Damont Combs is 2018 Poet of the Year, author of two poetry books: my poem…my riddle and A Touch Of Orange. We asked him a few questions about his life and art-making in Rhode Island for our series, Rhode Island Cultural Anchors.
RISCA: Why do you make Rhode Island your home, and how did you end up here? DC: I came here to go to Johnson and Wales to pursue a degree in computer technology. I graduated and settled down with my family. I made RI my home because it grew on me. It’s the best place for the arts to thrive.
RISCA: Why do you do what you do? What inspires you, drives you, to create or enable the creation of art? DC: Poets are the mouthpiece of society. I say what others say in the back of their minds. I say it more poetically. I use words as more than a way of expression; it is my way of life now. I feed my family with Art, I feed my soul with Poetry. I bring passion back into my city. I stay inspired by my poetry family as well. They push me to continue going and staying relevant and reinventing the wheel.
RISCA: What is one thing you think the art community in Rhode Island needs? DC: I think it needs more open mics. There use to be over 13 open mics you could go to within a couple of miles from each other within any given week. A lot of them shut down due to the host businesses going under. Open mics are vital to growth for our artists, they bring tourism and bring businesses money if done properly.
RISCA: What is the biggest challenge for you in your art life? DC: I want to standardize “paying your artist.” There’s nothing worse than putting in 20 years into your passion and still being told they aren’t paying you because it’s standard not to. I’ve put in a lot of time and effort into poetry. I’ve decided to do this full time, but the biggest challenge I face is organizations and venues not wanting to pay me. They say exposure or they are non-profit but my argument is the gas/light/rent/cable and plumbing is all paid. Why should paying your artist be any different? A service is being provided; pay for that service.
Molly Dickinson is an artist and arts administrator living and working out of Middletown, RI. Studying Illustration at RISD and theatrical painting at Yale School of Drama, she worked in theatre, opera and art conservation before settling back in Rhode Island. She has coordinated RISCA’s rotating public art exhibits at TF Green & Block Island Airports for the last 5 years, work she has just left in order to manage a new project at the Jamestown Arts Center.
We asked her a few questions about her life and art-making in Rhode Island for our series, Rhode Island Cultural Anchors.
RISCA: What do you love about the art community/scene in Rhode Island?
MKD: I love that the state is small enough that you can run into people you know really anywhere. The art scene is dynamic and happening, yet people are helpful and friendly rather than competitive. We moved to Rhode Island from the New York metropolitan area and really noticed the friendlier, less stressful way of life.
RISCA: What are you the most excited about right now in your art practice/work as an arts and culture administrator?
MKD: I’m always excited about the upcoming airport exhibits- each year there is a terrific group of artists selected by the jury. That being said, in the upcoming year I am on leave from the GREEN SPACE Gallery in order to manage a new project for the JAC, an exhibition of 3-D and installation artworks planned for summer 2020. I’m excited about this project for the JAC, in honor of their 10th anniversary- and the JAC is an amazing place worthy of celebration! I’m excited for artists working in 3-D or installation genres, as it’s an opportunity to exhibit here in Rhode Island. The state has few such projects or venues for 3-D artists, so this exhibition fills a gap. Professionally, I’m pleased to manage this project as it draws upon aspects of my previous work experience while presenting new problems to be solved. Personally, I just was awarded an itty-bitty fellowship through Getaway.com, so am definitely looking forward to a few uninterrupted days of drawing.
RISCA: What is one thing you think the art community in Rhode Island needs?
MKD: One thing? I’m stuck on three, those being: Affordable studio/work spaces in the Aquidneck & Conannicut island communities; Buyers for artwork; and Public school arts education. To elaborate, We live in Middletown on Aquidneck Island and so consider ourselves part of the greater Newport community. Conanicut & Aquidneck islands are incredibly beautiful, inspiring places for artists. Yet, they lack any kind of affordable studio rentals for artists. Cities like providence or Pawtucket have successfully repurposed their mill & manufacturing buildings into artist & small business workspaces. The islands communities lack this infrastructure, and real estate is very expensive. Rhode Island also lacks a robust market for artwork. This is a catch-22 because the modest lifestyle that is good for artists does not necessarily generate arts buyers- many rhode islanders lack the disposable income to buy artwork such you’d find in an area like Boston or New York. Artists find themselves marketing their work outside the state. Finally, I worry that our public schools don’t offer enough arts education. The emphasis seems to be all on jobs training. Music, theatre, visual arts develop our children’s critical thinking skills while also offering joy and respite.
RISCA: What is the biggest challenge for you in your art life?
MKD: Biggest challenge? Time! I frequently feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I’m supposed to be good at- make a living, keep house, raise kids, then somehow also make some artwork, market, photograph, frame, promote it, build a website, keep bookkeeping accounts, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Lorén M. Spears, Narragansett, Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum, holds a Masters in Education and has received numerous awards, including a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Rhode Island for her work. She is an author, traditional artist and shares her cultural knowledge with the public through museum programs. She is also a council member of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.
RISCA: Give us a brief overview of your day yesterday- what did you do in both your personal and professional life. LS: Yesterday I went to Providence as I serve on the MET School Board for an 8am meeting then went to the Secretary of State’s Office for the RI Historical Records Advisory Board (newly appointed by Governor Raimondo) for that meeting. After that meeting I stopped into an unique vintage shop and bought my nephew a gift to go with his traditional regalia, it was this amazing mink stole! He is an MET high school intern at Tomaquag and is focused on education and fashion design. He designed his last two grass dance outfits. Back in the office, I met with staff about various projects from collections, archives, education, retail and the Indigenous Empowerment Network. I spent quite a bit of time responding to emails, following up on partnerships, and preparing for grant writing & reports.
RISCA: What do you love about the art community/scene in Rhode Island? LS: I love the diversity. I love the partnerships we have across the state. We have wonderful partnerships that allow the Indigenous viewpoint, voice and culture to be included. The partnership with Avenue Concept Project & Gaia an international street artist produced an amazing mural spotlighting Lynsea Montanari, a Narragansett, artist, cultural educator, college student and Millennial, holding a photograph of Princess Red Wing, Narragansett- Wampanoag Sachem, Educator and Culture Bearer. There are so many partnerships to mention but we are proud to be a partner with RISCA since its first Eastern Woodland Native American Art Show. Each year, the show becomes even more vibrant. We are partnered right now with the University of Rhode Island’s Fine Arts Gallery for the show, Yo Nuweekun; We Dwell Here. It continues until March 1st. We have worked with many organizations to bring Indigenous arts into visibility within our homelands. Check out the painted cairn in Roger Williams National Memorial Park, painted by Tomaquag Narragansett Interns Robin Spears III & Lynsea Montanari. We partner annually with the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, RI over Labor Day weekend. It includes an Narragansett elder Dawn Dove, providing the opening welcome & blessing; Native Artist collaborative vendor tent; free daily art workshops; storyteller Thawn Harris in Family tent; and last year The Groovolottos, a funk R&B band, performed in the Roots Tent. Through all of these artist partnerships, we want Rhode Islanders & Tourists alike to know “We Are Still Here” and to learn about our history, culture and contemporary lives through the arts.
RISCA: Why do you make Rhode Island your home, and how did you end up here? LS: It is my Homeland, as a Narragansett. We are the First Peoples of this place. Our ancestors are here. However, I was born in Spokane, Washington, as my father was in the Air Force. We moved back home when I was two. I have no memory of our time there. This is my home.
RISCA: What is one thing you think the art community in Rhode Island needs? LS: Visibility for the smaller yet impactful community arts organizations, they make Rhode Island vibrant, serve their community, and impact Rhode Island through tourism, economic investment and quality of life.
RISCA: What Rhode Island artists and/or arts organizations most inspire you and why? LS: There are so many wonderful and impactful RI artists and arts organizations that I struggle to narrow it down but I will name a few. Holly Ewald, UPPArts for her ability to use art for environmental change and creating a coalition of folks to join her from all walks of life. Valerie Tutson, RIBS, for bringing untold history to life through storytelling. Dawn Spears, NIAA & Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative, for supporting New England Native artists’ development via NEFA, her own artwork, design work, arts leadership and integrating arts into all her advocacy. Nancy Brown Garcia, Narragansett, for the world record for smallest beadwork. Allen Hazard, for his wampum art, willingness to mentor other artists and share his story with the world. My husband, Robin Spears, Jr. for expressing our history, culture, ecological knowledge through his art, for inspiring others, and for passing his gifts to our children, all traditional artists. For the late, Ella Seketau, along with Alberta Wilcox and the late Diosa Summers, who at various times taught me to Fingerweave and twine. I am forever grateful, as it is an artform, I love and am blessed to share with others. To all my tribal elders, family, and especially my mother, Dawn Dove, who shared their cultural, arts knowledge with me and empowered me to share it with my family and community. Kutaputush! Thank you!