The Art of War
Grassroot groups gather weapons to fight the right: poetry, paint, punk music — and food.
By ANTHONY MARIANI Photography by Vishal Malhotra
Fifteen crutches wrapped in pig intestines — that’s just one of Lori Thomson’s artworks.
The piece, the local artist said, is intended to address “the problem that we as a nation have with confronting illness and death.” Originally exhibited several years ago in a gallery at a Texas university, the crutches didn’t exactly spur a stampede of collectors to her front door. Like most of Thomson’s artwork, the piece was dismantled after its exhibition and pretty much forgotten.
Thomson, a middle-aged spitfire with short dark hair and glasses, is a type of artist whose work is the opposite of decorative; she doesn’t produce the kind of art that nicely matches the sofa or looks good in the lobby of a downtown bank building or makes Grandma nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. Thomson’s work is shocking, confrontational, and almost always politically charged, and because of its ephemeral, journalistic, in-your-face nature, her work doesn’t make good fiscal sense to commercial gallery owners. Who in the hell’s going to buy pieces of hospital equipment swathed in hog guts?
But a lot of people believe this genre is worth exhibiting, which is why after being shunned repeatedly by the rather insular Fort Worth commercial art gallery community over the years, Thomson did the next logical thing — she bought her own exhibition space.
Thomson’s Firehouse Art Studios and Gallery will soon turn two years old. Located in the single-story structure in Meadowbrook that served as the neighborhood firehouse from its construction in 1928 until the early 1980s, Thomson’s spot is one of the few local alternatives to the commercial gallery circuit. The Firehouse is populist in spirit — just about anyone can exhibit there. More than 150 different shows, according to Thomson, have been hung on the Firehouse’s slightly askew walls over the years. “You don’t have to be an artist to make art,” she said, “as long as you love it.”
When an artist takes her career into her own hands à la Thomson, she has joined the Do It Yourself movement — the same supernatural guiding force that stirs poets to print their own chapbooks or actors to recite Shakespeare in the street. For years, artists — writers, painters, musicians — have been forcibly separated from potential audiences by the multinational corporations that control most of the avenues of visual, verbal, and audio communication. The Suits want disposable pop that generates profits. Artists want to explore their frequently messy, frequently unpopular muses. Fed up with the establishment’s persistent stonewalling, artists have spent the past decade circumventing corporate barriers to create alternative lines of communication with audiences. An exaggerated example is the Texas DJ who never received a second’s worth of commercial radio airplay but made a mint by selling mixed cassettes of his handiwork from the front door of his South Houston house.
“Since mainstream media is locked up by corporations, don’t bother with it,” said Jeff Ferrell, TCU sociology professor and author of several socio-cultural books, including Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy. “Do it yourself.”
The cutesy term for the underground ecosystem that the DIY ethos precipitates is “Xerocracy,” as in “rule by Xerox machine.” The moniker comes from the idea that a writer whose work may be too shocking, confrontational, or politically charged to be published in newsstand publications can always make copies of that work and distribute them by hand.
Yes, Fort Worth has a Xerocratic culture, and it’s been around a long time. But only recently has the city’s particular variety of DIY anti-government gained enough momentum to qualify as even a minor movement. “Fort Worth’s is small, but it’s thriving,” Ferrell said. “I hope it continues growing, in a DIY fashion.”
The escalating polarization between Fort Worth’s progressive, arty community and the conservative establishment helps explain this revitalized underground phenomenon. November’s presidential election, in which Tarrant County gave President Bush his second largest margin of victory in the nation over Senator John Kerry, energized and united the area’s progressive, avant-garde artists, art appreciators, and members of progressive grassroots organizations. They’re marshaling their myriad talents in the service of one goal — to counter the colossal tide of conservativism that progressives feel is threatening to swamp Fort Worth in red-state intransigence.
“There’s a range of alternative, progressive social movements not linked by affiliations but by culture,” Ferrell said . “If you change the way a city looks, you’re changing perception.”
When fighting for your beliefs, you better have a weapon handy. Progressives have a couple, including cheap, accessible computer technology. The problem is that, while the internet is an easy, relatively painless way to reach large numbers of people, it’s also feeble. A single message or image is likely to be quietly smothered by the zillions of other messages, images, and sound bites clogging the airwaves and cyberspace. Progressives say their more formidable tool is actually centuries-old — good old-fashioned art.
Not all of it always has to be Art-with-a-capital-A. Creative ways of fostering environments where Art can thrive are also effective, like a local business where spoken-word poets can regularly perform or a building that’s part music venue, part ideological statement. The Art also doesn’t always have to be overtly political. In the context of a fancy restaurant, a well-orchestrated avant-garde painting can rattle cages as violently as a pro-choice speech at Sunday services. Some head-turning art is either progressive (concerned with politics) or avant-garde (made from crazy shapes and sounds), but a lot is both — and is still an effective way to assert beliefs. “All art, in some form or another, challenges the status quo,” wrote noted author Peter Guralnick. Ramsey Sprague, an integral member of a couple of local progressive grassroots organizations, concurs: “Art keeps the lines of communication open. Creativity is universal. There’s a communion that comes with art.”
While we were all sleeping a couple of years ago, Fort Worth quietly became a boom town. Office buildings, apartments, and high-rises have been popping up all over the place. Real estate prices have gone into the stratosphere, well out of the range of a majority of the population.
The invasion of developers hit one specific group of progressive artists pretty hard. Unlike painters or writers, performance artists need space — and musicians need lots of it. (Amps and PA systems can swallow entire rooms.) Sure, a band can perform in its garage and charge a $10 cover at the driveway entrance, but even the most talented group of musicians isn’t going to get very far that way. The number of venues in Fort Worth that cater to progressive performance artists could be counted on one hand.
That list is still short, but one place is trying to pick up the slack. On a stretch of Hemphill Avenue crowded with apartment complexes, fast-food joints, and convenience stores sits a white, two-story structure whose front window overlooks a collection of randomly stacked car tires that overflows with healthy vegetation, and whose façade swirls with graffiti — commissioned graffiti. The place is 1919 Hemphill, and while it’s more of an idea in the form of a building, it has become a destination for Fort Worth’s progressively minded musicians and music lovers.
When 1919 first opened its doors, its initial purpose was simply to provide a stage for young, mostly progressive bands that were either tired of getting screwed by Fort Worth’s legitimate music venues or couldn’t get gigs anywhere else. Since then, 1919 has grown exponentially in both mission and activities. In addition to hosting outré music events, 1919 also screens left-leaning documentaries every Sunday, offers a small library of radical literature, supplies meeting space for local progressive grassroots organizations, holds various workshops, and — get this — is putting together a marching band. The group, according to its web site, attempts to provide “a common defense of love, empathy, peace, righteousness, equality, diversity, thought, expression, and ideas by creating a center for unmediated discussion, workshops, art, music, and conversation.” Groovy.
Music pays the bills. The fact that bills are being paid at all is incredible, considering that 1919 began as a series of conversations among some young friends after-hours at Ol’ South Pancake House on University Drive. A recurring topic of discussion was the acquisition of space. After about a year of talk, the friends — collectively known as the Fort Worth Independent Council — acquired a warehouse in a secluded part of South Fort Worth. Almost as soon as they laid down the welcome mat, the FWIC members were looking for another spot, something more accessible. By the late summer of 2002, FWIC had gotten its hands on the 5,000-square-foot building on Hemphill. “We just got lucky,” said the self-named Nobody, one of 1919’s founders.
FWIC members scraped together enough money to pay the first two months’ rent and then began trying to recoup some of their investment, not by charging admission for shows, but by pleading with concert-goers for donations. Word spread, and what began as a cavernous hole in the wall for crappy punk bands wanting to speak their minds soon became an imperative stop for solid out-of-town acts with regional and sometimes national profiles, including An Albatross, Of Death, and Garuda. Some political, some not. Once action started picking up, the place began its current practice of collecting and keeping 100 percent of modest cover charges. The neighbors, according to the people at 1919, didn’t really mind all the commotion and the noise every weekend — and still don’t.
Most of the bands, by all accounts, enjoy playing the venue. The sound system is adequate, and the musicians — even though unpaid — are treated well. The space is also all-ages, and concert-goers are rarely turned away.
Young people? Rock ’n’ roll? Radical propaganda? Sounds like a trap. “If people come into the space, they might as well learn why the space exists,” Sprague said. “But we’re not doctrinaire. What we promote overall is individualism. We’re not demagogic.”
At this point, the venture is almost completely self-supporting. This means either that 1919 is providing a service that Fort Worth has been perennially wishing for — or, more curiously, that there are just a lot of desperate, crappy punk bands in town.
Scratchy voice booming, head shaking, hips gyrating — spoken-word poet Tammy Gomez had the audience by the throat and wouldn’t let go.
The place was the Black Dog Tavern, an 8-year-old downtown nightclub that has been hosting spoken-word events once a week for about the past three years. Gomez is a veteran, to both the Black Dog and the spoken-word poetry scene. One of Fort Worth’s best-known purveyors of verse, Gomez — whose diminutive stature belies her powerful presence — has been performing for nearly 20 years. In the 1980s, she helped found “Miracle on Berry Street,” a weekly spoken -word event at the Hop (now the Aardvark), and she also steadily published a ’zine, Top Heavy. Her aesthetic philosophy resembles that of just about every other spoken-word poet in town — she’s political and progressive.
Though far from filling the joint, the crowd of about 30 put a smile on the face of owner Tad Gaither. “Not bad for a weekday,” he said.
Gaither opens his doors every week to a segment of the avant-garde arts community, not to make money but to slake a personal compulsion. A rabid liberal and student of the arts, the ex-Yank is trying to do what he can to support local artists while developing a reputation for the same. “No one else is doing [spoken-word events],” Gaither said. “It makes good business sense. They fill the place during the early afternoon when nobody else would be here.” Gaither also said he will continue to host spoken-word events for personal reasons: “I just fucking like it — it’s interesting, unusual, off-beat.”
A few owners of other independent businesses are starting to go for a similar Black Dog-ish vibe, mainly to attract “hip” crowds. (Nothing’s cooler than cool people not trying to be cool.) A lot of artists have been eager to show, say, or play their stuff in these non-traditional, for-profit venues. Nearly every spoken-word reading in town takes place in some sort of watering hole, while local avant-garde visual artists have developed a bond with local restaurants and cafés that borders on the romantic.
The treatment that painters and mixed-media artists receive from dining industry bigwigs doesn’t fully explain the love — horror stories abound, of paintings smeared with lipstick and of stolen paintings. No, the dearth in alternative galleries is what probably fuels the passion. The good alt-galleries — Heliotrope on Bluebonnet Circle, and the Firehouse — are usually booked so far in advance that artists may be forced to wait an entire calendar year before they can hammer a single nail into a wall. And Fort Worth’s best alt-exhibit space, Gallery 414 in the Cultural District, is one of the most tasteful, experimental places to view art in North Texas; beginners are gently encouraged to steer clear. Sometimes the only, not-bad option a workaday painter has is to hang his work above plates of linguini in a restaurant.
“It depends on the artist’s expectations,” said local artist Jesse Sierra Hernandez, whose commissioned figurative oil paintings hang in several local nightclubs and restaurants. “I didn’t think I’d sell a lot by hanging my work in a restaurant, but it’s good if you want to get your name out there.”
Amy McNutt’s approach to art-friendly activism could be described as “let them come to me when they’re ready — or, in this case, hungry.”
With husband and filmmaker James M. Johnston, McNutt owns and operates Fort Worth’s only vegan restaurant, Spiral Diner. Formerly located in the Rail Market downtown, the enviro-friendly eatery is now situated on the South Side, among Fort Worth’s most convivial mix of exotic restaurants, on Magnolia Avenue. While Spiral Diner’s colorful menu is as forward-thinking as any abstract painting, McNutt sees the restaurant itself as her arty contribution to progressivism in town. “It’s a great meeting place,” she said. “So many connections are made here. It’s common ground.” The cabinets, the doorframes, the light fixtures — even the bodies of some of the workers — have artsy touches applied. A corner table is loaded with pamphlets from progressive organizations, and the walls are covered in visual art by local artists. One-hundred percent of artwork sale proceeds go directly into artists’ pockets; the restaurant/gallery takes no commission.
Compared to its previous location on the eastern edge of downtown, the Magnolia spot is both highly visible and accessible. Business, according to McNutt, has nearly quadrupled since the relocation. Spiral Diner’s regulars have found themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with neophytes. “We get new people all the time,” McNutt said. “They want to try something new, or they saw our ad or whatever. Some people are trying to go vegan but have no clue where to start. Others say their doctors told them to go on a low-cholesterol diet. There are millions of reasons.
“When you first go vegan, and you learn the information” about the treatment of animals raised for food, she continued, “it’s so horrific, you want to scream from the tops of buildings. ... But that’s really tactless. It’s so preachy. It has its place, but it’s really tacky, and people may not be ready for it.
“Now, people choose to come here. [Progressives’] leaflets are on the table, and you can choose to pick them up or not.”
Spiral Diner is the most handy example of progressive-minded people becoming part of the system — capitalism, in this case — to effect change. When she first got the idea of opening a vegan restaurant, McNutt said, “I thought, ‘If I could combine animal rights with environmentalism, I could be happy for the rest of my life.’”
There are several other established politically conscious, independently owned businesses in Fort Worth, including Panther City Bicycles, which is a few storefronts down from Spiral Diner on Magnolia.
Both companies have dabbled in other areas of activism, including sponsoring fundraisers, facilitating meetings of progressive grassroots organizations, and contributing manpower and money to relevant causes.
Getting involved in the local community is not a side project to Roots N Kulture Bookstore, a 20-year-old cultural institution in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Polytechnic. Engagement is a priority. To separate the activism from the business (Roots N Kulture is one of only a couple of North Texas retail establishments that specialize in African products, from c.d.’s to books to art), bookstore owner Takuma Umoja created the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a nonprofit group committed to “the holistic advancement of the black community in Fort Worth.”
One way that Malcolm X takes its message to the streets is by walking the streets. Earlier this year, the group began protesting the conditions of nearly 40 neighborhood convenience stores. “They’re selling outdated food, there are inactive gas pumps, there’s illegal signage,” said Baraka Berhantayé, who leads the Malcolm X convenience store project. Since the group’s members began picketing, some of the stores are “a little cleaner on the outside,” Berhantayé said. “But inside, there’s not much change.”
Another, less-hostile way that the group tries to connect with its neighbors is by planning, hosting, and producing various workshops, including political education programs, West African drum lessons, and courses in Capoeira, a self-defense discipline.
There was even a time a few years ago when Roots N Kulture had branched off into the music business. A short-lived nightclub on Rosedale Avenue was once the only place in Fort Worth to regularly hear live reggae music.
Art, according to Umoja, is “a relationship that pivots interests.” All forms of art, he said, are in some way connected. “I cannot see someone seeking literature who does not have an interest in music,” he said. “I can’t see living without those things. We’re all pieces of art. The ancient scripts say, ‘Poetry is the language of the gods.’”
Umoja, whose athletic build and casual demeanor hide his age, said that when he was growing up in Ghana, he had to wait six months for books to arrive from London before he could read anything about Africa. “It was my dream to open a bookstore like this,” he said. When Umoja was in danger of losing his business, he and his wife at the time sold their house and ended up staying in the bookstore, where Umoja still lives. “I had to make that compromise,” he said. “It’s rewarding. I’m still educating the community.”
Reading, Umoja said, is the key to helping African-Americans transcend poverty. “Families can make themselves strong by reading,” he said. “Not only for themselves. Reading as a family. ... Turn off the tv for 10 minutes and get somewhere. Mainly through literature.”
Only a foolish businessman would fail to exploit un-cool cool. During the Black Dog’s spoken-word events, Dwight MacDonald’s “bloody crossroads” where art and politics (and commerce) meet typically materializes within minutes of the first lyrical utterances.
The scene is rather surreal. As a poet rages on about truth, justice, and social equality, there’s a bartender a mere 20 feet away slinging bottles of an immensely addictive drug, helping fuel an environment rife with potential danger.
For any artist, including participants in the Black Dog’s poetry readings, it’s a delicate balancing act to broadcast a progressive, positive message while simultaneously doing whatever’s necessary — like making money or charming an audience — to make that broadcast possible. Artists have to weigh whether the exposure afforded by a certain venue is worth associating with the place.
One adjective that’s typically bandied about when the topic of compromise comes up is “sell out” — but it’s out of place here. Selling out is when an artist intentionally changes his style to make money. Poseurs, the Firehouse’s Thomson said, are easy to sniff out. “You can feel it,” she said. “It’s the same faces, the same eyes. I’d rather not do anything than make something up.”
Political artists worth paying attention to, in her opinion, are the ones who, in addition to creating noteworthy art, can regularly be seen volunteering in their communities. Without community involvement, most political art comes off as just self-congratulatory propaganda.
The essence of political art depends on a social component. Contemplating a controversial, thought-provoking piece of art is great, but nothing compares to actually doing something about the issue that the piece draws attention to. Alongside nearly every work of Thomson’s is data germane to the particular work’s theme, including contact information for local nonprofit agencies. “I want to make people think,” she said, “and also give them an opportunity to make a difference.”
The sweat and blood of progressive grassroots organizations across the country is largely responsible for the relatively tolerant, aware society that Americans have been enjoying for several decades. Environmental protection, civil rights laws, and a woman’s right to choose are some of the products of grassroots mobilizing from the 1950s through the 1970s. “Some gains of the ’50s and ’60s have become mainstream,” said TCU’s Ferrell. “That’s healthy.”
Spoken-word poet Gomez agrees: “I think folks in general have a better understanding of multi-culturalism and eclecticism than ever before. It happens on the coasts, and now I feel those flavors mingling like never before.”
But today’s radical conservatives are determined to turn back the clock. Inundated with what they see as social and ideological abominations — such as gay marriage and stem-cell research — right-wingers are constantly re-affirming their ideology loudly and publicly.
Some progressives are frightened of the increasingly volatile and ominous political climate. Others see the darkness as the price to pay to reach enlightenment.
“It’s hell,” said Roots N Kulture’s Umoja. “I’m seeing all the signs. Plagues could hit us. There’s no care for the elderly other than payments. The barons have left nothing unturned and have robbed us all.”
But, he said, he will keep fighting. “We lift each other up. Here, we say, ‘We can’t all be down at the same time.’ We never are.”
Dr. Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen Baptist Church on East Berry Street, empathizes with Umoja’s plight. “If you start thinking about yourself — your own tiredness and weariness — you’re gonna get frustrated,” he said. “But being frustrated is par for the course. You got to keep moving.”
Thomson, however, thinks that the current Xerocracy is opening some minds. Now in its fourth year, the local production of The Vagina Monologues — Eve Ensler’s politically charged 1998 Broadway hit that’s since been staged by nearly every local troupe across the country — has earned more than $3,000. Thomson, one of several dozen local women to star in the show, says she’s heartened to know that local audiences aren’t afraid to give.
The recent creation of an arts-friendly organization by local artists may also mean that Fort Worth is acknowledging the influence of the burgeoning Xerocracy. The Fort Worth Arts Consortium appears to be the distant cousin of the long-defunct Tarrant County Arts Alliance, an ad hoc group whose mission to promote the arts here is echoed in FWAC’s vision. The TCAA was a force. In an old high school gym off Rosedale, the group’s members had fashioned a makeshift space for art exhibits and performance art shows. Some of the group’s 30-odd rank-and-file also squatted in the building. The art component of the TCAA — according to Gomez, one of the founders — was primarily responsible for turning on some participating locals to progressive thinking.
Ostensibly non-partisan, FWAC is primarily concerned with expanding the regional audience for art, from music to theater. The group, however, has betrayed its political allegiances by sponsoring fundraisers to benefit humanitarian efforts, here and abroad.
Probably the most insightful barometer of the Xerocracy’s effects locally could be 1919 Hemphill. Chief architect Nobody said that if the organization still required his supervision, he would not have embarked on his latest project — developing community gardens, mainly in impoverished Fort Worth neighborhoods. With help from Don von Bose, an elder statesman of progressive politics who is responsible for importing the brilliant native Texas wildflowers to the sidewalk in front of 1919 Hemphill’s parking lot, Nobody has already begun work on one garden, in a South Side resident’s backyard. “We’re talking about urban sustainability,” Nobody said. “We’re creating a model for other people to get involved. We want everybody to come and take what they can grow.”
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