Saints of the Streets

“Lost people matter to God, and so they must matter to us.”
– Keith Wright

Have you ever prayed with a stranger? On the streets of New York City and surrounding Metro area, a committed group of humble servants are doing it every single week. Through mobile outreach, these urban missionaries work tirelessly in the field, putting themselves squarely among  those in need; the destitute, the unlucky, the vulnerable.

I first volunteered with NYC Relief on their “Don’t Walk By” outreach, and the experience has stayed with me in ways I can’t describe in mere words. This past December, I volunteered with them again, this time on the Relief Bus. It was, I believe, the coldest day of our winter; a Friday morning with temperatures in the 20s that felt like the teens. But freezing temperatures can’t, and never will, hinder the work of this incredible organization of people. If anything, the bone-chilling air that day seemed to redouble our efforts in distributing fresh hot soup, bread, fruit, hot chocolate, and friendly conversation at 125th street in East Harlem.

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In addition to food and beverages, Relief Bus volunteers provide clothing and hygiene kits upon request, while staffers and team leaders sit down one-on-one to arrange referrals and guidance for job training, shelter, addiction treatment, and medical care. The Relief Bus mission is – and I can’t stress this enough – a profoundly hospitable, welcoming, and personal one, as volunteers do much more than simply hand cups of soup to hungry people. It is, first and foremost, about engagement and interaction. We learn their names and they learn ours. We set up folding chairs and tables on the sidewalks so folks can sit and socialize, and the volunteers alternate between serving from the bus kitchen and joining folks in their meal; chatting, conversing, laughing, listening, telling stories, sharing memories, asking questions, or just sitting across from them with bread and soup in quiet companionship, if that is preferred.

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For me, the most transformative part of Relief service has been the prayer. Nobody who volunteers has to participate in this aspect, as individuals of all faiths, or no faith, serve with the Relief Bus and are not expected to do anything with which they are uncomfortable. But for those of us who do pray with Relief Bus visitors, the act of supplicating to God on their behalf enriches the spirit in untold ways. When a person enters the bus to collect a hygiene kit or item of clothing, we volunteers are there to greet them and ask if they would like to receive prayer. Some say “no, that’s fine. I’m good, thank you”. The majority say yes. What do poverty-stricken folks request for prayer? You’d be astonished at the breadth and depth and thoughtfulness of their appeals: “to get my children back” … “to find affordable housing” … “for the healing of our country and for everyone to love each other” … “treatment for my addiction” … “relief from my arthritis” … “for my grandmother in Puerto Rico who has Alzheimer’s” … “to be reunited with my family who have given up on me” … “for those suffering people in Syria and those poor children being bombed” … “for the end of bigotry” … “for my brother doing 25 to life in Attica” … “for all homeless people everywhere” … “to know my son again, he lives in Texas and we haven’t spoken in five years” … “to get a job because I’m able and willing to work” … “for the strength to break my bad habits” … “I’d like Psalm 23 please, if that’s ok?” .. and, in a few beautiful instances, requests of “can I pray for you? Can I pray for all of you on the Relief Bus who come here every week to serve us?” Of course you can pray for us. Of course. And they do.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.”
Psalm 23

The NYC Relief mission is not the stuff of wild-eyed ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers who terrorize people with judgment and condemnation. It is none of the heresies and idolatry being passed off as Christianity these days. This is love and mercy, kindness and compassion. This is the Gospel. This is the understanding that God is about restoration, renewal, hope, and comfort. This is letting people who feel forgotten know that they are not forgotten.

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A class of first graders in Elizabeth, New Jersey gathered hygiene kits, packaged them in individually designed bags they created, and donated them to the Relief Bus. Wonderful colors! You can see a photo of these smiling angels on this Instagram page.

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On my last two experiences volunteering with the Relief Bus, I had the great privilege to serve side-by-side with extraordinary volunteers of a church group from Indiana. They are in town as part of their Christian mission and their grace, warmth, good cheer, and work ethic were an absolute inspiration to me. Magnificent people. Their personal stories, like so many stories that define us Christians, were ones of a calling, of salvation, of redemption, stories that bring forth the kind of humility that enables true servants to feel deep empathy and relate to brokenness, fear, and imperfection in our fellow man and woman. Because sanctimony has no place in service. So to the volunteers who came all the way from Grace Church in Noblesville, it was a tremendous honor. Thank you. And I hope to see you all again!

One of my favorite photos from the NYC Relief Instagram page is this one, as it perfectly captures the volunteering experience with this outreach organization. It makes me teary eyed every time I look at it. But I recommend viewing the entire Instagram and its excellent photos and comments, or you can watch this terrific video on YouTube.

Thank you all for reading. I appreciate it 🙂

Joe’s Violin

We are now in the midst of “awards season”, and for those of us who didn’t get to the movies at all last year, we have no preference to root for “La La Land” or “Manchester by the Sea” or any of the nominated feature films or actors’ performances. But I will have something to root for during the Academy Awards broadcast on February 26th; a nominated film in the Best Documentary Short Subject category. “Joe’s Violin” is an extraordinary story of survival, hope, and music’s capacity to provide comfort during hardship. Directed by Kahane Cooperman, the film tells the story of Joe Feingold, a 91 year-old Holocaust survivor and how he came to form a bond with Brianna Perez, a 12 year-old schoolgirl from the South Bronx.

I am an avid listener of WQXR, New York’s classical music station. For the past couple of years they’ve been organizing an instrument drive, in which people donate used musical instruments to be distributed to music and arts programs at under-resourced schools in the area. Joe Feingold donated a violin to the program – a 70 year-old violin that he came across while living in a displaced persons camp in Germany. He acquired it by trading for a carton of cigarettes. Through the instrument drive, Joe’s violin ended up in the hands of Brianna Perez, who lives in one of the poorest congressional districts in America.

I don’t usually post lengthy videos on the blog, but I’ve made an exception in this case because the story, and the filmmakers’ deeply-felt telling of the story, is poignant and remarkable. If you have 24 minutes to spare, watch the movie in full here, for our Music Monday:

Life in Detail

Friday morning. I walk down tree-lined blocks in my neighborhood toward the train station. Have to catch the 8:14 to Manhattan. Suddenly, from overhead, that distinct harsh screech of a red-tailed hawk; “keeeee-aarr!!”. I look up and there he is. Circling effortlessly above the Duane Reade and Queens rooftops. Good morning you beautiful wild raptor. Seeing me off to work, are you? 🙂

25 minutes later, Penn Station, morning rush hour. A woman begins to struggle getting her stroller with a toddler up the stairs to the C subway platform. I bend down and pick up the front. Together she and I make easy work carrying the stroller for the ascent. “Gracias”, she says to me. “Muchas gracias”.

Downtown, 15 minutes before drawing session starts. At the overpriced hipster coffee shop, a pleasant exchange with the barista about the deliciousness of almond milk. He tells me to “have a great day!”.

At Minerva’s studio, I’m introduced to a man from Naples. A math professor who enjoys drawing in his spare time. He pronounces my name “CLOU – dia”.

Morning session, long pose. Afternoon session, gestures and short poses. I’m the model for both. Bang my shin. Can’t find my favorite hair clip. Feeling flexible. And creative. Finished at 4:00. Man who had been drawing comes over to me, presses a $10 bill into my palm. “Oh gosh, thank you so much!” I say. “No, thank YOU” he replies. “Great poses”. A rare modeling tip.

C train back uptown. Muscly hardhat guy gives up his seat for an elderly lady. My Blackberry beeps out a text message; a modeling gig inquiry for January. Group of tourists consulting a NYC subway map.

Penn Station again. Rush hour again. Homeless trumpeter is playing a plaintive “Silent Night”. His horn reverberates throughout the Eight Avenue concourse. I drop some singles in his instrument case. He nods at me without moving the trumpet mouthpiece from his lips.

Back on the railroad, track 21, the 4:46 back to Queens. Seat at the window. Man, mid-thirties, dark complexion, sits next to me. Takes out a leather bound Bible. Reads Corinthians for the entire ride. I put in my iPod earbuds. Scroll for music. Schubert’s piano Impromptus. Sit back. Finish my box of raisins.

Home in Queens. Jessie the cat rubs lovingly against my legs. Purring … “rrrrrr”. The ball of fur missed me. Can of salmon for her. Glass of wine for me. Day of blessings. Day of grace. Day of reminders, reinforcements, interactions, and taking nothing for granted.

From that day, my one minute gesture poses sketched by Bob Palevitz … in detail:

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Sustaining Days

Modeling by me. Sketches, notes, and anatomy lesson by Minerva Durham. Wednesday afternoon, 293 Broome St, New York City:

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So what have you all been doing the past few days? 😉 Hopefully being sustained, as I have, by doing what rewards you, challenges you, nourishes you, and galvanizes you through the tedium. I am grateful for my livelihood an an artist’s model, and privileged to work with inspiring individuals like Minerva, the best life drawing instructor in New York City.

It’s a busy time of year. So when I’m not blogging, you know what I’m doing! Early wishes for a happy Thanksgiving to all. See you back here very soon … peace, friends.

Ten Days on 8th Street

For artist participants, it’s an intense and challenging learning experience. For artist’s models, it’s an arduous but highly worthwhile gig. It’s the renowned Drawing Marathon hosted by Greenwich Village’s own New York Studio School, presided over by the school’s Dean, Graham Nickson. I was honored to be one of the six models – with Julie, Morgan, Marie, Erin, and Juliana – working in three different studios for ten days, doing long poses in group set-ups amid sounds of staple guns, paper cutting, rag smudging, and the occasional object falling to the ground. The marathon has dominated my work schedule for the past two weeks, and on Friday we concluded with a wonderful final day, replete equally with grimy, fatigued bodies and fortified spirits. Old acquaintances were renewed, new acquaintances were formed, and enough charcoal soot was produced that could bury a Buick. I took some photos to share with my readers.

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In addition to drawing from the live models, Marathon artists also did transcriptions of old artworks, with each person creating a section and then assembling them all together. This is Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind. The students did incredible work here:

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And another transcription, from a 15th century engraving by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, a Florentine painter, sculptor, and goldsmith:

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The mother of all modeling platforms. Big, padded, suitable for both art posing and break naps 😉

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This exercise involved drawing the figure, and then drawing only the forms and space around the figure:

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Artists can always learn something from the great Matisse, which is why a work of his provided material for one of the day’s lessons:

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I really like this smaller drawing of me. The artist is Heejo Kim:

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Warm and sincere thanks to all the artists for their kindness toward us models and their expressions of appreciation for what we do, to the class monitors who did a terrific job, to Graham Nickson for his graciousness and inspiration, to his outstanding assistants Sarah and Rachel, to my old Spring Studio pal Audrey who was among the marathoners and made me laugh every day, to all the models for rocking it like the pros they are, and, last but definitely not least, very special thanks to Roxy, who is beautiful inside and out, and whom I’ve been privileged to know for years on my art modeling odyssey.

Hope you all enjoyed this little photo essay from your NYC art model muse.
I’ll see you right back here on Saturday, September 24th, when we’re gonna do one of these celebrations again. Until then, have a fantastic week everyone!

Summer Snapshots

Hellooooo friends! Well, it’s here. Labor Day weekend. The unofficial end of summer. I could have used one more week of idleness but you can’t fight the calendar. Full time art modeling beckons, starting at 9 AM on Tuesday morning. I’m a little out-of-shape but hopefully no one will notice 😉

Just a few summer pics I took that I thought I’d share. The “theme” here, if there is one, would be that all of these were taken within mere blocks of my house. I consider one of the benefits of the slow summer work period to be the long, luxurious stretches of days when I don’t have to venture out of my neighborhood, don’t have to commute and catch trains, don’t have to endure the screaming sirens and blaring horns and crowded sidewalks of Manhattan. I can remain comfortably in my pocket of Queens and appreciate its offerings.

Swans at the pond. I didn’t realize that the cygnets retain their grey feathers to such a large size. It’s a more interesting color against the landscape than the mature white:

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The Hip to Hip Theatre Company brings free Shakespeare to the parks of New York City’s boroughs and surrounding areas in the summer months. One of their venues is Crocheron Park in Bayside, Queens, a two-minute stroll from my house. This is the marvelous cast in the closing scene of “As You Like It”. They did a great job!

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The Sunday morning sun breaks through the open stained glass window at my church. They forecasted that tropical storm Hermine was going to hit us, but so far we’re in the clear. Today was bright and beautiful.

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And just a quick update about the Museworthy Portraits and Pets show. I am going to push it to November or December, as some people need more time (I would be one of those people!) and it will work nicely at that time of year. So submission time is open indefinitely. To those of you who have already submitted, thank you! Your pieces are on deck ready to go. To everyone else, do contribute! No deadlines yet, and no pressure. We don’t like pressure here. Pressure is bad.

Hope everyone is well. I’ll post again soon. In the meantime, I will be back on the modeling platforms of New York getting into the groove.

Sing for Hope

For two weeks in the spring, the five boroughs of New York City are treated to a delightful public art project sponsored by Sing for Hope, a non-profit organization committed to bringing the arts to the public, particularly to those segments most in need. Arts education in public schools is a cause near and dear to my heart, having been raised in a family of artists and musicians. The Sing for Hope Pianos installation places fifty one-of-a-kind pianos all painted by local artists, in a communal space -usually a park or plaza – for the public to freely enjoy. After the two weeks, the pianos are then placed in permanent homes in schools, healthcare facilities, and community centers around the city. Absolutely wonderful. Sing for Hope was conceived and founded by arts advocates Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora, both opera singers and alumni of New York’s renowned Julliard School.

So when I drove over to the Queens County Farm last week to check out the early seasonal pickings from the farm stand, I checked out its Sing for Hope piano, which looked lovely against the historic farmhouse. This piano, called “The Wayside Rose”, was created by Brooklyn-based artist/printmaker Jamie Wilen, and I share my photo here for Music Monday:

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The piano was also just a few feet away from the farm’s herb garden, which is already thriving! (Too early for tomatoes, but they’re worth the wait.)

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I’ve gained quite a few new blog followers over the past few weeks. To all of you, thank you and welcome! I’d like to share two older posts that relate somewhat to this one: a Music Monday that I dedicated to my childhood piano teacher and a post from last summer inspired by the Queens Farm.

It’s unlikely that any of the passersby sat down and performed concert soloist-level virtuosity on the Sing for Hope pianos on their lunch breaks … but hey, you never know! We’ll conclude our Music Monday with the mind-blowing excellence of my favorite pianist, Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is him playing the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No: 23 “Appassionata”. Folks, it’s insane. I don’t know what Beethoven was thinking apart from his usual genius self, but this is something that for anyone other than a professional concert pianist is pretty much unplayable. Ashkenazy sounds like he has two sets of hands. A sublimely gifted and expressive musician. The final two minutes of this is simply riveting. Enjoy, and have a great week everyone! 🙂