For some Northern Virginia’s artists, making art has become intertwined with spreading cultural awareness and expressing a passion for the betterment of society. –Shelby Robinson
Richard Knox Robinson
“I didn’t go into making films to be an activist, I just researched my films too much and found information that I couldn’t reconcile with,” says Richard Knox Robinson. His interest in research and film took the Reston native from a photography job with National Geographic to George Mason University for a graduate degree in filmmaking, with his first film setting the scene for a turbulent career.
“I really didn’t expect beekeeping to be political,” he says about “The Beekeepers,” (2009) his entry into the filmmaking world. It began with his interest in beekeeping but became more about the fate of bees and life as we know it, if the pesticides causing Colony Collapse Disorder are not regulated.
Controversy has since followed. His second film, “Rothstein’s First Assignment,” (2011) brought Robinson full-on scrutiny. While retracing the work of Arthur Rothstein, one of America’s premier photojournalists, Robinson discovered, through interviews, photo archives and court documents, that the then Resettlement Administration’s relocation project of a community in the Appalachian Mountains was a falsehood. The people Rothstein was so diligently photographing and recording were in fact part of an experimental eugenics program. The film elicited criticism from a Farm Security Administration Scholar and was publicly critiqued by Rothstein’s daughter as well as the Journal of American History.
“[The Journal of American History critic] didn’t critique me on the technique, he tried to critique me on the facts, and he’s wrong. He says it’s untrue because I don’t say who was sterilized in the film, but I can’t and he knows I can’t,” says Robinson referring to the requested anonymity of the still-living Madison County residents who were involved in the program.
James Madison University will be hosting a screening “Rothstein’s First Assignment” this fall, and Robinson’s newest film “Song of the Cicadas,” relating the “prisoners of the underground” to political prisoner Timothy Blunk, and will be at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colorado.
Composer Jonathan Kolm says he wishes people would remove the stigma around the word “activist” and just see that “being an environmentalist is just being a good citizen. Our long-term safety and health is connected to our immediate surroundings and the air around us, the climate and the world as a whole.”
When Kolm was working on his undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, his goal was to graduate and compose beautiful music. However, during his doctoral program, he read Richard Heinburg’s “The Party’s Over,” which discusses issues surrounding the depletion of fossil fuels. This led to a shift in Kolm’s thinking. He’d never been exposed to environmental issues. “By the end of my studies these issues were becoming important to me in my compositions. I was really interested in using my work to deal with some of these issues.”
Kolm’s recent composition, “Terra Secundum” (meaning “earth after”), is a musical reflection on the possible fate of industrialized society. Another, “Renewables,” explores the possibility of renewable energy. Kolm says that his audiences have generally been very supportive and responsive, mentioning, “although activists and environmentalists can’t match the money that’s being put on the other side of the equation, we can use our creativity to reach people and build a larger coalition of citizens to affect change.”
Composing music starts conversations about the environment and brings attention to the issues, he says. “Activists and people who work in environmental fields often feel as though their work doesn’t get noticed or doesn’t get the attention that it deserves or would like. But having art that reflects on the same issues creates a broader dialogue and bigger space to have conversations about change on a bigger level.”
Kolm teaches music and composition at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria Campus and is the faculty advisor of the NVCC Alexandria Green Team. Check Kolm’s website, jonathankolm.com, for upcoming shows and more information about his compositions.
Christopher Morgan is a cultural diplomat. He has performed and worked with dancers and choreographers in Hong Kong, Lithuania, Ireland and Palestine, to name a few.
In 2002, Morgan was commissioned to choreograph a dance in Lithuania called “Ties that Bind,” which used visual metaphors to explore themes of restriction. A particularly moving experience for him because when he choreographed the piece and was working in Lithuania, “They were not so far out of their time as a communist country and being under the Soviet Union. So a lot of the dancers in the company had a perspective on restriction that I couldn’t have personally. … That kind of restriction was something that was new to me.”
From this point on Morgan went on to choreograph dances such as “Rice,” “The Measure of a Man” and “Dissolving,” about racial identity, gender identity and environmentalism, respectively. Morgan remembers “Rice,” which explored his feelings about growing up as an Asian in a predominantly white community through the systematic washing of rice, as being particularly moving to audiences, specifically when weeks after a performance a 12-year old asked him if he had really wished to have lighter skin as a kid. Morgan told the 12 year old that although he felt that way as a kid, he has since learned the value of cultural diversity, specifically in his own background.
Morgan uses his role as a cultural diplomat to open dialogue about pressing issues because he strongly believes that art with deeper motives has the power to move people in a positive direction and that “art informs diplomacy through culture.”
Morgan teaches choreography at American University and his dance company Christopher K. Morgan & Artists frequently performs at the Alden Theatre in McLean. Check for his upcoming shows on his website christopherkmorgan.com.