Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Passion for Art, and for People

By Steve Villano

Josh Sapan is a passionate man.

The Chairman & CEO of Rainbow Media, who is a long-time member of Cable Positive’s advisory board of Honorary Chairs, is passionate about people and about many, many things that celebrate life. If you knew nothing about Josh Sapan, but just watched him for a while, observed how carefully he listens to people, how empathetically he responds and how easily he laughs with you, you would learn a good deal about this good man.

You could talk to people who work with him like the IFC’s Evan Shapiro, or Rainbow’s Christine Bragan, or people who’ve dealt with him from other cable networks or systems to get evidence of this fine humanitarian in our midst. Or, you can simply look at the things he does.

I could point out to you all of the non-profit Boards Josh serves on that enrich the quality of our lives, or the passion he has for the historic preservation of old theatres, and old movies. But, his addiction to another type of art—and his generosity with it—is even more astounding.

For years, Josh Sapan rummaged through people’s garbage—at garage sales, estate sales, art school dumpsters, and on the streets of NYC—for the artwork they no longer loved. He picked it up, dusted it off, and allowed the art to start all over again to attract new adherents. He kept what he called this “discarded art,” in his garage, his basement—wherever he could find room for his growing collection. So, one could legitimately ask, why is a grown man doing this? He wasn’t hoarding the art, hoping for a long-lost Picasso or Rauschenberg. He wasn’t planning to open an art gallery, or smuggling bootlegged DVDs behind each canvas.

I don’t think the answer is very complicated, if you look at Josh’s work and life. To him, creativity is the opposite of death; it is eternal. If a human being took the time, effort and courage to create a work of art—a book, a film, a radio program, a theatre, or a painting—then the creation is, itself, alive with humanity and hope. But, Josh’s “hobby”—as some have misnamed this passion—had a Gift of the Magi type consequence that would have made O’Henry proud.

Sure, he donated a number of pieces to Cable Positive that sold on E-bay to people from around the world and raised nearly $5,000 to fight AIDS. That’s not what I’m referring to, although I am grateful for his gift. Last month, Josh Sapan came to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and donated 35 pieces of his “discarded art” to folks who are sometimes viewed as being discarded themselves—people who are HIV positive and live in two AIDS group-residences in New Orleans. Each resident was invited to select one piece of artwork from Josh’s collection to decorate the room in which he or she lived. One resident, who lived in Lazarus House, selected a colorful, abstract piece of art, of what looked like a mountain range.

The resident, a 73-year old African-American man of great dignity, drove a long-haul truck for most of his working life, played rhythm and blues whenever he could, and taught himself photography. Hurricane Katrina wiped out everything he owned, including his collection of photographs, his camera equipment, and all of his music collected lovingly over the years.

He looked carefully at the piece of Josh Sapan’s artwork he had selected to be his own.

“Maybe this will help me move on,” he said. “Help me get out of my depression and inspire me to start taking photographs again.”

“I just need to get a new camera,” he added. “Only a single-lens, manual camera—not one of those automated, digital ones. The manual cameras take the best photographs.”

Josh Sapan’s rescued artwork had sparked another fellow human’s creativity and hope for the future, and several of Josh’s cable industry colleagues responded immediately to this magical connection. Spencer Kaitz, who’s family is not unfamiliar to creating new opportunities for people, donated money to purchase the Lazarus House resident a new camera, as did Ellen Kroner of Josh’s own Rainbow Media Team.

So Josh’s one small act of love, of preservation of one human being’s work of creativity, has inspired another to create again and others to participate in that life-force of creation—a more powerful and positive force than any of the storms we all endure.

1 comment:

Pam Halling said...

Steve - just read through most of your stories. Josh, Mary, Bridget, Henry, Bonnie and all the others set the example for what it means to be real, compassionate and generous. When you give of your time as well as your money, it's a real commitment. And you can make a difference in someone's life as they have done. Beautiful stories, beautiful people. Pam