New festival/conference examines the intersection of art and social justice

INTERDISCIPLINARY: “Art is a great place to start influencing change,” says Jessica Tomasin, who created Connect: Beyond The Page Festival + Conference with an eye on how creativity intersects with social justice. Drawing on artists and innovators across artistic genres, the festival includes contributions from the likes of, clockwise from top left, playwright and professor Lydia Diamond, author Natalie Hopkinson, broadcast journalist and producer Lori Knight and electronic music duo Sylvan Esso. Photos courtesy of the artists

It’s so easy to feel helpless when faced with the issues of the world, or even just within our own community, says Jessica Tomasin. “How am I, as one person, going to make a dent?” she asks. “How do we find those ways where we can open the space for connecting and communication?”

Faced with those questions, Tomasin, the studio manager at Echo Mountain Recording and an events planner for initiatives such as Goombay Festival, harnessed her own passions, skill set and considerable list of contacts. The result is Connect: Beyond The Page Festival + Conference, which will take place in Asheville from Friday, April 20, to Sunday, April 22.

The three-day gathering delves into social justice issues through the lenses of music, storytelling and film. And it brings together luminaries from those fields such as Maya Lilly, who is producing a film based on The Fifth Sacred Thing by neopaganism and ecofeminism theorist Starhawk (who will also be part of the festival); and filmmaker and Emmy Award-winning conflict journalist Joyce Ferder Rankin, among many others.

“Art is a great place to start influencing change,” Tomasin notes. Despite Asheville’s issues, such as segregation and gentrification, due to positive attributes such as a desire for unity and inclusivity, it remains a community with the potential to serve as a model for other places, she says. “There’s something about bringing people in from the outside to connect with our local community. The sky’s the limit to learn from each other.”

Still, with its varied contexts — film, storytelling, music and literature — Tomasin found it a challenge to weave together the themes of Connect: Beyond The Page. There’s a hint of the spirit of Moogfest 2014 (the last year that festival was held in Asheville) when music performances were interspersed by panels and discussions focused on the intersection of art and technology. Hard to tailor into an elevator speech? Maybe. Inspiring and impactful? Definitely.

“As I started getting people confirmed, panelists and performers and artists, they got excited and wanted to bring something else to the table,” says Tomasin. For example, Lilly will not only talk about the process of turning Starhawk’s book into a film but will also share a portion of her one-woman show, Mixed, about growing up as a multiracial person.

Showcasing the common ground of those working in varied creative fields, the Women in Media and Entertainment panel brings into conversation the potent voices of Lilly, Rankin, producer and visual effects artist India Osborne (Thor, Allegiant), playwright and professor Lydia Diamond (Smart People) and author Natalie Hopkinson (A Mouth Is Always Muzzled).

And through her years at Echo Mountain, producing festivals and films, and in other music industry capacities, Tomasin has a sizable contacts list of friends and collaborators. One such connection, singer-songwriter Johnny Irion, will take part in multiple events — including interviewing Swannanoa resident Billy Edd Wheeler who, at 85, has just published his memoir, Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey From Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More. Irion, with songwriter Johnny Goodwin, will also speak about the process of turning long-form stories into song — timely, as Irion purchased the films rights to the book Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail by Jay Erskine Leutze (about a community near Boone that took on a mining company). Irion, along with Goodwin and Jeff Bridges, is writing songs for that forthcoming film.

Among other filmmaking initiatives on the roster is the collaboration between actor/producer Zak Kilberg of Social Construct Films and Dr. Benjamin Gilmer, who will appear on the panel Dr. Gilmer — A Life Event Turned Into a Social Justice Movement Through the Power of Media and Storytelling. Gilmer’s story aired on a 2013 episode of “This American Life.” The short version is that Gilmer took a job at a rural clinic in Cane Creek, near Asheville, and learned his predecessor — who had the same surname — went to prison after killing his father. But in talking to Vince Gilmer’s patients, Benjamin Gilmer only heard how kind the previous doctor was. Vince didn’t sound like a killer. So Benjamin started to dig into the mystery, which led to the startling discovery of a misdiagnosed condition suffered by the incarcerated physician.

Benjamin worked with Kilberg and Iz Web (also of Social Construct Films) to turn the story into a film; the team just sold the rights for that project to a production company.

Kilberg and Web will screen the drama The Song of Sway Lake, with score composer Ethan Gold. Local musician Ben Lovett will speak on a composers panel with Gold and others, and will screen the horror film The Ritual (for which he composed the score), with director David Bruckner.

Reaching across the delineations of music, film and literature at every juncture, the festival also includes the insights of Cold Mountain novelist Charles Frazier, synth-pop duo Sylvan Esso and Bob Boilen, the tastemaker behind NPR programs “All Songs Considered” and “Tiny Desk Concert.” Based on the concept behind his recent book, Your Song Changed My Life, Boilen will conduct onstage interviews of singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn of Sylvan Esso and Asheville-based singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling.

And, because no event filled with music industry insiders would be complete without live music, Tomasin has handpicked the members of a superband for Saturday’s closing event. The likes of Ben Sollee, Big Chief Juan Pardo, Leeda “Lyric” Jones, Jaze Uries, Jacob Rodriguez and others will team up for what Tomasin is calling “a night of songs about social justice.”

Because, in the Venn diagram that is the inaugural Connect: Beyond The Page Festival + Conference, social justice is the point where all circles overlap.

WHAT Connect: Beyond The Page Festival + Conference,
WHERE Various locations in downtown Asheville
WHEN Friday, April 20, to Sunday, April 22. See website for schedule. Three-day passes are $125 general/$249 VIP, single-day passes are $40-$50


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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