The timing was right for Rhonda Williams to be featured at the Crossroads of the World.
“This is the ‘year of yes’ for me, so I’m saying yes to everything I’ve never done before,” said the 67-year-old recent retiree of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share her story in an eye-catching new public art installation in Times Square. “This is never going to happen [to me] again: Flags flying in Times Square on Flag Day! And that’s going to come around again? No.”
Williams is one of 11 seniors participating in the “How I Keep Looking Up: Flags of Resilience” project by Times Square Arts’ first public artist-in-residence, Christine Wong Yap, in collaboration with Encore Community Services for seniors, and local stitchers from the Broadway community hired to sew the designs.
Seniors shared “personal stories about coping through adversities” over the past year and throughout their lives, and it is these stories that were captured in drawings, represented on flags, and individually mounted on flagpoles atop colorful, matching bases inscribed with each senior’s words. Flag Day, June 14, was the big unveiling at the pedestrian plaza at Broadway and 45th Street.
While some participants in the project are residents at one of Encore’s two nearby residential facilities, others like Williams, who live on the Upper West Side, are drawn to the senior center for the many programs and activities it offers.
“I started with Encore last year when I was interested in doing some kind of exercise class online and a friend sent me a link to a Zumba class,” she said. She “wasn’t ready” for Zumba – she took one class - but this introduced her to other “amazing” programs such as movement classes and art therapy available on Zoom at the time.
Williams credits the center, her spiritual community, family, friends and a return to journaling, in helping her overcome the fear of the unknown as she ventures into retirement. Her flag art-piece was of an open hand holding the sun, representing the enlightenment of humanity during the pandemic.
Encore resident Carol Sumner said when she was asked to draw something that pertained to her life, she did some pictures of ballet because she was a dancer with the New York City Ballet for 20 years.
“I had a flag with little toe shoes on it, standing en pointe,” she said. She sprained her wrist just before and was in a lot of pain, so she missed the event on Flag Day, but as a dancer said she “knew what to do” in using ice and heat and bandages and Aleve to get some relief.
Sumner admits that although the pandemic was a little scary when it first started, it ended up being a wonderful experience for them.
“First of all, we had food delivered free, every day. We had chicken with mashed potatoes and carrots, we were getting spaghetti with meatballs. We had snacks. We had fruits. We had desserts.”
She added that they locked down right away, had to wear masks, and were not allowed visitors and that “in the whole building, nobody got the disease because they took such good care of us.”
She did go out three times a day to walk her “little doggy” Snoopy but felt safe because there were so few people out. Also, she wore lots of PPE and did go to the supermarket because “I drink Coca-Cola. I had to get my Coca-Cola.”
Snoopy, her 13-year-old beagle, passed at Christmastime. He’s still missed in the neighborhood, with everyone asking for him, she said.
“I’m not a card-carrying performer [but] I’ve been in a drama class at my senior center for about seven or eight years, and we perform at other centers,” said 77-year-old Karen Edka Makower, when asked if she also had a stage background.
This was part of the busy social and volunteer life she had before the pandemic, but at its start, Makower, who lives in Knickerbocker Village in Lower Manhattan, said her doctor told her not to go out at all. She only went down from her fifth-floor apartment twice a week to pick up mail and put out garbage on the same day.
“I covered myself from head to toe - not an inch of my skin would show – I wore three pairs of gloves when I went down. I was terrified. I couldn’t see anybody even though I have a neighbor who lives right upstairs from me. I was completely, totally alone.”
Makower said her companion cockatiel, Baby QT, was the only living being she had around and that was what got her through.
She frequents Encore senior center for various activities and when they asked her if she would like to participate in the Times Square project, she agreed. Baby QT, and the bond between them, was the theme for her design.
“They showed me the flag and it was just stunning. It looks just like him,” she said.
How I Keep Looking Up: Flags of Resilience is on view until August 9.