Searching Out the Next Vessel: An Interview with Kevin Jerome Everson (Web Exclusive)
by Aaron Cutler
“We had a big flood, and the flood came and carried everything away,” says an older woman combing a young man’s hair in Kevin Jerome Everson’s feature film The Island of St. Matthews (2013). The two are residents of Westport, a small community just north of Columbus, Mississippi that the Tombigbee River flooded in 1973. The woman directly addresses the hand-held camera facing her, as do other residents who share their memories. An old woman seated on her porch recalls how she looked out her window one day and saw water rising everywhere. A one-armed man named Charlie Smith, or “Charlie the Hook” (also the subject of Everson’s brief portrait filmCharlie’s Proof ), gives a tour of his family property while recalling how he boarded a car in order to ride it like a boat. A woman named Juanita Everson, the filmmaker’s aunt and one member of a group of Westport residents interviewed outside the town church, recalls being just married and working in a department store at the time of the flood. “It was awful, but we survived,” a townsperson says. “And I guess that that’s about it.”
Yet The Island of St. Matthews—which premiered at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival and will soon screen, along with short work by Everson, at the New York Film Festival section Views from the Avant-Garde—is more than a documentary record of past survival. It is also an impressionistic document, employing poetic motifs to touch upon how the townspeople (many of whom are related to the filmmaker) live today. A young man patrols the area around the town’s Stennis Lock and Dam, in both color and black-and-white images, while other young men are baptized. A waterskier repeatedly circles around the Tombigbee River as the Lock and Dam closes shut. The sound of the St. Matthews Church bell rings throughout the film, as though calling people to come witness an unfolding story. The sense that it creates of summoning the past into the present is consistent with much of Everson’s work, in which local history is not just lived out, but performed.
The forty-eight-year-old sculptor, photographer, painter, and author of six features and over one hundred short films often makes art by beginning with pieces of memory, whether family stories, scraps of found footage, or his own observations of working-class daily routines. He then builds props, calls in actors, and stylizes their behavior through theatrical frames presenting figures in landscapes. The feature film The Golden Age of Fish (2008), for instance, gives a portrait of Cleveland through a nonlinear collage of sequences that includes the the actress Lisa Hunt playing a murder victim, a geologist, and the star of cleaning-product commercials; the feature Erie (2010) renders life around Lake Erie through single-take performances, staged for the camera, whose activities include krumping, piano playing, and hypnosis. Throughout the films, seemingly ordinary gestures are extended through both duration and repetition, until simple images—a girl staring into candlelight, a woman walking through a parking lot—take on a quality of myth.
“Some people have this illusion that with the passage of time progress automatically takes place,” the former director of the University of Virginia’s Black Studies program, Vivian Gordon (played by the actress Erin Stewart), tells a 1970s audience at the school in Everson and Claudrena Harold’s short Sugarcoated Arsenic (2013). The passage to which she refers can, in the name of progress, erase history; Everson, in contrast, works to preserve history by creating material imprints of a culture whose stories havelargely existed at the oral level. The human subjects of his films are almost always Black Americans, and the historical phenomenon with which they most frequently deal is the Black American diaspora resulting from the Second Great Migration (1940–1970), during which roughly five million people moved from the American South to the North for the sake of industrial jobs. Their ranks included Everson’s parents, who moved from Columbus, Mississippi to join a burgeoning Black population in Northeast Ohio.
The artist has made multiple films that tell the story of this migration through registering neighborhoods and their residents located in both areas. (He has also made several films in Virginia, where he currently serves as professor of art at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.) Like The Island of St. Matthews, they often tell their tales obliquely. The films’ frequent connective tissue, rather than voice-over, are allusions to painting, poetry, and pop culture. The short film trilogy The Tombigbee Chronicles Number Two, for instance, presents Black people theatrically performing texts based on works by celebrated Columbus artists; Rita Larson’s Boy (2012), in particular, shows ten different actors auditioning for a role played by a Columbus native on the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son. As they each face the camera reciting the same young man’s dialogue about the need to go out on a Saturday night, the diverse types of men—younger, older, thinner, fatter—all seem capable of playing the part. In this film, as in The Island of St. Matthews and many of Everson’s others, disparate community members work together on building a shared identity.—Aaron Cutler
Cineaste: A question of terms: Do you prefer “Black” or “African-American”?
Kevin Jerome Everson: It depends. When I was in Africa, people were saying I wasn’t African, so “Black American” works fine. I say “White Americans.” Obama’s an African-American. He’s part Kenyan, and I’m just from fucking Mansfield, Ohio. My mom and dad’s folks are from Columbus, Mississippi.
Cineaste: How did they get from Mississippi to Ohio?
Everson: I’m trying to find out the specifics of that every time I go home. They went up there because of the industrial jobs. They got the second and last industrial boom up with the North in the late Fifties and early Sixties, right before everything went into automation. It must have been like 1961 or ’62 when they went. The first of my two older brothers was born in ’63, and I was born in ‘65. My family members were working folk. Everybody worked. My mom worked as a bank teller. My dad was an auto mechanic. They’re both retired now. I went to a mostly white elementary school, and then middle and high school were mixed. I played sports, just a big jock. I knew I couldn’t play them in college, so playing sports was pretty much all I did throughout my teens. Mostly American football. I was a tight end, an outside linebacker, a defensive end, and sometimes a cornerback.
Then I went to college at the University of Akron, where I couldn’t do any of that anymore. Not a lot of my family members had gone to college—among the Northerners, I was the only one who went. (My brothers got associate’s degrees.) I wanted to be a botanist, but I figured that would be too hard, so I started taking art classes. And then I just got good at it. I started doing photography and some sculpture around my sophomore and junior year. I got the teaching bug around the same time because I was teaching at the Cuyahoga Valley Arts Center. I was teaching paper making there with these old ladies. It was pretty cool.
I’d been a teenage father, so I didn’t want to go to New York with the rest of the clowns. Then one day one of my undergraduate professors told me that I should get an MFA. I said, “That’s what I thought I was getting.” I was a senior and still didn’t know what a Bachelor’s Degree was—I just thought I was getting a college degree. So they sat me down and explained everything about what a Master of Fine Arts degree would be. Till then I had mostly been studying philosophy and art history, and doing some art. I had made some little Super-8 films, including portraits of my colleagues for their B.A. shows. In grad school I only made one or two films, because I was mostly doing photo, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and artist’s books. I was working with a lot of different mediums, like I still do.
Cineaste: What’s distinct to you about film as opposed to other mediums?
Everson: The time-based element of it. I still think that photo’s my favorite medium, because I like the way that narrative can develop within a second. With film I have to compose for longer durations. There I like the composition drawn out into a particular dimension of time that involves movement. I like the body and the gesture a lot. I started doing film a lot in the mid-1990s because I was making these furniture sculptures with old photographs on them. I would describe them to people in a narrative way, like, “My mom and dad were living there, bringing in the furniture table, bringing it home, setting it up, and putting a photograph on it.” I started saying that over and over again, and so I decided that I needed to do a more time-based performance element. I wanted to show the story in a different form. I liked the art object sitting there and presenting a fragment of a certain narrative, but then I wanted the film to present somebody working and going to the store, cashing a check, picking out furniture, and bringing it home.
The Island of St. Matthews happened because I was looking for a lot of old photographs for artist’s books years ago. When I was down in Mississippi, I was asking my aunt on my mom’s side, “Where are the old pictures and stuff like that?” And she kept saying, “We lost them in the flood.” So I always wanted to make a film about the 1973 flood of the Tombigbee River back home. I call Mississippi “back home” because that’s what my mom called it. I’ve been to that community hundreds of times, and most of the people in the movie knew me. Most of them are relatives, and I look like at least half the people down there. We used to go there to spend the summer when I was young. It’s like Grandma’s house, Granddad’s house, so I’ve been there all the time. In fact, I’m there more than my brothers and cousins are. I used to live in Tennessee, about six hours away, and I used to go there almost every other weekend and shoot films.
Columbus, Mississippi is exactly fourteen hours away from where I grew up in Ohio, so it always felt foreign and far, and it still feels far right now with my being twelve hours door to door. But even when I lived in Tennessee and it was only five-and-a-half hours, back home still felt far, because I had the old connection to it. My grandfather founded that church that you see in the movie. I remember somebody telling me that there was a certain way that people used to ring the church bell in order to communicate with the community. I wanted to do something like that. So I got into the church in January 2012, but then we couldn’t get the bell to move, so I said, “I’m gonna make a bell.” They didn’t believe me, but when I came back that summer with a bell, they were pretty impressed.
I wanted that audio to be part of it—each time the bell rings, it rings a certain way. Then I started developing scenes around that. I knew I wanted to interview people about the flood. I knew that I wanted to do something with the Stennis Lock and Dam. When I was driving down I said, “I gotta have an insurance adjuster,” so I found somebody at my aunt’s church who worked for the insurance company to explain policies to people. I wanted to mark the river, so I figured that filming a waterskier could be a good way to do it, like I had done when I shot a film called BZV (2010) in Brazzaville, Congo a few years ago. I was developing scenes and putting them together in a way to get people around that particular landscape.
I like having a figure–ground relationship in which the landscape is more important than the figure, but in which your eyes still go back and forth between them, like in old-school painting. The Mona Lisa is there in Da Vinci’s painting, but the background is a lot more interesting than she is. I think that having a landscape with a person in front makes it all less static. You think that this person is inhabiting this space. There’s always a backstory, but with a person there it becomes a bigger backstory. I can shoot the Cleveland skyline, and it’ll just be that, but if there’s a person in the picture, then the image says something about Cleveland, and that particular person adds to it. You think about how long he or she has been there, and for how long he or she has been negotiating that landscape.
In St. Matthews I was trying to get mainly older people on camera because they were around during the flood. None of them had been in any of my films before then. I like their faces and how they speak. A lot of their language is gone now. Most people my age grew up in integrated schools, so they don’t speak like my mom and aunt and them used to speak. I was trying to find that old language. I know it when I hear it. The differences are tangible. I remember one time when we were going to a family reunion. We went outside to get our bags, and when my aunt heard a young person speaking, she got freaked out. That person had gone to integrated schools, and she didn’t expect to hear the words he was speaking coming out of his mouth. It’s like how when my friends from Liberia hear me talk, they expect me to speak Portuguese, or how when I go to London and see the biggest brother who looks like he’s from Detroit but speaks Cockney. You’re always taken aback by the reality of the language–face connection.
You can look at that guy in The Island of St. Matthews named Charlie the Hook, or Charlie Smith, who didn’t move. He didn’t go up North, he didn’t change, he didn’t go anywhere else. He just grew up and he stayed in that area, so he still speaks that old-school language. Charlie the Hook used to be a notorious moonshiner, but he would never lay claim to it, so an alleged notorious moonshiner. I think he used to like my mom when they were young. He’s a star, that guy. The way he talks, the way he moves. He’s got a great face. When a guy ain’t gonna say nothing, or when he’s gonna say very little, you have to make sure that the person is interesting looking, and that the face has a backstory. Even when I was doing street photography, I looked for that. The photograph has to tell a story within the span of a second, and the face has to help with that. Charlie’s face says a lot. You can tell looking at him that he’s old school with it. He’s seen some shit. Experienced some shit. Knows some shit. You look at a cat like that, a cat that grew up in early Seventies Mississippi, and you know he’s seen it twice. He’s got experience, right? He’s smarter than you. I always like it when the person on-screen is smarter than the people in the audience. Nobody’s smarter than Charlie the Hook. That’s how it is. You just accept it.
I only met him twice. I shot some footage of him when I met him last January, and then we went back there in June 2012 to shoot. He’s an old friend of the family, so he took a shine to me. I wanted to do a whole Ben Rivers-type feature on Charlie the Hook, but his Parkinson’s was coming back on him, so he wasn’t feeling it. So all the footage that we shot is in Island and in the short film Charlie’s Proof. Charlie was coy with me, and in the short film I make him look even coyer with the way that I chopped it up. I was trying to ask him about moonshine, but he was avoiding the subject. I made the editing even more disruptive. With the way that it’s cut, we don’t know what he doesn’t want to talk about.
In general with editing I like creating false spaces. In The Island of St. Matthews I made it look as though the kids are being baptized in the Stennis Lock and Dam, with the Lock and Dam being a baptism pool. I like creating a different world that looks new to viewers. I like the idea that in editing I make it all look unreal, so that people can’t step into it. It’s not a window.
Cineaste: How do you know when something is a film versus a video?
Everson: Materials, process, and procedure. Most of my undergraduate professors came from that good Iowa program in the 1970s, where the artwork was like a Richard Serra sculpture. Materials, process, and procedure, the work had to exhibit all three of those things. With the metal and the chalk marks, you knew how the thing got made, right? I still treat artwork like that. The artwork has to exhibit. Like I just recently made some hammers out of bronze. I could have made smooth molds for them, but I had to make sure that you knew that the hammer was made by human hands. Now I’m making a film about guys stealing manhole covers in Cleveland, so I made manhole cover removal tools, like big crowbars. I just forged metal last week. I filmed a guy stealing copper pipes one time, and then he came after me with a hammer, so I’m gonna re-enact that scene.
For Island, I made the bell. When I make props it gives me a chance to think about what I’m shooting. It’s the same thing with choosing the cameras. For me, it all depends on the cameras, and on what the gesture is, and then that chooses the medium. When I do HD or mini DV I’m usually thinking about audio, and when I use film stock I’m mostly thinking about visuals. It can depend on color. The black-and-white shots in St. Matthews came because I had accidentally put black-and-white film in my front pocket, and I didn’t have any color on me, but usually it depends on whether there’s any color in the palette. Also, normally if I want a scene to be timeless, or even if I don’t want it to be 1973 or 2008 or any other specific year, I shoot black-and-white so that folks don’t know when it was shot.
I just bought a Hi-Res camera, so I’m gonna shoot everything with two-and-a-half to three-minute clips, as opposed to using an Aaton Bolex camera for eleven-minute clips. Duration always depends on what I’m trying to find or look for or what kind of story I’m telling. This film that I’m working on now could be three minutes or eighty-eight—I’ll know when I drive up to Ohio. My film Quality Control (2011) consists of seven takes of people working in a laundromat. When we drove to that cleaner I was just gonna shoot one clip, but then I saw seven, eight different views and was like, “No, this is gonna be a feature.”
I knew Island would be long because I wanted to have all these long sequences. I knew the waterskier around that fucking island would be a long part of the film, and I knew that going inside the Stennis Lock and Dam was gonna take a while, so I knew that all the materials together were going to add up to a lengthy event. And then I knew the camera I got. I had an Aaton camera that I borrowed from the Wexner Center, so I knew I wanted to shoot full, uninterrupted clips, in which the interruption would come with either the end of the roll or the end of the event. I liked shooting the clips hand-held so that I could move and groove quicker, like still photography. The work looks handmade, with painting brushstrokes. That was the strategy for most of the shots in Island. I don’t know what the strategy this summer is going to be. I’ll find it out soon.
Cineaste: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Everson: Garry Winogrand’s my favorite photographer. He’s a street photographer from the Fifties to the early Seventies. Worked and shot all the time. Great discipline. Great compositions. He understood timing and could interrupt three-D space into incredible two-D, using formal qualities without losing humanity.
Among filmmakers, I'm really interested in current Filipinos like Lav Diaz, Khavn De La Cruz, John Torres, Adolfo B. Alix, Jr., Raya Martin, and Shireen Seno. They are awesome and disciplined visionaries working hard with minimal resources to tell great stories. I also dig what the recent Brit experimental filmmakers are doing, like Ben Rivers's movie Two Years at Sea (2011) (awesome portraiture) and especially John Akomfrah's The Stuart Hall Project (2013). I like its collage approach to storytelling.
And for painters, Caravaggio’s the man. I like the fact that there are always people witnessing something. There’s The Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), but then there’s always that motherfucker looking at St. Paul. The witness is always present, so that the subject matter is looking at the event along with us. I think that the new film is gonna be part Caravaggio and part Ellsworth Kelly. We’ll see how that goes.
Cineaste: You’ve done several portrait films. How have you dealt with difficult people?
Everson: I just didn’t run it. I’ve had guys where I’ve turned the camera off because they weren’t interesting. Just let them talk because they wanted to talk, but they didn’t say anything interesting, so I just kept the camera off. I’m sure there were people who didn’t want to talk to me, but just a few people. Most people want to talk.
Cineaste: There are a lot of people in Erie, for instance.
Everson: Yeah, but those scenes were all made up. And, for me, The Island of St. Matthews is totally made up. Like the guy being sold insurance was a student of mine at Tennessee. I put that bell there. I had Charlie the Hook read out of the Bible. Even with the Stennis Lock and Dam guy, we were running around there doing fake shit. The only unstaged stuff you get is my aunt and the people at the church talking.
Everybody in town knew what we were doing. I was appreciative to everybody who helped out on the movie. That’s one thing that I learned, that more folks were willing to help than I thought would. Everything else was all kool and the gang. As I get older, I make fewer mistakes. Shit’s always gonna change. I’m changing every year. I make some mistakes on purpose, because I like the way they look, but I’m talking more financial mistakes—not visual stuff, but more like things way behind the camera. Hiring stuff, doing stuff, getting materials. I’m talking about that bullshit. That shit that costs money.
This interview was conducted after the premiere of The Island of St. Matthews at the 2013 International Film Festival Rotterdam. The three-DVD box set Broad Daylight and Other Times: Selected Works of Kevin Jerome Everson is available for purchase through Video Data Bank (www.vdb.org). More information about Everson's work can be found at www.keverson.net and www.picturepalacepictures.com.
Sales and exhibition queries should be addressed to Madeleine Molyneaux, Picture Palace Pictures at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine