On the evening of Friday April 4, 2014 LatimerNOW held ‘Creative Spark,’ the first of its series of Latimer Lounge events at the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens. The building was once the home of Lewis H. Latimer, an African-American inventor and electrical pioneer who Thomas Edison’s chief draftsman, and helped improved the light bulb by perfecting the carbon filament.
The theme of the event: “Creative Spark,” drew on the creative sparks of Latimer himself, who in addition to being an inventor was an amateur artist. the event explored the inspirations of all kinds of modern day artists in Queens, from poets to comedians to chefs. The event was organized by the Edward I. Koch Fellows who are working with the Latimer House as part of a pilot project called LatimerNOW, which is sponsored by the Historic House Trust of New York City (HHT) and funded by the New York Community Trust. The goal of the pilot project aims to turn Latimer House into a relevant historic site and essential community resource in Flushing.
The opening reception was catered by Spicy Wild Mango and at the reception two recording stations were set up to explore creative sparks of attendees. One station posed the question: “If there was a briefcase filled with artifacts that described my life and interests, it would contain ______.” This station’s recording device was located was an actual briefcase filled with items that Latimer might have used, including sheet music (he played the flute). The other station was a steamer trunk, which in addition to audio, recorded video as well, and asked participants, “If you could do anything now, what would you do and why?” Guests also had the chance to take photos of themselves in a photo cut-out from one of Latimer’s parties. Many people at the reception remarked that despite living so close, they had never been to the Latimer House until now.
The central part of the evening’s event was a series of short Pecha Kucha presentations in which local artists shared their creative sparks and/or had the chance to perform after being introduced by emcee and Latimer Fellow Monica Montgomery. As an icebreaker Montgomery had everyone introduce themselves to their neighbors and answer the question: “How were you creative today?” In addition cards asking “What sparks your creativity?” in both English and Mandarin were passed around to the audience members to fill out.
April is National Poetry Month, and Lewis Latimer was also an amateur poet, and as such poetry had a central place in the event. One of the poets who presented was Ramya Ramana, the New York City Youth Poet Laureate. The poem that won her the position of Laureate was “Miss America,” sparked by the racist twitter backlash that Nina Davuluri received after becoming the first Indian-American to win the Miss America Pageant. The other poet who spoke and exhibited her work was Audrey Dimola, a writer based in Astoria, Queens, who in addition to composing poetry also writes quotes and sayings in public places and takes photos of them. Wendy Angulo, spoke about organizing poetry events and the connections she has made among Queens poets. Lastly, Cequyna Moore, HHT Administrative Coordinator, read one of Latimer’s poems.
Sami Abu Shumays, a musician and practitioner of traditional Arab music, as well as Deputy Director of Flushing Town Hall, opened up his presentation by engaging the audience in a call and response improvisational tune. The purpose of this exercise was to point out the universality of music, and that no matter what our background is, we can all sing together. Shumays worries about the disappearance of traditional arts and spoke about the importance of preserving them, especially in such a diverse place as Queens.
The comedian Sana Khan bases her comedy on the identity crisis she faces as a non-practicing Muslim and U.S. born Pakistani-American. Most of the audience members were already familiar with the (culinary) artwork of chef Stephanie Tisdale of Spicy Wild Mango, having tasted her delicious vegetarian pot stickers and lettuce wraps at the opening reception. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980’s she learned how to cook from her mother and by reading all the cookbooks in her local library. Always willing to try new things, she isn’t afraid of experimenting in the kitchen and encourages others to do so as well. Joel Holub, Latimer House caretaker and writer, closed out the Pecha Kucha portion of the evening, reading a few “flash fiction” pieces he had written including one about an old light bulb he had found in his grandfather’s attic.
Following the Pecha Kucha presentations, Latimer Fellow Courtney Cohen read a tribute to Dr. Winifred Latimer Norman, the recently deceased granddaughter of Lewis Latimer. Through her efforts Winifred had been central in preserving her grandfather’s house and legacy. Courtney had known Winifred personally and talked about the wisdom she had passed on to her, including to remember where she came from.
The hope is that “Creative Spark” is just the first of many Latimer Lounge events and that more members of the community attend in the future. Lewis Latimer was a man who wore many hats and we hope his legacy can inspire Queens residents of all kinds.