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Shortly after Cynthia Connolly published Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes From the DC Punk Underground (79-85), she decided her book merited inclusion in the Library of Congress. But she quickly learned that the Library would not accept the book unless its selection officer had sent her a request.
Incensed that she had not received one, Connolly, then 28, slid two copies of the book in an envelope and brought them to the Library’s Jefferson Building. She presented them at the front desk, advising the clerk that they had been requested.
Inexplicably, Banned in DC was added to the Library’s collection. Connolly is still not entirely sure how.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but doing something like that is really who I am,” she says. “I just think I have some good ideas, and I’m a little stubborn. It’s funny, the idea that someone in the Library of Congress would find it and be like, how did this get here?”
In the 30 years since Banned in DC first appeared, the self-published book—essentially a collection of photos, flyers, and anecdotes—has sold approximately 14,000 copies and is now in its seventh printing. At a time when local media and radio largely ignored the area’s punk scene, the book celebrated the increasingly influential “harDCore,” which was remarkable for its self-sufficiency and its principled worldview.
But Banned in DC is not Connolly’s only significant contribution to local culture.
She moved here from Los Angeles in 1981, and during the next two decades, she played important roles at two of the area’s most revered cultural incubators, Dischord Records and the live performance venue d.c. space. After graduating from the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, she continued to cultivate her style as both a letterpress artist and photographer, the latter in such quirky series as DC Musicians and their Favorite Mode of Transport, which has been exhibited around the U.S. and internationally.
More recently as a curator, she has operated mostly in Arlington, not far from the Dischord headquarters where she worked during most of the ’80s and ’90s. Through it all, she has been driven by punk’s DIY methodology, an unrelenting work ethic, and a distinct perspective that finds wonder in the mundane.
And while she is best known for Banned in DC, her most visible work is her 1982 drawing of a black sheep happily jumping away from a herd of white sheep that was the cover of Minor Threat’s seminal 1983 album Out of Step.
“I rendered the white sheep sort of sophisticated and looking a bit bored in watercolor and then the black sheep in crayon to express youthfulness,” she says. “But the eyes are drawn open, which is intentional. My sheep is jumping away and has full intentions of being different and moving away from the flock.”
Somewhat like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Connolly’s black sheep has been endlessly duplicated—tattoos, T-shirts, phone cases, bags, pins, and necklaces. There’s even a “Minor Threat Black Sheep” embroidery hoop available on Etsy.
It was Ian MacKaye, Minor Threat frontman, Dischord Records owner, and Connolly’s former longtime partner, who had commissioned her to draw a black sheep for the album’s cover.
What she gave him far exceeded his expectations.
“It’s such a great image that resonates with people who have chosen to be the other, to be part of a counter-culture or the underground,” he says. “And it’s totally and completely Cynthia. The way she drew that was so joyful, which was the idea—that the black sheep is full of joy because it’s separated from this pack of bitter, unhappy conformists.”
Earlier this month, Connolly presented a slide show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden about Banned in DC and the culture that inspired it. Along with miscellaneous ephemera that did not make it into the book, the evening was filled with engaging anecdotes. Many in the audience appeared to have been around back in the day, but a surprising number of younger folks were there, drawn by D.C. punk’s enduring prestige.
Afterward, book buyers waited patiently in line as Connolly signed copies alongside Leslie Clague, the book’s founding co-editor and contributing photographer. “Cynthia is relentless and tenacious,” Clague noted between signatures. “She kept this book going for 30 years. If she hadn’t done that, I’m not sure anyone would still be talking about it now.”
When it was his turn, one of the junior members of the audience, punk podcaster Andrew Goodwin, placed his copy in front of Connolly, and looking very pleased with himself, announced, “I bought this book and I waited in line for 30 minutes just to tell you that I’m getting the black sheep tattooed on my ass.”
In the years since Connolly hustled Banned in DC into the Library of Congress, she has honed her skills in working within the system, navigating county bureaucracy to achieve her offbeat curatorial vision. She has brought a distinct edge to Arlington’s visual arts scene with exhibits like Ellipse Arts Center’s contemporary sewn art show The Thread As the Line in 2008 and Artisphere’s 2012 Beyond the Parking Lot: The Change and Reassessment of Our Modern Landscape, which explored our responsibility to the natural environment.
“Cynthia went from d.c. space to creating a very serious art scene in no man’s land, Virginia—just by being Cynthia,” says former d.c. space owner Bill Warrell. “At the same time, she’s carrying on her very real career as an artist herself. I’m watching everything that she’s doing, and I say, ‘Thank God you’ve figured out a way to get paid by the Arlington government and be who you are.’”
Connolly’s prized achievement in her current gig as the county’s Special Projects Curator is the Arlington Art Truck. The white van, painted by graffiti artist and muralist Stephen Powers, tools around the county from April to October with various art projects and “actions.” Last spring, the truck’s inaugural presentation was Alex Braden and Emily Francisco’s “Bipedal Soundscapes,” an interactive “sound sculpture” comprised of a stationary bike wired to a five- tiered turntable. Pedaling the bike created musical mixes—one evening in Crystal City, the records included Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ “Run Joe,” Columbia Masterworks’ “The Big News of ‘59” and War’s “Platinum Jazz.” The intensity and speed of the pedaling altered the created sounds.
The truck’s mission—“to blur the line between participant and presenter”—is reminiscent of D.C.’s hardcore punk scene, where bands performed alongside stage-diving fans. In this case, the artists watched while their audience created music that was distorted and noisy, but music nonetheless.
Connolly hovered around the proceedings, chatting amiably with tentative pedalers. Wearing a white lab coat over her clothes and carrying a clipboard, she resembled a laid-back modern-day alchemist in saddle shoes. A careful observer might have also noticed that her signature shoes are painted on the side of the Art Truck, an homage by her friend Powers. (About those saddle shoes: Her association with punk might lead one to expect combat boots, but unpredictability is a Connolly trademark. She’s also into waltzing, square dancing, and playing banjo.)
Braden can’t think of anyone besides Connolly who could make “Bipedal Soundscapes” happen in Arlington. “It takes a very specific person to translate some harebrained scheme that an artist comes up with into something that can get funded by a board in this relatively litigious environment where everybody’s worried about risk and liability,” he says.
“Something like this makes no sense here,” he adds. “But Cynthia wanted it to happen and now it’s happening.”
Later, Connolly explains that she has recently found connections between her disparate bodies of work both as a curator and an artist. “It dawned on me that all my artwork was about documenting or supporting a community or it was work that inspired surprise and wonder,” she says. “What I like most about science, art, and math is discovery, and exploration and discovery is what I do as an artist and a curator.
“The Art Truck is a perfect example. It’s by happenstance. There’s serendipity. What the hell is this doing here?”
Connolly was raised in Los Angeles’ Pacific Palisades coastal neighborhood, where she could observe the ocean from the windows of buses that ferried her to and from school. “It was really meditative and stabilizing, you know. The earth is way mightier than we are,” she says. “I think my energy, who I am, is a direct result of that California energy.”
Her parents divorced when she was 9 years old; around that time, her mother returned to school to study law. Jane Bogart, a friend since middle school, describes their neighborhood’s milieu: “A lot of families were divorcing, a lot of kids were a little bit adrift,” she says.
As a teen, Connolly was turned off by the male-dominated surf culture around her and was instead drawn into L.A.’s punk scene. Bogart recalls seeing The Decline of Western Civilization with Connolly and hanging out together at L.A. punk clubs like the Starwood and the Vex. They also attended an Adam And The Ants parking lot performance at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, where members of Black Flag distributed stickers that read, “Black Flag Kills Ants on Contact.”
The 1980 exhibit on the Russian avant-garde at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provided a pivotal moment for Connolly. “I was already going to punk shows, and then that exhibit just drove it home for me. I realized I wanted to be in a group of people who are thinking new ideas and creating new things,” she says. “Women were actually part of the movement in punk, and they weren’t just considered groupies. In punk, there were women and musicians who were actually doing things.”
When Connolly’s mother Vera moved to D.C. to work for the Reagan administration, her two daughters came along, though Cynthia temporarily returned to L.A. to complete high school. Cynthia and her sister Anna met MacKaye and his brother Alec soon after they arrived in D.C.
“The L.A. punk scene was super important to me, and they were L.A. punks,” Ian recalls. “I just thought that was super cool.”
After graduating, Cynthia returned to D.C. in the summer of ’81 and immersed herself in the burgeoning local punk scene. Minor Threat and fledgling bands like The Faith and Iron Cross rehearsed in the basement of her mother’s Northwest house. In the years that followed, she often spent time helping around Dischord House, the Clarendon bungalow where MacKaye and Dischord co-founder Jeff Nelson lived as roommates and operated the increasingly influential punk label.
Eager to foster connections between the L.A. and D.C. punk scenes, Connolly sold the LA zine Flipside at shows here. She also shot photos for Flipside and wrote a D.C. scene report under the name “Morticia.” After graduating from the Corcoran in 1985, she moved briefly to San Francisco. There, she worked for punk magazine Maximum Rocknroll and its photo zine, If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pit? Both inspired her to mastermind the Banned in DC book.
“I knew I needed to go back to D.C. and do this book about the D.C. punk scene because if I don’t do it somebody else is going to do it, and it’s going to be awful and they’re going to write these essays, and it’s just going to be so boring.”
Sneering at “essays” and “boring,” she sounds like the teenage punk version of herself. “I really wanted to do what I ended up doing, which is collect stories from people and just put those stories alongside photographs and the flyers, so the reader experiences it almost firsthand,” she says.
Unlike Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’s Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital, which explored local punk with reporting and analysis, Banned in DC feels more like a grungy subterranean yearbook. “It’s the most heartfelt publication I can think of that era,” says Connolly’s friend and fellow photographer Lely Constantinople. “No one’s trying to wrap it up in a nice little curatorial bow for you. It’s just the raw feed of what it looked like, and felt like, and smelled like. To me, that is the absolute perfect use of photographs and of book-making and the perfect marriage of the two.”
In 1987, Connolly started booking d.c. space, where she remained until the club’s closing in 1991. Her tenure at the club—which hosted a variety of punk, rock, jazz, theater, poetry, experimental film, performance art, etc.—broadened her understanding of the local arts scene.
She loved the job for a variety of reasons.
“The steps going downstairs were really precarious, totally unsafe by today’s standard,” Connolly recalls. “The bathroom was totally teeny weeny, and so creepy and weird … I couldn’t believe they let drunk people go down those crazy stairs. I remember going downstairs to that bathroom and thinking, ‘This is the best job ever. These stairs are so crazy, and this bathroom is so disgusting, but so cool. There will never be a job like this ever again.’”
Starting in 1992, Connolly took over zine and radio promotions for Dischord, where she would remain for the next decade. After a successful 1999 solo photography exhibit in Seattle titled Landscapes, Ice Machines, People, Stuff, she decided it was time for her work to be shown in Europe. Relying on a network of punk contacts she collected at her Dischord day job, she toured the continent lugging a box of her own unframed photographs—from Rome and Milan to Zurich, Berlin, and Bilbao.
Not surprisingly, her approach to showing her work had a distinctly punk feel. “Cynthia beats down that door all the time,” says Constantinople. “[She] says, ‘I’m still here. And guess what? I’m going to put all my shit in my car and I’m gonna drive it around to you, just like a band would. I’m going to drive all my shit to your wall and I’m going to put it up in your music venue and you’re gonna look at it.’ That takes serious balls.”
More recently, Connolly’s art has been welcomed by more traditional establishments. Her photography series Letters on Top of Buildings—inspired by the neon rooftop letters in Hollywood and downtown L.A. remembered from childhood—has been acquired by L.A.’s J. Paul Getty Museum. Here, the Museum of American History has at least a dozen of her photographs—images of ice machines, phone booths, and arrow signs. And the National Museum of Women in the Arts recently collected her zine Big Lots and her handmade limited-edition letterpress book East to West: Trucks Driving.
While high-profile personages who have bought her work include Nick Hornby and Michael Stipe, thousands of less celebrated clients own her photo postcards. She says she has printed and sold 135,000 photo cards, mostly on her own with minimal distribution from Dischord. “It was so much fun,” she says. “I once met a woman who said she keeps a set of my postcards in her glove compartment.”
Connolly left Dischord in 2002 to start a year studying at Auburn University’s prestigious Rural Studio. There, she extensively photographed the surrounding Alabama countryside, built a darkroom in a rickety barn, and collaborated with a local artist to build a vegetable stand for an organic farmer.
An avid gardener, she worked on Saturday mornings for 20 years at the Arlington Farmers Market. She waxes eloquently about the scent of cool soil as it warms and her favorite vegetables—“tomatoes, obviously and then organic green beans.” In the front yard of her tidy brick house, she grows those and arugula, radishes, and an array of herbs.
Her house feels like a place where one could easily spend several days without boredom. Outside, tucked against the side of her garage, is a phone booth that she bought in Giles County, a part of rural Virginia she has come to love almost as much as her native California. Inside, visitors will find an assortment of art works, many of them acquired through trades with artist friends. Walls of bookshelves indicate the breadth of her restless interests and intelligence: There’s a book on California water rights, America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, and a comprehensive history of “Old Southern Apples.” There’s Sally Mann and Walker Evans, books by Rebecca Solnit and Zora Neale Hurston, and an album by The Fall.
Many of her Ice Machine photos are on the wall, including “Kleer Kube Ice” from Moruya, Australia, “Polar Ice” from Pittsboro, Indiana, and liquor store ice from Atlanta, Georgia.
“When I was a kid in L.A., I never saw snow. I’d always try to pretend, oh it’s Christmas, it’s winter time,” she explains. “The only place I would see snow is on ice machines. In L.A., you’re always thrown in the car as a kid, and you’re driving around. I would see ice machines in the parking lots with the little frosty letters, and that’s the snow. Later I started taking photographs of them, and then I realized if you look at all those ice machines together, you see connections and communities. The distribution networks are seen by the type of design on the machine.”
Through much of her work, there is a commitment to building and supporting subcultures, whether of D.C. punks or inanimate objects like ice boxes and telephone booths, which she says she tries to make “nearly animate as though they’re in their own community.”
Bill MacKaye, Ian’s father and an ardent admirer of Connolly’s work, explains how she achieves this. “Cynthia captures the details that go unnoticed by others,” he says. “And by doing that, she can enchant the ordinary.”
Connolly’s basement laundry room doubles as her darkroom. “It’s pretty crazy because there’s dust, and dust on prints is confounding,” she says airily. “Now I have a method of sponging everything down before I work.”
A Zorlac skateboard with her famous sheep hangs just above her workspace. She can’t remember whether the company asked permission, but they sent free boards to her and every member of Minor Threat. Hers is not displayed upstairs because, well, it’s a skateboard. Connolly keeps the original sheep illustration unframed in a flat file drawer here in the basement. She has never considered hanging it upstairs. “I just don’t want that to be the conversation,” she says. “I’ve done so many other things.”
A spate of 2013 news stories about the licensing of Out of Step T-shirts, including one in this publication, neglected to mention Connolly, even though she is clearly credited on the back of the album and receives royalties for every licensed item sold. And for all her accomplishments, several of her friends have noted that while the sheep is so iconic, the artist who drew it remains mostly anonymous.
“Not a lot of people know that she did that,” says Constantinople. “It’s fucked up. I don’t know if this is a stretch, but this is what male-dominated culture does to the world.”
But maybe the artist doesn’t need validation for her black sheep because she is essentially content, joyfully and intentionally moving in her own direction.
Connolly once heard about an office party in Portland, Oregon, that offered an array of free tattoos, one of which was her black sheep.
“That bugs me because the context of Minor Threat is removed, but I guess there’s nothing you can do about it,” she says cheerfully. “But I have definitely said to people, ‘Your black sheep tattoo? I drew that.’ And they’re looking at me like, who’s that crazy old lady who says she drew the black sheep? That’s the most hilarious thing ever.”