30 Seconds of Fame: Blowing My Own Horn

Originally posted on Ditmas Park Corner, I spent some time with Mary Bakija last Friday, who has gotten the neighborhood blog up and running and firmly embedded in the local consciousness. I have reposted the article with her permission.

“I always wanted to be an artist,” neighbor Bruce Zeines said. “All I knew was I had to. When I was five, and my brother drew spaceships and planets, I knew I had to draw.”

For parents who Bruce says were not artistic at all, his raised three creative children: Bruce, whose mural will be painted this spring on the Bonnie Youth Club at 1221 Church Avenue, his brother, who was a sculptor and cabinet-maker, and his sister, who’s a singer. But it wasn’t a straight and easy path for Bruce, who encountered challenges throughout his early life.

“You’re in the public school and you’re drawing all the time, and the teacher tries to get your attention—well, I wasn’t listening, I was doing my own thing,” he explained. “I think that’s what leads to the Free School,” he said. Bruce is a founding parent of Brooklyn Free School, which his son attends, and which he writes about at The Free School Apparent.

Later he ended up in a more creative environment at the School of Visual Arts, where he studied fine art, animation, and illustration. Looking for work as an illustrator, though, was a bit of a struggle. “I think I wore out two pairs of shoes, walking around with my portfolio,” he said. “I got a few jobs, but I saw that design work paid me a whole lot better.”

Bruce set up a home office in about 1991, using a bulky, expensive Macintosh IIsi for design work for hospitals, eventually branching out to do work for educational institutions, advertising agencies, and more. But having the computer led him down a new artistic path, into digital collage. He built a reputation, exhibiting in shows all over the world, but while he was doing digital work, he still working on “real” art.

“Digital was for me to make social commentary,” he said. “But somewhere after 9/11, something inside me decided I need to get back to drawing, to having my hand on the paper.”

His wife Sheryll Durrant, who currently works with Sustainable Flatbush, was very encouraging. “We got my drawing table out of storage, and I started producing this stuff,” he said.

“I was on fire from about 2003-2006. I was like a madman, drawing all the time,” he said, explaining that he was, in a way, using drawing to work through the issues he had had in his first marriage, which ended in ’96. “I still draw all the time, but there’s something about this period that was obsessive. The new stuff is quieter.”

For the Uncover Church Avenue mural design, Bruce treated the proposal like he would any project where he’s dealing with a client–he wanted to make sure it was something the Bonnies would be happy with.

“I couldn’t think of doing it in my quirky style, I didn’t think that was going to go,” he said. “So I went after an image that was in my mind since I was a kid, which was Roger Maris’ homerun swing.”

Memories from childhood are strong for Bruce, none more than the ones he tells now to his son. “They’re unusual,” Bruce said. “But people always tell me I’m a storyteller, that my drawings tell a story. Even if you don’t know what the story is, you know they’re saying something to you.”

He’s taking on the more literal idea of telling those stories with a graphic novel he’s currently working on. Though he’s never done a graphic novel, he’s read them–in fact, he says R. Crumb was an idol—and he’s interested in the challenge.

“It’s a really completely different approach to drawing, because I really have to plan,” he explained. “A lot of my stuff is automatic, in the moment, improvised, I just start and go and build from there. I have ways of controlling that now, but a graphic novel is a different animal.”

The other thing taking up his time at the moment is the Church Ave project, which is his first mural, though he’s just submitted a proposal for another, at the Newkirk Plaza passageway. “I’m trying to establish myself in that way,” he said, adding that he’s hoping it can turn into a paying gig.

“You really have to pay people, and for some reason, artists are often the ones they think of not paying,” he said. “Art if a way of life. To live off it, it’s not unreasonable to ask for. It’s my work. I don’t have a lot of unusual requirements–I want to make sure there’s enough food in the refrigerator, that my son has sneakers, that he can keep going to the school he’s going to. Sometimes I think our wishes are too modest.”

Bruce has an apartment full of art that he’s made, and much of it is for sale. Though he’s had open studios in the past, he says it’s difficult to be a maker and a seller. “It’s hard for the artist to sell his own work,” he said. “Putting on my sales hat. I really need someone else to do that for me.”

Even so, the apartment is set up in a way for people to come in and view his work. If you’re interested in buying a piece, contact Bruce at bzeines@optonline.net to set up a meeting. You can visit my Facebook fan page.

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Skittles, Hoodies and Humor at Difficult Moments

Yesterday, while waiting for the bus, I noticed a truck I have seen often around the New York area. On this truck is written ” Vigilante: Plumbing and Heating.” I turned to my wife and said, “Vigilante. They fix your plumbing and then they shoot you!”

She laughed, but with a measure of discomfort. I had not pre-thought up the joke. It just came out. It rolled out of my mouth with no more effort then a breath. But then I pondered the moment. The Trayvon Martin case is big in everyone’s minds. In my household, it looms large. My wife is black, I am white, and my son stands in between.

The fact that my son is mixed may be one of my main motivations for wanting to comment on this. But I feel the issue is bigger. For me, it  is not just a race issue. The loss of Trayvon at the hands of an idiot, is a much bigger tragedy. We have lost someone with the potential to affect the future. Or should I say “correct the future?” I see my son as Trayvon, but I see all children in this way as well. We as a nation, do not value our children, let alone children of color. Racism is just one of the many ways we are set against each other. And this at a time when more than ever, we need to come together.

The loss of a child is one of the greatest tragedies that can beset a parent. For me it is unimaginable. And that is why I am reticent to accept any humor on the matter. But cartoons have been making their way onto facebook. Check out this photo from my local state senators.

Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, left, Sen. Bill Perkins, D-New York, center, and Sen. Eric Adams, D-Brooklyn, wear hooded sweatshirts during session in the Senate Chamber in Albany, N.Y., on Monday, March 26, 2012.

Six state senators, all from New York City, wore hoodies during a legislative session in the Capitol Chambers yesterday. Beyond simple hoodie solidarity — which has already gripped Clay Aiken, the Miami Heat, and scores more — the senators also sought to protest the New York–born racial policing that they claim influenced the tragedy in Florida. Senator Eric Adams, a former NYPD sergeant and Brooklyn Democrat, told reporters:

It was born here in New York City and now it has cascaded all the way down to the southern coast of Florida. The stop-and-frisk policy gave birth not only to police officers believing that a person of color is automatically a criminal, now it has grown into the civilian patrol units.

In Albany yesterday, the six hooded lawmakers read off a list of black men killed by New York police, tracing responsibility back to Rudy Giuliani. “It is horrific what happened to Trayvon,” Adams added. “But it happens every day in the city of New York.”

And then I began to ponder the use of humor in bad situations. I feel a deep pain over this tragedy. I look at my son. I see his afro, and his emerging cocky mannerisms and realize that the world does not see what I see. For me, he is a bright, confident, creative individual who will be an important ingredient in the world ahead. An independent learner, problem solver and innovator. But he has already been stopped by Truant Cops, who have reportedly approached Brooklyn Free School kids who are out buying lunch, which they have permission to do. The children of color are given a higher suspicion level. Presumed guilty, just by the mere fact that they are kids and should not be trusted. This is how our society has come to be. It is assumed that children are always wrong and should never be trusted. And if they are dark skinned, they should be arrested on sight. This has been proven time and time again by NYPD who constantly stop children of color and frisk them without provocation. There have been many articles about NYPD “Frisk and Search” policies.

There is the very real fear that all this great potential can be squashed  by an idiot or several idiots with a gun. Here is another image that I saw this past week.

It reminds me of the joke in The Wayans Brothers film “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” where it is claimed that their friend “got arrested for being black on a Friday night.” Funny, but based on the Trayvon case, sadly true.

I am no expert on humor. I use it as a force of instinct. Many times it feels inappropriate. But comedy has a unique way of cutting straight to the truth. My Vigilante joke is a case in point. It makes one feel uncomfortable enough by expressing a ridiculous version of what really occurred. And I am sad to hear that the sales of Arizona Ice Tea, Skittles and hoodies have all gone up in the weeks following this tragedy.

Humor can be cathartic. We feel pain over all of this. There is nothing to say to his parents. They lost their son. Nothing will bring him back. We can argue about racism, but we are all guilty. We need to understand that. George Zimmerman is an ugly byproduct of this society’s collective fear. If you continue to read newspapers, watch CNN, support mass media whole heartedly, be a complicit consumer and not know that you are the receptacle of a massive corporate media menace that has no interest in presenting any version of truth. Nor do they have any interest in us coming together as a community. Suppress communication. Divide and conquer.

Below, I have posted a video which I think explains my point about how humor is used effectively in the face of tragedy. It is from the documentary “The Aristocrats” which was basically about the worst joke ever told. It is told among comdians as a way to stretch their creativity, and push the boundaries of outrageousness. The film came about as a result of what you are about to watch. Gilbert Godfried was at the podium for a Friar’s Roast for Hugh Hefner. The show was taped just 3 weeks after 9/11. Gilbert joked that he had a hard time getting there because “my plane had to make a stop at the Empire State Building!” The audience booed. They yelled “too soon!” The sentiment was that it was too close to the event and thus was off limits for comedy. So Gilbert seized the moment. He launched into a retelling of the famous “Aristocrats” joke. Warning: this is arguably the most disgusting and offensive material I have ever posted. If you are going to play this, I suggest that you have your children out of the room. Unless you are like me and have them hear anything and let the cards fall where they may. The interviewees, who were there when Gilbert did this bit, explain how it was a way to release pain. Though the joke is what many say is a terrible joke, in the right hands, it has power. Viewer beware.

One commenter on this video wrote regarding the Aristcrats joke, ” it is mocking the incestuous nature of the wealthy, aristocratic classes and the whole point of the joke is to make you uncomfortable.” Humor can be a way to expose deeper truths. Truths that may have no other way of of reaching their intended targets. And most Americans skin has grown so thick and dense, that you need a very sharp tool to penetrate it.