During this worldly pandemic, I have had the pleasure of looking in my backyard and discovering jewels. In the past, I have been guilty of traveling to other places for growth and artistic stimulation prior to this Covid lockdown. As an artist and resident of Mount Vernon, New York. I did not explore the richness of my own neighborhood until this season. I recently did some research and discovered that some of the artistic residents in "Money Earnin" Mount Vernon in the 1960's were Nina Simone, Betty Shabazz, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Sidney and Juanita Poitier. I imagine that these artist built a beautiful community and escape from the pressures of also being civil rights activists and parents. This has inspired me to create leather keychains that are embossed with encouraging messages. We are living in a difficult time and wanted to share in the spirit of community.
We often learn about an artist's body of work, but we rarely get to explore the human side of them. Nina's journey as a person and the love for her craft created a journey from North Carolina to Mount Vernon, New York. This journey helped to shape her infamous career and displays that she was figuring it out, just as we are today in this "new normal".
It is said that the area got its name "Money Earnin" Mount Vernon because when you bought a house here in the mid-century, oftentimes an architect was hired to build their dream home. In this city, none of the older homes are the same. It is where the well accomplished African-American community resided in peace and found their closest resemblance of of the "American Dream".
(Nina's home in Mount Vernon, NY)
(Nina's childhood home- owned by 4 African American celebrities)
Nina's home was up on a hill, which was very similar to her childhood home in North Carolina. They both had much space to play and be at peace. The current homeowner of her New York home, was nice enough to invite me into her the backyard. He described how Nina that had her piano set up in the backyard, where she was surrounded by a big lot of trees and peace.
(Depiction of an enchanted feeling of Nina playing in the backyard)
As an artist, it sounds like a dream. If I am honest, I moved to Mount Vernon as an artist for the some of the same reasons. I imagine that it looked and felt like the picture above... an enchanted canvas of joy and peace even though she was an activist.
Nina's goal was to be a classical pianist. There was a period when her second husband was her manager and they had 1 child, Lisa "Simone" Celeste who was raised in Mount Vernon. I imagine that this path of raising a family encouraged the need for a good home.
Nina lived 3 blocks away from the newly widowed Betty Shabazz (Malcom X's widow). These two women were mothers of daughters similar in ages. I imagine that it would not be uncommon that the girls would run back and forth between the houses. Also, that these 2 houses of young girls created a community of a normal life for them, despite having famous parents that may have been traveling for long periods of time.
Nina's childhood was very centered around her craft as a pianist, while in North Carolina. Her community raised money for her to attend Julliard. After the first year, she was unable to pay for the rest of school. As a result she started to look for work as a pianist. However, there was not much work for a classical pianist student. She found work at a night club in Atlantic City and the manager convinced her to start singing in order to keep her job, She didn't want her mother (a former preacher) to know that she was playing in these night clubs, so the alias Nina Simone was born.
She was most known for her provocative pianist skills that were paired with her piercing lyrics. Her art was further developed through her anger of the state of humanity, at the time. After witnessing the murder of the four African-American in Birmingham, Alabama. She channeled her anger into writing her own lyrics to her beautifully composed songs. Her work has helped to empower the Civil Rights movement as she expressed her feelings of oppression and sometimes beauty of her American experience. In many of her interviews she reveals the sadness of experiencing the hatred of the times, but her proud stance of her impact in the world. Through her success she was able to be a helpful neighbor and supporter of Betty Shabazz in a very difficult time in her life.
Nina's career is worth reading more about and I encourage you to continue to explore her career. There are a number of movies, interviews and articles about her as well. ("What Happened, Miss Simone?" - Netflix) She is an Iconic Warrior Women and I am so excited to be connected to her as an artist, as a resident of Mount Vernon.