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Pink Satin Chair: Remembering Anya Lewin’s Cornershop

1.  Buffalo was a lonely place to live. 

I’ve never known a place that was so vital and so bleak at the same time.  Where I felt so much a part of a tight community—the intellectual and artistic community that centered around the University there—and so deeply isolated.  In my estimation, it wasn’t the long winters or the city of Buffalo itself so much as the location and design of the SUNY North Campus that made it easy to feel lonely as a poet-transplant to Buffalo.  For a while there was talk among the Poetics Program people of opening a clubhouse type of space downtown (where most faculty, students, and artists lived) to remedy the sense of isolation produced by the remove of the North Campus and its prison architecture.  We imagined a place with books, tables, and a xerox machine where people could hang out, drink coffee or beer, work, and talk.  Unfortunately, the plans never got past a meeting a Robert and Penny Creeley’s house.  Come to think of it, that night is perhaps the isolation Buffalo circa 1995 in a nutshell.  There we were—about thirty or forty of us—sitting together talking about our isolation.  There is the power to make or break whole (existing or virtual) communities in architectural design and urban/suburban planning.  Often it is only the labor and small projects of individual people that can begin to undermine the social oppression of cityscape disasters.

2.  The first time I met Anya

was on a warm and muggy grey early-summer day.   She was new to town.  She’d moved from Santa Cruz to study in the Media Studies and English Department.  And, now, here she comes walking down Richmond Street.  She’s funky and down-to-earth and right away I like her. 

Anya was great to know.  She had a frugal and a decadent personality both.  Always on top of the household nuts-and-bolts with her somewhat fretful and anxious Jewish energy, while taking a Romantic’s pleasure in the sensual.  Her hedonist side was evident in her video work—she made these luscious, delectable video pieces full of delicious bodies and yummy food.  She was really fun to be around—so much so that it was easy not to notice how steady and hard she was working.  She got things done.

3.  E.g. Cornershop.

I moved away from Buffalo for a year in 1997-1998 and when I came back it felt like Buffalo had changed.  I returned to a place somehow much more welcoming.  Maybe Anya’s Cornershop project was related to the shift I felt.  Whether yes or no, Cornershop made our fair city much fairer.

Anya had moved into an apartment on top of an old boarded-up storefront that the landlord said she could use if she wanted.  Anya did, and she cleaned, painted, and built a wall or two.  She got a grant for some chairs from the Grey Chair and opened for business.  The programming at Cornershop was great.  It was both a gallery and a performance space.  It brought in really interesting work from out of town, but more important to me was the chance to see the work of people I was living among in Buffalo.  I lived surrounded by artists who I knew were making great work but whose work I rarely got to see.  And the Cornershop space was perfect.  Beautiful big windows and high ceilings—but very intimate.  Anya curated shows with the work of Isabelle Pelissier, Melissa Kern,Caroline Koebel, Susan Bee ,Michael Beitz, Lara Odell.  There were poetry readings by Susan Howe, Rosa Alcala, and Alan Gillbert to name a few.  Going to an opening or reading at Cornershop was something I really looked forward to.  In a way, it was the clubhouse space we had imagined several years earlier chez Creeley.  Cornershop had a subtle but profound effect on our community.  I fell in love with it and when I moved away from Buffalo I tried to copy Anya’s project in my new home, Portland, Oregon.  Only now, having run an art space myself, do I understand the incredible sacrifice and commitment it took for Anya to put Cornershop together.

4. Cornershop closed

after Anya left Buffalo and it was a great loss.  Every community should have its Cornershop.  I remember there was a pink satin chair that Anya’s friend from Santa Cruz made for her and which she brought with her to Buffalo. It was perfectly Anya this faux French style Chair of Decadence.  She used it for the readings at Cornershop.  And it seems to me, looking back now, appropriate that she seated her guest artists in this chair of hers.  Cornershop was an expression of her creative genius.  It was a work Anya made that allowed for so much other work to come out into the open—a place, a seat, she provided for us.
Alicia Cohen