Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finding Joe in Asheville

Finding Joe in Asheville
Host: David Blackwell – Naturopathic Practitioner/Visual Artist
Asheville/Mars Hill, North Carolina
“Finding Joe”

Long ago, lithospheric plate movement intruded igneous matter forcing surface rock upward leaving behind towers of interloping rock. In Western North Carolina, or the better known acronym for the rocky region: WNC, there is no better example of this natural brilliance than in the high peaking inclines of Asheville. The elongated linear arcs of Asheville’s most notable masses immediately arrest the eyes, holding them captive until they fully appreciate the dynamism of their physique. Regardless of how often I encounter the colossal formations, I am loyally in awe of their majesty. My protracted bus ride up the winding hills allowed me to view the expanse with renewed perspective. The result: even greater respect for WNC’s luxuriant backdrop.

Within the fence fashioned by the lofty rocks is a vibrant tourist town ripe with new-fangled hippies, aspiring creatives, organic farmers, affluent retirees, young learners, and the descendents of cotton-pickers. The heterogeneous mixture is not easily deciphered by a quick stroll through the city’s center. Instead, I found myself persistently interviewing those that I encountered in search of greater perspective. My host David Blackwell was a great tour guide in my exploration for information regarding the area and its inhabitants.

David exemplified the vitality of the peculiar city. He is a sharp naturopathic practitioner who could easily thrive as a realist painter, disc jockey/musician, Qigong instructor, or culinary chef (he prepared countless exquisite meals during the course of my stay). Instead, he finds himself muddled by the potentialities of his many talents; a great problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

Following David’s lead I found that Asheville thrives because there are a myriad of inspired imaginings coming to life in the form of unprecedented business ventures, townie weeklies, and Asheville-only offerings. Asheville tourists are privy to a comedic sightseeing tour of local neighborhoods aboard a purple “LaZoom” bus hosted by a mob of hilarious characters (the “nun” is absolutely side-splitting). Or, visitors can join Asheville locals on Monday nights at the Grey Eagle for an eventful evening of long-line paired Contra Dancing featuring live folk instrumentation. I would love to simplify the spectacle by stating that it is line dancing, but it is much, much more. Also, travelers to the mountainous city can endeavor in the seemingly incessant stream of festivals that occur within Asheville or in the quaint neighboring towns (i.e. Weaverville, Fletcher, Brevard).

Mountain Xpress, WNC’s independent weekly circular, works diligently to provide a thorough breakdown of the unrelenting catalog of art and music related events occurring in the region. The list of activities seems unending. During my short stay I had the prospect of attending: a reggae festival at Black Mountain (featuring Bunny Wailer, Ras Michael, Damian “Jr. Gong” and Stephen Marley), the Mountain State Fair (just like every other state fair, with more arts and crafts – and a rocky backdrop), The Black Keys performing live at The Orange Peel (sold out – immediately), and the 5th Annual Mountain Song Festival (Bluegrass fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Club), to name a few. Additionally, it was wonderful to see the smallish, mountain city bustling with supporters of live-local musicianship at diminutive venues, mid-week. I particularly enjoyed the Tuesday “Funk Jam” at The Emerald Lounge (or as the locals call it: ELO). The followers are an educated mass of music enthusiasts and gyrating hippies whose conversations range from alchemy to cotton diapers in an Asheville minute.

I was privileged enough to stumble upon an opportunity to participate in one of these spectacles. By chance, I was introduced to a gentleman named Graham Hackett who happened to be the program director for Asheville’s Area Arts Council and an upcoming outdoor live art event themed: City of 1,000 Easels. The event was precisely as advertised (minus 890+ easels). I immediately accepted the invitation and was delighted to take part in an event that hoisted visual artists into the streets of downtown Asheville armed scantily with their easels, painting supplies, and talent. The experience was foreign to me, but very enlightening. Passersby were quick to engage me in a tête-à-tête regarding my work in progress. I worked diligently to create and to connect them to my arduous creative process.

After many discussions with David and the scores of phenomenal beings he introduced me to (most notably a bassist/visual artist named: Gully) I realized that my journal entry for the charming city would not be complete without revealing the thing that shocked me most. The minorities in the region (blacks and browns) were discretely sectioned off in the shadows of the mountains. I sought out and spoke with a few of them and came to realize that the minorities had a much different perspective of Asheville than the marijuana induced ramblings of a horde of downtown stoners looking to convince me that Asheville was the best city in the southeast. The blacks and browns I encountered were often descendants of cotton pickers or undocumented “immigrants” (my opinion: if you live here – you live here). Further, they were underpaid and overworked members of a flourishing day-tripping city where they were sparsely represented in the city’s epicenter. What is more, the Biltmore Estate (Asheville famed mansion and symbol for being the first to fashion “secure” indentured servitude) seems to be a conflicting marker, given that it serves as a staple for employment, yet remains a landmark of indentured disgruntlement among WNC’s colored population. Their pain was so deep-set and earnest that it quickly became my own. I identified immediately with their struggle given that I have seen it time and time again across out great nation.

I absorbed their discontent, but remained hopeful for the active vacation city that most aptly resembles an emerging Boulder, Colorado – in terms of landscape, outdoor offerings, and live music. Still, I could not fully disconnect from the many hidden realities I inherited from the loose mouths of marginal Ashevillagers. I poured the weight of this burden into a painting that I dedicated wholly to the life of “Joe”.

Joe was a slave owned by J.W. Anderson, one of the founding trustees of Mars Hill College (located in Mars Hill, a small town approximately 20 miles outside of Asheville). When building the new school, Joe was used as a surety, or collateral, to leverage a debt of $1,100 when the expense of construction could not be met. Joe was sent to jail. Within days, the trustees raised the funds and Joe was released. After the civil war Joe was awarded his freedom and a tract of land near Mars Hill. His body is buried on David’s Grandfather’s property, between Dr. Hoyt Blackwell’s house and the President’s house (Edgewood House) on the college’s campus.

I came across a medium placard dedicated to “Joe” when touring the college. My host, David Blackwell, is a recent magnum cum laude graduate of Mars Hill and the proud descendent of Dr. Hoyt Blackwell, his grandfather and former president of the college. Dr. Blackwell aided Mars Hill College’s conversion from a junior college to an accredited four-year college. David informed me of what details he knew regarding “Joe” and I filled in the blanks by inquiring with the people and doing some background research.

I found that Joe was emblematic of an ongoing condition. I found that his “service” was indicative of the indoctrinated pre-emancipation times and yet, relevant to the current state of the atypical city. What I created was an ode to those black and brown bodies that now linger in the shadows of the emerging tourist town.

The painting features a black hand poignantly raising the “rock and roll” hand sign adjacent to a fearful male figure attempting to escape the fuming, obscure apparitions in the distance. The sign is indicative of the vibrant musical culture that permeates downtown, but rears very little minority representation. Each apparition represents the city planners, local gentrifiers, and general complacency that has permitted such a circumstance. Particularly the image on the top right of the painting is of a ghastly male-esque figure yelling for “Joe” to run along. To indicate “Joe’s” feverish attempt to escape I included jagged white torrents indicative of rising steam. Normally, my monotypic works are used to engage the viewer into a multitude of dimensions using minimalism and fractals. In this instance, black and white were the only colors that could accurately purport the situation at hand: descendants of slaves, feeling forcibly removed from their city’s developing future. On the bottom right I included a ‘traveling’ arrow symbolizing from where the hatred stems… the heart of men.

In Asheville, I found Joe… many Joe’s. I found people who can’t escape their pasts amidst an ever-changing world. Segregation ended some 40 years ago, and yet focused isolation has become the norm.

Nonetheless, I adore Asheville. Nearly everyone I encountered was peaceful, welcoming and open-minded. Unfortunately, many seemed unaware of the age-old gentrification that plagued the beautiful region. One can’t help but fall in love with the peaking backdrop and snaking roads. The live music covers all the genres, the art fills all the senses, the people are forward thinking and free, the food is delectable and local, the overall atmosphere is serene. There is an overwhelming peace that comes over you once you enter the region. Nature takes over.

I am extremely grateful having met David Blackwell. I feel that the bond we established discussing life, our passions, and hopes for the future, will remain intact for years to come. I thank him for the opportunity and all of Western North Carolina for the hospitality.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Letting Go in Lexington

Letting Go in Lexington
Hostess: Angela Jarman, 2nd Year Medical Student – University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
September 1st – September 10th
“Letting Go”

Doctor: You have a bad heart.
Patient: I want another opinion.
Doctor: OK, you’re ugly too.

Firstly, I must admit to wrongfully presupposing that all doctors (and aspiring doctors) were the same: evil, humorless nerds with a sickening penchant for dissection and an inability to interact socially. I have never been more wrong.

Upon my arrival in Lexington, Kentucky I was immediately taken aback by the massive thoroughbred horse farms and how well the historic character of the city had been preserved. Not an hour into my visit I would be shocked even further: Angela was taking me to dinner with some of her medical school colleagues. At the time, all I could think of was how I wanted to shower, brush my teeth, and rest after the 11 hour Greyhound expedition. Nonetheless, I accepted the invitation realizing that Angela had no intention of keeping me out late, and that her classmates were eager to meet me: the traveling artist.

Initially the conversation centered on subdural hematoma and how fatal an increase in intracranial pressure can be. I worked diligently to follow, but found myself having an internal dialogue about my aforementioned conjecture regarding doctors. Then, everything changed. Angela and her charming guests recognized that they were speaking a language foreign to me and began conversing more colloquially… I began to feel included. What’s more, I started to feel that these super-nerds were in fact, regular people who happen to have a sincere passion for medicine and a superior capacity for knowledge. They weren’t all the drab white coats that left me feeling helpless and uninformed in regards to the inoperable tumor in my mother’s brain. In fact, I wanted desperately to transport my mother to Kentucky so that these delightful beings could look after her. Oddly, I felt that her chances of survival were higher in the hands of these three students than in those of the “qualified” doctors at Duke Medical Center.

Angela continually introduced me to her peers and I was steadfastly impressed by their vigor for medicine, medical research, and surgery. Each and every one of them exhibited an upbeat disposition in the midst of being overcome by bi-weekly examinations, hours of concentrated instruction, and an unrelenting breadth of lecture notes. How they kept smiling, joking, and laughing was unbeknownst to me. I was inspired by their dynamism. Further, I was bowled over when I caught a group of 2nd year students glaring at a photograph of their White Coat Ceremony. You could see the pride of that moment brilliantly palpable on their grinning faces.
Angela transported me to the art store nearby, as public transportation is limited in Lexington. I collected the needed supplies and some groceries which was easy given that Angela and I share a mutual passion for vegetarianism. In recent years I have subsided to being a pescatarian, but even then my consumption of vegetarian foods predominate my diet. Angela and her delightful roommates, Edita and Desiree, allotted me my own space to sleep and create. I felt welcome and encouraged.

Using a smaller painting surface than usual, I searched my soul for a storyboard that would address a circumstance that was heavy on my heart utilizing greater symbolism and more surreal detail – to best use every inch of the board. What I decided upon was a visual analogy of a tale of unrequited love. Inspired by the circumstances of my youngest sister (born in Louisville, Kentucky) and the secreted confessions of women close to me, I found the issue to be pertinent to my stay in Lexington.

I wanted to keep the symbols clear and concise. I utilized pink and blue paint to boldly signify stereotypical male-female delineation. On the left border I painted a stream of mated pink and blue triangles emblematic of flower petals. The purpose of the ‘petals’ is to showcase the “he loves me, he loves me not,” thought process that affects those wandering in an amorphous affiliation. Many of the women in my life have sought my advice on whether their significant, but not so committed other, shares a reciprocated love for them based on their vocalized versions of their interaction. I never pretend to know. Still, I find the complexity of the longing to be most intriguing and agonizing.

Next I created floating pie charts showcasing varying split designations. None of them are exactly “50/50”, which aims to illustrate how imbalanced the relationship in question is. Lastly, I created the two characters floating in a proverbial sea of light (gold) and darkness (black), whereby the female character is reaching for the male character who is working his way out of view. The male figure’s right hand is equipped with sharp claws. The purpose is not to make him sinister, but rather to expose the idea that he is perceived to be sinister when in fact he may be merely protecting himself in fear. I worked diligently to create dimensions that would make the images appear in motion. This is something I have been feverishly attempting to perfect. I explained the piece to Angela and her roommates. Their approval of the subject matter and its meaning left me contented with how I approached the piece psychologically. The work is justly entitled: “Letting Go”.

On nights that I wasn’t creating I was exposed to a wealth of beautiful landscapes, escorted to a beer festival, treated to Goodfellas pizza (some of the best I’ve ever had – ever), reminded of how poorly I play beer pong, and exposed to the rival that is the University of Kentucky versus the University of Louisville. Multitudes draped in blue clothing littered the streets of Lexington on the morning of the Big Game. The red and blue garments were vaguely reminiscent of rival Californian gangs preparing for battle. The Big Game (which UK won) was as intense off the field as it was on. In celebration of UK’s victory, I decided to go roller-skating with a throng of med students. Mindful of the fact that I had never skated before and that I was slightly inebriated, I fell more than I traveled forward. I know for a fact that there is video of my most epic fall in the possession of one of the students and I pray that it never goes public. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful time.

In the home where I viewed the bitter UK-UL challenge I encountered a marvelous painter. I must show my appreciation for this remarkable visual artist who is peacefully tucked away in the smallish confines of Bloomfield, Kentucky. Realist, impressionist, wunderkind painter: Mara Huston, stole my heart with her colorful wizardry. Her paintings hung on the walls of her stunning home, showcasing a time capsule of her beautiful daughters as they mature before her very eyes. Her brushstrokes captured an intimate portrait of love that a photograph could never accurately render. I pray one day that I will paint so well. I have urged Mara to get a website so that you can view her work. She is truly a genius.

Lastly, I want to thank Angela Jarman and her roommates for being such delightful hostesses. Further, I want to thank Angela for introducing me to her med school contemporaries and for allowing me to let go of my negative presuppositions about doctors. I am eternally grateful for the experience.