Sunday, November 19, 2017

When Ta-Nehisi Coates came to Evanston

...and we talked about race.

Last month Ta-Nehisi Coates came to Evanston Township High School. He was interviewed by Assistant Superintendent-Principal Marcus Campbell and queried by students. Approximately 2,000 people came to the school for this Family Action Network event. Close to 300 watched via live stream.

I appreciate the Q & A part of the program, which went about 32 minutes, as well as the "talk back", which went for another 32 minutes.

Why can't everyone use THAT WORD?: Many of us know the answer to that question too, but few of us have expressed it as eloquently as Mr. Coates does at the start of the Q & A.

The commenters of all ages during the "talk back" really give you a feeling about what some of our neighbors are concerned about and where they come from.

Mr. Coates is a journalist and author. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 2015. Coates is a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Since 2016, Coates has written Marvel’s The Black Panther comic book.

To see the full talk October 18, 2017 talk at ETHS, check out the Family Action Network (FAN) website.

Krista Tippet talked to him this month at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Getting out of the bubble: What are your limiting beliefs?

Evanston community leader Joi-Anissa Russell and I have been having a continuous conversation for more than two months now about “limiting beliefs”. She has some. I have some. Most of us do. They can affect us in very personal ways and as a society.

One glorious day I realized I'd busted one of my myths that had been rattling around in my head. My little story goes like this:
When I was in high school, I'd take the el to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the art. I'd be told not to go any further south than that. I'd gone to the AIC many times, so I was told this many times.
I don't remember the day it happened, but I went further south. It was no big deal. There was no physical line. It just happened...or rather nothing happened. Nothing at all.

It had been built up in my mind that the south side of Chicago, being the baddest part of town (tip of the hat to Jim Croce), was gray and dismal. Instead what I noticed was that the sun shines there too, and nothing was black and white.
Joi and I are planning on including more folks in our conversation. We'll let you know more as soon as we know more.

In the meantime, start your own conversation.

For a chuckle and some insight, check out what Theo E.J. Wilson had to say during his recent TED Talk.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Evanston, My Launching Pad

by Margaretta Swigert-Gacheru

EVANSTON--August 15, 2017 :: I’m an ETHS graduate, but one who spent half my high school years hanging out with a New Trier boy from Kenilworth who was a huge distraction.

Somehow I made it to DePauw University where I got seriously radicalized. 

ETHS had primed me for ‘enlightenment’. ETHS’ multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-class community provided me with more than adequate preparation for my making a graceful move eventually into the global community.

After winning a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Fellowship to study in at the University of Nairobi, in Kenya, I stuck around and got another degree. (I’d already gotten one at DePauw and another at National Louis University.)

That third degree would cost more money, so when the fellowship funds finally ran out, I got a great job as a journalist writing locally about the Kenyan (read African) arts scene. Of course, that would include my writing stories about former colonials and other Europeans as well as about Asians, and other visiting tourists (like Mike Jagger, Jesse Jackson and even British royalty like Sarah Ferguson, former wife of Prince Andrew, the Queen’s youngest son, to name-drop just a few of the ‘celebs’ that came to Kenya who I interviewed). My focus was and continues to be on writing about Kenyan Africans, both visual artists and performers, particularly theater people.

Early on I fell for an African classmate of mine at Nairobi University who I thought would be my Samora Machel--the handsome freedom-fighter from Mozambique who was assassinated by South African pro-Apartheid forces a while back--but not quite. In any case, Gacheru is a great man and he gave me (or I gave him) a beautiful son who is now a Major in the US Army based in Vicenza Italy.

This ETHS grad might look like a globe trotter since she flies back and forth from Nairobi to Chicago twice a year, but really I’m slightly schizophrenic since I seriously have two homes.

Evanston will always be the ‘home in my heart’ and the one that I may return to eventually. The town has gotten so very cool, I must say! Some will contend it always was super cool, but I was always keen to escape…which I clearly did.

I am here now for only a few more days and I have fallen ‘head over heels’ for Evanston. I have a wonderful brother Tom who’s here and I also have many incredible friends in the neighborhood. Evanston may have to welcome me back home sometime soon. That’d mean I’d finally get to attend one of those crazy high school reunions. ;-)

Until then, I’ll simply say ‘bon voyage’ while I get set to fly back to a country that unfortunately is in a bit of turmoil, having just had a contentious national election in which the loser refuses to concede defeat. People have died as a consequence. Hopefully we will see peace happening there soon. We pray there will be forgiveness on all sides and concern to see that beautiful country move forward.

For those of you who may have had plans to one day realize your planned safari to Africa: Do not fear coming to Kenya. Irrespective of momentary turbulence, it is a breathtaking country that you can easily fall in love with…possibly just as I did several decades ago.

Margaretta Swigert-Gacheru eventually got a fourth degree, her Ph.D in Sociology from Loyola University Chicago. Her dissertation Globalizing Kenyan Culture: Jua Kali & theTransformation of Contemporary Kenyan Art:1960-2010 is up on Loyola’s eCommons. Known in Kenya as Margaretta wa Gacheru, and as mentioned she has been writing about the visual and performing arts in Kenya for decades. Currently, she works as an Arts Correspondent for The Nation Media Group (Kenya). MSG contributes to This is Africa. She blogs at Margaretta's Jua Kali Diary and at Kenyan Arts Review. She also lectures at Kenya Methodist University. Margaretta is the author of Creating Contemporary African Art Art Networks in Urban Kenya. She's listed in Feminists Who Changed America 1963-1975.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Confounding Fear

by Marta Lettofsky

Recently I was with a friend when a red-winged blackbird swooped down and started attacking her head. A bird is attacking my friend! Flapping and scratching and screeching, in the middle of a highly populated park with kids running around.

The same thing happened to me several years ago while jogging. Twice. In the same location. After the second time I gave wide berth to that area to avoid the mad bird. I no longer live in the area, so that’s another way to avoid that mad bird.

Logically I knew I was safe. Nothing bad happened in the ‘attacks’, but still it freaked me out. I felt slightly nervous, jumpy, watchful every time I jogged by that same bush.

Our brains and bodies are hardwired for safety.
A small bird is no real threat to my survival, and yet, those moments of red-winged blackbird close encounters left a little mark.

It’s all about survival.

The primitive parts of our brains are not great differentiating between real life threats and just mini-threats to our egos. That part of brain’s entire job is to be on constant lookout for danger. So if you have a negative experience around your creative or performing endeavors, that too might leave a mark.

As a professional pianist, people tell me all the time about a desire to learn play the piano. Or sing. Or learn another instrument. Often people I meet will remember fondly when they could do those things and wishing they could do it again, but...

Sometimes that thing getting in the way is fear or the effects of old creativity and performing wounds.

If this is you, be kind to yourself. Your brain and body are doing their jobs of looking for danger, remembering potential threats and doing their best to keep you safe.

It is challenging to tolerate these unpleasant emotions and to remember that they are normal, part of being human. Remembering this is normal makes healing possible. By tending to those hurt and sticky places, relief happens. New courage is found. Compassion is uncovered. Creativity becomes unfettered.

If you’d like more information about relating to fear, consider signing up for my newsletter. You’ll receive a link for two videos on Dealing With Fear, and a page of Quick Hits for Fear. They can be used for anything in life that triggers fear, not just performance. My clients and I have used these tools to quit jobs, deal with conflict, create better boundaries for time and family, not to mention for performing music on stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people.

Marta Lettofsky wears many hats in life: pianist, performer, collaborator, vocal coach, teacher, inner artist coach, wife, mother, yogi, avid cook, lover of beauty, striver-to-do-all-things-well.

She’s made music with Chicago’s finest arts organizations, including Lyric Opera, Grant Park Festival Chorus, Music of the Baroque and Light Opera Works (now called Music Theater Works). Marta performs as a soloist and regularly with some of Chicago’s most talented singers. She teaches through Chicago Opera Theatre for Teens and in private vocal studio.

Blindsided by a serious bout of performance anxiety several years ago, Marta nearly quit being a musician. Instead she sought ways to tackle this problem. She studied with Dr. Noa Kageyama and enrolled in improv acting classes at IO Chicago. She dug into the underlying causes of her performance anxiety, acquired new tools and coping strategies, and experimented through the improv classes (which caused absolute terror on a weekly basis). She overcame her performance anxiety and gained greater life skills by connecting to the inner work of being an artist.

Photo credits: Red-winged blackbird by Alan Murphy. Marta Lettofsky by Tina Smothers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Gene Kannenberg Jr.: Cartoonist with a Little Help from his Friends

Because he’d never kept them, Gene Kannenberg Jr. stopped making New Year’s resolutions, but at a 2015 New Year’s Day party at an art gallery, he got inspired. He’d wanted to draw again. He went home, sketched a quick and sloppy comic and made a resolution: One drawing every day.

https://qodexx.eventbrite.comHe posted his first drawing on Facebook, then another one the next day, and the next. His friends encouraged him. Within the week he’d started a Tumblr page for his daily drawings.

About five months into his year of daily drawings, he put together Comic Machine, a printed minicomic of some of his favorite pieces. That attracted more attention, including a shout out as a notable comic of 2015 by the Comics Studies Society.

Next came Comics Machine #2, then Qodèxx, which Gene will introduce to the general public at Creative Coworking this month, on Saturday, July 29.
You’re invited. Details and RSVP at

I prodded Gene a bit and this is what I learned:

Tell me more about your day job.

My official title is Research and Media Assistant for the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University. I work on social media, handle research requests for rare and archival materials for visiting scholars, and fulfill requests for scholars who wish to reproduce images from our collection in their own publications, especially from our photograph collections.

But that just scratches the surface. The Herskovits is a destination for scholars -- and dignitaries --- from around the world, so I’m also involved in creating exhibits and displays on any number of African-related topics, sometimes with very little notice. We've been visited by Ashanti chiefs from Ghana, a Supreme Court Justice from South Africa, and the daughter of a Liberian President, just to mention a few of our more notable non-scholarly visitors.

I also work with the larger library at Northwestern. Two years again I co-curated a large exhibition of cartoon art from across the Library's various collections, which led me to interview one of our alums a few months ago, the sports cartoonist and journalist Murray Olderman, who donated his papers to University Archives.

Little known fact: The Herskovits itself holds a large and growing collection of comics and graphic novels from and about Africa, so that's an area I'm learning more about every day.

What inspired you to become a comic book historian?

Gene Kannenberg Jr. in a Joey Ramone shirt.
[T-shirt design and photo by J Derf Backderf]
I read comics off and on as a kid and then through my undergraduate years, a bit less as I entered grad school for my MA and then a PhD in medieval literature at the University of Connecticut. My first year at UConn, I met fellow grad student and comic reader Charles Hatfield. We traded books. We went to comics shops. Being academically inclined, we talked a lot about what we read. Pretty quickly our conversations changed from “Wasn’t it cool when…?" to “Isn’t it interesting how…?”

Soon we discovered some of the academic writing that had been done about comics, primarily from a literary studies perspective. Books like Joseph Witek’s Comic Books as History had a profound influence on us. We started going to academic conferences where we met other academics who were writing about comics. UConn Prof. Tom Roberts had been teaching a course on comics for several years already and he let Charles and I guest-lecture in his course several times. Knowing smart, dedicated colleagues with similar interests really helped me see the value in doing this sort of work, and their support had a tremendous influence on my life for many years.

When did you start making comics yourself?

I tried drawing comics as a child, but my attention span was never great. Once I was writing about comics as a graduate student, I started drawing a few pages, eventually publishing a small run of “Gene Gene’s Comics Machine” in 1997. These were slice-of-life stories, dreams, illustrated song lyrics, 16 pages of a bunch of stuff. After that, I pretty much stopped drawing altogether.

One night on 2014 I decided to try again, a little more seriously. I spent all night on a page, and it wound up being seen and blogged by Andrei Molotiu, a comics historian and artist who specializes in abstract comics. That was amazing to me! It might have been Andrei who introduced me to the term "asemic writing” — or at least he re-reminded me that this was the tradition in which I found myself working.

I then drew another page—an abstracted version of those old Charles Atlas ads where the bully kicks sand in the scrawny man’s face at the beach. It was purchased for publication—before it was even finished!—by Pizo Meyer, an artist and editor, for publication in his zine Ink the Bink. That should have been great for momentum! But then I pretty much stopped drawing again.

In late 2014 I moved to Evanston, I had a lot of free time on my hands and wanted to be drawing again. I picked up my brush pen — gifted to me from my friend Cora Lynn Deibler, an artist and professor at UConn — and sketched a comic. I said to myself, “Hey, maybe I’ll do one of these every day for a year”, a ridiculous ambition given my track record. I posted that first drawing on Facebook, then another one and another. I started to get some real encouragement from friends on these first few drawings, and within a week I started a Tumblr blog. I called it "Comics Machine” in homage to my minicomic of 1997. Later I put together a print minicomic of some of my favorite pages. It got mentioned as a notable comic of 2015 by the Comics Studies Society

Miraculously, I kept my resolution and posted a new comics page every single day in 2015, never missing a day! It got tricky because of travel. I’d need to work ahead and do more than one comic a day when I knew I’d be on the road, so that I could schedule a new comic every day.

In 2016 I slowed down a lot for the first several months, only drawing pages occasionally, but in September I had a new small sketchbook and drew a comic on the first page of it, and the drawing felt like the beginning of something longer. In another moment of impulse I decided that I would fill the notebook with one continuous abstract/asemic narrative, and I’d be done when I reached the last page. I didn’t draw every day, but I did most days, and I filled the last page sometime in November. That was Qodèxx. I was getting a lot of great feedback on those pages, so I knew I’d need to collect it.

What prompted you to create this body of work that is so abstract and uses asemic writing?

Basically, I was making a virtue out of necessity. After reading and studying comics for so long, I felt an urge to start making comics, but I didn’t feel like I had any real stories to tell, plus I wasn’t confident in my ability to draw. So I used "words” that only looked like words, and I drew pictures that rarely ever looked like any real things at all. The language part is especially ironic because 1) My PhD is in English Literature, and 2) one of my scholarly focuses was on comics lettering, especially how its appearance helps to influence readerly understanding. So I then go on to create comics which are aggressively non-literary, where the letter-forms are really JUST forms, with no linguistic content at all! 

What's coming up next for you?

At this point, I can’t not draw comics. I’m still creating one-off, self-contained pages, though not every day, but I also want to create more long-form comics as well. I can sort of see the broad strokes of my next big project in my head. I have a general concept for the kind of drawings I want to do, and a provisional title. And I want to work at a larger scale. Qodèxx was drawn at nearly the size it was printed; I’d like to try and explore larger spaces. 

I call you the accidental comic book artist. When did you start admitting you're a comic artist?

I am self-deprecating by nature, and I also have a huge respect for cartooning as a profession — plus, I have a lot of friends who are professional cartoonists. So making a leap from writing about comics to drawing things that looked like comics did feel a bit hubristic to me at first; and honestly, it still does, a little. But once I sold my first comic a few years ago for publication, I sort of couldn’t deny it. It still feels a bit odd to call myself a cartoonist, but only out of a decades-old habit of considering myself “just” a reader or an academic or an historian.  But hey, I draw pages full of panels full of the visual elements of comics. Of course I’m a cartoonist!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Seen at Taste of Evanston 2017

My friend Jesse Hall and I did our part to cover the Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club's third annual Taste of Evanston at Charles Gates Dawes House last Sunday. Some of the notables enjoying the food and the vibe included Tim Kazurinsky, Illinois Senator Daniel Biss, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, Evanston mayor Steve Hagerty, plus CBS-2-Chicago's Vince Gerasole. 

More photos are up on Facebook. Evanston Magazine featured some of our photos online. A couple students from the Daily Northwestern covered it, too.

Agortles' Ava Gordon checks out the other
restauranteurs' offerings.
Decker Agnew feeds his dad Kevin rice.
Evanstonian and CBS-2 reporter Vince Gerasole
talks up the silent auction.
Eve Smith and Chef Nicole Pederson
represented for Found and The Barn.
Media strategist Katherine Rush (right)
with her daughter Annabel Rush.
Silent auction items.
Hoosier Mama Pie Company's Craig Siegelin
poses for a picture.
Cook Co. Commissioner and Evanstonian
Larry Suffredin and Evanston Lighthouse
Rotary Club member Don Gwinn.
Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club president
Marv Edelstein thanks everyone for coming
and talks a little about the work that
Rotary is doing locally and globally.
Rotarians Diane Krier-Morrow, Ada Kahn
and Evelyn Lee sample the goods.
Illinois State Sen. Daniel Biss thanks food festival
goers and voters for doing their part to support
their communities' initiatives, like the
workforce development programs
benefiting from Taste of Evanston.
Tim Kazurinsky shares a hug with Isabella Gerasole.
Team Agortles--Cherry Gentles, Ava Gordon,
Joshua Pearson--served up Lemon pound cake
with lemon marscapone creme and strawberry salsa.
Kerrygold's Evan Folay, (left) and Hewn's
Anton Gadbois and Julie Matthei.
George Pfoertner plates Dude Goo Donuts for DB3.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Fourth of July Parade 2017 :: Evanston style

Officials estimate close to 43,000 people came out on Tuesday for Evanston's Fourth of July Parade. I marched with the Rotarians. As usual I made pictures of friends and neighbors on the curb.

Missed seeing my friend +Randi Belisomo, who with her photographer, caught some nice video for WGN-TV.

For the Evanston Review, David Kraus made some nice images too.
Rotary Club of Evanston's president for 2017-2018 Dick Peach
Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club's president for 2017-2018 Marv Edelstein

Evanston Community Foundation's Marybeth Schroeder and Joan Ducayet

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

BizPics: Headshots for Business shoot at Creative Coworking, Sunday, July 9

If you need a new headshot for your book jacket, press kit, website, for LinkedIn, other social media sites or other purposes, I'd love to make it for you. My next BizPics shoot is at Creative Coworking on Davis next Sunday, July 9, 2017.

If you find the prospect of getting your portrait made daunting, this is the shoot for you. My shoots are fun, a cross between a fashion shoot and a party. Come for some smart pictures and a good time. In fact, consider bringing a friend or loved one. 
Dr. Susan Becker Doroshow

This in from dentist, Dr. Susan Becker Doroshow, about BizPics: The business portrait that Karen made was literally the springboard for a revitalized practice image, new marketing materials, and a clear brand that truly resonates with my patients and staff. I never knew that a photograph could accomplish so much. Karen is an artist and creative genius!

From my non-profit executive Thomas Applegate: I finally took advantage of the opportunity with...BizPics to get new photos for use online at Linkedin, Facebook and all of the rest. A great current photo is essential for my professional and social image online.

Karen and her crew are great to work with at the shoot. Even though I wasn't nervous about having my picture taken, I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. Karen...made it fun and easy. I met other professionals while we waited for our turn and that casual conversation helped my photos look relaxed and natural. The process from sign up to selection of my favorite shots was quick and easy.

My only regret is that I waited so long to sign up for a shoot.

Registration and details about next Sunday's shoot are up at

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Anchors Aweigh! Sometimes the riskiest bet is playing it safe

by Jennifer Alice Jackson

Last week I was enjoying an Honest Tea (my sugar splurge when I don’t feel like drinking plain water) and found this quote under the bottle cap:
"A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."
                                                                          ~ John A. Shedd
Nautical sidebar for land lovers like myself: Generally speaking, harbors are safe places for ships. But when a hurricane or major storm comes, the harbor becomes a stationary battering ram that ships are tossed against by huge waves. When the storm comes – the best bet for survival is to head for open sea and outrun the storm. But if you’re caught in the storm, you steer the ship to take the waves head-on because that’s what ships are designed to do. They’re meant to slice through the water under their own power, not be knocked about by wind and wave like a piece of driftwood.

Now back to the bottle cap and why it resonated with me. When you spend the first half of your life in hard core overachiever mode, running plays that were designed long before you were born (good grades, good schools, good job…good life), there comes a time of reckoning. A time when you re-evaluate your life’s trajectory and question if it’s what you want. Really want. Like wish on a star/blow out the birthday candles/throw a penny in the fountain want.  If you find yourself staring into your future, not smiling, but grimacing with feelings of dread or despair--staying the course is not an option. Even if the course entails the good job, good check and good life you’ve worked really hard to obtain.

So I tested the waters by telling my inner circle of family and friends that I, MIT graduate in the high-potential program at one of the Big Three car companies, really wanted to run a professional dance company. The most common response was some version of 1) [sound of crickets], 2) cocked-head stare of a confused puppy, then 3) “are you out of your %$#& mind?!?!”  Now I know these reactions came from a place of love, of wanting me to be safe and a stable as an engineer. Wanting me to be a ship in harbor, anchored by benefits, vacation time and a safe, predictable future.

Thankfully there were a few whose reactions were more along the line of [giant grin with twinkling eyes] “that’s perfect for you!” This precious inner circle was encouraging me to be a fully actualized, gloriously in motion, ship at sea. I’m proud to say that I took a chance to be what I was built for, and have been embracing new goals ever since.
Anchors aweigh!

So are there areas in your life where you’re playing it safe, but you know in your gut that’s the wrong move? Are you floating along like driftwood instead of setting your own direction? My example revolves around career, but these situations can be in any aspect of your life that requires you stand for yourself and what you need.
Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios? You have a friend you’d like to ask out on a date, but instead you wonder “what if” while you eat dinner alone. There’s a new dance class or sport you think you’d love, but you tell yourself you’re too heavy/not good enough yet--so you go home, turn on the TV and eat a donut. Are you holding your tongue about something that really bothers you instead of having a difficult conversation to broker a solution? If so, your ship is stuck in the harbor of doubt and fear.

The world needs you to be you--fully, unabashedly, brilliantly you. Every time that you deny your gifts, your intuition, your desire to be your best--you diminish the impact you can have on the world and become a little bit more mediocre.     

The world won’t end if you opt to maintain the status quo instead of taking a chance on yourself every now and again. But if that’s your only course of action--if you always stay in the harbor when the sea calls--you are living small and curating a life of regret. So please go try. And occasionally fail. And try again until you’re satisfied you’re living your life, the best way you can. That’s what you were built for.


Jennifer Alice Jackson, the Career Pivot CatalystTM, is an artsy nerd, entrepreneur and a master at making career pivots. Her 25+ year non-linear career spans engineering, management consulting, arts management, diversity and entrepreneurship. She provide guidance to professionals who are ready to change careers, but don’t know their answer to “what next?” She also coach clients to efficiently navigate the personal, professional and financial hurdles that stand in the way of realizing their new career goals. If you’d like to join her tribe of career changers, please check out the Career Tectonics website and join her mailing list.