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Posts Tagged ‘isolation’

Photo: Jon Swihart.
Belly dancer performance and artist lecture at a potluck in Santa Monica. (The potluck founders are moving to a state where they will have to remember to call a potluck “hot dish.”)

A sense of community is important to us all. Today’s story is about artists in California using the act of breaking bread together as a way to build bonds and reduce isolation.

“When artists Jon Swihart and Kimberly Merrill move from Santa Monica to Minneapolis … they will be leaving behind both a cherished home and a remarkable artistic and social legacy. Inspired by their friends Mark Ryden and Marion Peck’s recent move out of state, the couple decided it was time for a change. …

“Paying the home’s mortgage for decades solely by working as an artist is something Jon considers one of his greatest accomplishments. Another is the role he played — along with Kim — in hosting 162 potlucks in their verdant backyard, each one featuring artists or other creative producers who spoke about their life and work.

“ ‘Painting can be so isolating,’ Jon notes. ‘So sometime in the late 1980s I started inviting artists over to the house to talk about their work. Word spread quickly and people started asking if they could join us. The potlucks officially launched in 2003 after we became a couple. At Kim’s suggestion we started using the backyard — and supplying plates and plastic cutlery — and things really took off.’ By the time COVID-19 forced Jon and Kim to discontinue them in 2020, the artist potlucks had taken on a life of their own, drawing as many as 200 people at a time from an email list of over 2,500 names. …

“The backyard potlucks followed a consistent formula that worked because so many people stepped up to contribute and help out. Around 6pm on a Saturday night, a long table filled up with potluck delicacies — both store bought and homemade — while a drink table was stocked with wine and beer. Jon and his tech crew would set up for the artist slideshow as Kim greeted visitors in her studio at the back of the house.

“The house itself, although only 1,300 square feet, was one of the attractions. Built in 1927, its tile floors, beamed ceilings, and arched doorways offered a sense of warmth and comfort. On top of that, Jon’s trove of antiques and art objects — which include a painting attributed to Jean-Léon Gérôme that was later authenticated on the show popular British TV show Fake or Fortune — provided sophisticated eye candy.

“Over time an extraordinary variety of artists stood under the lanterns in Jon and Kim’s backyard, discussing not just their work, but also the events and challenges of their lives.

‘I would tell the speakers to avoid art theory,’ Jon recalls, ‘and instead talk about how a passion for art sustained you through disasters and triumphs.’ …

“Every now and then a potluck broke the mold. At one unforgettable event, a group of fire-spitters recruited from the Venice Beach boardwalk performed on the sidewalk in front of the house, stopping traffic and astonishing the neighbors. Another off-the-charts event was art historian Gerald Ackerman’s talk, which was also a celebration of his 80th birthday. 

“As artist F. Scott Hess recalls: ‘Jerry, the world’s foremost authority on Jon’s favorite artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme, was a longtime friend of all of us. That night in Jon’s backyard there were theatrical recreations of Gérôme paintings, with costumes as close to the originals as was possible. And there was a belly dancer as well. Jerry was thrilled with the acting out of Gérôme’s ‘The Duel After the Masquerade,’ with Brian Apthorp as the wounded harlequin taking a good 10 minutes to die.

“To cap off the evening, Jerry was given a Gerald Ackerman Action Figure, in its original box, a creation of Peter Zokosky, with all the extras a topnotch art historian would need.

“The popularity of the potlucks brought innovations. Trekell Art Supplies began sending merchandise for one-dollar-ticket raffles that raised money to support the events. Artists also began to donate prints or small works of art to be included in the raffles. Artist Eric Davis soon began creating buttons that included a logo and event date along with the featured artist’s name and work. … Davis made between 40 and 100 buttons, which were given away for free: a total of over 7,500 in a span of 14 years.

“ ‘They were open events and anyone could come,’ Swihart comments. Art dealers, critics, students, and collectors began to attend, especially after Greg Escalante — a dealer and the founder of Juxtapoz Magazine — talked them up. Thousands of complete strangers streamed through the house. Amazingly, nothing was ever stolen, which gave Jon and Kim a new faith in humanity. …

“During many of the artist talks — held under strands of paper lamps and a glowing moon — there was absolute silence among the audience. The energy was positive, even magical, and artists who might have seemed unapproachable before laid themselves bare. Again and again the talks humanized artists by revealing them as people who had struggled and who, at some point, had been afraid to experiment with their art. 

“One notable speaker — Robert Williams, the legendary underground comic and ‘lowbrow’ artist — told the crowd how the dominance of Abstract Expressionism had inhibited the development of representational art when he was a student. Because Jon and Kim’s potlucks were not sponsored by an organization or institution, contrarian points of view, like those offered by Williams, were respected and even welcomed. … From Swihart’s point of view, having Robert Williams speak at a potluck was ‘like having Eric Clapton stop by to play in my garage band.’ …

“ It was a cauldron for friendships, conversation, networking, alchemy, and artistry,’ recalls Eric Davis. … Artist Peter Zokosky comments: ‘Even at the time, you knew something rare and miraculous was happening. Jon gave a forum to 100-plus artists over the years, and never once did he give a slideshow of his own work.’

“ ‘The potluck was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life,’ Jon states. ‘We had so many artists on our wishlist when COVID shut them down, but it was time to bring it to an end.’ ” 

More at Hyperallergic, here. No firewall.

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A Paoli, Pennsylvania, teen who had volunteered in a senior living facility, started a movement to help the elderly have more outside contact during the pandemic.

The other day, someone on twitter asked how other people were keeping themselves from being being overwhelmed by anxiety in these challenging times. My answer to that was “take action.” It makes a person feel less powerless and therefore more hopeful.

If you’re overwhelmed by politics, take political action of some kind. There are opportunities for every taste. If you’re overwhelmed by lost paychecks, use a food bank and volunteer there, too. If you’re overwhelmed with sadness for seniors quarantined in nursing homes, volunteer to talk to a few online.

Allyson Chiu writes at the Washington Post, “When the coronavirus pandemic left elderly residents in long-term care facilities largely cut off from their families and the outside world in early March, Hita Gupta got to work. Channeling the resources and volunteers of a nonprofit she founded in 2018, Gupta, 15, of Pennsylvania, started sending letters, cards and care packages to senior homes nationwide, even reaching some facilities in the United Kingdom and Canada.

“Her efforts garnered her widespread media attention and positive feedback poured in from recipients. But Gupta didn’t think the efforts went far enough. While letters and cards are a kind gesture that research has suggested can have a positive impact on mental health, they are ‘one-sided communication,’ the high school junior said.

” ‘That cannot be matched by a real-time conversation with a senior, a real conversation where both sides are learning and they’re building a bond,’ said Gupta, who until March had been volunteering on the weekends at a senior living facility near her home in Paoli, a Philadelphia suburb. ‘Being able to speak with someone who’s having a hard time … who’s experiencing isolation and loneliness, being able to ease some of that tension, I think that’s so important.’

Drawing inspiration from the regular Skype sessions she has with her grandparents, who live in India, Gupta started offering another service to the eldercare centers: video calls with volunteers from her nonprofit, Brighten A Day.

“The organization has also been collecting and donating camera-enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops to facilities in need, allowing residents more opportunities to virtually connect with their loved ones in addition to volunteers.

“During the pandemic, the virtual interactions have emerged as a complement to more traditional efforts to reach out to seniors, which have mostly focused on written communication. …

“[Says] Robert Roca, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s council on geriatric psychiatry, ‘Somebody expressing interest, somebody prepared to listen, the experience of having somebody reach out to you, even if it’s not a person you know well, there’s something very powerful about that in restoring the morale of somebody who’s demoralized by loneliness.’ …

“Though there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all solution’ to combating loneliness, Roca emphasized the benefits of feeling connected. And for many older adults who have been isolated amid the pandemic, video calls have emerged as a ‘lifeline,’ he said. …

“About 100 volunteers have signed up to participate in calls, Gupta said. Interested facilities receive a spreadsheet listing information about the volunteers, such as their hobbies and what languages they speak, to help match them with residents. Volunteers also go through an orientation that provides guidelines for how to act during a call and tips for facilitating an engaging conversation. …

“ ‘Every time our residents talk to one of the volunteers, they’re like overjoyed afterward and that’s all they can talk about,’ said [Brandi Barksdale, director of life enrichment at memory-care facility] Artis Senior Living of Huntingdon Valley. …

“Jackie Kaminski, 21, has been video-chatting with the same resident at Berkeley Springs Center in West Virginia since the beginning of July. The pair talk over Zoom every week, Kaminski said, adding that she was recently able to celebrate her resident’s birthday with him.

“ ‘It did take time … to have him open up,’ said Kaminski, a senior at Indiana University. But now, they talk about his family and childhood, and he gives her advice on things happening in her life. ‘We have a great rapport,’ she added. ‘We have this relationship.’

“These conversations can help elderly people in long-term care facilities feel like they are valuable, said Eleanor Feldman Barbera, an expert on aging and mental health based in New York. One of the stages of life, Barbera said, is to ‘feel like you’re giving to the next generation.’

“ ‘Being able to talk to other people, younger people and talk about your life and feel like you’re passing on your wisdom can be a great way of feeling like you’re still accomplishing things and that your years are a benefit to somebody else,’ she said.”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Devin Muñoz
” ‘Cooped-Up’ is a contemporary dance performance viewed entirely from behind car windows,” reports Margo Vansynghel at
Crosscut.

I’m fascinated by all the different ways the arts are reaching out during our lockdown. Some efforts come off better than others, and a given organization may be kind of lame on one evening and on another delightful. We’re all learning as we go.

In this story, Seattle dancers offer performances for an audience in cars.

Margo Vansynghel writes at Crosscut, “Gedney Barclay sat in her idling car in a North Seattle Safeway parking lot, awaiting instructions. She could feel herself getting anxious. … She looked around — unsure of what would happen next — and glanced at the phone in her hand. The call from an unknown number would come anytime now. And then there would be no turning back.

“Barclay wasn’t involved in some kind of nefarious plot. She was about to participate in ‘Cooped-Up: Drive-in Dances for Cooped Up People,’ a contemporary dance performance by local company LanDforms, in which audience members view the proceedings through their own car windows. …

“Guided by pins on a digital map and a downloaded soundtrack — featuring songs,  poetry, a couple of old voicemail messages and mysterious clues — ticketed audience members drive through the city and visit performers at their homes. The dancers perform from porches, sun rooms, front yards, alleys and balconies while the audience, cocooned in 20 cars (one per household), drives up to watch at 10-minute intervals.

“ ‘It’s a wild journey all over Seattle,’ says LanDforms’ Leah Crosby. She and co-director Danielle Doell describe the show as a whimsical mashup of a drive-in movie, scavenger hunt, escape room and ‘durational performance’ tailored to and inspired by COVID-19 restrictions. Basically, they say, it’s like curbside pickup of food-to-go, but for dance. The first, mid-April performance of Cooped-Up sold out almost instantly. …

“Crosby and Doell are among the many local artists finding front yard and window workarounds to the stay-at-home order and ban on gatherings.

“Earlier in March, artist Rachel Kessler and On the Boards director Betsey Brock staged a citywide performance titled ‘Going the Social Distance,’ for which they collected song requests (and home addresses) from participants, donned cheerful costumes and biked to people’s houses blasting the songs through Bluetooth speakers. Isolated fine art photographers are venturing out to photograph people from a safe distance either outdoors or behind windows. In late April, KEXP radio DJ John Richards started broadcasting live concerts from his front yard. …

“Cooped-Up deals explicitly with our new corona-colored reality. In seven different dances created collaboratively over Zoom, the participating dancers bring their personal quarantine experiences (and corresponding cocktail of emotions) to the makeshift stage. However whimsical, the show doesn’t shy away from expressing the loneliness and the boredom specific to this cultural moment. …

“On a Zoom call with production manager (and frequent collaborator) Ari Kaufman in late March, the duo wondered: ‘How can we make a live performance right now?’ Doell says. …

“When Doell, who is also a youth educator, noticed that cooped-up kids in her neighborhood had been hunting for the stuffed animals neighbors placed in windows as a way to pass the time, she wondered, ‘Maybe we can make kind of a dance teddy bear hunt?’ …

“These are not improvised performances. Everything is timed to the minute, if not to the second: when the first audience member’s car leaves; when they should arrive at the next location; where every car should theoretically be at each point in the performance; when the next song is supposed to start; and when each dancer resumes their short loop. ….

‘At any given time during the show, there are basically seven miniperformances happening simultaneously, Crosby says. That’s a lot to keep track of.

“During the five-hour run of the show, she sits in her room in West Seattle, headphones on, surveying multiple screens and spreadsheets like an air traffic controller. Meanwhile, pacing in his kitchen about a dozen miles away, production manager Kaufman has his phone at the ready, in case a car gets lost or runs into any trouble. …

“The dancers, including Doell, say [they] miss the collective warmups and preshow rituals, the murmur as the audience trickles into the theater. When they’re done, there’s no applause. It’s a new shade of loneliness. But also one that has Doell reconnecting with her neighborhood, she says.

“ ‘A lot of neighbors were poking their heads out and being like: “Wow, what is happening?” ‘ Doell recalls. …

” ‘Normally, the audience member’s job is to pay money and then sit face-forward in a dark room where their identity is masked,’ she says. [In this performance, they] have to figure out where to go. Follow the clues. Find the dancer. Park by the gray garbage bin, not the green one — and don’t knock it over while backing up. …

“[Audience member Barclay] hadn’t ventured outside her neighborhood for a long time. Driving through the city was a poignant reminder of something she already knew: So many people, in house after apartment after studio, were going through the same isolation, the same loneliness. But for a few hours, from the relative safety of her car, Barclay felt like she’d made a connection — rekindled the kind of mutual appreciation between dancer and audience that electrifies live performance.

” ‘It made me feel way less alone,’ she says.”

More here.

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Photo: Alamy
Exercise and social activities could help to reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life, according to a new report.

Although there is no cure yet for dementia, lifestyle changes have the potential to reduce new cases by as much as one-third.

Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian about a recent report from the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care. The study suggests that many “dementia cases might be avoided by tackling aspects of lifestyle including education, exercise, blood pressure and hearing. …

“ ‘There are a lot of things that individuals can do, and there are a lot of things that public health and policy can do, to reduce the numbers of people developing dementia,’ said Gill Livingston, professor of psychiatry of older people at University College London and a co-author of the report. …

“ ‘We expect it to be a long-term change that will be needed for exercise; joining a gym for two weeks is probably not going to do it,’ she said.

“Clive Ballard, professor of age-related diseases at the University of Exeter medical school and also a co-author of the report, added that the evidence suggests individuals should also try to follow a Mediterranean diet, maintain a healthy weight and keep an eye on their blood pressure. …

“The results reveal that as many as 35% of dementia cases could, at least in theory, be prevented, with 9% linked to midlife hearing loss, 8% to leaving education before secondary school, 5% to smoking in later life and 4% to later life depression. Social isolation, later life diabetes, midlife high blood pressure, midlife obesity and lack of exercise in later life also contributed to potentially avoidable cases of dementia, the report notes. …

“They admit that the estimate that more than a third of dementia cases could be prevented is a best case scenario, with the figures based on a number of assumptions, including that each factor could be completely tackled. …

“Fiona Matthews, professor of epidemiology at Newcastle University who was not involved in the report, said that interventions for depression and social isolation could still prove valuable. ‘If we could actually resolve some of that issue, even if it is not 100% causal, it is likely we might be able to slow [dementia] progression – even if [an individual] is on a pathway to developing dementia already,’ she said.

“She added that the proposed areas for action could offer myriad health benefits beyond lowering dementia risk. …

“The authors pointed out that an intervention that delayed dementia onset and progression by even a year could decrease the number of people with dementia worldwide in 2050 by nine million.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Raising a family is challenging under any circumstances, but Simon Romero of the NY Times can tell you about families that have added on a somewhat more extreme challenge: settling in Antarctica.

He writes from Villa Las Estrellas, “Children at the schoolhouse here study under a portrait of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s independence leader. The bank manager welcomes deposits in Chilean pesos. The cellphone service from the Chilean phone company Entel is so robust that downloading iPhone apps works like a charm. …

“Fewer than 200 people live in this outpost founded in 1984 during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when Chile was seeking to bolster its territorial claims in Antarctica. Since then, the tiny hamlet has been at the center of one of Antarctica’s most remarkable experiments: exposing entire families to isolation and extreme conditions in an attempt to arrive at a semblance of normal life at the bottom of the planet.

“It gets a little intense here in winter,” said José Luis Carillán, 40, who moved to Villa Las Estrellas three years ago with his wife and their two children to take a job as a teacher in the public school.

“He described challenges like trekking through punishing wind storms to arrive at a schoolhouse concealed by snow drifts, and withstanding long stretches with only a few hours of sunlight each day. …

“Most of the students at the village’s small school, who generally number less than a dozen, are the children of air force officials who operate the base; some of the parents say the isolating experience strengthens family bonds.

“That Villa Las Estrellas is so remote — its name can be translated as Hamlet of the Stars, since the lack of artificial light pollution here enhances gazing into the heavens — sits just fine with many who live here.

“ ‘People in the rest of Chile are so afraid of thieves that they build walls around their homes,’ said Paul Robledo, 40, an electrician from Iquique (pronounced E-key-kay). ‘Not here in Antarctica. This is one of the safest places in the world.’ More here.

And here you thought our cold snap was a little intense!

Photo: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times  
Children being picked up from school in Villa Las Estrellas. Most of the students at the village’s small school, who generally number less than a dozen, are the children of air force officials who operate a nearby base. 

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We went downtown to have lunch at the Whitney Museum with friends and to take in the Real/Surreal exhibit.

Favorite artists like Charles Sheeler, Mardsen Hartley, and Grant Wood were featured. I liked the eerie emptiness of Edward Hopper’s “Seventh Avenue” and the anxious denizens of George Tooker’s subway world.

Sounds unnerving, but in surfacing the alienation, I think the artists make one feel the possibility of getting a grip on it.

Afterward, we walked up Madison, stopping at a gallery in the Carlyle Hotel that was showing Magritte works, some for sale.

I have always liked Magritte, with his bowler-hatted men blocked by giant green apples and his nighttime streets overarched by daytime skies. And I especially like him because once in a workshop, I directed a Tom Stoppard one-act play inspired by him, After Magritte. It was the best fun!

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