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Opinion

Westbeth: An Artists’ Sanctuary

Kanchana Ugbabe

Nigeria-based writer Kanchana Ugbabe is the first Writer at Risk in Residence of the Fordham University's English Department living in Westbeth. The residency and the teaching position was developed through the initiative called the New York City Safe Haven Program that includes Westbeth Artists Housing, ArtistsSafety.net, ARC, PEN AmericaResidency Unlimited, and the Artistic Freedom InitiativeUgbabe joined this growing community of Westbeth artists last fall.

  • Kanchana Ugbabe, 2018.
  • Located in NYC in Manhattan’s Far West Village, Westbeth is a complex of 13 buildings which were formerly the site of Bell Laboratories (1868-1966). Photo credit: Westbeth
  • The studio apartment of Stephen Hall, another resident at Westbeth. Photo credit: 6sqft    
  • Westbeth Flea Market.  Photo credit: Westbeth

He passed my door in the hallway as I came out, a bearded man in a coat pushing a cart. He grunted a greeting in a deep, cavernous voice. He was painfully thin. Underneath the jacket, he must have been skin and bones. His eyes were glassy as he looked ahead and wheeled his cart slowly. What was it he said? What was it they said in New York? ‘You have a good one’ they said. Was it the same thing as ‘Good Morning’? By the time I locked my door, walked and turned the corner, he was gone. I tend to double check that I have locked my door, a habit acquired from living in countries where your home can be broken into even when secured with padlocks.

Did I see that Yorkshire terrier again, on a leash in the hallway…apparitions abound at Westbeth, and in my mind. A fertile territory for stories.

The Westbeth journey is a journey from fear to safety and protection. ‘I am so afraid,’ I said to my son with tears in my voice. He brought me to New York and settled me in. Fear meant many things, haunting memories of trauma, fear of not being ‘accepted’ in a new place, aloneness, fear of falling ill or on the snow…Onche walked me up and down the Highline, bought me a new phone and said I was the conqueror of the world. Then he left.

The corridors are interminably long. I counted once that there were eighteen doors on each corridor, well-spaced, sort of facing each other. ‘Face me, I face you’, as they say in Lagos, but of densely clustered spaces. I have never heard anyone walk past my door except at night and early mornings when daylight filters through the blinds. Then I hear the handle of the garbage chute in the hallway being opened and pushed back. It is difficult to meet people, but I imagine them bent over wax or canvas, clay or stone or whatever medium they worked in. Tina is Jewish, a ceramic artist. She has a kiln in her apartment. Amir is Iranian, a sculptor and filmmaker. I wonder if they are early risers, larks like me, or are they night owls?

I couldn’t be better situated than sharing a wall with the Martha Graham Dance Rehearsal space next door. The pianist starts quite early, about two hours before the students arrive. The music is light and airy like rose petals fluttering and descending to the floor. I visualize her fingers dancing over the keys as the pianist improvises, and the music fills my apartment as well and the corridors beyond. I hear the students when they arrive. They jump, leap, and twirl gracefully to the floor it seems to me, accompanied by the music which is like butterflies in motion. On Monday nights, it is a different instructor playing the Brazilian berimbau and chanting for the Capoeira, as young men and women perform the martial arts, crossing each other in the air, I suppose, and steadying themselves for the fall. Some nights it sounds like the throbbing of African drums and I wonder what kind of dance is being performed. The Martha Graham Dance Studio event at Westbeth in November, 2017 was an enthralling performance. ‘Shoot the Dancers’ it was called, as the audience was invited to capture on our phones the dancers suspended in mid-air.

  Shot taken at Shoot the Dancers event. Photo credit: Martha Graham Dance Company

I have a studio apartment in the much-coveted artists’ housing space – Westbeth. My benefactors, Fordham, ARC with PEN America and Westbeth have furnished the apartment tastefully with IKEA furniture. I have sunlight pouring in through the large windows that line one side of the apartment. I watch the snow in winter. My favorite working space is the dining table nearest the coffee maker, and alternately, the desk by the window where I spend long hours at my computer. The creative energy at Westbeth is diffusive, it leaks under doors, it spreads through the walls, it palpitates through the wavy ceiling.

I was returning home from PEN America’s Book Party at the Sean Kelly Gallery on 10th Avenue. When we came into West Village, the Uber driver, an African American woman said, ’You live here?’

‘Yes. Do you know anyone here?’

‘No! I’d be afraid to live here,’ she said. ‘This is where the President lives – lower Manhattan’.

I don’t know about the President but Westbeth is a place of influential artists of world renown who also stand up for social justice. It is because Westbeth is sensitive to threats faced by artists around the world that I am here as ‘Writer at Risk’. Many of the artists have lived and worked here since the 1970s and have raised children who have known no other home but Westbeth. I am captivated by Westbeth’s sense of history. A Bell Laboratories Research Center in the heart of Manhattan converted for residential use by artists. I have never lived in a ‘landmark’ before, a place that is officially called ‘historic’.

I am friends with Jane, Deborah, Helen, and Chris, all artists of various disciplines at Westbeth. They have personally welcomed me to this Artists’ Residence and have enabled me to meet other artists in the building. Jane is a visual artist, landscape architect, and print maker. She looks out for me and makes sure I am comfortable. She and her partner are regular visitors to Chennai, my hometown in South India. Over dinner we exchange thoughts on stone carvings and South Indian coffee. Sandra, a theatre artist, and husband Ted, a film maker have helped me acquire bits and pieces of furniture for my apartment, a bookshelf and a chest of drawers. The Christmas Party at Westbeth had resident Bobby Harden’s ‘Soul Purpose’ band playing with everyone dancing and thoroughly enjoying themselves. 

  Bobby Harden and Soul Purpose. Photo credit: Ed Conway / Facebook

I attended the screening at Westbeth of Ted Timreck’s documentary and award-winning film, ‘A Good Dissonance Like a Man’, about the life of the composer, Charles Ives. Living at Westbeth is like being in the World Voices Arts Festival every day of the week. I contributed a short story to the Miriam Chaikin short story competition at Westbeth. This year’s winner will read from her story at an event at Westbeth on March 29. Elisa, an artist-photographer and friend from the 10th floor is planning an exhibition in the Westbeth Gallery in the spring. During the Literary Quest (one of the PEN festival events) on April 20, I will give a reading at Westbeth. Hadi, the Iranian artist and I will be the focus of a literary event at Westbeth on June 14.

Every event at Westbeth is an avenue for exchange of ideas, for cross-pollination of art. The privilege and blessing of being here cannot be quantified. Westbeth has become ‘home’ in an endearing sense of the term where my family can visit and know that I am safe. Westbeth represents accomplished artists engaging with the community similar to the Writers Workshop in Calcutta (that I am familiar with), founded and established in 1958 by the poet and publisher, P Lal. The Association of Nigerian Authors of which I was an active member, tried similarly to participate in the life of the community until it was severely disrupted by ethno-religious conflicts in the region. 

By Kanchana Ugbabe, March 29, 2018. 

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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