Vandervelde Downs, a literary novel, explores what happens when multiple strands of refugeeism and migration come together with looted art. The novel’s three main characters are Poppy Solomon, a rough-round the edges thirty something English furniture refinisher, an elderly, mysterious Belgian gentleman named Bertrand Vandervelde, and Maxwell Johnson, a compelling American art historian/looted art expert who becomes Poppy’s lover. Vandervelde Downs moves through different modalities from interviews to memoirs to third person narration focalized through Poppy’s point of view. The novel also moves from a heavily fictionalized version of a provincial town in the Midlands, England, where, in 1979, Vandervelde had befriended her family and, quite possibly, where he’d hidden looted art, to a fictionalized version of Central Park’s buried former free Black residence, Seneca Village.
The novel begins when Poppy’s life gets turned upside down: her lease runs out, her landlord turns her refinishing studio into a bar, so, adrift, Poppy relocates from New York back to her hometown in England to look after her grandmother, who is recovering from a stroke. There she meets Maxwell Johnson, an agent assigned to the legal case involving the recovery of looted art—a collection her family, the Haroche-Lévys, with branches stretching from Vienna to Paris, were forced to sell during the war. Poppy’s mother Vera wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit because, as a Kindertransport survivor, she wanted nothing to do with the past. But her mother’s cousin Adele drags Poppy into the lawsuit which ends up taking Poppy and Max back to New York and discovering there a very strange collection hidden in plain sight inside Central Park’s Belvedere Castle, haunted by ghosts from Seneca Village.
While entirely fictional, Vandervelde Downs is steeped in years of research into art and aesthetics during the Nazi regime.
Convergences: Portraits of Artists who Explore/Experience Jewishness and Blackness
From Porgy and Bess to The Beastie Boys, the complex performances of Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell and Anna Deavere Smith, to Spike Lee’s stunning film BlacKkKlansman, Jewishness and Blackness exert mutually powerful influences aesthetically, culturally, and politically. But also, and this is where this creative non-fiction book steps in, personally. The long history of intersections between Blacks and Jews in Europe and North America has been at times joyous, and at other times fraught with deep mistrust and betrayal. The story that is often told as one of convergence (during the shared struggles for Civil Rights) decaying into rupture and mistrust in more recent years is far more complex, and the artists whose lives I examine and stories I tell in this project bring out the granular nuances missed in many of the extant narratives. Convergences places this contemporary creative work in dialogue with the findings of historians and other scholars who have traced the history of the interchange between the two groups, that history, the scholarship, is all there, but in the background. The foreground tells the stories of people whose lives converge between Blackness and Jewishness. Some are Black Jews by birth, others converted, others are interested in both identities. This book argues that the very diversity of patterns reflects the multiple layers of influence and the deep interconnection between Jewishness and Blackness. Convergences open up spaces of inquiry and illuminates new aspects of the relationship between these communities that will contribute to the ongoing exploration of difference and often troubled identifications of all kinds—far beyond Blacks and Jews.