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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Artist Interview Series! Cynthia von Buhler

The second installment of our artist interview series begins with Cynthia von Buhler. We're always looking to share new talent so give us a shout!

Photo by Kamila Harris
Share a brief bio, where are you from and how you began in the visual and performance arts?
My parents were from the Bronx. They wanted to get out of New York City and take their children to safer place to grow up. I grew up with six siblings in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

We were an artistic family-- like the Von Trapps, but with art instead of music. I remember working on family art projects from the time I could hold a pencil. Once, we made a gigantic flying witch for a Halloween parade float. The witch head alone took up our whole basement. The wart on her nose was 3 feet tall. We had to make her in pieces with paper-mache and then attach her body parts together. A crane lifted her in the air for the parade! 

I attended theater camp every summer and we were constantly staging plays. Later, I joined my high school theater troupe. After college (I studied art in Boston and London) I began dancing for a performance art band called Sleep Chamber. That led to my own infamous performance art troupe, Women of Sodom. Our show always culminated with “The Doctor Song” and an enema. That project ended in 2000 and I have been creating short performance pieces ever since.

I have also been making art installations and immersive events for years.  When I lived in Boston I became known for my outlandish performances in clubs, disturbing installations in art galleries, and decadent parties in an old Victorian house named Castle von Buhler (I am named after this house). The whole second floor of the house was an art gallery. Each month one artist was given free rein to create an installation. The Whitney Museum sent a curator to check it out on more than one occasion.

I moved to NYC one month before the twin towers fell. It was a 4,500 square foot loft in the Meatpacking district. I hosted art openings and parties there. The rent was paid in collaboration between myself and an Italian curator named Stefania Carrozzini. We called it The Carrozzini von Buhler Gallery. Shoots for fashion, television, and film also helped out. 

In 2010, on my birthday, I staged an event called Freaks! It was held in a two-story 10,000 square foot Manhattan loft right next to the Empire State building.  There was a merry-go-round on the roof, contortionists, fire-eaters, and mermaids. I myself wore a swimable mermaid tail and greeted my guests from a water-filled clawfoot bathtub in the middle of a large all white room. This was right after the oil spill. I was surrounded by oil spill mermaids who hadn’t been cleaned off yet.

Some people say that immersive theater is a new thing. I disagree. I have been creating it my whole life.  Now it just has a name. 

Photo by Kate Black

Tell us about your work. What themes do you pursue? This past October we experienced the spectacular magic that is Speakeasy Dollhouse. Walk us through this charmed menagerie…. Themes in my work have changed over the years. For a long time I was obsessed with Renaissance art. Leonardo da Vinci did my family’s plumbing, after all (you need to read the Speakeasy Dollhouse book to find out more about that). Religion was a focus of mine for many years. I’m fascinated by religions although I don’t really have one to call my own. I’m agnostic. I believe it is the most open-minded religion. Atheists are as closed-minded as religious zealots. They believe 100% that there is nothing. I like to keep an open mind to all possibilities. . . although I do tend to marry atheists. Other themes I have explored include sex, circus, and animal rescue. I  also write and illustrate children’s books Books are another important mode of expression for me. 

Speakeasy Dollhouse is a book and immersive play about my grandfather’s murder. “My Italian immigrant grandparents, Frank and Mary Spano, owned two speakeasies in the Bronx during Prohibition: one that masqueraded as a bakery, the other a secret nightclub. Shortly after Prohibition ended, my grandfather was shot and killed on the street in Manhattan. My grandmother was pregnant with her mother at the time, and upon hearing the news of the murder she went into labor. My grandfather’s body was laid out in one room of their small Bronx apartment while her mother was born in the room next to it.

Photo by Margee Challa

Nobody still living in my family knows why my grandfather was shot. When I began my search, nothing was known about the killer, his motive, or a trial. My grandmother took these secrets to her grave. And so, over the past year, I have been dusting off a complicated tale of bootlegging, mafia, infidelity, and murder set in Prohibition-era New York City.

I was inspired by Frances Glessner Lee’s miniature crime scene sets. She established the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard in 1936. At that time, innumerable murders went unsolved because evidence was mishandled or downright ignored. To train investigators of sudden or violent deaths (like my grandfathers) and to better assess visual evidence, Lee created the Nutshell Studies: dollhouses that students could examine from every angle.  Inspired by Lee’s murder dioramas, I decided to create the scenes from my own family mystery using handmade sets and dolls. Utilizing evidence from autopsy reports, police records, court documents, and interviews, I built a dollhouse-sized speakeasy, a hospital room, a child’s bedroom, and a pre-war apartment. I also created lifelike dolls with moveable limbs to live in these sets.
But dolls don’t make their own decisions. By adding actual human recreations of the characters and placing them in an interactive theater setting, I am taking Lee’s method of dollhouse crime scene investigation one step further. The play stages these events in mobster Meyer Lansky’s former Lower East Side speakeasy. The location is elaborately set up to mirror the dollhouse sets from the book. I like to think of the speakeasy as my dollhouse and the actors as my dolls.”
Walk you through it? I’ll let my assistant Rachel Boyadjis-- or Dominick Spano, rather-- walk you through it. Rachel is also an actor, and plays my uncle as a young boy. 
Photo by Margee Challa
Dominick Spano: “My Pa owns the best speakeasies in the whole Bronx. He’s the biggest man around. Mister door man runs the club at night, but really my Pa runs it because he knows everybody and everybody knows him, and his place is better than stupid old Dutch’s place. Mister Dutch Schulz owns a place too, but it isn’t as good as my Pa’s place. And it doesn’t have the best cannolis in the city, either-- my Ma makes those. She makes the tea and soda pop too, but I help, I’m always helping and I’m getting better and better at it, really I am. I made the last batch of tea all by myself even, and Pa says it’s real good.
If you come by the club or the bakery you can try some tea or special coffee. In the bakery the nice lady sometimes gives me coffee if I ask real polite-like, and if that bad police man isn’t looking I can snatch some candy from the jars. Nobody but the mean old police man minds. Sometimes my Uncle Frankie is down there too, playin’ cards with the boys. But my Aunt Anna always beats the boys, and she leaves messy lipstick on Uncle Frankie’s cheek.
If you go up to the club you have to know the password to get in. Mister door man only lets me in without the password, because my Pa is important and that means I’m important too, because someday I’m gonna run the whole place myself, because I’m the biggest. If you get into the club, you can hear some real good music and meet some real nice people-- some bad people too, though. Sometimes big old mister Tammany Hall man is there, his name is Jimmy Hines. He comes with his friend with a real nice top hat, Hulon Capshaw. He talks to Jimmy Hines but Jimmy don’t say much because he’s just drinking and singing Irish songs. You can dance up there too, but be careful if you see those pretty ladies Mrs. Guerrieri and her friend Lena. . . they’re friendly, but Ma thinks they dance too much. She says they should go to church and ask the Lord to forgive them. My Ma prays to Mary, the Mother of God all the time. Ma might give you a special present if you’re nice to her.
Frankie Guerrieri goes to my school. We were friends before when he lived in the Bronx. Now I hate him. I’ll tell you why if you buy me a drink. I’m old enough, promise, I just don’t want to go and bother the bartender right now. . .
His Pa, Mr. Guerrieri, is one of those quiet types. He owns a barbershop and sometimes he cuts my Pa’s hair, but I don’t like him either. I think he’s got funny eyes and I don’t think he likes my Pa very much.
My Ma is pregnant with a little baby boy. I know it’s gonna be a boy because the Spanos are big and strong, and boys are big and strong. If you want, you can come see my house where my Ma and my Pa and me live, and where my little baby brother will be born.
But if you do come by (and you should, you’re such a good friend of the family and we haven’t seen you in such a long time!) you should keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what will happen around here, and I got something to tell my Ma that she isn’t gonna like very much. . .” 

Photo by Margee Challa
What are some of the greatest influences in your work? 
Life and death are probably my two biggest influences. I have been working on a series called “What I Am Now You Will One Day Be.”  Many years ago I visited Rome. I happened to end up in the basement of a church which was filled with the bones of thousands of monks formed into chandeliers, wall moldings, and arches. The moldings are human vertebrae pieced together. It’s gorgeous and haunting. You walk through a long hallway of this and at the very end there is a tiny plaque that reads, “What I am Now You Will One Day Be” in Italian. I have been making art around this idea ever since. This saying will be the epitaph on my grave. That way, my death itself will become and art installation.  I’m also going to be buried in the casket we are using in Speakeasy Dollhouse.

Do you find yourself more attracted to work that is not like your own, or work that has similarities to yours? This is a fascinating question. I enjoyed Sleep No More It reminded me of how I decorated the various homes I have lived in.  I feel very comfortable in the Sleep No More installation. I like to go there and just lay on a couch or bed. I’m attracted to it, but I want to create it myself. I think this is why I like throwing parties. I enjoy going to wonderful parties, but I prefer throwing them. I like to give people experiences, rather than receive them. 

For years I was making 3-D painting sculptures. I utilized drippy paint and aging techniques. The art looked very faded and decayed like the old master paintings before restoration. An artist friend of mine told me that my work reminded him of Ed Keinholz. I had never heard of him before so I checked it out. I loved it. In fact, Ed Keinholz’s piece, The Wait, at The Whitney Museum, houses a live bird. This inspired me to start using live birds in my own work.

My paintings are inspired by the Renaissance, but I prefer visiting modern art museums.  I find them more inspiring. It is hard to answer this question because when I see something inspiring that isn’t like my own work I tend to take elements from it and add thm to what I do. My answer to these two questions will have to be yes and yes.

What do you do for fun, other than your work of course?
I rescue and rehabilitate cats, dogs and wild animals. I help any animal in need that crosses my path.  It is the most important work I do.  I’m so busy doing it I haven’t had time to make a website yet. The children’s books I write and illustrate are always about animals. and

I also scout locations for film and television. I’m a bit of a house collector, dollhouse-size and life-size.

Upcoming performances?
Speakeasy Dollhouse:
Dates & Time: Speakeasy Dollhouse will be held on the first Monday of every month beginning in February 2012 from 7:30PM – 11PM
Mon Mar 5 - Luck  

Mon April 2- Faith
Mon May 7 - Beauty
Mon June 4 - Sex
Tickets: Call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or order online at

Upcoming Exhibit:
I’m also going to be exhibiting my dollhouse sets from all of my books at The Mark Twain Museum in Hartford, CT in the Fall.
For more about Speakeasy Dollhouse please visit
For more information about Cynthia’s art and books visit

Amit Gilberto 



  2. Wonderful story about one of my favorite living artists!