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National YoungArts Foundation’s new animated short takes flight with help from KAWS and Shepard Fairey

KAWS and Shepard Fairey drew birds for “Together,” a short film from the National YoungArts Foundation. (National YoungArts Foundation)
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When the National YoungArts Foundation asked Brooklyn-based artist José Parlá to contribute an image of a bird to an upcoming collaborative film, Parlá went for a seemingly unremarkable one: the house sparrow. Perched on a bench beside a Midtown businessperson or hopping on the curb alongside a SoHo shopper, the small brown bird is as ubiquitous in New York City as the sound of sirens. They leave no surface untouched and no city dweller alone.

Parlá, who draws inspiration from the city he has lived in for 25 years, sees the bird as a representation of the people. For the film, “Together,” he renders one in swift, calligraphic brushstrokes — as unique as a signature and as anonymous as a scribble.

Set to debut on the YoungArts website on Monday at 8 p.m., “Together” features work by 18 artists, who were each commissioned to create a bird. The works — polymer clay, embroidery on canvas, paintings — have been animated by Igor + Valentine. The final product, a four-minute-long short, is a collage of moving images set to meditative music by YoungArts alumna Nora Kroll Rosenbaum.

“Together” boasts contributions from big-name artists like art-market star KAWS and Shepard Fairey — of Barack Obama “Hope” poster fame — both supporters of YoungArts. Fairey’s contribution, a brown thrasher rendered in red ink, has his signature street-inspired wheatpaste look, and KAWS’s bird is immediately recognizable for its X-ed out eyes. But with an eclectic array of contributions — there is a cartoony, triangular bird by Isabela Dos Santos and a more abstract creation from Sheree Hovsepian — the video is less about individual artists standing out than it is about mixing disparate artistic styles. Bringing artists together that you would be unlikely to see congregated in a single gallery — let alone on the same canvas — the video is born of experimentation necessitated by a covid-19 world. YoungArts says it is meant as a message of solidarity and interconnectedness. And at an arts-starved moment, it’s a visual treat.

YoungArts Board Chair Sarah Arison says “Together” is an effort to look beyond the Zoom gala as a means of fundraising and a way to keep artists working on commissions at a time when opportunities can be scant. It is not the first time the organization has produced a film — in 2016, YoungArts celebrated its 35th anniversary with “Transformations,” a short-film series highlighting alumni across different artistic disciplines — but “Together” is a larger effort, uniting not just alumni of YoungArts programs but guest artists and mentors like Parlá to fundraise for the organization.

Following the release of "Together," Young­Arts will sell 1,500 stills from the film, many capturing interactions between birds by different artists, priced at $175 each. The unorthodox initiative is not unlike recent trends where buyers can co-own artworks. Half of the proceeds, Arison says, will be put into the hands of artists, through commissions, micro grants or other means. The other half will go toward YoungArts operations and programming, the centerpiece of which is a national program for emerging artists, writers and performers ages 15 to 18. The program aims to cultivate young talent, connect awardees with peers and professional mentors, and support their careers throughout their lives. After 40 years in operation, YoungArts has 20,000 alumni, among them actresses Kerry Washington and Viola Davis and singers Josh Groban and Nicki Minaj.

Like many arts organizations, YoungArts has responded to the pandemic by reexamining its mission and prioritizing acute concerns, the biggest of which is unemployment. In April, an Americans for the Arts survey reported two-thirds of independent artists found themselves without work. Then, in August, the Brookings Institution estimated that, of all creative industries, “fine and performing arts” were hit the hardest by the pandemic, losing nearly 1.4 million jobs.

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To respond to the crisis, YoungArts created a system to distribute emergency micro grants to program alumni. In March, the group also teamed up with five other arts organizations to create Artist Relief, raising $20 million to distribute unrestricted $5,000 grants to artists for basic needs. More than 160,000 artists applied for the grants.

Parlá, a mentor for YoungArts, noted the unique effect the covid-19 crisis can have on artists who have not yet established industry connections or financial stability. With traditional means of getting work out to the public closed off, gaining visibility — a challenge in normal times — can seem impossible.

“I’ve talked with a lot with young artists about resilience,” he says. “They have to take their pain and not keep it inside but put it into their work.”

But doing so can be difficult in a country where Arison notes, “the arts, unfortunately, have never been a priority.” She points to Germany, where emergency support for freelance artists began as early as March and reflects a government that views the arts as essential. Here, it has taken months for the Save Our Stages relief legislation to pass, and while it will eventually give $15 billion to the arts, the slow action speaks to national priorities.

Arison says the arts are mistakenly seen as a luxury. “Think about how this pandemic would have been without artists,” she says, noting their creative contributions to things like clothes and television shows. “I don’t think people realize that everything around them is touched by artists.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to José Parlá as a "Bronx-based" artist. He is based in Brooklyn. The story has been updated.