Art Works Podcast

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Photo courtesy of Edwin Remsberg

NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts

In this podcast, Clifford Murphy, National Endowment for the Arts Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, introduces the recently announced 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellows. This is the country’s highest honor—a lifetime achievement award—for folk and traditional artists whose life’s work includes both artistic excellence and efforts to sustain cultural traditions for future generations. As Murphy says in the podcast, folk art has been described as “something learned knee-to-knee.” All nine recipients of the Heritage Award serve as exemplary mentors as well as inspired artists. Murphy doesn’t just discuss each artist, he also talks about each art form—whether it’s dance, song, beadwork, or canoe-building—and the culture in which it's embedded. We also talk about some of the ways the folk and traditional arts field has been impacted by the pandemic and creative adjustments that folk and traditional artists have made in response to the crisis. Murphy is not only enormously knowledgeable about the folk and traditional arts, but it's clear he holds a deep love for these arts and the people and communities that create them.

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Photo courtesy of Adrian Matejka

Poet and NEA Big Read Author

Jack Johnson is an unlikely subject for a book of poetry. But that’s exactly what poet and NEA Big Read author Adrian Matejka did when he wrote The Big Smoke-- a collection of 52 poems about Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion. He held the title from 1908 to 1915 when Jim Crow ruled and white America was outraged—by Johnson’s holding the title, certainly; but, also by his propensity to live large and live large with a white wife. White America called for “a great white hope” to take the title from Johnson, and that “hope” emerged when boxer Jim Jeffries comes out of retirement to take up the challenge. The Big Smoke follows Johnson’s journey from the son of formerly-enslaved parents to the victor in the ”fight of the century” against Jeffries through the perspective of Johnson himself and occasional observations of three women who figure prominently in his life. In this podcast, Adrian Matejka takes us through his interest in Johnson and boxing (spoiler: it was his mother who introduced him to both!), reaching across a century to find Johnson’s voice and the music he finds in poetry.

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Photo by  Zack DeZon

Playwright, composer, lyricist

Playwright, composer, lyricist Michael R. Jackson's play A Strange Loop had an extraordinary year--it has won Lambda Literary Award for Drama, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama becoming the first musical to win a Pulitzer for drama without a Broadway run, the first time it was awarded to an African-American for a musical and only the second time an African American received the award for drama.(The NEA funded the world premier which was produced by Playwrights Horizons.) A Strange Loop in the words of its author," about a Black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show who is writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at Broadway show who's writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater writer...as he cycles through his own self hatred." The show is bawdy, joyous, disturbing, funny and heart-breaking. The songs are often bouncy and hummable while the lyrics can tear at your heart. Michael R. Jackson has said he never thought the play would ever be produced, so he just wrote what he wanted. (There's a lesson here). And his mission statement is "is to make works that are as challenging as they are entertaining." He succeeded. In this podcast, we learn about the strange loop A Strange Loop has taken from its beginning as a monologue to its recent full-scale production. Michael talks us through some of the songs, we learn how his career goal changed from writing for soaps to writing for musical theater and much more. Michael is smart, funny, and extraordinarily engaging. (And the music is great!) Enjoy!

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Photo by Tony Cook

Two-time National Book Award winner

Today, we re-visit a discussion with two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward about her memoir Men We Reaped. In her memoir, Jesmyn attempts to understand the death of five young black men, including her beloved brother Joshua. But more broadly, her subject is what it means to be a black man in the south. Jesmyn uses her formidable literary skill to give voice and texture to poor, rural, black Mississippians struggling against poverty and racism in a world with no forgiveness. It’s an important and beautifully-written work with much to teach us today. And, Jesmyn Ward is as clear-eyed and thoughtful in discussion as she is in her writing.

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Photos courtesy of SLAM

Director, St. Louis Art Museum & President, Association of Art Museum Directors

Brent Benjamin is the director of The St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). And so we take a close look at one museum through its closing to its transition as it works to reopen; and, a wider, more general view of the concerns of art museums across the country as they deal with financial short-falls and traverse the various roads to reopening. Benjamin is a great guide to both. He is, of course, deeply immersed in preparing SLAM for reopening—which is a complicated venture—and he has a keen sense of the challenges faced by museums around the country.

And, here’s some bonus audio: In April, AAMD adopted temporary measures designed to give its members greater flexibility in managing finances as they work through the pandemic. They’re a bit complicated, and Benjamin walks us through them to give a greater understanding of just what challenges museums are facing.

 
 

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Photo by Andria Lo

Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow

Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua has a sense of humor and a feel for an apt turn of phrase. She describes her novel A River of Stars as “a pregnant Chinese Thelma and Louise.” She’s just as wry in her description of her book of short stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities, whose theme she says is “model minorities behaving badly.” And while both descriptions are spot-on, they only hint at the complexity of the lives she explores in fiction. She vividly explores the lives of immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, single mothers hustling to support themselves and their children while agonizing over the daily separation, and first-generation parents and second-generation children facing a divide as wide as the Yangtze River or San Francisco Bay. Hua began her career as a journalist, and she has a keen ear for the struggles of people on the streets and has the ability to give them voice. In this podcast, she talks about her experiences as a journalist, as a writer of fiction, as a mother, and as a second-generation Chinese American. She is clear these experiences don’t exist in silos but are always informing one another.

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Brandon Gryde, photo by Arthur Espinza and Peter Szep

This week is a bit different: the podcast is divided into two parts with one subject-- Festivals. We begin by taking a broad look at festivals, their place in the cultural landscape, and their adjustments to the shut-downs caused by the pandemic. Our guide to this is Brandon Gryde our new director of Presenting and Multidisciplinary Works. Having come from Opera America and Dance USA, he’s extremely knowledgeable about the many types of festivals and their various responses to the uncertainty caused by Covid 19.

In part 2, we look at single festival—the New York Opera Fest which is hosted by New York Opera Alliance a community-based consortium of independent opera companies and producers. Fairly early on, New York Opera Fest moved their eight week festival online and reinvented itself as New York Virtual Opera Fest. Founding director of NY Opera Fest and co-founder of NY Opera Alliance Peter Szep explains the transformation of the five-year old festival and the range of work the festival is offering (including a discussion of Heartbeat Opera’s incandescent virtual performance of “ Make Our Garden Grow” featuring over 30 Heartbeat alumni including singers, dancers, instrumentalists, and a gardener.) And because it’s impossible to talk about an opera festival without talking about the innovative work being done by independent opera companies in NY, (and there are over 80 companies in NY!), you’ll hear about the exciting music that continues to be created!

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Photo by Dezel Golart

Author, National Book Award winner and four-time host of POL finals

Elizabeth Acevedo is a poet and novelist whose books are alive with Dominican-American and Afro- Caribbean culture and community and have at their centers teenage girls learning to navigate life, relaxing into and pushing against their upbringings. A National Poetry Slam Champion, Liz’s second book The Poet X won the National Book Award for young people’s literature in 2018. (And in case you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, you should-- The Poet X is a novel in verse that tells the story of 15 year-old Xiomara as she wrestles with her mother’s expectations and discovers herself through slam poetry.)

Since The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo has written two more highly acclaimed books: With the Fire on High, a novel told in prose about Emoni a high school student who’s a mother and who’s also determined to become a chef. And now, most recently, Clap When You Land -- once again a novel in verse—that has as its jumping off point a tragic plane crash, the lies and secrets it reveals, and what’s lost and what’s found in the face of terrible grief. Clap When You Land looks at family and community across two cultures from the perspective of two generations of women—all fierce, capable and imperfect. Elizabeth Acevedo is as lively and charismatic a guest as she is a writer. In this podcast, she talks about her own family who inflamed her imagination with stories, her love for the Dominican Republic even as she understands its flaws, the profound difficulty of uprooting oneself and leaving one country for another, and the challenges and joy of having deep connections to multiple worlds.

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Photo Credit Toshi Sakurai, courtesy Chick Corea Prod.

Pianist, composer and 2006 NEA Jazz Master

Pianist, composer and 2006 NEA Jazz Master Chick Corea is a musical shape-shifter. Beginning a brilliant solo career in the mid-1960s, Chick has moved effortlessly from straight-up jazz to avant-garde, from bebop to fusion. In addition to his 23 Grammy Awards, Corea has also won 4 Latin Grammys. Aside from being a sensitive interpreter of Mozart, Chick has also composed contemporary classical music including concerti, string quartets and other symphonic works. Over his five-decade long career, Chick’s list of collaborators read like a veritable “Who’s Who” in jazz. They include Stan Getz, Mile Davis, Anthony Braxton, Bobby McFerrin, Gary Burton, Béla Fleck Christian McBride and Rubén Blades. We spoke with Chick last December to ask him for his thoughts about his long-time collaborator 2020 Jazz Master Bobby McFerrin—but of course, who would miss the opportunity to talk to Chick Corea about Chick Corea? In this music-filled podcast, Chick discusses his music, his many collaborations, his love of performing and composing classical music and the importance of play when he takes the stage. He’s deeply thoughtful—loaded with charm and generosity. Enjoy!

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Photo by Makita Wilbur

Poet Laureate of the US and NEA Big Read author

Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) the Poet Laureate of the United States (and NEA Big Read author) joins me this week for a far-ranging conversation about poetry and music. We talk about—and she reads poems from—her most recent collection An American Sunrise. She talks about her family history on the Trail of Tears and how it led to An American Sunrise, her long deep relationship with the spirit of poetry, her equally long love of jazz and her commitment to honoring her poetic ancestors as well as her familial ones. It was a great conversation—she’s deeply thoughtful, engaging and funny. If you enjoy the interview half as much I did, you’ll love it.

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