The Artist’s Power & Joy

By Leah S. Abrams

If you are an art enthusiast or a casual fan of the visual arts of any kind, this is the time to be in NYC. This is unlikely what you’d think in the midst of a pandemic that has been unbearably destructive to the arts and cultural organizations around the world, not just here in the home of Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Right now, at the city’s New Museum in the Bowery, there is a 4-floor exhibit accomplishing exactly what some of us insist art can do – it illustrates with an immediacy our individual and collective stories, impacting the viewer on a visceral level that opens the door wide for taking in different perspectives.

The exhibit – “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” was originally conceived by Okwui Enwezor who, in 2018, offered: “The crystallization of black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance represents the fulcrum of this exhibition. The exhibition is devoted to examining modes of representation in different media where artists have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief. With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”

Much praise and gratitude should go to artist Glenn Ligon and curators Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, and Mark Nash for bringing Enwezor’s vision to fruition after his 2019 passing and the show’s COVID-related postponement that prevented its intended opening prior to the 2020 election. The notion of mourning as action rather than a state of being is empowering as the idea of freedom as a verb rather than a noun expressed in another artistic medium via a Daniel Kahn lyric. Every work featured in “Grief and Grievance” suggests movement over stasis, processing over stewing.

Without taking the reader on a tour of the nearly forty contemporary artists included, there is one piece in particular that exemplified for me what visual artists can uniquely express. Imagine, if you will, that I share with you a statistic – I tell you that, in 2018, 14,719 individuals were shot and killed in the U.S. How can you possibly conceive of such a number? How can you connect with it, feel what it means rather than trying to intellectually process it?

Now, imagine instead that you come upon a narrow flight of stairs and draped down above them, from a ceiling you cannot see, are dark blue banners with countless white stars in neat rows, military like precision in their placement, reminiscent of the U.S. flag. They are striking and you can’t get them out of your head as you move from room to room, floor to floor, taking in Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin set to classical music as you read along on massive canvasses, photographs illustrating lives of families in America’s stripped industrial cities that are not the families you typically see in such stories, installations that gob smack you at first sight, until you come to the top floor, turn a final corner, and find yourself at the top of that staircase.

You stop now to read that you’re looking at Hank Willis ThomasTitle 14 719, commemorating the number of individuals shot and killed in the U.S. in 2018; that the most likely way for a young African-American to die is by gun violence; that the artist remembers joking with his cousin, at age 21, that being that age and Black, they’d “made it” before losing that cousin to gun violence just a couple of years later; that this artist is just a few years younger than you.

And then you descend those stairs, staring upward, taking in how you, who likes to count everything, couldn’t fathom counting all those little stars, so many you can’t even seem them all, realizing now just how high up they stretch, how you feel as though you’re in a funeral procession.

That means something a statistic will never convey, that, frankly, as someone whose primary artistic proclivities are in the theatre and written word, cannot be accomplished there either. It is only the visual arts and music, all ingeniously on display at The New Museum, that can accomplish the immediacy of the situation facing us.

Over in Chelsea, you don’t want to miss actor and visual artist Tricia Paoluccio’s pressed flower exhibit, featuring a centerpiece canvas that is a Steinway piano, at the HIGH LINE NINE, currently hosting artists who would, in pre-pandemic days, have been unlikely to show there. Tricia found herself, like everyone in our theatrical and film/TV industry, facing an uncertain future last year as projects were cancelling for months on end – a whole season of work disappearing.

With a husband also in the theatre, they quickly left to stay with family in Northern California where Tricia dove into what had been a lifelong passion of flower pressing. The result is the collection, “I’ll Meet You There” (inspired by a Rumi poem), on display through month’s end.

Ms. Paoluccio is donating 9% from gallery sales to the COVID 19 Emergency Relief Fund and 1% to the CA Native Plant Society, offering yet one more example of how artists contribute directly back into the health of our communities and the larger world around us.

While you’re in that neck of the woods, brave the kinda scary building at 547 West 27th Street to see Susan Grabel’s “Homeless in the Land of Plenty – Redux” at the Ceres Gallery. The striking sculptures of our homeless neighbors were originally displayed in 1989, but not knowing that when I wandered in, I’d assumed they were newer work. These pieces don’t tell the story you expect – Ms. Grabel said she was confronted with the burgeoning population of homeless people on the city’s streets while commuting in the 1980’s and set about creating a series aimed at bringing these folks’ plight to attention, focusing on their humanity.

She is quoted: “We usually ignore homeless people; we pass them by as if they were invisible. They represent the failures of our society and we don’t want to face them.” The craftsmanship, artistry, and humanity on display here are extraordinary. You’ve got ‘til the end of the month and Ms. Grabel is scheduled to be there on the 27th, 3 – 5pm.

Finally, while you’re on the 2nd floor of 547 West 27th, I leave you with an offering of pure visual delight, free of any of the societal commentary I’ve focused on or COVID associations: end your day at Blue Mountain Gallery for Kim Van Do’s “Light and Air of Summer.” If you have been to the Catskills or Northern California, you will be immediately whisked back there in what I can best describe as akin to a VR experience through painting. And if, like me, you’re a bit of a geek for old tools and untraditional canvases, the scenic saws will delight you.

The truth is, I’ve given you the tiniest sampling of all that is out there to soak in and now’s the time. Do you know how crowded art museum and even galleries can get? How many germs go flying about? Go now while double masks are all the rage, crowds are limited, and there is an embrace of so many artists whose work is not always given the prominence I’m sure you’ll agree is deserved.

My (unpopular) opinion of Valentine’s Day

By Gabbi Traub

I have a very complicated relationship with modern-day Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, I think it’s beautiful to designate one day to celebrate your loved ones. I grew up “celebrating” Valentine’s Day with my parents and family. However, as I got older, it became (or perhaps I was just starting to become more aware of) this insanely over-commercialized romantic holiday where you were required to shower your significant other (if you happen to have one) with gifts, activities, and a crowded overpriced dinner with 200 of your closest friends. 

The origins of Valentine’s Day fascinates me.  Like any now over-commercialized Hallmark holiday – it has pagan origins and is based on a Roman tradition of men getting drunk at the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. The women welcomed it because it was thought to bring fertility.  Later in history, it became about honoring a saint in the Catholic tradition.  In this case- Saint Valentine.  No one can agree who was the actual Valentine. According to the History Channel, it was (probably) one of three men.  All of whom were executed by the Emperor for various crimes including performing secret marriages or helping Catholic prisoners escape Roman torture. Super romantic. 

I’ve never really understood the appeal of a modern-day Valentine’s day.  Maybe I’ve never understood the need to shower your significant other with gifts and flowers and candy and spend exorbitant amounts of money on a mediocre 3-course prix-fixe meal, especially when one could do this any other time of the year or even spread it out over the course of the year – for significantly less money.  Why do we feel the need to shower each other only once a year? 

Perhaps that’s my naivité, perhaps it’s how I grew up, and perhaps it’s the fact that I was single for the majority of my life and was (still am?) bitter about it only being marketed to couples. I certainly celebrated many “singles awareness days”, or “SAD” (pun unfortunately intended). Perhaps it’s all three.  Who knows.  Regardless – I’ve spoken about my feelings before and been met with overt frustration.  How could I not want to be showered with gifts and told I’m loved? How could I not want to celebrate love? And while I certainly understand the appeal of having one designated day a year to vomit up as much “love” as we can muster, why not expect that always? Why does it have to be one day and one day only?  

Now I’m not saying that one should expect to give/receive flowers, gifts, and candy (or your gift of choice) every day of the year.  That’s a bit much.  But why can’t we celebrate love in our own way, every day?  Why does it have to be romantic love? Why can’t it be platonic, familial, or god forbid, self-love? 

All I’m saying is – I don’t appreciate over-commercialized Hallmark stamped proof of love being shoved down my throat every year.  It (in my humble opinion) has no other purpose than for us to feel guilted into buying things and professing our love in a way that could be uncomfortable, for no other reason than it’s what we’re told to do.

Now, if you love taking one day a year to just go nuts for your loved ones, by all means, go for it.  And one perk of this crazy holiday? Severely discounted heart-shaped candy at every major store the following day.  Honestly, I’m all about that life.  Just some food for thought. 

Ed Jackson’s Lifelong Civics Lessons

By Leah S. Abrams

My friend, Ed Jackson, offered me one of the wisest life lessons I’ve learned anew many times: “Sometimes, in life, a twig is just a twig.” He shared this nugget with me when I was in high school, when he was Dr. J., my history teacher. It was profound to me that this notion should come from someone who was always teaching us to dig down further into the story.

A few weeks before this past November’s election, I asked Dr. Jackson – now Ed – why the way I’d been taught seems so vastly different from how I’ve recently found myself learning is not how most folks appear to have been educated, particularly in high school. How was it, I wondered, that so many people learned what seems a very one-sided, glossed-over version of U.S. History. What were these text books responsible for people’s knowledge base?

You see, I learned history and government through teachers, beginning in junior high and fully blooming with Dr. Jackson in high school, who offered us a variety of books, essays, lectures, and facilitated discussions. As a rather direct result of Dr. J.’s sophomore year class where I spent weekends with my classmates in our city’s then very intimate library, tracing the routes followed by Native American tribes as they were continually pushed off their land, I ended up on a cross-country trip.

My sister and I were the only students on that summer’s teen bus /camping tour who most relished the history and geography of the trek. My sister had inherited our father’s passion for local history. We were from Boston, he’d enthused, steeped in our Nation’s long narrative for all the pride that comes with it, along with the responsibility for the many accompanying ails. My sister, upon moving with her mother to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn two years before that summer journey, was steeped in pursuit of becoming the local fountain of historical knowledge that my dad was on our home state and, like him, she soaked in tales of any place she visited.

As for me, geography had long eluded me, until Dr. Jackson brought it to life, connected it to stories of progress and of all the tribulations, suffering, injustice, loss that is the ongoing price paid for those bits of advancement. To see the country I’d finally understood on a map, to physically attach landmarks and rivers and mountain ranges to all I’d been studying was thrilling.

In another of Dr. Jackson’s classes, I wrote a paper comparing three U.S. cities, looking at subjects that included education and economics. That is the first time I remember encountering a dismay that would come to continually pang me as it did my grandmother with whom I discussed it years later when she visited me in Oakland and noticed it herself. Namely, the condition of places named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I no longer recall all three cities I researched in Dr. J.’s class, I remember vividly the fury and heartbreak of reading about East St. Louis, Illinois. It was in Jonathan Kozol’s then just-published “Savage Inequalities” that I first ran across this passage quoting a 14-year old girl:

“Every year in February we are told to read the same old speech of Martin Luther King. We read it every year. ‘I have a dream…’ It does begin to seem – what is the word?… Perfunctory… We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. King. The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It’s like a terrible joke on history.”

There is a review from the Chicago Tribune at the front of that book that strikes me now, nearly thirty years later, with a heavy blow: “One wonders, though, whether a sequel to Savage Inequalities – written, say, twenty-five years from now – will document a country that decided to embrace and educate all its children.”

If one is to tune into any reputable news outlet, it is abundantly clear that we would have to answer Thomas Cottle of The Tribune with the response he clearly feared: no. Inequities reign. Our schools are still largely segregated and not at all equal. And, at 2020’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration in East St. Louis, The Rev. J. Kevin James Jr. called on the community:

“to not wait for the one time a year when King’s dream is celebrated… This should not be the only time we push for justice… Imagine an East St. Louis with black-owned businesses, black-owned grocery stores, a Walmart with a black general manager, a city where our schools are thriving not because of test scores but because of content… I wrestle today with this idea of this beloved community. Dr. King’s dream spoke of hope. He wanted us to continue in this dream and make it become a reality. But, in the world we’re living in today, it almost seems like we’re going backwards… All around this country we call the land of the free, we find there’s a continual joy in allowing other people to suffer and be persecuted.”

My pre-election conversation with Dr. Jackson – now Ed – shed a good deal of light on how we’ve gotten here and why it is that my history education was unique. In the 1980’s, Ed explained, states began pushing for more standardized tests – tests designed by outside consultants rather than by teachers, and those tests would be used to grade schools. One result? A nationwide slashing of civics courses – no more education around voting, the Constitution, city and state government workings.

I was fortunate. I grew up in a Boston suburb that my mother could not afford because my great-uncle had built my grandparents a house there long before and we moved in with them before she met my dad in the same town. And so, because of good luck relating not at all to anything I did or accomplished, I went to a high school where Ed Jackson, along with another of our teachers, had responded to those educational system changes by creating a “Government & Politics” course that proved so popular it was expanded to include 10th graders.

That move away from an in-depth understanding of how our country has evolved, of the way our Democracy works, of the ways in which systems perpetuate inequity if they remain unchallenged leads directly to where we find ourselves in this moment in history. We must do better. We must not turn to yet another generation and demand they continue fighting the same battle for simple human decency in a country more than capable of providing for all its inhabitants. We must not continue paying attention to what we call Black History only in February.

I want my nephew to come of age in an era where Black History is fully absorbed into all U.S. History courses, in classrooms that are truly representative of all of us. I want him to know a society that finally woke up, once and for all, to all its faults and realized it had the power to change – to actually embody the principles upon which it proclaims to be based. When he hears from a student at that East St. Louis school named for Dr. King, I want him to hear of an education like the one I got from Ed Jackson, in a building as safe and overflowing with resources as the one where I got that education. And when he drives down Martin Luther King Blvd. in any city in this country, I want him to see those thriving Black-owned business described by Reverend James, being frequented by people of every race and ethnicity and gender identity and religion as makes up our species.

Ed was right – there are too many very real, very big things in this world for us to work toward repairing to spend time on those small, personal things we make into so much more than they are – the twigs that are just that. The complicated part – the part that needs our attention – is the tree as a whole, its expansive root system, the communication system that runs among the forest as a whole. Let us turn our attention there – let us tackle it once and for all so that today’s young people are not, thirty years on, shaking their heads at books they studied long ago under a misguided faith that, ugly truth exposed, we would choose a different path once and for all.

The Language of Pause

By Leah S. Abrams

To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually…

Oh, how I mocked the language when it all began. We weren’t going into quarantine or lockdown – oh, no – we were, the governor insisted, going to PAUSE. As a state, as a community, we weren’t, New Yorkers that we are, going to STOP – just… PAUSE. Together. Language, Mr. Cuomo averred, mattered, and words can carry positive or negative connotations. And, while my industry may remain largely decimated, I now believe wholeheartedly in Cuomo’s choice of terminology.

(As an aside, you may want to make a note of this moment because I am far more often found chiding the governor, even more than I do the mayor which is really saying something.)

To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually, but forcing you to, say, get up for that computer-alert stretch break you typically dismiss.

Last January obviously looked very different for me than the month we’re now wrapping. I rang in 2020 with college friends and their families, as I do nearly every year – something the pandemic would steal from the group at large for the first time in nearly thirty years of gathering. A week later, I celebrated Rona’s birthday at her 54 Below concert, with my mother and Norm who’d made a special trip down for it, and surrounded by this most generous artistic community that continually inspires me. I signed a theatre contract to produce a playwright whose extraordinary gift with language is the very definition of what our society needs in this moment.

In those early 2020 months leading up to the long PAUSE, I saw more than sixteen shows, including “Come from Away” for the third time and “Mazz & Bricks” whose writer/performer I just watched in Origin Theater’s First Irish Festival gone virtual for 2021. I’d made my inaugural outing to the Cooper Hewitt Museum with one of my newest friends who, the week before the pause officially began, would take my bride’s maid’s dress to alter for a wedding that has been twice postponed, before I headed to my final in-person play – Simon Stone’s “Medea” at BAM.

In that time, I’d also attended a protest march when this country’s failed leadership refused to hold its egomaniacal leader accountable for his first called-out impeachable offense, and a concert commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with my mother and Norm in what would be our last visit for what is now over a year and where I spent the evening well aware of where each security guard was stationed and where were the children in my section who are always first priority in protecting under life-threatening circumstances. And I went to see Hilary Bettis’ “72 Miles To Go,” about a family living in Arizona, 72 miles from their deported mother in Nogales, Mexico.

And, then, PAUSE. Fast forward – a worsening pandemic that much of the country ignores or, worse, calls a hoax; the country watches, on video, police officers deliberately and slowly kill an innocent man, surrounded by civilians; peaceful protestors of that violence are met with kettling and tear gas and clubs and mass arrests; an armed mob breaks into the Nation’s Capital, calling for legislators’ deaths, and is met with no violent resistance.

And people, in every one of these instances, are shocked. I am not. I simply wonder how any of it is news to anyone. Has everyone gone ignorant of U.S. history? Of humankind’s history? I could easily continue down this road, as I often do. Or, I can use the PAUSE – regroup, shift.

One week after that insurrection, the country swore in its 46th President, a man who has spent his life in service to this country and who chose, as our Vice President, the first woman, first person of color, first Indian-American to hold the position – all in one. For the first time, a President’s inaugural address called out our cancer of systemic racism. In their first week in office, both rhetoric and action shifted to pro-immigrant which, as a reminder, is actually the single identity each of us shares unless one is Native American and just now finally being represented in the federal cabinet of the country that was stolen from them in the first place.

And, a week after white supremacists proudly sported “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirts while waving confederate flags in an attempt to overthrow our Democracy’s fair elections, a worldwide community of Jews and non-Jews alike gathered together online to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the camp’s liberation with readings from children’s, from young people’s diaries of the time, after days before having celebrated the 40th anniversary of both the Yiddish Book Center and Klezmer Conservatory Band – two organizations each launched by a college student’s dogged enthusiasm for a culture and language on the brink of extinction.

Like everyone, I miss my pre-pandemic life. But I don’t miss the pace of it – the societal pressure to always be working, doing, striving. I fear the desperation in people to return to “normal” when so much is ailing us will result in lessons having not been learned, a return to complacency.

But then I see so many little glimmers of hope – the friend of privilege who has had an awakening on the subject this past year, the community refrigerators neighbors are stocking for one another, organizers keeping people engaged in political activism and volunteer efforts to care for one another, storytellers and artists of all kinds calling out our truths and continuing to entertain us. And, like so many others report, I no longer wake up in a state of a panic because my government is being led by a madman on a social media platform originally designed to help folks navigate conferences and which has, in this writer’s humble opinion, yielded the worst bastardization of language we’ve ever seen.

The governor was right – language matters. We have a long road ahead, full of work I fear never ends, but to turn on the news for White House press briefings where eloquence and decency are back in fashion, where the people in charge take science and our health seriously, leading by example? That is reason enough to hold onto a bit of faith that starting up again may actually yield improvement rather than simply a neglectful return to pre-PAUSE status quo.