Still creating after all these years: Westbeth Housing honors ‘Icons’

In her later years, Edith Stephen has turned her creative talents toward documentary filmmaking.

BY REBECCA FIORE | Photographer Diane Arbus, actor Vin Diesel and painter Robert De Niro Sr. are some of the notable alumni who have walked the halls of Westbeth Artists Housing. But few still living there now have been at the residence since its very beginning.

When she was 50, Edith Stephen moved into the 348-unit complex, at 55 Bethune St., between Washington and West Sts., in 1970, the same year it opened. Forty-eight years later, at age 97, she’s still there, she’s still creating, and she isn’t planning on stopping anytime soon.

As the second artist to be featured in the newly created Westbeth Icon series, sponsored by the Westbeth Artists Resident Council, or WARC, Stephen said it’s about time.

“Actually, I deserved an Icon for living this long, for being active,” the former dancer-turned-documentary filmmaker said. “I’m going to be a little egotistical. I am not humble about it.”

When she was a younger woman, Edith Stephen’s artistic focus was dance.

Sandra Kingsbury, the performing-artists chairperson of WARC, said the goal of the Icon series is to highlight and document the history of senior artists living and working in the Westbeth community.

“We are all very aware of so many artists who have lived here and have worked right up until their deaths,” she said. “We think it’s something that keeps them going but also contributes to their production for their entire lives. There’s no retirement. That’s so awe-inspiring to the world and Westbeth has really given them this opportunity to do this. We want to celebrate that.”

The Icon series was born out of interviews fellow resident Terry Stoller conducted of older artists called “Profiles in Art: Conversations with Westbeth’s Artists.” The format for the Icon series consists of a short film and interview of the artist, followed by a ceremony at which people give speeches on the artist’s impact.

Jack Dowling was the first to be honored at a Nov. 19 ceremony in the Westbeth Community Room, which was attended by about 50 to 70 people. The painter, printmaker and writer has been living at Westbeth for nearly four decades. He even served as the Westbeth Gallery director for more than 12 years.

Kingsbury said there are no specific criteria for how an artist is selected. All mediums are welcome, and they have been trying to find as many different disciplines to feature as possible.

“Jack has been a visual artist,” she said. “Several years ago, he turned to writing and has an active writing life. And Edith, who danced her whole life, became a filmmaker. For a dancer to be aging and not dance anymore, she was able to take her creative spirit and funnel it into another art form in making movies.”

Stephen has made a handful of documentaries, available on YouTube, over the years, including “Split / Scream,” tales about Westbeth housing; “Paradise Deranged,” about Greenwich Village’s rapid gentrification; and “The Invisible Writer Becomes Visible,” the story of her husband of 48 years.

Stephen said she switched to filmmaking after dancing no longer gave her the release and freedom she needed.

“I decided it wasn’t enough for me to do dance because it didn’t tell enough about me personally,” she said. “I was very interested in politics. I could speak more of my ideas through film.”

Jack Dowling was named the first Westbeth Icon.

Kingsbury said WARC plans to announce about six more Icon honorees in 2018. They hope to keep recognizing more artists, and cataloguing their life’s work.

Both Stephen and Dowling said they appreciate being surrounded by working artists.

“The opportunities that were here because it was a building full of artists only enriched their own artistic lives,” Kingsbury said.

Stephen thinks there isn’t enough appreciation for artists nowadays and that there should be more artists housing available, especially outside of the city.

“The artists are a special people,” she said. “They are still very much alive at every age and they are optimistic.”

Stephen will be honored Thurs., Jan. 18, at 7 p.m., in the Westbeth Community Room.

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