John Love Jr. has long, large in­flu­ence on Char­lotte arts

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY PAM KEL­LEY Arts cor­re­spon­dent

Dif­fi­cult to de­fine, im­pos­si­ble to cat­e­go­rize, John W. Love Jr. has spent decades cre­at­ing mul­ti­ple di­men­sions for him­self, and oth­ers

This is part of an Observer se­ries about peo­ple who have had sig­nif­i­cant and sus­tained in­flu­ence on Char­lotte’s arts world.

John W. Love Jr. is: A. An artist B. A guru C. Foul-mouthed D. A nice guy E. All of the above THE AU­TON­O­MOUS MR. LOVE

On a week­night in June, dozens of peo­ple packed into the New Gallery of Mod­ern Art in up­town Char­lotte. Art­work sur­rounded them, but their fo­cus was the woolly bearded AfricanAmer­i­can man in the throne-like arm­chair – the evening’s speaker, John W. Love Jr.

Love, 56, wore one of his fa­vorite sum­mer looks, white adi­das track pants with a white long-sleeved Columbia-brand shirt, which he prizes for both its func­tion­al­ity and aes­thetic. He also wore a heavy scarf, as he of­ten does, yel­low-brown, art­fully tied in a bow at his neck. It matched the sun­flower bou­quet on the ta­ble be­side him. The gallery had few seats, so nearly ev­ery­one stood, gath­ered around Love like cock­tail-hold­ing acolytes.

John Love has long been one of the city’s most orig­i­nal tal­ents. Last year, he won a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, an im­pri­matur most artists only dream about. He lives to bring his

cre­ative dreams to fruition, not un­like The Per­pet­u­ally Preg­nant Man, a char­ac­ter he plays wear­ing a preg­nancy belly adorned with over­sized se­quins.

But de­scrib­ing Love solely as an ac­tor or per­for­mance artist doesn’t cap­ture his im­pact. In Char­lotte, his home­town, he pushes bound­aries, pro­vid­ing an an­ti­dote to com­mit­tees, task forces, and Scots-Ir­ish Pres­by­te­rian ten­den­cies, to old con­structs about race, sex­u­al­ity and gen­der, all while leav­ing a jolly trail of ex­ple­tives in his wake. If that weren’t enough, peo­ple pay to at­tend his guided med­i­ta­tions and re­ceive his coun­sel. To many ad­mir­ers, John Love isn’t just an artist. He’s a sage.

On this evening, the gallery had asked Love to speak to cel­e­brate an ex­hi­bi­tion of 50 black artists. His talk, fo­cused on “the quixotic path of the vi­sion­ary,” was a primer on liv­ing the artist’s life – nur­tur­ing a cre­ative vi­sion, en­dur­ing fail­ure and in­sist­ing on au­ton­omy, “pick­ing and choos­ing the un­var­nished life we want to live and own­ing it.” It was, in a nut­shell, a de­scrip­tion of his own path.

From afar, Love’s path is full of fan­tas­ti­cal cos­tumes, en­ter­tain­ing me­dia in­ter­views, fel­low­ships, res­i­den­cies, awards. Up­close re­al­ity is less glam­orous. Love spends most of his time alone, owns lit­tle and re­lies on side hus­tles to pay the bills. He’s not com­plain­ing. As he told the crowd that night: “If you yearn for some­thing enough, you can’t not do it.”

MIRTH AND MAG­NI­TUDE

Love’s per­for­mances and gallery in­stal­la­tions are spo­radic, but clips on the in­ter­net of­fer a sense of his artis­tic range. On the lighter side, there’s the bus scene at the end of the 2006 com­edy “Tal­ladega Nights.” Love plays a guy who tells off NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby (Will Fer­rell). “I don’t want to hear about your damn prob­lems,” he rants. “Ev­ery­body got prob­lems. My mama got prob­lems. She just lost her leg. My cousin Pookie just lost his tes­ti­cle. My dog just threw up a fin­ger.” He ad-libbed the rant, and pro­nounces that last word

There’s also “Ooo, girl, An­chor­age,” a se­ries of video mono­logues he recorded on his phone dur­ing a 2014 artist’s res­i­dency in Alaska. In one, he de­scribes his re­sponse to the frigid weather: “I’m not say­ing I’m dress­ing for the tun­dra. But I more lay­ered than a Vi­ola Davis per­for­mance.” His fa­cial ex­pres­sions, in­clud­ing “the half-lid­ded side eye,” as the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion puts it, are as de­light­ful as the punch lines.

But Love’s most am­bi­tious project, called “Fe­cund,” is heav­ier and darker. This on­go­ing in­ter­dis­ci­plinary work, pop­u­lated by char­ac­ters of Love’s cre­ation, is nar­rated by his Per­pet­u­ally Preg­nant Man, who wears the se­quined preg­nancy belly and a gi­ant cot­ton-y-ball head­piece. He’s ever preg­nant, he ex­plains, be­cause he has ceased abort­ing his dreams.

In 2010, Love de­buted a pre­cur­sor to “Fe­cund” at the city’s first TEDx event, a con­fer­ence ded­i­cated to dis­cov­ery and new ideas. The 20-minute mono­logue was sur­real, po­etic, dis­turb­ing. The Per­pet­u­ally Preg­nant Man chan­neled sev­eral char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Billy, born with tiny black lilies un­furl­ing from his feet, and his sis­ter, Nee­qua, who had “a splay of pins and nee­dles run­ning down her back from crown to crack.” Their mother, Neema, turned their father into a bird every time he threat­ened to leave her.

The con­fer­ence had so­licited Love’s par­tic­i­pa­tion, but never pre­viewed his work, which in­cluded pro­fan­ity and de­scrip­tions of sex. It so rat­tled or­ga­niz­ers that they cut the in­ter­net livestream mid­per­for­mance. When Love found out, he posted a state­ment on Face­book de­cry­ing the cen­sor­ship. Its ti­tle: “Some­body’s al­ways got to s--- in the punch­bowl.”

That TEDx piece led to awards and fel­low­ships he used to de­velop “Fe­cund,” the work that be­came cen­tral to his re­ceipt of the Guggen­heim.

GROW­ING INTO LOVE

Love grew up in west Char­lotte. His par­ents mar­ried as teenagers, and lived for sev­eral years in Fairview Homes, a pub­lic hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, be­fore mov­ing with Love and his sis­ter into a house of their own.

He was read­ing by age 4. Around that age, he also be­gan not­ing his re­sponses to and feel­ings about boys and men. Grad­u­ally, he came to un­der­stand he wasn’t het­ero­sex­ual, though he says the term gay doesn’t ad­e­quately de­scribe him. He’s “be­yond gay,” he says, and “doesn’t fit neatly in any box.”

By age 8, af­ter dis­cov­er­ing a book on ba­sic yoga poses, he was prac­tic­ing head­stands and full lo­tus poses in the fam­ily liv­ing room. In mid­dle school, while other boys played bas­ket­ball, he was mak­ing a com­par­a­tive study of the Bi­ble, Ko­ran and The Three Pil­lars of Zen.

“My es­ti­ma­tion was they were all say­ing the same thing,” he says. He ab­sorbed from each one lessons of love, kindness and com­pas­sion. He came to see ev­ery­thing as spir­i­tual, a be­lief that still guides him.

This was the 1970s, when be­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of kid, one who prac­ticed yoga and read the Ko­ran, might have been even harder than it is now.

Was he bul­lied? “There were at­tempts to bully me,” he says, “but they were un­suc­cess­ful.”

He fought once, he says, in el­e­men­tary school, with a boy named Der­rick who dis­liked Love and was de­ter­mined to fight. “Long story short,” Love says, “Der­rick ended up get­ting his ass beat.”

Love says he was for­tu­nate to have par­ents who en­cour­aged his cre­ativ­ity. He also had a steely sense of self and an in­nate un­der­stand­ing of what he needed to thrive. He was a good kid. But also: “I am no­body’s vic­tim.”

At Pied­mont Open Mid­dle School, he played the Art­ful Dodger in “Oliver Twist,” the vil­lain in “The Drunk­ard.” His drama teacher, Irene Horowitz, now re­tired in Florida, re­calls him as hard­work­ing, hand­some, “re­mark­ably and con­fi­dently showy,” al­ready adept at in­hab­it­ing the life of char­ac­ters. Also, he had a ter­rific singing voice.

At West Char­lotte High, he played John the Bap­tist in “God­spell,” marched with his sax­o­phone in the band, served as both stu­dent council and se­nior class pres­i­dent. He grad­u­ated in the top of his class in 1980, dur­ing an era when West Char­lotte was na­tion­ally lauded for its suc­cess­ful in­te­gra­tion.

From there, he stud­ied act­ing at UNC Greens­boro. Says An­drew Leav­itt, one of his pro­fes­sors: “He walked into the room, and you felt him.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, he built an act­ing ca­reer, start­ing with the N.C. Shake­speare Fes­ti­val, land­ing roles in many North Carolina pro­duc­tions – “Dream­girls,” “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “The Rocky Hor­ror Pic­ture Show,” where he played Dr. Frank N. Furter. In a 1992 Char­lotte Observer pro­file, an At­lanta com­poser who knew Love’s work praised him as elec­tri­fy­ing and world class, and won­dered why he was still in Char­lotte.

The pro­file was pegged to the open­ing of his “Pic-

ture Per­fect Im­ages from the Mocha Re­gions of a Choco­late Boy’s Re­al­ity.” This one-man show was a turn­ing point, when he be­gan play­ing char­ac­ters he’d writ­ten, when he be­came a per­for­mance artist.

On pa­per, Love’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory ap­pears ever up­ward. But like most artists, he has al­ways jug­gled – ap­ply­ing for grants, be­ing re­jected; au­di­tion­ing, be­ing re­jected; do­ing side jobs to pay the bills. He has penned brochures for law prac­tices, helped com­pa­nies name new prod­ucts, writ­ten copy for the North Carolina brick in­dus­try. “I prob­a­bly know more about the lat­est and great­est in cos­metic surgery pro­ce­dures than any­one should,” he told me, “be­cause when you do that copy­writ­ing thing, you learn a lot.”

In his early 30s, ex­hausted, he con­sid­ered get­ting a reg­u­lar job. But only briefly. The thought of aban­don­ing his cre­ative life made him phys­i­cally ill.

A ‘HUGE LIGHT’ …

Ever since learn­ing re­lax­ation ex­er­cises in his mid­dle school act­ing class, Love has led med­i­ta­tions.

Also, he has long been a trusted ad­viser to friends. Many de­scribe his em­pa­thy, wis­dom and abil­ity to pin­point a prob­lem’s essence. One friend told me Love lit­er­ally saved her life with his ad­vice. An­other said he tele­phones Love “if I have some­thing trou­bling my soul.”

About 15 years ago, when he be­gan charg­ing for these ser­vices, sev­eral friends de­clared it was about time. The med­i­ta­tions blend his art and spir­i­tual life, re­ly­ing on two of his as­sets – his voice and imag­i­na­tion.

In July, I sat in on a group ses­sion, $10 per per­son, at the Char­lotte home of Shan­non Far­rell and her hus­band. Far­rell, who’d at­tended her first Love med­i­ta­tion at a yoga stu­dio, liked it so much she sug­gested he use her house for weekly ses­sions. That was more than a year ago.

“John was this huge light for me,” she told me. He’s helped her man­age job stress and make life changes. “I do look at him as a spir­i­tual guru,” she said.

At Far­rell’s house, Love ar­ranged him­self cross­legged on a sofa. Par­tic­i­pants – 10 of us – sat or lay nearby. Some in the group had known Love for years. One young woman, at­tend­ing for the first time, called him “Dr. Love” un­til he gently cor­rected her.

Blinds were drawn. A eu­ca­lyp­tus can­dle scented the air. When Love called for closed eyes, our chat­ter qui­eted.

He di­rected us to breathe, richly and deeply. As we re­laxed, he be­gan a sur­real tale, tak­ing us to a river where we meet an an­cient woman. His voice, a lyri­cal bari­tone, rose and fell, draw­ing out cer­tain words, paus­ing for ef­fect. John Love’s voice could make a gro­cery list sound mes­mer­iz­ing.

For 45 min­utes, Love un­spooled a med­i­ta­tion dis­guised as per­for­mance art, or maybe vice versa. The story un­folded slowly but here’s the up­shot: The old woman turns into a 13-year-old girl, then a 5-year-old, then even­tu­ally sprouts blood-red wings and flies into in­fin­ity.

Later, Love told me he’d never de­scribe him­self as some­one’s guru, but if oth­ers do, he re­spects their ex­pe­ri­ence. “Now, I will own up to the fact that I can be sage- he said. “But what I do of­fer – and I say this defini­tively – I of­fer clar­ity. I’m very good at of­fer­ing clar­ity.”

… AND ‘RAG­ING IN­TRO­VERT’

We met for a lunch in­ter­view at a Pan­era restau­rant. Love, who spent 19 years as a raw food­ist, has re­cently broad­ened his con­sump­tion, though he’s care­ful about what he eats. When I’d asked his friend Mark Woods, pres­i­dent of New River Drama­tists, if Love had any faults, Woods could only name one: “In a re­treat set­ting, he’s a pain in the ass to feed.”

At Pan­era, Love again wore the white out­fit and scarf. It’s a kind of uni­form that lets him look nice with­out in­vest­ing ex­ces­sive thought. He checked the menu, con­sid­ered a quinoa bowl, quizzed an em­ployee about the in­gre­di­ents, then qui­etly set­tled for herbal tea.

We talked about his daily rou­tine – med­i­ta­tion, writ­ing, edit­ing. “There’s an il­lu­sion I’m an ex­tro­vert, but I’m re­ally not,” he said. “I de­scribe my­self as a rag­ing in­tro­vert. I prob­a­bly spend 80 to 90 per­cent of time alone. Si­lence, soli­tude, still­ness have al­ways, been im­por­tant to me.”

The Guggen­heim funds have al­lowed him to rent a new work space. He’s not re­veal­ing the award amount. “I can just tell you that it’s cute,” he told the au­di­ence at his gallery talk. “It’s the cutest amount I’ve ever got­ten.” But daily life hasn’t much changed. Side jobs help pay the bills, and he shares the west Char­lotte house where he grew up with his par­ents, a re­tired nurse and news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion man­ager.

When I asked why he re­mains in Char­lotte, he said life dic­tates cer­tain things. His fam­ily is a big part of it. That’s all he wants to say.

It seems likely Love could suc­ceed any­where, be a big­ger star than he is. “If that mat­tered to him at all, we’d know it,” Mark Woods says. “We can all be a lit­tle grate­ful that it doesn’t.”

In­stead, he chases his vi­sion – char­ac­ters and con­cepts that in­sin­u­ate them­selves into his con­scious­ness in early morn­ing, or while he’s driv­ing, or dur­ing a med­i­ta­tion. He pulls out a note­book, jots, con­sid­ers.

he tells him­self. He’s planning an au­dio se­ries of guided med­i­ta­tions. He’s work­ing on new mono­logues ex­plor­ing what he calls “toothy gems of hu­man be­hav­ior.” Of course, there’s “Fe­cund,” the dream­like world likely to oc­cupy him for the rest of his life.

Also, he’s bring­ing back his Salt Daddy char­ac­ter, the nar­ra­tor in a 2016 in­stal­la­tion at the McColl Cen­ter. This au­dio piece was an artis­tic re­buke of HB2, the con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion, now re­pealed, that dic­tated which bath­rooms trans­gen­der peo­ple had to use. “Your parts, your busi­ness,” Salt Daddy de­clares. “Your parts, your m-----f------ busi­ness.”

The pub­lic may like these new cre­ations, and if so, won­der­ful. But if Salt Daddy, for in­stance, is too salty for some au­di­ences, that’s fine, too.

“Some­times, of­ten­times, what you’re pre­sent­ing, the room just isn’t ready for. And that’s OK,” he told at­ten­dees at the gallery talk.

“You con­tinue to show up.”

This story is part of an Observer un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

Video still by Ba­sic Cable

John W. Love Jr. has long been one of Char­lotte’s most orig­i­nal tal­ents. “If you yearn for some­thing enough, you can’t not do it,” he said at a re­cent event.

Tim Remick

An Alaska-era por­trait.

Moye Pho­tog­ra­phy

Love as the Per­pet­u­ally Preg­nant Man.

Cour­tesy of John W. Love Jr.

John Love – cap­tioned “Buddy” on the photo’s back – at age 7. Of this photo, Love says: “I lit­er­ally weep from over­whelm if I look at the 7-year-old for long. He is so sweet, vi­brant, beau­ti­ful, and bub­bling over with joy.”

Observer file photo

In 2011, John Love re­ceived the McColl Award, a grant he used to help cre­ate the mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary “Fe­cund,” from Hugh McColl, left, and then-Arts & Sci­ence Council Pres­i­dent Scott Provancher at an ASC lun­cheon.

Video still by Ba­sic Cable

Parts of Love’s works in progress.

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