After 25 Years Bowen McCauley Dance Company Takes a Final Bow

Local choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley’s company is celebrating 25 years with one final performance at the Kennedy Center.

I wrote this for print in the Washington City Paper, and it’s online on their website here.

An upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center will be a unique chance to celebrate local dance legend Lucy Bowen McCauley as her company commemorates its 25th anniversary and takes its final bow. 

After 25 years, the Bowen McCauley Dance Company will present its final performance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. The Kennedy Center requires all patrons to submit proof of their vaccine status and masks are required.

Lucy Bowen McCauley moved to New York City to study with the Joffrey Ballet at age 18. Now 62, Bowen McCauley is perhaps the most consistent dance-maker in the D.C. region. She has choreographed multiple works for her company every year since its inception in 1996. Despite having a sizable catalog to draw from, this last show is typical of BMDC in that it includes multiple premieres. 

“Other companies, when they’re winding down, they go back into the vault and bring back the older pieces and great favorites,” Bowen McCauley said recently. “If I had a whole week at the Eisenhower Theater I certainly would do that … But we’re going to go out, I feel, with some of my very best work.”  

Bowen McCauley is known as a consistent collaborator and an artist’s artist; recent collaborators include former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and the Alexandria Symphony. One of the premieres in this show, “Insistent Music,” is set to a score by Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz, who Bowen McCauley describes as “a modern-day Stravinsky.”  

“My music has always been so strongly tied with the folk dances from Turkey and the region,” Eryilmaz says. “Pulse and rhythmic patterns shape my music. What I love about Lucy’s work is that she adds more dimensions to pulse and rhythmic patterns that exist in the music.”

Another premiere, “Image,” is set to music by German and Croatian composer Nikola Glassl, which will be played live by the composer’s grandson and pianist Nikola Paskalov, the company’s music director, with soprano Karin Paludan

Alicia Curtis, the company’s rehearsal director, says “Lucy’s choreography always has a strong connection to the music. I can feel that as a dancer when learning the choreography, and I think viewers can feel that as well.” Curtis is also retiring from the stage with this performance, following 13 years with the company. 

Along with the choreographic premieres by Bowen McCauley, this show will feature a premiere by Israeli choreographer Igal Perry—a solo for dancer Manish Chauhan. Chauhan was born to a poor family in India, and his life story inspired a recent film, Yeh Ballet, distributed by Netflix, and in which Chauhan stars. This performance will be Chauhan’s U.S. stage premiere.  

Chauhan is also subject of the documentary Call Me Dancer, currently in post-production, directed by local filmmaker Leslie ShampaigneCall Me Dancer follows Chauhan over a two-year period, and Shampaigne says she wanted to make the film “to show people that it doesn’t matter what economic background you come from—art can change a life.” 

Dance may have lengthened Bowen McCauley’s life: Nearly 20 years ago she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which causes her heart to pump slowly and less efficiently. “What helps keep people from getting sick is exercise,” she says. “So my career probably made it that I developed this problem later … I didn’t start to see it till I was 40, whereas in my mother, it started much younger.” 

Bowen McCauley has had five heart surgeries, the most recent in 2019, and she says her health is an influence in the decision to shut down the company. “With the pacemaker, defibrillator, and the medicines, I actually feel pretty good most days,” she says. “I am doing well, but people with my problems don’t usually have the longest life in the world.”

Alison Crosby, a founding company member who directs the company’s outreach programs, said, “[Lucy] has battled chronic health issues that could have made someone else back away from the hard work it takes to maintain a dance company.” 

Bowen McCauley plans to continue her Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program. She also has some side projects planned in choreography, and looks forward to having “a little more free time to travel and you know read books and see friends and just take it a little more easily.” 

While we may see more of Lucy Bowen McCauley’s choreography, Tuesday night will be the last chance to see her choreography performed by the company that bears her name.

25th Season Final Performance. Sept. 14, 7 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. $50. kennedy-center.org.

An Act of Nature Brought Down Lou Stovall’s Backyard Studio. Now What?

After a tree fell, the backyard studio where artist Lou Stovall screen printed his own and others’ artwork for nearly 50 years had to be razed—but his legacy persists.

I wrote this for print in the Washington City Paper and it is online on their site here.

Artwork from Lou Stovall’s print studio, Workshop, Inc., is ubiquitous in local galleries and museums. Pieces populate institutions like the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as the American University Museum, D.C.’s Art Bank, the Phillips Collection, and Addison/Ripley Gallery. But unlike many of the artists he created prints for and with, including Sam GilliamJosef AlbersAlexander CalderGene DavisElizabeth CatlettLois Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence, Stovall’s name has yet to seep into the mainstream. And though Stovall has produced his own artwork—mainly silk-screen prints, but also collages and assemblages—along with prints for other artists from his backyard studio for decades, now, due to the artist’s age and an act of nature, his future output is in jeopardy.

During a rainstorm on the evening of May 8, 2020, a large tree fell through the Workshop, Inc. studio, which is located behind Stovall’s Cleveland Park home. Branches penetrated the roof, and the overall weight crushed in the ceiling, leaving the space open to the wind and rain. In addition to the printing stations, the studio housed walls of flat files storing hundreds of artworks by Stovall and the artists he has worked with over the last four decades. The impact was so shattering that the building was razed five months later. His wife Di Bagley Stovall, an artist herself, described the loss as “devastating.”

Stovall, who moved to D.C. in 1962 to study fine arts at Howard University, is a master of silk-screen printing. A 1998 New York Times profile of Stovall quotes Lawrence, one of the most important 20th century creators of narrative artworks, describing Stovall as “a craftsman who is also an artist.” 

The volume of Stovall’s output—which includes prints for other artists, his own artwork, and prints made for commercial and community use—is vast and diverse. But, as Lawrence’s description reinforces, evaluations of Stovall have commonly centered on him as a craftsman more than as an artist. In 2001, Paul Richard wrote in the Washington Post that “As a printer of his own art, and of the art of many others, as a framer and installer and shepherd of collections, Stovall has inserted more art into Washington than almost anyone in town.” The Workshop, Inc. space was also a frame shop for fine art for many years, and Stovall was available to install and maintain fine art collections.

Now, Stovall is increasingly getting his artistic due; for example, there’s a current solo show of Stovall’s artwork at the Columbus Museum in Georgia. Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, says, “He took color screen-printing, which is often regarded as a more commercial form, to new heights, both in his own work and that for Sam Gilliam.” Cooper also noted Stovall’s “gift for delicate line and bold color, and an elegance that pervades even his most energetic abstractions.” 

Born in Athens, Georgia, Stovall earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Howard in 1965. Having worked his way through school at a commercial print shop, he was able to set up the Workshop, Inc. studio in 1968 with support from a Stern Family Fund grant that required him to also use the studio to teach printmaking, which he continued to do into his 80s. A multi-year Stern Fund grant was also made to Gilliam, a longtime Stovall collaborator. Gilliam says the grant provided him with the resources to work full-time as an artist.

Stovall’s output over the years is varied, including works with text, flowers, landscapes, and abstract color work. “First known for his activist posters, Lou’s art has long embraced elements of nature in parallel with a complex of abstract principles of image-making, with one or the other of these concerns taking priority at different times,” says Ruth Fine, a curator at the National Gallery of Art from 1972 to 2012, who was involved in several acquisitions of Stovall’s work. Stovall’s flowers are reminiscent of fellow D.C. artist and Corcoran benefactor Lowell Nesbitt’s, but tend to have more breathing space around the main subject. Recent color forms easily remind one of similar work by Gilliam. 

When evaluating any artist, the knowledgeable viewer commonly finds influences. But critiques of Stovall’s work may have suffered through the years because those influences can be so readily identifiable. Depending on the decade, critics have described his work as “intricate and refined” or evaluated it as “serene abstractions.” Undeniably, his own artwork is compared to his most famous and consistent collaborators—Gilliam and Lawrence—and deeply linked with the craft of silk-screen printmaking.

Silk-screen printing is easy to understand but difficult to master. Stovall’s creations from the 1960s to the present show mastery of the form and experimentation with its limits. The practice of creating fine art silk-screen prints entirely by hand, as Stovall did, has all but disappeared with new, computer-aided production methods. But during the decades of his greatest output, if an artist wanted a hand-inked version of their work that they could sign and sell as original artwork, silk-screen printing was perhaps the best option. Working with his artist colleagues, Stovall would begin either from an existing artwork or fully from scratch to match ink colors brought or described to him, to cut the stencils, and to create the image in layers by squeezing ink through a silk screen, one color at a time. Each color added to a print has to be allowed to dry because the paper, which is laid underneath the stencil and screen, will otherwise smudge the ink. To produce just 50 prints of an artwork including 10 colors requires 500 individual passes, with time to dry between each, and only that few if each pass is completed perfectly. Some pieces Stovall produced required more than 100 colors. Any imperfection, whether it appears on the first or last pass, means the piece is discarded. The painstaking attention to detail required to produce silk-screen artwork at scale is stunning.

Interest in Stovall’s output has increased over the last two decades, along with interest in other African American artists, including Alma Thomas and GilliamAaron Brophy is a sculptor and teacher of visual arts at the nearby Sidwell Friends School who also curates exhibitions for the school’s Rubenstein Gallery, including recent shows of works by Gilliam and Carol Brown Goldberg. In 2018, Brophy curated a two-part solo show of Stovall’s artwork: One section featured works created by Stovall alone; the other showed art in which Stovall was a collaborating printmaker.

“And one of the early pieces was a poster he made for [Dance Theatre of] Harlem,” Brophy says. “And that made me realize, there’s really a kind of throughline in Lou’s work from the Harlem Renaissance and his work with Jacob Lawrence and his connections with Sam Gilliam, all the way through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Looking across his output, we see Lou has literally been relevant for 50 years, as an artist and also as a collaborator with other artists.”

“Sam Gilliam’s very first international retrospective wasn’t until two years ago,” Brophy continues. “It’s interesting to watch this resurgence of artists from the ’60s and ’70s … to see curators and museums picking up this thread and finally recognizing artists like Lou, like Sam.”

In 1968, Stovall took over the lease of a closing gallery to start the Workshop, Inc. business. In that Dupont Circle space, he created commercial prints, taught, made frames, worked on his own art, and helped others make their own silk-screen artworks. Lou and Di Stovall married in 1971; in 1972, they moved to the Cleveland Park home where they still live and brought the business with them. Eventually, they set up the print shop in a detached garage in the back, and over time the space was modified and expanded to better meet the needs of the business.

Three categories of visitors have consistently trafficked Workshop, Inc.: collectors, artists, and students. And while Stovall built an American art institution, one ink layer and one print at a time, he and Di raised their son Will in a creative and community-minded Cleveland Park that has slowly changed around them.

Even as Workshop, Inc. rose to prominence within the national art scene, Stovall remained an active participant in the D.C. and Cleveland Park communities. In addition to serving as a commissioner for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, he regularly made prints for community organizations, concerts, and benefits. Judy Hubbard, a Cleveland Park Historical Society tour guide, longtime community activist, and retired director of constituent services for Ward 3 councilmember Mary Cheh, describes an early 1970s Cleveland Park community campaign asking drivers to slow down on Reno Road near John Eaton Elementary School on Lowell Street NW; Stovall created the campaign poster. And when collector Susan Talley, a longtime Cleveland Park neighbor, decided to see if there might be interest in starting the now-influential unincorporated Friends of Alma Thomas group, “the first person I went to visit, called and went to visit, was Lou and Di,” she says. “And they were very supportive.” The pair helped connect Talley to David Driskell and the Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland and to other collectors of Thomas’s artwork. 

The creative back-and-forth among neighbors was once one of the draws of moving to Cleveland Park, a neighborhood that has a long history of artistic and intellectually engaged residents. One of the Stovalls’ notable Cleveland Park neighbors was photographer and sculptor William Christenberry. And, like Stovall, Christenberry made his artwork in a studio attached to the family home—in his case, not an expanded detached garage, but an addition. “It was a very interesting, vibrant neighborhood,” his wife Sandy Christenberry says. 

Hubbard, the community activist, started her career as personal secretary for Helen “Leni” Stern, the influential artist and philanthropist. A Cleveland Park resident since the early 1970s, Hubbard says the neighborhood has always included authors, activists, intellectuals, and visual artists, mentioning David IgnatiusChristopher BuckleySusan ShreveMilton and Judith ViorstPeter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman, and Dickson Carroll. “This is a very intellectual activist neighborhood,” Hubbard says. Still, as the city as a whole has gentrified, the neighborhood has become less economically diverse, and it’s hard to imagine working artists being able to move into the community today. According to U.S. census data, median income for a Ward 3 household has risen from $45,000 in 1990, to more than $126,000 in the most recent data. 

Stovall’s commitment to teaching neighborhood children, including students from Sidwell Friends School and fine art students from area colleges, models how an artist can be a positive influence on a community. Poet E. Ethelbert Miller, Stovall’s longtime friend and colleague, says “I’ve always felt that Lou having a workshop behind the house was very special, especially for young people … I always felt that this is the type of artist I aspire to.” 

Andrew Christenberry, the son of William Christenberry and a sculptor and furniture-maker in his own right, grew up aware of his influential neighbor’s work. “Lou is an absolute master printmaker, and he was quite known for that,” he says. “If you’re a painter or draw and you want to work in the print medium, you often need help because it’s very technical.”

It’s not uncommon to think of artists of Stovall’s caliber as bold and full of ego, but his neighbors describe him as anything but that. Susan Talley says Stovall “sort of subverted his own ego in some ways to other artists … They were the stars, and his skill is immense in what he was able to help them accomplish.” And Anthony Gittens, a longtime friend and colleague who worked with Stovall when Gittens was executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, remarked, “You go into Lou’s studio and his art is there, but you also see so many other excellent artworks. Lou talks about other people’s work as much as he does about his own.” In the 1998 New York Times profile, Stovall himself is quoted saying, “The most important part of what I do is to give artists who have ideas they want to express in a silk-screen a way of doing it.” 

Walking through the wreckage of the space with Di Stovall before it was demolished, she recalled hurriedly removing art from the studio after the tree’s fall in the tones of someone recounting saving a child from the path of a landslide. She also confirmed that the Workshop, Inc. studio will be rebuilt, but it’s unclear where Lou’s future artistic process will take him. Now that he is 84 years old, the work of cataloguing, displaying, and preserving artwork may become a bigger part of what’s accomplished in a future space.

Sorting through nearly half a century of artistic output is no easy feat. Since William Christenberry died in 2016, his wife Sandy has slowly confronted reconfiguring the space in their home that includes her late husband’s work. For now, his studio space is less of a work space and more a storage unit. “You know, it’s been four years since Bill passed away,” she says, “and I’m still trying to figure out what to do … Because I want to have people come to visit the studio again.”

In November 2020, Stovall’s damaged studio was razed. Decades of brilliant output currently have no permanent home. As Stovall’s work is sent out for upcoming exhibitions and becomes a part of the narrative of art history, the studio’s destruction is likely to remain a marker—though not an end point—in an artist’s exceptional career.

DC theaters face ‘catastrophic’ economic impact if coronavirus causes prolonged ticket sales decline

Written for The DC Line and published on that site here.

DC theaters may soon be struggling with the economic impact of the new coronavirus as theatergoers choose to stay at home or are forced to do so. 

In San Francisco, municipal officials ordered a 14-day halt to performances and other large events at theaters and other facilities owned by the city, and many nonprofit and private operators followed suit. The San Francisco Chronicle compared the impact on local business to “an immediate recession.” Restaurants and bars near the shuttered theaters are nearly empty.  

Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights, said a two-week closure like the one in San Francisco would have severe effects, potentially wiping out the entire run of a show years in the planning.

“A 14-day closure would be extremely damaging for GALA [right now] because we are opening our GALita children’s theater world premiere this week,” she said. “We would lose the entire projected income for this production.”

Representatives from several other DC theaters did not respond to requests for comment.

Thus far, theater professionals are having to wait and see whether the spread of the coronavirus results in government-ordered closures, reduced ticket sales or empty houses. Even if theaters aren’t forced to close, box office receipts will be affected if individuals and institutions alter their routines.

Amy Austin is CEO of theatreWashington, the industry association for DC-area theaters. “The potential spread of the virus could impact ticket sales. [But] it’s too early to tell since we have very few reported cases in the region.”

Austin said that on Friday. As of Tuesday afternoon, four cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in DC, and about 22 in the greater region.

Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, said that even a 20% reduction in ticket sales for an extended period of time would be “catastrophic” for the fiscal health of area theaters.

Closures to prevent community spread of the coronavirus are now being implemented across the country. Late last week Austin canceled the widely popular South By Southwest technology and entertainment festival despite the expansive economic impact for the Texas capital. The NCAA is making contingency plans to play its annual “March Madness” basketball tournament without a live audience, and the NBA is similarly preparing for the possibility of games with only essential personnel in attendance

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities and companies have canceled employee travel and conferences, and today American University announced plans to conduct its classes online for two weeks. Locally, cancellations have included the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which was scheduled to start Thursday and will instead highlight selected films online next week.

“We did not come to this decision lightly, but the safety of our audience, local and out of town participants, volunteers, partners, and staff is our number one priority,” the film festival’s executive director, Christopher Head, said in a press release. “Given the situation, we felt this was our only viable option.” 

Long-term planning is proving difficult given uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus, so it’s not surprising that Capital Fringe Festival executive director Julianne Brienza declined to comment on the potential impact on that event, scheduled for July 7 to 26.

“We understand the concern regarding the potential impact on the creative and entertainment industry,” John Falcicchio, DC’s acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told The DC Line in an email Friday. “However, in line with the latest science-based guidance available at this time, we encourage our residents, employers and visitors to go about their daily lives while following all of the safety tips provided at coronavirus.dc.gov.”

Already the DC government is feeling an economic impact, related primarily to tourism. Initial projections suggested the outbreak could cost the District $52 million in lost sales tax revenue from hotels and restaurants, according to DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt’s revised revenue forecast released Feb. 28. 

Much of the initial impact has centered on events dependent on international travel. At least one major area conference, a gathering of the International Association of Dental Research, has experienced registration cancellations, NBC4 reported. North Carolina-based SAS Institute canceled a global forum at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and the International Monetary Fund dropped plans for its spring meetings in DC, the Washington Business Journal noted. Thus far, organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival have said events will proceed as planned March 20 to April 12, with appropriate health-related precautions. 

The financial effects on the tourism and hospitality industry, however, do not translate squarely into the theater community. Most ticket buyers are locals, not tourists, according to theater professionals — a key reason that DC’s theaters were spared much of the impact from DC’s tourism slowdown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This time, the impact could result from local residents who are told to — or who decide they want to — stay home.

“We didn’t take as much of a hit as you might think after 9/11,” said Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre and artistic director from 1978 to 2010.“Studio Theatre overwhelmingly serves DC residents and the region, and we found people really wanted to be together. But this is a different kind of situation. People may decide not to buy tickets, to stay out of crowds.”

Kaiser, now president of the DeVos Institute, headed the Kennedy Center from 2001 to 2014. “The vast majority of Kennedy Center tickets were sold locally, so the loss of tourism post-9/11 did not affect ticket sales substantially,” he told The DC Line. “What was affected more was attendance at educational programs as schools cut back on travel to DC that year (which also included massive snowstorms, the anthrax scare and the DC sniper).”

As far as the bottom line for DC’s theaters, costs will still mount even if performances are canceled. Medrano noted that GALA would incur significant production costs in the event of a forced closure during a play’s run. “Due to contractual agreements with artists, we would have to pay them 45% of their contracted pay if we cancel with less than a week notice,” she said.