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Wendy Jo Carlton Returns to GR to Screen "Hannah Free"

Underwriting support from:
Carlton (right) with Jacqui Jackson

Carlton (right) with Jacqui Jackson /Hal Baim

GRTV 1989 (Bart Snowfleet, Carlton, Randall TeVelde}

GRTV 1989 (Bart Snowfleet, Carlton, Randall TeVelde} /GRTV

On Friday April 23 Grand Rapidians will have the opportunity to welcome home filmmaker, director and artist Wendy Jo Carlton as she presents her feature-film directorial debut, "Hannah Free" at Wealthy Theatre.  The film is being presented through the Queeries, a monthly film series. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the movie screens at 8 p.m., with a chance to meet the director.

The film has won many awards at film festivals and many more nominations, including Best Director at the Midwest Film Festival Best of the Midwest Awards.

Wendy Jo has roots in Grand Rapids.  Born and raised on the west side, Carlton was the first in her family to attend college and she graduated from GVSU in the early '90s. What was most remarkable about Wendy Jo was her huge catalog of independent work; short films, music videos and television programs.  Early on she had become a fixture at GRTV, the community television station in Grand Rapids, and through that association became a seasoned live television producer and director of many short, award-winning films.

Two of these TV programs deserve special note. They were live, long-running collaborative efforts and in the whole television landscape of the late '80s and early '90s they were only seen on GRTV, cable TV channel 23 (at the time) in Grand Rapids:

"The Electric Church," featuring the Reverend Peter S. Leo as created and portrayed by Scott Vander Werf.  This late-night, psychedelic send-up of the TV preacher genre had irreverence and sacrilege. The opening strains of a vinyl version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” as performed by Dick Hyman and his jazz organ, set the mood followed by the soothing voice of Wendy Jo herself introducing the sweating, exuberant, other-worldly Reverend, enticing viewers to become healed by laying their hands on their TV sets amid wild colors, video feedback and a wide angle lens bringing one a little closer to the euphoria than might be comfortable. The congregation tuned in each week to be part of the choir of eccentric fans and the phones lit up with both those in need of healing and shocked insomniacs scanning their way up the cable dial.

"something else" was Carlton’s challenge to herself of producing long-form, experimental television every week. Each program was entirely different, sometimes including close-up interviews with an unusual person, or anything from hand-held camera visit with her mom to visual poetry. Occasionally she would just take phone calls on the air and talk to people. Once, she achieved some notoriety and front page press coverage by blending in with the press corps at a Republican function featuring the first president Bush. She re-broadcasted the interview the same night along with unlikely commentary. 

Beyond television, Wendy Jo was typically elbow deep in in other art forms; music, photography performance and installation art, blogging and poetry. Carlton was also active on the radio scene as a programmer on WYCE and other commercial and non-commercial stations. 

Since those prolific days of creative pursuit in Grand Rapids, Wendy Jo Carlton has moved around, notably to Seattle and Chicago, involving herself with writing and other media projects. She did a two-season stint as the creator and teacher of the successful “Chicks Make Flicks” program here in Grand Rapids during the first and second year origins of the ArtWorks program. Several girls from the program went on to work in the career field of their mentor. Wendy Jo is currently developing a feature film, set in Michigan in the summer of 1988, about a 19 year-old girl who falls for an older woman and gets more than she bargained for.

Don’t expect the avant-garde when you go to see "Hannah Free" (or otherwise add it to your Netflix queue).  It’s a love story.  But you can expect sensitivity, an insight into humanity, some LGBT politics and the work of a genuine creative soul, forged in this very city.

Disclosure: Chuck Peterson is the former director of GRTV and also hosted a fundraiser for the making of "Hannah Free."

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