There was a New York City that I dreamed of when I was growing up. It was a mixture of Greenwich Village during the Beatnik era and the Lower East Side of the 1980’s. It was full of punks, dreamers, activists and artists. The dangers that might have been lurking there were more aesthetic than real. Poverty and hunger were stylish accouterments. All who were there possessed the ability to transform the urban environment. While obviously this political, arty urban paradise existed only in my imagination some lived it in all its gritty, dangerous, complicated, hungry reality. Patty Smith lucidly captures it in her recent book Just Kids. Gary Indiana’s new compilation out from MIT Press, Last Seen Entering the Biltmore, collects his poems, prose, short plays and works of art from the late 70’s to the present, chronicling through his artistic production his time in this environment after he made the decision to “not to do anything he didn’t want to do” and to become a writer. Last Seen Entering the Biltmore captures Indiana’s sense of absurd and also his strong artistic integrity. I wrote a full review for NYFA’s online magazine for artists, NYFA Current, and would be honored if you checked it out here.
What compels an artist to create art? Is it internal or external? Is it the environment, inspiration from peers and community members, or simply having the space, time and opportunity to work? What environment is most nurturing to art and what type? Do artists create better in urban centers, buzzing with life, where their daily peregrinations and haphazard meetings can be the source of inspiration? Or do they need peace, quiet, solitude, nature and focus? While I live and work in the first set of circumstances (Brooklyn has the highest per capita of artists of New York’s five boroughs), I’m curious about the second. Specifically, the intentional artist’s community.
This summer I am setting out to explore artist residencies, retreats or schools that have consciously built themselves away from urban environments. They are all situated in locations of surprising natural beauty, yet each has a particular history and offers artists a particular experience.
Places like MacDowell and Byrdcliffe reach back one hundred years or more, while others, like the Vermont Studio Center, reinvent the tradition. This summer I will be traveling to residencies, retreats, art schools and colonies in Vermont, New York State, New Hampshire and Maine, reaching out for work, but documenting these unique places for myself and for this project. I’m searching for insight into artistic inspiration, ideas about what binds an artistic community, and educating myself about an important tradition in the history of making art in the United States.
My first stop was a seven hour drive north of New York City to Johnson, Vermont, which is practically on the Quebec border. I visited the Vermont Studio Center, which is a relative newcomer to the artist residency scene, and was founded by artists in 1984. Housed in a series of old mill buildings, and even the old town hall, the Studio Center integrates with the tiny town of Johnson. The residency itself is very independent—residents, who are visual artists and writers—come together for meals and studio visits, but that’s about it. Otherwise, they work in their studios and many of them work to keep the residency running. The residents themselves are diverse and hail from all parts of the world and are at all stages of their careers as artists. Serious, community oriented, independent, all set in a very tranquil northern landscape of lush hills, rivers and forests. While I’m generally unmoved by northern landscape (having grown up in one), the Vermont Studio Center felt like an escape for me as well. I hope one day to return as a resident.
The first tweet I wrote when I landed in Phoenix said, “I hope I don’t get kicked out of Arizona for looking like an immigrant.” Arizona has drawn quite a lot of media scorn for the proposal, which was thankfully defeated, to stop and ID anyone who might look like they were an undocumented immigrant. While there’s a lot of conservative, reactionary politics going on in the United States, Arizona seems like the epicenter of some of the most virulently racist and reactionary policy proposals. Tucson even wants to succeed and form their own state to get away from some of the worst of these policies. However, there’s another side to Arizona. It’s a stark, beautiful, other worldly landscape. There’s a vibrant cultural scene and strong history and everyone I met (who granted were all involved in the arts) were friendly and welcoming and happy to show me another side of Arizona.
Despite being a short flight from Albuquerque, Phoenix felt very different. While Albuquerque quickly receded into the desert, Phoenix’s suburbs sprawled out along palm tree lined avenues. “Who do they think they are, L.A.?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but tucked into Phoenix’s sprawl is a vibrant, growing downtown arts scene. It is anchored by the Alwun House, a historic house that presents exhibits and performances of all kinds and takes an active role in the revitalization of the neighborhood. I tried out Carly’s Bistro, a fresh, local culinary establishment that’s open late serving good food and cocktails with a rock and roll feel. Try the whiskey sangria!
Across the river from Phoenix in Tempe is the gleaming Tempe Center for the Arts that presents performing and visual arts, as well as art education programs. During an opening for their exhibition Twenty Questions I even met the grand daughter of the man who founded Tempe – that just shows how new towns and cities in the west are compared to the east.
I didn’t stay in Phoenix long, however, and after a fruitless morning of trying to buy sun hat (are these people in denial they live in the desert or what?) I headed down to the Saguaro National Forest and then to Tucson. I first stopped at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museumto look at living exhibits of native desert plants and animals. I loved the chance to see coyotes, javalinas (they look like wild boars) and a very sleepy brown bear up close, but if you are looking for desert walking I would skip the Desert Museum and go straight to the Saguaro National Forest.
I got there in the afternoon and was happily surprised to find out the park was free thanks to National Parks Week. I talked with a Ranger who recommended a 3-mile hike to the top of a ridge and gave me this warning, “Since you are unfamiliar with the landscape I will warn you to be careful when you are walking down hill during sunset because you don’t want to step on a rattlesnake.” No thanks, I did not!
I had never seen a Saguaro cactus up close before and I could not get enough of them! Their arms! Their spines! Like trees, but not at all! So stoic against the elements!
After a few hours of wandering around among the Saguaros I drove into Tucson and checked into the Hotel Arizona. I had a corner room and could see the sunset over Grant’s Pass.
However, it was Easter Sunday and I was worried, where would I find anything to eat that wasn’t a chain restaurant in downtown Tucson? I asked the teenage front desk clerk and he suggested The Grill, “It’s kind of a greasy spoon…” he explained. Sure, why not. I wandered towards where he suggested and found myself face to face with a classic, American diner. It was as if I had dreamed it. Punk rock, queer teen waiter, great menu, perfect vinyl covered booths, and a hamburger that tasted like it had been homemade, not pulled out of a freezer. Did I mention it was open 24 hours?
I felt like I had been transported into an issue of Puberty Strike zine, published by Seth Bogartin the 1990’s and extoling the virtues and vices of teenage life in Tucson. The Grill felt surely like the place the coolest teens in town would hang out. But now that I’m an adult I needed a drink after all my wandering in the desert. “Do you have a bar?” I asked the waiter, a little desperate because I had seen the hotel bar close at 7:30. “We have a great bar next door, they open at eight.” Was I dreaming?
After I finished the best hamburger I’ve eaten besides those that SMH makes me I wandered over to the bar. Now I was really dreaming. The Red Room, the bar attached to The Grill has a menu of carefully selected Belgian beers and American microbrews. As I sipped on a perfect blonde ale from Belgium I noticed cocktail making accouterments. “You make cocktails too?” I asked the bartender, “What are the drinks you like making lately?” Once I finished my beer I ordered one that he suggested, the Death in the Afternoon, a mixture of Absinthe, champagne, bitters and soda water, garnished with freshly picked Borage flowers. For $6! I laughed as I paid him, saying, “I live in New York and there this would cost $12!” “No,” he said, “I was just there, it was $14!”
The next day I was treated to a walking tour of Tucson’s rail yards gallery and studio district. I really liked discovering art and radical community projects such as Bicas, a bike recycling and education center, and the Citizens Art collective. I also got to drop in on the intense universe of Mat Bevel, who makes immersive kinetic sculptures out of found objects. When all the sculptures were activated his studio and gallery space was cacophonous and transporting. We also dropped in on Santa Theresa Tile Works, who make gorgeous hand made ceramic tiles, and and Raices Taller, a nonprofit community gallery focused on the Latino/a community (but not only).
After all that inspiration I was also able to fit in a little bit of thrift store shopping at a richly endowed and modestly priced Goodwill. I don’t even both with the Goodwill stores in NYC, but I knew this one wouldn’t be so picked over. I scored two skirts, a pair of light wash Levi jean shorts that will either be my best fashion addition for the summer or a huge mistake, and a work-appropriate button shirt, all for $20! I also popped into Preen, a beautiful vintage shop that also sells records by local bands and some local fashions. I picked up a vintage Vera scarf that reminded me of a 60’s flight attendant uniform in a good way.
Finally, to cool off from all the shopping I caught a drink at the lovingly restored Hotel Congress, where I could have stayed all afternoon if I didn’t have to work! Since Tucson was the last stop on my southwest tour I celebrated with a fancy dinner and cocktail at 47 Scott. My drink was infused with sage, which felt like a fitting tribute to the end of an inspiring journey through a (previously) unknown land.
There’s more Arizona on my Flickr stream.
The artists Caitlin Reuter and Suzanne Stroebe have taken over a portion of NYFA’s Brooklyn office/gallery in the most delightful way – they have installed what looks like a Victorian style parlor, complete with wallpaper, curtains and furniture, and invited the public in over the course of this week for tea, baked goods, and conversation on feminist topics as part of their “Feminist Tea Party” project series.
I’m thrilled that I get to join them as part of the project this Friday, April 15 at 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. to discuss the question of “Is there such a thing as feminist aesthetics?” I’m interested in discussing not just visual art, but music, performance,literature, film, you name it. Feminist artists have consistently challenged what is the nature of “art” and I wonder after all of these challenges is there still something as feminist aesthetics? Was there ever? Who cares? Come have tea and let’s chat!
I also have to say I love this project because it matches my (killerfemme) feminist aesthetics and you can bet I’ll be decked out in my 1950’s style best.
For more information, a schedule of the other talks, and information about the artists visit their blog!
When I told people that I was traveling to Detroit for the weekend for work the reactions were polarized. I either got, “Detroit, why?” or, ” Detroit, awesome! I’m so jealous!” Sure, Eastern Michigan would not be my number one pick for a winter getaway, but I didn’t quite understand the disdain for the motor city (though I wasn’t sure why people were jealous either). Yes, it’s been through some hard times, but as savvy observers have noted, it’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance as well. So, it was with open minds and open eyes that we headed off.
The first thing I noticed was the utter lack of density. As we drove around on Sunday morning I felt often like I was driving through the struggling mill towns of Western Maine. “How did this happen?,” I asked one of our hosts. “Poor city planning,” she replied. Basically, the city was designed for masses of people who never came. But Detroit is not an empty wasteland. Far from it. Detroit artists are currently debating whether “ruin porn” is the best way to show the plight of the city (and incite action). I admit that we didn’t leave without seeing the abandoned Michigan Central Station, which has become a symbol for the city’s decline, and, hopefully, will become a symbol for its renewal if it does get restored, perhaps as a hub for high speed rail?
Detroit is a hub for art and culture that has been getting a lot of attention lately. We were sure to check out the Heidelberg Project, where the artist Tyree Guyton has decorated an entire street (and surrounding area) and made it into a “folk art” or “outsider art” or “contemporary art” destination instead of a locus of decay and despair. I loved the project for its political nature and also the fact that there was always more to look at – that’s what makes great art, you always see and feel something new as you continue to look.
We spent a whole Saturday afternoon with the Kresge artist fellows, a group of literary and performing artists who have been given a 1-year fellowship by the Kresge foundation. They were an inspiring, diverse group who are deeply invested in their community, have a sharp analysis of Detroit’s history and current events, and are making profoundly challenging work. They included a double bass player from the currently-on-strike Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a female hip-hop artist who wants to set up a foundation for women rappers, an architect and critic writing a history of the idea of the African American Museum on the Washington Mall, and a host of inspiring poets and others. As one of the artists said, “It’s no longer embarrassing to be from Detroit. I used to hide that I’m from here, but now everyone is interested in what we have going on.” These artists could teach New Yorkers a thing or two!
Our meeting with the artist fellows was held in the Detroit Historical Society, a beautiful building with lots of engaging, interactive exhibits. I kept taking pictures of all the lovely didactics and also got very excited when I saw real cars in the museum illustrating an assembly line in an auto plant. This is what working in a fine arts museum for years will do to you.
After our meeting with the artists we all went to Motor City Brewing to partake in locally brewed beers and artisanal pizza. I flinched a little when we ordered the “Ghettoblaster” beer, but wow, the flavor!
We also made it to the Detroit Institute of Arts and took in a photo show of an amazing Hungarian/French/American photographer Andre Kertesz, to the boutique Goods that features lots of hip, Michigan made crafts, and for lunch at Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes.
And despite my parents’ fears I’d be, “sleeping on the floor of a ramshackle motel,” I was, in fact, sleeping in a restored Victorian mansion that comprised the six-house complex of the Inn on Ferry Street. Featuring an incredibly delicious breakfast, working fire places and free New York Times, I can’t recommend this Inn (and Detroit) enough! Please see my Flickr stream for more pictures!