Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, June 8, 2015

Delware's Pre-eminent Person of Letters

I have long held that Steven Leech is Delaware’s pre-eminent person of letters. He is a writer, critic, editor, archivist, journalist, promoter, disk jockey, and investigator of Delaware literary, musical, and visual arts, especially works outside the canonical metropole. This summer (2015), Leech will see a vindication, of sorts, of his life of letters on the periphery through his collaboration with the Delaware Art Museum in Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970–1990, which will run June 27, 2015 through September 27, 2015. Leech edited the lit mag Dreamstreets almost from its founding in 1977 through issue #50 in 2006, and a commemorative Dreamstreets #51 is being published by the museum. Leech will be featured along with Dreamstreets alumni and new talent at a special Dreamstreets Downtown reading at the museum on July 18, 7-8 p.m. An early film by Leech, Having Come and Having Gone, is included in the exhibit.

Steven Leech’s scholarship uncoveres the critical edge of Delaware literature, from works that challenged Delaware’s slave economy to twentieth-century exposés of Chateau Country. Leech explains why he has chosen to take his stand outside the establishment but within Delaware boundaries in The Wedgehorn Manifesto: A Cultural Treatise from the Underground (2008):
It is because I see a cultural presence here that has been driven underground—so far underground that it often doesn’t recognize itself. It is a presence that is the true outgrowth, product and result of its own cultural past. It is a past that I can almost remember, but a huge social and political gash that spans the post world War II era has severed us, until only recently, from that which defines us as a cultural community.
In his Manifesto, Leech rescues Delaware’s artistic legacy from the Memory Hole. He traces the history of Delaware jazz, rock and roll, the African-American press, the counter cultural and alternative press, 19th and 20th century authors, cinema, and visual artists, not only the Brandywine Tradition of Schoonover and Wyeth, but what Leech identifies as the Christina Tradition: Edward Grant, Edward Loper, and William D. White, who was featured recently at the Biggs Museum in Dover, thanks in part to efforts by Steven Leech. In the Manifesto, Leech calls for artists to be caretakers of the community conscience. For a free pdf copy of Wedgehorn Manifesto, email your request to Soon to be release is a companion piece to the Manifesto, A City of Ghosts.

Leech carries on a family tradition. His father, Steven Leech senior, was a writer for FDR’s Works Progress Administration and published in the 1938 Delaware: A Guide to the First State. The work was reprinted by the Historical Society of Delaware in 2006, and Leech the son wrote the introduction.

Steven Leech is founder of Dreamstreets Press, Broken Turtle Books, Broken Turtle Booklist, and the Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has also published numerous personal and whimsical imprints such as Screamweets, Creamtreats, Nemocolin Xpress, and Pinhead. In addition to editing Dreamstreets, Leech was editor of two African American Newspapers in Wilmington, The Delaware Spectator and The Delaware Valley Star, as well as Viewpoint, the public face of the University of Delaware Cosmopolitan Club. He was one of the founders in 1981 of 2nd Saturday Poets, now Delaware’s longest-running poetry venue. Recently Leech founded Dreamstreets Downtown, a reading currently held 3rd Saturdays at 3 p.m. at the Chris White Gallery in the middle of our struggling burg, Wilmington.

Leech is a leading radio personality. Folks in northern Delaware and three contiguous states know Leech through Even Steven’s Boptime, heard on WVUD 91.3-FM Saturday mornings from 6 to 10 p.m. Boptime features popular music, jazz, and show tunes in their cultural, historical, and political contexts. One of the show’s regular features is “Cliffords Corner,” where Larry Williams, Bob Fleming, and Maurice Simms join Leech to tell of personal encounters with luminaries like Betty Roché, Lem and Daisy Winchester, and Clifford Brown. Another feature is "Vietnam Rock," which Leech, a Vietnam veteran, uses as part tribute to the troops and part exposé of that dreadful conflict. Leech also produces Dreamstreets 26, a radio show on WVUD that has captured the voices Delaware poets and writers of the past half-century as well as readings from authors of the last 200 years. The show is currently broadcast Monday’s at 1 p.m. Leech even produced a video of this writer’s poem “String Quartet,” featuring the Delos String Quartet, for WHYY-TV12 in 1986.

Not only has Leech published many hundreds of incisive articles on politics, history, and the arts, but his fiction and poetry are as daring as anything by the predecessors he admires. Works such as Raw Suck, Untime, and 2000 Years are at times dark and painfully personal, sometimes humorous, and always prophetic. He floats his characters in and out of alternative universes, some hellish, some as life was supposed to be. His work is never lukewarm. As the Good Book says, the lukewarm the Lord spits from His mouth.

Steven Leech is the recipient of both Emerging and Established Artist fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts. Events associated with the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum are available at the Museum’s Website.

Most of Steven Leech's literary works are listed on his Broken Turtle Booklist Page. There is also an archive of some of his works and old photos at Flying Snail.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Delaware Artist William D. White Retrospective at the Biggs is a “Must See”

I’ve written a fair amount about William D. White on this blog space and in other places. Now you can see for yourself the sizable collection of his art on display at the Biggs Museum of Art in Dover, Delaware. It’s all thanks to the heroic efforts of Nancy Carol Willis, who as a girl was fortunate to have known White. All during my own adolescence, growing up in Richardson Park, I had also heard about White from my father, who had known him during their years together working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s.

Nancy Carol Willis' Exhibition catalogue

I daresay that White was one of the most important artists working in Delaware in the 20th century. As far as I’m concerned, his stature ranks with that of Edward Loper as an artist of great vision. Yet, it may become apparent why William D. White’s work was nearly rubbed out of the legacy forged by Delaware artists. Part of the reason may have been caused by White’s own nature, which was as an unassuming gentle human being who never sought to direct attention onto himself. He lived his later life in poverty, almost as a hermit, for lack of a better term, in not much more than an adobe hut in the Penny Hill vicinity north of Wilmington.

Another reason his work fell into obscurity and his artistic legacy came fatally close to becoming forgotten was the nature of his artwork itself.

Even while providing large amounts of artwork to the corporate chemical giant Hercules Company during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he largely depicted the workingman and the ordinary people who could be our neighbors. It was his artwork from the later 1930s that his depictions of his subject matter took on a greater role as social commentary. Nancy Carol Willis, who compiled the catalogue that accompanies the Biggs’ exhibit, says it best:

“He invariably chose to depict laborers rather than foremen or managers. What stands out as highly unusual for the time was his honest and empathetic depiction of society’s marginalized members. European immigrants and African Americans rarely achieved prominence in such large paintings.”

William D. White was Delaware’s first, and maybe only, true Social Realist.

An untitled William D. White painting from my
own collection that's in the Biggs exhibit

Nancy Carol Willis’s catalogue is essential for gaining a complete story of William D. White’s life and artistic career. Inside are reproductions of works not available for the exhibit, along with photos of White’s parents and those of his youth.

Willis, herself a fine artist who is well acquainted with the history of 20th century American art, provides examples by other of White’s contemporaries to give context to White’s artistic endeavors. We see, in much the same manner Delaware artist Edward Loper kept pace with the development of American art and new trends in its expression, how White absorbed and learned from his peers and national contemporaries. Among Delaware’s 20th century artists, Loper and White sustained their careers as artists by understanding and learning from what was going on around them in the development of American art, from the Ashcan school to Social Realism, with that which came before and that which came in between. White even took some incursions into the realm of abstract art.

With some fortunate serendipity, when the Biggs Museum exhibit ends on June 21st, opening on June 27th, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington will present Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970 – 1990. William D. White died in 1971, just as the art movement in Wilmington was getting under way. Much of the art produced in the Wilmington vicinity during this period has much in common with the socially conscious art of William D. White. Unavoidably, it’s easy to see how the life and work of William D. White flows nearly seamlessly into the endeavors of those who followed and launched artistic careers in the early 1970s. White’s artistic career ended in obscurity while those beginning to work in the 1970s began in obscurity, subjected to marginalization and living, often times, in poverty, yet remaining true to a vision that comprised something more progressive than the bucolic landscape and elitist sensibilities of The Brandywine Tradition that held sway over Delaware artists.

Finally, with these two back-to-back art exhibitions, we are getting a truer picture of the Wilmington art world. Beginning with artists like William D. White, Edward Loper, Edward Grant, Bayard Berndt, Jeannette Slocomb Edwards, Walter Pyle, Henrietta Hoopes and many others who painted during the period of the late 1930s, we begin to see how an earlier art community morphed into the one that blossomed on the heels of the vibrant counter-culture of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Among those earlier artists, William D. White, along with Edward Loper, embodies the greatest element of cohesion with the aspirations of a later generation of local artists.