Posts Categorized: Today

Interview with Alaska String Band

(What’s got 8 wheels, 25 strings, 5 heads and is 140 years old? Well, The Alaska String Band of course…)

By Benji Nichols

When faced with the choice to either buckle down with a “day job,” or leave your career to tour across the country playing music and traveling in a 40-foot bus with your three children, it’s safe to say that a lot of parents might chose the day job. But life is short, fragile really, and children don’t stay kids for long, which are all reasons that Paul and Melissa Zahasky and family made a collective decision from their home in Juneau, Alaska to quit their jobs and buy a 40-foot MCI tour bus site unseen. Their extraordinary musical talents would not only entertain crowds from Juneau’s Gold Creek Salmon Bake to the southern-most tip of Texas, but would also pay the bills. And heck, who knows, maybe along the way they’d have the time of their lives. The bus, and Zahasky’s parents (Don & Helen) live here in Decorah, and lucky for us, the Alaska String Band uses this as a home base while traveling to and from the lower 48 states.

Inspire(d)’s Benji Nichols recently caught up with the “Z-Family” to ask a few questions about how this whole family string band thing got started – and the next thing you know there was a show scheduled in Decorah with the AK String Band. Don’t miss your chance to meet Paul and Melissa Zahasky and their three incredibly talented kids – Laura (18), Quinn (16), and Abigail (12) – as Inspire(d) and The AK String Band host a benefit concert for Decorah’s Free Clinic Thursday, February 18, at 7 pm at First Lutheran Church. Admission will be a cash donation to the Free Clinic, but no will be turned away for lack of funds.

Inspire(d): How did the Alaska String Band come to be?

Z: We (Paul and Melissa) were introduced by a common musician friend many years ago. Our first performances together as a duo were in churches in Juneau and on board cruise ships. Music has always been a passion and a natural part of our lives so the children were exposed to it from infancy.

It is a common occurrence that children will imitate the behavior of their parents and that seems to be what has naturally occurred. Of course, we offered to teach the kids how to play various instruments from when they were very young, but never insisted that they do so. We did say that if they wanted to participate in performances that they would have to take lessons and practice but that decision was left with each child. As they have matured and shown the dedication to learning and loving music, we have actively searched for venues that could accommodate our growing family band.

Making the decision to transition the Alaska String Band from a local music group to a full-time performing ensemble was slow and somewhat agonizing. We both reached a point of overload where we realized that Paul could no longer work full time as an Alaska State Parks employee and run his own excavating business, while Melissa oversaw the home and education of our children. At the same time the Band continued to increase its schedule to the point that nothing was being done well. We spent months discussing our visions and goals, talking with friends whom we felt could offer sound council, and praying for direction.

We asked ourselves tough questions such as: When I am really, really, old (a lot older than I am now) will I have any regrets of not following my dream? If we give up the security that a full time position with the State of Alaska including benefits provides, in exchange for only a year or possibly two to pursue this musical dream with our children, will it have been worth it? We always consulted the children on their desires as well. A good Juneau friend offered us this helpful gem; “God is not in the habit of showing you the net until after you jump…” We are a year and a half past the point of no return, and we have no regrets.

Inspire(d): What Inspire(d) you all to start playing music as a family, and perhaps more importantly continues to inspire you to keep playing together?

Z: In the process of becoming a family string band we have discovered that it not only feeds our musical passions but also knits us closely together. We share a common dream, which includes success and failure, fear and courage, totally cush gigs and crummy hardships, frustrations, disappointments and delights, humor, humility and pride, and of course faith, hope and love.

Wherever we perform there are comments that continue to spur us on: “Thank you for being willing to share your faith publicly. Don’t ever stop doing what you’re doing!! What do you really do for work?!? Do your kids ever fight? You guys are shredders!! Do you sleep in the refrigerator to keep warm?”
Melissa was originally inspired with the family string band idea by seeing the McLain Family Band perform (www.mclains.com) when she was a child in Juneau.

Other inspirations have been “The Sound of Music” – which leaves one wanting… Wanting to know the rest of the story, which our family discovered when we read aloud “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp. In addition The Von Trapp Children – today’s great, great grandchildren of Captain George and Maria Augusta Von Trapp – have been fun for us to read about and see in concert. Another read-aloud that our family enjoyed was “Don’t Think It Hasn’t Been Fun: The Story of the Burke Family Singers” by Sarah Jo Burke.
Finally, music is eternal. There will always be one more song to sing, one more genre of music to aspire to. We will never arrive, but are continually led on to greater depths of feeling and communication through the exploration of music. Ultimately it is our Creator who inspires and enables us to continue to sing and make music.

Inspire(d): Tell us about home schooling your kids. What has that been like in addition to keeping up performances and a national touring schedule?

Z: Laura, Quinn and Abigail have been educated at home from infancy. Alaska hosts a large population of home-schooled students and the state has been very accommodating to this form of education as the remoteness of many homes inhibits public school access. Our children are currently enrolled in a state funded correspondence school that provides certified teachers, guidance counselors, yearly state mandated testing, educational resources, and an accredited high school graduation ceremony. We choose the curriculum that best suits each child’s course of study and teach it ourselves. Laura is our first high school graduate having received her diploma in May of 2009.

The transition of schooling at home to schooling on the road is seamless. It’s just as hard on the road as off! Staying disciplined and focused at home has proven to be as difficult as studying in the midst of travel. There will always be a million distractions no matter what our circumstances are. When the Alaska String Band is faced with a split decision the kids get three votes, Mom and Dad get 10.

A few techniques we have found that seem to foster better study habits are: Feed the kids, Academics first. Study in the morning and practice music no later than 6:00 p.m. if possible. Separate the kids – this can be a challenge in a 40-foot bus, but if left together in too close of proximity without fairly close supervision they act just like every other school kid in America. While traveling use a tippy cup – or your essay on “Bus Dwellers Across America” will be coated in Gatorade. Avoid study or practice/rehearsal outside the bus – due to the public arena that we are immersed in while touring we have found it is just about impossible to work without interruption if we are outside the confines of the bus. People love t

o visit with us and are naturally curious about what we are doing. They also love to talk about Alaska if they have been there themselves or ask us what it is like. We love to do this but find it has to be separated from school and work responsibilities.

This touring experience touches on all aspects of education and richens their awareness in ways that a textbook cannot. Often the children will study on weekends, at odd hours and through holidays knowing that there will be interruptions in the coming days on the road.

Inspire(d): Tell us how you came to be the proud owners of a tour bus and any favorite bus stories from the gang.

Z: When we began dreaming up our first national tour we all agreed that a bus would best accommodate our needs and desires. Old of course was a prerequisite due to our “vast” financial resources and all the derelict busses around Juneau were spoken for, so we surfed the Internet. Eventually Paul came across a 1978 MCI 8 which appeared to fit our criteria. It was located in Missouri and had been converted by a contractor who had used it for his own family’s RV. Paul carried on correspondence via email for quite a while and in the end it was a huge step of trust in an unknown, but thankfully genuine and honest cyber seller.

We packed up an excessive amount of tour gear which included all things relating to music performance, school and recreation and which we were sure all music stars would find necessary, hopped on an Alaska Airlines jet and flew to Chicago where we rented a car and drove the rest of the way to our bus’s home in Eureka, Missouri, then hit the road. As we are currently into our fourth cross-country tour, our bus is maintaining consistent performance. Gas mileage: five miles per gallon, down hill with a tail wind traveling south. On an average we end up in the maintenance shop once per tour.

Late one evening while driving down the Crooked Road – Heritage Music trail in Virginia, Quinn recalls one hysterically funny escapade. It was a dusty drive and the windshield had coated over with a pretty heavy layer of cruddy mud. Paul saw a toll booth rapidly approaching and yelled, “Somebody fill the largest bowl you can find with water and as soon as I stop at the toll booth I want one of you kids to jump out and rinse off the windshield for me so that I can see properly!” Quinn was the quickest responder and as we rolled to a stop he jumped down and crossed in front of the bus. He gave a good heave to the bowl of water. The water flew up in an arc then swooshed down with a huge splash through the open tollbooth window, drenching the attendant and filling the change drawer and his lap with water. Quinn shot back into the bus and dove to the darkened recess of the furthest back room. He didn’t surface for quite some time. Melissa and the girls were howling with laughter and Paul was left trying to explain to a shocked tollbooth operator the purpose of his 14-year-old son’s agua ambush.

Inspire(d): What would the “ultimate show” be?

Z: Garrison Keilor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a round-the-world music tour, Carnegie Hall, or Sarah Palin’s presidential inauguration.

Inspire(d): Can you tell us about the musical advantages of being a family band?

Z: Quinn would most definitely say the food. We would say living and raising a family in Alaska is an amazing opportunity. Our remote location in Juneau, which can only be accessed by air or water, poses some serious restrictions on travel. We have found that the travel afforded by the entertainment industry has been an incredible boon. Young pickers also learn faster and are more nimble than their elders and they breathe new life into old songs.

Singing in harmony is an ongoing challenge. It’s a spine tingling moment when the pitches meld together so perfectly that the harmonics buzz in your ear. Because we are family our voices naturally sound similar and identical phrasing and breathing becomes intuitive. We do not personally detect a difference in our blend compared to other musical groups that are not tied by blood, however many who have heard us sing do say we possess a sound heard only in family ensembles.

Inspire(d): What has the biggest highlight of the past year been – musically, and non-musically?

Z: Completing a summer season of Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Shows in our homeport of Juneau on board Norwegian and Holland America Cruise lines. Doing a chapel service as well as the Southeast Alaskan Odyssey Show in the 2500 seat Belcher Center for the Arts at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, one day and giving an Alaskan String Band performance at Curtis Rountree’s Bluegrass Pickin’ Place in Lonestar, Texas, the following day. Sharing stages across the country with other awe inspiring musicians as well as meeting other family string bands who are following a similar dream. Enjoying untracked deep powder slopes at the Eaglecrest ski area in Juneau during a record breaking 20-foot snow fall winter followed up with a summer of record-breaking sunny days and warm temperatures in our rainforest home.

Inspire(d): What is the temperature out right now where you are, and what was the last wildlife that any of you saw before answering these questions?

Z: We are on North Padre Island, on the Gulf of Mexico in southern Texas. It is 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Abigail: a jackrabbit
Laura: a sand crab
Quinn: a sea worm
Melissa: a pelican
Paul: an out-of-control Texas road hog

Inspire(d): What do you miss the most about home and Alaska when you are not
there?

Z: Family, friends, regular aerobic exercise, excellent mountain drinking water, our spacious home, pristine wilderness, abundant wildlife, and alpine meadows.

In response to one of Quinn’s Vocational Tech classroom assignments Quinn is currently keeping a travel blog entitled Quinn’s Extraordinary Travel Ramblings. This is an ongoing account of his adventures with the Alaska String Band and can be accessed via the Alaska String Band website www.alaskastringband.net.

Benji Nichols is completely inspire(d) by the Zahasky family and their adventures. He also has to thank his Dad, Paul Nichols, for tipping him off about the Alaska String Band. Benji is no stranger to old busses and touring – and looks forward to more escapades to come, along with the comforting hum of a diesel generator lullaby…

Get in the Rink: Rollerderby!

Strap on your quads; We’re goin’ derby

By Aryn Henning Nichols . Photo by Studio J Photography

Photo by Studio J PhotographyBy day she’s the housewife. The attorney. The writer, the stylist, the chef. She moves with confidence, a fresh bruise merely a reminder of her latest battle, and like a rogue superhero, she can’t wait to pull on her fishnets and hot pants, slap on some red lipstick and get back in the rink to kick some derby ass. It’s just the way she rolls.

In a post-feminist era where romance is no longer a dirty word, but yes, the lady still just might want to mow the lawn, roller derby seems a natural fit. It rides a line between burlesque and brawn: the girls are sexy AND tough. They come together from all kinds of backgrounds and in all kinds of packages, united by their love of all things derby. Or they just like beating the crap out of each other while on old school quad skates. Either way, it’s not exactly your grandmother’s roller race.

Inducted in the 1930s by Chicago businessman Leo Seltzer, roller derby experienced a series of highs, lows, and evolutions over the decades until the 60s and 70s when the spectacle of it took precedent over the sport. Roller derby’s popularity fizzled out. Revival efforts didn’t take until 2001 when a group of Texas women pulled it out of its grave and gave it a whole new look.

The game goes like this: Two teams of five players are on the track, each with one jammer (she has a star on her helmet and is the one who scores) and four blockers (the blocker with a stripe on her helmet, the pivot, leads her blockers). For every opponent the jammer passes, her team scores a point. But short of throwing elbows or making human clotheslines, these girls are doing everything they can to keep the opposing jammer back and get their jammer through.

“One of the reasons roller derby is so popular is because of the explosive, fantastic combination of sport, entertainment, female aggression, and (dare I say it?) sex appeal,” says Decorah native Regan (Johnson) Jacobsen. “Let me be explicit – this is a real, full-contact sport.”

Jacobsen, aka Tammy Faye Undertakker or more often, TFU (a tribute to Ms. Tammy Faye Bakker, the late overly-made up televangelist), lives in Madison and has been skating with the Mad Rollin’ Dolls going on four years. For her, all it took was one bout. She wanted in.

“The second I walked in the door I was hooked. I just KNEW I had to do this,” she says. “I didn’t for a second consider the time, the money, the injuries, or the fact that the closest thing I ever played to a sport was marching band.”

The Mad Rollin’ Dolls (MRD), kicking off their sixth season the end of January 2010, were Midwestern pioneers of the sport alongside other leagues like the Minnesota Roller Girls (MNRG). Leagues like these frequently have thousands of people come to see them skate (at a recent MNRG bout, they had nearly 4,000 attendees!), but it definitely took a lot of work getting there. And as with most things, being a pioneer has its pros and cons.

Zara Danz, aka Candi Pain (“I picked my name because it seemed sweet and bad ass. The play on words thing is pretty big with derby names. Also I really like candy!”), has been with the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Roller Girls since day one. She says being one of the first Midwestern teams had some physical perks.

“I decided I wanted to be the one hitting the hardest, not the one getting knocked over. That motivated me,” Danz says. “I was lucky though, because at the point I started it was new to all of us. We were the first league to bring derby to Minnesota. Now when rookies start, they get pounded by seasoned vets.”

Jacobsen says MRD had to blaze a wide trail for leagues that would one day join the ranks.

“Madison didn’t have any blueprints, any mentors, or any limits. That’s been a challenge and also a great responsibility – to help the leagues that formed after us learn from our mistakes, improve on what we did right, and succeed where we have failed,” she says.

According to Jacobsen, everybody has a “fresh meat” story – “I was scared as hell when I started. The first time I went to a practice with ‘veteran’ skaters flying by me on the track on all sides, their wheels clacking up against my wheels… it was terrifying” – but teammates work hard to train new players.

“Derby is very ‘Three Musketeers’ in that regard,” Jacobsen explains. “Don’t get me wrong, we want everyone to improve so it’s more of a challenge to knock them down and more exciting to watch, but we want everyone to improve, regardless. It’s just not fun to knock down someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. Ok, it is, but you don’t feel as accomplished.”

Closer to home, smaller cities like La Crosse are founding their own leagues. The La Crosse Skating Sirens, not even one year old yet, look to teams like MRD and MNRG for guidance and advice. Because starting a roller derby league isn’t easy: it’s a business. You need organization, recruits, money. Skating Sirens founder and president Melissa Larivee, aka Skin Kitty, is proud of how far they’ve come in just a few short months. They have great sponsors (“The people who back us, back us.”), skate all their home bouts at a great venue – the La Crosse Center – they have enough members for two teams on their league, and they’re improving on the track.

“We got our asses kicked at our first bout,” Larivee says. “But we’re getting better. We’re losing by less now.”

At the interview, Larivee’s left wrist is in a cast, and her nose is healing nicely after a dirty bout punch, she says.

“She’s our league clutz,” jokes Skating Sirens vice president Marghie Arttus, aka Hiss’n Kitten.

“No, I’m just aggressive,” Larivee retorts. The two agree they are complete opposites, but because of derby, they’re best friends.

“It’s all about the comraderie,” Larivee says. “We want women to have a place to go to be athletic and skate. Women can dominate this sport. It does take a certain kind of woman, you just don’t know who that is exactly. There isn’t a stereotype for it. You can have your basketball star and your Goth out there on the track together. But I think it’s popular because it’s all women – the guys are in the minority.”

So the fact that men’s leagues are starting to form across the nation naturally raises the derby dander a bit. Jacobsen explains.

“When I first heard about men’s derby leagues popping up, I was upset. I felt, “Can’t we just have one thing!?” because women have traditionally been so excluded from sports; and women’s sports and women athletes are not given the same clout or attention as men’s sports and male athletes. I was afraid men’s roller derby would surpass women’s derby in popularity and co-opt all the hard work derby leagues have done to popularize the sport and bring it into the mainstream.”

She continues, “But, then I saw men playing roller derby… let’s just say my fears were waylayed. It’s an entirely different animal than all-female derby. And also, derby is fun. I don’t want to discourage anyone from having fun, working out, and participating in a community. Seriously, though, have you ever seen a six-foot tall man with hairy legs in hot pants? Yikes.”

Beside men, the derby leagues all have their rivals. For Danz, it’s the Mad Rollin’ Dolls.

“As far as our Allstar traveling team, our biggest rivals would be Madison,” Danz says. “Madison has an amazing league! We have a fantastic fun-loving border battle with them.”

MNRG has four home teams that play each other, and Danz is the captain of the Dagger Dolls. “I think this year we’ll be the force to be reckoned with. We have some amazing rookies and killer vets!”

MRD has six teams in their league, and Jacobsen skates for the Unholy Rollers. She’s her own biggest rival (“I am constantly trying to improve my game”), followed by MRD’s Reservoir Dolls. (“There is no team I enjoy beating more than the Res Dolls.”)

The Skating Sirens are still figuring out their opponents. “We don’t have any real rivals yet,” Arttus says. “Although we’ve played some pretty dirty skaters, most everyone is having fun.”

Fun is the emphasis for skaters and attendees at derby bouts.

“Everyone goes to see derby,” Danz says. “There are bands, games, giveaways, food and delicious PBR! I think there is a serious cool and fun factor that nothing else out there has. I could go on and on. Roller derby fever is contagious!”

Perhaps it’s the short skirts and stockings. The racy names. Or the motley crew that is the roller derby norm. But it truly does seem to kick ass.

“Derby is like the Island of Misfit Toys for grown-ups,” Jacobsen says. “We’re all a little nutty, injured, socially inept, what have you, but we came together because no one else would accept us or no one else was doing what appealed to us. We accept each other for better or for worse, and together we make something phenomenal.”

Aryn Henning Nichols thinks it would be amazing to start a Decorah derby league. I mean, WTFDA rhymes with UFFDA…can you think of a better sign? Now…to find the time…

Interview with Artist Ashley Dull

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Ashley Dull Lindeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. She bustles through the door of a downtown Decorah coffee shop with arms full of paintings, at least one still mildly wet. We hug – I’ve known Ashley since she was seven and her sister and I were best friends in the fourth grade – and we both speak at once.

“I haven’t seen you since that time we talked about changing the world,” I say.

She laughs, “I’m still trying to change the world…somehow.”

This earnest mission is at the root of what inspires Ashley in her art. She’s not jaded. And, no, there isn’t supposed to be a “yet” on the end of that sentence. Maybe she’s naïve. But who cares? She’s definitely not cocky, especially for a 26-year-old who is actually making a living at art in the Twin Cities, a place loaded with talented artists and creative folk. No, Ashley is willing to admit she’s got a lot to learn

“I’m still trying to figure out this world – I don’t know enough about anything, really,” she says humbly.

She does know a thing or two around a canvas. If it weren’t for the amazing texture created by the carefully molded piles of still-wet paint, her nature-inspired pieces could be photos. Really dimensional photos, almost like you could walk right in.

“I want people to say, ‘I wanna touch that. I wanna be there,’” she says. “I will be out walking in the woods, touching everything, enjoying the peace that nature brings – I want to put that in my paintings. I want to make people feel good.”

Ashley’s upbringing on a small farm in between Postville and Decorah was full of the big skies, beautiful trees, and picturesque landscapes of the Driftless Region. A walk in the woods could inspire as many as three-dozen future paintings. Perhaps this is where the passion she’s had for art “since forever” began.

Nurtured by teachers with good foresight – Postville High School’s Rose Schutte and Luther College’s Doug Eckheart being two major mentors – Ashley took the encouragement they gave her, “You really have something here,” and ran with it. She graduated from Luther College in 2005 with a double major in health and art. And like many recent graduates, she wasn’t sure what was next.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing? Where am I going?’” she says. “But I did feel that it was possible to really do it, to be an artist.”

It certainly wasn’t a straight shot to galleries and commissions from there though. She moved to the Twin Cities to work as a personal trainer, painting in her free time. In 2007 she finally applied for her first art fair in Edina. And got in. During that show Ashley met her now “art agent” Jack McCauley. McCauley helped her put together her first gallery show in Roseville and it was a huge success. This was the affirmation Ashley needed to paint more, train less. McCauley continues to represent her work today.

Her pieces have since been shown in seven galleries – along with four shows in the next two months alone – and she landed a lengthy internship with nationally known Twin Cities artist Pamela Sukhum. Now, just two short years since Ashley’s first show, she’s armed with a wealth of new skills and information for her life both as an artist and as a self-employed business owner.

“It is still a business, and I need to make money,” Ashley says. “If art takes me there, then okay.”

She has learned it’s a lot of paperwork. And marketing. And networking. And while it’s fun to envision a future of grandeur, she’s not expecting it – perhaps doesn’t even want it.

“You know, I think it crossed my mind what I was younger, ‘Maybe I want to be this famous artist,’ but now – I could care less about fame. I want to bring peace and beauty to people’s lives,” she says, earnest once again.

She also wants to bring hope to people’s lives, and attempts this through a “giving back promise.” Ashley donates a small percentage of sales at her shows to an organization she’d like to support. The exhibits in the Twin Cities have been tied with non-profit organizations mainly dedicated to helping at-risk youth. For her Decorah show, running from October 1 through 31at The Perfect Edge on Washington Street, Ashley has, we’re humbled to say, chosen Inspire(d) Media as the organization she’d like to support.

“I believe in what you’re doing and want to help if I can,” Ashley writes in an email after informing us of her choice. She’s also really excited to have her paintings in the town of her alma mater.

“I always hoped – and sort of knew – I’d do a Decorah show,” she says. “So many of my paintings are Decorah landscapes.”

In addition to the giving back promise, Ashley has a few other traditions tied to her work: She always picks a theme – the current show is entitled “From Darkness to Light,” inspired by the prayer of St. Francis ­– and she always hides a bible verse somewhere in each painting. Don’t get worked up – she isn’t really a beater of said bible – she just relates many of the verses to her experiences in nature: feelings of calm, peace, love, joy, beauty, change, and new life. It’s by translating these experiences to her paintings that she plans to change the world.

“If I can help someone feel a connection to the world around us and a sense of purpose in this life,” she writes, “then I know I have done right by my talent.”

Aryn Henning Nichols truly believes you can change the world with passion (the good kind) and positive actions. When she was 21, she said this to someone and they told her she’d just wasn’t jaded yet. It’s been a happy seven years in the so-called land of bunnies and unicorns. She’s not planning on leaving any time soon.

For more information and to check out some of Ashley’s art, visit artbyashleydull.com