Gap Year Travels: Urban Art in Amsterdam & Berlin

[This is the first of a series of posts about my travels through Western and Central Europe and Southeast Asia this Winter/Spring as part of my self-designed Alternative Gap Year. Click here to read more.]

Gorilla art alongside monolith cultural institutions. Thriving public transit systems. Cobblestones, curry worst and frequent breaks for hot tea. To say the least, I have thoroughly enjoyed wandering through Amsterdam and Berlin during my first days in Europe!

Most fascinating is the rich tradition of urban art that has sprung out of alternative and underground culture in Amsterdam and Berlin. I was delighted to discover urban art–graffiti art, guerrilla art, street art, etc–murals that stretch over the entirety of a five-story building facade, whimsical sayings or installations erected in surprising corners–is rife throughout these cities.

[See more pictures on my Facebook page.]

I couldn’t help but think of the artists who have invested blood, sweat and tears to share so many extraordinary pieces of street art (or is it “public art?”). Of course much of this activity is considered illegal in both Europe and the U.S. [See MSNBC’s coverage of Raleigh guerrilla artist Joseph Carnivalle, who was arrested for the creation of Barrel Monster.] Though urban art in Amsterdam and Berlin is often subversive and political, it is clear that this art is regarded by residents–and perhaps in part by the government–as a significant part of the cities’ contemporary cultural scene.

In Amsterdam, we visited the art squats, abandoned buildings overtaken by artists who inhabit often decrepit abandoned urban spaces (usually without proper heat or plumbing) and build thriving communities of creativity. A local proudly shared that Amsterdam is one of the few cities in Europe in which authorities permit art squatters to remain in a prominent, central downtown district.

In Berlin, we saw a great art squat that is credited with leading the revitalization of the Mitte neighborhood, which was split by the Berlin Wall and fell into disrepair during Soviet rule. Of course, despite such positive consequences, tensions between the government and art squatters arise periodically if not regularly.

Also in Berlin, we discovered the 50 Faces Project, a public mural project which is credited with revitalizing a particularly dangerous and gang-ridden block in the Kreuzberg neighborhood. The project was organized by a group of artists who call themselves Graffiti Connection. The artists teamed up and, on every imaginable surface of a building on this block, painted 50 portraits of Berliners. The striking portraits poingantly and proudly conjure a sense of compassion, tolerance, shared experience and understanding. Those of you who know me know I eat this kind of stuff up.

And of course, we strolled down the 1-km long stretch of the former Berlin Wall East Side Gallery, proclaimed the “International Memorial for Freedom.” Fittingly, the organizers invited artists from Berlin and all over the world (including an artist from Colorado of all places) to explore and examine this prominent part of European and world history. See images of some of my favorite murals below. Thanks for joining me on the first leg of my travels!

Also seen:

The Hub Amsterdam — Great contemporary space of entrepreneurship and collaboration in a gorgeous building just off Canal Ring!

Bicyclers galore in Amsterdam — I’m told there are more bikes than people in Amsterdam. Chic bikers in trendy boots, scarves, skirts and tights peddle in every direction, in some cases toward the multi-level bicycle parking garage!

Amsterdam Public Library — Six floors of materials and shared space, bustling with people of all ages, topped with a very cool cafe overlooking Amstel River and the city.

Anne Frank House — Very moving and well done museum experience, which also houses the Foundation Otto Frank established to promote tolerance among youth. Also, Van Gogh Museum — Honestly, a bit of a disappointing look at my favorite artists’ work. More stuffy institution than interactive, engaging experience. Still the Museum offers an interesting look at Van Gogh’s development and an extensive look at the work of artists who influenced him over time (naturally, this list is extensive).

American Book Center — Very cool center for international exchange and excellent bookstore in a great space also referred to as the Treehouse.

Topographies of Terror — A look at the institution of terror, a dense collection of images, documents and text about the institutional structures of the Nazi regime, erected at the site of the former SS headquarters.

Agathe Snow at the Guggenheim Berlin — How appropriate: “reclaiming” the the world’s monuments, landmarks, and historical sites.

Amsterdam Red Light District, Vondelpark and Film Institute, Museum Island of Berlin, Brandenburg Gate

See other posts in this series:

Gap Year Travels: Modern Jazz in Prague, Mozart in Vienna

Finding the Ehle Family: Discovering Homegrown Artistic Legacy in NC

Who doesn’t want to receive a five-pound bounty of Swiss chard every other week during the winter from the local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Co-op? Buying local is all the rage. I confess I feel a surge of satisfaction when I make a local purchase–it feels good to invest in my community and also to avoid toxic economic systems (read: oil conglomerates, imaginary number-conjuring bankers, farmer-abusing Walmart practices). So what about Community Supported Art? I had not given much thought to local art until I stumbled across the Ehle Family, when I discovered a rich legacy of artistry and leadership from my home state of North Carolina.

I knew I would like John Ehle and his writing when I first heard of him. A talented writer from Winston-Salem (via the lovely Asheville, prominent in his writing) in the tradition of fellow native North Carolina son, Thomas Wolfe, Ehle is also an accomplished activist. In fact, Ehle served on former North Carolina Governor Terry Sandord’s staff. Long fascinated with the intersection of art and activism, I savored John Ehle’s nuanced, Appalachian-infused writing (I just finished the lovely novel, Last One Home, last night at 1 a.m.) as well as accounts of his accomplishments as an education and equal opportunity activist.

“If I were to write a guidebook for new governors, one of my main suggestions would be that he find a novelist and put him on his staff,” said former Governor Sanford of his work with John Ehle, according to Ehle’s bio. Indeed, John Ehle is a homegrown leader and artist. There is something particularly rich about art and literature that speaks to one’s home, that illumines shared history and identity rooted in a place. Further, a community is enriched and empowered to witness such visionary leadership from one of its own.

Naturally, I was delighted to hear back from a “Jennifer Ehle” on Twitter a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned how much I was enjoying Last One Home. She agreed that the book is lovely and confirmed that she is indeed a “proud daughter” of the writer. Clearly I had not done my research and was soon to discover the bevy of artistic talent within the Ehle family. Later that week, the local alternative newsweekly’s glowing review of the recently released film, The King’s Speech, happened to mention casually that “Winston-Salem’s own Jennifer Ehle” portrayed Myrtle Logue in the film.

Now, I had just seen The King’s Speech the week beforehand and had promptly decided it was the best film I’ve seen in awhile. To say the least, it is the only film I’ve seen, after which the audience sat and clapped to a dark screen. Next, I discovered that Jennifer Ehle portrayed Elizabeth Bennet in the lovely PBS Pride and Prejudice Miniseries. Every time I visited my Aunt and Uncle, they sat me down to watch it and gush about the actress from their own Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Not surprisingly, the Mother and Wife of this family, Rosemary Harris, is also an accomplished actress.

Image via

I was delighted to share an exchange with Jennifer on Twitter about a recently published interview with her father and her role in The King’s Speech. Though there are many other instances to artistic heritage in North Carolina, (O.Henry, Eva Gardner, Charles Frazier, Romare Bearden, Doc Watson, Ben Folds, among many others), I have thoroughly enjoyed “getting to know” the Ehles. Though I am still unsure if I am pronouncing this native North Carolinian family’s name correctly, I am enriched by the discovery of their talented, generous artistry and leadership. I anticipate future discoveries of artistic and community leadership from the multifarious community that is North Carolina.

Any leads for future discovery of North Carolina roots and legacy? Similar discoveries of your roots? Share them with me below and keep in touch! Subscribe to my RSS feed and say Hi on Twitter.

Steve Lopez’s The Soloist: Art & Activism

Sure, it is beautiful, but what does art really do for me, you and this big, flawed world?

Though perhaps an unfair question, this attitude is common in our market-driven left-brained society and, frankly, one I’ve had to reconcile as both an artist and young person interested in social justice. This is why I find the intersection of art and activism so compelling.

The Soloist, written by Steve Lopez, offers a charming and honest look at the power of art and the role of an artist in depicting and solving community problems. In fact, the city of Greensboro spent last month reading this book, awakening our collective conscience while attending book discussions, theater performances and workshops about mental illness and art.

Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, is transfixed by Nathaniel Ayers, a street-dwelling, grocery cart-toting, sometimes-mumbling man who daily performs the most revered classical masterpieces on his mutilated violin in a tunnel in LA’s Skid Row. As it turns out, Nathaniel was a rising star studying music at Julliard during the 70’s when schizophrenia suddenly unhinged his life. Nathaniel was left vulnerable to the gripping whims of mental illness, which dismantled his ability to function anywhere other than society’s fringes. He has been homeless ever since, wandering the streets of Cleveland and LA, rehearsing and communing with his sacred Beethoven. Herein lies the first triumphant act of art in this story: the healing power of music–the solace and refuge Anthony finds in his moments spent with Beethoven–as he navigates the streets and his own mind. No, art doesn’t get Nathaniel off the streets, but it enlivens and enriches his life within the circumstances.

Upon publishing the story, Lopez finds many others are also drawn to Anthony’s story. He receives a ration of letters and small collection of donations for Anthony, including a brand new cello. Lopez, as artist-writer, witnesses his art become a catalyst in a movement to address the injustices suffered by the mentally ill homeless population and, presumably, “fix” Anthony’s situation (this, of course, is more complicated than originally thought). Thus, art, again, rises to the occasion–as communicator of pain and injustice, instigator of mass concern, response and action.

Still, Lopez is forthright in that he doesn’t necessarily welcome the responsibility he feels for Nathaniel. The remainder of the book finds Lopez puzzling through friendship with Anthony, navigating concerns such as: how he should use the resources he has to cajole Anthony into treatment, how he desires to see change and improvement in Anthony’s life both as friend and as artist, his feeling of obligation as someone with more resources, who is responsible for exposing Anthony’s story, and thus, for protecting him and for helping him.

The Soloist offers a fascinating look at how art and artists–tangibly and intangibly–inspire life’s triumphs, and more so, attend to life’s tangles.

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