Nyack Sketch Log: Weems Exhibit at Hopper House Inspires Mass Oral History Collection

by Bill Batson

Whether we consciously chose to co-author it our not, the story of Nyack is being written every day. Online articles, youtube videos, tweets, memos and artworks are all being produced by a population that constantly ebbs and flows. Some of this material will eventually be collected and archived. An exhibition by renowned photographer Carrie Mae Weems at the Edward Hopper House chronicles a story-telling collaboration between the artist and the African American community during her tenure as artist-in-residence in Beacon, NY in 2002. This call and response between artist and community has inspired a local project that will mass collect oral histories starting in January 15, 2018 to ensure that in Nyack, the tale told is of one city, not two.

Father Owen Thompson of Grace Church in the pulpit during Pilgrim’s King Day service, Dr. Frances Pratt in a seat of honor.

Every year in Nyack, people converge at Pilgrim Baptist Church to honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year,  congregants will be invited to march to the Nyack Center and join in a mass collection of oral histories. In some communities, King’s holiday is commemorated through public service. This collective story-telling summit aims to elevate the practice of recording the personal history of our elders to the status of an essential and routine civic undertaking in Nyack.

Carrie Mae Weems

This public art and history project is an homage to Weems, who is considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists, Weems is celebrated for her photography, films, and videos that address social themes focusing on race, gender, and class. She has exhibited at major institutions throughout the world, and she is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the MacArthur “Genius” grant, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Prix de Roma, and many more.

For the Beacon series, Weems documented the changing landscape and culture of Beacon, NY, over the course of her year there as artist-in-residence in 2002.  Beacon is like Nyack in many ways. It is a diverse Hudson Valley community that has seen many changes over the years as it has evolved from a factory town to a center of arts and culture. Places of historic and cultural significance such as Dia:Beacon are featured in her photographs. Weems places herself as the subject, always standing with her back to the camera, observing – and as she says, “bearing witness, confronting something, [serving] as a guide to the viewer standing with me, [we are] witnessing something together though our experience of it might not be the same.”

Carrie Mae Weems, Company Housing from Beacon, 2003-05, Archival pigment print, 33.25 x 29.25 x 1.25 in.

The Weems exhibit, entitled Beacon, came to Nyack as a result of her being the first artist recipient of the Edward Hopper citation. New York State Assemblymember Ellen Jaffee (D-Rockland County), who initiated and sponsored the bill to establish The Edward Hopper Citation of Merit for Visual Artists, said, “I am thrilled that the first Edward Hopper Citation of Merit for Visual Artists will be awarded to Carrie May Weems, whose powerful, groundbreaking work addressing equality and social justice is poignantly relevant in these times.” Edward Hopper, Nyack’s native son, grew up in the house on North Broadway and went on to become one of the most iconic artists in the world. Weems’ exhibit is on display at Nyack’s Hopper House until February 25, 2018.

I was approached by Hopper House Executive Director Jennifer Patton to create some programming to extend the energy and aesthetic of Weems work beyond the walls of the exhibition space. When we learned that Weems had conducted her oral histories in a record shop in Beacon, we saw that the parallels between our two Hudson Valley communities included having stores dedicated to vinyl.  Kaim Record Shop co-owners Jennifer O’Connor and Amy Bezunartea have gracioulsy agreed to allow their store front to be the site for oral history collection starting on January 16th.

In order to accommodate the anticipated interest of people attending the King Service at Pilgrim on January 15, the first day of oral history collection will take place at the Nyack Center. Volunteers will be on-site to schedule and conduct interviews.

Participants are being asked to bring an object or photograph that represents their personal or family history in a community wide version of show-and tell. The process of carefully collecting and preserving these personal and family histories is being supported by the Historical Society of the Nyacks, The Historical Society of Rockland County, the African American Historical Society of Rockland County, and the Nyack NAACP.  These are some of the same groups that collaborated on the Bench by the Road initiative that erected a monument in Nyack’s Memorial Park commemorating 19th Century ex-slave, entrepreneur and abolitionist Cynthia Hesdra.

Working with Multimedia artist and creator of the Hopper Happens public art events Kris Burns, the windows of Kiam Records will be transformed into part bulletin board, recording booth and projection screen from January 8 through January 21.  Hesdra Scholar Dr. Lori Martin, Toni Morrison Foundation board member Dr. Craig Stutman are academic advisors and Red Trunk Project creator Kevin Thomsen is acting as content and technical advisor. If you wish to help in this effort to mass collect oral histories in Nyack, attend the launch meeting on Thursday, December 14 at 6p at the Edward Hopper House at 82 North Broadway.

My mother Daisy and I in front of St. Philips African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Chruch. She is holding a cane that belonged to my grandmother Frances Lillian Avery Batson. Her cane would be a perfect object to bring for our community wide show-and-tell. Photo by Ray Wright.

In many communities throughout America, the official historic record excludes the experience of the African American communities. Whether that exclusion is intentional or not, the result is always the same, the portrait of a place is painted absent a segment of the population who made enormous contributions and sacrifices to help build and maintain every civic, economic and cultural institution.

“It’s fair to say that black folks operate under a cloud of invisibility – this too is part of the work, is indeed central to [my photographs]… This invisibility – this erasure out of the complex history of our life and time – is the greatest source of my longing,” said Weems.

In Beacon, Weems created a portrait of a place where an anonymous black woman stands vigil as powerful forces reshape the landscape. The Nyack Record Shop Project takes Beacon as a clarion call to reclaim the portrait of this place, by ensuring that for posterity, the narrative will include the voices of all.

To learn more, click here.

Visit the Edward Hopper House to see Carrie Mae Weems: Beacon: Wednesday-Sunday 12-5 pm or by appointment. They will be closed on the Christmas Day and New Years Day.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Weems Exhibit at Hopper House Inspires Mass Oral History Collection” © 2016 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.



One Comment on “Nyack Sketch Log: Weems Exhibit at Hopper House Inspires Mass Oral History Collection”

  1. Laurie Peek says:

    Bill, Great project!


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