National YoungArts Foundation’s animated short takes flight

Kelsey Ables

THE WASHINGTON POST – When the National YoungArts Foundation asked Bronx-based artist José Parlá to contribute an image of a bird to a collaborative film, Parlá went for a seemingly unremarkable one: the house sparrow. Perched on a bench beside a Midtown businessperson or hopping on the curb alongside a SoHo shopper, the small brown bird is as ubiquitous in New York City as the sound of sirens. They leave no surface untouched and no city dweller alone.

Parlá, who draws inspiration from the city he has lived in for 25 years, sees the bird as a representation of the people. For the film, Together, he renders one in swift, calligraphic brushstrokes – as unique as a signature and as anonymous as a scribble.

Together, which debuted on the YoungArts website, features work by 18 artists, who were each commissioned to create a bird. The works – polymer clay, embroidery on canvas, paintings – have been animated by Igor + Valentine. The final product, a four-minute-long short, is a collage of moving images set to meditative music by YoungArts alumna Nora Kroll Rosenbaum.

Together boasts contributions from big-name artists like art-market star KAWS and Shepard Fairey – of Barack Obama “Hope” poster fame – both supporters of YoungArts.Fairey’s contribution, a brown thrasher rendered in red ink, has his signature street-inspired wheatpaste look, and KAWS’s bird is immediately recognisable for its X-ed out eyes. But with an eclectic array of contributions – there is a cartoony, triangular bird by Isabela Dos Santos and a more abstract creation from Sheree Hovsepian – the video is less about individual artists standing out than it is about mixing disparate artistic styles. Bringing artists together that you would be unlikely to see congregated in a single gallery – let alone on the same canvas – the video is born of experimentation necessitated by a covid-19 world. YoungArts said it is meant as a message of solidarity and interconnectedness. And at an arts-starved moment, it’s a visual treat.

Artist José Parlá is a mentor for the National YoungArts Foundation. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

YoungArts Board Chair Sarah Arison said “Together” is an effort to look beyond the Zoom gala as a means of fundraising and a way to keep artists working on commissions at a time when opportunities can be scant. It is not the first time the organisation has produced a film – in 2016, YoungArts celebrated its 35th anniversary with Transformations, a short-film series highlighting alumni across different artistic disciplines – but “Together” is a larger effort, uniting not just alumni of YoungArts programmes but guest artists and mentors like Parlá to fundraise for the organisation.

YoungArts will sell 1,500 stills from the film, many capturing interactions between birds by different artists, priced at USD175 each. The unorthodox initiative is not unlike recent trends where buyers can co-own artworks. Half of the proceeds, Arison said, will be put into the hands of artists, through commissions, micro grants or other means. The other half will go toward YoungArts operations and programming, the centrepiece of which is a national programme for emerging artists, writers and performers ages 15 to 18. The programme aims to cultivate young talent, connect awardees with peers and professional mentors, and support their careers throughout their lives. After 40 years in operation, YoungArts has 20,000 alumni, among them actresses Kerry Washington and Viola Davis and singers Josh Groban and Nicki Minaj.

Like many arts organisations, YoungArts has responded to the pandemic by reexamining its mission and prioritising acute concerns, the biggest of which is unemployment. In April, an Americans for the Arts survey reported two-thirds of independent artists found themselves without work. Then, in August, the Brookings Institution estimated that, of all creative industries, “fine and performing arts” were hit the hardest by the pandemic, losing nearly 1.4 million jobs.

To respond to the crisis, YoungArts created a system to distribute emergency micro grants to programme alumni. In March, the group also teamed up with five other arts organisations to create Artist Relief, raising USD20 million to distribute unrestricted USD5,000 grants to artists for basic needs. More than 160,000 artists applied for the grants.