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Nina GibansMythbuster: Nina Gibans

Arts Advocate

Date of interview: September 8, 2009

On June 25, 2009, at the Cleveland Arts Prize ceremony, Nina Gibans was presented with the Martha Joseph Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts. The award might have surprised Nina, but it didn't surprise her friends. She's always been "passionate" about helping Northeast Ohioans — especially children — connect with and understand the importance of art, music and literature. Indeed, she's being honored later this year as a founding member of The Cleveland Poets and Writers Association (now The Lit).

On an overcast August morning (that allowed husband Jim to muck about in the couples' rooftop garden — about which she's written a book), she shared her thoughts on growing up "normal," her passion for the arts, and what she thinks it takes to age successfully.

Listen to Nina Gibans' radio spot:

When and where were you born and raised?

I was born in 1932 at Mt. Sinai Hospital and I had a twin sister. We were 38 week babies. I was a two-pound baby and it was touch and go for a while. My twin sister died because her lungs weren't developed enough...I had a younger sister who was born 14 months later.

From the beginning I've had cerebral palsy. My dad was very much the mediator, moderator, supervisor of anything that had to do with that, but I was allowed to do anything that I needed to do to have a normal childhood.

We moved to the apartment building at the top of Cedar Hill that became Doctor's Hospital [now the parking lot for Nighttown Restaurant]. Then we moved to a house on Woodmere and Fairmount Boulevard...that Cedar-Fairmount area was wonderful.

I went to Laurel School up to grade three. That year, I was the only Jew and Democrat in my class. Then I went to Roxboro and then came back to Laurel. Laurel was, in one way, very inhibiting and in another way it was challenging, but challenging in the way that challenge can set you up for life. If you can swim through that kind of challenge and not be daunted, then you can swim through anything. But it's totally different today.

But I had two lives then: one was as a student at Laurel and the other was with the Jewish community.

You came of age during and after WW II. How do you think the "war" and "post-war" years shaped the person you are today? Or did they ?

The war years didn't really shape me that much. I remember Pearl Harbor and listening to things on our Telefunken radio and the rationing and going with my mother to the market at 105th and getting meat and vegetables...[but] my father didn't 'go' to war. He was in the medical field and he also had a leg disability, though he was also a city tennis champion.

My mother died in 1945, and we moved to the Shaker Club Apartments on Van Aken. My father was a wonderful single parent...[but] there were other people there who became important to my sister and me as we grew up. They were protective, they were friends, whatever we needed them to be.

Personally, you are known as a poet and writer. How and when did you get started writing...both prose and poetry?

That began in junior high school at Laurel. I've always been a writer, but when I started translating Latin I became interested in poetry. [Chuckles] It was a real struggle to get recognition for it.

Were you never interested in visual arts?

No. My small motor activity has always been limited. And that kind of think kept cropping up. [Laughs] My handwriting is OK, but not when I'm rushed. When my professors at Wellesley allowed me to take tests using a typewriter, things got much easier. Part of that was because my thoughts were always way ahead of my ability to get them down on paper. Using the typewriter really helped with that.

Professionally, you are known as an arts writer, educator and advocate. In June, at the Cleveland Arts Prize ceremony, you received the Martha Joseph Prize for Distinguished Service to the Arts for your work in "arts advocacy." What exactly is an "arts" advocate? And how did your arts advocacy begin?

Sarah Lawrence College set me up for life in that. I transferred there for the arts, music and literature. It was set up so you had small classes, discussion-style, round-table style classes. And, because it was a small college about 300-400 students then you talked to everyone.

Within six months, I was the college's newspaper editor. In the spring of 1952, [the faculty] was called to Washington to testify during the McCarthy hearings. When they came back, the paper's new staff had hardly bonded, yet we had to produce a paper about [the faculty's] testimony and academic freedom. At some point during this time I met with the editors of the Yale, Princeton and Harvard papers to talk about this.

My first paper [as editor] was focused on freedom of the press and academic freedom. The week it came out, Arthur Miller, who'd just written The Crucible, came to the campus to speak. He gave us a lot of moral support. That's when my arts advocacy started with that paper.

At the same time, I started to work for an organization that was just getting started, Young Audiences, in New York City. I wrote their first brochure. At that time, it was only focused on music, and I thought it was important because of the educational impact it was going to have.

When I came back to Cleveland, I brought that idea, that 'advocacy,' with me. We wanted to strengthen the performance programs of the Chamber Music Society [in the schools] and Young Audiences protocol included talking to teachers and developing curriculum ideas and evaluating impact on students.

Always, in every project I've been involved with, it's been important to think about how people learn because we learn in different ways.

Your projects are so varied, everything from curriculum guides to poetry books to history exhibits. Where do your ideas come from?

[Chuckles] It's usually because I see a 'hole' some sort of community cultural need and I do something to fill it.

A lot of what I'm focused on is history. There is no question in my mind that history dies every day and we have to get things done while the people the 'voices' are still here. I'm really focused on getting their voices, their story, while I can, because when they disappear, so does the story. Getting these kinds of stories collected and printed is important so they will be available to and in the future. Doing that makes the picture multi-dimensional.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, I'm working on a film project that will tie together the history, public art and architecture of University Circle. It's to give dimension to the cultural environment that is unique there. Thousands of students, employees and visitors have no notion of the rich history of this area.

The poetry project I'm working on is ongoing. The book is called And So I Must Imagine. The cover is the original Freedlander Clothing Store, which my grandfather started, in 1880, in Wooster. [Laughs] The family came from Lithuania and the story is that my grandfather's horse died in Wooster, so that's where the family settled.

And I'm doing a poem related to the [Cleveland Museum of Art's] Print Club, on a landscape by Micha Schawberow.

Every project has been collaborative. And Jim's been a real partner in the architectural projects. Most recently we worked together on Cleveland Goes Modern: Design for the Home 1930-1970. It began as an exhibit with a catalog. Now we are working together on a book.

You are 77. Do you have any plans to "retire," or at least slow down?

[Laughs] I have to think about that, how old I am. I don't think in those terms.

And as for retirement, I don't know what that word means. I don't think in terms of retirement. I think in terms of renewing. I keep renewing my focus, looking at different aspects of things, especially this place [Cleveland/Northeast Ohio] where I live. I'm always trying to make sense of this place we live in to others.

I said, years ago, that when I was older I'd probably focus most on poetry, since getting around would probably be more difficult. But that's turned out not to be the case. People have been so helpful that getting around hasn't really become an issue. But part of that is that I'm so energetic.

How do you maintain your energy level?

I do the things I need to do to maintain it. I swim. I have students come in from Cleveland State University's physical science program. [Chuckles] I'm their field work.

You do so much. What do you get the most pleasure from?

Seeing someone grow. It's always about seeing someone grow. That's happened a lot with the work [trusteeship, exhibits, catalogs, classes, etc.] I have been doing with the Cleveland Artist Foundation and all the other organizations I've worked with and through. It's happened a lot with the people I've tutored or mentored. My dad always said that one should surround themselves with the best mentors.

Wherever I'm working including cultural institutions, neighborhood center, libraries I plant seeds and then I follow through. I'm patient and persistent. Well, I'm a nudge, too, but with the kinds of things I'm doing, you have to be.

Despite having lived all your life with a disability, you've hardly led the life of a disabled person. What is it about you, personally, that's enabled you to be the partner, parent, artist and community spokesperson and arts advocate that you are?

I'm passionate ad nauseaum about the arts. And I've been lucky that I have a wonderful and supportive husband [who was gardening during our interview and presented me with a bag of homegrown tomatoes when I left]. We have been married 54 years.

And I have children who are doing all sorts of things that keep me growing because they are in different fields. One is a doctor, one is a lawyer both in Colorado. Another is an educator in Vermont. And one is an organic farmer in Oregon...I'm learning from them all the time.

You personify the phrase "myth buster" someone who is defying all the stereotypes about aging. Do you think of yourself as being a myth buster?

No, I'm just true to whatever it is that I am. I suppose that what I'm doing is noteworthy others have identified it as special but that's not how I think of myself. [Chuckles] I am a glass-half-full kind of person. I can always see possibility, potential. Often I think that's my role.

It's obvious that as, among other things, a founder of the Cleveland Children's Museum you have always focused a lot of your personal and professional energy on kids. Why do you think it's important for older people to mentor and reach out to children?

They represent the next generation, and they need to know about this region's cultural heritage. If you really are passionate about what you do, you want the next generation to be, too. And they catch that the passion, the enthusiasm, the caring but only if you give them support in terms of what they are doing and can do.

You are energetic, vital, active – definitely aging successfully. What are your tips for successful aging?

Get engaged. People should be interested in what's going on around them politics, the arts, books, whatever. That happens differently for different people.

And have a personal plan. People should be thinking about what they want out of life, and what they haven't done that they want to do. That could be something new or it could something they left off and decide to pick up again. Or it could be something they have always wanted to do better.

Live for the time you have...You have to be your own advocate all the way along. No one is going to care about your life and make it worthwhile except you.

And you have to understand and trust your doctor, dentist, etc. and be the one to pull all that [your healthcare] together. That's something I've really gotten good about because physicians don't encounter many patients like me. And, even if they did, every case is different. If you have specific areas of concern, with regard to your health, you have to be the translator and the advocate, the person who pulls together all the information. For example, I've had to constantly advocate for physical therapy.

And I'm constantly advocating for handicap accessibility, not only on my part but for others. So many buildings say they are handicap accessible, and then, when you go in you find that they aren't really. Maybe they have grab bars in the restrooms, but the bathroom doors are so heavy they are difficult to open.

And you need to be humble. Accept help when you need it. Every person who helps me the physical therapists especially they are my 'support group.' It's a give and take and I thank them a lot. That's something I've realized as I've gotten older. When the people you encounter are getting from you whatever it is that you have to impart, there's a sharing, rather than simply taking-taking-taking.

You are sitting on 50-plus years of great stories and you are a writer. Is there a personal book or bio in your future?

At this age, the stories come out when you don't expect them. There are family stories in the family archival box. There are stories about every painting on the wall. And there are stories that come out every time I do an interview.

You can learn more about Nina at her website,

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