Art is the Consolation Prize…

art_consolation

…for the human condition.

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.

A Day at the Museum: MASS MoCA

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.

Mass Moca 35 a

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.

Mass Moca 34 a

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.

Mass Moca 56 a

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.

Mass Moca 5 a

Mass Moca 7 a

Mass Moca 6 a

Mass Moca 1 a

Mass Moca 3 a

Mass Moca 11 a

Mass Moca 17 a

Mass Moca 19 a

Mass Moca 28 a

Mass Moca 25 a

Mass Moca 27 a

Mass Moca 23 a

Mass Moca 22 a

Mass Moca 12 a

Mass Moca 9 a

Mass Moca 10 a

Mass Moca 36 a

Mass Moca 47 a

Mass Moca 16 a

Mass Moca 26 a

Mass Moca 59 a

Mass Moca 32 a

Mass Moca 33 a

Mass Moca 41 a

Mass Moca 43 a

Mass Moca 20 a

Mass Moca 15 a

Mass Moca 29 a

All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.

Homecoming Finale: In the Company of Artists

Jonesborough 4

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:

Gwynn Festival

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.

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 1

Jonesborough 3

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).

Jonesborough 9

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.

Charles Root Dancers

I also had permission to shoot some of the work hanging on the walls at the school.

Jonesborough 6

Jonesborough 5

Jonesborough 5

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.

Jonesborough 25

Which was the perfect opportunity for chocolate from the shop adjacent to the art school.

Jonesborough 3

Jonesborough 4

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.

Jonesborough 8

Jonesborough 10

Jonesborough 11

Jonesborough 12

Jonesborough 13

Jonesborough 14

Jonesborough 15

Jonesborough 17

Jonesborough 18

Jonesborough 19

Jonesborough 20

Jonesborough 21

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.

Jonesborough 23

And had a moment for a quick game of checkers.

Jonesborough 24

And sadly it was time to say goodbye, but not before a brief chat with Gwynn when she called mer mama.

We finished our day, and our whirlwind tour of East Tennessee, with barbecue at one of B’s favorite eateries:

IMG_20150920_074649

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:

IMG_20151011_195211

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.

 

 

Homecoming, Part the Second

IMG_20150907_194244

It is beyond me how 1000 miles disappear so quickly in the rear view mirror, or how four days dissolve in what feels like a half hour. It’s what has transpired in the intervening hours since 2:30 Saturday morning when Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I began our long drive south to see family and friends, some for the first time in three years. And for HCB to see the gaping hole left by the taproot I yanked up three years ago. And just to get out of Vermont for a few days and shake off the cobwebs and stretch our legs. The sun rose Saturday morning in Pennsylvania.

I wish we had more time already and we’re only now settling into my erstwhile hometown of Knoxville for a few days. I have so many thoughts about the landscape between the place I call home now, and the one I once did. And a desire to learn more about the vernacular Dutch architecture that dots the Pennsylvania countryside, a place that blurs the lines between North and South. The moment the first cheerful “How are you’uns?” washed over our weary selves snuck up on us. Some thoughts are gone already, some I may be able to reclaim. It feels like we’ve crammed months into hours.

Partly by design (and the balance geography) we started in Highlands, NC, where the small cottage that served as a happy vacation home in the last chapter of my life stands forgotten and neglected, suffering, awaiting its unknown fate. We went to check on things and reclaim a few belongings. I knew it would be hard, and would bring raw emotions to the surface. It did that in spades. I did not make photos of the house, but I did the landscape, seen above and below, and a busy intersection of a town teeming with new life and new young families. I no longer have a life there, but I hope its vibrant pulse bodes well for the future. An unlikely encounter with a favorite babysitter and her own young family felt perfect: my son was with us on this leg of the trip, and the reunion with the person who first introduced us to Highlands—in Highlands itself—brought much needed poetry to an otherwise difficult and emotional day.

IMG_20150907_173534

IMG_20150907_194402

IMG_20150907_194059

Bentley 9.6.15

The Ocoee River Gorge hems you in for mile upon serpentine mile, the river on one side, sheer rock walls and gnarled outcroppings on the other, the instability looming overhead urging you to keep your foot on the gas and both hands on the wheel. After a while you yearn to be let out, walls closing in with the fading light of day. Sunday was an exemplary specimen, the intense late-day sunlight filtered through rain, then late evening darkness gathering quickly, the backdrop for memories recalled along the way and answers to questions unresolved until Chattanooga grandparents could address them later. (What was that sketchy looking thing up on the ridge? A water flume, turns out, been there since the 1930s, carries water to this day.)

IMG_20150907_194643

IMG_20150908_184859

In two days’ time we ate our way through Chattanooga, Tennessee. Dad’s lovely wife shared with us one of her own traditions from the Deep South, biscuits with butter and chocolate. We were in bewildered awe, any doubts I had about properly introducing HCB to Southern cuisine evaporating with the steam coming off the melted confection set before us.

Downtown Chattanooga remains a favorite. The three of us struck out on our own for a day at the Tennessee Aquarium and some walking. Devices are a foregone conclusion; life—aquatic, avian, insect, and even human—could still hold sway over them from time to time.

IMG_20150907_194820

Aquarium 1

Aquarium 2

Aquarium 3

Aquarium 4

Aquarium 5

Aquarium 6

I have everything to learn about making beautiful photographs with my new-old camera, even more about capturing motion. But I was able to pet a moving sturgeon, and that is something.

Aquarium 7

Climbing from the Aquarium into Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District is worth sweaty knees and elbows, as is a late afternoon at Rembrandt’s for coffee and handmade chocolate; but chocolate does not always hold sway over devices.

IMG_20150907_195012

Hunter Museum

IMG_20150907_195158

IMG_20150907_195321

Back at our hosts’ home there was not enough porch time for this Southern girl, but I am especially fond of the porch itself, which emphatically does not hold sway over devices.

IMG_20150908_185102

In all fairness to the boy, he had just snapped several amzing photos of this incredible porch-time interloper; this is my photo, which paled in comparison to his:

IMG_20150908_184742

IMG_20150908_184626

That’s my dad and his lovely, gracious wife; I think they look great. My dad knows so much about so many things. Water flumes built at the top of the Occoe Gorge during the Great Depression, the history and evolution of the Cavalier Furniture Company, WWII-era aircraft, the whereabouts of the nearest Krystal burger: he’s your man for all this and so much more. I hope like heck it’s not another three years before we see them again.

We’re already on the next page of this nine-day-long story; ’til soon.

 

 

Afternoon at Bedlam: the Ministry of Encouragement

IMG_20141012_104744

More than a decade ago I stood in the book aisle of a big box department store in Knoxville, Tennessee, fingering a papberback with a full color closeup of a border collie on its cover. I was having a bad day–a series of bad days, really, that grew into bad weeks and months and difficult years. That book was my introduction to writer Jon Katz’ work. I read it a couple of times and loaned it to somebody at least once. My copy of A Good Dog is a bit dog-eared but now bears Jon’s autograph and a brief message from him scrawled inside its cover.

Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I soaked in delicious late-day sunshine from Jon and his wife Maria’s weathered Adirondack chairs, observing foliage and traffic on a rural highway that serves this part of upstate New York. I thought about that book, about animals that change people’s lives, about people who change each other’s lives.

IMG_20141012_102543

Some time ago Jon started a group using social media, its purpose to bring together folks whose common denominator was the desire to create–poetry, prose, photography, art. He described it as a ministry of encouragement. It was and is a place for its members to share their work without fear of reprisal, but hoping for positive, constructive feedback from Jon and from each other.

I do not remember how I came across this group in the first place but I have been an active participant pretty much from its inception. And while social media often provides a platform for unfiltered voices of hostility and rancor it can also be a positive place for people to come together–people who might not otherwise have known each other. This has been the case for me where this vibrant community is concerned. I have made so many connections there, wonderful ones, and yesterday had the opportunity to meet many of them in the flesh for the first time.

IMG_20141012_101826

IMG_20141012_102334

I keep thinking about self-examination, but also about exposing oneself to examination by others. It is intimidating, to be sure. But without at least some willingness to shine a light in vulnerable places, how is it possible to grow at all? I was explaining my take on this to one of the members of the group yesterday. To me it is a mandate–not a question of whether one should or should not do this, but an imperative.

IMG_20141012_103422

Yesterday Jon gave his listeners a little background about an aged woman, a poet and a dear friend, Mary Kellogg, who was missing from the fall open house this time around because of illness. He explained that during a conversation with her early in their friendship, and after reading some of her beautiful poetry, he asked why she had not done anything with it to that point. Her reply was simple: nobody had encouraged her. I had never made the connection between that epiphany and the formation of the creative group before yesterday. And what a service Jon has done to help this group of people come together as it has. (Happily, Mary’s work is now published and has enjoyed much success.)

IMG_20141012_104558

Maria Wulf, Textile Artist (and Jon's wife)

Yesterday was magical. Seeing Jon and Maria is delightful as always: listening to Jon talk about his beloved animals, his new book about the rescued donkey Simon, watching the border collie and therapy dog Red working with the sheep (always alert, awaiting the next important work); looking at the eternally generous Maria’s beautiful textiles (and the work of others) in her studio; a cameo appearance by the complex and aged dog, Frieda. Celebrated photographer George Forss was there, too, talking enthusiastically about his work and his new book (for which Jon wrote the foreward); and an impromptu acoustic guitar performance by Roundhouse Cafe chef-owner (and singer/songwriter) Scott Carrino was a lovely finale to the day.

IMG_20141012_103635

IMG_20141012_104957

I will echo the sentiment I have heard others express, though: the best part of yesterday was meeting the people I had known until now only through the group, through the ether. These people bare themselves every day, bravely exposing their work and their lives. What a huge privilege to embrace them, finally, and to say to them all, ‘Til we meet again.

IMG_20141012_102748

Finding My Best Self

IMG_20140924_204209

Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year–began at sundown today. I am not Jewish, nor do I observe the Jewish New Year, at least not as an official adherent of the faith. But every single year I re-read this beautiful children’s story, Gershon’s Monster, on Rosh Hashanah. It is a universal story of redemption, and anyway this particular book is so gorgeous cover to cover and the story so appealing, one needs no excuses to open its pages. I believe it is my favorite piece of children’s literature ever, and that is really saying something. I love children’s books and have a great excuse to use them in my professional life, as I have said before.

I first learned about this story on public radio, listening to Scott Simon read it aloud along with Daniel Pinkwater–a reading so delightful I dropped what I was doing to listen. I immediately found a copy of the book, with gorgeous watercolors by Jon Muth. If I were a painter, I think I would want to paint exactly in this soft, evocative style that is still real.

IMG_20140924_204601

Gershon is a badly behaved man, but worse still does not care about his treatment of others. (In other words, he is someone you know.) He sweeps his misdeeds to the basement and once a year puts them in a huge bag–especially huge, it turns out, because his behavior is especially intolerable–and drags the bag down to empty into the sea. The problem is that he makes no effort to be truly sorry about his misdeeds. He simply gathers them up and disposes of them. When he and his wife decide they want children Gershon consults a Rabbi, who warns him away from parenting. Gershon presses the Rabbi who finally gives him a charm for his wife to wear for a year, after which time he prophesies she will bear twins.

IMG_20140924_204747

But the Rabbi also hints that something tragic will befall the children when they are five years old. After Gershon urges the Rabbi to reveal details of the tragedy, he at last concedes it will occur on the day Gershon puts both his socks on the same foot. Gershon is ecstatic for this bit of forewarning, but the Rabbi dismisses him, saying it will make no difference–Gershon will go on with his life as always, behaving badly and being inconsiderate of people around him.

IMG_20140924_205000

And of course, this is exactly what comes to pass. Gershon and his wife have twins–a boy and a girl. One morning Gershon awakens disoriented by the summer heat and (you guessed it) puts both socks on the same foot. The children have gone to play by the sea as they do every day, and Gershon rushes after them in a blind panic. He finds them confronting a horrible sea monster whose scales are inscribed with every awful thing Gershon has done in his life, just at the moment the monster is about to snap up the children.

IMG_20140924_205217

At last Gershon is truly, humbly repentant and beseeches the monster to take him–and not his children. The monster, along with Gershon’s lifetime of transgressions, vaporizes, and Gershon is a changed man. It’s the way you wish every scenario of this sort would end, isn’t it?

IMG_20140924_205355 (1)

Every time I read this I think of the people I know who are like Gershon. And then a nanosecond later I think about the times in my life I have behaved like him. But there is always hope for redemption before it is too late, isn’t there?

At the very end of this book there is a page-long description about the retelling of this story and its place in the Hasidic movement. There is also an explanation of the tradition of “casting one’s sins into the sea,” metaphorically, at the beginning of the New Year. And then there are instructions, as the author says, for erasing our mistakes and returning to our “true moral nature:”

  1. Admit that we have done wrong.
  2. Feel remorse.
  3. Resolve in our hearts never to act this way again.
  4. Make every effort to right the wrong we have done.
  5. Apologize and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
  6. Make every effort to relieve whatever pain or distress we might have caused others.

Then, he tells us, we will have returned to our best selves.

Happy New Year.

 

Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth, 2000, Scholastic Press, New York

 

 

A Most Happy Ear Worm

The Most Happy Fella

On a day some time in the early 90s a song from The Most Happy Fella insinuated itself in my head as an earworm–you know: that refrain or tune you get in your head that will not leave you? The show had just enjoyed its second Broadway revival which is probably why I was thinking of it.

Anywho. In a late-night chat session with my Uncle Stan I asked him to help me with the title of the song–this was a show he had conducted, so I knew he’d have the answer. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Hey, do you know the name of the song from MHF that goes something about “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by?”

Stan: Yes. It’s called, “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By).”

Boom.

The Most Happy Fella is a show with old-fashioned sensibilities but I dare you to keep a straight face when you listen to this song. And what I love about this particular clip–which was an advert for a West Coast opera production–is that it dumps art right in the public’s lap. I just love that, corny as it is. (And also, these four gents have lovely voices.) Thanks, Stan.

 

Watching the Garden Grow

IMG_20140709_175624

I drive past this very ambitious looking garden patch on my commute some days, depending how I go. I love this quirkly outdoor art installation. Somebody’s got a great sense of humor. And an appreciation for the finer things in life. This always makes me smile, even when I am having a gloomy day. I finally had a moment today to stop the car and snap a photo. Call me crazy, but in its own odd way this reminds me of American Gothic.

If anybody in these parts knows the story behind these jolly good chairs, I’d sure love to hear it.