It was in 2009 that I first heard of Emile’s scheme: five years of bicycling through 50 states, trading portraits for bed, board, and the stories of random Americans along the way. He would rely on the kindness and curiosity of strangers, living with them while painting and interviewing them.
It was a visionary dream to reinvigorate American creativity, craft, and solidarity. It was a mad and grandiose scheme to delay getting a “real” job. I was disturbed that I hadn’t thought of it first.
I had recently moved back home after graduating college and I had adjusted quickly to the well-worn comfort of my childhood room. In that state of despair and anxiety, my jealous heart leapt at the thought of Emile’s plan. The risk involved was especially attractive — homelessness, loneliness, danger, failure— all played out against the backdrop of America’s unknown and terrifying expanse. I didn’t believe he would do it. It was all just a feint to pick up the pace of our conversation.
We had gone to high school together in San Francisco and we had become friends partly on the basis of artful dishonesty and self-aggrandizement. But he was serious this time, and more than that, he was interested in other stories, not his own. He had already started painting portraits for the project and asked if I would write a biography for a New Englander named Barbara Dove.
The premise of Emile’s project was exhilarating when envied from a safe distance, but I hadn’t considered joining him in that place where imagination and reality collide: collaboration.
I said I would try, keeping my doubts to myself. Emile sent me the bullet points of Barbara’s life as well as a taped interview, and I spent a long night imagining her portrait as a poem. I told Emile that I would revise as needed, but he and Barbara were pleased with the poem. I was relieved. I could go back to living vicariously through Emile’s exploits. But he wasn’t finished with me.
Emile asked me to sit for a portrait. I was again apprehensive, but was put at ease by the inclusiveness of Emile’s intentions. It’s that collaborative spirit that makes You’re U.S. so compelling. The individual stories of the participants are delivered through their own words as well as the work of Emile and his stable of writers and musicians, ultimately becoming a communal and intimate history of the United States.
After he’d painted a few more Californians, Emile left for an extended trip along the East Coast. His reports from the road were dispatches from the twilight zone. In the carny retirement town of Gibsonton, Fla., he risked his life for an ex-con’s testimony in a rundown motel, but had to flee for safety and vowed never to use the interview. He was the first responder at a grisly motorcycle accident on a lonely two lane highway. He cycled through flies, thunder, hail, exhaustion, wilting heat, snake infested swamps, and darkness, and he spent countless nights sleeping in public parks, churches, backyards, and behind bushes on desolate country roads. But he also befriended a wide range of generous and interesting Americans who granted him the privilege of collecting their memories to share with the rest of us.
These stories are now in exhibition for the first time at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster. The show features 30 American profiles, each with a visual, written, and audio component. They include a survivor of childhood abuse, a Virginia nun, an off-the-grid survivalist, the son of Vietnamese refugees, a Duke University professor exiled from Libya, and a storyteller who lost his voice to cancer, just to name a few of the eclectic portraits.
My band had the honor of composing music for Sadie Brannon’s profile after Emile invited us to contribute to this ever expanding celebration of American diversity. Check out Sadie’s story and others through Oct. 25.
There are also numerous community outreach programs scheduled as part of the exhibit, including story recording, painting, and audio editing sessions. Find more information HERE.
Alexei Wajchman is a San Francisco-based singer-songwriter. His band, Blind Willies, has released four albums of original music to critical acclaim and his songs have been played on radio stations in the US, Canada, Ireland, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Australia, and Israel. Follow the band at its website, facebook, and twitter.