Face of the neighborhood [with video]

Face of the neighborhood [with video]

A middle-schooler on a motorized scooter putters up to the door of the Westhaven Community Center, leans his ride carefully onto the grass, then flings open the door and runs inside. Past Lizete Short, a member of the Virginia Organizing Project who coordinates the after-school program and is at work on a portrait of African-American poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni. Around the room, past the refrigerator bearing photos from last year’s Westhaven Portrait ProjectMartin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. Straight to the table of paints, where seven other kids wear white t-shirts from The Bridge/Progressive Arts Initiative, and the shirts wear the same slicks of gray that fill the features of this year’s crop of portraits.

Video of the Westhaven Portrait Project.

It’s the first warm day of the year, and so the painting crew is smaller than its typical 20 or so members, but the room is at a steady hum; Bridge co-founder Greg Kelly circles the room, taking photos while John Bylander, a local artist and frequent community volunteer, moves among the kids with Dixie cups filled with paint. He hands one to a painter that holds a brush like an awkward new limb, unsure whether this new appendage is a cooperative one. He asks Bylander, a lanky man in a pale blue t-shirt with a head of tightly wound curls, for a darker color.

“I made you a dark gray,” says Bylander, then explains that he can always add darker to the mix at a later stage, that shades of gray may be manipulated. He looks at the photo the child is using. “Now, look at his cheeks. Give me two gray triangles, for gray cheeks, right here.”

This is the second year of the portrait project, devised by Kelly and Bylander to fill the walls of the community center with portraits of positive African-American role models, but Bylander’s involvement with Westhaven dates back to 2000, when he volunteered as a computer lab administrator with the Charlottesville Housing Authority while a student at UVA. Bylander—born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a black mother and white father—says that, when he moved to Charlottesville to attend UVA, one of his first priorities was “knowing where the projects are.”

“The condition of public housing says a lot about a city,” says Bylander in a phone interview the following week. “I think that, most times people hear about Westhaven, it’s in the news because of a crime—same thing with Prospect Avenue and Orangedale [neighborhoods]. But what child’s life is all about violence? There’s playtime and learning, all the things that go into a neighborhood.”

Shades of gray: Rateja Yancy (in a Bridge t-shirt) fills in a painting during the second Westhaven Portrait Project.

With the conclusion of the portrait project, Bylander will turn to a few other efforts: He hopes to release the next issue of Mildred Pierce, a cultural journal that he edits with his friend Megan Milks (a contributor to the likes of Meridian and PopMatters.com) in May, to be distributed for sale around town at spots like Plan 9 Records. The next installment of Mildred will feature interviews with rock act Man Man, work from a few local comic artists and an interview with author Sandra Newman, who Bylander likens to “a female David Foster Wallace.”

What’s more, Bylander is part of a group that plans to relaunch Better than Television, a noncommercial social center that formerly held residence beneath the Jefferson Theater, where it hosted concerts, film events and a lending library that Bylander, as if in disbelief, exclaims “actually worked.” “I always expected to walk around the corner and see kids making out or snorting something,” he says. “And they were always reading.”

Under the name “The Treehouse” (the space, according to Bylander, will be a freestanding structure on stilts) a group of BtTV devotees plan to resurrect the lending library at a space near Meade Avenue. “We need to expand the urban grid in positive ways,” he says. “People will see it as a good resource.”

The time grows close to 4:30pm, when kids at the community center typically wrap up their homework and have a snack. The child that Bylander is working with has applied a darker shade of gray to his subject’s cheeks, and Bylander takes the brush from his hand, dabbing it into a different cup then reapplying it to the portrait to draw out an expression.

Developments in ass kicking

In the moments before the lights in Newcomb Theater dimmed for the preview screening of Never Back Down, the new mixed martial arts film from Charlottesville native Jeff Wadlow, CC (C-VILLE’s unofficial expert on Rocky films 1-4) took stock of the audience, then settled excitedly into his seat to watch. A few other local filmmakers, among them Paul Wagner and Kevin Everson, back from New York where his film Emergency Needs is screening at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial, grabbed seats in time for an early look at Wadlow’s meditation on beatdowns.

In preparation for the film—Wadlow’s second feature, after 2005’s Cry_Wolf, which he wrote with screenwriting partner Beau Bauman and shot with the $1 million he nabbed from the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Contest—the charmingly boyish director claims that he bought hundreds of fight films. For better or worse, it shows; Wadlow’s film sags in the dialogue department (send complaints to screenwriter Chris Hauty) but lurches violently into five battle scenes and two (inadvertently hilarious) training montages during which inarticulate actors that resemble “Real World” cast members jacked on Red Bull and HGH wail on each other. (Each knock-down and drag-out is captured on iPhone or BlackBerry and uploaded to the Internet, which provides a nice spin on the senseless beating genre.)

The trailer for Never Back Down.

More interesting than the sweaty, YouTube-inspired grunt-fest, however, are Curt’s theories about Wadlow’s next projects. The director mentioned after the screening that, during the time leading up to the creation of Never Back Down, he wrote two screenplays with Bauman, which suggests to CC that Wadlow might’ve knocked out Back Down as a quick route to cash to produce his flicks. And a quick search for Wadlow’s “In Production” films on the Internet Movie Database reveals one of his scripts, for an election year bank heist film called Hail to the Thief, tied to a production company called Tower of Babble Entertainment (www.towerofb.com), which bears the name of Wadlow’s award-winning short film. Sounds like a good company name to Curt—Wadlow could use a little more yap, a little less slap.

Want to start an underground streetfighting ring? Me neither. E-mail your art news to curtain@c-ville.com.