Volume 75, Number 15 | Aug. 31 - Sep 06, 2005

Festival sign painter sees the signs of the times

By Judith Stiles

Right up until the start of last week’s 2005 HOWL! Festival, East Village artist Laurie Olinder was feverishly painting signs for the weeklong event.

From Aug. 21-28, the Lower East Side streets teemed with an expected 200,000 visitors who scoured the neighborhood, gobbling up the “indigenous” art. This year Olinder painted 40-foot-by-20-foot signs for 56 different Japanese businesses that were displaying their wares and delicacies in sidewalk booths for everyone to enjoy. Olinder praised HOWL! as a “festival of not only artists, but also an immigrant population with a varied and rich history.”

HOWL! founder Phil Hartman describes the Lower East Side as the “cradle of counterculture” whose borders are being invaded by an onslaught of chain stores, luxury apartments and yuppies.

“Artists typically move into less-desirable neighborhoods because the rents are cheap,” said Olinder, comparing it to the homesteading that took place in Soho. “I am not against change, I just don’t want to see the Lower East Side turn into an upscale shopping mall like Soho did. That’s why having HOWL! is important,” she added as she worked out the details of hanging sneakers from lampposts or perhaps the arched entrance to Tompkins Park, which she covered with stapled stuffed animals one year.

Olinder has been the pulse of the art world on the Lower East Side since she moved to a dive of an apartment on Ridge St. in the early 1980s. Tiptoeing over passed-out junkies in the hallways was routine, and for the most part did not bother Olinder. The artists and the addicts had an unspoken truce, which included the latter not stealing her bicycle. As it did for many other artists, this “undesirable” block became home to Olinder for the next several decades. Along with Bob McGrath and Bill Morrison, she founded Ridge Theater, which became an internationally acclaimed theater group, winning numerous Obie Awards, and producing noteworthy films that landed in the permanent collection of MoMA.

Ask Olinder about these awards and she shrugs her shoulders, immediately flipping the conversation to their new theater piece called “Shelter” that will open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November. The design work behind the scenes is what catches her attention and gets her talking a mile a minute about how “shelter” is such a significant word these days, with the explosion of gentrification and McMansions. Once upon a time, cheap shelter was the reason Olinder moved to the Lower East Side and now 25 years later, Ridge Theater is examining the word “shelter” in a large-scale collaborative theater piece.

Olinder fears a different kind of storm is brewing on the Lower East Side which is the storm of gentrification and that is why she nailed up her 56 hand-painted signs for HOWL! and gave freely of her time, not charging anyone a nickel to prepare her neighborhood for this Mardi Gras-like festival of the arts. She said she wanted to remind everyone that out of this funky neighborhood, the seeds of major trends in fashion and design were scooped up and planted in corporate gardens around the world, so it’s time once again to revere and celebrate the East Village. Most of all, it was time again for a great weeklong party.

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