Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Trove: Lynda Johnson
August 11, 2011

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.

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The Trove: Myles Carter
August 4, 2011

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: 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.”

The Trove: Reed Morano Walker
June 7, 2011

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: Craig Wallace
May 11, 2011


We’ve relocated!  View our story on Craig at inthetrove.com.  Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Craig Wallace before his performance in Jennifer L. Nelson’s “24,7, 365” at The Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Though I met Craig Stephen Wallace, he of the resounding voice and commanding presence, about twenty years ago, I’ve seen him more in the past year than in all the years before, owing to seeing the respected thespian in multiple productions. I’d heard of the DC-based actor’s ascent over the years through our friend, filmmaker Kelvin Phillips, so when familial responsibilities brought me back to my native Washington, I checked out the prolific performer as he robustly embodied embattled arts administrator Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” doting father Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair” and bourgie bro’ Beau crossing the tracks in “24, 7, 365.” 

Fresh from an end-of-March appearance with John Lithgow in “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony,” at the Kennedy Center, Craig went straight into rehearsals for a unique Folger Elizabethan Theatre adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. We caught up for a very quick, but yummy bite at Capitol Hill lunch fave, We the Pizza to discuss his journey from an only child, “a shy kid who loved books, TV and music” to a confident, respected member of a thriving theater community.

Born and raised in Rochester, New York Craig stumbled upon his calling in high school when given a choice to take American Literature or Drama: A Practicum. He selected the latter thinking it was the easier of the two.  The instructor, actress Betsy Bourcy “saw something in me. I fought her tooth and nail but she forced me to audition (for the role of Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls.) It was a watershed moment in my life, I never looked back.”

He spent his undergraduate years at Howard University deejaying frat parties and hosting college radio under the moniker Synbad Starr. “Truth was,” he says, “I was an egghead nerd trying to find myself.” He relishes those days. “College taught me how to have an opinion. At Howard I learned how to think, graduate school taught me how to act and in that progression I found myself.”

With fly folks, though shy, the future Funkateer always had presence.

An internship at The Folger was a career-making move. “I was watching the actors tackle the language and I knew that I wanted to learn the skills to tell classical stories. I also love the music of poetry and how rhythm plays such a vital part in speaking verse text. I did my first Shakespeare play, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ in 1987 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company was at The Folger.” He has since then covered most of the Shakespearean canon: from comedies “Twelfth Night” to “Troilus and Cressida;” tragedies “Hamlet” to “Coriolanus” and histories “Henry V” to “Richard II.”

Bardic: Caius Ligarius in “Julius Caesar,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) Othello in “Othello,” (Folger Theatre) Brother in a Caribbean-set “Much Ado About Nothing,” (Folger Theatre) Escalus in “Romeo and Juliet” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) and in “Antony and Cleopatra” (Shakespeare Theatre Company)

Upon receiving his MFA from Penn State, he might have headed north with Broadway dreams but he returned south to the Districtbecause of a job opportunity. I stayed because I kept working. There was, for me, no real reason to leave. This is a flourishing theater community. I believe there are 80 professional theaters in the DMV region. I’m not sure it’s as diverse as it could be. I’m not saying there is racism involved, but in region where there are a lot of people of color, there should be more of us onstage….and I’m not sure if that’s our problem or theirs….probably both right?

Though he works steadily as an actor, he “began teaching acting at George Mason University just to supplement my income. These days, in addition to GMU, I also teach for The Shakespeare Theatre Company, The Theatre Lab and serve as a Folger Theatre teaching artist at Cardozo Senior High School.”

His passion for theater is shared by his girlfriend, Kimberly Schraf, whom he met when they both appeared in a 1994 production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” They once again graced the same stage in last Fall’s production of “Sabrina Fair” with Kim in the deliciously witty role of Julia Ward McKinlock. She has also narrated over one hundred books on tape including Little Altars Everywhere, Bee Season and The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Outstanding Supporting Actress Nominee (for “Show Boat) Kim and Craig at the 2010 Helen Hayes Awards.

When asked about his influences he says “I have always been inspired by Malcolm X. He is discipline personified. Just got the new book on him, can’t wait to crack it.” He adds, “I do have directors and professors in my life that have given me insight on myself and my acting and I found them to be very helpful in my career.In that career he’s breathed life into the words of not only Shakespeare, but such esteemed playwrights as Anton Chekov, August Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Howard Sackler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Tennessee Williams and Tony Kushner (whose “Angels in America,” secured Craig a 2000 Helen Hayes Award nomination for his portrayal of the nurse, Belize.)

Clockwise from left, an illustrious career: Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” (Everyman Theater) Usumcasane in “Tamburlaine,” (Shakespeare Theatre Company) “The Underpass” (Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University) Beau in “24, 7, 365,” (Theatre of the First Amendment) Flip in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)The Mayor in “Fucking A,” (Studio Theatre) Brother in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson” (The Hangar Theatre)


Clockwise: Sterling North in “Permanent Collection,” (Round House Theatre) Tom Fairchild in “Sabrina Fair,” (Ford’s Theatre Society) The Aviator in “The Little Prince” and Booster in “Jitney” (African Continuum Theatre Company)

Craig was invited in 2006 to join a coterie of esteemed speakers at a birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. He honored the 16th President of the United States by reading  an excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation.

On the staging of “Cyrano” he says rehearsal has been intense, “we started blocking the first day…As all good art it’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty.”  Of his role as the villainous DeGuiche he says, “I just want him to be full-bodied and complex. If we do it right, you will hate him at first, but come to an understanding about him by the end. Phew!”

De Guiche taunts Cyrano (Eric Hissom)  Photo: Carol Pratt

What’s next on the horizon? “I’ve got some upcoming acting and directing jobs after Cyrano closes. Looks to be a busy summer and fall! I’m just beginning to direct. I’ve already directed a couple of things (“Tommy J and Sally,” “Mio Cuore – My Heart” and “Children of Medea”) and I’m still learning.

As I finished my ginger root soda, he bounded off to rehearse the show I look forward to checking out next week.  (The Folger Elizabethan Theatre production of Cyrano runs through June 5th.)

And without further ado, Craigslist:

1. Storm. Craig and Kim fell deep in doggie love eight years ago with the arrival of a gorgeous Husky mix in their lives. “Together we are three the hard way! And I love every minute of it.”

Snow Storm: in her element, achieving canine Nirvana.

2. Funk. “The music, the way of life.” On his Facebook “About,” he says simply,  “I’m just livin’ and jivin’ and diggin’ the skin I’m in.”

Classic funk: the landing of the Mothership.

3. Watching TV. As a child, it was “cartoons, of course and all the PBS fare–Sesame Street, Electric Company, etc.  As a teen, I was big into Twilight Zone, then 60 Minutes. For years I never missed it.” Some other faves include Treme, the Law and Order franchise, Dexter, Damages, The Wire and Flight of the Conchords.

The Treme opening sequence. Music by John Boutté.

4. Newspapers. Especially the Sunday papers.

He consistently reads the The Washington Post, natch, and the Sunday New York Times.

5. Shakespeare. The work of the Bard has been integral to his double-decade career.

Once you get the hang of it, it is really a wonderful feeling to have his words roll off your tongue!

6. Getting to know a new city when I work outside of DC.

His role last year in the pivotal role of “Boy Willie” in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson took him to the Hangar Theatre in the college town and gateway to the Finger Lakes, Ithaca, New York.

7. Cooking. “I look at the food section of The [Washington] Post every Wednesday. If something looks good, I’ll make it.” 


“My specialty is roasting whole chickens on the grill.”  Photo via Healthy Delicious.

8. Collecting music. The former DJ still has vinyl and says, “When I get time to find some room in the house, I’m going to set up me stereo, pull them out and have some fun.”

Some of the albums which “changed the way I think about music.”

9. Having Cocktails. He’s not beholden to any particular watering hole. “It’s more about the company than the spot.”

Photo Morgan Sheff via Cocktails and Cologne.

10. My Home.  After intense immersion in scripted lives it’s always good for him to return to his own.

Photo, Chris in Plymouth.

The Trove: Shalea Walker
January 28, 2011

A glowing Shalea Walker at her spa.

Nestled on a quiet block near Jersey City’s Grove Street Path Station, Walker’s Apothecary is a “beauty haven designed to relax and enlighten.”  I went recently to visit the visionary proprietor Shalea Walker and marveled over her radiant skin as a nail technician completed her manicure. We spoke of fragrance, of travel, the brilliance of Michel Gondry and the moody melifluence of Sia Furler. Celebrating her seventh year of business this Spring, she and I met, however years ago while she worked for Harriette Cole’s Profundities, Inc. She recalled securing the interview for the position: “Darin (her friend and Profundities staffer) hooked me up.” At the time she worked in accounts payable at a hospital by day and an Ethiopian restaurant at night. Her lack of experience in media made her family caution her not to get her hopes up.  But “Harriette saw my eagerness and willingness,” she says. “Some core things about us were the same: the love of apothecary preparations, a sense of spirituality, journaling…and we’re both Pisces.”  She credits Harriette for showing her that “big things can be created from very small things and that big business turns to small businesses to execute its needs.”

Her road to entrepreneurship started with an early love of fragrance and skin care. Mississippian Tommie Walker and his Ecuadorian/Irish wife Celia Duffy raised their 3 children “all over Brooklyn–Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie…” Their middle child, Shalea, drawn to her father’s smells started wearing his Brut deodorant and Polo cologne at age 4. By seven, she was “obsessed with soap,” she says. “I’d sit in the bathtub and would rub the Tone beauty bar onto my skin in a thick layer.” She was a fastidious child, “very particular,” about her appearance.  She had “her own way of doing things,” she was no schoolyard clone. She wore only Candies sneakers and her seamstress mom made all her clothes. “My mom can re-upholster a chair, make window treatments…she’s a creator. She’s not interested in making dinner every night, she thinks of bigger things.” When adolescent acne reared its unfortunate head it was mom who introduced Shalea to renowned natural skin care specialists, Christine Valmy “for extractions on my nose.”

The attentive care to skin wellness was established in childhood but the germ of an idea for what would become Walker’s Apothecary was a journal entry when she was twenty or twenty-one: “I want to open my own place. It’ll carry teas, skin care products.” Her mother’s daughter, she thought of “bigger things.” She worked for an IT company to save for beauty school, but was laid off two years later in the aftermath of the dot-com bust. The timing was perfect, she’d felt nervous about being out-of-the-loop during the “corporate years.”  She returned to Christine Valmy to study and become a licensed esthetician.  Though she’d done makeup for years– herself and others, she finally admitted to herself that she was a makeup artist after doing the makeup for a photo shoot.  She soon did the makeup for a feature on a woman with a Jersey City candle shop.  She left thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if she didn’t want the business anymore and would sell it to me.  I could have my own business by 26.’ She called her brother Tommie and shared her Piscean fantasy.  “Keep dreaming, that’s never gonna happen,” he said.  She convinced him to visit the shop with her and when they walked in the proprietor said, “Hi Shalea, I’m selling the shop, you are the first person I’m telling.”  So with $5000 from the corporate gig 401k, she realized a dream.

An affirming tattoo.

In the charming 185 square-foot Warren Street space, she launched Walker’s Apothecary in 2004, carrying candles, teas, body oils and perfumes.  A stone’s throw from my cousin’s home, I’d visit the shop whenever I visited him.  There was always some new delight to savor.  Soon clients began to ask if she would offer services. “They begged me to do it,” she says. So she set up an eyebrow grooming station in the tiny space.  “Eyebrows changed the business, it was a segue into other things.” While her shop was growing, so too was a freelance career as a makeup artist, working with beauty expert/entrepreneur Andrea Fairweather Bailey’s Fairweather Faces.  The late Eric Spearman had been the makeup artist to singer Dianne Reeves and upon his passing she didn’t work with an artist until Shalea came along to a shoot at the Thompson Hotel. From working with Reeves to interior designer Sheila Bridges on her television show to creating the signature look for Little Mama, she juggled servicing makeup clients with serving Apothecary customers.

A 2006 feature on Shalea in Black Enterprise. CD covers for Dianne Reeves and Lil Mama.

When Shalea’s friend Ruth shuttered her Mercer Street vintage shop, Shalea seized the opportunity to increase her square footage five-fold and secured the space. She was finally able to offer all the spa services Apothecary clients were clamoring for: facials, nail care, waxing, massage, makeup application, even ear candling.  And of course eyebrow styling.  (She groomed mine to perfection while I was there.)

Stations for makeup application and nail care.

“I had a vision of a business making people’s lives better. It’s come into fruition and evolves as needed,” she says.  The evolution of the business has led to her to develop an in-house, paraben-free, product line. “I wanted to create great product at a great price.” The four face care products, when used sequentially provide at-home treatment akin to a spa facial. The gentle Marine Enzyme Peel draws out impurities, exfoliates and stimulates circulation. The humectant-rich Chamomile Soothing Gel hydrates and soothes. The Green Coffee Moisture Masque deeply moisturizes and softens skin and fine lines. The ultra-hydrating Super Moisturizing Serum delivers anti-oxidants and botanicals to protect and nourish the skin.  I’ve tried them all, it is a great system, but my absolute favorite is the soothing gel, it feels wonderful! My skin breathed a blissful, “Ahhh…”  Though each product is individually sold, Shalea smartly introduced a trial-sized sampler kit.

The Facial-to-Go Sample Set got me hooked, I’ll be back for more.

The body care line consists of light body oils and emollient lotions, each infused with synergistic blends of botanical essences.

Walker’s Custom Blend Body Oil and Body Lotion

She’s a student of global skin care practices, traveling to a different country each year to “explore the skin care culture” of each region. She’s discovered that the French embrace technological advances; in Germany “stringent” use of natural ingredients is followed and in Greece, they use mastic gums. Her research informs the development of her products.  At Walker’s Apothecary, she wants to create “an experience, a discovery” for her clients and “now that we have our own products, people can take a bit of us home.”

We took our interview upstairs to her home above the spa to check out some of her favorite things…

1. My Couch. She found a pretty yellow and cream récamier in need of a little TLC at a Salvation Army store. “I paid $60 for it, thinking I’m gonna get it upholstered one day.”  To complement her spa decor and withstand heavy use, she had it revamped in durable silver and grey vinyl.

This bit of vintage glam now resides in her living room.

2. Fragrance Collection. An “indulgent, decadent luxury,” her growing collection of scents is an “obsession. I can forfeit a pair of shoes, but not my perfume.”

In current rotation: Susanne Lang Tamboti Wood; Pierre Bourdon Iris Poudre, Frederic Malle; Beth Nonte Russell Forever Lily; by Kilian Back to Black Aphrodisiac; Tom Ford Black Orchid; Guerlain Elixir Charnel; Sarah Horowitz Perfect Kiss; Jo Malone French Lime Blossom and Kiehl’s Forest Rain.

3. Journals. Journaling since she was twelve, she keeps them on hand, buying them by the stack.

Among her collection, recycled leather journals from Florentine company, Ciak.  Available through JournalingArts.com

4. Turkish Earrings. She doesn’t do a lot of accessorizing, but she likes the melding of gold and silver, the fringe detail and the manageable size of the gift from her boyfriend.

Her sweetie picked up the fringed lion cabochons during his travels to Turkey.

5. Montauk, Off-season. “It’s so laid back. April, early May no one is on the beach, and even if other folks are there it is like your own private beach. I just drink champagne, sit on the beach and relax into the view.”

Montauk Lighthouse Sunrise, © All rights reserved, Oldsamovar.

6. Hard Cheeses. She loves the dryness; the texture of an aged Parmesan, the nuttiness of a Manchego.


Queso Manchego from La Mancha, Spain is one of the hard ripened cheeses available at The Cheese Store in Hoboken, NJ, just ten minutes away.

7. Karen Oh. “I saw her perform [with her band Yeah Yeah Yeahs] at Liberty State Park, her energy was so live!”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform “Heads Will Roll.

8.Hôtel de Ville. Also known as Le Marais, Paris’ fourth arrondissement was her stomping ground during a one-month visit to the City of Light. She enjoyed the melange of Old Paris and what she’s dubbed “New Age” Paris with its eclectic mix of bistros and boutiques.

Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall from which the area derives its name. Photo: Trey Ratcliff.

9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “Kate, the somberness of the music, I loved it.”

The official film trailer.

10. Helen Julia Soft Mink Candle. As a purveyor of fragrant goodies, Shalea has certainly tested her share of aromatic candles. She ranks the bold rose/geranium scent from the Helen Julia line of hand-poured soy candles among her favorites.

Soft Mink, one of several aromatic blends created with love by Tamiko Hargrove for HelenJulia Fragranced Candles.  Each candle is packaged in an elegant velvet pouch.

The Trove: Abby Dobson
December 19, 2010

 

Mama’s Girl: “I am ever aware that I am standing on her shoulders and those of all the women in the house I was raised.”

I was sitting in my mama’s living room in post-Thanksgiving satiety flipping through the Washington Post when I came across a listing about Abby Dobson’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage the very next day. Since we’d met through her college chum, writer Nicole Moore, time had never permitted me to check her live (including her release party at the Blue Note in November.) Bet. Another chance.

Abby’s got some pipes;  her resounding voice a compass directing me to the venue as I arrived just after she, bathed in purple light, began her set. Including songs from her independently released Sleeping Beauty: you are the one you have been waiting on, as well as a couple of covers (her rendition of Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore scorched) she both glided on gossamer wings and plunged deep into a place of earthy excavation.   At set’s end I went to say hello and the floodgates opened to a stream of grateful listeners, stupefied by her vocal prowess, who queued up to commend her.  Abby and I quickly agreed to meet for coffee while we were both in town and I left as she greeted her fans.

View the performance on the Kennedy Center website.

We met up the next day at her hotel, the quirky Hotel Helix (count on Kimpton Hotels for modern rooms with personality) “My mom loves it, she feels like a rock star,”  Abby laughed as she gathered her things. We strolled to nearby Mid City Caffè  for delicious coffee, tea and pastries and settled in for a chat about her gumption-finding journey from childhood timidity (hiding behind the refrigerator to sing) to securing some of the best musicians in the business to record her music and belting it out before large audiences.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica,  Abby’s first inkling of her gift was at  “5 or 6 years old, singing to the radio in the living room, when my aunt shushed the adults at the dining table to listen to me.”  When she was seven, her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn. “Migration is an interesting thing,” she says. “I think it can change your personality.  I became quiet, shy and very observant.” Growing up amid a mix of Jewish, Italian and African-American residents she learned to not to speak Patois.  Her folks “knew how to turn the accent on and off,” where necessary. She has become one not easily “placed” by how she speaks. “I feel very Jamaican, but I’ve never really spoken Patois– maybe when I’m angry or with just family.” 

She attended Plymouth Congregational and “the voices I heard in that church really influenced me. The Jamaican churches preferred classical singing,” a by-product of “Anglican colonization, which was very different from the bluesy Baptist singing” of African American churches.  Another influence was her “visionary” elder cousin Colin who introduced her to Sarah Vaughan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman.  Though she listened to “a lot of  Bob Marley,” she became indoctrinated in the music of Black America and developed a love for Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston and Prince.

Her mother, Theda was “an incredible influence.  She has always supported my brother’s and my creative pursuits…She was a closet artist,” providing her daughter with voice and piano lessons early on.  In high school Abby received private voice lessons from her Chorus teacher who invited her to sing in the Salon Series he held in his home in Bayside, Queens. All nerves and “scared shitless,”   Abby traveled with her mom to perform, the only child amid a gathering of adults.  “It was cool, I was in the tenth grade.”

She went on to study History and Political Science at Williams College, singing all the while. “I directed a gospel choir there.” Though she knew she wanted to sing, she was “afraid of failing and being unable to sustain myself. When you come to America from an immigrant family, you are expected to succeed in a profession.”  So she entered Georgetown Law School intending to establish a career in law or public policy, whilst performing cover tunes at every “open mic” she could.  She graduated but declined to take the bar exam knowing that she really did not want to become an attorney. She would commit to building a music career while sustaining herself as a paralegal. Realizing that the best route to landing a record deal is not in performing covers, she began writing her own songs, which was a revelation, opening her to all she had to say. “I grew up in a very female centered household with my mother, grandmother, aunt, my aunt’s kids and my brother. I was an avid reader of feminist and womanist literature which really shaped my point of view.”  

Her debut as a singer/songwriter at Nuyorican Poets Café led to appearances at S.O.B’s, The Knitting Factory, The Cutting Room, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note.  Her song, Deeply, a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, was featured on TV shows, “The Shield,” “Jack & Jill” and “Any Day Now.” She has provided backing vocals for artists from John Legend to Talib Kweli; opened concerts for Rahsaan Patterson, Ledisi, Dwele, Chrisette Michele, Floetry, Kindred, Leela James and Robin Thicke and performs with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, the interdisciplinary, improvisatory ensemble led by Greg Tate. 

The genesis of her current release was in a realization that she’d been trying for a long time to get notice from a major label.  That she’d been waiting to be “spotted across the room by Clive Davis and signed as his pet project.”  This notion of a sleeping beauty awaiting awakening by an external source resonated with her. She’d fallen “asleep” in her romantic life, waiting for fulfillment. “As much as it is about not expecting someone else to make me who I’m supposed to be in my personal life,” she explains, “it’s also about not waiting on a record company or music producer to deem me worthy of making music I was ready to share.”

There was a long planning process before she actually began to record in early 2007. She continued her paralegal work.  “My 9-5 was part of my story, I needed it. I made good money,” which allowed her to self-fund her record. “If I could afford to do something, I did it. No compromises.”  Like recording and mixing in analog. “People thought I was crazy,” but she wanted her release to have the old-school authenticity of her musical influences. When she got to the mixing stage, she cashed out on a sou-sou, calling on that ‘financial touchstone’ of her Caribbean heritage.

The release is available for download on Amazon & iTunes, but if you enjoy the tactile experience of poring over liner notes, order the disc from CDBaby.  Abby put her heart into the packaging and you can peep Greg Tate’s glowing review. Photo by Piper Carter.

Drawing on her literary shero Alice Walker’s “We Are the One’s We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she weaves the musical tale of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening, not to the kiss of a Prince but to her own inner light.  With heralding horns that call to mind the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez, the disc begins with Cool Rain giving way to a heritage nod, the reggae-tinged I’m Drownin (witten with her percussion-playing, ethnomusicologist brother, Robert.)  Sleeping Beauty continues her 13-track journey on the strains of Robert Glasper’s piano, Lonnie Plaxico’s bass, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Teo Avery’s sax among others. Rounding out the mélange of genres, Abby completes the song cycle with bluegrass-inflected anthem of reclamation and affirmation, Sleeping Beauty: go make the world you dream.

And she is doing just that.  She’s now interested in a distribution deal, not signing to a label.  “People are coming back to entrepreneurship.  Motown, A&M, that’s how they started.” She shares the story of her moving visit to Detroit’s Motown Museum. “I was in tears. The beauty that was created from a small loan from family is nothing short of miraculous–that they were able to do that in those times.” She admires the forward-thinking vision to protect the brand. “No matter where they were licensed in the world– Japan, for instance– it remained ‘Motown’ not the native language translation.”  She plans to uphold her musical integrity through her company, LadyBraveBird Music. 

The songbird shares her ten favorites with The Trove

1. The Color Purple.  “Although I love Alice Walker’s book of the same, one of my favorite things is the color purple. It is regal and warm at the same time.  It lifts my spirits. It puts a smile on my face.  My luggage is purple.  My winter and spring scarves are purple.  I just adore the color purple. And, wearing purple makes me feel special.” 

 

The color associated with royalty, mysticism, creativity and feminism.

 

2. Herbal Teas.  “I love drinking it because it’s soothing.  There is nothing like hot herbal tea, the aroma, the steam on my face as I sip, the taste…it immediately relaxes me.”  

She particularly enjoys African Redbush tea from TAZO (as well as their chamomile blend, Calm.) Photo by xlungex.

 

3. Books and Reading.  “I love the experience of browsing a bookstore…libraries too,” she gushes. Books, newspapers (New York Times,) magazines (O and Success), love them…I just love reading!”   

            

Her all-time favorites, The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Beloved.

 

 

4. Spices. “I enjoy savoring food with alot of flavor.  My favorites are thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg.” 

Botanical print via the wonderful blog Honest Fare.

 

5. Sexy boots.  “I have a thing for boots. Whether thigh high or booties, I enjoy wearing them with everything.   What more can a girl ask for?”

Abby’s got winter covered, so she can look forward to the sizzling boots coming as the weather warms. Here, Sessilee Lopez’s great gams and open-toe booties in BG Magazine’s selects for Resort. Photo by Will Davidson.

 
6. Massages.   “I love giving and receiving massages. I give them to my family and friends all the time.  I enjoy making people I care about feel better. If I’m stressed and need to relax, I’ll get a 20 minute at a nail salon to relax, relate and release.”

“Touch is very powerful. It soothes and comforts,” she says.
 
 

7.  Great Music and Musicians.  Natch. Though inspired by all forms of art she loves great music and artists who create for the love of their craft and passion as opposed to money. Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Streisand, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few.”

Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for West Side Story (Presented by the Sederbergh School)
 
 

8. Good Wine.   “I enjoy German Rieslings and Argentinian Malbecs.”

         

Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling and Renacer’s Punto Final Classico Malbec.
 
 

9.  Family and Friend Gatherings.  “I love getting together with my family and friends for gatherings to celebrate each other and special events and holidays… the experience of breaking bread, our conversations, and our laughter.”

And laugh she does.

 

10.  Solitude.  Although she enjoys the communal experience, she also enjoys her “own company” and is “often inspired by moments of solitude…thinking, walking, dreaming.” 

“Solitude – La Dame des Sables.” Photo by Tiquetonne.

The Trove: Fanon Che Wilkins
October 20, 2010

The polymathic professor.

Since meeting the powerfully named Fanon Che Wilkins over a year ago while dancing Michael Jackson’s memory to the skies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have seen him only twice: ringing in the new year at the Harlem home of mutual friend, theHotness Grrrl and just last month as we enjoyed pristine September weather in the Prospect Heights garden of Le Gamin. Though I’ve kept up with the Kyoto-based scholar/lecturer/photographer/curator/DJ/hip-hop head/hardcore Lakers fan and his travel exploits via Facebook (snowboarding in Aspen, visiting his Pops in Belize, surfing in Costa Rica and Second Lining in NOLA) it was good to have an unhurried sit-down to catch up as the old folks say, “proper-like,” Over salmon crêpes and merguez omelets, we covered the gamut — the wisdom of our sages from August Wilson to the RZA, the merits of non-conformity and beauty of serendipity.

In fact, our having met in 2009 had a delightfully serendipitous consequence. Fanon, strapped with a long-lensed Canon shot the MJ park celebration and posted the pics to Facebook where his mom, Akiba Kiiesmira saw them and recognized me. She, an incredible textile artist and designer whose work I’d used in the pages of Essence, and I had been friends in the nineties but we’d lost touch.

During the final year of the sixties, twenty-year-old Akiba (then MaryAnn) gave birth to her first child in Los Angeles.  She and her partner, Ron Wilkins, poised for revolution, named their manchild after revolutionaries Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. A member of the Slauson Village gang in the 1950’s, Ron was at the center of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “a politicizing moment for him.”  Akiba was reading voraciously: “dialectical historical materialism and Marxist theory.” Both were members of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) Organizing was the young family’s lifeblood.  When Fanon was six-months-old, Akiba ventured to Cuba for a month to join the Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane and showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution while “Pops held it down” in Cali.

By the time he was two-years-old, Fanon’s folks amicably parted ways, sharing custody. He bounced between parents and cities. His mom relocated to Atlanta to work in a shirt collar factory with the goal of  “organizing the workers at the point of production.” They lived in a collective house and Fanon attended the independent liberation school, Learning House, where the children pledged before each meal, fists proudly raised, “I will eat all my food to grow big and strong to work in the struggle for African people.” At some point during the early years a decision was made that Fanon would alternate years with each parent.

He returned to Los Angeles and a father who was serious about working outside “the system.” For a kid, “no Disneyland, no Christmas, no frivolity,” was a drag, but his grandmother and aunt “brought balance. They made sure I had a rib,” he smiles. “That was their resistance.  In a lay-down-the-law move, G-ma had him photographed with St. Nick and hung it on the wall. “He was a big, pink-white Santa…the penultimate, and I’m sitting on his lap.” He speaks lovingly of her clear-headedness, “she wouldn’t fly,” her refusal not from fear but rather practicality; she’d witnessed many pilots tippling the cocktails. “I see the world from the ground up. I ain’t no fool,” she’d say.

The journey from South Central to the halls of academia has been an interesting one. Six-year-old Fanon was stymied by stage fright when his Dad took him to audition for the Jackson Five Variety Show in 1975. As they exited the studio set, teen idol Michael consoled him by getting down on one knee, wiping the tears from his eyes and offering some words of encouragement.  “A beautiful brother,” he fondly recalls.

In esteemed company: with the future “King of Pop” and the good doctor “Brother West.”

Amid “radicals, pimps, drug dealers and scholars,” he had an “irreverent, sacred and secular upbringing.” He was “partially raised by Richard Pryor,” he says. This resonates in his endeavors now, from his academic pursuits to his lush photographs.  “To do what Romare Bearden did, what August Wilson did. In an unalloyed way, to see the beauty of the real. Its tragic, sacred and profane beauty.”

Though he’d been introduced to photography through his dad, he didn’t realize that “you could go to school to get a BFA.”  The cerebral high school athlete (basketball and football) became a Morehouse man, returning to Atlanta to embark upon what would become an accomplished career in the study of history (with a concentration in African American Studies.) The summers of his early twenties were spent hosting and bonding with his younger (by ten years) brother Kamari. Graduate school would take him to the eponymous university in Syracuse, NY, where he would live for nine years–the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He did, however, take a year off to travel to Cuba and Southern Africa, spending much of it in Zimbabwe. In one of the many providential experiences of his life, he met author/scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and set his sights on a doctorate, exploring (at NYU with Kelley as his adviser) the global liberation struggles of oppressed and marginalized people –particularly in African nations– and their profound impact on the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the US.

Fit and fabulous: the gorgeous, ageless Akiba and her sons, Fanon and fitness trainer Kamari.

Upon his return from the continent, he committed to being “a real black man…settle down, raise a family.”  He married fellow academician, Assata and in 1997 they became the parents of a daughter, the creative, oboe-playing Coltrane.  In 1999, joyful, “extremely laid-back” son Irie followed. Though the couple divorced, just as his own parents were “totally cool, not together, but fully functional,” Fanon and his former wife lived near each other, peaceably co-parenting in Champaign where they both were graduate professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Fanon met Lashanda, who has since relocated to Japan with him where he was offered an Associate Professorship in African American History and Culture at the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Used to a very hands-on relationship with his children, Fanon has felt anxiety over his newly peripatetic fatherhood, but given his own childhood, he realizes too what a broadening experience it can be for the children to spend the school year in Champaign and summers in Kyoto. He of course, visits the children stateside a few times a year and maximizes every moment.  Though he definitely gets his travel on, when in Kyoto he lives “a simple life. No frills. I don’t have a car. I ride my bike or take public transportation.”

Fanon invites us to “see what eye see” on his photo blog— the beautiful Lashanda, his kids in flight and glimpses of life in Japan.

He recently co-edited From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, a 2009 collection of scholarly essays on black internationalism and contributed the fifth chapter, “A Line of Steel: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974,” to the just released The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism edited by Dan Berger.

Recent publications.

In spite of the rarefied worlds he’s found himself in, Fanon remains incredibly grounded and grateful. His Mama, Daddy, village raised him up right. He’s an intellectual who’ll drop the knowledge without pedantry, a cat you can kick back and have a brew with. Of academia, he says, “I’m with people who posture all the time. I’m trying to live as authentically as possible. Life happens in the blur, the grey areas. I can’t front.” So from this authentic life enthusiast, a few things he enjoys in the blur…

1. Fragrance Oils. He hasn’t worn cologne since high school. “It’s all oils.” He got hooked after he was given and advised to sell a “hefty supply of Somali Rose and Arabian Sandalwood to make some money for books and supplies.”  The “terrible businessman,”  got a little too hooked, breaking one of the “Ten Crack Commandments and ‘got high on my own supply’ by keeping it all to myself and wearing it on a daily. I have come to fashion myself a connoisseur of fine oils.”

“Uncut and as pure as they come,” a quartet in his fragrance cache. “Gold Dust is sick and I can generally rock any Musk, especially when it’s hot and my skin is moist.”

2. Deejaying. “I live for music and have been deejaying for a while out of necessity. I’ve lived in more than my share of backwater towns and have had to resurrect the good old house party just to keep my sanity. I have done a few clubs in my day, but I mostly get down for fun and push my friends to throw parties and hire me.”

“My music equipment and untouched clutter. I figured I had to be a real DJ and keep it all the way real.”

3. Shirley the Surly. “I ride every single day. Big Shirley takes me all over the streets of Kyoto. She’s a simple fixed-gear Surly Steamroller that has never failed me — aside from a flat or two or three.  Everybody should own a bike and ride it.  Bike lanes need to be mandatory.”

Big Shirley keeps him fit, saves money and is eco-friendly.

4. 35-pound Kettlebell. “It’s the most important piece of exercise equipment I own. I love to go hard and keep it simple and safe.”

“Join the revolution and buy one,” Fanon enthuses.

5. Sneakers. “Like the great philosopher Nasir Jones, ‘I’ma addict for sneakers.’ I truly believe that Hip-Hop’s greatest contribution to civilized behavior was making sneakers high fashion because I prefer a nice pair of tennis (a nod to the Left Coast vernacular) over just about anything that goes on my feet.”

 

“I copped these [Puma] joints in Kyoto about a year ago, but recently pulled them out and I think they look better than when I bought them.”

6. Leica Digi-Lux 2. “I am a camera gear fanatic. I love photography. I lust and salivate for the tools of the trade. This Digi-Lux is my first ever purchase on Ebay and I am having a blast with it. One day I will own an M9, but for now I am getting my Leica on with this trusty little throwback that was made way back in 2004.  In digital camera years that’s like 20 years ago.”

“You just can’t front on the seamlessness of Leica design — sleek, simple and uncluttered.”

7. Blendtec Blender. “I pretty much make a smoothie of some sort every single day. When I was in search of a trusty blender, it was between the Blendtec and VitaMix.” The Blendtec won him over. Three years in, he hasn’t been disappointed.

Even though he ordered the black model but received the white, “he got over it and made a smoothie.”

8. Skype. “People often ask me how difficult it is to live abroad. ‘Don’t you miss your family and friends?’ they always ask. Yes and no, thanks to a wonderful invention called Skype. I got put up on it when I was in Brazil in 2006 and it has made my life abroad a cinch.”

Modern technology: Coltrane and Irie can pick up their home phone, dial their Dad’s “Skype in” number and it rings on his computer 6000+ miles away.

9. Eyeglasses. He’s worn them since his sophomore year of college. “I jokingly tried my buddy Arshad’s on and damn near lost my mind because I discovered that blurred chalkboards were not actually blurry at all. I used the first credit card I ever got — a Sears jammy — and bought my first pair of eyeglasses.”

“Simple, elegant, timeless and nerdy as f***, but in a hip way, he says of his artisanal frames from French eyewear company, Vue dc.”

10. Snowboarding. He’s been surfing the slopes for about eight years (Nagano, Aspen, Whistler, Tahoe.) “When it comes to something I live for I don’t think anything tops the list more these days than snowboarding. Ride a snowboard, you will live longer,” he opines.

“When the mountains are steep and the snow gets deep,” he uses his (left) Tanker 200 by Rad-Air—a long board only built for Cuban Linx.  His “go-to board for all-around conditions” is the Prior All Mountain Freestyle with hybrid rocker. “I had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Prior plant and taking a tour of the factory in Whistler, BC.” The gear geek admits the tour got a “rise” out of him.

*Excepting Blendtec and Skype, all photos of Trove items courtesy of Fanon Che Photography.

The Trove: Nnenna Ogwo
September 16, 2010

Radiant and surrounded by fragrant rosemary and blossoming chives.

Though the brilliant concert pianist Nnenna Ogwo recently completed her doctoral studies in Musical Arts at SUNY Stony Brook, she is “going ‘back to school’ in such a delightful way,” losing herself in the pages of Larousse Gastronomique. “I like to fancy myself a cook of sorts.” I can vouch for her intensely fruity mixed berry pie–scrumptious!  The gracious host enjoys sharing good food and libation with friends. We met a couple of years ago over glasses of wine with friends Sonya and Susie at their ultra femme shop, Winkworth. When Nnenna spoke of her upcoming recital at the venerable Steinway Hall I promised to attend. (She was kind enough, soon after, to allow me to use her recording of a Brahms’ sonata on my costume design reel.) Now I am first to admit my knowledge of classical music is limited, but I was mind-blown by her immense talent, a talent nurtured carefully with intensive training.

Born to a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, Nnenna was raised just outside of Washington, DC (we’ve discovered that our mothers live within blocks of each other.) She has played piano since the age of six. A student of Washington’s elite prep school, Holton-Arms, she studied also at the Peabody Conservatory Preparatory of Johns Hopkins University, graduating with honors in piano and composition.  She received a baccalaureate degree in Music for her undergraduate studies at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, the oldest music conservatory in the United States. As a Fulbright scholar, she undertook graduate study at Hungary’s most celebrated conservatory, Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary and returned to the states in 1995.

From her bio:

Ms. Ogwo currently serves on the piano faculty at Third Street Music School in Manhattan. A gifted teacher, she also maintains a private studio in New York City and has successfully prepared students for admission to conservatory.  She regularly works with composers, performing and premiering their work in order to help ensure the vitality of contemporary music. She is the founder of Working Projects, a works-in-progress venue for artists and musicians as well as the City Chamber Music Collective (formerly the Brooklyn Chamber Players), a group of international musicians committed to bringing exceptional chamber music to diverse audiences in non-traditional venues.

Inspired by her childhood photograph, Nnenna has dubbed her classical music label the gratifyingly unexpected Cantankerous Afro and has recently released Issue One, solo piano music composed by Bach-Siloti, Beethoven, Debussy, Scriabin and Piazzolla.  Visit her relaunched website, Nnenna.net to join her mailing list, enjoy her listening library, and purchase her virtuosic music.

The ‘fro that launched a label.

Nnenna speaks with admiration of her mom, Carmen Hague, who as a single parent raised her and her brother Charles, with grace and strength. The women graciously welcomed me into the family home for dinner recently. The soft-spoken Ms. Carmen’s unlined skin suggests a woman much younger, only her silvery corona of glorious hair hints that she could be the mother of a thirty-something. Both women swear by octogenarian esthetician (and “lovely pianist in her own right”) Simone France, whose “own ageless face is a testament to her work. She was quite the legend in the day and now only works by referral. After a couple of hours with her, you emerge with the perfect glowing skin you were born with.”  Though there is a luxury skin care line, that bears her name, the true Simone France experience, Nnenna asserts, is with the woman herself. Ms. Carmen makes the trek to New York for her “exquisite” facials. (to schedule a consultation, dial 212-371-6458)

As her mom busily watered her charmingly sprawling garden,  Nnenna and I enjoyed alfresco drinks, chatted and watched the cats devour their manna from kitty heaven, a fresh piece of fish. When in conversation, the feline fancier, in cat-like gesture, takes intermittent pauses to moisten her lips with a delicate sliver of tongue.

We spoke of things from comportment and dignified bearing in Teenie Harris’ photos to the frenzied rush of sports.  “I hate the gym,” she says, “but I’m all in for playing sports.”  You name it, she’s been on the team: basketball, soccer, volleyball, track, field hockey, lacrosse (men’s and women’s), diving, ice skating, even ultimate frisbee. Ballet and gymnastics figured seriously in her childhood until she had to narrow her commitment. “I’d always get to this point where the coach/teacher would say, ‘she could be really good.  I want her to go train at fill-in-the-blank’ and it would be far away, not financially viable and crazy and I didn’t want to stop playing the piano to do those things, you know?”

Though she bemoans the fact that she didn’t inherit the long, tapering fingers of her mother’s side of the family, she did get the broad, expansive hands of her father, which give her reach pianoforte perfection and, perhaps, great grip on a ball.

How could Brooklyn not forgive her recent defection to Harlem?  She still shows the BK mad love.  She’s a loyalist to its small businesses as evidenced by her trove.

1. My Mother’s Garden. “It’s an amazing spectacle that changes every single day.  I love how disorganized it is and love how wild and unruly it is. I love eating out of the garden, I love the fact that we have to fight the birds to get to the raspberries and beat out the squirrels to the peaches.   I love having an excuse to dig in the dirt with my bare hands…watching the cycles of the blooming plants and arguing with my mother over every little thing in her wild green space which I insist that she loves more than me.”

Fuschia, magenta and pink proliferate in Ms. Carmen’s garden.

2. Football. Before there was piano, there was football.  “My dad taught me to hate the Cowboys’ silver and blue and love DC’s burgundy and gold by the time I was three years old.” At her very first game she “saw the Eagles get shut out 20 – zip…I wanted to be the first woman to play in the NFL.” Fanaticism set early on, a fortuitous friendship with the daughter of team physician, Doc Collins, would fuel the love. Through the Collins’ she attended “a ton of great games at the old RFK stadium: playoffs against Dallas, the Giants, Atlanta.” During the down years, she “settled for the fact that being a football fan hurt sometimes. I always thought firing [Coach Marty] Schottenheimer was a big mistake — but you know how fans are, tons of opinions — which is why we play Fantasy Football.”  note: our initial sit-down for this post was pre-empted by the FF draft.

The would-be gridiron great loves the team, but refrains from using the politically incorrect team title.

3. Winkworth. She relies on the purveyor of fine Ladies’ Goods in her former Red Hook neighborhood for girly staples. Her newest favorite, The Love Balm from the Costa Rican retreat, Osa Clandestina is an organic “heavenly scented concoction of beeswax, coconut oil and vitamin E that does incredible things for skin and hair.”   Of her Lisa B. slingback, peep-toe espadrilles, she exclaims “they feel like bedroom slippers!  They are so comfortable and they are so sexy that people stare at my legs when I wear them.” She adds modestly, “trust me, it’s the shoes.”

Lisa B. eco-friendly, buckle espadrilles.

 4.  Pearl necklace. “Made for me as a birthday gift by Allyson Smith— she knows it’s my birthstone and that I love to wear pearls–I am continually amazed by how her painter’s eye affects her jewelry design.”

Freshwater pearls on 14kt gold.

5. HTC  HD2. “I’m a technophobe whose Palm pilot finally died and I had to make the leap into the 21st century.  The HD2 does it in style and with the most ginormous screen ever.  Every day I am stunned by what it does.”

HTC’s HD2 is available through T-Mobile.

6.  “Teenie” Harris Photographs. “Years ago I had the opportunity to buy a couple of prints by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, aka ‘One Shot’ Harris.  This incredible African-American photographer never thought of himself as a serious artist but his unending rolls of beautifully shot film chronicled black American life in Pittsburgh.  After finally investing in framing his work and hanging them in my new apartment, I am blown away by them every morning when I walk into my living room.” The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased the archive of 80,000 negatives of the late photographer’s work in 2001.  Click the link to learn more about the artist and Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project.

One of Nnenna’s two treasured “One-Shot” Harris photographs.

7. Cupcakes. “Those who know me well, know that I have been on a quest for the perfect cupcake in NYC for quite a while.  I have two current favorites.  For simple delicious homemade goodies like the kind mom made for your birthday, try Sugar Sweet Sunshine downtown…for something more of a gourmet confection, a bit of heavenly light perfection, ChikaLicious is rocking my world.  I’m not mad at their shortbread either….”

Old-fashioned goodness from Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

8. Little Luna. “Entranced by the goodies” in the jam-packed curiosity shop in the surprisingly quiet shadow of the BQE, Nnenna has “spent many an afternoon gabbing about this, that and the other,” with owner Dee. “I wouldn’t trade those hours for anything.”


A favorite Little Luna find is this vintage GE beauty.

9. Freebird Books and Goods. Freebird brought me back to reading.  Something that I had seriously stopped doing if it wasn’t related to grad school. It became my home away from home for a while and I miss it still even though I still attend monthly Post-Apocalyptic book club meetings there.”  Her favorite store purchase is a “huge coffee table book called the NYC Museum of Complaint,” filled with the various grievance letters written to city mayors over the years.  “It is a wonderful catalogue of the people and personalities and neuroses that make this city what it is.”

A young patron of Freebird Books and Goods.  “Like” them on Facebook.

10. Nina: Nina Simone. In the 1969 documentary short “Nina Simone talks about her music making in terms of ‘trying to wake people up and make people feel something.’  I actually listen to and love a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different artists.  The one thing they have in common is that they make the musical experience a visceral one.  If and when you do that, I think you have done something truly worthwhile”

Peter Rodis’ 26-minute look at the legendary artist.

The Trove: Henry Adebonojo
August 12, 2010

With the same great love for capturing the moment through the moving image as for distilling the essence in a single frame, cinematographer/ photographer Henry Adebonojo is “happiest when I am making pictures.” I met the courteous and quiet Henry in passing many moons ago as he, fan of foreign cinema, was headed to Tower Records on 66th Street, home of “the best collection of foreign films in NYC hands down,” as his colleague in the film biz (my then-beau) and I left the self-same place in a round of music shopping.   Our paths would cross here and there but it would be years later before Henry and I had a “real” conversation and his other “twin” emerged in Gemini glory: erudite and given to animated conversation about literature, music, film, politics and racing.

Henry spent his Lagosian adolescence during the rise of Afrobeat, leaving in 1978 to complete his A-Levels (college qualification exams) and continue on to university in Great Britain, where his interest in photography was sparked in earnest. He completed his undergraduate degree in Law at the University of Buckingham and went on to study International Law at the graduate level at University College, London.

Returning to the city of his birth in 1984, he entered the film business the following year with a production assistant gig.  Working his way up the through the ranks, he became a cinematographer in 1993. He has enjoyed a career which has taken him across the United States and as far away as Mozambique, South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda and Italy, where he traveled with Spike Lee to shoot behind-the-scenes footage for the film, Miracle at St. Anna. Poignantly, James McBride’s fictionalized account of the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre in World War II Tuscany and the sacrifice of African-American Buffalo Soldiers brought Henry to the hilltop village of Sommocolonia, the very place, he’d learn that his own uncle, the 21-year-old PFC Macleon Johnson, gave his life in service of the US Army in December 1944. Visit his blog, Fewer Words, for the moving account.

Henry Adebonojo and the Uncle he never knew, the heroic Buffalo Soldier, Macleon Johnson

Shooting the likes of the late Gordon Parks, (for his Emmy-nominated work on Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks) George Clooney, Chuck D, Marisa Tomei, Dave Chappelle and the POTUS, Barack Obama, he’s cut a wide swath across the mediums of music videos, commercials, promos, documentaries and short films. The one position which has remained elusive is the Director of Photography spot on a feature film, but he’s up for the challenge, and looks forward to its inevitable occurence.

Though motion pictures are his bread and butter, he is making a concerted effort to shoot the still photos that he too loves.  His images, even those which depict atrocity, reflect his inherent empathy. He brings a tender humanity even to inanimate objects.

A glimpse of the sacred amid the rubble of the most unholy, the skulls of the murdered faithful in a Rwandan church, 2004.


“Esperanza Spalding,” May 2009. A quiet moment for the jazz bassist.

“Waiting for Wesley,” Ilha de Mozambique, 2005.  On a location scouting trip in Africa for Danny Glover’s intended feature, “Toussaint,” star Wesley Snipes “was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wherever we went a crowd formed and people followed on foot behind the car that carried him around.”

View his work, both moving images and still photography at his website, HenryAdebonojo.com.

Because I’ve rolled with Henry to some wonderful jazz performances (such as the Heath Brothers at Birdland and Sir Ron Carter with his Juilliard colleagues, Dr. Eddie Henderson, Carl Allen, Ron Blake and Benny Green in a super-tight set at Dizzy’s), it comes as no surprise that Jazz should figure prominently in the aficionado’s trove.  Read on to discover his other treasures.

1. The Masters of Jazz. Henry has completely immersed himself in the world of Jazz and though he is well-versed in the music of many artists, two stand out for their bodies of work: Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. “Any thing those men produced is a soul-stirring emotional ride for me.  I recommend the lesser known Milestones as a landmark album for Miles.  And for Sir Duke, I recommend one of his later works from 1967, Far East Suite, which is rich in the complex orchestration for which he is famously known.  I especially love Ad Lib on Nippon.”  The bibliophile adores Geoff Dyer’s self-labeled work of “imaginative criticism,” But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.  “It merges beautifully my love of Jazz music and stories with my tendency to daydream.” As for jazz films, the 1988 documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is it. “There is a moment in the film where Monk is at an airport in Europe and he is briefly separated from Nellie [his wife] as she is handling passport stuff.  He stands staring at people to-ing and fro-ing through the airport and in his typical mad mathematician methodology he breaks out in a spin and a brief jig – the kind he is wont to do on stage. It’s a personal moment, a moment of release.  When I am in a particularly stressful moment or situation, my mind wanders to Thelonious.” (Skippy and Crepuscule with Nellie are favorites.)

“Epistrophy,” sets up the airport scene about seven minutes into this clip. It is the perfect composition for Monk’s ecstatic whirl.

2. Compact Cameras. “I’ve been enjoying the miniaturization of my personal visual tool kit.  Sometimes I don’t feel like lugging around big cameras and dealing with the attendant attention.” He purchased an Olympus EP2 in January. “It has a lower profile than my Canon camera and accepts a plethora of lenses via adapters.  It is more discrete than the beloved Leica of many a photographer and the image quality while not quite up to the Canon, serves my purposes very well.  I love to use my Voigtlander 58mm 1.4 lens on it.  Great resolution on that lens and tack sharp.” A birthday gift from his “beloved friend, Kevin Ladson,” Henry’s Flip video cam, with its diminutive size allows him to “enjoy shooting those candid moments that a larger camera would destroy.  I don’t have to worry about things like focus and exposure. I just shoot and have fun with it.”

Mighty minis: Olympus PEN EP2 and the Ultra Flip HD video camera.

3. Auto Racing. “Nothing provides the kind of adrenaline kick for me like I get when I am behind the wheel of a fast car.  That car may be a Go Kart or a race car, but the feeling is the same.  The purposeful direction of aggression with a host of other people who are guided by the same principle and all happen to be heading in the same direction.  I don’t get that feeling from anything else I do.  For Go Karting I head up to Mount Kisco to GPNY (a modestly priced experience). For race cars I go to Skip Barber Racing School (a ruinously expensive experience).  I plan to do Skip Barber before the year is out.”

H.O.A. in the driver’s seat.

4. Wrist Watches. He owns several and keeps them in rotation. “They are my jewelry and change with my moods.  I love all my watches, but I have two ‘favourites,’ both have black dials and were bought to mark trips abroad.”  An aviation chronograph from Russian watchmaker Poljot “is the only manual winding watch I own.  I love having to wind it the way I used to do the watches I had as a kid.”

Henry was drawn to the “interesting combination” of steel case and gold numerals and hands in the square-faced watch from the La Carrée collection of French watchmaker Louis Erard.

5. Fountain Pens. “I enjoy process and although I don’t use them often, I love to fill a fountain pen with ink, write on some fine absorbent paper and watch the ink settle in the way my mood or emotion might do on a particular writing.  I occasionally pop into the Fountain Pen Hospital in downtown Manhattan to see what’s on offer.  I have a Parker I love and a Conklin that I picked up there.  I’d love a Namiki-Pilot, but the ones I like are too rich for my blood.”

Photo, PressSmart.com.

6. Francis Coppola Claret. Though he claims “an unsophisticated palette,” he knows what he likes in wine: good, red and affordable. Until he celebrates an Academy Award or Grand Prix win, the $20 range suits him fine. “I find I cannot go wrong with the Coppola Claret.  I can only imagine his wines are made with the same attention to detail as his classic films.”

“Never had a bad bottle of the stuff and it does not break my bank.”

7. Busboys and Poets. “In our fast changing world where process and tactile experience is being steadily replaced by a virtual one, I hold on for dear life to those of my past.  I miss record stores – even the ones that sell CDs.  Bookstores are going the same way.”  The D.C. cafe and bookseller,  “Busboys is a reminder of what it really is like to sit back and smell the rose or coffee depending on your preferred metaphor. In the case of Busboys, it’s more like smell food and touch books.”

The Busboys and Poets Bookstore is run by Teaching for Change.  Photo, Susanna Raab for the New York Times.

8. Contemporary Nigerian Authors. “Emerging Nigerian Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) and Chris Abani (GraceLand) are rocking my world right now.  They are brilliant story tellers who owe a great deal to the writers who came before – Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe – but have an up-to-the-minute, romantic, free style of writing.  They are essential to an understanding of Nigeria’s past, present and future.”

Exceptional prose from two of Nigeria’s finest contemporary writers.

9. Fela Ransome Kuti and the Koola Lobitos “are important to me because of the well deserved popularity of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but they are equally important.  The two are inseparable.  I urge anyone interested in the latter to acquaint themselves with the former. I was a kid growing up in Lagos when Hi Life music was all the rage and distinctly remember the transformation Fela went through and the long journey to embrace he endured (especially by the class from which he came – little known but he was seen as a kind of class traitor because of his embrace of common folk).  It’s a more profound story than the musical could ever encompass.”

Soundtrack to a Nigerian childhood.

10. Passing Strange. The musical, the film, the cast recording have particular resonance to his life.  “I lost my mother when I was 14 years old.  My life has had a certain un-balance to it ever since.  I have not begun to reckon with that until fairly recently, to grasp some of the dimensions of altered states resulting there from.  I think boys who lose their mothers at a young age have particular stories, unique stories.  Passing Strange also resonates because of the awkwardness of career choices that remain unsettled in us and the ways we are required to embrace that in order to move forward.”

Henry was overjoyed to serve as camera operator on the Spike Lee-helmed, filmed version of the Tony-award winning musical.