Archive for July, 2011

The Trove: Sienna Gonzalez
July 31, 2011

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/

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The Trove: Erin Robinson
July 23, 2011

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

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

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

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-meetsOnyx. 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.”