ON THE SCENE: John Brown Lives! Fellows

Founding John Brown Lives! Fellows Erica Lewis Blunt, Daesha Devon Harris and Devon Reid (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Earlier this year, John Brown Lives!, in partnership with Craigarden, launched the Fellows, a new program to support and inspire artists whose work is guided by a compassionate sense of history and its contemporary reverberations.

The inaugural Fellows are composer, DJ and sound designer Erica Lewis Blunt; visual artist, photographer and cultural history preservationist Daesha Devon Harris; choreographer and executive and artistic director of Emerge 125 Tiffany Rea-Fisher; and multi-media artist, curator and cultural mediator Devon Reid.

Lewis Blunt is the sound coordinator and resident composer for Emerge 125. Since 2017, she, in collaboration with Rea-Fisher, has composed several evening-length works, including “After Dark,” “Remerged Nation” and “Rights of Renaissance.” At the same time, she has been a featured DJ at Essence’s Street Style Block Party and has DJed at such diverse New York City venues as the Ace Hotel, Baby’s All Right, the Brooklyn Museum and the Highline Ballroom. In collaboration with Rea-Fisher, she is composing a ballet for the Dance Theatre of Harlem based on the life of American pianist and activist Hazel Scott set to premiere this October.

Devon Harris’s narrative portraits combine photography and other elements to reveal the often-unrecognized central role that Black Americans have had in the making of our country. Based in Saratoga, she researches oral histories from such sources as those gathered during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration of people born into slavery. She uses their stories to help her understand their life experiences and the efforts they made before and after bondage. Further, her work has been enriched by the Tang Teaching Museum’s more than 500 found photographs of Black life, images that she has used to bring the WPA, and other researched stories to life through her work.

Rea-Fisher — a National Dance Project Award-winner, 2001 Toulmin Creator and fifth-year director of the Lake Placid School of Dance — has choreographed numerous dances for her company, Emerge 125, and many others. Her list includes Black Dance Theater, Dallas Black Theater, Dance Theater of Harlem, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and the Utah Repertory Theater. Her work has been presented in New York City by the Joyce Theatre, Joe’s Pub, Aaron Davis Hall and New York Live Arts. She has been choreographing new works, performing and teaching in Lake Placid at the Center for the Arts for over 30 years, and the past three collaborated with John Brown Lives!, which awarded her the John Brown Spirit Award this past May.

Martha Swan and Nell Painter (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Reid — a Montreal native and multi-media and visual artist — uses her talents to explore how all aspects of life and ecology are connected. In her July 7 posting, she writes, “I’m curious about the layers of any given context. The ground we walk on, the ecosystems I am part of, the solar systems, human relatedness, the person, the body, the consciousness, the known, intangible aspects of all of it.” She recently returned from living in Amsterdam, Netherlands for 15 years where she developed a program for personal leadership for the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. While there, she created work that led to exhibitions in France, Canada, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Now based in Canada, she is curating projects in Quebec that foster dialogue through the arts on current social issues.

This past summer, Lewis Blunt, Devon Harris and Reid were able to participate in the inaugural residencies of John Brown Lives! and Craigarden. Different than so many artists’ residencies available across the U.S. is these are held under the umbrella of a social-justice agency that serves as the official friends group for the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. Since about 20 years ago, JBL! founder and Executive Director Martha Swan has wanted to establish an artist’s residency connected to the farm.

“I think it was in 2009 or 2011, the John Brown Farm was one of several state parks slated for closure by New York State Parks Department when the state was in the midst of a fiscal crisis,” said Swan. “At the time, we mounted a ferocious effort to pressure the Legislature, Parks and others to keep the farm open. One of the people I called was Jim Dawson, a New York state regent who taught geography at SUNY Plattsburgh. To paraphrase him, he said he didn’t know why the farm was in Parks; he felt it should be part of the Education Department and have scholars in residence program drawing upon its rich history.”

Swan and her community activists succeeded in keeping the farm from being moth-balled, and Dawson’s ideas stayed with her coming to fruition this summer.

“My first time on the farm, in the summer of 2020, was a surprise,” said Lewis Blunt. “At the time, Tiffany (Rea-Fisher) and I were looking for locations for a dance film, trying to find the right place for it — a place that had meaning and a special story of its own. Learning about the farm was a shock as Tiffany had been coming to Placid for 20 years and had never heard about it.”

“Special about the farm is there is so much energy here. There is hope, there is insight, there is a past that was looking for a specific future in the ground,” said Lewis Blunt. “You can feel that energy. I feel that I have created some of my best work here in collaboration with the artist Ren Davidson Seward and her installations. I feel that the people who come here are seeking to be better as people. Being able to connect with them through my music is very gratifying.”

“John Brown is the ultimate ally,” said Reid. “As a Canadian, a white woman from Montreal, and an artist, I am seeking to understand what role I am called to play in all of this. I lived in West Africa, Timbuktu in Mali, in the Netherlands, and more recently in New York state, working with textiles. Hence, the residency provided me with time to figure everything out. I find this place important and very beautiful. The work being done is incredible. I feel honored to have been selected. I intend to come back to the farm often.”

“The subject of my art is the concept of home, particularly the Black struggle for land stewardship and home ownership,” said Devon Harris. “Thinking of Timbucto loosely informed my last two series of work called ‘Just Beyond the River’ and ‘One More River to Cross,’ where I photographed waterways from Saratoga to North Elba, but I didn’t want to come here with a specific project. I wanted to let this place speak to me. I knew that I’d figure it out when I got on the site and got on the soil.”

All the artists agreed that their experience this summer was deeply enriching, and they all wish to come back.

For Devon Harris, the added benefit is she finds fishing extremely relaxing, and as the Adirondacks have many waterways available for fishing, returning is a must.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)

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