Interview with Liz Beeby

Longtime Brooklyn resident and City Reliquary fan Liz Beeby has created a marvelous souvenir for us as part of our Museum Relief Fund Drive: the City Reliquary in a Nutshell! She recently spoke with us about that project, Cloud City, collecting, and looking to the future in an uncertain world.

Liz and her fake dead pigeon (of which more below)

How did you come to New York City?

I’m from California, from Sacramento, and then I lived in Berkeley and Oakland. And I loved California so much I thought I’d just move to New York for 2 years, just to appreciate California more. I thought the first year I’ll be too homesick so it won’t count, the second year I’ll get to have fun in New York, and then I’ll go back to California. But then it turned out New York is really fun, obviously, and it also turned that out I wasn’t homesick and I didn’t want to leave. November 2019 was my 15 years here, and I feel like I still want to go back to California but I don’t know when. So I guess it was sort of a whim that stuck.

And what kind of work do you do here?

I work for an agency that’s for medically fragile kids and their families, and so it’s kids who would have to live in the hospital if not for this Medicaid program that can get them nursing and equipment to live at home with their families. Which is a win-win for everyone because it’s cheaper for the state to give them Medicaid and have them live at home, and then most families want their kids at home too. I’m in charge of the babies and toddlers program, so it’s a lot of parents who are first bringing their kids home from the hospital and trying to figure out how to get everything in place so their kids can live home and be stable. I really like working with the families and feeling like I’m helping, or at least trying to. It’s nice to be able to tell them, “It’s going to be ok. It’s still going to be hard, but there are things that can make this a little easier.” 

When I moved here I knew I wanted to work with kids, and I looked on Craigslist and found this job, and I’ve had it for 15 years. It’s the only job I’ve ever had in New York!

Cloud City decorated as a funeral parlor for Dinette show

You’re also one of the co-founders of Cloud City. Can you tell me what that is?

It’s an arts and performance space, that’s the short answer. We just had our 7 year anniversary. Before this we ran a space called Dead Herring, which was on South 5th, and we had music shows there a couple times a month. Then we got priced out of that space, as is what happens. We were looking for something else and found this space, and thought maybe we could give it a try. At that point people who were here did more theater stuff, so we were doing more theater performances. And lately we’ve been doing nothing, obviously, but before that we had a lot of comedy shows. When people walk by it can be confusing because on the outside it doesn’t look like anything, and so people wonder, “What is this space?” But then when they come in I feel people are often like, “Oh, this is cool!” And I get such a thrill out of it, every time. 

And sometimes I feel like… how did I end up partially running a theater? That is not where I thought I would be in life. But I also think it’s really fun. I like having space where people can come in and do their stuff, and I really like working the door and getting to chat with people as they come in. And even when shows are exhausting, the people putting the shows on are usually really lovely, and it’s so… rewarding. I’m trying to think of a less cheesy word but I can’t. I also think it’s exciting seeing all the crazy things people do and how creative people are, and I feel honored to be in the periphery of that, even though I’m not a performer. 

I feel like it’s the thing I’m proudest of, that we started this and it still exists.

It’s an incredible achievement, especially since so many community spaces in Brooklyn are closing.

Yes, my old roommate organized a show RIP DIY. It was photos of bands playing in all the places that had closed, and looking at that was just like, oh my gosh, so many places have been shut down by the changing neighborhood. We still have on our wall the list of all the spaces in the show, and people always come and say, “Hey, you forgot about this place.” There are so many places that weren’t included and so many that have closed since then too. And so I do feel like we’re amazingly lucky to still be doing this.  

Where does the name Cloud City come from?

From Star Wars, it’s probably copyrighted. It’s Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, I think, I don’t even know if I’ve ever seen the whole movie. But Lando Calrissian has a city in the clouds called Cloud City. And when the people come to visit him and ask, “Aren’t you worried about the Empire finding you?” he says, “It looms like a shadow over everything we’ve built here.” That’s his quote. And when we were starting this space, that’s what one of us used to say every time someone would ask, “Aren’t you worried about this, or that?” He would say, “It looms like a shadow over everything we’ve built here.” So it’s a Star Wars reference. Which is how you name things, right?

Cloud City’s Back to the Future 2-inspired party

Of course! And apart from running an art and performance space, you’re an artist yourself, right?

Well, I wouldn’t really say I’m an artist. My friend teases me for not saying I’m an artist, but I feel like I’m a social worker, and I make stuff on the side. I like to make props and things for people’s performances or movies. So I’ve mostly made stuff for shows at Cloud City, or for my friends’ videos. We had a couple art shows here. One of them was an anti-Trump fundraiser… you know how in Back to the Future 2 when they go back to the bad 1985, Biff was based on Donald Trump? So I made a miniature Biff’s Pleasure Palace Tower. So I like making little things, and then big things too.

Can you talk through your process? How do you go about making things?

It’s harder for me to come up with an idea out of the blue, which I sort of think is why “artist” doesn’t seem to fit right for me. When we had art shows at Cloud City it was like here, make something for the show, and I had no idea what to do. But if someone says, “I need a dead pigeon,” then my mind can start working and my brain spins really fast, and I think, “OK, I can put this and this together, and I can do this.” I think that’s why I like making things for other people’s projects. It’s exciting to be like, “Oh, you need this weird thing, I could make that.”

Have you actually made a dead pigeon?

Yes! My friend was going to use it in a webseries, but then I don’t think they ended up using it after all. I tried to make it look like it had been hit by a car. It was a stuffed animal, filled with cotton fabric, and the woman I was making it for got me some feathers – although I did pick some feathers off the street too. It looked pretty realistic. After I finished I held it up and took pictures with it, and people walking by were really grossed out, so it was pretty good. And then I saw a real dead pigeon on the street and I thought oh, I could have just put that in the freezer and used that.

And now you’re making the City Reliquary in a Nutshell. How did you first find out about the museum? 

I think back when it was just a window at Havemeyer and Grand, just from walking past, it was such a cool thing to see in the neighborhood. And I have a lot of collections myself, I’ve inherited that from my dad. So I thought it was cool that someone used their ground floor window to show collections. 

I don’t remember when it moved to the actual museum, but that’s just always been my ideal dream place of history and collections of things and New York all in one place. And so when people visit I say that’s the number one place you have to go. You can go to the Met if you have time, but the City Reliquary is a very important stop to make. I love how it holds onto all these things that would get thrown away otherwise, like a brick from the sidewalk. I think it’s amazing that those things have been preserved and presented for people to see. My dad’s a geologist so all the geology core samples… that gets my heart right there. Like wow, core samples from Manhattan! That’s so cool!

Then there’s the way that the Reliquary engages in the community so much, like the Bike Fetish day where everyone brings their bikes and shows them off, and also the community collections, all the weird things, like argyle socks and dipsticks and things. I feel like so many places could start up a museum and people could go to look at stuff, but I don’t know that it would necessarily be so focused on that community engagement. So the fact that that’s always been such a forefront of the Reliquary is so cool. It’s my favorite place in New York, and one of my very favorite places in the world.

We’re so honored! Can you tell us about one of your own collections?

At the City Reliquary in the 1939 World’s Fair collection there’s that button that says, “I have seen the future.” You know what I’m talking about? The first time I went to the museum I saw that and thought, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, I want that so badly, how do I get one of those?” So I borrowed my friend’s button maker and made one, and then eventually realized that Ebay could help with that too. And that started a 1939 World’s Fair collection, because I think that fair is the best fair. Everyone was so optimistic and thought that technology was going to make everything better. They had so much hope for what the world of tomorrow would bring. It didn’t maybe work out the way they thought, but still that sense of, “everything gets better from here,” I love so much. 

And how does the City Reliquary in a Nutshell fit in to this?

When I was looking online for 1939 World’s Fair things, they have this World’s Fair in a nutshell, and there’s also one that’s New York City in a nutshell. And they have foldout pictures inside. I got the World’s Fair one first and then I got the New York City one, and I love them so much! And I thought that the City Reliquary has so many cool things, those could be in a nutshell too, that could be a good souvenir. And now I’m up to my ears in walnuts. I don’t even like walnuts!

For the people who get this nutshell, is there anything you’d want them to think about as they’re going through it? 

I guess I feel like… OK, so the people who bought them in 1939 probably had such a fun day at the fair and they wanted to remember everything about it. You could get a ton of souvenirs from that fair, but it’s such a small and compact way to get a bunch of pictures, and they must have enjoyed it so much. On the tags, you can see on the backs that they were for mailing. You could just put it in the mail and the nutshell would send, for 2 cents. So people had such a great time at the fair, and wanted to send not just a postcard to their friends but a weird nutshell, to share the world they’d just seen.

And so, I think about when you go to the City Reliquary and you’re trying to tell people how cool this museum is. They have an old shovel in there, they have geology core samples, they have water from the river – there are so many weird things that you wouldn’t think to see in a museum necessarily, but that you should see! Also the City Reliquary has so many things in there. Even when I was making the pictures I did a lot of culling so that it wouldn’t be too thick a strip to fit into the walnut shell. You go in there and you’re like, I saw so much cool stuff I don’t even remember what some of it was! So it’s a way of remembering what you saw and what the museum holds. Especially because some of it is from the rotating exhibits that aren’t there anymore. I tried to make it a sampling of all the historic and weird and small bits of life that are preserved there. It’s how one could remember a lovely day at the Reliquary.

Thank you so much, Liz!

For a limited time, City Reliquary in a Nutshell is available for purchase through the Museum Relief Fund Drive.

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