State of the Arts

S37 E5 | FULL EPISODE

State of the Arts: March 2019

MacArthur Genius and professor at Rutgers-Newark, John Keene is the author of Counternarratives, a book of stories about the African diaspora. Wendy Red Star's mid-career survey of art based on her native Crow traditions at the Newark Museum. Artist Robert Forman uses yarn and glue to create striking compositions. And 16-year-old organist Brett Miller accompanies classic silent movies.

AIRED: March 23, 2019 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: At the Newark Museum, artist Wendy Red Star

finds inspiration in her family's life

on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

In Hoboken, a painter with a one-of-a-kind approach

who doesn't use paint.

Jersey City writer John Keene's experimental fiction

just won him a MacArthur Genius Award.

And at the Trenton War Memorial,

a teenager revives one of the most popular entertainments

of the Roaring Twenties.

"State of the Arts",

on location with New Jersey's most creative people.

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and public engagement in the arts

since 1966, is proud to co-produce

"State of the Arts" with Stockton University,

New Jersey's distinctive university.

Additional support is provided

by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation...

Bramnick Law -- a personal injury law firm --

and these friends of "State of the Arts".

Red Star: Yeah. Fellah: Yeah.

We've been working over a year with Wendy

to pull this show together,

so it's very exciting that it's come together tonight

after so long in the planning process.

Narrator: "Wendy Red Star -- A Scratch on the Earth",

is a mid-career retrospective

of one of America's rising young artists.

Wendy's work explores her identity

as a member of the Crow Tribe,

and she chose the Newark Museum, in part,

because of its collection of both historic

and contemporary Native American art.

New galleries dedicated to the native artists of North America

opened in 2016.

Bloom: That experience in 2016 was a great one

for reconnecting with the local, Lenni Lenape communities.

So, it kind of really refocused the fact

that this literally is Lenape land

that the museum is sitting on.

And the Lenape Trail runs right through the city of Newark.

Narrator: The catalog for Wendy's exhibit acknowledges this.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Red Star: When I was in grad school,

I think it was around the holiday times,

and I wasn't able to go home, and I was really missing home.

Without even really consciously thinking about it,

I knew I could find Crow stuff,

Crow objects, if I went to the Natural History Museum.

And now, I'm like, "Wow, that's kind of morbid, right?"

[ Laughs ]

My experience there is what led to the making of the work.

And when I walked into the museum,

I walked into this giant brontosaurus

and all these dinosaur bones.

And I walked into the Native galleries.

It's dark in there, I found some Crow material,

but I also was witness to everybody like,

looking at the Native objects and realizing,

"Wow, you know, I'm sure the audience,

just the way that we've sort of been set up

immediately as we walk through the door

assumes that these people don't -- no longer exist."

And there were dioramas that looked like Montana,

and I was like, "I need to take this back

and make this piece that articulates my experience."

Narrator: "The Four Seasons" photographs launched her career.

Ever since, Wendy Red Star has been creating work

centered around Native American history

and her life growing up on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

Red Star: So, this is first eagle plume

for my first dance.

For Crows, it's called a wisdom feather

or...AKA, eagle butt feather.

Because it's located near the tail,

it's the seat of knowledge and the soul of the bird, so...

What I've learned is that people don't know

about Native people at all.

They don't know the history,

which isn't just Native history -- It's U.S. history.

Narrator: Wendy began to consider

how images of Native Americans are used in our culture,

such as a photo of Medicine Crow on a bottle of tea.

Red Star: And it made me wonder like,

the people that are using these images, do they know his name?

Do they know that he's Crow?

Do they know that he's from Montana?

Then I started thinking, "Wait a minute,

I don't know what happened that day

when he sat down to take that portrait."

And so, it was that one question

and it just led me on this incredible adventure

of looking through archives, of going through history.

Narrator: The notes she took became part of a new series

using the historic Peace Delegation photos

as a starting point.

Red Star: It wasn't just him.

It was a group of six chiefs,

and there are portraits of five of the six chiefs

that are delegation portraits from 1880.

They were going there to meet the President,

because the U.S. government was trying to put a train

through a large chunk of our hunting territory.

And, like, all of these things

started coming out of this one project.

The more and more that I dug, the more things were revealed,

the more I knew I didn't know things,

and it just kind of kept going.

♪♪

So, I do use a mix of photography --

some of my own photography, some archival photography,

and some of my family's photography.

Narrator: Wendy took her own photos for the series

"Home Is Where My Tipi Sits",

showing life on the Crow Reservation today.

In the 19th century, its original size

was over 38 million acres.

Red Star: Our current reservation

has been reduced down to like 2.25 million acres.

And so, basically, what I'm articulating with this work

is what the current reservation looks like.

What I know of the Crow Indian Reservation today,

'cause this is where I grew up,

and these are sort of the normal things that you would see

if you were to drive through my reservation --

you'd run into these objects, which are...

these reservation cars,

sort of these broken-down cars that have different lives

like they become storage units,

or a place for me and my cousins to, like, play in.

I love sweat lodges.

I find them really fascinating,

especially when you're driving around my reservation,

'cause they're just out in the landscape.

You see these weird dome things

and I like that they're very utilitarian,

that they're covered in blankets and carpet,

and anything they can find

to keep the heat contained inside for when they use it.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Narrator: Wendy built her own sweat lodge at the Newark Museum.

While there are no hot rocks or steam,

climbing inside does transport you to another reality.

Red Star: The significance when you go inside for the Crow

is that it's a place to sort of get away

from the outside world,

to pray and think about others,

and to kind of reconnect with your spiritual side.

So, when I go back home and you see some of these photos

of the broken-down res. cars or the government houses,

one would think, "Oh, this is like a poor community,"

but for me, I don't see that at all.

I just see the cultural richness and vastness of it all.

And also considering my ancestors fought so hard

for us to keep our cultural knowledge.

[ Drums playing, crickets chirping ]

♪♪

Narrator: Coming up later,

a 16-year-old organist plays for silent movies,

and an artist who paints with yarn.

But first, a writer who works at the intersection

of history and fiction.

♪♪

♪♪

Lucas: John Keene is one of the most brilliant

and imaginative fiction writers working in the U.S. today.

He's not just a great writer,

but he's one who really has created a new path forward

for fiction that deals with history.

Smith: An award like the MacArthur brings a new readership.

For a long time, there's been the sense

that experimental or avant-garde writing

isn't compatible with questions of race and selfhood

and identity and blackness,

and I think his work defies that.

Keene: When you have to put the pieces together of a story,

of a novel, of a poem,

you have to analyze,

to not think with simplicity about everything,

to not just believe the first headline we see

or words that beguile us,

but, you know, maybe...

propaganda.

So, that's one thing.

The second thing is

that particularly when it comes to fictional narratives,

they spark empathy.

You can have someone who is utterly unlike you,

someone whose life...

is, in certain ways, so alien...

but they're human,

which is why literature often is considered so dangerous.

Smith: I met John in, I think it was like 1991 or '92

in Cambridge.

I was an undergrad at Harvard,

and he was a member of the Dark Room Collective,

which is a group of young, black writers

who had been hosting a reading series for a number of years.

I felt a kind of kinship to John,

because he had studied at Harvard

and I felt like, "Okay, this is a person

who can show me a little bit about

what this path will look like a few years out.

Keene: I'm interested in places.

So in my very first book, "Annotations",

I was very much interested in trying to depict St. Louis

in its richness

and also depicting black St. Louis right,

which is a long history.

With "Counternarratives",

I wanted to try something very different,

which was to see if I could imagine

a range of places right -- so America --

the America's writ large.

Lucas: "Counternarratives" you could describe

as a constellation or a constellated novel,

because calling it a book of short stories

seems too small for its epic, historical scope.

You almost have a sense of a grand sweep

that you're seeing in these small, bright, episodic moments.

He writes about this great vaudeville composer Bob Cole,

a kind of pioneering figure in black music

at the turn of the century,

who tragically killed himself on vacation in the Catskills.

Now, there's no proven reason why he chose to end his life.

But, you know, he was being forced to work

in a genre where he was --

he was writing music for minstrel performances

in a lot of cases, and he was this musical genius.

You know, James Weldon Johnson later wrote

about what a genius Bob Cole had been.

And Keene captures him on his kind of final day

when he's contending with the music

that he wants to write.

The music he's beenforced to write

is haunting him, in a certain way.

And what's so powerful about that story is

you just think to yourself...

You think to yourself, "How much talent has been suppressed

in African-American history but also in world history?"

Smith: What I hear in John's work

is an expansive investment in the interiority,

particularly of black characters -- speakers --

and queer, LGBTQ perspectives.

I'm thinking of the beautiful story, "Blues,"

in which we see Langston Hughes

in this beautiful, romantic encounter.

Or "Rivers", where we get, you know,

Jim from "Huckleberry Finn" as this, you know,

full adult, human figure with an investment in history,

with a sense of an inner life,

a connection to a national destiny,

and also an understanding of the nuances

between blacks and whites that we don't get Twain's language.

[ Blues music plays ]

Keene: It is the most diverse campus in the United States

for many, I think, a number of years running now.

Well, we get a sense that...

Well, I'm gonna be teaching a graduate fiction workshop

in the MFA program in creative writing.

Man: However, the brother, I do find to be very distracting,

because in the end, it's kind of based around

this emotional fulcrum of me believing

that the mother may love the brother

more than she loves the daughter.

Man: Discussing, like, "What if he's a Trump supporter?"

You know, your mom asks that ques--

I'm sorry, not your mom -- narrator's mom

asks that question, um...

Woman: Like, we have this first conversation

with the mother and daughter,

and it contains so much --

where she's living and who she's living with

and her ex-boyfriend and like, the political situation

in the U.S. and in Brazil.

Keene: What's key here is

there's a certain kind of conventional narrative,

particularly for short stories,

and a series of narrative conventions.

And I totally understand and sympathize with the desire

to challenge them, right.

There's so many stories out there that never get told.

Man: When the mother writes her out of the will,

even though that's like heart-wrenching...

Keene: Telling those stories is really, really important

to the extent that I can tell some of them.

I try to do it, and I really try to encourage

all the artists out there to do the same.

♪♪

Narrator: Still to come, a teenage virtuoso

brings the silent sci-fi classic "Metropolis" to life.

Next, fiber artist Robert Forman.

♪♪

Narrator: Artist Robert Forman and his wife,

photographer Robin Schwartz,

live in a converted firehouse in Hoboken, New Jersey.

It happens to be the firehouse

where Frank Sinatra's father was once the chief.

It makes for a terrific artist studio.

Forman: And I still sometimes hear --

they have Frank Sinatra tours --

and I can hear the speaker outside.

Narrator: Robert's work is strikingly original --

difficult to pigeon-hole in the art world.

He paints but doesn't use paint.

His materials -- yarn, thread, and Elmer's Glue.

Forman: In high school, I was making collages --

you know, cutting magazines out and gluing them --

and I started to glue yarn on one of the --

Fisher's yarn I got from my mother's sewing kit.

And I liked the way it looked, and I ended up covering

all the collage with yarn.

And that was my first yarn painting.

I didn't think that's what I would do.

Narrator: Robert studied at New York's Cooper Union,

one of America's most prestigious art schools.

Forman: My first year at Cooper Union,

I didn't tell anyone I did yarn. I tried to paint.

And I remember my teacher, Wolf Kahn,

a good painter said to me, "Robert, you draw so well,

but you look like you've never painted before."

I had to admit that I never had.

Narrator: Another teacher at Cooper Union,

acclaimed abstract painter Jack Whitten,

became his most important mentor.

Forman: And I wasn't a very good student,

and I didn't always come to class.

So, I skipped a lot of his classes,

but I knew to come near to end to show him

what I'd done for the grade.

And they'd moved... I'd missed a class.

...and I went back to my studio on 14th Street

and someone buzzes, and it's Jack Whitten.

He said, "Robert, you didn't come to class,"

and he came up to my studio, looked around and said,

"Robert, I think yarn -- you should stick to the yarn.

We'll call it painting."

♪♪

[ Singing in Spanish ]

Narrator: Years after art school,

Robert discovered that there was actually a tradition

of painting with yarn among the Huichol People of Mexico.

He traveled on a Fulbright Scholarship to visit

and has returned many times.

Forman: My Fulbright thing was to meet fellow yarn painters

and talk shop.

I thought I'd invented the technique,

and I called them string pictures,

which, I mean, that wasn't the word,

but we chose --

In the art world, they call them yarn paintings.

[ Singing continues ]

I think string pictures or yarn paintings,

it's a pretty straightforward technique.

The Huichol use wax, but I use Elmer's Glue.

I start with the idea, and then I do drawings.

I do a full-size drawing the size of the picture.

And for all the face, I use this kind of cotton.

It's a very thin, dull cotton,

I think it really looks good or skin.

I use sewing thread as my thinnest,

or something called...

If you use cotton pearl,

it's number 12 -- that's my thinnest.

And the thickest would be number 3,

which is about 1/4, maybe an 1/8-inch thick.

So, there are four basic thicknesses

and then I use cotton, linen, rayon, or silk.

If I'm doing a face, I'm using the finest -- my finest string.

♪♪

Narrator: Robert's work is part of a group show

at the Montclair Art Museum

called "New Directions in Fiber Art".

♪♪

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Stavitsky: He's been working with this amazing technique --

It's so precise -- where he indicates shadows and colors

through these very closely aligned pieces of thread

that he glues down with Elmer's Wood Glue to a board,

and then he seals it all with fabric guard,

and it's incredible work that I have admired for many years.

Forman: In my picture "Muse",

I melded three people into one.

So, what I did, I drew them each separately, traced it,

transferred it to the board, different color carbon papers,

and then when I glued it,

it was every third string would be a different figure.

But the direction of the string is important also,

so the direction was one of the figures,

so that dominated it,

but you can see the other two figures in the picture.

I love being in the studio

'cause that's where I feel most comfortable,

almost maybe a little too much.

I have an idea and all of a sudden,

I'm working on it, and I see it coming to life.

It's exciting.

♪♪

Narrator: Whoever said that silent movies were silent?

Next up, the famous score to "Metropolis".

♪♪

♪♪

Miller: When I was around 10, I went to go see

"The Phantom of the Opera", down at the Irvine Auditorium

at the University of Pennsylvania.

And it was Peter Krasinski

playing this magnificent, huge organ,

and I thought that was just the coolest thing at the time.

And I was like -- I still do think it's the coolest thing,

and I wanted to do that.

[ Organ playing ]

I remember we had a so-called movie night in our backyard,

and we took one of my keyboards out there

and I accompanied Stan Laurel's

"Just Rambling Along".

And that was my first time ever playing it

and I was around 10.

[ Organ music playing ]

♪♪

Narrator: In the 1920s, cities across America

built extravagant movie palaces.

The silent movie era was in full swing

and mighty, symphonic pipe organs

were a central part of the show.

Brett Miller is now 16 years old

and helping to keep the art alive.

Miller: This is the Trenton War Memorial,

which is one of the most fascinating stages

I think I've been on, just realizing

the amount of people that have been on this stage,

from Duke Ellington, Count Basie.

Rachmaninoff did a recital here in the '40s.

So, the organ was placed in here.

It's not original. It came in the '70s.

But it came from a theater just down the street -- the Lincoln.

It creates quite a punch in this room.

It's very big.

Cipolletti: The instrument was built in 1928

by the M.P. Moller Company.

They were in Maryland.

Members of Garden State Theatre Organ Society

rescued the instrument when it was being removed

from its theater, which has since been torn down.

[ Deep organ notes playing ]

Miller: We are in the actual left-hand side chamber,

which has some of the more ensemble-type pipes.

This is a flue. It's a wooden-type of pipe.

And you could actually just take it out and blow into it.

[ Blows note ]

This is actually supposed to be a human voice.

So, it sounds -- the lower end sounds more like a frog, but...

[ Pipe croaks ]

it's really a unique instrument, all wind-blown,

and is amazing for something made in 1928.

Cipolletti: The instrument was moved in here in 1976.

And we began a concert series back then

and it's pretty much continued to this day.

♪♪

Narrator: For his recent appearance at the Trenton War Memorial,

Brett chose to accompany "Metropolis",

the classic sci-fi film by Fritz Lang.

Miller: "Metropolis" was Fritz Lang's masterpiece.

It was created in 1927 and was really what we consider

the first science-fiction film.

It inspired so many other films to come after it.

You can see it in "Blade Runner".

You can see some of the things in "Star Wars".

It's a great film, it's a long film, it's a workout for me.

It's 2 1/2 hours long.

It's one of those films that keeps you captivated

the entire time.

Narrator: Director Fritz Lang commissioned

a famous German composer of his day, Gottfried Huppertz,

to write a complete symphonic score for the film.

♪♪

Miller: He was very operatic.

He liked romantic scores.

And he wrote for a huge orchestra to go along with it.

So, when I got the score, I looked at it

and decided how I was gonna do the film.

And I thought the best way was keeping it a 100% original

to what it was intended -- to the Huppertz score

and playing it matched up to the film,

as they did it in Berlin.

[ Organ music grows ]

As my actual sheet music,

there was German cues right above the music

and that told me really where to line stuff up

so I could be right on the money.

And if I had to adjust, I would be able to,

'cause I can look forward or behind.

Cipolletti: Brett, he's got great talent

and a great understanding of music,

and that's why he can interpret film so well.

Miller: My friends, believe it or not,

when I tell them, they go,

"Oh, I would never expect you do that,"

'cause you wouldn't see a person my age,

I don't think no one else will be doing it.

But it's something that is a lost art,

but really needs to be shared to keep going.

♪♪

♪♪

Narrator: That's it for "State of the Arts" this time.

To find out what's new, subscribe to our e-newsletter.

You can sign up on our website.

Thanks for watching.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Announcer: The New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

encouraging excellence and public engagement

in the arts since 1966, is proud to co-produce

"State of the Arts" with Stockton University,

New Jersey's distinctive university.

Additional support is provided by

the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation...

Bramnick Law -- a personal injury law firm --

and these friends of "State of the Arts".