I frequently humblebrag that Durham has two and a half degrees of separation, rather than the usual six.
The Runaways and Collaborative DURM
by: Aaron Mandel
One example just weeks ago was Chris Vitiello’s short piece in the Indy Week about our communal proclivity toward artistic collaboration. He noted the envy of New Yorkers and San Francisco Bay Area types for such intrinsic affinity. Laura Ritchie and I long ago diagnosed it as Durham’s intentional community. And in my mind, of all things we have to preserve in the face of rampant development and a massive influx of newbies, it is this intentionally collaborative, collectively aware community of artists and creators.
Last Thursday I went to the Power Plant Theater at the American Tobacco Campus for The Runaways, a series of shorts conceived and created by Ned Phillips underwritten by DURM’s gear of choice, Runaway Clothes. Full disclosure: Ned is a long-time friend and occasional Clarion Content correspondent. Runaway is a long-time Clarion Content collaborator and supporter.
It was a family affair.
Yet, it was also a paradigmatic example of what can be made and done in supportive, free collaborative artistic communities.
Phillips told me from the beginning of the project three years ago that he wanted to profile people doing what they love. Runaway Clothes spokesperson Rebecca Ward said Thursday that Phillips intrinsically understood the Runaway ethic, “the way of being, the meeting of life and art.” She credited Phillips with understanding the brand motto of always, “running away from convention.”
Runaway Clothes founder Gabe Eng-Goetz emphasized that Phillips had total creative control.
It was a family affair for Eng-Goetz, too, clothed in all black rather than branded Runaway gear, he greeted his parents warmly when they arrived at the theater. His close relationships with some of the subjects of the shorts was evident, too.
Durty Durham co-founder, producer and DJ, Treee City, Patrick Phelps-McKeown, would note later in the Q&A afterward that Eng-Goetz had put artwork in the very first Durty Durham exhibition before Runaway Clothes even existed.
Ward, mc’ing called out a personal Runaway thank you to teacher Amy Unell when she entered the theater during the introduction. She noted Unell had been using Phillips shorts as teaching tools. Unell in turn shared High Five’s on her way in with PictureDURM founder, Meredith Martindale, who was in the audience, and Runwaway Clothes sage, Justin Laidlaw*. (Laidlaw was decked out in the full Runaway Clothes ensemble black and gold hat with double-fisted thumbs making the bull, and green Runaway outdoor jacket with a chalk white double-fisted thumb bull and the magic number 9.)
The subjects of the shorts were mostly in attendance. And the intensity in the room when Ward finished speaking and the lights dimmed was palpable. WF, the custom motorcycle creator, who is the subject of “Built for Speed” conceded to me later, he’d never even seen his short on a computer or TV sized screen, let alone a real theater. Previously, it had never been bigger than a two inch phone screen for him.
One thing that was notable and impressive from the beginning of the shorts was the sound quality. The first one, “Til I Die”, featuring skateboarder Tahir Troublefield was rich with sound of the wheels of the deck rolling, the board scraping, and the bass of Troublefield’s voice.
Phillips intimately engages with his characters through intense facial close-ups over the sound of their voices. In the talk-back, after the viewing, each of the subjects in attendance noted how amazed they were that Phillips had turned what felt to them like semi-coherent streams of consciousness into such erudite clips, seizing the best bits, the sharpest turns of phrase, all while pushing the lens closer and closer to the speaker.
Burlesque dancer, Bliss Floccare, the subject of “After Dark” told Phillips’ camera personal, core truths from inches away.
Floccare says, smiling in super close-up, “You want people to be turned on. You want people to have fun.”
With the lens pushed in intimately, music maker Treee City, Phelps-McKeown, says, “When you drop something and it goes over really well. And it’s something you’re really feeling, too, and other people are feeling it too…and you’re all just feeling it together, that’s like the moment I live for as a DJ.”
Camera tight on his eyes, skateboarder Troublefield says, “On a skateboard, it’s more carefree. I’m getting older. I’m twenty years-old. I’ll be twenty-one. I got a lot of responsibilities coming on to my shoulders…managing that between school, work, and skateboarding, it’s tough.”
These kind of artistic insights from people doing what they love are priceless. They are the same kind of nuggets I am seeking for the Clarion Content when we interview artists and creators we admire.
Kudos to Phillips and Runaway for getting this kind of insight. They only aired five of the series’ episodes last night. (See them all on YouTube here.)
The Runaways shorts showcased included the premier of “The Puppetmaster” about our local, but world renown treasure, Jeghetto. Jeghetto, in addition to years of grinding in the world of puppets, recently was a critical advisor on Missy Elliot’s “WTF” video with Pharrell.
Jeghetto shared some of the behind the scenes from the making of that video in the talkback and it felt like our 2.5 degrees of Durham separation suddenly extended all the way to Los Angeles. He told the audience that Elliot’s understanding of exactly what she wanted was amazing. He completely rebuilt and reconstructed the puppets to make them dance and do splits and gymnastic contortions per Elliott’s specs. He said that then, when they filmed, he was warned they were going to go all night, but he still had not truly anticipated the 6pm to 6am session that included everything from busloads of dancers to people breakdancing on hoverboards to encounters with LA street denizens.
Sometimes Art can make you believe that an intimacy of understanding is shared by all of humanity. Why might not such commonality extend from Durham across the country?
A couple more on cue family moments and some deep understanding from the creatives rounded the evening out.
Family: As Laidlaw asked the panel about suggestions for future Runaway subjects, Pierce Freelon’s name was raised moments before he walked into the room. Followed by Durham’s most enigmatic superstar, Trandle, his skateboard clutched tightly under one arm.
Understanding: A final question had Treee City, Phelps-McKeown, ruminating about the life, art, work balance. He noted he had recently gone from part-time wage earner to full-time salary, but the reverse of the old trade-off was now true. He had more money, but less time to create and make music.
All three panelists, W.F., JaGhetto, and Treee City agreed that on the way up you had to be a creative jack of all trades. JaGhetto while explaining that puppetry had long been considered high art and a threateningly subversive force to kingdoms, said it required, even in the practical now, for him to be versed in sketching, sculpting, painting, impersonation, live performance, set design, and musical scoring, among other things. Treee City said he was able to do his own graphic design and to work closely with his visual collaborators like Adam Graetz to do immersive shows. He noted that he was a producer who had only come to doing live performance of his own music more recently. W.F. said while he had been on motorcycles and their ilk since he was ten, he had a process of “build’em, ride’em, get bored with’em and move on” that allowed him to immerse himself in all parts of that creative cycle from shaping the metal to making the engine hum.
Silos be darned, these artists and creators all agreed that the well-rounded Renaissance human is back in vogue.
Phillips and Runaway’s Eng-Goetz vouchsafe the same with their short film series.
Phillips was unable to attend, flying to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in support of another one of his film’s “The Last Partera”.
Instead accompanied by Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “Fanfare-Rondeau”, aka the Masterpiece Theater Music, he made a facetious appearance where he thanked by subjects and audience.
The final reveal of the night was when Runaway Clothes shared they are working on a special, exclusive twenty-year anniversary clothing line with the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
2.5 degrees of separation. Durham, errr, DURM.
* Again full disclosure, Laidlaw is a long-time Clarion Content columnist, friend, podcast host, and still YouTube star.