Vol. 11, No. 25 Dec. 31, 1998 - Jan. 13, 1999


Creativity -- It's A Bronx Thing


Bronx culture isn't just consuming -- taking in a poetry reading at The Point or a symphony by the Bronx Arts Ensemble -- it's producing, as well.

That was the message at a Bronx Council on the Arts (BCA) fete, thrown Dec. 16 for recipients of BCA's Van Lier, Chapter One, and Longwood Studio fellowships. Ambitious new figures in writing and the visual arts gathered at the Lehman College Art Gallery in Bedford Park to nosh on Christmas cookies and wax creative.

The Bronx Writers' Center's $7,000 Van Lier grant goes to writers under the age of 30 for a nine-month residency in poetry, fiction, or playwriting and screenwriting. Among this year's three recipients was playwright Anthony DeMore, awarded a grant for his piece The Sights and Sounds of the Mute, Deaf and Invisible.

"I've applied a thousand times. I wondered if I'd actually ever get it," DeMore, a Wakefield native, said. "You send your stuff out and send your stuff out, and nothing happens." Until, of course, one day it does.

DeMore's play, originally written for one actor and now expanded to two men playing multiple roles and backed by a jazz-rap-rock fusion band, deals with the struggles of black men, young and old, in American society.

Rather than a linear story, DeMore's play is a series of scenes, like "Souljah," a dialogue between a sergeant and GI, "Father Figure," a monologue by an old man reflecting on his sons, and "Dealing With Reality," a personal treatment of the drug crisis.

Serious renderings of African American and Puerto Rican themes have long been mainstays of Bronx art, but there's room for more escapist forms as well.

Mystery writer Marge Mendel, an Amalgamated Houses resident, won the Chapter One contest, a competition for the best beginning to a novel-in-progress, with her work about a female homicide detective, Black Umbrella. By now, Mendel has gone far beyond the first chapter, and is now in the revision stage of her manuscript.

"Gertrude Stein said all novels need rhythm and melody," Mendel said. "Well, that ain't so easy!" Like many first-time writers, Mendel depends on a teaching job (freshman orientation at Lehman College) to support herself.

Her enthusiasm for creative writing is palpable, as Mendel relates the current push to "deepen" her story and characters.

"You take them from the kernel of an idea and build a universe around them," Mendel said. "It's extraordinarily exciting to do."

The Longwood Arts Project allows promising artists to have a year of free studio space at the Longwood Gallery in Melrose, a materials stipend, an artistic mentor, and an end-of-the-year exhibition. As with the writers, there is also the excitement of new vocations taking shape.

"I wasn't exposed to any of that until I was in art school," said Andrew Sonpon, a Longwood Studio fellow who said he had hardly drawn or attended a museum before deciding to become an artist at Philadelphia's Temple University.

As his primary theme, Sonpon points to urban decay -- first what he experienced as a child in North Philadelphia, and now what he has seen in the South Bronx.

"People have a hard time maintaining their household" after textile and other indigenous industries disappeared from Rust Belt cities, Sonpon said. "I try to pose the question, what is happening to these people?"

He portrays these social questions visually, by collecting parts of houses that have been torn down in blighted neighborhoods for installations. Sonpon plays tapes of interviews with inner city dwellers inside the rooms to give their stories a sense of place.

"Having an open studio in the Bronx location, you get feedback," Sonpon said. "From the security guard to the people who drop by the gallery. From them, I get to see how people in a different neighborhood are adjusting to the same issues."

Like young artists since time immemorial, Sonpon is his own harshest critic.

"I'm trying to get it right," Sonpon said of his future goals as an artist. "I don't think I've done anything right yet."

His studio mate Antonio Serna prefers the inner life, what he calls "a bunch of caricatures of thoughts," to social agitation in art.

"I don't normally look at things like race or class," Serna said. "I like to strip things down to what it's all about. Whether people are upper class or lower class, they have the same depression, the same happiness."

Serna's sculptures take from Mexican and Japanese forms and "stuff I found in the street -- discarded art."

Officials at both BCA and the Bronx Writers' Center predicted that shoots of talent are soon to grow into hardy plants, with proper encouragement and a little bit of seed money.

"We know of one writer who used our resources to get a BRIO [Bronx Recognizes Its Own] award," said Laurie Palmieri, director of Bronx Writers' Center, which has provided a quiet space and free computer facilities for Bronx authors since 1996. "She said that if it weren't for the center, she wouldn't have had the courage to submit her work. We definitely have the riches here. We just need to fine-tune them."

DeMore agreed that the best was still to come. "I think a lot of new artists are coming out," he said, "young and ambitious, with a lot to say."

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