November Artist Spotlight: Scintillating Storyteller, Kevin Strauss

* Hi Kevin, thank you very much for taking the time out of your day to be interviewed. First off, can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into storytelling?

I think I’ve always loved the power and inspiration of a well-told story. I got involved in storytelling performance 25 years ago while working as a naturalist in Vermont. As part of our training, we took part in the storytelling workshop. I realized that not every person loves birds or bears, or bugs, but everyone likes a story. So I began using stories as a way to help get people excited to learn about science and the natural world. About 17 years ago, I realized that I like telling stories so much that I decided to make that my life’s work. 

* What is your favorite thing about verbal storytelling?

Verbal storytelling gives me the chance to create a world with word images. It transports us to new places and can inspire us to dare great things, even when we’re feeling scared. Stories are also powerful lessons, showing us how to solve problems and face overwhelming odds. 

* Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

I remember attending every storytelling program I could find as a child. I even went to storytelling performances in college; although I never thought I could be a professional storyteller back then. I had a gut feeling that verbal storytelling had a power that books and science didn’t have. But it took me a while to find a way to fit the art form into my life. About 20 years ago, I discovered that there is a regional storytelling organization in the Midwest, Northlands Storytelling and they hold storytelling conferences. Many of the storytellers in that group helped me to develop as an artist and a business person. 

* How has your work as a teaching artist evolved over the years? What have you learned from teaching?

After years of performing as a storyteller and writing books, I liked the idea of teaching students and adults to do the same. I used to think that teaching was all about telling people how to do something, but I’ve learned over time that it’s most important to demonstrate an art form, provide some basic information on how to do the work, in “bite-sized" pieces, and then give participants a lot of time to try the art form out for themselves. I’ve also learned the value of using structured ways to give students feedback on their work, so they can improve over time. 

* What advice do you have for new teaching artists?

Break the skills needed in your art form down into “bite-size” pieces. Demonstrate your art form, then teach students one “bite-sized” art skill at a time, giving participants a chance to practice each piece, before you help them reassemble the pieces into the art form as a whole.

* You received a Folk and Traditional Arts Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board last year. Can you tell us about that project and how it turned out? 

My Folk and Traditional Arts Grant project, Minnesota Storytelling Traditions, is a project to identify and video record traditional storytellers in Minnesota. Traditional storytellers are those who learned stories from family members and friends (as opposed to “fine arts storytellers” who learned most of their stories from books). I’m video recording these storytellers and posting the videos on the Story Library website. My goal is to show people the power and diversity of storytelling in Minnesota and to give adults and children a place where they can see quality storytelling performances, even if they can’t get to a storytelling event. 

The project is going well. So far I’ve recorded about 10 storytellers and I’ll probably record 6 more before the project is done. I’ll be posting 70 new stories on the Story Library website

* Have you been working on any other projects lately?

This year I’m also teaching a series of adult Short Story, Memoir, Poetry and Publishing workshops at SELCO Libraries in Southeast Minnesota. These multi-day workshops help “regular folks” practice their writing skills with feedback from fellow students and from me. 

* What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?

Being a COMPAS artist is great because working with COMPAS lets me focus on what I do well. COMPAS does most of the marketing and outreach to schools and libraries, so I can focus on developing and performing quality storytelling and writing workshops. Being able to network with other artists at COMPAS trainings and the trainings themselves are also great professional development for me.

* What influence does living in Minnesota have on your work?

Minnesota is a great place to be a performing artist. Legacy Amendment grants fund individual artist projects, like the Minnesota Storytelling Traditions project. It also provides funds so that libraries in small towns in rural Minnesota can hire storytelling performers like me to work with their community members.

* How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

As a working artist, I sometimes get so caught up with the “working” that I neglect the “artist” part. So lately I’ve set myself come “forced creativity" goals. This month, I’m working on writing at least one poem per day. This requirement gets me to spend at least some time each day in a creative pursuit.