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Indianapolis-born artist Carl Robert Pope Jr.’s “The Bad Air Smelled of Roses,” a collection of more than 108 posters, speaks for itself. Set against a rainbow of vivid backgrounds, terse quotes like “The Future is Black - Bring a Light!” and “A Brown Girl is Always Underestimated” seem to beam off of the page.
The project, described as an “ongoing essay about the presence and function of Blackness in society,” originally began in 2004 and will add 22 new pieces this spring for an on-campus installation in early April.
Students in Bill Fick’s “Poster Design and Printing” course will complete the project, screen-printing the posters in Pope’s style and wheatpasting them onto The Rubix, a pop-up installation space on campus. Pope, a virtual visiting artist this semester, will Zoom into Fick’s class to offer support and guidance throughout the project. Pope created 22 new slogans for the class to work with, allowing students to take charge of the design.
“What I'm excited about is that the students will be able to sort of get into [Pope’s] mind and understand how he creates his text and what he's thinking and how he sees that as being an effective tool to convey the message that he wants to convey,” said Fick, a lecturing fellow in the Department of Art, Art history and Visual Studies. “And visually, it's really going to be something else. I mean, just thinking about a structure that’s totally covered with text — it’s going to be super exciting. Even just looking at it from a distance, I think it’s going to have a lot of impact.”
Pope first interacted with Duke this academic year through the Franklin Humanities Institute’s Social Practice Lab, directed by Art, Art History and Visual Studies professor Pedro Lasch. After Lasch invited Pope to speak to his lab, Fick recalled talking to Lasch about how “cool” it would be to further engage Pope’s work on campus. Right before the start of the spring semester, Fick proposed the poster design course, exposing students to renowned poster artists like Pope, Corita Kent and Barbara Kruger as well as providing them firsthand screen-printing experience.
“Especially during these times, I think it's a nice opportunity for students to not have to be in their apartments or dorm rooms — I think just being physical with a creative process is just a really nice thing right now,” Fick said. “I think exposing the students to this kind of work and this process is really exciting because they might end up saying, ‘Hey, you know, I want to do something like that, too.’”
The installation will also be The Rubix’s first involving student work. Established in early 2020 by Fick and fellow Art, Art History and Visual Studies lecturer Stephen Hayes, the wooden structure was meant to serve as a pop-up exhibition space as well as an art piece in itself, probing questions about the nature of public art. Last spring, Fick taught a different course that was also centered around creating an installation for the space, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed those plans. From November 2020 until early this month, The Rubix displayed Antoine Williams’ audio collage “Othered Suns”, but students were unable to be involved with that project.
“Really, the only reason we created it is that really there are no spaces on campus … where you can actually put art onto a structure or modify the structure. The only space that is sort of like that is the tunnel heading to East Campus, which is really a free-for-all,” Fick said. “So yeah, it’s a unique structure on campus to where we could, you know, cover it with posters and not have it be a problem.”
According to Fick, merely finding a place where art for art to be seen in person is difficult in the age of COVID, as traditional venues like museums and stages have largely been shut down. However, the public exposure aspect remains critical for works like Pope’s that are centered on social justice. The slogans Pope created for the class engage themes like the Black Lives Matter movement, Black history and Black culture.
“It's just a really important time to be doing work like this. I think there's even been a call from the university for classes to deal with these social justice issues, and so I thought this would just be a really perfect class for that,” Fick said.
The public nature of both The Rubix and posters as a medium made the space an ideal home for the Pope installation. Despite having “a gigantic campus with plenty of open spaces,” Fick noted a lack of sculptures on campus beyond the bronze statues of Duke family members that adorn the quads.
“I think this allows us to really investigate what kind of public art we can do on campus. I mean, obviously, you know, the university wants things to be tasteful … but I mean, I think we’ve got plenty of room,” Fick said. “You know, does it allow us to think that maybe we could do more? I don't know. I think there might be an opportunity … with COVID sort of allowing us to think that way. Before, we were pretty much always thinking about things on the inside, but I think now having stuff on the outside is really important. Because otherwise, there's no art anywhere.”
Duke New Music Ensemble — also known as [dnme] — was always rooted in innovation, but never more so than this semester.
Founded over a decade ago, [dnme] focuses on performing music from the late 1900s and the 2000s, as well as original pieces from Duke student composers. While the ensemble does not eschew classical notation, the group’s repertoire encompasses a wide variety of genres and instruments and is open to musical experimentation.
This semester, the ensemble will be led by Dr. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Music. In a typical year, the ensemble is led by a graduate student in the music program, but the department decided to put Mösenbichler-Bryant — who also directs the Duke University Wind Symphony — in charge of the spring season. Since the ensemble was inactive during the fall semester, this will be their first endeavor into remote programming.
“I think it's important to find creative ways to make music virtually. We all miss the in-person interaction of music making … so much and none of the virtual projects can replace it. We tried so many different things last semester and since COVID started, we find what students miss the most is music making with each other,” Mösenbichler-Bryan said. “It's ... not just a creative outlet for them but also it's just really a way to connect with other peers. It will be a small group of students that are participating in [dnme] but every voice will have a chance to be heard.”
The primary piece of programming for the semester will entail ensemble members meeting virtually once a week to explore the possibilities of remote, online performance.
“There's a huge delay issue with Zoom and it has to do with the internet connectivity and just the way Zoom processes what information is received,” Mösenbichler-Bryant said. “The ... issue really impacts how we can perform together. It just doesn't work.”
Mösenbichler-Bryant’s intention for the ensemble’s season of virtual meetings is to work around these technological challenges. She intends to explore virtual gathering platforms that might allow the group to evade the delay issue altogether, but she also intends on having members play around with pieces she has gathered that were written specifically with the notorious lag in mind.
“Anyone who has some sort of performing ability can join this ensemble. The flexibility of the [dnme] is beautiful because we're looking really for pieces that work for the ensemble,” Mösenbichler-Bryant said. “It will depend on who you can have on Zoom. The goal is really to explore with the Zoom platform and to see how we can make that delay work for us.”
One of the best lines and lessons of Pixar’s 2007 film “Ratatouille,” a portrait of the artist as a young, culinarily-inclined French rat, is delivered by food critic Anton Ego: “The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
So when it comes to “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical,” a piecemeal creation that began as a TikTok meme in August 2020, a genuine critique would be remiss. After the sharing of one 17-second video by TikTok creator Emily Jacobsen — a “love ballad” to protagonist Remy — everyone from choreographers to graphic designers began to lend their very serious talents to a “Ratatouille” musical that, at the time, was very much a joke.
Going into its 35th year, the North Carolina Latin American Film Festival (NCLAFF) is offering programming as diverse and nuanced as the region it celebrates.
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual concerts have become almost as commonplace as the phrase “these unprecedented times,” but Duke Performances is still finding new ways to innovate.
Under the leadership of new director Bobby Asher, who officially began his tenure at the beginning of September, the organization transformed its planned lineup of live performances into a series of commissioned concert films. The initiative, titled “The Show Must Go Online!” kicked off Sept. 12 with the Attacca Quartet.
When I think of happiness, I think of T-Pain. I think of being eight and whirling around on rented quad skates to “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” at my hometown roller rink. I think of Wendy’s drive-through runs with my high school friends, “Bartender” blaring through our shoddy car speakers. But when I tell people that I think “Drankin’ Partna” is one of the best love songs of our generation (yes, I will die on this hill) my argument is usually not taken seriously.
Marcus Hawley spent the last week of March developing a mask prototype, but he never imagined it would actually see the light of day.
Hawley is the founder and creative director of Durham-based custom apparel and accessory brand Natty Neckware, but he has also been conducting infectious disease research for the past eight years. Having kept close tabs on the COVID-19 outbreaks in China and Italy throughout the winter, where he saw face masks become popular — even mandatory — for people outside of the U.S., Hawley increasingly found himself wondering whether Americans should be following suit.
“To myself, I’m thinking ‘Americans really don’t want masks,’” Hawley said. “I figured I’d just keep it to myself, and then [I would] have some masks for the family if they asked. And then all of the sudden, it’s like people just started asking for them. I’m telling you, it was so odd.”
Before the pandemic broke out, Natty Neckware was a more limited operation, focusing on custom apparel like branded products for small businesses or bespoke ties and pocket squares for formal events. When Hawley’s friends and family, particularly those who were considered essential employees and had to continue working during the height of the outbreak, began looking for masks, he figured he could help them out by making some.
“We’re in the apparel industry, so it’s not like we didn’t have fabric. The only thing that we had to do was come up with a pattern that we liked, and we had already done that like a week and a half before it became something big,” Hawley said. “And then that’s when the CDC suggested that everybody should be wearing a mask. I would say within an hour of me [putting masks on our website], we already had three or four orders. Literally — I put it up, went walking, did yoga and came back and looked at the website, thinking, ‘Nobody’s buying this.’ But then I saw the...orders and I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’”
The transition to mask-making followed a similar trajectory for Leslie Shaip, the owner of literary-themed accessory shop BookBiffle. After seeing CDC recommendations for mask wearing early on in the spring, Shaip decided to use her sewing expertise to make masks for herself and her friends and family. After receiving “more interest than expected,” she decided to post them on her Etsy shop.
“It's really neat to see people wearing the masks that I made, and I've had lots of compliments that they fit really well, which is rewarding for me,” Shaip wrote in an email.
In addition to operating BookBiffle, Shaip has spent over 15 years working in the service industry, which was hard-hit by the pandemic. Her work remained stable amid shutdowns, so when she found herself with small profits from the masks, she chose to give back. Over the past few months, Shaip has used her profits to donate to food banks, service industry and artist relief funds, bail and mutual aid funds, Black Lives Matter and Food Not Bombs in addition to tipping “random” Triangle bartenders and servers who found themselves out of work. She has also donated masks directly to essential workers and protestors.
“I really like making something useful. I hate the reason behind it, but it's rewarding to be able to do something tangible to protect people,” Shaip wrote. ”I can't pay salaries for those out of work. I can't give anyone a job, or end racism, but I can make cheap masks...It takes all kinds of folx to make things better, and we each use the skills that we have to contribute in the ways we are able.”
For Raleigh resident Sarah Plonk, whose pun-based greeting card and gift business SKP ink bears the motto “Bad Jokes by Good People,” shifting to mask-making was a welcome way of keeping customers’ spirits high in spite of the global crisis.
“Having a job [where the] main purpose is to make others smile has always been so fun, but during this year especially it means a lot to have a business that brings a smile to our customers’ faces — even when they are hidden underneath our masks,” Plonk wrote in an email.
Plonk’s foray into mask-making started much like Hawley’s and Shaip’s. She began by making custom masks for herself and her loved ones, but quickly found them gaining traction and decided to add them to the SKP ink inventory.
“Knowing people want to walk around with our silly puns and little characters on their face is a big compliment. Our cards and gifts [are] more personal items that might be seen by a couple of a customer's friends, but masks will be seen by loved ones and strangers alike,” Plonk wrote. “It has pushed me as an artist in ways I never would've gotten into on my own.”
Hawley echoed this sentiment, saying he has grown in both business-savviness and community-mindedness since the pandemic started. Right now, he is seeking more community organizations for Natty Neckware to work with, as well as prototyping new and improved mask designs.
After 13 years of serving as Duke’s first-ever vice provost for the arts, Dr. Scott Lindroth stepped down from the role over the summer. In June, Duke announced that John Brown, Duke’s Jazz Program director and longtime professor would be Lindroth’s successor.
A native North Carolinian, Brown first came to Duke in 2001 as an adjunct faculty member in the music department, but prior to that, Brown spent many weekends in high school on Duke’s campus for his sister’s music rehearsals. Brown has been tied to the arts at Duke for the majority of his life, and now he will lead them.
The Chronicle corresponded with Brown over email to discuss the evolution of Duke’s arts culture, taking on this role during a pandemic as well as accessibility and equity in the arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Decades after closing, the legacy of Durham’s Power Company nightclub lives on. Months into social distancing, it’s difficult to avoid reminiscing about times we’ve spent surrounded by people we love. For the more than 800 people who belong to the “Power Company Alumni!!” group on Facebook, many of those times were spent at Durham’s Power Company nightclub during the 1980s and 1990s. The Power Company closed in 2000 when the owners transitioned the space into Teasers Men’s Club, but former frequenters regularly share music, photos and memories that ensure its legacy endures.
The highest bidders in The Patchwork Market’s Instagram auctions win hand-crafted prizes, but founder Morgan Grimm’s hope is that the featured makers come out victorious, too.
In a different version of reality, more than 75 local makers are preparing to sell their handmade goods at Patchwork’s Spring Market, which would have been held April 27 at the Durham Armory. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has now become the Summer Market, which will be held Aug. 23. In the meantime, Grimm is facilitating a series of virtual auctions on the market’s Instagram page — dubbed Insta-Auctions — to support the makers, many of whom are dealing with significant virus-related business repercussions.
“Going online was definitely not something that I saw in our future, but I felt like we needed to adapt pretty quickly, just because a lot of makers have this as their sole source of income,” Grimm said. “They need to constantly be making money, and with all of the markets canceling, they’re not able to do that.”
The first two auctions took place on March 21 and April 5. In a 24-hour period, featured items were posted on Patchwork’s account and patrons posted their bids in the comments. The makers then contacted winners directly to arrange payment and delivery.
“[The first auction] went really well. I’d say 95% of all the items were sold,” Grimm said. “I like that it really creates accessibility for a lot of people — most people have phones and most people can get Instagram, so I think that that’s really cool that even if you can’t get out to the market in person, you can still support those makers.”
Grimm described the shift to online programming as simply a “continuation” of Patchwork’s overarching mission of helping the Durham handmade community by giving Triangle residents a consistent place to purchase their goods, a sentiment with which calligrapher and small-business owner Kathryn Carter agreed.
“In 2018, I went to my first Patchwork Market and it was fantastic. I admire how they foster a communal environment between customers and vendors [at] every pop-up market. Patchwork is all about bringing people together and when I saw the … Insta-Auction I thought to myself, ‘They’ve done it again,’” Carter wrote in an email. “Patchwork Market wants to see local businesses continue to thrive — even during uncertain times — and as a small business owner, I appreciate their ingenuity and efforts towards this.”
Carter, who balances running her design company Uncapped Calligraphy and Design with her fashion and textile management studies at N.C. State, said she’s feeling the consequences of COVID-19 in both her personal and professional life. On top of moving back to her parents’ home and dealing with online classes, her business has seen a decline in sales during the first quarter of the fiscal year, which Carter described as “notoriously slow” even in years not affected by a global pandemic.
Owner Allie Labate always intended to use VYB Studio as a space that helped and supported the Durham community — she just didn’t anticipate doing it amid a global pandemic.
The studio eschews norms by using loud, “bass-bumpin’” music to accompany hot power yoga classes, a practice largely inspired by Labate’s eight-year background in bodybuilding and “hardcore” workouts.
“Most yogis, they only want ambient music in their classes, and they don’t like loud music, and they don’t use cuss words … but I’m a little bit nitty-gritty,” Labate said. “My vision for VYB is a place where people can go who may not feel comfortable in a traditional yoga studio. I want the people that want to get down, want to grind — it’s really a place that’s just welcoming to everyone, and a lot of energy, a lot of love.”
Alongside the workout, Labate envisions VYB providing a way for people to make friends and “have a family” in Durham, citing the large population of residents who move to the city for professional or educational opportunities, away from their own homes and families.
”I think Durham is really unique. If you think about the art, the music … that’s why I created VYB. I was thinking that I don’t feel like I fit in at all these really nice, cute yoga studios, there’s got to be other people just like me thinking ‘Hey, I want some place that’s going to play some loud, bass, bumping music,’” Labate said. “Like, I’ve got Tupac up on the wall.”
The space VYB inhabits was previously home to Community Power Yoga, where Labate formerly offered pop-up classes before purchasing and rebranding the studio. According to instructor Kelly McGee, who completed her yoga teacher training at Community Power Yoga, she was “thrilled” for Labate to take over and wanted in on VYB “from the beginning.”
“The vision [Labate] has for this space truly came to life in just a few days and totally expresses her badass practice and self,” McGee wrote in an email. “It is the studio Durham needs [in order] to welcome everybody into the practice in a safe and non-stuffy way. VYB … blasts the doors wide open to a larger community who may not see themselves as the type of person who practices yoga.”
The studio was initially scheduled to open March 23, but due to Wake County restrictions closing all fitness studios through April 30 — which Labate anticipates Durham County implementing soon — opening day is up in the air until further notice.
“I spent my life’s savings to get this place ready to open, thinking that I would have an income so I could pay my April rent, but [then] I had to make the responsible decision of waiting, which was hard,” Labate said. “But it’s the right thing to do. Everyone was trying to stay open as long as they could, and then I think they finally realized this thing is serious and we need to think about what’s the right thing to do for the general public.”
Despite being, according to Labate, “a brand-new studio that isn’t even really a business yet,” VYB’s team is seeking out ways to balance their needs as well as supporting other community members impacted by shutdowns.
“I feel like it’s going to take people in Durham, all of us as a community, to work together in order to get this thing to go away sooner rather than later,” Labate said. “I’m friends with a lot of other small business owners in Durham, and we’ve all been texting back and forth, trying to figure out a way that we can help each other and also help our community, because even though we’re all socially distant, there’s this sense of connectedness, togetherness now.”
In light of the shifting conditions, tourist information center Discover Durham is keeping a running list of community relief efforts, including a spreadsheet of local businesses and ways to support them. For VYB, that entails attending virtual classes taught by Labate and McGee and purchasing gift cards, memberships and merchandise — a portion of proceeds from which will go to local charities.
“The best thing to do is put your money into businesses you value and care about and help spread the word about all businesses are doing in this time to support the community and stay afloat,” McGee wrote.
At this point, the VYB team is taking things day-by-day. In addition to their virtual class offerings, the studio initiated a seven-day “NamaSTAY AT HOME” yoga challenge to promote safe social distancing practices, offering participants a chance to win a free VYB shirt and sticker for posting photos of themselves practicing yoga at home.
“You can’t really plan for anything right now. [It’s] actually a really good exercise in mindfulness, because you literally cannot think about what’s going to happen next week or the week after,” Labate said. “You really have to live in the moment, which is ultimately what yoga is all about.”
In Durham’s burgeoning underground EDM scene, The Fruit is quickly becoming the life of the party.
From Klein bottles to community, the Triangle’s ceramics artists can build just about anything.
Many of them gather at downtown Durham’s Claymakers Arts Community, a non-profit providing resources for clay artists of all experience levels through classes, supplies, studio space and exhibitions. The foremost organization of its kind in the area, Claymakers began as a for-profit business in 2000 before transitioning to its current model.
In recent years, the world of ballet has been increasingly scrutinized for its inaccessibility and lack of diversity, but Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been keeping the art on its toes since the 1970s.
Colloquially known as the Trocks, the all-male, comic drag ballet troupe will perform Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Carolina Theatre in a co-presentation with Duke Performances. The Trocks officially began in 1974 as an outgrowth of Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous in Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall riots took place. In the nearly half-century since, attitudes toward drag in the mainstream shifted greatly, but the troupe’s commitment to inclusion and joy have remained consistent.
The troupe’s comedic performances include parodies of classical ballets such as “Don Quixote” and “The Nutcracker.” In traditional performances of these ballets, principal female roles are typically performed en pointe, a technique in which a dancers’ entire body weight rests upon the tips of the toes. Pointe training, even now, is often reserved for female dancers, but the Trocks are at the forefront of a growing movement of blurring the form’s gender expectations.
“I think times have changed. It seems to be more common now that guys are trying [pointe], because it’s really good for your ballet training. It really helps you find your balance and your center,” said Duane Gosa, a seven-year veteran dancer in the company. “So I think a lot of schools and male dancers have decided to give it a shot.”
Gosa first encountered pointe — and the Trocks — while studying dance at the University of Akron. Joining the dance world relatively “late” at age 16, the university’s dance program was Gosa’s first exposure to what a career in the field could look like for him.
“I kind of got a better perspective of … the types of roles that a male dancer would do, and [they weren’t] as interesting to me as female roles,” Gosa said. “I remember putting on a pointe shoe and wanting to see what that felt like.”
After he successfully convinced the program to allow him into pointe classes, Gosa’s faculty mentors pushed him to look into the Trocks. But burnout eventually turned him away from ballet near the end of his college career, and shortly after graduation, he found himself in a contemporary-modern dance company.
“I was like, ‘You know what, I am much stronger at other things, and I think I’ll be happier if I don’t torture myself with ballet.’ And then I was kind of in a rut with what I was doing and where I was, and I kind of felt stuck,” Gosa said. “So then I looked online and [the Trocks] had an audition, and I thought, ‘Let me just give it a shot — why not?’”
Joining the Trocks meant performing in drag, something Gosa had limited experience with prior to auditioning for the company.
“I think every gay man thinks about what it’s like to have a pair of heels and a wig on, so of course I was intrigued by it,” Gosa said. “It really helps when you’re with a group of people. When everyone’s doing the same thing, you feel a little more supported and safe.”
In a 2005 commercial, my mother turns to the camera and beams, “My child wants to be an artist.” Behind her, my six-year-old self carefully paints a self-portrait, the pièce de résistance of my first-grade portfolio.
There’s plenty of brilliance to be found in the Triangle’s local arts scene, but Bright Black Candles and Bougie Luminaries contribute more literally than most. The two companies, both Durham-based family businesses, are built on philosophies of imbuing great care and culture into each of their candles and drawing greater attention to the artistry of candle making.
Bougie Luminaries’ founder and creative director Erika Parker-Smith’s affinity for the medium began during childhood, when her Girl Scouts troop made candles out of crayon wax. The spark, she said, ignited then and stuck with her into adulthood. As loved ones fell in love with the candles she’d make them as holiday presents, she saw an opportunity to merge her “eclectic” interests in pin-up art, cinema and fragrances into a full-fledged brand.
“Certain fragrances conjure up happy memories, or make you think about a certain moment,” Parker-Smith said. ”When you light a candle, it speaks to your soul.”
Each Bougie Luminaries candle is a work of art both visually and olfactorily. In creating fragrances, Parker-Smith is often heavily inspired by her favorite pieces of culture, from “The Wiz” to Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. Illustrated by Parker-Smith’s husband, Jamaul Smith, much of the brand’s packaging is inspired by pin-up art she grew up loving.
“I’ve always admired the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and [Gil] Elvgren, but there were never any women of color in them. And I was like, why is that?” Parker-Smith said. “African-American women particularly get a little beat up by the media, and so [I wanted to be able] to serve as a mirror … showing us in a way that’s loving and tender, or just in everyday life — ways that we don’t always get to see.”
Bright Black Candles, co-owned and founded by Tiffany M. Griffin and husband Dariel Heron, upholds a similar mission. The roots of the company began as a date-night activity for Griffin and Heron, whose mutual love of hip hop and burgeoning love for each other gave them the idea to create candles based on hip hop love songs. But as their passion for candle making grew, they began to believe the medium had the capacity for a larger impact.
“[Candles] are one of the oldest sources of light on the planet. They transcend cultures, language, geography, race and religion,” Griffin wrote in an email. “The presence of a candle can spark exchange or symbolize solidarity — think vigil, passion, security, warmth, hope, spirituality, new beginnings ... birthday candles, health, protection, blessing, memories, calm.”
Griffin, who holds a PhD in social psychology, worked as a researcher and a policymaker in the federal government prior to starting Bright Black. In founding the company, she wanted to “challenge” herself to combine research, data and lived experiences to tell stories through scents — in particular, positive Black narratives.
“On a super basic level, I'm creating a positive experience by just pairing the word ‘bright’ with ‘Black’ and then coupling that with beautifully blended scents,” Griffin wrote. “People are having a positive experience before I even say a word. Psychologically, that's triggering thousands of receptors, tapping into memories and creating an opening for dialogue and connection.”
Bright Black’s Diaspora collection highlights cities of “Black greatness,” capturing the stories of everything from Ethiopian history in an Addis Ababa candle to the local history of Durham in a candle that blends scents of tobacco, cotton and whiskey. The company just released a Harlem Renaissance candle in honor of Black History Month.
“My experiences of Blackness are quite positive and those are the stories I want to tell,” Griffin wrote. “Essentially, we’re telling [those] stories through scent. Scent artistry isn't well-recognized as art, but it should be. After all, what is art? It's sending messages and meaning through some sort of medium. Our medium is scent.”
In the future, Griffin hopes to partner with museums to illuminate the potential and significance of scent artistry. Both Griffin and Parker-Smith emphasized a need for greater appreciation of the craft and science that goes into making candles.
“People think [candle making is] really simple, but then you talk to them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I tried to make candles and I could not get them to come out right,” Parker-Smith said. “There’s a lot more to it than it’s given credit [for] sometimes.”
For now, though, their businesses will continue to serve as vanguards for the form’s power. Bougie Luminaries will soon expand their collection of film-inspired scents with upcoming candles inspired by “The Breakfast Club” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Bright Black, fresh off of a project commissioned by NorthStar Church of the Arts, will soon release a “Genres” collection in homage to Black music. Long-term, both hope their efforts will improve the narrative around both their artistic medium and Black culture.
“Ultimately, I really am working towards a world where ‘Black’ ... doesn't inherently conjure up negativity,” Griffin wrote. “It took hundreds of years to get to this point, but I'm committed to doing my part in dismantling those cognitive associations, one beautiful and brilliant candle at a time.”
Durham’s creative collective Mettlesome specializes in improv comedy, but they’re certainly no joke.
In three years, Mettlesome has evolved from a small group of comedians performing in the garage of founding stakeholders Ashley Melzer and Jack Reitz to a full-fledged company producing a myriad of local comedy shows. Currently run by six stakeholders — all accomplished improv performers themselves — Mettlesome was born out of frustration with the lack of autonomy within the local improv scene.
“Six years ago, the way it worked was you would sign up at a theatre and then you would just do whatever they told you to do,” Reitz said. “You were either affiliated with a theatre or you didn’t exist. That model still exists right now, but we [at Mettlesome] are really trying to reward people who want to make cool shit.”
Living up to the spirit of their name, Mettlesome’s calendar is brimming with their various endeavors, from regular improv comedy classes to a weekly live show based on secrets submitted by audience members. Much of the group’s programming involves a form of collaboration with other creatives, best exemplified by their biweekly project Golden Age. According to Reitz, the performance is “part talk show, part art exhibition, part comedy show” and features a new local maker each time.
“Comedians interview [the artists] about who they are and what brought them to their work, and then there’s a comedy show based on that,” Reitz said. “I love the way that Golden Age is a show where art inspires other art. It’s a great way of reaching out to other artistic communities.”
Reitz’s journey in improv began in high school, parlaying into a stint performing with UNC’s improv and sketch comedy group CHiPs and eventually a professional career in the industry. A native of Chapel Hill, he returned to the area after several years spent studying theatre and comedy in New York City.
“In New York, I learned to respect [improv] as an art form that is both fun and also really challenging. The improv that we teach at Mettlesome is specifically focused on the art of improv comedy, and not just the art of improv,” Reitz said. “The work that we do and rehearsals that we run are drilling our performers to be better comedians. Though we’re improvising, we try to be smart and deliberate about the comedy that we make.”
The fundamentals of improv comedy that Mettlesome teaches transcend pure silliness — the group regularly facilitates professional workshops for corporate clients, emphasizing principles of team building and communication.
“It’s very easy to think comedians just get on stage and act goofy … but it’s not just that,” said Hillary Yonce, one of Mettlesome’s stakeholders. “When we do those workshops … you see this ‘a-ha’ moment where people are like ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this is something that could be helpful to my life.”
Yonce, also a professional hydrologist, touts her 12 years of improv experience on her academic resume. After finding her way into improv during college as a member of CHiPs, she encountered a local comedy community rich with multi-faceted performers. Fellow members of CHiPs, she recalled, included statistics and music majors. Yonce herself earned a degree in environmental science.
“Of course I wish I could be doing comedy full-time … but I also love my job as a scientist. I think the fact that everybody [in the Triangle] is wearing multiple hats is what makes it so interesting,” Yonce said. “Everyone here is so smart … that when you bring them into a room, you’re just going to get such explosive energy.”
Alongside her husband Tristan, Yonce produces and performs in the project Vaudeville Varieties, the latest iteration of which will take place this weekend from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. The project, a “hodgepodge of music, comedy, clowning and ‘feats of amazement,’” was created to showcase the varied talents of the couples’ friends and creatives in the community.
“I think if you ask the average Joe outside of [the state], ‘Does North Carolina have a good improv comedy scene?’, they probably would be like ‘I have no idea,’” Yonce said. “But the answer is yes … we have some really amazing talent here.”
Belief in the Triangle’s creative, independent spirit drove the inception of Mettlesome and continues to drive it today. According to Reitz, the level of talent in the area rivals that in bigger creative communities like New York and Los Angeles.
“There wasn’t a doubt that there was a capacity for independent comedy [here] — I think it just took a couple of talented folks to start doing something,” Reitz said. “In New York, nobody’s going to give you stage time, so you have to make it yourself. I took that lesson with me when I moved back to Durham. That’s a lot of what Mettlesome is about — if you have something that you want to make, Mettlesome’s goal is to help you make that thing. We want to help you take your vision and make it into a reality.”
If you’re not keeping up with college radio in the Triangle, it’s time to tune in.
In Titus Kaphar’s “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” Thomas Jefferson exists on a five-foot canvas, but the black woman seated behind his likeness indicates a bigger picture.
Kaphar, a New Haven-based artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow, will hold a public conversation Thursday, Jan. 16 entitled “Amending American Art, Making Space for Black History” with Dr. Jasmine Nichole Cobb at the Nasher auditorium. The free event, co-sponsored by the From Slavery to Freedom Lab at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, is the keynote of “Black Images, Black Histories,” a two-day conference examining cultural representations of blackness.
“The role of images in popular culture, to me, is that images grab people in a way that books don’t always do,” Cobb said. “If you’re just with your family killing time at a museum and you see an image, it can spark a curiosity about something you never would’ve picked up a book on.”
As a professor of African & African American Studies and art history at Duke, Cobb became a fan of Kaphar’s work while using it to supplement “African Americans & the U.S. Presidency,” a project that originated in her Fall 2018 “Introduction to African & African American Studies” course. Many of Kaphar’s works examine past representations of glorified American historical figures by portraying the often-ignored problematic aspects of their legacies, such as “Benevolence” and “The Cost of Removal,” an altered portrait of Andrew Jackson juxtaposed with his oppressive Indian Removal Act.
“[Kaphar] is interested in amending the history of art. He makes us think of the history of all these great men with portraits and what the life they were living was while [those portraits] were being created,” Cobb said. “We can think about that as relevant to any ‘great’ man, whether it be Thomas Jefferson or James B. Duke — who are they besides this individual immortalized in a piece of art?”
Many storied American universities and their founders — almost ubiquitously upper-class white men — have roots in racism that their modern-day communities must reckon with. Several of Kaphar’s projects have confronted these histories, such as “Impressions of Liberty,” an installation at Princeton University responding to records of slaves sold on its campus by former president Samuel Finley. For his own alma mater, Yale University, Kaphar created “Enough About You,” a painting that sheds light on the life of a young boy once enslaved by the school’s namesake, Elihu Yale.
Concerning public art associated with slavery, Kaphar “has some interesting ideas that I think people in the Triangle could benefit from hearing about, given Silent Sam and UNC giving 2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” Cobb said. “I think his work is timely and relevant to Triangle audiences.”
Duke itself is no stranger to reckoning with controversies surrounding its own monuments. The university removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from campus in 2017 after it was vandalized following white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of another monument to Lee on the University of Virginia’s campus. In early 2019, the university installed a stone plaque in Abele Quad honoring Julian Abele, a black architect who designed much of West Campus in the 1920s. The commemoration was the result of decades of dedicated efforts to bring Abele’s legacy to light after his contributions were publicized by his great-grandniece in 1986.
Duke arts stalwarts Sarah Schroth, director of the Nasher Museum, and Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts, will both retire at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. According to Cobb, the need to bring in new blood allows for an “exciting” opportunity to jolt the university’s current arts culture, particularly by expanding the variety of black artists featured on campus.
“I’ve seen a number of prominent black artists and works by artists of color come through the Nasher in my time here, but I think there’s always room for more,” Cobb said. “There’s always room for growth.”
The necessity for more diverse art on campus and in the world is what the conversation aims to elucidate for the Duke community. On Thursday, doors will open at 5 p.m. for a reception prior to the event, which will take place from 6 to 7 p.m.
“By coming to the event, there’s a chance for people to think about their own relationship to images and put images in context,” Cobb said. “I hope they’re inspired to … think more deeply about images that they think they know well. To not just look at a portrait of a significant figure, but consider what it means to be thought of as significant enough to get a portrait at all.”
Amid exams and final papers, Duke still has something to celebrate this week.
From Wednesday, Dec. 4 to Friday, Dec. 6, “Celebrating Queerness in Modern Turkey” is bringing Istanbul-based queer artists-in-residence Madir Öktis, Ceytengri and Lütfi Urfali to campus for a discussion panel on Wednesday, a drag workshop and show on Friday and class visits throughout the week.