The Uptown Arts Stroll: The Art of Connecting

By Mike Fitelson. Reprinted from The Manhattan Times.

Water Poodles by Edgar Cortes Dance TheatreFrom the start the Uptown Arts Stroll has been about more than art.

Eight years ago I led the group effort to launch the Stroll in order to showcase local visual artists and build foot traffic to local businesses and cultural destinations. What was a one-day event has turned into a month-long festival studded with concerts, dance and theater performances, a film exhibition, round table discussions and workshops and, with the opening and closing receptions, two of the neighborhood’s most slamming networking parties for local artists and other movers and shakers.

The Stroll, which ended last week, has excelled at showing off the best that Northern Manhattan has to offer, particularly since 2007 when the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance took over responsibility for organizing the festival, and the Manhattan Times and I took on supporting roles.

This growth is due in no small part to the efforts of the small but passionate NoMAA staff and board of directors, the dedicated sponsors and partners they have recruited and the ambitious artists who call Northern Manhattan home. It speaks highly of both our artists and community members that, like a family, so many people have found a place for themselves as part of the Stroll. They can rightly sign their names as co-authors of each year’s edition.

At the June 28 closing event — hosted by NoMAA and Moet Hennessy USA in the outdoor patio of the Garden Café in Inwood and featuring a Latin music performance by the inexhaustible Annette Aguilar & StringBeans — several people asked me some variation of the question, “Did you ever think it would get this big?”

Anyone who knows me knows I’ll instinctively say it can get plenty bigger, particularly with a 10-year anniversary on the horizon.

But as I reflect on our original goals, I see that the Stroll is creating masterpieces of community collaboration beyond what I imagined was possible in 2003.

It’s noteworthy that this year NoMAA managed to hold the opening reception at the Hispanic Society of America on W. 155th Street, home to some of the greatest works of Spanish art. Having our contemporary local artists and honorees feted in the same space that houses the likes of classical masters like Goya, Velázquez, El Greco and the recently reinstalled Sorolla panels offers a level of recognition I hope the hundreds of attendees could feel proud of.

The most surprising aspect of the opening was that scores of the attendees said they had never visited the museum before that night. That demonstrated to me the power the Stroll and our arts community have to build new audiences for Northern Manhattan’s so-called “hidden gems,” which every year NoMAA and the Stroll make a little less hidden.

In my mind the most important function of the Stroll and its public showcasing of artworks is using the universal language of art to build bridges between our diverse local residents. This role of the Stroll is also growing in ways I couldn’t have imagined eight years ago.

More than ever this year I saw artists making art for more than art’s sake and watched as acts of artistic expression connected with audiences to effect change and create new forms of understanding within our community.

For instance, the pencil drawings that Bernard Winter exhibited, and was awarded a NoMAA Artist Grant for, couldn’t be composed of simpler elements: artist, subject, pencil and paper. Artistically, it’s clear that his portraits are rendered by a skilled hand and expert eye. But what is not self-evident when viewing the drawings is that he spent hours, days visiting with the 95- to 105-year-old residents of Isabella Geriatric Center’s Nursing Home before making each picture.

These are people who enjoyed the company, conversation and companionship of Winter in the twilight of their years. He calls his subjects “superheroes of being.”

Winter described how one blind woman, who of course would never be able to see her portrait, delighted in holding his left hand as he drew her with his right. Tellingly, he evaluates the quality of his work based on how closely his pencil lines reflect a strong connection he made with his subjects.

Winter is a far cry from the popular stereotype of the artist shut off from society, holed up alone in a studio wrestling his creative demons. This is an artist who — through his artwork — is making a difference in our residents’ lives.

Sometimes an artist’s work imitates life so closely as to evoke tragedy.

That was the case the other week when a neighborhood photographer sent me a photograph of a cluster of memorial candles on W. 181st Street. At first I thought it was one of the street altars created by new media artist Hector Canonge to raise awareness of neighborhood locations where violent crimes had occurred.

Upon further investigation I learned that it was a memorial that a local storekeeper erects every year to honor a victim. When shown the photograph, Canonge noted that one of the candles was identical to the ones he used a block away in his art installation.

Sadly, W. 181st Street also witnessed a murder during June, shrouding both Canonge’s and the shopkeeper’s shrines in a new immediacy.

The Stroll showcased numerous other artists who used art to connect with the community in imaginative ways. Patricia Eakins and Keesje Fischer worked with local residents to create flowers out of recyclable materials that temporarily transformed the iron work outside the 190th Street A-train station on Ft. Washington Avenue. The Edgar Cortes Dance Theater broke down barriers between performers and audience while introducing modern dance to youngsters, their parents and other random passersby during two performances of “Water Poodles” in Ann Loftus Playground, all the more significant since during rehearsals the group had to persevere through the threatening behavior of several teens, who threw objects and made sexually aggressive taunts at the dancers. Amir Parsa performed his poetic musing during a literary festival in Paris while simultaneously projecting on a screen behind him the multilingual cyber comments his cohorts were posting from NoMAA’s office on Bennett Avenue, thereby linking Washington Heights and France in a burst of creative polyphony.

And these are just examples from some of the 50+ Stroll activities I was able to witness: dozens of other artists made profound impressions on the community throughout June.

There’s no telling how these quicksilver connections will ripple out in the future, returning tidal waves of positive changes for Northern Manhattan.

For instance, a chance encounter during the 2008 Stroll is beginning to yield benefits for our youth that could last for years to come. Master painter Knox Martin, one of that year’s honorees, invited a friend to share in the celebratory spirit of the opening reception. She was so impressed by what she saw and heard at NoMAA’s event that, when she learned that the internationally renowned El Sistema music program for children was seeking a foothold in New York City, she told the organizers to consider Northern Manhattan. Now, less than two years later, El Sistema plans to pilot its program here in the fall.

Think about that. A music program that wanted to launch in New York City, one of the world’s greatest artistic centers, chose to be headquartered in Washington Heights — not the Village, or Lincoln Center, or SoHo, or Williamsburg — in part because the organizers saw how strongly this community embraced the arts.

El Sistema is a big deal — you may have seen it on “60 Minutes.” One of its alums, 29-year-old Gustavo Dudamel from Venezuela, where El Sistema began in 1975, is now the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Consider the impact that El Sistema’s lessons — which emphasize both musical and personal growth — can have on local children. It’s the perfect example of how the arts can become a vehicle for community transformation.

Nurtured by NoMAA, the Stroll will always be paved with beautiful, compelling artworks that offer sneak peeks into the imaginations of their creators. But the more that the artwork connects with local residents, inspiring our children, engaging our elderly, encouraging neighbors to find common cause, the stronger we become as a community, and the more valuable our role as artists becomes.

And in that sense, the Stroll will always have room to grow bigger.

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