Jolly good fellows
From poems to songs, plays to dances, artists bolster our spirit
Published: July 11, 2012
A former General Motor line worker who writes of lives against a backdrop of industrial din. A jazz trumpeter who's played behind the likes of Tony Bennett. An art historian who is exploring ways African-Americans have represented their culture and their struggles. A master of the kanun (a 76-string Middle Eastern harp) and a master of the erhu (a two-string violin-like instrument from China). A poet-psychotherapist who works at the nexus of pain, healing and art. Those are just a few of the 24 Detroit-area artists named as fellows this year by the Kresge Arts in Detroit program.
Divided evenly between the literary and performance arts, the fellows, chosen from a pool of nearly 450 applicants, each receives $25,000 as part of the Kresge Foundation's push to help sustain artistic careers in the area. In addition to the no-strings-attached cash awards, the fellows become part of a program by the group ArtServe Michigan to help with a range of career needs and practices. This marks the fourth round of fellow awards in a schedule that focuses in alternate years on visual arts and literary-performance arts.
The program is administered by the College for Creative Studies, and the fellows are chosen by mixed panels of local and national artists (this year including the likes of Wayne State University's Melba Joyce Boyd and Allmusic.com's Thom Jurek among the local representatives, and author Ishmael Reed and musician Don Byron among the national reps).
And to give the public a sense of what these artists are about, next April, Kresge plans a second installment of its Art X Detroit event, showcasing new works by the fellows of 2011 and 2012 as well as works by the separately chosen eminent artists from those years (authors Bill Harris and Naomi Long Madgett, respectively).
Here are the 24 fellows with samples in print of the works of the literary fellows. Read the online version of this story for links to and examples of the work of the performance artists as well.
CHERYL A. ALSTON
Cheryl A. Alston received a Bachelor of Arts degree in art history and a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies from Wayne State University, where she was the winner of several scholarships and grants. She has worked as an assistant curator at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and has been an intern at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Detroit Institute of Arts. She is interested in representation — particularly in the manner in which African American artists have portrayed their culture — and has developed a lecture series on African American artists and religion.
The issue of representation has been a challenging one for African Americans. Before the 1900s, when they were represented visually, it was primarily a negative image, subject to ridicule. To portray and own one's image is to empower one's self. This began to change by the first decade of the 1900s and one of the prevailing themes was lynching, a form of violence used against African Americans since they have been in the United States, but accelerated during Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, and during Jim Crow, from 1876 to 1965.
In response, an anti-lynching movement was established. Of the groups and individuals that spoke out against this injustice were African American artists of the visual arts, who, I believe, were champions of the movement because the visual image itself is profound. When they represented these acts of violence, they were not only claiming the racial image, but they were taking a stance against lynching, putting their art and their careers at risk and their lives in mortal danger. This pro-active position against lynching was juxtaposed against the dominant image of the time, that of a voiceless, powerless people. Many of the names of these artists, and their body of work, have been forgotten over time. If this art was taboo, how did it affect the careers and lives of the artists who created it?
From the essay "African American Artists of the Visual Arts: Champions of the Anti-Lynching Movement."
MARY JO FIRTH GILLETT
Mary Jo Firth Gillett's poetry collection, "Soluble Fish," won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007). Her three award-winning chapbooks are Chandeliers of Fish (Poetry West Press, 2004), Tiger in a Hairnet (Small Poetry Press, Select Poets Series, 1999), and Not One (The Writer's Voice, 1998). Her poems have appeared in The Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Gettysburg Review, Third Coast and Green Mountains Review, among other journals. She has won the NY Open Voice Award, a Creative Artist Grant from ArtServe Michigan, and several Pushcart Prize nominations.
> Email MT Staff