Family Secrets

March 27, 2020

I’m new to the HPAC family. I’ve been here just about four months now, so maybe there’s some irony in the fact that I’m the first to write a post on this blog. Or there might be some wisdom in it, because I am able to comb through HPAC’s archives with fresh eyes and offer new perspectives on old events. Finding beautiful and inspirational artwork online has been one of the ways I have been restoring myself during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m grateful for the chance to share a favorite with you today.

Making artwork about your family history is really hard, especially when it resurrects troubling secrets and unfinished business. A few years ago, I struggled to create a theater piece for the 14th St. Y in New York City about my emotionally unstable grandmother and the mysteries surrounding her miraculous survival of the Holocaust in Poland. It wasn’t just hard for me. My mother and my sister had to sit quietly in the audience as I made public one of our most secret family stories.

The artist Sacha Yanow approached similar themes in a work-in-progress solo performance at HPAC in 2017. The show centered on Yanow’s grandmother, who suffered from bipolar disorder in the 1950s before any modern treatments existed, and who lived in the Bronx but performed as her showgirl alter ego Cherie Dre at the Concord resort hotel, just minutes from Hurleyville. Weaving together covers of Yiddish pop songs, dance routines, and monologues, Yanow told an intimate family story that also shed light on the social history of the Catskills and on her own personal relationship with gender and femininity.

It takes courage to make the kind of art that reveals secrets, that exposes forgotten histories and complicates our past. The only time I ever met her in person, Yanow was a guest speaker at my grad seminar at SUNY Purchase, presenting on her work not as an artist, but as the director of Art Matters, a longstanding private foundation that supports daring, socially engaged artistic practice. The first time I realized that she herself was the kind of groundbreaking artist that Art Matters would probably support was just now, as I was browsing HPAC’s event archives. Like Yanow, I am someone who balances artistic and administrative work, and it is always an inspiration to see someone capable of performing both at such a high level.

What also caught my attention about Yanow’s performance at HPAC was that so many institutions—from NYC, the Catskills, and beyond—were woven together to make it happen. The Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, and Denniston Hill all played a role. As a development professional, I advocate passionately for institutional partnerships in the arts, believing we are stronger together as collaborators. This is a great example of a productive set of partnerships.

In the coming years, when we are gathering together again in person, I hope we can bring Yanow back to HPAC as a performer. I hope we can continue to build on the partnerships that made this performance possible—with DVAA and Denniston Hill, and maybe even LMCC—to bring more daring art that matters to our audiences here in the mountains.

For more, here’s a great interview with Sacha Yanow while she was in residence at Baryshnikov Arts Center that discusses the work she performed at HPAC. Enjoy!