Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

Arts

Scene&Heard: Justin Wells at Soulful Space

I’m fascinated by space.  Not NASA space necessarily, although the cosmic unknown is certainly worth thinking about.  No, I’m talking about a more general space – our space.  The space around us and my favorite – the space between us.  The spaces we create say a lot about who we are, our values, our philosophies, and our experiences.  Some people like big, industrial, empty spaces and some like small, cozy and cluttered. Some cover the walls with a story while others prefer a blank canvas. Some choose color, some choose white. There are spaces filled with light and there are dark spaces. We each create our space and when we’re lucky enough, we get to share it with each other.

Some people prefer to keep their space to themselves, and that’s okay. Not me. I like the messy, unpredictable, often disappointing yet more often exhilarating experience of the other.  It’s the greatest mystery: your experience.  I’ll never be able to have it and therefor it makes me insatiably curious.  I want to know your story. I want to be there when you’re doing the thing you love, no matter what it is and I want to hear why you love it.  This is my favorite space to be in; watching someone do what they love and having the honor of getting to know the hows and whys behind the process.  It is endlessly exciting.

A space that is dripping in history, where sound echoes between the walls, where silence has a weight and clarity of thought is effortless – we can call that a soulful space.  This type of space re-minds the occupant. It brings the physical brain and body in contact with the celestial mind. It connects the self to the collective.  These spaces exist all around us of course, but they are often overlooked and under-appreciated.   Lexington is lucky for many reasons, one of which is that we have a man among us who has set out to cultivate and promote this kind of space.  Shawn Gannon has worked hard over the years to create the Soulful Space experience and his efforts have not been wasted. 

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

Set to the backdrop of the charming and peaceful Good Shepherd church on Main Street, the Soulful Space experience brings the community together in a unique way. Part spiritual, part rock and roll (if you can separate the two), and wholly soulful, Gannon’s creation has a feel all it’s own.

On October 26, 2017 Gannon and his crew created a space that was both spellbinding and sobering.  The show featured Justin Wells, with an opening by some of Lexington’s most talented literary thinkers, Erik Reece among them. The evening was a benefit for the Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation group.    

In pews we sat as the poets and then Wells filled the church with melody and contemplation. It was a sweet evening for me as my mother was in town, visiting from New Orleans.  So I sat next to my mom in a church – there’s a first for everything after all, and we shared a beautiful evening.  It was a beautiful evening for the obvious reasons, some of which I’ve come to expect from Soulful Space – the music, the company, the space – but the unexpected beauty came as I sat in a pew and cried, my feet tap-tap-tapping the whole time. The night, for whatever the reason, dissolved my defenses and made space for a profound sense of loss. 

Soulful Space founder Shawn Gannon | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

When Gannon stepped on to the stage and read the opening Wendell Berry poem, a tradition that has historically been carried out by Brian Cole, the beloved Good Shepherd rector who recently left his post for another calling, you could hear the quiver in his voice.  An entire community has had to grieve, accept and deal with Cole’s departure and, according to several accounts, it has not been easy.

The now Bishop Cole (Diocese of East Tennessee) is one of those rare people who allows you to be just as you are in his company.  No judgement, no pretense. He is cool and serious … mostly he’s cool. And he will be missed.  I recently heard a definition for compassion that I love: suffering together. The Good Shepherd community has suffered a loss. But they have done it together and they continue on together.

When the poets got up to read their selections, each one carried with it a knowledge and a loss.  A loss of physical space, a loss of the sacred. As good poetry does, some of the prose left me with more questions than answers.  Mainly, the questions lingered, what can I do? How can I help? Poetry – has a reduction effect on me.  It takes all my ingredients and boils out the unnecessary water and air, leaving me with a flavor only achieved by loss.  Not all losses are bad.  The loss of the unnecessary, for example. The loss of ego, of greed, of selfishness, in some moments – of self all together, loss of mine, loss of judgement and defiance – all positive losses.  The words spoken that night begged for a loss of apathy. The poets invited a resistance to my comfort and the space provided an assurance that it was a worth accepting. 

As Wells got up and began to tune his guitar, I was brought back to a few weeks ago at The Burl when he and a handful of some of Kentucky’s most treasured local talent performed a tribute to the late Tom Petty. It was a special night with tears and sing alongs and shouting and dancing.  At one point I was head banging to a Petty cover performed by Mojothunder, a fairly new, albeit unfairly talented group of young and handsome musicians. Losing our heroes can be a difficult undertaking.  We take them for granted, don’t you think? And although their talents or wisdom or words will always live in our hearts and through our speakers, it is a small comfort. 

When the world is busy sanding us down, the distraction of music, especially music that reminds us of simpler times, is sometimes the only thing that reminds us who we are. The only thing that can bring us right back to the space we live in. It takes us out of our minds with the right mixture of sound and feeling just long enough to remind us that we are here. Right here. In this space.  Tom Petty was one of my heroes and Justin Wells and the other musicians did an amazing job honoring his life that night at The Burl.

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

If you’ve ever heard Justin sing, you can imagine that hearing him in church is quite a powerful experience.  He is, himself a powerful experience.  His presence is equal parts intimidating and soothing. Standing at well over 6 feet and some considerable amount of inches, he is a giant man with a giant talent. Wells wails. He does so with a power that summons both the angels and the demons on to the dance floor. And on this night, he did it in a church.  His a cappella song brought tears to my eyes as I thought about how much he must have been enjoying the experience.  During his finale, the women in his life – his two daughters and his wife, made their way up to the stage and were dancing and holding hands.

On a night when Wells provided what he does every time he performs – a talent born from truth, a passion pulled from pain and an honesty honed by loss, it was clear where his heart lives. With twirly dresses and ribbons, the loss of a fast and furious rock star lifestyle gave birth to a gentle and beautiful family.  A family filled with laughter, love and lyrics.  All eyes, including his, turned to these three women and he smiled as he sang the last notes of the evening.

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

During every loss in my life, music has been there to help and heal me. It has put words to things my experience prevents me from saying.  It has literally saved my life.  It is the best and the bravest thing. My mom taught me how to appreciate music.  Listening to The Bee Gees or Fats Domino on her record player in New Orleans, she used to scoop me up, twirl me around and belt the lyrics into the night.  Music has always been the way my soul communicates.  An on this night, sitting next to the woman who taught me how to do that, in a soulful space, I cried.  I cried over all that I have lost and I cried over all that I have gained as a result. Sometimes life is so damn confusing and beautiful, tears and music are the only responses I have.  And for them, I am grateful.

I go to many shows and I love them all, but there is only one Soulful Space experience in Lexington.  I encourage you to check it out as soon and as often as you can.  On November 11th, the Soulful Space community enjoyed the much anticipated Leonard Cohen tribute. Veteran’s day was a fitting date to celebrate the freedom that Cohen’s songs have brought to so many.

Follow the Soulful Space Facebook page for upcoming performances. This is not an event. It’s an experience. It’s the best kind of experience: an organic one that allows you to feel deeply, listen without distraction and be still in knowing that you are right where you need to be.

After all, what feels better than the loss of wanting things to be different?

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

Arts

Guy Mendes: Unframed Play

If you know Guy Mendes, you may know some of the things I am about to share. If you are familiar with one of his three publications – Local Light: an anthology of 100 years of photographs made in Kentucky, (1976), Light at Hand (1986), or 40/40  40 Years, 40 Portraits (2010), the same might be true.

You also may have run across reference to the man’s genius in Yale University Press’ new catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the same name at the Cincinnati Art Museum: Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 (2016). Guy Mendes’ life’s work is being framed in many ways.

But the life of a creative person is never static and we who publish stories about them are always limited by the confines of our medium. Whether it be an essay, a book, a catalog, a video, or even an exhibition, we know too well that singular frames often cut short the contributions of artists who work in multiple disciplines as did Guy and many of his colleagues while working as members of the Lexington Camera Club.

When that frame is broken, when no preconceived notions are placed around creative thought and experimentation is encouraged, that’s when things start to happen. Guy Mendes admits that he learned this from his mentors, particularly Ralph Eugene Meatyard, in the Lexington Camera Club. Play. Search. Make something new.

This free-wheeling mindset was a far cry from Guy’s work as a journalist for both the Kentucky Kernel and later the underground paper known as the blue-tail fly (1969-71). Both publications were deeply immersed in the issues surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and covering campus protests against the Vietnam War. The deaths of student protestors at Kent State in Ohio occurred during this period. Not playful stuff.

Guy Mendes has had work published in The New York Times, Mother Jones, Playboy, Smithsonian Magazine, Aperture, and Newsweek. His photographs are in collections that include The International Center for Photography, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the High Museum, and Aperture Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the University of Kentucky Art Museum, and many other local institutions. His career includes the production of numerous documentaries while working for nearly thirty-five years at KET. His life’s work needs nothing more than a straightening on the nail every now and then. Right?

Wrong. He still loves hours of play in the dark room. So, within the confines of this frame and along with Part I: For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See, it is our hope that UnderMain is able to introduce a little something new, then ‘get it souped, get it dried, and print it’ – a phrase Guy uses for the reportorial mode of production. We have invited Guy to play with us and send along a couple of new images before the end of the show at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Something that we can add here for your enjoyment.

Kentucky Renaissance, The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community: 1954-1974 is on view through the end of December.  If you have not seen this show, we encourage you to go. Also, see Hunter Kissel’s new narrative titled, Kentucky Insurgence.

What intrigues me most about the exhibition and catalog – both authored by Brian Sholis, then Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum – is Brian’s observation about what happens when creatives work closely together as they did during the years of The Lexington Camera Club. Brian calls it genius that emerged in that time. Not only did photographers encourage and challenge one another, but they also played with new ideas, ideas that came often from writers in the region such as Wendell Berry, Guy Davenport, Thomas Merton, and James Baker Hall.

Such collaboration was of particular interest to Guy Mendes as a very young photographer and writer. Falling into the soup that birthed the Camera Club altered his vision forever – the talent and ideology of not only photographers and writers, but of sculptors, printmakers and multiple small presses like Gravesend Press, Gnomon Press, and The Jargon Society. Numerous contributions merged ‘words with pictures’ in a way that jelled for Mendes as a young photographer and writer.

Here are a couple of clips with Guy discussing what he refers to as the ‘cross-pollination,’ particularly with writers in the region, what was going on between members of the Lexington Camera Club.

Guy Mendes learned a great deal from his mentors, beginning with his introduction to Wendell Berry (see Part I) while he was working as a journalist for the Kentucky Kernel. Later, in 1971, Guy served as an apprentice to James Baker Hall and was thereby connected to writers like Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Bobbie Ann Mason, all of whom benefitted from a strong literary presence in Lexington, Kentucky at the time.

A keen awareness of what was taking place on the national level in photography grew, much of which was learned by attending lectures and visiting national exhibitions in New York and Chicago. According to Guy, photography was just coming into its own with movement in earlier decades prompted by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard.

Mendes also recalls the influence of Jonathan Williams, who had attended Black Mountain College and studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind –  ‘a hotbed of modern art in the hills of North Carolina.’ Williams was highly influential in connecting club members to this national scene in photography.

Today, with all the years of experience behind him, Guy Mendes recalls with great fondness the years of 1968-70 when he drove the countryside with Meatyard and Bob May – it was a time when he learned the value of play. He learned to search, but never with preconceived notions and while that play may have revealed the ‘uncanny’ or things that for some may even seem ‘dark’, that play was freeing. His recollection of that time is here:

UnderMain would like to thank Guy and KET for assisting us with presentation of a special insight into those times. In 1974, Guy Mendes, Martha Chute, and Stanley Maya created this film on Ralph Eugene Meatyard 1925-1972. The voices are those of Guy Davenport, Bob May, and Minor White.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

Arts

For Guy Mendes, It’s What You See

Recently, I had the pleasure of traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum for the opening reception of Kentucky Renaissance: The Lexington Camera Club and Its Community 1954-1974. Joining a large contingent from Kentucky, we celebrated photographer and writer, Guy Mendes.

His work along with that of his contemporaries Van Deren Coke (1921-2004), Zygmunt S. Gierlach (1915-1989), James Baker Hall (1935-2009), Robert C. May (1935-1993), and Ralph Eugene Meatyard (1925-1972), Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Cranston Ritchie (1923-1961), Charles Traub (b.1945), and Jonathan Williams (1929-2008) numbered nearly 150.

All of the photographs, chosen by curator Brian Sholis, were made while these men worked along side one another in Lexington, Kentucky as members of the Lexington Camera Club. The exhibition brings to light many things, including how a connected and collaborative community raised the bar for all involved. In fact, in the accompanying exhibition catalog, the curator uses the term ‘genius’ to describe the inspiration of that time.

Curious about Guy’s thoughts on the matter and what intrigues him still today about Lexington, Kentucky, I decided to talk a little more in-depth with him. Our interview was lengthy and UnderMain will bring portions of it to you throughout the duration of the show – January 1, 2017.

After hearing Guy’s thoughts on so many things, I began to wonder about that genius thing – if real genius emerges only when you are wise enough to open yourself to it, so humble as to never admit you possess it, and honest enough to be generous with it. We are very fortunate to have Guy in our midst.

Here is just an introduction to my interview with Guy Mendes. Listen and learn how Guy went from being a ‘Kitten’ to realizing – late in life – that he is a native Kentuckian.

Guy Mendes as Kitten, 1966-67, Photo by Rick Bell

When Guy Mendes arrived in Lexington as a young man he intended to play basketball (who knew?) and study journalism. He landed a job with the Kentucky Kernel and, at the same time, walked onto the 1966-67 Kittens – the University of Kentucky’s junior varsity/freshman basketball team.

Guy was uninspired at the time by the classes in journalism, but highly intrigued by his work at the Kernel. The Kernel was – in Guy’s words – ‘a pretty radical paper back then’. It was a daily paper and part of the United States Student Press Association, a nationwide organization that shared a teletype machine from a network of colleges including Berkley, Harvard, Michigan and North Carolina.

His journalistic endeavors led him to cover many noteworthy things including the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, but for the sake of this interview, I was particularly intrigued by his story about the Fall of 1967 – when his interest in journalism led him to meet two men who would change his life forever: Wendell Berry and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

It was an eye-opening time for Guy Mendes. What he learned then, he still lives by today: it is not what you look at in life, but what you see.

Guy Mendes, Photo by Dick Ware, 1970

SEE ALSO: Part II in this series: Guy Mendes: Unframed Play.

Guy currently shows with: The Ann Tower Gallery and Institute 193 in Lexington, and POEM 88 in Atlanta and his website is: www.guymendes.com.

Arts

Writers Hall of Fame Honors, Encourages

I arrived fifteen minutes early before the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony began. The annual event was held at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. It was first held at the Center in 2012 and this was my first time attending. As I glanced around the room, I observed that the mood of this night was convivial and one of joy. Attendees smiled and hugged each other as they sipped on wine and snacked on hors d’oeuvres. This was to be a celebration of the craft of writing that has distinguished Kentucky and put it unmistakably on the literary map.

As a writer and poet, I was impressed that so many had come to pay homage to some of the state’s finest writers. I was later told later that 225 people were in attendance.

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(Photo by Doug Begley) – Left to right: poet Maurice Manning, author Silas House and Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen

“The Writers Hall of Fame was initiated as a way to support established writers and encourage young writers to take up the craft,” explained Neil Chethik, the executive director of the Carnegie Center and the evening’s emcee. “It has served as a rallying point for Kentucky writers, and has brought added attention to the great legacy of writing that we have in Kentucky. I think writers feel more respected, and some feel more motivated knowing that the Hall of Fame exists. I’ve heard numerous young writers say, ‘my goal is to be in this hall one day,’” he added.

The room filled quickly and I was grateful that the Carnegie Center had reserved a seat for me. After introductory remarks, some of Kentucky’s most well known writers, including the present and past state poet laureates, came forward and read excerpts from the inductees’ work. The fondness for the craft of writing was clearly evident as the hushed crowd listened to the readings.     

The first writer to be inducted was James Lane Allen (1849 – 1925) who was born in Lexington. 

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Allen has been called Kentucky’s first important novelist and his work garnered international appeal. He had a successful career writing fiction, travel writing, and drama spanning 34 years.  Allen published 20 books and contributed to some of the most prominent magazines of his era.

Next was Harlan Hubbard (1900 – 1988). He was born in Bellevue in northern Kentucky and lived at Payne Hollow in Trimble County. Hubbard was well-known for living on the river in Thoreau-like simplicity removed from modern times.

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Hubbard published 12 books, including journals, travel essays, and various woodcuts and paintings. Louisville-based producer Morgan Atkinson documented the Hubbards’ life in the film, Wonder, featuring passages voiced by author Wendell Berry. Only last year, Berry himself was honored as the first living author inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

Alice Hegan Rice (1870  – 1942) was inducted next. Famous for her bestselling novel, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Rice lived her entire life in Louisville.

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Rice was inspired to write the book after her involvement with Louisville’s underprivileged children in the slum area known as the Cabbage Patch district. The novel has been translated into many languages, and was the basis for many stage, radio, and film versions. Rice published over 20 books in her lifetime.

The following inductee was Jean Ritchie (1922 – 2015).The youngest of 14 children — 10 of them girls – she was born in Viper, Kentucky, and is the first singer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  She was an iconic figure in American folk music who performed at such venues as Carnegie Hall and at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

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Ritchie‘s songs have been recorded by such artists as Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Judy Collins. She recorded 33 albums and published 10 books.

The final writer and only living one to be inducted into the 2016 Hall of Fame was Bobbie Ann Mason (1940). Mason was born on a dairy farm outside of Mayfield in western Kentucky. She has published 5 novels, 7 short fiction collections, a memoir, a biography, and 2 works of literary criticism.  She has been published by Harper and Row, HarperCollins and Random House.

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Mason’s first collection of short stories, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), brought critical acclaim, and she has been lauded as a master of the short story. Her stories have appeared in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. In 1985 she wrote her first novel, In Country, which was made into a Hollywood film. Mason professed to be inadequate as a speaker, but proved to be eloquent as she addressed the crowd. Her demeanor was one of utter humility—graciously thanking those who were assembled, and she proclaimed the importance of fiction readers.   

I asked Bobbie Ann if she has a writing goal she has yet to accomplish and she replied, ”A new book of stories! I’m experimenting a little with flash fiction, and I’d like to gather up some of those and see what happens.”

Mason’s major awards include the PEN/Hemingway Award, National Book Award finalist, The Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, The National Endowment for the Arts Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, and Southern Book Award for fiction.

I asked Bobbie Ann, given her many prestigious accolades, which she was most proud to have received. She replied, “I would have to say the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame is tops.” 

"The End" message typed by vintage typewriter.

  

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White Ring: Reflections on the words of Wendell Berry

(Photo provided by the Carnegie Center for Learning and Literacy)

(Photo provided by the Carnegie Center for Learning and Literacy)

‘The survival of literacy in an age of illiteracy may require us to remember how physical, how much of the senses, the life of literacy is.’ – Wendell Berry (courtesy of the Carnegie Center, Lexington, Kentucky.)

I was sitting on the only piece of paper within reach – an oversize name tag reserving my chair for the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony of Wendell Berry. The paper was beige, dull, and heavy – not really of a character to form any sort of story. The letters of my name were nicely printed on it, each had serifs that matched the decorative embellishments framing the length of my name top and bottom.

Like a mother hen to egg; I guarded it as though it was something very special. The piece of paper was after all saving a chair for me in the front room of the Carnegie Center amidst some of the most dedicated writers, journalists, editors, and publishers in all of Kentucky. Equally important: I knew the opposite side of it was blank.

Guy Davenport (1927-2005), Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007), Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) and Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) were inducted that night too. Excerpts from the writings of each was selected as carefully as were the readers of them.  Ron Whitehead read Hunter S. Thompson’s words with a volume that was maybe intended to mimic Thompson’s humor but played more clearly as the rawness of life in the absence of his long-lost friend.

Mary Ellen Miller whispered through weaker vocal chords; reminiscing – with a melancholy that each of us could sense – on her late husband’s work.  Neil Chethik’s clear articulation as he introduced Wendell Berry removed any need for us to explain why we were there.

For me, each of the voices that spoke that night resounded more intently than the words spoken. There was something in the act of reading them aloud. They were comforting, familiar, communal sounds that we all know and I hope will continue to know.

Then, it was quiet as Wendell Berry – the first living inductee to be honored into the Hall of Fame – stepped up to read what he must have prepared as an acceptance speech. But, his cadence, his tonality, his sincerity and humility, and the words that filled the then hot room in the Carnegie Center on that cold January night in Lexington, Kentucky were a marked call-to-action.

No electronic devices, scratchings of pen on paper or the turning of pages interrupted as Berry made reference to many urgent public issues. He emphatically stated that in Kentucky we have no way to vet our concerns, no public forum, no healthy outlet for the a much needed dialogue about many things including the writings of Kentucky authors. There was only silence as he spoke of the ‘cloud of silence’. Postures shifted. I gently pulled the piece of paper from its resting place.

Berry continued noting that here in Kentucky ‘we have a sufficiency of writers of books, publishers of books, and readers of books, but no space for related public discourse.’ We roost with eyes closed, content on expressing our opinions in what has now become our public – the semi-private world of the Facebook and Twitter. As Leon Wieseltier notes in Among the Disrupted (New York Times, January 7, 2015) what we prefer now is a ‘twittering cacophony’ where alacritous and terse one-liners grant the highest of merits – a like, a comment. Cackling hens that only ding.

As the co-publisher of a young, fully digital magazine dedicated to arts and culture in Kentucky, I left feeling a keen sense of responsibility – not to explain what Wendell Berry had said, but to more fully understand it for myself. How much time do we have before something more significant is lost? What is my responsibility in the digital age? How can I help move us beyond what Wieseltier describes as the ‘lag between invention in the apprehension of its consequences’?

We cannot explain it fully, but my fellow UnderMain-ers and I have agreed to bring to our readers and our listeners reviews of books by Kentucky authors as well as the occasional reading. Just as in Berry’s move back to Kentucky, we might find sustenance in a new iteration of the sounding pages.

We thank the Carnegie Center for hosting the induction and for inviting us to attend. For a copy of the full text of Wendell Berry’s speech, click here.

For The Explainers
Spell the spiel of cause and effect
Ride the long rail of fact after fact;
What curled the plume of the Drake’s tail
and put the white ring around his neck?

– Wendell Berry