art gallery

Black Peter, Krampus and the Real Roots of St. Nick and Santa Claus

My interest in Saint Nicholas and his sidekick, Black Peter, began when I heard a party guest mention that there was an black element in the Dutch Christmas. Some accounts have Nick as Peter’s sidekick. Coincidentally, at the time, I was invited to the Netherlands to participate in a poetry conference. While there, I was able to witness the ceremony of St. Nicholas and Black Peter (aka Zwarte Piet) entering the Amsterdam port on a barge. They were accompanied by “Senoritas.” The presence of Senoritas suggested that Peter was of Spanish origin–perhaps a Moor who was introduced to the Netherlands when the Spanish occupied the Netherlands from 1556-1566.

When the party came ashore, the actor playing Saint Nick mounted a white horse and began a procession through the streets. Black Peter, a white actor in black face, rode along in a sports car. The children paid more attention to Pete than to Nick. One of the reasons was that it’s Pete’s job to distribute the gifts. At one time the bag containing the gifts supposedly held naughty children who were kidnapped and taken to Spain.

My curiosity about Saint Nicholas and his relationship led to two novels, “The Terrible Twos,” and “The Terrible Threes.” I’m currently working on “The Terrible Fours.”

“The Terrible Twos” was translated into Dutch by one of the leading Dutch poets, Hans Plomp. It received a rave in The New York Times by reviewer the late John Leonard, but was ignored in the United States, virtually. The Nation magazine said that it was proof that I was done as a novelist. But since I am considered a “cult” writer by some, maybe my cult has kept it in print since 1983.

My Christmas series was influenced by African American artists like Betye Saar and Joe Overstreet, who were transforming stereotypical images of blacks in popular culture. For example, Aunt Jemima, the smiling face on the pancake mix became armed. My Black Peter became a Rastafarian in “The Terrible Twos,” and a sort of recovery counselor in the “Threes.” My Saint Nicholas is a socialist in both books, but in the coming novel makes a deal with department store owners.

But just as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been toned down for popular consumption, the smiling rosy cheeked overweight white man in red suit is an American invention. Modifying Clement Moore’s rendition of a rotund Santa Claus, the great abolitionist illustrator Thomas Nast dressed him in a red suit for the 1863 Harper’s Weekly. This image covers up the real Nicholas who was a troublesome figure for the church because he is ubiquitous like Christ, and he could also be rowdy. In A.D.325, he slapped a man named Arius because he was upset with Arius’s claiming that Jesus was not God. Nick was arrested and thrown in jail, not exactly the kindly old gent upon whose lap parents aren’t afraid to place their children. Moreover,will these same parents leave cookies and milk out for Nick when they discover that he is the patron saint of prostitutes?

Nicholas has had an on again off again relationship with the Catholic Church. On February 14,1969, he was demoted by Pope Paul VI from the calendar of Saints.

So Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas and Black Peter are more complicated than how they are treated in the popular press.

Black Peter is controversial because the Dutch smear themselves with black face when performing that role. Still, Black Peter is one of the handful of positive traditional images of blacks in Europe. In the popular media in the United States, blacks are sometime portrayed as takers. Black Peter is a giver.

Now was Saint Nicholas white? A debate over the subject recently broke out on Fox News. Saint Nicholas was born in a part of the world that is now present day Turkey. Some say that he was Greek. Others say that we don’t know how he and his kinsmen looked.We’ll have to await the committee that decides such things for an answer. I imagine them to be blond and blue eyed. Maybe meeting in secret in Iceland. Inspecting a long waiting list of applicants and indignant about America’s slack compliance.

The advertising for an art show that I saw in front of a shop located on Ave. A in New York City indicates that the American Christmas is really going to get complicated. The ad carried a portrait of Krampus, Black Peter’s evil twin who goes around kidnapping European women and children.While my partner, Carla Blank, and I headed for the theater, where she was assisting director Rome Neal in the production of my new play,”The Final Version,” I paused and snapped a photo of it.

I also noticed some kids dressed as Santa migrating from bar to bar as part of something called SantaCon 2013, an annual pub crawl in which people dress up like Santa and other holiday characters.

SantaCon has occurred for years, but after a few particularly rowdy installments, the event has gotten some in the city in a tizzy. Many New Yorkers this year expressed concerns about the level of business at SantaCon, which reportedly draws 30,000 people to New York and has been known to feature Santas puking, shouting and urinating publicly all over town.

SantaCon evokes the image of the 19th Century Xmas as portrayed in an account on with “raucous, drunken mobs roaming the streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes.” With millions of people out of work, what will future Christmases look like, now that Krampus is back?




New York, October 1, 2013—Art photographer Eugene Hyon and Spanish multimedia artist Prof. Pilar Viviente will exhibit paintings, digital color photographs for one week at Steve Cannon’s Art Gallery. Location/Date/Time:  A Gathering of the Tribes, 285 East 3rd Street, 2nd floor, between Avenues C & D.  The art will be exhibited from Saturday, February 8 until Saturday, February 15, 2014, during the gallery hours of 12:00 Noon—8:00PM, and can be viewed by individual appointment only.  Call Steve Cannon at:  1.212.674.8262.

Evening Reception Party with friends of Tribespoets Howard Pflanzer, Erika Joyce, Helen Peterson, and jazz pianist Richard Clementswill be held on February 8, from 6:00PM to 10:00PM.

Combined Symbiotic Themes Through Contrasting Styles

Eugene Hyon’s urban landscape photography exhibits how humanity and the urban environment forms an organic balance through a lyrically poetic and painterly photographic lens that observes those features that make buildings part of an urban landscape, which on the surface is man-made, yet is made physically natural and spiritually alive in its use and occupation by people. What is uplifting occurs simply and as a result of patient witness in which that kernel of hope ultimately shines through. Soulfulness is that crucial element that prevents his photography from becoming lost in the noise of the temporary and trivial.

Prof. Pilar Viviente’s abstract multimedia art has a vivacious and fresh style that expresses the increasingly relevant theme of interdependence between NATURE and CULTURE.  Save NATURE is linked to saving CULTURE, that humans need a sense of proportion or balance in their urban environment in order to function while moving in and around the buildings they create.  People associate books, city life and culture as specific representations of New York City.  Save CULTURE is about books, about city urban planning, how we build and how we preserve green spaces, in other words, how we save NATURE.  No more NATURE versus CULTURE, but a symbiotic NATURE and CULTURE relationship. In saving NATURE, we save CULTURE too, which ultimately makes the urban environment a fulfilling and healthy place to live.

The Art Gallery at A Gathering of the Tribes was chosen for its strong sense of history, artistic neighborhood atmosphere and relevance to the exhibit’s photographic subject matter.  The well-known Tribes on the Lower East Side was founded by Steve Cannon, author, esteemed mentor of emerging contemporary artists, and long-time iconic figure of the Lower East Side art scene.

Artist Contact Information:

Eugene Hyon 1 646 388 2962 (Mobile) E-mail address: eugenehyon (Skype);

Prof. Pilar Viviente (PhD of Fine Arts) + 34 607 11 24 70 (Mobile) E-mail addresses: & viviente1 (Skype);


The Sixties on the Lower East Side by Steve Cannon

The Sixties on the Lower East Side by Steve Cannnon How do I start? I arrived on the Lower East Side in 1962, directly from London. First, I lived on East 10th street for a minute, then 100th street and Broadway for two minutes, then on Clinton and East Houston for about ten minutes before we got evicted

It was on Clinton street that we had the first downtown art party of any notoriety on the Lower East Side, with more than 200 outpatients from Bellevue Clinic’s Mental Hospital in attendance. Everyone was crazy and paranoid all at the same time and kept seeing things that weren’t there and talking about things that didn’t exist; flying saucers, and shit. Word has it that Mort Sahl put in an appearance.

As previously mentioned, we got evicted and I moved to the streets and Washington Square. It was there I met Bruce Brown and my first wife who had just gotten out of a New Orleans jail. It was August and she had a full scholarship to Cornell University, so we hitchhiked up to Ithaca. She got thrown out of Cornell when they found out she’d been in Jail in New Orleans, so we hitchhiked to Boston by way of North Adams. But we got busted in North Adams for vagrancy and hitchhiking, in other words, for being broke. I didn’t know there was a law against being broke in America. My being black and her being white didn’t help, either. Everyone seemed to think that I was her pimp. They gave her ten days in jail, and I got fifteen. They were trying to separate us.

We reunited in Cambridge Massachusetts near Kendall Square and got a small apartment.  I got a job working for a shoe distributor and she worked for a temp agency doing secretarial work. The landlady found out we were a mixed race married couple because of other tenants complaining, so she kicked us out. She insisted she didn’t want to do it, but the other tenants couldn’t handle it. Yeah, yeah.  Lucky for us we found another apartment on Symphony Road, behind Symphony Hall, in the heart of Boston Bohemia.  There, we found people of our own ilk; painters, writers, musicians, etc. who loved nothing more than sleeping around and talking about politics and art.

I spent most of my time working for the shoe distributor and writing at night and catching up with my reading. I was big on Kafka at that time.  It was there I first heard Timothy Leary on the radio talking about LSD, and notions of “tune in, turn on, drop out.” A year later he was a big name all over the country. At that time both Carl Yung and Sigmund Freud were names to know, aside from Karl Marx of course, especially in the Lower East Side. In Boston, my wife, Kathy, continued with the secretarial work at the temp agency.  We spent the rest of our time reading, discussing philosophy and events or spending quality time at the local bars where oodles of artists hung out.  After a year of that mess, and deciding Boston was too uptight everywhere except our neighborhood, we moved back to New York City.

Since we were homeless, we moved in with Bruce Brown on Waverly place. We shared a one bedroom apartment with him and five other guys, sleeping, for the most part in his bed, while the others, who were living off of gobs of hallucinogenic mushrooms, slept on the floor. We finally found our own place in the Lower East side. It was then and there that shit started happening.

People were smoking reefer and dropping acid as if it was legal. Everyone stayed up all night listening to loud jazz and folk music, arguing about the crisis with JFK at the helm, and after his assassination, arguing about LBJ and the war in Vietnam. As the saying went, “LBJ, how many Gooks did you kill today?” Those were our marching tunes.  As the civil rights movement crept north, the debate became over who was baddest; Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

All throughout the Sixties there seemed to be riots, rallies and ongoing heavy political debates everywhere you went, but especially on the downtown scene. Most of the folks were definitely on the left, save for the Ukranians, Puerto Ricans, and blacks who were more indigenous to the neighborhood. The artists were all leftists, and the anarchists hadn’t moved in yet. But most all the artists were died-in- the-wool Marxists when I got down here. As Pedro Pietrie would say, “Free grass for the working class.”

We were poor, but didn’t know it. That’s because the rent was so low, you could get an entire apartment for $40 a month. We thought anything over $85 was super expensive. People only worked about three days a week and after in addition to rent and utilities, we still had enough left over to go out eating and hang out in bars and create whatever we wanted. In those days, in this neighborhood, everything was cheap; movies, bars, food, coffee, etc.

The beautiful thing about the downtown scene is no one cared who was sleeping with whom, what your sexual preference was, what you ethnicity was… it really didn’t matter. We thought of ourselves as one big family of more than five-hundred people; artists, painters, dancers musicians, we were all together, along with the political types. But then again, we are all political types. Every artist was as political as most who called themselves activists, and we all knew each other.

For the most part, in the early Sixties, everyone hung out at Stanley’s on Avenue B. and 12th Street. If you stayed there long enough on any given day or night, you would run into everyone you knew. On weekends, you couldn’t get into the place, it would be so crowded. After Kennedy was assassinated, I moved to 10th and B. LBJ became president. Another bar opened up known as the Annex, which was an extension of the Ninth Circle on the West Side. It was there that most of the college types hung out, along with recent graduates and a few old timers. It was on East 3rd Street between B.  and C. where we would go to dance at The Old Reliable. Across the street was Slugs, where we could hear all the Jazz there was to hear; local musicians as well as big names.  For poetry there was La Dome Go, or ‘Two Cigarette Butts,’  a name they took from a café in Paris which was named by Baudelaire. The New York version was located on the south side of East 7th Street between A. and B. The other spot was La Metro, on 2nd Avenue between 9th and 10th on the west side.  It was later, around ’65 or ’66 that they started having readings at Saint Mark’s Church, in the community room in the back.

For art, there were only a handful of galleries in the area; three or four at the most. The movie house on Avenue B.  between 9th and 10th would show art in their lobby on the second floor, as well

That was the whole scene and those are the places we would frequent. Aside from that, we were always running in and out of each other’s apartments, sleeping with each other, eating together, and so on.

Every now and then, people’s apartments would be broken into. But all they would take would be the stereo set or the T.V. and whatever chump change they would happen to find. Every now and then you would hear about someone being mugged on the street, but that didn’t happen often.

Keep in mind, this was a low-income, low-rent neighborhood, like Brownsville and East New York are today, with lots of folks who had nothing, crawling around the neighborhood, along with us artists who had less than nothing. In spite of our fistfights and arguments, we went along to get along. But now all the gentrifyers are here and no one talks to each other. And now that cell phones and smart phones and the internet are here, that profound sense of community seems to be slowly disappearing, ever so gradually. Pinchon called the yuppies “Yups” in his new novel. For the most part, the young folk’s scene is moving to Bushwick and elsewhere in Brooklyn. But that’s in trouble too, and god knows how long that’s going to last. Like the galleries moving from Soho to Chelsea, we don’t know how long that’s going last, either.  When we were here, we had more than enough time and leisure to give minimum time to doing grunt work, and maximum time to creativity and politics. That is what made New York City the spot and even what made it the destination it is now. The yuppies moving in today don’t seem to care about anything like that, and they are pushing out the young artists who would rather “Tune in, turn on, and drop out,” because today it seems like everyone in New York City is supposed to buy in. But as an artists who was here at the beginning and who knows what has made this city great, I’m not buying it. I would love to see how the new generation of yuppie youth would fair at that original party full of artists and outpatients from Bellevue Mental Health Clinic that we threw in ’62. Maybe that would make them  drop their cell phones and start talking to one another. Or maybe they would just  take a video and post it to Facebook for the NSA to file away. Who knows?

-Steve Cannon October 2013

Edited by Chavisa Woods