Monday, September 14, 2020

From the Mosh Pit of Punk Rock: To Somerville City Councilor


From the Mosh Pit of Punk Rock: To Somerville City Councilor

I met Kristen Strezo at The Somerville Times Annual Dinner some years back. At our table were columnists Jimmy Del Ponte, and Bill Shelton. Among these folks with the gift of gab, Strezo impressed me as an articulate and dynamic presence. So a couple of years later we finally got a chance to talk, not in person but virtually. 

Tell us about your experience in Somerville. It was once described as the "Paris of New England."  Does that ring true for you? 

Somerville is truly one of a kind. I am inspired serving Somerville surrounded by so much creativity. My goal is lift up our artists, musicians and creative class of residents, to do all I can to help us all thrive, including support during the pandemic shutdown. 

You became a Somerville City Councilor at Large during the pandemic.  How do you conduct business now?

I never imagined I’d be sworn-in during a pandemic! Of course, now, some aspects of the job are different than how they are traditionally done. For one thing, I have not had a chance to sit at my desk during City Council meetings and committee meetings are also now held over Zoom. 

During a pandemic with so many diverse needs, City Council has had to respond to a wide array of pressing issues as quickly and effectively as possible. Some of the changes I hoped to make as a City Councilor—like climate change issues—have been slightly  sidetracked in the face of the new pandemic-related challenges. My priority is the health and safety of my constituents. Other priorities—like addressing food insecurity—have been fast tracked through this crisis. 

But, safety protocol is paramount and keeping our COVID numbers down is vitally important, so we cannot for a moment let our guard down yet. I know I will eventually be able to sit at my desk during meetings and see my colleagues in person. Like many of my

constituents, I’m impatient to get back to regular life. However, for now we need to remain cautious. 

What do you attribute to the low rates of infection in our city? 

We’re a city filled with a lot of intelligent people who get it. We prioritize public health, understanding that it’s key to everyone’s best shot at successfully navigating this new normal. I feel like in Somerville, we’ve truly accomplished this COVID response as a team. I’m happy to hear so many people take their roles seriously from mask wearing to looking out for our neighbors. I’m proud of us as a community. I believe in us. 

We hear that folks, including many artists are being forced to move from the city because of gentrification. Artists have really given Somerville its cache. How do you plan to address this issue?

If we lose our artists and creative residents and some of the people that make Somerville so captivating, we lose a part of our soul. I worry about our small artist businesses making it through. I worry about our creative residents being able to stay in their homes and studios. I have heard from some artists that they cannot get to their studios. Some can’t afford to keep their studios. Through close contact with the artist community, I have been listening intently and tailoring my advocacy to reflect those conversations. 

I also worry about the emotional health of our creative residents during our COVID shutdown. Many musicians rely on the energy of the audience while they perform. But, how do you do that in 2020? We have so much more work to do to support our creative community in Somerville. 

Thinking forward, I’d like it to be standard and implied that all future developments that establish in Somerville choose Somerville artists for design work on their offices and properties. That way, we maintain our Somerville character while supporting our community as the city continues to grow. 

In your bio you said you were a singer in a punk rock band.  Tell us about that. Did you bring any of the things you learned during this time to your role as a politician?  I imagine stage presence is one.

My message of social justice remains the same—my voice is just expressed through a different medium of public office! When I told some of my former bandmates that I was running for office, they said that they were not surprised and that they were proud of me. As a performer I was always focused on singing about how we can fix our world. So, I take that energy with me as a public servant. 

You got a degree in journalism from Harvard University Extension. Tell us about your forays into the world of writing. 

I’ve always felt that our personal stories guide us to learn from each other and heal as a society. After writing lyrics and singing my messages to audiences, I wanted to write them down to connect with my audience on another level. 

I love to write and I always thought journalists were the best writers. So, I studied journalism to become a better writer and in the hope that it was contributing to healing the world through the stories I focused on.

I had a great time in school but I wasn’t your typical grad student. In addition to my full-time class schedule and Harvard magazine internship, I was a mom of two kids while caring for my elderly grandmother. I leaned into the experience, writing about the struggles of it all and focusing on wanting graduation bad enough to make it through the tears and adversity. 

My perspective resonated with my professors and I was honored to be chosen to give the commencement speech to my graduating class. I carry that moment with me, because it helped me understand that there is power in vulnerability. That lived experience has value and can help others who are living through something similar. It’s something I think about constantly as I work with my constituents—we are all trying to do our best with what we have. 

Do you consider yourself an artist in any way?

Being a performer and singer is in my blood. I spent over a decade in bands as a lead singer in a feminist punk band. We toured and performed all over the country. I still sing on stage when I can. In Somerville, I’ve sung at Porchfest and at the City’s menorah lighting several years in a row. And I never miss a Honk! festival.

Sunday, September 13, 2020




Interview with Doug Holder

I talked with Amanda Hill—the artist who created the wonderful mural at the Cambridge Health Alliance site in Somerville. A lot has been written about the mural—but I wanted to get a little more about the artist --in her own words.

From her website:

“Amanda Hill is a multimedia artist and muralist living and working in Greater Boston.

Hill's work is rooted in the deep exploration of objects. Hill elevates the status of her subject matter, heightening what many considered to be commonplace. Her paintings demonstrate an interest in color theory, color relationships, and structural tension.

Hill takes a special interest in a community's ability to make and experience art, as such she regularly designs, consults, and coordinates mural and placemaking/public art projects.

Hill received a BA from Smith College (Northampton, MA), and an MS in Nonprofit Management from The New School, Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy (New York, NY).

DH: Although you don't live in Somerville now--do you still feel a strong connection to it?

AH: I lived in Somerville for about two years before I moved to Malden. I do still feel a strong connection to Somerville. I have fabulous memories from my time there, living with my partner for the first time, backyard bbqs, pottery classes Mudville the list goes on… I still frequent a number of restaurants and cafes in the area. I also have a good number of friends who are still in the Somerville area. I grew up on the South Shore, and went to college in Western, MA so I definitely feel a strong connection to Massachusetts and the Boston area as a whole.

DH: Do you come from an artistic family?

AH: Yes and no—a good deal of my family was drawn to music rather than the visual arts. My maternal grandmother was a concert pianist and played with the Boston Pops. She was incredible for her time. She was a professor of Music at Wheaton College, graduated from New England Conservatory of Music and attended the Fontainebleau School. She also traveled with the USO giving concerts. In terms of a career and the gig-economy, I would say her career was most closely related to mine. My maternal grandfather was a structural engineer who toyed with painting as an adult. My mom also has a natural talent for the visual arts and is quite adept at the piano. My twin brother has always had a natural talent for the piano as well, but he went into accounting and finance. One thing that my mother, brother, grandfather, and I have all had in common is a love for manipulating space—we love to be outside and often take on large building/gardening projects.

DH: You seem to have extensive experience with public art. In some ways is public art more vital than art in museums? Do you think it sparks interest in people who never really thought about art?

AH: I have been around/practicing public art since a sophomore in High School. My first foray into public art was with the organization Tape Art that is based out of Providence, RI. In reference to museums vs public art, I wouldn’t say that one is more vital than the other—each are equally vital. However, I do believe that museums can lack accessibility. Museums tend to carry a certain stigma (and often a large admission fee) that can make them inaccessible or even uncomfortable for some to visit. This is one reason why I went in to public art! Public art is one of the most accessible art forms out there. I do truly believe that it can spark interest in people who have never really thought about art or have had minimal exposure to art.

DH You did the mural at the Cambridge Health Alliance building in Somerville. What has the feedback been like so far?

AH: The feedback has been great so far. I had a number of visitors while I was putting up the piece who comment on how much color and levity the mural brought to the space. I haven’t heard any complaints as of yet J

DH: I see that you have a strong business background—and studied Business at Harvard, etc... So many talented artists complain that they don’t have a business sense. This has probably helped your career as an artist—am I right?

AH: I have what I consider a very weird career trajectory. I drifted to the administrative side of the art world for about five years. I went to grad school, co-founded a nonprofit, and worked in operations and philanthropy before switching to working freelance and concentrating on my own artistic practice. Overall, my business/non-profit background has been helpful to my work as an artist, but I would also say that sometimes that business sense does get in the way of my work. I have definitely struggled with the lack of structure my artistic practice can sometimes take whereas the business side is relatively structured and constrained. Striking a balance can be difficult.

DH: You often use unused spaces for your work. What do you look for when you pick a site?

I don’t often pick my own sites. I love working on all types of walls and structures. Most of the time, squarish, flat, untextured, unobstructed walls are some of the best canvases. With that said, walls that are irregularly shaped or textured can be very interesting to work on too. Mainly, I think is visibility is key—can the viewer take in a piece and see the work as a whole?

DH: Tell us about upcoming projects?

Right now, I don’t have any public solo projects that I am working on. As it goes, projects that I had lined up a month ago have changed course and either been postponed or cancelled. I am in the process of finishing up some work for the City of Chelsea. Since June, I have been working as one of two lead artist/coordinators. Together with the City, we have organized a number of artist calls and hosted virtual artist-mentoring groups. We will be putting up a variety of painted murals and wheat-paste pieces by local artists in mid-September along Division and Cherry Street in Chelsea, MA.

I am always looking for gigs, so feel free to get in touch if you or your community is looking to install a mural or public art piece.