For the past four years, a team of UR students has annually restored life to an abandoned building in the city of Rochester
for a day by filling it with art, music, food and people — an event the group appropriately calls ArtAwake.
This year’s collaboration of creativity and enthusiasm was the fruition of months of planning, beginning in September, by a committee of 14 students who handled everything from art and business management to food and sponsorship with seniors and head co-directors Benjamin Brown and Hannah Lejfer at the helm.
The event took place on Saturday, April 16 in The Alliance Building on East Main Street. The building, constructed in 1926, was formerly a bank that went through many incarnations, but was always community-based until 1984, when it was sold to Chase Manhattan National Corporation. The Alliance Building stands to represent a time when the citizens of Rochester thought the city would blossom to become a booming metropolis like New York City or Boston.
Currently, the building’s internal space is almost completely occupied, but the main banking room remains vacant, and this is the room where ArtAwake took place. To really drive home the fact that we were in an abandoned space in the city, the first impression that attendees received of the event was to make our way up an out-of-service escalator into the main room. Throughout the different rooms there were other reminders that this building was at one time a bank, such as the old and empty filing cabinets fitted into the walls that on this day were also home to many pieces of art.
“The idea behind ArtAwake, aside from being an art and music festival, is to take one of Rochester’s vacant spaces and repurpose it for the event,” Lejfer said. “It took a lot of time and effort to find a location with a lot of open space and in a location that we liked. We chose the Alliance Building because the location was fantastic, the space has a unique history and physically the building was interesting and worked well for both displaying art and musicians as well.”
The first piece of artwork — or pieces, I should say — that hit me consisted of four enormous slabs of wood, probably close to eight feet tall, depicting a woman’s spiritual transformation through the weekend. The artwork by Robyn Neill Quan, combined modern images with Far East religious inspirations and were done in oil, giving them a rich, creamy quality that pulled you in and made you personally experience the calmness they sought to evoke.
The successive slabs of wood were entitled “Friday,” “Saturday,” “Sunday”and “Out of Time,” and despite the obvious talent of the artist, I admittedly had a moment of immaturity after reading these titles and couldn’t help but wonder if the artist was at all inspired by Rebecca Black, who also seems to think that no days of the week exist after Sunday.
Though there were plenty of pieces of art in the main room, there were also several smaller rooms that one could venture into for exploration, each housing even more displays of creativity than the next in every medium you can imagine — clay, papier-mâché, steel, oil on canvas, watercolor, typography, video, performance art, story book cutouts, fashion, photography and the list keeps going. Additionally, live music was constantly wafting throughout the building all day, thanks to a number of bands both from UR and the Rochester community.
Next, I wandered into one of the side rooms and found two of the more out-of-the-ordinary experiences that could be had at ArtAwake this year. The first was an artist offering free oil portraits to anyone who was willing to wait their turn in line for hours — even those who jumped on this bandwagon toward the beginning of the day had to wait about an hour because of the popularity of this experience. Astonishingly completed in a mere 15 minutes, his work was an original and roughly cubist take on portraiture that a number of lucky attendees were able to take home.
In the same area as the oil painter was another of the more interesting pieces I came across during my time at ArtAwake.
Filling a small glass room within the larger space was black paper covering all surfaces, a single chair and a number of pencils and erasers strewn carelessly on the ground. Written on the outside of the one of the glass walls was, “Please help me: I have made a dire mistake. I would like your trust in me restored. Yet, I do not feel deserving of this trust. Make a choice, help me erase the guilt or help me reconstruct my integrity.”
This piece was a personal release for Warner student and artist, Faeeza Masood, whose artwork was a representation of how she feels about a number of lies she has told in her life. But she didn’t want viewers to passively experience her art, hence the pencils and erasers on the ground. Attendees were free to pick them up and write anything on the walls that they felt the need to release or to express a feeling they had about trust.
“I wanted the audience to participate and to make them the agent and give them some power,” Masood said.
Another one of the more interesting experiences at ArtAwake had to be the opportunity to paint a human canvas. Standing in the lobby of the main room were three UR students dressed in white clothes treated with gesso to give the effect that the students were wearing canvases. Anyone was invited to come up and use the provided acrylics to paint the students as their personal masterpiece.
“Having people as a canvas doesn’t happen very often,” sophomore Colleen Caster, who organized the piece, said. “Last year I was getting painted, this year I am seeing it from the outside.”
There was a certain level of confusion about this piece as many attendees were unsure whether they were actually allowed to go up and paint people.
“I started painting and then other people saw me and took the cue. Then this happened,” Castor said, motioning toward her friend junior Debbie Miller, one of the people being painted, who was covered head to toe in abstract expressions.
“Someone came up to paint me and asked ‘Is this awkward?’,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘No. Yeah… maybe.’ But it’s okay. It’s awesome that we’re the canvas.”
There were even pieces that utilized math and computer science. RIT graduate student Paul Solt developed an iPad application that allows users to mix and match pieces of digital art that replicate Karl Sims’ work from the ’90s. Through a series of complex mathematical equations, new pieces of digital art are born based on what the user liked and chose to mix together.
Other interesting pieces included “Half Portrait” by Courtney Koslof, which showed, in intricate lifelike detail, the top half of Koslof’s face to the point where her eyes were inescapable, and “If you could blow bubbles with steel” by Minerva Campell, which looked ostensibly as though it were mimicking the cover of The Shins album “Wincing the Night Away.”
ArtAwake was an incredibly well thought out day of creative expression in an inventive setting. The attention to detail that went into preparing the event certainly paid off, as — from an outsider’s perspective — the day went off without a flaw. I stayed for close to three hours and found myself returning to many of my favorite pieces of art multiple times, unable to get enough of them. Next year, if ArtAwake is even half as good as it was this year, I will absolutely be returning.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.