A River Blue page

Q & A with John Ruskey, Mississippi Delta Community Member

Interviewer: Hilary Cline, Barefoot Workshops Alum, 2010

John Ruskey is a river guide, canoe builder, artist & writer who resides in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his wife Sarah and daughter Emma-Lou. John designs and builds canoes, and with a particular finesse in giant voyageur style canoes and hand-hewn dugout canoes. In 1998 he founded Quapaw Canoe Company (www.island63.com) to open access to the splendors of the Mississippi River, the second largest river drainage in the world. Quapaw provides guided expeditions by kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddle boards on the Lower Mississippi River and some of its tributaries, including the Big Sunflower, the Yazoo, the Coldwater, the Tallahatchie, the Yalobusha and the lower reaches of the White and Arkansas Rivers, and the Atchafalaya River of Louisiana. Quapaw Canoe Company is a trend-setter in the Mississippi Valley (from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico) for responsible nature tourism - often working in coordination with other broad based entities such as the National Audubon Society, the American Land Conservancy, The Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, The Missouri River Relief Organization, Big Muddy Adventures, The US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Coast Guard, The Wolf River Conservancy, Below the Surface, Surf-Rider Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation, Teach for America, KIPP Charter Schools, National Geographic, and many others.

John was the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum (1991-1998). He is leader of the Mighty Quapaw's Apprenticeship Program (Founded in 1999) and Executive Director of the Friends of the Sunflower River (2003-2010). His passion for nature finds expression in music, painting, writing and canoe building. The canoe is a unique art form that brings together the purist principals of form, materials & function into one integral & elegant vessel. He has floated and written about many of the major rivers of North America, including the Mississippi, the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Arkansas, the Platte, the Columbia, the Missouri, and the Atchafalaya. In the Fall of 2002 he paddled the length of the Big Muddy (Missouri) from Three Forks Montana to St. Louis, Missouri, in a custom built dugout canoe. He carved 2 dugout canoes for the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial 2004-2006. He paddled the Mississippi during the Great Flood of 2011 documenting this spectacular high water from Memphis to Vicksburg. His guiding philosophy comes from Thoreau's statement: "in wildness is the preservation of the world," words that are becoming increasingly important as global overpopulation and global thirst for fresh water and energy sources are threatening the forests & islands of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

When did you first learn about Barefoot Workshops and what is your impression today?

John: Barefoot isn't the first to come Clarksdale to document the vibrant life stories here, but its the first to make a sincere class out of it, and just the very nature of studying the art of documentary film as opposed to needing to get a quick story to fill some air time has put this whole new fresh twist on film-makers and film-making in the Mississippi Delta -- because no longer is it just some pushy people behind a lens going after the blatant black & white story or muddy bluesy images that are so easy to find. Being a student of something adds a degree of humility to the person with the clipboard and the person behind the lens and the person recording with the microphone. Barefoot is a refreshing wave of creative, introspective and impressionable artists -- and this is wonderful for us who have been here for decades and tend to get a little jaded with all of the talking head scrutiny this little town seems to inspire. You guys are spoiling us. We'll never be the same.

Has Barefoot helped or inspired you to build a deeper connection in your community?

John: When you see your life and your life's work thrown on the screen for all your friends and neighbors to witness it definitely adds a layer of responsibility you have to take with who you are and what you do.

Having been in three films to date, what have you learned about the process of documentary filmmaking from the perspective of being a “subject” of a film, as well as an 'observer' of the students making the film?

John: Probably the students are more affected by the subjects than vice versa, although maybe it goes both ways. Each story is, of course, different and each subject makes varying degrees of connection with each of the students. Really, I am constantly amazed by the amount of chaos that gets swirled into these workshops, all of the various personalities mixed in with that of the teachers, mixed in with all of the zany, nutty and sometimes crazy but always colorful subjects, shake this concoction up and you have the potential for -- what? great art? or explosions? It actually reminds me of the way water flows, always with incredible patterns and full of surprises.

Has your understanding or appreciation of storytelling changed after participating in Barefoot as either a primary or secondary subject in the films? How does it relate personally to your life?

John: The little pieces of life that make up the whole, how can you convey that and make it ring true? I think about the little details in the Mighty Quapaw Film, Popeye chasing a preying mantis up the raggedly portico with his finger, and then later making his dog do a back flip with a quick movement of his leg. I saw pieces of Popeye I never noticed before; this takes some courage for both the filmmaker to cross personal boundaries and for the subject to allow them to be crossed. I was very touched by that courage and the resulting crosscurrent of depth & sensitivity Popeye expressed, ricocheting back and forth in the tattered hallways of his life.

Has Barefoot enhanced your approach to the creative process, teamwork and self-awareness as it pertains to your artistic or work experience?

John: When you see your own life blown up and cast over the big screen it either goes to your head or you swallow it down deep and hold it there as long as you can as a priceless experience of being able to gaze through the mirror of someone else's eyes and see yourself as expressed over layers of their own soul.

Given that many of the students visiting Clarksdale, MS for the Delta Documentary Workshop are new to the area, what would be your words of wisdom to new students coming to your town?

John: Take your time on the first two days and follow your heart and listen to your muses — and then work as hard as you can until you can’t see any longer. Practice compassion & humility. Coach your subjects in the pros & cons of appearance on the big screen. Remember that every day is a new day. Every day the world is created anew at sunrise and you can do the same. Lastly, the great creator is endlessly loving & forgiving.

If you can identify one group of people or individual in your community who has been most affected by their experience with Barefoot, who would that be and why?

John: Someone like painter Marshall Bouldin who is a giant anyway. Creative Crossroads was a gentle breeze in the outermost leaves of his life story, barely palpitated in the herculean heartwood of his tree-trunk. But for someone like “Popeye” Jeremy Hayes (Mighty Quapaw) or Charles Wright (Carry Me Home), their films created a exponential leap of self-knowledge and self-awareness that hit like a hurricane and is still uncurling itself. Even more so than casual learning, self-knowledge can be very difficult to accept and sometimes lead to difficult places. When their storms subside they will be light years ahead of their peers. Good choices for the future, ultimately, are made only with intimate self-knowledge.

What are your thoughts on the idea that the story lives in the listener and about the power of digital storytelling as it pertains to the preservation of history (identity, place, memory)?

John: Storytelling ultimately has to return to its basics (mouth to ear); the people on the porch sharing stories in the heat of the evening. Until 'the word' is quieted there will never be anything more powerful than what can be carried in the heart’s ear, nor will there ever be anything more true than what can be conveyed by the mouth. All other forms of storytelling have to be measured by the basics. If the story lives on and is carried on down through the hoods when the reel ends, then it was a good one — but if it is forgotten then it is best left in the archives anyway.

Has Barefoot directly or indirectly impacted the success or awareness of your business?

John: There was a domino-like series of events that led to the formation of a new non-profit I had been dreaming about creating for almost a decade, but never made the time to do it. Vince Caperelli stopped by for a visit one day in 2009. He wasn't working on a film related to my doings, but we talked and then later wrote back and forth. He was inspired by the sad Sunflower River and wanted to help out in some way. Fast-forward a year, I was facing a deadline on a grant opportunity that there was no way I could meet. By coincidence, Vince called me days before deadline and offered to take over, which he did, and we got the grant! A small one, $2K partly for internal support to create a non-profit and to help the voluntary aspects of Quapaw Canoe Company such as the Friends of the Sunflower River, the Mighty Quapaws, and the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail.

The wonderful doc We All Live Downstream fostered the importance of our charity activities for the betterment of the community through the river and our youth. It helped me garner support for another grant (this time, one that I made time to write), which was awarded for the same efforts. This all recently came to some very positive fruition for us when, this year, the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was awarded a $72K grant (from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation through the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi) for cleanup following the great flood of 2011. Barefoot Workshops, in some very tangible and then also in some very subtle but important ways, led to this point for Quapaw.

Barefoot's influence has been important throughout in helping outsiders understand what we're doing here, down the banks of the Sunflower River, just out of view from the hustle & bustle of downtown Clarksdale. You know, people talk, and misunderstand what they see, and make up stories about what they can't see. But when Barefoot came and put the camera right in the back yard of one of my apprentices, and then later right down into the awful, stinky mud of the Sunflower, followed us in our cleanup work and with helping local youth discover hidden reserves of leadership and intelligence, this really opened up some understanding about everything we do. And Vince Caperelli -- I keep remembering him as the catalyst who got the ball rolling in a very significant way by completing that first grant!

Is Barefoot making an impact on the larger creative economy of Clarksdale? In your opinion, do you see individuals in your community taking greater pride in the revitalization of their community?

John: You know, Clarksdale is such a "thick" place, it doesn't blush easily, it's slow to rejoice and it's slow to anger. Celebrities love it because they can disappear into the crowd and everyone respects their privacy, and the same for free souls like Tater the Music Maker, or dreamers like me. We can disappear into the fold and enjoy a generous degree of artistic freedom, so this is a little tricky to measure. But speaking of Tater (Foster Wiley)... after The Music Maker doc came out, he printed up as many copies as he could and sold them along with the CDs out of his satchel, to him it was just another marketable good for making a few extra bucks. That said...I am sure there were many people who understood Tater for the first time after seeing The Music Maker. People who never knew that he had his own apartment and kept a steady job all the while owning every piece of equipment in the band, playing every day in front of Cat Head, to hearing the stories from all of the tourists who came from all over the world when Tater passed, and the notes they left on Facebook and letters and photos they sent. Tater was a one-man revitalization machine. Some people are always talking about selling the blues, or selling the river, or selling this or that, when it's actually these certain individuals like Tater, Super Chikan and Red (Randy Peyton) who are really the reason people come to Clarksdale. The city is made of its citizens, and the county of the same, and in this way Barefoot has done inestimable good by focusing attention on the personal stories of so many different people in so many different layers, walks of life, riverbanks, alleys and juke joints... the parts taken together make the whole. I can imagine someday, far into the future, when some archeologist will open the vault of files containing all of the documentaries Barefoot made here, and for the first time understand the soul and pulse of this unique place... as all of the stories come spilling out...

The filmmakers of Barefoot are touching lives and building relationships that lead to a greater involvement and awareness within a community. John Ruskey demonstrates how his long-standing commitment to the betterment of the Sunflower River and to the Clarksdale community is enhanced. Whether an individual in a community rises to a deeper level of personal awareness (Charles Wright or Jeremy "Popeye" Hayes), provides a window into someone's daily life (Foster 'Tater' Wiley), reaches into the depths of an artists' life (Marshall Bouldin) or increases the dedication to a particular social or environmental concern (Qaupaw Canoe Company), it is evident that Barefoot has a tremendous impact in a community. Furthermore, Barefoot becomes a part of that community.

As John Ruskey expresses, storytelling has the ability to give shape and form to a community, cause and mission. In storytelling's most basic form, words shared between the speaker of the story and its listener/s, there is a growth and transformation that occurs. This seed takes deep root in the prosperity of a community and literally can change the course of individuals' lives. Those stories are carried forward and become new stories, while certain stories remain the glue that holds a people and place together. Barefoot successfully imparts the wisdom to its workshop participants that to be able to listen as a documentary filmmaker changes ones relationship to 'self' and 'other'. In fact, this relationship alters how we travel down the river, what we stand for in our communities and the sensitivity we show our planet. John Ruskey has confirmed for us that we are all part of the whole and that the language (stories) we create with our "heart's ear" is paramount to how we see each other and ourselves.



Barefoot Workshops home page