Power of the Arts talks to makers, performers, teachers, students, administrators, technicians, patrons & entrepreneurs: the heart of our arts.
February 2018: Lily Martuccio
January 2018: Dragana Crnjak
December 2017: Richard Thompson & Aundréa Cika Heschmeyer
November 2017: Randall Craig Fleischer
October 2017: Stephen Poullas
September 2017: James Shuttic
August 2017: Denise Glinatsis Bayer
July 2017: Jimmy Sutman
June 2017: Tara Walker Pollock
May 2017: Ed Hallahan
KS: This is Karen Schubert in the lovely café at Fellows Riverside Gardens with Lily Martuccio and POA spring intern Hope Sutton. Lily, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. And tell us about your official capacity here at Fellows.
LM: I work for Mill Creek Metroparks and I am dedicated to Fellows Riverside Gardens. I am a graphics specialist here at the Metroparks. And that encompasses a lot of areas, especially with the Visitor Center here that we have and the amount of people that we get. There’s always a need for signage, directional, informational things that need done. That way I can be here to monitor and quickly respond to the needs. And along with that comes the exhibit coordination, which is for the Weller Gallery, the outdoor gallery, and the Melnick Museum.
KS: And the Melnick Museum, let’s start with the galleries we just saw. We saw the photography exhibit in the Weller Gallery, inside the Davis center. Hope and I were noticing how beautiful a space that is. With the natural light coming in through the skylight, the beautiful gray. Even though it is a small room, it is really well lit with the gray and curvy light structures. They set off the light so beautifully. I have seen many kinds of art work in there and it all just looks perfect.
LM: It does, it lends itself to the setting of the building and to the surrounding areas of the gardens. That is the Weller Gallery and it is dedicated to art that is nature-based. That would be botanicals, nature related. Currently it is the Ford Nature center amateur photography exhibit. So there are over 180 entries that you see in there – which is quite a lot for that space – and it still doesn’t look cluttered, so it was really nice how it all fit in. We’ve had 3D work in there, photography, painting, pastels. We try to mix it up. We try to do at least five exhibits a year, and this is the first one for this year.
KS: And how are you involved in the exhibits?
LM: I take the applications and inquiries. I then present them to my supervisors, or gardens director, and see what we want to – this is my first year doing it. Last year was kind of already booked by the previous coordinator, so I only had to fill in a couple of exhibits. So then I went through the process of coordinating for this year. Now, next year I am getting a lot of inquiries, so I am putting together a committee who will get to jury who gets to exhibit in the Weller Gallery. Because it is just such a nice space and people come in and say “Wow, that’s really great.” I want to keep it so there is a variety throughout the year.
KS: So the first interview for this series was with Ed Hallahan, and we talked about his sculptural exhibit with Jackie Mountain with the beautiful wood carvings and textiles. It was just stunning in that space, as well.
LM: Oh, that was phenomenal. I would like to get more of that because it was 3D and textural and nature-based. It was beautiful. And at the same time I think Ed had his exhibit in the outdoor gallery. He did a lot of work with wood and trees –
KS: The integration…
LM: Within that area besides the tress, was really a nice homage to the trees and the landscape there.
KS: Yeah, that was really beautiful. So, tell us more about the outdoor gallery.
LM: The outdoor gallery is still kind of being defined, I think, as we go along. Finding artists to go along and that fit the space is a little bit more difficult –
KS: So it has to have the right scale, and you don’t want it to be lost with the large trees and the open space, right?
LM: Right! And it has to be weatherized because you go through the seasons there. But it is a beautiful space to wander around in. In the past, we had most of the outdoor gallery works in the beds along the grassy areas. This past year, I asked Tony if he could put his works out in the middle to draw people out there. Otherwise, unless you’re there with a map – if you’re just walking along and you see this piece of work there, it’s like, oh what is this? Then you see the sign that says outdoor gallery and what it is.
KS: Tony Armeni is the metals sculptor, whose metal work is there now.
LM: Yes, and we were very fortunate that he was able to exhibit this past year. He is famous in the area and has done great work with the bus stops and what else has he done…? His public art is tremendous. We were so fortunate to have it, and hopefully we will continue to have his works in our gardens.
KS: But I can also imagine that, it is such an incredible space, I could imagine that you could draw work from a wider regional radius?
LM: Yes, you would think. I went to the YSU Festival of the Arts and I saw a low of artists there, and I gave them literature, talked to them, and tried to see if they’d be interested in coming. Of course, everyone says they’re interested, but there is really not that reciprocal, oh yes, I’d like to come see your place.
KS: Well let’s see if Power of the Arts might be able to help you connect.
LM: Yeah, that would be wonderful! So, like I said, this coming year we got Mike Gibson to do some topiary works, so that’s for 2018. Next year is kind of open, I would definitely welcome suggestions or entrants that you might want us to consider.
KS: So, speaking of visiting artists, I love the documentary, A Man Named Pearl, about the topiaries. You brought in some incredible artists.
LM: Yes, we did. Pearl Bryer, who is from Columbia, South Carolina. And his story was incredible –
KS: It really is!
LM: He was on TV – there’s some documentaries from him on TV. He was on CBS Sunday morning, I think they did – one of the news stations – did a special on him. He was never trained in the area, he just saw and wanted to do and did.
KS: Well, he essentially integrated a neighborhood. A white neighborhood. Just to show his neighbors that he would be a valuable part of the neighborhood, and that he would really care for his property, he just began learning and teaching himself the art of topiary. And then pretty soon, he was – if we can verb a little bit – topiarying the entire region. Right, it’s just really amazing, and he seems really beloved as a person as well. It’s really a great story.
LM: It really is.
KS: So what is the role of art in a park? This is a garden, there is obviously landscape architecture, and we touched on architecture being important. And, you go a step beyond that and bring in community based art, visiting art, and artists. So what is, how does the park see its role, or role of art, how is that integrated into the mission here? I know that the Weller gallery is looking for natural works, and maybe, is it creating a visual understanding through the natural world –
LM: Relating the natural world to, to the botanic and the nature. Now, that doesn’t say we won’t show an artists who does a lot of hardscape paintings. But he worked with the lighting, and that was – to me – a really incredible use of building, hardscapes, and light. And how an artist uses light is so important – how they capture it. So we will go a little bit beyond seeing flowers and trees. We can break outside that box. I think the park is still evolving to where it’s going with its art and the mission of the art. It is part of education and to educate the park, or enlighten the public about appreciating art. We still bring in guest authors who are more landscape, design, and elemental in that respect. And Pearl was one of those ones that crossed the barriers where his art was the topiary art but he was also a guest author in his presentation to the public.
KS: Well, that’s a nice segue to the children’s exhibit that you have now in the lobby. Tell us about that.
LM: That is through the Youngstown City School district through the visual and performing arts VPA project. Tracy Schuller Vivo is the coordinator for that department and we worked with her previously for a book about Fellows Riverside Gardens with an artist and they put together A Walk Through the Garden and that’s a book about Fellows Riverside Gardens –
KS: That’s a wonderful book!
LM: That is how Tracy got connected with Fellows Riverside Gardens and she contacted us about this exhibit. The children were done with it – I think in October – and they asked if we had any exhibit in the gallery but the gallery was already booked, and the winter celebration of course took up the whole lobby upstairs. In January, it was perfect timing in which everything goes away, the trees and decorations, so there’s a big void.
So there’s work from the students and the subject was called Unity. And so, for the beginning of the year, you always have the hope of a better year, and to have pieces from students called Unity, it just fit so well with us. It has been really well received and is up through the end of the month. There are thirteen canvases that all the students worked on together at whatever schools they were from. The canvases are going back to the schools, people have asked if they could purchase them, but they’re not for sale. This was just so well received and we had a reception here with the students and their parents but it was a really bad snow day and the kids were out of school. So we didn’t get as many students as we had hoped but the performing arts students, they sang, and it was just so lovely. We’re hoping to continue this and make it any annual collaboration with the schools.
KS: That’s great. The works are so big-hearted, they’re really wonderful.
LM: They’re so raw, untapped. That’s what I like about them.
HS: So I’ve noticed, just on your website, that you post about the exhibits that are going on. Is there anywhere else that you post about them, social media-wise?
LM: Just on our website and Facebook. We have monthly calendars that come out.
HS: So you utilize things like Facebook, and have you found that it makes it easier to broadcast what you’re doing to the public?
LM: I think so, yes. We have reached out to some of the local papers, do press releases, put it on the WYSU community calendar. More of local, but at this time our budget is going in more of the direction to local artists so we don’t have to pay for the shipping of the art. We have run into a lot of expenses with shipping in the past. So we’re trying to cut back on the expenses but still present a high quality of work. The Youngstown area is full of wonderful of artists. We are just teeming with talent that just needs to be exposed.
HS: Have you had to adapt your marketing style because we are much more social media prevalent now, in order to get people to come to the exhibits? I know the gardens themselves get people here with events and weddings. But have you seen more of an influx by integrating social media?
LM: I think so. I think our visitation is up, definitely. And the nice thing about it, is they happen to come to the gallery and they say, “Oh, there’s a gallery here.” And then they’ll come back to see what the next exhibit is. They’ll frequent here more often and just like outside in the gardens. Our annuals change up every year. We don’t have the same color pallet, it’s always different. The bulbs are different colors. You don’t want people to say they’ve been there done that – because every year is a different color scheme and pallet, different annuals and plants.
KS: So, social media can give you a platform for showing –
LM: Oh definitely. They’ll say look what is in bloom. You just take a photo and pop it on the website.
HS: So, you would almost argue that it is better utilizing it than not?
LM: Well, I think you – I don’t know if it’s better. You kind of have to go to what is responsive. People are more responsive to social media now, whereas before people would look in print material. That’s not so much the case anymore, it is kind of an immediate gratification that is the case now with technology and the website and social media.
HS: This is more of a personal question, just your personal belief. Do you think that things like Facebook or Instagram, do you think they devalue art or do you think that they help it be more accessible to people who may not have been able to reach it otherwise?
LM: Oh, I think that it helps showcase it. It is so instant, you don’t have to travel to somewhere to see the art. If you don’t have a reference book at home, or if you want to see what is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, you can look it up online and see what is there. You can get some ideas from that.
KS: What is your background, Lily?
LM: I have an applied science degree and I worked in health care for about 15-20 years maybe. And while I lived in California during the ‘80’s and part of the ‘90’s, I took my first art class probably in my late 20’s. They had this great community college, El Camino Community College, in Torrance, California. It’s one of the largest community colleges across the country but I lived close to it, while I was working, I was looking for something else and thought, “Oh, I’ll take some art classes” just because I was always interested in it. So, I took part time art classes for 6-7 years. When I moved back to Ohio, I combined all of my hours, then I got my bachelors in fine arts and graphic design.
KS: Graphic design, so you’re really, your job is involving and expanding as much as your life trajectory, right? Just many different things. There’s social media and marketing is changing so much, and you’re having to keep up with all of that.
LM: Yes, but fortunately, we have a great marketing department for the Metroparks that is tremendous with keeping up with all of that. I kind of just feed in what my requests are and they take care of that.
KS: How else has your job here changed in the last year? How long have you been here?
LM: Oh, I’ve been here 22 years –
KS: That’s a long time.
LM: Yeah, the last 6 have been full time. Prior to that I was part-time graphics specialist. When I became full time is when I became dedicated to Fellows Riversides Gardens and so with here, everyone wears so many different hats and you have to be adaptable and be able to present to the public. The minute you walk out of your office you are in the public eye. People ask you questions so you have to be able to convey information to them, verbally, visually – with our designs – and everything. I think our visitation is between 300 – 400 thousand people a year.
KS: What else do you want people to know about the park? About Fellows?
LM: I want them to look at all aspects of the park, if you go to the Metroparks Farm just look at the landscape that is out there and how it changes from season to season. And with everybody having a phone, everybody takes photos. When someone sees something that is really striking, don’t worry about how it comes out on your phone, just take it so you can look back and get that feeling of when you were looking at it. If you like hiking, or have a favorite place you like to go to, take a photo of the gorge, or sketch it. You know, students from YSU, I would encourage them to explore the park. Bring their sketches, their books, their phones and just explore the park. See what everything has to offer. The seasons – just like today – there’s all the steam rising from the snow. That doesn’t happen every day.
KS: I feel like you’re saying that we don’t need to buy expensive equipment and go out to the Rocky Mountains to experience nature. It is really accessible here with a pair of old shoes and step out into the amazing landscapes that change how we feel.
LM: It is. And it is a challenge to get people to appreciate the area, the Metroparks in that capacity and what it has to offer. Then, it might inspire you to go to the Rocky Mountains and say wow, if this is here than maybe – but what we have here is just as great. There is so much geography here. And with Fellows Riverside Gardens you can visit it all year. Three seasons out of the year there is always something beautiful to look at. There’s probably some blooms out there now with the snow drops and
the witch hazel. And get involved, get to learn about horticulture, plants, and what they do. We have some great herbal classes and health classes. We have yoga in the gardens in the summer and Tai Chi. We have such a great setting. Why would you go to the gym when you can come to a yoga class out here and gaze upon what is out here?
KS: So even though it’s familiar it is still stunning and special.
LM: I can walk out any day and see something different. Its nature, we are immersing ourselves in a natural setting. We have created it for ourselves for our creature comforts and this is a manmade lake, but where else can you eat and have a view like this in town? The art that you get to experience here year round, come inside from the cold and see what’s going on.
KS: We will! And thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.
Born in 1977 in former Yugoslavia, Dragana Crnjak received her M.F.A. in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is primarily based in the medium of painting and processes of drawing. She is a recipient of Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards in visual art for 2008, 2011, 2015, Research Professorship from Youngstown State University, and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Professional Fellowship in drawing. She had taught art at University of Virginia and The Cleveland Institute of Art. She is currently Associate Professor at Youngstown State University, Ohio, teaching painting and drawing.
Power of the Arts spoke with Dragana Crnjak in late December. Listen to the interview here:
KS: This is Karen Schubert and I’m talking today with Dragana Crnjak and I’m in Dragana’s lovely studio, which is above the A&C Beverage, and this was an old credit union, or something, I think? That they stored stuff up here? But I love how open the studio is with all the windows and the really interesting angles and things like that. And so I’m seeing your work on the wall and it’s the stunning, very abstract, non-objective, these beautiful blurred shapes with really sharp, very bright lines interrupting those patterns. Talk about your work. You’re generally working with large canvases and talk about your materials and maybe how you plan and execute a large painting.
DC: Sure. Thanks for coming. Great to have you here. It’s so quiet today, in here.
KS: It is quiet. Because last time I saw you here, you brought your students’ work up here, which is still up here, too. I love those openings that you have. There’s a lovely ambiance.
DC: It’s quite different with no one up here. And it’s so quiet, like no sound from the streets. You can’t really see– I love this space because you can’t see the city. You actually don’t know where you are. I can imagine–
KS: Yeah, right . You just see up in the treetops, like a treehouse or something. Exactly. So let me interrupt your train of thought and ask you a question before the question. Is it difficult for artists to find studio space in Youngstown?
DC: That’s a good question because you would think in Youngstown, I was thinking years ago when I was looking for studio space, it would be very easy to find cheap, old space that I could just come in and work. But there are a lot of buildings that are up for rent, but not really a lot of available functioning buildings. A lot of them require some major renovation: no A/C, no heat, or maybe not restrooms—so this was really an amazing find. It used to be an architecture company, so it’s in good shape. It has everything I need. It’s close to the university, we can have these openings. Students can come, visitors easily can come. It really does contribute to the downtown scene, but it feels like it’s so far from everything. Once you’re up here, I really love it.
KS: So now, what is the work that you’re doing here?
DC: The work—yeah. I’ve been working on these large paintings now, well I do work pretty consistently throughout the semester. Of course that gets chopped because of teaching.
KS: You’re teaching painting at YSU?
DC: I teach painting and drawing, mainly painting courses. It is hard to find consistent time to come, keep continuity in the studio. But it is close, and even for one hour, I’ll come in and always have something going on in the studio. Now I’m working on these paintings for, it’s a three-person show that’s planned for Akron Art Museum.
KS: Congratulations! That’s thrilling.
DC: I’m really excited about that. It’s pretty amazing because the show will be up during, I mean it’s a large big topic and I don’t want to go too much with that, but it will be up during the Front Triennial that goes up in Cleveland, which is a pretty big deal for us here in Northeast Ohio. It’s happening for the first time, big international exhibition, the whole city will participate, and Akron Art Museum is one of their venues. So I’m excited.
But these paintings. I don’t want to say I’m working for that. I just– I’m painting and then things get finished and will go where they need to go. If they go. And these paintings, you’re right that there is always some kind of dichotomy between hand-made and kind of precise geometry that might imply machine or digital kind of presence. So pattern and geometry intersect and work together.
Painting is, I feel like you know, this really interesting state now, I do have very kind of, maybe it sounds romantic, but I really have this big belief in painting. I think it’s in a new, interesting stage right now, in relation to everything else, how we visually perceive other parts of the world, and how we interact with one another. So digital technology, communication, moving image. We are so used to everything shifting quite quickly all the time. So if, to me, painting has this stubborn singularity about it. It’s still one image. It’s basically one object sitting in front of you and somehow–
KS: To create some kind of meditative space?
DC: Yeah! Or like pretends to be important. [laughter]. I always go back and forth. Why would this be important? Why would anyone care? I do like to think, then, of course, I’m here daily working on it, getting into it. Maybe it’s partially just this need. I come to the studio and it does feel like an escape, but it honestly feels always like a return. This is normal, where I should be, painting as a kind of mental activity and physical activity and this challenge of placement and thinking it’s singular but somehow it can imply movement, it can imply history, it can imply and trigger thoughts and emotions—it becomes suddenly this huge, important, potential.
And it’s always potential. I don’t like to make claims or think this stands for that, this is it—but I—love to believe in it. And I’m really interested on how painting operates visually. It is a visual process that becomes, opens up other processes—intellectual, emotional. It depends who looks at it and how we look at it, with different backgrounds or different understanding. But it is a visual field and visual, the perceptual shifts, at times that I find really interesting, how we perceive things, how we see this object and how it works.
KS: That is really interesting. Can you unpack that a little? So if I look at a painting, what’s going on?
DC: There is always awareness. I do think of one person look at it. So that’s what you just ask, it’s exactly– I never think of “audience.” I never think of a big group or critics or someone who—that somehow comes on its own, if it comes, but it doesn’t motivate me. What motivates me is one person standing in front of it. And there’s this intimate relationship because it really does require that you will, somehow, have to look at it. It can be five seconds— I do believe they say eight seconds is the attention span we have today with most images that we encounter. But also, you know what happens if you come to it from twenty or thirty feet, if you’re entering the space and you see this object and how it changes or what happens as you come closer and how it opens up.
I do think that the paintings open up. And they do offer more, like the more you look at them. If you don’t spend time, you know, I think, definitely, a lot is missed. And I’m interested in that subtlety, that they are not screaming at you. They sort of demand attention. I love contrast and I do like bold lines and sometimes color will pop and kind of call for attention but it’s always kind of a soft process. And slow opening of the space. And sort of spatial, this absurdity of depth too. So I also find that interesting.
You look at from Renaissance to today, there is interest in modern, contemporary painting, flatness is still impossible to ignore. But I love to think of Renaissance, this window into reality that there’s some kind of illusion, still possible. Again, this potential. It’s never fully revealed but I’m interested in that dynamic, between painting as a surface and painting as an image. It opens up and gives some sort of space for you to enter and travel through.
KS: And as I enter and travel through it, I’m bringing my own frames of reference and those connotative connections I’m making.
DC: That’s something not how to place, not to be too specific, but these last paintings, which is new in my work, I’m starting with these really small scale hand embroideries from Serbia, some patterns I found when I travel there a couple of years ago. And they’re very common and very familiar for most women who do them, just mundane little craft activities. So I documented a lot of those. I look online and I look in some historical books and find patterns I respond to. And they’re intimate and decorative. They don’t have big interpretations other than being decorative elements for clothing items or tablecloths or something like that. So basically, enlargening those on a scale that’s 6×5’ or 7×6’, they do transform and they become these landscapes in the process of painting.
So some paint is applied and I wash it off and kind of the add-and-subtract process transforms the pattern into, really, a landscape that’s abstracted and invites the viewer to come in, step in and now it’s intersected with these geometric lines and elements. So those become architectural, too. I’m really, just drawn to it right now, and I feel I always work without fully understanding. If I did know exactly what it is, I would totally be done with it. It wouldn’t be something new. But that dichotomy, the contrast of small-scale become something architectural—
KS: It’s so intriguingly disorienting, I think. There’s a kind of dreamscape quality, and also, not a real 3-D anchoring. You don’t really know where you know where you are in space. And this light-dark contrast. They’re interestingly complex.
DC: Good. I’m glad—dreamlike— it sounds, again, like some sort of escape. But I don’t think really that’s the final— to just leave whatever you have on your mind, or worry, and now you can just escape into the painting. But I’m hoping, it’s my hope to have paintings that look like something is kind of forming in front of you. So there is softness of the shapes, in the background, or dissolving or being built or destroyed. The lines are coming in, these geometric lines to me have sound to them, right? I think of them as poles, or music, or scanning, like zzzzzzz, like opposite sort of—figuring out of something. So we do have technology today for everything to understand. Everything you want to learn, it’s so quickly available to go on. It pops up and you read it and learn about it.
KS: Time and space dynamic that’s more defined than the other aspects.
DC: Time and space. That’s exactly where I am very much, like the speed of something is slow and maybe historical, kind of slow. Like these embroidery, come from centuries ago, they are not—and then there’s these pretty, kind of fast geometrical elements that fly through and scan and try to understand the history.
KS: That is really interesting. So your family, you were refugees from the war. How old were you when your family came over? Let’s talk a little bit about what happened to you.
DC: Yeah, sure. I—I— Where to start—? I was fifteen when the war started. I lived in Bosnia during the war years. That was my high school time. I attended, I actually started high art school in Sarajevo but because of the war I had to go back to the small town where I’m from. And the only option there to study— most high schools are specialized, so you can choose—medical, art, economics—so the choice I had, I chose medical. My dad was a doctor, my mom was a nurse. I really did not have any interest in medicine. So I finished high school and, you know, if I go back to Bosnia, I can be a nurse. [Laughter] You know, those were war years. It was very much interrupted by, everything was chaos. But you know, as a fifteen-year-old, we still had fun and friends. It was a quite absurd time. I think back now, it scares me more than I was scared at the time.
KS: It’s amazing what we can internalize as normal.
DC: Exactly. Life becomes, you find this new way of living and managing everything like food—yeah. You just adopt to it. So when I was twenty, my family decided to follow my uncle who was in the United States. He sent papers, and we came when I was twenty. At that time, in Belgrade, I was about to start to study in the Academy of Fine Arts. I was very eager to just be in college, university.
KS: Belgrade is a really top school?
It was really top school in Serbia. Very hard to get in. We don’t have a lot of choices there for students, to really attend. I think only two or three cities in the whole country. So the competition is quite tough and I finally get accepted; to me, that was my goal was reached. And you know, as I was thinking, I did have a choice to stay there by myself or come with the family, so I did decide in the end to come, and I really don’t regret that a bit. Because here, everything opened up. Everything followed so spontaneously, after all those years of hardship and everything was hard and difficult, a it just became normal, it was just how we lived. Here, on the other hand, being a refugee, it’s amazing what we were offered, we could study, just as other students, we could work as American citizens, anywhere to apply—
KS: But, I’m so glad to hear that something went well, but it’s also amazing what you lost. Your biography begins that you were born in the former Yugoslavia. The place where you came from doesn’t exist anymore. That’s a tremendous loss. I can hear you talk about the traditions of the textures that you grew up around and probably assumed that it was part of the fabric of your whole life, as you— how long had your family been in that area, forever? So now, even if there’s a happy ending, it’s not so simple.
DC: No, of course. I definitely don’t—it’s not simple because it’s still going on. You realize after leaving that this kind of political tensions and issues are kind of happening all around the world. And there are traditions that, you know, are to some degree, lost and people have to readjust and we migrate. We live in a world of migration, right? Something that would define us today, maybe is what really is one of the biggest difference of fifty years ago or one hundred years ago, clearly would be the migration.
DC: The idea of globalization is interesting to me, to think—it is always this opposite force. So I’m glad you are asking that, and recognizing that. I look at it as a very positive opportunity that we came and finally, everything, not that things sort of were all fixed and life was all of a sudden easy. It wasn’t that, but you know, you could invest your time and energy into something that will kind of come back, not just be lost. So I feel like that’s what we have here in the United States, the opportunities that require individual investment, you can put your time into something and it will pay off to some degree. At least the law operates to some degree. With war situations—
KS: Those institutions break down.
DC: Globalization, itself, is quite complicating, complicated for me to think about because we think as the world is more— in flux and migration is sort of happening daily, like in a massive migrations, people moving through Europe, and United States constantly, all these cultures are getting mixed.
KS: Climate change, and resource exploitation, and all of those wars, that the large countries like the United State are fueling by selling both sides weapons.
DC: Manipulation on all levels, right? In the end, people who move, somehow you would think, the first thing natural would be to adopt and somehow be sane. That that’s the positive outcome. But, you know, we see what really is, at least in my opinion, there is a real value in those, in the differences. I don’t want you to be sane completely, and adopt—
KS: Right. I think about this all the time. Because my focus is language. And when I hear people say everyone should speak English—yes, we should have a way of communicating but think of all the languages we’ve had in this country since the beginning. We could all speak so many languages. We could all have all of those newspapers and poetry and we could be reading Swedish novels because so many of us already speak Swedish. So I think we really miss an opportunity when we focus so narrowly on what the kind of cultural hegemony, homogeneity really means.
DC: There’s always positive, like adopting, and being able to learn, but it is always that smaller cultures are expected, or maybe even do it themselves, without being, of course, forced, but you somehow you also want to adjust to larger, more dominant language or cultural traditions.
KS: That makes sense. Talk about the texture of arts and culture in Serbia. I know you travel back to see relatives, and so you go there, and how is—do you feel that arts and culture is more on the surface there? I know your father wrote poetry when he was a young man, and you talk about the texture of the fabrics. Do you feel— dance and music—
DC: You know, it is unbelievable. We still talk about my father wanted to be a poet. That was his passion. He wanted to write, and he really loved literature. That was what he truly enjoyed. His dad, my grandfather, did not approve of that. He wanted him to be a doctor. That was what would pay off. So he did become a doctor; he was a good doctor. But he also continued to write and he published a few books. He was always around writers and artists. Growing up, I do remember evenings, sitting and drinking, not heavily, but just having these very poetic—
DC: Experiences. I would say it’s so incredible to look back in the arts are in every aspect of living. The people there, it’s interesting that with no economic market, that art really was this essential. My grandfather, in a small village, actually made violins. You couldn’t buy a violin, and I would give everything to have one of those. They were not the best, but they were full-functioning instruments. When he got married, he played the violin, on one of his own handmade violins. So I just think of the time and investment into something that will enrich your daily life. Like working, and then having some time that will feed your inner needs. It’s social, cultural kind of—the biggest difference now, when we travel back—differences are not as major. Now we have museums and galleries and these art schools that produce really amazing artists. But I think, what we have here in the United States are the opportunities for all different levels, artists to apply and get grants and also market. I think that would be the biggest difference, at least art that we see as established is very market-driven. I don’t know, good or bad, but definitely—
KS: It both opens doors and closes doors. Is that what you’re saying?
DC: Exactly. For some high, blue chip artist, established, you’ll see them everywhere in a short period of time, same names, it’s a pretty small world. But on the other hand, we’ve never had so many opportunities here, like today. And I hope that will stay, we will worry about budgets now in the arts may become compromised. But still, we have a lot of opportunities. If someone really wants to invest time and give effort to find ways to produce and make art, you will find them. I think there is a lot of amazing opportunities to look around. That’s different. In Eastern Europe, especially in Serbia, Bosnia, those who make art, they make art. With almost no expectation. You just don’t have big expectations that it will sustain your living. Market is very—
KS: But what percentage of artists in this country make their whole living just making art? It’s a small percentage, is that true? And so most people here don’t have that expectation here, either, right? They’re teaching or working some other thing to keep the light son—
DC: That is true, to just paint and live off of that.
KS: But if a person wants to compete and really do well financially and make their work known, there is an avenue that you can try for.
DC: Well, find some jobs that will be art-related, that will pay off. Teaching art is also not something that’s available to everybody, and still there’s quite a bit of competition in the teaching field.
KS: Few and fewer, right?
DC: But there are At least, art-related jobs, way more than in Eastern Europe. Just saying in Eastern Europe, mostly the people who make art, there is that kind of existentialist approach to making art.
KS: I see what you mean.
DC: Just because you have to do it, there is no other expectation to live off of it.
KS: And maybe also drawing from traditions, because that lineage is so accessible, in a way, here, I think the families who have held onto their cultural lineage have had to work really hard to do that, because it isn’t naturally everywhere.
KS: I think some of our cultural organizations, the Polish organization, and Italian Americans, right? I speculate they’re scrambling to engage young people and that at some point the young people won’t know in what ways they identify themselves as Polish or Italian and they’ll be half something else, anyway.
DC: You bring out something that, that experience of, just experience, itself, of a culture. And your identity, how it’s formed, how you see yourself, how you build yourself in relation to the world or others, how similar or different. Just questions of identity. I think that experience is essential. That was my reason, when you mention that I traveled back, and we do go back and forth. We still have family there, and friends, so there is, every few years we go visit, and we keep in touch with people there.
But this one sabbatical leave was very specifically traveling to medieval monasteries that are functioning monasteries. They all from 13th, 14th, 15th century, old, female or male monasteries with a culture that’s just kind of frozen in a history that pulsates. It’s hard to explain that, but my need was to just go and be in the places. It sounds so simple, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to go and visit and just spend some time and accumulate that experience, and I knew something will come out of it.
The documentation I brought, but there also, time of day, monasteries are very dark. The specific smells and sounds, and people at we met, these direct experiences I think is what is essential how I work. And for everything to happen in the studio has to come from that physical experience of a place.
It was Iceland in 2012, just a need to travel to a place I knew nothing about, that was my main goal, to just be in a space that’s overwhelmingly harsh and beautiful at the same time. The geology is unstable, and all of that was very intriguing and kind of attractive to me.
KS: I can imagine. I speculate that they are deliberate about fostering arts and culture, but in a different way from Serbia.
DC: In Iceland? Especially in places where I went, away from Reykjavik, the capital, it was smaller villages, in really middle of nowhere, going away from the city and there is one road that goes around. Yeah, it was more like natural landscape geology that I was really drawn to.
KS: It’s dramatic.
DC: It does look so beautiful and—
KS: And Dangerous.
DC: Yeah but it’s very dramatic, and constantly changing and moving, sort of like land and shaping. There were other things that I discovered being there, in comparison— I actually realized being in Iceland that I need to go to Serbia next time. Because Iceland was so away from anything that I could identify with, I felt like I really need to go, actually, and visit in the same way, Serbia, and see what that experience would be with something that I connect. And maybe is part of my heritage and history.
KS: So even if you were maybe forced to leave the place you came form, setting that question aside, how important do you think it is for artists to leave their own familiar landscape?
DC: I think it’s really essential to go. Come back if that’s important. Because leaving makes you really learn more about your own place. And it’s, you know, with teaching and students, I always encourage everyone to leave and it sounds always like something is wrong with where we are. It’s not that. You just have to go outside of Ohio. Go to graduate school in Texas, on the West Coast—
KS: We can see our own place better once we leave it, too. That’s the paradox. I’ve always thought so, too.
DC: We reconnect, in a way, to zoom out, and then be able to zoom in, back to what your place was really about. That’s essential.
KS: Well, Dragana, thank you so very much for taking the time to talk to me today.
DC: Thank you for thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it.
Area residents Rhonda and Richard Thompson already had dedicated themselves to preserving the community’s heritage and farmland when the Allen House became available. Realizing the architectural importance of the house, the significant contributions of the Allen family to the field of medicine and the architectural genius of the builder, Thompson decided to take the enormous step to save the house for posterity. The Richard and Rhonda Thompson Foundation was created to restore historic buildings and the Allen House selected as a primary project.
The Thompsons decided the house needed a purpose beyond that of a museum. Wishing to preserve the home’s historic heritage, they meticulously restored its rooms—mixing in only enough modern furnishings to allow for a guest’s comfortable stay. They then expanded its potential use by adding a kitchen, conference and banquet room, tavern and gardens.
Today, the pair can often be found working on the latest Puzzle Room challenge or mingling with guests during a Friday evening Tavern night.
Aundréa Cika Heschmeyer is responsible for all of the day-to-day operations of the historic Peter Allen Inn. Heschmeyer came to PAI before it opened in January 2016 and has been a guiding force behind creating its mission and direction as the region’s most elegant destination retreat in the bucolic farmlands of upper Trumbull County. Previously, Heschmeyer was director of the Autism Society of the Mahoning Valley in Youngstown. Prior to that, she spent her early career as a journalist on television, for newspapers and as a magazine editor in multiple markets. Later, she was then was in public and media relations consulting, independently and for firms in Washington, DC, and Ohio. Her volunteer work is highlighted in her experience in building PolishYoungstown, the nonprofit of which she is still Executive Director.
Power of the Arts visited the Peter Allen Inn in early December. Listen to the interview here:
This is Karen Schubert for the Power of the Arts and I’m here in the lovely parlor at the Peter Allen Inn with owner Richard Thompson and general manager, Aundréa Cika Heschmeyer. Thank you both for taking the time to talk to me today.
This place is stunning. I’ve heard so much about it, and I’m really glad to have the opportunity to come and see it for myself, and to taste the lovely lunch that I just had. So if you’ll tell me, Dick, when do you remember this place entering your imagination?
RT: Well, that goes way back– probably the early ‘70s? And that is because when my wife and I were dating, we actually had come out here for lunch. The previous owner, this was her home, and she would open it on the weekends for public events. On a Sunday afternoon she served family-style lunches.
We actually had heard about the place, didn’t know where it was, and drove to Kinsman and found it. And little did we know one day we’d end up with it as a project. The lady, her place of business, was the little coffee shop south of town, the Times Square Restaurant. So it is really remarkable how it ended up.
KS: That’s a wonderful story. How long have you been here Aundréa?
AH: I came on board in January of ’16, right before the facility was ready to open to the public.
KS: What was that process like? It strikes me, and I just don’t know much of what I’m looking at, but I perceive that you are paying attention to the historical veracity, you’re bringing in period pieces, and being true to this— look at this beautiful woodwork in here, and this gorgeous clock— but also there’s the challenge of the contemporary building codes, sprinkler system, the lighting, the ADA accessibility, and things like that. So what was the process like for you to restore it and open to the public in this way?
RT: As you can imagine, it was very complex. We actually acquired the house in 2008, and spent a number of years trying to decide what we would do with it. We thought it was so important, it is architecturally certainly important, not only to Kinsman but to the Western Reserve. And it stands as one of the finer examples of Federal architecture.
Our fear was that it was a property that was vacant, if you will, let me say it like that. Our fear was that somebody could buy it, because it was so significant, and dismantle it and take it away. And so we strongly believed that it belonged to Kinsman, and were dedicated to saving it for Kinsman.
Once we decided, and there were many suggestions from the community, we had reached out and said, What do you think would work? A number of those I knew wouldn’t work, those suggestions, but we had come on the idea of an event center. And it was only during the construction that we decided, because of the bedrooms that were already in place, that we really didn’t have plans for, that we decided that our business model could include a small bed and breakfast component. And so we created private baths to support each one of those bedrooms.
And we started construction in, I want to say, 2013, it could have been ’14. It was a three year process. And as you implied, there were lots and lots of details. We were quite sensitive to two things: number one, the architectural integrity of the building. We wanted to keep it as exacting as it was built in 1821 as we could, but, we were not purists in the sense that we were creating a museum. And to that point, it had to live in today, with today’s building codes, the ADA requirements. It is sprinkled, if you noticed that. And so we wanted it to be comfortable. Some people would take exception to that, but that was our philosophy.
KS: It’s such a remarkable story, Dr. Allen coming out in 1808. It’s hard for us to conceptualize what Ohio was like in those days. Were there still the big white pines? I don’t even know. And he’s bringing herbs and leeches [Laughter].
So part of what you’re doing here, it occurred to me as I was eating this lovely winter salad that has all the fresh greens, subtle tastes and the really delicious tomato bisque, but the salad had dandelion greens in it. So you’re also, besides— I imagine in Dr. Allen’s time, pushing the boundaries meant something meant something entirely different, whereas today, just having food on real plates, food that’s grown locally, and not over-chemicaled, is so desired and so novel with all of those benefits as well.
So how are you tapping into trends and traditions, maybe talk about that kind of boundary for you. Talked about the building itself but how about your programming? your menu and—
AH: The programming, we’ve tried to—we’re believers that this beautiful facility is a work of art unto itself. So wouldn’t you enjoy bringing art and highlighting it here? In a community that has to travel, otherwise, to get such a thing. That was one of the reasons we’ve focused on bringing arts to this community, through, to use our venue, the opera, Shakespeare next year, art shows. We’re very excited about, what we’re most excited about is the response that you get from it. Dick brought up a good point earlier about part of the joy of going to Stambaugh Auditorium is Stambaugh Auditorium, no matter who’s on the stage.
KS: That’s right.
And we feel that way about The Allen House, that it’s so beautiful. And the expansion complemented it. And so now what we’re trying to do to create programming that complements it, as well.
KS: And where do those programs take place? The music, the opera?
AH: Where you had lunch, in Heritage Hall, as well as now we have the Grand Canopy, that allows us to have a larger facility, next summer.
KS: How far to people travel to come?
AH: We are excited because there are situations where we’ve had beer dinners and things that we consider more “local,” so Howland or Youngstown or Chardon. We’ve had people come from as far away as Cleveland for a lot of our programming. Our opera, we had a whole table from Metro Cleveland, because they said they couldn’t resist the venue, and the intimacy, knowing full well the talent that Opera Western Reserve puts together. They said they had to come and see it in such an intimate level. Even though they had tickets for the show down there at Stambaugh.
KS: Besides the performing arts, you have original paintings? Is there a story about the paintings?
AH: Well the featured artist at the Peter Allen is Thomas McNickle because of his pastoral focus at the time. So we have beautiful works of his, throughout. Otherwise, we bring in artists, via our art show. We’re creating a space as part of the house for a changing gallery. So that we can feature people, both local and otherwise.
KS: And the culinary arts? Who creates the menu?
AH: Well, Dick and I would love to think we have some input with our chef [Laughter], but you know, chefs nowadays, they love to drive the train. We sit and have lunch and talk about, well, I would tweak this, I would tweak that.
We’re very blessed because we’re hiring people who believe in the farm-and-table concept, as well. So they’re out meeting our local farmers, talking about what is the highlight, not just of the season, which they might know, but of this particular area. We have a couple of local producers, that the majority of their work is done in Cleveland, because, you know, the Cleveland food scene is growing every year, and we’re able to tap into that and bring some of that to the Valley audience.
KS: So this facility is an economic driver in the area as well, right? You’re hiring the kitchen staff, floral— Do you do your do your floral arranging here? Do you grow your flowers?
AH: We do not grow the flowers here currently. That’s a 2018-19 project.
KS: I saw the herb garden. Interior and landscape design, and your period antique furniture? Is some of it—?
RT: It is. We tried to finish it with pieces. They aren’t necessarily all antiques. but they’re period correct, in our estimation.
AH: Tell them about your trip to Kittinger.
RT: We’re fond of Williamsburg, and Williamsburg used a license that Kittinger Furniture Company to produce their line of furniture. And the Kittinger Furniture Company, I thought, went out of business in 1992, which they did, except they sold the engineering, the drawings, the designs, to one of their employees who continued to operate. So, I fast-forward and in a magazine, after visiting Williamsburg, I was trying to locate Kittinger people again and there was an ad in a magazine that said, and it was a cute word, but what it mean was pre-owned Kittinger Furniture, The Elmwood Company. So I’m on the hunt and I call and it’s a California number. The gentleman actually has a warehouse in Buffalo, New York, where they repurchased Kittinger furniture specifically, and then refurbish that, or reupholstered them, or whatever, and then they have it online.
And then, and I don’t know how I found out, but the furniture factory, itself, had reopened in Buffalo, New York. So we made a trip one day, first to the warehouse that had the wooden pieces, like that chest is pre-owned. All these chairs are brand new. So then we looked at what they had. Went with a laundry list. It was a lot of fun: I’ll take that, I’ll take that.
So then we went to the factory and toured that, and said this is what we like. And so of course these were their fabrics, or did we give them fabrics? I think we actually picked out the fabrics here to have them shipped. And so we had a decorator involved that coordinated the draperies and all this stuff. So anyways, the Kittinger Furniture thing, it sounds simple now, but it was anything but simple, to even locate them. But we have made a contact. And so for the most part, it has been furnished with Kittinger Furniture.
AH: So it was a pursuit of furniture, not just of the period, but of the period of the region, and the timing. So we tease people, on a Friday they say, oh they’d like to do a tour of the home, can we bring our glass of wine with us. I always laugh because that beautiful daffodil couch you sit upon. Oh, you with your chardonnay, absolutely. The merlot has to stay on the table [Laughter].
RT: We haven’t had–
AH: Not that I’m aware of. [Knocking wood] We don’t want to wish that upon ourselves.
KS: So I can also see elements of sustainability infrastructure, as well. The permeable pavers, as I mentioned the dandelion greens, the herb gardens. Do you have an eye toward those kinds of things?
RT: I give you high mark for recognizing the pavers. And there was thought to that whole thing. And that’s worked out. It’s not as easy to maintain that as it is a blacktop drive, but it certainly has other attributes that we appreciate.
Sustainability—you know—I want to go back and extend a point that Audréa made and that is that we really are trying to celebrate local agriculture. I pride myself as being a farmer in one of my careers, and we’re raising the beef that is being served here. The Red Basket, a nice farm just south of us downtown, that Aundréa mentioned, a good deal of their work goes to the Cleveland area. We’re very fortunate to have them here and we collaborate, certainly the greens that you ate today came from there. And we have another farm that raises grassfed animals. And they’re a supplier. And they’re all right here. And we think that’s pretty neat. We have the chef’s garden out there that we’re starting to use, and we will use it more. The idea is to have a cutting garden on site. We do have a small one, and we do cut some. But for the events we need—
AH: The berry bushes and the beehives– I’ve been pushed back at least until ’19 [Laughter].
KS: But there is a little bit of an irony in it, isn’t there, just coming full circle. That now we really value the local, instead of having a big bunch of factory-made stuff in some deep freezer, it’s the locally grown meat and vegetables, as fresh as they can be. I can hear my grandparents saying, Oh! Milk in a bottle! Isn’t that novel! [Laughter] Who ever thought of that?
RT: I would challenge anybody if they were to sample the pork or the beef they would say, wow, this is pretty good.
KS: And do you find people—I think we underestimate how distorted we’ve had to make the system in order to keep prices low. You can’t do that with locally grown livestock, vegetables and fruits. Do you find that people in this area struggle some with your prices? How do you weigh in on that?
RT: We’re certainly at a price point that’s different. But we’re sensitive to it. Because we always believe that we want to be a facility that the locals would come to and feel comfortable with. And we’re bringing people in from Cleveland or Canfield or Liberty, maybe it’s not so much of an issue. I’m not trying to suggest that folks out here don’t—
AH: Have the means—
RT: Not suggesting that at all. We are sensitive to that. But what we do— there is a higher price point of what the cost is. The farm outside the town that we get all our vegetables and greens from, we could probably go to the local grocery store and get it cheaper, but we choose to get it down there because it’s fresh.
KS: And you’re growing your own economy, rather than the economy of someplace out West. So there’s an investment component where that money comes back around, but that’s not necessarily visible.
AH: We also try to balance the menu. In the case of the restaurant piece, we try to balance the menu. So there is an option within the menu. So that if you come and you’re more budget-minded, there is an opportunity. So you’re not shut-out with what might otherwise might be considered special-event only.
RT: That’s a good way to say it.
KS: I’m sure a lot of people in the area pass these gorgeous, empty, historic gems, and think, Oh, I really want to buy that! I confess that I have a tiny fantasy of my own about opening up a literary center in one of our empty mansions. So what would you say to people like me who are thinking about that? What are some concrete steps in thinking rationally about moving forward with such a project?
RT: I think—and I kind of associate a home like that as in the country. So you have to be willing to understand there’s a difference between rural living and suburban living. We think it’s very nice out here with the open vistas and everything. Kinsman specifically, is blessed with a number of historic homes of significance. But I think the other thing is, living in the country and living in an old house is not for everybody.
Now this is an old house but it’s been brought up to current standards, if you will. So there’s no drafts. The floors are level. The walls are straight. But it didn’t start out that way. So just to move into a house, even though you could move into it, it might not be as comfortable as you had in the city. But there’s a certain elegance, as far as I’m concerned.
AH: If you were to take a property, where would you start? If you had to say, here’s the first three steps you would do for someone else taking a property? There are some beautiful Northside mansions. Loads of beautiful opportunity on the Northside of Youngstown. Before you were to purchase, what would you do? I think with your experience—this isn’t the first project Dick’s done. This is what, third, in Kinsman?
RT: Certainly, third or fourth. I’m not sure about down in Youngstown, because probably already have some of these features. But out here, utilities are everything. Is it, can you afford, can you heat the place? If you get these big old rambling houses and they aren’t insulated, and they have inefficient heat sources, it’s pretty expensive. So we took great pains in making this as energy efficient as we could, because we believe that one day, when I’m not here to support this thing, somebody’s got to make this work. And quite honestly, we’ve done a nice job at that.
KS: I see the windows, the windows are new and energy efficient. But they have that beautiful, thick glass.
RT: No, they’re not new.
KS: They’re not new!
RT: That’s why you see that nice glass. Those are the 1821 windows.
KS: Oh my gosh! But then on the outside, they’re stormed? How did you do it?
RT: Well, I actually went to a seminar years ago in Baltimore, and there was a gentleman there who said don’t throw your old windows away. Because air infiltration is 70% of your heat loss. And so what you don’t see is that right around the perimeter, the edge of this window, we put it on edge and we ran it over a saw and put a groove in it and put a gasket in there, and so these locks are not for security purposes, they’re to engage that gasket. So there’s a silicone bulb gasket all around there. And we’ve stopped all air infiltration. Then we went on the outside and we had storm windows built. And the bar that you don’t see is lined up here so you don’t notice it.
Then whatever heat loss between the single pain glass, was corrected that way. But we actually, that’s a sash, a lower sash and an upper sash, we actually shipped them out to the same gentleman. I remembered his name, we found him, and he actually put them in steam boxes, got all the glazing off the window glass, lifted the glass out, repaired the frames as needed, and then painted them all, put the glass back in, reglazed everything, so if there was any air infiltration with bad glazing, it was corrected. And then we got them back.
KS: Wow, that’s incredible.
RT: Yeah. But if you look at the house, the windows are an important characteristic. Everybody comments about that.
KS: They’re really beautiful, and I think they speak to what must have been the great challenge of building a house like this in the first place, where you’re really bringing in materials, with a pretty rough infrastructure.
RT: Well, you’ve said that right. And we often will stop whatever we’re doing and say, How did they even do this? So that chimney, there are five fireboxes on that chimney, and that chimney starts in the basement and it’s just a stack of bricks until it gets to the attic. And so the question is, where did they get those bricks? Well they probably made them right under that tree out there. And the architectural prize of the entire house is the front façade. If you’ve not seen it, then drive up before you leave. (It’s raining out now.) And take a peek. And you look at that and you say, How did they accomplish that in 1821! It’s a big deal.
KS: And the idea that a doctor would come out to the frontier with these kinds of ideas, right? When he could have stayed in a pretty well developed city.
RT: He was in Connecticut, I want to say it was New London. The question we have is, did he come with money? Or did he make his money here? We can’t imagine he made it on the frontier. Because there wasn’t a lot of money out here. But clearly Mr. Kinsman coaxed him out here some way. Mr. Kinsman arrived in 1799, couple trips before he brought his family in 1801. And in 1808 the good doctor arrives. But he had to be invited and coaxed.[Laughter]
KS: Your family’s probably been here awhile. I understand my family was in this area in 1803, so there’s a family story that one of the ancestors used to walk a cow up the path and every now and then one cow wouldn’t come back, and that was the cost of business, there were still a lot of Native Americans. My uncle used to collect arrowheads.
RT: There were tribes here through the early 1800s and even today one of the activities out here is there’s a number of people roaming the fields once we plowed, looking for arrowheads. There are many, many artifacts found.
KS: So are you following—as we speak the Congress is debating a tax overhaul and part of that tax overhaul will eliminate the Historic Tax Credit. Do you have any thoughts about that?
RT: I do. It’s interesting you mention that. We’re working on another project and it is, at least, the funding plan includes Historic Tax Credits. And the consultant has already said, Dick, are you aware this has been taken off the table? I just got an email saying it’s been put back in, in the Senate version. So that, hopefully, will stay, because, quite honestly, there are many, many projects that get financed that way, and without that, they just won’t get done.
KS: Especially in an area like ours where there isn’t a lot of market pressure, that tax credit is really going to give projects a leg up.
RT: We did not use that vehicle here on this house. So it wouldn’t have made any difference here. Although we’re on the National Register, we were under no restrictions. I don’t want to say we could do what we wanted, but we could do what we wanted. [Laughter]
KS: You have done a lovely job. I thank you and I commend you and wish you much success.
RT: Well thank you. It’s interesting, what we said we wanted to give it a purpose, clearly the purpose has been well received, the idea of bringing arts to Kinsman. We had a dinner theater, the very first one we had, and then we had a smaller program, opera, and one lady came up to us at the close of it with tears in her eyes and said, I just can’t thank you enough.
KS: That is so lovely. I thank you so very much for your time today.
RT: You’re quite welcome.
With an international career spanning four continents, three Music Director positions, a demanding guest conducting schedule, major awards and commissions and a prolific demand as a composer/arranger, Randall Craig Fleischer is making a substantial impact.
He has appeared as a guest conductor with many major orchestras in the United States and internationally including current repeat engagements with the San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Festival Cesky Krumlov (Czech Republic) and others. Other recent guest engagements include the Boston Pops, China Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Malaysian Philharmonic, Moravian Philharmonic Olomouc (Czech Republic), Hong Kong Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, Utah Symphony and others.
As Music Director/Conductor of the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the Anchorage Symphony, the Youngstown Symphony, and formerly the Flagstaff Symphony, he is leading each orchestra through a dramatic period of artistic growth, demonstrating his abilities as a proven orchestra builder. (Kennedy Center)
Power of the Arts caught up with Maestro Fleischer in the busy restaurant at the DeYor Performing Arts Center. Listen to the interview here.
This is Karen Schubert and I’m in the lovely Overtures restaurant. I love all the light in here. I’m here with Maestro Randall Craig Fleischer who is the music director and conductor of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
I know that you are also working with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the Anchorage Symphony and the Flagstaff Symphony—
I haven’t been with Flagstaff since I got this job. Sot it’s just Anchorage and Hudson Valley.
“Only” Anchorage and Hudson Valley. Still, you’re spread pretty thing. Talk a little bit about what that’s like for you.
They’re my three homes away from home. Next year will be my twentieth season in Anchorage. I’ve been in Poughkeepsie, I think, twenty-six years. I’m married thirty-five years. I’m a long-term guy. I get a good job with nice people with whom I enjoy making music, marching the uphill climb to keep classical arts alive in the United States, and I sort of get those jobs and keep them.
So what does your work year look like?
Well, usually it’s the weekend after Labor Day that I leave home, and I’m pretty much traveling almost non-stop until May, with the occasional week or two home. I have a 17-year-old daughter who is applying for colleges, so the time during the year that I’m home is precious. But I’m pretty much bouncing between my three orchestras and then doing some guest conducting in between. So I spend a lot of time in airports and hotels. There are three hotels in America where they call me by my first name.
I can imagine. Where’s home?
Wow, so you’re not close to any one of those places. So we’re here at the Powers/DeYor Performing Arts Center and recently Power of the Arts had a historic theater tour. We have a local historian who wrote a book about the live and lost theaters in Youngstown. At one time there were seventy-five theaters in the city, and the biggest names came through. Ella Fitzgerald got married here.
Oh my god! I didn’t know that.
It’s such an amazing history.
We’re doing an Ella tribute in February.
Oh that’s wonderful! Because it’s one hundred years since her birth. One of the things we learned was that the Powers Auditorium was hours away from the wrecking ball. It was just saved.
Like Carnegie Hall.
It’s incredible to consider. How does this facility compare? What do you appreciate about it?
This is an absolutely—how shall I say this?—it’s a treasure of a facility. Specifically, I remember Carol Wincenc who’s one of the most celebrated flutists in all of classical music. She’s been the flute teacher at Julliard for years, she’s soloed with every major orchestra in the world, recorded, had many major concertos written for her. Christopher Rouse, Lukas Foss, Joan Tower. She walked in the door of Powers Auditorium, gasped, and said, “Oh my god! You mean we get to play here?” We’re so lucky.
We really are lucky.
And the thing that—it’s not just visually spectacular. The acoustics are great, particularly with the new acoustic shell that Patricia purchased for us about six or seven years ago. It looks great and it sounds great, and we are so lucky to have it.
It’s a little piece of American pop culture history: the Warner Brothers, who were from Youngstown, built this place. And it pains me when I run into people at the grocery story and they say, “Oh, you’re the—”
“Yes, I am.”
“Oh we love the symphony! We’re so lucky!”
“When’s the last time you’ve been downtown?”
“Oh god, I haven’t been to Powers Auditorium in twenty years.” Are you kidding me? It’s like people who live in Brooklyn and never go to Carnegie Hall. It is a tragically underutilized facility. And I think there are a lot of people who don’t really understand what an extraordinary gem we have here.
It really is a gem, but I can’t imagine how much it costs to keep this up.
It is difficult.
Someone was telling us just about the terror of the roof alone.
The roof, the heating and cooling— it seats 2400 people. It’s a big room. Anyone who has to take care of an old historic building of this size can fill volumes with the challenges presented by that. Having said that, love this place, so challenges or not, we’re going to keep it open and keep it thriving and keep great art in this space.
Thank you for your part in that. Can you talk about how sound works? What makes it acoustically successful? How does sound maneuver in that space?
It’s usually wood and then the overall shape. I’ve had the honor of making music in some of the halls over in Europe, these ancient, seventeenth century, spaces and such like that. And here, we have a sort of new template in that concert halls here in America are way bigger. Way bigger. Carnegie, I think, seats 3000. This seats 2400. The typical opera-symphony space in Europe seats about 800 or 900. My theater in Poughkeepsie, with my orchestra there, seats 950, that’s more typical of the old. Well, you know, everything in America is bigger. But still, it’s mostly wood and reflective surfaces, but enough to also soak up, there’s carpet in the aisles, the seats are carpeted, and then the new acoustical shell that Patricia had put in there is fantastic in the way that it bounces the sound magically out to the audience. What’s so wonderful is, the sound feels immediate.
In some of the new halls, like, for instance, Avery Fisher Hall in New York where the New York Philharmonic plays, they have gutted and redone that hall three or four times, it still doesn’t sound that great, because it’s a big rectangle.
If you look at our space, it’s kind of a semi-circle. And wood and plaster; there’s very little solid cement in that space. Cement does not reflect sound in a pretty way. Wood does, and then space. There’s space directly under the stage. There’s space on the other side of the walls, and space above the ceiling. So it becomes like an echo chamber, but just enough echo, not too much, that the room vibrates. And it also beautifies the sound. The sound on the stage is a little bit more harsh and brittle, when you walk out in the house it’s prettier, and there’s an immediacy which is great.
How do you select work for the Youngstown Symphony? Do you have—this might be a dumb question, but I can imagine, if I were the director of a theater company and I had a particularly strong male actor, I might select a piece for him. Does that come up in a symphony? Where you say, wow, my percussion is off the charts—
It does; actually, I more select works based on what I think the audience might like. And there is that sense that I’m the coach of this team. And like any coach, I want to challenge my players. And I want to constantly be building the quality of their work. So there are some pieces that I will pick that will do that. So maybe a longer work, or more challenging work—
[Hey Jeff! How are you? Jeff Crystal, the head chef here.]
It’s about supplying the audience with a healthy meal. All puns intended, with the head chef going by. In the sense that they will look at the season and see things they like about the season and look at each individual concert. It’s both a magnet for subscribers, to buy the whole meal, and individual ticket buyers to just buy each course. At the same time, I’m thinking about the life and the growth of the ensemble, what will challenge everybody for different reasons. This is a really hard piece for strings, or this is a really hard piece for woodwinds, or this is hard to coordinate, there’s lots of stop and start and slow and fast, and slower and faster, tempo fluctuations, and you build that communication with everybody.
A symphony is a team. So I’m always focused on calisthenics for the team and also winning each game. [Laughter] We have to prepare this concert and get the sound right for this concert, but I’m constantly— this weekend we just had a marathon series of auditions. I hired a new principal clarinet, I hired two bassoons, I hired string players in each discipline of violin, viola, cello, bass. There’s constantly an influx of new, young musicians. And I’m really excited about a lot of these hires. So that’s kind of my job, to provide an overall package to the audience that they will enjoy, the hiring and firing of musicians, and then in each rehearsal are we getting closer and closer and closer to a higher level of precision and expression?
And the new musicians, where are they coming from?
Mostly, the area. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and even further. There was one guy who was finishing a degree in Michigan State in Lansing. We have musicians who travel from Cincinnati, that’s about the furthest somebody will drive for, four and a half hours, to get here. The the tuba player just moved here. He commuted several seasons from Cincinnati.
We are very lucky here in Youngstown. Not only because we have the Dana School of Music and there are quite a number of faculty members who play in the orchestra. But there is Cleveland Institute, Oberlin, Carnegie Mellon and even not that far from here, we even pull from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Cincinnati Conservatory.
If you play the tuba, and you’re a symphonic tuba player, there are only so many jobs in America. There’s twenty violins in the orchestra, one tuba. So when we hired our tuba player, we had thirty-two candidates for the job. So we pull student musicians, and some of them plant roots in the area. Like for instance our principal oboe, Cindy, her husband plays in the Cleveland Orchestra. So they’re here for the long term. So Cindy’s going to be our principal oboe for a long, long, long, long time. Second clarinet Catherine teaches at the Dana School. But both bassoon seats have been a revolving door of student bassoonists who are finishing a master’s degree or doctorate at CIM, they get a fabulous orchestra position somewhere else and they’re gone. So I’ve been here eight or nine years, we’ve had five bassoon auditions. A real revolving door. Our principal viola is also the viola teacher up at Dana. He’s probably going to stay for awhile. So there’s this constant influx of really wonderful young musicians.
I see how— as you talk about the season as a menu, and people ordering à la carte, and that’s how you’re attempting to reinvigorate the person who hasn’t been to the symphony in twenty years. Oh, I always loved that one piece—
If you look at the season, we try to find a hook that isn’t necessarily the old, Oh my god! You mean they’re playing Brahms 2nd? I love that piece! That scenario, that conversation doesn’t happen so often in Youngstown. So if we can find a theme, like this next program is a patriotic theme. This is a very patriotic area. People know John Williams, they might know Aaron Copeland. Samuel Barber actually was a veteran. He served, I think, in the Army Air Corps. Ferde Grofé Grand Canyon, I mean, who doesn’t want to look at spectacular images of the Canyon while they hear that wonderful music that was inspired by the Canyon? You know, little hooks to try to pull people in who might recognize something about this program but they’re not really the classical music aficionado.
But for a city our size I find the area is pretty artistically dense. There’s a nice context for it. And I think Dana certainly has a—
It helps a lot.
Right? Feeding musicians into the community every year. They’ve studied really well. So another event that we hosted recently was a symposium on arts and culture funding, and we had that at St. John’s Episcopal Church because St. John’s is working to become an arts hub in the community. So of course we talked about your symphony! What a wonderful project!
Can I tell you a funny story first?
I wanted to spend some time in the space. The first time I visited, just the sunlight coming through those windows was so striking.
Isn’t it beautiful?
And I just fell in love with the space. So last summer when I was going to write the piece, I was spending some time in Ohio. My daughter was doing a writing program at Kenyon, so Heidi, Michaela and I came to Ohio for a couple weeks, and my dad lives in Canton, my in-laws live in Cleveland. But the ideas was I’m going to go to St. John’s and just soak up and meditate and let the muse take me. So I get there, and it turns out they’re repairing the organ. And if you’ve ever heard somebody working on repairing or tuning an organ, let me give you a little demonstration of what it sounds like EEEEHHHHHHHHHHHH [Rising in tone] [Laughter]
So I’m like, um, this isn’t exactly the meditative silence I’m looking for and so the organist there who is a wonderful musician, a great guy, he said, you can play a few notes on the piano and it won’t bother us. And I said, bother you?! [Laughter] So I had to write it a different way.
But you know, it was kind of the story of Youngstown. The story of Youngstown is the steel industry. What I did with that piece which I titled Coming to Youngstown, I took songs that were public domain songs that were popular at some of the critical junctures in the history of the church and the history of Youngstown. And it turns out Stephen Foster, you know, [Singing] beautiful dreamer, summered here in Mahoning County, and his sister was one of the founding members of St. John’s.
Oh my gosh! I had no idea.
So I put in “Beautiful Dreamer,” and of course the church was founded right as the Civil War was raging, the most popular song of the north was “Battle Cry of Freedom.” [Humming]
So that opens the piece. Then, to tell the story of the industry, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is associated as the first factory-influenced symphonic work. I mean it’s a ballet, but symphonies play it, so I grabbed a couple snippets of that, probably violating copyright laws, and I used this beautiful thing from Holst, The Planets, and actually Gustav Holst wrote some lyrics to it, and they’re kind of prayerful, and it’s very inspiriting, and kind of sewed all that stuff together. So part of that’s just an arranger’s task, grabbing songs, and also [Singing] fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. Threw in some things like that. I knew I wanted to use a singer for this.
And there are little snippets from the Psalms, up on the windows.
I didn’t know that either.
It takes a while to read them. [Laughter] You have to sort of turn different directions. So I used those Psalm snippets (I’m Jewish) [Laughter], we’re doing this series at temples as well, so it was written for St. John but I knew it was a thing we’re going to take on all of our stained glass series that plays to churches and temples, so I wanted to be ecumenical. So that was perfect! Psalms, great! Everybody loves those. And so I sew this whole—then I wrote a little fanfare thing, and then I really wanted to capture the feeling of sunlight coming into the window so that’s original music. And a couple of the snippets that are original, but really, the opening fanfare thing and the original material mostly just gets us from Point A to Point B, as I tell the story of that church, it’s opening, and the birth of the coal, iron and steel industries in this area. And I tried to leave it on a kind of uplifting, patriotic tune, everybody’s patriotic here, so that’s how that fell into place.
But I’ll never forget, It won’t bother us. [Laughing] I’m like, o.k.! That’s not the plan, but I’ll write it anyway.
So where did you grow up?
So you have a sense of this area.
I worked in the steel mill, myself. Republic Steel. It was a summer job. Worked in the melt shop, right in the hot nasty melt shop of Republic Steel.
And where did you go to school then?
Well, that’s a complicated questions, because, growing up in Canton, we went, my senior year, from four high schools to two, because enrollment was going down and down and down, as in the 70s, in this 60s, Youngstown was the third-largest steel producer in the world. By the late 70s it was already going downhill fast, so was Canton. So they re-organized and built a brand new high school right by the Football Hall of Fame and Fawcett Stadium, and for many, many years there was a high school named McKinley, we renamed the new school McKinley. So I went three years to Leman High School, and graduated from the new McKinley High School, this was now forty years ago.
And then what?
Oberlin, undergraduate. Master’s degree at Indiana University. Private study, very intense private study with probably the greatest conducting teacher at the time. The guy’s name was Otto Werner Mueller. That’s a great story, too. He was the teacher at both Julliard and Curtis, the two top conservatories in our country. And when I was a student at Indiana University, I was doing my master’s there, and the name Otto Werner Mueller struck fear in the hearts of young conductors. He stood 6’4”. He was not a nice man. When Mueller entered the room, enjoyment ceased. But he was commonly acknowledged, at the time he was still teaching at Yale—eventually Julliard and Curtis tried to lure him and they eventually succeeded and he taught at both schools. He was head of conducting and and also head of conducted both orchestras, taught conducting at both schools.
So my wife Heidi and I were already married when I was in graduate school. Moved to New York and I got a job temping. Within a month she was working in theater. She’s a very, very talented gal. And we bought a tiny apartment on the upper West Side with the help of my father-in-law. And I had heard, eventually I got a job as the assistant conductor of the American Symphony I was working almost like a secretary, and I heard Sergiu Commissiona who had just become music director of New York City Opera lived in our building. [Whispering] Oh my god there’s a famous conductor— So I go down to the doorman and I said I understand there is a famous conductor who lives in this building. And he said yeah. And I said Sergiu Commissiona. And He said No, no, no the guys’ name is Mueller. It was Mueller.
Oh my gosh!
Otto Werner Mueller, the most famous conducting teacher on the planet, lived in the unit directly below me. So I wrote him a letter. And his first wife Margo, who died not long after, wrote me a letter back. I said I would be so honored, do you take private students, we live in the same building, is there anything I can do— so he does take private students, his wife sent me a little note back, taped it to my mailbox, set me up an audition. I’ll never forget, he opens the door to his apartment and there’s this enormous man, not smiling. His wife is very sweet and gracious. So he auditioned me. He puts a score in front of you and you have to play it. Because we conductors have to read, transpose, have to read different clefts— cause you know, violas have their own cleft. Clarinets transpose down to B flat. French horns transpose to F. It’s not all just a piano thing.
And he would sit by the keyboard, and if you played a wrong note he would actually lift your hand off the keyboard. So wwwppp! What did I do? And he did this whole ear training test, and then he would open the score, and he would say tell me about this. And so he took me on as a private student. I already had a master’s degree at that point. And the lessons would go about an hour, hour and ten minutes. And as part of one of my lessons I brought a video tape of a concert that I conducted with the American Symphony. Next lesson goes four hours. And at the end of four hours, this is one of only two times he ever said something nice to me, so I remember both like it was yesterday. I was exhausted. From the enormous insight this man gave me, and all the lessons went four hours after that. And two a week instead of one.
And I’ll never forget it, I said, Maestro, thank you so much for the extra time today, and he slapped me on the knee and said, Kid, you’re worth it! I’m like, Oh my god! I’m going to work! I’m going to work in this field! I might have a career! I was still a secretary basically. Because the Mueller students did not all go on to be famous, although Allen Gilbert, outgoing music director of the New York Philharmonic was a contemporary of mine, was a Mueller student—a lot of them did. And pretty much if he took you into his fold, you might not be the next Leonard Bernstein or a big famous conductor, but you were going to work. Of the various people who at some point wanted to conduct, maybe 1 or 2% of us actually end up making a living at it. And so that was really a crossroads with me, because I thought if I can just stay with this guy and absorb what he has to teach, I’ll eventually work as a conductor, and I did.
That’s a wonderful story. As I was reading a little bit about your work, I was impressed with the range, and not just the symphony, the original symphony about the windows, but also Rocktopia, and your Peter and the Wolf interpretation. So talk a little about Rocktopia, that’s a lot of fun, and then let’s wind up with touching on the Martin Luther King, Jr. piece, and Peter and the Wolf. It sounds like you’re reaching out to broader audiences and maybe drawing them in, making some bridges for them. I also want to mention that I love the photo on your website of you and Peter Schickele. So touch on Rocktopia, and tell us a little bit about that. What a fun project.
Rocktopia opens on Broadway March 20.
That’s so exciting. Congratulations.
I mean, I have to pinch myself. Finally, after a bajillion years of doing daring fusion project after daring fusion project, and in the early days being absolutely slapped down by my contemporaries in the symphonic field, to have a project that could have a real life and a real profile, I mean, I’m just ecstatic. And it’s a headache, things in pop culture don’t go so smoothly. [Laughter] We in the symphony business, we book the dates, we book the artists, we send a contract. Done! With pop culture it’s on again, off again, and who’s going to do what, and who’s going to say what, and bah bah bah bah bah, so it’s a whole new level of—how shall I say—drama in my life.
You’re involved with that aspect?
I wrote it, yeah, I mean, yes and no. They asked me in the early stages do I want to be one of the co-producers and I said no, because at the end of the day, Rob Evan, who is one of my dearest friends in the world, and Bill Franzblau who is the executive producer, for the last year and a half, they’ve basically been focusing on raising the money to fund this and piecing together the team to make it turn into something, all day long every day. I don’t have the time in my schedule to do that. And candidly, I don’t even know how to do that. If I did know how, I would have done it already. [Laughter] So I’m ecstatic. And very excited for this and the life of this project. I’m in a tiny group of classical, serious conductors who have created product for Broadway. There aren’t so many of us who have done that. So I’m really very, very, very excited about this.
But rock fusion is the thing I’ve been doing since I was fourteen. The first rock fusion thing I did in my life was an arrangement for a rock band of the overture to Handel’s Messiah. With screaming electric guitars—the thing never saw the light of day, nobody every performed it, but I’ve had this vision and this passion my whole life. So I mean, this will be the sort of put-me-on-the-map on the creative side. I’ve been on the map as a conductor for a long, long time. And as an arranger of pops things, every orchestra in America has played my arrangements, pretty much, with very few exceptions. But to actually create product for Broadway, this is a first for me, and I’m extremely proud and excited.
In terms of all the other chapters, Heidi and I wrote A Spiritual Journey. We wrote it for Yolanda King who passed away suddenly and tragically about eight years ago. It was premiered by the National Symphony and was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It was a labor of love for Heidi and me. We became friends with Yolanda, and talked regularly. It was recorded for PBS by the Louisiana Philharmonic, there was a nice PBS broadcast years and years ago. We’ve done it here. It seems so obvious to fuse these spirituals as underscore for Dr. King’s speeches. And as a kind of Dr. King’s “greatest hits.” The best parts, kind of like what Copeland did for Lincoln, best parts of his speeches. And when Heidi sent the script off to Yolanda, I remember the day— we were still living in D.C., years and years ago, and she said, Oh god, she’s going to hate it, she’s going to cut it to shreds. Didn’t change a word. Didn’t change a word. All Yolanda did was show up and read it, and love it.
I guess at the end of the day, the other thing for me, the other thing for me, in terms of my chapter, were these native fusion pieces. The first one was a Navajo Diné thing called Triumph that we premiered with Carlos Nakai playing the flute, and Jones Benally family, they’re pretty famous in Native dance circles.
Did you incorporate some Diné language?
Oh yeah. You know there’s Diné chants, and traditional Navajo Diné dances and songs, and then I wrote this sort of—it becomes like a Greek chorus-like, I don’t know, almost like a deity for the Native flute commenting on the rest of the piece and then this enormous hoop dance, crazy phenomenal hoop dance. And the original concept was that it would merge elements of modern dance, and Navajo traditional dances. So there’s this modern dance component.
The other piece I wrote was Echoes, which was commissioned, essentially telling the story of the 19th century whaling industry. Whalers were some of the first Europeans to make contact with a variety of Native American tribes. Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian, some of the first visits, some of the first contacts, some of the first trading, was in the whaling industry. Now the whaling industry was a terrible, ugly thing. It was not a good thing. But nevertheless there was this long tradition of all those sea shanties, and all those were mostly whaling vessels, where those songs were sung. So that’s a component that tells that story.
But I guess, at the end of the day, I’m a guy from Canton, Ohio. I grew up very typical childhood, listened to Casey Kasem, that was the music of my time. My dad was a swing drummer, so I grew up with Sinatra and Ella in my house and all this kind of stuff. I drifted toward classical music as a singer in the high school choir, and then became serious about it. I was not one of these kids who knew any of the Brahm’s symphonies when I was twelve. Most of my colleagues played an orchestral instrument and they knew all the repertoire by the time they entered college. I didn’t know any of it. So my life has been a real bridge-builder between genres and cultures, and that’s what Rocktopia is, absolutely, fusing these things together. And these kinds of— feels like a scene from an opera than a pops concert.
And you’re also feeding your own creative impulses.
And Peter and the Wolf?
Peter and the Wolf, at the time, was a really ground-breaking project. It’s all technology that’s completely long passé. But the CD-Rom of Peter and the Wolf was a joint effort between the Hudson Valley Philharmonic and IBM. They don’t tend to create much entertainment product so it was rare for them. James Cannavino, VP of IBM, was on my board for a brief time, of the Poughkeepsie Philharmonic.
It was one of the first DVDs that had streaming video. All the early DVDs had images, click this and click that. They were basically the early games. But none of them had streaming video until ours. So we recorded Peter and the Wolf with Tony Randall. He was a huge opera fan and a huge classical music buff. James Cannavino knew him through IBM circles. He only died about five years ago. And I remember the headline, I think it was Rolling Stone: Goodbye, Felix. He did the narration. And at the time, it was very ground-breaking in a lot of ways. It was ground-breaking for a symphony to get involved in technology. It was new technology because it was streaming video. It’s all completely like a museum piece now. But that’s what that was. It was wonderful to have classical music on a commercial product on the shelf at Best Buy. It was very exciting.
So your last message out to that person in the grocery store who hasn’t been here in twenty years, what’s a good way in?
I always say to people, you deserve it! I’ll tell you candidly, I didn’t know what to expect when I came here to conduct. I knew my orchestra in Hudson Valley was going to be good because it’s New York Metro area, they’re New York City freelancers, I didn’t expect the other where I’d be music director to be great symphonies.
But when I came to Youngstown, I was very positively surprised. I guess the proximity between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, this is an area, I call it the turnpike orchestra, you can actually make a living as a freelance orchestral musician in this area. Play with us, play with Canton, play with Akron, you play Erie, you play Wheeling, you sub maybe with the Cleveland Orchestra, you play the Broadway shows when they tour into Cleveland,d you play Pittsburgh Opera, you sub with the Pittsburgh Symphony, you play the touring shows when they play Pittsburgh—you take on maybe twenty or so private students, you can make a living here. You can still buy a home for a hundred thousand dollars in this area., a decent home in a decent neighborhood. Maybe it needs a little work, but where I live in L.A. a hundred thousand dollars does not buy you a nice home.
And it might not need a little work!
Exactly. So, we’re in one of those places in America. You think of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, those are the places where you can make a living as a freelance orchestral musicias because there’s a lot of different orchestras in the area. Like my guys in the Hudson Valley. I have a couple musicians who play in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and then sub regularly for New York Philharmonic. I lost my principle oboe for a year because he got a yearlong substitute position with the New York Philharmonic and then came back.
But you don’t think of Youngstown, Ohio—but it is. So we’re really lucky, and we have this constant influx of masters and doctoral students at CIM, students at Oberlin, doctoral and master’s students at Carnegie Mellon, even students at Dana or faculty at Dana, or faculty at those colleges. The guy who’s now the viola teacher at Dana taught viola at Oberlin for a year, that’s how we got him. So we can get good musicians. So that first time I conducted here for awhile, these guys are actually pretty good! So we’re so lucky!
And we have to support that. It’s not self-sustaining.
And you’ll pay essentially the same, maybe ten percent more, for the cheaper tickets here than you would pay for a 3-D movie on a weekend. It’s definitely cheaper than seeing a Youngstown football game. It’s way cheaper than seeing a major rock band touring at the Covelli Center. You know what? and it’s ours. It’s not a thing that comes in here one day and then leaves. These are our musicians. These are your neighbors. These are kids that maybe went to Dana and grew up next door. Went to the same high school with your kids. It’s ours. It’s like the Butler or like the beautiful parks and gardens that we have in this area. These are wonderful resources we have. People say, you know, we love the idea of having a symphony. Well, but if you don’t actually buy a ticket once in awhile, we won’t have a symphony anymore.
It’s an art form that’s so present.
You feel it.
You feel it. Thank you so very much! I really appreciate your time.
Stephen Poullas is a photographer, and with Daniel Rauschenbach and Bill Youngman, co-owner of the Soap Gallery in downtown Youngstown. Stephen graduated with his MBA from Case Western Reserve University in spring 2017. He and his wife Courtney are Youngstown residents.
Power of the Arts caught up with Stephen at the gallery in mid-October. Click here to listen:
This is Karen Schubert and I’m at the Soap Gallery with one of the Gallery co-owners Stephen Poullas. Steve, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Thank you! I appreciate it.
So, I know that you are a photographer and I’d like to start with that. You have some images in the show this month, there’s a show called Shutter. It’s up for a couple of months?
It’s up through the end of the month.
It’s really a stunning variety of work and I’d love for you to talk about your pieces in the show and also the show itself.
Sure. The three artists in the show are Ron Cubano, he’s got the majority of the work in the show: images from the Canfield Fair, images from around town, and some human portraits.
The other artist is Paul Grilli who does a lot of documentation work on steel mills and the history of them, preservation through photography, of showing, documenting what was there and what became of it.
I’m in the show as well. A lot of my shots are of Youngstown. I try to frame them with different types of techniques, a lot of building architecture, a lot of minimalism where I’m showing more sky than I am buildings, showing the space that could exist. I enjoy documenting our city and its progression, and hopefully, it’s renewal.
That’s a really interesting way of talking about photography, that you’re photographing things that could be there. Are you from Youngstown? Did you grow up here?
Yes. I was born and raised here, born at St. E’s, lived in Campbell, graduated from Hubbard, and I live with my wife on the South Side.
So even though you’ve moved around a little bit, this place has always been your landscape. What do you think Youngstown has, as a place, to offer an artist, or what might you see here that you wouldn’t see somewhere else? Does the light have a quality? Do the buildings have a certain texture, the landscape itself, the valleys, this really interesting natural world that’s sort of intruding into our spaces, or not?
It’s very interesting because you go up and down twenty miles of the Mahoning River, there were steel mills all across there, from Lowellville to Newcastle to all the way down by us and you can follow those railroad tracks and see echoes of what used to be there. There is still some industry there. So that’s really from an industrial perspective, if you’re looking for industrial-type of architecture, or documenting the past.
And the river’s beautiful, it runs right through it. It’s amazing to see it was once completely polluted and now it’s started to come back. In the middle of the city, the city had some great architecture because Daniel Burnham, who did the Chicago World’s Fair, designed The Federal Building, the cornices on the Wick Tower, just amazing little pieces of history and we’ve preserved a lot of it. One of my favorite moments was going into the Paramount Theater and documenting what was left there. It’s a shame we couldn’t save it and that’s true of so many places. But it’s nice to see that we’ve kept some of those bones intact.
And in the middle of the city is Mill Creek Park, that runs through it, and it’s one of the most beautiful spots. My wife is the marathon director for the Youngstown Marathon and 20 of the 26 miles are in the park. She had people come from all over the place that have never been able to run a marathon in the park. They come through downtown and back through the park. It was a challenging race but it’s beautiful.
That’s really cool. And maybe one interesting way of thinking about Youngstown is that our past is so recent. It’s not a distant past. Most of the people alive remember the past that’s now so over. And so significantly, dramatically, over.
Yes, and it’s generational. My grandfather came from Greece and was a foreman in Campbell Works. My dad tried to get into the mill by putting concrete bars into his pockets because he had a minimum weight requirement to work and he was too small. [Laughing] They eventually did hire him and a year later they closed. It’s historically significant because it was our parents’ generation. I’m thirty-four years old. I didn’t get to see the mills very much, or what was left of them, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re called the Soap Gallery. We want to not document the rust but show what it can be. And we’re a blank canvas. That’s the one nice thing about Youngstown for art is that we can do anything we want. We can tell a new story, start a new story. So that’s why we’re called Soap, because we want something that’s bright, fresh and clean. That’s us.
So you see art as a vehicle for creative reinvention, in a sense.
Absolutely. The city is almost a metaphor for—a better way for me to put it is—if your city is a house, you don’t have white walls. You want to decorate. You want to put stuff on it. You want to have a painting, a decoration of some type. And we are a piece of art on the wall of our city. We want to be as bright and vibrant, and show that art can be a business model, as well.
I want to talk about that. Let me just insert that also maybe because it’s not a big leap from an industrial city to a creative maker city, maybe that’s part of it, as well.
So I’d love to hear more about the Soap Gallery, itself. It’s a for-profit gallery, so I’d like for you to touch on that. And maybe talk about the things that you’ve learned here, what you see your mission to be, and also what you weren’t expecting.
I wasn’t expecting for us to be so diverse with what we do. When we first started, our business model was to do events and classes as our primary driver for income. So we didn’t have to be dependent on selling individual pieces to make the rent that month.
Why is that important?
Because it’s more viable. We can have a show one month that does really well and a show the next month that just doesn’t register. For some people, we have to change the mindset of what a gallery is. A lot of people in the area don’t, they think of an art gallery and they think of the Butler, which is fantastic, it’s an amazing place. We’re really privileged to have it. But to be able to walk into an art gallery and purchase a piece off the wall—
You wouldn’t walk into the Butler and say “How much is that Winslow Homer?” [Laughing]
Yes, I’d like the Abraham Lincoln, please. I was surprised how much community awareness there was, lack of awareness, there was. People still, to this day, will walk in and say, we love your museum. It’s not a museum! You can actually buy the stuff. So that’s been a little bit of a challenge to change the mindset.
We’re not just a place to purchase art. We’re an events center. We’re a community place. We do yoga, we do classes, we do workshops. I’m going to do a street photography workshop where we walk around downtown. You can bring your camera phone, it doesn’t matter. We’re a concert space, we’re a space for performing arts, it’s a place to sit and appreciate the art. And not just observe but also participate.
I know also that it’s not easy finding a venue where an event can take place. So it is really nice to have this. It’s a beautiful floor plan, just this really open space. The acoustics are fantastic, and it’s just really beautiful for photography, and the light is tremendous. Were you in on first discovering this gem of a building?
Yes. One of my close friends is Becky Keck who runs SMARTS, which coincidentally is across the street from us, wonderful neighbor, and she recommended that I speak with Rich Mills who owns the building and actually lives on the fourth floor. And the way that it was set up when we walked in, it was the Purple Cat. There were offices, there was carpet, and there was a drop ceiling covering this tin ceiling. We ripped it all out and pulled out probably a thousand nails out of the floor and made it into what it is.
It really is gorgeous. So it’s been going well? You just finished up your third year?
Into your third year? And you feel like you’re on pretty solid footing? Are people still discovering you? People walk in and say, I’ve never been here?
Yes. I had a girl walk in five minutes ago, who said, someone told me that I’m in one of these pictures with my boyfriend, and it was a thrill for her. People are still discovering us, people walk in, what is this place? And we like to introduce him.
In part because we have that big moat around the city, it’s hard to row across, but once you get here it’s pretty amazing. [Laughing]
Talk about the different shows that you’ve had. How do people find you and what’s your aesthetic driver?
We’ve had a motorcycle show in here with actual motorcycles sitting on the floor and four hundred photographs on the walls. We had, Eric Alleman’s one of my favorite artists in the area, does really non-traditional work, he covered up two of our walls completely in prints and sold a lot of them. Whatever he didn’t sell, we went out on the loading dock and he burned the rest [Laughing] as inspiration to make new work. We’ll do anything artistic. There’s a sculpture artist named Tony Armeni who’s here quite a bit. I think you know him.
I’ve heard of him.
So anything artistic we love to do. We’ve had house shows, poetry readings, we had a national recording artist in, who, we had maybe twenty-five people but it was intimate and you got to listen to all of his words and you concentrate on what he was trying to say. It was a lot different than if it took place in a bar. We had the Highland Fling last night with scotch tasting and opera singers, and anything that’s artistic we love to do.
I was here last night. The musicians were working without mics. Obviously they didn’t need mics because they’re so good at projecting, but beyond that, the music, just, you could just feel it in your body. The sound quality in here is incredible. But I don’t understand why that is because I don’t understand how sound works in spaces. But it’s just a big empty box. Do you have a sense of why—?
I think it’s the tin ceiling and the wood floors absorb some of the sound. We actually had Forty-Eight Hours in here, called me from New York and wanted to record an interview.
Oh my gosh!
And then when Derek Webb came through he said, I want to live here. I said, well, there’s a couch in the back… [Laughing] He wants to come and record an album. It’s nothing we did on purpose, we’re just fortune enough that it happened this way.
We also have a loading dock outside and we’ve had a bunch of concerts out there. The parking lot slopes down and we’re able to fit people down there, we shut down the street and we had J.D. Eicher and a songfest, a little summer music festival with three different bands and we had about three hundred people and it was great. We love doing stuff like that.
Such a wide variety of styles and genres. That’s really cool. So you’re a co-owner with two other people? Dan Rauschenbach and Bill Youngman, and how does that work? The co-ownership?
We all take turns working the gallery. If we have a really good month we’ll get paid. [Laughing] And we take turns coming up with ideas for what can be the next month’s show. In planning that stuff, I handle most of the business stuff, the accounting, the stuff that I went to school for. Dan handles a lot more of the artistic connections and different artists that we can bring through. Bill is a lot of the behind-the-scenes, the nitty gritty stuff that nobody appreciates enough.
But I will say that once I became more involved with it, and not just paying the bills, but washing the floor and doing all that other stuff, it became more of a passion for me, and not just, this is a business, but this is a reflection of who I am.
So you just got an MBA and I was going to ask you how your work and your art and the gallery all overlap. So you’re running the books. Do you see any ways that your art and your work here kind of move into your business life?
I’m fortunate enough to work a full-time job with a great company that allows me to do stuff here on the weekends. My company paid for me to go get my MBA. So I travel to a lot of our factories throughout the country and get to see a lot of the industrial— it’s a steel mill. We make steel products. So I get to see all that. And it’s an interesting thread—it’s kind of funny that I work for a steel company [Laughing]. I enjoy helping—I do I.T. project management work and it’s a little abstract and it fits my creativity, where, o.k., let’s go put an iPad on a crane and figure out how to make it work. And I get to try to put together all those pieces so I get to use my creativity on the business side and then how it works here is anything that we can come up with that’s creative, we want to do. So that’s kind of abstract, too.
I know you have some little kids keeping you busy. How are they involved with the arts? How do you bring the arts into your home?
We love to do paint nights together where we all just sit around and paint a little bit. They love coming to all of our events. When I do a photography class, my seven-year-old son will come with us and bring his film camera. They have a greater sense of appreciation. They love Daniel. Daniel is the best person you can ever have with kids. He’s great.
They’ll be attending some SMARTS programs across the street. Their grandfather is a pianist so they are exposed to—my daughter Gracie goes to bed every night listening to his music. So they’re very involved. It’s probably pretty cool for them to have a parent that’s an owner of an art gallery, you get to see all this different stuff.
Yeah. I was thinking that one day and your kids were here, what a fun place to grow up. The grandfather who plays the piano, he’s the one from Greece?
No, that’s my wife’s father, from Newcastle.
I was going to ask if you, since your grandparents were from Greece, or at least your grandfather, did you grow up hearing music, and did you grow up with the literary arts and festivals and foods—?
All of that, for sure. I was actually fortunate enough to go to Greece last summer, as part of my international study tour with school. I got to go with my classmates, and so we did a week in Spain and a week in Greece, and it was one of my most favorite experiences.
I’d heard the language so much growing up. I learned some basic words, I was speaking them in Greek and they were trying to figure out, wait a minute, [Laughing] and I’m not that Greek but I picked it up real good, mainly a lot of the food words and things of that nature. It was great to be in that culture. It’s a great way to grow up.
So if people want to find out what’s going on at the The Soap, if they’re artists and they would like to contact you about having a show or something like that, how do they find you?
Sure. So we’re physically located at 117 S. Champion St. in downtown. We’re on the same street as the YMCA, but going toward the Covelli Center. Our hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11-6 and open later for special events and classes. All of our events are listed on our Facebook page. Our website has a contact form for submissions if you’re an artist and you’d like to show or host a private event.
Steve, thank you so very much.
James Shuttic is a Warren native and graduate of Warren G. Harding High School. He earned his B.F.A. in painting from Youngstown State University and later went on to earn a degree in computer drafting and design. James is co-owner/artist at Shuttic Arts alongside his wife and fellow artist, Julia Shuttic. James is a founding member of the Independent Artist Association, and sits on the board of the Fine Arts Council of Trumbull County, where he serves as Board President, and helps manage and oversee the operations of the organization, along with the day-to-day at Art on Park, home of a number of artists studios and art organizations. Through the arts, James has helped raise money and brought awareness to a number of charitable organizations and causes, including the Mikeyfied Fund for Adult Autism, Sahara Club Recovery Center, animal rescues, recovery and mental health, urban blight, and urban redevelopment.
James has helped create and organize a number of arts-based events, including the Warren Art Hops and the annual THINK shows, where artists of all fields are invited to participate as where the public has the opportunity to interact firsthand with the arts. As an artist, James works in a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, photography, mixed media, digital/computer, and has for the past several years been collaborating with poets, writers, musicians, and members of the community on a series of live painting and performance works for the public. Over the years, James has shown in a number of both solo and group shows, and has won multiple awards for his work, as well as aided and promoted other artists.
Power of the Arts Coordinator Karen Schubert met with James in early September for coffee and conversation. Click here to listen:
KS: This is Karen Schubert and I’m here with James Shuttic. We’re upstairs at Pressed Coffee Bar and Eatery near campus and James was just telling me some of his memories of being here when it was the Beat and I remember that, too. This has been an iconic place and gathering place for a long time.
Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.
JS: Thank you for asking me.
So let’s talk about your work. I know that you have a BFA in painting from Youngstown State University and it’s occurred to me many times over that having YSU here with such strong programs in the arts really creates a whole crop of artists that graduate every year, and a lot of them stay, and it just gives us this wonderful artistic density.
Exactly. Are you connected with people that you went through the program with?
No, actually– I was fairly reserved when I was here, so I didn’t have too many friends. I was kind of quiet and did my thing and that was about it.
And so now you’re a multi-media artist, you have many interests and pursuits. You have a studio that’s an artist collective, right? Tell us about that.
Yeah. We term the building Art on Park, or that section of the building. It’s located directly on Courthouse Square in downtown Warren at 180 N. Park. There’s about seven different artist studios in there; a couple of them are collectives within themselves. There are different hours and whatnot. The Fine Arts Council, we also operate our office out of there as well, that’s kind of like our headquarters for things.
So all of the artists share a space, you share the cost of the space–
The Fine Arts Council, we rent out the major space, and then within that, it’s divided into separate studios. And then, so, we’ve invited different artists, or organizations, Collective Palette is one of the organizations, which is a collective of mental health agencies with artists with disabilities throughout the county, as well as Mikeyfied Fund for Adult Autism which is a nonprofit that uses arts to raise money for autism, adults with autism, and then there’s some independent artists. My wife and I work out of there and a couple of the artists do community-based work. So there’s not just those artists in there, but the people that they associate with work on projects, and there’s a lot of stuff that goes on at any time, at all hours of the night, which is kind of fun.
Yeah, fun and a brilliant concept, because you’re anchoring down these historic buildings right on the Square, so you have this beautiful space right in front of you–
Walk right outside, the courthouse, yeah, it’s beautiful down there.
And rather than any of you struggling to keep it alive on your own, you can pool your resources.
So before we talk about the Fine Arts Council, I would like to talk a little bit more about your own work. I was listening to your podcast on The Makeshift with Brandon Noel, just a really terrific interview that I recommend everyone listen to, and you were telling him that you’re a painter, photographer, you’re a digital artist, you work in graphic design, printmaking, and you’re also a writer. Talk a little bit about how you maneuver through all of those different media—
I think for me it goes to my, I guess, personal viewpoint of what art means to me. I think back to early childhood, I used art as a means to express those things that I couldn’t, verbally. Later on I would get into writing and what-not. So for me, I look at it as what– there’s something inside I’m trying to express and essentially use whatever medium is best suited or I feel pulled to, to do that. Which leads me to use a ton of different things. I try not to limit myself or restrict myself. That can be overwhelming and problematic at times, but at the same time, it definitely keeps me busy. It’s a lot more fun, it can be chaotic, kind of, projects all over the place, one thing leads to another, and you just kind of follow a flow of things.
That sounds really fun. And you always have the coolest t-shirts. Do you make them?
Oh, thank you. Some I do, and some I buy. [Laughing]
I’m glad tie dye is alive and well. I grew up in the era of tie dye.
I started wearing tie dye in high school but then when I came to YSU when I started taking painting classes. It hides paint and stains and coffee– I love it, to this day. [Laughing]
That sounds like a good shirt to cook in, too. [Laughing]
So talk about the Fine Arts Council of Trumbull County. What is it, exactly, what kind of an entity, where do you get your funding, what do you see as the mission, what are a few things that you have going on?
The Fine Arts Council was founded in, I want to say, 1971, so we’ve been around over forty years. I believe it was six different artist organizations and groups that came together. The reason they came together is they saw that coming together they’d be able to do more as a whole than they would as any individual singular entity or group. So six led to however many organizations over the years. They started doing programs.
One of the things that was early on, that we still have as part of our mission statement, is that we use the arts, through fostering the arts, we attempt to improve the quality of life for individuals in the community. And so we do that through providing different types of programming, it could be free music or maybe movie night or whatnot to the general community where they can just come and enjoy things. We sponsor and organize art hops where artists are invited, and artists and vendors to sell their creations, and it provides opportunities to artists that are either established or wanting to be established to reach out to the community to get involved, to have contact, to get feedback, to maybe make a little bit of money and step a foot in, and some of them decide to take a deeper pursuit, and some don’t, more hobby or whatnot.
So we do those type of things, we do Ghost Walk which is one of our events coming up in October. We have volunteer actors that re-enact famous people, historically within Warren and Trumbull County. You’re guided from the historic location and while you arrive they re-enact their story. It’s kind of cool. That type of thing helps give people a sense of what this area was about, by connection, and we try to do it in a fun way. And it’s always cool to learn new things.
And we also, this will be the second year, now, but we’re organizing, it’s actually the end of this month, is Warren Homecoming, we oversee. It’s a four-day citywide celebration of Warren with the hopes of bringing the community together to celebrate our past, our present, and hopefully guide our future somewhere more positive, working together. We get people from out of town that come. I think one of the things, with that event, it highlights what we’re able to do, and that’s a lot of smaller organizations or businesses or individuals are able to join in that weekend. Essentially what we do is, we create a community calendar, is one of the things we do. We also assist them in answering questions like, How do I set up an event? Do I need permits? What would I need to do? So we’re able to answer those types of questions and we’re also, the big thing is promote them, in a way they wouldn’t be able to do by themselves, so I think that’s important, because it kind of goes, in a sense with the mission statement of the Fine Arts Council, if we come together, we can do a lot more as a whole. Improve the life of the people in our community. So it’s kind of fun. It’s exciting.
So those are some of the things we do. We get grants, various grants, not as much as we used to, but we do get donations from businesses, organizations, as well as individuals. And thankfully because of that we’re able to do these type of things.
So you’re really helping people in the area re-conceptualize the community as being an artistic hub, a creative place, right? A place where people come together, they have a sense of identity [of the place], know their own history a little bit better, have a deeper emotional connection through the history and cultural events.
I think a lot of our area is kind of nostalgic, as you say, you’re calling it a homecoming, a lot of it is people returning who grew up here, right? And they’re remembering this place and I think when people return and they feel a certain way about the place when they come back, it has an impact on the people who are still here.
Absolutely. Through my personal experience, I think this is common with a lot of people, we kind of get stuck in our own little bubble and we see things in a very restrictive way. We forget there’s a larger picture, or a past, or other stories within the community around us going on so that weekend is a way for people to come out. And I think a lot of our programming does that, too. It helps bring people out and realize Oh! there’s this, there’s that.
I think the common thing, and I was one of those people, even when I was at YSU, I was like there’s nothing to do! There’s so much to do. You just get stuck in your own little thing and it’s like there’s a whole world going on around you. So we try to highlight some of those things and we try to bring people together, bring artists together with the community as well as bring the community together with each other, get them out of their homes, or out of their yards or whatnot, and try to engage with other human beings rather than being stuck on the t.v., computer or cell phone.
That’s really terrific. I just attended a talk by Ohio Citizens for the Arts Executive Director Bill Behrendt and he was saying, the people who are in the arts really get the value of the arts to the community. But if we have to talk about economics, we really can. The arts bring a tremendous amount of economic benefit to our communities. In fact, the return on investment is 10:1. So when the Ohio Arts Council, for example, gives an organization a dollar, the State of Ohio reaps $10 of benefit from that.
I believe it. I see, from our experience in Trumbull County, when we do events, especially if we do them downtown, we’ll even do just art openings within our gallery, within our space, maybe a third to a quarter of those people eat within the area, or go get coffee. They buy things, maybe not there, from a shop or place down the street from us. We definitely see that. So it’s been important to the revitalization of, not just Warren itself and the county but, I mean, to the state and the country as well. To see the power of what art can actually do. And I think it’s true, artists see that. We have a better way to see that. We try to create these events so that the community can start to see that, too.
And just see the economic worth of the arts, as well.
Absolutely. And not just something that’s just nice to look at.
So you’ve done some interesting collaborations, as well. Tell us about the live paintings you’ve done in conjunction with the poetry readings.
Yeah. I’m friends with a few poets, quite a few, poets and writers, and when I attended YSU, one of my teachers was Al Bright. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
Al used to do live painting to jazz, and he always encouraged us to be expressive. In college, I started doing live painting to death metal or just going outside— one of the things to me, too— it was a matter of coping with my own insecurities and fears because I’m not very much a public speaker, I don’t like being in public and I think as an artist, a lot of us are self-conscious about what people will think about our work and being judged and if it’s no good. So I made the decision to just kind of say, screw it, I’ll just go with it and put myself out there and be very vulnerable. And so that led to me partnering with all types of people throughout the years and doing different types of music events, raves, and performance, then started meeting more and more writers and it just seemed logical. Poetry and painting are very much connected, to me. I used to do a lot of poetry, and I used to do a lot of painting, and I’d incorporate words as a lot of people do.
So it didn’t seem like an illogical leap to incorporate the two. So I just kind of put it out there, and all of a sudden when I did, people were interested in partnering, which was kind of cool. One of the things I think that’s important for me, when I do them, too, is that the poets and writers, the musicians— I go into it blind, not wanting to know what they’re going to read, or even what it’s about, the subject matter— because to me, I don’t want it to be something that I overthink ahead of time and then worry about, I need to do this or that. I want it to be more organic and the feel and just capture it immediately and put it down. When I do that and I don’t second guess, it seems to work really well and not only just for me for me, but I get the sensation and also get the feedback from the poets that they can see that happening. And how their tone can change or their remarks— after they see their words or how they’re reading it— how it looks, visually, because a lot of them aren’t painters, so they love it, too. It’s been a very cool thing.
That really cool.
The public loves to see it. It’s almost like when I first saw a photograph develop out of no where. All of a sudden it’s like this thing and you’re like, that’s what it looks like. And it’s fun.
I bet it’s really fun.
And nervous, because it’s hit or miss.
And that’s a really challenging thing that you’re setting up for yourself, because a poem, is maybe a minute long.
Right? That’s the concrete imagery, but there’s also a tone and a cadence to it that maybe can also be captured artistically.
Yeah, and what color is that? It’s weird because sometimes I’ve worked with different poets and they might say the word like “sun” and lot of us think yellow or orange. But there’s been times when I went blue or black, not questioning why. And I think that has to go to the tone of the piece. I think it’s fighting the things that maybe traditionally— I think art, poetry, writing, dance, allow you to see things differently, outside of the expected way of seeing things. That’s why I think the artists, they’re the rebels, the change to how people see. There’s more to this world than what you’ve been led to believe. I think people get to see that. And it’s pretty cool.
It’s really cool!
It’s nerve-wracking going into it, know what I mean? One of those things because I love, too— in the end, I have to accept it, whether I like it or not, it is what it is. I think that’s life. I don’t go back, I don’t rework, it’s just, that’s it.
Right. Right. Each of those media have a different opportunity for revision. I know with [metals sculptor] Tony [Armeni’s] work, I tease him that I can carry my whole body of [poetry] work on a flash drive and no one gets hurt. [Laughter] As we’re carrying a 3,000 pound piece of metal. And when he makes a mistake, there’s a lot of hammering and swearing and re-welding involved.
But it seems like you have maybe a little bit of synesthesia going on in your, the way you think about your artistic creation in the sense that the senses are not delineated, right? As you said, what color is that tone or cadence. As I was looking at a few of your paintings I was wondering if you had been influenced by Charles Burchfield or what your influences, who your influences have been.
Well, I think– I’ve had a number of influences. I think the first one that I can think of, as far back, was probably– I know for me, I guess as far as traditional artists and what not, I guess as a kid, going to Catholic school, you learn Renaissance artists and traditional– Byzantine art was one of those things. I remember when we got to Byzantine art, and even in college, I remember the look of it was very different from the Renaissance, almost like photorealism. It’s a little more expressive, the dimensions were off and stuff like that. I think as a kid there was something, for me, I loved DaVinci as a child, but I love his sketches. I love artists that would leave things to the imagination, in a sense. So I’ve always been attracted to art more like that.
Early on we used to have, when I went to Catholic school, in grade school, we had a woman come, she was Chinese I believe. She taught sumi, Chinese brush painting, and I remember I loved the black on the manila paper, I loved the space in that, and the expressiveness, the quality of it. I think for me that was a huge thing. Later on, the impressionists, and Degas. Where art can be this expressive, and void can have— like a well-placed pause, in speech or in a poem, the break, that being important.
And then later on artists like Jackson Pollock, that would just explode, pure energy on canvas, and color, and then, to me, too, my time at YSU I got into a lot of street art. I started getting on the Internet a lot. I think one of the cool things about technology, and sometimes we take it for granted now, but when the Internet was, not new, but newer, and we were on it I remember looking at a lot of art going on in like L.A. or New York that, you know, I hadn’t necessarily seen as a child. You can see things in like these colors. So I don’t know if there are singular artists, there’s a couple that I think have had an impact, but really it’s— I look at like the pieces or maybe their qualities, but I try not to get into– lock myself into favorite– but I do have, it’s hard not to. I always love a Degas. If I go to a museum, I always– if I know they have a Degas in that city, I almost always make it a point to see a Degas or a Van Gogh or Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns–
And we also have an incredible amount of contemporary art coming through, the Butler–
Which I love. Yes, yes. I attended when Robert Rauschenberg has his show here, which was wonderful. I was a huge fan of his prior to that. It was almost unbelievable that he came. It was just amazing because Youngstown, Ohio! I’m from Warren. Youngstown, Ohio! It’s like– I’ve never been into sports, but that would be an all-star Hall of Fame player to me, it’s like wow. It’s like one of your idols is here! And you forget that. This place can attract all types of people. It’s an awesome thing.
That’s really cool. I would like to know more about the new ceramics studio and the Trumbull Art Gallery. So the Trumbull Art Gallery is– part of the Fine Arts Council?
No. A lot of people get confused.
What is that relationship? I don’t have it clear.
We do have a relationship. We partner on things. Being the Fine Arts Council, we do partner with other agencies or we have, even within our board, a number of individuals that are on our board as well as on the Trumbull Art Gallery. And I think that’s one of the things, when it comes to the arts, there’s a lot of cross-pollination as well as a lot of the nonprofits. My wife and I volunteer, we helped build, I was on the gallery committee for the Trumbull Art Gallery and still volunteer. It’s one of those things: they are two separate organizations but we do a lot together. One thing we see with the Fine Arts Council, I think something that if you look, nationally, I think a lot of people started to realize, to get out of that old idea of us vs. them, like let me get mine and screw everyone else. We saw the power of that. If we do something and we partner with someone else, we get the people that would come to theirs, and the additional people that wouldn’t come to either individually but will come, so we see the value in that. We do a lot back and forth.
That’s no small thing.
We’ll work with anyone willing to work. We try not to say no.
That’s really great. Every once in a while I kick a toe and think, “Is that a silo?” [Laughter] I think it’s so unproductive.
Yeah. But I think it does lead to some confusion because we’re just a couple doors down from each other, the Fine Arts Council and the Trumbull Art Gallery, we partner on events, so people see our logos and that–
And the art gallery is a nonprofit as well.
Correct. One of their big focuses is, they function as an art gallery, and while the opportunity for artists within the community as well as the region, they do regional art shows to show their work, to be shown, and they’ve had artists from out of state, too, so nationally have shown they’ve been able to bring artists from all over and then they’ve done workshops for artists in the community, and children, and they just recently opened, they just dedicated their basement towards, essentially, a maker space.
It’s stunning. It’s so beautiful.
It is. One of the things I’m excited about, well two of them. Because they have the ceramics studio. I used to love doing ceramics, but firing in the kiln, it gets expensive, once you do that. Just having a space dedicated to that so they are able to do that, and it will make it easier for a lot more people within the community, not just artists but maybe people that have always wanted to try. Also, they talked about doing a dark room for photographers. Which is another thing I’m excited about because I miss those days, too, so it’s hard to have a space.
And a residency.
Yes, and a residency.
That’s pretty cool.
Yes, it is. It is. And it’s just a couple doors down.
That’s just amazing, I mean, Warren is a pretty small place to have such a thriving arts scene. Do you have any theories about how that all works? I have a theory. Let me lay mine on the table and let’s look at it. My theory about Warren is that it’s really attributable to a handful of incredible individuals who didn’t only want to make their own work but also wanted the community to come together around the arts.
I agree. I think that’s the big thing. And that’s why I said it’s getting past that 20th century mentality of almost corporate mentality of like, it’s us vs. them, and we need ours, and more, more for me, not for you. And if you’re doing something it takes away from me. I think it took enough individuals to say, if we come together and do things for the greater good, it actually benefits us all.
And I think what it’s done, it’s created more opportunity for all those individuals. Not only did it help the community but it ended up helping some of those individuals, not just as much as it would have by their own means, but even more. It has exponentially increased the traffic.
I think so too and it’s so enlightened. For example, the brownfields exhibit. Where a number of photographers, maybe six–?
I think there were six of us.
And you all went out and took images of some kind of ruins– and just brought them back. How did you want the community to engage from that?
I think the one things is, when we were approached there was what they wanted, of course they wanted to, essentially bring awareness to the community about the largely industrial properties, some even vacant, or no longer there, that were either a potential hazard to the community or a perceived hazard, maybe just look bad, as well as some residential. So they wanted to highlight that and bring it together because some people tend to, some people can see things and they blow it up more than it is. And some people see things and they just kind of like, nah, it’s not that bad. So they wanted to give an honest evaluation of here’s what’s going on in the community. And not only that, they presented information of their plan, and not just here’s a problem, but here’s a plan. Things they’re trying to do. There was a clean-up on one of the sites, the old Republic Steel was one of the sites we documented and they’re in the process, it’s probably three quarters knocked down. They have funding through the county, state and federal government to clean the soils, a couple million dollars. So that was one of the things, not just to document the wreckage, but the process of what they’re doing which I think’s important, too.
But I know, for me, I grew up, I’m not sure about all of the other artists. I know a couple of them what they were trying to do. But I know for me, I grew up in an industrial complex with factories and right by train tracks, it’s in an area called the golden triangle, it’s in Warren, Howland. Back in the day, it was like the central location of business within that. On a map it looked like a triangle, and they called it the golden triangle because gold, money, and that was the hub. The Packards were there and all of these other places. It was the thriving part of the industry within the community. And if you were to go there today– it is a little better than a few years ago when we documented it– it’s getting better. At one point it was pretty rough and pretty bad.
So for me, I try to document some of that area but I didn’t want to– when I go there– I grew up in it– someone might say it’s depressing– to me it’s home. I grew up on the train tracks, playing in vacant buildings. I tried to, through the use of art, and photography, and I did kind of, I shot a lot of Polaroid, and packfilm for mine as well as did a digital slide show and then presented it in a way, like in an installation on the wall. I tried to make mine more interactive and draw the viewer in rather than present like an eyesore. To highlight things like the human factor without having humans in it and try to make it a little personal.
Because I think for me, when I look at– there was a point when I wanted to be an archaeologist and I remember I was always fascinated with objects, and objects that were worn down and had a story. I’d always think, what happened? The mystery of it all. And when I see buildings, architecture and that, I don’t look at it as being depressing, but having a story. I think our society looks– especially if you look at our treatment of the elderly. If something’s older, it’s no good. We get rid of it. This piece of equipment is old, let’s get rid of it.
I got into Buddhism at one point and started studying Asian culture and their value for the elderly and for history, how these things have a story. What’s the value, what can it tell the present community and what can that mean to the future so we don’t have to make the same mistakes? So for me, when I look at things I try to look at that. I look at an inanimate object almost as human. Because there’s a human element to it. It’s not just a broken-down eyesore, it’s someone that’s had a story and been through a lot, and just kind of left and abandoned but it doesn’t have the possibility– there’s a lot of possibilities.
Things can change, and in Warren we’ve seen that, where businesses started to come in, more recently, because they’ve seen the value in the community. We have tons of property and there’s a ton of potential there and we’ve used the arts to try to make life a little more enjoyable or pleasant to give people an outlet. I think when that happened, the quality of living started to increase and the desire for people to have fun things to do has increased, so business sees that, and they start moving into downtown and surrounding areas and it’s been pretty cool. So I think the brownfields, it was a huge success for that, for a number of reasons and I think that was one of them. The artists, the organizations, the county, the governor’s office, the EPA, the Port Authority, and the Fine Arts Council, Trumbull Art Gallery, that was an example of different organizations coming together.
In strength and collaboration.
Exactly. That none of them on their own could have done. And not only was it shown in Warren, it was shown over at the Erie Terminal, and after that they had some type of State function for it and they presented it there and they talked about maybe nationally next year or so. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of.
That is a great thing. So maybe a message to people from Youngstown. Let’s just just clear up a few things. If people from Youngstown want to come to Warren, do they need a passport?
[Laughter] Isn’t that a funny thing?
Does it take an hour and a half to get there?
Two days’ travel by horseback. Yeah. It’s so funny because [laughter] I just had this conversation. I remember going to YSU, doing events in Warren. And I was also involved with showing art in Youngstown, as well, to individuals. But I would always have a problem when I’d ask artists from Youngstown to come over to Warren, and vise versa, when I’d try to get people from Warren to come over to Youngstown. And I don’t know what that is. It took me 20-some minutes to get here today, and it’s not like a horrible drive, and I wasn’t speeding or that. I’m not sure what the mentality is.
We’ve tried to provide the opportunity for not just artists in Warren and Trumbull County, but regionally to do kind of cool stuff and we’ve done a couple of larger-based shows, like we’ve done these THINK shows, and the idea that I had for that was to create a big city show in a small town. I worked with a couple other individuals, a couple other artists. What we did was we found locations, businesses that could basically use the traffic. We used our show as a means to highlight the potential of different locations. We invited artists of all mediums, painters, photographers, poets, performance, we’ve had dancers, clay artists, just kind of like anything and everyone, you know, and we’ve invited them and we essentially don’t give them any limits, we just tell them, as long as it’s not illegal, we’ll show it. [Laughter] You gotta say that.
The other thing too, is, when I tell the artists, if you want to create something, don’t worry about creating something that you’re worried about what the viewer is going to think, or that you need to sell it. This is a show, if you want to do something really weird and get crazy with it and something that you’ve wanted to do but you’re afraid no one’s going to like it, do it. Don’t worry about it if it sells. Do that thing you’ve wanted to do. So people have done that. We’ve had these really amazing couple of shows.
The first one we did, we had 8″ or 10″ of show that day, and we thought, Oh no, this is going to be horrible, and no one’s going to come, and we had 5-600 people show up, from not just Warren and the surrounding communities, but we had quite a few people from Youngstown, some people came over from Sharon Pa., and we had some artists from Cleveland and Pittsburgh show up! And Cleveland had over a foot! A couple of the D.J.s, I couldn’t even believe they came. We tried to create a big show and on multiple levels and all types of stuff going on. I think that’s been something that’s been cool as well as partnering with others, those members and founder of the Independent Art Association which did some shows, who try to make art fun and engaging to where it’s like an event for people and not just like it’s hanging on the gallery kind of boring and snooty-tooty type of thing but, essentially, show the community that art can be fun. It doesn’t have to be something that’s sitting out of your reach and you can never afford it. And just because it’s not in a museum doesn’t mean it’s not good.
I think poetry has that liability as well, that it’s difficult and not accessible. But poetry is all over the place just the way art is.
Thank you so much for all of the work that you do in the community. We’re really grateful to learn more about it, and I hope you’ll see some more Youngstowners coming up your way.
I hope so!
Denise received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater from Youngstown State University’s Fine and Performing Arts College and a Juris Doctor from Case Western Reserve School of Law, where she earned an honors concentration in Law and the Arts from CWRU’s internationally recognized Spangenberg Center for Law, Technology, and the Arts. For the past twenty years, she has worked with some extremely talented and creative individuals in the arts. Not only did she focus her legal studies on law and arts, but she has acted, directed, and toured as a dramaturg. A favorite speaker at Youngstown State University’s College of Creative Arts and Communication, Denise’s real world employment in the artistic arena allows her to address concerns from an artist’s perspective, while analyzing legal issues as a trained attorney. She is an attorney with the law firm of Harrington, Hoppe, and Mitchell, Ltd.
When not volunteering for The Legal Creative, Denise serves on the Executive and Development Committees of the Board of Directors for Opera Western Reserve; the Board of Directors for the Mahoning Valley College Access Program; and the Community Advisory Board for Youngstown State University’s College of Creative Arts and Communication. She is also a Pupilage Team Leader for the Nathaniel R. Jones Inn of Court, a member of the Ohio State Bar Association, a member of the Mahoning County Bar Association, and a member of Leadership Mahoning Valley’s 2017 Class (the Best Class Ever).
Power of the Arts interviewed Bayer at Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell in downtown Youngstown. You can listen to the interview here:
Karen Schubert: This is Karen Schubert and I’m talking with Denise Glinatsis Bayer today for the Power of the Arts. We are in this lovely boardroom at the Huntington Bank Building and Denise is the director of Legal Creative. And Denise, I know you went to high school in Canfield. Was that a good program? Do you feel like it helped set you up for doing work in the arts? and for seeing wide horizons in your future life?
Denise Glinatsis Bayer: Well, I think that, academically, it was a wonderful school system to go through. While I was there I also attended YSU, through, at the time they called it SB140 program, so I was also taking classes at YSU. That was a great opportunity.
With regard to arts, I think that where I was first introduced to everything was being involved with the Youngstown Playhouse Youth Theater. So I was very involved in that, and in middle school and moving into high school, and it was just a wonderful experience. I am still friends with a lot of the people that, the kids that I was in shows with way back then. It’s very interesting how I think that experience in the youth theater and that responsibility– because we had to attend rehearsals, and we did need to miss school, for about a week, I think, to do the school performances– so you had to make sure that you were up on all of your schoolwork and didn’t get behind. I think that really set us up to succeed later. When I look at everyone that I was involved with, we’re all doing something interesting [laughter].
And from there you went on to YSU? What did you study there?
Well, I went into the theater program at YSU and I graduated with a bachelor in fine arts in theater. While we were there, again, I had a lot of great students that I went to school with that I’m still friends with, and while we were there we had a completely student run production company called Black Box Productions. I think that gave us a lot of hands-on experience into, not only, the theater production but also running a business, in general. We were provided funds by the university, but it was up to us to decide the season, to secure the licensing and the rights for the shows, to select directors for the shows and select the casts, do the sound, the lighting design, costume design, and then actually put on the shows. So that was a wonderful experience. And that was all in addition to your regular coursework. That was an extra-curricular activity.
It sounds like it was a really demanding program. I think there’s a perception that theater at the university is a frivolous program, and I know some local public universities have had to work hard to defend their theater program. You feel like it was a broad, very intense and responsibility-evoking–
Yes, definitely. We were there until all hours of the morning building a set or taking down a set, I mean, I had to buy engineering vellum to create a lighting design. So it was all sorts of skills that you tapped into for that type of degree. It did prepare me, I think, that that type of self-discipline certainly prepared me for when I went on to law school, and then even now as a practicing attorney.
So talk a little bit about your decision to go to law school. And did a theater degree set you up for that program?
You know, I am not a litigator. I’m a transactional attorney. A lot of people, when they think theater, they think oh, that will really help you with your public speaking and court work and things like that. On my end, it mostly helped me with time management and thinking of things from a different viewpoint, for lack of a better word, creatively. In working with Black Box, I thought it was just extremely interesting that I had to secure these licenses for these shows and there was this legal right on something that was intangible in creative works. I had also, through high school, I worked for a law office, so I was introduced to the law in that manner. And I knew I wanted to proceed in my education. I was either going to get an M.F.A and then maybe a Ph.D. in theater, but once I saw that there was a Law in the Arts concentration at Case Western, that piqued my interest, and so I applied and went there. That certainly helped me with– I don’t think people, especially with what I do, in terms of creating documents and agreements and trying to get parties to come together in some manner– I think people discount how creative attorneys really need to be. Because your clients come to you, they want a specific outcome. And you need to take that, given the fact of their situation, given the law, put that all together and come out with something that is appropriate, that meets your clients’ needs.
I’m so fascinated by the neuroscience that talks about how we gain empathy when we read novels, for example; maybe theater also serves you in that way where you’re actually embodying different people and so you’re really forced to see things from other points of view. And maybe it just sets you up to see the world in that way, that there are different points of view that are outside of our own selves.
Yes, definitely. And in my work, there’s a lot of things, people come to you, you know, when you’re an attorney and someone calls you, you may have hundred cases that you’re working on, a million different issues that you’re concerned about, but when your client calls you, that is at their forefront. They are worried, they are concerned, they want to make sure that this is taken care of. So you need to step back and realize that this is the most important thing in that client’s life. Right now, when they talk to you. And you have to take that into consideration when you deal with them.
Another place where I think that my background in the arts and theater really comes into play is with collaboration. With my clients, I’m not the type of attorney that’s going to hold the law up in this, like it’s some mystifying entity. I like to explain all along the way what’s going on, what we’re going to do. I like to get the client’s input. And want to make sure that they understand what we’re doing, so that it’s not just something that’s going to blindside them. So I think that I really look at my practice of law as a collaborative effort.
That’s really interesting. So talk a little about the law-and-the-arts program at Case. What kinds of things did you study?
Well, we focused a lot on, a lot of it has to do with contracts and intellectual property. So some of the classes that, the coursework that we focused on included of the music industry, law in the visual arts, a survey of intellectual property, in-depth copyright issues, in-depth trademark issues.
So that led you to start Legal Creative.
Yes. So after law school I came back and I was working for the federal court. I had a clerkship there for two years. And along the way I noticed, I was still involved in the theater and still had a lot of friends in the arts community here and there are a couple of things I noticed. One was that we did not have a Volunteer-Lawyers for the Arts here in our area. I noticed a lot of artists, and in fact, the people that assisted me with incorporating was the other folks on the board, they all noticed these same things, that we had a lot more freelance artists, people trying to make a living off of their art in this area. So taking that into account, and also the fact that, you may get that conservatory-type training, if you get a degree in any type of the arts, but you’re not really given that business or legal type of training as much. So that leads to lot of misconceptions about the law. So we wanted to create something that wasn’t just, Oh here’s an hour of pro bono legal advice, see you later, but it was also something that provided an educational resource for artists so they could understand and then they could explain to their clients these issues and the law. So that’s how the Legal Creative was born.
And you’re doing so much more than that. And so to bring that kind of information into the community you hold clinics where artists can come in and bring their individual concerns and you’ve had training sessions, right, about individual issues and things like that. But you’re also taking a really broad approach to the arts. Can you talk about some of your other initiatives?
Sure. I think that our mission is really that we want artists to be recognized for the economic impact that they make. And part of that is trying to get the public to respect the work that goes in to pieces of art, and understand that this is worth something, and that they do need to pay for these items. And that benefits our whole economic structure.
So some of the things that we’ve done, we’ve also done community art projects. We did the Youngstown Neighborhood Postcard Project, which was a lot of fun, at the YSU Festival of the Arts.
Talk about that. It was a wonderful program.
Thanks. It was based on a national program by a James L. Knight Foundation Fellow, Hunter Franks, and he was actually up in Akron at the time, which is a Knight Foundation city. So I got into contact with Hunter Franks and asked if we could bring this program to Youngstown.
One thing I feel about the arts, too, is that it’s a great equalizer in the community. So what the Youngstown Neighbor Postcard Project did was, we highlighted eight neighborhoods in the City of Youngstown. Part of the project we commissioned a local photographer, Tony Nicholas, to go into each of those neighborhoods and take a photo that was representative of that neighborhood. Then we created black and white little postcards where we asked the attendees at the festival to pick one of the eight neighborhoods that we highlighted.
So, say you had great memories of the Brownlee Woods area, which I did. My godmother lived there and I have a lot of wonderful memories of walking up to Youngstown Poland Road and Mavar’s and just being around the area. And the Happy Birthday Jesus cake, I love that, on Sheridan Road [laughter]. So a lot of great memories of the Brownlee Woods area. And that was one of the neighborhoods that we highlighted.
So you’d indicate on the postcard why you loved Brownlee Woods, and create your own personal artwork on the other side, it had a cute little Greetings From Youngstown on the other side, a traditional postcard design. During the festival, we put those postcards, we highlighted the artworks, to create a community art project around each of Tony’s photos. Then at the end of the festival, we collected all those postcards and just picked random addresses of people from other parts of the county and sent them those postcards.
And, you know, the reasoning behind that is maybe you live in Canfield or Poland or in another Youngstown neighborhood, and you think, I don’t know, what’s in The Garden District, or what’s in Brownlee Woods? Why would I go there? And then you receive this postcard with all these great memories or great things that people like to do in that neighborhood and you take a second look. So it’s something to bring people from different neighborhoods together. And also, a community art project that everyone can take part in.
And so lately you’ve been doing a project on hunger? I talked to Kent Kerr at the Summer Festival.
The Youngstown Social Cause Poster Project. Yes. One of the issues has focused on hunger in Youngstown. Currently we are partnering with the YSU Department of Art and the Mahoning County Technical College in their art department where the students in graphic design are highlighting a social issue that affects Youngstown. And one of the social issues is the access to healthy food, and hunger in this area. And so they created posters that highlighted some of these issues that affect Youngstown. For that, Kent worked on that and R.J. Thompson wrote the grant for that. We received a grant from the Puffin Foundation West for that.
So you’re using the arts to illustrate, to make visual, a community problem.
Yes. And I think that whole project should be unveiled in the fall of this year.
How do people find your– are you having trouble finding people or do you have a good formula for reaching the artists you’re trying to reach.
I think that what we need to work at is greater accessibility. For our legal clinics, it’s difficult because, usually we have them at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Next week we have one at TBEIC in Warren. And we’ve been working with location, the availability of the volunteer attorneys, and the hours that we can schedule these clinics because we do need to have artists pre-register.
We can’t accept walk-ins for this type of thing just because we want to make sure we have attorneys that are there that are comfortable answering that specific legal question. So if you have a question in copyright law we want to make sure you have an attorney who is familiar with copyright law that meets with you and is available. So I think that just by social media, I think we are reaching them, artists, I think they’re aware of our existence. I think right now we need to work on how to make ourselves more accessible to the artist.
So what are a couple of issues that artists have in this area? What are a couple of things you really want artists to know?
You’d think it would mostly be copyright/trademark type of questions, but I think mostly it’s business-related questions.
More so: Should I form a separate entity for my company? Should I form an LLC? We do a lot of contract review, as well. We’ll have people who say you know, I’ve been been doing this verbally but I really think I should have a contract because we’re having some miscommunication with some of my clients. I think that’s great. I always– that is my big issue that I like to press upon people. Especially when you’re dealing with works that have that intellectual property layers to them, you want to make sure that you and your client are on the same page. Sometimes, as you mentioned, for tax purposes, forming a separate entity can sometimes help you and maybe streamline, hey I’m using all of this for business expenses, and this can be something that might be deductible. So sometimes having a separate account, a separate entity, helps you streamline those type of considerations.
Do you think that arts programs like YSU should offer more of these practical issues in their programming?
Yes I do, and we’ve actually been in discussions with YSU to present a series of lunchtime brown bag type seminars for the students throughout the year. So hopefully that will be coming into fruition. This would be something that would occur, you know, focused towards the students, at a time when they’re already on the university campus and addressing some of these, giving them some hands-on workshops. So hopefully that might evolve into a full-blown course in the future. But I think what’s nice is that the dean, the faculty at YSU recognizes that the students do need to have access to this, and we do need to make it easy for them to attend and to be apprised of these type of issues.
Any other thoughts about what you’d like people to know about Legal Creative or about the arts here? I just want to ask you quickly if you miss theater? Do you dip a toe in, sometimes?
I do. Right now it’s a little busy because I have two small children. But I was very involved in the Shakespeare in the Park and those type of shows, so I do miss theater. Maybe once the kids are a little bit older, I’ll go back, I’m sure. But I love being in the audience and supporting theater that way.
If I were to say anything, it’s just: You know. Go see a show. Go to a concert. Go to an art showing. You know the quality of artists that we have in this area. And just support them. The Legal Creative is here to also provide that type of support to artists so that we can get that message out there. Look at the quality of arts that we have in Youngstown, Ohio, in Warren, Ohio, in Sharon. Look at the talent that we have in this area and let’s support it, and let’s realize what a benefit it is to our community economically and not just as an aesthetic asset.
We’ll that’s a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it very much.
Jimmy Sutman is a proud graduate of the now defunct Best Driving School. He also attended Grove City College for undergraduate work and Youngstown State University for graduate work. There he studied creative writing under the tutelage of Steve Reese and Phil Brady. Jimmy works with a diverse group of people at the Purple Cat, ISLE, and Golden String Inc. His latest passion is caring for peafowl, a passion groomed from the readings of Flannery O’Connor. His peacocks reside at Farmer Casey’s Ranch in Coitsville, Ohio. Jimmy resides with his wife, Jill, in Downtown Youngstown.
Power of the Arts interviewed Sutman in Jimmy’s Pearl Street office. You can listen to the interview here:
Karen Schubert: This is Karen Schubert with Power of the Arts and I’m interviewing Jimmy Sutman today. I’m in Jimmy’s office. You can tell it’s full of color and notes and books and there’s so much going on here. I just have a sense being in this space that you have a rich and varied life and lots of things going on at once. So thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day.
Jimmy Sutman: My pleasure.
I want to talk a little bit about how you got here. I know that you went to Poland Seminary. You’re a Youngstown boy?
And you went to Grove City?
Yes, I went to Grove City College.
What were you studying there?
Communications. It has served me well. Public speaking, I do a lot of that type of thing. But everything from professional to creative writing. I was pretty blessed. I had a lot of good instructors there. And even not so much the instruction but just their passion for it, you know, they instilled a lot of that in me. I’m always on the hunt. I really like research. This was back in the day before we could look everything up on Google and our phones where you had to go to ancient books to find obscure facts.
I know what you mean. People who didn’t grow up with that will never cease to see it as a miracle.
Everything you want to know right in your pocket.
How much time, you know? I struggle with time because everything moves too fast. Especially for my adults with disabilities— this world that is getting faster and faster, is sending them further and further on the outside, on the edges, fringes of society. There’s a little bit of sadness of that, that I try to slow everything down. I just did an in-service with about one hundred of my employees and that was one of the main focuses where we have to slow down. Don’t be on your cell phone with the clients. Listen to them when they get home. Ask them questions. The details. Pay attention to details. Don’t skip over them.
I think that is something that is common in the world today, that those with disabilities aren’t interesting or aren’t capable of art. Their art is so unique and so beautiful, it just takes a little while to uncover it. You’ve got to take a little more time to see it. And when you do, it’s just fascinating. Especially in the world of autism, what’s going on in some of the minds of these individuals. It’s tough to tap into it, but once you do, you can find something that is just absolutely a miracle. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to slow things down and we’re trying to expose the personalities of these folks and I guess, in turn, find art in that.
Yes. And I think, really, a lot of my folks with disabilities, because they didn’t fit in, in so many different areas of society, that they really weren’t exposed to the arts. So I really think that that is one of our missions. We are to expose, inundate our folks with the arts, whether it be doing watercolors, or on the stage of the Youngstown Playhouse, or reading their poems on GoldenStringRadio.org, whatever it may be, just keep exposing them.
It’s kind of sad, especially some of our aging folks, we do a lot of residential for folks and that usually means when Mom and Dad are ill or when Mom and Dad pass away, they come and live with us. So we have a lot of folks who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and it’s sad that people that age, a lot of them have never been exposed to some of the arts. Even an individual, let’s say, with Down syndrome, at 58, might be getting their first real exposure to that. And— boy. It’s immediate. [Snaps fingers] We see changes, immediately.
I love your baseline assumption that people who don’t have disabilities are getting enough exposure to the arts. Do you really believe that?
You look back in your life and you see that they were pretty rich with arts.
Um— believe me, I think the human spirit gravitate towards it, even if you’re not exposed to it. Our first client Joe Gallagher who I’ll use as— I knew him the best. We were really tight. He passed away about five years ago. Joe was the inspiration for ISLE, which is the residential, the Purple Cat, which is the day program, Golden String, which is the 501c3 that raises money to support socialization and the arts for our folks, heck, Joe is even inspiration for the candy store, because he wanted to work somewhere, which is Touch the Moon in downtown Youngstown.
But Joe, working class family, Southside of Youngstown, hard Irish folk, they weren’t soft in many ways. They weren’t going to take Joe to art classes. As long as Joe was not in trouble, they really didn’t pay him a lot of mind. And Joe was the youngest of, at one time, seven or eight children. So as long as Joe was safe and he wasn’t in trouble, everyone was happy.
Joe, himself, found it. He found music.
Do you think his siblings did?
I think that they did, because they had the capabilities to go out and look for it. And they had friends that could drive and take them places, they could get on the bus and go places, to a theater or see a concert. But Joe didn’t have all of those options. He wasn’t trusted to do those types of things. There just wasn’t someone that would do it.
So he, on his own, this was in the era of rock ‘n roll coming in, Joe found 45 records, and he would go all over town scrounging them up and collecting these things. When he first came to live with us he would sit in his room for hours and just look, I mean, literally stare at the record player and when the song was over, flip it up and change something, or stare at the covers, the album covers. He found his own way and I think the family was probably happy with that too. Joe, go play with your records. Go up in the upstairs and get out of our hair for a little bit.
But who didn’t do that in those days? That just sounds like a universal experience. Right?
Exactly. And he found it. But Joe was a bright guy.
How did you meet him?
I knew of Joe when I was a very little boy. We lived in a similar neighborhood and our parents were friends. They used to play a lot of cards together back in the day when the neighbors would get together and do a lot of that type of thing on the front porch. But there was a period of twenty years when Joe was not part of my life. Once I graduated from Grove City College, I took a part-time job working at the sheltered workshops, which really changed my life.
I can remember the first day of my work in the field, at the sheltered workshop, Joe Gallagher got off a giant school bus. They were still at that time bringing our folks in yellow school buses even though they were adults. And Joe got off that bus and he looked at me and he just was by my side from that point on. It wasn’t like he recognized me, because I was a small boy when he knew me previously. But I don’t know, I don’t know what I did, but he just wanted to be near me a lot, and so because of that we became good friends.
Wow. What was the trajectory of going from that first job to deciding that you wanted to start a program of your own?
That’s a good question because that was not even a thought. I had gone to school for communications. My main job, I was working for WKBN, so I was heading in the news field. But I was disenchanted with that. I don’t know what I thought— I went to school for four years thinking I was going to become a t.v. journalist and then I found out it takes about twenty minute to write the news and you have to write it at a fifth grade level, and there really wasn’t much art or style to it. It was professional writing, and I appreciated that, a great resumé builder, but not something that I knew was going to keep me occupied or my mind occupied.
So getting back to your point there, at the workshops, here I was with these people who all had needs. Immediately I saw this as the ultimately problem-solving situation. Families would come to me and say, I don’t want to talk about the sheltered workshop, because I know Joe is o.k. here, but at home, we haven’t been on a vacation in twenty years because Joe won’t get on an airplane.
Or even worse, I had some families say to me, it would be a widow who would come and say to me, I go to bed every night worried sick what’s going to happen to my son or daughter because he’s an only child or she’s an only child, and there’s no one to take care of them and I’m not going to be around a lot longer. What do I do? So there was a lot of gravity to that.
So after working there for approximately five years, I thought, there’s bigger problems out there. I was tired of dealing with bureaucracy, too. The sheltered workshops were run by the state. There were a lot of employees that were your stereotypical state employees that really weren’t doing much. There were instructors that were content to sit a group of people with disabilities around the table and just have them cut coupons or color. And these are adults. And everyday I was coming home frustrated.
So it was time for a change no matter what. I kind of rolled the dice and said, maybe I’ll try this residential thing because all these families are saying the same thing over and over to me. And there were systems in place but they were very sterile, they were institutions, still at the time, this is the late ‘90s, so I thought, heck! let me go out there and start a home, a nice home, that people would feel like a home.
So you can be a lot more nimble, a lot more tailored, and create a rich and warm environment and programming.
We can paint the wall whatever color Joe Gallagher wants it versus it has to be this standard white because that’s what we do in all of our buildings.
No purple! So what is your relationship with government infrastructure or government funding?
I would classify it as positive.
What is it, exactly?
We are part of the Medicaid system. So most of our folks, we do have some who are private pay, or some we just take because it’s the right thing to do, but most of our folks are part of the Medicaid waiver system. So they either have what’s called an I.O. waiver, which stands for Individual Options, or Level 1, which is kind of like the baby brother of the I.O. People who are with us residentially have the I.O.s, because all the I.O. waiver pays for is staffing, some environmental modifications if needed, but those are minor. It’s mainly staffing, twenty-four-hour-a-day staffing. So if Joe Gallagher lived with three other people, all four of their waivers combined pay for twenty-four hour-staffing, seven days a week.
Purple Cat is day program. A lot of those folks have the Level 1, baby brother, waiver, and that pays for their transportation to and from Purple Cat and for their day program.
So I feel like, for those people who are really keeping track of the news I just want to note here, because they’ll be thinking about it, that you’re probably watching very carefully to see what happens with Medicaid. I wish we had more time to talk about that, but I did notice on your website that you have two hundred employees and one hundred fifty clients. I just, noted, that that’s an incredible ratio. You have more employees than clients! That’s amazing.
Yeah, and that’s outdated now, our in-services, every year in July we have to in-service every one of those employees on the latest news in safety and trainings. People with developmental disabilities, and we’re going to train close to four hundred people this year. Some of those are volunteers, but yeah. It’s kind of funny. People don’t think that, because of the nature of a lot of our folks, too, and this has been challenging, we don’t take just the easiest folks. We have a lot of folks who require a one-on-one, meaning all day long, twenty-four hours a day, meaning one staff person for this client due to behavioral concerns. We have some that one-on-one little periods of the day for medical concerns.
The face of everything has changed, and there’s no doubt about it, the government wants us to become a more a medical model. I like that, because that’s keeping people out of nursing homes; it’s keeping people out of hospitals longer; and we have such a good staff-to-client ratio. Joe Gallagher, there was lots of talk toward the end of his life of him having to go in a nursing facility and I wouldn’t have it. Most of the time in a nursing facility there’s one staff person for twelve people that have a myriad of medical issues. Where Joe was living, it was 1:4 ratio. I’ll take that any day. And plus I can get extra staff. A nurse even to come in to help Joe with specific medical needs.
I’m a little blown away with all you’ve learned since you got your degree in communications. Are you an autodidact?
It’s just— again— it’s problem solving. If I need to find some information, that’s where my research comes in. I will call the people. I will find it. I’m blessed and there’s no way I can do this— I have a great surrounding corps of dedicated, smart people who find things out for me and they go out and help me tremendously. So that’s essential. But you know, basically, it’s just a product of weird problems that pop up out of nowhere and everybody looks at me and says, What are we gonna do? And I was like, well this is what we’re going to do. We’re going in this direction. We’re going to do this. I’m o.k. with that role. I don’t know if I always will be, because, again, what we do is 24/7 and there are times where we have multiple fires going at one time, and you think to yourself I don’t know if I can keep this pace. But God always sends me some peace. The arts give me my peace. And I think that’s why I love it so much, personally.
Thank you for transitioning. I was working my way back to that, as well. So exactly what kinds of arts are you bringing into your programming? What does that look like?
Our Purple Cat really has allowed us to focus on that.
What do you mean by that, exactly, Purple Cat?
Again, just going back to me working at the sheltered workshop, if you’re an adult, and Joe Gallagher graduated from high school (which he never did because it just was a different era), but when he became an adult, he had no options. And then thankfully someone created the sheltered workshop system, so probably in his 20s Joe had no structured, any programming. In his 30s, he was able to go to a sheltered workshop for awhile. And it stayed that way through the ’70s, the ’80s, mid-’90s, finally, Joe, people like Joe that graduated high school, and folks with disabilities can stay in until the age of 22, either go to the sheltered workshop or now you can get a job. You can try to find a job. Obviously those weren’t plentiful.
But with the advent of Purple Cat and some of the other alternative day programs, finally, in the 2000s, people who were graduating had choice, and that’s what fueled me— you didn’t have to choose the Purple Cat. Families would call me up and ask, what should I do? Go to all five, six places, pick the place that’s best for you.
And so along that thought with the Purple Cats, my wife Jill and I, because Jill runs the Purple Cat, I’m the big running, trying to run everything, but day-to-day operations is Jill at the Purple Cat and Jill’s philosophy more than mine is, as we take new people and we have to grow. We’re not going to have cookie-cutter places. Because we want our folks to have choices within the Purple Cat.
All of our folks want to work. Not all, but most want to work. One hundred percent want some of the arts. So that’s been the flavor. Our Purple Cats range from our farm with alpacas, peacocks, now we’re having bees, we’re making honey—
So the short definition of Purple Cat is day programming.
Correct. It’s actually called day habilitation. Not rehab.
Yeah, enrichment’s a good word. So we have a farm, people can work at the farm, but we also, at every one of our Purple Cats have an art instructor and a music instructor. Anyone that you’re at you can always get that. But the farm, agriculture, working with animals.
Our Morley Theater, which is a theater, it’s the old Oakland Theater, so every day they can put on their own performances for themselves or record things or record videos or play Wii on the big movie screen, whatever they want to do. So there’s definitely a dramatic tilt to the Morley Theater.
Gallagher’s Lunch Bucket, named after my good friend Joe Gallagher, is a restaurant. That’s at the Oak Hill Renaissance, so people who want to work in the restaurant field get to do that. But there’s also instructors to do art and instructors to do music.
Here at Pearl Street we take a lot of folks who are on the autism spectrum, which is great. And we have Golden String Radio here which is an internet radio station, designed by our folks with disabilities where they are professional DJs, they get paid to do their own shows. We also have a kitchen, a training kitchen here. We also have arts. We do a lot with landscaping. We’re about to get animals out here if the City of Youngstown will allow such things.
What kind of animals?
Well, our first choice would be chickens. That’s a losing battle. But there are close variations of chickens. We’re looking at ducks and rabbits. The peacock thing— if they’re going to be upset about a cock being loud, they’re really going to be upset about a peacock screaming.
[Laughing] They are so loud.
I can circumvent the system and really turn the screw to the City on that one because I think they would allow the peacocks because they don’t know they can be quite loud.
But anyway, the Purple Cats are all different. And if people want to rotate, we rotate them. Maybe they want to work in wintertime in the kitchen at Gallagher’s, but they love to work in agriculture in summertime, at the farm. Bingo! That’s what we’re trying to do is put people, not put them into a specific place. Have them develop their space.
That’s interesting, too. When we first started the Purple Cat I thought, oh, boy we’re going to struggle to be able to pay people who are very specific in what they do. We have no problem with employment with Purple Cat. And people who have degrees. These aren’t people who— I’d be o.k. with that— you don’t have to have a degree to be an art instructor at Purple Cat, but we’re getting way professional people who can do huge, huge things. But our turnover rate hasn’t been— we just had a great instructor leave because her dream has been to work in library sciences and she has an opening to go a little far away and do that and we love that. We love that and she told me how, wrote a beautiful going away letter about how working with the clients has changed her thoughts, and how it’s going to affect her in the library sciences.
But a lot of folks with these degrees are sticking around. And I think a lot of that is creativity. We allow them to do what they want. You want to do this particular play, o.k. Amy Rigby leads our charge in that. I mean, she’s writing plays, to our clients’ needs because she knows the actors and actresses, their specific things, taking wheelchairs into consideration whenever she’s on the stage. So her adaptations and original things have been great. She’s the inspiration behind our variety show.
Our folks, a lot of them grew up, their parents would sit them in front of the t.v., so they’re very familiar with the variety show genre of the ’60s and ’70s, everything from Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie to Bob Hope. They know all of that. So we’re going to kind of infuse that flavor. But you know, even specifics, ceramics, watercolors— this office is filled with little cards and notes, from people who— a lot of them can’t read or write but that makes them more special. They’re just allowing them to do specific little things with the arts. Just giving them supplies and saying, go with it.
So the arts are a vehicle for expression and creativity—
No doubt about it. And I think they all look at it as, I don’t go to a day program, it’s a job. This is my job. And it’s cute, Joe Gallagher used to say to me, every part of his day at the Purple Cat, he wanted to go to college. He called it college. That meant he could, and Joe couldn’t really read or write but I would write things and he would just copy it. He would sit there for hours in his own little handwriting but he loved it. It kept him busy and he felt he was doing, he’d see me at my computer or see me doing it, he wanted to do it. And in his mind, that’s what it was. So Joe went to college too. We always said, o.k., you’re going to college. Never, This isn’t college! That’s one of the fascinating things about my folks, too, is they come with what typical folks would think are wild ideas and very rarely do I say no. I’m like, that’s an interesting thought! and even if we have to adapt it or change it, we go with it.
That’s really great. So I know that you love poetry. Do you remember how you came to poetry?
Definitely the biggest inspiration was Frank Monahan who was my freshman high school English teacher. In fact, I was just watching, just a little bit, I don’t watch much t.v. but I couldn’t sleep the other night and I was watching West Side Story, which I always understood was Romeo and Juliet, because I remember watching it specifically in English class. My family never would have exposed me to Broadway, singing and dancing, and I can remember being blown away. These are gangs and they’re dancing! and this is so bizarre! I loved it.
That’s an example of what he exposed me to. But not only that, I mean, I can understand, again, the Romeo and Juliet that’s part, not an uncommon part of the curriculum at that age, but he would bring in comic strips. He would bring in little snippets of movies, old filmstrips of people from the ’30s and ’40s talking about the classics, and then we would compare it to how people talk about them now. How thought has changed in society.
Wow, that’s cool.
He really was brilliant with it, and of course I wasn’t brilliant, but it just stuck with me. And he was always, just very positive. I would like to think he saw a lot in me, but I think he was probably like that to everybody. And he’s passed away now, too. But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about his influence. And that was the big thing with poetry. He liked modern American poetry. I thought poetry had to be sonnets. I didn’t think poetry could be— everything from haikus to Bukowski. I had no clue. So he said yes, you couldn’t be that way. You might not like the sonnet but you’re going to like this! And we did.
How do you think we get stuck on that? I know a lot of people, too, whose perception of poetry is that it’s difficult and archaic, and I feel like if everyone knew contemporary poetry, they would like it. They would know that they like it. It’s so likeable!
Oh gosh and it’s so much fun. Did you get my last email that I sent you, from [Barbara] Crooker? She described the moon as “a cheeseburger on a black grill.” That’s far away from, you know, Old English poetry.
Beautiful in its own right.
Yep. So domestic, and tender, and so sensitive, and just so easy to understand. It’s just little compressed little stories.
Oh gosh, and in a speedy world I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on more. You get such a story, and sometimes the best poets can say it in very little, so well without say it.
Have you been writing poetry yourself?
I have. I probably have about 200-250 poems that are never finished. Some of them are somewhat finished, but I always kind of go back and try to rework. Some of them I don’t because they’re so personal to that time in my life. And I read them during my poetry show.
Tell us about your poetry show.
Um, it’s called Oranges: Pop Music and Poetry. One of the people that Frank Monahan exposed me to is Gary Soto. Gary does write a lot teen-type stuff, and he’s written some books, but he’s just a great poet, and talk about describing normal, every day things in a beautiful way, he really has that talent. So I just named it after that. Because “Oranges” by Soto was really the first poem that kind of inspired me that I could write like that. Not as well, but I could write like that. So I just wanted to always think, like ISLE, stands for Iron and String Life Enhancement.
The “Iron” is Joe Gallagher. Joe loved to iron clothes. He was a fiend for that. My second client, his name was Bradley Huffman, always had a little ball of string.
Oh! That’s so lovely.
When I name things, I try not to lose the heritage. Oranges, I named it after that and whether it becomes something special or it’s just a little poetry show where Jimmy Sutman reads and not many people listen to it, I’m o.k. with that. But I try to have names that are kind of anchored in history.
But talking about the show, it’s great. I just read, what I do is I usually read a poem, very few are my originals, a poem from anyone, from local poets to the classics to new contemporary stuff and then I play a couple songs that I feel tie in to it. There’s a little bit of intrigue there, you have to figure out how they’re tied together; sometimes it’s quite overt. Reading a poem about flight attendants and then I play “Waitress in the Sky” after that, and obviously you can figure out why. But sometimes, there might be one lyric or one word in the song that ties into the poem. So, again, it’s the research of it. It’s goofy, I often say I narrowly missed being on that autism spectrum, because I can go on a hunt for weeks for that one perfect song or that one poem and again, I might only have a dozen people listening, or maybe five people listening, and I know they don’t pick up on it, but it pleases me.
That’s a wonderful quest. Jimmy, thank you so very much for talking to us today. I really appreciate it.
Tara C. Walker-Pollock is the Success After 6 Manager for United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which provides a number of enrichment opportunities and wraparound services for families throughout the Valley. Started in 2015 at Youngstown Community School, Success After 6 will now reach families in a total of 7 schools, including 5 elementary schools in the Youngstown City Schools District. Tara is thrilled about the opportunity she’s been given to serve children and families in the community where she grew up. She hopes to pave the way for the next generation of Youngstown to see themselves as being proud products of Youngstown and fully capable of moving the city towards a great future. Tara resides in Youngstown with her husband and daughter.
Power of the Arts coordinator Karen Schubert interviewed Walker Pollock in the Power of the Arts office downtown.
Listen to the interview here:
or read the transcript, below.
KS: Tara, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
TWP: Thank you for reaching out to me.
So we’ve just come from the ribbon cutting at the SMARTS Center in their new home downtown. It’s such a beautiful place, everything—
The room was full of hope and optimism. It’s great to see. Tell us how you have been involved with the SMARTS program.
So how I got involved working with SMARTS was, I am currently the Success After 6 manager for United Way of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, and under our Success After 6 Umbrella we have an after school program. We started the program at Youngstown Community School in 2015 and then this most recent school year we expanded into Youngstown City Schools at Taft Elementary.
I was in charge of the program at Taft Elementary so we had SMARTS programming this year. They worked with us the entire school year. They provided three different sessions, so first we did theater arts for ten weeks, we did ten weeks of visual arts and printmaking, and then we did ten weeks of the drum circles.
That sounds incredible. I’ve seen some clips on the Taft Promise Neighborhood Facebook page and it looks like so much fun. There’s just this exuberance and engagement. So at Success After 6— does that mean only particular children can be involved? Is there some kind of a screening process?
So Success After 6, the after school program, we are really trying to work with students primarily that need extra support. Success After 6 is more than an after school program. We also provide a lot of wrap-around services but when it came to the after school piece, we wanted to make sure we were primarily working with students that needed extra support, be it academics, also social-emotional. We help support families; so we started by reaching out to families at the school, letting them know that this program was coming, and gave them an opportunity to be a part that way. We also worked with teachers to identify the students that really could benefit from the support that we were looking to offer. Again, academic support was very crucial to our program, but also the social-emotional support that a lot of students need.
We know that many of our students come from some very challenging situations, at times heart-breaking situations, and so even though we do all that we can to impact their lives in a positive way, sometimes they’re still going home to, again, very challenging and heart-breaking situations. So just wanting to make sure that we had that support to offer to the Taft community which was where we started.
And you started at Taft because it was selected as the Promise Neighborhood—
Yeah, Taft Promise Neighborhood has come together in such an amazing way. There are, probably, over forty partners from throughout the Mahoning Valley that have come together to make Taft Promise Neighborhood a reality. United Way specifically heads up the education piece of Taft Promise Neighborhood. The Taft area was chosen with the idea of having a school as the community hub. So impacting the children that are students of the school but also impacting the communities through the other services and programs that we provided. And Taft, at that point, was one of the only schools in the district that was still considered a true neighborhood school, where a lot of the students lived within close proximity of the school where they can walk or ride their bikes to school. That had a lot to do with why Taft Elementary was chosen as a community hub.
Is this a change of direction for the United Way? They’ve been funding other organizations that have programming, but then to take on programming themselves—do you know the impetus behind that? Was it filling some kind of a void?
We have taken a shift to a more “impact model” where we are providing the direct impact. We do still fund other agencies that support a lot of our impact work that we’re doing, so that part of United Way, that we’ve always known United Way to be, is still in place. But moving towards this impact model is something that more United Ways are starting to do. There are two United Ways in particular that we visited to explore starting the community school concept. There is a United Way in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, and then there’s one out in the Salt Lake City area where they’ve been doing this work in the community schools for several years now. And they really started to make great strides. So we kind of used those as our model.
And then when we were able to come together with the AmerCorps VISTAs, and the folks that had already signed on for the Taft Promise Neighborhood, it was the perfect fit. It just all came together at the right time, and we were able to move forward together.
Did they have arts programming at Taft, is there regular arts programming there?
They do have art classes, they also have music classes, so there is a teacher who would come in at least once a week to make sure that every class there was getting art and then also music.
So they would have art or music once a week?
Both. They would have both art and music once a week.
How long has the Success After 6 program at Taft been up and running?
This past school year, the 2016-17 school year, was our very first year in Youngstown City Schools at Taft, and now moving forward into the next school year, 2017-18, we will be in Taft as well as four other elementaries in Youngstown City Schools. We will still be at Youngstown Community School; we’re also expanding into Girard Schools, but in Youngstown City we will continue to be at Taft, also Williamson, MLK, Bunn, and McGuffey. So we are expanding pretty quickly.
That’s exciting. So, any assessment program is not yet complete. But what’s your feeling about what a difference it’s made? What are you seeing and hearing?
I’m feeling very optimistic. This is very difficult work. You become very attached to the children and the families and the challenges that they’re facing. But one thing I’ve seen is that children, and even some of the adults, they are so resilient. And you just can’t imagine the situations they come to school with every day and they still have smiles on their faces.
There’s a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings that you get from doing this work, but again, academics was a crucial part of our program, and you know, we’re working. We’re working on making strides academically, as well. One of the key changes going into this next school year in Youngstown City is that we will be working together with the district, because the district also started an after school program this past year, and so we will get to work together to help impact the children both academically, and then Success After 6 will also provide enrichment opportunities for the students.
It’s so much more than just an after school program where you’re just keeping people alive and maybe giving them a snack.
Which all of that is important, but we say all the time that we’re not here to babysitting children. No disrespect to that line of work, but for us, again, it was about academics, because it’s no secret that Youngstown City is facing a lot in terms of overcoming where they are as a district, academically. So anything that we can do to help support them, moving forward and reaching success, is absolutely so crucial to our program.
What about the arts, in particular? Why include that if you really need an academic program? Why not just focus on the academics without the arts?
We just heard some of the statistics at the ribbon-cutting ceremony: it’s very real that arts programming impacts children’s lives in a major way and gives them something to focus on and put their energy towards. One of the statistics was saying how children involved in the arts are less likely to dabble in drugs and do some other things. We have a lot of children who are going home to some very tough situations, and so I think the arts is so important to give them something positive to focus on and help them to find something within themselves that they might not have ever known was there, that they can aspire to.
Of course, academics is very crucial, but with Success After 6, it was also crucial to help with the social-emotional development of our students, because it takes more than just book smarts to be successful in life. While that is huge, it was very important to provide those other outlets for students to express themselves, and inspire them in the classroom but also expose them to different opportunities.
So— creativity and a sense of empowerment, strengthening those neural pathways, and just feeling really engaged. It’s often a collaborative or group project, so you’re working together, knowing people in different ways.
Speaking of AmeriCorpsVISTA, you and I met during an AmeriCorpsVISTA service year at Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. At the time, you were working on your master’s degree at Penn State in Community and Economic Development. What do you think led you to want to do this kind of nonprofit work?
It really came during that time of being at YNDC as an AmeriCorpsVISTA and also being in school for my master’s at the same time. Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation provided such an amazing opportunity for me to learn and get into community development work because it was different from what I’d been doing. I learned so much there. But one of the things that came to me, especially while I was a VISTA, was, you know, the work that’s being done by organizations like YNDC and others in the Valley is amazing, but, as we who are here doing the work right now move on and start to do other things with our lives, who are we going to pass all of this work on to?
For me, I felt that it would be a disservice to our community if we weren’t also working just as hard on the development of our youth, so that they have something to grow up and say, like, I want to impact Youngstown! This is where I’m from, I’m proud to be from here, and I can have an impact right here, where I grew up. For me, growing up in this area, I’ll be quite honest, I was encouraged to go away to college, and I didn’t feel at the time that there were opportunities for me here to do what it was that I wanted to do. And when I came to YNDC and I saw, oh yeah, there is opportunity for me here, I became really, really passionate about being able to spread that to the youth that are coming up right now, so that they can have something that they can take ownership of right here in Youngstown.
I know exactly what you mean. I think there’s a big difference. For me, it just occurred to me that we all have a sense that things are good or not good or—whatever that general feeling is—and maybe we have a few theories about what might make it better. There’s something life-altering about looking at the data and really seeing how the data’s changed over time and looking at best practices, what have other communities tried, and what have really worked? It’s also very uplifting, but it’s also so concrete. You realize you don’t have to move forward making public policy on theory. We can really try out plans that have solid backing, statistics-wise.
And so, you’re a new mom—
How do you think that has that changed your idea of the importance of the arts in our individual lives? Do you see her engaging? I know she’s pretty little.
She’s 2 ½. I can’t wait— I was just thinking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for SMARTS, I can’t wait until my daughter can benefit from programs like this. I was fortunate to be able to take dance lessons and piano lessons when I was a kid. So many kids don’t get that opportunity because their families just can’t afford to provide those types of opportunities. But to have things like SMARTS in our community is so exciting. I definitely can see my daughter being engaged in the arts. She’s already very expressive and loves music, just like me and her dad, and I can totally see how it can help further develop her. She’s very smart, very intelligent, and I just can’t wait to see how she can benefit from programs like SMARTS.
And I really appreciate the point you’re making that we are working to convey this idea that the arts isn’t just for people who can afford it. That that enrichment should be available to everyone. And people need to see themselves there. They need people who look like them, and people whose experiences are similar to theirs.
Do you have anything else that you would like to tell us about the power of the arts in the community, or anything you’d like us to know?
I’m just very excited for opportunities like this to be taking place, be it SMARTS, be it Lindsay Renea Dance Theater—there are amazing arts opportunities here in Youngstown being led by people who are from this community, and it’s really exciting to see. I just am grateful to be a part of it, grateful that we’re able to continue working with SMARTS and that they’ll be able to expand with us as we expand. Just being able to spread the word: this is arts. This is for you. I’m just really excited about this opportunity and where it’s going to lead.
⇒Watch a video of Taft’s end-of-the-year picnic with a cameo by Tara’s daughter. dance_party
Power of the Arts coordinator Karen Schubert interviewed Hallahan by the courtyard fountain on the YSU campus.
Listen to the interview here:
or read the transcript, below. (Please note: a few corrections were made in the transcription.)
KS: Ed, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your interesting life as an artist in our community.
EH: Well thank you, and it’s a wonderful privilege and I appreciate the opportunity.
So we’re meeting behind behind the Butler Institute of American Art, where you work in the exhibits, exhibit design, preparatory work. Tell us a little bit about the work you do at the Butler.
It has to do with all the hands-on work at the museum, I guess. The stuff you don’t see. Normally people walk into a museum and they just see paintings resting on the wall [laughter] in repose, kind of like you view the dead bodies of the paintings. Picasso said when the painting leaves the studio it’s dead. I have that fantasy sometimes, looking at paintings in the museum. [laughter] But what I do is handle a lot of the art work and physically put up the art on the walls or the sculpture whatever it is— framing matting, lighting, some minor curatorial stuff.
I also teach a class at the Butler for high school juniors and seniors. It’s called Arts Honors and it’s created to be a transition experience between high school and their college. Most of these students have intentions to go on in the visual arts so it’s an opportunity to stretch their experience a little more than what they would get from high school, a little more like what they would get in college.
I’ve heard art faculty at YSU say that one challenge that young people have today in studying the arts is that they haven’t—because their entertainment is so much more digital than it has been before—they don’t have as much experience working with their hands. Do you find that they are having to learn spacial relationships or how materials function more than they might have or is that just grumpy older people complaining about kids the way we always have? [laughter]
I think it’s affected their sense of concentration a little bit, their ability to focus or stay on track, but their sense of spatial reality—I don’t know, the ones I get—seem to be o.k. with that. The hands-on experience is probably more natural for them than for other people. I think the digital thing is hurting our sense of— changing our sense of reality. And maybe that’s a better word— I never did buy that idea that it’s only a tool, you know, like a gun is only a tool, a computer is only a tool, it’s what you do with it. Everything inherently has its own nature. I think that’s true of machinery as well. You are what you eat.
But we have the great human capacity to overcome obstacles and once we integrate stuff— I don’t believe we’ve integrated computer technology enough. Or put differently, we have to grow a different side of our human nature that would help us to get a better control of it. We have to get out of this entertainment consumer kind of fascination and get down to some serious business or else we’ll continue to have compounded problems.
What was your pathway into the arts? Do you remember yourself as a teen, as a young man and your exploration? What was your impetus?
My mother was very artistic and I think she was a main motivation for my interest. She was very hands-on and made stuff and encouraged me to do that as well. I also had a very good art teacher in high school, and music teacher as well. Those programs were very strong when I was in high school. But it’s something I always did and never questioned. I guess if I had come up in a different environment, I might have come out differently. I don’t know.
Do you remember seeing the arts as a kind of entertainment or was it something deeper, more a way to engage with yourself, and the world? or yourself in the world?
Yeah. It was a way to engage myself in the world. It has its entertainment side, but once you’re involved in the process of it, entertainment is not the word to describe it. It’s work, but there’s also very rewarding feelings, and sometime ecstatic feelings, but it has nothing to do with entertainment.
So the process of engaging creativity and solving problems is just something deeper than having fun; even if it’s enjoyable it’s more substantive.
I think so. The enjoyment is the short-lived part of it. (But oh— words are hard sometimes.) I think there’s a constant enjoyment with the process, actually, or happiness. I’m very happy with it. I can’t think of doing anything else, and I wouldn’t change what I have done, but it’s not entertainment like going to the movies or something like that, where you’re passive. It’s totally active and I think that’s what I like about it. We’re a creative species and we have this creative capacity. With me it’s always been a process of creation. I mean, I can’t see any other reason for being a human being other than to create something. [laughter]
You’re getting at a question that’s so deeply philosophical and really interesting. By talking about art being dead after it’s on the wall and about how movies are something that we passively take in, is it really, for you, is it really for you about the work of the artist? Because I know, I’m a writer and we talk about how we create but then that work isn’t complete until someone reads it, there’s that culmination of that. But do you not feel that way about film? about art?— that the heart of art is really more in the creation?
I think for me it really is more in the creation and the process. It must be because I don’t make an extreme effort to show my work a lot. It’s finished when it’s finished. It doesn’t take another viewer to see it. I think there’s a deeper magic. I think when you do art in the process of making it, it has an immediate audience, which is a larger kind of reality, and not just an objective viewer at the museum. In other words, I think the reason for doing it is on a plane of action that is every day kind of experience. Like breathing. I breathe, and I don’t need anybody to tell me that I’m breathing to complete my breath. I take it in and I exhale it. Do you know what I mean?
I do know what you mean.
So I think an ideal world would have no audience, [laughter] but participants, who were just making art. Of some kind. Or science.
But making. Yeah. And experiencing that process. It’s kind of an unrestrained activity, at a certain point.
Your wife Jackie Moutan is also an artist, and you collaborated, I saw your incredible installation at the Weller Gallery in Fellows Riverside Garden, and your work is carved wood pieces and she works with textiles.
She’s a fiber artist and we combined our two approaches.
Tell a little bit about that installation, the process of collaborating with her, and what the installation was about.
Well the one at Fellows was about a new group of works; we actually built them for Fellows, for that space. A lot of times, when you have the time, you take the space into consideration. And that will effect the making of the objects. There was a large piece at Fellows that actually was in Columbus as well, a large table with sculptural chairs and so we just knew that piece would just sit really nice in that space. The pieces on the wall were especially made for that space. Living in this ongoing kind of making activity there’s a lot of fluidity in terms of the objects. So they can come and go, depending on the situation.
A lot of it’s temporary in nature. But working collaboratively with her is no problem. Working collaboratively, in general, that’s another thing I seem to do. Not only do I work with her but I’m involved with a couple other artists in a performance installation group called Redhand, and we’ve been doing works over a period of twenty years, on and off. Not a lot has been here in Youngstown, but in other locations. When the Cleveland [whispers] (there’s a cardinal right there), performance art festival was going on, it was a major venue for performance art worldwide, and we performed there quite a few times during its history. Another one of those kind of like time—
Time and space?—
Live time and space kind of feel about it. So I think that’s another part of my make up, this idea of time and space and being a musician I work collaboratively with other musicians, too. And that’s also time-space kind of format. Working collaboratively is something I’ve always done but I like my alone time in the studio as well.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the time and space elements regarding the arts in the Mahoning Valley because a lot of the arts are homed in these beautiful, historic, architectural gems, with, if I could use some hyperbole, terrifying maintenance needs, but they’re so amazing.
They are so amazing.
But then you also have these soulless strip malls in the suburbs, like where you’ve played, at Barrel 33 in Howland, just acres of parking because no one lives there. You couldn’t possibly walk there. And you just open this ugly door and step into a space that has been completely transformed. It’s so visually rich, and it has some of the best food in the area, and just the music coming through that place is just off the charts, it’s so good. So I think that’ really interesting, too. I want you to talk about your work as a musician, but if you’ll just indulge me in on question first: so a strip mall is not designed for really good music. So what is it like, acoustically, to play in a place like that?
It’s always kind of risky and sometimes it’s good but a lot of times it’s not perfect so you just kind of adapt to it.
Yeah, it’s not a concert hall, but jazz has a unique way of adapting itself to just about any situation.
Two books Ed recommends:
& The Gift by Lewis Hyde
You play the bass.
The upright bass.
How did you come to fall in love with jazz?
Oh, I think I was in junior high school. There used to be a program on television called the Today Show. That really dates me. [laughter] And Dizzy Gillespie was a guest on this program with his bebop group and I saw and heard that, and I said, That’s it.
You know, the former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, gave a commencement speech at Stanford in which he talked about being an immigrant and learning, not only English, from the kinds of shows on television, but also learning about the arts because in those days, the best artists of our time were daily features on these daily programs. And that we’re losing something important if we don’t continue that tradition—
Tradition of showing the best.
So what’s the name of your band?
Oh, right now I pretty much freelance. I get a lot of gigs currently up in Erie, Pa. I was just there over the last weekend, Saturday and Sunday.
They have a great arts scene in Erie.
Yeah, I think they do. A lot of good musicians everywhere.
You have some formal training in music. Is that right?
I have some formal training in music. I studied some at Dana School of Music and was kind of like a music and art major for awhile and then just evolved more over to art. My master’s degree is in art, in sculpture, from Ohio State. I’ve just always done them simultaneously. I think in some strange way they feed each other.
What do you tell your students who are looking toward an art degree? It seems wildly impractical and I imagine the pressures for practicality are greater than they’ve ever been.
I think they are. Because things are more financially at risk, especially for parents. The cost of education is incredibly stupid. But what I tell them is just, you have to do what you have to do. You know who you are at this point, you just kind of follow that. And there’s no easy answers for any generation.
That’s right and not everyone is making a living with art. They’re often working jobs to stay alive and keep the lights on, and finding good space for the—
That’s especially true for writers. And poets, I think.
I think so, too. I only know a handful of rich poets. [laughter] But it is so worth pursuing, that’s a point well taken.
Oh, for sure. I’ve been fortunate to always be involved in the arts, whether it’s teaching it or some kind of performance way. And I haven’t had to do jobs that weren’t somehow related to art. For the longest time, really. Working in a museum is a safe art place.
And I read recently, I was astonished to read that the arts, nationwide, they constitute 4% of our economy, which is one percent smaller than agriculture. So there really is an economic engine that is driven by the arts. So it’s not impossible.
No, it’s not impossible. I actually think the arts are becoming much more important, in light of other kinds of economic and technological realities.
So as we continue to lose jobs to automation, the the one thing we will never lose jobs to is creativity, right? Is art. Making art.
Being creative. Yeah. I think they help us understand who we are as human beings. Not everything contributes to that understanding. I think it’s important to be really open minded. The pressure for younger people is to find something, to focus in on something. That’s not always the best way to go. It’s just practical. Like you said earlier, we have this pressure to be practical these days, but the soul and the human spirit doesn’t live that kind of practical kind of life. We just have to pay attention to a larger frame of our human needs.
What do you— sometimes people ask me, because I’m not from here, they ask me my theory on why this area is particularly artistically rich. It’s a working class town, lots of manufacturing, it’s a town of the kids of immigrants, so why— what’s your theory?
I think it was particularly rich in terms of our immigrant history and those immigrants brought with them strong European traditions or African traditions where art was a part of everyday life. And it’s just like, that’s the way it is: you do— you sing, we dance, we make stuff, and I think that for some reason somehow continued here. And I think our location, too, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but I don’t know. It’s just— the way it was. It was part of life.
That’s a great answer. So what do you have coming up? Any installations? Any shows?
Our group Redhand is gearing up for a performance installations at Butler North, hopefully in the fall, it’s going to be part of a performance art night. There might be live music as well as spoken word, in addition to our performance. It’s still in the process. But we’re gearing for sometime in the fall or maybe winter. So that’s happening. Oh I continue to gig around, and in the studio make some new pieces, but nothing on the books for any art show.
[After our interview, Ed said he’d been thinking of his remarks “on Picasso, when he said that when the painting leaves the studio and is on the museum wall it is dead, means that his creative involvement in making it is over—that living creative process is over. But we can say that it now needs an audience ( as you pointed out)—it’s new life as an object in culture has begun—its transformer function begins—its need for an audience begins.]