Writers Corps Profile: Alan Sutherland Oct 1, 2016

by Elissa Favero

This season, an Ambassador Writers Corps* Member will write a profile on each of the nine local artists in 16/17. These in-depth conversations between local artists and local writers will take the place of curatorial notes in the performance programs. 

The debut of Little Brown Mushrooms marks twenty years to the month since Alan Sutherland first began performing butoh, that slow Japanese style of dance that awakens the mind to topics to which it can sometimes be difficult to assign language. Before he began to practice himself, though, Alan watched butoh in Seattle for over a decade, beginning with a performance by Helen Thorsen to which he took his three-year-old daughter. The process of viewing slowly kindled something in him. He found it transformative. Years later, at his first butoh rehearsal, he remembers being told to “be a rock” and feeling both prepared and able to do that. At its best, Alan says, butoh reveals itself as a great mystery. There’s a paradox there, I think: The revealing, the showing does not diminish the mystery; instead, it heightens it. In the years since he began, Alan’s become an in-demand local performer, working with renowned groups like Saint Genet while developing his own practice. He speaks highly of his collaborators—Crow Nishimura, Markeith Wiley, Sheri Brown, Lela Besom, Vanessa Shantze, Douglas Ridings, Travis McAllister, Marina Sossi, Sam Mickens, and Jennifer Zeyl for this project—and the way work with others feeds his creative spirit.

As with butoh, Alan’s experience with psychoactive mushrooms has been protracted and sustaining. Echoing the ethnobotanist and storyteller Terence McKenna, he tells me that the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms – which enhances vision in the dark, heightens our sense of smell, and activates the portion of the brain responsible for forming language – may have been key to the way humans became who we are today. Our relationship with psychoactive mushrooms may be one of symbiosis. The species Psilocybe cyanescens, wavy brown mushrooms that bruise blue to the touch, grow particularly well on wood chips in the Northwest, and you can grow them as you would a garden. For Alan in particular, eating psychoactive mushrooms has been at once a means to unlock and face up to difficulty and darkness, to consider the regalia of our lives or those elements of ourselves that we bring with us on any kind of trip, as well as to revel in the joys of walking outside, of wiggling fingers, of having a body. There are many ways to obtain wisdom and insight, he counsels, and he isn’t prepared to dismiss any of them.

I would be remiss to neglect to mention the fierce attachment with which Alan speaks about his only daughter and his two grandchildren. It’s obvious that these relationships, as well as the immediacy and curiosity of childhood itself, are some of his abiding joys.

Given the logistical challenges of promoting a show and organizing collaborators’ schedules, a process he likens, with a wry smile, to trying to transport frogs in a wheelbarrow, Alan jokes that for the show that celebrates his thirty-year practice of butoh, he’s planning a series of unannounced performances in obscure places. I, for one, hope in ten years’ time that word gets out and that we’ll be able to be there with and for him as he performs to reveal more of the mystery he’s been seeking after these many years.

- Elissa Favero

Elissa Favero has worked in education and public programs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and at the Seattle Art Museum and has taught critical and contextual studies at Cornish College of the Arts. She is a recipient of an Art Writing Workshop Award from the International Art Critics Association/USA Section (AICA/USA) and the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program for her blog, Yellow Umbrella, and this fall heads to Ragdale for a four-week writing residency. She moonlights at Seattle City Light's historic Georgetown Steam Plant, facilitating artists' use of the space for film shoots and theatre and dance performances. 

*Learn more about the Ambassador Writers Corps