Some say love makes the world go round.
Others believe art changes the world.
And in the power of artists who can connect people with humanity through their work.
Not simply in words, but in over a decade of work to successfully build an arts organization “that supports a community of artists and to buy a building as a permanent home for the performing arts in Queens,” says Sheila Lewandowski, the Executive Director of The Chocolate Factory , a space for experimental performing arts in Long Island City, Queens.
Sheila is one of a select group of honorees being feted by the Queens Council on the Arts at the upcoming Caribbean Carnival 2018 Gala.
Tell me about your work
“I have worked in the arts as a performer, a writer, and as an actor. People comment how I approach management as an artist. This is something my team and I talk a lot about - that these artistic experiences contribute to creating a structure that supports artists and allows for creative and critical thinking. Actually, the more interesting non-arts businesses are the ones that are creative and entrepreneurial at their core. As a performer, I was trained to perform the work of directors, authors and choreographers to connect people with their humanity.
As a child, the arts and STEAM were a part of my household. My mom painted and drew, there was always music and books in the house. My Dad was a scientist. My sisters and I were raised believing that the arts were a vital part of life. In fact, the way I knew summer had come was by hearing steel drums in the parks just under our windows. I never understood life any other way. And I was fortunate that arts education - ceramics, band, orchestra - was a part of the public school curriculum in NYC in the late 60s and early 70s.
I continue to explore writing and vocal training and still perform occasionally. It encourages empathy when you tap into the creativity in yourself. I feel I connect with other people and they feel it too.
At times, as a performer, I feel I tap into something, an experience where I am connected, where I find myself in the zone. Like love, you know it when you feel it. An artist with a high level of skill who can communicate humanity through and with their work is an artist with a capital “A”. Watching an artist with a high level of skill without this ability to connect is like watching a really good gymnastic routine. I am moved because I know I can’t do what they do, but the work doesn’t dig into my soul.
It is the desire to communicate that keeps you practicing. The arts is more than just a discipline. Artists with high levels of talent, discipline and activity can give others an experience, a new way to see the world through their art. Artists with a capital “A” communicate through the expression of their art.
All people are connected to the arts. You may not recognize it but no matter who you are, there is a poem, a song, a piece of art that will move you. People are drawn to these abstract expressions because of our basic human need to be connected.”
Do you think art can change the world?
“Art does change the world. Humanity does not exist without art. People do not connect or exist without art & culture. They may not be consciously aware of it.
Now, more than ever, we need greater understanding and support for the arts in our communities, to build greater empathy both nationally and internationally. As a society, we need to support art on a critical, rational and creative level for young people to seniors, for artists whose work we may not understand. We need to build these cultural ecosystems so we can remain connected and empathetic.
If you are making honest work in this time and in this place, you are creating a truthful expression of humanity. You may choose not to call it political or responsive or consider your work overtly political but I often say, you don’t have to run for office to be engaged but you should vote.
Everything you do is part of the process, part of the world you live in. Even a level of disengagement is a statement and an expression of your environment.”
As you grow your career, what are your thoughts about the arts in Queens at this moment in time?
“I used to say, and I still believe, “Queens is the innovation borough” because here you see the ground up work of so many artists, businesses and many artists live here. Take our work starting with The Chocolate Factory, we were responding to a need in the borough where we lived. At that time, there were not many performance venues or rehearsal spaces. Why should people have to leave Queens to do this work?
Queens is a borough of neighborhoods, pride of place runs deeply in every community. Where are the places for artists to communicate with each other in this borough? This is why we are opening our new site, a 7,500-square-foot facility at 38-29 24th Street in Long Island City - to give this neighborhood and borough a space for arts and culture to be permanent, where people can gather to communicate, to share culture and ideas that can evolve into share expressions of humanity.
We have an opportunity to “stop the bleeding of the tides” in areas where there are huge developments underway, such as Western Queens, Jamaica and Flushing. How can we plan and build for shared community spaces to support the artists and the culture already there? How can we support the arts in neighborhoods to grow beyond destinations and become part of their daily lives? How do we maintain studio spaces, live/work spaces? Is there a way we can keep artists and artisans here? Where ever you live as an artist, here are some simple steps you can take to connect with your community and bring what matters to you to their attention:
- Make a list of your local elected officials
- Find out when your community board meeting takes place
- Show up and say, “I’m an artist, I live here and I vote, “ “Hey, we’re all part of this community and I’m concerned we don’t have a cultural space.”
- Keep in touch with them. This is a long process but worth it.
Part of my hope for the borough of Queens when it comes to the support of and expansion of services for artists, the arts and for arts in communities is because we have a Borough President with a lifelong history of connection to the arts. Her parents left a legacy in the borough and Borough President Melinda Katz is continuing to work to make sure that all residents and families in the borough have access to arts, arts education, cultural activities; and she supports programs hi-lighting and respecting the many cultures that help to make Queens rich and a great place to live, work and visit.
In fact, the acquisition of the building for a permanent Chocolate Factory was made possible, in part, because of her support, that of the late Helen Marshall and my Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, who is one of the greatest champions of artists, arts and culture in NYC.
I’m excited we are building this new venue as a permanent home for the performing arts in Queens. Many people from every part of the city have been calling me to ask me how we did this. Next month, I am going to be giving 2 presentations at The Chocolate Factory with a Q & A to share the story of our journey which can be summed up as ’patience and perseverance.’”
We Bought a Building - a Discussion and Q & A Monday, January 22, 2018, 6:00 PM
We Bought a Building - a Discussion and Q & A Friday, January 26, 2018, 6:00 PM
About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.