Harlem, New York has always been a universe unto itself, forever moving through time effortlessly, still seemingly living anew, setting the pace and trends for us all. This place, my home, knows how to evolve under pressure, and its denizens are prismatic diamonds walking these asphalted, gridded streets reverberating in staccato colors.
There are times where even the most idyllic of places, and don’t get me wrong, Harlem struggles with perfection, has difficulty adjusting to the blows of the external visceral violence such as the likes coronavirus has poured on us. The virus has enveloped spaces, homes — people.
We are laughing, raucous in the best way, bongos and congas in the park, dancing in the street people. We also happen to be deeply cultured. For over 100 years, we are known for being the host and home to artists. These artists are born here or arrive from all over the world to make their mark in the universe at our crossroads. This horrendous virus has altered in a deafening way how we artists survive and interact in Harlem.
Throughout this pandemic, the artist community has been gravely affected by the availability of galleries, performance spaces, and even alternative places such as restaurants in which to exhibit. These locations are closing because of the economic fallout in the wake of the virus.
And this is where I repeat that part about how the residents of Harlem are diamonds. For every 100 people who run out of a burning building, you have that one person running headfirst into that very same building engulfed in flames. In this story, that person is Connie Lee.
Connie is an ingenue who knows many things by keeping her cards very close to her chest. I had seen her multiple times at various art-related events I attended, and her name was a byword in many public and hushed conversations. She was one of those people whose notoriety preceded her. But I, like her, also know how to keep my cards close.
We met officially during the summer of 2020, and I had not intended on speaking with her beyond casual conversation. But I had insinuated myself into her space to interview and video the artist Capucine Boucart and somehow by accident investigate the curious Connie Lee.
And to my deep pleasure, Connie did not disappoint. For starters, she is on a one-woman mission of having a dedicated space for artists in no other place, her inner sanctum, her home. And yes, you read correctly, she is opening a private salon in the time of coronavirus but open to Harlem’s people. There is a slight tinge of irony in opening a somewhat public space when we live in mandated isolation.
Initially, her concept, which she calls, Living With Art, did not correspond with Covid-19. However, the virus allowed her to focus on salon-style exhibitions, develop relationships with specific artists and people interested in supporting women in addition to Black and Latina/o artists. Also, her clear target and prime area support are the artists from Harlem.
We danced around many creative themes, art histories, movements, and inspirations through the hours we spent together. The absolute highlight of our conversation was how do artists connect with collectors and all of the missteps we face. Connie identified one of the prime reasons being the flawed blue-chip gallery system. She believes this is one of the core areas that fail artists across the board.
Connie is no novice to the arts. One of the many art initiatives deeply related to Harlem is The Public Art Initiative (PAI), an ongoing program she created as President of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance. The PAI works with uptown artists to create art installations for Parks and other public spaces in East and Central Harlem.
Her ethos is to eliminate dated, implicitly biased norms and irrelevant art machines such as the blue-chip system. In this “old system,” Connie wishes to demolish, emerging and mid-career artists can access new or established collectors. We spoke at some length about how do contemporary artists come forward. And how these “kingmakers” are gatekeepers that offer no knowledge of the pulse of what is art at the core; they trade artwork as a commodity like it was coffee or chickens. In this paradigm, I must also expressly point to the additional burden of the outsider within the outsider structure BIPOC artists face.
Connie’s space eliminates the middleman, the pretension, and then offers context to the artwork. That last part, context, is essential; let me explain why. Let’s talk about what Connie’s space looks like and what it feels like to inhabit it. After ascending several iconic brownstone flights, you walk into a room flooded with southern exposed light. Most of her apartment is a dedicated gallery, including the walls, fireplace, table, shelves, floor, and pretty much any areas that make sense. Her curatorial eye is impeccable. She considers all of the details, texture, form, cohesion, composition, scale, and everything else that sparks in your mind after you’ve left. I have been able to see two different shows at the space. Here is the astonishing thing, these exhibitions are pulsing with life!
Connie spends her time photographing all of the artworks during many times of the day, morning, noon, and dusk, demonstrating to the social media viewer how the work adapts to the different facets of the day. The casting of shadows give the viewer a full “look-around” experience from home. When she feels led, she’ll move art around in the space. Switch a painting to another wall, move a sculpture from here to there, put clashing works closer together, and other times create harmonious visual clusters with similar textures or patterns. The space does exactly what it’s called “Living with Art.”
If artwork is purchased, she’ll replace it with another piece by the artist. Connie also makes sure she understands the needs and vision of the artists she curates in her space. Her methodology is genius in training inexperienced and experienced buyers to live with art and curate a collection without intimidating them. By showing what she does, she teaches viewers and possible buyers they can do it too. She is delicate, quiet, and nurturing. This energy is profoundly absent in the art world.
When a visitor arrives at her home, a patron can spend over an hour and slowly walk through her home absorbing the wondrous delights every artist has to offer. Connie then converses with each guest about what they are seeing, experiencing, and feeling, sometimes she’ll serve it all with a cup of tea, if you happen to be an outstanding guest.
Towards the end of our day, I asked what words she wanted to end our conversation on, “I am defining what working from home is for me. I have always had an open-door policy and have always welcomed people into my home. It gives me joy that people want to be here and that this space can inspire creativity.”
Some of the artists she’s shown at Living With Art Salon:
Susan Stair, Jose Soto, Capucine Bourcart, Beatrice Lebreton, Vivianne Rombaldi Seppey, Jaynie Crimmins, Gina Fuentes Walker, Leah Poller, Giannina Gutierrez and Elan Cadiz