The Fictional Life of A Very Real Man

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

It is a story that invites the envy of this writer of fiction. A Tolstoy-worthy tale replete with unimaginable wealth, unbounded love, profound loss, revolution, a daring escape, theft, intrigue, and a treasure trove of the world’s most remarkable art. Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile heir, and magnate began buying art on trips to Paris. His love of the unconventional art and artists he found in Paris after the Great War lead him to start his collection. However, the deaths of his wife, sons, and brother led him to try to fill the void created by their loss, with art. His grief led to Shchukin’s frantic collection of more than 275 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern paintings including multiple works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Van Gogh.

As it is in Russian tragedies, Shchukin would not only lose his family but his country, home, art collection and ultimately, his name. When Lenin began his purge of the bourgeois during the Russian Revolution, Shchukin, fled to Paris — his opulent home and prized art collection were seized by the state. The new Russian government had no use for Shchukin or his decadent art; they planned to dismantle the collection and destroy it. The wife of the director of the Hermitage was thankfully a lover of modern art and convinced her husband to distributed the collection to Russian Museums away from Moscow. For nearly 100 years, the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity. Shchukin’s name was erased from the collection’s provenance and from the history of commerce and art in Russia.

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

Shchukin’s story is the stuff of fiction, except that it is real. And in August of 2016, through his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection once again made art history in the landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,”  at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The exhibition, featuring 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector, is scheduled to close on March 5, 2017. If, like me, Paris is not on your itinerary, Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker who writes his I Prefer Paris blog from “a fabulous 18th-century apartment in the fashionable Marais district of Paris,” has taken some stunning photographs of the showstoppers in the exhibition.

Every art collection tells the collector’s story but rarely is one as vivid in art and as exciting and tragic in life as that of Sergei Shchukin; a story so real, it seems the stuff of fiction. Though I did not know about Sergei Shchukin when I wrote my novel, Provenance, the similarities between Shchukin and my protagonist, Lance Henry Withers, are striking. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers lost the countries of their birth, their homes, and their names. They used art to heal the profound loss of home and loved ones. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they became lovers of what was unpopular art during their time in Paris—Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Modern art. And by collecting art, they found a way to once again experience love and life. They were truly kindred souls—real and imagined—in life and in art.

The Significance of Black Bodies—Buried

©Brian Palmer/brianpalmer.photos

  In my novel, Provenance, secrets are buried, and revealed, in Richmond, Virginia’s Evergreen Cemetery. The same can be said for the cemetery itself. When slavery ended and African-Americans in the South could claim a final resting place, approximately 5,000 African-Americans chose Evergreen Cemetery. Now the two historic African-American cemeteries in Richmond, through neglect and civic indifference, lie under decades of overgrowth and underbrush. The same freedoms that made black cemeteries possible also became reasons they turned into woodland—families moved away, some migrated North establishing a home place away from the segregated south. In time, some folks forgot or just never knew the significance and the secrets buried along with black bodies during the early 20th century. However, through the efforts of some people in the 21st century, secrets long kept and compacts long hidden are being revealed.

One of the diligent excavators of the secrets within Evergreen and East End Cemeteries is Brian Palmer, a photographer, writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. I discovered Palmer’s work while doing research for Provenance. Through his photographs, Palmer tells the story of people and situations that he knows might otherwise remain untold—Evergreen and East End Cemeteries are such stories. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Palmer uses his pen to illustrate and illuminate complicit compacts in states like Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. These states award thousands of taxpayer dollars annually to preserve the burial sites and erect monuments for traitors and oppressors while ignoring American citizens who were oppressed. Read Palmer’s eloquent opinion piece, For the Forgotten African-American Dead, where he calls on the Virginia General Assembly to pass House Bill 1547 and provide some taxpayer support to preserve historical graves and cemeteries of African-Americans. 

In The Significance of a Final Resting Place, I wrote about Palmer’s work, the prominent African-Americans buried in Evergreen Cemetery and, how the historic site became a pivotal scene in my novel. You can see more of Palmer’s work at http://www.brianpalmer.photos/

If you live in Virginia, contact your state legislative representative and insist that they vote for House Bill 1547. If you live in other states turning a blind eye and providing paltry or non-existent funding for African-American historic sites – speak up on behalf of history for all of us.

Who Do You See When You Look at Me?

I am so passionate about art because it is a mirror and a crystal ball. It shows us who we are and at the same time who we could be. True creatives often use their craft to help us see, and hopefully, see beyond the lies and misrepresentations – we can really use that now.

The French artist, Edgar Degas, said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”  That is a powerful message and an even more powerful mission. A stellar example of that power is Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male, a current exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. It is the work of Charlotte-based photographer and filmmaker, Jerry Taliaferro who photographed 34 African American men and then challenges the viewer by asking, “Who do you see when you look at me?”

In his artist’s statement Taliaferro writes, “Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary black American male. Sons is a humble attempt to reveal how black American males see themselves while encouraging a thought-provoking examination of how they are perceived. Perhaps this project can be the start of a conversation.”

rl-exhibition-john
Who do you see when you look at me?

When you enter the Sons exhibition gallery you start in a section called “Perceptions,” black and white photographs of just the faces of black men. The images are not identified, labels only ask Taliaferro’s provocative question. There are no clues or social cues to depend on for your answers; simply faces making your assumptions a testament to your experiences and beliefs.

As you move further into the gallery you enter the “Realities and Reconciliation,” area.  The same subjects from the previous section are named and identified through short bios as well as videos that are accessible using QR codes that you can scan with a smart phone or tablet. Once identified, you see men who run the gamut of the black experience. You can hear them talk about their experiences when others’ perceptions of them are inconsistent with who and what they really are. Dr. John T. Bullock, a Towson University professor and recently elected Baltimore City Councilman, talks in his video about what he and his wife, Jacquelyn, call the “Double oh!” When he introduces himself as a professor, or now as an elected city official, he often gets that surprised look and response, “Oh! Oohh! So, you’re a councilman?”

The video by comedian, Jason Weems, is a heartbreaking contrast to his occupation as he talks about having to keep his son from playing with a toy gun in the park fearing that a childish game of cops and robbers could lead to a real-life cop shooting first and asking questions later. Other subjects—all sons and fathers—include a hospital administrator, a county executive, a police officer, a disc jockey, a musician, a tech executive. community activists, educators, and attorneys; they demonstrate the diversity of black men, however, their experiences are strikingly similar.

Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.
Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.

During the preview, I had the opportunity to meet several of the men who are subjects in the exhibition. Many attended with their own sons and I was impressed by the confidence and optimism they exuded. Through Jerry Taliaferro lens these black men are now art, and to repeat the words of Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Sons forces you beyond the perception to see, really see, fathers and sons—black men—as they are and as they hope to be—mirror and crystal ball.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male is on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture through 2017. If you’re in or near the Baltimore area, please go. It will change the way you see.

You’ll find more information on the exhibition and there’s a short film featuring some of the men in the exhibition at, http://lewismuseum.org/special-exhibition/sons-seeing-the-modern-african-american-male

 

Six Wars: A History of Exceptional Valor

I am not a historian or a student of military history yet, as I was writing my recent novel,  Provenance, I did a lot of research about America’s wars. Provenance takes place in the American South soon after the Civil War and, in Paris just before World War II. Throughout this research I kept finding example after example of the exceptional valor of African-Americans in the military.

When I went to school, the significant military contribution of African-Americans in defending the freedom of the United States was not part of the history we learned (I hope they teach it now). Through family, friends and community I learn about some of it but, as I did my research, I learned there was more than I could imagine. What a sad revelation to know that these heroes sacrificed so much for freedoms they would not attain, yet they fought non-the-less.

In light of the election results this week, Veteran’s Day provides an opportunity to remind or enlighten us about the contribution so many people of color have made in service to this country and the world. There is so much history to tell and much has been written – if you choose to find it. The following images, and links that take you to the stories behind them, are just a fraction of the rich and unsung history of exceptional valor. On this day let us honor, remember and respect the sacrifices veterans of all colors, and their families, made in the past and continue to make every day.

1. The Revolutionary War

Crispus Attucks from the19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre
Crispus Attucks from the 19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre

Crispus Attucks is believed to be the first person killed in the American Revolution at the Boston Massacre. Read more.

2. The Civil War

captain-william-matthews-1st-kansas-colored-volunteer-infantry-regiment-at-fort-scott
Captain William Mathews

Captain William Mathews –a free black, a businessman and station master on the Underground Railroad–recruited former slaves into the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Scott. He lost his rank when the unit was federalized but later served as an artillery officer.  Read more

The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment Infantry 1863 – 1865.

Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.
Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.

The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry saw extensive service in the Union Army and was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. Read more.

3. The Spanish-American War

The Buffalo Soliders - 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.
The Buffalo Soldiers – 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.

Buffalo Soldiers fought during the Spanish-American War, including the Battle of San Juan Hill , the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1903 and the 1916 Mexican Expedition. Read more.

4. World War I

Harlem Hellfighters, the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze  

Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croiz de Guerre for gallentry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.
Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.

The U.S. gave the 369th Infantry Regiment military to the French during World War I rather than have white Americans fight along side them. The nickname “Hell Fighters” was given to them by the Germans due to their toughness and that they never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy. Read more.

Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Bullard with American Flyers
Eugene Bullard with American Flyers

Eugene Jacques Bullard makes an appearance in my novel, Provenance. He was America’s first black military aviator – though he could not fly for his country. He flew for the Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Air Service and took part in 20 combat mission earning the nickname, “Black Swallow of Death.” Read more.

5. World War II

Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross
Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross

Doris “Dorie” Miller (October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943) was a Mess-man Third Class that the United States Navy noted for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the U.S. Navy at the time, after the Medal of Honor and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Read more.

Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots
Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots

The Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African-American military pilots (fighter and bomber) in the then segregated United States military. They fought in Europe and North Africa during World War II.  Read more.

6. The Korean War

african-american-solider-in-the-korean-warThe 77th Engineer Combat Company, 25th Infantry, 8th US Army in Korea, UN Command committed to Korean War action 7-12-50, and inactivated 6-30-52, was the last black combat unit of the US Army ever to engage an enemy of the US and is said to be the most decorated American unit in the Korean War. Read more.

 

Shchukin & Withers: Paris Made Collectors

Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr
Foundation Louis Vuitton by Christine und Hagen Graf via Flickr

The Arts & Leisure section of Sunday’s New York Times featured an article on Paris’ next landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” opening at the Louis Vuitton Foundation on October 22. The exhibition features 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector.

Shchukin, a textile heir and magnate, began buying art in the late 1890s, building a collection of 275 works before the start of World War I. He fled to Paris when his home and collection were seized by the state during Lenin’s purge of the bourgeois. The Russian government dismantled, nearly destroyed, but thankfully distributed his art to Russian Museums where the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity and the collector’s name was erased from their provenance. Now, though his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection are once again making art history.

Sergei Schukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)
Sergei Shchukin by Dm. Melnikov (1915) (WikiCommons)

Shchukin’s story, through real, is the stuff of fiction. I couldn’t help but see the similarities between this real art lover-collector and, Lance Henry Withers, a fictional character in my recent novel, Provenance. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers used art to heal the loss of home and loved ones. By collecting, they experienced Paris and life through the arts. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they learned how to find beauty and meaning in Impressionism, post-Impressionism and Modern art—what they first perceived as canvases of colorful chaos.

The disposition of Lance Henry Withers’ collection is a primary theme in Promise, the second volume my Provenance series, due out in early 2017. Promise continues Withers’ story with the fate of his fictional and fabulous collection informed by research on collectors J. Paul Getty, Arthur Barnes, Walter Chrysler,  Joseph Hirshhorn, The Steins, The Rockefellers and others. Perhaps Sergei Shchukin should be on that list. Sounds like a great reason to do research in Paris this fall.

You can see the New York Times article about the Paris exhibition of the Shchukin collection here and, you can read about Lance Henry Withers’ collection in my novel, Provenance. You can find more information about the “Icons of Modern Art” exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation here.

 

PROVENANCE is a 2016 Wheatley Book Award Finalist

Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)
Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)

I’m so excited that The Harlem Book Fair chose my novel, Provenance, as a First Fiction Finalist for the 2016 Wheatley Book Awards. The Harlem Book Fair is the largest African American book fair in the United States and the Wheatley Awards are named in honor of American Poet Phillis Wheatley (1752 – 1784), the first published African-American female writer. The mission of the annual competition is to recognize literary work and advocacy that transcends culture, country and perception.

While Provenance did not win, I was in great company and I am very honored to have my work recognized by this renowned national competition. Thank you, Harlem Book Fair!

For more information on the winners and other finalists see the Phillis Wheatley Book Award Winning Books feature on the aalbc.com website. More information about Phillis Wheatley is available here.

Great Experience at the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival

First, I must thank my wonderful family and great friends, as well as the book-lovers and dedicated volunteers who, despite the relentless rain, were there to support the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival. A very special thanks to my friend, Maryetta, who braved I-95 and drove down from New Jersey for the event. Thank you, thank you, thank you one and all!

This was my first time as a featured author at the Festival and I had a great time connecting with readers and other authors. As a fiction writer I spend a lot of time alone making up people and their stories so, it’s exceptional when you have the opportunity to get out and experience how your writing resonates with real people. I met a woman whose daughter sent her a copy of Provenance. This woman flew in from the Midwest to meet me at the Festival so that I could sign her copy of my book. She told me that she thought the book was important, that she had learned about passing, a part of the African American experience that she knew nothing about. She thanked me for writing such a beautiful book; that was pretty special, so I thanked her too.

I think writers, by nature, are not all that comfortable talking about themselves or their books, I know that’s true for me. I also know that meeting and interacting with readers is a vital part of being of being published and I’m working on getting more comfortable with that aspect of being an author. I’m hard at work on the next book in the Provenance series so the interest and enthusiasm I experienced that day will help me stay the course with Promise. If my experience at Gaithersburg Book Festival is an example what’s to come, I think I’m going to like this author thing!

If you weren’t able to make it to this year’s Festival, I’ve posted a brief video from my presentation (if you listen closely you can hear the raindrops cascading on the tent). The rain didn’t stop us for a second! Check out the moisture defying smiles and styles in photos on the Gaithersburg Book Festival Facebook page.

 

Why Do You Write?

cropped-cropped-iStock_000009439591Large.jpgI asked a wonderfully cerebral friend of my daughter’s if he was planning to attend my reading at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on the 21st of May. Afraid of facing empty chairs at my event, I am unapologetically asking EVERYONE that question in these days leading up to the Festival. My young friend told me that he’d be there and that he was ready with questions that he planned to ask me.

“Like what? Give me an example,” I asked, confident that I was prepared to field any question about my book.

“I’d like to know why you write.”  His question stopped me cold.

No one had ever asked me that before. I’ve been asked what I write about, how I write, when, where and how long but never, why?

Words on paper have always been my preferred method of communication. I was the shy child in an outgoing family and found refuge in reading and eventually courage and encouragement when I expressed myself in writing. When I write I have every sentiment and delivery skill at my disposal—tools I find harder to access in verbal communication. There are rarely, “Wish I’d said that, or hadn’t said that,” moments in a manuscript. Omniscience can be obtained through research and experience. Thoughtful beginnings, middles and ends can be crafted in stories carefully plotted and executed. I can make story arcs and characters curve in the direction I choose. Loose ends are tied, what’s lost can be found and, love and happiness can blossom with a few keystrokes. And, there is always the opportunity for revision. This is what I like about writing—it is not why I write.

I’m not sure I have a profound answer to my young friend’s insightful question. The closest I can come is to say that like the color of my eyes, the sound of my voice, being part of my family—it is something I was born with. Ideas and images compel their way through me to become what I write. Why I write is the same reason I breathe—because I have to.

What compels you to do the creative thing you do? Leave me a note in the comments section, I’d love to hear why you do what you do.