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Woog's World: Two decades later, Staples grad still follows own path

Published 8:05 am, Sunday, May 25, 2014

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  • Anya Liftig, a Staples High School graduate, in a 2012 performance she gave in Brooklyn, titled, "Butterface." Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News
    Anya Liftig, a Staples High School graduate, in a 2012 performance she gave in Brooklyn, titled, "Butterface." Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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I get press releases. Boy, do I get press releases.

Every day, people email me about coming events. Charity walks. Book signings. Every "thon" you can think of.

Most of them, I toss. "Woog's World" is a column about Westport. It's not a calendar, or a conduit for puff pieces.

So when I got Anya Liftig's PR request, I told her: "Sorry. I can't cover your upcoming solo, May 3-only show. For one thing, it's performance art. The audience for that is very small. Devoted, sure, but too many eyes would glaze over."

For another thing, it's in Brooklyn. With "beer lovingly provided by Brooklyn Brewery," it sounded a bit too hipsterish for Westport.

So Liftig's plea didn't make the cut. But I have always liked her. She blazed her own path during her Staples years (1991-95), and she's an exceptionally talented writer and dancer. I asked her for a better hook.

She came right back. With her 20th high school reunion looming, she wrote, "I remain steadfastly NOT a member of the hedge fund/fat 401(k)/McMansion/gilded toilet club." Perhaps, she added, she listened a bit too closely to teachers like Karl Decker, Peter Bennett and Dave LaPonsee -- educators who encouraged her, challenged her and let her know that choosing her own path was, indeed, a viable option.

So here is a column on Anya Liftig.

She entered Yale intending to major in political science. Ahead lay law school and a career in public service. But, Liftig says, "I took the liberal ats mission very seriously. I ended up questioning if that was what I really wanted to do." She graduated as an English major.

She wandered through Asia with a backpack, and worked on a farm. She came back, and worked as a paralegal for a white-shoe Wall Street firm. She helped set up offshore entities and made good money. Yet she thought all the lawyers with fabulous apartments were "bored out of their minds."

She quit and signed on with Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign. Liftig was a tracker, following Rudy Giuliani around with a camera. Clinton kept talking about the need for health care, but did not provide it to her own workers like Liftig.

Disillusioned, Liftig left politics. She studied with Norwalk photographer Joe DeRuvo. Her photos appeared in the New York Times Magazine.

She reconnected with her old high school boyfriend and moved to Georgia where he lived. A short time later, they broke up. She enrolled in Georgia State University's master's in fine arts program. She earned two degrees and became a conceptual performance artist.

Liftig moved back to New York. She knew if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. She's done other things -- tutoring, selling books on the street -- and she built out an art space (until her building was condemned, then turned into condos). She most definitely is NOT a hedge fund person.

"It's not a steady existence," she admits of her life. "But it is exciting."

Most people with her resume might scoff at Westport. How you gonna keep her down on the suburban lawn after she's seen Asia and Bushwick?

But Liftig looks back fondly on her experiences at Staples. Art teacher Jim Wheeler forced her to ask questions about what objects really mean. "A lot of what he was teaching is really semiotics," Liftig says. Wheeler helped her see that "the world is my lab."

U.S. history instructor Jack Culbert empowered her to question everything she'd already been taught. Those -- and others -- "introduced us to confusing, big ideas. They were passionate about teaching kids, and talking to us. I was attracted to their intelligence and rebellious spirit. They set the bar very high."

Now as an artist -- and even earlier, in politics -- Liftig says she never experienced the "cut-throat competitiveness" within and between her 10 or so close friends in elementary, middle and high school.

Those people -- and those she admires most -- have gone into fields like science research, academic law and journalism. They are not the most lucrative lines of work. But -- like Liftig -- her friends are happy.

"I do feel a bit envious of people who don't have to worry about things like where they're going to live," Liftig says. "But that kind of life comes with a lot of baggage."

Every year, Liftig performs in Europe. She dances, gives presentations and has gallery shows. Her work has been featured at the Tate Modern, in Berlin, Paris and Rome, and been written about in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Heeb.

Earlier this month -- as her press release noted -- Liftig was in Brooklyn. I did not preview that show.

But her back story is much more "Woog's World"-worthy, anyway.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.