A Yale student and a two-star Michelin chef teamed up to serve 12 guests fine Japanese cuisine Friday night.
Abdel Morsy ’17, along with mentor and friend Shin Takagi, the head chef of Zeniya, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Kanazawa, Japan, co-hosted an eight-course meal in New Haven Friday evening. The dinner, attended by family, close friends and strangers, celebrated Morsy and Chef Takagi’s upcoming partnership and marked one year of Stickershop — Morsy’s series of art dinner parties held in various locations throughout New Haven.
When Morsy began Stickershop, he paired intimate dinner parties with musical acts. Since then, he has had the student bands Opia, the musical collaboration between Cole Citrenbaum ’17 and Jacob Reske ’14, and Goldwash, founded by Gabe Acheson ’16, perform at his events.
Still Stickershop serves up more than musicians and chefs. At each dinner, the Stickershop graphic design team creates a celebratory sticker for the event. Morsy and other magicians have also performed magic at some dinners.
To begin his dinner series, Morsy brought cuisine experience from both Yale and abroad. During his sophomore year, he created the pop-up kitchen Shuffle in the basement of Ezra Stiles College. Then last summer, he spent time in Japan working at various restaurants, including Zeniya, where he met Takagi.
While guests enjoyed the eight-course meal, Myles Cameron ’19 performed original music inspired by the food’s flavors and textures.
“It’s about bringing artists to the dinner table and contributing to the idea of food,” Morsy said.
He started the nearly three-hour meal with deep-fried sesame tofu, following it with miso soup and sashimi rice bowls.
For the fourth course, Morsy and Takagi served up boiled and pickled variations of turnips they had harvested at the Yale Farm.
Afterward, the duo prepared plates of raw seafood, including cod, nodoguro and nyumen, before ending the meal with dessert — chocolate mousse and handmade soy ice cream, both served with candied marshmallows.
Attendee Nick Brooks ’17 said he left feeling satisfied by both the cuisine and culture.
“From the first dish to the last dish, it was hands-down amazing,” Brooks ’17 said.
Restaurants can receive up to three Michelin stars.
As the Yale Center for Business and the Environment kicked off its 10th-anniversary celebration in September, students and faculty reflected on the center’s progress in the past decade, as well as issues it faces.
Launched by the Yale School of Management and the School of Forestry & Environmental Science in 2006, the center provides a platform for research, networking and social gatherings for students pursuing joint master’s degrees in environmental management and forestry from the two professional schools.
Bradford Gentry, associate dean for professional practice and a co-director of the center, said the number of joint-degree students has risen from fewer than 20 to about 60 since the center’s inception. The center also helped Yale earn a seat in leading world organizations on sustainability, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Gentry said.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, as we see more wealth in the economy, which usually leads to overconsumption [that] leads to environmental pollution,” Gentry said. “The center very much works to find business solutions to address these concerns.”
The celebration will last through spring 2017 and will involve a series of dinners for donors, workshops and webinars.
While most centers aim to enhance faculty research programs, Gentry said, the CBEY is unique in its focus on career-oriented events and social activities.
Gentry added that the center has continued to create new programs to accommodate the increasing number of joint-degree students. For example, Gentry said the center offers a research project where students work with the Connecticut Green Bank, alumni and SmartPower — a national nongovernmental organization on clean energy — to build more solar panels across New Haven.
“The joint-degree program between the two schools is the strongest from the point of view of each school. [CBEY] is the perfect example of what a center can do,” SOM Dean Edward Snyder said.
Still, Gentry said the center faces funding problems and needs more money to fund more collaborative projects that connect theory with practice.
According to Heather Fitzgerald, associate director of CBEY, the center’s funding comes from philanthropic sources, mainly foundations and private donors. She added that the center is rolling out a model for corporate partnerships to develop business solutions to social and environmental challenges. The financial commitment will depend on the level of engagement of each partner, Fitzgerald said.
“We’re very much student-led, so we want to make sure that the center’s goals match the interests of the students,” Fitzgerald said. “While interests can vary as new students come through the program, our long-term goals and objectives remain focused.”
Fitzgerald mentioned several long-term goals for the center, including training multidisciplinary leaders in global sustainability, creating research projects that engage all networks within and outside of Yale and transforming the world to a sustainable economy. Fitzgerald added that many of the center’s current partnerships, such as the one with the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition — a group that lobbies for taxing carbon emission — are working to achieve these goals.
Pamela Jao FES ’17 praised the center’s commitment to creating a community for joint-degree students, adding that for example, the “secret Santa” event that the center has organized each Christmas showed the center’s efforts to bring students together.
As the joint-degree program expands, however, Jao said the community ties felt weaker than before. She added that the program — which consists of about 15 percent students of color — could be more diverse.
Fitzgerald said the center’s efforts to bring speakers who are racially diverse reflect on the students’ wish for more diversity.
The first joint-degree program between SOM and F&ES was created in 1982.
Hungry New Haveners can now head to a hot new food destination in town: Mecha Noodle Bar, a restaurant that serves Asian noodle dishes ranging from Japanese ramen to Vietnamese pho, opened its doors Sept. 25.
Mecha’s New Haven location at 201 Crown St. is the third franchise to open since the first restaurant was started in Fairfield in 2013. Mecha co-founder Tony Pham said he anticipates expanding into other Connecticut cities such as Stamford and other nearby college campuses in the future. Still, he noted that it is important that expansion does not compromise Mecha’s signature features and values.
“Our mission is to transform taste and tradition to pride and progress through Southeast Asian comfort food in a fun, communal, high-energy environment,” said Daryl Wells, one of Mecha’s general managers.
To his fellow staff, Wells is known as “Elm City Sensei.” Each member of Mecha’s team has a self-designated title, including Pham himself: “The Troublemaker.”
Pham said his initial inspiration for the restaurant grew from his appreciation for the heartfelt, home-brewed comfort food his mother cooked for him when he was a child. The word “mecha” itself is a Vietnamese word meaning “mom and pop.”
Beyond its food, Mecha also aims to craft a comfortable and “shoulder-rubbing” setting for customers to enjoy their meals, Wells said. He added that the unadorned concrete floor, long communal dining tables and construction-wood blocks that hang down from the ceiling were all deliberate architectural choices made to match a comfortable setting to the many comfort food options offered.
“We want everyone to feel welcome,” Wells said.
This guiding principle, he said, is the reason Mecha does not take reservations but still receives a full house and a line extending outside the restaurant door.
The restaurant aims to recreate the familiar for its customers, but also makes strides into culinary territory foreign to many. On its menu, spiked bubble teas and the unique cocktail-in-a-bowl “The Scorpion” sit alongside traditional Thai and Japanese beers.
Despite Mecha’s adventurous and diverse menu, Wells emphasized that the restaurant cannot be labeled as “Asian fusion.”
“We’re not fusing anything,” he said. “We want to embrace all the cultures we represent as they really are.”
The competition among ramen restaurants today is fierce, Pham noted. In New Haven alone, Mecha joins a tide of recently opened noodle shops, including three pho restaurants and one ramen restaurant in the past two years. And some of the country’s most famous ramen shops are in nearby New York City, including Ippudo and Totto Ramen.
For some customers, the tendency for comparison is strong. When asked about her experience with one of Mecha’s ramen bowls, customer Aileen Huang ’17 said it was “nothing to write home about.”
“It’s got a lot of great things, but does it have the same level of depth and complexity as Ippudo ramen? No,” Huang said.
Pham, however, said the restaurant is not looking to just imitate other noodle shops, and instead will analyze what initiatives are successful in New Haven to best adapt to its new and growing customer base. Wells added that the team will wait and see what “naturally takes off in New Haven.”
Starting Monday, Mecha will begin holding happy hours between 3 and 6 p.m. each weekday. It also plans to start a late-night program that will combine special menu items and board games such as Jenga and dominos — which are already available behind the restaurant’s bar. Wells anticipates late-night Mecha will be a way for people to “wind down from the business of the street.”
Though Mecha is a 10-minute walk from campus for most Yale students, Wells is not worried that the distance will deter students from attending the late-night program. Located near the corner of Crown and Temple streets downtown, Mecha is surrounded by bars and nightclubs.
“If Yale students can make it to Bar and Barcelona then I know they can make it to Mecha,” Wells said.
Another priority of Pham’s is having the restaurant act as an agent of social change in the country. Pham started in 2015 a philanthropic initiative called Eat Justice, in which the Fairfield Mecha location makes a fractional contribution to a chosen cause with every noodle bowl sold.
The restaurant is supporting breast cancer awareness and making donations to the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center. Pham has plans to expand the program to Mecha’s other two locations as well.
It’s been a long and heinous winter, but spring has finally burst forth in New Haven. The difference in temperature has not only coaxed daffodils from previously stolid soil, but reminded everyone in town that bodies exist beneath layers of clothing. In the disconcerting warmth, Yalies have been seen rolling up their trousers to reveal dry ankles, unused to the sun’s glare. They have been spotted in skirts, with neither thick leggings nor thermal underwear on to protect their shins from frostbite. They have even been observed walking down Broadway in a leisurely manner, desperate for the first time in months to be out of doors.
Here are a few Yalies dressing to celebrate the new season. Hi spring.
I’ve memorized their faces without having to try. The cowboy with the under-bite, two guns pointed upwards; the curly-haired, pensive woman, frowning a toad-like frown and wringing her hands; the protruding, heavy brow of the man hovering above her; the pleading girl; the smoking clown; the tiny explorer. Though I’ve never given them much thought, these black-and-white cartoons have loomed on the wall of my playroom for what seems like forever. Under their grotesque gaze I learned to walk and read, to gather my stuffed animals and leaf through teeny bopper magazines.
Twenty-five years ago, my mother had one of her first adult jobs working in the development office of the Shubert Theater, the New Haven landmark that stands next to the Taft Apartments on College Street. When she moved away from New Haven, and from her temp position at the Shubert, she took with her a poster — a commemoration of the theater’s 1984 reopening — and has held onto it ever since. Now, the caricatured faces on that poster are permanently etched in my memory.
“I imagine, after 100 years, it might be pretty run-down by now,” my mom said about the Shubert when I called.
In some ways, her suspicion is right: in the lobby one sees exposed pipes and ancient concessions. Just last Sunday at the Shubert, a 500-600-pound box fell and crushed someone — who was subsequently hospitalized — an event that has generated no follow-up report.
Still, my mom’s nostalgia for the theater peeks through in her voice. “It was definitely the most fun job I had in New Haven,” she told me.
* * *
“I have to hug you,” Anthony Lupinacci, the director of marketing and community relations for the Shubert, tells me when we first meet. “I still remember when your mom took us out to lunch at IHOP before she left. We saw the last name, but didn’t think it could ever actually be the same family.” When he first started working here, we ascertain, my mother had just started working here. Time flies, he says.
The two of us are standing in front of the Shubert’s new “gallery,” a timeline of some of the biggest stars and performances the Shubert’s seen over the last century. The lights go up on the framed posters, illuminating the young faces of national dramatic treasures: Audrey Hepburn, Katherine Hepburn, Mary Martin, Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, to name a handful. We start at the beginning.
It’s December 1914, and the Shubert Theater, a new branch of the New York-based Shubert brothers’ company, is preparing to open. A Dec. 3 article from the News boasts of the incoming attraction: “New Theatre Most Modern in United States — New Haven Assured of Best Theatrical Season it Has Ever Had — New Theatre Practically Fireproof.”
Over the next several decades, the Shubert would be christened “the birthplace of the nation’s greatest hits.” It functioned as a premier “tryout theatre,” or a venue for nascent shows to run trial performances before making their debut on Broadway. The stage has played host to the world premieres of quite a few now-canonical shows, like “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947, which launched the career of a young, then-unknown Marlon Brando.
This “golden age” at the Shubert spanned the 35 years that it was owned by a certain Maurice Bailey. Bailey took it over in 1941, when the Shubert Foundation, which had become a national theater monopoly, was forced to transfer its ownership, and held onto the theater until it closed in 1976.
Rachel Alderman is a producer for A Broken Umbrella Theatre, a local company that is currently in rehearsals for “Seen Change,” an original musical about the Shubert Theater and New Haven that will premiere Feb. 18 at the Shubert. She noted the venue’s storied history.
“Frankly, you can’t talk about the history or the legacy of the American theater scene without talking about the Shubert in New Haven,” she said. “One birthed the other.”
A show’s try-out period at the Shubert was truly raw and led to notable changes: “Oklahoma!” was named “Away We Go” when it played at the Shubert in 1943, and the responses of New Haven audiences contributed in large part to the addition and subtraction of songs before the final Broadway debut.
In a video she recorded for the Shubert’s centennial in November, Julie Andrews recalled a crippling attack of stage fright by a then-inexperienced Rex Harrison on the opening night of “My Fair Lady.” The performance was called off, but due to a record-breaking blizzard, word did not reach audience members, who filled the seats anyway. The Shubert crew then scattered, gathered the cast members from around New Haven, and put on the show.
“Everything about it was high drama,” she says in the video, holding the original 1956 playbill. “And great fun.”
Andrews’s is one of 44 “shout-out” Youtube videos uploaded by former Shubert stars to commemorate its anniversary. A quick scroll through the playlist makes it clear: The stars remember the Shubert as fondly as the Shubert remembers them, and its legacy has stretched well beyond the local.
“The whole thing kind-of went viral,” Lupinacci said about the shout-out project, which began with staffers reaching out to just a handful of familiar faces. “We started getting emails and submissions from people we hadn’t even contacted.”
A selfie-angle video of Perez Hilton, lying in bed, saying one day he’d feel so honored to act in a play at the Shubert, stands out as a potentially unsolicited submission. Marie Osmond, Jane Fonda and Kristin Chenoweth have posted their own tributes. James Earl Jones recalls spending his 26th birthday at the Shubert performing in the world premiere of “Sunrise at Campobello.”
Lupinacci nods his head in affirmation when Andrews praises what is perhaps the Shubert’s most noteworthy attribute. “Congratulations,” she says, “for surviving all the other theaters that come and go.”
* * *
Survival has not been easy.
During an economic downturn in New Haven, the Shubert closed its doors in 1976, and remained shuttered for seven years. A 1983 project to revitalize downtown brought it back to life.
Funds were poured into renovations and the theater’s mission was reimagined. It would no longer exist as merely a tryout theater and a Broadway junction, though those ties were to remain strong. It would become a community resource and a more versatile venue.
“Since reopening, there’s been an increased diversity in the programming, and an increased functionality,” Lupinacci said. The last season, for example, has seen everything from local high school productions to stand-up comedians to a Gospel act to ballets to, of course, Broadway musicals.
Alderman says that this versatility is so much of what makes the Shubert, and New Haven as a whole, special. She recalled watching her young niece’s recital in the Shubert, where she also saw the Tony-award winning “Peter and the Starcatcher” last week.
“If a three-year-old tap dancing in a bumblebee costume in the same space as that Broadway production is not a beautiful symbol for what’s possible when a city is alive with the arts, I don’t know what is,” she said. “It’s like the whole birth-life cycle right there on stage.”
In 2001, the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts took over management of the theater, though the city still owned the building. Around this time, a new movement emerged that sought to re-create — and update — the tryout theater golden age. The Shubert’s executive directors and board undertook an effort to debut the national tours of Broadway plays. Now, before travelling across the nation, Broadway productions hunker down in New Haven for several weeks to build their sets and — just as in the old days — to test out their performances.
“We have this wonderful past that we love to celebrate, but we’re constantly looking to the future,” said Lupinacci. “We like to remind people that this is not a museum.”
The initiative has landed some huge names: in the past three years, “Jersey Boys” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” made their national tour debuts at the Shubert, and “Matilda” will do the same this May. These big fish not only inflate the Shubert’s credibility, but also pump money into the city. For six weeks at a time, Lupinacci pointed out, creative teams are staying in local hotels, ordering supplies for their shows and patronizing local shops and restaurants. Every year, the Shubert brings in $5 million in revenue and, according to a Quinnipiac University study, generates $20 million of economic impact for the city.
As the centennial approached, the Shubert underwent further changes. Although being owned by the city had its benefits for many years (protection from demolition, for example), converting to a not-for-profit model would allow the Shubert to apply for grants and save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
In a unanimous vote in November 2013, the city elected to transfer building ownership to CAPA, a move that, entirely by coincidence, was finalized on the 99th anniversary of the Shubert’s opening night in 1914.
Lupinacci waves his hands and smiles. He says he can only attribute such a happenstance to the spirit of all the old stars who at one point have called the Shubert home.
* * *
“If you look closely enough, you can see the gerbils running through!”
So says a woman cleaning the newly expanded Shubert lobby, referring to the large and exposed mechanical pipes on the ceiling. By the end of the $14.8 million renovation period in October 2016, Lupinacci says, they’ll be covered, but the renovation is being executed in phases.
More dire woes than gerbils — the falling box comes to mind — have befallen the Shubert during the renovation. These oversights are symptomatic of a general state of disrepair in the theater, which hasn’t undergone any substantial renovation since reopening in the 1980s.
In 2013, the board of directors, the staff and the city all agreed: It was time. The first phase, completed from May to October of 2014, addressed the antiquated heating and cooling systems, dressing rooms, lobby and hospitality suite, as well as general maintenance problems.
Lisa Sanborn, who has been artistic director of the New Haven Ballet for the last 14 years (and has consequently worked on 14 productions of the Nutcracker at the Shubert), said that the “single greatest change” has been the implementation of more bathrooms throughout the building. Previously, there were only bathrooms in the basement, which proved challenging for casts as well as audience members.
“It’s a lot easier to implement plumbing now than it was decades ago,” Lupinacci said, adding wryly, “We’re committed to ‘seats where there’s seating.’”
In spite of millions of dollars’ worth of changes, CAPA and the board of directors are committed to preserving the theater proper — which is essentially the same as it was on its opening night in 1914.
Indeed, the 1914 News’ description of the theater rings true 100 years later: “The interior design is in New England Colonial style, the entire effect being of old ivory, with golden brown velvet hangings, seat upholstery and carpets. The Curtain will also be of the same rich tone of brown velvet.
Lupinacci says he’s proud of the theater’s “classic elegance,” and its avoidance of the “overly extravagant, gingerbread style” that many other 20th-century theaters adopted.
He does concede they might like to expand the space, in order to accommodate some larger and more complicated musicals, like “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Lion King.” But it can’t happen, he explained, because the theater is sandwiched right in between the Crown Street parking garage and the Taft Apartments.
But according to Sanborn, the theater’s design could not make for a more optimal audience experience. She argued that it has the same, or even better, acoustics as the most technologically advanced theater, and that no matter which of the 1,600 seats you get, there’s a clear and intimate view of the actors.
Not only does the theater create intimacy between performers and the audience, it also fosters intimacy between the audience members themselves. When crafting the conceit for a centennial painting for the theater, New Haven-based artist Tony Falcone asked Shubert staff members what they most wanted to capture about their beloved theater. According to Lupinacci, “It was that feeling of anticipation as the curtain goes up and the audience — who come from all different racial, socio-economic and personal backgrounds — are all united in their excitement about what’s to come.”
That feeling is precisely what Falcone captures in the painting, now hanging at the end of the gallery timeline at the Shubert. The picture is pink and exuberant, reminiscent of Chagall. In it, beams of light emanate from beneath the curtain, which has just started to rise, and shine onto a full house.
When I look at it, I remember the old Shubert poster in my playroom, the histrionic black-and-white expressions of the figures. I can’t help thinking that these two images are indicative of the Shubert’s shift in focus: from the drama of its star-studded past to the joy of giving back to its own community.
For Shubert patrons and performers, these images are complements.
Describing the experience of setting foot into the theater and onto the stage, Sanborn says, “You stand there and think to yourself about all the incredible, world-famous performers that have been backstage, and have performed there, and it really does give you goosebumps.”
On the corner of Chapel Street and High Street, the familiar vacancy that was the entrance to the Yale Center for British Art has been boarded up. The gray plywood anticipates the 14-month renovation, which began last week, and, more importantly, indicates the temporary loss of one of Yale’s most unique artistic spaces.
Students and administrators alike will miss the YCBA, which houses works by canonical British artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. “I’m probably just going to cry a little,” said Daniel Leibovic ’17, who works at the YCBA as a student tour guide.
He explained that the YCBA provided an important space to think and study and fostered a strong sense of community among the student workers. Leibovic will miss his fellow tour guides, as well as his favorite exhibition, “Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention,” a collection of Victorian statues.
However, despite this cultural vacancy, there are other spaces in New Haven that serve similar artistic purposes. The museum belongs to a long tradition of public art that has strong ties to Yale and a strong presence in the New Haven community. The YUAG, the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Lipstick statue in Morse — all are historic components of the New Haven arts scene.
In many ways, the YCBA’s renovation is an opportunity: Students who have yet to visit museums on campus and in New Haven may choose to finally visit the YCBA upon its reopening. And, alternatively, those in search of another art space will have an incentive to explore during the coming year.
Since 1974, the YCBA has been one of New Haven’s most popular artistic institutions. Paul Mellon ’29, a British art enthusiast, purchased and installed around 95 percent of the pieces displayed today. The vast and impressive collection attracts an equally vast and impressive audience: graduates students, undergraduate students, professors, young artists and many locals.
While the museum is home to the largest collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom, the building itself is also a work of art — it was given the Twenty-five Year award by the American Institute of Architects in 2005.
The principal goal of the renovation is to preserve this work of art: the historic Louis Kahn building that houses the collection. After 10 years of researching the history, design and construction of the building, the project is finally underway. The renovation will include updated fire safety code compliance as well as restorations that better service the public. The lecture hall, for example, will now adhere to American Disability Act standards, and a new seminar room will be built upstairs.
Mark Aronson, chief conservator for the YCBA, is enthusiastic about improvements to the building’s physical accessibility. As an art restorer, however, he is more interested in the accessibility of the artwork itself — he looks forward to working on some of the better known paintings during the renovation. In many ways, his work with individual pieces parallels the restoration process the museum will undergo for the next 14 months.
“We can almost never get our hands on ‘The Allegory of the Tudors’ Succession’” he said, alluding to a Lucas de Heere canvas. “Every third grader knows what it is, so whenever a school group comes, they park in front of Henry VIII.” With the restoration, Aronson and his team will finally get to look at it.
Before the YCBA closed, he was reluctant to deprive students of such historical pieces, which present unique learning opportunities. He sees education as one of the YCBA’s most important services to the community and said that museum staff are very conscious of how viewers will benefit from their displays.
Cassandra Albinson, chief curator of the YCBA’s collection, also emphasized its role as an educational institution.
“I really like portraiture of women, so when I’m working on something I’m always hoping it will be of interest to, say, feminist groups on campus,” she said. She hopes that the new seminar room will bring undergraduate art courses into the building, particularly those courses that involve the collection.
Despite her interest in engaging campus groups, Albinson said she wants the YCBA to be a space where both Yale students and younger schoolchildren can learn about British art. She drew attention to the museum’s location — just off Old Campus — which puts it literally and figuratively on the border between the Yale and New Haven communities. The majority of patrons are not associated with Yale, and, as one of nine public museums in New Haven, the YCBA plays a central role in the city art scene, for students and non-students alike.
While the manifold services provided by the Center would be difficult to replicate, other Yale institutions exercise equal influence over the city’s artistic community. For instance, the YUAG’s presence and influence most closely approximate those of the YCBA, its neighbor.
The YUAG, unlike the YCBA, has pieces from all over the world and all ages of art history. But despite these differing collections, the two institutions occupy similar spaces in the arts scene: Both are free and both place special emphasis on their accessibility to the larger community. Pamela Franks, curator at the YUAG, speaks of many programs that resemble those of the YCBA: lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and programs for school kids.
Franks believes that the YUAG helps young students learn to think differently. She, too, emphasizes the interactive nature of art education — she believes that students learn “visual literacy” and the ability to think of history in pictures.
However, most importantly, the Gallery broadens schoolchildren’s sense of belonging to the Yale community. Franks encourages high school students to familiarize themselves the YUAG’s resources and hopes that they come to see it as their museum.
“The fact that we’re free and open to the public is the main part of our identity,” she said. “We’re part of Yale, but we’re here for the University as well as for the public.”
In this way, though private donations constitute the majority of the YCBA’s and the YUAG’s collections, both are cornerstones of New Haven’s art scene.
Mauricio Cortes-Ortega ART ’16, thinks that before he shows his own art, he has to perfect his technique — in private. No matter how grand a student’s ambitions, school is the place to develop as an artist, cut off from the surrounding community. Cortes-Ortega is trying to learn what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it, before engaging with art in public.
In other words, though Yale’s two major galleries connect the University to the greater New Haven area, Yale students have a different experience of this relationship. New Haven is rich with artistic opportunities — public studios, galleries, murals and classes — and yet, students don’t always participate in this artistic world.
Téa Beer ’17, an Art major, said time prevented her personally from exploring the local arts scene, but she added that her department didn’t encourage a relationship between art students and New Haven.”
“I don’t think [the Yale Art major tries] to incorporate interaction with the town community in the art major curriculum,” she said. “Art is inherently pretty elitist, to be honest.” She didn’t condone this elitism, however, and she hopes to learn more about the art New Haven has to offer this semester.
In fact, most undergraduates interviewed expressed some interest in the local arts scene. They seemed almost apologetic when explaining that they weren’t familiar with many artists, and, like Beer, cited intentions to get to know the community in the coming semester. Some even would like to work on their own public art installations in New Haven.
When asked whether she’s done any public art here, Sam Vernon ART ’15 said she had not, though she has been commissioned to do public installations in the past: Before coming to graduate school, she worked on the Transform Neighborhoods Initiative in Prince Georges’ County, Maryland. Alongside participants from all parts of the neighborhood —the youngest was only three — Vernon painted a mural at a local library.
“It was truly incredible how many kinds of people came together,” she remembered. “I think local governments can and should work to create such dynamic, polyrhythmic environments.” She expressed regret that she hadn’t been able to participate in such collaborative projects in New Haven.
To counter this lack of dialogue between New Haven and Yale artists, Emily Hays ’16 has started the student organization Blue Haven. Hays hopes to create projects similar to the cross-generational cooperation Vernon experienced in Maryland. The group pairs Yale performance artists — slam poets, dancers, singers — with high schoolers who are interested in the same field. The pair then works together to create a new piece together.
“There’s definitely an egalitarian, social justice component — if we’re both creating art together, we’re erasing challenges that we both may have experienced,” she explained.
Though Blue Haven primarily focuses on performance art for the moment, it’s only in its first semester, and Hays intends to incorporate the visual arts in the future.
The collaborative nature of Hays’s project speaks to a new form of interactive public art. While museums such as the YCBA and the YUAG may attract visitors with free admission and student programs, this is a more passive approach. Hays, on the other hand, promotes active involvement, the conscious creation of an even vaster body of New Haven art.
Kwadwo Adae is a local painter with ideas like Hays’ and a studio on the corner of Orange and Chapel. (Orange Street is kind of a hub for art business — almost every other storefront near his apartment is a studio.) Adae believes firmly that art should be accessible to everyone and appreciates the presence of Yale’s museums in the city.
“We are spoiled here because we have resources like the YUAG, which has an enormous collection of art and is free,” he said.
As a public artist, he feels that he has a duty to create equally accessible spaces. He is even upset by the stairwell leading up to his own studio, as it prevents disabled persons from experiencing his art.
This passion for sharing art inspired him to teach, and today, he works in assisted living centers and retirement communities across the county. In other words, his artistic contributions to New Haven extend beyond his personal creations.
He recounted one of his most memorable teaching moments: “There was one woman who used to be an artist and had suffered a stroke. She lost use of her right hand, her painting hand. I was teaching her to draw again with her left hand. To do that, I used my left hand as well. So we struggled together.”
Adae spoke extensively about his students and clearly considers teaching one of the most meaningful aspects of his work. He and other non-student artists seemed sure of their niche in the community, expressing a commitment to active public services: teaching drawing technique, inspiring others to create and providing spaces for artistic appreciation.
His work is not public in the traditional sense; instead of just making art for people, he makes art with people. After all, public art is a changing field: Yale College Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan said, “Public art used to be just art, but outdoors. Now, it’s art that actively engages a broad community of people.”
Both types of artists thrive in New Haven, from those who teach in their studios to those who make outdoor installations.
Jonathan Waters, for instance, does not limit himself to the white walls of a gallery. Most of his creations are geometric abstract sculptures, gray and black stainless steel sheets welded into unique shapes and placed outside. Everything he makes is enormous; no passerby could possibly miss it. That’s why he loves the scale of his work: His pieces aren’t just public, they’re aggressively public.
“I like doing work outside because theoretically, it has a wider audience,” he said. “The casual guy on the street who might not walk into a museum will be able to experience it.”
Adae is also committed to New Haven’s public art. He praises pieces that aren’t in museums or galleries and believes that beautiful objects contribute to a high quality of life. To him, simply seeing something bright on your way to work can make you do your job better.
He is especially proud of an interactive mural he worked on in a mental health clinic. The bus windows are painted with chalk paint, so children in the waiting room are invited to make their mark on the piece.
Still, some New Haven artists are less invested in active audience participation. They would prefer that viewers meditate on the meaning of a work.
Matthew Feiner is multimedia artist and bike shop owner who has participated in City-Wide Open Studios, an initiative to support the visual arts in New Haven. He said his installation was so popular that on the second day of its exhibition, over a thousand people came. There was only standing room in the gallery. Though popularity would indicate success in the art industry, he was not satisfied.
“People just passed right in front of it; they didn’t have time to even see it!” he said.
This is why some prefer to show pieces in private settings: They don’t just want people to see their art. They want people to look at it.
Yet the private New Haven arts scene is not nearly as developed as its public counterpart. While locals and students have access to many free museums, they encounter far fewer private vendors and galleries.
Fred Giampietro, the owner of the new Giampietro Gallery on Chapel Street, considers himself a pioneer. Since opening in early January, Giampietro has tried to develop lasting business relations with Yale and the community; he has exhibited the works of several art graduate students. He dedicates himself finding up-and-comers, and his favorite thing about owning a gallery is discovering new talent.
His belief in these budding artists brought him into the private arts industry, and he thinks that collectors can build relationships with paintings on their walls.
“A lot of time people don’t think about how they can live with art and how that can enrich their lives,” he said.
The idea of living with a painting brings into question the spiritual value of art as well as the financial one. Before consumers can form intimate connections with a painting, they must spend.
Christian Ammon is a painter, graduate student and waiter from Trumbull, Connecticut. Though he is very busy, he prioritizes his art, and he is determined to make a career in the field. He expressed discontent that public art dissociates art from its monetary value. He showed recently at New Haven City-Wide Open Studios, an opportunity for which he was grateful, but he had reservations about the program.
“I want to be exposed to different social classes and races, but obviously, I want my art to sell, “ he said. “At Open Studios, there were a lot of lower class people kind of bumming around. I think my art would mainly target the middle- to upper-class people.”
To this end, he said he would advertise for Open Studios in the area surrounding Yale, instead of the outskirts of New Haven. He also feels that, as a graduate student, he can identify most with other young people.
It seems particularly difficult for New Haven artists to navigate the industry, to balance artistic vision with financial need. Ammon is still struggling with this, and though he is young, many older artists also spoke about sacrificing accessibility to large audiences in order to profit from their artwork.
To address these issues, the city’s public art institutions sponsor local artists. The YUAG, as part of its community outreach services, employs artists-in-residence for four-week periods several times a year. The artists do research, work on their projects and work with Yale School of Art students as well as undergraduates.
Right now, the artist in residence is Chris Ellis, who goes by “Daze.” Daze said he is enjoying his residency and feels lucky to have the opportunity to focus only on his artwork and his teaching.
When his residency began, he started a mural in the basement of the YUAG, accessible to museum visitors and students, in the same style as his earlier pieces. The mural has been and will be collaboration: Art students will help him with the design and creation.
And he doesn’t limit his students to marginal contributions. A large crowd scene in the middle of the wall, he explained, was an undergraduate’s idea. Daze considers art to be both an educational tool and a means of self-expression, and he didn’t mention any of the monetary concerns that worried Ammon.
The YUAG artist-in-residence position combines the many aspects of a public arts career. Daze has the financial support of a gallery as he engages with the local community through classes and workshops. And, of course, he’s able to create his own art. While there is certainly an artistic separation between Yale and New Haven, this program is a step towards long term collaboration.
Cahan, in speaking about public art in New Haven, cited “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” — the Morse lipstick statue. In 1970, it was still at Beinecke Plaza, and the red centerpiece wasn’t metal. Instead, it was inflatable — every few days, the tube would deflate and become flaccid. When this happened, the artist, Claes Oldenburg, would send somebody, or come himself, to re-inflate it, and, voilà, the lipstick was again erect.
“The piece was made right after Yale became coeducational,” Cahan said. “Obviously, these were gendered references; the blending of the symbol of femininity with the phallic symbol was a direct reference to coeducation.” She then mentioned the protests following the Black Panther Party trials, and the military tanks lining the streets of New Haven — hence the “caterpillar tracks”.
Several students said that all public art is, inherently, political. One even compared it to various news sources.. Another believed that the artist’s understanding of the political issue at hand is just as important as her technical skill.
By all of these definitions, “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” is an excellent example of “good” public art. It represents a whole host of intersections, intersections between Yale, New Haven and a wider political climate. Today, the Morse lipstick is divorced from much of its significance, but just outside the walls of the YUAG, the YCBA and the residential colleges, a vibrant arts world awaits exploration. In fact, it’s not an art scene; it’s an art web.
Correction: Feb. 6
A previous version of this article incorrectly named public artist Matthew Feiner as Michael Feiner.
He hands his two frayed hardbacks to Renate Recknagel, who takes record of them and tells him he can keep them for two weeks. Carrillo asks when the books were last checked out. “1969,” Recknagel replies, nonchalant.
Carrillo’s eyes get a little wider. “I’ll take good care of them,” he promises. Recknagel smiles, he does not look worried.
I am alone with the two of them in the Institute Library — a 189-year-old membership library on Chapel Street, sandwiched tightly between a tattoo parlor and Nim’s Jewelry Store. Formerly known as the Young Men’s Institute, the Institute Library has occupied this building since acquiring it in 1878.
I walk into the reading room and turn on the ceiling lamps by pulling the dangling tassels that hang at eye level. They evoke antique furniture and dust. Many visitors have characterized the library as “frozen in time,” or an access point to the past, and in some sense this is true: The last person to check out Carrillo’s books did so more than four decades ago, and the reading room is silent, dark and decidedly old. But it is not dead; signs of life stir. The tassels sway whimsically for several minutes after I pull them, like a hypnotist’s watch. And what of the books?
Enticing subjects call out from the thicker spines on the shelves: “The Power Game,” “The Money Culture,” “Justice.” “Mind,” “Habit,” “Plato.”There are biographies, too: Shakespeare, Thoreau, Truman, Kennedy, Oprah and two each on Barbara and Laura Bush.
I pull out an album of Institute Library documents from 1826–1896. Article I of the Institute’s Constitution appears again and again, in recorded speeches and in frayed newsletters: “The object of this institute is mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge.”
Fewer than 20 membership libraries like this remain open in North America. Founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of the public library system, they provided a means for the middle class to pool resources and gain access to reading materials.
In the beginning, members would donate their own books and pay 25 cents per month to gain access to a borrowing collection as well as a community. But the need for this sort of library diminished as the public system grew, causing the demise of nearly every single subscription library in the nation.
Richard Wendorf has edited two books on membership libraries in the United States. There has been, he says, a “dramatic” decline in what was once a pillar of intellectual life for the middle class.
This makes sense; after all, why would someone choose to pay for a library with a smaller collection than one they have free access to? It is almost more surprising that any membership library has held on.
The Institute Library has done so only by constantly finding new ways to serve its lasting mission. Over its nearly two-century life, it has functioned as a library as well as a debate hall, a lecture space, a social spot and a classroom.
Following the foundation of the New Haven Public Library in 1887, book lending at the Institute Library took a backseat to the more communal aspects of its identity, and it became a vibrant space for discourse. Throughout the course of the 19th century, famous American minds like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Anna E. Dickinson and Henry Ward Beecher came to speak. At one point, it hosted between 600 and 700 classes a year as well as regular debates.
But over the course of the 20th century, this activity slowed to a stop. Membership numbers sunk, budgets deflated and outreach slowly diminished. Will Baker, the library’s director from 2011 through last spring, said that this shift occurred gradually as the notion of a library as a place for silence and solitude spread.
President of the library’s Board of Directors Greg Pepe said that when he joined the board of the library in the 1990s, the place was “moribund.” When he became president in 2008, there were only 175 members. But today, he said, there are well more than 500, who pay dues ranging from $25 per year for an “Apprentice”-level membership to $125 a year for “Patron” status.
Pepe and others credit this revitalization largely to Baker.
“For a good part of the ’80s and ’90s, the place just sort of sat there,” longtime New Haven resident, Institute Library member and Deputy Chief Communications Officer for the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications Michael Morand ’87 said. “And then Will came in, and it was like he threw open the doors and shouted, ‘We’re here!’”
Baker collaborated with the Board of Directors to breathe new life and money into the organization. He opened the space up to the public with events, fundraisers, guest speakers, programs and a new gallery on the third floor, which had been closed for 40 years.
Baker, the Board and members agreed — although Baker said that some met the idea with hesitation — that books alone could not keep the Library alive.
Although Morand said that books “always will be core in what distinguishes this from a coffee shop or a performance hall,” he added that “it became clear that they are not enough.”
In fact, Morand said that “library” might not be the best word to describe the Institute Library’s activities today. Rather, he suggested the term “athenaeum,” which connotes intellectual discourse and a community of learners in addition to a research and reading space. It’s a name that other membership libraries, like the Boston Athenaeum, have adopted.
“The value of membership is not merely in the printed texts,” he said. “It’s really a mental gymnasium.”
Pepe believes people yearn for the social interaction and intellectual exchange that the revitalization has fostered.
“To have 300 percent growth in our membership over the last four to five years means that there’s still a place for us to have meaningful conversations within the fabric of our city,” he said.
The library’s balance sheets back up his assertion that the new approach has attracted new attention: In a period of just a couple of years, the Library’s revenue — the money made from membership, fundraising and gifts — went from $6,700 to about $110,000.
“There was something really heroic about that 19th century mission,” Baker said. “We just had to rediscover what it was.”
Perhaps the most successful new program is Amateur Hour, curated by acclaimed writers and New Haven residents Jack Hitt and Joshua Foer ’04.
The program brings in often-eccentric experts to speak on a wildly varying array of fields: There has been a been a vampire hunter, a master origamist, a phony psychic and the inventor of a made-up language called “Ithkuil.”
And Pepe recalled the shocked — and, for many, convinced — looks of awe around the room when a visiting Harvard physicist described his theory of the possibility of time travel.
At another point, a husband-wife team of taxidermists from Massachusetts drove in to give a talk to a sold-out crowd. Armed with their knowledge and a set of carcasses, the couple sat before the crowd, perhaps in the very spot Dickinson or Douglass occupied 150 years before them. With their backs to books that hadn’t been checked out since 1969 or 1935, they began to stuff the dead bodies. Jaws dropped.
These strange spectacles have attracted a diverse but dedicated following. Shizue RocheAdachi ’15, who is the audio editor for Amateur Hour, said that the typical crowd for a show is a combination of “middle-aged patrons who sit in the front, and then a significant number of bedraggled-looking twenty-somethings.” Hitt says his audience is drawn from the “NPR crowd.”
RocheAdachi, for one, got involved through her work with the Yale Farm, which contributes to the Institute Library’s now-annual pig roast (another initiative of Hitt’s).
During the several hours necessary to prepare the pig, RocheAdachi told Hitt about her previous radio experience. Hitt was in need of an audio editor to record the shows for transcription in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and soon thereafter RocheAdachi began audio editing for Amateur Hour as a volunteer. She now does the work for hire.
As soon as she saw the space, RocheAdachi says, she fell in love. She was drawn to its “slow tempo” and its isolation; despite the library’s proximity to campus, RocheAdachi is one of only a handful of members who are Yale undergraduates. Yet she says there is a “neighborliness” among patrons: After every Amateur Hour, she says, someone approaches her to chat.
RocheAdachi said that she enjoys how the Institute Library connects her to New Haven through a channel other than Yale. And for its part, the Institute Library, under Baker and his successor Natalie Elicker, has made a conscious decision to become a more integral part of the New Haven community.
“The library has really contributed to the renaissance of New Haven,” Morand said, explaining that its presence is one of the cultural assets that make New Haven an exceptional small city.
“In recent years, New Haven has become a sort of ‘collaboratory,’” he added. “By which I mean there’s a real culture of people coming together and cooperating, and of cultural organizations supporting each other.”
Last year, the New Haven Review merged with the Institute Library and is now an official library publication, a relationship that Pepe called “perfect.” KickBack, an LGBTQ support group for local teenagers and young adults, now has its weekly meetings in the building.
All of this collaboration makes for a more social space, which Baker says was his original goal.
He recalls one lecture by the leader of Ballet Haven, a local non-profit offering rigorous ballet classes for at-risk grade schoolers. An Institute Library member, a female engineer, attended the event and met one of Ballet Haven’s young dancers, a Kenyan immigrant who aspired to become an engineer herself. They organized a coffee date.
“The library should be a social space that encourages serendipitous interaction and coincidences,” Baker said. “These people came together and made connections and shared ideas. And who knows? Hopefully that young girl and the woman who spoke with her are still having coffee.”
Mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge: The library’s mission endures.
On the third Thursday of every month, the Poetry Institute — another local group — hosts an open mic and poetry reading in the Institute Library. They have done so consistently for the last seven years, although Mark McGuire-Sanchez, one of the Poetry Institute’s hosts, suspects that they may have missed just one, because of weather.
On this Thursday, there are close to 40 gathered in the reading room. Maybe half a dozen of us are under the age of 55. Institute Library volunteer Frank Cochran LAW ’69 is in the front row, and he tells us about the library, encouraging everyone to apply for membership and donate to the capital campaign.
“The place was a really venerable institution until about 1910,” he says. “And then it stalled a bit — until very recently.”
He says it’s “a place for books, and not for Kindle readers,” although he’s sure to add the caveat that plenty of new literary material has been added in recent years. Then he sits down, and the open mic begins.
The poems are riddled with references: to Darwin, the Brontes, General Patton and El Greco. In his own poem, Cochran recalls listening to jazz while reading a book checked out from the Institute Library. Gazing at the stacks behind him, I wonder which book it was — and how long it will be until the next person checks it out.
To think that the face is the proper way to visually represent the self seems silly, but that’s how self-portraiture has conventionally been defined. “More Than a Face,” an Arts Council of Greater New Haven exhibition, is curated by Marissa Rozanski. Located on the second floor office space of 70 Audubon St., the exhibition consists of 23 self-portraits by nine artists that do not show the artists’ face. By excluding the face, the artworks have to justify their place as self-portraits. These works might “speak to the nature of the artist just as much as, if not more than, the face of the artist,” as Rozanski writes in her statement.
The artists represent themselves in highly varied ways, and the quality of the work varies accordingly. The most compelling ones are more than intellectual exercises.
The first pieces are smaller works that feel at home in their office environment. An early highlight is Irene K. Miller’s “Unleashed,” a small, brightly colored print whose swirling red lines evoke blood or bacteria, on top of which is a purple rectangle and a black circle.
After the sixth work, just before the exhibition spills into the office conference room, the works become more ambitious. Here, the office setting does not suit the work.
Barbara Hocker wins the award for the funniest work. “The Book About My Back” is a sculpture of stacked pages in the shape of a spine, complete with messy wires coming out of it and a subluxation.
Thuan Vu’s three works, entitled “The New World (Still)”, “The New World (autumn II)”, “The New World (Lush)” are the most literal. Depicting her parents’ escape from Vietnam, the perspective and the circular shape of the painting effectively mimic disorientation and sharpened senses.
Jessica Cuni and Anne Doris-Eisner’s works stand out above the rest.
Cuni’s works, “Natura Immorta III” and “Natura Immorta V,” made with spray paint, convey idiosyncratic spirituality based on nature. “Natura Immorta III” shows evergreen leaf prints in a grayish-purple color, with red in the middle and a bird facing upwards. White outlines of the bird are repeated, creating a dark and uplifting effect overall. “Natura Immorta V,” which focuses on a wasp against a white background, is “Natura Immorta III”’s heavenly counterpart. The two pieces, which measure approximately 2.5 x 2.5 feet, are the largest works in the exhibit.
Doris-Eisner’s pen-and-ink drawings, by contrast, are some of the smallest works. Her swirling lines are both sensual and primal. Contained within the flow are suggestions of legs, a cocoon, peacock leaves, and bugs. The work’s density and visual rapidity is mesmerizing.
Corina S. Alvarezdelgo’s thicky painted “Chrysalis,” set against a red background and plastered with diet recommendations, is strangely appealing, but it ultimately seems too vulgar and pop to be a satisfying self-portrait.
The exhibit separates the artists’ individual works. At first, this is a mildly interesting intellectual and emotional exercise, like meeting very different people back to back. As the exhibit progresses, however, the separation blunts the power of the works, some of which are part of a series.
That is not to say the exhibit is not worth seeing. The best works deserve your attention.
It’s a casual display. About a dozen picture frames containing photos with thick white borders hang on the walls to the side of the dining room and line the stairs. It’s understated. Like the actual hunger crisis, it’s there, but in the background. It’s there, but we don’t talk about it.
“Witness Hunger,” a photo exhibition right outside Pierson dining hall, is an attempt to start an important conversation. Through the lens and the voice of those who actually experience the daily struggle of feeding themselves, a new image of the life of low-income American families emerges. The exhibition is part of a nationwide project run by Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University who heads the Center for Hunger-free Communities.
Each photo on its own is nothing special. It’s obvious that there is no professional photographer clicking the shutter. However, it is in this ordinariness that the key message of this exhibit is found. These are no skilled shots with expert lighting — they are a reality many of us fail to notice. By looking at the photos, the audience is perceiving the world of one who is hungry, not only for food but also for notice.
The exhibit features three photographers: Jo-Ann Ndiaye, Kimberly Hart and Miracle Brown. They are the voice of the 30% of New Haven residents who lack food security and who were affected by Congress’s food stamp cutbacks in February. Each woman’s photos tell of her individual struggle and her attempts to combat the many hurdles in her journey toward a full stomach for herself and her family.
Ndiaye’s photos depict her particular solution: a garden plot in her backyard. One of my favorite photos is of her standing proud with a yellow squash in each hand and a verdant garden box behind her. The quotations accompanying each photo detail her daughter’s dislike for vegetables and Ndiaye’s attempts to make them appetizing by mixing them into Rice-a-Roni.
Kimberly Hart’s photos line the wall by the stairs, telling a slightly different story. The photographs depict a life dependent on food stamps — which simply aren’t enough —and the inefficiencies of the national system. One of the photos, which features her local food pantry, is captioned: “I waited for two and a half hours to get one bag of food.” Another photo is of an emergency food pantry, which, according to Hart, has now become her day-to-day pantry since her food stamps no longer cover her necessities. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking photos of the exhibit is that of Hart’s son staring directly into the camera as he picks at his disheartening meal asking, as noted in the caption, “Really, Mom, no meat?”
In a way, it is the captions that make this exhibit so powerful. Never have I had to grow my own vegetables to supplement my meals, or wait for two and a half hours just for a bag of food. All my life, the main hurdle in having a good meal was my reluctance to make myself dinner with readily available ingredients in the pantry. Here at Yale, it’s so easy to walk into the dining hall, swipe in, grab a plate, heap on piles of food and dump the half-eaten leftovers into the nearest trashcan. However, only a few miles away in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, people are struggling to find even one decent meal.
As small as “Witness Hunger” is, its message is an important one that should be shared and internalized. I wouldn’t necessarily make a long trek in the rain to see the exhibit, but if you’re waiting in the tedious five-minute line to enter Pierson dining hall, it’s certainly worth a look.
“Where are you from? How old are you?” he asks through broken teeth as the cab shudders through the night. The city distracts me: Car horns collide with urban noise, motorbikes hurl themselves across traffic lanes, pollution obscures the descending sun. I return his questions with vague answers in Mandarin. I don’t tell him that I am American and fifteen. My hands are sticky with sweat and street market mango.
He dances in front of me on the New Haven cement, inflecting his voice as he repeats, “There is nothing to be scared of. You are making up your own fear.” I don’t know this part of town, but I do know two men behind us are snorting something. My phone is dead in my bag. I soberly turn to my friend, “You don’t understand.”
His laughter shakes his entire body and he slaps my thigh. I am pressed against the side of the cab when I realize that we are no longer headed towards my home. Before he asks me another question, he slaps my thigh again. The radio plays old Chinese hits as I lodge my tote bag near the packs of cigarettes surrounding the stick shift, between the driver’s seat and mine.
A sofa store with cheap neon lights is our lone landmark as we try to locate campus. “You’re scared?” he asks again, smirking and jumping into the road. Behind him, the lights glimmer in the bruised black-blue of nighttime, reflecting across the windows of the unidentified buildings surrounding us. I am wearing a cream dress and a memory. We keep walking. My necklace breaks.
I look at the road more than he does. I don’t want to see him look at me. I fumble at my phone and send several messages to my friend, Phil. “I don’t know what is going on” and “What should I do?” are among them. My address is written down on a slip and I try to confirm it again with the driver. He paws at it, but does not respond. It’s been twenty minutes and he instead wants to know where I study. There is nothing lost in translation.
Our conversation tugs back and forth. I make our return to campus into a game, “Want to bet on who can find the right way back?” I want to ask him about the first time he realized he was vulnerable. I want to ask him about his hidden fulcrums and fabrics of experience that he wears and that wear at him. Disguising my vulnerability as something he could win was the only way to ensure that my concerns were taken seriously.
Text messaging becomes a phone call. “Phil, I need you to speak to this driver. He won’t listen to me. I know he understands me.” The maroon handheld passes between the driver and me. Phil brokering the situation with the cab driver momentarily suspends his questions and taunts. The pollution is back and I watch the incremental increase of renminbi on the cab fare meter. I press back up against the door as we take a sharp turn.
I locate the blocks leading to Broadway. One of my last maneuvers is wrong so he suggests we swivel around. Spotting the shops I am familiar with, I realize I lost my own game in one sense — I didn’t find the right way back — but that I won it in another.
My grey apartment complex later emerges. I pay the cab driver, closing a transaction that I had not wanted to be a part of. Before climbing up the stairs of my complex, my breath has already peaked.
I hold my broken necklace at the intersection and think about cab rides, being nineteen and people — myself and others — not understanding. I think about making up fear. I wonder if I should have asked my friend if that taxicab ride was not real. I walk back to my dorm with other friends whom I find getting late night meals at GHeav, but he and I remain friends with questions, pollution and places unknown.
I realize that my sense of fear is heightened and often not justified. So what do I do with it? How do I get out of the taxicab?
There is something desolate and industrial about the walk up State Street to Interstate 91. Fallen leaves — thin, auburn, curled like fists — are left unraked and scattered messily on the pavement. The park by the intersection of Humphrey and State is empty but for a small playground with a tired pair of swings and accompanying metal slide. The same sunlight that caresses the collegiate Gothic structures and throngs of college students on Old Campus feels harsher and starker here. I can see the top of the underpass and just make out its rusting surface, burnt umber scars on the ash grey concrete. Pulled out of the warm, Disneyland-esque cocoon of Silliman College, I find the area run-down barren and impersonal. As I turn right on Humphrey Street to face the underpass, however, everything changes.
An explosion of color: The underpass is lit up by ecstatic strokes of azure, bright cerulean, magenta and chartreuse. Two large murals cover every inch of the inner walls. This is the Under 91 Project, a quest to transform the grim concrete canyon of the underpass that divides East Rock and Upper State Street from Fair Haven. According to Aicha Woods ARC ’97, one of the lead organizers of the Under 91 Project, “the differences are pretty stark between the more economically diverse East Rock side and the Fair Haven side, which has anecdotally always been a pretty rough area.”
The statistics tell the same story: violent crime rates in the Wooster Square, Mill River and Fair Haven area are higher than the citywide average. On a map of income distribution in New Haven, presented by the Data Haven Community Index, the left area of Interstate 91 is shown to have significantly lower income levels and a higher concentration of public housing than the right.
Walking into the passageway, I first see Alberto Colon, one of the commissioned artists, atop a tall ladder, putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece adorning the passage’s right wall. He’s going over with a spray can what seems to be a series of purple, bubble-like, hexagonal shapes, which he later explains to me are human cells. They are supposed to correspond to the large colorful gummy worm strings on the far end of the wall, which he says are DNA strands. The cells and strands flow from one end of the wall to the next without any border or breakage, fluid and continuous. This feeling of continuity is precisely what Colon was trying to communicate.
“I like organic shapes, I try to avoid having any straight squares or rectangles in my artwork,” he says, pointing out the smoothness of each stroke, a drastic contrast to the stiff lines of the actual architecture of the underpass. The diverse, vibrant colors of the DNA strands, coupled with their fluid, borderless presentation, fit neatly into the mission of the Under 91 Project, as explained by the project’s website: to reclaim the passageway as a connector rather than a rigid concrete divider. In doing so, the project aims to bring together the vibrant and diverse Jocelyn Square and East Rock communities.
The very process of putting together this mural was centered on the idea of bringing together a community. Not only was the selection process for the artists based on a door-to-door survey of the Jocelyn Square neighborhood, but the final murals were decided upon through community vote. When the artists were at the tail end of finishing their pieces, people from all corners of New Haven — inhabitants of the immediate area, college students, little children, their grand parents — were invited to leave their own physical mark on the walls of the underpass. Paintbrushes were handed out, and participants were asked to do whatever they wanted.
“We didn’t do a lot of advertising but turnout was much larger than we anticipated,” says Woods. “People were told to write initially within the set boundaries, but it totally exploded all over the walls.”
The evidence of that explosion sprawls before me. Underneath Alberto’s DNA strands, I find a chaotic medley of names (Romeo Yoniel, Shanda, Jay Vory), song lyrics (“Birds flying highhhh, you know how I feel”) love declarations (“Theo Loves Us,” “Xander Loves Bacon”) and thoughts (“I think Yale business students should have to do people’s taxes for free”). The words are anarchic and spontaneous, sentences and phrases snaking over and underneath each other.Illustrations are crammed into small spaces and scattered across the wall: bunny heads, flowers, Arabic characters, phrases in Spanish. I instantly recognize a collection of self-portraits as the work of a first grade artist, thanks to the two-dimensional, blocky style: opaque circle eyes, upright vertical lines as strands of hair, and wide, u-shaped mouths.
Stepping back to take everything in, I find a certain rhythm and harmony in the disarray and discord. I feel a sense of comfort knowing that so many people once stood where I now stand and baptized the wall with their exuberant, uninhibited self-expression.
“The public kind of went overboard last Saturday,” Colon says, laughing. “But that’s OK.”
I imagine that before the project, this was a place through which pedestrians would quickly shuffle, anxious to reach the other side. The underpass of Interstate 91 now seems to produce the opposite effect. It makes us amble, pause and appreciate. A car slows down as it drives through, the driver whipping out his phone to snap a picture. A man in sagging jeans and a bright red hoodie and his girlfriend in a rose-patterned skirt stop to admire the expansive mural on the left wall. As I follow their gaze from one end of the wall to the other, I realize that the mural contains an entire storybook narrative.
It begins with a depiction of outer space — three spheres that appear to be Earth, Mercury and Jupiter, orbiting each other. The dominant color of this mural is the electric crimson that one finds in Manga comics, Yugio cards and East Asian computer games. Then this outer-space world seamlessly morphs into an underwater one: Neil Armstrong, a motif transposed from the earlier mural, clutches his American flag as he stands next to a miniature space rover atop the rim of a large bathtub, as if about to dive in. In the center of the bathtub, sitting next to the chubby hand of a child, is a canary yellow rubber duck, imposing in its brightness.
To the right, the powder blue bath water suddenly swirls into a violent, onyx tide that has caught a container ship in its stormy wrath. Towards the far right of the mural, we enter the depths of the bath water sea, a rich, azure, Jules Verne-esque world of caverns, stalagmites and a large reclining octopus. At the final section of the wall, the sea transitions into a grass field of strong, vermilion stalks and a large butterfly, drawn with the meticulous, anatomical detail of an entomology textbook or a diagram at a natural history museum. A week ago, Woods tells me, a woman stood in front of this section of the wall, in tears. Her grandmother had told her before passing away that she would come back as a butterfly.
This continuous series of imaginary, child-like realms seem to suggest that the world around us — its grandeur, terror and danger — are simply projections of our own mind and consciousness. Just as a bathtub can be transformed into a mythological underwater world, a cold and dingy underpass can be wholly reinvented by sheer force of the imagination. Perhaps, as Woods believes, the stark division between the neighborhoods was “as much in our heads, as in the data of disparity or the barriers of urban infrastructure.”
However, despite its seemingly idealistic, Wordsworthian message, the art of Under 91 remains grounded and realist in its aims. As I turn around to leave, I notice, for the first time, the small patch of wall space at the entrance of the passageway. There are no underwater kingdoms or DNA strands here, but a painted portrayal of Interstate 91 itself: pale blue sky, wisps of cirrus clouds, the rusting grey asphalt of the underpass and two iron poles holding up an industrial metal sign, bearing the words “New Haven” in plain white letters.
The artists of Under 91 do not overstate the transformative power of their artwork: I-91 is still an interstate. But take a stroll through the underpass of Interstate 91 — maybe you’ll start to see it a little differently