The Trove: Lynda Johnson

August 11, 2011 - 55 Responses

Living lovely in Harlem.

Lynda Johnson was born and raised in Syracuse, New York but her family’s roots are in Montgomery, Alabama and it shows in her Southern hospitality and colorful storytelling. Her people were part of the epic, 20th century migration of blacks from below the Mason-Dixon line in optimistic search of opportunity up North. Lynda grew up with relatives called “Chicken” and “Joe Boy” and if you asked about her father Jimmie by name she’d say “Who’s that?” As far as she knew, “My father’s name is Honey.” Everyone called him that, not just her mama.

Her parents first daughter and the fourth of their six children, she displays the leadership traits of a firstborn and assumes the mediator role of a middle child. Marie Johnson was seven months pregnant with Lynda when she traveled down home to lay little Billy, felled by leukemia to rest in Montgomery. “I was carrying one and burying another,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it,” Lynda marvels at her mother’s strength and stoicism, an inherited strength she too would have to draw from.

Little Lynnie flanked by her Auntie Dot and her mommy Marie.

Too young to legally wed, Jimmie Johnson fudged his numbers to marry Marie, seven years his senior. The factory foreman worked the graveyard shift but he’d “get up, make my mother lunch and take it to her job. She always had a hot meal,” Lynda smiles. Neighborhood kids lined up at the back door for a taste of his homemade ice cream. “He could throw down!” Though she made a great pound cake and could fry some corn, Marie was a distracted cook who told her kids “burnt food makes you pretty.”

Diminutive size be damned, Marie, like her daughter was not easily cowed. “She was tiny but feisty.” Lynda recalls a classic example, “Some man was outside our house fussing about something and waving a gun. My mother went out there, took the gun from him, said ‘Nigga don’t you be standing outside my house carrying on!’ and started hitting him with his own gun. She was tough.”

Jimmie and Marie Johnson.

She was also sharp. “My mother loved to shop. I have some of her sweater sets and pencil skirts from the 50′s,” Lynda says.” Their jaunts to Ebony Fashion Fair shows empowered Lynda. “I always knew that we as a people had an amazing sense of style and that’s what drew me to fashion.”

Besides playing volleyball and acing track, she took fashion classes in high school, and planned a future in the Big Apple. “At the breakfast table, where we always had family discussions, I told my parents I wanted to go to New York to study fashion,” Lynda says. “They looked up from their plates and Mom said They stole the hubcaps off our car in New York City, you are not going to school there, so you better find someplace else to go. Dad was always the quiet one, but I knew he agreed.”

She found someplace else in a magazine ad for Atlanta’s Bauder School of Fashion. It was exciting to be sixteen, on her own and zipping around the Peach in her “sky blue VW bug,” but it just wasn’t Seventh Avenue. She informed her folks that Atlanta was a wrap. Their response, “if you want to go to school in New York, you have to pay for it yourself.” She called their bluff, got a job at the factory where her father worked, and saved enough for the in-state tuition at FIT, a SUNY school. She went on the parental condition that she stay with family in Long Island. However, the tedious 2-hour commute became a bit taxing and she moved with roommates to a “teeny-tiny” affordable apartment on 24th Street, walking distance from campus.

“I set my five-year plan for what I wanted to be and do once I graduated and it all eventually came true,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a designer nor a buyer, I wanted to write about fashion.” An FIT mentoring program paired Lynda with advertising maven Yvonne Durant, a friend to this day. When an upset Lynda came crying over some slight, Yvonne listened then said “Now that you’re done, never do that again. There are no tears in this industry, that will be seen as a sign of weakness.” Whenever work situations threatened her equanimity, Lynda remembered Yvonne Durant said you cannot cry. And she didn’t.

Yvonne secured her an internship at Essence Magazine with then-fashion editor, Susan L. Taylor. “That was when Essence really had a voice for Black women. I loved Marcia Ann Gillespie’s editor’s pages, I read them religiously. Look at these black women, they are doing it! I thought. I was enamored with them, I stayed until I graduated in 1976.”

In 1978 she began a lengthy career with industry big Fairchild Publications. “I started as Assistant Fashion Editor of SportStyle magazine. My boss covered tennis, golf, ski– all the hoity-toity. I covered what she thought inconsequential,” categories which flourished: “bodywear exploded, everyone was running and the whole surf lifestyle took off,” she says. “I LOVED covering this market, I was in jock heaven. I interviewed and went to a baseball game with Dave Winfield.” She covered trade shows in  California, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. “I ran the Corporate Challenge race in Central Park and played volleyball on Fairchild’s corporate team.” Of her favorite sport, the petite dynamo says “I could get under the ball. Didn’t do much spiking but I had a mean serve.”

Fun at Fairchild.

Responding to the 1980′s baby boomlet and subsequent wave of products targeted to parents, Fairchild created Children’s Business magazine in 1985 with Atrium award-winning Lynda helming fashion. “I love that the children’s industry is real mom-and-pop and down-to-earth, not so garmento.”

She balanced this fulfilling career with a charmed personal life. Artist Earl Garrett, Jr. knew she was a “keeper” when she agreed to have dinner with him, no judgment, after he said, “I want to have dinner with you but we gotta go Dutch, I don’t make that much money.”

“I’m not one of those 26-point women with their lists who miss out on really good guys,” she says. Dinner and a Betty Boop film festival “was so much fun. We had the best time.” Though he didn’t cop a kiss, he went home and called her straightaway. “We talked on the phone for hours– about everything. Garrett was special, really special. “He was very creative.” (In photography, art direction, drawing and painting) He ignited her interest in art and introduced her to the Venice Biennale. It was in Venezia that he proposed marriage. They wed in 1986 on his birthday.

Her collection of works by African-American artists includes her beloved Garrett (left) and celebrated Alabama folk artist, Mose Tolliver.

Lynda ended the 1980′s with unexpected loss. One of the two most important men in her life, her father, suffered a sudden stroke, drove himself to the hospital and went into cardiac arrest.

With the nineties came a barrage of highs and lows. Both bibliophiles, Lynda and colleague Tracy Mitchell collectively read,”were riveted” by and discussed Steven Corbin’s No Easy Place to Be.” Soon, editor-in-chief Monique Greenwood joined their conversations. Tracy speculated that there were other kindred spirits who read and celebrate black literature. The three women founded Go On Girl! book club. Twenty years later, GOG! has grown to over thirty chapters in 13 states and holds an annual awards gala to honor established authors and encourage new talent. Lynda is National Chair.

Garrett created the GOG! logo.

Realizing a girlhood dream of living in Harlem, Lynda and Garrett bought a century-old Hamilton Heights townhouse at a great price during the 1992 buyer’s market.

Architect Clarence True’s rendering.

In August 1995, Lynda and her mom drove from Syracuse to Montgomery for a family reunion, talking all the way. “She revealed herself to me. All the things she’d longed to do (like becoming an actress) and what she’d wished for us kids. I had so much fun with her that trip.” It would be their last.

“My mother was no joke when it came to her cards. She always had a game going in the house: Poker, Black Jack, Tonk…just for fun with family” Lynda recalls. “The next thing I knew it was a full-fledged business. She served dinners (a guy named Teardrop worked the kitchen) she had somebody doing the bar and she took a cut on the table. She was not playing.”

Unfortunately some young men, “looking to rob somebody and get high,” knew there would be cash at the Johnson house.  Around the corner, a neighbor watched them park in her driveway, don masks and quickly run off. She noted their faces, the make of the car and license plate number then phoned the police.

Recognizing the voices of the masked men demanding money, Marie called them by name. She’d fed at least one of them before. Panicked, one shot her. Word spread quickly of the slaying and the four perpetrators, caught by police within a half hour, were “beaten mercilessly” in jail.

Lynda, her mother’s “Rock of Gibraltar” arrived in Syracuse braced to handle things, but her childhood home-as-crime scene was surreal. Where am I going to go? she thought, her “beacon” police-taped. Once allowed in, “the phone rang off-the-hook” for the venerated Mrs. Johnson. “I had no idea of the things my mother had done for people. We got calls from guys in prison. It blew me away.”

At the funeral many spoke of Marie Johnson’s legendary generosity. One woman shared that Mrs. Johnson gave her money to open a hair salon. A troubled young man disowned by his family said “Mrs. Johnson took me in like I was her own child. She fed and clothed me.” Lynda too remembered her mother’s compassion. A man once knocked on their door asking for food. Lynda’s sister shooed him away but their mother said sternly you never turn anybody away who’s hungry, if there’s something in this house to eat, you give them something to eat. “My mother fed that man.”

The neighbor/witness came forward and identified the accused men. “That was the saving grace for me. I knew who did it and it gave me closure,” says Lynda, who read a statement at the trials.” Addressing the defendants the judge said, “If you guys had her mother you wouldn’t be sitting on that side of the table.” The actual triggerman died in jail. “Talk about karma,” Lynda says.

Garrett was balm for grief. “He was there for me in October when my mother was murdered, then in February he was gone. Just like that.” He was beset by a viral infection that baffled doctors and shut down all his organs. “Having lost my mom and then Garrett, my cornerstones, so suddenly, I thought God I don’t know what it is you want me to learn but I’m not getting it. Will you please just tell me and not take anymore people from me?” she says.

“I threw myself into work, I went back to school, I had to stay busy. I thought that if I stopped I was gonna die. It took a long time to get past the sadness.” But as her therapist promised, she now thinks and speaks of them with a smile.

A memorial crazy quilt lovingly crafted from Garrett’s clothing by the women in his life reproduces the cartoon image from his business card and holds his brushes and paint.

After his passing, Lynda wasn’t thinking about romance. I had my soul mate, I’ve done that, she thought until she met Alonzo Wright in July 1997. Short in stature, he was long on personality. “I think Garrett sent him,” she laughs, “I’d always been attracted to taller men.”

They clicked at an Onaje Allan Gumbs performance at Sweet Basil. Alonzo phoned her the next day and invited her to view the sunset with him. With his saxophone in tow, they headed to Riverbank State Park, where he serenaded her, the sun setting gorgeously on the Hudson. Hungry, they went to her nearby home, made “a big ol’ pot of pasta” and talked themselves into slumber on the sofa. “I woke up, realized it was really late and said ‘you can’t stay here overnight.’ Realizing his journey would be more than an hour, though, she put him up in her guest room, retreated to her bedroom and locked herself in.

She later sent him flowers at work with a note that read “Thanks for the beautiful sunset and for being a gentleman,” amazing him. “We started hanging out a lot and next thing you know, he moved in,” she says. “He is not a replacement for Garrett, he is an addition” she asserts. She feels truly blessed to have had them both in her life.

Lyn and ‘Zo.

When layoffs left Alonzo without a job, Lynda’s response was “oh good, now you can focus on your music.” With her belief in him, he thought keeper. “I knew music was what he really wanted to do and he did it. Here we are, three CDs later.”

Alonzo wrangled music peers Will Downing and Ron Blake and their daughters for Lynda’s magazine shoot. Photos: Deborah Feingold

After thirteen years together they married last summer. “On my birthday, we applied for the marriage license and on his birthday it arrived.” She and her mother, both Taurean, married Gemini men seven years junior and fabulous cooks. She chuckles at the coincidence.

After 20 years, Fairchild shuttered Children’s Business in 2005, rocking her professional world. Her considerable experience and respect from the industry garnered her a successful freelance run; then the recession hit, budgets cut and her clients dwindled to two. Her adjunct professorship at FIT helped fill in the financial gaps.

KidStyleSource

Rebounding admirably, she and Tracy Mitchell were in the throes of their business plan when they shared with a vendor at a trade show their intention to launch another childrenswear publication. “We don’t need a magazine, we need news in real-time, online. Manufacturers also need a place where we can advertise to the consumer without paying a lot of money,” he said. Lynda and Tracy reconsidered their venture and created a dual website, KidStyleSource.com “for the retailer planning the season ahead and for the parent buying for the season at hand,” she explains. They are enjoying advertising growth and increased traffic with great vendor giveaways. She never aspired to be an entrepreneur, but Marie bequeathed her the gift for cultivating a passion into a business.

As we talked into the night, it was heartening to see and hear how healing has trumped heartache for this truly beautiful soul. Here she shares the things enlivening to her mind, body and spirit.

1. Living in Harlem. The rich history of the cultural mecca was magnetic. Fiercely protective, she’s rallying neighbors to save the once majestic PS 186 building from razing.

Her stately Hamilton Heights haven; historic subway signage; and the beneficiary of her advocacy, PS 186.

2. VW Beetle. “My first was a ’63 now we have a ’73.”

Their trusty Jazz Blue bug.

3. Books by African-American Authors. “My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Steinberg opened a whole new world to me with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. ‘It’s so important for you to know about your culture through your writers,’ he said.”

Her ” favorite of all time.”

4. Smoothies. “Interested in the correlation between food and healing,” she enjoys making the dense, nutrient-rich drinks.

A yummy, efficacious blend of organic fruits with rice yogurt, green tea and flaxseed oil.

5. Staying Fit. “I love yoga and I do cardio and weight training at the gym…my husband IS younger than me,” she chuckles.

Bikram Yoga Harlem is her go-to spot.

6. Art Deco Furnishings. Though her mom offered, “You don’t have to buy that old used furniture. I can give you some money to buy some nice new furniture,” the era’s streamlined forms appeal to Lynda.

The dining room buffet.

7. Freesias. “They’re pretty, dainty and I love the fragrance.”

Photo: Gypsie2

8. Miraval Spa. “Love that place! Alonzo and I have gone twice.”

The famed resort is nestled in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Clarita mountains.

9. Champa Incense. She burns both the classic and golden fragrances from Blue Pearl.

Wafting essences of frangipani and sandalwood.

10. Entertaining. She loves to host guests in her elegant home. Lynda and I hadn’t seen in each other in ages, so we had a girls’ night whilst Alonzo was on the road in Italy.

She graciously made a delicious, vegan meal for dinner and served homemade banana bread and smoothies in the morning.

The Trove: Myles Carter

August 4, 2011 - 27 Responses

We’ve relocated!  View Myles’ updated profile at inthetrove.com.  thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The visual and culinary artist in Paris.

A highly sentient soul, Myles Carter loves fiercely, be it his family, mastery of the brush stroke or an elegantly prepared and plated meal. He lives in sensory call and response: he touches and is touched in return. The enamored husband, delighted father and adoring son revels in cherished exchanges with his loved ones. The artist takes great pleasure in the expression on the face of someone who truly digs his painting. The chef enjoys the applause of sated, grateful diners. The self-described “goofball” loves to laugh — his own a mischievous staccato — and to evoke laughter.  Though he is serious about his work, he doesn’t take himself too seriously

I spoke with the man of many gifts as he riffed from his backyard in Cambridge, Massachusetts on coming of age in pre-sanitized New York City, his Paris years, evolving from expressing his creative impulse through tunnel crawling with aerosol colors to harnessing the power of the paintbrush in legal expression and his other and equal passion, cooking.

With a gallerist and Studio Museum of Harlem (SMH) founding trustee for a mother, an esteemed jazz bassist and distinguished professor for a father and a certain legendary trumpeter as godfather, he is certainly proud of his heritage but doesn’t flaunt his “pedigree.”

A member of Miles Davis’ famed 1960’s quintet, Ron Carter and his wife Janet named their second son after the celebrated bandleader. Baby Myles was born “right in the heart of Harlem at Sydenham Hospital,” but developed an early love of Francophone countries. “R.J. (brother Ron Jr.) and I had a Haitian baby sitter, Raoul who would teach us French whenever he watched us. We had a big slate table so he’d write the lessons in chalk. I guess I was fluent by the time I was five and I never forgot it.”

He speaks fondly of his mother’s impeccable taste, “from A to Z, from floor to ceiling,” and their art-filled home on the Upper West Side. “I remember going to my godfather’s house just a couple of blocks away on 77th Street and playing with McCoy Tyner’s kids and Freddie Hubbard’s kids,” he says. “If my dad did a gig nearby in Philly or DC or even Boston, he sometimes took me with him. Occasionally we went on tour with him out of the country.” He recalled an arcade in Senegal and the unsettling sight of soldiers with machine guns in the trees of Port-au-Prince.

Rocking the boots on a 1969 album cover with his Dad and R.J. 

Obviously music held a prominent spot in his life as did art, his late mother’s passion. She helped found SMH when he was a toddler and operated the Janet Carter Gallery as he was growing up. “My mom was a driving force in contemporary African art being shown at value,” he says proudly. She showed mostly paintings and some sculpture, championing the original work coming out of Africa to be as viable and as valuable as that of contemporary Western artists. Her commitment to art was hugely influential on her baby boy. Because his father toured frequently and “R.J. was older and away a lot, it was basically me and my mom,” Myles says.

Janet Hasbrouck Carter, Myles’ lovely mom.

After attending the Bank Street School, he was accepted into JHS 104 on East 21st Street which required a portfolio submission and passing an entrance exam for admittance. High school followed at Music and Art, the last class before the 135th Street school merged with LaGuardia. Additionally, he went to the Art Students League “for drawing nudes and still lifes,” he says. Closer to home, 74th Street provided commercial art classes in the iconic Ansonia building and pottery classes at Pot Luck.

A teapot for Dad.  

Of this foundation he says, “that was my artistic root. Parallel to all of that structured art instruction I also was a graffiti writer.” He had an early awareness of graffiti through the tagged subway cars of the early 1970’s. “From the IND to the IRT to the BMT, I started to recognize style, particularly calligraphy style which was what first attracted me; it was a whole different look at fonts and calligraphy. I was already doing my commercial art stuff with the presstype letters,” he says.

As a kid who lived for Letraset, I get his infatuation with letterforms and how they informed his writing as the youngest member of Rolling Thunder Writers (RTW) a graff crew known for their stylized lettering. The ambitious 11-year-old was introduced to an impressed RTW founder and president, BILROCK-161. Also the son of a jazz musician and a former classmate of R.J.’s, he was, at the time “writing SAGE,” Myles recalls. Some thirty years later BILROCK would contribute to a Skoto Gallery catalogue on Myles’ evolution to works on canvas:

“His works flow with images which spark all those memories of our old New York, our Upper West Side…He is still the incredible, spirited talent who used to sit in my room, doing his thing…rocking the blackbooks.”  Charles Harmon a.k.a BILROCK-161

Bilrock-161.

Though RTW were infamous for their “outside pieces,” Myles, writing METRO, then MET’S “concentrated on insides since I couldn’t take a picture of it anyway,” he says. “If my father had found a picture, it would’ve been all over.” So he watched his back, tagged the interiors of subway cars and “became king of certain lines.”

By the time he was 16 and into girls, he stopped “for the same reason I never was a breakdancer– I didn’t want to get dirty. You got your newest sneakers and you’d have your new pants all clean and ironed and creased and then to roll around on the ground in the cigarette butts and the spit and the dog doo somebody tracked in—no thank you.  As much as I love to watch it and appreciate it, I just wasn’t getting down in the dirt.”  Nor was he taking his girl out with ink under his nails and paint on his clothes.

And there were the consequences to consider. “I never got busted, but there were special graffiti detectives on the MTA and they had files.” His prolific tagging with one of the era’s leading crews put him on the radar. “I suppose at one point I was on their list and it just didn’t seem worth the consequence. If I do something stupid, who are they gonna look for? Ron Carter’s son.”

The spatter-free graduate of Music and Art went to the Art Institute of Philadelphia and then Pratt Institute before heading to the City of Lights, where he had spent his eighth-grade year living with family friends and attending bilingual school.

Met’s, 2010 acrylic on newspaper.

When he arrived in Paris in 1987, he returned to graffiti. “I saw that it was pretty wide open. It wasn’t written up all over the place, though graffiti was there and they’d developed their own Paris style.” So he entered this domain with an approach to differentiate between the strong writers already making their marks and what he was bringing to the table. He went freestyle, abstract, bringing it back to his painting and eventually using only a paintbrush. “A brush stroke is so strong, so powerful,” he says. No longer limited to “insides,” there were vast walls to appropriate and his murals garnered much respect.

The first-time dad tagged his son in many pieces; Nelson, then and now.

Over the course of a decade in Paris, Myles became a father and a graffiti legend. He’s not seeking accolades but he knows that he played a part in the history of the form in both 70’s-80’s New York and 80’s-90’s Paris.

Immortalized by his walls and by the pen of RCF1.  “Like” the MEO artist page on Facebook.

His tag METRO had evolved over time into MEO, Mathematical Equation Of… “In my art there’s a lot of mathematics.”  In rapid fire succession he runs it down:

“I can put a number on the level of intensity between each color. What’s the drying time between these colors?  How long is there between the times the police make their rounds in the train yards? How long do I have to run down the tracks before the next train comes?  Not to mention the outside influence of the Five-percent Nation on a young New Yorker…It’s all mathematics.”

It is no wonder then that the boy who spent countless hours in the kitchen with a mom who could burn (“She was accomplished, she took specialty classes at the New School.”) would also gravitate to yet another avocation that marries mathematics with a pronounced visual sensibility, cooking. We know that the formulas of time and temperature are paramount, but the art of the chef, he contends “is in the plating.”

Cooking in Massachusetts; painting in Paris.

His entrée to a culinary career was a position with a high-end caterer in Boston, where he settled after returning from France. “I soon realized I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t get a diploma.” So he got a culinary arts degree from Newbury College and spent a couple of years making the rounds in Boston with Todd English Restaurants.

He found his niche when he was hired as personal chef for an MIT fraternity. He  developed a balanced, healthful meal plan for the twenty-five young men and loved it. “That was a sweet, sweet job…doesn’t get much better than that,” he says. “But it’s a tough gig. Kitchen work is hard; stressful, physically demanding, hot all the time. I find it rewarding, though. It’s immediate gratification.”

He enjoys the challenge of presentation. “Not only does it have to taste really, really good, it has to look marvelous, to look sexy on the plate. That’s my strong suit, recognized by Todd English himself I might add… I like the marriage of colors and flavor. They must mix well,” he asserts. He prides himself on his consistency: “If it is supposed to be served hot, then hot it will come to the table—in a timely manner.”

The notion of owning and operating a restaurant is alluring, but the all-consuming commitment that a successful restaurant requires is not. He is unwilling to sacrifice neither his family life nor his art for 80-100 hour work weeks.  What does interest him however, is more work as a personal chef and perhaps an interactive TV show wherein he would prepare viewer-submitted recipes “not Peking duck with a Russian twist and fish foam,” he laughs. Are you listening, Bravo?

And in an ideal world, he’d continue to paint and provide outreach to under-served children “to teach them basic nutrition and introduce healthy foods outside of the cultural norm.”

The past year has been very busy for Myles with exhibitions in New York and Paris.  Last fall’s show at Skoto Gallery, Myles Carter Paintings 1989-2010 “was not billed as a graffiti show. There was nothing graffiti about it except for my history.” In an essay for the show’s catalogue, respected curator/arts administrator Lowery Stokes Sims of the Museum of Art and Design lauds his “renderings of individual cuneiform gestures” evoking the “calligraphic and hieroglyphic” work of abstract expressionist Norman  Lewis.

Works from the exhibit:  5′s, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 28 x 50 inches; 0′s, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 32 x 32 inches.

Concurrently he contributed to a sneaker show wherein legendary graff artists were asked to reproduce an earlier work on a Converse high-top Chuck and incorporate the New York Subway.

On the tongue, the “1″ train and on the side, his celebrated wall.

And finally, he returned to Paris this spring for the first time since his late nineties departure. A fellow tagueur, Dominic suggested he come celebrate the renaissance in graffiti there. ‘You earned your spot and you should come claim it,’ Dominic said. The two mounted a show at graffiti gallery, Wild Stylerz in the eighth arrondissement. “It was a good show,” Myles says. “I put up 13 pieces and sold six.”

Of Paris legend.

“They treated me like royalty,” he says. Awestruck young graffiti writers approached their hero with comments such as I used to watch you paint when I was ten. “And they’re standing there with a mustache and beard and a kid,” he laughs. They were wowed by his palette of fluorescents: “hot pink, turquoise, baby blue, school bus yellow, colors nobody was using together. I showed them how to gain maximum contrast without using black and white. I taught them the color wheel, complementary colors and fading techniques.” Seeing his mentees successfully integrate his advice into their work was gratifying.

“My work is a reflection of what I see and experience on a daily basis. I can remember the giddy feeling of standing on 159 St and Riverside Drive at sunset and looking across the Hudson River to the amusement park and thinking Wow we’re gonna go to Palisades Park!” And now more than 30 years later, the park is long gone but he can recall the feeling and the colors associated with it: “ the red and yellow of a rollercoaster, white wood shapes in the distance and the shadows.” Without actually rendering the coaster, he’ll translate its essence, the anticipation and the setting sun onto the canvas.

He’s been told that his work looks like sheet music. “Well I grew up with music without being a musician.” Sound, or even its absence can influence his work. “It could be a Talking Heads record or maybe Bachman Turner Overdrive or Otis Redding, even The Jackson Five,” that he interprets through color.

And of course he has reverence for his father’s work. “My dad is the man. Proud of him? Pride is too small a word. Adoration. I put him on ten pedestals! He’s also my best friend. I can talk to him about anything and always look forward to it.” Now as an artist and father of sons, his admiration for his father has intensified “only as I get older do I further grasp what his life was like. What he moved through.”

Not surprisingly, Myles’ trove is filled with things which evoke a blissful joie de vivre.

1. Bonding with Seen. With his own father Myles enjoyed the simple things like sitting together, reading.  He too enjoys the simplest of pleasures–playing in the backyard or taking a walk with his youngest son.

With big bro, R.J., BFF Dad and “pride and joy,” Seen, now three.

2. Martinique.  He first visited with his parents as a toddler, and spent many childhood summers there, beginning a life-long love affair with la fleur des Caraïbes. “I love it, I love it, it’s heaven!”

A favorite activity while visiting is body surfing.

3. Alaskan King Crab Legs with Butter.

Plain and simple.

4. The sound of my children laughing.

Nine years of laughter in unison: handsome twins Ronnie & Myles.

5. A Funky Drumbeat With a Phat Bassline. Approached by Q-Tip to record on A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal sophomore album, Carter père deferred to Myles for the low down on the Low End Theory cats.

“Ron Carter is in the house.” – Q-Tip, Verses from the Abstract

6. Silence.

It’s a music he savors.

7. Paris in the late Spring/early Summer. “It’s wonderful. All the trees are in bloom and the colors contrast the grey of concrete.

He loves it just after the chill of early Spring.

8. Cuddling with Lena. “A hug, a kiss, a gaze, a joke. She’s my everything, ma raison d’être.”

With his beautiful wife as they awaited the birth of  Seen.`

9. Going airborne on a motorcycle.

No Evel Knievel tricks for him, but a skyward lift is thrilling.

10. A Standing Ovation. As a chef, “it’s the best feeling ever!”

Myles prepares an annual New Year’s four-course dinner that gets a standing ovation every time.

The Trove: Sienna Gonzalez

July 31, 2011 - 26 Responses

Sienna photographed by family friend, Charlotte-based Mary Ebert.

Sienna Gonzalez is in many ways your typical American tween: she likes Selena Gomez, she loves to hang with her friends, she shoos her little brother out of her room for privacy and like most born in the new millennium, she knows her way around a Wii console. Yet she’s also borne some atypical burdens on her eleven-year-old shoulders.

I first laid eyes on flower girl Sienna, then a toddler, when at the April 2002 wedding of dear friend Franchell Mack Brown, her parents and I were in the bridal party.  I remember thinking what a lovely family they were. Rafael and Oi Yin were a kind, good-natured couple full of light, love and gratitude for the blessings of each other, their daughter and angel-on-the-way, Derek, born later that year.

The loving Gonzalez family.

Just three years later, the otherwise fit, non-smoking Rafael was, at 36 diagnosed with and succumbed to metastatic lung cancer which had spread to his spine and brain. Though Derek was very young, Sienna has very clear remembrances of her father and was devastated by the loss.

Admirably navigating the waters of early widowhood, Oi Yin moved forward to instill a sense of stability and strength in her children, a sense upended by shocking news. She too was diagnosed with cancer in February 2010 and given a prognosis of seven months to live. She has courageously soldiered on, hopefully and aggressively fighting the malignancy while also preparing her children for the statistical odds. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.

Back in March Oi Yin and Sienna learned that PCAN (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network) was planning an Advocacy Day in Washington, DC on June 15 to seek legislative support of the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act. Understanding the power of petitioning, Sienna quietly conceived of an idea. “I asked my class to write letters to Congress to help pass the act, and they did but I didn’t tell my mom,” Sienna shared with me from her suburban Philadelphia home.

I also spoke with proud mama Oi Yin (sixteen months post-diagnosis, and tumor-stable I’m happy to add) as she shared her shy daughter’s journey to activism.

“She did it unbeknownst to me,” Oi Yin says. “And she thought if they did maybe I can convince the whole school, and if I can convince the whole school, maybe I can convince the whole school district to do it. And that’s how it became this letter campaign. At first she wanted to surprise me but then it got so big she needed my help and told me about it.”

“It was pretty amazing, I’m so proud of her,” Oi Yin says. “I think its her way of taking control of something. She’s had control over so little with her Dad’s cancer and now mine.  She’s this 11-year-old maturing faster than others because of all she’s been through. Is she angry? Is she sad? Is she scared? Major. She’s all of those things, but she’s trying to turn it into something positive and that’s the beauty of it. She’s not feeling sorry for herself, she wants to make a difference. I tell everyone it is a huge gift for me that I got to see this.  It’s just a glimpse of who she might become as an adult– a selfless, giving person. She already understands that the world is bigger than just her.”

The gravity of her circumstance has given her an empathy beyond her years. “I want to save my mom, but if I can’t save my mom maybe I’ll save somebody,” she said.

In May, Skyview Upper and Woodland Elementary Schools held a collaborative   “Purple Day” with students and faculty wearing purple, the ribbon color for pancreatic cancer awareness. Sienna spoke before her brother’s second grade class and assembled her letter campaign book. Photos: Gene Walsh/Times Herald.

“I feared that because of everything they’ve been through Sienna and Derek would have a victim’s mentality,” Oi Yin admits. They’ve worked hard to counter the possibility. “For her to do this project shows she doesn’t. I’ve always known that she’s a fighter, but it’s pretty cool to see her act on things and make things happen.”

Sienna joined her mother in Washington in June to present the over 1,000 letters she gathered to present to Congress. Some of the letters shared students experiences with cancer in their lives. Representative Patrick Meehan was moved to tears as Sienna read one of them.  Senator Bob Casey, in absentia, congratulated Sienna on her efforts and explained that he is a co-sponsor of a bill to amend the Public Health Service Act to provide for a Pancreatic Cancer Initiative.

“It’s crazy because she’s so shy,” Oi Yin marvels, “that made it even sweeter, she pushed out of her comfort zone to do this.”  It’s been an empowering year for the girl who turned eleven on the magical date 1/11/11.

When your young life has been wrought with both great love and great loss, what do you hold dear? Sienna shares the things she cherishes.

1. Everything Disney. The brand that Mickey built is alright in her book. “Disneyland and Disney World are fun. Disney movies and shows have good characters and great plots,” she says.

She dreams of going on a Disney Cruise.

2. Talking to My Dad. Sienna knows that Rafael is with her always.

Daddy’s little girl enjoys a beach day. “He always told me to do what’s right, he was smart and brave and kind.”

3. My Mac. “I really like my laptop. I look up videos on YouTube, video chat with my friends, use it for research and make videos on it for fun.” She also uses social media to spread the word about causes important to her– fighting pancreatic cancer, rallying for aid to Japan, ending animal cruelty and saving the planet.

She loves the song “Perfect,” by Pink and finds the video very touching.

4. Hanging with My Cousin Miranda. They’ve traveled together as far as the Bahamas and the aforementioned iChat has bridged the distance between their New York and Pennsylvania homes.

“She’s like my sister,” Sienna says.

5. My Dog.  Chase, the black and white whir of fur and frenetic energy joined the family, including other Bichon Frise, Snowball just months ago.

“Bichons rule!” she exclaims.

6. Travel.  “I like to see the wonders of the world.  I’ve been to the Bahamas and Canada and a lot of places in the US, mostly the north.  When asked where else she ‘d like to travel she replies, “I just wanna see everywhere.”

“My dream in life is to travel around the world and do research to raise awareness about saving the earth and animals.”  

7. Performing. A triple threat, Sienna has shown her acting, dancing and singing skills in recent months. She sang the Miley Cyrus song “Climb” in an April talent show at her school and secured a role in a local staging of Willy Wonka. She just wrapped the July production and vows “I’m gonna keep auditioning in local theaters.” Her shyness is irrelevant in this arena she says, “It’s kind of scary to get up and talk in front of people I don’t know, but for theater it’s different. I don’t get nervous before going on stage. I guess it feels kind of natural to be on.”


The stage provides golden respite from life’s harsher realities.

8. Animals. “I love all animals. I just came back from Animal-lover sleep away camp. We played animal games, went on field trips to animal shelters and veterinary hospitals and we learned all about animal safety and what to do with strays. I was surrounded by animals:  horses, dogs, cats, fish, gerbils, hamsters, ferrets and bunnies.


In her element at Dolphin Cay at Atlantis Resort Bahamas. She wants to show à la fave TV program Animal Planet “all the majestic animals and cool locations, so that maybe it will make people interested in saving them.

9. Horseback Riding.  She loves horses and last year began volunteering with the local Werkheiser family organization, Flying High, which provides equine-assisted autism therapy. She “grooms the horses, plays games with the kids and walks them on the horses.


She’s been riding since age four.

10. Being with My Mom. She realizes just how precious time is with her mother, enjoying it from simple quotidian pleasures to fantastic trips.

“I’m glad to have my mom in my everyday life.”

For more information about Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, visit www.pancan.org.

To make your voice heard before congress in support of the initiative, visit http://www.capwiz.com/pancan/home/

The Trove: Erin Robinson

July 23, 2011 - 70 Responses

We’ve relocated! View Erin’s updated story at The Trove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With schoolgirls in Banda Village, Rwanda.
Erin Robinson loves summer thunderstorms and she got one as we chatted in her childhood home in Washington, DC over the July Fourth weekend, her sweeping gestures and sound effects underscored by the distant thunder and gentle rain. We noshed on fresh fruit and spoke of mutual travel glories: the spirit-lift from burning the Mexican tree resin Copal; houseboating in Kerala and bonding with rescued baby elephants. Her lovely mom Dianne played with Erin’s three-year-old niece Madison; her hospitable dad Harry made it back just before the rains after a round of golf. “We moved to this house when I was in first grade,” she says of the Tudor where she and sisters Kia and Leigh were raised. “I love the neighborhood we grew up in. All the kids would play dodge ball or foursquare or freeze tag and when the sun set we knew it was time to go home. I’d say 70% of the friends I have today are people I grew up with.” The Robinsons of Shepherd Park: Harry, Erin, Dianne, Kia Winlock and Leigh Warfield. When she wasn’t outside playing she was inside creating. From the age of two-and-half, her mom says “she would just sit and draw.” Erin recalls making shoes for her younger sisters out of the cardboard inserts from her father’s laundered dress shirts. “I would trace their feet for the soles, put labels in them and punch holes in the tops to lace them with ribbon. I was about eleven.” She declared she wanted to be a fashion designer, an illustrator or, like many children, a veterinarian. Her grandmother sent her to the Corcoran School of Art for Saturday classes from seventh to ninth grades. By high school veterinary science wasn’t a thought. “I had the Beverly Johnsons and Imans, the Gia Carangis and Janice Dickinsons pasted on my walls. I was obsessed with the movie Fame, saw it about 5 times. I really wanted to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts but my parents thought I was going to be dancing on the lunch room tables, so I got sent to the nuns at Academy of the Holy Names instead. Upon graduation, Grandma once again advocated for her as an artist, sending her to Parsons School of Design in Paris for the summer. “I lived in the dorm and took illustration with Albert Elia, one of my favorite teachers.  I excelled in it. It was amazing.” Erin is ever grateful to her grandmother who passed away just days after she returned. She attended her father’s alma mater, Howard University, where he has held the posts of Vice President of the University as well as Dean and Professor of Urban Design in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her parents may have been cautious in their schooling preferences, but as Erin says “they were insanely nurturing. Markers, papers, triangles, whatever I needed,they provided.” That included a summer program the following year at Parsons in New York, where she’d wanted to live since she was nine. Deciding that Howard wasn’t the place for her, she set her sights on attending Parsons full time. “I was thrilled when I got that acceptance letter!” she exclaims. She lived with relatives on the Upper West Side and eventually moved with a roommate to a tiny apartment on Waverly and Perry in Greenwich Village. “It was a four-story walk-up, I had a fold-out chair bed and a little half-refrigerator and we thought, This is fantastic! ” She would then establish a long relationship with the great borough of Brooklyn where we met long ago through our dear friend Barb Chennault. Erin’s professional foray into fashion was designing sweaters for the Jaclyn Smith Collection, a Kmart property. Over a storied career with stints at the likes of Kikit and Abercrombie & Fitch among others she came full circle to become the vice-president of the baby division of Kmart/Sears Holdings, Inc.
With an eye on costume design, she decided to move to Los Angeles in 1992. “When you’re in your twenties you’re fearless, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I was going,” she says. Armed with optimism and a $500 parental subsidy, off she went. Soon after, she secured a job building costumes on the popular sketch comedy In Living Color where Barb worked in the wardrobe department.
From Fire Marshall Bill to Wanda, making costumes there “was like Halloween arts and crafts, ” she recalls. ” I mean it wasn’t couture, it was more like where’s the stapler? Hot glue gun? Maybe a couple of stitches?’ she laughs. “It was a career highlight, that job. I am still very close to the people I met there. There was a very small black wardrobe community in LA, we’d always look out for each other. The hours were crazy, but it was a blast! She left behind the grind of TV/film production to return to New York where she began her career in childrenswear with Baby Gap. Why kidswear? “Women’s is so nit-picky with 5 million different opinions,” she says. “Baby is sweet, cute, a lot of fun. You don’t have to be so serious.” That doesn’t mean she didn’t work hard. “I worked my behind off. It exposed me not only to some amazing, talented people but also to travel: Hong Kong, Europe and Tokyo.” During her seven-year tenure she designed newborn as well, but managerial differences sent her packing, at least temporarily, to fervent freelancing and traveling.  “I was hustling. I was like you’re gonna work this then you’re gonna get on an airplane.” Hired to revamp the Kmart brand, former Gap Executive Vice President Lisa Schultz tapped Erin to update the baby division. They literally did from the ground up out of Lisa’s apartment until the Midwest-based company secured New York offices. “It gave me this opportunity to utilize all my skills. It was insane at times but so creative. I’m proud of what we established.”

Beckoned by the bay.

As the business grew, so did corporate intervention. “I felt myself getting swallowed up, like I was drowning there and I just needed a change.” While in Hawaii for a wedding, she saw people cliff jumping in Waimea Bay and decided to go for it. She fretted a bit but found encouragement in the voices of kids shouting “lady, don’t look down, just jump.” She did. “It was like a cleansing, a baptism. When I surfaced I was on an adrenaline high and I set a date in my head and a plan in motion: this time next year you are going to be out.”

“My home is special to me, it is my sanctuary, It took me a long time to get it just as I liked it.”  But she packed up her life, gave up her space, and lived out of bags as she plotted her sabbatical to decompress, refuel and serve– perhaps in the Congo. She remembers sharing her plan with her mother. “My mom is really strong, protective and stoic. The look I saw in her face –the fear– broke my heart, but ultimately she offered her complete support.” Her father didn’t take to the idea as easily but once he came around he jumped into action suggesting items for her pack. “I actually found it quite comical and endearing. He made sure I was set and “saw me off at the airport with my little orange backpack.” Banda Village, Nyungwe Rainforest. She flew into Kigali, capital of genocide-ravaged Rwanda. “You feel the veil of heaviness of what took place. It’s hard to come across anyone that was not affected in some way.” Thwarted by advisories to stay out of the region, her plan to serve in the DRC was reconfigured to join Peace Corps workers by volunteering with Kageno.org in Banda Village. Walking through town. Aware of and grateful for her life’s privilege she wanted to somehow give back and as an African American woman to dispel the notion of the white savior. With her light complexion and green eyes the villagers called her mzungu– white person. For a girl raised in 1970′s Chocolate City, to be considered anything other than black took her aback. “Nitwa Erin,” my name is Erin, she asserted. Sustenance. During her stay, she assisted in any way she could from serving nutrient-rich Susomna to the malnourished children to painting illustrations of vocabulary words on the walls of the schoolroom. As she painted she played Brazilian music, a Pied Piper’s call to a quartet of young village girls, who came and doodled on the blackboard as she worked. Moved by the rhythm, their tiny hips started to sway. Erin will never forget the children’s stories of survival, like that of eight-year-old miracle, Rebecca. The back of her head is deeply scarred from a long-ago baboon attack. She’d been in the fields with her older siblings when aggressive baboons descended from the forest. Frightened, her siblings ran to get their parents, leaving the three-year-old behind. When they returned to the scene, Rebecca was gone. The beasts had carried her off, mauled her and left her for dead. It’s incredible that she survived and that her parents were able to find her. Of her new friends Erin says, “I want them to know I care, that it wasn’t a one-shot deal.”  She plans to return with clothing, necessities and prints of the many beautiful images she snapped. Bandan beauty. Heading north to the Virungas, a cluster of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the trek was literally and figuratively breathtaking. The high altitude left Erin breathless as did the incredible vistas and the origin of the Nile. “We hung out with the gorillas– the original fam. They were picking and scratching and farting,” she chuckles. Up Virunga Mountain. Next stop, Nairobi, Kenya where she visited the animal orphanages, getting up close and personal with the endangered monkeys, giraffes, cheetahs and elephants. She then went to neighboring Kibera, originally developed by the British as a forest settlement for Nubian soldiers returning home after service in World War I. Today the impoverished residents live in squalid conditions. As Erin’s guide led her through the muck and filth to the slum’s center, she felt afraid for the first time on her trip.  He sensed her fear, looked at her very directly and said “Don’t be scared. We are not criminals, we are just very, very poor.” She was deeply moved and tried to hide her tears.  “Will you come back? “ he asked.  He found something on the ground to write down an email address.  She’s since written but received no reply. One of the many beautiful children of Kibera. From the motherland to Indonesia, the leg of her journey designed to “get balanced again… Bali is spiritual, so beautiful it’s ridiculous.” She began each day in meditation; on Mondays and Saturdays she took life drawing classes, something she hadn’t done since her Parsons days and she spent her first ever Christmas away from her family. “I stayed a month, but I could live there,” she says dreamily. In Bali, I cared for myself inside and out. I had an aura and I truly felt beautiful.” A morning prayer; a beautiful drawing. She left the calm for the cacophony of Delhi, teeming with people, livestock, dust and risky driving. “India is where I confronted myself and it was hard. A Delhi wedding. “They party!” She was glad to connect with her friend, travel writer Jonathan Yevin who traverses the globe with all he needs tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. They took the no-frills option from Delhi to Agra, the second-class train, made the requisite pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal and were invited to the nearby ultra-luxe hotel Oberoi Amarvilas for a tour and lunch. “ So we walked into the Oberoi, these two little raggedy vagabonds.” As at the Taj, there was a glaring juxtaposition of opulent beauty within the gates and extreme poverty just outside. Jonathan and Erin auto-rickshaw through Agra. A Brahman bull and petals at the feet of Ganesh at the Taj Mahal. In Jaipur, she felt a surge of creative energy. “It inspired me. Between the gold leaf and the textures and the walls, I designed a line of dresses. Jaipuri adornment on walls, domes even the camels. On the backwaters of the southern state of Kerala, home of “the nicest people ever,” she and a friend rented a houseboat under the palms as everyone back home in the eastern US was inundated with snow. Glimpses of Kerala. At the start of her adventure some questioned the wisdom of giving up her VP gig and fabulous two bedroom loft with Dad’s Eames chair, but the universe rewards the courageous. She’s returned to the team she loves at Sears Holdings and soon moves into a new apartment in the same beloved Brooklyn loft building…but with a firm commitment to giving back. Her Gemini twin selves seek beauty in the ethereal and the earthly, bound in loving sentiment by both. Here’s a look into some of the things she holds dear:  1. Daydreaming. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love to daydream.” The daydreamer and her untitled painting. 2. G10 Camera. An avid photographer and sentimental documentarian of life experience, she is seldom without it. The Canon Power Shot G10. 3. Tulum. It has become an annual ritual to visit the pristine beaches of the Yucatán peninsula for her late spring birthday or new year retreat. She looks forward to seeing the friends she’s made at Sueños Tulum, the eco-friendly Mexican resort. 4. Bali Rituals.  Fueling her pre-existing “incense junkieness,” she took on the clarifying morning practices. “They get up in the morning, gather the frangipani, the plumeria and they offer something to their gods whether it’s a Ritz cracker or a cigarette. And they light the incense and meditate with the Buddhas and the Lakshmis…” Aromatic, personal, spiritual. 5. Fragrant Florals. Her favorites are peony, tuberose and lilac. She tries to buy herself flowers once a week. She enjoys making her own arrangements.

6. Browsing Interior Magazines. Elle Decoration UK, Living etc. and the decor8 blog, Love these!” For inspiration…

7. Sasha Dolls. Introduced in the 1960′s by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler, the dolls were intended to depict a universal image of childhood. Dianne Robinson made certain that her girls played with dolls of varying skin tones, not just the blonde, blue-eyed offerings that lined most shelves at that time. Now collectible, the dolls can be found through sources like Ebay. Cora; and Palila from Allegro Melody Art Dolls.

8. My Mayan and Aztec Calender Necklaces.  “I like having the sun close to my heart.”

You rarely see her without one of the two.

9. My Sketch Books. Repositories of her incredible talent, they hold her inspirations, her imaginings and creative intentions.

The fruits of her Jaipur musings.

10. Daddy and Me at Dulles.  One of a couple of treasured photos with her Vietnam-bound father. “I look at that photo and thank the creator for the opportunity to experience my father and have him nurture me to who I am today.  I don’t have to make up stories or daydream about who he was because he came home.”

First Lieutenant Harry G. Robinson III returned from Vietnam with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to raise a beautiful family with wife Dianne and establish a long and illustrious career.

The Trove: Ludlow Beckett

July 10, 2011 - 11 Responses

The distinguished proprietor.

Back in 1999 one handsome, stylish LB, Lloyd Boston, hipped me to another, Ludlow Beckett. Ludlow had just opened his Fort Greene shop, Yú Interiors and Lloyd was spreading the word about his friend’s new venture. Given Lloyd’s clean, modern tastes I knew it would be good. Since then the emporium of “home accessories for modern living” has become my go-to spot for everything from scented candles to vases, lamps, art books and my mid-century glass-topped Danish coffee table.  It’s always a pleasure to browse the inventory for something new and chat with the mellow-voiced Ludlow. We spoke recently of the challenges and rewards of caregiving, how he’s survived in a faltering economy and as the somber anniversary looms, reminisced about the island lift we got when just weeks after the horrors of September 11, 2001 we were both in Kingston, Jamaica for the inaugural Caribbean Fashion Week.

Kingston born and raised, Ludlow “grew up with parents that were very conscious of style,” he says. “My mom started coming to the states in the sixties and would bring back American stuff.  When I look back at the furniture, I think Wow, that was pretty cool!”  Though the seed was planted then, it would germinate for quite a while.

“I never thought of it as a career. I came to the US at twenty and went to college, two years at City College for accounting then Pace University for finance,” he says. He spent 27 years on Wall Street but ultimately left banking when his mother became ill. “I didn’t want to travel as much, so I took time off.” While caregiving, he pondered what business he could open in Brooklyn.  Given the onslaught of gentrification in Fort Greene, he thought home goods would be a viable local option to big box stores.  In keeping with his modernist aesthetic, “It was about providing the things I would like in my own home. I operated under the premise that if I liked it, someone else would like it too whether it’s a Votivo candle or a vintage serving tray.”

About the store name he says “It’s everything YOU need,” and with a considerable Asian influence on much of the merchandise, he spelled it Yú. He incorporates new with vintage pieces, mostly mid-century modern. He loves that era for its “gorgeous woods” like walnut and rosewood; simplicity,”great design without being ornate” and functionality “mass produced for modern living, but still beautiful.”

Yú’s interior.

He’s kept his doors open through the economic downturn armored by his banking experience. “Having managed people (a group of eighty) having run a call center for Chase where you understand customer service, how to recruit, how to train, how to run reports to check progress…all the pieces that come together to run a business. I learned that if you can’t increase your revenue you can still be profitable if you keep your expenses down.”

And most importantly he acknowledges his life partner of 24 years, tax accountant, Allen Harvey, “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

George Mulhauser for Plycraft chair; gold leafed Sea Urchin bowl; spider clock; Quistgaard ice buckets; Tozal ceramic boxes and trays; Zwelethu Mthethwa book; Ridley’s classic games and mid-century Danish teak mirror.

Lean or flush he absolutely enjoys his entrepreneurial endeavor. “When you do something you love, the rewards can come in ways that are unexpected,” he says. An elderly Latina woman, a resident of the local senior center has supported him from the beginning. Though his modern sensibility differed from hers, she wanted to patronize his business and made a concerted effort to seek out items she related to like scented candles. They have become friends. Another customer “came to check on me during the blackout with a flashlight and a beer. So it’s not just about making a dollar, its about making relationships far beyond a transaction.”

Similarly, a look at his Trove reveals a quest for the simple pleasures; his favorites experiential, the stuff that creates quality of life.

1. Entertaining. “I love cooking and love being with my friends over a home-cooked meal.”

2. Great Espresso. “Made in the morning, with my own espresso beans.”

Bialetti stove top espresso maker.

3. Negroni.  “I love cocktails but a good Negroni is the best!”

The classic Campari aperitif via SeriousEats.com.

4. A Bath. He enjoys a good ole tub soak with aromatic botanicals like eucalyptus, lavender and sage. “I’m a product person when it comes to baths.

A Yuma bathtub from BluBleu.

5. Farmer’s Markets. “Brooklyn’s are great, but the one at Union Square can’t be beat, especially in the Springtime.”

Photo via: The Untrepreneur

6. Sag Harbor.  The Hamptons village is home to several historically black enclaves including Chatfield Hills, where Ludlow and Allen purchased a home in 1998.

The pool at their home.

7. Kobo Candles. Clean burning soy wax and unusual fragrance combinations make the scented candles a fave in the shop and his home.

In-store, he carries a full complement of fragrances, but at home he burns the green yet spicy Jalapeño.

8. My Shop. “Gives me the opportunity to meet some great, really interesting people.

Keeping shop: Ludlow and his wares.

9. Vintage Wittnauer Watch.  He loves the 1940′s timepiece inherited from his father.

Launched in 1872, The Wittnauer brand graced fine Swiss watches until it was bought by the Bulova company in 2001.

10. Complexions Contemporary Ballet.  Ludlow truly enjoys the performances of Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson’s dance company.

Complexions Co-Founder Desmond Richardson.

The Trove: Marcia Jones

July 7, 2011 - 14 Responses

The artist at her recently opened exhibition, Live and in Stereo(type) Photo: Gantt Center.

In 2009 visual artist Marcia Jones chose to inaugurate her brave and unabashedly personal blog, untitled 1972 –truthBE told on December 12, the anniversary of her conception.

 Teens Paul Davis and Christine Jones with their infant daughter; from “Open letter to self.”

And with miraculous will, she’s moved along. From her birth during Mercury retrograde at Chicago’s Little Company of Mary Hospital, her home for her first three months as her tiny body was incubated to her sixty-hour labor to bring daughter Saturn into the world in 1996 to birthing a new vision of and for herself as she juggles the excitement of her career momentum as an artist with the unpredictable challenges of living with chronic illness.

Marcia and I spoke at length by phone on the eve of her exhibition opening with fellow Atlanta artist, Fahamu Pecou at The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, NC. The culmination of her residency (a collaboration between the Gantt Center and McColl Center for Visual Art) her works for the show are from the series, The Displaced Oshun Theory created “to examine the purposeful patriarchal division of The Divine Mother (Mary the Virgin) and The Sacred Whore (Mary Magdalene.)”  She and Fahamu celebrated their shared June 25 birthday at an artist’s talk  at the museum.

“Wonder Twins,” Fahamu and Marcia (in a glorious vintage find) flank Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe whose Gantt exhibition opened the same day.

The show raised a few questions and eyebrows so Marcia has been invited to address the controversy in a discussion on July 21 from 6-7:30pm.  Of her return for the artist round table she says, “curator Ce Scott has been an amazing advocate of my work. I’m very much looking forward to the dialogue with the community, the staff, and the patrons of the Harvey B Gantt Center. I feel like my work is doing exactly what great Art should do… raise discomfort and questioning. I am extremely happy that they are inviting me to come back and answer these questions with valid answers.”

She is grateful for the entire Gantt/McColl opportunity “I sat on a panel with the NEA chairman. Who gets to do that?  The McColl Center catapulting me in the spaces that I would never be in otherwise. So I’m completely appreciative of that. They chose me to speak on behalf of the arts community. I am honored.”

Another part of her residency obligation was, of course, community outreach. “I was really into the advocacy work I did at a battered women’s shelter. That was so healing for all of us there.  I haven’t been physically abused but metaphorically we’re all a little battered we’re all a little wounded in some way. I’m not comparing mine to theirs by any means, but it still resonates in an emotional place in women: trauma, regret, hurt, shame or what not.  I want to move into this arena. I want to help people heal. At my studio at the McColl, women would come in and leave crying. I realize that emotion is very repressed these days, I mask too.”

We spoke of her bohemian childhood, the smile-as-mask that women often adorn, the Kahloesque honesty of her work and her periodic need to pick it up, pack it up and start anew–elsewhere.

Declaring “I’m taking my baby, I’m gone,” Christine and two-year-old Marcia left life in Maple Park and the Southside for Atlantic City, NJ and a cross-country odyssey alighting in Arkansas, Texas, and finally Southern California when Marcia was nine. By the time Marcia was elected president of the Marshall High Black Student Union,  they’d bounced from Silverlake, Venice, and Leimert Park in Los Angeles alone. One of the grounding forces for Marcia was their embrace of Buddhism when she was eleven.

From holding hands (with Mommy) to shaking poms to wielding fire.

Her father, who hadn’t been allowed to take part in her life past infancy, called her on her 18th birthday. “He was like, okay, now we can talk…and we were inseparable from that day forward.” Though she loves her mother, she considers her father and her Chicago aunt, “Aunnie” Lavan Morrison her parents.

With a goal to become a journalist she headed to historically black Clark Atlanta University, where she discovered her writing lacked the necessary objectivity for journalism (Subjectivity was a theme that would pop up again during her graduate study.) While there the young woman who’d filled countless childhood hours coloring books from back to front with crayons, switched majors to fashion, embracing her natural affinity for the visual. She enjoyed the foundation classes, art and drawing. “Conceptually, I liked the idea of being an artist,” she says.  She’d seen the then-emerging artist Radcliffe Bailey around Atlanta, his work, the first show she ever saw.

Armed with a fashion portfolio she headed to New York after her 1995 graduation and camped with friends on Avenue A. While styling a photo shoot she chatted with djassi daCosta johnson who said “I’m going abroad, do you want to interview for my job?” (as personal assistant to harriette cole) “Hook it up. That’d be cool,” was Marcia’s response.  Later at an event she a noticed a woman in the restroom and said, “Ooh, I love your hair.” That woman was harriette, she discovered when she went to the interview.” She got the gig and when I met her, an Afroed angel in the halls of Essence, full of optimism and a smile to melt glaciers, she seemed a blithe spirit, energized by all the possibility that lay before her. “That’s one of the things I miss about being young and vibrant and excited about things, you attract stuff,” she says.  And attract she did: a job, a love, a child and a calling in short order.

Inspired by her painter roommate and drawing on her own innate gift, she began painting. Her first was a tree woman with a hollow womb and which she gifted the man who would give her both love and a baby girl, poet Saul Williams.  “Yeah we conjured up that baby. There was a full moon and a group of us on the Brooklyn Bridge reciting poetry: Mike Ladd, Mums, Mos Def, Wood Harris, Bahiyyih Maroon, Saul and me. It was a magical night…”she recalls fondly.

Sun and Sea and Saturn.

Brooklyn Moon Cafe was buzzing then, poets making noise and making names and I helped bring local visual artists to the space to mount their works.  “When you approached me about that it came at a beautiful time. Thank you. That was really major for me. It solidified my presence in that whole movement–Brooklyn Moon when all this history was taking place.”  She began doing performance painting, raw and in-the-moment, which has taken her from touring England and Scotland with Saul to touring Turkey with band Wax Poetic to solo “performances” in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

The Unscene: Marcia Jones directed by Pierre Bennu/Exit the Apple.

After she and Saul parted, she returned to her LA “hometown” and accepted a position at Ikon Secondary Art Gallery in Santa Monica, an immersive experience in the art world.  She noticed that the exhibiting artists all had master’s degrees thought that she too needed an MFA to be taken seriously as an artist and to begin to exhibit her work. “That’s how I ended up in grad school.” That and the joy she knew it would bring her dad.  She was accepted and enrolled in University of North Carolina at Greensboro, studying transatlantic slave trade for her thesis.  She studied the work of Robert Farris Thompson, Orisha studies and slave culture. She was moved by the slave practice of using cooking pots as tombstones. “My father passed away a month after I got into school. It devastated me.  The night she learned of his passing she painted out her sorrow in the wee hours on a vast canvas she submitted for the next morning’s critique.  Tear-streaked and puffy, she donned sunglasses and was reprimanded for it. “I said look, I found out my father died, I painted all night, please don’t make me take off my glasses.”

Her father, Paul Davis and the memorial pot she created in his honor.

At the funeral her father’s best friend told her, “you don’t understand how happy he was you were getting your master’s; he bragged about you all the time.” The grad school experience was, however, brutal. “It tore me to shreds emotionally, spiritually, physically.  I didn’t see it coming. I’d never been so harshly critiqued.” The issue of objectivity (like in undergraduate journalism) reared its head again. From an artist whose work is deeply personal, the criticism your work is too subjective, yields a bored, “yeah, and?…I muse off of my relationships. And the more they fellow in the arena of dysfunction, the grittier they are. I heard the gamut from ‘no painterly technique’ to ‘the work is a little contrived.’” Her champions at the school, Susan Page and Cora Cohen had left, but instructor Juan Logan and artist Kojo Griffin encouraged her to continue — What you’re doing, there’s a place for it. Don’t stop.

Death of New York, circa late 90′s; the artist at work; I Am the Difference, 2002; Displaced Oshun Theory 2; Perfect 2, 2006; Untitled 2004.

She’d chosen her thesis chair because he’d written a book on Atlantic triangular trade, a seemingly good fit but in the last days, he hedged on signing off for her, asking “If I realized that his signature is a green light. I was like what do you want to hear from me, that I won’t end up at the Whitney or MoMA unless you sign this paper?  Everybody else is out celebrating because they’re done and I’m sitting here in your office.” He critiqued and found value in her portfolio and they had “a very long conversation about my position on art, contemporary art specifically.” He signed.  Three days later she was in the hospital. She thought it was exhaustion from all the stress. It was Multiple Sclerosis.

My Body, 2008.

“I kept going. I came back to Atlanta.” Holding a Master of Fine Arts, she “called on my department chair at Clark to question how to get into this [education] industry. How do you get the three years of experience they want before they hire you? What do I do now?” she asked.

“You come here,” he said.  “Someone’s going to have to take over my classes, are you interested?”

“’Hell yeah!’  That’s how I became a professor at my alma mater.  It was awesome. I walked in to ask for advice and walked out with a job,” she exclaims.  “I love teaching. I’m a really good teacher. It was the only time I’ve ever felt totally in my divine purpose–the mother, the artist, the oracle, all of it. Everything about me fell in place.” She was highly ranked among students and in end-of-year department evaluations, but when the ax swung during massive school-wide layoffs, she was the only person in her department to receive a pink slip.  An aunt in the HR industry suggested that perhaps with her illness, she was simply too expensive to insure, as she was offered an adjunct position without medical benefits.

She takes it day-by-day. She received a 2005 Caversham Printmaking Fellowship in South Africa and attended the Spelman College Taller Portobello Artist Colony in Panama in 2006. Though uninsured she says, “Everything has been blessed and taken care of.” Timing has been crucial.  As she needed to heal and focus, Saturn was beginning to spread her wings. Years ago through a reading she came into an early awareness that Saturn is “Saul’s baby,” which has allowed her to “surrender the reins. I have to let her develop in that way, in compliance with the universe because her dreams are going to come true through her interactions with him, witnessing his life. Her father is the vehicle and it all makes sense now.”

“She came to me one day and said ‘I’d like to go to California and live with my dad.’ My diagnosis was relatively recent and I thought This is no life for a twelve-year-old, to have to care for a parent. Go live a life. Her father was in the epicenter of what she wants. I knew what it was like being a child with restraints based on a parents wants, desires, even fears.  I had to let her go.”

“I’m her grounding mechanism. When she needs to talk with her mother, I am there. I’m her advocate, but she and Saul are in the trenches doing the work.” (They now live in Paris) “She comes to me in summers and it’s great. She’s great.” Her bilingual daughter now wants to study German. “She has an ear for music and language.  She taught herself to play Adele’s Hometown Glory on piano and it was flawless.  I was so impressed.  Same thing with guitar.”

“She talks like Saul and looks like me. I call her ‘Spawn,’ she chuckles. “Sat was powerful from the beginning,” she muses about realizing she was pregnant. “We were terrified.” As they discussed the test results, the sunny sky gave way to a deluge that matched their tears.  Once they made a choice: “I guess we’re going to have this baby,” the rains stopped. Two weeks after her due date, Marcia went into labor on Sunday night and Saturn River Renge arrived Wednesday afternoon. “I went to a birthing center to have a water birth and ended up at St. Vincent’s with an epidural-but it all is what it is.”

When your wonderful daughter is a Transatlantic flight away, it helps to have Skype.

“As a parent you’re supposed to make your child better than you are. And she is already,” Marcia says. “We’re doing a good job. I’m so proud of her. I could talk about her forever.” Saturn’s teacher commended her on an abstract painting she’d done: “This is amazing, how did you learn this?” Her reply delights Marcia to no end. “My mom.”

That Saturn’s children may one day read about her she says, “that is a dream of mine, that they’ll say ‘oh that’s my grandmother.’ I’m not trying to be an art star right here, right now– I want history. Frida Kahlo legendary.” She wants socks made in her likeness, “handbags at the flea market, beaded curtains.  That’s what I think about. But if the Whitney calls tomorrow I wouldn’t say no.”

The “visual learner” shares without commentary, but rather a curation of defining images, her ten favorite things.

1. Filbert Paint Brushes.  

Photo: Meadow Overstreets

2. Poets.

Poetry was a powerful springboard for her — into becoming an artist, into motherhood. It’s entwined with her adult life in collaborations with poets from Saul to jessica Care moore to her soulful exchanges with the “phenomenal” Stefen Micko. Video: Notorius Productions.

3. Kissing.

baciare. baisers. beijo. besarse. jiewen. kisu. kumbusu. kussen. kyssar.

4. Aesthetic Discernment.

From group Rising Appalachia, “SUNU.”

5. Boots.

The knee-high, fringed Minnetonka is a fave.

6. Creative Critical Thought.

The LA-based blog, Galaxy/.09, offers an amalgam of her eclectic interests.

7.8) Universal Sacred Geometry.


Diagram: Il Triangolo Sacro e La Piana di Giza. (The Sacred Triangle and The Pyramid of Giza) © 1998 Alfonso Rubino.

8. Newton’s Laws mixed with String Theory.

A  quantum primer.

9. Liquitex Soft Body Acrylic Paint.  


She specifically uses the light blue and soft pink shades.

10. Authenticity.

Ezili, dancer/choreographer Adia Tamar Whittaker’s collaborative video project with filmmakers Jennifer Pritheeva Samuel and Joshua Bee Alafia.

Join the Marcia Jones artist page on facebook.


The Trove: Eisa Ulen Richardson & Ralph Richardson

July 2, 2011 - 28 Responses

On the Fundy Trail. On each other: “He is my rock…She is wonderful, loving, giving.”

Capricorn hip-hop heads Eisa Nefertari Ulen and Ralph Richardson, Jr. lived parallel lives near to, yet unaware of each other. Born in the city of Brotherly Love, each eventually moved with their families to idyllic Columbia, Maryland in the 1970s. As young adults, they both lived in the Nation’s Capital. For years, their worlds hovered close, threatening to collide–their cousins were good friends; they attended some of the same memorable events; they both considered law careers until the Muse called and each followed her to Brooklyn. In 1999 at the junction of Fulton and Flatbush, defying the laws of physics, their parallel lines converged.

“He saw me walking ahead of him and he liked my posture,” Eisa says. They did a bit of a dance — he walking alongside her then dropping back in the cut when she failed to notice. Undeterred, he finally strode forward offering a bright smile and a hello. “We started talking and he told me he was a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like yeah and everybody else in this neighborhood.

“No, no, really I am,” he said and dashed into his nearby apartment emerging with a VHS tape of his first film, a black and white short called Kharja which they promptly viewed in the local video store.

“Absolutely, stunningly beautiful,” Eisa says. “Very well-done. So we talked about that and I told him I was a writer and he walked me home.” Since she’d just met him on the street, she was initially hesitant to give up the digits when he asked for her phone number.  “He said, ‘You know you’re going to give it to me’ and actually I did know. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, when I looked at him, he felt really familiar. I gave it to him and about 10 minutes later he called and read me a poem he’d composed about our meeting.”

“Off the top…I only make fresh-baked bread,” Ralph laughs. From that day on, every day they were in the same town, they saw each other. There was no singular moment when it crystallized for either of them, “other than just meeting,” he says, the infinity line touched in Fort Greene. “Things evolved organically,” Ralph says and they married July 5, 2004.

“We are committed to each other as loving partners but both having divorced parents we’re even more committed to the institution of marriage,” Eisa says. And now since the 2009 birth of their son, Ralph Everett Hooper Richardson III, their entangled roots grow deeper.

“Ralph is the one I knew was out there. I had opened up a space in my life for my husband to walk in and that’s when he came…and gave me a son.”

When I visited the Richardsons in their Fort Greene home last week, Ralph talked time theory while Eisa readied herself in the bedroom. “Time drags for the young. The older you are it seems that time quickens. I think it’s because you’re denied things when you’re young: I can’t wait to be this, I can’t wait to do that.  Anticipation elongates time and I think adults need to incorporate that anticipation to extend time.”  Two-and-a-half-year-old Ralphie popped out to give me status updates on Mommy. Astrology buff Ralph explained that their son is an Aquarius, the water bearer, “he pours the water into the river, conducting the flow.” When Eisa emerged she thanked her baby boy for keeping the communication fluid.

As I sat down with the writer and filmmaker to chat life, books and movies, the ridiculously cute Ralphie (a.k.a. Hoop) shared his artwork: mixed media on paper and a Cheerios butterfly which I awkwardly broke “Ooh Miss Sharon destroyed the butterfly,” Eisa laughed and quickly reassembled the pipe cleaner-clothespin-breakfast cereal creation.

Eisa holds dear the sense of place, lineage, history, being. She is fiercely proud of her stunningly elegant “Grandmom,” Carmelita, “the Philly fashionista,” and first black woman to become a nurse-anesthetist at the University of Pennsylvania. There are traces of her in Eisa’s graceful comportment. She is grateful for her bright, beautiful mother’s staunch support. She knows she stands on the strong shoulders of remarkable women (and men) and revels in “who I am as a woman right now.  The identity of being a mom, a wife, a writer… that’s really special to me.”

Ralph is a take-it-as-it-comes guy moving through life’s triumphs and challenges in good humor with an open mind, hearty laugh and belief in the power of dreams and embracing the fortuitous moment.

Not surprisingly, womanist Eisa’s favorite films are black woman-centered and directed, Daughters of the Dust and Eve’s Bayou. Ralph’s top three are The Godfather, 1 and 2, (“bar none, together they are my number one,”) Blade Runner and Scarface.

“I used to think of The Godfather as a gangster movie and what my husband taught me is that it’s a narrative about immigration,” Eisa chimes in. “And so it got me thinking Scarface and Godfather are really rich immigrant tales. Scarface had a lot of exploitative elements but it was riveting; that opening montage with the Mariel boatlift anchors the film in a powerful way. Ralph helped me differentiate between these immigrant tales and narratives of containment like Boyz in the Hood or Menace II Society. My favorite in that category would be City of God.” 

“Yes, awesome film, awesome,” Ralph agrees. “Probably my fifth favorite, with Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious at number four. I’m all into the conspiratorial, claustrophobic, paranoia-type thing. I’m a big fan of noir and it has those elements. My favorite books are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner. Ellison has those elements of claustrophobia and being oppressed …gravity, tremendous amounts of gravity.” Of his two favorite authors he says, “I’m gonna make a movie combining those two sensibilities and smashing them together.”

Eisa’s favorite books are all seminal works written by black authors: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Jean Toomer’s Cane and South African writer, Bessie Head’s Maru. Her own first story–written at about age four–on tipis and tulips, remains in her mother’s library.

 The gorgeous Ulen family in 1970s ubiquity: the Olan Mills portrait.

Eisa’s activist parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen met as students of historically black Lincoln and Cheyney Universities.  They raised their infant daughter in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, they’d divorced and Eisa’s grandfather admonished, “get my granddaughter the hell out of there.”  Her mom, ready for a fresh start, took her ten-year-old to the relatively new planned community of Columbia, Maryland.

A proud alumna of Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, Eisa “always did well in English class, contributed to the literary magazine and even wrote for the city youth newspaper.” Though black literature was prominent in her own home and her granddad was a journalist, she planned to become a lawyer. When a friend explained that she wanted to attend Oberlin College because they had a great writing program, she “opened a door of possibility for me,” Eisa says. “It was like ding ding ding ding…you can make a career of being a writer.”

A presentation at Western on Sarah Lawrence College (which also has a stellar writing program) sold her. “I was in love. The recruiter talked about the philosophy of the school, the culture and the school community.” The location,”right outside New York was ideal because I knew I didn’t want to be in the city, but I wanted to be close. I got the best of both possible worlds.” She wrote throughout college, contributing to school publications. She spent her junior year at Howard, “when DC was the murder capital. We lived at 111 Bates and I was sitting on the stoop when these two girls walked by who were about my age. I overheard them talking: ‘I’m gonna just go on and have this baby before he gets shot up or locked up’ and that stayed with me. It’s not like I went inside and started writing but I held onto the line,” she recalls.

During her senior year, she wrote her first nationally published story, “a remix of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for Urban Profile magazine.” She went home for a couple of years and taught school until she returned to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and education at Columbia.

Upon examining the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston she realized that she didn’t have to be pigeonholed into one genre of writing. “I knew Langston as a poet and Zora as a novelist,” she says. “But there was so much more, especially Zora. She did the Bohemian Fire Dance; she studied anthropology, so she created scholarly work; she was writing essays; she did some freelance journalism; she taught; she worked on the play, Mule Bone; and her fiction, so many short stories and novels. It became very clear to me that I didn’t have to limit myself. Instead of saying I’m a fiction writer or I’m a poet or I’m a journalist I could just say I am a writer. I could be free to do all that.” And so she has, contributing to everyone from The Washington Post to Ms. to The Source to TheRoot.com while keeping her eye on the fiction prize. As a former fellow of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center’s Young African American Fiction Writers, she will be “eternally grateful to Fred Hudson, may he rest in peace for establishing a place for black writers in New York to really nurture creativity in black literary art.”

Her beautiful debut novel, Crystelle Mourning is not autobiographical yet it is imbued with the sensitivity of collective generational experience. “Even though I grew up pretty much middle class and had normal teenage stuff in my life, Baltimore had the highest assault rate then. It was the eighties and I’d go to parties and somebody would get shot and killed; I’d go to the Inner Harbor and somebody would start shooting in the air and everybody would be running.  I’ve had those physical experiences with what was going on statistically all around me. Our generation is not so different from generations before in that we had to learn to process terror.”

The response of the Afrocentric movement was, she explains “very male-centered, there was a gender-specific way of looking at what was going on, which makes a lot of sense because it was boys and men who were killing each other.  Girls weren’t out shooting each other, so I get that, but what became an interesting question for me as a feminist and black woman, a womanist was Well what about the girls and women left behind? How does their pain get expressed?

When she started writing Crystelle Mourning, Eisa thought it was a short story collection. She’d won the fellowship and joined a writers’ group with Brooklyn writer Grace Edwards. “Grace was the one who told me that what I was writing was a novel,” she says. “What became clear is that I was writing about the experiences of my generation and I thank that woman whose name I’ll never know from Bates Street that night because her voice guided me to this work. It’s really about these women: Crystelle, the title character, her mother and the mother of the boy she grew up with who lived across the street. It’s about what happens to these women after he is shot and killed their senior year in high school.”  

The story resonates deeply: “I’ve had women cry and come up and hug me after readings.”

In anticipation of Ralphie’s birth, Eisa quit her collegiate gig teaching English at Hunter. She’s now focused on raising him and throwing herself headlong into writing. Keep abreast of her insightful, incisive work at EisaUlen.com.

Boys to men: the Brothers Richardson, Ralph and Anthony with mom Diane and dad Ralph, Sr.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Diane Richardson sowed the seeds for life-long passion in her first-born. “My mom used to take my brother and me to the movies every weekend.” His first memory of seeing a film is from age three: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “That was the time of double-features for a buck. So I’ve seen all the blaxploitation movies in the theater, when I was like three, four, five-years-old– Shaft, Blacula, Rosey Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, Mandingo,” he says.I saw Jaws at seven.”

“I saw Bad News Bears,” Eisa interjects. She recalls loving the wholesome ET, Ralph has a different take: “Spielberg’s a great filmmaker. It’s cute, but I was like there’s no black dudes in the cul-de-sac and yet everybody loves this strange creature, I don’t see Julio from down in the schoolyard in there. About his adult-themed viewing he says, “it didn’t blanket my innocence, but it made me astute. I had an acute sensibility about what I did like.”

Although he and Eisa aren’t likely to allow their child to watch movies with mature themes, Ralph “wouldn’t change a thing” about his childhood. He was in no way traumatized, in fact he is ever grateful to his mother for the weekly cinema ritual. “It had to have inspired me,” the Widener University grad says. “I didn’t realize until I was 25 and had decided to go to Georgetown Law School that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked myself if I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I do? And this voiceless voice inside said film. Then all this stuff started pouring out. It was a very latent talent I hadn’t realized I had. I never hesitated, I packed up and rolled to New York.” Learning by doing, the self-taught filmmaker began his quest.

His roommates were all Philly transplants: stylist Debra Ginyard, model Belinda Sawyer and actress Yvette Ganier. “I was like Jack Tripper up in that piece,” he laughs. Debra suggested he get a headshot for acting opportunities while trying to establish himself.  On the day Tupac Shakur died the hip-hop fan co-directed his first film with a cast of friends, roommates and himself in the male lead from a script he’d written in 20 minutes (“it flew right out.”) His partner, a film school grad backed out of the project in post production, leaving Ralph to his own devices. Serendipity would have it that he found an editing bay made available for free during certain hours. By immersion, the novice learned to cut film the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed Steenbeck. The film won a New York Short Film award and ran for six months on Starz. “So I knew I could do this,” he asserts.

Shortly after moving to New York he had a vivid dream. “It was so visceral. I was in China. I was really there and had the greatest time.”  Two weeks later he heard from a casting director, We have your headshot. We want you to audition for this part shooting in China. “I don’t even know how they got the headshot,” he says.  He went in of course, to audition and when he blurted out about his dream he got the part. “The Chinese are very into fortuitous luck, so if you dream something like that, it means something.” Off he went to China, shooting for four months. “It was one of the best times of my life, it was incredible, I loved every moment of it,” he remembers.  “By six weeks I didn’t need an interpreter because I love people and being able to communicate with them.”

“Then I worked with RZA on this film I wrote, When Tyson met Tyra. It was my first feature, an urban Bonnie & Clyde.”  He has since directed and/or edited numerous filmed projects and additionally he covers film, television, and popular culture as a freelance writer for TheGrio.com, TheDefendersOnline.com and Time, Inc.

Posted today on theRoot.com is Ralph’s article on Video on Demand (VOD), the game-changing approach to film distribution he’s utilizing for his latest film now available via Amazon as well as VOD.  Sex, Drugs and Comedy, “is a wonderful trip on the road with some of the most brilliant comedians in the country.”

He runs down the first day of production: “I’m shooting on the bridges getting b-roll stuff for the road and this cop at the toll booth wants to confiscate the camera… on the path of the hero there’s always an immediate obstacle to overcome. Then we run out of gas and literally push the car to the gas station.  Then the car breaks down completely. We borrow a car, get lost and finally make it to the place with 15 minutes to get set up. We put the key card in the door to our hotel room, it opens, but it’s bolted. The promoter is having sex with a groupie. You can’t write this stuff…and that was the very first day.”

It’s a rough journey to the A-list. “The crux, the core of being a comedian is the hustle,” he says. “They’re like truck drivers, it’s a hard road.”

“They are the funniest comedians you never heard of,” says Eisa of the comics-on-the-cusp in the film.”Sex Drugs and Comedy is funny, but it also has a real heart and soul that’s poignant and makes it special,” she says proudly of her husband’s work. “Comedy is a brutal art.”

Before I left them to settle Ralphie into naptime, they shared a few favorite things: for Eisa, the stuff of memory, reflection and nostalgia and Ralph’s all kinetic energy: moving pictures, moving sound, moving the body.

Eisa’s Fave Five:

1.Old Family Photos. Represent, represent. Ralphie will know from whence he came surrounded by the faces of  family adorning the walls.  Years ago Eisa discovered a cache of photographs — from snapshots to formal portraits in a bag at her grandmother’s house which she painstakingly mounted for her in a leather-bound archival album. Now that Carmelita has passed on, she treasures the collection.

A few of the many priceless photos: Ralph’s mom Diane in her confirmation portrait; Eisa’s grandmother Carmelita in 8th grade; Eisa’s Bermudan kin evoke Daughters of the Dust; Ralph’s paternal grandparents, Doris and Gene Richardson; Ralph’s maternal grandparents, Cat and Sonny Jones and the treasured album.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God. She cherishes her dog-eared copy of fellow Capricorn Zora Neale Hurston’s classic.

Notes scribbled in the margins are clues to the person she was when she first read the seminal text.

3. The Blue Chair. A touchstone from her mother’s childhood home, it is one of many pieces of heirloom furniture which now grace her Brooklyn apartment.


It’s a Ralphie fave as well, a place to sit with his mom and drum on the djembe.

4. My Paternal Grandmother’s Portrait. Millicent Hooper Ulen was a cellist and pianist and like her father before her she was for many years the proprietor of Hooper Memorial Funeral Home. Her husband, Eisa’s “Pop Pop,” was a writer, the Capital Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier with an office at the Capital dome in Harrisburg. “I used to like to visit there with my dad, it was very exciting to me.


Millicent’s son, Lance now runs the family business and created this painting.

5. Composition Books. The classic ruled notebooks with their black and white mottled covers have housed her words from childhood on.

When writing non-fiction, Eisa types directly into the computer, but for her prose, it’s pen to paper.

Ralph’s Fave Five:

1. Great Underground Movies. Two that he likes are Shanghai Triad.  “Awesome, awesome movie, like The Godfather but set in 1930′s Shanghai. Beautiful!”  And Layer Cake, the British film with a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. “It wasn’t as popular, but just as good as Snatch.”

2. Snowboarding. “I love it because it makes me feel like the Silver Surfer.”

Via Lindsay Fincher.

3. Hiking. The self-described “transcendental mountain man” enjoys a good hike.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

4. Music.  Specifically, “this mixtape I’m still bumpin’ from last year called Radical by OFWGKTA , Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All…The essence of the music stems from an anarchists’ upheaval, Odd Future embodies that.”

“They’re like The Clash-meets-Wu Tang-meets-Onyx. Incredible. They’ve got gnomes as part of their staging. Gnomes! and a lot of smoke and zombies…totally cool.

5. Adventures with Ralphie. We just walk around and observe things. We don’t go to the playground, we don’t have any stress.  So he can not be on the same path all the time, we mix it up, find new things and explore ’cause kids love to explore. I’ll carry a ball, a basketball or a soccer ball and we’ll run the whole time, kicking it along the street.  But then we’ll stop at a sculpture garden…Look at flowers, identify them and I’ll put caterpillars in his hands… He’ll watch people play tennis at the park.

He enjoys the vicarious thrill of the excitement of being two. “You get to relive what you don’t remember.”

The Trove: Anu Prestonia

June 16, 2011 - 40 Responses

Advancing the acceptance of natural beauty, the radiant hair care icon.

So certain that their first-born child would be a boy, Barbra Jean and Preston Newsome awaited son Preston, Jr. When their Aries daughter arrived, they named her Prestonia and called her “Toni.” She would one day become “a new” Prestonia when spirit would dictate that she assume a name to “help manifest the qualities needed” to reach her “incarnation objective,” or purpose in life. As a new member of the spiritual community, Ausar Auset, she was dubbed Anu Kemmerå, one who sees beauty in serving and having correct behavior. Nearly thirty years later, “I’m still working on the behavior part,” she chuckles. She indeed sees the beauty of serving and has crafted an impressive career in the service of healthy beauty – one that has its genesis in her childhood. At ten-years-old, a too-strong perm left her with badly damaged hair that was then cut into a tiny Afro. “At the time, the only people with Afros were in Ebony or Jet. They were celebrities.” Heartily embraced, the reaction to her natural hairstyle surprised her, as she became a celeb among her peers for wearing the “new Afro hairdo.” She’d always “played in other people’s hair,” so by the time she entered her teens she was the go-to girl for all the basketball-playing boys who wanted their hair cornrowed. Her love of beauty is deeply ingrained, from her hairstylist grandmother to her own mother who affirmed Toni’s beauty at every turn. She entered her daughter in several beauty contests, including the famed Hal Jackson’s Miss Teenage Black America Pageant. “We rehearsed at Harlem Hospital’s auditorium: walking and charm taught by the popular models of the day and our talent routines. I chose poetry because spoken word was popular then.” She walked the stage to the strains of Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming.”

The music-loving contestant asked for a pic with the Queen of Soul backstage at the 1972 pageant.

Reciting Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” she intoned, “…Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.” It was a fitting poem for a girl whose bucolic beach existence in Norfolk where her dad was a naval photographer was interrupted by a parental split and relocation with her mom and siblings, Linda and Butch to gritty 1970’s New York City. “In Virginia we could go outside whenever we wanted to. I could just get on my bike, go exploring, get lost, try to catch June bugs and butterflies…or walk, long distances. My mother allowed me the freedom to walk wherever I wanted to. My grandmother’s house was about a mile and a half away and my great–grandmother’s was three miles!”

“When we moved to Brooklyn, everything was on the shutdown, we became prisoners in the apartment. We couldn’t go outside unless an adult was home. It just really changed things.” However she loved their apartment in a huge Pre-war building in Brownsville. “It was really big, had French doors and a sink in our bedroom, which I thought was just the grooviest thing.” The art deco bathroom had a floor-to-ceiling tiled shower stall in addition to a bathtub. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In Virginia we’d only had a tub. So once we got to New York, I thought every day should be a shower day.”

Because of her frequent indoor confinement she “really got into WPIX’s Million Dollar Movie on TV” and remains a film buff to this day. Watching television also introduced her to pioneering African-American news anchor Melba Tolliver and when she traveled to DC to visit an uncle, the numerous black broadcasters there encouraged her as well. “I thought, I can be a broadcast journalist.

Enrolling in the communications program at SUNY Brockport, she “couldn’t even believe how far away it was.” The eight-hour, intra-state trek to the quaint college town was longer than the drive from NYC to Norfolk. It was another world to the brown girl from Brownsville, a one-cinema town with no place to “get hair grease.” She was, however, struck by its beauty, its dramatic seasonal changes and its night sky. “It would be so full of stars and seem so close like you could just reach up and touch them. But when I came home for Christmas, I realized how much I missed being around my people.”

She transferred to historically black Howard University, “a more nurturing environment.” Those days truly shaped the woman and entrepreneur she would become. “Many pivotal changes happened in my life while I was there. I stopped straightening my hair, I became a vegetarian, I discovered yoga, and I learned how to put in an extension, so my career started at Howard.” The summer before her senior year, she started braiding hair at the popular salon, Shelton’s Hair Gallery, took a semester off and never went back, eventually returning to New York. An impetuous move to Jamaica West Indies without enough money to live on yielded “a few weeks of starving” and a need to relocate. She joined her sister, a University of Miami student in South Florida. Doing business as “Have Comb, Will Travel,” Prestonia made house calls to local clients as well as those in DC, New York and eventually the Bahamas. Disenchanted with both Miami’s monotonous climate and Floridians who didn’t “get” the Afrocentric yogi, she moved back to New York and found a sense of community with the Ausar Auset Society. “It felt like home,” she says. They offered yoga, meditation, breathing and African culture based in the sacrifice of the lower parts of your spirit, as opposed to the sacrifice of animals” found in some other African practices. They embraced vegetarianism. “They had all the components I was seeking at that time.”

Tying her mother’s gele in 1987. The yoga devotee in 1979.

After having been raised as a Christian, she embraced the precepts of Kemetic religion and dreamt the name her thriving business would take, Khamit Kinks. Although she left that practice 21 years ago, she remains in loving community with many former members. “My practice now is to be in truth with myself and others,” she says. Part of that truth is to awaken the “hoodwinked, bamboozled“ masses to the myths of popular culture. “I am a crusader for women to help them move from destroying their hair to accepting their own beauty, their own culture, their own aesthetic. What you were born with has value, all you have to do is love it, appreciate it and learn how to work with it or know where to go to have it treated with respect.”

She worked at legendary Kinapps African Groomers for several months until the entrepreneurial impulse resurfaced and she returned to working out of her home. When her friend Maitefa Angaza included pictures of Anu’s work in a pitch on African hairstyles to Essence, the magazine hired them both. Anu created looks for the professional shoot, her styles illustrating Maitefa’s text. Once the double-page spread ran “the phone started ringing off the hook.” Her business grew and she established a longstanding relationship with the magazine styling/braiding models as well as celebrities for editorial shoots. (Khamit Kinks is featured in “Super Naturals,” a beauty story in the July 2011 issue) From Angelas Bassett and Davis to Terry McMillan, Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey she’s covered a broad swath. In 1992 her client, radio deejay Imhotep Gary Byrd referred Stevie Wonder –in need of a quick shampoo– to her. She excitedly accepted but on a three-way call a few weeks later with Stevie on the line to schedule another shampoo appointment Anu replied in mock indignation, “What does he think this is, a laundromat? We don’t shampoo other people’s work!” Stevie remains a client nearly twenty years later, “Yeah Stevie is very relaxed, he thought that was pretty funny.”

Braids on Oprah, locs on Stevie and a head-wrapped Anu flanked by Nigerian thread-wrapped Angie and Alfre.

Her business has grown from girl-on-the-go to a single chair in a basement apartment to many years in her own Tribeca salon and back to her home borough. She and her team of natural hair care specialists/stylists move from her massive Downtown Brooklyn Gold Street space to a very well situated new space in the bustling Atlantic Avenue corridor later this summer. Among her most sought after services are consultations on damaged hair, a task she takes very seriously. “Having had the experience of losing my hair as a girl left an indelible impression.” She wishes for everyone pristine health from their follicles to their toes. “I’ve always had an interest in health having come from a very sickly family—my grandmother died when I was eight from diabetes and stroke, she was only forty-seven. My mother was in and out of hospitals all my life. The things that we do affect our health.” She highlights Diabetes as an example, “people used to just think its inherited, but no–what’s inherited is the diet that leads to it.” She is very mindful of how she moves through the world, from the energies she surrounds herself with to the foods she eats to creating “me’ time to the aromas in the air she breathes. She shares her knowledge through her services, her carefully developed product line, events she holds in-shop (like Zumba class) her blogs Ask Anu and Anu Essentials and the documentary she produced in 2009, In Our Heads About Our Hair.

From her lovely sister Linda in the early 1980′s to Nikita today, Anu features everyday beauties, not supermodels in her promotions.

Is no surprise that her innate love of and “nose” for fragrance would find its way into her business. She first used botanicals in her hair oils and years later introduced fragrant body butters and natural soaps. Upon reading master perfumer Mandy Aftel’s book, “Essence and Alchemy,” she was turned on to and turned out by natural perfumery. “It was so enchanting, it took me to another planet,” she says fervently. “It’s sacred art, really. Just the other day, I thought Wow! I wonder what God was thinking about when he made this smell this way.” The fragrances of nature have intrigued her since childhood: cut grass, soil after a rain, pine. For young Toni a fresh pack of unburned cigarettes was a nosegay as pleasing as any cluster of small flowers. She’d bury her nose in it and inhale deeply. Though she abhors cigarette smoke, as an adult Anu finds tobacco essence “hypnotically beautiful.”

This summer she launches her first perfume, the herbaceous, floral-kissed Meadowlark, a “green” blend of oak moss, clary sage and her beloved rose. “I am new to this industry, there’s quite a learning curve,” but she is very excited by her foray. As she expands her hair care line to include shampoo, conditioner, styling crème and a gel she incorporates her growing knowledge of the vast repository of botanical essences.

Rosemary-infused medicinal hair oil, glycerin-rich, hand crafted soap, and my favorite body butter, Sultry.

A long ago Essence photo shoot initially crossed our paths, but Anu and I have over the years come to discover several shared delights, quirky to sublime from the wafting aromas of laundromat exhaust to the wistful vocals of Madeleine Peyroux to the evocative treatises on fragrance by Mandy Aftel. Server and sybarite, Anu is a woman in balance. She works hard, plays hard and truly enjoys being in her own luminous, sweetly scented skin.

Before the Kemetic, yogic, Reiki certified, fragrance-loving, would-be pool shark headed to her billiards league, she shared some of the things besides lush, healthy heads of natural hair that stoke her Arian fire:

1. Natural perfumery. I love the botanical essences: how they smell, look, and feel–from very thin and light to thick and viscous.” Though Mandy Aftel is her primary mentor, she’s also been inspired by Amanda Walker of “A Perfume Organic,” master perfumer Sarah Horowitz, bloggers like Monica Miller and reading Chandler Burr’s books.  “And I have a guardian angel in Marian Williams who has generously offered contacts to exclusive suppliers.”

A detail from her perfume organ, the natural perfumer’ organization system of raw materials, sorted by note.

2. Jewelry. “I love the gamut. I have a collection of pearls. I purchase them from a sister in the jewelry district on the Bowery. I fell in love with black jet beads a couple of years ago and bought some most precious finds on EBay.

A unique EBay offering: a Victorian Whitby jet watch fob.

3. Billiards. “This is my third season on a league at Amsterdam Billiards in NYC.”

Her “sweetheart,” entrepreneur (and billiards aficionado) Henry Rock, gifted her with one of her two cue sticks.

4. Spa Services. “My first spa experience was in 1993 at the Burke Williams Spa in Santa Monica. My favorites are Dr. Hauschka facials, salt exfoliation in a wet room with Vichy showers that hang above the table, deep tissue massage and all the ayurvedic spa services–especially at Kripalu Yoga Institute.”

Vichy shower: “a nearly orgasmic experience,” she says.

5. Gardening/Flowers. “I love all flowers, my faves are peonies, poppies, all lilies, bearded irises, hydrangea, hollyhocks, gardenias, roses of course, clematis, lantana. I could go on and on with this one…”

The fruits of her gardening labors.

6. Yoga.  “Though I’m not teaching right now, I am a certified Yoga instructor trained at Integral Yoga Institute.”  Its founder, Swami Satchadananda was “my first inspiration on my road to seeking my spiritual path.”

She has practiced Hatha Yoga for thirty years.

7. My Home. “I purchased my 1897 Brooklyn brownstone exactly one hundred years after it was built.”

“It took me about 5 years to get it where I was truly comfortable.”

8. Foreign and Independent Films. From Jules Dassin (Rififi, 1955) to Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) she enjoys bold, visionary cinema from around the globe.

Set in South Korea, Ki-duk Kim’s elegiac 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a favorite.

9. Fine Dining. “I love to eat! I really enjoy fresh, quality and organic food.” She has unforgettable memories of a small Italian restaurant on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. “They bought out cheeses on a chunk of tree trunk, an array of olives and delicious bread to start the meal. There’s no menu, just absolutely great food.” She fondly recalls “the simply exquisite pleasure of dining at the illustrious Babbo Ristorante, and Dirt Candy, love their food.” Son Cubanois another haunt.

The humble vegetable as delicacy at Dirt Candy, and two all-time restaurant faves.

10. Birkenstocks. From shoes to sandals, her tootsies are happy in the famed Birkenstock cork foot bed.

Of her large collection of Birkis, many are Gizeh thong sandals.

For more on Anu, her services and products, check her websites: Khamit Kinks and Anu Essentials.

The Trove: Reed Morano Walker

June 7, 2011 - 10 Responses

Shooting the Oscar-nominated, Sundance hit, “Frozen River.”

The year 2008 was a busy one for cinematographer Reed Morano. In January the exquisitely shot Frozen River (starring Melissa Leo who scored an Oscar nom for her performance) premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance (Reed’s first festival entry.) In June she gave birth to her remarkably beautiful first son, Casey. In September she married her “true love,” fellow cinematographer and gaffer Matt Walker.


Reed and her “lighting soulmate,” Matt.

Just days after their Fire Island beach wedding, Reed and Matt reported to set for the first day of shooting on Closet Cases. As wardrobe supervisor of the Lloyd Boston makeover show, I was excited to learn that a woman headed the camera department. Over the course of several weeks I saw first-hand the focused yet easy-going Reed balance the demands of work and new parenthood with aplomb.  The beloved baby–welcome amid a tight-knit crew that included not only his dad but his Uncle Justin—was a frequent set visitor allowing mommy the opportunity to nurse on breaks.

Since we wrapped in late 2008, Reed has continued at a frenetic pace, shooting steady TV work between feature films. Yelling to the Sky (Victoria Mahoney, dir.) was her first feature post-Casey. She shot the films For Ellen (So Yong Kim, dir.) and Little Birds (Elgin James, dir.) during her next pregnancy and shot Free Samples, starring Jesse Eisenberg and “Hitchcock Blonde,” Tippi Hedren, a few months after the August arrival of second son Fletcher–another cutie–last year.

I caught up with the busy Bed-Stuy resident to talk about her influences and her trajectory. We share a love of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of Charles Bukowski. Marquez’ “writing is so visual and really immerses you in another world. And I love Didion and Bukowski for how authentic/honest a picture they both paint,” she says. With the naturalist lighting and hand-held camera work she often employs, she brings an authenticity and honesty to her work.  Cinematographers Conrad Hall, Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeszki, Wally Pfister and Rodrigo Prieto are on her shortlist of influential Directors of Photography.

She looks forward to tonight’s New York première of Yelling to the Sky, a film she’s quite proud of. Of star Zoë Kravitz she says “Zoë is not only an amazing actress, she is an amazing person.” Reed calls director Victoria Mahoney “an absolutely brilliant writer/director with an infectious enthusiasm for film…Zoë, Victoria and I really bonded on this film.” The trio got tattooed with tiny hearts crossed by a line, a nod to the heart-shaped doorknocker earrings bisected by the name “Sweetness” and worn by Zoë’s character in the film.

Reed has been lovingly inked before. On her right wrist are the initials of her beloved dad, Casey, for whom her first-born is named; on her left elbow is “Lyn” scripted in her mom’s signature and commemorating one year of marriage to Matt is a how-to diagram for tying the only nautical knot named for a man (a sailor)—the Matthew Walker Knot.

The body as homage: dad’s initials, on “tying the knot,” a sorority of three, mom’s signature.

Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of two children (she has a brother, Justin) to Lyn and Winslow Mankin and the family soon moved to Minnesota. When Reed was three-years old, Lyn divorced Winslow and moved the children back to her family in Long Island where she’d meet, marry and have three more children (Jordan, Morgan and Ali) with Casey Morano of Fire Island (who had 2 older children, Lana and Cos.) When it was suggested to the entrepreneurial Casey that Albuquerque might be a good place to live, he packed up the wife, kids and extended family and caravaned to a new life in New Mexico.  They spent a few years there before returning to Long Island, then off to New Hampshire and Vermont.  Of her nomadic upbringing Reed says, “It was great because it taught me about all kinds of people and taught me to be adaptable as well as open to new things. If I had grown up in the same house all my life, I wouldn’t have nearly as much material in my brain for storytelling.”

The Moranos.

She clearly admires her parents.  Her mother, “a perpetual scholar” studied anthropology and archaeology variously at the University of New Mexico, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard as she raised her children. She now heads the history department at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. “When I was young, I watched my mom study and get her PhD all while raising 5 kids!  I remember her writing 20-page papers while breastfeeding my youngest sister and all of us other kids running around wreaking havoc on the house,” she recalls. Though her father’s entrepreneurial endeavors yielded mixed financial reward, she is impressed by his bold pursuit. “My dad was involved in every kind of business you can imagine. He opened restaurants, he had a landscaping company at one point. He even opened Long Island’s first head shop back when he was in his hippie years. He had an international mergers and acquisitions company before he passed away and he was also developing a TV pilot for a travel/reality show.  He definitely dabbled in a little bit of everything. When I was in high school, he turned our barn and property into a horse farm with a horseback riding school.  He always had a new idea and always dreamt big.”

“I was a nerd.  I read a lot.”

As a child, “I was always making books, even before I wrote I drew pictures and would staple them together,” she says. “When I finally learned to write, I wrote every day until I entered high school. Everyone thought I’d be a writer.”  Her father took note of her leanings and presented her with an early video camera (with VHS tape) upon his return from a business trip to Japan, remarking that she should be the family documentarian. And so it began, she shot footage of her siblings, made small films and commercials and when the time came for college, Dad again intervened to suggest film school since she’d embraced a visual form of storytelling.  Off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she’d eventually receive department awards for cinematography and later serve for two years as an adjunct professor.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a spiritual person, she believes there was a mystical connection with her father surrounding her career choice. On the very first shoot she worked on, she took note of the DP.  She “became fascinated with what he was doing and I knew that was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to look through the viewfinder and create the world the audience sees. I consciously decided to pursue cinematography.”

Post-shoot she returned to her dorm and to several phone messages from family. “My dad had had a heart attack. I rushed up to New Hampshire to be with him in the hospital where he was in coma and the next morning, he passed away.  He had been so obsessed with what I would do and what path I would take in life and I still find it interesting that right before he passed was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she reflects.

“I never considered myself a technical person, in fact I used to joke that I couldn’t set the time on a VCR! But once I put my mind to this craft, it seemed I actually had a knack for it. I do approach shooting in a very creative way that revolves a lot less around technical information and more around the feeling I get in a particular moment.  Everything I do, I usually take a cue from my gut. As a DP, you’re an artist, but you do have technical information you need to know in order to achieve whatever look you’re going for. So I absorb the technical stuff I need and then I just kind of go with the flow and rely on the emotion in the story to inspire my shots and lighting.”

Reed on the sets of “Megafauna,”  “Frozen River” and ” Little Birds.”

When the Coen Brothers’ (now a Reed fave) released Raising Arizona the pre-teen Reed took note. “It was the first film I can remember really noticing the cinematography on. That was when I realized the power of the camera as a tool for storytelling.  Everything about it, the camera moves, the lenses that were used all served the story and enhanced the tone of the movie.  It’s a huge part of what makes the film so memorable.  It was the first time I became aware –in a good way– how much a lens choice or a camera position could affect the way the audience reacts to the story.”

From the 2007 documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa to today, she is garnering major recognition for her work. Earlier this year she was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch. Next week she’ll head to Los Angeles for the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (other honorees include Annette Benning and Katie Holmes) to receive the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography.  “All the women who have previously won the Vision Award have really paved the way for female DPs like myself. It’s pretty amazing to be in the company of my idols. The thing I am most proud of, though, is the fact that I am able to make a living doing a job I absolutely love at the same time as being a mom.  I never knew how I was going to pull that off!  Like everything else, I just jumped into motherhood headfirst (right when I was getting really busy at work) and I was forced to make it all happen.  It’s not easy, but it can be done!  Between my mom and my dad, I guess I had some really good training from a young age on how to multitask and how to follow your dreams. Being with Matt was really the key to making it possible–he keeps me going and is so supportive of my working.”

A gorgeous mom, a handsome hubby and two beautiful boys: one stunning family.

In meeting Matt, a gaffer and DP years ago, she found her “lighting soulmate.” He knew what lighting she wanted in each scenario before she spoke a word, they “shared the same aesthetic and his style of working was exactly what I’d been looking for,” she remembers.  So she began working with him exclusively.  Professional admiration eventually became personal. “We both realized we wanted to be together in every way, not just at work.  I never thought I’d find someone who matched me so well and that’s who Matt is.  He definitely exceeded my expectations for who I would spend my life with.  He is the smartest person I know. He is brilliant, creatively and otherwise and he takes such care in every task he does, big or small.”  Her Aries impulsiveness is balanced by his Aquarian intellectual approach. “He continues to amaze me every day and there’s nothing he can’t do. I have never met someone so devoted to the ones he loves. I can’t believe that he chose me.”

She is feeling a tremendous sense of good fortune these days from marriage and motherhood to a recent reconnection with her biological father and “discovering a whole new side to my family” to a career in full blossom. She’s currently in pre-production on her biggest project to date, the Rob Reiner-helmed Summer at Dog Dave’s starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen and shooting in Rockland County next month.

Before heading upstate for pre-pro, the gifted and grateful visionary shared some of the things that bring her joy:

1. Kisses from Casey & Fletcher. “They are a constant source of joy and amazement. every day, at least once I stop and think, in awe, how did I get so lucky?”

Bussing baby Fletch and big boy Casey.

2. Dancing.  “All night long in a flowy dress in Fire Island with my girlfriends.”

“It’s the feeling of freedom.

3. Steel Pulse. “Especially the albums Tribute to the Martyrs or True Democracy. It’s one of the bands I have listened to since I was in elementary school. It’s great music to have echoing through your house with the windows open on a warm day.”

Live in Germany, “Babylon Makes the Rules,” from “Tribute to the Martyrs.”

4. Reading a new script. “When I work I get to go on a new adventure each time and all these new visuals and ideas fill my head. I get super excited whenever I see an attachment in my email…”

From the Frozen River script.

5. Estee Lauder Tom Ford The Body Oil.  “All my life I was looking for my favorite smell, the smell of your skin after a day on the beach. Finally, I found it in 2006 and it is now discontinued! However, I still have several bottles.”

The coveted fragrance.

6. My Uncle Matthew’s Lobster Bisque. From the family-owned Matthew’s Seafood House in Fire Island,  “it tastes like my childhood and it’s still my favorite soup.”

Tucked away on Ocean Beach, the restaurant feels like home.

7. My Light Meter. “When I’m using it, that means I’m shooting film and when I’m shooting on film, especially 35mm, I’m happiest.”

Photo: CAGATOTA

8. My Sister’s Morgan’s Gelato. “Her stracciatella gelato mixed with her strawberry sorbet is incredible. She has her own shop in Hanover, New Hampshire, Morano Gelato.”

Gelati in raspberry and egg cream flavors.

9. Scuba Diving. “It’s as close as I’ll probably get to walking on the moon.”

“It’s another world!”

10. Cocktails with my Husband. “Preferably a Bloody Mary or a Cava on a beach somewhere far away.

Salut!

The Trove: djassi daCosta johnson

May 26, 2011 - 30 Responses

Mrs. Verini: djassi daCosta johnson, 2 months pregnant.

djassi daCosta johnson adores her “ridiculously amazing family.”  It is in the haven of their embrace and the freedom of their trust that she’s been able to move fearlessly through her life. Her educator parents Awolowo and Orundun, of whom she speaks reverentially, anointed their eldest daughter with the nom de guerre of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, (Abel) Djassi. Brought together by “the Movement,” the former SNCC worker and the former Black Panther secretary instilled in their four children a sense of activism, pride of heritage, hunger for knowledge, love of movement and spiritual grounding.

When we first met, djassi was a Bantu-knotted, hoodie-rocking Essence magazine intern rapturously in love with her tween sister, Yaya. An admitted “fool for a party,” the fly Virgo moved fluidly between the worlds of academia, professional dance, media and the clubs. More than fifteen years later she feels “blessed to have found my best friend in my little sister,” is planning graduate study and enjoying a dance career that has taken her around the globe, expanded her notions of her art and paved the way for marriage and motherhood.

I spent a recent afternoon with the new mom, her husband Corrado and their delightful daughter, Mirahl in their Brooklyn home as they prepared to summer in his native Rome. Sipping wine, we marveled over the body’s tremendous capacity for healing. Awed by the “wondrous abilities of the human body,” djassi the dancer bowed to djassi the mother. “I always thought I knew my body so well. I’m so proud of what it’s done and what it can do, but then I was also humbled by its limits,” she said recalling the arduous journey of Mirahl’s birth. Her infant warrior woman is a testament to the “strength that humans have and the will to survive.”

After a “normal” pregnancy, a love-filled karaoke baby shower and the full expectation that she, a mind-bogglingly fit woman would move through a water birth with relative ease, life-threatening complications arose. For 42 drug-free hours she labored, but sensing something was “off,” she resisted the urge to push and her midwife took heed. It was discovered that pushing risked strangulation of the baby by the twice-wrapped umbilical cord around her neck as well as uterine rupture and severe hemorrhage for djassi who inexplicably presented with Placenta Increta. Mirahl arrived via emergency Caesarean. Her name hints at the miraculous and its Turkish definition, “little gazelle” befits the daughter of a dancer/choreographer. In homage to Corrado’s grandmother Vera and djassi’s grandmother Lucille, Mirahl carries two middle names, Vera Lu.

Little Mirahl was born December 28, 2010.

Besotted with their baby girl, dja and Corrado are grateful for djassi’s protective intuition and honored by Mirahl’s having chose them. “My parents were very affectionate, I felt one hundred percent unconditionally loved,” djassi muses. “I hope I can pass that on.”

The striking DaCosta Johnson family: Orundun and Awolowo; first-born Mamadou, youngest Djani and…

Camara Yaya and djassi Camara, then and now. Their shared name Camara, means “comrade.”

The Johnson children were all educated in the Montessori tradition, at St. Michael’s where their mother taught. Djassi recalls getting “mommy practice” with Yaya and Djani (eight and ten years younger) when her mom spent summers away in Ohio pursuing Master’s studies in Montessori.  Mrs. DaCosta Johnson would eventually open Central Harlem Montessori, “the only accredited Montessori School in Harlem and the least expensive one in NYC for sure,” djassi says proudly.  Now retired, her dad was a Professor of Sociology at several New York City colleges. “My parents were very clear about being cognizant of our history and the importance of education as not just a privilege but a responsibility.” At the behest of their father, who valued his upbringing in New Haven, each of the children attended high school on the wooded campus of Northfield Mount Hermon in Western Massachusetts and went on to matriculate in the Ivies: Penn (Mamadou) Barnard (djassi) Brown (Yaya) and Cornell (Djani) Djassi is grateful for her father’s vision. “Aside from the obvious academic intensity and advantage it gave me in applying for and understanding the purpose of college, I really had such a formative experience living away from home…I don’t think I would have ever run track, swam, worked on a farm, or really seen myself as a multi-faceted individual. Boarding school let me grow into my own skin at my own pace and feel free to just be. As an adolescent that was priceless.”

Developing sound minds and bodies, the Johnson siblings excelled both academically and athletically. “We were always encouraged to be physical by nature, taught how fun it was to challenge and stretch the body’s capabilities. We grew up doing gymnastics, capoeira, all of us dance — my brothers are shamefully talented despite their lack of interest in training. I had school and ballet and modern classes all week and was able to ‘study’ the house and break-dance culture on the weekends. There are still guys who call me out when I’m uptown like, Ain’t you ‘Dou’s little sister who won that battle spinning on her head way back in da day?”

A 1970′s anti-nukes rally: “I want to GROW not GLOW.” And grow she did into an awesome command of her body.

Her parents have been on the board of DanceBrazil for most of her life. “Growing up, around and backstage with a dance company was amazing,” she says. Her first stage appearance was at age six: a samba with the company in “Orfeu Negro” at Riverside Church.

Junior high was pivotal. She chose as her Phys Ed elective, the dance class of Melvin Jones. The former Alvin Ailey dancer taught the Horton and Graham techniques. Through his instruction, she was ahead of the curve when she auditioned for and was accepted into the Ailey scholarship program years later.

“After boarding school I was hungry to get back to NYC and dance.” Yet she shunned the academic pursuit of dance. A local school would allow her to both train with Ailey and study English and Anthropology.  “A women’s college seemed empowering to me. With alumnae like Zora, Katherine and Twyla, I knew Barnard would be perfect.” Her nine-page appeal to overturn a denied housing grant was successful and though her parents lived only 23 blocks away, she was awarded housing for four years.

She initially found anthropology “daunting and too focused on the other,” but eventually realized that “there is a future in Anthro for participant-observers such as myself, that the preservation of culture can be enacted by those within rather than some extraneous observer.” This will be the crux of her graduate exploration. “I see ways to give back through my art.”

Among her impressive credits (view them and her performance reel at Dancer’s Pro) is her phenomenal performance in Moses Pendleton’s Passion.  A cornerstone of the MOMIX repertoire, Passion is a highlight of djassi’s eight-year tenure touring internationally with the company.

The mind-blowing Passion ribbon solo.

When djassi joined MOMIX, she and technical director/lighting designer, Corrado Verini, “gravitated to each other during after-show dinner to discuss the world, both yearning to talk about something besides dance,” she says.  On an Amsterdam tour they sparked an intense, see-each-other-on-tour, long-for-each-other-off-tour relationship. “We had cultural, linguistic, generational, not to mention the American/Italian, Black/White dichotomies that we both had to get over somehow.  We weren’t convinced right away that we were ready to deal with all of the work that loving each other might entail.” Nevertheless, “it was undeniable for both of us that there was something that kept bringing us back together.” In a yellow silk dress of her own design, djassi wed Corrado in August 2008 in Rome.

dja love.

“Soho Moods,” Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome.  Photo © Nina Contini Melis.

Apart from dance, she’s tapped into other aspects of her creativity through acting, writing (contributing to the book Transculturalism and TRACE magazine) and fashion.  Frequently complimented on garments she’d whip up, she during a tour break in 2001, created a 32-piece collection dubbed the eponymic dja. She sold the line at fairs in Rio and New York.  Inspired by her love of adornment, she has more recently launched the easier-to-produce earring line, Flights of Fancy by dja.

As Calpurnia in an Italian production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Photo: A.T. Ambrosini

Optical party dress and Flights of Fancy earrings by dja.

As a brisk stroll through nearby Prospect Park rocked Mirahl to sleep, djassi spoke of “spoiling” their winter baby “with Italian summer love at the sea and countryside of Rome.”  Happy for my friends and smitten with their slumbering infant I bade the Johnson-Verini family farewell and buon viaggio.

Il tesoro trovato di djassi:

1. Fame (the 1980 movie.) “My father took me to see it when I was six and I made him sit through it twice. I was like ‘I wanna do THAT!’ I look back on the movie now and realize there were some really adult themes, it wasn’t a movie about dance and fairies. But I was pretty clear that I could be an artist at six years old, so there you go.”

The “Fame” trailer.

2. Aperitivo.  “I have always loved a good glass of wine and 9 years of bartending in New York gave me the opportunity to really understand it.  One of the things I love about Italian ‘time’ as it relates to food is the concept of aperitivo, the precursor to dinner.  In the best bars in Rome and Milan one can go, relax, pay for a glass of wine and feast on the ‘buffet’ offerings.”

“No matter where I am, I rarely have a night without an aperitivo.” Wine photo by Sara Rosso.

3. Languages.  At 28 she lived in Brazil with Yaya and learned Portuguese by immersion. On a tour in Spain, “I got my Spanish better with that guy,” she says gesturing toward Corrado, “He speaks it really well.” After having traveled and toured as an American, she knows that rudimentary English is spoken most everywhere. “So you take it for granted,” she says. “But I find that you get so much more respect by speaking the language and you can really break down so many more barriers by how you speak the language… to take on the culture and the understanding of how people speak the language because of the culture. My sister and I really assimilated into Brazilian life and took on the accent.  A similar thing happened with Italian while living in Italy. I still have a long way to go to perfecting my Português and my Italiano but the ‘way’ I speak fools people and so I learn that much more from each exchange…and the languages are actually very similar. Many words are the same, it’s just ‘sung’ a little differently.”

4. New Year’s Eve in Rio. She’s spent it there a few times with Yaya. “The most meaningful, beautiful, spiritual New Year’s Eves ever!” Once they spent it on the roof of singer Elza Soares‘ Copacabana house, looking down on the glorious sight of the white-clad Carioca multitudes making water offerings to Yemanja. 

Ano Nove: “It’s pretty special. I can’t wait ’til the next one we are able to make.”

5. Dancing With My Family. “You can’t take the six of us anywhere with good music and some space because we all love to partner dance. We are all Salsa-proficient improvisers.  My dad made sure the girls could follow and the boys could lead. Holidays are three couples on the dance floor or a few of us dancing while the others play the congas, bell and berimbau…and my mom can lead a good funga anywhere.”

The Sisters Johnson get their dance on.

6. Hats.  She often tops her look with one of the many chapeaux she’s collected in her travels.

Some faves include Trilbys from Spain, select vintage and a conical spire from Chile.

7. High Heels.  “I looove a good pair of heels, and I love to get good bargains on them. One of my favorite pairs is from El Mundo on 145th and Broadway near where I grew up. They are gorgeous.”


“Don’t they just make you want to Salsa?Carlos by Carlos Santana pumps.

8. Fearlessness. “Without that concept in my life I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done. From thinking I could make a career of dance to traveling the world–something I wanted to do, but do with a purpose to meeting Corrado through work and believing in following my heart.”

Holiday Island, the Maldives.

9. Oasi Naturista di Capocotta. She loves the freedom of the nudist oasis in Rome. “I used to be a bit prudish about my breasts and then I realized I had to shed my Western issues and embrace my origins on this European beach. They have the most amazing restaurant with people eating on silver plates with huge wine glasses in different arrays of nakedness. It’s one of my favorite places to go in the summer.”

Easy atmosphere and the freshest catch.

10. gDiapers. “I just couldn’t fathom that in 2011, I should be complacent,” knowing that conventional disposables degrade in 500 years. “How is that responsibly leaving my child a planet she can thrive on?” An Earth-friendly diaper hybrid, gDiapers feature inserts (either washable cloth or flushable, biodegradable disposables) to absorb waste.  The new gMom has become an ardent brand evangelist: “no rashes, sooo much less waste and the refills break down in 50 days!” With an in-house washer during her Roman sojourn she’ll use the cloth option exclusively.

Good for the baby, good for Gaia (and they appeal to Mommy’s fashion sensibilities.)

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