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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Performance artist advocates for Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

by Allayana Darrow

Solemn, attentive faces watched Karen Kunkel as she moved through her performance.

The story of living and singing as though she was “a loudspeaker for God,” only to lose her singing voice at 15 years old, was narrated by a group of four on the stage behind her.

She danced, moved and expressed her voice without speaking a word.

On July 26, Kunkel presented an evening of new performance art, poetry and music at the Bellingham Alternative Library at 519 E Maple St.

“Have You Seen My Voice/We Are All Each Other’s Voices/I Think My Voice Is Missing,” included themes of voice, identity, transition, place, expression, listening and being listened to.

Kunkel’s interactive performance brought audience members from far outside Bellingham as eclectic as the space where it was presented

Aidan Fay, 26, moved to Bellingham on Thursday and came to the event to meet Kunkel. Mutual friends connected them through Facebook, and Fay said he knew Kunkel was someone he had to meet.

Stepha Lawson came to the event with her wife and was intrigued to discover how Kunkel would handle the concept of voice. Lawson said the themes of the evening were “a conversation that won’t ever end.”

Kunkel, or “Unkel Kunkel” as she calls herself, lost her original singing voice after a sinus surgery. Since then, Kunkel said she has found new ways to express her voice and connect with others.

“I’m going to sing our joy to us because that’s what I want to do,” Kunkel said to a crowd of friends and strangers.

She stills sings and will be singing at Honey Moon Mead & Cider on Aug. 3.

Kunkel said proceeds from donations given at the event support her journey across the U.S., meeting other artists, spreading her craft and toward the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a cause Kunkel said she is deeply connected to.

Kunkel said she feels connected to NWIRP because they help give a voice to marginalized people. She spoke about a friend, Ricardo, who has supported her in recent weeks by providing her with work. Ricardo, who isn’t an American citizen, had to return to Mexico to care for his ailing niece.

Kunkel said she cherishes the moments when they struggle to understand each other. Ricardo doesn’t speak English well, and Kunkel’s speech impediment makes her hard to understand, she said.

Kaykay Fantasia was one performer who took the stage along with Kunkel. Another speaker, Henry, spoke about his experience with friendship and transitioning to his true identity.

Prior to Kunkel’s main performance, she hugged and talked openly with about two dozen attendees. She began by engaging the audience, chanting “this is what makes me happy,” with some enthusiastic and some hesitant audience members.

Kunkel said everyone has hidden trauma they can turn into compassion.

“We have all experienced something like this,” Kunkel said through tears. “We have all had something taken away. Whether it be their voice or their children, like some immigrants.”




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