Inside the NEA: Getting to Know David Masumoto & Maria Lopez de Leon
A few weeks ago, we had the chance to sit down with two of the newest members of the National Council on the Arts, David “Mas” Masumoto and Maria Lopez de Leon. As we chatted, it became clear that the arts formed a common thread between Masumoto and de Leon despite their very different backgrounds. Masumoto is an organic peach farmer and author whose books include Epitaph for a Peach, Four Seasons in Five Senses, and Wisdom of the Last Farmer, while de Leon is executive director and a board member of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), an organization with which she has been affiliated for 13 years. Below is our conversation, which sheds light on inspiration, community, and the influence of family.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of or engagement with the arts?
MARIA LOPEZ DE LEON: For me, it's listening to my mother's songs. She and her sister, my aunt, used to sing publicly back when they were young, and listening to my mother's songs [in Spanish] I think is the very first experience I have. My mother is 91 years old and she still sings.
DAVID “MAS” MASUMOTO: I actually grew up in a household that did not have much art. We were farmers, hard-working. In an interesting way though, because we worked out in nature and in the fields, there was this different type of art all around. I probably could have gone into ceramics and pottery because I played with dirt and mud a lot. And I loved it, that whole feeling. So it was really that kind of natural world, and exposing me to that artistic vision through that way. Masumotos can't sing. We went the dirt route.
NEA: What was your journey to your present occupations?
MASUMOTO: Going back to Japan, my family were always poor farmers. My grandparents came to America as farm workers. My dad---farm-worker, and he bought a farm. And I just sort of fell into that. I didn't think I would, and I ran away for college. But I ended up coming back to farm. So I fell into it. And with that you fall into community, too. There's this idea that every village has its storyteller. We don't quite have that sensibility in America, and yet---especially in rural areas---it's very true. So that's one of the reasons I started writing, to capture the stories within an area or region or community. And that's what really gravitated me to the arts at the same time, thinking about how every village needs its artist and needs its art. Today in the typical modern farming world, it's more business than anything else. But hopefully my contribution is that artistic story, literary side.
DE LEON: Both of my parents were community activists, community organizers, and we were engaged as a family and with other families in our community around that. As part of that work, the arts were always there. There was always dance, there was always music. As we grew up in [south Texas] in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we were always around artists who were painting murals, or helping us make signage, and creating little community newspapers for our rural community that presented an alternate view and an alternative voice. That really is still there in the work that I do as a leader of a service organization: to be this voice, to help bring visibility to an alternative expression, and to make others see that it is all part of what it is to be American, to have all of these diverse cultural expressions. Community activism is what brought me here.
MASUMOTO: We actually have an artistic connection. A lot of farm workers would go from south Texas to Fresno, and I'd hear their music. So a lot of that '60s Tex-Mex music, it came from that area, or vice-versa.
A lot of that Little Joe y La Familia and Sir Douglas Quintet and even Trini Lopez---all that came from that southern Texas area, so we grew up with that in our school. The kids would come and bring this music--it's cool-sounding music. We were the dumb farmers that didn't have music, right? It was the farm workers that brought music.
David "Mas" Masumoto. Photo by Staci Valentine
NEA: Who are some artists, either past or present, that inspire you?
DE LEON: There are so many. In performance, I love the work of such actors as Míriam Colón, from the Puerto Rican traveling theater. The writing of the late Raul Salinas, and visual artists---there are so many. There's Judy Baca, Manny Vega---there are so many people who inspire me. I see their work and it inspires me to take their message on to other communities, and to talk about their work, and to have the larger nation see this beautiful work. An artist that I just learned about recently---just like the rest of the nation---was Sixto Rodriguez, who was a great poet. A documentary was just released [about him]---Searching for Sugar Man. [Ed note: Searching for Sugar Man recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.] His songs inspired the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Nobody knew about him here in the U.S., and you listen to him now---he still sings beautifully, he writes beautiful music.
MASUMOTO: Certainly visual artists, there's Grant Wood, painter, rural themes, the whole history of a sense of place. I really enjoy that type of art. There are a lot of murals that I enjoy, a lot of the Chicano murals that came out of the ‘60s and the United Farm Workers movement. It always struck me because in one sense, we're on the other side of that, because we're the farmers. But it created this rich dichotomy. I think that's what art does. Literary [inspirations are] John Steinbeck, especially his Grapes of Wrath. That was about the land that I come from. There's another writer, Flannery O'Connor. She’s a Southern writer who wrote about the “grotesque,” the outliers. I always gravitated towards that kind of notion of looking at the things on the margins.
NEA: What are you listening to or watching or reading right now?
DE LEON: I’m reading a book on cultural democracy right now.
MASUMOTO: I've been doing a lot of reading and work in food. Actually, we just finished this Masumoto family farm peach cookbook; that will be published later this year. It got me thinking a lot about food, food writing, and the culinary arts, which tend to not always be thought of as art. But I think they certainly are art, and belong in the art world. There are some really wild artists---food writers and chefs---that are breaking out of the mold. One is David Chang out of New York, with his Lucky Peach magazine. It's a wild, eclectic magazine. I'm not advocating this, but you know the little stickers that are on fruit? He came up with his own stickers and put them in the magazine. He wanted people to do this guerilla stickering. Some of them were like, "Love the farmer behind this banana!" He wanted you to peel off the Chiquita banana label, and put [his own sticker] on it. He does these wild and crazy things, and I like shaking things up like that.
NEA: That was actually one of my other questions for you: who are some of the more interesting food writers working today?
MASUMOTO: There are certainly a lot. They're mainstream, but they're breaking out into new ideas. Mark Bittman at the New York Times---I enjoy his work---and Wes Parsons in the LA Times. And I like some of the chefs when they start writing. Rick Bayless is a good friend, and he's doing some writing. Dan Barber out of New York; I love listening to them. I just listened to a TED talk with Dan Barber and I think he's covering new territory [by] finding a place where farmers could be at the table with chefs, too.
NEA: This is a two-part question. What do you think the role of the artist is in the community today? Conversely, what do you think the responsibility of the community is to the artist?
DE LEON: I think the role of the artist has always been in the community; it is at the center of community and community life. I think maybe sometimes that has gotten lost, that art is apart from community, that the artist is somebody else and not a member of the community. I think the artist and the work that he creates is central to community life.
MASUMOTO: I think that artists have historically tended to have this role of either mirroring or reflecting the world around them. You could almost say they brought truth to the world of community. They've gotten punished for that in many, many ways, certainly economically in our system. I think today the artist brings this creativity and innovation, which ironically is well-respected in the new creative economies---digital technologies, new technologies. That's wonderful to see, because I think the arts now are cutting-edge in the sense that they find a way of connecting with the business world.
Communities are so dominated by economic and business interests. It crushes everything. Not just artists. If you look at religion and spirituality, they’re getting crushed left and right. The sense of family is getting overwhelmed by all this economics. What artists can do is provide a little balance to that. I'm doing some research into these new ways of measuring health, or well-being. They call it “happiness scales.” It’s saying, why are we only measuring the health of our nation by GNP and economic indicators? What else belongs in there? I do think there needs to be this new way of measuring quality of life. That's where the arts are going to be. So you could have a poor community---low-income, disadvantaged---it's not like they're living in constant depression. There are other things going on that are actually wonderful and rich. A lot of innovation is occurring in food; it's in these communities that there's fusion food that combines old world with new world, or they're just willing to explore different things. It's the whole food truck and taco wagon revolution that's changed the world of food. It was driven by economics, but it's combining that with the culinary arts that brings something vibrant. That's not going to be measured by economic well-being.
DE LEON: That's very true. I think as people look into developing communities, and they're looking to what the creative economy can bring, they're looking at just dollar signs. They're not looking at the intrinsic value that it brings to that community. We can't just look at art as something that is measured, like Mas said, by the dollar.
NEA: I'm sure you know that our motto here is "art works," which we say alludes to the physical works of art, it works on you emotionally, and it works as an economic engine. So what does "art works" mean to you?
MASUMOTO: I think art works on all those different levels, but there is something different about art that makes it unique. And that's where I separate it from issues of efficiency and productivity. Being a small farmer, I know very, very clearly how that system works. I am the classic small business person that has to struggle with all those economic forces. But at the same time, something else is at play. I'll give you an example. I could grow peaches that fit the larger mass market place and make good money. I don't want to grow those kinds of peaches. I think those peaches are simply commodities. Where art comes in, I think, is in the kind of peaches that I am after. They work like artworks in that they address the senses. They address the senses. They address flavor, memories, stories---all the spiritual things that the commodity doesn't even get close to. And so that's how I think art works. Art works like a great peach that you remember.
DE LEON: For me, I don't think so much of the economic impact. I think of the creation, I think of the works. No matter what it is, I think of the creative process, the work that is created.
NEA: Mas, what's the connection between your work as a farmer and a writer? Do they inform one another?
MASUMOTO: The work of farming and the work of writing feed each other and I never want to separate them. It’s a curse at times because I'll look at something and immediately start seeing it as an artist, which isn't exactly the best way to prune a tree. Or I will look at our old equipment---I have old tractors---and go, "This is so cool." And then I go, “Well, it actually needs to run." so therein lies a little tension in art. But it works. I guess the main answer is that I don't try to separate my work at all. It’s all integrated.
NEA: Maria, what are you most proud of in terms of your work with the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture?
DE LEON: There are several projects, but I think our Leadership Institute [is what I’m most proud of]. We'll be going into our 13th edition this July. We didn't want this generation to have to learn by trial and error, but we wanted to give them an opportunity to come and learn some basic things that you can learn in any arts management class. But the difference in it was the context in the way that we taught this. We teach this based on the histories of our communities. The way our communities work at the intersection of arts and culture is in everything that we do. I am really proud that we have over 200 alumni across the nation who work as arts managers, who are artists that work in ethnic-specific organizations, who work for state organizations. To be able to instill in them the value of continuing this work, the will to continue their work in the arts and their work in our communities, is so important. And we haven't stopped at just the training; now we have an advanced institute. Now we provide opportunities for the alumni. They help us organize our national conferences, our regional workshops, we have three positions on the board for alumni. So we continue to engage with them and really give them the training and the knowledge.
NEA: Under your leadership, NALAC also developed an international cultural exchange program. Why do you think those types of programs are important for artists?
DE LEON: The program that we have, the Transnational Cultural Remittance program, was created to show that culture and arts are so impacted by migrations. People come to this country and go back. They bring something really beautiful and valuable and they take something from here back to their countries and that is important…in many cases that people don't forget. There are instances where whole villages come from other countries and no one is left to continue those traditions or teach those traditions. It’s important to reinforce that, and for people to learn from each other and see each other's work and see how they can continue to expand their creative process from interacting and learning each other.