Go Deeper

Old Format, New Work: First Person Salons

Posted June 15th, 2009

Men in dresses parading, poignant and creative autobiographical art, a collection of the true stories of gay people worldwide, and a Transylvanian grandmother who wraps Christmas presents in used tin foil. And that’s just the beginning.

At the Arts Bank’s Laurie Beechman Cabaret, red velvet curtains line the walls while deep purple crushed velvet frames the performance space. Against this plush backdrop, the First Person Salons unfold every month. Produced by First Person Arts, the salons illustrate how narrative shades the work of artists across virtually all media. Last week I took in the most recent salon to watch four artists tell their own stories and discuss how narrative shapes their work.

Painting and autobiography are infrequent bedfellows (at least overtly) but painter Sarah McEneaney integrates both in her colorful and soulful work. She frequently incorporates her older artwork into new pieces, and much of it draws from difficult experiences from own life. She called one work a breast cancer self-portrait, placing a depiction of herself on a background of normal and abnormal blood cells. Another portrayed her rape, which she created using a tempera of egg yolk and the police’s fingerprint dusting powder. Intimate and harrowing, McEneaney commanded the attention of the room.

Writer, producer, and performer Stephanie Yuhas followed on McEneaney’s heels with a journey inside the world of her relationship with her nagymama, or grandmother, through an engaging, witty, and endearing excerpt of her film Nagymama: A True Story. The creator of American Goulash, Yuhas might be even better known for Nagymama, an animated film that has been a hit on YouTube hit. Like nearly 300,000 viewers before them, the audience erupted in laughter over her Transylvanian grandmother’s idiosyncratic bedtime rituals. After the screening, Yuhas discussed and auctioned off Christmas presents she received one year from her nagymama: ball of yarn wrapped in previously used aluminum foil; a hot pink muumuu; extra-long Maxi Pads (with wings for extra protection of course!); and granny panties: awesome. By finding appreciation her own family’s culture through humor, Yuhas’s presentation was a fun reminder about how to celebrate our histories.

MichaelNext to take the stage was Michael Koeler, Philadelphia photographer, who presented his photo essay PARADE. He began his segment by dedicating his work to his adorable and pregnant wife. And by asking her to momentarily join him on stage, Koeler scored a collective “Awwww!” and unanimous brownie points from the audience. The idea of “parading as living” was the essence of Koeler’s photo essay. He captured the spirit of Philadelphia during one of its most celebrated and memorable traditions: the Mummer’s Parade.

But the collection sprawled beyond the confines of Broad Street, including Mardi Gras attendees, swimming boys in Croatia, an old lady at a flea market, and emotionally charged shots of his grandfather shortly before his death. Koeler documents the story of people parading through their lives; he captured the essence of lives in relation to one another; he captured lives exuding love. On PARADING, Koeler said, “[It’s] sharing the way we all learn; it’s what it’s all about.”

NathanThe last performance of the evening was by Nathan Manske, editor of ImFromDriftwood, a blog featuring true stories from gay life around the globe. In just two months, Manske’s website has collected more than 100 tales. Along with three other presenters, Manske read aloud several of the stories from the website in monologue form.

The stories were poignant, powerful, some humorous, and all honest. Many discussed first loves, first heartbreaks, their hardest moments coming out, and their realizations of who they are.
Manske’s goal is to convey a sense of community through his website, a place where experiences can be shared and discussed.

Writ broad, the First Person Salons share this goal, as they strive to foster a genial sense of artistic community where active endeavors are shared and discussed, where audiences not only take in new work but give artists feedback that they integrate into the development of future projects, and where the arts communities of Philadelphia can come together even more.

–Jennifer Burrini

Photos by Andrew Schwalm