Interactive shadowboxes breathe life into the legacies of Village artists

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Interactive shadowboxes breathe life into the legacies of Village artists
A shadowbox featuring the playwright Lorraine Hansberry in New York’s Washington Square Park, Sept. 13, 2021. “Village Voices,” an interactive outdoor exhibition, honors Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock and more. An Rong Xu/The New York Times.

by Laura Zornosa

NEW YORK, NY.- At St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, there hangs a shadowbox — a square, 3D display case — containing a black-and-white photograph of Charlie Parker. His lips are pursed, his fingers are poised and he’s playing his saxophone with deep concentration.

In the top-right corner is an orange QR code. Scan it, and the voice of actor-comedian John Leguizamo begins, crisp and clear.

“A blazing jazz virtuoso and developer of bebop, Charlie Parker, or ‘Bird,’ as he was nicknamed, changed the course of music,” Leguizamo says. “He was a saxophonist, pioneering composer, an improvisational genius who ushered in a new era of jazz.”

Leguizamo tells the tale of bebop, the fast-tempo jazz style that Parker pioneered. At the height of his career, the saxophonist moved to the East Village, where the shadowbox now hangs.

“Trumpeter Miles Davis once said, ‘You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker,’” Leguizamo says. “He was a musician’s musician.”

The Parker installation is one of 21 shadowboxes displayed throughout Greenwich Village, the East Village and NoHo. Each one commemorates a site where a famed neighborhood figure — among them Jackson Pollock, James Baldwin and activist Jane Jacobs — lived, or where historic events unfolded. (The Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan exhibits employ augmented reality, and can be viewed via the Membit app.) And many of the boxes are voiced by current Village residents such as Leguizamo, including Alec Baldwin, Ed Norton and Joel Grey.

This interactive outdoor exhibition, “Village Voices,” created by the nonprofit advocacy organization Village Preservation, began Monday and runs through Oct. 13. Leslie Mason, a member of Village Preservation’s board of trustees (as is Leguizamo’s wife, Justine), spearheaded the idea last year.

“We want you to get an experience of seeing something and going, ‘Wow, who knew? Maybe I could do something like that,’” Mason said in an interview.

Not every passerby realizes to what degree Jackson Square Park, Washington Square Park and Christopher Park brim with stories of art, music and literature. But the addition of the voices of present-day neighborhood celebrities also may pique some interest, said Andrew Berman, executive director of the preservation group.

“It’s a way of engaging the public and connecting the present to the past,” he said in an interview. “These stories exist, but what you’ve got to do is figure out the ways to get people to tap into it and be interested.”

John Draper, whose shadowbox is on the eastern end of Washington Square Park, is relatively unknown in the current culture, but he remains deeply interesting: He took the first successful photograph of the moon, from the roof of the New York University Building.

Draper’s box features a replica of the mirror-reversed image of the daguerreotype that made history, speckled in black and white. Penny Hardy, founder of the design agency PS New York, who designed all 21 shadowboxes, used the daguerreotype as the base of a collage of a telescope, photos of the moon, and Draper himself.

There is, however, one box not associated with an individual. It represents the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

In March 1911, the deadliest industrial fire in New York history took place at that factory in the building at 23-29 Washington Place. Today, a shadowbox containing a miniature shirtwaist dress embroidered with the names of the 146 garment workers killed in the fire marks that address.

The garment workers were predominantly young immigrant women, and one of them used to live on Mason’s block. Every year, her name, Daisy Lopez, is written in chalk at the site of the fire.

Village Preservation tapped actress Kathleen Chalfant to record a voice-over for the box.

“It, in a way, was one of the moments in which the modern labor movement was born, both the modern labor movement and the idea of women at work,” Chalfant said in an interview. “So it’s enormously resonant.”

Chalfant, who lived for 20 years at the corner of West Fourth Street and West 11th Street in the Village, read a Robert Pinsky poem titled “Shirt” for her shadowbox segment. (The audio and digital components of the exhibition were conceived by Serge Ossorguine, a two-time Emmy-winning sound designer.)

“The infamous blaze at the Triangle factory in 1911,” she read. “One hundred and forty-six died in the flames on the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes.”

A few blocks southwest, at 58 Bleecker St., another shadowbox marks the building where the first and third women to earn medical degrees in the United States — sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell — founded the country’s first hospital with a female staff.

Sculptor and jewelry designer Jill Platner houses her studio in the same building today. “It feels very special, and it has always felt like it’s cared for people,” Platner said. “Anyone who walks in feels very comfortable here.

“And then when I discovered about the history of the Blackwells, about 15 years ago, I was floored and just like, ‘Oh, my God, that completely explains everything that I’ve been feeling.’ There is a history here of people being cared for.”

Learning that slice of history, in fact, led to a creative breakthrough for Platner. That same year, she launched a collection of more than 30 pieces — it was called Blackwell.

Leguizamo felt a similar tie to Parker. Although Leguizamo came to jazz later in life, he found it deeply powerful.

“It speaks to me as an artist: the improvisation, the freedom,” Leguizamo said in an interview. “Especially artists trying to break and change music like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. And the fact that he lived in the Village, the East Village, where I started my performance, was a big deal to me.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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