THE ARTS PAPER – ARTICLES
Howard el-Yasin’s art weaves the structure of the world
Howard el-Yasin. Photo by Harold
One of artist Howard el-Yasin’s earliest memories is
of making a footstool for his father. El-Yasin recalls it
being “more of an object than a footstool – I
found scraps of wood and nailed them together.”
But that simple and devotional act of creation bears a strong
resemblance to his present process.
“I use found materials when it seems appropriate,”
el-Yasin says. “I also love the simplicity, beauty,
and crudeness of such raw materials.
“I grew up around old furniture. I was always mesmerized
by what people did in the past,” el-Yasin says. “I
think it’s important for everyone to reference the past
in relationship to the present. Then it’s possible to
develop a sense of the future.
“All my work involves constructing,” el-Yasin
The process includes choosing materials, figuring out how
to combine those materials, and contemplating what a work
will say or reference. If there is an overarching theme it
is interconnectedness – the present to the past and
future, people to one another other and the planet.
El-Yasin minored in visual arts in college but wasn’t
happy with the type of painting and drawing he was being taught.
He now steers away from “anything representational,”
a preference he attributes in part to his Islamic background.
He is deeply influenced by African art – particularly
quilts and textiles – as well as the work of Minimalists
such as Sol LeWitt.
“For me, art is everything or everything can be art,”
el-Yasin tells me. “Art can evolve out of the most unseemly
“I’m not trying to replicate something I see.
I’m creating something from my imagination,” says
el-Yasin. “For me, art-making is about working through
the process of engaging myself with materials. I don’t
necessarily have an image in mind.”
Among the range of materials el-Yasin has employed are twigs
and branches, plastic grocery store bags, human hair, and
tea-stained paper. He is fascinated by organic materials and
by manufactured objects that evoke the past. Plastic bins
in his studio overflow with twigs collected on walks in the
woods, old picture frames, part of a rusted muffler, the trunk
of a tree. Long scraps of tea-stained paper lie in a pile
on a table against the wall. On average, el-Yasin says, it
takes about four to six weeks to stain a whole sheet. They
are mottled with myriad shades of brown and have different
textures. They look like worn, dirty old leather.
Tea-stained paper was el-Yasin’s material of choice
for his work in the recent Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage
Artists Project exhibition at the John Slade Ely House Center
for Contemporary Art. The Orchard Street Shul, which still
stands, was the synagogue at the heart of New Haven’s
Orthodox Jewish community, a community scattered by redevelopment
and an exodus to the suburbs. El-Yasin and artist Meg Bloom
collaborated on an installation for the exhibition. Umbilicaria
Walls, Bloom’s hanging strips of burn-scarred,
wax-infused fabric, referenced both the deterioration of the
physical structure of the old synagogue and men’s privileged
access to the Torah and the wearing of the tallit. El-Yasin’s
Numbered Pews was made of woven grids of numbered
strips of tea-stained paper.
“I interviewed people to get their perspective of what,
culturally, it was like to grow up in that environment. One
of the things I was trying to get at was the role of women
in an Orthodox space and the degree to which they were silenced,”
Male congregants purchased seats in the pews on the floor;
women were segregated in the balcony in numbered seats corresponding
to those of their husbands. Numbered Pews evoked
that seating arrangement, as well as dark, aged wood, a nod
to the people and the building that symbolized a community
and its faith.
One of el-Yasin’s ongoing projects involves collecting
human hair. El-Yasin has already used some hair for a sculptural
piece about lynchings and for a mixed-media work, Hair
Weaving, in which hair was interwoven with tea-stained
paper. Hair, el-Yasin explains, “references our multiplicity
as human beings.” Through DNA, it is an identifier of
the unique individual. Hair texture is also a strong cultural
signifier. Hair Weaving contains hair from several
different ethnic groups; in essence, el-Yasin is “binding
our multiplicity together.”
“It’s what my work is about. It’s all weaving,
pulling things together that appear to be different,”
says el-Yasin. The Orchard Street Shul project, says el-Yasin,
is “just one example of opportunities to see how we’re
all connected, an opportunity to look at the world in a different
Formally, el-Yasin finds a grid structure, as in Numbered
Pews, to be the perfect vehicle for his metaphor.
“The world really is a grid. All these different ideas
and forces and peoples, but it all fits together. All these
degrees of connection and association and disassociation,”
el-Yasin says. “Everything is connected to something
and that something is connected to something else.”
Even apparent randomness can have an underlying structure.
El-Yasin shows me one of his “string drawings.”
Black strings protrude from the front of the paper as seemingly
random lines. But when the paper is turned around, I see that
a grid actually organizes the placement of the strings.
El-Yasin has also projected the grid format into three dimensions,
sometimes in a circular pattern (which itself has symbolic
resonance). The sculpture Verboten, a work shown
at City Gallery in 2007, hangs from the ceiling of his studio.
It is bordered by a wire frame and consists of cross-hatched
layers of branches bound to the outer wire by twine. It is
a fetish, after a fashion. Sharpened tips of branches point
outward. Nails are driven through some of the twigs at the
top and bottom, echoing their use in African Nkisi art. The
nails, el-Yasin told me in 2007, “guard against evil
spirits.” Branches alternate between those that are
sanded white and others that are tan and shiny from shellac.
“I had the materials, I had the scraps, but I wasn’t
sure what to do until I realized I wanted it to be a circular
piece,” says el-Yasin.
“What I’m attempting to approach is essence, a
sort of nakedness,” he explains.
He tears the bark off twigs “because what I’m
trying to get at is beneath the surface. So even with pieces
where they are built up in layers, I’m still stripping
away part of it to suggest there’s always something
beneath the surface.
“It’s about layers of information,” says
el-Yasin. “I don’t like to make art where I spell
it out. I like to leave room for the viewer to contemplate.”
‘Through Nick’s Eyes’
David A. Brensilver
A watercolor painted in Istanbul.
Courtesy of Sara Ohly.
For 40 years, Nicholas Ohly documented his experiences, however
ordinary or extraordinary, in pocket-size notebooks. He made
notes to himself, drew scenes and landscapes, and pasted small
pieces of paper on which he’d drawn or made notes onto
the pages of the notebooks.
On the top half of one notebook page, for example, Ohly drew
the view from his seat in Dr. Anton Philipszaal, The Hague,
from which, as he noted in cursive below his illustration,
he watched and listened to the Residentie Orkest (Resident
Orchestra, also known as The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra)
perform Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Suites 1 &
2. He also made note of the hall’s “excellent
sound.” On the bottom half of the same notebook page,
Ohly drew three windmills along a road in Leidschendam, the
Netherlands. Each scene is dated, as is the handmade spine
he crafted for each notebook so it could be organized among
the others. Some 80 of these notebooks exist, dating back
Ohly, who died in 2007 at age 68, is the subject of an exhibition
the Arts Council will present this month. An architect by
vocation, Ohly spent his life capturing that which piqued
his interest through photography, watercolors, ink-pencil
and charcoal drawings, and, of course, the notebooks he was
rarely without. A collection of these different media will
be on display in the Sumner McKnight Crosby Jr. Gallery from
March 29 through May 21.
Patrick Cardon, who met Ohly in 1971 on an excavation in Greece,
once asked him about the detailed documentation evidenced
in the notebooks.
“What is all this for?” Cardon said he asked Ohly,
who, he said, responded, “Just keeping a record to go
In 1968, Ohly and his wife, Sara, came to New Haven, where
for 40 years he worked as an architect with Kevin Roche John
Dinkeloo and Associates on projects that included the Central
Park Zoo and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sara talked recently about her late husband’s interest
in visual art, which began with his mother taking him to galleries
and museums when he was growing up in Washington, D.C. By
his teens, Sara said, Ohly was carving wood, and, as a student
at Williams College, created sculpture and Calder-inspired
mobiles in a barn on family property in Vermont. He returned
to the barn for a six-month period during graduate school
to continue working on his sculpture.
“I think he felt a little torn about whether to be an
architect or a sculptor,” Sara said.
While he was studying architecture at Harvard University’s
Graduate School of Design, Ohly spent portions of three summers
on an archeological dig in Greece, from which he and Sam Peterson,
who was studying art history at New York University, traveled
to “remote parts of Syria, Jordan, and Iran, going through
Turkey,” Sara said. Ohly, of course, traveled with a
In 1971, as an art-history student at New York University,
Cardon and his wife, Carol, worked on an excavation in Greece,
to which Ohly had returned with Sara three years after they
married. On days off, the couples would hike.
“The camera was always out … Nick would catch
the beauty in whatever was going on,” Patrick said –
“and the motion,” Sara added.
Two decades later, Ohly took a year off to live in the Netherlands,
where, as a Ph.D. candidate in Yale University’s Department
of Anthropology, Sara did field work for her dissertation
on Turkish labor migration in the Netherlands. Once they arrived,
Sara said her husband “painted every day,” visited
galleries, and kept detailed journals about his days and artistic
“Spirit of place was really important to him,”
Cardon said, “and in his art it comes through.”
And yet, Ohly didn’t discuss his artwork.
Chris Pullman, who, along with his wife, Esther, met the Ohlys
decades ago, said, “I don’t ever remember him
talking about this stuff.”
Ohly did analyze the art he made. On the back of almost every
painting, he made, in Cardon’s words, “notes to
“I have to think that over 40 years he was making all
these incremental observations about his ability to image,”
Sara said that during the last year of her husband’s
life she asked him, “Who do you imagine reading these?”
“He just shrugged,” she said, adding that she
imagined he made the notes for “himself.”
Reading through Ohly’s notebooks, Cardon was reminded
of the “intensity of the appreciation of whatever he
was getting into,” and said the notebooks themselves
are “a reminder of the sensation he experienced at the
Pullman described Ohly as “somebody who was always on
… his radar was on.”
And he chronicled all that appeared on his radar.
Pullman said the exhibition, Through Nick’s Eyes,
represents the “tip of the iceberg,” of Ohly’s
avocational yield, and pointed out that “he didn’t
think of these as exhibit material.”
“At best,” Pullman said, “it’s a peek
into this side of his nonprofessional life … life as
an observer over 40 years.”
‘Supporting the vision’
Musical collective helps local songwriter’s music find
audiences beyond New Haven
David A. Brensilver
Call of the Wolf Peach
cover art. Painting by Todd (T.S.) Rogers.
If you watch This American Life, Showtime’s
adaptation of the syndicated Chicago Public Radio program,
you’ve probably heard original music from Pale White
Moon, a group of musicians enlisted by New Haven resident
Doug Slawin to bring an album called Call of the Wolf
Peach to fruition.
The music on the CD represents what was to become the second
recording from Slawin’s erstwhile band, The Secret Ink,
whose lineup featured Richard D’Albis (drums), Netta
Hadari (violin), Jennifer Morgan (bass, vocals), Slawin (guitar,
vocals), and Linnea Weiss (cello). The idea behind the group’s
instrumentation, Slawin said, was to have string players as
part of the band, not just musicians who’d show up and
read charts. He also had an interest in connecting people
to these instruments.
Following the group’s eponymous first album, Slawin
began recording a follow-up. Morgan, though, had relocated
to Texas where she’s an assistant professor of molecular
cell and developmental biology in the School of Biological
Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
As a result of Slawin not wanting to be the group’s
primary vocalist – “I don’t like being the
center of attention,” he said – the music he was
writing became more instrumental in nature, with vocals being
part of the mix, but not the focal point. And no one involved,
he said, felt comfortable replacing Morgan.
Slawin did want to finish the record he’d been working
on, particularly the songs he felt strongly about, not all
of which made it onto Call of the Wolf Peach.
What had been a band turned into a studio project, something
Slawin said allowed him to “express some of the music
I was writing.” He started bringing people into the
project depending on what a particular song called for, a
process that became “exciting,” as he felt he
could draw on the talent of New Haven’s musical community.
And he didn’t have to look far to find collaborators.
“Everyone was kind of in plain sight,” he said.
Slawin wrote “Frost Flowers” with Pierre Bourgeois
(Gabriel Cruz), whom he’s known for years and whose
band, Pale Horse Company, Slawin has done some engineering
for. One night, after the two talked about Hank Williams’
“Beyond the Sunset,” Slawin said it became clear
that Cruz should write the lyrics to “Frost Flowers.”
When he needed a double-bass player, Slawin called on his
neighbor, Ben Wolfe.
And while Call of the Wolf Peach took shape as a
studio project for which he, as songwriter, called on other
musicians to collaborate, much of the work has its roots in
Slawin’s artistic relationship with Weiss.
“Beefsteak,” Weiss’ composition for cello
and loop pedal, is one that, while not on Call of the
Wolf Peach, has appeared on This American Life,
as have her “Heirlooms” and “The Wolf Peach,”
both of which are on the record.
“Linnea is an amazing talent,” Slawin said, and
very modest, referring to the work she’s done with such
groups as Mates of State, which served as the “house
band” for a 2007 touring production of This American
Weiss also had a lot to do with the album being called Call
of the Wolf Peach.
Beefsteak and heirloom being types of tomatoes as well as
song titles – “Heirlooms” also has a classical
feel thus giving the title double meaning – Slawin did
some research and came across folklore that told of witches
planting the fruit to summon werewolves. Believed poisonous,
tomatoes were given the name lycopersicum, which
translates to “wolf peach.” Slawin liked the darkness
of the imagery and, when it came time to design a CD jacket,
related the wolf-peach legend to New Haven-based artist Todd
Rogers listened to the album, and, he said, “truly loved
what (Slawin) had done.” And he was “enamored”
with the folklore Slawin had related.
“That sold me,” Rogers said, “it roped me
Slawin, Rogers said, drew a rough picture of the album art
“As soft-spoken as he is,” Rogers said, “he’s
very firm and knows what he wants.”
Growing up, Rogers “got hung up” on the artwork
that graced Iron Maiden’s album covers – specifically
the band’s mascot, the living and ever-transforming
skeleton “Eddie,” who was conceived by British
artist Derek Riggs. In high school and college, Rogers learned
about the “masters,” and that the distinction
didn’t include “the guy who did the Iron Maiden
covers.” Whereas normally his work has a comic-book
influence and utilizes “dark, thicker outlines,”
Rogers wanted to do “something more organic, painterly”
for Slawin’s album.
As it turned out, Slawin said, Call of the Wolf Peach
is “a lot about New Haven … appreciating and treasuring
New Haven.” “Stars Hollow Days,” for example,
is about being caught between New York and Boston, and “The
Seven Year Cicadas” features the sounds of local crickets
in New Haven parks.
Call of the Wolf Peach was mixed and mastered (and
in part recorded) by Nick Lloyd at Firehouse 12. Lloyd not
only contributed from behind the mixing console, he played
piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, and Hammond organ on the
Lloyd, Slawin said, is another one of New Haven’s “super-modestly
Lloyd, who recorded The Secret Ink album, talked about that
project and Pale White Moon, saying the former was “more
rock-oriented” than the music on Call of the Wolf
Peach and that The Secret Ink “really was a band.”
Slawin returned to Firehouse 12 with some music that predated
the first record and some that was written during and after
that, with an eye on fleshing out the ideas he felt were strongest.
By the time they started mixing Call of the Wolf Peach,
Lloyd said, Slawin had a very clear idea of how he wanted
the record to work.
“(Slawin) has a very wide breadth of music that he’s
interested in,” Lloyd said, a “lot of different
influences in what he’s up to,” and that he doesn’t
worry about it fitting into a certain genre.
“I feel like Doug is a huge asset to the music scene”
in New Haven, Lloyd said. “He’s a really interesting
guy who is a student of all these different types of music.”
Lloyd agreed that the music on Call of the Wolf Peach
was informed by New Haven “in a really deep way.”
Lloyd also said he was struck by Slawin’s interest in
exploring all possible outlets for his music.
Talking about the connection Slawin made with This American
Life, Lloyd said, “He’s figured out how to
get his music out to the world in a much broader way.”
Slawin said that he and Weiss, while recording, would often
talk about This American Life more than they’d
discuss the music they were working on. At some point, he
called This American Life Producer and Series Music
Supervisor Jane Feltes to introduce himself and sent her some
songs. This American Life licensed 10 songs, most
but not all of which are on Call of the Wolf Peach.
“That actually allowed us financially to finish the
record,” Slawin said. “We were just really flattered
to be part of something that we really admire and enjoy.”
The connection to This American Life led to music
from Call of the Wolf Peach being used in a documentary
film, LaPorte, Indiana, which was directed
by Joe Beshenkovsky, who worked as an editor on This American
Even with momentum behind him, Slawin is looking ahead to
another project. Although Weiss has plans to move to Spain,
Slawin said he’s been talking with her and D’Albis
“about continuing to do recording together over the
Internet,” and is thinking about a project that would
involve a “large, post-rock ensemble.”
“For me,” Slawin said, “it’s just
(about) what’s going to continue to hold my interest.”
D’Albis who played drums for The Secret Ink and on Call
of the Wolf Peach, said he and the other musicians who
contributed to the more recent project were “supporting
the vision” Slawin had for the album.
“Doug is ringleader of the collective,” D’Albis
Slawin talked about Pale White Moon and the Call of the
Wolf Peach album, and about his music being licensed
by This American Life and used in a documentary film.
“The kind of music that we do, and the way the music
industry is right now, we’re not going to have a big
FM radio hit,” he said.
It’s nice, he said, that “the songs are getting
heard,” and that people outside New Haven are hearing
the work of local musicians.
“I think for a lot of people in music right now …
everybody’s trying to find an answer. … There
is no one answer. There’s a thousand answers,”
Call of the Wolf Peach: the details
1. Heirlooms (Weiss)
2. Rabbits Run (Slawin/Fay)
3. Stars Hollow Days (Slawin)
4. The Seven Year Cicadas (Slawin)
5. The Search for Helium Three (Slawin)
6. Sir Basil Humphrey’s House on the Hill (Slawin)
7. The Wolf Peach (Weiss)
8. Frost Flowers (Slawin/Cruz)
9. Stars Hollow Days (chamber group) (Slawin)
Linnea Weiss, cello
Ilona Virostek, vocals
Doug Slawin, guitars, organ
Netta Hadari, violin
Ellen Higham, viola
Nick Lloyd, piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, Hammond organ
Scott Amore, organ
Richard D’Albis, drums
Ben Wolfe, upright bass
Keith Yarbrough, tuba
William Bartlett, clarinet
The “Rabbit Run” players:
Lauren Fay, vocals
Doug Slawin, guitar
Carrie DeRegis, guitar
Andrew Spurrier, bass, guitar
Craig Woleader, drums
For more information about Pale White Moon and the Call
of the Wolf Peach album, visit myspace.com/palewhitemoon.
Space: definition, movement, and creativity
OluShola A. Cole
Space, the emotional and physical environments in which creative
expression is born, shared, discussed, and debated.
A few weeks ago, a musician came to see me about a concept
he has for an incredible multimedia installation that would
showcase musical icons through a mix of art and technology.
It became obvious to me that, despite the man’s idea,
and his contagious enthusiasm for it, defining a space where
it could take root, flourish, and engage a community would
be a challenge.
As an individual artist, and as the Arts Council’s coordinator
of community programs, I’m constantly expressing myself
and doing what I can to extend these “spaces”
into communities where they haven’t been cultivated.
Nothing excites me more at the end of the day (when I’m
not rehearsing, creating, or performing) than moving from
one space – my emotional space – to another.
I’ve been energized by Neighborhood Central Management
Team meetings, which have allowed me to meet neighborhood
leaders and find artists for neighborhood events.
The Dwight neighborhood found a special place in my heart
when Florita Gillespie and Curlena McDonald invited me to
speak at an NCMT meeting so that I could introduce myself
as the Arts Council’s link to the community. Watching
them bring a neighborhood together by organizing a fall arts
festival was truly inspiring. I’ve also admired the
organizational fervor of Grand Avenue Village Association
Director Gabriella Campos in Fair Haven. Quite simply, I couldn’t
have asked for a more well-timed crash course in identifying
community space, and soon I was finding artists, poets, and
musicians for GAVA’s historic lantern cemetery tour
I’ve also discovered different creative “spaces”
since I began working at the Arts Council in September. I
joined the New Haven Chorale and have performed with such
groups as PlayMakers Theatre and New Haven Theater Company.
Soon, I’ll be able to add Long Wharf Theatre to that
list. With some organizations, I’ve had to adjust to
imbalances of race, class, and socioeconomics, whereas the
diverse makeup different neighborhoods offer makes them feel
anything but exclusive. But exposure to new surroundings and
experiences has allowed me to challenge myself and has broadened
my comfort zone, which is important to me personally and critical
to my role at the Arts Council.
As I’ve moved through new “spaces,” I’ve
discovered the newly developed Hill Museum Corporation, an
old brewery in the Hill neighborhood that was once an abandoned
eyesore but slowly has been beautifully renovated by Krikko
Obot (yes, the large pencil drawing artist – check Union
Station!) and his assistant, Amin. This area is being revitalized
thanks to Krikko’s efforts to provide artistic experiences
to kids in the neighborhood. The space is breathtaking. It’s
simple and efficient and has the potential to transform the
I’ve also discovered the historic New Haven People’s
Center on Howe Street, a house on the Underground Railroad
that later became a gathering place for immigrants in the
Elm City. The information I’ve found there has been
informative and very community oriented. I always feel very
welcome when I step through the doors.
Defining “community” requires assessment, even
discovery. Still, just a handful of months into my new job,
I continue to define and move through “spaces”
and see how they can be put to good, positive use. And each
day I meet new people and find something new to explore.
The Bregamos Community Theater rehearsal space, which was
converted by the organization’s founder, Rafael Ramos,
hosts an eclectic array of ensembles, dance troupes, and theater
groups. I’m constantly intrigued by the groups that
have found this space in Erector Square (the entrance is on
Blatchley Avenue). I’ve rehearsed in this space with
the New Haven Theater Company. Spending time there let me
see just how many diverse and talented groups it draws. I
discovered a bachata band called Los Chavos De Fuego and a
salsa band called Agua Pa Chocolate, both of which use the
space. The newly formed Hillhouse Opera Company also rehearses
there, as does Collective Consciousness Theatre. In October,
the space was the site for Ras Mo Moses’ production
of Testify! Real Stories, Real People, a multimedia
production that explored violence during Domestic Violence
Awareness Month. A simple assessment of the groups that practice
and rehearse in the workshop shows that community space can
be accessible and cost-effective, and that it can foster and
cultivate participation in the arts.
Another discovery I’ve made is Church Street South Apartments,
a privately owned low-income housing complex in town. Bregamos
Community Theater is in the process of collecting stories
and conducting interviews for a production that will be staged
at Church Street South to draw attention to an area that has,
for the most part, been ignored. Here, I see a community working
to create a necessary dialogue.
I’ve also engaged with organizations that focus on social
awareness and action such as Integrated Refugee & Immigrant
Services and Collective Consciousness Theatre, and I’ve
spent time with local playwrights, availing myself as a cultural
liaison as they’ve collected stories about the immigrant
experience in New Haven for a presentation on the campus of
Yale University on World Refugee Day.
I am literally moving into a space defined by creative activity
and commitment to community. To step into shoes once filled
by Jose Monteiro and Aleta Staton, and into a role that calls
on the influence and legacies of Bitsie Clark and the late
Zannette Lewis, is to step into a learning process that helps
me frame my goals creatively, honestly, and objectively.
In order for the arts to thrive in our communities, we need
to constantly be identifying, evaluating, cultivating, and
even creating new “spaces.” All around town, I
see performance spaces, gathering spaces, peaceful spaces,
empty spaces, rehearsal spaces, safe spaces, and creative
spaces. Here, I see a chance for communities to work together
creatively to enjoy and thrive on artistic, cultural, social,
and accessible expression.
OluShola A. Cole is the Arts Council’s coordinator
of community programs.
The First Amendment and the arts community
It’s fair to say the writers of the U.S. Constitution
and Bill of Rights didn’t have artists – or arts
organizations – in mind when they drafted the First
Amendment. But no single sentence will ever be more important,
more relevant, or more foundational to any arts community
in the United States – including Greater New Haven’s.
The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, protects the free expression
of artists everywhere, assuring that they can’t be fined
or imprisoned for the content of their work. It also protects
arts organizations: the government can’t stop museums,
orchestras, theaters, or festivals from presenting works of
art it may find threatening. These freedoms don’t exist
everywhere in the world, and I’m proud we have them
But let’s not get over-confident. Today, as government
attempts to silence speech have become increasingly rare,
we see instead cultural, social, and economic factors at work
inhibiting free expression.
In case you think these situations are exceptional, the truth
is that challenges happen frequently, in communities of
all political stripes. Most of the time, they don’t
involve the government at all. The majority of challenges
to free speech involve people like you and me who have the
power to make decisions about what we see and don’t
see, read and don’t read, hear and don’t hear.
Since I moved to New Haven 10 years ago, I’ve heard
about four publicly reported incidents – right here
in our region – that raised important First Amendment
questions. Last summer’s decision by Yale University
Press not to reprint in a scholarly book Kurt Westergaard’s
cartoons and other images of the Prophet Muhammad made international
news. Around the same time, a group of citizens in Cheshire
mounted an emotional challenge to the public library’s
purchase of In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True
Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood, a book about
a local crime committed in 2007.
Last fall, San Francisco-based artist Richard Kamler accused
a local curatorial committee of censorship when his art installation,
which wove together cut paper strips of the Torah and Koran,
was pulled from the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage
Artists Project exhibition. And some members of the community
objected strenuously to the presentation of the play Alive
From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation at the 2002
International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
Of course, as First Amendment expert and Yale Law School Dean
Robert Post pointed out to me, for communities not
to offend one another is a good thing. At the same
time, he said, artists can play a role in moving communities
through – and beyond – entrenched positions they
may hold. That too, is a good thing, and one of the highest
functions of art.
Now, I’m not advocating some bizarre new aesthetic for
New Haven, one that champions violence, sexual perversion,
and the defamation of other people’s gods. Moreover,
I feel protective of children and youth; I confess that sometimes
I change words – and occasionally plot points –
as I read children’s books aloud to my own kids, whereupon
my husband calls my bluff and I start feeling like Tipper
Make no mistake about it, First Amendment issues are tough.
They push our buttons. And often, the stakes could not be
In recent years, fear of violence has been cited as a legitimate
reason to suppress free expression. Yale University Press
decided not to reprint Westergaard’s cartoons because
it was afraid of a violent response from Muslim extremists.
Imagine, for a moment, that these cartoons, along with other
images, had been reprinted in the name of free speech, and
that the Yale University Press office on Temple Street in
downtown New Haven had been bombed and civilians killed. (Westergaard
was physically attacked in January; he survived.) Would we
feel that Yale University Press’ decision to publish
the cartoons had been the right decision? How far are we willing
to go to protect freedom of speech, which, when balanced with
human life, may seem like an abstraction?
And yet, here’s what the College Art Association said
in its far-reaching statement, released in December 2009,
about Yale University Press’ controversial decision:
“Words and images exist in complex socio-political contexts.
Suppressing controversial expression cannot erase the underlying
social tensions that create the conditions for violence to
begin with, but it does create a climate that chills and eventually
corrupts the fundamental values of liberal democracy.”
As artists, writers, and journalists know, free expression
is a practice, an attitude, a way of life, a discipline. It’s
not something to be misused, abused, or feared. It draws us
into a lifelong conversation about speech: when to use it,
how to use it, and how to protect it for everyone.
With that in mind, I asked representatives of several major
arts organizations – the International Festival of Arts
& Ideas, Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven Symphony Orchestra,
Fairfield University’s Quick Center for the Arts, Shubert
Theater, Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts,
Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art,
and Yale Repertory Theatre – if they have written guidelines
in place for dealing with First Amendment issues, should anyone
ever challenge the presentation of a particular work of art
at their institutions. None do.
In its Guidelines for State Art Agencies, Museums, University
Galleries and Performance Spaces, the National Coalition
Against Censorship (NCAC) “encourages arts institutions
to develop written selection policies that will guide them
in showing or sponsoring art that may spark controversy in
a particular community. These policies should contain procedures
for responding to challenges initiated by the board, administrators,
organizations and individuals in the community.”
An arts organization’s professional standards, says
Post, are key to navigating these questions. His belief is
reflected in the NCAC’s list of possible criteria for
making curatorial decisions – things like:
• imaginative quality/originality/complexity/unity of
• professional background of the artist
• social relevance
• diversity of viewpoints represented
• insight into social conditions/depth of analysis
So, art lovers, ask people at your favorite arts organizations
about their selection criteria for exhibiting and presenting
works of art. Find out how they make choices and what principles
guide their decision-making process. Ask them to articulate
their First Amendment values. Are they, unwittingly, engaging
in self-censorship out of fear of offending someone? Are they
educating their donors about the importance of free expression?
And ask the artists you meet if they’ve ever been silenced,
or have silenced themselves. These conversations will make
our arts community stronger.
And most of all – never, ever take the First Amendment
This is the opinion of Lucile Bruce.
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