Warner Oral Histories: Artists Among Us

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by Krista Madsen

Adding to the public mythology of the artist’s life as a condition one “survives,” there are a number of famous quotes about continual failure. Take, for instance, Samuel Beckett who once wrote, “Ever tried, ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The tone however was quite different when we gathered a group of working artists – 10591’ers who have dedicated their lives to their various creative pursuits and shared their stories for the latest installment of an ongoing Oral History series sponsored by Warner Library: they described not merely surviving but thriving, even if that means paying the small price of economic struggle.

“I feel rich,” Jill Liflander, family-friendly performance artist/choreographer, said she told her daughter in the car recently when talking about her work. “I feel so fulfilled, and I feel so much color and depth, and I’m making connections with people, and I’m affecting people’s lives. I’m doing really good work. I feel so rich – it just doesn’t match up with the actual material reality.” She did note to the group that she made her best money dancing as a frog.

In order to get by as musicians, Scott Shachter and Kinny Landrum agreed they had had to be up for almost anything.

“What a nightmare,” Shachter said of one Broadway gig, Allegiance, starring George Takei of Star Trek fame, for which he played no less than 11 instruments including six wooden flutes, alto sax and a clarinet. “We had to do everything. I played klezmer, I played rock and roll, I played jazz, I played classical. It made me a little crazy but on the other hand, it allowed me to have a sense of humor.”

Shachter seems to extend his healthy attitude to his audience, which may or may not be listening or understanding, or worse, doesn’t exist. Through a decade of his wife’s cancer, he discovered a new outlet exploring the extreme of this misunderstood-artist theme in his first novel. Outside In is about “ an avant garde sax player who plays music no one likes… It’s a metaphor for anyone creating in any field and hitting against the reality that no one wants what you’re doing.”

The group of artists in the room understood, but countered with more stories of connection.

Richard Cross, 83, was the Transfiguration Church organist for decades, while his wife, Kathleen, sang in the choir. Their music brought them before the Pope and in various grand performances in Europe. But it was the time he shared his music as a Phelps hospice worker with a 99-year-old man that moved Cross most. He had played music for and sung with the man on his death bed, but one day Cross returned to find the man had just passed away. The hospice nurse told Cross, “They say hearing is the last sense that goes, will you play something for him.”

“I played for him,” Cross said. “I almost cried, while he was lying there dead, hoping that maybe he heard something.”

“As an artist you do all your work, you do all your grind, you do this gig, and then occasionally, you have a moment where you realize how life-changing just being there with who you are and with your gifts is,” Liflander said. “You helped create a beautiful death for this man.”

Jacqueline Jolly, the youngest in the group, grew up locally and feels lucky to be doing what she loves, creating custom characters and sewing patterns (you can find her Dollphin Wing products online and at the Nu Toy Store). She described how gratifying it was to hear from a customer whose dad had died and how much comfort her new soft creature had brought her.

For Lynn Lori Sylvan, an improv teacher and actor, nothing beats the chemistry: “The pure alchemy that happens between me and the other actor is better than sex… I love acting.” She is moved by moving others, to laughter and more especially, deeper to tears. It’s “powerful to lift someone’s spirits,” and more powerful to provide a catharsis for feelings they might not have tapped into otherwise.

Landrum, who curates the Friends of Warner concert series, among his involvement in many other projects, said the artists’ life in the end is about the art. “Music, it comes down to me, is like a bottomless well that you can always draw something from. You never reach the end, you never know too much, there’s always something. The music itself does it for me. Period.”

You can sample several tracks of Shachter’s music and listen to the complete audio and clips from the oral history on: thehudsonindependent.com. Next up: Calling all long-time residents of the Van Tassel apartments! RSVP to participate in the next oral history session about your life in this historic Sleepy Hollow complex, at 1 p.m., Friday, April 15 at Warner Library by emailing krista@sleepyhollowink.com or calling the library at 914.631.7734

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