In the News: The Five Senses of Newport

The Five Senses of Newport by journalist Sean Flynn originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 17, 2016 explores Catalyzing Newport’s Sensory Week with visiting catalysts, Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez and Cindi Malinick including the sensory installation that took place at Bike Newport on Thursday, December 15th.

NEWPORT — Catalyzing Newport, an initiative conducted by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, completed its “Newport Sensory Week” on Friday, the culmination of a series of events designed to connect residents through sensory experiences of the city, start dialogues and assist with cultural planning here.

Leading these events was Estevan Rael-Gálvez, who developed and wrote the first cultural plan for the capital of New Mexico called “Culture Connects: Santa Fe — A Cultural Cartograph.” The plan focused on how culture can be leveraged for the vibrancy, health and well-being of a community.

“I love history,” Rael-Gálvez said. “I love storytelling and creating experiences for people to understand the past and the present and to make connections between the two.”

Among the offerings the past few weeks were micro-memoir workshops for residents conducted mainly by Tyler French, a graduate student in the public humanities program at Brown University. The texts were made on small sheets of paper at the workshops and through some audio recordings.

People told brief stories through associations with smells at the Edward King House Senior Center on Nov. 30, and at other locations. The “micro-texts” were mounted on a wall of Bike Newport, 62 Broadway, Thursday evening. It was one of many exhibits that wrapped up Sensory Week.

“One of my favorites was from a woman who talked about the smells of lobstering boots,” French said. “Her three sons were lobstermen in the 1980s.”

“She hated the smell of the boots, but loved the feet that were in them, she told us,” he said. “The communication really opened up afterwards. People made connections to each other through their memories.”

Similar workshops took place the week after Thanksgiving at the Park Holm Senior Center, Newport Art Museum, Gather, a herb shop on Broadway, and at Rogers High School.

Rael-Gálvez was with a group on Wednesday that took cupcakes from the Cru Cafe on Bellevue Terrace to a Jose’s Chop Shop barbershop on Broadway.

“I like connecting barbershops and pastry shops,” Rael-Gálvez said. “In communities I’ve worked in and visited, I like going to barbershops. They are often centers of storytelling.”

It was no different here, with the group, shop customers and staff all sharing memories of Newport.

Catalyzing Newport is a three-year exploratory initiative designed to ignite innovation and cooperation among the many cultural organizations the city. Now in its third year, the state Council for the Humanities uses an artist-scholar model that draws upon established experts like Rael-Gálvez as “catalysts.”

This initiative and more than 20 such events over the years were funded by a grant totaling more than $500,000 from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, said SueEllen Kroll, director of Catalyzing Newport and director of grants & strategic partnerships for the Council for the Humanities.

Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, participated in the pop-up exhibits at Bike Newport and in conversations with other organizations such as the Preservation Society of Newport County and the Newport Historical Society.

“What does a vibrant and connected Newport sound like?” Rael-Gálvez asked Thursday evening.

Visitors could listen to comments made by community members in the exhibit called “Resounding the Cottages.”

Two students and three teachers who had never been to The Breakers on Ochre Point toured the mansion and recorded their messages.

Also this week, there was an event called “Sensory Pathways” led by Helen Papp of the Newport Tree Society. She brought about two dozen people through different landscapes around the city and talked about the history and characteristics of the surrounding trees.

Rael-Gálvez worked with professional photographers and student photographers at Rogers High School and Thompson Middle School. The plan was to project the photos they took onto the wall of City Hall on Thursday night, but the cold weather forced a change in plans. Instead the photos were flashed on an interior wall of Bike Newport.

One of the many other exhibits featured aroma boxes that recreated common odors from the 18th century, smells that could be encountered in the households, in city streets and on the harbor.

“It’s like a 360-degree view of the city,” said Mary Anthony of Newport as she experienced smells such as woodstoves, hot-buttered rum, old clams, and a smell from inside a wooden ship.

“There are a lot of different perspectives and different ways of experiencing the city here,” she said.

Another exhibit featured tastings of foods such as elderberries, birch syrup and maple syrup.

What’s the taste of birch syrup?

“It tastes like a root beer-maple syrup combo?” Kroll said.

Rael-Gálvez met with students, such as with the History and Culture Club at Thompson Middle School, where they all shared stories.

“I liked how he explained he was a sheepherder on his parents’ ranch when he was growing up,” seventh-grader Ellis Coen said. “Without his parents’ support he said he never would have been able to go the university and later become the state historian of New Mexico.”

“The kids were so inspired,” said Niko Merritt, who leads the club at Thompson.

Guitarist and singer Bill Bartholomew provided for auditory sensations as people viewed the exhibits Thursday night.

Rael-Gálvez is now an independent consultant and draws from his career experience to assist with cultural planning in communities around the nation.

He was senior vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2011 to 2014, executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center from 2009 to 2011, and state historian of New Mexico from 2001 to 2009.

He was assisted in Newport by Cindi Malinick, who most recently was an executive for Girl Scouts of the USA, where she oversaw the Cultural Resources Department at Girl Scout headquarters in New York City. She had previously worked at the National Trust with Rael-Gálvez and is now an independent consultant.