Curating an immersive art exhibition helped heal singer-songwriter Jewel’s heart

Curating an immersive art exhibition helped heal singer-songwriter Jewel’s heart



CNN
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Walking throughThe Portal” the immersive art experience that I have created at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas — is like stepping into a mandala. It embodies my true life’s work: how to heal a broken heart.

Working with the team at Crystal Bridges to bring this experience to life reminded me of when I was 18 years old, and was “discovered” singing in a small coffee shop in San Diego, California. Back then, Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg saw something in me, and decided to believe in me. An entire record label ended up rallying behind me and fought alongside me to make my first album, “Pieces Of You,” work against all the odds. It was magic.

When I was 19, I wrote in my journal, “I don’t want my songs to be my greatest work of art, I want my life to be my greatest work of art.” That means I've had to dedicate myself to more than just songwriting; rather, to approaching how I heal, how I parent, how I partner — all of it — with as much dedication and creativity as I would devote to my career.

I’m now old enough to know that a person doesn’t always get a magical moment in their life, much less two — I know the art world has not been sitting around hoping that a folk singer will paint. Or sculpt. Or create an experience weaving together music, behavioral health and wellness, in a fine-art museum, no less. Yet director Rod Bigelow, curator Alejo Benedetti and the entire Crystal Bridges team also chose to believe in me, and work incredibly hard to bring this vision to life.

The gratitude I felt standing before the museum’s front doors on opening night nearly brought me to my knees. It did bring me to tears.

A journey of art, and affirmation

At 40 years old, I decided to take a step back from my career. I quit touring and recording; I was a single mom coming out of a difficult divorce, and I was still recovering financially from the ruin I found myself in after my mom and I parted ways.

I had no good strategy for picking myself up again and expecting a different outcome — I was waving the white flag. I surrendered to going within and learning how to heal in a new way. I created behavioral exercises; I painted and I wrote. But not for the world. For me.

Art has always been a medicine I made to heal. Since I was young, I dove into journaling, poetry, and music to help myself understand the painful blows life dealt. I turned to melodies to comfort me at night when I left home at 15. I wrote many of my biggest hits during this time — songs like, “Angel Standing By,” “Hands,” “Who Will Save Your Soul,” and “You Were Meant for Me.”

Visitors engage with the artist Melesio Casas' 1973 work

I also began to carve marble, mold clay and draw around the same time I began writing songs. It helped me synthesize my pain, and I found the different mediums all worked like their own unique tincture. Art is how I turned the poison into medicine, the snake bite into an antidote. It helped me understand the world around me — and who I was independent of it, from the inside out.

And so for “The Portal,” I wanted to focus on that moment when I hit pause on my life, and to bring audiences on my journey from that point to today, 10 years later.

It is a journey through what I call the “Three Planes,” a personal philosophy I’ve developed centered around the idea that we each travel through three realms of reality each and every day, often without knowing it: The “Inner Plane,” representing our thoughts and feelings; the “Seen Plane,” representing our physical lives — jobs, families, finances, nature, structure; and the “Unseen Plane,” representing whatever gives a sense of awe and wonder. For some, it’s a clearly-defined spiritual belief or relationship, for others it’s just a feeling, like getting goosebumps when you see images from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Walking through the experience, visitors are guided by a variety of different artworks I have selected to help them define what these realms mean to them (and to me).

First, they are greeted by “Listen,” a holographic video installation — brought to life by Protohologram, and pictured above — I designed to represent the “Unseen Plane.” It incorporates spoken words of a poem I wrote when I pushed that pause button and asked for help. In that moment, I felt like I was not alone. I was comforted, and I was guided to listen with my heart.

Visitors view Jewel's own work on display:

In the museum’s contemporary art wing, they’ll see an original oil painting, called “Double Helix,” representing the “Seen Plane.” This is the first time I have ever shown my art; to get to do so in such a prestigious museum setting is a major pinch-me moment. The painting is about my devotion to my son, and of letting go of my music career so I could be fully present for him. After my divorce, I knew my son needed me in a way that was essential — and I knew if I did not prioritize that need, I would look back and regret it. And I had faith that when it was time to re-start my creative career, I would be led to find a way forward.

Here, there is also a sculpture I made titled “CHILL,” made of lucite and filled with a variety of medications. It represents the ‘Inner Plane,’ and is about the intersection of wellness and medicine; about longevity of life versus quality of life, and my own inner journey of learning how to unwind.

Next, visitors are given a journal and invited to walk through the contemporary gallery, in which I was honored to curate 10 pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. It’s here — and inspired by these artworks — where I ask them to write down answers to prompts and questions that helped me heal over this past decade.

One such prompt, for example is to fill in the blanks to a sentence that changed my life: “I sacrifice my attachment to _____ and I dedicate it to _____.” I use this prompt every day; what I have chosen to work on is sacrificing my attachment to perfectionism and dedicating it to noticing what is going right.

The journal is for each visitor to keep. It has open space to draw and reflect more if they choose. One of my goals in this part of the experience was not just to help provide some structure and behavioral health tools, but to create space for community, connection and conversations.  It was so rewarding for me to see couples, families and even strangers engaged in meaningful discussions with one another — I saw parents with tears in their eyes because they got a glimpse into their child’s inner world; grown men hugging after a shared experience neither of them knew the other carried.

Finally, visitors are brought outside to watch a 200-piece drone show flown by Nova Sky Stories. In the night sky, these drones create sculptural shapes, choreographed to an original 10-minute piece of music. I feel this music is the most dynamic and interesting of my career. It goes from spoken word to cinematic soundscapes, and in and out of several new songs.

Drones in formation during the nightly performance.
Traditional art mediums like oil painting and sculpture are often viewed today with preconceived notions and judgments. But with new technology, people do not have these narratives, and can interact with the work from a place of openness.

Why drones? I used them because I know they have the power to create a sense of awe. There is a lot of science behind the power of awe. For me, creating this show and seeing 300 people all with their faces turned to the sky in wonder, their mouths agape, was a magical moment.

It is my hope that people leave feeling more connected to themselves and those around them. What it has done for me personally is to finally allow these three areas of my life to come together in one space: to bring my music forward in a new way, to let my visual art be seen by the world for the first time, and to share the tools I’ve created and used to heal. We do not heal through therapy alone. We do not heal through art alone. We do not heal through connection to self or community alone. It happens all together.

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