by April Sullivan.
Put Your Heart into Everything You Do
I met Glenn Towery at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic when he first moved to Austin. I first knew him as a Vietnam Veteran and a clock painter, but soon learned there was so much more to Glenn. He is a vibrant man with passion and a never-give-up attitude, which has served him well throughout the years.
The (Non) Gang Life
Glenn grew up in Los Angeles. He was raised in an all-black neighborhood that had some gang activity. He steered away from the gangs and spent time with friends and his younger brother Stonewall. As kids, Glenn and Stonewall would put together routines and sing and dance for any visitor that came to their house. He was struck by the show biz bug when he and Stonewall went to see the film West Side Story. He was in shock: A movie about gangs, but they had dance fights! He and Stonewall saw that movie at least 10 times and knew all the songs and some of the dance moves. When Roy, a good friend, was beaten up by a gang, it angered Glenn and he went through a drought of creativity.
When Glenn was 13 years old, his father passed away and Glenn used some of the Social Security benefits from his late father to go to acting school in Hollywood. He loved acting, even if he didn’t get any work.
At the age of 18, Glenn’s friends began to be drafted to serve in the war in Vietnam. He went with a friend to watch the process and saw young men randomly lined up and called off to join the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines. Glenn decided he wanted to be in charge of his choices and enlisted in the Navy. He liked their uniform the best. The Navy was the first place Glenn encountered racism.
Acting as Therapy
When Glenn returned from his service in the military, he went right back to acting. He gravitated toward the loud or heavy roles filled with anger and crying. He realized much later he was using these roles as therapy for his PTSD. He won a few acting awards over the years, but just as his career was gaining momentum, it all crashed down around him.
The Breaking Point
Glenn had written a script that was stolen. When he confronted the thief, he was offered some money to stay quiet about it and just accept it. His friends told him that’s what happened to black writers in Hollywood. He was prepared to go along with this plan, but at the last minute decided to stand up for his rights on behalf of himself and his fellow black writers. He ended up blacklisted in Hollywood. Glenn became depressed and broke, and one day just walked out of his apartment and his life, disappearing onto the streets of L.A. He was found homeless on the street a month later by his friends, who helped him out and got him back on track. He says he couldn’t have done it without their love.
Glenn met and married his wife Juanita, a painter. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she couldn’t paint, and Glenn also went through a creative drought as well. He wanted to help her, so he kept suggesting that she paint something on the ugly clock in their den. One day she got so fed up with his suggestion that she said, “You paint it!” So he did! When she came home and saw it, she smiled. Glenn was so happy about cheering her up that he went on to paint clock after clock. He now has over 100 painted clocks. Juanita beat her cancer. They moved to Austin in 2013. Juanita is painting again, and Glenn is still painting clocks.
Helping Others as a Selfish Act
Glenn learned from his experience helping Juanita battle her cancer that helping others took him away from his own problems. He has used that over the years to begin many endeavors. He started the Veteran Suicide Prevention Channel as a way to help guide Veterans out of suicidal thoughts. He started AVAFest, the Austin Veteran Arts Festival, in 2019, to heal Veterans through the arts. He recently took on the role of Executive Director of Spectrum Theatre to help keep Austin’s only African-American-based theatre company alive.
Doing What’s Right
There was a time when Glenn thought he ruined everything back when he lost his acting career. He wonders if maybe he should have stayed quiet and taken the money. Maybe now he would be that big star he always wanted to be. But now, he is happy with his choices. When he looks in the mirror, he sees a whole person, not a sell-out or someone who was afraid. If he were to do it all over again, he would have been louder and more outspoken on behalf of his fellow black writers.
Creating Art That Matters
Glenn’s current work is a wood-burned series of portraits of black people killed by police officers: George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and others. He does this as a release, but also as a way to keep their aspirations and dreams alive. Glenn puts his heart into everything he does. For him, it is the goodness and caring that makes things happen and lets you know you are doing the right thing.