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Creative perspective: Local artists of color reflect on their work in troubling times

On Monday, May 25, George Floyd was killed.

By Friday, Kolton Harris, the 27-year-old musician and executive director of New London's Writer's Block InK performing arts program, had co-written, recorded and dropped a song called "Another One Dead."

Also that week, in a span of about 20 minutes, Rhonda M. Ward, the New London Poet Laureate, composed and posted a poem titled "This is Why We're in the Streets."

New London playwright Michael Bradford, head of the Dramatic Arts Department at the University of Connecticut and artistic director of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, hasn't written anything directly related to the incident. What he did do, though, was show his wife, Diane Barcelo, a poem he'd written last year, sitting in a doctor's office waiting room while she was at an appointment. It was a poem, he says, that was indirectly about Floyd's murder — as though the killing puts a face on a work that was waiting for more context.

Bradford wasn't suggesting he's clairvoyant; rather, he said, incidents like this "have been going on for years in our lifetime, but that doesn't come close (to the cumulative history). Usually there's a quick burn and the reaction dies down and goes away. (In the waiting room), I felt compelled to write this piece about a cumulative SLOW burn, and it's something I could never have written in the immediate aftermath of Floyd's death. I have to think about these things. It's grist for the mill and I'm always confident it will find a life somewhere. And now it has."

Over the past week, via phone interviews, Zoom meetings and email exchanges, several local artists of color discussed their lives, careers and art in society through the prism of Floyd's death and the subsequent and ongoing protests. As above, many were moved to immediate creativity. Others are proceeding as per their usual creative processes.

But all offered eloquent, heartfelt and provocative thoughts. Here are some of their comments, edited for space and clarity. Over the next weeks, we will present longer interviews with these artists as part of The Storyline podcast

On the immediate creative impulse

Ward: My goal (with the poem) was to show people that, from slavery through Jim Crow to the death of George Floyd, this is what we've been experiencing ... I generally don't write angry poems because I want to be careful about what I send out to the universe ... We have to be effective in our creativity and temper our anger. But sometimes life just comes at you like a Mack truck.

Tedman Martinez (lyrical abstractionist painter, bilingual school counselor at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, New London): I tend to be most active during times of tension and produce works that reflect what's around me ... The current state of the nation and its impact on the most vulnerable have caused me great distress, in part because this is not the first go around for me — and, yes, I will produce a piece as a result of the national response via mass demonstration.

Harris: I wanted (with collaborators Jaden Williams, Zak Koval and Ryan Parker) to give people an anthem they can heal to, to march to, to sing to — and to call people's attention to what's happening. Art is a great way to do that. We wrote another song that day and we want to keep pumping them out because that's the way I want to show support.

Jose B. Gonzalez (award-winning poet and professor of English at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy): I think for any writer, moments like this are why you write. THIS TIME we're concentrating on the death of Mr. Floyd. Expand that and think about THIS TIME as a continuum; writing about issues like this is part of the DNA of being a writer of color. I don't know how many of us are being creative right now, but I think many of us are trying to find creative ways of keeping this dialogue at the forefront.

On the healing nature of art for the artist

Andre A.T. Thomas (winner of the Linda Herr Excellence in Theater Award at Connecticut College, Class of 2020): As a theater artist, I identify mostly as a performer, director and sound designer. However, I've always turned to writing to express things I can't say verbally. Since mid-March, I've been writing nonstop — reflections on the quarantine mostly, but I've shifted my focus to social justice issues, race, feelings of hopelessness and doubt ... Towards the end of James Baldwin's "If Beale Street Could Talk," there's a line like, "It wasn't that he lost hope, he just stopped clinging to it." I think that's where many of us are now — but there's always hope for change!

Diane Barcelo (installation artist, advocate for the New London Arts Council, drawing instructor at Mitchell College): As an individual — an artist, a human being, a teacher — I'm angry and frustrated every time I listen to the news. Recently, as I was installing some of my work, I noticed how calming and meditative and enjoyable the physical process was ... Art is a way of filtering and measuring all the aspects of your life that make a big fat mess — and art makes order out of that chaos, coordinating mind and body so that you can present to the world in the medium.

On the healing nature of art in society

Gonzalez: Art does offer hope and it does bring people together — partly as a form of protest that may not be understood through convention media. From that type of art, people can gain a better appreciation. People now are saying, "Before Mr. Floyd's death, I had a different view of the Black Lives Matter movement." If those lives can be changed in part when people read poems or watch films or see visual art, that's important.

Ward: It's important to share our voices honestly — by speaking up not just in art but with every day voices. Artists can write songs and poems and make paintings and sculpt, but not everyone is inspired by the arts. There are times when we have to raise our voices as human beings to use our platforms to effect change. Sometimes performers, for example, might not sing a song but choose the opportunity to simply say what is real. This is the responsibility of anyone who has any kind of platform, no matter how large or small.

What advice can you give to younger artists or students?

Bradford: I talk to a lot of young Black men and they're experiencing low-level anxiety that won't go away. I tell them we can be angry and frustrated and shout and weep but at some point we have to put it aside and go forward. Look at the historical context of the moment, at the total African American diaspora. We're still here; we're still angry and frustrated. But there are still opportunities. Don't let this be your excuse to not go to chemistry class or not write that essay. Sometimes the moment is just too heavy but you place the moment in context and feel empowered and move forward.

Ward: Pour your anger into your (art). Keep the protests going. People can't keep their blinders on forever. Now that we've gotten their attention ... don't back down. Don't stop. Keep your voice out there ... Obey the laws and respect property and and represent Black people in a way that we can be proud. The eyes of the world are open and the world is protesting with us. What we've been seeing all along is now being seen.

Thoughts on the future

Bradford: I saw the photo of white women in Louisville standing in a line and using themselves as a shield between police and Black protesters and I wept all day. I couldn't intellectually process such a watershed moment. There's a need for all good people across the color line to step up and say this is not how we want to live or how we want to be — and I think that's happening right now.

Harris: This time in history is a perfect storm. (When) Freddie Gray, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin were killed, everyone was outraged, as well, but the reality was we were involved in our day to day lives. We had to go to work, we had to go to school ... Now, we're in the middle of a pandemic and everyone is off or unemployed ... Now there's more attention and movement and it does feel more hopeful in many ways, but there's still darkness and chaos.

I have friends who said NOT that George Floyd was murdered but instead, 'Well, let's see what the details show.' As though something will come out that will rationalize what the video clearly shows. Like the video wasn't clear enough ...

Thomas: I feel now more than ever that artists create not only for themselves and through themselves, but for and through the world. (I think) artists cannot help but create in times like these. For most of us, it's the only way we know how to communicate when it feels like our actual words will be silenced.

Barcelo: Artists have always grappled with the same issues through history. What we see is the result of dealing with long-scale problems: People being taken advantage of; protest and riots ARE acts of creativity and community performance as well. It's really important, for the individual and the collective, for freedom and self-ownership and courage, to move forward.

This is Why We're in the Streets

This is Why We're in the Streets

By Rhonda M. Ward, New London Poet Laureate

Because you ripped us from our motherland

Because you used us to build this land

Because you never paid us for our labors

Because you sold our mothers

Because you sold our fathers

Because you sold our children

Because you raped our women

Because you beat us to a pulp

Because you refused to educate us

Because you called us two-thirds man

Because you hung us from your trees

Because you killed us in the streets

Because you would not let us vote

Because you would not call us "man"

Because of slumlords

Because home ownership is harder for us

Because public assistance breaks up our families

Because the books in our schools are often outdated

Because our children have no access to technology

Because our neighborhoods are food deserts

Because we cannot afford healthcare

Because we cannot trust you not to experiment on our bodies

Because you experimented on our bodies

Because you brought crack into our communities

Because you poured us into your prisons

Because you take our votes for granted

Because you have traded trees for bullets

Because you have traded trees for knees

Because you do not prosecute killer cops

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