Not Your Mama's Game of Telephone

It happened in Thailand. The artist and musician Sally Taylor was traveling with her family and the voice in her head was getting clearer. She knew that she loved performing and music, but something about it felt one-dimensional to her. She wanted to work with other artists and to, as she put it, “explore, expand, and express more.”

She came home with an idea based on an old fable about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant. The man touching the elephant’s tail insists he holds a rope, the man running his fingers down the elephant’s leg is sure he’s found a tree, and a third man fondles the elephant’s ear and calls it a fan. Only when they are instructed by a passer-by to stop arguing and listen to one another do they come to a collective understanding about the elephant in the room.‚Äč

“It’s a metaphor for human experience,” said Taylor, who grew up spending time on Martha’s Vineyard, but first encountered the fable while studying anthropology at Brown University. “We have these five senses to explore the entirety of the universe and our understanding is based on only a fraction of what’s out there,” she said. “I wanted to take an elephant of my own understanding and bring him to a series of blind men.”

This idea became a project called Consenses. Taylor began by distributing twenty-two images, each one to a different musician. Taylor, who is the daughter of Carly Simon and James Taylor, didn’t have to look far to find musical talent. Each musician then created a piece of music inspired by the image and returned their work to Taylor, who then shipped them off to other artists: a painter, a poet, a sculptor, a perfumer. The chain continued, a complex version of the literary parlor game the exquisite corpse, or an artist’s whisper down the lane.

Her brother Ben Taylor, who is also a recording artist, received one of those first images, a photograph by Janet Woodcock.

“It’s great to have an assignment. I feel more free even though it’s less open,” he said. He began by writing lyrics, then went into the studio to produce a track.

The track, he said, “got carried away with itself.” He imagined going back in and removing some of the electronic production to give the vocals more room, but instead he did the opposite and removed the vocals altogether. His resulting instrumental went to New York City–based artist Sebastian Wahl, who responded in collage.

Consenses will be revealed on Martha’s Vineyard as part of the Festival of the Senses, which will be held at the West Tisbury Grange Hall from August 18 to 20. Eight chains of work will be on display, created by 130 different artists who live in twenty-three different countries. Artists with Vineyard connections are well represented, including: Alison Shaw, Michael Zide, Elizabeth Cecil, Peter Simon, ‚ÄčAllen Whiting, Ben Taylor, Ben Thomas, Carly Simon, Doug Kent, David Saw, Eliza Ryan, Fae Kontie-Gibbs, Hannah and Gogo Ferguson, Isaac Taylor, James Taylor, Jasmine McGlade Chazelle, Jimmy Buffett, Kara Taylor, Lily Morris, Liz Doon, Mac Young, Holly Bellebuono, Susan Barba, Susan Minot, Thomas Sayre, and Wes Craven. Most of the artists have not seen each other’s work. Even Ben Taylor, who with family privileges was privy to an inside view, said he can’t yet understand what
the final piece will be.

“I can’t tell you what it’s going to be like. That’s on Sally to present the underlying message. But any time she’s inspired to do anything it’s beautiful and professional. Everybody, in a similar way, is drawn in by Sally’s radiant goodness and her ability to be a social leader.”

On her end, as coordinator and curator, Sally Taylor is awed at the vulnerability of the artists. She wondered about them, asking, “how did they just trust me like this?” After they created their works, she asked each artist twelve questions about the experience. Many of the artists wrote about how afraid they were to get started. It was intimidating to try and do justice to another artist’s work.

“Artists are the most brave,” she said. “They’re perpetually going into the mystery.”

If all goes as planned, the mystery is to be continued. At the Festival of the Senses, art supplies will be available at “creation stations” and visitors will be invited to add their own art to the chains. As they experience Consenses, visitors will use all five senses to experience these pieces of truth, separately and as a curated whole.

“In my estimation,” Taylor explained, “each of us holds a piece of the truth.