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A Passion for Storytelling

For Academy of Art University online student Jason R. Couch, studying for his M.F.A. in film production was the next step in a long and dynamic career in photography and art of many mediums. He is a blacksmith and metal craftsman, a wood worker and a bench jeweler; he was a gallery owner and travelled the world with the military during his 11 years in uniform, and he has taken hundreds of thousands of photographs. 

But Couch’s true passion is telling stories, particularly those of indigenous peoples; not only those of his tribe, the Muskogee Creek, as well as the Takelma and Siletz from the Rogue River Valley in Southern Oregon, but of indigenous peoples all over the world. 

“For me film was the next step,” said Couch. “As human beings, we can do a lot better job. For me, documentary film was a good avenue to making the world a better place.”

Couch has been using the skills he’s learned in his M.F.A. program to act as executive producer on his latest project, a spoken word audio series of Native American elders, with Blackstone Audio. The project so far consists of a three-part audio book series and will later branch into printed versions of the books that will include Couch’s photography. 

“The things that you learn in production classes can be applied across a number of strata,” said Couch, whose role is executive producer, interviewer and most importantly, a conduit to the First Nations people. “Not just anybody can get to Native Americans at this level. I am a Native American, people know who I am. I can get where others can’t. So that is my gift in it.” 

 

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Jason R. Couch as "Blacksmith" on the set of indie film 'Black Road.'

Plus working with Blackstone Audio, a major producer of audio books, will be a huge feather in his cap after graduation. It all started when Couch bumped into Rick Bleiweiss, former music industry senior executive and currently the head of business development at Blackstone Audio, at a local coffee shop in Ashland, Ore. 

“I first knew him as a fabulous photographer,” said Bleiweiss. “I knew him through his studio and other exhibits. We hit it off. [We] have been friends for a while.” 

Couch and Bleiweiss have completed 10 hours of interview recordings with Agnes Baker Pilgrim, known as Grandma Aggie, for part one of the series, Grandma Says: Wake Up World! At 90 years old, Grandma Aggie is the oldest living member of Oregon’s Takelma Tribe. 

“This is a project that I’ve been wanting to do for a number of years,” said Couch, who started talking with Grandma Aggie about sharing her stories three years ago. “The stars finally aligned so we could get her perennial stories and life stories down.”

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Takelma Indian Elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, also known as Grandma Aggie. Courtesy of Jason R. Couch.

For Couch it is it all about making sure that some of the things that she wanted to share were shared. Grandma Aggie, like Couch, had her hand in a range of professions throughout her life, including stock car driving and bartending. Additionally, her stories are about growing up in the back woods close to the reservation.

“It has been a fabulous experience, I must tell you,” said Bleiweiss. “Aggie is just an incredible human being, an incredible woman. An incredible elder in the First Nation. Her views happen to resonate with me. I think she is one beautifully spoken, very bright and very thoughtful dynamic being, and I believe we’ve captured that.”

Couch thinks that the best stories were her personal life stories about how she persevered as a Native American woman in the 20th century when that was not necessarily a good thing. 

“Her stories are about discrimination, but she doesn’t focus on them in a dark way,” said Couch. “She contrasts them to today where she is respected worldwide but is reminded that as a little girl, there were signs up that said ‘No Indians or dogs allowed.’”

Today, Grandma Aggie is respected indeed. She is an elected chairperson of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, an international alliance of indigenous female elders organized to uphold indigenous practices and ceremonies.

 

She has been honored as a “Living Treasure” by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, and as a “Living Cultural Legend” by the Oregon Council of the Arts, among other honors.

The second part of the Blackstone Audio series will be with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and a major figure in Native American culture. The third part of the series will include traditional Native American storytellers from the Southern Oregon area doing traditional storytelling from rock carvings.

“Blackstone started a whole new branch of their business for my project,” said Couch. “They do a lot of things that they feel are important culturally.”

Part of the proceeds, including royalties from the audio series, will go to the First Nation participants in the project. “Obviously we would like to make money, especially for the First Nation people, but more than that, our goal was to be able to spread the word,” said Bleiweiss. “To be able to get and preserve the experiences and the ideas of the First Nation elders like Aggie and others. We feel it’s important to have those saved and memorialized as well as to spread it to a wider audience. So that really was our first and foremost reason for doing this.”

After Couch completes his audio book project and his master’s at the Academy, he’d like to take his Native American work and go deeper with it. 

“There are a lot of stories that are good and bad, there are stories about triumph, but also about racism, about alcoholism and drug abuse,” said Couch. “There are a lot of issues that have hardly been touched on. And most that have been done from the outside. I am an insider and want to use that knowledge as an insider to make things better.”

Having spent time in Central and South America, Couch doesn’t want to limit his work to North America but to indigenous people all over the world. His next step is documentary film, yet acknowledges that a camera adds an element that people, especially indigenous people, are not fully comfortable with. 

“A documentary film can take literally years. The nice thing about audio books is they can be knocked out in 12 hours,” said Couch.  “There is less time investment but the message can still get across. The next progression is imagery.”

That is where his study at the Academy comes in and Couch has been pleasantly surprised by the level of involvement with some of his Academy instructors as he completes his master’s through the online program.

“I know a lot about imagery,” said Couch. “But my cinematography [instructor], Tim Palmer has worked with me in a one on one way that I did not expect and has really upped my game.”

The same goes for his scriptwriting instructor Thomas Thanangadan. “The man took a lot of time to work with me on a personal level,” said Couch. “He called me at home. That just blew my mind. I didn’t expect that sort of contact. I’ve been really pleased. Overall the level of instruction has been pretty extraordinary.” 

Couch is a man who clearly has a life long passion for learning and a vision for making the world a better place through art. His advice to other students out there, both online or on campus, is sage.

“I would say don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on your education and have people in your life that are supportive, come hell or high water,” he said. “Don’t make a ton of friends but make a few relationships that will last you a lifetime. The world shifts under your feet, if you have a skill or a gift, keep up to date on the modern tools to project your gift.” 

He jokes that 500 years ago he would have used fire sticks and hand puppets to tell his story. Now the tools are images, sound files and video. 

“Use the tools for your day to the best of your ability to project your gift,” said Couch. 

Grandma Says: Wake Up World! is available for pre-order on blackstoneaudio.com.