Starry Night In The Hood

A few days ago I was helping to move some things from a storage unit to a house in an old neighborhood. A community lined with a crayon box array of unique little houses and hard working class families on the marginalized northwest crust of downtown. I arrived early to the address with my truck filled with things to put next to the road for garbage. Among them was a rickety framed poster of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night. I’d lingered on the painting earlier when it was handed to me to put on the truck for trash. It felt almost blasphemous to put even a print of such a seminal work of art to the trash. The same hesitancy hit me again as I laid it gingerly on the trash pile at the house. My mind kicked around the idea of what I could do with it. I allowed my practical side to kick in and walked away.

Later, as we were all unloading the big moving truck, I was prompted to look out to the garbage pile. A young man dressed in jeans and a black hoodie, was working the framed Van Gogh piece from the pile. When it was free, he situated it atop the other items, his brown hands gripping either side of the frame, and stared at it. Did he recognize the piece or did it just catch his eye as something he liked? Either way, it spoke volumes. I watched the scene. Although I couldn’t see his eyes, the connection was apparent. I experienced the connection in a synergistic spirit dance of recognition. What I felt in that moment was beyond any word combination I have to offer at the moment. My soul smiled, my spirit reached out, and we met at that sacred space where art is stretched taunt beyond the imagery. It is A.R.T. – A Resurrecting Truth – the proverbial foot of the cross. The place where we meet face to face, heart to heart, spirit to spirit, beyond all those things that we allow to separate us.

Vincent Van Gogh, 134 years after he put the last strokes on The Starry Night, touched us. The spirit that surged through him came forth in living color, reached out and laid hands on both of us that day. One an artist and the other, well I don’t really know. But I do know that we were linked by the power in the art. That moment expanded my heart space. So honored I get to do what I do as a creative. I don’t know which of those little houses that fella lives in. What his interest, hopes, fears, challenges, and dreams are. I do know he has a desire to see the stars too and may very well be one. I know he knows something about living. Enough to take the time to stop at a trash pile and pull out a work of art to enjoy. I smile to picture that painting hanging on his wall or propped up on his dresser, calling him to see beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood. I know what art can do. And now I’m thinking how much more art can do when I find a way to bring more to marginalized communities like this one. Everyone deserves beauty. I’m a witness, first hand, to the magic of imagination ignited by a Starry Night.

Commanding Space

Someone asked me in an interview last week what was my first interaction with art. Believe it or not, the answer is pretty clear cut, depending on what we classify as art. I was about 3 or 4 years on the planet. I ‘d gotten in trouble as I remember, for writing or drawing on something. I was the only child still home as I hadn’t started school yet. Based on our age proximity, my Mother had to be carrying my little sister at the time. It seems like the weather was warm because I recall the front door being open and light coming in. She sat me in a corner and before I knew it, I was in a double jeopardy situation. Apparently I found another crayon or something and drew on the corner walls where I sat. I vaguely remember and recall with some artistic license, the call of that wall- the empowering feeling of the tool hitting that surface. The space stretched out before me beckoning for mark making by my little hands. And marking I did. Something triggered in my brain, stimulating a part of my subconscious that was awakened thence and forevermore. I have no idea what I drew or how much but it was enough to set me on a path and my mother off again. And she was pregnant too! I don’t remember what happened after that. Probably for good reason.

That was my first recalled foray of claiming space by way of artistic mark making. The idea of setting images or marks apart from myself that remained in the space when I walked away was fascinating beyond my a ability to cease such action. I can create my life map connecting the dots with such occurrences over the course of my days. No, I wasn’t the kid who went around spray painting people’s houses and places of business. Although I did leave some natural clay sculptures on the banks of a few rivers. During those early years I was fairly legal in my claiming of space. My dad didn’t play that getting in trouble outside the house kind of stuff. I’m not even sure if the call of the arts could have been heard over my wailing had he caught wind of me vandalizing something. Mine was relegated to teacher appointed bulletin boards in school, and desks. I loved drawing on desks and retuning to see the comments about my art. I drew in middle school and traded art to the bullies in exchange for leaving me unruffled. In high school, my group of arties would trace our contorted bodies in creative chalk outline drawings on the carpeted floor upstairs between the art department and the band room. Like nobody could figure out it was us. We were never called on it for some reason. I loved the adrenaline rush and wielding of artistic effectuation. To hear people talking about the work and knowing it was done by my hand from my mind, felt like a superpower.

Over the years, I adopted multiple methods of plying my craft. All incorporating the claiming of space for aesthetic effectuation. One if them is still not technically legal so I’ll only hint at that one, compare it to Bruce Wayne and Batman, and carry on. Legally and usually by contract, I sling paint on walls as a muralist. Yes, that was in the cards too or the not so crystal ball. My high school art teacher told me my first year after graduation while sharing with her my first freshman year paintings, that my work looked like it should be huge; murals. She compared my work and acumen to Diego Rivera. I had no idea who Diego Rivera was at the time and definitely had no conscious interest in murals, whatever they were. Turns out she was a prophet in more ways than one. She told me of my potential for success as an artist and saw the murals in me before I could see them in myself. Over the years, I’ve had to fight for my place at the creative table. Fight against legislation, gatekeepers, creative ignorance, misunderstandings about art, doubting friends and family, and perhaps most of all, my own sometimes hyper skeptical mind that used to drill me with the nagging question, “You think you can really make a living at this?”

I remember people saying yeah whatever when I would talk about being a world renown artist. And you know what – I whatevered and remain in continuance mode of claiming spaces for art. In late 2020 I sat in a meeting listening to city leaders talk about one of the new business/government ventures coming to the city. They talked about the number of jobs it would create, families it would support and bring in, and the economic boost and prestige it would provide. This was major. It was called Space Command. For a minute I thought I was in a meeting aboard the Starship Enterprise. I was sitting there feeling pretty left out as an artist. Where could I fit into this? Hell, beam me up too, Scottie! I went home that night thinking about the unfolding of the evening and how the engineering, space exploration industry was the new king cotton of the south. I didn’t see how I could benefit from it as a right brain operator. Then it hit me. I’ve been on the other side of that coin for a long time. Talk about space, you talk about my realm. I’d been claiming space since before I could spell it. Ask my Mama. That night I wrote down the title of my memoir and fleshed out Commanding Space. It’s a united federation of creative minds. A collective force of creative wills at work. I determined that we, as creatives will not be left out of this thrust into the joy of our future. We are willing to boldly go where no man has gone before. I hear you Sun Ra. Space Is The Place, in more ways that one.

Effectuation

“It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” Nina Simone

It is an artist’s right and responsibility to choose to be a thermometer, gauging or reflecting the climate , or a thermostat, having a definite effect on the climate of the times in which we live. I have chosen to lean implicitly on the latter. I’ll compare effectuation with the word affectation which is defined as an attempt to assume or exhibit what is not natural or real; false display; artificial show. We can say this reflects the nature of the lion ‘s share of our modes of information.

Effectuation by definition is to cause or bring about (something) : to put (something) into effect or operation. Effectuation activates an altering effect on the world around you in some form or fashion. Said activation, for me, has been absorbed from a life wrapped in reality dipped in a strong mixture of hope and imagination, and deep southern fried in faith. Once I came to understand the nature of art as having the ability to effect the world around me, my reverence for the discipline grew exponentially. I knew that it would never again serve merely as a means of escape, unless that escape meant a type of liberation. I knew that I was to put it in service of humanity – to charge it to serve as agency in my quest for cosmic balance.

Standing at the Mothers of Gynecology Monument in Montgomery, AL.

Giants Among Us…

I can still see her. My maternal grandmother was more than my mother’s mother. She was in every sense of the word, a Grand Mother. One of those epic divine figures from antiquity returning to live out this human journey to leave clues for the next unfolding of the story. She worked as a domestic from her late childhood to when she could no longer work. On her gnarled hands was scripted a life of consistent physical labor. Even still she loved to read. Those hands made the best pies, cakes, and created homemade delicacies. Those hands inscribed in the most beautiful handwriting words in her journal. I never read them. Now I can only imagine what she may have scribbled down on those pages. She also loved to grow things. It might seem easier to say she loved plants but that would diminish the scope of her reach. Her gift was growing things.

From about the age of seven or eight, I would take some type of plant to her small two bedroom house, when we visited. These plants were never store-bought. I would gather them, fresh dug from the earth, and place them in anything I could find from cut-off milk cartons to old mayonnaise jars. With pride I would sit in the back seat of my parents car with my prize for Gran’ma tucked between my knees. No matter what I brought, she beamed. That gleam in her eyes always lit up mine. Then we’d plant it. It didn’t matter if it was a sprig of wild honeysuckle or a volunteer maple tree, she planted it.

Over the years, I bore witness to those trees growing in her front yard. For me I felt a partnership with the forces of the universe that made me feel like a giant. Those tall monuments towering above her house had been lifted from the earth and transported by my hands. She eventually moved from that house. But not before it had etched itself in my memory and tethered her to it in my recollections and dreams. That’s where I still see her-in my dreams. Although she left the planet in human form at the turn of the century, she never really left. She’s still planting. Still growing things. I’m her hands now. Her words flow through my mouth. That gleam of hers still sparkles in my eyes. Warm brown skin, the color of mine still soaks up the sun, loving the feel of fresh earth beneath our feet. Her stature is unforgettable. She walked her days on this plane with pride over prejudice as a four foot eight inch giant. Her foot print is immense. She plowed as she walked and planted experiences that grew into memories and now blossom as dreams realized in my own life. I knew I wasn’t her only garden. I am, however doing my best at being her most prolific.

Her favorite flower was the African violet. I keep one on my desk at the studio. I call her Gran’ma. I get to see her every day I’m in the studio. She reminds me on those days when I feel halted or not quite up to snuff to keep on keeping on. Her memory keeps me stretching my legs to fill the gaps between what is and what is to be. She’s a reminder to keep the faith and to see the big in little things. She opened my eyes to the wonder of all things great and small. There is nothing I can’t reach or nothing too low to bring up. She taught me in all of her being, that I can believe in anything. That anything I care to invest in can grow to any height I will. That anything really is possible. She showed me that the smallest things can serve as a revelation that there are giants among us.

Guiding Light

Every weekday morning, spring summer, winter, or autumn, when I got up early enough, I would see my dad on the far corner of the living room couch reading the by lamplight. That image dug deep into my psyche. So much so that it wasn’t until I became an avid reader and scholar did I learn that he had never completed grade school. Even still, he encouraged me to read. On those hot summer days, he even called home to ask my older sister if I had got my reading in. And yes, most days, ready or not, I had.

I developed an almost obsessive love for the written word. Eventually I’d read everything on the small bookshelves in our home, including those not meant for me like, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid To Ask. I dove into the world of books from the school library, the school classroom book collections, family Friends’ encyclopedias (we couldn’t afford any), Boys and Girls Club library and book club, and eventually the local Public library located in a converted trailer home at the end of the Kmart parking lot. With every book I read, more light came on. My world opened up and blossomed into countless pages of possibilities illuminated by the power of learning. I couldn’t understand how anyone could not love reading. Before my children were born, I read to them. After they were born I read to them. All along the way, I’ve done my damndest to impart to them the joy, power, and liberation gained from the light of the written word.

During the holidays, my oldest son comes home. Home will always be home and there will always be books. Nothing can express what I felt one morning when I rounded the corner and saw him sitting on the far corner of the sofa in the library reading by lamplight. A flood of emotions engulfed me. Yes, I knew that when he would come to visit, he would go through my shelves like a bookstore. I always know that we are going to talk about what we are reading. It’s pretty obvious that we are sharing reading lists and books throughout the year. But there was something about that sight that triggered a thing that made me exhale relief and breath in the spirit of re-memberance. A remembrance that unifies scattered points in ones life and sews up loose ends. A remembrance that goes beyond recall into the realm of conjuring. One that reaches all the way down into your spirit and you can feel your ancestors smile – hear the humming of that Grand Mother by the window of some house beneath lamplight singing a prayer for all her children, born, gone, and yet to come. It’s a full circle spiraling upwards to the dawn. An early dawn, just before the sun comes up and you catch a glimpse of a father on the far end of the sofa reading by lamplight. That guiding light. Keep yours trimmed and burning, whatever it is. Keep your lamp lit. It’ll show somebody the way…

Well mother don’t you stop prayin’
Father keep right on prayin’
Don’t you stop prayin’ for this old world …
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning

Sacred Space…

Last year around this time, I was in Westchester, Pennsylvania for a funeral. A funeral I’ve not yet fully come to accept. At times it feels like a dream from which I’ve not awakened, nor can until I’m ready. While we were there, I visited interesting places and curiously searched out memorable spaces. I found this independent bookstore called Baldwin Book Barn on the outskirts of the city, tucked into the Chester County hills. My son and I are both passionate lovers of the written page and devotees to vintage, so this was a definite go to.

When we arrived, the bookstore did not disappoint. It appeared as though we’d transferred to an alternate world. The book barn, built in 1822 with Pennsylvania stone, was replete with cozy nooks, stone walls, and floors and floors jammed pack with wooden shelves of all kinds of books. The wood burning stove added the touch that took you back to a place you’d never actually been but wish you had. It was a Christmas postcard come to life. As I went from floor to floor, I’d catch glimpses of my son standing before a book-filled shelf, hunched over a table reading, leafing through pages, or sitting on the floor beneath a tower of books. The look on his face, I’m sure, mirrored mine. One of wonder and a strange mixture of excitement and peace. The type of mixture conjured up in sacred spaces. All of this stood in stark contrast to, but in a strange way, a direct connection to what we were in the city for. The peace that engulfed me surpassed the sadness deep in the well of my interior.

I rounded a corner and a photo of a painting of a little girl spoke directly to my state of mind. She stood off the wall and connected to my spirit. The books stretched out behind her. She before them. My childhood and my present folded into that moment. That sacred moment where everything felt okay. In this instance, the experience elevated the space to one of a divine connection, a synergetic symphony where time condensed. The outside world came into perspective and disappeared at the same. I saw the whole of myself, my love for the mysterious, books, and the lives from which they emanated. My appreciation of being stepped forth into the light pointing at death serving as a reminder to live.

Pathfinder

As a child I was a member of a denomination sponsored youth group called the Pathfinders. Now I could scour the great outdoors and all that other exciting stuff that Pathfinders did. When I got in, I was all in. I was a rough and tumble Pathfinder incarnate.

But did I really know what it meant from an organizational point of view or was I focused on what it meant to me. The point of pathfinders for the organization, I’ve since discovered, was to introduce youth to Jesus Christ; to build mind, body, and spirit in order to be able to carry out the work of the church and bring others to the feet of Jesus. I’m sure that particular cause was noble and just, but it wasn’t mine. I wanted the adventure, the adrenaline rush of the challenge of rolling in the deep with the natural world and] making my way. My heroes in the Pathfinder mindset were men like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Grizzly Adams, Matthew Henson, Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, and any scout in a western movie. When I wasn’t outdoors, you could often find me face deep in any book by Jack London, Jim Kjelgaard, or Edgar Rice Burrows. I was all about fully living in the face of the challenge of the natural world. There was no manufactured path for these men, only the raw space in which they blazed trails against the odds. That was the place in the church where I knew I could fit. That’s why I joined the Pathfinders.

Fast forward, I am still a pathfinder in my sense of the word. The organization made a profound impact on me. The structure, the challenges of learning skills beyond my neighborhood streets, and of course the campouts and outdoor life shaped the part of me my spirit was seeking to hone. It showed me that there is always a path present, even before one sees it in the physical world. Your path is mapped in your spirit first, then your mind lays it out. Your body follows. It’s like that in any endeavor in which you set your intent to do. Especially when that doing is unclear in terms of a set path. For example, when I received my Master’s degree in education, I knew I had only to pass the praxis to get certified, apply for a position, get the job and begin work as an educator. The path was pretty cut and dry. I’m not at all implying that teaching is a simple undertaking, but the steps to get there are laid out systematically.

To be an artist, one that lives and eats by what comes from their hearts and hands, is another story. It’s the trailblazing banshee of a scout type mentality that eats by the edge of the blade, the blast of muzzle fire, and the sheer will of making ones way. I am often asked how to get there. My only honest response is there is no set path. It’s different for every person who sets out to do their curiosity’s bidding. You just have to set out and go. Make your art, do your thing, set and know your intent, and put it to the world in a faith and action beyond hoping. It becomes systematic in the discovery and formulation of what works by being honest with yourself. Realize and claim your story, unapologetically. That points you purposefully along your way. It’s a matter of heart over hardware. That truth of who you are, what you uniquely have to offer, and how, is what will connect you to your audience. When you can make and commit to that decision you will find your path.

Inner-G

This past weekend, I pulled up at the school to attend my daughter’s Christmas play. The parking lot was so packed I ended up parking way back in a field behind the school. On the way in, I discussed the packed house with another parent. Then a startling thought hit me. What if it was already a packed house with no seats left? I kept walking and ran into a former student. We chatted up a canned version of this is my life and departed with twin smiles. The line wasn’t too long but it was slow. I was finally there right as the time hit 7pm, showtime.

“One adult ticket” I said, handing over my card.

She entered the info and requested my zip. It didn’t go though. “That’s strange”, I said. “I just used that card.” I knew my card was good. I gave her a different zip and asked her to reenter the information. I was ready to go in. This was taking far too long. Momentarily, she shook her head again and proceeded to hand me back my card. I am not understanding what is going on here. Somewhere beside me I saw a $10 bill being handed to the cashier next to her. She passed it over to my cashier and said.

“He just paid your way.” I must have looked stunned or something because she repeated, “That guy just paid for you.” Immediately, I looked in the direction of where the guy would or should have been. There was no guy. They continued to marvel at the act, following up with wishes of Merry Christmas. I expressed my gratitude replete with repeated wows, and went in.

I enjoyed the show but much of my headspace was given to that act of random kindness and a myriad of implications. My logical mind questioned why he’d paid. My spirit lifted because he had paid. It reminded me that nothing will stand in the way of intent. I asked for one adult ticket and got it, despite my card not being accepted. For the record, the next morning, I used that card with no issues. There are so many ways to unpack this that we could do a War and Peace sized text, with room for part 3. I’ll focus on one corner of a key element for clarity.

The Inner-G.

What type of energy circulates through your life space? What do you expect? What is your intent? The inner G is the inner guide, your inner geometry; how things are shaped, sized, positioned, and angled in your mental realm of possibilities. What are the dimensions of your faith.

How could I miss a man paying for my ticket right next to me and how did he disappear so fast? I had to pull my mind out of analytical mode and just receive. It sounds like one of those mysterious angels among us tales. Maybe they’re no so mysterious, just unnoticed. And yes, they are angels – messengers reminding us that we have a part to play in the cosmic balance. The energy connected that night at the ticket booth and the milk of human kindness flowed. I am so grateful to whomever it was. Even more so, I am grateful that it is. It’s a reminder that compassion is alive and well in the family of man. A reminder that like gives birth to like. A reminder that there is an ARK of comfort in a world flooded with opposition. Acts of Random Kindness. That’s Inner G in action.

This Little Light…

This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Oh, this little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine

Let is shine, let is shine, let it shine. Will you? That song might possibly have been the most potent yet underrated charge we were exposed to in church as children. I remember singing the melody each week in some part of the children’s church service. Of course the meaning that was fed to us was from a religious point of view – a shout out to the church doctrinal beliefs. It was a perfect jingle to plug into the rhythmical chords of little minds.

As I grew older, the positioning of the song shifted in my mind. Or should I say, the scope widened. It simply busted out of the walls of the church building and expanded beyond the parochial into the realm of the cosmic. The question for me, what is your light, blossomed into a thousand points of the same. It illuminated the possibilities beyond the comfort of that arena and lit up my universe. What is your light? That’s your question to answer. What brightens your space? What chases away your dark days? What gives wings to your heart? What do you project onto others that that shows them who they are, what they can be, rains a little joy in their world, or stretches a smile across their faces? When found, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

All around the neighborhood
I’m going to let it shine
All around the neighborhood
I’m going to let it shine
All around the neighborhood

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…

Reflection…

This past week I went to visit my Mother’s house. When I arrived she wasn’t there. I heard the rustle of leaves and noticed that the vestiges of Autumn’s winter preparation had gathered in drifts on her porch. Her rooftop was also nearly covered in white oak leaves and pine straw. I pulled my truck up next to the lower part of her carport, grabbed a broom, and made my way up.

The feeling was so familiar. As I swept, high above the earth, memories flooded in, washing me with feelings of nostalgia. Being an ultra adventurous skinny little boy with dreams to0 heavy to lift at the time, I would sometimes sit for long spans atop that house. It was never just a rooftop. Above the hustle and bustle of the world below, I would allow my mind to soar as I squinted against the sun. I remember feeling like one of the big cats, sitting there surveying the land about me, unnoticed but with the potential to command attention at any moment I chose. I remember thinking how no one really looks that high up unless prompted. They were too busy with being in the small space around them. Sometimes, when I was bored of the aloneness, I would yell out to a passing friend in low country. They would turn and look, taking a while to spot the little brown boy on the rooftop. The response was always one of surprise and immediate change of course, running over to see how they too, could gain access to this lofty space. I would help them up and we would enjoy our perch. Their bubbling excitement always gave me a sense of accomplishment, a satisfied feeling of well being. The knowing that I had ushered them here to this space where few dared to tread, fed my soul. This space where we left fear on the ground and dreams and the imagination easily took root.

I sat for a minute on the roof with my younger self. The slate colored shingles warm beneath me, balanced out the slight chill of the sunlit autumn day. I squinted my eyes against the afternoon sun and breathed deep. The big cat was still there. My mom had come home and was pulling greens in her garden. The cars passed below, and a few people dotted the sidewalk. I was in that space again, remembering, reminiscing, replaying ideas, thoughts, and experiences from childhood to now. I took inventory of my life in that moment and realized that I had been creating the mirror all along. However big my dreams were and outlandish my imagination soared, created the mirror in which I can now look into. I can honestly say that I am becoming the reflection of that child’s dreams, the mirrored image of those possibilities. Where is your space? Where are the childhood hopes and dreams buried; the ones you had before anyone told you how and who to be by name or shame. Reflecting on those daydreams can be a mirror, an adventure packed burnt edged, fold-riddled parchment paper treasure map to the life you really want to live. Even if you’re not there, it still is. Travel back too that space. Your mind can still take you there. It knows the way. Then take a close and honest look. Is your reflection true to who really are?