There isn’t an artist in Orlando that doesn’t owe so much to Mendi Cowles. Some of them have never heard of her. Usually, its the new ones that come along to find an actually vibrant and running scene of great poetry and print and have NO idea what she has done for them. So, I’ll take this moment to inform you, kids, of the woman that cleared the path for your successes in a town so plastic and big boxed, that no one should be surprised it has a counter culture.
I first met Mendi in the early 90’s when I had just arrived in Orlando. The art scene there wasn’t very large, a hand full of us that spent our time around the now defunked Yab-Yum Coffee House. A sprinkling of us would converge with our paintings, spoken word, music and in the small confinements of a run down old space that sold coffee, we had the beginnings of an art scene in Orlando. It was our own version of the Algonquin Round Table. Writers, musicians, painters, each of us dead ass broke and itching for a way to express our crafts. Mendi was working for a small independant magazine at the time called Tabula Rasa, and after seeing one of my spoken word pieces, asked if she could do an interview. That interview went on to spark a friendship that has lasted nearly 20 years.
Not long after Tabula Rasa closed its press, Mendi, seeing the great talent that a small rag tag group of artist were capable of, started her own magazine so that she could show the rest of Orlando what they were missing. She wanted the entangled assumption that Orlando was simply Mickey Mouse to be dismantled. Eleven Magazine was born and each and every fledgling artist in Orlando was anxious to be in its pages. It was a beautiful magazine, a great vehicle for promotion for any young artist hoping to make some impact on a young city that had only been defined by Brittney Spears and a few boy bands.
With her purple hair and Louisiana drawl, she was the momma who brought hope to young artist like Patrick Scott Barnes and myself. And gave us not only hope, but the promotion young artists need.
But, she did more than just the magazine, you know. She was the champion who was at every party, every gallery exhibit, every spoken word event, not just to cover it for her magazine, but to inspire people to attend these events, talk about them, tell your friends, bring a date.
When you talked to Mendi at a poetry reading, she’d emphatically and passionately tell you about how your poetry was perfectly suited for this musician, or would sound great at this gallery showing. She connected us, brought us all together, and when the scene at Yab Yum was once confined to Wall Street Plaza, we found it growing, moving on to other nearby neighborhoods Lake Ivanhoe, then to the ViMi district and Coytown.
When the city of Orlando tried to push this idea of a sterilized arts community that was “funded” by grants and shuffled into certain areas of the city, it was Mendi who reminded them that it had already started growing organically and naturally, maybe not where the city wanted it, but it already existed. In effect, we already have an arts scene, the city just needed to start supporting it, promoting it.
In the strange world of Orlando, there is a definite counter culture. A thriving one at that. People are hard pressed to mention N Sync, or Backstreet Boys, but don’t forget, it was Orlando that gave you “The Blair Witch Project.” And it was Mendi who brought the arts together, promoted it, helped put little seeds of creativity into the very neighborhoods that people today are dying not to get into.
What Florent was to the Meat Packing District in New York, so was the Peacock Room to the ViMi district in Orlando….and once again, you had Mendi at the helm as the curator. So, its interesting, I think that if a young artist goes looking for a place to hang their art, they don’t realize Mendi hasn’t just given you a great gallery space…..she gave you the neighborhoods and the scene to make it happen. Not much of Orlando’s art scene would be in existence if it hadn’t been for Mendi’s pushing and promotion of the counter culture in Orlando.
So, all of you young artists in Orlando, or even older ones who have been on this trip for a while, need to be reminded just how valuable Mendi Cowles is and has always been to Orlando’s truly vibrant art scene…..and you need to thank her.
Thank you so much for everything, Mendi. I wouldn’t have stayed on this creative path had it not been a meeting in a coffeehouse 20 years ago and your enthusiastic belief in my craft.
From the book, “Will Knit For Food.”
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