Hanne Tierney, an East German-born Jane of many artistic trades, describes herself as a “typical autodidact, an eclectic and insatiable reader.” Her wide-ranging interests are evident in her work.
Since her first performance at The Kitchen in 1980, she has written her own material and has created stage productions from stories as diverse as English schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 Flatland—which uses geometry and dimension as springboards for discussion of the existence of God in Victorian life—to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. She’s also performed throughout the world, from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to theaters in Berlin, Paris, and Sydney.
Her niche, she says, is “theater without actors. Everything I do is an experiment. I want to create theater without the realism of human subjects.”
If you’re not exactly sure what that means, don’t worry, for despite this vague and hard-to-envision description, many of Tierney’s efforts are rooted in the real world. The proof is FiveMyles, a vibrant, not-for-profit gallery in the heart of Crown Heights that Tierney developed in 1999 to showcase the work of under-represented artists. The 3000-square-foot former garage serves as a community center, art gallery, and rehearsal venue for local residents and also provides Tierney with necessary studio space to develop her own projects—from installations and performance pieces, to puppet shows for grown-ups.
The impetus for FiveMyles was tragedy: the death of Tierney’s son, Myles, an Associated Press cameraman who was killed 11 years ago while on assignment in Sierra Leone. Myles had originally located the building that became the gallery; he had intended to use it as a residence and workplace when he returned from Africa.
Although the pain of losing a child is ever-present for Tierney, she is surprisingly upbeat and proudly refers to FiveMyles as “the most distinctly utopian gallery in New York.” Hyperbolic? Maybe. But unlike galleries and museums in which the community and art world fail to intersect, the frequently ringing doorbell on the frigid January day in which we meet makes clear that people in the neighborhood see FiveMyles as an easily-accessed destination for viewing art. As visitors look around, Tierney touts the gallery’s ongoing connection to Crown Heights’ largely black denizens. “Ever since our first exhibit of photographs by African journalists, the community has assumed that this is their place,” she says. “It’s a safe haven for kids, a place where there’s always something for them to do or see.”
Indeed. Last year alone, FiveMyles hosted a Hip Hop Summit organized by Educated Voices that featured artists including Giselle May, Tron, and Gibran K. Brown; exhibited 44 paintings by adolescent inmates on Rikers Island; sponsored a community barbeque with performances by Djarara and dancing by Special and the St. Johns Place Summer Dancers; and ran a total of six well-reviewed art shows and installations that included work by Setor Attipoe, Mildred Beltre, Engels, Rana Khoury, Adam Niklewicz, Jorge Rojas, Andra Samelson, and Rebecca Smith.
That said, running a community gallery is not easy and Tierney notes the tightening of foundation purse strings. This, she admits, has made reaching the gallery’s $130,000 annual budget a scramble. Nonetheless, when Tierney describes FiveMyles’ summer programs for kids, she beams. “One year Michael Britto, a local photographer, got a few cameras together and took everyone around to take pictures on the block. One of my favorites was of a dead plant on a fire escape. Another year there was this great sculpture thing created by Wendy Hirschberg out of found objects that people came in and added to.”
This sense of community ownership isn’t just talk. In fact, it’s what first drew Hirschberg to Hanne Tierney. “I had attended early openings at FiveMyles and over the years noted that, unlike the East Village scene where a chauffeur was dropping clientele at the door so as not to have to interact with the burned out ‘element,’ at Hanne’s openings the neighborhood was inside the door,” Hirschberg recalled in an email. “I approached Hanne to be an Artist in Residence one summer, attracted by her engagement with race and with her active involvement with the community.”
Similarly, visual artist and educator Meridith McNeal—a colleague of Tierney’s from Fort Greene—calls her “one of the most inspirational people I know. She has a true generosity of spirit that touches all who come into her orbit. She has created an oasis with FiveMyles, presenting top-notch contemporary art in such a way that all feel welcome.”
For her part, Tierney takes the accolades—including an Obie Award for off-Broadway excellence—in stride, as if exemplifying the idea that you’re only as good as your most recent exhibit or production. Perhaps her lack of guile comes from the fact that she is completely self-taught, a working-class woman whose parents sent her to apprentice in a spinning mill at the age of 14. Or perhaps it’s because she’s always worked, doing everything from being an au pair, to making pâté for high-end restaurants and gourmet shops, to writing for women’s magazines and the International Puppetry Journal.
In the end, the whys of Tierney’s humility and perseverance don’t much matter. “I’m a good story teller,” she admits. “But I can’t paint or draw. What I see is gesture, movement, and drama. I love symbolism and getting symbolism out of abstraction. Gertrude Stein explored theater as landscape and that idea interests me very much, as does Minimalism, an aesthetic I’ve imbued.” Her next large-scale piece—still a work in progress—will likely involve moving pieces of fabric on and off the floor as a way of illustrating several 18th century Chinese stories.
“My work usually takes me between 18 months and two years to complete. It’s a slow process,” she shrugs. But rather than bristle at the slow pace of creation, Tierney is happy to let ideas simmer. After all, her days are more than full, what with juggling her administrative duties at FiveMyles, doing fundraising, publicity and promotion, and coordinating gallery activities.
Retirement? Not likely. While other Baby Boomers dream about leaving the world of work, Tierney just shakes her head, making clear that she needs both creative work and community engagement to give her life focus and meaning.
As she speaks, she becomes a character much like D, the grieving middle-aged protagonist of her recently produced adult-themed puppet show, My Life in a Nutshell. In the denouement of that production, D is described by a narrator: “And D is left, and what is left is what she knows, and what she knows is what she does.”
That’s Tierney: An artist, producer, performer, and community Den mother, doing what she knows, exploring what she doesn’t, and loving virtually every minute of both.
Tierney will have an installation and performance piece on display at the Katonah Museum of Art [katonahmuseum.org] from February 28 to June 10, 2010.
FiveMyles is located at 558 St. Johns Place, between Classon and Franklin Avenues. A show featuring the work of Elizabeth Josephson will open on February 13, 2010.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.