June Artist Spotlight: Beverly Cottman aka Auntie Beverly Storyteller

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Beverly, thank you so much for taking time from your summer to speak with us. First off, can you please tell us a little about your work and what art form you teach?

I am an interdisciplinary artist, creating at the intersections of literary, visual, and performance art.  I’ve been a librarian, a research scientist, and a high school biology teacher.  I am now a wife, mother, grandmother, community elder, and storyteller Auntie Beverly. 

Storytelling is an ancient practice found in all cultures and is an integral part of all human experience.  I practice and teach Blackstorytelling which promotes and perpetuates this art form which embodies the history, heritage, and culture of African Americans. It allows me to educate and entertain through the Oral Tradition, which depicts and documents those experiences by preserving  and passing on the folklore, legends, myths, fables and mores of Africans and their ancestors and descendants.

When did you first become interested in storytelling and writing? Who were some of your influences?

My first experience as a performing storyteller happened at a birthday-party for my granddaughter.  The children were enthralled by the simple stories of the Little Red Hen and Zomo the Rabbit.  I felt good telling them.  Afterwards, I realized that I had been telling stories as a science teacher for a long time.  I had helped students understand complex ideas by putting them in story form and had made historical figures more accessible by telling the stories of their lives and work.

I have been inspired and influenced by the work of Zora Neale Hurston, trickster tales of Br’er Rabbit and Anansi, Mrs. Mattie Clark’s stories of growing up in a rural community, Ms. Jackie Torrence’s “jump” tales, Aesop’s Fables, and African proverbs.  I am also influenced by the requests that people make for stories they want to hear.

What do you think is the most valuable thing storytelling can teach someone?

Listening to a story can transport the listener to a place beyond their imagination, raise the hairs on the back of the neck, cause laughter that will result in a stomachache, or reveal a family secret.  Storytelling is a way into the experiences of those unknown to us, allows us to connect to the humanity of others, and increases our capacity for empathy. Intentional and focused listening to stories may even reveal something about ourselves.

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What do you gain from teaching that you don’t gain from creating your own work?

Teaching my art form allows me to reflect on the most important aspects of storytelling.

My students want concrete examples of ‘what’ to do and ‘how’ to do it and I get to see what I am teaching in action.  I gain immediate responses to the things I teach and model — this lets me know what I may or may not put in my own work.

You work with participants of all ages, what do you find the same across all ages in terms of learning?

No matter the age, all students want, need, and should have opportunities to express their creativity.  They learn there are numerous ways to be creative and present their ideas in quiet and flamboyant ways — they learn that everyone has a story to tell.  For most, it is just a matter of getting an opportunity.

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Can you tell us when your professional name Auntie Beverly came about?

Auntie is a title of honor and respect in many cultures.  It may be used to identify an elder or one who has wisdom to impart.  Children are taught to always preface an adult’s name with a title.  Mine is Auntie.

Have you been working on any new projects lately? What are they?

I am entertaining the idea of creating a chap book of stories and poems informed by the East African KANGA.  These colorful pieces of cloth are printed with proverbs and other sayings in the Swahili language.

What do you see as benefits of working in the Minnesota arts community?

I benefit from forming relationships within a very diverse creative community — diversity in all of its forms — age, art forms, ethnicity, gender, techniques, style, etc.  We are able to work together and learn from each other and most of the time in perfect harmony.

You joined the COMPAS roster last year, why did you want to get involved with COMPAS?

I wanted to be in community with teaching artists in the Twin Cities area.  For many of us, our creative lives are usually solitary and there are not a lot of opportunities to interact with those who practice the same art form and even fewer across disciplines.

The COMPAS Roster of Teaching Artists has already become the resource to turn to when I am looking for someone to talk with about creating across disciplines as well as having discussions about teaching techniques and activities.  The training and workshops have been an invaluable resource as well as opportunities for us to gather in a social setting.

I also wanted to reach a wider geographic area with my work.  COMPAS has provided an expanded network which I hope will eventually include the entire state.

COMPAS has an excellent reputation as a provider of top notch arts presentations throughout the state and I feel proud and happy to have been accepted as a roster artist.

How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I write poems and make ‘found object’ sculptures, create bookmarks from old greeting cards, and read story books, anthologies and collections for story ideas.  The creative activity which brings me a lot of pleasure is to tinker with a recipe and come up with something new.  I like to make foods I have never tasted before and serve them at a beautifully set table.