Salem community leaders share a few of their favorite things
Lately, we’ve been thinking about new ways to look at our collection. With Kim Driscoll, Salem's first woman mayor, taking the oath of office today as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, we decided to ask several local leaders and social influencers about the objects at PEM that are currently inspiring them.
As a member of PEM’s marketing team, I’m sometimes guilty of rushing through our galleries to double-check a label or facilitate an interview with a member of the press. What I don’t often get to do is hang out in a quiet gallery and have a meaningful discussion with one person about a single object. Getting to sit down and do just that for this project was an absolute pleasure.
Here we were, a turbulent 2022 coming to a close and 2023 looking hopeful. It seemed highly appropriate to collect these conversations with insightful, community-minded people. Obviously, traveling exhibitions close and some pieces of the collection may go off view for a while, but feel free to use the random selection below as a self-guided tour of the museum. As for Driscoll’s favorite thing at PEM … well, keep reading.
Felicia Pierce says when she enters the glowing gallery of the large single artwork All the Flowers Are for Me by Anila Quayyum Agha, she sees something different every time. The walls melt into shadows of floral motifs, offering the space for quiet contemplation. It’s a moment of inspiration, empowering women and people of color, says Pierce, and reminding her to keep her own light shining bright.
Pierce moved from New York to Salem in 2015 and felt like spaces for women of color were lacking. In 2020, right after the murder of George Floyd, she and a group called North Shore Women of Color began to work on creating safe spaces. When she toured friends through PEM’s 2020 exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, Pierce would stop by Agha’s work, a giant cube lit brightly from within.
“I shared about the hesitancy for people of color to go into museums because there is not a lot of representation,” she says. “Whenever we can see ourselves in a piece of art, it’s a blessing to share that with someone else.”
Agha’s flowers took on an additional meaning for her last year. Pierce says her father, the first in her family to break the cycle of poverty, raised her and her sister to be strong. When her mother died unexpectedly, she remembered reading in an article that Black men only receive flowers at their own funerals. She felt compelled to send flowers to her father.
Uplifting people in poverty through community-building, says Pierce, is about creating spaces for a voice to be heard to enact the changes that lead to equity. And housing is the foundation for people to thrive. Pierce started at the North Shore Community Development Coalition as a director of its Youth Build program, where 70 percent of program participants were facing homelessness. She then established Harbor Crossing to provide stable and supportive housing for young people ages 18 to 24 who are aging out of foster care or currently homeless. Reflecting on what she would say about Agha's work to a group of young people who are struggling to find their footing in the world, Pierce says, “I would say to find how your light shines on the world. In the season of Christmas, I think of the song ‘Let There Be Light.’ If God created humans in his image, we are light also. You are light and you add something to this world. Even if you feel boxed in, your presence adds something to this world and you are here for a reason.”
“I mean science and art are best friends, right?” Elise Towle Snow asks, leading me to The Pod. This section of the museum is part of our Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center, which investigates our place in nature through contemporary art, memorable objects and interactive experiences.
These objects and experiences are very memorable to Towle Snow, who has spent hours here with her child magnifying slides of flora and fauna. When a speckled butterfly goes under the magnifier, time seems to stop. “It’s decaying, but look at that!” she says. “This really brings back memories. I could hang out here all day. Look how abstract it is. Seeing your world differently — isn’t that what it’s all about?”
Applying her seemingly boundless creative energy that’s usually directed at promoting Salem’s small businesses, Towle Snow has picked three objects to talk about. We swing through PEM’s Fashion and Design gallery to visit a mannequin seated in a wheelchair and wearing a black dress made by Boston designer Jay Calderin — assistive technology woven with art. Towle Snow spends a lot of time thinking about identity, which, for her, includes disability and queerness. In fact, she’s currently writing and illustrating a series on identity where each character is neurodivergent.
The next object that she leads me to is tucked away in the special exhibition Zachari Logan: Remembrance. The piece honors the memory of every person who died in the 2016 shooting at Pulse, an Orlando LGTBQ+ nightclub. “I think of going to drag shows right now,” Towle Snow says. “They are working so hard to be entertaining and colorful and bold and amazing, but they know every time they put themselves out there, that bigotry is looming and some level of danger is looming.” In Logan’s piece, each victim of the attack is represented by a single pale pink portrait of a flower.
“Personally, I veer toward bold, colorful and joyful. I tend to focus on the positive things,” says Towle Snow. “But then unexpectedly, I was in here, struck and moved by the delicacy of this 49 flowers project. They are all such individuals. They are here and not here. It’s so tender and loving. It gave me a chance to feel like I was in a service for the victims. That’s a community I’m part of, but I don’t know any of the victims.
“It gave me a moment to feel like I was processing the loss quietly. That was unexpected. I came here looking for something shiny, bright and fun. This room really is moving and it quiets you down. I need shiny and sparkly, but I can’t focus too much on it. I need moments like this, too.”
We also paused to take in the powerful video currently screening at PEM that came out of a dance residency accompanying the exhibition. Towle Snow says, “I am a big believer in how some people move grief through their bodies with physical action. The connection between the dance piece and Zachari Logan’s piece is beautiful, because grief can be a big lump in you, and sometimes you gotta dance and shake it out.”
Joe Ferrari and his wife Beki moved to Salem on October 1, 2014, and braved living downtown at the height of the Halloween action. They’ve embraced everything about Salem ever since.
That’s why Ferrari led me to the exhibition Salem Stories, which shares the history of the city from A to Z. “It’s inspiring because Salem brings people and cultures from all over the world together,” he says. “People from all walks of life, which isn’t the case in southeastern Wisconsin, where I’m from.”
Diversity and a feeling of welcome is what inspired Ferrari to start volunteering for the Salem Film Fest in 2015. “It’s honestly so rewarding to have the opportunity to bring documentary films with diverse viewpoints to the North Shore each year, and get people talking about these important social issues,” he says. “Our goal at the Salem Film Fest is not to take a position on any particular issue presented in our films, but to elevate the social consciousness and inspire dialogue in our community.” Filmmakers often visit with an interest in Salem and in talking with locals one-on-one about their films.
Ferrari’s love for documentaries as conversation starters has grown with his love of Salem. The exhibition section that celebrates the Salem Willows brings him back to childhood and reminds him of many trips to the Willows for Hobbs popcorn, slushies and games. But what he finds in the gallery that he loves the most is the old school Parker Brothers games, part of PEM’s collection thanks to the game company’s origins in Salem. He points to the ET game. “I probably had that growing up, because the movie came out the year I was born. I started playing Monopoly at probably six or seven years old,” with his parents, brother and three older sisters. “Sleepovers, playing Monopoly all night, that’s what we’d do. We’d binge Monopoly.” You can binge Salem Film Fest 2023 from March 23 to April 2, virtually and in person.
“The first thing is that it’s just so weird,” says Joey Phoenix after leading us to PEM’s Fashion and Design gallery and a 2013 Nick Cave Soundsuit. “Anyone who sees this is drawn to its whimsy.” With its layers of knitted shapes, this piece in our collection reminds us of Cave’s time at PEM in that same year, when he taught dance workshops and art making and led hundreds of people out onto the dance floor just days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Watching these Soundsuits shimmy and move in videos “is like observing a surreal ballet,” says Phoenix, who is an assemblage artist, photographer and professional faerie.
When Cave was at the museum, Phoenix was living in Boston and wasn’t yet aware of the artist’s work. Like many people across the metro area, they were locked down after the bombing. “All day, we couldn’t leave our homes. ‘There is a bomber on the loose’ — it’s just too surreal to connect with. I was safe in a house. It was a city terror for sure that affected me, strangely, very little.” Later, the more Phoenix dug into Nick Cave as an artist, they connected with how the artist interacts with race and gender identity and movement. “How he brings all of this together is just really inspirational. I’ve always liked deviant artists and the way they call attention to things that need attention called to them. I was coming to it late to fully grasp the joy in grief and the contrast between bright fuzzy textured movement and also this terrible thing that happened.”
Cave started making Soundsuits in response to another terrible event: the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. Cave built a suit made of sticks that would act as protective armor, and then made different versions, out of pom-poms and various found objects. His dance background adds a whole layer of movement to the sculpted pieces. “I’m disabled, but not always in that space,” says Phoenix. “I dance as a way to express my strong emotions. I connect to this piece in particular because the suits are so joyful to watch, but the purpose is to protest things that cause grief in these communities, and that contrast speaks to me in a poignant way. Movement is transformative, and movement with elaborate costume is memorable, and it strikes the viewer: human bodies with these protective human shields.”
Phoenix gravitates toward contemporary objects partly because living artists are so very important to their own art practice. “I appreciate museums for the work they do to hold all this space for history and story, but contemporary art is necessary for me to know that an artist is currently alive and making work,” they say. “Contributing to the conversation is essential for connecting as human beings because artists provide the lens for us to perceive our world. I, as a working artist, selfishly want people to view my work while I’m still alive. [Cave] is still making work. This is such an important piece for me to think about what people do to protect themselves from danger…like put on a massive textured suit and dance around in it. I never would have thought of that. But he thought of that, and he’s still thinking of things like that, and we can directly support him, presently.”
The city’s tourism office, Destination Salem, gets asked a lot of questions about what there is to do around here. If it were up to their Communications Specialist Kathryn Horrigan, visitors would start at the very beginning of the area’s history, dig deep and go from there. Horrigan led me and our Social Media Associate Ellie Dolan to the first floor Putnam gallery, where On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America endeavors to tell a more complete story of Salem and the beginning of this nation by pairing objects from PEM’s Native American and American collections.
“When you come to Salem, you are learning the story of very early American history,” says Horrigan. “The Witch Trials are so fascinating, but there is so much more of that narrative. We have this same narrative taught to us over and over again about America. A big portion of history that is overlooked is the indigenous story. They nurtured the land before European people.”
We passed by portraits that may be familiar to Salem visitors, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody to a captivating contemporary painting called American Dream II by David Bradley (White Earth Ojibwe). A train roars through the desert beside a Native man racing by on a horse. If you look closely, you see skulls coming out of the smokestack, a looming Statue of Liberty and McDonald’s arches in the distance. It reminds Horrigan of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting she admires, something akin to a mirage. “You start to look deeper into it. And then the mirage starts to seep through. It’s well done — the colors are gorgeous — and then you dive deeper and deeper into it and get lost.” The label reminds us that the “progress” of railroads out West “destroyed Native lifeways by severing access to land and resources [and] by decimating the buffalo population, upon which many Native communities depended for food, shelter and ceremony.”
Looking around the gallery at examples of objects made before European contact, paired with paintings depicting the Salem Witch Trials, Horrigan sees a clearer picture of Salem coming into view. “Tourism is the story of a community,” she says. “I think the pull of tourism in general is this understanding of other cultures and the world in a larger perspective. The best way to start is with the history — get the foundation, lay the groundwork and then come back and build upon that.”
When Ty and Micah Hapworth were trying to figure out a way to both home-school and entertain their kids during the pandemic lockdown, they brought them over to PEM’s Essex Street block to look at historic houses. Here, they compared diamond-shaped windows at the Ward House with the bigger windows at the Gardner-Pingree House and learned what this meant in terms of available building materials and economic situations. The kids were in kindergarten and second grade at the time, and the activity was their favorite part of homeschooling, says Hapworth.
Hapworth and his family live directly across the street from the Ward House, which he chose as his favorite PEM “object.” This past October, during PEM’s Haunted Histories program, Ty and Micah sat on their front steps with a glass of wine, listening to the actors at the Ward House frighten audiences with historic tales. The proximity to this 17th century building reminds Hapworth, a councilor-at-large, of one of the reasons he ran for Salem’s city council in the first place. “As a city with buildings that stretch back hundreds of years, one of our jobs is to figure out how we preserve our buildings,” he says. “One of the most climate-friendly things we can do as a city is to prolong the lives of our buildings.” The Ward House has been both a bakery and a dilapidated tenement. It was taken over by historic preservationist George Francis Dow, who refurbished it and moved it to its current location.
“This house was a family home. It expanded to meet the needs of a growing family,” says Hapworth. “It provides an interesting model for what homes and buildings can be in this city. We need to find ways they can be useful and exist for future generations.” That includes using historic buildings to help fight the ongoing housing crisis and create affordable housing.
The Hapworth’s brick and stone home, across from what Hapworth calls “arguably the most significant block in America,” is an 1844 Greek Revival, built by Henry Russell Jr., a mason, who also built the East Church, which is now the Witch Museum.
Salem’s architecture has so intrigued Hapworth that he started a popular Instagram account called @hellosalem, which has 14,000 followers and counting. Hapworth works in the tech industry and considers himself a hobbyist photographer, but his shots of sunlight hitting colorful clapboards or fog rising up around a historic wrought iron fence are breathtaking. “I was just going on my runs early in the morning and found myself taking lots of pictures and not wanting to spam my family and friends,” he says. “Living in Salem, wanting to appreciate the beauty around me, I started trying to understand architecture a little more, wanting to understand what I was looking at. It’s surprising to see the love people have for Salem in all parts of the world.”
“I kept working and kept learning and moved my way up,” says Lev McClain, who started at PEM as an intern in public programs at the Art & Nature Center, became a security guard and is now Associate Director of Security. In 2021, looking for a new challenge, McClain ran for Salem’s city council.
“I had gotten too comfortable in my life, and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough to pay back all the good things that were going on for me, back to the community,” he says. Among his concerns are the housing market, an issue he points out is shaping the whole region, as well as workforce development with wages that can keep up with the cost of living.
Those factors make it especially interesting that McClain chose an object that speaks of great wealth and luxury. The 19th century Chinese investor known as Houqua was a billionaire by today’s standards, investing in trade goods, real estate and even American railroads. Houqua gifted a tusk of carved elephant ivory and a stand made of Asian hardwood that depicts carved scenes of Chinese legends to one of his American trading partners, Abiel Abbot Low. Low, a Salem native, returned home in 1839 with the tusk in tow. “I spent a lot of time in the galleries with this object,” says McClain. “I appreciate how unique it is craftsmanship-wise. It’s an antique piece that you are unlikely to see recreated any time moving forward, given where we are with the conservation of elephants. I appreciate the story it tells about Chinese culture. It gives you a snapshot of society and the value structure from top to bottom.”
This object tells the story of global trade and of PEM’s origins, says McClain. “It could have landed anywhere, but it landed here because of what Salem was with global commerce at the time. What I tend to find is when you get into a piece and really start to learn about it, it’s about a specific time and place and specific people were involved. It was always a high-end piece. Even at the time it was created, it was meant to have that ‘wow’ factor.”
On a cold Saturday in December, as Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll was preparing to take the second-highest office in Massachusetts, we met with a photographer and journalist from Northshore Magazine for a photoshoot in On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America. Driscoll, whose leadership has been praised for its inclusive values, posed in front of a painting of Salem’s Custom House.
A woman pushing a sleeping baby stopped to express her excitement, but also sadness, that Salem would be losing its mayor of 17 years. We then moved on for a quieter conversation in Taking Place, a wall painting installation by Savannah-based artist Vanessa Platacis that reimagines some of PEM’s most beloved objects. It seemed like the perfect place for us to ask the mayor about her favorite object at PEM. Without a moment of hesitation, she named Yin Yu Tang, the 200-year-old Chinese home on PEM’s campus. Driscoll’s husband Nick worked with a team of bricklayers 20 years ago, putting the house together “piece by piece” after it arrived from China. In 2023, the home will be celebrating two decades of life as a cultural destination at PEM — a particularly meaningful milestone for Driscoll. “Our daughter Ailish was born while [Nick] was working on this job,” she says. “It’s definitely the most unique job he’s ever had. It’s not an object, but it tells a story in a meaningful way. When you see groups go in there and know that this housed a family, you can’t forget.”
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