Thursday, March 22, 2018


When I die, do I want a monument somewhere? I can’t decide.

We are awash in genealogy at my house these days. My sweet husband in his typically obsessive way locked himself into his office with his computer for an intense two weeks and came out the side door with a colorful chart full of names and dates connecting us to our roots, some dating back to the 1300s. 

What fun! Here an Earl, there a judge, there a Civil War fatality, there a…. what’s that? A woman who “lived with” the family? In the South? It must mean…A SLAVE? No! 

The thing about roots is that you own them; you have no choice. I am proud of my heritage that contains “trouble makers” - those ancestors that challenged the status quo and the Scots who fought for religious reformation. In America, some joined in the Westward Enlightment movement and even my southern great-grandfather was a Free Mason.

But what about the other ghosts? They belong to me too. I am a pacifist but there they are - a steady line of soldiers ready to take aim and kill. What about the musician who was also anti-semite? How about the county judge who owned slaves? My former neighbor Father George says that historians must consider actions based on the era in which they took place.  Try telling that to a descendent of Jack the Ripper or Hitler. I’ll bet nobody admits to those DNA lines.

Unless we are 100% native American, someone in our past had the guts to get on a boat and get off in a place foreign to them. He or she possessed strength of character and a streak of adventure nearly incomprehensible to me. Clearly some people still have that drive. They risk everything to swim across a river, scale a wall or walk across deserted borders. I bow to their courage.
The ties that bind us to our history are sometimes faint but they're around if you look hard enough; they reside in birth and death records, in the family Bible, in ancient military service records, and in library history departments. They hide in crevices of cemeteries, in church records and on the monuments -  names and dates on tombstones.

I never thought I wanted one of those.  Now I’m not so sure.

14000 empty shoes on the White House South Lawn representing the 7000 children killed by gunshots since 2000
Here are some examples of another kind of monument. These monuments are temporary but as powerful as any made of bronze or marble. They memorialize children who died from guns during the current century in the United States. 

Empty desks of the 17 teens shot in Parkland, Florida

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Fancy F eggs
Elizabeth is a beekeeper.  You may call her an “apiarists” or “apiculturists” or a “honey farmer.”  They are all the same.  She’s a hobby bee keeper but she harvests enough honey each year to fill and sell off several jars. Once upon a time, she was a jewelry maker and I guess she still is but not so much now. She’s still an artist; artists pay more attention than the rest of us. They pay attention to everything!  That’s why I was never a good artist: I go for the Big Picture and lose the detail.

Anyway, Elizabeth pays attention and that probably helps with the bee thing.

I read that if you eat honey produced by bees in your particular locale you get allergy relief. It has something to do with the pollen.  I haven’t tested this myself even though I have some of Elizabeth’s bees’ honey; she only lives about 8 miles from me so the pollen should be basically the same. It’s the quantity part that trips me up. Exactly how much must one consume for the anti-allergy component to kick in?  And allergies to what exactly? I suspect respiratory ailments but not nut allergies or wool allergies. Another detail that I missed along the way.

Two Green Eggs
I admire Elizabeth and her hobby. It’s seems to me it’s on a higher level then say the hobby of collecting most things which can easily slip into hoarding and degrade the environment by the very nature of manufacturing more of whatever it is you collect. And while I truly appreciate all the  animal shelters and the heroic work they do, I’ve come to believe that we must begin on a much more basic level - lower on the food chain. Bees are a good place to begin, not the very bottom but close enough. 

Catherine Delphie is also a detail person but I don’t know her. She raises chickens.

Catherine trained as a medical illustrator and graphic designer and I guess she still works at that job sometimes. She fell in love with Aaron Dunn, a landscape architect, and together they bought a 15 acre farm in Hillsdale, New York, and began The Fancy F chicken farm. 

Everybody wants to raise chickens these days; it’s like the Pet Rock of urban farming. With chickens, you get eggs and the Fancy F breeds heritage and rare chickens for the colored eggs they produce and I’m totally smitten with these eggs.  Not only are they beautiful all by themselves (we’re talking shells here. I’m pretty sure that the insides all look the same  - yellow/white, a nice combination but nothing to write home about.) Catherine designed and found an old fashioned box factory to manufacture gorgeous egg crates. This is what an artist would do - attention to detail.  

more eggs
You can buy Fancy F eggs (in crates) from the Copake General Store which is where Margaret Roach lives.  Have you been there? Look up her blog -  “A Way to the Garden” - and visit her garden if you’re ever nearby. It’s worth the stop. She also is super-aware of detail but I actually think she might fall into the “obsessive” category which is a whole different kettle of fish. 
the Martha Stewart collection

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Let’s talk about portraits. Early this week, President Obama and First Lady Michelle’s “official” portraits were unveiled and they soaked up all the media conversation for about 12 hours. Then came another school shooting, another dozen children’s lives squandered at the whim of a 19 year old with a gun and more “thoughts and prayers” by our Country’s leaders. 

So, while our hearts break, let’s talk about portraits.

I began this session with a plan to write a scholarly piece on portraiture, i.e. the first portraits probably done around 1000 b.c. in China, into the Renaissance and the most famous portrait in the world and the most reproduced, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo daVinci (painted between 1503 - 1517.  Mona currently hangs in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and is insured for $800 million.) 

Charles Dickens wrote that “there are only two styles of portrait paintings - the serious and the smirk”  -   awfully cynical! Gordon Ayman said “..the eyes are the only place one looks for…reliable, pertinent information (in any portrait.)” 

Painters attempt (usually) to capture the “inner essence of the subject - not a literal likeness” and nearly always the subject (or those judging the likeness) claims that the painter fell short but Gilbert Stuart, when he was critiqued as such, said “You brought me a potato and you expect a peach” which pretty much sums up the chasm between reality and aspiration.

Portraiture has come in and out of fashion over the years; it fell out of style during the early part of the 20th century (with some obvious exceptions: Picasso, Klimt, Frida Kahlo, etc.) and yet, two portraits from those years are among the most loved and recognized in America. “American Gothic” was painted in 1930 by Grant Wood. The “Gothic couple” hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. Wood’s sister and his dentist were his models.
Artist: Grant Wood

The other is “Christina’s World” painted in 1948 by Andrew Wyeth. Christina is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, one of the few portraits that doesn’t show the subject’s face. Wyeth painted Christina with her back to us in the style known as “magic realism.” In 1995, a portrait titled “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” was sold at a Christies Art Auction for $33.6 million, the most money paid for a work by a living painter. The painting was created by Lucien Freud, Sigmund’s Freud’s grandson. There must be a grain of insight there but I haven’t found it yet.

portrait by Lucien Freud, sold for $33.6 million
As I quickly discovered delving into this topic, there are MANY “official Presidential portraits” produced during each man’s term of office. For instance, one portrait of Bill Clinton was painted by Simmie Lee Knox, the first African American painter to be so honored (I thought that award went to the Obamas' portraitists. In fact, I’m sure it was so stated by the news media and they were wrong.) 

William Clinton portrait by Nelson Shanks
I found the Knox portrait and looked for the hidden reference to the sex scandal and the infamous “blue dress”. It isn’t in the Knox portrait; blue dress clue is in the last official Clinton painting done by Nelson Shanks. 
Already, there is an official portrait of Donald Trump. At least, Google says it’s an official portrait - fake or not. There isn’t much in it.

I’ve gathered together a bunch of portraits that I happen to like (as well as a few I’ve spoken about here) and let me confess, I ADORE the portrait of Michelle Obama.  I like the gown designed by Michelle Smith with it’s reference to the Gee’s Bend quilters, I like that she’s so ethereal - I love the stark blue background. I like it better than the painting of Barack which I find too clever by half. 

Stephen O'Donnell (self portrait)

GREEN SHOES, Kathy Calderwood (painter and grandmother)
Michelle Obama portrait by Amy Sherald

Saturday, February 3, 2018


Help! I’ve fallen into obscurity and I can’t get up!

I might change the caption on this cartoon just slightly to read:

Help! I’ve aged into irrelevancy and I can’t get back! 

Reprinted from The New Yorker, Feb. 5, 2018
Chip and I went to a lecture Tuesday night.  The speaker came from Detroit, Michigan, and his talk was all about how he and his group, practicing “people oriented” planning, were changing the mean streets of his home town.  He showed lots of slides of streetscapes from around the world and Detroit, photographs crowded with shoppers and coffee drinkers sitting at sidewalk cafes while sunshine and festive pennants poured from above.  The speaker was sincere and enthusiastic.  Yippee-yay….

I hate to sound like an old fart but really? “People oriented?” “Pedestrian scale?” “Planned for autos=bad!/planning for people=good!” Uh…didn’t he read Jane Jacobs (any one of her books written after 1961 until she died two or three years ago?) Or study Christopher Alexander’s 1977 A PATTERN LANGUAGE? What about William Whyte’s body of sociology studies on city streets (1958 through 1988)? We covered all this territory in the 1980s and again 1990s.  The big difference between then=Rochester and now=Detroit? Detroit reached such a dismal scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel-low that big money has - in the last dozen years or so - poured in from every faucet and it’s no secret how pretty things can look with green wallpaper.

This man was the first speaker brought to town this season by the Community Design Center, a worthwhile organization that is in danger of death by boredom through repetition. During our years of involvement in civic planning, we’ve heard mayors, planners and architects tell us why their city is working - their town: Charleston, Nashville, Indianapolis, Nashville, Austin, San Antonio, Toronto, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle (those are just the ones I remember!) And here’s the thing: there are lecturers that do inspire a better life for city dwellers and city users. Curiously, they often look to transcend city limits and speak to broader humanity, even (gasp!) suburbanites! But first the script must be changed; the old 45 record is worn out…just ask us, the retired warriors. We may be out of the limelight but we still listen to PBS, NPR, TED Talks and we read!

Those of us old enough to serve as reminders of past lessons - unless we also hold powerful purse strings - are nearly always shuffled to the side seats during meaningful problem solving/creative initiative conversations. We are patted on the head and asked to volunteer as envelope stuffers or something equally menial. It is assumed that brain power resides in bodies under age 55. 

So are human beings meant to live this long? What are we good for after diminished muscle mass leaves us barely capable of picking up our shoes let alone a work load? After procreation, are we meant to climb aboard the U.S.S. Iceflow and wave good-by to all our still-fertile and viral friends and family? What about all that “free time?” Can it be bad for teen agers but anticipated as good for old age? Why? 

Most of us will not pull a Grandma Moses and discover a brilliant talent after passing 90. We probably will not run marathons, write a best selling novel or make a scientific discovery.  But neither do we care much about spending endless hours watching television or plotting charts of doctor visits. Don’t keep telling us to volunteer when the fact is that few of us find satisfactory volunteer positions.

We are the elders among you, with bodies that don’t work but brains that do.  For heavens sake, ask us for input once in awhile.  We’ve heard Tuesday night’s lecture - or its clone -  a dozen times but there are new voices with updated sermons that might inspire you as well as us. 

Let’s look for them.

Friday, January 19, 2018


Henry James Crissman and Virginia Rose Torrence graduated from Alfred University in 2015 and took their MFA degrees with them to start grown up life in Detroit.  Henry was hired to lead the ceramics department in a small liberal arts college and Virginia found her niche in studio ceramics with a few adjunct faculty jobs thrown in.
Virginia Rose Torrence, Untitled Mosaic, 48"x69"

Remember that old adage about “best laid plans?” The college abandoned its ceramic program and Henry was without a regular paycheck. Now what?

“What” is this couples’ search for creative routes toward a full-filling way to live in a challenging neighborhood, in a depressed city, in a stressed physical environment without my generation’s requirement - financial security. Here are routes they are exploring.

Teapot form
Virginia built rather ugly sculptural work at Alfred interspersed with (snooze alert) “utilitarian sculpture.” (Please spare me from ever seeing another “teapot form!”) But in her new studio spaces, she noticed the bins of discards and throw aways. She began retrieving junk from which to build collages. (Didn’t we all do that few years ago -  making mosaic backsplashes and picture frames out of broken china?)

Her mosaics took on added dimension when she began incorporating junk - real junk! - into the ceramic mix: leaves, wood shards, orange peel, odd cast offs picked up along her daily routes. To preserve the organic pieces, she turned to resin as the grout for these super tiles. The resin gives the illusion of looking through cataract lenses. (Virginia describes the effect as “looking through water.” I like my analogy better.)

Will these constructions survive or will the organic bits begin to rot out? I doubt that Virginia knows. Not much in our world is eternal - why should we expect that of art? 

Detail, ceramic mosaic with ½ lemon, resin grout
Henry, meanwhile, built himself a wood fired kiln in the yard of his pottery place and decided to produce  utilitarian tableware - plates and cups and bowls. He set off to blaze new trails that trace back to William Morris “Arts and Crafts” Movement, the dignity of handmade.

North End Pottery
With an NCECA grant in hand, Henry’s first aim was to seduce his impoverished North End Detroit neighborhood. He passed word to announce the firings and invited neighbors to participate in loading, stoking and unloading the kiln; the firings became “people events.” Each piece of pottery was stamped “Made In the North End” and each piece was sold for $1 each but only to neighbors, people who lived within 1 mile of the pottery. 

I don’t know if using hand made dinnerware changed any lives. I’m pretty sure that a few schemers found ways to circumvent the residency requirement - there are always abusers. Clearly, this system required financial subsidy.

But Dang! What a cool project! During my lifetime, I’ve witnessed and been part of the “Turn Inward - Me Generation - Explore the World Within” years. It’s time for change and the change seems to be the age of socially engaged art projects. Our planet cries for compassion. The multiple strands of society must be knit together. 

Artists can be Cassandras warning of the breakdown of our physical and social climate -  a legitimate and honorable role.  But they are uniquely qualified to explore and show us alternative options.  

The rest of us are required to pay attention.  

Tableware made for neighborhood restaurant

Sunday, January 14, 2018



The art world nearly invented fakery - paintings signed by “the master” when any of his ( always “his”) apprentices actually did the work, blank pieces of paper slipped in front of demented artists (I’m thinking of Salvador Dali) to sign as his originals for later-prints that he never actually saw, copies of copies of copies passed off through the years as originals, often hanging in prestigious museums.  

A few years back, the FBI closed down an art scheme here in Rochester that made national news. An art teacher bought a 15 year old ho-hum neighborhood art gallery.  With the “history” of a mature gallery to lend credentials, he sold “master prints” on line (complete with documents attesting to authenticity). He was the printmaker, was convicted of fraud and spent jail time (but he kept the money.)

With sophisticated technology today, fakery is more advanced, and I was recently hooked into one of the newest frauds.  When a friend, a retired artist and art teacher, recommended a newly released documentary touting the discovery of ancient sculpture, I nestled into my comfy chair for  90 minutes of spell-binding art adventure.

The documentary turned out to be a very cleverly produced “mockumentary” - a completely made up story, fabricated and financed by conceptual artist Damien Hirst. (Remember him? His ‘sculptures” - animals suspended in formaldehyde? He sold all his art at auction to raise money for this project.) 

Called “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” the film recorded the adventure of a deep sea diving crew as it followed up on a lead and sailed off the coast of eastern Africa in search of a  treasury of artifacts lost during the reign of Nero.

Quite an elaborate back story accompanied the discovery and tension builds when the divers report that not only have they found nearly 100 pieces of marble and bronze sculpture but a trove of gold castings as well (with a gold coin stamped with NERO to verify age.)

detail of full human figure with claw feet
Using a huge crane, they manage to bring up even the largest pieces, wash them down without removing attached barnacles and coral, transport the load back to Venice, find a willing and appropriate exhibition venue and there it all sits….magnificently installed…looking for all the world like ancient artifacts…except for the Mickey Mouse character…and all the buxom women…one wearing knickers…and that beautiful, colorful coral that managed to stay intact…and the lost ship’s name Cif Amotan II - anagram: I am fiction.

O.K., I admit, it was fun to watch and marvel at “how are they going to bring that tonnage to the surface?” I also admit there were small clues along the way that sent me to investigate the “real story.”  One: who owns ancient artifacts? Surely not some weird conceptual artist! Since when does one person - an artist at that - bankroll such a venture? And if this is all from the 1st century a.d., how many huge museums - and governments -  would fight for the privilege of exhibiting? And oh, by the way, if this stuff has been underwater that long, doesn’t it nearly disintegrate upon reaching open air and sunshine?
Lapis Lazuli with barnacles

So now what to make of all this? Should we innocent viewers feel … stupid?…inadequate?…suckered?…for falling for this elaborate “art?” Are we maybe ticked off that conceptual art has once again made us feel this way? how many “insiders” got the joke?  why are we all “outsiders” when it comes to art? how does this further art/empathy or art/cultural awareness? What exactly is Damien Hirst up to with all this? 

I might have felt better about it all with a tasteful disclaimer somewhere during the film’s credit scroll. It was fun to watch but…I’m still flummoxed.

How about you? 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Like Scrooge, three spirits pressed me back to the blog this week, the place where I write things down that I care about (mostly.) 

The first challenge was to form a clear and concise answer to the question “are you religious?” asked by the dinner guest to my right Sunday night in what was a gala pre-Christmas event. I sputtered, feigned left, dodged right and finally left the table for another conversation less probing.

The second is built on the first: what the hell is Christmas all about if you don’t label yourself “Christian?”  

The third? I don’t remember - the first two are BIG. Do I need a third?

First, most of us marry “religious” with a second label - i.e. Christian, (sub-set, Catholic, Baptist, et. al.), Jewish, Islamist, Buddhist. I reject that marriage and when I look up the definition of “religious,” ( manifesting devotion to an ultimate reality or deity), I’m not too crazy about that either. So, no I am not religious. However, I was raised as a Southern Baptist, married into the Episcopal Church, and spent two years living on a seminary campus all of which makes me a whiz at the Jeopardy “Bible” category. I love the smell of old cathedrals, the music of my southern church roots and some - but not all - rituals that define all religious church services, particularly those that seek to bind us altogether in humanity and humility.

Aha! Now I’m getting closer to that answer. For awhile, I played with “Humanist” (emphasis on the value of human beings individually and collectively and preferring critical thinking over dogma and superstition) and that comes close but not quite.  Then I thought the answer should be “No, I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” (the quest for ultimate sacred meaning) but that isn’t right either. And I discarded “naturalist” immediately (believing that only natural laws and forces operate in the universe) - it seemed too cold blooded, not the least mysterious and besides, it suggests taking off your clothes and I don’t do that for just anybody!

I proclaim myself an Independent, non-partisan participant in the human condition. I believe that we are cosmically tied together on this planet and so it matters what happens in Rwanda or South Philly. We are responsible for each other in that “he’s not heavy, he’s my brother” kind of way and wasting time debating costs of universal health care is blasphemy! I believe that trees communicate with each other - totally believable since all plants and all animals are inter-connected. I believe in mystery all around us and my favorite word this year is “numinous” (arousing spiritual or religious emotion - awe inspiring”) but I’ve just learned “hygge” (hue-guh), a Danish word used to acknowledge a special feeling or moment (alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary but always charming of special) and I think that may be my word for 2018 but I’m not sure it fits into the spiritual recipe.

Now, about #2, why celebrate Christmas if you have no truck in the whole Christ story?  Good question!  I just listened to Krista Tippett “On Being” talk about Christmas and she brings up the gift thing; it was traditionally a time of reward. You had to learn patience - no bike until Christmas - an entire philosophy not being passed on to our current generation. She also dislikes the distortion that Christmas as an entirely child-centric ethos  - Santa, churches plays, animal blessings, baby Jesus in the Manger cuteness. She’s right but I’m not getting too worked up over any of that.

No, Christmas for me is strictly a special time when we examine what we are to each other and with a dash of ritual - carols, lights, food and gift exchange -  we may experience something transcendent, a memory worth stashing away to re-live when we need to and re-tell when appropriate - fertilizer for cultural continuation.