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Jun 30, 201503:23 PMCulture

Fun and Culture in the Mid-State

The Whole Spectrum

Jun 30, 2015 - 03:23 PM
The Whole Spectrum

         On June 5, Lancaster’s First Friday arts festival featured a little something for everyone. From visual art to performances to dancing, the event was a fun reminder that creativity takes many different mediums, all of which express the emotions and stories that make us who we are.

         For those after visual art, many galleries and shops along N. Prince Street displayed local works of various genres. The Coe Camera Shop featured a wall of photography by Sue Moberg. Moberg refers to her artistic style as “social documentary” – she shoots unposed subjects in an attempt to capture the subtleties of human emotion in everyday situations.

         These human intricacies helped Moberg get started taking pictures. When she was younger, she disliked family gatherings, so she would use photography at such events to stay both close enough to and distant enough from the action. In her artist statement for Friday’s gallery, she noted, “Photographing at such social events – weddings & birthday celebrations; parades & street fairs – allowed me to participate in while focusing on the complexity of human behavior – our coded, ritual interactions – with an acute appreciation for the anxiety of childhood.”

         Indeed, many of her photographs are of children – often with distressed or just perplexed facial expressions. “Childhood is a difficult time – you really lack agency,” she said. “Children have a way of communicating that doesn’t depend on pop culture or expectations.” She noted, for example, the resentment a child faces for having to tag along with an older sibling or being drug around by parents. She once captured the consternation of a child strapped into a stroller. “The family had turned the stroller around, and they were completely occupied with something else. And there I was, a stranger sticking a camera in this little girl’s face. I could just see the resentment.”

         And it’s these emotions that keep Moberg returning to photos again and again. “Photography – even though it’s a still image – is not a static image,” she states. For Moberg, the picture represents a narrative. “It’s not about the action but the implication behind the action. That’s why you can still visit old photos and see something new.”

         But artists don’t have to have a lifetime of experience like Moberg’s to receive First Friday recognition. The Red Raven Art Company displayed the works of 17-year-old Heather Witmer on its “emerging artist” wall. According to Janice Harrington, wife of Red Raven co-owner Art Harrington, Witmer was unable to be present at the gallery that night due to a different milestone – namely, her graduation from Lampeter-Strasburg High School. She had six pieces displayed: “Nation’s Survival” I-III and “The Fragility of Religion” I-III. Each work comprised a piece of newspaper on which was painted a figure or symbol of Eastern religious significance such as Buddha on the comics, Shiva on political commentary and the taijitu on the crossword puzzle. The shocking juxtaposition of Western pop culture and timeless Eastern religious symbols forces the viewer to reevaluate the everyday and the familiar – details which often seem so important or entertaining – in the context of the divine, the infinite and the timeless.

         Witmer’s recent honors came with financial benefits too. According to Red Raven manager Lee Lovett,  Witmer’s work earned her a $1,000 anonymous scholarship for art school. Furthermore, she gets to keep 100% of any sales from her work on the “emerging artist” wall. “We feel that this gives the artist a taste of what it's like to make art a business,” Lovett stated. “The student is able to put a show together and see what an opening reception is like. They get to talk about their work with our customers. It is always a great experience.” In Witmer’s case, of course, she had to miss out on being physically present, but Red Raven nonetheless represented her work with pride.

         For those in search of a show, the Lancaster Dramatists’ Platform debuted staged readings of two new plays by local playwrights in one of the warehouses of The Candy Factory. The plays were Theories by Jenell Abram and The Sounds of Soul by David Nice.

         In Theories, a young man and young woman meet spontaneously at a bar, and the audience gets to revel in all the awkwardness of their first encounter while the bartender, who sees all, offers frequent asides. Abram stated that the idea for the play began with the line, “Alpha Male, meet Alpha Female,” which she thought of when she witnessed an interaction in a bar which quickly went south. She stated, “I just imagined what it would be like to be the bartender standing there and watching all these things happening. And most people are too drunk to notice when they’re at a bar! But actually breaking down the mechanics of the human interaction in a bar – I just think it’s such an interesting place where people interact.” And indeed, the two headstrong characters fire opposing intentions and excuses back and forth across a channel of miscommunication as they attempt to negotiate the very purpose of their meeting. Thematically, the play addresses chaos theory, which the young man calls “the butterfly effect” – the tight causal chain linking highly specific initial conditions to a highly specific outcome – in the context of young love and heartbreak. And all the while, the bartender’s quasi-divine perspective – the seer of all who at times addresses just us, at times addresses the young man and woman and at times addresses all – adds an ironically providential spin to the theme. The bartender switches seamlessly from active participant in the action – especially when he gives the young man advice – to definitively distant, even a deistic figure of sorts. In the end, though, the play reminds viewers that every situation comes from some set of causes always too large for humans to wrap their heads around.

         The Sounds of Soul also takes place at a bar; in this play, two middle-aged men – one white and one black – rekindle their high school friendship after years apart. As they reminisce, Marcus – the black man – asks Kenny – the white man – how their friendship affected Kenny’s racial perceptions in their predominantly white high school. The two end up talking the most about their old band, known as “The Sounds of Soul.” In fact, Nice stated that a major inspiration for this play was a similar band which his own brother was in: “One [idea] was a kind of a memory piece of my brother who actually was in a band in suburban Philly where we grew up, and it was like four white guys from North Penn High School and a black lead singer from Ambler.” And by the end of the play, music becomes a symbol of cultural appreciation and racial reconciliation as Marcus and Kenny recall the inspiration, bonding and just plain fun the band brought them.

         And for those who just wanted to get up and dance, a Lancaster group of blues dancers known as “Indigo Blues” held its monthly gathering at Mulberry Art Studios. The group generally meets here on the first Friday of every month for a volunteer-DJ’d dance; occasionally Indigo hosts live bands from the area. The group draws both young and old, including many members of the Lancaster Swing Dance Club since many Lindy hoppers also enjoy blues dancing. According to Matt Williamson, club president and Friday’s DJ, the group got started four years ago when he and Paul Torchia “wanted to have some classy events with live music.” Williamson himself got interested in the dance because he wanted to impress a girl. He found love, alright, but it wasn’t what he initially bargained for: “In the end, I fell in love with dancing and not the girl.”

         The dance itself – which traces its lineage back to both ballroom dancing and retro-era nightclubs – takes on a variety of styles and speeds, some fast and funky, some slow and sexy. Blues has even evolved “fusion” genres which integrate characteristics of dances such as West Coast and tango. But whatever style you’re dancing, blues is all about the connection with your partner – both physical and emotional. “I think some of my favorite dances have been with people who are filled with confidence, consideration, awareness and creativity,” stated Williamson. “That combination, mixed with a few basic rules of movement, creates the foreground for a very unique experience that changes with every dance partner and song.”

         All good art reaches the mind and the heart, and blues dancing does this in a visceral way. Williams noted many positive changes he’s seen in people when they start dancing: “I have seen dance build up self confidence. I've seen relationships strengthened as couples learn to communicate. Honestly dancing in my opinion causes people to become better people in general, and better at all life relationships, because it forces you to start with the core of yourself and confidently share that with other people who are listening and doing the same thing.”

         And all these organic connections ultimately create an safe environment where all are equal and all are accepted. “In the end,” Williamson stated, “you have a room full of interesting people, without segregation of class or title, all mingling and sharing their lives, thoughts and feelings to the theme of any particular song.”

         And, really, that’s the goal of First Friday in general – to break down walls, to open up hearts and to get people out on the floor.

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