Spotlight on 2020 Johnson Fellowship Nominees: Creating Space(s) to Activate Artistic and Cultural Movements

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Jun 30, 2020 0 comments

Venus De Mars and Luke Stewart are among the 11 exemplary music artist nominees for Americans for the Arts’ 2020 Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities featured in our ongoing ARTSblog series. At different career stages, these artist-activists may be considered by some on the musical fringes. What they hold in common is a steady and deliberate dedication to bringing their communities out of the margins and advancing and improving conditions for them to thrive. As a punk rock singer-songwriter and transgender woman, Venus’ performances, speaking, and compassionate presence have created spaces of affirmation and communion for transgender people and fostered openness and understanding among audiences across the gender spectrum. Luke moves effortlessly between artist communities in jazz, DIY punk rock, and, most of all, improvised music. He uses his improvisation skills to be alert to and advance conditions that will allow musicians across these genres to create, perform, and learn from one another, while expanding appreciation and audiences for their work.

Read all blogs in the Johnson Fellowship nominee series here.

Venus De Mars, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Photo by Nate RyanVenus De Mars is an award-winning punk rock singer-songwriter who has touched thousands of lives through her music and activism. Venus is also a transgender woman who has been out and visible for over 30 years, working tirelessly to be a beacon of hope for transgender people across the Midwest and beyond, often under the threat of violence and the persistent realities of discrimination, harassment, and criminalization.

“Feeling the oppression as a kid, I wanted to create through my art that it could be cool to be trans, it could be empowering to be who you feel you are. That was the persona I tried to create,” said Venus. “Punk and glam rock provided a musical sound and look that allowed me to use my voice, body, and musicianship … to reach the people who needed my voice.”

“When you go into this, you think about being a rock & roll star,” Venus explains. “The fact that I was trans and fighting an uphill battle in having to book and promote myself without industry help was difficult, but I was lucky in a way that I didn’t follow the normal path. It allowed me to think of my music as art.” In her 2015 album “Flesh and Wire,” for instance, she experimented with acoustic guitar, cello, and violin and, more recently, she has gravitated to intimate spaces conducive to the effect of a compelling, quiet, musical storytelling.

“If you are not a transgender person, you might not be sure what that means, exactly. … But, if you could imagine that you grew up thinking that you were utterly alone, that there was no church or God for you, that there was no meeting hall or community center for you, that there was no one in your family, school, work, or town who would understand you; … that you were resigned to be alone, until one day a woman with a guitar and grinder came to your town and belted out songs that were about you and you knew, suddenly, that you were not at all alone anymore. There was Venus singing in your neighborhood bar. There was Venus on your local radio. … And there was Venus on the other end of the phone when you needed someone.” —Billy Keefe, Arts Midwest

Traveling a noncommercial path also carved opportunity for public speaking about problems facing transgender people, particularly high suicide rates and political discrimination. In 2013, she fought and won a landmark case against the state Department of Revenue regarding what constitutes being a professional artist, helping to ensure tax benefits for all Minnesota artists. Now, having turned 60, she looks ahead: “I’ve started thinking about the work I need to do now to make a space for myself and other transgender people in homes, hospitals, and hospice care in our old age.” The last in-person performance Venus did before COVID hit was a fundraiser for JustUS Health, a legal advocacy group that has been focusing lately on older trans and LGBT folks facing discrimination as they have to go into assisted living.

As musical director for the Bare Bones Halloween Extravanganza, an annual pageant of larger-than-life puppetry, drama, dance, fire, song, and music that honors the circle of life, Venus writes the musical score developed through a community-based process and directs an entirely volunteer orchestra as part of the annual spectacle.

Venus is regarded as part of Minneapolis’ musical fabric. Early this year, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis invited her, along with photographer Joe Szurszweski (who has been photographing Venus and her band, All the Pretty Horses, for 20 years), to present an exhibition of Szurszweski’s photographs. Venus performed and read one of her essays for congregants surrounded by the photographs. As a spiritual gathering, she said, “I chose three songs that I felt reflected human struggle through the lens of being trans. After that I talked with people of all ages. It worked.”

In COVID isolation, Venus is finishing a memoir long in the works and recording with her band. But, she adds, “I depend on an audience to gauge my artistic relevance, so it’s been difficult for me to find that assurance on my own.” With her wife Lynette, Venus is live streaming music and poetry sessions that keep her feeling connected to fans, colleagues, and the communities she has supported over time. Intense local protests over the police murder of George Floyd have taken place in her own neighborhood. In this moment of heightened awareness and tensions, Venus participates in and sees potential for good in social media and artist town halls. But she is also “looking to understand where my voice is coming from and to recognize where it may not be effective. I think I’m recognizing within the arts community, we need to stay together and connected and not get divisive. I feel hopeful on that level.”

Luke Stewart, Washington, D.C. and New York City

Photo by CapitolBopLuke Stewart is a musician, scholar, educator, and organizer. “My history as an artist and community organizer has always been linked,” he explains. “From the beginning of my active times as an artist, I was influenced by the work of community orchestras, a movement of community activists in the tumultuous 1960s who were influenced by the times and attempted to address the issues through organizing communities around artistic expression.”

Like the community orchestras that influenced him, Luke connects the dots between audience, music, and legacy. Over a decade ago, he began a quest to bring jazz and Creative Music out of clubs and bars to alternative settings where earnings would go directly to artists. In addition, through his daily presence as a radio programmer at WPFW, he connected with advocacy organizations like Empower DC and “radical elders” in both activism and art, including Amiri Baraka and Yusef Lateef, which further sharpens his holistic approach.

Washington, D.C.’s struggles with gentrification and displacement—both for artists and for D.C.’s historic African American majority—have resulted in the loss of many of its historic jazz spaces, and musicians of all genres have struggled with having fewer places to affordably live, work, and connect with audiences. In nominating Stewart for the Johnson Fellowship, Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition described the artist’s impact on this issue: “Luke’s efforts have helped transform the conversation about the changes happening in the city.” When Union Arts—an artist-run live-work performance space he cofounded—was shuttered by redevelopment, amid protest concerts and rallies that Stewart helped to organize, he quoted Stewart as saying, “We have to align our fight with the larger fights of the city, like affordable housing, like institutional support from the government, opportunities for people to live and to pursue their passions in the city.” Stewart cofounded the nonprofit CapitalBop, Inc. dedicated to preserving, promoting, and presenting jazz in Washington, D.C. and “building community around this music, [not only] because it’s important to the city’s historic identity, but also [because it’s] ever-changing and contemporary.”

Attuned to the privilege of geography, Stewart is concerned with where and how opportunity is nurtured, especially where jazz and experimental musicians can converge. While he works in music-rich contexts in NYC and D.C., he recalls limited access to a wide range of cultural expressions growing up in Mississippi. He now aims to use his geographic privilege to connect the Creative Music community globally as a co-producer of the Free Jazz Convention, an evolving real and conceptual space where issues pertaining directly to the Creative Music community—cultural equity, race and gender, spirituality, as well as music interests—can be explored.

COVID-19 denied Stewart and band mates a 12-city, two-month European tour. Just as their first stop, Italy, became the epicenter of the pandemic, Stewart and fellow musicians stood in the airport debating whether to go. They prudently turned back home. The following day, Italy shut down. It was a $7,000 loss for Stewart. For improvisational artists, live shows are essential to the creative work itself: “Feeling the energies of the audience, of fellow musicians, of hallowed ground is vital for making an impact.” Despite the loss of live gigs, Stewart is open to and even excited by experimentation with creating and presenting his work virtually. “What’s useful to me is to distinguish that the show is the show; the livestream is not the show. It’s a completely different experience.”

Check out Luke Stewart’s Live is the Medium, which he describes as “a call to action to contemplate the power of improvisation as a means for personal spiritual change. In-tuned art making in the moment has the power to unlock other perspectives and ways of being, suggesting a new and better world.”

Special thanks to Billy Keefe of Arts Midwest and Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition, whose nominations for Venus and Luke respectively provided insights and text for this blog.

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