Whether the decor is faux '50s silver and neon or authentic greasy spoon, diners are classic Americana, down to the familiar menu items. Rich, poor, black, white--all rub shoulders in the vinyl booths and at formica counters. We explore the enduring appeal and nostalgia of the diner.
Relatively few local artists have found success in D.C. – a town where art can be an afterthought. Sam Gilliam chose to make his career as an artist here, founding a prominent art movement in the sixties. Sam continues to push the boundaries of painting today and thinks a younger generation could change Washington’s reputation.
- B. Stanley executive and artistic director, District of Columbia Arts Center
- Sam Gilliam artist
- E. Ethelbert Miller Literary activist and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is "The 5th Inning," a second memoir and the first book published by Busboys and Poets.
A Peek at Sam Gilliam’s “Close to Trees:”
All images from artist Sam Gilliam’s “Close to Trees.” A site-specific installation. Acrylic, polypropylene, nylon, and a mirror. Courtesy Marsha Mateyka Gallery:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Despite being home to dozens of world-class art museums, buttoned-down Washington has never had a reputation for a cutting-edge art scene. For decades, Howard University's Art Department has been a hub, drawing black artists from all over the country and the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd in the 1960s, when New York was the center of gravity for most artists, artists based here in D.C. developed a movement in painting that became internationally known as the Washington Color School. Sam Gilliam was at the center of that group. He and many other artists are part of a vibrant arts community that's often overshadowed by places like New York. But as the District attracts more young people along with hip art galleries and coffee shops, there are signs that a new generation of artists could be making Washington home.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore what that means is the aforementioned Sam Gilliam. He's an artist who lives and works in Washington. An exhibition of Sam Gilliam's work called "Close to Trees" is on view now through August 14 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center. And if you go to our website kojoshow.org, you will see a few examples of the work of Sam Gilliam. Sam Gilliam, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
MR. SAM GILLIAMThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is E. Ethelbert Miller. He's a literary activist and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think-thank. He's the author of a dozen books of poetry and the longtime director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. E. Ethelbert Miller, always a pleasure.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERAlways a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio also is B. Stanley, who is the executive director of the D.C. Arts Center. B. Stanley, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. B. STANLEYNow, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIThe multitalented B. Stanley, who also starred in 2009 in "Vincent" as the solo performer in Leonard Nimoy's "Vincent." Congratulations, and thank you again for joining us.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation that you can join at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or an email to email@example.com. Ethelbert, we've got a lot of official art in Washington, the great collections of the Smithsonian Museums along with a number of private collections, yet Washington just can't seem to shake its reputation as a town of lawyers and politicians, not artists. Is that fair?
MILLERNo, it's not fair because I'm sitting here in the studio with two people that I respect and admire, and I feel that their work is not local. I think their work is national and international. It has a lot to do with how we buy into certain definitions of the city and keep perpetuating the same definition. I think that's where we have to change in terms of controlling the media, controlling -- or to helping develop critics, you know, so that we can say, OK, this is what's happening in the theater community here in D.C. I mean, look, we have a new studio, a theater. I think that that probably rivals in terms of the actual structure of other cities. When you go...
NNAMDIThe Arena Stage?
MILLERThe Arena Stage, you know, when you go to somebody's institutions, you can see how the city has developed over the last several years. I think what our challenge is today is sustaining these institutions.
NNAMDISam Gilliam, you have said that Washington is the voice of arts in America. What do you mean by that?
GILLIAMI mean, that before Howard -- and at the time there was a Howard -- there was the Washington Color School teaching there or studying at the Barnett-Aden Gallery and being a part of that gallery that was responsible for people being an outlet to New York. The Washington Color School, which is our foundation, is not the only foundation that was the foundation of the American University School at American University.
GILLIAMAnd now, you can get on me because at the same time, there was University of Maryland establishing its foundation, which led to David Driskell, so that all of these outlets and all of these students, as much as 40, 50 years ago are our foundation now. They are our trees. They're also our (word?). They are our constructivists. And it's through them that these rivers flows.
GILLIAMThere was Sterling Brown, the poet, with Langston Hughes, who I thought was better than Langston Hughes because I could see him. Well, these things that were articulate should be studied, but they're abandoned. We skip over our trees and look at other trees. And if you try to plant a different tree in Rock Creek Park, you get locked up. So here it is, and the sense is that we have to start at home and appreciate what we have.
NNAMDIThat's why his latest exhibit is called "Close to Trees, " Sam Gilliam. B., there are world-class museums here, and most of them are accessible for free. But beyond that, what do you think has been Washington's greatest asset for artists?
STANLEYWell, I definitely think the opportunity that people have had here, I mean, the WPA has given a lot of people breaks over the years in the D.C. Arts Center. Having been there since 1989 has definitely opened up the doors for a lot of people that would not have had the opportunity, you know, commercial gallery or wouldn't have had an opportunity at their university. You know, many of the people we serve at D.C. Arts Center are people who don't have formal training, you know, working under the radar.
STANLEYSo those are people that, I think, really benefit from all the vastness of what we can do -- the pop-up galleries and now, you have also Transformer Gallery, you have Civilian Art Projects and Project 4 and so many others just popping up all over the place. This is a great opportunity for everybody who's trying to do work and gives them a chance to interact with somebody like Sam.
NNAMDIWhat do you think of Washington art scene and how it's evolving? You can call us 800-433-8850. Ethelbert, Howard University has a long history in the arts. And as the center of the community of African-American artists, I couldn't help thinking that when Sam Gilliam mentioned Sterling Brown that when I first came here, you could bump into Sterling Brown any day on the campus of Howard University, and so one understand why you could favor him over Langston Hughes in that situation.
MILLERRight. Well, you know, I think the university has a rich history. I think that in 2011, we have to challenge the university. I think, for example, Howard University should have a creative writing program at a historic black school. I think that university should bring back the national African-American writers conferences that we used to have. I think Brenda Greene is doing a wonderful job at this up at Medgar Evers in Brooklyn. And I think that's because, you know, Killens left Howard, went back to Brooklyn and they -- and took that idea. But while Killens and Haki and others were here...
NNAMDIThat would be Haki Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee.
MILLER...you know, Haki Madhubuti, (unintelligible), Don Lee, when those individuals there, we had a certain Renaissance. I've taught people to walk across house campuses, see Damas, Leon Damas, you know, see Sterling Brown, see all these individual and not just have them there in terms of teaching but also having programs around them in which we are studying their contribution so we would have something happening where we would discuss the Negritude movement and pass this information on to another generation.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of well-known black artists studied and taught at Howard, including a number of international artists.
NNAMDILeon Damas, for instance, they brought a wide range of artistic influence. How -- influences, how has that helped to shape the art scene here in Washington?
MILLERWell, you know, if you're doing a history of Washington, D.C., especially African-American history, you know, if people are not employed at Howard, then they came to Washington, D.C. to go to Howard, you know? And so Howard has a way of affecting the city. At the same time, just like Sam was talking about trees, you know, if you talk about other parts of the nature, you don't wanna have one river overflow and flood the rest of the landscape.
MILLERAnd so Howard is just one part of D. C. I mean, there's other artists that are here who are African-American and white, who are not connected to any university, who are also here, and I think that's very important to see sometime the dialogue that takes place between the two groups.
NNAMDIWell, Sam Gilliam, you were not affiliated with Howard, and you identified more with other art movements. Was that conscious for you or simply the result of where your artistic interests were leading you?
GILLIAMNo. I taught in high school but I stayed at Howard, that is that I met Leon Damas because he's a friend of Mel Edwards and Jane Cortez. It was a part of the Negritude movement of which a friend of my wife at that time was writing a book on. We kept those books for our kids so that you don't have to be inside in order to know what is going on if that -- if the stream generates an influence on the community.
GILLIAMI was at the Corcoran. I was at the Phillips. I was at American U., and I was listening to what was that Howard at the same time and it was very, very vital. And it was even vital when Jeff Donaldson and AfriCOBRA came there because it answered a need right then. But it was not a need that should have forgotten Damas, should not have forgotten Senghor or should not have Aimé Césaire and not have forgotten you, who were also distilling what was being said in many directions.
NNAMDIFunny you should mention me. I've never thought of myself in that context. Thank you for putting me in that context. It's a significant honor. B. Stanley, as we said earlier, Washington was at the heart of one art movement in particular, the Washington Color School. Tell us about that and why you feel it was significant.
STANLEYWell, I mean, it's clear that that is the movement that people read about in history books now. They read it about in school. They learn about the Sam Gilliam and Gene Davis and what was going on here. And I think that what is lacking today -- if we wanna say it like that -- is that people aren't looking at a movement so much anymore. They're looking at their own personal interaction and they're looking at their ability to contribute to the greater being of the society, the examined life, if you will.
STANLEYAnd I think that in the '60s and coming up through the '80s, movements were drawn in by the people that were thrown together in a working situation and found common ground. And today, the common ground is being found a lot of times on the Internet. It's being found internationally. And I think of the exhibit Sam just curated over at the Gregor with so many different artists in there. I mean, I don't know if that would be impossible without the Internet and without the interaction of so many different folks.
STANLEYSo I think the Color School has been something that has continues to shape Washington, D.C. It's something that people bring up to you all the time when you're traveling. But it has also been a great way to push us and to bring new artists into that mindset.
NNAMDISam Gilliam, how did you get involved in the Washington Color School? How did it come about?
GILLIAMI needed it. (laugh) I came from Louisville with certain ideas, certain distinctions and someone said that Washington was a good foundation since I have three kids. I couldn't go to New York. I decided first to find out what was in Washington. And Washington had a rich history of people who had not lived in New York, such as Jacob Kainen. And Jacob Kainen actually was the person who inspired Alma Thomas, so that Carl Hines -- (sounds like) Karl Alexander, was the person who sat with Morris Louis and he would say, I studied with Morris Louis.
GILLIAMSo here, people gave me the quality that I needed. Milton Avery, who was the foundation for Rothko, gave me the idea that the foundation was here and in that sense, is that you could sit down and talk to certain people. Alma and I used to get together and talk. Jacob Kainen and I used to talk. And also, Karl Alexander, we talk, or Kenneth Young and I would talk about what it was really like to be in that presence at that time, rather than having to go to books. Also, books were additives.
NNAMDIWell, I like to mention a few of the other names of the Washington Color School since you mentioned a few names yourself and people might be unfamiliar with some of those names. The Washington Color School was originally a group of painters who, according to my information, who showed works in the Washington Color Painters Exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, from June through September 1965.
NNAMDIThey painted largely abstract works, were central to the larger color field movement, the exhibition subsequently traveling to other venues. Painters included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing or Tom Downing, Paul Reed, Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt, Leon Berkowitz, Alma Thomas, Jacob Kainen and James Hilleary, among others. I've probably forgotten a few names.
GILLIAMBut at the same time is that there was Romare Bearden and, in fact, what of a person of (word?) died here and was an excellent colorist, who was also a friend of Tom Downing as I was. So that we would tend to say there was a white Washington Color School and there was a black. No, there was a Washington Color School.
GILLIAMBecause before Washington Color School there was Arthur Dove or Georgia O'Keeffe, so that there was one fountain that we were all drinking from and the socializing of art in the 60's made people separate this beautiful stream into mine, yours, theirs and now it's necessary for us to pull all of these waters right back together and to build us.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that but I have to take short break before I come back to how that stream was separated and why you feel it now needs to come together. If you've already called, stay on the line, 800-433-8850. If you'd like to comment on Washington art scene and how it has evolved over the years you can also send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org., join the conversation there or send us a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the Washington art scene. We're talking with E. Ethelbert Miller. He is a literary activist, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of a dozen books of poetry. He's the long-time director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and a former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington.
NNAMDIB. Stanley is also with us in studio. He is the executive director of the D.C. Arts Center. And Sam Gilliam is an artist who lives and works in Washington. His exhibition "Close To Trees is currently on view or is on view now through August 14 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIEthelbert, before we broke Sam Gilliam was talking about how that stream divided and now it's come back together. One of the ways in which that stream was divided were a lot of black artists -- or a lot of artists who insisted on in a way a kind of separate category of black art or being a black artist. Do you think there was, at that time, successful -- there was at that time pressure for successful black artists to represent or identify with the black artistic community?
MR. E. ETHELBERTThere was, I mean, that’s key to my development but then I, you know, I didn't stay a child. You know, I grew up and so my Ascension years, for example...
ETHELBERT...was built on the fact that the literary scene was segregated. And, in fact, I remember one of the people -- two people key to breaking down that segregation. One was Betty Parry, who would invite Sterling and Damas to read at the Textile Museum and the other was Grace Cavalieri, you know, who would get Sterling out and I think that was very important.
ETHELBERTBut I saw the city very much segregated. The person who got me out of that was my friend, who's deceased, Ahmos Zu-Bolton. Because when he came to the city he connected with the mass transit literary scene that was around Dupont Circle with Michael Lally, Ed Cox, Terry Winch. He connected to that and that just shows you what was happening here that was national.
ETHELBERTOkay, but it was segregated. I think I went to the last mass transit reading was, like, me and Ahmos Zu-Bolton. We, like, two black guys -- like we out of like one of those cotton comes to Harlem movies, you know. Ed, Dick and Jones and Ahmos Zu-Bolton.
ETHELBERTBut what happened we were willing to build these bridges and that's the key thing I think. When I look around there are people who are building bridges. Leni Spencer, Liam Rector, Jean Nordhaus, people are building bridges at the Folger Shakespeare Library. (sounds like) Octavus Stephenson was building bridges at the Martin Luther King Library, at least for literature. And I just sort of, you know, helped them in terms of identifying that black talent that was so rich here in D.C.
NNAMDIB. Stanley, Sam Gilliam, as I said, talked about the need for the streams to come together again. That is what is seems to be happening in the artistic culture in Washington right now. Is it?
STANLEYI think so to a large extent. I mean, there's a lot of people here who want to do something greater. They want to be a part of a larger activity and they see Washington as a place to come together, to meet here. I mean, in my experience of Washington, it's been a place that people that gathered because I think when they were younger they thought they could have some political influence or something.
STANLEYWhen they came here that Congress would hear my poem, you know, the president would see my play and then they realize as they've gotten here that who sees your play are the other artists that go to see plays in Washington are the other people who go to read poetry.
STANLEYBut I see at D.C. Arts in and out so many artists coming through there and groups of artists that come through that have something else on their mind besides promoting themselves. They see the city as a place they want to be. They see art as a place they want to grow up in and they see themselves as a contributor to that.
NNAMDISee the stream coming together again, Sam Gilliam?
GILLIAMYes, about four generations later. But in the sense that we can't always see what is invisible. That's why Ralph Ellison wrote "The Invisible Man." We can't determine that a so-called white person, so-called brown person or so-called black person are not brothers in art.
GILLIAMThat they can't be in social situations or economic situations. Dr. Porter at Howard was the only person, black man, that I saw in the Corcoran or in the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that I could talk to. Nobody else spoke to us at our corner.
GILLIAMBut I would go to see him and say, "What did you find out?" And he would say, "Stay." And I think that essentially the value of the 1960s and Alex Haley's book is that there -- he tells about my being here before. But you have the idea that I was here as a slave.
GILLIAMNo, I was here working and building and that's what the person who founded the color principle that most of the Color School is activated by, (unintelligible) said, "Color is building." So there was a translation that both Dr. Porter and I -- and Dr. Porter comes from Howard, could associate with.
GILLIAMSo you stay. That thing that put down your bucket where you are?
GILLIAMThat's the issue.
NNAMDISam Gilliam, as I said, he's currently exhibiting at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center and if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see a little bit of Sam Gilliam's work there. We now go to the telephones where Steven in Washington awaits us. Steven, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVENYes, thank you very much for this topic. I think it's great. I think -- I'd like to hear a comment on what I have to say. I'm -- I think that D.C. would benefit greatly if there was one showcase for the artists of D.C., a museum or something. I think artists in this city have a pretty difficult time competing against the National Portrait Gallery or the Smithsonian in general and I would like to hear what your panelists have to say about that. Thank you.
NNAMDIStarting with you, B. Stanley.
STANLEYWell, that idea's been thrown out a little bit. Renee Butler, who is a local artist, has had the idea to create a place called the Museum of Washington Artists, and has found difficulty in financing such a thing. I think also another thing to think about in that whole area is the sort of the media and how Washington artists are being portrayed, even in Washington, and that to me is the overarching problem.
STANLEYWhen you have something like the Smithsonian, The National Gallery and the kind of money they can throw behind their programming and their kind of media blitz, you know, it's incredible. You can't fight that with just the money you get the D.C. commission or the arts and humanities or money that you raise on your own fundraising.
STANLEYSo I think a part of it is just trying to make sure that we're getting a fair shake when it comes down to what is reported in our local print and shows like this, thank goodness.
ETHELBERTYes, I think that we have to be historians at times and document things. When we mentioned these institutions like Smithsonian, it's people there. I mean, there are people who are program officers, who -- when they sit down to plan a program, they make sure there's going to be local input. You know, I can go down every single, national institution here, Library of Congress, Smithsonian, The (unintelligible), they have people there working, trying to get the local involvement for the planning's.
ETHELBERTNow, what happened? Sometimes people don’t want to come, or they feel well, I wasn’t selected for Smithsonian shows, so they complain about that. But there are people who live in D.C. -- they don't come from New York and take a job and go back and commute, you know, the Amtrak or something like that.
ETHELBERTNo, they live here and when they sit down to do a program at the Smithsonian they try to get local people involved. Now, the local person might be just Sam Gilliam, you know, who has a national reputation. And somebody says, well, you know, they got a local person but they got Sam, you know. And so they complain about that.
ETHELBERTBut I don't want to overlook or we shouldn’t overlook the people who work at some of these national institutions who have been committed year after year. some of them have retired who have always tried to break down those doors of these national things to showcase Washington writers and artists and painters and people in the theater.
NNAMDISteven, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Phyllis in Rockville, Md. Phyllis, you're on the air, go ahead please.
PHYLLISHi, Sam, this is Phyllis Dickler, Elliot Dickler's wife and he isn't here right now but we are so happy that we live in the Washington area so that we can be part of your artwork and have it hanging in our house and we think about you all the time, every time we pass your beautiful, creative, colorful artwork and I just had to call to say hi.
NNAMDI...is saying hi back at you Phyllis.
GILLIAMLet me make a statement. There is work on the wall in museums. There's poetry in libraries. There's B. Stanley and the whole entourage of theaters in Washington that is serving you and you have to find out how to connect with these. There are even the guards at the Phillips who will hold a long conversation with you because what they do standing still is not what they want to do about what to do.
GILLIAMAnd you have to choose the right people at the right time to be on the move. When you come out of art school at about 24, someone will tell you, well wait until you're 45. You got to wait or are you going to work until you're 45 in your own way to get through that door that you want to go through.
NNAMDIGot to work. 800-433-8850. I'm glad, Sam Gilliam, that Phyllis brought up your work because we never got through talking about your participation in Washington's Color School and what brought you to focus on color and on abstract forms.
GILLIAMIt was the heritage of the 19th century. In fact, Turner, even painted a color painting that looked like a Rothko but it was called "Slave Ship." And that my material needs and my objective I try to tie together. In fact, it's easy to put color -- color's put on last on a painting so that the Washington color scope wanted to put it on first or second or third and that's the senses, is that we taught -- I taught Renee Butler.
GILLIAMI helped to form DCAC and that you found a way that once that you found the things should be centralized or should be made basic, that you have to go and deal with support. You have to meet Ethelbert, you have to read his poetry and find out how he is building and essentially is that the river flows through us.
GILLIAMThe trees are tended and watered by us, and this, that sense is that we don't lose -- I never stay on the subject, do I?
NNAMDIOh that's all right because we're enjoying every second of it because we're making the relationships for you.
GILLIAMIt's not losing the sense of -- your sense of who you are and your sense of participation and gathering, particularly because it's vital for the next generation. They ask, "How did Moses get across the Red Sea into Canaan and then form Israel?" And he spent 40 years, how long could Moses last? You know, was it the same Moses? And I think that these are the kind of indications from reading scripture.
NNAMDIYou evolve over time. Your signature paintings are canvases saturated with color that you hang and drape from walls and ceilings. What inspired you to move from traditional framed paintings?
NNAMDIIt was a business decision?
GILLIAMYes. If they had it on (unintelligible) I had to do something different. no, it was the ultimate decision that they were before, they were painted that way. They were painted off the stretcher. So why not try to analyze and to work with the way that the ideas before could flow in a different direction and that was in terms of quantity that could be used between sculpture, painting and architecture.
GILLIAMAnd of course we all talked about these -- this idea as a group. Monet did it. Monet painted from a little boat and he'd go down and he'd take something that wasn't good and make it good. And that's the notion is that he did something that was that individual.
NNAMDIAnd you were also inspired, it is my understanding, by the beauty of laundry hanging out to dry?
GILLIAMNo, I was inspired by Rock Creek Park.
NNAMDII know you live close to Rock Creek Park.
GILLIAMI always have. No, the idea that laundry hanging on the line is essentially what my mother did and laundry hanging on a line is something else. But the sail -- but a ship sails by anchoring the sails to a bar and that using and hitching itself to the wind so that I explored all of the other attitudes, such as magic or origami or other things that culminated in my willingness to go ahead, Darwin.
GILLIAMI mean, if it was there I picked it up and recycled it into an idea that I wanted to deal with. However, being inspired by laundry on a line has made me famous so I won't knock that.
NNAMDII knew you said it in an interview before. We got a comment on our website from Linda who says, "Ask the visitors what they know about the Barnett-Aden Collection and the contribution of the founders of the Gallery as well as the people who have continued their work? A Washington artist whose work is too often overlooked as John Robinson. I'd appreciate hearing their thoughts." Any insights there B. Stanley?
STANLEYI will push that over to Sam.
NNAMDISam has insights on this. Sam?
GILLIAMI worked down the street from the Barnett-Aden Gallery at McKinley High School. So that John Robinson is very famous. I think he worked at Howard University in the kitchen. But he painted very small paintings in Anacostia. And in writing on the history of Anacostia we visited John and his work. His work is probably very well distributed throughout the community although he's no longer alive.
NNAMDIThank you, Linda, for that comment about John Robinson. We go to Regina, in Washington. Regina, your turn, wait a minute. Regina, hold a second please. Ethelbert, as usual, is interrupting me.
ETHELBERTYes, I was going to throw out something, a person's name that shouldn't be forgotten. That's Thurlow Tibbs, you know, because he did a lot in terms of documenting art in this gallery in Washington. So that's another name that's very important.
GILLIAMAnd that collection's in the Corcoran.
NNAMDIAnd it's my understanding that we are getting an e-mail about Thurlow Tibbs. I'll be checking out that shortly. But now Regina, truly, your turn.
REGINAHi, I'm Regina Holiday and I'm a local street artist, activist, muralist, who paints about healthcare. And I was really interested in hearing what you'd said earlier about the venues and artists coming here and feeling like they couldn’t present their work in front of politicians and I believe partially that's because you're thinking about traditional venues, like galleries and universities and spaces like that.
REGINABut have you thought about when you take the art to the street? When you put the gallery on somebody's back, when you paint on textiles that go in unusual places? When you show in doctor's offices and facilities, how that opens things up and you actually join in the national agenda and politics as is happening in this day?
NNAMDIYes, here's Sam Gilliam.
GILLIAMIn my day I was a street artist. along with Lou Stovall and Lloyd McNeill. But an artist is also a house artist or a studio artist, and that's the idea, that we can isolate any one means of saying that this is art, this is what should be done. I taught Head Start in order to support my family. But now I paint for myself or I paint for -- to surround you in a different way.
GILLIAMAnd I think this is what happens in generations is that we forget that the impressionists were built upon on painting on the street or painting the scene. And that we try to go into a corner in the forest and say that this is the way to do what I want to do.
STANLEYNo, I'm not, I'm definitely not trying to say that you cannot approach and reach these people that around us and traveling on the Metro and using the doctors' offices and such things. I mean, I totally agree with you there. What I was trying to indicate was that there are a lot of people who thought that was the reason to come to Washington and reach that -- I've engaged in this conversation quite a few times recently and various situations and I definitely don't want to turn anybody away from D.C. and thinking that you can't reach anybody.
STANLEYI mean, the poetry that's on the Metro buses is another great example of that and certainly there's poetry by Kikki Aviles that nobody would ever see if hadn't been on a Metro bus and who knows who's reading that stuff. And so I agree with you.
STANLEYI think that you can definitely have an impact on the community and that community does engage with the politicians and the lawyers. I just didn't want to see that as the main focus for coming here and look at that as a venue to reach those people.
ETHELBERTYes, just throw out another name that shouldn't be forgotten is Darryl Stover. He lives in North Carolina now but he was organizing a poet on every corner, you know. You know, and we've had that expression taking poetry to the people. And I think people were very much aware of doing that and where the audience was. I remember at one time we used to do a lot of things at Vertigo Bookstore when it was in the Dupont Circle area and it was that sorta whole way of reaching out into the community.
MILLERAnd so that's a ongoing thing and I think is very important in terms of art and politics and...
MILLER...and social change.
GILLIAM...however, there are other media that stand between before the people such as healthcare. And there's so many other things that need to be put together rather than the arts to make things work. And also a street artist has to be a valid street artist too. He just can't be a man on the corner. And I think that we've seen this transition. I mean, we could talk about anybody in Washington during the '60s who worked on the street or who worked places who may have been forgotten.
GILLIAMAnd maybe as opposed to singly going through art alone, they should've gone through other established media like you mentioned, that you work for hospitals or various places. I know students from Howard who work now and do those things in other media and still practice their craft while serving, let's say, or working in libraries, are waiting tables. Now, that's the best occupation that we've had to actually promote artists. I've waited tables. So that when you get down to defining what the talent demands and not what the daily bread demands and separate them, then there's a problem.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Regina. We've gotta take another short break. But before, allow me to read the e-mail we got from Linda. Thurlow Tibbs' hope was that through his great gifts to the Corcoran of his art and archival materials he could bring together the ongoing but separate art traditions of Washington D.C. art, black and white. Sadly Thurlow died before this was really even attempted or achieved." B. Stanley, would you say that is beginning to happen today?
STANLEYI would like to say, yeah, I think so. It's an uphill battle. And we live -- even though the society is more and more brought together by the internet and communications, I find it we're more and more separate. And I think that through art and through -- just exactly through that collection trying to break out of being this type of artist or that type of artist, those things are welcome and sought after in this community today.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back more of this conversation about the evolving Washington art scene. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your phone call. We still have lines open, 800-433-8850. Are you an artist living in Washington? How do you see your career arch living in this city? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about the evolving art scene in Washington D.C. We're talking with B. Stanley. He is the executive director of the D.C. Arts Center. Sam Gilliam is an artist who lives and works in Washington. His work currently on exhibit at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, the exhibition called "Close to Trees" on view now through August 14. And E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. He's the author of a dozen books of poetry and longtime director of the Afro American Studies Resource Center at Howard University, and the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington D.C.
NNAMDIB. Stanley, Washington has been changing over the past couple of decades. What has that meant in terms of the gallery scene here?
STANLEYWell, it's been an explosion of the gallery scene. I mean, back in -- when I was coming up in the early '80s there were very few places that one could actually show their work. And, of course, that's why the WPA was founded. That's why the DC Arts Center was founded, as sort of an alternative to the very few commercial galleries that were out there. You were either in the Corcoran School and getting your work shown in your master's final show or not.
STANLEYAnd in the past I'd say ten years we've really seen a huge influx of galleries, especially as these small neighborhoods get developed. We see things over on U Street, we see things down on 7th Street. We see traditional galleries that have been around for a long time trying to find ways to recreate themselves. Some galleries have turned into living room galleries, places that they will come to your home and hang art so that you can experience it and then buy it.
STANLEYBut I think that overall what has been a really strong change is sort of the blurring of the line between the nonprofit gallery and the for-profit gallery. I mean, here we see today some places that you would swear is a nonprofit gallery but in fact it's a for-profit gallery. But it's just because of the kind of programs and the things that it's supporting. And at the same time you see places that are nonprofit galleries who have sort of a for-profit model as far as trying to expose the artist and get art out there and sold.
STANLEYSo I think that's one of the strong things that I see now is that it's a blurred line as to who is doing what for the artist. And it's also an open field as far as getting your work supported and getting support yourself as an artist.
NNAMDIWell, here's an e-mail we got from Donna who says, "There are many galleries of local artists but it seems only the well-named galleries, such as the Phillips and the National Museums get publicity. Either that or an artist has to present his or her show with a special twist. I'm a member of the Foundry Gallery, the oldest co-op gallery in Washington. We have a collection of artists who had shows in New York and internationally, however we are constantly struggling financially to stay in our location. I know of three small galleries that closed last year. Who is supporting these small art places and how do we get better publicity?"
MILLERIt's a big problem and we -- one of the problems is the cutting down of the arts reporting in Washington altogether. I mean, there were days we can look back to where there were two and three reviews of the same play in the Washington Post, when we had two newspapers, when we had multiple free newspapers, where we had magazines. I mean, the Washington Review for the Arts was a fantastic place to get information. And those things are long gone and it's mainly because of financial support. There's just so much to support now and there's still -- there's not that much more money out there.
GILLIAMWell, Washington is Virginia, Washington is Maryland, Washington is Germany. Washington is a lot of places. And I think that what you're not looking at is that the Foundry was a foundation and a possible partial continuation. So was the Barnett Aden Gallery. What is here now cannot be the only resource. You must activate these living room galleries, the street galleries and all of these places to make it work in 2011 -- or 2000 -- yeah, 2011.
GILLIAMWhat I'm saying is that we're looking at ideas that have been on a stream that have moved on. But now is that Washington is much bigger. Fairfax County is Washington, and Fairfax County has grown tremendously since the time of 1965 which we're talking about. Howard has grown tremendously producing so many students. I think there were 67 graduate students alone in their last alumni show. American University has the Katzen gallery which tends to serve and become the Washington Gallery where the Corcoran was at one time. Unfortunately the Corcoran's going through closing problems and will open again.
GILLIAMWe have the national baseball team which gives -- which is giving scholarships -- not scholarships, but commissions to artists to help build a baseball team, as well as Tyson's Corner. And all -- and even Kaiser Permanente, which hangs paintings in their lobby and various things so that Washington still rolls, you know. W -- this right here station, (laugh) which used to -- and Kojo used to talk you into art and staying here and doing things. So that this -- the media still exists. It seems close to you because you're not participating but you have to ask, what can I do. Can I join a museum? Can I join DCAC?
GILLIAMWPA had a historical show at the Katzen Center I think about six months ago. Go look for the catalog for the material that was documented. We talk about the Barnett Gallery and Thurlow Tibbs. There was a show about two or three years ago that documented and conserved a number of the works that were in that collection and traveled throughout this country. And when it got to Georgia it was really a thrill because at Clark College showed this show and invited the artists that were alive to come and to see it. So that you -- maybe you're too late for the process or maybe you're ahead of the process, that is important, but it's not too late to pick up on it.
MILLERWell, I think we put this expression back out there. The machinegun is half a step forward again. And what do I mean by that? There's a need for critics. I can go on where there's a visual arts theater, literature. There's a need for critics. You know, I would like people to -- someone to step forward to make sense of all the spoken word in terms of what's good and what's bad. That's just necessary to have these out there.
MILLERI find that with the technology, okay -- and this is what blogging might comment and things of that sort. Building of a reputation where all of a sudden, you know, I wanna know what so-and-so thinks about Sam's exhibit, you know. I wanna know what -- you know, whether I should go to this play. I find, for example, people want to be on stage and perform and no one wants to study and be a critic. You know, now when I came out if -- and I come out after (unintelligible) the Larry Neal, the Lance Jeffers, the Carolyn Rodgers, the June Jordan and we were writing poetry, we were also writing essays.
MILLERI remember when Haki Madhubuti was Don Luther Lee and came out with Dynamite Voices I -- Dynamite Voices I. But he critiqued some of his colleagues. Now, that was risky because people say, well, wait a minute. I like Don Lee's poetry. What are you saying about me? But he at least said I'm swimming -- getting back to the river and the mortar -- I'm swimming and I wanna know how I keep my head above water. You see what I'm saying? Or is the water clean? (laugh)
NNAMDIWell, people can see a permanent exhibition of Sam Gilliam's work at Reagan National Airport. And a new piece that just opened in the Tacoma Park Metro. Ethelbert's poetry can be seen inscribed in the Dupont Circle Metro as well as the Georgia Avenue Petworth Metro inscribed on a sculpture there. And now here is John in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. John, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you. I had a friend who retired from Washington, John Chapman Lewis, Jack Lewis. He was very involved in the Washington scene for years, the art scene. I think he was head of the art department at I think Marymount College. I was just wondering what his legacy might be if it's -- and he was very prominent in the '50s and '60s. I have some of his paintings that he left me when he died a few years ago.
NNAMDIJohn Chapman Lewis, Sam Gilliam?
GILLIAMYou've just brought him back to life. (laugh) I think that there are so many people that surround us, and even the name Marymount that dictate to us blogging, researching and doing things in the new form, perhaps even writing about him yourself that will bring him into an existence and make us realize his contributions. This is happening a lot at openings where people are being reacquainted with each other and that it doesn't have to be in a book. It's like Alex Haley's "Roots", it has to be in a mind and in roots and in a stream and other ways, but it has to be reactivated by the person who knows and who was impressed by him.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. Here is Barry in Milton, Del. Barry, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
BARRYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I believe it was Mr. Miller -- or Dr. Miller who recently mentioned Ed Cox, the poet.
BARRYAnd I was thrilled to here that. Ed was a friend of mine and it just led me to two questions, if you could talk a little bit about the poetry scene. And then when Ed died he left some, in my possession just by kind of happen sense, a number of his notebooks and works of poetry. And I'd love to find an appropriate home for them but I don't really understand the poetry scene in Washington to figure out where those papers should go.
MILLERWell, the home for it might be the Government Library at George Washington University. That's where my collection is and that's where, you know, I helped to build a Washington literary archives. And George Washington has been very supportive of that. A number of writers, you know, have also contributed their work to it. I have a very extensive Ed Cox file that's already at the Gelman Library so that might be a place just to put things together. So I think that's one thing to think about.
MILLERThe poetry scene I think here in Washington is a very important scene. And when I say the poetry scene I do break it down in terms of open mic and spoken word and the traditional venues. That's very important. I think that we have a wonderful audience, you know, that people enjoy poetry. They come out and they support it. I think Busboys and Poets has been doing a wonderful thing in terms of its site. And so this is an ongoing tradition that's here.
MILLERKim Roberts -- and I want to mention her name -- Kim Roberts of Beltway Magazine. If you go onto -- through that magazine she has essays about Ed Cox, and because she has been key in terms of documenting Washington literary history and that's very important, along with the performances and the readings and the open mics.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly but B. Stanley, a lot of things that people associate with a creative community have arrived in Washington, loft buildings, trendy bars and galleries. But does that necessarily mean a vibrant art scene?
STANLEYNo, it doesn't and that's something I'd like to rail about if we had about another hour-and-a-half. (laugh) For me it's...
NNAMDIYou’ve only got about 20 seconds.
MILLERWe can seize the time, Kojo.
STANLEYFor me it's the fabric, it's the moral of what you bring into your work. And all of the bricks and mortar around it doesn't create the soul of that city. It doesn't create the soul of that creation. Because the people come into art to create -- I don't think just to express themselves but, as I say, to be a part of a larger conversation, a larger dialogue. And as long as that is what you're there for and as long as that spirit is there, I think that's what's gonna drive it.
NNAMDIB. Stanley is the executive director of the D.C. Art Center. Sam Gilliam is an artist who lives and works in Washington, currently exhibiting at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. And E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and lots of other things. I'm afraid we're out of time. Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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