Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Place in the Sun

Our little rural Art School is flourishing in the new decade. My partnership with the Coleman Center is spawning a community institution that may very well last a long time, with sustained growth and evolution.

I feel like I built it practically with my bare hands, from the ground up, taking this abandoned, rather tattered wood shed, and transforming it into a place of creativity, art, and learning. Of course it required Coleman Center's corresponding vision to help me make it so. We just really clicked on this particular thing and we work well together.

Most days of the week, after school, I see High School students. They arrive from Sumter County High and Livingston High.

I try to give them the structured art instruction they absolutely will not get in school. I introduce the basic principles of art and design, placing things in an Art Historical context. Sometimes they hate me for all the technical stuff but I can only hope that one day they'll appreciate it. Regardless, I'd say, overall, we have a great time exploring different movements, eras, and forms from DADA to Hip-Hop, Classical and Tribal to Modern Contemporary.

We gathered scrap wood to create these Jean Arp-inspired assemblages. We struggled with color, experimenting with stains and acrylics, eventually settling on basic black.

But this education thing goes beyond the High Schoolers. More and more, we are attracting adults and parents (like my friend, Rock Anderson here) and teachers who want to either volunteer time or just take a class. People are usually ever-so-shocked that my..Ahem..fine, quality, world-class services are %100 free.

Last semester I experimented with running a Saturday program for the younger kids. It was mostly fun but it totally burned me out. Hard going after the week in schools and the after school and doing my own thing and running around, dodging wild boars and bullets down on Jake's farm, then trying to wake up early Saturday morning totally ON for some kids who deserve better than an exhausted grouch.

So to curb this decrepitude, we recently decided to take only the first Saturday of every month and open the doors to families and kids of all ages, offering more specialized, group-oriented projects. Officially known as 'FIRST SATURDAY', this new approach is going extremely well. It's family day at Coleman Center. Everybody on staff pitches in. We have garden tours, gallery talks, and food along with whatever big ambitious project I can put together to be completed in a couple of short hours. Now I spend my free Saturdays planning and prepping and sleeping in like a good man should.

This time, working in teams of two or three, we created the classic, face-in-the-hole, carnival attraction painting.

You trace a partner on the big paper. Everybody decides on a fantasy character or superhero. Then, collectively, the team draws and colors in the details. I encourage them to conjure the fantastic and to embrace the surreal.

Results are somewhat mixed but always good.


At some point it occurred to me that even our humble, rural students deserve their own personalized college tour geared to the budding artists and designers within. I thought that they should see the possibilities for extended study available to them on any decent campus. Even those who decide to pursue degrees other than the arts can still gain something from a solid arts education. The primary opportunity is scholarship money. Admissions committees also take good, rounded portfolios into consideration when reviewing potential freshman candidates. I wanted our students to talk to these people to get a better sense of what's up.

Nathan, Shana, and I were able to put a great trip together through our friends and professional acquaintances at University of Montevello and University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

We toured several departments and galleries and sat in on some classes. We were treated to a printmaking demo at Montevello and a bronze-casting demo at UA. Everybody was very cool and accommodating. Our students got an eye, ear, and mind full. I think they really appreciated the experience.

There's a giant dead or injured robot at UofA. We checked its pulse and piled on top for a group photo.

But by far the best attraction at UofA is Garland Hall. Heh.


Soul sister, Cassandra and her epic husband , Abdoul, came all the way from Brooklyn via Atlanta to pay me a visit.

I had to show them the best charms of Alabama so it goes without saying that we should swing through the jewel that is Mobile and pay our respects to the legendary, Tut Riddick.

I can't say enough about Tut. Her family has deep deep roots in the city of York. She is a prolific and consistent mad artist, always engaged with her work and always looking toward the next. This vivacious octogenarian has the energy of a spritely kid and won't hesitate to draw you into it. Along with her husband, Harry, Tut is one of the founding members of the Coleman Center. Long retired from involvement with it, she is nonetheless a fierce supporter of my work in the community and of my partnership with the Coleman Center.

Tut and Harry graciously put us up for a night. We stayed in the guest house next to the "Riddick Fun House".

I think Tut took a shining to Abdoul.

But she was more vocal about her love of Cassandra's foot-shaped rubber shoes with accented toes.

Cassandra and Abdul joined in several of my classes during the week. We were experimenting with Radial Designs - a process where the artist creates a motif on a quarter square then uses tracing paper to mirror the motif around the square. You never know exactly what you're gonna get until you get it.

Radial Design by Abdoul.

Radial Design by Cassandra

Great job, kids!

Friday, March 19, 2010


I saw these farmer guys setting a field on fire.
It looked so very cool I had to tag along.

It was actually a very wet marshland and difficult slogging through it. The mud was deep and it sucked me down. I couldn't keep up with the guy. He knew exactly where to step and he just kinda cruised along effortlessly like there was nothing to it.

I had to query Jake about this practice of setting fire to the land and he explained that it's a regular part of crop management and "Hey, we do the same thing down on our property. You should join us."
Excellent, I say.

Little did I know that instead of slogging it on foot I'd be outfitted with my very own ALL TERRAIN VEHICLE. And instead of flat empty fields it was gonna be deep woods and steep clay roads.
I even had the task of carrying the emergency water tank.
So after my 30 second driving lesson - clutch, gear shift, gas - I was off on my mini death machine, one hand on the camera and barely able to see.

Jake's ATV carries the fuel tank and flame thrower. The fuel is a gelatinous substance similar to napalm but not quite as thick. The Rednecks have a racist term for the fires caused by this fuel having to do with our former enemies in Asia.
The whole process of this soil management does feel rather like a military operation. You have squads, captains, deadly weapons, and a briefing to prepare the platoon for the attack.

Guys with hand-held napalm cannisters strike out on foot to lay down a line of fire.
Jake and the flame machine flank and surround this line on a wider perimeter to form a strong back fire.

I follow with the yellow water tank in case something explodes.

These images don't come close to showing the intensity of the fire and smoke. I couldn't film the most hairy moments because I really needed both hands on the handle bars to maneuver through the thickest smoke and searing heat. Emerging with my eyes burning and lungs scorched, all I can say is, HOT DANG!

Then the clutch on my ATV broke. I felt bad for riding it so hard. I think in my first-timers panic I may have pushed it inappropriately. But everybody gathered around to fix it and I think I was forgiven. Then the power cord on the water tank snapped when we tipped the ATV over.

Striking out on our final mission, a real emergency occurred. A section of forest fire was getting out of control and threatening to expand beyond the designated perimeters, potentially destroying the livelihood of everyone involved.
Jake went for the water tank but the power line was broken. I re-inserted the electric wire and manually held it together while he directed the water. All the while Jake is screaming for Big Red, his lieutenant, to come assist with the dowsing of the widening flames.

Let me tell you - there is nothing more scary than a bunch of pissed off Rednecks in an emergency.

It's almost prescient that my camera should suddenly shut off - battery dead, memory full - just as they were starting in on each other. Their language was way too colorful for a family audience.
But believe me, it was an awesome show.


This Jake character is taking over my whole darn Blog. But there ain't much I can do about the fact that my days down on his farm are some of the best days I've had in Alabama.
So much so that I invited friends from far and wide to be the first to experience the first 'Water Valley Lodge Southern Experience Tour'.
Utsey actually wants to expand his business to include a kind of Rural Heritage/Historical Tour to introduce urban Americans to this foreign land in their own country.
My good friends functioned as sort of a focus group for Jake's entrepreneurial experiment.

There's Marvin Novogrodski from Rhode Island way out in the distance there and Gabe here on loan from the US Army. Kimson and Abby came from Brooklyn and the good man, Richard Goulis, from Providence.

We cast our lines in the pond with poles of various sizes. Mine was pretty high-tech and very long.

We all gave our blood sweat and tears but Jake's 5-year-old daughter caught most of these fish. We were all thankful for our good fortune anyway. The meal was outstanding.

The Creek Indian attack on Fort Mims in 1813 is right up there with 911 or Pearl Harbour. It prompted the USA, under Andrew Jackson, to go bonkers on Native Americans, seizing millions of acres, killing or displacing tens of thousands of people forever.

Abby, Rich, and Kimson survey the scene. At Fort Mims as in most events in this country's history, nothing is just black and white - or red and white or what have you. Negros and Indians were inside the Fort too. The Creek attackers were led by two mixed race men, William Weatherford and Peter McQueen. One of the leaders of the white settlers was mixed race as well.

Half the charm of any tour is Jake's encyclopedic knowledge and colorful commentary. He's also good for a lively debate.

The alligator farm was a doozy. It was worth the side trip even though the tour guide was an annoying rightwing shill with the worst, most unfunny political wisecracks. Pathetic and stupid. We all agreed that he will most likely one day go the way of this chicken.

The cemetery at Selma is splendid. The rebel flags and tombstones of unknown confederate soldiers were no surprise. What surprised us were the thousands of Jewish graves with names hailing from the far reaches of the diaspora. Their gravestones are the only indication of a large, influential, but now vanished community.

I'm trying to put together a group for a tour in the coming months. It'll be a longer stay. There's so much more we want to do

Walton Creel of Birmingham is gaining renoun for his gun-made art.

After his great show at the Coleman Center Gallery he was cool enough to demonstrate his technique of repeated .22 caliber gouging through a steel sheet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mississippi to Massachusetts

I had a 3 month artist residency with the Theater Department at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
It was nice to get a change of scenery but it turns out the scenery in Western Mass. ain't much different from the scenery in Western Alabama.

You got the broke down houses, lush green landscapes, Walmarts, hinterland accents, Confederate Flags, and guys decked in hunting gear riding in pickup trucks . New England is 'UP SOUTH' in many ways. Big differences are there's a whole lot more money in the north and very few Black folks in rural areas.

My long time friend and mentor, Gilbert Macauley, Chairman of the Theater Department at Umass, brought me in as a collaborating artist to help develop AND JESUS MOONWALKS THE MISSISSIPPI, a play by fellow faculty member and noted emerging playwright, Marcus Gardley.

As Production Designer, I was provided with a private office and full access to the massive state-of-the-art scenery shop. I was also honored to have a reliable and skillful team of assistants and artists to help mid-wife the vision. The team included undergrad students, grad students, professional costumers, lighting experts, and hardcore union guys who truly are the kings of the world.

The play takes place in post Civil War Louisiana but I kinda just took everything I've seen (and heard) in my experience in the deep South and brought it to the stage. This includes visual markers like the ubiquitous vultures. Probably my favorite beast of the South and well-deserving of an homage.

Sean, a second year grad student in set design along with prop master, Rob, helped create this vulture machine.

It's a hand-cranked contraption to be operated by an actor. It casts ominous shadows throughout the theater during a battlefield scene.

A "Tree of Life" figures prominently in the script. I wanted to construct it in such a way that it would become a virtual character - an object with animate qualities. It had to move, spin and transform as well as interact with and find enhancement through a live video feed and innovative lighting design.
Heavy metals, welding, and precise woodwork made it so.

Our "Tree of Life" is inspired by the crude murals in that weird junk yard off Highway 80 going east toward Demopolis and Selma.

Through our cut-out tree you can view the back wall of the theater onto which I had begun to scrawl biblical text as well as text from the actual script.

This is a common approach to graffiti in the region. It's obsessive, intensely non-secular, and visually rich.

The set is less Set and more Installation. The audience is immersed in the environment of the play along with the actors. I needed to add a texture beyond the artifice of painted surfaces and objects. Something more authentic and tangible on the one hand, but reasonably ambiguous on the other.

We created armatures with wire and PVC.

We collected leaves, branches, and used burlap potato sacks to fill out these large bulbous forms. We collectively identified them as "Mojo Bags".

Another layer of burlap will conceal the leaves. A strong lightbulb was placed inside the bags and connected to a dimmer switch. The Mojo Bags projected organic silhouettes and shadows into the performance space, creating an unexpected ambiance.

The floor design is borrowed from the famous quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama.

We managed to get a patchwork effect using only paint, tape , and stencils.

An army of undergrad students assisted in the painting of over 100 folk art style paintings. Each painting corresponded to phrases, images, and characters in the play.

I sketched things out on scrap wood, used doors, old picture frames, felt, and masonite. I gave some initial guidance in terms of color but the students eventually made those decisions on their own, allowing me to focus on the larger, more crucial pieces.

The paintings are what really set the overall tone. They surround the entire performance space including the audience, providing a sense of immersion and an excursion into the unconventional.

I wanted to mirror the cluttered but energetic mode of display I observed at the Kentuck Arts Festival in Tuscaloosa. But obsessive-compulsive, auto-didactic yard art is referenced as well.

In the scale model, I included everything I could imagine creating for Marcus' visionary play. The tree, the quilted floor, light boxes, mojo bags, shadow puppets, paintings, the graffiti wall, video and image projections are all represented to some extent.

Thanks to the master technicians and artisans at UMass Theater Department, everything worked out pretty good.

I thought the show was excellent and it was very well received. It's something the entire cast and crew can be proud of.

One final beer with Shop Master Mike and Director Gilbert and I was soon gone. I was really missing Alabama and looking forward to getting back. But, first, a few stops on the way down.

The Beautiful Peoples Republic of Brooklyn where I saw two of my favorite citizens, Willow and Sonia.

One of the glories of glorious Queens,NY is sister Samita. She's one of the higher kilowatts of my life.
And we eat.

A walk through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with Professor Steve Stern of Gettysburg College.

I been knowing this man for over 30 years. We started as arch enemies in high school but that lasted only a day or two. We eventually formed a creative alliance and raised a bit of heck together.

Of course the Underground Railroad ran through Pennsylvania. I found a real "Slave Hideout" with runaway slaves still hiding out in there.

These crude mannequins were creepy and just plain wrong. They gave me a queasy feeling. I wished they weren't there. I'd prefer to take in the space without the cheesy fabricated props. What if they installed cheap mannequins at every historical attraction in the world? The Horror...The...Horror.

Getting back to Alabama, I realized how very enchanting this place can be.
I can also breathe easier and relax.