City of Asylum presents ‘Klenicki Meets Monk’ exhibit, concert to address mental health and intergenerational trauma


TPN File Photo

Alphabet City bookstore on North Avenue in the North Side.

By Nicholas Simila, Staff Writer

A frantic saxophone and wild trombone duet onstage, moving their instruments in spiraling motions. The stage background features an abstract painting that displays a mess of vibrant colors and oblong shapes. Upon closer look, one sees a variety of expressions ranging from anger to joy.

City of Asylum hosted a concert on Sunday featuring jazz music of the late Thelonious Monk accompanied by the abstract paintings of Norman Klenicki in an exhibit titled “Music, Visual Art, & Mental Health: Klenicki Meets Monk.” The event addressed themes such as mental health and the legacy of trauma caused by the Holocaust.

City of Asylum on the North Side is an organization that seeks to provide refuge to artists and writers who faced persecution in their home countries. The organization also hosts a wide array of free-to-attend arts events.  

Lisa Parker, who hatched the idea for the “Klenicki Meets Monk,” is the director of Pitt’s center for bioethics and health law.  She said the event ties together issues surrounding the stigmatization of mental health as well as intergenerational trauma.

“The exhibit brings together ethical issues surrounding mental health and its treatment … with ethical issues surrounding the Holocaust, which is part of the legacy of research ethics and bioethics because of the experimentation that occurred,” Parker said.

Klenicki and Monk have both faced challenges caused by bipolar disorder, a condition where one experiences swings between emotions of mania and depression. 

Klenicki said his art is a vehicle for expression, an intuitive process that allows him to put himself in each piece. He added that during his manic phases in particular he became extremely productive with his art.

“I worked always intuitively, I felt like a conduit for a universal energy, you know, it’d just come through,” Klenicki said. “In the ’90s… the medicines weren’t great and had side effects so I stopped taking medication. Pretty much, I was on fire. I painted day and night, I produced 300 to 400 paintings.”

Monk displayed similar patterns due to his condition, Parker said.

“Monk had the same experiences as far as we know… You can watch a film with him, and watch his agitation and his animation and excitement as he’s composing and performing,” Parker said.

Parker added that by uniting the work of two artists with similar lived experiences, the exhibition hopes to highlight the similarities between those with disorders and those without.

“It’s good for others without a mental health condition to know that people with mental health conditions engage in the same sort of creative and intellectual activities,” Parker said. “That makes someone with bipolar disorder much like you and me.” 

Klenicki expressed a similar sentiment, stating his hope that art can make mental illness less frightening.

“Making my situation and Monk’s situation public, and relating to the music and the painting, could make it less stigmatized,” Klenicki said.

Klenicki’s website is centered around educating others about mental illness as well as addressing generational trauma.  

“The main thing for me is the website because the website is teaching about the Holocaust, because both of my parents are survivors, as well as mental illness.  I hope that is making people more aware about both things.” Klenicki said.

Thomas Wendt, the drummer for the event, chose to play Monk’s compositions such as “Bright Mississippi” and “Criss-Cross.”

“I let the paintings tell me about what I was going to choose,” Wendt said.  “I would look at the paintings and think of one of Monk’s melodies. It added a whole new dimension to [Monk’s] music.” 

Klenicki also shared that his parents were Holocaust survivors who experienced the horrors of Auschwitz.  

“It’s a miracle that they were even able to have family and move on in life. For instance, my mother would wake me up in the night screaming, and would have nightmares about it,” Klenicki said. “My mother actually got grand mal epilepsy because of a beating she took from a German SS guy and that was a constant reminder.” 

Despite his struggles, Klenicki persevered and produced work that he is proud of. He said he has access to better medication and now has a better relationship with his mental health.

“I work slower, because I’m not coming from the same place.  Now I’m better, medicated, so I’m calmer, so it’s different,” Klenicki said.  “I work every day, three or four hours. It’s my therapy, my meditation in a way.”