I said I was gonna be an artist, and they let me…

It is entirely too easy to slip into the delusion of thinking ourselves individual, separate and qualitatively different. Sometimes we can even be driven to that thinking and defend it as our corner of the marketplace.

With others this COVID year, I have had the opportunity to reduce distractions and reflect. Add to that, some recent success has led me to revisit self-doubt, which can often invite-in the lie that I am alone. That said, I am deeply indebted to some teachers whose names ought to be repeated. 

Photo of Phillis Mae Austin, 1968. Banner image “Untitled” by Phillis Mae Austin

Phillis Mae Austin (1929-2002) was my first teacher. She was a folk artist; a tinkerer with a deep sense of her place in a community. My auntie whom–from her personal underground–would create with crushed egg shells, glitter, metallic paint pens, Black praying hands and flowers. I would sit alongside her. Watch. Listen. And be scrutinized. 

Poet and visual artist George Roberts taught English at North High. I was a student there. George (as we called him) had a reputation for being an individual. “English” was really an invitation to music, art, meditation, fresh cut flowers and whatever else he could use to reach us…like Jacob Lawrence’s paintings and Susanne K. Langer’s Problems of Art (1957). After retiring from teaching at North, George opened Homewood Studios near his home in North Minneapolis. Where he makes things in community.

By Peyton Scott Russell

Master graffiti artist (“King” in graffiti vernacular) Peyton Scott Russell was my next teacher. He was a student of visual artist Seitu Ken Jones. After graduating from North High in the 1980s, Peyton did his schooling at Art Institute of Chicago and would cosign my affection for Zen, modern art icons and Prince. In 1995, he would shuttle me to and from North High, his Washington Avenue studio and my mother’s house until I had finished paintings and drawings for an exhibition titled “The Faces of U” (my family name is “Underwood”) that hung at Brian Coyle Community Center in 1996. After co-founding Juxtaposition Arts (which I had participated in as a student in 1995), Peyton would go on to become an international champion kickboxer and founder of the graffiti and creative lettering school Sprayfinger

Milo Fine on the cover of the August 2017 edition of Impro Jazz

In 2000, I returned to Minneapolis from Chicago after a year of playing. Once home, I immediately contacted avant-garde improvisor Milo Fine, whom I had previously heard but was also intimidated by–him having the reputation of being a critic and self-determined recluse. I was curating an improvised music series (something that–thanks to Marguerite Horberg of Hothouse– I learned to do while living in Chicago) and extended an invitation for him to bring his music to the series. He took my invitation seriously, as he did my 22 year-old ego. My first recorded music is with Milo Fine on his label Shih Shih Wu Ai (a term borrowed from Chan Buddhism which translates roughly to “between thing and thing there is no obstruction”). Knowing Milo as I do, I take it as a public affirmation of the biggest kind of love.

I would eventually go to college to become a teacher and academic scholar. Writing professor Gill Creel (Minneapolis College), and literature and cultural studies scholars Veena Deo (Hamline University) and John S. Wright (University of Minnesota) would take me as seriously as the others had. From them, the lesson might be that student-centered teaching, thinking globally while acting locally and Afro-classicist scholarship are the practices of civilization.

They all let me loose so that I might be free. And I am still learning, especially from my mistakes.

Over the COVID year, I have had the great fortune to work closely with multi-instrumentalist and AACM polymath Douglas R. Ewart. It was his wife Janis Lane Ewart who provided me with contacts in Chicago when I moved there in 1999, and she’s been a tremendous supporter since. Douglas and I would not work together until quite some time later but, thanks to ancestor poet J. Otis Powell‽, we have. Likewise, though we originally met back in the early days of Juxtaposition Arts and have been Frogtown neighbors for over 15 years, Seitu Ken Jones and I have only recently begun collaborating and learning together (though differently) about the Black Minnesota that made us. In 2007, I spent a month in Ghana with percussionist Marc Anderson studying at gyil ancestor Bernard Woma’s (1966-2018) Dagara Music Center. Marc has recently become my meditation and dharma teacher. We also play together in the band Motherless Dollar.

This is all to say that something is being passed along in these Twin Cities (Minneapolis-Saint Paul). It’s not all bad. There’s no way that it could be. It’s been around for a while and takes tending as it grows. Shout-out to the chorus who raises it up towards the sun. And thank-you.

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