Warming by the Devil’s Fire

God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in Charles Burnett’s film



By James Naremore





[editor’s note: James Naremore is Chancellors’ Professor of Communication and Culture, English, and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has published acclaimed books on the films of Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. What follows is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge (University of California Press), is the first to be written about Burnett. “I aimed for comprehensiveness,” he explains, “and because many of his films are difficult to see, I tried not only to give them the critical attention they deserve but also to describe them in detail for those viewers who may be unfamiliar with them.”]

Author’s introduction: Charles Burnett, one of America’s most important yet least widely known filmmakers, was born in Mississippi in 1947, but his family soon took part in the post-war Southern Black diaspora, settling in the Watts area of Los Angeles. After attending Los Angeles Community College, Burnett entered UCLA, where he became the leading figure in a relatively short-lived film movement known as “the L.A. Rebellion.” His MFA thesis, the 16mm Killer of Sheep, (filmed 1973-75, exhibited 1977), was shot on weekends with locals in Watts and is arguably the greatest student film ever made: it’s listed as one of the 100 essential pictures by the National Society of Film Critics, and was one of the first motion pictures to be officially designated a National Treasure by the Library of Congress.

Among the reasons why Burnett’s subsequent career hasn’t achieved larger public attention is that his films grow out of his experience as a working-class Black, and he doesn’t traffic in sex, violence, or glamor. In thematic terms, he has more in common with a playwright like August Wilson than with Spike Lee. There’s nothing obscure or arty about his work (some of his pictures are straightforward history lessons aimed at kids), but he isn’t the kind of director who appeals to your average Hollywood producer. An authentic independent, he has great integrity and has been faced with all the disadvantages and disappointments such a position entails. But no filmmaker has a better record of showing why Black Lives Matter. Among his important films for the big screen and TV are To Sleep with Anger (1990, a masterpiece about generational conflict within a Black family, unavailable on American DVD for decades), The Glass Shield (1994, about police violence and murder of Blacks in Los Angeles), Nightjohn (1996, about Southern slavery, told from the point of view of a child), Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003, about the Turner rebellion, and in my view the best treatment of the subject in any medium), and Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003, about blues music, discussed below).



Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire was the fourth in a series of seven PBS-TV films about blues music which were executive-produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Burnett, Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Richard Pearce, Marc Levin, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood. Burnett and Wenders took unorthodox approaches to the project by incorporating fictional elements into their films, but Burnett went further than Wenders, creating a fully developed fictional narrative interwoven with impressively selected archival footage. An early, extraordinary example of such footage is an archival clip of the black “Washboard Street Band,” composed of musicians playing washboard, a toy trumpet, and tin cans, and a small boy dancer in a derby who performs a sort of proto-break dance. There are also documentary images of hard labor and lynching.

Of all the directors involved, Burnett had the most intimate experience of the blues, and he wanted to make a film with a blues-like form, less about the technical aspects of the music than about the culture and feelings out of which it emerged. Warming by the Devil’s Fire is miles better than any of the other films in the series. As Bruce Jackson has said in a fine essay, the narrative structure is loose and episodic, “at heart it is lyrical, like the blues” (“On Charles Burnett’s Warming by the Devil’s Fire, www.counterpunch.org/2003/10/11). It’s also Burnett’s most autobiographical picture, mixing humor and history with the sad, sexual, sometimes raucous emotions of an old but still influential American art.

Burnett has often told the story of growing up in Watts to the sounds of his grandmother’s gospel records and his mother’s blues records. When he was a boy he sang spirituals in church and the first tune he played on his trumpet was W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he realized how important both kinds of music had been, and they clearly influenced many of his films. At a deep level, he understood that the two musical forms were symptomatic of a conflict between the strictures of fundamentalist religion represented by his grandmother and the sadness, sex, and rebellion represented by his mother. This conflict is apparent in the very title of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, which suggests a guilty pleasure. At one point in the film we’re given the source of the title: we see old documentary footage of a southern black church service and hear the voice of a preacher admonishing his congregation to avoid their sinful pleasures, all of which, he says, are described in the 14th chapter of Luke as “warming by the devil’s fire.” (I asked Burnett where he found the recording of this sermon, and he couldn’t recall; my guess is that it’s a 1928 record by the Reverend Johnnie “Son of Thunder” Blakey.) As Burnett explained to interviewers, his film is an exploration of a partly forbidden art that had a complex impact on his upbringing: “I wanted to take more of a personal approach. I wanted to express my experience with the moral issues you might face growing up in a family that was divided on what is sin.”

Burnett’s grandmother and mother were the chief representatives of that division, but he also had two uncles who were opposites–a preacher in Mississippi who “believed in every word in the Bible” and an adventurous merchant seaman who “got along great” with his mother. The oppositions or dialectic within the family ultimately enabled him to see that spirituals and blues have a paradoxical relationship. “[I]f you really listen to the lyrics of some songs,” he has said, “you can see why [blues music] is not appropriate for children. There are images of low life, hard drinking. You had the church trying to get you up from the gutter and here you are singing [the gutter’s] praise.” At the same time, there were blues songs “that make a profound observation about life. They are lessons in life . . . case studies of people who loved and failed, of people who were wronged and who died in fights. . . . Blues has a survival component that gives you a better perspective of life at an early age than any first year of school, I believe. It teaches lessons. So do folk tales. . . . a lot of blues singers came from the church and a lot of blues singers towards the end of their lives went back to the church.”

Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South, where both his family’s religion and the blues originated. He was an infant when he and his parents left Vicksburg, Mississippi for California, but during the 1950s, when he was ten or eleven years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion. In an interview presented as an “extra” on the DVD of Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he recalls that the train made a stop in New Orleans, where he and his brother had a traumatic encounter with southern-style segregation. At the station was a play room for white kids, and while waiting for a change of trains the two boys innocently wandered inside to look at the various toys. Suddenly everyone in the room exited and the place was surrounded by cops. The boys weren’t arrested, but they were shaken and extremely cautious when they finally arrived in Vicksburg.

Burnett’s memories of that visit had largely to do with the climate and unfamiliar aspects of southern poverty: stifling heat, humidity-laden air, and country out-houses that attracted rats and dirt-daubers (wasp-like insects that build ping-pong ball or even baseball-sized nests of mud). In his DVD commentary for Warming by the Devil’s Fire, he remarks, “When you’re a city boy it’s hard to go back to those things.” He understood why many of the people he knew, including his mother, never wanted to return to the South; but the history and music of the South continued to exert a mysterious, romantic attraction. In the eighties he returned to the area around Vicksburg to research a documentary that he never made, and during that visit he began to learn more about blues musicians.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire is inspired by Burnett’s visits to Vicksburg, but it also draws on his considerable knowledge of blues history. Set in the mid-1950s, it tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy named Junior (Nathaniel Lee, Jr.) whose family sends him by train to New Orleans, where, because his relatives don’t want him to ride a Jim-Crow train to Mississippi, he’s met by his Uncle Buddy (Tommy Redmond Hicks) and driven to Vicksburg in Buddy’s shiny Chevrolet. Buddy is a blues aficionado, but also a dapper rapscallion and ladies’ man who is disapproved of by the rest of the family; they openly wonder why he hasn’t been sent to prison, killed in a fight, or lynched. In the course of the film he takes charge of Junior’s visit, keeping him from the rest of the family and acquainting him with southern history and the lessons of life that blues music has to offer. All this is narrated off screen from the retrospective point of view of Junior as an adult (voiced by Carl Lumbly). Both of the principle actors in the story are charming and impressive, almost like a comedy duo: Nathaniel Lee, Jr. maintains a stone-faced expression, occasionally frowning in bewilderment but quietly absorbing the strange new world in which he finds himself; and Tommy Redmond Hicks talks non-stop, behaving like an exuberant force of nature who is passionate about the history of blues and fond of his nephew.

The fictional parts of Warming by the Devil’s Fire were photographed in color by John Dempster, who became Burnett’s most frequent DP, on locations in New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Gulfport, Mississippi. Burnett was disappointed by the fact that he was unable to shoot in high summer, but the film’s autumnal landscapes have a quiet beauty and are free of the cheap, gaudy, corporate chain stores that infest poor towns in today’s America. Most of the documentary footage of blues musicians is in black and white, and Burnett occasionally segues from that footage into fiction by printing the opening moments of the color fiction sequences in black and white. Near the beginning of the film, after a grim montage of old newsreels and photos of southern black labor and lynching of blacks, a color fade takes us from archival footage of blacks exiting a New Orleans train to a shot of Junior alone with his suitcase in front of the station. He’s neatly dressed in a 50s-style coat and tie, looking like a polite boy on his way to church. Buddy soon arrives, wearing a sporty cap and two-toned shoes. He gives Junior a warm welcome, ushers him into a sparkling, almost new Chevy, and takes him on a quick guided tour of New Orleans before they depart for Vicksburg.

First they stop on Basin Street, which Buddy explains was once the location of the Storyville red-light district, later immortalized in Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “Basin Street Blues.” “In those days you didn’t need much money to have fun,” Buddy says. (Burnett cuts to old photographs and snippets of Armstrong’s music.) Then they stop at Congo Square, located inside what is now Louis Armstrong Park. As we can tell from Buddy’s enraptured speech, this is holy ground for anyone who regards blues and jazz as America’s truly indigenous art forms. Dating far back into colonial times, Congo Square was originally a place where enslaved blacks were allowed to congregate on their Sundays off—not for church, but for market, music, and dance from Africa and the Caribbean. It was closed before the Civil War but reopened afterward, when it became a gathering place for Creoles and a source of the brass-band rhythms still associated with New Orleans. (Burnett cuts to old footage of the Eureka Brass Band in a funeral parade through the nearby Treme district, playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”) Its original name wasn’t officially restored until 2011, long after Buddy supposedly makes his speech and even after Burnett made the film, but lovers of blues have always known its importance.

The film proceeds by this method, allowing Buddy to teach Junior blues history and initiate him into an adult world, and giving Burnett the opportunity to show footage of musicians and the life that shaped them. One of the great virtues of Warming by the Devil’s Fire is that it says comparatively little about formal or technical aspects of the blues (which, at least on the surface, are relatively simple) and doesn’t try to define the term; instead it does something better, showing how musicians described the blues and giving a clear sense of the trials, tribulations, and profane pleasures that were its emotional sources.


The film isn’t simply an archive of great blues performances (though it is that) but also a meditation on black experience. It concentrates mainly on the harsh Delta blues that extended from Tennessee down to Mississippi and Louisiana, and without explicitly saying so it gives us subgenres of this music, all of them dealing with forms of trouble or desire. One kind has to do with the pains of sexual love. After playing “Death Letter Blues,” a song about a man who gets a letter announcing “The gal you love is dead,” Sun House (1902-1988) tells an interviewer that “Blues is not a plaything like people today think . . . Ain’t but one kind of blues, and that’s between male and female that’s in love . . . Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another. It goes here [slaps his chest over his heart].” But there’s another kind about the cruelty of the southern treatment of blacks. W. C. Handy (1873-1958) says that “When they speak of the blues . . . we must talk of Joe Turner.” Handy’s song about Turner (“They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone, got my man and gone”) concerns a real-life character who lured Memphis black men into crap games and high-jacked them for deep-South chain gangs, where they provided free labor.

Some blues are quasi-work songs, such as Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues,” which Burnett accompanies with powerful footage of black labor–men using steel bars as levers to rhythmically nudge an entire railroad track from one position to another; a row of five men in prison stripes standing close together and digging a trench by swinging pick axes in unison, the man in the middle flipping his axe in the air on the upswing and catching the handle for the downswing. Other blues are about weariness and soulful longing to be elsewhere. After playing “Nervous Blues,” bassist Willie Dixon (born in Vicksburg in 1915, died 1992) talks to his jazz quartet about the meaning of the blues: “Everybody have the blues . . . but everybody’s blues aren’t exactly the same. The blues is the truth. If it’s not the truth it’s not the blues. I remember down South, be on the plantation . . . and you would hear a guy get up early in the morning and unconsciously he’s [singing blues] about his condition and [wishing] he was some other place . . . down the road.” Still other blues, as with “Lonesome Road” by Lightnin’ Hopkins (1912-1982), are about a deep loneliness and wish to make contact with loved ones. We’re given an example of these feelings when Buddy drives Junior down the Natchez Trace (a location Burnett wasn’t able to photograph) and they pass an old man trudging down the empty road who turns down the offer of a ride. Buddy explains that the old man is lost in thought, making one of his long, periodic journeys from northern Mississippi to Parchment Prison to see his son, who for some reason never talks to him.

Parchment Prison was a source of blues music, as was Dockery Plantation, where blacks labored hard to pick cotton. Burnett shows documentary footage of the harvest at Dockery, and viewers of this footage can understand an observation Buddy makes when he takes Junior to Gulfport to view the Gulf of Mexico. Looking out at the vast, gray water and cloudy sky, Buddy seems relieved at the sight, just as Burnett’s seafaring uncle probably was: “You can’t pick damn cotton on the ocean,” he says. The film makes very clear how much the blues can be related to backbreaking work on the land or to long hours of menial domestic labor. Standing on ground near the Mississippi river, Buddy tells Junior about the 1927 Mississippi flood, the most destructive in US history; he doesn’t give statistics, but it left 27,000 square miles under water, in some places up to thirty feet, and displaced almost a quarter million African-Americans from the lower Delta. (Burnett’s grandmother, who experienced that flood, often talked about it.) We see documentary evidence of the devastation it wrought, and Buddy explains that black workers did a great deal of the labor needed to stem the floodtide. Archival scenes show black men in prison stripes trucked to work and trucked back in a windowless iron trailer with air-holes on its sides. With help from the Federal government, blacks also worked to construct the world’s largest system of levees along the river, but they got little reward.

Given this environment, it’s both understandable and amazing that nearly all the great blues musicians were self-taught. On the level of domestic labor, one of the most striking moments in the film, and one of the longest, is a documentary interview with the aged blues singer-guitarist Elisabeth Cotton (1895-1958), who, after singing “Freight Train” in a weak but beautiful voice, tells the story of how she acquired a guitar. When she was a very young woman, she went to white homes asking for domestic work. One lady invited her in and asked what she could do. Cotton proudly listed all her skills: cooking; setting a table; cleaning house; doing laundry; bringing firewood inside; bathing and looking after the lady’s children; etc. The lady hired her at seventy-five cents a month. After a year, the lady was so satisfied that she raised the pay to a dollar. Cotton gave the money to her mother, who months later bought her a guitar out of a Sears-Roebuck catalog. She smiles when she remembers that she couldn’t keep her hands off the instrument and almost drove her mother crazy learning to play it.

Burnett DVD Cover81vAugXV0XL._SL1500_

Charles Burnett’s interest in the blues was inseparably linked to his fascination with the South. In the 1950s, when he was ten years old, his grandmother put him and his brother on a train from LA to Vicksburg so they could visit their southern relatives and make contact with old-time religion.

Of course blues music wasn’t entirely about the woes of life. “With blues,” Buddy says to Junior, “you either laughed or cried.” A good deal of it, in fact, was about what the church called sin. We get a sense of this when Buddy takes Junior home with him to his tiny house, which looks like a blues museum. (In his commentary on the DVD, Burnett says that most of the old blues musicians, even the famous ones, lived in humble places like this, stacked with records and decorated with rare posters and photos; he also praises his production designer, Liba Daniels, for transforming an abandoned shack with very little money.) At night, Junior shares the narrow bed with Buddy, the two lying at opposite ends so that Junior’s head is at Buddy’s feet. Junior can’t sleep because when Buddy isn’t moving his toes to unheard music he suddenly jumps up and has a desire to put another record on the player. In the morning, Junior has his first experience of the horrors of the outhouse, made worse because the door won’t stay shut (there’s a blues poster on the inside of the door for convenient reading, and part of a broken 78rpm record on the wall). He finds a cat-gut string tacked to a post near the front door and strums it for a moment.

In the house, Buddy becomes Junior’s teacher. He shows the “cut and run” razor he keeps with him in case of trouble and begins playing records to exemplify the history of blues. This gives Burnett an opportunity to show archival footage of the people Buddy mentions. Buddy starts the day, as he does every day, by almost prayerfully listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Precious Memories.” (Tharpe [1915-1973] was a singer of both blues and gospels; her rendition of “Precious Memories” was used for the opening of To Sleep with Anger). He then segues into a discussion of women artists, who were in great demand during the 1920s, before the recording industry began to dictate what could be heard.  “So many women called themselves Smith,” Buddy says, among them Mamie Smith (1883-1946), the first woman to record blues, and of course Bessie Smith (1894-1937), featured in a clip Burnett shows us from the sixteen-minute film “St. Louis Blues” (1929). A montage of other female singers and songs features Ma Rainey’s “I Feel so Sad” (Rainey [1886-1939], the narrator tells us, was a successful stage performer who didn’t play juke joints and who worked with such musicians as Louis Armstrong; she was also a writer of songs with lesbian themes), “Four Day Creep” by Ida Cox (1896-1967), and a cover of “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Dinah Washington (1924-63). Buddy enthusiastically comments, “Those were some mean women, boy!” To reinforce his point, he plays a record by Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) and we hear a bit of the lyrics: “I got nipples on my titties big as my thumbs.” Suddenly realizing this might be inappropriate, he stops the record. The adult Junior’s narrating voice informs us that he decided to pretend he didn’t hear the words; Lucille Bogan, he says, had recordings that “would make the Marquis de Sade blush.” He adds that as a result of listening to blues, “I learned a lot about body parts.”

Buddy is obviously a man who loves women and makes no secret of the fact. Soon after playing the records, he visits a lady friend’s shot-gun house and introduces her to Junior. “This is Peaches,” he says, “one of the finest women God let walk on this earth.” He and Peaches cozy up and head off to the bedroom, backed by the music of Sonny Boy Williamson. (Williamson [1914-1948], the narrator explains, was the star of the “King Biscuit” radio show who was later killed in Chicago; we also see a clip of another, equally talented harmonica player [1912-1965] who somehow got away with appropriating Williamson’s full name.). Sullen, troubled, and beginning to disapprove of Buddy, Junior wanders outside. He gets in Buddy’s car and pretends to drive, then explores the neighborhood, coming upon a small church atop a hill. This discovery may seem implausibly symbolic, coming as it does on the heels of Junior’s increased uneasiness about Buddy’s sinfulness; but God and the Devil, like gospel and blues, are never far apart in this film, nor in back-country Mississippi. Junior goes into the empty church, which has a pulpit, pews, and a tapestry of the last supper (in his DVD commentary, Burnett says that the church was long abandoned and had to be fumigated for wasps before it could be decorated). Sitting on one of the pews, he experiences ghostly memories of churchgoing and seems to hear voices singing (“Things I used to do I don’t do any more”) and a preacher’s sermon, illustrated for us by old documentary footage.

When Junior and Buddy resume their drive, Junior pointedly asks about his other relatives in Vicksburg, whom he still hasn’t seen. Buddy ignores the question and resumes his lessons in blues history by commenting on the large number of singers who were blind, among them Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), Blind Blake (1896-1934), Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) and Ray Charles (1930-2004). But Junior looks unhappy. Sensing this, Buddy tries to cheer the boy up. “Let’s go see a movie!” he proposes. “Have you seen that movie Shane? I saw that one and High Noon about a dozen times!” Junior frowns and asks, “Why do you do bad things?” Buddy pauses, glances at him, and makes a prediction: “You’ll be surprised who you find in Heaven and who you find in Hell.”

Back at home, Buddy goes through a pile of old records and papers, including a yellowing, handwritten manuscript from a book he’s been writing about the history of blues. The book is unfinished because he still doesn’t have a beginning or end. The deep ancestry of the music, he explains, is in the early years of Reconstruction, in the era of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Welles, and W. E. B. Dubois, when southern blacks had greater freedom of expression. By the early twentieth century, mass production made guitars available through mail order, and distinctive forms of blues developed in the southeastern states, the Mississippi delta, and east Texas. The first blues musician to publish his songs was W. C. Handy, who could be considered the godfather of such later figures as Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966), T-Bone Walker (1910-1975), and Muddy Waters (1913-1983), all of whom we see in performance. The life of blues musicians, Buddy says to Junior, was often tough and self-destructive: Bessie Smith bled to death in an accident and Leadbelly and Sun House killed men.

As Junior’s education proceeds, he begins to form an imaginative attachment to the music and stories he’s heard.  At one point we see him alone on a nearby dirt road, walking with his eyes closed, guiding himself with a long stick in order to experience what blindness must have been like for people like Blind Lemon Jefferson. Buddy takes him to visit a blind guitarist named Honey Boy (Tommy Tc Carter), who is sitting on his front porch with an aging, invalid gentleman named Mr. Goodwin. Buddy reverently explains that the invalid old man was once a player with The Red Tops (Vicksburg’s most popular blues, jazz, and dance band of the 1940s, which entertained both white and black audiences). Junior is amazed that Honey Boy knows he’s from California, and listens politely when the blind man tells him that blues musicians, if they live long enough, begin to mature and accept religion; he explains that he ruined his eyes and health from wild living and drinking too much home brew and “canned heat.”

Eventually, Junior becomes less concerned about Buddy’s womanizing. Buddy takes him for a fried catfish lunch at the home of two pretty young women who enjoy teasing him. Chucking Junior under the chin, one of them says he needs a better name and asks if he likes “Sweet Boy.” “No Mam,” he says, “I like Junior.” Broadly smiling and seductively looking him in the eyes, the other young woman tells him Junior isn’t “a name for a man.” She decides to call him “Sugar Stick.” Buddy plays a slow blues record and he and the awkward, shy, silent Junior begin to dance with the two women. Junior’s partner, who is much taller, buries his head between her generous breasts, whispering that when he gets older she’s going to teach him things. “I was backsliding into darkness,” the narrating voice of the adult Junior tells us. “I was between heaven and hell.”

Junior’s full absorption into the imaginative world of the blues happens when Buddy takes him for another drive, stopping the car at a country crossroads of the kind where Robert Johnson and other blues greats supposedly sold their souls to the devil in exchange for a devilish style. Buddy tells Junior that they’ll see the devil, but as night descends he falls asleep in the driver’s seat. Junior stares ahead into the mysterious, moonlit darkness, where the ghostly image of a well-dressed blues musician appears and speaks to him in the voice of W. C. Handy (who was still alive in the mid-1950s). Fearful, certain that he’s encountered an apparition of the devil, Junior shakes Buddy awake and tells him what he’s seen. Buddy explains he was only joking and explodes into waves of loud laughter. (In his DVD commentary, Burnett remarks that it was ironically difficult for the film crew to find a country crossroad near Vicksburg. He also says, “One would think this scene would be about Robert Johnson, but it’s not. It’s about this kid’s imagination.”)

Going deeper into the Devil’s territory, Buddy climaxes his course of study by taking Junior to a local juke joint crowded with drinkers and dancing couples. Junior gets a fish sandwich on white bread and sits at a table, where he eats and observes the action while Buddy perches in lordly fashion at the bar, turning toward the room and saying hello to the regulars.  The woman who owns the place rebukes Buddy for bringing a kid inside, but he begs for just one beer and she relents. A sensible friend of Buddy’s steps forward, declines the offer of a drink, and tells Buddy he’s crossed a line by bringing a boy into the joint. Buddy laughs him off and the friend says “I give up,” exiting the place in disgust. Not long afterward a fight breaks out, viewed from over Junior’s shoulder, and a man across the room is knocked to the floor. The owner and her bouncers put the unconscious man in a chair and relieve him of a switchblade. Buddy leans toward Junior and asks, “Having fun?”

Just then the disgusted fellow who walked out returns with Buddy’s brother—he’s Uncle Flem, Junior’s opposite, a preacher dressed respectably in a suit. Flem tells Buddy that Junior’s family in LA and relatives in Vicksburg have been worried to death, and that Buddy is “crazy.” Buddy knows that his time with Junior is up. He moves to the boy, gives him an intense look in the eyes, and hugs him. Flem announces that he’s taking Junior to the decent members of the family elsewhere in Vicksburg. As Junior is led away, he looks back at Buddy. Burnett freezes the frame for a moment, holding on the boy’s gaze, and then shows him leaving.

This is the end of Junior’s association with Buddy, but not the end of Buddy’s influence. As the film closes, Junior’s narrating voice tells us “I learned so much on that trip back home. I never forgot a second of it. I draw a lot from that time I spent with Buddy. . . .The years went by, and Buddy left the book for me to finish. I did, in my own way.” We see a still photo of Buddy in a suit, next to Flem, holding a Bible to his heart. Junior’s voice says, “Buddy ended up becoming a preacher, like so many of the blues players.” Viewers might conclude that in his “own way” Burnett himself finished Buddy’s book, paying full tribute to the things he learned by visiting his birthplace.




The Canine Muse

William Wegman and His Weimaraners: collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and the underground.

By James Hook


Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Celebrated artistic collaborations between filmmakers and their muses have long been recognized within both Hollywood and underground modes of filmmaking. What does it look like, however, when the muse in such a relationship happens to be a canine?

Such is the case in the unparalleled partnerships between William Wegman and his Weimaraner pets-turned-stars. A prolific multimedia visual artist and filmmaker who holds an MFA in painting from the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, Wegman has shot a virtually uncountable number of film and video works since 1970. Some of these run mere seconds, while others irreverently reimagine such childhood staples as The Hardy Boys or The Twelve Days of Christmas. A selection of these films will screen at the IU Cinema in The World of William Wegman shorts program, part of the Underground Film Series, on Friday, September 8, at 6:30 p.m.

Mostly constant through this work is the presence of one or more canine collaborators. First came Man Ray, star of many Wegman shorts throughout the 70s. Man Ray’s death in 1982 marked the start of a four-year gap before the appearance of a new muse, Fay Ray. Appropriately, Man Ray’s and Fay Ray’s respective namesakes gesture toward the realms of fine art and commercial entertainment, an artificial binary Wegman’s career has never recognized—his work has been welcomed at the Centre Pompidou and on Saturday Night Live. Something of a repertory company of canines materialized following the 1989 birth of Fay’s puppies Battina (Batty), Crooky, and Chundo.

While there have been more Weimaraners since, Fay and her puppies are the dogs most seen by countless Millennials (and their parents) thanks to appearances on that bedrock of children’s television programming, Sesame Street, beginning in 1989. Here the dogs would run into an empty frame and pose together to corporeally create letters and numbers. They also enacted nursery rhymes and performed in sketches designed to highlight neighborhood service workers such as the waiter, the truck driver, and the ophthalmologist—with the aid of full costumes and the uncanny incorporation of human hands.

One downside to the, well, doggedness with which these iconic images have maintained their hold in our collective pop-cultural memory is how another side of Wegman’s artistic sensibility has been overshadowed. His earliest video works, for instance, decidedly do not fit adjacently to a song by Big Bird, but would feel very much at home in a retrospective that also featured the works of, say, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, or Bill Viola.

Many of Wegman’s short films are underscored by an existential absurdity that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett.

Art critic Kim Levin has situated Wegman within what she identifies as an “aesthetic of the amateur.” Indeed, Wegman’s short films can sometimes feel like home movies, but only to a point. Although shot in Wegman’s studio space with simple camera setups and little if any editing, rather than capture the quotidian in any uncomplicated way, the activities in many of these films are underscored by an existential absurdity (or, perhaps, an absurd take on existentialism) that would not be out of place in a one-act by Samuel Beckett. They veer from the borderline grotesque (e.g., Wegman expels milk from his mouth for a cooperative Man Ray to lap up off the floor) to the whimsically meta (e.g., Wegman and the dogs reenact in-studio their 1991 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman).

wegman-FAY RAY 12 DAYS

That vexed label of “postmodernist” has often been applied to Wegman and it is not incorrect. Even his earliest shorts display confidence that his audiences are conversant in the expectations and conventions surrounding specific genres, rules Wegman then revels in exaggerating or breaking. 1978’s Man Ray, Man Ray, for instance, is a dual biography of the canine Man Ray and the famed surrealist photographer who preceded him. Constructed from talking head style interviews, still photographs, and voiceover narration, this “documentary” blurs together biographical details from the lives of both of its subjects and manages to incorporate an intermission and epilogue into its five-minute and twenty-three second running time.

The Hardly Boys in Hardly Gold sits somewhere in-between the categorically unmistakable video art and the spiritedly playful Sesame Street segments. Shot on location in Rangeley, Maine using 35mm and premiering at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, the film is a technically accomplished tribute to the pseudonymous Franklin W. Dixon mystery series Wegman read as an adolescent. Herein sisters Batty and Crooky follow in the sleuthing shoes of brothers Frank and Joe; the voiceover narrator (unmistakably Wegman himself) helpfully clarifies, “Hardly boys, they were girls and dogs.” Whitney Museum curator Joan Simon has explained that for Wegman this casting was perfectly logical, as Weimaraners can be understood as “detectives by nature, tracking and sniffing for clues.”

Wegman’s Weimaraner muses are certainly not the first to bridge the categories of canine and star—this honor can be traced at least as far back as Rin Tin Tin in the silent era. Their image has, however, left an indelible aesthetic mark that continues to delight and baffle as it frustrates categories: Is the work fine art or kitsch? Does it appeal to children or adults? Is it best associated with the museum gallery or the television set? Are its characters dog-humans or human-dogs? As (surrealist) Man Ray once declared, “I like contradictions.” So too, I believe, does Wegman.







The Other Equinox

The autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It seems like a blind spot in the American imagination.


By Bart Everson



[editor’s note: Bart Everson lives in New Orleans but many years ago he lived in Bloomington and was co-host of the groundbreaking television series, “J&B on the Rox,” which aired on BCAT from 1992-1995. This essay is adapted from his new book, Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, Frowning Cat Books]


There’s an old bridge over Bayou St. John in New Orleans, made from wooden planks supported by a steel frame and now used only for foot traffic. A Vodou ceremony is performed here on St. John’s Eve, just after the summer solstice, but recently I’ve come to associate the bridge with the autumnal equinox, because of a flower, of all things.

I first noticed them a few years ago, gorgeous crimson spidery blooms which seemed to have sprung out of nowhere in mid-September, in a little planter box at the end of the bridge. A friend’s grandmother calls them “naked ladies,” because they emerge tall and proud atop leafless stalks.

It wasn’t until several years later, as I was studying up on the equinoxes, that I realized these flowers are associated with the beginning of fall. They bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox. It’s a testimony to my own alienation from natural cycles that I noticed this not from direct observation or local lore but by reading about rituals of Japanese Buddhism on the internet.

The Higan Service has been observed at both equinoxes by Japanese Buddhists for over a thousand years. It’s traditionally a time to visit graveyards and honor ancestors. The naked ladies which I see in New Orleans are called higan-bana in Japan; they are often planted in graveyards and usually bloom around the time of the autumnal equinox.

Some say the flower has over 900 names in Japanese, including poisonous flower, fox flower, the flower of the dead, samadhi flower, abandoned child flower, and the flower that looks like a phantom. The Latin designation is Lycoris radiata, which I find almost as beautiful as the flowers themselves. In the American South they are also known by a variety of evocative epithets: red spider lilies, red magic lilies, surprise lilies, resurrection lilies. They have become for me one of the signal harbingers of autumn.


The boy who didn’t believe in autumn

The flower is also called the hurricane lily, which will need no explanation for those of us who live along the Gulf Coast. The peak of hurricane season comes on the tenth of September, statistically speaking, but the season officially runs until the first of November. Hurricane formation is driven by warm water in the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, which lingers on through the phenomenon of seasonal lag. It’s summer’s hangover.

Many locals take a dim view of September, the ostensible beginning of the fall season. September often seems like nothing more than an extension of the month before. August, Part II: The Revenge of the Humid. September is a sticky, sultry, summery month.

Here in the subtropics, spring may be ephemeral, but autumn can be downright elusive. Most of the trees in New Orleans stay green year-round, so we don’t see much fall foliage. The Saints may be playing football, kids may be back in school, and rumors of fall may filter down from the north, but when you’re mopping sweat off your brow it can be hard to believe autumn will ever come. The equinox can seem like a false premise. However, there is one undeniable reality that can’t be missed, even at our latitude.

I start to notice it at the very beginning of September. I rise at the same time, but each day it’s a little darker. Dawn slips forward through our morning routines. We are losing light. The days are getting shorter, as night encroaches upon day. Thus, even in the subtropics, we experience a sense of loss.


The other equinox

It seems to me that the autumnal equinox gets short shrift across the board. It’s my gut feeling that most Americans, if they are familiar with the concept of an equinox at all, think of the vernal equinox first. The vernal equinox is the subject of an enduring myth: that you can stand an egg on end on that one day and no other. For some reason, this story is told only about the vernal equinox. The poor old autumnal equinox gets virtually no traction in the American mind. I wonder why that is.

My suspicion is borne out by a moment with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which indicates that for 200 years the vernal equinox has been mentioned about twice as often as its autumnal counterpart.

The chart gets more cluttered if you throw the solstices into the mix, but it seems that the autumnal equinox has been the consistent underdog since the Civil War, at least.

I can’t help wondering if it’s a global phenomenon. One imagines that, for ancient people, the vernal equinox might have held greater importance in terms of the agricultural cycle. Knowing when to plant seeds is crucial information. By contrast, knowing when to harvest can be determined simply by observing the plants themselves.

I can’t help wondering what wisdom the autumnal equinox might have to offer us, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) its obscurity.


Abstract vs. embodied

Over the years I’ve amassed a collection of music related to equinoxes and solstices, and in so doing I’ve discovered a few things.

First of all, “Equinox” is a popular title. John Coltrane’s jazz standard is the most famous, but there are many others in genres ranging from death metal to ambient electronica.

Second, most equinoctial music is instrumental. Yes, there are some precious few songs about the equinox, but the overwhelming majority of tracks have no lyrics whatsoever.

Third, it’s often impossible to determine which equinox is being referenced. Some compositions seem to have a seasonal feel, either a bouncy vernal character or a more autumnal melancholy. Some titles make the matter explicit, such as “Vernal Equinox” by John Hassell or “Vernal Equinox” by Can (same title, but entirely different compositions). There are half as many titled with some variation of “Autumnal Equinox,” further evidence of the disparity noted above.

In some cases a seasonal association can be deduced from other clues. For example, John Coltrane was born one day before the autumnal equinox in 1926, so perhaps the title of his standard was chosen to invoke autumn. “Meet Me on the Equinox” by Death Cab for Cutie was released in early September 2014, just before the autumnal equinox, and the lyrical refrain of “everything ends” seems to fit with the fall season.
However, for most compositions, the reference is completely ambiguous, and this ambiguity intrigues me. Perhaps musicians are intending to reference both equinoxes at once, to reference the idea of the equinox in the abstract, rather than its embodiment at a specific time of year. Note that solstice compositions are almost never ambiguous; the reference to summer or winter is almost always quite clear. The solstices by their nature represent opposite extremes, whereas the equinoxes are identical, insofar as the celestial mechanics are concerned.

The autumnal equinox is a global moment which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution.

It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. For this moment only, the Earth’s axis will not be tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. It’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and any round object (a globe, an orange), and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to pay attention. In fact I have demonstrated the concept on numerous occasions at a local elementary school.

Yet the thought of a non-tilted axis has probably not inspired many musical compositions. Rather, I suspect, it’s the idea of day and night in equal balance. There’s something mysterious, magical, even mystical, inherent in that notion. It’s obviously a natural phenomenon, and taking note and marking it seems deeply human as well. Furthermore, it’s a global moment, which can be observed and celebrated by all, and it exists far beyond the scope of any government or institution. And since this configuration of Earth and Sun happens twice a year, it lends itself toward abstraction.


A different kind of balance

The concept of balance, common to both equinoxes, is not static but flowing. We seek balance as the best footing for our actions. This flowing sense of balance is embedded in the seasonal continuum. In the spring, the equinox represents a transition from dark to light; in the autumn this valence is reversed. At the autumnal equinox we move from light to dark. Attendant metaphors ensue.

Perhaps that’s why this equinox seems like such a blind spot in the American imagination. Themes of loss and darkness don’t fit well with the national narrative.

Yet there is much to celebrate, if we aspire to a full and comprehensive vision of what it means to be human on this planet. The metaphors of the equinox can work for us, if are open to the possibility. These metaphors only gain power when embodied in their seasonal context.

As metaphors of new growth predominate at the vernal equinox, so harvest metaphors abound in autumn. This might be a time for drawing in, for gathering together. The equinox can be a time for reflection, for making changes and starting projects, for setting priorities and recognizing intentions. Glenys Livingstone writes of “stepping into the creative power of the abyss,”1 a wonderfully expressive and suitably mysterious phrase. Truly darkness and loss, though they present challenges, are not to be feared, if only we can gain adequate perspective.

Fear and denial are fundamental responses to loss and encroaching darkness. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. However, there is another response which may seem surprising and counterintuitive, though just as fundamental, and that is gratitude — the reciprocal of the spirit of desire which we celebrated at springtime.


Methods of gratitude

In fact this cuts both ways. Reflecting on one’s mortality can enhance one’s sense of gratitude, and gratitude helps us cope with loss. There is now abundant evidence of the many benefits of gratitude in the emerging field of positive psychology sciences.

Most ancient wisdom traditions have also emphasized the importance of gratitude. Gratitude is like any other capacity we have: it grows when we exercise it regularly. So it’s good to be intentional about it, to set aside time for gratitude.

A fun way to do this with family and friends is to make a gratitude chain. Cut up some strips of colored paper, and on each strip write down things for which you are grateful. Join the strips together to make a chain. Add to it daily throughout the season and soon you will have visible evidence of just how much gratitude is flowing through your lives.

A craftier alternative, perhaps appropriate for a gathering, is to make a gratitude garland. Each person can bring a token to hang on the garland, representing a blessing which they wish to celebrate. As the garland is constructed, each person can share the story of their gratitude.

Another worthwhile exercise, suitable also for the solitary practitioner, is drafting a gratitude letter. This is simply a “thank you” letter to someone you’ve never adequately thanked. It’s surprisingly powerful. Try it some time.

There are other methods. Whatever you do, do something. A recent study by Robert A. Emmons and Anjali Mishra2 indicates that cultivating gratitude may help you manage stress, reduce toxic emotions and materialistic striving, improve self-esteem, enhance your ability to remember the good things in your life, build social resources, motivate moral behavior, make you more spiritual, help you reach your goals, and promote your physical health.

I heartily recommend it.


Objects of gratitude

I am riding my bike to my daughter’s school on a warm September afternoon. It’s sprinkling gently though the sun is shining. As I ride I puzzle over an issue related to this essay, a philosophical snag over which I’ve dithered for years.

We may feel immense gratitude for favors large and small done us by our fellow human beings, which is a truly wonderful thing in its own right, but what about that gratitude we feel for a beautiful day? For sunshine or rain? For the blooming of Lycoris radiata? What about the whole of existence?

Gratitude is usually constructed as having two objects. We feel grateful for something, and we also feel grateful to someone. Note that in the standard formulation, this second object is typically a person or agent of some sort. Does it have to be that way? Is it correct to speak of gratitude to impersonal forces, or is there some other word for that? Does gratitude require an object, or can it be sort of free-floating?

By the time I arrive at the school, the sprinkle has thickened into a more substantial rain. The September sun is still shining brightly, however. I’m supposed to take my daughter to aikido class. If we ride in the rain we’ll both get soaked. Fortunately a friend shows up. He’s taking his daughter to the dojo too, so he gives my daughter a ride.

I stand under the portico waiting for the weather to clear, appreciating the beauty of the raindrops sparkling in the sunshine. I wonder about the nature of this appreciation. It feels akin to gratitude, but for many years I scrupled to label it as such, because it wasn’t clear to me just who the object of this gratitude might be. I am grateful to Jameel for giving my daughter a ride. Am I grateful to the rain? To the sun? While the rest of the human race gets on with feeling grateful, some of us stop to wonder: To whom or to what am I feeling grateful? For years that question was my stopping point, my stumbling block.

Since my daughter was born, however, many things have changed. I started to experiment with some things, tentatively at first, but in time — slowly, cautiously — with greater enthusiasm. I thought to myself: Why not? Why not give it a try? Why not allow myself to feel gratitude to the rain, to the Sun, to the Earth, to the Universe? Was it possible to experience gratitude to everything for everything?

We began to say grace before dinner. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for the food that gives us life.” I started visiting a certain tree each morning for a brief meditative moment, and I found myself saying “thank you” to the tree. These practices felt good, but they had other consequences. The world around me began to seem more alive. An incipient animism was springing up in my breast. I noticed that many children seem to relate to the world this way. Was I that way once? I can’t remember.

When the rain abates, I get on my bike and head up Moss Street, along the edge of Bayou St. John. That’s when it hits me. One of the prime functions of mythical metaphors is that they allow and even encourage our expressions of cosmic gratitude. That’s kind of the whole point.
Gratitude surely is a social phenomenon which has evolved over millennia as part of humanity’s web of interdependence.3 Yet that web extends well beyond humanity without any clear limit. It’s only right and natural that we’d want to extend our social feelings to the natural world. This gives an emotional validity to the hard fact of our manifold interconnectedness and conveys many benefits besides. I suspect it’s “selected for,” as evolutionary biologists might say, but I’m speculating again.

This may be a minor revelation but it comes down on me with some force, just as I arrive at the footbridge where Lycoris radiata will soon be making its annual appearance, the very place where I started this overlong rumination on the autumnal equinox. It seems a fitting place to stop, and to express my gratitude to you, Reader, for coming with me so far.





The Write Stuff

What I learned at the IU Writers’ Conference

By Sarah Berry


“To have a firestorm surrounding your work, that’s what you want. You just have to weather the storm.” So says Samuel Autman, the speaker of the Craft and Business of Nonfiction panel at this summer’s IU Writers’ Conference. He was talking about personal nonfiction, specifically memoirs, and his advice ranged from don’t be afraid to get really personal to don’t go on Amazon and look at reviews, because they may make you never want to write your memoir or anything, ever.

Internet trolling and ridiculous reviews aside, the writer’s conference provided advice that ranged from how to make yourself sit down and actually write something to writing strategies to how to best market your work once you’ve actually managed to crank it out. Beginning with a series of personalized workshops (Chris Abani, novelist and poet, taught fiction; Mary Robinette Kowal, novelist specializing in science fiction and fantasy, appropriately taught sci-fi/fantasy; Morgan Parker, poet, taught the poetry workshop), then transitioning in the afternoon to the panel with Autman, and then to talks given on poetry, graphic memoir, and fiction, taught by Rickey Laurentiis, Amy Kurtzweil, and Alexander Weinstein, respectively. The day was full of useful information, quirky tips, fun personal stories, and writing exercises.

“Who reads literary magazines?” Samuel Autman

However, it was interviewing the authors about their personal experiences with writing that I found the most informative. After the day’s panels were done, there were readings in which the authors read their works. This was followed by a small reception with light food and plenty of wine. I spent these receptions awkwardly attempting to interview the writers (while most of them were trying to talk with the actual conference participants who had paid to be there), but all were accommodating and took the time to answer my questions as I limped along on my journalistic training wheels.

Here’s what I learned….

Writing is like the energizer bunny

“It’s energized, but it must be exhausted because it goes forever.” That’s Ricky Laurentiis’ description of the energizer bunny, which, for him, closely parallels writing: writing itself is draining, but finishing a piece and having it appreciated or published is energizing. Writing is full of ups and downs and learning how to reconcile the two and work through them. But it all seems to depend on the writer: Samuel Autman, who both teaches and writes, found the combination tiring. As a teacher, he says, it’s not just making the students enthusiastic and willing to write; it’s about making sure that in teaching, you don’t lose that drive either. Autman says, “I had to learn to try to find things that would energize my writing.”

There are different ways to express emotions

Writing is often cited as a great means of self-expression. From emotion to memory to shared experience, writing gives us a means to connect with others while examining ourselves. For Samuel Autman, the way to connect most deeply and personally with people was to write memoirs. While working as a journalist, Autman began to write personal columns. “I would write periodic columns, and I found that readers really connected to those columns.” People loved the narrative details, even something as small as what someone was wearing, because it helped them connect to the story. And through this, Autman was able to tell stories that could connect to more people because these narratives created a powerful empathy, and, ultimately, redemption for those whose story was being told.

On the flip side, Amy Kurzweil found drawing to be a stronger way for her to convey emotion. “I feel like with graphic memoir and with drawing I’m able to communicate emotional information that, in writing, doesn’t come as easily to me.” Just as I find drawing excruciating, many people feel the same about writing. It’s not for everyone, but most of us have the same desire to express ourselves in ways that others can readily understand. There are multiple mediums through which to do this, and they are all capable of telling powerful narratives. For Amy, drawing allowed her an emotional directness that she couldn’t find in writing, where in a piece of art the smallest change in a facial expression could speak paragraphs. As Kurzweil told me: “I have a lot of feelings and I want people to know that!”

Writing personal nonfiction is scary

Personal nonfiction means opening your life and experiences to everyone. Whoever happens to pick up your book or click on your article suddenly becomes privy to some of the most intimate details of your life. Autman says he started publishing his memoir stories in literary magazines, which have a very limited readership (“Who reads literary magazines? Because they’re so rare,” Autman remarked to me). Then his writing was out there, but he didn’t have to worry about it being everywhere and read by everyone. Eventually, he reached a turning point, realizing that nonfiction was what he wanted to write, and that passion was enough to overcome his fear. But, regardless of anyone’s passion for writing memoirs, everyone has to face the fire eventually (“get ready to be crucified” was Autman’s advise). You need a thick skin, and you have to decide how you want to deal with the fire. For Autman, it’s like this: “I’m not gonna fight with people if they wanna attack. If they don’t want to read it, don’t read it…This is my truth. This is what happened to me. And if it doesn’t work for you, find books that do work for you.” Just remember: whatever you do, don’t read those Amazon reviews.

Write in your own voice and for the right reasons

People often try take on a persona when writing, attempting to write in a voice that isn’t their own. Not only can this make it more difficult to actually produce writing, but “it often leads to not being vulnerable or not risking something because what you’re trying to do is create a style that’s not necessarily your own,” said Alexander Weinstein. Writing in someone else’s style because you think it’s what readers want will not only hamper your ability to express yourself, but often change what you’re writing for. Writing for money is an issue that plagues many writers. “You think you’re just going to write the bestseller and it’s just going to be accepted right away. That means that you’re looking at the product, the end product, rather than the process, too early” said Chris Abani. The best way to overcome this is by two things. Morgan Parker advises: “don’t be afraid of yourself.” And, Mary Robinette Kowal reminds us that we’re readers first, so “write something you want to read.”

Science-fiction isn’t a camp genre

So often we’re tempted to pass sci-fi off as fluff, camp, low-brow. It’s the stuff of B serials, cheap, cookie cutter novels, and bloated blockbuster films. But it can be much more. Alexander Weinstein thinks of his work that would typically be classified as sci-fi as speculative fiction and social critique. Examining how our world may be in the near future through the way we utilize and depend on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, can convey our relationship with technology and question if we’re losing ourselves to these inventions. Weinstein cited Tinder as an example: “if you look at, for example, dating apps, the way that we swipe people into the trash is very closed-hearted and horrible, but we don’t think of it that way, so if you take it just a step further it can reveal some of these both disturbing and humorous underbellies of our current technologies.” Ultimately, science fiction allows to examine our own world through a different, perhaps more objective lens. For Kowal, science fiction “tips the natural world to the side so that you can see the connective tissue, which I think allows us to talk about some social issues and just the human condition in ways that more naturalistic fiction doesn’t because it doesn’t come with the same kind of baggage.”

You are your own worst enemy when it comes to writing

If you’ve ever tried to write anything, you’ve experienced some form of writer’s block. You sit down at the computer and everything you were about to write evaporates in a second, so you go watch TV. Your thesis suddenly sounds stupid so you decide you might as well give up writing. Someone asks you a question and your hour-long writing streak is over. Weinstein would identify the cause of these issues as the inner critic and the slacker. The inner critic is the one that will tell you “you’re no good, why should you bother writing.” The slacker says “nah, we’ll do it tomorrow.” Sometimes it’s one of these that plagues you, sometimes both. They’re also impossible to get rid of. Therefore, Weinstein declared, you must give them the time they deserve. As much as they cause problems, they also have their own merits: “The inner critic becomes a good editor once trained, and the slacker becomes really good after you’ve done a lot of work.”

Writing can seem lonely, but it doesn’t have to be

We’ve all had that experience where we’re writing something, be it school essay, work application, personal memoir, magazine article, and we’re doing it alone, in our house, at the desk, in the corner, feeling very isolated from everyone, trying to figure out how to put into words feelings that aren’t easily expressed. And it’s often harder when we feel alone. That’s why these writing conferences are so special. “What’s really great here is less that actual tangible classes, although I think those are important. It’s the sense of community, because writing is always already so isolated and lonely. So it’s good to be reminded that you have a community of writers across the world, across the nation, who are just as weird as you,” said Rickey Laurentiis. That was my biggest takeaway from this conference: whether we were laughing at Autman’s anecdotes or struggling to fill Weinstein’s writing exercises, there was a sense of togetherness there. And there’s something about that energy that makes writing, at least in my experience, much easier, and a much more enjoyable experience.


In conclusion, writing is hard. That sounds trite, but it’s true. You have to sit down at a blank page and pluck words from the ether to create something wholly original that makes some sort of sense and is actually enjoyable to other people. Writing conferences like IU’s can help; words of wisdom from the experienced (and published) can aid not only with motivation, but skills and general practices. But, ultimately, it comes down to personal enjoyment. Write (or don’t write; art comes in many forms) what speaks to you, what you like. If it’s terrible, who cares. Just have a good time, and remember: you’re not the only one toiling away out there.




The Goat and the Portrait Photographer

Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island and found local farmers who allowed him to set up portrait studios in their barns.

by Michal Ann Carley

Yes, goats. Specifically, studio portraits of goats. These are the subjects of Kevin Horan’s suite of 16 photographs from his 2014 series Chattel that is on exhibit at Pictura Gallery through July 29th. Formerly a photojournalist, Horan has published his work in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, LIFE, U.S. News & World Report, National Geographic, and numerous other sites, but this series is decidedly not documentary. Nor, as one might anticipate when one has actual goats as subject matter, are the photographs coy or cute, stylized or commercial; rather, they are drop-dead deliciously beautiful portraits of subjects that strongly emote through their corporeal presence.

Kevin Horan moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state in 2006 where, after having been an editorial photographer for over 30 years, he began to explore local subjects of his own choosing. His neighbor’s sheep relentlessly serenaded him with a choir of unique voices as he passed by and, he imagined, told him their individual stories. But when he attempted to gather and corral that energy into individual photoshoots, he was met with skittish, squirrely subjects who tried to maneuver dangerously through his lighting setup.  Not defeated, Horan determined to find animals who were naturally calmer because they were accustomed to human interaction, such as herd dairy animals that were used to twice-daily milking: intelligent and somewhat docile sheep and endlessly entertaining and social goats.

Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns and who willingly assisted the artist with the handling of their flocks. A photo portrait studio is generally a careful configuration of specialized photofloods and diffusion umbrellas fixed onto tripods with booms and flash box controls tied into cameras, all of which engulf the subject who is positioned against a large neutral backdrop. Erecting this setup in an actual barn is no small task, but Horan found that working with the spirited animals was even more formidable. Unlike human subjects whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.

Many of the portraits were taken at the New Moon Farm Goat Rescue and Sanctuary also on the island. It is likely that viewers might project feelings of longing, want, and gratitude onto these goats as a natural response to having been provided haven; but, to this viewer, the unique personalities of the goats are not projections but are real and inescapable — we are  witness to their faces and eyes penetrating, seducing, and laughing.

The artist uses the conventions of traditional portraiture: isolating the head and shoulders in a neutral frame, orchestrating light and shadow-play over the figure while creating a focus on the most expressive features, and using a full range of tonality to create visual complexity and amplify volumes. Horan uses a Pentax medium-format digital camera to shoot the frames in black and white and then digitally superimposes subtle tones of sepia and umber to create richer, more naturalistic though staged images that reference formal portraiture of the 19th century. “Chattel” means the possessions, or in this case, the livestock that one owns.  The British traditionally heralded the status of their prize animal specimens with a commissioned, oil painted portrait and with the advent of photography, a daguerreotype, a practice that carried over to the colonies. These portraits were intended to display the “beauty” of the animal through the documentation of its use value: its height, width, girth, weight, and the amount that it could pull or push. Horan’s title Chattel borrows from this notion of documentation and pride, but in his accounting, presents the subjects’ most salient characteristics as their facial features, physiognomic structure, and the texture and drape of their hair instead. These are cues to us, as viewers, to infer or sense the personality of each goat, recognizing it in the turn of their head, the lilt of their ears, or the gaze of their eyes.

The individual goats in Chattel are not identified by breed but rather by name, further indicating that they are not anonymous members of a herd, but are a part of a family, of sorts. Sherlock, whose head is shown in profile barely turns at the shoulders revealing a series of articulated creases in his back. His masses of cream-colored curls form an irregular contour that is in dramatic contrast to the deep black space that envelops him. This presentation is unlike those for pedigree shows, beauty pageants and the like. Instead, by virtue of his uncoifed and irrepressible waves of coiling hair in richly layered, umbered tonalities and as his curled horn that encircles the crown of his head and returns us to his attentive expression, he is uniquely aesthetically and psychologically compelling.

Ben stands intimately close. He is positioned frontally to compositionally isolate him in a sea of black, while his upturned chin and short horn imply a youthful innocence.  Together with his widely-set imploring eyes and flaxen colored fur, these features solicit an atavistic empathic response. If there is a patriarch to this menagerie, it is Jake. Presented as the largest photographic print (36 x 44”, edition of 3), Jake commands the pictorial space, filling it almost entirely with his emphatic girth, gnarly muzzle with a Mohawk ridge, heavily veined, silken ears that droop lower than his chin, and horns that spiral diagonally to almost the corners of the frame. His is midtoned overall with only slivers of deep shadows in the furrows of his wrinkled flesh and clearly inhabits the depth of field with its almost shared tonality. But it is his pronounced under bite turned upward as if in a grin and resonant eyes that emote a languid but playful dignity. We are captured in his gaze.

Ella formally is the most sophisticated composition and the subtlest evocation of the suite. Ella occupies the lower one and one-half quadrants of the lower right, but almost merges into it as her burnished black fur swallows the light and her soft eyes and nose, that barely stand proud, are coal black. One hesitant, shimmered reflection on the very edge of her long neck that reads as a barely perceivable line of light, demarcates her muscled body from the environment. Atop her head are a pair of ringed horns poised in arabesque flight that through the precise focus on their ridged growth patterns provides the only dimensional perspective of the piece. Horan’s withholding of chromatic and tonal contrasts makes viewers all the more active in their pursuit of telling information: her feathery eyelashes that obscure eye contact, the dirt on her muzzle that suggests active work or at least exuberant curiosity, the multi-hued layered rings that make up her horns and bespeak her age, and her sustained composer that appears at once distant and present with equanimity. We are her captive audience.


Kevin Horan has at his command all the tropes of photographic portraiture and exploits them to make lushly beautiful images of common animals we might well have overlooked. Chattel is a testament to not only his formal and technical prowess, but his patience and affinity to speak with and allow the animals to speak through him. He presents the ordinary and lets it tell its story quietly with no affectation beyond light and shadow and compositional arrangement.



Michal Ann Carley is an artist, free-lance curator, and teaches Arts Management classes in IU SPEA’s Arts Administration Program.




“These pictures insist upon an active engagement of our own feelings about the souls within other beings, human or otherwise, and how visible they are from out here. If we are paying attention to our own responses, we must grapple with the cause of our response.”

–Kevin Horan


Horan found local farmers who allowed him to set up quasi-formal portrait studios in their barns. But unlike a human subject whose ego and vanity would be distinctly in play and would elicit active cooperation during a portrait photo session, the animals had no such pretentions; they were unruly and otherwise distracted, as curious goats are wont to be.


Michal’s Note on images: The images are really important so I hope that the four Sherlock, Ben, Jake, and Ella can be run, in that order.


Each image can be captioned with the name of the goat in question