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Local filmmaker Lee Shook captures a powerful moment in time
The Shaking Ray Levi Foundation is celebrating 28 years of music and innovation, and co- founder and Shaking Ray Levi Bob Stagner says their Old Timey Avante Garde series is “more than a series—it’s really become a way of life.” The series started this year at Barking Legs Theater on the first weekend in October and is centered around the a birthday celebration for the late Dennis Palmer, co-founder of both the band The Shaking Ray Levis and the non-profit arts education organization The Shaking Ray Levi Society. The series boasts performances from some of the top improvisational and composed music performers in the world. Of special note, however, is the Dennis Palmer Date Night, an entire evening dedicated to experimental film that features a short piece from filmmaker Lee Shook capturing the personal and profound influence of Howard Finster on The Shaking Levi Society. The film takes the audience on a tour through folk artist Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, guided by none other than Dennis Palmer and Bob Stagner, the Shaking Ray Levis themselves.
For the uninitiated, Howard Finister was an influential folk artist who lived and worked just over the state line in North Georgia. Shook says that his interest in Finster “dates back to late high school and early college when I first saw the 'Athens Inside/Out' documentary and realized that he had done the cover art for so many of my favorite records.” According to Shook, “[Finster] was a constant source of inspiration for me as a young artist living the Deep South, just like he was to people like Dennis and Bob so many years before.
“The more I think about it, the more I'm in absolute disbelief that I've been touched by that history in such a personal way,” Shook says. “I feel a profound connection to both Finster and the Shaking Ray Levis for the very same reason: They were visionaries. And in a place—both a physical and intellectual landscape—that didn't always support and understand them. I have nothing but the utmost respect for their lives and art, because they were truly trailblazers in their own unique ways. Never ceases to amaze me.”
The 50-minute piece walks us through the installation as Palmer and Stagner describe the various pieces and the stories behind them, giving unique insight into the life and work of an extraordinarily influential man. Stagner says, “I know that every time I would visit the garden, either by myself or with Dennis, I would always come back with how much work was left to be done. He was an incredible visionary. Visionary doesn’t cover the word…and I can’t think of a better way for folks to be gently introduced to his work.”
The film depicts the personal connection between the Shaking Ray Levis and Rev. Howard Finster. Shook calls Stagner/Palmer and Finster “kindred spirits… just drawn together like magnets.” Stagner says, “Howard Finster was a dear friend and was very focused on the idea of improvisation and the new thought…and making sure that the ideals behind improvisation were recognized in art. It was an amazing friendship and mentorship. He recognized how we were working early on, and I think in some ways he felt a little bit isolated and recognized some of the art he was making in our work.” The film is unedited and uncut—filmmaker Lee Shook wants to make clear that it isn’t a documentary so much as “a brief moment in time captured for posterity's sake.”
As Palmer and Stagner wander the gardens, searching for special pieces and describing the man and his work, the breadth of the relationship between the artists and the influence of the work becomes evident. They describe how the garden was, how it is, and how they hope it to be. For a time, Finster’s gardens had fallen into disrepair, but the Shaking Ray Levi Society has been influential in restoring it to its former glory, striving to maintain some of Finster’s legacy for future generations. Stagner says, “[Howard Finster] inspired a lot of people. He inspired the Shaking Ray Levi Society, and in return the Shaking Ray Levi Society did our absolute best to take care of Howard Finster while he was on the planet. Now while he’s visiting other planets.”
Fans of the SRLS, or those who are looking to expand their horizons will learn about a unique and powerful destination for anyone with an interest in folk and outsider art. As for the film itself, the raw footage captures the personalities and thoughts of two of Chattanooga’s most influential artists. Without a doubt, the Old Timey Avante Garde series has something for everyone. The Shaking Ray Levis continue to make art for the common man, for the artists—and for everyone in between.