Creative Fire: Profiles by Christel Highland

Lonnie McFadden: A Joyful Perspective

Rehearsal with Lonnie McFadden (photo courtesy of the artist)

The velvety vocals of multi-faceted artist Lonnie McFadden shine in his 2012 album, “I Believe in Music.” Just released in March, “Live at the Green Lady Lounge” is pure, Kansas City jazz at its finest. Swinging, rowdy, live and soul-filled, McFadden’s newest album makes the listener proud to be a Kansas Citian, and proud of our jazz heritage. Without a doubt, McFadden had a blast making this album, flanked by pianist Andrew Ouellette, bassist DeAndre Manning and drummer Tyree Johnson. “Live at the Green Lady Lounge” is filled with anecdotes and positivity.

McFadden grew up in the thick of Kansas City’s jazz scene with the talented performer/ dancer/emcee, Smilin’ Jimmy McFadden, for a father. During his childhood, by virtue of his talented family, he met institutions like Count Basie, Jay McShann, and Betty and Milt Abel. With a legacy of that magnitude, perhaps his destiny was predetermined, but Lonnie and his brother Ronald took things to the next level, creating the power duo The McFadden Brothers. With Ronald on the saxophone and Lonnie on trumpet, both singing and dancing they cut their teeth performing in grade school. They were touring the world before most of us graduated from college.

McFadden admits, “My experience was different than most,” when it comes to dealing with racism as a young person. Touring Japan as a teenager with his brother, the McFadden Brothers were treated like kings, but coming back to Kansas City was a bit of a shock. He recalls a story about a club called Pogo’s, “I heard about Pogo’s, and everyone was telling me black people couldn’t come in. I had never been treated differently until I came back to Kansas City.” The door attendant was checking IDs and when he got to the front of the line, “They asked me for three forms of ID! I had a passport, a driver’s license, and back in those days you had a liquor card.” Of course, the other kids weren’t asked for three forms of ID, but McFadden was prepared and got into the club. He said that at that time in his career, he and his brother were restricted to the black clubs and the black neighborhoods in Kansas City. He had other stories, but for him, Kansas City kept him coming back because “The beauty outweighs everything else.”

Among artists, however, McFadden says that he never dealt with anything remotely close to racism. Having spent time with talented musicians, singers, actors and dancers throughout his career, he recognized that talent seems to transcend all cultural stigmas. With musicians, he says, “It’s always about, can you play?” When McFadden talks about the current Kansas City music scene’s state, he gushes, “I’m surrounded by great talent. Artistically, the musicians here are second to none — and I’m not just saying that — I know. Musicians are moving here from all over. If I wanted to, I could perform seven nights a week, and that’s rare. These young people are raising the bar.”

Scheduling our time to visit around park visits with his grandchildren, it seems that McFadden has hit a sweet spot in his life. He has no plans to retire, saying he is unapologetically an entertainer. He’s committed to that. The accolades are starting to come in. Even though he says that it might have been nice to receive them in his 20s, he’s grateful and excited. Recently, The McFadden Brothers received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Museum in May 2016 and Living Legends Awards from Tapology October 2017. Also, in 2017, McFadden won the Best Entertainer award from Ingram’s Magazine. “All I care about is right now. I’m older than I’ve ever been. I have more energy than I ever have. I feel great! I’m happy. This is what brings me joy.” Catch McFadden live at one of Kansas City’s many venues. His performance calendar is kept current at lonniemcfadden.com.

Maria Vasquez-Boyd: A Powerful Healing Voice in Kansas City’s Art Community

Maria Vasquez-Boyd on the air with ArtSpeak Radio at 90.1 KKFI. (Photo by Christel Highland)

You might know Maria Vasquez Boyd as the silken voice behind ArtSpeak Radio on KKFI 90.1 FM. For the last six years, she has given her time from noon to 1 p.m. every Wednesday, providing a platform for artists in the community to tell their stories and promote their work. Not only does she give the intensely diverse arts community a voice, but she has created an environment wherein notoriously competitive artists come together and tell their stories. The result is a supportive, human experience which solidifies a sense of community among artists every Wednesday. She looks at the show as an anthropological project, trying to uncover what lies underneath. When she graduated from art school, she felt ignored by art institutions and the powers that be as a woman and a Latina. This experience early in her career gave her the strong desire to provide a voice for all in the art community.

That said, not many artists know her work, which is deeply rooted in her culture, and the yearning she felt as a young woman to connect with her heritage. Growing up in the 60s in South Kansas City was sometimes very difficult. She remembers, “You were expected to assimilate. We weren’t taught Spanish. People didn’t like me because I wasn’t white.” So, when she had a child of her own, she was determined that she would learn about her culture and her language and feel a connection to them. “I didn’t want her to feel that loss that I felt.”

A fan of skydiving, “there’s something about flying through the air.” When approaching her work, she takes a bold leap each time. With a skill for ancient-looking line drawings of familiar yet ancient characters, there is a compelling, naive quality to her previous work that speaks beyond the simple ingredients of paper and ink and paint. The lifelong process of reintegrating her culture into her work has without a doubt led her to a new level in her art practice.

When Maria Vasquez Boyd embarked on her current body of large oil paintings, a very personal dive into self-healing after her beloved brother’s passing, she said, “I felt like I needed my ancestors in order to process the grief.” She started researching her ancestors, specifically, Mesoamerican culture, symbolism and healers, when she realized that this body of work transcends her personal experience. “I’m not the only one suffering from a loss. So many people are in the middle of the fight of their lives.” She’s hoping this work can reach others who might be going through the struggle, whether it be the loss of a spouse, a job or a loved one. Aesthetically, the work is striking in not only its sophistication and contemplative quality but also the fact that it’s devoid of color. Some of her more familiar work is extremely vibrant, but she uncovered some other early work in Sumi ink and paper that hints at the origin of the new paintings. “I didn’t want to contaminate my thoughts with color.”

Without a doubt, her new studio in her home has given her the freedom and space to create on an intimate, elevated level. Her lower-level studio is full of light, with a view of the woods behind the house that she shares with her husband. Wonderfully messy, she has large and small paintings, mostly in whites and grays with clear, dense, intentional marks defining this new story she wants to tell. The apparent contentment that she feels in her studio, coupled with her connection with her ancestors cultivated over her lifetime, has allowed her to fly freely into the curandera part of herself. “This is my prayer, my offering for healing. I come from a long line of healers. I have a responsibility.”

Larry Schwarm: Burning a Path while Going with the Flow

Laurence and Pauline Schwarm in front of their 100-year-old farm, June 2011. (Photo courtesy of featured artist Larry Schwarm)

A Kansas native, Larry Schwarm has led a brilliant, colorful life while remaining in the Midwest. After receiving his B.F.A. in Design and Sculpture at the University of Kansas, followed by an M.F.A. in Design and Photography, Schwarm started a frame shop in Lawrence and became the staff photographer at The Spencer Museum of Art. Through that post, Schwarm learned product lighting. Worried he might stagnate in Lawrence, and quite on a whim, Schwarm moved to Milwaukee. After a bit of a struggle to make ends meet, he became a photographer’s assistant, where he continued his education in lighting and product photography, eventually landing solo advertising work. While he enjoyed the challenge, he said, “I wasn’t satisfying myself.”

It was by sheer coincidence that he ran into a classmate from KU while he was visiting museums in Washington, D.C. His friend was teaching at Emporia, and Schwarm lamented that he missed the boat and wished he had gone into education. Not long after his friend contacted him, Emporia State was looking for a photography professor with fine art as well as commercial experience. He took the post and didn’t look back for 25 years. Of that first day teaching he said, “It was what I was supposed to be doing, talking about what I love more than anything.” He goes on, “teaching forces me to stay current with technology.” It is evident that Schwarm is going to miss his students, being around young people and teaching. He’s been at Wichita State for five years, is in his final year there, and it is evident that his teaching fuels him, but he has a lot of irons in the fire.

Schwarm is most well-known for his photographs of spring fires on the prairie, which have been featured on the covers of Harper’s, Audubon, and on novels as well as notable poetry magazines. The photos are vibrant and colorful while simultaneously exposing the otherworldly nature of our environment. Related to his fire work, Schwarm has also created some intensely emotive landscapes that inhabit an abstract, painterly space.

Schwarm finds every surface fascinating and has also applied his landscape photography technique to portraiture. The effect is immediate, intense and a bit unnerving for the subject as well as the viewer. He uses a super high-definition camera and prints the images on an unsettlingly large scale, revealing every pore and crevice.

His flexibility within his craft is what led him to a collaboration with scientists that has lasted more than five years. Creating a visual platform for the scientific research project “Biofuels and Climate Change: Farmers’ Land Use Decisions,” funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with both Kansas State University and University of Kansas, has been a partnership that only Schwarm’s career could have inspired. During the collaboration, Schwarm took a documentary-style, deep look into the life and farming practices of cultivators across Kansas. The images are sometimes raw, other times they leave the viewer feeling lonesome and isolated, while others, like the image of his own parents, fill the viewer with longing for a time that has long passed. A group of 50 images will be on display from Aug. 11, 1918 to Jan. 6, 2019 at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas. Other images the artist has selected from the Land Use series will be on display at the Wichita Art Museum starting September 29. Additionally, Schwarm will be part of a group exhibition titled “Not an Ostrich, and other images from America’s Library of Congress” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, California, this fall.

Of his commitment to his craft, Schwarm says, “I entered a different level in my late forties. Sticking with it is key. Eventually, if you’re good, you will gain some notoriety.”

Rod Parks: Obsessively Cool by Nature

Rod Parks amongst a portion of his collection at Retro Inferno with his beloved sidekick Ettore. (Photo by Christel Highland)

Rod Parks is a collector who has always surrounded himself with beautiful things. A consummate aesthete, anyone who knows him will proclaim his coolness. He’s been procuring and selling mid-century artifacts for 20 years through his business, Retro Inferno. About half of what Retro Inferno (located at 1500 Grand) sells goes to interior designers in New York, and then another 30 percent goes to interior designers outfitting homes on the West Coast and elsewhere. The rest gets shipped to individuals.

Rod Parks was a high school teacher who had just completed his Master’s in the early 90s, getting his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at UMKC, when his life took a dramatic turn. “I happened upon an estate sale when I was looking for furniture one day. I decided it was time to get rid of my old-guy furniture. I was 37 years old, and I had this weird hodgepodge of things, and couldn’t find anything I liked at furniture stores.” He was hooked.

Then he began to trust his eye. “I started learning about designers and manufacturers because I’d say to myself gosh, this thing is so cool.” It all had a life of its own, he says. “The only way to live with my obsession was to make a business out of it.” Before starting his business, he had a garage, basement, storage lockers, (and probably much more) full of stuff. He had to start selling. Friends began noticing his finds and complimenting him, and Retro Inferno was born. Five years after that first estate sale, he had a store.

“The idea is . . . if you are going to spend some money on furniture, spend it wisely. You can get a lot more bang for your buck when you buy vintage stuff.” The environmentally conscious aspect is just a happy accident, because Parks will admit that it is all about having cool things. He likens it to driving a nice car, performance, and quality. To him, buying quality furniture is “the difference between driving a Ford and a Mercedes.”

I like the idea of surrounding myself with interesting and cool stuff.” Of course, even Parks’ philosophy about his collection is cool. While Parks is surrounded by an overwhelming array of beautiful objects, he maintains a healthy perspective on the process as a whole: “It’s all inventory — even what’s in my house. I don’t place a lot of emotion in objects. It’s stuff. Things get me — and I’m thrilled when I get my hands on something like that — but I’ve learned that I don’t have to keep it.” To that end, he tells a story of a George Nelson marshmallow sofa that he coveted for 20 years, one of only 150 made, that he sold four days after purchasing it. “I really would’ve rather sold it a year later; I would’ve liked to have put it in my house and lived with it, but he made a good offer.”

If therapist to furniture dealer seems like a leap, it’s not. “I always bought and sold (things).” When I was a kid in grade school, my mom would make these homemade oatmeal cookies. I’d sell them to this kid one for fifteen cents or two for a quarter . . . I started buying and selling cars in my 20s, just because I wanted a particular car; I sold tournament ski boats because I was into water skiing.” Whatever cool thing Rod Parks was into at the time became his obsession, but don’t look for him to switch gears anytime soon. He has too much cool inventory.

Christel Highland

Christel Highland is an Artist, Curator, Designer and Realtor/Investor living and working in Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District who also has the distinct honor of serving on the Municipal Arts Commission as well as the Executive Committee for the new Kansas City International Airport. Her most cherished life’s work is being the Mother to Clive and Otto.

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