Lousiville arts in black and white: A look at racial divisions in the creative community

Why write an entire feature about artists of color working in the Louisville community? It’s a question that’s easy to answer, if you are ready to address hard truths.

The first is that LEO, and many other media publications in Louisville, are still disproportionately filled with white writers — including me — many or most of whom live in disproportionately white communities. While arts journalists across Louisville strive to cover the entire city, good intentions cannot wholly erase the effects of a lack of diversity in media, nor can they erase the segregation that supports that lack of diversity.

Which brings us to the second uncomfortable truth: Louisville is a segregated city. While the city as a whole has an African American population of roughly 32 percent, in the West End that population is closer to 78 percent (Ky. State Data Center at UofL).

This segregation supports economic inequality, enforced by decades if not centuries of racist practices like redlining. The cornerstones of the Louisville arts community — Kentucky Center for the Arts, the Speed Art Museum, the Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Shakespeare — are all east of Ninth Street. This is not new information, but it bears repeating. The last reason to write this feature is because the artists and arts educators deserve it.

Artists of color in Louisville are producing work that is vital and edifying, work that would be recognized on an even playing field. Despite institutional disadvantages, many of these artists do get local coverage, but they deserve more. They also deserve the same national recognition other artists in Louisville are beginning to enjoy.

This is by no means an exhaustive list; each discipline represented here — theater, dance, poetry and fine art — could easily fill its own article. Like any cultural scene, there are close connections between many of these arts groups and artists, and it’s not surprising to see the same face popping up at a poetry readings, and emceeing an evening of theater. Young dance companies share stages with poetry operas; painters and artists create images to help promote open mics; art gallery openings feature poetry readings.

It’s a vibrant and interconnected scene. While much of it exists on the west side of the infamous “Ninth Street divide,” there are other pockets of activity, like Smoketown and Old Louisville.

“It’s a relatively small network,” says Portia White, discussing the arts scene. It’s a scene she has to navigate every day as Metro Parks Manager of Arts Programming. She helps provide arts classes to kids of every color all over Louisville at 15 different city-funded community centers. She works closely with a long list of artists, arts businesses, and nonprofits.

One of her personal passion projects is the Shawnee Arts and Cultural Center in the West End. “[It’s] close to my heart because I grew up in the neighborhood, and the building that it’s located in actually used to be my elementary school.”

When White joined Metro Parks, the site of the Shawnee center was a traditional rec center, mostly focused on sports, and it was scheduled to be closed. “I submitted a proposal to transition it to an arts-focused center and they agreed, so from that point on it’s kind of been a personal mission to reach out to individual artists of color, and to pull them into programing at this location.”

White strongly believes in the transformative power that art can have in a child’s life, stating, “So many young people can be reached  through the arts, when other things may fail. [It’s] a tool to save lives. I know that sounds extreme, but it can turn a kid’s life totally around.”

In addition to saving lives, White believes in paying artists. It may sound like a no brainer, but frequently in the arts scene, artists are asked to work for exposure. And frequently artists do.

While some have found business models that can support them and other artists exist on local or federal grants, many artists are paying their bills with day jobs.

That fiscal difficulty is a reality for all artists in Louisville, as Possibility City continues to struggle to take its place on the national arts scene. It’s a struggle that leads to the infamous brain drain, as artists young and old must decide if they want to stay in Louisville and grow its scene, or depart for greener pastures.

An example of this struggle comes from the University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program (AATP). The AATP’s mission includes “offering an in-depth curriculum that focuses on the theory and craft of acting, directing, and designing for black theater.” The program is already over 20 years old, so one would hope that there would be a flowering of black theater in Louisville, led by graduates of the program.

Nefertiti Burton is the chair of the University of Louisville’s Theatre Arts Department, and the former chair of their African American Theatre Program. (The AATP’s current director, Baron Kelly, was in Africa at press time.) Burton says that most of her program’s graduates don’t stick around. “Paying gigs that can really help develop a black artist in this town are very limited. They are almost non-existent.” The African American Theatre Program’s graduates leave for Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Atlanta.

“That’s what I want to change,” says Burton. First she is trying to help the AATP reach out to the community more, and become a presence. She wants to “really get our faculty, students, guest artists more imbedded in Louisville. Get more activity going, not only just doing shows but actually institutionalizing black theater in Louisville.”

Louisville audiences can see some of that community involvement when the AATP teams with The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage (KCAAH) to present “The Meeting,” a one-act play by Jeff Stetson, which imagines a meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Burton hopes this partnership leads to high quality theater being regularly produced in the heart of the West End.

It’s worth mentioning that the AATP/KCAAH collaboration, which reaches across the Ninth Street divide and down from academe’s ivory tower, no doubt has something to do with the fact that the Nefertiti Burton is married to Aukram Burton, KCAAH’s new executive director.

Natives of Boston, the Burtons moved to Louisville for Professor Burton’s job at UofL. East of Ninth Street there are a good number of people who have moved to town for a short term arts contracts at Louisville Ballet, Kentucky Shakespeare, or other arts organizations, and once they get a taste of the Derby City, they stay. Some are still working for those arts organizations, some have joined the impressive array of arts education in Central and East Louisville, and some have used the relative economic prosperity there to transition to other vocations while they continue to make art.

All of that has an immeasurable impact on the scene, and it’s not something that happens much on the West Side. There aren’t many jobs that bring artists and performers of color into Louisville, and the few temporarily imported artists don’t see enough possibilities in this city to stay.

It’s important to mention that this imbalance in the number of transplants who move to Louisville to pursue work in the arts includes the leadership positions at some of our major arts organizations. The Louisville Ballet, the Louisville Orchestra, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Speed Art Museum, Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and Kentucky Shakespeare Festival are all led by white artists who are transplants from other cities. Each of those leaders is doing incredible work. Frequently that work includes reaching across the Ninth Street Divide, but there is a negative cumulative effect to only recruiting white artists.

Some artists and arts leaders that LEO spoke to described a need for institutional support in the black community. That institutional support includes those jobs, many of which have some city or state funding. It also includes brick and mortar spaces and an infrastructure that has roots in the black community. The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, under Aukram Burton, has big plans to be a part of that support.

KCAAH itself is located in the heart of the historic Russel neighborhood in West Louisville. The idea for KCAAH  originated from a group of African American educators and business people in the mid ’90s who started working to get historical sites in Louisville and Kentucky recognized. As their group, The African American Heritage Foundation, began to pick up steam, they began to envision a cultural center in West Louisville that supported the group’s mission to lift up the often-ignored cultural history of Kentucky’s African Americans. The model for the KCAAH’s infrastructure comes from the Kentucky Center for the Arts (KCA), arguably the single most important brick and mortar structure in Louisville’s arts community, and a huge part of downtown Louisville’s renaissance. Like the KCA, The KCAAH is a quasi-state agency. That means several things: it must maintain a presence throughout Kentucky, not just in Louisville; it meets with the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Council; and they are able to get funding from the state as well as through their own fundraising efforts and rental fees.

Burton, who’s just finished his first 120 days as KCAAH executive director, hopes it can become an economic engine for the West End. He sees growing the center’s arts offerings as being a big part of that. There are plans to convert part of the center into a theater and multimedia studio.

In addition to the partnership with UofL’s African American Theatre Program, the KCAAH is hosting a kick-off event for a new group, The Black Media Collaborative (BMC). While the BMC will begin its life under the umbrella of the KCAAH, Burton hopes it will grow and take on a life of its own. The BMC’s first meeting will feature several local arts innovators, including Dave Christopher. Christopher, and his business partner Jason D’Mello, are the co-founders of the Academy of Music Production and Development (AMPED).

Christopher is one of the artists who spoke to the need for initiatives that come from within the community, rather than solely relying on outside help. “That’s the mistake people make a lot of times — they come into different areas and want to tell people how they should do stuff and how they should lead, and ‘we’re gonna save them.’ It’s really ridiculous.” Christopher says that when he and D’Mello started AMPED one of the first things they did was meet with Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton’s aide and state, “I want you to tell me what your community needs.”

Christopher got into the nonprofit and arts community not by being an artist, but by trying to be a good dad. He moved to Louisville to get custody of his child, Dave Christopher Jr. “One day me and my son were watching a movie,” Christopher Sr. recalls. “I was like, ‘What do you wanna do for the rest of your life?’” His son told him he wanted to own a record company and produce music. Perhaps Christopher Sr. would have quickly forgotten the conversation, but Christopher Jr. reminded him. “He woke me up early the next morning and was like,  ‘Dad I really want to do that.’”

Christopher describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. In addition to his work with AMPED, he owns Level 7 Recording Studios, a cleaning business and a technology company. Located in the heart of the Chickasaw neighborhood in West Louisville, AMPED teaches kids the ins and outs of every aspect of the music business and frequently works with Portia White to get this programing into community centers.

The real goal of AMPED, as Christopher puts it, is to “give kids a safe place to be. We wanted to put them on a path.”

Christopher says his son was again the inspiration. Music helped keep Christopher Jr. focused and out of trouble, “on a path.” If it worked for his son, reasoned Christopher Sr., it could work with other kids too. He recognizes that not every kid is going to end up in the spotlight, but the skills taught at AMPED include business, web design, photography and a host of other off-stage skills that every musician certainly needs. Those skills can serve a new generation of black business owners just as well, for the kids who end up stepping out of the spotlight.

That business sense is obvious in the tactics of many artists. They have to make their own way, self-producing books, records or putting on their own plays, like local playwright Larry Muhammad does. If his name is familiar, it may be because the Kentucky playwright was a reporter for the Courier-Journal for decades before he began writing for the stage. “The newspaper business allowed me to write stories for a living,” says Muhammad when looking back at his previous career. He says that the writing skills he honed in his time as a journalist have served him well in his new vocation, “It carried over, a perfect transition into playwriting.”

Muhammad has been self-producing theater in Louisville for over a decade, and the plays he writes frequently speak to a variety of African-American viewpoints, including several plays focusing on important historical African Americans. He’s written about civil rights leaders Buster Coleman, Frank Stanley and jockey Jim McLaughlin. But it’s not all history. Plays like “Booty of the Year” focus on contemporary characters.

Muhammad thinks some of his success comes from his name recognition in the community. “There’s a general audience,’ he explains. “They might not be going to see a lot of plays, but they see my name attached, maybe they’ll go se that.”

Playwriting wasn’t originally a goal for Muhammad. “I started out thinking I was going to be a novelist, or a short story writer.” As a journalist, Muhammad had often covered the arts in Louisville, and when he started writing plays, those relationships he had developed with sources turned into relationships that helped him learn the craft of playwriting. He credits Tony-nominated teacher William P. Bradford and Actors Theatre of Louisville mainstay William McNulty as being the major forces who helped him turn his journalism skills into the ability to write plays. He also credits UofL’s Nereftiti Burton, who directed one of his first plays.

Many artists work to create and support their own brand, as Muhammad has, but there are also community members who focused on supporting the artists.

Maxwell Mitchell is a cellist and a guitar player, but he’s better known in the scene as an organizer, and the guy you go to when you want to get the word out. His project is Maxwell Sounds. It’s a brand, and a business, but he envisions it as a social network for poetry and music. “So far, we operate within social networks and physically, but there is a website and app coming,” says Mitchell.

Maxwell Sounds sponsors or co-sponsors several local poetry and music events, including Lance Newman’s KMAC poetry slams, The Young Poets’ Floetic Fridays, The International Open Mic and the Mayor’s Music and Arts Series.

For Mitchell, the social media aspect is almost as important as the physical event. “We’ve found that just because a person doesn’t attend physically doesn’t mean they didn’t want to be there.” Mitchell began with live streaming events, but soon abandoned that approach to focus on short clips and videos that can easily be spread around the Internet and Facebook. None of his clips has gone internationally viral, but often a video of a poem, such as Rheonna Thorton’s first slam performance from last winter, will circulate heavily around Facebook, serving to keep the poetry scene vibrant between events and stoking excitement for whatever comes next.

While Mitchell is probably the most effective social media specialist in Louisville, he certainly isn’t the only one using digital media to spread the word.

Ashley Cathey, whose artwork appears on the cover of this issue of LEO Weekly, is a Louisville native whose paintings started circulating in the local community. She has risen to prominence in a fairly short time after moving back to Louisville.

Cathey started her artistic journey as a musical theater performer and actor. Her painting and drawing was a personal thing, something she did for herself, while she pursued her singing and acting.

After attending college for musical theater she landed in Chicago, ready to make her mark as a performer. She wasn’t able to get a foothold in that market, and she points to her distinctive look as one reason. “It was difficult being an African-American woman that doesn’t look like your standard African- American woman. I have like a lighter brown skin, and I have freckles and I have red hair.”

She turned to her painting and drawing as an outlet for her frustrations, but took a chance on exhibiting her work publicly. “My uncle is a well known artist in his own corner in Chicago, and he helped me. So I did an exhibition there, and it did well, which was extremely surprising.” She began to find success in her personal art, with successful shows in Chicago, but health problems led her to return to Louisville.

When she returned to the Derby City, she quickly found her footing and exhibited work in a group show at the Louisville Community Center, one of the Metro Parks community centers overseen by Portia White. From there, Cathey caught the attention of ArtsReach’s Julia Youngblood, who commissioned Cathey to create a series of portraits, which ArtsReach used for posters for their annual Keepers of the Dream celebration at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

The portraits, generally of figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are a perfect blend of Jackson Pollock and Shepard Fairey —  graphically simple portrayals with bold colors emerging from a swirling sea of splatters and dots.

Cathey is an artist who is getting seen, but she also points out the need for artists to get paid: “As far as financially, I don’t believe that people buy as much black art, or that there are as many forums to present it.” She adds that many of the places art gets seen in Louisville aren’t conducive to selling art. “A lot of the exhibits now have taken on the form of being at bars or unorthodox spaces that unfortunately doesn’t bring in the people who are art collectors and willing to spend money.”

While some may be frustrated by unorthodox spaces for art, Elmer Lucille Allen embraces it; and for the last 11 years, she’s been running Wayside Expressions Gallery at Second and Broadway.

Allen, who says she is “always a student,” received a degree in chemistry in 1953 and a master’s degree in ceramics and fiber in 2002. As the curator and directer of Wayside, she works for free, but is able to shed light on artists with new exhibits every month.

Allen has been involved with the gallery since its inception in the early 2000s. The gallery springs from a suggestion by Dale Williamson, who was an intern with Wayside while working on his master’s in Social Work at UofL’s Kent School. “He felt that art was a way that we could integrate and let people know what Wayside was actually doing. Our first gallery show was in April of that year.” recalls Allen. She was invited to a planning committee that oversaw the first exhibits in the gallery. “It started from there, so after everyone dropped out I took over. So I’m it.”

Her contributions to the Louisville arts scene are widely recognized. Last year she received an Arts and Advocacy award from the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Allen’s own work has focused on fiber pieces lately. When asked if she ever uses her chemistry degree, the octogenarian was quick to answer: “Everything in art is based on chemistry. Everything that you make in this comes from something. You look at when you transform a piece of clay into an object, it has a transformation, and that’s all a chemical process.”

Allen got her start in the arts a little later in her life, as did Safiyyah Rasool, founder of Safiyyah Dance. A lifelong lover of dancing just for fun, she was in her mid-twenties before she started taking it seriously.

Rasool remembers dance being a big part of her childhood. “There was a houseful, six of us, and I remember learning from my big sister. We would do street dancing, watching music videos, doing different dances with my friends and at talent shows.” But Rasool never trained and never took dance seriously. “That’s just kind of how I was, always kind of moving. It was fun for me.”

After moving away from Louisville to attend college in Atlanta, Rasool slowly began to realize her love for dance was a passion, after encountering organized dance classes for the first time. “I stumbled upon classes at my gym. I was like, ‘Whoa, you can take a class?’”

Rasool laughed when talking about her first few classes. “I sucked. I was horrible at picking up steps outside my own freestyle dancing. But I continued because it was a challenge for me and I got to meet a bunch of dancers.” As she began to get better she was offered the opportunity to teach dance to underprivileged kids in Atlanta. “I realized it made me feel good to really push these kids, and to push them to believe in themselves.”

After moving back to Louisville in 2007, Rasool began Safiyyah Dance, a school and performance company. Safiyyah Dance Company has performed at a variety of local festivals and events including World Fest, 100 Black Men, The Dirt Bowl, Light Up Louisville and the Smoketown Get Down.

Like many teaching artists, she dreams of building her company and the local scene into something than can keep performers here and reverse the brain drain that sees talented performers leaving Louisville.

Slam poetry is perhaps  the fastest growing corner of the Louisville arts scene. It’s hard to think of anyone more synonymous with the scene’s growth than Lance Newman, aka Mr. Spreadlove. Newman hosts his own monthly slam, which outgrew its original location at Sweet Peaches Cafe in the West End and moved downtown to the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

He’s a founding member of local poetry and theater company Roots and Wings; an advisor, board member and teacher for The Young Poets of Louisville;  and he teamed up with Mayor Fischer to convince national poetry slam Southern Fried Poetry Festival to host its 2017 festival in Louisville.

Newman says before he wrote poems he wrote prayers and dabbled with penning alternate lyrics to his favorite songs. He remembers getting teased for writing. “Growing up as a young male, I was made fun of because I spoke properly. I knew a lot of words, and I wasn’t accepted by my black peers.”

Newman wrote and performed his first poem in response to that teasing. “I got mad one day when I was 13. Some kids were making fun of me — I wrote my first poem and performed it at the talent show. Kind of got a lot of respect off of that. Since then I’ve always written.”

Newman immersed himself in poetry, reading it, watching videos and HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam.” He didn’t get involved with slam until college at Western Kentucky University, where he worked with a nonprofit, teaching writing workshops and competing in slams.

Though he hosts a slam and is an accomplished slam performer, Newman likens it to a video game. “Slam is the exhibition. It’s the game, the testing of your poems’ likability. It’s a small section of my poetry focus.” He focuses more on teaching and growing the black community and says through teaching, “I fell in love with the part of black people that isn’t shown, that we don’t even teach.” Newman adds, “I learned who black people were aside from the slang, aside from the athletic culture.”

Newman isn’t the only artist who spoke of difficulties in teaching the arts within the black community. Safiyyah Rasool talked about getting students to reach past hip hop in their dance training. “I think a stereotype for African-American dancers is that the dance style you’re good at is hip hop,” she says. Hip-hop is also a discipline in itself, above and beyond simple street dancing, as Rasool herself found out when she began training. Rasool says the hip-hop-only stereotype is enforced by society’s traditional images of other types of dance. Rasool says kids in the community “don’t see a lot of African Americans doing styles outside of hip hop,” though she added that there are notable exceptions such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Misty Copeland.

Rasool also brought up transportation — a huge issue in access to arts education. She thinks traveling to other communities is great for kids. Some parents have the luxury of seeking out the perfect arts training for their kids, even if it’s across town. Arts education is incredibly varied, and not everything is offered in every neighborhood, even the affluent ones. “There is a barrier for kids that may not have the ability as far as traveling outside of the community, or transportation,” Rasool notes.

Rasool commented on stereotypes within the community only after hesitating. She had reservations about commenting on other difficulties that exist for some African Americans. “[There are] financial barriers that can be a problem within the African-American community, not all … and I hate to speak for … I feel like that’s just a stereotype as well, with the financial barrier.”

Her struggle to acknowledge the problems, while simultaneously fighting the stereotypes, is a difficulty that many have when attempting to discuss the issues that surround the historically underserved African-American community in Louisville. There are issue that must be grappled with year round, not just between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Feb. 28.

With his typical ability to speak hard truths, Lance Newman came right out and pointed to the elephant in the room during our interview, “You’re probably writing this story for Black History Month.” He’s right. But we’ll strive to keep up the fight for equality the other 11 months too.