This Thursday at 5:30PM, the Long Beach Museum of Art is hosting an artist talk with Frank E. Cummings III, whose career retrospective, Jeweled Harmony in Wood, is on display in their upstairs gallery. His first museum show, back in 1974, was also held in the Long Beach Museum of Art.
His work is an important part of the Lipton Collection, which has been dispersed primarily to five museums: The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His work has been exhibited across the country in prestigious institutions including the White House, and the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
Just before the new year, Cummings and I sat down and spoke at length about the exhibition–it features furniture, vessels, a reliquary and his second clock. I first spoke to Frank in 2010 and, at that time, he’d been thinking of closing his studio and enjoying retirement with his wife, C.C. He had, he said, done all he hoped to do, and felt a sense of accomplishment for what he’d achieved during his career as an artist. Shortly thereafter, he had a change of heart.
While this transcription of our conversation is nearly complete, you can also listen to an unedited audio recording of it.
[If the player does not work, try downloading the file.]
“I woke up one morning and felt it was time to go to work. I knew exactly what I wanted to do because I had been thinking about the clock, off and on. It’s part of the creative process. Most people think that the creative process starts when you sit down and you start sharpening your pencils, mixing the paints, or sharpening your tools. But it’s an ongoing, continuing, and changing process.
“This clock was an a pivotal piece in my career, at least the clock before this one – it’s called ‘It’s About Time.’ It’s in the [Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,] now. There are more things about that piece than the fact that it’s a clock. The fact that it’s a clock is kind of incidental. The statement that the clock makes is far more important and, once that clock was finished, it sat in my living room and I enjoyed it. Winding periodically, I would go downstairs and just listen to it at night.
“But then, when the [Museum of Fine Arts in Boston] called and said they were interested, the juices got going again. Primarily because, whenever I send a piece out, it has to be what I call ‘show ready’ and that clock was ten years old and, in my opinion, it wasn’t show ready. There were some issues and problems with it. Things like the bushings, which is the part that holds the pinion, were placed in holes in the clock. There are like 46 or 47 of them. One of them, in the back, had a small crack in it. I had been watching that crack for a long time and it had stopped, and hadn’t moved. I figured that it’s probably not going any further but, if I’m going to have it in an exhibition, especially in a place like the Boston Museum, I should get rid of it.
“Also, the clock ran for 54 hours before it had to be wound. There weren’t that many criticisms, but one of the criticisms, primarily from clock makers, was that it didn’t run long enough. People who make clocks try to make clocks that run for much longer periods. I thought, if I’m going to take this clock apart and fix that one crack, I might as well go through it and make some changes so that it will run longer.
“So I took it apart, which was kind of scary because I remember that, prior to that, I took it apart one afternoon. I took a deep breath and I closed my eyes and I opened it up and looked at the clock I couldn’t put it back together. It was like I had never seen this before! How am I going to do this? But, after a few hours, a switch was flipped and it was clear. I didn’t want that to happen again.
“I took it apart, and changed it so it now runs for a week. I had to make some major changes. For example, I had to add a pulley, and the pulley had to look like the rest of them and, as hard as I worked, I could not make a pulley that looked like the rest of them. And the reason was that pulley was made ten years ago. My skills, my thoughts, everything has evolved, but there it was and it was in the museum and they loved it. They actually purchased it for the permanent collection. “So, thinking about that, thinking about how I felt when it was finally finished, was an exhilarating moment. And it was only about a moment because, once its done, you move on. There are things that you learn about that piece that, if I were to do it again, it’d be much better. Those kind of thoughts had been going on for a long time.
“I woke up in the morning and thought well, it’s time to go to work. Most of the materials were already in the studio except for the gems. All of my pieces are made of primarily one wood, and then I add the gemstones and the gold. This new idea involved many different woods combined, which is a much more complicated idea.
“I went to work, and it was going pretty smoothly. Then I began to think ahead. ‘Okay, what are you going to do with this piece once it’s done?’ And I thought, ‘What I really want to do is to have a solo exhibition, with this new piece as the centerpiece, and the twenty or so vessels were pieces I have already had.
“A lot of my works in the Lipton collection are what I call studies. If I had an idea to do a piece, and I had not used that wood before, there were things I needed to learn about the materials and about how they related and about how the whole concept would fit together. A study usually results in a much smaller piece using the same materials with a general kind of concept. So, when I did the [final] piece, I decided to keep it. I made a box for it, put it in a box, and then put it away. After that, didn’t think about it too much.
“I ended up amassing these 20 or so pieces and, immediately, I thought it’s time to show them. I said, ‘What would happen if I showed them all at one time, most of which people had not seen before?’ Many, in fact most, had been published some place or another. But I had this idea, then, of this solo exhibition with the maids in waiting, and then the queen. Actually, I envisioned it just like this, [gestures to the gallery] with all those pieces in one room and this piece in the room by itself. That’s when I went to the museum, to Ron [Nelson] and Sue Ann [Robinson] and I said, ‘I have an idea.’
“Museums don’t buy into ideas. They buy into finished work. They need to see it, understand it, and visualize how its going to fit into their program. So, for a museum to buy into an idea when the main piece was still parts and pieces and ideas and drawings was amazing. But they said, ‘Well, we like this.’ But I thought maybe, based on my track record, they might be willing to do it. When I say track record, the pieces in publications and the pieces in other exhibitions and museums all across the country might be enough to convince them that I could pull this off.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could because this clock is far more complicated than the first one. Not only in terms of mechanism, but in terms of combining such a large number of different pieces and different elements and make them all work as one. I thought I could pull it off but I wasn’t sure. So it was like a day to day process.
“I remember doing several pieces which were part of this piece, a wheel or a pinion, and getting to the point where that piece was finished, then looking at it and saying, ‘Waiting a minute! This isn’t going to work.’ Sometimes, it wouldn’t work because of a technical issue I had with that piece but, often, it wouldn’t work because of the materials I was using for this piece made statements that were not compatible with pieces that were already there. They all had to work together.
“It is very much like a composer sitting down and writing a symphony. Different instruments, different musicians, all of whom have their own characteristics, but all of a sudden they all have to work together for this one composition. And that’s what this became. Every piece had a role to play. And even though some of them were really fantastic, wonderful pieces they weren’t working with the other pieces. They were either too high, too low, too loud, too flamboyant, and some of them you need to play a little louder which means you have to do that piece over again.
“When I say ‘a little louder’ it means that the materials I was using at the time were not standing out the way I thought they should be in that position. The wood wasn’t dark enough, or the wood was to light, so it had to balance and that’s why it took so long to do this. Four years later, you see in here, but it took four years to do that.
“I was prepared to take as long as it would take. I had no idea it would take four years. I thought maybe it would only take two because the first clock only took one year. And, because this one is so much more complex, I thought maybe two. I had no idea. But I don’t put a time limit on my work. Once I start to work I get working and work until it’s finished.
“When I came to the museum with the idea, they said, ‘Yes, we can do it.’ They [gave me] a date, and I said that sounds great. All of a sudden I had a deadline, and it was terrifying! I’ve got to do all this work and, at the time I still had no idea of how long it’s going to take. I was still in that mode of I’ll just keep working and working until it’s finally done. It has its time, and I’m sort of committed to that time, but now there’s a deadline.
“The work became much more feverish. I’d wake up as early as I normally would. Well, the piece wakes me up. When I go to sleep I don’t really sleep sound because I’m solving problems. Resolving issues while I’m sleeping. I’m much more efficient when I’m sleeping than when I’m awake. I will wake and say, ‘Ah! I got it.’ And I use to try and write it down but because, when you wake up like that you’re still in a fog, I would write stuff down but I couldn’t understand what I wrote. I even tried tape recording it. That was worse. So, when I wake up and say ‘I’ve got it’ I’ve got to get into the studio immediately and implement what happened. That went on for a total of four years.
“Mechanical issues were actually easier for me to resolve than conceptual ones because, with mechanical ones, all the pieces are right there and you can move them around and change them until they finally physically work. The conceptual issues are much more difficult. I’d reach an impasse and for a day or so when I didn’t know what I’m going to do next.
“There was an issue with the mechanism so I’d work on the base. In fact, I said, ‘Once I get the base and the cabinet done so that I can actually see it, it’ll start to becoming more real.’ Because, as long as it’s in your head it isn’t real at all. Even when you jot it down on paper, it’s still not real. It’s not real until you actually pick up the materials, manipulate them, and finish the piece. Then its done and you can move on.
“With every piece that I do, what I call the lower end of the piece has a direct effect on every other part. It’s so complicated that I can hardly describe it. But this piece evolved, it grew, and there are things that happened that I couldn’t I couldn’t resolve at the final.
“For example, the weights of the previous clock fit right between the upright [supports], and I always take the weights off first because they’re so heavy and put so much stress on the piece that removing them first makes it easier to take everything else out. But I did not know how much weight it would take to drive this clock. I knew what the weights looked like because I had already selected the wood but, as I got to the point where I could determine the weight, I realized that the weight would be more than it took to do the previous [clock.]
“This one was designed to run for a week or more. The first one, 54 hours. To revise it to run for one week meant I had to put more weight in. I had to go through the entire piece and relieve as much friction as possible. Friction is the problem with clock making. The more you reduce the friction, the less weight there is to drive it, and the longer the clock will last.
“I made the weights [for the new clock] and put them in. It was working fine but, because the weights were larger than the previous ones, they wouldn’t fit through those uprights. So the only way to take the weight off is to remove the glass. That was not part of the original concept. That just made it much more complex. Just putting it together and taking it apart became another huge issue and, once you’re far enough into this kind of a process, you can’t go back. You can’t go ‘Oh well. These two pieces should be farther apart.’ There is no room to make it further apart. They are what they are, so you have to work around these pieces.
“It’s like a building block. You build a foundation first and then, if you build a foundation that will support a single story house but, in your mind, this house grows into a two or three story house, how do you go back to change the foundation to support the weight? You have to know that before you start and, for most of this piece, I didn’t know things until I got there. And then it’s ‘Oh my gosh! Now what do I do?’ That’s one of the reasons it took so long to do it.
“But here it is now, in this gallery, and people may not understand this but, when I walked in here and we installed the show, I took a breath and stepped back. I saw it for the first time. I’ve never seen all of this work out at the same time. So, to see them in this gallery for the first time was a real eye opener. I saw continuities in the work that I thought were there, but I had never seen them. And so when you actually see them, it’s very very different. When they’re out here [gestures to gallery] as opposed to when they’re in here [gestures to head].
“I spent a lot of time just walking through this gallery when no one was here, just looking at them, and… wow. This piece works so much better than I thought it would when it’s in this environment. Because, in reality, this entire exhibition is connected. Not just because I did them all, but because there’s a thread of connection that run through all these pieces, because of the concepts that I had originally.
“There’s one that’s made of a really wonderful walnut. That’s a burl walnut. You don’t normally see that kind of wood unless its on the dashboard of a high end car. And, even then, it’s paper thin. In that piece there are genuine diamonds and opals and 18 karat gold. Before I started that piece I knew exactly what it was going to look like. I knew exactly what I wanted it to say. Every one of these pieces has its own voice, and each one has a statement and a story, and the stories are all connected.
“This one, that I just described, is called ‘C.C. with Diamonds’ and C.C. is my wife. C.C. and I have been married now for 50 years and celebrated our 50th anniversary last October. She’s been an inspiration for most of the work. One aspect of her or another. For example, C.C. and her sister went to Las Vegas and I guess they went to Caesar’s or something like that and, in that facility, you can have your photograph taken in costume. They both dressed up like Cleopatra. When they came back I saw the pictures. Her sister had a big smile on her face and was excited about being dressed up like Cleopatra, and C.C. was more subtle. Even if you saw the photograph it’s hard to describe her demeanor, and the expression on her face.
“One day I asked her about it and she said that, as soon as she put the costume on, she realized that she was not a descendent of Cleopatra like a lot of people who feel they are. She didn’t belong there. She said if she’s a descendant or reincarnate of an Egyptian person, it came much much earlier than Cleopatra. She said of any of them she’d probably feel better dressed as Nefertiti. And right then it stuck in my head: I’ve got to do that. And so that piece has sort of Egyptian quality in that the top part is more like a large fan, and there are lots of gems there-pearls and diamonds and a large topaz with 18 karat gold around it. And it’s title is ‘C.C. aka Nefertiti.’ That is the first piece you see on the far end there.
“The piece in the same case is based off my experience when I first went to Africa. I went there to learn. I wanted to know more about fetishes. What is a fetish? How does one make it and, more importantly, how does one endow its special powers? I was in an exhibition back in ’72, and the reporter who covered it wrote in the magazine that Cummings is influenced by the Native American and African culture-which was news to me-and is making true fetishes.
“People started to look at my work as being fetishes, and so I decided I needed to find out what this is about. And, at that time in my studies in art history, I had run across an Ashanti stool which, at that time, I saw as a piece of furniture. This form was a fertility piece called an akua’ba. I decided to go to Ghana, specifically to Ghana, and my goal was to find these Ashanti carvers to find out how they make these things.
“Now, one of the things I was curious about was that most forms or figures from Africa, from those cultures, are made from a single piece of wood. Some of them are quite large. These people are using so-called primitive techniques and making pieces that, in many cases, we cannot duplicate with our so-called sophisticated tools.
“I went there and spent a great deal of time with one Ashanti carver, and I spent a lot of time with fetish priest, because there is a connection there. And when I came back I decided to do a tribute to John, who was the carver I spent the time with, by doing my version of the akua’ba.
“The akua’ba is a triumph in Ghana. The mortality rate for children is extremely high, and successful childbirth is quite low. So these dolls were designed and commissioned by a fetish priest. A carver would make them. The fetish priest would then give one of these dolls or babies to a woman who wanted to have children, and she was told to prove her worth as a mother, first. She would carry this doll and take care of it, clothe it, and have it with her all the time until she had proved her worth as a mother. Then, the gods would grant her wish. That actually makes a lot of sense.
“I did this piece but, if you look at it, the torso part obviously is not a child. It is a full-blown female. The model for that was C.C. It has characteristics and attributes that C.C. says is not her but, in my head, it was. So you have C.C. appearing in more than half of the work that’s in this gallery.
“The piece on the other end is called Resplendence and, if you look up the definition, there are many and most of them are feminine terms. There is another one called Embrace, and the material is manipulated in such a way as though it actually does embrace other parts. The embrace I’m talking about is only symbolized in that piece, but it’s realized in an embrace with C.C. There is one called Passion Fire. There is one called Allure. All of them are inspired by C.C. so, in reality, what you see here in this gallery, including this piece [gestures to the clock] is a love story.
“It starts in the front with the hall tree, which is actually a love seat. It is big enough for two, and it is an anatomical study of the human form, with the addition of the strength and agility that I saw in a gazelle. So they’re all kind of pushed together here but, if you look at it carefully, you can see the pieces. You can see different aspects about our relationship throughout this whole gallery.”
Cummings included two pieces that are about himself.
“The carousel is about me when I was very young, 4-5 I guess it was, when I saw my first carousel. It was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. My parents had a family picnic there with other relatives, and they were playing games, like baseball, and ended up having a nice big dinner. But there was no money to ride the carousel back in those days, so that was just my imagination. Sitting there, I spent hours watching the carousel. And this carousel is my third carousel. It didn’t start out to be a series but it just evolved into a series.
“When I decided to do a carousel I had no idea how to go about doing it, which is a true statement about every piece that I’ve done. In the beginning, I had no clue. It just evolved. The first one is in the Lipton collection and I just call it Carousel. I wanted it to feel like a carousel. There are carousel figures, and Dr. Lipton really loved it. It got published, also. But that was what I call the study.
“The second one is called “Carousel-Age of Innocence”. It is about a child riding a carousel, perhaps for the first time. And at that moment I remember what it was like when I had ridden one for the first time and you naturally always think of all the fantasies of riding a carousel and riding a horse or what ever the figure might be. You could be the cowboy riding down to save the town from the bad guys. You could be the knight in shining armor riding its steed to slay the dragon. Could be all of those things. As long as you hold onto the pole and look forward, the fantasy will stay intact.
“In the second carousel, all the figures are what I call flyers. In other words, none of their feet touch the base. They’re all in a flying position, they’re all looking forward, and they all have the spiral pole that goes through them. But what happens when you look to the side? When you look to the side, you realize that what you were thinking at the moment was a fantasy. It’s not real. The real world is out there. Once that happens you have two choices. You can either stop looking up and look ahead, and play back into your fantasy, or you need to get off.
“So, in this carousel, they’re not tied down by a pole. They’re free. Some of them even have one foot off, and all of them are looking to the side.They are free to step off the carousel into the real world. The fantasy, for them, is over. Which is as it should be. We can’t live in fantasies. We have to live in the real world. And that’s what this carousel is about. Is about the real world, so it’s called ‘Carousel-Age of Awareness’ because once you are aware you have a choice to make.
“For forty some odd years now, which is how long I’ve been doing this, there has been a consistent question or issue in my work. It starts back in 1972 when they did that article. I had not met that person who wrote the article. I don’t think they knew who I was. But they said I was influenced by the African culture. Bold letters. So, what is it about my work that cause people to assume that I’m influenced by the African culture. Because, at that time, I wasn’t.
“A few weeks before this exhibition opened there was another exhibition open here, and I decided to go to the opening. Someone showed this couple a photograph of one of my pieces and they looked at it and they admired it and they said, ‘Would you like to meet him, because he’s here?’ So they brought me over to introduce me to this couple and they looked surprised, and it’s a surprised look on peoples faces I’ve seen many many times before. The lady said ‘Oh. I see it now. This piece is influenced by the African culture,’ and I said ‘No, it’s not.’ She was embarrassed.
“People assume that because I’m African American. There was a time when I was a colored man, then I was negro, then I was black, and now I’m African American.
“My father, in 1948, was a national model airplane champion. The first prize for that championship was a real airplane. My father won a real airplane because he was a national model airplane champion. But my father had to go to court to get the airplane because they didn’t want to give it to him. One of the criticisms was ‘what is a black man going to do with an airplane?’
“A lot of people are surprised when they see my work and then discover that I’m black. They do what I call a double-take. Some of them stutter. Some of them don’t know what to say. But the point is that, for as long as I can remember, people have not quite understood what I do or what I’ve done because, for them, its sort of a paradox. There is work in here that has been compared with Faberge, and they can’t understand how a ‘primitive’ black man could do that. I’ve got a handful of people that say that.
“So this piece, right here, is made of a really beautiful piece of ebony but, it’s not black. If you look at it very carefully, there are streaks of other colors in this ebony. There is what I call brown, coffee, mocha, there’s even a little kind of a vanilla color, which hopefully suggest that black is not necessarily a color. It might be many colors, and there are many colors in that piece of wood.
“The piece has a really large number of black pearls but, if you look at them, they are not black. There are some that are green, there’s blues, there’s purples. There are several other colors that are in a black diamond, but its not black. The black diamonds in there are so dense that light doesn’t cut through them. Light reflects off of them so, as you move around that piece and look at the diamonds, they appear to be different colors. They are reflecting all the colors in this room, including you as you move around. And so you might look all the way around it and you will swear that none of them are the same color. So, it’s a piece that makes a statement about color…”
At this point in our conversation, the clock begins to strike 11AM. We sit quietly, listening to the mechanics whir, and the chime ring. When it finishes, Cummings begins to speak about the sound.
“That chime was b flat. And people say, ‘Why b flat?’ Well, I can’t tell you exactly why, but that particular note is something I hear all of the time. I hear it in the studio if I drop a tool. I can hear it if I’m outside. I can hear it whenever there’s music playing, and I’m playing music all the time when I’m in the studio. [When I hear] the b flat, for some reason, it makes me think that I’m really really lucky because I only hear one sound.
“I can’t imagine what a music composer hears, where they can hear the entire symphony, and they’ve got to get it all out on paper, and then they have to transpose it. I’m lucky I only get one, but that one, to me, is really a very calming sound. It’s a sound that makes me think that everything’s good or, if its not going to be, that everything’s okay. So I worked really hard to get that particular sound in this clock.
“When this clock is at home, and it’s downstairs, you can barely hear it at night, upstairs. Sometimes it wakes me up and, ever since this clock has been [at the gallery] I wake up and I think, ‘Wait a minute! I heard it! Somehow, I heard the clock but it’s not even here.'”
Now, we return to the topic of his work as an artist, and the confusion he sometimes encounters relating to his chosen media.
“Even though I use a lathe, and I put wood on it, I am not a wood turner. Furniture is in here, also. This piece is considered furniture but I am not a furniture maker. I have made clocks but I am not a clock maker. In fact, I had been talking to children here. They have a wonderful children’s program at this museum. I really enjoyed talking to the kids, but I was standing here and the clock was working and everything was fine and they asked, ‘Do you have any questions for Mr. Cummings?’ and one little girl goes ‘I have a question.’ She said, ‘how long did you go to clock school before you learned how to do this?’ How can I answer this so she understands? I said ‘I’ve never been to a clock school, but I know how to make a clock.” She didn’t quite understand.
“I’ve been to so many conferences, now, that I can’t even remember how many. I have attended conferences for wood turners, furniture makers, wood workers, and jewelers. My goal was to have yet another opportunity to show my work. On a number of occasions race became an issue. I didn’t make it an issue, but somebody in the audience did and, in most of those cases, it’s in negative terms, negative circumstances, and so I’ve had to deal with that.
“There’s a form of racism that we see. That is because they simply don’t know. And that doesn’t really bother me because I have an option to explain. [Sometimes it] is just plain bigotry. It’s down deep in their bones and, to try to change that, you’re wasting your time. That does pop up now and then. I have tried to explain to individuals where the work comes from, how I feel about it, and I try to do it in a context that they understand. Hopefully, by their understanding, it’ll make a difference, make a change. So I don’t mind doing that, but it’s a continuing process.
“So this piece is, I almost want to say, my final statement, but I realize it’s not my final statement because I’m going to make it again. That’s a great statement. With all of these colors in this one piece, and with all of these materials that people assume are black but they’re not. The statement for this piece is ‘Can You See Me Now.’ I don’t think that most people have figured that out, yet, because when I do have people come through and ask me questions, they ask me a lot of questions about a lot of pieces but no ones ever asked me questions about that one. Maybe it’s a clear statement, and that’s why they don’t ask me. That’s a possibility I hadn’t thought of.”
Cummings was clearly influenced by his father, and I encouraged him to speak further about what he learned from him.
“[It was] his willingness to do what ever it took to create that model. There were no plans. There were no kits back then. All from scratch. His tenacity, his willingness to spend hours and hours trying things and experimenting until he got it right, was a definite influence.
“My father was not a mechanic, but he could take a car apart and put it back together, an entire engine. I watched him do it. He would start taking the engine apart and he would put the pieces in a line in the driveway until he got to the piece that needed to be replaced or repaired. He repaired it or replaced it and start from the end of the line and work back and put the car back together again.
“My father was in construction. He was a lather, and he was one of the best in the country in terms of how fast he could do it. In those days they didn’t have nail guns. They had an axe, and the cutting edge would be what they cut the boards with, and the other end would be what they used to pound the nails . Lathers at that time would get a handful of nails and pop them in their mouth. These nails would come out and you could pound them. My father set up a rhythm, a consistent rhythm. If you walked onto a job site and stood there for a second and listened, you knew exactly where my father was because you could hear it. The steady rhythm. He was fast. He was really really fast, and he was really, really good at what he did. So, those kind of things I inherited from my father. The patience it takes to do those kinds of things, those are not mine.
“But I’ve inherited things from my other relatives, too. My Uncle John was the chef on the Southern Pacific Railroad, on what they called the V.I.P. train, and he was a really good cook but that was in the days when he was not allowed to come out of the kitchen on a train from here to back East. But my Uncle John, for me, was the storyteller of the family. I remember going to his house which was, fortunately, a bicycle ride distance from where I used to live and spend hours and hours in his den while he told me stories about the family. Stories about his life.
“He was an avid fishermen and hunter and, back in that day they, were not sportsmen. They were meat hunters. I mean they went hunting because of the food. And so all those adventures and those stories I remember, sitting there on the floor, listening to his stories.
“Not too long ago a friend and I were talking about something and he looked at me and he said, ‘You’re now the story teller.’ And he’s sort of right because every one of these pieces tells a story.”
To learn more about Frank, visit FrankECummingsDesigns.com. To learn more about the Long Beach Museum of Art, visit LBMA.org. Watch a video of Frank as he walks through the exhibition, and speaks about several of his works.
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