Q&A: Photographer Don Bell

Whether its Robert Frank’s images of blue-collar 1950s America or a Diane Arbus photo of a marginalized sideshow performer, photography can  leave the subject’s out of the picture. The photographer often speaks for the subject (through framing, composition, lighting…) , which creates a host of unanswered questions for the viewer. We  have all  encountered a photograph that we wish could tell us more.

As a journalist and an artist, Don Bell knows a lot about asking questions. His series “Portraits of Wisdom” catalogues his encounters with people he meets on the street and their answers to the deceptively simple question: “What have you learned?” It’s a direct question that yields surprisingly honest answers.

Don’s photographs treat his subjects with the same sincerity.  This photographic honesty is something that Susan Sontag notices in her 1977 essay collection “On Photography.” For her, it’s a trait that links back to Walt Whitman’s belief that each moment or condition ‘exhibits a beauty.’ As I spent time with the series, I realized that Don’s work engages all of these voices.

 Don was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his work as a photographer and what inspires him.

 Your technique depends largely on conversation and interaction with strangers. Is that journalism influencing the photography? How do you think your work as a journalist affects your photography?

 My journalism background has a powerful influence on my photography – especially in this project. I’ve been interviewing people professionally for ten years, so talking to strangers on the street actually comes naturally. A smooth interview leads to a comfortable subject and therefore a natural looking portrait.

 You mentioned running into your 1st Hartford subject a week or so ago; any other memorable stories from being out in the field meeting people and taking photos?

 I was on the corner of Pratt and Main Street downtown when I ran into a writer named Brian. He was one of the very first subjects for this project. It’s amazing how eight months later we bump into each other while I was literally holding a flyer for the exhibition. I’m not good with names but I always remember faces and his is tough to ignore – strong, dark features with penetrating eyes. We had a quick chat and I walked away knowing why he made the final cut – powerful presence.

 Most of the subjects I interviewed made an impact in someway. Peel back each layer, of each person and you’ll discover that we’re all unique in some way.

 I think of  Gordon Parks when I look at your work. What other photographers, artists do you look to for inspiration? Any other sources of inspiration?

 I wish I had some brilliant answer for this question. The truth is that I’m inspired by ALL photography. There are a million different ways to capture life. Most pictures that I see cause some type of creative friction in my head: Why that light? Why that composition? Why that depth of field? Flushing out the answers to those questions spark creative inspiration. And way before that process ever starts, it’s the hunger to create and give birth to an image that is entirely your own. You can’t teach give-a-damn. Either you do or you don’t.

 You’ve lived all over (Boston, Philly, St. Louis), what about Hartford do you enjoy?

 I have a love affair with every place I’ve lived. I had a crush on Boston like a 10-year-old boy who had just discovered girls. St. Louis was love at first sight. Philly’s courage and heartbeat energizes my soul. Hartford embraced me and gave me fuel to blaze a new path. I enjoy the tight nit community of the Heartbeat. It’s like living with extended family.

What projects are you working on now?

I just launched my new website www.donbellphotography.com. Even though I had help with the design, it was a monster undertaking. At least a half dozen decisions went into every single click of the mouse. Now that it has been completed, I’m turning my attention toward commissioned work and travel related images.

And what direction do you see your work taking?

My parents once told me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. In general, I’m not sure if parents really believe that when they speak to their children. It doesn’t matter. When they said it, I believed it. And I still do. So, I’ll keep creating art and I’ll happily go where it takes me. What direction is that? I’ll let you know after the shutter snaps.

Many thanks to Don for his answers. If you’d like to see the work yourself and meet Don, join us at  the opening reception of “Portraits of Wisdom” this Thursday in the 100 Pearl Street Gallery from 5-7pm.

An Intern's Inside Look at Don Bell's "Portraits of Wisdom"

Ever since I was young, I have had an interest in photography. Simply with a keen eye and a camera you can unlock the world around you to better define your own personality. That’s why I was really excited to check out the Don Bell photography exhibit in the 100 Pearl Street Gallery to explore Bell’s intriguing works.

“Portraits of Wisdom” by Don Bell features black-and-white portraits that give a compelling and candid look into the faces of everyday people from Philadelphia to Hartford. Don pairs these images of individuals from all walks of life including students, artists, attorneys and others with answers to the question “What have you learned?” Seeking to capture life’s priceless but fleeting moments, Bell provides a rare glimpse into the worlds of the strangers we pass by everyday without much thought.

Looking at the portraits more closely, I noticed the exhibition’s wide emotional range from lighthearted and clever to very serious. One portrait that touched me in particular was “Ginny,” a Hyperrealistic Artist. Although she has a very sad look in her eyes in her portrait, her quote discusses the importance of taking care of your parents as they get older, claiming that even though it wouldn’t end well, it would be the most meaningful thing you ever did. This selfless sentiment, hidden behind a simple statement, conveyed a very thought-provoking and powerful message intensified by the sad tones from the portrait itself.

Michele poses with Bell’s photography

Switching gears slightly, as a student myself, some of my favorite pieces included those also currently enrolled in college. One quote that really spoke to me was from “Jay” and read, “Do what you love, even if they say you’ll be poor.” After this summer, I will be a senior at Eastern Connecticut State University, and getting ready to pick a career path and there’s a lot of pressure to go into certain fields simply because they make decent money. Although at this point I don’t know what my future holds, I hope I can find a position that fully supports and that I love—the best of both worlds. 

To learn more about Don Bell, visit www.LetsGoArts.org/Gallery or head to his website: www.donbellphotography.com/#/exhibitions. You can also celebrate Bell’s work at the exhibition’s opening reception on June 14 from 5 to 7pm with Bell himself.

(Entry prepared by Michele Lodigiani, Summer Marketing Intern at the Arts Council)

Fun Evening, Fine Dining at Max Downtown

Last Sunday was another big Arts Council event: Max’s Farm to Table Wine Dinner for United Arts. Long name, I know.

Every year, Max Downtown partners Richard Rosenthal and Steven Abrams close down their restaurant, undoubtedly Hartford’s premier destination for amazing food and top-notch service, and let us use their space (and staff) to create a one-of-a-kind fundraising event to support United Arts and Neighborhood Studios, our summer arts apprenticeship program. Max’s Executive Chef, Hunter Morton, creates a truly amazing five-course meal featuring seasonal ingredients from local Connecticut farms and, to top it all off, philanthropist and business leader Andy Mandell serves up a wonderful live auction featuring some really cool items. You know what they say: never bid on an empty stomach.

You might be thinking, “what about the booze? I thought this was a wine dinner!” We work with Connecticut Distributors, Inc. and Toast Wines by Taste, a great boutique wine seller in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, to find a well-known winery to select appropriate pairings for each course. This year, Pam Macrini of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines brought along bottles of some of her best vintages—from a lightly chilled Valdiguié to a subtle Chardonnay and a full-bodied Petit Sirah—for our guests to enjoy with each dish. Talking throughout the evening, she explained why each wine was specifically chosen and gave us all some pointers about how to discern the flavors of each sip. I’m no wine expert, but this was good wine. Real good.

As with any big event, Allie, our events manager, and I spend most of the afternoon running around like chickens with our head cut off, only to see the event come together in all it’s splendor moments before the guests arrived. It was a wildly successful “love fest,” with many big corporate sponsors and individual arts enthusiasts celebrating great art and fine food. Cathy spoke from the heart about her first 8 months as the new CEO of the Arts Council, and our 2012 United Arts Campaign Chair, Mayor Pedro Segarra, gave a passionate account of how important the arts are to him and to the quality of life of Hartford. Most moving, however, was the story of Sasha Brooks, an 18-year-old alum of the Breakdancing Shakespeare Neighborhood Studio at Hartford Stage, who talked about how his involvement with the program and the arts gave him direction. It was really wonderful to hear a first-hand account of how the arts can change someone’s life.

By the end of the night, Allie and I sat exhausted at the auction check-out table as I scarfed down the last of my fifth course, an unbelievable strawberry brioche bread pudding. It was a long day and a very long night, but a landmark evening for our United Arts Campaign. Plus, it’s nice to get together with 100 of our closest friends and share something we’re all enthusiastic about: the arts.

And wine.

Very, VERY special thanks to the chef, staff and partners of Max Downtown, Connecticut Distributors, Toast Wines, Pam Macrini and J. Lohr for their wine expertise, and everyone who attended the event: enjoy the gift bags!

Hiding in Plain Sight: ATOM Space

Last week, Liz and I took a walk and poked into ATOM Space: downtown Hartford’s only (that I know of) pop-up gallery space.

The project started months ago in the former ATM space attached to our office complex at 100 Pearl Street. Local artist David Borawski’s installation exhibit, “It’s Only a Game if You Win,”  the first-ever ATOM showing, became the gallery’s last in its former location when the building leased the office space to a new tenant. Ever plucky, the gallery managers moved a few blocks away to the abandoned “Chinatown” storefront on Pratt Street, and have since put on two additional exhibitions in their new home.

Borawski’s “It’s Only a Game if You Win”

ATOM is the latest “guerilla” exhibition gallery in Hartford, a found space right in the heart of downtown. Each gallery show represents a selection of work from local artists—many of whom are good friends of the Arts Council. Liz and I caught the latest show, “As It Ever Was,” featuring work by artists Anne Cubberly, Barbara Hocker (she showed in the 100 Pearl Street Gallery last year), Nina Salazar (she created a sculptural martini glass for our ARTini event last fall), Howard el-Yasin, Gene Gort, Carol Padberg, Patrick Schmidt, Gil Scullion, and
Dave Sinaguglia.

It’s a cool space and a very cool exhibit. Take a look at some of the pictures below and get a feel for the artwork—but believe me, it’s worth seeing in person.

My favorite thing about the whole ATOM concept is the idea that art can flourish almost anywhere. You don’t need a museum, or even a dedicated high-brow gallery space to show excellent artwork; old storefronts, abandoned buildings and even busy street corners can be the perfect place to display local art.

If you’re in downtown Hartford, consider stopping by on a lunch break or during a coffee run to see what ATOM has to offer. Hopefully this is the sign of things to come. Hartford certainly isn’t short of empty retail space—perhaps this can be an enduring solution.

Want to learn more about ATOM? Check out their participator site.

Judy Dworin: Hall of Fame Honoree

Congratulations go out to Judy Dworin, Executive/Artistic Director of the Judy Dworin Performance Project (a General Operating Support grant recipient).

The Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame has named Judy Dworin as one of ten Honorees named for the 19th Annual Induction Ceremony and Celebration to be held on October, 18th, 2012. This year’s theme is Women’s Perspectives: Celebrating Voice and Vision.

Judy Dworin is a passionate, dedicated and committed arts leader here in Greater Hartford. She founded the Judy Dworin Performance Project  in 1989 to reflect her personal belief that the arts can have a tremendous impact on creating change in our community. For the past 23 years, Judy has made world-class dance a staple of the Hartford arts scene; she is known for creating highly acclaimed, cutting-edge performances that tell little-known stories and speak to our everyday experiences. Judy’s work also tackles social issues, such as homelessness and incarceration, using dance to make them accessible and understandable.  Beyond her work with the Performance Ensemble, the Judy Dworin Performance Project brings movement-based arts instruction into schools and runs outreach programs throughout the state of Connecticut.

Along with Judy, the 2012 Inductees are: Anne Garrels, groundbreaking foreign conflict correspondent; Annie Leibovitz, internationally renowned photographer; and Faith Middleton, thought-provoking radio broadcaster. Click herefor the complete list of this year’s Honorees.

Don’t know much about Judy Dworin Performance Project?  Click here to learn more.

The original title of this blog, “Judy Dworin: Hall of Fame Inductee” has been corrected to the above. 

Real Art Ways presents "'Capitalism works for me!' True/False Project"

Sometimes the most complex issues hide under the shroud of a simple statement. As an English major in my undergrad and grad days, I was instructed to interrogate the complexity of social issues, or, to tell you what really happened, to go crazy arguing points about topics that never have an answer. That’s probably why I had such a difficult time this past Friday wrapping my head around Steve Lambert’s interactive portable public art piece “’Capitalism works for me!’ True/False Project” presented by Real Art Ways.

But let me back up for a second. Last week, Sarah Brozna, Communications Coordinator at Real Art Ways, invited me to check out Lambert’s project in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square during lunch on Friday (May 11). “Capitalism works for me! True/False Project” presents passersby with the opportunity to vote on whether or not they agree with Capitalism, which it tallies on a digital scoreboard. Given its portability, the art piece can ask the question to individuals in tons of different locations; for example, before its stop in Blue Back Square, the project was placed at Manchester Community College to sample the students’ opinions. In an election year supercharged with economic issues highly publicized by the recession and the Occupy: Wall Street movement, now seems like a particularly poignant time to address the inquiry.

After a quick stroll through Blue Back Square (which is a nice way of putting that I got lost), I met up with Sarah and a few other staff members from Real Art Ways to tackle the complex topic of Capitalism hidden behind big letters and vibrant reds, whites and blues. Although places like Blue Back Square serve those thriving under the system, in the context of the art piece I couldn’t help but think of all the people unable to participate in the cute shops and restaurants of the location, or those who don’t bloom under Capitalism at all.

Existing in that gray area between good and bad, I tried hammering out my thoughts about Capitalism with Sarah and the other Real Art Ways staff members, who offered both helpful advice and more perplexities to the topic. Despite my nature to find a solution that recognizes both the positives and negatives of Capitalism, as I stepped up to the podium to declare a choice, the art piece presented no option for a middle ground—only two buttons: TRUE or FALSE. In a sense, the project forces you to agree or disagree with the project’s statement as it pertains directly to your life in spite of the national and international ramifications of Capitalism. Although I pressed one button in the end, neither option would have left me any more satisfied with my decision than the other.

And perhaps that’s the point of the project—to make people choose when both options don’t entirely feel right, thereby exposing and exploiting a flaw in the system as a whole. Or maybe it’s just to make people think about a topic they face consciously and unconsciously everyday. After all,

Sometimes the most complex issues hide under the shroud of a simple statement.

Much thanks to Sarah and the entire staff of Real Art Ways for inviting me to and helping bring this pensive project to our community. If you want to vote yourself, make some time to visit Creative Cocktail Hour at Real Art Ways this Thursday (May 17) at 6pm, where “Capitalism works for me! True False Project” will be set-up and ready to intrigue you as it did for me.

I F*ing Loved the Symphony

I apologize for the muted expletive here, but I really had an amazing time.

And I’ll be honest–I didn’t expect to. I wouldn’t classify myself as a “fan” of classical music. My tunes taste generally drift between retro-pop, classic rock and showtunes. I’ve been to the opera a few times, and seen a few symphonic concerts in my day, but I’m certainly not a regular patron.

Working at the Arts Council, I try to divide my time roughly equally between the different artistic disciplines and organizations we support. If I was ever meeting with a donor, or a funder, or even just someone in the community who asked, “hey, how was a show at Hartford Stage this season?” or “what was your favorite exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art?” I’d like to be able to give a truly honest answer. And when it came to the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, I dreaded the question: I had never seen them in concert before.

Sure, I’ve been out to their summer series at Talcott Mountain a few times. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s a great social experience, you can down a drink or two and hear some really wonderful music while enjoying the great outdoors. But when it comes to the Symphony’s Masterworks series, its “bread and butter,” I felt woefully uneducated. It’s like going to the Wadsworth but never making it past the gift shop—or going to Hartford Stage for A Christmas Carol and missing out on The Tempest. I wanted to take my Symphony experience to the next level.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one feeling guilty—Liz, our Director of Community Investment, had never been to a Masterworks concert either. After missing the highly acclaimed “Beatboxing and Brahms” concert thanks to a winter wave of the flu, we both decided to try again and catch last night’s program.

And I’m so f*ing glad I did. 

Honestly, yes. I was concerned I’d be a little bored. I mean, listening to music is something I do in my car. But wow was I wrong. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to see the Hartford Symphony Orchestra perform live. Their first piece, a short composition by Samuel Barber, absolutely hit the spot. It was joyful and upbeat, triumphant, fun—and almost drove me to tears. It’s pretty rare that I find myself moments away from weeping next to one of my co-workers.

HSO guest performer Teo Gheorghiu

The whole evening was really fantastic. We heard a wonderful Mozart Piano Concerto played by a guest pianist, the incredibly talented (and awfully easy-on-the-eyes)  Teo Gheorghiu. How does he play without sheet music? I’ll never know. But the evening’s true star was the final piece, Pathétique, Tchaikovsky’s final completed symphony in four movements. It was tremendous. And it was especially wonderful to see the look on Maestra Carolyn Kuan’s face as she conducted the HSO with pure joy—this is obviously a piece she particularly loves. Swirling her arms furiously in the air, she showed a passion for music that I’ve never seen anyone have before. I was completely blown away.

Plus, Liz and I had a fabulous time chatting with some Symphony folks and making new friends in the lobby. I’m really glad my initial trepidation didn’t get the best of me—I overcame my “fear” and had a phenomenal time at the Symphony. I’ll definitely be back.

Or, at the very least, you can catch me rocking along to Elton John tunes at Talcott Mountain this summer. I’ll be the one in the big yellow sunglasses enjoying a box of wine.

An Arts & Business pARTnership

The arts and corporate communities have an interesting, long-standing relationship—especially here in Hartford. In fact, the Arts Council owes its very existence to the corporate community; back in 1971, businesses got together and encouraged the creation of one fundraising and grantmaking entity to support the arts and cultural organizations in Hartford that were growing at an astonishing pace—and, understandably, had increased their need for donations and institutional support. Since then, a somewhat amusing relationship has formed between the arts and business: companies like strong arts organizations—they attract workers, give the neighborhood a rich, vibrant flavor and provide opportunities for positive stewardship. The arts, too, rely on business for more than just philanthropy: the wealth of resources in the corporate world, from providing pro bono services and building connections with local leaders and everyday employees, businesses have much to offer the arts.

Yet we all seem to get hung up on the almighty dollar.

Trust me, it’s something we talk about every day. Probably multiple times a day. How much is this company willing to give? Who can we get to sponsor this event? How many employees do they have—and, how successful will the employee giving drive turn out to be? The unfortunate reality of an unforgiving fundraising climate is that we sometimes miss the forest beyond the trees.

Businesses have a lot more to offer than financial support, so we need to make sure we take advantage of every resource. As marketing, fundraising and community outreach professionals, we must always be looking for new opportunities to help the arts—even if there’s no dollar sign attached.

A lesson beyond the bottom line.

Mayor Pedro Segarra and the NU video team getting ready to film.

I learned (well, re-learned) this lesson the good way the other day. We’ve been having conversations with Northeast Utilities about their annual workplace giving campaign, and suddenly they struck upon an ingenious idea: wouldn’t it be great if the Arts Council had a compelling, well-produced video appeal to use for the 2012 United Arts Campaign? And, what if it featured Mayor Pedro Segarra, this year’s campaign chair? Is that something NU could offer? The answer was yes to all of the above.

Obviously I loved the idea. The professional video and editing services at Northeast Utilities go way, way (way, way, way) beyond what I could afford to pay. So sure, they’re not cutting us a check. But, their pro bono, in-kind support will give us a valuable fundraising and community relations tool that we wouldn’t have been able to create on our own. Plus, it reminds the community of all of the good work our corporate partners do for nonprofits—a win-win for both of us.

Meaghan, one of our Workplace Giving Associates, joined me at City Hall to meet the team from NU to film the Mayor’s address. While we don’t have the final cut yet, I can tell you from seeing the first edit that this is going to be a great video. What I can do is post a few of my (in)famous blurry cell phone picks for a ‘behind the scenes’ video set-up of the Mayor and the NU tech team in action (see above).

This was a great, eye-opening (or eye-re-opening) experience about what businesses can contribute beyond the bottom line. I was talking to another staff member today—Laura, also from the Workplace Giving team—about Americans for the Art’s pARTnership movement, an evolving campaign that aims to build better, mutually beneficial relationships between arts organizations and the business community. This story would be right up their alley.

Special thanks to Laura, Jon and Mark from Northeast Utilities and everyone in the Mayor’s office for making this project a reality.

Coming soon: I’ll give an overview of the pARTnership movement in the next couple of weeks and what it means for Hartford. In the meantime, stay tuned for the final cut of Mayor Segarra’s campaign message.

Inspiration on Albany Avenue

Can you guess which Hartford-based cultural organization was invited to perform for Michelle Obama at the White House last year by the National Endowment for the Arts? Was cited by Harvard University’s Project Co-Arts as one of six exemplary community art centers in the nation? Was visited by President Clinton in 1999 as he addressed the community about economic development and highlighted the organization as a glowing example of urban development at its best?

The Artists Collective has deservedly received each of these distinctions, among many other achievements during its 30+ year history. Located on upper Albany Avenue, the Collective has been an anchor in the North End community, providing after-school and summer multi-disciplinary arts programming to youth from the immediate neighborhood while attracting students from outside state lines.

Dance class at Artists Collective

As part of an upcoming public art project planned for Hartford’s Albany Avenue library branch (more on that later), I’ve recently brought a handful of artists to tour the Artists Collective as they learn more about the community and culture of the neighborhood. The building is full of positive energy, with wee little girls in black leotards prancing off to dance class and pre-teen boys “popping and locking” with incredible precision. On one visit, an elderly woman was practicing for her upcoming piano recital. At the same time, twin girls (who were thought to be developmentally delayed when born) were showing off their new brown belts in their martial arts class.

Carmen Lundy at The Artists Collective
Carmen Lundy performs at Artists Collective.
Artist Collective founder Dollie McLean, center, brings students to meet with First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.

The Artists Collective is truly an inspiring organization, providing an outlet for underserved youth from the North End and empowering them through the arts. Presidential administrations and our nation’s most revered University has recognized the good work the organization does, but it seems our own community has yet to catch on. And while it pains me to admit it, I’ve neglected to take advantage of the amazing performances the Artists Collective offers.

It’s true; in my 5+ years living in Greater Hartford, I’ve never attended a concert there. But I have the chance to make amends this month. The Jackie McLean International Arts Festival takes place May 16th through May 19th with a mix of visual art exhibitions, film screenings and jazz concerts. If, like me, you have yet to attend a concert, mark your calendar for Saturday, May 19th when NEA Jazz Master and percussionist Candido Camero will perform in the Artist Collective’s magical building.

The Jackie McLean International Arts Festival schedule can be found at http://artistscollective.org/events.htm