Call and Response: Art at Flushing Town Hall

Image for post
Image for post
“Call and Response” is a public art exhibition.

“Call and Response: Grief, Resiliency and Hope” is a new outdoor exhibition taking place at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, New York. Open to both professional and novice artists, the free exhibition is part of an initiative to brighten spirits via art.

Flushing Town Hall (FTH) is a member of New York City’s Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) and a Smithsonian affiliate that presents multi-disciplinary arts that engage and educate the global communities of Queens and New York City. The venue actively supports local, immigrant, national, and international artists. Starting in August of 2020, Flushing Town Hall is also handing out a number of art kits on a first-come, first-served basis to the general public. They hope this will promote families, students, professional artists, and amateurs to create artistic expressions and subsequently share them in the exhibition which is being hung on the outdoor fence bordering the Town Hall Garden on Northern Boulevard. According to the official press release:

Artwork can honor those we have lost during the pandemic to the disease, or honor those we have lost as a result of racial or social injustice. Artists can choose to thank healthcare providers for their efforts to heal, or explore racial injustice, express anxiety or fears, illustrate hope for a brighter future, or anything else they are feeling. As art helps us process our feelings, we will be building our community’s mental resiliency. Please consider the following:

· Work can be up to 27”x 39” inches on paper, fabric or ribbon.

· After you complete your work, write your name on your piece (if you like), punch a hole in the artwork at the top, and tie a string through it.

· If your artwork is very big, you can tape it to the fence with masking tape

· Artwork will be exposed to the elements and will not be protected from the weather.

· Artwork will not be returned.

· Artwork may be photographed and shared online through a virtual exhibition, unless specifically note by the artists on the back of the artwork.

· Flushing Town Hall reserves the right to remove any artwork that use hate speech, profanity or obscenity, depicts violence, sexual acts or unlawful or illegal behavior.

If participants cannot travel to Flushing Town Hall to hang artwork, they are invited to take a photo or scan of artwork and message, and email scans to education@flushingtownhall.org. Flushing Town Hall staff will print a copy of the work and hang it on our fence.

Gabrielle M. Hamilton is the Director of Education & Public Programs at Flushing Town Hall. Since 2011, Gabrielle has developed diverse, arts and cultural education programs at Flushing Town Hall and has grown programming to 20,000 students, seniors and families served by over 40 master teaching artists. Gabrielle recently discussed the art initiatives taking place at Flushing Town Hall via an exclusive interview.

Image for post
Image for post

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in the arts and how did that lead you to Flushing Town Hall?

Gabrielle M. Hamilton (GMH): I grew up in a home where the arts were celebrated, not as a rarified commodity to be collected, rather as something woven into the fabric of everyday life. So, my interest in the arts is always with an eye to the cultural setting where you would find it. In my case it was found in the cutwork linens of my maternal Italian grandmother or the Irish song and prose of my paternal grandparents. Likewise, I look for artists who are rooted in tradition and legacy. One of the first groups I brought to Flushing Town Hall, even before I was a staff member, was Grupo Rebolu, amazing Colombian artists who were singing cumbias with lyrics that spoke about their migration.

MM: Why does artwork by the indigenous peoples of North and South America appeal to you so much?

GMH: Most of the Indigenous People of the Americas still root their artwork within their community — in creating their art, in distributing their art, and celebrating their art. Nothing is done randomly or in isolation; everything is intentional; every step is connected; and the community is involved. For example, Native American jewelers will only collect and handle their materials — such as quahog shells — in a specific way that has been passed down to them by their elders. The designs of weavings and pottery have very specific meaning and references, many of which are medicinal and healing.

MM: What drives you to use your position to promote art at Flushing Town Hall and elsewhere?

GMH: I believe in the power of the arts and culture to create community, to process trauma, such as this moment we are living through, restore joy, and build resiliency.

MM: How did Covid affect you and the Flushing community?

GMH: COVID affected my work, not my health, I am grateful to say. But starting in February and then more in March, Flushing Town Hall (FTH) cancelled so many shows, residencies, school programs, exhibitions and rentals, due to COVID. We managed to have our Jazz Jam in March, since that is usually the first Wednesday of each month, and we were all mindful of social distancing then and the possibility that FTH may temporarily close, but we never anticipated that we would be closed for months on end. The first week of working remotely was such a scramble of checking up on our teaching artists, school partners, staff and colleagues, as well as trying to get the technology running at home, while learning all the new health and safety protocols, and just trying to keep up with the news. Then we started to understand that we would be quarantining for not weeks, but possibly months. That’s when FTH started thinking about virtual programming. Our first virtual event was the Virtual Jazz Jam in April. When we started the stream at 7pm, we acknowledged the essential workers and all of our friends who we have lost to COVID, and in June after George Floyd was murdered, we acknowledge our fellow American lives lost to racial injustice. When we had that first Jazz Jam in April — I really couldn’t believe that we somehow converted a live, in-person event in our FTH gallery with 60 to 80 audience members and musicians, to a virtual event bringing in about 400 viewers from all over the globe. The house-band leader, Carol Sudhalter, the director of production, Steve Mecca, and I were all stunned at the end of the virtual jam that we “pulled it off”. Of course, we didn’t realize at the time that this is how we would be working for the next months.

Image for post
Image for post

MM: How did you come up with the idea for the outdoor art exhibition and how has it been received?

GMH: We were wondering “what can FTH do for our community?” The trauma and grief of the moment reminded me so much of the feeling of loss and hopelessness we all felt on 9/11; and the anxiety and panic we felt during Superstorm Sandy. We needed something to bring the community together even during quarantine — in much the same way that people left flowers, messages, and banners at sites around the city during those times. Flushing Town Hall has the 50-foot fence and that immediately seems to me like the perfect “gallery” to express our feelings and process our trauma. Our community of FTH Teaching Artists were the first to create artwork for the exhibition and their work is stunning. Slowly the word has gotten out and I’m so pleased to say that we currently have 20 pieces from amateur and professional artists hanging now. If artists cannot hang their work themselves, they can scan or photograph it, and send it to us and we’ll print it out, laminate it and hang it for them. In mid-August, we gave away over 67 art kits to families, and we hope they will create artwork for the exhibition too.

MM: How many pieces are in the show (aka on the fence) so far and do you have any favorites? If so, which ones and why?

GMH: We have 20 to-date, and it would be hard to pick a favorite. Nearly all of the artists submitted a statement and those statements express some personal experiences of what motivated the artist and it makes each piece that more profound. By the way, we hung the statements too. Two pieces to look for are: Stephanie Lee’s “We’ll Get Through This Together” featuring a princely mouse (since it is the “Year of the Rat”) wearing a mask, painted in the Korean minhwa style and transferred to vinyl; and Tina Seligman’s “Music Mandala” where she has photographed instruments to create a symbol of peace and hope, and the joy of music usually heard at FTH.

MM: How do the arts programs usually work at Flushing Town Hall and are you currently moving any of them to virtual platforms?

GMH: Every FTH program, with the exception of the outdoor exhibition, is virtual these days following NY State’s opening guidelines for theaters, until we receive the go-ahead to re-open FTH

MM: What has been the highlight of your career in the arts thus far?

GMH: That’s a tough question, but all my “highlights” have been tied to community and each has a constellation of meaning. But to pick one, and simplify a complicated story, one highlight was the repatriation of sacred objects back to the Blackfoot Confederacy. Their sacred objects were held in the collection of a federal museum and through my conversations with tribal elders and research, I was able to argue for their return. The museum board granted their deaccession and they were returned to the Kainaiwa (Blood Tribe) in Canada where they are used in ceremony to this day.

Image for post
Image for post
Gabrielle

MM: What exhibitions and projects are coming up next for you and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

GMH: Our next big project has to do with school opening in September — even if it is remotely. We are re-imagining nearly every arts education residency! I need to give a big “shout-out” to our amazing teaching artists and education team: Sio Man Lam, Haihong Chen, and Ivette Ruiz. They have come up with some wildly creative remote arts projects — from pop-up books to glove mandalas — -that art lovers of all ages can try. We enjoy developing these projects and the response has been impressive. I hope you follow our work and join us online until we can see you back at FTH!

*****

Flushing Town Hall will post ongoing updates — and showcase individual pieces of the artwork — starting on July 6 on Flushing Town Hall’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter platforms, and on Flushing Town Hall’s Cultural Crossroads blog. To learn more about the initiative, visit the official Flushing Town Hall website: http://www.flushingtownhall.org/call-and-response.

Written by

Meagan J. Meehan is a published author of novels, short stories, and poems. She is also a produced playwright and an award-winning modern artist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store