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Occupy Greensboro Art Fest, Part 2

Jan 20th, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment
Matty Sheets and the Blockheads

Jessica “Lil P” Pennell, Matty Sheets, and Emily Stewart

On Friday I woke up quick at about noon, just thought that I had to be at Art Fest soon. It was the 13th, and Occupy Greensboro was closing its three-day Art Fest with a hootenanny at Glenwood Coffee & Books, the most radical bookstore South of Lee St. There were arts, crafts, books chocolate marshmallow snacks. There was music, puppets, poetry, improv, dancing. The Crow and The Wolf would be performing a puppet show. It was 45º inside. I was ready to political party.

Glenwood Coffee & Books is striking in the most Greensboro way–a plain brick building in the lower-medium-seedy Glenwood neighborhood, the inside has two main rooms. The first is probably 500 square feet of red linoleum floors, old wooden chairs, and, not very shockingly, books! If you squint you might spot a little bit of yellow paint on the walls, but in this bibliophile candyshop you’ll probably be too busy gawking at Rembrandt collections and sniffing old Steinbeck prints to look up. They have sliding freaking ladders! As far as the other half of the name goes, it’s more Books & Coffee, really–they have a single urn filled and a couple muffins, but the cups were huge and the coffee was good enough to take it black, like my men.

The second room is a wide open concrete studio, the size of a volunteer fire station garage–in the back a collection of sofas and folding chairs, in the front a stage made of plywood risers. The backstage wall is decked with cardboard signs bearing galvanizing slogans such as, “Get $ Out Of Politics,” “People Over Profit,” and “There’s Always Money in the Banana Stand” (the last complete with pasted monopoly money). Seriously old-smelling bric-a-brac lines the sides of the room. GC&B is pretty super. But I wasn’t there to write a Google review. I had come to document a revolution–the sort that uses puppets.

The night was bitter; the format was open mic. During the first hour of milling about, as I was feeling guilty and journalistically unethical for eating so many marshmallow snacks, the time slots filled up with performers’ names. Non-performing ordinary people who wanted to write on things could participate in some anti-establishment arts and crafts: on one table had been laid out pieces of construction paper, asking “What are you to Occupy?”, the flip side reading “¿noʎ oʇ ʎdnɔɔo sı ʇɐɥʍ” for folks to fill out.

Tom Grant

Tom Grant

Around 6:15 the bulk of the crowd had showed up, and the festivities began. Mo Kessler, who bottom-lined and emceed the event, announced the first performer, Tom Grant: ex-pat re-pat singer-songwriter and professor at GTCC. Tom played the kind of jazzy folk that my dad would like if my dad liked cooler music. Just barely leaning forward in his felt top hat and black New Balances, he treated us to charmingly menacing (because that’s a thing in the protest world) songs like “Freedom Threesome Loses a Leg” and “Deeper in the Hole.” The crowd was pretty thick by this point, and held rapt by Tom’s stories of busking on Zurich streetcars, which, again, is the kind of thing my dad would have done in the 70s if he were slightly cooler. His set was rounded out with the John Prine classic, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” to which readers should promptly memorize the lyrics.

Next up was a reading of “An American Poem” by Eileen Myles, performed by several Occupiers. The poem combined two of the most influential groups in 20th-century America: lesbians and Kennedys, and reminded us in the crowd that, despite being a party, this was a serious business party, and once we were done singing we would have to get back to re-conceptualizing the social system.

Following were Matty Sheets and (some of) the Blockheads. Singer, guitarist, Avant Greensboro guy Matty Sheets was flanked by Emily Stewart and Lil’ P on banjo and accordion, respectively. This was my first exposure to the Greensboro institution that is Matty Sheets (Avalon told me he was an institution), and it was real good. With his eyes closed and his flannel buttoned up to the top, Matty growled at us, starting off the set with “Slow Driver,” and impressing the holy hell out of the crowd. The Blockheads’ angle, from what I gather, is Southern Gothic without the black lipstick, but with the feathery scarves intact (the best part!). There was something eerie about the set, with Matty’s unspeaking female companions staring out over the crowd, opening their mouths only to sing lyrics that seemed to be channeled through them. Matty’s songs were beautiful tributes to the minutia of melancholy–I wanted to cry when his unshaven voice sang about his arm falling asleep when a lost love spent the night. Liz Bishop would have been proud. He was drinking a Coors light, even though we were in a book store, and it felt natural.

Then came the night’s main attraction: a puppet show put on by The Crow and The Wolf. The lights were dimmed, people crouched down into little boxes with puppets on their hands, and volunteer narrators read their scripts with light from their cell phones. The puppet show was a fable of sorts, warning against the dangers of mountaintop removal through the story of some tragic, homeless mountain trolls, a little orphan girl named Friend Emma, and a sassy spirit guardian known as Honey Bear. Embedded in the puppet show were several sharp cracks at the difficulties of social movements, the type of people who enter them, and why those people smell like patchouli. Since I was seven years old and my sister started taking art lessons, I’ve been terrified of puppets, and I managed to stay as far back from the stage as possible while averting my gaze. Nonetheless, the show struck a balance between humor and activism that cannot be undervalued, and ended with a Gandalf quote (to those who would level mountains, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”).

After the puppet show, I managed to catch up with Mo Kessler, the evening’s organizer and a member of Occupy Expression Action Awesome Do-It, and ask her impression of how Art Fest had gone, and where Occupy Greensboro was going next:

Me: What role do events like this play in Occupy?

Mo: In order for us to be successful we’re going to have to do a lot of our protests through art. In light of the recent police crackdowns, it’s the safest way to be visible.

Do you have plans to expand Occupy Greensboro?

Totally. For the Winter we plan on having events like these still, but really we’re just gathering resources for everything we’re going to do in the Springtime. We’ve only been gaining members, but things are going to explode.

Are you going to keep the Glenwood location?

Oh yeah. It’s my mission to make this place an anchor for social justice. I think tonight was another good step towards that.

How do you see the movement transcending the social stereotypes that surround it?

Well, the social stereotypes are obviously just that. What gets news is direct action, but in the G.A. here I see people from all walks of life. There’s a very mild, patient atmosphere in the meetings that will never be reported on correctly because it’s not sensational.

Where would you like to see Occupy Greensboro in 2015?

Successfully creating out own society and figuring out how to support each other. Because things are only going to get harder if we want to live free ourselves from capital, and nobody from above is gonna help us.

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2 Comments to “Occupy Greensboro Art Fest, Part 2”

  1. Avalon Kenny says:

    Haha – I don't think I said Matty was an institution. But I'll take it.

  2. Tristan says:

    P.S. I'm just kidding, Dad.

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