I’m inspecting a photo of the Fog x FLO project featured at the Newton Free Library. It’s of a performer half enshrouded in a mysterious mist, beckoning inward. A few rays of sunlight shimmer through the mist behind her, adding to the dreamy quality of the picture. Within the exhibition, a few other viewers look at photographs of performers in this artificial fog. I take in the one I stand before and consider how the picture makes me feel, what it reminds me of. But then, something makes a tentative step forward into my bubble of  focus. I hear its voice before I can turn slightly to see who’s there.
“Hi,” says the intruder, “Are you… are you Jack?” It’s Jen Mergel, one of Boston’s leading curators of contemporary art. She conducts herself amicably, yet in the earnest, slightly rushed way of a busy woman with many connections. Her importance is cemented as soon as she introduces herself to the artist of the collection we stand in.
Led by her purposeful stride, I follow her through the library, into another local art display, which she takes hardly a moment to analyze. She turns to me, and delivers her thoughts promptly. We step into a large, silent hall of the library, find a table, and take a plunge into the world of art work, exhibitions, and connoisseurships.
“I would say, I certainly have an interest in making,” said Mergel, who initially thought she wanted to study cognitive neurobiology in college. She was interested in exploring how we make connections and associations between things. Despite how far such a science feels from art, the link is clear. After all, what is the work of a curator if not to use the presentation of the art to spark the intended connections, to provoke thoughts and questions?
After getting into a studio art course, Mergel discovered a newfound love for art. “You know, I could stay up till three or four in the morning and not even notice time passing, because it’s very satisfying, trying to solve these problems,” said said. From there, she attended Harvard University and studied visual and environmental studies. She followed an educational path in art, teaching at universities and museums, until becoming a curator.
For many, the occupation of curator isn’t well defined or understood. Many know it as a career with a vague relationship to art and showcases, but what exactly do curators do? Officially, they select, organize and present artwork. They interpret works, and then use the space, lighting, proximities to the other pieces and the viewer, atmosphere and other important design elements to provoke the right questions and to convey the intended — and unintended — ideas. The curatorial process is quite variable. One of the major factors is the specialty, and what kind of art you may be curating. For contemporary art, the future is the main focus.
“Regardless of discipline, any curator needs to ask some fundamental questions, and they need to be able to anticipate what’s amazing to experience with your senses. What’s going to build curiosity in terms of how does this happen? Why is it this way? Who knew that the thing that I assumed is actually counterintuitive? So an exhibition may raise questions and not necessarily provide answers,” she explains.
Mergel’s personal style involves searching for a piece which is humble and of service to its community. It opens up new perspectives and windows of thought in the viewer, as opposed to being egocentric. She says many art pieces, especially ones of colonial and imperialist times, were made with clear presumptions of superiority, and created to glorify themselves and their creator. But Mergel is more worried about a piece of artwork which was created for the people and changes its audience in a thoughtful way. “I choose projects that are satisfying, and I feel like I’m learning something along the way. I feel like I’m helping other people learn something or rethink something, as opposed to, for example, doing another Picasso show.”
Unfortunately, many of these egocentric mindsets linger as a part of their artwork’s legacy. She explained her decision to leave the MFA as a curator, observing that many of the famous art institutions were founded in the 18th century from a patriarchal, single-minded perspective in which the museum seeks to tell you what the best is, and art was largely presented by and for white men. Despite the revolutionary social and political changes that have occurred since these institutions’ founding, their art is still of course primarily historical, and so their attitudes, at times, have stagnated in the past.
Given the many ways curators can approach their work and the variability of the work itself, there are a plethora of ways curators measure their success. Some feel accomplished when they have mentored a great number of aspiring curators into their own school of thought, and helped them achieve success themselves. Others take pride in rising from curator to director of an important institution. Some find achievement in having influenced the most institutions and policies in the world of art. Mergel, however, values the impact she leaves on her audience and on the field.
She, like other curators who have drifted away from institutional affiliations, is interested in shaping how audiences connect to art, whether in a public space or elsewhere, even helping viewers understand the role of the curator. While many think of beauty and talent when they think of good art, Mergel begs to differ. Good art carries weight, has meaning, and makes you think, and should be appreciated for such.
“People will often say the sign of intelligence is to hold two conflicting ideas that are paradoxically simultaneous... and art can do that in a way that other media can’t.”
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Sitting by the window, Elizabeth Killorin explains that her life motto is “cura personalis,” the Latin expression which means “care of the whole person.”
When it comes to Killorin, a campus minister, playwright and mother, it is obvious from merely an hour conversation with her that this phrase is the driving force of her life.
“I really did try, when I was teaching, to make relationships with the students and to form sort of a community in that class every day.”
When prompted to reflect on her past 12 years of being an English teacher at Boston College High, Killorin fondly recalls the effort she put into encouraging her pupils to open up and experience worlds of literature they had never imagined. “When you’re talking about stories and characters’ lives, you can address issues that aren’t going to play out in their minds.”
Despite the stimulating conversations that take place during book discussions, Killorin felt she would be a better fit as campus minister — someone who provides guidance about a student’s faith — because teaching in the classroom disrupted her ability to build positive relationships with the students.
“It would break my heart when I had a student who is going through a rough time and I would have to turn them away because I really needed to finish making this test for next period,” she said.
Now, to Killorin’s delight, she makes time with the student body without having polishing lesson plans at the top of her list. Her new set of responsibilities allows her to focus on other things like,“[C]ommunity building, on being the emotional support for students and being a trusted adult that they can come to and talk with, or even just joke with,” Killorin said.
Committed to assisting the student body at every turn, Killorin also lends her expertise to BC High seniors as they write their college essays. And no, this is not one of her job requirements.
“Campus ministers aren’t also college essay resource people,” Killorin explains with a small chuckle, “I just love doing it.”
With English teachers often having 50 other students to attend to, Killorin puts it upon herself to be a reliable and personable mentor for college essays. She describes the process as“soul-sucking.”
“It’s a little heartbreaking to see them really see themselves as a product that they have to sell,” she laments.
Her best advice for navigating this tedious process? “Tell me a story. And it might even be something that you didn’t even think was a big deal. But when you tell it to me, I can see all these qualities of you in it.”
Though constructing the college essay is pressure inducing, it’s always worth it in the end when they prevail. “I love when the kid finally gets it,” she said, smiling, like she was replaying the memories in her head, “And you can see like, they’re so proud of it. That’s really addicting. How do you say no to that?”
Despite juggling a promotion as campus minister, and three kids, Killorin has found the patience and determination to write and direct an original one-act play called “Candles By The Sea,” which follows an old married couple as they grieve their son, a New York firefighter who perished during 9/11.
On the night of Killorin’s play, my mother and I arrived at BC High, lowering into the cushioned seats of the BC High auditorium. I flipped through the folded Playbill, apprehensive and excited at the same time. After some chatter, the lights began to dim and we were welcomed to the production.
When a character, Tom, asks the waiter if he’s going to light the candles, he responds, “No, they’ll just blow out anyway.”This on-stage conversation is a microcosm of the age old discussion on the shortness of life, how in moments of grief one can feel apprehensive to seek out light, because it may get torn away once more. Thankfully the ending of the play is one that radiates hope and light.
“I come out for that final scene, where there’s there’s still hope in the darkness. There’s light there,” Killorin recounts.
Her motivation for sharing the story largely stems from her admiration for Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York Fire Department and the first fatality from 9/11. His work resonated so much with her that she included him as a character. “I wanted it to sound like him. So a lot of his lines are actually his words.”
Killorin’s devotion to helping her students is tremendously admirable, as well as her insatiable desire to spew creativity whenever possible. Knowing that a mother of three small children not only acts as a campus minister and college essay advisor, but also writes and directs a 40 minute one-act play for fun, is enough to encourage any current procrastinator to get up and say “if she can do it, so can I.”
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When I arrived at Aceituna Grill in Kendall Square I felt comfortable because it was my own place of work. I started a job there last year, so I knew the people at the restaurant, and I felt like I was in my environment. The restaurant was mostly empty because the workers were preparing the food for lunch. I sat down with Sameer Malik, the co-owner of the restaurant, to discuss how he came to own it.
Malik was born in Lebanon. He had to leave his country when he was very young because of a civil war, so he came to the United States where he would have the opportunity to study and eventually get a degree. He had to apply for asylum to get a visa, and fortunately, he was granted it. He then studied business management at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and e-commerce at Boston University.
“Basically, [managing] all [of] life plus studies together was a bit hard at the beginning,” Malik said. “But after about a year, I got used to it and it became much easier.”
He is now the co-owner of Aceituna Grill, which serves Mediterranean food like falafel, hummus, shawarma and many kinds of salads. The service at Aceituna is really fast and people don’t wait as long for their food as a regular restaurant, which is great if people don’t have a lot of time to eat. The food is healthy and it is always fresh.
Before he started his business with his friend, he was working in corporate America. Malik ended up owning a restaurant after that friend approached him with the idea.  “I started the business because I liked to cook and my partner approached me with the idea to open are restaurant and I like the idea,”he said. “So we opened [in] 2004, August to be exact. Now, 15 years later, we have three restaurants.”
Malik’s day-to-day work includes delivering food to customers and other companies that want his food catered. He is also always around to help his employees if they are working.
Malik is unique for many reasons. As an immigrant escaping from war, he found many opportunities in the U.S. Many people have opportunities, but not all the people take advantage of them. I enjoyed talking to Malik because he has been my manager for a little while now.
Before asking him questions about his life, I hardly knew anything about him. Now, I can say that I know him pretty well. I believe that I will be more confident in the workplace since I have built a relationship with my manager, who happened to experience a very challenging life. I am inspired by Malik, and I’m proud to share his story.
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I was standing outside a public library looking around for Robin Hennessey. Suddenly, I received a phone call from her. I was about to answer when I heard someone call my name behind. It was her. We saw each other standing at different ends of the building. We shook hands, and with a smile, she said, “Hi Douglas, I’m Robin. How are you?” We headed inside the library and looked for a quiet place to talk.
Hennessey has been teaching for over 15 years. She currently works as a English as a second language teacher at Fenway High School. Before becoming a teacher, she received her bachelors from UMass Amherst, her masters from the University of Washington in Seattle and her doctorate from Boston College.
“I always wanted to be a teacher.” she said. “And after I had done that for about 18 years, I decided I wanted to start teaching ESL.”
Hennessey taught ESL to adults in Boston and Worcester before joining Fenway. She now teaches ESL levels two and three. The majority of students that she teaches are native Spanish speakers, which means that she spends a lot of time practicing her Spanish in order to communicate with students who are beginning with their long journey to learn English. “I use some Spanish, but I’m not fluent. But with the level twos, we would speak some Spanish and some English.”
Hennessey does more than just teach at Fenway. She often brings students to a small garden in front of the school so they can practice gardening while learning English.“I just feel like it’s probably a really long day when you’re learning another language, to just be practicing that language all day,” she said. “So I thought it might be good for them to have some other experiences as well.”
She sometimes takes students on other trips, such as visiting The Museum of Fine Arts. The purpose of this is to give students a different way of learning things. “I also use a lot of pictures and visuals to help communicate what I want them to understand,“ she said. Hennessey also finds time to take her students to the school library which is located on the second floor of the building.
Hennessey is kind to everyone, she keeps her classroom organized and is always willing to help.
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I met with Bonnie McBride at the Southwest Corridor Park by the Green Street station in Jamaica Plain. She dressed casually, but she still looked professional. At the park, we sat, and a brown puppy came by. McBride started playing with the dog by petting it and smiling.
McBride was born in Boston. She got her master’s in library information science at Simmons College. Currently she works at Fenway High School as a school librarian.
There are many different ways to describe the environment of the library on a busy day. Most of the time, McBride is obligated to close the library because of all of the work she does to provide students with what they need.
“I discovered that working with people is a lot more fun than working with papers,’’ she said. She probably learned the same amount during her first year as a librarian as she did at graduate school.
McBride is very open to others, and she’s always trying to get along with people. Being a public school librarian is not what people might expect. Sometimes people ask her what type of job she has, and she tells them she is a librarian at a school, and they get surprised by that.
A challenge she has faced—and is still facing is dealing with upset people and students—who are being too loud and not letting other students focus. When those students don’t let others focus she is forced to kick them out of the library. When it comes to this, she tries her best to help the other students no matter what.
“I want to work with people… and make this space available to everyone,” she said. “Students will come to the library for many different reasons.”
Even today, she always tries to make people feel comfortable with themselves, something that is not that common with other librarians. She is a special person because of how nice and friendly she is to others. McBride says her job is not as easy as just finding books, but is instead more managing student expectations. Whether it’s helping a particular student find a book that they find interesting (a murder mystery, a graphic novel or even manga), McBride makes it her priority to help others have a unique experience when visiting the library. “You’re actually working with people and talking and interacting with people all day long,” she said.
McBride is trying to make the library a place where students can feel comfortable with themselves and learn. At the moment, she is focusing on helping students with college applications. She provides them with many informational websites on all of the best colleges in the city of Boston. Just by doing this, it is easier for the rest of the students to do research on what college they’re interested in. She told me the mantra she lives by is "what do you want the library to do for you?"
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