Two local artists, John Whitehead and Dean Lucker, have been named 2010 Artist Fellows by the Bush Foundation. Along with the honor and prestige of receiving the awards, John Whitehead and Dean Lucker will each receive $50,000 in unrestricted funds and professional-development support. The fellowship will help them bring their respective current projects to life.
‘A metaphor for teaching about race and racial history’
At first glance, three young African Americans, bluegrass music and a banjo (or two) don’t go together, but through the lens of Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Whitehead, these disparate elements fuse and form a story that’s at once groundbreaking and as old as the history of the United States.
Whitehead’s affinity for traditional music led him to document the story of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band that consists of three young African Americans.
“In 2004, I did a film about the Hackberry Ramblers, a Cajun band, and grew interested in similar roots music bands,” Whitehead said. “I later attended the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, which was sponsored by a small online community of African-American enthusiasts of old-time music.”
There, he met Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, the three musicians who would become the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Whitehead didn’t have to think twice about his next film project.
“These are hip-hop-age kids and this is a radical act because of its association with slavery and pre-Jim Crow times. The first banjos were brought aboard slave ships and the film will tell, among other things, the curious history of the banjo. I’ve had this on the back burner and the Bush Fellowship will let me finish the Carolina Chocolate Drops film.”
The St. Anthony Park resident grew up in Appleton, Wis., attended film school at New York University and eventually returned to the Midwest to work in public TV at Madison, Wis. Whitehead moved to the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s to work for KTCA, Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), as a cameraman.
As time passed, Whitehead wanted to make his own films. “In the early 1990s, I started making films at TPT as a staff producer, and we did a lot of wonderful work in a short time. Then, in 1996, there were budget crunches and they laid off all the producers.”
Whitehead became a freelancer and now works as a consultant for TPT. “They ended up being my main client. I do some assignments for them and my own projects where I raise my own salary and my budget.”
With the Bush Fellowship, Whitehead plans to do in-depth interviews with the members of the Chocolate Drops and do additional research. The back story of the banjo and the foreground story of the Chocolate Drops are the two major elements of this project.
“Their personal story becomes a conversation about ‘what is black music?’ and ‘what is white music?’ In their own community, it’s not considered hip to play the banjo,” Whithead said. “And on the other hand, there was a concern about having acceptance from the mountain music community, which is mostly white. Hopefully the film will spark a conversation about this.”
At the end of the Bush Fellowship, Whitehead will have an hour-long documentary, most likely for public television, but it may parlay it into other venues.
“We could revamp some of the live performance material into a DVD. There might be an educational version for schools. It has a lot of potential around that,” he said.
“It’s really a great metaphor for teaching about race and racial history. If you go back to the earliest days of this kind of music, you had blacks and whites playing music side-by-side. There was a lot of integration. It was only with the rise of commercial recordings that we got into these categories such as ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race records.’ ”
Whitehead said the syncopations from Africa and the western European medley are at the root of all American music. “American music is integrated at its DNA level. That’s the metaphor. And I think kids should learn about the history of the banjo: It’s American-it’s African American-and by studying it, you learn a lot about history.”
Geppetto’s workshop on University Avenue
Visual artist Dean Lucker specializes in kinetic art. Whether a painting or sculpture, along with the message, there’s usually a lever involved somewhere.
The Como Park resident, who has permanent installations at Como Park Conservatory, Children’s Hospital and Open Book, spends most of his time at the C&E Building, where he shares studio space with his spouse and fellow artist and collaborator, Ann Wood.
A section of the studio resembles Geppetto’s workshop, filled with whimsical wood men in various states of completion. Part toy, part fine art and part machine, the wood men, most of whom are under 2 feet tall, could be distant cousins to Oz’s Tin Man.
Despite the fanciful sight, serious work is going on here: This is where Lucker is bringing the vision he proposed in his Bush application to life.
Lucker grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. “As a kid, I was shy and inward, a basement dweller,” he said. “I played with rockets and airplanes and sought out interactive art that was story-based.”
Lucker instinctively tapped into the automata tradition, which has been around since antiquity. Automata are toys or sculptures capable of movement. Modern automata typically reference those that were made during the 19th century. Lucker’s creations always move with purpose, setting a scene and telling a story.
“Having something that moves, that has a familiar tradition, engages people,” he said.
As Lucker gives a tour of his creations, he explained, “I wrote about the importance of keeping the automata tradition alive for my Bush application. These pieces I’m working on will be lobby sculptures, public art.”
Walking over to a nearly finished sculpture of a woman with a bowl of sugar and an anthropomorphized moon, Lucker said, “I’m working on a dollar-drop mechanism so when you drop a dollar in the slot, that trips the sensor. Then the woman raises her lantern and that wakes up the moon. His eyes open as he moves closer to her as she dips a spoon into the sugar bowl.”
He uses oil paints to imbue his work with vibrant colors. “I use glitter for the sugar bowl and brass and aluminum for the spoon. I get my materials from nontraditional art sources like Ax-Man, lumber stores and doll shops, so it sets up a nice conversation with these places.”
Another work-in-progress, The Importance of Honey, is a log man with a jar of honey. As he brings the spoon to his mouth, a pink tongue extends, creating a startling contrast with the wood-and-brass figure. “It’s like the Industrial Revolution or Victorian mechanics that I’ve adapted in my own way,” he said. “There’s this high-low culture thing going on in my work.”
The figures are at once adorable and haunting, and Lucker says that’s deliberate. “Part of you believes it’s alive and you respond emotionally to it. Then it hits a point where your brain says, ‘No, it’s not alive!’ And then you feel tricked and there’s this falling off. And then you begin the cycle of fascination again.”
Lucker has made art since he graduated from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he met Ann. They’ve been self-sufficient artists since the late 1980s, he said.
The Bush award will afford Lucker time away from doing arts and craft shows for a while so he can concentrate on and promote his work. He’s also going to travel. “I’m going to go to Germany, where there’s a museum with a great collection of automata.”
At the end of his fellowship, Lucker plans to have five or six fairly substantial mechanical sculptures completed. “It really is a labor of love,” he said, “and I do love it all-the problem-solving, the building and in the midst of all of that, keeping the tradition of automata alive.”
To find out more about these artists, visit their websites: John Whitehead, www.fretlessfilms.com, and Dean Lucker, www.woodlucker.com.
Natalie Zett has been writing for the Park Bugle since the early 1990s. Her work has also appeared in a number of publications, including Metro Lutheran, Freethought Today, Villager, American Jewish News, Minnesota Monthly, Baton Rouge State Times, Twin Cities Daily Planet and Other Side magazine.