Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Festival Takes a Look at the Private Life of the Beat Author
By Amelia Pak-Harvey
LOWELL -- When UMass Lowell professor Michael Millner walked into Jack Kerouac's Florida home two years ago, it was an uncanny experience.
The St. Petersburg house where Kerouac spent his last days with his wife, Stella, was filled with his personal items.
"It's just a strange but also wonderful experience to walk into a house of someone whose work that you've read, but never quite had the intimacy that is involved when you walk into the house," said Millner, the director of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for Public Humanities at the university.
Now, some of those objects are on display back in Kerouac's hometown as part of this year's Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Festival.
They include old records, cat figurines, a crucifix -- even wooden cat carriers for his three furry darlings, Pitou, Dobie and Timmy.
At the invitation of John Sampas, the executor of Kerouac's estate, Millner and Kerouac scholar Todd Tietchen retrieved the select items now on display at UMass Lowell's Allen House.
Tietchen, also a UMass Lowell professor, says the exhibit broadens the perception of a man associated with a novel of flight.
"I think that these items that reconstruct part of his domestic space are interesting, because they thicken out our view of him a little more," he said. "They give us a richer view of him as a person."
On Kerouac's writing desk sits a curious "I voted" sticker -- odd since, according to Tietchen, Kerouac never voted in a presidential election.
Yet still, the items offer a personal peek into Kerouac's life.
"I think it provides a more nuanced way of looking at Kerouac, or a more complex way of looking at Kerouac," Tietchen said. "It allows us to think about him as someone with a certain domestic and private life that maybe people haven't really considered before."
The festival from Oct. 8-12 will revive Lowell's famous beat author, bringing meaning to his On the Road quote: "Everybody goes home in October."
The Lowell native inspired droves of artists who will share their experience -- artists like Barbara Gagel, who found a calling in Kerouac's words.
"They talked and they danced, I could hear his voice all the time," said Gagel, who will show Kerouac-inspired pieces at the Ayer Lofts Gallery on Friday. "So I decided to have a very conceptual show. The words were important as image."
Her encaustic pieces capture words or phrases taken from Kerouac interviews. She's done five Kerouac shows already, but this is her first time creating the set "In My Own Words."
"I try to get, either through one of his novels or one of his writings, something that has gotten to me, and I focus on that," she said.
"I always use the words as a title, but this time I use the words as image."
The festival contains a variety of events throughout downtown Lowell -- a birthplace-to-grave tour, open mike at the Old Worthen bar that Kerouac frequented, even visits from the peers that inspired Kerouac's characters.
Even beat writer Michael McClure, who served as an inspiration for one of Kerouac's characters, made it out to the Allen House on Monday to read some of his work.
At the Zeitgeist Gallery on Saturday, artists will share "Stories from the Road" -- art inspired by Kerouac's wandering spirit. David Amram, a companion of Kerouac, will provide music.
Zeitgeist co-director Karen Boutet said visitors will see a surge of creativity from a whole bunch of different angles.
"A lot of people coming at it in their own way, a lot of free thinkers, a lot of zany and beautiful artwork," she said. "I think they will enjoy it, it'll be a really good time. A lot of good company, and usually pretty good conversation of Kerouac."