New curators coming
New curators coming
Veronica Cianfrano is a multimedia artist who has been examining “the communication breakdown” through photographic images and memories of her familial ties and through our current reliance on digital communication. Her work displays her examinations, whether it be through memory decay, new meanings found in old footage, or the effects of the news media on our state of mind. Since receiving her MFA from the University of the Arts in 2010, Cianfrano has served as both co-founder and curator for Manifesto-ish and Champions of Empty Rooms. Here, she interviews video artist Zach Zecha about his work and the value of art via handwritten notes.
-Julius Ferraro, co-founder
I first met Rebecca Katherine Hirsch four years ago at a Permanent Wave Philly meeting where we spent many hours compiling entries into the collective’s zine. I remember feeling really loopy from concentrating on the layout, but Rebecca was right there with me as I got all of my giggles out. I recall a few extra cat doodles making it into that edition somehow. I’ve always had respect for the way Rebecca takes on serious topics in her work with a signature feisty sense of humor. While I don’t necessarily share all of her opinions, I am immensely appreciative of how strongly she pursues her ideals through activist art. Rebecca makes art as Humble Mumbles, a podcast about feminism, queerness, Palestine & other stines. Other art projects of hers include the collaborative multimedia bit BARBARISM, the unknown entity Slappy Pancake Private Eye as well as Intensely Staring, a 90s alternative guitarist who has no guitar. She inspires me to “go for it” when I truly believe in something. At the time of this interview Rebecca was traveling in Palestine and Israel researching her work so we corresponded via email.
-Mira Treatman, curator
Mira Treatman: What media are you working in today? What attracted you to them?
Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: Media. What is media? . . . I think, ostensibly, I am working in pod (that is: making a podcast—so I guess that’s the media of audio—as well as writing). The process, I guess, is that first I have the interest, then I collect the audio, then I write the script/story to frame the collected audio, add music, and then hopefully the result is a podcast episode. I first started my weird podcast in (let me check my website) October 2014. A good time, October 2014. I don’t know if anything actually attracted me to doing a podcast outside of Dan from Never Forget Radio doing one. I LOVE NEVER FORGET RADIO, I love how layered and lyrical the political-psycho-sociological thinking is and how much fun it is to listen to, and Dan said, why don’t you make a podcast too, so I did. Also, I’m a writer and a person interested in feminism/Palestine so a pod was a cool new way to write about it . . . using . . . audio.
MT: Where are you currently on your journey as a live performer?
RKH: I read this question fast and thought you asked me how my past experience with Birthright Israel influenced where I am today to which the answer is: WHOA SO MUCH in terms of increasing interest in uses of narrative and manipulation. OK, but to answer your real question, I think I am in a constant liminal threshold purgatory and it is terrible and potentially liberating and SO IS LIFE. Thanks for asking. I am very subjective and unreliable in my answers, by the way, but I guess that’s what interviews are, OK, let me try to think about this. I think . . . I am on the road. That’s where I am on my journey. Not at the starting line, never gonna win the race, just sort of slowly jogging but very tired and reactively overexcited, sometimes. Past live performance experiences with BARBARISM and Slappy Pancake Private Eye have emboldened me and enlivened me, puffed me up with unmerited overconfidence and acted as excuses for subsequent performances where I didn’t know what I was doing but assumed I could just float on the wings of past experiences and I was wrong, so wrong. But bad performances can also be helpful humility-inspirers and instigators to change/actually prepare so that’s cool. Sometimes, especially at NIGHT KITCHEN and at The A-Space things have gone very well.
MT: What can we expect from Humble Mumbles’ upcoming live show, How to Get from Hebron to Ramallah?
RKH: Um, so when that show happens—which it WILL happen unless I stay in Palestine until the very end of my visa here in which case this show will 100% happen but a little bit later than originally expected—I hope it will consist of a lo-fi live-action recreation of West Bank travel between cities, complete with burdensome, Orwellian (strategically needlessly bureaucratic) checkpoints (an excitingly depressing mixture of intimidating bigness + claustrophobia, for the visitor equipped with a trusty American passport and Jewish surname). We’ll also recreate interactions with bored to vitriolic, well-intentioned to power-crazed teenaged Israeli soldiers and a few scary, god-promised-me-this-land West Bank settlers. Why is travel so hard for Palestinians in the West Bank? What mechanisms keep people under control, and what is their function?
MT: Where have you traveled recently? Where are you right now? What brought you there?
RKH: Oh god. I don’t even know anymore. Right now I’m in the sweet town of Beit Sahour, a 10 minute walk from Bethlehem. Beit Sahour is a town with a rich history of resistance (see this half live action, half cartoon movie about cows-as-threat-to-Israeli-security during the first intifada for more!) and also, interestingly, one of the very few Christian majority towns in the West Bank (Christians make up 2% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank; most have emigrated—in large part to South and North America). I was recently in Ramallah, East and West Jerusalem, and another Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala. And before that, fellow Philadelphian Megan Bailey (!) and I traveled to Haifa and Akka and Nazareth up in the north of historic Palestine (or current ‘48,’ as many pro-Palestine people will sometimes call Israel in reference to the 1948 War of Independence to Israelis, the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) to Palestinians). I plan to return to Hebron in a few days. Hebron! Oh, so many things to say about Hebron. I’m fascinated by this city of incredible everyday Israeli brutality and humiliation (at least in the H2 Israeli state-controlled area… as opposed to H1, the nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled area… which is still UNDERNEATH Israeli military occupation. So dystopian), as well as incredible kindness and resilience in the Palestinians who live there. I’ve also had some really heartwarming, weirdly unexpected talks with the odd Israeli soldier. Hebron like many (if not most?) Palestinian places has a history of perfectly neighborly relations between peoples of many faiths until it was overwhelmed by one ethnonationalist state (ugh, let’s all just take another moment to be so annoyed with Israel. WHAT THE HELL). I’ve met some of the nicest people in Hebron and I try to interview them about their experiences with the city, with travel, culture(s), etc. I try to be as obsessed as I am without letting it get in the way. Which is hard. I’m bad at humility so I gave my podcast an aspirational/joke of a name.
MT: I often perceive really entertaining idiosyncrasies like surprising non-sequiturs in your humor. Where does this come from?
RKH: Sadness. (America/Ashkenazi mid-century Philip Roth-yaw-shucks Jewish patriarchy stuff led me to believe humor was a magically-native-to-the-Jews trait but no, it’s just a general coping/defense mechanism used by many peoples given many contexts. Better late to de-essentialize my thinking than never!)
MT: What are you most looking forward to when you get back to Philly this summer? What’s the best part of living in Philadelphia? What is the worst?
RKH: Hmm . . . I’m looking forward to editing and making episodes out of much of the audio I’ve collected over the past months (including rollicking Arabic pop music in shared taxis! Sober-minded interviews with smokey-voiced Old City Jerusalem hotel proprietors! Rare snippets with Israeli leftists, Palestinian kids I met on streets, Palestinian rappers in 48/Israel, my mom as we walked on a highway to the settlement of Har Gilo from the city of Beit Jala, etc.) Philly is more affordable than some cities and has thriving arts. It is not New York. That’s cool. I probably like Philly a lot but I like Palestine more, I just can’t stay here. Look what happened the last time Jews got too comfortable in Palestine.
All photos by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch.
Sharon Koelblinger uses painting, drawing, photography, photo as object, and sculptural forms to explore parallel worlds and spacial relationships. I’m particularly interested in the way she deconstructs the photograph, a medium inherit with authenticity, to reveal a new way of understanding it as object. Sharon asserts in her artist statement: “When seen together, photographs resist representation and sculptures embrace trompe l’oeil affects to emphasize the disconnection between seeing and comprehending while negotiating the boundary between illusion and authenticity.”
I visited Sharon’s exhibit, Auspicious Arguments, at Black Oak House, Catherine Pancake and Miriam Stewart’s contemporary fine art gallery in West Philly, and developed a series of questions based on the work.
-Julianna Foster, curator
Julianna Foster: The Black Oak House is a gallery space in a domestic setting. How did you approach this space differently then you would have a more traditional gallery? In particular, can you speak about the piece Figure-8’s on Your Body and how it was installed?
Sharon Koelblinger: Showing my artwork in a house gallery initially presented a few challenges for me in thinking about how the content of my work relates to the space. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the domestic setting and draw upon my own familial history and consider the objects that my grandparents collected over the 60 years that they lived in their home. These works constitute the bulk of the exhibition.
In the past, the Figure-8’s piece was installed in the corner of a white-wall gallery space. I really liked that I was able to re-present that work for Black Oak House in a domestic setting. The piece references a paper chain that children often make and it seems more natural to be installed within the context of a home rather than a gallery. It greets viewers when they enter through the door as if they are arriving at a celebration, like a welcome to the exhibition.
JF: There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, installed in the dining room of the gallery, is isolated on the wall. I actually feel it commands the space, it’s quite a powerful image. Tell me about the choice of placement. Was this work made for this exhibit?
SK: Yes, it’s so interesting that you mention that piece, because it was in fact the artwork that was the impetus for the whole show. I had taken the blanket, seen in the photograph, from my grandfather’s house when he passed away. It was a wool blanket that I had never seen while he was alive and I had no personal connection to its history. I struggled with my lack of emotional connection to the blanket and other objects taken from his house. The mark-making on top of the photograph is a way of claiming the blanket as my own and ultimately turning it into something appreciated for its aesthetic value rather than for its utilitarian function.
JF: I’m curious about the intersection between your use of photography, mark making, and sculptural forms. Can you speak about your focus on materiality? For instance, in the two works Feathers From Your Wedding Hat and Torn Pages, there is a delicateness to the feathers—pigment-printed on tracing paper—as opposed to the graphite-covered aluminum of Torn pages.
SK: Materials play a huge role in describing metaphor in my work. I was initially trained in sculpture before I worked in photography, so I often think about the form alongside the image. In my photographs, I create unexpected relationships to materials in an effort to ask the viewer to consider the images as objects that exist in the present rather than depicting moments of the past.
In the works you mentioned, the forms reinforce the image: tracing paper serves as a substrate for delicate feathers and aluminum adds weight to a carved wooden journal. By placing these pieces next to one another, they engage in a dialog about duality: lightness and heaviness, revealing and witholding, ephemerality and permanence.
JF: Your titles, such as Mother’s Day, 2008, Your Coat Collar on Christmas, and There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, seem to refer to someone or a specific event or narrative. Does this body of work relate to your personal history?
SK: Yes, I do rely on titles to add a hint of personal narrative to my work. The artwork doesn’t necessarily reveal itself as intensely personal on its own, therefore I utilize titles as a way of creating a more intimate conversation between the works. All of the titles in this show address specific people that I have been in an close relationship with in some way, some who have passed away and some who are still living.
JF: What is your studio practice like?
SK: My process of working is heavily studio-based. I view my studio as a place of refuge where I can seek solice and quietly work on my projects. I typically work very slowly and many of my artworks are made through repeated gestures, therefore my studio practice often assumes a meditative tone.
JF: What are some things you are currently reading, listening, to or viewing that are relevant to your work?
SK: Serendipitously, I began reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit at the time that I was preparing work for this show. The book touches on a few transitional moments in Solnit’s life, including her mothers declining health due to Alzheimer’s, and considers how she and others narrate their own story. In Auspicious Arguments, I was thinking a lot about the objects that connect me to other people’s histories and how my own present is intertwined with their past.
JF: What are your plans for the summer—what are you working on now?
SK: This summer, I plan on experimenting with video in my practice. I foresee that the inherently ephemeral nature of video will similarly share the tension between the temporal and the enduring that already exists in my work. Using video, I intend to explore the process of human perception through capturing subjects that are transformed throughout the duration of the piece by shifts in subtle nuances. What the viewer anticipates at the beginning may not be what they see at the end.
Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews and Mason Rosenthal have been working together since 2012 under the auspices of Medium Theatre Company. Their site-specific productions in Rutherford Hall—about a two hour drive out of Philly into New Jersey—feature large casts activating multiple rooms in the suburban mansion with interactive, multi-sensual performance.
In Curate This‘ first podcast, Dani Solomon, who began working with the Mediums two years ago and is now a company member, talks with Morgan and Mason about their differences—in production style, social sensibilities, artistic strengths, finances—and the particulars of navigating differences as artistic collaborators.
The first time they worked together intimately was Mason’s one-man show Nobody’s Home. For their initial rehearsals, Morgan set up a system where Mason would create a one minute performance with only two minutes of prep in a tiny, cell-like bedroom. Morgan, stopwatch in hand, would enter the room after the two allotted minutes, and leave after one minute of performance. Then the process began again immediately.
“Morgan tortured me, basically,” Mason laughs. “It was amazing, but it felt like torture for a while.”
“It’s a bit of that exquisite corpse,” says Morgan, “of being able to take different images and then sequence them in a way that makes sense. But then also taking those starting images and branching them out and growing them into something that’s a bit more crystallized into an actual scene.”
Mason adds, “Susan Rethorst has this phrase that making is thinking. So the act of making things over and over again is a kind of thinking and a kind of very sophisticated thinking that’s different from talking about what the show might be or writing it out. And we did a lot of making as thinking.” Within these limitations, says Mason, “We were building a vocabulary together.”
Morgan will more often concede control than take it. “You have a specific way that you like to run rehearsals,” Mason describes, “as a collective, that comes from your history of organizing groups and political activism. You play this funny role as the leader but also you want people to step up in certain moments and for you to be able to step back.
“I learned very early on,” he continues, “that if I want this to go the way I want it to go I have to step up and decide that I’m the director now in this moment. And I enjoyed that. It was stressful to have to do that at the last moment, but I enjoyed it.”
“Not everyone will step up in a situation like that,” Dani points out. “It’s one thing to acknowledge an opportunity for someone to step up but not everyone feels empowered to do that, and sometimes that does leave things not getting accomplished.”
”I’m not telling anyone what to do,” Morgan responds. “I’m giving everyone a frame through which to do things.”
In workshops Morgan facilitates through Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed, he says, “people start by playing these games, and then the games develop into techniques. It’s not like I give a bunch of kids four crayons and [tell them what to draw]. It’s like, okay, here’s sixty crayons and a piece of paper. How was your day? That’s more the way I want a process to look.
“What ends up happening is people are able to insert their own stories into that framework. I’m basically providing the frame but they’re the artist who then provides the picture.”
Listen to the full conversation:
All photos by Amy Hufnagel
Music in podcast by Kulululu
I met Mike Jackson back in 2011 when he started to hang out and draw at Indy Hall. We were the only artist/illustrators there at the time that were actively creating and drawing.
In April of 2013 I produced his solo show, Fast, for a Catcher, where he filled the entire gallery with artwork and stories surrounding his love of baseball. Since then, Mike and I have produced art shows, collaborated on pieces, painted giant murals ,and have encouraged each other to continue to live our lives as creators.
As my drawing mentor, he is constantly encouraging me to settle for nothing but my best. Mike wants everybody to be at their best so he can share the incredible things that people are capable of.
This is why I chose to interview my friend, teacher and collaborator to find out where this incredible execution of colors and lines came from and the stories he is telling with them.
-Sean Martorana, curator
SM: Tell me the story of your earliest art and design influences.
MJ: My grandfather saw that I had an interest in drawing. He sat down with me one Saturday night and showed me how to draw a convertible in one point perspective. I remember him specifically saying “. . . and you can add a little fella in there, and then you can draw a sidewalk and he’s looking at a pretty girl at the stop light. You can just keep adding and adding to this.” This was the first time that I got permission to keep building.
I also remember drawing Batman in the frost on the bus in first grade. I did a different super hero every morning. I knew they were going to the next public school when they dropped us off. So I was leaving something behind to build a legend.
It didn’t work. I was not a legend. But my Batman got tighter.
Was there a moment when you really decided you wanted to focus on illustration full time?
I felt like everybody in grade school was the best at something. For some reason I thought I was the best of the best if I could draw really well. I wanted to be known as “the drawing guy.”
In the third grade there was a girl who took art lessons on Saturdays and I remember thinking, “I can’t afford art lessons.” I thought she was going to be better than me and I was going to lose “my thing.” She stopped taking lessons but I kept drawing because I really liked being the best.
Then I went to art school, at University of the Arts, because I figured this is what I’m good at and it’s worth pursuing. I didn’t know I had to know what I wanted to do with it. Art school was just the next logical step.
You have a very strong style that you have crafted over time. It’s your hand, your signature. Was there a specific moment you started to find this approach?
College is when I got introduced to line. Up until then I was just trying to draw as realistically as possible. Then there was this girl in college and her renderings were beautiful. Untouchable. So I thought, ok, I’m going to have to figure out a signature. Otherwise I will just be reaching for something that I am good at, and she’s just better.
There was a class with teacher by name of Roger Roth. He encouraged that every week we draw differently. That is the first time I started thinking about bringing a voice to illustration.
He also introduced me to David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld, and from there I started drawing with line.
I find your lines to be very animated. They are very loose but sophisticated and intentional. Is there something in your style of line that helps tell the story of the people you draw?
Usually I try to tell as much story with as little line as possible. The more line I have, the closer I get to rendering, and I am trying to get as far away from that as possible but still pass some kind of recognition onto the viewer.
One thing I appreciate with your lines is that they are so tight. In contrast, your color is not as clean. Is there a reason your color is so much looser in its execution than your lines?
Recently I’ve tried not to paint but to apply color. Color adds depth beyond the line . . . which is fun. I want people to have a smile even if it’s just internal. I want them to feel better about something when looking at my work.
Since you like to capture moments and tell stories of incredible people, is there one particular story that stands out to you?
One would be the Kinetic Sculpture Derby piece. It was just a summarization of this day that I had. We went to the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival and were walking up to Frankford Avenue as these people showed up. It was absurd and wonderful I thought if this isn’t the best gateway for telling this day I don’t know what is.
Just two people covered in balloons.
After watching a parade of a viking ship that had 18 people peddling, which is amazing, then these guys were just wearing balloons. It was this simple display of absurdity that I appreciated.
This was a lot of fun because it is simple. The color is exactly what I wanted to do. It’s just an application of color that ended up emphasizing the story.
Is there a subject you are currently interested in?
I have been drawing the theater around Philadelphia. It’s a thing, which doesn’t get much attention, that I can add my voice to. In my world it doesn’t have a prominent voice. When I get together with my friends we talk about the Phillies.
I feel like it’s completely wide open to do what I want. I really don’t know of many people drawing the theater right now. So it seems like the wild west.
I’ve only been doing it for about 5 months but it’s gotten me into some really great shows and it’s another thing to bounce my drawings off of. I go see what other people are capable of doing and how can I show that through what I am capable of doing.
It’s been really great seeing how much work goes into a production, and then can I do it justice.
It’s so much fun.
Ok, final question, because I could go on and on. Do you have any bucket list projects, mediums or things you would like to see your career?
To be a part of a community where I am a respected influence in the community. That will be cool.
The biggest thing, which is why I do all of it, all these little tiny things, add up to the fact that I want to have been a prolific illustrator who supported himself and his family through illustration.
I also want people to say “If Mike didn’t draw it, it didn’t matter.”
Wait. One more question. Can you capture this interview in one of your daily drawings?
All images by Mike Jackson. Figure drawing from a live model is from the personal collection of Sean Martorana.
Gina Hoch-Stall is an inspiring, bright woman, who has a way of smiling and looking you straight in the eye that dares you to bullshit her. She is talkative, opinionated, and likes communication to be direct, and you can see these qualities in her dance company RealLivePeople. She is clear about what she wants you to get from a performance, and her choreography, which often includes the dancers speaking earnestly about their own experience, strives to be accessible to dance-lovers and first time dance-goers alike. I sat down with Gina at Good Karma Cafe in Center City to talk about how she sees her art, success, and calling herself an artist.
-Antonia Z Brown, curator
AZB: One of the things I love about your work it that it has a very specific and clear intent to it. You’ve obviously laid out a mission around it and developed a personal style. How did you come to find that direction in your art?
GHS: There were a few moments in my childhood where I can remember seeing a dance performance and feeling simultaneously elated and furious: I was shocked by what dance could do and upset that I hadn’t thought of it first . . . at the age of eight. But aside from specific moments of inspiration I actually think that a lot of my creative process and endeavors have come from a reactive place. I’ve often been more sure of what I did NOT want to make than what I did—although I also value the work of artists who appear to have a clear point-of-view to offer their audience. I have felt like there weren’t many people who were focused on creating “accessible” dance or dance for less familiar audiences in Philadelphia, and that has always been a huge tenet of my mission and work.
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a new journey, questioning everything. Which I think we, as artists, should all be doing, all the time. In the past I’ve started most of my artistic projects from a place that felt safe and clear but I’ve found that having so much clarity in advance can actually stifle my creative process in and around the studio. Since my time at the Ponderosa program in Germany recently I’ve been questioning a lot of my working patterns and impulses: why big group dances? Why make dances in the studio? Why wait until you know more than one thing before you make dance? Is it so bad to make terrible dances—what can I learn from it?
So you question the goals of your art?
All the time! As I said, never more so than right now. I think I’ve spent the last five years becoming more and more clear about the RealLivePeople mission and the type of dances that fit with that model and work for that audience. But there’s a reason that the company is called RLP and not Gina Hoch-Stall and Co—I’ve always wanted to keep a bit of distance between the work created by the company and my own full range of creative output. That is a complex balance though and I feel like I’m always redefining it. I will say this, I definitely have no problem now calling myself the Artistic Director of a dance company because I am. The company is real, it exists, it has some funding, it has paid some artists and other people have come to our shows and really enjoyed themselves. That is immensely satisfying and I feel really good about spending most of my creative time in the last five years making that happen. The next five years? We’ll see . . .
I think that’s hard for a lot of people, owning calling yourself an artist.
Yes, and I think it’s especially hard as a dancer because it’s immediately attached to your physical self—there is literally no way to separate it. So the first thing people will do when you tell them you’re a dancer is look at your body and try to assess it for skill (as if they can see your years of training, rehearsing, creating, exploring) but actually just seeing if you look skinny/strong/anorexic/stereotypical. I don’t, and for many years that was a huge barrier to me calling myself a dancer. But I was lucky to have exposure to other seriously strong, super talented female dancers who gave so little of a shit, on the outside at least, that I was eventually able to own my own self as a dancer and now, just in the past few months, as a choreographer. It’s such a personal journey and really has so little to do with anyone else because when you can say it, “I’m an artist,” and actually believe it, really convince yourself, no one else questions you. But you have to do the work to get there and it’s pretty painful and full of rejection.
What does success look like for you? Because it can be so many different things.
Success is such a tricky concept. I feel like we should be super specific about when we’re discussing internal success and external success because I feel like outsiders are often given the power to determine the success of an artist or a project without that artist’s own opinion being taken into consideration. And my feeling about that type of success, the external variety, is that it’s a bit like luck: if you keep making things, showing up, being a decent human being and giving other people opportunities, eventually you’ll get some—but that’s it. It also helps if you come from privilege and connections.
As for the other kind, internal success, I’ll talk about my all-time favorite metaphor for life: the forest and the trees. I believe that some of us are more oriented to tree thinking: focusing on the day-to-day, short-term, in-the-moment interactions. While others are more focused on forest thinking: big picture, how do I fit in the universe, what will my life mean, how does my work fit in the context of economics, politics, pop culture right now?
And I think I need to satisfy both of these to feel successful. In my tree-brain I need to be in choreographer-mode and move my body thoughtfully at least once a day, every single day. For my forest-brain I need to have a minimum of three, maximum of eight, projects coming down the pipeline that simultaneously thrill and terrify me—specifically things that seem to be in my wheelhouse but that I’ve never attempted before. There’s something about knowing that I will be forced to change and evolve in the future and then doing it in small, bite-sized daily pieces that makes me feel successful—like I’ve got this living-as-an-artist thing down.
And yes, I do feel my most successful when someone who has never even thought about seeing a dance show sees something I’ve created with my collaborators and is like ”Oh, I actually really like dance!” That makes me joyful deep inside.
Does money play into your idea of success in art? (I’ll put it out there, I don’t think the two have to be connected.)
If I have more money I can spend more time making art, if I have less money I have to spend more time working (which can be artistic too). I think it’s much easier to be ‘successful’ when you have money because you have the luxury of spending the time it takes to play and discover something new. Limitations can be wonderful but if they are always the same ones it gets tedious and struggling to pay my collaborators what I know they are worth is often infuriating.
Where do you think the Philly dance scene will go next?
I’m so excited about the young dancers in Philly right now. I am seeing so many new faces at performances and workshops, and they’re really excited about performing and taking classes. And there’s like nothing there. So I hope they’re going to be really entrepreneurial and start building things. I think for a while, my mini generation (dancers who graduated at the height of the recession) all left. They moved to the burbs or out of Philly and I don’t think that’s happening any more. So I’m just really excited about this next group. I also think that people who have been in the dance scene for a lot longer and have been really scrappy and productive have become elders in the community. And they’re being really supportive and generative. There’s Meg Foley with the Whole Shebang and there’s the workshop series that you just did at Mascher which looked really great. I think people are getting excited about dance class again, which always makes me really pumped because it brings people together—in addition to keeping our bodies strong and able. Even though it’s a rough time for funding and presenting, I still feel hopeful.
Photo credit: Gina Hoch-Stall and Scott McPheeters. Photo by Frank Bicking.
Rhenda Fearrington is is considered a New York soul in the heart of Philly Jazz. Rhenda was singing in local bands throughout Queens when a bandleader named Reginald “Budd” Ellison, who a year later would become Patti Labelle’s Musical Director, asked if she’d sing in his band. An opportunity came to tour with Award-Winning Composer/Producer & Percussionist, James Heath, Jr. aka MTUME, doubling as an opening act for Lionel Ritchie and the Commodores. Later, her years as a backup singer with Multi Grammy Award Winning Roberta Flack took her all over the United States and the world. She later became involved with the Philadelphia jazz scene and has been busy performing throughout the city after releasing her first CD in 2012, “This Moment’s Sweetness.”
-Pamela Hetherington, curator
PH: You are a native New Yorker. How did you end up in Philadelphia?
RF: The short story is that love brought me to Philadelphia. I met a jazz musician from West Philadelphia. We became smitten while touring with MTUME, got married while I was touring with Roberta Flack, and then I started having babies! One son is a New Yorker, one is a Philadelphian, so I always say I have dual-citizenship! Of course, the cost of living and a growing family kept me in Philadelphia, which required that I embrace change.
I’ve known you for about three years, but even for those people who don’t know you, it doesn’t take long to see that you are an extremely optimistic and positive person who takes quite a bit of time to celebrate so many people in the Philly artist community. How do you stay encouraged as an artist, producer and presenter, and what are your favorite ways to encourage others?
I love seeing the glass as half-full and I’ve spent many years encouraging others that the glass was just as full for them as it appeared for everyone else. What keeps my spirits buoyed are the little triumphs, that really aren’t that small—like completing a long-awaited CD while holding down a full-time job, maintaining a mortgage, and being a vigilant advocate for my younger son (who is diagnosed with Schizophrenia), while maintaining my advocacy for Philadelphia Jazz! What keeps me encouraged in my artistic pursuits is trusting that I have time to discover and travel down every avenue that excites me, believing that I’m in a race with no one other than myself, thereby living for the approval of no one else but mine and God’s.
I love it. But let’s be real for a minute. Philadelphia has its issues, and I know you’re not afraid to address them. What is one of your main frustrations with the Philly music scene?
I suppose one of my pet peeves with Philadelphia’s music scene is that musicians and vocalists seem reticent to spread the word about other performers, right here in their town. If you have a voice or an audience of people who follow you, then you could let others know where the venues are. I know it isn’t fair to speak in extremes, so while it’s not every musician, there’re so many who have never shared a post or event advertising other musicians. I think it would be revolutionary if people just used that little ‘ol SHARE button a tad more often! Social media is powerful when it’s utilized for all the good things. Besides, what’s better than sharing good stuff about Philadelphia Jazz?
You do so much good and consistent sharing of others’ work on social media that it is absolutely infectious. I think it’s easy to get siloed as an artist; we work alone so often on our own projects that it is challenging to have an awareness of where we exist in a larger community. And speaking of a large musical community, do you miss the New York scene at all, and if so, in what way?
I don’t miss the New York scene, as I suspect it’s changed dramatically since I left it in 1985. As a native, I was blessed to have made prudent choices in working with great artists, from whom I learned. I was always paid, but I made more money for gigs than many people I know make now for the same kind of gigs. I doubt that’s a New York thing or a Philly thing.
Maybe it’s a timing thing. The flip side of social media: when you can hear any musician or album for free or close to free on Youtube or Spotify, it’s challenging for any musician to capture the true dollar amount for their music in performance. What does Philly jazz need right now to become more visible?
If I were a psychic, I could tell you what Philly Jazz needed to become visible, but I’m not! Many fine non-profits are investing greatly in building an audience for Philly Jazz, which is a slow process. I am told that the jazz audience is dying, an audience to which I belong. I show up. What I would love to see is the city taking on a campaign to market Jazz nationally, and not just through social media. Television is still viewed. The same demographic that’s on Facebook also watches “Scandal” or “How To Get Away With Murder.”
I totally agree. I’m really interested in how you stay focused as an artist. How do you choose the projects that you want to do? What really excites you to do something new?
What gets me excited about any new project is performing new material and the potential of connecting with a new audience! Creating a theme for a show, or switching up and performing for children. My other consideration always turns to not just the band I assemble, but am I being contracted for an equitable/liveable wage?
So, what is your dream project and could you do it in Philadelphia?
I have several “Dream” projects that I can’t begin to explain, but my current project involves reaching out to children! I have been cultivating relationships with schools in Delaware County for over 20 years, so this project necessitates being in Pennsylvania.
I chose Anne-Adele Wight for Curate This because her poems are a constant rush of poetic experiments, of surprises, of kaleidoscopic gladness, of images that mix fancy with science and art. She animates buildings, for example, a globe-trotting opera house! Who else could have thought of that? She is a force in the Philadelphia poetry scene both because of the reading series she directs and because of her own rip-roaring work that delivers such unexpected pleasures.
– Lynn Levin, Curator
Anne-Adele Wight is the author of Sidestep Catapult and Opera House Arterial from BlazeVOX Books. Her work has appeared in American Writing, Philadelphia Poets, Apiary, Fairies in America, Jupiter 88, Luna Luna, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bedfellows. Her poem “Nothing but Villas in Tuscany” was selected as the Editor’s Choice in the Sandy Crimmins Poetry Competition. In July she took part in a panel discussion of Pablo Neruda’s work, reading her own translation of one of his poems, for the live TV series Who Do You Love? She curates the monthly Jubilant Thicket performance series and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two cats. Curate This spoke to Anne-Adele about her most recent book.
CT: Opera House Arterial is quite the inventive series. How did you turn a structure into a living creature with a trickster spirit?
A friend showed me a postcard from Quito, Ecuador. It showed the city in layers. There was a strip of city and then there was the opera house. Behind the opera house were the Andes rising up. I looked at that postcard and something happened in my brain. I felt the picture going deep in and wanting to become something. So I thought, “Oh, it wants to become a poem,” and at first it just didn’t work as a poem. So I put it away for a long, long time, and when it resurfaced I realized it hadn’t gone anywhere at first because it wanted to be 56 poems. I got so into it for a while that everything I wrote turned into an opera house poem.
And eventually that evolved into a mythology in 56 poems. You’ve clearly had a substantial career. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship with the poetry scene in Philadelphia?
So, the series Poets & Prophets was in the city since 1983, and they now hold readings out in Media, Pennsylvania—near where the driving force, Bob Small, lives. I worked with Bob on Poets & Prophets for a long time, and was constantly finding myself running readings, so this is how I learned to do that.
I detached myself from Poets & Prophets three years ago, because I took over the series I now run, which is called Jubilant Thicket. It is a mixed-media series principally devoted to poetry. It was founded by my friend Debrah Morkun, who is an absolutely wonderful, very avant garde poet.
It has been passed onto me and I am doing my best to honor the multimedia aspect, but often we’ll have readings that are entirely poetry. Occasionally we will have a musician or a dancer. A few months ago we had a musician accompanying a dancer, which was quite an accomplishment because we read at Head House books in the children’s section, which is charming, but it is a very small space.
You’ve been in the Philadelphia poetry scene for a while, both working with Poets & Prophets and Jubilant Thicket, but you are not originally from Philly.
I’m originally from Massachusetts around the Boston area, but I’ve lived here for 37 years.
What do you think is specific to Philadelphia’s poetry scene?
The first thing that comes to mind is particular personalities. I think of Frank Sherlock, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate; CAConrad, who created a whole new poetics and now teaches internationally; Larry Robin, who runs the wonderful Moonstone Arts collective; and people who really shape the way events are run. Another thing that is characteristic here is how many of the same people go to all the readings.
That’s interesting; do you view that as problematic?
No, I think that’s excellent. But one thing I try to do, and this is where it gets a little problematic, I look for readers for Jubilant Thicket who aren’t necessarily going to be people everybody else has heard. I try to find off the beaten track series and they are not always easy to find. I try to be ingenious.
Another thing that is very characteristic is how many events there are. There is something going on practically everyday. You often have to choose between events because you can’t be in two places at once.
So there’s a staple audience, and a plethora of events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Philly attracts poets. From experience do you think Philadelphia, in fact, attracts poets?
Most definitely, I’ve heard people say they came here for the poetry and the people who don’t move here will often go to great lengths to give a reading.
How can people support local poets?
Go to a reading, buy somebody’s book, talk them up, and make sure you bring as many people as are willing to go to a poetry reading. Being a poet in the busy poetry scene it is easy to forget that not everybody is crazy for poetry. Sometimes you say to a more mainstream person, “Come to this poetry reading with me,” and they go green around the gills. Readings often are held at a bar or a place that serves food and drinks. Try to buy a drink and tip the bartender. The establishment is counting on bringing in some money during the event.
Also, support independent bookstores. They’re endangered and are more likely to host local poets than the larger establishments.
Photo by Héctor López