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.