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Community Spotlight: Aaron Kuffner on Parenthood and Art

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Community Spotlight: Aaron Kuffner on Parenthood and Art

Did you know that exposure to the arts - whether in school or at home - has been said to broaden children's perspectives, challenge preconceived notions and potentially increase tolerance and empathy? At a time when arts education is at an ongoing risk of losing funding, it is important to take advantage of the multidisciplinary art happening all around us everyday.

To help you do so, meet Aaron Taylor Kuffner, a Mindr dad to son Sebby (age 2) and conceptual artist based here in New York City. Aaron’s awe-inspiring Gamelatron installations are kinetic sculptures that marry Indonesian ritual and sonic tradition with robotics and modernist features. If you’re based here in the city, you can catch the final weekend of his exhibition at the 11th Annual Governor's Island Art Fair. He was also recently featured at Refinery 29’s 29Rooms. We spoke with Aaron about his journey to create the Gamelatron, how becoming a father has changed his artistic point of view, and how art can help us be present with our children.

Aaron, your kinetic sculptures are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Can you talk us through what led you down this path to pursue the Gamelatron project?

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I have always been a musician - I played saxophone from a young age and taught myself guitar in high school. As a student in the Visual and Performing Arts School at Syracuse University, I started to explore other forms of conceptual and performance art. I eventually dropped out of school and moved to Brooklyn in 1996. There, I became involved in a number of projects - I founded an arts collective, a multi-media performance troupe, and started DJing/producing electronic music, among other things. In 2002, I brought my performance troupe to Berlin and co-organized a multimedia art festival there. I ended up in Indonesia in an effort to escape the Berlin winter - and that one winter turned into several years. 

Some time later, I became an artist in residency with the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots headed by Eric Singer, one of the foremost experts in robotizing musical instruments. I started augmenting Eric's xylophone robots to play Indonesian gongs, and the concept of the Gamelatron was born. Eric and I worked together to build the first Gamelatron in 2008. I soon took over the Gamelatron Project and over the last decade it has become my main form of artistic expression. 

How has becoming a parent changed or impacted the way that you approach your work? Has becoming a parent changed your point of view/inspiration for your art?

Being a parent has impacted how I approach my work in a lot of practical ways. Prior to having children, I was a workaholic who would obsess over what I was making - sometimes to the detriment of my well-being. Becoming a parent has helped me set better boundaries with my work-life and I am better at balancing my time. I have become less obsessive about my work and have been able to relax about getting done what I can in the time that I have.

My point of view about my art has also changed since becoming a father. Without consciously deciding to, most of my adult life has been spent around people close to my age without kids. Over the last couple years, as I have become a father and have had a lot more contact with young people, I have learned a lot from watching the way they see the world. In doing so, I feel they influence me as to what is interesting. I don't think the inspiration behind why I make art has changed, but my perspective on its potential impact and how it is perceived has widened since becoming a parent.

Your Gamelatron installations are an inspirational blend of ancient musical traditions with modern technology. Has this balance of respecting cultural traditions while embracing technological advancements in society affected your parenting? 

I am not totally sure if it has in a literal sense. I believe technology is never static. When we talk about technology, it has a connotation that we are always talking about something new. In my work, I am constantly reminded that humans incorporate technology from a multitude of generations and geographic locations into our daily lives. Just looking around my kitchen I ask, who started using knives and then developed the steel I have here? Who/when did they begin to make glass mason jars? Digital timers in a variety of machines? A sono speaker? Modern life is not a collection of new things, but rather a multi-generational global collection of technologies that hopefully work harmoniously together (or on the backs of each other). In that context, it makes natural sense to me that I would blend ancient musical traditions with modern technology - because both exist in my world.  

The lesson that I might take into parenting from my work is not to be hierarchical. Pounding bronze in ways that makes it produce beautiful resonance might be an ancient technology compared to the computers we use - but it is not about one being better than the other, they are different and both brilliant in their own way. It is about respecting all the different processes and talents and traditions that go into making the world around us.

Across the country, we've seen cuts to arts education in public schools. In your opinion, what can parents do to ensure that their children are exposed to multidisciplinary arts fields and how important is this to a child's development?

Art for me is inseparable from anything else - and though I understand that schools need to create line items on budgets and draw distinctions between different curricula - I feel that art should be part of all subjects. It should be incorporated into how we practice at learning everything, from math to history and beyond. I see art as an approach to learning rather than a subject to be learned and mastered. Under this rationale, I think it is about reforming how we teach/learn and intentionalize art making to be part of that process. That way, if the budget for art as a subject is cut, art as a tool and a concept can still thrive.

I think art is very important to a child's development - it teaches the conceptual tools of creation - the beginning of combining elements to juxtapose each other, the shaping of form to create a thing. Even if you do not become an artist, it plants the seed that you can take materials, put them together, change them around and create a unique thing. These are building-block concepts for being a healthy and successful person.

Are there ways that your profession as an artist has made you a better parent? Do you have any great pieces of advice or life hacks to share?

I feel really fortunate that my profession is one that encourages me to stay open minded and push boundaries, allowing me to have a more inclusive and expansive concept of the world. My best advice (noting that I do not always follow it), is to just be present - as deeply and as diligently as you can to your child. Allow yourself to inhabit their perspective - value how they perceive the world - let yourself be where they are.

Tell us a little more about your exhibition at the Governor’s Island Art Fair this month. What are you hoping to achieve through these new pieces and how can our Mindr community check out your work? 

At the Governor’s Island Art Fair, I have set up a live sound lounge in an old abandoned row house featuring Gamelatron red birds, with rugs and bean bag chairs. This coming weekend is the exhibition’s last, so I encourage everybody to check it out. Always with my work, I hope to offer a respite from your life where you can have an experience of beauty and the sublime. An experience that will hopefully feed your spirit and let you connect with yourself and others around you in a harmonious way.

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Introducing Mindreader: Mindr's Work-Life Book Club

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Introducing Mindreader: Mindr's Work-Life Book Club

If there’s one thing a new parent almost certainly doesn’t have time for, it’s books.

I totally get that. I’m right there with you. (I’m plagued by the copies of the New Yorker that pile up week after week on my kitchen counter, unread.)

But I’ve been realizing lately that with all the challenges we face in this ongoing work-life dance we do, one thing we all need more of is expertise. Research. Statistics. Stories. The experiences, challenges and solutions discovered by those who came before us, or have delved deeper than us, and have figured out a little bit more than us how to get this work-life thing right. When it comes to entrenched issues like anti-mom bias in the workplace, and the often perilous return to work post-baby, we desperately need to get up as high as we can on the shoulders of giants.

So the Mindr team is making a commitment to read one book a quarter - just one - that has the power to inform us, enlighten us, and better equip us as we work to make things better for working parents and the organizations they’re a part of. And we’re calling on you to join us. Welcome to Mindreader, Mindr’s new work-life book club.

MINDREADER Q4 2018: THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID

We’re kicking things off with That’s What She Said by Joanne Lipman. Here’s the high level summary: “Going beyond the message of Lean In and The Confidence Code, Gannett’s Chief Content Officer contends that to achieve parity in the office, women don’t have to change—men do—and in this inclusive and realistic handbook, offers solutions to help professionals solve gender gap issues and achieve parity at work.”

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And here’s how the other members of the Mindr team feel about reading it:

“One of the most challenging things about working to improve the work-life health of women and parents in the US workforce is the potential of falling into an echo chamber. We sit around with like minded people, passionately discussing how to elevate women in the workforce. We agree with each other and build each other up, but we don’t always know how to reach and educate those outside of our echo chambers. I’m excited to read this book to learn how to spread the message about supporting working parents as far and wide as we can.” - Rebecca Abramson, Operations

“I am so excited to dive into this book. Throughout my career, I have worked for and with both men and women and have seen both genders succeed and fail. Now that I am a mom to both a daughter and a son, I am very interested in the differences/challenges that each may face as they grow up, go to school and venture into their professional pursuits, simply because of their gender. I hope that by the time my two kiddos venture into the working world there will be a more level playing field, but in the meantime I am focused on supporting them so they can reach their full potential. I think books like this are critical to broadening the dialogue on gender equality and opening our eyes to unconscious biases that affect how we parent our children.” - Sarah Gibbs, Editorial

“My first job out of college was as an assistant to a man, in a male-dominated office. I basically shepherded things to and from his office, typed up spreadsheets, and ordered lunch for corporate meetings. He was always uncomfortable when he spoke to me, shifting his stance, and averting his eyes. Around his male colleagues, he was completely different -- a "bro". I didn't understand this dynamic -- I had just come from a liberal arts college, and felt confident in my dealings with my male friends and professors. Joanne Lipman's book is shedding a neon-bright light on what was behind the strange behavior of my first boss, and the attitudes I have encountered with other male colleagues, managers, and even men who reported to me, in my career. I can't wait to devour this book.” - Alexis Barad-Cutler, Social Correspondent

As for me, I’m excited to get into any book again, after a long hiatus that I call #momlife. But I’m especially looking forward to this book, and to understanding on a deeper level how the gender divide in Corporate America came to be, and how we can get to work chipping away at it.

I hope you’ll take the #mindreader challenge and read this book with us. There’s no pressure - you’ve got all the way until the end of the year to get through it, and if you skip some and have to rely on the crib notes, we won’t tell. Hey, we’ll even write them for you. But we truly believe everyone of us needs more facts and more tried-and-tested methods for supporting working parents - and this feels like a pretty good place to start.

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Mamas Who Hustle to Keep Us Safe: Sarah Tilton, Britax

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Mamas Who Hustle to Keep Us Safe: Sarah Tilton, Britax

Did you know September is Baby Safety Month, culminating in Child Passenger Safety Week? There has never been a better time to get up to speed on how to keep your lil’ munchkin safe, sound and snuggly. One of the most important areas where we have the power to better protect our precious cargo is in the car. Car crashes are one of the greatest threats to our littles, but research by the CDC has shown that “using age- and size-appropriate child restraints (car seats, booster seats, and seat belts) is the best way to save lives and reduce injuries in a crash.” That’s why Mindr is so proud to partner with Britax, which has been leading the way in child safety technology for more than 70 years. Last month, we worked together to bring you the Go Guide, to usher you off on your most exciting travels in safety and style. And today, we’re back again to showcase one of the inspirational mamas at Britax who is hustling day in, day out, to keep our kiddos safe. Meet Sarah Tilton, a national leader in car safety for children.

Sarah, thank you so much for everything you do. Can you share with us what brought you into this line of work? What inspired you to spend your career hustling to keep families safe?

The funny thing is, my career as a safety advocate chose me when I joined Britax more than 16 years ago. When I accepted the job, I asked myself: “How hard can car seats be?” Not long after, I remember sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, asking myself what I had done. It was a very steep learning curve - turns out car seats are hard, after all. But over the course of the last decade and a half, I have found my true passion for child passenger safety. After just a few months at Britax, and after interacting with Child Passenger Safety Technicians at trade shows and conferences, I found myself inspired by their passion for child safety and decided to take the national certification class to become a technician myself. Within 2 years, I became a child passenger safety technician instructor and I now train others to become technicians and help other families transport their children safely.

Has car seat safety changed a lot during your time at Britax?

When my daughter was born 38 years ago, nobody at the hospital asked me if I had a car seat or offered to help me install it. Car seat laws barely existed. On the way home from the hospital, I held my daughter in my arms in the front passenger seat of my mother’s car. When I transitioned her into a car seat, it was a used car seat from a yard sale - and the harness had been cut out. Two and half years later when my son was born, I brought him home from the hospital forward-facing in yet another yard sale car seat.

Today, there are more than 41,000 nationally certified Child Passenger Safety Technicians that help families and caregivers transport their children correctly and safely. I want to do everything I can to make sure these types of resources continue to be available to parents and caregivers, so that no one finds themselves in the same position I was in as a new mother, unwittingly putting their children at risk. I loved my children with all my heart from day one and didn’t even realize I was putting them in harm’s way. That should never happen to any family.

Where does your strength come from, as a mother and as a professional?

I don’t mention this often, but I was a teen mom in high school when I had my daughter. At the time, I knew it would be challenging, but I decided that I couldn’t let my baby down. I had to do everything in my power to give her the best life I was able to. I went back to high school for my senior year with a 1.5 month old baby. I wasn’t going let my child see me as a failure. My personal strength has always come from overcoming the perception people have when they hear I was a teen mom. It has always been my goal to show my children that they can overcome anything if they put their minds to it. We all have the power to determine our own destination.

In your job, are you ever afraid? What do you do to overcome your fear?

I think like all of us, there are fears when roles or jobs change and as life changes. In my role today of educating families and protecting children, my biggest fear is for the families that I can’t reach, the parents and caregivers who don’t listen to my advice. We as adults - caregivers and parents - are making critical decisions for our children. Please listen, learn and make the most informed decisions possible regarding your children's safety.

Mothers are typically seen as soft and nurturing. What do you believe makes mothers strong? 

From my perspective, what has driven me to be what I consider a strong mother, is my desire for my children to view me as someone who can succeed and overcome the challenges presented to me. Road blocks don’t mean you can’t continue down the path you’re on, you just have to decide whether the destination is really what you want. If so, then you accept the route needed to get there. Being both soft and strong is definitely an internal struggle, but we must remember that we need both in our lives.

We all want to make sure our children are the safest they can be when riding in a car. What are your top safety tips for choosing the right car seat for your child?

When you are selecting a car seat, please make sure you look for one that 1) fits your child, 2) fits your vehicle, 3) includes features that you can use correctly EVERY time you use the car seat and 4) fits your budget.

To make sure that the seat fits your child, check that the height and weight ranges are appropriate for your child and that it can be used in the appropriate direction (rear-facing or forward-facing) for your child.

To ensure that the seat fits your vehicle properly, check that it is properly installed in the back seat of your vehicle and that you can achieve the proper recline angle for rear-facing installation.

Remember, if you cannot use features correctly every time you use the car seat, it won’t matter if you saved money or spent a lot on the purchase. It has to be used correctly every time to properly protect your child.

And finally, it is important to remember that all car seats sold have to meet the same Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 213. Think of choosing a car seat like choosing a car. You selected your car based on priorities - whether that is safety features, comfort, or maybe ease-of-use. The same goes for car seats: each has it’s own features, and you choose the one that works best for your lifestyle. 

Car crashes are a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 13. Many times, deaths and injuries can be prevented by proper use of car seats, boosters and seat belts. How can we be sure that we have installed our car seat/booster properly?

It’s really important to read and follow the user manuals from both the child car seat manufacturer and the vehicle manufacturer in order to achieve a proper installation. The safest place for your child in any vehicle is in the back seat. The center of the rear seat is preferable to outboard (window) positions - as long as you can achieve a tight installation - because it is the farthest from potential side impact. However, keep in mind that if you’re not able to install your car seat in the center position, a properly installed car seat in an outboard position will still provide excellent protection for your child during a crash.

You also want to avoid a loose car seat installation. After installation, grasp the seat near the belt bath to check for movement of more than one inch side-to-side or front-to-back at the belt path. If you have trouble installing your car seat securely in the rear center seat, try an outboard position.

The process of putting your child in the seat and taking them out, along with the motion of your vehicle, can shake your car seat loose over time. This makes it critical to check the fit often and reinstall your child seat periodically. Parents and caregivers can seek assistance or check that car seats are installed properly by meeting with a Certified Passenger Safety Technician. To have your seat checked, visit www.safekids.org to find your nearest inspection station. 

I am about to take a long cross-country road trip with my two children. What are some safety issues that I may not be thinking of?

Your children are always watching. Set a good example and always wear your seat belt. If traveling with a partner or friend, take turns sitting in the back seat with your child. Avoid distractions while driving and allow your passenger to handle the GPS or radio so you can concentrate on driving. If you plan on bringing toys and accessories to keep your child entertained, I always recommend use of soft toys and cloth books, as any unrestrained objects can become projectiles in the event of a crash.

If you’re traveling by plane, I recommend you take your car seats for a couple of reasons. The safest place for a child is in a car seat or booster seat, not on a lap. If you’re renting a car once you reach your destination, you will also feel more at ease knowing your child is properly fitted and safe in his or her own car seat. Companies like Britax make travel carts and travel bags to make car seat transportation easy. If you are unsure whether your car seat is FAA-approved, look for a label on the side of the seat that states, “This child restraint system conforms to all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” or, “This restraint is certified for use in motor vehicles and aircraft.” Always remember, you’re traveling with precious cargo!

Do you have any tips for raising strong, resilient children?

Your children learn from you starting the moment they are born. As they grow, watch and listen to you, they follow your every move. Remember we are their role models! Yes, we make mistakes and it is important our children see we acknowledged the mistakes. Experience life with them. I always felt it was better to have them experience things with me, than to shelter them and have the exposure on their own, without me there to answer their questions.

Do you know a mama who is hustling to keep us safe? Drop her some love in the comments.

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