Africa Cup of Nations unites locals with native countries

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Kazeem Lawal (back row) with his core staff at Island Ice, Lagos, Nigeria

By Timothy Gillis

Nigeria beat Burkina Faso, 1-0, in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Johannesburg, South Africa, this past Sunday. Mali beat Ghana Saturday in the third-place game.

For most Americans, soccer is something they take their kids to and cheer on with the dual fears of injury and the cost of participation. But several local soccer fans with ties to their native countries in Africa feel more fully the power and passion of the world’s most popular sport.

During the three-week tournament, three fans – from Morocco, Mali, and Nigeria – spoke about the sport’s importance in their country, their move to America, and how they were able to bring their love of the game to the United States with them.

Hafid Lalaoui was born in Marrakesh, Morocco, and moved to the United States in 1980.

“I came to art school here in New York City, and majored in photography,” he said, adding that the reason he came here may end up being the same reason he leaves. Lalaoui is known around Portland as the “master plaster” for his dry wall work, but photography has always been his true love.

“You can’t make a living here with photography like you can in Europe,” he said. “I had a dark room when I was living in Casablanca, then New York City, and then Portland. Digital made life easier, saving on all the chemistry, and is faster, but still the quality of silverprint… you cannot compare. The problem with photography as an art form is that it’s expensive. It’s not like writers who need just paper and pen. Painter needs a canvas, musician needs an instrument. Photographer needs a camera, equipment, and paper for prints, frames.”

Lalaoui was discussing photography while watching Morocco play against Cape Verde Islands. He said he played soccer growing up.

“I was a striker as a kid, then I start to smoke and that’s it,” he said. “We’d play in these empty fields, in barefoot. We were used to playing with other organized teams. Soccer is a poor man’s sport. You don’t need much – a ball and that’s it, and a field.”

Lalaoui was one of seven kids growing up, “in those days the normal thing to have,” he said. He loves Portland and the city’s culture, but not all of his compatriots feel the same way.

“In Maine, ten years ago there was a bit of a Moroccan community,” he said, “but one by one they all moved to the south. They didn’t like the winters here.” He didn’t think there was much by way of Moroccan restaurants in Portland, so he counts on the market to get his couscous, tagine, and shish kebab.

In some ways, a country’s soccer reflects their culture, and Lalaoui says that’s true of Morocco, which he describes as having a very open-minded people, especially when contrasted with other Muslim countries in Africa.

Their open play on the field, however, leads to a counter-attack, and Cape Verde’s Platini scores to go up, 1-0.

The announcer says there will be repercussions for the Morocco coach and players if they lose, and as if on prompt, El Arabi scores on a precise passing play in the 78th minute to tie the game. The announcer sees it as a “winning tie” for Cape Verde, the tiniest country in the tournament, playing against the “mighty Morocco.”

“It’s better to tie than be tied,” Lalaoui says. Unfortunately for Morocco, their two other group games also end deadlocked, and it’s not enough for them to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.

Much better luck is with Mali, as they make it to the semi-finals before losing to powerful Nigeria, 4-1. Their war-torn country has good news during the three-week tournament as well, as France helps liberate the north from al-Qaeda.

Modibo Some, who was born in Bamako, Mali, moved to the United States in 1993, with an American woman he met in his native country.

Some is the custodial supervisor at Frank I. Brown Elementary School in South Portland. An avid soccer fan, he watched Mali win the bronze medal for the second year in a row. (The Africa Cup of Nations, usually every two years, was held again this year to avoid a clash with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.)

Some says he stays in touch with friends and family in Mali two or three times a week.

“I Skype, or phone or sometimes email,” he said. “Everybody’s proud and excited about our team. We did a great job this year again.”

In 2002, Mali hosted the African Cup of Nations. “After the tournament, the population became more diverse,” Some said. “Older people moved to Mali to make it their home, and people migrated there. That’s the power of the tournament: more interest in economic development.”

He said this year’s narrative of his home country being liberated during the tournament was a wonderful story, and that the people there are thankful for the assistance they received.

“For now, we need French help, but they want to turn it over when Mali’s strong enough to take over,” he said. “Americans don’t like soccer. They like football or baseball. But it’s a big event in Mali. Maybe compared to an Obama inauguration. When the Mali team goes home, the (Mali) president will go to meet them.”

Some said the Mali capital of Bamako has more people (4 million) than Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont combined, and that his hometown streets must have been packed for the final games.

Despite the loss in the semis, Mali secured third place and a success that accentuated its military and political victory.

Kazeem Lawal was born in San Mateo, California, but was raised in Lagos, Nigeria, from age 8 to 18. After high school in Nigeria, he returned to the United States, where he attended the New Jersey Institute of Technology, studying electrical engineering. He received his MBA from Rutgers University, and then returned to Nigeria to start an ice cube factory.

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Kazeem Lawal at Portland Trading Co.

Lawal is a passionate soccer fan, and supports Arsenal as a club, as well as his beloved Super Eagles of Nigeria.

He watched the final against Burkina Faso from the Portland Trading Co., his Middle Street shop, doing his level best to attend to customers while keeping one eye on the game. The store offers an eclectic mix of high-end fashion items and quality handmade products from New England. The store’s mantra is: “Beyond Retail” which Lawal says means “Accessibility, Community, and Love.”

Nigeria’s Sunday Mba scores a wondergoal on the stroke of halftime, first juggling over a player with his right foot and then thundering home a volley with his left.

Lawal instagrams a photo of the celebration on his iPad and prepares a quick Facebook post.

Lawal returned to Maine after the ice cube factory business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He said he’s glad for the setback, however, since without it, he wouldn’t be in Maine.

Fairpoint Communications called him in February of 2008 and offered him a job. He handed over operations of the ice cube factory, and flew back to America. When Fairpoint filed for bankruptcy, he was laid off. “Since I’d tasted being independent before that, it wasn’t hard thinking of me opening my own shop,” he said.

On this day, he was all smiles as the lone goal stood up to beat Burkina Faso and land Nigeria their third title.

Like the other fans before him, Lawal compares American sports to soccer.

“People think of (American) football as like a big deal,” he said. “In Africa, this is as big as it gets. I can’t even begin to explain. The players, if they win this thing – for the rest of their life, they are set.”

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Poets’ Cafe on Portland public access TV

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Steve Luttrell and Kendall Merriam talk poetry

Story and photos by Timothy Gillis

PORTLAND – CTN, the local cable access channel, is churning out quality programming with talented artists, musicians, and poets, both in front of and behind the cameras.

One of its shows, the Poets’ Café, is a monthly TV show of poetry and music, and the brainchild of Steve Luttrell, Portland’s poet laureate. Luttrell, the show’s host, is the perfect pitch man for the job. Luttrell is the founder and editor of The Café Review, Portland’s journal of poetry and art. The Café Review has been the monthly missile for more than 23 years now, and Luttrell has been the guiding force throughout its existence. The troubadour is proud to be trumpeting Maine poets and musicians on the local cable access channel, an asset of increasing value because of its rarity. Over the last few years, Luttrell has expanded his poetic reach by welcoming poets and musicians from around Maine, creating more than 20 episodes of poems and songs, put on by an all-volunteer crew.

“The thing I love about community television is that there is so little of it,” Luttrell said. Local channels like 6, 8, and 13 don’t deliver local stories, he said.

Seth Dussault is director of the Poets’ Café, as well as three other shows broadcast by CTN, out of their Congress Street studio.

He got his start with the Poets’ Café when he dropped out of film school in Philadelphia and came to Maine.

“I didn’t want to go back to school for film production, but knew I wanted to pursue it,” Dussault said. “I went to CTN to see if they had any volunteer positions.”

There he met station director Bill Blood and got rolling right away. He started editing some shows.

“I’ve been there three, almost four years now,” Dussault said. “It’s been trial by fire, but I’m progressing through. It’s been hands-on all the way.”

The three other shows he directs are called “Portland with Patrick,” which features up-and-coming musicians, “That’s Just It” with Connor (McGrath) and Kurt (Baker), a comedy show, and “The Campfire Cowboy,” hosted by Kevin Tacka.

“I don’t know how to explain that (last) one,” Dussault said. “It’s supposed to be for kids, but it’s pretty strange.”

Dussault and his crew were preparing to film February’s edition of the poetry show last week. CTN films the Poets’ Café once a month, and then re-airs it several times a week.

On this month’s program, viewers meet Kendall Merriam, the Rockland poet laureate and someone Luttrell introduces as the “conscience of Rockland.”

Merriam read “Crocodile Tears,” a poem he wrote for Barack Obama’s inauguration, one the poet says “nobody will publish” because it’s controversial.

“It’s not pleasant,” he said.

Merriam is quite famous in his hometown, actually, known for delivering poems each week as a paperboy delivers newspapers. He boasts more than 125 clients who wait each week for his gifts of rhyme and rhythm.

Merriam, who is a disabled American veteran, makes his way from shop to shop in Rockland’s downtown, meeting with friends and delivering his poems.

“I feel very strangely that I should be doing this,” Merriam said from the CTN studio last week.

A documentary by Salt Institute senior Kristin Moe ably demonstrates how powerfully felt Merriam’s poetry is, and how eagerly awaited is its arrival.

The segment can be viewed at Salt, and Merriam said it’s now also on Facebook. His friends in India have even had a chance to check it out.

“He’s quite a public figure,” Moe said. “Everybody in Rockland knows him. He’s different. He perceives the world in a different way than we do. He views the world through a more honest lens. Some people react really well to that honesty, and some others don’t really want to hear it.”

When he comes around on his poetry route, most business owners look forward to seeing him.

“He’s one of the kindest and most open people – in terms of being open to ideas, and seeing the world in a different way,” Moe said.

Merriam started writing poetry when he was 30 years old, and now the state library in Augusta has more than 30 books of poetry and plays attributed to him.

With a wry sense of humor, Merriam’s poems often shock. One poem in his high school yearbook is “a humorous poem about cannibalism. It ends with ‘People are our only product,’” he said.

When he writes, Merriam usually listens to music, and lists the musical muse that inspires each poem.

“Sometimes I use something that is germane to someone I’m writing about,” he said.

Of his appearance on the Poets’ Café, which will be aired on CTN (local channels 2 and 5) soon and can be seen after that on the CTN5 website, Merriam said the 30-minute show was well worth the drive.

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First edition of the Cafe Review

“Steve’s been very encouraging to me. He’s bugged me for years to submit poems to his magazine. Finally, I sent him some,” Merriam said.

The show opened and closed with some music by Shanna Underwood, on vocals and guitar, and Devon Colella, on cello. The segment can be seen shortly on http://www.ctn5.org/shows/poets-cafe.

 

Lois Dodd: Lifetime of Art on Display at PMA

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By Timothy Gillis

The artist Lois Dodd has been splitting her time between the New York City area and mid-coast Maine for more than half a century, spending winters in the city and summers in Lincolnville, first, and then Cushing. But the pioneer of artist-run studios sees herself, first and foremost, as an American painter.

The Portland Museum of Art is showing the first career museum retrospective for Dodd, and will feature paintings that define the places and subjects that have mattered most in her nearly 60-year career—views of New York City’s Lower East Side from her apartment windows; of the woods and gardens of Maine; and wintery scenes near her family home in New Jersey. Dodd was a key member of New York’s postwar art scene and part of the wave of modern artists who explored the coast of Maine in the latter half of the 20th century.

Asked which paintings she highlighted for the show, Dodd said, “All of the ones where I am looking out of the window in New York, the place where I live now. It’s a very small loft space. There’s an old cemetery (nearby). I was painting that for one winter. I’ve been painting out of the same window over and over again, and watching it change  – which it did dramatically, according to weather, time of day, season. The shadows change radically through the year.”

Dodd spoke from her New York City apartment last week, about the show, which opened at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and then moved to Maine. She talked about her life in art, her ability to see new things from the same subject, and the art world’s inability to categorize her. For the most part, she emphasized her fondness for the window, what one can see through it, and what is revealed in the seeing.

“Then going back to Maine, I got involved with windows,” Dodd said. “Then I was in the outside. I started walking around my own house, just noticing what terrific compositions I could get out of the window.”

When she walks, she often carries hand-held tiles that are “not real huge,” and in the repainting of them, they gradually grow to be window size.

“Mainly they’re bigger things in the Portland show, but generally speaking when I go outside I’ve got a smaller Masonite,” she said.

“Night Sky Loft” (1972-73) is painted from the same space, in New York at night, where suddenly you get things reflected in the glass. In the daylight views, I never painted the windows on the building,” she said.

“It’s the same subject, but I kept seeing more in the same subject. I went on a long time before not seeing something new. I have two windows. So I would rotate between being here in winter and then the summer in Maine,” Dodd said.

Although her subject stays quite similar, what she envisions and then recreates in paint changes considerably. The painter, herself, has stayed true to her medium and subject matter, yet she still remains seemingly hard to define.

Wikipedia has Dodd defined as an abstract expressionist, she was told.

“That’s a mistake,” she said. “I don’t really fit in any category.”

Although she spent so many summers just a few miles from the shore, Dodd said she was not drawn to it as an artistic subject.

“I know, it’s right there,” Dodd said of the ocean. “I did a few things of some rocks. I spent a lot of time with friends painting in the quarry. So it’s where you spend your time and who you spend your time with. And the rocks have been so well painted by so many people, Homer, Bellows, all the people who went to Monhegan. No way I’m going to improve on that or even do something equally noteworthy, so it’s a good thing to stay away from.”

Asked to compare herself to Neil Welliver, a friend and artistic influence, especially regarding their painting of the Maine woods, Dodd said, “Neil’s was more of an organized way of painting, in terms of technique, not the way I’ve ever painted. The painting has to be organized, but not the way I put on paint.”

Painting nature, especially flowers, was not a popular topic for Dodd and her female contemporaries. “Ladies were supposed to paint flowers so that’s a good thing not to paint,” she said, “but I came to paint them. The woods are so convenient. I was always carrying furniture into the woods so the painting would have a focal point.” Such graft was not always necessary. “After a point, the woods seemed to have their own composition,” she said.

Dodd and her group of artists have used two models. The first model posed for them for almost 20 years, she said, and had a woodpile in the yard. The arrangement led to “Four Nudes and a Woodpile,” an earthly combination of classical nudes and orange, splintered logs.

They are working with the second model currently. “We start in July when the blackflies are gone, and usually go into October working out of doors,” Dodd said.

Leslie Land, her next-door neighbor and an inspired gardener, lives right across the field. “Other people had painted flowers before I got there. I was walking through it on a daily basis. It took me a long time to get around to painting anything there,” she said, focusing on odd and interesting plants. “And not just their beauty. It should be something more than that.”

Dodd most enjoys painting in a natural setting, and having a limited time to paint, given the ever-changing conditions.

“Absolutely a great thing. Given endless time I wouldn’t be able to move, or get anything done,” Dodd said. “The day is going to end, the light is going to shift, the rain is going to come. If I have all day, I wouldn’t get anything done. I’d fall asleep if I were painting all day. You don’t need to make a decision about every brushstroke.”

Dodd uses less paint with initial strokes. “I always think I’m going to go back and more paint on, but then it seems to have had its say,” she said.

What is the difference between the light in of the big city and the light in Maine? “The air is so clear in Maine. You get days where the light is black and white. In areas of New Jersey, there are areas of gray, much less value contrast,” she said. “It’s like taking photographs. Think of a Thomas Eakins’ Philly painting. You don’t think of them as extremely contrasty. Maybe Hartley, you see extremes of dark light. That’s the difference between Maine and this area.”

When working at her easel, Dodd watches for subtle shifts in the natural world. Every       now and then, she runs into atypical behavior in humans as well.

One time, when traveling with friend and fellow painter Elizabeth O’Reilly in Ireland (Bunbeg, County Donegal), she encountered an odd sight that was mutually amusing, that of a man toting behind him a refrigerator on wheels. Turns out he had lost a bet.

“We were kind of set up in front of this wreck of a building – turns out to be an old bark (ship). We see this guy. We think what the heck is he doing. He looks at us and thinks what the heck are we doing. You never know what’s going to happen when you are standing someplace and idly painting all day you – usually in nature, but here was an instance with a human,” said Dodd, who at 85 years old, might be thought to have seen it all.

But, with paintbrush in hand, she’s still looking.

She concluded the interview with thoughts on the challenge of being an artist, just starting out today.

“They were great old times,” she said of her 1950’s New York heyday. “They really were good times. It was so cheap to live in New York. You could do all these things with very little money. Contrast with young people coming here now, trying to do the same thing. Just to pay rent, they would have to get a full time job. It was a little happy interlude. Could live on the lowest east side, rent a space for $40 a month. It stayed that way for ten years. People had part-time jobs, but you could still work on your art. Now people come here because everything’s going on here. It’s the place to be. But if you can’t afford to be here, that will get in the way of everything going on here.”

She said the art world has decentralized, and now smaller places, like Maine, have more to offer.

Dodd has never been one to paint every day, just when the light moves her.

So what drives her outside to work?

“Madness and guilt,” she said. “If I don’t get something done, I don’t have a reason to be doing what I’m doing.”

Regarding her lifetime in art, she said, “It’s the most gratifying thing I can do. It’s the one thing in my life I can control completely. With everything else in life, you have to think about other people. Art is not the work of a committee. Do whatever you want to do. Nobody can do it for you, so therefore they can’t tell you how to do it either.”