On A Recent Gun Tragedy in Chicago

There is rightful outrage to the shooting death in Rogers Park this weekend to teacher Cynthia Trevillion caught tragically in gang crossfire while out for supper with her husband. Who should be held accountable? Joe Walsh is a leading local gun pornographer. The NRA – National Rifle Association of America is growing wealthy and powerful over rivers of blood on our nation’s streets. Rahm Emanuel refuses to hold the Chicago Police accountable and fosters economic policies, championed by people like Alderman James Cappleman that degrades Chicago Public Schools and evaporates affordable housing. It is Trump and his tacit and sometimes overt support for racism and the destruction of assistance for the poor and working poor that promotes a general hopelessness in many communities. It is all of us who turn the page when this happens in “Black” and “Bad” neighborhoods and are outraged when it happens in our neighborhood. It is something perversely dark and cruel bred in American culture where this is allowed to happen year over decade. It is all of us for not  choosing to be informed, and to show up to vote, to call, to protest, and at the end of all those efforts,  if necessary, show up a million strong and drag those from civil, loving, decent, all-embracing society out of office and tossed into a river.
This morning on Facebook my friend, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas lamented:

This happened a block away from our apartment:

“From a friend of the Chicago Waldorf School Family and I share his sentiments:

‘Last night here in Rogers Park, a wonderful wife, inspiring teacher, and good friend was senselessly killed by random gunfire. Cynthia Trevillion of the Chicago Waldorf School did not deserve to die. She was walking in our neighborhood, going to a restaurant where she lived, when a car full of kids drove by and shot, missing their intended target, and killed her instantly. Right in front of her husband.

For absolutely no reason whatsoever.

While the killers have not been tracked down yet, we can all guess that the guns they possessed were obtained illegally. Bought from someone who either stole them or bought them from some other idiot. Reports vary, but it’s believed that 60% of guns used in Chicago crimes come from Indiana, Mississippi, and Wisconsin and are virtually untraceable because, you know, the government shouldn’t track those sort of things. I mean, what can we do, right?

And before you start with your “crooks don’t pay attention to the law”, save it. Closing the loop of “personal” sales will curtail the availability of guns. You sell a firearm anywhere to anyone, it will be registered. And if that firearm is used in a crime, you will be implicated. It’s that simple.

Even these measures will not completely eliminate guns falling into the wrong hands. No, they won’t completely eradicate senseless killings like last night.

But if we can reduce the amount of guns on the streets by 10%…20…30%…maybe we don’t lose such a bright soul.

Maybe the kids at our school aren’t mourning the loss of their teacher.

Maybe a husband isn’t burying his wife decades too early.”

This was my response to my friend, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas:
Four things. Rahm is closing still more schools, with growing lack of funds as more and more cash is directed to charter(corporate schools) By the way, more TIF money is going to rich developers as the city gentrifies, and available housing to the poor, disenfranchised and working poor is relegated to fewer and fewer neighborhoods, like Rogers Park. 2. the 60% figure is accurate, but more alarming is that police report that better than 80% of guns they recover were purchased LEGALLY and sold to gangs and criminals. 3. The police, in a tantrum over being asked to not shoot kids 16 times, in antagonism of BLM and because these public servants are being told they must be accountable are simply refusing to do their jobs, and the gangs know it! And last, there is a element of a lack of moral leadership, which starts at the top and has become a quality of our government. Facts and information have been discredited by looters and criminals in the White House, the state house, the corporate boardroom and city hall which creates a culture of making excuse for any blatantly abhorrent behavior. If Trump can get away with doing what is selfishly advantageous to him, why can’t some punk on the street? .

That’s Community.

So working to clean up the hillside behind the house, and a pickup pulls up and a woman climbs out and asks if I am the one who has been cleaning up the hillside.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Can I help?” she says.

We talk about Sunday. I say I have a radio show. She laments her daughter’s struggle to do something in the Arts, but also make a living. The Art schools, she says, want bonafides. She wants to be a dancer. She’s 17; the child of working parents. Bonafides? What’s that, right?.

I tell her that one of our hosts. Sid Yiddish is going on tour, and would her daughter like to cohost the show with Kerri Kendall as our dance correspondent when Sid is out? Least we can do to help with her Bonafides. There isn’t a moment’s hesitation.

That’s community, and if I accomplish nothing else with this program and it inspires this one young lady, I’m satisfied.


…but is it Art? Creativity and the Developmentally Disable.

Emmanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher of the Enlightenment, who arguably set the historical stage for outsider art, believed Genius was “the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person.” The Enlightenment gave birth to early outsider notables such as Daniel DeFoe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Francisco Goya. Indeed, the very idea of “outsider” art brings up some very powerful questions about the definition of art, and directly challenges fundamental assumptions.

Is there a difference between art as a vocation, art as philosophy, art as a station in society and art created by the untrained, unsophisticated, the developmentally disable, children, elephants or what have you? And yes, I said elephant art. It’s a thing. Google it.

I had a conversation some time ago when I began researching how Art instruction and Art therapy can powerfully benefit the development of the human brain. Nothing terribly new there, but my friend, who trained in the visual Arts unwittingly and innocent brought up an important issue. Was Art created by the developmentally disabled Art or in fact akin to teaching someone a trick? Conversely, was it necessary to be trained in an academic setting, utilizing learned concepts of structure, line, rhythm, color and composition to be considered the only true Art.? A bit elitist? Perhaps, but there is arguable merit to both sides of the argument. That would tend to exclude any non-deliberate or wholly intuitive Art forms, as well as notable masters who struggled desperately with mental illness, for example, like Vincent van Gogh or Jackson Pollack.IMG_2766

This week I visited students and residents at Misericordia, on Chicago’s north side, home to 600 residents with varying degrees of Down’s Syndrome. A personal note here; my uncle Marty, who passed away several years ago, had severe Down’s Syndrome. Marty struggled and often became frustrated when unable to communicate a thought or feeling. He’d been taught ritualistic behaviors, which he would repeat meticulously as a means of managing that frustration. He loved to color, not well when it came to working inside the lines of a coloring book, but he was incredibly careful in choosing colors, something which I now view as a way of quantifying thoughts, moods and frustrations in his own free and honest vehicle for communication. I am certain the choice of colors was deliberate. As an artist, it took me many years to be that intuitive and free in choosing colors for compositions.

If language is community, then color, line, structure composition are the syntax, verbiage and punctuation in the language of the artist. Fundamental to any artistic endeavor is the necessity for freedom and absolute honesty, particularly in the rendering of ideas and emotions. Since Art lives at its strongest on the emotional level, the penchant for the Artist to render emotions precisely is paramount. we were all good at that at one point in our lives. As children we had precious few filters. It often takes artists a lifetime to reacquire a portion of that freedom. Others find it more easily.

Julie O’Sullivan has dedicated nearly two decades as an art instructor for Misericordia’s adult residents. I will defer from saying that Mesericordia’s residents suffer from, are afflicted by or are impaired with Down’s Syndrome. As Julie and I toured the first of three second floor studio’s at Misericordia’s sprawling campus those descriptors seemed a sublime failure of language. From the painting studio, to a ceramics room and finally a craft studio, furnishing Misericordia’s gift shop with exemplary inventory, it was impossible now to come away feeling that real Art was being created there. Moreover, the work being created, while assisted by instructors, was deliberate and in quality which at times far exceeded work I’d seen by students without so-called developmental disabilities. Colors were rendered with spectacular and complex acumen, with pieces strategically constructed.

One piece in particular, keeps returning to me. It was a version of Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 classic, Christina’s World. It is the image of a young woman reclined in a field looking off to a rustic farm on the near horizon. the sky is a soft grey. At Misericordia’s painting studio I was drawn to a version in which the sky and distant farm were rendered dark and stormy. I recalled my Uncle Marty and if he’d been given the tools and pathways for communicating emotions and feelings these residents had. But would that be Art?

The effort here isn’t to persuade, so much as it is to awaken some thought on the subject. Is it Art?  

IMG_2772The best answer I can offer is what happens when we stand in front of a painting, and what is the natural response? Emotion. Further, I believe that for an artist to ask the question of whether or not something is Art is a form of artistic suicide. Rather the question should be, why isn’t everything Art? It is very much  parallel to the issue of human rights and human freedom in which the effort should be to expand the definition to encompass and empower the greatest number of living things. Even more, it should be the effort of the collective community of artists to chronicle the world through the prism of the human heart, replete with love and compassion and inclusion, as the ultimate means in filling the world with beauty; which I suppose is as good a definition as I come.         

Facets’ 34th Chicago International Children’s Film Festival presents exciting and challenging content for kids and teens.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017: Chicago – Now in its 34th year, Facets’ Chicago International Children’s Film Festival gives filmmakers, families, educators, and media professionals access to the newest and most innovative films for kids and teens. After three decades, the Festival continues to use the power of film to offer a unique look into the lives and cultures of people from around the world.

The Festival runs from October 27 – November 5, 2017 at eight Chicagoland locations: Facets (Lincoln Park), Davis Theater (Lincoln Square), Music Box Theatre (Lakeview), Wilmette Theatre (Wilmette), Alliance Française (Gold Coast), Cervantes Institute (River North), U of C Logan Center (Hyde Park), and The Gorton Community Center (Lake Forest).

The full Festival schedule and ticketing information will be available in October, 2017. Field trip bookings and Festival Family passes are available now at facets.org/cicff.

Since 1983, the core of the Festival’s mission has been to seek out and champion films that not only represent the best of their kind, but can adequately speak to the experience of contemporary kids and teens. Today, we find this to be just as important, if not more so, since we live in a time obsessed with instantaneous connectivity. We now have the ability to know what’s going on in Peoria as quickly as London, Tokyo, Tehran, or Burkina Faso. Once distant locations are now only a click away.

Mary Visconti, Facets Executive Director, speaks to this point: “For over 40 years, Facets has introduced people of all ages to the beauty and power of independent filmmaking. Our programming for young audiences is just as thoughtful as the programming we offer grownups every night of the week at the Facets Cinémathèque. That is what is so awesome about the Festival.”

She continues, “Kids grow up with easy access to video content, but what exactly are they taking in? They are absorbing commercial content that not only dumbs messaging down to the lowest common denominator, but is also infused with advertising that urges them to consume even more. Facets offers young people an alternative. Our Festival programs beautiful, whimsical films that delight and entertain alongside more challenging work that can provoke critical thinking and spur empathetic practice. The Festival is a place of audience building, but it is also very much a place of community building.”

Similar to past years, the 34th Festival offers both general public and field trip screenings for kids and teens. This year, the Festival will present a wide variety of international films, including Napping Princess from Kenji Kamiyama, the director of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Ann Marie Fleming’s Window Horses, featuring the voices of Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy, Under the Tuscan Sun) and Ellen Page (Juno).

Expanding on this year’s Official Selection, Festival Director Ann Vikstrom says, “The 34th Festival is very exciting and we’re proud to present the best in film and television for kids and teens. With almost twice as many submissions this season, we have selected the best 287 films from 47 countries. We are looking forward to learning which one might be considered for the Oscar short list on November 5th – as we’ve got pretty great traction with the Academy.”

She goes on to say, “Continuing in the vein of our mission to be inclusive and welcoming of all stories and characters on a global scale, this year there is a focus on immigration and the refugee crisis. Kids and teens have to navigate a very different world, one that they will inherit, and these films speak to that complexity.”

Facets’ 34th Chicago International Children’s Film Festival runs from October 27 – November 5, 2017. Full Festival schedule and individual tickets will be available in October, 2017. Field trip bookings and Festival Family passes are available now at facets.org/cicff.

Facets’ Chicago International Children’s Film Festival presents the best, most innovative film and educational experiences for kids, teens, families, students, and industry professionals. The Festival is operated by Facets, a nonprofit that connects 30k+ people annually to independent ideas through transformative film experiences.


Paul Gonter


773.281.9075 ext. 3043

Miss Nikki: Cancer Queen of Comedy

What’s that old line? Don’t be and example, set an example. That’s really true for a very special woman, who some are theorizing simply had enough of Donald Trump and fled the planet. I know, that’s an odd way to remember someone, but you might not have known anyone like Miss Nikki.

This amazing lady took her final bow over the weekend. Miss Nikki, comedian extraordinaire won her battle against cancer. I say won, because, while cancer invaded her body it never broke her spirit. In fact, she laughed in the face of her disease until the very end. Night after night she took the fight to the stage, both for her and as an example of strength and defiance in the face of a disease that touches us all. The mortality rate for concern averages at 171 per 100,ooo men and women. That rate is much higher for women than it is for men, at about 145 per 100,000. A third of the estimated 1,7 million people diagnosed each year will succumb to one form or another of the disease.

We will all face cancer at many points in our lives, whether for ourselves or a loved one. How we come to that long and uncertain war is individual to us all. It is akin to pondering how we might  come to combat in a war between nations. Miss Nikki picked up the banner and led the way as an example of pride and power and endurance. And while the body may fail us, the spirit fights on.

Most of I had the sublime pleasure on a number of occasions to laugh and joke along with her. Night after night Miss Nikki would climb on stage and give a giant finger to cancer in her legendary stand up performances. There are a lot of comics who strive to be something else on stage, but with Nikki you knew it was real, which is what makes stand up such a unique form or art. So long, friend. The laughs, the tears, the spirit echoes for eternity…

Incidentally, don’t Google Image search “Miss Nikki.” That IS NOT the Miss Nikki that comes up! Here is a bit of the real Miss Nikki…


Mitch and I don’t see eye to eye…

…on much in the way of politics. We grew up in vastly different eras. Mitch cut his teeth on Chicago’s tough near West side in the 1940s and 50s. I am a child of the 1960’s and 70s. Mitch and I are neighbors, and at a glance one might think that’s about all we have in common. Maybe to wave, share a couple of neighborly non-descript words or tip a beer from time to time, but beyond that…

last week Mitch pulled out a Chicago History book, part of a series on Chicago neighborhoods and heritage. He pointed out the house he was born in during the Depression. Much of the rest of his childhood he skips, opting instead for stories from a long career as a Bell Captain and some of Chicago’s most iconic and well-known hotels. that is where he met his wife Helen. That was back when being a Bell Captain at a fine hotel was more than another service job catering to the “I’m the celebrity in my own reality TV” everybody’s Listening to stories about running elevators for President Kennedy, or giving Sinatra that extra little bit of service one begins to understand that it was, with caveats, and thick rose-colored glasses, a time of honor.

I know that world, at least a little bit. Having known city cops, shady politicians, and Made Guys from that era, I understand. My dad knows a bit of that world. He’d grown up in the Depression in a little Iowa farm town, but arrived in Chicago at a young age after the army, around 1960. But the common denominator here is the Depression, which didn’t simply congeal a nation, but underscored the bonds that held communities together. That was evident the other day when Mitch called me over.

For the last several years the Wife and I have been actively working with what seems like an ever increasing tide of homelessness. We don’t have much, so compared to the need or large organizations, it’s a literal drop in the bucket. Several years back we began working to organize HelpHouseChicagoHomeless, a neighborhood non-profit in Englewood and Woodlawn on Chicago’s troubled Southside. In truth, at least for me, it was an effort to help a man I had met amid the Occupy Chicago protests, named Tom Turner.

Tom and I have had these conversations. I tease him about being shot and stabbed so many times that I’m considering nicknaming him “Swiss Cheese.” Tom has a temper and makes bad decisions a bit too often for his own good. Not criminal or dangerous, mind you, but the sort of decisions that keep sliding him back from the progress he so sorely wants and needs. Some of it is his doing. Some of it is living a life in which one solves crisis-Thomas doesn’t have problems- on the fly. That, the hardscrabble life on the Southside, education, a criminal record all have a weight in everything he does, and that hurts him. That could easily engender negativity and frustration, but with so many folks, like Thomas, for a world of reasons struggling at the margins, true friends understand how fine a line that is to tread, and that slipping from time to time is inevitable.

The thing is, I’ve known Thomas for going on 7 years now. I have seen him in damn near every possible mood and state of mind. I would trust Thomas with my life. he is family to me. I don’t babysit the man. We are about the same age. I help when I can, Sometimes that’s a bit of cash. Sometimes it’s advice, mostly it’s just being a friend. That same sense of honor in a seemingly unending crisis that I’ve seen in Mitch or my dad is what I catch in glimpses of Thomas when he struggles. I met Thomas when he was homeless, and though he may not see it, there has been progress. He has a job. It doesn’t pay much, but it does keep a roof over his head. Still there is that margin, and slipping or tumbling from it is all too easy this close.

Mitch came across the yard and said, “Helen and I want to help for all the work you do to help the homeless.” He reached out to shake my hand, a $20 Dollar bill tucked in his palm. He wasn’t interested in making a big deal, though to me it was. Thomas had called just the day before, worried because he was a short on rent a few dollars because he needed food and a bus pass to get to work. It felt like a loop had been closed, that something else wanted to see Thomas catch a little break, if only for a moment…

A Mystery of Languages Solved?

After more than two decades studying and travelling in the Balkans there was one recurring question. I can honestly say that I had the same vexing conversation with dozens of people throughout the former Yugoslavia over the years, from acquaintances at cafes to various professors, intellectuals, artists, historians and a philosopher or two. Is it possible that the answer lay right under our noses, or more specifically, under our tongues?

For all of my Slavic friends, family and acquaintances: I have long wondered where the Serbo-Croatian and overall Slavic languages designation for German and Germany come from, Nemački, Nemačka, respectively in Serbo-Croatian. travel back in time to the 3rd through the 6th Centuries AD when Slavic tribes migrating into Europe came into fuller contact and competition with Germanic tribes whose language they could not understand. The S-C word for mute is Nem or Nemy. Possibly the term was a bit of a perjorative by Slavic nations as they came into contact with Germanic tribes. It is the best theory to the origin of the word whose derivations extend to the Hungarian német, who arrived in Europe around the time of the Slavs, the Turkish, Nemçe and Almanca, who borrowed from the Bosnian/Serbian in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Ottoman Empire occupied souther Europe to the gates of Vienna.