Jane O'Hara, Joy Askew and Gretchen Primack: A Program on Compassion for Animals

by Celia Watson Seupel, guest blogger

“Right Here” by Jane O'Hara

“Right Here” by Jane O'Hara

It’s Wednesday April 13 th , early morning. The sun is just striking the tops of the buildings, the traffic is still rousing itself, and the streets are quiet. I pick up the singer/songwriter Joy Askew from the corner of 77 th and Lexington Avenue, NYC in my van. We are heading for a celebration of animals and compassion in Pleasantville, New York.

Throughout the entire month of April, The Nature Center at Pace University in Pleasantville will host events, performances and educational activities for Earth Month.

Today, Compassion Arts is presenting, “Animals and Culture in Art.” Poet Gretchen Primack and painter Jane O’Hara will be joining with Askew to create a multi-dimensional event. The performance will raise awareness of the need for compassion towards animals, including farm animals and wildlife, while also demonstrating a kind and creative way of communicating that message. Sometimes, by using arts and culture, the message of compassion can be more profoundly offered and understood in a different way.

The Nature Center at Pace is part of the Dyson College Institute for Sustainability and the Environment. Its main purpose is to promote general education and awareness around environmental and sustainability issues. A perfect place to celebrate and talk about the lives  of animals! A big shout out and thanks to Angelo Spillo for helping to make this special event happen.

Gretchen Primack, Poet

Gretchen Primack, Poet

Primack, who says she’s interested in writing poetry that raises consciousness, starts off by reading from her powerful book, Kind. From “Ringling,” an elephant’s musing begins:

Maybe someday you will trick
for me.
Maybe I will find value in you
on one foot.

Primack’s poems punctuate O’Hara’s compelling presentation of her paintings. As O’Hara shows us large, projected images of her paintings on-screen, she tells us more about her journey to veganism and her paintings’ symbolic meaning. O’Hara tells us that she believes the only way people can continue to do what they do to animals is to avoid the reality. “People need to believe these [animals] are not sentient beings,” she says. “I want to talk about what happens to animals in the real world.” Not to shock us with graphic horrors, but to help us understand animals as the individuals they truly are.

Jane O'Hara, artist

Jane O'Hara, artist

Blue Ribbon by Jane O'Hara

Blue Ribbon by Jane O'Hara

For example, in the painting “Blue Ribbon,” with her surrealistic mix of symbolism and fine realistic detail, O’Hara explains, “the calf is scared, isolated.” Separated from mother and security, maintained as an object.

In the second half of the presentation, Askew plays across the spectrum of our emotions with her plaintive and powerful songs.

Joy Askew, Singer/Songwriter

Joy Askew, Singer/Songwriter

In one song, Askew chants a poem of Primack’s backed up with her previously recorded, haunting chorus of “Mercy,” the poem’s title:

“… Our mouths
are glossed with fat.
Leave your gods
at the door:
there is no room here
for even one …”

“We have choices,” says Primack. “It’s about respect, the use and abuse of power.” Students come away from the 1 ½ hour presentation moved. “It was very powerful,” says Jessica Pernicaro. “I like how they used the different mediums to present the message.”

Devin Newman, an older student and also a veteran, says, “It’s good for the younger kids to have these perspectives.” Newman, who is not vegan but has lived with others who are, adds, “It’s about where you put your money. Every dollar you spend is a vote! I wish the performance had been larger, a bigger venue. This would hit home for a lot more people!”

As a center committed to the environment, says Spillo, animal enrichment and compassion are a natural fit. He hopes to do another, larger Compassion Arts event in the near future.

About our Guest Blogger: Celia Watson Seupel is a poet and journalist who lives in New York City. Her books include a memoir about trying to save her brother from obesity, Eating the Shadow.