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Interview: Kevin Jerome Everson - Contemporary American Artist and 'Black Filmmaker'

Shadow and Act By Terri Francis | Shadow and Act January 21, 2014 at 5:29PM

A Kevin Everson film combines archival, scripted, reenacted, and documentary elements for a look and feel that is sophisticated and no-nonsense like the artist himself. He’s made over 100 films and still cookin. Last year the Alpert Foundation and the California Institute of the Arts recognized his unique artistic vision with a 2012 Cal Arts/Alpert Award, an honor that has been held by such luminaries as Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall and Suzan-Lori Parks. 
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Terri: When I saw that Century was playing at Sundance (2013), somehow that meant something to me. Like, oh! You had arrived and that other people outside of our friends would know who you were.

Kevin: Oh yeah? (laughing)

Terri: You know what I mean? And if I would talk about you Sundance would be the bridge connecting your abstract, experimental filmmaking to the worlds of African American and independent filmmaking.

Kevin: Yeah, people always say, oh well, he screens at Sundance so...

Terri: It’s comforting.

Kevin: I think here at UVA they had a list of the 10 most popular or famous professors and I was number 7 and it said he shows at Sundance and Berlin and all that. Julian Bond was number 1, Rita Dove was 3 and I was above a couple of astronauts so… I kinda like that.  Hey, going up in space don’t mean shit [inaudible]! …I’d rather go to space. I’m dying to go up in space.

Terri: You’re a black experimental filmmaker. Maybe that’s already like being in outer space.

Kevin: Pretty fucking spacey.  Me and Cauleen Smith. My man Christopher Harris, and who else? I have a student who’s rock-starring it out now – Adoma Owusu. She’s a fucking rock star.

Terri: She is.

Kevin: She’s in Berlin this year. I’m so excited for her.

Terri: And she’s always citing you as her teacher.

Kevin: Ah, she can move on, man. She’s a rock star. I ain’t got nothing to do with that. I stood in the way. I held her back probably for years.

Terri: From knowing the two of you I see what you have in common is the work ethic. You do your work in a matter-of-fact way. This is who you are and you just get up and do it. Like it’s work. It’s not this artistic drama.

Kevin: I teach that. At the end of the day you gotta make some shyiit.

Terri: Yeah.

Kevin: I remember one time I was at Cal Arts years ago. It’s my 5th or 6th time there doing a workshop coming up this March. One time I was there I was surrounded by all these black artists - - some photo, painting, film, and stuff, and these cats were telling me you know the art world is racist and we can’t make no mark. I said, shyiit. You better get yo ass up and make some fucking art. This school is $18,000 a minute. You better be making some art. I don’t give a---That shit ain’t got nothing to do with you. You better make some art. You can’t trust nobody.

Terri: Where does your own work ethic come from?

Kevin: I’m from the Midwest! I have to work for a living! Every day I gotta put in 8 hours regardless of whether I teach or not. I gotta put in 8.  If I don’t put in 8 doing something I feel guiltier than a muthafucker boy. That’s that Puritanical midwestern black American working class bullshit. I feel guilty for taking naps still. When I was in Rome I would always feel guilty for taking naps … took me five months to get over that.  You gotta make something. I always think I’m lazy and that I don’t work hard enough.

Terri: Wait, you’re the most—one of the most prolific filmmakers ever! What were you doing in Rome?

Kevin: I got a Rome Prize about 12 or 11 years ago.

Terri: And what kind of work came out of that?

Kevin: That was my last body of photo work—I was still doing photo at the time.  I made about 5 or 6 films. About immigrants. Nigerians… I was hanging out with all these Nigerians and cats from the Congo…yeah it was cool.

Terri: Tell me about that – the transition from still photography to motion pictures.

Kevin: It’s the same. It’s still art making. Things last longer. Duration. I don’t use a tripod. People ask me why I don’t use a tripod. Because I’m a photographer man. I’m a street photographer.  I feel like it’s going to hunker me down so… the camera’s shaky cuz I’m looking cuz I’m ready to move and groove so that’s it.  I guess that’s my excuse for not using the tripod. From all around the world that’s the first thing they ask me.  Don’t care where I’m at Switzerland or Germany. Well I got ‘em but I’m a street photographer so I think that has a lot to do that. I’m trying to find the action.

Terri: Interesting to hear you say that because when I was getting ready to talk to you this morning one of the thoughts I had about your films –

Kevin: Which one?

Terri: Actually a general impression is the sense that it’s a photograph-- like continual stillness.

Kevin: Yeah but that could be a crutch.  I remember when I was young doing photo. I remember looking at these Robert Frank films and nothing moves and I just thought man you gotta move that camera.  It’s weird cuz they were taking photographs with film but I think you’ve gotta have stuff moving. That’s why I like to stay athletic, following people. Moving the camera around. I love walking behind people.

Terri: A lot of your films sort of trace work processes.

Kevin: Because it’s all about movement.

Terri; Yeah, now that you said that about not using the tripod I get it.

Kevin: It’s always the backstory that I think is interesting. If you see like a 35-year-old black female working, then I think you’ve gotta add some narrative to it—maybe a heterosexual narrative with her husband, home. At least I do. I look through the viewfinder and I’m adding this narrative to it.

Terri: Narrative isn’t something I would associate with your films.

Kevin: No, they’re all narratives.

Terri: What?

Kevin: Yeah, they’re three act plays.

Terri: Are you the only one that thinks that?

Kevin: Yeah, of course. Well, I don’t know what people think. Like I’m always asked this question about audience. Man, I’m a sculptor. You show up, you walk around it and walk away. Although I do know when the audience is going to be extremely bored and when they’re excited so I put these sort of formal elements in it.  For longer films I’m looking at the timeline and how long they’re going sit there and watch this shit. Not really… but they’re totally narrative art. You’ve got a beginning, middle and end.

Terri: I noticed on the Sundance list you’re in this category called New Frontier Films.

Kevin: Yeah I’m always in that.

Terri: Yeah that’s a great title. It’s a way of not saying avant-garde, which might be off-putting.

Kevin: I don’t mind the title new frontier. I think that’s the only program I’ve ever been in. One year I was in a documentary program and actually two of the documentaries that were in my program were nominated for Academy awards.

Terri: Is there an Academy award category for experimental film?

Kevin: No just short live action. I’ve never seen nothing like that.


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