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.