Rappers and gospel singers, on the streets and in their homes—music from the edge of the allegheny plateau presents different generations from the African American communities of Mansfield, Ohio, sharing their passions, their talents, and their messages of faith and ambition through music and gesture. Filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson was inspired by William Klein’s The Little Richard Story (1980), a film that tells the story of the rock-and-roll icon’s life through the eyes and experiences of friends, family, and impersonators. (2018, video, 7 minutes)
Centering the Periphery
In the late 1970s American-born photographer and filmmaker William Klein goes on the hunt for Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as the legendary and flamboyant rock and roll icon, Little Richard. In 1957, Little Richard left fame and fortune at the height of his career to become an evangelist, only to be lured back to to the music industry in the 1960s, then to leave again a few years later for his persistent religious calling. It’s during this time in the late ’70s that Klein discovered him working as a sales person in Nashville for Black Heritage Bibles. Initially agreeing to work with Klein for the planned film The Little Richard Story (released in 1980), Little Richard begins to sense his image is being exploited and deserts the filming, quits his sales position, disappearing without a trace. Klein, undeterred, continued to roll, using Little Richard’s absence as an opportunity to reconstruct his story by turning to friends and family in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, and filming a long trail of adoring fans and impersonators. Klein’s interest turned to deciphering the aura of Little Richard, rather than his status as a performer or celebrity. Working with the community and people close to him, as well as the landscape of his hometown, Klein used the worlds swirling around the iconic figure to tell the remarkable story of a young black man becoming the king of rock and roll.
In artist and filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson’s most recent title music from the edge of the allegheny plateau, a new Walker commission, he cites Little Richard and William Klein’s representation as inspiration in his work. Forefronting the music and spirituality for which Little Richard is famed, Everson juxtaposes meticulously composed performances from gospel singer Jamie Hillard and piano player Sidney Brown, Jr. in a home filled with family photographs, with young rapper Taj Torrence performing solo on the back of a truck as it moves through neighborhood streets. Each generation—in its own language, with its own gestures—performs music of faith, ambition, and renewal with an unfaltering gaze directly into Everson’s camera–powerfully engaging with the lens, asserting its place within a lineage, like Little Richard, of musical history from black communities across America.
Filmed in Eastern Ohio in the Allegheny Plateau, the commission is linked to a larger collection of moving image works Everson has tirelessly produced over the last two decades in or near his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio, a once-prosperous manufacturing center now labeled as part of the “Rust Belt” of America. Trained as a sculptor, but also using film, painting, and photography, his artwork focuses on the impact of place and is grounded in historical research, with oblique references to formal art-making practices. Interested in the lives and conditions of working-class African Americans and other people of African descent, Everson often returns to his hometown, using the circumstances and relationships in his life as the material for his work. For his film and video, specifically, he manipulates perceptions of reality with theatrical techniques, using contemporary narratives with people from the community performing fictional scenarios based on their own lives and historical observations. His films open up space to question the actuality of a place, person, or circumstance, exploring alternative possibilities and offering unique and intimate insights into the place he grew up.
While his work looks towards the lives of others surrounding him, Everson’s art training and background are always core to his films. He makes clear references to concepts of abstraction and figuration from influences in painting and photography especially toward traditions of Tableau Vivant or historical painters such as Caravaggio, whose famed non-traditional practice of constructing and manipulating the environments around him, rather than simply documenting, is also evident in Everson’s practice which incorporates props and actors into the authentic imagery he records.
Everson often includes his sculptural practice into the highly constructed imagery of his films as a way to insert his gesture and presence with his own handmade objects—pieces of art hidden in amongst the everyday moments, objects, and people. music from the edge of the allegheny plateau begins with a young girl looking toward a stone quarry holding a pair of binoculars to her face and using them as she searches the horizon. On closer inspection, the binoculars are revealed to be Everson’s sculpture, used as a prop for the character to perform with and a catalyst for action and gesture.
The intentionality of the sculpted object, as oppose to using the real thing, creates a connection between the body in front of the camera and Everson’s presence behind where, like in most of his work, he is holding up a mirror, reflecting himself within a community and part of the region’s history. In this instance, he is referring to the manufacturing history of Westinghouse Mansfield Works factory (1918–1990), known for the assembly of binoculars from 1942 when American Industry assisted in the World War II efforts. During its time the factory was a major and important employer in the community. Kevin too spent time working there. It’s with the context of the closed and now abandoned factory, the quarry the girl looks towards takes on a new significance. Questions arise: is she looking to the past when Mansfield was a thriving place of industry and production, or looking beyond, into the future for new prospects, hopes, and ambitions? Together the object, place, and figure create a tension, where the contrasts between real and representational, looking forward and back, traditional and contemporary, resonates throughout the commission. The oppositional to-and-fro’s lay the foundations for understanding the multifaceted concepts and strategies Everson’s work tackles.
In the everyday realistic aesthetic of Everson’s work there is little discernible separation between his sculptures and the readymade objects, tools, and memorabilia which feature prominently in the carefully composed and structured frames. The purposeful placement and inclusions of material and surroundings create a lack of hierarchy with the moments of drama at the center. This dissolve between the background and foreground, positions the work in a similar category to a landscape painting – where the figure adds perspective to the landscape and context to their actions in relationship to the larger story of the place represented in Everson’s films.
In music from the edge of the allegheny plateau, Jamie Hillard and Sidney Brown, Jr. perform the gospel songs “Fix It Jesus” by Johnny Fields and “‘Tis So Sweet” by John A. Walters in a suburban home. Surrounding the two are framed photographs and everyday household objects, and in the background we see family or friends watching while carrying on with life in an ordinary home. In one scene, perfectly symmetrical and ordered, Sidney Brown, Jr. sits at the piano with his back to the camera, in silence, preparing to play. On either side of his body, atop the piano, are classic studio-style family portraits facing the camera. Everson utilizes the deliberate placement of the peripheral objects to add historical context for the contemporary physical body, which, in just a few seconds, tell us as much about the people and place, as the words, music, or figures themselves do.
This intentional use of surrounding place and materials emphasizes the lack of hierarchy in Everson’s film work, where he considers the dramatic gesture in equal poise to the mundane action. In turn connecting his practice to the lineage of avant-garde artists such as Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, whose experimentations in cinema with structure and perspectives wavered between representational and naturalistic. In search of melding abstract ideas together with figuration, Everson, like other experimental filmmakers, uses time—the medium’s inherent limitation, or, in other words, its most fundamental characteristic—to explore its capacity and ability in the representations of the body, place, and energy of a work.
While references to the structuralist approaches learned from American avant-garde cinema permeates Everson’s work, parallels to the hyperrealist everyday style championed by Chantal Akerman are too evident where both equally balance style and form with the story unfolding over time.
“When I made my first film […] I was interested not in style or form but in saying something that was on my mind,” Akerman has said.1 “Then I started to think about style and form, and then only about them […] and then there are phases[…] as in painting. I passed through a phase in which it was inconceivable to be “’figurative’ or ‘narrative’; you had to go through abstraction. Now, with the conquest of the abstract, you can again make either the figurative or the abstract. But this figurative will never be the same again.”
The collapsing of abstraction with figuration in Everson’s commission is particularly apparent when we see a woman in the background entering the frame, sneaking a glance at the camera while filling the kitchen’s oven with trays of food. The action on the periphery simultaneously interrupts the viewer’s gaze while adding depth and context. Beyond capturing the concrete figures on screen, this glimpse into what is happening off-screen changes the film’s focus to encompass the non-physical, ongoing presence of family and home, which surrounds and permeates into the performance event happening in the living room.
Throughout music from the edge of the allegheny plateau, Everson chooses to frame the three protagonists—Jamie Hillard, Sidney Brown, Jr., and Taj Torrence —looking down towards the camera, each occupying a controlled powerful stance and spiritual composure, in turn evoking provocative symbolic gestures often seen in historic as well as contemporary painting. Additionally, the style of low-angle shots mirrors scenes in The Little Richard Story, where Klein uses the same technique to record Little Richard impersonators, each taking on an almost heroic or fearless pose as they give their all to the camera in an attempt to emulate their hero. Historically the extreme angle was used in European “Old Master” painting by artists such as Giotto di Bondone or Piero della Francesca, whose figurative compositions indicated the power, virtue, and spirituality in courts and churches throughout Europe. Everson’s work incorporates these art historical references to the “holy” or powerful traditions in European painting, while at the same moment critiquing them with his contemporary representations of working-class, black neighborhoods in his American hometown. This duality of compliance and critique of historic art movements is similar to artists such as Charles White, Kerry James-Marshall, and Kehinde Wiley, who like Everson are part of a lineage of black artists interrogating the symbolic language and history of western painting with the community and people around them. Wiley has described his approach as “interrogating the notion of the master painter, at once critical and complicit.”
In Wiley’s Untitled from the Passing/Posing series, which is part of the Walker’s permanent collection, the figure balances spirituality with a sense of bravado when viewed through a historical context. Wiley says his figurative paintings “quote historical sources and position young black men within that field of power.” Yet, in contrast, especially in light of our contemporary moment, when young black men are the target of violence, his figure too expresses vulnerability, the plea of a man on his knees. In music from the edge of the allegheny plateau, Everson underlines the paradox of viewing contemporary black culture through the lens of historical painting. Scenes of Taj Torrence, first seen rapping his own music boldly into the camera, powerfully stands at the back of a truck looking down and gesturing with the sun highlighting his body. Here he owns the moment, the image, perfectly commanding our absolute attention. At the end of the work we see him again, same stance, but this time gospel songs flow over his image and the sun has dipped, shining into the camera from behind his head obscuring his image and creating a silhouette. But only for a moment: he disappears and we’re left with merely an impression. It’s no longer about the figure, but as with The Little Richard Story, it’s everything around the icon that tells the true story of what we are looking at.
1 Quoted in Ivone Margulies’s Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 3.