The Pay-Off

In the first few minutes of Kevin Everson’s new film Spicebush, the screen splits into two frames, one showing a brick factory employee at work, the other a hostess announcing the winning numbers for the Ohio lottery. The juxtaposition serves as context, but it’s clear from the rest of the movie that Everson’s interest lies in the relentlessness of labor. Perhaps this is not a coincidence—he works indefatigably. Currently, 39-year-old Everson is making final edits to Spicebush, casting a new feature film, and working on a screenplay with playwright and historian Talaya Delaney—all in addition to teaching a full course load in art at the University of Virginia.

Born in Mansfield, Ohio, Everson received a BFA from the University of Akron, and an MFA from Ohio University in Athens. After graduation, he took a position as assistant professor of art, first at the University of Tennessee and then at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. As an artist, Everson is first and foremost a consummate craftsman. “Each fall,” he says, “I like to set myself up a new goal, a new design, a new challenge.” As a result, he’s built a very impressive list of credits in just 10 years: well over 20 short films, a few solo screenings, dozens of festivals, including Sundance and South by Southwest, and numerous grants and awards, most notably a Guggenheim and an NEA.

None of this appears to be on Everson’s mind at the moment, as he’s focused on Spicebush. “I just trimmed three minutes from the version you’ve seen,” he tells me in a cheerful voice. We speak the day after he’s shown it at the Virginia Film Festival, and the audience’s reaction was part of his decision to make a few editorial adjustments. Having people respond to his movie is still a new experience for him, even though he’s a veteran of many festivals. “Did they like it?” I ask. “Yeah, they did,” he says. “Someone came up to me and said, ‘I liked your film because nobody died.’” Everson laughs again, and we chat about what other venues he has in mind for the film. He’s hoping to premiere it at Sundance.

Originally, Spicebush was supposed to be a series of shorts, but Everson thought, given his long experience with short films, perhaps it was time to try something new. For this experimental feature, he used several media (16mm, still photography, video) and genres (documentary-style scenes, scripted scenes, found news footage, and footage doctored to look real). Brief stays at the MacDowell and Yaddo writer colonies inspired him to structure the narrative in chapters, 17 in all. The result is a collage representing the African American landscape from the mid-20th century to early 21st, a stunning overview of black experience in this country, from segregation to desegregation to resegregation. Throughout, Everson also offers peeks into labor, love, and conflict.

The found footage from the mid-20th century was hard to come by, and when asked why, Everson says, “Nobody aimed a camera at black folks back then.” Most of what’s available from that period doesn’t represent the diversity of black experience, but instead it focuses on the serious, newsworthy events from the civil rights era, like school desegregation in the South or African Americans hard at work in factories. In other words, Everson says, African Americans were documented only insofar as “they fit within the white culture.” I ask him if his longstanding interest in everyday life stems from a desire to document current African American life for future generations. “Maybe,” he says, “but I’m an artist first.” He always looks for the art object first, regardless of how it fits within the larger discourse. “As for righting the wrongs of the Western image-making machine,” Everson quips, “I just don’t have the cash for that.”

In his short film work, Everson often features characters talking about their jobs or learning a new craft. His interest stems in part from his own working-class background and in part from a personal desire to know how things work—what makes things tick. In his acclaimed short, A Week in The Hole (2001), he chronicles a worker’s first day on the job at a paint factory, adjusting to materials and to his work, learning from others. In Second Shift (1999), he observes a guard’s daily routine of gaining access to a correctional facility. In Avenues (2000), a taxi cab driver works as a mechanic to keep his job. The passing of knowledge from one generation to the next (how to mix paints, the routine of gaining access to a building, or where a lug nut goes on a Buick) is important to Everson. He views the workers as artists in their own way, preservers and transmitters of skills.

To Everson’s surprise, however, his portrayals of ordinary labor life sometimes seem extraordinary to audiences—some people even find them “quaint” or “exotic,” maybe because they’re not accustomed to seeing working class people take center stage in movies. Interestingly, some audience members, particularly liberals, think that he should be using his film work as an opportunity for activism. “People have their own narrative,” he says, “and when they don’t see the expected narrative, they get confused.” He’s been asked why he doesn’t do more, but he doesn’t think that it’s his job. As an artist, he’s interested primarily in the art, even when there is a social agenda to it. Besides, he feels that people who have an agenda ought to go work for it themselves.

In addition to his film work, Everson also works in photography and sculpture. He carries with him a sketchbook everywhere he goes, even leaving it by his bedside when he goes to sleep. He writes or sketches out all his ideas but usually decides on a medium later, depending on a few considerations—artistic as well as monetary. Money worries are always in the background as he strives to get financing for projects, but Everson wouldn’t trade his artist’s life for any other. “I can’t afford to do it, and I can’t afford not to do it,” he says.

Appropriately enough, his next feature film is about a bank teller whose branch is held up. Everson was inspired by his mother’s own experience as a bank clerk during a robbery and the ease with which the FBI found the thieves. (It took the federal agents two hours to make an arrest.) The film also features a race car driver, another occupation where people expect the worst, but Everson tries to draw relationships between the two starkly different jobs, both of which are done behind three-quarter-inch plexiglass. Scouting is being done by Virginia’s film commission, and casting is already well under way. By the time the shoot wraps, Everson will probably already be well into his next project.

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