Thursday, August 31, 2017

Upstate girls


Known as “Collar City” because of its roots in textile production, the City of Troy in Rensselaer County has a storied history as one of the most prosperous cities in American history. Through much of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century the city was home to thriving shirt factories and steel mills. Its position along the Hudson River made Troy a key point for meat and vegetable shipments from Vermont to New York City. A significant source of the city’s wealth came from the steel industry. Ore and coal were shipped from the Midwest on the Erie Canal to Troy, where the materials were processed before making their way down the Hudson to New York City. Today, early examples of the nation’s first steel structural supports and iron storefronts can be found in the city’s architecture. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of the best engineering schools in the country, was founded there in 1824.

Photographer Brenda Kenneally’s exhibit Upstate Girls: Unravelling Collar City tells a much different story. The city that was once a shining start of the Industrial Revolution has been hit hard by industrial decline. By 2013, the City’s poverty rate had reached 28% and unemployment hit 8.3%. The Troy residents pictured in Upstate Girls are young women from families who have been left behind by another kind of revolution.


During an artist talk on August 26 at Hudson Hall in Hudson, Kenneally introduced the audience to her project that documents a group of teenagers in poverty-stricken Troy as they move in and out of apartments, serve prison sentences, have babies, and live through addiction, broken families, and failing relationships. In her short film “Blood and Jelly” she shows families celebrating births, eating food, and living lives in their homes. The babies are being born to teenage girls, the food is almost entirely highly processed, and the apartments are filthy and disorganized. Children are unclothed and adults wear pajamas all day. Kenneally talked about the prevalence of sugary and salty foods and how their addictive nature keeps people like her subjects placated.


Also present was writer Linda Tirado who, along with Kenneally, recounted her experience living in poverty and how addiction contributes to the overwhelming prevalence of chemically manufactured food in the diets of poor people.  “The addiction manifests itself even when you don’t realize it,” said Tirado.

Kenneally and Tirado responded to the common why-do-poor-people-eat-so-much-junk-food reaction to their work with the fact that poor people, especially those living in food deserts, and must choose between terrible and worse. The two women recounted a shared experience of the social backlash to their work. Their willingness to share the stories of the poor opened their subjects, and themselves, to vile reactions and judgement from viewers. They talked about how we demoralize lower classes for how they comfort themselves and how at the same time they’re not able to defend themselves. Part of the problem is that there exists insufficient language to help us talk about how little people exist on. Tirado explained these two tracks of society were as firmly in place in the past as they are today, and she doubted that people could have an honest discussion in the current political climate when people are consumed with fighting about what’s fake news and what is not.


Kenneally’s work was displayed as part of the LightField festival of “lens-based art” spotlighting social issues and generating discussion about the role of visual storytelling, as well as including diverse participation from the community of gentrifying community of Hudson. The Hudson Hall displays were part of the JUST THE FACTS exhibit investigating marginalized people left behind by technology and globalization

Kenneally’s photos, of survival and resilience, will be released in a 300-page book in 2018. She established A Little Creative Class, Inc., a nonprofit, to benefit people like those pictured in her work. The mentorship program targets youths ages 18-21 who live outside of New York City, offering them opportunities to explore art and help them reach their full potential and find economic self-sufficiency in an increasingly idea-based economy. The program removes youths, whose capacity was diminished from the beginning, from the daily drama, scarcity and violence of their neighborhoods to expose them to a drama-free environment where they can explore art and science. The organization’s website outlines the science behind child development and creativity:  
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.


Some of the Little Creative Class participants were present at the artist talk and spoke about their experience. Participants who return to their communities are encouraged to act as mentors, bringing knowledge, connections, and tools to new faces.

Brenda Kenneally: www.brendakenneally.com
A Little Creative Class, Inc.: www.alittlecreativeclass.org
LightField Festival of Photography & Multimedia Art: www.lightfield.vu

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Water sources


What’s in your water? Maybe medicine that was flushed down the toilet, chemicals seeping from a landfill, pesticides or fuel. The path of contaminants from their source to our drinking water was the issue at the center of the Newburgh Clean Water Project’s recent meeting.

Almost everyone who lives in or near Newburgh is familiar with the water supply’s contamination with PFOS. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid is a key ingredient in firefighting foam and when it was identified in Newburgh’s water supply from Washington Lake, the NYS DEC took action to identify Stewart Air National Guard base as a source. The focus of the meeting of the Newburgh Clean Water Project was to educate the public about the situation. Besides offering a platform for discussion, the local action group gave a presentation on local water contamination and prepped attendees with materials for letter writing.

The chemical was first identified in 2014 and since then the Stewart Air National Guard Base as a Superfund site which requires it be cleaned up by the Department of Defense. The City offers blood testing for residents, but PFOS testing is different than the lead testing the general public is more familiar with. Not only are there fewer labs that offer the service, but the tests require a doctor’s prescription. Organizers proposed one solution: a public meeting at St. Luke’s hospital with a doctor onsite to write prescriptions. Another interesting practice that was discussed was the Department of Health’s tracking of test results. Though the agency tracks cancer diagnoses and clusters, they don’t track non-cancer health effects such as neurological and kidney issues caused by our environments. These are studied by the Center for Disease Control.


It was fascinating to learn that the City of Newburgh’s water system was designed in the 19th century when the lands were natural and pristine. Since then, the advent of the automobile and construction of the Interstate highway system moved the transportation hub from the Hudson River westward toward the intersection of I-84 and I-87.

Presenters referred to another case of contaminated water in the village of Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County. In 2015 community members contacted the government with concerns after their own testing revealed contaminants, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Trichloroethylene (TCE), in the water. This led to the village’s Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, its largest employer, to be placed on the EPA’s superfund site list. A Superfund site is land identified as containing hazardous waste and has been identified by the EPA as being a risk to human health and/or the environment. The sites are put on a list and remediation is made a top priority.


The group’s presentation included observances made during a recent walking tour of the affected areas. Aerial maps showed how the City’s water supply is sourced from outside its boundaries, limiting the City’s ability to legislate for its own safety. It was fascinating to see an unlined capped landfill in New Windsor that I didn’t know existed. Organizers explained the strategic designation of wetlands in the heart of the region we were examining. Wetlands are important for water purification, shoreline stabilization, ground water recharge, and they act as protection from floods. The map indicated, in green color, a region of wetlands sitting downhill from Stewart ANG base. The small splotches of green indicated regions that measured 12 acres or less, which are classified as insignificant wetlands. If the divisions caused by man-made roadways were combined, the wetlands region would total 50-70 acres. The map showed the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline project which would cut straight through the region.

The group distributed materials to help attendees draft and mail letters to politicians and the Department of Defense, and stressed the importance of asking smart and informed questions to politicians who are already overwhelmed. They stressed that our local water safety issue is at the same time an international issue. Urban planners, businesses, and environmental activists worldwide have this same discussion. It is possible to simultaneously have our businesses and clean water, and it’s important to not hastily blame unethical decisions for the contaminants in our water, but be mindful that they are perhaps simply the result of poor planning. The group’s mission comes from a place of a long-term solution: not fighting lots of small fires or having to renew the same fight again in five or so years for yet another chemical.

Newburgh Clean Water Project: www.facebook.com/newburghcleanwaterproject

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Obtainable objects


One of my favorite places in Newburgh is the Ann Street Gallery. This award winning space on Ann Street features contemporary art exhibits and I was excited to experience Bon Marche on its very last day. Translated from French as ‘cheap’ or ‘a good deal,’ the exhibit featured lower priced works, mostly prints, of incredible variety: beetles, cityscapes, cupcakes, cats, and postage stamps were just a few. A massive concrete block covered with the image of a horse lay on the floor and 3D paper collages were displayed in the center of the entrance.  


Though the gallery is small, the works displayed gave a comprehensive look at the art of printmaking. As indicated on their website:

With over 200 distinctive pieces by 48 artists from across the country and abroad, the show presents a fluid exchange of ideas and explores the endless possibilities open to contemporary printmakers. Every form of the printmaking technique is covered, including calligraphy, etching, monotype, metal relief, dry point, silkscreen, polyp late, screen-printing, lithography, woodcut, collage, and digital. Viewers of the exhibition can also expect to see some original prints that break new ground in the use of the medium.


Up next at the gallery is the Interaction of Colour, a group exhibit about the visual element of color and how it shapes how we feel.

Ann Street Gallery: www.annstreetgallery.org