Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S10 E2 | FULL EPISODE

Special Edition: Books

Poet Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb"
Photographer and writer Amani Willett, “A Parallel Road”
Debra Balken discusses the work of abstract painter Arthur Dove

AIRED: July 09, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> While we might feel small, separate, and all alone,

our people have never been more closely tethered.

The question isn't if we will weather this unknown,

but how we will weather this unknown, together.

>> BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen. Coming up--

poet Amanda Gorman on her way to superstardom.

Then, a photographer documents why, for Black Americans,

the road is less traveled.

>> It quickly became apparent that in order to navigate

the roadways in America, it was going to take extra planning.

It was going to take creativity.

It was going to take courage.

>> BOWEN: Plus a curator's quest to document all of the work

of one of the 20th century's great underrecognized painters.

>> He was the first American to produce an abstract painting.

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

Welcome to this special edition of the show

where we're focusing on writers, including one who has gained

international stardom.

>> When day comes we step out of the shade,

aflame and unafraid

The new dawn blooms as we free it

For there is always light,

if only we're brave enough to see it

If only we're brave enough to be it.

>> BOWEN: That, of course, was Amanda Gorman,

the nation's inaugural youth poet laureate, with her reading

of "The Hill We Climb" at the inauguration

of President Joe Biden.

Since then, Gorman has appeared on magazine covers,

the Super Bowl, and more.

But last year, just as she was graduating

from Harvard University, Gorman joined me virtually

to talk about creativity and commencement

during COVID-19.

She'd also just written a poem composed during the pandemic

called "The Miracle of Morning."

>> I thought I'd awaken to a world in mourning.

Heavy clouds crowding, a society storming,

but there's something different on this golden morning.

Something magical in the sunlight, wide and warming.

I see a dad with a stroller taking a jog.

Across the street, a bright-eyed girl chases her dog.

A grandma, on a porch, fingers her rosaries.

She grins as her young neighbor brings her groceries.

While we might feel small, separate, and all alone,

our people have never been more closely tethered.

The question isn't if we will weather this unknown,

but how we will weather this unknown, together.

So on this meaningful morn, we mourn and we mend.

Like light we can't be broken, even when we bend.

We ignite

not in the light, but in lack thereof,

for it is in loss that we truly learn to love.

In this chaos, we will discover clarity.

In suffering, we must seek solidarity.

We'll observe how the burdens braved by humankind

are also the moments that make us humans kind.

Let each morning find us courageous,

brought closer,

heeding the light before the fight is over.

When this ends, we'll smile sweetly, finally seeing,

in testing times, we became the best of beings.

>> BOWEN: Amanda Gorman,

it's such a pleasure to have you here, thank you so much.

>> Thanks so much for having me, I'm so excited.

>> BOWEN: I'll pick up where you've just left off,

with "The Miracle of Morning."

This is a poem that you wrote in this moment.

Tell me about how it came to be.

>> I felt like my world and my country

was in a very dark place.

And so we decided to try to write this poem

as a type of reminder of all the things

that we have to be grateful and hopeful for.

And really, the inspiration for the poem

came from watching people in their daily lives.

>> BOWEN: Well, it's funny, because that was going to be

one of the questions I asked you,

is, is it difficult to write?

Is it difficult to be creative in this time

where so many people are struggling?

>> I will, I will be honest and say that the struggle is there.

As I reflect and I was writing that poem, I was thinking about,

you know, Martin Luther King writing from a Birmingham jail

a letter on racial injustice.

I was thinking about Nelson Mandela writing and reading

while he was in jail for decades.

I was thinking of Anne Frank writing

while she was hiding from Nazis.

And so all that is to say,

I was thinking about, what do humans do

when they are scared and alone

and isolated from the rest of the world?

And often it's truth-telling

and it's telling stories that matter.

>> BOWEN: You're the nation's first youth poet laureate.

What, what opportunity, what responsibility does that bring?

>> Mmm, I would say an incredible responsibility.

I remember when I was named the inaugural youth poet laureate,

there was this feeling of pressure,

because I knew I was the guinea pig,

I knew I was the first one.

And beyond that, my naming was a provocation in itself,

and that I was Black, I'm female, I'm young.

And so there are all these kind of intersectionalities

of my identity,

which made this beyond the status quo.

And so there was an extreme, I think, duty,

a sense of proving that this title is worthwhile

in giving it to youth voices,

and especially marginalized voices.

>> BOWEN: With your mom as an English teacher,

was there any other path for you

other than to be the nation's youth poet laureate?

>> It's so funny that you say that, because I remember,

when I told my mom I wanted to be a writer,

her reaction was kind of, like, "Oh, God."

My mom's been incredibly supportive of me.

She is my number-one cheerleader.

But when she looked in my eyes, and I was even still young,

and saw that I was very serious,

that this was the career that I wanted for myself,

she knew that the journey of a writer can be hard.

It can be lonely, it can be strenuous,

and you're not always compensated

in the ways that you should be.

And so I think my mom was kind of, like,

"I want any other path, if possible."

>> BOWEN: You have had these incredible brushes already

with Hillary Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda,

most recently Oprah Winfrey.

>> Right.

>> BOWEN: And as, you're so young to have this happen,

but what does that mean to you?

Is it, is it giving license to poets or, or...

Yeah, what does it mean to have that wind at your sails?

>> Right, that's such a great question,

because even I look up and I'm, like, "What is my life?

What is going on?"

I mean, when I met Oprah, it was just, it was literally, like,

I was living a dream.

>> BOWEN: You've just had your graduation from Harvard.

What is it to graduate in this time

and to be deprived of that physical gathering?

>> To be honest, not having that in that kind of traditional way

has just taught me what's most important about those moments.

If I can still find a way to celebrate and be joyous

with my family...

You know, I bring up the fact

that I'm the descendant of slaves.

Moreover, I'm the descendant of a slave named Amanda.

So that type of trajectory, from my family being property

to generations later,

and me graduating from a place like Harvard,

that speaks to such a larger legacy than myself.

And just because I might not be in an auditorium

does not belittle that accomplishment

in any way, shape, or form.

>> BOWEN: Before we leave, I know you have one other poem

that you're going to perform.

I heard from my producers you didn't,

as of about two hours ago, have a title for it.

I'm wondering if you have a title now.

>> Oh! >> BOWEN: Uh-oh!

>> I did come up with one,

and then I was, like, I just, like, scratched it.

Um, I will, TBD, name this

"The New World."

Um, but to give you some contextualization,

this is a poem that I kind of wrote

reflecting on what it means to graduate here and now,

in the times that we are in,

and what that means for the world.

>> BOWEN: Well, Amanda Gorman,

it's been such a pleasure to speak with you.

You are making a world of difference already,

and especially right now.

Thank you so much for being with us today.

>> Thank you so much.

Today, we burst into a new world.

Around the globe, you might not be wearing your robe,

but this is our moment, our ode,

so let's own it, let's smile,

because we didn't mount this milestone alone.

This took a village.

We are the impossible image

only ever seen in our ancestors' wildest dreams.

This is a rite of passage,

but more so, the passage of light

to we, the bright torch that never stops burning,

never quits learning.

This night, too, shall pass, and when it does,

this 2020 class won't just navigate a new normal.

Together, we'll build a better one.

We come to this commencement to search no more.

We're the good news we've been looking for,

demonstrating that every desk

holds a dawn disguised within it.

Today, we don't burst into a new world.

We begin it.

>> BOWEN: Next, many consider the freedom of a road trip

to be an integral part of the American dream.

But as photographer Amani Willett documented

in his recent book,

for Black Americans, there isA Parallel Road.

Amani Willet, thank you so much for being with us.

>> Thank you so much for having me today.

It's great to be here with you.

>> BOWEN: I've been so eager to speak with you about your book,

A Parallel Road.

And your book starts with notions, I think,

we have long held about what the road means.

You see happy families, you see food and gas stations,

and a sense of nostalgia, but then it turns.

So tell me about A Parallel Road.

>> Sure, yes, so that's spot on.

It really starts out with this idea

that the road, really, in America,

I think especially in America,

holds this place in... that comes from a place of mythology.

It's, it's a place that's associated

with the American dream.

It's associated with freedom and exuberance.

And there was from the start, with the interstate highways,

this real excitement, I think, on all Americans' part

to take... to take part in this new system of interconnectedness

and what it had to offer.

And so, you know, there was, I think, a real exciting sense

for all Americans-- you know, Black, white, whoever--

to take part in this experience.

And what unfortunately happens, as we found out,

we found out in many aspects of American life, is that,

you know, for Black Americans, they don't really have access

to the same freedoms that white Americans do.

So the book does start and this book project

actually is very personal for me.

All of the vernacular images in the book

are actually pictures of family members.

So I asked my very supportive and large extended family

to send me all the pictures they had,

anything they could find in their archives with a car in it.

>> BOWEN: So we see...

we see the pictures you expect to see about the road

and that happiness, about journey and anticipation.

But you realize... I'm realizing and thinking back

on your pictures that most of them we see at people's homes

are not actually on the road.

So what is being on the road mean?

>> Right. And so that...

that's a very astute observation.

I think we found out very quickly that it wasn't

an equal opportunity experience for everyone.

And so it really was this parallel experience

where, you know, Black Americans quickly realized that, you know,

going on the road was, besides the logistics,

you had to think about... I mean, this was Jim Crow America,

so you had to think about,

"Okay, well, where can I get food?

"Where can I stay for the night?

"Where can I even pee?

So I have to bring pots and pans with me."

Not to mention the fears of, you know, potential bodily harm

and traumas that were real at the time as well

and still exist today in this new American experience,

but it quickly became apparent that in order to navigate

the roadways in America, it was going to take extra planning,

it was going to take creativity,

it was going to take courage.

It was going to take, as we see withTheGreen Book,

a way to successfully navigate some of these obstacles.

>> BOWEN: For people who don't know,The Green Book,

of course, as we know from the film,

we learn that this was a book that illustrated

for Black people where it was safe to travel

through the early decades of this country.

>> It was this way for Black people to...

you know, it was almost like, you know,

something they could take as for security, you know,

and something that was a guide.

I mean, it really was a guide.

"Where where can I go to the bathroom?

Where can I spend money? Where can I fill up on gas?"

>> BOWEN: Well, tell me about your photography.

I notice we see a lot of empty spaces there.

>> For the experience I was trying to elicit,

it was this the sense of fear that when you...

I think everyone can relate to, you know, maybe being on

an empty roadway at night, whether you're Black,

white, or whoever, it's something that can be

a little jarring, a little jolting,

and can just sort of prick you in the back of your head that,

you know, maybe something bad could happen here.

And that's what I wanted people to feel, you know,

when looking at the work, was that this trauma

that I think Black Americans carry around

from basically all facets of American history

is something that I think people can relate to

on an emotional level, no matter who you are.

>> BOWEN: You had been working on this project

for several years.

What is it like to have it be published

and be met at this moment

where we're seeing the danger of people of color

just being outside thinking of what happened at the Capitol,

and the Black Lives Matter movements

and the deaths we saw last year?

>> Yeah, that's a great question and I think, you know,

like I mentioned a little bit earlier, you know,

this book is about the American roads

and a particular experience of Black Americans

on the American roadways.

But it's also...

that experience is a microcosm of race relations in America,

right?

And so it's been really hard this year

to look at what's happened.

But, quite frankly, I think in the era of social media too,

our awareness and our...

and the way we've looked at violence against Black people

that have been caught on camera and played in loops

over and over on social media

has, you know, amplified this, this problem as well.

So, you know, it's come to a head.

You know, it's something I had been more aware of

in the last four or five years

and seeing it play out on social media.

And this year was a particularly bad year.

And so it felt really important to try...

to have this work come out now, you know, to...

It felt like the right, the right moment, the right time

with what our country was going through.

And for me to help also just as an artist,

you know, to work through some of my feelings

and my anger and frustrations,

getting this book out now is really important.

And, you know, it's-- the reception has been,

has made me really... happy is not the right word,

because I'm not happy about any of this.

But I've had a lot of conversations.

And, you know, that's really the goal, right,

with anything you do when you're making art

is to inspire conversations.

And I've had a lot of conversations with people...

friends who are white and said,

"Wow, I'll never look at driving the same way again.

I never thought about this."

>> BOWEN: Well, Amani Willett,

it's been so wonderful speaking with you.

Really appreciate you being here.

And congratulations on the book, which, yeah,

you can just clutch, I love that you can just hold it

and spend that deep time with it, thank you.

>> Thank you so much for having me.

I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

>> BOWEN: Curator Debra Bricker Balken

has recently published a comprehensive catalogue

of all the known works of painter Arthur Dove.

Despite the ground he broke, and the friends he kept,

like Georgia O'Keeffe,

Dove isn't very well known.

Balken aims to change that.

Deborah Balken, thank you so much for being here

at our socially distanced studio, we appreciate it.

>> I'm glad to be here.

>> BOWEN: So full disclosure,

I'm a huge fan of Arthur Dove, as are you, of course.

You are because you have just completed this wonderful book.

But let me ask you to start, what drew you to--

drew you to him? >> He was a member

of Alfred Stieglitz's circle

in the early 20th century, and in 2009,

I assembled a show that paired Dove and Georgia O'Keefe

for the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

And during that project in particular,

I was using a very old catalogue raisonné of Dove's work.

And I thought, my goodness,

America's foremost abstract painter

of the early 20th century

deserves a better book than this.

And that's how it got launched.

>> BOWEN: Well, let's talk about that.

What was he doing in art

that no one else was doing at the time,

that he doesn't seem to also get the credit for?

>> He was the first American to produce an abstract painting

as early as 1910, 1911.

There were other figures in Europe

who were also pursuing similar territory.

But Dove was the first in this country.

>> BOWEN: And what drove him to that?

I mean, he had to-- he had to break out of

what was happening here in America.

I know he'd been to Europe,

but where did the conviction come from to push forward?

>> Well, it's interesting because Dove spends a year

or more in France from 1908 to 1909.

And while he's there, he has invitations

to visit Gertrude Stein and attend her various salons,

but he never goes.

He does become, however, a member of an expat community

of Americans that included figures like Max Weber,

Patrick Henry Bruce, Jo Davidson,

and most importantly, Alfred Maurer, who will become

a lifelong friend.

Dove exhibits no interest in the current state of painting

in France at the time.

Cubism, you know, by the time he has got there,

has already been widely exhibited.

But he reveals no interest in these very modern movements

until he comes back to New York after his trip.

And Mauer introduces him to Alfred Stieglitz,

who is the foremost gallerist in New York.

Stieglitz is also a renowned photographer.

And I believe it's through his conversations

with Alfred Stieglitz that relate to the state of, um...

of modern art, that Dove makes this very,

very bold, unprecedented leap into abstracting forms.

>> BOWEN: Well, Georgia O'Keeffe was part of that circle.

>> She was part of that circle.

>> BOWEN: And you can find similarities in how they create.

How similar are they?

>> Well, O'Keeffe arrives on the scene a little bit later.

She actually has the last show of Alfred Stieglitz's gallery,

his 291 gallery, which is named for 291 Madison Avenue.

And it's actually...

Dove was somebody that interested O'Keeffe deeply.

She saw a reproduction of one of his pastels in a book

that was produced by Arthur Jerome Eddy,

who was a collector from Chicago.

She wanders into the 291 gallery,

and she finds Stieglitz and shortly thereafter,

their romance begins. (laughs)

>> BOWEN: Well, Dove... what I find so fascinating,

as you cover in this book as well,

is how attuned he was to nature. >> Yes.

>> BOWEN: I mean, how much did that inform what he created?

Did it inform everything?

>> It informed everything, actually.

So part of the reason I don't think that Dove, you know,

was attuned to the developments that were being made

with abstract painting in France while he was there

is because his own work was deeply preoccupied with nature--

it was nature-based.

When Dove comes back from France,

he goes home to Geneva, New York,

in the Finger Lakes region.

He spends a lot of time camping out in the woods,

just assessing his trip abroad,

what he gleaned from his experience in Paris and France,

and he begins to look and examine the ways in which,

you know, color, you know, permeate the natural world.

He will, you know, decipher the bark from trees.

He will look at flora and fauna.

And he declares himself to nature as of that point.

>> BOWEN: So there's nature

and then where... how much does emotion come into play?

>> Emotion is, is a large part of Dove's work,

I mean his work, and this is what he and Stieglitz will use

to describe the distinguishing factors between his work

and other figures associated with Stieglitz,

like John Marin and Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe,

is that it is intuitively based, it's drawn--

it draws on his-his instincts.

And from there we get to his subjectivity

or to his emotional life.

>> BOWEN: Is it true that he painted on roller skates?

>> No. (laughs)

I'm afraid that's a myth. (laughs)

>> BOWEN: So... was he doing it for the purity?

Was he... because he didn't have a great deal of fame

when he was alive. >> Right.

>> BOWEN: He didn't keep himself in that tight New York circle

by being in the city. >> Right.

>> BOWEN: So what did the work represent to him?

>> It was, um...

it was a pure project for Dove, as it was for his peers.

He knew that there was no material gain,

that there was no market for abstract painting

in particular in the decades of the teens, '20s, and '30s.

The market for American art isn't really going to pick up

until actually, you know, the late '50s, early 1960s.

This is-- this was a perennial problem,

was selling one's painting.

>> BOWEN: Well, as you mentioned at the onset of the interview,

here is the man who really made the first foray

into abstract works.

And yet we find that so many people

still don't know who he is-- why is that?

How did he get so lost?

>> I think because unlike Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin,

it was very difficult for Alfred Stieglitz

to sell Dove's painting.

Abstraction was a new prospect in painting

during the decades of the '10s, and '20s, and '30s.

There wasn't an audience for the work,

but that-that didn't mean that Stieglitz

would give up on Dove, he remained devoted to him

until they both died

within three months of each other in 1946.

So again, there were very, very few buyers for Dove's work.

With the exception of Duncan Phillips,

who founded the Phillips Collection in Washington,

he acquired over 43 paintings during Dove's lifetime.

>> BOWEN: So he doesn't get his due at the time,

but what becomes his legacy in terms of what he did?

>> Well, you know, the very radical nature of his work

will be felt again in the mid century after his death

with the rise of movements like abstract expressionism

or as the New York school, as it's sometimes called.

>> BOWEN: What do you hope will come from this?

>> I do hope that there is

renewed interest in Dove and in the early 20th century

for American art, which, you know,

for the most part still remains somewhat overshadowed

by European developments, by the rise of cubism,

by figures like Picasso, and Braque, and Gris and others.

>> BOWEN: Well, it is such a pleasure

to speak with you again.

We last talked to you from

the fabulous Mark Tobey show you did.

Such great work.

>> Thank you.

>> BOWEN: And I really appreciate you having you here.

>> Thank you.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this special edition

ofOpen Studio.

Next week, the art group DATMA is making waves

with water in New Bedford.

Plus, a tempest brews on Boston Common

as Commonwealth Shakespeare Company gets back

to free Shakespeare with famed actor John Douglas Thompson.

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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