Julia Martin Gallery to Host Discussion on Confederate Flag Imagery in Artwork

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Sheila B., “Southern Motel.” Photo courtesy of Nashville Scene.

Julia Martin invites you to her gallery for a discussion in regard to the recent controversy over Sheila B.‘s painting “Southern Motel” (pictured above), which was removed from the downtown Nashville bar/restaurant Acme Feed & Seed at the request of the restaurant’s investor and mayoral hopeful Charles Robert Bone.

The painting in question is of a blonde, white woman with a Confederate flag bikini bottom bending over next to the Southern Motel, which advertises a swimming pool and exclaims on its hand painted sign: “Every kind-hearted soul welcome! Mean people stay away.”

Julia Martin is hosting an “open forum discussion” about the painting’s removal. She wrote in Tuesday’s press release:

I personally want to provide an opportunity for folks to see and discuss the piece first hand. And to talk about the many issues surrounding this particular situation along with the use of powerful symbols, like the confederate flag, in works of art.

I’m not sure if it’s an open forum (where visitors will be able to have the floor) or a panel (where just a select group of people talk.) She calls it both things. She’s invited Lux-o-matic, the white burlesque performer who modeled for the painting, as well as songwriter Jason White (who is white). Artist Dane Carder will be a panelist (also white and I guess qualified because his paintings reference Civil War imagery), and Nashville Arts editor Paul Polycarpou will join him (whom I love but is also white [Note: Polycarpou contacted me to say he is from Cyprus––not white––, which might make a difference to some folks.]).*** And thank goodness Martin has the sense to include one person of color in this event, the writer TJ Jarrett who will perform a poetry reading (BTW, her performance alone is worth the trip; she’s sooo good.) It’s unclear if Jarrett is intended to be on the panel; she must be because otherwise it would be incredibly awkward to have the only person of color billed to perform and not have a part in the discussion — right?.

I’m skeptical of Martin’s intentions because there are plenty of Black artists, writers, and scholars living in Nashville whom Martin could draw out if she were so inclined. Since this conversation is about Confederate symbolism in art, I’d say it’s kind of important that we hear from people of color in the arts, and a visual artist would be especially appropriate. It’s possible that Martin sought a more diverse and relevant panel and came up short, but let’s face it: she obviously didn’t look very far. For me, her choice of panelists doesn’t bode well.

I’m going to be generous and say that Sheila B. has a message in “Southern Motel,” although many I’ve talked to disagree. The message is that an establishment claims to be welcoming while it allows bathing beauties to prance around in Confederate bikinis. There’s a clash of ideologies that is not terribly clever to point out. We’ve all heard versions of it. (“Bless your heart, if you’re a Christian.) If “Southern Motel” says anything at all, that’s it.

Sheila B. has shown work at Julia Martin Gallery in the past. She paints mostly portraits of country musicians and big-bosomed women in that Americana style that Nashville never tires of: pin-up style bodies, random words associated with Southern roots, nostalgic scenes, and I’ll say it again, big-bosomed women. (Somebody pass her a copy of The Ways of Seeing, please.) So I’m not a big fan of her work, but she surely should keep doing what she’s doing because a lot of people love it. Good on all of them.

What’s not so good is her shock and surprise that a Facebook group called for the painting in Acme Feed & Seed to be taken down. I want to be 100% clear in that Sheila B.’s painting is a small offense in comparison to the multitudinous Confederate images in many, many other places. But her response to the controversy shows her to be irresponsible and tone deaf. In an interview with the Scene, she says, “My artwork, it’s pretty obvious that my message is very progressive. And it is a Southern progressive.”

Let’s hold it right there.

When the Scene asks her about her intention with the painting, she can’t give a real answer. She says:

It was a Southern motel, and it said, “Every kind-hearted soul welcome, mean people stay away.” My artwork doesn’t always knock people over the head. I like to gently prod people.

If the prod is so gentle that people don’t notice, is it still a prod? Meanwhile, I’m stuck twiddling my thumbs about how her work is progressive. Her (also unprogressive) paintings of Patsy Cline and burlesque beauties aside, in this specific painting, she’s casually dropping in a loaded symbol and not judging it. Contradiction does not equal critique. In the Scene interview, the artist says that the restaurant’s decision to take the painting down “was so far out of left field — I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was so shocking.” Frankly, it made me wonder if shirking responsibility and disavowing criticism is part of the Southern progressive mindset she touts. Sheila B. says her piece is “about the New South.” If we are to believe this, it seems the New South is not much different from the Old South. Clearly, the Confederate flag is part of the way she defines the South, and she doesn’t want to jettison it as one of the region’s foremost symbols.

Here’s what I think is the trouble with Sheila B.’s painting “Southern Motel”: her work overtly celebrates Southern culture in way that some might call playful, whimsical, and above all nostalgic. Taken in this context, it is easy to understand why some folks are not cool with looking at the Confederate flag on the ass of a white woman in a five foot tall painting while they’re eating and drinking cocktails, no matter the ironic subtext. And let’s be clear: The contradiction is present in the painting. A critique is not. Persistent racist ideologies should not be summed up as some kind of trifling “meanness.”Nostalgia for Southern roots is perhaps the main defense of those who still want to fly the flag of the Rebel army. The message in the painting, therefore, is that although there’s a bit of a paradox in Southern ideologies, it’s really no big deal. 

Her response to the controversy gets more and more disturbing. She tells the Scene:

I don’t really feel censored. I actually wanted it taken down once I saw all this stuff happening. Because I didn’t want anything to happen to my artwork. People are such nutjobs, people are so crazy in this time we live in — look at what happened last week in Charleston for God’s sake, you know, crazy people do crazy things. So for me it’s not censorship. For me, I resent being co-opted into this mudslinging — it’s someone taking advantage of a situation.

Wow. There is a lot to unpack here! First, the artist shows a disturbing lack of priorities when she says that she wanted the work taken down because she was worried about it. A worse scenario might be a family from Nashville or from out of town walking into the restaurant and feeling unwelcome because of the presence of the Confederate flag, or someone not submitting a job application for the same reason.

And I’m unclear: Is she lassoing the people who wanted the painting taken down with Dylann Roof, the radical, racist terrorist and murderer of nine innocent people? Or, is she acknowledging the absolute crisis of racism in America, even while she defends her use of the flag? Or, is she excusing the Charleston massacre as an isolated incident committed by a “nutjob,” and not a symptom of an epidemic of racism in America? I’m confused. All of these options suck. Her response is blatantly tone deaf in the same way as your white uncle who says, “I’m not racist; I have black friends.”

And how about that swimming pool in the painting? Supposedly, Jim Crow ended with the Civil Rights Act, but we saw its legacy just weeks ago in McKinney, Texas when a police officer used excessive force and brutalizing language on teenagers at a pool party. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A Southern progressive should know this and be receptive to criticism surrounding the use of these symbols.

Stay with me; we’re still unpacking that paragraph! The “mudslinging” she’s referring to is the fact that Charles Robert Bone requested that the painting come down. It looks like Sheila believes that the FB group “Boycott Acme Feed & Seed” was started to smear Bone. (I have a hard time believing that any campaign manager would sign off on such a stunt.) But to chalk this up to political maneuvering seems to trivialize the situation. Politicians become a scapegoat for Sheila B. Casting this as mayoral mudslinging shows an unwillingness to take the critique constructively. In fact, her response is a dismissal of feelings surrounding the flag and what it stands for, even as she claims to be a progressive.

“This is a made-up controversy,” Sheila B. says.

Arist Sonya Clark unravels a Confederate flag

Arist Sonya Clark unravels a Confederate flag in her artwork “Unravelling,” which she completed in June 2015.

Actually, it’s not. The country is in shock and mourning. Activists and artists are making brave and critical statements about the confederate flag and its symbolism, like Bree Newsome who climbed the South Carolina State Capitol’s flag pole, and Sonya Clark who unraveled a flag as an artwork just prior to the terrorist attack in Charleston. Here’s an article from Hyperallergic called “How Artists Can Help Conceive of New Flags and Monuments for the U.S”, not to mention Southern artists like Fahamu Pecou, Fabian Williams, Dustin Harewood, Princess Simpson Rashid, and Overstreet Ducasse. Sheila B. would do well to consider some of their thoughtful, and in some ways monumental work and see how her use of the Confederate flag is not isolated in her own imagination or repertoire. The call to take her painting down did not happen in a vacuum, but she insists it was another display of people being “knee jerk crazy.”

I credit Martin with wanting to explore this issue as it pertains to art, but for some reason, I’m not hopeful for a very productive conversation, in part because Sheila B. doesn’t seem open to one, and in part because there’s an inherent support of the artist in coordinating such an event with a white-dominated panel. On one hand, it seems like an opportunity for people, probably majority white people, to grapple with these issues; but more so, it’s likely to do little more than give Sheila B. a broader avenue for excuses. Maybe I’m wrong about that. You can see for yourself Friday, July 10 at 5:30 (for cocktails) / 6:00 (discussion) at 444 Humphreys.

Let me conclude with one thing: I don’t tear people down for amusement or self-gratification. I invite you to try to find another post on this blog — or in my publication history — that is so negative. But I’ll die on the hill of getting other white people to examine their intentions and actions, and I’ll take them to task when they don’t.

 

Artist Interview: Briena Harmening

Briena Harmening is a text-obsessed textile artist. She uses the daintiest of crafts — embroidery, filet crochet, doilies — to balance out weighty emotional reckonings that she documents in her work. Harmening lives and works in Nashville, and she has a solo show opening at Blend in the Arcade on Friday, July 3 from 6 to 9 pm. The show is titled “I Bet You Think This Show Is About You,” and as you might guess, it’s the work of a scorned lover. Her stenciled letters on canvas and within crochet will sound familiar to anyone who’s had their heart trampled. But Harmening’s message doesn’t stop there. Her material choices recall traditional women’s work and its mind numbing processes, so her emotionally charged text messages speak even louder. The text might be wistful (“Sometimes I miss the old me”) or flat-out angry (“I moved here for you fucker”), but it’s always honest. I chatted with the artist in her West Nashville home and studio.

In the Studio of Briena Harmening

In the Studio of Briena Harmening

Brianna Harmening: I am originally from McMinnville, just an hour and a half east of here. I got married really young, moved to Florida, finished school there for a Bachelor of Arts, then started looking at graduate schools. I couldn’t afford to go to certain ones, so I ended up back at University of Tennessee in Knoxville. I got divorced after that, but while I was there, I took art education classes and got my teaching license. I’ve been teaching for five years.

Erica Ciccarone: All at Hillsboro?

BH: I taught for four years at West High School in Knoxville. Then I moved here for a boy. We were dating for years long distance. That job [at Hillsboro] opened up. They’re an International Baccalaureate school, and I’d been trained in that. I got the job that afternoon. I said, “Sure I’ll go.” I have a lot of friends who live here in Nashville. And my best friend lives in Murfreesboro and we’ve known each other since kindergarten.

EC: So your studio is really great! So much space and light.

BH: This is a dream come true because before this, I was working in a second bedroom. I couldn’t afford a studio space. Then I was thinking about having a full time job, driving to the studio, maybe staying an hour or two versus having it at home where I can constantly access it. If I get up in the middle of the night…This space is great. There’s a lot of potential.

EC: I’m a quilter and embroiderer and all around textile nut. When I saw your piece at Ground Floor in The Artist’s Alphabet show, I immediately wanted to know more.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

BH: I’m going to Penland School of Crafts for screen printing coming up, and I’m taking a bunch of quilts to work on. In graduate school, I started making quilt tops — not finishing them. Then I would paint or do text on them, and I want to do a series. I have seven quilt tops that my aunt Margie made, and she passed away. It will be a continuance of this series. I thought about mixing them up for my July show at Blend, but I don’t think I can add them into my artist statement.

EC: Tell me about your show.

BH: In July I have a solo show at Blend in the Arcade. It will be some of this work. I had thought, “Oh, if I get a lot of work finished, I’ll put some of these quilts in,” but I think they’ll be way too big and overwhelm the space. I’m thinking about how to add onto these pieces here and make them more like sculptures…

Briena Harmening in her studio.

Briena Harmening in her studio.

EC: This is crochet?

BH: This is filet crochet. I started out with a series about dating in Knoxville. All these squares that are filled in show where there’s a letter. I started crocheting things people would tell me about dating, and then it got to where I would take things out of context from conversations. I’ve always been interested in language and how we communicate, how we make friends…I just started taking random sentences and writing the way my students speak, which was very funny. Then, I felt like I had to depart from it. I’ve always worked in text in some ways and it ended up in painting. I’ve always been into Richard Prince and Rauschenberg and Tracy Emin. I love autobiographical work. I’ve been through some dramatic things in my life, so I always write about those things.

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In the studio of Briena Harmening.

So this work has kind of evolved from the loss of my relationship. Some of them are angry and some are more somber, just dealing with the loss. I really put 100% into it [the relationship], and it’s been mind boggling.

EC: I definitely sense the loss, but your work is often humourous as well.

BH: Yeah. It’s funny. I guess I use humor to deal with difficult issues.

EC: What’s that process for these pieces that look like they’re dipped in paint? First you crochet the words.

BH: Yeah, then I pour paint over the piece and spread it. Then I go back in with scissors and push through the empty spaces. This one says, “One more fucking love song and I’m gonna vomit in this car.” I felt like every song was coming on, I was wanting to cry when I was driving around. [laughs]

EC: Yeah they can get really grating.

BH: The next one I should probably add something funny. The past few have been kind of sad. I was working on this other one this morning. It says, “I keep leaving pieces of myself with others.”

EC: I like that.

BH: It would be cool to have them coming off the wall, using that stiffness. I just sent a piece off to a show in Memphis for a show. It was really stiff and it would have been neat to have it shaped. I think I’ll need to dip them in starch. It’s something I want to experiment with later. I don’t know how well you’ll be able to read them.

Briena Harmening

Briena Harmening’s Birth Control Embroideries.

EC: Tell me about your small pieces, the birth control and Metallica ones…

BH: I love those. I lost my ovaries when I was in high school. I’ve been on and off different birth controls to try to get hormone levels right. I went through this feminist phase about what that meant to me, not being able to have kids, not feeling like a woman, not being sexually interested really and feeling a little bit asexual at one point. I’m always like, “What’s this pill gonna do?” Everytime they would switch me, it would be a surprise. I got those birth control packages out of a recycling dumpster. My mom cross stitches, so I thought I should add some little image or text in them. At that time I had started quilting, so I stitched quilt patterns from an old pattern book I’d gotten at McKay’s.

EC: I love them because cross stitch is so domestic. You just picture a heart shaped pillow on an armchair. It’s the feminine domesticity and the reproductive control of the Pill. I love that contradiction.

BH: They were really quick. They took two days a piece, and I would turn the dial to the day I finished. They also became documentation. I need to get in touch with Planned Parenthood. Right now, they’re just packed up.

Briena Harmening.

Briena Harmening’s Metallica Embroideries.

BH: The Metallica embroidery was my attempt at something super fun. They were my first concert when I was thirteen, in those developing years…I love metal music and anything depressive. Those pieces became an ode to Metallica. I didn’t want to use images from the title. I listened to songs and figured out an image that came to mind. Then I’d embroider a lyric. I presented them as a game in the gallery. I had them numbered on the wall and I handed out these sheets during show, and for every ten you got right, you got a shot of whiskey. Now my friends are like, “You should make those and put them on Etsy.” That would be awesome to do but you got to have start up ones ready to go and I just don’t have the time. That was one of the best shows I’ve had.

EC: In some of these crochet wall pieces, you leave strings hanging. Is that intentional?

BH: When I do embroidery, I love leaving strings. I crocheted my mom and dad’s portrait of them sharing a drink; they’re not drinkers. They came down for my students’ show in Knoxville and we went out to a bar — we’ve never done that in my whole life — and my dad ordered a fuzzy navel. They shared it. I left some of the strings loose when I gave it to them and they wanted to cut them.

EC: I like this one.

BH: I hate this one! It’s too much blue. An aritist I know said recently that she’d like to see some crochet that’s more painterly, but it’s really hard to build areas up when you’ve got so much space. It’s almost like I’d have to fill it first with silicone and paint on top of it. I just kept trying to layer and put more paint because I can’t go back and push the holes.

EC: I don’t think I’d want your work to be more painterly. I think I like it specifically because it’s not painterly. At the same time, I’d still consider them paintings.

I like this piece and what it says. I think that a lot of people can relate to it. It’s in the context of internet posts and the phrase, “That moment when…”

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

In the studio of Briena Harmening.

BH: That’s what I was going for with these. I didn’t want to make the work so personal that I shut people out. That’s why a lot of them are about realizing something in that moment. People can go back to that place when they felt the same. It’s funny. I’m not a big tech person. In fact, I don’t watch YouTube videos. I don’t hunt things out. I’ll hunt artists out but I don’t read all that stuff online. I hate being on the computer for the most part.

EC: I wouldn’t have guessed that.

BH: One of my friends was like, there are all these memes about “That moment when…You need to look that stuff up.” So I did and I was like, Noooo! I thought I had a good idea!

EC: Well you did have a good idea! I like in it in this context so much more.

BH: It’s nice that it resonates, but you know what it’s like when you think you’re hitting on something… It’s like seeing someone’s work and thinking, “I fucking thought of that before! Why didn’t I make it?”

EC: Do you feel that teaching feeds your artistic process or drains it, or both?

BH: I have to have a schedule, otherwise I can totally see why other art teachers just don’t make art anymore. For me, that’s always been really important. I want to show my kids that I’m trying to make it. Teaching is not what I want to do for my whole life. I feel like that’s important. My work feeds what I teach them because a lot of times if I see something I’ll be like, “We’re gonna look at this artist and this is what we’re gonna do.” Our last project was contemporary taxidermy. We looked at all these taxidermy artists and made paper mache animals. We talked about hybrids and combining animals. I only had two students make hybrids. Next year, that’s going to be the requirement. So many of them go to the easy things. I really want them to explore animals…

EC: So what’s coming up for you?

BH: I’m working in the press release for the Blend show now. It must be fun to travel around visiting artists. I really want to get more involved in visiting people’s studios.

Briena Harmening,

Briena Harmening, “I’d rather be alone,” 2015; crochet, spray paint on wood and plastic, 30 in. X 28 in.

More on Memphis: Crosstown Arts

CrosstownArtsAnother stop on my tour of Memphis was Crosstown Arts. This nonprofit arts org is located in the shadow of the old Crosstown building, the 1.5 million square foot Sears Roebuck & Co. distribution center that’s been empty since 1993. It’s now in redevelopment to become a “mixed-use vertical urban village” and slated to open as such in 2017.

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Crosstown Arts is a performance site, a gallery, an after-school youth arts and literacy program, and a flea market. I met staffer Emily Harris Halpern there and she was kind enough to show me around. Crosstown is totally community focused. Halpern says that one of their goals is neighborhood revitalization, and they’re playing a part in the renovation of the Sears building as founding tenants. When Crosstown Concourse opens, they’ll move in with expanded programming, including artist residencies. They now hold an open crit each month and invite artists to bring in their work for participatory critique.DSC02990

They also rent a low-cost performance space to Memphians. Coming up, they’re hosting a book release party, a hip hop listening session, and a poetry reading series. They also make field trips. On May 31, for example, Crosstown is taking a bus full of people to Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock to see 30 Americans, the stunning, important exhibition of African-American artists that came to the Frist in 2013. Crosstown offers a bus ticket and guided tour of the exhibition for $25.

While I was there, I caught Between the Eyes, an exhibition of abstracts curated by Laurel Sucsy. It features Marina Adams, Rob de Oude, Joe Fyfe, Rubens Ghenov, Iva Gueorguieva, and some of Sucsy’s own work. Together, they demonstrate the many ways to communicate through abstract painting. I liked the work as a whole and individually. I hadn’t heard of any of the artists, and I’ve been investigating each since my trip. Sucsy chose an international roster with very different styles: from the supple, sensual bold shapes of Marina Adams (anyone else totally turned on by these?) to the dizzying geometry of Rob de Oude.

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Marina Adams, “Four Worlds,” 2013; oil and acrylic on panel, 74 by 74 inches.

 

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Rubens Ghenov, “Leafe Verse,” 2015; acrylic on linen, 20 by 16 inches.

Seeing two by Iva Gueorguieva was a real treat. “Scarlet Squall” (2012; pictured third below) got my heart pumping with its sharp shapes that crash into each other and splinter, united by a central energy that pulls everything inward. In contrast, Rubens Ghenov‘s “Leafe Verse” is a minimal and solitary beauty with great visual depth. Joe Fyfe has four pieces in the show. Constructed from materials like wood, cloth, rope, and styrofoam, Fyfe’s pieces call into question the nature of painting and prioritize process over image. In using diverse materials, Fyfe is bound by constraints, and you get the feeling that in all of his works, he’s trying to solve a puzzle. Keep scrolling for some more images of this compelling exhibition.

 

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Iva Gueorguieva, “Vanishing )after Perugino),” 2013; acrylic, collage and oil on canvas, 76 by 81 inches.

 

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Rob de Oude, “Fanning a Recurring Past,” 2012; oil and acrylic on panel, 16 by 16 inches.

 

Joe Fyfe, "Vihn Apricot Kite," 2014; object, wood, cloth, 64.5 by 40 inches.

Joe Fyfe, “Vihn Apricot Kite,” 2014; object, wood, cloth, 64.5 by 40 inches.

Laurel Sucsy, Untitled, 2015; oil on linen, 20 by 16 inches.

Laurel Sucsy, Untitled, 2015; oil on linen, 20 by 16 inches.

The Memphis Chronicles: Tops Gallery and Dale McNeil

Next up in my coverage of art in Memphis: Tops Gallery is located in a basement in downtown Memphis, but like I saw in the city’s home galleries, the best art is found in the most unlikely places. Photographer Matt Ducklo cleaned out the basement a few years ago; it was no easy task. He had to remove a lot of debris and get this funky, deep dark space clean. He topped it off with a white epoxy floor that’s just bonkers. Tops is a labor of love, and any art lover’s visit to Memphis is incomplete without a tour of this singular space.

I published a short review and interview with artist Dale McNeil, who is showing Material Will – Force in Form at Tops through May 31. Head over to Country Life to check it out. Here’s my favorite photo from the visit.

Dale McNeil's Material Will - Force in Form is showing at Tops Gallery in Memphis through May 31.

Dale McNeil’s Material Will – Force in Form is showing at Tops Gallery in Memphis through May 31.

I Heart Memphis Home Galleries

This week, I drove 200 miles to Memphis to check out their art scene. I was inspired by LOCATE Arts, an initiative launched by two Knoxville artists to bridge the gaps among Tennessee’s art scenes by organizing a TN biennial and creating a centralized website of exhibition listings. (Read more about it here.) Modeled after Texas’ Glass Tire, LOCATE Arts would unify artists, galleries, and all exhibition spaces in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga.

I loved being in Memphis. I looked online and asked around for places to go, but some of my favorites were spaces I was led to once I arrived. In two home galleries, people are eschewing the confinement and exclusivity of commercial galleries to show work that’s relevant, hip, and local.

GLITCH is the home and gallery space of artist Adam Farmer. Although he was between shows when I visited, he was kind enough to let me take a look around and hang for a bit. The two front rooms were empty, but the walls were painted — some like outer space, another with light geometric shapes, another like wallpaper. They change for pretty much every show. Farmer curates solo exhibitions and group shows — sometimes with a huge roster of artists — of everything from paintings and drawings to cigar boxes and book arts.

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In Adam Farmer’s bedroom in GLITCH – Memphis, TN

Making your way to Memphis for a GLITCH opening would be worth the trip in itself. Farmer invites musical guests and performers for an all out party. Most opening receptions are the second-to-last Friday of every month, but you can always check the GLITCH Facebook page to see what’s coming up. The rest of his house — his studio, bedroom, kitchen, and even bathroom — is a funky museum of Farmer’s work, artistic collaborations, and work by his peers. Well, it’s more like the collection of someone’s weird, hoarding great aunt than it is museum, but that’s all the better. In the backyard, I checked out Farmer’s assemblages, which he says are shrines to important turning points in his life. Follow Farmer and GLITCH on Instagram @glitchmemphis.

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Inside GLITCH in Memphis, TN

 

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Inside GLITCH, in Memphis, TN

 

Farmer pointed me in the direction of another home gallery, Southfork, in the residence of Lauren Kennedy, and she was kind enough to invite me over on half-a-day’s notice. Kennedy’s apartment changes with each installation — many branching out to different rooms. I got to check out the current exhibition, hilariously titled Old Man Study Group, a collaborative show from Hamlett Dobbins and Douglas Degges. The two have been passing notebooks back and forth for years. I’m excited to dig into their process.

“Old Man Study Group.” Hamlett Dobbins and Douglas Degges at Southfork – Memphis.

Douglas Degges.

Douglas Degges. “Old Man Study Group,” Southfork – Memphis.

In the dining room, I discovered Carroll Nikkila’s creepy baby wall sculptures. I’d love to fall asleep to some of these beauties watching over me.

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Carroll Nikkila. Southfork – Memphis

But what really rocked my socks were these two collages by an artist named St. Francis Elevator Ride. I’m telling you, the name is just the beginning. His work is a visual feast of bodies, birds, and food. It was love at first sight.

St. Francis Elevator Ride. Southfork - Memphis.

St. Francis Elevator Ride. Southfork – Memphis.

More on my Memphis travels coming soon!

Interview: Shana Kohnstamm

Welcome to a new NYCnash feature: interviews with artists in their studios. These are long-form Q & A’s that let me pick into the brains of artists that interest me. Expect many more to come. Interviews are conducted in person and lightly edited for clarity. 

I’ve known Shana Kohnstamm for several months now — since she started working in a studio at Ground Floor Gallery + Studios last year. She gave me a lesson in needle felting once and I created a baby Creature from the Black Lagoon. You really have to try it to fully appreciate how Shana works: She felts or tangles wool fibers using small barbed needles. It takes thousands of stabs just to make a golf ball sized sphere. Read on for her story.

Shana Kohnstamm in her studio, holding "Homage to Tanning's Cousins."

Shana Kohnstamm in her studio, holding “Homage to Tanning’s Cousins.”

Erica Ciccarone: I know your first love was painting. Can you talk about your transition to wool?  

Shana Kohnstamm: It was a surprise. It was not intentional. I like to take workshops and find out different methods of how people do things. I took a two-day felting workshop at the Frist, and had a little wool left over that I played with it at home. I’m the type of person who will get super geeked out about a new thing and want all the toys and all of the tools. I was very cognizant of how much money I was going to spend. Wool is cheap so I bought a couple ounces of wool and a needle for $5. I played with it and it didn’t work. I had a friend come over to teach me needle felting and within five minutes of watching her, I was like “Got this. See you later.” It was really exciting. I bought a little bit more wool and a little bit more and the transition from painting to felting really took about eight months. I was doing both for a while, and I had a gallery in Knoxville show both mediums; it was my only solo show that showed both painting and sculpture. Then I really didn’t paint again for a while.

I can paint with the wool, and faster. I can lay different colored bits of wool down and visualize it before I even start doing the work. I can lay the color down and say, that needs to go over two inches and just pull it up. I got all of my painting needs fulfilled and then sculpture just excited me in a whole new way. I certainly did not expect to find a new mode of working at 40.

Wool

EC: So much of your work has an other-worldly quality, evocative of mythical sea creatures or scientific anomalies.  It always makes me wonder: what were you like as a child?  

SK: I was very quiet and I spent a lot of time drawing. My mom didn’t buy me coloring books. She would give me blank paper and let me go. During the time I was four or five, my brother was one and two, and he was a handful. My mother was happy I could entertain myself and be self-sufficient. If I had my crayons and paper, she didn’t need to watch me. I remember by kindergarten, I was already “the artist.” I was good with that. I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t especially smart; I wasn’t dumb but my label was, “She’s the artist. She knows that.” If the new kid would come into school and be able to draw, I would get upset. It was my identity. I had to prove that I was the best at it. I would learn what they could do — bubble letters or cartoon characters — and I would do it better. That was how I built my skills and identity later on.

I was showing my work to a friend recently and she said, “I feel like I have some kind of window into your brain.” I said, “These things don’t live in my brain. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I have no clue. It’s a surprise to me. Painting was the same way. I would put color on and play this push/pull game, and it was a dialog between me and the piece. It’s the same with sculpture. I have to be a little more certain of the direction. Trying to retrofit a sculpture to fit in lights or to solder is a pain. You have to cut and modify and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I have to have some kind of direction, but a lot of times, they’re doodles or accidents.

Shana Kohnstamm. "Quiet Rattle," wool.

Shana Kohnstamm. “Quiet Rattle,” wool.

EC: Do you think of them as living creatures?

SK: Some of them have more life than others. Sheebie Geebie is definitely other-worldly. This one, “AG Pod,” was done under the instruction of a fantastic felter named Andrea Graham. We did a web workshop. That was a transitional piece for me that took me from hobby level to professional finished level.

Shana Kohnstamm. "AG Pod," wool.

Shana Kohnstamm. “AG Pod,” wool.

EC: There’s a really stunning balance between the beautiful and the bizarre. Some of your pieces like “Heliotropia” and “Quiet Rattle” produce a weird and satisfying discomfort for me. They’re a little bit sexual sometimes. Does that surprise you?

SK: It surprises me which pieces evoke that.

Shana Kohnstamm. "Helitropia," wool.

Shana Kohnstamm. “Helitropia,” wool.

EC: This one totally does it. 

SK: See that one I don’t get it from. That’s “Heliotropia,” the seed that carries it’s own light. My paintings are like that. Some people would just look at it and say, “Too much” and put their hands up over their face. Other people would look at the paintings and say, “I wanna fuck it.” I’ve had that especially from other artists. The paintings are juicy. They’re super slick. But these sculptures are fluffy. I guess it brings out a different sexual nature, something soft and tactile. You want to touch it but don’t know if you can.

EC: And this one? The two beings intertwined [pictured below in back row.]

SK: This is called “Homage to Tanning’s Cousins” based on Dorothea Tanning’s sketch. She was the longest lived surrealist and is my personal hero. She did some textile work in the 70s. Needle felting wasn’t around then. She did these life sized sculptures and you could tell where the armatures were and they were very clunky. I wanted to take her sketch and realize it for her as my thank you. She passed away two years ago at 102. This is my homage to her work. It’s three pounds of wool.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm. Nashville, TN.

EC: Do you aim to use only wool or do you build on other forms?  

SK: I’ve started to working with mixed media, which is exciting. I was a purist when I was a painter and I started off as a purist with the sculpture. But I like incorporating media into these. One of my dear friends is an art conservator and she used to yell at me about using crappy paint and crappy surfaces. I started using really great paints and grounds and was obsessed with their longevity. This is wool. It’s not going to last forever. It’s freed me up because I’m thinking, “Who cares? If they last a lifetime, great. If you put them in the sun they’re going to fade. They’re not going to be permanent.” I like using acrylic polymer on some of them that’s turning them into plastic, and they will last. But I never would have put all of this work together if I hadn’t given up my idea of longevity and legacy. I’m having a lot more fun. I have a hard time seeing my work as a collection because it’s only five years old. I’m not doing series; I’m doing individual pieces and each one is an experiment. I’m driven by the material; how far can I push this? That alone is an interesting dialog for me.

spread

EC: It must be a dream to ship.

SK: I have carried an entire show in two Rubbermaid bins that I carried at the same time.

EC: You use Instagram and social media to network with other soft sculpture artists. How has that influenced your practice?

SK: It’s influenced my practice because it’s such an open community that we share techniques and suppliers. I love having that interaction. There are three or four needle felters in Nashville, maybe, that I know of. But I don’t know anyone that does it as art making. I feel like this is a continuation of a lifelong career and a change in medium. I don’t have the support here. As a painter, I could invite a dozen painters in ten minutes to come take a look and see what I’ve done. It [social networking] is encouraging in a way I did not anticipate. Being an active part of the community, I enjoy letting people into my process and sharing my knowledge. It makes you the expert when you share at that level. It’s not a giving away. If I can make better work and I can share that, and then they can make better work, it helps everybody.

EC: Tell me about the show you have planned for Ground Floor Gallery in the Fall.

SK: That is all about social networking. I created a Pinterest board of all the artists I wanted to see in person. As part of my lease agreement with Ground Floor, I get a solo show at the end of a year’s lease. I have a show at Nashville International Airport in December. The idea of doing two consecutive shows was not appealing. I asked Janet [Decker Yanez] if I could do a soft sculpture show, and she was into it.

I sent out an invitation in February to 16 artists from all over. I got back acceptance letters. I didn’t let them know who I had invited, and that’s part of it. Some are emerging and just out of grad school. Some are internationally known, award winning artists. I felt like everyone’s work was going to compliment and raise up the integrity of the show. I made sure to invite more than just felters. I opened it up to mixed-media and embroidery. It’s a sculpture show called “Touched.” People can’t help but touch this work. I have work coming in from the U.K. and the Netherlands. This is such a high-class group of artists. I want to make sure that I represent them as best as I can in this space. I’m obsessed with this show right now.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm. Nashville, TN.

EC: You were accepted to the Arts and Business Council’s Periscope program. Can you tell me about that?

SK: They accepted 20 applicants. Sixteen of those are visual artists. It’s been fascinating to meet other folks also working in Nashville who I didn’t know already. It’s a business program that’s developed for artists. I’m learning how to think about my work as the buyer. How do you get your potential client first to know that you exist? Then, how do you get them interested? Once people see my work, they’re fans, but they have to see it first. How do you engage that person? If they desire it, how do you turn that desire into an action? I don’t have a shop. How is someone going to know how much it costs or how to buy it when I don’t have it listed for sale? I’m re-working my mental conditioning. It’s been good and challenging. I’m working from the same problems from a different angle.

EC: Where is your favorite place to see art?

SK: My favorite place to see art is at other artists’ houses. Not their work; the work they collect. I love seeing art in the home, because that’s really where we want art to go. A gallery is a temporal experience. It’s there for 30 or 90 days and it leaves. Hopefully some of the pieces go to homes. To go into an artist’s house and see the pieces they’ve chosen for their space is really exciting to see. What’s in your dining room, what’s in your bedroom, what’s in your bathroom? I have art in my bathroom. I started collecting very small art. My first piece I bought for $5. Then there’s trades and barters and a lot of stuff I bought. The kitchen is where I hang my friends. I forget what I have sold and given over the years. When I go to someone’s house and see one of my own pieces, it’s a shock. It’s delightful.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm. Nashville, TN.

In the studio of Shana Kohnstamm. Nashville, TN.

EC: Where can people see your work?

SK: Right now, they can come to the studio. I’m available if folks want to come during the week or in afternoons to see my work. I’ve been invited to participate in Nashville Collage Collective at Turnip Green in May. I got a piece accepted in Number Presents: Art of the South. This is called “Aculeus,” and it won the award of merit in Fine Contemporary Craft of the Southeastern U.S. at Art Space over the winter. With Number, Wayne White was the juror. He did the set design and puppetry for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Look up his film Beauty is Embarrassing. You will fall in love with him. I’m waiting to hear back on a couple more juried shows. I got a random email from the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama. They’re doing a regional exhibit at the end of the year called “Size Matters.” They wanted small art. I’ll send them a couple old paintings and a couple new small sculptures. It will be my first museum show. “Touched” is going to be here in October, and my solo Nashville Airport show will be in December.

To learn more about Shana Kohnstamm, visit her website and Like her on Facebook. Learn about “Touched” and explore the artists.

Two Hits, One Miss at NaFF

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival 2015 Coverage

There are some films that confirm everything you believe. You leave the theater with a self-righteous smirk. “See, I’ve been right along!” And then there are films that confirm your beliefs right up to a point, and then challenge them. You leave the theater with a nagging sense of doubt you’re almost ashamed to confess. Welcome to Leith is one of these films, and it’s showing one last time Saturday at 11:00 a.m.

Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, it follows the drama of Leith, North Dakota, a tiny town of only 24 inhabitants that gained national attention when notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb moved there to create an enclave of neo-nazis like himself. Very few answered his call to Leith, but the National Socialist Movement took up his cause and bought land, along with some notorious racist anti-Semites. Cobb’s mission was clear (he flew 14 flags of Aryan Nations in his front yard), and he quickly became an agitator. It culminated in Cobb and a NSW member patrolling the neighborhood with rifles and engaging in verbal altercations with neighbors, leading to their arrest. 

Here’s the thing: Welcome to Leith makes me fear for humanity in the pit of my stomach; that grave, bottomless fear that applauds my decision never to have children. But there are a few moments in the film that challenge me. What do we do with people like this? Put them in one place far away from everyone else so they can affirm their hatred in the privacy of their own community? As one woman in Cobb’s clan says, “You can’t just kick someone out of town because you don’t like them.” It’s a tough ethical question: At what point do your rights infringe upon my rights, and then whose rights are prioritized? It’s tempting to think of Cobb as an old man out of his mind with hatred who should be put in a corner and ignored, but he contacted noted white supremacists from prison, including ones accused of murder, and he has directly influenced others who have committed hate crimes after speaking with him.

The documentary unfolds the drama from many perspectives. Seeing how the people of Leith responded to Cobb is worthy your time.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/85668727″>Welcome to Leith – Teaser</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/noweather”>NO WEATHER</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Alice Klieg has won the lottery and she’s off her meds in Welcome to Me, a hilarious study of borderline personality disorder that’s also got heart. Alice (Kristen Wiig) proves that with a lot of money, you can do just about anything. Buoyed by Oprah-infused self-help, she manifests (or happens upon) a television network that is about to go under and offers them 15 million bucks to start her own talk show called Welcome to Me. On it, she bakes meatloaf cake, neuters dogs, and enacts childhood traumas, gaining an indie audience that is quite taken with her performance. The network crew thinks otherwise, and their reactions to Alice’s directives are truly funny and sympathetic. Throughout, the laughs are unpredictable and earned, and Wiig’s comedic timing is impossibly good.

Though the premise is delightfully far fetched, Alice’s character is not. Any person who has been close to someone with borderline personality disorder knows how hard it is to draw the line between illness and plain narcissism. Alice is fascinating and quirky, but she’s also relentlessly self-centered. Her unraveling is so heartbreaking because even while we know she’s acting out of illness, we blame her for it. She’s a terrible friend and patient and employee, but she’s also a singular performer, and we root for her on this journey. It’s not easy for an actor to pull this off: Bradley Cooper almost did it for me in Silver Linings Playbook, but Wiig acting in Eliot Laurence’s screenplay brought out all the messy contradictions. Shira Piven directs.

Welcome to Me played in a sold out double screening at NaFF. It opens in select theaters May 1 and expands May 8.

Genre hop to Alleluia, a film by Fabrice du Welz about all the worst sides of love: obsession, jealousy, and murderous rage. Lola Dueñas stars as Gloria, recently divorced a young mother who is a whole lot of crazy. Gloria agrees to a lunch date with Michel (Laurent Lucas) that gets sexy real fast. The very next thing she does is leave him with her child for a couple hours. Immediately after that, she’s loaning him a large sum of money.

When Gloria learns that Michel is a gigolo out for conquest and theft, she pledges her love to him, drops her daughter off at a friend’s house, and they leave town. She claims she’ll help him be the best gigolo he can be. Of course, she loses it pretty fast and proves to Michel that when it comes to manipulative, she has him beat by a long shot. We follow the pair through one botched scenario to the next and watch their romance grow more depraved as the bodies stack up.

I am no prude, but some of the sex scenes had me squirming in my seat. But that’s not why I wouldn’t recommend Alleluia. It is fatiguing; extreme for the sake of extremity. Nothing is learned about these human beings that matters because nothing is really at stake. There is no subtlety in this film, nothing that wounds you. It reminded me a lot of Sightseers, but without the black humor that made those characters real to me; Gloria and Michel are instead caricatures, intent on being as predictable as possible. Props to Lola Dueñas for making the best of a mediocre role. She managed to change her appearance completely to match Gloria’s mood, which was the best part.

Saturday wraps up the festival! Check out the added shows to get your last screenings in!

NaFF Update: The Keepers and Runoff

Ongoing Nashville Film Festival Coverage

Runoff

So far, Runoff is my top pick of the festival. When a family business is being squeezed by a Monsanto-like agri-company, we are left considering our own priorities. Newbie Kimberly Levin makes her narrative debut as both writer and director of this moody drama. Set in rural Kentucky, the natural beauty of country farms is shot through with tension: the buzzing of bees, the low flying crop duster plane (shot beautifully with a single camera), and the movement of insects is an innocuous backdrop for the plot that is drawn taut with drama. Honestly, it’s almost too much: the family business is broke, the bank is foreclosing on the house, the eldest son gets into a college they can’t afford, and the husband gets some disturbing test results from the doctor. Looking back, I think, “Really? Were ALL of those elements necessary?” My fiancé gave it 3 stars; he thought it was ham fisted and the plot quite contrived (and Kentucky-born, he hated the Southern accents). But I got lost in lead actress Joanne Kelly’s flawless performance and was mesmerized by the family’s plight.

Kelly, born and raised in a fishing village in Newfoundland, was made for the role. As Levin said in a Q & A after the screening, Kelly wasn’t shy about shoving her hand into a cow’s udder for a scene, and squaring her body to heft a 50 pound sack of grain was second nature to her. I wonder if there was something else about her upbringing that made her survival instinct so believable. Her character, Betty, has to decide whom she will protect and what she will prioritize as she attempts to save her family from going under. She strikes up a shady deal with local farmer to get cash on DL that could prevent the foreclosure of their house and get her husband medical treatment. It’s obvious from the jump that it’s a bad idea, and no one knows it better than her.

Levin amps up the tension to thriller level with a climax that is almost over the top. Although what you expect to happen doesn’t happen exactly, it felt a tinge forced in my overall riveting experience. Her husband (Neal Huff) and sons (Alex Shaffer and Kivlighan de Montebello) are well cast beside her and give convincing performances, but they dim in Kelly’s background. When she finally decides to go through with the deal, she’s a changed person. In the last scene, she drives back from the deed with an envelope of money on her dashboard. She tucks it into her breast. Her eyes are full of the terror that she has become, and the expansive Kentucky sky looms over her in judgement.

Runoff is a beautiful achievement about a way of American life that is disappearing. I grew up in Connecticut suburbs, not on a farm, but I could relate to a mother with her back against a wall. Its early summer release is upcoming, and let’s hope it screens at the Belcourt. I’d see it again.

The Keepers 

For every kid who’s dreamed of being a zoo keeper, The Keepers has you covered. This documentary by two Memphis filmmakers, Joann Self Selvidge and Sara Kaye Larson, takes the audience through the good, bad, ugly, and bittersweet times in the lives of Memphis Zoo keepers. The eldest of the keepers remarked that as children, zoo keepers have two best friends: animals and books. Keepers are an introverted lot, and their interests vary. The bird keeper, for example, sings gospel songs to the penguins. She needed six years of higher education to get her job, but that didn’t stop one park visitor from remarking to her kids, “See this lady? That’s how you’ll end up if you don’t finish school.” Yeah, zoo keepers get no respect, and the pay is pitiful, especially considering how much they had to learn to get behind zoo gates to begin with.

But the respect they do get is incredible. One keeper reached casually through a cage to scratch a lion’s neck (“I have to keep my nails long to really get in there.”) Another tossed chunks of watermelon into the enormous mouth of hippo. A third found herself covered in baby Komodo dragons that just wanted to say hi. But the giraffe keepers really got the spotlight because of a male who has been living in seclusion in a barn for four years. Young Koffe was banished from the small herd by his alpha father, and though the zoo staff tried many times, they couldn’t get him into a truck to move him to a safer zoo. The keepers watched him languish month after month, and when a law banned transporting adult giraffes, they had to make some decisions. Koffe is allowed in his own pen near the other giraffes, and watching him finally run free will bring a tear to your eye. When the animals suffer, the keepers suffer. When the animals thrive, the keepers thrive.

The filmmakers recorded take after take of intimate moments between human and beast. When one enthusiastic reptile keepers says she has the best job in the whole world, you actually believe her. The Keepers is filled with adorable animal shots of course (one baby red panda feeding from a bottle is particularly disarming), but the real focus is on the people themselves. Here’s where I was just a little let down. The human energy was a bit flat and the keepers ultimately pretty unmemorable. But it might be that my understanding of work documentaries has been warped by The Office and Parks and Rec. I kept waiting for someone to reveal something brazen or too intimate. I wanted the documentarians to get closer to the keepers and get under their skin. A couple days later, I realize that’s not what they were after. Their film is instead true to life with its moments of candor and all its banalities. Overall, I skipped out of the theater.

Next up: Welcome to Leith and Alléluia

Sweet Micky for President: Pop Star Rises to Presidency

  1. My first NaFF pick of the season was Sweet Micky for President, Ben Patterson and Pras Michel’s documentary on the Haitian presidential election in 2011 and pop star candidate Michel Martelly who won by a landslide. It’s a gripping story of a struggling democracy and a people that just won’t quit. Patterson and Pras attended.

    Although Haiti was the first Caribbean independent state, the only nation formed as the result of a slave riot, and the second independent nation in the Americas (second only to the United States), it has only democratically elected leaders three times. Since it’s 1804 independence, it’s pretty much been marred by political unrest. The film is framed from Pras’ point of view; ten months after the earthquake, he went to Haiti and saw very little progress.

    Pras looked around and saw only more corruption. He wanted more for the Haitian people, someone they could believe in and who would be vested in their interests alone. It’s in this context that the most unlikely candidate gained the confidence of the people, pop star Sweet Micky, who had spent a career singing about political corruption and sometimes pulling down his pants. Pras approached Martelly with this crazy idea. Soon after, he approached Patterson to tell the story.

    The result is a beautifully shot film with a tight narrative. Martelly seems the most unlikely candidate: he has no political experience, presents no plans on his platform, and knows no campaign strategy. But he wins the confidence of the country’s youth. He’s handsome, likable, and passionate. Martelly’s candidacy is quickly challenged by Pras’ former band member Wyclef Jean, who campaigns in Haiti despite the fact that he is not a resident (because of this, his candidacy is eventually denied.) Although Wyclef in the end endorses and campaigns with Martelly, he doesn’t come across well the film. He appears just short of megalomaniacal, riding only on his celebrity. Where Pras and Martelly are crusaders for democracy, Jean’s motivation is murky. But politics can bring out the worst in people, and while I’m overall a bigger fan of Pras, I wondered how the story could be told differently from Wyclef’s perspective.

    The narrative moves fast with many intimate moments among Pras and Martelly and Wyclef and, of course, a killer soundtrack that had 90s kids bopping in their seats. It also shows the Haitian people in many contexts: yes, in the wake of the earthquake, yes during violent military coups, but also singing and dancing and living and working together across the culturally rich and varied land. As Pras said after the show, of the over 10 million Haitians, 65% are under 25 years old. Through what must have been endless footage shot on his Canon C100, Patterson culls many moments showing Haitian youths to be passionately involved in their political future.

    Here’s the thing: the film is tightly controlled to present Martelly as a golden child of Haiti. People are crazed with love for him, and watching them rally their support after the general election votes were counted was inspiring. Voting always makes me choked up, and watching young men and women whose lives have been ravaged by political corruption and natural disaster cast their ballots for someone they believed in was in fact riveting. Martelly inspired hope. He showed us that the people of Haiti and the youth in particular have not given up. They will inherit the earth.

    Martelly won, beating out Mirlande Manigat, who has 25 years in Haitian politics. The film suggested that Manigat would have continued covering up the previous party’s corruption, thus implying that she would continue it. I would not be surprised if that’s true. But Martelly himself was accused of corruption in 2011. He is now essentially running the country without a Parliament — no checks and balances — and surrounded by advisers and friends accused of various heinous crimes. Pras himself admitted after the screening that Martelly could have done better. To see Pras back peddling on the man he so fervently believed in proved his chops for me — he doesn’t conform his opinions to a vision he had before — but I wished that the film also rose to the occasion to fess up. Because the documentary ends with Martelly’s election, it copped out. I think that the people who elected Martelly deserve better. He’s has been a disappointment. It’s hard to get real poll numbers on public approval, but Martelly’s into the last leg of his term, and many still call for his resignation.

    My thoughts as I headed home were with the Haitian democracy, because even though Martelly lived up to all of his opponents’ pronouncements, he was put in office by people who finally felt like they had a voice.

    Sweet Micky for President is showing again Sunday at 3:45. 

    Up next: The Keepers, Margarita with a Straw, Runoff

    Read three reviews I wrote in Nashville Scene’s guide to NaFF. Naz & Maalik (see it!), For the Plasma (skip it!), and Yosemite (go! and I promise there’s only a little James Franco).

Field Notes on Paddy Johnson’s Talk at Seed Space Event

Yesterday, Paddy Johnson gave a talk at Nashville Public Library as part of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! series. Johnson is the founding editor of the New York arts blog Art F City. She’s a sharp, pull-no-punches critic, and the blog is smart, hip, and bold. The talk comes on the heels of Seed Space’s Insight? Outta Sight! talk with Hyperalleric editor Hrag Vartanian. Here’s what Holland Collins had to say about both in NYT:

“Regular gigs in mainstream print journalism have all but dried up, but the Internet offers ambitious options in a growing number of blogazines including Art F City (edited by Paddy Johnson) and Hyperallergic (edited by Hrag Vartanian), which combine criticism, reporting, political activism and gossip on an almost-24-hour news cycle.

“And although both are based in New York, they include national coverage and in a feisty mix of voices, a welcome alternative to the one-personality blog of yore. That mix would probably be even more varied, and transcultural, if a few forward-thinking, art-minded investors would infuse some serious capital into such enterprises so they could pay writers a living wage and make online freelance writing a viable way of life.”

Johnson began Art F City as a single author blog ten years ago. She opened the talk by describing these humble origins, admitting off the bat that in the beginning, she feared being discovered as a fraud. “When you talk sometimes it is from a point of ignorance.” You have to do the research, and sometimes, it’s on an entirely new subject or artist. She added that there is still agency in that, and that it’s not all that unusual. “Ignorance takes courage,” she said, and her courage has paid off. When reading Johnson, I’ve always pegged her as a formidable expert on all things art, and all things culture, for that matter. But she does the legwork like anyone else and has trained her eye over the past decade.

Nashville arts writer Sara Estes commented that while she sometimes researches an artist deeply before writing a review, other times she wants to write from a blank place, allowing the work to work on her without prior conceptions. Johnson stressed understanding the context of an artwork; yes, she reads the artist statement and press releases. Yes, she tries to see if the artist’s intentions match the output. “Understanding art is understanding context,” she said. She also noted that learning about art does change your taste, and a way to get sharp at writing criticism is to practice in comments sections and on social media. Engaging in discussions teaches you how to think.

Mainly, I appreciated Johnson talking about the vulnerability in writing about art. I think that we (rightly) see that in artists themselves: putting out work that is important to you, that is in fact an extension of you, is hugely courageous. But just as courageous is writing about art in a way that “adds something more and better,” as Gilda Williams writes in How to Write About Contemporary Art. Nashville arts writers get knocked all the time for not dissing work enough. A Watkins student was just complaining about Scene coverage at Johnson’s workshop for the NFA program. But there are very few writers here and a lot to cover, and sometimes, it’s more useful to cover the stuff that’s worthy of consideration and let the rest be at peace in the shadows. This can totally change, as so much else has, but I love hearing successful critics talk because it makes us realize that excellent art criticism is a craft in itself that is difficult and scary, takes constant honing and practice, and requires natural talent. Kind of like making art, right? (So artists, give us a break.)

Art F City is funded in part by ads, mostly through grants, and through an annual benefit and silent auction. (Tickets are on sale now!) It was an inspiring talk, and like her writing, Johnson was honest and forthright. Laura Hutson has more takeaways on Country Life. Nashville artist, writer, and maker Megan Kelley has been documenting artist talks and events in her sketchbook, and she gave me permission to post her notes from the talk here. I’m glad Kelley is documenting what’s been happening in contemporary art in Nashville. Check out her notes from Hrag Vartanian’s talk as well, in case you  missed it. 10985033_10101990674749052_8084869732963067557_n