Art Works Podcast

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2020 National Heritage Fellow, Singer, Songwriter

2020 National Heritage Fellow Singer/Songwriter William Bell was the first male solo artist signed by the legendary Stax record label in the early 1960s. With his great sense of melody, rhythm, and lyrics as well as one of the best voices in the business, Bell played a pivotal role in creating a new genre of music known as Southern soul or the Memphis sound. In this podcast, William Bell discusses the pivotal role Stax played in his life and the lives of so many kids in Memphis. We talk and listen to some of his biggest hits like “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and “I Forgot to be Your Lover”, his collaboration with Booker T. Jones and his 2016 Grammy-Award winning album “This Is Where I Live” which he recorded under the newly revived Stax label. He is a born story-teller with a voice like velvet and a lifetime in music.

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Photo by Jim

2020 National Heritage Fellow and Iroquois Raised Beadworker

2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow and Iroquois Raised Beadworker, Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin) creates contemporary art that is deeply rooted in the past. Iroquois raised beadwork is unique to the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy, which includes the Oneida. Its hallmark is beads sewn in a such a way that they arch above the fabric creating stunning dimensionality. Hoffman has taken this art to new literal and figurative heights—creating large beaded urns for example. But while her work is deeply connected to the traditions and culture of the Iroquois, her interest is in taking the form and “exploring, expanding and reimagining it against contemporary life.” Hoffman is not just an extraordinarily talented artist, she’s also, as you’ll hear, a passionate advocate for the art form and a fabulous storyteller.


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Photo courtesy of Gordon Sasaki

Visual Artist and Disability Rights Advocate

Last December, the Office of Accessibility held a webinar in which three successful artists discussed how they navigated their careers working with a disability. To no one’s surprise, one of the invited artists was Gordon Sasaki. For nearly 40 years, visual artist Gordon Sasaki has been working to increase accessibility to the arts for both practitioners and audiences. Believing in the fundamental power of art to advance disability rights, many of his paintings, sculptures and photographs reflect the body and how it is represented, the reality of living with a disability, and the diversity of disabilities, both obvious and subtle. Today’s podcast celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act with an interview with Gordon Sasaki about his work, navigating the art world and the streets of New York, the changes the ADA has brought to his life, the work left to be done and his service dog Maki.

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Photos courtesy of The Homebound Project

Co-creators of The Homebound Project

What do a playwright and a director do when the theaters are closed, a pandemic is raging, and they want to be useful? Well, if they’re playwright Catya McMullen and director Jenna Worsham, they bring playwrights, actors, and directors together virtually to create The Homebound Project, an online series of short original plays that each actor performs on-camera in isolation. The Homebound Project has been a success in every sense of the word. McMullen and Worsham have gathered some extraordinary talent—playwrights like C.A. Johnson, Michael R. Jackson, Migdalia Cruz and Sarah Ruhl have contributed new work and actors including Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Blair Underwood, Phillipa Soo, and Cherry Jones have brought that work to life online. The Homebound Project is currently presenting its fourth digital series (July 15-19) with its fifth and final edition scheduled to stream August 5–9. That amounts to more than 50 new plays written, directed, and performed in the past few months with everyone donating their services to support a great cause. (More on that in the podcast.) Join us as McMullen and Worsham talk about creating The Homebound Project, finding and matching actors with playwrights, directing theater virtually, how the pandemic has affected the theater sector, and the promise the art of theater holds in times like this when story-telling is essential.

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Photo courtesy of SFJAZZ

Founder and Executive Artistic Director, SFJAZZ

Founder and executive artistic director of SFJAZZ Randall Kline takes us behind the scenes of Fridays at Five—a weekly digital series which offers hour-long concerts filmed at the SFJAZZ Center over the past six-plus years. It’s another example of performing artists and presenters stepping up during the pandemic in creative and innovative ways to share the art that keeps us all going. And—to no one’s surprise—SFJAZZ is leading the way. A national and international leader in jazz creation, presentation, and education, SFJAZZ is the biggest presenter of jazz on the West Coast—with over 200,000 customers and students going through the doors of the SFJAZZ Center each year. So, when the center had to close temporarily because of the pandemic, the organization went to work and quickly introduced Fridays at Five. For a nominal monthly fee, viewers can hear and see music performed by the likes of Terrance Blanchard, and NEA Jazz Masters Branford Marsalis and Dave Holland. Additionally, patrons still get to mingle with one another, as well as with SFJAZZ staff, board members, and musicians via a live chat. Back in April, I spoke with founder and the executive artistic director of SF Jazz Randall Kline about jazz, Fridays at Five, and the origins SFJAZZ itself, including the role the Arts Endowmen played in its growth.

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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 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.