2021 Awardees: Steve Driffin and Jake Gagne
Even as a child, Steve had an intense interest in writing. When he later attended college, he wanted to be a journalist, then a novelist, then was so inspired by the emergence of Black Filmmakers that he decided that screenwriting and directing was the path he wanted to take. But filmmaking was expensive. Filmmakers needed connections and money. Steve had neither.
After graduating, he moved to New Haven to Newhallville — next to a spot called the ‘mudhole’. Steve reports that New Haven was a different place back then. He witnessed the impact drugs had on his community and didn’t like what was happening to people. He decided to speak of these ills and wrote his first play entitled, Yo’ Street.
Thirty years ago, he gave the first public performance of Yo’ Street on what he describes as one of the most notorious streets of New Haven. “With the help of a community church,” he explains, “the street was closed off, a thrust-type stage was erected, and the play was performed by a cast of volunteer individuals who believed in the script. The community had never experienced guerrilla theater and the impact was beyond incredible.” Other street performances followed.
Today, Steve is an accomplished playwright, but his journey was not easy, as he explains. “I have experienced many failures, doubters, saboteurs, flat-leavers and enough writers block to rival the Great Wall of China. I have risen from being admitted to college on a conditional basis because my academic scores were sub-par to becoming a graduate. I have strengthened my writing skills after being told I could not write to publishing articles; I have been told to give up on my dream of becoming a writer…to winning a writing competition and selling out shows that I wrote, directed, and produced. All of this came to fruition because I remained true to my craft, and I NEVER QUIT. I had moments where I stopped, but I never quit.”
Several of his screenplays have received accolades in different competitions; his most recent entry a screenplay for animation, Butterflies, won the 2021 Big Apple Film Festival and Screenwriting Competition.
The stage-play Steve is working on now, which our grant supports, is Death by a Thousand Cuts: A Requiem for Black and Brown Men. Steve describes: “Death by a Thousand Cuts: A Requiem for Black and Brown Men is an original choreopoem voicing the pain and microaggressions Black men have experienced and the impact it has on them. It is vulnerability personified and peels back the layers and allows the audience into the deeper feelings of Black men who are often silent and do not articulate their pain. This play is based on true accounts from a group of New Haven men who experienced losing their children to gun violence and how they dealt with their loss and handle life in general. This play attempts telling our story with truth and authenticity.”
When asked for biographical details, Jake-Gagne (they/them) offered the barest essentials: “I was born in 1994 in Charlotte, N.C., and I’ve been based in New Haven since 2019. In the day-time hours I work as an arts administrator at Yale.”
To flesh things out a bit, Jake is also a Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Art History, who received a Masters in Art History from Williams College. They are now a Program Administrator in Public Humanities at Yale.
Equally impressive, and more relevant for this grant: According to a publication entitled wait, what? magazine: for Connecticut underground: “what you have to know is, Jake Gagne is a legendary experimental electro punk artist living in New Haven, Connecticut.”
Jake describes their project, Test Tube Mirror Dialectic. “The project is about a search for extrasensory clues within a spiritual mystery. It incorporates video and some 3D animation, and the music was composed on a new Moog analog synthesizer that I was able to purchase thanks to the support of this grant! It’s a new direction for me and I look forward to building my craft in filmmaking and animation. Eventually, I would like to create a longer-form music video that explores a reconstructive middle-ear surgery I underwent this summer, in relation to gender, sensation, and faith.”
Sample of new work: https://vimeo.com/653844993
Test Tube Mirror Dialectic (Parts A/B/C), 2021
Some of Jake’s recent projects:
On November 19, Jake premiered a new sound art piece called Baby’s Got No Ego on Montez Press Radio. It was commissioned for the program Fleshtones, curated by Kamikaze Jones.
On October 10, they released a full-length album of songs called Cruelty of Yaks under the alias Skeleton Yaks. That album can be found on Bandcamp.
Congratulations to these gifted artists. The Bitsie Clark Fund for Artists is honored to recognize your talents. We look forward to your projects and wish you continued success.
2021 Bitsie Clark Fund for Artists Grants Finalists
We would like to introduce three amazing artists:
Faustin Adeniran, Skyler Hagner and Ravenna Michalsen.
Faustin suggests: “If you want to learn about a society, look at what it throws away.” His goal, however, is to use it to bring awareness to political, cultural, and environmental issues, and to inspire change.Faustin is from the Yoruba tribe, one of the three main indigenous groups in Nigeria. According to his website: “Embedded in his works are references to Yoruba and broader Nigerian culture, racial and tribal conflict, and the complicated history of African colonialism.” Since moving to the U.S., the artist has drawn inspiration from this environment, creating works featuring typical American throw-aways, like metal pipes and soda cans. Through his salvaged materials, he laments the loss of cultural innocence and environmental purity. His biography reads: “Ultimately, Adeniran’s work is about hope and beauty, his love and appreciation for humanity and environmental justice.”Faustin is a certified Contemporary Artist for the African Artist Foundation and a Member of the Centre of Contemporary Art in Nigeria. In 2013, he received The Maker Contemporary Artist Award, African Artist Foundatiion.His works have been featured in international exhibitions in Nigeria and France; at the Empire State Building in New York; at the Pulse Artfair in Miami; in Washington, DC; Highline Loft Gallery in Chelsea, NY and in numerous exhibitions in New Haven and across the Northeast USA.His work has been featured at artnet news, and was featured in the Washington Post. Faustin studied at the University of Lagos, and now works out of the Adeniran Art Studio in New Haven.
Skyler Hagner is a highly accomplished composer, arranger, woodwind player, multi-instrumentalist, and educator.
In 2017 Skyler was accepted to the prestigious BMI’s Jazz Composer’s Workshop in New York City. He has written for the BMI Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and for the Wesleyan Flute Fest Orchestra, and the William Patterson Big Band among others.
Skyler has composed soundtracks for plays, films and dance performances. Credits include the 2015 production of the play For Colored Girls in Philadelphia; the 2019 mini-documentary On Ice; and the dance piece OTHERLANDS by Corrine Shearer and Dancer’s Company.
Skyler has also arranged for a variety of ensembles and guest artists with instrumentations ranging from big band to flute choir and has adapted classical works into jazz forms.
As a musician, Skyler has performed or recorded with many distinguished individuals and ensembles: Michael Feinstein and the Michael Feinstein Big Band; Lil Kim; Bobby Rydell; Norman David and The Eleventet; and Ray Drummond, among many others. He has also performed at a multitude of venues and festivals across the U.S. and abroad.
Skyler has created and leads his own groups and is also a member of other orchestras and groups including the Jack St Clair Orchestra, The Waterbury Symphony Orchestra and Pops, The Thimble Island Saxophone Quartet, and Dogwood Last.
He is also a dedicated and successful educator and has been an adjunct professor of woodwinds at the University of New Haven, and gives private lessons from his studio.
Originally from Guilford, Skyler holds a Masters of Music in Jazz Composition and Arranging from William Paterson University and a Bachelor’s of Music in Jazz Performance from Temple University. Skyler describes his original work: “(It) explores the intersection of composition and improvisation, with an emphasis on creative mid and large sized ensembles. Living in the liminal space between structure and spontaneity, his music frequently features pairings of performers, and the juxtaposition of soloists in various settings. The performances are influenced by modern jazz and contemporary classical music, highlighting tight ensemble work and fiery soloists.
“His recent project; [Invisible Cities] Humanity, Memory, and Decay – a suite for jazz nonet, interacted with the Italo Calvino text of the same name, scoring the arresting vivid descriptions of these imaginary worlds and musically capturing Calvino’s social commentary. The work highlighted various environmental and social issues in an attempt to open pathways for discussion, while at the same time transporting the listeners into unique and diverse sound worlds.”
Six years ago, professional cellist Ravenna Michalsen founded Dignity Music, a non-profit organization that presents live classical music concerts to New Haven soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and transitional housing centers for free.
Ravenna trained as a classical cellist for 14 years until developing an auto-immune disease that prevented her from playing cello for eight years. She continued with graduate studies at two universities during that time, including at Yale, and also turned to singing and songwriting.
Ravenna has released three original albums of dharma songs (available on iTunes/Apple Music). After releasing the first, entitled ‘Bloom’, in January of 2006. she performed relentlessly and continued to hone her songwriting skills. Her second album, ‘Dharmasong’, was glowingly reviewed by various websites. Wildmind.org called it “…gutsy, powerful, colorful and as deeply devotional singing as you’ll ever hear.” The New Haven Advocate wrote: “The adjective ‘meditative’ might seem too appropriate for an album of Buddhist-inspired songs, but there’s really no better way to describe this effortless, enchanting music. With an absolutely impeccable sense of phrasing and pure, confident vocals, Michalsen inhabits her sometimes a cappella music with integrity and grace.”
Ravenna slowly returned to cello where she now soars. A teacher at Neighborhood Music School and the Foote School, Ravenna, plays in various regional symphonies, including Greater Bridgeport, Ridgefield, Wallingford and Waterbury, and also with the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, among other ensembles.
Dignity Music was twice awarded a City of New Haven Mayor’s Community Arts Grant from the Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism. In 2022 Dignity Music is “expanding to provide climate change awareness concerts, celebrating and grieving our changing earth.
“Dignity Music,” Ravenna explains, “is a project designed to uplift the heart of those in a tough spot, and these days, that is all of us.