Brian J Evans: On Oneness, Fear, and Hope
This story was a collaboration between Brian J Evans and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.
Photographs by Micheli Oliver; Interview by Kalisto Nanen
Brian J Evans sees the world through many overlapping lenses: of being an artist, a father, a dancer, a thinker.
Feeling at home
Brian feels at home one place: on the stage, making art.
“There’s a feeling as though I don’t belong–in almost any context– other than being a performer on stage, where I feel as though I have say and control about the container for which I have set up for an audience to view me. Being a part of something that is important and calming and joyful.”
One other context where Brian sometimes feels a sense of belonging is in outdoor spaces, but it is fleeting, as a mixed-race, Black person living in today’s world.
“I do find those rare moments where I've taken a really long hike or I've gone off the beaten trail–it does feel like there is this overwhelming sense of respected authority and power that nature has, how I am a part of it and not really separate from it. There’s an acceptance of both my relevance and insignificance in this landscape of the earth.
“It feels a bit disingenuous for me to claim the story of being comfortable in nature. Unless I’m totally alone, as soon as another being comes into view, I feel like I'm in trouble. Like I shouldn’t have come, or more precisely, that I’m not welcome in their picture of nature or natural.
“It's very weird to go outside and not see anyone that looks like you. It’s strange, and having lived in the Midwest, in the Pacific Northwest, now being in New England, there’s not a lot of people that look like me. And it’s tough to think then, ‘is my body gonna be safe?’”
Asking questions of our outdoor spaces and culture
The questions of belonging, and who has access to belonging, are ones Brian asks when he’s in outdoor spaces.
“Do I belong here? What does it mean to be at a park? What does it mean to be giving money to a park service? What does it mean to be a body in space and enjoying this nature with the knowledge that I’m enjoying it on behalf of a system of oppression and ideology that removed folks from the land? [...] Those for me are the practical and philosophical challenges of the ideas of nature– that speaks back to the idea of authenticity. Can one ever really feel connected to nature?”
While Brian navigates ideological and moral grounds for feeling at odds with being outside, he notes that there are additional physical, monetary and time-related obstacles. Brian points out the importance of having the luxury of time to get outside, the gear to access these places safely and efficiently as well as the physicality to move in these spaces. He imagines what a future could look like.
“I wish there were more community-based group activities to go out and reduce those barriers. I wish that there was more of a culture of communal gardening. Like, just having gardens around, or being able to eat fruit from a garden that's not yours, because everybody's got a garden, and that’s what everybody does.”
Brian thinks about how art can remind us of stories that have been erased, and help us imagine alternative or future stories.
“What if the world wasn't centralized in colonization?" Art–even a commercial release like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever–is a crucial way to ask and explore the possibilities of our world, notes Brian.
Survival and acceptance in the woods
Brian shares a story of an intense experience in the outdoors that has shaped him. It was 2015, on his first trip to Maine. It was a solo trip, with a rented car and a long drive from Boston to Acadia National Park in the early spring.
Brian went to a small-town mountaineer shop to get a map. He was going to go hiking on trails that had minimal signage, with blue rectangles that were few and far between. He was told not to go on the trails on the back of the mountain, since they were still icy and snowy without the warmth of the sun.
“I didn't quite know how to orient myself and I, of course, went down one of the back sides of the trails. By the time I realized I had gone down one of the back sides of the trails, it was too late, ‘cause it was way too icy to try and go back up.
“I was sort of straddling this creek and I had to literally boulder-hop on these icy snowy boulders. If I would have fallen or busted an ankle or something—realizing I didn't have any cell service…it was one of the first and only times, in nature, that I felt I was in danger.
“It was one of those moments where, if I slip and fall in the creek, or if I can't get down, I’m stuck. The sun was going down and I started to bump up against that edge of ‘what is survival? what am I doing here? how am I gonna get down?’ what if I can’t?’
“In that time, I was able to give in to the reality. I stopped being afraid. I stopped worrying about whether someone was going to come and tell me I wasn't supposed to be here. I felt like there was this connection to survival: this idea of existence, and the acceptance of what nature was offering, and the possibilities and opportunities that might come from an experience like this.
“I think I also benefited from being a dancer because my body was able to tune into itself and do those–in retrospect, super dangerous inadvisable- don’t try this at home- would never do it again– jumps from boulder to boulder and recognizing that I had to, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get back down the mountain back to the rental car world back to my ‘safe’ tiny little hotel room in rural Maine.
“The best moments I've ever had within nature have always been inextricably tied to ‘how do I feel as though I can be valued and exist and just be my own being? how can I just be?’
“The closest I've come to that particular feeling has been the stage and crafting and inviting people into my process–knowing I can be as controlled or creatively sound in the choices that I am making, and as soon as I offer my art to other people I have no control I have no ability to dictate what other people feel about their experience of my art. So in the same way there is an acceptance of where I begin and where the art ends to support the experience of other people beginning.
“It was a profound moment that feels both unnerving but also pretty grounding. It’s something that I reference quite often if I'm scared about making a choice or if I'm feeling uncertain about whether or not I should risk being vulnerable.That time in nature helps reframe the question for myself ‘cause then I think about, ‘what happens if I do?’ As opposed to ‘what happens if I do not?
“Eight hours later—for an initial 3 hour hike— I made it to my rental car on the side of the road.” Brian adds, “I had never felt more grateful to see that mid-size compact!”