New Haven is accustomed to art exhibits, perpetual openings and receptions that are emblematic of its burgeoning arts culture, but last Saturday’s event at ArtSpace, heralded what may be another chapter and model in how art can be used in service of a cause. A one-night silent auction in which some 200 area artists came together to donate approximately 315 works for the benefit of beloved New Haven artist Chris Engstrom drew nearly 400 attendees.
Chris, who lives in Westville at Art Lofts West, was recently diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrigs Disease, an incurable neuromuscular disease that has limited his ability to work even as it continues its trajectory of muscular degeneration, ultimate paralysis, and usually death.
Chris was present for the auction event and also contributed artworks among the hundreds of pieces on display. A large portrait, the star and face of the event that was painted by Chris during graduate school, was offered during a live auction segment and won by thrilled bidder Anne Gunnison.
As the elbow-to-elbow crowd buzzed around artworks vying to post winning bids, Chris remained the focus of their good will and well wishes.
Reflecting on the event several days later, Chris said he was “still riding the wave of the night and the emotions it brought forward with friends, family and total strangers coming together. It was so powerful,. Throughout the night I was buoyed up by a steady sea of hugs. I had to sit, but the hugs kept me going.”
The evening’s success in terms of sheer dollars raised was “beyond our wildest imaginations,” according to one of the event organizers, Ihrie Means. Means said she envisions similar events in the future: “We are very excited about the future possibilities of this type of event ... In a community like this, with so many artists and art appreciators, I can envision this being an annual event with endless possibilities and permutations.”
Chris, who said monies raised would be a great help, also said he wanted the focus of the evening to remain on the communal aspect of the event: “People gathered from many regions and states and the New Haven community made that possible. We were all gathered under one roof at ArtSpace, a gallery supporting community artists, and we rested on their shoulders in providing a venue. Artspace should really be called Heartspace,” he noted.
Chris credited friend and gallery manager Michael Galvin with coordinating events at ArtsSpace, including painting the gallery and setting up the sizable exhibit.
Event co-organizer Anne Goslin, who had worked with Chris at Yale Art Gallery, said much of the evening’s success is owed to Chris himself. “It wouldn’t have been such a big and good success if Chris wasn’t such a good man and made such valuable contributions within the community as a swimming instructor, art teacher at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, teacher at Creative Arts Workshop, and an outdoor educator at Two Coyotes Wilderness School.”
Two Coyotes is a program designed to build community with classes held in parks and nature centers throughout Connecticut. Chris said that nature ,and the ability to see what’s beautiful out there, help him cope with a “devastating diagnosis.” Nature also figures prominently in Chris’s work, including an autobiographical, illustrated children’s book he hopes to get published soon.
During a phone conversation from his parents’ home in Massachusettes, Chris counseled that “it is important to focus on the simpler things in life whether or not one has a disease—friendships, family, and time doing the things you love.”
In an open letter posted to the auction Facebook page, Chris thanked a core of organizers drawn from two main groups: Anne Goslin, Nancy MacGregor, Andres Garces and Paul Panamarenko, and former coworkers from the Yale Art Gallery; and friends and classmates from the Yale School of Art, 2003, including Ihrie Means, and Sabrina Marques. Food and beverages were provided by J.B. London Limited of Chapel Street with music provided by Paul Panamarenko, Chris Mir, and Spacelover, featuring Meredith Andrews and Fritz Hortsman.
Organizer Ihrie Means said she was “overwhelmed by how much love was in that room. It was palpable/heart-warming and heart-wrenching.” She also described the consensus of event sponsors and attendees: “What we thought would be a ‘successful’ event turned out to be a complete blow-out, a fantastical evening that I think everyone in attendance will remember for a long time.”
An appeal for support posted by family members on a Wordpress website reads: “Chris is a fighter, but he also needs your help in his battle with ALS. Chris, like anyone else, deserves a life of dignity and fulfillment. In order to reach that goal, he will need help with medical bills, everyday living expenses, equipment, handicap renovations and most of all, finding ways of living life to the fullest. Direct donations to Chris can be made here.