“There’s Some Leisure in It, Too”: Kevin Jerome Everson on Labor, Art, and Film

A recent recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award, the artist and filmmaker discusses his process and the importance of seeing art-making as another form of labor. Hyperallergic also has an exclusive stream of his short film Ears, Nose and Throat.

From IFO (2017), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson (all images courtesy of the filmmaker)

Earlier this year, the ICA Philadelphia presented Mundane Futures, the first chapter of a three-part exhibition called Colored People Time, organized by Meg Onli. Featuring the work of Kevin Jerome Everson, the exhibition’s title, in its simple elegance, offers one of the more fitting frameworks for discussing the practice of an artist and filmmaker whose work defies easy categorization. Often focused on the ordinary and everyday of working-class Black people, Everson’s films weave together myriad forms. Archival, scripted, and documentary footage, and other studies of movement all appear in his works, which have ranged in scale from one-minute bursts to the eight-hour Park Lanes. (Since the late ’90s he’s produced 170 films, including nine features.) Through his lens, the banal realities of Black people become compelling means for examining the intricacies of labor, class, language, and time — which makes sense, given that he grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, and spent his first years in the workforce as a factory employee.

Currently a professor at the University of Virginia, Everson has been the subject of numerous retrospectives and has screened his films at countless festivals. In addition to inspiring legions of young Black filmmakers (something he’d likely deny or roll his eyes at me for mentioning), he was recently awarded the prestigious Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. To mark the occasion, I sat down with Everson to discuss his process, proclivity for painting,  and the importance of seeing art-making as a form of labor. As an added bonus, Everson has offered Hyperallergic an exclusive stream of his 2016 short Ears, Nose and Throat — a personal favorite — available below. 

From Ears, Nose and Throat (2016), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

Hyperallergic: The first time I met you was at the Flaherty Seminar in 2018, when you and Greg [De Cuir Jr.] programmed The Necessary Image. I want to start by talking about this idea of a ‘necessary image,’ and how that [sentiment] applies to your own work. A lot of your films focus on working-class Black people, often doing ordinary things. Can you talk about why that feels necessary to you?

Kevin Jerome Everson: For me, The Necessary Image was always about work [where] it seems like an artist is saying, ‘I got to get this out.’ We were going to just call [the program] ‘Take This Hammer,’ which is that documentary with [James] Baldwin in it in San Francisco, done by PBS … It was about [public] housing … It felt like those filmmakers were like, ‘Oh, this has to be seen.’

And then for me, my films, I mean, I like to finish stuff … I don’t care if anybody sees it or not. But I’m just like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just make something else.’ They didn’t see that? I’ve got something else waiting. The stuff me and Claudrena [Harold, a fellow professor at the University of Virginia and Everson’s collaborator for the last six years] do is important formally — there’s an invitation to that stuff [for the viewer]. But for my other work, there’s no invitation to it. It’s self-referential, almost like an abstract painting, so to speak … Back in the day, for me it was all about the coincidence and the necessary colliding together — meaning for coincidence, me framing up some kind of task or condition or gesture, and the necessary was putting it next to something else to have it in conversation with something. 

That’s probably the first time I’ve said that out loud.

[both laugh]

From Goddess (2019), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: It’s interesting to hear you say that, partly because I know your work so much more as a filmmaker, and yet you also make a lot of objects. You actually started as a street photographer, and also a sculptor and printmaker.

KJE: Yeah. Sculptor, printmaker, all that kind of shit … I was making films in college, doing all this kind of performance shit, making these things … But [then] I mean, I was [also] making all this furniture …  stuff that was presenting as so-called art objects. And then it became more kind of time-based. [Making films] became an extension of the sculptures more than anything else. 

H: That makes a lot of sense, because I think of some of your films, like Cardinal or IFO or Park Lanes, as instances where time also becomes the subject in certain ways.

KJE: Total subject. I just remember growing up, my folks looked differently on Friday than they did on Monday. They worked all week … that shit wears you down. My mom was a bank teller, my dad was a mechanic. But then they’d be recharged by Monday and going back at it again, and even when I worked in factories … I realized your labor changes you. 

[In my first job], I painted plastic GM car parts at the press line plant for a summer, and I think the following summer … I was working on the [factory] line. And then after that, I worked in museums as a [security] guard. And that’s it, [plus] teaching. That’s the only jobs I ever had. But I saw my professors that were teaching … they had time. For me — I was never a big money guy — it’s all about time. Still is. It’s just time to do shit. That’s why I got into film; it was like the sculpture, [but it] had time … it was about the backstory. It was a re-representation of something that was already there.

From Park Lanes (2015), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: It’s almost funny to me that you’ve mainly worked in these three very specific fields, and yet all kinds of labor are such a big part of your work.

KJE: But there’s some leisure in that motherfucker too, though!

H: There is! And you often image both labor and leisure onscreen from a specifically Black working-class perspective, when many people think of leisure as being not attainable at all [in that realm]. Something I like about your films is the way they look at Black people who are working and living, in a way that’s almost quiet.

KJE:  Yeah. I didn’t know if that was going to work … now we’re talking about “what is blackness” or something. I’ll just say the ability to define what blackness is, it’s hard. I mean, there’s 51 million of us, right?

H: [laughs] We do have multitudes.

KJE: For me, it’s all about that kind of gesture, that kind of language that comes out of [film] … I remember when I shot Park Lanes … my favorite scene is the lunchroom scene. It’s the longest one … just kind of watching those guys, you put a backstory on them — or I do. When I look through the viewfinder, I’m looking like, ‘Oh man, that guy’s like 31, if that. Third job,’ and maybe slap a heterosexual narrative on him. He’s got a couple of kids, a wife … All that’s going on in my head during the exposure. So then I’m trying to frame it up so it’s clear to me — I don’t care about the viewer, but it’s clear to me. I make films for the subject matter and me. In fact, I always think I’m hostile to the viewer because I’m making them sit eight hours … I just can’t imagine a viewership, it’s too abstract for me … so I make it internal. It’s self-referential. 

From IFO (2017), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: That reminds me a lot of [Éduoard] Glissant’s writings, where you have the right to opacity. I think there’s this idea that accessibility has to be key, especially for Black filmmakers.

KJE: Yeah, I’m opaque. 

H: Talk to me about your editing process. [In addition to your features], you’ve made a lot of super short films.

KJE: Yeah, I like the three minutes … It’s got to be [that] or eight hours. Sometimes the film tells me how long it’s supposed to be. For me, sound and editing, it’s all the same. They got to be, you can’t have the hierarchy. The art object has to feel like everything — all the materials are necessary within it. You can’t just, like, add that on, add that on. And I think sometimes, some of these films aren’t supposed to be features.

H: I want to hear more about how you choose your subjects.

KJE: It’s mostly the formal qualities. It’s like painting, either I’m working on abstract paintings and I’m trying to push the paint through, or I have it bleed through. It’s like Ellsworth Kelly — these paintings where he has a black painting, and then a white one on top of it. It’s that moment right where you realize they’re on top of each other and they’re also two separate things, when they’re also one thing at once. Something’s blocking or eclipsing. Tonsler Park had that. But then some of those [scenes] used that high con[trast] stock … their faces are super black, like a Kerry James Marshall painting.

H: We touched on your work with Claudrena Harold earlier. What brought you together?

KJE: She was doing research on the history of African Americans [at UVA] and thought she found footage … like documentaries of Black people. It was basically old films [UVA had borrowed and] that weren’t sent back. She had all these stories, photographs, oral histories, or audiotapes of shit that happened. So I said, ‘Well, we’ll make a film … we’ll shoot footage as if somebody was shooting a documentary about black student life [at UVA] in the ’70s.’ So then We Demand was the second [film], which was based on James Roebuck, who was the first Black Ph.D student [at UVA]. And then we made a road movie, then we had Fastest Man in the State, about the first black athletes there. 

From How Can I Ever Be Late (2017), dirs. Claudrena N. Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson

H: Rewatching your older films alongside the more recent work you’ve done with Claudrena, it’s been interesting to note certain similarities, but also some very pronounced differences. 

KJE: Yeah, [I feel] like there’s a kind of invitation for the viewer [with the collaborative works], for them to understand and access historical events in one way or another — or maybe it’s just for the Black [UVA] alumni, a certain specific viewership.

H: That makes me want to talk about Black Bus Stop, which you and Claudrena just screened at the New York Film Festival. Something I really love about it are the scenes featuring step routines by Black sororities and fraternities, which you don’t see much in experimental film. Can you talk about why you wanted to capture that type of performance?

KJE: I forget how it came about. But we were talking about ‘the Black bus stop’ [on campus], and then I said, ‘Well, we should make this a magical realism dance thing. Like, have a step show.’ We could have all the Black Greeks come represent, kind of reclaiming the space by dancing and all that. (My cousins were mostly Sigmas and shit.)

So we shot that, and Marjani Forte did the choreography. She came twice [to campus], ’cause we made her give a little talk, made it kind of a pedagogical thing. Our films are more like teaching, so my students get to shoot stuff. Then Claudrena has this kind of historical thing going on, so we collaborate like that, with her Black Fire class and [my] advanced film class.

From Black Bus Stop (2019), dirs. Claudrena N. Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson

H: It’s nice to hear you discuss the ways in which you and Claudrena are framing things for students, specifically to give them new experiences. I wonder if you could talk about the flip side of that. Are there ways in which teaching inflects your own practice?

KJE: Oh my god, totally. My teaching dictates my practice, more than I would like to admit … I want to lead by example, though I never show my students my work.

H: What do you mean? Never?

KJE: Never. I’ll show a clip of something, ’cause it has some color in it that they should see. But I’ll tell them it’s somebody else’s film.

H: [laughs] That’s wild. 

KJE: ‘Cause kids will do this thing … I can tell [which] films come out of CalArts … they all look like their professors’. I don’t want [my students] to make shit that looks like mine. I just want them to take my work ethic. I want the physicality, not the result of it. 

Every time I travel, I’m like, ‘This would be good for the class.’ I’m always writing that down in my sketchbook [while] seeing things. I teach film like a DJ … I never teach the whole film, I just pick up things we could use.

From Black Bus Stop (2019), dirs. Claudrena N. Harold and Kevin Jerome Everson

H: It’s refreshing to hear that teaching is such a big part of your practice, ’cause I feel like for a lot of filmmakers and artists, it really comes second. 

KJE: I don’t want to go to work every day, so I get on my bike and go to school. It’s a whole different thing. I’m learning too. And I bring them up [to New York] every spring to meet artists and filmmakers and writers. That’s all important too, to talk about what these people do for a living, so they know that they can make art. How to negotiate, to keep your practice going.

H: It sounds like you’re really encouraging them to think about making art as a form of labor as well. 

KJE: Yeah, I figure, ‘You’re in my class, I guess you want to make art. So here’s how you can do it’ … I want to make the classroom a place of safety. A place where you can say things, where we can do things together. Make them want to come, make them want to learn. I want to put them in a position where they can succeed.

From Tonsler Park (2017), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: I also think there’s something to be said about the fact that you’re creating this space specifically for Black students in a place like Charlottesville, Virginia, [especially] when not too long ago, Charlottesville was the site of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally … 

KJE: Fucking Nazis! Or we call [them] Nazis.

H: As you should.

KJE: Charlottesville’s been fucked up from the get … well the state of Virginia has. There’s enough history there for [white supremacists] to feel good. I’ve got colleagues who can’t read because we had that massive resistance where the governor didn’t want to integrate public schools, so he closed them for six years in the late ’60s or early ’70s. So if you didn’t have kinfolk up North, then … you didn’t get educated … which is treason and impeachable, because you’re not protecting the oath of office. Because that was a Supreme Court ruling. It was the rule of the land to educate people, and [the governor] closed the schools. So the violence of poverty, the violence of a lack of education was still around. So [when the rally happened], I told my colleagues, ‘This ain’t new.’

H: I also appreciate the way your films are often grounded in the South and the Midwest.

KJE: Shit, that’s where I’m from. And the South is cool, I love the South. I mean, I agree with the Midwest, but I’ve spent almost half my life down South now. Nineteen years in Virginia and four in Tennessee.

From Tonsler Park (2017), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: A few of your films almost strike me as documents of different accents. 

KJE: I love that shit. I wrote a script years ago and never got any money for it …  My dad and uncles, they drove school buses when they were 14, 15, and so [I wanted to make] a film based on that in the ’50s. My whole idea was to have it spoken so it’s inaudible, you know? This was about 15 years ago, I was going to cast it in like Birmingham, just the most harsh … East Mississippi, West Alabama speak … I went to integrated schools, so I spoke differently. But the thing is with segregation during the ’50s … it’s like in Mississippi, there’s never ‘tw’s — it’s like a ‘q.’ ‘Qwenty-one, qwenty-two, qwenty-three.’ I wanted that kind [of sound] … But [that] definitely would never get done … I remember meetings at Sundance, and they were like ‘too period, too black.’ [With Company Line], people wanted to subtitle it, and I was like no.

H: I think not subtitling for U.S. audiences is important. There’s a certain amount of refusal in that, which kind of relates to what we were talking about earlier, about not having to privilege accessibility.

KJE: I don’t have time for that shit. Let them other motherfuckers deal with it.

From Park Lanes (2015), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: It’s also something that tends to only be asked of Black people and other people of color. It reminds me a lot of what Tony Morrison used to say about her writing, like ‘If I were anyone else, you wouldn’t be asking me to explain this, so why should I?’ I think it speaks to the stifling nature of respectability politics.

KJE: Yeah, I can’t do that. Just like I was telling somebody last year, I either do high art or straight ignorant. 

H: [laughs] Tell me about the straight ignorant.

KJE:  I like cats where you just can’t understand a motherfucker … because there’s more form in that. But if you do the respectability thing, well then you’re always thinking of how it’s going to be seen.

H: Yeah, then it’s never about it just being.

KJE: Yeah. And then for me, when I got to Cleveland in ’90, I think, I was like all Postmodern and shit, making conceptual art. Which was cool because there were also brothers and sisters that were painting like the continent of Africa, you know, just making shit like that. But then they were like, ‘Oh you’re making all that white shit?’ I was like, ‘Look man, we can’t all do the same thing. I do this, you do that, so [together] we’ve got it covered.’

From Company Line (2009), dir. Kevin Jerome Everson

H: Yeah, there’s a whole spectrum of blackness. I want to shift gears a little and talk about some of the things that are informing your work now.

KJE: Yeah, it’s mostly paintings, like Kerry [James Marshall] and Ellsworth [Kelly], and also Kara Walker. I mean, a lot of the work is about Caravaggio. It’s what Ears, Nose and Throat and a bunch of [my films] were about, because in this Caravaggio painting, there was an eyewitness, and so I likened the film to the eyewitness view. And then with other films, even the way the subject is positioned, the viewer sometimes is the eyewitness. 

H: Let’s shift to the present. You were recently awarded the 24th Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities. Is there anything that you’re particularly excited about which this funding and the honor might help you do?

KJE: Well I was going to make shit anyway, but this helps. I mean, [my daughter’s] college is paid for. My thing is I’m not [one] to wait for somebody to give me the okay to make a feature. I’m always going to make shit anyway, either by hook or crook. I’m flattered, ’cause I know there’s always more deserving people out there. I’ve got a lot of peers who are super talented; I would be just as happy if they got it. But I mean, I’m always like, I wish [certain] people were here, like if my son was around to see it. So I think about that, and I end up thinking about how I got to this point — all the teachers, relatives, friends who were supporting me. ‘Cause it’s never [just] me. It’s about the communities that I’ve been in. You know, my communities in Nashville, Cleveland, my college friends, former students, current students. It’s all that, it’s not about the money.

Here’s an exclusive stream of Kevin Jerome Everson’s 2016 short Ears, Nose and Throat. In it, a woman recounts a tragedy she witnessed — but before doing so, she undergoes a medical examination to confirm her physical faculties. It’s a quiet but potent condemnation of society’s built-in skepticism of the Black experience, and especially of its continual silencing of Black women.

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