“We have to change our way of thinking about each other,” says Abdullah “Bigg Wash” Washington.
Erie's arts community is both wide and deep, so it can be a challenge to stand out.
But then there's Abdullah “Bigg Wash” Washington.
Over the past several years, his prolific output across genres has included print and audio publication of his original poems; a TEDx Talks Erie presentation on teen violence; work on and off camera as co-creator of “1000,” a 25-minute documentary about Erie; service as master of ceremonies for the Erie Jazz & Blues Festival; and playing a starring role in the premiere of “Night of the Living Dead — The Musical.”
This Sunday, he is among the invited readers for “Spoon River Anthology, Selected Poems” organized by Erie County Poet Laureate Chuck Joy at Blasco Library, and Washington's band, Motherbox, expects to release its first album this year.
In between those signature moments, and gigs and readings too numerous to recount, Washington has also taken high-profile roles in politics and some of Erie's hottest civic issues. He was a prominent backer of the failed effort to save the McBride Viaduct and the successful effort to get Michael Keys elected to Erie City Council. He remains active in the ongoing push to establish a bricks-and-mortar community college in Erie.
As former Erie County poet laureate Cee Williams observes, Washington has “seemingly boundless energy and a genuine desire to live in and foster an artistically vibrant community.”
That energy, in Washington's telling, is inspired and tightly focused by the same feeling that has gripped Erie's political, business and civic leaders recently — the notion that the city is at a defining moment and that the projects and values that are embraced now will make, or break, our future.
“The goal is to foster collaboration in Erie,” Washington says of his work. This collaboration, he believes, has the power to break down race, class and other divides, and he sees demolishing these divides as a necessary precursor for Erie's success.
“We all want this place to be great, and we've had a traditional way of going about that” with limited results, Washington says. His sense is that the community is now willing to try new paths to greatness.
“Now is the time to be involved,” the 45-year-old call center employee says, “to the point of exhaustion.” By committing acts of artistic collaboration and civic engagement, Washington aims to “subvert internal narratives that are self-defeating in our community” and help foster “a collective effort by every sector of society.”
That sounds like a lot of work for one man, but Washington is not your regular man.
“He has a presence that a lot of other people don't,” says Tom Weber, an Erie filmmaker and musician who was co-creator with Washington of “1000.” “He has a great voice,” Weber says, and “a very good people sense. He can see things through other people's eyes.”
And it certainly helps, as Weber put it, that Washington “is a tremendously smart guy.” In fact, Washington might be among the smartest people you'll meet. He has been admitted to American Mensa, but is no longer an active member as he has not paid dues for several years. He also plans to complete work on a degree in actuarial science.
Washington uses his unusual combination of intelligence, skill and personality to craft and distribute relentlessly positive, encouraging and inclusive messages across genres. The documentary “1000,” for example, reveals the diversity among Erie entrepreneurs and celebrates a “can-do” spirit.
A big part of the concept for the documentary was featuring “people who are already here but who do things that average people may think cannot be done,” Washington says.
“We have to change our way of thinking about each other,” says Washington, and “art can stimulate perspective.”
“He's sort of the perfect person to bring that all together,” Weber says.
Pat Bywater can be reached at 870-1722 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pat_bywater.
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