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Women of Style

Who is a “woman of style?”

(page 2 of 3)

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.

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