We had the good fortune of connecting with Sasha Marie Speer and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Sasha Marie, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Risk is all about perspective and being really clear on what you value most in life. I really value experiences, especially with other people and cultures. My father used to always say, “Sash, the only things you ever really have in this life are the memories you create for others.” I do my best to live by this and let this determine the risks I will take in other areas.
I think the first big risk I took was when I was about to head off to college at 17. A few months before I was scheduled to move into the dorms and start my University studies I was told, “Sash, we had to use your college fund to pay taxes so you’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it on your own.” My dad’s business had been declining due to seasonal changes, but I was not about to let that stop me from going to college and moving out.
There was NO WAY I was not going. I applied for every grant, work study, and loan I could find. I sold my car. I lived off of $50 a month for groceries for the first two years and saved as much of that as a could to learn to snowboard. One of my tricks was carrying a thermos and dry bulk oatmeal (I couldn’t afford the packets) with me everywhere I would go, knowing I could almost always find hot water for free. I would work jobs that also allowed you a free meal with your shift. If I went “out” with friends, I never ordered more than a $1 coffee, but I made sure I didn’t miss the experiences. I saw all of it all as one grand adventure. The risk was 100% worth it.
This led to a study abroad… then grad school, then living all over the world… then Los Angeles…. Then art:
I had excelled in fine art as a high school student, having been able to take college level art as part of the curriculum; but had to put that on hold through 8 years of college as a followed a more “practical” route in medicine to ensure I could keep a roof over my head. I wasn’t yet ready for the risk of being an artist.
That soul urge to create doesn’t go away though. In graduate school, I was the one painting the nervous system, creating dances to memorize anatomy, and wearing my sparkly “battle shoes” to each major exam. My classmates would say, “You think you may be in the wrong profession?’ Not that I didn’t excel – I did, but there wasn’t an outlet for all of my creativity.
After graduating with my doctorate, I immediately began taking art classes again and was finally led back to a camera. Around that same time, many people that were close to me passed away, including my father and grandmother. My mom ended up in the psych ward from the stress and my family lost everything from a frivolous lawsuit that began when my dad was in the ICU. My soul was ripped open.
It was from this place that I had to create again. I needed an outlet to channel my grief. But that’s not what I had learned as an artist. I had learned to win competitions and get notived. How was I going to create from my soul? I knew I couldn’t do it any other way though. This upped my risk taking to a whole new level.
My art went from being technically good and interesting (and winning competitions), to having a soul and a true purpose (and people not knowing “where” to place it).
I don’t feel like I am every “on the other side” of risk, as with each project I seem to up the risk taking again and again. Why? Because I see the benefit – to others when they experience what I am sharing, and with my own growth when I see the impact of pushing through my own emotional blocks.
My goal with everything I do now is for someone to see themselves in my work and for it to awaken a way forward in whatever they may be dealing with. To heal. We are all human and we all carry pain. I never knew how to articulate this pain until I had no choice but to. I had to face my own truth. To go through the fire. I feel that part of my purpose has been to be one of the first through so that I can shine a light for others. Whether they find inspiration, healing, or something else in my work, I hope that it makes an impact and they feel seen.
Sawübona, meaning “I See You” in Zulu, is the platform I have created for this. We bring people from different backgrounds – racial, socioeconomic, gender, and so forth – together through a common thread so they can be fully seen through art, film and live experiences. We’ve done quite a bit, ranging from a live art experience centered around healing from trauma through the medicine wheel, to a film about finding hope amidst not being able to bear children, to a cafe where instead of a menu of food, people are given ways to connect to each other. The cafe is one of my favorites. Often, people will sit for two or three hours connecting to the person across from them. It’s truly magic to witness.
None of this would be possible without a thousand risks along the way.
Every risk has been worth it so far. Has it included a lot of anxiety and “what the hell am I doing?” You bet. But is all of it worth it? I can’t imagine it any other way.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
There are always new ideas spinning around in my mind and soul. I am a marathon ocean swimmer and during those long swims is when I get some of my best ideas, which get put on a list that’s always evolving. The ideas that get to come to fruition depend on how hard they are tugging at my soul. If I can’t shake something after I’ve put it away for instance, or it keeps showing up in dreams – then I know I have to do it, no matter how crazy it may sound.
Currently, I have a short film, Unborn, that will be released this year. Shot entirely underwater with pregnant women in slow motion and set to an original score and poetry, it is a project that is dedicated to women who may not be able to bear children or who have lost one (or more). This is one of those I had to do that is inspired from my own journey and is part of how I dealt with the grief.
I’ve also got a poetry book out: Phenomenal Woman: I am Not OK, that follows the point where I could finally say I was not OK after losing most of my foundation, to a point where I decided to take my power back and build my soul stronger.
In addition, I have a couple projects in development: one is a documentary about The Connie Norman Transgender Empowerment Center and another is a live Sawübona experience that focuses on refreshing oneself through the senses that will be part of the 25th Anniversary Celebration for The Getty.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Haha one of my shows if the timing is right! Also the beach for sure! I am a marathon ocean swimmer so many of my mornings are spent in the big blue body of water. I love the South Bay, especially as it’s waking up in the morning – seeing people heading to surf, eat breakfast, walk, bike, spend time with family. It’s teeming with life.
I’d also have to take them to Venice to see the boardwalk and the canals. Then we would explore the culinary delights of Koreatown, the coffee shops of the East Side (Bloom and Plume!), and my new favorite restaurant in WeHo, Rosaliné, which serves up some of the best Peruvian food I have ever had.
Then there are the museums…. LACMA, the Getty, the Huntington (love the botanical gardens there too!), and so many more. I would take them through the Sunday Flea Market on Fairfax, and then to the high end stores on Melrose Place (behind Melrose Ave), where we would also grab a coffee from Alfred’s. I’d find out if there are any off the beaten path performances, especially by some of my new favorites, Emer Kinsella (@emersionmusic) who plays violin and often performs with other classical musicians and modern dancers such as Friidom (@thefriidom) and Gumby (@gvmby).
We would then spend a morning going up Mount Waterman in the San Gabriel Mountains, where you can see the forest on one side and the desert on the other. The trip wouldn’t be complete without a home cooked Italian feast from my other half and a homemade newly invented pie by yours truly for dessert. We’d then head back to LAX for the sendoff, but not before we pulled over near In & Out to watch the planes fly right over the top of us.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
It truly takes a village. My father first and foremost as well has his dear friends, Big Wayne and Duane – these guys put all of their needs aside and acted almost as defensive linemen to help the quarterback (me) get through my early years. They would drive endless hours to help bring me ingredients as I sold popcorn around the Pacific Northwest to help make my way through college and graduate school, fix my cars when they would break down (and they did often because I never had any money for anything new). haha my favorite is when my dad found me a truck for $800 that a guy used to haul goats in. It had no back window or antennae, and he and Duane fixed it up so I had something to drive in college. That enabled me to work and to have independence. It’s these things that made the difference – they taught me the value of loyalty, money, gratitude, teamwork, and making sure we had a good time even if everything went wrong. Unfortunately they have all passed but I carry them with me every day and honor them with what I do.
Also all of my Sawübona teammates, especially @amysmithart @david_kash and @tnoely. All of my film-mates and all of those who have been vulnerable in front of the camera. I am truly grateful for each and every person and their contribution. No project is done alone.
Jenny Baumert Diana Fiel