This month’s “Open Mic: Featuring” artist is Camille Gavin who reads from her prose writings on October 13th, 2011. In a recent phone interview, Camille talked about Bakersfield, details of her new book, and the fine arts.
Camille Gavin worked for The Bakersfield Californian as a reporter, lifestyle section editor and columnist. For the past eight years she has written “Arts Alive,” a weekly column on the arts for the newspaper.
A third generation Californian, she wrote “Kern’s Movers & Shakers,” two books for children, and “Dear Cora: A Personal History of Bakersfield’s Early Days,” based on letters her grandfather wrote to her grandmother between 1888 and 1904. She has also published poems locally. Her most recent book, “A Bakersfield Childhood”, was published this year by Publish America. Camille was one of the seven founders of the Arts Council of Kern and is a member of the Advisory Council of the university’s School of Arts and Humanities. She currently facilitates a creative writing group for the 60 Plus Club.
“A Bakersfield Childhood” is a collection of stories from Camille’s childhood in the 30s until now. Though it portrays life’s changes, it preserves the simple and stabilizing power of Bakersfield. There are stories about meeting Orson Welles, early days at the Fox Theater, wartime travel, and surviving summers prior to air conditioning. There are also memories of the things grownups do and kitchen gadgets of yesteryear. The stories are brief and razor sharp, allowing the reader to feel he is there.
What did you learn about your childhood while writing it, or what surprised you?
I was surprised at the influence that church had on me as a child…how much of my early life seemed to revolve around St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, not so much in a spiritual way, but in a fun way. It seemed to be a central part of my life. I never thought of it as being that as an adult.
The book mentions Johnny Weismuller (original Tarzan actor).
He was very popular in the 1930s and 1940s in Newport. In those days [Newport had] very tall sand dunes, so it wasn’t a very good swimming beach. And Balboa of course was a bay, so it had a very small beach, but it was easier to swim in the bay.
Have you ever attempted a Tarzan impression?
(Laughs) I’ve tried to imitate how he did that, but I can’t do that. It sounds a little bit like a seal. He would do it when he was out a ways in the water, and I mention that in the book. And he was so muscular; when he swam … his whole upper torso was out of the water.
Camille’s book recounts the sudden death of a friend Dickie during her childhood. Has your view of death changed from your childhood acceptance of it?
Well, I think that it’s maybe something that you become more comfortable with as you’re older possibly because so many of your contemporaries are dying. I think that I have certainly accepted the idea of death and I don’t fear it.
Let’s have some fun. How would you spend 4.5 million dollars?
I would give a million and split it between the Walter Steirn Library at CSUB and the Kern County library. I would give another million to the Bakersfield Museum of Art. I would give a million to the Arts Council of Kern. I would give a half a million to the Arts and Humanities department at CSUB, another million to the fine arts department at Bakersfield College, and a half million divided between the five community theaters in Bakersfield.
So there is a lot of talent in Bakersfield, but not necessarily all the resources they need.
The arts have never paid their own way. That’s one of my pet peeves is that people seem to think that artist because they love what they do, they should donate their time and their talent. But I am opposed to that. I think that artists of every kind ought to be paid for what they do, or at least [be] supported in some way. There are plenty of ways to support amateur theater without actually paying the actors, just in overhead, infrastructure, and things like that.
What do you think can best be done to bring art into the schools or to use art in ways to bring back the fun of learning?
Well, I think that there are a lot of teachers now who are incorporating various kinds of subject matter and interpreting that as art. For instance, Hank Washington at South High School asked his art students to research their own family histories and then interpret that in a visual art form. But I think it’s better if schools have specific classes for art starting at elementary school. I think that the current trend to incorporate it with other subject matter is a sort of stop gap idea. I think a greater concentration on the specific art itself would be much better. And it takes a willingness on the part of taxpayers to have their taxes raised, and that is a big bugaboo for people.
[In] European countries, the government subsidizes many of the arts. The United States has never done that of course. Some … do not want government funding because they say that then the government tells them what they must do, so it’s kind of a Cathc-22. The artist should be able to do what he or she wants to do, not what someone tells them what to do.
Camille explained living with other senior citizens. What is it like to live close to so many older adults and listen to their stories?
As you know, I’m a native Californian, and all of my family lived in California and has always lived in California and it is so rewarding for me to hear other people talk about their childhood, in particular, in other parts of the country.
What about the rise of cliché and the decline of Story in literature, cinema, visual arts, and music?
Well I think there is still some very good literature being written. Any form of art is the individual’s way of expressing himself or herself. And that changes over time. As far as cinema is concerned, one of the things that disappoints me is the language. If you have to resort to a lot of swear words and cliché, I think as a writer, you don’t have very big vocab. I think that dialogue is so important to a play or to a movie. And I wish that contemporary writers would find other ways to express anger and fear rather than to resort to the f-word.
Would you like to say something about Russo’s support of National Poetry Month (April)?
The whole family is just so supportive of local authors and I can tell you we do appreciate it. I think their focus on community is genuine and certainly … needed. Russo’s has a reputation for doing things that involve all ages of the community, especially young people…When people are involved, they become excited about the arts, whether they are in fact an artist [or not]. There are people who are simply appreciators of reading and writing and being able to express themselves in a comfortable setting, which Russo’s certainly is.
Anything else about the book?
The book is dedicated to Christy, Jeanie, and Danny. They are my children, and they are adults of course, but that’s really who I wrote it for. I wanted them to know what my childhood was like.
Finish these sentences:
…a community that cares about itself.
…calming and reflective.
…is a joy in its variety and magnitude.
“Camille Gavin is…”
…A free spirit.
Mark your calendar for Thursday, October 13 at 7:00pm. Sign-ups begin at 6:45 in the bookstore. We will have Camille’s books for signing. For questions, contact Kevin Shah at email@example.com, visit my event page on Facebook, or call 661-809-3784. "Open Mic Featuring:" occurs each Second Thursday at Russo’s in The Marketplace. We showcase a published feature for the first 15 minutes and then invite anyone to read family-friendly prose and poetry.