A late summer column in this spot touched on a pair of projects designed to change Mobilians and their relationship to the arts. One was unnamed and unexplained, and I think it’s simmered enough.
In the course of my job, I hear all number of things from the arts community. I watch the way petty matters — we are only human, after all – create unneeded and damaging rifts. I see age and locale add to those chasms and I wonder what could be done to bridge them.
Fortune provided inspiration. First there was a friend’s tales of Eugene Walter’s famed gatherings at Termite Hall and the amusement left by the punch line in one story: “They called the insurance company to see if the policy covered damage from flaming Mardi Gras headdresses.” Only in Mobile….
Then I crossed a film that used Gertrude Stein’s legendary open house in Paris as a setting. It begged the question within me whether a similar incubator could be used to cultivate camaraderie, community and creativity in Mobile.
The idea of salons is not unknown in the Azalea City. Mdme. Octavia Walton Le Vert was acclaimed for the open house salon she maintained in antebellum Mobile. Modeled on European salons, Le Vert held daylong gatherings where ideas and creativity were encouraged and analyzed. Unfortunately, Le Vert’s enlightened views on slavery and provincialism resulted in her later being ostracized and then leaving town.
The aforementioned Walter dinners at Termite Hall — coalesced under the moniker of the Black Holly Wreath Society — also featured the arts. Poet laureate Sue Walker had also held salons in recent years, but I was looking for something a little broader in scope.
An idea sprouted. If I joined together with one person each from the generation before and after me, we could create a crossing point for colleagues from each of our circles and across disciplines. If we interested the attendees in doing the same thing, it could spread and take root. The more it wove the players in our creative community together, the more that artistic DNA mixed, the chances of collaboration, of revelation, of enervation grew.
Our format was open with the only necessity that art and creativity take center stage, but we sought a descriptive apart from “salon” and its attendant “society pages” association. The word “rumpus” sprang from one us, which led to Maurice Sendak before someone mentioned his book “In the Night Kitchen,” a magical story misunderstood and banned. There was our perfect tinge of fantasy and scandal: Night Kitchen it was, then.
We wanted to use Termite Hall as a starting point, chiefly as homage to our inspiration, also to bless our little venture. The current residents were magnanimous enough to agree.
Each of us picked a handful of candidates from contemporaries, specifically chosen for exact reasons, to create the desired mixture. In a sense, we were curators more than hosts.
The invitations were hand-delivered, each bearing the evening’s theme, requests for each attendee to bring a creative contribution, a side dish and their preferred libation. It was finished with a Eugene Walter drawing of a dancing cat.
Our first Night Kitchen featured chiefly verbal offerings: poems, script readings, spoken word pieces. One visual artist brought exquisite glasswork. A museum director expounded on her vision for exhibit spaces and the role of a museum within the community. Another explained her creative process.
The second Night Kitchen was more visual in nature, with a performance artist, a multi-medium artist, an installation artist and a sculptor bringing photography and footage of their work. A filmmaker performed an illusion in another room, conjuring the ghost of Eugene Walter for Halloween. The night led to a spirited discussion on the role of local art in exhibit spaces.
Mostly what marked the evenings was an energy that surprised and elated attendees. It was palpable and encouraging.
Thus far, two attendees have initiated plans for their own versions of the Night Kitchen. One is a rejuvenation of the Black Holly Wreath Society. The other is slated for a stately Oakleigh address.
Our vision is wider than our quarterly gatherings. We want these to spread like kudzu, with various members of the artistic community weaving together disparate parts into a stronger creative whole. The idea is to have a vibrant backdrop that builds upon itself, possibly attracting other like-minded souls. There’s also the hope such an evocative scene could impress visitors, far-flung guests of the museums and exhibit spaces who could spread favorable buzz in the greater arts world about what’s fostered in our little town.
I’ve said before Mobile has the low cost of living and weather to support an artists’ colony. After all, Santa Fe was once considered the middle of nowhere.
One of my Night Kitchen conspirators asked why I dive into these kinds of ventures. My answer was simple. Health issues have resulted in my relying on community for my welfare and I feel obliged to pay it back somehow.
Plus, I realize the universe doesn’t stop at my fingertips. Without offspring, my legacy has to be through other creations, the words and actions I generate and things I do to try to make this a better place than I found it.
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