As those who have been reading my columns will probably know, last year I wrote and published a book with the title High Lonesome Below Sea Level: Faces and Stories of Bluegrass Music in the Netherlands. It features 56 full-page black-and-white portrait photographs and as many interviews with people in the Netherlands who feel (or have felt in the past) a deep connection to bluegrass music. In my humble opinion, the photography by Marieke Odekerken is so good that it deserves a much bigger audience than the bluegrass scene alone, so we organized a traveling exhibition with a selection of framed prints from the book. During the process of interviews and photo shoots, Marieke and I traveled to all the corners of our little country, and in a way we are re-living this experience every time we pick up the exhibition in one city and move it to the next. As I am writing this, I am sitting in the train with Marieke sitting opposite me, also working on her MacBook Pro; she is selecting and editing pictures for a recent job (portraits of… dogs). Between us are a large suitcase and a shopping bag which together hold the 12 prints that make up the exhibition. We are taking them from the main concert hall for classical music in Leiden (a city in the West of the Netherlands) to a small and cozy café in Apeldoorn (a city in the East).
It takes 2 hours to cross the country horizontally by train, and it’s a comfortable way to travel. The first couple of times I made the mistake of renting a car. All the venues where we hold the exhibitions are in pedestrian zones in the center of the city, impossible to reach by car. I don’t own a car and very rarely drive, so driving makes me nervous anyway, and dismantling or building up an exhibition with the knowledge that the car is illegally parked somewhere does not help with the stress levels. But with a suitcase on wheels and a bus stop right in front of the venue, the whole operation is a breeze.
In Groningen, we were part of a larger exhibition together with two other artists. Bluegrass band Stringtime played a concert at the official opening, and all the artists (including Marieke) explained their way of working to an interested audience. The band remarked that they felt a little rebellious making noise in a library… and that they got a kick out of it! The library made a lot of promotion for the exhibition, like printing greeting cards with one of the portraits from the book on it. The cards were in high demand. Sometimes I wonder what kind of people took a card and to whom they sent it. I wonder if one day one of them will be addressed to me…
The book store in Rotterdam where we exhibited next has a stage in the middle of the store. Whenever there is a concert or debate, people can chose to properly sit down for it or to just listen as they are browsing. We opened the exhibition with a concert by my own band Red Herring. After every 2 or 3 songs we gave a small lecture about bluegrass music, the instruments, and how the book was made. It was a very succesful concept which got a lot of positive response from the audience members. We sold a bunch of CD’s and also a couple of books. In a gallery in Schiedam we exhibited in the context of a photography festival, and it was seen by many photography lovers and art critics. After that, the pictures adorned a beautifully lit wooden wall in the café of an art cinema in Amersfoort. At this time, Marieke and I were wondering how you can measure the effect of an exhibition: if we don’t get any responses or sell more books, does this mean that people don’t like or maybe don’t even notice the work? Or do people just look at it, appreciate it, but without reading or remembering the name of the artist or the project? Or is it an investment in the long term, because people will store the images in the back of their minds, so that the next time they see one of the faces from the portraits or if they see the book on sale somewhere they will say to themselves: “Ah, I recognize this musician, he must be good/interesting” or “Ah, I recognize this project, that book must be worthwhile, why don’t I buy it?”. In any case, the people from our own little bluegrass network keep each other in the loop. Joost van Es, our country’s top bluegrass fiddler who is also featured in the book, told me that his son came home one day saying: “Dad, I went to the movies and I saw your picture on the wall!”
It’s a new paragraph and a new day: I’m sitting in bed with my laptop on my lap and one of my cats on my legs to finish up today’s welcolm column before the deadline. I had a short night; the opening of the exhibition in Apeldoorn was a blast, and after singing “The Long Journey Home” with the entire audience I still had to undertake my own long journey home back to Rotterdam before I could hit the hay. The portraits, black-and-white on white paper in a black frame, looked great in the foyer of the stately Leiden concert hall, but they also made for a beautiful contrast with the colored walls and abundance of ornamentations and bric-a-brac in the cozy living room style café in Apeldoorn. The café, which is normally only open for breakfast and lunch, opened especially for a concert by the bluegrass band Velvet Joe and the Bluegrass Diamonds whose members all grew up in Apeldoorn. The café was filled with relatives, old friends and music lovers who came especially for this event and who gave their full attention to the show. Half way through the show, the café owner cracked open the champagne to celebrate the opening of the exhibition. I am sure that after last night, at least 30 people who might not have heard of bluegrass before, will from now on associate it with a pleasant memory! And who knows how many more people will see it in this coming month until we move it to Rasa, the center for World Music in Utrecht….
For an impression of this evening, the current and past exhibitions, take a look at the videos and photos on our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/bluegrassportraits.