CONTRIBUTOR

Pricking My American Bubble

 01/30/2017 03:37 pm ET

Adrian Margaret Brune New York-based contributor to The Guardian and international correspondent for CapeTalk Radio

For the past year, at least, if not for every election cycle, pundits and forecasters in American politics speak about the “bubbles” of the East and West Coasts. Those of us who live in these enclaves don’t know “America”. We don’t understand, or care how those in the middle feel – how they think. We don’t know what life is truly like for them.

I am a native of Oklahoma, the daughter of two attorneys from the middle class Midwest, who moved to New York 15 years ago. I left not to find a safe enclosure of people who thought and believed and looked like me. I left to free myself of it. To find the true America.

The first time I took a subway or a public bus with someone who was black, I was 18, on Chicago’s El Train during my first year of college at Northwestern. Listening to the echoes of things I had heard about certain black people while growing up in Tulsa, I clutched my backpack a little tighter. My first Muslim friend, I also made at Northwestern. She was Iranian, a pre-med student whose parents came to the states after the revolution to give their kids a better life. I didn’t know the difference between Persian and Arab, or that Iranians spoke a language called Farsi.

Grad school in New York City during the year of 2001 only amplified my American experience. Columbia Journalism School, of course, had people from most countries imaginable, including Vietnam, Pakistan, South Africa and Argentina, among many others. But I also lived with an Israeli printmaker whose parents spirited her away before her mandatory year of conscription. I bought my beer at the bodega on the corner from South American cashiers, walked through Italian, Chinese, Indonesian, and West African neighborhoods and of course, took the subway with every “other” person spoken about in political campaigns, including a six-foot tall black gay man, an autopsy technician, who pulled out a pair of size-13 red patent-leather heels to match his jeans and red polo shirt for a night of dancing because, “girl, you gotta live”.

 

For me now, most people in middle America live in bubbles. They leave their house bubbles, climb into their car bubbles, listen to their broadcasters who speak in bubbles, work in bubble buildings and return to those safe spaces day-in and day-out. When I go home to Oklahoma every year for Christmas, I am relatively shocked about how little of America they think they know. And I am truly dismayed in lack of trust for the “other” that still exists, the gay, lesbian or trans person, the immigrant from Syria and yes, the blacks – always the blacks – because of those bubbles. Most of all, I am ashamed of myself. I had liberal parents, attended one of the best college preparatory schools in the Southwest and considered myself “progressive” through the age of 25. I was such a fool. My true education came from New York.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote this week that living in bubbles is the natural state of affairs for human beings – the preferred sociological term is “homophily – and humans often seek out similarities in their marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. He also postured that American homophily is often a result of public policy. Even before Americans can do “the big sort” – moving near like-minded neighbors – they’re victims of a “little sort.” Children are sorted by their parents’ income, their neighborhoods, their schools and the attitudes of authorities towards these places.

Having dealt with the racism and prejudice I inherited by birth in the United States, I know that every “native” American is born with those traits and chooses either to live in them or fight them. I speak in generalities, but most of who live on the coasts, where we encounter people from around the world, in every economic situation, of every disposition, are either forced to fight them or choose to fight them, or else we perish. I wish every American could have the same experience as me, especially those who voted for Donald J. Drumpf, who is now destroying my “America”, our “America” with his Executive Orders and proclamations against immigrants, especially Mexicans and Muslims. Drumpf is, indeed, a native New Yorker, but he is also a narcissistic panderer who will do or say anything to gain approval. And for those who have lived in their bubbles and want to keep them intact, he is now the perfect president.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Fidel Castro’s Legacy on Film

 12/09/2016 11:34 pm ET

Adrian Margaret Brune New York-based contributor to The Guardian and international correspondent for CapeTalk Radio

The opening montage begins with flashes of Cuba’s Amerindian and Spanish colonial history – prints of enslavement and destruction, followed by the Spanish-American War, independence and the decadence of dictatorship Fulgencio Batista. Next appears the footage of Fidel Castro: Castro pointing the way to battle; Castro riding in a military parade; Castro inciting the people of Cuba into la Revolución cubana.

However, Olatz López Garmendia’s documentary, Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death – officially released by HBO Films three days after the death of Castro – in no pays homage to the Marxist-Leninist leader. Rather, Patria O Muerte – filmed over several years with Garmendia clandestinely holding her camera to land remarkably candid interviews – provides a visceral look at the current state of Cuba through the lives of its citizens, including writers, musicians and artists who have lived amidst political and economic instability their entire lives. In the first three minutes of the film alone, viewers meet Ilana, a prostitute who lives “to hustle for my daughters, nothing else”; Alexander, a food stand worker who has “no aspirations”; and Julio who looks straight into the camera and says “Am I happy? No I am not happy. What am I missing? Everything.”

Since Fidel Castro died on 25 November after more than 50 years in power, ex-pats and politicians of the world have remembered him as a “singular figure”, as did President Obama, or “a legendary revolutionary and orator,” who made “significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation,” according to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The real eulogy to Castro, however, has not come from any statesperson or Party member. In effect, Castro’s epitaph lies in the frames of Garmendia’s film. Utilizing vibrant images of street scenes and crumbling buildings set to the voice of Castro proclaiming, “Despite the great economic difficulties… the vices that we see every day in capitalist societies don’t exist here,” Patria O Muerte chronicles the radical, yet subversive effort to unseat half a century of El Comandante’s communist policies.

The documentary’s – and Cuba’s – lifeblood emerges, however, with short segments on the artists, writers and creators silenced in their rebellion. Gorki Aguila, the leader of the band Porno para Ricardo, describes the restrictions on his band and the cameras outside his studio to monitor his every move. “We are not allowed to play in this country, but we are not going to stop trying,” he says. The artist Danilo Maldonado, also known as El Sexto, recounts the arrests he endured for his exhibitions. “The proof of (his art’s relevance) is that they are always persecuting you, as if you were a delinquent when I am simply an artist. But I choose freedom and freedom has a price.”

Finally, the expatriate writer Antonio José Ponte, whom Castro expelled, puts international confusion over the dictator’s legacy best in perspective. “Fidel’s greatest advantage has been to operate against Washington; the sympathy for Cuba originates from this antagonism,” he says. “Fidel Castro has been the king of imagery – he and his his court… and the the propaganda hides the true reality of the moment. It disguises military and political occupations, with a humanist veneer of doctors and professors.”

Patria O Muerte finishes with Obama’s December 2014 announcement of the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba. “We will end an outdated approach that has failed to address our interests… We hope to make the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit better, more free, more prosperous,” Obama says. Cut to tourists dancing, driving in beautifully restored 1950s cars, watching sparkly costumed dancers and parades, and smoking cigars. Cut to the ordinary people of the film’s beginning: Julio who takes care of his elderly mother on 20 dollars per month; Alexander who still works at this food stand; Ileana who still sells her body for money.

Finally, cut to Obama’s first arrival in Cuba and the protests filmed on surrounding streets. Cut to dissidents, including El Sexto and Gorki Aguila, thrown in a police wagon. End film.

On 28 November, El Sexto was scheduled to attend the premiere of Patria O Muerte after a stop at Art Basel Miami, where he has an exhibition. But Cuban authorities detained him the day before he was scheduled to depart, after he posted a video on Facebook mocking Fidel Castro’s death.

The end of the nine-day official mourning period of Castro’s death has returned most Cubans’ lives back to normal, but El Sexto remains held without charges at a police station in Guanabacoa. This last incident – seemingly Castro’s last command from the grave – could have been included in Patria O Muerte. But until something is done to erase Castro’s legacy, chances are there will be another chance to capture it again.

Gun Violence Or Identity Politics — What Will Come Out Of Orlando

 06/16/2016 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Over the past two days, in an effort to bring Americans context on the mass shooting in Orlando, well-meaning media, such as NPR, have presented a range of views in its programming, from the statements of the presidential contenders, to a coterie of imams advising on Islam and tolerance to LGBT activists citing the ways in which LGBT population almost always gets scapegoated for societal ills.

Across the spectrum, listeners have caught the buzzwords: extremism, religiosity, Islam, Christian, mentally ill, repression, homosexuality — all of the same language also shouted television, on the Internet and on the street. But in the those talking points, cultural, political and activist leaders have once again missed the point entirely, trotting out the same old identity politics to divide us further into camps. When really, our problem does not deal with marginalization, or the civility of one group over another.

The problem with gun violence in the United States is the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Because, let’s face it: without a gun, or specifically, a .223 caliber AR type rifle and 9mm semiautomatic pistol, Omar Mateen would still be a confused radical and 50 people would still be alive.

What I would like to know instead: since when does the second amendment trump our First Amendment rights? Or even our basic right to live and breathe in America?

Since never. Not unless one was fighting for the country. A simple search brings up the Second Amendment in its original format: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Simple enough. In times of defense of country, as when the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787 just after the end of the American Revolution, people have the right to keep and use guns. Over the years, however, many interest groups, espousing the same identity politics as they now do, have attempted to interpret that amendment to fit their varying needs. Most of the time, gun safety prevailed.

In the United States v. Cruikshank (1876), after a Ku Klux Klan militia were convicted of massacring an armed group of Republican freedmen, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions, ruling that the Second Amendment did not restrict private citizens from denying other citizens the right to keep and bear arms. “The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence”, wrote Chief Justice Morrison Waite, in a decision that, on the surface, favored white protectionism from black militias.

More than 50 years later, the Supreme Court was more explicit. In United States v. Miller (1939), it ruled that the federal government and the states could limit any weapon type not having a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia”. In that case, a bank robber had challenged that the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a tax and the registration of certain firearms.

However, in the 21st Century of unlimited freedoms, as more and more disenfranchised people live in fear of each other, they lobby against the “nanny state”, afraid of the government taking away their Constitutional right to bear arms. In turn, Congress and the courts have pacified them.

After a series of decisions in favor of gun rights in the first ten years of the new millennium, in Caetano v. Massachusetts last March, the Supreme Court reiterated its earlier rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010): “The Second Amendment extends, prima facie, to all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding” the Court stated in a per curiam decision. In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, that “if the fundamental right of self-defense does not protect Caetano, then the safety of all Americans is left to the mercy of state authorities who may be more concerned about disarming people than about keeping them safe.”

Since Caetano was decided, the U.S. has experienced only gun massacres (in which four or more people were killed), including the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which resulted in 49 deaths — a respite from 2015. However, since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, CT, there have been 998 mass shootings in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive. Among those targeted: school children, Muslims, born-again Christians, teachers, movie-goers, straight people, university students, black people, white people, dancers and LGBT people.

Last night, hundreds of LGBT rights supporters stopped Christopher Street in its tracks for a vigil, stating that they needed to be outside a place that gave them strength, as many do for Pride every year. While they chanted “no hate”, the NYPD in full counterterrorism gear, which includes an assault rifle, watched over them.

As a gay person, I went and witnessed and showed solidarity. But as I looked at the police standing watch, fingers on the trigger, I wondered if we should be thinking less about us and our politics than about the good of society as a whole. And the good of society as a whole requires swift measures to control guns in America — not to bury ourselves in another Us v. Them crusade. For as much as I believe in my First Amendment rights, last night, I was less concerned about them, than about the semiautomatic guns the police were holding to protect all of us.

 

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The Price of Journalism

 05/19/2016 04:52 pm ET

 

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

When I have a chance to stop and think about my situation, the math just doesn’t add up. But with two jobs and a freelance life, I hardly have an opportunity to stand still and ponder.

As I wrote this editorial, I was on a plane bound for Oklahoma to research a story about an inmate who creates art in prison and whose parents sell it across the state to fund an art and recreation room at the medium-security prison where he could spend the next 40 years of his life if sentencing laws don’t change. Just a month ago, I got off a plane at JFK after a trip to Palestine to report on a marathon held to symbolize the nonviolent fight for freedom by a nation of people trapped behind a wall.

I funded the reporting of both of these stories on my own, after pitching them to several news organizations. One is sold; the other - a long-form piece about marathons in the Middle East - is not. By the time I finish that one, I could have $5,000 invested in a story that might net me $3,000. Might.

I keep to part-time writing gigs to support my profession-turned-hobby. Am I crazy? Perhaps. The gatekeepers of the Obama administration might think so, or they might believe journalists like me — journalists who believe their career is not just work, but a calling — just don’t exist any longer. In the 8 May New York Timesmagazine profile of one of Obama’s deputies, Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser smugly lamented the closing of major American newspapers’ foreign bureaus and the downsizing of the 4th estate so that he could build his international “echo chamber” with young reporters eager for his spoon-fed narratives served over blogs, YouTube and Twitter.

That’s not me. I am a Columbia Journalism School graduate, class of 2002 — the class that covered the events of September 11, 2001 six weeks after we arrived on campus. And the class that stood and watched the impending wave of online journalism and decided if we were going to surf or withstand the crash.

I didn’t surf back then. Nothing sounded appealing to me about computer-assisted reporting, Google searches, blogging — and when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram arrived on my desktop menu, selling my value to the world. It was a desk job, and I didn’t sacrifice my career prospects and $60,000 to work in a cubicle, repackaging a news item someone else had written. My instinct carried me to the dusty libraries to write about lost eras; to college campuses to capture emerging trends; and, at one point, the offices of many politicians to challenge their assertions.

But even though one can dislike Rhodes — the failed novelist turned propagandist — one cannot necessarily blame him for seizing an opportunity. There are now fewer than 40,000 full-time professional journalists in the U.S. for the first time since 1978, according to the the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism; newsrooms have become ghost chambers, empty cubicles littered with dusty Dells and stacks of clips. In an age in which most of the general public gets their news online, the faster — and cheaper — the delivery of it, the better. So why wouldn’t a journalist under the crushing weight of the Internet news machine take a hand-spun tale in their “inbox”, over the hassle of a train, plane or automobile to obtain the real story and an expense report for which they will have to fight to justify every dollar spent? Logging on to Twitter for a quick quote from a source — a common practice of BuzzFeed and its brethren — certainly saves time, money and an Advil.

The problem doesn’t really lie with the Ben Rhodes of the world, or the Obama administration’s “supreme arrogance,” as stated by Max Boot in CommentaryMagazine.com — or the Bush administration’s chutzpah for that matter, lest we all forget “yellow cake” and Judith Miller. The state of journalism today is the responsibility of the news corporations, capricious media owners and fluctuating editors-in-chief who decided 15 some odd years ago that the media would give the people the “content” they wanted and not the information they needed. The key decisions made at the top had a trickle down effect on all of us journalists who still believed in our mandate. If our editors and defenders didn’t hold it in regard, why should we? If they didn’t want to pay us for our jobs, why should we?

I still believe; I still pay. That same Pew survey found that nearly eight-in-ten (79 percent) of the public say it takes a special set of skills and training to be a journalist.

I’m not the only one. There are still many of us, who, despite the cynicism, arrogance and disingenuousness of the Internet-era, still conclude that shoe-leather beats any algorithm. There are those of us who apply to every grant available for long-form reporting; who board planes to witness facts on the ground; who spend more money producing a story than they will ever be paid in return; and who longingly read about the days of old when the job of a journalist was championed, not at the top of annual the “Worst Jobs” list.

David Samuels, the freelance writer of the Ben Rhodes profile, has been accused of having an agenda against Obama’s Iran nuclear deal — the one whose narrative Rhodes created. That’s a possibility. But if so, he could have keyed in some words, followed a feed and possibly made a phone call or two for a truncated story. Instead, he went to Washington and spent a lot of time, money and effort to reveal the true character of a calculated administration. If society doesn’t start supporting more endeavors like his and the rest of ours — if people keep satiating themselves with cheaply produced news on a screen — it will ultimately pay a much higher price in the health of a nation.

Elizabeth Livingston’s Paintings Come Out of Darkness With Solo Show ‘Night Fell’ in LES

 08/12/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2016

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Every summer, on a town in the very northwestern corner of Connecticut — a community of roughly 1,700 people, a farmer’s market and some acclaimed Berkshire hiking trails — a rough-hewn group of artists descend.

During the six-week course, instructors of Yale’s Art and Music School in Norfolk polish their charges into refined visionaries — the next Chuck Close or Kehinde Wiley. In 1998, Elizabeth Livingston, at the time a Yale undergraduate, arrived ready for the rigor — and found herself working at night, under a pale streetlamp, painting the dark, isolated clapboard houses surrounding the town.

“I would look at the houses in the dark and wonder how can something be so beautiful and precious and detached and terrifying at the same time, and moreover, how would I reconcile these aspects in my painting?” Livingston said recently in her DUMBO studio. “A professor who, at first, called my work garbage came around and said ‘I think you’re on to something, here’.”

For the next 15 years, Livingston worked at resolving the contrasts in her photorealistic paintings — mostly portraits of her friends, sister and self in detached or solitary moments — and showed at galleries all over New England. This month, however, she exhibits the isolation and solitude — the anxiety and the allure — of modern life’s continuum at the Lodge Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Entitled Night Fell, after one of her pieces, it is the artist’s first solo New York show.

“Liz takes great pleasure in peeling back veneers of suburban order to capture intimate moments,” said Jason Patrick Voegele, one of the founders of the Lodge Gallery and the instigator of the show. “Her most recent body of work evokes all the same cinematic emphasis on visual scrutiny and moments of false security — much like a Hitchcock or Vermeer.”

“There is a shared suspense in these voyeuristic moments, a sense of the quiet before the storm or the last rays of light before night arrives.”

As one of her influences, Edward Hopper, Livingston has been called a realist, but her works manifest the ways in which memory infuses her surroundings: mostly the material memorial of suburban Connecticut, just outside New York City. Hopper told the Smithsonian Institution in 1959 that his “aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of my most intimate impressions of nature.” So is Livingston’s.

Raised “solidly middle class” in New Canaan, Connecticut — a city with one of the highest GDPs in the country — Livingston witnessed the “whole Stepford Wives thing” or “how something could appear so charming and so perfect, yet underneath have such a darkness and a vulnerability.” Livingston deeply felt the loneliness, guardedness and illusion of community in her youth and at Yale began to paint figures that expressed it.

Of two key pieces at the Lodge Gallery, Wedding Day, in which she is portrayed sleeping nestled under plush bedding, and Before I Could Answer, a six-foot by seven-foot self-portrait of herself in a turquoise pool, Livingston said “we are most exposed when we feel the most protected.” She has placed her viewers as voyeurs: in one instance watching the intimate ambiguity before a life milestone and in the other, a contemplative moment preceding another significant decision.

Livingston, who is generally introspective and reserved, said only of the latter: “It represents being out on a limb.

“Pools are so brilliantly lit at night that everything around them disappears into black. It lends to that precarious feeling.”

That general reluctance toward averment has, perhaps, kept Livingston away from the necessary self-promotion required for the coveted New York scene since she earned an MFA in painting at Boston University. But her pursuit of a regular life outside painting - one that many artists eschew — had also previously kept her from straying too far from the galleries in Boston and New Haven and producing another significant body of work.

Not long after settling in Brooklyn and giving birth to her son, however, Livingston felt a twinge in her right hand that required a stroke of a paintbrush. Although she made two self-portraits during her pregnancy — Waiting, which shows a pregnant Livingston turning out a lamp, and the discordant Hurricane, a meditation on Hurricane Sandy — she temporarily abandoned the figure painting for her reclusive houses.

After meeting Voegele at several art fairs and turning down his requests for work, Livingston presented him with these portraits and Night Fell, a painting of a quaint two floor, porch-lit Connecticut home that is both stable and vulnerable, and surrounded by the lush detail of the encroaching rural landscape.

“I had started seeing the house as a vessel for the family, rather than an isolated figure. But I always seem to go to the opposite side of the ways in which most people think — how nothing treasured is going to last forever,” Livingston said. “”A small country home at dusk with the porch light on reads both as a safe house and as defenseless outpost against the dark woods surrounding it.”

That Livingston paints the ambiguity about life most people generally gloss over or cast aside could possibly constitute her appeal in a world that grows more and more uncertain. Or as Voegele suggests, “Her scene juxtapositions are rendered impeccably, and our patrons really relate to her experience.”

Either way, whether building or person, country or city, Livingston doesn’t envision ever letting go of the artist’s sensibility instilled in her. “I somehow always return to this exploration of the idea that the more ‘safe’ and protected our lives, the more vulnerable we actually are.”

The Photographer’s ‘Moth’: Salon Reveals the Story Behind the Shot

 08/12/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 12, 2016

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

The image was supposed to illustrate post modern middle-Americana fun: In the center of the frame was Kid Rock, lunging forward, split-open cardboard Budweiser 24-pack box in his hand, aiming to cover the front of a woman revealing something — the viewer could only assume body parts. But by the expressions of the overexposed audience — some clutching Jim Beam bottles, all making bemused, aghast faces — caught by photographer Andrew Hetherington on assignment for GQ, it was a safe hunch that the impromptu show astounded even its subject.

To put one over on Kid Rock is certainly a feat worth a photograph. However, Hetherington actually showed this particular picture last month to represent the subculture in which Rock participates. “I say that anyone who listens to Southern Heritage-infused Rap/Rock and goes on a four-day cruise with Kid Rock deserves subculture status,” he blithely said to a packed gallery of people.

Hetherington had been invited to share the backstory behind the Kid Rock photograph for The BlowUp a quarterly event that is to “photo geeks what ‘The Moth’ is to literary ones”, as Alison Zavos, The BlowUp‘s founder, put it. “Photographers are naturally curious people with incredible and often unparalleled access to people, places and events that normal people sitting at a computer all day — like myself — are not privy to. More often than not, they come away from their day with amazing and unique stories, and unless you are friends with photographers or happen to live with one, these stories can often go untold.”

A native of Dublin who has traveled around the world shooting for almost every major U.S. magazine, including this one, Hetherington added that the Kid Rock photo was “also a snapshot of my own experience.”

“You’re on a cruise that is essentially the Spring Break for middle-aged, working-class people for four days with no escape. It’s either your dream assignment or your worst nightmare”, he said. Hetherington came away from the boat with 2,862 frames, adding that he had his “photojuice going.”

Since its inception earlier this year, The BlowUp series has sold out and brought out some of the craft’s legends. Larry Fink, who has exhibited both at the Whitney and MoMA and drawn comparisons to Walker Evans, showed slides from a Malcolm X rally he shot nearly 50 years ago.

Former New York Post photojournalist Martha Cooper revived the graffiti work for which she became famous in the 1980s. Standing in front of her portrait of her “Alphabet City kid” straddling two trains and raising a can of spray paint in the early morning light, she recalled the moment: “I realized that what I thought were random acts of vandalism were actually carefully crafted acts of vandalism; that these kids were artists.”

Deidre Schoo, a former photographer for the Village Voice, kicked off the night with photos of the subculture she discovered while on assignment to shoot Obama’s 47th birthday party in Harlem. Flex dancing, characterized by twists and contortions unimagined of the human body, hit the streets of East New York just a few years before with the fervor of breakdancing. As Schoo pulled up a photo of one of her favorite dancers, Storyboard, she described him as a dancer “who would get on any surface he could find to show us his moves.” But as Schoo got her shots, she also gained a dependent. “Storyboard was like most Flex dancers in that he had a contentious relationship with his father. And he was also diagnosed bipolar, so he would call me every day, stay at my house and really push those boundaries.”

Zavos, who attended Parsons for graphic design, was about to graduate when her teacher suggested she had a greater talent for photography and should earn her degree for that, instead. “I didn’t go back to school, but I did pursue photography, first as an aspiring photographer and later as a photo editor. Turns out, I was a much better photo editor than photographer, as well.” In 2008, she launched Feature Shoot, a website that showcases the work of contemporary photographers in all genres — from portraits of the “sexting phenomenon” to landscapes of European vacationers - while working for Inc. magazine “as way to collect all the amazing photographers and projects I was coming across”. Since then, the site has gained a following of about 800,000 hits per month with more than 3,500 posts in the archives from 5,000 photographers.

Zavos is a strict curator, but it seemed, as the night wore on, that the theme only gave loose guidelines to some of the photographers’ whims. Two of them, however, truly captured communities most people would have never known existed. Stefan Ruiz pulled up his portraits of Cholombianos, a group of teenagers banded together by their love of Cumbia music, apparel with religious icons and sculpted hair.

And although fetish is a subculture so examined, it might as well be a culture, Danny Ghitis, completely bewildered the crowd with his portrait of RileyKilo, a transgender age player — a former boy who dressed up as a baby girl, sucking a pacifier, wearing a onesie and holding teddy bear as a part of the costume. “She didn’t have the opportunity to grow up as a girl, so I think this is her way of experiencing that,” explained Ghitis, who works for several national magazines and was a onetime nominee for UNICEF’s photo of the year.

“(Fetishists) are actually more normal — and it involves more people — than everyone thinks. I photographed an alien master who was into alien abduction scenes. That guy works for the MTA”.

 

The NAACP’s First Trans-Racial Leader

 06/23/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

The summer of 1919 had been a contentious one for a country in the throes of its first World War — and under the radar, for a nascent Civil Rights movement. In the middle of the fury, a small, 26-year-old activist named Walter Francis White — a black man who could pass as white — had been sent by his employer, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to probe into dozens of lynchings and riots. But the unrest hadn’t quite ended with the season-a three-alarm riot two thousand miles to the South sent White packing again.

On September 30, 1919, a group of disgruntled black sharecroppers in the small Arkansas hamlet of Elaine had instigated an insurrection, and a zealous, racist sheriff named Frank Kitchens, deputized 1,000 armed white men to put it down at any cost. When White finally arrived in Elaine — under the guise of a white journalist — he took note of the dozens of bodies strewn across the roads and the fields, then asked to speak with the black men the Sheriff had jailed on riot-related charges. Kitchens granted White the opportunity to interview the prisoners, and arranged to meet White at the courthouse.

In the end, White had to skip the engagement. As he walked toward the courthouse, White was overtaken by a black man who whispered, “Mister, I’ve got something important to tell you... I don’t know what you are down here for, but I just heard them talking about you — I mean the white folks — and they say they are going to get you,” he warned. “The way I figured it out is that if the white folks are so against you, you must be a friend of ours.”

At that point, White remembered that only two trains left Elaine daily. He ducked down an alley and raced down the railroad tracks, climbing on to the station platform just before the afternoon departure. The conductor gave White an odd look. “But you’re leaving mister, just when the fun is going to start,” White recounted the man saying. “There’s a damned yellow nigger down here passing for white...when they’re finished with him, he won’t pass for white no more!”

“No matter what the distance, I shall never take as long a train ride as that one seemed to be,” White wrote in his memoir A Man Called White. When he finally set foot in New York, officials at the NAACP sighed with great relief. They heard news that White had indeed been lynched in Arkansas.

Nearly 100 years later, Americans have experienced a week of history repeating itself — a bizarre, upended reminder that we have not effectively dealt with our past. To begin with, there is the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, who, after earning a Master’s Degree from Howard University, pursued social justice work for the black community in Spokane, Washington, albeit under the guise of a black, biracial identity. When a local television reporter exposed Dolezal’s birth race, the NAACP initially backed its chapter president, issuing a statement that extolled her advocacy and claimed that “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership...” Several days later, amid a media circus, thousands of deriding tweets from the social mediasphere and death threats, Dolezal left her post despite, by all indications, a solid record of gains. In the end, Dolezal’s “cultural appropriation” in the words of one Tweeter, ended her career because (she) wanted “all the attractive aspects of a culture without the painful parts.”

Two days after the Dolezal story broke, nine people who gathered for Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, were massacred when a 21-year-old man with a history of anti-black views opened fire on the group. In a season of racially motivated police shootings and brutality against blacks, the nation once again viscerally felt the legacy of racism that has lingered since post-Reconstruction. President Barack Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, urging people to not just question the killer but “the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

And once more, America’s much-needed reckoning with our racism juggernaut has been substituted with hollow demands to remove the Confederate flag and an indictment against an individual for capitalizing on racial duplicity. As Americans collectively excoriated Dolezal, the cruel lesson came down in South Carolina illustrating that, in fact, we might actual need more Dolezals, despite our misgivings.

However, if Dolezal felt she might have an easier time of achieving her goals as a woman of mixed race, then cynically, she was likely correct. She need not look further than the example of Walter White.

A hundred years ago, Walter White used the lightness of his skin to advance the goals of the NAACP, to elevate the importance of the Harlem Renaissance and, in the process, raise his own profile as a black literary figure. Thomas Dyja, the author of Walter White: The Dilemma of Black Identity in America defined White as approximately 5/32nd black. But he added that White “always felt black because, in the most primal sort of identity politics, he had defined blackness as the way he saw the world”.

With his vision, White investigated dozens of riots and lynchings, providing valuable information to the NAACP to help organize and combat the pervasive racism sweeping the country - incidents far more devastating than Charleston. Because of his moxie, White eventually rose through the ranks of the NAACP, and even successfully challenged W. E. B. DuBois, the esteemed African-American intellectual and top Civil Rights figure, for control. With that mandate, White achieved remarkable victories in his nearly 25 years as Executive Secretary: He successfully blocked the confirmation of Judge John J. Parker, a segregationist, to the Supreme Court; he gained the friendship of the White House, specifically, Eleanor Roosevelt, and attempted to institute a federal anti-lynching law; and he wrote the book, A Rising Wind, which helped convince President Harry Truman to desegregate the armed forces.

When White died in the fall of 1955, his funeral in Harlem was attended by thousands of blacks, who paid tribute to him for the work he did to advance civil rights. But even as they lauded him out of one side of their mouths, White’s detractors were condemning him out of the other. White, they felt, had sold out the NAACP on many of its issues, compromising with - and capitulating to - the white leadership in D.C. He used his position to call attention to his own writing about his trans-racial experience. Finally, he divorced his black wife and married a white socialite, ultimately, in the NAACP’s eyes, firming his grasp on white privilege. With the elevation of Roy Wilkins, a recognizable black man, to executive secretary, the NAACP took the first step in sweeping White’s legacy under the rug, and with it, the horrors he exposed and spent his life trying to remedy.

Still, White’s work was not all for naught. Without the public shaming white Americans felt when they read — and saw photographs — of the atrocities they committed against blacks, the might still be cheering the recent massacre in Charleston — rather than denouncing it. Moreover, the demonstrations the NAACP organized in the 1920s based on White’s work set the stage for the modern Civil Rights movement. Although White may never be properly remembered because of his skin color, he left a legacy. Rachel Dolezal will not. And in this racial climate, that is a loss for all of us.

Hilary Harkness: Painting Arrested Ambiguity at FLAG Art Foundation

 02/12/2013 11:25 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

 

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

The now renowned artist Hilary Harkness arrived at the Yale University Art School — during a time of pervasive identity politics — without one.

John Currin had just graduated, leaving Yale professors and critics agape with his mash-ups of Renaissance craftsmanship against sexual and social satire. Contemporary darling Matthew Barney had come armed with “Drawing Restraint 7” — installations built on the relationship between self-imposed social resistance and individual creativity. And Ann Gale, Marc Trujillo and Malerie Marder were in their initial attempts to discover and undress the human psyche in naked scenes of people and places.

Harkness came to the prestigious school with no other objective than to learn how to paint. Without an agenda, she started making self-portraits, drawing herself over and over, each time placing her face in a different presentation.

“Then I got bored,” Harkness said touring the gallery of the FLAG Art Foundation where her new solo exhibition of nearly impossibly detailed paintings of a world inhabited by complex, inter-related and fated relationships opens on February 8th. “Yale didn’t nurture me, but gave me a basic tool kit; getting paint to cleave to the canvas; understanding the purpose, limits, and benefits of painting mediums; and creating the illusion of space.

“Outside of Yale, the Master of Osservanza Triptych — the works of il Sassetta — opened the door to painting narratives in a simple and easy-to-understand fashion.”

Maybe to Harkness, but not to her fans and patrons. In her new cutaway series, Harkness paints an almost labyrinthine and bewitching world of mostly women, engaging in acts of pleasure/pain, seduction/repulsion and caress/abrasion, in the context of battleships, prestigious auction houses and collectors’ homes, among other settings. Sex, war, reproduction, class systems, free markets, manifest destiny and scientific experimentation all play out on uncensored Lilliputian stages — “like ants in an ant farm,” Harkness said - and manage to remain somewhat tethered to hypnagogic historical moments and surrealist settings that mock the real world.

“The attention to detail and riveting narratives recall one of my favorite paintings, Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” said FLAG Director Stephanie Roach. But Harkness says she prefers the more playful Pieter Brueghel, a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker, “who had less implicit judgment on his figures.

“Bosch always looked on his figures as sinners going to hell. Brueghel painted peasants celebrating with comedy and joy even in the turmoil between the Catholics and the Protestants. I see it as even in the worst of times, people find room for relief.”

No more is the theme of contained allayment apparent than in “Red Sky in the Morning,” an oil-on-panel painting that imagines the happenings on the Japanese battleship Yamato, a historic World War II vessel sent on a suicide mission with its soldiers believing it was headed for food and fuel.

Harkness answers the hypothetical scenario of the Yamato by juxtaposing vengeful wives waiting for an adulterous female captain, nude and drunk women officers cavorting and dancing — and then the lesser ranking female soldiers sinking in waters enveloping the ship. Spirit clouds and phantom geishas, however, protect all of them.

A triptych of an imagined Christie’s Auction House across the gallery presents a similar confrontation, only surrounded by opulence, instead of the stark capsules of war. In “Mother Lode,” three different armies of miniature women, including Muslim and American, lay down their arms and engage in an endless trade of luxury goods for prized embryos — symbolic of Harkness’ belief that the world revolves around babies, and their trade. This time, however, opulent antiques and priceless artwork offer a stark counterpoint to the atrocities occurring within.

But it’s the military to which Harkness always returns. Growing up with a grandfather who was a larger-than-life WWII veteran and soldier in the Battle of the Bulge, Harkness was fascinated by both his toughness and his reluctance to discuss his experiences on the front.

“I started painting the world in microcosm, often encapsulated in military vessels, because I was interested in what people would do when pushed to the edge,” Harkness said. “I wanted to play out what might happen when there was inadequate supervision, when everything was at stake, and when traditional morality might fly out the window, justified by a larger cause.”

Harkness, who typically exhibits with the Mary Boone Gallery and has works in the collection of the Whitney Museum, recently returned to New York permanently from splitting her time between here and Boston. It was the perfect timing for Roach and FLAG founder, former Goldman Sachs investment banker, Glenn Fuhrman, to approach Harkness for a show. Fuhrman had been following Harkness since her last exhibition at Mary Boone in 2011, a collection of fictional paintings about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

“At FLAG, we try to present artwork in different ways,” Roach said. “In this case, we viewed this as a rare opportunity to present the cross section works, which span over a decade, all together.

“A viewer can see the evolution of Hilary’s vision and style through the representation of the figure, the narratives and color palette.”

At times, however, the question of identity politics does circle back to Harkness. She has been accused of painting images that are both sadist and sexist — and for not doing enough to be anti-war — among other things. But she counters those observations with the assertion that painting by default is a romantic, sometimes distorted, lens by which people can view the world.

“You’re not going to change the world with hard-hitting investigative works of painting,” Harkness said. “In general, my goal is two-fold: to create a work of art that intrigues me enough to force its creation, and personally come to terms with my own issues. The work that comes from it is either hyper-beautiful or decoratively gory and in some ways, the same thing: a grotesque distortion.”

Hilary Harkness’ solo exhibition will run from February 8 through May 18, 2013 at the FLAG Art Foundation on the 9th floor of the Chelsea Art Towers at 945 West 25th Street. Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment.

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Writer’s Block

 09/24/2012 04:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2012

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Must be the time of year — that “back to school” seasonal change, another summer gone. Perhaps it’s the perennial writing scandal that brings the writing profession to mind: This time, New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer vacating his vaunted post amid plagiarism revealed. Maybe it’s time to reflect on Nora Ephron’s death and finally acknowledge that another one of the greats is gone during a summer of literary loss. Whatever it is, instead of working on other projects, many writers are musing about the merits and perils of their profession — and the lives lived within it.

It all began with Frank Rich. Writing for New York magazine in his August 19th column, Rich reminisced about Ephron, restated the great loss he and her contemporaries felt and reminded us all of Ephron’s magnitude in New York — the ways in which she truly was “the heroine and not the victim” in her literary life (a take from her now famous 2006 Wellesley College commencement address).

It continued with author Dani Shapiro. And Shapiro pulled no punches.

Writing in a Psychology Today blog appearing on August 23, possibly to assuage her own angst about a flood of new writers entering the market — possibly to attempt to keep hew own class sizes low — Shapiro warned world-be Nora Ephrons from romanticizing the writer’s life. “What it really means (to be a writer) is hard, hard work. It means tearing your hair out... It means rejection, failure, disappointment and confusion, only occasionally tempered with acceptance, triumph, joy and clarity.

“From a distance, it can look good,” continued Shapiro, who authors autobiographical and semi-autobiographical books about many subjects, most notably, the photographer Sally Mann in her 2006 novel Black & White. “But if you get up close to a working writer, what you can see and hear and even smell is the steady thrum of tension and despair that is necessary to get the words to fall onto the page in the right way, in the right order, and with the possibility of lucidity, even poetry.

“This is living the writer’s life: existing in a kind of dream state, at once here and not here, paying attention while listening to a faint, internal music.”

And what is to happen to all these writers’ wraiths in the world? If we’re Shapiro or Rich, we write a column, possibly get paid for it and move on to the next labor of love. If we’re Lehrer, we go to the has-been or almost-was pile and write a book about our plights several years after the incident. Perhaps, if you’re like me these days, maybe we just let go, having worked this — the writer’s life — out of our systems, realizing that a only a few of us actually make it at this game, and finally moved on?

Or maybe we have just thought we can move on.

I was bitten early: As a child growing up in Tulsa, Okla., I wanted to chronicle everything, from the playground rivalries at my working-class Catholic elementary school, to my parents’ opinions on the 1984 presidential election. And I did, in my own hand-written, photocopied newspaper, distributed to every St. Mary’s school third-grader who would read it. Luckily, tennis distracted me for a few formative years, but the bug came back. I attended Northwestern University for journalism school. Thinking I needed more direction and another “in” to the big tent, I applied to Columbia Journalism School. I first started freelance writing in earnest there, 10 years ago, after realizing on 9/11 that I had one advantage over many journalists and writers: I was there, in the center of it all. Moreover, I had the uncanny ability to sacrifice everything to be “there” in the center of it all.

Having worked in PR for a year between “real” jobs as a writer, I had also developed a knack for pitching, drawing upon the moxie it took to cold-call editors at any and every magazine possible to sell them on clients’ products. At that point I discovered, I could combine my love of writing and storytelling with the thrill of the kill: landing one of my stories in a major national publication all tied up with my shiny byline. The first story I ever sold, about an acoustic coffeehouse in a Columbia chapel’s crypt, was for Connie Rosenblum, then editor of the New York Times City section. She paid me $100.

At that point, I didn’t care about the money. In the writers’ life, most writers forget about the practicality of money — and we value our own words far more than the market. Besides, I had written for the Times. Surely, others would follow. The possibilities of writing interesting stories for prominent publications required only a tight pitch, an eye-catching message line, and the courage to hit the “send” button to an editor sitting in one of the several thousand office cubicles in Midtown Manhattan. After all, if the response came back negative- - or even trenchant and draconian — it was just a few sentences on a screen, as easily deleted as my own pitch probably had been.

The dance went on regularly for several years. But I was surviving the writer’s life. I could pay rent. I bought a used car to travel for stories. I took over the payments for my large graduate school student loan — for a few months, at least. And although I couldn’t afford the plane tickets home to visit my family on holidays, I had enough to buy some clothes, a monthly commuter train pass and alcohol to survive it all.

But by the time I revisited my monthly list of pitches in the spring 2008, and the collection of work I had published — several hundred feature stories, artistic reviews and other long-form articles for a variety of regional newspapers and magazines — the writer’s life was killing me. I had just moved to Brooklyn and commuted nearly every day to Manhattan for a fact-checking gig at a national magazine, returning every night on the train, usually with beer and laptop in hand, working on a freelance story. One of those evenings, riding the 2 train from Manhattan, I noticed a large advertisement for the National Writers Union, a well-meaning, but quixotic organization trying to protect the nonexistant rights of the even more chimerical writer. It said, “Professional Writers = Working Poor.” And I realized that is exactly what I had become in my trendy, yet used blue jeans, with my vaunted degrees hanging on the walls of my Ft. Greene sublet, and my dreams of a book or a staff job nesting in the wrinkles of my face. I had become a hand-to-mouth feeding, uninsured, uninvested 32-year-old member of the working poor.

I don’t think writers are lazy or in the least bit timorous, feeble or even self-effacing. Maybe just at some point, the process just beats the desire out of most of us and drives our energies and efforts elsewhere. My ex-girlfriend, a writer in Washington, D.C. who could no longer live the writer’s life with another writer (me) rediscovered an old childhood love: Horses. In my case, my avocation turned to personally vanquishing many a writer’s secret fuel: alcohol.

But when I saw Rich’s and Shapiro’s musings on Facebook I read them and re-posted. And I still feel the tug of writing — the leftover memories of excitement upon discovering something interesting to write about, the exuberance upon completing a story and the thrill of waking up the next morning to see my work in print — my name in bold beneath it. I feel the tug of people’s reactions when I told them I was a journalist, not some bureaucrat or corporate slave. Most of all, I miss the pleasure of finding the perfect adjective in my thesaurus or the wittiest phrase from my internal encyclopedia to finish a sentence.

However, I won’t miss cashing checks at the ACE financial services franchise with $2 in my pocket, or taking out a payday loans to cover rent. I won’t miss fending off calls from Citibank when I missed the due date on my student loan payment. And I won’t feel the emotional pull of my debt creeping up on me, grasping and smothering me like a resentful lover strangling me, paralyzing me.

I think I can return to being a regular person with a regular job entering data or churning out reports for a nameless, faceless client — a person who pays her bills and saves for her future. But I fear that after months of it, I’ll want to return to my writing life, and the fruitless hope that one day I’ll be the one who, with hair prematurely grey and face showing the wear and tear, toughed it out to earn a spot at the New York Times — or a book deal — because someone finally noticed my talent.

I don’t know quite what to do about it all. Perhaps I’ll pull out my journal.

 

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Douglas Case Points to a Better Way for Those Affected by Addiction

 06/25/2012 03:16 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2012

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Late last month, in taking up the cause of Cameron Douglas, the son of actor Michael Douglas, a group of prominent addiction specialists has finally acknowledged something they have ignored for decades: That, for the 1.5 million people in prison for nonviolent, drug-related crimes, treatment is better than more prison time.

An amicus brief submitted by Douglas’ doctors and mental health advocates to the United States Court of Appeals argues that his December sentencing of an additional 54 months in jail for possession of heroin and Suboxone — a prescribed medication used to stem the effects of opioid withdrawal — would do nothing to rehabilitate him or repay his debt to society. In it, they asked not only for a reduction of the 33-year-old’s sentence but also for treatment while serving it, calling Douglas a textbook example “of someone suffering from untreated opioid dependence.”

“What the judge has imposed has zero benefits for the community and has staggering consequences for society,” Dr. Robert Newman, one of the brief’s signees and the director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center, told the New York Times.

He’s right. An overwhelming body of evidence suggests our criminal justice system has the capability of administering cost-effective screening for the disease of addiction, as well as spearheading intervention and recovery for its sufferers. Yet, we still choose a punitive approach over a truly rehabilitative one.

Prison and jail inmates are seven times more likely to have a substance use disorder, and they have likely spent most of their lives battling that addiction, according to “Behind Bars II: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population,”a report issued last year by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. However, of the 1.5 million inmates who met clinical diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder in 2006, only 11.2 percent had received any type of professional treatment, including time in a residential facility or unit professional counseling, or pharmacological therapy such as methadone, antabuse or naltrexone.

Rather, in 2005, federal, state and local governments spent $74 billion in court, probation, parole and incarceration costs of these adult and juvenile substance-involved offenders.

In all cost-benefit analyses of criminal justice-based treatment for adult offenders, the monetary benefits of treatment — including reduced crime, reduced incarceration and reduced prison health care costs — outweighed the $623 million price tag. In fact, the return on investment in treatment may exceed 12:1, according to a comprehensive review by the National Institute on Drug Abuse; that is, every dollar spent on treatment can reduce future criminal justice and health care expenditures by $12 or more.

And even before the doctors’ amicus brief in the Douglas case — a high-profile sentence believed to be one of the harshest ever handed down by a federal judge for prisoner drug possession — the practice of using treatment alternatives in place of incarceration had gained some momentum.

But much room remains for improvement. First and foremost, courts need to realize that treating a disease and holding people accountable for a crime are not antithetical, especially when, time and again, addiction has proven its mettle as a progressive, chronic, and often fatal disease characterized by continuous uncontrollable use of mood-altering substances despite deep and long-term consequences.

Secondly, courts and other legal bodies must not only fit the punishment to the crime, but also make treatment for substance use disorders a central component of criminal sentencing. In addition to properly screening and diagnosing pre-trial prisoners for addiction, governments should eliminate mandatory sentences and expand federal grants to states and localities to broaden the use of treatment-based alternatives to jail and prison, including drug courts and prosecutorial-diversion programs.

Finally, when an alternative to incarceration is not possible, the criminal justice system must make available prison-based treatment programs, including peer-to-peer support, addiction counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy and psycho-pharmacology. Upon release, an inmate also needs access to effective re-entry initiatives, including addiction treatment and management, mutual support programs, education and job training and family support.

The scion of a well-known Hollywood family, Douglas could attract derision for the appeal. But he has long suffered the common captivity the disease of addiction imposes on life: an adolescence of heavy drinking and drugging; a gradual descent into criminal behavior to feed his fix; and a heavy prison sentence that, at times, has mandated such things as solitary confinement and the loss of prison privileges, such as family visits.

Few inmates have the resources needed to wage an appeal in federal court. But fewer might seize an opportunity to openly state the ways in which the federal corrections systems, in particular, have ignored the treatment need of their inmates. Addiction already imposes a life sentence; our job is to make that remand more manageable, in or out of a prison cell.

Literary Painters: Writers Tell Stories With Paintbrushes

 12/12/2011 07:17 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

It all started with doodles — on the back of a page schedule of a major national magazine.

Lisa Ferber — lowly copyeditor by day, fearless writer by night — needed a creative outlet while she waited hours and hours, for the final pages of Men’s Journal to arrive on her desk for final changes. Instead of tapping her foot, pacing or chatting on Skype, she grabbed the closest thing to her — the “bookmap” or schedule of pages — and started drawing. People, places, things and Woody Allen-esque New York social milieu from growing up Jewish on the Upper West Side, all came to her faster than words could formulate in her brain.

While never having the intention of substituting drawing for writing, Ferber nonetheless found that when her elderly mother became terminally ill, the lifelong playwright, lyricist and story author couldn’t put words to paper. So, she picked up a paintbrush and added her own editorial flair to the pieces: captions. Weird captions, hilarious captions, captions that border on the absurd. The 40-year-old who had experimented in every type of art form had found her niche.

“When I realized what was going on, and that I would be her caretaker and that things would only get worse, my head was exploding, and I couldn’t write anymore because my mind was too full,” said Ferber. “But I have this unstoppable creative force in me that needs to get out, all the time.

“My juices are always flowing and I’m always ready to go, so when I realized I couldn’t write, I knew it wasn’t that I was blocked in the regular sense, but I was just overwhelmed, and I needed something.”

As it turns out, Lisa Ferber isn’t the only writer who sheds one creative skein for another. On December 6, all was featured at the annual Holiday Show, from the National League of American Pen Women at the National Arts Club with Ferber sharing the stage with artists and writers including Myrna Harrison Changar, Michele Bonelli, Rhoda Greif, and Julia A. Rogge. Ferber will show three pieces completed this year: “Alexandra Considered Her Teacup Collection, which features a glamorous woman alone, thinking deeply about her teacup collection; “Undeterred by the boisterous businessmen, Linda and Lisa enjoyed a most splendid evening at the 21 Club,” a self-portrait of Ferber and a friend at the famed speakeasy; and finally, “Avi Never Forgave Shmuel for Winning the 3rd-Grade Spelling Bee,” a reminiscence on a seminal moment in Ferber’s Manhattan elementary school.

A native of the Upper West Side and the only child of Jewish immigrants, Ferber never had a notion to paint as a young child, but once the doodle happened, her secondary artistic career took on a life of its own. After her first sale at the National Arts Club, a colored pencil piece, They Found Her Delightfully Bohemian, a friend recommended Ferber try pen drawings, of which one sold on the street to Jimmy Roberts, writer of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change while Ferber was walking to the copy shop to get it scanned.

A year later, a music theory lesson at the home of Barbara C. Thompson, at the time the president of the Manhattan chapter of National League of American Pen Women, afforded Ferber paints, solvents, canvases, brushes and a basic chemistry lesson. Ferber had tapped an underground scene: Fellow writers started giving her painting tips; renowned Broadway musicians began commissioning pieces; even former Brady Buncher, Eve Plumb, who does her own oil landscapes, took an interest in the budding painter.

“It’s funny that it’s all started so recently, making art, because it feels completely natural, as though it’s been there my whole life and just needed to wait until the right time to start coming out,” Ferber said.

That right time could have simply been a matter of Ferber learning economy of word and scale — through copywriting. Though the handwritten caption on the paintings are the elements that distinguish original Ferbers from other paintings of her genre, the copyeditor — who has performed her works at such renowned writers’ haunts such as the KGB Bar and the now defunct “Zipper Factory” — started without them.

“They teach me to be economical with space. If I have a painting that’s 16 inches across, I have to think, ‘OK, what’s the shortest way I can say that so it will fit in a space?’

“But I actually came up with the captions idea because my earlier drawings were a lot more cartoonish so it made sense. I thought, hmm... Maybe I should try it. I love words. I’ve always loved words. When I was little, my father would play Scrabble and Ad Lib with me, and, I must say, I won the spelling bee in third grade.”

National League of American Pen Women Show, Dec 5-18, with reception on Thursday December 8, from 6 to 8pm. Call the National Arts Club for hours: National Arts Club, 15 Gramercy Park, (212) 475-3424. Artists include: Lisa Ferber, Michele Bonelli, Julia A. Rogge, E. Janya Barlow, Arlene Egelberg and Myrna Harrison-Changar.

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A Tale of Two Sisters: Jill and Faith Soloway, Collaborators, Partners, Emmy Writers

 09/16/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

One is 45, a flannel-wearing lesbian, Boston-based local theater luminary and veteran of Chicago’s famed Second City. The other is 43, straight, a mother of two and the LA-located former executive producer of such shows as Six Feet Underand the United States of Tara.

Together, Faith and Jill Soloway are sisters, best friends and two parts of the writing team that brought the world The Real Live Brady Bunch, a smash theater hit that sold out New York’s Village Gate and earned solid reviews from the critics. With the success came the movie — a long-forgotten, misdirected ode to the musical and the series — and the world was the Soloway sisters’ oyster: Both moved to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune. But two years in, Faith, the elder, gave it all up for the New England folk scene; Jill remained out West and toiled as a print writer for 10 years before landing a gig writing for Alan Ball’s paean to American ennui, Six Feet Under.

Nearly 20 years later, however, the Soloways have started collaborating again, first with television pilots, and then books, including contributions to one about the circuitous relationships between siblings and another about the lives of women in the arts. In a true Hollywood moment, however, the sisters came full circle when an old friend and Live Brady Bunch cast member called them up to help her on a writing project. The friend: Jane Lynch, current Emmy award-winning and nominated (this year) darling and lesbian du jour. The project: script writing the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards.

“Jane was a muse for both of us,” said Faith, whose Web series “Secrets” recently made its debut on Funny or Die, “and now it’s amazing to watch her sky rocket and heart warming that she has reached out to my sis and me to help her write.”

The most recent collision of interests has been serendipitous for all three doyennes of Chicago comedy. Lynch, who was born and raised in Dolton, Illinois — just West of I-94 and the Soloways’ childhood home in Hyde Park — spent 15 years at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and was one of two women picked by Second City in the late 1980s, before her slow, steady rise as comedy actor, then character actor, and then comedy actor once more.

About the same time Lynch started her tour at Second City, Faith Soloway had taken a break from Indiana University, where she was studying theater and performing in a weekly improv group, for a home-stint at the Victory Garden Theater, which had decided to stage her Club-Med themed production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. By then a talented musician who had scored her Indiana pals’ productions, Faith was approached by a Second City producer who offered her the job of musical director.

Faith left college and began touring with Second City as well as writing for other troupes, including the Annoyance Theater, founded by Indiana colleague Mick Napier. There, she co-created Co-ed Prison Sluts, which became Chicago’s longest-running musical. After watching a Brady Bunch re-run with her sister, a burgeoning writer, and a mutual friend — who could recite all of Jan Brady’s lines verbatim — the Soloways realized the power of the Brady medium and scripted the Real Live Brady Bunch. Lynch landed the role of mom, Carol Brady.

“When you work that tightly, you bond pretty quickly,” said Faith of Lynch. “So an eventual love at first sight with a growing admiration.”

The show toured for three years before the three went their separate ways — Faith and Jill to LA to endure production of the Brady Bunch Movie, going from “directing it, to being in it, to maybe helping cater it — all in about a month,” according to Faith; Lynch to LA then the sisters’ mom’s house back in Chicago for theater and bit parts in films, such as The Fugitive.

“When Jane was asked to host the Emmys, she was told she could bring in her own writer. As she’s not a Conan or Ellen type with a writing staff already standing by, she went to where it all started — where all of our group voice was borne — back in Chicago at the Annoyance and Second City,” said Jill Soloway, who recently directed her first feature film, Tricycle, and just wrapped post-production of Pledged, a comedy about sorority life for which she wrote the screenplay. “I think Jane loves the feeling of knowing that when Faith and I are around she can just go back to that place of utter silliness.

“If you read Jane’s book you’ll see that she was sort of the third Soloway sister.”

And if the Emmy awards have been a reunion of sorts for the Soloways, extended family has decided to join in on the fun. “There are so many people out here who are now in the business besides us — Andy Richter, Kate Flannery, Steve Carrell, Steve Colbert, Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven — just to name a few,” Jill said. “We reached out to all of those people and were even able to get a few in the performance for the night.”

Lynch, who was unavailable for an interview, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the Emmys would have a “Chicago feel” on Sunday night. To the blood Soloway sisters, this means “filled with love.”

“That’s what I think our threesome feels like the most — that feeling of, ‘it doesn’t really matter what happens out there, she’s being held aloft on a little homemade gusset of sisterly support.’

“And oh yes, we’ll try to have the word “gusset” said at least three times.”

The 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards will show Sunday night at 8pm ET, 5pm PT on Fox. Visit www.emmys.com for more information.

A Tragic, Yet Uplifting, Symphony for Tulsa

 09/07/2011 03:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

In 1964, at the height of her jazz career, Nina Simone threw off the pop constraints of her record label, American Colpix, and decided to record the personal, which for her, was the political.

On her debut album for Dutch Philips, Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam”, her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombings. It marked one of the first times an artist of her standing and generation laid down a track motivated by a racial tragedy. From that point, Simone’s recording repertoire always included a civil rights message.

In 1964, however, little was known of the lynchings and race riots that swept the country at the turn of the century. Nearly 50 years after Simone spoke out and 90 years after the worst one - the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 — racial disparity has become a core thematic underpinning for the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, an ensemble out of Tulsa. On August 30, the quartet released The Race Riot Suite, a roughly 50-minute jazz piece that tells the swinging, cacophonous, revivalist story of Tulsa’s all-back Greenwood district - the thriving neighborhood targeted and then obliterated by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot.

“I was born and raised here in Tulsa and didn’t know anything about the riot until 2003. The information was out there, but it was always surprising how hard it was to get,” said composer Chris Combs, a recent full-time addition to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, which has been performing in Tulsa for almost 20 years. “Once I started reading and realizing how much there was to it and how much had been covered up and marginalized, it was deeply imprinted on me.”

Those impressions translated into musical vignettes for Combs - a page here, a note there, then a history chapter read and a stanza written. Soon, Combs had devised a series of songs and which developed into an entire CD of music about the Race Riot. While the band toured in Europe, he added the finishing touches, and they decided to record it upon returning home.

“We had wanted to do an ensemble album, so we pulled together all these horn players and landed the Church Studio, Leon Russell’s place, to produce it,” Combs said. “The church was built in 1916 and it was there during the race riot; it was the right offering space for our record.”

And the jazz gods were pleased, if not necessarily the Tulsa community at-large.

Jacob Fred’s Race Riot Suite, which made its international concert debut on the 90th anniversary of the riot in May, landed at number six on the iTunes Jazz Store the day of its release, alongside new albums from Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett, Pat Metheny and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. It has remained in the top ten.

The jazz critics have lauded praise, as well - some even calling it “Duke Ellington under the direction of Tom Waits.” JazzTimes, the magazine of record for the jazz industry, had this to say: “...the music of the 1920s is suggested by devices borrowed from New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and from Tulsa’s own Bob Wills. But those 90-year-old techniques often morph suddenly into the dissonance and harmolodic improvisation of modern jazz.”

Indeed the album sways in the appropriate places and cries in others. Conceived as a baroque suite, its first movement “Black Wall Street” glides through a night of dancing and celebration and conveys the bustle, excitement and independence of Tulsa’s all-black Greenwood District. On “The Burning,” the horns sizzle and shriek with explosive fury as the white mob descends on Greenwood and the riot begins. The songs “Grandfather’s Gun” and “Cover Up” articulate the fear-and-greed-driven racism that both fueled the riot itself and drove its eventual marginalization.

The seven movements are punctuated with free-form improvisational interludes, including “Prayers”, which is filled with mourning and introspection and “Mt. Zion”, which is Combs’ ode to the historic Greenwood church built, destroyed and built again. The cathartic final movement, “Eye of the Dove”, expresses the hope and victory of a rebuilding community that has refused permanent destruction.

Though Greenwood residents and others near the heart of downtown Tulsa have embraced the Race Riot Suite, welcoming the chance for reconciliation, others have not. Combs said it’s less about the music than it is about the subject.

“It’s such a pointed and deliberate piece of material, and it’s tied to that event in real life, so it’s going to carry a certain emotional weight,” Combs said. “People take it seriously, and some people see the point of reconciliation; others wonder why we’re still talking about it.

“It’s definitely an art work that puts it in front of your face, and at least people cant say they don’t know anything about it anymore.”

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (JFJO) will be performing their just-released “Race Riot Suite” at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:00 p.m The group will also be playing excerpts of the Race Riot Suite during its fall tour, which hits New York on Oct. 18 & 19 at the Jazz Standard.

 

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Tulsa’s Ghosts of Leadership Past

 08/24/2011 12:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Between July 1998 and November 1999, two well-regarded archeologists, known for their investigation of mass graves around the world, turned up in a cemetery just south and east of downtown Tulsa’s mostly black Greenwood district.

They were there for several reasons, paramount among them, to verify a hunch that the bodies of an estimated 300 victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot — the worst in American History at the time — didn’t just disappear into thin air. After all, they had an eyewitness account, books written about the riot and historical documents pointing out that some of Tulsa’s most prominent citizens took part in not only the riot, but also the cover-up. They just needed to dig up a little more truth in order to satisfactorily bury the past.

The state commission investigating the riot had said “yes”, but the city said “no” and the rumored mass grave — as well as the history it contained — was never unearthed. “If poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake,” said the late poet Robert Penn Warren. He could have very well had Tulsa in mind. Although Tulsa consistently tries mightily to keep its past deep underground, more and more information keeps surfacing.

On September 1, This Land Press, an alternative newspaper in Oklahoma, will publish “The Nightmare of Dreamland,” an account of yet another one of Tulsa’s historical myths only now being remade. Exhaustively researched, “The Nightmare of Dreamland” unveils the racist past of W. Tate Brady, who was not only one of Tulsa’s founding fathers and major landowners, but also a prominent Klansman and orchestrator of the Tulsa Race Riot.

“Historians might minimize Tate Brady’s negative impact on Tulsa, claiming that he was simply acting in accord with the values and beliefs of the period, but Brady was no ordinary man,” said Michael Mason, the founder and publisher of This Land. “He was a skilled businessman, and unfortunately, used his talents and assets to bring the Klan and the Southern mindset to Tulsa. Without Brady’s help, it’s likely that the Klan would’ve had a much less significant role in Oklahoma.”

Thanks to efforts from such publications as This Land, the American record that touts the pioneering spirit of men like Brady is slowly being rewritten to include the preemptive subjugation, bigotry and ultimately, retribution toward blacks during post-Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of World War I. And though scholars often consider the cultural and sociological context of the time period — they take pains to point out those who stepped down on the right side of history. In Tulsa, Tate Brady didn’t.

Born in Forest City, Missouri, in 1870 to a Confederate War veteran and his wife, Wyatt Tate Brady came to Tulsa in 1890 and on January 18, 1898, signed the charter that established Tulsa as an officially incorporated city. “Indian and white man, Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, we worked together side by side, and shoulder to shoulder, and under these conditions, the ‘Tulsa Spirit’ was born, and has lived, and God grant that it never dies,” Brady wrote shortly before the Red Fork oil field was discovered west of Tulsa in 1901, bringing the city to the world’s economic stage. As “Tulsey Town” swelled with oil wildcatters and their “roughnecks,” Brady opened the Brady Hotel — the first hotel in Tulsa with baths — and set about securing his investment.

By the early 1920s, extralegal violence, including lynchings, had spread throughout the state and had even gained a quiet acceptance among law enforcement, politicians, and business leaders. The influence of the Ku Klux Klan, which was closely tied to the Sons of Confederacy in which Brady was actively involved, also grew steadily — along with the hotel baron’s own prominence and wealth. On the night of May 31, 1921, as mayhem broke out in Greenwood and buildings caught fire just two blocks from the Hotel Brady, Brady and a number of other white men volunteered for guard duty. During his watch, Brady reported “five dead negroes,” though he never gave a statement regarding their ultimate end.

The following week, the Chamber of Commerce appointed Brady to the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange Commission. Ultimately tasked with assessing and rectifying the damage from the riot — estimated at $1.5 million — the Exchange recommended a plan to relocate black Tulsans further north and east, and created new building requirements that gave commercial property precedence over destroyed homes formerly owned by black Tulsans.

Accusations of land-grabbing tormented Brady; in 1924, he publicly issued a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove that he benefitted from the Tulsa Race Riot. A year later, in debt and having lost his heir in a car accident, Brady shot himself in the head while sitting at his kitchen table that overlooked the city he built.

“Tulsa needs to address the fact that they have an entire area of town named in honor of a person who was an architect of the nation’s worst race riot,” Mason said.

“The story of Tulsa parallels the story of America, condensed into a period of about fifty years. By bringing attention to our history, we offer our communities the opportunity to not only heal, but also to protect themselves against future incidents.” To that end, This Land has organized “Revisiting Brady” a symposium to discuss the impact of Tate Brady and the recent findings on September 15 at OSU-Tulsa, a college in the Greenwood district.

The writer and social commentator, Sinclair Lewis, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1930, said “in America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.” America remains “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today.” Eighty years later, nothing truer could be said of a city that still exemplifies that American dream. 

The New Moneyed Art

 08/04/2011 03:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Money. Too much of it. Not enough of it. Up and down and all around in the current economy, money buys happiness and beauty; it also causes despair and destruction. Nelson Mandela once said that money would not “create success,” but that the “freedom to make it will.”

For several artists in the new avant-garde, however, the freedom to make things out of money might ring more true when it comes to success. Long overlooked for its aesthetic principles, these days, money is not just a physical or abstract means by which people obtain art and, thus beauty; it has become an objet d’art. The street artist Banksy may have captured the hype and irony behind the overpriced, ostentatious art market in his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, but until now, no artist — or artistic exhibition — has directly commented on the role of money in both American art and life by using it as the medium itself.

Made of 81,895 pieces cut from 1,121 U.S. Dollar bills, Mark Wagner’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death“ — a 17-by-six-foot decoupage homage to the Statue of Liberty — directly answers the question of what Americans can create with their money. Originally commissioned in a larger format for an unnamed heiress, “Give Me Liberty” — a smaller version at Chelsea’s Pavel Zoubok Gallery through August 13 — weaves in mythic, historical and metaphoric narratives about America using nothing but glue and every centimeter of a dollar bill.

To Wagner, anything more is superfluous.

“The dollar bill the is the most ubiquitous piece of paper in the United States. We handle it and use it every day, but we don’t stop and look at it every day,” said Wagner. “Everyone worries about money, everyone has issues with money — it’s a better representation of America and Americana than even the flag.

“There’s a lot wrapped up in that little piece of paper.”

Wagner’s display isn’t the only act to draw in spectators with the almighty dollar, though at $1,300, his might be the most economical. Across and uptown, the Guggenheim is currently showcasing Hans Peter-Feldmann’s “$100,000” a literal exhibition of 100,000 $1 bills lining the walls of its tower gallery. The idea arose from Feldmann’s award of the $100,000 Biennial Hugo Boss prize for his contribution to the contemporary art world.

According to Guggenheim curator Katherine Brinson, Feldmann’s “$100,000” reminds gallery-goers that dollar bills, like artworks, have no inherent worth beyond what society invests in them. However, the piece, she added, is actually less about the symbolism of capitalist excess than it is about the mass-produced image.

To Wagner, whose work also resides in the Museum of Modern Art, The Walker Art Center, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, both play a factor.

“I always think of my mother when I start on a piece. She’s at one end of the spectrum, having only set foot in three museums in her life. Therefore, I’m going to make work that appeals to her and the layman, which, on a very direct level, is well-designed and pretty,” Wagner said. “But I also want to appeal to people trained in the art world — the people who have a deep knowledge about different things and who know the larger context of the world and the bill itself.”

A printmaker by trade, Wagner grew up in rural Wisconsin, the last of 13 children. Both his training and his upbringing have given the 39-year-old Brooklyn artist, writer and co-founder of the Booklyn Artists Alliance, a Greenpoint-based artists’ coalition, a unique insight into both his medium and the craft.

“The dollar bill is a ripe material: intaglio printed on sturdy linen stock, covered in decorative filigree, and steeped in symbolism and concept — it’s the only bill that hasn’t been altered in the past 15 years to meet the new standard of counterfeit-proof,” said Wagner, who canvases Chase banks and favored bodegas for especially fresh and crispy dollar bills. “Collage then asks the question, what might be done to make it something else? Blade and glue transform it — reproducing the effects of tapestries, paints, engravings, mosaics and computers — striving for something bizarre, beautiful, or unbelievable ... the foreign in the familiar.”

The foreign and the familiar within the reach and context of the American dollar, for Wagner, include not only the Statue of Liberty, but also a portrait of Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, a recreation of “American Gothic” by Grant Wood and various mixed-media collaborations that hit on the necktie, real estate development and the American worker. In whatever media he uses — whether cigarette packages, magazines or other ephemera — Wagner tends toward meticulous assembly and fantastical, occasional surreal, presentation.

“I have a very workman approach to it — maybe a blue collar approach,” he said. “I will start cutting bills into strips, bend them twist them, and make them into things one at a time while discovering one pattern, then another, then other textures until I build up the power of possible things. Kind of like money itself.”

In Serving Life Prison Hospice Care Teaches Inmates About Dying With True Dignity

 07/29/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has the reputation as one of the toughest in the United States — the “bloodiest prison in the South” as its inmates say. More than 5,000 hardened criminals there are serving an average sentence of 93 years — 85 percent of them will die in prison.

Angola, as most prisons, is a place of contradictions, balancing punishment with rehabilitation and even, in some instances, redemption. Amnesty International recently kicked up some dirt on Angola by calling for the end of the solitary confinement of two of the “Angola 3”: armed robbers accused of murdering a prison guard there in 1972 and held in isolation for more than 30 years. On the other hand, at Angola, prisoners eventually earn the right to wear street clothes instead of denim uniforms, sleep in dorms instead of cells and attend a Bible college founded by the prison’s warden, Burl Cain.

For some of these men, there is also the chance — and the challenge — to serve others in the most humbling, selfless and compassionate way imaginable: shepherding their fellow inmates through hospice care as they enter their last weeks and days of life in Angola.

A new documentary directed by veteran TV news producer, Lisa Cohen, and co-produced and narrated by actor Forrest Whitaker, tells the story of four of these inmates who have signed up to work as hospice volunteers and help their brethren at the end of their life sentences. Serving Life, which aired last night on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and encores tomorrow at 11am, shows a different take on the U.S. penal system’s obligation to dying prisoners — most of whom have committed crimes such as murder, robbery, rape and drug trafficking — and those trying to change their lives before it’s too late.

“I was skeptical going in, questioning whether or not this was a big con or whether we were being played, but I kept an open mind,” said Cohen in a phone interview. “But this film is ultimately less about prison than it is about people’s ability to rise up and do good.

“I saw these inmates do things I wouldn’t be able to do, that most of Americans wouldn’t be able to do. They were immersing themselves in the blood and the smell and the pain and coming back to do it again and again every single day.”

Though Angola officials keep the background information on the hospice patients confidential to caregivers, most everything else about Serving Life is an open file. The film chronicles the process of recruiting, training and turning over the care of these patients to prisoners from a variety of different backgrounds whose own sentences range from 35 years to more than 60.

The crew, who benefitted from Cohen’s previous relationship with the prison through her newsmagazine work with ABC and CBS, had nearly unlimited access to the prison hospice center — a rare thing for journalists and filmmakers. They lived in prison guest housing, ate prison food and were “flies on the wall until people got used to us and gave up their defenses,” Cohen said.

Established in 1997 under longtime warden Burl Cain, the Angola prison hospice is one of the first in the country and meets the standards of civilian hospice care programs. In the film, Cain, who also oversees a large farm and work program, explains his reasoning for bringing hospice to Angola, in addition to the obvious need to treat dying prisoners humanely.

“We’re supposed to correct deviant behavior, that’s what corrections is. I can teach you skills and trades and I’d just make you a smarter criminal, unless we get something in your heart — unless we become moral,” Cain says in a filmed interview. “The criminal person is a selfish person who gets whatever he wants by taking it. The way to be the opposite of that taker is to be a giver; the ultimate gift is to be the hospice caregiver.

“Hospice is a test. Have you changed or have you not? This is your way to prove it.”

Ultimately, the men ultimately do prove it to themselves and to the warden, learning to stroke the heads of the dying, bathe them, dress them, wash their bedsheets, offer them words of hope on their last breaths and close their eyes when they pass. Justin Granier, one of the four who is serving life in prison without possibility of probation, parole or suspension of sentence for second-degree murder, sees the hospice as the way to transcend the walls and the razor-edged barbed wire.

“By now I should have done graduated, probably started a family, living another life, but instead I’m living the most abnormal life possible,” said Granier, who says he was attending college and majoring in the medical field before his incarceration. “Getting involved in the hospice program would be a resemblance of my life had I not gone to prison.”

“Serving Life”, produced by Odyssey Networks, a multi-faith media coalition, encores tomorrow on the OWN network. Check www.oprah.com/own for local listings. 

 

 

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Patagonia Climber Bean Bowers: 1973-2011, He Always Picked Himself — And Others — Up Again

 07/19/2011 01:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

I’ll never forget the day it happened, though I’ve hardly told a soul of it in 15 years.

About six of us from the 1996 National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) climbing trip into Wyoming’s Wind River Range decided, after a hard hike into the backcountry, to slack off camp chores for an hour, head over to a nearby crag and do a little scaling, maybe some rappelling. It was a hot mid-August afternoon two weeks into the trip and one of my three NOLS instructors, Bean Bowers — bad-ass, wise-cracking and always over-caffeinated — chose me to belay him while he climbed. No problem, I said to myself. Though he was scrubby, unshaven, two years older and relatively intimidating on a mountain, this 20-year-old Northwestern kid fresh from a Hill internship in DC, thought if I could handle the press office of a well-known Senator, I could handle Bean Bowers.

Everything started off fine. The knots were tight. I had my brake hand firmly on my hip and with every vertical step Bean took, let out just enough slack to keep him suspended in midair, should his fingers miss their spot by an inch or perhaps a piece of rock chip off in his hand. Then Bean decided to rappel down. He warned me he was coming, a bit harder and faster than I thought, but he was coming. I let him, and the rope started to burn, so I let go of it. Before I could look up to see him tumbling down, Bean landed with a thud, on his back, from what seemed like 50 feet in the sky. He miraculously got up, came over to where I stood and started yelling at me — the only natural thing to do. I dropped the rope and ran back to camp. Bean was fine. Still, I had let him fall — and committed the cardinal sin of climbing.

Bean was quick to forgive and forget. Almost as soon as I crawled into my tent and into myself, swearing I would never touch another piece of climbing rope, Bean returned to our outpost and tried to talk me off my own ledge. It was his fault, he said. He shouldn’t have gone so fast. Would I just come out and talk it over with him? I refused, humiliated and ashamed that I even had the chutzpah to belay Bean, let alone allow him to fall on my watch. I went to bed as soon as the sun went down that night and resolved to spend the remaining 10 days on our trip as obvious as a pack against a tent.

Bean had other plans. The next morning, I felt a shaking on my sleeping bag, then heard my name and the order to wake up. I opened one eye and saw Bean in the grey mountain haze. “We’re going climbing,” he said. Before I could say “no fucking way,” Bean had me surrounded by one of the other NOLS guides, Alex, and a day pack on my back. We silently set off for another 5.3 or 5.4 grade climb about an hour away, while the others tackled a 5.5 or 5.6 rock nearby.

Bean went up the mountain first, belayed by Alex, just to prove to me that he was okay. I belayed Alex at his own urging — a move to practice my confidence building — and Alex belayed me as I climbed. The three of us made our way, inch-by-craggy inch, up the rock face over the next three hours. Sometimes, my hand got caught in the granite, only to emerge red and bloody. At other points, my foot slipped and I fell hard against the rock. By the end of it, my scrapes and scratches had their first scabs, yet I emerged rock-worn and victorious on top. Bean belayed Alex down, then me. Then Alex took Bean off the mountain, so he could jump and bounce and shoot down the rope as free as he wanted. Bean was daring, but he wasn’t stupid.

On July 11, 2011, Bean Bowers died of renal cancer that had metastasized to his brain and bones. He was 37, an accomplished climber and guide in Patagonia, in Pakistan and all over the Western United States. I hadn’t seen him since my last night in Lander, Wyoming, after which I returned to school and embarked on my own steady climb through life.

Life is strange and it’s short. Bean’s life touched many people — and though others might have held more sway in it, Bean’s touched mine. For there are lots of people who will pick us up and dust us off after we have fallen, but only the truly brave pick themselves up, dust themselves off, give us another chance and tell us to keep on trying after we have failed them. 

Banksy in the West Bank

 07/11/2011 06:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

They wait for the tired tourists walking up the long hills of Bethlehem: cabdrivers, some in Mercedes, others in their stepsister Skodas. All ask the same questions in broken English: Church of Nativity? Manger Square? Rachel Tomb?

“Banksy?” said Ibrahim, as he approached my travel companion, Stephen and me. Though spent from a day in Jerusalem’s Old City and wanting to see little more than the Church of the Nativity, we stopped. “How much?” One hundred shekels came the reply. Stephen and I looked at each other, shrugged, handed Ibrahim the bill and got in his beat-up, white Skoda.

Banksy, the subversive British artist who started his career with a can of spray paint and a graffiti rat tag, has become as popular around the West Bank as Naji Salim al-Ali, the iconic and martyred political cartoonist. In fact, even more so, if imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It takes a trained eye to spot the real Banksy from his legion of protégées, who have colored their side of the 425-mile-long Geder Hafrada (separation barrier) — or as the Palestinians call it, “jidar al-fasl al-‘unsuri” (racial segregation wall) — with an incredible panoply of resistance art.

In many ways, it’s difficult to know who inspired whom.

In 2005, Banksy traveled for the first time to the West Bank and painted, in Bethlehem, the Trompe l’oeil scenes of a beaches peeking through smashed holes in the wall. They were a huge hit with the Palestinians — not so with the Israelis, who fired their guns in the air to scare off the enigmatic, misanthrope who already relishes in disdain. He went on to create eight other stencils, including the “Flower Chucker”, the iconic protestor throwing a bouquet instead of a rock, a girl carried over the wall by balloons and scissors clipping a passageway through the concrete monolith.

Ibrahim took us first to the Banksy every young tourist wants to see. Standing three-stories tall against the side of a nondescript grocery store, the “Flower Chucker” was one of many incarnations in Banksy’s repertoire, but a must-see nonetheless. Of it, he has said, “Some people represent authority without ever possessing any of their own.”

But Ibrahim knew not just of the Banksy on the checklists. He had made a point of mapping most of the Banksy stencils. (Offended Palestinians painted over two, including one of donkey being checked by an Israeli soldier for papers, because they didn’t understand the ironic references.) These contemporary murals that mock the wall bring badly needed income to Bethlehem’s tourist economy, which has been choked by it since 2002.

Next, Ibrahim drove us to another freestanding Banksy, that of a dove donning a flak jacket with a cross hairs painted over it. By far the most colorful and dramatic of the graffiti, it now provides a welcome advertisement for “fine jewelry, genuine antiquities and olive wood carvings” of the Saca Souvenir store.

After stopping at the Church of the Nativity — a must-see for me, a survivor of 12 years of Catholic prep school — Ibrahim took us to a Banksy stencil of an angel crying hearts near Shepherds’ Field, the Biblical spot where the angel pointed out the direction of the Messiah’s manger. We next stopped at a busy intersection adorned with one last stencil of a young girl frisking an Israeli soldier. That particular piece highlights a street sign pointing the way to Jerusalem.

Tired, hungry and worried because Stephen had left his passport in Jerusalem, Ibrahim could only convince us to see one more “Banksy” before we headed home. He pointed the Skoda in the direction of the Aida Camp, the well-known United Nations Refugee and Works Agency near the Bethlehem checkpoint whose crumbling buildings are tagged with large skeleton keys. They are images of the one Ibrahim carried in his car to symbolize the home in Palestine he abandoned. “See, more Banksy,” Ibrahim said, pointing to a stenciled escalator of people scaling another part of the wall.

This piece, however, was a crude imitation of the real Banksy. Stephen and I, however, didn’t have the heart to tell Ibrahim, as we waited for the cab from Israel to pick us up and take us back. Though he had tried, Ibrahim could take us no further, closed off from the rest of the country. 

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In a Better World

 06/22/2011 10:59 am ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

As the situation stands in Albany today, I have untold amounts of people fighting for my right to get married in my home state of New York. In most countries around the rest of the world, this remains a pipe dream.

Early this morning, buses coordinated by the five-coalition effort headed by the omnipresent gay rights group, Human Rights Campaign, left Midtown, shipping hundreds of LGBT people and their allies to the steps of the labyrinthine New York State Capitol to hold signs, shout, phone senators from their mobiles and demand the State Senate hand over the gays’ inalienable right to marry. This follows a week of much of the same in Empire State Plaza, culminating in the city on Sunday afternoon with a “Last Day of Inequality” rally in Union Square.

What will take place upstate today or tomorrow is still very much up in the air. I’m still receiving the countless Facebook status posts updating me on Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ (R-9th) every move. In the meantime, this happened: On June 15, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the South African delegation introduced the UN Resolution on the Human Rights of Gay Persons, and by a vote of 23 to 19, the resolution was adopted, setting an internationally backed standard against the discrimination of LGBT people. This is a historic moment for not only people across the world, but across the African continent, which has been mired in instances of harsh punishment of gays for decades. It even has a chance to stymie the efforts in Uganda to make open homosexuality punishable, in some instances, by death.

It’s not marriage, but in my book, it’s quite a large leap in the scheme of advancing gay rights around the world, with an even greater impact.

Not to diminish the fight for gay marriage in the U.S. I was working at theWashington Blade, an LGBT newspaper in Washington, the day Massachusetts passed its historic legislation and spent the rest of the summer of 2004 chasing down news of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, put into motion by an unscrupulous president cynically looking to guarantee his re-election. We’ve come a long, long way in seven years.

But that summer, I also covered the aftermath of the Egypt’s Queen Boat trial in which 52 LGBT men and women were accused of offending religion and practicing debauchery for dancing at an LGBT disco moored in the Nile. They subsequently spent months in jail and were subjected to torture, including physical examinations to discern whether or not they engaged in gay sex. I also told the story of Yorro Kuyateh, a gay man from Gambia, who had fled his country under impossible circumstances rather than face a lifetime in and out of prison for his sexual orientation, known largely in West Africa as political crimes against the state.

Like gay marriage, the UN Resolution on the Human Rights of Gay Persons has been hard won — and it took years and years of lobbying. This time last year the same resolution was handily voted down and six months later, an annual resolution that condemned the unjustified killing of various categories of vulnerable people dropped — for the first time since 1999 — the term “sexual orientation” at the urging of Arab and African nations. According to Amnesty International, consensual same-sex relations remain illegal in 76 countries worldwide, while harassment as well as discrimination of LGBT people are well overlooked by the authorities.

Despite the marriage situation, people in the United States can take heart, however, especially as the basic rights of LGBT people around the world are fought. The U.S. has openly condemned Uganda’s draft legislation making certain homosexual acts a capital offense. And, according to Suzanne Nossel of the State Department, the new resolution puts a political “spotlight” on repression, discrimination and violence against LGBT people. “It sends a message that the international community rejects it, that governments that condone and pursue those policies are outliers, that they’re at odds with an international norm,” Nosselsaid in a statement last Friday. “It also puts in place reporting so that activists and victims of abuses have a place to turn.”

Although I have always believed in equal rights for LGBT people as a gay person, in recent years I have not actively participated in marriage rallies and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell marches, simply because it’s hard for me to ask for more, more, more when others around the world have so little of the privileges we take for granted every day. In a perfect world the gay marriage bill in New York will pass in the same week as the UN Resolution. Even if the New York State Senate, with all eyes on it to do the right thing and save face, refuses to act in everybody’s interest, I’ll walk away a happy woman. Because I can still hold and kiss and love anyone I choose openly, while most people in the rest of the world can’t.

Ambiguously Hurtful Humor

 06/16/2011 05:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

 

Adrian Margaret Brune A.M. Brune is a freelance writer and contributor to The Guardian, The Nation, the New Yorker and This Land Press

Okay gays, pull out the rotten tomatoes, aim straight at your computer screen, and fire. Because I am about to defend Tracy Morgan, the most LGBT-hated man in comedy this week, and speak out against another harmful form of humor: the gay parody.

Believe me when I say I don’t find Morgan’s alleged bashing of gays at a Tennessee nightclub last week harmless. Or — and I am not going to pull punches here — funny. In the very least. In fact, I thought his reported line saying, “bullied kids should just bust some ass and beat those other little f*ckers that bully them, not whine about it,” utterly ridiculous. Same with the joke about stabbing his kid to death if he came home and announced “I’m gay” in a fey voice. But Tina Fey gave Morgan a verbal smack down, Morgan apologized and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gave the controversial comedian the coveted gay pass by granting him a spot on its upcoming “Amplify Your Voice” anti-bullying public service campaign.

All’s well that end’s well in Tracy Morgan land. You can all go back to 30 Rock watching.

What this Tracy Morgan debate completely missed, however, was the more duplicitous stylings of comedy aimed at LGBT people these days. Tracey Morgan’s rant was a blip on my mental radar — in and out like the Eminem lyrics that caused a media maelstrom ten years ago. On the other hand, Robert Smigel, it’s your turn at the mike.

Smigel, best known for Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as TV Funhouse, a regular cartoon segment parodying public figures and pop culture, is also responsible for the much-touted, highly laughable segment “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” It used to be funny to me — a gay woman in her mid-30s who has been out for 15 years and who appreciates a good lampooning as much as, well, Al Franken and Lorne Michaels, two of Smigel’s regulars on TV Funhouse.

Then I watched the most recent episode of the Ambiguously Gay Duo on Saturday Night Live with a close friend of mine who just came out of the closet. And it just wasn’t funny. It was painful.

“Nothings meant to be harmless, it’s meant to get a laugh… and I think the reckless stand up who is working on energy, has more possibility of not being tidy about it,” said Faith Soloway, a lesbian comedian in Boston who parodies gay stereotypes in her own work, including the web comedy “Secrets.” “But there is the more insidious torture of ‘acceptable gay humor’ vs. out and out bashing humor and how we are almost paralyzed by that. Because you’re a nerd if you say ‘that’s offensive’ but the damage is just the same.”

My friend, who is 37, has struggled with his internalized homophobia for years and kept his orientation so well under wraps that when he finally told me, I actually said, “You’re kidding.” Walking from his apartment that day, I couldn’t believe he had lived in such secrecy. After all, we had grown up together with my sexual identity on the table, and we did live in the 21st century in New York City.

And being a good-natured, likeable pacifist, my friend appeasably laughed at Ace and Gary’s calisthenics in Ambiguously Gay sexual positions, and the Ambiguously Gay penis-shaped car ramming into a brick-wall opening and even during the Ambiguously Gay “can-can dancing” punch-outs of the bad guys. But these representations of gay men not only made me cringe, they made me angry, as I realized I was not just watching the “Dark, Clenched Hole of Evil,” but the reason for my friend’s shame. For these are the laughable stereotypes he has tried to avoid his entire life, whether they come from the guy in the Giants jersey at the sports bar doing a limp wrist and a lisp or in a clever cartoon in which the word “probing” becomes overused code for gay sex. The only difference between Morgan and Smigel is the packaging.

But what is to be done? The “Dark, Clenched Hole of Evil” received as much positive attention as Morgan received negative. This website called the comic feats of Jimmy Fallon and Jon Hamm “something to behold.” GLAAD’s media watchdogs uttered nary a bark and Smigel went on to his latest project. I even watched the “Ambiguously Gay Duo” clip a second time and felt like a humorless lesbian firebrand with an axe to grind.

MTV recently asked whether or not Morgan’s career would survive his gay blunder. That’s a no-brainer. I ask whether or not LGBT kids will survive the taunts that are supposed to be funny. Soloway says, “More work needs to be done in our own resiliency, other gays owning humor and speaking out.” All of this is true. But somewhere, out there in the great expanse of our country, a young gay man took note of how not to act, how not to appear gay, how not to live openly, lest he subject himself to the jokes that never seem to end, harmless or not. Tracey Morgan was the easy target this week. The Smigels of the comedic world prove a much more lithe beast.