The trajectory of my life includes several life-transforming experiences that formed my adult career as an educator, author, curator, and artist. Thus, this narrative begins by describing the two divergent worlds that I occupied simultaneously throughout my teens. One was comprised of sustained and personal interactions with the brilliant choreographers who masterminded the inception of contemporary dance. Martha Graham ran her fingers up my scalp and gave my hair a tug to correct my alignment. Merce Cunningham wiped his sweat with my towel after performances. Jose Limon introduced me to the “Moors Pavane”. Through them, my acquaintance with other convention-shattering pioneers expanded to include John Cage. The originality, courage, and vision of these remarkable individuals provided compelling examples of the magnitude and significance of artistic creativity.
Adventuring into the realm of contemporary dance began at 3 pm every day when I boarded a bus to Manhattan for dance lessons and rehearsals. The other daytime hours were spent at Battin High School in the port city of Elizabeth, NJ, an all-girls public high school in which Jewish girls, like me, were minority. The school was comprised of two hostile groups: African American and Puerto Rican girls whose hostility toward each other frequently erupted into violence. Contemporary dance offered an enthralling refuge from the tension, animosity, and danger that were palpable at school.
These divergent experiences converged as I formulated the mission I pursue to this day:
- Art is capable of reconfiguring the values underlying an entire culture.
- Contemporary culture required overhauling.
A second incongruous pairing of experience appears in my biography when, as a freshman in college, I married my high school boyfriend and proceeded to have three children in quick succession. Thus, I was fully engaged as a mom when I enrolled in graduate school at Rutgers University. The University was among the era’s many hot beds of political activism and cultural revolution. The MFA department was the epicenter of vanguard art. The former topped cultural conventions. The latter toppled art conventions. These upheavals were linked.
At the same time, I was reeling from the frenzy of unbridled experimentation at school, I was intent on creating a safe and stable environment for toddlers, complete with diapers and sippy cups. Once again, precedent defying art coincided with destabilizing social experimentation.
This paradoxical situation contributed more than amusing anecdotes. It also reinforced my conviction that art is a tool of social/cultural/spiritual reform. Simultaneously, it fueled my intention to maximize the power of art to guide cultural progress. This required reaching out to a large and diverse public.
Teaching art in college meant cultivating the creative potential of students, and priming them to contribute to progressive cultural change. This entailed developing strategies to link the baffling complexities of vanguard art to students’ own life choices. My public interface expanded when I was hired to write arts reviews for the Allentown Morning Call, a newspaper with a daily circulation bordering on 100,000.
Opportunities to reveal the power of art expanded greatly when I was appointed director of the newly constructed museum at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Designed by the renowned architect, Philip Johnson, it quickly became a hub of arts activities for students and the broader community. Exhibitions/events included:
- Articles of Faith: Ancient prayer rugs representing Islamic worship, icons representing Christian worship, and menorahs representing the Jewish faith were exhibited side-by-side to encourage respectful tolerance at a time when there was great tension in the Middle East.
- Have You Got a Dime?: Material objects that were supported by the WPA in the 1930s and created by members of the local community were assembled and exhibited as a historic reminder of the population’s shared history.
- Russian Emigree. American Imigree: Renowned Russian-born artists, poets, and dancers contributed to a grand festival honoring the defectors/newcomers to the USA.
- Art in Pursuit of a Smile: Fine art and humor coalesced into an exploration of wit, satire, and silliness that was as capable of conveying social insights as bleak portrayals and somber forecasts.
A promotion to Director of the Edith C. Blum Art Institute on the Bard College campus provided an opportunity to reach beyond local audiences. Each year, for ten years, I originated six exhibitions that applied to curation the daring forms of inquiry that I observed among the visionary choreographers and artists with whom I had studied. For example:
Process & Product: The Making of Eight Contemporary Masterworks: renowned artists likes Louise Bourgeois, Leon Golub, and Alex Katz presented documentation of the evolution of a major work of art, revealing the processes of creation that accounted for their renown.
Charmed Places: Hudson River Artists and Their Houses, Studios, and Vistas: paintings by such famed artist as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church were exhibited alongside visual documentation of the architecture they occupied, and the settings they chose to explore the relationship between private settings and professional paintings.
Pre Modern Art of Vienna: 1848 – 1898: Art histories typically focus on the early 20th century modernists in Vienna. This exhibition turns the attention to the artists who laid the seeds for this revolution in the 19th century.
The Arts at Black Mountain College: After World War II, experimental artists, poets, writers, and musicians converged to contribute to one of the most significant educational experiments of all time. This exhibition brought students and faculty together again after a hiatus of forty years.
Because these exhibitions were innovative, they attracted the attention of visitors from Manhattan and beyond, neighboring educational institutions, and national media. The New York Times was one of many national publications that regularly reviewed the exhibitions I mounted at Bard College. Arts institutions such as the New York Historical Society, the Grey Gallery at New York University, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh hosted these touring exhibitions. Furthermore, catalogues related to these projects were published by Harry N. Abrams, Wayne State University Press, Chameleon Books of Rizzoli International Publishers among others. Over twenty catalogues were produced and widely distributed.
Beyond appealing to students, the local community, and art world sophisticates, I established an innovative museum education program for students in the region’s public schools. It formalized my long-standing desire to include children within the audience I served. The three-pronged approach we developed captured the attention of Abigail Housen, a pioneer researcher in children’s aesthetic development. Housen partnered with the Bard College museum staff to conduct a landmark, multi-year research project regarding the effect of museum visitation on children. The published article describing this study is entitled “A Study of the Collaborative Arts-in-Education Program, 1988. Evaluation Report for the Education Department of the Edith C. Blum Art Institute at Bard College.” Housen conducted a parallel study for comparative purposes with the Museum of Modern Art. The results of this research are still cited today.
Becoming an author accounts for the next expansion of the public I reach and serve. Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning In Contemporary Society, 1970s-1990s (Art Insights Press) was first published in 1996. It has been reprinted innumerable times and is still in print. It is popular because, unlike most books about contemporary art, it explains challenging concepts in a manner that is accessible to broad audiences. Although it was not intended as a text book, class adoptions account for its marketing longevity.
My subsequent books also address emerging trends in vanguard art, conveying these radical challenges to convention in the form of congenial story-telling. These books include IN the MAKING: Creative Options for Contemporary Art, (Co-Published by DAP Publishers and Thames & Hudson, 2003), a three-volume series entitled Avant-Guardians: Textlets in Art and Ecology (Artnow Publications, 2006), TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (University California Press, 2012); WHAT’S NEXT? Eco Materialism & Contemporary Art (Intellect books, 2019). All of these books were accompanied by extensive educational materials. My writing resume also includes dozens of published essays, interviews, and book chapters.
As the titles of my recent books reveal, the threatened state of the Earth’s air, water, soil, and wildlife have galvanized my initiatives as a writer, and also as a guest lecturer, instructor, curator, artist, and homesteader. All these practices converge when I conduct environmental workshops that involve intimate, sensory interactions with materials foraged from the woods. Fire & Ice workshop, Glorious Decay workshop, Pet Peanut workshop, Water Symphony workshop, Taste & Smell workshop constitute the major thrust of my current art practice.
Creative approaches to bolstering ecosystem resilience also led to the establishment of a thriving permaculture enterprise on an abandoned eleven-acre property in upstate New York. Daily life activities included beekeeping, gardening, animal husbandry, composting, mushroom cultivation, amphibian habitat creation, maple syrup production, fire tending, stone wall constructing, soil-making, food preserving, etc. The architectural component was an innovative, eco-efficient family home that has been featured in several publications, along with the chicken house, pig pen, sheep den, rabbit hutch, pheasant enclosure, studio, fire pit, and pond we also designed and constructed. The homestead appears on my professional resume because, over time, it developed into an environmental educational destination, bolstering my professional mission as an eco-writer, eco-curator, and eco-artist.
This homestead project was preceded by the seven novel homes and gardens that my husband and I designed and constructed. Each honored a specific stage in our family’s progression. The first celebrated the arrival of infants. Subsequent homes were tailored for toddlers, youngsters, teenagers, and so forth. The homestead marked the advent of grandchildren. Now that the grand-children are becoming grand-adults, we are designing and constructing for the eighth time.
The next chapter in my biographical narrative will, hopefully, include environmental advocacy for a new audience – children!