The Message, Not the Medium

Sidwell Friends guest artist Suzanne Firstenberg delivers the Rubenstein lecture and tackles the pandemic, empathy, and thousands of unfinished stories.

“In my art, you will see a theme throughout,” said Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, the 2020/21 Sidwell Friends guest artist at the School’s Rubenstein Guest Artist Lecture on May 2. “I take on topics where there has been a lot of discussion, but very little movement.” Perhaps no issue epitomized that theme so precisely as the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged the nation while the previous White House fumbled its reaction. In response, Firstenberg created In America: How could this happen…, an instantly iconic installment in the DC Armory Parade Grounds featuring more than a quarter of a million small white flags—each representing a coronavirus death.

Lee Rubenstein, together with his children Beth Rubenstein ’77, Barton Rubenstein ’81, and Amy Rubenstein ’84, created the annual Daryl Reich Rubenstein Guest Artist program to honor the memory of Lee’s late wife, Daryl, who was passionate about the arts and who curated many exhibits at Sidwell Friends and other galleries and museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. This year, Elizabeth Broun introduced the guest artist before the lecture. (Broun, the former director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery for 27 years, has also made a vital impact on the District’s artistic landscape with what Head of School Bryan Garman called “a remarkably diverse collection that chronicles and complicates our narrative about what it means to be a US citizen.”) Broun declared Firstenberg “one of the rare artists in America who can actually work on a large public scale,” and who tackles the big social issues of the day. “She understands the power of art to succeed in capturing an idea.”

“I wanted to use art to explain to people the real depth and breadth of this tragedy,” Firstenberg said. “The number of deaths in America got so extreme that people were ignoring it in a way.” The 270,000-plus flags, she said, each represent “unfinished stories.” She chose the flags for their movement and color: “I wanted it to have action. I wanted it to make noise. The flags, when they ripple, it is the only movement, and there’s beauty in that. But on a whole, when you look at this immense field, that white really looks like what it is: the flag of surrender.” Of course, even a quarter-million flags couldn’t keep pace with the pandemic. So Firstenberg partnered with George Washington University to create a digitized, geolocated version of the installment. Now, Americans everywhere can “visit” the flags and even add their own. “People haven’t been listening to words,” she said. “So, visual artists really do need to step up and fill the void.”

Firstenberg has filled that void across a spectrum of critical issues, from addiction to immigration. In doing so, she has used clay, bronze, wood, sharpies, flags, and even ice to express herself; as a result, there is nothing stylistically that connects her work. It’s why Middle School art teacher and Rubenstein curator Aaron Brophy said, “The common theme or the common material, the actual medium of your work, is empathy.” Firstenberg agreed: “You will not recognize my art visually. You will feel it viscerally. I do the opposite of artists in certain situations. I don’t concentrate on one medium and master it. I find a topic that matters to me, and I do a deep dive so that I can understand how I might make people feel differently or think differently about it.”

It is a philosophy she brought to Sidwell Friends Middle Schoolers who took a virtual field trip to Firstenberg’s huge Bethesda studio with Brophy. She started by asking the class who among them were artists. But before the students could answer, Firstenberg said: “You should all have your hands raised. You are all artists. Everyone has an artist on the inside.”

Click here to view a recording of the May 2 Rubenstein Guest Artist Lecture.

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