Practice Makes Perfect with UVA’s Distinguished Teaching Professor, Kevin Everson
Kevin Everson had just finished screening another student film for his class. When the lights came up, the internationally-acclaimed filmmaker and beloved longtime UVA Studio Art and Film professor saw that his class was larger than it was when the lights went off. “Everyone was in there. I thought I was being fired or somebody died. I am old school. If the bosses come in, that is not a good sign. I am from a factory town and in my town you never wanted to see the boss because that usually meant you’re not doing well.”
In this case, however, it meant Everson was doing very well. The bosses were there to inform him that he had been selected to receive the Distinguished Teaching Professorship, the University’s most distinguished teaching award. Established in 1991 and endowed by UVA football bowl game proceeds, the award recognizes an eminent scholar for outstanding and enduring excellence in the teaching of undergraduates with a two-year professorship.
Everson, who is the first African American to receive the award, was “flattered to tears” by the news. “There are a lot of great teachers at the University,” he said. “I try to not stay in the students’ way, and each year they make things and I make sure they have fun making it. I make sure I understand what they do and also that they contribute to society in a beautiful and engaging way. You want them to be contributors to culture and not detractors. You don’t want people who just take and take and take. I want them to give, to be part of the dialogue and part of the good.”
Kevin Jerome Everson practices what he preaches. He has made nine feature length films and more than 140 short films largely centered around themes of social justice inspired by his African American heritage and by his upbringing in the working-class town of Mansfield, Ohio.
Everson’s work has been showcased and celebrated around the globe in prestigious venues including the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Creative Capital Award, an Alpert Award, NEA and NEH Fellowships, and more.
The secret to this success, and to the remarkable successes being enjoyed by his students now out in the art world he says, can be captured in a single word: practice. “For me,” Everson said, “it is the same as it is for a dancer or a musician. You’ve got to practice, right? Even when I taught photography years ago, I used to say that my only criticism was ‘You are not shooting enough.’”
He sets the tone of this philosophy right off the bat. “In my Film 1 class, my students make four films in the first semester. You don’t make four films at NYU! And these kids are making four films in 15 weeks. The only way to get better is to practice.”
While today’s aspiring filmmakers may have more tools at their disposal, Everson said, that doesn’t necessarily give them an advantage. “I think all of the technology available to people today makes actually making stuff harder. Everybody can make something but I am not sure it is a movie. Now people somehow think it is easy. The truth is, you can’t just show up. You have to have discipline. What I tell my students is to finish. Americans will start stuff, but they don’t finish anything.”
Everson backs up his words by putting in the work. When we spoke he had four films due in the following two weeks. His philosophy is clearly resonating with students. Dozens of his students have risen from “The Gutter,” (a playful nickname for his program that came when “avant garde” became “avant gutter”) to highly successful careers in the film and art world.
“Oh man, there are a ton of them,” he said. “Mark Bruner wrote a film that was in Sundance last year. Jarett Conaway came out of USC and had a film that premiered on Netflix a couple of months ago. Anna Hogg just graduated from Cal Arts, as did Vashti Harrison and Elizabeth Webb. Kevin Hart just graduated from USC and is working for an animation company in LA. They are all rocking it out, and I am not even saying 1/16th of them!”
Everson said, one of the refreshing things about his UVA experience and perhaps a contributing factor to his success rates are the varied interests his students bring to his class. “The reason I came here was because I liked the idea of the BA. The BFA is something else, but here kids come from Anthropology or Religious Studies or American Studies or African American Studies or the Comm School. So instead of just regurgitating what has already been made, they are adding these disciplines in to make a difference. Here, you get a melting pot of educational disciplines.”
Everson applies the same interdisciplinary approach to his own work, often collaborating with educators across Grounds on his many projects. A particularly notable collaboration has paired him with Claudrena Harold, an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies in the Corcoran Department of History. Everson and Harold are working on a continuing series of films on the history of African Americans at UVA including We Demand, about the first African American Student Body President, James Roebuck; Sugarcoated Arsenic, which focused on African American intellectual social and political life on Grounds in the 1970’s. "These are about making it tactile about what was going on here," Everson said. "I think people have this grand narrative about the Civil Rights Movement of the post-Civil Rights Movement but we want to project this sense of community of what was going on here."
Everson is taking another one of his UVA collaborations literally out of this world. When we sat down, he was a bit bleary-eyed from late nights at the McCormick Observatory, where he had been shooting the moon for an upcoming project. The extraordinary detail through the high-powered telescope seems both real and dream-like on his monitor. The experience, he said, started messing with his body clock. “I have been going to sleep at 10PM and waking up at midnight then staying up. I like it up there, but I’m getting too old for this stuff, man.”
Yet it is these kinds of experiences and the hard work that comes with them that he hopes sticks with students as it has with him. “I still like to build. I like to create experiences. These kids like to party, but I honestly can’t remember one party had as an undergrad a hundred years ago. But I do remember the collaborative projects where you worked all night, so that is the kind of family atmosphere I like to create for my students – where they make things and they are supportive and not competitive. I want them to learn from me and from each other.”
Asked what it means to him to be the first African American recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Professorship, Everson answers quickly. “It means it should have been done decades ago. I will represent it, but it should be more.”
The award, he said, goes beyond him and his work. “I think it says more about my little program and about the students in the past, than it does about me.” Everson works hard to create a family atmosphere among his current students, and that atmosphere often lasts as they head out into the working world. “Once kids are in this program it seems like they are in it forever,” he said. “Whenever I take students to visit former students in New York or in LA or Chicago they are like ‘Oh, these are the new gutter kids!’”
Keeping those connections with his students is something Everson both enjoys and values. “I still write letters of recommendation for students I had almost 20 years ago,” he said. “That is the job…no…that is the pleasure, to be able to do that. I feel flattered that kids want to be in my class, so I want to make sure I do what I can to help them throughout.”