Culture through the restless lens of UVA’s Kevin Everson

With over 170 films to his credit, UVA professor and filmmaker Kevin Everson’s work has been shown around the globe. Much of his work delves into the relationship between the human body and the material aspect of the labor it performs. In September he was honored with a Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. Courtesy of VAFF. With over 170 films to his credit, UVA professor and filmmaker Kevin Everson’s work has been shown around the globe. Much of his work delves into the relationship between the human body and the material aspect of the labor it performs. In September he was honored with a Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. Courtesy of VAFF.

Kevin Everson is known to be prolific, but it’s still startling when he says “I made 17 films this year.” Asked which shorts he’ll be showing at the Virginia Film Festival, the UVA professor and internationally respected filmmaker has to consult a list before answering. That’s an occupational hazard, perhaps, of creativity that never sleeps.

The films on that list reflect the way Everson’s interests can extend into a wide range of places and histories. His summary—“They’re mostly exhibiting African American working-class culture”—is a typical statement that he and others often make about his work. But it belies the sheer variety of his subjects. Several of the films, he says, were made at an Air Force base. One, shot in collaboration with UVA history professor Claudrena Harold, delves into the history of a black gospel choir at the university.

Others highlight Everson’s practice as a sculptor at the same time as they return to themes that have run through his large body of work: the experience of African Americans, including members of Everson’s family, in blue-collar jobs. Raised in Mansfield, Ohio, Everson recreated objects made in that town’s Westinghouse factory in the 1960s, then created three-minute shorts to exhibit them. Oh, and he also filmed the 2017 solar eclipse in Chile.

It’s not only content that finds endless iterations in Everson’s work, though; he’s also a magpie for techniques and forms. He says he tells his students to latch onto diverse ways of exploring “what they’re invested in…fiction, documentary, experimental, slicker film, I’m open. It’s not my job to understand what they do, but they need to understand what they do, and make a complete work of art with the materials and knowledge they have at hand.”

Everson’s own work, which has been shown in museums and festivals from Seoul to Paris, tends to complicate the simple binary between fictional stories and truth-telling documentary. He’s made films that read as documentaries, although some elements are staged; as he told an interviewer in Madrid in 2011, harkening to his skills in other art forms, “If I stage them, it’s more [like] sculpting.”

Glenville, for example, a brief short that will appear at the Virginia Film Festival, reenacts archival footage from the late 19th century using two contemporary actors. Standing in front of a corner store plastered with cigarette ads, smartly dressed in their black down jackets, a couple repeatedly perform an old-fashioned lovebirds’ gesture: clasped hands, a chaste kiss. The stoic gaze of the camera, and the mismatch between their behavior and the setting, makes the movement look more and more dated as the film goes on. One begins to contemplate other affectionate gestures, and how many of them are in fact performances, conditioned by time, place, and culture.

More often, Everson has filmed gestures related to labor: the choreography of workers doing jobs that involve physical movement. “Sometimes the way I frame up the gestures and tasks is as if they’re making art,” he said in Madrid. “I believe through repetition and practice…people can be very, very good at their jobs. There’s an element of nobility with them being good at their job.”

Stories of African Americans in industry connect Everson’s roots in Ohio with his even deeper roots in the South, and the Great Migration that saw his family move north along with many other black Southerners. He’s made a number of films in Mansfield and in Mississippi. Charlottesville, too, has come before his lens, notably in his 2017 feature Tonsler Park, which focuses on the local voting process on Election Day 2016.

The social meanings in different places interest him. “Here in the South it’s all about this… American individualism,” he says. “In the Midwest you had this union background and a collective community. When you have this factory town, you always think about the collective. There are some people in Cleveland, they would speak in plural pronouns, saying ‘Oh, we got to go to the store,’ even though he’s going by himself.”

Despite the way thematic connections run through many of Everson’s works, he says he begins each new project by thinking about form, not content.  “I exercise multiple formal qualities first,” he says. And he believes that experimental film—even when it’s more focused on concept than narrative—can speak to a wide audience. “You go to the museums now, you’ll see light objects on dark walls,” he says. “There’s a whole way of expressing yourself through that medium. You don’t have to tell a story, you can project an idea.”

Kevin Everson Short Films will screen at 2:30pm on Friday, October 25 at Violet Crown Cinema.

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