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The Interview: Barbra Fant

Poet / Performance Artist / Healer There’s a certain metamorphosis that occurs after the longevity of sorrow. It’s a metamorphosis through which poet Barbara Fant has transfigured and has lived to tell. Fant’s words have floated through illuminating performances in globally-recognized slam competitions and prestigiously-awarded literature, but she still finds time for mentoring children and [...]
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Poet / Performance Artist / Healer

There’s a certain metamorphosis that occurs after the longevity of sorrow. It’s a metamorphosis through which poet Barbara Fant has transfigured and has lived to tell. Fant’s words have floated through illuminating performances in globally-recognized slam competitions and prestigiously-awarded literature, but she still finds time for mentoring children and providing ministry through poetry.
But right now, studying comes first. Pursuing an MFA program at Antioch University, Fant divides her time between Los Angeles and Columbus, all while being a voice in citywide promotions for I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. Through her revelations of the past and her eyes ahead on what’s to come, Barbara Fant’s story is still writing itself.

The first time I saw you perform was at Urban Spirit about ten years ago. What I remember most was that your eye contact with the audience was as gripping as the piece. What goes into practicing your performance?

Barbara Fant: I always say that I found poetry when I was really young, and then when I was fifteen, poetry found me. I lost my mom when I was younger and I was kind of an angry teenager, so I didn’t really know how to talk to people. I started writing, it was my way of prayer, it was my language, it was my communication. When I was in high school […] I saw Sunni Patterson. She’s a poet out of New Orleans and I was like “Oh my goodness, I wanna do what she does.” When I came to Columbus, I said I was gonna find an open mic and get on stage. I ended up at Black Pearl Poetry which was a spot that Ed Mabrey used to run, and [poet] Will Evans slammed through that scene…. Will and I became good friends. When it was 2008, [it] was the first Women of the World Poetry Slam, and they needed women to compete. Will was like, “Barbara, I need you to slam” and I was like, “What? You’re crazy, no way.” So, I did and I went to the first-ever Women of the World Poetry Slam, and that’s when I started performing. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I perform a lot, but I also do open mics as my practice. I got used to performing a lot in the mirror, like, looking myself in the eye, then when I got on stage, I’d be able to look other people in the eye.

Is there anything specific that you want your audience to mentally unpack when they listen to you?

BF: My writing in the past has been a lot about spirituality, and now I deal with a lot of trauma and things that I’ve experienced in my childhood that I didn’t really know were traumatic. What I hope that people—I guess—unpack is that I really just want them to be able to see themselves in a piece of it. I hope I give people the space to be able to find themselves in the work, in a way, or feel that they can now tell their stories because I was able to tell mine.

“The poetry scene is constantly growing and developing. It’s a place where I can really do my work, hone in on my voice, and still see a national scene, but have a community, a grassroots, a place to come back home to.”

Have you ever had someone in the audience, or someone that’s heard you, approach you very emotionally after you did a piece?

BF: Yeah, that actually happens to me a lot. (laughs) And, I don’t know if that’s because my work is sad or what. People usually want to hug me or something after. People will come up to me, like, “Can I give you a hug? Can I just hug you?” I don’t really know what all that is, but yet, people do approach me emotionally a lot. I’ve kinda gotten used to it now. •
“I think for so long, black women’s voices have been silenced, and I think the only way that we break through any kind of false narrative is to keep speaking our truth.”

You’re originally from Youngstown and moved to Columbus to attend Ohio Dominican University. After winning so many national competitions, what made you stay in Columbus?

BF: I decided to stay in Columbus because ultimately at the time, I was serving at a local fellowship. That fellowship isn’t in existence anymore, but I was serving there under a pastor who was walking me through the ordination process. I went to seminary after I got my degree, and the reason I went to seminary was to become a prison chaplain…. I ultimately didn’t go that route, but part of my staying in Columbus was because I was back in school. I’ve had a really good community in Columbus, and I still do. The poetry scene is constantly growing and developing. It’s a place where I can really do my work, hone in on my voice, and still see a national scene, but have a community, a grassroots, a place to come back home to.

Did you face some challenges balancing being mentored by a pastor, wanting to be in the religious field and performing poetry?

BF: Well, interestingly enough, when I was in undergrad, I got a call from a pastor out of the blue, and her name is Yvonne Gilmore. I ended up going to her church and she is actually the one who became my mentor. She was in a group called The Cornel West Theory, so not only was she a poet, but she’s a black woman who was also in a pastoral role, started a new church and, you know, she’s a black woman. I grew up not even realizing that women could be pastors, my father told me that was not possible, that they weren’t supposed to, and here is this black woman in a pulpit, and she’s doing her art. So for me, being able to meet her just showed me a new world. It was like, “Oh, it’s possible.” I’ve never considered myself a “Christian poet,” but I always considered myself a poet who is a Christian.

What similarities do you see within the children that you’ve taught at ArtSafe and Transit Arts? Have both experiences compared to your youth?

BF: ArtSafe was such a great organization. We took art into juvenile correctional facilities and that helped me fall in love with that space. I’m still really-really connected and feel a strong call to be in that space with individuals who are incarcerated. I think that is because I saw myself in a lot of those youths; I realized it could’ve been me. I was really empowered in that space…. I think because I’ve lived the life that I’ve had, I connect with people who have really deep, traumatic experiences.

What are some practices that new poets should implement to enhance their craft?

BF: With my kids, […] they love the arts. Some of them are more advanced that others, but most of them are entry-level writers. What I work with them a lot on is introducing them to new writers and new ways to tell their story. I do a lot of introductory poetry exercises and teaching them different styles of poems, like letting them know that it doesn’t all have to be a sonnet, or it doesn’t all have to be free verse. There’s different ways to tell your story. We work a lot with introductory metaphors and similes–all the poetic tools you would think of for how to build a poem.

How can black women define themselves in a time when we’re often misconstrued?

BF: I think one of the ways to do that is to keep speaking. It’s probably a really simple answer, but for me personally, I’m oftentimes in an all-white space, and the only thing that helps me continue to define myself is to keep speaking and to keep being and to not let my voice be silenced. I think for so long, black women’s voices have been silenced, and I think the only way that we break through any kind of false narrative is to keep speaking our truth. That’s something that I do and I work to uplift the voices of other women because I think that there’s power in that. People won’t know it unless we tell it. Only we can tell our stories.

Barbara Fant will lead a 2-hour performance poetry workshop on January 23rd as part of a poetry slam competition co-sponsored by The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts and The Columbus Foundation.

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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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