ARTS & CULTURE
“I’m not a first-responder or a doctor.
But I use art to impart a message.”
Harlem is . . . HEALING is celebrating Andrea Arroyo, a painter who uses her art to remind the community to Stay at Home and to convey other messages that seek to calm reactions to the stress of the coronavirus. The award-winning artist works in a range of media including public art, painting, drawing, illustration and site-specific installation, and has been part of Community Works presentations for many years.
Andrea Arroyo’s paintings remind us that art can help healing during a time of coronavirus, the mission of this campaign. Her latest works are from a series she calls PAUSEd in NY to record her own and others’ experiences in the virus lockdown, and to encourage widespread acceptance of the Stay at Home message. Her themes are “Sheltering in Place” and “enraged about the incompetence of federal government,” she says. “Wherever you are, Please STAY HOME! Social distancing saves lives. Let's assume we are ALL carriers and protect each other. When tempted to go out, let's ask ourselves if it is worth risking someone's life.”
Andrea has always believed in using art, including public art displays, to promote her beliefs in feminism and individual power, to explore ethnic identify and to build community. She has won both worldwide notice and support from local groups in Northern Manhattan. “For a long time, I have been making art that addresses social justice. This is a worldwide problem that requires a powerful message. The idea is to provide a service. I am always looking for others to make art, thinking about social justice, even online.”
Arroyo proclaims, “We have to do this TOGETHER. The longer we take to act, the longer these preventive measures will be in place. . . And remember, once this is under control we'll have time to catch up.”
Harlem Needle Arts
“The health aspect is in using our hands.”
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Michelle Bishop, a fiber arts artist and executive director of Harlem Needle Arts, an organization founded in 2007 that promotes and teaches fiber and textile design and needle arts and that has worked with museums and galleries, including Community Works. Since the onset of the pandemic, she has redirected her energies to offering online workshops for emerging artists who are forced to stay at home. She explained, “Keeping up cultural spirit is at the heart of healing.”
Bishop believes that people should look to the creativity of the arts, “not just because the works are visually appealing,” but because the feeling of being engaged is what is central to our lives.
Her artist workshops on Zoom and Facebook gatherings encourage visions of what might and should be – not only for arts and culture, but for the community at large. They also serve as a distribution point for information of all sorts, as well as access to speakers, tours and one another’s work.
“We want our Mantra Mondays, as we call them, to be a gathering space that creates a place of healing,” she explained, adding that “continuous spinning is the mantra of the stitch. Everyone is looking at a sewing machine.” She added, “When you think about it, we are reflecting our need to swaddle ourselves as infants, wrap ourselves at death, and clothe us during all the rites of life. All these are aspects to feeling solace.”
While some participating artists are weaving in virus themes, Harlem Needle Arts is a sponsor of presentations with wider themes. The current display at the Col. Charles Young Triangle Park in Harlem offers “We the People – Disrupting Silence” as a surround-sound, nature-based spot for reflection. Meanwhile, she noted, in this time of disruption, people are headed to their sewing machines to make masks. “The health aspect is in using our hands.”
NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE
“Cultural doors are always the first to close, but culture never closes.”
—Sade Lythcott, CEO, National Black Theatre
“Our programs seek to reshape and reform our roots in this uncertain time.”
—Jonathan McCrory, artistic director, National Black Theatre
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates the National Black Theatre (NBT), founded by visionary Dr. Barbara Ann Teer in 1968 to produce “the healing art of Black theater as an instrument for wholeness in urban communities where entrepreneurial artists of African descent live and work.” NBT which had to close, of course, as part of stay-at-home orders for New York City, prematurely cutting off performances. But NBT decided to bring the theater home through online conversations with theater makers and commissioned artists about theater and the arts, about community and health and about the need for community response to the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on Black and Brown neighbors.
NBT is using creativity to keep the soul of Harlem healthy, a central mission of this celebratory campaign. “A central theme through all our programs is community resilience,” said Sade Lythcott, CEO. “It is community response that says, ‘We Save Us,’ particularly as COVID-19 shows us with a blinding light that we are suffering from institutional disparities.” She added that NBT always has a message of social justice. “We have to ask what is the artists’ response and responsibility in this time.”
Offering free, weekly online conversations on NBT’s Facebook page has allowed expansion on themes relating to its planned programming. Jonathan McCrory, artistic director, said that NBT@Home programs were a natural outcome of “ideas that had already been in the crockpot for us” and “a path to facing how this virus, this holistic hurricane, fits in with waves of attempts at genocide for Black and Brown communities.”
Topics have included discussion of Black arts in a post-pandemic future as well as practical information about artist resources. Commissioned works by visual artist Makeba Keebs Rainey on Afrofuturism and the music, fashion, and metaphysical philosophy of Sun Ra have been among other topics drawing hundreds of viewers to live and recorded conversations.
“This is awakening us to inequities, and showing us the diversity of thinking about the effects of these times,” said McCrory. Lythcott added, “Really it is the arts that serve up our community healing and salve” and remind people of how vital Black arts institutions and arts are to the community.
“The first step in healing is to recognize reality. . . Art creates a platform about what is off, what has gone wrong.”
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Robin Holder, whose mixed technique works are complex textures layered by people, environments, history and cultures. They tell stories, now about being caught up in a world of pandemic, exhibiting creativity that evokes concern about our world. Holder, child of an activist biracial inter-ethnic family, is a 2020 Clark Hulings Fund For Artists Executive Fellow as well as an art educator who has conducted workshops in more than 80 schools over 35 years. She is also an active lecturer and leader of discussions of the intersection of art, ethnicity and social justice. She has presented many one-person exhibitions around the city and country and has completed five public art commissions. Her work is included in significant collections including the Library of Congress and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Robin Holder’s mixed technique works are complex, multi-technique-driven textures layered by people, environments, history and cultures. Her current works , such as the sries “We’re in it Together,” tell stories about being caught up in a world of pandemic and exhibit just the kind of creativity that brings forth questioning and pointed concern about our world that this campaign is celebrating.
“The pandemic is stunning in a way,” Holder explained, “It is bringing out disturbing parts of our culture that have gone too many years without attention.” To Holder, whose 40-year career as artist and art educator has been built on capturing cultural messaging, “The first step in healing is to recognize that something is out of balance. To realize that, you are acknowledging that something is not functioning harmoniously, and then you can start to ask what you are going to do about it.”
The arrival of the coronavirus “made us aware that we are being further splintered as Americans” with disproportionate effects on Black and Brown communities and with regional approaches rather than a national leadership. Like others, she has lost at least nine friends, many artists, musicians and “culture warriors.” She is struck by the fact that white acquaintances often do not know of anyone who has died of the virus, while every Black and Latino person she knows is aware of several. She feels that the pandemic has shown us that our societal foundations are shaky. “We are in more fragile circumstances than we would have allowed ourselves to believe.”
East Harlem musician, Writer, Activist
“Music soothes the grief of fallen friends. Music quells anxieties over cancelled gigs and closed venues.”
Harlem is . . Healing celebrates Aurora Flores, East Harlem musician, writer, bandleader, activist and businesswoman. The daughter of musicians, Flores founded Zon Del Barrio in 2003 with her husband, David Fernandez, offering all kinds of Latin music. She has been a music journalist and organizer, and the owner of a public relations business. She offers tours of East Harlem, and is a cultural activist.
“I was crying every day” as I heard about friends dying from the coronavirus,” said Flores, “I needed to tap into some joy, and I thought about my mother’s music, the plena that always made me feel happy.” So, she set out to take photos in Harlem and elsewhere in New York City and to write a plena, a Puerto Rican folk song, with words reminding us to keep socially distance and to wash our hands, while the beat captures our gratitude to those on the medical front lines. The result was Plena Corona de Aurora, produced on cell phones and augmented by music from global friends. “We can be careful, but we need to balance all the sadness,” said Flores.
As with other musicians, all Flores’s gigs, festivals and gatherings are suddenly gone. “The entire field has been leveled,” she said, “It is time now for us to plant seeds in the ground again” in anticipation of the return of music and art and “to put the lotus plant on top of the murky marsh” of the virus. “A world without art is not a world. Art is creativity. We need to make art because it is within us. Especially for musicians who tap into emotion – and right now, emotion is quite high.”
Curator X Gallery
“Art is an outlet for expression in a very troubled time."
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Harlem-born photographer Lisa Dubois, curator of X Gallery, who recognized from the earliest days of the coronavirus that people were not wearing masks. It bothered her, so she launched a personal campaign to affix masks to the faces of statues in the area, including Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln.
“Sometimes as artists, we can make a point by putting a mask on a well-known image like Harriet Tubman, someone we certainly agree we would not want to have been made ill by a virus like this,” Dubois explained. “What would have happened if she had died of disease?” Masks then appeared on statues of Frederick Douglass, the “Charging Bull” statue at Bowling Green and the adjacent “Fearless Girl” statue. “People should be reminded how lucky they are, and that this is something we can do to keep ourselves healthy.”
“This coronavirus is a State-of-the-Art pandemic, something we haven’t seen or will see in generations,” Dubois noted, adding, “It is terrible that it has had such bad effects, but for artists, poets, songwriters, artists of all kind, it is a chance to think about making art without interruption.” So, she has put out a call for images of coronavirus-themed art from near and far, works that she wants to display on her gallery website, perhaps even in a video. “It is a time for us to look within. Art is a means of expression about the strong feelings we are having,” she said. “This will be remembered as an era when people were forced to reckon with a new reality. We need to capture that.”
Fiber Artist and Yarn Bomber
“What’s behind my public art is always about some kind of healing and making people smile.”
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Naomi Lawrence, who is also known professionally as Naomi Rag, for creating acrylic yarn works in unusual places in East Harlem, just to raise the spirits. Originally from the United Kingdom, she is affiliated with Inner Change Order, a Christian organization devoted to social services. She started her installations in East Harlem in 2014 with the goal of public engagement with works of art in the urban landscape. She sees herself as a “yarn bomber,” a street artist who covers unusual public spots like fences with colorful touches that bring a smile to the faces of viewers. Her work, she said, is about healing without a political edge.
Among the works for which Lawrence is responsible is a crochet work on a fence across from Metropolitan Hospital in East Harlem – a sign that reads El Barrio ❤️ YOU to thank front-line coronavirus health workers. She worked with five neighbors—they call themselves the El Barrio Crochet Collective—who decided that they needed to do something public to contribute to the healing of the neighborhood. They produced in a week a work that would take an individual two months. “It became as much about supporting each other as it was to make the piece,” she said, noting that one contributor’s grandmother had contracted COVID-19. From watching the reactions of passersby—to this work as well as to the half-dozen butterflies, daffodils and other floral works in the area—she sees appreciation for a moment of hope in a time when people feel desperate for them. The acrylic yarn usually outlasts weather for about a year.
“I’m seeing perseverance. Despite the losses, Harlem is still there”
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates photography artist Tau Battice, for whom the coronavirus presented another important twist to the human condition. He sees his street portraits as capturing the dignity and style of Harlem, and fulfilling his urge to show others what he sees reflected in the faces of community. Born in St. Kitts-Nevis, Battice says he is a lifelong lover of the photograph and its power to preserve the moment, proclaim nuance, and propel humanity to positive action. Specializing in portraiture, with a primary interest in creating visual ethnographies of the underrepresented African diaspora, he has long-term projects from The Bronx to Brazil.
Harlem is . . . Healing is spotlighting individuals who are seeking to heal the community in this time of disease, whether from medicine, arts or other activities. Recalled Battice, “I was assaulted by seeing people walking around without masks or social distancing even as I was hearing sirens all the time taking people to the hospital, a kind or Siren Song, So, I decided to grab my camera and make portraits of people and listen to what they said.” His portraits at Instagram/taubattice appear with their words.
“It actually was very therapeutic for me to see joy and dignity and style in the masks and behavior of people,” said Battice. “For me, the experience has been a time of gratitude for our level of privilege regardless of our station in life.” Battice, who teaches at the City College of New York, by Zoom now, wanted to balance the seriousness of the pandemic with a sense of joy at surviving.
“Creative people are always affected by the zeitgeist of what’s around them. My own work is based on a certain reality around me, a kind of visual anthropology. I see it as my responsibility to respond to people not wearing masks.”
East Harlem Artist
“I see Art as a healing source, bringing in people of different backgrounds.”
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Carmen Paulino, a visual artist in East Harlem who grew up in Harlem learning to sew, knit and crochet with her mother and grandmother, She has been taking her ardor for Do Your Own artwork by video to hospital patients and seniors stuck inside during the pandemic. In addition, she has been hanging her own crocheted works and murals with words and images of thanks and unity along the fences of Cherry Tree Park on East 99th Street.
Even before the pandemic hit, Paulino was working with seniors and others in BronxCare hospital and in community centers around the city. “Individuals can feel a sense of purpose in doing these easy arts and crafts in their home with whatever they have around,” she explained of her efforts, which accentuate positive and love themes.
She is married to Michael Paulino, a NYFD paramedic who was working 16-hour days, and she felt a need to amplify public thanks to hospital workers, police, fire, sanitation workers, educators and MTA workers for their front-line response to the disease. So, she set out to create a series of crochet works to hang on the park fence, singling out the different city agencies. She has also produced a piece near the artist live-work complex Artspace/PS 109 that includes an image of two girls with a garden of flowers emerging from their head to signify unity and diversity.
Paulino has also created murals in the area, and teaches fiber arts, sculpting and painting. She also organizes annually a Beautifying the Community art initiative. “Yarn brings some type of therapeutic feeling, you bring it to seniors, you bring it to children, it's a beautiful thing," Paulino said.
Dance Theater of Harlem
“Affirmation through our highest expression of ourselves is especially important in this time.”
—Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director, Dance Theatre of Harlem
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Virginia Johnson, artistic director, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) for their efforts to promote dance and movement through this period of pandemic and social tension. The company’s physical theater was shut by the pandemic, and the company moved online with performances, informative sessions about the background of its pieces and with classes for its young dancers as well as classes open to the community. Like the rest of Harlem, dancers said they had seen loss, “and found it healing that they could come together in a place of familiarity.”
A founding member of DTH, Johnson was one of its principal ballerinas over a 30-year career. In 1997 she was founder and editor of Pointe Magazine. She studied dance at the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet and New York University before joining DTH. She has won many awards for dance and for arts leadership. She believes, “Dance is our highest expression of humanity.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem is a well-regarded, 17-member, multi-ethnic company performing a wide repertoire of classics and contemporary work using the language of ballet to celebrate African American culture. The company was started in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, and fellow company member Karel Shook. Their central idea: In the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the dance company would be a “graceful moment of artistic resistance.”
“This is our home and we wanted people to feel as if Dance Theatre of Harlem is part of this community,” said Johnson. “Harlem has so many places that are iconic for the community and the world to celebrate.” Recent online company performances during the African American Day parade and its own annual gala used backdrops of recognizable Harlem sites to highlight the healing effects of dance on the community. For example, Robert Garland’s “Newbach” were filmed in front of empty CUNY facilities and the State Office Building.
“This combination of pandemic with the continuation of murders of Black people strangely have ended up giving me hope. At least there now is the idea that everyone must pay attention. That’s a start,” she said. “This generation of dancers are activists, and they want to make a difference,” she said, adding that new themes of “identity” are being explored.
“Public art is intended to address the issues that people are talking about. Everyone knows the power public art can have.”
--Connie Lee, Director, Public Arts Initiative
Harlem is. . . Healing celebrates Connie Lee, Marcus Garvey Park Alliance president and the spark behind promoting public art and enjoyment of Mount Morris Park and other neighborhood parks in Harlem. As director of the Public Arts Initiative, she has pushed to keep public art alive through the park’s Public Art Initiative and through opening a salon in her home for Harlem artists that she maintained during the months of pandemic.
To Connie Lee, these are efforts at providing chances for local artists to develop art ideas and to learn about seeking grants and support, and, indeed, she sees herself as a facilitator between artists and city agencies. She also sees the Public Arts Initiative as a force in preserving identity and seeking cultural equity particularly by sponsoring uptown artists, women artists and those of color who often come with an idea and need to work through various levels of permissions.
Among her titles, Connie Lee is Chair and Curator of the Public Art Initiative, Creative Director CL Curated, Founding Member Landmark East Harlem and vocal resident of the Mount Morris Park Historic District. She also is curator and host of Living With Art, a salon for emerging artists.
A designer, she was drawn to work on public art through interest in restoration with a very public campaign to rebuild the park’s famed fire watchtower and to restore Drummers Circle last Spring, the backdrop for many gatherings and protests. “I am an advocate for public space. Parks and other public gathering spaces are essential to quality of life, she said. “We saw fine public art going up downtown, and wondered about our own neighborhood. We may have started a little naively, but this has become about quality and equity.” This summer, the park is re-opening the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater for public performances and the initiative is adding five new public installations.
“It’s an opportunity for local artists to engage with people who see that the art is about them,” she explained. “People react almost instantaneously and they quickly see the art as part of their culture. . . The first one we put up, people just walked up and thanked us without even knowing what was happening.”
Mount Morris and four other Harlem parks are dotted with site-specific art installations, including a popular Reclining Liberty statue by artist Zaq Landsberg in Morningside Park that invites interaction. The new pieces include an abstract tribute to women during the Harlem Renaissance, two pieces about the environment, including one about the overuse of plastics, and one by artist Julio Valdez that will transfer drawings from portraits from policing deaths around the country to standing aluminum sheets.
Since 2000, the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance has restored park playgrounds and spaces, installed two Little Free Libraries, created a Reading Circle Program and works with local child-care centers. The mission is now to embrace the community by working with partnering groups on ongoing arts and cultural programming.
“The gallery is our way of giving back to the community, giving young artists a chance.”
Dodji Gbedemah, Kente Royal Gallery
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrated Phyllis and Dodji Gbedemah of the
Kente Royal Gallery on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard for sustaining their art gallery devoted to exploring and connecting with the African Diaspora even through the pandemic, where outdoor passers-by could see art through the windows.
“We were closed for four months, but to give help to people, we left about 40 pieces hanging that were visible through the windows. People would walk by and give us virtual hugs, peace signs. The support was there,” recalled Dodji. “It was our first act of community healing,” theme behind these Harlem is . . . Healing tributes.
As one of the few Black-owned art galleries in the city, Kente has championed emerging local artists, sometimes offering a first exhibition space, and has joined a growing art scene in Harlem. By also offering a gathering space for discussions and events, the gallery has been using art as a healing activity, the point of these posts. ”Community-building through Art is how the gallery presents itself. “Giving back is about giving young artists in particular their first chance at a solo exhibition, or highlighting their work,” Dodji said. Over time, he and Phyllis have expanded evenings for writers and poets, musicians and other creatives. A current exhibition pairs a rap artist with a young painter to explore shared theme.
It was in late 2019 that the two, inspired by a trip to Ghana, decided to create a gallery with art that acknowledged the spirit of Sankofa and African traditions. He has traveled to collect African art to offer as well.
Some, but not all of the artists use the imagery of recent social justice. “Last year, when George Floyd was killed, everyone was up in anger over police brutality. But it was not a new thing, there always were issues… Some artists expressed themselves through their art. It just happened,” Dodji, an artist himself, drew Floyd representations and circulated them in local protests. “Anything we can do to be involved in our community,” he explained.
The gallery in a space owned by Abyssinian Development Corporation, a subsidiary of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Dodji, who had worked as an Uber manager before the pandemic, works at the gallery fulltime, and Phyllis also continues her 30 year career as hair stylist. Dodji migrated from Togo in 1994 and met Phyllis in 2001 at a food court in Times Square after church. They married two years later.
“Music is a power. It lets us operate on a different frequency,
a mental, physical and spiritual way to communicate.”
Vy Higginsen, Executive Director, Mama Foundation for the Arts
Harlem is . . . Healing celebrates Vy Higginsen, the active author, playwright and producer who runs the Mama Foundation for the Arts for continuing to offer its programs for music education for youth and community through online platforms through a year of pandemic and the turmoil of efforts towards social justice. Vy Higginsen has continues to write and produce original work at. Mama Foundation, which she began when her own daughter’s school cut arts programming. Higginsen is well known as radio and TV personality, as publisher and editor of Unique NY, a lifestyles magazine designed for African-Americans, and produced and directed the classic black Gospel musical Mama I Want To Sing off-Broadway in East Harlem before touring. She co-produced Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway and created Alive! which documents the music, and stories of our black American musical landscape. Her name has been associated with gospel, jazz, and R&B music for years.
Arrival of the pandemic meant disruption and isolation, and the need to re-launch the singing and music programs online, explained Higginsen, all in attempt to keep Harlem healthy, the point of continuing Harlem is. . . Healing campaign by Community Works/New Heritage Theatre.
“We imagined that our young people needed music now more than ever,” she noted, adding that they “would be safe in the music when other things that were not normal were happening around them.” That required mastering online techniques to extend and combine singing voices from home to combine, eventually, with those who could make it to school classrooms. As it was safe, some Mama groups met to sing in person – distanced and protected by dividers.
A recent Gala for the foundation featured those teen voices, along with the group’s professional Sing Harlem and recorded performances. Now Mama Foundation will make the programs available nationwide to teens between 11 and 19 who send a one-minute tape to firstname.lastname@example.org. The program has been expanded to include after-school voice, dance and acting classes on multiple days a week already serving about 150 young people.
“I can’t imagine a world without music,” says Higginsen, who sees music as a path to survival itself. In a world made turbulent by pandemic and turmoil over social justice, singing becomes a way “to change the channel” towards a more peaceful way. She noted that her group uses vocal exercises called Harlem, Humming, Healing that recalls her own mother turning in times of strife to humming “until a sense of peace came over the whole house.” Humming is now a regular vocal warm-up exercise for her teens. “It provides a sense of calm when we most need it,” surely the essence of a healing outlook.