After an abrupt departure from the Peter Anderson Festival in Ocean Springs, I knew the place to go where everyone is happy to see you; a Cajun festival. Getting on the road early gave me the opportunity to get on down the bayou before the festival started. This would be a pop-up event for the flag, so I limited my expectations to be accepted into the festival on short notice. Either way, I'd be seeing my dear friends Michael Williams and Elizabeth Cotter of the 12th Street Bakery, meeting some new friendly folks, and getting down to some real Cajun music!
This year's Swamp Stomp was in Raceland, Louisiana south of New Orleans. I joined the line of cars entering the event and when it was my turn to speak to the parking officer I said, "Hey! I'm pulling this giant flag around American! Can I be part of the event? " She replied, "Fine with me, but you have to ask Mr.Fontenot." I said, "Mr. Quenton Fontenot? He's a friend of mine!" I parked the rig and walked into the pavilion among all the bustling excitement of the forthcoming Swamp Stomp. Upon finding Quenton, we exchanged a quick surprised greeting and he said, "Park anywhere you want! We're happy to have you!" Gotta love that 'down the bayou' hospitality; so happy you're here! Sure enough I got a prime spot on the entrance way to the pavilion, right next to the 12th Street Bakery folks. What a wonderful homecoming, unexpectedly seeing great friends to start the day.
The crowd was eclectic and a little unprepared to see a giant flag with writing all over it. As folks rolled in with lawn chairs and dancing shoes, many stopped to read and see what the project was all about. Several patrons said "I'll have to think about this," which normally means they're not interested, but I saw almost everyone return to add their thoughts to the flag. God, Love, and Respect were the nature of many of the expressions. I spoke with a young lady who said the election didn't matter down the bayou because nobody cares about the bayou except the folks who live there. "We've been doing our own thing for so long, it doesn't matter what happens. We're still poor, we're still happy, we still having a good time, we all gonna be just fine."
I'd like to conclude this post with the words of mon cher ami, Quenton Fontenot:
Hey man - I've been following your flag on FB for a while and have always thought it was really cool - and relevant. When you showed up Saturday I thought wow, the flag is here and then went on to conducting the festival business. Through the day I watched people write on the flag and I am guessing many of them weren't quite sure what it was. When Lost Bayou got up there at the end of the festival and were playing, it hit me how big of a deal everything from that day was -the music, the food, the art, and the culture - and the good-feelings began to overflow from within. I'm not one to believe in divine intervention, but if I did, I would believe it had a direct influence on you showing up Saturday! The art that you provided for our festival reaffirmed my belief that the world is better with art than without it. Thank you for doing what you do. It really really does matter. Thanks!
So nice to be welcomed and have support for my art from such beautiful people!
Jackson, Mississippi has a good little get down called the Fondren First Thursday which I was graciously invited to by my friend and super cool artist Ms.Kristen Tordella-Williams. Blocking off part of the main thoroughfare, its a street party starting at 5 and going until ??? With the flag in tow, I knew it was going to be a good night talking 'bout 'Merica. Many thanks to Kristen for the good visit and cool set-up in Fondren. A special thanks to Chane for giving the go-ahead to include American Expressions in the Fondren First Thursday event. Thanks for taking a chance on my project.
With a festive atmosphere and prime spot, American Expressions let loose with the markers encouraging Jackson go for it. The night was good fun with much dancing and general celebration within the racially diverse crowd. At the beginning of the evening I met Commissioner James of the Jackson Police Department. Officer James was a mild spoken white fella who didn't have all the gear and guns on him. He was busily shaking hands and greeting party goers. At one moment he directed a couple homeless kids to write on the flag. Bare foot, crust punk kids, these guys probably didn't have much and try to simply stay out of trouble. They knew who Officer James was and spoke with him in a friendly rapport. I could tell he looked out for them. I approached Officer James and introduced myself. He was intrigued with my project, often repeating, "You're really doin' somethin' here". I asked him about police relations in Jackson. He proudly reported that Jackson works steadily to maintain good community relations, officers walking neighborhoods, and practicing regular interaction with the public, but in the same sentence he admitted there was a homicide earlier just a few blocks away. Officer James continued, "People are just stuck in poverty here and sometimes it gets pretty rough when you're dealing with what people are facing. But we're not out here to watch or supervise. We, the police, are here when there's an emergency, to help with traffic, and so on. We want people to be comfortable and it works a lot better when we're friendly." I can appreciate what Officer James is doing. I think he has listened to his community and I think they respect him for it. Before he departed, he introduced me to a young man who he just inducted into the Order of the Golden Arrow in the Boy Scouts. I noticed the young guy had his finger nails painted and I asked Officer James if that was part of the uniform. "O yeah, he's different, but he's a good one" he said with a smile. Jackson is doing it right with Officer James, I wish him well.
As the Fondren crowed continued to gather around the flag, I noticed a middle aged white man reading the expressions. I could see the vein pulsing at the side of his head. I asked if he'd like to write his thoughts on American. He looked at me over his glasses and through gritted teeth, "None of these people know what it's like to live outside America." I nodded my head and explained that I was on tour and part of what I do is helping people remember how good we have it here in our country. He continued to scowl and shake his head. He mumbled to himself as he read, "These people have no idea how good they have it. How can you say you hate American," reading one of the additions. It was clear to me this gentleman was a proud patriot, but the way he kept expressing "these people" made me think he wasn't talking about the participants who were writing on the flag. No, he was talking about black folks. He's been talking about "these people" with disgust his whole life. Racism can be hard to hide, if you're actually trying to hide it. I offered again if he'd like to share his thoughts, maybe what he would do to help. He said, "I can't. I work for the Trump campaign. We're going to fix it and we're going to fix them." I was a little taken aback by his statement and it was hard to know exactly what he was referring to that could be something other than racial. I said, "Well it's still a free country." He looked at me sharply and shook his head before walking off, vein still pulsing at his temple.
Austin, Texas. Ground zero of all thing cool, hip, and lit. Once a haven to keeping things "weird", Austin is an overdeveloped maze of access roads and ever-expanding expressways of gluttonous growth. Remember, everything is BIGGER in Texas. I was curious how a GIANT flag would be received. My stay in the Austin area was part old friend reunion and new friend cultivation. Many thanks to Erin Cunningham & Keith and Sue for their gracious Texas hospitality!
When you drive around a giant American flag, you get some attention that you might not expect. While I was in Memphis I met Keith Wojcik. A sizable fella who teaches welding at a technical college outside Austin, Keith was really taken by my project. He exclaimed, "We need more guys like you who love America, willing do whatever it takes to get that message out." Of course I was grateful for his enthusiasm, as he continued, "When you come to Austin, look me up. I want you to talk to my students." "Sure," I replied, thinking maybe I would try and not lose his card. Six weeks later I'm thinking "Who do I know in Austin?" and sure enough I hadn't lost his card. I called Keith up, he remembered me and said he needed to check with his wife, Sue. He called back the next day and said, "Come on." Upon getting into town and finding their home in Round Rock, I met Mrs. Sue Wojcik. Sue was quite and shrewdly looked me over. As I explained what the project was about, she began to warm and explained that she thought she was a pretty good judge of character. With that she extended a key to her house and said "goodnight". As my stay went on, Sue took to me, sharing stories of her life and their retirement plans. I was tremendously grateful to be given the homestyle treatment to a weary road traveler. I look forward to seeing Keith and Sue again someday soon.
Keith took me to the technical college where he teaches welding. This school teaches hands on subjects like HVAC, construction management, and produces certified welders. I don't think technical colleges normally host politically charged touring artworks, but Keith brought everyone out to share the project, which was greatly received. I watch the faces of the youthful Texas boys as they approached the flag parked among all varieties of tricked out pickup trucks. I proceeded with my pitch, explaining my purpose and tour, as the group got more numerous, but no one was stepping up. Keith had recruited many of the instructors and administrators to come outside and participate also, where they quickly set the example of what to do. This loosened up the kids, but many of them had slipped around to the backside of the flag to share their thoughts in private. Many of their expressions reflected their experience; white, male, fortunate, republican, maybe a little sheltered, but who really has a grip on national politics at 20 years old? There were some ingrained attitudes, but they were gracious to share their thoughts and I suspect I made an impression, even if I was outside their normal universe.
My second stop was in the heart of Austin at Barton Springs. Not knowing exactly what I would find in Barton Springs, I got down there early and cruised around. About the only place to squeeze in the rig was at the Picnic Park, a cluster of food trucks gathered around a group of picnic tables. I figured I'd get the lunchtime crowd, which I did see a crowd, but I didn't get one person to participate in 3 hours. Maybe the saturation of election politics in our media had calloused some folks over, or maybe they only had an hour for lunch and didn't want to waste any time. I don't know. What I do know that when someone speaks to you, you generally make some attempt to express something back at them. This did not happen to me. I used my usual pitch and nothing, no looks, no smiles, no interest at all. I was staring to think I set up in the stuck-up part of town. Nobody would even look my way, which is hard to do when you have a GIANT flag. Maybe these Austinites were so use to Austin being "weird" that they simply ignore that which is outside their comfort zone. Maybe they make so much money they feel no need to be polite when a stranger talks to them. I am not sure what the problem was, but with no interaction in 3 hours, it was time to go. The road is too long for hanging out.
Out of Colorado, American Expressions rolls on, heading south. As much as I wished to make it all the way across America, budgetary constraints have been reached. With winter coming towards the mountains, it became clear that it was time to plot a course back east. Once upon a time I had visited Las Vegas, New Mexico and remembered some long time friends in the area. Leaving the anglo Colorado populace, now many more brown faces with skeptical expressions look at my flag in tow. Fortunately the family Juarros welcomed me with open arms to their beautiful property, soon to be the site of a handmade home. Many thanks to Aaron and his lovely family for their gracious hospitality.
Las Vegas is a community knitted around the University of New Mexico Highlands and the New Mexico Behavioral Mental Health Institute garnering it a well educated and diverse populace. Good buddy sculptor and burrito master, Isaac Sandoval invited me to post up with the flag at the hippest food wagon in town, The Skillet.
Once getting situated with the trailer framing in the eatery courtyard, almost every patron participated. It was hard to miss and main man Dub pitched everyone when they ordered their lunch. Dub, pictured above left, was really impressed with the project, expressing his gratitude that something provocative had come to town. In talking with him, I learned that he worked for the state of New Mexico under the Gary Johnson administration. Yes, that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for the Presidency. Here is someone with direct experience of working in a Johnson administration and I had to ask if he believed that Mr.Johnson's Libertarian platform would work at a national level. "It's a nice idea, but it would really screw poor states, especially New Mexico," Dub admitted. I concurred that most southern states would suffer under a national government that expected each individual state to generate its own revenue to cover all the costs of maintaining our civilized society. I asked, "Why then is he the best candidate in your opinion?" He shrugged and said, "Look at the other two! They have no interest in the well being of anybody else except them and their big money friends." Good point. I found most everyone that participated in Las Vegas had little positive to say about the presidential candidates, but expressed concern about our future.
I watched a couple approach the flag and study it closely. The young lady easily climbed up and wrote "Give this land back to the natives". While she wrote I met her companion, Javier, who was scowling intently as he read the expressions of his compatriots. I asked if he anything he'd like to add, "No, no, nope" I could see that he was really conflicted about choosing to participate and I attempted to get him to verbally express his feelings. He simply shook his head with mild disgust and then looked at me with a quizzical eye. He was about to speak when Dub called out his lunch was ready. I got a sense of cultural differentiation had emerged between us, that Javier wasn't about to share his true feelings with this traveling gringo. I had learned in Las Vegas the community internally debates the value of individual heritage: Native American, Hispanic, Spanish European, and lastly Anglo. I surmised that I wasn't going to get an answer from Javier, but after his lunch I found him again staring at the flag. He asked, "Can I write "America Fucking Sucks" up there?" "Yes you can. Express anything you want" I replied. As I moved to grab him a marker, I continued, "It's a free country." which caused Javier to recoil. I handed him the pen and reassured him that I'm just trying to see if we're coming together or coming apart. He ascended the stairs and slowly looked closely at some of the smaller expressions. I awaited a large scrawling condemnation of our country from a justified perspective, but he moved slowly, not making any marks, simply debating what to write. After a few minutes he quickly scrawled "In God We Trust", much to my amazement. He wasn't joking about his first inspiration, so I could only guess that what he expressed was simply fodder. Coming down the stairs I asked, "Really? what about "America Sucks"? He gave a slight embarrassed smile and said, "Naaaa, not today", took his sweetie by the hand and went on their way. Javier's deliberation seemed to me to be a decision of trust. He doesn't trust America. Even given the opportunity to express freely, without fear of reprisal, he felt most secure in providing a generic slogan, keeping his guaranteed 1st Amendment personal opinion to himself. This is what America is to him: repeat appropriate slogan, stay in your place, keep your opinion to yourself.
As American Expressions trucks closer to the end of the tour, the intensity of our national election can not be ignored. I am noticing less involvement with my project, people upping their guard and simply not willing to engage. We've reached peek saturation with all the howling about who is the worse candidate and constant denigrating of our social manners and mores. We are exhausted from the debilitating experience our democratic process has become. We struggle for our freely thinking minds against our addiction to hyper-factually fabricated "information" from our mass media masters. We cannot stop watching, even though we have stopped caring, relinquishing our better wills away from 'being the change.' Life will go on no matter who is elected, but are the good times really over for good?
Beautiful Crested Butte, Colorado. Settled as a mining town, CB has turned into a haven for outdoor sports year round. With a quaint grid of homes and businesses, Crested Butte appears to exist within a vacuum of time, only yielding to the latest technologies in snow skiing. I would have not ever made the trip out over Monarch Pass without the invitation of good friend Jesse Blumenthal, long time resident and talented metal sculptor. Thank you my friend for the invitation to this special place, I'll be returning someday soon!
There is a saying in Crested Butte, "Local since now", meaning it is hard to know who is really historically from the area and who has came and not left. Unlike the resort towns of the I-70 corridor, Crested Butte is a destination off the beaten path. Once getting out there you realize that the local is much more interesting than the wider world. And why not? The natural beauty, the outdoor activities, enough of everything to go around, and ample generosity make it very attractive in a time of amplified widespread strife. Alas, Crested Butte is not without its transitioning issues and growing pains.
As par of my visit, Jesse recruited me to participate in the 2nd Annual Crested Butte Community Iron Pour in conjunction with the local Arts Center. What a great event, with much credit going to Jesse and Arts Center Director Melissa Mason for putting it all together. In speaking with Melissa, I learned a lot about the community and the challenges it faces. Just like everywhere else in America, little Crested Butte is experiencing gentrification too. In my observations from city to city, Crested Butte isn't quite suffering the "riptide of white-flight" where people are moving back into parts of town they abandoned because of racial fears. No, Crested Butte is almost completely homogenous. This community is being gentrified by affluence, second homes/rentals, and big money, mainly from Texas. So much so that there is a low income housing shortage in the community because outside money is snatching up all the little houses and turning them into short term rentals. This leaves no where for the "local since now" folks to live. Of course everyone likes the additional tax revenue and visitors cash infusion to the community, but it comes at a cost of being able to have people in the community to serve the rich. It is a precarious balance that forces the less affluent into housing further down the valley, necessitating this small community into public transportation, thanks to the efforts of Councilman Roland Mason.
In a community of 1500 people, Crested Butte is taking a proactive approach to the growth. Roland explained that monies have been put towards low income housing, but part of it sits vacant because of federal regulations on income threshold to qualify. This is problematic, but not anything that can't be overcome, says Roland. The issue that faces the community now is how to write regulations that favor the locals and respect the folks who simply own property and visit twice a year. By and large the community works well together takes care of one another, but as it happens with big money, they send lawyers to contest the regulations for their interests. The community is changing. Gone are more simple times, but also gone is the mining industry and its' threat to the natural beauty, which makes the community very happy. Crested Butte lives in a beautiful bubble, but not one void of awareness. The community knows how to take care of itself, knows how to keep their beautiful bubble intact.
It was a little more difficult to engage the community about national politics, the going ons of the wider world. Most everyone I asked kinda gave me an exasperated sigh and lamented their slacking effort on getting enough wood chopped for the oncoming winter. I suspect that's where much of their political disgust gets alleviated, swinging an ax, insuring themselves a comfortable season.
I did have a nice dialog with Bob, a gentleman assisting in the iron pour. Bob conceded that most people avoid the political discussion and the ones that do are often a little more of the radical internet obsessed type. Bob was not impressed with either candidate, but finds some of what Mr. Trump resonates within the valley. Gunnison Valley stretches from the town of Gunnison to Crested Butte, with Gunnison being home to WCU, industry hub, and coldest winter temperatures in Colorado. Bob explained to me that Gunnison has many more big city problems: meth, prostitution, unemployment, petty crime. "Why is that?" I asked. "Mexican mafia. They run the show down there." Bob went on to explain that the notion of a boarder wall is exactly what many people in Gunnison see as a cure to their community ills. I asked if he thought that element, the mafia, was coming up the valley to Crested Butte. "No. They have no interest in tourism and all jobs here are spoken for, even the lowly ones." It is merely 35 miles between the two communities, but the difference in attitudes is strangely similar. They both want the outsiders to go back where they come from. Certainly Crested Butte enjoys the trappings of privilege of wealthy visitors, even if it is a hard lifestyle for the proletariat, while Gunnison wants the problems of a tourist mountain town without the plague of organized crime. Despite the remoteness of both communities, their respective problems reflect their political dispositions: one wants to build a wall and the other wants to work together to stay a tight knit community.
Denver. A budding metropolis amid the plains and the front range. Like any other big city, American Expressions was best served by parking and people. Many thanks to my brother, ST, for assisting in getting a permit for two spaces near the Octoberfest in downtown Denver. Who knew that asking permission would be so easy? Kudos Denver for being hip to what I'm doing.
Since I had procured a parking permit for the flag, the process of getting set up was a lot easier. We selected the corner of 20th & Lawrence right in downtown, in front of perhaps the best hidden breakfast joint in the city. It was certainly entertaining to the people inside when a giant flag showed up and two hustling patriots set up shop. Instantly we had steady stream of people hitting up the flag. A nice variety of folks, the perspectives shared on the flag ranged across the political spectrum.
The most compelling discussion I had about our country was with a middle aged black women who would not write on the flag. She watched intently, furrowed brow, slightly shaking her head at what she read. When I approached her the first time, she retreated into the diner. Later on she returned and I inquired, "What do you think of my project?" She replied, "I know what you're doing." I thought that was good since I really don't know what I'm doing. She continued, "You're trying to get to people, trying to get them riled up." I gave her a skeptical look and said, "Am I upsetting you?" She curtly looked me in the eye with a flat stare, examining if I was full of shit or genuinely concerned about her disposition. "What are you really up to?" she inquired. I went on to explain how I was touring the nation promoting freedom and compassion. She quizzically looked at me and then the flag again. Now it began to make sense to her and she began to read some of the expressions out loud. "Love is the answer," she read, "I like that one." "You're really out here trying to help, aren't you?" she questioned. "Yes mam', looking to see if we're coming together or if we're coming apart," I replied. "Well?", returning to her flat stare of skepticism. "There is a lot of love in our country, despite all the ugliness" I replied. "You really believe that?" she countered. I then took on her steely gaze and gave her a broad smile and said "Yes, I do." She held my eye for a couple seconds, taking in my goofy grin and then slowly broadened her fixed face into a wide smile, an approving prideful grin. "You keep up the good work, young man," as she patted my shoulder, turned and went on with her day. Art at work, brothers & sisters, art at work.
There are two opposite experiments in state governance happening in close proximity: Colorado & Kansas. One state removed as many taxes as possible and the other removed prohibition of a taxable substance. One state has a booming economy and the other is contemplating how to pay to educate its' children. One state boasts about its 'ethical integrity' and the other brags about its progressive programs. In 3 months of touring I have yet to meet a conservative who has any ideas that are not self-serving and pass judgment on the wider population. In fact, you can see where conservative politicians in Indiana had to renege their ethical opposition to needle exchange programs because drug abuse caused a rampant Hepatitis outbreak. What are the conservative principles that are good for all of us as humans and companions and stewards of our earth? I can hear the bemoaning of those who don't want to give their hard earned money away to free loaders while extolling the virtues of Jesus F. Christ. They continue to complain of the government "crushing them" while ignoring the realities of populations who actually have been oppressed. And they bloviate to their moral perch upon which they proclaim their "love of life" in defense of the unborn while dispensing hatred towards anyone different than them. The Republican Party cannot remedy the contradictions between its policies and its morals and it stinks and everyone can smell it. How do I know this? Because none of the conservative counties in Colorado, who opposed cannabis legalization, refused any of the tax revenue generated by it. I would encourage Republicans to get comfortable in the minority position because nobody wants to hear your bullshit anymore.
My first stop in Colorado was Boulder to see Ms.Sclafani and meet her art graduate school compatriots. Boulder is a special college town, nested in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain front range. It is a highly educated and progressive community and it is extremely white, almost to an unnerving degree. There is a lot of money in Boulder and it seems that it is only increasing. Could be a good thing, but I don't know. Props to Melissa Sclafani for bringing dat NYC attitude to Boulder and swinging for the fences.
At the behest of Melissa, she insisted that she had the Dean's approval to park the flag in the center of campus, outside the Art School. I expressed my skepticism because giant institutions like UC have policy & protocol and almost NEVER roll with it. She said it was fine, so I rolled with it, despite knowing better. We got up at 5:30am and dropped the flag on campus with great anticipation.
Upon returning at 9:00 there were a few tags, but definitely a mass of students wondering about it. I jumped right in and started pitching to the crowd of undergraduates. I kept asking, "Do you have any thoughts about America?" and the response was always the same, "Uhhhh, I gotta get to class". Now this wasn't apprehension, this was intoxication. Not drunk college students, but stoned ones. Mouth breathing, glassy eyed, fully functioning, "adults" taking in something abnormal to their daily routine. I wasn't too surprised by this, but it did seem like EVERYONE was in this same condition. I felt like I was challenging their numbness to reality and they didn't really know how to respond. Not only was this something unusual and demanding of a political thought/opinion, but also was an intruder from the real world. The enclave of Boulder knows that serious stuff is happening in our country, but why "harsh our mellow" with racial tensions, political discourse, & challenging thoughts? This is college, man. To their credit, there were many insightful additions to the flag. Of course these came from minority students, while the white students chose glib or catchy expressions (yeah yeah yeah "Dicks out for Herambe" what ever that means kid). I imagine it is hard to know or even formulate a genuine expression when your entire life has been really fortunate and really homogenous. This is where the ultra liberal crosses over into the secretly conservative. Everything is beautiful and easy to accomplish, and we're all in this together, things are so good because we're so good. It is one thing to extol the virtues of progressivism and another thing to put them to practice in a culturally and economically diverse society. You can't find minorities in Boulder because they can't afford to live there. Is this by design? Probably not. Really just the outcomes of white migration into the area over the history of our country. But it has generated a place where affluent whiteness is the norm so much so that if you're not "green" (read rich) you're not accepted. This is a convenient method of segregation that reinforces conservative principles within the younger population: we're supposed to be here, you're not.
Of course the our illicit interjection into campus life was not to go unnoticed. Shortly after lunch, a finely dressed women from University Events approached me to inquire "why" and "how" I got here. I explained I was at the invitation of the art school Dean. Of course that matters not because "you must have permission from me", she said. I attempted to get her ideas about America, to see that this is a good project, that your position could influence the thoughts and minds of the student body. She wavered for a moment, but became insistent that "you just can't do things without permission or everyone would do what ever they wanted." I do understand, but every small school I've taken the flag to has welcomed me and the experience I bring to their campus, while every large institution has denied me because someone has the responsibility to make sure there is a decision about what is happening. Strange but not at all surprising. My adjudicator insisted I move the flag immediately, that I was not permitted, now! She was getting huffy that her power might be getting disrespected. I explained that I had to walk to get my truck, maybe an hour before I could have it removed. This made her fume. As I walked away, she just kept repeating, "Move it now." Power is messing with your head, lady.
Upon my return to "fix the problem" a small crowd had gathered because now the campus cops were there to enforce her will. (POWER! I NEED MORE POWER!) I cooly greeted the officers, giving them a quick pitch on the flag. No reaction. "Hey guys, relax. I'm hitching up right now, be gone in a minute." No reaction, hands on tasers, assuming firing distance and stance. I say, "Hey kids! get your cell phones out! We're gonna be YouTube stars today," as I continued to prep my rig for departure. At this moment, I wondered about being black, if I would already be on the ground writhing with compliance shocks, what it is like to not get any benefit of the doubt, to be assumed guilty and a threat to society for simply being. A reminder of how fucked up things are outside "the shinning city on the hill" known as Boulder. I looked at the officer in charge and asked him if he'd help me guide my truck back to the trailer, which made him relax and engage me in a cooperative manner. The tension had passed, I was determined not a threat and we joked a little bit about trucks and trailers. I could have gone for fame, ("Artist Tased on UC Campus Today Over Free Speech") but that is not my purpose. Peace, compassion, expression, collaboration. In those terms, my stop at UC was a success. Cheers!
American Expressions returned to Memphis after a 5 year hiatus. In 2011 I received the Artist-in-Residence at the Metal Museum's Lawler Foundry. Immediately prior to that I had just completed the construction of the flag and decided that I needed to bring it with me. For the next four months I took the flag around Memphis to different events and got to learn about the people and the city. From this experience I came to understand how much love there is in Memphis. Many people do not know, or care to know what a great community it is, do not what to see past historical scars. But for those that know her, know the people there love her, Memphis knows what love is.
To begin my stay in Memphis, I did what any sensible local would do, got some BBQ. I posted up with the flag out side Ray's on South Main Street. People like to brag about southern hospitality, but it is really on display when almost everyone stops and kindly asks, "What is this about?" in reference to the flag. The folks I met outside Ray's BBQ all had something to say, even if many of them were not from Memphis. Folks from England, Scotland, Germany, New Jersey, New York, all having a ball on holiday in the birthplace of rock-n-roll. Everyone had concerns about our current state of affairs, most of them pointing to the obvious remedies we're all trying to exemplify. The most interesting conversation of the day was with Mr.Larry. A well dressed 70 year old black man, Larry strode by and noticed the slogan on the flag "Black Lives Matter". With a quick look and a sly grin he turn to me and said "I didn't know we didn't matter?" Here is a man who has lived his whole life in Memphis, a historic epicenter of racial tension in America, a man who had first hand experience with a segregate water fountain. He shared a story with me about when he was a child he examined one of these segregated fountains, inquisitively wondering how the source of the water could be coming from the same place, but unsure of the difference in the product at the spigot. He asked his momma and she had to explain to him the ugly nature of the division at an early age. But she also imparted him with the truth, "We all have the same color blood, we're all red on the inside." Larry proceed to tell me about his life as a minister and motivational speaker and how that early lesson shaped his perspective for a lifetime. The work he does now is still rooted in the same message, helping young black men have love and respect for themselves and those around them. "I tell them, "We live in a 'Gotta get mine' society. You gotta get yours, I gotta get mine, it's all on us, no sharing, no helping. What is lost is the most important thing. Love. Love is a shared thing, love is what you have with yourself when you have respect. And when you have respect for others, you can share love. It's not all about you."
Larry has always known that some people in our country don't think his life matters because he's black. But because he understands we're all red on the inside, that we all need love and respect, he's lived his life with dignity and pride despite what other people think. To Larry, love has always matter most.
American Expressions was luckily invited to the North Memphis Block Party for Peace. In its 11th year, the block party is put on by Tennessee State Representative Antonio Parkinson and provides an opportunity for the community to come together for a jobs fair, employment counseling, BBQ, music, marching bands, and of course this guy with a giant American flag. My sincerest thanks to Rep Parkinson for his civil & military service. Keep up the good work, sir!
I would like to take a moment for all the critics out there that charge the black community for not doing enough to help solve societal problems. Everyone I met at the Peace rally was gracious and kind and interested in bettering North Memphis. Their attitudes about our country are no different than anywhere else. They know we need kindness and love and respect and less killing all the way around. They're out here doing it, sometimes in the face of real desperation, helping each other, making their community better with what ever it takes. It is easy to dismiss that which you do not know, but that certainly doesn't make your perspective informed or enlightened and it certainly doesn't make it right. So what are you doing to help make the world a better place? It takes all of us.
I had the pleasure of meeting German, pictured above center, a middle school teacher and athletics coach in the North Memphis area. He explained to me about his career of constant school closings and continuous moving around. It was hard for him to contain his frustration with each story he shared. "I walk in a class room of 14/15 year olds with a 23 year old teacher who is almost in tears. No learning. No behaving. No respect. All the boys checkin out the girls, all the girls cooing at the boys. I say alright! All you young men come with me. So the rest of the year I teach these guys in a separate classroom so we can get some focus." German continues, "I try to get through to them about their choices, about each decision they're making, that one decision can change their life forever. It's hard to get them to think about consequences. Hard to get them to think about their future and that they do have control over their actions." This guy is at the front lines, pushing against tides of poverty, incarceration, gang influence. This is the guy that deserves your appreciation just like the police, just like the solider because he is part of the solution. He's meeting the problem at the source, young people without love and support, getting them to believe in themselves, develop self-respect, and making themselves into better people. Just like Larry, black lives have always mattered, when did they not?
My last stop in Memphis took me back to the origins of my affinity for this place. The National Ornamental Metal Museum is located on the south side of town, perched upon a bluff overlooking a long stretch of western flowing river. Adjacent to the museum are historic Native American Ceremonial Mounds with a plaque citing when the explorer La Salle came for a visit. This ground has always been magical and couldn't be a better place for the Metal Museum because it is a crew of magical people.
I especially want to share my gratitude to Museum Executive Director Carissa Hussong for welcoming my project (unannounced) to this years' Repair Days. I parked the flag right out front of the main gate and got many great interactions. It is always gratifying to be associated with this talented group of people. I am forever proud to be part of this crew and be included in their collection. Great to see and work with you all again.
Nashville. Middle of nowhere, center of everywhere, and growing. Despite the rain, American Expressions had a great turnout at our spot in East Nashville's 5 Points outside the 3 Crow Bar. Many thanks to the various patrons and establishments who eagerly engaged my project. Much gratitude to my host Nicole Moree and Jameson over at Peg Leg Porker, for the impromptu invite!
The atmosphere in East Nashville has the burgeoning hipster coolness feel, but with a dirty south style. It is a community that has little excessive housing because so many people are moving to the area. Right off the bat, I met some wonderful people at 3 Crow who provided quick promotion among the local populace. As the rain dried up going into the evening, the participation picked up. I had a great conversation with a couple on tour from Australia, who collectively had the best addition to the flag, "This Trump Shall Pass". By and large the responses to the project were very positive and successful. I had a nice chat with a couple former Marines, as well as some active duty fellas. I am always impressed with their reactions to the project. Maybe they would rather not enter into a difficult patriotic conversation, but they know that what I am doing is exactly what they're fighting for. It makes me wonder if they think what I am doing is brave. It is not a comparison to what they do, I am not risking my life aside from texting drivers, but standing up for what their fighting for I think provides a small connection.
The best interactions of the weekend came from two retired white ladies. No, I'm not talking about you mom, but it was great to see you and Barb in Nashville! The Sunday edition of American Expressions in East Nashville was framed by two distinct encounters, exactly polar opposites.
Let me take a moment to thank East Nasty for providing an amazing evening in several of your local establishments. This is the preamble to a profoundly bad hangover and subsequent day of on-the-job recovery. I left the flag and markers out all night as I often do, giving occasion to more, less supervised expressions. Fortunately everything was in order when I moseyed upon the flag, shinning in the Sunday morning sun. Standing at the far end was an older white woman with an expression on her face which looked about as bad as I felt. Scowling, mumbling, gritting her teeth as she read over the expressions on the flag, I weighed my level of involvement with her given my walking-dead cognition. Hard to deal with haters so early in the morning, but them aggravated old white women aren't going to get set straight by themselves, so I had to get to work.
"Obama is a cocksucker. That dumb fucker hasn't done one good thing for us. What kind of idiot would drive around praising that dumb fucker," she hissed. "Hi! That's me! I'm the guy. Here's my card," as I moved closer to her. "What?! You?! Well, you don't have any damn sense. That motherfucker hasn't done one good thing." She has been exclaiming loudly now for a couple minutes as I intently listen. I countered, "Aren't you happy that Obama dropped bombs on Islamic people with drones, killing our enemies?" She responded, "Yeah, well, they should all be killed." I said, "Well I'm not happy with Obama either for that exact reason. He should not be dropping bombs on innocent people, especially from drones." Now she was getting really wound up and starting to affect my head. Before I moved away from her I said, "You know what they say about American? Love it or leave it." She erupts, "I'm not leaving!! You need to leave!! I'm not leave my country! You get out and you take that cocksucker Obama with you!!" She continued to rant on at a high level of distain as people gathered to see what all the shouting was about. I turned away from her to engage another patron and she got the hint and took her nasty attitude on up the block. She certainly made an impression on the black gentleman from Birmingham who I was talking to. He asked, "Why is she so mad?" I replied, "I don't know." Ok, we both knew that anyone who is that angry without real justification is simply acting out the inbred aggression that is racial hatred. Strangely our society accepts this bad behavior, but in this moment it seemed different. That woman was alone. No body siding with her, chiming in. No mob. No dogs. No riot batons. Just some angry old bitch in a crowd of people acting insane because she was cursed with racism and still lets it live in her heart.
After shaking off the confrontational start to the day, things picked up in 5 Points with people coming out for NFL games. This made the sidewalk a little congested as people got caught by the writings on the flag. Many folks were very supportive and most all expressed positive things. This is when the universe made up for the hard start to the day.
A group of people slowly passed the flag, looking, reading. Flanked by daughter and son-in-law, a smiling 80 year old woman gazed intently at the writings as she walked. I popped off with my usual pitch about freedom and compassion as she approached. She stopped right in front of me taking in all the expressions when she read aloud, "Give a stranger a hug!" What can you do when you're prompted by a mom? I stepped up and gave her a hug to which she replied, "I was hoping you were going to do that!" It was a lovely moment that left everyone smiling. Love>Hate...it's just not that hard people.
The project has passed the half way point with just six weeks left until election day. It seems that the oncoming election is squeezing the greater populaces' psyche. Those that are consumed by the oncoming election continue their polarization and the rest of the country is put out by just the thought politics. Then we have the ongoing abuse of force by law-enforcement that continues to enflame red-lining racial tensions. Some people I meet simply ignore the greater problems while others cannot help but be struck by the ever growing tension. Life will go on, but will it get better or worse? Which direction we go is up to us.
We all know the hotbed that has been St.Louis over the last two years. It is one of several racial fault lines that are under stress in our country today. The undercurrent is out of sight as things have calmed, but that is not to say there still wasn't a strange tension. My stay in St.Louis was greatly aided my friends and fellow artists Noah & Allison & Bryce. These wonderful people hosted me and arranged great opportunities to display the flag getting a diversity of interaction. My sincerest thanks for all your efforts and hospitality!
My first stop was FloValley Community College where the Dean of Arts & Sciences quickly arranged I be put in the center of campus where students couldn't miss out interacting. FloValley is on the north side of St.Louis and the majority of students are African-American. In speaking with the Dean, she was very appreciative that this project was available to her students, acknowledging the challenge to thinking and critically responding is beneficial to young minds. Over the next 6 hours, Noah and I gathered the perspective of these young people which had several impressive observations about our country. There much adulation for Black Lives Matter, but even more attention was given to Love being the path. Early on there was a sly addition to flag, "I sold my virginity for $100", I believe it to be a genuine expression. If this is the answer to my inquiry "How do you feel about America?" then, yes, we all need to pay more attention to black lives and stop with the bullshit push back. Stop with demanding a comparison. Stop insisting that you know because you don't know what people are facing. It has become kind of a litmus test when people see BLM on the flag and how they react because there is only one answer. YES. BLACK LIVES MATTER because we as a society have done everything we can to maintain the divide. Why is it so difficult for people to have a heart & a brain? What's the problem with being compassionate? What are you afraid of America?
The next day promised a far different demographic as the flag was posted up in "The Loop" in the center of St.Louis adjacent to Washington University. I had the pleasure of meeting Jodie Lloyd who works for the city and arranged for me to post up in a prime parking lot. She explained to me at length about the history of St.Louis, its 90 different municipalities, and how difficult is has become to change anything. I got the impression that many of the municipalities use fines and fees upon people to fund their coffers. She explained that you could get 3 different vehicle citations in the span of a mile and there's nothing you can do about it. Everybody wants their piece and it has intentionally or otherwise become a method of trapping the poor in poverty. Can you imagine hearing "You have a taillight out" 3 times in one trip home? I do not think this is an exaggeration and most likely a reality for many people of color in the St.Louis area. What's fair about that? When confronted, the police point to the municipality cash flow as a means of justification, that they're simply doing their job, keeping the poor, poor. We can do better and Jodie Lloyd is out there doing it for us. Thank you for your service!
In a distinct contrast to the students at FloValley, two design classes from Washington University took a moment to gather inspiration before getting up on the flag. I asked if they needed a shot of bourbon? I asked if they had ever been to jail? I asked of they were alive? My sarcasm was blithely acknowledged. Unlike their counterparts at the community college, these students had very little to say about America. And why would they? The group was made up of top-notch students from all over the United States, attending a prestigious university at their parents expense. Perhaps they were paralyzed by the process of coming up with something profound when they have no experience to draw upon. They feel no responsibility to be aware of what's going on in the world. (Full disclosure: I didn't give much thought to anything except myself when I was 20, too) But the contrast can't be more distinct, one group of students work two jobs, take classes, live with the daily threat of violence, and still pushes themselves to be something more, to get better opportunities. The other group starts at the top, knowing very little about life outside that shinning city on the hill. This became very apparent when a WashU student sprayed "Yezee 2020" in big letters on the front of the flag. (Yezee 2020 is Kanye West's bid for the Presidency) I asked her if she knew what she was doing, if she understood the power of her words, the power of art, and her responsibility as an artist? She admitted she was being glib, and just having fun, but I couldn't let her off the hook. (Sorry kid, full frontal real life coming at you) I did my best to explain the power artists have when they work with charged icons, citing Andre Serrano, Dread Scott, and Carolee Schneemann. I charged these students to take their work and their words seriously, emploring them to be aware of their responsibility for their actions as humans and creative forces. Blank stares. Good luck, kids- life isn't fair, hopefully you're getting a chance to find out.
My final day in St.Louis was at the City Museum. An amazing place where many talented sculptors work, it is a wonderland and a treasure to the community. Noah worked at the City and when arrangements were made to host the flag, they put me right out front with hundreds of people walking by. At this point, the flag is as much something to see as it is to write on, so I was perfectly fine letting the flag ride as Noah and I toured the museum. Lots of people made additional contributions while we were there, but none so interesting until the end. I had a conversation with the two young men pictured above left. These guys are what America is afraid of. Young, desperate, with limited tutelage beyond the streets. As we talked, another couple was watching, listening, while Noah recruited their participation. These boys asked me if I knew what it was like to live with daily violence. "Does the liquor store in the white neighborhood get shot up every night? You don't know what it like, you don't know." I could only keep his eye contact and encourage him to keep taking, keep letting it out. He continued, "You see my hair? I am a king! This is what kings wear in Africa." I replied, "Well ya gotta respect a king, right?" He grabbed my hand in solidarity, both knowing that's all he wanted, respect. At that moment, his friend finished his tag and started shouting "Fuck Trump" which completely scared the white couple Noah was talking to. The gentleman was about to write when the shouting started, but then quickly walked away, leaving his wife scowling at the boys. I asked if she wanted to share how she felt about America. Surprisingly, she grabbed a pen, crossed out the word "FUCK" and wrote "VOTE" next to "TRUMP". As I went to thank her, she threw the marker at me in disgust and quickly disappeared to her waiting husband.
Chicago. What a hot mess. And I'm not even talking about the parking. As a professional truck driver, I had to again apply my wizard business to navigating the city with a vehicle that's really not permitted to be there. I'm happy to say I did not have any metal on metal altercations, but it was close. I was fortunate to get a couple good days talking to local people on the street, but missed out on the necessary parking to facilitate the last day. Nonetheless, I had great interactions and discussions about America, Chicago, and privilege. Many thanks to my brother Eric Fuertes for sharing my project with his class. Great gratitude goes to Mr. Andy Jessup for hosting me in the city and traversing the totality of creative exploration and critique of this project.
American Expressions got going early and was rewarded with great parking in Wicker Park, an uber hip part of the city. The big city life brings diversity as well as aloofness with both on display in Wicker Park. My hustle in getting people to participate has become more nuanced, more aware that city dwellers know what's going on around them and adjusting my approach requires reading their potential attention. One Hispanic couple with a child stroller slowly walked by looking intently. When I approached, they quickly moved to hasten away, but I caught them and convinced them to share their thoughts about America on the flag. As they deliberated what they together thought should go on the flag, I turned my attention to other patrons. When I turned back around they were walking away having simply written "Hate" on the flag. The message about "the wall" must be getting through. Is it not surprising that when asked to share their feelings about America, immigrants cautiously express honestly what is being directed towards them? That takes some courage and a lot of bravery. I wonder where our bravery has gone when our nation openly promotes distain.
As this project evolves, there is a distinct dynamic between urban and rural America. Maybe city dwellers are more exposed to the craziness of close packed humanity that makes them acutely aware of the actions around them. Or perhaps rural communities are more tightly knit where obscure thinking can lead to being ostracized, therefore a graffitied American flag is "out of bounds"(ask Colin K.) Regardless of the causes, the dynamic between those who have to live in peace with one another despite their differences and those who exist in homogenous cultures within our country is growing more polarized. We might look at race, class, and wealth as the terms of our national fracturing, but in my experience with American Expressions, it is the proximity to those that are different from you which divides our diverse nation. We're becoming a grilled cheese sandwich with nicely brown outsides and creamy, white American cheese in the middle.(and who doesn't like grilled cheese, amirite?) My time in Chicago gave me interactions with tourists from all over our nation and the world (btw the French wish us luck). Strangely enough, it was the people from rural America who are most put out by sharing their feelings on the flag when they encounter it in the city. The disgusting facial expressions and hurrying along of family members only makes me image what fear is paralyzing them so much they cannot inquire about the nature of what they're seeing. It is as if they're reciting tales of Sodom & Gomormah, witnessing the violation with their own eyes. Where is all this fear coming from? Is it the cracking shell of their understanding about their country, that it is not here just for them? Or is it long held misconceptions about stereotypes that have calcified into "beliefs" that renders them unable to grant respect to that which is unfamiliar and unknown. We live in a free society, meaning we all respect one another's freedom, but that concept seems amiss among those that live in geographic and patriotic seclusion.
Chicago gave several interactions with many beautiful people. Much of what I do is subtly convince folks to come out of their head space and interact with me and my project. More times than not, people don't want to be bothered, which I completely respect. This has inspired me to develop differing approaches to connect and engage with people. The people pictured above were all brought into the project without words. I see them slyly notice the flag, while I sit to the side, and then I point the marker at them when they look at me, then point it at the flag. It is so effective, the guy pictured in the middle, we didn't even exchange words. The purpose of my artwork is to engage people with my concept, free speech primarily, but it also examines the awareness and willingness of people to engage in that which might be mysterious to them in their daily life. Often I have people ask "Who are you working for?" and they don't normally believe I am doing it for myself & the betterment of our society. So I have found that when I speak less and use gestures, I reduce the weight of the intrusion into their brain space, opening up the opportunity for them to think about what I am presenting. This is the sale. Sure, getting someone's attention and getting them to part with their money are two different things. But when you're selling an idea, one that might be controversial, you're asking people to open their thoughts to your guidance and influence. I am proud of this tour because I am bringing creativity into the streets and challenging everyone's thoughts about our country. If you make a controversial piece of art, but only art lovers go to see it in the gallery, is it really controversial? Are you really confronting those who think differently than you? I think I am, and to do so successfully bridge our differences takes awareness, compassion, and sensitivity to you fellow human beings.
Milwaukee is a mysterious town. It is different from other cities in many regards: population origins, historic manufacturing, unionized, and generally liberally minded. This assessment omits the current reputation of Milwaukee as America's "most segregated city." When I was posting up with the flag, it was easy to see the love Milwaukeens have for their country and fellow Americans, but when the flag was left alone, a different, uglier attitude was expressed. Many thanks to my homie, Katerina, for the gracious accommodations in your lovely town.
The time has come to understand what is really being said when people write certain things on the flag. But first, let me give you a completely amateur observational demographic breakdown of project participation. Overall I suspect I get 3 people out of 10 engage me when I inquire "How they feel about America?" Of those participating the majority are women, and especially minority women. Minorities of both genders participate at a higher percentage than the majority overall. The least willing to participate in American Expressions is the white, adult, male, who most often completely ignore my invitation to participate. When I do get this demographic to join in, there is a good chance they will write "Don't Tread on Me." (This occurred repeatedly in Milwaukee) Other responses by this demographic are often political endorsement for a certain orange-tinted real-estate mogul. By my estimation the WAM group has a 50% defensive response when he expresses his thoughts about America. What has got the Man so down about America?
Why does the top of the socioeconomic pyramid, of the entire world, feel so threatened? Is this repressed guilt for the sins of our fathers, or does it go deeper? Could this be a new neurosis caused by the abundant affluence of a mutating middle class? Or is it a product of our capitalistic consumer society where boys flake about throughout youth and don't have the cultural rituals that teach and validate adulthood, what it means to "be a man"? Ultimately when someone says "Don't tread on me," it comes from a place of fear, a deep seeded insecurity that exposes the causations of toxic masculinity. They want to tell everyone to "FUCK OFF" because "I'M THE MAN" (see the archetype of male characters in movies & video games) By default, they were born into the top of the pyramid and knowing no other position have little ability for change (full disclosure: I am born into the same pyramid peak). The expansion of constitutional fulfillment for all people comes at a cost to them, which is then interpreted as a threat and reacted to with some sort of rationalization: "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps" or "I wasn't given anything" or "If I was in charge..." We proclaim we are the home of the brave, but somewhere in the hearts of these true blooded, white, American males bravery has been contorted. Bravery has decayed into an embroidered logo on a camouflage hat, something we put on for everybody to see, something we wear to cover our fear that we are not brave. We are scared. We hide behind the notions of knowing "what is right" and do so at the expense of others' respect and liberty. We are scared. We act as if the 2nd Amendment is more important than all the rest, not because of tyranny of a rampant government, but because we are afraid of the unforeseen, unprepared future (which we have zero control over). We are scared because we can't handle the truth. The truth is we only have a relationship with hate, and do not know love. Sure, "I love my family, and I love my God, and I love my country, but after that! fuck all y'all" You fear being tread on because you cannot grasp the notion that we're all in this together. Who do you think you are? Writing shit like this on our flag?
Seeing this we're compelled to examine the 1st Amendment right to express this nastiness openly. In doing so we default to tolerance, a shrug, and invoke our debilitating "It is what it is" mentality. Fuck that. Tolerance is the skin of hatred and we can no longer afford to continually allow our society to be consumed by regressive thinking. We want to be great? We proclaim ourselves as being the best country in the world? We bask in uber machismo of bravery, yet we still harbor an insecure fear of being powerlessness and that fear is in distinct contrast to our social programming as adult, white & male. Wanna be a man? Be brave, stand up against injustice. Be brave, use your commonsense. Be brave, lead with trust instead of suspicion. Be brave enough to show respect to everyone, all people. Because when you don't, you simply reek of fear and privilege. You are the MAN. Be brave and act like it.
American Expressions rolled into my family farm in Greentown, IN for a week long stay. It has been a couple years since I'd been here and my father had a few chores for me. Shocking. It has been a nice retreat from the road, very quite and allowing me the opportunity to catch up on design work for future projects. A pleasant stay, but nonetheless a reminder of why I live elsewhere. I did have the chance to get the feelings of some Indianapolis residents on the flag at the Cheerce Festival in Fountain Square. Many thanks to my long time friends Gwynn & Tony for taking time to catch up with me and promote my project.
The Cheerce Festival is in its second year and they have high hopes of being an up and coming event. I would say the future is bring for them, but the experience was lack luster for the flag. It is always the old adage, location, location, location. The event planners had the vendors 2 blocks away from the venue, despite assuring me that people would be coming by. It didn't take long for the rest of the vendors to relocate to the action, but with truck & trailer, I was planted. I met a few people and had some good interactions, but I became a hobo depot with every urban outdoorsman looking for a handout. I must have had a dozen "veterans" see my flag and express their love for our..."hey can you spare some change?" Normally on the tour I have dispersed a handful of coins from my coffee can, but the word was out AND I was parked right outside the liquor store. Talk about local economy. Once I started seeing & hearing the same hustle, from THE SAME DRUNK, I knew it was time to go. I had spent 8 hours working this crowd to get a few expressions, many extolling the virtues of thug life. Not every stop is going to be amazing. I must remember and rely on my dedication to this work and seeing it through.
This stop in the Hooiser state has really given me time to reflect on what I am doing. Something about coming back to where you came from and seeing people you've always known deeply churns my psyche. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate the support of my friends. Mr.Marsh, The Gerry Masse family, Gwynn & Tony, each of them understand the risk I am taking, each of them shared their admiration, and they know it isn't easy. Thanks to all of you because it keeps me going. As the tour rolls on, your support helps keep me charged to see this work through. This homecoming has brought me to my foundation.
This is my dad, Lindan B. Hill. This guy has been the main influence in my life since the beginning. He could have stamped me with the same provincial Greentown perspective, but he didn't. When we examine where we come from, what experiences we had, the shaping and conditioning of 'how to live a life', we get to see the components of personality. My youthful experience was forged by two forces: our family work ethic & my Dad's liberating spiritual journey. Fortunately when I was growing up my Dad decided to question authority, I mean the BIG authority, as in, "what is the function of God, religion, & spirituality in our lives?" This meant we left the little Christian church down the road and started driving an hour to attend a Unitarian church in Indianapolis. This was an eye opening experience for me because it was mid 1980s and in this congregation were homosexual couples, worshiping God no less. Mind you, the tiny enclave we come from still has issues with individuals rights to love who they wish. My Dad broadened our family's perspective because of his own search for meaning in life and in doing so expanded my understanding at an early age. But, as it were, the organized religion of the Unitarians was still a mouthpiece for someone else's interpretation of what living was about. Dad's continued research informed our family through the written works of Carl Sagan, Carl Jung, and most importantly the writing of Joseph Campbell. I clearly remember seeing the cover and reading his "A Hero with a Thousand Faces" because it had Luke Skywalker next to a Mayan hieroglyph. Through my Dad's spiritual journey, I developed my own meaning of life and purpose, which is a very big portion of why I'm doing what I do today.
"The privilege of a lifetime is getting to be who you are". Thanks Dad.
American Expressions rolled into Louisville, Kentucky with high hopes of getting a great American experience and the city did not disappoint. My dear friend and fellow artist Andrew Marsh hosted me at his home, provided many options for posting up, and did some promotional outreach for the project. Many thanks to you my brother for believing and supporting this important project.
When I arrived in Louisville I had little lined up for events. Andrew and I brainstormed about all the happenings in the community and drew up a plan: Kentucky state fair, U of L campus, and LVA (Louisville Visual Arts) event at the Garage. Andrew had also reached out to WFPL, the local NPR station, and shared my project with them.
First stop, the state fair. I was a little unsure how this was going to go, but given the volume of people, I had to give it a go. After paying my $20 fee for parking and admission, I was directed around the far side of the property, what felt like miles away, and knew this wasn't going to be banner experience.
Instantly I was noticed by the parking crew, giant flag and all. It was only a matter of time before the golf carts descended upon me and I began answering questions about "Wut har yew doin' with dat flag?" I explained myself to 3 different patrollers, one lady pressing me "I'm not going to have any trouble with you, am I?" No mam!, it's on wheels for a reason. As I was about to depart, Ms. Ashlie Stevens of WFPL pulled up and inquired if she could do an interview about my project. We talked for about 15 minutes while a photographer took a few pictures and the golf carts circled. The media attention was too much for the patrollers and they descended to prescribe their verdict, "You gotta go." What?! No funnel cake for me?! I was not surprised by this, but Ms. Stevens was and she kept her recorder going while I was being adjudicated. I was denied a refund and couldn't convince even one of these true blooded Americans to sign the flag. The parking jury departed and a State Trooper pulled up at a reasonable distance to indicate the countdown clock had started for my departure. I thanked Ashlie for her interest in my project, loaded up, & moved on out. Hopefully the rest of Louisville would be more receptive. You can hear the WFPL interview here, ejection discussion included! Thanks for a great story, Ashlie!
Despite the coarse fair reception (#fuckyourfair), good things were in store for American Expressions. I was invited to be included in an fundraiser for the Louisville Visual Arts for upcoming mural projects. It was a great event with artists making 8' x 8' murals outside the Garage Bar and American Expressions parked on the street. There was a great amount of interest in my project and I had several quality conversations. One lesbian couple grilled me about my political affiliation, they smelled a Trump, no doubt. "I am an attorney and I need to know more about this before I'm willing to participate. Who are you voting for?" she inquired. I replied, "Whom ever I choose!" She was not expecting pushback and chaffed at the notion I would not comply with her question. Free country, lady, but ya better learn to play nice with others and not assume your intelligence is superior.
At the end of a very long day I was about to load up and roll out when a young lady approached me. "You did this? This is your project?" Yup, this is me, I am it. "I heard you on the radio, I need to talk to you," she insisted.
She proceed to tell me I needed to change the crux of my project from 'Freedom & Tolerance' to 'Freedom & Compassion.' I have had many good discussions during this trip, but none so philosophically sound and tuned into what I am attempting to do. Her point was very clear: Tolerance is the edge of hate. Tolerance is a word that solves nothing. Tolerance can not bring us together. Compassion. Compassion is what we need to aid our splintering society. I listened intently and I slightly pushed back because I've thought extensively about the method and message I am promoting. I was intrigued, but she had to pass through the acid bath of my cynicism to her opinion. She continued with conviction, "How can you understand what it is like to be another person? To have you're life shaped by things beyond your control? That everyone has their own understanding of existence?" I concurred, "Your talking about the epistemology of relativism", that everyone's reality is made up of conditions and experiences unique to themselves, therefore shaping the way they interact with the world. She exclaimed, "Compassion is the tool we need to bridge between each other, not tolerance." She was right and in that moment I knew I needed to change my artwork.
This was a gift. A beautiful moment of the art working, influencing, inspiring, and evolving. She said, "you are on this amazing journey for all of us, don't stop short with tolerance, make the effort. Compassion is what we desperately need as a country." Her personal story was the catalyst for her perspective and I was lucky enough to get her input. It has made my journey better, it has made my journey a success.
Big UPS to my man Casey Mckinney for putting a rad mural on the back of the flag. The man has got mad skillz.
Check out his talents at www.derbypaints.com
Many thanks to Ms.Mo at Revelry Gallery for including me in the Mural Fundraiser or LVA. I had a ball! Best of luck!
As with many other cities on this tour, NuLu, New Louisville (not to be confused with SoDoSoPa) is the reclamation of inner city property by a new generation of entrepreneurs creating the tightly knit, hip urban living experience. All of our American cities once had thriving city centers that suffered a uniform exodus of suburbanization, (aka whiteflight) leaving behind rich architecture, infrastructure, and identity. We bought into the American Dream of "Little Pink Houses, for you and me" and in doing so climbed in our cars and segregated ourselves from our urban history. The revitalization and placemaking craze maybe a "whiteflood" back into the inner city, but our vision is a monotoned cash green. Gentrification (often couched in black & white racial terms, but always green in motive) is a problem each of these cities must grapple with, but regeneration on the other hand, is the wisdom of renovating versus razing these dilapidated urban cores with attention paid to those who have always resided there. It is a fine line and I'm not sure it is given much thought because we're focused on the fiscal outcome instead of the cultural ones, but it is happening everywhere. Throughout my tour almost every community has reclaimed an old building and turned it into a brewery, with a coffee shop down the street, and then a Thursday farmer market pops up, and cute boutiques, and greaser barber shop opens(read hipster) and that new HOT Chicken place, where it's en vogue to have champaign with your fancy bird sandwich. This is the engine of local economies and the seeds of local communities. People may rail at this as gentrification, but it is young people, taking their ideas & energies and making them real, building communities where, by and large, communities had vanished. Can redevelopment be done conscious of existing demographics? Of course, but where is the model to follow? There is an opportunity with every redevelopment to undo the societal scars of white flight and better our whole communities. Can it be done? Sure. Will it be done? .....
My stop in Frankfort, Kentucky was greatly aided by friend and fellow sculptor Melanie Van Houten of Josephine Sculpture Park. Josephine is the ancestral home of Mel's family where she has curated a vast collection of contemporary sculpture. I am honored to say I am in the collection and look forward to seeing Josephine grow through her dedication. Thank you Mel for all your contributions in helping promote my tour in Frankfort.
Frankfort is the state capitol of Kentucky (not Louisville) and is a quaint tight knit community. A very historic downtown sits between two editions of capitol buildings in the Kentucky River Gorge. It is a community where everyone knows everyone else and many of Mel's friends came out see my traveling art show at the local coffee shop. A mild political discussion ensued and was sassily summarized before it really went anywhere. You have to understand the state of Kentucky is under the influence of a governor elected by about 20% of the population. A governor who had no previous political experience, one who ran on an anti-obama ticket. The populace of the state's capitol has little interests in politics since they sit at the center of a sucking torrent of backwards leadership. They get the politics of it all and live through it everyday with a gracious spirit.
I had the pleasure of meeting many of Frankfort's local artist and they appreciated having opportunity participate in my project. One gentleman explained he worked for the state's department of children and families. As the conversation went, I asked how often he saw, in rural Kentucky, abuse of the support system. He replied only once in about 8 years of working in that office did he see someone actively taking advantage of benefits. He explained that most people want to get off the assistance as quick as they can, their pride motivates them, and that they're generally grateful for being able to get help. Throughout my travels, I often hear about abuses in the system as a reason why we need a certain candidate, but when I get close to the reality of it all, it much less than what is perceived.
While I Frankfort I was invited to Kentucky State University to get the impressions of their incoming students. KSU is a historic black college with a small student body that comes from all over the nation. Classes were not in session yet, but I did get to interact with some of the faculty and students.
The kids were very adamant about their disgust for Donald Trump. When i asked if they were going to vote, most were unprepared explaining they're not in their home and it would be difficult to cast their ballot. I pressed, "Even at the risk of Trump getting elected?" Shrugs. I can't blame them, but our right to complain is directly attached to our level of involvement, no excuses. One young lady couldn't believe the back of the flags' statement "Make American Paint Again" wasn't Trump's slogan. She thought it was too close to his moniker and felt it promoted him even if it wasn't accurate. And with a bit of reflection, I suspect that when I hear the big rigs toot their passing horns, them truckers are probably reading "Make America...." before they blow by, not even gathering that I am not promoting Trump. Might be time for a new mural....
I had the pleasure of meeting James, an African immigrant, who is homeless. He was at KSU helping promote the local homeless shelter for student volunteers. All the invited groups were hosted by KSU for lunch and I got to listen to James's story. He came from the Ivory Coast when his family had enough money to send him. But once he got here, being away from his family, he didn't get the same kind of attention and care from his hosts. He subsequently ended up on the streets, trying to get his life back together. James had nothing but respect and positivity coming out of him. His gratitude was bountiful for being here in America, even though his road is difficult, he reflects on his journey knowing his life is much better than what it was in Africa. So many Americans never have to journey away from home, and when we do, we go for privileged adventure and not survival. I am trying to keep my adventure objective and focused on collecting expressions, but I often want to tell Americans how lucky they have it, how they should consider how much harder life is in other places.
Maybe I make some buttons: "Grateful to be American"
Lexington is home to the University of Kentucky and many of my artist kinfolk. Hard working metal artists have been coming out of the UK for decades and I have attended many events correlated with sculpture creation. Two talented colleagues, Jeremy Colbert & Andy Light, who I attended graduate school with, are based here and it was great to get their perspectives on my project and the American Expressions of Lexington.
The visit to Lexington provided my first encounter with displeasure in regards to my project. To be polite, names and locations will be omitted. As with every other stop, I hit the ground running and had to rely upon my host, Andy, to help garner locations for posting up the flag. We brainstormed on a couple places with the parameters for a good stop, foot traffic and parking, and were easily satisfied by going to one of the many breweries located in Lexington. Andy began to put out the feelers and soon we jumped in the rig to go show off the project. Sure enough, we found a great spot outside a brewery with big glass windows and the promise of a busy Thursday night. We went inside and spoke with one of the partners. "All good man, but check with dude." We proceeded to check with dude, showed him the project and got his enthusiastic approval. To celebrate we decided to enjoy one of their fine products and headed to the taproom. We were half way through our pints when a fella came in and quickly approached Andy saying, "You've got to get that thing out of here." Mind you, we're parked on a public street, which gives him exactly zero authority to regulate who parks there. As this guy proceeds to berate Andy I hear him say, "That thing says 'All lives matter' on it, do you know this is a culturally sensitive neighborhood?" Without introduction, I interject "Hey, it's a free country. Do you know what's going on?" Didn't matter, decision made, you guys gotta go. This experience was not exceptional in my displeasure because I expected some people to be upset with the project. What made this encounter particularly disgusting was the shallow defense of cultural sensitivity by a business owner who is actively gentrifying the neighborhood he claims to protect. This false outrage at public discourse is simply the embedded guilt of this exploitive enterprising charlatan. Why not put your brewery somewhere with higher property taxes, so you can better help your overall community? Or even better, take two minutes, introduce yourself, get the whole story, and then contemplate if you really are the neighborhood decider in chief. I would recommend the beer, but is has a tremendously smug aftertaste.
American Expressions moved onto more receptive pastures down at The Burl where we met Eddie, the manager of this new Lexington music venue. He gladly accepted our offer to bring some political art to his Thursday night event, a dub-step concert. I personally am not familiar with the dub-step, but it is a subgenera of EDM (electric dance music) so you get the picture of ravers, neo-hippies, LED hoola-hoops, and dilated pupils to scrappy dance beats. We had some good interaction, but it is often the case people want to party and not be consumed with political discourse. This was a representative group of the 70% of people who don't vote in our country, who could care less, have other interests, like "fun", and generally scoff at the idea of responsibility. I was once like this, so I cannot blame them too much, but I'm glad I grew out of it. Many thanks to Eddie for being a great host.
The second day in Lexington provide a great venue and interactive opportunity. American Expressions garnered a spot at the Warehouse District Block Party with the generous help of party director Chad. A wonderfully diverse event, we had all types of people participate and share their thoughts on the flag.
This day was a strong calling to the ladies. I met many women who did not hesitate to share their feelings and even proceed to add responses to other expressions. I had a dialog with a pair of women adorned in Hillary garb that expressed their admiration for the ascent of the feminine perspective to power. It was pointed out to me, with the election of Ms.Clinton, three of the world's great powers will be run by women: US, UK, GDR. The pride these ladies expressed at finally having their genders' wisdom in charge around the world was inspiring. Their departing thought was to conceive of global leadership that resists the sword and instead chooses peaceful solutions. We shall see, ladies, we shall see.
Not long after this uplifting discussion I spoke with two other women, girls rather, with braces and stylish tattered denim, must have been 13 or 14 years old. Their expressions were telling: "I do not need a man to make me happy" & "Do they love you because you're naked or are you naked because they love you?" The contrast to the previous participants couldn't have been more stark. Two mature ladies relishing in the advancements of gender equality opposite the two tweeners experiencing the engrained gender exploitation painted the arcing struggle for women's independence. It was difficult for me to engage these young ladies knowing their future is hemmed and possibly destined by provincial traditional gender roles. I pointed out to them the expressions of the older generation, the independence, the advancements, the confidence, but before they could answer, they were swept away by cellphone alerts, boys, wanting to know where they were at. Good luck ladies, meet and listen to your elders. They're going to help you much more than boys.
My latest destination was in Grafton, West Virginia to visit with my sister's family. This is the first time I've come to this part of the country and was well received with giant flag in tow. It has been an especially enlightening visit because my sister, Michelle, and her husband Dayton, are both civil servants. In years past, our family holidays have been filled with opposing views because of the nature of our respective professions. But this whole trip is about sharing those opposing views and their perspective comes from a distinct position. Especially Lieutenant Dayton Mayle of the Taylor Country Sheriff Department.
My sis coordinated a great location for the flag right on Main Street out side Gallery 62 West where I left the flag for three days. Grafton, mind you, has a population of about 5000 people, and I was quite impressed with gallery and the artists I met there. Sis & I posted up, ready to get the patriotic feelings of small town West Virginia. My giant flag may not have wowed too many people as Grafton has American flags everywhere. There is a strong tradition of military service in Grafton, and Dayton and Michelle both served in the Army. Plots with pictures of lost family members to foreign wars reside at various prominent intersections throughout the community. This is small town USA and everyone knows everyone else, especially my sis. Her promotional efforts brought out many people to write on the flag and even scored me a TV interview on the local news channel. Just as other stops on the tour, Grafton had a mix of peoples' responses: love, peace, Trump. One couple came out specifically to share their thoughts with the Mrs. proceeding to exclaim the rights of women in the USA. Her gratitude was certainly informed by world travel and confirmed by her husband's tag "If you don't like American, try living somewhere else!" Another couple approached, simultaneously and independently wrote on the flag "Be Kind to one another", a total coincidence, but a telling truth of their shared lives and values. This was an art event in Grafton and many people came to see what was going on. I cannot thank my sister enough for sharing her home and community with me. Now i know why she likes it here so much.
Since the flag was posted for three days in one spot, it opened up my schedule and I had time to spend with my extended WVa family. Almost instantly Dayton said, "Hop in the Jeep, we're going for a ride." I knew what I was in for. After a quick tour of town, Dayton proceeded to tell me about the ills of society, from a police officer's perspective. We discussed it all: Black Lives Matter, welfare, drugs, crime, education, poverty, racism, presidential politics, guns. Not quite Frazier vs Ali, but it was a debate that battled between his real life experiences with humanity and my more humanitarian perspective. I heard stories of him being shot at, the disgusting investigations he's preformed, the ills of our national government and his honed perception for human deception. You might think that Lieutenant Mayle is a hard ass, which you are right, but he carries himself professionally with honor and objectivity.
My role in our discussions, aside from Devil's Advocate, was to push the discussion out from Dayton's very informed, up-close perspective to a wider context. What are the cause of the ills? What what can be done? Who should be responsible and can we as Americans have respect for one another, despite our diversity. The answers that came from Dayton were telling. Fear. Fear is what he protects us from. Fear is not part of his constitution. Fear is how "they are controlling us". Fear is an instinctual, base motivator for behavior. I countered with "what is the opposite, balancing force?" He replied, "I am". There is some truth to that, but I proceeded to posit that it is Love that balances fear. Love is the antidote when people are scared. Love and acceptance are what wash insecurity away. Love is the power that dissolves fear. Dayton could not contest this, as he knows in many of his on duty calls, the presences of love in someone's life might have influenced different outcomes. Outcomes where he's not involved as Lieutenant Mayle.
Michelle and Dayton, despite their fervent opinions, know that love is the key. My sister shared stories of her years working to help disadvantaged kids get christmas gifts. When her sons friends have difficulty, they can always come to the Mayle household and eat, sleep, and talk if they need to. The city of Grafton needed a daytime volunteer firefighter, so she trained and filled the need. She did that because she loves her community and she loves helping her community. My nephews, Clinton, Dalton, & Zachary teenage boys, all carry themselves in a way that looks out to help other people. Despite all the ills Dayton deals with on a daily basis, their family has a wide open door for those in need and I couldn't be more proud to be related to the Mayles of Grafton, West Virginia.
After a month of touring, American Expressions tour took much needed respite at Salem Art Works in Salem, New York. I had the honor of receiving an Artist Fellowship in 2013 and spent 4 months in this idyllic artists community. It has taken 3 years, but I finally made it back to this very special place. My sincerest gratitude to SAW Director Anthony Cafritz for having me back for a short stay and sharing amazing dialog about my project.
I was pleasantly surprised to see all my old SAW friends had already found an opportunity for my project. Ms.Ann Delay, gardener, musician, & puppeteer arranged for American Expressions to visit a summer camp for the local kids. I thought, "why not? let's get some young American interaction." After some consideration I decided that letting kids put their hand prints on the flag was the best way for them to all easily interact with the artwork. As summer camp goes, I thought this would be easiest. Little did I know that the camp instructors would just send 40 kids at me with little supervision. Needless to say, I skipped the long patriotic explanation and got right down to the business of hand printing the flag. We had a ball! I filled up a couple plates of paint and the kids took laps passing the flag, plastering it with little red, white, & blue hand prints. Their inquisitive nature kicked in and I got several questions about "why?" are you doing this. I explained that I love our country and I want other people, all people to be grateful for the lives we have here. I got some squinty eyed approval, which I consider a tremendous success.
The true propose of the project was not missed on the high school students who were running the summer camp. I found the simple penciled statement "I feel powerless" written on the back of the flag. I can only imagine what it might be like coming of age in our times, in a rural community. Previously insular to the greater ways of the world, now technology has opened the hidden corners of our country to the major news and movements of our day. A portion of what is happening in our country today is an erosion of the thinking "this is the way we've always done it." Wider ideas are more readily available to younger people and I image it can be scary for both them and their parents. Ideas of acceptance and diversity that may not be planted in smaller communities now invade with every news cycle. This barrage against "the way we've always done things" puts the youth in a tough spot. They are the future, but they're being imbued with the past, a past that's more homogenous, more religious, possibly more privileged. What are kids to think when they might hear their parents rail aloud against the transformations of our country. Formerly, there was rarely the opportunity to develop into your own sense of being, but now information and ideas reach everyone, everywhere, all the time. We are all collectively being pushed to think for ourselves, subsequently reformulating and mutating our traditional morales. I'm sure being born in the past and constantly hearing about a different future can make a young person feel very powerless.
The stay at Salem Art Works was a wonderful rejuvenation of the creative spirit. There was much dialog and quality interaction about my touring artwork. Being around other artists is such a treat and very rewarding. Again my appreciation to Anthony Cafritz for his continued dedication to his vision for SAW and the poignant discussion we had about my project, good feedback is crucial. When you decide you must drag a GIANT flag across the country, you cherish the attention of fellow artists because they understand the risks. The risk of "Why?" it must be done. They see the details and finer metaphors of what is being communicated. They grasp the context and understand the importance to the creator. Each artist I encountered gave meaningful insight because they genuinely are interested in the "Why?" Each of us as artists have to answer it and we each know how hard it is to explain something we feel we must do to a world that wants us to fit in their box. It was a great way to recharge and prepare to have more discussions about politics and America as I cross to the midwest. When I get weary on the road, I can remember the shooting stars on Cary Hill and refresh the strength I gathered at SAW. It is gift from a magical place.
Welcome to the next level challenge. In many ways I had no idea what to expect in New York: parking, people, possibilities. My dear friend Taylor Browning hosted me at her shop and her home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. This was my first time driving in NYC, let alone with a 20' trailer. Needless to say it was some next level shit.
Once I got through all the bridge tolls and traversed the roughest of roads, I arrived at Taylor's shop to find out the flag had suffered far too much stress. All the bouncing around had broken a couple welds and I was quite fortunate to be arriving at the SMART Department metal shop. Taylor generously let me use her shop & materials to beef up the flag for city life and added road durability for the long haul. Many thanks SMART Dept.
After a day of fabrication, I was ready to hit the city and get the real dirt from New Yorkers. Luckily I was accompanied by Eric, who stepped up to navigate the dense streets for me. The first day out we toured Brooklyn, searching in vain for adequate parking. What we found was a series of gauntlets, weaving truck and trailer between double parked cars, delivery trucks, bikers, & pedestrians. On more than one occasion it was mere inches to skirt disaster as we passed through the hive of daily activity. Finally we found a spot in Bushwick and posted up, ready to be relived of the intense concentration necessary for driving. It being Brooklyn, people didn't mince words, and I quickly received two identical responses, "Fuck Trump". This sentiment was repeated both on the flag and in response to my inquiry about "how do you feel about America?". The spot wasn't the greatest for foot traffic and we decided to try our luck for another parking space with better traffic. After touring all of Brooklyn, we never found suitable parking. By the end of the day my nerves were shot and I was ready to relax my focus from my mirrors and periphery.
I got jumped into everyday city life and quickly realized what the New York stereotype is all about. The close proximity of people and machines and structures squeezes your psyche, morphing your guard and personality into that big city skin, which is necessary to survive. Eric had grown up in the city, never knowing any different and even commented that he might not know how to operate anywhere else. I posit if everyone in America had to focus on simple daily existence as much as New Yorkers do, there would be a lot less complaining. You do not have time stop spend your brain power in that way, you have to focus on survival. You might get a chance to relax at the end of your day, but you must prepare for tomorrow. You might have a brief moment to hear something going on in the world and respond with a terse "Fuck that.", but you quickly move on because you got shit to do.
The next day we were determined to get a parking space, regardless of legality, and set out for Manhattan. We threaded the needle of traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge and cruised the avenues, causing a few heads to turn. Eric guided us towards busy spots in the lower east side and I felt like it was going to be another day of intense circle jerking in the city. We cut down Broadway and then, almost instinctually, I whipped the rig to the curb seeing enough space to land. We hopped out, markers in hand, ready to get the art on.
Cutting through that city skin to get people's attention was initially a challenge, but once people saw what was happening, participation picked up. There were several comments reflecting speeches from the previous night's DNC speakers. "Don't Boo, VOTE!", "When they go low, we go high", "Finally a woman". Again, Mr.Trump repeatedly received the succinct NYC assessment. Some of the best comments came from New Yorkers who had been keeping their opinion to themselves, but now given the opportunity, let it fly. One gentleman pushing a janitor's dolly looked up, got the gist, grabbed a pen and wrote "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." Another quick footed New Yorker dashed, "Think critically, demand evidence." There were many additions of love and respect, kindness and empathy. In some ways, the New York City stereotype is accurate- they love New York. That love gives them the strength to have respect for one another across the great diversity that is a world metropolis. That love provides them with the patience to coexist in close extremely proximity to one another. It is that love that translates "Fuck You!" to "Pardon me, I didn't see you there." Just think, if the rest of American could understand that respect is paramount to existence, we might be able to just get along.
Being in the national capitol did not disappoint for my political art project. Many thanks to Sculptor Mary Early and DC native for helping me set up so many awesome destinations. As you can see by the picture above, the flag got covered with all sorts of sentiments about America. It's been a really wonderful time.
My first stop was at Diverse Markets SW, located near the waterfront in southwest DC. This monthly event has music, vendors, food, libations and this time, political art! It was hot, it was friday, and I was getting the vibe that people in DC may not want to have anything to do with more political BS. Once the sun started to settle behind the burgeoning skyline, the party started to pick up and so did the artwork.
I got a great variety of commentary on the flag, but not completely associated with the Presidential race. When I got the "Dump Trump" a gentleman immediately added "Or Hillary". I guess it's the balance of power. I was really impressed with the image above left of this gentleman with reverent face expressing his thoughts. This kind of interaction makes the work successful for me, his moment of reflection and genuine expression of whats been on his mind for a long while. And it cannot be all serious about our America because "Deez Nuts" has a platform and approval rating surpassing both nominated candidates. I see a sticker opportunity. Many thanks to Michael & Lexie & Rudy of MarketSW for hosting & helping me get there.
Saturday was another scorcher and I was partnered with Emily Arden of ReCreative Spaces DC. Her group is taking over a parking lot for the next three years to do art projects while development of the surrounding area takes place. As it was so freakin hot, there was minimal traffic in the lot for the flag, but I gladly helped out with the picnic table construction, in the shade!
I got to meet Michael, the gentleman who's company is doing the development. He gave me an amazing story of how the 22 acres south of this parking lot are all Section 8 housing and are about to be all torn down. This area of town is the "event horizon" of gentrification. Older homes across the street are going for 3/4 of a million dollars with the declining ghetto right across the street. What Michael told me next really does give me hope for our county. No, not planning a new Starbucks or "resort style city condo living, from the low 300s" but rather the development to be built will be mixed income, maintaining the Section 8 residents location. These are 3, 4, 5 generations of families who have lived here. It is their home, their neighborhood, their community. Michael tells me that the community does not believe him, that there's a lot of mistrust and doubt that this man's word will be kept. His strategy has been to engage the greatest generation, the grandmas of the community, the source of wisdom and direction for many. Even then you know it is not going to be an easy sell. I believe Michael will keep his word. I know he's got his work cut out for him between folks on both sides because neither believe he doing it. This man is putting real value in the phrase "Make America Great Again" because he sees a raising tide must raise all boats, not just for the affluent.
Many thanks to Emily for the great lunch and the contribution to my tour! It was a pleasure meeting such great people and thank you for welcoming me to your group.
I knew I had to brave the traffic and get down to the national mall. After a couple laps, I posted up nicely near the natural history museum. The response was instant. People, pictures, inquiry, hot hot hot. I passed out an entire box of cards and received amazing response. I met people from all over the world, all of whom were very curious as to what was going on. I would joke with them when I asked how they feel about america, "Maybe you've heard about us?" The response was overwhelmingly positive. "I love USA & I love Iran", "Peace to Afghanistan and America", "I love American & Cheeseburgers" Who can argue with that?
There were so many people that I barely had a chance to speak with anyone personally. One young lady quickly hopped up and wrote "9" on one of the stars. As she dashed back to her family, I asked "Why 9?" She replied that her grandmother was one of the nine people murdered in the Charleston SC church. We all think that the violence is somewhere else, that it doesn't affect us, that it is sad, but it's not here. Then you see just how close we are, how tightly American is packed together. That young lady could have ranted and spread hate as her expression, probably with good justification. But she didn't. She simply honored the loss of her grandmother and in the moment of heat & emotion I felt dizzy because I could hardly comprehend the amount of pain she must have gone through. We can be better. We Americans, all of us, we can be better.
I cannot express my gratitude to Ms.Mary Early. She has made my DC stop a total success. She got me spots to post-up and to park, given me a place to stay, & upped my social media game. She is amazing.
Thank You Thank You Thank You Mary. You made this stop a success!
ALSO!!! BIG SHOUT OUT to my friend Quay Krispy, who also put me up and assisted in my project. I love your pool (along with the rest of your neighbors!)
ALSO!!! Many thanks to my dear friend Doug Barton of Richmond, Virginia. A good ole Mizzippi sculptor who let me crash his house for a week and disrupt his neighborhood with political art. Thank you to Alison and Leyna for helping out with the project too.
Yes, you can trust us...
Richmond, Virginia has provided some great interactions, some on the flag, some face to face. When I pulled up in Carytown and parked on the street, it was only a moment before Officer Jennifer appeared on her bicycle. Initially I wondered where she came from, I turned around and bam! she was there. A brief anxiety crossed my mind, but I quickly understood that Officer Jennifer was simply curious about what I was doing, more than if I was violating anything. She explained this was her beat and that she had a bike and a car that she often had to resort to when called as back-up. New RPD policies require all police stops have two officers due to tenuous public/police interactions. I used this opportunity to inquire about the relationship between the public and police in Richmond. Officer Jennifer explained to me that RPD used "community based" approach to law enforcement, which seemed a little canned to me. I asked if there were tensions and she explained that she felt like the community and the police had a good rapport citing the local BLM (black lives matter) protest that occurred without incident. Then she produced the note, pictured above, that she found taped to her bike one morning. Hard not to have your heart warmed by teal ink and 6th grade curly handwriting. Officer Jennifer had a wide smile as she told me of other generous gestures of support she and other officers had received. It can be a thankless job cleaning up society's mess, but she has a very positive attitude and brings it with her everyday. It is imperative we as a society emulate her excellent example and bring our positive attitudes everyday. Thank you Officer Jennifer, keep up the good work.
I spent the morning at the Richmond Veterans Hospital, a vast sprawling complex of parking lots filled to the brim. I was excited to take a freshly painted flag to the VA and get the perspective of those who chose to dedicate themselves to protecting our freedoms. Fortunately I found some space way in the back, but not in a place with much foot traffic. I spent the morning watching people roam for parking and then hobble towards hulking brick promises guaranteed by their service to their country. That promise of well-being and care in exchange for ultimate dedication to our American cause is under strain and it shows on the faces of all our veterans. Stress of pain, frustration from bureaucracy, angst of our political direction, and the general disassociation they feel from the greater population. It is a lot to live with when you feel like you did your part and the rest of American just benefits from your sacrifice. I know this project might ruffle a few veterans' feathers, but I hope they grasp the crux of my mission. It is not the flag they protect, it is the freedoms it represents, the freedoms we all enjoy, and that we should be grateful we all live in such a country. Without those freedoms & people willing to protect them our ability to express our thoughts freely may cease to exist. Respect.
Lastly I spoke with Matt, who did not write upon the flag. He passed by the flag once mildly assessing its' contents, but kept his stride and direction constant. A man of discipline I suspected. When he came back by I engaged him with my project and readily had something to say. Matt is a law officer in the Richmond area and his thoughts of the flag was simple: don't listen to the media. He went on to share a recent story about a shooting that occurred in southern Virginia. His brother-in-law, a state trooper, had a man pull a shotgun on him and he defended himself returning fire and killing the man. Shortly there after the Trooper Station received a call from the Associated Press inquiring about the shooting. The AP asked the race of the victim and upon hearing the answer as "white" they hung up the phone. Not interested, not news. Matt feels like much of the angst in our nation is being stirred up by the media and its hard not to agree with him. The 4th estate has succumbed to the powers of the 5th estate, by-passing truth and integrity and going with whatever outlandish headline will get the most attention. Nowadays it is more important than ever to take in a variety of media reports and assemble your own understanding of what is going on in the world. To quote Timothy Leary, "Think for yourself and question authority" especially when it comes to what media you're feeding on.
I took the opportunity to ask Matt his thoughts on gun control. He quickly responded with "guns for all." His rationale came from the very American perspective of the old west. "If I have a gun and you have a gun & we both know it, then we've reached a peaceful equilibrium which we both respect." I let that sink into my brain instead of retorting with gun violence statistics because it does make some sense, in a long term cultural apocolyptic kinda way. I am not a gun advocate, but in applying Matt's thinking and getting past "good guy with a gun/bad guy with a gun" to EVERYONE has a gun, our societal psychology will have shifted. By changing the power dynamic of those who choose acts against society through gun violence, we may ultimately see less of those events. Conversely, other gun deaths will undoubtedly go up. Given our country is addicted to and at the mercy of money and power, close kin of guns, the full armament of our society seems much more plausible than the intelligent legislating of gun availability. What a world we live in.
Solve et Coagula expresses transmutation from base to a finer state, the perpetual goal of spiritual growth and human evolution. Sounds like a more refined idea of the statement below it!
Durham was full of stories throughout the two day stop. I’ve started to get more comfortable with my spiel, new places, knowing less people, more raw interaction with the public and I think it is showing up in the variety of conversations. I want to thank Tripp, Jolieee, and Cecelia at Vega Metals Art market for helping me while in town. I had an awesome time seeing everyone at Liberty Arts in Durham: Jackie! Denise & Mike and getting to share coffee with my long lost cousin Jennifer Hill (no known relation, just our little joke). And a special thanks to Nicole for purchasing new Krink markers for the tour!!! Just got 'em in the mail!
I had a lady in Durham break down and cry to me about our national condition. It was intense getting drawn into an empathetic moment and giving some very gentle stranger hugs (yes, you better hug a crying stranger lest you cry yourself!) Her angst came from a lifetime of trying to make American better, through the 60s and then into her later life only to see that not much has changed. She described the deception of her grade schooling, that she felt she was fed manufactured history omitting the genocide of the Native Americans. She continued with pain of the Civil Rights Movement, which she participated in, only to have incremental advancement and continued racism in her beloved Carolina. Her's were not only tears of pain, but also of frustration. She was so overcome with emotion it moved our dynamic from empathy to sympathy. I cannot understand feeling so helpless after a lifetime of activism to sense it is somehow all rolling backwards. Maybe my project gave her a little comfort and hope.
I also met another patriot on a journey- Michael Boncek and his Walk By Faith tour (walkbyfaith.today) Michael is traversing North Carolina on foot to raise money for veteran’s suicide prevention. His is a noble cause and he is a dedicated veteran helping his fellow soldiers. It was kinda funny bumping into another pitchman, his story refined and ready. And amazingly, he was not at all bothered by my project. It was a pleasure meeting another person willing to put their energy into making things better on the ground, getting out there and talking with people. I think that’s the most important element of all, getting people out of the news cycle echosphere and face to face. Happy trails, safe travels, and thank you for your dedication, Michael.
I witnessed an episode of racial dynamic between a couple of valet coworkers, some boys in their early 20s, working right next to where I was parked. The white fella got up on the flag & wrote “Greatest country in the universe” His buddy, an African American kid named Aaron, coolly looked at what he wrote and replied “I don’t agree with that.” Anglo bro says “What? Why? What do you mean?” Clearly this guys has no understanding of WTF is going on in the country at large. A few moments pass and a few more coworkers walk up to investigate, examining what the white kid wrote with mild reaction. Now with an audience, Aaron proclaims, “I cannot support or agree with what you wrote.” An awkward wave of non-response floats over the group. Everyone knows there’s a conversation to be had, one that is difficult, one that is not appropriate for Friday night, but the collective group has taken a pass on the opportunity to engage Aaron’s position. I do not know what you call this, if it is passive racism, micro-aggression, general white assholishness, or youthful spinelessness, but here in lies the problem that we’re all experiencing- disrespect. It is the disrespect of someone’s perspective that is different than our own. It is the disrespect of a friend, who’s life hasn’t been nearly as easy, to ease your own guilty conscience that your life has been an American Dream. Aaron was embarrassed, I was embarrassed for him and wanted to cuss the group. I thought there might be a back lashing on the flag from Aaron, but he didn’t want to talk to me. I caught on quick and backed away. No reason to make things worse, but we were standing next to one another for the rest of the night with the whole of what is festering within America between us.
I capped my stay in Durham with a trip down the road to Carboro to visit with sculptor, cyclist, and friend Pat Day. Always a pleasure to kick it with another artist, Pat, his cycling buddy Steady, & I sat around the informal “Pat’s Bar & Grill” breaking down all the “wtf”s of our current affairs. Rarely I think it occurs that people are able to get together and have a relaxed dialog about what’s going on in the world with folks they barely know. But when it happens, it can be really fulfilling. It is as if building a few bridges of understanding and communication are therapeutic for our taxed minds. We didn’t solve any problems of course, but we did respectfully listen to one another, taking turns and letting go of our harder notions to yield to the more enjoyable moment.
Talking and listening with these gentlemen I continue to gain a better understanding of the anxiety that continues to creep into the American psyche. The unknown change that is approaching us as Americans threatens the good lives that the majority of have enjoyed. Many of us have lived in a prolonged period of general security without want or even need for our basic livelihood. The future is always unknown, but Americans have become accustom to knowing there is bread, shelter, protection as well as Yellow Fin Tuna, Hummer SUVs, gluttonous television entertainment, and cheaply harvested year-round vegetables . Not everyone in our country is afforded all of the above, but the thought of losing any perceived advantage kicks in a primordial survival reaction. It is as if we cannot conceive of things changing for the worse and that we will be woefully unprepared. This is when anxiety mutates into fear; fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of the others, fear of your neighbors, fear that swallows you whole. We cannot be lead by fear or we will destroy our grand experiment in governance for the people, by the people. It is a personal responsibility to overcome one's fear, but often requires a hard look in the mirror to know exactly why you are afraid.
As I make my way on this artistic journey, it is really gratifying to have the support of fellow artists like Pat Day and his friend Steady. In some ways I feel like I am out there promoting tolerance & patriotism for a great number of people who don’t want to give in to fear, people who know the importance of our collective evolution as a society, people who really do believe in an America for all. Progress isn’t perfect, but it is paramount and it starts with each one of us choosing respect and love over fear and othering. Many thanks to the guys at “Pat’s Bar & Grill” for the enlightening dialog and welcoming environment. I'll be back!
Today I was generously accepted into the French Broad CoOp farmers market in downtown Asheville. Upon the direction of my hostess, Jane, she knew there was an empty lot, but did not know that Wednesday's was market day. I luckily pulled in before the space was filled with pop-up tents and merchants selling their wares. A quick conversation with the outreach coordinator, Clare, at the CoOp and I was accepted for the day. Many thanks to the great folks at the French Broad CoOp, you made it easy for my art to happen and I thank you!
Downtown Asheville is a crossroads of tourists, locals, and folks coming in town. A cosmopolitan city I surmised, hoping for a wide geographic/demographic input on the flag. Instead, the challenge today was hustling people to engage with the art work. Nothing more than simple location and presence, my flag was back away from the sidewalk of vendors, creating a spanse of 20 feet which many chose not to traverse. This presented a choice of either get out and bark to involve people, or sit back and easily observe who chose to interact. Given the chronically slow syllable lingo of native Asheville hippies, I chose to allow people to interact on their own. It was like....whoa....!.......!!!!......faaaar out....man.
One of the first people to share on the flag was Michelle. Truly engaged with all that is happening, Michelle informed me of many conspiracies that are about to come to fruition. This is my first encounter with someone who has a higher understanding of what's going on. She intimated to me that the whole system is rigged (yes), that Hillary is going to be president (yes, go on), that then she will be assassinated (Oh, really?) to leave our political system in such turmoil, and with Justice Scalia out of the way, Obama will sit a third term (No shit?). I asked if she thought maybe President Obama is ready to complete his term and move on to something else, "Oh, no. He loves the power too much, he wants to stay and I'm so happy if that happens." That last part was a bit of a trip for me, thinking that for all the stands of this conspiracy, Michelle must not like the President. Who would have thunk it? I think she wants to give the guy a raise!
Through out the day, people would approach and present themselves in front of the flag reading all the other expressions, only to decline to participate. One young lady, pictured above left, readily took up the pen and wrote "I love our Troops, #Merica" Of hispanic descent, I wondered if her brother was enlisted in our military. So many people come to our country for a better life and in gaining that life improvement have tremendous gratitude for being in the United States. Why is our national gratitude so bitter when we all have so much? That's a hard one to pin down.
The center image is of a lovely pair of ladies who felt that some of the colorful language on the flag need to be embellished. This way people may not see the word in the same context, but they refused to mark it out completely. It was an interesting lesson in tolerance and censorship and what you can do within your own power to change meaning. Maybe there is a tool kit for tolerance that could be developed that combines respect with self-assertiveness to be the change in the world, without infringing upon others?
Lastly I met a young man towards the end of the day who wrote "DISIDENTIFY" on the flag. I'm pretty sure he has now coined the term, I was confused as to what it meant. When I inquired, replied that he agreed "we're all fucked." I couldn't help but wonder what his angst was. I got the impression that I maybe talking to someone who is of the alt-right perspective. My interpretation of his chosen expression linked "identify" and our on-going cultural expansion of LGBTQ rights, where the term "identify" is an active function of daily life. Did this young man feel that he (or we as Americans) have nothing worth celebrating that we should disown our identity as Americans? I appreciate this honest expression because there are many people in our country who maybe feel like America is not their country anymore, but they should.
Finally, if you're in Asheville on a Wednesday, you should make your way to this farmer's market for one thing only: fresh baked bread. The other vendor in the back with me was Tom. A soft spoken fella, Tom has been a baker for more than 20 years. He has a small wood fired oven and bakes sourdough, rustic baguette, and focaccia. Everyone wanted some, many repeat customers. Tom said he used to back commercially, working working working all the time, but now, just on Wednesdays. We chatted throughout the day and Tom told me of the changes that has come to Asheville. Each time he pulled fresh bread from his oven, someone was there to buy it. I caught on quickly and nabbed a delicious load of focaccia. We both agreed there is a lot to be gained from a "less is more" perspective. We didn't talk too much politics, but by the end of the day, Tom wanted to give his perspective. "If Trump is elected, he'll do all the stuff Hillary has already done." Pretty shrewd assessment, but Tom really doesn't care, he's just going to keep sharing whats good in life with good people in Asheville- his fresh baked bread.