Never before have I allowed myself to create a public project that was so one on one and intimate. Before I discuss the results of Grandma! Grandpa! Please Read to Me, I would like you to understand my practice before this project.
Over the last nine years, I have been producing large scale projects and installations, on a small scale budget, that have been placed in forests preserves, museums, performance halls, women’s centers, community centers, lodges, theaters, on streets, and in schools. These projects are not about my personal visual art, although my artwork is often included. The originating idea flows from me with an outline of all the components. The next steps are researching funding sources then contacting potential collaborators. The collaborators have included environmental scientists, educators, educational and cultural institutions, governmental departments, and non-profit organizations. Once the funding source idea and collaborators are in place, I contact the artists and then apply for grants.
These projects are open to all art disciplines, for example: performance arts, literary art, technological arts, culinary arts, visual arts, etc. Spiritually is infused in all aspects of the project, yet the general community has never been included in the creative process. Possibly I have not trusted the general public in the creative process.
A sampling of the projects I have been a conduit for and implemented in this manner are: Women Artists of the Hudson Valley and Art About Water.
During the years 2002 through 2006 the Women Artists of the Hudson Valley programs were installed in a vacant home and gallery earmarked for destruction, a museum, a Quaker Meeting House, a women’s center, a school district conference hall, and a historical 1890 former hospital and former Elks hall. Yearly ninety to one hundred-four women exhibited their art, as well as presenting gender bending Shakespeare, a VDay production with twenty-six women who had never acted, lectures and television programming. The overall theme for all five years was the worth of women, which Orange County New York dedicated as the March 2006 theme for the region. This five year project came to me literally in a flash August of 2001.
For three weeks in the fall of 2006 and 2007 Art About Water was implemented. This was the first time a project was a 50/50 collaboration with the arts and environmental science. The concept was to educate the public on the function of watersheds. When I contacted an environmental scientist who had for years been saying he would like to work with me “someday”, he told me if I could convince the environmental musician Paul Winter to work on the project, he would jump in too. Over a two year period there were three installations: an international exhibit of 20 works from France, Holland, and states along the Eastern United States; nineteen temporary earth art installations in Black Rock Forest, and a exhibit of thirty environmental paintings and mixed media works in the Black Rock Forest Lodge. The heart of the project for both years was Wolf Cry Singers, a Native Drum and Chant Women’s Group, with members from Canada and Massachusetts. Pete Seeger approved use of his personal Hudson River Sloop the Woody Guthrie, there was an environmental film festival, a riverfront festival, forest hikes, watershed demonstrations, on-site bug lectures, and performances and hands-on art workshops in beautiful meadows and street corners. This project came to me in a dream, as well as meeting Wolf Cry Singers. A friend of a friend of a friend led me to these women.
The creative process for Grandma! Grandpa! Please Read to Me is different for me. First, the project came to me in the light of day. The location of the project was important. Newburgh is a nationally recognized dysfunctional city. This city is a community that functions daily by stereotyping the residents and the residents stereotyping those who are from the inside and outside attempting to be of assistance. The fear and isolation that is generated has built a wall of anger. The problem is huge. I wanted to begin by focusing on the stories of the elders from the three ethnic communities in Newburgh and on the need of children to receive positive attention. Trust, passion, and collaboration are at the heart of the Please Read to Me project.
The city government was immediately on-board, even though the project was small in comparison to what I have presented in the past. This art was gentle, did not need nor want the press, did not involve a professional art team, did not openly scream education, and did not require funds, although funds would have been helpful. What was required was trust from all involved and courage for me to move forward on a project that was so small scale and so ….. sweet ….and appearingly so unimportant.
When putting together the four member creative team and readers, I gave much thought to whether or not I should be a member of the team or stay in the background as the art facilitator. In the end I decided I wanted and needed to share and read one of my seemingly happy childhood stories. A library staff member suggested the African American elder, Barbara Simon. I’ve worked with Barbara in the past so there was an immediate trust level in place. In addition to Barbara, Yaniyah Pearson, the Director of Human Services, wanted to be a reader. Barbara and I searched for the Latino member of our team. Locating this person was much more difficult than expected. We visited community centers and church leaders searching for this person, finally locating Jose Rodriguez at a retirement home. Jose is outgoing and happy to share his experiences. In fact, he was bubbling over with memories and in just a few weeks has become committed to the project.
What is surprising to me about this search for Jose is that I came face to face with problems I knew about but did not understand. First was the problem of illegal immigrants. In Newburgh the Latino community is comprised mainly of Mexicans, Peruvians, and Puerto Ricans. From the conversations I was involved in over the nine days while searching for our Latino team member, I became aware that there were many more illegal immigrants in the Mexican and Peruvian community than I have previously thought. They were afraid to bring attention to their family in anyway. Additionally, the women were much more quite than the men and felt they had no interesting stories to tell. Finally, even if a translator was at the readings, they told me they would not feel comfortable speaking in front of people. They felt their stories were unimportant.
Another problem that I was unaware of had to do with recreation facilities. When the city told me that the readings could not take place on the sidewalks but had to be located in parks and permits ha to be filed. I went in search of three recreational parks and one common meeting location. Understanding that there are no clear-cut lines between these communities, there are heavy saturations of populations in communities. In Newburgh there are many 21 parks. Most of the parks are for the African American community. Four are on the waterfront and are for tourist and upper class residents. There is only one small plot of land for the lower class Caucasian community and to the best of my knowledge no small parks in the Latino community. I did point this out to the Director of Human Services and she decided to drive throughout the city with me and find a location. We were unsuccessful.
At that point I decided to sit outside the library on a Saturday morning and take note of the patrons who entered the building: African American men, African American teens, African American mothers and children, Caucasian men and women, Caucasian mothers and children, and finally, Latino mothers and children. After speaking with Barbara, the decision was made to hold the third event at the library and cancel the full community location. The library would serve this dual purpose.
Our field trip to the Liberty View Apple Orchard was totally enjoyable. We picked organic apples and explored the entire farm. Our team did not appear to be nervous about the project. We did discuss apples and its many symbols: the apple core pentacle and all that it represents, the fruit of knowledge, the fruit of magic, the garden of Eden, and our contemporary symbol, which is the one we decided worked for our project, home and apple pie. I personally, am interested in Johnny Appleseed and his life long wanders planting the seeds for the symbol that now represents home.
The readers: Jose Rodriguez, Barbara Simon, Yaniyah Pearson, Susan Konvit
The stories: Little Jose's Homeland, Me and My Gran Hand and Hand, Memories of the Mango Tree
Evaluation of Reading 1: September 13, 2009 from 11am to 11:30am. September 13th is officially recognized in the United States as Grandparents Day. The original date was on the 12th but it rained. The 13th was a sunny Sunday. The Colonial Terrace housing district was selected due to its predominately Caucasian residents. The area was designed in the early 20th century as part of the Garden City Movement. Unfortunately, the district had seen better days. The small corner park that was selected for the reading has the feeling of a town green. There are large trees on the lot with a statue of New York States first Governor, George Clinton. Before beginning I asked our team to gather in a circle and hold hands. I share my gratefulness at their participation and the hope that this would be a small conduit of positive energy. Only one Caucasian parent attended with her two teenagers. It was interesting to note that they by-passed the Latino Elder to sit with the African American Elder. They then circulated to the Latino Elder. They never came over to me. Many cars slowed down to observe what was happening. There is one notorious townhouse in this community where an African American gang has moved and they have the residents in the grips of fear. I spoke to a few of the gang members this pass week to let them know about the readings. On Sunday morning they were out and about and I invited them again to attend. The men watched from afar.
Evaluation of Reading 2: September 13, 2009 from 12:30 to 1pm. The Washington Heights section of Newburgh is a sad community with many vacant houses, and streets with potholes. There has been some interest from carpetbaggers so a few of the streets have been repaved.
The park is located in the side yard of the community center. Vandals have damaged the plexi-glass windows with bleach, and they are a distorted milky white in color. There is no grass, no trees, and new playground equipment. An African American teenage girl with a young girl in a wheelchair and a two-year old baby were playing in the park. They were not interested in our stories. No one else entered the park. Fifteen minutes into the reading Barbara decided to leave, and I moved my chair outside the park’s high metal gate to the sidewalk. At that point, four African American men came out of their homes and stood on their porches to watch. A few of the men on the corner also watched Jose and me. A Latino man came over and stood next to me while I read. When I finished the story, I looked up at him, introduced myself, and shook his hand. He told me his name was Eduardo and he was interested in what we were doing. He also told me he was an artist. I asked if I could see his art after I had finished reading and he pointed out his apartment building. We spoke for a few more minutes, and I then went back to reading.
At 1pm Jose, his wife, and I went to Eduardo’s third floor walk-up. His apartment was in terrible condition. His young teenage daughter was washing the dishes. The walls of his home were covered in his paintings with a special wall for his four young daughters art works. When we entered the living room there on the main wall was a painting with an award hanging on the corner of the work. I recognized this piece. Recently I was one of three jurors for a community exhibit at the library. This particular painting was unanimously voted as best of the show. The work was obviously inspired by shamanism and the Aztecs, and contemporary life but the visual was absolutely unique. When I realized this was the artist, I thanked him for entering his work in the exhibit and shared the jurors’ comments. He told me he was just an uneducated Mexican who worked from the point of view of the animals. At that moment two birds flew from the street to the ledge of his open window. I turned to Eduardo and immediately asked if he would be interested in working with me in an afterschool program. He would have to be trained but I was willing to teach him. He would be paid. Hi bowed his head and said yes. As we left, Jose said he loved the Grandma! Grandpa! Please Read to Me project. I quietly laughed inside because no one had come to listen to our stories at this park yet it was successful from Jose’s point of view.
Evaluation of Reading 3: On September 16th the Times Herald Record published a press release announcing the project and location of the next reading. The City of Newburgh’s Mayor had received a positive verbal report from Yaniyah and the City Manager’s PR person wanted attention drawn to the project. Fortunately, the press release did not affect the turnout for the reading on September 19th.
This location proved to be closer to what I had originally envisioned, elders sitting in chairs on sidewalks reading their stories. Forty-one children and adults walked right past us. They would stare but did not stop. As the children passed, they would turn their heads. Only eight children and three adults sat down to listen to the stories. Of the three adults, only one would sign the consent form. In fact, one Latino mother left her three-year old daughter with me to go into the library to change her baby’s diaper. The mother did not speak English so Sara translated what she was saying to me. The little girl did speak perfect English and after hearing the stories she told me she did not like candy and had never eaten a mango.
During this session, Sara became quite courageous and stepped out of her role of being a quite observer and the wife of Jose Rodgriguez.. She is not a photographer but saw that I needed photographs. She learned how to work my camera and began taking pictures. At first she was nervous and would ask my permission for all the pictures. I encouraged her to have fun but to be sure to request signatures from the adults. Jose was so happy to see his wife participating and vowed to buy her a camera. It was all very sweet.
When our reading time was up, Barbara, Sara, and I held an impromptu meeting with a woman who had attended Jose’s performance. This woman was the Director of the Newburgh Children’s Center. For the next sixty minutes we brainstormed on how to bring this project in an extended format to her pre-school, as well as how we can work with the SUNY Orange Community College students who tutor the children. She told us the students enjoyed tutoring the children but were very fearful of the neighborhood. As a team, the readers and I will be meeting to discuss this project so that we are prepared to speak at the center on October 3rd. Our talk will cover how the project evolved and how we were attempting to break down the walls of stereotyping by reading each others stories as if they were our own stories. While this meeting was happening, Jose kept reading. To celebrate our accomplishment, I took our team out to lunch.
Next week I will apply for a New York State Council on the Arts Decentralization Grant. Funding would make it possible to continue this project next summer.