Welcome to the first edition of our new monthly column “Perspectives”. Each month the Luck Journal will bring you an op-ed style column written from the unique perspectives of creators themselves. To kick us off, Phil and Heather Cook share their outlook on art in today’s atmosphere. Read their full column below.
By Heather and Phil Cook
With Libra season upon us, it seems natural to spend some time exploring the duality of the both clarifying and distracting times we are living in. Times where being in a fully present state seems futile in the face of endless distractions. Times where the scarcity of it makes the value of being present appreciate like a rare metal.
There are these moments, moments that contain information that we need in order to sort out the truths of living a human life on earth. While we’re hunched over the glow of our devices, they whiz on by. The kids are growing up, the earth is crying out, there is suffering and beauty all around us.
If art can function to pull people into the present and engage them with humanity, we as creatives have a fighting chance to make a lasting impact with our work right now. We see evidence of it in the people who are making art purely out of their existence, people who are showing up in defense of the things they know to be true, people who actually give a fuck. When these expressions intersect with an audience, everyone is both forced and allowed to wake up to the present moment.
“ THERE ARE, FOREVER, SWAMPS TO BE DRAINED, CITIES TO BE CREATED, MINES TO BE EXPLOITED, CHILDREN TO BE FED. NONE OF THESE THINGS CAN BE DONE ALONE. BUT THE CONQUEST OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD IS NOT MAN’S ONLY DUTY. HE IS ALSO ENJOINED TO CONQUER THE GREAT WILDERNESS OF HIMSELF. THE PRECISE ROLE OF THE ARTIST, THEN, IS TO ILLUMINATE THAT DARKNESS, BLAZE ROADS THROUGH THAT VAST FOREST, SO THAT WE WILL NOT, IN ALL OUR DOING, LOSE SIGHT OF ITS PURPOSE, WHICH IS, AFTER ALL, TO MAKE THE WORLD A MORE HUMAN DWELLING PLACE.”
- JAMES BALDWIN, THE CREATIVE PROCESS, 1962
In our house, activism is a love language. Our sons have been distributing political yard signs, attending benefit concerts and marching at rallies since they were born. These actions are also a privilege because, what we’re fighting against, are not injustices that our family actually faces. But unlike the communities where we grew up, our boys are surrounded by friends who are black, brown, immigrant, queer and trans. They are growing up with a vibrant chosen family at a time where these same people are under attack by both our state and federal governments. Some days, simply arming our young, white boys with empathy and an awareness of their privilege, feels like our greatest act of resistance.
When we sat down to start this piece, we were out to lunch together, without our children, for what felt like the first time in years. At this particular moment, we’re between tours and both in over our heads with commitments to creative projects. We’re making a music video, Phil’s producing a handful of records, Heather’s opening a church, and we’re continually supporting and collaborating with other creatives in Durham on projects of tremendous integrity and intention. These projects require a lot of each of us, a lot of emotional energy and often a lot of uncompensated time.
We’re drained and neglecting ourselves and each other amidst the endless stream of to-do’s and ideas. Often, when we get to this point, we look at each other and laugh, “So what, you wanna go get a JOOOOB or something? ” Like, why aren’t we just at some desk, doing someone else’s bidding and collecting a check at the end of the day and skipping all these damn feelings? Inevitably, we reassure each other that we are, indeed, doing work worthy of our time, that we’re contributing to the greater good, and we recommit to self-care practices that we will likely never follow through on.
A little later on in our conversation, we talk about the creatives that we’re grateful for, the ones out there doing the work, using their platforms to make change and spread love. In Durham, you might wonder if they’re injecting something into our Bojangles considering how many passionate and powerful creatives we have out here, putting in the work.
Inevitably, we also talk about the artists who are opting out. The people who choose not to muddy the waters for fear of upsetting their fan base, their board of directors, or their dads. The same way that different elements reach their melting points at different temperatures, it’s understandable that different people reach their tipping points at different times. However, in 2018 America, it seems impossible to imagine that any creative, that is even partially awake, could still be wading in cool waters, unmoved by what’s happening in our country. Whether you were born into it, or spent the better part of your adult life apathetically unaware, by now, whatever ounce of empathy resides within you, sure as hell should be holding your feet up to the flames.
WHAT WAS YOUR TIPPING POINT?
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE THAT IT WAS TIME FOR YOU TO USE YOUR CREATIVE ENERGIES TO TAKE ACTION? WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR WORK ABOUT THE ROLE OF ACTIVISM IN ART?
It’s been a long journey since my mom brought me to see Jesse Jackson on his ‘88 presidential campaign stop in Northern Wisconsin. Looking back, I was changed that day. That moment sparked a curiosity that grew each time I saw something that bothered me and each time I saw something that inspired me. Questions about human nature, the struggle for justice and the systems of oppression took root in my soul. Difficult questions have a transformative power. They stick around. They cajole. They shift. They expand. They deepen. They are necessary.
During the last presidential election, I reached my tipping point, like so many other Americans. I saw the same struggles for justice that my parents fought for during The Civil Rights Movement return again. The patterns and methods of oppression never stray far from their original design. Divide and Conquer. Confuse and Scatter. Silence and Censor. Anything to keep people from realizing their collective power. The creative’s path lies in awakening the sleeping masses from their distractions and privileges by speaking their truth. Their truth will set you free. The purest vibrations cause the deepest resonance, shaking our trees of their dead leaves, cracking the rust. In 1965, Pops Staples sang, “Why Am I Treated So Bad?”. In 2017, Kendrick Lamar sang, “Why God, Why God Do I Gotta Suffer”.
During my senior year of high school, Hurricane Mitch barreled through and devastated most of Central America. Having just returned from an exchange trip to Costa Rica with my Spanish class, I felt compelled to do, whatever a 17 year-old girl from small-town Minnesota could, to help. With a few friends, I created a campaign called, “ Money for Mitch”and put coffee cans for donations around in local businesses. We raised a couple thousand dollars and there was a big to-do where some state senator came for a photo-op with a giant check. I was so uncomfortable with the pomp and circumstance then, that even now, I find myself drawn to service work that is free from ceremony (read: men in suits with a white savior complex).
I think it was also around this time that I discovered that quote from Lily Tomlin, “I always wondered, why somebody didn’t do something about that. Then I realized I AM somebody”. It was an empowering sentiment for me and my newly found can-do (or in some cases, don’t-you-dare-tell-me-I-can’t-do) attitude. I even bought a sign at a thrift shop that had the quote painted on it and displayed it proudly in various apartments well into my 20’s. When I finally decided to part with it, it wasn’t because of how god awful and tacky it was (think Comic Sans in lime green), but instead as I continued to evolve as an activist, I came to see it as a naive and toxic statement. I was early in my teaching career and learning important lessons about my own misperceptions of identifying things that needed , “fixing”, and who should inform the repair manual.
I’ve learned to ask questions. I’ve learned to listen. I’ve also learned that focusing my energies on supporting my community, helps me maintain focus when there appear to be endless fires, burning out of control. I’ve learned that I can contribute my strengths and skills where they are needed, even if it means that my well might run dry, because I have a community that will always be there to help fill it back up.
“ THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST IS TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION IRRESISTIBLE ”
- Toni Cade Bambara
Something that we both concluded in our conversation was that, our move to Durham, over a decade ago, deeply informed and solidified our beliefs about the power of community. The first people we met here brought a contagious energy to their creative work and their creativity was almost synonymous with community. They threw us head first into the fire, they invited us to potlucks, helped us book shows and showed us, bit by bit, the magic that the city had to offer.
We met Kym Register, who just a few years later, opened The Pinhook, a vital venue in Durham’s creative scene. We met Pierce Freelon, a poet/musician/professor/social entrepreneur who now runs Blackspace, an Afrofuturist Digital Makerspace for teens. We met D.L. Anderson, a photojournalist and filmmaker who’s ability to converse with his fellow humans allows him to tell people’s stories from deeply intimate places. In Heather’s first year as a teacher in Durham, she started collaborating with the late, Baba Chuck Davis. A titan of The African American Dance Ensemble, Baba Chuck promoted his mantra, “Peace, Love and Respect for Everybody” so often that you can still hear it echoing through the streets of the city.
Coming into a community with these people at the welcome gates, catapulted us into working on projects that cultivate more of that fierce, loving energy, every chance we get.
WHEN HAS ART DRAWN YOU INTO THE PRESENT?
I was alone, traveling in Europe in 2012. Cultural newness can bring an edge of presence when one is beckoned by bold architecture, statues and cobblestone streets. I have found peace while walking by a river on many, many occasions. All of this to say, if you see me in The Netherlands, I probably have a big grin on my face. It is a magical country. I traveled my way to Nijmegan (NYE-may-gen) by train and made it to the venue by foot. I met up with the band from Sweden that I was sharing a bill with that night. After I played my set, and grabbed some food, I returned to the venue, just as they were starting.
I posted up near the back of the crowd, the sound is almost always better by the soundboard. At some point, gaze fixed, my feet took me forward through the crowd. I gradually shifted closer to the stage until I was standing right at the floor monitor in front of Daniel Norgren. As he sang, his voice shivered my spine and tightened my scalp, nothing else was happening in the room. Daniel was, and always is, entirely present on stage. I was so grateful that night to be there, it felt like remembering something I had long forgotten.
We can find ways to be present, to remind ourselves of its value, when we allow our creative spirit to flourish.
Vulnerability has always brought me into the present moment. It’s not a state of being that I’m really comfortable with. So, when I see an artist create from that place, and share it with the audience, I owe it to them to be there, to witness it and to breathe in it with them.
I have friends that will sometimes share their music with me before it’s finished, rough cuts and demos. It feels like a sacred exchange for me to hear their beginnings in a raw, unpolished form. This is why, despite my conflicting values with the actual release of it, I’ve been sobbing my way through the Prince, “ Piano and a Microphone, 1983”recordings for a week straight now.
However, the single stand out moment when someone’s art brought me into a deeply present state, was seeing Monét Marshall’s , “Buy My Body and Call It A Ticket”. In this performative art experience, I watched Monét and her cast dig deep for the audience, exploring concepts of identity, value and image, all through the lens of a circus. I wandered through the fun house mirrors that had, “What wars are you committing against your body?” scrolled around them and watched sideshow performers embody narratives of stories we tell ourselves about our bodies and self-worth.
Throughout the experience, my mind did not wander once, not to the kids at home, not to what meetings I had the next day, not to what I might want to post online later about the show. I was there, wading through the deep feels with each character. I know it’s clich é to call someone’s art “transformative”. So I’ll say this instead...since seeing Monét’s show, I haven’t thought about my body, my creative process or my how art can impact community the same.