Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Jen Rouse, Poet & Playwright, Tells Her Story

I have never found writing to be cathartic, but I have always found it to be mine — a form of creating that has never left or been taken from me. And, for that, I am certainly grateful. I did not, however, grow up thinking in words. I grew up thinking in sensory detail —color, texture, light, scent, and sound. I felt everything around me bombarding me with beauty. And, more often than not, pain. 

I was too many times described as overly sensitive. During my childhood and early teens, I created more visual art than written work, but, around the age of 16, I became pretty serious about writing poetry.

The confessional poets inspired me, and learning about Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde, reading their work and hearing them speak, transformed my thinking about how being a lesbian and a poet might be a necessary combination in a political realm that needed strong, inclusive voices. It would take almost 30 years for me to write my way into that realization.

I Paint the Flowers

Now, so many years removed from that formative self, I understand that I just pay attention to all that is around me at a frequency to which very few choose access. More often than not, the intensity of writing often sneaks up on me, whips my brain into a frenzy, and tackles me with a kind of force from which I struggle to recover. 

This means I am not able to write all of the time. It also means I am not someone quick to cower in the face of challenging work or relationships. Consequently, my most recent and best-received writing has centered on the exploration of women — specifically Frida Kahlo and Anne Sexton — who led deeply complicated artistic and (rarely) private lives. Both women were unflinching in their highly charged self-portraits, crafting work that turned the personal into the performative, their intimate truths into shared open wounds. Though these women were certainly not always admirable in their behavior, following and studying the trajectory of their creative lives (and early deaths) has inspired a new kind of fierceness — a sharp, engaged, and energized voice — in my own work.

Frida Filter

But let me tell you, if I seem restless about it all, that’s the truth — I am. And I’ve spent most of my life being terrified of this feeling, so I don’t share it lightly. Because being restless means slamming through boundaries, plumbing the depths, flirting with the moon, getting into ridiculous, and possibly delicious, but, most likely only ridiculous, trouble — all of these things that strong women often do to make good art. Right?! Right. I don’t believe we ever really silence this self. Maybe we push her away. Play dead for a while. If one is lucky — and I am quite lucky — one has friends who know to come around every so often and pull this part of us into the light — with some supervision, of course.


Many of these same friends have helped me find a new way of bringing my work forward in the mix. I’ve written poetry for most of my life, but it’s only in the last few years that I have pursued playwriting. Watching other artists shape and breathe a different kind of beauty into the beings of my plays has been a moving experience for me. 

One of those plays — Conjure: A Cycle in Three Parts — will be fully mounted this fall (directed by Janeve West and produced by Jane Pini of SPT Theatre Co). Conjure has deep meaning — to be bound together by an oath, to plot or exorcize, to feel an obligation and connection to memory and spirit.


The women in this play are fierce and loyal creatures. Their interactions embody all of the definitions of conjure — they are bound together (loyalty to the hive in Honey Song), they break and split apart in loss and acts of art/creation (The Three Fridas), they engage in moments of exorcism from suffering (Hummingbird Girl), and they crave a kind of reconnection to the earth, each other, and themselves. How these women grapple with being creators/artists is critical to each part of Conjure. And within these acts of creating, how they embrace and reject the boundaries of love and belief become major themes in each piece. 
In two weeks I will be 44 years old. I am uncertain. I am constantly batting the questions around. I have no idea what comes next. But I am writing a new play — about all kinds of snakes: snakes in churches and sideshow attractions, and, of course, there’s the kind of snake that will stop you in your tracks just when you think you know that path by heart. The kind of snake that will make you catch your breath and pray. These snakes aren’t all so different, are they? I love not knowing how this play will go — but that it will go.


And maybe someone else will need it as much as I needed to write it. Maybe it will somehow make a small but important difference.  Not that it will make us all feel better. But that it will make us think. I’m counting on it.

Acid and Tender

This is Week 16 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Jen’s story today. To connect with her, hear a clip of her poetry, and read more of her work, please visit the following links:

Video Clip of Avaritia
Instagram: jenlrouse

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Antoine Hunter, Deaf Dancer, Tells His Story

Antoine Hunter - photo credit RJ Muna

Most people assume that I picked dance at an early age to have a dance career but that's not really true. Let me tell you how it all started.

I was born in Oakland, California. I have a hearing family and I was born Deaf. Being an African American Deaf male child was hard. Being Deaf was considered “retarded”. That’s what people called me at a young age. Not my family, but the public did. My family taught me to love who I am and that is what I did. I never let that go. It wasn’t easy.

Before and After - photo credit Matt Haber

I was considered an outcast by both hearing people and Deaf people. Most of the time the Deaf didn't let me in because I wanted to do things hearing people were doing and most Deaf didn’t engage in those same activities because there was no access. Hearing people didn't let me be a part of their community because I couldn't hear them. So the reality was, I didn't have any friends in my life who were truly my friend. I was really lonely. I felt I had no place in the world. I was so sad and even thought about taking my own life. I didn’t, however, because there was something in me saying “If you want something you need to figure out how to get it”.  

In the Silence - photo credit Matt Haber

There were a few times when I went to a summer Deaf camp where I put myself out there to help people and they would become my friend. I learned how to make friends. It would be a nice lovely feeling of having a friend but it only lasted the 2 weeks during the camp. When camp was over, there was no way to stay in touch before cell phones were invented and most of the campers lived far away. At the time, I lived in Oakland and those new friends lived in Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay. That’s really far away from Oakland. So I was lonely, again.

Antoine in Action - photo credit Matt Haber

I was always seeking a way to have a friend. I joined the basketball team and my teammates at my Jr. High School didn't like me at first. I really knew nothing about basketball yet I wanted to play. I really wanted to do what hearing people do. Watching all the guys working together as a team to win was something I wanted to have in my life. I wanted a team of friends. I would start practice on my own at 6 am at my school basketball court. In time, I got very good at basketball and I became one of the important players on the team. My teammates became my friends, solely at school, but it felt good. However, once Jr. High School was over, I was alone once again.

Mr. Hunter & Zula - photo credit Matt Haber

It was time to move on to high school and I had a chance to visit Skyline High School. Yes, that is the same high school Tom Hanks and Grey Payton went to. Many famous people went to that school. It was a huge school and I was worried. I instinctively knew the bigger the school was, the harder it was going to be to make friends. During my visit to Skyline High School, we had a chance to stop by the dance studio. There I saw a black woman saying 5,6,7,8!

The room was sweaty, the students were turning and jumping, and one thing stood out clearly to me ... there were only two guys in dance class! I was thrilled. I thought to myself “well if there’s only one guy or a few guys, these girls would want me to be their friend and be in their dances, or maybe one of them would be my future wife ... wait slow down ... this would be perfect place to find a date.”  I couldn't wait to start my first day of school.

Antoine - photo credit Matt Haber

I won't tell you what year it was but I will tell you it wasn’t the year 2000 yet. Ok, ok, it was 1996! My first dance class I got my sweat gym clothes on and I sat on the floor pushing my legs apart stretching. Trying to do what all these girls were doing. I couldn't help but to daydream which one would be my wife, I mean my best friend. My dance teacher Dawn James walked in, took roll call, introduced herself and began the warm-up. The warm-up was from hell. Mind you, I was already in shape ... don't forget not only am I a basketball player but I’m also a track runner, a bodybuilder and a swimmer.

Dance class was kicking my butt. These girls were able to do way more sit-ups of all kinds. I couldn't keep up. My abs were on fire, just burning. My legs were shaking. They did more pushups than me, and it wasn't even 15 minutes yet. When we got up off the floor, everyone was able to touch the floor and I couldn't get past my knees. Then the dance started. “Jazz square” Dawn James yelled. My mind was spinning in a circle. “Kick ball change” she yelled. I thought, “oh, imagine I am kicking the ball, oh I can do that”. I was catching on. “Hold up, dang! Did you see how high she just kicked her leg? Almost took my head off,” I thought to myself, if I survive but everyone else was looking at me as if i was the weakest link. I guess I was.

Every day I practiced at home everything I learned from dance class at school. I was focused for many months. At one point I could touch the floor while standing with my leg straight. In the past, I couldn't get past my knees. In time, I was getting good, good enough that my classmates started to notice me. Even a few of them started saying hi. Still no real friends yet. One day my teacher said we had to work in group, or duet, or work solo to create a dance. I wanted to work in a group but no one wanted to be in my dance. So I created a solo. It wasn’t a one-day creation. It took weeks to figure out what I wanted to do. I decided to dance to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Antoine with the Musicians - photo credit Matt Haber
When the music started, I began rocking my head side to side as if a boat were rocking me. I grabbed my shoulders as if I were cold and alone in the dark. Then, I let the music take me over, I mean really take over me ... I was moving all over the room. I jumped, I rolled, I slid, I reached, fell, I stood up, I was belonging and I was sweaty. Wait, there is more. During the instrumental break of the song, I began to dance as if lightning, fire, wind, water, and finally the earth were attacking me.

I was all needy, feeling and scared but there was freedom and comfort, like angels were dancing with me. When I finished dancing, everyone had so many different expressions on their faces — even before they clapped. Many people told me that they could understand me and feel me from my dance.

Crowned King at SF 2017 Carnaval! - photo credit Marco Sanchez
From that day forward, I went on to learn other “languages of dance”— like African, ballet, and so much more. Soon I began to teach these languages to others. Dance is so powerful. It’s given me the power to touch lives.

This story was about my first year in school. At the end of the school year, I had really nice friends. Today I have friends all over the world and really good friends. I always say you only need one friend but sometime dance is so powerful it brings more good people into your life. Dance has the power to bring good people in your life.

Antoine Wins the Crown at Carnaval! - photo credit Matt Haber
This is Week 15 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Antoine’s story today. To connect with Antoine, please visit the links below. 
Editor’s note: You can see Antoine’s posts on his Facebook page and you can choose to “follow” him. You just can’t friend him because he is so popular he’s maxed out at Facebook’s 5,000 friend limit (ironic, and fitting given Antoine's early quest to have  even one friend). 
The above photos show Antoine at San Francisco’s 39th Annual Carnaval Competition this past weekend where he was crowned King – Congratulations Antoine! 

Editor's note:  A capital "D" for Deaf epresents and honors Deaf Culture. Details are at:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_cultures 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jim Copening, Chef, Tells His Story

My life began in the Bronx, New York. When I was 2, my parents decided they wanted my siblings and I to grow up outside of the big city, so they loaded all 5 kids in the back of the car and drove out to California. We settled in the beautiful city of San Luis Obispo with its wineries, farms, sand dunes on Pismo Beach, and green rolling hills reminiscent of the Mediterranean region. It was here that I developed a passion for music and became a bass player. After living in San Francisco with my brother (a drummer) and other musicians, we moved back to New York City. I remained there for the next 30 years. 

I found New York alive with food and music from all over the world. At first, I worked in a few bands, as a studio musician, supplementing my income with work as a server in a New York landmark restaurant called Sweets, which was founded in 1842. 

Sweets was a family-run fine seafood establishment located at the South Street Seaport right across the street from the Fulton Fish Market. It was there that I learned about “old world” preparation and presentation of fresh fish. They used cracker crumbs to coat the fish and then clarified butter, before broiling and then baking it. The fish and seafood was as fresh as you can get, coming from across the street at the Fulton Fish Market every day.  The food was old fashioned New England style and delicious. If the market was closed, the restaurant was closed.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Part of my life in New York was dining in fine restaurants, learning about fine cuisine from chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Terrence Brennan at Picholine and Gabriel Kruther at the Modern.  In subsequent years I worked at Esca, a Mario Batali restaurant with David Pasternak, chef; Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain, and Bill Telepan’s Telepan, an artisanal restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Thai Curry Soup

I got to know these chefs by frequently dining in their restaurants. I asked them a lot of questions about food ingredients and preparation and they were excited to share their trade “secrets.” The chefs directed me to purveyors for spices, condiments, and other ingredients, sharing their recipes, tools, and techniques. I was fascinated by everything about preparing fine cuisine. I didn’t just want to eat it, I wanted to make it and discovered that I had a talent for cooking.

Lamb Tagine

My confidence as a Chef came from Susan, my wife at the time, and Patrick Pinon at Sardi’s Restaurant, where I worked for 15 years, who inspired me to cook professionally. They taste-tested my food and encouraged me to nurture my talents as a chef. I started to read cookbooks and watched the Food Network (introduced in 1993) and cooked for whomever would try out my culinary creations (it wasn’t hard to find guinea pigs). I trained myself this way for more than 10 years. In 2010 I attended the French Culinary Institute for formal training.

I was also strongly influenced by the ethnic cuisines in New York City.  The flavors of India, Thailand, the Mideast, China, Mexico and Latin America were found in restaurants and street corners throughout Manhattan. My culinary style of combining world flavors with techniques of fine cuisine had emerged. 

Donna and Jim

In 2006, I met my current wife, Donna Slawsky. We had a lot in common, both being musicians and artists. Donna had lived in New York City all her life and was ready for a change. I’d been in New York for 30 years and also needed to escape the hustle, bustle, and incredibly fast pace of the city. We lived in the West Village for a few years before beginning to explore possible places to resettle. 

Sarasota, Florida was appealing because of its arts scene and its location on the Gulf of Mexico. We started vacationing in the area and decided it was where we wanted to live. One day, while staying on Anna Maria Island, Donna found an ad for the Village of the Arts.  She wanted to visit, being an avid art lover. We actually met Brenda Smoak at her gallery there on that first visit. We’d been looking for real estate as a possible investment and found a little cottage in the center of the Village of the Arts with a beautiful backyard space that was for sale. It was being rented out as a residence at the time. We bought the house with the goal of opening a restaurant and gallery sometime in the future.

Arts & Eats in the Village of the Arts

In 2012, we began the renovation of the cottage at 1114 12th St. West in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts with the goal of opening a restaurant that served my cuisine and displayed the work of local artists and Donna’s mosaics.

Jim Jamming with Local Musicians

The rest is history. Arts & Eats Restaurant and Gallery has been open now for 4 ½ years and has received glowing reviews. I’m so fortunate to have the chance to use years of self and formal training to create international dishes for our guests. Our menu features dishes from all over the world including Morocco, Japan, Italy, China, the Mideast, Thailand, and India. We want to introduce our guests to the flavors we experienced in New York and make them feel like they’re dining in our home. 

Thanks to Brenda Smoak for this opportunity to share my story.  Food is love and art. Live. Love. Eat.

Asian Sampler

This is Week 14 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Jim’s story today. To connect with him, please visit the following links: