Broadway is the main drag in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, a smallish upstate city with a distinctly urban feel and an appealing quirkiness that defines so many downtown districts coming into their own after a period of modern-day decline. A city with so much going for it—named for the mineral water that flows beneath it, possessing bragging rights to a Thoroughbred racing legacy reaching back to the Civil War, to say nothing of its art and culture (it’s been New York City Ballet’s summer home for decades)—can surely survive any old decline short of a post-apocalyptic zombie invasion.
And so it seems she will. The historic Adelphi Hotel built on Broadway in 1877 is slated to reopen this summer after a long renovation. Give me any structure with a past worth revisiting and I’m in—I’ll probably never patronize the Adelphi except perhaps for a cocktail sometime or other. But now I own a little piece of it.
Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I spent a pleasant while in a nondescript Clifton Park, NY warehouse fingering the remnants of the historic Adelphi at the everything’s-gotta-go tag sale. The first sale was some five years ago, when the hotel’s new investors bought the crumbling grand dame, “the last surviving hotel from the 19th century,” goes the Wiki entry. We suspect these were the leftovers siphoned off in a single lot to an estate liquidator, the picked-over artifacts after the ‘good’ stuff was gone. We were hopeful but realistic.
What we found after browsing the mostly boring modern commercial kitchenware was no less than magical, a treasure trove of artwork with stories to tell. Some of it surely hung on the walls in the Adelphi’s common areas, some probably in the guest rooms. Most of it was in bad shape, every stitch of it spoke to me through broken glass and dismembered picture frames. I can only guess what must have gone before it, but these tattered scraps held so much appeal.
That last one followed me home—how could I say no? It will need some revitalization and shall have it in due course. I wanted the one above it, too, but together the two of them exceeded my paltry, self-imposed budget. Plus, I had to have a little Blue Willow. A woman behind me asked why I was not getting both pictures and I said I was finished, but went on to explain to her how the image perfectly captured the provenance of the movement that still defines classical ballet today. She bought the picture for herself. And HCB found himself salt and pepper shakers to add to his burgeoning collection.
Catchy, isn’t it? I can claim it only partly. Came to me in the car, where all profound thoughts outside the shower do, while I listened to the inimitable Meryl Streep discuss her portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie named the same. Jenkins was a real-life character, a New York heiress notorious for her pronounced ineptitude as a singer but shameless resolve to sing nonetheless. (No one, before or since, wrote one historian, has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.) I can’t quote Ms. Streep directly, but she did mention the word “consolation” in reference to art and its effect on us as a species, whatever talents and gifts may elude us. She’s spot on about that: when the world comes crashing down around you, there is art to pull you from the rubble, a joyous ray of hope fighting its way through the plumes of dust.
If you were a liberal arts major in college chances are excellent you took at least one survey course in anthropology, where you learned about the emergence of art on the timeline of humanity. But for those who did not, who among you has never seen cave paintings like the ones discovered in 1940 at Lascaux? They’re estimated to be as old as 17,000 years, which in the grand scheme of things is not old at all; earlier examples have been discovered elsewhere. Nor have they escaped Disney’s pop culture canvas, as any self-respecting five-year-old can tell you.
But when you were sitting in that survey course you probably also learned that art came later, after the rather more pressing business of survival. Art, our professors opined, was what separated civilized societies from the rest, societies who’d figured out how to grow things to eat, and then store food for later. Art was a glowing beacon that announced, We have time on our hands—looky what we can do while the rest of you are out there driving bison herds off cliffs.
And that is precisely why losing the great art and architecture of the world to natural and unnatural forces alike is so tragic. And why leaders who champion the arts tend to govern great societies who collectively hold the arts in high esteem. And why steeping our children in the arts is so important, and why singing or dancing or painting or playing an instrument, even badly, is so utterly worthwhile.
Art holds sway over us all, whether or not we recognize its power (so much power it inspires love on one end of the continuum, and despicable acts of intolerance on the other, to say nothing of garden-variety controversy between those two extremes). It does not matter where or how you found art, whether it defined your life from the get-go, or you stumbled across it later on. It only matters that you found this beautiful thing for which climbing down from the trees was worth risking our necks: it elevates us as a species. No time like the present to elevate ourselves—in the end, art may be more than our consolation prize—art, the arts, may finally be our salvation.
Yesterday I had the 23-y-o all to myself for several indulgent hours while Handsome Chef Boyfriend played golf, something he does exceedingly well but has far too little time to do. And wouldn’t you know the instant my son and I pulled out of the golf course we met a jeep in traffic whose driver spotted our plates, said he was from Rutland, and wondered where in Vermont we were from. Betcha we found the only Vermonter in all of Wilmington. What were the odds?
Then last night the three of us struck out for The Pilot House, a celebrated restaurant in a historic downtown structure. Sadly, we could not celebrate the pricey, pedestrian food and lackluster service that eclipsed the charm of the place, but still enjoyed our nighttime walk afterwards in downtown Wilmington.
Today our city touring continued after a brief howdy and bakery dropoff for my colleagues at the Wilmington offices of one EightOhTwo Digital Marketing (NineOneOh Digital Marketing here, say the snazzy new coffee mugs), my employer back home in Vermont. We had late lunch at a downtown dive called The Dixie Grill, less expensive by a mile and far superior to our dinner last night. We walked and walked and my lens found no shortage of the vernacular historic architecture I love so much. I need several more weeks on the ground here.
Nightlife thrives in downtown Wilmington, the city’s main thoroughfares teeming with just about any kind of watering hole a person could want, live music and canned spilling out onto sidewalks everywhere you walk, sometimes on the sidewalks themselves—even on a Wednesday night. I could tell the young man with us was coveting a little social action he is not likely to get in the company of HCB and his mama. (Not to worry, we’re headed to this spot tomorrow night.) Wilmington is quirky, interesting; the city possesses much beauty, some of it shiny and new, some gritty and ancient, with a healthy dose of kitsch thrown in for good measure. The people in Wilmington seem friendly and pleasant, the economy strong: her vitals appear healthy.
We also toured the battleship USS North Carolina today, a long and physical foray into American history that tired us out thoroughly and impressed us profoundly. It deserves its own post, as soon as I have a while to parse through and edit the scores of pictures I shot. For now, I give you eine kleine nighttime, and some daytime too, in downtown Wilmington, NC.
Really I have so little to complain about: Handsome Chef Boyfriend did the lion’s share of driving today, from the moment we pulled off our mountain all the way to somewhere-or-other just past Fredericksburg, VA, where we missed our intended exit. A few truths from the day:
Three in the morning is a difficult time to strike out on a journey: the brain is slow, the limbs and extremities unresponsive. It took me five tries to buckle on my sandals before we walked out the door.
Dodging wildlife in the pre-dawn hours gives you white knuckles even when you are the passenger.
People who get anywhere within, I don’t know, about 100 miles of New York City, are just plain crazy behind the wheel, ditto the people on either side of our nation’s capital.
Chefs get grumpy in fast-moving bumper-to-bumper traffic, worse when it slows to a halt, and so do their girlfriends.
The New Jersey Turnpike is an abomination.
More than thirty bucks in tolls? Seriously?
It’s all good, as they say, because at the end of a tiring travel day your plain vanilla hotel room looks pretty dang inviting. And even corporate chain food is appetizing, an exponential improvement over what you stood in a long line for at a Turnpike service center much earlier, and later at a gas station.
In the morning we head still deeper into the American South, destination Charleston, SC. ‘Til soon, rested and restored.
The concept of the general store revealed itself to me the instant I had boots on the ground in my new home state of Vermont. Most small farming communities here have one (and so that would be most of Vermont, which is largely made of small farming communities). But their store offerings vary widely, to say nothing of what you can expect to pay for the stuff on the shelves. The most “complete” general store I ever patronized was Coburn’s, just over the mountain from my erstwhile home in Sharon, Vermont, on Route 132 in the small town of South Strafford.
Coburn’s is one-stop shopping in a vernacular white clapboard building like so many others that dot the landscape in these parts—you can find a decent selection of reasonably priced groceries there, dairy and not-bad-looking produce, and sliced deli meat at the counter in the back. You’ll also find a respectable bottle of Argentinian Malbec, sturdy work gloves, fire starter logs (important for a Southern girl whose fire building skills are wanting), a small newsstand, full-service post office and bank, and two gas pumps out front. Really, what more could anybody need, except possibly longer store hours?
Other communities are not so fortunate. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had a long-running joke about one general store in particular where we occasionally stopped for gas but avoided the inside of the store like plague because of its rotting produce, overpriced groceries, surly counter help, and general filth. If one of us had to dash inside for something, the other would ask, Need a box of seven-dollar Triscuits? Those folks are doing the locals a disservice and getting away with it because they’re the only game in town.
The best of these small businesses, if they are not running a smooth operation like Coburn’s, have evolved into a modern iteration of themselves, changing with the times if you will. Five Corners is one of them, not too far down the road in the Massachusetts Berskhires, at a busy Williamstown intersection. We had a couple of primo sandwiches there yesterday on our way to Pittsfield erranding. (And you can’t beat the beauty of the Berkshires on a gorgeous summer day.)
To be fair, this exquisite little place is no longer a general store in the true sense of the term. It’s got pricey, gifty stuff, and coolers stocked with high-end charcuterie and cheeses, but you can also grab a half-gallon of milk and a few other necessaries in a pinch. There’s a long, rustic table in the center of the main space where folks plunk down on a wide bench with their laptops and cuppa Joe (which is also top-shelf brew). The sandwiches are interesting (not your average ham and cheese) and the pastry is to die for.
I’m okay with this version of the general store—there’s no filth in sight, not a single head of expensive rusty iceberg, it’s a creative use of the space, and the building itself has been artfully preserved—it’s better than an empty, derelict building by a long shot, and there are plenty of those around here. You might not see farmers hanging out here, and you shouldn’t expect to buy groceries at this place between city trips to the supermarket. But there is still local community building going on.
It’s high summer here with the faintest hint of fall in the air, and the produce is exceptional. Which brings me to the Vermont farm stand, another venerable institution, not to be confused with the farmer’s market, which is also seen in abundance in New England communities. But the farm stand as it exists in these parts is new to me—what I know as a farm stand from my life in Tennessee is typically a roadside lean-to (or even the bed of a pickup) purveying a single item, or a couple, from a local farm. You can get incredible seasonal produce if you’re lucky enough to stumble on one of these at just the right moment.
What I’ve noticed in these parts is a bit more evolved, although the simple roadside farm stand lives here, too. But with the growing season as short as it is, the big, established farms set up seasonal retail shops in respectable quarters with regular hours. Clear Brook Farm is happily about halfway between home and work, a sizeable operation that offers local meat and dairy, lush produce, but also bedding plants, flowers, and landscaping supplies. Their stuff is at its peak about now; some time in late October or thereabouts they’ll close up shop ’til next spring.
I hate New England winters. There, I said it. Springtime in New England is not the prize, as some have suggested (they have not seen springtime in East Tennessee). This moment in late August—this moment is the prize. The impossibly rocky soil here produces a surprisingly robust and gorgeous summertime yield; it is ephemeral.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may (or hibiscus, if you prefer) and get thee to a local farm stand.
Yesterday perfectly illustrated what people must mean when they say there’s a “damp chill” in the air—July in Vermont can feel distinctly like October elsewhere, when rain has elbowed its way in and made itself at home right on top of you for a few days. (Shorts? What was I thinking—hand me my sweater.)
It was not that way at all on a June morning in 1922 when Robert Frost tiptoed downstairs in his Vermont cottage so as not to disturb his sleeping family, sat at the dining table and whipped out Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening—very quickly by his own account, nor was there much fiddling with it before it was done, so he said. He’d meant to work on something bigger when this small poem whose meaning would torment students and scholars alike for most of a century spilled out of his pen instead. He would go on to insist there was no metaphor for death in the poem, as so many believed, at least that was not his conscious intent.
Frost’s Vermont cottage sits almost in the middle of Route 7A in Shaftsbury, undoubtedly less pinched before the highway was widened; now it’s a house museum with seasonal hours. I pass it twice daily most days. Every single time it calls out, hey, why in the world have you not stopped by these here woods? Yesterday was the day.
Poetry eludes me, mostly. In college I feigned interest while professors opined about a couplet, but took copious notes, tried hard, and still missed the point. And when the question was finally put to us, What is the poet saying here? hands shooting up all around the room, I sunk lower in my desk thinking, I got nothing—pretty words, though.
So I am deficient in this awful way, a romantic’s nightmare. But I grew to love two poems Frost wrote—Stopping by Woods after I became a parent and obtained a beautifully illustrated copy meant for children and which I read many, many times to my child when he was young. And After Apple-Picking, for its association with a beloved high school English teacher who so beautifully explained the word hoary, and whose reading of the poem made me want to drop what I was doing and go to New England.
So at long last I’ve arrived here, decades hence, and finally visited Robert Frost’s house in the ‘hood. The thrill in it for me was less about the poet and more about the house itself: I’ll always be a student of historic structures, and the opportunity to get right up next to one and photograph it is nothing less than delectable.
As measured even by forgiving standards, the museum itself is a disappointment. Photography inside is forbidden (I would love to record some of the very early building details that remain), and only the first floor is on exhibit. But the house has undergone so many modifications in its 257 years it’s hard to see it as it once must have been, to say nothing of how it looked when the Frost family lived there (only a few pieces of furniture remain). The self-guided brochure promises “the exhibits will make you feel as if you met Frost.”
They do not. What you get instead is a boatload of memorabilia, news stories, photographs, and some bizarre old-style museum wall displays meant to encapsulate a moment in the writer’s life. In fairness, there is a lovely hallway homage to J. J. Lankes, whose familiar woodcut illustrations appear in two volumes of Frost poetry. Elsewhere there are copious missed opportunities. It’s waiting for a visionary with deep pockets, I think, to do it justice. But ‘til then it’s a fitting way to spend a rainy hour.
After Apple-Picking, by Robert Frost
My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
How often does the opportunity arise to combine three cherished interests—in my case ballet, architecture, and cuisine—in a single weekend? Almost never, but I just pulled it off. Add to this the intoxicating joy of unfettered time with Handsome Chef Boyfriend and a happy reunion with one Gwynn Root at the end of her second of three performances dancing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet Providence, (and after too, too long without seeing this beautiful young dancer, the progeny of a pair of amazing artists). We also finally got to meet her very handsome and talented boyfriend Trevor-the-jazz-guitarist from Atlanta.
Gwynn described her post-performance face as too “Kardashian” for her own tastes, which made me giggle; nobody expects a clean-scrubbed and dewey post-performance face at that late hour. With or without stage makeup this young woman is stunning, inside and out. It feels so unfair to have only an hour or two for cramming in several years’-worth of important catchup conversation before everybody turns into a pumpkin; it is assuredly better than no time at all.
It’s been an enriching weekend bumper to bumper. Spring has arrived with more intent in southern New England than it has here in Vermont. Yesterday was stunning, and I still find it incredible that I can photograph things with any acuity at all inside a moving car, but it’s possible: I grabbed a couple of respectable images during our longish, traffic-delayed pass through Worcester, Mass.
We stayed at a place in Warwick just outside Providence called NYLO: edgy, almost brually modern accomodations in a repurposed factory. It gets high marks for inventive use of space and clever interior design, slightly lower marks for missing a few important details. The building alone was enough to make me happy, but the ruins next to it are delicious: I don’t know the back story but sure as heck hope it has a happy ending.
Years ago—before child rearing emerged as my full-time occupation—I was headed down a different path in historic preservation. It did not happen, but my passion for architecture (including vernacular and even derelict architecture) has never waned. NYLO got it right; props to a place whose lobby felt more like a book store and where not a single square foot of interior space was wasted. Thoughtful design is a thing of beauty.
Festival Ballet Providence put its own spin on Swan Lake to make it manageable for a contemporary audience. It was still long, and my favorite part of the score in Act IV was missing. Festival is a small company but managed to make itself look big onstage, no small feat. Handsome Chef Boyfriend this morning had a suggestion for the bigger ballet world when it comes to full-length corps de ballet work where all the dancers look exactly the same (as they should because they are, well, the corps): put numbers on their tutus, he says, like hockey players have on their jerseys, so you can tell who’s who.
This idea probably won’t fly, although I once suggested commercial endorsements on tutus to create cash flow the same way they do for NASCAR racers. Lookalike ballerinas notwithstanding, HCB enjoyed going to the ballet. Theatres are magical, as I have said before; construction for this particular venue—the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence—began in the late 1920s but was delayed by the Great Depression and finally completed in 1950. I had only my cell phone for the few photos I made, but still love that it found the sunlight falling across the proscenium as ballet patrons filed in ahead of the performance.
We finished our weekend in Providence this morning with breakfast at a place recommended by a local; we found it worth the half-hour wait. HCB analyzed every crumb of it as he is wont to do when we eat out. The kitchen was in full view of the patrons (for HCB this is tantamount to eating dessert first). I had my Nikon out for these and loved capturing the movement that is part and parcel of a very busy commercial kitchen.
We’ll be back, Providence. (Just as soon as we can get our pants snapped again.)
Robbins was more immediately successful than Balanchine, but the two together…when I think that we had them both! What a combination! We were incredibly lucky.
In fall of 1969 Memphis Ballet School and its company had not long occupied the second floor of a mainly spent Depression-era building at the at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street; before that a fire had destroyed the company’s home and in the interim classes and rehearsals were held in the National Guard Armory; my family had only just moved to Memphis from Knoxville. The Armory was where I had my first pre-ballet classes at age five, but what I recall most about that time were long hours sprawled in a corner with my books and crayons waiting for mom’s classes and rehearsals to end.
I started ballet classes in earnest when I was seven or eight at the school on Summer Avenue. You could blast through the street level door of that ramshackle building and explode noisily up the dark, narrow stairwell without disturbing a soul. The sound of live piano accompaniment spilling from two separate ballet studios collided in a familiar dissonance and met you at the top, along with the air, fragrant with sweat and rosin and the smell of old building. Patches of duct tape fought hard to push back the innards of orange vinyl sofas in the hallway, worn out furniture of unknown provenance.
There was a proper office to the right where a receptionist sat at an old desk whacking out correspondence on a loud typewriter. To the left a hallway led you to changing rooms and toilets around a corner, and finally to an antiquated Coke machine where you could drop a quarter in the slot and open a skinny door to wrestle out a Coke or a Tab, or an Orange or Grape Nehi; sometimes you had to put up a fight ’til it surrendered your drink, else trudge back down the hall to the receptionist to report your lost change. I chipped my tooth on one of those bottles when I was eight, and got in trouble for horsing around in the girls’ changing room to boot.
The school’s new directors were young Soviet-era immigrants, Balanchine disciples to the core, and as such lifted the School of American Ballet paradigm out of NYC and plugged it in on that seamy Memphis street corner, right down to the class level designations (Children I, Chidren II, and so on) and color-coded school uniforms. I am absolutely certain this did not impress me at age eight. But as the years unfolded my eyes were opened to a minuscule ballet world where everybody knew everybody, and because of our connection to SAB and Mr. Balanchine himself, NYCB company artists were but a phone call away: they visited us often and carried the principal roles of most of the ballets the company mounted in those days. It was not unusual to see the likes of Edward Villella or Gelsey Kirkland or Helgi Tomasson or Patricia McBride (and many others of their ilk) wandering around those creaky hallways. And because mom danced in the company, I experienced complete and early immersion in that tiny world, whose New York City epicenter it seemed had landed right on our doorstep.
We also sat on the precipice of what would soon emerge as ballet’s golden era, where one Rudolph Nureyev had already paved the way for others to follow and to foist classical ballet upon American pop culture. It would not be long before we tuned in to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Twyla Tharp on our living room televisions, names that would ultimately come into common parlance everywhere. Though I am certain I took some of it for granted, my ballerina mom worked hard to impress upon me how lucky I was to share the company of these ballet greats.
In the old ballet school building on Summer Avenue there was a musty storage room next to the office where sets were lain on the floor in heavy, carpet-like rolls; it was narrow and dark and most ballet school parents probably did not notice it in their comings and goings. The only occasion I had to go inside it was for costume fittings, when a seamstress came in and set up her supplies near the doorway during Nutcracker season; she made you hold still to avoid being stuck while she pinned and tucked material, then asked you to turn around, and tugged at your waist, made you turn around again, and raise and lower your arms. A few more pins and you were dismissed.
But if you were to climb carefully over the yards and yards of rolled sets in that big closet you’d finally reach the other end, where you could peer through a crack in a locked wood door to see everything that was going on in the main studio. It was where my mom positioned herself one January day in the mid-1970s to observe me in my first audition for residential ballet school when I was twelve. Mom had long left the company and started teaching at her own school in the suburbs where I was now her student; we had not been inside that creaky old building in a while. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to cross a much bigger threshold into the land of ballet giants.
My mom is a force to be reckoned with. We had discussions about the faculty at the residential school in Illinois where I would attend summer classes for three consecutive years; they centered around duly reverential behavior and good deportment in general. I was warned of consequences for behaving badly, as gangs of adolescent girls are wont to do on occasion. I am sure I rolled my eyes, but I did hear this message: you are privileged to be taught by the likes of these people. There were many of them: Gwynne Ashton, Alexander Bennett, Natalia Krassovska, Buzz Miller, Vitale Fokine, Birute Barodicaite, and so many others. Most of them are gone now.
Last week ballet lost another one, the delightful and inimitable Violette Verdy, a Balanchine ballerina of French extraction who left an indelible mark on generations of young dancers. Her absence leaves another great void, a hole that will be filled by others only in the fullness of time. A friend and colleague mused, Does every generation feel the losses like we do?
I can only speculate on the answer to that question. For my part, I do know it took me some time to fully comprehend and appreciate the moment of that microcosm of ballet greatness at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street in Memphis, and I had help; I know there were probably many who did not get it at all. And I took that awareness with me when I went away to school. And I most assuredly took it with me when I had the great privilege to attend teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in 2009 and for a few years thereafter.
I hesitate to speak to an entire generation of young people who do not seem duly impressed when they find themselves in the presence of giants, or do not miss them enough when they’re gone, but I think it is the case sometimes, symptomatic of decades of feel-good teaching, celebrations of mediocrity, and shored up self esteems. At the risk of sounding tiresome, I submit there is a price tag on it; we’re already paying for it collectively well beyond the reaches of the ballet classroom.
Miraculously, the building on Summer and National is still there, derelict, boarded up, graffiti’d, just about forgotten. Nor has the rest of the neighborhood fared well; it was never a good neighborhood to begin with, but across the street from the school once stood an old, diner-style Krystal and a corner Rexall drug store. My young colleagues and I patronized those businesses every single week; they’re gone now, along with the ballet greats who flew up and down that dark stairwell so many times. In its stead looms a neighborhood that knows nothing of any of that.
One of life’s great thrills is finding yourself in the presence of giants; the important thing is to learn humility and recognize the moment. Ms. Verdy certainly did.
About the photos: the first is of a rare history book in my possession, written by Boris Kochno and containing numerous heliogravure and photogravure illustrations by Picasso and others. It is teeming with so many of the antecedents of ballet giants I have known. The other photo is of me around age thirteen warming up before a spring demonstration performance, on the eve of another summer at ballet school in Illinois. Many thanks to the wonders of Google for the image of Memphis Ballet School in the here and now.
Every small-to-midsize Massachusetts town I’ve had occasion to drive through or visit these last three years seems to possess a seamy industrial underbelly, more often than not in plain view of historic dwellings in varied states of loving restoration or decline, depending. (Second Empire is hands-down my favorite iteration of the Victorian style, and it is everywhere in these parts.) There is palpable evidence of renewed life in some urban centers where the recent past has not been kind, others are not yet there. The decline of American manufacturing and industry echoes in grand industrial buildings where architects once paid exquisite attention to detail: you can see it still, even where windows are replaced by plywood or missing altogether, and rotted foundations are betrayed as far aloft as rooflines.
Give me gritty nineteenth century industrial buildings and a jaw-dropping collection of modern art any day of the week—is there a better combination of the built environment and our own creative thumbprint? MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—occupies a campus of some 26 of these buildings (not all of them yet renovated), every bit the attraction as the art collections therein. The buildings themselves were home to the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985 (maker of weapons systems during the war and consumer electronics in peacetime), and Arnold Print Works prior to that, a Civil War-era textiles company whose fingers reached into the modern manufacturing era. A squat building at the entrance to the sprawling campus still bears a rusted sign reminding employees to present identification before entering.
HCB and I spent an indulgent Saturday there; it was a spiritually and intellectually nourishing day. Standouts for me were Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen and Imagined photography exhibit (I have not felt so moved by photography since my introduction to the work of Ansel Adams in the early 1980s), and Jim Shaw’s bizarre but evocative collection, Entertaining Doubts, which included an honest portrayal of his own father’s immersion in a 1950s correspondence school to learn how to draw. Knowing that piece of his past somehow made his own art feel more accessible.
I could not pull my eyes away from the main building itself, a delicious new detail around every corner. You can’t touch the art in a museum; there are no rules about touching walls and windows and doors. My past as a student of historical archaeology urges me to touch everything, and I did. And I was delighted to find tell-tale striations of original, early glass through which the outside world appeared distorted in a pleasing way.
There was music in surprise places: a bluegrass band in a freight elevator followed visitors up and down with a serenade in tight quarters; my camera could not deal with the darkness in the confined black box, but I still loved the unintentional movement in the photos I made. Another appealing Celtic ensemble entertained visitors in the museum café.
It was a beautiful day, bumper to bumper. Hat tip to my friend Margaret for the alert to the free admission.
All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.
That is one Gwynn Root, a beautiful professional ballerina who currently dances for Festival Ballet in Providence, Rhode Island, although she has danced professionally with several other companies in her career to date. Here she is more recently, with Festival this past summer, in an image from the WaterFire Providence website:
I met Gwynn eight or nine years ago, just as she was preparing to embark on her life as a dancer; the connection was my mom, who was and is still occasionally Gwynn’s coach. In the intervening years since our first meeting I’ve had the great privilege of also meeting and spending time with Gwynn’s family, who are among the most talented DNA-sharing people I know. Gwynn’s mom and dad are artists, Peggy and Tom Root, Peggy known mainly for her lush landscapes, and Tom for his incredible portraiture. Tom made that picture of Gwynn when she was little and uses it on a professional brochure.
And there is also younger brother Charles, probably the most gifted twelve-year-old kid I’ve ever encountered. He comes by it honestly.
They are also quite possibly the kindest people I know. I really, really miss the Roots. When HCB and I started planning our Way Down South trip, I suggested we set aside a day to go and see them (all except Gwynn, who had already launched for the fall season in Providence) in their home city of Jonesborough, TN. If you have never heard of Jonesborough, you should know it holds the distinction of being the oldest town in the state (challenged by some), and also the storytelling capital of the world.
Amazingly, despite having grown up in Tennessee and living there most of my life, I had never been to Jonesborough. I wanted to go there to see the Roots, to see their new art school on Main Street, and to see the town. And to have another chance to spend a few moments with my mom and her husband and their young daughter Grace (who is officially and incredibly my 50-years-younger sister).
So that is what we did. Peggy opened up her huge, huge heart and the school to host a potluck lunch for us. Mom and Peggy did all the work, we did none of it. It was incredibly incovenient, and they were unbelievably gracious to do it.
That’s Grace, who needed to sample some of the chocolate cake she helped bake for this event. She needed to sample it often.
Charles was also able to join us. I shot one photo of him, which does not represent his demeanor at all, but does capture his handsomeness (the Roots are all beautiful people).
It was a bright, hot summer afternoon in the South, and I think that is clear in Charles’ expression. He is growing up in a way that is rare indeed these days, with ready access to the businesses that dot Jonesborough’s Main Street, ducking into them as time and temperament allow, helping out when he is needed. Everybody knows Charles. It is a wholesome existence that is a throwback to another time. Not surprisingly, he is already an accomplished musician and artist. This is a piece inspired by his sister Gwynn and her life as a dancer. They love each other very much.
I also had permission to shoot some of the work hanging on the walls at the school.
And my own handsome son B continued his theme of selfie photo bombing.
We abandoned ship when Tom came in to set up an afternoon session with his students.
Which was the perfect opportunity for chocolate from the shop adjacent to the art school.
And then Peggy (who somehow escaped my camera lens) walked up and down Main Street with us. For me, this was a delicious, indulgent sampling of the vernacular architecture I love so much, led by someone who knows the town intimately.
HCB, B and I made a brief detour to the visitors’ center just up the road, where we saw the beautiful mural painted by none other than Tom and Peggy.
And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.
And sadly it was time to say goodbye, but not before a brief chat with Gwynn when she called mer mama.
Yes, it was pretty damned amazing. But bittersweet. I hate saying goodbye to my son. I really hate living a thousand miles from him.
That was Friday. Saturday morning launch for Vermont came early, but before we left Tennessee for who-knows-how-long ’til our next visit, we stopped by mom’s to get some of my things she had been storing for me. And I was able to wrestle this out of her hands:
It is one of Peggy’s. Mom agreed to make it my Christmas present, a wee bit early.
Our Way Down South trip was stressful, fun, emotional, exhausting. It was important to do. There are things I miss about the South, others not so much. I hope to flesh out these thoughts more.
I’ve spent the last three days in the company of artists from all over the country, about which more very soon.