Not long ago, Jere Michael’s wife had to give it to him straight about all the crap he had in the garage.
“’When you pass, I’m just going to throw it in the dumpster,’” he remembers her saying. “So that really motivated me.”
In the Great Garage Deterge, Michael happened to come across a short film he had made in 1968. It told the story of a group of teens from inner-city New York who were sent to an eight-week art camp at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, VT. The film highlighted the importance of art education in the fight for civil rights and racial justice.
Courtesy of Hanson Film Institute
Students attending a 1968 art camp in Vermont, the subject of Jere Michael's film "Off the Streets." (Still from the film.)
Sound relevant today? Yeah. Michael, who had never shown the film anywhere (“I’m not a very good self promoter,” he says), approached the University of Arizona and was referred to the Hanson Film Institute, where Director Vicky Westover was struck by how much this film needed to be shown. And so it is that Off the Stree
t, a film from almost 50 years ago, is making its world premiere next week right here in Tucson.
Michael was there for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, he waded through the water on the National Mall to get closer so he could hear.
“Of course, the police, at one point, stopped me,” he says with a laugh.
A passion for helping disadvantaged people runs in his family: his father was teaching English to black adults in the 1930s. Michael himself worked at a day care in Harlem during the Civil Rights Movement.
“We’ve always been prone to get involved with disadvantaged people in my family,” he said. “So I just grew up with that as a sort of model and tried to live that way for the rest of my life.”
In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Michael was directing a summer theater in New Hampshire when he was approached by John and Kate Torres, a couple who were wondering if he wanted to make the documentary.
“I was very upset and very disturbed with what was going on in our country, the way ghettos were being handled, the way black kids were being treated, the lack of educational facilities,” Michael said.
And so he jumped on board right away. He learned a lot about filmmaking, he says, but he also got to know the program’s participants.
“I learned how talented, interesting and what good people they were,” he said.
Bernard Hoyes, who, at 16, was one of the youngest students at the art camp, was one of those people.
Hoyes spent his childhood in Jamaica, where he didn’t start attending school until he was 9 years old. Because he was behind, he didn’t pass the entrance exam into secondary school, and started learning the cabinetry trade when he was 11 or 12. His gift for art was his way out—at first metaphorically, but then literally.
“[Art] was something that I could do that nobody else could do,” he says. “Word got to my father to try and do something for me to try to get me a future.”
Hoyes’ father lived in New York, had never really been a part of his life. But when he heard about his son’s skills in art, he saved up for five years so that he could give Hoyes a future.
“I was always grateful to him for doing it for me, because he didn’t even know who I was at the time,” Hoyes says. “He kept me focused and kept my head straight.”
Hoyes still wasn’t very interested in school, or his dad’s strict rules (both, he said, were pretty radical learning curves), but he was grateful for the opportunity. Soon, high school faculty took notice of his art too, and got him involved with the Art Student League. Then, he was invited to participate in the Vermont Academy art camp program. For Hoyes, it was a huge opportunity to expand on his art abilities, and on the mediums he could work in, like oil painting and sculpture.
“I really realized the opportunity that was given to me an the path that was laid in front of me for a career or a life,” he says.
Courtesy of Hanson Film Institute
A student working on a project at the Vermont Academy summer camp almost 50 years ago. (A still from Jere Michael's film "Off the Streets.")
With a lot of hard work, he seized the opportunity. At the end of the camp, where he spent the whole summer finding himself as an artist, Hoyes returned to school in New York, where the teacher’s union was on strike. And so he was offered a scholarship to Vermont Academy, because the faculty was impressed by his work.
“I started classes in the fall, and was completely blown away by the fact it was nothing like summer,” he says. “There was no art.”
Thrust back into a world of strictly academics, the path wasn’t laid out ahead of him anymore, so Hoyes forged his own path. It started off by faking injuries so that he could skip class to finish up pieces in his room, but then he started an art club, and the school created an art award for him when he graduated. Their curriculum expanded into what it is today: an academy which provides art degrees and sees students off to art institutions all over the country.
“The drive to be an artist that was in me from the summer program, I brought that into the academy,” he said. “What the school was working toward was to rectify inequalities that was going on at that time in the nation, and worked to give people of color a chance to get equal footing.”
Today, Hoyes is an internationally renowned artist
whose art appears in galleries around the world, with Oprah Winfrey and Natalie Cole among his collectors.
“Off The Street” makes its world premiere at the Center for Creative Photography, 1030 N. Olive Road, at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Hoyes and Michael will both be present for a conversation after the film, moderated by Bryan Carter, associate professor of Africana Studies and director for the center of digital humanities at UA.