Friday, June 08, 2012

Got Americanitis?

While consonantly similar to that other nasty disease, "Americanidol", "Americanitis" is vastly more pedigreed and historically significant, and is now having a rather synchronistic resurgence, brought on near-singlehandedly by artist and avocational historian/anthropologist Alison Pebworth.

To reacquaint us with this malady, Pebworth is crossing the country, west to east, with her traveling exhibition entitled, "America: Beautiful Possibility". This exhibit incorporates interactive and place-specific activities with her gorgeous, hand-painted posters that juxtapose curious, disturbing and alluring images with modern and historical characters to re-tell the American story. She has styled her trek and artwork after the 19th century "Traveling Show", and has alchemized an assemblage of art, history, myth, and travelogue into a strikingly beautiful and thought provoking treatise on "what it means to be an American." (Howard Zinn would've dug this show!)

As Pebworth slyly theorizes, one of the things it might mean to be an American, at this point, and apparently since it was first categorized as a disease in 1869, is to be suffering from nervous exhaustion. First called "neurasthenia" by Dr. George M. Beard in 1869, it was renamed "Americanitis" in 1870 and became quite a sensation, as elixirs, speaking tours, books and careers were launched on its behalf. Ms. Pebworth has the notion to re-present the subject of Americanitis to the public.

"In trying to find what ails us, we find out who we are," says Pebworth. "In the journey you find the root. I'm bringing the idea of "Americanitis" into conversation, I want to start a discourse, get people to think and talk about it by viewing the show and filling out the survey I created about Americantis."

Survey takers will get a short history of the dis-ease and then will be asked their opinion as to whether Americanitis is an identifiable ailment today and give their thoughts on possible symptoms, causes and cures.

Which brings us to the "elixir" portion of Pebworth's traveling show. From her home in San Francisco, Pebworth brought the "mother" Americanitis elixir she created and has added to it indigenous ingredients from each stop along her tour.

"I'm taking the prototype and improving on it," says Pebworth. "I'm rolling into town with a fresh idea for people to see, sharing it and then rolling out of town."

At each stop she asks locals to prepare a fresh and original Americanitis elixir using homegrown ingredients, which she then shares at her events. Here in Cleveland, Pebworth is working with several of our farmers and herbalists to create a variety of Americanitis elixirs which they will share (while supplies last) with all who attend her elixir event Saturday, June 23rd at the West Side Market.

"I gave the farmers here a loose definition about the elixir and then let them create their own," says Pebworth. "Ninety percent of the elixir is the story behind it, the story we are buying into. Back in the 1800's, they would create these elaborate stories about how the elixir was made and that was a big part of the appeal."

"Creating a new elixir in each city ties in with the slow food movement because it becomes about the farmer and how and where the ingredient was grown. I feel we get as much nourishment from the story about the food as we do from the food itself. I like the idea of connecting people to where the food came from and what is available in their own back yards."

Pebworth is reluctant to make sweeping pronouncements about just exactly what "Americanitis" is. She's more interested in what the people she meets on her journey have to say about it.

"What I have found in my travels around the country is we are more alike than we think, says Pebworth. "I think everyone feels they are affected in some way with Americanitis. Part of the problem is people are very fearful. When my friends found out I was going to be traveling across the country alone, they started giving me gifts of mace and telling me I needed a dog! But the only thing I've found since I've been on the road is kindness. I think if you approach people with kindness that is what you get back. We make assumptions about each other, and we don't really challenge them. We listen to the news and form opinions. I'm trying to challenge my own assumptions. We need to move out into the world not on our fears, but on our hopes for one another."

View Pebworth's show, "America: Beautiful Possibility", take an "Americanitis" survey, read other surveys and become part of the conversation at the Loren Naji Studio Gallery, 2138 West 25th Street through Tue 6/19.

On June 22nd, the show moves to the West Side Market. Join Alison at the West Side Market (at the S.E. entrance) for the Urban Farmers Elixir Event on Sat 6/23, starting at 10 a.m. Elixir tastings and elixir themed activities will be held throughout the day.


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