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Storytelling Shaped by a Rebellious Life

Mon, 03/25/2024 - 15:03
Terry Sullivan, seen here in a crisp blue shirt that will look familiar to those who have seen him perform or watched his "first-person film," is a storyteller, writer, and photographer living in Sag Harbor.
Christine Sampson

Terry Sullivan has a favorite hat, as close to a statement piece as he'll ever get: an Army-green, baseball-style cap bearing the words "Vietnam Veterans Against the War." Asked if wearing it had more to do with than just one war, the Sag Harbor writer, filmmaker, singer, and photographer replied, "Whatever war you got, I'm against it."

Mr. Sullivan has been defying authority since his days at the St. Ignatius Catholic grade school in Hicksville in the 1950s. He perfected the art after being drafted into the Army, and it didn't take long before he'd come to realize there was value in sharing his stories of rebellion with a wider audience.

"I would like them to reinforce resistance behavior," says Mr. Sullivan, who wears the pride of his Irish heritage on more than just his figurative sleeve but hasn't had a drink since 1983, and whose eyes twinkle with an authority-challenging spark. "It's really difficult to do because of all of the forces of society, like the one story where I was in the Army and refused to shave my mustache. . . . It's all about people in power who pretend to be obeying the rules, but when it's not convenient for them they use the rules to do whatever they want. You have to resist those people."

This takes practice, and Mr. Sullivan, 77, has certainly honed his nonconformity. "Right now it's really important because people tend to conform and to do what they're told to do and not to question it. It's really important to question what's going on right now in the world."

By trade, he is a plumber, now "delightfully retired" after a "physically demanding" 52 years in business. Lately, though, he has been using the art of filmmaking to tell his stories of resistance. He recently released what he calls a "first-person film," titled "Whatever You Say, Say Nothin'," which is broken up into 10 parts and aired on LTV, East Hampton Town's public access TV station. It can also be watched on demand at ltveh.org and on LTV's YouTube channel.

Terry Sullivan, left, with Pete Seeger and Matt Jones, one of the Freedom Singers.

 

His storytelling style and all-around attitude of defiance are informed by an influential singer-songwriter and social-justice activist: Pete Seeger. Long before his death in 2014 at the age of 94, Seeger had a powerful influence on Mr. Sullivan. They met at a songwriting workshop called Everybody Says Freedom in 1991 at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., but Mr. Sullivan had already been a fan for years.

"Every time he sang that stuff, it just raised the hair on me. He was a real inspiration," Mr. Sullivan said.

They even worked on advocacy projects and sang together on many occasions over the course of 24 years, including two sold-out performances at the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor that raised a total of $15,000 for the Eastville Community Historical Society in 1993 and 1994.

In one episode of his show, Mr. Sullivan recalls that his father, a cop who was generous only as far as punishment was concerned for a young and already rebellious Terry, blew a fuse when he found out his son was listening to Seeger's albums. "There were three albums that went right against the wall -- crack!"

During the process of making "Whatever You Say, Say Nothin'," Mr. Sullivan got expert tech help and filmmaking guidance from Jody Gambino, a multimedia artist and film editor.

"I learned from working on this project the generational differences society faced then versus now, as far as mandatory military service goes," Mr. Gambino said. "I really got to see and experience through the eyes of Terry what people in my dad's generation went through and how they were forced to go to war. It became a blueprint of trauma for them for the rest of their lives and Terry kind of walks and talks you through that during his series."

The project started out as a written memoir, but he later thought that he'd have a hard time getting it published because he wasn't connected to anyone in the industry. "I used to make videos and I thought to myself, 'I have different talents than writers do,' " Mr. Sullivan recalled. "I don't sit alone. I go out in the world and I sing and tell jokes. And I have a real -- if I may be so vain -- a real talent for people's voices, so during the film I might do a dozen different voices. I have at least 34."

He did eventually write a book, though not about his experiences in pushing back against authority. "My Sag Harbor Bird Notebook" was published in 2016, and included observations and photos from years of birding, one of his hobbies. The book also includes a number of poems; yes, Mr. Sullivan is also a published poet.

Is there an art form he won't fall into? Yes. Beyond a wooden trout he painted some time ago, which he proudly displays for a visitor on a kitchen table also adorned with unusual flowers grown by his wife, Jeanelle Myers, a professional gardener and artist, Mr. Sullivan said he probably won't take up painting as an art form anytime soon. "I don't paint because I have too much respect for it. It would take too much to learn it and do it respectfully."

As a photographer, Mr. Sullivan finds inspiration in the natural beauty of Sag Harbor. He applies his lens to his interest in birding, recently capturing photos of ospreys and bald eagles in flight.

"You have to know where to look. It's a secret," he said, when asked where he spotted the eagles.

Turns out, that's one of only a few things that Mr. Sullivan won't say. Otherwise, one of his philosophies is that if something "can be said in private, it should be said in public."

His LTV film series, he said, is his magnum opus -- the culmination of a lifetime of telling stories that offer lessons about resisting conforming.

"You have to practice nonconforming," he said. "It's not something you say. It's something you find yourself doing and then say, 'This is really important.' "
 

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