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!”
Seeing and feeling nature inside ourselves
Brian sees accessing nature as something that starts within.
“Access to nature starts with access to ourselves. And access to ourselves, for me, begins with the creative process and/or empowering people to get back into their creative selves and embody themselves more and more and more.
“When I’m in my creative process, that’s my golden time, I just feel so much more at ease with myself and proud of the person I am, which then extends itself to everyone I meet.”
Brian feels a sense of deep connection to other humans, a common ground and an empathy in creative passion.
“And I'm like, ‘I know you've had those moments of feeling good and proud about who you are. Let's jive on that. Let's commune on that so that we can get past the idea that maybe we want to kill each other.’ Because that's just a false understanding of each other. It's not easy to do that, especially when there is someone telling you that they want to kill you, and there’s someone in your face, who would make you feel less than? So in my best moments, that's what I try to do. And in my darkest moments, the creative process is what I rely on to bring myself back.”
He is deeply shaped by ideas he learned when studying abroad in 2006, learning about environmental sustainability from Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders.
“And one of the philosophies that was uncovered was this idea of deep ecology, which is this idea that humanity does not have to view nature as a commodity, but something that we are a part of. And how I understand this concept best is using the analogy of a lake: instead of feeling like we're outside the lake fishing from it or swimming in it, occasionally–we are the lake, as in there is no distinction from the water and us.”
As a citizen artist, his practice doesn't end with reimagined notions of traditional art-making; it extends into creating transformative spaces for social engagement. Talking to Brian, one can hear the fluidity between how he sees his art and how he sees the world. There is no boundary.
“Even the stage space–the construct of human-made, as though we weren't using nature to construct everything that we do, or that we aren't of nature.”
“And I feel like that mythology that we're somehow separate or above or unique–whether it's spiritual or religious, or capitalistic, or however we frame it, that somehow there is some sort of inherent separation between us and nature– I think it's a false construction.”
This separation of humans from nature, Brian says, allows for environmental harms.
“When we think about how we make choices about exploitation, I think it helps us sleep at night a little bit better, because we're not considering that we're exploiting our own sensibilities.”
But, Brian sees there not being a real, actual disconnection between humans and nature.
“The idea of deep ecology brings me back more into alignment of the idea that there is no separation, which then dovetails into this concept of Ubuntu, which is loosely translated, ‘I am because we are.’
“There is no distinction. The idea that I am somehow separate from nature or inauthentic to it is a myth, it’s a mythology, it’s a way of thinking that does not serve my larger understanding of humanity. We’re all on the same planet, we’re all in the same environment, we’re all trying to simply be, and we are told so many stories that go against our nature that result in us taking it out on one another and the natural world, which—lest we forget— is the same thing.”