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Storyteller brings history alive

Historian, children's author, and all-ages storyteller Irene Smalls knows a lot more went on during slavery than history books tend to tell you. Smalls has spent the last several years poring through reams of accounts from former slaves of their lives before emancipation.

They were recorded by writers hired during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration, which recognized that because many of these againg ex-slaves couldn't read and write, "what they knew was going to die with them," said Smalls, who lives in Boston.

Smalls discovered the human side of the story few know. "Most of it is pretty boring, but every now and then you would read something that would just take your breath away," she said.

There was the man whose wife was owned and held by another farm. "His owner fed him well, but his wife's owner did not feed her very well. So he would walk 3 miles every night and share his food with her and then walk 3 miles back," she said.

Smalls also read about the African holiday Johnkankus that the slaves celebrated on Christmas (their one day off), corn-shucking parties at harvest time, and the fanciful tale of the evil Jack Muh Lantern that slaves told their children as a warning against straying too far from home.

Her research inspired 15 children's books. This Sunday at Newton Free Library, she presents an afternoon of story and song that should engross adults as well as children.

Smalls says she wants to show that "all along the way, African-Americans were trying to create lives, to create humanity for themselves, despite an economic system that exploited them."

Smalls performs Sunday at 2 p.m. at Newton Free Library, 330 Homer St., Newton. Admission is free. Seating is limited. Call 617-796-1360 or see www.ci.newton.ma.us/library. Wheelchair-accessible.

FROM PIANO TO GUITAR -- When Peter Fletcher set out to transcribe the piano works of Federico Mompou for guitar, he never imagined the process would lead him right into the Catalonian composer's living room.

While working on his all-Mompou CD for Centaur Records, the Atlanta-based guitarist couldn't locate notes for one piece. So a German pianist suggested he contact Mompou's widow, Carmen Bravo, in Barcelona. A few letters and a plane trip later, he found himself walking up the Paseo de Gracia to her door.

"We sat down and had a nice, long, European conversation that was unhurried and unharried, and we just talked about life, [pianist Arthur] Rubinstein, [guitarist Andres] Segovia, and the way things were back in the '50s and '60s with classical music," he said. And then Fletcher played and played while Bravo coached him.

"It's something that I'll never forget. It was quite an experience to be in Mompou's home and see his chair that he used to sit in," Fletcher said. "And she was wonderful. This was 2001 and she must have been in her 80s, but she was like a 60-year-old -- sprightly, happy, and always hugging and smiling as well."

Most important, though, was that Bravo, a pianist herself, knows her husband's works as no one else. "She's an expert and just knows every note of them, and she was quite pleased with a lot of my ideas."

The fruit of this effort can be heard next week in Milford. Fletcher plays venues large and small nationwide and is currently doing a round of library shows, which includes a stop this Tuesday at Milford Town Library.

Besides Mompou's "Cuna" and "Cancione y danza No. 6," the program plucks works from the Renaissance up to the present. One interesting choice is "Koyunbaba," by contemporary Italian composer Carlo Domeniconi.

"It's not your typical atonal, challenging, thorny 20th-century work. Actually, it's one of the most exciting pieces I've every played for an audience," said Fletcher.

"I play the first and fourth movements, and the first is more of a Fantasia-like composition. It's mysterious, and then it goes into this presto that is extremely fast and very exotic-sounding."

It took Fletcher 18 months to transcribe the Mompou works he recorded, but undaunted, he is now working on a similarly intensive Erik Satie CD. He has no plans to track down the French composer's descendants, but again Fletcher is tirelessly creating original transcriptions.

In Milford, the audience will be treated to his interpretation of Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 3" and the bouncy and energetic "Jack in the Box," in its first guitar version.

Fletcher performs Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at Milford Town Library, 80 Spruce St., Milford. Admission is free. Call 508-473-2145 or visit www.infofind.com/library/. Wheelchair-accessible.

BRUSH WITH GREATNESS -- Every two years, nine painters are chosen from among hundreds to receive the Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Grant Award.

"Often, artists that are selected will later get Guggenheim Awards and greater acclaim," said Kelly Bennett of Boston, who coordinates the program for the council.

"There are very few awards based solely on artistic merit," said Bennett, explaining that a well-respected jury judges the works anonymously, never seeing an artist's name, resume, or previous credits. Artists also do not have to submit a project proposal on a predetermined theme. "This is based on artistic excellence, and creative ability, and nothing else."

The work of the 2004 winners is not just impressive but wildly diverse. It is on display along with contributions from finalists at ArtSpace-Maynard. Titled "Painting Now," the show runs through Feb. 18.

Gallery director Jero Nesson of Concord organized the show. "Many years ago, the Artists Foundation in Boston used to do a gallery show of the winners, and it was almost always a wonderful, interesting exhibit," said Nesson.

But the foundation stopped hosting the show some years ago when it was between gallery spaces. So when the 2004 winners were announced, Nesson decided to fill the void.

In this show, no painting predicts the next. The styles span Yu-Wen Wu of Wayland's delicate rice paper works and Mary Sherman of Boston's bold steel construction slotted with canvases. One wall holds Domingo Barreres of Boston's surreal-meets-Renaissance creation, and the next frames the piercing realism of Matt Brackett of Somerville.

"What was really interesting for me was that the work is really different. Some is very minimalist and abstract, and some is very figurative and representational," said Nesson. "But the show really does hang well together, and I'm not quite sure why."

"Painting Now" runs through Feb. 18 at ArtSpace-Maynard, 63 Summer St., Maynard. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Call 978-897-9828 or visit www.artspacemaynard.com. Wheelchair-accessible. TEEN ICE ESCAPADES -- If the recent storms have you whining louder than a seal pup, try seeking solace knowing that others have it worse. The Scandinavian Living Center in Newton takes its Nordic Film Series to Iceland tonight.

In the award-winning 2003 film "Nói Albinói," 17-year-old Nói wiles his frigid days away on a fjord dominated by monstrous mountains and endless snow.

But then he meets a city girl at a gas station, and his thoughts turn to escaping with her to some greener place. Basically, it's a classic coming-of-age story, only the setting is below zero.

The film, which was an official selection at 30 international film festivals, including Telluride and Toronto, offers a chance to brush up on your Icelandic, or read the English subtitles if you must. Either way, it's free.

The center presents a free film monthly in their Nordic Hall, which has quadraphonic sound and a 5-foot-square screen.

The audience tends to be a mix of residents from the center's senior living apartments, as well as Nordic-ophiles and nearby residents.

"Nói Albinói" is at 7:30 tonight at the Scandinavian Living Center, 206 Waltham St., West Newton. Admission is free. Next up on March 3 is Ari Kaurismaki's "Shadows in Paradise." Call 617-527-6566 or visit www.slcenter.org. Wheelchair-accessible.

Please send news of your arts-related events to westarts@globe.com. 

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