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.