Erik Clemons last Thursday night. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Sharon Clemons spent her life building community. Now artists, educators, neighborhood champions and Black business owners have joined her family in the effort to keep her memory alive.
That’s the idea behind the Sharon M. Clemons Community Cultivator Award, an initiative of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and the Clemons family to honor the Clemons’ life, work, and enduring footprint in New Haven. Last Thursday, over 100 people gathered at the Westville-based business Bloom to celebrate Clemons’ legacy. The evening doubled as a kickoff to the award, which will be presented on the festival’s main stage on Juneteenth.
Erik Clemons, with whom Sharon built a life and family in New Haven, called it a testament to all who knew and loved his wife. A dedicated artist, life partner, mother of four and woman of fierce faith, Clemons passed away unexpectedly from Covid-19 in November 2020. She was 51 years old, and left behind a family and community reeling in her sudden absence.
It includes her four daughters, to whom she affectionately referred as her “butterflies,” and siblings with whom she was close. Before her death, she ran Sharon Joy Salon with her sister, Joy Brown. On any given day, flowers still sit by the window, pressing their faces toward the sun in her memory.
Top: Shelley Quiala (in blue blazer): "We don't ever stop being in relationship with each other." Bottom: Kwadwo Adae's butterfly.
“I had this in my head, and what I'm seeing is exactly what I saw in my head and in my heart,” Clemons said, standing beside his daughters Nyle, Nia and Kai. “For all the people who I love and who Sharon loved and who loved me and Sharon, all of you are here. And I am just so overwhelmed and happy and experiencing deep joy and admiration and appreciation for each and every one of you.”
True to the spirit of the award and its namesake, Thursday’s gathering saw a cross section of New Haveners pulled together for an evening of community. Images of butterflies appeared all over the boutique and patio, sprawling across one wall in a chalk mural by the artist Kwadwo Adae. Pitchers of honey and rosemary mocktails waited for attendees alongside chilled bottles of wine. Outside, attendees stood shoulder to shoulder, remembering the grace with which Clemons lived.
Inside, bouquets of flowers and notes to the family multiplied on a memorial table. Throughout the night, friends pulled each other in close for sun-kissed hugs, their laughter floating skyward. Catering staff from Orchid Cafe at ConnCAT made their way through the space, carrying trays of small meatballs, marinated shrimp, scalloped fresh pasta in thick sauce. On a table inside, dozens of cocoa-dusted truffles from fellow Westvillian Tagan Engel waited in their paper sleeves.
At the end of the evening, people lingered before heading out into the cooling summer air.
Clemons: “I just wouldn't want to do it with anybody but this crew of people here.”
The Community Cultivator Award, first presented during a hair show on Juneteenth last year, recognizes the work of a New Havener who embodies the same commitment to service, family, friends, faith, and community with which Sharon Clemons lived her life each day. During her five decades on this earth, she cared deeply for the people around her, extending to her full wingspan in every area of her life. That included a younger generation of Black women who she mentored in New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford and New York.
“I want to welcome you all, I want to thank you, and just tell you how much I love you as we honor and think about my wife,” Erik Clemons said Thursday. “I just wouldn't want to do it with anybody but this crew of people here.”
The award is the brainchild of Shamain McAllister, community programs manager at the Festival. While McAllister did not know Clemons before her death, she said she felt a connection to the way she lived her life. The more she learned, the more Clemons’ legacy stayed with her.
Top: Shamain McAllister, who goes by Sha. “It’s a blessing to be a blessing, and everyone has to do their part," she said.
Like Clemons, McAllister is also a woman of deep faith; she told attendees Thursday that “It’s a blessing to be a blessing, and everyone has to do their part.” When the festival was planning an hours-long hair show last year, something clicked.
"I said, 'Okay God, let's do it,'" McAllister recalled. "So we've been doing it ever since."
Last year, the inaugural Community Cultivator Award honored the Clemons family with an artwork from the artist Marsh and a video about the award and Clemons’ life. This year, Erik Clemons said, the family will announce the recipient shortly before artist Gregory Porter takes the Arts & Ideas stage to close out Juneteenth weekend. Attendees, who had been hanging onto each word, burst into applause.
Each year, he also intends to uplift a Black-owned business in the city, starting with Bloom at 794 Edgewood Ave. Last year, owner and founder Alisha Crutchfield-McLean opened the shop as a lifestyle boutique, florist, cafe, aromatherapy space, and safe haven in the neighborhood. Clemons, who buys flowers each week in his wife’s memory, became a frequent customer.
Bloom owner and founder Alisha Crutchfield-McLean.
Crutchfield-McLean told attendees that when she initially opened the store, she still wasn't sure how to describe it to people, because it encompassed so many different things. She finally realized that it is "all the things"—including the community center Westville didn't even know it needed. She has since been able to expand the space, filling each square inch with original art and plants that bloom in wild bursts of color.
“When I think of legacy, I think of women like Sharon Clemons,” she said. “I'm inspired by women like Sharon Clemons. These women don't just work for a living. They live with intention. They pour intention into people. They uplift the people that they're around. And that is the legacy I want to leave through the work here at Bloom."
The partnership is just one facet of remembering his wife’s legacy, Clemons said Thursday. Two years ago, he set up the Sharon M. Clemons “Butterflies” Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, in an effort to support young Black women on their academic journeys.
Each year, the fund supports multiple women headed to Smith College, Tuskegee University, Hampton University and Spelman College—the four schools from which the Clemons’ daughters graduated. This year, the fund will award 10 scholarships of $5,000 each to 10 women. It has raised a total of $1.6 million since November 2020.
Shelley Quiala, executive director of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, said that she sees the award—and the chance to honor Clemons each year—as part of the festival’s growing work in and with the greater New Haven community. She thanked both Clemons and McAllister for creating a space where the festival could step in.
"I hope that we get to spend time together at the festival this summer, and that we stay in community all year long,” she said. “This is not just about two weeks in June. This is really about relationships that last. We don't ever stop being in relationship with each other."
Learn more about the Sharon M. Clemons “Butterflies” Fund here. Learn more about the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, including Juneteenth weekend performances, here.