Art reaction: Powerful moments from creative voices

Black Angels Over Tuskegee, The Paramount Theatre. Photo courtesy of Rob Garland. Black Angels Over Tuskegee, The Paramount Theatre. Photo courtesy of Rob Garland.

The planning of our annual Power Issue always gives us pause in the arts section. Is an administrator or an artist powerful, or are they a conduit for the evocative grace of emotion that art produces? Assigning a numerical evaluation to people in the arts has always felt uncomfortable to me, so this year, in the face of power struggles on many levels, we sought perspective from the creative community by asking for personal stories about the power of art.

A moment for me was seeing Patti Smith perform her ’88 election year anthem at Neil Young’s 1996 Bridge School Benefit Concert, with a crowd of 22,000 singing along: “And the people have the power / To redeem the work of fools / From the meek the graces shower / It’s decreed the people rule.” Smith’s lyrics and her ethos feel just as crucial today.—Tami Keaveny

Deborah McLeod

executive director, Piedmont Council for the Arts

When I was a young curator on the staff at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, a former artist who had become essentially blind through medication often came to the center in an effort to continue enjoying the art of others. She would ask me to describe to her in intricate detail the works on view—the formal layout, the colors, the light, the comparative scale of things—the smallest, most discreet elements that the artists chose to include in their imagery. Her compromised eyesight, combined with my description, allowed her to “see” the work.

Coincidentally, it taught me to more clearly see each work too, as if some process that I previously used to experience art became more acute through serving as attentive, conscientious eyes for a sightless person. I feel this transformed my own ability to consider the aggregate of things, to respect nuance and deliberation, not just in art, but collaterally. …I see this as the primary gift of art too, that mutual exchange of careful saying and thoughtful seeing as the route to a richer, saner world.

Kate Bennis


In preparation for playing the role of a 52-year-old scientist with early onset dementia in The Other Place at Live Arts, I was introduced to a lovely woman who had been diagnosed around the same age as my character, Julianne. The friend who made the introduction had told her, “I know you can’t do a lot these days. But this is something only you can do.”

We had tea at her farmhouse. She came out of her bedroom with her shirt on backwards and inside out, one earring missing. At some point she noticed the naked earlobe, pulled off the other and hid it behind a sugar bowl. She struggled for words, but her face was full of expression, frustration, happiness, a glow. She said, “This is my journey.”

She wanted to see the show. I told her that I did not think it was a good idea. I thought it would be too painful. My character was nothing like my new friend. Julianna was a fierce, forceful, cruel woman with a hidden tragedy. But my new friend was resolute.

I asked that she be seated close to the exit. I told the cast that we should not take it personally if she left mid-play. She did not. She stayed all the way through the 90-minute, no intermission, harrowing journey. At the curtain call, I blew her a kiss and she beamed her beautiful, loving face.

After the play closed I ran into her. She asked, “Do you miss? Do you? Miss?”

“Do I miss the play? Yes.”

“No, do you miss her?”

Oh! I was hit by the incredible perception. I missed Julianne so much! I missed her strength and her passion and her determination and her ruthlessness. I did miss her terribly.

“Yes! I do miss her! Yes.” We stood together and wept for the end and the loss of it all.

Matthew McLendon

director and chief curator, The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA

Emily Noelle Lambert’s “Triumph.” Courtesy of the artist.

I have given dozens of museum tours over the years to a wide variety of groups, mostly very cultured, and almost without fail composed entirely of adults. I don’t have children. I largely find children a mystery.

A few years ago, a dear friend who was teaching at a Montessori school asked if I would give kids age 6 to 10 a tour of my exhibition “Re:Purposed,” which was composed of works by artists using cast-off items, detritus, garbage. I agreed begrudgingly.

The zenith of the experience came when a remarkably self-possessed 9-year-old girl stepped forward, among the brightly colored sculptures made of reclaimed wood and metal by Emily Noelle Lambert, and said, “What I’ve learned today is that we are surrounded by art if we only look for it. Anything can be art if you care to make it art. And really, that means that I can be art and you can be art.” No adult I’ve ever taken through a museum has even come close to that. She summed up the entire reason I’ve devoted my life to this pursuit and why I know museums are critical to our civilization.

Matthew Simon

director of operations and programming, The Paramount Theater

Recently, we had the off-Broadway play Black Angels Over Tuskegee. We had hosted two sold-out educational shows that morning to local kids who sat on the edges of their seats. The evening performance was accompanied by a lecture from a descendant of an original airman that was so well-attended there wasn’t room for everyone. The deeply powerful performance that surrounded an important historical event, in such an intimate way, was incredibly moving. As the lights came up so did the audience with a standing ovation. Entertainment and the joy that comes from a performance knows no race, gender or age.

Jack Hamilton

assistant professor, UVA Media Studies


I moved to New York City for college in 1997, about a week after my 18th birthday. It was a thrilling and bewildering time, when the world felt newly enormous. The first concert I went to after arriving was a show by Bronx rap legend KRS-One, at a Greenwich Village venue that no longer exists. KRS was in his 30s by that point, already ancient by the standards of his genre, and he was an artist who seemed to carry the entire history of a musical culture on his shoulders, proudly and effortlessly. It was a joyous, ferocious, electrifying show, transcendent in a fundamental sense. For a couple of hours KRS pulled a room full of strangers into a collective conviction that we were the only people in the world, and yet part of something so much larger than the sum of ourselves. In the too many years since, I’ve often thought back on that night, and how the best artists give us moments and experiences we want to relive again and again. Even when returning is impossible, the best way to honor them is to keep trying, and to keep trying to bring new people with you.

Jane Kulow

director, Virginia Festival of the Book

I’m struck by the power of text. …Words, woven into a story, reveal the power of a reader’s emotional response, which continues to change in meaning over time. When I reread favorite stories, I expect my response to them may have changed, even though the words remain the same. In recent months and years, I have been particularly in awe of the ways in which writers and their words continue to respond to the unconscionable number of unprovoked violent deaths of African-Americans.

When Claudia Rankine published Citizen: An American Lyric, she dedicated a brief poem to the memory of Jordan Russell Davis, shot November 23, 2012. When she read from Citizen at UVA in November 2015, the copy I purchased and she signed lists 18 men and women in that dedication, ending with Sandra Bland. [More names have been added since.]

Rankine’s words indict our society; changing the story constitutes evidence; hearing her in person was an opportunity to reimagine the power structures in which we exist.

Abby Cox

reference librarian, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library

Earlier this year, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library hosted a photography exhibit by local filmmaker and photographer Lorenzo Dickerson. His exhibit, #BlackOwnedCville, featured portraits of black owners of local businesses. In addition to drawing one of the largest crowds to attend JMRL’s First Fridays art walk, the powerful exhibit sparked discussion and helped to build a sense of community among those in attendance. The exhibit remained on display for the months of February and March, during which staff overheard library patrons discussing the people in the photographs, pointing out family ties and relating their own connections to the businesses and neighborhoods.

Sam Bush

curator, The Garage

Last summer, The Garage hosted a public reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, but given the novel and intimate approach of inviting strangers to read a play together, we didn’t expect anyone to show up. To our surprise, 14 people came, most of whom had never read the play. In the next two hours, we saw people step out of their comfort zones, put on new identities and have a great time. By the end of the night, everyone, it seemed, was delightedly surprised.

The smallness of The Garage—literally and metaphorically—rubs against the notion of success in our day and age. Our culture seems only interested in accomplishing big things. Yet, this brief interaction has left a lasting impression on me. As an artist—I’ve been a musician since I was young and in creative communities for a long time—embracing the beauty of smallness felt like a new realization.

Fugazi. Image: Joe Henderson/Courtesy of Fugazi Live Series
Fugazi. Image: Joe Henderson/Courtesy of Fugazi Live Series

Greg Kelly

former director/co-founder of The Bridge PAI and the Charlottesville Mural Project

If music is considered an art, I would say that a turning point for me was seeing Fugazi at the age of 16, in a room with maybe 100 others. It informed so much of what I would come to commit my adult/professional life to: cultivating safe/accessible space for youth to hang out, experience each other’s work and to be inspired by the work of others. It’s spaces like these that are so vital to the cultural health and wealth of our communities. A resource that is swiftly disappearing in the wake of new urbanism and unchecked development in our country today.

Darryl Smith

box office manager, Live Arts

My first modern dance piece “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” combined hip-hop, modern dance, tap and ballet. I was affected by its formlessness. Dance is such a powerful way to tell a story, not with words, but with movement. It is a celebration of styles and techniques. In performance art like Rent, I appreciate diversity of character and experience. Theater that doesn’t always give clean, easy answers, [but] allows me to make my own ending, and draw my own conclusion. Also, the first time I went to Amsterdam and saw Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” in person. It was a painting so small and precise in scale, yet it had an effect on me. It was intimate and infinite, simultaneously. The artist reached not only me, but through me to the rest of the world—very “Sense8.”

Kendall Stewart

music director, WCNR/Charlottesville

I’ve been a member of Gorilla Theater Productions since the fall of 2015 and started working with our teen troupe about 9 months ago. I had the incredible opportunity to hold acting workshops with them while co-directing their production of Beauty and The Beast with GTP artistic director Anna Lien, who also wrote the script. Throughout the process I watched each member of the cast grow (some literally), learned what worked best for them and saw them apply the techniques we were working on to their performances. Two actors in particular blew me away because their characters were so different from who they are as people and—despite struggles early on—they transformed onstage and really embodied their roles. By the time the lights went up on opening night, Anna and I were in tears because these teens had given us one of the most beautiful shows we’ve had.

Sarah Lawson

assistant director, Virginia Festival of the Book

I supported a Kickstarter for a handmade vase by a local potter who was building a wood kiln. Time passed and the potter sent a note to supporters: Sorry, running behind; I promise it’ll get back on track. Another note a few weeks later, and others after that: It’s taking longer than expected; I just want to get it right; thanks for your patience. Then, nothing. Kickstarter regret: I gave a stranger my money for nothing. I think to myself: ARTISTS. Months pass and a stranger knocks on my door, sheepish. He says my name as a question and hands me a bag, which I open as he walks away. Inside: A handmade vase with a handwritten note explaining how it was made, what the kiln looks like, how the project impacted his work and life. I run after the stranger, ask if he’s the potter. He is. He is Noah of Muddy Creek Pottery and I shake his hand and thank him for taking the time to make this effort. The vase now sits on my windowsill, a reminder that the power of art isn’t in an object but a willingness to trust people and take creative risks.

Warren Parker

founder, WarHen Records

One moment that I always hold close is when I held the first ever finished copy of Sarah White’s “Married Life” 7”, the first record released by WarHen. I’d been talking about starting a label for years at that point, and to finally see it come to fruition and hold the record in my hands was really special. Lots of creative people came together to make that record, it was a wonderfully collaborative effort. I get a similar feeling every time a new release shows up at my house. It’s probably the most satisfying feeling about running a label. That, and being able to share the art with others.

Lyn Bolen Warren

director/owner, Les Yeux du Monde

The opening night of Hind-sight/Fore-site Art for the New Millennium at Edgehill when Tim Curtis lit the bonfire inside his “Visionary Spirit,” a larger than life bronze top coat modeled after one from Jefferson’s day. The onlookers gazed at the soaring flames and embers for hours and the spirit of the past and the future and present all seemed to merge in that modern fire ritual. Many great artists gave their time and energy to create powerful pieces throughout and around Charlottesville that summer of 2000 that looked at our shared past, considered our present and imagined a future that would be more equitable and beautiful for all. Other powerful pieces were Martha Jackson Jarvis’ “Markings in the Slave Cemetery at Montpelier” (she offered this to them at the time but they sadly refused it); Todd Murphy’s “Monument to Sally Hemings,” a beautiful white dress atop the Coal Tower (the structure for it is still there); Dan Mahon’s “Stomping Grounds,” a tribute to the Monacan Indians; and Dennis Oppenheim’s “Marriage Tree” that united all colors and types into one beautiful DNA shaped structure made of larger than life wedding cake figurines.

Matthew Slaats

founder/director, BeCville

Do you know who first capitalized the ‘A’ in Art?  I don’t. The phenomenon probably started at the beginning of a sentence. It was unintentional, a rule of grammar. But, then something clicked. If you capitalized that single letter, Art became something totally different. It was something that you only saw at a museum, gallery, or on a pedestal in the middle of a park. It took on meaning and importance. It was to be deeply thought about and considered intensely. International festivals should be created. Kids’ books should be written that depict epic battles between Pigcasso and Mootisse. All this was done for the purpose of erecting an edifice of value and prominence.

The moment that Art had power to me was when it once again became art. A short, squat word that if you added an ‘f’ to the front of it, pimply teenagers would giggle and laugh. That moment came for me when I realized that art, and it may be better to use works like culture or creativity, was all around me. art was a painted fence near a sports stadium that changed yearly, pronouncing a clever quip in support of the local team. art was the way someone styled their hair, being an extension of one’s identity and body. My only problem is that baldness has turned a lush landscape into a barren wasteland. art was the wealth of drawings that my children brought home from school on a daily basis, which my wife and I fawned over before moving them quickly to the recycling bin.

Art’s power is not in its scarcity, but in the fact that it permeates every moment of our lives.

Maureen Brondyke

executive director, New City Arts Initiative

One of the most powerful things about the arts is the surprising ripple effect of benefits it can have in a community, especially around how communities come together and understand one another. In 2013, a group of artists founded Charlottesville SOUP. At its core as an arts event, SOUP is an opportunity for civic engagement, an opportunity to meet your neighbor to ask what the arts in Charlottesville need. Guests each contribute $10, pool their funds and vote to award a grant of real financial support for projects. Attendees form new friendships with strangers they sit next to at their table. Last spring, an artist who didn’t win the grant had an attendee write her a check for the full amount she needed for her project.

Neal Guma

owner, Neal Guma Fine Art

I really love this idea, and thought about it for the last few days. It was tough to get done in 200 words, and the more I thought about it the less specific it became.

Thank you for asking me though; the idea took me back to an early part of my life in New York and the memories of a few paintings. And it made me think about how something painted can change the way we experience the world.

Edward Warwick White

marketing coordinator, Four County Players

I’ve been doing theater since I was a small child, and I’ve been involved with the local performing arts community since 2010. This past winter, I had the opportunity to design the set for A Charlie Brown Christmas at Four County Players. I was excited by the opportunity to take a show that’s already such a big part of the holidays for so many families and bring it to life on stage. Our 4 year-old nephew, Jack, from Staunton, was among one of the many children experiencing the magic of theater for the first time—meeting Linus (and his blanket) after the show. You would have thought he was meeting Santa Claus. The world felt like it had turned upside down all around us, but there was magic happening in that little school house in Barboursville. I think we all needed a little Christmas even more this year. I stood in the back for a few performances, and when the curtain would open on the snowy scene with the Peanuts ice skating, you could hear children go “wow” and see their eyes light up. I’m not sure if there’s any greater review than that.

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