Friday, August 19, 2016

In Memoriam: Joellyn Toler Duesberry

VCCA has learned the sad news that landscape painter, Joellyn Toler Duesberry died on August 5, 2016 at age 72, died. The cause was of pancreatic cancer.

Joellyn was born and brought up in Richmond, Virginia. A summa cum laude graduate of Smith College, she also held an M.A. in art history from New York University’s the Institute of Fine Arts. She received a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She had two residencies at VCCA in 2009 and 2014.

Joellyn became interested in the landscape as a young child while traveling on a train, where she was fascinated by the scenery passing by her window.
Joellyn worked as a fine art appraiser in New York City, painting on the side. Her NEA grant allowed her to focus more time on panting. As her career blossomed, she acquired a second home in Millbrook, New York, where she reveled in the landscape as painter and inhabitant.
Joellyn’s work was featured in many solo and group exhibitions. It is in the collections of museums in New York, Maine, Virginia, California, the Denver Art Museum and others in Colorado where she moved following her marriage to Ira J. Kowal in 1986.
Besides her husband, Joellyn leaves her sister Pat Washko, stepdaughters Rebekah Kowal (David Bullwinkle) and Jessica Kowal (Blaine Harden) and grandchildren Lucinda & Arno Harden and Noah & Isaac Bullwinkle.
VCCA extends its heartfelt condolences to Joellyn’s family.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Alexander Lumans: Pushing into Unknown Territories

While in residence at VCCA, Alexander Lumans was working on a novel inspired by his recent experience at The Arctic Circle Residency. The three-week program takes place in the international territory of Svalbard, a mountainous Arctic archipelago just 10 degrees from the North Pole, on a traditionally rigged barquentine. The program brings together an international group of artists, scientists, architects and educators to experience this remote area of the world, fostering the creation and exhibition of new and pioneering work inspired by the engagement with this fascinating region. 

Alexander’s novel is set on a tall ship with an international crew who’ve been hired by a filmmaker working on climate change documentary. “Things begin to go south pretty quickly when the ship receives a distress signal from another ship in the area that’s lost. The captain decides to go after the lost one; after this stranger things begin to occur—they too become lost and end up having to save themselves.”

Rather than plot out the sequence of events, he’s left a lot of mystery as to where the second half of the book is going because that’s how he writes: letting the direction of the novel be discovered along the way.

There’s a level of adventure to the story, but there’s social commentary and ecological commentary built in to the subject. It’s also interesting to me that it takes place in contemporary times rather than being an historical narrative. There’s tons of whaling or exploration narratives out there and some are fantastic, but I can’t find a contemporary one. So I think that’s an untapped moment to say this still goes on. To relegate it to the past is to not treat it with the full spectrum of awareness. This is still a place that exists. It’s still a relevant area and a relevant mode of transportation.”

“I had an idea of what the tone and the language would be like and then I took a workshop in Denver with novelist Ben Lerner. He made this incredible point regarding the manuscript. He said, you’re entering into a conversation with all of these maritime narratives from the past and to ignore them is doing your book a disservice. It’s more interesting if you actually bring them to the foreground in the narration itself, explicitly alluding to them. You can make your captain an archetypal ship’s captain and actually play against this; it makes for more tension and more surprise and interest. He might have stereotypical tropes about him—maybe he has an anchor tattoo, but also you have him have asthma and need an inhaler. So you have this past and present connecting together. That, to me, opened up the book. It enabled me to talk about whatever, rather than feeling hemmed in by all the things that have come before. It has allowed me to read all those great books and incorporate their ideas into the narrative. This is how a contemporary voice emerges because you’re building off of what came before. What Ben told me has had such a big impact on this project; it’s changed it completely.”

The idea for his novel arose as Alexander researched the residency and did the application process. “The more I planned for the trip, the more I thought about my proposed project and started to formulate it more in terms of the plot, characters and setting, while also letting it be kind of distanced because I knew whatever I thought was going to change as a result of this trip. I let it be very loose going into the residency and I came out with a variety of experiences, atmospheres, feelings that I draw on every day now for this project.”

He knew that The Arctic Circle Residency experience would be key to writing his book. “I wanted to understand the area by interacting with it, as opposed to watching National Geographic videos, which are still amazing, but it’s not the same as being there. In the capacity we did it, it felt as if everyone was able to interact with the landscape in a very specific way. I couldn’t have predicted that either, but watching how everyone’s projects on the residency engaged, not only the landscape, but the culture around the landscape and the culture around the Arctic in general was really impressive and powerful and I came back from it, not completely changed, but a very changed person.”

Accompanied by 28 other artists from around the world, Alexander was on the residency during the last three weeks of June. Despite the 24-hour daylight, it was very cold. On deck, typical wear would be a long sleeved base layer, a sweater, down-filled jacket and then a windproof, rainproof jacket on top.

“Unlike VCCA where you have a lot of open time to really produce work and craft your project, there it was much more about the exposure and the experience. You did have some time to actually create every day, but it wasn’t open like this, where you’re left to your own devices and come together at meals, there you had a very strict schedule.”

On the days that the ship was under sail, the artists were encouraged to help out, raising the rigging and dropping the sails. “A ship like that with 14 sails raised is so unbelievable and helping out with that was very important to me because my novel is about sailing on a similar ship.“

When not being chartered by The Arctic Circle Residency for its twice-yearly residency programs, the ship takes passengers on tours of the area. “The crew told us the difference between the typical tourist and us artists is that when making a landing in front of a glacier, for instance, the tourist would get off the ship, go on land, take pictures of the glacier, turn around, take pictures of the boat, maybe take pictures of the landscape and then say, alright I’m ready to go back on board. Sure, we artists would take pictures, but we would also sit and look at things and be completely content doing just that. It was a small but fundamental difference in terms of the way we experienced it.”

Reflecting on The Arctic Circle Residency, Alexander says, “My personality is very interested in pushing into unknown territories and seeing what’s out there, especially with the Arctic. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those three weeks and dream about going back.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

NEA-Supported Military Veteran Writer Maurice Decaul at VCCA

A former Marine, poet, essayist and playwright, Maurice Emerson Decaul was at VCCA on an NEA grant supporting military veteran artists. Maurice, who served in Iraq, divides his time between New York and Providence, RI where he is a graduate student in the Theater and Performance Studies program at Brown University.

In February, Maurice was named as the first artist-in-residence at Theater Communications Group (TCG), an organization founded to foster communication between the theater communities in the professional, community and university realms. Bringing his perspectives as both artist and veteran, Maurice is tasked with overseeing the launch of the Veterans Theater Institute (VTI), a pilot program for veterans and active military that allows them to experience, study and create theater. The initiative is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Building Demand for the Arts program.

VTI will continue and strengthen the relationship TCG has developed with its Blue Star Theaters (BST) program, which works with active military and their families engaging them with theater, and funding the creation and production of new plays.

The seeds for VTI were planted when Maurice attended a playwriting boot-camp playwright Paula Vogel held while she was developing her play, Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq at the Wilma Theater (a Blue Star Theater, in Philadelphia)“She invited a bunch of us vets into a room with her to write. We did four boot-camp sessions over the course of a year and we all wrote plays and provided input, which helped her form the character of Don Juan, a Marine Captain, serving in Ramadi in 2004.

“I had a conversation with Paula and she said that every year she wanted to do a workshop where she’d take a group of vets to some place beautiful and teach them playwriting. So when TCG approached me, I was clear that this was based on Paula’s idea, but I wanted to expand it. Instead of being once a year, let’s actually partner up with universities and create a curriculum that can go on indefinitely, if we have enough funding. So that’s where it came from. It happened at the right time for me. I began as a poet and I was transitioning into playwriting. It felt like a natural step. I was interested in finding different ways of telling stories and signed up for a playwriting class at Columbia. It was my very last class.”

Maurice has a clear strategy to inspire veteran involvement. “If you want to build demand, you have to start at the base level with young people in the theater as makers: writers and actors within our community,” says Maurice. “We’ve seen this happen with actor Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a former Marine. AITA, the organization founded by Adam and his wife Joanne Tucker, bring shows to military audiences around the world. I’ve been to a few of those shows. They do one every year in New York City around Veterans Day. They have used the American Airlines Theater, the tickets are free, and the show is packed with military vets and their families. There’s a pretty healthy population. Vets in New York who come to the show every year because Adam’s on stage. He’s one of us, he just happened to go into theater. We’ve got to build VTI organically overtime. This will not only develop theater audiences, but also ensure veterans’ stories get told.”

VTI will eventually be prototyped in four locations: Providence RI, San Diego California, Fayetteville North Carolina and Tempe/Phoenix Arizona. The approach will be holistic. “If you would like to write, we’ll have playwriting available, if you prefer working on the technical side of theater, we’ll make that available." Maurice has found that certain disciplines are more popular in different areas: “Our partners in San Diego are much more interested in teaching playwriting, so we’re going develop a curriculum focused on that there. In North Carolina, our partner is more about developing technicians, so we’ll focus on technical theater there, and at Arizona State, because the population is so large and because of the interests of the partnering institution, we will teach a combination of arts and tech based classes.”

Maurice arrived at VCCA with the intention of finishing a first draft of a play he started just before he came. “It’s not finished, it’s just a draft; there’s no expectation that it can get up on its feet. I just wanted to get the ideas down.” He next turned his attention to a libretto on Portsmouth, Virginia native Sissieretta Jones, a turn-of-the-century opera singer who was the first African-American to perform at Carnegie Hall.

When Sissieretta was a child, her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island where Maurice lives part-time about a block away from where her house once stood. One of the premier opera singers of her day, Sissieretta toured Europe, the Caribbean and the U.S.—even into the south, and played for U.S. presidents. She gave up her career to take care of her mother when she became ill. Sissieretta went from making $2,000 a week at the height of her career to being almost penniless upon her death. Maurice is not sure whether his libretto, which takes the form of double sonnets, will eventually be performed as an opera or not. At VCCA, he set himself the ambitious goal of writing two sonnets a day. Fortunately, he writes fast. When his draft is done, he will put it away for a period of time before he revisits. “I’ll come back to it in a couple of months and see what I actually have.”

Maurice found VCCA both a beautiful and also a very generative environment. In addition to everything else he did, he also wrote poems. “I wasn’t planning on doing that–it just happened. Just walking the grounds and seeing the bunnies. It’s been a good experience.”

Maurice’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Sierra Magazine, Epiphany, Callaloo, Narrative, The Common and others. His poems have been translated into French and Arabic and his theater pieces have been produced at New York City's Harlem Stage, Poetic License Festival in New York City, Washington DC's Atlas INTERSECTIONS FESTIVAL in 2013 and 2014, l’Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris, The Paris Banlieues Bleues Festival, The Middelhein Jazz Festival in Antwerp, The Avignon Theatre Festival in France and Détours de Babel, The Grenoble Festival, Grenoble France, Arizona State University Gammage Memorial Auditorium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory in NYC, The Mary L Welch Theatre at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Brown University. His album, “Holding it Down”, a collaboration with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd was The LA Times Jazz Album of the year in 2013.Maurice has been the recipient of fellowships from Callaloo and Cave Canem