THE LICENSE OF INTUITION
In the span of a century, the arts in Richmond have traversed the road from improbable to indispensable. This is in large part due to the work of artist and educator Theresa Pollak (1899-2002), who started what evolved into the art schools of both Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond. Her more than 40-year career at VCU, and the teachers she brought on to guide the curriculum, continue a legacy that has enriched the region and far beyond.
Today, imagining Richmond without its makers and creators is like picturing the place minus the rapids of the James River or absent Reggie Pace’s trombone.
Since 1998, when the Pollak awards started, the importance of artistic and cultural institutions has come to occupy the forefront of the city’s discourse. The groundwork Pollak undertook in the 1920s and 1930s made possible the environment for an expanded encyclopedic art museum that includes pieces created by Richmonders. First Fridays brings thousands downtown, a bit of magic called InLight brightens neighborhoods, music festivals blossom for almost every taste, there are more film events than can be seen, the first-rate theater scene astounds and entertains us, and on the city’s walls — inside and out — art is almost everywhere. Pollak didn’t do all this, but she was the prime mover who got it rolling.
The galleries and venues at the University of Richmond might not exist, had not Pollak first taught art there. VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art arising at Belvidere and Broad is an exclamation mark for the work she started, almost alone, in the attic of a nearby horse barn.
The individuals recognized here made their achievements through the often-challenging course of leading the artistic pursuit. For them, there wasn’t any other choice.
Music honoree Steve Bassett reflects, “Musicians and artists get a license to follow their intuition wherever it leads. I think most people would be happier if they did that.” Forget what you expect to see, he says; just follow your artistic intuition. “What you come up with is something you wouldn’t otherwise believe you could see.”
Kendall Buster (Photo by Chet Strange)
The selectors said: Kendall’s monumental installations are at once both diaphanous and industrial, transforming spaces in exhibitions and commissions across the globe. Her commitment to her practice and her research makes her a priceless asset to her VCUarts students and Richmond as a whole.
Growing up in Sardis, Alabama, where her father was postmaster, Kendall Buster built forts in the woods, made her own toys and read everything. Her Depression-era grandfather enjoyed carving. “He was always making tools and contraptions of all sorts,” she recalls.
Her intellect steered her toward the sciences and in 1972, she started studies in microbiology at the University of Alabama. Peering at organic structures through a microscope initiated the ideas that she’d ultimately translate into art. She worked first as a medical technologist at Tampa, Florida’s All Children’s Hospital.
Her 1977 move to Washington, D.C., gave access to a galaxy of museums and galleries. She chose to explore the creative aspect of her scientific interests, taking classes at what is now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and the University of Maryland in College Park. She recieved her Bachelor of Fine Arts there in 1981.
“The Corcoran in the early ’80s was a perfect laboratory environment for finding one’s own practice,” she recalls. “We moved from drawing to film to constructions to text-based works to performance.” Buster cites the late abstract sculptor and Corcoran professor Anne Truitt as a great influence on the way she wanted to live as an artist.
She earned her Master of Fine Arts from Yale University and did further work through the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Studio Program in New York City. In 2002, Buster came to Virginia Commonwealth University to teach in the “incredible” sculpture program. “I was moving between D.C., Baltimore … NYC and even South Africa at the time,” she says, “and was lured here by the program and the community that is VCU School of the Arts.”
A primary material in her work is agricultural shade cloth, which she first discovered in the greenhouse structures of Cape Town, South Africa — her husband, artist Siemon David Allen, is from there — and she uses it for her large pieces that require transparent skin.
Buster’s creations for manmade and natural locations are sometimes large enough to walk into. “Garden Snare” (1998), created for the Kreeger Museum in Washington, is two joined chambers that look like futuristic camping enclosures. One must enter stooped. The visitor is enclosed, but can see through the material, and square openings at the top of each section give a view of the sky. Buster sees this form as a living cell that could split again.
Some of her pieces seem to float in air. Her “Resonance” (2010), built in collaboration with her husband for the Frick Chemistry Laboratory at Princeton University, was in part inspired by models of molecules. The work consists of six groupings of interconnected translucent circular and oval forms of various sizes, suspended from a 75-foot-high glass atrium roof by stainless steel aircraft cables.
This past summer, Buster researched architecture and the international style of the 1960s and ’70s in Cape Town and presented two solo exhibitions, one at Commune.1, a space designed for large installations and sculpture, and another at Gallery University Stellenbosch.
Back home, you may see her art in the offices of Royall & Co. and Markel Corp., as well as a permanent installation in the lobby of the VCU Massey Cancer Center.
Steve Bassett (Photo by Ken Penn)
True to his Roots
The selectors said: An iconic, multi-talented musician, known for his extremely versatile singing abilities and dazzling technique on the Hammond B3 organ, Steve Bassett draws inspiration from all music, but especially the soul, gospel, blues, and Southern rock traditions.
No less than John Hammond II said, “Steve Bassett’s musical style is a synthesis of America’s root music: He … communicates with his audience in a soulful, front porch manner … and leaves his listener feeling like he has sung to them alone.”
Hammond, a civil rights activist and colossal music producer who helped shape the careers of artists from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen, ultimately brought Bassett to Columbia Records.
In the 1980s, Bassett fulfilled a dream of creating music alongside the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, known as The Swampers, sitting “elbow to elbow” with renowned producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. Columbia, unfortunately, didn’t promote the recording, titled “Steve Bassett,” concluding that blue-eyed soul’s heyday had passed. Bassett then went on the road, opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and shuttling to gigs alongside Delbert McClinton. He built a career in commercial sessions by pinballing between Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee. In this way, Bassett earned his living through music and met the criteria his father gave when Bassett was a teenage rock ’n’ roller. When the young musician announced a nonpaying show in Washington, D.C., touting the exposure, his father retorted, “Exposure? Don’t people die from that?”
Bassett has kept the response close in the production of 22 albums and a 50-year career. His first public solo performance, though, came in sixth grade: he performed an a cappella rendition of “Oh, Shenandoah” at the All County Chorus concert. The other soloist, Jenny Kanary, sang “The Sound of Music.” Ultimately, the songbirds wed; they’ve been married almost 30 years. “Music’s my life and Jenny’s my wife,” Bassett says.
The origins of his musical influences flow through the River City: his family’s singing at Westhampton Baptist Church; the soul music on Richmond’s WANT radio station; musical theater performances at his alma mater, Douglas S. Freeman High School; and the leadership of band director Hunter Purdie, who put him in the drums section and “crystalized me into a bottom-end groove devotee.”
Bassett met singer-songwriter Robbin Thompson in the 1970s at the Peoples Drug lunch counter, gone now from West Grace Street. They jammed and gelled, forming the Robbin Thompson and Steve Bassett Revival. One afternoon, Bassett walked onto the porch of Thompson’s Floyd Avenue home, singing the hook for a new song: “Sweet Virginia Breeze.” They wrote the piece in 45 minutes and performed it the next day at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Shafer Court. The up-tempo, beach-music-style tune pleased the crowd and thousands of fans since then. The General Assembly in 2015 named “Sweet Virginia Breeze” the state’s “popular song.” Regarding traditions, in 2007, Bassett recorded “Blowin’ the Dust Off,” an album of musicians playing bluegrass and roots-flavored originals. Then-Gov. Tim Kaine played harmonica on a song about the freedom to vote, “Election Day.”
Bassett continues writing, recording and performing regular gigs that give him something to be nervous about and keep his chops up, he says. He is also an enthusiastic participant in the SPARC “Live Arts” program.
On Nov. 10, Bassett receives induction into the Beach Music Hall of Fame at the Carolina Beach Music Awards in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
From left: SPARC's development director, Candace Mraz, Director of Education Erin Thomas-Foley and Executive Director Ryan Ripperton (Photo by Chet Strange)
The selectors said: For decades, SPARC has been the undisputed leader in theater education for kids in metro Richmond. With “Live Art,” they set the example, once again, for serving our community by creating inclusive, empowering and dynamic theater experiences for children of all abilities.
As performance day approached for the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC)’s 2013 “Live Art: Tree of Life” program, actor Richard Jenkins wasn’t feeling well, having maintained a quiet, unsmiling reserve during practice sessions. That Saturday morning, Jenkins, who portrayed the apparition father of the Fisher funeral home family in HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” almost didn’t attend rehearsal, but when director Erin Thomas-Foley went to retrieve him for the finale run-through, he took her by the shoulders and exclaimed, “This is … amazing!”
The artists who’ve participated in Live Art — including k.d. lang, Keb’ Mo’ and Jason Mraz — reacted in similar fashion. In his final years, Robbin Thompson, co-writer of Virginia’s popular state song, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” was “inspired by it, and devoted to it,” says Thomas-Foley.
Ryan Ripperton, SPARC’s executive director, remembers driving around the block “about 18 times” in 2011 while director of education Thomas-Foley explained her vision to him. Her idea: bringing youth of varying abilities together in a multidisciplinary onstage extravaganza, a combination of rock concert, theatrical production, art exhibition and children’s recital. While doing research, the Live Art team learned that while there were many children’s arts program and artistic initiatives for kids with special needs, none blended the two. Candace Mraz, a volunteer-turned-development director and chief storyteller, had been on the job a whole week when the Live Art concept came her way. She, Thomas-Foley and Ripperton put their heads together to figure out funding, “because that’s the fund-amental piece of it, isn’t it?” she says, wryly. The first contributors were Steve and Kathie Markel, of the high-risk insurance firm, who gave their instant support. “And from there, we just started to fly,” says Mraz.
Now in its fifth year, Live Art integrated within SPARC’s academic programming. The annual event’s planning efforts involve more than 40 staff, 100 volunteers, 20 to 22 professional musicians and 120 to 125 students and their families, all working over a yearlong period. Live Art’s cost figures in at almost 30 percent of the organization’s budget.
Thomas-Foley worries that the program’s success may give the perception that Live Art is doing just fine. “There’s no guarantee that this’ll keep going,” she says. “We’re running on faith every year.”
The entire concert doesn’t get a full rehearsal until the weekend before the show; How do the organizers not go cry for an hour in the bathroom?
Thomas-Foley explains, “The human compassion that we are witnessing and seeing [through Live Art] — we don’t have that in our world anymore. And we’re seeing it in these teachers, the kids, the parents sitting and watching and sobbing. And then we all hug at the end, the whole audience cries, and now our big joke is, ‘There’s no crying in Live Art. Because we cry every day.’ ”
A documentary, “From the Wings: The Live Art Story,” began a national two-year distribution in August over 127 stations of the Public Broadcasting Service network, introducing the series to a national audience. The next performance, “Live Art: Dream,” is planned for June 11, 2017.
Live Art Supporters: Jerry Samford, Fred Orelove, Reji Carreras, Steve Markel, Kathie Markel, Daniel Clarke, Tim Timberlake, Jason Mraz, Mike Boyd, Jenny Hundley, Danaë Carter, Abernathy Bland, Amanda Wells, Billy Dye, Catherine Dudley, Courtney Vollmer, Ginnie Willard, Alan Williamson, Joe Doran, Steve Sweet, Steve Bassett, the late Robbin Thompson, Susan Greenbaum, Josh Small, Jesse Harper, Samson Trinh, Martin Montgomery and Bill Gaff
Telling the Whole Story
The selectors said: As a Farmville native, Kristen succinctly interweaves her family’s history with those of the students who were denied an education, and during her research discovers a shocking and confusing family secret.
Kristen Green had long contemplated writing about the 1959 closing of Prince Edward County Schools, a decision made in defiance of a federally mandated integration order. What nudged Green into writing her book was the birth of her first daughter. “I wanted to fully know the story so that she would know the story,” Green says.
She inherited a respect for the written word from her father. As a kid, she created her own newspaper. “I drew the comics. I wrote the ads for my dad’s dentistry. The news was ‘someone lost a cat.’ ”
After graduation from then-Mary Washington College, where a class with journalism professor Steve Watkins altered the trajectory of her life, Green went on to establish an award-winning career in newspapering that spanned both coasts — and a variety of topics — over 20 years.
In 2001, The Washington Post ran an article by veteran political writer (and present Richmonder) Don Baker, “Shame of a Nation: The Lessons and Legacy of the Prince Edward School Closings.” The piece exploded Green’s understanding of what seemed in many ways an idyllic, small-town youth.
In 2015, she authored the part-memoir, part-history book “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County.” It tells the story of how her family, and those associated with them, dealt with the civil rights struggle.
“I didn’t know the whole story, even then. … I didn’t know about the founding of Prince Edward Academy [her grandparents were among the organizers of the whites-only school]. I certainly didn’t know about [high school civil rights organizer] Barbara Johns or the walkouts or the closures.”
She knew it wasn’t going to be a fun project. “But it had found a home in me.”
At the beginning of her research in 2006, she interviewed Robert Taylor, a longtime friend of her grandparents who, in 1959, founded Prince Edward Academy. Nearly 50 years later, he expressed himself to Green as an unrepentant segregationist. “Here I am, newly married to my mixed-race husband,” she says of spouse Jason, an anthropologist. The experience disoriented and nearly sickened her. But she sat and took notes.
After the book came out, Green was met with a generally positive response at home; her parents, however, took some heat.
“They’re in Farmville, where some people they knew weren’t happy [with the book]. But the story needed to be told. And I told it the best way I knew how.”
The book, a New York Times bestseller, is the University of Mary Washington’s 2016 “Common Read” selection, a book assigned in August to first-year students, who are joined by faculty and upperclassmen in related discussions and programs.
You have time to read it before her participation in the Festival of the Written Word at Midlothian Library on Nov. 5, at 10:30 a.m. (Look under events at library.chesterfield.gov.)
THEATRELAB (DEEJAY GRAY AND ANNIE COLPITTS)
Getting Into Space
The selectors said: TheatreLab has not only shown excellence in their art, but they have shown a steadfast dedication to the entire RVA community by choosing relevant but rarely told stories, creating unique and unusual collaborations with other artists and local businesses.
Deejay Gray had the heart for art. Annie Colpitts had the brains for business. They met during a production meeting in 2011 at the former Firehouse Theatre Project. She, a recent Sweet Briar College graduate from a Norfolk family of accountants with a talent for figures, nonetheless wanted to help art happen. She’d landed a general manager position at the Firehouse. Gray was stage-managing a Christopher Durang play, “Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.”
As a youngster, Gray lived in Sandston until his family moved to Goochland County. He says he was a sensitive youth with few social skills, preferring to stay in his room and play pretend disc jockey on an imaginary radio.
His mother urged him into a theater outreach program offered by the YMCA. “In a lot of ways, theater saved my life,” he says. “I was an emotional kid and I found this thing where I could be myself and I never stopped.”
Nor has TheatreLab. After a three-month break in 2013, it has produced often critically acclaimed shows nonstop and introduced to Richmond a flexible performance space where people might say, “This feels like New York.” But, really, this is what Richmond feels like now.
Like many actors, Gray at first intended to save money prior to the big move to New York City. Instead, he fell in love with Richmond’s scene and wanted to participate in its growth. One night after the show at the Firehouse, founding artistic director Carol Piersol asked Gray what he wanted to do when he grew up. “Maybe one day I’ll run my own theater company,” he told her. And Carol said to me, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ ”
“Riding The Bull” opened in January 2013 at Gallery5 and became their first hit. “Henley Street [now the Quill Theatre] was our sponsor so we could have a main stage,” Gray says. Colpitts adds, “The training wheels were gone, whether we needed them or not.”
When hunting around for space, they happened upon developer Matthew Bauserman’s project, The Mark, at Third and Broad. He led them into the basement, like a scene from “The X-Files,” holding a flashlight and guiding them down backstairs with missing planks. The theater duo got scared — “not because it was frightening, but because it was perfect,” Colpitts says.
The space is The Basement, and besides providng its own programs, TheatreLab invites other performance groups inside.
TheatreLab’s new season, with associate artistic director and multi-hyphenate-performer Katrinah Carol Lewis, is themed Women at War, with women directing each of the four, one-woman plays. The second “cellar series” begins with Keri Wormald directing Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” with Boomie Pedersen, running Oct. 27 to Nov. 12.
Jack Glover (Photo by Chet Strange)
Body of Work
‘This’ll sound like a made-up story’
The selectors said: Out of his imagination, translated though art and craft, come wryly observant woodcuts, delightfully wacky songs and three kids’ TV shows with their colorful props. Top it off with a playful personality and winning energy, and you’ve got an influential and consistently interesting creator.
Jack Glover came of age in the 1950s at the Fluttering Duck, a nonprofit arts organization and coffee shop run by his mother, Maybelle, near the campus of Indiana’s DePauw University. The “Duck” was open to anyone and, unlike many public spaces at the time, a safe place for blacks and whites to socialize together. A renowned civil rights group, The Freedom Singers, played there. Students from the college exhibited their work. On “pay or play” nights, performers drew their name from a hat and either entertained or put money in for chili. And there were scaled-down theater productions. “There was always something going on at the Duck,” Glover recalls. “It was very alive. I didn’t realize until later that not every kid had such an experience growing up.”
Glover’s earliest arts education came from DePauw’s arts department. “I’d get pads and crayons. I kept making things bigger and bigger. My mom was always saying, ‘Take what you got and make the most of it.’ ”
Mother Maybelle pushed her youngest toward college. He went to the John Herron Art Institute and furthered his arts education at Indiana University at Bloomington. He started with woodcuts there and learned to allow for accident. “The grain of the wood dictates where a line will go, and you just have to follow it,” he says. His dyslexia, which reverses letters, provided an advantage as woodblocks must be cut in mirror-image for printing.
In the ’60s, Glover applied for a teaching position at many schools and visited a few. Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University, impressed him. “It was the prettiest and paid the least,” he says, chuckling. “The whole place was perfect for me: hardscrabble and rough around the edges, making do and making it up.”
His unorthodox teaching methods meant requesting his class to represent a thousand-pound canary or America; he presaged “Project Runway” by asking students to create a garment using wood shavings. After a few weeks, the students realized they could do almost anything as long as they produced.
Glover branched out into other aspects of education that totaled almost 40 years in Richmond public schools, including an artist-in-residence program at William Fox Elementary School. At the short-lived, experimental Humanities Center, Glover taught printmaking. There he met his wife, Susan Hankla, who drove in from Roanoke for the poet-in-residence program. “I didn’t know Richmond, so I pulled over and called a cab to take me there,” she says with a laugh, “and he literally went around the corner and there it was.”
Glover also created plays and marionettes for the Children’s Theatre of Richmond. A chance television interview about his work ultimately led to three separate children’s shows: the award-winning “Jack in the Jukebox,” which aired on WWBT-NBC 12; the PBS-syndicated “Paint Pot Alley;” and the city broadcast “The Mud Pie Show.” With their imaginative scenarios, puppets and created characters, Glover’s shows resembled a proto-“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
His musical exploits included the East Virginia Toadsuckers, of which the late VCU education professor Howard A. Ozmon Jr. and VCU special education professor Howard Garner were members. The group played banjo, guitar, washboard and kazoo at fairs and other events. They performed for 20 years at venues like Nashville, Tennessee’s famous Exit/In and the now-defunct Mississippi Whiskers. They even appeared on a 1977 segment of the hayseed comedy variety show, “Hee Haw.” “Junior Samples’ introduction of us took longer than our bit,” Glover says.
View some of Glover’s work in the “Artists Coloring Book Vol. II”, edited by Chuck Scalin.