A Tree Grows on Charleston

Exploring an anything-goes art nursery, where the audience is invited to take the stage

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R.J. Reynolds taped a sheet of college-ruled notebook paper to a cocktail table near the outdoor stage that said, “To perform, just write your name.” The June night was young and attendance was sparse—the first three performers recycled a few times. The house band jammed, a self-proclaimed math geek vivisected his romantic dystopia and somebody read from a collection of somebody else’s poems. This was the scene in the Arts Factory’s backyard at the ninth Talky Trees, a multimedia art gathering every first Saturday of the month. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang around.

Then Reynolds jumped onstage, shortened the mic stand and earnestly pitched the crowd: “Everyone here is an artist; everyone here has talent. We want to prove it to you.” For Reynolds, Talky Trees is a mission, and he is its evangelist, preaching the good news of a poetry night where newbies can feel comfortable getting onstage. “Everybody,” he later explained, “has artistic talent and a voice; something one has a responsibility to cultivate.”

It worked. Names grew on the sign-up sheet. The crowd thickened with a steady flow from the Artifice parking lot. And I began to feel guilty: I wasn’t “responsibly cultivating my artistic talent.”

“I’ve really admired R.J. for his heart and tenacity,” says A.J. Moyer, who at 25 is the oldest of Talky Trees’ core team. “He’s one of those rare people who seems to not only follow through on his own brilliance, but has the tenacity to stick through anything that can get in his way and do it all with an unflappable positive attitude.”

Reynolds’ zeal has come in handy as this nursery for local artists has grown. The first Talky Trees was 20 or so people standing in a circle under a light at Oxford Park reading poetry, Reynolds explains. The slender, birdlike 21-year-old pulled volunteers from his student days at Las Vegas Academy, where he had “a wide network of local artists, many of whom got together for jam sessions, painting sessions—you name it.”

When attendance at the second event ballooned, Reynolds recruited fellow LVA alumnus, 17-year-old Kira Farmer. She calls Talky Trees “a life form [that] grows at its own pace, we just make sure it runs smoothly.” And despite the initial disorganized appearance, it did run smoothly. Reynolds and his team organized just enough to keep chaos at bay and creativity at its peak. A community canvas hung on a wall outside the bar with a pile of paints and brushes for anyone to use. Below the canvas, a broad stage held the band and left plenty of room for nascent Ginsbergs to howl into a couple of mics.

A middle-aged Air Force vet dropped into a chair next to me. He had overheard this event from his apartment. He had a few beers in him and had brought some poetry.

Reynolds took the stage and pitched again. A few more names appeared on the sign-up sheet, and I began to think about what I could do. As I pondered, a series of acts took their places on the creaking plywood stage: A well-muscled kid in a wife-beater rapped anti-misogynistic lyrics; a woman from Kingman, Ariz., played her ukulele and sang; a University of Nevada, Reno, student recited a poem she wrote on the drive down.

On this June night, Reynolds’ efforts were bearing fruit. But who funds this thing?

Reynolds works at the Fremont Street zip-line to make ends meet, but he has no intention of monetizing Talky Trees. “I want to provide a place for anyone in Las Vegas to experience and participate in local art of all mediums, and always for free. Art has the power to adapt both self and public consciousness, and you shouldn’t put a price on that.”

Quixotic is a word that comes to mind. Crazy is another one. Nonetheless, more than a few people share the Talky Trees vision. Arts Factory owner Wes Myles provides the venue. Born and Raised Productions handles production and overhead costs and is seeking sponsorships. Reynolds’ eager insistence had pulled me in, too. I walked over to the cocktail table and signed my name. There was no going back.

It was starting to get dark. The seats were filled, and the community canvases were crowded. Curious pedestrians watched from across the fence as they waited for the light. I found some vignettes on my iPad about the shit I’ve seen in my day job as a high school teacher.

Pretty soon, Reynolds was back onstage. “Hey, OK, everybody, we’ve got Kurt Rice here. I’ll let him introduce himself.

The plywood creaked under my boots. The crowd stared. What the hell was I doing up here? Reynolds had played me for a sucker; time to crash and burn. Leaping off the precipice, I clumsily introduced myself.

“True story,” I began, and my words flowed. The band jammed along behind me as I told of meth-addicted pregnant teens, gang-bangers and kids whose moms supplied them with recreational drugs. We fell into a groove and I felt Reynolds’ exhortations about artistic actualization coming true. The crowd laughed and cringed, and clapped honestly when I was done. A woman asked me where I taught. Another commented, “Scary stuff, that was good.” The thoroughly lubricated Air Force vet shook my hand, “That was great, man.”

After that I stayed, feeling comfortable as an observer now that I had done my part. I watched as the crowd swelled to more than 200, squeezing together comfortably and reflecting Talky Tree’s aesthetic of self-expression. A skinny teenager with a Carrot Top mop fumbled his new corncob pipe. A lanky boy freestyled with another who called himself the Machine. High-schoolers wore band T-shirts from their parents’ generation. Everyone was inventing themselves, trying on images, creating.

Reynolds was clear about his hopes; “If Talky Trees could spread its limbs to give art more broadly across the community, outside the scope of the show, I would feel happiest.” And as a wood fire flung smoky orange out into the night, those dreams seemed to be coming true.

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