Art is the Consolation Prize…

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…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.

Wilmington Lifts Her Skirts, Just a Little

Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus
Downtown Wilmington, still coming into focus

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Homecoming, Part the Second

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hunter Museum

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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.

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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:

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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.

 

 

Balance: Saturday Photo Essay

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Winter stubbornly hangs on up here in these parts long after spring has sprung elsewhere. I’m getting used to it. I think a sure sign of that is worrying less about weather and lately thinking more about finding balance. Not to get all philosophical about it, but I really do try: work, play, food, exercise, rest—both mind and body—forming new friendships, being part of a new family and all the challenges that entails, somehow finding time for myself, and time for me and Handsome Chef Boyfriend to be a couple, and spiritual life. And of course to hold myself to the highest possible standards in all of it. I’ve been going to the gym since I started my new job in January. Giving up running a year ago was hard enough, leaving the ballet world robbed me of the rest of what was keeping me mobile. At the gym I’m attending various classes: one of them can’t make up its mind what it is (a “fusion” of Tai Chi, yoga, and Pilates), Vinyasa yoga, and also a weight lifting class (yes, really: I call it “pump you up” class, but at the gym it has another fancy name).

Yoga resonates with me the most. We work on physical balance in that class, and it is a huge challenge for me: I’ve been trained my entire life to work in external rotation at the hips, but yoga is all about parallel. Forget about it. The other challenge is the guided meditation at the end of class. I know we are supposed to be in the moment, and not allow the day to intrude, and imagine things like flat horizons and layers of stratosphere while we listen to soothing, Eastern music (what a friend’s dad used to call “that goddamn California music,” which always makes me giggle). I stink at reflection and meditation. What I think about instead is, Glad that’s over because my hamstrings hurt like heck, my nose itches, I’m thirsty, and I need to pee: are we done yet? In the end, I can’t take myself seriously enough to be a good practitioner of Vinyasa yoga, but I love what the class does for me, just the same. Today I bravely struck out on a (wait for it) run. First time in a year. There will be hell to pay for it. But there is nothing like a long run to clear the head, after terms like posterior tibial tendonitis and pain insinuate themselves into the meditation of the morning. Yes, it is meditative. Like yoga is supposed to be.

I was outside for an hour and a half this morning. I thought about the Battenkill River, which followed me the whole way, how engorged it is just now with snow runoff, roiling and roaring out of Vermont and into New York, just down the road. I thought about the vernacular architecture I love and was delighted to see that a barn I photographed last year stands resplendent now with its new coat of dark red paint. I enjoyed chatting with a few cows, one of them reclining pensively on the bank of the river, which made me think of this post Jon Katz published recently. I was visited by a barn cat. I found an inlet where the Battenkill backed up into a small finger of a pond, a magical place where the water could not seem to make up its mind which way to go. I talked to the trees, who are still holding back, not for much longer. No signs of color yet, but soon things will explode. Notably, I missed my dog: I feel distinctly lopsided without a leash in my hand and Clarence at my left knee. True balance can only be restored when there is once again a dog in my life.

Still, this morning’s run was the right kind of meditation and reflection for me. Balance whispered in my ear. It is desperately needed and long overdue.

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Watching the Garden Grow

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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.