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Charter Grants Enable Organizations to Pursue Vital Work

For many Hartford arts organizations, grants and contributions come with a caveat: the money must be used towards an event or specific program. This fiscal model allows nonprofits to produce topic-based programming and donors to see exactly where their dollars are being used. It does come with a downfall, however: organizations’ fundamental expenses largely go overlooked. This is where the Greater Hartford Arts Council’s Charter Grant program can be vital.

The Charter Grant program provides unrestricted operating support to arts-based organizations in Greater Hartford, which allows the nonprofits to focus on their programming and events without worrying about operating expenses like rent and utilities. According to the directors of these organizations, charter grants are some of the most important donations that they receive. Executive Director of the Charter Oak Cultural Center Rabbi Donna Berman emphasized this. “Our history with the Arts Council goes back over 20 years, and it is one of the only sources for operating money,” she said. “It’s the bloodstream of our organization. We wouldn’t be able to turn our lights on everyday.”

Grants and Communications Manager at Judy Dworin Performance Project, Jennifer Eifrig, agreed. “Unrestricted Charter Grant funding allows a degree of flexibility in choosing ‘challenging’ topics such as immigration and incarceration and exploring their impact through performance and residency programs, knowing that our operational expenses are covered at least in part,” she said. 

With the support of the Charter Grant program, both organizations have been able to provide arts programming and events for Greater Hartford residents for decades. The Arts Council has worked with Charter Oak for more than 20 years and with JDPP for 30 years, dating back to its founding. 

In recent years, each organization has provided important services and programming to the Greater Hartford community. At Charter Oak, the largest graduating class of Beat of the Street Center for Creative Learning, a school for those experiencing homelessness, received their diplomas this spring. Graduates of the school are eligible for a full scholarship to Goodwin Community College, and all nine members of the graduating class will be attending in the fall. In addition, over 1,000 students are currently enrolled in the Youth Arts Institute, a program that offers visual and performing arts classes to kids for free. 

photo: Joseph Abad

At JDPP, everyone is busy with projects that mark and celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, including a number of ventures aimed to assist community members who have incarcerated friends and family. One such program was Bridging Boundaries™, a series of in-school programs for children with incarcerated parents that culminated in the spring. In addition, the final touches are being added to a resource guide entitled “Helping Hands” for families with loved ones in prison. The guide includes art offerings as well as other services. 

An important goal of each of the two organizations is to emphasize social justice through art, according to the staff members. “We believe that the arts are not a luxury but a human right,” said Dr. Berman. “Our biggest impact is letting people witness and experience the arts.” This mantra is reiterated throughout the organization, and drives their practices. “Even in our performances we never turn anyone away for lack of ability to pay,” she said.

 Ms. Eifrig said that JDPP holds similar beliefs as central to the organization. “Quite simply, the arts are what make us human,” she said. “In all their forms – dancing, drawing, painting, making music – the arts are about communicating who we are, what our needs and hopes and fears are, and what we aspire to be. One of [our] goals is to raise visibility for the organization as a model for advocating for social justice through the arts.”

“If we are ever going to come together as one human family…it’s going to be through art.”

Through the Charter Grant program, the organizations are able to invest in the programs that further these goals, and that have proven most impactful to the community.

Charter Oak and JDPP each have exciting programming coming up to celebrate summer and to mark the beginning of the school year, and each is hoping for another landmark year. Most of all, though, they want to ensure that the Greater Hartford community has continued and constant exposure to the arts for years to come. “If we are ever going to come together as one human family,” said Ms. Eifrig, “it’s going to be through art.”

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Featured Artist Spotlight: Carol Ganick

“We are here to find that dimension within ourselves that is deeper than thought.” – Eckhart Tolle


Connecticut artist Carol Ganick views artmaking as meditation in action, so it’s no wonder she includes the above quote in her artist statement. Carol paints in various media including watercolor, acrylic, mixed media, and oil. Her work is generally characterized by strong use of gestural brush strokes.

Carol’s natural curiosity and love of discovery enables her to focus on the creative process rather than the final product. She gets restless without change. A common trend amongst artists is they will have not one or two, but many different projects going on at once. Carol believes that discovery is more important than capturing an image, which explains her love of abstraction and experimental processes. “If someone is following some sort of creative direction, whether it be painting, writing…they have to find their own voice,” she comments. “I think in painting, it’s your own approach – your own being in terms of what you respond to, that makes you feel motivated.”

Carol uses this approach not only for her own work, but with her students as well. She always encourages her students at West Hartford Art League to be brave, and to “be careless (or carefree) when putting paint to paper.” She says this mindset allows for more discovery. For Carol, teaching provides the incentive to find different ways to approach a material, subject, or medium. “You learn more from your mistakes than from doing things correctly every time.”

This former human resources professional has found a new love in teaching and creating art, having taught at the Art League after a recommendation from the late artist and educator Paul Zimmerman. In her second career, Carol circles back to the importance of art education. “If you have a good teacher who can inspire, it is priceless.”

Connecticut Marshes

 

Carol Ganick is one of the Arts Council’s 2019 Featured Artists. Each year, the Arts Council picks a work from two local visual artists to create prints that given to supporters of our United Arts Campaign. Click here to learn more, or find how you can receive a copy of Ganick’s Connecticut Marshes below.

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Ignition Grants Provide Opportunity to “Heal and Overcome”

Sonia Plumb Dance Company

Many of Hartford’s key arts organizations have been present in the community for years, maintaining a presence in the region that upholds a commitment to providing exposure to the arts for all residents. Many other organizations, however, are just starting out or reinventing themselves with new innovations and imaginative goals. Fundamental for these institutions is the funding that can make all this possible, which is the concept of the Greater Hartford Arts Council’s Ignition Grant program.

The program, one of the Arts Council’s six categories of funding, is designed to support revolutionary new ideas, cutting edge programs and new strategic plans for arts organizations within Hartford County. This open-ended goal allows organizations to be creative and dream big. As a result, Ignition Grants have a variety of uses and impacts that are personalized for each organization.

ActUp Theater

Sonia Plumb, Founder and Executive Director of Sonia Plumb Dance Company, has received multiple Ignition Grants and emphasizes the outcomes they have yielded. “Two and a half years ago we got a sizeable Ignition Grant to create a website,” she said. “It’s beautiful, it’s well-done, and it’s a real source that people can access.” More recently, the company received an Ignition Grant to expand their apprenticeship program and help secure funding to ensure its success. “I’ve had people as far away as Cuba and China want to come be a part of this program, but we weren’t ready to take that on,” Ms. Plumb said. “Now that we know what the apprenticeship program needs to look like in terms of guidance, teachers, and classes, we have much more of a plan in place to be able to take these students on. We’ve been able to develop our vision and clear goals”

Development and Marketing Director at ActUp Theater Priestley Johnson said that their Ignition Grant has helped the organization grow through planning and support. “We believe meaningful organizational growth begins with the proper planning,” she said. “Our Ignition Grant provides support on the development of a 3-5 year strategic plan, and we’re looking forward to working with an external consultant to help bring together the Board of Directors, ActUp company members, and ActUp team members to discuss the social justice advocacy ActUp will be focusing on, development of the North End Community Arts Center, and capacity development.”

For both organizations, exciting programming designed to further their goals is on tap for the coming months. For Sonia Plumb Dance Company, one such event is a series of small free mini performances and dance classes in Hartford parks later this month. “There will be one at Elizabeth Park, one at Goodwin, maybe one at Bushnell Park,” said Ms. Plumb. “Everyone can bring their kids and take a 45 minute dance class!”

            ActUp Theater is celebrating the success of some of their recent productions while looking forward to the upcoming season. “This past spring we performed to sold out shows at the Lyceum Center, where we performed a musical adaptation to Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun with talkback sessions on relevant social justice topics with noted guest speakers,” said Ms. Johnson. “We also had four sold out shows at Classical Magnet School’s black box theater where a dynamic all-minority cast of 65 hit the stage for Hairspray!” In addition, two new shows will be introduced for winter and spring. 

Besides past and future programming, however, both organizations are passionate about expanding the arts within Hartford and its neighboring towns. “Hartford is our home,” said Ms. Johnson. “We are building on a mission to cultivate a creative edge where imagination thrives in the lives of our community members. It has the ability to surpass all probabilities, create goals, and fulfill dreams.”

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Featured Artist Spotlight: Karen Israel

When you look at a painting, what do you see? Are you mesmerized by the colors? Does it evoke a feeling? Do you pay close attention to the technique or the focal point? Is it telling a story?

Karen Israel, one of the Arts Council’s two 2019 Featured Artists*, has all of this on her mind (and more) when she begins a new painting. Even though Israel tends to be inspired by things occurring in nature (landscapes, fish, and flamingoes to name a few), one walk-through of her studio or a glance at her portfolio reveals that her repertoire includes a broad range of subject matter.

Mourner’s Circle, pastel, 12 x 16

Blues Traveler Redux (seen below) was created from Israel’s imagination but influenced by her visits to Barn Island on the Connecticut Sound over the summer. “My concept in creating this was to paint the feeling of fresh air and distance.” In deeper conversation with Israel, you would learn that basic artistic principles play an important role in her artistic process. “I often begin each painting with a simple sketch. Throughout the painting process I consider a harmonious color palette. I pay special attention to the edges of the clouds and how they sit against the sky and always strive for creating distance and atmosphere in my landscape. This painting is one of a series of ‘big sky’ paintings where the inspiration derives mainly from my memory of a place.”

When creating, she is always considering these essential questions:“What are the shapes, what are the tones, are the edges soft? Is the object in motion? Where is the light? I look at negative spaces(spaces between objects) and ask myself:are they interesting and varied?” Whenever possible, Israel strives to tell a story through her paintings. “I will ask myself which elements of the painting are most important to the story?”

Blues Traveler Redux

Israel was most recently awarded the Gold Medal of Honor from the Audubon Artists Association and Best in Show from the Pastel Society of the West Coast. She is an elected member of the Lyme Art Association, New Haven Paint and Clay Club, Salmagundi Club NYC and the American Artists Professional League.  Her work has been featured in Practique Des Artes and the Pastel Journal.

She teaches regularly at the West Hartford Art League and the Farmington Valley Arts Center and gives workshops and instructional demos throughout the Northeast. Her work has been recognized in both national and an international competitions, but Israel is careful to note that painting is not her first career, and that she is constantly learning. “I tell my students…when you’re learning from me, you’re learning from the 10 people before me that I have studied under”

* Each year, the Arts Council picks a work from two local visual artists to create prints that given to supporters of our United Arts Campaign. Click here to learn more, or find how you can receive a copy of Israel’s Blues Traveler Redux below.

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“Crunch Time” for Capital Classics as They Prepare for Annual Summer Shakespeare Festival

It’s “crunch time” for West Hartford’s Capital Classics, the professional non-equity theater company that will present its annual Greater Hartford Shakespeare Festival at the University of Saint Joseph this month. The organization’s production, marketing, and sponsorship teams are busy preparing William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. While the scene at Capital Classics may seem hectic, however, after nearly 30 years of summer Shakespeare the organization certainly knows how to put on a good show.

In 1991, Geoff and Laura Sheehan moved to Connecticut in the hopes of starting a family and contributing to the art community, but they soon noticed a hole in the local theater scene – outdoor summer theater. Originally centered in Bushnell Park, Capital Classics focuses on producing “affordable, accessible, and engaging” classical entertainment, serving the Greater Hartford Community with cultural and educational programming, and providing job opportunities and training to the state’s professional theater artists, according to Mr. Sheehan, who is also the director of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Since its founding, the organization has presented the Shakespeare Festival annually, focusing on one of the illustrious playwright’s works each year. Recently, they have produced Pericles (2018), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2017), Othello (2016), and Romeo and Juliet (2015). 

This year, The Merry Wives of Windsor will play July 11-28 and will feature various Greater Hartford arts organizations as part of their pre-show entertainment. Some of these include local student groups in the Youth in Community Art series (Thursday), singing by the Elizabethan Consort (Friday), performances by Ballet Hartford (Saturday), and lectures by local professors and authors (Sunday).

One of Capital Classics’ most important goals is diversity. According to the organization’s website, multicultural casting is of primary importance, as it “brings greater truth and dimension to a production and accurately reflects the reality of the community.” Mr. Sheehan reiterates the importance of diversity, saying that a rewarding result of the festival has been seeing the audience expand to include people of all races, ages, and genders. “We believe the arts are important as a way to connect our inner, individual humanity to the larger collection of humanity and our common experiences living together on this planet,” he said. “Art, especially theater, brings us together in a group for the very purpose of a shared lived experience.”

As the calendar gets closer to the start of the event, everyone at Capital Classics is focused on preparing the best possible show for the audience, which is expected to surpass 2000 attendees. While volunteers have been working out logistics to ensure a smooth event, the artistic team is busy building sets, sewing costumes, composing original music, and choreographing imaginative dances. The excitement for the festival is strong, according to Mr. Sheehan. “We love what we do,” he said. “It’s a joy to see audiences of all ages enjoying Shakespeare every summer.”

Besides the festival, Capital Classics works on a few additional projects throughout the year. In the fall, they will present their annual Halloween radio-theater performances of a work of classic literature at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, and over the course of the year they host monthly Shakespeare book club talks at the Noah Webster Public Library in West Hartford. 

While some may consider the study or presentation of Shakespeare to be tired or overdone, Mr. Sheehan disagrees. “We find that performing Shakespeare allows us to connect to humanity throughout time, to see our common experiences well before we lived,” he said, “giving us perspective on our own time, and quite likely that of the future as well.”

Supporting organizations like Capital Classics 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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“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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