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Oral history interview conducted by Liza Zapol
July 19, 2013
Call number: 2011.019.061
LIZA ZAPOL: So this is Liza Zapol for the Brooklyn Historical Society, CrossingBorders, Bridging Generations Oral History project. It's July 19, 2013, and I'm here in Brooklyn, New York. And if you can introduce yourself, please.
DINA HELAL: I'm Dina Helal, and I also live here in Brooklyn, New York, at[address redacted for privacy]. And it used to be a former chocolate factory, so I live in a kind of a baby loft.
LIZA ZAPOL: And a beautiful one at that so. Great, so if I can ask you just tobegin by telling me where and when you were born, and a little bit about the circumstances around your birth.
DINA HELAL: Okay. So, I was born in Hampstead in London, England in 1956, [date1:00redacted for privacy]. And I was actually a twin. And they -- my mother's birth was a breech birth. And so, I was actually the right way up and my twin was breech. She unfortunately died at birth. And I was a blue baby, I came out with asphyxia pallida. But then I guess they slapped me on the back, and I started wailing, and that was okay. I was actually only three pounds, two ounces when I was born, and also three weeks premature. So, they put me in an incubator for about two and a half months. And that's why my mother used to say that I used to throw every soft toy and teddy bear out of the bed, because I had my incubator 2:00space, and I didn't want anything to sort of smother me. [laughter] So yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: So then after your incubator time where you a healthy baby?
DINA HELAL: I am pretty sure that my mother kind of force fed me for a number ofmonths because there are some pictures of me as this chubby -- chubby little thing after -- after a few months. So, I'm sure she was really concerned, being the Jewish mother that she was, that, you know, have you had enough to eat. [laughter] And that I was growing and becoming a normal kid. I'm actually the shortest person in my immediate family, and that quite possibly has something to 3:00do with the circumstances of my birth.
LIZA ZAPOL: Tell me a bit more about your mother. You said that she was a Jewish mother?
DINA HELAL: Okay, so my background is rather mixed so I would say that I'm akind of a mongrel of this world. My mother was Ashkenazi Jewish. Her father was from that part of Russia and Poland that was sometimes Russia, and sometimes Poland. And her mother was Austrian. And as far as I know, my grandfather moved from Russia right before the Communist revolution to Vienna where he met my grandmother. And then they in turn during the early 1920s moved to London, England. 4:00
LIZA ZAPOL: Gotcha. And then what about your father's background?
DINA HELAL: My father was born and raised in Egypt and came to the UK to studymedicine when he was about seventeen or eighteen years old. My mother and father were born the same year 1927. And my father was born in Cairo. His father was Egyptian, and the youngest of twelve kids. And my grandfather actually grew up across the street from Nasser, the president of Egypt at one time.
And this was probably the best thing that happened to him in his life because my5:00grandfather began as a cabin boy on the Egyptian railways and he kind of worked his way up. And he was sent to Cambridge, England to study for a couple of years and became a total Anglophile. And so in Cairo my father always went to the international school and grew up learning English with this very sort of plum English accent. But it was always a kind of a sort of international milieu that he was in. And yeah, my grandfather by then was the sort of director of the Egyptian railways. So, this was no small potatoes for [laughter] a boy who had 6:00grown up in a poor neighborhood as the youngest of twelve kids. And I -- I -- to this day I don't know a lot of details about it, but I believe that it was his connection with Nasser, and also his study of engineering that put him into that position.
And he -- my father was the oldest of two children. And he had a younger sistercalled Doria and she was nine years younger, which is exactly the same period of time between me and my younger brother. So, you've got an Egyptian, and you got an Ashkenazi Jew, and both converge in London studying medicine at different 7:00colleges, but with the aim of becoming doctors. So, my mother and father actually met while they were doing their internships at the London hospitals. This was a huge disaster for particularly my mother's family. Because they really did not want her to marry outside of the Jewish faith, let alone marry an Arab and an Egyptian foreigner not even -- not even an English bloke. You know. So, my grandfather on my mother's side tried to actually kidnap my mother and threatened to send her to Israel if she married my father. But she was pretty 8:00rebellious. [laughter] And so they had this yeah, very simple city hall type wedding and they got married. I actually still have my mother's wedding dress. It wasn't white it was navy blue. [laughter] And they got married in the registry office, which is like getting married at city hall, in Brooklyn. This has repercussions sort of later on in my life as well. My mother's family disowned her when she got married. And I -- I actually have very little knowledge of the mother's -- my mother's side of my family. In a -- in about, in the early 1970s my uncle who is my mother's older brother, Uncle Sid, contacted 9:00my mother because he was finally getting married and he invited actually all of us to his wedding. We went, my father -- the -- the Egyptian donned a yarmulke for the wedding. And it was -- I was a teenager, so it was the first Jewish wedding that I'd ever been to. And then we went back to my uncle's house for the reception. And I saw somebody there that looked almost identical to my mother. And it was her younger sister Barbara. There were also these very tall set of teenage lanky cousins. 10:00
But they wouldn't actually stay in the same room as us, in -- in my uncle'shouse. And it was really the first time that I encountered, you know, a real kind of prejudice against who we were. I mean I'd encounter that in elementary school, we called it primary school in the British Isles. There were actually a couple of Italian twins, Anna and Maria. And then there was me and my sister who kind of, had sort of curly hair, which is not very British and kind of looked a little different from everybody else. And my mother was a general practitioner -- family doctor -- by then. So, she was sort of working, but -- and now school was actually quite far from where we lived. But at the age of sort of seven, 11:00eight, nine, ten we'd kind of learned to walk home and cross the busy roads. And so, we would walk and then my mother would kind of swing by and pick us up. And we would walk with these Italian twins who were much -- they had darker hair and darker skin and they were kind of much more like us. But the other kids would actually taunt us and call names and kind of throw things at us as we'd walked home. And that's why we kind of joined forces with the twins because at least there were four of us and not just me and my sister trying to walk home. So --
LIZA ZAPOL: How did -- how did you make sense of that experience or if that was12:00your first experience of prejudice?
DINA HELAL: It was kind of -- all right these people are nice and similarly --by that time -- by the time we were in elementary school my father had qualified as an orthopedic surgeon. He was practicing, my mother was practicing and so by the time I was nine years old and my brother was born we'd moved to this kind of fancy house. And the people on the street were all very British, and nice, and everything. We used to go and play with the kids and stuff like that. But always felt like I looked different and we were somehow different from them. This 13:00wasn't the case at my father's -- at the hospitals that he worked at. He worked in a very sort of United Nations situation, because a lot of the doctors were from other countries. From India, from Africa, other places in Europe, so everybody was speaking you know, a bunch of languages and it didn't seem strange to me to have, you know, a person from India here, a person from Nigeria there, this all seemed very natural. And were also the people my parents socialized with as well. Outside of that in normal sort of British school, and you know, everyday life, it was quite different. You know, London wasn't quite as 14:00cosmopolitan as it is even from the '80s and the '90s and until now. And so, there were these little sort of enclaves of people from other countries sort of gathering. There was also a strong class system in the British Isles. And my mother, who was a family doctor, worked in very sort of working-class environments. So, she had her own practice and the surgery first at the house that we lived at and then in a separate building and she used to do house visits.
Well, when I was very young up until my sister was born, there was nobody to15:00look after us. So, she would take me actually in the car on her house calls. And one huge thing that stays with me [laughter] and I've sort of dealt with this in therapy, is the fact that she would leave the car and disappear into these houses. And I thought I was never going to see her again and would start bawling, you know, every time apparently, she would say that I would start crying when she'd left the car and went into the house. And of course, you know, you could never leave a kid in a car or by themselves these days, it would be, I think illegal. [laughter] So but in those days in the '50s that was you know, just something she did, so. And yeah, so -- so that stays with me as a huge 16:00effect on my life. I don't like people walking out the door. What else?
LIZA ZAPOL: So, you were talking about these different, you know, the differencebetween your father's practice and your mother's practice. But also, these experiences of the class system, a rigid class system, and then prejudice within that system, or I wasn't sure if that was where you were going.
DINA HELAL: Yeah, I mean, well, because my father was a surgeon and quite asuccessful one, he was also in a teaching hospital, the London hospital where the Elephant Man is housed. Yeah, he was up there in the middle class and my 17:00mother had this huge practice of about 5,000 patients. She actually hired partners again from different places from the British Isles, but also from India over the years. And she was sort of tremendously respected as a doctor.
So, we were definitely in there -- in the middle class and yet somehow we didn'thave blonde straight hair, or you know, the looks that a normal British kid would have. And at that point a lot of the working-class people were from the 18:00colonies, from Jamaica, from India, from Pakistan, all these different places. So, my sister and I kind of identified a whole lot more with them. And the school that we went to actually was full of sort of working class people. So, my sister and I, and later my brother developed this kind of a cockney accent, right, aye, you know, like that, and so my mother sent us to elocution lessons. We were quite young, me and my sister. Because she really didn't want us talking cockney and the only sort of real advantage of all that, I'm sure it had an 19:00impact because yeah, we sound very kind of British these days, the middle-class accent and all of that. But the most wonderful thing was that it introduced me to Shakespeare and a lot of other English literature, which I really loved and ended up studying at high school. So --
LIZA ZAPOL: So, what would be in that -- tell me about what an elocution classwas like.
DINA HELAL: We would say, have the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare. So, it was alot of pronunciation, and instead of saying loik, you'd say, like. You know, so it was a lot of repetition and looking at the person's mouth. And how they were 20:00saying that word, and repeating it over, and over again. But then also reading plays, reading excerpts or acts from plays. But we were really expected to -- it felt like putting on an act [laughter] to me.
And I remember; I went to a boarding school at the age of eleven. I'd read allthese books from the library about boarding school and so I thought that sounds like a pretty good idea. I really did not feel comfortable just going to the local school. I wanted to get away; I wanted to get out of the city and go to a boarding school that -- that, was sort of like these books that I was reading. 21:00So, I remembered in the interview, age eleven or ten actually, because it was the year before, putting on my best elocution voice that I had learned. Putting on this sort of posh English accent, so I wouldn't sound like all the other kids in this school. And somehow -- I mean the person interviewing me must have known I was completely acting and faking it, but I got into the school anyway. [laughter] And I actually did seven years of that school, just staying at the school, that too was like United Nations, because there were all these kids from 22:00different situations there, where a lot of them were British but somewhere Indian, and African, and from other places in Europe as well. And, for example, there are families, kids whose parents were working in Aden in the Yemen, in the military, but also in the oil industry, say in Rawalpindi in Pakistan. Some kids from Australia, some in the Diplomatic Corps so -- so like that it was a whole mixture of kids. And it was a very bourgeois boarding school as well. The good 23:00thing about it was it had boys as well as girls. And that it was also a day school, as well as a boarding school. I actually still have the three friends that I'm close to that -- that I've known pretty much since I was eleven years old.
LIZA ZAPOL: What are your early memories of -- of just arriving at this schooland kind of your first experiences of being away from home?
DINA HELAL: I mean, my brother had just been born, and I kind of wanted to getaway from home. And the aura of all these wonderful books that I had read was with me until eleven years old. When reality kicked in it was like well, you 24:00better get up first otherwise you are going to have to wait for the bathroom for, you know, rather a long time, possibly be late for breakfast, where they'd feed us porridge that was absolutely disgusting to me.
And yeah, but as an eleven-year-old I was kind of hungry, so I needed some foodwhether it was porridge or not. I think I learned to like a lot of foods there, whether I liked that or not, a lot of bland British food too, and I was used to eating, you know, spicier stuff. Also, there were some Americans there. And I was kind of fascinated by that. I actually had an alter ego when I was younger; 25:00who was kind of the opposite to me. She had dead straight hair, and she had an American accent. So perhaps that was a little bit sort of prescient about coming to the United States. I also didn't know that I was a twin until I was fifteen years old. And just to have this sort of alter ego was perhaps my unconscious, subconscious projection of actually having a twin as well. So --
LIZA ZAPOL: How did you learn that you had a twin?
DINA HELAL: I was being extremely bad at school, probably you know, just learnedto smoke and just run away maybe, and I was suspended. My parents were 26:00absolutely appalled by this, of course.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: But so, I had to spend some time at home. And I know I was reallyadolescent and sulky during that time, and maybe even sort of walked out of the house, and walked off, and they didn't know where I was. That was intentional on my part.
And then my mother took me aside and said, for some -- for some reason, I thinkshe wanted to stop me in my tracks in a certain way. And she told me that I was a twin and that I was in a -- her first child. And I believe she had a stillborn 27:00child before me. And then my twin died. So, I was the first child that survived. And I think that was very, very important to her.
Goodness knows -- I mean my brother came out like a huge baby, he's like oversix foot and I don't know what happened -- don't know what they fed him as opposed me, but you know, as the babies went on, they got healthier and you know, kind of survived a little bit less on the edge than I did. So, but I do think in -- from some of the photos that -- that I've seen that those first 28:00couple years where actually kind of really precious to my parents, because I was the first one who survived.
LIZA ZAPOL: I'm going to ask you -- so we're in high school now, but I'm curiousbecause you were talking about you're -- earlier on you were talking about your mother's family and how they responded to your parents' marriage, but I didn't hear about your father's family and how they responded yet.
DINA HELAL: Okay, so my father's family was actually very supportive. There's along sort of a complicated history with my grandfather, because eventually when 29:00-- my father's mother died when he was twelve years old and my grandfather remarried a few years later. And he married a Catholic nun in Cairo, called Mary Clare, whose brother was actually quite a well-known British poet. Who knows why, my grandfather was a Muslim. [laughter] Which seemed -- he was also an Anglophile, and in the Muslim faith at that time, anyway it wasn't necessary that the first-born child should necessarily be Muslim.
So, my father actually did not grow up Muslim. Although he was Egyptian, yeah,30:00he went to this international school. He grew up in a very sort of European environment anyway. I've only -- heard him speak Arabic in like Arabic restaurants, Middle Eastern restaurants, in London when he would order the food and everything.
And apparently my father had a very sort of Cairene accent. All of his Arabicwould sort of come back to him. I mean he left Egypt, basically, as a teenager, and became very Anglicized. But the Arabic always used to kick in, you know. And 31:00also, he looked very different: black curly hair, dark skin, looks, too good looking for his own good, which eventually lead to the demise of my parent's marriage.
But yeah, he was very assimilated and sort of Anglicized. We never learned anyArabic from him, partly because he was always away studying or working. And actually my sister got into it. She used to make this sort of pretend Arabic writing and pretend Egyptian language. I guess I was more interested in 32:00assimilating too, so I never bought into any of that. But my sister, she's different, she still sort of does not identify herself as, you know, English, she's always colored. She has kind of darker skin than I do, and she looks more kind of foreign.
LIZA ZAPOL: How did you talk about your background as a family when these thingswould happen in school and so on?
DINA HELAL: Well, well, not a great deal. I mean, my mother, -- I know moreabout my mother's family from her cousin Sam who was also studying medicine in London the same time she was, and who my sister and I have kept in touch with 33:00over the years. We have these wonderful cousins, some of which live in the British Isles, another who lives in Switzerland, and another one lives in Tasmania in Australia. But we've always kept in touch with Auntie Bobbie and Uncle Sam. Bobbie was an artist and Sam was also a doctor, a dermatologist. And they've taught us more about my mother's family than my mother ever did.
They told us to go -- a few years ago -- to Somerset House where the Gilbertcollection of micromosaics and some paintings were. And apparently we share the 34:00same grandfather with this guy Gilbert. We're somehow related. My mother did mention these sort of crazy relatives in L.A. and Gilbert lives in L.A. He changed his name though. My mother's maiden name was Feldman, and Gilbert took his wife's name. But he has this very renowned collection that was a few years ago moved from Somerset House, which is where all the birth certificates and everything are kept for everybody in the British Isles. And it was moved to the Victoria & Albert Museum, so it's housed there now. I haven't been to see it there, but yeah, I was kind of like what -- 35:00
When I saw it, there's a picture of this grandfather and a caption that wasactually exhibited in Somerset House, and it says, "Gilbert standing by Feldman" and in the background are orange groves that were being grown right after the founding of Israel.
LIZA ZAPOL: Interesting.
DINA HELAL: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, they went to Israel -- that part of the family went to Israel,whereas her family was in Poland -- Russia?
DINA HELAL: Well, no they were just there, sort of founding it or something. Butmy mother had a half brother --- all right, so my mother's mother died of septicemia which was quite prevalent in those days, when my mother's youngest 36:00sister Barbara was born, the one that wouldn't stay in the same room as us at my uncle's wedding. And my grandfather had a Welsh housekeeper called Win. And eventually he married this Welsh housekeeper. [laughter] So, basically my mother and her siblings were raised by a Welsh housekeeper. But when it came to my mother marrying my father that was not okay. Win, the Welsh housekeeper, kept in touch with my mother even after her and her father had disowned her. And my 37:00mother --
LIZA ZAPOL: Her husband her, after her husband disowned her? After your mother'sfather disowned her?
DINA HELAL: Exactly.
LIZA ZAPOL: Which was, Win's husband.
DINA HELAL: Yes.
LIZA ZAPOL: Right, okay.
DINA HELAL: So, Win actually kept in touch with my mother and they used to, sortof, meet up secretly. But Win died, and my mother found out from some friends of hers, and went to the house, and they wouldn't let her in. So, this is really how separated and apart my mother was from her family.
On the other hand, my grandfather, my Egyptian grandfather, used to come overonce a year, bringing -- bearing gifts, and different Egyptian things, I mean, 38:00we had so many Egyptian things, and toys, and black baby dolls. [laughter] All of these things, that he would bring, and he would stay for a month or two, and then he would go on off back to Egypt. And I think it used to drive my father nuts, but my mother got on really well with my Egyptian grandfather. Ibrahim was his name. Lovely little man, not tall, I mean my father was quite -- over six foot, but my granddad was definitely five foot something. And lovely man, he particularly liked my -- my sister. He and my sister used to get on really well. And then it was the '70s, he would still come over, but he would go off on these 39:00long walks and get lost, and then somebody would -- very kind, would bring him back. And that's when he started to sort of lose his way and lose his memory. And my father died of Alzheimer's. And so I've a feeling that, that kind of dementia set in --
LIZA ZAPOL: With your grandfather?
DINA HELAL: Yeah, it was hereditary, and yeah. But yes, we knew my Egyptian sideof the family a whole lot better than the Jewish side.
My Father has this sister Doria -- and her nickname was Dolla, again very40:00American -- who trained as a nurse, she too, was sent to the British Isles to learn English, and you know, train in the medical field. She then married a Coptic Christian, we call him Didi -- Dorie and Didi these days -- Adele. And he was in the -- he was -- leading a platoon in the Five-Day War with Israel in the 1960 -- 1963 I believe it was. And he got lost in the desert, in the Sinai, and he was accused of being a traitor, and thrown in prison.
My aunt was working as a nurse at the Cairo airport at that time, and there was41:00this American woman called Helen, from Westchester, who didn't have all her vaccinations in place. My aunt helped her, and they kind of became friends, and she was sort of in quarantine. My aunt would bring her food, and -- that she had made and all this stuff, and Helen was sort of there for about six weeks. So, my aunt became friends with her and started telling her, her situation, that my uncle was in prison and that they really wanted to move to the United States. And so, Helen actually sponsored them to move. My uncle came out of prison, and they immediately basically, left with nothing. And they stopped by the British 42:00Isles on Guy Fawkes night in 1965, I think it was. And so, Guy Fawkes night is where you burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes, who wanted to blow up Parliament, and had this five-year-old cousin basically who must have been in total culture shock, but they were all -- the three of them were on their way to Westchester, United States.
And my uncle -- they settled in Brigantine, New Jersey. And my uncle worked foran OBGYN doctor there, because that was what he was qualified in Egypt. And he tried to pass the New Jersey exams, but they kept failing him, even by like two 43:00percent. And sort of started thinking well, why, why are they failing me? But the doctor that he worked with performed abortions, which meant he also did abortions. And they just would not pass him there to become -- you know, to be able to work in New Jersey.
So, my aunt and uncle were very used to warm weather from Egypt. And they said,oh, how about that place down there called Florida? So, my uncle took the exams for Florida, passed immediately, and they moved there, and the rest of their story is pretty much like an American dream. Because they got a space in this 44:00sort of mall-like area, it's medical offices, and I used to -- when I first came here which was in 1980, and for the '80s I used to visit them in Florida, Cocoa Beach. And you walk into their office, and it's wallpapered with photographs of the babies that he had delivered. He worked 24/7 for years, and years and years, built up this amazing practice. Wherever we went, whether it was a restaurant or a store or the beach or anywhere, everybody would know him, because he delivered somebody in their family, right?
And so, it was kind of fantastic, and they earned enough money to build an45:00amazing house there, where Banana River and Indian River are. And he became the president of the hospital down there. And in their front yard they had a pyramid that had water cascading down it, [laughter] just to remember -- remind them, where they were from. [laughter] It was kind of Disney like actually, it's sort of beautiful.
LIZA ZAPOL: Quite a rise.
DINA HELAL: Yes.
LIZA ZAPOL: Not Jersey, but Florida worked out for them.
DINA HELAL: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, it's interesting, because then -- so that's your link -- or oneof your links to America. But we left you in high school, so around the age of fifteen.
DINA HELAL: Okay.46:00
LIZA ZAPOL: So, your mother told you that you had a twin, I didn't really hearso much about how that impacted you, and then, you know --
DINA HELAL: It kind of -- all the ducks started to be in their rows. It kind ofmade sense to me that, oh, yes, well that's why I had this other person that I would talk to when I was younger. And, you know, these friends that I'm still close with, and who visited here, and we celebrated our 50th birthdays in Mexico, and all that, and we have plans for the 60th. All of these people that I'm close to, that made total sense to as why I needed to be so close them. 47:00Because I think if my twin had survived, we would have been really kind of close, it's probably in a something in twindom that one needs to have that closeness.
School -- so I had all these good friends, some of whom did the full sevenyears, like I did. And then a great art teacher at that school who introduced us to art history, and he was kind of the housemaster for the boys' boarding school partly. And we used to babysit his kids while he and his wife were doing their 48:00work. And so, we got quite close to them, and he in turn would take us to art shows and exhibitions in London, and around London, because we were outside of London at school, at that point. And then my other friend Polly, her parents used to live in Bayswater, and we would all congregate there because Polly actually had an apartment in the basement level of her parents' house. Which was sort of unusual for a teenager, and it was actually Alan and Christian, her parents, who really got me into art, and took me to the galleries and museums in 49:00London. My parents used to drag us to the science museums when we were younger, and I hated it. But with Alan and Christian we would visit art museums, I kind of fell in love with the idea of wanting to do art.
LIZA ZAPOL: Where they artists themselves?
DINA HELAL: No, Alan taught dentistry at London University, and Christian was anarchitect. So, a type of artist but yeah, not specifically.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: Yeah
LIZA ZAPOL: So -- so tell me more of about those kind of exchanges orexperiences of art and then maybe your own explorations.
DINA HELAL: I don't know when it quite clicked for me, because as a teenager I50:00was intent on doing everything opposite to what my parents wanted me to do. I mean, I was a real horrible rebel. So, they said, oh, why don't you do art. No, I'm absolutely not doing art, I'm doing English literature. Alan and Christian come in and say, why don't you do art? And I say oh, yeah, that's a really good idea. [laughter] Then my parents get cold feet about it. And say well, maybe you should do art history, as well. So, they made me apply to do just art history, or a combination degree.
We could apply to five universities, and one of those was Cambridge, which was51:00just art history. Another was Exeter, which had a sort of, I think a very early performance program actually, which I probably would have loved, but I didn't get in there. And Leeds, which had, a combination 50/50 art history and studio work, and so I ended up at Leeds doing a four-year program. But not after --- not before I'd taken a year to actually travel around Europe and work in Italy for a while. And that was a fantastic year for me. Took Italian lessons, I babysat, I painted apartment walls, I did all kinds of stuff there, and just 52:00really, loved being in Milano.
LIZA ZAPOL: What inspired that year?
DINA HELAL: Just to have a break from school and doing more sort of academicstuff. I did the same thing between undergraduate and graduate school as well. I kind of --- I was a bit of a nerd, and I kind of loved school. Everybody used to call me --- they didn't say nerd or geek, they said swot, because I would do my homework, and really get into it, and work beyond the homework allocated time, and all that. And yeah, I actually succeeded, but I was also considered like a weirdo, because --- because I actually liked learning. And that continued 53:00through high school, but me and two boys actually ended up sweeping the awards for like the best academic performance at that school. Yeah, the boyfriends, and all that, actually one of the --- those boys was the boyfriend. [laughter] So from the age of about sixteen to eighteen, and he ended up --- actually both of the boys did end up going to Cambridge. And Eric, who was from a much less sort of middle-class family, he had the long hair and was kind of the cool dude as far as I was concerned. He had a hard time there, I think. Whereas Simon, the 54:00WASPY kind of real Brit, with the posh accent, he did fine.
I'm sure I could have faked my posh accent there if I'd wanted to go there. ButI kind of said, no, no I don't want to do that, I want to do Leeds, which at least has some studio practice, so that's what I ended up doing. And I ended up with all the recent Marxist feminist graduates from the Courtauld Institute in London. I went to Leeds University, and they all ended up there teaching.
And it was kind of this sort of revolutionary social art history there in the55:00late '70s that sort of swept the board after that and came to the U.S. as well. And because it was a four-year course, what was really great was actually going in depth and having a travel grant to actually come to the United States in 1978 to study the New York school, and Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and John Cage at the Castelli Gallery in SoHo at that time. I mean I was sitting in there in the archives surrounded by Warhol Brillo boxes. And then Leo Castelli would come in from sort of walking his dogs and there was some amazing show of 56:00Robert Rauschenberg right there. I mean, it was an incredible experience. So, after that summer where I actually went to stay with my Egyptian aunt and uncle down in Cocoa Beach Florida, me and my cousin went to Bahamas and I saw stuff at Cape Canaveral, taking, you know, the rockets taking off, and it was absolutely my American dream kind of come true. And it was --- I've got to get back here, I've got to live in this country. And my cousin at the time was applying to dentist school. So, in those days no computers, nothing online. So, she had this red covered encyclopedia of all the colleges in the United States. So, I looked 57:00up some in New York City. And said, oh, I'd like to study there, and there, and there. And it turn out, that half the places that I wrote off for the prospectus actually didn't have graduate programs at the time, Hunter, Cooper Union, etc., etc. so but Pratt did, and so I ended up coming to --- to Pratt in 1980.
LIZA ZAPOL: So where did you land when you came to Pratt and what was the year?
DINA HELAL: I applied to do MFA in fine arts. And it was like a candy store, tome, then. Because I mean, British supermarkets, British art stores, British sort 58:00of everything was very limited to; you know, maybe two or three choices. When I came to the U.S. I had ten, twenty choices of things. I mean, it was --- its kind of, overwhelming at the beginning, but you go somewhere like Pearl Paint, and it was like oh, wow, I can choose between this type and this type and this type of art supply, and this is incredible.
And so, I experimented a lot. I've always been a mixed-media person, rather thanjust a sort of purest painter, and so all the materials available was, were, absolutely astounding to me. And it --- it was sort of like the art supermarket, 59:00if you like. And I experimented through my MFA years. I think I got quite a lot out of it and met some interesting teachers. And then graduated, and you're sort of suddenly thrown into the world. And there wasn't exactly a lot of career mentorship there at Pratt. I did an internship at a British-American Gallery, fully intending to go back to the British Isles and open a gallery of my own, in London.
I stayed on an additional semester, because the gallery actually folded, and it60:00was in the loft of Marilyn Minter, the artist who was in the 2006 Biennial, and the back of her loft was her space and her studio, and the front of the loft was the gallery. And I basically learned everything I know about how to run a gallery there. Stayed on to help the director pack the works and ship them back to the UK. But it taught me an incredible amount about how galleries work I was very curious about that, basically, because I think I wanted to be an artist in 61:00one, so I had to know how they worked in order to do that. Well, I never quite got my head wrapped around that and had to pay the rent, and so went into the administrative side of things. I was volunteering both at the New Museum and at a downtown gallery and theater space in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn space ended up offering me a job. So, I applied all my knowledge that I had learned in the SoHo gallery to running the gallery of this Brooklyn art space.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, tell me about what -- I'm interested in hearing the detailsabout that Brooklyn art space and also about where you were living in these times, like where was home for you?
DINA HELAL: Okay, when I first moved to the United States, I actually stayed62:00with others who lived on Fifth Avenue and 68th Street. And that was marvelous, obviously, because that was right by Central Park, lovely apartment, gorgeous, but I had to find a space to live near Pratt in Brooklyn. So, I actually went to the Pratt's notice boards and stuff, because I didn't know about the Village Voice, and the SoHo News, and all that at that moment. And I found a space for 250 dollars, a roommate situation in Fort Greene on Fort Greene Place just around the corner from Brooklyn Academy of Music. So, I went to look at this space, and the roommate was actually a former Pratt student, she'd been a 63:00student in industrial design. And she had this amazing sort of curvy easel that she'd designed. I saw it and said, yeah, that's the right roommate for me. So, I lived at 116 Fort Greene Place. And walked up and down Lafayette Avenue everyday for two and half, three years, while I did my MFA program. Now Lafayette Avenue was not like it is today. So, me being sort of, you know, having grown up in the British Isles, and you greet people, you say hello, stuff like that. I would say hello, and then get some string of expletives sort of following me down the street. And I thought Dina, you've got to learn your street moxie here. 64:00
So, I learned to sort of acknowledge people, but not necessarily say anything. Ilearned very early on because I was mugged on Pratt campus. The guy had a knife, and he actually sliced the buttons off my coat before I screamed to high murder, and the security came running. But I learned very quickly to sort of protect myself and be streetwise. I'd never kind of had to do that before, because this was New York; that was London. London is very much like Brooklyn, but Brooklyn way back then was not like London. It is very much now, but yeah, thirty years 65:00ago, it wasn't like that.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, you became this streetwise person, you were living in FortGreene, and then it sounds like you --- you also worked at this gallery. But at a certain point you decided to stay in New York even after the gallery, after that second year.
DINA HELAL: Okay, so I was able to do practical training after I graduated fromPratt. Which meant, working at the New Museum, and also at this alternative gallery and theater called BACA Downtown in downtown Brooklyn. It was at 111 Willoughby Street. And it was like a 1,000 square foot black box theater, or 100 66:00seat black box theater and a 1,000 square foot gallery. We did some pretty, incredible shows there. The theater productions were part of the Bessies from Dance Theater Workshop.
The gallery exhibitions, for example, Glenn Ligon had his -- one of his firstgallery exhibitions there, another famous artist Danitra Vance who was on Saturday Night Live, Laurie Carlos, all kinds of -- Suzan Lori Parks, who is up at Yale, and you know, has plays presented at the Public Theater. So, a lot of 67:00people were sort of involved with that, and we did this big showcase of dance, and theater, and music, and performance. And yeah, some you know, quite well-known artists at least well known now. They weren't then, but we kind of gave them some of their first shows. So that was a pretty incredible experience. And actually Maria Hinojosa, who does the Need to Know program, and we ---[laughter] Maria and I did a Day of the Dead installation at BACA Downtown, and we had a great time doing that. [laughter] And she --- I don't even know if she'd remember me but I remember that in the '80s very well. Yeah, Maria, and I 68:00are about the same height, so we got on really well.
LIZA ZAPOL: And what are your memories also of that scene? So, you were one ofother, -- were you one of other sort of spaces in that area in DUMBO what else was happening there? What was that like there?
DINA HELAL: There wasn't really any other space. There was BWAC, which was theBrooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. But we -- for example, they didn't have a gallery space of their own in those days so we would do a BWAC exhibition. So, we would go to their studios, and you know, choose the artwork that they would be represented by. Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: And did you have a sense that --- that there was a Brooklyn sort of69:00scene at that time, or was it, was, Manhattan and Brooklyn sort of more --- so what was the --- who are the --
DINA HELAL: There was definitely ---
LIZA ZAPOL: Who were you exhibiting and creating stuff at the space at -- back then?
DINA HELAL: There was definitely a Brooklyn scene. And we, -- we needed to showBrooklyn artists, but we weren't restricted to that. So, for example, artists would propose shows, or an organization would, or an individual would contact us saying, "oh, we'd really like to do this show there." Or we'd go to different Brooklyn artist studios, because the Brooklyn Museum had slides of Brooklyn 70:00artists, also Artists Space had their slide registry. So, we would go there and look through those, and you know, say oh, cool, this artist looks really interesting. Let's go see their work. You know, and they weren't necessarily in the show that year, but we were sort of, you know, research and development, right, we were kind of looking at people, and sort of figuring out well, okay these artists sort of work together. And I was actually in a show there, and that's how I came to volunteer and eventually get a job there.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, tell me about that show.
DINA HELAL: It had this crazy name, it was called, Colorature, and it was allabout color. I can't even honestly remember exactly the work that was in that 71:00show. I do remember doing a workshop, though, for students, and that, probably piqued my interest in education and working with the K-12 community.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, what was -- what do you remember of that of working with thestudents there?
DINA HELAL: Primarily just their responses to what I had to teach them, andtheir enthusiasm, and their work as well. And so that kind of got me hooked. Toward the end of my job at the Brooklyn Arts Council, BACA Downtown space, I 72:00actually started an education program there with third graders from elementary schools.
LIZA ZAPOL: Elementary schools in that area?
DINA HELAL: In Brooklyn. Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: And what inspired that program and talk -- tell me about that program.
DINA HELAL: So actually, when my partner Peter had a show there that's when itall kind of started. Because I for some reason had contacted this school, I think it was PS3, and they were on Atlantic Avenue, and they really wanted to 73:00come see the exhibition. And I said, oh, I better like read up on this because I'm the one going to sort of lead this --- lead this tour. And what art project could I do with them? And honestly, I can't even --- I think it was a really simple --- a really simple drawing project that I decided to do. But they were so into it, and enthusiastic, and it took me by surprise. It's like, wow, [laughter] what instant gratification [laughter] and what cool work they produced as well. And so that really got me thinking about starting a regular 74:00program with them. So, for the remainder of my time at BACA, I did that with PS3 from Atlantic Avenue. And after I'd left there in 1989, I worked for a year --- I thought --- I did an artist residency in Virginia, and I thought right, I'm going to be an artist. And I'll just do freelance work.
And so, I got these different teaching jobs in schools, teaching Pratt summerschool actually to 7-year-olds, and I just kind of loved it. And at the end of 75:00the summer school at Pratt with 7-year-olds, I thought I've got to find a job for the fall, and my friend Richard -- who I also went to Pratt with -- was working in the careers department and so he helped me find this job at the Whitney. So, I applied, and actually that job had been taken by my colleague Margaret. But there was another job at the branch museum, which was then called Philip Morris, aka, now Altria, and now it doesn't exist. So, they had --- they also had a staff of four, and it kind of operated like BACA Downtown in that they had a strong performance program, but also visual art and exhibition 76:00program. And so, I was hired there as the education person, not just K-12 but also public programs, as well. And we --- we did some --- Thelma Golden, who's now the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. She was the director of the branch museum for most of the time I was there. And we did work with some amazing artists, and also did some yeah, pretty momentous programs as well. I remember there was this guy from the Village Voice, who wrote a book called Blood on the Tracks. And Gary Simmons had done an installation called Garden of 77:00Hate, and it was right after the Rodney King incident in '92, and so we did this public program with the guy that who'd written this book and was also a writer for the Village Voice. An actual KKK showed up at this event all dressed in their garb and everything and started asking questions of this guy. We decided not to panic and just sort of let the program play itself out, and we were right in that respect. But yeah, it was a pretty tense moment in that it was a very 78:00small auditorium. It only held like 120 people or something like that, but it was one of the totally memorable events there.
LIZA ZAPOL: Sounds very creepy too.
DINA HELAL: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: So, this is the Brooklyn Historical Society's Crossing Borders,Bridging Generations project. It is October 20, 2013. And I'm here in Brooklyn New York. This is Liza Zapol, and if you can introduce yourself please, when you're ready, yeah.
DINA HELAL: This is Dina Helal.
LIZA ZAPOL: Thank you. So, Dina, this is our second session. We spoke severalmonths ago. And I feel like -- and I think you feel like there's still some more to explore in the oral history. So, I -- today, we spoke about 1985 as being a 79:00key year for you. So, I'd love to hear more about 1985, and maybe you can pull those threads into the present in your storytelling.
DINA HELAL: Okay. So, in 1985, I was living in Fort Greene still, and endedbadly a two-year relationship. And I thought right, I'm going to do something really adventurous, because it really put me in a tailspin. And the -- not Iran Contra, the Sandinista Contra war was going on in Nicaragua. And I found out about this arts brigade who were going to Nicaragua, and they were placed in 80:00different cities, and worked with people there to do art projects, and that could be music, it could be writing, it could be visual art. And the organization was called Arts for a New Nicaragua. They were based in Boston, but there was a New York contingent as well. And I got in touch with them, so I'd like to, you know, put myself in the war zone with you. And so, met with Ricky Asher actually, who -- she's now a professor at Queens College -- and met with her, and she was also going down to Nicaragua. There were four New York artists. Gene, Marcy, myself, and Ricky. And we were all going off into different places 81:00to paint murals. And actually, Gene, Marcy, and I were placed in Granada in Nicaragua. So, before we went down there, we held a bunch of benefits in the East Village, and actually helped with some of the East Village murals. And this was great practice for our mural painting in Nicaragua. And we took a bunch of art supplies, we also had a friend, Millie Rodriguez, and she was doing graphic design at Parsons. And she decided that she would take a whole bunch of t-shirts down and do a very simple photo silkscreen project using light bulbs to expose 82:00the photographic medium. So, she did that, and she ended up on Nicaraguan television, this project was so successful. We ended up staying at this sort of camp. There was very little food in the town. We had to go to like a -- it was a hotel next door, but we were the only people there, and we were staying there, sleeping in bare rooms in our sleeping bags and everything, so it was a bit like camping, and then working in this sort of cultural center during the day. And a lot of kids and adults came there, got very interested in the projects that we were doing. We met with the town government, and some people, and they talked 83:00with us about what kind of mural they wanted. And they said we want -- tiburones -- it was on Lake Nicaragua. And they said there were tiburones, which were sharks, in the lake, and we want the sharks to chase away the Contras. So the -- sort of a landscape with these sharks coming out of the water, chasing away the enemy. [laughter] And we did some sketches for the mural and then started to paint the mural. And this was on a corner of a -- quite a busy street. And the bus stopped there, and all the school kids would get off the bus and come and check out what we're doing, and how we're getting on. And some artists, Nicaraguan artists, came and helped us on the mural. And then so did some of the 84:00kids. So, we asked them to put other water creatures in the lake. [laughter] So the bottom of the mural were all these sort of kid drawings, and then sharks coming out and chasing the Contras over the mountain. And it was absolutely fantastic, because we were there, outdoors, painting away, and then we got all these people in the community interested. And yeah, I have pictures of this whole process. And I think the city -- the town officials were quite happy with the mural. But we stayed there for about three weeks. And then Gene and I decided to take -- there was a boat going down Lake Nicaragua to a place called 85:00Solentiname. And that was where Ernesto Cardinal, who was the minister of culture at that time, that was where his home was. And so, Gene and I went there. He wasn't actually there. He was in Managua when we visited. But we stayed at his house, which was amazing. And saw the little church that he -- he hadn't built the church, but he too had gotten the people in the village to make a sort of altarpiece mural, and it was absolutely beautiful. And he did a lot of work on these islands. They're a little archipelago of islands in the southern 86:00end of Lake Nicaragua, near Costa Rica actually. And we had a sort of magical time. I saw my first tarantula there.
LIZA ZAPOL: In that house?
DINA HELAL: Actually, it was outside, luckily. And yeah, it was pretty scary.[laughter] But interesting.
LIZA ZAPOL: What inspired that trip? I know that you thought that you wanted togo, and you know that this group of people who were going. But even before that, what kind of inspired your wanting to go?
DINA HELAL: I'd read about the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. LaurenceFerlinghetti had been on a visit to Ernesto Cardinal actually, and written a little book called Seven Days in Nicaragua. And it told the story of Cardinal, who I think he trained as a doctor, as far as I remember. And he -- and as a 87:00priest as well. And he was allocated this -- to these islands where people didn't have many resources, and indeed when we were there, we didn't actually stay very long, we just stayed a couple of days, because they too, they didn't have food, and we didn't want to, you know, use up their resources. So, Ferlinghetti visited Cardinal, and I saw pictures of this place. And also, that people, you know, really needed this kind of cultural inspiration during that time of war. And so that's what really gave me the inspiration to go there. And 88:00then I started -- there were all kinds of other books about Nicaragua, I have them right on my shelves here, that I started to read. And just got more and more interested. And decided this is a place where I want to visit, and I want to be able to help in some way.
LIZA ZAPOL: And did you speak Spanish, or did you --
DINA HELAL: Very little to sort of New York street Spanish. But yeah, I studiedFrench and Latin, and spent -- lived in Italy for a year, so I pretty much understand Spanish, even though I can't communicate that well in Spanish. I certainly improved while I was there, yeah. So, you know, when we came back from that trip, we gave some presentations. I had taken a lot of photographs. And we were able to sort of show slides of the Solentiname environment, as well. It was 89:00very amazing and beautiful.
LIZA ZAPOL: And so, what -- how did that activism or that relationship to thattown then continue? Did that continue in your work in some way, or how did that inspire you or your relationships?
DINA HELAL: Actually, we as a group, Millie and Gene and I, I think in Gene'sartwork it was much more evident, in a way. Because although I sort of studied -- mine tended to be a bit more abstract or, you know, not so sort of obviously political. But again, we continued to send supplies down to Nicaragua. And also 90:00sponsored some of the people that we met. Vicky was a dancer. And we sponsored her to come to New York and study dance for a while so she could get out of the war environment. And she was very grateful for that. Some of the kids and men mostly that we met there, we heard tragic news that they had died that, you know, they either gotten ill or actually been killed by the Contras. Which was really sad. Some of them were quite young as well. And then Millie actually went a couple of more times down to Nicaragua and did more silkscreen projects with the group. So, I didn't get an opportunity to go back, but it was a really 91:00transformative experience for me.
LIZA ZAPOL: And in America, what was the political environment at that timearound the Sandinistas, and?
DINA HELAL: Well, it was a Republican government, and there was a lot of sort ofprotest really. Especially around censorship in the late '80s. And I actually did a sort of an exchange with a colleague who worked at the National Association of Artists Organizations. And she was a performance artist, and she had a performance at PS122. So, we swapped jobs for a couple of months. I went to Washington and stayed with actually a former intern from BACA. And she stayed 92:00in New York and did her performance, but she did my job at the gallery and theater that I was working in. And it was right around the time of the censorship of -- oh, names of the artists escape me, but Karen Finley was one of them. There were four artists, and their work was just -- the NEA had refused to -- they'd withdrawn funding from these artists. And NAAO, the National Association of Artists Organizations, formed an organization called the -- I think it was called the Council for the Freedom of Expression. And we were sort 93:00of -- I was kind of the assistant there. We did two days of meetings. I was the minute taker, which was really interesting. And then we did a protest at the Capitol. Again, I have pictures of us protesting. And eventually the director of NAAO actually testified before Congress in defense of this funding and everything. So, it was a really sort of pivotal, kind of key moment. And I think you know, that stemmed from some of my activism with Nicaragua. And then -- and I've been to Washington a few other times as well for various reasons over the years. 94:00
LIZA ZAPOL: In protests?
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah. I would certainly go again if it takes me to do that. Soyeah, it was kind of exciting to be there. It's always a little ominous, because you get the police and, you know, their shields, and you never know if you're going to get arrested, or tear gassed, or whatever. And certainly, the censorship protests weren't that huge, you know, there weren't thousands of people, there were just, you know, maybe a few hundred, but it's still kind of -- you feel a little defensive in those kinds of situations, you know?
LIZA ZAPOL: As an artist? Or what do you mean, you feel defensive?95:00
DINA HELAL: Slightly threatened by the authorities, yeah. I remember I was on amarch here in New York, and I was carrying a placard that had a wooden handle and was sort of approached quite aggressively by a policeman who sort of snatched it from me and said you can't have this because this is, you know, a dangerous weapon. And it was just a placard on a piece of, you know, very thin wood. If I'd sort of hit anything with it, it would have splintered, you know? It wasn't a threat. But he was quite aggressive towards me. And actually, any encounter with the law has kind of been like that. You're always guilty until 96:00you're proven innocent.
LIZA ZAPOL: I see, yeah.
DINA HELAL: But 1985 was also the year that -- when I'd met the love of my life,Peter, before I went to Nicaragua. Because he was going to be in a group show at BACA in the fall. And we had had a meeting with all of the artists. And then I came back and started preparing for the show, and it opened kind of the end of October, around Halloween, and it was decided that Peter was going to do a performance during the opening and all of that. So, I typed the press release, I did all the publicity and everything for the show, and coordinated, you know, 97:00delivery and -- like that, and the hanging. And after the opening, we all went out to dinner, and we got chatting, and I was reading Franz Kafka's Amerika at that time, and we started talking about it, and I ended up lending him the book, because he never read it. And he said, do you know there's a perfectly square state in the United States? It's like, guess which one it is. I figured out it was Wyoming, it's sort of this arbitrary kind of perfect square. I don't know how they figured that out. But I kind of loved that, and it sort of went with this surreal kind of -- Kafka's concept of America. And that's how we really got talking. And then I guess about a month into the show, he came and did some 98:00photographs of the installation, and he'd put laser -- he did a camera-less photography, a type of photography without using a camera, where he'd shine a laser through an object, and it would create diffraction. And at his place, he -- in his studio, he had a special sort of holography room, because all of this came out of the development of holography in the 1960s, of which he was one of the pioneers. And so he would shine a laser on the object, and it would be projected onto a photographic negative, and he was using the largest negatives 99:00at that time, which were twenty by twenty-four. And it would make a picture. And then he would develop it and print them on very high contrast film. And so, he'd done an installation around this room, and then he'd actually hooked up the sink, because the sink -- there was a sink in this gallery, and it had a very sort of slow leak, a drip. And he kind of did this sort of diffraction with the sound, if you like. Hooking up to amplification and making it also a sound environment as well as a light environment. And it was really cool. So, he came to do some pictures, and he -- we got this sort of message, oh, he needs people 100:00in the gallery looking at the artwork, just sort of pretending that they're visitors. So, we had two lovely interns at that time, Felice and Nancy. And you know, they were the youngitas as I called them, and I sent them into the gallery to be the audience. And they came back and said oh, Peter wants you to go in there for a minute. [laughter] And I can remember what I was wearing that day, it was like just the black t-shirt as usual, and red pants with black spots. And so, I go into the gallery and he takes a few photographs, and then he kind of pins me up against the wall, starts kissing me, and said will you go out with me? [laughter] I was like, I didn't know what had happened. But I said yes. And 101:00then oh, maybe one or two days later, we went to see a movie together, and he's like taking me out, you know, very chivalrous. And it was like wow, this hasn't happened to me for quite a while. And we -- it was a British, like 1940s, you know, mystery movie. And we both sort of appreciated that. And then we went for coffee and both discovered that we liked macchiatos. So that endeared me to -- I wasn't, you know, even thinking about a relationship or a romance, or anything, but it happened. And yeah, it was great. So that was sort of a big year for me, 102:00and I broke up with somebody, went to Nicaragua, put myself in a war zone, and fell in love. It was kind of fabulous. [laughter]
LIZA ZAPOL: Wow, it does sound like a fabulous year. It definitely sounds like ayear to note as a turning point, as they say.
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: I'm curious to hear more about Peter. So, what his background wasbefore you met each other? You said he appreciated British film and other things. So, what was his background? Where did he come from?
DINA HELAL: Okay, so Peter was from Detroit, Michigan, born right in the innercity. And grew up in an area called Indian Village. And actually, his childhood friend, who he met on bicycle rides around his neighborhoods when they were 103:00about eight, they were actually riding their bikes and singing the same song, and just kind of startled each other. A guy called Jim. And Jim actually still lives in Indian Village. He -- the houses there are sort of huge, it's where all the Fords and the, you know, Chrysler people, the car people lived. And Peter's father was one of the first psychoanalysts in the United States, and he actually practiced for about fifty years, a Freudian analyst. And all of those car people used to visit him, and he had his surgery in Indian Village. So, Peter grew up there. And then Jim, his friend, actually bought the house across the street, and that's where he still lives. And of course, Detroit has gone through, you 104:00know, ups and downs, but they grew up in the sort of heyday of the '50s, and you know when the car industry was really booming. And so, he grew up there, but you know, as a teenager, he -- sort of outside of Indian Village, it gets a little wild and hairy. And -- but he was very into music. His father listened to music a lot and had Peter sort of listen with him. And a lot of jazz, and Peter sort of fell in love with jazz. Of course, a lot of that jazz was happening in Detroit, so Peter would tell me he would climb out of his window, bedroom window, second story, down -- wheel the car, his mother's car out of the 105:00driveway, get Jim, and they would go off to these jazz clubs at night. And Peter started learning saxophone, soprano saxophone, and in the end he would actually go and join in, and jam with the musicians. And decided that you know, he kind of had to get out of Detroit. So, he actually studied -- he did his undergraduate degree at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he met his first wife, and got involved with the civil rights movement. He was also subject to the draft for the Vietnam War, didn't want to do that, so he got his degree, and 106:00then he left, went to Japan for two years. He also got married. [laughter] So at the age of twenty he's married, he's in Japan, his wife stayed in the United States. She actually joined him for his final year in Japan. He spent three years there. Studied at Todai University. Met up with the Gutai performance group and worked with them for a while. And just really sort of got into the art scene there. In his work, you see Japanese culture was a huge influence. And as you can see around here, there are lots of sort of Japanese things that he brought back with him in the '60s. He was a very tall guy, six foot five, and 107:00the Japanese thought he was some kind of phenomenon. They weren't quite used to these tall people. He had an Ethiopian friend, and they spoke nothing but Japanese when they were studying it. And they would walk around Tokyo together, and these little women would sense these very tall beings behind them, and sort of look up and kind of laugh at them. So, they played a few tricks on a few small Japanese women. [laughter] But I think he really loved it there.
He came back to Detroit after those three years, I guess when the Vietnam Warwas over, around 1970, because his mother wasn't well. And he was the caregiver 108:00for his mother. Meanwhile, he attended Ann Arbor University at Michigan. And met Lloyd Cross, who was also a pioneer in holography. And they opened a gallery called the Editions Gallery, which he told me they filled with water once, and just kind of had all these sort of interesting installations by contemporary artists. It recently got transferred from film, this piece that they did at the Cranbrook Museum, Lloyd and Peter, and a bunch of other artists. And it was called Sound, Light, and Air. And it had inflatables that I think Peter was 109:00responsible for. Also, holograms and lasers, kind of shining onto these inflatables. And the film is really interesting, because it has people in there, and they look really '70s. [laughter] It's very cool. But the gallery was a really sort of focal point for them. And you know, it was the beginning of holographic art, and Peter really didn't want to make sort of hokey, sort of representational images. And so, he actually went away from using holograms per se, and just using lasers to shine on objects and make light diffraction. He was always interested in light waves and sound waves, and that was really his 110:00trajectory all the way through his artistic career. Really interesting, because he -- when he was doing performances, he would move around the space, creating these sort of sound waves in space, in the environment. When he had finished at Ann Arbor, the first place he wanted to move to was New York City. And he I think had met the dancer Simone Forti. And they applied for jobs. Cal Arts was just opening in the early '70s, and they had made this loft space at 537 Broadway, and then sort of applied to Cal Arts and were accepted as the first 111:00faculty, as part of the first faculty. So, Peter was responsible for this department called New Media, and it was sort of part of his lasers and holography, but also video. And he actually set up the video department there. He was always a bit of a techie. So, you know, for example when the first digital cameras came out, we had one, because he was interested in experimenting with it. I remember it only took nine pictures. [laughter] I might still even have it somewhere. But it only took nine images, and then its memory card was full. And when you think about that, you know, fifteen, twenty years later, it's astounding. So, he moved to California, I think he was married to -- he got 112:00married to Simone a bit later, I think. But they were all out there, and he rented a house close to Cal Arts. But it was the house opposite where Patty Hearst was held. [laughter] So kind of nobody wanted to be there because all of that had happened. And there was something to do with mafia as well. But it was this sort of artists commune, and people like Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubuta, and a lot of the Fluxus artists would come and go. And Peter had met some of the 113:00Japanese contingent of Fluxus out in Japan, and then had -- Simone was sort of involved and knew the Fluxus people, and Peter got to know them as well. And he also -- I guess he and Simone hadn't quite gotten together, because I know that he had a relationship with Alison Knowles while they were teaching at Cal Arts as well. And they did an identical launch together, and all kinds of projects. I have a few artworks from Alison to Peter, and vice versa. A box of beans, and all kinds of stuff. And then Peter had done silkscreens for some of Alison's performances. Bean stain piece. And he often did posters and stuff like that, or 114:00t-shirts. There was a wonderful film that I got transferred about a swap meet, and that was while they were all on the faculty at Cal Arts, and Peter had screened some t-shirts and stuff that they were selling. But he strolled around this swap meet and did this video of the most kitschy like couches, and you know, velvet paintings, and all kinds of crazy stuff that you could see his eye just sort of looking at all this weird, wonderful stuff that was being exchanged at this swap meet. He also -- Lloyd Cross at that point also moved to California. And there was a Canadian artist as well called Jerry Pethick, also 115:00into holography. And they started a school of holography there, Lloyd and Jerry. And Peter did their posters and calendars and stuff, and I think he may have taught there as well, some holography courses. But yeah, so he taught at Cal Arts for about three years. And then he actually stayed on and moved to San Francisco for a couple of years. And he lived at the bottom of the Haight-Ashbury, which was sort of a dodgy area at that time. And the local bodega sold this sort of black sugar -- or black milk, or something. Some kind 116:00of vanilla pod item that was especially for the African American population there. And so, Peter ended up living in this sort of warehouse. It was a single story warehouse space. And it was in this sort of really iffy area, but he loved it and made a lot of artwork there. He had a gallery in San Francisco that sold his silkscreens -- so he was quite successful as an artist. But the lure of New York was there, and so you know, in the mid '70s, he moved back to New York. And I think that actually was the point at which he was with Simone, and they got 117:00this loft at 537 Broadway, which was sort of full of artists and he helped convert it with George Maciunas from Fluxus. And they also did the performing garage, the Wooster Street space where --
LIZA ZAPOL: The Wooster Group?
DINA HELAL: The Wooster Group are there to this day. So that was one of theirloft conversions as well. And Emily Harvey Gallery is at 537 Broadway. And Simone sold her loft a few years ago, and she now lives in LA, I'm still in touch with her quite a bit. So -- and then it was a sort of New York time, and Peter -- he didn't have a sort of regular job, he was, you know, now a 118:00professional artist. But he and Simone collaborated a lot. He would do sound pieces for her choreography. And so, they performed extensively, both in New York and abroad, actually. A lot in Europe. I know he did some performance stuff in Japan with Alison Knowles as well. So, there was this whole sort of Fluxus group of them doing stuff in New York City, and it was a very lively arts community. So, wow, fast forward a bit about yeah, ten years later, I met Peter. I actually met him in -- yeah, it was -- yeah, the big year in 1985. And by 119:001982, I guess, he and Simone were no longer together, and he'd moved out to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Actually, first to Williamsburg, into a loft space on the corner of Wythe and North 11th, which is now a bar. [laughter] But it's very interesting, I never had access to that place before, and a few months ago, my friends who live at Calyer Street, where Peter and I lived, said oh, let's meet at blah-blah-blah, which was this bar, and they said that used to be Peter's first loft in Brooklyn. So, we met there, and talked about actually putting some of his artwork there. And the structure of the space is still identical, except 120:00there's a bar in it. And --
LIZA ZAPOL: Okay. That sounds like a great project, an interesting project.
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah. And we haven't quite talked to the owners yet, butFlannery and Ray, who run the yoga studio that's now at 73 Calyer, they know the owners so they're going to hook me up. [laughter] So yeah, I go to visit around 1985. Peter's still with Eugenia, who is his partner, but they've kind of split up and she's spending a lot of time in Spain. And so, I get to go over to 73 Calyer, and it's the most astounding space. It's like, gosh. This guy even has 121:00my dream house here, or dream living space, not quite a house, but yeah, another warehouse. And Calyer Street was actually modeled on his space in San Francisco. I know that because in -- around 1992, Peter and I did a trip to San Francisco together, and we spent a week, and he was showing me around and everything. And he said oh, we went to where he used to live and so this was my old space. And we knocked on the door, and this woman opens the door, she has a shaved head, a spider web tattooed on her head, and she says hello, I'm a performance artist. So, the loft was inherited by like-minded people, and she -- he said "oh, I used 122:00to live here, you know, I converted the space." And she invited us inside, and so I got to see the space. By that time, I had already moved in, I'd been living on Calyer Street for a couple of years. And so, I could really feel that same kind of sensibility, and it was sort of magical to go in there and, you know, oh this is just like where I live now. It was absolutely great.
LIZA ZAPOL: In what ways? What were the links between the spaces?
DINA HELAL: Peter used a lot of wood. And he loved wood that was very sort ofanimated, in the sense that it wasn't necessarily very high-end wood, but for example, pine that's used to make truck beds has a lot of knots in it that sort 123:00of make this pattern that's very alive somehow. And actually, a lot of the flooring at Calyer Street was made of this pine. And he particularly liked it because he noticed a lot of it in Japan, and they had a special word for it. The word shibui keeps coming to mind, but I'm sure I certainly don't speak Japanese, but it had this sort of animated spirit that was embodied in it. And I just noticed a lot of that. It had the same kind of split-level loft, the space, which was all made out of wood. And yeah, just this sort of Japanese feel to it 124:00really. I recently went to the Judd Foundation, and I got a similar sense there, but I think Judd's sensibility was more Scandinavian, because he'd spent time there. But I did ask the question to our guide, well did he ever go to Japan, and she said no, I don't think so. But it had that same sort of spirit to it somehow. So, I was living in Fort Greene in 1985 when I met Peter, and then in 1986, my parents split up back in the British Isles. And there was some money 125:00that -- my father actually bought me an apartment in the King's Cross area in London, thinking that I was going to come back to the UK and live in London, run a gallery. But that was not to happen. So, I got him to sell that apartment, and I used the money as a down payment on my own place in the Fort Greene area. And so, I was living there from 1986 to '91, and then I decided that, you know, Peter and I decided that that was the time that we'd move in together. It took a while, but you know, that was good. So, I moved to 73 Calyer in Greenpoint. And 126:00we shared the studio space, and then had a little house in the back of the space. It was really lovely. I think I showed you some pictures of that; did I?
LIZA ZAPOL: I'm not sure, but maybe we can see them afterwards, yeah.
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah. And I really loved sort of living in Greenpoint. I alsohad started my job at the Whitney in 1990, September. And this was a big deal. What had happened was that in 1989, I had done an artist's residency down in Virginia, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. And I'd -- it was a long residency it was six weeks. And I felt like I was in heaven when I was there. I 127:00did incredible amounts of work and thought I would take the leap and try and not do a day job and be an artist. Or do freelance work. So, I quit the BACA job in the gallery and theater and did some freelance teaching. Perhaps I -- I can't remember whether I mentioned it, but while I was at BACA Downtown, around that same time actually, 1985, I had started a little education program with the gallery, actually on that show. That was my first foray into teaching kids. I really loved it; we sort of talked about the work and then did art making 128:00projects based on the work. And this was like, oh I really enjoy this. So, I decided to become a freelance educator. And I got some jobs, I was teaching at a school. They were doing a sort of environmental exhibition, and helping with that. And all kinds of different teaching gigs. And I ended up teaching summer school at Pratt. And I might have mentioned this before, but I had this bunch of seven-year-olds for about four weeks, and through bribery and ice cream and everything, and finally some assistance, I took these kids to different exhibitions all around the city. And places like the Creative Time show at the 129:00Brooklyn Anchorage. The New Museum, all these different places. And then we would go back to Pratt and make art projects based on what we'd seen. So, it was pretty fabulous, and we had a great exhibition. And during that time, I was sort of feeling the pressure of what's the next job, I have no idea, and I've got to pay the rent. And I hadn't been doing as much artwork as I'd liked, because I was sort of worrying about well, all right, what's the next freelance job? So, I looked in the careers department, a friend was working there, actually somebody that I'd attended Pratt with, and he said hey there's this job at the Whitney that you might want to apply for. So, I did apply for it. The -- I didn't get 130:00that particular job, but HR said oh, there's another job at the branch museum, then Phillip Morris, aka Altria. And we'd really like you to interview for that. So, I did interview for that job, and it was to run the education programs there. And that was both school and adult programs. And I was accepted for that job. And I've been at the Whitney ever since. [laughter] But that summer was a really wonderful experience for teaching. And Peter was very supportive. I was kind of worried, I said well, you know, this is going to be a lot of work at the 131:00Whitney and everything, but he was really, really supportive and persuaded me to take the job. And I hadn't moved in with him yet, this was still in 1990, and I moved in '91. And so, you know, still working out of my own space in Fort Greene. And then I rented that space for a while, while I moved in with Peter. And I eventually sold that. But yeah, it was like a dream come true to move into Calyer Street, because I had a proper, professional studio, it was fantastic, and there we were in this sort of art life, working at the Whitney, so it was quite fantastic in a way.
LIZA ZAPOL: What was that space like in detail, and what was the life like?132:00
DINA HELAL: Okay, so you walk up to the space along Calyer Street, and there wasa beautiful old cherry wood fence, and a gate that would open in that fence. And you walk in, and there was a lovely front yard. And there was a fir tree, spruce. It's the only tree in that yard that's planted in the ground. The rest of the yard is concrete, so everything else was in big pots. And over the years, Peter and I planted more trees, and lilacs, and forsythia, and all this stuff. It was quite pretty. And then we had these wonderful chairs that were outside, 133:00that somebody actually stole one from our yard, because they must have liked them as much as we did. Then you'd come to this big old metal door, after you walk through the yard. And it wasn't enormous, but there was just maybe room to park a couple of cars, but it was our front yard. Big metal door. Open the door, hallway. There was a swing door that always creaked, still does. [laughter] And then you'd walk down a hallway into our studio space. And the studio part of it was open. The ceilings were twenty feet high. And part of it was split level, because Peter had built a sort of office space, his sound studio, and some 134:00storage, on the second level. And so, we'd climb up this old ladder actually -- and which I still have -- to get to our offices. And most people, you know, it's like whoa, this ladder, you know, it doesn't even stand up by itself. [laughter] But I got so used to climbing up and down that ladder that I even used it as my ladder to get to my loft space when I first moved in here, before the stairs were built. And so, we had offices upstairs, and I -- in 1995, I was asked to be the head of school, youth, and family programs at the Whitney, which meant moving from the branch museum, having an office uptown. And our computer 135:00situation was pretty dire, I don't know if you remember 386s, but Phillip Morris was supplying us with those computers, and they were actually better than the ones that the people at the Whitney were using. But because Peter was so techie, he said well, let's get you a laptop. And because I had always used a Mac, I'd never used a PC, so we bought a laptop. He trained me in DOS, and all this other sort of basic computer stuff. Totally gave me a crash course, because I didn't even know how like, files were arranged or anything. And so, I used to drag this laptop back and forth from work. But it was very lucky that I did, because at the Whitney at that time, people didn't have dedicated computers, they actually 136:00shared them. So, I was only able to do all my work because I had this laptop and it was amazing -- the situation at the Whitney improved, you know, about a year down the road, but I honestly could not have done my job if I had not had that laptop. [laughter] And it was a huge sort of learning curve for me. Did a lot of extra hours. I also ended up writing a lot of stuff, pre- and post-visit materials, teacher guides for schools coming to visit the museum. And although I'd managed, you know, programs, I'd never actually managed people before to 137:00that extent, you know. And so, it was a lot of work. [laughter] Exciting, but I used to sort of take work home with me. But what was kind of cozy was that Peter and I would be in our sound room, me on my laptop and him on his PC, and we'd just sort of sit up there working together. And I would tell him oh, well this is what I'm doing, and he'd have some great ideas, and he helped me, you know, tremendously on all that, on sort of settling into that job. And just being inspired by different ideas and stuff. And the space itself was inspiring. I think, you know, although I didn't do a huge amount of artwork at that time, I 138:00think a lot of the artwork that I did was actually good stuff, you know? When I look back over all the artwork, over all the years, that was sort of an inspiring period to be in that space. It was quite wonderful. So, fast forward a few years, and suddenly in 1998, Peter dies suddenly. And I go into sort of a tailspin. I might need to stop here actually.
LIZA ZAPOL: Sure.
DINA HELAL: Just have a break.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah, [inaudible].
DINA HELAL: Okay. So, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in those days was quite139:00different. I actually knew someone from Pratt, a few people actually, who lived in Williamsburg in the '80s. Lori Ledis was one of those people, and she and her husband actually ended up opening a gallery on North 6th Street, and they were amongst the slaughterhouses there. Interestingly, it was just like the Meat Packing District, it was sort of Meat Packing East. Particularly North 6th Street. So, you'd get these slaughterhouses and then, you'd get meat markets in between. And I believe that Tops that is there today also used to be one of these meat markets. And now it's sort of more of a kind of alternative 140:00supermarket for the neighborhood, for the burg. And so, I did visit Lori and -- at Lori's loft in the '80s, really nice but completely desolate at night around there. Today of course, it's the total [inaudible] --
DINA HELAL: -- trust it's, yeah. All bridge and tunnel people congregate inclubs, and restaurants, and bars, and stuff. Also, at that time, the L train, people didn't really know about the L train. [laughter] It was a sort of very big secret. And if you stopped at Bedford Avenue, maybe one or two people would get off the train. When I first moved to that area, there weren't any 141:00restaurants. There was maybe a coffee shop or two, but those would close down at night on Bedford Avenue, and then Planet Thailand opened actually on Bedford, and they've since moved, and I think since closed. But that was the only restaurant for quite a while. Greenpoint was very Polish, there were a couple of supermarkets and there were sort of discrete little stores, bakers and butchers and candlestick makers, and little gift stores and stuff like that. Primarily Polish. And then over the years, through the '90s, we gradually saw that changing as well. We used to have to go to Manhattan to get anything unusual, 142:00such as seaweed or, you know, Japanese rice or whatever. But then in 1993, The Garden opened. And The Garden is this most fantastic place on -- it's on the corner of Kent and Manhattan Avenue. And The Garden was opened by this Polish woman who used to work at Balducci's. And her dream was to open a sort of Balducci's style store. So, her family got together and helped her. And in those old days when they first opened, they would ask their customers, people like us, well what shall we stock? You know, what would you like to see here? And it was 143:00fantastic that you could get a roast duck, or a chicken, or something. Or even Japanese rice and organic food, and even seaweed. [laughter] We didn't have to go to Manhattan anymore. And also, the Thai Café opened in Greenpoint in the early '90s. This tiny little hole in the wall, and gradually it sort of expanded to take over the other corner of Manhattan Ave and Kent. And so that was really the beginning of the yuppification of Greenpoint. There were a few artists. I knew artists who lived on Franklin Street, lofts on Nassau Avenue, Banker 144:00Street. So, there were a few people sort of dotted around. Most of the artists were actually in Williamsburg itself. And then through the '90s, gradually people began to be evicted. Awful sort of situations where they're in, you know, years of long battles with landlords, and going to court, and spending crazy amounts of money on attorneys, and stuff like that. Meanwhile in Williamsburg, restaurants were sort of popping up all over the place, even on the side streets. And after a while, there weren't just three or four, or six, there were literally perhaps fifty or sixty. And they also used to sort of open and close. 145:00One minute a restaurant would be there, and the next minute, it wouldn't. There was one in particular called Oznot's Dish, which was a very sort of eclectic, cool place. And before that, it was sort of a Polish diner, which never really took off. But Oznot's -- sort of its zaniness kind of attracted a crowd. And we asked the owner once, well how did you come up with this name, Oznot's Dish? And he said, oh it just occurred to me at some moment. It was crazy. And the food was sort of really eclectic. I mean I think they had a sort of series of chefs who used to do sort of roasted root vegetables and you know, rack of lamb. So, 146:00from, you know, one end of the spectrum to another, and kind of antique-y sort of décor with oddness there. You know, a little Formica here, a little tiling there. It was really a sort of mishmash, oddball place. But very apropos for the neighborhood at that time, I think.
Also, toward 2000, the yoga studios started moving in, so starting to take yoga,and now there are like six or seven, or a dozen there. Whereas before, there was one, you know? And gradually, you know, the L train just got more and more crowded. And finally, these days, you have to actually line up to get out of the station, to go up the stairs, it's -- there are so many people. So, it's really 147:00astounding to me how much the neighborhood has mushroomed. One sort of downside of it that I think is really destroying the character is that they've allowed any kind of building to be built in amongst the sort of mediocre clapboard housing that -- well working-class housing really that is so characteristic to both Greenpoint and Brooklyn actually. The Polish seem to be slowly moving out. But I'm sure a lot of them still own the typical buildings. They've built a lot of what I call goldfish bowls, which are, you know, crappy building materials 148:00but with a lot of glass, where you can see into people's living rooms. And I might be a little bit old-fashioned, but I really wouldn't want people looking into my living room. And to put shades or, you know, cover the windows seems to defeat the purpose of having them in the first place. [laughter] But you know, a lot of it still retains its character. Towards the north of Greenpoint, it kind of gets quieter. I go over there quite often these days to digitize old media. And it's kind of developing a character of its own. No real Polish, but a kind of hipster sort of quiet coolness. I mean, there's even a lobster joint over 149:00there and things like that. And you can't really get there unless you take the G train and walk, or the 43 bus. So, it's kind of a nice, quiet enclave over there by the Pulaski Bridge.
And so, as I watched a lot of my friends get evicted and move out andeverything, tragedy struck. Peter passed away, he died in November 1998. And my world was kind of turned upside down. Eventually I kind of hung on in Calyer Street, in the building. But it was big, it was 2,500 square feet. It was an old 150:00ironworks factory that Peter converted. And it was a lot to take care of, just one short person. You know, you really need another tall person to help out there. We also had a tenant, so eventually the other owner with Peter, we -- Peter and I were in the process of making me a partner in the building, but he died before the completion of that. Therefore, this other owner was pretty intent on getting me out of there. So that went through a lawsuit, and court case. I'd actually put a lot of money into paying off the mortgage with a view 151:00to becoming a partner, but you know, it just didn't happen. And eventually, eviction was filed on me as well. So, I had to pack up this huge building with, you know, thirty-five years of Peter's artwork as well as my own, and somehow find a place to put all this. So, I started looking, and answered an ad in The Village Voice for some way smaller apartment near Brooklyn Heights. And the guy looked at me, the broker looked at me as though I was sort of half crazy. He said well first of all, you've got to get pre-qualified for a mortgage, and what are you really looking for? Because it obviously wasn't a 700 square foot 152:00apartment. So, I said, all right, I need about 1,500 square feet, because I have two people's artwork, and you know, a load of two truckfuls of stuff to put in it, right? And I want it to be a loft space. I'm used to neighborhoods that are a bit edgy. And he said well actually, there's this place on the edge of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill. It's an old chocolate factory, and they have an open house like next week, do you want to go? So, I said yes. So, I came to the open house, and I had looked at about ten other places which were totally unsuitable. And he became my broker for this building that I now live in, in what I call the 153:00ghetto still. But the ghetto is coming up, slowly. [laughter] And you know, I can work here, it's a mini loft. It's certainly not Calyer Street, but it's served me well over the past ten years. So, I moved here in 2003. Again, on the G train, but you know, I'm kind of used to that, so. It took me about six months to pack up Calyer Street, and really this was in 2003, and by that time, Greenpoint was really changing. The population was much younger, and seemingly much more transient as well, which I think it still is. There were maybe two 154:00stores on Franklin Avenue, but now there -- it's like this little boutique land full of expensive this and that. And there are bookstores and cafes. It's turned into a sort of completely different kind of space, so -- kind of neighborhood, really.
Funnily enough, Bed-Stuy is a little bit more sort of edgy, and like Greenpointwas when I first moved there at the beginning of the '90s. You know, a lot more artists around here now, and I think a lot less in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Because certainly from my experience, every single artist that I knew there, they're gone. They've moved to other neighborhoods, or upstate, or something 155:00like that. They're really just priced out of the neighborhood. I also know people who've been in the neighborhood for a long time, they're still there, but they have what they call an exit plan. [laughter] Because they too rent their spaces, and who knows how long the sort of rent stabilization lasts for? There's a huge irony to this story as well, because for about nine years, I never went back to Calyer Street. We'd pass by the street sometimes, and then kind of noticed that it had turned into this yoga studio. So, I thought hmm, that's 156:00interesting. Then the yoga people contacted me, and they said hey, we've got some mail here for you. I was like oh yeah? Well just shred it and throw it away. And they said well actually, we really want to meet you. We've heard this building has a great history, and we want to know about it, we heard from the neighbors and everything. And so, we decided to meet up. And what was supposed to be a coffee turned into a four hour dinner. And instant friendship, and they said well, we'd really like to do a show of Peter's work. And I said great, I have a lot of Peter's work, let's do it.
So, in 2012, we had this wonderful show. There's a lot of synchronicity, because157:00they opened the yoga studio now about four years ago on July 7th, and July 8th was Peter's birthday. And so, we decided that we'd sort of converge these two momentous events and make an opening celebration that went through midnight, July 7th. And so, we hung a whole bunch of Peter's work. And it was very difficult for me to decide what. And they had assigned me a curator called Samantha Best, and I had a great time with Samantha. And just by conversation, we sort of decided that we would pick works that actually hung in the space 158:00while Peter and I lived there, or that he had made in the space while we lived there. And that actually ran the spectrum, but it was works that I had. And so, we hung the show, we hung photographic -- holographic pieces, exactly on the brick wall in our studio, where it was. He'd done these six by eight feet paintings, and we hung one of those on the wall, my studio wall where he had painted that. And a lot of the laser images around that he'd done actually in the studio or hung on the other side of the laser room. So, it was quite 159:00magical, wonderful to see Peter's work back in his studio. And because it's a yoga studio, because it was open to the community, it was great that all of these people would see all of this artwork. There was even one of -- called Five Apples that always hung in the downstairs bathroom, so we hung it right back up there. [laughter] And I was a little apprehensive, I have to say, going back to the space. It took me a few meetings before I could actually say yeah, okay, now I can come in here and look around. But what I found was that the space had changed enough so that I didn't feel so sad or nostalgic. But stuff had stayed 160:00the same, like the creaky swing door, that I recognized it, and it was still -- had that spirit of Peter. And so, the irony or so was, for a while there, while the show was on view, they gave me total access to the building, the key code and everything. And I could walk in and out of Calyer Street. I wasn't evicted anymore, it was -- it had come kind of full circle, and for me, that meant some closure.
More update on that. It turns out that the yoga studio now will also be evictedfrom that space next April, and so it really will be complete closure. They've 161:00actually found a new space in Greenpoint that they've already started running. And they're living next door so they can keep an eye on the building, and kind of know what goes on. Peter's work is still hanging there, at least until, you know, close to the time when they have to move out. And I think gradually they'll move the work over to the new space in Greenpoint. So, I feel really fortunate having met them. And being able to put Peter's work there as a part of the history of that space. And also, that the space became, at least for a 162:00window of time, not this private living space, but a public space where a lot of people in the community could enjoy both the space and the artwork. And that seems really, really special to me.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah, as you say, sort of coming full circle in terms of therelationship to space and closure.
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah. And you know, my studio is back in my living room, butI'm not unhappy about that. I do live in a little loft space which I feel very fortunate about. And you know, so yeah, I'm still able to do my work, and have amazing memories of Calyer Street. And then if I can get this work up at the 163:00Wythe space as well, then Peter's history will be firmly established in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area, so.
LIZA ZAPOL: Right. And then I'm interested to hear more about your -- you know,your work and your creative work now. What you're exploring at the moment.
DINA HELAL: Okay. So, while you know, the thirteen years that I was with Peter,I -- you know, had changed jobs and then the Whitney, and I -- full confession here, didn't do an enormous amount of artwork. You know, it was more a focus on our life together, and yeah, I did some, but not as much as I kind of felt that 164:00I ought to. [laughter] So, the time came, and it was around, I guess, 2001. And actually, the director of the Whitney had written this wonderful essay in the Sol LeWitt catalogue about how LeWitt, before he moved from his New York space to Italy, photographed all kinds of things in the space. And so that's what I did with Calyer Street. I started being a home tourist. I was in this lawsuit I had no money to go anywhere. I had some vacation time, and this was in like August, September 2001. And so, I decided that before I completely dismantled the space that I would start photographing it. And so, I did, every inch. 165:00[laughter] And then I started messing around with these photographs on this same sort of -- I called myself a home tourist, and that's what the project was called. And I started photo collaging these pictures that I was taking. And that -- suddenly it turned into a major, major art project for me. And I had a bit of time before I had to move out. So, I was sort of obsessed by this new project. And it really sort of led to more art making for me. And then I was also visiting a friend upstate. I was the hotel for her while she was teaching in the 166:00city, and therefore I got to go up to the country on weekends and stuff. And up in Kingston, where she's living, there's an encaustic painting studio. And manufacturer, it's R&F Paints. And I kind of tried encaustic right after I left Pratt, and sort of did not very well with it, because I didn't really know what I was doing. And decided to take some workshops at R&F. Took a lot of notes, and finally set up my own encaustic space in my new loft over in Bed-Stuy. And I -- once I started really working with this medium, it was like totally the medium for me. I've always been a big sort of mixed media person, in putting collage 167:00materials together. And somehow, sort of unifying those. And because my work at work involves so much that's digital, I got into Photoshop as well. And really putting images together there as well. And this all came out of that project that I started at Calyer Street.
And by the way, the project at Calyer Street was right around 9/11. That was mylast day of vacation. And I sort of woke up to the radio, because I wanted to make some art before I had to go back to work, and I hear -- and now the plane has crashed into the World Trade Center, and I thought no, this isn't real, is 168:00this WNYC or what? So, I actually went onto the roof of Calyer Street, which has a direct view of the World Trade Center, and indeed, by the time I got up there, both planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, and the whole thing was flames and smoke, and everything. And so, I did take some pictures and kind of watched, and it was very, very difficult to sort of contact anybody that day, but a couple of artist friends who were still in Greenpoint at that time --- I walked over to their place. We went down to actually the river at North 7th Street in Williamsburg, and we made a little shrine on the shore for all the people that we knew had died in the World Trade Center. So -- and for days and 169:00days and days, we could smell the smoke, and the chemicals, and you know, it was just awful. I also knew somebody who died, an artist in residence with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. And the boyfriend of another artist friend. So yeah, it was awful.
But back to the encaustic. Having done these workshops at R&F, I continued thisphotography project, because I moved into this building, basically while it was 170:00still under construction. When I first saw it, there were just studs from one side of the building -- you could see from one side of the building to the other. And you know, there were rats running around, and no windows, and this clear view to Manhattan, it was pretty amazing. And on the basis of a floor plan and they'd done one model unit upstairs, which wasn't mine, it wasn't the same shape or anything, I said yes to this building. So, I knew I was going to move here. And then I would come back every now and then. I said no to a lot of things, they built -- they were going to build this sort of dorky bed platform 171:00that took up half the space, and I said no to that. I'm a bit of a luddite; I don't really need a dishwasher. The microwave was above the stove, so I didn't really need that either, because I would burn myself every time I used it. And then kitchen cupboards, well I don't really need a whole load of them, because I don't have that much stuff, you know? And so, I'd said no to a lot of these things. But I had to come back to make sure that they didn't install these things. [laughter] So I took photographs, basically, of the construction of this place. I was curious to find out what materials they were putting in the walls, and all of that. So -- and there was this wonderful rabbit drawing on the wall 172:00that one of the factory workers did. So, I knew it was going to be painted over, so I took photographs of it, and then figured I could remove the paint and sort of excavate the rabbit, which I did. At my closing, they gave me Candy Industry magazine, because I had admired it on the wall, and the intern said oh, I think there's an extra one here. So, they gave that to me, and it told of this chocolate factory, Cocoline Chocolate, that -- the first sort of African American owned business opened around here. Had seven workers in the factory, and all this wonderful new chocolate making machinery. And they used to supply like chocolate bars to schools, and the little cake decorations and cocoa 173:00powder, and stuff like that. So, they were busy making chocolate in here, and then I guess on a break, one of those chocolate factory workers actually drew this crazy looking rabbit that I excavated.
And then yeah, my studio is in my living room, so encaustic -- excuse me -- hasbeen sort of an incredible revelation to me, in that, you know, like Jasper Johns, I can collage and sort of unify a piece with using all kinds of different materials as well as wax, or I can just use the wax, or use oil stick with the wax. And basically, it sort of agrees with most mediums, even oil paint. And I 174:00can spend hours and forget to eat lunch or something and be just sort of mesmerized by what I'm doing. Because there's a type of sort of alchemy that happens. I feel very sort of powerful. You use a heat gun as one of the possible heating implements to fuse the wax. Because each layer has to be fused. And there's a sort of magical transformation as the wax sort of liquefies, and then cools. And with different materials and different sort of combinations of those materials, you can get all kinds of effects. The sort of smooth surfaces, or you 175:00know, roughed up surfaces, it's sort of very sculptural, as well as painterly. And I've actually done some sculpture. I go to Maine to teach encaustic painting in the summers, and this summer, I threw a curveball in for my students. I said alright, we're going to make a cardboard sculpture, and then an encaustic layer over it. And they did very well. I mean once you go from two to three dimensions, it completely changes the ballgame. And the criteria for the pieces was that these pieces, they have to stand up. And then what the covering is, the 176:00encaustic that you apply, is entirely up to you, and use all the techniques that you've learned in the other sessions of this program. And they did surprisingly well. I had cut cardboard pieces and put notches in them. So, the sculptures were easily -- it was easy to assemble them. But it's not so easy to put encaustic on a surface that changes all the time. And plus, an all-around surface rather than two dimensional. So, it was an interesting experiment there.
LIZA ZAPOL: And for you as well, are you starting to explore sculpture, and --
DINA HELAL: I've done some encaustic sculpture. I've built these little houses,177:00and I think those little houses came about when I was being evicted, and then it's like a home again. So, I made a whole series of these little houses. And I've encausticated some of those. And then you can also use Pelon, which you use to stiffen fabric. So, you can kind of bend this fabric-like material and sew it, or glue it, or staple it together. And then put encaustic on top of that. I'm a very sort of -- I don't have a lot of stereoscopic vision, so I'm actually -- I see a two-dimensional world. [laughter] Or on a picture plane at least. So, 178:00I'm a very -- I prefer working on two dimensions as well. I mean sculpture's just another -- it's a completely different kind of thought process than what happens on a two-dimensional plane. So yeah, my thing is really the flatness of -- and trying to make these layers float and create an illusion. I've done plenty of representational work, and I always do collages while I'm doing the encaustic work as well. So, the wax might fall on a piece of newspaper that I'm using, and it's like oh, that's interesting. And that just becomes something 179:00else, you know. You can use encaustic on paper, as well. And it's a nice sort of balance between just doing the painting, and then having to deal with, you know, text, or an image, or something like that. I like that back and forth between the representation and the abstract.
LIZA ZAPOL: In the multimedia [inaudible]?
DINA HELAL: Yeah, yeah. I may try more sculpture at some point if that ideacomes up, but for now, I'm perfectly happy with the flatness of it all.
LIZA ZAPOL: I'm interested in that -- you were working on home, on that homeproject, the homes that then you encausticated. So, what were some of the themes 180:00that you were thinking about in your head at that time, and yeah.
DINA HELAL: I mean, I think the work goes really abstract often. But there'salso a connection always with sort of what's going on. It's very autobiographical in a way, even down to color. You know, and working in particular colors, it might have to do with you know, a period in my life that I'm going through, or a memory, or an image that I've seen, or some art that I'm thinking about. All of these sort of different things come into play. And I 181:00think, you know, a lot of the day job Whitney work also creeps in. I mean, there are always a few artists sort of lurking in the background while I'm working, you know? When I'm thinking of this artist's work, or that artist's work, or you know, how that person is thinking, or -- so they're not -- to you, they might look very abstract. To me, they're not abstract at all. And all of my thoughts, my memories and everything else, are sort of pouring in there. But I think the little houses were a very direct association with having my home base threatened, if you like. And then sort of being in limbo, being in transition to 182:00another space. Moving is sort of stressful in itself, as I think most people experience. But to -- it took me about six months to pack up properly, and archive all of Peter's work, and put everything between layers of, you know, archival paper and in the proper boxes and everything, to actually then move it. And I think it's significant that I often now sort of organize my life in units, or boxes, that are actually easy to move. My one idea when I moved here was I 183:00had a very heavy television, I could not carry my washing machine, this and that, right? So, I decided that when I needed a new this or that, that I would downsize and shrink to something that I could actually physically carry. That excludes the washing machine, of course. But basically, everything else would be on casters or wheels, and everything that could possibly be carried would actually be liftable by me. I also tend to like archive things, or things that I 184:00don't pull out and look at a lot. There are these units or boxes that they're in. And there are some things that I -- you know, like normal people, will keep in banker's boxes, or whatever, that I packed in banker's boxes. I've never taken the stuff out. You know, just boring stuff like taxes, or you know, legal papers, or whatever. But everything else, I -- there are file cabinets, everything that possibly can, I've actually put on wheels. [laughter] So -- or I can carry it. I can carry my television now. And someday, I might not even need that television.
LIZA ZAPOL: But that's interesting, that sense of being able to move easily, for185:00things to change, to be able to change quickly and easily to --
DINA HELAL: Yeah. I mean I think there was, especially when I first moved, therewas a huge nostalgia, or kind of emotional bond with Peter with Calyer Street. And I was really sort of afraid of losing that and losing the memory. But I've been reading an interesting book about memory recently. And how memory -- people who go and do memory competitions train through what they call memory palaces. And often, these memory palaces are places that they've lived in that you sort of viscerally, intimately know each floorboard or, you know, brick in the space. 186:00And I always used to call Calyer Street a sort of inside out house, because it had no insulation; it was an ironworks factory, right? So, brickwork was on the inside, and it was all painted white. And the windows, the bars have been taken off, but the ironworks guys had been kind of gorillas and put all these bars on the windows, because I guess it wasn't that safe around there or whatever. But -- so it was almost like living in a house that has literally been turned inside out. And I sort of -- I'll never forget that the color of where the paint chipped off on the brickwork, you know? Which must have been the colors that it 187:00was painted before it was painted white. So, these sort of memory palaces, right? And never -- you never forget those places. Perhaps it wasn't even necessary to take all of those photographs. I mean another thing that I did was I wrote. And I wrote, you know, an entire sort of notepad descriptive of the spaces as well, and how the spaces were, where the images were hung on the walls, and all this stuff. But I totally have it in my head, right?
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: Yeah. So, it's that visual memory of a space. And the houses were a188:00total fantasy, the little houses that I built, the, you know, collage materials. But made of pieces of collage, of images of, like putting together, you know, like your ideal meal, or your ideal house, or whatever. So, it was all sort of towards feeling settled again, I think.
LIZA ZAPOL: In a new home?
DINA HELAL: In a new space, yeah. Yeah. And as I said, you know, I'm constantlylike redecorating, and spending thousands of dollars in my head, saying oh, it would be great to have, you know, the canvas shades, and you know, rip out the kitchen and redo it, and stuff like that. And I think you know, maybe some of 189:00that will come to pass, but you know, it doesn't really matter if it doesn't; it's still sort of in my imagination.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah, it's interesting. I'm interested also just in terms of thehomes, because of course we spoke about your childhood homes as well, and your homes here in America, and I'm -- one thing that we haven't really reconnected fully is your family. So, you spoke about your father, and the apartment in King's Cross, and then also that your parents divorced in 1986, is that right?
DINA HELAL: Yeah. It was around that time.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: Right when I came over here, and I'd done maybe a year of Pratt, I190:00got this singing telegram for my birthday. This was highly, really unusual. It was like what -- why are you doing this? This was in the, you know, days before texting, or you know, e-cards or whatever. My mother just discovered that my father had been having a relationship with somebody else for the past, you know, fifteen years without her knowledge, or she was in denial about it is still the big question. And I guess this was around 1981. And so, what unfolded with all 191:00of that was that I got this singing telegram because they were in crisis mode, or my mother was. And she had my father move out of the house, and yeah, they went through this sort of painful sort of separation period. My father apparently thought it was okay to, you know, have all this out in the open. But my mother definitely did not want to be, you know, the wife and then, you know, for him to have this sort of mistress. So, they went through this whole process. Right around the time when my brother and my sister -- my sister was doing her medical finals, and my brother was doing finals out of high school, both of them 192:00flunked because my parents weren't telling them what was going on, but obviously there was a tension and everything else. And I arrived back for the summer around the time that the whole thing sort of blew out in the open. And it was a pretty awful summer. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under all of our feet. You know, I'd been away basically at Pratt, and living in New York, and you know, my brother and sister had been living in their respective places. But they finally sort of sat us all down and said this is what's happening. By that time, my brother and sister had failed all their exams, and my sister 193:00decided to throw in the towel with medicine. She went off to India for a year and a half, and then came back and did -- took ceramics. My brother went to cram school, got his high school finals, and then went off to business school. That didn't last very long, but he's now a sound engineer and musician.
So then around 19-- I guess the momentous year 1985, my mother had what theythought was a minor stroke, and got sort of paralyzed a little bit along her left side. And they also discovered that she had a brain tumor in the tiger zone of her brain, which is in the area where they can't operate. So basically, she 194:00was going to die. Which she had gone through the divorce and everything, and all of that. And they put her on steroids and now it's sort of 1987. And I went back for the summer, my sister and I took her up to Sheffield to have some tests, or whatever. And she -- her doctor changed the medication, and soon after, I came back and she kind of had a total relapse, and she was definitely on her way out. 195:00I went back to the UK, spent another couple of weeks with her, which I was really glad to be able to do. But then my Egyptian cousin was getting married, and my mother thought she was going to the wedding, and had bought clothes, and you know, but as it turned out, they designated me as their representative to go to my cousin's wedding. Which would mean that I would not be there when my mother died. So, my brother and sister were there, and my mom said please -- you know, don't send me to hospital. She was a doctor she knows what happens in hospitals. She chose to die at home. So, I went to my cousin's wedding down in 196:00Florida, and then I had to fly back for the funeral. And it was awful. The two worst deaths in my life have been my mother and Peter. My father, about six months later, then got married to this woman who was pretty awful to us. She has two sons who she claims are my father's, but we honestly just can't see how that's possible.
Then my father in the early 2000s was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And that was a197:00sort of long, slow process as well. First of all, they were living close to London. And you know, that was easy to sort of visit and everything. But then even though my father spent his entire working life in the medical profession, and you know, would obviously get great treatment and everything, she decides to move him all the way up to the sort of boondocks of Scotland. Because the National Health Service and medical attention is free. Well, I don't still, to this day, don't believe that my father had the best medical attention that he could have gotten had he stayed, you know, close to London. And it was always a 198:00nightmare to sort of go to Scotland. The house that they lived in wasn't practical, it had -- you know, it was like a regular house with stairs, and everything else. And then eventually, my father could not use those stairs, or the bathrooms, or anything else, you know? He was also put into hospice a few times, one of which he escaped from. [laughter] Which was pretty him. It was really, really sort of sad to see somebody who had a sort of successful career, and had written sort of eighty books, and you know, to just kind of deteriorate 199:00like that. I was never as close to my father as I was to my mother, even though we sort of looked very similar and -- but so, that -- and also, it was a long process in an unpleasant situation, because this wife of his was never nice to us three. You know, we went -- she asked for help, we went to help, and then she was just nasty to us. So, it didn't exactly encourage us to go back and help, you know? We sort of felt like we'd lost our father, basically, already. And then he died in 2007. The uncanny thing is that he died exactly twenty years to 200:00the day that my mother died. Which kind of flipped out this wife of his when we pointed that out. [laughter] And we used to say oh, well she's come to get him. And then we had all kinds of trouble with the will, and a lot of my early artwork actually my father had, because over the years I eventually kind of, you know, divested myself of everything that I still had in the British Isles. And you know, all of his books, and photographs, and stuff like that. So that's just all gone. I'm sure she just threw it all out. 201:00
And then, zip in the will that we had tremendous problems actually getting ahold of, and we then found a signature on it that was -- I mean my father wrote to me years and years and years, and lots of papers that he'd signed. It was not his signature on that will. The will basically -- she'd taken over I guess with sort of power of attorney of whatever, had changed the whole thing so that all the money, everything basically went to her and his former secretary Jenny who'd -- you know, I mean who'd worked with him for like twenty-five years or something that. And it was fine, Jenny, but -- so it was just really kind of 202:00losing that part of the family. So, my brother and sister and I, when my mother died, we all sort of, kind of felt it coming a little bit, and decided that we would be really united. I remember staying up most of the night one night, just talking and saying look, we've really -- we're all we've got. We've got to stick together and support each other. And you know, sadly amongst my brother and sister, that has fallen apart a bit. But I'm certainly the conduit and the link, you know, between all of them. And you know, it's strange, it's -- you don't 203:00have a sort of normal -- well we never did have a normal family life, but you don't have the same kind of relationship with family if one lives 3,000 miles away. My sister, although we Skype all the time regularly, practically every week, she's never actually come to visit me here. It's always been me to go there. My brother has been, but not for like ten years or so. And so, it's -- generally it's always me going to the British Isles to sort of at least keep 204:00some of those threads that, you know, the roots. But no, basically it's like me here, them there, and that's the way it is, you know? Thank goodness for Skype.
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: Thank you for, you know, for explaining and that strand of yourstory. I also want to bring back the theme of crossing borders, bridging generations, you know.
DINA HELAL: Okay.
LIZA ZAPOL: This is there with your -- talking about your parents and yoursiblings, I think. And also, maybe about where you live now. Just as you wish, what comes to mind when you think about then this concept of, you know, cross culture and cross ethnicity in your background, and how that sort of pulls 205:00through into where -- how you're living now, and how do you -- where you choose to live, and your work?
DINA HELAL: I think I really chose New York City because when I came here, Iblended in. I did not sort of -- even though London's very cosmopolitan, you still sort of stick out a little bit, you know? And I just really felt that it was much more tolerant here. And that I didn't stick out anymore, and that I also had as much opportunity as the next person. You know, if I worked -- it's sort of the American dream. You know, the good bits of it, if you like. And you know, there's a glass ceiling in the British Isles if you don't come from a 206:00certain kind of family or have a certain lineage, or whatever, then you can't really hope to, you know, really succeed in that society still, I think. I hope it's changing. But it's just, you know, that there's a glass ceiling, for sure. And yeah, I also think there's more sort of freedom to be who you want to be here. There's sort of lots of rules and regulations in the British Isles, and I think not so much room for -- even though people are eccentric, it's harder to be an eccentric there. You know, it's sort of -- it's a lot of stress. 207:00[laughter] Whereas here, because there are so many, you don't have to be stressed out about it, you know? As far as my sort of heritage goes, and the big sort of mongrel of this world that I feel that I am, I feel almost nomadic in a way. Even though, you know, that's a sort of paradox in itself, I've been stuck in New York City for the last, you know, thirty-three years, but I feel it's just the same thing, keeping things in boxes, that at any moment I might be sort of called to another part of the world, and that I would sort of make my space in that part of the world exactly as I am, who I am. And that would be okay too. 208:00My brother and sister have stayed, you know, in and around London, the British Isles. My mother was born there, but my father moved. It's sort of in the family history. His sister moved to the United States. My cousin then moved to Colorado. I feel it's sort of, almost part of human nature to -- it's like well, it doesn't feel quite right here, let's explore, let's be curious, let's sort of expand and go someplace else, and see if you can kind of make a life, if you like.
I wouldn't say -- I mean I'd say that all the stuff that's happened to me, and209:00I'd say really, for the first time in my life, I'm a bit stymied by all right, what happens next? I too need probably an exit plan. Because there's going to come a time when, you know, the maintenance is too high in this building, I might have paid off all of my mortgage, but I won't be able to actually sort of afford to live here. So, what are my options there? But I know, I've considered them, you know, I can rent it out for a lot more money and probably, you know, I can sell, I can move to another state. But I think really at this moment in my life, and I've thought about moving to Maine, moving upstate, moving I don't 210:00know where. But I'm undecided about that. It was the first time really in my life, maybe two or three years ago, when I started thinking oh, well not that far off from, you know, so-called retirement, what's going to happen next? I honestly couldn't tell you. I don't have any idea right now. I think I clung to the Whitney job when Peter died because it was the only sort of stable element in my life, and I find myself still there. I feel like okay, ten years has passed, or fifteen since he died, but ten at least, you know, living here. And I 211:00can now begin to sort of think oh, all right, stability rules, and what am I going to do next? I couldn't tell you. I mean I have friends who I consider extended family. My brother and sister, still I don't really want to move back to the British Isles. But you know, what if I moved someplace else, where I don't know hardly anybody? If I knew someone, I think that would be okay, because I'm not that unfriendly, and I think I would meet people, and you know, take a yoga class, do this, do that. And sort of find the community. But I do 212:00feel that being this sort of mixture, and being this type of nomad, and being, you know -- it complicates things. It's not as clear cut as it might have been had I had a quote unquote more sort of mainstream, normal family life. So yeah, I'm not -- yeah I'm proud of my heritage and everything, it's over the years, as it's sort of become a thing, if you like, it's become more accepted. For me personally, it's become a lot more easy to deal with. I can say yeah, I'm this, 213:00I'm that. You know, and it's like, so what? And not something to be a little apprehensive about, about you know, what are people thinking. I don't care anymore, you know, and I'm glad I'm a mixture. [laughter] But yeah, where that -- I think it's more to do with how the family life has unfolded rather than my actual ethnicity or heritage or whatever. And also, my choice to be here in New York. So, we'll see what happens, you know? I mean I don't have children, I have a lovely little niece, but yeah, maybe I should just stay here and wait until, you know, the kid is a teenager. It's like oh, come and see, you know, almost 214:00grandma, in New York City. [laughter] And so, I mean I just -- I love New York because it is such a mixture, and it has so many different kinds of people. And probably if I hooked up with some other people, I'd find my story is not that dissimilar from others. You know? Just haven't found those people to talk to quite yet, you know?
LIZA ZAPOL: Thank you Dina.
DINA HELAL: You're welcome.
LIZA ZAPOL: I wonder if there's anything else that you wanted to share, I feellike we're in a good stopping place right now, but that I haven't asked you about.
DINA HELAL: Yeah. I'm like talked out.
LIZA ZAPOL: That makes sense. It makes sense.
DINA HELAL: I think I covered it, didn't I? I mean that's quite a lot, yeah.215:00
LIZA ZAPOL: I think so, but if anything else comes to mind, you know, we cantalk again or you'll see the transcript, and you can --
DINA HELAL: Yeah.
LIZA ZAPOL: -- kind of add things.
DINA HELAL: Is that sort of part of the process or?
LIZA ZAPOL: Yeah.
DINA HELAL: I think it'll be pretty well rounded, I have a feeling.
LIZA ZAPOL: I think so too.
Oral History Interview with Dina Helal
Dina Helal (1956-2020) was born and raised in London, England. Her mother, an Ashkenasi Jew, worked as a doctor. Her father, an Egyptian emigrant, was a surgeon. She received a BA in art and art history from the University of Leeds in England and a MFA in painting from Pratt Institute in New York City. Helal worked at BACA Downtown for seven years. She also worked at the Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan.
During the interview, Dina Helal (1956-2020) speaks extensively about her family, including her parents' marriage, divorce, and passing; estrangement with her maternal relatives; and her father's remarriage. She also discusses the role race and class played in her childhood; her involvement in New York City's artistic community; her relationship with her partner, Peter Van Riper, and his death; and living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The interview was conducted by Liza Zapol.
CitationHelal, Dina, 1956-2020, Oral history interview conducted by Liza Zapol, July 19, 2013, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.061; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- BACA Downtown
- Helal, Dina, 1956-2020
- Whitney Museum of American Art
- Art schools
- Emigration and immigration
- Interracial dating
- Interracial marriage
- Racially mixed people
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
- Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York, N.Y.)
- Greenpoint (New York, N.Y.)
- London (England)
- Williamsburg (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidCrossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection