Ready for a good scare? This Sunday, Oct. 15, ArtRat Gallery gets into the seasonal spirit with Americana Sundays: A (Spooky) Afternoon with Tiyi Schippers. This edition of ArtRat’s monthly concert series runs 3-5pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $20; tickets available from Eventbrite.)
Spooky Ms. Tiyi is an educator, storyteller, author and poet. She grew up in the middle of the 20th century, the third child in a family of 10 kids. Hers was the fourth generation to live in a Victorian home on the northwest side of Chicago. They did not dwell there alone, however. The house claimed an array of ghosts and spirits consisting of both her ancestors, as well as those who lived there before her ancestors acquired the home at the end of the 19th century.
Growing up surrounded by spirits enabled Tiyi to awaken and enhance her unusual gifts of seeing and communicating with those who dwell beyond corporeal reality. Growing up among a family of storytellers gave her the gift of telling those stories.
Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked Tiyi about the connections between music and storytelling — not to mention the living and the dead.
You grew up in a big family of musicians and storytellers. When did you start telling stories yourself?
Every Friday night, my family would gather to tell and listen to stories. Both my parents were gifted storytellers who enraptured the 10 of us regularly. We would play games taking turns telling stories for hours.
My mother's Creole father had been part of The Great Migration in the early 20th century, leaving Jim Crow New Orleans for better opportunities in Chicago. I recall how he completely captured a room of adults with dynamic and rich tales. But it wasn’t only my mother’s family who told stories; my father came from a long line of Irish folk with a storied gift of the Blarney. My great uncles had a corner pub on Chicago’s Northwest Side where they would entertain patrons for hours. Every family gathering consisted of hilarious and sometimes poignant tales.
I began telling stories professionally at festivals and other events in the early '80s. My stories have consisted of those I heard my ancestors tell. During lockdown I began a weekly Sunday night live ghost stories on Facebook which I also share on my YouTube channel, Spooky Ms. Tiyi.
Though I did grow up in a big family of storytellers, it was my husband and I who created a family of musicians that includes award-winning singer/songwriter Rachael Davis; and her brother. Zak Bunce, who is also a touring musician playing solo in his own band as well as with Joshua Davis. Our two youngest, Arra and Ezra, are musicians but do not perform for the public.
You're also a songwriter. What makes a good lyric, and what makes a good story?
I have always said that in a good song the lyrics connect us one to the other in story, and the music connects us one to the other in spirit. Good songs make us feel something deeply, sometimes describing the human experiences to which we all can relate. They capture our hearts. Good lyrics avoid cliché and common tropes, framing ideas with rich creative language in a pleasing cadence.
Good stories do the same. They captivate our imaginations and help us dig more deeply into the world we share. They can bring us to heartbreaking tears; raucous laughter; and, as in some of my spooky stories, chilling terror.
The supernatural was another presence in your childhood home. Can you talk about how interacting with spirits shaped your view of the world and your creative work?
Some of my earliest memories are of the spirits with whom my family shared our home. Having no prior thoughts regarding what was natural and what was supernatural, it all became simply part of the natural world.
Just as I learned to recognize inanimate and living things in my environment, I learned to recognize non-living or formerly living things. Since those early years, I realized just how prevalent the unseen is in this world.
Spirit is energy, and energy is everywhere. Sometimes we collide. Those times make for wonderful stories. My goal in telling spooky stories is not intended to simply scare folks — though they do at times — but to help us all have a better understanding of the richness hidden in the world all around us all the time.
What do you consider the significance of Halloween, Samhain, Día de los Muertos and other seasonal celebrations that focus on the spirit world? How do spooky stories relate to those celebrations?
This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, the days grow shorter, and nights become chilly and long. Traditionally folk gathered in the harvest, then gathered around the fire or at the hearth. It has been said that these transitional times make the veil grow thin, allowing us to see and feel more that lies in shadow than during the lighter times.
Human beings have shared stories of their experiences beyond the veil or in the otherworld to pass time in the long evenings. It is through these stories, told safely tucked in near the flame, that our ancestors explored their fears and wonder regarding what lies beyond. As the summer dies and trees turn into skeletons, it reminds folks that we too are destined to leave this corporeal plane one day. Out of this realization grew the rituals of Samhain, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and other rituals and practices found all over the Northern Hemisphere at this time in nature’s cycle.
What can visitors expect this Americana Sunday?
Visitors can expect true stories of my own personal experiences dealing with things unseen by most. Though some of my stories can be quite chilling, there is also room for laughter and heartwarming tales of connection to loved ones beyond the veil. Whether you are a believer or a skeptic you will be entertained by spooky stories well told.