BRATTLEBORO — When I met Jonas Fricke more than 20 years ago, I was in deep need of some joy.
I had seen a drunken man attack another man on Elliot Street, late at night after a bar closed, and the violence was haunting me. When I saw the poster advertising the “Pillow Fight in the Harmony Parking Lot!” I knew I had to go.
Soon, feathers were flying in the air as laughing combatants - Fricke among them - chased one another around the parked cars. After the joyous battle was over, some of the pillow warriors turned into cleaners and swept up the feathery mess.
It is one of my favorite memories of Brattleboro.
Since his death at the age of 42 on March 5, of unknown causes after a performance onstage in Tallahassee, Florida, I have been talking with and emailing people who knew and loved Fricke and remember him as much more than a playful ambassador of fun.
Jonas Fricke - a.k.a. “Jobo” - was an artist.
“For almost four decades I have used creativity as a walking stick,” he said on his current website, on which he described himself as a radical musician, painter, and screen printer.
“I believe wholeheartedly in the ability of artwork and creative pursuits to start fires of meaning, illuminate paths of quandary and curiosity, inspire change, make life more colorful and vibrant, as well as inspire others to live more creative lives.
“I work in many mediums and use art as an exploratory process of continual revelation lead by fascination,” he wrote. “My images function as illustrations of the experience of consciousness and the adventure of the human condition.”
Fricke was also a co-creator of community art spaces that were open to all, most recently the Buoyant Heart on Birge Street. His close friends say he respected all people as a beloved and talented child care worker, a gifted performer and circus clown, a peace maker, and a decent and deeply loving - and much loved - human being.
Several who were interviewed referred to Jonas as a “wizard” and, according to his partner, Jocelyn McElroy, he was cremated with a wizard's staff made “of driftwood from the Connecticut River wrapped in braids and found textures - so many teals and purples and bells and embroidery thread.”
It is not possible to include all the tales, poems and memories that people have shared with me. This is my best attempt to share a small part of Jonas Fricke's impact on this community - one that his friends and family say he loved with an abiding and wide-ranging passion, and gentleness.
* * *
When Fricke was born in Langley, Virginia, on the farm of his great-great-great aunt, the first words he heard were from his sister, Lucia Blanchet-Fricke, who greeted him with, “Hello, baby.”
“She was convinced her parents had made him as a present for her,” Fricke's mother, Sylvia Blanchet, said in a family history she shared with The Commons.
“Jonas traveled a great deal at an early age,” she said, noting that she and Fricke's father, Thomas Fricke, owned an organic spice and fair-trade coffee business in Indonesia and Guatemala. Fricke would come to Bali and Sumatra in Indonesia to help photograph his parents' work with the farmers.
As an adult, Fricke returned to Bali, where his parents have been living for the last 14 years, on numerous occasions.
The family came to southern Vermont after Thomas Fricke was offered a job at the Experiment in International Living. They came to Dover and later moved to Marlboro.
The story goes that when Fricke was asked as a very young child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “Oh. I want to continue being an artist.”
“From an early age the family began to attend events at Bread and Puppet in Glover, Vermont,” Blanchet writes, noting that the avant-garde puppet troupe had “a very strong influence on Jonas.”
“He admired Peter and Elka Schumann, the founders of Bread and Puppet,” she writes. “He embraced the philosophical orientation of the Schumanns that art should be for people, not for profit.”
Blanchet credits the River Gallery Art School in Brattleboro as an influence on Fricke and his art. “Jonas attended the school for many years, and he was so happy there.” She called the school's cofounder, Ric Campman, “a wonderful mentor to Jonas.”
Fricke spent one year at Brattleboro Union High School and, after a year at a Quaker boarding school, returned to Windham County to attend The Putney School.
Fricke attended three colleges, but didn't graduate, according to his sister. “He was accepted to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but decided not to attend after all because he didn't want to only be surrounded by 'art students' or be told what to do,” she says.
Fricke thus began his career in Brattleboro as a young artist.
“He began selling his art, first at Gallery in the Woods, and then chose to begin selling his art on the streets and after his musical performances,” his mother said.
He began touring the country, she said, performing music under the name “If Not I, then Who Then?” probably about 15 years ago, she noted.
“Anyone who has seen Jonas's artwork - particularly his performance art - knows that it was amazingly improvisational, uncontained, unabashed, totally ad-libbed, and off-the-wall,” said Sarah Bowen, with whom Jonas studied art at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Bowen said that this wildness in performance was mixed with a deep care for the world, and the people in it. “I believe that responsibility - social, political, and artistic - was very much at the core of his being.”
* * *
Jonas Fricke left Brattleboro repeatedly, but always returned. “I doubt Jonas would ever have left Vermont as a teen if I hadn't, and as soon as he could, he came back,” Blanchet-Fricke said.
“Jonas has been going on adventures or moving to other towns with Brattleboro energy, like Asheville, North Carolina; Santa Cruz, California; Gainesville, Florida. But he always, always went back to Brattleboro - he thought it was incomprehensible that I ever even contemplated settling in Chicago for good,” his sister added.
“He just assumed that if you were a Brattleboro kid, you might go walkabout - in fact, you should - but naturally, would eventually make your way home,” she continued.
“I am heartbroken that I didn't tell him last week when he called me on my birthday that I had fully decided to move back to Brattleboro - something he had been advocating for years.”
* * *
Most people who told me stories about Jonas Fricke wanted to share the depth of goodness they felt emanating from their friend, and how important his friendship was to them.
As described by Blanchet, “Jonas felt loved unconditionally by so many people and I think it has to do with his commitment to have positive regard for everyone.”
“He made it a practice to envision the kind of world he wanted to see and to create it,” his mother noted.
“I used to say, Jonas was my spirit animal,” Saturn Millner said. “He was part of me.”
“With Jobo I was the happiest I have ever been,” said McElroy, “and now it's true I'm in a depth of sadness I didn't know possible.”
“We're all yearning now, and we're weeping, we're painting and singing and planning festivals,” she said.
Aaron Chesley ran Headroom Stages, a musical venue that occupied the same space as the Tinder Box, a musical venue and community art space run by Jonas and his friends. He remembered Fricke's musical artistry as well as his emotional warmth.
“I am not much of a hugger, but I have been hugging Jonas Fricke for about 20 years,” Chesley said.
“That warm, purring hum when you hugged him - it was a resonance that put the fearful part of me at ease,” said Dalia Shelvin, “and left the best, most alive and attuned parts ready to work together.”
“When we do the sacred labor of holding safe space for the genuine expression of another, we become a part of their freedom and their future,” she said. “Jonas was so radically present and loving over the 20 years I was privileged to be his friend that he became deeply a part of me.”
“I learned from Jonas that it is a joy to be yourself, continued Shelvin, “That positivity can rule our hearts.”
“Jonas was a wonderful person to spend time with,” said (1)Sarah Bowen, his college teacher. “Gentle, sweet, kind, sincere, passionate, receptive, and touchingly courageous in the art of being himself.”
“My relationship to Jonas was so deeply, profoundly personal,” said Jenna Etra. “When I met Jonas, I didn't have a lot of community, and I didn't have people like him holding me in my creative process. He was abundantly welcoming. My life has grown exponentially from being supported by him.”
* * *
“The most impactful memories I have of Jonas aren't about what he gave, but who he was,” said Shea Witzberger, a local organizer, artist, and death worker.
“Mostly I am grateful for a midnight blizzard downtown, where we made a peace sign in the snow, and a cop drove through it, sending us into fits of laughter. Or, slapping $20 bills onto the window of Twice Upon A Time just after they closed to convince them to reopen to sell us a giant cheerleading megaphone, sharing a microphone at many a ragtag show, cooking together in an unimaginably small kitchen, him borrowing a mask off someone else's face so that he could hug me at a concert, and the way his hands moved while he was channeling the great everything, his jokes, and his grief.”
“Jonas is in my heart as one of those special people who can be the child we all are,” said Ruth Tilghman, the director of Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen in Brattleboro.
Amy Frost, who runs Circle Mountain Farm in Guilford, where Jonas worked and lived most recently, described Jonas as an unusually sensitive and attentive listener. “Jonas treated people like they were the beautiful miracles that they are. Jonas would literally take notes when we'd sit on our stoop talking.”
“I became neighbors with Jonas when I lived in Guilford,” said Nettie Lu Lane, “and one time, Jonas passed me on the road while I was walking, and he stopped his car and said, 'Nettie, I am so sorry I can't talk right now.'
“Most people would have just waved as they drove by, but he had to stop his car,” she said.
* * *
Many people I spoke with talked about Fricke's love of children and the care and respect that he showed them.
According to Tilghman, also the former director of Putney Day Care, young children were drawn to Fricke.
“One summer, when he was a teenager, he magically arrived at my daycare to ask for a job. Didn't need to do much of an interview because he immediately attracted a group of children to him. The children could sense Jonas was special and wanted to be with him. They touched him and hung onto his arms.”
Tilghman said she crossed paths with Fricke many years later at Wild Carrot Farm in Brattleboro, where he was the nanny to two little girls.
“He said, 'Hey, Ruth! You were the first to give me employment.' I have a lasting image of him walking off with a baby in a front pack and a little girl skipping alongside of him.”
“Jonas was incredible with children,” recalled Tess Lindsay, one of Fricke's former partners and one of the collaborators at the Tinder Box. “He created with children and would help them take ideas of art and music and storytelling and make them real.”
Laura Goldblatt of Brattleboro said that she and her husband, Caleb Clark, hired Fricke to watch their son, Shaw Clark, from when he was from 2 to 4 years old, so that the couple could have some date nights.
“Pretty quickly those evenings got referred to as 'Jonas-time,'” she said. “Clearly, the most important thing happening wasn't parents escaping for some quality time, but rather Shaw and Jonas having a creative meeting of the minds and hearts.”
“The drumming, the cardboard!” Goldblatt said. “We parents could see how being with Jonas built Shaw up. I believe that having his self and his creativity held in such high regard by an adult made an indelible impact on him, and on me. Through Jonas's eyes I could see my tiny, chubby, lisping, nap-resisting toddler as an artist and musician, in his wholeness.
“Their work really was collaborative, even while Shaw was so young,” Goldblatt said.
“He made art and music with children all the time,” said Millner.
“And he would jam with them and make bands with them,” Etra recalled with a laugh, “with names like, 'The Rockstars' and 'Bloody Eye Century'!”
Goldblatt said that Fricke had a lasting impact on her family.
“I think once we knew him, we felt ourselves to be a part of something larger than ourselves,” she said.
* * *
According to Jenna Etra, Jonas Fricke almost didn't take up the study of performing as a circus clown.
But once he arrived and started participating in her workshop, Nettie Lu Lane said that his love and empathy helped him to create a skit, developing a character named “The Professor.”
“I always experienced Jonas as a huge beating heart with legs and arms and a head attached,” she said, “I told the people to bring in a prop, so Jonas brought in a cloth Earth ball.”
During the workshop, Fricke discovered a tear in the fabric of the ball.
As Fricke performed the skit, the character of The Professor “came out all vulnerable and openhearted, and talking in his way, about loving the beautiful Earth,” Lane said. “And then, the Earth had a rip in it, and it was an emergency, and he turned on this emergency siren, as though to say, 'Look what we are doing! She is hurt!' And he did it with such love and innocence, and the barriers were dissolved; it was so poignant.”
“People were stunned,” Lane continued. “The audience was just silent. We all felt it. I get tears just thinking about it.”
* * *
Jonas Fricke's friends say that he acted as an unofficial archivist of the art and music that other people made and that he included their art in his performances.
“He was the strongest believer in these ideas we shared, such a deep believer in the art and holder of the culture that we were creating,” said Millner.
Fricke would store art from local artists in his living space - a former school bus - at Circle Mountain Farm. He would keep art in his mom's basement, in Buoyant Heart, in his car, in suitcases. He would use his friends' art in his performances.
“I came to visit a couple of years ago and he gave me a tour of the Buoyant Heart, and he showed me all of the art that he had saved,” Shelvin said. “It was kind of like going to your grandmother's house and seeing the very personal art on the wall. He had put some of my art on the wall, and it moved me to tears.”
* * *
“Jonas's way of peacemaking was fascinating to witness,” said Jenna Etra. “He was not confrontational. It was subtle care, but not so subtle that you would not know.”
Fricke “would not take sides, not get caught up in dramas,” she said. “He was so committed to being just accepting, of everyone.”
Michael Edelstein, Fricke's middle school teacher, observed him defuse a confrontation over food mistakenly consumed from a shared refrigerator that would make many adults flustered and angry.
“Jonas apologized, explained being unaware, and smoothed things out,” Edelstein said. “And his staying innocent and positive was how it went from a confrontation to a passing misunderstanding.”
“I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. Jobo treated everyone with respect,” Saturn Millner said. “The Future Collective stuff, the DIY stuff - he did that just for the love of it, trying to bring people together.”
Kay Curtis, the organizer of the Harmony Art Collective, where Fricke displayed some of his art, said that he offered advice about how to help her heal an impasse among members.
“I did as he suggested, and after Jonas's words came out of his mouth, I was like 'Oh, my God, this is the way to go with this.' And this happened twice, and his contributions were vital to the existence of our gallery.
“I told his mother that he was our spiritual leader,” Curtis said.
* * *
Fricke's friends remember him as an extremely important presence following a series of deaths that took away some of their young peers in the local arts community.
“He was a gifted griever,” said Dalia Shelvin. “I have so many memories of preparing for the memorials of Alex Firth, Molly Dowd, and Jonquil Clouet with Jonas and our community.”
According to Etra, after Clouet died, Jonas helped create an altar for her, which they set on wheels.
“Late at night, when there was little traffic, we paraded it down from the Buoyant Heart, 40 of us walking down to Elliot Street and right on downtown, and down past the train tracks near the Whetstone Station” she said.
According to Etra, an altar for Jonas now takes up a wall at the Buoyant Heart.
“Actually, the whole building is an altar,” she said.
* * *
Fricke was part of a group of people who helped in the creation of community art spaces in Brattleboro, the first of which was the Future Collective, which had a performance space in the Market Block on Elliot Street, above Taylor for Flowers.
However, they were not able to stay there for very long.
“It took so long to find a place that was a good fit for us and affordable, so it was very sad to lose that space,” said Tess Lindsay.
According to Saturn Millner, Jonas was determined to keep going, so together he and his group of friends created Tinder Box in 2004, which was started in the same building.
“Tinder Box was a huge deal in all of our lives,” said Abby Banks, who remembered sharing the space there with Jonas, Millner, Lindsay, Pat Schneeweis, Dalia Shevin, Luke and Kyle Thomas, and many others.
According to Millner, the space provided young artists who didn't have enough money to rent an expensive studio in Brattleboro, with space to make their art and - perhaps more importantly - to nurture community.
Milner describes the space as a need for artists, not a desire. “People's lives were hanging in the balance,” he said. “Brattleboro is not a friendly place for artists that are not making art that is marketable or profitable in some way.”
“Jonas helped create the reality that we wanted to live in,” Millner said.
The Tinder Box also had a performance space for substance-free events. As described in a listing on Sonicbids, a music booking website, the space was an “anti-profit, pro-dance, volunteer run space in Brattleboro, Vermont,” with accepted genres including “punk rock, folk, blues, experimental, indie, noise, acoustic, spoken word, etc. [...] just make it original.”
According to Millner, keeping the Tinder Box open was a struggle, with people working hard to gather enough rent. “We were always just hustling, always just getting by, so we could bring [performers] who were not getting paid much or just money from the door.”
When the building was sold, the group was again unable to renew their lease, and the idea of a sharing space in which to make art had to manifest itself across the street, in the People's Building. After a few years, the process repeated itself, and Jonas and some of his collaborators had to move, yet again.
“Getting kicked out of the Peoples Building was intense,” said Etra. “It was really hard that it was ended the way it did.”
The community art space was created again, this time in a building on Birge Street that became known as The Buoyant Heart.
“I am so happy the Buoyant Heart space was able to come together,” said Lindsay. “Personally, I felt like it was the kind of space we were always looking for in Future Collective days.”
According to Millner, Fricke, along with Etra and others, poured themselves into making sure there would still be a community art space that accepts everyone who arrives at its door. Its existence is as vital as ever.
“No one is going to tell anyone that they aren't welcome at Buoyant Heart because they can't afford it,” said Milner. He estimated that there were 20 people paying rent - money that Jonas used to help collect - and four times as many who use the space to make their art.
“It's important for young people to have a place like Buoyant Heart,” said Banks, “and Jonas was part of the center of it. And he showed younger people how to do this work of creating a community art space.”
* * *
Over the 20 years that passed since I first met Jonas Fricke during that joyful, feathery battle in a parking lot, I saw him perform as The Professor, and I saw his artwork at Harmony Collective.
I even personally benefitted from his unusual and creative kindness. When I broke both my arms in a bicycle accident, he brought two of his musician troubadour friends to our house, and they led a workshop on how to sing harmony. After all, you can't do much with two broken arms, but you can sing.
But I really did not know the extent of Fricke's work here on planet Earth and in our town, or the consistent goodness which he brought to life here, until I spoke to all these people who spent time with him, loved him, and mourn his loss.
“I am having a hard time,” said one friend, speaking for so many.
What is clear is that Jonas Fricke loved. He loved people, he loved art, and he loved life.
He loved Brattleboro, too; he wanted it to be a better place, and he made it so.