on my other blog, CollazoProjects, I wrote about the experience of meeting the artist Rosa Serra in her home and studio in Catalunya.

Rosa Serra at her home in Catalunya. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo.

Rosa Serra at her home in Catalunya. Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo.

I left out one of the most significant aspects of my time with Serra, though, as I was saving it for this blog.

If you read the other post, you’ll learn that Serra neither expected nor aspired to become the sculptor of the Olympics. She happened to know the then-President of the International Olympic Committee, and it was this connection that resulted in Serra’s being offered a commission that some artists had probably spent their careers hoping to land. When she was asked if she’d be interested in taking on the role (which would be created especially for her), she admitted that she knew very little about sports. Yet, she didn’t hesitate to respond to the invitation in the affirmative.

I was just on the cusp of turning 34 when I sat at Serra’s knee, listening to her tell me part of her life story. I had been struggling with some professional dilemmas that Serra had seemingly confronted, so I took the opportunity to ask her advice. First, was pretty much every opportunity in an artist’s or writer’s career ultimately the outcome of luck (as in: Right place, right time, right connections)? When I had luck–and I’d had plenty of it–I was just fine with this possibility. When I didn’t–and I’d had my fair share of bad runs and plateaus, too–I felt that the influence of luck had far too much control.

Serra dismissed the notion of luck completely. “It wasn’t luck,” she said, referring to the IOC’s offer that she become the sculptor of the Olympics. The commission was not a mere coincidence, but the result of several long processes: first, of course, gaining the very skills and honing the talents of being a sculptor, and then, positioning herself for opportunities and greatness. Continually being open to new relationships and possibilities, she said, was what resulted in the commission, not luck, which suggests complete passivity.

I’d also been troubled, on more than one occasion, by dilemmas related to commissions. In my ideal professional life, I’d never have to even consider taking on a commission for a project that didn’t–at least at first glance–seem to interest me. Serra, in her lovely, non-judgmental way, helped reframe this problem, too. Taking the Olympics commission, she said, was one of the best professional decisions she had ever made. It was precisely because she wasn’t interested in sports and didn’t know much about them that she was able to throw herself into learning about them and, in the process, develop aspects of her craft that had previously been both unknown and inaccessible to her. Taking commissions, she explained, compel us to grow, and unless there’s a moral or ethical reason that would caution us against doing so, they can be significant professional and personal experiences.

Decades later, if you look at Serra’s work (which is on display at IOC headquarters and is catalogued in the book Suite Olympique), you’ll see that her decisions paid off, not just for her, but for anyone who has the opportunity to view her masterful sculptures.

What professional dilemmas are you struggling with? Who has offered you advice that’s worth sharing? Tell us in the comments.

How to cover an international sporting event

This week, I’m in Guadalajara, Mexico covering the Pan American Games. Think of them as a mini-Olympics, smaller than the main event, but requiring the same kind of massive coordination across multiple countries and multiple languages.

I applied for my press credentials months ago, but beyond being granted press access (which only came a week and a half ago), I have largely been left to my own devices by the organizers. Figuring out the most efficient, effective way to cover the Games has required a quick study. Though I won’t be able to benefit fully from all of my trial-and-error learnings during these Games, I’ll definitely keep them in mind for my next major international sporting event (Rio, anyone?), and thought I’d share them with you.

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1. Expect disorganization.

Coordinating an event of this magnitude is an effort that requires the heads and hands of hundreds, if not thousands, of staffers and volunteers, few of whom have event coordination experience. Expect that there will be disorganization and don’t fight it. Focus on your reason for being there, determine a single point person who can get you what you need when you need it, and steer clear of the negative vibes of other journalists who entertain themselves by complaining ad infinitum about the lack of organization.

2. Prepare as much as possible beforehand.

There are lots of logistics you won’t be able to figure out until the last minute, especially as teams get eliminated and the field narrows. Make a list of priorities- what are the sports and teams you want to see? Where are the sports venues located? How far are those venues from where you’re staying (and from each other)? In Guadalajara, the volleyball venue is an hour from the main media center and about 75 minutes from my hotel. Had I not done my prep work, I wouldn’t have made it into today’s headliner game between Cuba and Canada.

3. Check in at the media center and find a contact. 

Don’t make the mistake of picking up your credentials and the media guide and then jetting. Stick around for a bit and talk with staff. Who’s a point person you can count on (via email, mobile, or both) if you get to a venue and have problems getting admitted? (And even with a formal credential, it happens). What services are available to journalists? Here at the Pan American Games, both Canon and Nikon have booths where accredited journalists can get their gear cleaned and have minor repairs performed. Nikon is even distributing loaner gear for some journalists.

And to wind down at the end of the day (or, for some journos, at the beginning… ahem), there’s a tequila tasting stand in the journo cafeteria… free shots.

Also, confirm what your credential covers. It may (or may not) cover all events, but does it cover opening and closing ceremonies? Are there any special media parties (Bebel Gilberto is playing here, for example, at a press-only event).

4. Document everything.

By this, I don’t just mean the Games, but also your communications. If someone tells you, for example, that you’ll need an event ticket on top of your credential (which is the case for today’s volleyball games), get that person’s name and email; then ask for the name and email of the person who is responsible for distributing tickets. Make sure you always have someone accountable to trace information back to.

5. Dress appropriately.

Journos showing up in sleeveless shirts and open-toed shoes won’t be admitted to a venue at the Pan Ams. Be sure you know what the dress code is for the events you intend to cover.

6. Eat well when you can.

You’ll likely be out all day at a venue that serves chips and beer, so eat a heavy breakfast. Many of the main event venues are on the outskirts of cities, not inside them, so your options for a snack or a meal tend to be limited.

7. Pack for the day and keep your stuff close. 

Don’t assume you’ll have the chance to go back to your hotel for your back-up battery or memory card. Bring all your gear and keep it close at hand. Because there’s so much gear, so many people, and so much moving around, try to keep everything as compact and close to you as you can.

8. Make friends with the media.

Grumpy journos notwithstanding, chat up the other members of the media in the press box. This morning, I’ve met AP and Getty photographers from Spain and Germany, respectively, as well as Olympic historians. It’s good to keep in touch with these folks to share future opportunities, but it’s also got an immediate benefit- they can watch your stuff for you while you go pee.

Cuban women's volleyball team

Cuban women's volleyball team

 9. Bend the rules. 

Journos who are not credentialed as photographers can’t shoot photos from the press box at the Pan Ams. As I was looking for a way around this, I realized I could take my DSLR into the stands and shoot from there (which general population can’t do- they can only use small point and shoots). Nobody told me this; it was one of the many things I had to figure out on my own.

What writers can learn from Dale Begg-Smith

Before we lost patience with the inane chattering that apparently passes for commentary these days, we were watching the Olympics last weekend and that’s how I learned who Dale Begg-Smith is.

If you’ve been keeping up with the Games, you’ve likely heard his name; if you’re in an Olympics black out, then here’s what you need to know: Dale Begg-Smith is a Canadian by birth, Australian by choice who was, until last weekend, the world’s top men’s mogul skier.

He’s a controversial guy, apparently, not the least reason being that he is, in The Wall Street Journal’s words, “an Internet prodigy” who has made millions thanks to his online spam business. Among the other reasons he’s hopped up the ire of just about everyone was his decision to move to Australia to ski for their team when the Canadian team presented him with a decision: drop his business and devote more time to training, or drop skiing and devote himself to his business. Begg-Smith didn’t really understand why he couldn’t do both… and excel.

Now, I’ll admit that I know next to nothing about sports. I’m lucky to make it to the gym twice a month and I don’t have the faintest idea what it takes to become an Olympic athlete other than persistence and a whole lot of hard physical work I’m just not cut out for.  But the fact that Begg-Smith has held onto his position as world class skier for more than four years running seems to suggest that he knows himself and his training needs pretty well, and this is the first lesson writers can take from Dale Begg-Smith:  Don’t let other people tell you what process is right for you. If you possess talent, skill, and tenacity, as well as the ability to assess yourself objectively and discern your needs, then take the advice of those who tell you how you should go about your work as just that: advice that you’re free to apply or dismiss as you see fit.

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There’s another lesson we can learn from Begg-Smith.

Begg-Smith has been vilified by many media outlets for avoiding press conferences and interviews, scorned as sarcastic and arrogant because he refuses to answer questions he considers irrelevant to skiing (When asked about his businesses at a press conference, Begg-Smith curtly replied that he wasn’t there to talk about business. Fair enough, if you ask me). NBC, in their “profile” of Begg-Smith, portrayed the skier as a “man of mystery,” mainly trumping up this image, I believe, because they simply had nothing to say about him.

The media have attempted to dog Begg-Smith into fitting the narrative they want to write about him, to shame him into speaking in order to defend himself against the image they’ve made of him because, as one journalist said, “he has a responsibility to do so.”

But I love that Begg-Smith won’t be corralled into mainstream media’s box. He’s okay with letting the media make him into whomever they need him to be. He knows exactly who he is, and it matters little, if at all, whether you or I or anyone else like him. He knows what he came to this world to do, and nothing will deter him from his goals. He doesn’t capitulate to the machine of any profession that wants to reshape him into anyone other than who he is. It’s a lesson worth imitating.

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