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A Life-Changing Stay in New York

In 2016, documentary filmmakers Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith were the recipients of the biennial Harriet Friedlander Residency. Michael and Jason Friedlander asked the Arts Foundation to assist with the selection and promotion of an artist who would receive up to $80,000 to have a New York experience. The residency was made possible by a legacy gifted by their late wife and mother, Harriet Friedlander, who was a dedicated supporter of the arts. Harriet loved New York. She believed that any young artist exposed to the city would learn and grow in unimaginable ways.

The residency has been awarded five times, and each artist has expressed the profound impact the trip has had on their life and work. Chris and Miriam, partners in life and film, have just returned from their seven month trip to New York and sent a heart-warming letter to Michael, Daniel and Jason Friendlander and the Arts Foundation team, which has given us an inspiring glimpse into their life-changing trip. With the couple’s blessing, we would like to share the account as an example of how the generosity of Patrons can impact the lives of our extraordinary artists and the work they consequently create.

Dearest Arts Foundation team,

We write to you from luminously green New Zealand, having recently returned home after a profoundly inspirational and life-changing stay in New York – thanks to the Harriet Friedlander Residency.

We arrived in NYC into snowfall back in early February and moved into the top floor apartment of an old brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where we spent most of our stay. ‘Bed-Stuy' is a historically black neighbourhood with Baptist churches on every corner and lots of soul food and loud talk. It’s where Spike Lee filmed Do The Right Thing and is just minutes from Duke Ellington’s famous A Train, our express line into the city at large.

Heading outwards from our Brooklyn base, we would explore the city’s incredible galleries and museums, and experience the amazing cultural diversity of its myriad neighbourhoods. By the end of our stay we had travelled to the end of every NYC train line. By night we imbibed films, talks, music, plays, and art shows, and met with all manner of artist, human and tiny NYC dog. It was extraordinary. A curator at the Whitney described America as being like “a collective dream – a gathering of diverse and sometimes competing aspirations, beliefs, symbols and histories… a place where the dream and the reality of the nation are inseparable”. We felt this to be true and we fell in love with the intoxicating, intimate and eclectic magic of the city’s street life, all mixed in with the powerful myth of New York City.

Amidst the intense energy of the city, its dramatic shifts in seasons and the political mayhem, (for like almost everyone else we were transfixed by the spectacle of Trump’s presidency and the deep political divide in America) - we forged giant space for ourselves to create and push into new territory…

Having recently emerged from creating two very time-intensive feature documentaries in rural New Zealand, we decided to use the time of the New York residency to dive into our long put-on-hold dreams of creating drama films. I (Miriam) fell back in love with the writing process and Chris (as director) worked with me to develop several original feature drama ideas into strong first drafts. Chris also renewed his passion for his stills photography arts practice, frequently leaving the apartment at 4.30am to capture the first light in Manhattan.

We have subsequently returned to New Zealand with three feature dramas to immediately progress towards the big screen and a fresh documentary film idea in the mix. Chris also has a powerful body of New York photography that he will now develop for exhibition. It’s a bounty of projects that will literally see us through the next decade! These projects simply would not have been possible without the Harriet Friedlander Residency – for we needed the freedom, the time, the intense New York energy and international perspective to invigorate our creative process and really help us to take the next bold step in our work.

In an attempt to summarise what was an extraordinary time all round, a painting we saw in The Met called Lovers among Lilacs (Marc Chagall, 1930), helps to define something of the immense creative freedom of our New York City residency. The painting shows a happy couple nestled in a fantastically oversized bouquet of fragrant flowers, luxuriating in a safe haven from work and worry. The Harriet Friedlander Residency provided a similarly fantastic atmosphere for us and it was indeed a time of creative blossoming.

Michael, Daniel and Jason Friedlander and the Arts Foundation – and of course most of all, Harriet – we can’t thank you all enough. We will be sure to acknowledge your invaluable contribution to our work at every opportunity and we look forward to inviting you to our premieres and openings in the years to come.

Yours with deepest gratitude,
Miriam Smith & Chris Pryor