Rarely does any experience, however important it may seem at the time, survive in your memory completely intact.
But certain jarring moments do stand out, inserting their grappling hooks into your brain and dragging the details around them into sharper focus. It could be anything: The look in an actor’s eyes during an emotional scene; a child’s surprising reaction to an abstract painting; or a chance meeting with a famous visitor in a back hallway.
As a collection of moments, my past year of explorations into Western New York’s visual art and theater scenes – so vast and varied as to seem almost limitless – was one for the books. In my travels to plays, musicals, museum exhibitions, community meetings and other cultural events, here are 10 of the many dozens of moments that stick out, in no particular order:
• On Aug. 26, on one of the hottest days of the summer, a phalanx of politicians in suits and ties lined up next to Casey Riordan Millard’s sculpture “Shark Girl” at Canalside and launched one of the most bizarre news conferences I’ve ever witnessed. From Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. chairman Robert Gioia to Mayor Byron W. Brown, each one sang the praises of a girl with a shark head as if she was some sort of visiting dignitary on the order of Mother Teresa or the pope. At that moment, it was clear that a new era of publicly funded public art had officially dawned.
• At a landing on the staircase leading to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s glass-enclosed auditorium in late September, I paused briefly at the request of gallery director Janne Sirén to meet the German artist Anselm Kiefer, whose persona is at least as imposing as his enormous canvases. I had been granted a short interview with him after his speech at the gallery, about which I was already on edge. As we shook hands, Kiefer leaned in and in his clipped and rather severe English, said: “Ask good questions.” I mean, no pressure or anything. I hope I did.
• In a cavernous room in the American Warehouse, a disused industrial building at Silo City, a crowd of curious theatergoers watched a scene from Dan Shanahan’s “Storehouse” play out against a window looking out at a concrete grain elevator. The scene was set at dusk, so that the square of scratched concrete as glimpsed through the window took on the look of a constantly changing abstract painting. It distracted me totally from the dialogue at hand, and is by far the most beautiful piece of accidental art I’ve seen all year.
• There was a scene in the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s fine production of “Death of a Salesman” in which Willy Loman mistakes a waiter at a New York City restaurant for someone from his past. That brief exchange, delivered with tear-wrenching pathos by John Fredo, happened to play out directly next to my aisle seat on west side of the theater. I will never forget the look of terror and yearning in Fredo’s eyes, two bright tunnels leading straight into the soul of his character.
• Shortly after the stroke of midnight on Oct. 4, Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant stepped out onto a stage in downtown Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square before a huge and heaving crowd. Her hair was dramatically spiked and treated with invisible ink, so that it glowed under the stage’s black-lights and lent her the crazed look of a mad scientist.
There was one moment when she stared out in wonderment at the crowd of hundreds, many of them wearing haz-mat suits and bizarre metal headpieces of her design, to hear her speak during the Nuit Blanche all-night art festival. It was a crowning moment for Soudant’s artistic career in the heart of a North American metropolis. I felt lucky to be there with her.
• On a bicycle tour with activist and preservationist David Torke into what he calls the “oceanic devastation” of Buffalo’s East Side, a woman on her second-floor porch watched in astonishment and incredulity as we whizzed past. What on earth was a group of white bicyclists and photographers doing on what appeared to be a tourist venture into some of the most devastated census tracts in America? It was a good question then, and amid all the hubbub about Buffalo’s narrow renaissance and similarly narrow applications of New Urbanism, a good one now.
• Early one April morning, in a former church at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Edward Street, sunlight shone through cracks in the roof and spilled across the dusty floor. The architect and artist Dennis Maher pointed at a section of the plaster wall that was severely water-damaged. From Maher’s grin and excited description of the space, you could tell his vision to turn the crumbling edifice into what he called “A Center for the Urban Imaginary” was much more than a pipe dream.
• During the Buffalo Infringement Festival in August, traffic slowed to a crawl along Grant Street as puppeteer Michele Costa performed her new piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The small crowd, huddled under a tent on the Grant Street sidewalk, was moved by her performance to stunned silence and eventually to tears.
• When the transgender author and activist Leslie Feinberg died in November, shock-waves went through the local LGBT community. When members of that community gathered in Hallwalls’ basement cinema earlier this month, it was a deeply moving moment of healing and remembering how far we’ve come.
• During the final performance of “Dai” in the Jewish Repertory Theatre’s space in Getzville, actress Josie DiVincenzo pulled a cap over her head, adjusted her posture, twisted her mouth into a grimace and became an entirely different person. DiVincenzo’s transformation into a hobbled old man, as well as 10 other victims of a suicide bombing in an Israeli café, was a great testament to the transformative power of the theater.