Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections and renewed hopes (part 1 of 2): remembrance
"He used the word 'nourishing' to refer to Vann's work. And the more I looked through the work seriously, and took my time, that term [seemed] quite apropos. The art and poetry of Elemental nourishes the soul, the mind, and the aesthetic."
Every now and then I get a good sense of what it might feel like to be a phoenix waking up as a pile of ash and bones which suddenly burst into new flaming life. It was kind of like that recently while continuing my ongoing recovery from the hurricanes of 2016 (Matthew) and 2017 (Irma) to prepare for the 2018 stormy-weather season.
In the course of going through yet another pile of unsorted thumb drives, DVDs, CDs, and mini cassettes, I discovered a lost treasure: a DVD filmed by the gifted polymath Benjamin Bacon (known to friends and colleagues as BeBe) labeled "Elemental, Early Morning Light Productions, by Luther E. Vann, Final Cut, Jepson Gallery, Savannah, GA, May 29, 2008." It is not something which will ever challenge the global impact of director Ryan Coogler's game-changing Black Panther film, but it has added immeasurably to the 2018 10th Anniversary Celebration of the publication of Elemental, the Power of Illuminated Love (ISBN 9780972114271).
The video, shot just as YouTube and social media were developing their considerable digital muscles, captures in raw fashion a singular moment in the history of cultural arts in the United States. The program that evening included my friend Luther's debut effort as a videographer, a short bio-documentary titled Coming Home, in which he recorded me reciting the poem from which the video took its title, and chronicled his days in New York City pursuing his craft while living in the basement of a friend's apartment on Washington Square.
In addition to Luther, program participants included: Dr. Ja A. Jahannes, musician Travis Biggs, The Telfair's Friends of African-American Art (who did so much to make the evening possible), its then director Steven High, curator Harry DeLorme, and many patrons, supporters, and fans. They all combined intentions and resources to demonstrate art's ability to endow a diverse community with a single beautiful purpose. That potential is one which has eluded too many in 2018 as educational institutions and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts have seen their budgets butchered at a time when what creatives gift to society possibly has never been more needed.
The current political assaults on freedom of the press and individual expression make it even more important to savor the kind of rarity represented by Elemental's launch ten years ago. Moreover, the event takes on greater and greater significance because some of the key geniuses who made it happen are no longer with us on the physical plane and others have taken on new missions in different cities or countries. Vann died April 6, 2016, and Jahannes on July 5, 2015. (I last communicated with violinist Travis Biggs a few months before Luther passed but since then have not received any responses to phone messages or emails).
Dr. Jahannes' contribution to the celebration remains particularly memorable because with his eloquent, insightful, and often humorous comments on the art and poetry of Elemental he both "stole the show" and gave it back to the audience as a perfect gift. He had been asked to introduce the Coming Home video precisely because of his familiarity with our work both as individuals and as a team. In his words:
"Aberjhani and Luther Vann have dynamic synergism in their poetry and their paintings...'Luther Vann's paintings will enrich our community for years to come,' said Steven High in a preface to Elemental. So will the poetry of Aberjhani..."
He spoke with infectious ease when comparing Luther's work to that of painters as diverse as the Norwegian master Edvard Munch and the iconic Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. He did the same when pointing out parallels between it and musicians such as the classical composer Antonin Dvorchak and giants of jazz John Coltrane and Miles Davis. An accomplished photographer himself, Jahannes further described as Vann as "a remarkable storyteller" and "a sensory artist" whose images engage viewers' attention on multiple levels:
"He's a master of sensory brilliance. His work is visual, captivating, and viscerally engaging... If you look at these paintings, you can almost hear them. They are auditory. There are voices emitted by color and arrangement. They're kinesthetic. Energy [is] generated by the arrangement of pulsating hues... They are tactile. You can almost feel the texture by the way he layers and juxtaposes color and arranges symbols and images..."
These observations have since helped various scholars and art lovers to more fully understand what they are viewing when going through the pages of the book, or standing in front of Luther's work at the Telfair Museum of Art or elsewhere.
The Deep Road to Infinity
Long before Elemental made cultural arts history in Savannah, I had become an admirer of Dr. Jahannes's poetry and essay collection, Truthfeasting. For that reason, I felt more than a little honored by his generous comments on the body of my published works and was thrilled to hear him recite the following passage:
We take the deep road to infinity.
His willingness to lend his voice in service to something greater than either of our individual ambitions was a large part of what defined Elemental's thematic substance. It brought to mind the great Lucille Clifton’s famous dictum that when it comes to identifying yourself as a poet and actually writing poetry, "One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated."
The celebratory evening of May 29, 2008, marked the culmination of an almost two-decade campaign to breathe life into a project which had survived, and in part been shaped by, the turbulence born of two creative individuals' private, social, political, and professional lives. The luxury of having finally reached a point of relief nearly overshadowed the excitement of having achieved a long-sought triumph. We soon realized we had completed only one more stage of a perpetually interactive process which would, much like the book, continue to unfold in layers of color and sparks of revelation.
NEXT: Elemental's 10th anniversary inspires mindful reflections & renewed hopes (part 2): illumination
“It had been more than a year since the Joker’s conquest of America and we were all still in shock and going through the stages of grief but now we needed to come together and set love and beauty and solidarity and friendship against the monstrous forces that faced us. Humanity was the only answer to the cartoon. I had no plan except love. I hoped another plan might emerge in time but for now there was only holding each other tightly and passing strength to each other, body to body, mouth to mouth, spirit to spirit, me to you.” –Salman Rushdie (The Golden House)
Production-wise, in addition to the list of essays and poem noted in the previous post, 2017 will go down in my personal history as the year I completed the long-promised book of essays on different aspects of life in Savannah, Georgia (USA). Among the topics addressed in the book are: the increasing wrath of hurricanes, slavery of the past and present-day human-trafficking, the cultural arts, family life, the legacies of James Alan McPherson and Flannery O’Connor, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the enduring allure of the city of Paris, France.
Not too long ago, I responded to a tweet by fellow author J.K. Rowling in which she proposed something which prompted me to think about the scope of material covered in my book: “…If I had listened to 'the rules' back in 1990, there would be no Harry Potter. Stories about schools are passé. 95k words is too long” (https://twitter.com/jk_rowling/status/928688419332657153).
I thanked her with the following reply: @jk_rowling You just gave me a lot 2 think abt. I've been thinking my latest manuscript might actually be 2 #books, not 1. Btw I was a #bookseller in 1990 & HP [much later, around 1998] got me a sales bonus. #Thanks4That
Rowling’s comment––though she may have meant differently from how I first interpreted it–– made me wonder if, in my zeal to write a new kind of creative nonfiction about life in Southeast Georgia as it relates to a single individual and the larger world, I had overreached. She had noted the length specifically in regard to “Stories about schools.” But when I picked up copies of The World and Me, and The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I estimated each was no longer than 45,000 to 50,000 words. My manuscript by comparison was closer to what JK Rowling––or publishers responding to early Harry Potter manuscripts––had described as “too long.”
Then again, Ibram X. Kendi’s National book Award Winning volume, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas, is almost 600 pages long. So which was preferable: concision or heft?
This quandary, I decided, is by no means a tragedy because the new manuscript is written in such a way that it can be published as either a single large edition suitable for attracting those impressed by authorial range, or, as two separate corresponding books attractive to readers who prefer more compact volumes. The popularity of having options could ultimately add to the votes in favor of two volumes rather than one. For right now, the forced considerations provide further evidence of a year which turned out to be exceptionally productive despite endless streams of political, financial, and other kinds of unruly disruption.
Rebirth of a Visual Artist
The other important production news of the year 2017 came from the launch of the Postered Chromatic Poetics store at Fine Art America. As happy as I am that the store opened, it was one of those developments which evolved naturally out of already-established activities as opposed to stemming from a planned enterprise.
Digital art, photography, and mixed media creations have expanded my capacities for communicating literary and philosophical observations about life as we experience it on different physical, mental, and spiritual levels. They increasingly provide frames, inspiration, and useful commentary for some of my most accessed writings.
It was quite an honor when supporters of the Renaming the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge Symposium were presented with gift cards of my Savannah River Bridge The Morning after Hurricane Matthew No 2 as commemorative keepsakes for the historic event. (All of my Postered Chromatic Poetics artwork is currently available until January 7, 2018, at 40 percent off using promo code MEKCFJ). This specific piece formerly was named The Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge The Morning after Hurricane Matthew No. 2 for the sake of historical accuracy but more and more it seemed self-defeating to keep using Talmadge’s name while simultaneously calling for its removal from the bridge.
On Eulogies and Elegies
Diverse professional priorities and obligations made it impossible for me to respond, as I often have in the past, to the loss of every beloved figure in 2017 with individual poems or essays. Actress-singer Della Reese, actor Nelsan Ellis, playwright-actor Sam Shepard, actor Robert Gillaume, and rock and roll legend Fats Domino are only a few for whom I did not get a chance to write the kind of tribute I would have preferred. Thankfully, social media made it possible to at least acknowledge most of those to whom we bid farewell during the previous year. I did a little better when it came to jazz master Al Jarreau and the great human rights advocate Dick Gregory:
Prospects and Milestones
What does all of this mean as we settle into the year 2018? Simply that a lot good ground work has been laid to increase the potential for significant accomplishments over the next 12 months. In light of difficulties so many of us are facing on personal, local, national, and international levels, that is a valuable prospect to keep in mind. We can add to those prospects a number of notable milestones towards which we may look forward:
Positive as well as negative world events are going to have their say when it comes to whatever plans and resolutions we declare for this brand New Year 2018. That’s just the way reality rolls and it is all the more reason to salvage the best of everything worthwhile gained in 2017 while preparing to step up our games with just a little bit more inspired drive and determination for 2018.
8 January 2018
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
On any given day of the week, the creator of Postered Chromatic Poetics and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, Aberjhani, may be found wearing any number of hats: historian, visual artist, poet, advocate for compassion, novelist, journalist, photographer, and editor. Having recently completed a book of creative nonfiction on his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA) he is currently writing a full-length play about the implications of generational legacies as symbolized by efforts to rename the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.