AHA! A House for Arts


AHA! | 703

Learn how artist Susan Meyer's sculptures are influenced by utopian communities. Caffe Lena's Executive Director, Sarah Craig, shares the impact that Caffe Lena has on the world of live music performance. Musician Angelina Valente performs "Waiting in Line" at WMHT Studios.

AIRED: July 19, 2021 | 0:26:46

(gentle intro music)

(upbeat music)

- [Lara] Discover a utopian instinct

in the sculptures of Susan Meyer.

Caffè Lena executive director, Sarah Craig,

reveals the power of folk music.

And catch a performance from Angelina Valente.

It's all ahead on this episode of "AHA! A House for Arts".

- [Announcer] Funding for AHA has been provided

by your contribution, and by contributions to

the WMHT venture fund. Contributors include

The Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka, Robert and Doris Fischer Malisardi,

The Alexander & Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank we understand that

the vitality of our communities is crucial

to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

(upbeat music)

- Hi, I'm Lara Ayad, and this is "AHA! A House for Arts",

a place for all things creative.

Let's send it right over to Matt Rogowicz

for today's field segment.

(gentle music)

- I'm here at the Center for Art and Design

at the College of Saint Rose,

to speak with artist Susan Meyer,

and learn more about her incredible sculptures.

Follow me.

(soft upbeat music)

- [Susan] I work with wood,

and I do a lot of laser cutting of slats that go,

that kind of cover the wood structure.

I also make smaller sculptures,

and I do some walls, some flat wall work as well.

(gentle music)

A lot of the work is inspired by utopian communities,

ones that sprang up in the mid-1800s

as a response to the Industrial Revolution,

mainly in the Northeast portion of the United States.

(gentle piano music)

"Nude-topia" was probably the earliest piece.

The model utopian communities look a little bit

like architectural models,

and they're occupied by HO scale figures

that are all nude. (laughs)

And the figures would either be together

in scenarios where there seem to be a bit of tension,

or they would be alone, and kind of in a state of ennui.

So they had kind of a curious relationship

to the utopian community.

(energetic music)

So I'm interested in that,

that idea of great possibility and great potential,

and then the kind of human weakness

sort of mashing up against each other.

So I grew up in Utica, New York and would go

to Munson-Williams Art Institute quite a lot.

And there was that Thomas Cole series "Voyage of Life",

and I was interested in the way

it goes through these stages,

sort of a sense of a rise and fall.

And in making the pieces "Nude-topia", "Together",

there's one called "The Enterprise",

there's a little bit of this sense

of a rise and a fall of these utopian communities,

which indeed, over, and over, and over again,

these communities would spring up,

and then dismantle relatively quickly.

I wanted to start making singular sculptures,

rather than installations.

I just thought that would be kind of challenging in a way.

(uplifting music)

With pieces like "Nude-topia" and "Together",

the exterior shapes of the individual sculptures

seem to talk about the landscape and topography.

And I wanted to take that and have it be

the interior of the sculpture, and have a more

geometric kind of boundary around the pieces.

So those pieces, for instance "Shaft",

the topography within them is all taken

from areas where utopian communities

sprang up in the Northeast.

So, it's all from maps that I would

turn into Adobe Illustrator files,

and then laser cut each individual section.

(uplifting music)

(string bass music)

I was gonna be in a show dealing with scholar's rocks.

And scholar's rocks are sort of these,

from centuries in Asia, scholars, and poets, and painters,

philosophers would have these small, natural rocks

on their desks, sometimes on kind of elaborate stands.

And these rocks would be sources of inspiration.

I started to make "Plinth" because I thought

of these elaborate stands that this,

that the rocks would sometimes sit within or on.

So I made "Plinth", and making the structure

almost, like, more elaborate than the little kind of

offhand stand-ins for scholar's rocks

that sit within and on it.

And "Plinth" is called "Plinth" as, you know,

plinth being a stand for a sculpture.

So the stand for the sculpture kind of

became the sculpture in "Plinth".

(upbeat music)

I have for many years, been making these tiny little,

sort of scruffy sketches in my tiny little sketchbook.

Kind of an idea for a sculpture and they have

a real two dimensional, doodle-like quality.

So, I thought I'll just start with the sketch,

and kind of look at the sketch and work in wood.

And kind of make it directly from the sketch,

rather than making a three-dimensional model

from the sketch and kind of sizing it up.

You know, things that I would tell my students to do.

(laughs) For instance,

I thought I'm just gonna go straight from the sketch,

and it became kind of an interesting way of working.

So "Plinth" is directly from, there's a little sketch

that looks quite a bit, actually that's very offhand,

very doodle-like, but looks quite a bit

like the final piece.

Initially, I make a wood structure from

these little drawings in my sketchbook,

and tape onto each individual plane,

a black strip of construction paper,

mark it all up with the information I need,

then I take it all off and scan each piece of the pack,

and put them in Illustrator, and trace them.

Then, I cut each plane from different types

of different colors of material, different painted wood,

and collaged wood, and put that on

each of the individual planes of the piece.

So these pieces will have, you know, 200 planes on them.

Scholar's rocks, part of the reason

they're interesting to me is that

they're these objects of inspiration,

or transport to somewhere for the scholar,

or the poet, or the writer.

And I guess as artists, we're hoping that what we make

will likewise inspire or transport.

(gentle upbeat music)

- Sarah Craig is the executive director

of Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs.

For over 26 years, Sarah has made it her mission

to plant songs and grow community through folk music.

But what exactly is folk music?

And what impact does Caffè Lena have on

the world of live music performance?

Let's chat with Sarah to find out.

Sarah, welcome to "A House for Arts",

it's such a pleasure to have you.

- Thank you for having me, Lara. It's wonderful to be here.

- And it's so great to have a fan like you,

because you are celebrating over 26 years now,

as the executive director of the famous

Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs. Congratulations!

- Thank you very much.

Yeah, I celebrated my 25th anniversary

just about a week before COVID hit,

and we had a great party at the Caffè

and I'm so glad I squeezed that in.

(Lara laughs) - Yeah,

it's always good to squeeze in a party

before a pandemic, right? - That's right. (laughs)

- It would have been a bigger party

if I'd known what was coming.

- Right, right. Of course.

Yeah, if we had all known.

So I'm actually curious to know first, Sarah,

what is so remarkable about Caffè Lena?

I know that it's a historic place, and I know you've had

some famous guest musicians there as well, right?

- Yeah, we have.

Well, Caffè Lena started in 1968,

really during the peak of the folk revival.

And the folk revival was a big music movement,

really popular among college students,

that was all about digging into

the authentic roots of American music.

And it was a time when the voice

of the people was very important.

The civil rights movement was starting to percolate.

There was interest in union activity.

You know, it was not too long after McCarthyism

had really ripped through the nation. And so that-

- So it was a politically important time, too,

for a folk music revival. - It was a politically

important time, and folk music really became

the music of that moment,

and it was comprised of two parts really.

At first it was really all about

going back to a lot of records that had been made

in the '20s and '30s, and discovering that

a lot of those old Mississippi blues musicians,

and Appalachian mountain folk singers were still alive.

And so people went out and found them,

and brought them to clubs in the Northeast,

and in Chicago, and in San Francisco, and put them on stage.

And so-

- And Caffè Lena was one of these places.

- And Caffè Lena became one of those places.

And so people like Mississippi John Hurt,

and Skip James, and Reverend Gary Davis

were old blues musicians who came

and played some of their final shows on stage at Caffè Lena.

But at the same time, there was a whole new generation

that was absorbing that canon of folk music.

But pretty soon along came a guy named Bob Dylan,

and not just Bob Dylan, but also Tom Paxton, Emmylou Harris,

that generation of people who started

writing their own songs that were rooted in folk tradition,

but that spoke to the moment.

- Right, I mean, someone like Bob Dylan

is known as a singer-songwriter

and there's a reason for that,

and it's deeply connected to a place like Caffè Lena.

- So, Bob Dylan started his career,

started making a name for himself in Greenwich village,

and his first out of town gig was a weekend at Caffè Lena.

And when he played that first weekend, back in 1961,

he was probably playing mostly traditional folk songs,

rather than his own songs.

But by the time he came in 1962,

he probably had a lot more of his own songs mixed in.

And that whole movement really took off

in places like Caffè Lena.

And one thing that's kind of special about Caffè Lena

is that it's the only surviving venue

from that era- - [Lara] Right.

- that represents that change in American music.

- That's incredible. And I mean,

I want to circle back to the kind of legacy

that Caffè Lena has in this history of folk music revival,

as well as what's going on today with folk music.

But I'm curious to know first,

what impact has COVID had on Caffè Lena,

and has that impact been similar in any way

to that on other types of live music venues,

either in the region or nationally?

- Sure, it's hard to imagine a single aspect

of the music world that hasn't been dramatically

affected by COVID, and not all for the worse,

some for the better.

It's interesting. We're really in the thick of it right now,

and it's hard to know how it's all gonna sort out.

So Caffè Lena is the longest running folk club

in the country, and by gum, we're gonna keep running.

So, even when COVID was causing full shutdown

of the music industry,

we got permission to keep our stage open

with just the sound tech in the room,

about 30 feet back from the stage, and a band onstage.

And we broadcast those shows online. We stream them live,

and we were able to generate paychecks

for about 600 regional musicians through the pandemic.

- So that's a positive then,

that's one of the positives- - That was a positive.

- that's come out of this. - A lot people who would not

normally have had access to our stage,

got to play shows on the stage,

get one of the only music paychecks of the year.

And our donors generated more than $100,000

in income for those musicians. - [Lara] Incredible.

- So I'm really proud of that.

And there was a scrappy attitude across the music world

that kept a lot of musicians afloat and venues afloat.

With that said, I have decided that

I need to take my Rolodex and just throw it out the window,

because nobody works for the same agency anymore.

It's all been mixed up. There are musicians

that decided to retire. There are clubs that are gone.

There's very few links between venues right now.

So when a musician goes out on tour,

they need to have a certain density of gigs

to make it economically viable.

And there's a show available here,

there's a show available there,

and there's like nothing in between.

So it's very hard to tour right now.

- Right, right. It sounds like this

is a pretty difficult situation for musicians.

And what I understand too, Sarah,

is that when a lot of larger music venues

are also not signing on these kind of newer folk musicians,

because they're not these tried and true names,

am I correct about that? - Well, sure, yeah.

I mean, if you're going to try

and make up for a year of loss and you have,

you know, two shows to present that week,

you're probably gonna go with the tried and true.

And this is of real concern to me

because it affects the pipeline of emerging artists

coming into the music industry right now.

It's not gonna be easy for them for a while,

until things really stabilize again.

And Caffè Lena has always invested very heavily

in new artists. I mean, starting with Bob Dylan

and, you know, ever since then,

our greatest moments have always been when

we took a chance on something new. So I'm a strong-

- Look at where that took them.

Look at where it took these musicians.

- Yes! Exactly.

I mean, they don't all end up being household names

that get Nobel Prizes, but... (laughs)

- But they're given the chance, right?

- But they're given the chance,

and it may be a perfectly magical evening.

To tell you the truth, Bob Dylan was not particularly

well received by the audience at Caffè Lena.

- Fascinating! So how did you get so interested

in this remarkable venue in the '90s?

Are you a musician yourself?

Was it the people that drew you there?

- You know, it was just a kind of

convergence of opportunities.

I happened to be a real fan of folk music,

and I love the nonprofit world.

I was determined to stay in the nonprofit world,

and I loved that folk music had these early ties

to social justice movements, and...

- Which has seen a real resurgence recently, right?

People talk a lot about social justice.

- Yeah, and, I want to be clear,

folk music does not have a perfect track record

along those lines. It's the music of the people,

and a lot of it comes from the Mountain South.

And I don't want to, you know,

make judgements about big groups of people,

but you can imagine that it's not always been progressive.

- Yeah. - And so nonetheless,

there was real possibility at Caffè Lena.

I loved how grassroots it was.

I loved how scrappy and small it was.

And it was just a wonderful canvas to paint ideas on,

and see what stuck and see what didn't,

and it's just been a great life.

It's really been pretty much my whole adult life.

I'm 53 and I've been there for 26 years.

- Well, that's time well spent, right Sarah?

I'm wondering, you know, thinking about folk music today,

and not just, you know, being played at Caffè Lena,

which is fantastic, but I'm wondering about

the legacy of folk music now.

Because I think when people think of folk music,

at least when some people do, you know,

that it's sometimes referred to

as Americana or American folk, like roots music.

You know, how does it live on today among us?

What are some myths, too, about folk music

that you think maybe Caffè Lena helps to dispel?

And how is folk music being played and live on,

how is it being preserved now?

- Yeah, it's interesting about what even is folk music.

I mean, that's kind of, it's hard to even

answer your question without saying, what is folk music?

I mean, if you ask iTunes what folk music is,

it's gonna be any band that has an acoustic guitar

in the lineup, is gonna count as folk music,

according to iTunes.

If you ask some of our more traditional artists

on the roster at Caffè Lena, they're gonna say,

if you know, who wrote the song, then it's not a folk song.

- Interesting. - Okay?

So it's like, because it's,

it's not just part of the people's tradition

that's been handed mouth, to mouth, to mouth.

- Right. - That's folk music.

So, I don't take a position in that.

Basically I will put anything on stage

that can trace its lineage to roots music in some way.

I want the instrumentation to be primarily acoustic,

and I want it to be performed in a folk style.

By which, I mean, there's a real engagement

between the stage and the audience.

It's breaking down that barrier between stage and audience.

It's not about a star behind the lights.

Who's just entertaining. - [Lara] Right.

- It's about creating something as a community

- Right. So, there's something

about the space of Caffè Lena,

and I've seen pictures of it too,

and many people know it. It's very intimate, right?

- It is very intimate.

- You're sitting there, literally, I mean,

it's like I'm as close to you as I would be

to the musician, if I was an audience member.

- Yeah, you might. If you're in the front row

on a sold-out night at Caffè Lena,

you are going to be literally about

five or six feet away from the performer.

- [Lara] Incredible.

- And you will be sharing your table

with somebody else who you haven't met before.

We mix parties at the tables. So it really does create

a shared community experience of the music.

And so, I will put anything on that stage,

any kind of instrumentation, anything that I think

is gonna really land in that room?

The one thing I won't flex on is that there has to be

that relationship with the audience.

- Right. It sounds like this kind of sense

of intimacy and closeness,

the sense of community is something

people especially want right now.

So, how can viewers learn more about the upcoming programs

and shows that are coming up at Caffè Lena?

- Sure. Well, you know,

we're forging ahead right now,

and we have a complete schedule right up through

the end of the year. Right now, you can find out about

all of our shows happening through the end of September,

and are on our website and within, you know, by mid-August,

we'll have the rest of the year posted up there.

- That's amazing. That sounds fantastic.

Thank you so much

for sharing that, Sarah. - Yeah.

- It was so great to have you on "A House for Arts".

Please welcome Angelina Valente.

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Get up out of bed ♪

♪ Let those two legs carry you ♪

♪ Carry you away ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Step out that door ♪

♪ Breathe in that fresh air ♪

♪ Don't it make you want ♪

♪ Make you want more ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Lay back and look up ♪

♪ At the trees hanging down ♪

♪ It's springtime, ♪

♪ The buds are a-bloomin' ♪

♪ All over town ♪

♪ Did you realize ♪

♪ That a year's gone by? ♪

♪ Quit waitin' in line ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Feel the rain on your nose ♪

♪ It's gonna fall and seep right ♪

♪ Right into your clothes ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Why do you feel so sad ♪

♪ Is it cause you missed on what you ♪

♪ Thought you coulda had ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Lay back and look up ♪

♪ At the trees hanging down ♪

♪ It's springtime, ♪

♪ The buds are a-bloomin' ♪

♪ All over town ♪

♪ Did you realize ♪

♪ That a year's gone by? ♪

♪ Quit waitin' in line ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

♪ Growin' up wasn't supposed to feel like this ♪

♪ Dad's been drinkin' too much since mom got sick ♪

♪ What more can you do? ♪

♪ What's the best way to make it through? ♪

♪ When the rain won't stop pourin' ♪

♪ And the sun don't seem to shine anymore ♪

♪ Lay back and look up ♪

♪ At the green all around ♪

♪ It's summer, the flowers are bloomin' ♪

♪ All over town ♪

♪ Did you realize ♪

♪ A whole year's gone by? ♪

♪ I'm done waitin' in line ♪

(mid-tempo keyboard music)

(upbeat music)

- Thanks for joining us.

For more arts, visit wmht.org/aha.

And be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Lara Ayad, thanks for watching.

- Oh wait. Sorry, we gotta start this again. I'm sorry.

- [Camera operator] We messed it all up.

- We'll start here, and we'll go round to that end.

- [Camera operator] Okay, that's fine.

Okay, I'm not (indistinct), I'm quite wide right now.

But it's just, it's because there's so many cool angles.

- Yeah. (Camera Operator laughs)

- [Camera Operator] And I'm ready.

- [Susan] Yeah, so that's (indistinct)

- [Announcer] Funding for AHA has been provided

by your contribution, and by contributions to

the WMHT venture fund. Contributors include

The Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka, Robert and Doris Fischer Malisardi,

The Alexander & Marjorie Hover Foundation

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank we understand that

the vitality of our communities is crucial

to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.


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