Having refrained for years from attending any kind of party at all, I relaxed my self-imposed tension by mixing in a little work with a lot of fun. In a room next to the kitchen (which itself resembled an art installation) I saw a stack of books and, being the bookaholic I am, could not resist their pull.
Picture my surprise when discovering in the pages of Daniel Widener's Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2010), and Kellie Jones's South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (2017), extensive references to the woman of the hour. Also nearby was a copy of ELEMENTAL and seeing it made me feel like the spirit of our friend Luther had dropped in to support the launch with his blessings.
By the time of the party, I had already learned that as well as being a visual artist, Suzanne was a poet who had studied with the phenomenal Lucille Clifton (1936-2010). At least two volumes featuring poems by her had been published: What I Love: Paintings, Poetry, & a Drawing (1972), and Animals (1978). Her writing had also been included in notable anthologies like the Nikky Finney-edited The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (2007). Maybe I was hoping to find those among the stacked books as well but, to avoid becoming self-absorbed to a point of rudeness, I forced myself to step away and began taking photographs of Suzanne, different guests, and the lush greenery outside the house.
The symbolic images seen in Suzanne Jackson's 12-foot award-winning canvas "Passages" (1978, above) are described in the FIVE DECADES exhibition catalog as "associated with love, childbirth, and women painted in expressive acrylic layers." It hangs here in front of 1 of 7 display vitrines and next to other compelling works included in the Five Decades retrospective debut at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Arts. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
I tried to avoid cameras myself, not because I felt shy but because for some unknown reason I had begun to sweat--not daintily "perspire" but ferociously SWEAT, like somebody fully-clothed in a sauna--and my shirt was getting soaked. No one else appeared to be having this problem. Reluctantly, when informed that Suzanne wanted an assistant to take a black-and-white photo of me for potential use in a publication, I consented. Soon afterwards, the sweating became too ridiculous and I couldn't figure out why so I said my good-byes and started walking toward my residence, located at the time on the other side of town.
About halfway there, an energized psychic push-and-pull began stirring in my skull and words started to assemble themselves in flashes and clusters. Phrases such as "painted star-fire" and "unmapped territories" swirled and glowed like special effects in a movie. Is this, I wondered, what all the heat which had started flowing through me at the party and forced me to leave before I was ready was all about? A ball of winged language was preparing to reveal itself in one form or another and left me no choice but to stop walking, grab from my shoulder bag a pen and piece of paper, and write the fragments down.
Such experiences were not new to me but the way they sometimes manifested could still come as an unsettling disruption. This was such an instant and every other block I had to stop walking and start scribbling. By the time I got home, I had written a rough draft which looked like it could be the beginnings of a poem. Okay, I thought, I'll just leave it in this folder and go back to it next week sometime.
Except that it refused to wait.
Polychromatic Inked Pages
Over the next few days I kept feeling drawn back to the folder and added to the lines already written in black ink, more lines composed in green, red, and purple ink. Sometimes I wondered: was I writing a poem or painting one?
Eventually, the evolving draft was complete enough to take on the title Syllables Painted on a Suzannian Canvas. It was enough to type up and print a second, then later third and fourth drafts before finally settling on: Suzannian Algorithm Finger-Painted on an Abstract Wall. It fit, I thought, the words which had sweated themselves out, the polychromatic inked pages, and the artist in whose honor the work had been composed.
My hope to come up with an idea for an essay or poem for the planned catalog in a couple of months appeared instead to have become an accomplished mission in a few weeks. It seemed the poem, which in time would be accepted for the pages of the catalog, had started writing itself the moment I read the words HATE HAS NO HOME HERE on the sign in Suzanne's window. Or it may have started long before then, upon that first meeting during my 2004 Harlem Renaissance lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library.
Contemplating how the poem had unveiled itself, I considered it a direct response to the dynamic creative presences gathered that day in Suzanne's home, and to my observances of the current Harlem Renaissance Centennial. This was appropriate enough given the way Harlem Renaissance artists, musicians, writers, educators, and leaders often inspired and empowered each other's creative efforts and political agendas.
Countering Toxic Bigotries & Heinous Practices
The unprecedented advancements of the Harlem Renaissance on multiple cultural fronts helped counter the toxic bigotries and heinous practices of a time when many Americans, if not most, were still entrenched in unyielding mindsets forged during the death-throes of slavery as it was practiced in the 19th century. They remained so even as social, legislative, and technological progressions in the 20th century indicated those who insisted on holding onto delusions of white supremacy were doomed to agonizing personal and collective implosions.
Our present 21st-century hour bears a lot of similarities to the previous time-frame. Works by black artists supportive of progressive change mattered then as they do now because often found within them were/are important ingredients for remedies to what ails our bleeding and burning world the most. Ingredients like symbols of life-sustaining values and language encouraging actions motivated by compassion and mindfulness.
The recognition and celebration of Suzanne Jackson's achievements in this modern era when chaos and enmity command so much attention on a daily basis is a recognition and celebration of some of our better options for moving toward the next century. Her painted, poemized, and otherwise choreographed meditations offer us touchstones of remembrance and awareness. Those touchstones inspire individuals and communities to consider more deeply and more efficiently the choices which have brought humanity to this 2019 moment of quivering uncertainties, and, the options most likely to help us regain the advantages of higher ground and hopes now seemingly lost.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
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
My personal observance of National Poetry Month got underway with the poem Inside Compassion’s Golden-Crystal Cottage posted on the Charter for Compassion blog website. In addition to helping pave the way for celebrations of the annual event, the poem also served to accomplish the following:
The poem itself was inspired to a large extent by my reading of poet Coleman Barks’ volume--Rumi, The Big Red Book. His lively probing multi-faceted version of Jalal al-Din Rumi’s “Great Masterpiece Celebrating Mystical Love & Friendship” has become a favorite point of critical reference while reading Brad Gooch’s biography of the exceptional Sufi Muslim genius. (I frequently find myself debating certain points proposed by Gooch in his book, titled Rumi’s Secret, but that’s a subject for a completely different essay which, it just so happens, I am writing.)
Video in Progress
Currently, I’m working with partners from Charter for Compassion and the Golden Rule Project to produce a video based on Inside Compassion’s Golden-Crystal Cottage. Hopefully, we will be able to debut it as part of the festivities presented for International Golden Rule Day 2018. For those who read the previous sentence and asked, “What’s he talking about?” it is this:
Global citizens for a period of 24 hours, beginning 9 PM Pacific Time on April 4 and running until 9 PM on April 5, will present a live stream of music, stories, art, and conversation all inspired by the Golden Rule and streamed on Facebook Live as well as the Golden Rule Day website.
Why such a major effort for such a simple principle? The answer is easy: It is to encourage application of this universal standard and help end the pandemic of violence––regardless of justifications offered as excuses–– needlessly destroying so many lives across the globe.
A Truly International Event
Among those expected to participate in the event are: Israeli-Australian singer and songwriter Lior, members of Japan’s Goi Peace Foundation, Indian pop singer Nimo Patel, and various contributors from New Zealand, Pakistan, England, the Middle East, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, the United States, and more.
A lot of people are excited about this occasion because it represents such a powerful example of what it means to wage peace instead of war. It also provides an excellent demonstration of something the world could stand to see a lot more of at this time: collective compassion in unified effective action.
About the Author
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.
National Poetry Month might strike some as an odd time for an author to debut new work as a visual artist. It is in fact not so strange at all.
If you've had a chance to check out my current essay series at Charter for Compassion, then you know it deals in large part with honoring empowering traditions. But not only that. It is also about extending and tweaking them in ways that add to their value in the 21st century.
Poet-Artist Galleries at Fine Art America
What this means when it comes to my new online visual arts gallery is that I am making an attempt to participate in the tradition of literary-artists-as-visual-artists. It is a very rich legacy that includes both notable classic icons and outstanding contemporary talents. These include the following:
Before anyone feels the need to ask, I will state categorically that I do not consider myself anywhere near the level of artistic skill which these individuals commanded or command.
I am someone who once upon a time as a child enjoyed a fondness for drawing characters from the comic books I read, and, for creating abstract labyrinths with cryptic symbolism. Without means during childhood to develop any real skill as an artist, the impulse to draw gave way to the need to write.
Creative Labors Beget Creative Possibilities
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.