Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E43 | FULL EPISODE

"Firelei Báez," Actress Harriet Harris, and more

Artist Firelei Báez and her sculptural installation at the ICA Watershed, Tony winner Harriet Harris from the PBS Masterpiece program, “Atlantic Crossing” on playing Eleanor Roosevelt – on television and in a one-woman show at the Barrington Stage Company, artist Mickalene Thomas’ interactive, three-dimensional installation, “Better Nights” at the Bass Museum of Art in Florida, and more.

AIRED: June 25, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> I'm not here to dictate how it should be experienced.

I am offering a whole treasure map for people to explore.

>> JARED BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio:

a monumental sculpture rises from the ocean deep.

Then Tony-winning actor Harriet Harris

on her fourth time playing a first lady.

>> Once the marriage did fall apart and he cheated on her,

they stayed in it for his political career.

And I think also for what she wanted to accomplish.

>> BOWEN: Plus, artist Mickalene Thomas delivers us

to '80s night.

>> This is almost like a 3D rendition of a painting

with the portraits, with the textures,

and with the different spaces.

>> BOWEN: And the band played on.

>> Not getting limited by what we couldn't do,

we started thinking about what we could do.

And what we could do was

a series of chamber music concerts.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, the ruins of a giant palace

have emerged in East Boston,

thrust up from the ocean floor and hulking just beneath

a glittery night sky.

It's all the work of artist Firelei Báez, who has created

this year's installation at the I.C.A. Watershed.

This is what lies beneath.

Beneath the rolling waves of Boston Harbor.

Beneath a city cresting over a storied history.

It's the ruins of a palace.

And it's artist Firelei Báez's vision of what's left

if the sea were to recede.

>> This monumental sculpture evokes

a very special, very historically loaded space

in Northern Haiti called Sans-Souci.

>> BOWEN: In her largest installation to date,

Báez reimagines the I.C.A.'s Watershed gallery

as the site of this archaeological ruin,

originally built in 1813 after the revolution in which

Haiti gained independence from France.

It's a streak of freedom that has pulsed through Boston, too.

Which is why Báez has evoked the palace here,

at the museum's East Boston outpost.

>> This site was actually one of the entry points

for immigrants from other places in Europe.

Just a few steps away is the dock

where boats would have unloaded

and where people would have been vetted through

into the rest of the country.

(woman speaking world language)

>> BOWEN: Who are the voices I'm hearing right now?

>> So, part of this work is really exploring

identity formation,

especially through revolution.

We have that phrase "the melting pot."

But what are the things?

What are the condiments?

What is the pot that makes up America?

And I wanted to capture people who represent

all those elements in each doorway.

(man speaking world language)

>> It's really an immersive experience that feeds

all of the senses.

Color, pattern, sound--

all of these elements enrich this experience.

>> BOWEN: Eva Respini is the I.C.A.'s chief curator,

and commissioned Báez to create this sculpture.

>> I've been following

Firelei's work for some time,

and she is this incredible painter.

And really conjures up

these beautiful worlds through painting.

>> BOWEN: Báez is of Dominican and Haitian descent,

but has spent much of her life in the U.S.--

a background that fuels the layers in her work.

In her piece on view at the I.C.A. earlier this year,

she took hundreds of discarded pages from history books

written about Hispaniola and painted over them

with her own history--

in figures, forms, and embellishments.

>> It's important to remember she is a painter at heart,

and everything she does comes from the space of painting,

the space of illusion.

And so, this sculpture here, and this architecture,

is really just the surface for painting and mark-making.

>> BOWEN: When we met with Báez this spring, she was leaving

her many marks on the installation,

which is dotted with symbols of healing rendered

in the indigo printing tradition of West Africa,

later adopted in the Caribbean.

>> There is so much

that is in the human touch,

and that in the making,

the process reveals the concept behind the work.

>> Does the brick stay exposed?

>> Yeah, so the plan was to get it to seem like

the understructure was being revealed.

Every element in here has been through someone's hand.

There's been a loving,

extended touch that informs everything.

>> BOWEN: And everything here, by the way,

is made of household materials:

wood, plaster, paint.

The blue expanse serving as a both a starry night sky

and the ocean floor is a series of tarps,

which are also a symbol of shelter

in the often hurricane-battered Caribbean.

Báez hopes visitors

might find the whimsy in everyday materials

just as she did as a child.

>> I moved around a lot as a child.

I went to a different school for every year,

and that meant that I had space to develop

a very rich internal world, I had...

Every new room was a space to create

a different environment that brought both comfort and wonder.

And that was my doorway into the art world.

>> BOWEN: Does it change now that it's your work?

>> You know, I think the same sense of wonder informs it.

It's, maybe now I get to share

with other people, instead of just my family

and, like, my room.

(laughing)

>> BOWEN: Which ultimately leaves

other people with a choose your own adventure.

Here you can dive into the histories

Firelei Báez interrogates,

or just marvel at the mysteries of the deep.

>> I'm not here to

dictate how it should be experienced.

I'm offering a whole

treasure map for people to explore.

(woman speaking world language)

>> You think I don't recognize that look in your eyes?

>> Are you jealous, Eleanor?

>> I don't care about your romantic escapades.

I do care that you are letting your urges

change the political direction of this country.

>> Is that what you think?

>> BOWEN: That was Tony-winning actor Harriet Harris

as Eleanor Roosevelt inAtlantic Crossing

on PBS'sMasterpiece earlier this year.

It wasn't her first or even last time playing the first lady.

She'll do it again this summer in the playEleanor

at Barrington Stage Company.

Harriet Harris, thank you so much for being with us.

>> Oh, thank you so much for, for inviting me.

>> BOWEN: This is your fourth time playing Eleanor Roosevelt.

That's a very... I'm not sure I've ever seen this before.

That's a very specific type of typecasting.

>> Yes, it's not what you dream of, but it is a dream role,

but it's not what you really want to have people say.

"Oh, she's, she's like Eleanor."

Except, of course, you do want to be like Eleanor Roosevelt.

In ways that would matter, I wish I were,

but it's really just my big teeth.

>> BOWEN (laughs): Well, tell us, what has drawn you

to playing her originally?

>> I've always thought, "Wow, she's, she's the most

amazing American woman."

But she's, she's just an amazing American woman.

And, and, uh...

She's just a joy

to learn more and more about.

Even the things that are deeply complicated about her

are, are fascinating.

>> BOWEN: We see some of that conflict.

We see some of what made her extraordinary in this piece.

At what point do we meet her

and, and what ground do you cover in this show?

>> We meet her actually after she's died.

And she's a energetic spirit roaming the Earth,

still trying to find a place for herself,

and where she really ultimately fit in and belongs

and where she can rest.

Well, then, who was I?

Besides a first lady?

I view those years almost impersonally.

It was like I'd erected someone outside of myself,

because I didn't know who I was inside, and...

I was afraid to find out.

It sounds kind of spooky and strange,

but that, that part of the story is sort of

dispensed with right up front.

But it's, you know, you have to meet the audience some way.

(chuckling): And everybody knows that Eleanor's gone.

So, she confronts it

in a rather humorous way, I think.

And says, "And now let's move on so, so I can move forward

and do what I need to do."

And, being Eleanor Roosevelt, she always wants to

accomplish her goals.

(laughing): I said everything Franklin could never say.

I spoke about our need for birth control programs

and pregnancy education.

I said that we had to stop pitting race against race.

>> BOWEN: So I understand, for you, part of what

has so attracted you to this role

and to her as a person is the marriage,

which I think, history has, has often tried to reconcile

how that marriage existed and what it meant for her.

>> I, like anybody who would be playing Eleanor,

would be making assumptions.

But having read about her and feeling like she was

a young, lost girl, with no parents,

and was sent away to school and was brought home,

and fell madly in love...

I mean, when you see pictures of Eleanor and Franklin

when they are young and in love, they almost look like

they're eating a bowl of ice cream or something.

They really look like, "I just can't,

I can't get enough of you."

And they look so energized together, and that...

Maybe that doesn't make, always make a perfect marriage.

And once the marriage did fall apart,

and he cheated on her,

and she couldn't reconcile that,

they stayed in it for his political career.

And I think also for what she wanted to accomplish.

And they stayed deeply connected,

even though a lot of the marriage was over very early on.

>> BOWEN: Well, in terms of what she accomplished,

it must be very rewarding, but also slightly disappointing

to look at the civil rights work that she did.

And I say disappointing, because so much of what she did

is happening all these years, all these decades later.

>> I think Eleanor really did believe in an evolution

and a-- of society--

and an acceptance of people.

It was still a elite white woman's business

to be the person that was extending themselves and saying,

"I need to make room for you."

At that point, many people in America really did believe

there was this permission that had to be granted,

and, and that Eleanor was in a position to do it.

And she was.

>> BOWEN: I'm always curious, as an actor,

when you're playing a real-life figure, do you...

Do you focus more on

the biography, the real-life figure,

or is she a character in this case for you?

>> The way Mark has written her,

he has crafted something that really

fits together, and I think brings...

It's not just, like,

Eleanor Roosevelt's greatest hits or something like that.

But it's, it's feelings that she has from different parts

of her life, and accomplishments,

and things that you think, "Oh, my gosh, this fits together

"almost, you know, so beautifully, it...

That you barely need to use your imagination."

>> BOWEN: It almost seems like she's the ballast at this point,

when you consider a lot of the other roles that you often play

that are, are really, really big, or really, really bad,

in your case, the roles that go your way.

>> I can tell it's good for

my, my soul when I get to, get to play her,

because you get to, you get to live in

a, a very unselfish part of your brain.

And, and you have to.

So it... I love that.

And I do love playing wicked people, and bad people,

and extremely selfish people,

because that is what's funny about people.

>> BOWEN: As theater is reopening,

you're among the first people to be back on the stage.

What does that represent for you?

>> (sighs): It was such a hard year.

It was so...

It was very, very hard, I mean, on everybody, you know?

On everybody, in so many ways.

To have been denied the opportunity

to work is, is harrowing.

When they said they were shutting down Broadway

for two weeks, I just thought, "That's just to get the actors

out of the building."

(laughing): Because, because otherwise,

we're not going to leave the building, you know?

But to get to go back to work,

and to get to do what, what you've...

Either what you just gotten out of school and you want to do

or what you have been working on for so long,

to get to do it's great.

>> BOWEN: Well, Harriet Harris, thank you for being

one of the people to bring us back to the theater,

make us find that joy again.

>> (laughing): Thank you. >> BOWEN: We appreciate it.

>> Thank you so much.

>> BOWEN: Want to know what's on tap

at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival

or which veteran actor is taking on

one of the most vaunted roles in theater?

Find out in Arts This Week.

Sunday marks the 48th anniversary ofLive and Let Die.

It was the first Bond movie featuring Roger Moore as 007.

Original Bond Sean Connery had begged off,

but signed on to Moore as his replacement.

The Dorrance Dance company taps its way onto the outdoor stage

at Jacob's Pillow Wednesday.

Its tap dance takeover was composed

during the COVID pandemic and addresses loneliness and chaos.

Visit the Museum of Russian Icons Thursday

forAtomic Alert!: Confronting "The Bomb"

in the New Atomic Age.

It considers how America was chilled by the Cold War.

Friday marks the return of in-person performances

at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

King Lear is on the bill,

and it stars actor Christopher Lloyd

as the patriarch presiding over an epic family feud.

Head to the I.C.A. Saturday to seeFigures of Speech,

an exhibition highlighting the work of artist,

fashion designer, and musician Virgil Abloh.

When not at the I.C.A.,

he's the menswear artistic director at Louis Vuitton.

Next, grab your platform shoes and give the disco ball a twirl,

because we head to the Bass Museum of Art in Florida,

where artist Mickalene Thomas recently created

the installation Better Nights,

an interactive, three-dimensional work of art.

>> Are you in the '80s, are you in the '70s,

or is this fantasy, or is it both?

Mickalene Thomas was inspired

by one single Polaroid that she found

that belonged to her mother.

And the Polaroid referenced parties

that she would have in the late '70s

and beginning of the '80s-- it was almost like a timestamp.

She was looking at the '70s-'80s style,

but also looking at a very specific history

that belonged to the artist.

Better Nights very directly refers to her mother

and memories of her mother in a very personal way.

Her mother was doing the parties

to raise money for sickle cell anemia.

It's this metaphor of a community

coming together for a good cause,

and I think that is really,

the, the exhibition is an homage to her mother

and how that happened.

And now Mickalene is bringing together the community

for a good cause, as well.

I'm Silvia Karman Cubiñá,

I'm executive director and chief curator of the Bass.

I like to say that Better Nights

really is like walking into one of Mickalene Thomas's paintings.

The Bass is recently looking for immersive experiences,

and artists that are willing to work with the public

and bring them into their works of art

and sort of make it whole that way.

Mickalene Thomas, when she presented this to me,

she said, "It's a social space.

"It's a space that not only other artists show in,

"it's a space where I want the public to come in and interact

and share moments, and sort of activate the space."

Better Nights kind of opens up to us with this collage,

which is called Jet Blue Number 13,

but it picks up sort of her

very characteristic, um, way

of creating collages and also paintings,

but evenBetter Nights.

As you can see, the wallpaper seems to sort of

pick itself off the wall and continue onto the work of art.

But also, you can see sort of wooden areas

that I see sort of in there.

And it also picks up the floor.

So with all this patterns, and you can see

Mickalene Thomas's very characteristic women of color.

So Black women in her work,

and posing sort of, like, "I am beautiful

and I am bold, and here I am,"

and all those wonderful qualities.

Then you walk into the gallery,

where she's invited all her friends.

Most of these works-- and we realized it

as we were installing-- are figurative works.

So a lot of them are portraits or self-portraits

of people, and many of them

people of color-- that's something that is very,

very present in her work.

So this is almost like a 3-D

rendition of a painting,

with the portraits,

with the textures,

and with the, the different spaces.

The video selection room is also many different works of art.

The bar area with, like, six different

Mickalene Thomas works of art.

It functions as a whole,

but it also functions in different little parts.

It's very multidisciplinary.

Not only did she invite artists to participate,

she also invited musicians and performers

to be part of this whole adventure.

Interactive art-- it is wonderful

once it's being done,

but it presents lots of challenges for museums.

We are museum professionals,

and we're trained to receive objects and take care of them

and almost put them on a shelf or on a pedestal, literally.

And bringing in an interactive art,

you have to accept a public which,

you don't know if they're going to sit on a furniture,

stand on a furniture.

You really don't know what is going to happen.

And that is a little bit of the beauty and the challenge of it.

So all through our planning this project, we kept saying,

"Okay, this is an art exhibition.

"We have to do condition reports on the works of art

"and put them on the wall-- oh, but wait.

"This is also a bar.

"So people are going to be dancing on this dance floor

"and it's going to get scratched up,

but we want it to get scratched up."

So it's a little bit of a tug of war,

and it really puts museums at a

tension point-- good tension point,

where you're, you're always examining,

"Okay, why do we exist?

"Do we exist for the objects?

"Yes, but we also exist for the guests.

And how do we balance that out?"

The beauty of interactive work

is that you get a different work of art

every time you open your door.

>> BOWEN: Finally now, confronted with the pandemic,

the Classical Tahoe music festival found a way

to carry on with live performances--

safely and intimately.

(orchestra playing)

>> Classical Tahoe started in 2012

as a vision of building community at Lake Tahoe.

Some of the finest musicians in the world

have made Lake Tahoe their summer home

under the auspices of Classical Tahoe.

We're a three-week classical music festival,

takes place on the campus of Sierra Nevada University.

And it's in a pop-up pavilion, seats about 400 people.

Full orchestra of about 60, and audience of about 400

in these incredible acoustics in the forest.

And we do about a dozen concerts over three weeks,

every night is different.

Joel Revzen, who was our founding artistic director

and conductor, he, through a group of people,

assembled this incredible orchestra

and put together the orchestra concerts.

So it's intense, it's fabulous,

and it's a really great opportunity

to have music at the highest level,

community building in a way that people,

at the end of three weeks,

have made lifetime friends and feel embedded in the community.

Well, the pandemic's unfolding in March and April,

and Joel got sick at the very beginning.

Maybe the third week in March, came down with COVID.

And fought it for the better part of 60 days, maybe 70,

in and out of the hospital.

But even as he was getting sicker,

and we knew we couldn't have the orchestra festival,

I think the piece that became more and more important

was that Joel loved this orchestra, more than...

I think more than anything besides his wife, Cindy,

in the world.

It seemed more important than ever, in honor of Joel--

both before he died, but then, more important

after he passed-- was to gather this group

together to make music, because that's what

he would've wanted more than anything,

and that's what all of us wanted.

Organizations are canceling... (snapping)

Spring, summer...

We weren't gonna be able to gather.

It didn't make sense to build a pop-up pavilion

that held 400 people.

How do you space an orchestra on a stage

if they all have to be six feet apart?

What do you do with an audience that can sit with their

husband or wife or partner or family,

but not near anybody else?

Not getting limited by what we couldn't do,

we started thinking about what we could do,

and what we could do

was a series of chamber music concerts.

We started imagining places in the forest

and on the lake where you could gather

and create a concert setting in a venue.

So we had to break down what's normally

about 60 people to groups of ten coming each week.

That's how we began to build, probably,

version... C+ of what was possible.

We put together three weeks of ten musicians.

And we had to address a number of things.

We wanted everyone to get COVID tests before they came.

We had a medical adviser that worked with us.

We were studying the best practices

about how far the winds and the vocalists should be.

We had wind tapes, so we knew

which way we were singing and sitting.

We had positioned our French horn

so that the horn was away from anybody to the back.

So we actually had done a ton of research and consultations

to find out the safest ways to make music possible.

(playing classical piece)

The arts are transformative,

in that they have held people up in the hardest times.

And they're always what give you a reason to get back together

when the hardest times have passed.

I think, had we stepped back and waited,

I don't know that that joy

of what Joel created for this festival

could be kindled in the same way that it absolutely

became a beacon this summer,

and something that will never be lost.

Everybody has been asking, "Please!

Let's do chamber music in the forest again!"

I think the one thing that comes out of

something as complicated as a year of a pandemic

and losing your founding artistic director

is, you can treat it as a tragedy and roll it up,

or you can look at it as an opportunity to say,

"What could we be?"

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, it's a turn of the century tour

as we look back at the artists

who defined the early 20th century,

like John Singer Sargent

and his longtime African American model.

>> The man in these drawings was clearly Black,

and I thought, "What's going on here? Who is this man?

Has anyone figured out who he is?"

>> BOWEN: Then James McNeill Whistler and his mother.

>> Because of her very conservative

religious appearance,

she was able to act as an anchor for him

in this very sort of eccentric way that he led his life.

>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

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