Talking with John and Martin about their 33-year journey together made it clear that walking down the road of life hand-in-hand with another person can lead to taking unexpected paths.
This is part of my series, Love and Marriage, interviewing and painting long standing same-sex couples. To see the rest of the series so far, visit the Gallery I have here.
Martin: Two years ago, when there was the opportunity in California to get married, John said, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but what about going out to California to get married?”
John: That was on our 30th anniversary. We’d been thinking about getting married ever since Massachusetts made it legal, but we hesitated. Like a lot of things that we do together, we had to grow into the idea of getting legally married.
Martin: There was no real reason to get married. We had been domestic partners since New York City started that.
John: But that was for a practical reason. I work for the city, and Martin could get my health insurance benefits if we were domestic partners. We didn’t make a big romantic thing about the domestic partnership. I think it was also part of the whole process of my coming out. Like at work: when Martin’s mother died, I said I was taking bereavement leave and the secretary had to verify our domestic partnership. At work, they probably surmised that I was gay, but I didn’t discuss it. I worked in city government, which was very blue collar and very racially diverse and there were probably a lot of people that would be very much against gay people or a gay couple. So this was part of my very slow coming out process.
A year or two after that I changed jobs and I made a conscious decision that I was going to be very out. So I went into this office which was composed of a lot of police officers and civilians and I was very out about it and it was absolutely fine. There was absolutely no problem.
Martin: I had a different past, I was in the arts, I was in photography and I did theater work, so my whole adult career I’ve been around gay people and they knew I was gay and in that world it didn’t matter to me. When we moved to this neighborhood 11 years ago, I was a little bit nervous about moving together into a house, into a mixed race, primarily African American, neighborhood and I didn’t know how we’d be accepted. Well, from day one, from day minus one -- before we even moved in -- people were talking to us, friendly to us, including us in their families, their celebrations. We have an annual pot luck party that I started 10 years ago and we have anywhere from 70 to 80 people here every year, and those are gay, straight, black, white, all from within this neighborhood; it’s a very, very close neighborhood. When we got married last year, well, we had a lot of neighbors come.
John: We had a reception party at our church here.
Martin: Two new neighbors, a husband and wife from the next block, convinced us that we should have one. We had over 40 neighbors from the neighborhood come besides our family and friends. So I’d say that people have accepted us, and who we are.
John: About a dozen or so years ago, I started going to church again. I hadn’t really gone very much except at Christmas and Easter for a long time, but as you get more mature you start thinking more about spiritual things. When I started going to an Episcopal church in Brooklyn Heights, I thought there would be more gays there and it was a little bit of a disappointment that there weren't that many. Some gays choose to be in a totally gay world, and only have gay friends, go to gay churches, the whole thing. But Martin and I have chosen to be more out in the general community, as well has having a lot of gay friends, certainly.
Martin: Since society is not gay or straight, if you want to live in society you’ve got to be part of it. I know some people that only do gay things and only go to gay churches, their whole life is revolving around gay groups, gay organizations, gay everything and I don’t need that and I don’t like that. I do some gay things, but not exclusively.
John: My church is a very liberal congregation, and one year I suggested that the priest talk about upcoming Gay Pride. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great idea!” I said, “I don’t know how people might feel about that.” He said, “Who cares?”
So I was outing myself a bit, and of course he did mention it. He was straight, but very pro gay rights, and later on Grace Church participated in the Gay Pride Parade for the first time and we’ve done it ever since.
Martin: We’ve gotten into a lot of causes which have really solidified our relationship, like when John went on a Witness trip to Israel and Palestine, which I wasn't open to it at first.
John: It was a Witness trip organized by a retired Episcopal priest and his wife and an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group which helps the community of Palestinians to fight against the occupation in a peaceful, in a nonviolent way. Like Liberation Theology, using the Christian principles to liberate themselves. So anyway, they organize these trips with typical Christian pilgrimages to the holy sites, as well as meetings with Israeli people in the peace movement, and Palestinian officials and Palestinian people and we would travel in the West Bank to see the effects of the occupation, the settlements, and the separation wall.
Martin: I didn’t go with John. I had been in Israel 30, 40 years ago, when I went to live on a kibbutz for a year. My family were Zionists involved with the founding of Israel. So there was a history there. When John first talked about going, for about 10 minutes I thought of going with him. And then I said, “It’s too Christian, too Palestinian, I don’t think I can do it.” So I didn’t go. He went, and we had our annual Passover Seder two days after he returned -- we do a big Seder here.
I still thought that anything that Israel did was probably right, and these Palestinians were setting bombs off in Israel and they had to be stopped.
Two years later, John was going on the same Witness trip again. This time, I thought about it and I said, “I’ll go, but I’m going as a hostile witness.”
On the third day there, in the middle of the night I woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning, and I said, “I get it, I really get this,” because I had been humiliated the day before by the Israelis, who thought I was a Palestinian.
I lost my luggage when I first arrived and I had to go back to the airport in Jerusalem, and I went with a Palestinian taxi driver. I sat up front with him and we were held at a checkpoint, and I watched all the Israelis being allowed back into the airport. They held us for only a half hour, where some Palestinians are held for hours and days, and during that half hour I watched the Israeli soldiers drink their coffee, read their paper, and not to come over to ask us who we were, or what we were doing. We just had to sit there and wait. And it was a little bit of a humiliation.
When I started hearing Palestinians tell their stories in the next few days in all these meetings, I started to realize, “Hey, I know what they’re feeling, I know exactly what they mean, because I experienced that two days ago.” And before the end of the trip, I had changed and realized that it’s a human rights issue. Yes, the suicide bombings had stopped after they put up the separation wall, but maybe that was because the Palestinians stopped sending them, and not just because of the separation wall.
So I came back from the trip a changed person, and again, we were having a Passover Seder about a week later and I looked at what we usually talk about, about being the oppressed people by the Egyptians and all that, and I said, “Whoa,” and I threw out everything we ever said and I rewrote the whole Seder.
John: I just remembered what led me into going to Israel, why I started to feel the way I did: it was after Katrina.
Martin: We started going down to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, to help rebuild. We’ve been down there nine times. We started to see how the government was not doing anything and I think that’s why I eventually went to Israel.
John: As I became more religious and all that, I started thinking of wanting to give back to the world, and the idea of adopting a child has somewhat appealed to me, although it’s also quite daunting, but when I mention it to Martin he always says...
Martin: First we have to have a dog...first let’s deal with a dog.
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, for today's Wall Street Journal. I always work in color for them and then they convert the art to grayscale if need be for print; this time, though, I thought it best to leave it in stark black and white.
Blogging can be a way for people to have their voices heard and their stories told to a very wide audience, but in some parts of the world it can also be a matter of life and death. On March 18, 2009, Iranian blogger Omid Reza Mir Sayafi died in prison in Tehran, after being arrested for his blog writings, which the authorities said were insulting to religious leaders and spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I was contacted by the organizers of the March 18 Movement, which was created in his memory and promotes freedom of speech, to do a poster for them. Here’s a link to their site and more information about their group, as well as a link to their facebook page.
Some woodcutty things I’ve done lately. There’s a great sense of freedom for me when I work in this way: it’s much more forgiving than painting, I can take more liberties with the interpretation of the characters, and there’s something very liberating about taking a more graphic approach.
I guess I could sum it up by saying I like it lots.
Above is for a Christian Science Monitor book review of The Bridge, David Remnick’s bio of Obama. The faces pictured inside Obama are some of the people that the reviewer cites as having played an important role in who and where Obama is:
Martin Luther King
Rev Joseph Lowery
Below, there's a new sheriff in town, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. The deputies pictured behind her are Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith and assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, David Michaels. For The Nation. Been getting a lot of print requests for this one; she has fans!
Composer Garrett Fisher for The Wall St Journal
And economist Gary Becker for The Wall St Journal this past weekend.
One of the best things about Drawger is the friendships I’ve made, and one of the closest of those is with Frances Jetter. Drawger also sparked my series of profiles of illustrators, and I’ve always felt it wasn’t quite complete without Frances, a deficiency I’m finally remedying.
“My family worked in factories and my grandfather was a clothing workers union organizer. After I became an illustrator and was working for The Nation, he told me that around 1910 he spilled acid on cloth in shops that were open seven days a week. We are very pro-union in my family.
“When I was in high school I saw an issue of Ramparts at a friend’s house, with an article about Napalm in Viet Nam, and the first political piece I ever did was a portrait of a Vietnamese mother and baby. This was during the Viet Nam war.
“I didn’t want to go to a collegey-type place -- that was my protest -- so I went to Parsons for graphic design, not really knowing what graphic design was.
“The teacher that had the most influence on me, in the first year there, considered graphic design to be a mixture of illustration and problem solving. So it wasn’t the corporate-identity type thing --that didn’t interest me -- it was about coming up with ideas. Sometimes I built things and sometimes I did linoleum cuts, or other kinds of prints, but anything was welcome. We also worked with type, and I got to like type then, but I really liked solving problems with images.
“Later on, I majored in photography, because the photography teacher, Larry Fink, was the most interesting person and did the most interesting work. Then I studied with his teacher, Lisette Model, at the New School. She was very old then and she was very scary: very tiny and terrifying. She was ferocious. Really a unique person and tough and interesting.
“At one point I had a work study job involving taking pictures in prisons and mental hospitals. It was for an organization called Hospital Audiences which sent the entertainment to institutions. They sent good entertainment to the prisons and some ridiculous entertainment to the mental hospitals; they sent Charles Mingus to the Queen’s House of Detention. They were actually very afraid of what might happen with some of the prison audiences, because they didn’t have enough guards there, so they weren’t going to send them anyone boring.
“But for the mental hospitals ... I remember a performance where dancers had nude body suits on ... a really pretentious piece.
“I was supposed to take pictures of the audiences as they watched the performances, but then somebody in charge of the volunteers said, ‘You could end up here as easily as any of the people -- any of us could -- and would you like your picture taken here?’
“That got in the way of my taking pictures. Not just there, but in general, because it’s capturing someone when he or she may not want to be captured. I don’t view it as something wrong, but I started to think it was questionable to photograph a person in a mental hospital. And I missed drawing also, I guess, so I didn’t follow photography.
“I started to focus on linoleum cuts when I was showing my work around -- this was when you could still get appointments with art directors -- and one of the art directors selected one of my linoleum cut prints and said, That would show up best in my magazine. So I was hired for that place.
“I don’t know at what point I decided I wanted to work for The New York Times to do editorial work. I worked with the Book Review for awhile, which was pleasurable, but I really wanted hardcore political things. I was also working for the Ideas and Trends section of the Week in Review, which were softer articles. I think that’s the kind of things women were given.
“In my head, you could be one of the boys if you did the hardcore political things. Now I see that there was probably more freedom in some of the softer pieces.
“I didn’t want interference from a very young age. I thought it was a right not to have what you do interfered with, in any way. I don’t know where I got that from, but I thought that making these pictures was the best thing to do with your life. I was very bothered by even tiny interferences – I wanted my things to be left alone.
“I think I always had the feeling that it’s Us against Them, that it’s workers against management, and that management is the bad guys and that things aren’t equal.
“What I liked about editorial work is that I could make the subject matter my own and that I pick parts that I could relate to. The whole idea of playing with things and turning them upside down and finding what the article really meant ... plus the reading part was always the most fun.
“I spent lot of time reading the encyclopedia and I’d see if there were words or images in the reference material; that part was just delightful. And then playing with things and seeing the connections; when you’re really looking and you’re not nervous, you see how things connect to one another.
“By reading those articles, I became more interested in politics and social issues. I guess I’ve always been sort of angry or aggressive or looking for a fight and I think that fit in well with some of the political subject matter. For me it was having some feeling for the underdog as well as being somebody who is pissed off and rebelling because someone else is in control.
“I’d use up all the time doing sketches. I could go through one and a half pads of tracing paper doing sketches, trying to get the expression on the face and in the hands just right. At a certain point, if I’d been up all night, I’d decide, ‘Well, this has to do,’ because the piece was due in a few hours.
“Sometimes, when I handed in an illustration after being up the whole night, I’d be up the next night thinking of what should have been done with the color or what could have been better and really feeling miserable about it. And agonizing over it when it was in print.
“And then if it was something that was killed, then I’d be more in love with it than ever, because it would be like this dead thing that wasn’t realized or appreciated. If too many people like one of my pieces, I’m immediately suspicious.
“It’s different now that I’m doing almost no illustration or what I’m doing is not for a client; whether you call it fine art or illustration, I don’t really need to define that. But I’m doing it without someone interfering.
“I just finished a book about torture. It’s called Cry Uncle. It was largely based on what went on at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and some secret CIA prisons. It’s a picture book with some words in it. It’s a large format book -- the images are 18 by 24 -- and it’s hand printed. It has letter-pressed type; the type mattered to me as much as the images, as well as how the book itself how looked and felt.
“I wanted the paper to feel like skin on the cover. It’s got the words done in letter press, pressed in, and the paper is sort of fleshy looking and wrinkled, it’s paper from Nepal, and it looks like skin. Some of the other papers are from banana leaves and there’s something very much like human skin about the paper.
“The paper is also translucent, so you see everything that has come before, when you’re looking at the pages. It’s in an accordion fold -- and unraveled, about 40 feet long.
“It’s a very interpretive book, it’s based on what they did and my visceral reaction to it, because what they did was so appalling. In most cases they had a list of things they could do to the prisoner that wouldn’t leave physical scars, but it was intended to make somebody crazy. It’s not like they could even get information out of somebody after this kind of torture.
“Some of the descriptions of what they did were so disgusting that I’d realize that I was making the face myself, of someone who is being victimized. I think to get the feeling into the piece, you have to be reacting to what’s going on in it.
“In working on the book, there was a weird mixture of feeling disgusted over what went on and feeling really excited about making the pieces. I’ve always felt a little bit of guilt about that, because I was always doing things about tragedies and wars and illnesses.
“I love the idea of doing books. I’m planning another book that I started even before this one. But in between I’m going to be working on some other things. We’ll see.“
The telecoms are fighting hard to preserve their ability to control the flow of traffic on the Internet. But many people and tech companies are afraid that the local telephone companies, which own almost all the wire that connects homes and business to the Internet, will begin to throttle or even pull the plug on traffic they don't want -- traffic like streaming music and movies, or internet phone systems, or peer-to-peer file sharing. They could impose tiered services, in which they could sell companies that need the Internet better service than those who cannot or will not pay. And they could simply block the traffic of competitors, or anyone else.
The FCC is considering "net neutrality" rules to prevent that sort of thing and to make sure that all web content is available to everyone on equal terms.
Of course the phone companies deny any intention to do evil, but then why are they so up in arms and lobbying with all their might to block the regulation? Enter Ernestine's replacement, operator "One Ringy Dingy" McCain.
McCain, who admitted to not knowing the difference between a Mac and PC and doesn't even use email, is happy to help the telecoms pull any plug they want. On Oct 22nd he introduced legislation to give telecoms the right to decide how you access information. Or don't access it.
Battling net neutrality (and pulling plugs) comes with a price, it would appear, since McCain is the single biggest recipient of campaign donations from the telecom industry, having gotten $894,379...so far.
All his life, Parker has been dreaming of the day he gets a standing ovation inside the Shubert theater he stands outside of.
Here's what he fancies Variety will have to say:
"After Parker ankled as the headliner in last season's boffo hit, the B.O. went from socko to floppo. Now he's back on Broadway, topliner at the whammo tuner at the Shubert and is rumored to be on his way to H'w'd. Anything Parker's in has legs -- except Parker, of course."*
Bill Salter on upright bass, Norris Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer and vocals, David Gibson on washboard (yes, those are shotgun shell casings on his fingers) and Henrique Prince on fiddle and vocals.
In Grand Central station on the shuttle platform, New York City commuters can be transported to a world of down-home celebration by the Ebony Hillbillies. When I asked Henrique Prince, the fiddle player and vocalist, to talk about what he calls Old Time music, he had a lot of history to share.
"I discovered a number of years ago the rhythmic possibilities of violin music, that there's a whole element of dance music to it. I love dance. I thought it would be wonderful to put together a band that did this old time kind of music, which is the truncation point of both country music and jazz. So I wanted to go back to that point where it was this wild sort of banjo fiddle music and had all this improvisation.
"No white man played a banjo before about 1820. The banjo comes from Africa and the original idea was that the slaves that were packed together on the ships used to die. It was believed that if they danced, it would keep their spirits up, but they wouldn’t dance to European music. So they captured, especially in the Gambia, iriti players -- an iriti is a one-stringed African fiddle.
"There's also the akonting, an instrument from Ghana, which is very similar in appearance to a banjo. It has a bridge on a skin made out of a big gourd, and a long neck and it has a short string also. So they captured akonting or ngoni players, and iriti players and they tied them to the deck. And the Africans would dance to that music for exercise to survive.
"So these people got to the New World and eventually they would make the instruments here, out of gourds. There's a famous picture of a black banjo player by William Sydney Mount, a Long Island painter who painted a lot of black people. Anyway, the African musicians got here and the music got transferred to Europeans, among them some who were living in the mountains, King Williams people --the hillbillies -- and eventually the hillbillies took it for their own.
"Banjo playing goes back to the 1600s, and they were playing them with fiddle players. There are accounts of people seeing this in the 18th Century. Slaves lived close to the master and white people started picking up and getting closer to it and learning it.
"By the 19th Century, there began to be white banjo players. Dan Emmett was a white banjo player, lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, near the family of black banjo players, and he probably picked it up there. He probably learned the song, Dixie, which he was given credit for, from them. He was the first guy to take burned cork and put it on his face, and he had a band, basically recreating African American music on stage and it was all minstrel, black-faced thing.
"I learned Bach early and I just liked everything on fiddle. I sort of learned how to do it and didn’t know what it was. And over a period of time, I just learned more and started to track down things and I found out about Murph Gribble who was a player in a string bands in Eastern Tennessee in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Gribble, John Lusk, Nathan Frazier, these are all black players and the music was well known and well recorded by black bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, and a lot of string bands and jug bands, like Earl McDonald -- the guy who discovered you can make music in a jug, instead of a bass.
"All that music comes out of the black players. What happened was they were on black record companies and in the ‘20s, when The Depression happened, all those companies failed. And they never came back. But white companies came back and they segregated the music. They would only record white country players, and wouldn’t record black country bands; the only black players they recorded were those who did the blues. And that’s why the music’s been sort of segregated ever since.
"Tunes like The Yellow Rose of Texas, which was originally about a light skinned black woman, is a song out of a black minstrel show. But nobody associates that anymore.
"The earliest improvisational music in America is black banjo and fiddle music. The jazz band is centered around a banjo and a fiddle player. All of the earliest jazz bands had at the center a violin and banjo. In fact, Elmer Snowden, the guy who originally had the Washingtonians before Duke Ellington took over, was a banjo player. Snowden was the same name, by the way, of the black family of musicians who lived near Dan Emmett in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, that he learned from.
"But the later Snowden, I don’t think is related. Anyway, Elmer Snowden was originally the leader of the Washingtonians, so it was very common for there to be banjo players and washboard players in jazz bands. Then, as the music got louder, as it got more modern, they kicked the banjo and the fiddle players out."
"If I could tell you what I feel about playing this music, I wouldn’t need to play it. Music does all that stuff that you can’t say."
This is part of my Overlooked New York series of portraits and interviews with impassioned New Yorkers.