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Animal Teef at the Black Book Sessions
Rewriting the books
Eyapaha Today Correspondent
PINE RIDGE - Every Tuesday, from 4:00 - 6:00 p.m. at the Pine Ridge Gospel Mission, an idea born from a custom of hip-hop style illegal graffiti art is shaping a more hopeful outlook for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The tradition of "black book sessions" originates from a practice of artists in the subway graffiti movement of 1970's New York City in which "writers" would meet at locations undisclosed to the public and share sketchbooks full of their ideas with their peers, collect tags from widely respected practitioners, and learn new techniques. Their outlaw ritual has since evolved into a worldwide artistic phenomenon that serves as the visual hallmark of "hip-hop" as a culture rather than just a genre of music.
The artist known as Calico, owner of Pine Ridge-based screen printing and design business Lakota Art Studio, is attempting to borrow the synergistic, community-oriented elements of street art culture and hopefully shed the criminal and marginalized connotations that have been previously assigned to such unregulated popular art movements.
When asked if he is concerned about appearing to advocate vandalism by organizing a black book session, he responded, "I have no concern at all, I'm more focused on getting more visual creativity out from people. I've seen where graffiti has actually destroyed property. Not to say someone's house was burned down, but when the art form is used to show hate or destroy someone's property that they worked hard for, I see that as vandalism. What I'm trying to influence is using the art in a better way."
Seeing the successful public involvement facilitated by black book sessions in Rapid City, Calico has decided to bring the idea home. "The Find A Way collective has black book sessions in Rapid at the Dahl, every Tuesday like our event. I always wanted to go up there to make a few of the sessions but it was just too far at times. So I decided to start a chapter down here," he explains.
He is quick to note, however, that all types of art are welcomed in the program. To date, attendees have ranged from those with fine arts degrees to pre-teens who are just starting to express themselves with the visual arts and all levels of skill and training in between. Even a cursory glance down the folding tables yields examples of graffiti art, cartooning, abstract doodles, pasted collages, and all manner of classical illustrations in ink, pencil, pastel and charcoal. The de facto motto of the program seems to be along the lines of "If you created it, we definitely want to see it."
The start of these events in Pine Ridge has also led to increased connectivity with attendees in Rapid City. Social media allows for artists in both cities to view each other's sketches, thus allowing for an even greater sharing of ideas as well as a healthy sense of competition and solidarity in each respective community.
Already, young artists are being given a broader sense of unsanctioned art as it exists in their region along with a liberal dose of encouragement for every moment of awe and wonder that crops up when new images flash across familiar screens. In a way that, for Pine Ridge at least, is unusually free of indoctrination, hidden agendas, and attempts at currying whatever kind of favor.
People of all ages and backgrounds are invited to share a common artistic interest from previously impossible distances and on their own terms. As the idea of public black book sessions begins to take hold in other cities and states which possess the same capability to stay aware of one another electronically, it is apparent that any kind of limit to the creative growth potential in these "unofficial" artists would be difficult to establish as yet.
The artists themselves are also aware of this dynamic and its roots in the tradition of a less filtered kind of art. A vibrant overtone of creative empowerment can be conversationally gleaned from the mindsets of walk-in participants in the program.
One such participant, Manuel Marshall, had this to say regarding the value of graffiti and street art culture and how its rebellious nature can affect society in a positive way: "It's important because it's not controlled by corporations and laws; it's real art, a genuine expression, an emotional expression, one that makes people think about their place in the world and helps them to feel like part of a group. It makes them think, 'Am I really doing anything with my life?'"
These revelations seem to conjure up an ideal of placing control of the visual world in the hands of people who do not hold political office, who do not own media outlets, whose perspectives have not been lent an "official" degree of clout; people who are concerned with preserving their humanity in a world that, despite the fact that strangers are broadcasting their most personal moments at literally all hours of the day, feels increasingly anti-social for many living in it. What makes these sessions worth attending, truly, is their organic and honest approach to familiarizing people with themselves via the sharing of that "self."
Calico is looking for sponsors to help provide art supplies and recruit artists for presentations regarding technique and theory in various genres and mediums of art. To make a donation or for further questions, he asks that you contact Lakota Art Studio online or by phone. He also is hoping for greater attendance of the sessions despite the fair numbers he sees already, stating, "I'm glad to see some have showed up, and I hope it catches on or even just continues to keep up its pace. This is something that I don't want to see fade out."
Remaining hopeful for the future of the program, he adds that the real hallmark of the sessions is, "...the energy you get when you leave the sessions. You gain hope that there is something like this going on, living and breathing. That energy keeps you focused on being more creative and also gives hope that using that creativity is worth the time you put into it."
I confess that when I set out to write this article, what I had envisioned as the result was a blow stricken against the common criticisms of people who support, create, and enjoy graffiti and street art. It was going to be glorious; a celebratory shout of stolen freedom, spoken with conviction to the innermost reaches of our human need to feel like we're present and relevant in the world around us.
However, when time came to start the leg work of facilitating awareness of the global culture of hip-hop, an interesting thing happened: I became aware that what was taking place at these black book sessions was more than the sharing of graffiti skills, techniques, and theories. In fact, a significant portion of the attendees weren't being pulled in by promises of outlines, fills, hand styles, throw-ups, or pieces at all. What I saw certainly was not the writers' bench from the classic 1983 documentary by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant, "Style Wars." Rather, the appeal of this event was simply that in a place as historically depressed as Pine Ridge, free of charge and open to the public, was a safe, universally accepting environment where teaching and learning took place effortlessly, encouragement abounded, and creativity of any type or skill level made for the only art supply anyone was required to bring along.
More remarkable than that, people were having stimulating conversations with friends as well as complete strangers over the din of break beats and raps, remaining completely engaged with them yet never really looking up from their papers. Concepts like age, gender, and economic status made no apparent difference in the way the opinions of individuals were understood or respected.
Also, the topics of discussion seemed not to stray into gossip or posturing - mostly, they started out with, "Whatcha drawing?" From there, the talk evolved rather fluidly into philosophical exchanges about the transformative power of combined kinetic energy, among other things. Graffiti-style sharing of sketchbook designs, normally an event that arouses more legal suspicion than public praise, had expanded into more of a Zen space for self-expression with a noticeable street art influence than a graffiti symposium for hardcore writers conducted by a guy with a mask on.
As I'm sure you can imagine, I had to change the way I was going to write about the Pine Ridge sessions themselves. I've since decided that, as a devotee of hip-hop, I do believe an instance where a diversified version of one of the oldest traditions of my adopted global culture, one previously a total unknown to most of the people who happen to show up, can bring together residents of a poverty-stricken and embattled community to empower one another in a perfect manifestation of the culture's original and ultimate purpose is worth reporting.
(Contact Animal Teef at: email@example.com)
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