About Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch is author of "Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy." He is a veteran, award-winning arts journalist, educator and visual artist. He was a long-time staff arts writer for The Milwaukee Journal (where he was lead writer of a Pulitzer-nominated Newspapers in Education project) and at The Capital Times in Madison. He has written for Down Beat, No Depression Quarterly of Roots Music, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, New Art Examiner, The Antioch Review, American Record Guide, Shepherd Express, , NoDepression.com, and elsewhere. Lynch is currently working on a novel, "Melville's Trace or, The Jackal."

Stumbling upon Winslow Homer on a November trip to the great lake front

 

 

Kevernacular with Winslow Homer’s “The Berry Pickers” (as it were) in its new home. With Cookie Monster as security guard. Photo by Ann Peterson

Late autumn, it was a surprisingly alluring November day, and I wanted to get to our great lake. I’d felt cooped up by various tasks and distractions on my computer. So I got on my bike and headed from my Riverwest home for Lake Michigan at Atwater Beach in Shorewood.

Little did I know, something like a force of fate led me, in more ways than one – a Winslow Homer-like instinct towards the vast waterfront, to perhaps find inspiration or replenishment, as I had in a recent visit to the Shorewood Nature  Preserve on the lakefront, which I documented on a previous blog.

For me, it’s also a Melvillian instinct, which I’m susceptible to, given my deep, rather scholarly interest – some might call it an obsession – with Herman Melville, which has led to me to write a novel-in-progress about the great writer. As Ishmael famously observes in the opening page of Moby-Dick : “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…Then, I count it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can.”

Homer, an East Coast dweller who drew deeply from his close proximity to the ocean, was also inspired by the experience of an English seaport town which helped forge his mature style. The latter point is the premise of a major Winslow Homer exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum opening March 1, 2018, for which I will write a preview article for The Shepherd Express newspaper and a more in-depth review on this blog.

Melville and Homer were also sea-loving 19th century contemporaries in forging original American art forms, as part of the so-called “American Renaissance.”  Each was arguably the greatest 19th century Americans at their art and craft, and both largely self-taught. 

Winslow Homer, 1867, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, from catalogue of exhibit “Winslow Homer,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 1995.

It was surprising, but not really, how many people were down on Atwater Beach that afternoon. Some hardy souls even braved the water trying to catch a few waves to surf on. The lake has a powerful draw for many people. I wondered fancifully how many of these were astrological “water signs” like I am.

After my interlude atop the bluff, I headed back down Capitol Drive and noticed that the mild weather had prompted the second-hand shop Chattel Changers to put out some of its wares on the street. If you’re not in a rush, this place is always a temptation for bargain-hunters of interesting and distinctive used and antique items largely acquired from estate sales and consignment. Plus, I have a personal affinity for this place as years ago it housed The Hayes Gallery, where I had a two-man show of my sculpture, my first gallery showing after my graduation with a BFA at UW-Milwaukee.

The place has an amazing amount of merchandise crammed into its two floors with artwork, furniture, oddities and knick-knacks of every imaginable sort and a number of items of quality craftsmanship. I was actually looking for a gift for someone and, sure enough, I found it, though I can’t reveal that item here.

Chattel Changers. Courtesy Chattel Changers Facebook page.

I wandered a bit deeper into the basement when something caught my eye. It looked like a large, framed watercolor painting. It was well-hidden, behind two lamps with fulsome shades. But what struck me immediately was the style of this scene, a depiction of two young women and children hunting for wild berries along a windy coastal spot.  “That’s a Winslow Homer,” I said almost aloud to myself.

I had been a fan of Homer’s for a long time and had even once travelled to New York partly to see and write about a major Homer exhibit in 1996 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included most of his masterpieces, many utterly drenched in ocean experience and drama, such as “Gulf Stream,” “Breezing Up (a Fair Wind), “Undertow,” and “The Life Line.”

My pulse quickened: Even from behind the lampshades, this looked just like a large Homer watercolor, and a scene set on a the Atlantic ocean shore. The label identified the title as “The Berry Pickers” and, yes, Homer’s signature was quite legible in the lower right corner, with the date “July 1873” inscribed. Could this really be a Homer watercolor? It’s well-known that many art treasures hang in the homes of any number of Milwaukee area residences. Could this watercolor have somehow snuck past the discerning eyes of whomever purchases and prices items here? The label said $53.85, but if you know Chattel Changers they have a system of reducing item prices over time with the actual dates of ensuing price reductions listed on the label.

I stood admiring the scene. Two young women stand at the far left, one holding a small pail in her hand. The ocean wind is clearly high from the hat of each woman. The end of an ornamental ribbon flies horizontally from each woman’s hat lid, a deft way to convey the presence of that powerful force of nature. The woman in the foreground leans back against a large boulder, as if to steady herself against the wind. Below the women, several children search knee- or elbow-deep in the underbrush, hoping to pluck the small, precious fruit.  On the horizon, the silhouette of a steep hill stands over the edge of the oceanfront horizon. Wispy clouds waft above the berry pickers. The composition, earthy colors and textural qualities add up to something truly beautiful, in Homer’s surprisingly modern manner (more on this later).

I wondered what exactly to do. I peered suspiciously around the room. A few bargain-hunters lurked in the basement room. One woman looked back at me inscrutably. Why exactly did they linger here?  I took a deep breath and made a decision. I was traveling by bicycle, so I decided to pay them to hold the gift item, which was too delicate and unwieldy to carry in my backpack, along with some groceries I needed. So I told the cashier I’d be back the next day for it, without mentioning the Homer artwork downstairs.

But I figured it had been here for a while, and I hoped to God that – as obscured as it was by the two large lamps – it would be a safe bet to be there tomorrow.

I slept fitfully that night, and I thought: “Fool! Why didn’t you ask them to hold it for you?” I returned in my car in the morning, shortly after they opened.

I went down the stairs and into the back room. Sure enough, the Homer artwork remained, waiting for me, like a gorgeous but impatient blind date, who didn’t know me from Adam.

With some contortion of effort, I reached past the two bulbous lampshades and managed to pull “The Berry Pickers” down off the wall and take a better look at it under direct lamplight.  On the back I saw a large label: “‘The Berry Pickers,’ Winslow Homer. The Colby College Museum of Art.’ ” 1

I turned it back over and saw that the aqueous, gestural quality of the watercolor seemed quite real. I could also see portions of the loosely-rendered outlines of the figures and the landscape that Homer had sketched out in pencil or graphite. Then, I looked closer at the paper itself. I could detect no texture characteristic of watercolor paper, nor had it any signs of aging, for ostensibly being 144-year-old paper. I let out a wistful sigh, and realized I was looking at a reproduction, although a very good one. Nevertheless, this was a sturdily-framed reproduction that, at a glance and even an extended appreciation, looks for all the world like a large and real Winslow Homer watercolor.

I figured, I’ve got to get this for $50, and I’d find a place for it on my already art-filled walls. I got upstairs and asked for the gift item they had held for me. Then I asked what precisely the cost was for the Homer watercolor reproduction. The woman did a little calculating and said, “Twenty dollars.”

Twenty dollars.  My disappointment over the possible steal of a lifetime rekindled in  realizing I could own this handsome, quite lovely Homer image in my home for a mere twenty bucks. And here, a few blocks from Lake Michigan, this was the sort of find you might expect to luck upon in a similar shop a few blocks from Homer’s beloved stormy Atlantic Ocean.

Though I own plenty of original art, I’m hardly too proud or well-off to frame and hang good reproductions. Among my personal favorites are of Sam Francis’s great 1958 abstract-expressionist painting “The Whiteness of the Whale,” named for a famous chapter in Moby-Dick, as well as a reproduction of Honore Daumier’s marvelous painting of social-commentary art “Third-Class Carriage,” from 1862, which I’d given to my mother long ago as a gift, and received it back when she passed away in 2009.

I loaded up my car with my treasures and headed home.

Part Two:  A Close Look at Winslow Homer’s “The Berry Pickers.”

Why Was I so captivated by my newly-purchased reproduction of Homer’s “The Berry Pickers”? One overarching reason is that Homer’s work is akin to the innovative American literary breakthroughs of Melville, Whitman, Thoreau,  Dickinson, and Poe, which continue to stimulate and even challenge us today. Homer embraced, interpreted and captured the richness and wildness of a New World that was still only partially tamed. He captured America asserting its power in its relation to the world and understood coming to terms with its relationship to the rough grandeur and beauty of the American landscape and its mighty surrounding oceans. That amounted to a distinctively American style and sensibility, one that had shed the dominant conventions and presuppositions of European culture.

Being largely self-taught, he took from certain timeless values of Western culture while reasserting his own native instincts and talents.
Although the subject matter of the berry pickers is hardly heroic or dramatic, it describes an aspect of our relation to our indigenous natural setting and resources. And for me, Homer found liberation in his creative quest, and anticipated European modernists in his stylistic innovations by several decades.
Take a closer look at “The Berry Pickers.” Homer delights in the opportunity to use watercolor on a large and fairly expensive scale. And he understands implicitly when less is more, and the way you can use negative space as part of your storytelling and composition and visual dynamics.

Notice the two details of the watercolor I have highlighted here. In the first, (above, with his signature at the bottom), you see a rather footloose and fancy smattering and smearing of brushwork and paint in suggesting the summery field blooming with wildflowers and fruit. The bounty, and the berry-picking figures in the lower right corner are represented by suggestive smudges and globs with only roughly-hewn renderings of their sun hats clearly specifying their presence. Branches of the trees counterpoint with their own and nearby leaves, in a loose, dancing fashion as they rise above the horizon. And yet Homer is hardly above inserting a touch of playful humor with the small bird that alights upon one of the branches, perhaps waiting to snatch a juicy morsel that falls free amid the joyous picking.

In the second detail (above), you see that Homer actually leaves unpainted large portions of the shoulders, arms and hats of the young hunters in the foreground, freely rendered such as they are. These two whole lower sections amount to a daring, even radical artistic gambit, for 1873. See the yellow-dressed girl’s hair, also very loosely rendered, as are her garment’s folds and bunches. This all forms a meandering abstract pattern that engages the mind and senses. It is almost as if the figures themselves are at one with the freely-growing wilds of the field.

I think this is the sort of close adherence to formal coherence in a loose, articulate yet expressive manner that even the rigorously formalist abstract-expressionist art critic Clement Greenberg would have approved of.
Similarly, the relation between the standing woman in the foreground and her dress, with her jagged cast shadow set against the hulking boulder, is another striking compositional bon mot. The hat ribbons fluttering in the wind inject an element of natural power and action to this enchanting scene.

And yet, Homer also holds his work loosely  together along  the classical composition “golden mean” by breaking the composition in two-thirds portions, horizontally and vertically. The shore beneath the waterline delineates the horizontal division and the subtle-but-striking presence of the big, pointed mound in the background suggests the division vertically. In effect, the whole scene hangs on that grid.

Overall, Homer clearly strove here to capture a living, breathing scene of beauty. This is a work of abundant lyricism and life and, for sure, something one can easily live with on one’s living room wall, day after day after day.

And all that for twenty dollars.

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  1. Winslow Homer’s original watercolor of “The Berry Pickers” now resides in The National Gallery in Washington, though at the time my reproduction was framed it evidently was the property of the Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine.

Photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.

 

 

 

 

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell brings her utopian vision to Milwaukee

Nicole Mitchell. Photo by Lauren Deutsch courtesy chicagojazz.net  

Nicole Mitchell Quartet, Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St., Alternating Currents Live Series, 7 p.m. Sunday, December 10, $8 general admission, $7 student & seniors, $6 WPBC members

Alex Wing– bass
Felton Offard – guitar
Jovia Armstrong – percussion
Nicole MItchell – flutes, compositions

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell sounds like the pied piper to a new future, a utopian dream melding human courage, advanced technology and nature.

She’s extraordinary because, despite its radiant qualities, the flute has occupied a comparatively humble place in both jazz, classical and pop music, all too often being a refuge, and a musical ghetto, for women musicians.

In the post-bop jazz era, the instrument found some footing, as some multi-instrumentalists helped advance the flute’s sonic and expressive possibilities, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy, and Lew Tabackin, and Herbie Mann showed the flute could thrive in funky groove-oriented realms. Flutist Jeremy Steig revealed a more adventurous imagination, perhaps a precursor to Mitchell. In the 1970s, a black female jazz-pop flutist also emerged, Bobbi Humphrey.

Starting in the late 1970s, James Newton expanded on the more classical flute technique Hubert Laws had applied to jazz and became among the first to make ambitious, stately and highly-textural original statements focussed on the instrument, and to extend the jazz tradition.

In recent times, however, no one has taken the slender, silver sound-mover further than California-born Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell. She reminds us the flute conveys among the most celestial of sounds but also, in its closeness to pure breath, among the most human and organic. The elastic space across that spectrum actually holds powers of great, moving evocation and beauty, a region she has consistently explored and expanded.

Nicole Mitchell. Courtesy www.chicagojazz.net

She’s become also an increasingly conceptual artist. Now, her most recent album, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records), amounts to a stunning and transporting culmination of her efforts to weave a majestic tapestry of jazz, gospel, experimentalism, pop and African percussion — through albums such as Black Unstoppable (Delmark, 2007), Awakening (Delmark, 2011), and Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler (Firehouse 12, 2008), which received commissioning support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works.

Mitchell also has served as the first woman president of Chicago’s internationally-influential  Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Among AACM musicians who also advanced the role of flute are Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton. But the expansiveness of Mitchell’s vision seems more akin to pre-AACM space-jazz bandleader Sun Ra and perhaps Pulitzer-winning AACM brass player-composer Wadada Leo Smith.

None of these predecessors diminish the originality of Mitchell’s artistic quest. She is currently a Professor of Music, teaching in “Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology,” (ICIT) a new cutting-edge graduate program at the University of California, Irvine. Mitchell has received the DownBeat Critics Poll and the Jazz Journalists Association awards as “Top Flutist of the Year” for four consecutive years (2010-2014) and again in 2017, from the JJA. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago commissioned Mandorla.

“Mandorla Awakening II” album cover. Courtesy FPE Records.

In her liner notes, Mitchell describes Mandorla as a society formed on “an obscure island in the Atlantic” in 2099. Amid the “inevitable decay” of contemporary society, “a vibrant, diverse, and technologically adept culture emerges…an egalitarian society designed by people who had survived the destructive forces of the egos war and the global virus .”

The more specific musical story poetically describes Mandorla as possible by the striving for “the sound of truth” generated by “sticking our hands in the black soil” and allowing birds to “sing interlocking songs of imagination.” The sound seems “the one thread we hold to pull (to safety) our loved ones dangling over the cliff, close to peril and poverty.”

So one can readily imagine interlocking birdsong evoked by her flute, but the album’s larger ensemble canvas also entails, in the piece “Timewrap,”  (Or “timewarp?” her titles tend to wordplay),  a moan, engendered from the history of slavery, from blood in the fields, from perhaps Toni Morrison’s ghostly, tragic Beloved. “That moan was a seed of liberation.” Mitchell writes. “That moan love for life. That moan is determination. That moan has been a grain of sand that calls our destiny and survival of humanity.”

So Mandorla opens with “Egoes War,” a pulse, big sonic texture, a thick wash of electronic and acoustic effects. A forlorn theme emerges on flute, sounding both ancient and futuristic. The guitar is a space traveler or an ego tripper. (Alex Wing, who plays guitar, oud, and theremin on the album, will be part of Mitchell’s quartet here, along with guitarist

Felton Offard and the album’s percussionist Jovia Armstrong). This piece does sound warlike, but strangely beautiful. Mitchell’s tone and wary flute theme spiral into the toxic haze like a shaman-goddess working to ease the bloodletting, perhaps allowing a purging of toxins. A descending line repeats like a gentle, insistent jeremiad. Percussion work sizzles and crackles like wildfire of fear and perhaps hope.

The second piece “Sub-Mission” starts tentatively, with shakuhachi flute, oud, and other AACM-ish “little instruments.” The foundlings of the vibrant, multi-cultural “technologically adept” culture are emerging on the remote Atlantic island. Mitchell’s flute sounds like an explorer on this island, a violin also wends its way through the uncertainty, the flute emboldens with full-throated courage. Then, a pirouetting, lyrical dance arises among the instruments, followed by a somewhat ominous interlude set against Tomeka Reid’s cello, which spawns its own strange beauty. This all suggests facing the challenge of letting go of old ways and submitting to the possibility of a new, enlightened society.

Plenty more ensues in Mandorla Awakening, including several vocals to advance the drama and storyline. But I’ll leave the discovery of that to you, and to those parts of Mandorla that may ensue at Sunday’s concert.

In this age of Trump and regressive, authoritarian politics, her sort of creative consciousness feels urgent, replenishing, empowering.

Make no mistake; Nicole Mitchell is out there, forging ahead, her talismanic flute catching the light of a new dawn.

Delving down into The Shorewood Nature Preserve

 

You step into a moderately steep descending path, which immediately lends a sense of adventure and discovery. The ravine’s deep walkway is not unlike one in Lake Park, off the par-3 golf course. But this is decidedly a road less-travelled than Lake Park’s.

Yet this site is not remote, the entrance located on Lake Drive, at the east end of Menlo Blvd., a few blocks south of Atwater Beach, which is at the end of Capitol Drive. The preserve’s path has big shouIders, full of tall, wind-whispering trees. And today, early on a late November morning, we soon see the vast, flat-line horizon of Lake Michigan glimmering through the leafless forward branches. To finally reach the water level, you carefully step down a slight drop off of about 25 or 30 feet, manageable for most without ambulatory problems. Or you can burrow through some adjacent underbrush to avoid the cavity.

We have reached the Great Lakefront destination spot of The Shorewood Nature Preserve.

My companion, Ann Peterson, said when as she first arrived here last summera huge heron, perched on the water’s edge, took flight with deliberate, ponderous elegance, not because Ann scared it by her presence, she believes.

It’s been noted as a great location for bird watchers, as hundreds of exposed rocks on the north portion provide perches for birds.  “Since Hurricane Sandy, Chicago lowered the water level in Lake Michigan and there are hundreds of exposed rocks, making good perches for water fowl,” reports a woman posting on the Milwaukee Area Parks website. “You can see geese, sea gulls, and ducks.”  However, in warmer weather the smell there can also reflect that populating as well, but not on our icicled November morning.

 Beach rocks at Shorewood Nature Preserve in 2012. Photo courtesy milwaukeeparks.blogspot.com, 

But things have changed since then, it seems. Another friend, who discovered the preserve a few years back, said that the preserve had a beach of appreciable size leading to the water’s edge. There’s far less beach now. Now you get to the bottom and you meet the water, almost suddenly. My companion Ann says the “discovery” effect is more dramatic in the summer when Lake Michigan is hidden by three foliage until you get to the bottom, when its grand beauty spills out onto your senses. On our late fall morning, the sky rapidly shifted from blue emblazoned with streaks of illuminated clouds (below), to impressionistic washes of gold and autumnal azure, engulfing fishing boats on the water.

There’s a small “fee” for the preserve visit: a slightly heaving breath and heart, by the time you climb back to Lake Drive.

Here’s a brief photo essay from our visit to The Shorewood Nature Preserve on Saturday morning, Nov. 25:

Shorewood Nature Preserve Morning

November Icicles

Fishermen’s Morn on the Great Golden Pond

A Sun-blessed Surf

November Sky, Rolling Waves, and a Dedicated Angler

A Moment of Solitude

From the Bottom, The Path Down to the Great Lake (drop-off in foreground) 

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All photos by Kevin Lynch unless otherwise indicated.

 

World War III is here and it’s not with North Korea or Russia or any human enemy…

This is a digital projection but major coastal cities will be vulnerable to major floods if climate change continues apace and unchecked, says Bill McKibben. courtesy neatorama.com

Right now, World War III rages across the globe. And while the US President whistles through the battlefield like a world-class fool, even all those nations who agreed to the Paris Accord aren’t doing enough. That’s the dire warning of Bill McKibben’s deeply knowledgeable and far-reaching jeremiad from 2016 which grows more urgent and relevant each passing week, literally.

“Enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory; with each passing week, another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice disappears. ” he writes. “Experts dispatched to the battlefield in July saw little cause for hope, especially since this siege is one of the oldest fronts in the war. ‘In 30 years, the area has shrunk approximately by half,” said a scientist who examined the onslaught. “There doesn’t seem anything able to stop this.’”

McKibben notes that the gargantuan enemy isn’t angry at us, or otherwise emotionally or psychologically motivated, which can lead to mistakes, like Hitler’s many in WWII, or would likely happen to Kim Jong Un, if the North Korean dictator tries to use a nuclear weapon.

Rather, McKibbon notes, the enemy is indifferent, just as Nature was in Moby-Dick, our greatest American parable, among other things. Except Nature is now on a tsunami roll, far more destructive than it ever was in the mid-1800s, when Melville published his book.

The natural environment of Arctic wildlife disappears at a catastrophic rate week after week. The implications for the earth and civilization are staggering. Courtesy Huffington Post.com

Worse, North America’s corporate and governmental technological efforts are going in the wrong direction, as the massive oil spill of the new Keystone pipeline in North Dakota recently showed. One the eve of the decision to grant final approval to build the pipeline, it’s almost as if Nature – in the form of 210,000 gallons of gushing crude oil – sent a very pointed, and sprawling, message. Here’s a New York Times report on the spill:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/17/us/keystone-pipeline-transcanada-leak.html

McKibben has been our greatest scholar, writer and activist on environmental crisis for a long time and remains at the peak of his powers. 1 He was one of Bernie Sanders’ primary civilian expert consultants for his presidential race, when Sanders accurately declared climate change was the greatest threat to the world.

“World War III” is McKibben’s term, but he says we can still win the war but only if we mobilize in the way that is comparable, to an exponential degree, to our belatedly successful technological manufacturing response in the face of Nazi Germany virtually swallowing up all of Europe. Except now, most major nations will need to do the same.

Back home, even coal miners and their champions need to read this article and understand that the change necessary will only benefit coal miners, in terms of financial security and personal safety. The only constant in life is change, the truth we must all face up to once again. Now that the season of catastrophic weather –- hurricanes and hellish wildfires of unprecedented magnitude – we need to marshall our forces with clean, renewable energy production, which will also create thousands of new jobs. Even if there is a seasonal ebb and flow, natural catastrophes will only worsen if we don’t do something ambitious – aimed at the big, harrowing picture, at the long, serious, precipitous haul.

Wildfire photo courtesy images2.naharnet.com

Please don’t judge the war by my introductory words. But take Bill McKibben very seriously because he knows more about this than virtually anyone. McKibben is not an environmental extremist; he is an environmental realist  And he writes a very compelling story, full of historical and scientific perspective.

And this war is not a metaphor. It’s as real as Hurricane Harvey. As real as death. McKibben’s article is very readable, but a long one, only because we need some substance to get to the truth of a global war.

Here is McKibben’s story: A World at War

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  1. Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of the climate group 350.org.

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer venture deep into darkness past and coming

Sister singer-songwriters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have recorded their first duo album, mostly brilliantly realized covers. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Album cover courtesy rollingstone.com

Album Review

Shelby Lynne/Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross)

The lateness of this first, yet seemingly natural, collaboration of sister singer-songwriters carries old, heavy freight. Both witnessed their father kill their mother, then himself, in the backwoods of Alabama. Decades past, finally realized, Not Dark Yet reveals both as artists mature enough to transmute tragedy into a deep array of poignant expression. The album cover does depict three figures wholly shrouded in shadow, a teenager and an adolescent frolicking while a third person plays guitar.

Lynne is a fairly straight country artist and younger sister Allison (the ex-spouse of Steve Earle) is decidedly alt-country. And yet, they avoid the sentimental pitfalls common to country autobiographical song with a brilliant array of covers of other singer-songwriters, save one song by Lynne. The title song, one of Dylan’s best late period creations, clearly encounters trauma’s impact: “Feels like my soul has turned into steel/I’ve still got the scars the sun didn’t heal.” Yet it has graceful depth, an offhanded philosophic recognition of darkness’s inevitability in life. Here and elsewhere, their voices’ blood-matched closeness plumbs their souls and touches the listener.

Their oblique approach to their parental loss dwells in their rendering of  Townes Van Zandt’s chilling “Lungs,” uttered from the strangely-elevated viewpoint of a person dying of lung cancer: “Jesus was an only son and love his only concept/strangers cry in foreign tongues and dirty up the doorstep.”

Or perhaps they’re searching for their martyred mother in Jessi Coulter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” Here their vocal harmonies are soul-straining but wrenchingly radiant, entwining each other like tendrils of a crown of thorns. Or hear the yearning of Jason Isbell’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day”: “I can never find you in my dreams,” an obsessively repeated refrain. Nirvana’s “Lithium” activates a chemistry that seems to reach into the sisters’ shared historical essence. A forlorn, layered spirituality dwells in this album, an acceptance of the larger mysteries.

And yet, such fathomless beauty and tenderness carries through their lovely, life-worn voices that one feels them, not merely as orphans, but as women artists who have lived, lost and learned. This is among the year’s most indelible roots music albums.

And it’s an activist statement: They list the contact information for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence  beneath the inside-cover song titles and credits.

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A shorter version of this review was first published in The Shepherd Express

Melville speaks across generations of American veterans

The sky hangs shrouded in greys today, and the ground increasingly blanketed with fallen, dying leaves, even as flashes of fading autumn glory continue to cling to trees above.

That all seems very appropriate for Veterans Day today. I hung out my 13-star American flag, signifying America’s founding colonies.
And my soul feels heavy today, but not overcome. I offer this post humbly to honor all veterans, living and dead. But I am personally prompted by two veterans who have passed away, and not in the romantically heroic manner of a battlefield death.

The first was my late cousin John Zeh, who served as a gunner on a helicopter in the Vietnam War. John survived the war, but upon returning back home after his service the Agent Orange poisoning his body began to take its toll, and he died. It was the byproduct of rampant napalm spraying of Vietnam by the U.S. during the war, ultimately an insidious sort of “friendly fire.”

Sadly John Zeh is not listed among those late veterans names etched in the beautifully magnificent and understated Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, an oversight in my opinion. John was a great guy, a good husband and father, and a funny fellow, and is still deeply missed.

*

In 1971, my late cousin John Zeh sits in the middle foreground, after his return from Vietnam War service. He wore a wig due to baldness incurred by chemotherapy for Agent Orange, the Vietnam War-era affliction which ultimately killed him. This happy occasion also includes (from left) John’s brother Bill Zeh, my sister Anne, myself, my sister Betty, John’s wife Karin Zeh and their child Teri, and my sister Sheila. 

The second departed veteran was a very close friend of mine, Jim Glynn who died in October of 2004 of bladder cancer, which I am convinced arose from his need to use catheters for all the post-war years he lived vibrantly as a paraplegic disabled veteran. Jim is well-known in the Milwaukee music community for his popular, long-time eclectic jazz radio program on WMSE, also as a flutist-percussionist, and a grade-A culture vulture who consistently, despite his disability, directly supported and attended countless arts events in our community.

Disabled veteran Jim Glynn, right, served as the best man for my wedding in October 1997..

Jim also served during the Vietnam War although he was stationed in Europe. One day he was riding in a Jeep which lost control. He was thrown from the vehicle and the catastrophic injury to his legs left him paralyzed, unable to walk ever again, without crutches.
I recently had the pleasure to selected some CDs from his magnificent music collection, which he bequeathed to me, but his sister Shannon has kept it stored for some years and we agreed to allow it to be offered among certain friends and disc jockeys. It was a joy to see his collection again. The collection reportedly will be digitally filed and made available online by WMSE. Roaming through the boxes of CDs was a sweet experience that also reached in and pressed on my heart like a great elegy.

I have done radio music programs in the past and I hope to do a music program after I finished my novel about Herman Melville. I look forward to the opportunity to play some of the music from the Jim Glynn collection.

Speaking of Melville, I offer, on this Veterans Day, one of his wonderful poems “Shiloh: A Requiem” from his book of Civil War poems, Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, from 1866. It’s an alternative viewpoint to the brilliant and overwhelming immersion of Ken Burns’ recent documemtary TV series The Vietnam War. I also offer this because I think the poem resonates to America today, even though Melville wrote it shortly after the Civil War, and with that great conflict as his subject. Yet the poem reaches far beyond its time, because America today is stricken with great internal conflicts, mired in the same subjects the Civil War was fought over — the profound American stain of racism, and the desire to “preserve the Union” as President Lincoln put it.

Today we suffer from deep schisms over race, that lacerate the nation’s soul, and from the way the current presidential administration seems, for so many, like an increasing threat to our sacred American democracy and way of life, as exemplified by our national motto E pluribus unum: From many, one.

Melville’s complex attitudes toward war were far less optimistic and patriotic than Walt Whitman’s better-known Civil War poems, “Drum-Taps” from Leaves of Grass.

In addressing Melville’s point of view, I turn to the great poetry critic-scholar Helen Vendler from “Melville and the Lyric of History,” one of the supplemental essays in the Prometheus Books edition of Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War.

Vendler’s quote here references a couple of other poems in Battle Pieces which I invite you to investigate but her interpretive points apply aptly to Shiloh: A Requiem:

“Melville can never focus on one aspect, is never content to be single-minded: the costs borne by the brave men drowned in the Tecumseh must haunt the close of Melville’s victory narrative, just as the college colonel, in the brilliant poem of that name, cannot forget, as he leads his exhausted but victorious regimen home, the unspeakable truth that came to him in battle.

“And just as “The March into Virginia” began not with epic narrative but with reflection, enclosed not with narrative but with the tragic knowledge gained both by those who perished in those who lived to fight another day, so “The Battle for the Bay” begins in wisdom, continues with narrative, and ends in the tragedy that must qualify every deeply-felt battle song, even one of victory.” 1

Shiloh is not a poem about victory, it commemorates fallen veterans on both sides of the war. This reflects, to me, the most generous and courageous of spirits as a poetic observer, even if it was too challenging and equivocal for much of Melville’s readership then, and it remains, at times, challenging for contemporary readers. But Battle-Pieces is immensely worthwhile and enjoyable, one of the still-underappreciated masterworks of perhaps the greatest of American creative writers.

Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
      The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
      Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
            And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
      Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
      But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
      And all is hushed at Shiloh.
Finally, as a Veterans Day postscript, I offer you an opportunity for a bit of activism, specifically this petition for a cause to benefit severely disabled veterans.
Peace,
Kevin Lynch
_______
Online Melville text courtesy The Poetry Foundation.
 1. Helen Vendler, “Melville and the Lyric of History,” supplemental essays to Herman Melville’s Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War,  Prometheus Books, 2001, 260-261.

Pianist Richard Goode time-travels and “recomposes,” for his moment and ours

 

Richard Goode in recital. Photo courtesy Karsten Moran, New York Times.

MADISON – The winds of time may ruffle pianist Richard Goode’s whitening hair, and he now sports spectacles to eye the score while playing. But nothing has diminished his fluency, and his ability to “recompose” music, as he once explained as an ideal, in an interview I did with him a few decades ago.

That means, rather than slavish adherence to the written notes, he finds a way to go beyond mere recitation and even interpretation. He convincingly seems to play music that emits from his whole being and perhaps his own creative soul, though it was born in the mind of a great composer.

He opened his recital at Wisconsin Union Theater with four Prelude and Fugues from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, exercises in stylistic range and digital dexterity, from the F sharp minor’s elegant pacing that finally bloomed in counterpoint, to the resplendent harmonies and dancing gait of the G major. The pieces continued in a bubbling brook of counterpoint, the left hand prodding the right into sheer effervescence, even with a slight flub amid the dazzle. Goode’s playing built to a robust lilt, a full-chested articulation, a master grappling with a musical god.

But what impressed even more was how he reinvented Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, from 1908; giving the youthful work of the Second Viennese School composer maturity and depth I have not heard on recordings of this. The sonata is carved in a far rougher marble than Bach, with plenty of raw, wide-open veins. Berg was beginning to explore the implications of 12-tone technique, but Goode revealed this as still-romantic in its roots, amid sweeping lines and with a segment of counterpoint that alludes to Bach, an ingeniously apt program pairing. Goode gave the Berg voluminous grace that didn’t deny its grit. Halfway through the 10-minute sonata came a passage nearly tender, but which grew into a firmly-laced fortissimo, flinty yet majestic. He made this tough music breathe and, yes, sing.

Sometimes literally. Goode has always performed with an extremely animated face, especially with an utterly pliant mouth and lips and at times in the recital one could hear him humming softly along with his dancing fingers.

This all brought special resonance to the concert’s centerpiece, Beethoven’s Sonata o. 28 in a minor, Opus 101. He opened it more forcefully than his cherished recording of the work, without the perhaps-precious tiptoe-over-the lily-ponds effect. But now the pianist gave the opening melody a stronger arc of line, and elegant dance of hands that befit the acerbic chords that ensued, which nevertheless melt into a harmonic azure.

Richard Goode  Photo credit: Steve Riskind

The second movement’s march unfurled smartly, left hand crossing over right, then the left rising above the keyboard to pause, then both loping and strutting. This was not without some misterioso in the bass, which foreshadowed the adagio.  This somber interlude is brief but just enough, with Goode’s exquisitely held-breath pauses, yet a lovely undercurrent kept the tempo aflame. And at one point, his craggy brow and imploring lips brought to mind an aging Charles Laughton revisiting the pathos of his greatest screen role, as love-lorn Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, eloquently pouring his heart out to the cathedral gargoyles.

And yet Beethoven, with his own bedevilments, breaks free of his emotional quicksand, as did Goode. The finale slyly alludes to the march with songful Germanic hubris – the piece unfurls in swarms and stitches, the structural and improvisational aspects melding all of a piece, devil may dare and so does Beethoven.

After all this meat and potatoes, the post-intermission program of all-Chopin seemed a buffet of desserts, yet hardly without its strains of depth and glory. First, Goode book-ended four spritely mazurkas with a nocturne and the Ballade No. 3 in a flat major, Op. 47. That B Major Nocturne lent a smokiness to the underlying melodic sweetness and, among the mazurkas was the C major, spring-like and flirting with summer with the sound of rough-housing young rascals (lending rue to one’s rainy November mood). By contrast, the D-flat major mazurka is more probing and graced with the scrim of chiaroscuro, yet solidly grounded in the dance pulse.

These pieces set up the sumptuous Ballade, which is surprisingly acerbic, yet the melody shines among the composer’s most fetching, like a single determined flower breaking through earth, bolstered by its stout chromatic heart. Then this beauty is circled completely with arpeggios, and many aspects of the tempo and theme fragment and reassemble, a work of surprising power and radiance, which summoned its own ovation from the audience.

Then, another Nocturne, in C sharp minor, felt like a man soaking up the night, letting darkness infuse himself; he walks around, a shadow, a living mystery but somehow doesn’t deny his palpable existence.

It all ended with a Barcarolle in F-sharp major, with one of Chopin’s most beguiling, almost innocent melodies, yet the pungent key lent it heft and tart radiance.

For all this, Goode deserved an encore, and he chose a theme variation by British Renaissance-era composer William Byrd, written for one Lady Neville. It was a watery creation with swiftly coursing lines and glimmering light, but it also had some gallant flourishes, giving the lady honor, as in her subject’s most artful, sweeping bow (dripping wet?). She was finally charmed with a fugue passage that sounded born of a folksy English air, and she surely was satisfied.

Centuries came and went, to and fro, and Richard Goode remains the most sure-handed of time-traveling guides.

 

 

 

 

 

Jackie Allen mesmerises with personal vision and poetic music

Jackie Allen – Rose Fingered Dawn: The Songs of Hans Sturm (Avant Bass)

Milwaukee-born, Nebraska-based jazz singer Jackie Allen is on a sky-kissing career arc. Though still possessing far more talent than renown, her new album tops her previous, which I’d considered her best.  Dawn is more personal and artful, yet also as accessible as anything she’s done. That’s because of the nifty yin-yang between poetical art song-like creations often with enchanting world music settings, and more down-home groove songs, all created by her spouse, bassist-composer, Hans Sturm. The title song brilliantly evokes the dangers of romance: “You’re the light on the cliff over walls of mist/you’re the rocks below I can’t resist.”

Allen’s alluring voice, in its natural vibrato, glimmers like gulps from the heart, yet she transmits lyrics and sentiments with effortless aplomb and exquisite timing.

On “Moon on the Rising” her voice, in dramatic effect, speeds up the image to evoke the rising moon in a manner of seconds. On “Steal the Night,” her limpid phrasing sounds as if a circling well of water drifting into a slow current just out of reach of the departing lover who may never return.

Courtesy Jackie Allen Facebook page

Dane Richeson is rather wizardly in adding dimensions of percussive impetus as layered as they are propulsive, revealing his long study in African percussion and world musics. His uncanny chants open the album, like a shaman preparing his followers for a sacred ritual. The album follows with due spiritual fervor and complexity. Bassist-composer Strum remains central to the experience at all times, like a great stone well around which followers circle in dance or huddle, dipping into its riches like hungry fishermen.

Guitarist John Moulder also adds potent expression laced with shard-like textures, another veil of mystery that Allen dances behind.

Try this singer out and you’ll fall hard. Return to her and you’ll know why you always do.

 

_____________

 

The black and white photos were taken by Leiko Napoli at Jackie Allen’s spring concert at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee.

As the days dwindle down, jazz heats up in Milwaukee

 

“September Song on two. Take me to the river”

The days may be dwindling down to a precious few, as the great jazz standard “September Song” informs us, but the fire of the trees signals that live jazz is just heating up in Milwaukee.

The first concert of late fall note seems a bit under the radar or perhaps obscured by fallen leaves. The Dave Stoler Quartet will perform tonight at 9 p.m. Several things make this event special but most of all that the featured member of the quartet will be tenor saxophone great Rich Perry, who himself lacks the recognition he deserves. This  is partly because he has been a key member of important jazz orchestras as much as the leader of small ensembles.
So, although Perry has made a series of acclaimed small combo recordings on the redoubtable straight-ahead jazz label Steeplechase since the mid-1990s, he made his mark in New York first with the great Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, arguably the best modern big-band of the late 20th century.

And today he shares lead tenor chores with the somewhat more high-profile Donny McCaslin in the 21st century’s preeminent jazz big band to date, the Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra.
So Perry is a low-flying master of both high-flying straight-ahead swinging improv, as well as artfully orchestrated and even painterly playing, frequently demanded of players in the often magical-sounding tonal pallets of Schneider.

In this promotional poster on The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Facebook page, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry solos with the Grammy-winning orchestra in the photograph on the lower right. Perry will be featured performer tonight at the jazz estate in Milwaukee with The Dave Stoler Quartet. Courtesy Maria Schneider Facebook page.

One of the lesser known of Perry’s small-group recordings is as a side man with Madison pianist Dave Stoler on his excellent 1994 album Urban Legends which also includes tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza and the sterling rhythm section of bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart (the latter a member of Herbie Hancock’s iconic Mwandishi group). Stoler makes his home in Madison but periodically  plays small group gigs in New York, and that recording reflects the sort of respect he commands among musicians in the know.
Stoler himself has sounded like he’s been woodshedding extra hard in recent times and is playing at the absolute top of his game, as recent gigs have shown. Perhaps it’s an extra-hard focus on his plans for another recording, which probably will include Perry again.

Along with Perry, Stoler’s quartet at the Jazz Estate will include his highly simpatico regular rhythm section of bassist Chuck Ledvina and perhaps Milwaukee’s preeminent jazz drummer, David Bayles.

The Jazz Estate will remain a focal point of world-class jazz when The Tom Harrell Quartet performs two shows on Monday, October 30th. Harrell is consistently regarded among the finest trumpeters in modern jazz today and his skills as a composer remain in the highest echelon. He has written for full orchestras including his brilliant album Impressions which also drew from the classical Impressionist tradition of orchestration.

Trumpeter Tom Harrell. Courtesy Montreal Gazette.

And yet the quintessential genius of the man himself may be best captured in a small group live recording, Tom Harrell: Live at the Village Vanguard from 2001. And that’s the sort of bag one should expect to hear him playing in at The Jazz Estate, although it’s hazardous to predict such things as this inventive musician seems forever full of surprises.

Harrell will perform with superb Milwaukee-based musicians, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Jeff Hamann (perhaps best known as the house bassist for the popular NPR program “Whaddya Know?”) and drummer George Fludas. I’m sure those musicians are boning up on charts for Harrell’s most recent High Note album, Moving Picture, which characteristically displays his ability to take the listener far beyond mere notes and chord changes and melodies to something that evokes life, beauty and truth, just as the oft- moving and multimedia magic of cinema can.

The evidence of that recording shows once again that Harrell is an extraordinary master of lyricism, both in his distinctive ways of assembling tunes, and in how he thinks as a soloist – with lucid, deliberate articulation of shimmering and songful ideas. He can even pull this off at a fairly fast tempo.

And he does this consistently as a prolific artist, with annual albums and not infrequently two, and sometimes three, recordings a year.

For information on tickets to the Harrell concerts, visit:http://tomharrell.brownpapertickets.com/

Finally among upcoming fall offerings, keep in mind Saturday November 4, when the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra and the UWM Jazz Ensemble kick-starts the 2017-2018 season with a dynamic concert celebrating the Milwaukee jazz tradition that was championed by Milwaukee native and jazz legend, Woody Herman.

Thee Annual Woody Herman memorial concert will surely feature classic Herman material from the famous Milwaukee-native clarinetist and big band leader, who helped to bring the big band tradition into the modern jazz era.

But the concerts will also be a great chance to hear music from the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra’s recent recording Welcome to Swingsville!  which invites you to an imaginary place populated not only by this orchestra but also the full spirit of unadulterated swing, which thrives there from dawn until ’round midnight, and beyond. The recording includes originals by leader and reed player Kurt Hanrahan and guitarist-composer Steve Lewandowski as well as classics by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington, Frank Loesser and Charlie Parker with Gil Evans.

General Admission is $10; Seniors (w/ID) & UWM Faculty and Staff (w/ID)- $10; Students (w/ID) & Under 18 – $5; Peck School Majors (w/ID) – Free

So don’t let the mournful “September Song” and its accompanying season give you the deep-down blues. Better yet, transmute that bluesy spirit into a passion for a musical and brethren beauty, for live jazz, and go and get it.

 

 

 

Milwaukee film brilliantly embraces the family of Dontre Hamilton – a search for justice

A candlelight vigil held in Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee for the late Dontre Hamilton, held by his family and other mourners and activists. Photo by Jennifer Johnson.

It was a pleasant surprise to run into my former colleague, Madison-based  writer and critic Rob Thomas, with whom I worked at The Capital Times for a number of years, before returning to my hometown of Milwaukee in 2009.

I was also heartened that Rob cared enough to travel to Milwaukee to cover the film we were both attending, Blood is at the Doorstep. So I am offering a link to his excellent report on the film, which in its Milwaukee debut was a bonafide event, with a post-screening onstage talk-back with the film director in attendance as well as important members of the late Dontre Hamilton’s family, who provide much of the film’s soul and substance.

Documentary on Hamilton Shooting Comes Home By Rob Thomas

As a fine film critic, Thomas is well aware that this film transcends, reaches beyond Milwaukee, while being an inextricable product of the city’s lacerated heart. As he points out in his article, Blood has already made waves throughout the country, having been shown at a number of film festivals including the prestigious SXSW film festival in Austin. It has also gained an independent distributor and filmmaker Eric Ljung hopes it will have a continuing tour into 2018. I want to consider why is this important but I also want to focus on the film’s quality and effectiveness.

The film has a conventional, straightforward linear narrative, like most documentaries. It details how a Milwaukee police officer, Christopher Manney, approached the sleeping African-American Dontre Hamilton, even though other officers had inspected him earlier in the day and determined he was a threat to no one.

This tragic moment should never have happened for several other reasons.

Manney’s record reveals that he amounted to more of a threat to the community than a safeguard. The film, three years in the making, reveals he had already been guilty of more than a dozen instances of excessive use of force, as well as a sexual assault charge. So in retrospect, it’s unsurprising that when Manney confronted the sleeping young black man, he put his hands on him. The groggy Hamilton reacted instinctively by grabbing Manney’s threatening billy club.

A witness to the altercation says that neither Manney nor Hamilton landed a blow with the club. Nevertheless Manney then pulled out his handgun and shot Hamilton 14 times, as he lay on the blanket he had been sleeping on. Talk about living and dying a nightmare.

Later district attorney John Chisholm says, in a tortured decision, he determined there was no criminal intent because, whether or not a blow was landed, the policeman’s club in Hamilton’s hand posed a threat. Thus, the district attorney’s reasoning is that somehow Manney was justified in his slaughter even though Hamilton never struck Manney.

Objectively speaking, Chisholm should probably have not been ruling on this case because he works closely with MPD as public prosecutor. So he can hardly be judged a politically impartial investigator. This built-in conflict of interest in city justice systems is just beginning to be addressed across the nation, partly because of the preponderance of virtually all policemen being absolved of guilt in cold-blooded shootings of unarmed black men, time and time again.

Another reason this never should’ve happened was the poor community relations that Milwaukee Police Department has with the people it is sworn to protect. A recent independent report has thoroughly documented this problem. So in this instance, we see police chief Ed Flynn, who comes off in the film as arrogant and self-serving, rolling his eyes and even ignoring the public as he sits before them at one hearing while he stares at his cell phone. He says he was keeping track of a new murder case. If any one needed Flynn’s consultation about that matter, one can assume they would have contacted him. Flynn also defensively profiled Hamilton as homeless and as an armed robber, neither of which was true. The dead man did suffer from a mental disease, perhaps schizophrenia.

And it is clear that officer Manney failed to follow police department protocol in approaching a citizen. He ended up being fired for not following police procedure, but the department  ignored the possible first-degree murder charge. This allowed Manney to appeal his firing as “wrongful.” Manney himself claims that he saw a bulge in a pants pocket of the sleeping Hamilton, which the cop said might have been a gun or a shard of broken glass that might be a potential weapon.

No such weapon existed, merely Manney’s lame, lethal excuse. And because the district attorney absolved him of any responsibility for the man he killed, the officer ended up receiving 75% of his pay for the rest of his life, in effect living off the fat of city taxpayers as a retired officer only in his ’40s. Such miscarriages of justice inspired this film.

Blood is also deeply stained with color, tone, texture, and a weave of a diverse group of people, from family to protesters to witnesses and police. It simmers with complex and heated emotions set against the backdrop of an unassumingly beautiful city (quiet as its kept) in which the tragedy took place in. This is not to distract from the heart of the film’s message – an urgent call for social justice and political activism in the face of system racism.

But this film is not simply agitprop. Rather it radiates visually stunning artistic meaning and truth, more than most documentaries that don’t celebrate nature’s visual bounties. But the amalgam of human tragedy gives it a powerful pulse, brimming with passion, angst and contrastingly beautiful textures — cityscapes in a vivid array of luminous sky, atmosphere, light and grid patterns of intersecting streets. We see snow accumulating on the red sculpture in Red Arrow Park where Hamilton died, as months and then years pass after his death. Thick snowflakes fall like tears, or melting hearts chilled by harshest realities that seem to defy hope. And yet here we see The Rev. Jessie Jackson, among those activists who attend the hearings and protest rallies, embodying his most famous words, to keep hope alive.

Photo courtesy www.yelp.com

The tragic death scene, a symbolic sculpture, is situated in the heart of downtown Milwaukee across the street from City Hall and the city’s largest fine arts performing arts venue. The park might be the most popular public gathering place in the city, and includes a skating rink. Yet the red sculpture now seems fraught with meaning as tortured as the political circumstances of this case. The artwork’s arrow form commemorates the sleeve insignia symbol worn by the celebrated 32nd infantry division comprising Wisconsin and Michigan soldiers. The division is famous for its heroic efforts in advancing through seemingly impenetrable enemy territory during both world wars, so tough the French nicknamed them “Les Terribles.”

The artwork now seems laden with irony in that these soldiers fought so hard to protect our freedom and democratic way of life. Dontre Hamilton was sleeping beneath this sculpture when he was accosted and killed by a Milwaukee police officer. A federal civil rights lawsuit on his family’s behalf remains pending. The arrow, also embodying the symbol of a cross, strains toward the heavens for deliverance and righteousness. Dontre Hamilton truly seems a kind of martyr, yet not unlike many other unarmed (or his case and that of 14-year-old Tamir Rice, dubiously “armed”) black men gunned to death by police. Today his family still feels shortchanged of full due process in their son’s killing.

Among the most touching moments of the Milwaukee Film Festival event was Hamilton’s brother Nate, now a strong activist, presenting the film’s director Eric Ljung with a denim jacket festooned with graffiti-like spray paint decorations.

(Left to right) “The Blood is at the Doorstep” director Eric Ljung, cinematographer Daniel Thomas Peters, editor Michael T. Vollman, and subjects Maria Hamilton, Nate Hamilton and Dameion Perkins speak at the Milwaukee premiere of the film Friday at the Oriental Theatre. Photo by Rob Thomas of The Capital Times.
Nate Hamilton read off the names of black men killed by police which were also hand-printed on the jacket. This brought to mind, for me, some celebrated artwork of African-Americans “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” which were shown in an exhibit in The Milwaukee Art Museum some years ago. Among the most striking works were patchworked quilts made of the denim work clothes of the women’s men, some who had died. Hamilton’s truly remarkable mother Maria, also at the screening, has lost one of her most precious men and now the humblest of clothing has been passed on to another man who turned her son’s story into art that can never be killed.

And mother Maria is a sort of madonna who has doubtlessly imagined a final embrace of her dead son akin to Michelangelo’s The Pieta too many times, yet she also embraces passionate activism. Still, we see in the film, she has some inner, hard-won serenity that has her draw the line when overzealous activists seem to become counterproductive.

At the film event Friday, Maria Hamilton appeared blessed with heavy but tearful joy, that her journey and quest continues, and that it may not be in vain.

Dontre Hamilton’s Mother Maria and brothers Dameion and Nate. Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine