Art changes everything (from joy to pain and back again)

By anne
March 11, 2007 - 23:21.

All weekend long, I’ve had a lump in my throat. I’ve been feeling as if I’m going to burst because there is so much pain and so much joy swirling around in the atmosphere, and I have been dipped into both of them at once.

I am awash in the vicarious experience of being black and gay and a teenager whose father can’t be found, and of a Jewish immigrant from Russia to America three generations ago…

Patrick’s Cabaret founder Patrick Scully (photo by Terry Faust)

…of men in skullcaps studying brightly colored paintings and of artists with no money forking over five dollars to support other artists with no money. Let me explain.

Saturday night, my friend Matt took me to Patrick’s Cabaret. In the converted firehouse and stables (from the days when horses pulled the fire wagons) in the Longfellow neighborhood, we were treated to six bittersweet slices of experience.

Act one: Empowered Expressions, a queer youth troupe from Outward Spiral Theatre Company, turned their insides out for us in spoken word—asked us to please accept them as they are; proclaimed their worth and hope and disbelief that they aren’t just as relevant despite our being blind to their intrinsic worth. Heartwrenching and heartwarming all at once, they made us laugh and (was it just me?) examine our own guilt. I wanted to hug all of them.

Storyteller Amoja Three Rivers appeared on stage as 14-year-old Princess, the daughter of a white woman and clearly the product of a union with a black man. The mother said, “Your father was Italian. You’re as white as the rest of the family.” The girl’s mirror told her otherwise. How do children deal with such lies?

Blues guitarist Kamp Welch sang about the “inaccessible accessible restroom” in a bar, and made us laugh until our sides and faces ached. Yet the theme was society’s general disregard for people in wheelchairs, and that point was not lost on the audience. I’m always amazed at how music and art can turn pain into joy. And I am grateful to performers who can do that because sometimes disabilities and abuse and other painful realities are too hard to look at otherwise.

At Patrick’s Cabaret we also heard from choreographer and folk singer Gus the Chimney Sweep (aka Kats Fukasawa), who sang a tender remembrance of his first love and a tune called I Will Return about being separated. Then we got to eavesdrop on the musings of a Russian dissident enduring yet another multi-course dinner with American diplomats of dubious integrity, performed by Annette Kavanaugh with Ellena Antoinette Schoop.

The finale was Vagina Super Hero, a work-in-progress dance/film/music piece choreographed by April Sellers and performed by Kelly Radermacher, clad only in black spandex briefs, whose nudity seemed no more shocking in that context than the bare torso of Venus on a canvas at the Louvre. Her strong legs and fluid movements were enthralling to watch. (As to my theme of pain and joy coalescing in artistic performance, I don’t need to explain how well that fits if you have a vagina.)

How to segue into Sunday? Well, I got that parallel universe feeling again (as in, “This is nothing like my life”) when I attended a reception for Beth Grossman and Alexandra Rozenman’s exhibit Unfolding Time: Stories of Migration at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery at Sabes JCC. Again, that lump in the throat and for two reasons.

First, the work is astonishing and deeply emotional, emanating from the life experience of two Jewish women whose families emigrated from Russia. How would any of us who are not Russian Jewish immigrants (or who are not first-generation anything but American, for that matter) ever understand what this country is made of without art? History texts aren’t enough, especially if you’re thirsty for a feminine perspective.

Second, my whole body aches when I stand in front of a painting that takes my breath away, and I contemplate the number of family and friends who are missing the transformative experience. Today I was nearly overwhelmed by the urge to rent a van with a bullhorn on top and drive through every street and alley shouting, “Come to this exhibit! Do not miss it! This may not be your heritage but it is part of ours as a nation! Drop everything! Come now!”

There was already a large and appreciative crowd, but I wanted YOU to be there. If you weren’t, and you can see this show before it ends on March 29, please do. (Yes, I’m ranting. A bit. An associate in business once suspected me of mania—in the diagnosable, psychological sense—because I get so wound up about these things.)

It is important, though, to be a part of art that takes you out of your own sphere whenever possible. It buffers the shock or the fear that we might otherwise feel at encountering someone “not like us” and helps to promote peace among races and religions, even across gender gaps. Last time I felt this strongly about wanting everyone to be there was exactly one year ago at Snapshots: Life in the City, a J. D. Steele musical about the life experience of inner-city high schoolers at St. Paul’s Great American History Theatre.

In any case, Unfolding Time delights the eyeballs not only with content, but with color and scale. You cannot help but feel uplifted and inspired at how two families left their lives and livelihoods behind and turned their suffering into success. These are at once heroic stories and plain, ordinary, day-to-day dramas that could happen anywhere, to anyone whose life is changing.

And you know, when you walk into the gallery, that you are in the presence of masterful work. You know because Grossman’s work and Rozenman’s is so alive. You can look into the eyes of Grossman’s image of her grandmother at age 16, suitcase in hand, at Ellis Island and be drawn into her anxiousness and her determination. And in the eyes of Rozenman’s black Labrador and young girl in the garden, you can read such love and longing that it hurts. I don’t know how the artists do all that in just a few brush strokes, but trust me, they do.

By the way, when you go to a reception with the artists, you learn all sorts of interesting tidbits. Get this: both Rozenman and Grossman have family ties to Russian-born painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985)! And the two (Alexandra and Beth, that is) hadn’t met each other before curator Robyn Stoller put this exhibit together.

The story goes that Alexandra’s grandfather Boris Rosenfeld’s aunt (got that?) is Bella Rosenfeld, Chagall’s first wife and the inspiration for many of his works. Beth’s great-grandparents in Russia had a bakery where Chagall worked, and they fired him for laziness. Apparently, all the man wanted to do was draw pictures! (Think of this next time you catch your teenager daydreaming; you could be witnessing a genius at work.)

What a weekend. I am joyfully and painfully aware of what a life of ease I’ve had compared to children who grow up feeling “different” and to parents, grandparents and children torn asunder when the ship must pull away and you must either stay or go.

I want the joy and pain. I want to know what life is like for someone not like me. I think somehow my life is richer for it. I write in hope that you will seek out art, music, theater and dance that is off the beaten path, and that you, too, will find the richness in it.

Unfolding Time runs through March 29. Alexandra Rozenman will speak at 1pm on March 25. For directions to Sabes JCC, click here.

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