Tag Archives: Anya Liftig

“Holler Rat”: Anya Liftig’s 2 American Lives

For summer in the 1980s, young Westport girls got fresh haircuts, new Benetton outfits, and headed off to camp.

Anya Liftig did not join them.

“I didn’t feel cool enough,” she recalls. “And it was too expensive.”

Instead, she and her family traveled to Kentucky. “This is your own camp,” her father Robert said.

Anya Liftig, in the 1995 Staples High School yearbook.

Anya’s grandmother’s house was impeccably clean. But it was filled with cousins not much older than Anya, and their babies. She loved to read, but hid her books from her Kentucky kin.

“There was a lot of poverty, sadness and unhealthy people,” Anya says. “They were deeply uneducated, because the schools were so bad.”

Anya’s mother’s people lived in a remote holler, in “hillbilly” country. (Her mother Inez used that term.)

“They legitimately walked 2 miles to the bus, and rode an hour to school,” Anya says.

Her mother was the first family member to leave the area, for a state university and then the Peace Corps. Despite the limitations, Inez had grown up surrounded by encyclopedias and globes.

Growing up in “opulent” Westport — where Robert, who met Inez in the Peace Corps, was a teacher — while spending summers in Kentucky was “confusing,” Anya says.

“I didn’t know who I was. It was 2 worlds, and 2 different philosophies. But I was grateful that both families were very loving.”

That dual existence forms the heart of “Holler Rat,” Anya’s new memoir. It weaves her years in Connecticut and Kentucky with college at Yale, her journey to performance art, a shattering period when everything fell apart, and the self-reckoning that followed.

Her world was the product of 2 very different ones. Anya’s father grew up Jewish. He opposed the Vietnam War; Connecticut politician Abraham Ribicoff helped him land a spot in the Peace Corps.

Anya went to Coleytown Elementary and Middle Schools. In Staples High’s Class of 1995 she joined Players, Student Assembly, Model UN and the Law Club.

Her most important activity was dance. She started at age 6, as therapy after a severe injury. At 15 she joined Martha Graham’s Teenage Ensemble, commuting to New York.

Her major at Yale was English, but she continued to pursue theater. She learned photography and sculpture, earned a graduate degree in studio art, and traveled the world performing, and showing her work at galleries and museums. Film work came later.

Anya Liftig, performance artist.

“Holler Rat” was conceived originally as performance art. But after her divorce (from a “boarding school/Yale guy”), the loss of her apartment and her “breakup with New York,” Anya moved back to Connecticut.

Her life shifted. Writing became both a release, and a way to understand her 2 worlds. Examining both class and culture, Anya asked herself, “‘Why did this happen?’ I excavated my life.”

Growing up in Westport, she says, friends called her “Kentucky Fried Liftig.” But they did not know much about her life there. Anya never told them about the poverty and sadness in her mother’s family.

“In Westport I could be a nerdy, artsy smart kid,” she says.

But she also felt pressure. Her mother — like Robert, a teacher — had sacrificed so much. “There was unspoken pressure to be academically successful, to do her proud.”

Those summers in the holler were part fun, part strange. Her mother’s family accepted her father “as best as they could.”

Robert, meanwhile — a very outgoing man — was fascinated by bluegrass music and mountain culture.

Anya Liftig, today. (Photo/Stephen Dennett)

“There was never a feeling of ‘here comes the Yankee to steal our Southern belle,'” Anya says. “It was more like oddballs meeting oddballs.”

Robert brought his bagpipes to Kentucky. “That’s his personality,” Any notes. “He was willing to make himself vulnerable. They let him in as much as they could.”

Her father’s scholarly interests in books, history and ancestry were seen as “silly eccentricities.” It took a long time for Anya to figure out those family dynamics.

Along the way, there were “uncomfortable moments. Things were said — not maliciously, but they were said.”

In college, Anya kept kosher. In Kentucky, her grandmother served bacon and sausage for breakfast.

The juxtapositions that had begun years earlier — when Anya’s friends went off to camp, and she headed to the holler — continued.

Soon, we can all read about those confusing, odd years, when Anya had her dancing feet planted in 2 different worlds.

And what it all means to, and for, her today.

(“Holler Rat” will be published August 15. For more information, click here. For Anya Liftig’s website, click here.)

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Anya Liftig: In US, It’s OK For Artists To Live In Squalor

Anya Liftig is a 1995 Staples High School graduate. She entered Yale intending to major in political science. Ahead lay law school and a career in public service. But, Liftig says, “I took the liberal arts mission very seriously. I ended up questioning if that was what I really wanted to do.” She graduated as an English major.

She wandered through Asia with a backpack, and worked on a farm. She came back, and became a paralegal for a white-shoe Wall Street firm. She helped set up offshore entities and made good money. Yet she thought all the lawyers with fabulous apartments were “bored out of their minds.”

She quit and signed on with Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. Liftig was a tracker, following Rudy Giuliani around with a camera. Clinton kept talking about the need for health care, but did not provide it to her own workers like Liftig.

Disillusioned, Liftig left politics. She studied with Norwalk photographer Joe DeRuvo. Her photos appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

Anya Liftig

Anya Liftig

She reconnected with her old high school boyfriend and moved to Georgia where he lived. A short time later, they broke up. She enrolled in Georgia State University’s master’s in fine arts program. She earned two degrees and became a conceptual performance artist.

Liftig moved back to New York. She knew if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. She’s done other things — tutoring, selling books on the street — and she built out an art space (until her building was condemned, then turned into condos). 

In the aftermath of the horrific Oakland fire — which gutted a warehouse that had been converted into a live/work art space, and killed a Staples graduate — Anya posted her reactions on Facebook. She wrote:

Every artist, especially every performance artist I know, has had experience living, staying, creating, and working in a space like this. We know this building and thousands like it in Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn, Newark, Cleveland, Portland, Queens, Berlin, New Haven, the Bronx, Yonkers, London, Bridgeport, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philly, Pittsburgh et al.

When I moved to Bushwick in 2004 and built out a raw factory space with my partner, this was our reality. The fire exits were padlocked with chains to keep us from using them. No fire extinguishers. There were no fire detectors or working sprinklers. Eventually we were tossed out to make way for another round of artists (read people who could pay more.) Today 17-17 Troutman is a bastion of the Bushwick/Ridgewood art scene — flush with established galleries and artists with the money to pay the exorbitant rent.

This is the legacy that Soho/Tribeca/LES/East Village/DUMBO/Williamsburg/ Gowanus et al is built on. (Lest we forget the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.)

At Staples High School, Anya Liftig was part of the O Gallery art collective.

At Staples High School, Anya Liftig was part of the O Gallery art collective.

But it’s not only the artists who are at risk, and artists who suffer. When the FDNY eventually raided our building, we spoke with them and appealed our case. They told us that, surprise!, we were living in a former pesticide factory and that our “landlord” had lied about having a Certificate of Occupancy from the city –and that when fire and destruction eventually came to our building (only a matter of time since people were illegally welding, wiring electricity, etc. in the building) that they would be risking their lives to come and save us. That put it in a new perspective for me.

Blame the developers.

Blame a country that thinks it is acceptable and even chic for artists to live in squalor.

Blame a country that claims to value freedom of a expression above all else and forces its real, honest to G-d artists to always live in poverty.

Blame a national culture that fetishizes “creativity” and “thinking outside the box” only when it serves to line pockets with cash and decorate Louis Vuitton bags.

(Hat tip: David Roth)