Volunteer Spotlight: Carlye Christianson

In this series, Manager of Visitor and Family Engagement Emily Bray profiles volunteers within the museum. Phillips volunteers are an integral part of the museum and help in many ways: greeting and guiding guests through the museum, helping with Sunday Concerts, assisting patrons in the library, helping out with Phillips after 5 and special events, and so much more. Our volunteers offer a wealth of expertise and experience to the museum, and we are delighted to highlight several of them.

 Carlye Christianson, Art Information Volunteer

Caryle Christianson

What year did you start volunteering at The Phillips Collection?

CC: 2011.

 What do you see as the most valuable aspect of your volunteering?

CC:I started volunteering at the Phillips because I wanted to learn more about the museum and just learn something about art. I savor my education at the Phillips in both areas. As a lawyer and American history major, I spent little time over the years taking in this part of culture that expands our humanness. I am always grateful for what the Phillips has given me.

But I’m also grateful for my interaction with visitors to the museum. From comments I hear, it seems clear the assistance of the art information volunteers expands the enjoyment and knowledge visitors receive during their outing to the Phillips. I love conveying information and I have loved hearing stories of our visitors’ experience with the art, traveling collections, and stories of those who have prints of The Luncheon of the Boating Party or any of our collection on the walls of their homes.

I especially have taken great comfort in our younger visitors, many of whom at some tender age know more about art and its appreciation than I could probably ever learn. These children are so well spoken and thoughtful that I take great comfort in knowing that perhaps the future of our country may indeed be secure.

What do you do when you are not volunteering at The Phillips Collection?

CC: I am a lawyer, licensed in California and in the District. My first career was as a civil trial lawyer practicing in California. After moving to the National Capital Area, I focused on issues of management, operations and strategic development, principally for nonprofits. Recently, I have been working with SAE International, a standards development organization that focuses on aerospace and automotive standards development. My charge has been to develop two committees, one looking to develop mission-based standards UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) pilot and operator certification, and the other focusing on aerospace cybersecurity.

My other work is teaching at the University of Baltimore. Some of this work has been teaching leadership, management, operations and presentation skills for students in the Certified Public Manager Program. Another part of the work has been in teaching data-based decision making to managers and analysts at  the Social Security Administration.

What is your favorite room or painting here?

CC: This question is near impossible to answer. As to paintings, today, I would say either William Merritt Chase’s Hide and Seek or Helen Frankenthaler’s Runningscape.

If you had one word to describe the Phillips, what would it be?

CC: Based on the above, it is clear I never have just one word!

Share a fun fact about you!

CC: I am very fortunate to be able to do quite a bit of traveling. A year or so ago, we were in France and visited Chantilly, a quintessential French town which is next to a castle, huge and dare I say luxurious horse stables and a racecourse. After some touring and watching a horse race, we needed to rush on. I wanted to visit the Maison Fournaise in Chatou, the area celebrated by Renoir in The Luncheon of Boating Party, but we were late and we had some trouble figuring out where Chatou was. Then, just as we were giving up, on the freeway on the way back into Paris, there was a sign on the road directing us to the Maison Fournaise. Of course, we stopped. The restaurant was not serving at that particular time of day, but we were able to go inside anyway, sit on the deck and envision Renoir’s celebration. I always recall that day of our visit to Chatou whenever I stop and visit the Renoir here at the Phillips.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

CC: I think I have said too much already.

Creating Spaces for Emerging Writers

Kundiman Executive Director Cathy Linh Che and Managing Director Ryan Lee Wong come to The Phillips Collection on July 28 for The Asian American Literature Festival. As they are both festival organizers and writers, Curatorial Research Intern at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Carlo Tuason asked them a few questions about shaping The Asian American Literature Festival and their motivations behind getting involved.

Aiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers

What about the concept of an Asian American Literature Festival made you want to get involved? What meaning does this type of event hold to the Asian American Community?

Cathy: Kundiman is an organization dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Asian American literature, and it seemed to me that the Asian American Literature Festival would be a groundbreaking forum for advancing this mission. I love that the event is free and open to anyone who would like to attend.

Kundiman’s programs tend to provide close up and intimate engagement, and we always are looking for ways to serve more people. In partnering with other organizations and funders, we are able to provide a larger, but still nurturing, connective space where readers and writers can co-create what Asian American Literature can be!

Ryan: A lot of my work has been around researching the origins of Asian American identity, as a strategic, coalitional movement in the 1960s and 70s. That was also the time period that gave rise to Asian American literature, with anthologies like Aiiieeeee! and cultural spaces like Basement Workshop and Kearny Street. Then there was the 90s, with Charlie Chan Is Dead and the birth of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

Now we’re living through a renaissance of Asian American letters, where the diversity of forms, styles, ages, histories, genre, and concerns is boundless. A festival like this, I think, acknowledges that diversity, and is less about ‘defining’ Asian American literature than offering a laboratory, a meeting space.

Roots: Asian American Movements in Los Angeles, an exhibition at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, curated by Ryan Lee Wong

Ryan, as a previous museum professional, what’s the significance of holding the Asian American Literature Festival in The Phillips Collection, a museum of modern art? What implications does this have?

The Phillips prides itself, rightly, on its impressionist and modernist holdings. It’s important to remember how radical and unappreciated those styles were in their day. So the best way to converse with the Phillips is to break form, convention, and our old definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘art.’ I think it will be a very productive, funny, problematic frisson between the Renoirs and Picassos and the Asian American writers having tea, conversing in mentorships, and reading poetry in front of them. Asians in America, who were rarely seen by cultural institutions as having voices, let alone in literature, are remaking our culture by our presence there.

Kundiman Retreat, 2017

Cathy, can you share a little more about your work, particularly your poem in the most recent issue of POETRY magazine? Are there any themes in your work that you find you return to again and again?

I’m a poet, and my many communities have raised me: my family and friends, my high school teachers, undergraduate professors, my MFA program instructors and cohort, Cave Canem, Kundiman, every residency I’ve attended, every student I’ve taught. I find that what compels me most in writing are the ways that, in writing into silence, trauma, joy, the taboo, anger, we can expand possibilities of expression.

My book Split was about my parents’ experiences of the Vietnam War and about my experiences as someone who’s been hurt by sexual violence. My next book will be about my parents’ experiences as extras in the film Apocalypse Now. Here are two people who risked their lives to flee a country and a war, and while they were refugees in a camp, waiting to find a new home, were placed into the margins of their own stories.

One of the poems in the most recent issue of POETRY is about a terrible incident that happened last year with my father, and its aftermath. I can’t help but connect him to the war that shaped him for 12 years. I think that in writing these things out, we create connections, and connections reify our collective humanity—creates the possibility of belonging through understanding and perhaps even healing.

As organizers of this event, how have you seen this event transform throughout the planning process? Can you explain a little bit more about what you kept in mind when shaping and conceptualizing the Asian American Literature Festival?

Cathy: We were interested in creating spaces for emerging writers that were non-hierarchical, intimate, and participatory, so from the beginning, we programmed in late night salons, where anyone who comes can read and speak. We are also very interested in mentorship, in considering what it means to bring up the next generation of Asian American writers. We are still in progress and we are thinking through things like: How are we serving those who have the greatest need? How do we forge intergenerational bonds? How do we build meaningful mentorship relationships?

Ryan: One of the flagship programs we’re developing for the Literature Festival, in conjunction with APAC and the Asian American Literary Review, is the Mentorship for two writers with Paisley Rekdal and Alexander Chee. It’s been a wonderful process to solicit writers, read the applications, and facilitate letter writing and a reading. The mentorship fellow for Paisley, in poetry, is Justin Monson, who is currently incarcerated. We were very glad to know the call reached places that literature and mentorships often don’t. We’ve learned a lot about working with incarcerated writers—the email system, the logistical questions. Grace Lee, the fiction fellow, is also geographically separate from Alex—technology has really furthered the reach of the mentorships.

Cathy Linh Che, photo by Jess X. Chen; Ryan Lee Wong, photo by Louis Chan

What do you want attendees and participants to take away from this experience? What have you personally taken away from your experience planning this event thus far?

Ryan: I hope that younger and emerging writers in particular come away from the festival with a sense of lineage. Even today, with all the discussions around the whiteness of literature and MFAs, the great majority of writers taught and studied are white, and form is often divorced from history, politics, and identity. Of course, any study of Asian American literary history shows how capturing experiences of diaspora, writing across languages and nation, and portraying a community all require formal innovation. We have some amazing innovators like Karen Tei Yamashita and Li-Young Lee coming to the conference. One of the most powerful things we can do is converse across generations—not that we must imitate or canonize those figures. This is a chance to repair and remix our literary DNA.

Cathy: I hope that attendees come away with a sense that they have joined a community that demonstrates radical care for one another. I want folks to feel a sense of inclusion, expansion, inspiration, and a changing idea of the possibilities of what Asian American literature could mean. When we gather as Asian American writers, the quality of the conversation changes. I hope that folks come away feeling that they have agency to shape, alter, challenge, and pay homage to this idea of Asian American Literature.

Tarfia Faizullah on Contemporary Asian American Literature

Brooklyn-born poet and author of Seam, Tarfia Faizullah speaks at the Phillips as part of the Asian American Literature Festival on July 28. As a featured writer, Curatorial Research Intern at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Carlo Tuason asked her a few questions about her work and the state of contemporary Asian American literature.

Tarfia Faizullah

What do you think having an Asian American literature festival means to the broader Asian American community? What does it mean in regards to the state of Asian American literature?

I think it’s always interesting to get folks of different generations, heritages, life experiences, talents, and perspectives into the same space at the same time, because it shows us what is possible, and how far we have already come. Some of the folks who will be there have provided, in decades past, the initial momentum and ambition that have helped newcomers blaze their own wondrous trails through the world of arts and letters. We have much to learn from each other, and we shouldn’t be content to merely maintain our own individual silos of experience—I’m excited about how different we all are from each other, as well as where we overlap and intersect. I hope to eavesdrop on as many conversations as I can! In all seriousness, this is an opportunity to add another point of view to our own, and to find enjoyment in each other’s company, which I don’t think should be underestimated as a potentially powerful tool of change. I just took another look at the lineup and schedule for the festival, and frankly, it means a time spent listening to, and being around, extraordinary and extraordinarily decent people who have a lot to share.

What do you want festival attendees to take away from “Tea with Tarfia”?

Registers of Illuminated Villages, Tarfia Faizullah. Releasing in March 2018.

I have so many fond memories of listening to my mother and her friends speaking intimately and openly to each other over tea. I was often surprised by how deep and vast the conversations could be. Sometimes, my mother and her friends would challenge each other’s perspectives, and it would lead not necessarily to agreement, but to understanding, which actually seems more difficult to achieve. My mother is still close with those friends, and I still return to and value the insights I got from just listening to the way others think. I appreciate that informality can lead to surprising and surprisingly deep forms of connection and intimacy. I’m hoping we’ll learn something fascinating about ourselves and each other in all sorts of delightful and unforeseen ways, and I’m hoping for laughter.

Also, these days, I’m often the one in the hot seat, so I’m excited for the chance to ask others what their current and primary concerns are. My hope is that folks who come will experience the pleasure of spontaneous, connective, and candid conversations, and that we’ll all leave with insights that may aid us in sorting through and better understanding the nuances of our own lives and the lives of others. Basically, I’ve always secretly maybe wanted to host my own talk show, and this is my chance! We’ll have tea! And I’ll have lots of questions.

Are there any themes that permeate throughout your work?

I would say there are certain obsessions that keep choosing me—memory, its fallibility/flexibility—time, basically, and how to express the strange music of all this pain and love and sorrow and joy.