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Women of Style

Who is a “woman of style?”

In the words of Oprah Winfrey, we would have to say that she is a woman who feels she is living her “best life.” Ask any of our three profile subjects and we’re sure they would agree that they are fortunate to be living their best lives, and they’re living them here—in the Lehigh Valley.

Russo, a New Jersey native, came to the Lehigh Valley after her husband Joseph Russo, a physician, accepted a position with the St. Luke’s University Health Network. When she arrived here, she found a region bustling with nonprofits and community support.

“There are over 1,800 nonprofits in the Lehigh valley, which is an awful lot for the size of the population, and everyone I met was committed to giving something back to the community,” Russo says.

Despite this, and a competitive local news media, she saw a lack of reporting when it came to “the in-depth, good-news stories of the Lehigh Valley,” she says.

This observation provided the springboard from which The Peak TV would be realized. Russo would be able to put her own experience as a television producer with The Today Show, Bloomberg News and The Weather Channel to good use. That, paired with her close association with St. Luke’s marketing and public relations vice president Ken Szydlow, was instrumental in promoting the show and developing sponsors.

“We’re trying to tell good news that you can use,” Russo says. “We follow people’s journeys through good times and tough times, but we always have a positive spin. We always try to uplift people with the programming.”

Creativity comes into Russo’s work in a distinct way—and that is to say, you shouldn’t notice that Russo is being creative at all.

“What is paramount to the process is creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the story, and that’s my goal every time,” she says. While she gets to determine the direction of that connection, it is the subject that matters most.

“Part of the job of being an executive producer is to really listen to the subject and what’s important to them,” she says.

There’s something else about The Peak that makes it seem different from other media projects: the fact that the video created was intended to be repurposed, or shared.

“We allow our partners and our guests to repurpose the videos for their own marketing and development needs,” Russo says. “Not only are we creating good programming and telling good stories, but we’re helping these organizations through the medium of video and television to actually fundraise and raise awareness.”

Though Russo’s skills and drive make her a unique and important force in our growing region, people like Russo are more common in the Valley than ever before, she says.

“You’ve got a lot of big city ideas, big city talent, big city offerings, from the arts to the food to the shopping,” Russo says. “But you’ve got this wonderful sense of community and a neighborly feel that makes you really feel like you’re part of something special here. The blending of those two ideas makes it a wonderful place to live, to work and to raise a family.”

Russo’s show is young. She and Szydlow began developing it in January 2012; it went into production in the summer and the first show aired on September 30, 2012 on WFMZ, where it has been every Sunday since.

But she already knows what she hopes the lasting impact of the show will be—not just for the community, for her own family, as well.

“The thing that’s been really neat about this journey… has been an opportunity to take my children on a variety of shoot locations with me and for them to see and understand how television and storytelling can be a really integral part of the process for giving back,” Russo says. Her children, Nolan, 10, and Renna, 8, have been with her on set. One such opportunity was the spot for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization raising money for pediatric cancer research.

“How do you explain pediatric research to a child?” Russo says. “It’s very challenging.” But when her children went to a St. Baldrick’s event where people were shaving their heads in support of research and to raise money through donations, she says, “it became crystal clear” to her children what was at stake for other children facing life-threatening illnesses.

“I’ve really been thrilled how my children are getting a sense of community, a sense of philanthropy and (a sense of) generosity,” Russo says. “It’s just wonderful to be able to share this with them.”

The Peak has already aided organizations in promoting their message. But the real impact of the show may be, rather, on a generation of young Lehigh Valley residents who grow up understanding that, no matter what professions they pursue, the best way to add value to the world is to first support your own community from within.

Learn more about Russo at thepeaktv.com.

 

In the frenzy and fanfare that was 1960s Paris and New York, a woman danced her way through life. That woman also held the ear of art icon Roy Lichtenstein, filmed burlesque in Vermont on hidden cameras and, without really meaning to, helped bridge the gap between Marcel Duchamp’s Dadaism and Andy Warhol’s pop art. And that was just one part of Letty Eisenhauer’s best life.

Eisenhauer performed in many of the Happenings of that time; the term “Happenings” was coined in the late 1950s to describe usually spontaneous and avant-garde art events including audience participation and controversial elements such as nudity. She brought them to life, and she helped guide Lichtenstein. Her media included electronics, light displays, fabrics, paints, clay and video cameras. But she was happier to be a nurturer of an artistic community than to focus heavily on her own work.

But that was another time and another generation—a generation of seekers, revolutionaries and free spirits. Now, while hardly quiet, calm or reserved, Eisenhauer sees cherished friends like Bill Marley and her former lovers Lichtenstein and Robert Watts as spirits in the stars over the Delaware River, and she wants to leave something to the arts community of which she was such an integral part.

That legacy, she’s determined, will come in the form of her home along Route 611, which she hopes to convert into a temporary residence for artists. “People who are creative are ahead of the curve all the time,” she says. “It gets us to think in a way we never thought.”

The bulk of Eisenhauer’s contributions to art happened at a time when contemporary artists were breaking away from the strict rules and perceived egalitarianism of art culture. It is a time now reduced to stereotypes of hippies and acidheads, but Eisenhauer says the art scene’s values didn’t synch up with outsiders’ perceptions.

“We weren’t hippies,” she says. “We didn’t take drugs. We didn’t do drugs. We drank.” Then, with a smile and a nod, she adds. “It’s amazing we still have livers left.”

The early 1960s art scene, as wild and spontaneous as it appeared from the outside, came on the heels of artists such as John Cage. Cage’s music followed “Indeterminacy,” the philosophy that each trip to a theater or musical performance should be  unique, even if you’re hearing the same piece. As a result, Cage’s music uses elements of chance and randomness, and some of Cage’s compositions can be performed in many different ways.

One of the most important aspects of the Happenings, sometimes overlooked even by their own participants, is humor. Though the messages were serious, the delivery was often fun and light-hearted.

Eisenhauer’s old friend Robert Watts once said of Fluxus, a movement in art which followed the Happenings, “The audience puts it together the way it wishes or not at all.”

From hanging up cloth cutouts of the New York skyline upside-down as though they were on a wash line to making a bust of an exotic dancer whose tassels spun when you approached it, Eisenhauer’s work with the Happenings, Fluxus and later movements often conveyed humor.

“Most people take art too seriously,” Eisenhauer says. But that doesn’t mean an artist shouldn’t hone his or her skills constantly. Eisenhauer still compiles her works. She’s currently trying to edit and organize boxes full of spools of old film. And she still plays the other role, the role of muse. As a forensic psychologist and teacher and counselor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Eisenhauer often uses art therapeutically.

“You figure out quickly the only way you’re going to get the truth out of anybody is to get them to draw,” she says.

It was Watts who actually brought Eisenhauer to the region, following her muse when he went into semi-retirement in Martins Creek. Watts later died of lung cancer in 1988. Eisenhauer was present for much of his struggle with the disease. She remained in the Lehigh Valley feeling that it was still small enough to foster community; its cities were open to new ideas, full of New York expatriates and close enough to Manhattan to allow her to bounce up to the community college during the week.

Still, the Valley is home. Her love for it means she wants to leave it with something. When playwright and personal friend Bill Marley died in 2012, Eisenhauer and he were in the middle of reconfiguring her basement into a small black box theater. But Marley’s death didn’t stop Eisenhauer; actually, it refocused her. Despite a wealth of creativity and humor, Marley often ran into problems financing his work because of his age. Eisenhauer, now in her 70s, said she’s noticed the same thing—grants rarely are available for older artists to work on pieces. And so Eisenhauer’s wish to create something in the Valley that would be beneficial to the arts community began to take shape.

“This house will become an arts foundation only for people over 65,” she says. She hopes artists can use her space to help finish their worthy projects.

Eisenhauer is a fine example herself that creativity doesn’t stop at retirement age.

“When you have a creative brain, it’s always working.”

Read more about Eisenhauer’s complex love affair with famed pop artist Roy Lichtenstein at: http://t.co/E6V1Uwpu.

 

We met up with Dina Hall in the warm, well-aged wooden confines of Godfrey Daniels on Bethlehem’s South Side, where she coordinates activities at this now world-famous folk café on East Fourth Street.

Hall was born in Sayreville, New Jersey, but “twists and turns and changes in life” brought her to the Lehigh Valley in 2000, she says. Despite an occasional newspaper headline implying the contrary, once she arrived, she never really left the Valley. Once known predominantly for her graphic design work, Hall has always had a musical streak. The streak would only become more prominent over the years, leading to her annual Musikfest gigs and a new role as president of Godfrey Daniels’ non-profit organization.

She sometimes takes the stage at Godfrey Daniels as a soloist with a folk influence in her own right or with others. But, like the other two women on this list, her passion is in the legacy she can leave through Godfrey Daniels. Hall will have the chance to lead GD into its new era, taking over the presidency of the association’s board of directors. She hopes to continue the high standards co-founder Dave Fry always aspired to in his support of area musicians.

“I will continue to encourage and give an open space for other up-and-comers, whether it be young people or not-so-young people later in life starting up just as I did, [to] give them encouragement and a space to play and to collaborate,” Hall says.

Godfrey Daniels is a community space, and Hall is a person who finds value in an artistic and musical community. It’s even true of the way she looks at her own music.
“You write [songs], you play them, you get them to be the best they can be, and then you give them away,” she says. “You give them to the listener or you give them to other musicians. You give them a canvas on which to paint and add more color and texture.”

It’s no surprise the graphic designer views the notes of a guitar or a piano similarly to the paint or hues of a Photoshop color palette; the concepts barely differ to her, and the construction process is the same.

“The way I start to construct whatever the piece is I might be designing or the song I might be doing, whether it happens from the words first or some sort of tune first, I map it out with some sort of final goal in mind,” she says. “It can change along the way but I do try to keep things kind of like coloring within the lines.”

Rules are what make her songs resonate, rules she learned by carefully studying the breakdown of successful songs. “I looked at songs that stand the test of time to see how they are constructed, and to break them down into their simplest form,” she says.

Despite keeping a Linkedin profile and a blog of her graphic design work, Hall seems most enamored with music, especially the local scene in the Valley. She learned guitar at 15, a skill that sprung out of “a movement in the Catholic Church with folk music coming into play,” she says. But it was the Lehigh Valley where music as a career would really begin to bud for Hall.

“I lived up in the Poconos from 1998 to 2000 and that’s where I started as a musician,” she says. “There were a lot of happy hours, ski resorts, bars (and) cover bands.” It was there that she was able to begin to mine her own creative side, and also give back to a supportive community. “Once I moved down here to the Lehigh Valley, I was immediately welcomed by a whole lot of people,” Hall says.

From the Lehigh Valley Music Association to Godfrey Daniels, Hall found a welcoming and enthusiastic audience for material, an audience she hopes to inspire. Fry and Cindy Dinsmore opened Godfrey Daniels in 1976 and, since then, Townes Van Zandt, John Gorka, John Hartford, Jamie Masefield, Peter Stampfel and a thousand other talents have made their mark on the place.

Now it’s Hall’s turn, and she is just the person to enhance and continue the legacy of Godfrey Daniels so the sounds of new talents will blend with the echoes of the artists before them.

Learn more about Hall at dinahallmusic.wordpress.com.

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