November 2008 Archives
THREADS OF GENIUS
Vignettes and musings on MacArthur fellow Mary Jackson and the classic art of basket making
Mary Jackson usually gets to work around 10 a.m. She stays up late working and watching Dateline. Her studio is on the second floor of a building made of cinder blocks and wood. Behind the building is the clamor of industry. The other side roars with traffic from Highway 17. There are empty shipping containers in the driveway.
On the side of the building, next to the sidewalk that leads to an antiques shop on the ground floor, she's planted sweetgrass. It's green and thin and wiry. Some of it has begun to flower -- long lean purple fluff, a sign that harvest time is over.
The door to her studio has no doorknob. It's steel and black. She says it's a rough neighborhood. She doesn't want her picture taken outside because of that. She doesn't want to smile for the camera, either, because a cap on one of her teeth has crumbled and fallen off. After our interview, she'll see a dentist to get it fixed.
In her studio is a small square wooden table. On the table is a cordless telephone. On Tuesday, Sept. 16, she got a call at about 11 a.m. It was a man's voice. At the end of the conversation, he told her she'd never hear from him again. She cried.****
"Is this Mary?"
"Are you sitting down?"
"I think you'd better sit down."
"Mary, you are the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship."
"Is this true?
"Yes, it's true. Do you know about the money?"****
Stoney Jackson, Mary's husband, thought there was a lizard in the studio. Mary hates lizards and other crawly things. Whenever there's one in her studio, Stoney comes to shoo it away. This time was different, though. Mary looked wild and nervous. She was shaking. Are those tears on your face? She could tell just one person about the man on the telephone. Stoney. The official news would come a week later. April, her daughter and business manager, didn't know.****
"Aside from the obvious financial benefits, the award is so high-profile that it bumps artists who may be known only to locals or experts to another level entirely," Patricia Cohen, The New York Times reporter who wrote about the foundation's announcement of 25 fellowships last week, told me. "It gives them more visibility, a kind of authority, and a kind of imprimatur of excellence."****
I don't know anything about baskets. Mary Jackson's face doesn't change. She patiently explains. A basket's coils are called threads. Sweetgrass, bulrush, or pine needles. Men traditionally used bulrush. It's coarser and harder. Women used sweetgrass. It's softer and more flexible. You use palmetto to lash the threads together.
You start at the bottom and coil your way up. It can take a long time. Mary has the time. She gives in to time. I imagine her weaving threads, slowing her pulse. As if in sync with the earth's vibrations.****
It's $500,000. But that pales in comparison to the prize's prestige. Mary Jackson is now in an elite group -- scientists, doctors, engineers, social activists, journalists, novelists, and visual and performing artists.
Nicknamed the "genius grant," it's given to those "who inspire new heights in human achievement," says Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of fellows ... exemplifies the boundless nature of the human spirit."
There have been 781 fellows since 1981. Artists and writers include pianist Stephen Hough, jazz violinist Regina Carter, novelist Thomas Pynchon, artist Kara Walker, journalist Katherine Boo, choreographer Paul Taylor, filmmakers John Sayles and Errol Morris, and the late novelist David Foster Wallace.****
Mary Jackson is tactile. She feels objects to understand them. Her touch is refined. Her hands precise. A basket's coils are the same diameter. The lashes, taken from the young and tender tops of a palmetto tree, are the same width apart. They are simple and elegant and restrained. It's done mostly by feel.****
"So you coil threads around 'til you're done?"
"And you make each thread out of strands of grass or pine needle?"
"And you wrap each thread with strips of palmetto?"
"It must take you forever to finish a basket."
"You have to be patient."
"But this is no normal patience, like waiting in the dentist's waiting room. This is waiting-for-the-Messiah-to-return kind of patience."
"It's the most sought-after prize, but you can't seek it," says Sasha Anawalt, director of arts journalism programs at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "You are recognized for who you are."
The "genius grant" is the most cherished in America, she says. It comes out of the blue. Recipients can't expect to get it. They don't even know who nominates them for the award. The process is kept secret.
Winners usually do work having a social benefit. It serves others. Work like Mary Jackson's "carries history," Anawalt says. "If someone came down from the cosmos, he would see that she is working on a higher plane.
"That's what this means in the art world -- it's such a big deal."****
What's so special? asks Kenneth Trapp, a former curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Baskets are everywhere. You find them at the Dollar Tree and on Market Street. What's all the fuss about?
Mary Jackson's baskets are engineered architectural feats, Trapp says. They are deeply restrained. Many basket makers put shells and stones in their work. Mary doesn't. She sticks with traditional designs, but expands those designs. Trapp oversaw the Smithsonian's acquisition of some of her baskets in the early 1980s. They are elegant in form, simple in color, reserved in sensibility, he says, and they adhere to a tradition, aspects hard to appreciate.
"They are perfect when they don't need to be perfect," Trapp says. "Hollywood has ruined the term 'classic.' But that's really what Mary's work is. Some call it old-timey and even passé. In fact, it's literally classic."****
I wonder: Is Mary Jackson now Charleston's most prestigious artist? Jonathan Green is pretty highly regarded. So is Pat Conroy. But neither has won a "genius grant." Neither has been set apart for recognition like this.
Has Charleston been paying attention to its indigenous artists? Are we not seeing what we have while pining away for what we don't have? Indeed, we have no museum or gallery or space devoted to traditional folk art.
If Mary Jackson is the most prestigious artist, does that mean, to the rest of the country, the Charleston art scene has an African-American face?
If Lowcountry art means traditional folk art, then traditional folk art means black art -- art borne of practical need and evolved into beautiful objects, art carried on through generations, going all the way back to West Africa.****
I worry. Kenneth Trapp says it's understandable. There's only so much to be done about ignorance, he says. Many people have already made up their minds about Mary and her accomplishments.
Because she's black. I'm concerned. Because she's Gullah. I have doubts. Because attitudes of white supremacy will naturally try to taint beauty.
I can't convince racists that Mary Jackson and her classic basket making are amazing. I can't persuade bigots that perhaps we should take a second look at Charleston's wealth of unheralded assets -- that is, its artisans and craftsmen.
"You can speak to those who care and that's it," Trapp says.****
Race plays a part in this, I tell Sasha Anawalt, of USC's Annenberg School. In telling the story of Mary Jackson. How do I overcome those who'd believe she got this just because she's black? How do I illustrate with enough clarity that this award is pure as well as prestigious? That it really means something?
She says I can't.
She says I'm taking a risk, and I know she's right. Yes, Charleston's national persona might have a black face, for the time being, but in trying to overcome racism I'll end up encouraging it. It's a paradox. Best to stick with the story.
You don't want to take anything away from her, she says.
I'll be careful, I say.****
"How do you know when you have enough sweetgrass in a thread?"
"I feel it."
"You don't measure it?"
"Do you measure anything?"
"Do you do everything by feel?"
"I look at it carefully to make sure the colors are right."
"How do you know when it's right?"
"By feeling it."****
Mary Jackson is quiet. She answers questions. Not much else. Her voice is gentle. As if her carefully chosen words last longer punctuated by silence.
She looks tired. She didn't sleep well. It's been that way for a week. On the day word got out, she received around 50 phone calls. She's never gotten that many. The phone rings when I arrive. She puts it in the other room.
Her hands are small. Strong and soft. Except for the calluses on her right thumb and forefinger. That's where she pulls the threads. She's in her early 60s. How many threads have passed through those hands? How many baskets?
She is like her baskets. I think so. Kenneth Trapp, the former Smithsonian curator, thinks so, too. The depth of her humanity, he says, is obvious and clear.
"She's doing something done before recorded history," he says.
If she's conscious of that, it's hard to tell.
"I share my feelings," she says.
On the surface, this story is about the creation of a new live performance company. It comprises an array of artists focused on forms of movement new and old -- breakdancing, hula hooping, bellydancing, capoeira, acrobatics, and juggling.
Each artist has been working in Charleston for some time now. Their most high-profile performances thus far have probably been the two Kulture Klashes that also featured visual artists -- graffiti, pop, and contemporary -- and beer.
"It made perfect sense" to join forces says Ryan Becknell of Hipnotik Bodyrock. In August, he and fellow Bodyrock breakdancer Josef Kirk Myers joined this motley crew of tastemakers to establish Rogue Dynamic Productions. The group, known as RDP, is an "alternative arts group with street cred," Becknell says "that's theater-worthy."
Other key figures include Patrick Brown, a member of the Charleston Capoeira Team; Sarah Markusich of Qabeelah, a "tribal fusion" bellydance troupe; Kacey Douglas and Kristen Clapper of Homespun Hoops, who unlock the potential of hula hoops; and Efrain Eduardo Martinez Avila, a master of poi, a kind of fire juggling that originates from Pacific island cultures.
The group is "theater-worthy," because it has designs on creating "themed productions" in a variety of locations. RDP wants to take the extemporaneous spirit and competitive urge of street dancing, harness and mold it, and then present it in a more formal format.
The result is RDP's first performance at the Daily Dose. A "ring master" will emcee a revue. The title, A Dark Circus, indicates the theme: mysterious and nebulous forces culminating in creativity, revelry, debasement, and debauchery.
"It's gonna be dark," Becknell says.
That's the news. Here are the ideas.
With fewer venues to perform in, and parking issues a constant source of worry, RDP's ability to move and adapt to a variety of locations gives it an advantage in Charleston's entertainment scene.
There's the party vibe, too, but this isn't just a pleasant add-on. That RDP presents shows with an inherent social dimension is part of its spirit and an echo of the sensibility of the generation that constitutes RDP.
That is, Gen Y or the Millenniel Generation, coming of age after the advent of the internet and wireless technology. Millenniels believe in the wisdom of crowds. Like MySpace and Facebook, RDP wants you to engage -- to be an active audience.
Which leads us to the second idea, collaboration.
A key trait of street dance is competition, and it sows the seeds of artistic growth. Competition explains how we've gone, over the past 20 years, from breakdancing to popping-and-locking to krumping.
"We push each other, we compete, to create new movement," Becknell says. "Discovery brings us together. It creates a vision of what can be. Who doesn't want to break the mold of the 'weekend warrior' who goes back to work Monday?"
And with that phrase -- "break the mold" -- you have a third idea: subversion. Or, as Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian literary critic, might have said, "the carnivalesque."
In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin wrote that people in the Middle Ages lived two lives -- an "official life" and a "licensed life." The latter was played out during carnival, a season spanning in medieval Europe as much as three months out of the year.
One life was "full of terror, dogmatism, reverence, and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything ... familiar contact with everything."
If the "official" life doesn't sound familiar by now, you haven't been paying attention.
The carnival was also egalitarian, Bakhtin wrote, because "the central arena could only be the square, for by its very idea carnival belongs to the whole people, it is universal, everyone must participate."
You can see why RDP might reflect the spirit of the carnival, and why we need something like it today.
It brings people together who might not ordinarily do so. It inspires innovation vis-à-vis collaboration. It celebrates diversity and camaraderie and hope (and beer!).
And by taking its eclectic act to a public arena like the Daily Dose, with many more planned for the future (each cast in themes ranging from pirates to ninjas), RDP undermines the statue quo, at least a little bit, if perhaps only in a strong symbolic sense.
"We're reaching for something," Becknell says. "It's going to be crazy and twisted.
"It's going to be a circus-style spectacular that reaches for the dark corners of the imagination."
If you met Brian Muller and Zach Thomas at a coffee shop, as I did last week, you might not associate them with the gritty, subversive underworld of graffiti.
Muller, in a plain T-shirt and cargo shorts, is a student at MUSC. His interests are in the field of bioinformatics, which is where medicine and data-mining meet. Thomas, in a T-shirt, jeans, and black chunky Ray-Ban reading glasses, studies at the College of Charleston. He's picking up where he left off after seven years as a computer engineer.
"We're total nerds," Thomas says, wryly.
These nerds are on the vanguard of an art form as old as the pyramids. Using new technologies, they are spanning a divide between dialectic views of graffiti -- one that says it's an art, one that it's vandalism.
In spanning this divide, Muller and Thomas are changing not just how graffiti is done but how we think about it.
They are, in essence, trying to forge a new sensibility among graff artists -- from one that's illicit, solitary, and egocentric to one that's lawful, social, and egalitarian.
Though some graffiti is illegal, Muller says, it's still art. It needs to be preserved as a work of art before being whitewashed by a rightfully angry property owner.
So he and Thomas started Tag Record (www.tagrecord.com). They have cached hundreds of photographs of graffiti found around the city. Even graffiti long painted over has been given a new virtual existence.
Muller and Thomas believe in the rights of property owners. They also believe in the power of art.
(In the case of graffiti, it has the power to monopolize our vision, forcing us to experience and reckon with it.)
By documenting all manner of street art, Muller and Thomas separate one from the other, celebrating the art form without endorsing or participating in vandalism.
But the website has done more than that. By creating an interactive forum, they say, they have elevated the quality of graffiti.
"Graffiti artists work in isolation, at night, and they don't know how they're being experienced by others," Muller says. "Now they know what people are thinking."
Perhaps graffiti is an expression of a primal human instinct. At its core is a spirit that longs for validation, that asserts in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, and doubt that "I was here." It says, with defiance: "I am."
Muller and Thomas say that they honor this spirit, that they believe in that spirit. But scrawling on a billboard is only one way to leave one's mark.
With so many new kinds of technology available to them, they decided to innovate new methods for leaving a mark on the world. But they also wanted to change how we think about leaving that mark.
From this came Street Level Lab (www.streetlevellab.com), a local collective that aims, according to its mission statement, to "create new open technology and free methods to assist in the creation and promotion of nondestructive street artwork."
One of these is software that Muller and Thomas affectionately call Blobber.
With Blobber, you can "laser tag" any flat surface. All you need is a computer, a light projector, a camera, and a laser pointer (or an empty spraypaint can affixed with LEDs, but that's another story).
The software tells the projector to follow the laser beam, leaving virtually any kind of mark you'd like. But unlike the old graffiti, laser tagging is gone when you're gone.
Muller and Thomas got the software from an open-source nonprofit in New York City called the Graffiti Research Lab. It didn't work the way they wanted it to. It would only run on Windows, and it was "bloated" with non-essentials like music and video. So they rewrote the program. Once perfected (they plan to release it later this year), Blobber can be used on any platform by anyone with the imagination to make it grow. The only stipulation is that it remain open-source, or free and available to be tinkered with.
Muller and Thomas agree Blobber is to graffiti what Wii is to video gaming.
It's simple and intuitive. It breaks down barriers of knowledge and culture. And it now features easy-to-use games similar to Pong and Space Invaders.
The biggest difference is that it's social.
Graffiti is done by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons -- artistic, subversive, criminal, insane. But what's constant is that it's done for the most part alone, in secret, and under cover of night.
With Blobber, graffiti and other kinds of street art can be more flexibly understood as a social act rooted in the pleasure of innovating and creating art with others. Muller and Thomas are already slated to "perform" at next month's Kulture Klash. They have applied for next year's Piccolo Spoleto, too.
"We want this to be for everyone," Muller says.
"Because it's awesome!"
Originally written for the [*Charleston City Paper*](http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A54027).
You don't hear about it much, but it exists -- the role of art in the democratic process.
We're a pragmatic country. We don't care much for shades of gray. It's easy to see how the cost of education and a housing crisis affect the health of the citizenry.
But reading a novel or watching a play? That's not so easy to see. Hence, we don't hear about it much.
Even so, there is a long intellectual tradition of making the case for the arts in politics. In *The Poetics*, Aristotle said drama doesn't show us what has happened as much as what might happen. In the 20th century, Alexander Meiklejohn, an early advocate of First Amendment rights, said Americans need the arts precisely because we vote.
"The arts cultivate capacities of judgment and sensitivity that can and should be expressed in the choices a citizen makes," wrote Martha Nussbaum, paraphrasing Meiklejohn, in her *Cultivating Humanity*.
We must nurture a "sympathetic imagination," she adds in her own words, to understand "the motives and choices of people different from ourselves, seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us."
For Nussbaum, art is a lens through which to understand other people, not a reflection of our political affiliation. Even so, most artists lean to the left.
Look, for instance, at contemporary American theater. You'd be hard pressed to find a play about conservative values.
"I don't think I've come across one," André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater for the past 16 years, told *The New York Times* two weeks ago.
No surprise then that Stephen Elliot, the novelist, asserted matter-of-factly that "literary fiction is character driven, and to write good characters you have to have empathy, and if you have empathy, you're a liberal."
It's an elegant concatenation of logic, but is empathy really a result of politics? Or does one's politics result in empathy?
Elliott's remark was no doubt in response to eight years of "compassionate conservatism." But it seems to reflect something more than one president's enormous failings.
Rather, it speaks to the powerful political tensions that characterize American life.**What do you really mean by 'empathy'?**
For Andrea Studley, co-founder of the Deuce Theatre Company, Elliott is about right.
After all, liberals have become all but synonymous, in the potent words of linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, with "a tax-raising, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show."
And let's not forget that liberals have been for nearly a decade "God-hating elites." For Studley, whose political satire, *The Emperor Is Naked?*, continues this weekend, liberals need to reclaim the cause of empathy.
"Liberal values reflect caring for the have-nots," Studley says. "Those values are liberal and Christian, but religion has been identified by the right for many years now."
Is empathy needed to be a good artist?
Not really, says Conseula Francis, director of African-American Studies at the College of Charleston (and a *City Paper* contributor): "You have to be someone on whom nothing is lost," she says, paraphrasing the novelist Henry James. "I don't think you have to like people very much for that to be true."
As for empathy leading to a political bent, that might depend on how you see the role of government.
If you believe it should help people, Francis says, you might be a liberal. If you believe government should yield to the compassions of churches and charities, you might be a conservative.
But all art is political, says Frank Martin, a professor of art history at South Carolina State University. So empathy is political.
You can't get away from it, because art's expression is grounded in a context that is inherently politicized.
"True empathy implies liberalism," Martin says. "If I feel the pain of the other, that means the other cannot be exploited.
"Thus, empathy is inherently liberal."
Though the artist's context may be politicized, as well as his art, how we understand that context can be manipulated, says Tim LaPira, a CofC professor of political science.
Pro-choice advocates, for instance, have empathy for the mother. Pro-lifers have empathy for the unborn. Empathy, therefore, is psychological, sociological and rhetorical.
Elliott's remark seems to reflect two assumptions deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, LaPira says.
According to Thomas Hobbes, author of *Leviathan*, human nature is intrinsically bad. Government is meant to protect our rights and property from the corruption of power.
According to John Locke, human nature is good if we can lift the chains of inequality and injustice. The Constitution, therefore, was designed to protect against tyranny but also to manifest humanity's altruistic ideals.
So empathy is ideological, too.
Politics may explain why most artists are liberal, says JC Conway, who heads a late-night series at Footlight Players Theatre.
Conway is conservative, a rarity in theater. He believes his minority status has more to do with religious right "nut jobs" than neo-Federalists like himself.
"My personal preferences should not impinge on others," says Conway, who opens *Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead* on Nov. 6. "Most artists are liberal, because they don't want to be told what to do or how to live their lives."
Social conditions, not art, shape one's politics and one's degree of empathy, says Lance Mannion (lancemannion.typepad.com), a commentator living in New Paltz, N.Y.
Peer pressure and self-interest, he says, will challenge even the staunchest partisan.
"If a young conservative does set out to become an artist, I don't think he'll stay that conservative for long, for the same reason a young liberal who enters the military or investment banking won't stay liberal for long," Mannion says.
Still, art can create empathy, says Carol Ann Davis, a CofC professor of English and editor of the literary journal *Crazyhorse*.
Davis believes "empathy is and should be a great democratizing force in that it disallows a certain type of ignorance from flourishing.
"It opens the possibility for hope."** The bad kind of empathy?**
Let's assume for a moment that empathy is an inherent human trait and therefore apolitical.
Still, it may not serve well, as Meiklejohn asserted, the choices a citizen makes. The best empathy comes from a proper education.
A traditional view among metaphysical philosophers is that empathy has to be trained with "moral reasoning," says Jennifer Baker, a professor of philosophy at CofC.
Otherwise, Baker says, "We act on behalf of those for whom we have empathy and forget about those for whom we have none."
So empathy has a moral side as well.
In fact, we can empathize someone to death, says Mary Ann Kohli, a self-described liberal who heads the Clemente Project.
Her program offers free humanities courses, like philosophy and literature, to poor students, many of them battered women or former addicts, at Trident Technical College.
"You see it all the time in families with addiction," she says. "You have to confront the issue, and that can be seen as cold. If you don't, you can send them down the ladder.
"Destruction usually comes from within."
So, to recap -- does being an artist make you a liberal? Well ... maybe. What if we reverse the question?
Does it make you a conservative?
Absolutely yes, says conservative blogger Ann Althouse (althouse.blogspot.com).
"[A] great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist ... may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath ... there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world."
But that's another story.