Dan Deutsch

“No Hyperbole Needed”: Prison Arts’ Impact Extends Beyond the Incarcerated

This spring, a “triple crown” of art exhibitions took place across the state displaying works by Connecticut artists of all backgrounds. Their uniting quality? Each artist is a current or former inmate in the state correctional facility system who is participating in Prison Arts, a program run by Community Partners in Action that offers art education to incarcerated individuals.

Community Partners in Action, founded in 1875 with Mark Twain sitting on its first Board of Directors, is an organization that focuses on behavioral change for inmates and advocacy for criminal justice reform. Offering services based around employment, basic needs, and reentry for inmates, CPA works with the goals of reducing recidivism, enhancing public safety, and informing policy. Prison Arts, in its 41st year of operation, is CPA’s longest running program and has been an important fixture in Hartford’s art scene. The program runs classes and projects for inmates and makes a practice of purchasing a handful of exceptional pieces each year in order to build a permanent collection.

How Art Changed the Prison at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

So far in 2019, Prison Arts has presented three shows around Connecticut. The first, entitled How Art Changed the Prison, ran from January to May at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield. CPA’s largest museum exhibition ever, the exhibit featured the work of 35 artists that have been involved with Prison Arts over the last 28 years. The artwork was accompanied by extensive text panels and a small book to allow viewers to engage with the artwork and examine how the artists have grown as creators over the course of multiple decades.

In March and April, the Hartford Public Library displayed an exhibit called 40 Years of the CPA Prison Arts Program, which featured the largest number of works from the program’s permanent collection ever shown in one place. Alumni artists traveled from all over the country to attend the show and fundraising event.

Lastly, the 2019 Annual Show at Capital Community College was on exhibit through June. The show contained over 750 pieces from 127 inmates and several former prisoners, and included drawing, painting, and sculpture. Program Manager Jeffrey Greene described the show as “massive, diverse, and incredible.”

“Art provokes and engenders empathy and a wider perspective – two things we need most”

Greene says he cannot emphasize enough the positive effect that Prison Arts has had in Connecticut. For the artists, Greene said that the program gives their incarceration more meaning. “Instead of prison being a barren ‘time out,’ it has become a vibrant, contemplative, and revelatory continuation of their lives,” he said, “and a powerful ‘workplace’ to prepare for the future while living an important life in the present.”

Meanwhile, for the outside community, Prison Arts has helped to promote awareness about those living in prison and the complexity of their community. “The program has served to dispel stereotypes about who lives in prison, why people make art, and the complex nature of art making,” Greene said. Greene also mentioned benefits for prison staff and families of the incarcerated, citing safer workplaces and stronger connections between individuals despite physical separation as key outcomes of the program.

The future of Prison Arts looks promising. The show at the Aldrich brought new attention to the program, according to Greene, and is expected to result in new investors, collaborators, and opportunities. In the next year, a focus will be to establish new workshops in underserved prisons. “The [current] project just begins to address the need within prisons,” Greene said. “Waiting lists and requests from prison staff just keep piling up!”  Ideally, Greene added, it would be possible to expand the involvement of the public and the State of Connecticut in order to put on the largest annual art exhibit of any kind in the United States. “What if thousands of prisoners, former prisoners, as well as prisoners’ families, prison staff, victims of crime, and victims’ families were all part of a massive community event that underscored the value of everyone involved?” he asked. “That would be something we could all take great pride in, and it is certainly something to work towards.”

On the shorter term, the program will present its annual alumni show at the Russell Library in Middletown in the fall, which highlights an ongoing rotation of artwork from the permanent collection housed at Hartford’s Community Court. Also in the fall, a large exhibition of pieces from the collection will be shown at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford.

Greene, who describes his experiences with Prison Arts as “incredible,” said that the overall importance of the program is “huge, no hyperbole needed,” due to the people involved and their environments. “Artists, artwork, and art-making compel people to consider themselves, those around them, the direction of their own lives and…the world as a whole,” he said. “Art provokes and engenders empathy and a wider perspective – two things we need most!”

Supporting initiatives like Prison Arts is part of our mission to improve lives and transform communities through the arts. Your support for the Greater Hartford Arts council helps us make it possible.

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#MakeMusicHartford: We Made Some (…well, a lot of) Noise!

Basses Loaded at Burr Mall (photography: Dwight Hatch)

When we decided to embark upon MMH Year 2, we knew we couldn’t pull off a bigger and better event without the help of our friends and neighbors. This is what led to the creation of our Planning Committee and the 8 Neighborhood Music Hubs (Butler McCook became the 9th all by themselves, very quickly organizing a day filled with music at their homestead on Main Street!). With a goal of 20 Spotlight Events and 100 total events throughout the city, we met and surpassed both goals by producing 25 Spotlight Events and 103 total performances in Hartford! 

All of this is thanks to you, the city and citizens of Hartford. In addition to the following sponsors, community partners, and organizations listed below, there were dozens of people who volunteered their time, equipment, and energy who we simply cannot thank enough.

2019 Make Music Hartford Sponsors
PowerStation Events
Spectra Wired Cafe
Connecticut Office of the Arts
Express Strategies

2019 Make Music Hartford Community Partners
Charter Oak Cultural Center
City of Hartford Division of Recreation
Hartford Chamber of Commerce
Mike Marques Photography
Tainted, Inc.

2019 Make Music Hartford Neighborhood Music Hubs
BLUE HILLS – Fire Station Engine 16
NORTHEAST – Parker Memorial Community Center
UPPER ALBANY – Scott’s Jamaican Bakery
CLAY ARSENAL – William Ware Recreational Center
DOWNTOWN – Pratt Street
SOUTH DOWNTOWN – Butler McCook House & Garden
SOUTH END – Free Center @ co:lab
FROG HOLLOW – Samuel V. Arroyo Recreation Center @ Pope Park
PARKVILLE – Parkville Sounds

2019 Make Music Day Partners
Make Music Alliance
Warwick Music (pBuzz trombones)
Vic Firth (drumsticks)
Hohner (harmonicas)
Alfred Music (ukulele books)
Martin Guitars (guitar books)

A special thank-you to Kabbalah House, Hartford Hilton, and United Healthcare/CityPlace for connecting us with last-minute rain venues!

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Out Film CT’s 32nd Annual LGBTQ Film Festival Expands and Inspires the Next Generation of Queer Filmmakers

Connecticut’s first ever film festival, the Connecticut Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, was presented in 1988 by AlteRnaTiveS, an LGBT cultural organization founded one year earlier. It was not a success. Lack of publicity, gloomy films, and difficulty attracting an audience fated the event for a futile first few years: after four annual festivals, the organization was in debt. However, with the help of new leadership, several LGBTQ celebrity appearances, and a new name for the organization (Out Film CT, to reflect the focus on film), the festival began playing for sold-out crowds. Now, Out Film CT is celebrating the success of its 32nd annual Connecticut LGBTQ Film Festival, which took place in Hartford from May 31 to June 8.

The festival, which presented over 65 feature-length and short films highlighting LGBTQ characters and issues, had an exciting year. According to Out Film CT President and Festival Director Shane Engstrom, attendance reached near-record levels and feedback from the audience award ballots was remarkably positive. In addition, two new short film programs, International Shorts and Youth Shorts, were introduced, which Engstrom said “expanded the discussion beyond our borders and opened the conversation to the LGBTQ leaders of tomorrow.”

32nd Annual LGBTQ Film Festival Closing Night Party at the Wadsworth Atheneum

The festival is significant not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for filmmakers and artists across New England. Besides highlighting important queer issues including youth homelessness and political attacks on the transgender community, Engstrom said that the festival showcases filmmaking as a unique art form. The festival “provides a forum for the community to interact directly with filmmakers,” he said. “Filmmakers are able to share their filmmaking choices and visions, and…tell stories that unite the community by letting them know that they’re not alone in their feelings and in their circumstances.”

“The arts are important because they allow people to see their stories being told boldly.”

Since the inception of the event, the vision for the festival has predominantly remained the same. However, technological transformations have “revolutionized” the screening committee’s process for evaluating the submitted films, according to Engstrom. Originally, committee members scouted films at other festivals or watched them on VHS tapes, and then on DVDs. Today, nearly all of the films are viewed online through secure web links. Because over 500 films are submitted to the festival each year, “it would be impossible to watch all the films as a group,” said Engstrom, “so having the films accessible online allows screening committee members to watch and rate the films from the comfort of their homes.”

While the Connecticut LGBTQ Film Festival is Out Film CT’s primary event of the year, the organization also holds a “Queer Thursdays” film series, which presents an LGBTQ film on the second Thursday of each month at Cinestudios on the campus of Trinity College. Engstrom emphasizes that events like these allow the community to share a common experience through art. “The arts are important because they allow people to see their stories being told boldly,” he said. “People [come back because] they enjoy the experience of watching these important films…in a safe space, surrounded by friends and allies.”

Out Film CT President and Festival Director Shane Engstrom (L) and Mayor Luke Bronin (R) with Annabel Jankel, winner of the Director’s Award for her film, “Tell It to the Bees”

In the future, Engstrom said that Out Film CT would love to expand the festival to offer screenings in various locations around the state, but as an all-volunteer organization it has not yet been able to screen beyond Hartford.

Above all, Engstrom says that Out Film CT embraces all viewpoints and welcomes anyone from the community. “We…hope that everyone who attends has a chance to meet someone new, share their opinions, listen to others’ perspectives, and form some new bonds that will keep the LGBTQ community strong.”

Supporting programs like the LGBTQ Film Festival is part of our mission to improve lives and transform communities through the arts. Your support for the Greater Hartford Arts council helps us make it possible.

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Stepping Into Varla Jean Merman’s One-Ring Circus

courtesy of varlaonline.com

-The following post was submitted by Jacques Lamarre for TheaterWorks-

Over twenty years ago, I attended Wigstock, a day-long dragstravaganza in New York City. Each drag queen had only one number to make an impression on the thousands of people in attendance. Some of the performers were forgettable. Some were a hot mess. Some, like RuPaul and Debbie Harry, were memorable for being themselves. And a handful of the queens came out and nailed their performance. Performing her legendary “School House Rocks” medley, Varla Jean Merman killed it – or in today’s parlance, she slaaaaaayed. I was bewitched.

Claiming to be the unwanted by-product of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman’s 32-day marriage, this candy-colored crackpot possessed a killer operatic voice, a twisted sense of humor, and a girlish giggle. Time Out NY called her “a delirious synthesis of Divine, Karen Finley and Montserrat Caballe…this big, beautiful creature is a kind of demented genius.” I wouldn’t disagree. Her combination of childlike innocent and minor felon was truly unique and hilarious. I searched out Varla Jean performances in New York and then in Provincetown where she has staked her claim as the resort town’s premier drag artist.

In 2004, my former boss Michael Wilson invited Varla to appear in The Mystery of Irma Vep at Hartford Stage. I was dumbstruck and fan-girling that my favorite drag queen was going to be in residence at my workplace for the better part of two months. It was during this time that I became acquainted with Varla’s alter-ego, Jeffery Roberson. Varla is Jeffery’s id unleashed. Where Jeffery is generally shy and quiet, Varla is an attention vampire. Varla gives Jeffery permission to let his freak flag fly.  We bonded over John Waters, Strangers with Candy, and Patrick Dennis (the queeny author of Auntie Mame). In some ways, we are kindred spirits.

In short order we became friends. Jeffery asked me to help him write his upcoming summer show. I underwent drag queen boot camp and, in a few months, there my name sat under my idol’s on the show poster for Girl with a Pearl Necklace. That was fifteen years and fifteen shows ago. During that time, Jeffery’s fame, artistry and humor has only grown. He has performed in Tokyo, Puerto Vallarta, Austria, London, and just about every major city in the United States. He even took to the stage at Australia’s famed Sydney Opera House.

Despite being in-demand around the globe, Jeffery still manages to find his way back to Hartford where Varla has a staunchly loyal fan-base. She has appeared at Hartford Stage, Cinestudio, The Mark Twain House & Museum, and, last year, TheaterWorks. This coming Sunday, she brings her one-woman circus act Varla Jean Merman’s Under a Big Top to the Wadsworth Atheneum in a co-presentation with TheaterWorks. It’s fitting, because this wacky warbler is a work of art. I’m thrilled that we will get to share her subversive and sinful circus act at the same time that the family-friendly Cirque du Soleil is in town. By the time that you realize that she has stolen your wallet and your heart, Varla’s freak show will be on to its next destination.

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Thien Nguyen

Thien Nguyen is a walking (and cycling) encyclopedia of all things local. As a frequent user of public transit, Thien knows the ins and outs of the capital city. He also happens to be a consumer and lover of art and culture. As an ideas person, he immediately came to the table with excitement and a vision of the endless possibilities for MMH. His love of Hartford is evident from this article – just wait until you meet him.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
For me, art has always played some part in my life. I’ve always been connected to it in one way or another. Maybe because I am surrounded by so many creative and artistic humans in their own way, or maybe because somehow, whenever I fail to express myself through words, art helps me, which is the one thing I love the most about art.

When I’m at work or at home, and a favorite song play is playing on the speakers, with nothing but art on my mind, I feel happy and serene. In an ever-busy schedule, art is an escape for me from the constant chaos and pressure. When it comes to art, you can be anyone you want to be and express anything you want to.

An engineer can be a great guitarist, a doctor can make perplexing sketches; art doesn’t always have to make sense to you. You are not expected to solve problems or explain theories in art like you have to in mathematics or science. Art itself is the solution and a remedy. Art is therapeutic.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
I enjoy travelling. So, I work often to make that sustainable. As a city dweller, I spend a lot of time on my commuter bike on the streets, and on the rails-to-trails. As I age, into age, I find myself spending more and more time in nature: hiking, kayaking, and camping.

What drew you to MMH?
The opportunity to bring an international project, home, really appealed to me. This [being art] was and is something that Hartford ought to continue to talk about. Art ought to be accessible to ALL people.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
Over the years, living in various Hartford neighborhoods, time has shown me that Hartford is a city where making impactful and tangible change is possible. And, there are humans here, who like me, want to be happy and proud of where they work and live. Community projects like MMH, inspire and encourage me to get involved. Sharing passions and enthusiasms with other like-minded humans help me to feel like I belong and accepted.

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
– Biking and walking the city freely after 5pm, when the silence and solitude settles in.

– Feeling humility and sincerity when being caught off-guard seeing something new on the streets I walk/drive/bike by everyday. Make sure that you take a few minutes out of your everyday life to notice and appreciate your beautiful surroundings, no matter how small/normal/mundane.

– Connecting with people, on a deep level

Fun fact:
I never knew the levels and depth of my appreciation and gratefulness for having a front porch. Hammocking, reading, breathing, being – my front porch is the perfect “carrier”

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
All of the things. But really, that MMH is something that we can all share together. For, we are all we have. And art, is one of the best things to share 😊

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Kirk Woodard

If you’ve made it out to Black-Eyed Sally’s for a Jazz Monday, chances are you’ve seen Kirk play. If you’ve attended events with a jazz trio, your chances are even higher. Essentially, Kirk is one of Hartford’s go-to drummers for all things jazz. Having just graduated from The Hartt School’s inaugural Master of Music in Jazz Studies program, Kirk is clearly no stranger to the local or regional jazz scene. Last year, you may have seen Kirk teaching bucket drumming at the Bushnell Sculpture Garden. This year, in addition to serving on our Planning Committee, Kirk will be back with the buckets at the Riverfront, Willie Ware, playing the kit for the Jazz Jam Session at Scott’s Jamaican Bakery, and making a special appearance at Basses Loaded!

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
I play the drum set. I am active on the Hartford music scene.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Reading, listening to vinyls, enjoying nature, cooking, and traveling.

What drew you to MMH?
I support the idea of making participation in the arts accessible to the community. I also support having nice venues in Hartford to allow artists to showcase their work.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I have lived in Windsor, CT the majority of my life. I am drawn to Hartford because this is where I have had very memorable moments and performances.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Jazz, R&B, Hip Hop

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
1. Music community
2. Food
3. History and stories of Hartford.

Fun fact:
I teach drum lessons at The Music Shop in Southington, CT.

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to playing with 10 bass players outside of the Wadsworth. It’s going to be a very unique and special concert!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
I hope to see more venues that have live music regularly. I also hope to see more jazz jam sessions in the area.

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Neighborhood Studios Spotlight: Lili St. Amand

Local dancer and Hip-Hop teacher Lili St. Amand was looking for ways to do what she loved as a teenager and jumped at the chance to take part in Neighborhood Studios’ Breakdancing Shakespeare program. She will be performing at the Summer Soirée on Wednesday, June 26 along with other Breakdancing Shakespeare alumni – don’t miss the chance to see Lili and support Neighborhood Studios, the Arts Council’s youth arts education program!

Tell us about yourself in a few sentences.
I’m a very artistic person. School was never my thing but when I got to art class I strived from a very young age. I also like to express myself through my hair and clothing. I feel it helps me speak louder about who I am.

When were you a part of Neighborhood Studios and which program(s) did you participate in?
I did Breakdancing Shakespeare [at Hartford Stage] for two years.

What drew you to Neighborhood Studios?
What drew me to this program is that I could do what I loved and get paid for it. Getting paid for what you actually like to do can be pretty hard especially at such a young age (and I was 16 at that point).

Describe your experience with the program – what did you do while you were there and what did you learn/take away?
This program opened a lot of doors for me as a dancer. There were a lot of dancers in the program that were already on the underground dance scene. A lot of them took me under their wing and showed me the places to session, what dance battles to go to, and the best workshops. This then allowed me to make more connections and blossom within the dance community we have here.

The program itself taught me how to be an even better performer. It taught me how to push my dancing to the next level and use it in different ways I had not thought of yet. This program also taught me the basic skills of how to market yourself well and how to create a resume. These skills then helped me in my actual dance career outside of the program which I am very thankful for.

What are you doing now and how did Neighborhood Studios help you get there?
I am a local Hip-Hop teacher now in the Hartford County area. I travel to do out-of-state dance battles which has led me to some success. In 2017 I won World Of Dance New Jersey Head Bangers Brawl. The year after I was asked to come back to judge and showcase. And now I’m so excited to be the assistant choreographer for Breakdancing Shakespeare! I can’t wait to provide the same fun learning experience to these kids that I had when I was in it.

 What is a fun fact about you?
A fun fact about me is I love rescuing animals! I have two cats off the street and they’re the best cats ever!!! I’m even throwing a birthday party for my cat that I will have for a year on June 23rd (the day I picked him up off my street).

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Dylan Healy

Dylan Healy lives and breathes the arts. He is all at once a musician, booking manager, promoter, record label owner, photographer, and much more. Dylan is certainly a jack of all trades, which is what made him such a great collaborator on our MMH Planning Committee…even if he plays annoying instruments.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
Voice, guitar, other string instruments, and annoying things like glockenspiel and melodica.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Outside of all things music, I’m really into mid-mod furniture. I’m also trying to get better at cooking– I just learned how to properly roast a squash and it changed my life.

What drew you to MMH?
What drew me is how passionate Amanda and the team are about bringing the arts to everyone

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay
Community. Community. Community. Mo’s Midtown.
What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
Right now, all things Double Double Whammy.

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:

1. Collaboration over competition.

2. Startups over franchises.

3. Aislin Magazine.
Fun fact:
I have dual citizenship in the US and Brazil.
What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
Greater steps toward accessible resources and sustainability. Support companies like BlueEarth!

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Pauline Scott

“We bake with love” is the motto for Scotts’ Jamaican Bakery. What more could you ask for in a longtime local business? For over 40 years, the Scott family bakery has been a staple in capital region cuisine with what started with one flagship bakery that expanded into three total branches. It only made sense to ask them to be a Neighborhood Music Hub for Make Music Hartford. Starting at 11am, you’ll be able to enjoy a meal or a snack while listening to hip-hop, reggae, jazz, and more!

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
I belong! I love to sing and dance.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?I love to play Scrabble and Words with Friends. I love to make things beautiful, especially arranging flowers.

What drew you to MMH?
The name music! What else? Whether it is gospel, pop, rock & roll – it doesn’t matter the kind of music. I enjoy them all!

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I was sent. God provided someone to buy the business we had started (in Canada after immigrating from Jamaica) and that’s why I knew this was the place I needed to come. I stay for the same reasons which is the need to give the support to the people who are not as educated as they should be and provide income so they can live without having to go on welfare.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford:
Oh my God! There are so many things. I love the opportunities it has given my family and those opportunities that I’ve been able to provide for others and encourage others to educate themselves.

Fun fact:
I wouldn’t know! My mother told me that self-praise is no recommendation. The “Great I am” is not me.

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to hearing the song “She’s Royal” (by Tarrus Riley) played between music sets. I love that song because I belong to the Royal Family of God’s Kingdom. He is the King of Kings!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
That whatever kind of prejudices exists amongst The Haves against The Have Nots, the educated amongst us will recognize their need to stop assuming things about others that are not as blessed as them. We are blessed to be a blessing for others. I pray that we each help just one person at a time, just find one person…each one, reach one!

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Faces of #MakeMusicHartford: Dwight Hatch

Take one look at Dwight Hatch’s photography, and you’ll see he has a keen eye for his environment. He contributed many of the pictures you’ve seen us using for MMH promotion this year, and he’ll be back, traversing our city blocks and parks, documenting the various happenings just one week from today! In this interview, he reveals how he first connected with the arts…clearly, it stuck.

photography: Mike Marques

What is your instrument(s)? If not a singer/musician, what is your connection to the arts?
My connection to the arts stared as an early teen, taking painting lessons with my mother from a local painter.  One night each week we would go and learn different mediums like oil, pastels and watercolor.  I sold my first painting at 13 years old.  Then I moved into photography, inspired by my brother, and I have been creating images ever since.

What do you do other than music/the arts – professionally? Hobbies?
Professionally, I was a computer programmer and lead technical designer at one of the major insurance companies in the Hartford area.  My other hobbies include golf, hiking, and travel.

What drew you to MMH?
As a photographer, I attended a class sponsored by the GHAC.  I knew right away that I wanted to collaborate as often as I could.  I also go into Hartford to photograph the city’s architecture, monuments and events along the Connecticut river.

What drew you to Hartford and what is making you stay?
I live very close to Hartford and attend various concerts, plays and sporting events throughout the area.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music?
I like most music. 

Top 3 favorite things about Hartford: The arts (GHAC, Hartford Stage, Xfinity Theatre, Riverfront activity’s like Guitars under the Stars, etc)…

What part of MMH are you most looking forward to?
Contributing to year two and Shooting Basses Loaded!

Hopes/dreams/wishes for Hartford:
To become a thriving city again!  Full of the arts for all to enjoy!!

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