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.