By Bob Bahr
Longtime SKBers will remember Joe Bohler tickling the ivories at mealtimes, playing saloon songs and rags. David Yarger not only played classical music pieces, he explained them on one memorable night. And Dubois is a regular stop on Andrew Denman’s singing tours. But this past year, participants were treated to songwriting, courtesy of Ohio artist, educator, naturalist, puppeteer and balladeer Chris Rowlands.
Rowlands was part of the SKB staff that arrived early for the 2017 Dubois workshop, held in September. Wanda Mumm, Nancy Foureman, and John Phelps were there to offer additional instruction to the students at the Dubois public school, which encompasses K-12. The trio nudged the students further into painting and sculpting instruction, building on Dubois teacher Danita Sayers’ excellent base. But in most every class at the school the week prior to the SKB workshop, Rowlands took some time with the kids to build a song, verse by verse. The chorus came early in the week, and verses were written and polished with considerable input from the students.
“Danita had asked a few years ago if songwriting could be a part of what SKB contributes to her school,” recalls Mumm. “We wanted them to learn the process. How do you write a song? Chris can bring that.”
Mumm observes that the high-schoolers were the most engaged by the songwriting process. Sayers teaches all grades, so she watches the kids grow up. And the students build up a long memory of events, jokes, and lessons learned in her classroom.
As a result, the song had several in-jokes based on art classroom lore. The students were eager to put in events such as a glitter debacle, a recurring ugly fish painting gag, and a mysterious ladder in the closet that goes to another realm. Rowlands pulled the most positive of the suggestions, fixing on her art advice about happy accidents, working through self-doubts, and the wedding of fundamentals to exploration.
Rowlands worked through the song using his Gretsch resophonic guitar. The class performed it after school one day, and again at Headwaters for SKBers. It was a tribute to Sayers’ reputation, legacy, and personality, with plenty of praise for the teacher. It was also a distinctive learning experience that was new for SKB but very much in keeping with the SKB spirit.
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Eight months later, Rowlands was helping David Rankin and Wanda Mumm with their Cincinnati workshops at the Great Parks of Hamilton County Sharon Woods Centre when his boss requested his presence at a formal dinner.
“She asked me, ‘What are you wearing?’ and I said that I was wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, like I always do,” Rowlands recalls. “‘Well, dress in business casual,’ she said. I don’t know if I have any dress pants that fit me, but I figured it would be fine just wearing shorts—we’re just having dinner.”
Rowlands reports a pleasant enough dinner at the Dayton Art Institute, and a nice cannoli. A cannoli so nice, in fact, that Rowlands asked his boss if she planned on eating hers. “And I was in the middle of that cannoli when my boss said, ‘Look at the screen,’ and there I was, up on the screen.”
Rowlands had been chosen by the Ohio Museums Association for the Professional of the Year Achievement Award.
“It was a big surprise,” Rowlands admits. “I had my SKB hat on, which was cool. I went up there and said thank you very much … but they wanted a speech. If I would have had time to put my thoughts together I would have said it came full circle. I learned my first birds here as a child. I had no clue it was going to happen. I called my boss later and said, ‘Please tell me that I thanked you when I was up there.'”
Why did Rowlands get the award? Rather than cite the platitudes associated with such an honor, or a quote from someone who was involved in the decision, the answer to that question is better gleaned from Rowlands’ own explanation for why he does what he does, performing three shows a day at a zoo for a week, teaching classes, making puppets, making puppets for kids, writing music, and painting birds and the rest of nature.
Why, Chris? Why do you do what you do?
“I love the spark when children see a new bird or a new flower,” Rowlands says. “I remember as a kid seeing Queen Ann’s lace for the first time and thinking, ‘This is so cool.’ We didn’t have flowerbeds or vegetable gardens growing up. It’s different for my kids. My wife is an avid gardener, and I think our boys have grown up with all this. But other kids don’t see these bugs, these flowers, or these birds.”
“With all the social media bombardment, and all the devices and TV programming going on 24 hours a day, trying to get kids to go outside and spend that quality time in nature is a big challenge,” says Rowlands. “I spent my whole life outside when I was a boy. I went down to the river in the morning and came back for dinner. My kids were one of the last generations that spent most of their time outside. We had a lot of land around us, and our kids were always out there. Now that they are older, our sons go running and hiking and kayaking.
“I remember once when the boys were about 10 and 8 years old, they had friends over after school,” he continues. “I came home and the two boys were in the family room playing video games. I said, ‘Where are my kids?’ And the friends said, ‘They are outside playing in the fort.’ And I threw them out! I said, ‘Get outside, get dirty and get in trouble for it.’ Later we would put all games and devices away before someone came over. Now, kids don’t play like that as much. How do you get them interested in nature? Teach them something that their parents don’t know. Get them excited about caterpillars. They have six true legs and that makes them a bug. I say, ‘Tell your parents, show them!’ Kids feel good about being able to do that.”
Rowlands is in a good place. He’s able to spend time outside and encourage an appreciation of the outdoors among his young charges, be they in the Dayton area or at one of his interactive concerts, artist’s residencies, and workshops across the nation. The SKB family immediately loved what he brought to the mix. And he loves his job at Aullwood Audubon Center & Farm, in Dayton. “My direct boss, Laurie Cothran, is the best boss I’ve ever had. Both she and my director let me do anything I want to do in terms of art and music. And Pam [Cable] has made so much possible for me. Between those three I can do all the stuff I want to do.” Ω