One’s Weak at the Cave at Jack’s Cove

Cave at Jacks Cove

By Timothy Gillis

Day 1. Six a.m. and no one’s up. I’m making coffee and reading the newspaper and having a cigarette. The cave at Jack’s Cove is filled with water now. The tide is high and I’m moving on. I wait for the recession and go spelunking with my mom and middle sister, down the green hill behind our new house, across the brown and white and once green fields, onto the path past the stonewalling wooden gate, through the mud down the trail until we reach the round-rocked beach buffeted on both sides by craggy cliffs, and then down to the left where I’m told at low tide the cave emerges, accessible by the seaside. We go the three of us and of course the dog, Wyatt. Slip on seaweed, go slow with coffee thermos, cups of black dark roast, the moon rising on the horizon even though it is midday, and into the cave at Jack’s cove. What will happen?

Day 2. Up early for coffee and cigarette and to run the washing machine, locate my new pen, stolen like Biff Loman in his boss’s office. Now seated in front of the early morning soccer, I roll another smoke, my son still stirring in the bed upstairs. The ocean must be the east, highlights from midweek, and the pen warms to the task, something written before the game gets me back to morning. A short story called “Boxing Day with Heart Rocks.” My heart rocks at Hard Rock. Rocky dog in the cave at Jack’s Cove, around the bend from Sobs’ Corner. The horizon is pink where it meets the water, then lightening as it rises so blue at the shore, deeper and darker until it meets pink orange yellow and into the light sky softer yet same color as the sea seemingly completes the circle, but doesn’t.

Day 3. Sobs’ Corner so called because so many drivers wound up on its rocky wall like whales beached. Boys drive the fast distracted course to tragic adulthood, slowed by nothing but their mothers’ anxiety. Then sped up again by the same beers, same talk of girls, some smoke and the radio blaring songs so familiar. Tackled head-on another car coming so when compensation meets surprise the boys—and the radio now the cell phone one hand driver one-hand texting—and the other car’s driver (no matter the age or experience going slow even to avoid an accident and) overcompensation, sends them back, the carload crashes into the wall at Sobs’ Corner. You get the name.

Day 4. That first time, too, you understand the needle in the year, the sting upon the bee, the first girl’s rejection, the song too long at the dance hall, the wall too close or so far away. The next line rises again to meet the pen. The page comes up and greets the ink, and the resulting composition yellows with age and her. Most times writing about the next one when the pen falls to paper, weak with the coffee’s last gurgle, cream warming on the counter, sugar sitting waiting, spinning in the bowl. The day’s sunset, slowly carnivorously turning today’s plans for toast and bacon and eggs into toast and eggs anyway or at least toast.

Day 5. The game. Everyone else is tuning in tomorrow for the big game, but for me and my ilk: it’s the world version of football, not the American one that they all crave. I make coffee but not a pot, just a single serving Italian roaster. Roll a French cigarette. I add the U to words like colour and favour so sights and assists turn European, give me a foreign name, soothe my stomach with stuff from away. The French cigarette is a spliff, a bozo, with skunk honey weed and Dunhill tobacco. The path out back leads to an American beach, but the rounded rocks on its shore roll under my weight in kilograms not pounds. The sea salt’s come from overseas, the sand’s shifted over there. I sit and sip and smoke and slide from my pocket an Arden classic—Much Ado About Nothing—and open to Act I. What of the rising tide? What for the distant shore? To who the page lifts and turns? And wherefore? The dog sniffs someone else’s dog, the mess he left behind. The cave at low tide, cliff at high, opens and fills out on my left, a No Trespassing sign on the rocks on my right. Richard Brautigan’s 4/17th of a haiku. The coffee cools as the pen’s ink warms.

Day 6. Vert, I go, in green ink. Sit, start from dreams, grab nightstand notebook and pen and write as the sunrise pours yellow light upon the page. The ink is almost gone, victim of a thousand late nights, a dozen false dawns. The temporary job is done. The part-time girlfriend shortly after it. But evening’s images still flicker their Chinese New Year torture, after all the traditional holidays are shut, that last one late one hosted by her friends, who gather and discuss the holidays and work and all the world they’ll see in all the in-betweens. Meanwhile, I rise over the recent sketches. The coffee spurts and gurgles and perks. The foggy cigarette rolls itself, the ocean just woke up while I was relieving, and the dew is rolling back into the woods. His prayer rug matted with his and his father’s knees, frayed at each end – by Judaism on the left, Christianity on the right, rolled now into his mind’s spiritual corner, a naturalist’s wonder. The dog drops his ball, no bounce, and looks for someone to throw it. His master’s gone. “The old dog barks backwards,” the Frosty poet opined, slowed the line with D’s and B’s, so the reader (like the dog) rhymes behind, regrets. I refill my thermos cup without getting up. The poem’s next line fuels the mind. “I can remember when he was a pup.”

Day 7. Red-Letter Day and writing in red ink now. The sun rises angry this morning, up over restless seas and a rocky path walk to its shore. The dog limps behind me, still sleepy and tottering like the young cow from another cold poem. Wyatt still hasn’t eaten his breakfast, the leftovers from last night, and seems to sense the news I’ll get later, that my sister’s dog has died a surprise death, discovered by her daughter, such a sensitive, animal-loving soul. Wyatt’s cousin had lost his job, bringing joy and dancing days to his human mother, sister, brother, and all the dogs gone by. Man’s best friend dies too, it seems, leaving the long walk to the morning shore so much colder and alone. The moon sits opposite, hesitant to go down on the night and its still unbegotten news. The ducks float on by, cackling in the wind and riding today’s crest, then falling on its other side, the coolness like the other side of last night’s pillow, feathers scrunched from last night’s head in its unmade bed. I can hear my mother puzzling away in the other room, the edges of a thousand-piece picture of an image from our younger European days. She persists, puts pieces together although she knows one is missing. I look over the leftover pieces and perceive the shortfall, and then the floor and consider my dog, dying one day too but not for now. For now, just secretly digesting puzzle pieces.

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Texas Chainsaw Chili Contest

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Leatherface signs books, serves chili at Coast City Comicon

By Timothy Gillis

Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” will be appearing at this year’s Coast City Comicon, to sign autographs and discuss his new book. The comic book convention is at the DoubleTree in South Portland on Nov. 9 and 10. He will also host a chili cook-off and enter a concoction of his own recipe.

Fans of this spooky genre know Hansen’s alter ego, the intimidating Leatherface from the most famous horror film in history. Hansen also appeared in “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” with fellow Coast City Comicon guest Linnea Quigley. Following a screening of their film, fans can participate in a Q&A session with Hansen and Quigley.

As part of Hansen’s appearance, he’ll be posing for photos with fans all weekend, and promoting his new book, which gives a compelling retelling of the making of the film and the reception it received in 1974.

“Chain Saw Confidential” is confidently written and engaging. It opens with an overt allusion to “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville, whose own hero was also disconsolate and looking for a sea change.

“Call me Leatherface. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me otherwise, I thought I would do a little acting and see how movies were made. Even once in a while, when the world gets to be too much and I start to feel a bit spleeny, I feel the need to lift my spirits by killing someone,” the book begins. It goes on to debunk many of the myths surrounding the movie – that it was based on a true story, that the stars made millions, and that someone died during filming.

Hansen, for all the notoriety, did not make much money for his part at the chain saw-wielding maniac who carves up a van full of teenagers and devours them with his crazed family.

“Back then, $10,000 or $15,000 would have meant the world to me,” Hansen said from his home on the coast of Maine last week. The movie’s backers were connected to the Colombo crime family in New York, and even a badass like Leatherface wasn’t going to tangle with them over a contract dispute.

The making of the film was horrific enough. Filmed in the Texan heat that often reached higher than 100 degrees, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was directed by Toby Hooper, who used method acting throughout the filming. He worked overtime to keep the actors in character and, especially, kept those who played victims away from the Chain Saw family, and Leatherface, in particular. Hansen spent many hours alone on the set between shots.

“My feeling was ‘he doesn’t trust his actors if he thinks they need to be genuinely frightened. I felt that was not a very insightful way to approach actors,” said Hansen. He conceded that Alfred Hitchcock had resorted to such measures when filming “The Birds,”

but he thought Hooper went too far in an unnecessary direction.

“When I interviewed for the role, Toby asked me if I was violent, if I was crazy. That concerned me. Does he think I need to be violent or crazy to act this part?” said Hansen, whose family moved from Iceland to Searsport when he was five years old. He subscribed to Looney Tunes comic books as an early way to learn English.

When approached for the film role, Hansen was a college student in Texas, delving into the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

“I tried to write short stories as a kid. In college, I was really interested in poetry, and was poetry editor on a magazine in Austin,” he said. He has published a chapbook of poems called “Bear Dancing on the Hill.” and has forayed into film, working on several documentaries.

“I started out writing them, and then directed and produced them as well,” Hansen said. “Of all of those functions, it was the writing I enjoyed the most.”

For the comic book convention, Hansen gets to get back into his Leatherface character. In addition to posing for pics and signing his new book, Hansen will also host a chili cook-off.

Jarrett Melendez, of Coast City Comics, said, “We’re tired of the conventions that just plop movie stars behind a table and have them sign stuff. We like being able to provide a more intimate experience for fans. They won’t just get herded through a line and shoved away before they can manage a quick ‘Hello.’ They can actually take a minute and talk with idols like Gunnar. Heck, they can even taste food that he made! You don’t get that at national shows like New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con.”

“I’ll bring some of my own chili down,” Hansen said. “I’m hoping we can set it up as a blind testing. I’d like to find out if people like my chili. If they don’t, I can always say, ‘Well, they’re not from Texas, so they don’t know chili.’ There aren’t any beans in Texas chili.”

When asked about the secret ingredient in his chili, Hansen said, “The only beans in my chili are human bein’s.”

 

Artist Brown Lethem in Portland Sunday

"Coyotes," a work in progess by Richard Brown Lethem.JPGBy Timothy Gillis

This interview with Brown Lethem appeared previously. The painter will speak at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine, on Sunday, June 11.

“I learned to think by watching my father paint,” says Jonathan Lethem, the acclaimed author, in an essay on his dad, Richard Brown Lethem, the 81-year-old avant-garde artist. Father and son have long been inspiring each other.

After his reading at SPACE Gallery a few weeks ago, Lethem looked to the audience for questions, and saw his dad with his hand raised. Brown, sitting next to Andy Verzosa of Aucocisco Galleries, asked his son about his recent time living in Berlin and what European reactions were to his latest book, “Dissident Gardens,” which has just been translated into Spanish. While the author has written much about his dad’s influence on him, the painter says no one asks him how his son has also informed his art.

“It’s worked both ways,” Brown said last week. “His work has influenced me. His interest in science fiction, which I wasn’t into when I was younger, and (Jorge Luis) Borges, and some of the writers I hadn’t read – he turned me on to. They’ve been a big influence.”

The two areas the father and son most overlap is the tendency to never repeat by continually reinventing themselves in their art, and the use of fantasy and imaginary relationships. Brown has always had an interest in the subconscious and the fantasy life and how it influences art, working out of imaginary sources, “and I think that’s been prevalent in his work also,” he said. He’s read all of his son’s books, usually cruising through an advanced copy.

“This last one is so dense I have to go back and read it again,” he said. “His writing has really made me alerted to the environmental crisis. He was on top of that long before it became a meaningful aspect of my thinking.”

Brown works at his Berwick home, in the big barn studio during much of the summer and the stable, a smaller studio that he can heat and work in through the winter. His nickname, Brown, comes from his grandfather’s first name.

“I adopted it a few years back as my real name,” he said. “It seemed earthy and appropriate for a painter.”

During our visit, his cat, Chomsky, made friendly, but Sophie and Whippoorwill, another two, stayed out of sight. Brown was a carpenter for years in Brooklyn, and those skills came in handy when he moved to Maine. The Berwick house is a typical New England cape built in 1846. The barn burned down in 1900 and was rebuilt the following year. When Brown moved in, there was a lot of renovation work to be done on the barn and house, but he didn’t mind the labor. He still spends time in his woodworking shop, which is part of the stable studio.

“Richard Brown Lethem: Figure ↔ Abstraction” is an exhibit at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art that runs though the end of August. The show features many of the paintings he created while living in Maine. A six-foot tall wooden sculpture was done in 1991 while he was artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Maine.

“I’ve always done three-dimensional work,” he said. “The carpentry has influenced my artistic work, assemblages where I use woodworking as a basic form for building.”

Lethem, at 81 years old, still remains flexible with the artistic process.

“I work whenever I feel good, and inspired,” he said. “I try to do something around my studio every day. Sometimes it’s just paperwork, or thinking about the art work, and sometimes it’s a laying on the hands.”

Brown Lethem grew up in the Midwest, in the triangulation of Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, and spent his summers in “the Divide,” the high prairie land of Willa Cather.

“It’s an interesting part of the county with the character of flat prairie geology that extends into northern Kansas, beautiful buffalo grass,” he said. “It was a little desolate, scary growing up with fire ants and rattle snakes and hand-to-mouth farming, hardscrabble. Many farmers went into debt. I always retained those feelings that Cather talked about, the innocence of sensing death in the landscape.”

He spent most of his first 11 years in a small town in Missouri, half a block from his best friend’s farm.
“Farm animals were a big part of growing up,” he said, then related his early days to his more recent ones. “I come up here, and I’ve gotten back into the country, where the relationship between animals and people are a big part of the subject matter. I have a lot of paintings of horses and riders.”

Lethem’s parents rode horses to school. His dad, Walter Roy Lethem, was a traveling salesman who did well enough to keep six kids through the Depression. His mother, Faye Marie Gifford, also grew up in a rural situation and never lost that love of close proximity to riding horses. Young Richard always had a great ambition to be a painter and got his first set of oil paints from his older sister when he was nine.

“It’s pretty much what I have focused on for 60 years as an adult. I wound up being a carpenter and a teacher by default,” he said.

Lethem brought up his own children – Jonathan, Blake (a graffiti and graphic artist), and Mara Faye (a writer) – in New York in a free-sharing artistic existence.

“We lived in an old brownstone in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. We had a big house. It became a commune with always three or four or more housemates living with us. The kids had a wide-ranging diverse environment, people-wise. There were a couple of guys from Africa, a guy from Okinawa, a couple from Germany – many involved in the arts in one form or another. It was pretty stimulating, a little bit chaotic. The neighborhood was rough, a lot of threatening stuff on a huge street for a kid.”

Brown taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and at Columbia University (his alma mater), as well as the University of Kentucky and the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1994, he became an assistant professor at USM, where he taught for seven years before becoming an adjunct professor, still instructing a couple classes until three years ago.

“I loved teaching at USM. The students were wonderful,” he said. “They came mostly from working backgrounds and were serious about their work. They were cooperative and really worked together. They also had an independent streak that Mainers have growing up in close contact with nature and working situations. They were great. Other than the Kansas City Art Institute, working with USM painting majors was my very best experience.”

The next wave of Maine artists can check out the works of one of the most inspired, at Richard Brown Lethem’s show in Ogunquit.

Rending Wall

Poetry inspired by Donald Trump, with apologies to Robert Frost

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Someone there is who loves a wall,
Who foments the hate that boils up to build it,
And creates fake news, equates terror with one religion,
And makes a place where predators can grab a breast.

The work of the people is another thing:
I have joined them in their marches, their peaceful protests,
Which met with tear gas, resentment, and bile,
The resistance that has irked the angry dogs.

At mending time, a time to heal all wounds,
My neighbor lets me know beyond the hill,
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And crack the wall between us once again.

We smash the wall between us as we go.
He is all pine and I am apple orchard,
but together we get nourishment beneath the shade.
He’s heard “Good walls will keep out bad hombres.”

We wish we could put a notion in Trump’s head,
How do you know they’re bad before you meet them?
But Trump believes Breitbart News and watches Fox,
And thinks a wall’s the trick, doesn’t care if he gives offense.

Nature it is that doesn’t want the wall,
That tears it down when the people gather, rise up.
I see Trump there, hiding in his fool’s gold castle,
Peeking out behind the shades, afraid of another’s difference.

He takes no self-exam and can’t see similarities
With the very people he chooses to detest.
I want to pelt him with a barrage of ripe red apples,
The age-old symbol for knowledge he so disdains.

My neighbor wants to make a drone of pinecones,
And deliver a prickly payload of stark reality.
But Donald is the duck in a raincoat.
His conscience doesn’t work like yours or mine.

He moves in darkness, a product of his party’s mindless rage.
And doesn’t read a book nor turn a page.

Let’s Get It On

(l-r) Ness Smith-Savedoff and Kingben Majoja.jpg

Protesters gathered on Monument Square Friday night, with sign-holders chanting to passing cars and each other that “Hey Ho! Donald Trump has got to go.” The woman on the bullhorn implored art walkers to come out each month in similar fashion. Across the street, in the atrium of the Portland Public Library, critics of the current regime took another approach, gathering musicians from several immigrant communities for the Portland Culture Exchange’s music jam and dance party. They had “Mainer” shirts especially made for the day, crafted by Pigeon, the street artist name for Orson Horchler.

This first public event comes after a year of several impromptu house parties, introducing newcomers to the city to their neighbors and future friends. Lilly Pearlman anchors the group and plays fiddle and bass guitar. She grew up in Portland, went to college in New York, and then spent time in Brazil.

“When I moved back, I wanted to know a Portland that wasn’t as homogenous as the one I grew up in. I thought ‘What stands in the way?’ I realized that we’re not homogenous, we’re segregated.” She wanted a project that called upon peoples’ various skills and yet somehow united them. She started going to English classes, where she met new Mainers and talked about their interests. Almost everybody she met loved music; most played an instrument. Cuisine and culture quickly became two additional distinguished commonalities. They started holding monthly French-English discussions, and the group plans to add Spanish and Arabic exchanges to the mix. Despite national concerns with immigration policies and the swirling confusion of their effects on locals, the Portland Culture Exchange has remained intent on sharing traditions, food, and music.

“We are bridging the gaps between American-born and new Mainers through common passions to create the opportunity for building relationships, friendships between communities that are usually segregated,” she said. “Frequently, even when there’s interest between multiple groups to get together, it’s uncomfortable. There are cultural barriers. Sometimes people think the differences are greater than they are.”

The group started having informal parties that turned into Monument Square street jams. The library’s atrium was packed at Friday night’s event, and they’re considering moving to a bigger space the next time. But for the group, it’s not all song and dance.

They’re planning a big event called “We Sing for Peace,” using some of the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe, especially the notion of a tisch – a joyous public celebration with a meal set up on a long table, often held on a Friday, “when Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to play musical instruments, so they sing into the night,” Pearlman said. “Niggunim, or traditional melodies, for example. Based on that, we are going to have people lead easy songs in their languages that call for peace. We’ll probably need more space, perhaps the auditorium.”

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“The notion of a tisch comes from my Jewish (Ashkenazi, Eastern European) heritage,” said Pearlman, who teaches ceilidh dances from her Scottish heritage at their jams. She says the project works to build a real multicultural view of what ‘Portland culture’ is, based on Portland’s residents and their multifaceted histories and traditions.

“We Sing for Peace” is modeled after a tisch because that, too, is part of Portland’s traditions. “While the project is grounded in the sharing, appreciating, and exchanging of traditions and cultures, we put great value on the people who bring Portland’s cultural richness,” she said. “When Eric Simido sings an Angolan song, he makes his Angolan culture essential to Portland culture. When the folks at Chez Okapi – a Congolese restaurant on St. John’s Street where we host our French-English language exchanges – cook fufu and pundu in Portland, they bring their home with them, and they build Portland’s culture. When any brilliant foreign-born Mainer uses their ingenuity to create a new business in Portland, their unique way of thinking and being makes its way into this community’s roots and foundation. So we see our exchange as part of an intertwining of long histories in the place where we all now share common space: Portland.”

The musical regulars include Pearlman and her brother Neil on the keyboard. Majoja, on the drums and guitar, and Eric Simido, vocals and guitar, are both from Angola. Ness Smith-Savedoff, who grew up in Portland and Switzerland, plays drums. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda are regularly represented. Everyone is invited to bring an instrument and come and dance. At “We Sing for Peace,” tentatively scheduled for April, they hope to have as many as ten countries joining voice.

Majoja is the nickname or artistic name for Kingebeni Kilaka Kelorde, who is originally from the north of Angola. “I had to go to DR Congo, the country where I lived for about two decades because my country was in civil war.”

He studied art in high school, and is now a painter and musician. “I have loved the music since my childhood because it has been part of my traditional culture,” he said. “I have been in Portland since October 2015. It was not easy for me to be accustomed with the weather, oh nooo! So cold, the lifestyle is so fast and busy. When I met with Jenny van West, she connected me with Pigeon and he connected me with Lilly Pearlman. She talked to me about the Portland Culture Exchange. It seemed to be an interesting project and I promised her to give all my energies because I believe that everyone has something special to share to make Portland a better place for everyone. I live in the US , and I love this multicultural country. Culture is the identity of people. I’d like to see Portland growing up like all the metropolitan cities around the world. Portland Culture Exchange is our first step.”

 

For more information, contact portlandcultureexchange@gmail.com

Get lit for the holidays

By Timothy Gillis

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Jack Wyatt knows what he likes at the new Print Bookstore. (photo by Caeli Shadis)

Just in time for the holidays, there’s a new shop in town. Print: A Bookstore has taken up residence in the former Angela Adams building on Congress Street, downstairs from the East End Lofts.

Print is a wide-open, well-lighted place, with wide aisles for strollers and a great children’s book section that will help keep the youngsters occupied while you’re browsing the bestsellers. A wall had to come down, and new lighting was installed, but other than that, the space was ready-made.

Co-owners Emily Russo and Josh Christie took the plunge two weeks ago, braving the competition and defying any notions of reading as a dying industry. They offer new books only, leaving the sales of well-worn tomes to Yes Books, Carlson & Turner Antiquarian Books and Bookbindery, and The Green Hand Bookshop. Longfellow Books sells both new and used books and has a loyal following, but the folks at Print are confident there will be enough booklovers to support their endeavor.

“Any business is a challenge,” Christie said. “But the American Booksellers Association says that, since 2011, there have been more independent bookstores opening than closing.”

This is not a leap taken blindly. Russo worked as events coordinator at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Ma. and at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn before that. Christie started at the Sherman’s Books & Stationery in Freeport before he designed, opened, and managed their affiliate in Portland in 2014.

A job that combines the business and pleasure of leading people to great literature is worth the risk. Print plans to relieve the stress with some evening events, book-readings and author appearances. They say that within two years, they expect to be hosting as many as 200 shindigs a year.

Coming up in 2017, Jason Diamond will read from his non-fiction work Searching for John Hughes on Feb. 3, and Maine author Ron Currie will read from his new book, The One-Eyed Man on March 9.

Here are some of the booksellers’ picks for must-reads in the New Year, as well as overlooked books from the past:

Coming in January, Paul Auster checks in with a 980-page doorstopper called 4321. The main character rolls through four different trajectories of his past.

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo. Written in the P.G. Wodehouse style, the book follows an 18-century poet who, running low on money, meets the devil on the street and maybe a makes a deal with him.

The Mothers – Brit Bennett’s debut novel about a group of women from southern California who run a church. Things get complex when a young girl falls for the pastor’s son.

Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein. A short story collection reminiscent of TV’s “Black Mirror” and its surreal take on how technology affects people’s lives.

How to be a person in the world by Heather Havrilesky. A collection of writings by the syndicated advice columnist. Havrilesky is a modern-day Dr. Abby for millennial misanthropes.

Check out Print for your holiday shopping, and chase away the Bah Humbugs.

Compelling acts of courage and compassion, in unlikely place

By Timothy Gillis

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Even behind bars, prisoners serving life sentences are finding dignity and compassion. In an evocative photo exhibit at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, photographer Lori Waselchuk has captured inmates in their last stages of life, being cared for by hospice workers who are likewise incarcerated.

“Grace Before Dying” tells the emotional story of an extraordinary breakthrough in humanity that has helped to transform one of the most dangerous maximum security prisons in the United States, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, into one of the least violent. By allowing volunteer inmates to comfort fellow inmates who are elderly or terminally ill, this new hospice program helps convicts assert and affirm their humanity in an environment designed to isolate and punish.

“It started out as an assignment for a little magazine called Imagine Louisiana,” Waselchuk said. “It was a photo essay for a short-lived publication on philanthropy. When it was time to publish the article I felt I was only being introduced to the program. It was difficult to get in (to the prison). I asked permission to continue working on the project on my own, and after a series of discussions, was permitted to.”

Waselchuk, an award-winning photographer, not only shows a culture of caring and compassion that challenges stereotypes of the incarcerated, but also provides an intimate and personal perspective on what long-term and life sentences signify for those inside.

“I wasn’t sure what would become of it,” she said. “I wanted to make photographs that would describe and emote the things I was seeing. I knew I wanted to keep going.”

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Her exhibit, on show at Salt’s Congress Street school until April 12, features poignant quotes from the incarcerated hospice volunteers and patients accompanying searing photographs that chart the development of the program through a carefully built sequence.

Waselchuk is a full-time photographer, who does editorial work and is starting to do some portraiture. Meanwhile, she continues to work on documentary projects.

Her work at the Angola state pen has moved her emotionally more than most other projects.

“The guys that I was able to photograph – Jimmy, for example, I knew him for the entire two and a half years that I worked on it,” she said. “I got to be friends with the caregivers, and keep up with a few.”

The photographs in the exhibit are augmented by quilts made by caregivers and volunteers on the outside. Waselchuk said she continues to meet with the quilters, staying in touch even after her photographing has finished. The exhibit has been shown across the country, with two exhibitions traveling fulltime. One traveling show is a pop-up exhibit with quilts, launched at the prison itself. From there, it traveled to three prisons in Louisiana and one in Mississippi.

Waselchuk photographs have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide, including Newsweek, LIFE, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Her work is exhibited internationally and is part of collections including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Portland Museum of Art and the South African National Gallery.

Her next photo project focuses on Philadelphia. It’s called “The Black Captains.” In this work, she turns her lens on neighborhood block leaders.

“It’s a project about people who step up and do things without being asked,” said Waselchuk. Her photo exhibit of dying inmates and the fellow prisoners who care for them is another great example of people stepping up. Sometimes, however, these subjects can be challenging for an image-maker.

“It’s scary for a lot of photographers to approach people they don’t know and photograph them when they are feeling vulnerable, but I love it,” she said. “I want to talk about people and place in my work, but mostly people.”

 

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.salt.edu or www.gracebeforedying.org. For more information on Lori Waselchuk, visit www.loriwaselchukphotos.com.