Artist of the Year event at MAH celebrates local writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn
By his own recent count, Geoffrey Dunn has written half a million words in the last couple of years alone. And over his four-decade career as a writer, he’s published millions more—articles for newspapers in Santa Cruz (including this one, regularly) and beyond, nonfiction books, political commentary for the Huffington Post, poetry, fiction, screenplays, academic pieces and more. In addition, he founded Santa Cruz Community Television, and produces and directs documentary films; he also taught a landmark class on the documentary art form for several years at UCSC, his alma mater.
Now, as he accepts the Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year award for 2015, it’s time to ask: what does he think he’s best at?
“The one thing I’m good at in life, I’m a good fish cutter,” says Dunn.
And he’s not joking. Growing up in Santa Cruz, Dunn cut fish on the wharf, and to this day, he says, “everything stems from the cutting table for me.”
A brief survey of Dunn’s best-known work reveals how true this is. His 1989 book Santa Cruz is in the Heart, and its 2013 second volume, were groundbreaking local histories which had at their center the Italian families (including his own) who built the fishing industry here. His first documentary, 1984’s Dollar a Day, 10 Cents a Dance—co-directed with longtime friend Mark Schwartz while Dunn was still in grad school—was inspired by the older Filipino farmworkers he worked with at the fish-cutting tables. The film, which documents how Filipinos had been driven from Watsonville fields by vigilantes in the 1930s, picked up international distribution and was a finalist for an Academy Award nomination.
His 2011 book The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power had ties to the fish-cutting table, too, as did his stories this year exposing real estate heir Robert Durst’s complicated connection to Northern California.
“Humboldt, Alaska—I’m a Pacific Rim boy. I worked in the fishing industry all up and down the coast,” Dunn says. “I mean, what’s a kid in Santa Cruz doing with the Robert Durst story, writing about this New York millionaire? But I knew the territory, and I love it up there. I realized there was a story that no one had tapped into up there. I got into records that no one had been into. I found the piece in Mendocino where he had been arrested, and no one else had gotten that. I spent literally hundreds of hours on the story.”
The thrill of chasing a good story still excites him, and in fact, he finds that at 60, he’s more passionate now about his work than he’s ever been. Perhaps that’s why accolades seem to be finding him with such frequency—in addition to being named Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, he’s been named Historian of the Year by the Santa Cruz County History Forum.
“I still like to play the game,” says Dunn. “When I stop doing that, I’ll stop writing. Because I think that’s what art is—coming to any enterprise with passion, integrity, wisdom, and wanting to move people. I don’t always succeed. But I want to move people with everything I do. Not every piece I write is about moving people, but I look for the heart of each story.”
Dunn will be honored at a special Artist of the Year event on Friday, Oct. 9 at the Museum of Art & History in downtown Santa Cruz, and in a way, he sees it as the best thing about the award.
“I’m honored and grateful,” he says. “I’m past the stage of my life where awards mean anything other than having an excuse to bring people together.”
After a book signing from 6-7 p.m., the event will kick off with a musical performance by his daughter, Tess Dunn. Both he and Tess are artists, and they’ve both faced their own challenges—he battled cancer, she continues to do the same with cystic fibrosis—and he says her fierce creativity continues to inspire him.
“Tess has no fear, and she’s taught me what it means not to have fear,” he says. “My cancer has too, quite frankly. I think since my cancer, my artistic abilities, my writing abilities, my research, everything has been freed up. It’s also made me see how precious life is. When you do something, you’ve got to go for it.”
The Artist of the Year event honoring Geoffrey Dunn will be held from 6-9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9 at the MAH. Dunn will sign books from 6-7 p.m., followed by a performance by Tess Dunn. Proclamations, readings and a discussion will continue until 8:30 p.m., after which there will be mingling and refreshments. The event is free to the public; seating is limited.
DREAM SEASON Local writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn (center, back), whose most recent documentary was ‘Calypso Dreams,’ will be honored on Friday, Oct. 9, at the Artist of the Year event at MAH.