In this episode, we talk with Liz and Matt Myer Boulton, ordained ministers who changed careers midstream and are now Emmy Award-winning filmmakers.
To check out Liz and Matt’s work, go to: www.saltproject.org
Tricia [00:00:03] Hey there. I’m Tricia Rose Burt, and I want to ask you a question. What creative work are you called to do but are too afraid to try? Are you in IT but dream of doing stand up? A PR exec who longs to write a screenplay? Did the pandemic change your priorities and you want to leave your fully funded PhD, M.D. program and go to New Mexico and paint? Or maybe you’re like I was in my early career, trapped in a lucrative but soul crushing corporate job when what I really wanted to do was tell stories on stage.
Tricia [00:00:36] In this podcast, we’ll hear from artists who took an unexpected leap and found the courage to answer their creative call so we can inspire you to answer yours, because this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:00:58] Welcome to the show! In this episode, we’re going to explore the second principle of the No Time to Be Timid Manifesto: There is More than One Right Way in Life. Growing up, I didn’t know there was more than one way. I was raised to follow a prescribed path, go to college, get a sensible job, usually in business, or if you were feeling frisky, you could be a lawyer, get married, buy a home, have children. Then your children would repeat everything you did. And I never questioned it. I just thought that’s how it was. But eventually I found my way to art school. And from that moment I stepped in the door, my thinking was challenged. Here’s a story to show you how.
Tricia [00:01:45] One time, Charles Goss, the sculptor among the class instructors, handed out six inch square blocks of plaster and said, “Carve a perfect sphere.” I sat near the door on the edge of the group and started carving away, confident in the knowledge I knew what a sphere looked like, but way less confident about how to use a chisel. And for about an hour, the room stayed quiet as 40 art students tried to shape our perfect spheres. Just the sound of chisels chipping away. By the end of class, no one had come close to carving a perfect sphere. Mine looked like a badly misshapen egg with dents all over it. And then Charles said, you know, we’re all ruled by our conditioning. So we believe ridiculous notions like the idea that we can carve a perfect sphere without questioning them. Basically, Charles said, “There’s the story in our heads, and then there’s the truth.”.
Tricia [00:02:50] And the story in my head was that there was one right way for me to live my life. Finally, I started to ask myself some questions, like, What did I really want to do not feel like I was supposed to do? Maybe I could shake things up a bit, veer off track. It took me a while to explore different options and to become the artist I felt called to be. But eventually I did. And I have never looked back. Fortunately, our guest today could easily envision more than one way to lead their lives. Liz and Matt Myer Boulton are ordained ministers who changed careers midstream and are now the creative minds behind the SALT Project, a film and animation production company with a rich portfolio of work that’s garnered them four regional Emmys and counting. I caught up with them in their home studio.
Tricia [00:03:46] I had a terrific time looking into your lives before you became the Salt project. So tell me a little bit about what you did before you were artist. You were pastor for over ten years. Matt, how about you.
Matt [00:04:03] In the pastoral world?
Matt [00:04:05] Yes about the same amount of time during that. During those years I was a professor and so I was teaching students who were learning how to be pastors. And then I was sort of assisting as Liz was leading a new church that we had started with within the disciples and working with the United Church of Christ here in New England in the Boston area.
Liz [00:04:24] I would say there’s not a distinct differentiation between when we started to become, quote unquote, artists in the sense there’s a lot of artistry in ministry and there’s a lot of use of storytelling and the sort of artistry of companionship and the artistry of creating aesthetic environments for milestones, you know, baptisms, funerals, weddings.
Tricia [00:04:52] The sermon I heard of yours was in August of 2010 and the Old South Church in Boston. The sermon title was Things Unseen. And it was a sermon about faith. And you say faith is dreaming out loud and going off script. And I thought, well, that’s exactly what you and Matt did. You did not go forward in a conventional path: “We’re going to continue to be pastors for the rest of forever, because this is what we do.” I know your daddy was a minister as well.
Matt [00:05:30] He was a professor and a pastor. So the apple falls close to the tree.
Tricia [00:05:34] In life, right? Right. But both of you, even with that, you know, family tradition have gone decidedly off script. What was that moment when you said, let’s step fully into this other ministry, if you will, and and really step into the arts.
Liz [00:05:54] Preaching to me was a very sort of visual medium. I am dyslexic and I find my brain works differently in the sense that it’s very visual or impressionistic. And so my preaching style was very visual or impressionistic. I was always attracted to film because it’s a visual medium. I’ve tried other kinds of artistic endeavors: painting or calligraphy or card making or different ways to express things that are in my head. But none of them came out right. Preaching came out right. I was able to articulate what was in my head, but other mediums never looked right, like my my brain couldn’t tell my hand what to do if I was painting. But we tried a film. A neighbor of ours was a film producer in the corporate filmmaking world, and we threw our hats in and tried some filmmaking. And it came out not only what was in my head, but but more amazing than what was in my head. Because what happens with filmmaking is that you surround yourself with artists so you have a vision. But then your DP or your director of photography has her layer, and then your editor has his layer, and then, you know, the soundscape and the and the score underneath and.
Matt [00:07:24] The illustrator, the animator.
Liz [00:07:25] Yeah. So, so it is sort of an abundance of riches when you have the right team together. So I think that was the first time when a film came out the same way I saw it in my interior world.
Tricia [00:07:42] I remember we had a conversation, I might be making this up, but I thought we had a conversation where you were receiving videos from other churches. And you thought, well, wait, we could do it better than this.
Matt [00:07:57] As pastors, we’re always looking for resources. And I think as pastors who happen to be artistically inclined, we were looking for resources that were artistically beautiful, compelling, visually engaging. And so the materials we could find were just not very exciting musical materials. We had young kids at the time and there was either, you know, music that drove us crazy or music that the that theology was kind of closed minded and not open minded, things like that. So we made a band that’s kind of our personality is to try to make stuff that we can’t find.
Matt [00:09:00] And that was also true of short films. So a lot of churches were using short, very short films like 10 minutes, almost like a sermon on screen in a way. And then watching that as a small group in someone’s home and then having a conversation. So we saw, you know, we could do that. You know, this is this kind of budding filmmaker. We have, you know, ideas and sermons that we could put into visual form. So let’s try to create some short films along those lines. That was a long time ago. We’ve evolved a lot since then, but that was kind of a beginning of a side project. The SALT project was a side hustle for a while, but as is as true with many side hustles, after you do it for a number of years, if it starts to take off, then it can get its own legs. And then at some point you decide, let’s do this full time so that you know- that happens later, of course, in the story. But in the early days, we were thinking, let’s make resources that we can’t find.
Tricia [00:09:55] And then four Emmys later, perhaps this is now going to stick, you know, so. Right. Right. One of the things that’s interesting is, you know, all these years that you have both of you of preaching and pastoring, it really has helped you to create engaging content for an audience. Because if you’ve got to have a congregation, you’re paying attention. You have a sensibility about what the audience is looking for and how to engage them and how to tell stories and bring them along in that story and bring them along in the journey. So I want to talk a little bit about some of the topics that you’ve covered in your filmmaking. You do work in conservation. This I know because you did a wonderful film with my husband on Bird Migration Night Songs, which won. What was that, your fourth Emmy? So and that’s really, you know, a love letter to bird migration, if you will. And then you also you also had another film coming out called Rearranging Skin, which is about taxidermy. And the subject of that film is a queer woman of color, which gets me into all the work you’ve done around women in your films as well. You have that wonderful black and white with Anne Sexton’s poem, Her Kind. You have a new film coming out on Jenny B. Powers, which is also incredibly powerful.
Liz [00:11:17] Yeah. Jenny B. Powers is sort of a local historical legend. She’s one of the first deputy sheriffs in the country and a Humane Society agent back when horses especially were as important in death as in life. So they were sort of used right up until the end. And she was an advocate for animals who were suffering and found out households where animals were suffering, women and children were also suffering. And she dedicated her life to to the fight, a fight against suffering.
Tricia [00:11:50] And I just love that you’re sort of uncovering these women who are doing really powerful things but may not have had the attention that they deserve.
Liz [00:11:58] Yes. The New York Times is doing this obituary project where they’re realizing their obituaries were a lot of white privileged men. And so they’re really finding the sort of lives of women and people of color and writing obituaries for them.
Tricia [00:12:14] So getting that project, that’s.
Liz [00:12:15] Sort of our tribute to Jenny B. Powers.
Tricia [00:12:19] It’s a really wonderful.
Matt [00:12:20] You know, I think it’s interesting that the sermon that you found of Liz’s in the you know, on the World Wide Web is called Things Unseen, you know, which is, of course, a quote from from the New Testament. But I feel like that defines a lot of the work that she does and that we do with in SALT, that is to find things that are unseen or not seen enough and to try to bring them out into the light. So that little documentary on bird migration. It is a love letter to bird migration, but it’s a love letter to bird migration that happens at night. Yes. All these young birds that are going over our houses, over our rooftops while we sleep. These are things unseen that we’re trying to make more seen and that Eric Masterson is trying to make more seen in his wonderful work. Same thing with Jenny B. Powers. Some people know about Jenny B. Powers, but a lot of people don’t. So we want to make her seen.
Tricia [00:13:14] You have a lot of work around racial justice. It was almost wrenching to watch your film Get Home Safely. Tell the audience what that film is about. Get Home Safely.
Liz [00:13:25] It was a pamphlet that was picked up and used by a church in Chicago, Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. And it’s ten rules of survival if stopped by the police, which is a conversation a lot of families of color have with children at very young ages. And we have a lot of police violence against our communities of color. And we thought it was important with our local PBS station in Indianapolis to to show forth this kind of private thing in a way of letting non communities of color know about this conversation. And so we made a film in partnership with this Southside congregation and with our public media station.
Tricia [00:14:18] Tell me a little bit also about the first Emmy that you won around the Martin Luther King I Have a Dream speech. What prompted you to make that?
Matt [00:14:28] So that was also when we were in Indianapolis and I was working at the seminary there, Christian Theological Seminary. And there were a couple of the members of the faculty there who we knew well, of course, and who had connections to the African-American tradition and also to the global movement for justice, including in South Africa. So there was a visiting scholar from South Africa. And so we we a lot of our films or projects are based on the calendar, you know, whether it’s the season of Lent or Martin Luther King Day. And so we we knew we wanted to make a film that celebrated Martin Luther King. And we said, how can we do that? A lot of people know that famous speech, which is sometimes called the I Have a Dream speech, even though the I Have a Dream section is improvised essentially by Martin Luther King at the end of the speech that he had prepared. So it was very much in the tradition of that style of rhetoric where it’s the call and response and someone says, tell him about the dream, you know, and then he goes into that section, even though he hadn’t, quote unquote, planned to do so. And so we thought, why don’t we deliver that speech but have multiple voices delivering it? So not just the voice of Martin Luther King, but of course, you hear his voice through all of it. But let’s have different ages, different races, different, you know, nationalities. This guy from South Africa, you know, the whole kind of global sense of his vision. And let’s embody that vision by having multiple people deliver the kind of braided together version of this speech, almost like a mosaic of the speech.
[00:16:06] [Excerpts from I Have A Dream]
Matt [00:16:22] So that we made to celebrate the holiday. And again, it was in partnership with an academic institution and the local PBS station. That’s a big part of our our path is is collaborating with other production companies, other institutions, other aspects of the world, not doing it ourselves, but always doing it in partnership. It’s almost always better. It can be harder, too, because it’s, you know, you’ve got to communicate and coordinate, but it’s almost always better. You know, you might make great art, but you got to find ways to get it out there. You’re not going to be able to do that unless you partner with people.
Liz [00:16:57] Yeah, I think one thing I wasn’t anticipating, we call this sort of now we’re in our creative chapter, is how much hard work it is and how much hustle it is and how much honing the craft it is. And, you know, it’s just like really and how much discipline you need to just get after it every day, every day, every day. The intensity and discipline of a creative life that you’re trying to make a living with is was eye opening.
Matt [00:17:32] But at the same time, there are these moments where we kind of step back and say, this is what we dreamed of doing, is making films and putting really all the same ministry muscles into practice that we were doing when we were working in in kind of conventional ministry. I’m just finishing up a podcast series on Vincent Van Gogh and the season of Lent. And so, you know, that’s of course, that’s basically the same muscles as preaching, but it’s done in, you know, the podcast format. And so it’s it’s similar and similar set of of gifts and talents and at least endeavors, but in a different set of media. And I think that’s just a wonderful, you know, chapter to be in. And it’s really hard work.
Tricia [00:18:17] What is the risk you’re taking right now? What is the thing you’re working on that is scaring you right now?
Liz [00:18:25] I am drowning in a delightful pool of Willa Cather at the moment. She’s an American author, amazing thinker, writer, poet, character in her own right. We wrote a screenplay, a feature film screenplay, first time ever around her life and work and think that might take the form of a short documentary. I spent the last two and a half years, three years reading her whole canon and sort of assimilating all that into this sort of big budget wild screenplay. I think it’s going to be for the sake of a beautiful, modern, short documentary on her life and work and the amazingness of her essence and what it can mean for her for today. So that’s my that’s my.
Tricia [00:19:27] That’s the thing you’re scared about. Yes.
Liz [00:19:29] Scared about.
Matt [00:19:31] And I can’t help but add to that just I think a lot of our creative life has been that kind of thing where we boldly do something that we really don’t know how to do yet. But you’re learning to do it as you do it, and then it doesn’t happen. But something else happens. That would not have happened had you not done it.
Tricia [00:19:53] Absolutely.
Matt [00:19:54] I constantly reminding myself of that. I don’t think I’ve fully integrated it yet, but I notice it and I want to integrate it, which is that this is how the creative life and really the human life often works. And so you really can’t apply standards of success and failure very accurately because one thing leads to another, you know, sounds so kind of like a platitude, but it really does. If you if you dive in and give it everything you have, then something comes of it. And it may not be at all what you anticipated, but that’s kind of by that’s the whole point in a way that in some ways it’s even better that way, because if you knew what you were going to do, you would, you know, miss the the treasures of going through the process of making a screenplay, I mean, this big budget film. But Willa Cather may not ever get made. I’m not giving up hope. But even if it doesn’t ever get made, there’s all these other goods that are had that have happened already and that will happen. I think a documentary is going to happen out of it. It could be a performance piece happens or a stage piece, you know, so things happen out of things that you don’t anticipate at the beginning. And knowing that is, I think, one of the most empowering things to remember so that you don’t gauge yourself on how many people are listening to this podcast or how many people are, you know, did we win an Emmy for this or not? Or do we make the big budget film? That’s not the right measure to really grasp the beauty of what’s happening in your creative work. You know, there’s so many other goods that you might not notice unless you remember, wait a minute, good things happen in the process itself that really is unrelated to the so-called success of the product.
Liz [00:21:39] We often, you know, go hiking and sort of meditate on the tenacity of of life, the sort of natural world or just, you know, bulbs pushing through, coming back every year. I think there is a tenacity to creativity.
Tricia [00:21:54] Absolutely.
Liz [00:21:55] That when there is a good idea, you know, it sort of takes root and it will bloom. But it also takes time. And you sort of have to trust that the spring of it will come.
Matt [00:22:14] Yeah, I have all these Vincent Van Gogh ideas and facts in my mind because I’m working I’m working on the seven part series. But not to mention that the goods that come from creative work don’t all accrue to you. They accrue well outside of your your awareness to others. And, you know, Vincent Van Gogh loved the image of the sower. It’s of course, the sower is a great biblical image, but it’s also an image that other painters were painting, you know, sort of the the person in tune with nature, you know, striding across the land and scattering seed. He painted, Vincent painted 30 different paintings or drawings of the sower. As far as I know, that’s the most paintings he did on any single subject. He was fascinated by the saw. And I think the creative person is you are throwing out seeds and you have no idea the ripple effects. And that’s part of the joy of it, is that you’ll never know. I mean, Van Gogh is kind of the classic example of that. He dies, thinking that he was a failure as a painter and he only sells one or two in his lifetime. But now he is one of the world’s most beloved painters. Not to say that all of us are going to be that famous. That’s not the point. The point is, we don’t know what kinds of things are coming even after we’re done.
Tricia [00:23:31] Yeah.
Matt [00:23:32] And that’s a core of the creative life in our experience, is trusting that that creativity never comes back empty. Even if you feel it is, it’s not. There’ll be someone. There’ll be something, even in your own life. There’ll be some improvement, some little bit more beauty because of the creativity that you’re putting out there. And there’s there’s things unseen that if it’s good for your heart and good for those around you, it will be good for people way out of your view, far away from your awareness. You know, the seeds will will sprout that you have scattered and you’ll never know it, you know, and that’s part of the beauty of it.
Tricia [00:24:08] And I think that’s a perfect place to end. Thank you so much.
Tricia [00:24:14] Matt’s words give me a lot to think about as I move forward on my own path trying to scatter my creative seeds. Here’s some things for you to think about, too. Is there another path in life you’d like to take? If there is, what’s stopping you? And can the muscles you’re using in your life right now be used in a different and maybe more fulfilling way, like Matt’s transition from preaching to podcasting?
Tricia [00:24:38] For links to all the projects mentioned in this episode, please visit my website, www.triciaroseburt.com. If you want more creative courage, tune into episode three with our guest, George Dawes Green, novelist and founder of The Moth. We’ll be talking about the third manifesto principle: Don’t expect a linear path. And remember, this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:25:06] No Time to be Timid is sponsored by Interabang Books, a Dallas based independent bookstore which takes its name from the symbol that combines a question mark and an exclamation point. At Interabang, their dedicated staff of book enthusiasts will guide you on your search for knowledge and the excitement of discovery. Shop their curated collection online at Interabang Books dot com. That’s www.interabangbooks.com.
[00:25:44] No Time to Be Timid is written and produced by me, Tricia Rose Burt. Our executive producer is Mia Rovegno. Our sound engineer is Jim McClure of Betsy’s Folly Studios. If you like what you hear, please spread the word. Subscribe to the show and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. No Time to Be Timid is a presentation of I Will Be Good Productions.