How do you learn to be a father, particularly when there are no fathers around to be an example?
This is the question at the heart of Samein Priester’s personal documentary 1st&4ever. The dilemma of fatherhood has taken on new significance for Samein since the tragic loss of his partner, artist Denyse Thomasos, last month.
Denyse’s visit to the hospital on July 19th was supposed to be routine. She was there for an MRI, but during the procedure she suffered a fatal allergic reaction. Her sudden death has left her husband, friends, family, students, colleagues, and the New York art community in shock. Denyse was only 47 years old.
Since 1995, Denyse taught in the Arts, Culture and Media Department at Rutgers University, Newark. When she met Samein, he was preparing to complete his undergraduate degree at Hunter. It was Denyse who pushed Samein to apply to graduate school at the City College of New York. “When I first got into grad school,” Samein explains in 1st&4ever, “my mother didn’t even know what that was, but she knew it was something big.” In December 2009, during his first semester, Samein’s mother passed away. She was the glue that held the family together, and her loss was a terrible blow to the family. In June of 2011 Samein graduated from City College.
Denyse and Samein were not only best friends and spouses, but also partners in life, work, and parenthood. In June of 2010 the couple adopted their first child, Syann, a joyful event that Samein chronicles at the end of 1st&4ever. “I’m going to be the best father that Syann can possibly ever have,” he says in his film. Samein repeated the same sentiment when we spoke at length on the phone last week. He is clearly stunned and grieving the sudden loss of his partner, but he is also focused on his daughter and creating a healthy, stable life for her in spite of Denyse’s absence.
“From the moment I met Denyse my life turned around,” Samein told me today via email. “She really made all of my dreams come true, down to my baby girl Syann. That was a name I had since I was 15. I always knew I’d have a daughter and her name would be Syann.”
Samein and Denyse were both fellows at The MacDowell Colony. I met Samein at the Colony in the spring, just as I was leaving my job after 13 years to work on Gwarlingo full time. “Denyse told me I should apply,” Samein told me. “She knew I needed time to work, but she also thought the experience would be good for me as an artist.” Denyse clearly was supportive of her husband’s film career, just as he was supportive of her residencies, teaching job, and career as a painter. Tending to work and parenting was clearly a juggling act, but he said that he and Denyse were up to the challenge.
While in Peterborough, Samein talked a lot about his daughter, Syann, and how hard it was to be away from her, even for a short time. Each day when I ran into Samein returning his lunch basket in the main building, he smiled and expressed gratitude for the time, space, food, and community that MacDowell was providing him. He was well-liked by residents and staff alike, and we were all sorry when family obligations required him to return to New York after only a brief stay in New Hampshire.
But none of us forgot Samein or his powerful, short film 1st&4ever, which he screened during his residency. Half of the audience was in tears by the time it ended, but 1st&4ever is far from a sentimental tearjerker. It’s an honest, intimate portrait of a family doing their best to overcome the absent fathers who have left gaping holes in their lives. The minute the film was finished I knew that I wanted to share 1st&4ever with Gwarlingo readers.
Priester’s film won “Best Documentary” in the Newark Museum Black Film Festival 2012, as well as “Best Documentary” and “Best Cinematography in a Documentary” in the 2011 Citivision thesis show.
The central focus of the film is Samein’s nephew, Donte Clark, a football player whose mother was only 18 years old when he was born. Donte has had contact with his father only twice in his life — once by phone and once through a letter his father sent him from jail. Samein was 13 when Donte was born, but he stepped up to the plate to help his sister Vanessa by mixing baby formula, changing diapers, and babysitting. “When you’re in the hood,” Sameine says in his film, “you don’t have a choice. It’s like all hands on deck. You don’t set out to be a father figure. You just start to multitask…There’s no daycare or nannies. There’s just family.”
“Donte’s father was never around. My father wasn’t ever around. Really nobody’s father was around. They were in jail, dead, or missing in action. It was like no-man’s land. I thought it was normal, but it’s really not.”
These intimate glimpses of Samein, his mother, and Donte are interspersed with memorable images of Harlem, subway trains, and the distant skyscrapers of New York City. But these views are mostly seen through mesh screens or chain-link fences. In Priester’s film, there is always something standing in the way.
Football is a lifeline for Donte. While other kids are “getting beat-up or shot,” he spends time in the park playing football. New York Venom head football coach Booker T. McJunkins says that his job is to be a foster father by helping each individual ball player. He explains that being a father figure is more important than accolades or the team’s success as a whole:
“A lot of these kids don’t know how to be men, they don’t know how to raise a family. They don’t know how to show compassion. That’s why we have the problems we have in the city, because a lot of these kids don’t have male figures in their lives…People look at these 18, 19-year-olds, 2o-year-olds, 21-year olds, even 22-year-olds as grown up men, but those are still little boys wrapped in a grown man’s package.”
Samein lost his own father when he was three. “He wasn’t there to teach me how to be a man or to teach me how to be a father,” Samein says in 1st&4ever. “None of us have role models for that. Helping raise Donte made me want to be a father, but how do you learn to be a father without examples?”
The intimate images of Syann, Denise, and Samein that conclude 1st&4ever are supposed to be a hopeful ending to this story of a close-knit, fatherless family. Seeing the three of them together during and after the adoption, we’re confident that some old patterns have been broken at last.
But as I watched the film again today, it was impossible not to feel the sting of Denyse’s loss. Being “a good father” is challenging under the best of circumstances. Now Samein must tackle the job without the support of his wife and partner. I can only admire Samein’s dedication to Syann and his nephew Donte. The path to fatherhood has been, and will be, hard-won for Samein, but he has a strong support network, including the help of Denyse’s family in Canada.
When I asked Samein to share some of the directors who inspire him most, he mentioned John Cassavetes, Spike Lee, and Francis Ford Coppola. Favorite movies include Fight Club, The Conversation, True Romance, Reds, The Piano, and She’s Gotta Have It.
Priester has two new projects in the works. The first is a film called Harlem Sons about three men from Harlem who are released from prison after serving nearly 30 years. Like 1st&4ever, Harlem Sons focuses on family and redemption.
While continuing the search for a full-time film teaching job, Samein has also been piecing together a film about Denyse for Syann. “I have received cards and calls from around the world with people wanting Syann and I to know how sorry they are,” Samein told me by email. “Every card or call is a message of love. Every person has a personal story to tell about Denyse. I plan to take the road trip and capture each story, no matter how short the story or how far away the person lives. When the time comes, I’ll be able to show Syann who her mother was.”
Denyse Thomasos was born in 1964 in Trinidad, but her family moved to Canada when she was 6 years old. In 1987 Denyse graduated from the University of Toronto with a BA in painting and art history and then attended Yale, where she received an MFA in painting and sculpture in 1989. After graduating, she moved to New York and began teaching at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. In 1995 she became an Assistant Professor in Painting at Rutgers. Priester met Thomasos in a restaurant called Mumbles on 17th and 3rd Avenue. The two started talking and hit it off. They became close friends and eventually fell in love.
Over the course of her career Thomasos won numerous grants and more than 40 awards, including a Guggenheim and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, PEW, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, Ucross, Bellagio, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. Artist Andrea Belag met Thomasos at Yaddo, and told Hyperallergic the following:
“She was the kind of person you were very attracted to — fun to be with, smart, talented, outspoken, generous. She had a real creative sense about how to make her life rich and bring that to whatever she did. She was really an admirable creative woman.”
Denyse’s semi-abstract, political paintings were reviewed in ArtForum, Art in America, Canadian Art, The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. As artcritical reported, Denyse traveled frequently in Africa, China, India, and South America, where she spent time studying prisons and slums and looking at the ways in which disenfranchised people are constrained, both physically and socially. These structures made their way into her paintings.
From 1995 until her death, Denyse served as an associate professor of art at Rutgers University, where editor and writer John Yau is also on the faculty. Yau offered this appreciation of Thomasos and her art on the Hyperallergic website:
“Thomasos is known for her abstract paintings in which images of housing blocks, tiered parking garages, warehouses, scaffolding and abstract passages occupied an expanding, hyperbolic space. Her multi-layered, constructed space evokes something between a merry-go-round and a tornado, something under extreme centrifugal pressure. It’s as if everything is threatening to bust loose, and the painting itself can barely contain the accumulating forces. As Thomasos’ friends will readily attest, the dynamic forces found in her paintings were synonymous with her being. She was a force of nature.”
Interviewed for Rutgers Observer TV in February 2011, Denyse said, “I have had the most magical life I could imagine…Every dream I’ve ever dreamed has come true…to travel around the world. Being an artist you have the opportunity to live a creative life every minute of the day…It feels like I’m an explorer…and I get to translate everything that I’ve seen, show it in a gallery, and get feedback from audiences. I love every aspect of it.”
Denyse’s sudden death is a loss not only to Samein, her daughter Syann, and to her friends and family, it is also a loss to the art world as a whole. We have lost a colleague, a friend, a teacher, and a unique, creative visionary.
Sorting out the intricacies of Denyse’s estate is going to take some time, Samein told me on the phone. Friends have set up two different funds in Denyse’s honor to help Syann. One is a college fund for Syann, which she can use for her education in 2034; the other fund will help with her immediate needs.
If you’d like to contribute to the fund for Syann’s immediate needs, you can send a donation in any amount here through Samein’s Pay Pal account:
If you’d prefer to donate to Syann’s college fun, you can contact Mona Hollander at msmonah (at) aol (dot) com or mail a check (made out to Samein Priester) to Mona Hollander, 370 E. 76th Street, Apartment C1104, New York, NY 10021.
I’m happy to share Samein Priester’s marvelous 1st&4ever here in its entirety (length: 15 minutes). I only wish it were under different circumstances. I think you’ll find, as I did, that 1st&4ever contains a great deal of honesty and beauty mixed with the sadness. But isn’t this always what the best art does?
Also, don’t forget that the Gwarlingo bookstore has an assortment of book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of your purchases benefit Gwarlingo.