Thanks again to the folks at the Kentucky Arts Council for jurying me into The Illustrated Word. The exhibit traveled to the 35th annual Kentucky Crafted event at the Lexington Convention center last weekend. It was a real thrill to see artwork about O in public for the first time.
I recently attended a Partners For Education sponsored workshop, led by two area teaching artists, on how to make a “crankie”.
A crankie is a visual storytelling device, typically used to enhance music, spoken word, or storytelling. The story is visually told on a scroll of paper or cloth, frame by frame, and a performer turns a handle to advance it (in this case they are lollipop sticks). Some crankies are large and elaborate, with a crank to advance the scroll. Thus the name “crankie”.
The workshop was so informative, so much fun — and so much a part of my art impetus towards narrative — that I decided to share this activity with the LexEngaged students from the University of Kentucky, and the kidz at William Wells Brown in Lexington on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.
On March 1, I helped William Wells Brown Elementary and LexEngaged students from UK create handmade books, and illustrate them. The original topic and focus was an upcoming essay contest about the contributions of African American jockeys to Kentucky horse racing. But some of the WWB kids wanted to illustrate and tell their own stories instead. The end result: Quite a mix of images and text!
It is a little known fact that WWB Elementary sits on the original Kentucky Racing Association property and race track once located at 5th and Race Streets, and that the local racing industry was once dominated by successful and talented African American jockeys. As WWB students talked about and created horse racing images, it was clear that they were very proud of this heritage.
LEXengaged is a first-year residential program on UK’s north campus, close to downtown Lexington, in which civic engagement is applied to students’ day-to-day life. Through course readings, discussions, guest speakers, and off-campus tours, participants gain a greater understanding of the larger community, focusing on engagement, service learning and social justice.
My job as a teaching artist is to help UK students interact with students at William Wells Brown via unique visual art experiences that focus on the topic of homelessness — something near and dear to my heart. Our first project was “Who I Am” in which students built trust and understanding via tracing each others’ bodies and filing them in with name designs that expressed who they are using color, line, shape, placement and size — basic design concepts.
Our second project on February 15, 2017, was based on the Cardboard Stories collected by Orlando Florida’s ReThinking Homelessness project. UK and William Wells Brown students made a list of words associated with the homeless, then discussed how those things — dirtiness, torn old clothing, etc. — are just superficial signs and are, in many ways, the way we look at times and for reasons other than homelessness. This pressed home the fact that the homeless are indeed “just like us”.
Then students brainstormed a list of things about themselves that no one would know by just looking at them. They picked a few and transferred them to cardboard, and we hung them up and talked about the funny ones, the sad ones, and especially the unexpected ones.
In the last week my art and creative activist self marched twice.
MLK Day of Service, AmeriCorps VISTA:
VISTA Volunteers and AmeriCorps members participate in two National Days of Service, and MLK Day is one of them. We began by joining Berea College and the Berea community at Union Church for several speeches and inspirational music. Then we marched down Chestnut Street.
In the afternoon, my fellow VISTA Leader organized a letter writing campaign for women at the New Opportunity School for Women and seniors in local high schools, with the help of KyCC VISTAs from northern KY.
I also joined the historic Women’s March in Lexington, KY on 1/21/16. I really wanted to be in the original, in D.C., but the time and cost became prohibitive. Lexington did not disappoint though!
Highlights: Getting there early and walking to Cheapside Bar in order to sit the same booth I sat in with O in August. On my way I saw a rough looking character setting up to play street music. He had several musical instruments: guitar, harmonica, something on his foot that looked like a little cymbal but I didn’t want to stare. I must have been oozing activism because he smiled and asked “goin’ to the march?”
Cheapside was almost empty at first, but by the time I was scarfing my salmon it was full of sports fans bleeding blue, and women wearing glowing pink pussy hats. The waitress called me “lady bug” — an endearment I haven’t heard since living near Owensboro.
By the time I got back to the square in front of the Fayette Circuit Court a vast crowd was gathering. I was so inspired by the mix, a beautiful balance of and young/old, single/couples, men/women, able/disabled. Everyone was waving clever, pointed, vicious, hilarious signs – except me, it seemed. So I found a group with stacks of Planned Parenthood signs and was gifted a big red one with a message to the current administration about keeping their hands off my uterus.
The speaker line up was impressive, but the talking went on too long. They almost lost me and most of the crowd after #6, when I milled around a bit and found a couple of fellow co-workers as well as my old friend April, who is recovering from a loss similar to mine, of O.
But I decided to walk alone. A great surge of us finally started moving to the march route, right in the middle of downtown. While walking we chanted, we sang. Our numbers were so many we could see streams of ourselves moving in opposite directions at the end of the long side streets. Later I heard we had over 5,000 marchers.
So amazing, so much fun and felt so good I couldn’t believe it took me 58 years to march political.
I am proud to announce that two of my artworks, one the first in a series about O, will be part of a long term traveling exhibit sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council, entitled The Illustrated Word. The exhibit will travel to libraries across Kentucky from February 2017 through 2018, with a special exhibit in Lexington at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, April 21-23, 2017. I am thrilled that O will go out into the world in this way, giving viewers a chance to experience the incredible person he was and the impact he had and continues to have on me and my creative life.
Ode to O is one of a six panel series that I began with a matrix of dictionary pages collaged during the time we shared a studio space in Haynie’s Corner, Evansville, in 2015. My initial intent was to make them a single, multi-paneled piece with a tree form visually tying the panels together. However, when we had to move out of the studio due to irreconcilable differences with the gallery/studio owner (which included insistence on collecting commission on artwork created by the homeless) the panels languished. I left them stacked in a corner of a guest room in Indiana when I left for Berea, KY in May, and didn’t work on them again until the day before O took his life.
By November I was finally able to pick up where I left off in August, rendering words from the dictionary pages that reminded me of O — and with his tattoo ink. As I worked it soon became clear that in both form and content I was mimicking an older and much smaller artwork, entitled Obsessions #1 that is also about a man I loved and lost that will be exhibited along with Ode to O in The Illustrated Word.
On November 12, 2016, friends and loved ones had a small memorial ceremony for Owen Chaney in downtown Evansville, Indiana. This world lost Owen on August 22, 2016, when he chose to take his life in Berea, Kentucky after a long battle with addiction, mental illness, and three years of chronic homelessness.
Everyone who knows me knows I loved Owen, and I join many who knew Owen to be a loving, kind, generous, talented person even while plagued by the stresses and illnesses of his adult life. Or maybe in spite of them.
In memory of Owen we planted a sycamore tree on the lawn of the Zion Church opposite the homeless shelter where Owen and I met and made art between 2013 and just a few short months prior to his untimely death. Owen loved nature and he loved sycamores, which he called “ghost trees” in keeping with Native American lore, and in reference to the color of their trunks and limbs. They literally glow in the dark on moonlit winter nights. Sycamores are also called “trees of life” because they have tremendous longevity, up to 600 years, and symbolize intuition, shelter, nurturing…among other things. They also grow very fast and, to me, symbolize the surviving and thriving that Owen was never able to accomplish in this life.
A pack of Marlboros, the smokes Owen preferred, will show up at the base of The Lone Tree now and then, so those of you who are desperate for one can help yourself. I often witnessed Owen giving away his last cigarette to someone he thought needed it more than he. You are also welcome to stop by and put a memento on the sycamore, which will be nurtured by members of the Zion congregation. Many thanks to them, Pastor Kim, and the generous donations of Owen’s friends in attendance for making the tree planting possible.
The VISTAs I support, along with another VISTA Leader and several Partners For Education staff, organized and led several workshops (trainings) at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Bledsoe, KY on November 11. Couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place — or more passionate and dedicated VISTAs and supervisor to host our event. I also designed our new t-shirt!
Of course, we had to begin with art — a sign in sheet the length of several tables — and I had to work art into my presentation on end of service Reflection and Sustainability Plan!
As part of our day the PMSS VISTAs led us on a hike of the beautiful, historic, extensive grounds. They also taught us two contra/folk dances — and I remembered how much I once loved dancing!
I attended my first suicide awareness event on 10/26/2016, at Eastern Kentucky University: Walk For Hope sponsored by the Richmond/EKU National Alliance for Mental Illness. I became aware of this event through a support group I joined after losing my beloved friend, close companion and artistic collaborator to suicide on August 22, 2016. As anyone who has suffered such a shocking loss can tell you — Owen’s death has changed my life.
I believe this was the first event of its kind at EKU, and it was very well organized. The speakers, one who lost a son to suicide, were wonderful, and passionate as they told stories and explained their mission to help those affected by suicide — including the bereaved. Here is a link to a unique organization represented at the Walk For Hope, Shelby’s Way. The music was moving too.
I wish I could include more photographs of the crowds that attended — but I can’t. They weren’t there. In fact — and maybe because I am one of the bereaved — I felt the curious and anxious eyes of pedestrians that passed us upon us as small, tight groups of supporters and sufferers sat and listened to wistful tunes and powerful stories of love and loss. I could actually feel the stigma associated with the taboo subject of suicide as if it was catching, like an easily communicable disease.
With numbers of suicides in the area rising, this has to change. I hope I can be part of initiating that awareness-building and empathy encouraging change. I think the very first thing I will voluntarily do is facilitate the creation of a beautiful, eye catching banner to hang at next year’s event.
On 10/10/16 I participated in my first Mountain Day at Berea College. See more about the history of Mountain Day here.
My Mountain Day began before dawn with a traditional mile-long hike up to the East Pinnacle at Indian Fort, an historic and sacred Native American site. I would estimate that close to a hundred other individuals — including an entire choir — joined in. They broke into song at sunrise. It was quite a moment.
I took my time coming down in broad daylight, however — and needed to shower and change (because of the unusually warm for eastern Kentucky weather) before returning to help man our AmeriCorps VISTA and Partners For Education/PartnerCorps table. We enticed Mountain Day attendees to learn more about AmeriCorps and VISTA by offering a raffle for VISTA Jeffrey Carpenter’s artworks — and an art activity that involved making cards with rubbings of fallen leaves. I “trained” several AmeriCorps VISTAs in creating these rubbings, and they in turn instructed table visitors in making their take-away card.
It was a beautiful, productive and instructional day. My most valuable lesson: what an amazing community Berea College is, evidenced by the enthusiastic participation of so many of its students (more than I ever witnessed at any other higher ed institution during my sixteen years of formally teaching art) — and its commitment to the arts, evidenced by the several musical performances — and a drum circle! — at Mountain Day 2016.