Ebony Stewart

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Gender and Sexuality Center recognized World AIDS Day with discussions from two Austin-area speakers on AIDS and topics relevant to gender and sexuality. 

The event was part of the center’s 10-year anniversary celebration. At the event, English assistant professor Heather Houser read from her new book, “Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect,” and Ebony Stewart, local poet and sexual health educator, spoke on the widespread confusion established among younger generations in regards to gender and sexuality.

Houser discussed the central topics in her book and the relationship between the human body and its environment with reference to diseases such as AIDS. 

According to Houser, when there is a personal relationship with the environment, emotions play a large role in the daily life. This refers to a sick person who deals with his or her owns disease and is surrounded by society — its environment. Houser also said a harmonious nature between individuals and their respective environment should be at the center of politics. 

“What people feel can certainly be a form of knowledge,” Houser said. 

Stewart said there is often confusion and many questions when it comes to topics on sexuality, and it is important to address them. During the event, she read a set of lines from her poems to express such confusion and its normality.

“It is normal to fear what we don’t understand,” Stewart said. “Homosexuality is not covered within my curriculum when it should be, as it is important.” 

Advertising junior Kimberly Doughty said she believes bringing in speakers to the UT community is important to generate knowledge on topics related to gender and sexuality.   

“There are large misconceptions about things such as sexual health and relationships such as illnesses, and I think it’s really important to have such speakers here to broaden our horizons, especially in a place where we may not be as educated,” Doughty said.  “There’s always more opportunities to learn, and these speakers encourage us to want to learn.” 

According to Ola Ukaoma, a biology junior and peer educator in the Gender and Sexuality Center, engaging speakers are important to introduce to the student community as it’s a great way for them to learn.

“Speakers have the ability to make things personal,” Ukaoma said. “There is a lot of information online that you can use and a lot of resources you can utilize, but a one-on-one conversation that is engaging is a good way to spread information to students.”

Poetry and tap dancing share the stage in Tapestry Dance Company’s 25th anniversary show, “XXV - Anticipation of Next.” 

Director, veteran choreographer and dancer Matt Shields’ concept for the show, which incorporates dance, poetry and jazz, involves the audience gaining a look into the human mind. 

“I thought it would be interesting to create work that comes from the inside and is really real,” Shields said. “People are going to relate to that, because everyone has a conscious and contemplates choices and decisions they have to make in their everyday life.”

In order to make his idea a reality, Shields invited poet Ebony Stewart to perform spoken word throughout the show. Her voice serves as the conscience and narrator of the thoughts going through the minds of the dancers.

“I was sitting in rehearsal and writing what I saw, and then I would ask the dancers questions to see how they felt about a particular section,” Stewart said. “I wanted to write from what people could relate to, and what I thought people might see when looking at the dance.” 

Stewart wrote easily understandable poetry that is consistent with the dreamy style of dance portrayed by the tap dancers. 

“We wanted it to be relevant to people’s dreams in a metaphorical sense and in an actual sense. It’s very human poetry,” Stewart said. “I know sometimes poetry can be metaphorical, kind of a deeper meaning, but this is very surface level and at the same time thought-provoking.”

Stewart said that working with the various artists involved with “XXV - Anticipation of Next” was a challenge because she had to relate spoken word to different types of art. 

“It allows me to be versatile, so instead of just writing poetry, I get to then make my poetry match what someone else’s poetry might be,” Stewart said. “I feel like jazz, that’s their type of poetry. Tap dances, that’s their type of poetry. So I have to take what I know and make it fit and make it work.”

The idea of working with multiple types of artistry in one production has been around since Tapestry Dance Company was established 24 years ago. Under the artistic direction of Acia Gray, the company focuses on using mixed mediums as well as training its dancers to view tap in an unorthodox way. 

“In my opinion, what makes Tapestry what Tapestry Dance Company is, is that we take tap dance and put it in, wrap it up or attach it to an emotional, human condition,” Gray said. “To a place that means something on a spiritual or everyday life level.” 

As one of the original founders, Gray takes great pride in the company and its mission. In the past, she worked closely with dancers as the head director of shows, but she was recently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.

“Obviously it’s major surgery, and it comes with two other surgeries right after it, and I just finished the second one not too long ago which kind of put me out of it for the beginning of the rehearsals and the preliminary set up in November,” Gray said.

Although she is recovering, the surgeries caused Gray to give more direction responsibility to Shields for this show and several before it. 

“It’s always challenging working with a group of people, especially when you’re the quote-unquote ‘leader’ or the person whose vision it is,” Shields said. “Trying to make people understand what you see and what you feel as a choreographer and to try and relate that to others is one of the biggest challenges.” 

Gray said she was extremely proud of Shields for stepping in and taking responsibility during her absence. 

This show both celebrates the legacy of Tapestry Dance Company and looks forward to the future. 

“What’s wonderful about it is that Matt is part of a legacy of Tapestry and what Tapestry really means, and he started with me when he was 19 years old and has grown into a beautiful artist,” Gray said. “So the legacy of Tapestry and his growth really emend to the 25th anniversary.”

A new book by Austin poet Ebony Stewart delves into the complexities of physical and sexual abuse, race, the love of mothers and cupcakes.

Ebony Stewart conveys her own truths and universal ones in “Love Letters to Balled Fists,” a collection of poems out February 28 by local publishing company Timber Mouse. Her first full-length published book mixes hard and soft, a reflection of her own identity as “The Gully Princess.”

“The gully part is more of a heavy hand, say what I gotta say I don’t give a damn,” Stewart said. “The other part is the love letters where I try to be sensitive and be vulnerable.”

Stewart started writing poetry when she was eight years old. She started performing her poetry live in 2005 and moved to Austin in 2007. She is active in the Austin slam scene and said Texas is a great place to be a performance poet. Most of the poems in the book were written over the last two years, and some as recently as a month ago.

She grew up surrounded by women after her mom divorced her abusive father. Today, she writes powerfully on the impact of women in her life and in her community.

The first poem, “Mosaic Women,” ends “These women, who carry a pen, a switchblade and bubble gum in their purses. I say these women, make the world go ‘round in verses.” The line sets up the rest of the book, which mixes up serious ideas with light commentary.

In “Cupcakes,” Stewart explains that she eats the sweet treats in lieu of vices like booze, weed or video games. A poem about the deliciousness of red velvet is suddenly a poem about sex and the failure of quick fixes.

The poems are confessional — Stewart called herself “a life writer” — and the author doesn’t shy away from sharing hard truths about her past. In “Domestic,” Stewart shares her experiences seeing and experiencing domestic violence.

Lines like: “For his best friend, who is also his roommate, and watched me lie on the floor in a fetal position, closed the door because it wasn’t his business, and listened to my skin split between his knuckles, congratulations on your baby girl,” pack a verbal punch that wakes the reader up.

Kevin Burke, another Austin slam poet, started Timber Mouse last year. “Love Letters To Balled Fists,” out Thursday, is the publishing company’s second book. To celebrate, Stewart and other poets will perform at a book release party at the 29th Street Ballroom Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The book is available online at Stewart’s website and the Timber Mouse website.