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An Interview with Kōan Jeff Baysa

In December 2019, I traveled to New York and met with Kōan Jeff Baysa, the incoming Critic-in-Residence (CIR) with the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF) and the elected presider over UnderMain’s fourth running of the Critical Mass Series (CMIV). As we sat in a window seat at Nyonya in NoLita, I shared details on how the Critical Mass Series began and grew and what its impact had been thus far for the arts in Kentucky.

I explained my original concerns about the lack of critical writing and the ongoing battle against stereotypical notions of Kentucky as a backwater, and that Critical Mass had become my passion. Over the last three years, I reached out to various leaders in our community and worked with interns, artists, and writers to include their voices. UnderMain funded the program in its entirety. Then, in 2019, The Great Meadows Foundation recognized our efforts and the similar goals for developing Kentucky’s collective voice in the world of contemporary art and granted funding to UnderMain to support CMIV, CMV, and CMVI.

Kōan had visited Kentucky before, and from the range of topics that flowed from appetizer to entree to tea, I knew CMIV would succeed on a grander scale than in years past. UnderMain founded this event in 2016 with one thing in mind: that we might bring together many voices and discuss the role of contemporary art in general and criticism in particular. I could see that our goals were to be far exceeded as Kōan’s approach was clearly global.

Two topics, in particular, remained at the forefront of my mind: First, Kōan’s comments after speaking with Fred Wilson about the museological approach underpinning his installation at the Maryland Historical Society titled Mining the Museum – namely to challenge all narratives presented to us – and second, Kōan’s intrigue with The Rubin Museum, which I later toured for the first time. This was a remarkable collection of contemporary works in conversation with the collection of Himalayan art. These talking points were harbingers of what would develop in the coming months with Kōan leading the 2020 Critical Mass Series –open discourse was at the center of both.

The Wilson and Rubin discussions would also lead an exhibition proposal that UnderMain agreed to mount in partnership with 21c Museum Hotel and the GMF, Icon Interventions, which Kōan curated and discusses further in the interview conducted with him here.

Kōan later joked that our lunch had ranged from ‘cabbages to kings’ and that was just the beginning. Under usual circumstances, he was to spend approximately eighty hours in Kentucky artists’ studios and help raise the level of critical discourse among artists in the region.

In March 2020, the circumstance was far from usual, and while the pandemic robbed us all of what we might have done together, what we could have learned first hand from Kōan Jeff Baysa, and what outcomes we may have been able to build upon for 2021, it also meant the residency spanned four months and influenced many more conversations than we had anticipated.

Kōan requested that I include the caveat that his findings revealed in this interview are in no way comprehensive of the Kentucky art scene, that all errors and omissions are his alone, and that his comments are based on limited observations with mostly personal impressions guiding him.

CH: How many artists did you visit across the state of Kentucky?

KJ: Over the two months (Feb-March 2019) that I was invited to serve as the third Critic-in-Residence (CIR) for the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF), and for the two additional months (April-May) prompted by the advent of the COVID-19, I interfaced with just short of ninety individuals in Kentucky’s creative communities. For the first six weeks these interactions were actual studio visits, then via virtual interviews, successively from the INhouse in New Albany, to a private apartment in NuLu, and then the Speed Mansion in Old Louisville.

CH: How did you determine which artists to include?

KJ: Some groundwork had been laid when I made my first visit to Louisville in 2005. I did a studio visit with Steve Irwin, was introduced to Julien Robson at the Speed Museum, met Ed Hamilton in his studio, visited Zephyr Gallery, and toured 21C in its original location. Fast forward to 2020. In the interim, Steve passed, Swanson Gallery closed, and 21C grew to nine locations, among other changes. As a curator and critic, in the fifteen-year period of living in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and New York City, I wasn’t able to keep track of what was happening in Kentucky contemporary art.

Anna Olivia Blake, GMF assistant

In advance of my arrival in Kentucky on the first of February 2020, the Great Meadows Foundation let me know they hired an intern, Anna Olivia Blake, to work as my assistant. She was a pleasure to work with; she is a local resident and enrolled in the curatorial studies program run by Chris Reitz at the Hite Institute of the University of Louisville. I told her of my interests in everything outside the mainstream art world:  the intersection of art and science, underrepresented communities, especially the differently enabled, the incarcerated, LGBTQA, Asian and native American artists, performance art, outsider art, art with novel uses of materials and surprising concept. In retrospect, I also wish that I had been able to experience more new media, chemosensory, and sound works.

Chris Reitz with Joey Yates and Henry Heuser Jr. at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts

Kōan Jeff Baysa, Al Shands, Julien Robson

Al Shands and Julien Robson had the foresight to host a dinner with a dozen leaders from Kentucky arts organizations and two large groups of artists. As an icebreaker, I asked individual artists to introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The icebreaker generated conversations between adjacent “strangers,” all of whom were all members of the same creative community but were previously unaware of their neighbors’ roles and contributions. I largely met my goal of meeting every artist present, encouraging each to contact me for a studio visit as Anna helped collate the lists of artists.

Venice Four: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, Lucy Azubuike

It was my first time meeting the group of four women artists funded by GMF to experience the 58th Venice Biennale 2019: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike. As I settled into my role as CIR, I attended openings, panel discussions, poetry slams, and other gatherings. One of the first openings in Louisville I attended was African-American Women: Celebrating Diversity in Art at Kore Gallery, commemorating Black History Month. I was introduced to the artist Elmer Lucille Allen.

Ramona Lindsey at Kore Gallery opening

At KMAC’s poetry slam Anna introduced me to visual artist Lance Newman who organized the impressive showcase of talent that evening. An invitation by Ramona Lindsey, Program Officer at Hadley Creatives, to conduct critiques offered another opportunity to meet artists. Visiting regional art collectors and viewing their collections was a good way to know works and artists in concentrated forums.

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola in their home with Julien Robson

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola focus primarily on collecting and displaying the works of Kentucky artists in their spacious home, and are now planning another structure on the property for art. Gil Holland, who is credited with branding and developing the NuLu and Portland neighborhoods, gave me a virtual walkthrough of his home collection. John Edwards and Erik Eaker generously shared their select private collection with me. I was privileged to have several walkthroughs of the extensive art at Al Shands’ Great Meadows home and grounds. Invitations to private homes for properly socially distanced meals provided additional opportunities to see works by local artists: dinner at gallerist Susan Moremen’s with artist Gaela Ewin, and lunch with the retired pioneer photography educator CJ Pressman and the former zoo curator Marcelle Gianelloni, who have amassed an astounding collection of regional folk art and contemporary photography.

Chris Radtke in her home holding a work by Steve Irwin

Chris Radtke, one of the founders of Zephyr Gallery, gave a gracious tour of her home, her artwork, and extensive art collection. I was also able to view artworks collected by Henry Heuser, Jr. in the offices of the Community Foundation of Louisville.

CH: What regions of the state did you reach?

KJ: My directive was to visit artists living within the one hundred twenty counties of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and two adjacent counties across the Ohio River in Indiana. I went north to attend a panel discussion at the Kennedy Heights Art Center in Cincinnati featuring Kentucky artists John Brooks and Kiah Celeste. Venturing south to Western University Kentucky in Bowling Green, I saw artists and instructors Yvonne Petkus and Kristina Arnold.

Yvonne Petkus

I drove to Nashville where Tiffany Calvert and Josh Azzarella opened their joint exhibition at Tinney Contemporary. I drove east to Morehead State University to visit Melissa and Adam Yungbluth and photographer Robyn Moore. Through the kindness of Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director, and Nico Jorcino, Director of Museum Design & Planning, of the 21C Museum Hotels, arrangements were made for me to stay at and tour the current shows and collections at 21C locations in Lexington, Nashville, and Cincinnati.

Crystal Wilkinson, Affrilachia

I was fortunate to get in touch with creatives and organizers working near and in Appalachia. With prior affiliations to Appalshop, Lacy Hale and Robert Gipe gave insights into the hardships of surviving as artists and art advocates in the area. Writers for Affrilachia, Crystal Wilkinson and Frank X Walker gave strong insights into the origins of Black art, craft and literature in Appalachia. I was able to visit the shows: Black Before I Was Born curated by Ashley Cathey at the Roots 101 African-American Museum founded by Lamont Collins; the beautifully installed solo show by Megan Bickel at the Georgetown College Gallery; the handiwork of Danny Seim and the art installed at the Portland Museum; and a chance to meet Daniel Pfalzgraf who curated the work of Eke Alexis in Permanent and Natural at the Carnegie Center in New Albany. Given the opportunity, I would have further explored lesser-known art venues, researched more black artists and queer artists in Appalachia and visited the artist Julie Baldyga. I had plans for explorations to Paducah further to the west, Whitesburg to the east, and Covington in the north, but the pandemic truncated those travel plans.

Eke Alexis’s work in ‘Permanent and Natural’ at Carnegie Center, New Albany

CH: What genres were represented by the artists you visited?

KJ: All 2D and 3D genres were well represented, and I was especially interested in works that crossed disciplines and combined platforms, so I specifically reached out to Teddy Abrams, widely acclaimed Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra; Robert Curran, the iconoclastic Artistic Director of the Louisville Ballet, and Matt Wallace, the Director/Facilitator of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. In other genres, I approached Edward Taylor in fashion, Amberly Simpson in dance, and Jane Jones, a playwright. Fortunate to be given a tour of the artworks installed in the expansive UK HealthCare Center in Lexington, I am grateful to Jason Akhtarekhavari, the Manager of the UK Arts in HealthCare program.

Jason Akhtarekhavari, Manager, Arts in HealthCare Program, UK HealthCare Center

I also wish to acknowledge the art programs at outdoor sculpture parks that expand the scope of contemporary art experiences for the public, especially for school age youths and for hosting international artist-in-residence programs. I was invited by Jenny Zeller, the Visual Arts Coordinator at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest to tour artworks installed on the grounds. Besides the wildly popular Forest Giants, especially notable is Earth Measure (2013) the large sculptural installation by Matt Weir. Similarly, Josephine Sculpture Park Director Melanie Van Houten gave me a tour of the installations in the landscape.

Lucy Azubuike, Josephine Sculpture Park

Near the entrance is a remarkable installation by Lucy Azubuike whose arc of tall poles presents a preview of tree-based pareidolia found in the park and constitutes the basis for exciting discoveries by children within the park. Innovative Louisville exhibition spaces include the exhibition space Houseguest, the front room of the home of artist Megan Bickel and chef Jacob Wilson. Art-related dinners are hosted in that same space. Sheherazade is the converted downstairs garage space of the studio home of Julie Leidner. On a busily trafficked street, the shows are observed through windows in the rollup garage door.

CH: What are some themes or topics that the artists you visited seem to hold in common?

KJ: Identity politics of race, gender, and class are being universally addressed. Artists can be effective catalysts for change, so the crucial issues of segregation, homelessness, opioid addiction, institutionalized incarceration, toxic masculinity, the legacy of slavery, serial exploitation of Appalachia, immigration, and other hot-button topics, could be further explored. Critical discourses are hampered in part by the culture of regimented politeness and lingering segregation. Kentucky is fractured into 120 counties within which there is underrepresentation of Asian-American, LGBTQA, and indigenous artists. Particularly arresting and poignant, Brianna Harlan’s installation in Skylar Smith’s exhibition Ballot Box, at Louisville Metro Hall, chronicled her grandmother being denied voting because she, on command by an election official, allegedly sang the Star Spangled Banner off-key. I appreciate the energy and dedication that self-taught artist Jaylin Stewart invests in her painted portrait series that she also executes in chalk on city streets. I was not able to experience the powerful poetry and performances of Hannah Drake but we spoke about her forceful enacted oratories on social justice. I was struck by the art of Thaniel Ion Lee that transcends physical restrictions and takes flight in highly detailed drawings, photo self-portraits, fine digital images, and instructional word-images.

Thaniel Ion Lee, Moremen Gallery

CH: Does ‘Kentucky art’ have a distinguishing character of its own?

KJ: Some may look to the KMAC Triennial as an example, but I am not aware of any characteristics that would distinguish works as “Kentucky art.” When I posed the question regarding the existence of a “School of Kentucky Art” and what Kentucky art is known for, the conversation often turned to the crafts in Kentucky, especially art from Appalachia. The institution’s name – Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft – reflects its historical emphasis on craft, and evokes longstanding discussions regarding art and craft. When conducting a straw poll on “famous Kentucky artists” the names mentioned most often included Ed Hamilton, Keltie Ferris, Lititia Quesenberry, and Steve Irwin. Hamilton is a world-renown sculptor based in Louisville. Ferris, who lives and works in Brooklyn, is known as an artist from Kentucky locally noted for having “made it” by being represented by an established gallery in Manhattan. Quesenberry has also shown in New York, lives and works in Louisville, noted for her work with light installations, and her work with the Louisville Ballet. Irwin was an acclaimed, charismatic, and beloved Louisville artist famous for his hedonistic lifestyle. Undergoing cardiac bypass surgery in his 20s, he bore a precarious cardiac status and died at age 51 of a massive heart attack. Certainly not to the exclusion of other organizations, I acknowledge the significant contributions of the Great Meadows Foundation, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the insightful leadership of artist director John Brooks at Quappi Projects, and the adept stewardship of Susan Moremen in directing her eponymous gallery. I am grateful to Warhol Grant awardee Paul Michael Brown in Lexington for introducing me to Institute 193 and its mission of championing quality relevant works over commercial viability.

Paul Michael Brown, Institute 193

CH: Are there a few artists whose work really stood out?

KJ:  I’m very much interested in surprising processes and the novel manipulation of material; I’m totally entranced by the approach that Vian Sora employs to initiate her stunning abstract paintings with evolving figurative references. The scale of her polyptychs approximate immersive experiences. The fabric-based series by Crystal Gregory revolve around her concept of “material interrogation” that involves the astonishing use of cloth in conjunction with glass, pewter, and concrete. The head of the glass program at the Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville, Che Rhodes demonstrates his creative mettle of working outside of the mainstream glass studio practice with controlled explosion glass-within-glass pieces.

By layering digital and physical masking, digital printing and painting, a particular series by Tiffany Calvert reads as Dutch still lifes with technologic flourishes. Having studied traditional Asian ceramic glazing and firing techniques, Ian Pemberton challenges himself by altering the processes from engineering perspectives to produce “relics for the future.” In addition, I like the scaled-up scratched mirror pieces by Jacob Heustis, the repurposing of metal and wood, experimental cast metal work by Andrew Marsh, driven by a personal history of physical trauma and chronic pain and the brilliant epoch-collapsing social commentary collages of Stan Squirewell. Having studied at the University of Kentucky, Jamaica-born Ebony Patterson creates eye-dazzling socially conscious large-scale works that are placed in many collections, including in several of the 21C Museum Hotels. From Cambodia, Vinhay Keo creates self-referential photographs, performances, and installations that embody an important rising immigrant voice. Having completed his studies at the Kentucky College of Art and Design, the talented artist now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Vinhay Keo

Cynthia Norton aka “Ninnies Noises Nonesuch”

Among the several artists that working with fabric, the standout is the quilted work of Penny Sisto for her exquisitely detailed large-scale portraits of select iconic individuals. I’m fascinated with the scope of concepts tackled by Mary Carothers, especially her ambitious encasing an entire car frozen in ice. I was enchanted by my studio visit with Cynthia Norton and her performances as alter ego “Ninnie Noises Nonesuch” of rural Kentucky accompanied by her self-made musical instruments. I have yet to see the finished sculpture that Maker’s Mark commissioned Matt Weir to create. Over two separate visits totaling nearly hours, I reviewed his tremendous range of works and was particularly impressed with the specialized tools that the artist invented and built for the precision work required to execute Earth Measure and his current commission.

CH: We understand that you were able to connect artists with larger art world experiences. Can you elaborate on those?

KJ: I habitually make individualized recommendations to artists with each encounter. These include suggestions of reference articles, other works of art, and art residencies with whom I am affiliated: Omi International Arts Center, Residency Unlimited, iBiennale, Joshua Treenial (California), Fresh Winds Biennale (Iceland), Kaus Australis (Netherlands), Young Congo Biennale (DR Congo), and other connections. My written recommendations made for the artists of Hadley Creatives were copied and collected by its program officer. As CIR, I was first generously housed at INhouse, in the Silver Hills section of New Albany. I envisioned it as a meeting place for artists. Unfortunately, grand plans for a multisensory dining event fell through at the last minute. On one evening, Julien organized an introductory meeting with members of the critical discourse group Ruckus. The event that I was happiest with was an elaborate meet-and-greet event that centered around the four female artists from Kentucky who were funded by the Great Meadows Foundation to experience the most recent Venice Biennale. I coordinated a potluck BYOB event of ten artists, each of whom was asked to bring a guest. Each person was then expected to share his/her/their work with the group. The happening encouraged lively dinner conversations, enthusiastic discussions of the presentations, and the making of new friends and potential collaborations.

Letitia Quesenberry, in her studio

The other large opportunity that was scuttled by the pandemic was Icon Interventions at the 21C Museum Hotel in Lexington. The concept was to have works by Kentucky artists in conversation with works in the then current exhibition Pop Stars!. Supported chiefly by 21C, Great Meadows Foundation, and UnderMain, the associated conference, Critical Mass IV – led by Christine Huskisson – was drawing audiences from New York, Cincinnati, Nashville, and elsewhere. It was a golden opportunity to showcase art by Kentucky artists, introducing them to larger audiences of curators, museum directors, critics, bloggers, and others from outside the state. I offered to support the application of a Kentucky artist with arthrogryposis to a funded position at Omi International Arts Center in upstate New York. An artist with the same condition was invited to the residency program several years ago and I shared that artist’s work with the potential applicant. Another instance was referring Lititia Quesenberry to the career of friend Eric Orr, a California Light and Space artist whose works were previously unknown to her. A further example is putting Mary Carothers, a prior visitor to the Faroe Islands, in conversation with artists Brandur Patursson and his father, well-established artists there. I met the island artist when I served as the Curatorial Advisor for the Fresh Winds Biennale VI in Iceland.

CH: How did the regions’ public/communities compare in terms of engagement and support of artists?

KJ: As a bona fide erstwhile farmer producing the gourmet goat cheese, chevre, I’ve often made the analogy of a healthy art ecosystem with a well balanced milking stool. In a gross oversimplification, the contemporary art world is made up of a several components that are analogized to the legs that support the stability of the stool: producers (artists), consumers (individual collectors, institutions), and facilitators (gallerists, critics, curators, museum directors, nonprofit facility directors, etc) that work between the two. Art activities in Kentucky are centered mainly around the more populous cities of Lexington and Louisville, and towns with colleges and universities with art departments. Kentucky has an imbalance in the components of the art world ecosystem: a pool of talented producers/artists in all disciplines, modest exhibition-promotional-sales sectors, and a limited consumer/collector base. The more “legs” equitable in position and in length, the more stable the entire structure. The ongoing challenge is how to grow the individual and corporate collector bases to support the artist communities, perhaps from younger generations with wealth, innovative concepts, and new definitions of collecting. There is a disproportionate number of exhibition venues for the numbers of artists. Admirably, Quappi Projects, Roots 101 and the Portland Museum are proactively building diverse audiences and constituencies. Real estate developers, architects, and designers should be engaged in this discussion. The dependence of the Kentucky art market as primarily in-house sales-driven should be reassessed. Critical discourse in Kentucky is ably served by organizations like Ruckus and UnderMain, and should be scaled up. The upcoming careers of curators-in-training at the Hite Institute should be encouraged and supported early on in their careers. Most importantly, active conversations between these various components of the Kentucky art ecosystem should be encouraged and sustained rather than being siloed, for that just maintains the status quo.

CH: What steps could/should be taken to strengthen the Kentucky visual arts communities?

KJ: Strive to correct the imbalances as described. This was also answered in part previously. Take initiative. “Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur. Don’t be shy asking for help. “Not trying guarantees failure 100% of the time.” Take advantage of the resources offered by existing local resources like Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, UnderMain, Louisville Visual Arts, and like organizations. Start with the individual artist. Professional development, available through programs and through personal initiative, is crucial. Artists should be articulate and conversant about their work from a personal perspective and within the larger context of the art world. Read, research, and experiment. Be curious. Satisfy that curiosity. Share resources and knowledge. Form, join, and participate in artist discussion and critique groups, in addition to those in academic settings, of mentors, peers, and juniors is important for personal and professional growth. Become an art collector. It’s not elitist to collect art. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel were civil servants who amassed one of the most important post-1960’s art collections in the U.S. One can start modestly by buying or trading works with other artists. Get to know art dealers and art advisors. Propose an installment plan and/or ask for discount with purchase, as many art dealers are willing to work with collectors. Be mutually supportive. Seek out and attend as many openings, receptions, award ceremonies, campus activities as practical. Introduce yourself to a “new stranger,” an artist you don’t know or whose work you’re unfamiliar with. Discover what you have in common or just make a new friend. Be voracious in looking at art.

If you feel that you’ve seen everything in your town, travel to see exhibitions whenever possible, whether actually or virtually. Proactively invite more people to your studio. If you’ve gone through the “usual suspects” regionally, find out which visiting art persons are around and approach them. Curate an exhibition. Whether solo or group exhibition, the process of mounting an exhibition will be educational. Critique an exhibition. Express yourself. If not for publication with Ruckus or UnderMain, put it on your blog and share it with colleagues. The characteristics of “Southern hospitality” include humility, courtesy, good behavior, modesty, and “knowing one’s place.” Genteel Southern upbringing discourages disparaging one’s neighbor, especially in smaller communities where everyone knows each other’s business, and particularly in the subpopulations of the art world. This is keenly impactful in the subject of critical discourse in Kentucky, where reviews may be perceived as more descriptive than critical, but commendable efforts by organizations like UnderMain and Ruckus are reversing the trend. Surprised to discover that Louisville was among the top ten most segregated cities in the U.S. along with neighboring Nashville and Cincinnati, I learned of Louisville’s notorious “Ninth Street Divide.” Acknowledging its Sisyphean challenge, I encourage and support all measures that promote bidirectional porosity and the ultimate breakdown of this physical and mental barrier. The origin of the name Kentucky as the “dark and bloody ground” is arguably ambiguous, but the double entendre evokes historical and current events of racial and gun violence.

CH: Do you feel that the artists in Kentucky have access to enough outlets (galleries, publications, critical review, collectors) to develop their work to its fullest potential?

KJ: No. But access is not just limited to these outlets, for they are moderated by psychological, socio-economic, temporal factors as well. Notably, direct person-to-person communication is effective, but vastly under-utilized and integral to professional development. Also see prior responses. And Yes. The internet is a vast ocean of information with remarkable potentials for developing access to these outlets. Also see prior responses. 

CH: What can Kentucky do to begin a collective conversation (together with the artists from all areas of the state) with the larger world of contemporary artists? 

KJ: Collective conversations have already been initiated with organizations like Great Meadows Foundation. By funding artist experiences outside of Kentucky, it has importantly extended and increased the exposure of Kentucky artists to the larger world of contemporary art. Again, I cite the funding of Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike to the recent Venice Biennale. In addition, GMF’s invitation to Dan Cameron, Natalia Zuluaga, and myself to interface with Kentucky artists exposes those artists to our respective networks, resources and conversations.

Sandra Charles with painting for Ballot Box exhibition

By attracting well-heeled and well-traveled individuals to the various 21C Museum Hotels and restaurants, this hospitality group plays a significant role in increasing exposure to and awareness of the Kentucky artists’ works represented in its collections. I viewed my postponed curatorial project, Icon Interventions, at 21C Lexington, as a similar potential force. In addition to changing exhibitions at the museum, the KMAC Triennial, organized through a committee led by curator Joey Yates, is a welcome format encouraging further dialogues between Kentucky artists while fostering attention from beyond the state’s borders. Requiring funding and an enterprising spirit, national and international art events, including biennials, art fairs, and out-of-state group exhibitions offer more opportunities for Kentucky artists to gain further visibility. To gain further insight into the growth of the Kentucky Art ecosystem, fundamental issues require scrutiny:

        • Do Kentucky artists want these conversations or are many satisfied with the status quo?
            • What are the motivations, goals, and desired results to have these conversations?
        • A rising Kentucky artist moves away to pursue further education.
            • Will this artist return? Why or why not?
        • A talented artist moves to Kentucky for a faculty position and lower living expenses.
            • How does one encourage this artist to stay?
            • How does one attract other talented artists to come and settle here?
        • A certain Kentucky artist has the skills and reputation that could serve this artist well in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York.
            • What keeps this artist in Kentucky?
            • How does Kentucky keep this artist from moving away for other opportunities in larger cities?

To be fair, my comments are made with the presumption that artists hunger to extend their reach further. Some may not. There may be a case for maintaining the status quo. In the exhibition catalog for Here, contributor Mark Harris remarks, “Paradoxically, the circumstances that prevent this art from circulating at a national level are the same that enable it to gain its distinctive local color and depth.” Throughout my rewarding four month long experience as Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation, it has been a distinct honor and an absolute pleasure to work with all of you and especially with several extraordinarily gifted artists. I am invested in the creative communities of Kentucky, and offer my continued support and friendship from Los Angeles, Honolulu, and New York.

Mahalo nui loa!


Dmitry Strakovsky: The Art World After COVID – The Last Days of the [Centralized] Art World.

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Strakovsky

The art world that Jerry Saltz is mourning in the Vulture is one that outsiders don’t really experience. To be fair, it is quite welcoming but rather hard to find or to keep up with. Its threads connect the world’s political and commercial centers via the paths of global capital – most of these intersect in New York. I “heart” the city but I also recognize a certain myopia that it fosters whenever we talk about art. For example, the previous catastrophic events that the author refers to reflect the contractions in the market for contemporary art. These are not felt particularly strongly outside of the commercial gallery nexus; a feature absent from the landscape of most American cities, to say nothing of rural areas. New York, LA, sometimes Chicago, sometimes Houston, Miami once a year, that is where the art world lives. It is beautiful! It is amazing! It is full of my favorite people. It is also absolutely crippled by its own economics.

Saltz’s assessment that the finances are concentrated “in the hands of a lucky, mostly white 1500 people” is spot on. This is precisely what has been leading the trend of ever-increasing centralization: smaller commercial galleries going out of business and larger galleries getting significantly larger, also mentioned in the article. It is an unsustainable arms race that involves moderate expansions in the rosters of artists and gargantuan growth in the amount of real estate a gallery has to occupy to try to keep up. Consequently, it is increasingly complicated for an artist not represented by a mega-gallery to gain access to financial resources needed to produce their art. Major museum and other large public-venue-type shows by living artists without commercial gallery representation are virtually non-existent in the United States.

The art world, much like the rest of the economy, is overly centralized. We are stuck in the endless loop of complaint that there is not enough money for art and bemoaning the fact that the market, back to the 1500 people mentioned above, is ruining the art world. This was an unsustainable scenario before the COVID-19 outbreak and the current pandemic is just accelerating the destructive process.

Now, after nodding my head to yet another denizen of the art world pointing to the obvious issues without providing any real solutions, I would like to simply say that chasing the same group of rich collectors around the globe is probably not a way forward. We need to expand the audience in a meaningful way; embrace contemporary technologies beyond the corporate fold of Instagram and try to see what “scales up” in the cultural sphere.

It must be noted that the idea of scale can be incredibly destructive: fast-food franchises give us scale but not necessarily a pleasant dining experience. Pushed to its extreme “scale” is simply another way to refer to bland monoculture. However, if we are careful, we can use the software development tools and marketing solutions of the internet age to make connections to new audiences and expand the base of participants in our cultural experiments. This brings me to a project that I care deeply about: a non-profit that I helped to start about three years ago.

Infinite Industries is a project designed from the beginning to try to expand the audience for contemporary culture in general. When the virus hit, the focus of what we do hadn’t really changed: provide a unified platform for cultural producers to distribute information about their events. It is a pretty funky mix of technocratic and idealistic approaches: provide a single comprehensive platform but make it free and easily hackable so others can use it. We needed to make technical adjustments on the fly but we are a small volunteer tech team (BIG Shoutout to Chris Wininger and Matthew Gidcomb!) so we could pivot very fast.

Art, theater, dance, music worlds are super welcoming places but we constantly fail at getting information out about what we do to the rest of the world. The simple truth is that unless one is judiciously looking on Facebook, and is friends with all the right people, and is subscribed to at least a couple of listservs, they are not going to find much about what is happening in a town even as relatively small as Lexington. In order for us to thrive, we have to expand the audience. We have to be more visible! We have to be more vital! We have to diversify the sources of eyeballs and cash!

The art world and, by extension, a larger culturally active world that I would love to see on the other side of the pandemic is one that embraces technology to create resilient and decentralized networks that are open to an ever-increasing number of patrons.

Top image photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash


Stuart Horodner: The Art World After COVID

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

How has COVID 19 impacted what you do?

The spread of the virus and all the precautions around it led to the obvious decision to close the UK Art Museum until such time that it is safe to return. The staff and I are working from home, doing research and creating online offerings that provide the robust flavor of what we normally do, if not the actual taste. We meet via Zoom and FaceTime, and the longer our seclusion lasts, the more these gridded conversations keep the connection between us and remind us of our shared commitment to a life in the arts.

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz wrote about the theatre in these days of quarantine: “I hope it doesn’t sound too prematurely elegiac to say that one of the things I miss about going to the theatre is the going: leaving home, travelling, with a sense of purpose, to a specific place at an appointed hour. I miss threading my way through the obstacle course of Times Square, secretly proud of my agility. And I miss being part of an audience, one soul among many. I even miss the infuriating madness of other people.”(1)

I can relate. Not being able to feel each distinct part of the work day – from driving to the university, dealing with the day’s tasks, eating lunch in the break room, and having face-to-face encounters with students, faculty, staff, and the public who’ve come to see an exhibition, attend a lecture or a tour, or participate in a workshop or Family Day activity – is disorienting and depressing. We are planners and presenters, and this gives us a sense of purpose and pride. Not being able to know for certain when to arrange for the installation of new exhibitions, or book travel for exhibiting artists or guest speakers, is maddening. Oh, to be back in the happy days of listening to visitors complain about the lack of parking or scrambling to get ready for an opening reception!

As I write this, government officials and university leadership are making budget calculations and projecting the possibility of phased returns in the future. While we wait for a clear sense of how this will work, my mind goes to the belief that I’ve maintained since adolescence – that art is meaningful and transformative, giving us insights into ourselves and others. While we can’t have the real thing right now, there is something satisfying about delivering a few weekly social media items that can engage the homebound art lover. The museum has a modified Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament going that pits artworks from our permanent collection against each other, asking viewers to vote on their favorites, as well as writing prompts for parents and teachers using current and recent exhibitions, and staff reflections on their own wondrous objects, which is a teaser for the upcoming Cabinet of Wonder exhibition.

How do you see post-COVID 19 practice?

This period puts in even starker relief the vulnerabilities that organizations of all sizes understand about their situation. A small and scrappy art center knows the struggle of paying staff what they are worth, and the value of each grant, membership, and annual fund donation. A venerable encyclopedic museum with millions of annual visitors knows the challenges of securing major sponsorships and the mind-numbing protocols of crowd control. I’m reminded of a comment by artist Xu Bing: “My viewpoint is that wherever you live, you will face that place’s problems. If you have problems then you have art.” (2)

None of us could have imagined that a pandemic would put a total stop to our publicness. That was not in anybody’s strategic plan. But if problems yield art, then our collective creativity now and in the future will figure out appropriate ways of being.

When I interviewed for the directorship of the UK Art Museum in the spring of 2014, I told everyone I encountered that great university museums do three things in this order: they are a valuable asset on campus, offering faculty and students varied exhibits and programs that can be linked to syllabi and various learning outcomes; they are beloved in their communities as a destination for art lovers of all ages and backgrounds; and they contribute to the field, establishing a solid reputation for rigor, experimentation, and relevance.

University museums are often poised to take risks, and I’m thinking of several past and present directors and curators that I’ve respected for years, who have each steered their institutions with passion and clarity. They’ve worked in good times and bad, dealt with questions of appropriate scale, diversity, and inclusion in hiring practices and collection management, and economic uncertainty. A quick list includes Ian Berry at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (Skidmore College), Barry Blinderman at the University Galleries (Illinois State University), Andrea Barnwell Brownlee at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Susanne Ghez at the Renaissance Society (University of Chicago), Ann Philbin at the Hammer Museum (UCLA), Larry Rinder at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, and Simone Wicha and Veronica Roberts at the Blanton Museum of Art (University of Texas at Austin), to name a few.

Artist Tony Tasset standing next to his Mood Sculpture, installed near the UK Student Center, but relocated this past winter to the front of the UK Art Museum. Photograph by Alan Rideout.

The post-COVID environment will demand that we are secure in being open and can be especially clear about our values and deliverables. What lessons did we learn that can be brought from this curious limbo condition to the first phase of a “new normal?” How can we prioritize our endeavors as we face likely budget cuts and audience anxieties about occupying cultural spaces? Which platforms and what tone will be most effective in communicating the significance of our work into the future?

I’m thinking a lot about the exhibition planned for fall called This is America*, coinciding with the 2020 presidential election. It was conceived to examine aspects of history, citizenry, faith, race, sexuality, dignity, power, and struggle today. How can it not be altered to address, in some way, the precautions we are taking, from hand washing to social distancing? It was always meant to challenge viewers to sort out their knowledge of, and feelings about, our country. Will visitors want to be challenged after months of isolation and anxiety?

How do you respond to Jerry Saltz’s recent article, The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One? (3)

I agree with him that the inequalities in the system which were obvious before will be even more so. I’m not interested in making predictions right now. Everyone has their version of the glory days and there have been war stories at every level of the artworld for decades. I will save mine for another day.

There will be changes, as always. Artists, galleries, critics, collectors, and institutions are never static. I remember Leon Golub telling me: “There are three things: your work, your livelihood, and your personal life. If any two are going well at the same time consider yourself lucky.” (4)

Given the current situation, we might need to be content with one good thing. We are all in the big “we’ll see.” But we are in good company.

  1. Alexandra Schwartz, “Screen Time: Performers on lockdown turn to their smartphones,” The New Yorker, pp 75-77, April 6, 2020.
  2. Xu Bing, in Letters to a Young Artist, Peter Nesbett, Shelley Bancroft, and Sarah Andress, eds. (New York: Darte Publishing, 2006), 15.
  3. Jerry Saltz, “The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One,” New York (Apr 2, 2020),, accessed April 16, 2020.
  4. Leon Golub, conversation with the author, October 15, 1999.

Top image photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash


John Brooks: The Art World After COVID

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

On February 28th, Quappi Projects opened an exhibition featuring nineteen artists from around the nation and world. Two days later, I flew to New York to exhibit at SPRING/BREAK during Armory week. I was in the city for eleven days; the New York fairs were well attended, but with each successive day the mood grew more worrisome. I left the city shortly before the quarantine began. After returning to Louisville, I honored a handful of appointments at the gallery until Governor Beshear’s directive to shutter all non-essential businesses. Our opening reception was well attended, but it is disappointing for both the artists involved and the viewing public that the show has been seen by so few people. This, however, seems a small concern when lives are at risk.

The current exhibition was scheduled to close April 10th, but will hang indefinitely for the time being. That sounds contradictory, but with no way to know what is to come, planning is impossible. Our next exhibition has been cancelled. The artist’s concept had a meaningful tie-in to the Derby and with its postponement we can’t simply wait for reopening. Moving forward, the rest of the schedule is up in the air. While I do feel utterly unmoored by the current reality, there is positivity in even the idea of future exhibitions. I am holding on to that hope.

Regarding my own painting practice, I still have studio access. Traveling there requires only a short drive, after which I work in isolation. It seems safe and I have spent a few days each week painting.

Photo by John Brooks of woman viewing Dorthea Lange exhibition at MoMA.

None of us know what the post-COVID landscape will look like – any prediction is just conjecture – but something will unfold. Saltz writes that Chef David Chang expects 90 percent of restaurants to close and “surmises the food world will return to the pre-internet days of the 1990s.” I can’t speak to that industry, but with regard to ours, a return to the “pre-internet” era is simply inconceivable. The internet and social media have connected us in previously unimaginable ways, and there is no disengaging from that. I have developed immensely rewarding relationships with so many artists – mostly young, mostly queer – and we support each other professionally and personally; this has felt even more meaningful throughout this collectively endured isolation.

Saltz is right that this crisis could exacerbate inequalities between winners and losers. “Losing” may now be synonymous with nonexistence. Those of us who have been functioning – and surviving – outside the art world’s uppermost echelons must continue to support each other however we can. As we always have, artists and gallerists will advocate for our position in a culture that often sees us as extraneous, but perhaps a greater appreciation for our contributions will emerge since so many have turned to the arts for solace. After this period of societal crisis and existential introspection, I hope more value and attention will be placed on complex work in lieu of the clever, flippant, and depthless. Undoubtedly, art and artists will adapt, abide. Collectors, too.

Top photo by CDC on Unsplash


Heuser transcript

Tom: So, we’re talking about music here obviously. What was it about music that it became your life’s work? Was it your family? Was it maybe a performance that you experienced, a teacher that you had?

Thomas: Great. Yes. It’s been part of my life since as far back as I can remember. You know having a musical household, definitely my parents are responsible for an introduction to music and encouraging my musical studies and career. And, I think that after, you know, this early exposure at home it did end up being the teachers that I was able to work with who inspired this kind of lifelong appreciation and the pursuit of the career.

I remember some early piano teachers growing up in St. Louis who really inspired me to, you know, pursue harder and harder repertoire, more and more serious studies. And eventually by the time I was choosing a career and having to make these big decisions it was clear to me that music was the only way to go. And, these days I say to young people if you can imagine yourself doing anything besides music, you should probably do it because it’s such a tough career to build. But, evidently I picked the right one for me and I’ve been very fortunate to have a career built around music. As you know it’s not an easy undertaking.

Tom: Is the piano your instrument of choice?

Thomas: That’s right. Yeah. I was a Piano undergraduate major and I’m now sort of “artist formerly known as pianist.” It’s something that I like to keep up for social engagements and you know sort of impromptu performances. But, no, I’m leaving that to the classical pianist these days.

Tom: So, how does one make that transition from a musician to conductor?

Thomas: Sure. It’s always an interesting thing and there’s really no set path. I would say that each conductor finds his or her own way – especially these days – to make it on to the podium with an orchestra.

For me, it was through composing that I found out about conducting. I was writing in high school some Broadway shows and then original classical compositions in college that I had a chance to direct myself and I realized that what is so wonderful about conducting is that it’s a collaborative musical exercise. There are other people involved that you get a chance to coach and work with musicians on musical expression and ideas. And, that really meant for me sort of a breakthrough, whereas I had been in a practice room as a piano player very much a solo enterprise and suddenly this wonderful world of conducting meant that I had other people to work with and that suited me.

So, it was through my own writing and performing that I finally had a chance to try conducting and it was a great fit for me.

Tom: What is the most exciting thing to you about the program that you’re going to be conducting here in Lexington?

Thomas: Oh, it’s a wonderful program, a big program, lots of music to enjoy. I think there are many, many specials components of this program. The concert is called Home, and that’s largely because of the music of Julia Perry.

Julia Perry was born in 1920’s in Lexington, so it was her home. She lived there for I think the first ten years or so of her life before moving to Akron, Ohio and then, having a long career in Europe. I shouldn’t say a long career, an extensive career with notable teachers like (Luigi) Dallapiccola and Nadia Boulanger, but anyway, having this career that was actually cut relatively short due to health issues for her.

But, one of the most notable early African-American women composers whose music is still performed today; it’s a wonderful opportunity to explore her works that are relatively unperformed. That kicks off a performance of the Stravinsky violin concerto, one the most technical works for the solo violin in the repertoire, a wonderful chance to work with Stefan (Jackiw) whom I’ve not worked with before. We have some things in common though. His parents are both physicists, mine are both biologists, so I can’t wait to touch base with him on what that means.

But, of course the big bulk of the program is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and it’s one of the most passionate works of Tchaikovsky, his last symphony, his last work. He actually conducted the premiere just a week or so before he passed away, incredibly emotional and significant because of its autobiographical nature for Tchaikovsky. And it’s just incredibly passionate music that showcases the orchestra and as a guest conductor as a music director finalist, it will provide so much opportunity to work with the musicians to get to know the musicians of Lexington Philharmonic and bring this incredible music to life. I can’t wait.

Tom: Thomas, if you were pressed to describe your musical personality, what would you say?

Thomas: [Laughs] That’s a good question. Again, when I think about conductors, it’s such an individual art. You know there’s as many different styles of conducting and personalities as there are conductors I would say. Generally speaking, I would say I’m a traditional type of conductor in the sense that I love the classics, I love the core repertoire which I think still resonates with audiences; Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mozart, you know the names that are familiar to us. But, traditional also in the sense that I think our programming needs to incorporate contemporary voices.

That was always true that symphonies were responsible for promoting the artistic voices of our time and of the day and I’m traditional in that sense too where  I think that the great works need to have a balance of the voices of the living composers and that is in a sense traditional. So, again, I do lean on the great repertoire and try to pepper in some works by living composers. That would be my programming personality.

Tom: We only have just a little bit of time left and I want to be sure to talk to you about your vision of the future for classical music. What do you think needs to happen to keep present audiences engaged while also working to attract new younger audiences? For example, are you open to exploring roles for other genres?

Thomas: Absolutely. Well, it’s one of the most important issues facing the industry today. I am a firm believer that there’s still a hunger for excellence in the communities of audiences, that whether they’re coming to the symphony for the first time or they’ve been coming for generations, there is always this desire for something extraordinary to happen on the stage and that needs to be the vision for the future still. There needs to always be that focus on quality and excellence.

And then, you get into accessibility of your programming, how is it marketed? Are there popular shows mixed in with the classical shows? I think the Lexington Philharmonic does a beautiful job of that, of having a balance of programs that are meant to appeal to the subscription base versus the first time audiences and younger audiences.

The younger audiences will eventually come to a place where they have the time and means to enjoy season tickets for a symphony orchestra and so, we’ll always see younger people coming on. I don’t think it’s a dying art form by any means. But, my vision is always to keep the focus on the quality and to make the musicians realized that that is our mission: not to just present programs designed to attract audiences, but to always be doing our musical best.

Tom: In your experience, what do you think an orchestra does for the life of a community?

Thomas: Many things and especially when you think about the education enrichment of the culture. There’s so much behind the scenes going on with an orchestra like Lexington Philharmonic; classroom visits by the musicians, education programs designed for families with young people, so there’s, you know, an introduction to the art form going on at the organizational level.

But then, there’s also what the symphony does for the bigger picture of what is our community by having a symphony orchestra? At a high level that speaks volumes for the kind of financial commitment of the community the kind of support for the arts that exists in the community. So people looking from the outside will say look at what we have, look at what cultural entities we have. And the symphony orchestra is always in my mind, the peak of those entities. It’s always the one that is sort of carrying the beacon of the cultural excellence in the community.

So, as the conductor, that’s your role, you’re a critical leader for engaging the community, setting the tone for the approachability of the organization, the personality, and for the musicians too, they want to have a conductor and partner on the podium who they trust and believe in and can get behind. So, we do a lot as a symphony orchestra for the life of any community.

Tom: One last very quick question. I’m just very curious. What has you excited about Lexington, Kentucky and thinking that, hmm, that’s a place where I would like to bring my family to live?

Thomas: Oh, it’s a fabulous community. We have a few ties. I’m from Missouri as I mentioned, St. Louis. And, my wife actually grew up in Hart County, Kentucky, so we’ve spent much time there.  Her folks still live down there, so great friends in the community. I also went to school in the Midwest, so I know a few musicians in the orchestra. So, that connection is still very strong for us.

I just think it’s a wonderful part of the world. You have Shakertown, you know obviously the university provides a wonderful community in and of itself. So Lexington has a lot to offer. And conducting is definitely go where the job takes you kind of lifestyle and I think you could do a lot worse than a town like Lexington.

Tom: Thomas Heuser, candidate for conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic. Thanks so much, Thomas.

Thomas: Thank you very much, Tom.


Kaiser transcript

Tom: Let’s begin by asking you to share with us all of the things that have to be taken into consideration when you’re looking for that right person. What are you looking for in this conductor?

Allison: Well, we’re looking for someone who has excellent musical ability, musicality. We’re looking for someone who is a phenomenal communicator – both a communicator through the music that this individual will be leading and a communicator one-on-one with individuals and other organizations that we will want to collaborate and partner with.

The individual has to be absolutely passionate about the role of music in a vibrant community. And, as we know, Lexington is a very special community when it comes to music. We’re very rich in all genres of music, so we’ll be looking at someone who can help us to build bridges between all the different genres too.

Tom: So, this should be a person who’s comfortable with being the face of LexPhil, getting out of the community…

Allison: Absolutely.

Tom: Meeting people, talking to people?

Allison: Absolutely. So, yes, we’re looking for someone who has excellent on-podium skills and excellent off-podium skills.

Tom: What’s your vision about growing your audience?

Allison: The Philharmonic, especially the work that’s been done over the last ten years, is very well-positioned to be looking at growing the audience. As you probably know nothing happens quickly in the world of orchestras. It’s a large organization with a lot of moving parts and to get parts aligned and moving in the same direction can take some time. But, over the course of the last ten years under Scott’s direction, we made tremendous strides in developing a much more diverse repertoire and helping our existing audience understand the excitement and the joy of exploring unknown repertoire.

And so, we will be on the artistic side looking at our new music director and conductor to continue that forward momentum and also helping us to learn new and better ways to build bridges better communication with the community with other music forms and other art forms, so that we can become more of a nucleus and less of an isolated organization, but more of a nucleus to build community through the arts and through shared audiences with other art forms.

Tom: Getting back to the search process. This is one intense process and you’re down to six finalists.

Allison: Yes.

Tom: It’s going to happen over the entire season.

Allison: Yes.

Tom: Tell us about it. How is it structured?

Allison: Okay. So, we have each conductor finalist coming in to conduct one of our season series concerts, and we call those concerts cycles. And so, they will arrive, they’ll spend just a little bit, they’ll each spend about eight days with us and from the moment that  they – we give them a rest the night that they get in, but then every day is packed with meetings, tours of the Bluegrass area, meetings with our various boards of directors.

So, for example, we have the Society Board which is the operating arm, we have the Foundation Board which is our endowment arm, and we have our Guild Board. They will all be meeting with each candidate. Our staff will be meeting with each candidate in a one – staff and conductor candidate situation.

We will be having a reception, for example, during the day to invite community leaders, political leaders, and donors to come meet the candidate. After the concert, there will be an open invitation to everybody in the audience to come meet the candidate and ask questions. Then, the search committee will have a one-on-one meeting with each candidate the day after each concert. And, we’ll conclude the whole week of activities with a fundraising opportunity where individuals will open up their homes to allow us to use that as a fundraising opportunity for people to come and meet the candidate.

So, we’re trying to do everything from broad and wide open to fundraising with each candidate. And, we feel like that’s important because we need to see how each candidate reacts in those different situations and how they react in a rapid fire situation where we have just one activity and event. Every night is filled with rehearsal, so that part of their stay with us, their evenings will be consumed with meeting the guest artist, talking with our musicians. Our musicians will have one-on-one meetings with each candidate. I believe it’s toward the middle of the week, so not the first rehearsal, but later in the rehearsal process.

So, we will be also gathering feedback from every one of these groups that meet with each candidate to provide to the search committee to help them to make their decision.

Tom: I sure do hope these folks have built in a couple of days off after this.

Allison: I hope so too. [Laughs] We do try and give them eight hours in which to sleep, but not a whole lot more.

Tom: So, your season opener will be conducted by one of the finalists, Thomas Heuser, and we’ll be talking with Thomas in just a few minutes. And, this concert is coming up on Saturday, the 21st. And, the program features a piece with a very local connection. Tell us about Julia Perry.

Kaiser: Yes. Julia Perry was one of the early American female composers. And, we are so honored to be able to open our season with one of her works. I think that, again, as we talk about how we want to not just grow audience, but also grow our community’s connection and awareness of the realm of orchestral music that this is an excellent way to open the season.

Her work is a beautiful work. She is one of the unsung masters of composition, and we’re very honored to have this opportunity. And as you have probably noticed, we are also featuring a female composer to open each program throughout the season. So, we feel like it’s a really good opportunity for us to take a fairly bold step forward in making sure that we do everything that we can to help our community and our audience members understand the depth and breadth of what is out there and available through orchestral music.

Tom: Is it coincidence or is there a connection with the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment?

Allison: Well, I think there is connection and there’s been of course a lot of attention drawn to the role of women in leadership and in politics especially over the last few years. And, we feel that it’s time that we draw that attention to the world of female leaders in composition as well.

Tom:  So, I mentioned Thomas Heuser. Who are the other finalists?

Allison: Okay. After Thomas visits with us, we will have Akiko Fujimoto. And then, following Akiko’s visit with us, we will have Kelly Corcoran and then, Enrico Lopez-Yañez, then Julia Tai and then Keitaro Harada in May.

Tom: And, when do you hope to have a decision made and ready for announcement?

Allison: This summer. We won’t really be able to get into any type of decision-making until we’ve had an experience with each one of the candidates and our search committee will then have to sift through and digest all of the feedback that we’ll be gathering on each candidate.

Tom: So, for you and for your general manager, Sarah Thrall, and everybody at LexPhil this is going to be one intense, busy year.

Allison: It is. But, we’re so excited about it because it gives us a phenomenal opportunity to open up a part of our organizational thinking to a much broader community. Most people would say that the inner workings of an orchestra is not something that they’re familiar with, we want to bring all that up to the surface and make it much more transparent and invite people into that process with us.

Tom: Wonderful. Allison Kaiser, Executive Director of the Lexington Philharmonic LexPhil. And, we thank you so much, Allison.

Allison: Thank you, Tom.


Arts Tasting Menu

A handcut tasting of cultural delicacies from Lexington, the region, and beyond.

Although summer is waning, things are heating up in the visual arts across the region. Three not-to-be-missed exhibitions.


Interwoven: Joan Snyder, Judy Ledgerwood, Crystal Gregory. University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington. September 14th to December 9th, 2019.

An exciting exhibition of work by three women artists, including UK SAVS faculty member Crystal Gregory. Snyder’s evocative, dense work include markings, floral references, and writing. Ledgerwood’s colorful paintings reference craft and ornamental traditions. And Gregory embeds weaving with nontraditional materials such as metal and concrete.

Judy Ledgerwood, Pretty Monster, 2015, oil and metallic oil on canvas.


KMAC Triennial: Crown of Rays. KMAC Museum, Louisville. August 24th to December 1st, 2019.

This first triennial exhibition at KMAC sought submissions from artists who spent formative years in Kentucky. The group of twenty artists in this exhibition were culled from over two-hundred submitting artists and selected by a jury headed up by KMAC Curator, Joey Yates. The Triennial reflects the diversity of practice by Kentucky artists ranging from traditional artworks in weaving and painting to works in sound and video. UnderMain will have a review of this important exhibition this fall.


Robert Colescott: Art and Race Matters. Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. September 20, 2019 thru January 12, 2020.

This first comprehensive retrospective of the work of Robert Colescott, who died in 2009, brings the often controversial work of this artist who explored below the surface notions of race, diversity, stereotypes, and identity. An important exhibition coming in the midst of our heated national conversation about these matters.

Robert Colescott, Sleeping Beauty, 2002, acrylic on canvas.


Essay Invitation: That Special Tree

Welcome to the UnderMain Invitational Essay Series! In celebration of Tree Week 2019  we invite you to write a short story or poem about that special tree of your childhood, your past, or in your life today. Why was it your “go to” tree? What species was it? How does it make you feel to recall it? What has become of it? The possible angles are limited only by experience and imagination. 

Please limit the word count to 500. UnderMain reserves an editorial prerogative to ensure that our content is a comfortable fit with community standards.

We can illustrate with stock photos (see Tom Martin’s There was this tree…), with a source-credited digital image of your own, or with your drawing (check out Christine Huskisson’s Twelve Trees.)

We’ll publish your essay on UnderMain so that you can share it (maybe with long-lost childhood friends who also recall that special tree and have stories of their own to contribute).

Check out this conversation for this week’s edition of Eastern Standard on WEKU with Tree Week core team members Bridget Abernathy and Heather Wilson:

Tell us about that special tree in your childhood!

Submit your essay to

Thank you and enjoy!


Kelle Brings the Jolly to Origins Jazz Series

It was the middle of her set at Lexington’s Tee Dee’s music club. Jazz vocalist Jessie Laine Powell was, as usual, holding the room in the palm of her hand, but she was fighting off a cold and needed a brief break to let her voice recover. Over to stage right stood a woman Jessie had just met earlier in the day as a fellow panelist at a Women in Jazz discussion hosted by the Origins Jazz Series at the Lyric Theater. She said she could sing. And she had brought along a ukelele. Jessie invited her up to the mic to spell her for a song. We, in the audience, had no idea what to expect.

Kelle Jolly

Then, something like this happened…

Kelle Jolly performing at the 47th Jubilee Festival

Kelle Jolly brought the house to its feet with a performance of Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues and everyone hoped the Origins folks would book her for a show of her own.

They did. And it’s coming. January 26 at Tee Dee’s (info & tickets here).

It turns out that Kelle Jolly has serious Soul Jazz credentials of her own. She is into her fifth year as host of Jazz Jam with Kelle Jolly on Knoxville public radio station WUOT. There are plans for a tv taping in April to celebrate. And she participates in conferences and gatherings around the country that focus on art, rural/urban arts and community building.

“A couple of years ago, I would host singer jam sessions. I would hire the rhythm section. Singers would come with charts and sing,” Kelle told me in a text exchange. “Some went from doing the jams to performing locally.”

Kelle records and sings with her husband, saxophonist Will Boyd. He’ll join her onstage at Tee Dee’s on the 26th along with drummer Kenneth Brown, David Becher on bass and keyboardist Jason Day.

Will Boyd

“Our set will include freedom songs, spirituals, original songs from the album Will Boyd Live at the Red Piano Lounge, and jazz standards,” Jolly said. “We play traditional African American music spirituals, jazz, blues, and soul. Our set is about freedom. Jazz is freedom.”

Yes, indeed it is.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World OF Hip-Hop: MC MSZ

“The music can transmit the power of the word and dance can express the music that is invisible and, also, our emotions. For example, some people cannot hear, but we can show the music with dance. It’s a fusion of the good parts of the music and dance and I can express myself and my emotions.”

Misuzu Takashima is a different kind of MC, in that she doesn’t rap or write lyrics, but she is an event host and a pioneer in the Japanese B-girl scene, having paved the way for hundreds of female breakdancers all across Japan. Her title of MC still stands for Master of Ceremonies, but in Japanese, MC typically is a reference for event hosts and MC MSZ does this very thing for hip hop events all across Japan, mostly events that are centered on promoting hip-hop culture to the youth.

Originally from Kyoto, where she told me there are a lot of old-school hip-hop heads, MC MSZ is now based out of Tokyo. When we met in Shinjuku, she told me that, in Kyoto, she started dancing at 15 when there were a lot of hip-hop dancers practicing outside of the train stations. She learned about hip-hop through her mother, who would play the music at home, and became skilled at breakdancing by hanging out outside of Kyoto Station with friends. In 2006, MSZ and her crew won second place in the international Battle of the Year breakdancing competition.

She added that she is hopeful for the current teenage generation’s love of hip-hop and that the number of female breakdancers has been increasing since 2010. “I am from the third generation of breakdancing and, from there, the number has certainly increased. Also, there are people from the first and second generation, who are older than me, who are still active and still doing it.”

Even though she isn’t breaking anymore, MSZ, with the help of her apprentices, is still staying busy organizing annual events in Tokyo called “Girls Night”, to showcase female singers and artists. Their movement is growing more and more every time they do it and she said it is a different dynamic because it doesn’t feel like the artists are there because the music industry is trying to sell them, but they are there for the love of music.

MSZ also is the main MC for the first annual 2018 Youth Olympic Games, an international breakdancing competition that is designed to get youth interested in competition and to elevate their skills and their love of hip-hop culture.

Listen to my interview with MC MSZ here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.

You can follow MC MSZ on Twitter and Instagram


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: MaryJane (Luna and Tsugumi)

MaryJane is a hip-hop duo from Tokyo consisting of two MCs, Luna and Tsugumi. Luna is 38 years-old and is from Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward and Tsugumi is 37 years-old and hails from Sapporo in Hokkaido. The crew met in the Tokyo hip-hop scene and their sounds are deep in the soulful 90’s style R&B vibes. The name MaryJane is, without a doubt, a reference to their love of weed and Dr. Dre-style California G-Funk hip-pop. MC Luna started out singing when she was young and appeared on the Showtime at the Apollo amateur night stage in New York. She started performing hip-hop around Tokyo in 2003 and performed many shows in clubs around Australia and abroad as well. She quickly gained the alias “Club Queen.”

In 2008, Luna started her own label called LILBOOTY RECORDINGS and in 2013, she teamed up with producer and rapper, Tsugumi, who had gained notoriety through a group that she is in with her sister called SOULHEAD. In 2014, after collaborating for years on production as solo artists, together as MaryJane, they put out their first album called “Street Names”. Since then, the two have enjoyed lots of success, released a handful of solo releases, and, in 2016, they released an EP called “Two”. LILBOOTY also produces other artist’s music, such as Aoyama Thelma and MINMI, and Luna is currently working with hip-hop dancer, NAZUKI, to promote her original hip-hop-inspired fashion brand, ViiDA.

You can find their music on their website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: コムアイKOM_I from 水曜日のカンパネラWednesday Campanella

Wednesday Campanella is a fresh, complex, and ever-changing project that combines a unique multi-genre blend of EDM, J-Pop, and hip-hop to make vibrant, catchy songs that have made a giant splash in Japan and abroad. Though they have shifted to the slower side of the spectrum these days, 26 year-old lead singer, KOM_I (pronounced Komu Ai), often raps on their tracks and producer Kenmochi Hidefumi’s music, especially on their earlier albums, has a strong hip-hop feel, which makes sense because he also made music under Nujabes’s Hydeout Productions.

The name of the group is a reference to the day of the week that they met for practice and the themes of their songs often discuss larger-than-life historical characters and concepts, for example, Napoleon, Aladdin, or The Wright Brothers. KOM_I performed lyrics are often kind of Dadaist, pun-heavy, and seemingly stream of consciousness observations about events or peoples and the group decided that, despite being a trio, that only KOM_I would perform and be present during live performances.

Wednesday Campanella began taking shape in 2011 when Dir.F, a label manager at Tsubasa Records, met Hidefumi at the yearly Design Festa Tokyo event and the two started working together. In 2012, at a house party, Dir.F met KOM_I, a native of Kanagawa Prefecture, and invited her to join the group, which she did, while still being a high school student. In 2012, the group sold their first demo CD at Design Festa Tokyo and, in May 2013, the group released their first mini-album, “Crawl To Sakaagari”. Later that year, in October, the group released their second mini-album, “Rashomon”, which was only sold at Tower Records in Tokyo.

Their third mini-album, “Cinema Jack”, came out in March 2014 and, eight months later, they released their fourth mini-album “Take Me To Onigashima Island”. Finally, in 2015, they released their first full-length album called “Zipangu” and gained the attention of Warner Brothers Records, who signed the group.

After playing their first American show at SXSW in 2016, Wednesday Campanella released their first mini-album, “UMA”, on Warner Brothers Records in June 2016 and then released their first major label full length, “SUPERMAN”, in 2017, which rapidly expanded their fan base in Japan and abroad.

In 2018, the group released the “Galapagos” EP and is heading off on a world tour to promote it, taking them to Hong Kong, France, Taiwan, and many other magical places. KOMI_I’s energetic, surreal, and powerful live performances are a sight to be seen, including her Wayne-Coyne-esque giant clear ball that she rolls around in, Lately, she has been modeling in Tokyo, appearing on Japanese television a lot, and is viewed as a fashion icon in Japan (and by GQ). You can get a taste of KOM_I’s erratic dance moves, funky vocals, and truly unique performances via their myriad vibrant and vivid music videos.

You can find their music at and follow KOM_I on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: 泉まくらIzumi Makura

Izumi Makura is a rapper from Fukuoka Prefecture and the concept around her music is about being a normal girl who raps, is slightly sexual, but mostly lonely with a propensity for gushing tears. Her flow isn’t strong or weak, but is slightly monotone and purposefully normal and basic. Her videos are typically illustrated by artist Tomoko Oshima and she hasn’t started appearing in person in her videos until recently.

Starting in 2011, Izumi Makura put a song on Subenoana’s SNEEEZE mixtape and, in November 2012, released her first album with Subenoana, called “Sotsugyou To, Soremade No Utoutou (Graduation and, Dozing Off Until Then)”. In 2013, she released “My Room, My Stage” and, in 2014, she collaborated on a track with Yoko Kanno for the TV anime, Space Dandy. Shortly after, she gained a lot of attention after releasing an official remix of Lorde’s hit, “Royals” via Universal Japan.

In April 2014, she released her third album, “Ai Nareba Shiteiru (If it is love, I will know)” and, in September 2016, she released her fourth album, “Identity”, with all tracks being produced by fellow Subenoana label-mate, Nagaco. 2017 was a busy year for Izumi Makura with the January release of her album “Yuki to Suna (Snow and Sand)” as well as the release of a cover album called “TOKYO GIRLS LIFE”, featuring covers of songs from Fishmans and MONGOL800. Later that year, Izumi Makura released “5 Years”, a double-disc best of compilation, including a few new tracks as well as songs that she did guest spots on.

You can find her music at Subenoana’s website and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


秀吉a.k.a.自称アイドルラッパー Hidekichi a.k.a. Jishou Idol Rapper

There is a lot of mystery surrounding Hidekichi because not a lot of people know her true identity. She never shows her face and celebrates this by using the hashtag, “顔出しNG (It’s not good to show your face)”.

Even though her persona is a mystery, she is making quite an impact on the next generation of Japanese female MCs. Her lyrics often discuss pain and regret, but also the joys of being a woman, and her first album, “The Female Shou”, has been getting a lot of attention since it was released in July 2014 on the Village Again label. Since this album, she has done multiple features with other artists and put out a 4-track EP on Victor Entertainment in December 2017 called “Sugao”, which means “True Face”.

You can follow her on Twitter.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: ダヲコDAOKO

DAOKO is a 21 year-old rapper and singer from Tokyo, known for her proto-Shibuya-kei tones and ASMR-level whispery vocals that shift between singing and rapping. She got her start in 2011 when she gained fame for her cover songs that she would upload to the Japanese video sharing site, Niconico. She was inspired by the Japanese hip-hop group Nitro Microphone Underground to start writing raps. When she was only 15, these videos caught the attention of Japanese band Jinmenusagi, who helped get her signed to the label LOW HIGH WHO?.

In 2012, DAOKO released her first album, “Hypergirl”, and would go on to release two more full albums and a few EPs with LOW HIGH WHO? before getting signed to Japan’s fourth biggest record label, Toy’s Factory. Because she was so young, very little information was known publicly about her life or her real name and fans didn’t see the face behind the voice until after she graduated high school. Her face was first seen on the video for the song “ShibuyaK”.

Her first major debut album, “DAOKO”, dropped in March 2015, and she was nominated for the 2015 “Next Break Artist Award” at the MTV Video Music Awards Japan. In 2017, she released her second album on Toy’s Factory, “Thank You Blue”. DAOKO often collaborates with the members of M-Flo, Kenshi Yonezu, and TeddyLoid. She recently had her song “Owaranai Sekai de” chosen as the theme music for an upcoming Nintendo game called “Dragalia Lost” and often contributes music to multiple anime programs. She also hosts a radio show on J-Wave every Monday from 9PM to midnight called “Sonar Music”.

You can find her music on her website at and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: Sarah Midori Perry from Kero Kero Bonito

In England, particularly in London, there is a large Japanese ex-pat community and out of that world emerged the bilingual J-Pop-meets-Chiptune crew of Kero Kero Bonito (KKB). It’s important to know that “Kero Kero” is the onomatopoeia for a frog’s call and “Bonito” is the name of the tuna used to make katsuobushi. The group consists of producers Gus Lobban, Jamie Bulled, as well as bilingual half-Japanese, half-British lead vocalist, Sarah Midori Perry, who grew up in Hokkaido and lived near Nagoya until she was 13.

KKB started out in 2013 by connecting through MixB, which is an online message board for Japanese ex-pats in London. After connecting and discussing their mutual love for J-pop, the trio released their debut mixtape on Double Denim, “Intro Bonito”, with a fun mix of fat synthesizers, funky dance beats, and Midori Perry’s clear-as-day Japanese and English lyrics mixed over the top of it all. With Japanese lyrics about everything from flamingos, to parties, to doing your homework, to the importance of taking a break, KKB have gained significant popularity in Japan, which is their second-biggest market.

In 2014, their song “Flamingo” appeared on producer Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs compilation and allowed them to gain a large fan base around the world before they released their debut album, “Bonito Generation”, in October 2016. In February 2018, they released the “TOTEP” EP and announced in May that they will have a new album called “Time n Place” coming out soon. KKB was strongly influenced by Plastics, Tokyo Jihen’s Sheena Ringo, and, most obviously, the J-pop group, Perfume; ultimately, those influences are why their music feels like if Cibo Matto got trapped inside of a Super Famicom at a dancehall battle.

You can find their music on and you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: 072 (Onatsu)

Way up north in Japan, holding down the Hokkaido hip-hop scene, is 072 (pronounced “Onatsu”). The 31 year-old MC was born in Asahikawa and raised in Obihiro, Hokkaido and, after watching the movie Sister Act 2 when she was 12, decided to start writing her own lyrics. In 2006, she moved to Sapporo and started to connect and build in the local hip hop scene. 072 has two solo albums under her belt already and collaborates with artists in Tokyo and way down south in Okinawa.

She pulls inspiration from Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and often pulls influence from artists outside of her hip-hop framework. She also has a very close relationship with Sapporo hip-hop legend, B.I.G. Joe, and, in 2012, he helped her put together her first album, “Inquisition”, on the Lo-Vibes label. In 2013, she went to Okinawa to finish up work on her second album, “Sol Terra Three”, and dropped the album later that year on B.I.G. Joe’s Triumph Records. For this album, she worked with Okinawa-based producer, LF Demo, who has been called the Japanese J-Dilla. This album is a unique blend of the far-reaching influence of hip-hop on the far northern and southern ends of Japan.

Currently, 072 is in a group called TANEMAKE with MC Kai and 1Loop on the beats.

Check out their video for “Taiyaki”:

You can find her music at Apple Store and you can keep up with her on Facebook


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: MINAMI from Teng Gang Starr

Teng Gang Starr is a trip. Deep in the fat bass and psychedelic trap department, the group consists of two rappers, Kamui and Minami Nakamura a.k.a. MINAMI. The group initially met while MINAMI was playing drums at Tsujidou Suwajinja Shinto Shrine in Kanagawa Prefecture and shared a love for the NYC hip-hop group, Gang Starr, hence the name. The Teng part of their name comes from Tengu, which means “celestial dog” and is a Japanese folk trickster demon with an unusually long nose, who is connected to the Tsujido shrine.

Kamui and MINAMI were both solo artists and, when Kamui heard Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” in a taxi, he decided that hip-hop was what he wanted to do. They started the group up in 2015, took a year off, and then in 2017 came back stronger with their track, “My Style”. The duo prides themselves on futuristic Akira-esque neo-Tokyo vibes and deep bass tones.

They haven’t released a full length yet, but they have put out some singles on Trekkie Trax and bpm tokyo and Kamui’s production (done under the moniker 3-i) has received props and attention from some major producers around the world, such as Diplo and Skrillex, just to name a few.

You can find their music on Apple Store, Spotify, Soundcloud, and you can follow MINAMI on Instagram and Twitter


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip Hop: RIN a.k.a 貫井りらん Nukui Riran

Tokyo-born RIN a.k.a. Nukui Riran (her real name) grew up in Odawara City in Kanagawa Prefecture and has been into hip-hop since elementary school. She started to explore the genre after listening to the track “Urban Grammar” by old-school nineties Japanese hip-hop crew, Scha Dara Parr.

She started hanging out with other hip-hop fans in high school and started rapping in 2014, with the help of producer K.E.N a.k.a. kiddblazz. Together, in 2014, they put together the “DRIP EP” and have since released another EP called “Eniro Nana Hengen (Glossy Colors Seven Transformations)”. In 2016, she released a full length album, “Rinne (Cycle of Life and Death)”, on Taidou Label, featuring guest spots from Ken The 390 and Meiso. She also was the feature MC at the 2018 Poetry Slam Japan competition.

You can find her music on Apple Music, YouTube, and you can follow her on Twitter.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip Hop: NENE from ゆるふわギャング Yurufuwa Gang

NENE from Yurufuwa Gang is definitely the most trippy, psychedelic artist on this list and is probably the most detached from Japan’s current hip-hop boom. The name comes from a combination of the word “yururi”, which means “leisurely”, and the word “fuwa”, which means “light” or “fluffy”.

The pair of Ryugo Ishida and NENE writes all the lyrics and producer, Automatic, makes all the wavy, pseudo-trap beats. NENE, who is 23 years-old and used to go by the name Sophiee, grew up in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward and the duo met at a hip-hop event in Tokyo in 2016.

Their 2017 debut album, “Mars Ice House”, was put out on Mary Joy Recordings and was influenced by the films of Quentin Tarentino. NENE released a solo album called “NENE” in December 2017 and the duo’s follow-up album, “Mars Ice House II”, just dropped in July of 2018. They released it with a music video for the track “Palm Tree”. They’re also getting props abroad with Diplo giving them a shoutout on Twitter and The New York Times Style Magazine featuring the duo.

You can find their music on Spotify, Apple Music, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: Awich

31-year old Akiko Urasaki, from Okinawa, raps under the name Awich, which is short for “Asian Wish Child”. She often bounces back and forth from Japanese to English, which she learned on the U.S. military base. She grew up going to protests with her parents that were against the United States military occupying Okinawa and started writing raps when she was 14 and she often incorporates indigenous Okinawan dialects. Awich signed with a record label in Tokyo a few years ago, but left when they told her that she couldn’t be political.

She first got into hip-hop by listening to Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me” and released her first EP, “Inner Research”, in 2006, right before moving to Atlanta for college. Awich later moved back to Japan and, in 2017, she put out a full length album on Yentown called “8” and performed live on Abema TV.

She also runs her own company, called Cipher City, which sells local Okinawan goods abroad. As it says on her Facebook page, “Her lyrics, positions, and perceptions turn both the positive and negative aspects of her surroundings — cultural fusions, identity crises, pride and shame — into an honest craft. This process, in turn, becomes a vital part of creating a modern Okinawan sense of space and identity”.

You can find her music on her website at and you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: DJ みそしるとMCごはんDJ Misoshiru & MC Gohan

Despite the name, DJ Misoshiru and MC Gohan is actually just one person, 28-year-old MC Gohan, from Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture. Her recipes-that-you-can-rap project started in Saitama Prefecture at Kagawa Nutrition University, where MC Gohan started making raps for her final graduating project. After her YouTube channel gained lots of followers, she released her first album, “Mother’s Food”, and signed to the Ki/oon Music, a subsidiary of Sony Music Japan. Her hip-hop influences include Pete Rock, Nitro Microphone Underground, and Q-tip and her fans lovingly call her by the nickname “Miso-han”.

Food is the epicenter of MC Gohan’s raps and, when I went to the multi-venue Yatsui Fest in Shibuya, Tokyo, to see MC Gohan perform at Club Harlem, she had everyone in the crowd throw up a pizza gesture with their hands as she rapped about how delicious home-made pizza can be. She also, with the help of Richako from the J-pop group, Vanilla Beans, stopped the show to ask the crowd what food they didn’t like and tried to suggest new ways of cooking or recipes that could make those items enjoyable. Some of the most popular answers were cilantro, Goya (bitter melon), and a little girl in the front row said corn.

MC Gohan definitely has a passion for all foods and is known to have cooking demonstrations at some of her concerts. BBC Radio recently featured an English translation of MC Gohan and her recipe for making onigiri rice balls that look like soccer balls.

MC Gohan also has had her own show on NHK called “Gochisongu DJ” since 2014 and, on her albums, her songs are about a variety of foods including the pleasures of homemade rice, asparagus and bacon wraps, sweet potatoes, shortcake, stuffed green peppers, roasted chicken, macaroni gratin, or, everyone’s favorite, cucumber butter. She just released a mini album, called “Apron Boy’s Five Fundamental Seasonings”, that is a lot of fun.

I mean, who doesn’t like talking about good food?

You can find her music on Spotify, Apple Store, and you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: 椿 Tsubaki

Tsubaki is a 27 year-old rapper and battle MC from Chikushino, Fukuoka Prefecture, and is currently living in Tokyo. The name Tsubaki is the Japanese word for the flower Camellia japonica, which is very popular in her hometown. Tsubaki discovered hip-hop through dance, then started rapping in Fukuoka, and got her big break when she was the first female MC featured on a TV Asahi show hosted by ZEEBRA called “Freestyle Dungeon”. After that, she participated in the national UMB (Ultimate MC Battle) competition and was the first female MC to win the Fukuoka qualifier. She went on to make it to the final 16 and made a huge name for herself as a dominant battle MC.

In early 2017, Tsubaki was the overall winner of the second annual Cinderella MC Battle, a freestyle battle solely for female MCs, held at Harlem in Shibuya. The overall winner of the first battle was Akkogorilla.

Tsubaki has also done tracks with MCfrog, Coma-Chi, and FUZIKO, and, in November 2017, she released her first album, “Misaki Murasaki”, which means “Beautiful Blooming Purple”. She raps proudly about the Fukuoka scene and you can see it in the video for her track “Fukuoka”.

You can purchase her music on Apple Music and follow her on Twitter.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: Acharu

“Through my filter, I want to live as I want to live.”

Acharu is a singer, rapper, producer, and painter from Sagamihara, Kanagawa. Her real name is Aya and she wanted to add the word “ryuu”, which means “style”, to her name to make her MC name mean “Aya-style”. “Ryuu” also is a homonym for “flowing”, which ties into her musical philosophy that the pulse of life and the rhythm of music are eternally flowing interchangeably. Because of this, in 2017, as a follow-up to her first album in 2010, “Nasty”, Acharu named her second album “Art of Flow”.

Her grandfather is a music producer who has worked with many popular Japanese artists, including a popular enka composer and actor named Chitose Shokakuya. When she was little, she would play around in his studio and mess around with instruments, When she was in junior high school, she heard about hip-hop through a Japanese rap group formed in New York called Buddha Brand, who she describes as having “a real New York sound”. She said,” I really respect them and they influenced me to start writing rhymes.”

Acharu told me that the Kanagawa hip-hop scene is pretty interesting and she recommended a club called Flava, in Machida, to see real Kanagawa hip-hop. “Lots of farm-grown graffiti writers with high skills. Their life itself is hip-hop – there are many good vibes that you can get here.”

I asked Acharu about some of her favorite albums that have influenced her and she mentioned D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and many songs by H.E.R. Interestingly, she incorporates recorded sounds of rivers or other natural elements in her production and she has a Okinawan-style track on “Art of Flow” that was produced using stones that she picked up in Okinawa.

Acharu also has a very active YouTube page, where she often interacts with an online world-wide community of musicians who cover songs and share their reinvented versions on their channels. Outside of the internet, she also performs all around Japan in such locales as Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, Ehime Prefecture, Osaka, as well as Tokyo and runs her own label, NaturalHighSense Productions. She is currently working on a remix version of her album “Art of Flow” and is working on finishing up the artwork, as well as a music video.

You can check out her Youtube page here, you can buy her music from her website here, and follow her on Instagram here.

Listen to my interview with Acharu here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: MCfrog

“Everybody is different in what they want to transmit, their message. Some people want to convey some good time that they enjoy, or some people do it because it’s cool, but the point is that each person has their reasons. I think, for those who become serious about music, they are the real rappers. For those who dropped out along the way, maybe they just wanted to show off.”

I interviewed MCfrog on the day of a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in Osaka that woke everyone up at 7:58 AM and stopped the trains for the rest of the day. My tenth floor Namba hotel room shook for nearly sixty seconds and literally threw me off the bed. After frantically gathering my things and running down an emergency exit staircase with loads of screaming Chinese tourists, I headed out into the Osaka morning and met MCfrog at a curry restaurant in Nishishinsaibashi to talk about her rap career and the Osaka hip-hop scene.

MCfrog is a twenty-two year-old rapper from the Hagashinari Ward of Osaka, located east of the city center. She first heard about hip-hop through her mother, who would play a variety of different musical genres in the house. Growing up, she was always listening to mostly Lauryn Hill, Beastie Boys, and Cypress Hill. MCfrog is mostly known as a battle MC, but also composes music and “would like to be a rapper that can do both.” When I asked her what she likes to talk about in her rhymes, she told me that she mostly raps about her bitterness in not having achieved her dreams yet.

MCfrog told me that the current Osaka hip-hop scene is really hot right now and it is very unique with lots of strong characters and cool MCs. The main MC Battle event in Osaka is called Enter, which is held once every three months and, if you win in the top three, you can move on to an event called Spotlight, which is the grand championship.

MCfrog confirmed that there are some other female MCs in Osaka, but not many that are very active. She said that, at first, the other MCs treated her like she was “the female rapper”, but, after keeping at it and never budging from what people say, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. MCfrog received help from the east Osaka hip hop crew, NFMCS, who she says, “have taken care of me a lot and they are the people who are taking care of the humanities. Given the scary image that hip-hop has sometimes, those people are working to turn that image upside-down.”

When I asked her to tell me about a female MC in Japan that we should celebrate, she suggested Fukuoka-born MC, Tsubaki, who is now living in Tokyo. We’ll cover more on Tsubaki later on the list. She also told me that one of her current favorite Japanese MCs is Chinza Dopeness and she likes his style of music.

You can find more of MCfrog’s music on Youtube, at Castle Records in Tokyo, and you can buy her second EP, Find the Street, here. You can also keep up with her on Twitter.

Check out this MCfrog track with Tsubaku called “Furubokko”.

Listen to my interview with MCfrog here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.

Lyrics to “Furubokko” by Tsubaki and MCfrog
(“Furubokko” is slang for “full” + “bokobokonisuru”, which means “fully beat up”)

Don’t take it wrong, fun and courtesy.
A quick fix will become a shame and I roam
Wherever I go, same mistakes
This stage is not that easy.

Just a mouth that asserts anything,
Cheap spirit and motivation, that is not enough.
Only a pretense, the words are light,
I don’t want even a bit of such collusion.

Time limit doesn’t give me a time to choose.
Impending, will go insane.
When it becomes complicated, try to escape immediately.
View the negative race cycle as dangerous.

The stage, to show my potential,
From this place, I can go up anywhere.
To show the hope, limitless,
Do or do not, will be a friend or foe tomorrow.

I chose this from many,
Think carefully. Take action, this site.
Too many players to sweep and throw away,
See to let them live or kill and cut off the chain.

Ordinary is not any different from general.
Social reform, a maverick, an extreme, a worthless rascal.
Find your value, polish yourself,
No mercy, until the day that we meet at the high point (stratosphere).

Do not touch, danger, it’s scary if you lick it.
There is not a tepid awareness, nor a sense of crisis.
Try furiously and sometimes a poor shot hits,
A suspension bridge of dream, check your steps.

Blindly nervous, open microphone,
As soon as I get off (the stage), flattering, boring.
Preach needs love.
If not, using armed force, dragged out and cross-examined.

Mouth is evil, I am fully aware of it.
Disgorged poison and virtue fall upon.
Your problem resolver is not helpful.
At last, what is questioned is my own value.

Sowing, watering, growing lyrical,
Shine with the inner growth,
Don’t misunderstand the meaning of being selected and standing here.
If you just want a flower, go to some other place.

I chose this from many,
Think carefully. Take action, this site.
Too many players to sweep and throw away,
See to let them live or kill and cut off the chain.

Ordinary is not any different from general.
Social reform, a maverick, an extreme, a worthless rascal.
Find your value, polish yourself,
No mercy, until the day that we meet at the high point (stratosphere).


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World Of Hip-Hop: Kagura Sunshine

“Since I was little, I was physically big, so I was always like a big sister character and everybody always came to me to consult with them about their problems. So there, I realized the power of words and, even if there was a negative situation, the way of thinking can convert it to a positive.”

Kagura Sunshine is a rapper and a poet from Miyako City in northern Iwate Prefecture, currently living in Kanagawa Prefecture. The name Kagura Sunshine was inspired by her uncle, who was a Shinto priest, and often danced the Kagura dance, which is part of a religious ceremony. After he passed away, to pay tribute to him, she took the MC name, “Kagura”. In 2011, after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami destroyed the majority of Sendai and Kagura Sunshine’s hometown area in Iwate, she wanted to “become sunshine” for the displaced people from her region, so she added the name “Sunshine” to her MC moniker.

She first heard about hip-hop during her second year of high school and started listening to Japanese R&B and hip-hop artists like Sugar Soul and ZEEBRA. After graduating high school in Iwate, she moved to Kanagawa Prefecture and took her music with her. About her writing process, she told me, “I’m always searching for the beat that matches to myself and my voice and, when I find something that matches to my voice, I get the words that are suited to my emotions at the time from the drawers of my emotion.” She told me that, originally, hip-hop artists in Iwate had a complex about being rural country people, but, after they lost so much during the 2011 disaster, they have become stronger and hip-hop artists are putting more emphasis on building homegrown scenes and improving their lyricism.

Kagura Sunshine’s latest release, a 7-inch record with rapper Aruma called “Stay With Me”, came out in May 2018 and the beat was made by Yakkle, who often works with popular Japanese hip-hop artist, Shing02. The song was originally about the 2011 Tohoku disaster and she told me that it was the first time that she felt like she could write about the devastation. However, when she found herself singing on the track, she felt that it wasn’t a sad song, but a song of love, so she rewrote the lyrics and the rest is history.

Even though she currently lives in Kanagawa, Kagura Sunshine spends most of her time working in Tokyo but she has noticed that the Kanagawa scene is very confident and the artists love celebrating their local areas. She often performs at Club Family in Shibuya, in Tokyo, and around the Kansai area, near Osaka. She’s also producing new music now for her third album, set to come out on her label, Far East Bay Records. She started the label in 2015 and her husband, Towa, does most of the artwork for her projects, in addition to his live painting performances.

Some of her favorite current producers are DJ Premier and DJ Krush. When I asked her what she wished that our English-speaking audiences knew about Japanese hip-hop, she said, “The power of the word: in English, words have a groove to them, but in Japanese, they don’t. But in Japanese, our words have a soul and I want them to feel that.”

You can find her music on ITunes and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook

Listen to my interview with Kagura Sunshine here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.

Lyrics for Kagura Sunshine x Aruma – Konya wa PARTY MAKER
Beat by CHIBA-CHIIIBA, Scratches by SPIN MASTER A-1

I got older, my body is now heavy.
Don’t worry, party tonight.
Popping rhythm and a song like this,
Dance, shout, entirely high.
If you get tired, just sit down,
Go home without being found.
Cool arrangement! Cheers! Tequila!
1 shot, 2 shot, Sunboy Killer!

If you have ears and eyes, should be fun.
Dancer, dance relying on them.
Rapper, DJ, let them listen,
This is the world HIP – HOP, no doubt.
It is not outright, such a flow-master,
Avoid it if you are not interested, for today.
Yes, I guess that’s the way it should be,
Break down like this, take care of it.

That clerk at their part-time job
Has a discriminating ear and seems really good.
Create a local technique and fight it out,
Just a few seconds of chance time, a-ha!
If you can speak, you can dive at the fastest speed,
I have a discriminating nose, groping in the dark,
Rhyme is a coup d’état,
Operating the time, it is a PARTY MAKER!

Yeah yeah, you tell me it’s a fun time,
Leave it to me, I’ll rock the floor.
Try to check meaningful words,
Try to detect your heart beating fast.
Check it out, yo! How are you feeling?
No worries, tonight is the party.
It’s not outright, this kind of flow,
blow up blow up, get high!

(Kagura Sunshine)
I am speaking from a humble place,
The outstanding low voice female in Japan.
Even on the B-side, there won’t be any slip-ups
A-Spin, the master is blowing.
A black donut changed my life.
What it will become? I achieved my dream at that time.
Not an dimwit any more, tough tortoise,
A cool Future is in this hand.

My soul is a non-flattering yellow,
This clown is flying, betraying expectations.
Every time, people want to dance.
2 Turntables, leave it to the DJ.
Wanting this original world as well,
Really shy, but l am an invincible girl.
This verse blows me away,
Lock on your heart, lock-on.

Tonight all ages and cultures in the house, yo!
Everyone has their own roots,
Black disk magic.
To your identity, bi-bi-bi-bi,
To extraordinary days, rigorous and gallant,
Surely everyone is a lyricist.
Rhyme is survival with vinyl,
Yes, that’s it! PARTY MAKER!

Yeah yeah, you tell me it’s a fun time,
Leave it to me, I’ll rock the floor.
Try to check meaningful words,
Try to detect your heart beating fast.
Check it out, yo! How are you feeling?
No worries, tonight is the party.
It’s not outright, this kind of flow,
blow up blow up, get high!



“We all have our own different ways of expression, but what we have on the bottom line is all the same: to put importance on individual personalities. So many times we hear the line that “female rappers are good” or “who is going to be the best of the females”, but we are just individuals. It’s personal; it’s different.”

Akkogorilla is from Tokyo, or, as she clarifies, she is from Planet Earth. She first heard about hip-hop when she was ten years-old, in elementary school. When she first learned about Japanese hip-hop artists RIP SLYME and Kick the Can Crew, she was influenced to start writing her own lyrics. At first, she started just writing rhymes to play with rhythms, just for fun, but after gaining confidence and becoming a full-time rapper later on, she has been more influenced by other artists and her unique and vibrant style, juxtaposed in a world of J-pop monotony, has manifested brilliantly.

She first started out playing drums in a two-piece pop-rock girl band called Happy Birthday. During Halloween shows, she would come out on stage dressed up as a gorilla and would play drums behind her friend. At home, she would practice writing and recording and finally took her raps to the stage in 2015. After talking with Ken the 390 and soliciting advice for getting more shows, he encouraged her to participate in local MC battles. At first, she was scared and nervously threw up before most battles but, eventually, she won a few battles and gained admiration from fellow MCs. At the time, much like her friend MC Frog in Osaka, she was one of less than ten female battle rappers in Tokyo but she feels like the number is increasing these days.

The name Akkogorilla came from when she was still a drummer. As she said, “without thinking very seriously about it,” she named herself that because she learned that gorillas communicate through rhythm and thought it was cool. In 2016, Akkogorilla released her first mini-album, “Tokyo Banana”, on Kamikaze Records and it features a track called “Donkey Kong” that sampled music from the Super Nintendo game, Donkey Kong Country.

The gorilla motif continued in November of the same year when she quickly followed up this release with an EP on 2.5D Production called “Back to the Jungle” and, for the video of the title track, Akkogorilla traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. When I asked her how the experience in Africa was, she said,” I can’t say much about that trip except that I had some of the best moments of my life and also some of the worst moments of my life.” The beat for the song, made by HirasaWonder, samples Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and Akkogorilla told me that this song really represents her transitional period out of rock music and into the realm of old school and new school hip-hop. She is a big Public Enemy fan and, right now, she told me that she is digging the new Anderson Paak and Princess Nokia tracks.

In early 2017, Akkogorilla released a number of singles on 2.5D Production leading up to the release of her EP, “Green Queen”. In April 2018, Akkogorilla released the “Tokyo Banana 2018” EP as well as her first major label single with Sony Music Japan, called “Yoyuu (Margins / A Cinch)”. The song is really a reflection on her last 3 years figuring out how to be a rapper and gaining the confidence that she can do it and do it in her own unique style. She is also working on her first major label album for Sony at the moment and, when I asked her if she had a title decided yet, she said,” I haven’t decided the title yet, but it’s very clear what I want to say and what I want to do. I’m just looking for the exact words to express those.”

Currently she is organizing annual events in Tokyo called “Donkey Kong”, that blend a multi-genre variety of rock, rappers, beat-makers, and others artists assembled in a unique way that only Akkogorilla can put together. If you check out her Instagram, you’ll see that fans often bring bananas to the show and hold them up to show her their support.

When I asked Akkogorilla what female rappers should be celebrated in the world, she mentioned a transgender Japanese MC named Fuziko, who was born a female and recently married a woman. Akkogorilla glowingly added, “She is the real cool rapper that we can be proud of.” Akkogorilla has a song about gender fluidity called “Ultra Gender” and, she said that, when she met Fuziko, she thought of the song and said, “Wow, it’s real.”

You can find this song and all of her releases on Spotify and, for more information on Akkogorilla, visit

Listen to my interview with Akkogorilla here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.

Lyrics for Akkogorilla’s “Yoyuu” (which literally means “Margins” or “A Cinch / A Piece of Cake”)

A cinch, (say it) it’s a cinch, a cinch!
While reading the surrounding atmosphere,
Life is finished in an instant.
Before someone says something,
I’m making a comeback to myself.

“What are you doing,? Hey!”
“Who is imprinting?”
“Remember your place!”
“It’s beyond your ability!”

If you move before hearing the voice, the world can be changed.
It saved me; it was not a man,
It was not a prince.
The heart to believe in yourself is king.

(I wonder) why at that time
I did that?
Just remembering it,
I shouted it in the bathroom.
If I repeat being out of place,
After some years,
It would become “normal”.

You can repeat it multiple times,
And live life like a lie,
But before looking down on yourself, reach out a hand.
Fully experience today and create your real self.
A Cinch, (say it) it’s a cinch, a cinch!

Actually it’s not a cinch
Lean, lean and mean, mean, everyday.
I have come to understand, because I have been running,
That the ultimate result is just a cinch!

Although the self-esteem is low,
Nurture the pride.
Getting a laugh only by self-degradation.
I was bound, bye bye!
What about it was frightening?
Someone let me borrow a ruler to measure.
Is it a cool style?
That judgment, I want to make by myself.
Defense mechanisms are abundant
But now: how to, how to,
Check 1. 2.

Many of you are laughing,
You have weapons,
But my magnum
Is ultra-gigantic.
Laughing with the voice volume that is twice as big,
Let’s raise the volume of your inner voice!

It’s really a cinch,
A piece of cake,
It’s a cinch, if you do it.
It’s a cinch, you can do it!

Follow than the natural inclination and smartness.
It’s more important for the heart
to say you like what you like.
Are you ready?

You can recover yourself multiple times,
And live an awesome life like a lie.
I want to live everyday properly,
You, who save yourselves, are invincible!

A Cinch, (say it) it’s a cinch, a cinch!



“This is just my way of thinking, but I think those who are seeking the real hip-hop, they are not looking for just fashion but they are looking from the bottom of their soul.”

Coma-Chi is a Tokyo-native rapper, singer, DJ, and mother, currently living in the bay area of Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture. She first heard about hip-hop when she was 15 and was deeply moved by the feminine strength of Lauryn Hill and MC Lyte. She started rapping as Coma-Chi at 20 and began writing lyrics after listening to Japanese rap groups like Rhymestar, Nitro Microphone Underground, and Tha Blue Herb. At 34, Coma-Chi reflects on the Japanese world around her from an underrepresented female perspective. Her lyrics include everything from relationships and the female point of view of going to the club to calling on the spirits of ancient Japanese empresses to speak to their modern feminine descendants.

In 2005, Coma Chi participated as the only female in the pioneering annual B-Boy Park MC battle in Yoyogi Park, in Tokyo. When the organizers planned the tournament, they had not envisioned that a female MC would make it to the final, so they organized the final to be in the center ring of the sacred sumo stadium, Ryogoku Kokugikan. Traditionally, women are not allowed to enter the ring, which created quite a debacle when Coma-Chi fought her way to the final. At first, the organizers had discussed suspending the final battle, but ultimately determined that, since it was not sumo, she could participate with the caveat that she could not wear high heels in the ring. Barefoot and determined, Coma-Chi took second place and became the first female ever to battle in the reverent Dohyo of Ryogoku Kokugikan.

In 2006, she put out her first independent release, “Day Before Blue”, on Da.Me Records, and the success from this record and her fame from B-Boy Park lead to her signing a contract with Knife Edge Records. In February 2009, Coma Chi released her first major label album called “Red Naked” and, a year later, released a second album called “Beauty or the Beast?” in May of 2010. When she made her major label debut, there was a feeling that only male rappers were allowed in Japan’s rap scene, but Coma-Chi wanted to change that. Being a trailblazer, Coma-Chi overcame the initial looking down on female rappers in Japan, and when she made her major label debut, she proved that women could do it and do it well. In 2011, Coma-Chi finished her contract with Knife Edge and decided to take her career in a different direction.

After experiencing the lack of control that major label artists experience and how they often don’t take the artist’s opinions into consideration, Coma-Chi decided to return to putting out her music independently. She started her own label called Queens Room Records, which first published a children’s picture book and CD called “A Boy Called The Sun”. Inspired by the 2011 Fukushima disaster, this books talks about the connections of love and nature and is about a young boy’s parents who catch a disease called “American Dream”. The disease forces him to go around asking for advice on a cure. He ultimately asks the sun, who says that they must return back to the origin of human beings, in Africa, to be healed. When they are healed, they become African. The book also comes with a CD that has a collection of original R&B, jazz, and afro-beat music on it.

In 2012, after doing loads of features on tracks with Japanese hip hop stars like RIP SLYME, Rhymester, Zeebra, Coma-Chi put out her first full independent album on Queen’s Room called “Golden Source”, and, in December 2013, she gave birth to her first child.

Her new album, released on Queen’s Room in March of 2018, is called “Jomon Green”, and it was inspired by a photo in a magazine that Coma-Chi saw last year. The photo was of a Kaen-Doki, a Jomon-era earthenware piece from around 4000 B.C., and she felt like our modern society was in great need of the ancient wisdom from the Jomon Period, a period of human civilization in Japan stretching from 14,000 B.C. to 300 B.C. and noted for the earliest evidence of fired clay pottery. She studied more about the era and discovered that, within it, there was a period of 10,000 years with no war. She also discovered that, because they were hunter-gatherers, they lived a sustainable lifestyle and the Jomon civilization was a maternal society, where mothers were the center of society. Ultimately, Coma Chi wanted to meditate on the connection between strong ancient Jomon matriarchs and women in today’s modern Japan and she does this very thing on her song, “Woman” (see below for link and lyrics).

I asked Coma-Chi to tell us some other Japanese female MCs that we should celebrate and she recommended a Shinto Shrine employee named MC Mystie, who started rapping at 42 and is featured on “Jomon Green”. She also recommended Tsubaki, who is also featured on this list. Her favorite female rapper in the world, at the moment, is Rhapsody.

When I asked her what message she wanted to share with our English-speaking audience, she said that you can listen to her album Jomon Green from anywhere in the world, that there is a song on the album called “Water” that has English lyrics, and she wants you to give it a listen and feel the ancient Japanese vibrations.

You can find more information at

Listen to my interview with Coma-Chi here, with interpretation help from Junko Takahashi.

Lyrics to Coma-Chi’s Woman:

戦うために生まれたわけじゃない 大事なものただ守りたい
Overflowing love, I don’t deny it anymore.
溢れだす愛 もう否定しない 心に広がる母なる大地
Mother Earth, which spreads in the heart.
両手でハグするソウル 君に届ける優しい鼓動 「おかえり」
Soul to hug with both hands, gentle heartbeat to deliver to you.
ここが帰る場所 何故って答えはひとつ Because
Welcome back, here is the place to return to. Why? The answer is one because

We are the woman…
安らぎの 歌を歌おうLet’s sing a song of peace.
This is the women’s world

そうそれはDNA 組み込まれているのさ先天的に むしろ原始人
Yes it’s DNA, inherited congenitally, rather than from primitive man.
It’s a long history, inherited all the time, since the age of Neanderthal.
女は守り 愛し育み 一人一人がまるで女神さま
Women protect, love, and raise; each one is a complete goddess.
だからいたわってその体 いつか大事な子を宿すから
So, please take care of the body because one day you will carry an important child
And the life connects; to the future, wings flapping, green shimmers and water is blue;
Those will become the colors of the beautiful Earth.
明日を担う力生み出す 母の子宮恵みのひとしずく
Mother’s womb creates power for tomorrow, one drop of mercy,
苦しみ産み落とす 思い残すことなく種を残すBecause
Suffering by giving birth, never regretting leaving seeds behind because

We are the woman…
安らぎの 歌を歌おうLet’s sing a song of peace.
This is the women’s world

男たちは競い合う事で得る快感 深めてゆく絆
Men gain pleasure and deepen bonds by competing.
It’s nice as well, but we are different; the methods.
We cannot be compared on the same ring, please understand.
New era, the structure of this world itself is not accepted.
Back to母系社会 偶像崇拝なら美しい裸体
Back to the maternal society, if it is idolatry, beautiful naked body
Mary of Magdalene, inner-side hides the treasure.
慰め癒す力 きっと何よりも尊いから
The power of comfort and healing, there is nothing more precious.
Fully operating a certain sixth sense and compassion; spread love.
Don’t laugh, spiritual wave
Don’t think feel 伝える感情
Don’t think, feel emotion to tell
母なる地球 みたく包み込む 許し与える全て
Embrace like the Mother Earth. Forgive and give all.
混ざりあう色 時は優しく 溢れ出す永遠のLove‥
Mixed colors, time is gentle. Overflowing eternal love.

The folks at also featured Coma-Chi and her track “The Voices of Kamuy” from Jomon Green and you can check it out here:

Also, check out her latest release, “This is Japan”, inspired by Childish Gambino’s “This is America” :


Chats with Chuck: A UK Cafe in Japan?

UnderMain contributing writer Chuck Clenney is off to Japan for a gig teaching English as a second language. But, as they say, “you can do this from anywhere.” And Chuck will be writing about the many things that connect the cultures, people and economies of Kentucky and Japan.

UnderMain’s Tom Martin, host of WEKU’s Eastern Standard, had a chat with Chuck about the UK Wildcats Cafe in Osaka, Japan.


Clive Pohl Interviews Chris Potter: Part III

Jazz saxophonist Chris Potter burst onto the New York scene in 1989 as an 18-year-old prodigy with bebop icon Red Rodney; the Chicago-born saxophonist then became the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize. His discography now includes 16 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 more. He has also performed or recorded with such leading jazz figures as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band.

Potter takes the stage at Lexington’s Lyric Theater at 7 pm tonight. Lexington architect and jazz artist Clive Pohl talked music with Potter. Here’s part three of their conversation. 

(Part one | Part two

Clive: Your record This Will Be was the result of having won the Jazzpar Prize in Copenhagen and it’s a live recording is it not? 

Chris: Yes.

Clive: And so, I’m curious: what did that feel like as a young musician? You were not yet 30 years old and you won a very prestigious international prize. That must have been incredibly exciting. 

Chris: Yeah. Well, I thought that helped in terms of visibility for me, you know, especially in Europe, but it also served to give me a little more confidence that, “okay, maybe I can do this, I can actually go on the road as a leader and present my music.” It’s a whole different thing. Prior to that, I’d been doing my own records, but hardly ever performing live with my own group, you know, and there’s a whole thing about leading a band that involves the skills you need as a sideman but also other skills. Choosing what to play and when, choosing how to decide who you’re going to ask to be in the band. Just a million little things. 

Clive: It’s not unlike being an architect wherein you have to get the foundation in place in order to get the building out of the ground with the help of many others who, on some level, have to buy into your vision.

Chris: Right. It’s one thing to have the best vision of what could be made in your head, but then when you have to deal with reality; “okay, well, who is available, and what materials are available, and how much money can we actually spend?” And if you’re not able to negotiate those things, then the thing that actually comes into reality isn’t gonna be on the same level. So, that’s been a journey and a turning point for me; learning how to be a bandleader.

Clive: Am I correct in assuming that with respect to your compositions the ante might have been raised a little bit with the Jazzpar suite?

Chris: Yeah. I don’t remember that I had written for a large, or even medium-sized ensemble up to that point. That might have been one of my first real stabs at that. I think I did some things in school for big band or various ensembles but that helped to lead into a fascination with writing for larger groups and seeing how I can flesh out the ideas that I have compositionally for the bigger palette of a larger ensemble.

Clive: A quick question or two about your compositional development. When you’re writing a piece like, for example, Chief Seattle, (Song for Anyone, 2007) it is an absolutely beautiful piece,  and one that jumped out at me having lived in Seattle for many years. When you choose a name like that; which comes first, the music or the name?

Chris: It depends on the situation. I think that name did come later. I had just read a book with some quotes and a beautiful speech about taking care of the earth. There’s a certain energy about that piece that reminded me of someone who is in charge, and someone that does have a vision of how to lead. I found that feeling in the piece and I think that led me to the name.

Clive: Do you have a spiritual practice, a meditation practice, or a specific time of day that you compose? It’s hard for me to imagine how you find time, given how full your schedule is.  

Chris: I don’t exactly have any one practice that I use. I’ve read about different meditation strategies but really can’t say that I follow one thing with regularity. To a certain extent, the saxophone helps with that in that when I’m working on music, when I’m working on sound, by playing long notes and just focusing on breathing, there’s a kind of saxophone “yoga” I get into, and the music itself can help with some of those things. Music can’t do it by itself – life has to come before the music or there’s not going to be anything worth listening to! But it is helpful to approach music from a bit of a sacred point of view. 

Clive: Well, certainly, playing saxophone is a different experience from playing the guitar in that it involves the breath and anyone can hear that… Paul Desmond’s playing is clearly connected to his breath and inner being.

Chris: Yeah, that’s a nice thing that it has in common with the voice. It is really a complete connection to breath. It’s a serious limitation that you can only play one note at a time, but you can do so much with every note because of the expressiveness you can get from each breath. So, being able to control the breath and really think about what that means on a deep level — it does lead into a meditative state when you’re in it. As far as the time of day that I write, I’m usually grabbing whatever time I can. For that particular record I recall that I came up with the basic framework at home in terms of tunes and the basic structure, but I think I wrote and fleshed it out with the orchestration while on the road. It’s been a great big help to a lot of us as composers that you can write on a computer and save your work and then edit later. It’s very useful to be able to travel and work on things. It’s not ideal, but, in the life of a working musician there’s seldom a chance to say “okay, I’m gonna take 3 months off and do this”. I hope to have that experience in my life but so far, it’s not lining up that way (laughs). 

Clive: Right. I have one last question for you, Chris. It may be a difficult question for you to answer, but I’m curious to hear how you might muse upon it. You’ strike me as someone who is clearly talented from early on and clearly disciplined and committed to the music. So, the question of nature versus nurture, where do you stand with that? What percentage of your makeup is natural talent versus just raw hard work? 

Chris: That is something I’ve thought about. I mean, being naturally gifted at something is obviously a big head start, and I think a big part of the head start is that, if it’s rewarding to do it, immediately if you say like “oh okay, I get this”, then you’re gonna want to do it more and you’re gonna devote more energy to it. So, it’s a cycle that reinforces itself. It’s definitely easier for some people to grab certain things I’ve seen and harder for others, you know. It definitely helps to just be able to understand things quickly. I mean, not in every case, but that was something that manifested itself fairly early with what I was doing. On the other side, I feel like I’ve known many extremely talented people that never found a way to live up to what they were probably able to do. I’m a firm believer that while raw talent helps, it doesn’t even get you halfway there. There really has to be a lot of time spent, and a lot of commitment to it.

Clive: I suspect too that on some core level, you understood as a teenager that you had to get up to New York and that commitment to that place helped to fuel your forward motion.

Chris: Oh yeah. I mean, it was great to get kicked in the pants! I mean, there wasn’t anyone my age in South Carolina that I knew who was playing at all. So, I was this big fish in a small pound. So, coming to New York and meeting all these other amazing musicians and being exposed to all this stuff that I really just hadn’t heard was a huge catalyst for growth and remains that way and that’s why I’m still here. 

Clive: Yeah. There is a decidedly competitive streak between musicians, no doubt about it.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. In a mostly positive way.

Clive: Sometimes delivered with love and sometimes not. 

Chris: Yeah. Maybe sometimes not, but usually with, you know – if there is respect!

Clive: That’s right. That’s right. Well, on that note of love and respect, I  want to thank you and I look forward to hearing you on April 22nd. I’ll come up and say hello if that’s OK…

Chris: Thank you! I’m looking forward to it! 


Clive Pohl Interviews Chris Potter Part II

As the Origins Jazz Series and the Lyric Theater get ready to host jazz saxophonist Chris Potter, here’s an opportunity to become acquainted with this the Chicago-born artist, the youngest musician ever to win Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize, the world’s largest international and annual jazz award. Potter’s discography now includes 16 albums as a leader and sideman appearances on over 100 more. He has also performed or recorded with such leading jazz figures as Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, Paul Motian, Ray Brown, John Scofield and Dave Douglas, as well as with the Mingus Big Band

Lexington architect and jazz artist Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after his return from a European tour. If you haven’t already, check out part one of this three-part series. Here’s part two, loaded with opportunities to listen. Part three is coming your way in a few days –  in time to be fully informed for the April 22 concert.

Clive: I understand that you played guitar and piano as a young musician. Is that right?

Chris: Yeah. Especially the piano. And I’ve used the piano a lot in my writing and in terms of our music.

Clive: I wondered about that. And so, a tune like The Shades (on The Sirens), that’s a wonderful prepared piano piece. Is that done with David Virelles?

Chris: Yeah. That was with David and Craig (Taborn). I can’t remember, you know, ‘cause I think that one is purely improvised. I think they were gonna do something as an introduction to another song and that’s when they started playing. And it didn’t end up working as well as an introduction to a song but I just loved that moment so much I thought, oh yeah, we’ve got to put that on there.

Clive: Yeah. It really is a special little moment. You always wonder the degree to which these things are composed versus improvised. In fact, you spoke to that a little bit relative to Imaginary Cities and your desire to blur the lines there. Before we get into those recent records, I’m curious about the anticipation (of recording for ECM) because I don’t believe you had recorded for ECM prior to The Sirens. Is that correct?

Chris: That was the first album that I had done as a leader for ECM. I had appeared on another ECM record with Dave Holland, Steve Swallow and Paul Motion. But that was my first one as a leader and that was my first one actually working with Manfred Eicher in the studio.

Clive: So, that makes me want to ask about the extent to which knowing you were going to make an ECM record might have upped the ante with respect to your preparation and your composition.

Chris: Not exactly because I had already written all the music and performed with the group before I had been in touch with Manfred about recording it. I mean, the way I remember it, I think Sarah Humphries who works for ECM, came down to the Vanguard when we were doing that music and she mentioned this to Manfred and it kind of grew out of that. So, that was already the kind of concept with the music I wanted to do and even the actual feelings were pretty much done by the time I was in touch with Manfred about it. I mean, it was a fortuitous thing because the direction of that music I felt like really did belong on ECM. That was a good spot for it in terms of the aesthetic that I was looking for and Manfred’s aesthetic sensibilities. So yeah, that was a fortuitous circumstance.

Clive: And you began working right around that time with (Pat) Metheny’s Unity band.

Chris: It was around that time. Yes.

Clive: Did his writing have an influence on yours at that time or was it reciprocal?

Chris: Yeah. I had been listening to Pat’s records since I was a teenager, so I was influenced by him definitely.

Chris Potter on Playing with Pat Metheny

Clive: The second ECM record, Imaginary Cities, is of particular interest to me particularly as we talk about Chief Seattle and the idea of sustainability and treating the planet with respect… I’m looking to you to verify that there is a similar kind of vibe giving rise to the Imaginary Cities four-part Suite: our built environment breaking down and “Rebuilding.” Is that accurate?

Chris: Right. Yeah. That was the frame of mind. Of course, that was definitely written with those ideas in mind beforehand. You know, the idea of what I was gonna be writing about even though it’s very abstract and it’s instrumental music. It was those kinds of ideas – the way we’re living these days and the movement of a great majority of people to cities and the way we are living – is it..

Clive: …sustainable?

Chris: Yeah, is it sustainable and is it really creating a quality of life that is as healthy as it could be for us? I think a lot of us would say no – maybe there is a better way to do it. I mean, music, especially instrumental music, is a very abstract form. So, it isn’t like I’m laying out some specific manifesto of exactly how it would be done, but maybe there was a bit of a vision of another way to live. I would say that the titles of the movements do reflect that idea.

Clive: I’m going to jump to both Imaginary Cities and to The Dreamer is the Dream, which is your most recent record. It strikes me that Imaginary Cities was a very ambitious undertaking with a lot of arrangements and a string quartet and so forth and then perhaps The Dreamer is the Dream is scaling back to a simpler instrumentation, is that accurate? Was it a deliberate simplification?

Chris: Yeah, and also, both The Sirens and Imaginary Cities had a programmatic thing where The Sirens was written after reading The Odyssey and we’ve already gone through the implications of Imaginary Cities. But with The Dreamer is the Dream, you know, “let me just write some tunes and call a band, and we’ll go out on the road, and we’ll play these tunes, and we’ll see which ones work and we’ll record it.” So yeah, it was a bit of a return to a normal state of things. Maybe I’ll just take a break from that – not that I won’t ever choose to work that way again, but I thought it was time for more of a, just a band record.

Clive: The whole band is great. They’re younger players aren’t they?  They’re in their early 30’s?

Chris: Yeah, Joe (Martin) is my age. Joe is someone that I first met probably around the same time I met Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mark Turner and Brad Mehdau and all those guys, so I’ve known him a long time. But yes, Marcus and David are definitely from a younger generation and have a different point of view than I do, which I find very, very valuable and it’s also just great to see such extremely talented and dedicated musicians coming up. It provides a new dose of inspiration… now that I’ve been doing this a few years. It’s nice to hear some really advanced things coming at me from a different angle than what I’ve heard.

Clive: David Virelles’ harmonic structures in some of those tunes are just beautiful. And I hear David’s Cuban influence. The other thing I hear with several tunes, obviously, you’ve got the tune Ilimba, and you play the Ilimba.

Chris: It’s a thumb piano from East Africa.

Clive: I’m hearing some of those East African influences, but I’m also hearing on the tune Sky on Imaginary Cities a really clear Indian line and then, you know, obviously some Cuban influence with David Virelles of course. So, you mentioned wanting to get back to the simplest palate and yet there’s a lot going on there.

Chris: I guess yeah ‘cause there’s a lot to think about. There’s a lot to be inspired by!

Clive: Yes. I’m really appreciative of your making these records for us to hear. One last question about your melodic line and this is a stretch, but I’m gonna ask it anyway; you sometimes grab a melodic idea and repeat it a few times. I think it was the tune Sonic Anomaly; might this be a conscious or unconscious reference to the preaching tradition of the black church?

Chris: I don’t know the exact point in that song you’re talking about but yeah, I’d say that is an influence definitely. Some of the first music that I got into was the blues and then the gospel is another side of a similar thing, you know. This was one of the great things about growing up in South Carolina, I think I got a dose that I might not have gotten otherwise. I remember as a teenager doing gospel gigs and the environment just blew me away to actually be there and feel the energy of it and the way that it builds up, and builds up, and builds up. I think that’s one strand that’s always informed jazz music and gives it a strong character that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Of course, that’s where jazz is coming from – that’s where America is coming from; it’s this crazy mix with this very sad history, but the mixing of these different cultures and the way that they come together is something very special and alive. Yeah. The gospel influence, the blues influence, I mean, as abstract and intellectual as jazz can get – and it can go in any direction and be great because it can absorb so many different things – but for me, the way that I think about music and my particular upbringing and the time that I grew up in, the musicians that I’ve met, if it doesn’t have something of that blues feel somewhere in it, it is not as compelling to me.

Clive: Yeah, you mentioned our tragic history, and the whole purpose of the music was to transcend and rise above that.

Chris: Yeah. Of course. Sometimes beautiful things come out of things that are not beautiful at all.


Don’t Miss Cohen Tribute – Tickets Are Going Fast!

The world of audiophiles and lyric lovers mourned greatly on November 7, 2016, the day Leonard Cohen died. Leaving behind a legacy of songs known and loved by millions, Cohen left a gap in the world of beauty with his passing. Out of a desire to emulate the gift that he was and share it with her community, Anita Courtney felt a strong pull to put on a tribute show for Cohen.

She did. It was a huge success. And now, she’s preparing for an April 28th redux. More on that in a moment.

“Well, he was ready to go, and he left us so much,” Courtney recalls saying to her daughters when they told her the sad news back in November, ’16. Her first thought was to organize a tribute. The idea was shared with others, namely Lynn Motley, Diane Arnson Svarlien and Marlon Hurst, and together they planned the first Leonard Cohen tribute. On November 11th of last year, the concert took place at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church as part of the First Presbyterian Church Music for Mission series.

Adam Luckey and Sherry Sebastian of the Sherry Sebastian trio. | Photo credit: Kopana Terry

“It went beyond our vision…” Courtney states about the first sell-out tribute show. Choosing a variety of musical styles that would emulate Cohen’s catalog with creative diversity, the lineup of local talent was a broad representation of some of the area’s finest musicians. Twelve acts performed that night, each performing one or two songs from Cohen’s lifelong supply of songs and poetry.

Beyond a program that featured everything from a psychedelic/blues rendition of “You Want it Darker” performed by Doc Feldman and Art Shechet, to a jazzy, seductive version of “Everybody Knows” by Paper Moon Jazz Trio, the greatest beauty of that night was the creative variety the artists put into their songs. The evening ended with a rousing sing-along to Cohen’s most mainstream song “Hallelujah” with artists taking turns with verses. The entire crowd joined in, and Cohen’s words rose to the heavens from that church.

Carlotta Abbott was a member of that first crowd. “I had no idea we had this kind of talent in Lexington,” she kept whispering to her friend between each set. “Each performer, I was covered in goosebumps, it just went on and on throughout the evening.” 

Thrilled by the talent that stood before her all night long, Abbott was one of the folks who helped encourage Courtney to have an encore. The talent was spectacular, but the feeling of community and coming together was something she took away from the evening. “The group sing-along, it was a coming together, a unifying experience, it felt wonderful…”

The Four Leonards performing Cohen’s “My Oh My” at the first concert

When the evening was complete, Anita Courtney rested on her laurels and knew that beauty could never be recreated. The night was a total success. Mission beautifully accomplished. But…the phone kept ringing. The emails kept coming. People were insisting that it be done again. “People were using words like ‘I was devastated I couldn’t get in’ or ‘I was heartbroken I missed it’.” The demands were sending a clear message: this tribute had to be done again.

So, Halleluja! Leonard Cohen Tribute Encore is coming!

Sponsored by UnderMain, the 7 pm, April 28th concert is being staged this time at The Lyric Theater. With only a few exceptions due to schedule conflicts, the artists of the original performance will return. This time with more space available, the $15.00 tickets will guarantee a great seat in a historic theater that offers amazing acoustics, and Cohen will be praised once more.

“The Lyric has heft and history, and a solidarity with the themes Cohen sings about. The Lyric has soul, and Cohen has soul,” Marilyn Robie commented, one of the performers that night who will be singing “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “The Land of Plenty” with her group Navi’im.  

Nevi’im – Tom Green, Marilyn Robie, Kim Berryman-Smith, Margie Karp, Benjamin Karp—performing at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute | Photo credit: Kopana Terry

For those of us who are avid disciples of Cohen’s music and poetry, his words will resonate in a timeless manner, and we are grateful to be able to gather together to celebrate his diverse collection. Many people relate to Cohen’s “pan-spiritualism” and his lifelong struggle to find the truth, despite religious boundaries.

“…he sought truth, his songwritings were investigations. When he found something that was true he polished it to be able to say it well,” says Courtney. Quoting Cohen she added, “When you’re moved by someone’s music it means they were unable to hide themselves.”

Leonard Cohen didn’t hide from his fans and colleagues. He gave all of himself, as a sellout crowd at Louisville’s Palace Theater discovered when on the very doorstep of his 80th year, Cohen gave them not one, not two, not three, but four very generous encores.

This creative generosity can be heard in his last album “You Want it Darker,” released October, 16, 3 weeks before his death. This truth is what calls so many musicians to want to emulate Cohen, to give him homage for mastering the craft. All who will take the stage on the 28th for the second time are grateful for the opportunity. And those who filled the seats will do so again – joined, it is hoped, by the many who regret missing the original tribute concert, all happy for that chance to experience community around the poetry and music of the great Leonard Cohen.

To purchase tickets, please visit


Clive Pohl Interviews Chris Potter: Part I

 Down Beat called him “One of the most studied (and copied) saxophonists on the planet.” Chris Potter, also an accomplished composer and formidable bandleader, will bring all of that to the stage of the Lyric Theater on the evening of April 22nd – the latest installment of the Origins Jazz Series.

Lexington architect, musician, and composer Clive Pohl caught up with Potter only hours after Potter’s return from a European tour. They had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation and we’re sharing it in three parts so that by the time you take your seat on the 22nd, you’ll have a full appreciation of artist and music.

Part one:

Clive: I’m curious about your family and the musical environment you grew up in.

Chris: Well, no one in my family was a professional musician or even an amateur musician, but they were big fans of music. My father’s father, my grandfather on his side, was a big fan of classical music and listened to it all the time. So, my father had a familiarity with that and he had all kinds of records around the house along the lines of Beethoven and Brahms, and Igor Stravinsky, and Bartok and, you know, a wide range of that music with a bunch of other kinds of music. There was Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and there was blues music from Chicago. There was, you know, a few other things like, I remember a record of Gamelan music and music from Greece and also a few jazz records. So, that’s how I discovered the music, Miles Davis records, Dave Brubeck records, Charles Lloyd. I was a huge fan of the Beatles – I had their records as well. I discovered them when I was 6 or 7. When I was 9 or 10 is when I really discovered jazz and decided I wanted to see if I could play the saxophone. I carried on about it until my parents realized that I was serious. So, they got me one when I was 10 and I got really involved in it right away. And they were always very supportive, which I’m very thankful for.

Clive: And Paul Desmond was an early influence in that decision, is that true?

Chris: Uh-huh. Well, the sound of Paul Desmond’s alto, you know. That was a sound I had never heard before. A beautiful sound wafting in the air.

Clive: This is something I notice in your playing: the consistency of tone and clarity of each note, regardless of which notes you string together.

Chris: That may be the hallmark of someone that has a vision of what they want to do. I definitely hear that in his playing and it’s a much different quality than, say, John Coltrane’s but, in a way, they share this clarity of purpose.

Clive: Yes, you can hear an absolute commitment. And I’m not surprised to hear you mention such a broad array of influences because I hear some of that in your playing. Some popular references, but also the Bartok reference is very evident. Among all those classical musicians that you mentioned, do you rank him high among them as an influence?

Chris: Oh, sure. Yeah. You know, a few of the composers from the 20th century spoke to me most at first… Stravinsky looms really large. You know, The Rite of Spring! And also the French impressionists, for lack of a better word: Ravel and Debussy. I think they have been an influence on a lot of jazz musicians. But yes, the music of Bartok shares with Stravinsky a very rhythmic focus. They have very different ways of dealing with it, but that was a big focus of their music, which I think is something that you can apply to what we do.

Clive: I’m curious about the Mingus Big Band, your place in it and what that meant as a building block in your development.

Chris: Yeah. I think that was very, very helpful. It was an environment that you wouldn’t get in school, let’s put it that way. There was a certain rawness to the energy of the group that I think was true to Mingus’ spirit. I never met him obviously, but a few of the members in the band had actually worked with him and knew him and so the spirit was such that if you didn’t stand your ground and stand up to take a solo when there was a chance, you just might not get to play! I mean, it wasn’t a nice polite, everyone gets a medal kind of situation. It was much rawer than that and there were arguments and this and that, but it was alive, you know, the music was alive and you could feel the whole thing and there were some great musicians that I had the chance to work with: John Hicks, John Stubblefield, and Frank Lacy… all these guys that were very, very kind to me and supportive. Yeah, that was a big learning thing too…

Clive: In part, because you could hold your own, is that right?

Chris: Yeah. Well, you just have to show that you can jump in and deal, then all right! You’re in the family.

Clive: You started making your own records pretty soon after getting into the scene in New York and you’re Concentric Circles record in`95 with Kenny Werner raises a question because I was very much affected by Kenny Werners book, Effortless Mastery and I wondered if you had anything to do with it or if it influenced your thinking and playing at all.

Chris: He hadn’t written that yet when I was first getting to know him. So, just seeing how he operated was definitely an inspiration. He would show up, there was a weekly class he had at the New School. We would choose notes at random out of a hat and then he’d write a tune based on those notes in different ways and we would suggest different ways of going about it and explore that – using that to promote the idea that you can make something out of anything if you know the craft and have the imagination. And then, in between that, he’d tell all these stories of his crazy exploits and his friends’ crazy exploits and we were just in stitches.

Clive: So, very often brushing up against people like that is less about theory and more about the energetic experience of being human, wouldn’t you say?

Chris: Yeah. The nuts and bolts musical information you can get out of a book or you can get out of looking at scores and reading theory, but the real important thing is how people put it together and how it reflects who they are and what you hear in the music. And yes, there is no direct way to transmit that knowledge except to be around the person and to be receptive to everything about what they’re communicating both about music and everything else. You see how it’s all connected. That’s really the way education works in this kind of music.

Chris Potter

Clive: Charlie Haden seemed to possess a quality that allowed him to transcend genres and you can hear it in his music, it’s wonderful stuff.

Chris: Yeah. There’s a lot of amazing folks that I’ve met being involved in this music. Ornette (Coleman) and Wayne Shorter, I mean,  these are special people – besides being great musicians!

Clive: I know you’ve played a lot with Brad Mehldau, who is a much-admired contemporary of yours, yes?

Chris: I first met Brad Mehldau when I came to the New School and we were in an ensemble together, so we were both like 18 or 19. I feel like we’ve kind of grown up together in a certain way, even if we don’t see each other all the time or play together all the time. Just kind of watching the art of their music, and their life, and their career. People like Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel, you know. A lot of musicians that I’ve come up playing with, you know, like Adam Rogers and Craig Taborn…

Listen: Potter and Mehldau perform Book of Kells on the album “Moving In”

Clive: The Underground Orchestra guys. Is that who you’re touring with in Europe right now or is it The Dreamer is the Dream group?

Chris: No. It’s kind of a hybrid, it’s basically the Underground Band. It’s the same band that I’ll be with there (in Lexington): It’s Adam Rogers on guitar and Fima Ephron on bass and then Dan Weiss who will be playing drums. So, it’s gonna be primarily music that’s already been recorded with Underground, but also some other music. We were just on the road for a few weeks and it was really taking off in a nice way, so we will be happy to present it there.

Treat yourself: 

Watch for part two of Clive’s conversation with Chris Potter on April 16.

To purchase tickets, please visit


Plucked from the Web

Climate change is altering global air currents

One of the scientists who demonstrated conclusively that global warming was an unnatural event with the famous “hockey stick” graph is now warning that giant jet streams which circle the planet are being altered by climate change. The results include increasing droughts, heat waves and floods.


The Needs of a Nation

If there’s one word to describe Craig Harris and Dennis Wagner’s Arizona Republic investigation, it’s diligence. They spent 18 months untangling a complex web of issues feeding the Navajo Nation’s housing crisis, all while turning other stories. Their investigation put the Navajo Housing Authority and HUD under a microscope for consistently failing to provide the homes and renovations needed by thousands on the reservation.


Why Are Americans So Hostile to State Funded Art?

A personal, historical, and comparative consideration of using public money to support the humanities.


Why Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts Would Hurt Rural Americans the Most

The NEA, which the Trump administration has proposed to fully defund, has long been accused of primarily serving coastal elites, when in fact the opposite is true.


Out of this world

Photos provide glimpses of Jupiter’s grandeur, but you can’t appreciate its stunning scale without some perspective. Gerald Eichstaedt and Seán Doran provide some with a stunning flyby video made from dozens of still photographs taken by the Juno probe.


’17 Lexington Chamber Music Fest Gets Jazzy Vibe

Lexington jazz violinist Zach Brock

The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, co-founded by one of the most successful classical violinists from Lexington, Nathan Cole, will feature one of the most successful jazz violinists from here and in the world, Zach Brock, for its 2017 edition.

Read more from the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Rich Copley

New Blue Pigment Will Become a Crayon

Discovered accidentally in a lab in Oregon in 2009, YInMn blue is now headed for widespread use, thanks to Crayola.



Arts Tasting Menu

A tasting of handcut cultural delicacies from Lexington and the region.

Your August menu has some really tasty local treats!


 A Chorus Line, presented by The Lexington Theater Company, Lexington Opera House, August 2-5.

Lexington’s homegrown and highly professional musical theater company follows up its first two-production summer season presentation of The Music Man with one of the most popular contemporary musicals ever. A feast of song and dance. Theater company co-founder, Lyndy Franklin Smith, was dance captain in the Broadway production.

Sheila: You were a rotten dancer.

Zach: Why do you think I became your choreographer?


The 2018 Woodland Art Fair, Presented by the Lexington Art League & The LFUCG Department of Parks and Recreation, August 18 & 19.

A curated group of over 200 artists set up shop in Woodland Park for  one of the top art fairs in the country. One of our fair town’s largest cultural events, there are also food vendors, music, and community. Rain or shine!


Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center and Other Lexington Locations, August 16-26.

The festival, begun in 2007, from the start has brought world-class musicians to Lexington for end-of-summer enchantment. Moving to the Downtown Arts Center last year, the festival expanded its appeal to a wider audience and featured Lexington native Grammy winner, jazz violinist Zach Brock. This year’s festival, with Nathan Cole again as Artistic Director along with his crew of incredible musicians, builds on that, bringing back popular Ensemble-In-Residence, WindSync, and featuring Artist-In-Residence, Lexingtonian, Ben Sollee. Look for an unpcoming piece on UnderMain.


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Full disclosure: I am a New Orleanian. No matter where I live, or how long I live there, I will always call New Orleans home.  I know how to pronounce Tchoupitoulas, am still confused why bars don’t offer to-go cups and can make a roux with my eyes closed. 

morris01I go to Domilise’s for my po-boys and the Spotted Cat for my jazz.  When I was a teenager, I used to sit on the Mississippi riverbank, elephants and monkeys waking up at the Audubon Zoo a few feet behind me, watching the barges and driftwood compete for current.

When I was a little girl, we’d go to the French Quarter to eat souffléd potatoes and grits and grillades.  When we walked into a restaurant, my mom always asked the waiter for an extra tablecloth to wrap around me because air conditioning is its own element in New Orleans. 

My best friend and I would sneak out and take the streetcar down to Jackson Square when it was a full moon and have our fortunes read at midnight.  We paid for it with our babysitting money.


I never made a plan past what are we eating for dinner?  New Orleans doesn’t require a plan.  In fact, it’s probably best enjoyed without one – which is only a problem when a Hurricane is threatening to demolish the city.  And when the infrastructure  fails and the city marinates in its own filth, not having a plan is a catastrophe.  That is where we are today, 10 years later … picking up the pieces from that catastrophe. 

After Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, the levees burst and many thousands were left stranded, either literally or in limbo. 

The Superdome became a breeding ground for all things horrific, and it was valuable real estate. To give you some perspective, when the dome reached maximum occupancy, people were shuffled to the nearby Convention Center.  John Burnett, an NPR reporter was there, and gave this stark summary of the Government’s epic failure:

“They couldn’t send them to the Superdome, which was already overcrowded and squalid. Yet more and more people were emerging wet and bewildered from their flooded neighborhoods with nowhere to go. Officials later estimated that 25,000 people were huddled inside the vast convention center — the length of four city blocks — and on the sidewalk. Day after day they waited for buses, but no one came. The fiasco at the convention center came to epitomize the disorganized, inadequate response to the disaster by local, state and federal officials.”

The disaster Burnett described, playing out in a structure that only days prior had hosted Wheel of Fortune, is best understood through imagery.

Katrina was a trauma when it happened, and remains a lingering trauma today.

Walk into any bar on Frenchman Street now and you will hear the sultry, bluesy sounds of poets and showmen weaving the storm into their lyrics.

Like gumbo, Mardi Gras beads in the Oak trees, streetcars and potholes, Katrina has become a part of the fabric of the city.  It remains one of those divisive events that slices through a life, separating it into two categories: pre and post. 

It was a category 3 storm. The death toll was over 1800, making it the third deadliest Hurricane in history.  The third deadliest, yes … but it tops the list in cost: over $100 billion. These numbers do not take into account the many who had no choice but to flee the city, their lives forever altered.

Now, a decade later, the dislocated are hearing appeals to return, with promises of a new land.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently gave a speech in Houston and while he was thanking the Texas city for providing refuge for the displaced, he summed up a sentiment about the Big Easy that anyone whos spent time there can agree with:

“We don’t talk the way anybody else talks, we don’t dance the way anybody else dances. [Others] don’t eat the way we eat, they don’t hug the way we hug, and they don’t love the way we love. It’s just different. And it’s wonderful.”

Tens of thousands of New Orleanians escaped the storm. Most settled in Houston. Many have returned, but many others have relocated, resettled and are trying to move on with their lives.

Wayne Lewis is one of those people. He and his wife sought shelter in Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC and eventually landed in Lexington Ky, although he admits that he will always call New Orleans home.  Wayne is many things; a new father, a husband, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky, an education reformer, and a passionate musician – to name a few. 

We caught up with each other in a dimly lit bar in downtown Lexington.  Boisterous, serious and lit from within, Wayne immediately captured my attention.  Had I not known he was from New Orleans, I would’ve assumed as much, which is the best compliment I can think of. 


Before we talked, he pulled out his saxophone and took a few requests from his captive audience. As the honey poured out from his golden horn, my feet instinctively started moving. Mayor Landrieu is right, we dance differently.  The sound that is created by a New Orleans jazz musician is raw, sweaty, alive and gets right on into your blood. In fact, it’s possible that the first note of When The Saints Go Marching In has an invisible thread tied to your big toe; making it impossible not to dance.

That was the scene in Willie’s Locally Known at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning in Kentucky: two New Orleanians lost in the music, talking about the lagniappe of our lives. 

Wayne is above all else, a man of faith.  When he looked back, he attributes his faith as the saving grace through it all.

“I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’”

I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’

Not some things … EVERY thing. 

“But you know what Lillie, we laughed about it,” he recalled.  “We laughed.  Not once throughout the whole thing did we feel hopeless.  It was just understood that God was going to take care of us.  And he did.”

He went on to tell me about how the storm changed his perspective about life in general. 

“When you lose everything and realize that you’re ok, that you’re still the man you were before, maybe even stronger … when you know that in your heart, then you can really see what living is all about.”

saxBWSo, what does living look like for Dr. Lewis these days? Well, for one thing, he plays his sax as often as he can, which admittedly, is not often enough. 

Currently, he plays in a band called The City. One of their songs, The Levee, composed by lead vocalist/guitarist Gene Woods and featuring a solo by Wayne, is a message of solidarity with those left behind in Katrina’s awful aftermath. The song is haunting in its contradiction and counterpoint: a traditional, upbeat N’awlins second line rhythm that defiantly marches the barely concealed pain and heartbreak of abandonment through the sodden streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, past a preacher shouting from atop the ruins: “Hold the line! Don’t you succumb! You gotta find the will. To carry on.”  Sad and honest, mysterious and revealing; it tells the tale of New Orleans after the levees broke. 

Like Wayne, like New Orleans, like many of us, the profound injustice and sadness is disguised behind a facade of determined joy.

The Levee is an appropriately sad song.  Katrina caused immeasurable sadness in the souls of many. She wreaked havoc on the bayous and flooded the streets with hate and anger. 

But in the end, The Levee is a song … because that’s what New Orleanians do. We deal with the heartbreak by making beats, beans and boudin.  We dance when we’re up, we dance when we’re down.  We let the music explain us and guide us.  It guides us to the food most of the time, where we are the happiest, eating lunch and talking about dinner.

What can you do to help New Orleans today?

Go there. Experience it for yourself.  Eat.  Dance.  Fall in love and spend your money on an experience that will change you forever.  Feel alive. Feel it all.  Let your sunglasses fog up when you walk outside and embrace it as the city’s way of crying for you. Cry on your own.  The river will take it.  In the words of Rebirth Brass Band, just “Do whacha wanna do …” and Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler.

If you need recommendations (which you don’t btw), Wayne Lewis is happy to give them to you.



Sing them ‘Ol Courthouse Blues (please)

An UnderMain InvitatIon ~

(Credit: Ken Silvestri) - Old Fayette County courthouse with Cheapside Pavilion to left.

(Credit: Ken Silvestri) – Old Fayette County courthouse with Cheapside Pavilion to left.

UPDATE: View a pro-con discussion on KET’s Kentucky Tonight about “LIFT, Kentucky” – the proposed Local Option Sales Tax now before the Kentucky General Assembly.

For quite some time – years – there has been a lot of talk about the fate of the old Fayette County courthouse. What we’ve heard has varied on the theme that it’s a real shame to have this big, shuttered and unoccupied edifice brooding in silence as so much energy goes on all around in a recently revitalized downtown Lexington.

It has issues. Big ones. Asbestos. Mold. There’s that space created in its once open dome to house HVAC equipment. And over the years, there have been many other suffocating renovations of convenience. Mayor Gray said in his State of the City speech that “In 2014 the city shored up the critical needs of the foundation, this year we will be taking steps to save the building.”

It’s a good way to start a new year. Something new, potentially exciting and actually achievable for us to consider. The question is, what?

There’s a ton of history concentrated in that spot, smack dab in the center of our city. Important history. A lot of it is pretty awful. And there may some fairly painful and spirited debate over whether that history should be formally recognized, the legacies of slave auction victims remembered, versus whether the time has come to try to move beyond that ugly passage in Lexington’s story. Maybe some of both.

But one thing is not debatable: with a 21c Hotel taking shape directly to its east while all sorts of eateries and bars thrive to its north and west, the Old Courthouse must either be fixed up and given new purpose, or it should be torn down to make way for something artfully designed, appropriate to the site and useful. Something we can all be proud of.

Leaving it indefinitely as-is cannot be an appropriate option for a city that is seeing so much positive change.

Posting in a thread on Facebook, Foster Ockerman, Jr., President of the Courthouse Square Foundation, said results are expected soon of a study into what needs to be done to restore the building. Ockerman reminds us that the UrbanCounty Council last November approved funding to move the results of this study to the schematic drawings stage. And he notes that a small group, chaired by longtime Lexington real estate sales and leasing professional Frank Mattone and assisted by Lexington Downtown Development Authority President and COO Jeff Fugate, has been looking at potential uses for over a year.

With Mayor Gray setting the tone by placing the building’s future high on his agenda, UnderMain would like to host a community conversation that revolves around the questions: should the old courthouse be renovated? If so, what should be its purpose? How much would that cost? Or should it be demolished? If so, what should take its place? And at what cost to taxpayers?

Breathing new life into an old structure is an expensive matter. If you favor the building’s renovation, would you also support financing the cost with a penny sales tax (meaning, you would favor the passage by the 2015 General Assembly a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow us to vote on whether to permit Kentucky’s cities and towns to ask their voting citizens whether or not they would approve such a tax for such a purpose)?

Also up for consideration in Frankfort during the ’15 legisative session is something called “P3” – it stands for Public, Private Partnerships. While P3s have advantages and disadvantages, the concept does offer another way to pay for an old courthouse makeover.

So please join our Facebook discussion. We’re sure there are many more questions inspired by the prospect of doing something – one way or another – about the old Fayette County Courthouse. If you have them, please feel welcome to raise them. If you have ideas about what the building might become, let’s hear them.



All, Environment, News, Politics, Uncategorized

Watch what we wish for?

(Credit - Natural Resources Defense Council)

(Credit – Natural Resources Defense Council)

A nod to Randall Stevens for a provocative Facebook posting about contemporary progressive urbanism – “Smart Growth” – posing the question, “What can Lexington learn from this?”

Tiptoe gingerly through the ideologically argumentative minefield and you might recall some troubling cautionary tales taken from such otherwise “cool” places as Boulder and Austin.

Please read and offer your thoughts about our own aspirations for Lexington, Kentucky.

All, Arts, Entertainment, Literary Arts, Music, Uncategorized

Transy’s Polashek publishes writers’ block battering ram


“Why isn’t there a word rhythm dictionary?” Tim Polashek once wondered.  He no longer asks. No need. The Transylvania University Assistant Professor of Music got busy responding to his own question, resulting in publication of The Word Rhythm Dictionary: A Resource for Writers, Rappers, Poets, and Lyricists (Rowman & Littlefield), a 689 page gold mine for the creative-yet-stumped.

“I really just see this as another tool. Tools matter in that they offer different perspectives and methods, and can shape direction of creativity,” said Polashek. “For example, some computer programs allow easy reversing of melodic motives. Others don’t. This affects creativity. I’m constantly asking myself and students how a given tool shapes creativity, and to be objective about the tool.”

Rhythm rhymes are defined in the introduction as consisting of two or more words with the same rhythm, sharing the same number of syllables “and relative positions of primarily accented, secondarily accented and unstressed syllables.” Unlike traditional rhymes, rhythm rhymes need not have matching vowel sounds.

Polashek said the book is an expression of his longtime interest in the relationships between music and speech as well as the pitch and rhythms of spoken speech.

He has created a series of computer programs to help him manipulate and search for words with certain properties for creative projects. “For example, show me all the words that have two ‘t’ sounds and a ‘z’ sound.  Or, show me ten words that are five syllables long that have accents on the third syllables.”

Has also has written programs to generate nonsensical text with certain musical properties. “So, when I got around to actually writing the dictionary, I had a lot of software tools to help me.”

The typical rhyming dictionary groups words based on vowel sounds and is primarily concerned with the vowels at the ends of words. The Word Rhythm Dictionary takes a different approach, grouping words by several properties:  syllabic stress (primary, secondary, and unstressed) which determines the rhythm tendencies of the word; within these groups, secondary sorting occurs by vowels; and by consonants. “So as you read the rhythm rhyme-groups there is movement along a timbre/word sound similarity continuum,” he explained.

How might a lyricist or poet use the Polashek dictionary? The author suggests three methods: thinking of a word, then browsing a list of words with identical rhythms; coming up with a poetic foot and then searching a list of words that rhythmically match; or establishing a musical rhythm and then browsing a list of words that rhythmically or lyrically fit.

The approach, said Polashek, makes it easier to locate words that feature similar sounds, matching meters, and rhythmic grooves, from traditional rhymes like “clashing” and “splashing,” to near rhymes like “rollover” and “bulldozer,” “unrefuted undisputed” to pure metrical matches, like “biology” and “photography.”

“Upon observing a couple of words in the same group, some interesting scene or semantic concept might pop into mind that will generate a line of poetry or a lyric, perhaps reflecting some subconscious things that the writer had been considering—a linguist Rorschach test, perhaps?”


Let’s Focus on What We Already Have

Courthouse section

With the Rupp Arena Area Entertainment District concept now shelved, at least for the time being, attention is returning to some of Lexington’s outstanding existing historic structures in dire need of TLC and holding great potential as re-purposed public spaces.

One such building is the Old Courthouse – situated smack dab in the center of our city, yet sitting there shuttered, moth-balled even as 21c begins to take shape immediately across Upper Street with CentrePointe underway just a stone’s throw across Main. And this is not to mention the burgeoning dining and entertainment district on Short Street.

One consistent advocate of investing in the building’s renovation and return to Lexington’s civic landscape has been Foster Ockerman, Jr. He offers his thoughts in an OpEd appearing in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Please read it, offer your views and share with your friends. We believe this to be a conversation whose time has come.

Arts, Entertainment, Literary Arts, Music, Uncategorized

Cross-pollination on the rise in Lexington

Broken Queen – Photo by Mark Cornelison

This is not to suggest that it hasn’t always been there, but networking or “cross-pollination” among various arts disciplines seems to be happening with more frequency lately in Lexington.

As some wise person once said: “more ‘o that!”

Writing in ACE Magazine several years ago, Candace Chaney noted Lexington’s rich literary history and the presence of a serious, if struggling, theatre community and suggested that cooperation and collaboration between the two might give rise to homegrown playwrights. This inspired idea remains a long way from yielding onstage results – although we have seen growth and development in local theatre production. But the concept has taken hold in other areas and we think it’s worth noting.

Recent examples include the mid-June production at the Downtown Arts Center of The Broken Queen, a multi-disciplinary collaboration between Blackbird Dance Theatre and a reunion of the Lexington band Chico Fellini.

And Story Magazine has launched its “Story Sessions” series – intimate concerts that engage a variety of talents and skills ranging from music and sound production to communication and publishing.

Coming up later this month, on June 27, is the Lexington Art League’s CSA LIVE: An evening of story and song, billed as a convergence of Lexington’s literary, music and visual arts scenes.

These productions and events join The Carnegie Center’s Carnegie Classics, and Balagula Theatre in inviting varieties of artists to share talents and skills in collaborative settings.

This departure from limiting our arts scene to the pitting of one discipline against another to grovel for scarce financial lifeblood is healthy and promising.

The question is, what does it take to establish a “go to” network to enable vital communication between, perhaps, a videographer and a sound-designer, or a performance artist and a sound and lighting talent? Is this a function of some independent non-profit? Or should our municipal government establish such a role?

Wouldn’t it be great if we figured out how to sustain arts production in Lexington?

Please offer your thoughts on our Facebook page.



The Rise of ISIS and Why You Should Care

Transylvania University political science associate professor Michael Cairo

Transylvania University political science associate professor Michael Cairo

In the wake of two Gulf wars costing thousands of American lives and billions in U.S. treasure, Iraq is now rapidly being reshaped into a terrorist state. Transylvania University Political Science professor Michael Cairo, author of The Gulf: The Bush Presidencies and the Middle East (Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy and Peace), replied via email to a series of questions concerning the current escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq as Sunni insurgents seek to create a new ultra fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Tom Martin: There may be confusion about the forces now in play in Iraq: Shiite versus Sunni and in particular, the full scale of the intentions of the Sunni insurgency and what its success would imply.

Michael Cairo: What most people fail to realize is that Iraq, in its present state, is a post-World War I creation of the mandate system.

Under the Ottoman Empire, the areas within Iraq were far from the center and relatively autonomous.  As long as these regions remained stable and did not upset the Empire’s interests, the Ottomans stayed out of the region.

Following World War I, the British brought three relatively autonomous groups together under one state: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite in the south, and the Sunni triangle in the center of the country.  It is also important to realize that the Shiite have a majority in the country.  Despite the Kurds also being Sunni, they share different interests than the Sunni in the center of the country.

Throughout Iraq’s existence, violence, paternalism, corruption, and patronage have been central to politics.  Saddam Hussein’s rule added to the distrust since he used violence against the Kurdish and Shiite populations and promoted the power and position of the Sunni population within the triangle.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein contributed to distrust and violence.  The Bush administration’s de-Baathification of the country meant the removal of all those associated with Hussein’s regime, including those involved simply for employment. This created a ready-made “angry” Sunni population. The Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki has also contributed to this by ensuring benefits for the Shiite population at the expense of the Sunni.

The current sectarian violence, thus, is not a surprise to anyone familiar with the region and its history.

TM: What US interests are at stake in the present crisis?

MC: First, there is a bit of irony here since it may serve to create additional channels of cooperation for the US and Iran.

In recent years, the Shiite Government of Iraq and the Iranian Government have developed closer relations. Moreover, the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called for fighting against the insurgents in the north, suggesting a possible collaborative effort between the Iraqi Shiites, the Iraqi Government, and the Iranian Government with possible assistance from the US (most likely air strikes).  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is ready to help Iraq if asked, and would consider working with the United States in fighting Sunni extremists if the US decides to take action.

At the same time, this could prove problematic for the US since it might potentially increase Iranian power in the region. Not showing a degree of interest could signal to Iran that the US is willing to let Iran extend its power in the region. The U.S. aircraft carrier deployed in the Gulf has, in my opinion, two purposes – one to send a signal to Iran and two to be prepared if the president chooses an air strike option.

Second, the US most certainly has economic interests in the region.  Gas prices have spiked as ISIS has had an impact on oil fields in northern Iraq, shutting down exports from that region.  The heart of Iraq’s oil region is located in the south and an ISIS advance could seriously threaten oil exports and US economic interests in the region.

Third, ISIS could have a significant impact on Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, putting potentially threatening and violent regimes near their borders.  Spill-over from the crisis could have a significant affect on the region and lead to a wider war, which could prove disastrous.

TM: How does the present event differ from previous episodes of civil upheaval in Iraq and the region? The Iranian angle might be one example, but anything else?

MC: The current situation could be seen as a continuation of the past, as well as retribution for the past. Sectarian conflict has been a part of Iraqi history.  Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds and Shiites are well known.  The Shiites have dominated the system since 2003 and have used economic and political patronage, and violence, as a form of retribution and control.  The difference today is that there is an increasingly religious element to the conflict.  Saddam Hussein’s regime was secular. ISIS is an Islamist group, changing the nature of the conflict somewhat.  Iraq is also home to one of the holiest sites for the Shiites, Karbala.  This adds to the threat that ISIS presents.

TM: Is there a credible possibility that what is now Iraq might end up fragmented, giving rise to the imagined ISIS?

MC: Absolutely.  This is certainly a possibility given the fact that Iraq as a state is an artificial creation, drawn on a map with a pencil and a ruler by British diplomats. This, however, would not necessarily mean a reduction in violence since these entities would likely have conflicting interests.  In addition, control of the economic resources – oil – could become even more significant for these new entities.

TM: Why should Americans care about what is happening in Iraq?

MC: First, Iraq’s geographic position in the Middle East – surrounded by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey – means that it has implications for the countries that surround it.  What happens in Iraq can have significant ramifications for what happens elsewhere in the Middle East.

Second, Iraq has significant implications for the international economy with its vast oil reserves.  We have already seen oil prices go above $113 as a result, in part, of the conflict.  In addition, the conflict constrains companies  from investing in those oil fields.  It is also important to remember that we are partially responsible for the current crisis in Iraq.  We opened the floodgates with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

TM: There have been observations made in media in recent days to the effect that if Bush over-reached in Iraq, Obama has under-reached. Wherever blame for any U.S. failures may rest, it doesn’t change the fact that with the rise of ISIS we have lost thousands of lives, damaged thousands more and evidently wasted billions in treasure in an attempt to stabilize Iraq.

MC: It is generally correct.  It is a tragic case of conflict.  While Bush certainly overreached, I am not so sure that Obama under reached.  Frankly, I am not convinced that increased US force in Iraq can stabilize the region without a serious long-term commitment.  The American public is not prepared for a permanent  American presence in Iraq and such a presence might only serve to increase reactions from forces like ISIS.

It is important to remember that American domestic politics matters too.  Obama could not have “overreached” even if he wanted to.  The critics often forget what he was handed.  While I certainly admit he’s made mistakes along the way, we need to be careful not to forget that he entered office facing an American public that was tired of war and ready to get out.  Perhaps he over responded to the American public, but our recent experiences in Iraq were impacting both him and the public.  The idea of fighting a long term war was out of the question for most Americans.


Kentucky Pols: right or wrong on Climate Change?

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo says of President Obama’s plan to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, “It was a dumb-ass thing to do, and you can quote me.”  Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from coal-producing Clay County, told the Lexington Herald-Leader he agrees with Stumbo’s assessment of the proposed regulations.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes calls the president’s plan “pie-in-the-sky regulations that are impossible to achieve.”

Will history prove them famously correct? Or terribly wrong? Please take a moment to read thoroughly Ezra Kein’s sobering assessment of just where things stand with this matter of climate change. (With apologies to the sensitive for the profanity in the beginning.)

Then, we hope you will offer your thoughts via one or some of our social media options.


‘Book of Visions’ premieres at Transy

The world premiere stage production of Maurice Manning’s award-winning book of poetry “Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions” debuted March 27 in Transylvania University’s Lucille Caudill Little Theater. This ensemble performance portrays friendships and fantasies from the colorful life of young Lawrence “Law” Booth who imagines incredible things to escape his troubles.

Set in Appalachia in the 1970s and 80s, the coming-of-age poetic saga focuses on the adventures of the rebellious Booth, his scurrilous Mad Daddy, his best friend Black Damon, the perhaps imaginary Missionary Woman and Red Dog, his beloved canine pal.

Drawn directly from Manning’s poems, this theatrical adaptation features vivid monologues, startling revelations, choral storytelling, Appalachian music and many weird and wondrous visions all brought to vigorous life by Transylvania student actors and a professional production team.

“Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions” took Manning, an English professor and writer-in-residence at Transylvania, more than 10 years to write. It was a project he began right out of college, and although he felt unsure of what he was doing, he was certain he wanted to be a writer.

“I didn’t really know what that meant or how to go about it,” Manning said. “I just wanted to be a person who read books and carried around a pen and scraps of paper, someone who studies the world for its meaning.”

Manning must have figured it out. “Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions” won the 2001 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. “Manning’s unfaltering audacity is equaled by its artistic control, and the result is an astonishing collection, still more astonishing as a first book,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and contest judge W. S. Merwin in his foreword. “The individual poems…bring on a cast of characters who recur in a spectrum of forms and phantoms, luminous shapes altering the same kaleidoscope.”

It was this cast of characters that Transylvania theater professor Michael Bigelow Dixon found compelling when reading the work of his fellow faculty member. Dixon says, “I read ‘Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions’ and recognized how theatrical it was: There are continuing characters, a journey filled with dramatic events and a unique poetic voice. Then I attended Maurice Manning’s readings and realized how vibrant and engaging his work is when read aloud.”

It took theater faculty and students four months of meetings, comparisons of experimental drafts and conversations exploring the thematic and theatrical intent of the piece. Different versions of the script were read aloud multiple times by the adaptors and members of the creative team—designers, stage manager and producer. The theatrical adaptation was a team effort consisting of Dixon; Lexington-based Project SEE Theatre professionals Evan Bergman, Ellie Clark and Sullivan White; and first-year Transylvania student Theodora Z. Salazar.

Dixon describes the final product as a “bildungsroman,” or coming-of-age story, divided into three parts that align with Booth’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. “It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man in Appalachia,” explains Dixon, and each section includes six to nine poems that offer insight into the development of his character through conflict, friendship and fantasy.

The production includes a prologue and epilogue, reflecting Maurice Manning’s own introduction and conclusion to his collection of poems. Manning, Dixon and Ellie Clark recently talked with author Silas House about “Book of Visions” on the radio program “Hillbilly Solid.” The interview starts at 39:41 and may be heard here.

In addition to enjoying the play, guests can see a faculty/student photography exhibition curated to reflect the themes of the production and Transylvania’s many connections with Appalachian culture. The works will be on display near the theater entrance. And the Transylvania University a cappella group, TBA, has composed and will sing the poem, “A Prayer Against Forgetting Boys,” at a limited number of performances.

If you go

Performances of “Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions” will be April 5, 7:30 p.m.; and April 6, 2 p.m.

All performances are staged in the Lucille Caudill Little Theater, on Transylvania’s historic campus, located off Fourth Street between North Broadway and Upper Streets in downtown Lexington. There is ample parking in the adjacent Mitchell Fine Arts Center parking lot and handicap/disability parking and seating are available for all the productions.

Tickets are $10 each for general admission and $5 each for the Transylvania community. Tickets may be reserved by calling the box office at 859-281-3621 weekdays March 24-28 and March 31-April 4 between 1–4 p.m. The Little Theater box office is also open one hour prior to performances. For more information, contact Transylvania’s fine arts office at 859-233-8141.


Ky Dems Differ on Conway, Beshear Appeal Duel

No one can recall anything quite like it: Kentucky’s Attorney General and Governor at odds over a federal judge’s ruling that the state must recognize same-sex marriages.

Attorney General Jack Conway announced that he would not appeal, citing opposition to discrimination and conscience. Conway’s emotional announcement was followed immediately by a statement from Governor Steve Beshear announcing that he will enlist outside counsel to mount an appeal in the belief that the matter is best settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

As Phillip M. Bailey reports for Louisville public radio station WFPL, the split between Beshear and Conway has renewed the division among Kentucky Democrats over gay marriage.

Family Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Martin Cothran commented on Conway’s decision and fielded reporters’ questions. Watch the video from

Have thoughts? Comment on our Facebook page.


Russian-Ukraine Conflict: Why It Matters

Dr.-Ken-SlepyanUkraine is the scene of a rapidly escalating crisis that has raised fears of a military conflict. As world leaders push for a diplomatic solution, UnderMain launches a dialogue of local perspectives on this global event.

We posed key questions to Transylvania University History Professor Ken Slepyan, author of Stalin’s Guerillas, an account of the Soviet partisan movement in WWII.

UM: Can you enlighten our readers on the relationship between Russia and Ukraine?

KS: Russia and Ukraine have a long and complicated history.  The first Russian state was actually centered in Kiev, the current capital of Ukraine.  The areas that comprise today’s Ukraine have been at different times (and often simultaneously) a part of the Russian Empire, Poland, and the Austrian Empire.  Eastern Ukraine became part of the Russian Empire in the seventeenth century, while the West remained part of the Kingdom of Poland, and then the Austrian Empire.  The borders of contemporary Ukraine  were established only in 1939 (under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact when the USSR annexed western regions from a resurrected Poland).  Because of these varied histories, the culture, experiences, perspectives, and demographics of Ukraine are quite different from each other in the East, West, and South, with Western Ukraine pulled more towards Europe and Eastern Ukraine to Russia.  However, you can find many Ukrainian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, Russian speakers in Western Ukraine, and Ukrainians who speak Russian but identify with Ukraine rather than Russia.

It is also worth noting that in the Crimea, while ethnic Russians do constitute a majority of the population (a little above 50%), the significant Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar populations do not want to be a part of Russia.  The Russian majority was achieved, in part, by the mass expulsion of the Tatar population in 1944 based on alleged collaboration with the Germans, and the resettlement of the area by Russians.  (The Tatars have been returning in large numbers since the 1990s). Also, while it is a bit of an urban legend that Khrushchev “gave” Crimea to Ukraine on a whim in 1954, there are sound geographical reasons why the peninsula was administratively attached to Ukraine, primarily because of food, water, and power needs.

UM:Why should we care about what is going on in Ukraine?

KS: Ukraine is a country that is a bridge between the rest of Europe and Russia and  the Eurasian continent.  It has a culture and history tied both to Russia and Central/Eastern Europe and “belongs” to no country in particular.  We should also care that a sovereign, democratic nation be able to choose its own political course without being invaded by a neighbor who doesn’t like the results when Ukraine poses no threat to Russia’s existence.  It also important that the European continent remain stable and peaceful.  Ignoring Russia’s actions will undermine this objective.  This said, Ukraine is more important economically to the countries of the EU than it is to the US.

UM: What are the Russian Federation’s strategic interests in Ukraine?

KS: Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has deemed the “near abroad” (former republics of the Soviet Union) an essential part of its sphere of influence.  There are three main strategic concerns: 1. The control of the naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea, the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, and necessary for access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  Losing Sevastopol and Crimea would be viewed by the Russians as a catastrophic strategic defeat (however, there is no credible indication that this was a real possibility) 2. The protection of ethnic Russians living in the near abroad, such as the populations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine; 3. The establishment of a “Eurasian Union” consisting of former states of the Soviet Union, with Russia as its head, to serve both as counterweight to the European Union and to secure Russian hegemony in the region.  Also, perhaps less important, but also possibly a factor, Ukraine’s heavy industry is located in Eastern Russia (although much of this industry is not up to world production standards).

UM:What are the United States’ strategic interests in Ukraine?

KS: What happens in Ukraine is important but I hesitate to say that in itself it constitutes a vital American strategic interest.  As part of the deals to remove nuclear weapons from Ukraine, we are signatories, along with the Russians, to the integrity of Ukraine’s borders.  It is not in American interests on principle for Russia to violate Ukrainian territorial integrity, and for the message that this sends to other Central/Eastern European nations and the other countries in Russia’s near abroad.  Moreover, Ukrainians, especially in the West look to the US for support and we cannot take that role lightly.

UM: What are the realistic response options for the United States at this juncture?

KS: As I see it, American options are very limited.  I do not think that military intervention is a realistic option or even desirable option, given our lack of immediate bases in the region, the stretching out of our forces dealing with situations, and (not least!) the fear that this could escalate in a much more serious crisis between the US and Russia (both of whom still have substantial nuclear weapons).  The response will therefore have to be political and economic: isolation of Russia (such as not participating in preparations for the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi, or boycotting them altogether), targeted economic sanctions, possibly aimed at the business community to put pressure on Putin from that direction etc..  It will be necessary to get support from the EU and other countries for these to be effective, but it is unclear how far these other states would go along with these, especially since many EU states remain dependent on Russian natural gas (as does Ukraine).  However, if Russia believes that securing/annexing parts of Ukraine are that important to it, then our responses won’t be able to achieve much of anything, except as a signal to the Russians that we oppose this action.

However, while these measures may be necessary, we also have to remember that we need Russia’s cooperation on other important national security issues: the disabling of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, our current position in Afghanistan, and continued pressure on Iran to deal with that country’s nuclear threat.  We will have to be intentional as to what our priorities are in these areas with respect to Ukraine.


Cultural Affairs Can Be a Load of Crap

Someone I know, pondering a try at local politics, recently wondered if his ideas even mattered. Politics and public service, these days, do seem so co-opted, so corporatized by the powerful and monied that it was easy to understand and impossible to dismiss his sense of futility.

Many of us share it. No point in going into the reasons. We’re all more than aware to the point of increasing -and dangerous- cyncism of what has become of the high ideals of statesmanship.

So, can you actually make a difference? Any difference? Do you have a voice? Can your voice influence public policy and bring about positive change or improvement?

Indulge us a bit as we get this thing called UnderMain underway. We actually do believe the answer is “yes.” And part of our mission is to encourage and facilitate your voice as a powerful Lexington cultural resource.

You are invited to become a contributor to the UnderMain blog community. Send your submission for consideration to Consideration? Yes. There is plenty of snark out there. That’s well covered. This is a place where we talk frankly, but with respect, about moving things forward. We will offer observations of our own from time to time, but our hope is to create a carousel of perspectives and ideas about our cultural landscape and conditions.

I’d like to get this rolling with what may seem an odd question for a cultural affairs magazine. But you know? Sewage is a cultural affair.

So, this multiple choice quiz for your consideration:

How aware are you of the details of the city’s agreement with the EPA to fix the mess that is our ghastly mingled system of sanitary and storm sewers?

I’m up on it

I’m somewhat aware

I’m vaguely aware

I know very little


Are you aware that city officials anticipate that implementation of their plan to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act will cost the city at least $600 million?

Yes, fully aware

No. You’re kidding?

Did you know that this cost is being covered with a recently enacted sewage fee that most likely will have to be increased?

Yes and I would support an increase to ensure Lexington is in full compliance.

Yes, but I do not support a tax increase for this purpose

Fixing sewers is decidedly unsexy compared with creating an entertainment district in our downtown. But there is a limit to what our tax base can support. Which is your priority?

Fix the sewers

Build the entertainment district

Which of the following best describes you as a Fayette County citizen?

Actively engaged in the affairs of my community

Interested in the affairs of my community

Somewhat aware of what’s going on

Aware but too busy to care

Unaware but wish I knew more

Unaware. Blissfully unaware.