Completely proficient in a variety of mediums, KEVIN EVERSON has been the recipient of numerous awards including a 1999 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in photography, and the Peter Wilde Award for Most Technically Innovative Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. His films are personal, distinctive studies of his working class background and surroundings. He is incredibly down-to-earth. After a number of shorts, Everson has just finished his first feature, SPICE BUSH (2005).
CINEMAD: How did you get into art? Is it what your parents did?
KEVIN EVERSON: No, no, I got into art because I couldn’t do anything else.
Why, what did you try to do? Well, nothing. I wanted to do botany and shit, but in high school I didn’t do anything other than play sports and chase women. But I had a camera, so I decided to do photography. I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was journalizing or that it had to be art. I started liking that art so I kept doing that art.
So you didn’t ever want to go to college? I did want to go to college so I wouldn’t have to go in Reagan’s military. It was either that or work in a factory, but the factories were closing up in my hometown.
What was your hometown? Mansfield, Ohio. I wanted to go to college because I just wanted to be around stimulating people and meet people from all over the world, although I did go to Akron University, which is the global mecca. [laughs] But there were a lot of Nigerians and Angolans that were going there, so that was cool, meeting cats like that. They had a good engineering program, so I think they were all dealing with that kind of stuff. I just wanted to get away from home, and for me, driving an hour away to go to school was faaaarrrrrr.
SPICE BUSH (2005).
Was Mansfield just basic small-town America? Yeah, small industrial town, and then the factories closed. But then when I went to Akron University and started doing all that art… You know, I was never a really good student. I mean, I was smart in high school, I just didn’t know how to study, but then something clicked in college. Well, first of all, I came home and worked in the factories for a summer. That sobered a motherfucker up hardcore. After that, I was on the Dean’s list every year and I really liked learning. I figured out how to study, started taking art history and philosophy, started making art, started working hard. Using that working class background. And then from there, they had just gotten this new art building and they were trying to put it on the map, so they said, “Hey, don’t you want to go to grad school?” I didn’t know anything about college. I really liked school and I didn’t want to stop, so I just went straight through and got a Master’s of Fine Art in photography. But I did films as an underground. I did a lot of artist books, and I thought the pace and the regimen were the equivalent of short experimental films. I did a lot of Super 8 junk and flicker films, film installations, too.
So was this all at the same school? No, I went to Ohio University for my master’s. Ohio University is in Athens, Ohio. It’s like a state liberal arts school. I didn’t really start making films until like five years after I got out of college because I was just showing a lot of art around the country, and around the world, actually. I had a couple of international exhibitions by that time.
What kind of art were in the shows? Photos, I want to say street photography, in the genre of Gary Winogrand and Robert Frank. Then I did a lot of sculptural work, and that’s how I got into film, because I liked making all this stuff that looked like it belonged in a black American working class kind of home. I would always relate to things in an art manner, like whatever I’d see was art and then I’d remake it and present it on a white wall, like at a gallery. What I really liked was the fact that I knew people, like my parents or my uncles or neighbors or whatever, would go down to Bing’s Furniture and pick out frames for family pictures and assemble them in their house. I really liked the task of selecting and putting stuff up. For me to portray that task, I had to use a time-based medium, so I started making films in like ’95.
photo by Kevin Everson
What were you doing at that point? Were you teaching already? Yeah, ‘cause right when I got out of college, I taught at my old alma mater Akron University, taught there for like three years, taught at Oberlin College for a year, and one year I got a bunch of grants and didn’t teach at all. Then I went down to Tennessee and taught for four years at the University of Tennessee, and I’ve been here (Univ of Virginia) for four years also.
What do you think about teaching? The kids are fun, every day is different, you get a steady check, and you get resources. I know my New York colleagues go down to Kinko’s and spend hundreds of dollars, and I just have to walk down to the copier. I got staples, office supplies, I’m telling you, man, long-distance phone calls… That’s the shit that really helps the factory. The press is still saying that TARNATION (2004) cost $213 to make, but the fuckin’ external drive costs $270, so I know that ain’t true. You can’t put all those hours on a fuckin’ iMac. But I’m talking about stuff like gas and copies, that’s the real money stuff, the nitpicking. I can see how easy it is to get married to the universities. It’s like how these NYU kids take forever to get out of college because they want to use the equipment. That’s why they take forever to make their thesis films. It’s just a strategy so they don’t have to rent equipment. Even when I was doing photos and sculptures, you can’t use printmakers outside of an institution. It’s impossible. So I started gearing up for leaving an institution and still being able to make that art, so I taught myself to paint in grad school. That’s the kind of stuff I can always do.
photo by Kevin Everson
What’s an example of the kind of stuff you do for the artist books? I’d make all my covers and my bookbinding. It would be photo-based or some drawings or prints or transfers. Just kind of image-based stuff. I also did a lot of sculptural things out of wood. I had some power tools, so I could make art outside. My strategy was that if I had an idea, I had to make drawings of it in several different mediums. There’d be a short film version of it, a photo, an artist book, whatever, and whichever one was cheapest at that time, that’s the one that would get done. All that stuff is the real world when it comes to that art. That’s what I always tell my students. This shit is not the kind of stuff you’ve got to prepare yourself for. In ’95 or ’96, I started doing more films because I could kind of afford them and do them on the cheap. Then it was all digital editing, started cutting on Avid in Columbus, Ohio.
I come across more and more people who screwed around for a long time before they figure out what they want to do, or how to do it. It’s funny. I think a lot of people just don’t finish stuff and don’t have that kind of mentality. Right before I finished SPICE BUSH, I started writing a new film. I don’t want to linger on stuff forever, and I think that comes from an art mentality. You just want to make a body of work. I just have a regimen, like in the fall, I should be doing this. Even when I didn’t quite get SPICE BUSH finished, I had already started doing what I was going to do anyway.
You’ve got a thing with numbers as far as the work goes, like you’re obsessed with numbers in your films. Is that something like what you were doing in the art, too? Yeah, I was always into lottery and chance, permutations, that kind of thing. But mostly like the working class thing, the relentlessness of everyday life.
Like wanting to win the lottery? Yeah, which is a poor people tax. When I show that stuff to an academic art crowd, they don’t know what the fuck that is. It’s totally exotic to them. I showed a rough cut of SPICE BUSH the other day and people were asking me all kinds of questions about the lottery.
SPICE BUSH (2005).
What’d they ask? Well, first of all, the neighborhood black folks that came, they were actually happy that nobody died. [laughs] I think that [the art crowd] were waiting for a narrative to pop at ‘em. But then again, it’s slightly a documentary, so they got comfortable with that, and then it just switches on these people forty-seven minutes into it. They were slightly impatient, but they actually kinda liked it, I guess.
They can relate to the “characters” at least. It’s not even that. It’s how they relate to cinema and cinemaspace and what they anticipate on screen. If you position African-Americans in a way that you weren’t used to seeing, people get either intrigued or annoyed or impatient or whatever. It’s just a different kind of language.
So the academics were more interested in the lottery. They were into the political aspect. They automatically see black as political. For me, I’m a formalist. I try to make things look handsome straight up and down and have art references in it. There’s social issues going on in it, too, but that’s something that I think about very late in the game, when I’m designing films.
Right, you don’t go into it like, “Oh, I’ve got to show this so the crowd thinks that…” No, I’m not that kind of didactic when it comes to that. SPICE BUSH is set up as, no matter what you think it is, it’s not a window, it’s a total film. It’s like a language. It’s got narrative, it’s got documentary, a little experimental, it’s got all these collages… Hopefully, you never think that you’re not watching the film. I think the biggest question in the film was when the little girl was watching the TV show. In those three segments, you are definitely watching cinema, like that one, GET CHRISTIE LOVE (1974). You can tell it’s not real. And the one with the dinosaurs…
The one where they use a real lizard that’s slowed down. Yeah. I like the fact that it’s all self-referential and it’s all kind of fake, although I like to use reality as a device.
How do you find yourself preparing for the films, then? Are you actually doing a lot of the drawings for the films now? Actually I’m writing more, because I’m not looking at things and drawing them, I’m listening to stories and writing them down.
What about your short VANESSA (2002)? Oh, there’s drawings for that, because I was in Rome and I was looking at all that Michelangelo. All those circle images, that’s just mimicking Doni Tondo by Michelangelo.
What was the deal in Rome? I had a fellowship at the American Academy, so I was there for like eleven months. They give it to four American artists a year. I made four or five films over there and I made a huge body of photo work. That actually screwed me up from teaching because I realized how much I could get done if I wasn’t teaching. I literally have not been the same since then, because I’m really resisting it.
What else did you get out of that Rome experience? Was it the first time you’ve been in Europe? No, I had shows there, so I had gone there for shows and visited people there before. It was the first time I lived there.
What did you think about the art scene as far as Europe versus America? In America, we always complain about how in Europe there’d be more support. Well, Romans are very nationalistic about their art, whereas here, people don’t go out and support Ohio artists. It just doesn’t have that kind of history. But Italians don’t have a lot of contemporary art, because they’re all into restoration and shit. I think the American art form is probably film, but they haven’t really done a good job with that.
How much film history did you do? Did you feel like you had to go back and see what had been done? Nah, because every time I’d start a film, I’d just look at paintings and other artwork. It’s based on formal devices, not just cinema. I think this next feature is gonna be cut like a thriller because it’s going to be about a bank teller and a race car driver.
In SPICE BUSH, did you feel like you had to do everything yourself? Yeah, it was one of those things that I did by myself.
Was it partly resources, or you just like doing it? Or both? It’s that stuff, it’s that I came in late in the game, I had a rough spring where I was doing a lot of travelling. Also, I just wanted to see if I could do it. I had it all scripted out, I just had to make sure I got all this information.
How did you feel working with non-actors? Did you have to convince them to be in it? Well, I haven’t convinced them yet. [laughs] You know, it was a nightmare. More so than I thought it would be, because people back home think I’m playing, like I’m not serious, so it became that kind of thing. My uncle was really into it, I think because it was about him. He liked the script because he thought I made it up. All the other locations, they would just not respond to me. This time, I’m gonna have the Virginia Film Commission lock down locations for me. There was two weeks where I couldn’t do anything for SPICE BUSH because I was just waiting for this one location and it just would not happen. It was one of those things where I couldn’t afford to do the film and I couldn’t afford not to do it in a weird way. I didn’t get any grant money so it came out of pocket. It’s probably about six thousand dollars now.
What’s the documentary that you’re working on? I’m working on this feature film called LOWNDES COUNTY. It’s about the teenage bus drivers in 1959, Columbus, Mississippi dealing with these secondhand school buses. It’s a script of 102 pages. We gotta clean it up a little bit. That’s a narrative film, we’re just waiting for the cash.
And they were teenagers driving school buses? Yeah. My two uncles and my dad, they drove school buses when they were 14 or 15. Everybody worked during segregation. The movie’s actually about these sisters that took attendance on the bus. We just used that situation to create this experimental narrative. My producer budgeted it $450,000. So I’ve got that.
SPICE BUSH (2005).Nick Flynn has a book called Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The book got great reviews a few months ago. It’s a memoir about his dad. Nick worked in a homeless shelter and one day his dad showed up. I did some films about poets. When I was in Rome, there was this resident poet named Mark Holiday, he actually wrote something for me to shoot. And this guy named Vincent Katz who was also a resident poet, I did a little film on him, too. And I’m doing one on Nick Flynn, too. He’s got this poetry book called Blind Huber about this French cat who studied bees in the 18th Century. I took a student to Blacksburg, Virginia and we shot these beehives on the Virginia Tech campus.
I’ve got some other short films floating around here that I can’t even make sense of, and I want to do that film about the race car driver and the bank teller. You’ve heard of the de Medici family, the ones that bought art back in the day? One of them was black, Alexandro de Medici, and I’m thinking about putting him in there because he was a banker and a traveler. Maybe have a little classical soliloquy about that. That would relate to the speed of the race car and the money in the bank. And he was also killed by his cousin.
The thing I saw about that family was that they were trying to figure out what happened and they were like, “Yeah, we don’t think a lot of that stuff happened, but they probably did kill each other once in a while.” When you’ve got money and power and greed and ass, it’s gotta be done. Anyway, it’ll be about that kind of stuff. I think it’ll be a feature, like 60 minutes or more. The film’s also about landscapes, because if you’re a banker and you’re giving out loans, you’re really dictating who lives where. Plus I’ve got to do these SPICE BUSH paintings, like the colors and stuff. I have some descriptions of spice bush butterflies, so I want to make some paintings.
Is that going in the film? Nah, that’s just art.