“Sustaining Beauty”: Barbara Colaciello channels Ninah Cummer


Last Tuesday I had the chance to catch one of the jewels of our local theatre scene doing a piece of business that has broader positive implications for the whole city. Barbara Colaciello was appearing at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in “Sustaining Beauty: Reflections from the Memoirs of Ninan May Holden Cummer”. She’d also been crafting the project in collaboration with Players By the Sea.

Ninah Cummer spent most of her life as a vigorous advocate of gardening, a hobby that quickly became an all-consuming passion. She also began piecing together the art collection that would eventually comprise (along with the Cummer family home itself) the jewel of her endowment. Colaciello does a great job of bringing out the passion and playfulness of Mrs. Cummer, as well as the rock-solid commitment to her city that would inspire such largess.

Much like the subject of her one-woman show, Barbara Colaciello has been steeped in culture for basically her entire life. A native of New York City, she is the sister of Bob Colaciello, who was for many years a close associate of Andy Warhol who once helmed his Interview magazine (one of the best of its kind, still going strong today). She may be best-known to local audiences for her decade-long collaborations with Al Letson, a spoken-word superstar who currently hosts his own show on NPR.

The museum had commissioned Ms. Colaciello to delve into Mrs. Cummer’s massive archives and tell the story of how the museum came to be. Watching the performance, one could tell that she was wrestling with the breadth of the material; to jump into another person’s mind so thoroughly is certainly a challenge. The costumes designed by Gayle Featheringill helped reinforce the mood. (On an unrelated note, Ms. Featheringill is not only a longtime member of the local theatre scene, but was also recognized with the NVRA National Speed Championship, awarded to the “fastest and most accurate court reporter in the US”.)

“For the past 11 months,” writes Colaciello, “I have visited with Ninah, discovering her through letters, garden speeches, travel journals, and notes on little pieces of paper. I have been moved by her words and deeds, inspired by her passion for life and joy. The more that I know about Ninah Cummer, the more I realize how much I do not know—that the expanse of her life-story exists beyond anyone’s ability to contain. It is my intent, however, to capture the essence of Ninah that has been transmitted to me through the research process. Through careful examination of her stories I have ‘sensed’ how experiences might have felt I have interpreted her words and imagined possibilities. I see Sustaining Beauty as a collage of little pieces of stained glass that, when placed next to one another, creates a window of insight into a remarkable woman’s life.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Mrs. Cummer’s endowment, it occurs to me that Barbara’s project can be of great use to the museum and the city at large. The Cummer’s staff is always in need of donations to keep the wheels moving, and with the proposed cuts to the city budget coming this summer, it remains unclear what the long-term financial situation will be. Of course, treasures like this need to be preserved at all costs. Personally, I’d like to see WJCT get involved with this, filming one of her performances to be aired on one of their vastly-underutilized TV channels. Also, with the original Cummer collection all being displayed at the museum this year, I’d suggest having Barbara, as Mrs. Cummer, providing a sort of guided tour of the collection, telling the stories of the artists and the circumstances by which their work became part of the collection, either through WJCT or something like YouTube. It seems to me like the kind of thing Ninah Cummer would have done herself, were she still around. But, thanks to Ms. Colaciello’s yeoman work, it’s almost like she is.


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