When Keli Mashburn and Elise Paschen first connected, the Covid-19 pandemic was in full swing.
Paschen, in Chicago, had written a poem called “Distant,” which was about that slice of time when the world was lurching into the unknown.
Mashburn, in Fairfax, was smitten by Paschen’s work – and quickly crafted a triptych, pairing the poem – with its mirrored opening and closing lines – with photos, also mirrored, of Fairfax Lake. The work was among those featured on the Osage Nation Museum’s first exhibit after the pandemic had shut it down: “Creativity 2020: Art from the Community.”
That still image was really something of a placeholder: Paschen had been asked by Osage Museum Director Marla Redcorn-Miller to send in a project for the show, then Paschen sought out Mashburn to collaborate.
From that show at the tribal museum, the pair decided to create a short film, just one second shy of seven minutes long. “Distant” became the centerpiece of a Native Film Festival at the University of California in Los Angeles in November 2022 and has been entered in several other film festivals as far afield as New Zealand.
In past years, Mashburn’s works have made it to the Venice Biennale, the contemporary arts exhibition in Italy.
“Keli has had her short films in Italy,” Paschen said. “It might go to Venice.”
Replied Mashburn: “It’s always invitation only with that kind of thing, but I wouldn’t rule that out. I still maintain a relationship with them.
“What we’ve done together I think is beautiful.”
Both women credit their upbringing for stoking their creative spirits. Paschen’s first major muses aren’t hard to pick out of a crowd: Her mother and aunt, ballerinas Maria Tallchief and Marjorie Tallchief, and an early childhood spent awash in culture and art in Chicago and other major art capitals.
“I was a backstage baby,” Paschen said. “My mom danced until I was 7. I was also her only child.
“I watched her dance and realized you could become whatever you dreamed you could become – witness my mother. But I always realized that it required a lot of work and discipline.
“Stravinsky and Prokofiev really ignited my imagination; it was steeped into my being.”
Paschen said that she was drawn to poetry virtually as soon as she learned to read, and her mother even helped with one early poem that she still has: “A horse is as graceful as a what?” she asked her mother.
Maria Tallchief pondered: “What about a gazelle?” And so it was.
Mashburn’s call to creativity was centered more on Osage traditions: She grew up in Grayhorse and remains in Fairfax, where she was always around people making things for the June dances and Grayhorse War Mothers. “Beading and fans and ribbonwork were always around,” Mashburn said. Her father, who introduced her to music and film, was close friends with the Osage painter Norman Akers, also from Fairfax, and another Osage artist, Carl Ponca, always encouraged her to pursue the arts.
But one of the most vivid sparks of inspiration for Mashburn came when she was 13 years old and spent a summer with her father traveling to and camping in the Yukon. He gave her his Pentax K1000, a bunch of film and taught her the basics. She has since moved on from film to digital (but remains fond of film), but that was a life-changing event that has her on an enduring quest for images that evoke emotions.
Both women emerged from their childhoods to embrace education. Mashburn attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, revisiting photography and with an interest in museum studies.
Paschen’s passion for poetry had never been quelled: She went to Harvard University and studied under the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, then went to Oxford University. She later became a founder of “Poetry in Motion,” which puts poetry in the mass transit systems of 27 American cities, from New York to Los Angeles, and reaches about 13 million people every day. She has also published not only her own poetry but has edited anthologies and has taught at the Art Institute of Chicago since 1989.
Paschen’s career was not, however, one that her mother had always supported, despite those days in her youth when her mother would help with a poem. Instead, her mother thought Paschen might be better off following in the footsteps of her first cousins, Alex and George Skibine, the twin sons of Marjorie Tallchief with whom Paschen grew up.
“In college, my mother tried to persuade me to become a lawyer, which was inimical to my very being,” Paschen said.
“My dad said. ‘You have to follow your passion.’”
So she did.