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(1995) Burned Out City: Housing Works Theatre Project at Theater for the New City, NYC. My first professional costume design work, beyond the school setting in which costume design was part of my teaching position, brought together community work and AIDS activism with an opportunity to design costumes for an original musical created by the participants in the Housing Works Theatre Project. I joined Victoria McElwaine (Director) and the production team which included Elaine Sabal (Set Design), Joe Saint (Lighting Design), Gregg Guinta (Video Design), Choreography (Daniel Banks), and William C. Tinsley (Music and Lyrics). The cast, individuals experiencing homelessness and living with HIV and AIDS, wrote and performed in a production that shared their voices in a dystopian circus tent of a set in a mixture of Theatre of the Oppressed Augusto Boal meets Brecht-inspired serious clown play. Elaine Sabal’s immersive set with video design by Gregg Guinta playing on monitors found in shopping carts and other sculptural details, all hauntingly lit by Joe Saint, provided an evocative landscape for the cast wearing my war zone clown troupe themed costumes.

1995 Burned Out City: Housing Works Theatre Project at Theater for the New City, NYC. Victoria McElwaine (Director), Elaine Sabal (Set Design), Michael Sylvan Robinson (Costume Design), Joe Saint (Lighting Design), Gregg Guinta (Video Design), Choreography (Daniel Banks), and William C. Tinsley (Music and Lyrics). Photo by Susan Lerner

From an HX Magazine article about the show: “McElwaine says this is the Theatre Project’s edgiest and most politicized production yet. ‘All the stories come out of the cast member’s everyday experiences of fighting with the DAS, the government, their neighbors. The last song is called Wake Up Call. Hopefully the audience will stand with us, too, and engage with us in the fight again. We’re looking for the kind of energy of ACT UP in its early days.’” 

1995 Burned Out City: Housing Works Theatre Project at Theater for the New City, NYC. Michael Sylvan Robinson (Costume Design). Photo by Susan Lerner

Some of the cast were in permanent homes, some were without housing, and some in various stages in-between. The show, as result of six months of work together as a “harm reduction” program provided consistency of support, developing autobiographical material through writing and improvisation, stage work and meals together before rehearsal, culminating performances at Theater for the New City for a limited run in 1995 to receptive audiences and praise in news media.

As costume designer for this show, I worked very closely with each cast member to represent the archetypal role they had developed. The costumes were created with repurposed clothing from the Housing Works Thrift Store collection, working with a red, white, and blue but “dust covered” or “charred” color palette; additionally, each performer wore custom designed giant clown shoes, which I had to maintain and also make sure were “slip proof” as the physical theater comedy of the piece was very active. 

Looking again, all these years later, at production photos and my sketches of the cast, I am remembering each of these incredible performers and the challenges they faced, their empowered actions of making it to rehearsal each day, and the struggles after the show opened when attention and success pressed hard against realities of their daily lives. I remember that not all the cast managed to complete the run of the show, with addiction being a tenacious foil for months of progress and effort. There were trans cast members that faced intolerance even in places that should have been a refuge from the violence encountered on the street. I worked on one more of Housing Works Theatre Projects, a fairy tale styled-work performed at the Irish Rep Theater in 1996, telling the stories of HIV-positive parents and their children. I don’t have any photos from “Mom in the Moon,” but my experience as an educator greatly helped me approach that project with care and skill in supporting the younger performers in the production.

1995 Burned Out City: Housing Works Theatre Project at Theater for the New City, NYC. Victoria McElwaine (Director), Elaine Sabal (Set Design), Michael Sylvan Robinson (Costume Design), Joe Saint (Lighting Design), Gregg Guinta (Video Design), Choreography (Daniel Banks), and William C. Tinsley (Music and Lyrics). Photo by Susan Lerner

In one of the interviews for Burned Out City, McElwaine noted: “Unlike most of Off-Broadway, ‘where friends and family are always in the audience,’ Housing Works clients are often bereft of a personal support network. Thus, the audiences who come see them are generally total strangers. By the time they leave, however, they are friends.” I am grateful for the learning this community-engaged design work provided younger me, and for the ways in which activism is still, for me, very much about the caring for others. Almost twenty-years later, I am remembering these determined people, their efforts to survive, and the art-making that provided opportunities for support, truth-telling, as they fought to make changes for themselves and for society.

The words like a quick drawing for a painting that never ends on the canvas, an internal reflection I marked with astrological patterns, a now-past Venus retrograde and an overlapping mercury retrograde, but mostly the realities of work and the covid-impacted winter left my words like a whispered echo rather than an a coherent account beyond some social media musings and scribbled lines in my journal. I’ve been writing (“not” writing) this reflection for months; there was travel and challenges and the instability of change that I tried to tend as movement forward even as the weight of anxious hypervigilance left clarity fleeting. At the start of the new calendar year it felt like an extension of an unending pandemic-impacted academic year that began in March, 2020, and all the usual cycles of school life continue to be upended. I noticed how hard it was to celebrate what an incredible professional art year I’d manifested, but the challenges of trying to manage work and life obstacles and exhaustion continued to erode the sense of accomplishment or progress. 

As I started to feel more on the ground again, I unexpectedly ended up directing another show at school, rehearsals quickly filling my already crowded schedule, just as the violent invasion of Ukraine filled a global newsfeed with fear, grief, resistance and trauma, while the anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion rights legislation across the US sought a disturbing escalation of hatred from the same population that raged about masks and “cancel culture” and other hysterias, but now turning the policing of other people’s bodies to renewed extremes. 

Detail photo of “A Love Spell in the Midst of a Pandemic” by Michael Sylvan Robinson. Textile collage (2020) 61″ x 16″

During the Venus retrograde period, we’d escaped the omicron wave in New York with a previously scheduled trip to California; I’d not been on a flight since we’d postponed, and postponed again, and then finally canceled our honeymoon in those first months of the pandemic. Vaccinated, boosted, and masked we navigated the flight, for me with raised anxiety as school had closed early for winter break due to the steady increase of positive covid testing. The return to Brooklyn brought news of losses, deaths in community circles and family. There were viewings and newsfeed remembrances and a cold but sunny graveside funeral in a short cycle of days followed by a delayed and complicated return to school. 

At the end of the Venus retrograde, my “Venus Rising: a Contemporary Invocation” returned from Italy where it had resided since before the pandemic started, and is now exhibited in “Adorned: Inspired by Fabric and Fashion” at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center (Feb. 11-May 7, 2022) in an exhibit curated by Scott Andersen. This sculptural garment explores the rising Venus presence needed in our activism and healing trauma stewardship during this time of injustice and environmental crisis, embodied through a lifetime commitment to feminism and Queer community-building. Hand-stenciled poetic text fragments both within the garment on the lining and on the outer textile collage surface name intentions and affirm a call to loving action.

“Venus Rising: A Contemporary Invocation” by Michael Sylvan Robinson. Sculptural garment 28″ x 38″ x 2″ (2019)

In 2019, “Venus Rising…” broke a drought of opportunities and was sent off to Felicity Griffin Clark for my first international exhibition during Rome Art Week 2019. It resided in Rome throughout the first two years of the pandemic, working its healing magic, and showed again at the Palazzo Velli Expo in Rome Art Weel 2021 with the Society for Embroidered Work. We weren’t able to get to see the piece installed either time, and are likely to miss seeing the current showing at Annmarie, but today, we leave for a trip to Italy including several days in Rome before heading to the Amalfi Coast and a day trip to Pompeii.

We arrived in the shockingly cold howling winds, discovering the realities of the retreat location in the just-about-winter darkness, but the sun-filled morning opened with an incredible panoramic view of the deep blue horizon. Throughout the first day, the tremendous movement of the constant shifting surface of sun-tinted blues flowed left across the entire field of vision as the force of the powerful winds pushed waves cresting as far as one could see, a kind of bias pattern repeating from shore to sky only occasionally interrupted by the silhouetted flights of seagulls directly at eye level from the second story as they sailed the upper currents from the bay far below the bluff; until everything was lit with the dazzling end of day, an edge of the world illumination, and all around the shingled house twisted autumn-bare trees swayed and shaked at the tattered margins of land that drops suddenly below to the lapping high tide as the sunset descended.

View from Here: First day. Truro

Artist Journal: 11/16/21 I start to reach the peak of the last giant climb of a long surprising journey from summer into winter. Ahead I anticipate the vacation that failed to manifest as the start of July crashed with the pandemic wave and work demands into the giant heavy lifting of the commissioned garment, as I carefully tread the end of my rehearsal cycle at work back in educational theatre for the first time in five years. I feel the ache for the lack of space and care and time to reflect on the toil and unprecedented achievements that feel now so long ago since the Met Gala triumph. I moved right into the show responsibilities that, in many ways, is actually the best show experience in decades of theatre despite its pressures and challenges; I’ve paced the tech week in ways that could not have been done before, a combination of my leadership, a stronger team, and organizing efforts that also valued healthier models for this work. It didn’t all succeed to the degree that I’d hoped, and unexpected obstacles ekked away the salve of short-lived joys throughout the process.

Old patterns shed and clinging. One I let go, letting the show devour my entire life with over-worked hours on site, now significantly mostly fitting within a “work-day” experience. When last I was in rehearsal for a school show, I needed friends and lovers to lend their hands to overblown design plans on minimal resources, and the current version includes collaborative partners compensated for their skilled work. I take mornings at home during tech week, keeping up with emails but also spending some quieter time, even a little studio work, prior to walking to campus for rehearsals. 

View From Here: First morning. Truro

The second day is milder. Joseph heads out for a morning of bird watching, and I finally manage to scribble some lines of reflection I’d intended for weeks to craft. Today the bay is calmer, a more singular color palette with less of the varied graduations across the rippling textured endless expanse of water meeting a lightly cloud veiled skyline. I want to be writing, starting the process of reflection that mostly escaped me in the weeks since the Met Gala and then the show at work which just finished. An initial reflection is found at the horizon. 

In the culmination days of a successful return to educational theatre, and then the easing out of the production demands, I notice the resurfacing of my old production histories and can more honestly assess the entrenched work and relational patterns etched into the memories of those years. Institutions change, and including me, none of my previous production collaborators are still at the school in which making theatre was such dominant work for so many years. I regret the ways in which my own coping strategies and character traits were so embedded in our efforts and relationships, and recognize that the stage we spent so many long hours of creative effort that tangled into pressures on friendships is now tended by faculty I do not know. I think a lot about the ways in which all such institutions changed in the challenges of these past years, especially impacting the expectations and practices on in-person theatre. I’ve certainly done everything I can to tend the evolving protocols for safe live performance for students and faculty, and this fall, a slow return to audiences, as well. Stepping back after a several year break from directing shows, I was able to bring the values and inspirations that are the anchor for such collaboration, but with healthier, better resourced experiences and matured practices. 

I catch sight of old shows in the facebook memories and glimpse former students in their very grownup years. I’m grateful for the time we shared together. I used to joke that I always knew what the next years’ shows would be, and I’ve reawakened that kind of inspiration and visioning, which in the past often failed to budget correctly the time and cost of the realities of such undertakings, but in this current time I led with a clearer groundedness to support the realities of care, and skillfully engaged manifesting this production with a professionalism that comes from hard-earned wisdom. Here in the first days on the other side of a return to this work, I’m surprised that rather than draining me, this reenaged collaborative process has inspired me. It did still have an impact on home and my own art-making, but it didn’t leave the exhaustion of scorched earth of being so under-resourced nor muscled up beyond the agreed upon design work. Progress. 

Looking backwards from March ’21 to March ’20: a photo for each month – art, activism, mask-wearing, and a a first year of marriage during a pandemic. How incredible this exercise, letting each photo and the words of reflection document the journey of a year that included so many unimaginable cycles of challenges, growth, lessons in survival. As a Queer person in midlife, the year also brought up many many old generational histories of surviving the loses of NYC in the late 80’s/early 90’s and my activist roots that stretch deeply from those days

March 2021 – artist journal Queer figurative study, Loving Remembrance, Noir

March, 2021 – artist journal page by MIchael Sylvan Robinson
Feb. 2021 – Polaroid photo and Instagram story by Guinevere Van Seenus

Feb. 2021 – polaroid and Instagram story shared by Guinevere Van Seenus of wearing my “Priestessing the Work of Healing” (2021) sculptural garment for upcoming Vogue Germany feature (April, 2021). Guinevere Van Seenus photographed the stunning Saskia de Brauw wearing an incredibly personal, empowering wearable art gown of mine.

January, 2021 – Detail photo by Paul Takeuchi of “A Love Spell in the Midst of a Pandemic” by Michael Sylvan Robinson

Jan. 2021 – Detail photo of “A Love Spell in the Midst of a Pandemic” (2020) this piece and seven of my sculptural garments headed out to the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts for the “Remnants” exhibition (till April 25th). It has been such an incredible opportunity, to be included in my first museum exhibition with artists I’ve long admired, as well as working with the wonderful exhibition curator, Emily Schlemowitz.

December, 2020 – artist journal page by Michael Sylvan Robinson

Dec. 2020 – artist journal inspired by Jimmy Somerville in Orlando, and documenting a month of daily “little dances” and drawing practice as part of healing (including recovering from a frozen shoulder) that also was a listening to my own understanding of my genderqueer identity 

November, 2020 – Sylvan at Transgender Day of Remembrance action and vigil with Gays Against Guns. Photo by Paul Rowley

Nov. 2020 – Transgender Day of Remembrance with Gays Against Guns wearing my memorial garment, “In Remembrance: We Honor the Lives of Those Lost in 2020 to Gun Violence,“ while marshalling an action with silent vigil where each of the transgender people killed in the US by guns in 2020 were remembered by a veiled activist holding a placard with the photo and story of the person killed. One of my contributions to GAG is the researching and archiving of the stories of those we honor and remember. This wearable art piece is currently exhibited at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts.

October, 2020 – Mask-wearing with early voting sticker selfie

Oct. 2020 – early voting in the new neighborhood. Mask-wearing, high-pressure cycle leading up to the election, and then the chaos and trauma of the months until inauguration wrecked havoc on us all

September, 2020 – mask-wearing selfie as the school year resumed with a return to campuses

Sept. 2020 – “learn” after months of remote learning, there was a return-to-school, the start of a cycle of returns which included mostly outdoors teaching in tents, remote and staggered in-person experiences, and finally in March 2021 an almost full return to indoors classes for almost all students and faculty. There has never been a teaching year like the one we just weathered.

August, 2020 – photo of new home with paintings by Greg Minah over the fireplace

August 2020 – we bought a home, and I moved for the third summer in three years (Baltimore to Bushwick, Bushwick to South Slope, South Slope to Bay Ridge). After months of living in a small one bedroom apartment, with me on long zoom work days without any time away from work, there was suddenly space and a major life goal achieved together

July, 2020 – Announcement for PRIDE at the Textile Center of Minnesota

July 2020 – After pandemic delays, the first of the postponed art exhibitions opens, and my Pride at the Textile Center of Minnesota, curated by Tracy Krumm. Excited to be sharing my work in a Queer fiber arts show!

June, 2020 – Sylvan carrying sign in remembrance of Black transgender people killed by gun violence at Break the Chains with Love March from Vogue Magazine article by Emma Specter with stunning photographs by Ian Reid

June 2020 – at the Break the Chains with Love March 6/19/21 (with Don Shewey) in a month that included multiple marches across the Brooklyn Bridge, and participating in the historic Brooklyn Liberation for Black Trans Lives March which started outside the Brooklyn Museum with 15,000 people

May, 2020 – Sylvan’s first covid testing outdoor site (after a tough winter of health concerns)

May 2020 – first covid testing, outdoor site after a tough winter of health concerns

April, 2020 – selfie with mask and dogwoods on early pandemic shelter-in-place with neighborhood daily walking practice only

April 2020 – the early days of isolation, covid fears and empty city, walks to Green-Wood Cemetery 

March 2020 – just days after the city started to shut down, we headed off (unmasked) to City Hall to get married, and our dear friend, Daniel joined us as witness. Afterwards we found an open restaurant for lunch, and I’ve not returned to an indoor restaurant dining situation since. We postponed our honeymoon to Ireland that was supposed to start the next day (then postponed it again, then finally canceled). Our first year of marriage has certainly had its challenges, but our love and home together are such a blessing!

May there be many many more anniversaries together, dear beloved, and hopefully we’ll get to that honeymoon trip and a special family and loved ones ceremony in the near future.

Protesting during a Pandemic: (NYC COVID-19 at 100 Days) From rigid shelter-in-place physical distancing practices to marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, masked and amongst thousands of other masked protestors, the changes in our daily lives, especially living in New York… it is hard to even put into words… But when I read Molly Fischer’s closing lines in her New York magazine piece, this was pretty accurate: “Lockdown did not end in tentative steps outdoors; lockdown ended when the marching began. The protests that followed George Floyd’s death represented a sweeping embrace of the first-person plural in all that it might grow to hold. Collective purpose had kept the streets empty, and now if filled them. We were learning what we could do.”


“Listen to Black Women” crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with the Juneteenth Break the Chains With Love March. 6/19/20 Photo by Michael Sylvan Robinson

Day 100 6/19/20 Juneteenth. 6,000 + march in Break The Chains With Love March organized by queer Black women and led by the inspiring Valarie Walker included members of the Revolting Lesbians, Rise and Resist, the Reclaim Pride Coalition, Gays Against Guns, and other activists. It was wonderful to see so many friends. We held the intersection until the way was cleared, and then we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge as the sun set, and then gathered to remember the ancestors. And there was, as promised, a lot of love. I carried an artful sign in remembrance of 11 of the Black trans people killed by gun violence in just a little over a year. Claire Legato 5/14/19. Muhlaysia Booker 5/18/19. Michelle ‘Tamika’ Washington 5/19/19. Paris Cameron 5/25/19. Zoe Spears 6/13/19. Bailey Reeves 9/2/19. Itali Marlowe 9/20/19. Brianna ‘BB’ Hill 10/14/19. Monika Diamond 3/18/20. Tony McDade 3/27/20. Riah Milton 6/9/20.


Vogue magazine article by Emma Specter about the Break The Chains With Love March included stunning photographs form the march by Ian Reid including this one of me with Don Shewey. I’m carrying a sign in remembrance of 11 of the Black trans people killed by gun violence in just a little over one year. #honorthemwithaction #inremembrance

Day 87 6/6/20 My first time walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was a protest march with 15,000 protestors marching for Black Lives Matter. After almost three months of physical distancing and almost no contact beyond my household, I stepped out on the streets because we have to be. I did not see a single participant without a mask on, and everyone was extremely careful and caring as we crossed the challenging tight pedestrian walkway of the bridge. The only people I saw not wearing masks were the police officers despite the fact that masks are required.

Day 93 6/12/20 I held space with Gays Against Guns in a silent vigil for those killed in the Pulse mass shooting four years ago. In preparation for our memorial I’d developed five longer profiles of 49 killed individuals (primarily Black + Latinx LGBTQ+ people) for the GAG Human Beings page on FB, where we honor and remember the lives of those killed by gun violence. Standing in line, veiled and dressed in all-white for the vigil, I realized the stack of placards I was holding to represent in the Human Beings work included “randomly” four out of the five people I’d spent week learning more about, trying to share who they were and how their loss impacted families and friends. As the names were read, I held both photos of a couple killed that night, boyfriends Juan Ramon Guerro, 22 years old, and Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, 32 years old, myself a newly wed Queer man, remembering their love for each other. I also held space for Kimberly “KJ” Morris, 37 years old, and Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24 years old, and whose lives and contributions to the world I’d learned more about in developing the remembrance pieces. The activism of Gays Against Guns arose in the days following the Pulse massacre, and I watched from my previous home in Baltimore knowing this queer activism called to me, and when I moved back to Brooklyn I became an active GAG member. It was an emotional and important night to be standing at Stonewall with these activists in this ongoing work!

Day 95 6/14/20 At the Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives attended by 15,000+ on an historic day, I carried my sign in remembrance of 11 of the Black Trans people killed by gun violence over the last year including Riah Milton just this past week. I wore my mask, as was pretty much everyone else.  After walking the edges of the massive number of protestors gathered in front of the Brooklyn Museum, I found myself atop a barricade with my sign high over my head, speaking their names with the best I could offer in remembrance: Claire Legato. Muhlaysia Booker. Michelle ‘Tamika’ Washington. Paris Cameron. Zoe Spears. Bailey Reeves. Itali Marlowe. Brianna ‘BB’ Hill. Monika Diamond. Tony McDade. Riah Milton. 


Day 99 6/18/20 I’m reminded of the recovery practice of “counting days” as one adjusts to the unimaginable life changes of living without active addiction.  In some recovery meetings, newcomers “count days” as a way of marking the “days of sobriety” one-day-a-time in their first 90 days . When I broke my ankle five years ago, and would reference the number of days “since” well-meaning friends cautioned “letting it go” or “moving on” from such a practice that in many ways, helped me acknowledge how different my life felt from the just a short time past, from the days before the accident. For years I’ve counted my daily walking practice, writing the mileage of my walking time in my journal alongside the number of days (almost 4,500 miles at 1,643 days). I started walking as a major relationship ended, and I walked to return to embodiment, to mindfulness, to my own presence in the midst of grief and longing and loss, and as those one-day-at-a-times turned into seasons and years, so the change of loving again, and moving back to Brooklyn, and building a life together also met with evening walks at the end of the work day, and special days of walking together in places I’d never hoped I would visit; and the daily walking of the first months of the pandemic, masked and fearful in the empty Brooklyn streets and the then ever-present soundscape of sirens.

From the first day of working at home, I started keeping track of the days; initially, I’d caption each photo on instagram beginning with Day ___ and write in my journal with brief recognition of tracing the experiences of the radically transformative (and traumatic) times in which I am trying to work, love, make art, and care for a community of loved ones and the wider circles that connect us all together across the boundaries of states and counties right now. Today, the first day without end of the year meetings, a swiss-cheese hole of space without being on zoom all day, but still trying to complete tasks. Ahead this summer, intense managerial responsibilities as we develop plans for a return to school in September. 100 days ago we left campus for what I’d imagined would be a short cautionary period away – oh, dear ones, these days we’ve weathered, struggled and grown through, so historic/terrible/inspiring/heartbreaking. I know I am exhausted and awe-struck.



Day 42 4/22/20 Lilies lit up by the setting sun a reminder that my sense of smell is still working as their intense fragrance penetrated my mask. I stopped and remembered to acknowledge that in a little over a month 40,000+Americans have died with 10,000+ of those in New York

(Day 50) I hesitate to name it out loud, but after five weeks or so, I’m feeling my energy resume and the weird cycles of symptoms are now at the outer edges of diminishing impact, or so I hope. In mid-March, during the first official week of sheltering-at-home, I noted my initial symptoms – a low grade cough that remains somewhat with me today, if now only as a faint trace of a scratchy throat, but lingering still after all these days. That first real week at home, so different from the confusing one that preceded it – the week “before” – when I attended a school event at Carnegie Hall just two days before our campuses closed, a confusing threshold as New York City entered a transitional cycle that was already “too late” to be ahead of the virus, and it was half a week more until, finally, that weekend’s late announcement that the NYC public schools would not open on Monday. Later in the week that followed, amidst the disorienting first real stage of the shelter-at-home process, I started to keep track of my symptoms, mostly out of a silent fear.

In its first cycle, despite no fever nor trouble breathing, it felt like something was pressing down on my chest, and the sporadic cough established its mild but persistent pattern. Without two of the major symptoms then reported as coronavirus indicators, we mostly assumed I was just run down as the tough semester met “spring break” with our now postponed honeymoon trip letting the days open with a mix of disappointment and anxiousness. 

But I knew. Knew then that even though I wasn’t horribly sick, I was sick in way I’d never experienced before, and over the weeks that followed, even as it never crescendoed in the ways I feared, there was a bizarre series of cycles and shifting symptoms that, though fortunately not terrible, were also never really gone. 

All kinds of generational memories from my early NYC years during the peak HIV AIDS crisis surfaced: Do I have it? How to navigate the unclear guidelines and mixed messages and homespun preventions to survive this? Am I in danger of passing this on to others, and are we already “all infected?” I slept poorly for several weeks, unable to get to sleep, waking with nightmares to the sounds of sirens of the ambulances, trying to calm my frayed emotional state while tending to the deepening exhaustion and realities that my body was fighting something… different.


Day 34 NYTimes4/14: “The numbers brought into clearer focus the staggering toll the virus has already taken on the largest city in the United States, where deserted streets are haunted by the near-constant howl of ambulance sirens.” 

(Day 40) Virtual doctor’s appointment confirms what I’ve been experiencing as a low grade or “mild” version of the virus. 

The doctor and I discuss my symptoms: 3-5 days experiencing the initial chest pressure and the start of the cough followed by two weeks or so of really low energy and a rollercoaster of “I start to feel better” and then a set-back; next, my eyes were red and irritated, my lymph nodes swelled, and my throat ached for 3-5 days, and those symptoms eased and returned and then eventually reduced its hold, followed by weird aches that felt like random “light” pulses of pain beyond the midlife norms, and finally(?) a disorienting cycle of auditory symptoms, a fairly present ringing like someone had boxed my ears that made my all day-virtual zoom work meetings even more exhausting. The cough remained throughout the month + as an underlying layer to it all; but no fever, thank goodness. 

Doctor suggests no testing recommended at this point, given the high density of the NYC crisis and the risks of going to the test sites; Joseph’s not experiencing any symptoms, and we’ve been isolated at home for more than a month. When the antibodies test is approved by our medical care providers we’ll go get tested. In the meantime, rest and hydrate and sleep.


Day 35 Dogwood blossoms + Plague Doctor Mask: I’d made us masks, mine with the Plague Doctor print and anatomical hearts I’ve been working with since October, feeling a little Cassandra-like in my eerie pre-trend fabric choices

(Day 30) The presence of the sirens / tracking the rising deaths / the closeness of the virus to all of us / accumulated anxiety

Watching teachers pour their energy and hearts into online teaching in virtual classrooms, connecting to our students through these small box-like windows 

The presence of such unrelenting fear, not only of the coronavirus but the disastrous mishandling of our government’s lack of response, negligent lack of leadership, and dishonesty – the failure of our nation in this crisis

(Day 50) It has been more than five weeks since I’ve entered a store. My car sits exactly where I parked it the last time I drove home from work, never anticipating the prolonged absence of a commute. I have a neighborhood walk at the end of each work day of virtual school, always masked and with very intentional, protective social distancing. My husband carefully follows guidelines when he makes a skillful trip to the grocery store, masked and gloved. As the crisis unfolded with its unnecessary and tragic misinformation and mixed messages, we’ve done all that we could from the moment it was obviously descending upon the city. The more conversations I have with friends and colleagues the more I realize how prevalent this low-grade to “moderate” level experience is, the hidden realities of the not-yet actually tested but sure we’ve been sick, which just escalates the rising numbers we read in the papers each day. 

The staggering impact on us all and the free fall of how different our lives are from the start of March.


Day 7 (March 17) Detail of “Composting Our Fears + Committing to Action” begun in Oct. ’19 during my residency at Textile Arts Center, NYC. sculptural garment h: 30″ x w: 95″

Day 21 (Wednesday, April 1) Three weeks ago, the school I’m an arts administrator at closed both its campuses, and we made an initial trial run of virtual teaching practices before our Spring Break began. In this present crisis, I am grateful for the leadership of the institution that was reasonably prepared with plans and resources for the move to virtual classrooms. The city closed in fairly dramatic, but not quick enough, stages; on the weekend that followed, the beautiful weather seemed to call everyone outdoors, but the following Monday the public schools finally closed. Every day since, it becomes more evident to New Yorkers that we’re going to need to hold tight and keep caring about each other; this is not the first crisis our big diverse city has weathered.

As a generational Queer activist guy from the peak HIV AIDS epidemic NYC “plague years” I initially found myself reflecting on how much the world had NOT stopped in those past terrible days that turned into years, did not stop despite the countless deaths of young friends and lovers; as a young teacher, I went into work in silent mourning and fear, actually to the same campuses that I serve again now as an administrator. 

Day 6 (Monday, March 16) We drove into an empty lower Manhattan to carefully navigate the Marriage Bureau, grateful for the clerks and officiant (keeping her distance, not touching the lectern), to get legally married. The following day we made a tense groceries run, our honeymoon trip to Ireland postponed. It all seemed so unreal. 


Navigating the challenges of the times in which we live, it felt important to formally recognize our lifetime commitment to each other. We went for a simple City Hall civil wedding with our dear friend, Daniel, joining us as witness. We are planning for a future ceremony and celebration to come. Our announcement shared with friends and family fills our newsfeed with joy, coming at the front edge of the shutdowns and fears of the future, the loving responses were a much needed salve during the hard adjustments of that first week home.

Day 16 (Friday, March 27) We watched the beautiful, inspiring Every Act of Life last night, which PBS shared in honor of Terrence McNally. McNally died of complications from COVID-19 on March 24 and is survived by his husband, Tom Kirdahy. I saw the original production of “Love! Valour! Compassion!” several times when it first played on Broadway, remembering how his depiction of gay couples changed culture and theater:

BOBBY. I think you love each other very much. I think you’ll stick it out, whatever. I think right now you’re holding hands- that when Perry has to take his hand from yours, Arthur, to steer traffic, he puts it back in yours as soon as he can. I think this is how you always drive. I think this is how you go through life.

Day 10 (Friday, March 20) We got to the beach for a cleansing walk, keeping our distance from the handful of others doing the same. I shared on Facebook, “Be ready, it will be worse next week, as the delays of last month catch-up to the realities of the crisis.” I caught myself in rising fear, looking at Joseph, my husband, across the sun-pierced, still slightly foggy beach landscape, and felt so choked in despair and anticipatory grief of what might happen that I could barely give voice to it. The generational experience and trauma repeating over and over, “we did not all survive.”

But I also remember that a generation of LGBTQ+ individuals and allies did everything it could to take care of the sick, the dying, and the grieving. Our love for each other taught us how to show up in new ways, developing actions and advocacy. “Greetings, Prophet; / The Great Work begins: / The Messenger has arrived.” ~ Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. 


I remember so clearly the moment the Angel crashed through the ceiling at the end of the play and spoke these lines; it was a moment that felt like everything we knew and didn’t know how to survive was expressed through visionary, artful brilliance bringing home deep truths of a generation’s mounting losses and resilience. A lot of losses. A lot of activism. A lot of learning. Follow The AIDS Memorial on Instagram and Facebook and witness the ways so many deaths impact the many many years since for the living, for all of us.

We walked together in Green-Wood Cemetery, a long loop in the bright sun, keeping our distance from others on their own walks. We were married a week ago, managed in the chaos of these sudden shocking readjustments all of us in this city are facing. The walk through the monuments of eras past a reminder of the impermanence of our lives. The first magnolias doing their triumphant blooming, fragile to the quick changes in early spring erratic temperatures. 

I want us to survive this, all of us, but we know that deaths are mounting, yet we must with care and the best of what we can offer each other in the fearful closeness of life-saving caregivers and medical professionals showing up to service, and in the simple housebound units checking on each other, tending and teaching the love that is possible.

Day 13 (March 24) NYTimes 3/24: Mr. Cuomo said that New York was a harbinger for the rest of the country. “Look at us today,” he warned. “Where we are today, you will be in four weeks or five weeks or six weeks. We are your future.”

Day 15 (March 26) NYTimes 3/26: The United States has reached a grim milestone: More than 1,000 deaths have been linked to the coronavirus.

Day 16 (Friday, March 27) When we go out for a walk, I can feel both the positive body care and the vulnerability and heightened uncertainty everywhere. We’re being careful and keeping to ourselves. 

The night before I joined my fellow activists for my very first Zoom meeting, as the Gays Against Guns meeting moved into the virtual organizing direction. Gun sales in the United States are skyrocketing and domestic violence incidents within homes are escalating. In NYC, violent crimes are falling, but many Americans, unlike Europeans, are arming themselves at terrifying rates. During the meeting, I work quietly on a sculptural garment, an art memorial project that will honor those killed by gun violence in 2020. #ourhospitalsarefullstopbuyingguns #prioritizepeopleoverguns #gunviolenceisanepidemic


Day 15 (March 26) Work-in-progress on this art memorial sculptural garment, “In Remembrance: 2020,” part of my ongoing service in gathering the names and stories of those killed by guns for the art activism of The Human Beings, silent vigil work by members of Gays Against Guns holding the places of those killed by gun violence.

Day 18 (March 29) NYTimes 3/29: New York officials reported a sharp jump in deaths from Friday night, saying that 222 people died in that 24-hour window, bringing the total to 672 people. That is the largest number of reported deaths in a single 24-hour period in the city… More than 2,300 people with the coronavirus have now died in the United States, according to the New York Times database, a figure that has more than doubled since Thursday….

We’ve been hearing the increased presence of ambulance sirens, especially at night. 

Today is the last day of “spring break,” and I am trying to rest and invest in self-care before the virtual school days resume. Connected with community on a zoom meeting after almost three weeks of isolation, and was so grateful for the reconnection, the service and community care, seeing the faces I’d been hoping were doing well and staying alive (for real)



Intermission #1 of “Daddy” by Jeremy O. Harris: The set designed by Matt Saunders of a Los Angeles art-filled contemporary home includes an actual swimming pool on stage, at times the swimming and other activities staged in the pool splashed the front rows of audience with water, delightfully breaking the line between witnesses and participants. Following a sharp dialogue about the art of Kara Walker and a gallerist’s studio visit to the young poppet-making artist played by Ronald Peet, who speaks with a breathless quality mixed with fierce intellect and a resurfacing traumatic past, there was Alan Cumming in the role of his older lover, Andre, singing George Michael’s “Father Figure” in the pool, attended by a trio of watchful gospel singers of a chorus that witness the young artist throughout the play… “That’s all I wanted / Something special, something sacred / In your eyes / For just one moment / To be bold and naked / At your side…”

Intermission #2: My partner, Joseph, rightly names that all the characters get a better opportunity to be more realized in the second act, and though I was less enthusiastic about the melodrama the play’s subtitled status definitely delivered, I loved loved a sparing dialogue about Carl Andre being less important than Ana Mendieta just because he survived the “circumstances” of her tragic death. I appreciated the intimacy of the shared water of the pool, almost an alchemical character itself, but during the second act the action stayed mostly on the ground. There was some beautiful staging of the silent studio activities, as the artist created more evolved and larger fiber pieces, eventually acting out pantomime stories with bigger than life-sized figures that begin in pieces, helped in the act of mending/building by the chorus women as a kind of divine studio assistants. “…Sometimes I think you’ll never / Understand me / But something tells me together / We’d be happy, oh oh…”

After the play: I am caught by surprise at the ways the issues of a never-known biological father and the tensions that linger in a conflicted relationship with the character of the mother as experienced and expressed by the young artist making fiber art seemed to steamroll me; I was surprised that I was surprised. Heading into the production, I’d been focused on the questions this playwright explores so powerfully about Black artists and bodies being “consumed” by white audiences, and aware, sitting amongst the mostly white audience of the theater, that I was also a gay white viewer contributing to the playwright’s own sky-rocketing success strikingly similar to the lead character’s fast paced artistic recognition, and gratefully challenged with his very intimate investigations of attraction, interracial desire like Harris did in the more satirical “Slave Play” we saw earlier this winter. I’d not really been prepared to feel somewhat unearthed by the family story themes crashing against my own underworld of family histories. Trying not to cry, I choked out my own missing biological father experience, “In the reality of his death, there would be no phone call coming from a father I never knew.” Leaving the experience of the play,  I was also painfully aware that the “daddy issues” for both the artist character and me, are very much centered and wrapped tightly around the figure of a very real and living mother, and the inheritance of the choices she made in the circumstances of bringing a child to into the world.


Studio view, work-in-progress on sculptural garment, “Lift the Curse” (above) the back inner lining with hand-stenciled text and (on dress form) back section with textile collage work 18″ x 42″ x 10″ in the #urbanfey: protective wear for urban faeries series by Michael Sylvan Robinson

“An initiation journey often begins with the perception that something is wrong. We undertake a process of transformation because we want more than what is given. We sense that some loss requires restitution; some balance must be restored… We each inherit many, many ills we did not create. The path to personal power requires that we know what we are called to heal and what we are not called to fix. In our personal lives, we did not create the families we were born into. We did not build the castle, nor did we contribute to its design. We may or may not be able to heal its ills… Collectively, too, we live in a castle not of our own design, full of secrets and inherited ills. None of us alive today created our heritage of sexism, racism, poverty, social injustice, war, or environmental degradation. Sometimes these conditions may oppress us personally; at other times we may benefit from them directly or indirectly… the willing undertaking of responsibility, can lead to healing… When we answer the call with courage and responsibility, we begin the a process that will transform us as deeply as it changes the world around us.” ~ The Twelve Wild Swans, Starhawk and Hilary Valentine

Over a meal in the theater district, Joseph talked wisely of the cycles in which we re-engage the healing of these old patterns rooted in our family histories. Part of me sat quietly, appreciative of his efforts, but another inner voice critically reviewed how invisible all my years of work through therapy, recovery and spiritual practice, the coaching and the art-making seemed, and wondering what could possibly be needed “more” than all those previous approaches and processes? I named out loud, “that obviously, the delayed news of my biological father’s death triggered old fault lines.” He affirmed there’d been a lessening of the intensity from my initial reaction following the discovery, but also ways in which these lingering wounds intrude upon my presence and participation. This mirror reflection made me mad, not at my partner, but at all of it, the family legacy like a demon I’ve tried so hard to exorcise, reminded again of the religious imagery utilized in the play, and though not the specific flavor of my own problematic religious upbringing, it was close enough to sting. “I will be your father figure / Put your tiny hand in mine (I’d love to) / I will be your preacher teacher / (Be your daddy)  / Anything you had in mind / … I will be the one who loves you / Till the end of time.”

Over his meal, and with great care, my partner asked, “Perhaps there’s some kind of ancestor work you can do to release him?” Yes. Yes, there is.


Michael Sylvan Robinson shared his Mourning Jacket for a Sweet Satyr in memory of Eric Ginman at the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays, January 21, 2019 at Lucille Lortel Theatre. Photo by Ellery Schiller ’21

“Spencer saved my life,” I said as I stepped into the gathered circle of (mostly) Bennington alumni of varied generations at the start of the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Play process. This special event benefits two Bennington College scholarships, the Nicky Martin Performing Arts Scholarship and the Spencer Cox ‘90 Field Work Term Fellowship for Student Activists. “He was the first person to tell me about condom use and safe sex in the 80’s,” and I shared a humorous recollection Spencer and I joked about together when we’d run into each other in the city, “At Bennington Spencer often got the theater roles I wanted, but I got the boys he wanted.”

My heart felt so full, a rising presence as I prepared to share about the art piece in my hands. I’d brought my art memorial garment for Eric Ginman ‘92, and I walked within the circle as I spoke his name, showing the beautiful photos of Eric stitched into the fabric, and the hand-stenciled text honoring his life and death, and our relationship. “Spencer, Eric, Queer Ancestors, dear beloved activists and artists, Bennington alumni brothers, lost to AIDS (and both fought addictions), your work-in-the-world finished too soon. What is remembered lives…

Sometimes one puts the mourning down until there is the space and presence to return to the ache of grief. Sometimes the art-making waits until one day it is time for the work to resume. After two years of not being able to work on this piece, I began again on the Mourning Jacket for a Sweet Satyr, knowing I wanted to share this act of remembrance for Eric J. Ginman: 11/13/69 – 7/19/97

Eric died in the 90’s, as many gay men did, before he reached the age of 30. He died of AIDS right before the advancement in treatment that saved so many others… Like Spencer, Eric also struggled with addiction which left him isolated and vulnerable. Eric and I were lovers/spiritual brothers/friends in those days both before I graduated from Bennington, and afterwards, in NYC. He sent me beautiful self-portraits which I held privately for years and years. I’ve been thinking of him so clearly – the music he made, both in formal and rustic landscapes. The sweetness of his nature and the mischievous Scorpio sensual side. Eric was incredibly talented. What is remembered lives….


Sharing my Inspirational costume piece at the start of the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Play event captured in a beautiful photo by Ellery Schiller ’21, thank you!

I see myself here in this photo: midlife Queer artist me sharing my art and activism and love in the way I most want to do. I see myself Here. Surrounded by the collaborative web of Bennington kin, bringing such an intimate personal art offering and honoring of a lost dear beloved, knowing now what magic would come next with skillful craft of playwright Maia Villa ‘15 and director David Drake and their cast, in the creation of a new play, Remembrance; a new play in which Queer Ancestor ghosts arrive artfully dressed for a hauntingly beautiful reunion of parted lovers, one living and one amidst an embodied transformation to the ancestors.

With roots built from shared inspiration, and this memorial garment itself featured so prominently, the play culminated in the jacket being worn for the first time by a dear friend from our shared Bennington past, Julia Prud’homme ’87, in an incredible, evocative performance. It was the first time we’d seen each other in decades, perhaps since we were both last together on campus, but it felt so easy and familiar, not at all like years of distance. I loved the play we got to work on together, and I loved Julia’s great performance as as a Queer Ancestor getting her magic ghost-self suited up for the big transformation of humanness into mystery and spirit in a rite of passage in which her character transformed/evolved into a more embodied Queer Ancestor. I was crazy moved by bringing such an intimate offering to our collaborative circle and to be able to then receive the gift of watching others, dear respected friends and artists, build such artistry from their own inspiration and presence over such an intense, twenty-four process.

OLIVE. (singing) with me, with me… show me you’re here, sweet thing. (beat) Well, elise, there may not be an afterlife, you may not be anywhere, not be anything anymore. I just wish you were. I just wish the moon was a sign, that anything was….

ELISE. …and I miss you… I’m afraid if I touch her, I’ll feel my own guilt.

CROW. Isn’t that a useless emotion? / DOVE. You won’t.

OLIVE. …kiss me in the moonlight, sweet thing… I whispered in your ear, “you rent the U-Haul yet, cutie?”


Remembrance by Maia Villa ‘15, directed by David Drake, costume design by Michael Sylvan Robinson ‘89, lighting design by Kryssy Wright ‘03 and sound design by Mike Rugnetta ‘06, with AD Emma Welch ‘17, and amazing cast: Julia Prud’homme ‘87, Eben Moore ‘96, Julia Crowley ‘18, Abigail Gampel ‘85.The dress worn for the role of Dove was created by Emily Woods Hogue ‘10. Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays: January 21, 2019

My participation as a costume designer for this event was also an action of remembrance and service as we honored the life and career of Danny Michaelson, Bennington faculty member of more than thirty-five years, a wonderful costume designer and teacher, and mentor for this collaborative group of designers bringing their time and skills to each of the new plays. Danny died suddenly this winter, and we shared fond memories of our time in the Bennington costume shop with him and the gifts of that place and faculty mentorship received during our Bennington years and beyond the days on campus.


Costume design team for the Bennington Alumni 24 Hour Plays: Therese Bruck, Valerie Marcus Ramshur ’89, Michael Sylvan Robinson ’89, Emily Woods Hogue ’10, and Simone Duff ‘06, and Carla Klein ‘89 (not in photo) at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, January 21, 2019. Remembering beloved Bennington faculty member, Danny Michaelson. 

This writing of remembrance begins and ends with Spencer. I had the amazing opportunity on February 11th to attend a glimpse of an important work-in-progress, Euphoria, being developed by Tectonic Theater Project by Moisés Kaufman and Jeffrey LaHoste, that considers “the story of AIDS activist Spencer Cox, whose dedication to getting ‘drugs into bodies’ at the height of the crisis saved countless lives. The play grabbles with the puzzling questions his friends and colleagues were left to confront following Spencer’s death from AIDS-related complications.”  I spoke briefly with Moisés about my friendship with Spencer, and then sat quietly as the short excerpt of the play shared such love and respect for Spencer, highlighting glimpses of his youngster arrival into important AIDS activism and his tremendous impact; the words and memories of the play’s interviewees, some sitting the audience that night, performed by the actors of the show through the unique Tectonic play development process. I am so excited for this developing work, the ways in which Spencer’s life and activism will continue to inspire others, and I know he would be thrilled to receive such a fantastic arrival on the New York theater stages and beyond as this play evolves. Acts of remembrance.



“There was a deep sadness found…” Work-in-progress, inside lining for “Melancholy Moonlight,” sculptural garment 12″ x 16″ by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2019)

I heard myself say, “I’m going to follow this thread of sadness in my life down to its root,” and moments later, in the space that opened, I discovered the 2014 obituary for my biological father, a man I’d never met, only a brief series of problematic phone calls and letters shared in the mid-90’s between us. How do I mourn a man whose biggest contribution to my life was his absence, a haunting shadowed presence of his ghost, even as he lived, faced now in the belated news of his death?

“I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view. Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future. These specters appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view. The ghost, as I understand it, is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention. Haunting and the appearance of specters or ghosts is one way, I tried to suggest, we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present, interfering precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed toward us. Haunting is a frightening experience. It always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present…”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

There was a shocking return of anger, which surprised me, perhaps after all the years of reflection and therapy and letting go, accompanied by the rush of emotions rising with an inner slide show of childhood longings and unraveled stories. I recognized the finality previously shielded by a unacknowledged delusion that there could be a kind of reconciliation. Immediately I encountered renewed resentments targeting the living, of course, for the long contributing failures, the truths and mistruths, secrets and silences. Under all of it, a deep old hurt caused by the choices of this man, whose genetic lineage I hold; I’m its only actual descendant despite the missing “survived by” designation on the online memorial page. I wondered at his end of life, any reckoning or instinct for amends, or just the long hidden secrets never voiced to those receiving gestures of condolences for the loss of such a giving man?

“The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. ”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

As I reach for some resolution, some greater agency to the narrative of my origin that felt like it was never really mine to share, revealed in stages throughout a childhood infused with the hidden facts: How do I wrestle against this long secret history while doing no further damage to others? What do I need from the living and the dead?

Healing work, not clear in what form beyond the writing of these first words, might be found in this midlife rite of passage unique in its twisted pathways, but also, not uncommon, inclusive in the wide company of those within families for which one is not of the same blood. I remember the writers and witnessed memories of others, and these shared experiences help me start to trace the path forward from this haunting absence ended.

“The willingness to follow ghosts, neither to memorialize nor to slay, but to follow where they lead, in the present, head turned backwards and forwards at the same time. To be haunted in the name of a will to heal is to allow the ghost to help you imagine what was lost that never even existed, really. That is its utopian grace: to encourage a steely sorrow laced with delight for what we lost that we never had; to long for insight of that moment in which we recognize, as in Benjamin’s profane illumination, that it could have been and can be otherwise… If you let it, the ghost can lead you toward what has been missing, which is sometimes everything.”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination


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