“The Ashcan School” reveals America’s underbelly and many shades of its character

A prize possession of The Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Ashcan School” collection is the large painting “The Sawdust Trail,” from 1916 by George Bellows. Milwaukee Art Museum

Art Review:

The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art. The Milwaukee Art Museum, through February 19, 2023. Bradley Family Gallery

For information and tickets: https://mam.org/exhibitions/details/ashcan-and-the-eight.php

To see a world in a grain of sand” poet William Blake once put it. Later, American poet Walt Whitman would see “a grain of sand” as no less perfect than a leaf of grass.”

These great modernist poets saw things profoundly magnified in the humblest of earthly entities, light years from most of the art and music that for centuries courted royalty. So perhaps it was inevitable that the nation built on the anti-regal and messy moorings of democracy foster an art movement antithetical to royalty-schmoozing. Rather, one of the commonfolk, at least in its ideals. This American motherlode would bear the nation’s first “national art.”

Known as The Ash Can School, its name derived from a pejorative critical comment that the art was as good as “a can of ashes.” But in that comment’s snoot the artists saw soot, as in a poetical paradox. The ashes contained dirt, enough to allow seedlings to grow and tilt toward social justice, found in artistic truth.  That is, a great, if profoundly flawed nation’s life and essence might be extrapolated from something as slight as a cigarette butt’s droppings.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art allows Americans to see themselves in the early 20th century, a time of great cultural upheaval, a nation shapeshifting in its peculiar genius — troubled, compulsively creative, proud, and quotidian. It was also struggling through the first World War with the Great Depression around the corner. Yet immigrants poured in, adding diversity, labor energy, and societal tension.  Perhaps more than anything, modernism’s post-industrial revolution had shackled and driven America.

How did the Ash Can School capture all this? First, they objected to exhibition practices that they considered restrictive and conservative. They often employed an expressionistic, painterly style to portray gritty and downtrodden subjects previously deemed inappropriate for high art and museums, the stuff of “ashcans.”

Accordingly, the museum’s curators and guest show catalog essayists draw parallels to cultural and social issues still relevant today.

The Art Museum owns one of the nation’s largest collections of works by the Ashcan School, and this is the first exhibit to include nearly the entire 150-object collection, says curator Brandon Ruud. Prints, drawings, paintings, and pastels represent artists of the so-called “The Eight,” who largely produced the Ash Can style and sensibility: Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, George Bellows, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur Bowen Davies, Maurice Prendergast. Several affiliated artists like Stuart Davis reveal the full range of the group’s subjects and artistic practices.

One’s eye might easily gravitate to a large painting in the show, Bellows’ “The Sawdust Trail,” by traditional measures of scale and complexity a “masterpiece,” even though the group’s aesthetics strove to burrow beneath grand art conventions that may obscure the truth as they saw it. The painting earns its renown, an epic canvas with a cinematic view of a religious revival meeting.

It tells a rich and sardonic story of post-Puritan American impulses that continue to this day in evangelic churches. The charismatic preacher, named for a real historical figure, Billy Sunday, would solicit salvation while typically delivering a thunder-and-lightning sermon to spook believers out of their savings. The air above his big tent virtually billows with a dense cloud of sun-lit smoke that might easily exalt the illusion of the divine.

Billy Sunday himself glad-hands one convert. Several women faint (from the fumes of divine inspiration?) amid the dense, motley crowd. Exaltation, or delusion, or some other strange strain of behavior is distinctly American as it is universal, to see the “MAGA” power deluding today, and the global trend to political authoritarianism.

A man with that kind of power might be a Republican presidential candidate — if he can beat out Donald Trump who, heathen though he may be, knows most of the preacher’s hidden gifts for dark persuasion and personality-cult politics.

An even more insidious example of how compromised holiness undermines the truth is Mike Pence, who has said he will not testify to Congress about the January 6 insurrection, even though he was a primary execution target. He’s played it politically all the way, claiming a dubious “separation of powers” privilege — only because he survived.

So, these Ash Can diggers uncovered America haunted by cycles of power as old and foreshadowing as the first conquests of Native Americans and slavery.

Yet one might better experience this exhibit on a smaller scale, as a kind of forensic mystery, investigating the human figures that tell personal stories of lives possibly forsaken or transgressed.

John Sloan The Barbershop, etching and aquatint, 1915, MutualArt.com

Zoom down from, say, the atmospheric expanse of “The Sawdust Trail” to individual figures in intimately revealing scenes. No one surpassed painter-printmaker John Sloan at carving out these small-window revelations of what would become known as Americana, in a land still grappling with its identity.

The class-laden print The Barbershop animates to the point of satirical comedy. A crowded barbershop is recast as a tableau of sublimated class-warfare. The two men being serviced clearly reign. One seems to eye, with lust or disdain, a young lower-class woman manicuring him. Seated in waiting, a middle-class man reads the satirical Puck magazine, and beside him lies a subversive Marxist magazine called The Masses, for which Sloan served as art editor. The complex, beautiful composition (less than 10 by 12 inches) is riddled with America’s contradictions of social indulgence and defiance.

Among Sloan’s numerously displayed gritty parables of the underclass is Night Windows. A Peeping Tom husband spies on a bathing neighbor in a nearby window, while his wife hangs out his family’s laundry amid squalling children. In Sloan’s world, God may or may not have been invited for dinner. They are too busy trying to put bread on the table for the brood.

Robert Henri, Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), oil (24 by 20 inches), 1910, Pinterest 

Robert Henri, who was the movement’s leader, had the portraiture skill to humanize the mother, the man, or boy, in the brood.

Witness his marvelous portrait of a street urchin named Dutch Joe, (or Jopi van Slooten), from 1910. In this bundle of mischief, you sense potential, yet risk. “The disparity between the innocence of the hero and the destructive character of his experience defines his concrete, or existential, situation.” That’s how American literary critic Ihab Hassan characterized what he called America’s “radical innocence.” 2 It entailed the possibility that, in his scruffy vigor, brash will and ingenuity, Joe might get ahead in the world, or be swallowed up in it.

This show is populated with a fascinating array of colorful actors, many of problematic agency.

John Sloan, Reading in a Subway, etching, 1926. Pinterest

Everett Shinn, The Nightclub Scene, oil, (36 by 34 inches) 1934

From Shinn’s iridescent Nightclub Scene to Sloan’s bundled-from-the-cold flapper in Reading in a Subway, or the vibrant gaggle of 9-to-5 women in Return from the Toil, these artists encounter a diverse populous and gives lie to the contemporary criticism (on an exhibit wall commentary) that these artists diminished women and minorities in the class-struggle tableaux. They were doubtless men of their time, subject to certain biases, but by this evidence they strove for greater understanding and truth of how we live together, and in isolation, in America, to envision a real yet better way, one quotidian day at a time.

In other words, they often told a small “d” democratic story, creating heroes among quietly courageous women and other folks hidden in the cracks of society.

And the men depicted are often satirical subjects of classism and sexism, as in preacher Billy Sunday and Sloan’s “Barbershop” scene.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, lithograph, 1923-24, (18 by 22 1/4 inches), Pinterest 

Perhaps the most famous image in the show is Dempsey and Firpo, the lithograph print that led to George Bellows’ explosive painting of a big-time heavyweight boxing match, a literal witnessing of the brutal sport that came of age in this era. “When Dempsey was knocked through the ropes he fell in my lap,” Bellows explained to Henri. “I cursed him a bit and placed him carefully back in the ring.” So, Bellows justifiably includes himself in the painting’s corner, a bit like director Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances.

Bellows had studied art under Henri. John Fagg’s superb catalog essay describes how “Henri encouraged his students both to scour city streets for inspiration and to read widely and embrace culture in all its forms.” This sounds like the best kind of voraciousness that would exemplify the American striving these artists documented and interpreted, warts and all.

“Henri talked not only about the students’ paintings but also about music, literature, and life in general, and a very stimulating manner, and his lectures constituted a liberal education,” recalled Stuart Davis. 3

This exhibit constitutes such an education, as rare as it is valuable, at a time when it feels sorely needed. If you want to learn about confounding America, of both yesterday and today, in the Faulknerian sense that the past is never dead, this Ash Can art provides you, in immersive depth, yet free of academic pretenses, though the catalogue essays are welcome. It is an experience of vast pleasures amid what Duke Ellington called murmuring “Harlem airshafts,” and Hitchcock’s rear windows, and pregnant, grimy shadows of night. 4

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This review was originally published in a slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: here: https://shepherdexpress.com/culture/visual-art/america-unvarnished-in-mams-ash-can-school-exhibit/

1 The exhibit also includes a lithograph version of The Sawdust Trail, which shows more of the fine details in the dense composition.

2 Ihab Hassan, Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, Princeton, 1961, 7

3 John Fagg, “The Unseen City: The Ashcan School’s New York,” The Ashcan School and The Eight: Creating a National Art, show catalog, The Milwaukee Art Museum 2022, 78

4 A reflection of this collection’s ongoing contemporary relevance and vitality is that it is still growing even after decades. A primary curator of the show, Brandon Rudd explained to me: “One of the truly amazing things about the Ashcan School collection is that it is both such an integral part of the Museum’s rich history and is also active and growing: This exhibition features new acquisitions and never-before-seen donations, as well as loans from private collections in the Milwaukee community and works rarely displayed or seen by the public because of their fragility.”

 

Marvin Hill toiled artfully through life, with visionary wit, and knowledge of darkness, on a path to the other side

Wendy and Marvin Hill. Courtesy Wendy Carroll Hill

He’s been gone since 2003, but Marvin Hill is hardly forgotten. My home brims with his wondrous and witty linoleum-block prints. And just as his memorial postcard (see below) was graced with his self-description as “a very lucky man,” I feel blessed as well, with his art and for having known him. I don’t know when exactly Marvin made that self-portrait, but I suspect it was near the end of his life. He seemed like the sort who appreciated his time on this planet, and knew that he had left a rich legacy, filled with hundreds of pathways into his imagination, each adventure returned as a sharply-honed visual story of wonder, humor and mystery.

He died on this day, December Second, in 2003, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at 51. His widow, Wendy Hill, who did most of the hand-coloring for his prints, sent out the above postcard in June of 2005, to announce a Marvin Hill booth at Art Fair On the Square. As if nothing had changed, except that angelic tribute to Marvin’s life, talent and spirit. .

He was a sweet, but droll man, with a vibrant creative fire. I once visited his rural studio, slightly pungent with the smell of printer’s ink, and it seemed alive with a slightly cock-eyed aura of artistic affirmation. His artwork was popular, yet idiosyncratic and personal, never pandering. He was always one of the most interesting artists at any art fair he exhibited at, and he was duly feted when chosen as The Featured Artist, for the 1999 Art Fair on the Square in Madison. He designed the official T-shirt for that year’s fair, which he autographed for me and I still have it. Hill exhibited widely at fairs and galleries, and won national awards for his work. 1

Though he once lived on the same street in Milwaukee I now live on, he and Wendy ended up in Johnson Creek, halfway between Madison and Milwaukee, and Madison seemed his strongest market.

I wrote an appreciation of him when he died, for The Capital Times in Madison, and I’ll share some of my thoughts from that time:
“Marvin Hill pulled you into his world with art that could be otherworldly, or as comfortable as a pair of old slippers. The pair you slip on after an especially vivid dream, or to sit down with the book that has you under its spell. Books and dreams were Marvin’s milieu.

Or he got you with his warm, twinkling smile, and his passion for art, stories and life –  in a dimension behind the door unlocked with ‘the key of imagination.’ His art was “The Twilight Zone” captured in a frame. Marvin lived the life of the mind, expanded, printed and hand colored.

His art could challenge you but it was hard to resist. He made inexpensive linoleum block prints, one of the most unpretentious of art forms. Yet Marvin took quantum leaps with this medium….

“Marvin’s style blended noir-ish German Expressionism with an utterly American sense of possibility. Space, time and gravity expanded and contracted. He sensed the chaos theory hidden just beneath the dusty surface of ordinary life.”

“‘He was fully formed intellectually when I met him when he was 21’, says Madison artist and cartoonist P.S. Mueller, who says he and Hill ‘starved together’ as street people in Carbondale, Illinois.

.” ‘But he never used drugs, ever. He always said, ‘I don’t use drugs, they interfere with my hallucinations.’ ” 2

That’s how funny and delightfully outre the guy could be.

Now, I will share some images of Marvin Hill art, with commentary.

He only made one print of my personal favorite among those I own (see his edition designation, “1/1” or “one of one” beside the title). This (and three Hill “artist’s proofs” I own — a test print marked “A/P” he sold inexpensively and may or may not have run an edition of) also confirmed to me a closeness in our aesthetic and literary sensibilities.  They were sort of personal favorites that he made for himself, yet still offered to for sale. So they the A/P’s too might be one-of-a-kind Marvin Hills.

My favorite among these is also the smallest single image I ever saw him produce. It is titled  “Fritz Lang walks His Dog” and I post an enlarged version for you to appreciate. Now, shrink it in your mind: The actual image is only 3/4 of an inch by 2 and 2/5th inches!

The enlargement allows you to see the image, but remember, enlarging also roughens its craftmanship. Hill wasn’t obsessive about razor-sharp technique, but his chops constantly served his quirky genius in perfect simpatico, perhaps like the great jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, at times a bit scraggly, but that enhanced the art’s peculiar, funky beauty.

The squinty size of “Fritz Lang” is a “big” part of the piece’s brilliance. It’s like a secret portal into his imaginative world, and into how his conception and style manifested themselves. The idea of movie director Lang and his dog recalls an Alfred Hitchcock movie cameo, though this is more sly, as we see only only the projected shadows of Lang and his dog. It also carries an ominousness, as Lang’s most seminal film is M with Peter Lorre as a serial killer preying on children in Berlin in London. The 1931 film, part of the German Expressionist art movement, is pretty much the prototype for all film noir. 3.  Hitchcock arguably predates M with his 1926 fog-bound silent film The Lodger, about a London serial killer, both films likely inspired by Jack The Ripper’s legend.

But Peter Lorre’s creepy breakout performance, enhanced by his weird nasal-breathing speaking style and demonic laugh, helped give Lang’s “talkie” greater notoriety, for its shock value and aura of paranoia — and stylistically, with his more incisive cinematographic intersecting of light and shadow. Knowing all that, Marvin Hill uses his noir-ish wit to humanize the German director, while maintaining his mystique.

Another noir-ish Hill piece which was an “artist’s proof” shows how subtle his craft can be. It’s titled “Enter” (below).

“Enter,” Marvin Hill. Hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof)

The figure entering the dark room is engulfed in a sort of ectoplasmic atmosphere, an effect unusual for knife-executed block-cut prints. It’s unclear whether the figure is the vulnerable one, entering the dark enclosure, or the threatening one, entrapping a frightened person hiding within. The psychological ambiguity intensifies its power. I have positioned it as as a sort of “welcome” for guests to my home, or now, to my office.

A brighter, rather comical Hill print nevertheless retains his surrealistic weirdness. Some have characterized it as “a bit goofy,” true enough, but it held a place of honor in my divorcee bachelor-flat kitchen for many years.

Marvin Hill, “Man Attacked by Green Beans,” hand-colored linoleum block print (artist’s proof). 

I love the animation of “Man Attacked by Green Beans,”  everything is flying askew (not unlike

Marvin could also celebrate serenity and domesticity, as in this elegantly framed (but still inexpensive) print, below, simply titled “e.”, as in the name of the sleeping feline in portrait.

Marvin Hill, “e.”, hand-colored linoleum block print.

Next, the Deco-styed print (below) takes us into Hill’s dream realm, and suggests his striving to connect or follow nature, to transcend the limits of gravity-bound humanity. It feels like a late-period Hill, though I think it may be the first of his I purchased, before Wendy began hand-coloring his images. His sense of time was elastic, reaching into the fates of futurity as well as backward, with symbolic ease, and wonder.

Marvin Hill, “Dream Suite # 3,” linoleum block print.

Photo of Kevin Lynch at Marvin Hill art booth at Art Fair on the Square, in Madison, by Beth Bartoszek Lynch. 

This photo (above) was taken in summer of 2005, at the first posthumous booth of Marvin Hill art at Art Fair on the Square, maintained by his widow, Wendy Carroll Hill. It shows some of his small work and some of the more ambitious work he achieved late in his life, like the stunning, large mandala-like three-dimensional print, to the right of your blogger, in this photo. The several evident circular images, to me, suggest Marvin’s expression of a holistic experience of the world, his coming to grips with where his journey beyond might take him, not into nothingness, really, but to part of a circle (reincarnation?) that will be unbroken, bye and bye, one can hope.

Yet another marvelous Hill image, which my ex-wife and I bought together, and which she now possesses, depicts a shaman in a small shack high in the mountains. It might allude to the end of his life, or beyond. His corporeal end, to any outside observer, and to Wendy, was impossibly sad. He he lost the use of his hands and arms — an artist still at the peak of his powers, which at times seemed visionary, in his humble way. There are more sad details I won’t get into here. I will recount some of Wendy’s narrative, from my 2003 Capital Times obit appreciation:

“He couldn’t take care of himself, he couldn’t walk, but he was still so positive. One day, he looked out the window and said, ‘It’s all good.’

“I said, ‘It’s all good? It sucks! ‘

” He said, ‘No, I want to know what’s going to happen, what’s on the other side.’ ” 4

Fortunately for Wendy, Hill’s work has steadily sold online in recent years, and a goodly but diminishing amount remains available online, including more ambitious works. 5 One uses the above bird-seeking “Dream Suite” image as one of multiple motifs, each dominated by a blackbird in the dazzling 3-D montage titled “Jack’s Message Dream Suite.”

Another, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle,” articulates his self-expressed intellectual hunger and spiritual curiosity (image below).  It’s telling that Hill positions the ancient Chinese philosopher in the dominant dueling position. Descartes, riding a mechanical dragon, uses a book “shield” and wields a giant pointed circumference compass; while Lao, atop a “real” dragon, counters with a traditional saber and a walking stick. Mathematician, metaphysician, and philosopher Descartes is, of course, best known as the Western paragon of rationalist philosophy as a demarcation of reality. Though his historicity as a real person is debated, Lao is credited as the founder of Taoism and reputed author of the philosophical text Tao Te Ching.

By contrast to Western rationalism’s prioritizing the brain’s reasoning powers, Taoism embraces an inquiry into primary sources, the un-apprehended aspects, or vast realms of existence, that may help form our cosmos, our world and affect our lives. Accordingly Tao signifies “the source and ideal of all existence: it is unseen, but not transcendent, immensely powerful yet supremely humble, being the root of all things. People have desires and free will (and thus are able to alter their own nature). Many act ‘unnaturally’ upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a ‘return’ to their natural state, in harmony with Tao.] Language and conventional wisdom are critically assessed. Taoism views them as inherently biased and artificial, widely using paradoxes to sharpen the point. ” 6

Marvin Hill, “Lao Tzu and Rene Descartes Engage in a Philosophical Battle.” Linoleum-cut block print. Courtesy www.marvinhill.com

Surveying Hill’s oeuvre, one senses his Taoistic leanings, an intense awareness of forces beyond the empirical. Another ambitious print, is even more surreal than “Man Attacked by Green Beans.” Titled “Nonattachment,” wherein gravity has evidently abandoned a man in his home, and he and his possessions all float freely. Is this evoking a strange scientific phenomenon, or an underlying truth of contingency regarding reason, and even ownership? Were Marvin’s humble and drug-free “hallucinations” also possibly insights? Given his ever-leavening humor, he was a serious reader, and a pan-cultural, pluralistic thinker, clearly interested in the dialectical (and in paradox), and beyond.

I think Marvin Hill’s equilibrium helped focus his insights. He seemed to know how far to go with his dreams. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “The Holy Ghost (the winged soul within us) bid us never be too deadly in our earnestness, always to laugh in time, at ourselves and everything, Particularly our sublimities. Everything has its hour of ridicule – everything.”  6 Marvin could always laughed in time, like, say, pianist Victor Borge, a musical comedian with exquisite timing. A prime Hill illustration of perfect comic timing is the piece titled “Does Awakening Come All at Once?” The image is of a bespectacled man (le artiste?) getting a blueberry pie splat in the face. Or, there’s the tart irreverence of “Thoreau is Driven from the Garden by Unruly Nature,” the ironic title delivering plenty.

And then, the affliction arose and eroded him. Sorrow welled, though not Marvin’s, until his knife and wit lay still, for the last time, December 2, 2003.

Finally, another Hill “artist’s proof” (below) would become a posthumous gift from him to me (actually sent to me by Wendy, in gratitude for my patronage and coverage of Marvin) – a portrait of the great American poet Walt Whitman, clearly in the autumn of his life. Marvin knew just how to visually honor the mighty, innovative, and quintessentially American poet, also known for his massive capacity for compassion, as a dedicated Civil War nurse. Hill depicts Whitman’s head, well, as if upon a hill. Whitman here seems like granite, or one more great face, to be carved into Mount Rushmore, alongside other American giants, including his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman honored in magnificent verse, better than any other poet.

I didn’t consciously intend this, but “Walt Whitman” sits in my office, atop a bookshelf, the highest location of any artwork I own.

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1 Art Fair on the Square, held each Independence Day Weekend, is sponsored by The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and is one of the state’s most rigorously-juried outdoor art fairs, along with Milwaukee’s Lakefront Festival of the Arts.

2. Even given Mueller’s story about he and Hill as classic “starving artists,” Hill had earned an MFA in printmaking from Drake University.

3. Among other many great Fritz Lang (primarily) films noirs: include: “Metropolis (silent),” “You Only Live Once,” “Ministry of Fear,” “Scarlet Street,” “Clash By Night,” “The Big Heat,” “and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”

4. Here’s a scan of my 2003 newspaper appreciation of Marvin Hill. You might save or download it to a picture file to magnify and read it better.

5. The Marvin Hill website: http://www.marvinhill.com

6.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laozi

7. D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Penguin, 1923,1977, 79

 

A message to a great actor: Jim DeVita in the one-man play “American Song”

Jim DeVita, as a devastated father of a dead son from a terrorist gun massacre, in the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-man play “American Song,” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo courtesy jsonline.com

I decided to post the e-mail message below, which I sent to actor Jim DeVita today, even though the brilliant one-man play American Song, which he delivered the world premiere of at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has closed.

I managed to get to the end of the play’s run, but I still wanted to offer my appreciation to him, and for those who may have an opportunity to see the play, and to see DeVita perhaps performing American Song elsewhere, or in other roles with Milwaukee theater companies, or in his long-time position as a lead company actor for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Anywhere you see him, you will probably understand why The New Yorker critic Terry Teachout called him “America’s greatest classical actor.”

But in this case, DeVita played the heart and stone-burdened Andy, in an overwhelmingly up-to-the-minute play by Joanna Marie-Smith, and directed by The Rep’s artistic director Mark Clements. 1

The play’s title references Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, wherein the poet likens America to a song and its citizens as potentially a chorus, just as he celebrates American individualism, throughout the “Grass” collection, most famously in the poem “Song of Myself.”

The new play American Song, challenges Whitman’s optimism for an American populace singing in harmony. In fact, playwright Murray-Smith isolates one individual with almost cold-blooded scrutiny.

A father named Andy is hand-building a stone wall on his property while he struggles to come to grips with the harsh, devastating reality of his son’s recent death. The spectral back story is a terrorist gun massacre in the son’s school, which left nine people dead including his son and many injured, an all-too-familiar dirge of a song today. One wonders how Whitman would’ve responded to this numbing American refrain.

I will say no more about the story, only to add that the play’s scrutiny allows us to experience and feel the depth and array of feelings of this human being, an every man with warm blood and a lacerated heart.
In my message, I do try to express some appreciation of the power of the play and especially of DeVita’s astonishing performance.

Hey Jim,

I want you to know that my girlfriend Ann and I finally caught the last Sunday matinee performance of American Song. We were in the balcony in the middle. Both of us were greatly impressed by the play, and engrossed and moved by your performance.

Ann said that she felt on the verge of tears frequently. This is a tribute to you, and your uncanny ability — often in mid-set sentence — to shift into an emotionally charged tone. The audience senses, in the bat of an eyelash, the increased pressure and weight of that nuanced, yet charged, moment. The cumulative effect is draining yet quietly exhilarating.
Yet, the 90 minutes flew by with only you, and the text and stage direction, to sustain their flow and power.
I can think of very few actors who have such skills as yours, in this regard. You also commanded the narrative flow beautifully.
And I love the metaphor of you building the stone wall, it’s rhythm and symbolism, which is rich and open to interpretation.
For me, perhaps you are building a wall around your heart, to protect it. Of course, we never see you complete it because that is perhaps a lifelong project, at least internally, which adds to the play’s poignance and the footprints of personal history, your stone-hauling and pacing back and forth  — and talking to the sky in confounded wonder and anger.
The latter act evokes, for me, King Lear, before he loses it, and Melville’s “quarrel with God.” You recall, Melville also lost his oldest son, age 18, to a gun death, most likely suicide.
Thank you for an indelible experience,
Kevin Lynch
p.s,. Stay in touch regarding your performance and writing exploits, especially regarding Melville. Hi to Brenda.
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1. Milwaukee Rep director Mark Clements approached playwright Joanna Murray-Scott about writing this play for the rep in 2012, “not too long before America and the world was shocked to its core by the fatal shootings of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, along with six other adult staff members, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut., The director writes in his program notes to American song.”
Murray-Scott is an Australian playwright and novelist. Among her plays are Honour and Rapture, which both won the Victorian Premier’s literary award for best play.