Tag Archives: Interviews

Documenting a Time and a Place: Meryl Meisler, Photographer and Artist

I met Meryl Meisler  in the late 90s. I was working for an education nonprofit and Meryl, a NYC teacher, was on their board. We hit it off immediately and have stayed in touch long after the nonprofit fell apart.

It’s been such a pleasure witnessing the well-deserved press Meryl’s documentary photography work has been getting over the last few years.

Meryl’s work does not focus on any of the four subjects featured in A Life’s Work. So why did I want to interview her? In addition to being a good friend, a wonderful person, and a fantastic artist, I am interested in anything or anyone with a very long view. And certainly Meryl fits in that category. As she says, “Making art is a process; it is my life’s work.”

When you were taking these photos, what were you intending to do with them?

These photographs were part of my Masters thesis exhibit at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My exhibit consisted of drawings/illustrations and B&W photographic prints. They served their original purpose — to create a body of work and “defend” it in questioning with my thesis committee. The same photographs were used in a portfolio to be admitted to Lisette Model’s class at the New School when I moved to NYC in 1975. I kept pursuing the photographs of (predominantly Jewish) Long Island family and friends, and enrolled in a photography book course with Bob Adelman. He set me up with a writer to submit a proposal to a publishing company he was associated with, and the proposal was not accepted. I kept doing the series anyway, and in 1978, the work successfully helped me receive a C.E.T.A. project Artist position as a documentary photographer for the American Jewish Congress (AJC). I created a photographic archive of “Jewish New York” for AJC, which also included my personal project, interviewing and photographing extended family members to learn about my Eastern European Jewish roots and immigrating to the USA.

In the midst of all this, I was a young person coming of age in NYC in the 1970s and loving it. I carried my camera everywhere I went  —  clubs, discos, beach scenes, parties, on the streets day and night. My camera was my best friend and diary.

I was working as a freelance illustrator but photography was my passion. I set up a darkroom in the laundry room of my cousin’s building where I rented a room. Photography was and still is my passion and art. Several important people in the photography world, Cornell Capa and Lisette Model among them, were highly encouraging of my work — they saw something special in it. I thought I would be definitely famous by time I was 30. Alas, that did not happen. Perhaps that notion of fame might come by 75?

While working as a C.E.T.A. artist for AJC, we had to do community service. I chose to teach photography to homebound handicapped adults and to children. Even though my Bachelors degree was in art education, I was scared to teach. The community service work helped build up my confidence. When CETA ended in 1979, I was still doing freelance illustration work but the bills were coming in faster than the paychecks. I needed a steady job. The CETA teaching experience helped build my teaching confidence and portfolio. I became a NYC Public School Art Teacher, teaching photography four days a week “per diem” (no benefits) to elementary school students in the Learning to Read Through The Arts Program in September 1979.  When a full time art teaching position with benefits opened up in Bushwick, December 1981, I started carrying a point and shoot camera to photograph going to and from school. When I began teaching, there was much less time for going out at night photographing or spending hours in the darkroom. I started working with color slide film and 35mm format because I needed to, wanted to photograph what I was witnessing and where I was going. I had a solo exhibit “School and Surroundings” in 1984 and it was prohibitively expensive for me to have archival Cibachrome color prints made on my teacher’s salary. I couldn’t afford to keep making the prints, but never stopped photographing. I started painting illustratively on some of the “bad” archival prints of Bushwick. The painted photographs of Bushwick was the body of work that was awarded a NYFA fellowship.

Throughout my 31 year career as a NYC public school art teacher I always worked on my own artwork — continuously exhibiting, applying for and sometimes receiving grants and commissions. I was always plugging away.

The Disco, Go-Go and other “decadent” nightlife photos were never exhibited. It would have put me at risk of losing my job and means of support. Upon retirement from the NYC public schools in 2010, I had more time to focus on getting my work “out there.”

What has it been like for you to go through so many photos that you took more than 30 years ago?

I’ve come to realize that for me, photography is a form of memoir. The photographs are like diary entries from 40 years ago. The moments and emotions are as fresh and still exciting. In the past, I’ve always had trouble editing my work. Time, distance, and the deadline for publishing a book help the decision process immensely. I’m actually impressed with how dynamic my photographs were right from the start and can say to my younger self- you have a good eye, mind, and heart.

Any thoughts or feelings about this work getting discovered instead of work that you’ve done in the last, say, five years?

David, I’ve always fretted that such and such series was too old or worried what will I work on next. For example when you and I met I was working on my NYC Immersions series. It was exhibited in Grand Central Terminal, in a poster throughout the transit system, in the Brooklyn Museum and thankfully a few pieces are permanently installed at the Columbia School of Social Work Library.

It was time to let that series go, “enough with the water,” but I didn’t know what to work on next and that was depressing. Then, a series of wonderful circumstances made me start digging through my Bushwick photographs from the 1980s and I realized how beautiful those images were. I became obsessed with them; I had no idea that they would be deemed historically important and the Bushwick art scene would become so phenomenal and welcoming.

Taking the time to dig through my archives makes me realize I’m always seeing, photographing, playing with brush and pigment. Looking at the past becomes the present. Good work stands the test of time, and ages well.  With the gift of health and well being, I hope to continue digging through the archives and creating. Making art is a process; it is my life’s work.

What’s next?

I’m working on my next book, the third in the ‘70s trilogy. This one will make my first my first two books seem timid. I have to put the ‘70s in perspective to prepare for the subsequent chapters in this memoir continuously in the making.

Currently I’m documenting Resistance marches and rallies to show to the world we will not let the 45th administration destroy our country, heart and soul. In a new phase, hoping to get the urgent messages out to larger audience, I reported on the Women’s March on Washington for VICE  and protests against Muslim Ban for Gothamist . Photographs from several marches will be hand painted and installed at a group exhibit “Fractured Union” at Brooklyn Fire Proof, 119 Ingraham St., Brooklyn. The exhibit opening reception is Friday May 12th 6 – 9PM and runs through June 2017.

I’ll be in a show of Brooklyn Photographers at BRIC house in September, and hopefully another solo show during Bushwick Open Studios in October. I’m working on a new series of self-portraits, returning to painting with photography. Then, I also want to continue finding, interviewing and photographing people who were in or knew the people and places in my Bushwick 1980s photos as a follow-up book to Disco Era Bushwick.

The most extensive body of my work that has yet to be seen is my 36 years from an insider’s point of view of NYC schools. I photographed throughout my career as a NYC teacher, and continued photographing 2011- 2015 as the NYU Art Education Field Supervisor, overseeing student teachers in both private and public schools.

With the gift of health and well-being, I hope to continue digging through the archives and creating new work for many years to come.

Thank you, Meryl.


Meryl Meisler is the author of the internationally acclaimed books A Tale of Two Cities Disco Era Bushwick,  and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City.

You can read and see more of Meryl’s work in these publications.

The New Yorker – Andrea DenHoed – February 28, 2017
Backstage At The Ringling Brothers Circus, 1977

The New Yorker – Genevieve Fussell – June 3, 2015
Seventies Long Island: The Whole Mishpocha

The New Yorker – Genevieve Fussell – August 7, 2014
Meryl Meisler’s Disco Era

New York Times – Jonathan Mahler  – June 13, 2014
Stayin’ Alive


A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick 

Vice Video


Everyday Astronaut – An Interview with Photographer Tim Dodd

I first encountered Tim Dodd on Facebook; we are both members of the Space Hipsters group.  I posted an old add for Tang. Tim posted this photo!

Everyday Astronaut - Tim Dodd

Upon seeing this surreal and witty  photo, I knew I had to interview this man.

Here’s a little bit about Tim Dodd: he is a professional photographer based out of Iowa. He mostly shoot events and commercial work, but he has also shot four launches for spaceflightnow.com including the Orion Test flight, EFT-1 in 2014. His work has been featured on Buzzfeed, Reddit, TECH Insider, Flickr’s artist of the week, as well as several international publications

Your photography first came to may attention via Facebook and that led me to Everyday Astronaut.  Where did the idea for Everyday Astronaut come from?

In 2013 I randomly bought a spacesuit online, well technically a Russian high altitude flight suit, and a few months later began shooting a series I titled “Everyday Astronaut.” The first pictures I took were at an ISS resupply launch at Kennedy Space Center that I was trying to catch in April 2014. I took a few pictures around the visitors center and had awesome reactions to it from my friends and family. Then I started shooting more “everyday” rudimentary moments and that’s when the series started.

Do you think of Everyday Astronaut as its own entity or is it related to your other photography work in some way?

Everyday Astronaut is definitely its own thing although it’s a creative outlet for me and a portfolio piece, it’s always viewed as its own project outside of my typical professional work. However it does combine two of my loves, space and photography, so there’s that. 🙂

Which came first, your interest in photography or aerospace?

I’ve actually been into aerospace since I was a very young child, but I didn’t follow it very much for 20 years or so. It wasn’t until about 2012 that I really began to obsess over spaceflight. So it did precede my love for photography but photography had been a more mature passion.

There’s a header on your website, “Helping add A (art) to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education.” Why do you think that’s so important?

I feel like art inspires science and science inspires art. I think it’s an eco system that plays off each other. For me, as a three-time college drop out who can never make it through the academic world, I have always had art to express myself. I don’t want people to think just because they don’t have a STEM degree doesn’t mean they can’t participate in those fields. I think at the end of the day it takes creative thinking and often a certain amount of art to even begin to dream big.

Tell me about the awesome suit and helmet?

I found the suit on a website called rrauction.com. It’s of unknown age, most likely from the 80’s or 90’s and most likely a naval fighter pilot suit from Russia. It’s gotten plenty beat up since I’ve owned it as it’s been dragged across the United States a few times and come with me to nine countries so far.

Make sure to follow @Everyday Astronaut on Instagram.

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Me on The Unknown Zone Interviewed by Yvonne Delet

Last year, the brilliant and wickedly funny Yvonne Delet invited me to be a guest on her podcast, The Unknown Zone. I thought at the time that it was audio only. But noooooo! Yvonne also had a camera running. Kind of wish I had known that, I would have been better behaved.

After the show, hugs and smiles, but no $1,000,000 chocolate bar.
After the show, hugs and smiles, but no $1,000,000 chocolate bar. l. to r. Yvonne Delet, David Licata, Gerard Mignone.

The result? You get to see the radio interview! This might horrify you, as I seem to spend a lot of time propping up my head with hand, fidgeting with my ear, and incessantly rubbing a small patch of my neck. My toupee, however, looks fabulous.

Note that the intro to the show is pretty out there and not really indicative of this episode of The Unknown Zone, so if you find the intro is not your cup of tea, stick with it. (I can assure you that at no point in the video will you see me wearing a merkin.) Also note that Yvonne curses like a sailor, so this is NSFW, and if salty language offends you, you might want to skip it.

Yvonne, co-host, Gerard Mignone, and I will talk about chemtrails, fame, money, being a working artist, and of course A Life’s Work. And that’s just in Part 1.

Part 2.

What we’d do if we retired,  advice to filmmaker wannabes, creative work and happiness, the subjects of A Life’s Work, and dating.

Enjoy! And let me know what you think.

Interview with the Filmmaker About A Life’s Work by Paper Tape’s Kristy Harding

I’m honored to be interviewed about A Life’s Work for the fine online magazine Paper Tape. If you read this blog regularly, you may recall that Paper Tape published one of my short stories at the start of this year. When editor Kristy Harding found out that I was working on this documentary, she wanted to interview me about it.

Jeff Stein answers a question.

Kristy’s questions were on target and I hope my answers were too. We talked about the film’s origins, how I found the subjects, the film’s future, why I found renewed inspiration in Searching for Sugarman, and much more. Something in there might surprise you, so why not give it a read?

Thanks, Kristy, for giving me a chance to tell your readers about the film.

Gimme Some Truth: Conversation with Essayist Randon Billings Noble

I met essayist Randon Billings Noble at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. As I remember it, all of our conversations were either about music (she studied classical violin and plays piano) or “nonfiction.” That’s how it is at residencies, and man, am I missing that now. Anyway, back in June 2013 Randon posted this as a Facebook status:



… and write about. I asked Randon if she’d engage in an email conversation about matters nonfiction. Here’s how that went.

DL: So, these books and the Hemingway quote challenged your way of thinking about truth. What were your thoughts on truth and writing previously?

RBN: When I taught creative writing I used a terrific book — Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola — that had a whole section on creative nonfiction ethics. They claim that the essayist “pledges, in some way, both to be as honest as possible with the reader and to make this conversation worthwhile.” This to me speaks to the two halves of the term “creative nonfiction.”  “Creative” refers to the style (which uses the same techniques as fiction: scene, character, dialogue, etc.), “nonfiction” to the content.

Human memory is fallible but in many cases it’s all we have. Besides, our individual memories are what make our individual stories. We could both be in the same room at the same time and experience the same thing, but our memories (and retellings) of that experience could be very, very different.

I always told my students to “be loyal to memory.” And if you have to stray from it, let your reader know. I still believe that. But reading David Sheilds’s Reality Hunger made me a little more … flexible in my expectations.

DL: “Flexible in my expectations.” I like that. Has it made you more flexible in your nonfiction writing?

RBN: Not at all!  I still stick to (what I know as) the truth as closely as I can.

DL: I had a similar encounter with Werner Herzog. I was itching to make a documentary, but I had no interest in making a call to action film or an issue film. No interest and I wouldn’t know how to. I’m not a journalist, I’m a storyteller. Still, I thought there are “nonfiction” stories I want to tell. At some point I came across a phrase Herzog likes to use: “ecstatic truth.” Here it is in context:

“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” [http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/herzogs-minnesota-declaration-defining-ecstatic-truth]

 This was liberating. It’s not so much that it gave me the freedom to play fast and loose with facts, but it gave me the freedom to structure the documentary how I wanted — I didn’t need to adhere to chronology; it gave me the freedom to be more impressionistic than journalistic. One example: in one part of A Life’s Work, one of the subjects, Jill Tarter, is talking about her childhood and the gender roles that existed in the 50s. She recalls a conversation she had with her parents and how her father told her she could buck those roles and become an engineer if she worked hard enough. During her telling of this story I show home movies of young girls in dresses curtseying, and a shot of a man encouraging a young girl to walk. A viewer might think these are Tarter’s home movies, because that’s how they’ve been conditioned to think about such juxtapositions, but they’re not. They’re my family’s home movies. And to be clear, my goal in using those home movies is not to fool anyone. I actually want to do this and similar things throughout the film so that the viewer comes to realize the film is not only about Jill Tarter and the other subjects, but it’s everyone’s story.

But reader’s/viewer’s expectations are tricky. I’m thinking about that James Frey book. People were drawn to A Million Little Pieces because, “holy crap, this really happened!” And when they found it didn’t, everyone felt betrayed. I’m curious to hear your take on that whole affair.

RBN: To me, the sad thing about the Frey affair was the potentially high stakes of his readers’ expectations. Frey presents himself as stopping his addictions based on a simple decision and not any kind of process or program. This could be a very dangerous (and false!) example to others. Frey also breaks the rules that Miller and Paola set out in Tell It Slant —  he aggrandizes himself by intensifying his drug and alcohol abuse, lengthening his time in jail, and fabricating his near-rescue of his suicidal girlfriend.

When I was teaching creative nonfiction I used two examples from Annie Dillard’s work to explore creative nonfiction ethics. She has revealed, in interviews, that she made up the cat at the beginning of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the date of a future solar eclipse in her essay Total Eclipse. I ask my students which fabrication bothers them more — a cat used to make metaphors or a specific date? After some discussion I reveal that both bother me. It’s the essayists (and documentarian’s?) job to spin meaningful gold from the hay of everyday life. You don’t get to just make it up!

I like what Herzog says about “poetic, ecstatic truth” but I still want to have at least some hint that I’m entering that zone.

The purpose of David Shields’s Reality Hunger is to question the line between fiction and nonfiction, and to ask who really owns ideas anyway. Shields was required by his publisher’s lawyers to list as many of the uncredited sources in Reality Hunger as he could, although Shields makes a direct plea for the reader to ignore this appendix and there are even dotted lines to encourage the reader to cut this section out of the book entirely! Because of the aim of his book and his cheeky response to the demands of legality I admire what he achieves even if I’m not sure I agree with it.

I feel rather the same way about writers who cloak autobiography under the subtitle of “novel,” like Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted or Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be? I’d rather read a story that’s mostly true but called fiction than a story that claims to be true but is partially made up. But then I feel like this isn’t fair to novelists who spend a great deal of time and energy creating fictional worlds instead of harvesting broad swaths of their own experience.

So although my thinking may be becoming more flexible, I’m not double jointed.

DL: So do we need to come up with words for these slippery genres so that readers/viewers are more flexible in their expectations? (Personally, I think “documentary” is inadequate.)

RBN: Maybe. Or maybe there just needs to be some kind of acknowledgment in the work that parts of it are speculative. I admire the way Scott McClanahan does it in his recent book Crapalachia. In the “Appendix and Notes” section he thoughtfully and stylishly lists the places where he veers from the truth and explains why he did it. Perhaps because it was thoughtful and stylish I wasn’t offended at being misled but grateful for McClanahan’s honesty and rationale.

Do you have a term for these “slippery” genres?  Especially within the larger genre of film?

 DL: I wish I did. Film essay is pretty good, but sounds a little pretentious to my ears.

Here’s a gift a friend gave me. I keep it on my desk. 

painting? photograph?
painting? photograph?

I’m looking for a word or phrase that conveys what this object is doing. Here is a “real” place captured during a “real” moment (the photo), but there is artifice surrounding it. It is neither photograph nor painting, but both. (Side note: And then of course there’s the painted snake. In this image you can’t make out its head from its tail, but in the original its head is approaching the photo. And  it has its tongue out, no less.)

One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation is each of us working in the “nonfiction” realm need to decide which lines we are comfortable crossing and which ones we are not. I’m not comfortable with re-enactments. I think when Errol Morris does them they work, but he’s the exception (and exceptional). I don’t really “stage” things, though I’m sure relative to some hardcore cinema verite dudes, what I do is very staged. I will ask a subject to do something (“Can you walk through that door?” “Can you look through that record bin again?”) but I will never ask them to repeat an answer “this time with more enthusiasm/anger/sadness” etc. That being said, there are times when I do ask a subject to repeat something, when a police siren ruins a take, for example. And I will ask a key question a few times, phrasing it differently so I have a range of responses to choose from. But that’s a journalist tactic, too. It’s all pretty gray.

Do you have lines you are more comfortable crossing and others you are not?

RBN: I love the photograph in the painted frame!  I was thinking about using the word “frame” as part of a new term to describe a work of nonfiction with something not 100% nonfiction about it. Instead of a word I kept thinking of an image of fabric, where one thread of many was slightly different. Still, maybe something like “la realite encadree” (framed reality)?

My lines are pretty firm. The one thing I think nonfiction writers can safely do is omit things. But even then you have to be careful not to let the omission skew the story you’re trying to convey or the idea you’re trying to explore. But a writer  — even an essayist  — has a right to privacy.  And sometimes you need to protect the privacy of others. But any other time I stray from the truth I try to cue the reader. “I was probably six years old” or “I imagine she must have said …” or “Perhaps I went to the park or perhaps I went straight home.” I try to give a quick cue and then get out of the way so the scene can continue. But I imagine it’s more difficult with film!

Still, I think it’s vital that we try to convey the truth as we know it, while acknowledging that all truths are always “as we know them.”

Thanks, Randon!

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books and elsewhere.  She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.


How do you handle the truth? What do you call it? Nonfiction? Creative nonfiction? Memoir? Essay? Documentary? Film essay? Does it matter? Get it on the conversation.

More interviews here!


[cross-posted on ExtraCriticum.com]

Interview with Kevin Nutt Archivist and Gospel Music DJ on WFMU

Kevin Nutt with Famous Blue Jay placard.

I’ve been listening to WFMU, an eclectic radio station broadcast out of Jersey City, NJ, for many, many years. Two shows have been especially influential. The first, when I was in my early twenties, were broadcasts of Alan Watts lectures. The second is a one-hour gospel show that I’ve been listening to for more than 10 years. Kevin Nutt’s show, Sinner’s Crossroads, is partly responsible for one-quarter of A Life’s Work. Had Kevin’s show not exposed me to that music I wouldn’t have considered including Robert Darden and his work with the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. (If you visit the Thank You 2009 page, the first year I gave thanks here, you’ll notice I thanked Kevin (and WFMU); that was long before I thought of interviewing anyone for the blog.)


Kevin writes: “My paying gig is as the folklife archivist for the Archive of Alabama Folk Culture in Montgomery. I also produce a weekly vintage gospel radio show on WFMU and when I have time I run the CaseQuarter label. I grew up in Montgomery and lived in NYC from 1990-1997 working in bookstores and attending Hunter College. I have one wife and two sons.” 

And now, the interview.


How and when did your interest in gospel music come about? 
Fanny Crosby
Fanny Crosby

I grew up in a Baptist church and my father was a Baptist minister. My mom loved music. She was the first person in her family who attended college and she majored in music. I was always fascinated by the songs we sang in church and pored over the hymns as we sang them especially noting the names of the composers and the publication dates. The Southern Baptist hymnal contains very few older, more formal hymns like Isaac Wyatts’ tunes. Most of them were written between the Civil War and World War 1 by American Protestants. Lots of Fanny Crosby’s, Showalter’s and the like: Standing on the Promises, Old Rugged Cross, Love Lifted Me. There was a certain distinctly American bounce to these tunes and hymns and except for the later Pentecostal hymn books most of these tunes were not even in Methodist hymnals. Since most of your black quartets were from Baptist churches there was a lot of hymn borrowing and later when I was a teenager and heard groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Swan Silvertones sing these very same hymns it just knocked me off my feet.

What are your duties as the Alabama Folklife Archivist and what are some of your biggest challenges as an archivist?

MontgomeryFlyingClouds2Right now, we are processing the 25 years of fieldwork collected by the folklorists who worked with the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Alabama Folklife Association. Alabama has had an unusually strong public folklore presence and these folklorists collected an impressive body of recordings, photographs and the like documenting all manner of Alabama folklife. We are working off a big grant right now that’s allowed us to hire another archivist to help with the accession, processing and cataloging of the material. So I oversee that. My other duties include handling pretty much any kind of recorded sound material donations and requests that come our way and I also engineer and board op any of the various lectures and programs we have here at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

The sound lab. If you saw the posts about the digitization center at Baylor University, this should look familiar to you.
The sound lab. If you saw the posts that featured the digitization center at Baylor University, this should look familiar to you.

The biggest challenge is coordinating, administrating and preparing much of these materials and collections to meet the needs of patrons in the digital world. People, rightly so, want access to collections digitally from remote sites. It’s a paradigm shift and archivists are wrestling with all kinds of practical problems digitizing collections and moving them to the digital domain.

There are many people with an interest in a certain genre of music. Some have so much enthusiasm for the genre, they become collectors, which I’m guessing you are. But archiving seems to be a whole other level of devotion. Was there a eureka moment that led you to pursuing that career? 

Not really. I worked in bookstores in Alabama and New York, too, and it just seemed like a logical move to some kind of archiving work from there.

Is an archivist’s work ever done?

 I hope not; that would mean humanity’s work would be done.

Do you think your DJ-ing and archiving are related somehow?

 Sure. When I do my show I am working from a historical collection. I’ve accessioned it, catalogued it, preserved it and I am making it available to the public through broadcasts.

Why should an atheist in New York City care if gospel music is preserved or not? 

For the same reasons that any other kind of spiritual or sacred music of any society or culture should be preserved. It is part of the expression of humanity. For many music aficionados in the US, listening to gospel music requires a type of leap of faith other music does not. There’s a (understandable) resistance to the music because certain types of gospel music are associated with reactionary political parties and views. At the same time black gospel religious music is more accepted among non-believers because it is associated with the black church and its participation in the Civil Rights movement. Gospel music has had such a huge impact, lyrically, melodically, musically, on American vernacular music as a whole. Clichés abound like “rock and roll began in the church.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

 And this one is from mutual friend Christine Lofgren: Where do you find those great ads you play on Sinner’s Crossroads?

Bishop Gray sign
Photo by Jim Snider.

Sinner’s Crossroads has always been in part an homage to AM gospel radio stations in the South. There are so few left now, but as late as the 1990s one could hear these tiny, locally programmed stations everywhere. Many offered pay-as-you-go programming for anyone who felt the inspiration or call to get on the radio and preach, testify, rant or sing. It made for some spectacular radio moments. To this day, local spiritualists, hoodoo folk and psychic healers and readers’ best avenue to customers is on gospel radio stations. Even though there is often a great deal of tension between traditional denominations and the readers themselves, the gospel stations are how these folk get to their customers. So on these small, local radio stations you would hear between the gospel records and taped or live church service broadcasts these amazing self-produced commercials for local spiritualists and the like. In the 1980s, I started recording off the air a lot of AM gospel programming in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Sister ‘Leisha and Mother Marie and Reverend Izear Espie come from, those AM radio gospel stations. I don’t include them in my show as some kind of inappropriate or incongruent comic moment. Within the logic of these AM gospel radio programs they make perfect sense and indeed belong there.

Giant thanks to Kevin Nutt. Special thanks to Christine Lofgren for brokering the interview.

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m



Six Questions for Jeff Stein, President of Cosanti

In July 2012  the Cosanti Foundation, the organization that oversees Arcosanti, announced Paolo Soleri’s retirement as President, and the appointment of his successor, Jeff Stein, I was quite surprised. I’m not an Arcosanti insider by any means, but still, I just couldn’t imagine Soleri handing over the reins. But he did.

Despite having declared the end of production for A Life’s Work, my instinct was to hop on a plane to Arizona and interview Soleri and Stein. I didn’t, for various reasons. But I was recently put in contact with Stein and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. But first, his bio.  

Jeff Stein, AIA and President, Cosanti Foundation

Award-winning architect, writer, educator, Jeff Stein, AIA, is president of Cosanti Foundation.  His first construction workshop at Arcosanti was in 1975. Since then he has spent time on the Cosanti staff; taught architecture in the Career Discovery program of the Harvard GSD; headed the department of architecture at Wentworth Institute in Boston; and was Dean of the Boston Architectural College for the past seven years. He has taught at architecture schools in the US and at the Technicum Winterthur, Zurich, and Ecole d’Architecture Languedoc-Rousillon, in Montpellier, France. Mr. Stein has written for Architecture Boston magazine and was for ten years architecture critic for the New England newspaper, Banker + Tradesman. He lectures widely about Arcosanti, energy and urban design, including at the recent Tel Aviv-Yafo Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability, this past fall in Montreal at the 9th World EcoCities Congress and this spring at the Santa Fe Institute.

1.What’s your history with Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri?

Pretty much my entire adult life – for the past 35 years – is wrapped up with Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri. In 1974 I purchased the big black book, City in the Image of Man. MIT Press, its publisher, had a 50% sale, and when I received it in the mail, I opened it right up and spread it out – 4 feet long – across the conference table of the architecture firm where I was interning in the Midwest.  That first big white page with the single sentence, “This book is about miniaturization,” started it all.

I came to Arcosanti the next year on a construction workshop and stayed for 7 years as part of the staff of Cosanti Foundation. I worked in the drafting room, built 2SUNS arcology models, made drawings to illustrate Paolo’s books, helped to put together several exhibitions, including one that travelled to 42 colleges and universities in the early 1980’s. I also helped produce the Arcosanti Festivals and conferences, including Teilhard and Metamorphosis in 1981.


The ceramics apse.

At that event, the architect, writer and editor Peter Blake, spoke. Blake was an early proponent and publisher of Paolo’s work. After his talk he and I sat out on a rock by Arcosanti’s Foundry Apse and watched the Arizona sunset. “You’ll need to find your own voice in architecture, you know,” he said. “You should come to Boston, to the BAC/Boston Architectural College. We can propel you into the mainstream of architectural practice.” He was head of that venerable school at the time, and several people around Arcosanti had continued their careers in Boston through study at the BAC. I had graduated from a couple colleges by then, but had yet to finish architecture school.

So my wife, 2-year-old son, and I moved to Boston, and I became a student again for a time. I graduated, was licensed as an architect, worked for a couple firms, became a professor, headed Wentworth Institute’s architecture program, taught courses about arcology, started my own architectural practice, and for the past seven years I have served as dean of the BAC. I imagined that certain things had come full circle when this happened at BAC; but now that I’m back at Arcosanti, the circle is even more vivid.


2. As president of the Cosanti Foundation, what are your duties and goals?

The work is on several levels at once. Of course the main thing is to set a direction for Arcosanti’s continued development; and help to insure that we have resources and staff to pursue it. Parallel to that, we want to move ahead with the continued discussion of the idea of Arcology – architecture and ecology – at the highest levels nationally and internationally. The question out there, near the end of cheap fossil fuels and also, apparently, near the end of unprecedented personal wealth across a broad middle class in America and Europe, is, “How shall we live?” on the Earth. What pattern of development makes sense for humans and for millions of other species on the planet? The work that has gone on here at Arcosanti for more than a generation has important ideas to add to that discussion.  There is also the business of the Soleri windbells and magnificent original art works that Paolo has created, and work that our craftspeople at Cosanti and Arcosanti continue to produce. And on a more personal level, I am here to support Paolo Soleri as he continues to develop ideas and make his own transitions.

I live at Arcosanti, and travel about one week each month, speaking publicly, pursuing opportunities on behalf Arcosanti.  I am also helping to establish partnerships with institutions and governmental bodies to help foster Arcosanti’s growth as a resource for education and development globally.

I have been a member of Cosanti Foundation’s Board of Directors for the past several years, so I am current with the work that has been going on and with the issues that confront the Foundation as we move forward in a larger culture that is changing as we speak.

Arcosanti from the mesa across the way.

3. You’re filling some pretty big shoes. Was there a moment when you thought maybe you didn’t want to take this position?

When the Cosanti Foundation board suggested to me, last summer, that I was their pick, I was surprised(!), and I did indeed think twice about what it would mean. I telephoned my wife, Emilie, a painter and landscape designer in Boston. She said, “This will be important work. You need to do it. We’ll make our personal lives work out around it.” And that’s what we are doing.

Before taking the position, I spoke to Paolo Soleri at some length. When it became clear to me that he was comfortable with the idea, I agreed to it; and here I am, typing this from my apartment at Arcosanti, 10 months into the job. Carrying on this work is indeed important to me. I am doing it in a beautiful landscape, around terrific architecture, surrounded by a group of smart people, and visited on a daily basis by dozens of folks from around the globe who want to learn more about it. No more second thoughts required: we are moving ahead!

4. The times I’ve interviewed Soleri, he mentioned that he had hoped the pace of construction had been a little more rapid. At the same time, I feel like the construction of Arcosanti is very much about the journey and not the destination. Is there a way to move things along while keeping true to the idea that Arcosanti is a laboratory, a place that develops “organically.”

Arcosanti is more about process than product. It is important to the thousands of people who have helped build it so far because  – as you rightly point out – “the journey is more important than the destination.” We are indeed a laboratory, experimenting not just with building and urban form, but overlaying those forms with an understanding of “frugare” –frugality. The goal is not to build something that can gather the highest rents possible; rather it is to create architecture that produces energy and allows for a complex sociability that is accessible to all.

But a work of architecture is usually the most expensive thing anyone ever purchases: a family home, a corporate headquarters, a public government building, these things cost money. So does Arcosanti. And here we are attempting to demonstrate a way of organizing a new relationship with each other and with the earth, by means of constructing architecture rather than by just publishing books about it (though we are doing that, too – 3 new ones just this year, 2012.)

To do this costs money. Arcosanti has so far been self-funding; that is we have bootstrapped ourselves by tuition from our construction workshops, from the sale of books, from tourism, and – improbably – from the sale of the windbells. To build more, we remain interested in the prospects of serious philanthropy. And we are also interested in investors who can take on certain aspects of the project. And we are looking at our own capabilities: we are able to be design consultants to others who might be interested in this work: governments, trans-national corporations, outside interests who can already see that the ideas generated by the project could go a long way to solving serious issues of human habitat and land and energy use.

5. I’ve been struggling to find a way to phrase this question and the only way I seem to be able to do it is via an analogy. Medieval cathedrals that took generations to complete often deviated from the original plans. One can see newer elements of style and construction that were incorporated as the project progressed over the decades. Contrast this with Gaudi’s cathedral, which hasn’t deviated much from his original concept. Would you say Arcosanti leans in one of these directions more than another? (If the facts of my analogy are debatable, feel free to say so.)

I think Arcosanti leans in the in the direction of the Medieval Cathedral. You could even say it leans in the direction of a city, an entity that has a master plan, but also has plenty of room for others to add their understanding and design ideas to it over time. At Arcosanti we are constantly learning, and building as a result of that experience. And yet, the entire project is overlaid with frugality, exploring the power of architecture to perform. Here’s an example:

When tourists visit Arcosanti (and 30,000 people come here each year) among the first things they ask is, “Where are all the solar panels?” In part they ask this because the idea of making electricity from the sun is a good one on the face of it; and also because people are all using so much technology: for lighting, communications, air conditioning, entertainment, etc. that to use more of it in the form of solar panels just seems somehow natural. And while we do have some solar electricity production here, we don’t just rely on that. Instead we have tried to make our architecture work harder than yours does. The forms of our buildings are not just for beauty, though they are beautiful, too. They shade themselves in summer, and with large openings facing south, the connected buildings at Arcosanti gather light and heat in winter, when we need it the most.

We use about 1/6 the electricity of other institutions we have compared ourselves to. The needs are human comfort, light to work by, warmth in winter, cooler shade in summer. You can get that – pretty inefficiently, I must say – by making electricity; or as we do at Arcosanti, you can get it by giving buildings a form that displays itself to the sun in a way that really works.

Paolo Soleri laid the foundation for this work, this search; and he gave us the initial building forms to undertake it. As we live with these forms and learn more about how they actually work in this place, in this climate, there is a natural evolution to the architecture. New people will be able to add new discoveries to Arcosanti using new materials and techniques. But the basic ideas: architecture and ecology harnessed together, miniaturization and complexity at the heart of the urban experience, will remain the same.

What sunrise looks like at Arcosanti.

6. The question I have to ask: Do you think Arcosanti will be completed in your lifetime?

No, not in my lifetime. (And I plan to live for a long time, too!) Still, I don’t think Boston will be completed during my lifetime either, and it has been building for nearly 400 years. I do think Arcosanti, even in its current state – a fragment, really, of what it is meant to become – will begin to play a larger role in the International discussion of how we should live on the planet.

Arcosanti is here, it is not just an idea; it exists, you can visit it and stay overnight in its guestrooms, eat organic produce from its solar greenhouses, hike the high desert wilderness that it’s contained masterplan intends to preserve. And think about what its presence might mean for your own community, for your own life on Earth. Arcosanti’s presence poses some “What if?” questions:

What if we weren’t tied to cars as appliances? What if we could get to work, to school, to a grocery store without driving there, without spending that time and energy, without changing minerals into atmosphere by burning fossil fuels? Arcosanti means to demonstrate possibilities beyond the current culture; it means to allow humans to utilize space in a clearer more complex way. It means to show that, when we do reach the end of fossil fuels, when we do finally imagine that being separated as hermits in our single family houses is not the best way to live on the planet after all, that there is indeed a better, more sustainable, more fun alternative. Come visit us, I’ll show you.

Photographs courtesy of Jeff Stein.

Giant thanks to Jeff Stein for taking the time participate in this interview, special thanks to Sue Kirsch for making it happen.  


What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

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Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m