The Bronx knows how to celebrate its artists. With the number of cafes, art bars, museums and galleries across the borough, creatives within its confines can find an audience, a patron, or even a collaborator.
This year, several artists in this part of the Bronx earned a more formal kind of celebration — the coveted Bronx Recognizes Its Own, or BRIO, award. For decades, the award has both legitimized artists that call the area home and provided cash awards of up to $5,000, which, for the present, is highly appreciated by artists and creatives of all kinds.
To Rebecca Allan — artist, gardener and writer — a BRIO means a confirmation of wider-reaching artistic endeavors, despite the challenges experienced in recent months.
“On a basic level, the coronavirus pandemic catalyzed something for me,” Allan said. “They were connected before, but my horticultural practice and my painting practice became something definitely interconnected. These challenges made being a painter highly essential for me.”
Since spring, Allan has continued work on her gardening and design business, Painterly Gardens, as well as her own paintings. The blend of both the physical toils and joys of gardening, and the creative desires addressed by painting, assisted Allan in what she refers to as a deep investigation of the landscape. Despite the space and the time she’s been able to invest in her work, Allan also regards the BRIO as indicative of a particular loss.
“When you get a BRIO, you’re supposed to do a public engagement event,” Allan said. “People usually love that because you meet other artists and discuss. But, of course, we couldn’t do that this year, and I’m not sure when we’ll be able to. In the meantime, I hope to continue exploring the natural world by pruning both my horticultural work and my artistic work.”
It’s not as though every artist has the option to engage with nature in the same way, even while living in a neighborhood as green and scenic as Riverdale. Some passions require an acoustically secure space as wondrous as any garden.
Professional cellist Sophie Shao has called the neighborhood home for three years. She received a BRIO for her performance of “Intercourse of Fire and Water,” from the 2000 film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” For her, the award is reflective of the borough’s long appreciation for music that withstands the tests of time.
“Classical music is a term that covers a lot of ground,” Shao said. “Contemporary classical has very different boundaries, and I think that’s reflected in a lot of the other players as well as composers that received the award this year.
“In the future I hope to collaborate with some of them, but I’m just not sure when I can do that.”
Despite the gradual economic reopening of the city in the last few months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility of an entire musical ensemble gathering onto a public stage in order to perform shoulder-to-shoulder is a memory out of reach for the present time. Indeed, vital spaces such as studios have become entirely blocked off, leaving some artists somewhat stranded.
Maya Ciarrocchi referred to it as exactly that: stranded. After sharing some of her artistic experience with The Riverdale Press in March, Ciarrocchi had to clean out her Brooklyn studio and bring all her works-in-progress back to Riverdale.
“April happened and I felt very down,” Ciarrocchi said. “That’s when the virus was worse in the city. I was mourning the loss, personal and global, and my home felt so cluttered it was difficult to focus.”
To occupy her time, Ciarrocchi took online classes, joined art discussions over the Zoom online videoconferencing app, but ultimately felt too stressed to manage new work. That is until May, when she was awarded the BRIO. Since then, Ciarrocchi has found a second artistic wind.
“This is an entirely different way of living now,” Ciarrocchi said. “Your personal relationship to risk is examined with every day. I’m totally humble and grateful to the council for the award, even though I haven’t been a Bronxite for as long as some of my fellow winners. I hope I’ve earned it. I’m looking for more ways to be involved in the neighborhood as well as the borough.”
Much of Ciarrocchi’s work, in her own words, utilizes architectural renderings of structures and places that have been lost and shoved under the immense carpet of history, now to be observed in a new light.
New light, hope, and the remembrance of those lost are major themes in the work of poet, dancer, fiction writer and filmmaker Deborah Kahan Kolb, who won her second BRIO this year.
“To be recognized for your work as a Bronx artist is so wonderful,” Kolb said. “The Bronx Council on the Arts is such an incredible resource.
“I won for fiction this year, which I’ve been focusing on recently, but have been having difficulty actually doing. I’ve mostly been in lockdown with my kids and family for the past four months.”
Through her work, Kolb explores the struggles of women and interpersonal relationships through the lens of Judaism. Her film, “Write Me” — as well as her new book, “Escape of Light” — detail womanhood, the Holocaust, tattoos, love and loss. Despite the exceedingly difficult past few months, Kolb considers the near future to be a manageable one.
“The day-to-day has changed completely,” Kolb said. “I need moments of peace to write, where no one is asking for me, calling my name.
“I haven’t been able to in months, but right now I have my laptop open and I’m working on a new story.”