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From City Paper - Philadelphia's Leading News Weekly. April, 1995. by Robin Rice
"Too Close to Home, Merry Conway and Noni Pratt's walk-through exhibition exploring daughter-father relationships, is close to home in a West Philadelphia neighborhood far from the art galleries of the city. A whole team of technicians worked on the project. Text is everywhere. Film, video and audiotape all play a part. The setting is an abandoned space slated for renovation. It's now swept and scraped and clean but still bears the scars of years of use, a deep layer of memories. A big bottle of Jean Nate is labeled "Please sniff this". Like the "drink me" bottle in Alice in Wonderland the lemony scent is a passport to a new state of mind (different for each person). Adolescent diaries combine dismaying cultural revelations with artless charm. This exhibition demonstrates one way community people can be included in public art without surrendering professional skills and sensibilities. Parts of the show are collaborations with the community in which the materials which were contributed (objects and information) determine the content and much of the appearance of the finished work. This accumulation, artfully displayed, acts as a background to elements which were created as singular art works by the organizing artists. These most memorable aspects of the exhibition reflect Conway and Pratt's sense of what must be said. The whole communicates a feeling for completeness without finiteness which is very satisfying."
From Toys in the Attic, Philadelphia City Paper, March 17-24th, 1995 by David Warner
"There was no particular reason why Felicia should have been telling her story to a perfect stranger. She'd come to the Firehouse Farms Market in West Philadelphia because she'd seen an announcement somewhere about Too Close to Home, a community arts project opening about the Market at the end of March something about fathers and daughters. Now here she was telling this story to a stranger -- a visitor, like her, at the site of Too Close to Home -- both were close to tears. She'd already decided by this point that she would lend the bear to the project but here maybe was the reason -- that by sharing this memory with others, even anonymously, in the form of a cherished toy, she could tap feelings she had never expressed about a childhood lost and a father found. We're talking about unclaimed rooms in your own psyche, places you don't go that often, says Conway. Abandoned buildings mirror that. There's a freedom to use the space as something more flexible than you think of a building as being. And because it's not a house of culture, most people come not knowing what to expect. That's what's potentially evocative about the piece -- the choices that are made, the objects that are given, are fraught with private meanings, and yet anyone who visits will find their own memories stirred, in ways they won't even expect. The cards handed to visitors as they arrive are imprinted with the image of a key, and two promises: "I will keep your secret," and "I will help you remember." Too Close to Home is an arts project that benefits its community in practical, economically sound ways, and for that reason alone it's worth noticing. But its more profound impact may be that it offers access not just to an upper floor, but to something much more intangible -- memory.
From TheaterWeek, December 30, 1991 by Dorothy Chansky
For As a Dream that Vanishes (A Meditation on the Harvest of a Lifetime) Merry Conway and Noni Pratt spent four years assembling artifacts, music, film and movements to comprise an evening that oscillated between the down home and the cosmic. The unpredictability of the moment of death is the underlying theme that seems to make all of the details and the activities in the piece so poignant.
From Chelsea Record, Weekend Edition Chelsea, Mass., July 16, 1999 by Karen Minich
A SMALL MUSEUM WITH A GRAND EXHIBIT: The Small Museum of Women's Experience opened up at 210 Broadway on Wednesday. The interactive exhibit will close July 31. All of us are made up of a compilation of memories. Split second moments that define us. It is precisely these experiences that the temporary Small Museum of Women's Experience is all about -- sharing the wisdom and experience of everyday life for women in Chelsea. It is a collection of comments, pictures, memorability, clothing and more all donated by local women. It is a chance for Chelsea women to display what they consider to be a moment of their life's upheaval or growth. We give value to everyday things, things that are valuable to them, said Conway, who has worked in art and theatre for more than 20 years. In the tiny whitewashed 450-square-foot space, Conway and Pratt, Inc. created an interactive exhibit that displays culture and humanity through personal experience. The museum is a voyeuristic approach to the everyday. The exhibit captures the often overlooked beauty of the domestic realm. It is an exhibit that grows and changes with each day, constantly accepting the temporary donations of locals willing to expose a moment in their history. The crisp white walls and the stark black anonymous quotes seem to intensify the words of wisdom. "Everything you learn in the house isn't just drudgery. You're thinking." echoes one woman. Perhaps the most eccentric, yet telling pieces of the exhibit are the grocery lists that hang from the ceiling on golden strings.
From Metropolis, November 1996/Community by Darcy Cosper
Not long ago, public art was seen as an alienating presence in urban neighborhoods. Now it's something people care about and participate in. Merry Conway and Noni Pratt have a keen understanding of art's unique power to communicate and engage; their highly sophisticated yet profoundly accessible performance/installations seem to hew to Oscar Wilde's maxim that "Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself more artistic." Their ability to engage people individually and personally produced astonishing results in Too Close To Home, a project about father-daughter relationships that was created in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1994. The performance took place in an abandoned savings bank, the planned site of a new museum. Conway and Pratt were invited to create a piece that would draw attention to the museum prior to its renovation, demonstrating to skeptical city officials that art could be relevant to the lives of residents of New Bedford, which Conway describes as a sometimes rough, largely working-class city. And, as Conway says, they "hustled". They made friends with people at the diner where they had lunch, at the hardware store, and on the street, asking any and all for contributions to the "highly eccentric personal museum" they were putting together. They didn't want money, they wanted stuff. They were more than willing: more than 100 people from the area loaned a wild variety of personal ephemera for the installation -- eyeglasses, prom photos, saw blades, dolls, golf clubs, boots, any kind of object that might evoke a memory. In addition to notions about what is public and private, Conway says they were working with the idea of the home as museum, "the value of a million little homes." By emphasizing the intimacy of the collected objects, the project became a physical manifestation of the inner life of the community and of commonalities that linked people's individual homes and lives. The installation, when it opened, was well attended and well received.
Digital City New York: Museums and Arts June 3, 1998
Described as a "living museum" by its creators, Merry Conway and Noni Pratt, A Woman's Work is Never Done re-examines women's roles in turn-of-the-millennium America. It is both a collection of letters, photographs, and "objets d'womanhood" -- from clotheslines to cake recipes -- and a series of performances about the public and private aspects of women's lives. Don't miss the pillow-fluffing performance, the stern lecture on how to make a good chocolate mouse, or the other ironic vignettes.
From Newsday, Novemeber,1991. by Amei Wallach
In the raw-space basement of what by next spring is expected to be the Guggenheim Museum's outpost in Soho, Noni Pratt and Merry Conway have re-created the death of a very old man, both through performance and an exhibition of his life's detritus. The clutter -- so intimate it makes your skin crawl; so hilarious it brings tears to your eyes -- includes the sorts of things pushed into the back of bureau drawers, squashed into the bottoms of pockets, sifted and saved into boxes, basements, file drawers and closets. The point is to bring home both the meaning of death and of the unguarded, unglamorous, ridiculous moments that go into the making of a person's life. Our lives, of course, but in particular the life of Josh, a neighbor whom Pratt and Conway befriended and knew over the four years until his recent death at 97. They studied his habits in the small, fetid, debris-strewn apartment where he lived, they ran his errands; threw a 96th birthday party for him and for this installation almost exactly reproduced the particular corner in which he sat staring most of the time. Audiences are invited to wander the installation for a half-hour, then settle down on old chairs found on the street for a performance as excruciatingly slow-moving as the actions of old age. Actor Albert Ratcliffe, a former Presbyterian minister and former automotive-parts salesman, wears a red clownÍs nose that turns him into Everyman. In the end the production is majestic and swelling, a contemplation of death that can stand comparison with a Mahler symphony. Hard to figure out where the magic happens: probably in the details, like that endless five minutes during which the old man reaches into a box for a cracker and, in motion so slow it nearly stops, finally eats it.
From The New York Times, November 13, 1991. by Mel Gussow
As a Dream that Vanishes (A Meditation on the Harvest of a Lifetime) is part walk-through museum installation and part performance piece, the combined creation of Merry Conway and Noni Pratt, who are actresses as well as visual artists. As the title indicates, this is a contemplation of life leading to death. Entering the large, unnamed basement space, the future home of the Guggenheim Museum Soho, a theatergoer passes under a representation of Charon (played by an actor) rowing across the River Styx. This macabre initial image is replaced by encyclopedic introspection. In curio cabinets and on shelves are objects that could fill the attic of a gabled mansion. There are old photographs, antique hats, cracked pottery and other bric-a-brac, an accumulation of things one cannot bear to throw away. Most of the objects have no particular value, but taken together they are proof of possession and artifacts of existence. They once were and still could be meaningful. The installation is reminiscent of exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, one that was dedicated to the art of the English garden and included in its mementos Gertrude Jekyll's gardening tools and shoes. The Conway-Pratt exhibition, which has its share of spades and trowels, is similar microcosmic. This is not a random tag sale, but an artistically arranged exhibition of memories and memorabilia, organized by Gregor Paslawsky with a sense of self-parody. A theatergoer may wonder why such trivia is saved, and even cherished, and then remember similar objects undisposed at home. The eccentricity of the collections is like an Alice in Wonderland inversion of reality.
From New Art Examiner, Feb. 1989, by Raphael Ardeo
Coming off a dimly lit street in the East Village, one entered an unknown and unmarked narrow storefront space adapted to accommodate, for a few weeks, a very carefully crafted and thoughtfully presented performance. Merry Conway and Noni Pratt developed the material for In The Eye of the Beholder over a period of two and a half years and their performance was a model of care. Conway and Pratt's work seemed a call to origins, a reminder that the fullest expression in art can sometimes be found within the careful borders of a miniature painting. The work, styled as "a solo performance for two people", was mainly an enactment by Conway of 14 different characters (distinguished by changes in costume, gesture, intonation, etc.) who emerged in an evolution of identity. Pratt, present on the stage through out, amid a cluster of objects in the foreground, served as an active stage manager projecting films now and again test, such as a selection of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, changing the sound score and, toward the end, turning to face the audience to sing a medley of childhood bug sons, such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider". Later Conway, again as a girl, fell to the floor, in a kind of keening gesture, saying "I want to go to the dark world. Take me home." This honoring of the dark side and of the wisdom which our own unconscious might inform us of, emerged as the controlling voice in this pleasing and thoughtful piece.
From The Philadelphia Inquirer/Magazine. April 20, 1995 by Clark de Leon
The exhibit Too Close to Home is full of joy and sadness. Like real life. "Daddy. What a huge word. What a complicated idea. What a terrifying thought. What a disappointment. What a guy. What Daddy's little girl could tell Daddy about the first man in her life. What Daddy could tell her. It's all there in words and photographs, in music and tears. In the silence of empty closets and in the terrible truths painted on the walls of an abandoned firehouse in West Philadelphia, where for the last three weeks something remarkable has been happening. This exhibition/performance is called Too Close to Home and it's too good to miss. If you are a father or a daughter, you are bound to recognize yourself somewhere in the voices and artifacts and performances that combine to make this admission-free walk-through exhibition running through Sunday at the Firehouse Farmer's Market at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue such an unexpectedly powerful experience. The words and photos and icons that cover the walks were spoken or donated by residents of West Philadelphia to the creators of Too Close to Home, Merry Conway and Noni Pratt, two artists from New York who have used the experiences of fathers and daughters from the community to offer universal insight into the nature of this special, intimate, so-often painful and frequently unarticulated relationship. "What we're devoted to is shining light on things that otherwise might not be given attention to, and kind of making the invisible visible, finding an expression for that which lies beneath language"Í says Pratt, whose collaboration with Conway began in 1986. The larger story of Conway and Pratt's success in putting on Too Close to Home is the impact it has had on the residents of West Philadelphia "black, white, Asian, rich, poor and middle class" who have exposed their private lives in the show, and by doing so have discovered how much in common they have with neighbors of different races, incomes and backgrounds. "We've had big dose of two people seeing so clearly something we can't" said Bill Coleman, who operates the farmer's market. "I had no idea that they'd make such a rich tapestry out of so many different lives on these water-damaged walls." "We've lucked out" said Conway about people such as Coleman and the hundreds of others in the community who supported the project. "We keep running into obstacles but we keep running into people who are so busying saying yes rather than no.
From Wareham Courier April 28, 1994 by Josh Neimand
Too Close to Home, the inaugural exhibit at the Vault Building in New Bedford, is a sometimes hard-hitting, sometimes endearing look at the relationships of fathers and daughters. Too Close to Home is a startling presentation that takes the viewer from the staid Leave it to Beaver world of Ward Cleaver to the disturbing realm of the Roman emperor Caligula. But Too Close to Home is also something definitely not to be missed.
From Artists Hope to Draw Stairs - The Philadelphia Daily News March 10, 1995 by Valerie M. Russ
A pair of New York theater people have provided the spark to build a staircase leading to a shot of possibilities in a converted West Philadelphia firehouse. Performance artists Merry Conway and Noni Pratt, and volunteers, are installing a community-based art project on the top two floors of the Firehouse Farmers Market, near 50th Street on Baltimore Avenue. The thing is, right now, theres no way to get to the upper floors except by scaffolding to a second floor window. The art exhibit, an exploration of the relationships between fathers and daughters called Too Close to Home opens March 29. As a result, West Philadelphia community groups are scurrying to raise money to get a $27,000 steel staircase built in time. Now community leaders are excited that the new staircase means the empty second and third floors may become venues for local artists' shows and studio space and jazz concerts. And Richard Wilson, president of Cedar Park Neighbors, welcomed the chance to open the upstairs space at last. We knew there were two floors up there where the firemen used to sleep....We needed a good project to go upstairs and we feel this is it. Now the Staircase Project has generated a community collaboration that extends well beyond West Philadelphia. Duo taps community for items When theyre not working to get the upstairs at the Firehouse Farmers Market ready for their art exhibit on fathers and daughters, Noni Pratt and Merry Conway stand outside the market on Saturdays, asking West Philadelphians to donate items of the project. The New Yorkers moved into the neighborhood for their six-week stay in the city -- at the Paul Robeson House, 50th and Walnut streets. Anyone they meet, theyll ask Do you have photographs or personal items that belonged to your father or remind you of your girlhood? Pratt said, one woman whose father died 19 years ago told her: I don't have anything about my father -- except his bills. She kept them all these years. Another woman who Pratt met at nearby Monumental Baptist Church had an unusual keepsake: The only thing she had connected to her father was a rock -- it had all these colors in it. She kept it. Its really exciting to see how open the community has been. University of Pennsylvania professor Carroll Smith-Rosenberg said: They stand out in the neighborhood and get to know everybody. They invite people to come in and help construct this installation. Conway said experts can talk about issues between fathers and daughters such as absence, abuse, neglect and overprotection But they found that what ordinary people say as they loan the items illuminates, the way a line in a poem does, a truth that cannot be said in any other way.
From Installation Viewing Creates Strong Emotional Experience The Standard-Times New Bedford, MA April 23, 1994 by Richard Pacheco
. . . it covers new means of expression with a kind of visual poetry that combines with a theater-like experience. Too Close to Home often proves disarming and disturbing, full of unexpected emotional turns which slice through the psyche like a surgeons scalpel, revealing truths about the relationships of fathers and their daughters, at times funny or heartwarming , at other times, chilling. The final result is a wide range of emotions evoked, the work . . . [is] vigorous and compelling.
From The Art of Public Conversation: A Look at Anna Deavre Smith & The Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue Arts Around Boston Summer 1999 (by Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky)
The summer of 1999 brought a new group of artists to Boston. Performance and installation artists Merry Conway and Noni Pratt presented Small Museum of Women's Experience, which represented women who are survivors of homelessness, domestic violence, incarceration and refugee experiences.
from Our Work Is Never Done New York Post May 26, 1998 by Elizabeth Cohen
Crumpled grocery lists, a canister of old face powder from a deceased mother's vanity, a silk wedding dress with a beverage stain running down the front -- these items would be garbage to some people, memorabilia to others, but for New Yorkers Noni Pratt and Merry Conway, the heaps of detritus -- combined with 11 actors, three musicians and a giant, empty, industrial space in TriBeCa-- are the stuff their artistic dreams are made of. Too much of women's work has been invisible. asserts Conway, explaining the theme. Not after this installation, it wont be. For the next five weeks this spring they will train a spotlight on these invisible activities which are represented by the objects and stories they have choreographed together. Installations, a form of art popularized in the 1980s can be very superficial, says art critic Ann Wilson Lloyd. But the work of Conway & Pratt embeds narrative in a site in a very deep and personal way. It reads as absolutely authentic. What is remarkable, Lloyd points out, is the way they allow the public to participate in their creations by bringing in materials they incorporate in the work. Conway & Pratts work, a sort of archeology of the female psyche, is also big time art world fare. Like the temporary fabric curtains and wrapped structures of the artist Christo, it can only be viewed for a short while, but the recognition from their peers and the rave reviews have been lasting. Noni and Merry approach their work from an interdisciplinary artistic perspective, incorporating text, movement, dance, and music. points out Irene Mecchi, co-author of The Lion King and a Pratt and Conway fan. I dont know anything else like it right now.
from Conway & Pratt at the Vault Building Art in America December 1994 by Ann Wilson Lloyd
Vintage bank buildings, especially in small towns, seem to exude patriarchal authority. The New York installation/performance team Conway & Pratt crashed in on this with their recent project Too Close to Home, An Exploration of Daddy's Little Girl. The piece was sited throughout a vacant century-old structure that was originally a bank and is slated to become an art museum. . . . [An experience that] wrung every drop of emotional juice from this bittersweet, complex and highly fraught familial bond.