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Festival Preview: Artful Aliquippa festival sharpens its edge

Friday, July 28, 2000

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Aliquippa Embraces Art -- the little festival that could -- celebrates its 8th year tomorrow with a parade that begins with a 10 a.m. drop by four skydivers onto Franklin Avenue in the business district, followed by entertainment, visual arts and other activities through 6 p.m.


Acoustic Stage

Noon-12:30 p.m.: Talent Show (performances by local students)

12:45-1:15 p.m. Sonia Yoon and Rick Gribeanas

1:30-2 p.m.: Nia Steelpan Ensemble

3-3:30 p.m.: Frank Bell (jazz)

3:45-4:15 p.m.: Lisa Clark (dance)

Cultural Stage

Noon: Trumpets of Joy (gospel choir)

1-1:45 p.m. Keystone Oaks High School Steelband

2:15-2:45 p.m.: Leah Davidson (singer songwriter)

3:15-3:45 p.m.: Cultivator (funky jazz)

4:15-5 p.m.: J.G. Boccella (pop, rock, folk)

River Stage

12:45-1:15 p.m.: Glory Gospel Choir

1:45-2:15 p.m.: Ambridge High School Steelband

4-4:45 p.m.: Jabali Afrika (afro pop, world music)

5:15 p.m.: Solomon Steelpan Company -- Steel lmpressions Steelband


Part neighborhood festival, part fringe art venue, the event which began as a revitalization effort in the economically bruised former mill town continues to expand and to sharpen its edge in the areas of installation and performance art.

New this year is a collaboration with The Hope Christian Center, which scheduled its annual carnival to coincide with AEA. The church will sponsor games, food vendors and colorful inflated spaces for children to explore.

Also unique will be a concentration of performances by steel drum bands that was organized by this year's artistic coordinator, Janera Solomon, herself a proficient drummer and member of the band Steel Impressions, which will play at the festival. The Guyana native -- and members of her family who operate the Pittsburgh-based Solomon Steel Pan Company -- have increased awareness of the melodious sounds of the drums through performance, educational classes and residencies in the schools. Her father, Phil Solomon, is a recognized steelpan maker and innovator.

Solomon, a 1997 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh where she majored in Caribbean studies, is also owner of Soul Gallery in Oakland.

Complementing the steel bands will be several gospel choirs and African-inspired music and dance performances.

For a change of pace, Pittsburgh performance artists Sonia Yoon and Rick Gribenas will bring their brand of droll hip to the Acoustic Stage -- one of three --while Josh Friedman will operate within a closet on the second floor of the GC Murphy Building.

The former variety store, once almost razed, is a success story in its own right. It now provides low-income housing on the third floor, and office space on the first. Sandwiched between, on the second floor, are a series of time-worn, cell-like rooms that have offered inspiration to countless installation artists since the festival's inception, and they continue to do so.

It is in one of these that ceramist Friedman has assembled a mysterious configuration of hand-formed, dough-like pads that are accompanied by a tape that plays the rhythmic sounds of their creation. His performance in an adjacent space, which derives from one of his artistic techniques, will involve the repetitive perforation of paper using the tip of a lighted incense stick, suggesting meditative considerations.

Drawing visitors to the Murphy Building is an eye-catching and provocative window installation by Paco Rodriguez that fragments and tips upside-down an oversized pearl-laced paper wedding cake. A black-painted banana protruding from the center of one pristine white layer, and a trail of red metallic beads that drape from another, make comment about violation and sexuality.

Next to the window, outside, an add-on wooden shelf holds a small red velvet pillow that cushions a curious white orifice attached to a black hose that snakes up the brick face of the building and disappears into the second floor. This is the work of David Rozzi and is one of a trail of like pieces that wend their way through the building like some organic creature that has evolved there over years of neglect. The whimsical and quite wonderful site-specific work invites communication in the manner of childhood oat box and string walkie talkies, the plaster-like openings being marked "speak" or "listen."

As has been the case for several years, the small cells of the second floor have been brought to life with an unpredictable array of more than 25 installations that surprise, engage, delight and invite discovery. Among the many notable are "The Tea Ceremony Project," Dennis Bergevin's admirable installation about ritual and living with HIV; Biko's startlingly powerful anti-drug "Crack Chair"; and Matt Ravenstahl's quiet play on drawing wherein he subverts expectations to inspire a deeper appreciation of line.

Also on exhibit is another "mattress piece" (a series of rooms that engulf) by Kim Eggleston, now teaching at Kent State. And two thought-provoking works by Chris Taylor, one of which contrasts the present and the past, challenging the viewer to decide which is which, and another that forces issues of symbolic space and what it is that makes one respond to ritualistic sites.

Too, don't miss two excellent installations by returning New York artists located in the back of the large gallery space at the top of the staircase. Tara Beall's "Pen for Pandora" -- which gains power and poignancy from its materials, all gathered on site -- and James Tomon's "Thirst" are simple, rich, professionally conceived and executed, and evocative. It is a testament to the festival's supportive attitude toward artists that they choose to return each year.

The large gallery itself, on its way to becoming a finished, permanent space, holds work by Aliquippa artists Betty Holinda and Dennis Lee, who have participated in the festival since its beginning and whose heartfelt photographic and collage works focus on the town.

There's also a children's room which features creating pysanky (decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs) with Rose Krupansky, or batik with Anika Tyson.

While this year's art is inside the Murphy Building, there's still plenty left outside from past festivals. Development Specialist Taylor will lead tours of works along the main street at noon, 1 and 2 p.m. Artists include those by Angelo Ciotti (1995), Robert Qualters (1994) and David Ludwig (1995).

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