Usually, the ones with the art in them feel it. ¶ Some dabble, daydream or hobby-out their passion. They sing in the shower, scribble verses on napkins or sell their drawings at craft shows a couple of times a year. ¶ But the irrepressible ones crave creative. ¶ They bend wires into sculpture for 12 hours at a time. They write rhymes before dawn to get ready for a poetry reading at 7:30 a.m. The arts call them, which doesn’t always mean it pays them, merely that it takes them to another world. Or grants them communion in this one. ¶ “We can either be artists with a capital A, or we can make art with our lives,” says Patti Digh, author of the book “Creative Is a Verb.” “It’s so beautiful when you’re in the presence of someone who is letting go of outcome and making a strong offer to the world.” ¶ Some would-be artists had inner critics, or third-grade teachers, or father figures who told them to settle down, so they put their creativity away. ¶ The irrepressible ones, who make art like they breathe, never really can.
Break the threshold of Candy Cummings’s Lexington Park home and the rooms start to speak. Circuit-board and heating-coil sculptures adorn the walls. There are torsos of naked mannequins covered in puzzle pieces, Barbie dolls waving out from sea motifs, beads hanging in doorways, paints layered so heavy they turn cloth cushions to leather.
More than 1,000 pieces of art grace her well-ordered, three-bedroom home, each with something to say and without enough white space in between so their voices flow one into the next. The effect is dizzying.
The art world has a term for it: “horror de vacui,” or fear of the void. Cummings, 60, a caterer for 20 years who was a painting major in art school, simply says: “This new art has been coming out of me for the last six years. I stopped drinking and everything changed.”
Her “Memory Bytes” features a Breathalyzer affixed with plastic bugs. Her creativity was “behind doors in my brain where it was kept safe. It came out once my sensibilities cleared and my spirituality cleared.”
Cummings gifts visitors with an old television vacuum tube tied with a satiny ribbon and a ring made from a hose clamp. They came from tons of parts given to her by her father, who owned an electronics business.
She sells her work — she had pieces at a Heron’s Way gallery in Leonardtown and at Lexington Park Library, where she convinced them to feature a gallery for local artists — but she also gives it away. “It’s karmic,” Cummings says. “Talent is a gift and you have to use it. If you have the gift and you don’t use it, you’re gonna pay, in one way or the other.”
Irrepressible art is a beautiful notion, says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. “It’s not meant to match your couch or get into some good gallery. This is art that bubbles up from deep within and has the hot magma of your essence interwoven with it.”
Hoffberger picked up colored photocopies of Cummings’s work from a foot and a half of mail she gets daily from artists around the world. She called Cummings, who had just been through a tough round of chemotherapy for lung cancer, to tell her she was interested in including her work in the upcoming exhibit “All Things Round; Galaxies, Eyeballs and Karma,” opening this fall.
“There were these things that were kind of round globes with spiky protrusions made from all electronic gears she had inherited from her dad, and I could see where the spherical was a real and honest obsession with her,” Hoffberger says.
At the Lexington Park Library in late February, visitors pore over Cummings’s work at a reception in her honor. Cummings stops at an old table she painted in a casino motif, with playing cards and dominoes.
“I got it from a thrift shop,” she says. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Just before noon in the main concourse of Reagan National Airport, Andy Leighton sets up his music stand, takes out his horn and plays a few hymns to warm up for an hour-long Valentine’s Day concert for passersby.
Leighton, 63, who has a human resources desk job with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, played the French horn in high school and college and picked it up again after bragging to his son’s music teacher that he used to play. He played at a senior center, then asked an airport manager if he could play for holidays and honor flights for military personnel. That was more than a decade ago. Now he plays — on weekends, during lunch hour, or after hours — sometimes 50 times a year.
“I’m in a horn player’s dream world,” he says. The concourse, wide with high ceilings and no carpeting to muffle his notes, gives a concert hall effect, wrapping the space in sound. He plays “Love Me Tender” at 12:05, then “Somebody Loves You” and “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” A couple is holding hands at the Cosi across from where Leighton sits. They look up and smile.
People pass by full of hurried intent, but they slow walking past Leighton in his Nationals cap and “love”-emblazoned tie. He flips through his songbook, where he has hand-drawn the treble clef, bass clef, all the notes. “It’s not like a monk copying a Bible,” Leighton says, “but it’s special. I get a little better feeling by transcribing.” It ties him closer to the music.
Cynthia Lipscomb, who also works for the Airports Authority, and three friends stop to speak to Andy. “Can you play ‘The Way You Look Tonight’?” she asks. Lipscomb and another woman dance while the others sway. They’d heard him over the years at Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “He’s very talented,” says Tonya Norris. “It’s good to see him out here.”
Overhead, a warning blares about unattended bags, and Leighton watches passersby for uniforms or school jerseys. He often plays college fight songs and has a song for almost every state. He played songs for 41 of the 50 states just before President Obama’s inauguration.
A few years ago, during a Christmas performance, a father visiting his son from the Air Force Academy asked Leighton to play “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.”
“They were in tears,” Leighton says. “It’s just stunning that I can have that effect on people, but music does that.”
Leighton nears the end of his set by playing “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” The horn is physically demanding, and after an hour he has one song left in him.
The upbeat notes to “Cabaret” echo through the concourse, and travelers smile.
The darkened theater inside Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier isn’t full, but the crowd is rapt for the third and final showing of Datjwan “Day-Marquette” Woodland’s dance, music and poetry show, “Perceptions Finagled.”
The lights come up on Woodland playing a homeless man, leaping and twirling his joys and sorrows. Pushing his grocery cart, keeping it moving.
More than a dozen acts follow: A young pianist, vocalists covering Sade or performing their own songs, a “Spiceepoet” and dancer after dancer offer up performances full of pathos. Two young male dancers power through a series of lifts as Woodland, 31, reads a poem he wrote in college based on the Nikki Giovanni poem “Ego Tripping.”
Look, hear, feel, MY skin . . .
Feel it . . . feel the karat of my gold
To the streak of good fortune I’ve been sold.
Woodland directed, danced, choreographed and dreamed of the program for more than a year. “I had to plan the whole project, conduct the auditions; I did the marketing, designed the programs. I had to figure a way to get the artists, who are not being paid, to stay for the duration,” Woodland says.
A Prince George’s native and graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Woodland danced with small companies around the country before returning to the D.C. area five years ago. He cobbles together a living teaching dance and doing personal training, so he can stay focused.
“I made a decision that this project is going to happen no matter what. Because of where my life has been, since I’ve been back to D.C., I’m craving unity, craving creativity. It’s the energy.”
In the final performance, Woodland is one of five dancers performing to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The lights come up, and Woodland introduces performers and talks about their stories and their community. Woodland makes a plea for funding, mentions that he’s also available for private dance lessons and consultations.
“Dance is clearly my passion,” he says, “but it’s more the principle that any human being can have the ability to do something that rejuvenates them. That makes them a productive member of society.”
He is already planning his next show.
It’s a little after 6:30 p.m. and dozens of millennials in skinny jeans and hoodies, with their hair swept forward, mill around the Mount Airy Fire Hall as the band A Spike Lee Joint sets up. “Come closer,” lead singer G’Ra Asim, 24, urges the small crowd. “We promise, you want everything we got.”
There are as many other bands as audience members, plus a smattering of parents, standing off to the side, but the vibe is appreciative and upbeat.
Asim turns to his bandmates, drummer Brendan Bessel, 21, and bassist Steven Edward Taylor Jr., 24 — whom he has known since attending James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring — and they start their melodic, pop-punk set. They pause for commentary between songs.
“Sleep Cute” is a cautionary tale about dating girls who already have boyfriends, Asim explains. “Cement Sneakers” is about being on the come-up but surrounded by people who try to bring you down.
They move through their set and nearby a guy in a skullcap nods to the beat while someone else plays a fingery riff on his air guitar. A young couple in front hold hands.
Asim jumps on the drum stand to jam with Bessel, and Taylor sticks to his spot in front, playing straight man to Asim’s kinetic hipster. They nod to each other and along with the music, and a pervasive sense of doing their thing animates their faces.
The band, together nearly a year, arrived at its name by taking a touchstone of black culture and repurposing it. And “there’s nothing more punk than that,” Asim explains.
They’ve played larger venues, Bessel says, but regardless of crowd size, the music “is something I’m really passionate about, and I want other people to see that.”
When the crowd starts nodding, it just feeds into the energy, he says. It affirms all the “countless hours of my life” spent practicing alone in the basement.
“We all have this connection that’s easy,” Taylor says, and “it translates into this unspoken thing,” where we all know what we’re doing next. And for that brief time, everything else in your life gets put away.
What’s harder to see is how being part of the band is a gateway to new experiences, Asim says. It’s “little things like driving to an area of a state you live in, but have never heard of, for a show,” he says. “Meeting people who you won’t otherwise meet and having a connection with them. . . . We have communion with each other and the audience. I feel more comfortable onstage using that as a medium than at a bar or party or job interview.”
And when you’re at a show and people know all the words to your songs, “that’s an amazing feeling,” Taylor says.
On Presidents’ Day, Gowri Koneswaran, 35, sets out chairs and poetry books, as she does every Monday at BloomBars, an art house in Columbia Heights. She is a volunteer program director. Usually two to six people show up for the 7:30 a.m. “Poetry in the Morning,” but this is a holiday, so she’s expecting maybe half that.
It’s never about the people who aren’t there, she says, only about the connection made with even one person who is.
Koneswaran was a lawyer working on animal welfare issues when she decided, “I’m taking a sabbatical from my regularly scheduled programming.” She’d been a writer and musical theater performer throughout high school and college, but had strayed too far from that side of herself, so she started attending poetry readings in early 2009. Within a month, she began performing at open mikes.
She left her job later that year and by early 2010 was being asked to perform at various events, including as a featured poet at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage and the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. She also began volunteering at arts organizations.
At 7:45, BloomBars founder John Chambers, who had been a senior vice president at a prominent D.C. communications firm, takes the stage to tell how “Poetry in the Morning” began as a request from a neighborhood kid who thought he and his friends needed a place to talk out what was on their minds before school.
Something about a stage, a microphone and the power of the spoken word changes people’s proportions, and a deep sense of yes, yes, y’all fires the space as he speaks.
Koneswaran reads “How to Eat a Poem,” by Eve Merriam. “I think that’s a good poem for the morning,” she says. “I hope we all see the light that fills the world today.”
Chambers does “Falling Up” by Shel Silverstein. Joseph Green walks in at 7:50. It’s his 30th birthday, and he reads an original piece, “Why I Have Tattoos.”
“I just want to hear a Gowri original for my birthday,” Green says, and Koneswaran, whose parents are from Sri Lanka, reads “how to be a model minority”:
a little sweetener
on a spoon
will make it smooth
when the meds go down
they have the recipe
to make you function
snap til you crackle
She closes her eyes at times and gestures expansively. She wishes Green happy birthday. For the next hour, the three take turns on the mike. Then Koneswaran encourages the other two to free-write for 45 minutes.
Koneswaran says she’ll always be a lawyer. “I went to law school,” she says with a laugh. But what she won’t do again is stop creating. She wants to use art to “expand the ways we communicate” with each other.
Her family understands, she says. Maybe not entirely, but that’s okay. It makes perfect sense to her.
It’s a notion all the irrepressible ones have in common.
Editorial aide Erin Williams contributed to this story.