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Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Local Heros

Our annual tribute to Capital Region residents who make a difference

Samson Contompasis

Art is an act of community and urban renewal for the Marketplace Gallery’s Samson Contompasis.

“Albany still views art as a pat-on-the-head kind of thing. We are the capital city of New York and I want us to start acting like it,” says Samson Contompasis, artist and curator of the Marketplace Gallery, an airy loft in downtown Albany’s historic industrial Greenbush Tape and Label Building. “There’s so much potential here, it’s retarded.”

The story of the Marketplace Gallery is, by now, just as pervasive in the local arts community as Contompasis himself, whose dark beard and ponytail cut a distinctive image at art events around the area. After a fire ravaged the gallery he and his two brothers ran last August, they reopened this February. Since then, Contompasis says, curating boundary-pushing shows and organizing local arts events has become “every second of my life, everything I make, the true love of what I do.”

The Marketplace Gallery has become a hub of “ultra-contemporary” street-art-inspired work, showing local artists alongside up-and-comers from New York City, Boston, France and Israel. But, as a born-and-raised Albanian, Contompasis feels a “moral obligation of cultural responsibility” toward enhancing Albany’s cultural profile as much as his own brand.

“[Albany’s] got this sad, broken image of dumb-ass state senators that fuck everything up for everyone,” he says. “Even the people who live in Albany have succumbed to this image. Art is meant to inspire, anger, love. It brings that out of them. It says, ‘Give a fuck!’” Having lived in cities like Portland, Ore., and seen how other postindustrial towns like Pittsburgh and Baltimore have turned themselves around by “letting young ideas work,” Contompasis has taken to collaborating on the kind of events that attempt to “shake people out of their chairs.”

Contompasis is a champion networker, promoting the work of the area’s artists with wild enthusiasm and spearheading a number of collaborative projects that have made huge strides in unifying the energy of the local arts community.

In July, the Marketplace Gallery teamed with the Historic Albany Foundation for HEAVY, a massive show of art, installations and music in Albany’s historic St. Joseph’s Church. Proceeds went toward the ongoing restoration of the landmark space, which has reciprocally become increasingly available to the arts community. “We’ve had three mayors in 100 years,” says Contompasis. “That shouldn’t even be legal. The only thing that’s happened is more and more buildings have been torn down.”

In addition to another St. Joseph’s event this summer, Contompasis is organizing a citywide show modeled on Atlanta’s huge Living Walls mural and poster show. “My intention is to find pretty much every bare wall we can get in Albany and access the world’s great street artists who are willing to come here and do something like this.

“We’re looking to change the entire scape of Albany,” he says. It’s both an artistic and cultural mission. “I want to go to a specialty macaroni-and-cheese shop in Albany. I want there to be seven coffee shops. It’s a matter of people needing to take a chance. I want my home to be as great as all the places that I love.”

 

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Carolyn Keefe

Carolyn Keefe, as cofounder of Birthnet and as an activist on the local and national levels, has been a tireless advocate for women’s birth choices and midwifery.

 

“Parents should not have to go into childbirth fully steeped in this to protect themselves,” says Carolyn Keefe. “They should just be able to go in and get the care we all deserve.”

Unfortunately, as Keefe, a consumer advocate for evidence-based maternity care and access to the midwifery model of care, has known for a long time, that’s currently exactly what parents have to do if they want to protect themselves and their babies from unnecessary and often detrimental interventions, hospital procedures that stack the deck against nonsurgical birth, and habits that interfere with the establishment of breastfeeding.

In 2001, Keefe, Tisha Graham, and Betsy Mercogliano founded Birthnet, a local organization that conducts public education and advocacy about evidence-based maternity care. Keefe also has served on the board of the national Citizens for Midwifery since 2002. “This is a much bigger issue than the few months women are pregnant and having babies,” she says. “We all pay into a health system, and we pay for the problems. The outcomes can impact mothers and babies for a lifetime.”

This past year was a banner one for Birthnet’s cause, and Keefe was in the thick of it. It started with the news that St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy was merging with Samaritan Hospital, and all its birth services moved to the new Burdett Family Care Center in the Samaritan complex. St. Mary’s has been one of the few hospitals in the region supportive of the midwife model of care, and its stats show it: dramatically lower c-section rates, higher VBAC rates, higher breastfeeding rates. With barely two weeks notice, right after New Year’s, Keefe and a couple of colleagues organized testimony—and turnout—for the state’s merger committee meeting, which doesn’t usually get any public attendance, let alone a room full of women with babies.

It worked: The committee required the physical layout of the center to be redesigned, required a midwife to have a seat on the board and on the medical committee setting policy, and took the unusual step of granting a limited permit, contingent on the type of care to be delivered.

A few months later, Keefe organized consumer support for the Midwifery Modernization Act, which removed the requirement for licensed midwives to have a “written practice agreement” with an OB (their competition) in order to practice. Despite active fighting from the OB lobby and veto threats from the governor, the MMA passed.

“Carolyn researches tirelessly, speaks eloquently, and cares deeply about improving the care women and families receive during their childbearing years. We in the Capital District are profoundly lucky to have Carolyn in our corner! Thank you is hardly sufficient,” says Betsy Mercogliano, a doula, midwife, and coordinator of Albany’s Family Life Center.

“There are still way too many women and babies experiencing unhealthy, inappropriate care,” says Keefe. “To see what happened this past year was amazing. It really restored my faith in democracy. Our impact was not the most money, the most letters after our names, the most inside connections—it was passion.”

 

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Liz Benjamin

Capital Tonight host Liz Benjamin challenges politicians and voters alike with her provocative coverage of New York state politics.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and think about how I’m going to tear people limb from limb,” says YNN’s Capital Tonight host Liz Benjamin as she paces back and forth in her office. “I prepare somewhat for interviews, but I have enough base knowledge that I don’t have to. I read up on all the clips and then I let an interview go where it is going and I think that is probably the smartest thing you can do as an interviewer—is listen to what a person is saying.”

While her intentions may not be to maim, Benjamin has earned a reputation during her 15 years as a political reporter as a room- storming, be-everywhere, take-no-prisoners journalist and blogger. It doesn’t hurt her tough-as-nails image that she is an accomplished triathlete.

Earlier this year, Benjamin transitioned from heading up the New York Daily News’ state political blog to television when she became the anchor of Capital Tonight on YNN. She still maintains her must-read blog, State of Politics, while delivering an hour of news and hard-hitting political interviews every night. “No matter how much people talk about ‘cable news is dying,’ people still get their news from the Internet and TV,” says Benjamin. “To meld two of them together makes a really powerful way to get information to people in a fun and cutting edge sort of way.”

The show came at just the right time, with state government falling into shambles, elections approaching, and an electorate largely frustrated with the political landscape. Benjamin delivers a nuanced show that educates upstate voters on the ins and outs of state politics and introduces them to the most important political players.

“I hope that I provide—on the best days—a show that is entertaining and informative, and I also hope people find it accessible,” says Benjamin. “I’m not an anchorwoman and I’m never gonna be and that’s OK—I mean for me. I don’t aspire to read news off of a teleprompter. I aspire to put shows together that are meaningful. We did a whole week focusing on redistricting reform. That is not something you get to do if you just read a teleprompter.”

Benjamin provided viewers a real service during the debates—and showcased her in-depth political knowledge—by asking tough, pertinent questions while other anchors looked lost. Benjamin was not involved in the gubernatorial debate that, while entertaining, interesting and inclusive of all the candidates, did not provide much substance.

It is clear that the political players are paying attention to the show. And buzz is building among viewers—there is currently a Facebook fanpage dedicated to having NY1 pick up Capital Tonight. So where would Benjamin like to be this time next year?

“It’s been so highly unpredictable, maybe Andrew Cuomo will be a hero and run for president. Maybe we will see the stars align and Mayor Bloomberg will run for president. I don’t know, but I think we are agile enough to adapt and I hope that we are still breaking news and we become a go-to thing that you’ve got to watch that is interesting, provocative and fun for people as well as informative. I’d like to be in the city as well, I guess eventually, sure. But like I told you, I don’t want to sit on a desk and read someone else’s news. I’m really not interested.”

 

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew

Co-founders of the Radix Center, husband-and-wife team Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew are showing Albany that sustainable urban living is as feasible as it is necessary.

“I was involved in a lot of activist work, particularly with the global justice movement in the late ’90s,” says Scott Kellogg. “A catchphrase of that movement was ‘Another world is possible.’ We would say it a lot, but we weren’t really sure what it meant. The activist community knew very much about what it was opposed to, what it didn’t like. What I wanted to do was come up with a model that we were actually in favor of . . . so that for every no, we would have a yes.”

In his quest for solutions, Kellogg and his wife, Stacy Pettigrew, connected with the permaculture and sustainability movements—and quickly became leaders in the field, establishing the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas, and coauthoring The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. Family life recently drew them back to the Northeast, and the pair are already shaking the status quo with their newest endeavor: reclaiming a vacant lot in Albany’s Mansion neighborhood for the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center.

Over the past two years, the couple have navigated the city’s murky legal waters. They succeeded in securing a zoning variance to do nonprofit educational work on the site, received approval from the planning department for an educational greenhouse—the plans for which are currently at the building department—and a variance allowing them to keep livestock on the site.

The bureaucratic waiting game certainly hasn’t kept them from getting to work. The once-vacant, trash-filled Grand Street property is now home to raised garden beds, composting and mushroom-growing operations, beehives, chickens, even goats. The team pressed cider on a turn-of-the-century cider press with local schoolchildren and have developed a youth sustainability curriculum around the Radix Center. They held two immersive Regenerative Urban Sustainability Trainings in Albany this summer—offering more than 85 people practical tools for implementing practices including urban aquaculture, rainwater collection, composting, mycoscaping and biofuel use. And, most recently, they established the Radix Community Composting Initiative, a curbside compost pickup service that serves double duty, reclaiming community food waste and generating organic material for the center’s gardens.

Both agree that there is a lot of work to be done in the Capital Region, but they remain hopeful about the area’s potential to emerge as a national leader in urban sustainability. And they’re determined to show Albany how it’s done.

“A lot of people only have vague notions of what it means to be green or sustainable,” says Kellogg. “What’s very important is to have functioning demonstrations of what this looks like. To show that this is something that anyone, even in an apartment building, can be engaged in. . . . to show that sustainability is possible, that the technical issues have been worked out, and that it’s something that is beautiful and fun—that sustainable living is not just about sacrifice, but is something that you will gain great joy and pleasure from as well.”

With the Radix Center leading Albany by example, Kellogg hopes “the idea of making this urgent transition becomes an adventure.”

 

 

Robyn Ringler

Bookstore owner and perennial activist Robyn Ringler refused to stand by while her Muslim neighbors were being mistreated.

It all started when Robyn Ringler decided to ask one of her Muslim customers what her life was like in light of the furor that was pervading the nation over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.

“She told me every day was awful and trying,” said Ringler, owner of Eastline Books in Clifton Park. But it was the woman’s description of a trip to a local apple orchard with visiting relatives, an excursion that ended in the family—even the kids’ backpacks—being searched that moved Ringler to take action. “I find that I have to speak up when something is unjust, especially if no one else is,” said Ringler.

Ringler heard about the boycott of Campbell’s Soup organized by conservatives angry that the soup company was starting a Halal line of products in Canada. That gave Ringler an idea for a way to show support for the Muslim community: a Campbell’s Soup drive.

When Ringler, using her store’s mailing list, sent out a plea for donations of soup cans to show support for the Muslim community, she was a little nervous. It’s not that she is a stranger to attention or to contentious issues—you might know her as the young nurse who took care of President Ronald Reagan when he was shot, or perhaps as the outspoken voice of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, or from her Times Union blog about gun control—but she has moved on to a new venture: an independent bookstore in the big-box-ridden, notoriously conservative suburb.

Ringler started the store about three years ago after realizing she had a retirement fund left over from her time as a nurse at the hospital where she took care of President Reagan. It was serendipitous to say the least. Ringler’s daughter had gone on to college and the mother had decided to move behind the scenes in her once-public crusade to stop gun violence.

After the initial mailing, about 25 people on the list immediately wrote back asking to be taken off. For a struggling bookstore, losing 25 people from your customer base can be devastating. But it wasn’t long before Metroland and later the Times Union highlighted Ringler’s efforts, and a whole new slew of customers came through her door bearing Campbell’s soup cans. They told her, “‘I didn’t know you even existed, but I had to support what you are doing.’ It was heartening to say the least,” said Ringler.

By the end of the drive, Ringler was able to donate over 800 soup cans to a local food pantry. But the end of the soup drive is not the end of her activism. Ringler has held fund drives for breast-cancer research and collected pocketbooks for homeless women; she is currently collecting letters for troops in Iraq, hoping to gather around 2,000. What inspired this drive? The husband of one of her customers has been stationed in Iraq for over a year. “He said it would be great if you could send 2,000 letters and I could distribute them to show everyone that they have support back home.” If Ringler’s track record is any indication, those troops should be expecting a lot of mail.

 

Photo: Joe Putrock

Peter Lesser

Peter Lesser, executive director of the Egg, is a longtime fixture on the Capital Region arts scene. His programming and taste have helped enrich our culture.

Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s vision for New York state had a large cultural component. This certainly affected the way the SUNY system was developed, but it was also a central part of his effort to build a government center here in the capital, Albany. The Empire State Plaza fulfills its purpose as a place to carry out the state’s business, both in the five skyscrapers that tower over the city and in the warren of offices beneath the plaza level. But the ESP is also a cultural center, with the New York State Museum and Library, a rich collection of publicly-owned-and- displayed art in the concourse, and the Egg, one of the most appealing performing arts centers in the area.

Peter Lesser programs the Egg, but he got his start in the North Country.

“I was living up in the Adirondacks, in the village of Saranac Lake, and at the time there was just no live music going on,” he says. So he did something about it. He got involved in subletting space from a local theater company.

“Local musicians played for tips, my wife made the coffee and cupcakes and I put up the posters. . . . Long story short, everyone had a great time, and it just sort of grew and we started [booking] some regional acts,” Lesser remembers. “It was our own nonprofit, the Java Jive Coffeehouse.”

Eventually, Lesser got involved in putting on outdoor concerts, which gave him the “bug” for the business. There were sporting events, winter carnivals and concerts, all over a five-year period. Then, he says, “I just happened upon an ad for the job of managing director of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.”

He was hired. Lesser’s success there led to his being recruited to become the executive director at the Egg.

“My primary responsibility is programming, which really drives everything else we do here. . . . I was hired to increase the amount and depth and quality of the programming,” he says. He succeeded.

His job also includes community outreach, and putting on shows for schools. There’s also been a little bit of fundraising on the side. “But now,” Lesser says, alluding to the state’s fiscal problems, “there will be a little more fundraising on the side.”

The great artists Lesser has helped bring to the Egg have included Laurie Anderson, Savion Glover, Kris Kristofferson, Mark Morris and Philip Glass. We hope he’ll continue to bring luster to the capital of New York, just as Rocky envisioned.


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