Lee’s film yields a “complex and multilayered” account which she hopes will instruct her daughter, and future generations of girls, about the struggle that preceded them.
In a refurbished synagogue in Keyport, New Jersey, Grace Graupe-Pillard works virtually non-stop creating art. The format varies—paintings, video, drawing, and photography—yet all are integral to her vision. Perhaps it is ironic that her workspace was previously home to an Orthodox Jewish congregation. Although Graupe-Pillard is adamant that she is an atheist, her sensibility is very much informed by the consciousness that came with having German refugee parents—and relatives that perished in the Nazi death camps. Her work is infused with the concerns of the outsider, the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the oppressed. War, social justice, and a call for an acknowledgement of the world’s ills permeate her material.
Graupe-Pillard also has a flip side that is funny, mischievous, and feisty. It is evidenced as she cavorts unabashedly naked through everyday scenarios in the archival pigment prints that comprise her I Can Still Dance images, or when she is redefining and poking fun at art history in Grace Delving Into Art. In the oil painting grouping, Self-Portrait as A Blonde, Graupe-Pillard overturns feminine stereotypes, while simultaneously kicking the precedence of the “male gaze,” sexism, and ageism squarely in the rear.
Growing up as a twin in Washington Heights, New York City, Graupe-Pillard was surrounded by free-floating anxiety and whispered conversations about family members who had disappeared in Germany. (Her paternal grandparents were killed in Theresienstadt.) Her father was an architect. Her mother—who had hoped to be a doctor—was a dressmaker. It wasn’t until decades later that Graupe-Pillard would come to fully appreciate her mother’s creativity.
Accepted into the Music and Art High School, Graupe-Pillard entered a world in the middle of Manhattan that was overtly different from her sheltered home enclave. Her connection to her artistic path did not click in these surroundings. Instead, she pursued an education at the City College of New York, where she focused on history, political science, and literature. The knowledge she acquired, combined with her intrinsic sensitivity to social inequities, would provide the backbone of her political awareness. America was in the throes of facing hard truths about its own racial inequalities. All these factors were integral to forming Graupe-Pillard’s perspective.
An interest in Marxism and Russian culture led her to the CUNY Graduate School and an assistantship in “Russian Area Studies.” Not unlike many young women of that time, Graupe-Pillard married at the age of 21, “in order to get out of the house.” Yet what she thought was her personal and educational course ended up being subject to the same social upheaval that others were experiencing. The catalyst for her epiphany came when she covered a wall in her apartment with a huge mural executed in magic marker. A friend encouraged her to consider attending art school.
As a result, 1964 turned out to be a pivotal year for Graupe-Pillard. She shed her marriage and graduate school, and signed up at the Art Students League. There, she studied for several years concentrating on classes in life figure drawing. She received the George Bridgman Memorial Scholarship, awarded to her by juror Philip Guston. Beyond the financial ramifications, it served to validate her choice to pursue art. Marshall Glasier, who had studied with George Grosz, was one of her mentors. When pressed about her painting instructors, Graupe-Pillard said with a touch of irony, “I am really a self-taught painter. My teachers were Cezanne, Soutine, Van Gogh, and Goya.”
Deciding that she definitively didn’t want children, and there would be “no hausfrau for this frau,” Graupe-Pillard set her sights on a different kind of lifestyle. She wanted to “live in a loft” and focus on her art. She decided to uproot herself and start a new chapter of her life in New Mexico. She called it, “Being part of the hippie movement that embraced expanding human potential.”
In Albuquerque, Graupe-Pillard found a studio and wrangled free rent by taking over the role of the superintendent. She joined other building residents who were engaged, nationally exhibited artists. They formed a close-knit group that argued and exchanged ideas. Numerous friendships were built with those who were affiliated with the University of New Mexico, as well as Tamarind Institute. It was during this period that Graupe-Pillard met the man who became her second husband, a student of cultural anthropology.
Talking about the body of work that she produced from 1968-1974, Graupe-Pillard related, “It was all about place and light. The setting was so vast.” She acknowledged the influences of Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler, and discussed her method of directly pouring paint on unprimed canvas—“never to be touched by human hands.” Using the format of “the series” (a mainstay of her work), Graupe-Pillard assembled a grouping of paintings under the title New Mexico Band Paintings. Although at first these canvases appear to be totally disconnected to ensuing works, there is a clear link to the intensity of how Graupe-Pillard still uses her colors.
The inclusion of several pieces at the Santa Fe Museum encouraged Graupe-Pillard to approach galleries and collectors in the vicinity. She also began to think about “coming home.”
Graupe-Pillard moved to Long Branch, New Jersey in 1974. She connected with the Razor Gallery in Soho, where she exhibited the Band Paintings. Her physical surroundings, including the oceanfront, served as new inspiration. Graupe-Pillard started to draw again, reconnecting with figuration. Most importantly, she learned photography, which would become a constant tool as well as a basis and filter for seeing.
“The 70s,” Graupe-Pillard reminisced, “were a heady time. I was informed by feminism. The movement was very important because it gave us chances we didn’t have before.” She pointed out how presently, she views feminism as akin to ageism.
From 1977 through 1981, Graupe-Pillard worked on painting “realistic” male and female nudes.
This began a period of seeking models that were out of the mainstream—and often on the peripheries of society. The nudes led to clothed people, and an examination of their inner psychological profile as intuited through their external presentation. A 1981 exhibit at the Drawing Center showcased charcoal drawings of People and Hats, followed two years later by an exhibit at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery.
Graupe-Pillard talked at length about the “irony” of her use of pastel, often categorized as a “woman’s tool.” In addition to “using a traditional medium in an untraditional way,” she liked the rapidity of the process. For a decade (1984-1994), Graupe-Pillard used pastels on canvas, pushing the envelope by then cutting them out and creating wall groupings as installations. She said, “I saw it as the perfect medium to document the often difficult art of survival in New York City. The directness of the material mimics the speed and excitement of the urban environment—and that includes the contradictory elements of squalor and glamour.” Once again, Graupe-Pillard drilled down on making those denizens who are too often “invisible, permanently visible.” In 1993, at Kean University, Eugenie Tsai curated a ten-year retrospective of Graupe-Pillard’s pastels. Included was an Architectural Installation, which encompassed the verisimilitude of life on the street.
One of Graupe-Pillard’s strongest series was Boy With a Gun (1987-1993). A one-person show at Klarfeld Perry Gallery in 1993 garnered a series of reviews in the art media. Using a silhouette of a boy with a gun (“I use the silhouettes as containers.”), Graupe-Pillard commented on a continuum of narratives from gang violence to state sponsored violence—capital punishment. Several of the pieces will be part of a November 2014 exhibit, Evil: A Matter of Choice, at the HUC-JIR Museum in Manhattan.
Boy With A Gun/Execution
89” x 49”
In conjunction with the 1992 Democratic National Convention, tagged the “Year of the Woman,” Graupe-Pillard was commissioned to deliver a massive installation at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. A full range of her figures and motifs were on view.
Wonder Women Wall
20’ x 20’
Consistently tapped for public art projects (which along with teaching helped support Graupe-Pillard financially), her commissions for Shearson Lehman American Express, AT&T and New Jersey Transit led to an exploration and construction of freestanding sculptures. Her accomplishments in that field earned her an invitation to teach at the National Academy Museum, where she directed the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Fellowship Workshop for eight years.
People Railings — Garfield Station
72” x 108” x 3”
The period of 1990-1993 marked the period when Graupe-Pillard devoted herself to perhaps one of her best known and widely exhibited series. Nowhere to Go: One Family’s Experience dug into Graupe-Pillard’s examination of the Holocaust. It was mounted at both the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and at Rider University. Comprised of ten identical pastel on canvas cut-outs, it employed the shape of a crouching figure intently examining something in its hand. The outlined individual served to encompass a range of symbolic scenes. Family letters, photographs, and oral histories culled from her parents served as the emotional armature. The names of over seventy relatives who perished in the death camps were integrated via text. In Family Tree, Graupe-Pillard engages the viewer with photographs collaged onto a backdrop of Yahrzeit candles, the traditional way Jews observe the anniversary of a death. In these circumstances, the exact dates are unknown. The totality goes beyond the specific to speak to the horrors of “modern genocide,” from Cambodia to Rwanda.
Nowhere To Go II — Family Tree
Photographs, Alkyd, Pastels/Cutout Canvas
79.50” x 70″
The Keyhole series can be viewed as the beginning of a “formal” incorporation of photography into the work, with the computer as an essential part of the practice. Through its use, Graupe-Pillard engages in major mash-ups with elements she finds from “scavenging through art books.” All are assessed through the lens of the camera—and then combined with Graupe-Pillard’s own creative history.
Keyhole Series — Grace/Weeping Virgin
84” x 60”
In 2001, Graupe-Pillard was impacted by two major events. The near-death of her husband, and the attack on the World Trade Center. Once again, she turned to her art to process the experiences. The result was the Manipulation/Disintegration/Displaced series. Forms became splintered, as they broke apart. Shapes were configured and reconfigured. Up close, they read as abstract jigsaw puzzles of colors and contours. Upon stepping back, they become narratives about the shattered lives of refugees in Darfur, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza.
54” x 84”
When I visited Graupe-Pillard at her studio, Fallout: The Confetti of War was on the floor waiting to be stretched. Recently completed, the source photo captured a car bombing incident in the Middle East. It will be shown in 2015 at the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, as part of a solo show.
Fallout: The Confetti of War
66” x 90”
Using contemporary technology to expand her vocabulary, Graupe-Pillard developed Interventions—It Can’t Happen Here. She conjured scenarios that were particularly powerful, and that now feel prescient in light of the street scenes in Ferguson, Missouri.
23rd Street Prisoners
Archival Pigment Print
22” x 30”
The digital prints, which are processed either in color or black and white, speak to fear, xenophobia, the role of the media in war, and truth versus reality. The trauma of 9/11 unleashed a full range of reactions from the American people—from the desire for revenge to a call for reflection. Graupe-Pillard takes on the specter of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, the issue of detention and torture, and places them in our own backyard. Given Graupe-Pillard’s familial link to Nazi history and the question of individual culpability, perhaps there is an unconscious link. Graupe-Pillard challenges the viewer. She is artist as provocateur asking, “As an ordinary citizen, do you think this is right? What action will you take?”
During my visit, our conversation turned from her work to a look back on the trajectory of her career and art world trends. Graupe-Pillard recounted, “I was exhibiting regularly, every two years, in New York City and Europe. I was in fairs and had collectors from private and corporate collections. Then in 1987, the market crashed. By that time, I began doing public art projects. I continued to show in the East Village at Hal Bromm Gallery. Later, in Soho at Donahue/Sosinski, and in Chelsea at The Proposition.” Reflecting upon the difficult road of being an artist, Graupe-Pillard maintained, “A career in art is like a wave. It’s up and down. I was lucky, and one thing led to another. You need people who really respond to the work; someone who trusts their own judgment and has the power to give you a show. You’ve got to stick with it, for as long as you can do it.”
Continuing with a discourse about ageism in the gallery scene, Graupe-Pillard noted, “I no longer want to go to a lot of openings and schmooze. I don’t actively solicit galleries, even though I think I’m in the most fertile period of my work.” She sighs and adds, “Think of Titian and Goya in their nineties. Monet is a good example. When people ignore older artists, I think it’s limiting. Many older artists keep growing.”
Graupe-Pillard regularly engages a wide audience with her latest output— via Facebook—specifically sharing her self-insertions into art works from ancient Greece to Rodin and Benglis. The comments about her latest exploits are gleeful.
Graupe-Pillard related, “I’m always thinking about a lot of things. I’m constantly working. As an artist, I don’t consider the saleability of the paintings. The work is a commentary on the age I have lived in. I am a documentarian, recording the critical moments of my life and those of society.”
As Graupe-Pillard repeated throughout our conversation, “In the end, the work has a life of its own.”
Grace Delving Into Art — Emerging (Sarcophagus)
Archival Pigment Print
30” x 15”
Photos courtesy of the artist
This article is from the series “Evolution of an Artist”
For those existing in the cultural space, art and life are intrinsically entwined. Director Madeleine Sackler brings that home in her film Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, recently featured as part of the HBO Documentaries series. Stack takes us to the Eastern European nation of Belarus to document how a troupe of actors have woven the material of their lives into their repertoire— while simultaneously committing acts of political rebellion under the watchful eyes of a despot.
I first became aware of the Belarus Free Theatre when they came to New York City to take part in the Under the Radar Festival. A glowing review in the New York Times brought them to the attention of the American theater-going public.
They have performed in forty-two countries around the world, received top awards, and the support of actor Jude Law and playwright Tom Stoppard. Yet the accolades pale next to the reality of familial separation, exile, government oversight and the dire situation of their homeland—referred to as “the last dictatorship in Europe.”
Sackler structures her movie on a timeline based in relationship to the 2010 December election in Belarus. The citizenry had hoped that challenges to strongman Aleksander Lukashenko and his sixteen years of uninterrupted totalitarian rule would be forthcoming. Instead, what resulted was a “rigged election,” violence against the populace, and retribution for the ten candidates who dared to offer an alternative.
The film intercuts on the ground sequences of demonstrations in Minsk—smuggled footage—with the theatrical works created and interpreted through the artistic prism.
We are introduced to the close-knit group of the Belarus Free Theatre. Founded in March 2005 by husband and wife team Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada—then joined by Vladimir Shcherban, the three are the nucleus whose creative insights have laid the foundation for the point of view, “Theater is in the moment…conveying truths in real time.”
Since the Belarus Free Theatre does not adhere to the party line, it operates outside of the state-sanctioned corridor. This means they are not registered with the government. Selling tickets is considered an “illegal economic activity,” which if discovered is punishable by imprisonment. The country’s KGB keeps tabs not only on the actors, but those attending performances (including journalists). As one member of the ensemble observed, “It’s censorship to the point of absurdity.” Yet, as they explain, “The goal is simple. To create a genuine reaction to what’s happening…quickly, honestly, freely.”
Subject matter for scripts is culled from topics that are deemed taboo and therefore “intentionally not discussed.” This puts the collective in direct conflict with “official ideology,” as it digs beneath the false national façade to examine politics, state repression, gender identity, alcoholism, and suicide. Narratives frequently reflect the private experiences of the actors. What results is visceral, raw material. In Zone of Silence, a divorced father’s son, regularly beaten with a belt by his stepfather, hangs himself. The grieving father takes emotional refuge in alcoholism. Personal tragedies co-exist in tandem with the national pathology—fear, that is devouring the population.
On December 19, 2010, when election results were falsified to award Lukashenko 79.67 percent of the vote, people of all ages congregated to call for change. Loudspeakers advised them to leave, as riot police dressed in black advanced behind full body shields. Rushing the crowd, beatings with nightsticks ensued as demonstrators were dragged to waiting wagons, bloodied from the assaults. Five of the candidates, including Andrei Sannikov, were arrested. Political parties were outlawed and 1,000 people were detained. Members of the Belarus Free Theatre were summoned for questioning. Surreptitiously, they escaped the country by crossing the border on New Year’s Eve.
One month, post-election, the troupe is in New York City to “draw attention to those who need attention drawn to their plight.” They perform Being Harold Pinter at La MaMa. In one sequence, the actors are trapped beneath and within a sheet of plastic, searching for a way out. The plight of “tortured artistic dissidents” and their unbowed quest for freedom is symbolized. Yet, “the search for truth never stops.” It is a powerful image audiences can empathize with. However, it may be impossible to fully fathom the depth of trauma in living under the boot in Belarus.
Five months, post-election, “trials” against the opposition candidates take place. Sannikov remains in prison, accused of “fomenting disorder.” More accurately, he had campaigned on the platform of building “a new normal European Belarus.” His wife is under house arrest. (Sannikov was released via pardon after serving 481 days in prison, frequently in solitary confinement.) Several of the actors have returned to Minsk, including single mother, Yana Rusakevich.
Nicoli and Natiala relocate to Great Britain, with their daughter, where Sannikov’s sister lives and they have received political asylum. Between them, there are five criminal cases pending against them in Belarus. Nicoli would be at jeopardy for receiving up to ten years in prison; Natiala would face up to seven. When Nicoli’s father dies, the pain of not being able to attend the funeral is palpable.
In England, Sannikov’s sister, joined by other activists, try to build public support and awareness of the situation in Belarus. They are recorded being ignored by the majority of hurried, passing pedestrians. One man stops to listen. He reveals that he was once arrested in Prague. “Evil occurs when good people do nothing,” he pronounces as he signs their petition.
Six months, post-election, the Belarus-based actors rehearse a piece. They turn their backs to the audience, to signify those who have disappeared. The blacklist has now grown to encompass those in the music field, along with other creatives.
When an economic crisis erupts, the populace is motivated to regroup. They gather to march silently. No words are used, simply clapping. Baffled authorities announce on loud speakers, “Dear Citizens, move along. Do not create clutter.” Trucks arrive and the goons are sent in. People are seized, including members of the press with credentials. The footage goes black as a hand obstructs the camera lens. It is noted, “You come out—and they take you.”
Eight months, post-election, the troupe gives a world premiere. It is a depiction of the most recent demonstrations. Each time an actor is removed from the stage by authority figures, two women with large brooms sweep the floor. What appears to be a viewer is pulled onstage, and then carried off—despite screams that she is a “journalist with accreditation.”
A stark monologue examines why there has been so little outrage about the human rights violations in their country. An actress states, “Belarus is not sexy. Sexy countries have oil and gas.” Enactments of the kind of torture visited upon male and female prisoners are also portrayed. It is heart stopping—both as theater and because it is clearly a mirror of actual acts.
Sackler worked in tandem with a “state accredited” cinematographer, who was given direction via Skype, to capture much of the Belarus based material. The result was several hundred hours of uncensored footage, which was then slipped out of the country. The documentation of street protests came from a combination of filmmakers and “citizen journalists.” Of primary concern was the safety of all involved with the production.
With a series of hot spots capturing the world’s attention, the hardships of living under the claustrophobic and brutal Belarusian regime of death squads, disappeared persons, and jailings has gone under the radar. Hopefully, this documentary will boost concern and ignite interest and support for those who are suffering.
Meanwhile, the Belarus Free Theatre will continue to push forward with their motivation to:
“Establish the truth about our lives and our society. This is our duty. Otherwise, there is no hope to restore what we have almost lost. Human dignity.”
Photos: Courtesy of HBO
The United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) recently met in Dallas to discuss how to move their cities forward in order to meet the challenges before them. Topics included energy related issues, the impact of pollution, and climate change. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy was on hand to take part in a panel, where she expressed how leaders could avoid the animosity surrounding climate change by stressing the related concerns of health, safety, and economics.
One of the leaders focusing on the environment and sustainability was Jim Brainard, the five-term mayor of Carmel, Indiana.
Brainard was tapped to be on President Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. He won first place honors from the 2008 Mayor’s Climate Protection Awards Program. The most exciting news in his bio…he is a Republican!
I interviewed Brainard by telephone upon his return from USCM to learn more about the programs he has implemented, and to inquire about his response to the overwhelming number of Republicans who push back on environmental regulations while hoisting the banner of climate change denial.
Direct about the fact that the party of environmentalist Teddy Roosevelt has become entrenched in refuting the findings of the larger scientific community, Brainard said, “You have to trust 97 percent of scientists. There’s no question that the earth is warming. The numbers are what the numbers are.”
When I mentioned Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-OK) branch of the party, Brainard suggested that he was “out-shouting” more moderate Republicans. He emphasized, “The Republican party needs to recognize that people in the United States want a clean environment for themselves and their descendants.”
Underscoring the non-partisan attitude that he saw prevailing in Dallas, Brainard informed me, “Everyone’s concerned about their city.”
Currently, Brainard serves as the co-chair of the Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force for the USCM. He has also signed their Climate Protection Agreement, which sets goals to “meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own [respective] communities.”
Brainard told me, “We need to start at the local level, cleaning up pollution, planting trees, making every city a better place to live. It originates locally. Everybody wants progress.”
Carmel, with a population of 85,000, has received the Indiana Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Perhaps the reason Brainard has been repeatedly re-elected is because his constituency likes his sustainable initiatives. They include a long laundry list of efforts. In 2005, Brainard put forth an executive order for the city to purchase hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles. He spoke at length about installing roundabouts and their benefits, which eschews the usual traffic light intersection model. They conserve electricity and gasoline, while reducing air pollution. Tied in with this approach to traffic is Brainard’s commitment to an emphasis on more walkable areas and less “sprawl.”
In an effort to get on board with cutting edge technology, the city’s wastewater treatment plant adopted a process that yields high quality Biosolids, which is then utilized by local farmers as fertilizer. Simultaneously, it reduces “the amount of byproducts that end up in landfills.”
Indiana is number two in the country in terms of coal power generation; it also “leads the nation in coal ash ponds.” Brainard believes that alternative fuel sources must be cultivated “moving forward.” When questioned about the “jobs card” and “war on coal” that is inevitably referenced by Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Brainard stated that Indiana has 2,800 coal workers who he believes can be transitioned to new employment. “The point is,” he said, “this is not a major source of jobs. There is no reason to be polluting the air. We have to take into account lung disease and asthma.” Brainard pointed out how the coal-fired plant in Indianapolis affects Carmel—due to the “northeast wind.” He added, “The entire region is impacted.
When we conversed about President Obama’s task force and the efforts of the White House, he responded, “I think he’s making progress.” After a short pause he noted, “I wish this had happened years ago.”
Before we concluded, Brainard again revisited the actions of Republicans in the 1970s, and President Nixon’s part in creating environmental safeguards and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. He highlighted, “There are a lot of Republicans around who care about the environment. Clean air and clean water should be non-partisan.”
Brainard’s final thought was clear: “We need to do what’s best for the people.”
Photo: Courtesy of the US Conference of Mayors
This interview originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force
McCarthy, who doesn’t pull any punches, stated, “Climate change caused by carbon pollution is one...
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its new report on September...
After extreme weather incidents like Hurricane Sandy, 40 percent of small businesses do not reopen....
New York State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been an unwavering voice emphasizing the importance of...