Thursday, October 12, 2017

NOBODY PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN: Old Age Isn't For Sissies


Wendell Castle at Memorial Art Gallery



“The reward of merit is not life’s business.” 

This is a quote from Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of An Ending.”  Before that line he writes “later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it.”

Uh-oh, its’ that “deserve” part that sticks.  The concept of deserving - for good behavior, for hard work, for obeying the rules, for being a good citizen - seems to be front and center of conversations these days  -  the subject of essays, editorials, and novels.

The theory goes “I did all the correct, required things - I played by the rules - I followed the path and look what’s happened? They cut in the line ahead of me!  My job went to brown people and all the consumer goods that somebody convinced me I needed are somewhere else. It isn’t fair! When do I get mine?”

I have no idea. Armies of high-minded others seem to know.  Not me. Life deals some people crap that they can’t escape while other people convert the same crap into compost and build rewarding - even great! - lives. 

Nobody keeps a rule book and counts the gold stars but old age prompts a good look at the roads not taken, the “what ifs,” the questions of how did this happen and not that and what role does plain, dumb luck play in all this. I know because I’m there.  So is Wendell Castle (See how I sneaked that in?) I just came home from Memorial Art Gallery where his one man show opened Friday.

Wendell is a national treasure, a wood worker who pushed ideas and shapes of wood into unimaginable territory.  He’s managed to challenge the limits of both materials and tools.  And now he is near the end of his life. The current solo exhibit is probably his last. What to make of this? What are his “what ifs?”

Blanket Chest, 1965, Collection of Memorial Art Gallery
No guess work, they are spelled out for us in the two videos that accompany the show. In them, Wendell talks about his middle-America upbringing, his total ignorance - growing up - of art and of being an outsider among his school mates.  He had an art class in college and the professor sent him straight to another college that had a stronger art and design program. From there, Wendell made furniture. A piece entered in a group show in New York at the American Craft Museum brought him a job offer at Rochester Institute of Technology in the city where he spent the bulk of his life. A blanket chest he made and entered in Memorial Art Gallery’s Annual Finger Lakes Exhibit,1965, won Best of Show and the opportunity for a one-person show at the museum.

Connect the dots…an unexplained distinct sense of style and self as a youngster = a chance class in college with an astute professor = one music stand shown in a New York show that led to a lifetime professional partnership = an award at the hometown museum that determined his emphasis on sculptural design. 
Installation/New and Old Benches

“Regrets…(he’s) had a few….but then again, too few to mention…”

Me too. Increasingly, it feels like I was struck by a lucky star to find myself in my own skin  - deserved or not - and I am thankful.  I think Wendell feels pretty much the same way. 

I hope the same for you, dear reader. 

(PS:  The show…I didn’t much care. Some pieces I like; some pieces I don’t.  Frankly - in case you haven’t guessed by now -  it’s the man - the artist -  I thought was more interesting.)


Sunday, September 24, 2017

A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT


Joseph Albers, 1975
Joseph Albers was born in Germany and taught elementary school for more than ten years. Along the way, he also studied art. He left teaching children to lead the famous German Bauhaus faculty in stained glass design. (Isn’t that interesting? Think about stained glass, its blocks of color and defining seams. Now superimpose that on Albers’ famous color block paintings. See? During our lives, we may jump - or crash! - from one branch to another but we take along the memory of the limb we left behind.)
When Nazi Germany shut down the Bauhaus, talented faculty scattered throughout the world. Albers was invited to head a new art school near Asheville, North Carolina - Black Mountain College. He molded the curriculum there from 1933 until he left in 1950 to head the design program at Yale.  Albers died in 1976.

Here are his four basic art exercises - from elementary classes to Yale:

  1. Take 3 colors and turn them into 4.
  2. Draw your name backwards and upside down.
  3. Use your fingers to make newspaper sculptures.
  4. Draw the spaces between chair legs.

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Illustration by Maurice Sendak
Not-for-profit fund raising events became the topic of conversation in my car twice this week. Here’s why that seems important: the conversations took place among some high-power talent - smart, competent women who have terrific organization skills and a mother lode of experience. If someone computed a bottom line, the accumulated amount of money raised by these ladies over their lifetimes probably would astound most of us!

But every single one was expressing frustration, questioning the energy expended. The questions boiled down to these:

What is the clear, consistent goal?  Is it to raise money for an organization? Bring prestige? Add to a useful - otherwise, hidden - catalog of assets? Is the event primarily educational? Is it structured primarily to aid or assist either professionally or monetarily another group, i.e. artists, writers,musicians, gardeners, small business owners? What is the true cost? (This is a tricky part. How do you put value on volunteers’ hours? infinite car trips?) What about hidden costs (facility wear and tear, security if not part of the overhead charge)? Do patrons or underwriters take most of the burden of overhead? Would they pledge to the organization without the expenditure of an event? In other words, are we merely shifting money from one hand to the other? Is this event mostly a community building exercise?

Times have changed.  “Just because we’ve always done it this way” is not good enough. Volunteers burn out.  Smart women are looking for places where their skills are both appreciated and used wisely.  Otherwise, we walk!

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I subscribe to “Brain Pickings”, an on line magazine (thank you, Kathleen).  Mostly, it’s literary with a ton of philosophy but one of the things I like most:  the editor uses wonderful illustrations throughout - primarily artists who publish for children’s literature.  Above are two favorites from today.







Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS OF ART

I am confounded these days by the controversy over appropriateness of expression - verbal, musical, visual. ‘Politically Correct” is a term from the 1960s when it seemed especially necessary to correct a culture steeped in white male domination. Today the term is uttered in scorn, a javelin raised by arch-conservatives and aimed at liberals and intellectuals.

I resent the hijacking of historically appropriate intention but I confess that I see signs of hypersensitivity among minority groups and I can’t always find my own line between total agreement with the aggrieved  versus a disbelieving “are you kidding me?” reaction. 

“Showboat,” the landmark play written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein and staged in 1927 was converted to film in 1951. The original lyrics were “cleaned up” to fit racial sensitivity of the times. “Old Man River” originally written as “n…….s all work on the Mississippi..” became “negroes all work…” then “colored folk work…” and finally in a contemporary version we saw just a year or two ago, the line sung was “some folks work…” Obviously, the “n” word is so emotionally loaded that except in contemporary rap, no one dare utter it.

Civil war monuments are the latest target in the effort to scrub history. I am on the side of sending them all to the “Closet of Shame."  As a pacifist, I balk at any glorification of war - no matter what side anybody comes down on - and view all such statuary as little more than the promise the rest of society makes to young men: “go get yourself killed or maimed and we will put your name on a piece of marble or metal and  thereby guarantee the eternal memory of a grateful nation.” Better that we promise money to the surviving family and seven virgins in the afterlife.

But what to say about art created by an African-American depicting important historic characters of the same race but protested by another African-American?  

From the "Joy Cometh in the Morning" Suite
Black painter Stephen Towns created a series of paintings and multi-media “quilts” re-telling the story of Nat Turner.  Turner led the only significant uprising of slaves (1831). 55 - 65 whites were killed. Turner was caught and his hanged body dismembered as a warning to slaves to stay in their place. Traditional white history books depicts this leader as a traitor and butcher. In light of the facts of slavery, Turner must be given merits of leadership and bravery in mounting such a challenge. 

Towns’ suite is titled “Joy Cometh In the Morning” and was installed this August in the art gallery at Goucher College in Baltimore. The first few paintings are beautiful, textural narratives; the darkness of the Nat Turner Uprising intensifies throughout the progressive pieces culminating in full-on portraits of six black revolt participants with nooses around necks staring eye to eye with the viewers.

"the Revolt"
One employee at the Gallery complained that she simply could not carry on her work after walking past these paintings every day.  The employee is an African-American woman.  Rather than have the college and gallery director become embroiled in what could become a public “to-do”, Towns removed the six portraits himself, taping out blank spaces on the wall where the work originally hung.

Questions: should the gallery and college have allowed one employee to dictate what is displayed in the gallery? what if the images had been white? distasteful to a white employee? would the outcome have been different or any more or less justified?  This was not the first viewing of this body of work so the director fully understood the power of the artist’ work. Should he/she have insisted that the paintings remain in place? After all, isn’t one of the roles of art holding a mirror of truth up for clear inspection?  Was Towns’ action right or wrong? I believe he had a “teaching agenda” when he created this series. Should he be willing to stand behind (or in front of) and defend his art?


We live in complicated times.  Art is smack in the middle of the cultural cow pie! 

one of 6 portraits of "martyrs" of uprising, the protested paintings 

Exhibition of the 6 portraits removed by artist Stephen Towns

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A TALE OF POSITIVE VISION



1952: A group of eleven artists formed an artist co-op and called themselves “Maine Coastal Artists.”  For 15 years, the cooperative rented space wherever they could near the central Maine coast.

1967: A New director was hired. Her first goal: to find a permanent home. The co-op purchased ($1650.) a vacant firehouse in Rockland, Maine, and renamed themselves the Center for Maine Contemporary Art.  They stayed in the firehouse for over 40 years in spite of a growing list of limitations - chief among them: out-of-the way location and increasing space squeeze.

Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland
2010: Director change.  Suzette McAvoy is the former museum curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.  She convinced all “players” that it was time to think and act bigger.  Within two years, she had pledges for the $3M necessary to build the new state-of-the-art center.  An internationally renown architect - Toshiko Mori, Professor of Architecture at Harvard - agreed to design the facility at nearly no cost.

Main Gallery featuring painter John Walker - "From Seal Point"
The Center for Maine Contemporary Art opened in 2016 in the heart of Rockland just down the street from the Farnsworth Museum. It’s mission statement reads “to provide a catalyst for carrying forward Maine’s legacy in American art.”  

Numbers of visitors have gone from 9,000 per year to 35,000 with an expected increase to 50,000 this year.  It’s a small facility with one main gallery, two smaller ones, a classroom/art lab, small outdoor courtyard for sculpture and the usual lobby/gift shop and administration offices.  There is no permanent collection,therefore, no need for the demands of temperature controlled storage space and curatorial supervision. 

Rockland’s goal is to be known as Maine’s “art center.”  An “art corridor,” a cluster of privately owned art galleries, tie the Farnsworth Museum (their collection of Andrew Wyeth watercolors is a huge draw) with the CMCA down the street. Already, the Center and it’s first art exhibits have been reviewed by national newspapers and on-line art magazines.  It is listed among the top 10 places to visit on most Maine travel sites.


The power of vision!!   


Natural light from celestery windows (borrowed from Dia Beacon?)

Friday, August 11, 2017

A CASE FOR A STILL LIFE PAINTER

I say “Still life painting,” and you say?
“Dead ducks.”  “Bunch of flowers.”  “A table with magnifying glass, open book, candle.” 

You would be right! Artists have always painted “still lifes” (and yes, that’s the correct plural) because:  *arranged objects don’t move unlike human models, 
*there is no charge for objects and live models usually want something, 
*nobody cares what the weather is doing - critical consideration for landscape painters, 
*it’s an effective teaching exercise (Does the bowl I just painted look like the bowl in front of me and why not?), 
*and the artist has complete control of everything!  

Over the centuries, art theorists invested still life objects with psychological, political and religious meaning. Three of anything automatically gets an “aha! Holy Trinity.” That dead duck? Obviously, Jesus. Flowers point to an entire encyclopedia of human feelings so watch out! You may be painting a rose when you really might be feeling “tulip.”  I, myself, have been guilty of such parsing to which I now say “Balderdash!” A rose can be just a rose and three objects may be merely the painter’s penchant for trios.

JENNY BRILLHART in her studio
This week, during my trip to Maine, I discovered a still life artist whose paintings I liked so much that I bought two.  Jenny Brillhart lives and works in Stonington, Deer Isle, Maine. Stonington is at the very tip of Deer Isle and Deer Isle is about as isolated at anybody can get in the Continental U.S.A. I don’t know why she - or anybody else - would want to live there. It’s hard to reach by car even in summer - winter must be next to impossible. There is no shopping anywhere - and I mean NONE - for anything! Sure, it’s beautiful in that rocky- fir tree- morning fog kind of way but can’t you have that AND a Starbuck’s?

Anyway, Jenny paints still lifes in oil on something called Ypo which is a kind of plastic that looks like onionskin sheets but is stronger.  Sometimes, she paints on board or canvas. During a studio visit, I saw a suite of new work painted on fragments of cedar shingles.  I didn’t understand the significance of the shingles but at least there was no dead poultry! That would have been freakily weird.

I would call Jenny a graphic artist and sure enough, she works in that trade as a side profession. And she’s a minimalist - totally unlike those baroque dutch artists whose masterpieces overflow with metal, paper, wax, blood and flowers. Jenny constructs her stage sets from odd bits of paper and mechanical instruments that happen to lie around her studio.  The objects are posed like sad old maids, leaning against the wall waiting to be invited to dance. Only they don’t get asked.  Her color palette is somber: hues of grays, taupe, slate - the colors of fog - with only an occasional tiny slice of yellow or blue.

An environment of isolation, shrouded in misty colors of sea and fog: I sense the beginning of the intellectual critique. Title: “Place and Its Impact on Still Lifes.”




Oil on Ypo (artist: Jenny Brillhart) approx. 18" x 24"

Oil on Ypo (Jenny Brillhart) (approx 18" x 24")

Oil on wood, approx. 3'X5' (Jenny Brillhart)

Friday, August 4, 2017

THE SUMMERTIME BLUES

It’s summer and I don’t want to.

Enough with the gardening! I’ve weeded this same patch before. The first few times, I thought “Well! See how much better you look without those nasty weeds!” Now I think “Grow up. Fend for yourself. Snow will kill all of you soon so who gets the last laugh?”

BEAR FACES wallpaper - delicious!
Cooking too.  Cold weather inspires stews, soups, Italian dinners.  August inspires another trip to Subway.

I still clean house. It’s my generational curse. I’ve never had a housekeeper  or “help.”  It’s that deep mid/southwestern streak that says “never pay anybody for work you can do yourself.”  (The same philosophy keeps me from psychiatry, attorneys, any and all consultants. My husband has the same disease. For him it translates into yard work and snow removal.  He’s 78. Maybe it’s time to revisit. I’m younger but just as pissed off.)

hand-painted t-towels from...somewhere. I love the graphics!
It’s been awhile since I filed a new blogpost - I meant to be more methodical, more reliable, more serious (or is it sonorous?). I have copious notes on a new book teaching buddhist acceptance.  It says, in a nutshell, when bad times hit, don’t try to solve problems, or make them disappear.  Give up control. Begin with hopelessness. Be kind to yourself.

What? Give up control? Are you out of your mind?! Don’t try to solve problems? Are these people on drugs? Who are they anyway? O.K., I get the “be kind to yourself” thing.  I get expensive haircuts. As for the rest of it, what this country needs is a little MORE problem solving and taking a little MORE control.

Most of all, I don’t want to write about art. So I’m going to Maine for a few days.  Maybe there’s inspiration in all that crashing surf, rocky shores, lobster dinners. (Everybody’s supposed to LOVE lobster. Confession: I really don’t.  I mean…it’s o.k. but really? All the work and mess? Most lobster eaters just want an excuse to wallow in melted butter. Go buy corn on the cob…it’s cheaper and you get all that fiber.)

Before I leave, here are a few photographs I’ve saved from somewhere over the past year.  A new wall paper favorite - Bear Faces! Don’t you love it?


See you later. 


 (Painted houses in West Africa. And Painted flags..I think from Denmark? I was struck bu the repetition of graphic motif - repeated from half way around the world! Isn't that awe-inspiring?)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

GET YOUR KICKS ON ROUTE 66

Australian artist - not my problem
I bash my home state of Oklahoma consistently and here’s one reason:

According to the 2017 Spending Per Pupil Charts, Oklahoma spends an average $7672 for each student in public school - 4th from the bottom among the 50 U.S. states. Meanwhile, it LEADS - yes, #1 in the Nation - for cuts per pupil  in the 2017 budget.

Spending Per Pupil in New York State: average $22,552 per pupil.
Average Teacher Salaries (Okla.) = $44,343.
Average Teach Salaries (NY State) = $66,760.

Does money equal student success? I’m not sure but if a classroom has more supplies, more text books - if a school takes kids on more field trips, offers things like Science Club, art and music besides sports, then….yes, it matters.

Our property taxes are outrageously high in New York. But we are reaping the reward in this country of a poorly educated public - people who actually thought the Constitution of the U.S. was “false news” put out by anti-government leftists. 

The earth is not flat nor was it created 3000 years ago in seven days. Religion is a personal decision; don’t force me or my kids to believe your way or embarrass school children whose ethnic/cultural backgrounds don’t correspond to the main stream.

Spend money on kids! Our country can’t afford the alternative!
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A few miles off famous Route 66 in the tiny town of Foyil, Oklahoma, is the house that Ed Galloway built.  You can’t miss Ed’s place; you’ll see the 90 ft. tall painted totem pole in the side yard.

Ed was born in Missouri and served in the military in the early 1900s. He was stationed in the Philippine Islands and learned carving and saw oriental art for the first time. He decided, after returning to civilian life, that he would carve violins - one per tree specimen.  He got up to 300.  And he taught art.

Charles Page (now THERE’S a story! a man who became a zillionaire in Tulsa, bought up hundreds of acres outside the city and built Sand Springs - where I was born - as a “planned community” especially to benefit widows and orphans.  Look him up on Wikipedia.) hired Ed to come and teach art at his orphanage. So Ed moved to Oklahoma in 1937 and launched his life’s work - a total Disneyesque montage made of wire and concrete and bright paint.

“All my life I did the best I knew.  
I built these things by the side of the road to be a friend to you.”

Ed died in1962.  The place fell into disrepair. Vandals stole all the violins. In 1990, the Roger County Historic Society and the Kansas Grass Roots Art Association took over to stabilize and restore what was left and now, when you drive down Rt. 66, right after passing the Big Blue Whale in Catoosa (concrete, built by Hugh Davis for his wife), you’ll come to Foyil. Stop and visit the Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park.





Ed's "Fiddle House"