Puffin Place: Columbus’ well-kept cultural secret

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puffinA colorful nylon flag with an image of a seabird marks the Short North area home of one of Columbus’s well-kept cultural secrets. Puffin, A Place, in the Harrison West neighborhood, is one of the three physical bases for the Puffin Foundation, which was founded in New York state by Perry Rosenstein and his family to fund socially relevant art and cultural projects around the country.

Since 1984, the Puffin Foundation has provided local arts organizations and individual artists with seed money to begin and continue projects that educate audiences, address social needs, and foster cross-cultural dialogue. Puffin’s gallery in the Soho area of Manhattan and its Cultural Forum in Teaneck, N.J., offer ongoing programs of art exhibits, musical jam sessions, panel discussions, workshops, films, and community meetings.

“We’re using art as an international language to talk about social issues for the survival of cultural heritage,” says Java Kitrick, Rosenstein’s daughter and director of Puffin, A Place.

This Columbus gallery space, at 378 W. 1st Ave. near Harrison Avenue, is the foundation’s newest and smallest facility. Puffin, A Place, has held five shows in the year and a half it’s been open. The latest, the photography exhibit “Resistance and Struggle: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto,” runs through March 2.

The exhibit, purchased from Beit Lohamei Haghetaot Freedom Fighters’ House in Jerusalem, is in two parts. In the gallery’s outer room, black-and-white photographs and accompanying text detail the history of the Nazi-created Jewish ghetto in Poland’s capital city and acts of resistance during the Third Reich, and in the inner room hangs “Rising Up: Portraits of Young Jewish Fighters Who Dared to Brave the Nazi’s Forces,” sepia-toned photographs of more than a dozen members of the resistance, most of whom were killed before the age of 30.

This is the first time the exhibit has been shown in the Midwest. Members of the local Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization, and other groups will view the show in the next month, and Kitrick invites other organizations to make arrangements for special tours.

The gallery space is open to the public on Fridays from 5:30 to 8:30 pm and Saturdays from 1 to 5 pm.

“Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto” is particularly relevant in the wake of last September 11’s attacks on the United States, Kitrick says. “It’s going to be fresh material for people. Genocide, mass murder- this is terrorism. It’s very poignant right now.”

Kitrick has a close connection to the show’s subject matter: many of her family members were killed in the Nazi death camps in Poland, and one wrote a book about narrowly avoiding the camps.

“For me, the Holocaust is a very personalized voyage,” she says. “I still think people have a very hard time talking about it.”

“Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto” is “looking at [the Holocaust] in terms of mass murder, ethnic cleansing- making people objects, trying to erase culture, religion,” she says. Kitrick hopes that as the 60th anniversary of the ghetto uprising approaches, the photo exhibit will serve as a “teaching tool” to help prevent people from repeating the mistakes of the past.

Nine students from The Ohio State University’s Hillel, the Jewish student center, attended the opening of the exhibit on the afternoon of January 13. Warm winter sun streamed in through the open window blinds on the south side of the

front gallery room as the visitors perused the photographs and text on the walls, munched baklava, and chatted with Kitrick in the small kitchen area, and watched one of the films on the Warsaw Ghetto that Java’s husband, Mark Kitrick, put into the VCR. In the back gallery room, while CDs of Yiddish and Hebrew songs played in the background, several visitors examined the 20-something fighters’ pictures and biographies, and read the explanations of resistance tactics such as underground radio and newspapers, information smuggling by courier, and acts of sabotage.

Controversy as dialogue

“Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto” isn’t the first example of the Puffin Foundation bringing difficult subject matter to the galleries of Columbus. In 2000, Puffin co-sponsored the exhibit “Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields” at the Columbus Museum of Art. The museum had 23,000 visitors during the two-month run of the show, which consisted of 100 stark photographs of prisoners before they were tortured and executed by the Khmer Rouge regime.

The foundation has also contributed in the last several years to other local institutions, including the Columbus AIDS Task Force, the Wexner Center’s series of contemporary films from Vietnam, and Columbus College of Art and Design’s “Crossing Over 5” festival of short video work by directors from the United States and four Eastern European nations.

Puffin was a sponsor of the Wexner’s late 2001 series by Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken, whose work examined the disparities between the poor and the well-off, and the impact of economic and social forces on ordinary people around the world.

The Puffin Foundation’s name origi-nates in the theme of promoting cultural survival. In 1979, Java Kitrick’s mother, Dorothea Rosenstein, became involved in an ornithology organization’s project to reintroduce the Atlantic puffin, which was nearly extinct in the United States, to an island off the coast of Maine. The birds had suffered in the 1800s from overhunting and in the 20th century from habitat destruction – water pollution had softened their eggshells, and trash in the ocean and on the shore had attracted seagulls, which fed on puffin eggs. Twenty-five banded pairs of puffins were brought from the North Sea to the Maine coast, although scientists weren’t sure that these birds could survive on the different species of fish available in New England waters. The experiment was successful, Kitrick says: The National Geographic Society counted 350 pairs in a follow-up study several years later.

When Dorothea Rosenstein died in 1981, her family members began making plans to create the Puffin Foundation. “The puffin, once a species whose nesting sites were endangered, was returned to its native habitats through the efforts of a concerned citizenry,” the mission statement on the foundation’s Web site says. “Our name is a metaphor for how we perceive our mission in the arts. We have joined with other concerned groups and individuals to ensure that the arts not merely survive, but flourish at all levels of our society.”

Although it helps fund many projects with controversial subject matter, Puffin isn’t a political organization, Kitrick says.

“Foundations can’t be political,” she says. “We’re not contributing to anybody’s political campaign. You can make social comments. It’s social activism.” But the foundation welcomes art that provokes debate.

“Controversy creates dialogue, and I think that’s an important part of the foundation’s work,” Kitrick says.

Her favorite projects by individual grant recipients make important critical state-ments. One young man wanted to stand 500,000 straws on a hillside to graphically demonstrate how many people, Tutsi and Hutu, had been killed in the civil war in Rwanda. Kitrick laughs as she describes the foundation’s only stipulation for the straws: “My brother said, ‘They have to be biodegradable or you have to take them down when you’re done.'”

Another artist created a gallery work, “The Disappearing American Family”;  a mother, father, and two children  were sculpted in beeswax and set under hot lights. “In two weeks it was just a puddle,” Kitrick says.

Another of her favorites was a work in a California cemetery. The artist installed a chalkboard and invited each visitor to write his or her own epitaph and then take a photograph of it. “I thought that was very profound,” Kitrick says.

Locally, Puffin grant recipient Beverly Peterson is producing a video, “Canaries in the Mines,” that deals with young people who are involved in or opposed to white supremacist organizations. Puffin awarded a grant in 1999 to modern dancer and teacher Sarah Morrison and artist Scott Radke for the creation of “Erie Sirens,” a site-specific performance at Cleveland’s Edgewater Park Beach, which blended dance and sand sculpture.

The Puffin Foundation receives about 3000 grant applications each year, and awards several hundred, ranging from approximately $500 to $5000. The range of work funded is enormous, and includes painting, sculpture, photography, install-lation, literature, dance, music and composition, theater, performance, film, video, puppetry, quilting, murals, architecture, and multi-media pieces. The

bulk of the funding goes to arts and cultural programs, but grants are also awarded for a few public interest projects, such as oral history interviews with women union members, an internet site, mediachannel.org, that examines the “dumbing down” of mainstream media, and the New York Public Interest Research Group’s campaign to hold large polluters accountable for compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Toxic Landscapes on tour

Another of Puffin’s environmental activism efforts is “Toxic Landscapes: Artists Examine the Environment,” a juried exhibition of 65 paintings, photographs, and digital images of human activity’s impact on the earth. The collection was shown in conjunction with Greenpeace USA at the Puffin Cultural Forum in New Jersey in 2001, and will travel to Havana, Cuba this year.

Another powerful recent exhibit Kitrick mentions is “When Will They Ever Learn: Art by the Children of War,” which included drawings by refugee children from the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and by children in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo in the ’90s. The show was sponsored in affiliation with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, which provides emergency medical relief in countries around the world. The organization worked with children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in Eastern Europe, Kitrick says, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1999, the month the exhibit was mounted at the Puffin Room in Soho.

Recent shows and events at the New York and New Jersey venues have included art from Cuba and Sudan, street theater performances, Cambodian classical dance, African American visual art, and world music concerts. A series on the prison-industrial complex incorporated talks by Angela Davis and other experts, portraits of death row inmates, and readings from prisoners’ writing work-shops at Sing Sing and Bedford Hills women’s prison. Puffin has also recently shown photographs of and films about the indigenous people of Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico, and art works from the Philippines on colonialism and imperialism.

The next exhibit at Columbus’ Puffin, A Place also originates in the Philippines. Photojournalist John Nance documented the lives of the Tasaday tribe in the Philippine rain forest in the 1970s. The resulting book and exhibit is controversial, Kitrick says, because some experts believe Nance created his own fictional version of the tribe. Anthropologists now see the “discovery” of this “Stone-Age tribe” as a hoax perpetrated by the Ferdinand Marcos regime and orchestrated by a Harvard-educated Filipino, Manuel Elizalde Jr., and the controversy highlights the continuing exploitation of the indigenous people of the Philippines. The exhibit opens at Puffin, A Place, in April.

This past fall, the Columbus gallery’s fourth exhibit, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Historical Posters and Photographs from the Women’s Movement,” featured global portraits from the United Nations Photo Library and posters from the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists, writers, performers, and filmmakers fighting discrimination in the art world since 1985 (they wear gorilla masks at their actions and talks to keep the focus on issues, not personalities). Several speakers added a local dimension, with talks on Ohio women’s activist history, body art such as tattooing and piercing and health regulations to maintain its safety, and “Killing Us Softly,” the third in a series of films about the distorted image of women in advertising.

Some of the exhibits at the New York and New Jersey Puffin locations have traveled to the Columbus space, including “Beyond Borders: Photographs by Palestinian and Israeli Teenagers” and “Sex, Lies and Politics: Cartoonists Shooting from the Hip.”

In addition to the exhibits, the Columbus venue offers PuffinPower Yoga, drop-in classes for $5 every Sunday morning with instructor Manjera Schwarma. Kitrick says she would love to see more community groups and artists use the gallery space for their events and meetings.

“Puffin is really unique in the community, and once it becomes known, once it becomes ingrained, it could be a very wonderful outreach space for so many different things – readings, talking about community issues: ‘Should we save this wetland, can we make a park here?’ It’s just another resource, and I don’t think it’s fully tapped yet.”

Puffin, A Place, located at 378 W. 1st Avenue near Harrison Avenue, is the newest and smallest facility developed by the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation, Ltd.

The near-extinction of the Atlantic puffin symbolizes the struggle required to maintain and promote the cultural arts. The Puffin Foundation has committed itself to this effort.

[Editor’s Note: The Puffin Foundation is no longer at this location. For more information on the Foundation visit www.puffinwest.org]

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