Art & the Protection of Democracy

Ward show w Fran

Schumaker with the writer

Ward Schumaker and Vivienne Flesher, two San Francisco-based, nationally recognized artists whom this writer is proud to call friends, have been fighting depression – to put it mildly – since last November. It is of course political – everything’s political these days – but for Schumaker and Flesher (who are in fact married to each other,) it’s about much more than politics. It’s about  human rights, the future of the planet their 9-year-old grandson will inherit, and protection of our democracy.

I met Schumaker shortly before the closing of his latest show at San Francisco’s Jack Fischer Gallery, for a brief talk about art and activism. (Sorry if you missed the show. You can still see his work at Fischer’s Potrero Street Gallery.) Does creating art help them deal with depression, I wondered?

Ward show 1“No. It’s just hard. But it’s what we do: get up in the morning, every day, and go to work at 8 AM.” Some extraordinary examples of Schumaker’s work were assembled for the latest show – creating them took about a year and a half, not all of which time was clouded in depression. My personal favorite is a piece titled “The cloud of unknowing.” Schumaker conceived the piece as a meditation, referencing the ancient (late 14th century) work of mysticism which suggests that contemplative prayer might lead to an understanding of the nature of God.

To mitigate their depression, however, Schumaker and Flesher are doing a little more than painting. They have created an assortment of postcards, some with messages on the front and some just featuring their original artwork. After printing out a stack of cards, they also printed out the names and addresses of every member of Congress, both Senate and House. (You can do the same, by following the links.) They keep these, along with a supply of 34-cent stamps, on their breakfast table, where every morning they enjoy coffee and The New York Times. When they find someone in Congress has done something positive, they send a thank-you postcard. Others get a card expressing disapproval.

Ward show 2Postcards take a little more time than a phone call or email, but are a powerful way to make one’s voice heard. Especially if one is worried about human rights, the future of the planet one’s grandchildren will inherit, and the protection of our democracy.

Plus: this is how democracy is protected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

diego-rivera-murals-sfai

The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Age, Agility and National Stamina

It is a little known but verifiable fact that this writer is a graduate of Circus 101. Well, I completed the course, that is, some five or six decadespast my turning-cartwheels-in-the-backyard days.

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

The author and sister Mimi, circa 1940

This comes to mind because of all the recent stamina talk. At the time of my circus experience I was several years younger than the current candidates for president of the United States. I am still the age of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and frankly, Justice Ginsberg and I (I am not officially authorized to speak for my 1933-babe sister) resent the stamina talk. She, of course, is making her debut (speaking only, opening night) with the Washington National Opera this year; I’m afraid opera performance is not on my bucket list. But still.

Stamina-wise there is at least the circus thing. As I recall, my late-life circus experience began with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a class offered by the San Francisco School of Circus Arts (now Circus Center) titled Circus 101. It sounded interesting, and at least worth undertaking for a good story. So I called the Circus School.

“Could a reasonably flexible 60-something woman be eligible to take your Circus 101 class,” I asked the nice lady at the other end of the line? She replied, essentially, if you’ve got the money we can work you in. “You can set your own limits,” she said.

So I showed up for the first class, raising the median age by two or three decades, and quickly learned my limits: upside-down is not for 60-somethings. Oh, I could still do upside-down, headstands with my feet on the wall or the occasional cartwheel; but then I tended to get dizzy and throw up, which is not in the curriculum. I found I was very good, though, at balancing the peacock feather on my chin and at being part of the human pyramid; I always got to be the top of the pyramid because nobody wanted to step on the little old lady. I was also quite good at the Ooze – a sort of backward roll-over with a collapse at the end.

In my class was a lovely Chinese-American girl named Yvonne, who measured approximately 24-18-24 and could juggle three balls before we even started. By the second class her husband Ken had been talked into joining. Ken and Kit, another husky young man who showed up at the same time, could perform great feats of strength and skill, but because they had all those muscles getting in the way I could beat them at grabbing my ankles and doing bend-overs and such that they couldn’t even approximate – which made me feel initially quite superior.

Rola-bola performer, not the author

Rola-bola performer, not the author

All feelings of superiority quickly disappeared. We learned the egg roll, the diablo and the rola-bola, that last being a balancing act on a board set on a large pipe, which when circus people do it looks easy as pie. It is not. (Nor is juggling four balls.)

I did discover that I really shone at the human caterpillar. This begins with a base person on all fours (hands and feet, not knees.) The next person rests on top of the base person, feet crossed, hands on the floor, and additional caterpillar people are similarly arranged. The rear legs and all hands move in unison, theoretically, until somebody giggles.

Is any of this relevant to today’s world, nearly two decades later? Well, it provides food for thought and some great metaphors.

One can only hope that everyone on the political spectrum will have the stamina – not to mention agility – required for running the country at all levels and branches of government. And that our collective community can master the rola-bola without turning into one great Ooze.

 

Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter

The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

Jan McInnis: Clean Comedy & Attitude

Jan & crowd

Clean comedy packs ’em in

“I went up in a hot air balloon 2200 feet in the air,” says Jan McInnis, whose taste in adventure is as zany as her comedic genius. “The scariest part was as we were climbing in, the guy asked us our weight. I’m not telling him that! I gave him my goal weight. This thing may crash, but that secret’s dying with me!”

The above (copyrighted) quip was included in the latest Keynote Chronicle newsletter circulated by comedian McInnis, sometimes known as The Work Lady. She is also co-star, with Kent Rader, in the Baby Boomer Comedy Show.

It’s hard to read The Keynote Chronicle – or see McInnis onstage – without either a chuckle or a guffaw, or two or three or more. And at the same time, you may fail to notice that the material is utterly without profanity, vulgarity or in-your-face sexual innuendo – the basic elements of much of today’s comedy. A Wall Street Journal article once noted that her clean comedy “still has plenty of attitude.”

Jan pic

Comedian Jan McInnis

This writer first saw Jan McInnis at a comedy competition more than a decade ago at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. She didn’t win the competition – although she said recently that she is now good friends with others she met at that event – but I have followed her career ever since. 2016 seemed a good time to interview her about the trajectory of that career.

McInnis grew up in D.C., the second of four children in a fairly traditional family whose home was in a nearby Virginia suburb. “My parents said they’d pay for college anywhere in the state,” she says. “So I chose Virginia Tech, which was as far away as you could get from D.C.” She earned a traditional (communications) degree, and went to work back in D.C. at a few traditional jobs, including the National Ocean Service and the National Academy of Sciences, where she worked on the original “Planet Earth” PBS television series. But her lifelong ambition to do stand-up comedy never let go, and at 34 McInnis started doing open-mike gigs. She spent two and a half years working at her day job while doing comedy clubs up and down the east coast. This involved grueling hours and often staying in what the clubs referred to as “Comedy Condos,” that customarily housed “twenty-something boys.” McInnis, meanwhile, was aiming for a manageable career. “The great thing about working in marketing (at the traditional jobs),” she says, “is that I knew about the convention market – as opposed to clubs.” And The Work Lady was born.

Jan onstage

McInnis joking on the big stage

McInnis moved across the country to Los Angeles 16 years ago – “It was either New York or L.A., because otherwise nobody’s going to see me” – and never looked back. From early on her parents were fans. “They heard me on the radio in D.C. a lot,” she says, “and I made sure they only saw me at the good clubs.”

There are apparently all sorts of clubs. “My goal when I started out working in tough one-nighters,” she writes in a recent book, “was to get so successful that I’d never again have to perform in a room in which you can hear the blender.”

On the road to what is today a highly successful career, McInnis performed at venues that would seem to make the noisy bar appealing: in a bakery, on a gigantic bowling alley with people inside gigantic, see-through bowling balls rolling by, on a turntable (“Lazy Susan for those of you over 50”) that made a 360-degree lap every 10 minutes, and in “a multimillion-dollar gymnasium with a $20 sound system.”

If you’ve missed McInnis at these or other appearances, you may be seeing her before today’s  political dust settles. She does a spot-on Hillary Clinton.

 

One Bright New Voice for Justice

Migrant Crisis

My money is on today’s young people.

Faced with problems local, national and global that earlier generations could barely have imagined they remain undaunted. They take on mountainous debt to get good educations despite bleak job prospects, they resist any attempt to be told how to act or think or vote, and they expose themselves to the world on social media to an extent utterly frightening to their grandparents.

As one grandparent, this writer can only applaud.

This is a snapshot of one college student whom I applaud. I have never met emerging artist Brennen French; I was introduced to his art because despite the thousands of miles and several generations that separate us it speaks my language.

French, the son of a college professor and a retirement home administrator, grew up in one of the many American small towns that saw the economy tank and opportunities vanish in the last half of the 20th century, when plants closed and jobs went overseas. Though his own family was comfortably middle class, he learned firsthand about poverty, racism and injustice – and seems determined to confront those issues in the best way he can. As his website explains, he “found his voice for justice in his art.”

Two works illustrate how that goal is playing out, as French pursues an art degree at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. “The Rise of Feminism (Break the Chains, Rise Up, Be Free)” (below) is an homage to women from around the world who have made significant contributions to women’s rights through their accomplishments in a variety of fields. With a powerfully drawn female figure centering the piece (while breaking her chains,) French has created a design with multiple interpretations, using profiles of some of the women he references. He includes initials just in case, but viewers could recognize many of them without clues: Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, nearly two dozen profiles rising from silhouetted crowds of anonymous others.

In “America’s Response to the Syrian Migrant Crisis,” (above) French uses somber tones to portray an endless line of refugees, fronted by a garishly contrasting image of an American TV talking head, a red Starbucks cup on the screen behind her. “I created this in the winter of 2015,” French explains, “to raise awareness of the current migrant crisis. At the time, American news feeds were flooded with the Starbucks Red Cup ‘scandal.’ I was shocked that news organizations felt this story was important enough to dedicate two weeks’ worth of airtime, time that could have been given to discussing the Migrant Crisis.”

Voices for justice may be around for a long time yet.

The Rise of Feminism

 

On Jazz, Optimism and World Peace

Some of the things in short supply these days: optimism, compassion, comfort and joy and the conviction that light will always overcomes darkness.

Dave Len Scott Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Dave Len Scott
Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Two San Francisco-based musicians are quietly at work to advance all of the above. Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush lead multi-pronged lives that are exhausting to consider, but they offer a strong endorsement of the energy that derives from choosing this particular line of work.

Occasionally the two get together to reinforce the notion that faith, hope and love continue to win out.

Scott, who teaches at Sonoma State University, is a trumpet player, pianist, composer, conductor and dispenser of peace and joy. His bio explains that he is “equally comfortable in improvisational/jazz and ensemble/classical idioms.” Bush, noted for his “Inspire Choirs” that are premised on the African proverb, If you can speak you can sing, is a singer, composer and performer who works closely with San Francisco’s historic Glide Memorial Church. He is also co-founder, with Marybeth Tereszkiewicz, of Tree of Life Cross-Cultural Arts Camp, a yearly two to three week summer program for children in the small school communities of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Both Scott and Bush make a respectable living through their art, but what they do essentially for free, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters on the planet, sets them apart from many (happily by no means all!) of their fellow musical professionals.

The two get together occasionally (and will do so regularly throughout the spring of 2016) for “Live at Five” evening services at another San Francisco church, of which this writer is fortunate to be a member. Scott advertises the musical segments of the events thus: “Vernon Bush is a gentle soul and a gifted choir leader. To shine positivity and love is just Vernon’s way. Anyone who comes to sing with Vernon (first Monday of every month, 7 pm) at Calvary will come away feeling better about everything, feeling loved! I am certain!”

Certainty of goodness (and feeling loved) might be added to the things in short supply today. But a recent “Live at Five” service led, musically, by Scott and Bush, featured a chorus-with-drums rendition of this Chinese proverb:

Where there is light in the soul

There is beauty in the person

Where there is beauty in the person

There is harmony in the home

Where there is harmony in the home

There is honor in the nation

Where there is honor in the nation

There is peace in the world.

Vernon Bush

Vernon Bush

It may be an unfortunate fact that there is not a lot of peace in the world. But thankfully there are people like Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush out there bringing light to the soul.