Sunday, July 12, 2015

We were featured in the St. Croix Source!

Local Artist Previews Forthcoming Documentary for Emancipation Day

How did the Open Studio go?

It's been just over a week since I had the first public event at my spot. I was very tired trying to get both final details on the building complete and finish some new artwork to display. I had to come to the realization that there will probably be "final details" for a very long time. In a historic building there is always, caulking, and painting and weeding, or something to do. Over 50 plus people came out on July 3! And it felt grrrreaat! I was very happy because there were all sorts of people: 2 commissioners came, neighbors came, art people came, non art people came, children, people who had heard me talk on the radio, all kinds of people. And from people's reactions to the space and the history and the first 9 minutes of the documentary I realized something: I need to get as many people to see this space physically and hear this story as I possibly can. It is a powerful story. It is inspiring.

I plan on getting senators into my space, and hopefully the governor. YOU are invited, just call or contact me and set up to a time to come by. I'm currently working on developing a tour of Free Gut and of course still editing the documentary. This summer is the new editing goal to have a rough draft complete. I'll be positing the first 9 minutes as soon as I get some permissions clear on some music that I am using. And will also be starting a crowd-source funding campaign to get to the finish line! This has been a fun journey. Glad you have been coming along for the ride. :)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

OPEN STUDIO: Friday, July 3, 2015 4-7pm

The first public event at my studio. 

You are all invited to come out!

I will be showing some new work, an excerpt from the forthcoming documentary, and in general celebrating the completion for the first stage of this renovation. Hope to see you there!!!

Exterior Update: Amazing what some paint, dirt and stone can do

So, the driveway is complete. I last wrote about feeling frustrated with the fact that I bought this property in 2011, but the outside changes were minimal compared to what we completed on the inside. Driving up gave me a feeling of distress, or the feeling you get when you are around ruin and decay. Not a good feeling. 

When I drive up to my studio I want to feel good, space has that power to transform you. So my husband promised me that for my birthday/Mother's day that he would help to paint the front building, which he did. We are still struggling to paint the wooden part in between the two buildings because it's such a narrow space and there is a steep incline. Next was tackling the tree stump which I hired someone to hack via a chainsaw. We attempted to rent one and do it ourselves but I learned that no one rents chainsaws on island! I suppose it's a liability issue as I hear they are quite dangerous. 

Who knew how hard a quenip tree is, because it dulled two new blades. We cut it as low as we could and then threw some dirt and then some gravel on top and...voila!

A serious transformation to the exterior...por fin! And most importantly it's finally safe for me to have events there without fear that guests will trip on roots and stones. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Keeping up with The Benjamins

As I continue to work on the script with a goal of finishing it by the end of the month, there was a missing piece in my research. I have researched the owners of the house from the very beginning tracing them all the way back to 1777, tracing some of the owners back to Africa and the areas that they came from. But my house was owned by the same family for almost 100 years, starting in 1920, the Benjamins, and I didn't know much about them. I had the name and phone number of Earl Benjamin that I had obtained from the lawyer that represented them when I purchased the property. I had waited to call them, until last week. It was an interesting conversation.

 Mr. Benjamin left St. Croix many years ago as a child, around 10 years old in the 1940's, and like many Virgin Islanders went to NY with family. His memories of St. Croix are understandably limited. He said most of his family moved from the island and believes he has one cousin who resides in Frederiksted. He remembered spending time between my house on 18B and another house on Hill or Market St. where he lived. His grandmother lived in my house and he said he spent his early years back and forth between the two properties. He talked about having limited opportunities in St. Croix and that the move to the states had benefited their family.

The house was owned in 1920 by his grandfather, then passed to his father and then passed to him, his mother and siblings.  He said that the last family members who lived in the house were is grandmother and his aunt who was caring for her. After they both died the house was rented, and then started to fall into disrepair as the gaps became bigger between tenants. I'll have to look into my notes again to place when the fire took place. But the lawyer told me that it was a struggle to keep the building boarded up and the vagrants and drug addicts out. The building burned as a result of the one of the addicts, like many of the small wooden houses that are abandoned. I suspect the Benjamin story is not unique to our town. All we have to do is look around and wonder how many of these buildings are owned by family who has moved away and the relatives no longer have interest in the building or there is no clear title. I hope that this is something that we can address. It's critical for the town to move forward.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It's about the house, it was always about the house

Just came from a meeting with the historical consultant on the project to review a very rough outline/draft of the script. George Tyson has been essential with helping to keep me accurate, not making leaping inferences, keeping everything close to what we know from the records. It's finally beginning to come together and make real sense and what I came away with from today's meeting was this:

1. The story is not so much about the neighborhood, but the house. It's always been about the house, hence the title "The House That FREEDOM Built". The house anchors the renovation, the people who lived there and the neighborhood, it literally and figuratively "houses" the story.

2.The three African women who owned my house were magnificent. Magic. Super. Heroines. Every year the Danish government had to import 300-400 new Africans to offset the fact that the ones they brought here were dying at such high rates. The cane fields can accurately be described as killing fields. And to think that these women survived and endured and then become property owners under those conditions and historical times is just amazing.

image of cleaning young cane on the sugar estate
3. And the last great takeaway from this meeting was in going over the scope of history through my owners we see that this neighborhood has been fluid from the beginning. There have been parts where it had tremendous continuity and stability and you see how people begin to prosper as in the 1780's. But you also see that there were times when the neighborhood was also abandoned like after the sugar industry declined and slavery no longer existed. Thousands of people not only left the towns but left island, similar to what we have just gone through with the closure of Hovensa.

And so in understanding the ebbs and flows in the history of our town one can glean hope. We are unarguably in a down moment, true, but when we look back we see that we will rise again. We always have. History proves this. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It's about the neighborhood

I had my colleague and friend Anil stop by about a month ago to take a look at the footage I had been editing thus far. I must confess I was floundering a bit with the process, lacking direction and swimming in circles. He looked at the footage, a montage of semi-edited sequences and interviews patiently and then about midway through stopped and said, "Ok, so what's your story about?" Instinctively, I responded with what I have been saying this story is about for about three years now, I started off with three concurrent narratives, "Well, it's about these three things: the renovation, the people who lived in the house and the larger neighborhood, Free Gut and...".

And he asked me again, "What's your story about? The central idea, what is it about?"

In slight panic mode, I wasn't sure what to say. I wanted to keep saying, it's about all those things, I couldn't pick one thing. It's about all of it. And then suddenly I picked one, or rather, one stepped forward and said, "It's me. The story is about me, it's about Free Gut".  "It's about the neighborhood", I said.

And then he reminded me of something I knew, but for some reason keep avoiding, "You have to write the story La Vaughn".

I responded impishly, "I know, but how do I do that? What's the format? Is it like a script with voice overs and image sequences, is it the narration? What is it?!" I wanted someone to show me. Give me an example I could follow. So we revisited the funding trailer that I did and the way I was talking into the camera and telling the story. He told me why he believed it was so effective, because it was me, telling my story. Not necessarily the physical me on the screen, but me as in my voice. He reminded me that no one could tell this story better than me, and that I had a strong voice and questioned why I had opted to not use it. "You need to tell this story La Vaughn, you are the one who will tie all the pieces together. When you have your story you can then revisit what you have shot and see what you will need from it. Until then, stop editing."

So here I am weeks later, tangling myself up again in this project with another self-imposed deadline to finish the script this April. I have this idea of using some of the techniques from this film The Beginners as a narrative device to help ground the story and move from the micro to the macro in a similar way as "The House That Jack Built". It's exciting and exhausting at the same time. But here I am, at it again. In the work. In the work.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On work

I feel that I have written at least 4 posts that said some version of "almost finished-last stretch-I'm almost-done" and this will not be another one. This has been an unexpectedly long process and there are still lots of tiny details, and some not so tiny, to be completed. But there was a point when I had to stop and remember the reason I began this journey three years ago: to have an artists studio. And I realized that the last coat of paint on the walls, or putting in the kitchen stove, or bookshelves, or painting the shutters was no longer impeding me from actually creating artwork in this space. So about a month or so ago I started moving in a table and chairs, and then some art supplies, and then later an easel, and then more recently began painting and thinking, writing notes, sketching ideas and I suppose I can say " I am done", sort of-almost-just a little bit more and not feel like a fraud. So yes the place still has lots of detail work to complete, but I am in the studio working, a really huge accomplishment for me. And even with my children getting into mischief around me as I work, there is something about creating a separate space for that purpose of making art. It's the best gift I ever gave to myself for art makes my soul soar like no other experience in my life. I am now working on paintings, writing public art proposals and, well, now I need to of course finish editing the documentary. It's hard to be away for a project for so long, several months and then pick it back up. You have to regain momentum, reestablish a rhythm. But I don't believe in finding inspiration to work, I believe that in work you find inspiration. The ritual of work and the rhythm of work and in some ways, that is never finished, and never done.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

RENOVATION UPDATE: The Countdown Is On!!!!

The FLOORS are finished! For the wooden section I decided to stain the floors with two colors. The first was a red mahogany stain. And the second was two coats of a walnut stain with polyurethane. I used a stain pad. The results are decent. I am quite satisfied with them. I did spend a lot of time sanding them (using a palm sander since we don't have big sanders on island). 

 I used a combination of glue and sawdust and the commercial wood patch material to fill in the gaps between the floor boards. That part I am very pleased with. It came out great!

 For the cement floors I used a concrete latex stain with two colors. First a light grey and then a brownish color. I used a sponge and a rag to give texture. I wish the floor could have been smoother, but I have satisfied with the outcome. I topped it off with two coats of a concrete sealer with a gloss finish.

We also got some simple CABINETS installed in the KITCHEN! Huge. We used what they call baboon plywood to make them. I don't need anything fancy for this space. I will stain them a similar color to the wooden floors and call it a day.

Now what remains is doing the final touches of painting the walls, the door trims, etc.
I also need to install kitchen sink and faucet.
Tile the kitchen counter-top and back-splash.
And the interior will be pretty much FINISHED!!!

I have a strict deadline for Sunday, November 23. WHYYYYYY? Because, I was invited by the St. Croix Landmarks Society to give a "House Tour" for their "Places That Matter" event. It coincides with a Regional Genealogy and History Conference that they are hosting. It will be the first time that the public will be invited to the space. Yes, pressure. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Painting, painting and more painting. Oh, and caulking too.

Now with the shutters in. I am finally ready to finish the interior. Caulking the ship lap siding is a lot of work. The gaps are wider than they should be because we made the mistake of not letting the wood cure in the building for a few days. One has to let wood dry out a bit before putting it up as siding because after we installed it, days later, it did dry out and left gaps in both the floor and the walls. I share these mistakes so you don't make them. And I made a lot.

So, the caulking is almost complete and the painting is almost done too. 

My intention is to finish the painting of the walls and the floors by the end of September. And then finish the painting of the exterior. The shutters are half primed and the walls are half painted. Oh my goodness, aahhhh-lmost there.  


Monday, September 8, 2014

Almost there: SHUTTERS ARE IN!!!

We spent the summer in Cuba visiting my husband's family. After returning in late August and getting kids back into the back-to-school groove I have been able to reassess this project. It's been three years since I first acquired the property and it has been quite a journey. My life has made unexpected demands on me and that there have been long stints that I could not work on either the renovation or the documentary. But this is the first time where I really do see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I am really almost there.

In July I was able to put together some funds to get the shutters made. I made it a point to get the historical hinges. They cost me almost as much as the labor and materials for the shutters themselves. Luckily, the vendor is someone I know and who believes in the project. They gave me a discount, but even with the discount it was definitely a pricey item: $25-$30/ hinge. Notice there are four per window opening. That adds up fast!

I had some disappointments with the quality of the work on the shutters, and even considered getting them redone. But, I am going to live with it. Perhaps by looking at the picture you can see what the issue is:

 ........see it?

They are uneven. The carpenter made one side bigger than the next so they can lap, or fold over. It is true some people do shutters this way, but for the most part they are supposed to look even when they are open. It's part of the aesthetics. I considered having it redone and then let it go. They serve their function. The person who installed them also had a little mishap when installing the ones in the bathroom.

He underestimated the width of the wall and the bolts came through and damaged the tile. Still waiting to have that fixed. These disappointments are part of construction: things happen, there is miscommunication, different expectations and mistakes. With experience and better communication you can keep these to a minimum.

What the shutters have afforded me is the ability to finally finish the interior of the building. We removed all of the bars and can now secure the building properly against weather and theft. That means I can finish the painting, stain and seal the floors and ......actually begin to put things in the building, like tables, and chairs and art supplies!


Friday, June 13, 2014

On moving into post-production

Transitioning into post-production has been an exciting but challenging process. I have the story of the previous owners, almost a dozen interviews, the story of Free Gut, issues with the town and it's current state of abandonment and the renovation of my building forge into one coherent and engaging story. "Mr Bill" aka William Stelzer came over from St. John to work on the project with me again for a week and it was so helpful. We did some filming but a lot of what we did was talking, thinking and sorting. 

I really wanted to have a strong outline for the film developed by the time he left. I had been working on a script on and off using a spreadsheet format. It was so difficult using a computer screen. You had to scroll up or down to be able to see what came previously or after and its was hard to see the whole picture, both literally and figuratively.  Bill suggested that I used index cards, which at first I was skeptical because it reminded me of taking note cards to write papers in the eighth grade. However, he was right, by jotting down my ideas on the cards and tacking them to the wall in a large timeline I was able to overlay the various components of the film and literally and figuratively see the whole picture. It was so interesting to me thinking about how amazing and essential of a tool a computer is, but the confines of a screen posed such a limitation on visualizing the project that it was useless in creating an outline. At least for me and the way my brain works, but I suspect it has less to do with me and more to do with film as a medium.  

So here was the process:
1. Put on a separate notecard each owners of the house from the 1777 to present day.
2. Put on a separte notecard key dates in VI history, including certain relevant dates from US and Danish history.
3. Make notes on what the key items that I want people to know in the documentary. For example. Where is Free Gut, who lived there, or that Freed Colored owned slaves, etc...and insert these into the timeline.
4. At this point I could then go into the interviews and pick out quotes that would correspond to these key ideas.
5. I then inserted different aspects of the renovation.

And...voila, you have a rough outline of a film.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Renovation Update: Bathroom Complete

The bathroom is complete. For the most part. We need to still caulk and paint the bathroom ceiling and place a few tiles that are missing. I have also cleaned out the space and moved all construction materials and tools into the other building.

Next step is to get the shutters made and installed. I have hired a new carpenter for this job and am nervous. I asked him to bring me a sample of one to see what he would do and there were some issues with how he constructed the shutter. In short, he took the easy way out. I had to ask him to redo the routed part. He may be finished by this weekend. Very exciting. What that means is that I can then secure the building properly from the elements, but most importantly from the hen who has decided that my Queen Anne chair would make a perfect nest. With the shutters in I can:

stain and seal the concrete floor,
get kitchen cabinets installed,
get small appliances,
finish paint ceiling,
fill and stain wooden floor,
caulk and paint wooden walls,
and of course, paint the shutters and doors.
And then,
damas y caballeros,
the interior would be finished.


My goal is still to be moved in by the end of the summer. I'm considering having a work/fundraising party, since a lot of these last details are more work intensive than funds intensive. I've had a few people along the way who have asked if they could help in any way. Be ready, I'll be calling! :)