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The Many Lives of Mendoza

Cuban refugee. Ivy league preppy. Hippie commune resident. Modern New York artist. Retired photography prof. Successful Kickstarter campaigner and self-published author. Tony Mendoza has lived enough lives to fill a book. Or eight. A photographer and author, the 76-year-old places his striking color and black and white images alongside succinct paragraphs capturing specific memories. A [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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Cuban refugee.
Ivy league preppy.
Hippie commune resident.
Modern New York artist.
Retired photography prof.
Successful Kickstarter campaigner and self-published author.

Tony Mendoza has lived enough lives to fill a book. Or eight. A photographer and author, the 76-year-old places his striking color and black and white images alongside succinct paragraphs capturing specific memories. A flashbulb igniting a moment in time, spectacular or mundane. We identify with his images not because we have lived his life, but because he is our friend recounting his greatest hits. The stories with which we’re already familiar, but goad him into telling again and again. Mendoza tags his tales with an accompanying belly laugh that smacks the air above him and then drifts away like steam on a calm day. He drops bemused and casual conversational bombs—like trying to sail on a motorboat from Cuba to Florida when he was a young teenager, attending Harvard and Yale, and taking an elevator up to his loft past Andy Warhol’s parties nightly when he was a starving artist in New York.

To publish his latest book, “Pictures With Stories: A Memoir,” the Columbus resident and retired OSU prof forged his own path. Confronted by unresponsive publishing houses, he turned to crowdfunding. And after a successful Kickstarter, 2017 will see the print version of his latest set of tiny tales, as well as a show at Columbus’ Joseph Editions Gallery.

(614) was able to pin down the indefatigable Mendoza long enough to hear about his past and future lives.

How long have you been cataloguing things?

At some point, I started writing little stories with the photographs. I started doing that when I realized that maybe I had lived an interesting life. I say maybe because we all live interesting lives. I feel in a way privileged that I’ve lived many lives. I used to be an upper class Cuban in one life. I was a very spoiled kid and I was wealthy. I was a morally terrible person [laughs].

What was the worst thing you did when you were a kid?

When you grow up in a Latin culture and you’re a boy, you kind of have the run of everything. And you’re allowed to do everything. So from the moment I was 13, I had the run of the city of Havana. It was a center of sin in our hemisphere, and I participated in it [laughs]. At 18 I left, but living in Havana was a wild place. I gambled, I went to brothels, I drank. I did everything.

When you were a teenager?

When I was 13! [laughs]

When did the political climate change?

In 1958, Fidel Castro came in. And in 1960, I left. That was my first life, then I came to America. I quickly moved into the American thing because I had gone to a prep school. I totally understood Americans, what they were like and all that. I liked it. I liked the whole thing. I just moved into American society pretty quickly. I went through an Ivy league education. I went to Yale, so I became kind of a preppy, just automatically. I bought clothes at Brooks Brothers [laughs], went to Yale and went to all the girl’s schools for dates—Sara Lawrence and Vassar. That was my second life, as a preppy. Then the next step was, I went to graduate school and architectural school—and that was in Cambridge—and I got radicalized. At the end of that, I became part of the ’60s. So that was my third life.

When you say you understood Americans, what does that mean?

American culture, in my opinion, was clearly superior to Cuban culture. Cuban culture was very traditional, conservative and all that. There was a sense that you did what your father did. That also implied that you would also adopt their ideas. So there was religion and there was property, and there was conservative political ideology, and so on. When I came to the United States, I realized that you didn’t adopt your parents culture automatically. If anything, you rebelled against it. I kind of understood that right away. And people were very open, religiously and all that. No one really gave a damn about all that, and that suited my personality. Socially… the girls necked. Cuban girls didn’t, so I immediately took to that. [laughs] I immediately became an American at heart.

How did you become a part of the ’60s?

The ’60s changed me a lot because I basically got rid of all my conservative views pretty fast. I took to the idea that the ’60s was about exploring everything. Nothing was off limits. Drugs, sex, rock and roll, leftist politics, everything of that sort. At the end of that decade, I moved into a commune and explored that lifestyle of living with many people and trying things out. Nothing heavy—marijuana, acid, that kind of thing. And then my fourth life was… I became an artist.

Tell me about your breakthrough moment in New York.

I had this box of really good cat pictures. I spent like two years and took like 10,000 pictures of this cat. Photographed him every day. I knew pretty fast I had a project that was gonna fly, because people really admired the pictures. Even good galleries in New York gave me a show of cat pictures—which is rare. I took it to publishers, thinking “This is clearly a book.” I got rejected like 30 times. I went to everybody in New York, and everyone rejected it. Then somebody said: you can’t publish a book of pictures if you’re not a famous person. If you’re Ansel Adams, you can put a bunch of pictures in a book and then publish them. But if you’re Tony-Mendoza-I’ve-never-heard-of-you, you can’t do that. You have to have a story, a text. The book has to be interesting to read and see. There has to be writing in this thing. After so many rejections, that made perfect sense. It was interesting, cause up to that point, I never saw myself as a writer. I saw myself as a photographer. I basically holed myself up for a while and started coming up with the text. The first publisher who saw the project with the text said “This is great, let’s publish it.”

With that success behind you, why did you turn to Kickstarter?

Stories, my previous book, got reviewed in Time, Newsweek, Vogue, New York Times Book Review—all excellent reviews. All the viewers loved what I do, photographs with little stories… I figured, “Hell, I’m just gonna write publishers and say, ‘I’ve brought my Stories book up to date. I’ve written new stories.’” And to my amazement, no publisher wanted to publish it. The Museum of Modern Art owns 65 stories in the permanent collection, and people aren’t interested in this? [laughs] F*ck this. I’m gonna publish it myself.

Mendoza will release his latest book, Pictures with Stories: A Memoir in the fall of 2017. His show at Joseph Editions will open Thursday, September 14. More info at josepheditions.com.

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Arts Fest Preview: See BalletMet live outdoors!

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BalletMet’s Friday night’s headline performance at 8:30 p.m. at the Arts Festival is sure to be a highlight of weekend. One of the nation’s top 20 largest professional companies, BalletMet consists of dancers hailing from across the nation and the world and boasts a premiere academy for aspiring professional dancers, one that’s been recognized as an institution of local and national stature.

Since 1978, BalletMet has brought incredible dance to theaters in Central Ohio and beyond and their commitment to bringing dance to the Columbus community, especially in underserved areas, is unparalleled.

Art of War Photo by Jen Zmuda

From in-school programs to theater field trips, scholarships and free performances, the company is dedicated to making dance accessible to all. More than 10,000 children attend the company’s Morning at the Ballet field trip performances each year. And thanks to a grant from PNC Arts Alive, BalletMet’s second company, BalletMet 2, has performed at free events at the King Arts Complex, Franklin Park Conservatory and more, throughout the 2018-19 season.

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In addition to the free performance at the Arts Festival BalletMet will perform at Dance on Dakota on Friday, May 10, from 5 to 8 p.m. in Franklinton. This performance is also free.

Dance on Dakota, co-hosted by Franklinton Arts District, is part of a weekend-long block party in Franklinton and features free food and drink and a collaborative performance with TRANSIT ARTS. The event will take place at Dakota Ave. and Town St.

Dancers Grace Anne Powers and William Newton Photo by Jen Zmuda

BalletMet’s Columbus Arts Festival performance will include a mixed repertoire of shorter pieces from its past productions and will be preceded by music from DJ Donnie M. of Damn Girl.

And if these performances capture your interest, the company recently announced its 2019-20 season, which includes ALICE, based on the later stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Twisted 3, a collaboration with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus, and, of course, The Nutcracker.

More info at www.balletmet.org. For all your Arts Festival details visit www.colubmusartsfestival.org

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Arts Fest Preview: You wood hate to miss local crafter

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Woodworker and Art Makes Columbus featured artist Devon Palmer has been working with his hands since his upbringing in northeast Indiana. His mother a wood carver and his father a carpenter and cabinet maker, Palmer took a more mechanical route by obtaining his pilot’s license and attending Purdue University to pursue a career as an airplane mechanic.

But as his career transitioned from maintenance to the tech field, he yearned to work with his hands again. Originally he considered pottery, before a class he planned to attend got canceled. But a trip home the weekend before Thanksgiving led to his father introducing him to woodturning.

That was more than 15 years ago. And though he is largely self-taught, Palmer also credits local woodturners from the Central Ohio Woodturners (a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners) for taking him under their wing. In 2005, he opened his first studio just north of Downtown, and in 2007 he began teaching woodturning at Woodcraft Columbus.

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Today, Palmer does a bit of mentoring of his own. He teaches classes in blade and bowl turning, resin cast pen turning and more advanced projects like hollow vessel turning in his studio at the Idea Foundry. He is also adding a series of LGBTQ date night pen turning classes to his growing schedule of classes, shows and demonstrations.

Palmer says his work represents “family and connectedness” with work ranging from salad bowls and laser engraved pens to funerary urns and ornaments. The details in his hand-crafted tableware and home goods manage to invoke a warm sense of community, fellowship, and hospitality.

Devon Palmer works in internet technology and is also a pianist and ordained minister.

Make your own wood turned pen with Devon Palmer at the Columbus Arts Festival, June 7-9, at the Big Local Art Village located at the Festival’s Franklinton entrance. Learn more about Devon at www.columbusmakesart.com/stories/devon-palmer and get all your Arts Festival details at www.columbusartsfestival.org

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Arts Festival Preview: Dr. E uses voice to overcome adversity

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Dr. E, singer-songwriter and author Cleveland-born singer-songwriter Dr. Elaine Richardson — known by her stage name Dr. E — has used her voice to detail the incredible circumstances she encountered while overcoming great adversity. Born to a musician father and Jamaican immigrant mother, Dr. E begun tapping into her talent while singing in church, her school’s choir, and in girl groups.

Dr. E continued to sing despite the difficult path she faced. As a teen, she became a sex trafficking victim and fell into addiction. In her recovery, she pursued higher education at Cleveland State University and Michigan State University. During this time Dr. E also began performing as the frontwoman for a number of cover bands and placing her original music on various TV shows. She recorded her first album, “Elevated,” in 2010.

Dr. E’s introspective song lyrics reflect the often difficult process of healing while defending those who share her experiences or face exploitation and discrimination in other ways.

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On her sophomore album, 2017’s “Songs for the Struggle,” she gives a soulful retelling of her journey from sex trafficking survivor to university professor, Ph.D., author and advocate. Blending elements of soul, rock, funk, rhythm and blues, and jazz, Dr. E sings with an astonishing amount of hope and positivity; Though the album details the trauma and exploitation experienced by Dr. E during her teen years, her power message ultimately expresses affirmations of self-love and acceptance employed with an equally powerful and joyous voice.

Dr. E is currently a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. She has written a number of books on African American literature as well as a memoir, “PHD to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life.”

See Dr. E. perform at the Columbus Arts Festival, Saturday, June 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on the Big Local Stage on Rich St.

For hours, artist listing and all Festival information go to www.columbusartsfestival.org

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