(PRINCETON, NJ) -- Art allows us to examine what it means to be human, and also has the power to transcend boundaries, foster understanding, and bring people together. Two upcoming events, with several Princeton-based participants, will explore the transformative power of art and the role art plays in bringing us into community with one another.
The 18th Annual Liberation Based Healing Conference
This two-day conference, Friday and Saturday, November 3 and 4, will be held at Montclair State University. The conference brings together health practitioners, therapists, community activists, educators, students, and others for dialogue and inquiry focused on relational healing that embraces critical consciousness, empowerment, and accountability.
Rhea Almeida, founder of the Institute for Family Services and the Liberation Based Healing Conference, invited me to suggest speakers who are living proof that art can change lives and that would be a good fit for the conference. Four of the speakers have ties to the Princeton area: Jim Christy Jr., Ryan Stark Lilienthal, Maggie Whittum, and Avi Wisnia. Each one has an inspiring story of hope, perseverance, and resilience to share.
I first met Jim Christy Jr. when his award winning play Love and Communication, based on his family’s experience after their son was diagnosed with autism, had its premiere at Passage Theatre in Trenton. Christy has now made the play into a feature film, which premiered last year. Love and Communications offers a powerful look into the experiences of families affected by autism from the emotional impact of the diagnosis to the conflicts that follow and the struggles to access resources and services. Jim is collaborating with autism expert Kate Fiske to use the film as a learning tool for parents and professionals. Christy lives with his family in Princeton.
Ryan Stark Lilienthal and I have been friends for years and he introduced me to the concept of “third generation Holocaust survivor” after I had produced a documentary film on the memories of my grandmother, my father, and 86-year-old cousin. A mixed media artist, Ryan, a Princeton resident, creates artwork ranging across expressive portraits, landscapes, and thought-provoking collages addressing social justice issues.
In March of this year he presented his MFA design thesis installation at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Titled “Tonwerk” (German for clay factory), the installation explored the horrors of the Holocaust and the effects of traumatic memories on witnesses and survivors. Primary source material framed this installation and narrated the struggle of Ryan’s great granduncle Theodor Israel, his wife, Mina, and their teenage son, Walter, to navigate the Nazis’ bureaucracy with its countless dead ends. For the Israel family, the hurdles they confronted, designed to deprive them of their possessions, their community, and their humanity, ultimately led to their murder.
Maggie Whittum, a filmmaker, actor, producer, writer, public speaker, and disability advocate, will also be sharing her story at the Liberation Based Healing Conference. It started with a headache. A really bad headache. It was so bad that Maggie checked herself into the ER. “Forty-eight hours later, I was on life support,” recalls the filmmaker, theatre artist, disability advocate, public speaker, and stroke survivor. At age 33, the healthy, active and talented actress and director had a massive hemorrhagic stroke that left her with numerous disabilities, including significant facial paralysis.
That was eight years ago. Today Maggie not only is back on stage but is executive producing and co-writing a feature-length documentary film called “The Great Now What,” which chronicles her heroic fight back from a health crisis. As a stroke survivor, Whittum has become a prominent voice in the disability community, speaking at conferences, universities, and hospitals about her experiences with illness and identity. Maggie was the producing and directing assistant at McCarter Theatre during the 2012-13 season.
Lastly, singer/songwriter Avi Wisnia, whose late grandfather survived Auschwitz by singing to his captors, will be sharing his compelling story as a speaker and performer at the conference. Avi has been promoting a riveting documentary about his grandfather's life and the enduring legacy of the Holocaust called “How Saba Kept Singing.” At a time of rising antisemitism in this country, it is more important than ever that we “never forget.”
The son of Rabbi Eric Wisnia (who served as rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction for many years and who died in September), Avi will share stories and songs as part of a panel that includes American civil rights icon and activist Minnijean Brown-Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine—a group of African American teens who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957; her daughter, Spirit Tawfiq, an antiracism educator and storyteller; and Clory Jackson, who will share her personal journey as a Black person born and raised in Appalachia.
The panel, called “Reparative Voices for the Injuries of Enslavement and Genocide: Unveiling Hidden Narratives of Black Belonging, Community in Appalachia, and the Holocaust," will open the two-day conference.
For more information, please visit instituteforfamilyservices.com.
Arts & Health Mercer
On Saturday, November 4, Arts & Health Mercer, a new initiative to promote the health benefits of the arts, will kick off a month of programming at with opening events from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Robert Wood Johnson Fitness and Wellness Center, 3100 Quarkerbridge Road in Hamilton. The events are free and open to the public. “It will be a day of live music, theater, reflection, art making, and community building,” says Janie Hermann, adult programming manager at the Princeton Public Library, one of the sponsoring organizations.
Nearly a dozen art and cultural organizations in Mercer County have come together as one coalition called Arts & Health Mercer, to share the message that participation in the arts has a positive impact on our physical, emotional and social health. In addition to the Public Library, the coalition includes Art Against Racism, Arts Council of Princeton, McCarter Theatre Center, Morven Museum and Garden, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Concerts, and West Windsor Arts.
A full calendar of programming, with more details and additional programs, can be found on the new Arts & Health Mercer website at artshealthmercer.org. Other Mercer County organizations are welcome to submit additional programming aligned with the mission of the coalition.
I would be remiss if I did not bring your attention to Pam Hersh’s recent TAPinto Princeton column on Emily Mann and her play that recently closed at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
"The Pianist is the most important story I’ve been entrusted with as a theater maker,” said Emily Mann. “Not only is it a stunning story about the tenacity of the human spirit and the power of art, but it is also deeply personal.” It is truly a tour-de-force and if you missed it at its spectacular run at George Street Playhouse, do not miss it the next opportunity you have to see it.
To sum up, I would like to leave you with a quote from Cultural times: the first global map of cultural and creative industries, published by UNESCO. I feel it succinctly states the importance of art in our lives during these challenging times: “Undeniably, culture and creativity have been the cement that binds together not only hearts and souls, but entire societies and nations. In a world that faces frequent disruption and upheavals — economic, social, political and technological — creativity and culture have been the common link through history, knitting together our past, present, and future.”
See you in the lobby,
Dan Bauer is a longtime Princeton arts publicist and writer.