A Renaissance – The Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum

Spanning the 1920’s, the Harlem Renaissance became a prolific period for art and culture. Many African Americans created literary works of art including books and poetry to celebrate their heritage. Are you familiar with civil rights activist and internationally recognized poet Anne Spencer (1882-1975)?

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At 1313 Pierce Street, in the historic district of Lynchburg, Virginia, you will find the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. Take the tour conducted by her granddaughter, and you will be inspired by the ingenuity and innovation. The Queen Anne style home, built circa 1903 by Anne Spencer and her husband, Edward, contains the original Victorian furnishings and many artifacts dating back to the early twentieth century.
She wrote the following.

We have a lovely home – one that
money did not buy – it was born and evolved
slowly out of our passionate, poverty-
stricken agony to own our own home.
happiness

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Inside the home, there are many vibrant colors like the green staircase and the red that adorns the upstairs bedroom. Edward delivered parcels by day, but at home he was a skilled, meticulous engineer. He created a fold away ironing board, a telephone booth under a staircase, and he reused discarded materials like pieces of copper and a red theater door to beautify the home. You will be amazed by the fountain at the edge of the pond in the garden. It is truly magnificent.

In an era of Jim Crow and segregation, the home provided lodging to many notable dignitaries such as W.E.B. DuBois, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Read the following poem to discern the impact of Jim Crow.

TABOO
(Transcribed from Anne Spencer’s handwritten poem)

Being a Negro Woman is the world’s most exciting
game of “Taboo”: By hell there is nothing you can
do that you want to do and by heaven you are
going to do it anyhow—
We do not climb into the Jim Crow galleries
of scenario houses we stay away and read
I read garden and seed catalogs, Browning,
Housman, Whitman, Saturday Evening Post
detective tales, Atlantic Monthly, American
Mercury, Crisis, Opportunity, Vanity Fair,
Hibberts Journal, oh, anything.
I can cook delicious things to eat. . .

Anne and Edward endured turbulent times as indicated by the poem above. Take comfort in the fact that Anne found solace through gardening and her writing. During the tour, I saw poems written on magazines, shoe box tops, and scraps of paper. There is even a poem emblazoned on the kitchen wall. Imagine what she would have done with today’s technology. Edward built a cottage in the garden – Anne’s writing sanctuary known as Edankraal, a sacred place, which is filled with Spencer memorabilia.

James Weldon Johnson discovered her poetic talents in 1919, and her works are still being anthologized today. Anne Spencer leaves a rich legacy not to be ignored. Create much with little. Have a renaissance. Innovate. Revitalize a craft, a home, a garden, a community. Happiness.

Experience Something Extraordinary – Scott Patterson on Piano

Music uplifts, inspires, and even transforms the melancholy. Ever been captivated by a piece? Most likely the music affected you. This is exactly what happens when you hear Scott Patterson on piano, a cross between Beethoven and Duke Ellington.

Scott Performing at Piano

I first listened to Scott play for a choir on Sunday mornings. I tapped my feet and clapped my hands to the gospel rhythms. I even imagined him in musical theatre, and it happened at the Roundhouse Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland when he appeared in Clementine in the Lower Nine as the music director. Expanding his repertoire, Scott played the character of Chorus in the same production. After this, I saw him in Camille Brown’s Mr. Tol E. Rance, a musical where he served as a composer and pianist. Click the link, scroll to the video and listen to Scott on piano.

How did he acquire such musical prowess? I caught up with him and asked. He started piano lessons at the age of five. Clearly a musical prodigy, Scott played in churches when he was around 8 years old. Can you imagine that? When I inquired about his greatest influences, there’s quite a list including Earth Wind and Fire, James Cleveland, Bach, Kansas, America, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Thelonious Monk, and, of course, Beethoven and Duke Ellington.

There’s a message in Scott’s music. What does he want to convey? He said, “truth, no boundaries, love, humanity, and spirit because as an artist I’m always challenging myself and my audience to find our best selves. Those virtues are the beginning.”

With that said, I wondered why he chose to integrate musical theatre into his repertoire. He said that Clementine in the Lower Nine, a play focusing on the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, was challenging. Quite the fortunate ones, we got a taste of his versatility when he acted, sang, and played the piano. On the other hand, he said that Camille Brown’s Mr. Tol E. Rance, a musical which addresses modern day minstrelsy, is a different experience. Scott’s piano music and original compositions become a character in the show, and his performance gives new meaning to tickling the ivories because we enter a new musical stratosphere. He said, “My music and my heart are tied into that piece. What I’ve learned from this experience is immeasurable. I feel like I’ve begun to understand myself as an artist.”

When you find an extraordinary artist, always seek some words of wisdom. Scott’s points for aspiring artists are these. “1) Always, always seek to improve and work on your art. 2) Surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to do BETTER THAN YOU are doing it.”

Platinum Photography – An Indelible Impression of Native America

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC features an exhibit called Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson. Containing a collection of more than twenty-five photographs, the exhibit runs from June 7, 2014 through January 15, 2015 in the Sealaska Gallery. Both artists explore an innovative approach by using the platinum process in their contemporary works.

McNeil, born in Juneau, Alaska and raised in Anchorage, studied at the Brooks Institute School of Photographic Art and Science in Santa, Barbara California. He is a member of both the Tlingit and Nisaga’a tribes. The subjects in his works are varied ranging from realist portraits to tribal elders. His focus is tribal reality and how Native Americans are depicted. His best known body of work is the “Fly by Night Mythology” series, which is still ongoing.

Similarly, Will Wilson captures beautiful representations of indigenous peoples who pose for him. Born in San Francisco, Wilson spent his childhood growing up in the Navajo Nation, a Diné tribal background. Wilson attended the University of New Mexico and Oberlin College. In August of 2012, Wilson started the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange (CIPX) at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. His goal is to intervene in the history of photography. “I aim to link history, form, and a critical dialogue about Native American representation.” Read more here.

What is special about this exhibit of platinum photographs? First, look at the platinum process which yields a broad scale of tones from warm black, to reddish brown, and to mid gray. Some say that collectors are attracted to platinum prints because of the tonal range, surface quality and permanence. In fact, there are those who estimate that the platinum images are indelible. Of course, that is the point and theme conveyed by the exhibit.

Using a cell phone, visitors can dial a number and listen to McNeil’s commentary on his individual photographs. For example, take “1491” from the “Feather Series of Five Prints”. McNeil wants the photograph of a single feather to be thought provoking. He indicates that the feather is a metaphorical stand in for the indigenous people. How would the Americas have looked if colonization had not occurred? In fact, light shines on the feather and McNeil used the tones to his advantage. The feather is erect, tall and majestic. See his blog here.

Wilson’s photographs are equally as impressive. Take the photograph, “Raven Knight, Citizen of the Jicarilla Apache Nation”. The use of light and the tones, all part of the platinum process, add to the beauty in this photograph. With Wilson’s work, however, the ability to hear a personal commentary does exist in the exhibit.

Nonetheless the message is well received through this collection of platinum photographs. Native Americans have an unalterable, indelible imprint on our history that will never vanish.

International Artists Find a Gem in Cape Charles Virginia

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Think about international arts festivals and Rome, Paris, London, or New York may come to mind. What about Cape Charles, Virginia, a small historic beach town nestled at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore? With a population under 2,000, Cape Charles hosted the Harbor for the Arts Festival August 1 through August 17, a second annual event of live free entertainment. Some artists from as far as Italy performed and created experimental films at the harbor. Such a vast array of performances and workshops provided more than enough to whet the creative appetite of the locale clientele and visitors from afar. In fact, the festival caught me by surprise while I visited the town. People walked the street taking in the culture. I listened to African drums as I headed towards the Stage Door Gallery, a showcase for original art and fine gifts. Some sought Andrew McKnight, an award winning singer and songwriter. They even closed Strawberry Street to traffic. In the middle of the street, I saw something out of the ordinary, a stage and chairs. This is where NarrowPath, a contemporary Christian band performed. While strolling to the beach, you could even enjoy the rich vocals and the classic acoustics of Jeff Madsen, a local favorite.   The town’s vintage movie house, the Historic Palace Theatre, featured Experimental Film Virginia 2014, a screening of about 15 films from artists such as Maurice Lai from Hong Kong, Dancecology of Taiwan, and Marta Renzi of New York. Experiencia Bayamo, a caribbean dance and celebration, topped off the event.

Was I imagining this? How did Cape Charles become such an arts destination? Who led the avant-garde? Outside the Palace Theatre, I met Mary Ann Roehme, an arts enthusiast and co-executive director of Harbor for the Arts. She explained that Cape Charles won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In a creative partnership between Arts Enter Cape Charles, Citizens for Central Park, and the Cape Charles Business Association, the Town won the award for the project titled, “Cape Charles Harbor for the Arts”. The project focuses on three areas: a comprehensive tourism website, www.CapeCharlesbytheBay.com, the Harbor for the Arts Festival, and the creation of an Arts Walk to feature signature art pieces at several locations.

This goes to show that art can inspire and spark a movement leading to a great vision. It beckons to you, me, and a small town by the Chesapeake Bay.

Connecting with a Golden Sax – Smooth Sounds of James Boles

I spent many hours at the piano never mastering those 88 keys. In spite of numerous lessons and long hours of practice, I never became a virtuoso. You cannot say that about James Boles, saxophonist from Las Vegas, who recently performed at a reunion celebration in Crystal City, VA.

James Boles

Boles skillfully presented a number of 70’s hits including “Let’s Get It On” and “When A Man Loves A Woman”. He serenaded the audience by playing as he strolled down the aisles. Some listened with eyes closed mesmerized by the smooth sounds. I saw Boles’ sax not as an instrument but as his voice, a sacred appendage. Curiosity got the best of me. I wondered how he started and why he chose the sax. When I asked, he spoke affectionately about the sax beaming from ear to ear, actually glowing. His story is not unusual. He started in fourth grade but resisted playing. What is unusual is the fact that he picked up the instrument again in the eighth grade and never abandoned it just like reconnecting with an old friend. For this, we are grateful. As a matter of fact, he played in a band at a noncommissioned officers’ club while living in Japan in the 70’s. As I listened to Boles at the reunion, each soulful, flawless note captivated me. He used prerecorded music as accompaniment, but I only wished that he was on stage with an orchestra in a grand hall. After all, that befits a virtuoso.

Rhythms from a Tiny Desk – Marisa Anderson in Concert

NPR sponsors a special series called Tiny Desk Concerts which are video performances recorded live at the desk of All Songs Considered hosted by Bob Boilen. From their website, I watched Marisa Anderson,

Marissa Anderson

a composer and guitarist, in concert. In 2013, Marisa released two albums, “Traditional and Public Domain Songs” and “Mercury”. I had not heard of Marisa until this viewing. Dressed in a plaid shirt and surrounded by four different guitars, I immediately sensed that she perhaps cared more about the music than outward pomp and circumstance. I viewed her as an earthy, naturalist. Residing in Portland, Oregon, she has gained inspiration from the delta blues, West African guitar, country and western radio, and gospel. With each song performed, she conveyed strong emotion and feelings as if reliving a real life episode. As she plucked, the guitar, swaying downward and then upward, I felt sadness or was this simply her passion for the songs and the music? Take the song, “Hard Times Come Again No More”, a version of the southern gospel piece. The rhythms begin slowly, rise to a great crescendo, and trail off peacefully. Before beginning the song, “Sinks and Rises”, performed on a lap steel guitar, Marisa recounts a trip to a swimming hole in Kentucky. She said that it was the best swimming day in her whole life. Indeed it must have been because she and that lap guitar became one entity in clear, crisp melodic tones. One of her last songs performed in the tiny concert was a piece called “Hesitation Theme in Variation Blues”. Marisa gave credit to blues guitarist Rev Gary Davis. Although I have not listened to the original piece by Rev Davis, I did find myself enjoying Marisa’s rendition. In fact, just as I was ready to tap my toes and maybe stomp my feet, the piece ended. I don’t think this will be my last tiny desk concert and I’ll find Marisa Anderson again.