My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

Eye-Witnessing Downtown San Francisco

Downtown 6.19 copsI had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:

A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.”Downtown 6.19 Rifle Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.

Downtown 6.19 SkateboardersAround the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.

Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services.Downtown 6.19 homeless group (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)Downtown 6.19 Seagull

Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.

Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat.Downtown 6.19 Symphony guy His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.

Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.

 

Art can still save us. Believe.

Ward show 2018 BrennanWard Schumaker is an artist who creates striking paintings, makes beautiful books and speaks truth to power. His show TRUMP PAPERS (Hoisted by his own petard) recently opened at the Jack Fischer Gallery, 1275 Minnesota Street in San Francisco. It consists of works recently done that immortalize the immortal words of our president — words we try to ignore but should never forget. And a few words about him, including the ones spoken by former CIA Director John Brennan that I’m leading off with (left) because they express the beliefs of the majority of Americans, those of us who did not vote for Mr. Trump.

The paintings speak for themselves. So I’m pasting a few of them in here:

Ward show 2018 Feminism

Ward show 2018 McCain

Ward show 2018 EPA RulesWard show 2018 Russia

Words matter. Policies also matter. It’s very hard for some of us who are grandparents to see the planet our grandchildren will inherit being destroyed while the denier-in-chief looks only at profit margins.Ward show 2018 Charlottesvl And his adoring base. It’s also hard to watch what’s happening to other people’s grandchildren at our borders. Or the disappearance of decency and civility that we wish for our grandchildren’s world.

Fran & Ward 10.20.18
Artist & Writer

 

 

 

 

 

But back to the words. In TRUMP PAPERS, Ward Schumaker emblazons them into our psyches, just in case we might forget. His earlier show of paintings memorializing Mr. Trump’s sayings, Hate Is What We Need, led to an eponymous book now in its second printing (also available at Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota St or 311 Potrero Ave.) I gave copies to several friends, precipitating some interesting conversations. Do I want this book on my coffee table? Could we give it another title? Do we need to immortalize these stupidities? Questions worth pondering. But if it’s true that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as Santayana reminded us, Schumaker’s paintings will definitely help guard against repetition in years to come.

Ward show 2018 Kinds-CagesThere was, also, a note of very good news at the opening of the TRUMP PAPERS show. A soft-spoken young girl, about 10, was quietly creating her own art work on a ledge at the back of the gallery. A note lying among her drawings informed the curious that they were for sale for $1 (four or five digits less than most of the works available at the Jack Fischer Galleries) and that all proceeds were for immigrant children. Her name was Mila. I paid double the asking price for my selection, which is shown below. Maybe her words will eventually drown out all these others. Go see the show if you can.

ward-show-2018-kid.jpg

 

 

 

 

On Earning a Five-Star Rating in Life

My all-time favorite female keynote speaker/comedian Jan McInnis recently wrote the following piece in her regular ‘Humor News’ publication The Keynote Chronicle. (You may want to get on her mailing list.) I thought it so much fun — and simultaneously profound — that I’m sharing it here, with her permission.

What $19.99 Will Buy You

comedian and keynote speaker Jan mcInnis
Jan McInnis

I like hotels. I stay in a lot of them, and most of the time I stay in really nice ones. You know, where the bathroom is big enough for ballroom dancing, and there’s a TV embedded in the mirror? I guess if I want to feel like I’m a beautiful newscaster, I look at that instead of my reflection.

And as nice as these hotels are, they’re still worried about making a good impression. After my stay, they always send a survey so I can rate everything: did you use the internet? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the gym? Yes? On a scale from 1 – 99, how was it? Did you use the toilet? You get the picture. I check “no” to all of it; otherwise there are more questions to answer. Nope, no gym, no internet, no toilet. . . I didn’t even sleep under the covers. Stop! Your hotel is nice, ok!

funny hotel article
Jan’s room in Africa

I’m still a fan of cheap hotels, however, because they kept me afloat in my early comedy years. Back then, it was kind of a crapshoot as to what you’d get with some of these hotels. There could be a TV in the mirror, but only because some drunk guest threw it there. Occasionally the bedding could be a little sketchy. I toured with a sleeping bag.

One of my first big gigs was at a major comedy club in Chicago. I was very excited, but I had to get my own hotel room. Plenty of really great comics live in that area, so no one was gonna put up an out-of-towner. No problem! I found an excellent hotel about an hour away in Portage, Indiana. . . and by “excellent,” I mean cheap: $19.99 a night!

The manager was a very nice older lady, and I explained that I was a comedian on tour. We had a pleasant chat, and I got my keys. The room was kind of what I expected: no TV smashed into the mirror, but I did have to wear my socks while walking on the carpet. . . and in the shower. But the week at the club went well, and at a little under $140 for my room, I could still go home with some money.

Funy picture
Hotel bed decoration — “To make me feel welcome, I think”

When the club booked me again a year later, I had the same hotel dilemma, so I headed over to my friends in Portage. But there was a different woman at the front desk, and the price had gone up dramatically: $29.99 per night! (Probably due to paying for new TVs and mirrors.) That $70 extra bucks was gonna break the budget, and I didn’t know what to do. This was back before cell phones and wireless internet; finding another place would be time consuming!

As I was discussing dropping the price to no avail, the manager popped out. She must have seen the panic on my face because in a moment of true kindness, she turned to the desk clerk and said, “I remember her. Give her the old price.”

Relief! I could kiss the ground (almost. . . the carpets were still the same). I had never been so happy to unroll my sleeping bag in a bargain bed. I thanked her profusely.

I’m sure she doesn’t remember now how much she helped me then, but I do. It probably wasn’t a big deal to her, but it was a huge deal to me, and she did it simply because she could. She had the opportunity to help someone, so she did. Without any fanfare, without any expectation that I’d give her a good review, without anything: she did it just because she could.

Jan & crowd
Jan onstage, well rested

There’s always an excuse to not do something: “It’s not my job,” “It’s not our policy,” etc., and many people hide behind that because it’s the easy route. (Yes, you, Mr. Airline Gate Agent who wouldn’t put me on the earlier flight recently, because you said it would be too much of a hassle.) But, I think doing things that are in your control to help someone is how you earn a five-star rating in business and in life.

I once heard Tony Robbins say that we should look at everyone on the planet as being on the same team, and I agree. So be on the lookout for ways to help out your “team members” with the things that are within your power. You’ll make a great lasting impression on them. . . without the 99 question survey.

(Jan has shared her customized humor keynotes with thousands of associations and corporations, and is the author of 2 books: “Finding the Funny Fast” and “Convention Comedian.” She has also been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and on Huffington Post. I’m proud to be a fan.)

 

 

 

 

Hanging Out With Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, in town to promote his new film “Human Flow” is less like a global icon than a kid on the first day of vacation. He gleefully mugs for photos, takes selfies with – and of – his audiences, bears a perpetual crinkly smile and when asked “When are you happiest?” replies, “Now.”

Ai Weiwei 10.3.17
Ai Weiwei smiles for a fan

But the message of the internationally renowned artist is deadly serious. He wants the world to confront the fact that over 65 million human beings are displaced, most of them living in deplorable conditions in refugee camps and only a tiny fraction (about 3%) being relocated. “Human Flow” depicts refugees in 23 countries – in camps, on the move, struggling across deserts, through murky waters and occasional war zones. It documents a staggering amount of human suffering which its creator wants us to face as fellow human beings. “The world is shrinking,” he says; “people from different religions, different cultures are going to have to learn to live with each other.”

Ai appeared before a sold-old crowd at the Commonwealth Club recently, in conversation with Climate One founder and host Greg Dalton, who started off by asking what his guest felt Europe should do. “It’s not just a European problem,” Ai Weiwei responded, “it’s global – Iraq, Myanmar, elsewhere. Policies in the U.S. seeking to reduce immigrants, enforce a travel ban, move away people who have been here since childhood – there is a strong trend to violate human rights and traditional beliefs. We are all refugees.”

Ai & Greg Dalton 10.17
With Climate One’s Greg Dalton

Ai Weiwei was born in 1957, the year his father, the Chinese poet Ai Qing  was arrested and denounced during the Anti-Rightist Movement. He was one year old when the family was sent to a labor camp in Beidahuang, Heilongjiang. According to his Wikipedia page, they were later exiled to Shihezi, Xinjiang in 1961, where they lived for 16 years. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Ai and his family returned to Beijing. At one point, during his lively conversation with Dalton at the Commonwealth Club, Ai said he used to be jealous of his father. “He got all those years, and all I got (referring to his imprisonment for “economic crimes” in 2011) was 81 days.” His 81 days were, however, no picnic. “If you argue with the government,” he said, “you never win. They become so powerful you can get suicidal.”Ai Weiwei 1-10.17

On the issues closer to the focus of Climate One, Ai spoke of how China “has made huge progress, and has become quite economically powerful. But the dark side are environmental problems: heavily polluted air and rivers. Besides that there is huge corruption. There are internal struggles inside the party; no trust, no real creativity because there’s no freedom of speech.” To Dalton’s remark that Ai had once tried to work within the system, Ai laughed. “I was very naïve.” Despite his history of battling the government Ai was given his passport in 2015 and now lives in Berlin.

“When they handed me my passport, the guy said, “We’ve known each other for so long . .  .”

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

poets-writers-1-16-17

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.”

hererra-1-16-17

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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