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One of my favorite books, and later animated movies, of my childhood was Watership Down by Richard Adams. This little fellow, nibbling away in Mount Auburn Cemetery, reminded me of the rabbit Fiver, the nervous little one who could see into the future.

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I’ve been thinking about the tree of life ever since a book near-literally fell from the shelves into my arms at the Boston Public Library. A non-descript old fashioned hardback with no book jacket. A bit over-sized though not especially thick. It was turquoise blue with gold lettering on the slender spine that said “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?” The title page made clear that it was a collection of interviews by Guy and Candie Carawan, with black and white photographs by Robert Yellin, together capturing the words, images and songs of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. I knew of the island and that the people interviewed must have been the descendants of slaves, slaves who most often were of West African origin, who had labored on the plantations producing indigo, rice and other produce that had made their white owners some of the wealthiest people in America. Slavery ended with the Civil War but by the time this book was published in 1966 a new war of sorts raged for civil rights especially the right to vote.

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Given that the preface was written by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnographer and musicologist, I figured the book was just another cool book documenting folkways before a group of people and their ways vanished. Probably a good read but I had so many books in my bag already. I decided to flip through it just a bit and then I would put it away.  I did put it away but not before I saw myself.

Now I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia not the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it really didn’t matter as I stared into a book at a landscape that had surely shaped the people, as my childhood landscape had shaped me, and looked into faces that reminded me of home.  Beautiful men and women with dark-hued skin. Some slim as a stick and others quite round. Seniors and babies and every age in between. Some people laughing, some people crying and then there were those with their heads thrown back in song as they prayed through music to God. The poverty comes through too. Even so the poverty does not overshadow the joy, the sense of community, and the intense devotion, a devotion that must have helped these people survive the present when they had little idea what the future held for them and their children.

Look at pictures. That’s all I intended before placing the book back on its shelf.  But then I thought maybe I’d read a page or two, just standing there in the library, and then I’d tuck the book back on the shelf.  It was just a couple of minutes of reading. And then I walked away.

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That night I dreamed about what I’d read. It was a scene described in the first interview by Rev. G. C. Brown. It opens with him describing how his father had been a slave. But then he goes on to describe his grandmother whom he had known. She was a stubborn woman with a cruel owner and when she did not do as was expected of a slave “he’d take her by the ears to the corner of a house, and just bang her head against the corner until she’d bleed. … She died in the insane hospital in Columbia. You couldn’t find three square inches on her head where there wasn’t a scar when she died. And well, you find naked places all through her head where she was beaten until she beaten into unconsciousness. … In her latter years it was discovered that during one of those forays the skull was crushed into her brain.”  It was horrific to think of that woman having to endure such treatment for so much of her life, for her children to know of her abuse at the hands of someone who saw her as less than human … and that people must have stood around and did nothing, for whatever reason, as she was having her head bashed against a wall.

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I returned to the library and checked out the book and have begun to read it properly. I’ve learned more about the people behind the book, Guy and Candie Carawan, and their incredible legacy of social activism. And then there’s Esau Jenkins and his mission of teaching people to read so that they could register to vote.  He operated a bus driving people to their jobs between the island and Charleston. He decided to get a group on the bus in the mornings to teach them how to read the part of the Constitution they needed to read before they could become registered citizens.  As one woman describes she didn’t think Jenkins would have any luck with her; she’d had too little book learning to read such a thing. But somehow, as she described, standing in line and watching the woman before her stammer (and thus failing?), for the woman who’d been on Jenkins’s bus, the words flowed. She even surprised herself.

 

I am immersed in the music of the peoples’ words as well as the lyrics of their music. The music transcribed by Ethel Raim were songs sung by the island congregation at Moving Star Hall. I can’t read the music notes but the words themselves have impact — sad, uplifting and thought-provoking.

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I’m still working my way through the book, this book that’s not so thick and mostly images. The words I read resonate, in some ways too much so, with words I hear today.  By the way, another book recently fell into my arms at the library, 865 pages including footnotes and index. It’s called The Framers’ Coup The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. One book at a time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Guy Carawan

Alan Lomax

Esau Jenkins

Moving Star Hall

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life? (1966)

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life? (1994 updated & revised)

 

The Framers’ Coup by Michael J. Klarman

 

 

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That’s right. There’s at least three opportunities to purchase my work and get a great deal. Blurb where I produce my photography books currently has a 50% off sell. Coupon code is BEST50. In my shop you’ll find a range of books including a new compilation of images from a field in Woburn, MA.

Preview the book here.

In my Zazzle shop you’ll find a mix of merchandise for the holiday season and well beyond.

Coupon code for up to 70% off items is ZAZCYBERSALE.

Details from John La Farge’s Presentation of the Virgin

And if you prefer to step away from the computer and like to browse the shelves in person, then I invite you to visit the gift shop at Trinity Church where you’ll find some new postcards as well as classic images, and a lovely selection of music, inspiration books and other merchandise. Located at 206 Clarendon St., entrance is across from the Boston Public Library. Enjoy!

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scenes from edmands park

Walking into Edmands Park was an escape for me. I was working at a small nonprofit located at Boston College’s Newton Campus researching and writing grants. On occasion I needed to rise from the computer and walk around to collect my thoughts, free my brain from jargon, and so on. I’m not the most adventurous person – really! – but when I start walking I sometimes get lost in the motion. Luckily my job was free form enough, so long as I met deliverables and deadlines, that it was okay if my legs kept me going past the stone walls of the campus and into the neighboring woods. It became ritual and coincided with my deepening exploration of photography. At times it seemed a magical place, strangely isolated, though it was adjacent to an active college campus. I’m not sure how many of the students knew what beauty lay around them. Over time, I would collect photos from across the seasons. I couldn’t wait to make my way into the woods after a heavy rain or snowfall to see how the landscape had been transformed.

Eventually I compiled those images and paired them with a few words about my experiences in Edmands Park into a book and published it independently. I shared the book with friends but I didn’t really know what else to do at the time. Anulfo Baez of The Evolving Critic suggested I check out the Indie Photobook Library (iPL) founded by Larissa LeClair. Her library featured the work of emerging and established photographers who were self-publishing their work. I did reach out to Ms. LeClair and she did indeed accept my submission of In Edmands Park for her library.

Five years later her library collection has been placed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. In a recent press release she stated that while the iPL is now closed to submissions, she “will continue to advocate on behalf of self-publishers from around the world by directly consulting with libraries and museums on their acquisitions.” I am thankful for that early support and recognition of my work and honored to now have one of my books figuratively if not literally sitting on a library shelf at Yale University.

Sources & Additional Reading

iPL collection adds to Beinecke’s strengths in photobooks and modern trends in self-publishing – http://news.yale.edu/2016/11/16/ipl-collection-adds-beinecke-s-strengths-photobooks-and-modern-trends-self-publishing

In Edmands Park

See more images here: http://www.newtonconservators.org/art_staples.htm

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James Weldon Johnson and Aaron Douglas

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Originally published in 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book, God’s Trombones, is a slim volume composed of a prayer and seven poems: Listen, Lord–A Prayer, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Go Down Death, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgement Day. The verses were inspired by his experiences attending black churches throughout the American south. The preachers’ oratory inspired Johnson to write these poems and, in the book’s preface, to reflect upon the nature of oration and folk traditions. His poems, I assume, inspired his artistic collaborators, Aaron Douglas and Charles B. Falls. The signature styles of two very different artists were brought together to complement Johnson’s words.

lettering by Charles Buckley Falls

Lettering by Charles Buckley Falls (1874-1960)

A publication was produced that is really quite distinctive with regard to words, images and overall concept. Johnson as scholar as well as poet produced a tome that captured in a unique way the power and importance of religion in the African American experience. He makes real even for those not having attended black churches how the preachers – God’s trombones – used word, rhyme and rhythm to give voice to the stories in the bible even when no bible was present.

Illustration

It would be easy to pick up this book, to skip the preface and go straight to the poems. But don’t. Johnson’s preface is critical, for his brief and cohesive insights into religion and the American experience, and for his guidance in how to truly appreciate what he was attempting to do with this book.

I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons. In the writing of them I have, naturally, felt the influence of the Spirituals. There is, of course, no way of recreating the atmosphere — the fervor of the congregation, the amens and hallelujahs, the undertone of singing which was often a soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon; nor the personality of the preacher — his physical magnetism, his gestures and gesticulations, his changes of tempo, his pauses for effect, and, more than all, his tones of voice. These poems would better be intoned than read; especially does this apply to “Listen, Lord,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Judgment Day.” But the intoning practiced by the old-time preacher is a thing next to impossible to describe; it must be heard, and it is extremely difficult to imitate even when heard. …

“… The tempos of the preacher I have endeavored to indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath I have indicated by dashes. There is a decided syncopation of speech — the crowding in of many syllables or the lengthening out of a few to fill one metrical foot, the sensing of which must be left to the reader’s ear. The rhythmical stress of this syncopation is partly obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat; frequently this silent fraction is filled in by a hand clap. …

The ensuing poems do read like song and the power of the words are echoed and strengthened by the complementary visusals.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

Noah Built the Ark

Illustration and complementary chapter head for Noah Built the Ark

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for Let My People Go

Illustration for Let My People Go

     

Both Johnson and Aaron Douglas are considered key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles B. Falls was a noted illustrator and designer especially remembered for the posters he created during World War I and II as part of the Victory Books Campaign.

Over time the book has been reprinted numerous times including an edition by Penguin Classics, edited by Henry Louis Gates and with an introduction by Maya Angelou. As Johnson wrote in his preface the poems are really meant to be performed and over the years many individuals and institutions have done just that. Recordings can be found online.  You can also find the book fully digitized and viewable online thanks to the Documenting the American South project at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my primary source for this post. I hope you have the opportunity to view the book in-hand or online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

 

Sources & Additional Readings

God’s Trombones (digitized) – http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

James Weldon Johnson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson

Aaron Douglas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Douglas

Charles Buckles Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Buckles_Falls

The New Negro Renaissance – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-renaissance.html

More about the Victory Books Campaign – http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/services/books.htm

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Focusing my camera on rocks and water and sand on the shores of Revere Beach. There’s a story in their interaction but I just don’t know how to read it yet. That’s why yesterday I picked up Tristan Gooley’s How to Read Water. It’s subtitle – Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea – captured me. If I don’t post for a while, it’ll be because I’m lost a darn good book. Meanwhile, have a good weekend, folks. 🙂

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donald langosy in the studio

donald langosy in a studio from the early days

For the past six Thursdays it has been been my pleasure to share the words and images of painter Donald Langosy. In collaboration with his daughter, he produced a unique 14-page memoir visually chronicling his evolution as an artist. I was allowed to share that memoir on this blog interspersed with additional words and images by Langosy.

Last Thursday’s post – story of my art – shakespeare and the joy of being, revealed that Mr. Langosy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. Has it affected how he expresses himself as an artist? Of course. But decrease in mobility and even fine motor skills has in no way decreased his creativity or even his productivity. As he has stated he does not allow MS into his studio, but he has welcomed visitors on occasion.

donald langosy in the studio present day

donald langosy still in the studio present day

I have been lucky enough to sit in his space and at his side and see his works-in-progress upon the easel, the canvases stacked against the wall, his sculptures tucked in high nooks, and what I especially love (and I tell him each time) the books, the books, the books, on so many different subjects, collected over the years! And no matter how crammed the space becomes with paintings and books and new technologies to enable him in his work, there is always space for the grandchildren.

grandchildren in the studio

grandchildren in the studio

Below are a few more images. Please enjoy this virtual peek inside the studio, present and past, of Donald Langosy.

Photos provided by Zoe Langosy.

View The Story of My Art: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

View four decades of Langosy’s work at http://www.donald.langosy.net/

See what’s current on Langosy’s Facebook page.

His contact: Zoe Langosy at zlangosy@me.com.

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