Artistic moms have special bond with daughters

07:44 AM, May 12, 2013

Above, at right, Joan Kinsella, professional freelance cellist and coordinator of the Suzuki String Program and cello faculty member at Hochstein School of Music, and her daughters, Martine, 16, center, and Karenna, 11, left. (ANNETTE LEIN/staff photographer)/

Written By Leah Stacy

In their own words

Juliana Athayde
The concertmaster for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra says she started playing violin at 1 1/2 years old. Her mother also is a violinist and got her daughter a tiny violin after Athayde couldn’t keep her hands off her mother’s.
“One great thing that she passed on to me was my love for music. ... Some of my earliest memories are listening to her violin students perform works that I’ve learned now, and they always have a special place in my heart. ... We’ve just had a lot of fun on the musical journey. I think for me growing up as a student of music and becoming a professional, it’s been been really great to have her along as a support.”
Nancy Gong
War Bride, one of Gong’s creations, is inspired by her mother’s life in China and her journey to the United States. Gong, a glass artist, says she gets a lot of her inspiration from her mother, who was a sole proprietor who always was a tireless worker who always remained positive.
“My mother taught me a lot of the needle arts, and then I took a real special interest in it as a teenager. ... She taught me a lot of patience and integrity in the work that I did in the needle arts. And so when I started in glass, she really, really was very supportive of what I did.”
Laura Rebell-Gross
Rebell-Gross, co-founder and president of the Young Women’s College Prep Charter School, starts most days by talking with her mother on the telephone. When she went away to college, the two tried to find a way to keep connecting, one that continues today.
“I was thinking about how about 15 years ago, we started our own mother-daughter book club. We both love to read. We’ve always been avid, voracious readers ... She said, ‘I really miss you. What can we do together?’ I said, ‘How about a book club?’ ... One thing that my mom always told me growing up is that most people in this world hate Mondays. You have to find a way to look forward to what you do and to not hate Mondays.”

The family that plays together, stays together —or so the adage goes.

Nowhere is that more true than in the arts, where creative mothers and daughters who collaborate and share interests say they’re tightly knit, even through the stormy teenage years.

Video: How mom inspired me

And while these close relationships are certainly not true for every mother-daughter pair, mothers in the arts can understand the struggles of their artistic offspring when they choose painting over soccer, or when it comes time to move to a bigger city to pursue a career.

For this Mother’s Day, we sat down with some “right brainers” — grandmothers, mothers and daughters — to hear how their love of art is being passed on to future generations and how their mothers influenced them.

Sally and Sammi Cohen

Sammi Cohen made her stage debut before she was born.

When Sally Cohen was eight months pregnant, she was still performing in Downstairs Cabaret Theatre’s Nunsense. At the time, in 1988, the show was the longest-running production outside of New York City, and Cohen eventually earned her Actors’ Equity card as the understudy for three different roles.

As I got further along in my pregnancy, I kept padding my chest out, and I couldn’t believe no one noticed how huge I was,” she said.

Cohen, 60, met her husband, drummer David Cohen, while performing in different bands around Rochester. The duo formed the group Backseat Sally and released an album with Atlantic Records in 1982. After opening for The Kinks at the Rochester War Memorial and landing a video on MTV, they settled in Rochester to raise their daughter. Sally took a job as an on-air entertainment reporter and then opened her public relations firm PR4Arts, whose current clients include the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Airigami.

Sammi Cohen, now 24, remembers watching her mother perform and invest in the arts throughout the years, which she credits for her own blossoming career as an actress and singer.

As a role model, she’s shown that you forge your own way,” Sammi says. “Most people would be glad to do just one thing (she’s) done in her life. I just admire the way (she) has persevered and combined all the things she loves to make a living.”

The two share sparkling eyes — and a passion for their field.

Sammi holds a degree in speech and theater from Wagner College on Staten Island. She recently appeared in the Jewish Community Center CenterStage’s Handle with Care (she learned basic Hebrew for the leading role). One of her next appearances will be at the Rochester Fringe Festival in September, when she and her mother, for the second time, will co-produce a show. Sammi will play opposite Handle with Care co-star Richard Scooter Rosenthal in the rock musical Rooms.

Next year, she plans to move to New York City and pursue acting full time.

Moms have to teach some practicality, along with their passion. As a former “starving artist,” Sally is encouraging her daughter to save money for the move and cultivate additional skills, like Sammi’s fashion blog (

Watching (Sammi) find her path has been interesting, but watching her sometimes is hard, because I remember how much I went through,” Sally says. “I just have to let her do it.”

Joan Kinsella and Martine and Karenna Thomas

There aren’t many moms whose pastimes include cracking cello jokes with their pre-teen and teenage daughters.

Yet it happens between Joan Kinsella, professional freelance cellist and coordinator of the Suzuki String Program and cello faculty member at Hochstein School of Music, and her daughters, Martine, 16, and Karenna, 11.

The girls have each become accomplished musicians in their own right and are articulate beyond their years.

It’s special and kind of flattering (that they are musicians), but I’m particularly pleased that they do what they want to do,” says Kinsella.

She and her husband, local radio personality Michael Warren Thomas, never made it a rule to play an instrument.

But they have definitely grown up in an environment of music,” she says.

She attributes the girls’ early interest in music to her own career, which keeps her practicing for last-minute gigs at home. She often plays in the pit for local theaters that need a stand-in cellist and has had the opportunity to play for Broadway tours, Mannheim Steamroller and Josh Groban.

Martine, an international baccalaureate student at Wilson Magnet High School, was begging for a violin of her own by the age of 2, her mother says.

Honestly, I don’t remember why I wanted to play music initially,” Martine says. “And I knew if I was interested in something else, I could do that. I stuck with music because I enjoy it, but I’ve always felt free to explore other opportunities.”

After coming home from an accomplished music camp last summer, Martine, who had played violin for 13 years, decided to switch to the viola, something her parents and teachers supported. In March, just seven months into her viola career, she won the Ruth and Sidney Salzman Award for Strings at the Rochester Philharmonic League’s Young Artist Auditions. She also will spend part of her summer in Carnegie Hall’s inaugural National Youth Orchestra program.

Karenna, a student at Wilson Foundation Academy, is part of a four-piece cello rock band at Hochstein (inspired and coached by the drummer from Eastman’s Break of Reality). She also danced in Mercury Opera’s Falstaff in 2011.

Both girls also have taken dance at Garth Fagan’s studio.

I heard the cello when my mom would practice and perform, and I just loved the deep quality and I wanted to play,” Karenna said. “But I love the fact that I can do whatever I want. I think I want to be a doctor.”

Kinsella says the important thing for her and her husband is that the girls have an appreciation for the arts — and a tight-knit home life.

We’ve always empowered them to follow their interests,” she says. “It wouldn’t really matter whether it was soccer or robotics. We wanted to create inquisitiveness and a desire to learn in our girls. I’m happy they’re doing what they love.”

Yet that shared love of music allows for the close relationships. Most mothers and daughters aren’t even communicating during those years, let alone swapping inside jokes about cellos.

Denise Bartalo, Kristin Rapp and Shealyn Rapp

Kristin Rapp sat in Spot Coffee on East Avenue for about 10 minutes before she was approached by a group of teenage students. They sidled up to her shyly, one by one, with big smiles, and leaned in for hugs.

As they walked away, she said, “Those are some of the best dancers I ever worked with.”

Rapp, 44, knows the group from the nonprofit ArtPeace, which she founded with husband David in 2003. Rapp, 44, worked at St. Joseph’s Villa for eight years before founding the organization, which educates and employs young people through creative entrepreneurship and arts in technology.

When I was working in social work, I realized our interventions didn’t work so well,” she says. “I discovered creating a mural or video helped them focus on something other than their problems.”

The couple have since turned ArtPeace over to Young Audiences of Rochester, and they’re now working with Rochester Central Library to incorporate a local YOUMedia creative site for children ( Rapp also published a book, Keeping the Arts Alive, in 2011.

Growing up, Rapp attended countless plays, musicals and concerts in and beyond Dansville, where she grew up. Sometimes it was her folks, Don and Denise Bartalo, onstage.

I had always been in choir and chorus when I was younger, but I decided to audition for theater — the next year, I got a lead,” says Bartalo, a former elementary reading teacher who helped form the Genesee Ensemble Theater in Livingston County. “The arts have always been our avocation rather than our vocation, but it’s been a fabulous outlet.”

Bartalo, 69, played to packed audiences during the three-week run in March of August: Osage County at the Jewish Community Center. One of her favorite acting runs was in Out-of-Pocket Productions’ The Children’s Hour, when she shared the stage with her granddaughter (and Kristin’s daughter), Shealyn, 15.

The petite brunette teenager is a theater tech major at School of the Arts (her elementary education was through arts-integrated Genesee Community Charter School), and she loves to draw, style outfits and play the guitar.

The arts have always given me something to do,” she says. “If I’m bored, I’ll play the guitar or draw.”

Involvement in the arts connects the generations and helps to keep them close.