In the early 20th century, after the D&H Canal closed and Kingston’s preeminence as a port shipping out coal, cement and other extractive products declined, garment factories sprouted up along the tracks of the West Shore Railroad. Manufacturers seeking to escape New York City, where the unions had established a strong foothold and new safety regulations led to increased costs, came to Kingston, and by 1916 a thousand people were working in the local industry. A new exhibition at the Reher Center of Immigrant History and Culture, entitled Sewing in Kingston: Stitching Past and Present, provides a fascinating overview of the industry that dominated the city’s economy for 50 years, lingering into the 1970s.
It’s a story of immigrants, entrepreneurship, labor disputes, community, and women, who constituted most of the workforce (the more skilled jobs, such as cutter, which entailed cutting out patterns that preserved as much of the fabric as possible, was reserved for men). Through a user-friendly mixture of text enriched with fun facts and snippets of oral history, photographs, artifacts, and a vintage film, the show, housed in the center’s brightly lit second-floor gallery, also explores the connection of the industry to the present: while the large-scale manufacture of draperies, sweaters, dresses and the like are gone, the skills and technology centered around needle and thread continue to be a cultural and economic force in the city. They include small manufacturing concerns such as Community Manufacturing Solutions, which makes fabric components for furniture designed mainly for children with special needs; artisans, such as Connie Synder and Deborah Mills Thackrey, who respectively make bags sewn from repurposed woolen clothing and pillows and upholstered furniture using fabric printed with abstract photographic images; and home sewer Terri Gittens, who learned to sew from her grandmother and parlayed that skill into designing formal wear for clients and baby clothing sold at local flea markets. Maria Cabrera, an emigrant from Puebla, Mexico, opened her own alterations business and bridal shop after working for Kingston-based Tonner Doll and being sent to Parson’s School of Design by Tonner Doll president Robert Tonner.
On display is a promotional pamphlet from 1920, entitled “Beautiful Kingston,” illustrated with photos of the elegant Beaux Arts post office and the Wurts Street suspension bridge, as well as employment want ads from the manufacturers (“A Mighty Lucky Girl!” reads one particularly condescendingly ad). Employees of the Fuller Shirt Company had access to the company lunchroom, where beverages and food was for sale, a reading room stocked with magazines, a telephone reserved for emergency messages, and a supply of rental umbrellas, according to an employee handbook. Kingston Knitting Mills, which took up an entire block of Cornell Street, employed only men on its knitting floor until 1956, when it hired the first woman, Ukrainian immigrant Halina Szczawinsky, to operate the factory’s knitting machinery.
Some Kingston garment factories were unionized and others weren’t; among the latter, some owners claimed the high wages and good conditions precluded the need for union representation, but quotations from employees dispute that assertion. There were strikes, which in one case resulted the plant closing and the company moving to Connecticut.
One manufacturer’s business model would appeal today: Levine Bros. Bag, a major employer in Kingston’s Rondout before the area was decimated by an urban renewal project in the late 1960s, collected used burlap feed bags from farm co-ops in the region and after reconditioning and mending them sold the bags back to the co-ops for reuse. Levine Bros. also had a racially integrated workforce, reflecting the diversity of the neighboring community, as indicated by a 1950 photograph of employees.
Except for the corsets and girdles, a 1933 full-page newspaper advertisement from drapery manufacturer Wonderly Co. features products no less desirable today, such as grass rugs, “Bar Harbor Sets” of wicker furniture, men’s broadcloth striped shorts and silk pajamas. More recently produced items on display include a leather ergonomic Healthy Back Bag from Ameribag, which co-owner Margery Brody Gaffin designed after undergoing back surgery, a pair of stylish hats, consisting of a handmade fedora and cloche, from Toucan Hats, an edgy jacket sewn in white Tyvek by conceptual fabric artist Mau, who for many years had a studio in the Shirt Factory, and an exquisite festive dress embroidered by Kingston resident Conception Duran, with a design representing flowers, turkeys, and men taming horses that relate to traditional life in her native Oaxaca.
Reher Center board member Ward Mintz conceived the exhibition and curated the show with Reher director Sarah Litvin and Sarah Gordon, a curatorial scholar at the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History. After researching early 20th century Daily Freemans online he tracked down garment industry families and employees, learning their stories and collecting artifacts. “Going after the objects was a fantastic adventure,” Mintz said, noting that in a small town like Kingston one connection frequently led to another. Among the one-of-a-kind finds were an original sewing machine from Wonderley’s, a child’s Hopalong Cassidy sweater, part of an immensely popular line produced for Barclay Knitwear at Kingston Knitting Mills, and wooden shirt forms that architect Scott Dutton discovered under a floor after purchasing the Fuller Building (the building was restored by Dutton and is now rented out as office space and studios for artists and artisans, as is the case for many of the old factories, some of which also include residential lofts).
The Reher Center, located at 99-101 Broadway (entrance to the gallery is on Spring Street), is open from 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children under 12 and seniors 65 and over. A catalog for the exhibition has a suggested donation price of $35 (out of stock at presstime but new copies should be arriving soon). Starting in July, visitors may also take tours of the first-floor historic bakery and retail store, which was operated by the Reher family for the first half of the 20th century and deeded by Hymie Reher to the Jewish Federation of Ulster County, which raised the funds to preserve the building and establish the Center. Several professional guides will offer tours once a day on Saturday and Sunday through November.
Distinguished Artist Award
On Thursday, May 26, Kingston Mayor Steve Noble awarded the city’s 2022 Distinguished Artist Award to Jaguar Mary X, a performance artist, glossolalia vocalist, filmmaker and hoop dancer, in a ceremony held at City Hall. Former Distinguished Artist recipient Lara Hope spoke briefly of what the award had meant to her, and painter Julie Hedrick and composer and musician Peter Wexler, who shared the city’s first Distinguished Artist Award back in 2018, were in the audience.
There was a showing of Jaguar Mary X’s three-minute film “A Beckoning,” in which hands belonging to a pair of arms hugging a tree from behind variously caressed, tickled, gripped, stroked and danced over the bark, interpreting tree hugging as surprisingly sensual, followed by three short films in which a different narrator mused on the meaning of a particular word and told a personal story related to it (the words were “mysterious,” “satisfaction,” and “clarity”). The mayor then presented the award to Jaguar Mary X, a tall, striking figure whose long white coat seemed to emit light. They offered a libation “to the ancestors,” sprinkling water onto the floor from a tall container, and commented that the role of the artist “is to respond to the situation in the world at the present moment” and “take care of the earth and each other, to consider what it means to feel deeply especially at this time when we’re asked not to feel… As a black queer binary trans artist, there are challenges.”
In the artist’s statement posted on their website, kaliartproject.com, Jaguar Mary X writes that “the directives that have informed my own art practice involve black feminist discourse, questions of history, reality and truth as they relate to science and the unknown, the purpose of the soul/spirit in art. I am influenced by afro-futurist tropes and speech art theory.” They describe their performances as “interactive structures that involve movement, narrative and ritual practices like chanting, repeated gestures and gazing…Getting free…may mean investigating the ways that tyranny works on our battered psyches…determining what our ungovernable selves have in store for us and what they illumine.” Jaguar, aka Jocelyn Taylor, was active in New York’s downtown radical feminist and queer community in the early and mid 1990s, doing live performances and creating, curating and producing videos for public access TV and community media centers. They hold an MFA in Performance and Performance Studies from Pratt Institute and a BFA and MFA in film/video from California Institute of the Arts. Jaguar Mary X has received numerous grants, awards, and fellowships and participated in several residencies, including a project training LGBTQ Alaskan teens in video production. They created and ran a dance and meditation retreat located in Bali and Sedona for seven years, worked as a videographer in places as far flung as Indonesia and Switzerland, and currently have a show on Radio Kingston, Midnight Medicine Journey, airing Sunday through Tuesday. They also have a business selling handcrafted incense.
In a brief phone interview, speaking of her glossolalia practice Jaguar Mary X said “we are beings that have spiritual capacities, receiving and transmitting information through sound. It’s also a form of play, relaxing the mind, a form of meditation. The work I do is all about trying to unleash, unravel the language we’ve been taught.”
Hoop dancing is also a part of Jaguar Mary X’s practice, which they first encountered at Burning Man. “I’m using this plastic toy as a spinning portal, a dance portal. It’s a protective barrier when you’re inside of it. It also replicates what everything is doing and has a cosmic resonance.” Originally from Washington, D.C., they have lived in Kingston since 2019, following a performance at Rosekill, located in Rosendale, and subsequent residency at the Art Life Institute, located on Abeel Street. “Kingston is a hotbed of new ideas,” they said. “Artists are drawn to these smaller integrated communities because we can be part of these conversations. I’m adding to what’s already here with my specific set of skills and focuses and am incredibly proud for being acknowledged.”
The city received 27 nominations for 26 artists for this year’s award, which were reviewed and the winner chosen by an independent panel. The Distinguished Artist receives a $1,000 stipend and has a tenure of two years, over which time the artist must present some type of community-oriented project. “I hope it’s permanent and they do something with kids,” commented Kitt Potter, Kingston’s Director of Arts and Culture, at the reception following the award ceremony, although she stressed the artist is free to do what they want.
For the first time in at least 150 years Pinkster, a traditional African American festival that evolved out of the Dutch African experience in the 18th and early 19th centuries on the Eastern Seaboard, is coming to the mid-Hudson Valley. Held June 4 and 5, Pinkster is being presented by TRANSART, a Kingston-based nonprofit organization providing cultural programming and consulting services primarily, though not exclusively, focused on the African American experience. In 2019, TRANSART won a National Endowment for the Arts grant through the NEA’s Our Town program and after a two-year delay caused by the pandemic, the festival is finally happening. It will pay special tribute to the 19th-century abolitionist, speaker, and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, a former slave who won her famous case to free her son from enslavement right here in Kingston, at the Ulster County Courthouse. The program will feature an impressive roster of dancers, musicians, dramatic performers, and educational interpreters, showcasing the diversity of African culture.
Pinkster kicks off the afternoon of June 4 at the Walkway Over the Hudson Park Visitor’s Center in Highland, presided over by a statue of Truth. At 2 p.m. there’ll be a performance of Congolese dance, presented by the Mfouambila Kongo Dance Company, a New York City-based dance and drum collective founded by Andouche Loubaki, a master of dance and drumming from Pointe-Noire, Brazzaville, Congo. At 2:45 p.m., “Raw Truth,” a short reading taken from a full-length play written by Dr. Cesi Davidson, will be performed by professional actor Aixa Kendrick. Kendrick is an uncanny channeler of Truth, “who looks like her and has Truth’s countenance and intonation,” said Greer Smith, TRANSART’s founder and CEO (Smith noted that there are many misconceptions about Truth, including the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” attribution, which, as the New York Times recently reported, was never uttered by Truth, a Northerner who didn’t speak in Southern dialect).
Then, at 4 p.m., the Kingston Library will present Bonita Oliver’s “Seeking Truth,” a multimedia audio-visual presentation that’s described as a virtual museum about Truth’s remarkable life. Participants who register online can also view the program via Zoom.
On June 5, the action shifts to Kingston’s Old Dutch Church, with the 10:30 a.m. service dedicated to a Pinkster performance and talk, entitled “Joy is an Act of Resistance!” The Pinkster Players, a reenactment group, and actor Kendrick will present musical and dramatic performances centering on Truth and other individuals, followed by a discussion moderated by C. Daniel Dawson, a photographer, curator and professor in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University. The panelists will be Chief Baba Neil Clarke, a master drummer, scholar and member of the Pinkster Players; Lavada Nahon, an interpreter of African American history from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation; Alex LaSalle, a founder of Alma Mayo, a New York City-based bomba musical ensemble; and Dr. Davidson, who besides being an author and playwright is also a speech language pathologist and children’s communication and learning advocate. At noon, the Pinkster Players, Chief Clarke, and Pastor Rob Sweeney, from Old Dutch, will lead a celebratory walk from the church to St. James Church, where Truth worshipped, and then to Academy Green, where the Pinkster Celebration will take place from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Music by DJ Stormin Norman, Congolese dancing by FUSHA, drumming and dancing by Alma Mayo, and a presentation of a shortened version of “Raw Truth” will be featured. Tonya Hopkins, aka “The Food Griot,” will showcase culinary concoctions inspired by the Afro-Dutch tradition, whose ingredients include rice grown by a Senegalese family in Ulster Park. There will be craft vendors and a “Share Your Family History” booth inviting people to tell their stories and have them recorded.
Pinkster concludes with a screening of Sankofa at the Rosendale Theatre on June 8 at 7 p.m. The two-hour film is about a self-absorbed Black American fashion model who while on a photoshoot in Ghana is transported back to a plantation in the West Indies where she confronts the horrors of slavery. Following the film, Ethiopian-born director Haile Gerima will be present for a discussion. Tickets are $10, $6 for theater members. For more information on Pinkster, visit transartinc.org and click on the Pinkster link. Except for the film, all events are free.