Spotlight: Katrina Gehman and Her Cinematic Fusion of Poetry and Improv

By Ryan G

My Wheaton College years played a vital role in breaking me out of my “Christian rock”-ish roots and pushing me to be better versed in the indie world. This began with dorm experiences—stuff like sitting in our common room and listening to Sufjan on vinyl, or wandering up to my pal Nic’s room and being introduced to Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” Gradually this would extend to in person experiences from the dramatic (The Decemberists performing in Stephen King–inspired drag in Edman Chapel for Halloween), to the rowdy (a house party in Uptown Chicago with a cover band threatening to make the floor cave in with their renditions of Rage Against the Machine), to a grungy sludge duo The Ugly Bishops playing the memorial chapel, and countless others.

Not bad for a school many call “The Evangelical Harvard.”

Fast forward to 10… ahem, 11, years later. I feel pretty far removed from my Wheaton experience. In homage to my indie roots, I decided to dig into what my fellow classmates were up to from a creative standpoint. Any fledgling indie bands? Or established ones?

In my search for classmates doing interesting stuff I stumbled upon the YouTube channel Inspiring Peace by Katrina Gehman, a woman I recognized by face on campus but unfortunately not very well otherwise. I was very intrigued by her way of fusing violin improvisation and spoken word. Most of her pieces follow a similar format—intimate voiceover readings, atop cinematography with a “wide open space” feel. Her bluntness and unique take on important subjects are things I find striking.

I wish I had been more intentional about my interaction with the little indie scene that was on campus, but better late than never, right? I decided to reach out to Katrina and take a deeper dive into her work. I noticed her material seemed to increase in output during the pandemic (an unlikely but all too understandable creative muse, as it were). Last Friday, her latest work, a poem titled “The Phoenix” dropped. Stream it below to set the tone for the interview. Then, view the teaser for her forthcoming short film Out of the Canyon here.

Now, let’s get to know her a bit better and learn about the context for what you just watched.

Tuned Up: If your craft was a beverage, what would it be?

Katrina Gehman: A mug of warm spiced cider, because that feels welcoming… and I want people to feel included.  I want people to feel like they belong, like they matter.  I want my channel to be an invitation.

Sum up your “style” in three words.

AUTHENTIC because I speak from my heart using the nuances of own experiences. 

INSPIRATIONAL because I encourage people to realize their power for peace. 

INTUITIVE because I improvise original music and film.       

I was trained as a classical violinist. Orchestras, quartets, professional gigs, the whole nine yards. But there is a tremendous amount of pressure to be perfect in the classical music world. I came to a place where the joy was gone. Improvisation was my backdoor into music, because improv welcomes—even embellishes—mistakes.  Improvisation is all about tuning in to your own intuition instead of strictly following someone else’s path.

This applies to film as well as music. I wrote my first spoken word poem, I Am Not Your Thing, about my body, so it was important to me to embody my performance in the right setting. One day, I was in New York City visiting friends and happened to walk past a bustling public transportation station. This chaotic travel hub instantly caught my attention, so I paused for fifteen minutes to film on the spot. The way the footage turned out was marvelous. People walked past without paying any attention as I performed the poem. This was such a powerful visual for how invisible I felt about this topic in my own life.

In my experience it is rare for a creative project to proceed as originally planned. So I have learned to keep my eyes open for possibilities and make the most of serendipitous opportunities… which is a lot like life. Sometimes life takes us where we did not originally intend to go, and we have to learn how to surf the unexpected. Life is improvisation. 

Do you have a personal mission statement? If so, what?

Inspiring Peace. I saw those words written on a shirt on clearance at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway while I was backpacking through Scandinavia. I have a master’s degree in conflict transformation and have spent considerable time as a conflict analyst researching the elements necessary to create peace. Peace is not something docile. It takes grit, determination, and imagination, and it spans multiple levels (internal, organizational, international, environmental). Everything I post on my channel falls under the broader umbrella of “Inspiring Peace,” whether that includes encouraging a mental state of calm through music, tackling systemic issues in our nation, or shedding light on the balance in our larger ecosystem.  

Your videos seem to fall into two categories—spoken word, and improvisational pieces for violin. Was the instrumentation for the spoken word pieces improvised on the spot?

Yes, for the most part. But I often have the general shape of a piece in mind before I play. The real challenge is editing, which can be quite complicated. In essence, I compose through the editing process by sorting through my improvised music to find sections which can overlap harmonically while matching visually. Rejection in Stride in particular was quite difficult to coordinate, because I used recordings of myself walking in different seasons as the rhythmic base. Other examples include Forest Cathedral and Ghosted

I would also add a third category, informative peacebuilding guidance, such as my recent interview with a member of the Ukrainian diaspora (“Nobody Wants This War”). Of course, I usually create my own music for this content as well. 

A yearning for unity and open minds/hearts across the political spectrum in a theme in your works—have you received any push back for this? How have you responded?

Oh, definitely. Disregarding people across the aisle with contempt has become almost popular in our current contentious political climate. So I was actually really nervous to post my #BothBelong depolarization initiative (including this video series), because I knew that it would open me up to criticism from both sides. Also, I knew how I could be perceived, especially as someone with pale skin. Someone who looks like me advocating for depolarization might come across as downplaying serious issues such as systemic racism. Yet, polarization has become a barrier for communities across our nation—from rural townships to the halls of Congress—to work together to address such challenges constructively. 

So yeah, I have had people troll my posts. I have responded by doing my best to take people seriously, because these issues are really serious. Lives are at stake from the policies we enact and enable. Even though people on opposite ends of our political spectrum may have different ideas for how to solve our national challenges, I believe that people on both sides sincerely care about our nation. So, I think it is important to honor that and hear people out. As result, some people have become unlikely supporters of my initiative.

The poem “I Am Not Your Thing” in particular hit me with the way it does not mince words. How has the response been to this? Is there any context for this piece in particular you would like to share? (this can be a sensitive and triggering topic for some, so no worries if you prefer not to answer this question)

Thank you for asking me this question in a sensitive way.  It is a painful, personal, and profoundly traumatic subject for me, so I will not go into too many specifics, but I will say that I did not grow up with a sense of agency over my own body. Consent was not a concept I remember being explicitly taught. (Often the concepts of “choice” and “abortion” are linked, but that is not what I am referring to here). I felt like my body did not belong to me, because I was born a girl. This was exacerbated by pervasive objectification of women’s bodies in media, as well as growing up in a context where I had peers who were addicted to pornography. 

Addiction dynamics can be quite complicated, whether in a community, school, family, or religious institution. Anyone who has an addiction to anything deserves support to overcome it, whatever it may be. But so do the people who are affected by it or overlooked because of it. It was not until I was in my late 20s that I found an article about how teenage girls were affected by growing up around these types of addictions. I cried when I read it because it was the first time I felt like I had been seen. 

My story is an inconvenient story. It does not fall neatly into the narratives spun about women or sexuality on either side of our political spectrum. And that is why I decided to write my poem—because I did not see my own story reflected anywhere. It took me fifteen years to put my experience to words. And because of that, as you said, it does not mince words. It tells my true story, from being valedictorian to the leg hair I grew out as an act of reclaiming my body.

The response to my poem has been overwhelmingly receptive, especially from women. I have been shocked by how many incredible women—with different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs about sexuality, abortion, and many other topics—have responded in support of my poem, and that has meant the world to me. I will say that in general, I have had a less vocal response from men. My poem seems to make some people feel uncomfortable. I did not write it in order to make anyone feel uncomfortable; at the same time, fifteen years of silence was enough. 

Who would be the dream act for you to support onstage?

Wow, tough question! The first group that comes to mind is Pentatonix. Their early music videos had a lot of creative outdoor cinematography which inspired me to include a cinematic element in my own work. I also respect that they have used their voices to speak up for harmony in diversity.

If I could expand the question to include other types of performing artists, I would say comedian Julie Nolke, a Canadian YouTuber known for her brilliant sketch comedy series, “Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self.” I respect her for charting her own path. It takes courage to fight for your voice when you do not know if anyone will listen. I can also really relate to professional setbacks she has discussed in interviews about barriers to obtaining work and navigating a male-dominated industry. It would be an honor to collaborate with her!

Your pieces seem to be built with a cinematic element in mind. Is the inspiration for this more planned out or spontaneous?

Great question. I have written quite a lot of poetry, but the pieces I have filmed are the ones that have lent themselves to spoken word and cinematography.

The best example would be “Cardinal Directions.” I started writing this poem on the back of a moto zipping around Phuket. In Thailand people drive on the opposite side of the road. My friend was giving me a lift in a rainstorm, and when he switched lanes to cross a hill, it just clicked:  the LEFT is the RIGHT and the RIGHT is the LEFT!  So I wrote that entire poem in Thailand.

While traveling abroad I found myself reflecting on my home country. As a conflict analyst, I had been trained to notice early warning signs of violent conflict, and I was becoming increasingly concerned about the United States. Having grown up in the Midwest in a rural community often overlooked, I was also keenly aware of regional disconnects. So it was important to me to visually ground the poem by filming it in the Midwest. To do so effectively, I needed access to a drone, but when I started my channel, I did not own a lot of audiovisual equipment. (I still don’t, to be honest, but back then, I didn’t even own a tripod!) So I collaborated with my cousin, a soil scientist, who uses a drone for his agricultural work. 

Another example of my cinematography is my recently-released spoken word poem, The Phoenix, which features awe-inspiring views of the Grand Canyon at the base and on the rim. The breathtaking footage of the canyon masks the difficulty of the hike, performed in severe heat with temperatures over 140°F in the sun at the bottom of the canyon. 

The phoenix has long been a symbol of rebirth from the ashes of suffering.  Hiking out of the canyon in extreme heat was, for me, symbolic of this journey—a physical representation of what it took to walk out of some very difficult personal experiences around identity, gender, and consent, to stand on my own intuitive voice, which embodies my tattoo. 

There is a lot of beauty along the way on our journey, if we keep our eyes out for it.  

What do you have planned that readers should keep a look out for?

My short film OUT OF THE CANYON comes out this week on Earth Day!  Watch the trailer and teaser here.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to hike from the Colorado River all the way to the rim of the Grand Canyon through absolutely breathtaking scenery, be sure to check it out! It even includes an entire score improvised on the rim of the canyon, all on a three-stringed viola!

The story behind the three-stringed viola is that I did not want to bring my professional violin on a camping trip, so I borrowed a cheap viola, but the A string broke hours from any viable music store. I was planning to perform one of my favorite pieces of classical music, Bach’s cello prelude (since a viola has the same tuning configuration as a cello), but it is impossible to play without all four strings. So instead I improvised a heartfelt ode to the canyon on a three-stringed viola! 

So please SUBSCRIBE to my channel to be notified when it comes out! 

I also have another exciting upcoming environmental initiative, partnering with a scuba diver in Saipan to show amazing underwater ocean life, so keep an eye out for that too! Maybe I will have an opportunity to perform some Bach after all… We shall see!

Thank you for taking the time to get to know more about my artwork. It means the world! 

– Katrina Gehman

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