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Looking at the world today, there’s a lot of bad juju going around. Social media can be overwhelming; overbearing masculinity can be toxic; ‘isms, and schisms are being normalized; and Kentucky Fried Chicken sold a yule log that smells like its nasty-ass chicken this past Christmas. Popeyes would never do that with their Louisiana fried flavorings. So when City Paper asked me to write a Sunday column, I was clear on the things I wanted to stay away from: all of the aforementioned. What wasn’t clear: What did I want to write about? Then it hit me. What’s good?!
Habari Ghani is a Swahili term that means, “What is the news?”’
When I use it with my friends and family, it just means “What’s good?!” I want to use this column to get an answer to that question for D.C. What’s good—in the crazy town where we live?! What’s good—with the people in it?! Most important: What’s good with you?!
First I’ll tell you who am I and what’s good with me. My name is Haywood Turnipseed Jr. and I live, work, and perform stand-up comedy in the greatest city in the world: Washington D.C., the District of Columbia. Columbia means truth.
I live with my wife and kids in the Congress Heights section of Southeast, aka Ward 8. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, living with my mom, two brothers, and sister. When I was 16 we moved to Moon Township, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, which is great city. Moon was a cool place to live. I graduated high school, learned to balance playing in the band and playing football, and even went to Waynesburg University for a year before joining the U.S. Air Force. I had lot of fun in college, it’s just that I didn’t go to class so much as I went parties after class.
I moved to Maryland more than 20 years ago when I was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in 1995, and I’ve worked as a telephone man for various telecommunications companies since getting out of the Air Force in 1998. I’ve been performing stand-up since 2007—at the Kennedy Center, DC Improv, Madam’s Organ, Solly’s Tavern, the Drafthouse Comedy Theater, the Lincoln and Howard theaters, the 9:30 Club.
My wife and I met at the old Common Share in Adams Morgan. I’ve partied Uptown, on U Street, and remember when everything north of Massachusetts Avenue NW was called Uptown. Back then, the Southeast waterfront was industrial buildings that transformed at night into hip-hop clubs, strip clubs, and gay clubs, and the impound lot was there. I’ve eaten lunch at Florida Avenue Grill, bought the fish plate from Horace and Dickies, and gotten mixtapes from both the Shrimp Boat and P.A. Palace. Been stuck in traffic on the Suitland Parkway and learned what times are good to take the Rock Creek Parkway. Coached my kids sports teams at Fort Stanton, and witnessed their births in D.C. hospitals. I’ve voted here and served jury duty. And now the local newspaper has asked me to interview people who live in D.C. How can I not love this city?
At first I was afraid to ask people what’s good with them, wondering if even the thought of it was corny. But people have a lot to say, so here we go.
This first week, I ask that question, “What’s good?!” to Joel Ulmer, my co-worker at the National Gallery of Art, where I’m a telecommunications specialist. Joel is a gallery aide, and an artist in his own right. As an artist, he goes by Joel Vincii.
So Joel, what’s good with you these days?!
I’m doin’ super.
What’s good about being a gallery aide at the NGA?
First off, how would you say, “absolutely love it.” There’s no other place I would like to work, honestly. I used to work at the Capitol in visitor services and I didn’t really like it. I mean, it was a good job, but you know, I didn’t like it. It wasn’t really my cup of water. But yo, I saw the position open for the gallery aide—I applied immediately. A day later I put in my two weeks at the Capitol. I didn’t even have the job. I didn’t have the interview. I was just like, “Yo, this is for me.” Like I gotta get this. Like God, like I’m praying. I prayed, I fasted, man. And I got it. My job as a gallery aide is different. We’re more customer friendly. And we know more about the artwork. I studied art at Central State University in Ohio. That’s pretty much why they brought me up.
You’re a native Washingtonian, right?
I grew up in Southeast D.C., on Texas Avenue in the Shrimp Boat.
You’re also an artist. What’s good about being an artist?
It’s a privilege; I love it. I feel like, as an artist, it’s your duty to really kind of shift the culture and get the conversation started. It’s a privilege to me, that’s how I feel. It’s a privilege.
What’s good about being an artist who is based in D.C.?
Well, I feel like it’s the perfect place to be in terms of being an artist. And then for me personally, because you know, I grew up here, I’m like familiar with everything. Mumbo sauce, DADA Clothes, go-go music. I’m familiar with it all.
I like how you share those vibes in your art. You have some “conversation pieces.”
If you are an artist, you should say something. Like, you should be saying something. Find your voice, you know. Don’t just paint celebrity portraits. Come on now. That’s too easy. I wanna start a conversation.
What’s good about working in an art gallery, walking among the masters and their works?
I mean, it’s great for me. It’s inspiring. Just being in that presence. When I’m walking through the galleries, I’m really envisioning the artists hundreds of years ago, just painting, you know? I’m studying their strokes, I’m watching every line that they put on the canvas, mimicking it in a way mentally, if that makes sense. Like that whole process, the whole building process. I can see it in the paintings and I’m really studying it. So I mean that’s, that’s what I get most out of working at the gallery. You know, I’ll take time to actually study the works.
So you get inspired by the old works to do the new works?
Yeah, definitely. Yep. Yep! I use their style pretty much with a little bit of modern day Joel. Yep!
How’d you make out during the furlough?
I know it was tough for a lot of people. I mean, I felt bad like seeing the lady on the news and stuff like that, and talking about her rent. But for me personally, I enjoyed it. I kinda did; I’m not gonna lie. I mean, first off, I gained like six pounds. I ate and slept like good. Yes man, I got to get three pieces done. And then on the last day, the Sunday before the furlough ended, I started another piece. I made sure I even posted on Instagram. Because with me it’s just like, I got a lot of paintings just like in a vault. I’m my head, they constantly keep coming. So you know, working at NGA, you gotta kind of like sacrifice, right? How much art you make, because you need energy. I gotta sleep.
And you’re a dad. What’s good about being a dad?
It’s a big responsibility. I mean I’m aware that they’re watching. They’re even starting to pick up brushes and stuff like that. My 7-year-old, he’s pretty good. He’s got that set of seven paint brushes. He just had a birthday yesterday, my oldest Nehemiah, he turned 7. Elijah is 4. He just turned 4 in January. Those are my two, man. Yup!
What good stuff do you have coming up that you’d like to share?
I got a couple of things. I got a really big show coming up in November at the Arts Club of Washington. They just hit me up and said they definitely want to host me. So that’s in November, and I’m thinking, I’m going to have, like maybe 30 pieces, get like 15 new ones out.
The Joel Vincii showcase?
Yup, exactly. And the Phillips Collection is going to do something in conjunction with that. I’m also a Phillips affiliate. You know, I basically volunteer there once a month. It’s a great place. I love the Phillips Collection. I mean the arts need as much access as possible.
One last question, Joel Vincii. Your given name is Joel Ulmer, but you go by Joel Vincii on Instagram and in the art circles. I gotta ask you, what’s good with that?
He’s [Leonardo da Vinci is] a juggernaut, you know, in the art game. And, for me, this quote of his that I read from him was: “Art is never finished. It’s abandoned.” I didn’t understand it when I first heard it in college. I was like, what does that mean? Just dismissed it pretty much.
Art is never finished, it’s abandoned.
Right, right. I learned that it was a really special reason why he said that—just let it go. You know? Don’t try to get it perfect. You know what I’m saying? If you get stuck trying to perfect something, you can mess it up, or you’ll just get stuck. Or unhappy with it. I learned that in some of my old pieces, you know, so I just, I just learned to abandoned them. Da Vinci!
Follow Joel on Instagram @joelvincii
Follow Haywood on Instagram @woodyseed
Follow the Washington City Paper on Instagram @washingoncitypaper
Follow the National Gallery of Art on Instagram @ngadc
Follow the Phillips Collection on Instagram @phllipscollection