The final note of Molly Hay’s take on Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” was long and deep, ringing out straight from the gut, and her audience noticed.
“Nice gut,” shouted Erin Signer, a 29-year-old Albany woman who’d already had a turn at the microphone inside the Classic Theater Guild on lower State Street.
The room was practically empty but for a drum player and three, maybe four onlookers. Bright fluorescent lights exposed a stained carpet and walls lined with art. A table of cheese, crackers, fruit and candy sat at the center of the room.
Hay laughed at Signer’s comment, which was offered warmly, the kind of friendly encouragement shared between fellow singers. Hay explained how her voice coach used to make her lie on the floor, fill her gut with so much air it looked pregnant, and then belt out a note.
“You gotta breathe in as much as you can for those long notes, push your belly out as far as you can so you have that stored air to really push out the note,” said Hay, pushing her black-rimmed glasses back up her nose.
The 20-year-old was hoping some more people would filter into the building on the warm evening. After a four-month hiatus and years of decline before that, Art Night had returned to downtown Schenectady in full force Friday.
There were displays in bars and along Jay Street, inside Proctors and downtown businesses. Some establishments promised a stage and a microphone, encouraging singing, poetry readings and other creative expression. Not every place had a lot of visitors. But the enthusiasm that had been missing from the once-monthly event had returned, propelled by a new organizer and a diverse group of local artists.
“Expressing yourself is very important, especially in a community that seems to have lost it almost, you know?” mused Hay. “We’re trying to bring it back, get it bigger, so people think of Schenectady as a fun, artsy place to be. Because we’re really cleaning up nice and the arts are really important. Schenectady used to be hoppin’. It used to be poppin’ off back in the day. I don’t know what happened, but we’re trying to get that back.”
Mitch Messmore launched Art Night in 2007, but announced this May that his heart was no longer in the monthly event. He had gone abroad and fell out of touch with it, and getting volunteers and vendors to participate was growing increasingly difficult. When Schenectady artist Chris Brown heard the news, he knew he wanted to take it over.
A few things have changed. Art Night will now be quarterly, not monthly, allowing for more time to round up painters, sculptors and musicians to participate and get venues on board. In addition, it will be more spread out across downtown. Brown got more establishments involved — local bars, cafes, restaurants, an architecture firm, music store, sub shop, a biker bar, tattoo parlor and more.
He had planned for more than 100 artists to show their work, but after some last-minute cancellations there were about 70 on hand Friday night, including Brown himself. His art stood out among half a dozen exhibits inside Proctors. In fact, it glowed. Literally. Fluorescent paint of all colors covered several canvases in globs and splatters and drips. A black light set up on the floor cast a purple glow over the canvases, where several pairs of cardboard 3D glasses hung.
“I was in a band in the mid-’90s and in our practice room we had black lights all set up,” said Brown, explaining the genesis of his work. “I used neon pencils at the time, because I used to be a sketch artist. And I had the thought to go into the kitchen and into a box of Count Chocula and grab the toy glasses out of there.”
He bought fluorescent paints after that and began experimenting. His work has been on display in New York City and Buffalo, where he went to college. Since returning to Schenectady, he has come to know local artists of all kinds. With the help of some friends, he recruited dozens of them to show their work Friday.
Alyssa Mitchell had only shown her work at Bonobo Café in Albany and in her Etsy shop online at lyssadee.com. She got a call this week asking if she’d like to haul an exhibit out to Proctors.
So on Friday, the 25-year-old Albany woman sat next to a table covered in yellow cloth and topped with a vase of dried flowers and a dozen whimsical prints she draws by hand and digitally colors. There was a bike with a bouquet of flowers spilling out of a straw basket and bow tie-wearing birds drawn in thin scratches and clusters of teardrops filled in with pink watercolor, eggshell blues, watermarked yellows and aquatic greens.
“I’ve been doing art all my life,” she said. “I used to use a pen tool to trace around the design, but it looked too perfect, which is something I didn’t really like. So I’ve been doing more hand drawings. I like imperfections a lot. It has a fresh and quirky quality to it. I also really like flat images without perspective and folk art. I don’t know why, but I really am drawn to flatness.”
Eighteen-year-old Shannon Curtis brought a different style to Art Night, choosing to exhibit darker works — a fang-bearing spider with horns drawn in black ink, a bleak vista of snow and icicles borne from a perpetual solar eclipse, a close-up look into the eyes of a forlorn chimpanzee.
She has been to prior iterations of Art Night as an onlooker, but was asked to exhibit this time by her sister, who helped revive the event.
“This is a good way for people like me to get out and show another side of themselves,” she said.