Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E11 | FULL EPISODE

Artists at Work, Singer-songwriter Anjimile, and more

This week, a look at Artists at Work, a program inspired by the WPA to help artists continue their creative pursuits during the health and economic crisis. Singer-songwriter Anjimile discusses his new album, “Giver Taker.” Plus, the University of Nevada’s graffiti stairwell and art at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

AIRED: September 25, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

in the wilds of the Berkshires, an artist communes and creates.

>> I'm going to go out in nature, sit on a tree stump,

have some insects crawl over me, and...

This is my life.

>> BOWEN: Then singer-songwriter Anjimile launches a debut album.

>> I've gone from, like, singing about...

I don't know, wanting to go on dates, to, like,

singing about recovering from alcoholism,

and it's kind of a huge...

It's a huge leap.

>> BOWEN: Plus stories in a stairwell.

>> Every square inch of that space is covered,

and it has been done

and redone and redone.

>> BOWEN: And an artistic assortment

in the Sunshine State.

>> We're not talking about artists who were

outsider artists or folk artists.

We're talking about people who had a creative spirit

to look at Florida and imagine it however they might.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, the pandemic has cost countless artists their jobs,

and prospects for future income is uncertain at best.

Which is why a New York organization has launched

a pilot program in the Berkshires to give artists work.

Just like the United States did during the Great Depression.

There's a stillness to this land,

where the rawness of the woods meets manicured beauty.

On one of the final, lazy afternoons of summer,

except for a fountain...

(water splashing)

there is quiet.

Just the way novelist Edith Wharton wanted it.

>> When a cold frost would kill her favorite trees,

it was like losing a child.

I mean, she was deeply, deeply, and instinctively,

I would say, connected to nature.

>> BOWEN: Susan Wissler is executive director of the Mount,

the home and gardens Edith Wharton designed herself

after purchasing this property in 1901.

It's tucked into the rolling hills of the Berkshires

in Western Massachusetts,

and Wharton wrote some of her most celebrated works here,

includingEthan Frome andThe House of Mirth.

>> There's a scene in The House of Mirth.

Lily Bart is at a house party on the Hudson,

and the view that she describes

out of her window when she wakes up

is very much Wharton's view from her bedroom window.

>> There's so much space for thoughts with,

with all this inspiration, just still, like,

bubbling and wafting in front of me.

>> BOWEN: And it is quiet here.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> BOWEN: Today, it's artist Lia Russell-Self,

who uses the pronoun they,

who is guided by this space.

And blissfully, it is where they come to work.

>> I don't have to be, like, "Oh, yes,

I need to be in a building to do my writing."

Nope, I'm going to go out in nature, sit on a tree stump,

have some insects crawl over me, and...

This is my life.

>> BOWEN: Russell-Self is one of six artists with jobs

in cultural institutions across the Berkshires.

Others include a choreographer

working with the dance festival Jacob's Pillow,

a filmmaker joining an independent movie theater,

and a visual artist teaming with contemporary art hotspot

Mass MoCA-- all in rural Western Massachusetts.

>> The artists are being paid to just make the beautiful work

they make as artists that helps us all

make meaning of the world.

And they're also paid to bring their thinking

to social initiatives.

>> BOWEN: Rachel Chanoff is director of the Office,

a New York- and London-based

performing arts and film production company

that conceived the artists-for-hire pilot,

a national initiative called Artists at Work.

Each of the artists is receiving

six months of a living wage and healthcare.

>> The reason we didn't want to make it a grant,

we wanted to make it a wage, is so that they would,

at post-program, they would be eligible for unemployment.

>> BOWEN: Chanoff proudly acknowledges that paying artists

who've found themselves jobless

or struggling financially during the pandemic

is entirely unoriginal.

Its roots are in the WPA,

the Works Progress Administration

established during the Great Depression.

It employed thousands of artists teaching art classes,

creating theater, painting murals,

and documenting the country through photography.

It fueled the careers of figures

like actor, writer, and director Orson Welles,

painter Jacob Lawrence, and sculptor Louise Nevelson.

What did you recognize that worked during the WPA

in putting artists to work in this country

that you knew would translate in this moment?

>> We recognized that it was a time where

artists were recognized as workers.

You know, artists are so often thought of

as kind of the garnish on the plate and the luxury item.

When artists are unemployed,

you have unemployed people who are on their way

to becoming poor people.

>> To have, like, six months of, "This is your salary,

"this is what you've got, and if something happens to you,

you can, you can go see a doctor!"

Which is not a luxury I've had for quite a while.

>> BOWEN: Russell-Self is a writer and theater artist

who first connected with the Mount

while performing here prior to the pandemic.

>> "Is there a statue that can encompass

the love and healing I need?"

>> BOWEN: In the summertime, people flock to the Berkshires

for world-class concerts, art exhibitions, and theater.

It's a feast for those craving culture.

But here, Russell-Self feels most at home

because of the landscape, and their long-range goal

for the pilot program is to work with young people of color

to explore and strengthen their ties to this land.

>> It starts with young people having...

having the opportunity to find agency.

>> BOWEN: In early September, Russell-Self convened a retreat

to explore how nature can represent home.

And they regularly walk the Mount's 55 acres

with project partners like members of the Rusty Anvil,

an educational organization,

to secure their own sense of place here.

>> That's a honeybee.

>> Oh!

>> It looks like it could be a, a younger one, too.

>> My ancestors, like, as I walk through those trails,

to know that they cultivated, they worked,

they brought something more to this land that I have...

I've never experienced in a history book.

>> BOWEN: Ultimately, Russell-Self wants to make

this a destination for other people of color

who might not always feel welcome

in predominantly white spaces like the Mount.

And the artist will write a collection of poetry

inspired by the experience.

The fully paid,

no-strings-attached time to do that

is something Russell-Self never could have dreamed of.

>> From the very beginning, it was,

"We might have the opportunity to have this money

"and to work with an artist, and we want to know

whatyour idea is going to be."

And it's not a common question to someone like me.

>> I don't know how the independent artists

are going to sustain and endure through this period.

>> BOWEN: Throughout the pandemic,

the Mount has had to suspend programs

that would normally give artists a platform.

And that's the situation nationwide,

with countless artists among the unemployed

and without a sense of when, or if, their jobs will return.

>> I'm used to working a few different gigs,

a few different projects, to try and, like,

piece everything together.

Um, that's totally not possible now.

>> BOWEN: Which is why the pilot's organizers are hoping

it can be replicated around the country,

where Rachel Chanoff says she knows

artists can shape our economic recovery--

if they're just given the means.

>> We're hoping that this is, really changes the conversation.

Changes the conversation about the impact

and the, um, utility of arts.

It's that art impacts mental health and, you know,

food systems, and economies.

Art is a crucial part of our endeavor, as a,

as a commonwealth.

And that's where the conversation needs to look.

>> BOWEN: Next up, Boston-based singer-songwriter Anjimile

has just released his debut album,Giver Taker,

a deeply personal collection of tracks

featuring his reflections on love, addiction,

and issues of identity.

I recently sat down with the artist,

who spoke with me about the clarity of sobriety,

getting emotionally raw,

and contending with a sizable change in his voice.

But first, this is from Anjimile's video

of his song "Maker."

>> ♪ Oh, why don't you do as you're told ♪

♪ Oh, happiness isn't your goal ♪

♪ I'm not just a boy, I'm a man ♪

♪ I'm not just a man

♪ I'm a god, I'm not just a god ♪

♪ I'm a maker

>> BOWEN: Anjimile, thank you so much for being with us.

Congratulations on the debut album.

>> (laughs): Thank you.

>> BOWEN: What does it feel like

to hear somebody say that to you?

What does it feel like to be able to be talking about

a debut album? >> Uh...

It's surreal, yeah.

This is all very incredibly surreal.

>> BOWEN: Well, how long has this been in the making for you?

One would think it, because it is, again, your,

your first album, that this is material

that has probably been swirling around you for a long time.

>> Yeah, um...

Let's see, the oldest song was written in 2013.

Got a couple from 2015.

Couple from last year.

So, yeah, it's wild to see them all together on this record.

>> BOWEN: Well, it's also very personal material.

You're, you're telling your stories

in these songs on this album.

Tell me about what songwriting is for you.

I heard, uh, I've read at one point

it was a kind of a therapy for you.

Is it a catharsis?

Is it an outlet?

How, how have you used songwriting

throughout your life?

>> Um, yeah, I think, so,

I first started writing my own tunes in 2011.

And...

Yeah, it was immediately an emotional outlet.

And then, the older I get, and,

like, the more emotional maturity I get,

the more emotionally mature my music has become, um...

So, you know, I've gone from, like, singing about...

I don't know, wanting to go on dates,

to, like, singing about recovering from alcoholism,

and it's kind of a huge...

It's a huge leap, but it, it feels natural

just given my experiences over the past,

like, seven, eight years or so in terms of,

like, getting sober and, like, kind of restarting my life.

And, uh, yeah, just doing all of these things

that I never thought I'd get to do.

♪ In the night

♪ It's a miracle to be held by you ♪

♪ What today can I make inside of my heart for you ♪

♪ Bold and bright

♪ I could fall asleep in your love, mm-hmm ♪

>> BOWEN: Talking about the alcoholism

that you were just referring to,

how did songwriting, how did music enter into that,

or did you bring it into your life

as a way to get through that?

>> Yeah, I think, um...

I think, uh, songwriting is something that was, like,

partially, like, it was interrupted by alcoholism

for a couple of years, just because

the last year of my drinking got, like, was...

pretty, like, disruptive just in terms of, like,

my life and relationships.

And, it, it affected my ability to write, and so...

When I went to rehab, I, um, I brought with me, like,

a, a trash bag full of my clothes.

And I brought my acoustic guitar,

and I was, like, "I might need this."

And...

Um, as my, like, sobriety started,

as I started getting more days and weeks

and months of recovery, my head started getting clearer,

and my emotions, which had been kind of numbing with alcohol,

got really acutely intense.

And so in addition to, like,

the intensive, like, literal therapy that I was going to, um,

songwriting was an incredibly therapeutic process to,

for healing and just addressing all those feelings.

>> BOWEN: How long do songs stay with you before,

before you commit them to paper

or however, whatever your process is?

>> Yeah, it's actually, like, a very immediate process.

Uh... as soon as I, like,

hear a melody in my head that sounds cool,

I'll whip out the old voice memo on my phone,

start recording something, and then I'll, like,

if I like it, if I like the sound of it, listening back,

I'll grab my guitar, the lyrics...

I write lyrics super-quickly

because I don't like thinking about them too much.

>> BOWEN: Why is that?

>> I just, like...

I don't know, I think I used to, like,

when I was in high school,

I was very much into literature and, like,

I was super into Shakespeare and, like, Henry David Thoreau

and stuff, and...

And, um... you know, I don't know.

Yeah, my earlier songs,

I just feel like they had too many words, so...

>> BOWEN: (laughs) >> So now I just, like,

kind of try to put, I try to write as few words as possible

to get my point across.

♪ All desire, all delight

♪ I will give up the fight

♪ All remorse, all regret

♪ I forgive, not forget

♪ I celebrate your celebration

>> BOWEN: I understand that you underwent hormone therapy

at one point, and your voice dropped almost an octave.

>> Yeah. (laughing)

>> BOWEN: How does, how...

It made me wonder a couple of things.

One, how much you write

according to how you sound to yourself, and then...

Yeah, how that changes things when your voice changes.

>> Um, yeah.

That... wow, yeah.

So my voice dropping an octave was a...

was a whole thing.

And, you know, I started hormone therapy because

I wanted to, like, you know,

just feel more in line with my gender,

because I'm trans, I'm trans-masculine, and, like,

I'm super-stoked that I've, like, made this choice.

But it was also really frightening and surprising.

I didn't... for me-- it depends on the person,

the effects of testosterone, and how quickly they take effect.

And for me, it was, like, very quickly,

my voice started getting deeper,

and I was, like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

I thought this was going to take, like, a couple of months."

And I have, like, I just have so much experience

with my voice sounding one way.

And, uh, when it, when it got deeper,

I kind of lost vocal control,

and I was, like, "Wow, this is different."

The conventional wisdom is to just keep singing

and keep practicing, and so that's what I've been doing.

And it hasn't really affected my songwriting too much.

>> BOWEN: So you grew up in Dallas,

came here to Boston. >> Yeah.

>> BOWEN: This, of course, has a very legendary music scene.

How is the scene now?

How has it worked for you?

>> The Boston music scene is, uh, fantastic.

I, uh...

I can't believe how good it is, there's...

There are just so many excellent artists

across a variety of music genres, and I feel like,

there's just a lot of good music,

and I didn't know that when I moved here.

So it was, like, a really pleasant surprise.

♪ I live in my own home

♪ I live in my paper

♪ The absence becomes me

♪ A reticent specter

>> BOWEN: So to kind of go back to where we began,

as you're sharing your stories

and you're putting them out there in the world

and we're just talking to you at the beginning of this career

that now is getting national attention...

>> Yeah.

>> BOWEN: What is it like to have your stories out there

and to be able to tell them?

>> Um...

It's, it's kind of nice.

I think one, one of the many benefits of rehab

is that there was a lot of time spent therapeutically

telling my story to folks, and, like,

figuring out how I got to where I was

and planning how I wanted to move forward as a human.

I've learned that I have a great capacity for growth

as a human being, and that if I just keep doing that,

keep growing and learning and, like, taking accountability

on a daily basis...

I feel like as long as I keep, you know, giving,

like, trying, I'll be okay.

>> BOWEN: Well, Anjimile, it's so fun,

especially to be,

to be talking to you at this moment where

you're getting all of this national attention,

so it will be really exciting to chart

all of the success of your album.

Again, congratulations and thank you so much for being with us.

>> Thank you. Thank you so much.

>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week,

spanning from playgrounds toPeanuts.

Monday, Waterfront Park in Boston's North End

offers a playful new public art installation.

Sari Carel's "The Shape of Play"

fuses colorful sculpture with the sounds of playgrounds.

Wednesday, the I.C.A. brings us an encore performance

from its permanent collection.

Members get the chance to face the music

ofRagnar Kjartansson: The Visitors.

The Cape Ann Museum reopens to the public Thursday.

Among the galleries, a fresh look at marine artist

Fitz Henry Lane.

("Linus and Lucy" playing)

Good grief, Snoopy has aged!

Charles Schulz's comic strip Peanuts

made its print debut in nine newspapers around the U.S.

on October 2, 1950.

Friday, say happy 70th birthday, Charlie Brown.

Saturday, Boston Design Week continues

with a look at how artists reimagine our lives--

and buildings, as you'll see in projections

on Dorchester's Strand Theatre.

At the University of Nevada, Reno,

there's a three-story stairwell covered entirely in graffiti.

Here we climb its layers of stories.

>> The graffiti stairwell is this fabulous place

in the corner of the Church Fine Arts building on campus

at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The graffiti stairwell came about pretty organically.

It's my recollection that it started

with the painting professor's invitation to his students

to use the stairwell as an alternative canvas

during a, you know, small, more intimately scaled summer class.

And it sort of took off from there.

Every square inch of that space is covered

and it has been done and redone and redone.

It's just, I mean, if it's been, you know,

more than a decade's worth of people painting on those walls,

it's got a lot of history and a lot of layer.

There are times when, just by the nature of what it is,

it can get pretty messy.

And because people that are painting and participating

are not necessarily art students or trained artists,

the craftsmanship or the aesthetic quality of things

are not always really visually appealing.

But that's okay; I mean, I think that it doesn't have

to always look beautiful.

The juxtaposition of the really beautifully executed artworks

with a lot of the other kind of just present things

is just part of what it is.

Graffiti by its very nature comes out of a history

of being a kind of guerrilla activist activity,

and the stairwell is really no exception to that.

Most of the time, the works are not attributed.

People are not taking credit for them.

And my understanding of it is that even some of

the nicest works that have ended up in there are not

art students per se-- there's rumor that there's

an engineering student that's been doing

some really great graffiti in there,

and former students that have come back

and have done some things,

and so, we don't have an actual way of knowing

who's doing the work.

Art in and of itself is a tool for communicating ideas,

and it's often trying to get at those ideas that are beyond

what we can readily apply language to.

The graffiti stairwell is just the epitome

of what that kind of expression is.

And it's important to protect that.

Sometimes that means that things get said that are difficult

or challenging, and maybe even hurtful.

It's not the intention of the stairwell, or our desire

to protect that stairwell, to protect those kinds of ideals,

but rather to protect ideas of using art

as a tool for expression.

If there is anything about this stairwell,

is, it's always evolving, it's ever-changing.

And so that means if there are difficult things in the hallway

that somebody has placed there,

chances are somebody else is coming right back

in over the top of that with another level of expression.

>> BOWEN: Finally now, Florida can be proudly quirky--

same for its art, as we find in this exhibition

at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

>>Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State

is an exhibition we've been working on

for the last three years looking at artmaking in Florida

over two centuries.

There isn't a school of art as there might be in New York.

What you find here in Florida is as diverse,

as eclectic, as really the state continues to be today.

In this room, that has what we're calling material culture,

it's largely about what people here in Florida have collected

and have held onto.

We thought it was important to show what people

would take home with them.

One of the great curiosities in this section of the exhibition

is the alligator lamp.

So you would screw the bulb into the mouth,

and he holds an ash tray, and it just illuminates

your memory of Florida.

There is that wonderful big wide tie that has palm trees on it.

Of course today, you wouldn't have a big wide tie.

You would have T-shirts that quickly supplanted the, the tie.

A remarkable object, which is a door

that's covered with bottle caps from the Bottle Cap Inn

in North Miami.

Every surface of the interior was covered.

It's the last remaining piece of this sort of extraordinary space

that doesn't exist anymore, except in our imagination.

Silver Spring, before Disneyland, was the go-to place.

So we have wonderful TV trays you could purchase

to remind you of your time in Silver Spring

as you're sitting watching TV.

I think we make a very important statement with this exhibition.

And we're not talking about artists who were

outsider artists or folk artists,

we're talking about people who had a creative spirit

to look at Florida and imagine it however they might want.

So let's not create boundaries between the artist,

the person, who created the alligator lamp

or the artist who painted that wonderful scene

of the landscape.

I think, let the artist sort of speak to us on their own terms.

Some of it was just mythical,

but it's all about the history of the state.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week: bewitched, bothered, and bountiful.

A trove of materials from the Salem witch trials

now at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Plus, artist Richard Haynes on a painterly quest with quilts.

>> I want people to see the strength in Black folks.

I want them to see the pride in Black folks.

I want them to see the creativity of Black people.

>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

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