Sunday, July 14, 2019

COLLECTING: THE DARK SIDE


I am surrounded by beautiful objects collected throughout my adult lifetime. I have a “good eye.” I combine texture, color and shape in a way that enhances individual pieces and lends an aura of taste and interest to the complete environment.

When I die, the first stop for these treasures? An estate sale. Nobody in my family wants an entire houseful of “things”— they have houses full already.  Increasingly, museums have no use for even semi-good art unless it comes partnered with a sizable donation to store and care for extraneous objects. 

So for a few bucks, you can own my “eye.” But out of context, my valued objects will lose their punch. Against your cabbage rose wallpaper, my pottery will look like crap and my paintings are far too specific for somebody else’s traditional living room.

The dregs and leftovers from the house sale will be loaded onto a donation truck and sent off to Goodwill…or Habitat for Humanity… or some church somewhere. All good. I want to help the less privileged even after I’m dead and what better way to cheer up a refugee family than with a 4’ x 6’ painting of smears of gray and black paint! Or a big beautiful ceramic pot tenuously balanced on its 2 inch foot, so fragile that the slightest breath will send it crashing into oblivion?

After tripping over that donated painting for the millionth time, a Habitat supervisor will say “Enough! Send this to…the dumpster, the trash heap.” And nobody will utter the slightest objection because like all things in this world, orphaned art eventually becomes just more disposable clutter.

The bitter truth is that only a tiny fraction of artful objects will find long lasting value…just as high school phenom basketball players will mostly fail to reach the NBA…and odds are that the super talented singer in your choir will NOT become the next Aretha Franklin.  

You doubt me? Then you haven’t gone to estate sales lately. Or visited nursing homes. Or been called to help dispose of abandoned artwork left in a storage facility.

I was bereft after one such incident. My friend Nancy wrote: “You’ve come face to face with the dark side of collecting. And as with everything else, it’s as if a mirror is being held up asking ‘what about you?’”

Yikes! Has my life — my entire career — been misspent? Is collecting merely a nicer word for hoarding? Does the old adage “one man’s treasure is another man’s trash” apply to EVERYTHING, even art? 

Well, yes, but along with all the warts, collecting brings along unexpected positives. 

1) Collecting anything automatically opens doors into history.
2) Chasing down and finding that perfect thing gives structure to free time. 3) Collecting introduces the collector to people with similar interests. 
4) The search leads to unique vacation locals and out-of-the-way shops, galleries, museums and studios. 
5) The collecting crusade nearly always results in wider hands-on experience and in depth information about the physical characteristics of objects — the method and materials used in manufacturing. 
6) Makers imbue their work always with their individual tales; it’s impossible to own such personal information without broadening your own curiosity about and tolerance for fellow humans. 


And there it is — ultimately, collecting is a case for belonging — community. When we collect objects, we collect the stories too. It may not be obvious but we weave the thread of our being into the continuing thread of makers and the history of the things they make.  It doesn’t matter what happens to these objects after we’re gone. If they find another home, good! If not, they haven’t been made — nor owned, nor loved — in vain.  They served for awhile. The makers and their objects — the collectors who bought them —continued the evolutionary experience we share. That’s the best any of us can hope for.


Thursday, July 4, 2019

LOFTS

Typical loft - 1990, 2000, 2010
Everything about Beth is way cool.

She looks sexy standing still, fully dressed in jeans with a tucked in white t-shirt. She has a way of gathering up her shoulder length dark curly hair and twisting it at the back of her head to stay off her face and neck that says “now I’m ready.” Without trying, she defines “sultry.” 

Beth is artistic. She makes things that are also way cool — so cool in fact, that they get sold at Barney’s in New York City, maybe the only cool department store left in the world. It’s where the glamour people go to pick up a $500 pair of jeans.  I bought a plate there once. I don’t know why. It didn’t match anything. When I got it home, I wondered where the cool went.

Beth lives in an urban loft with polished cement floors and exposed brick walls. Windows on two sides of the space are the size of billboards. All manor of exposed pipes and ducts form patterns on the high ceiling.

In Beth’s loft, several columns interrupt the more than two thousand square feet of coolness. Placed throughout the space is the required collection of furniture — u-shaped modular couch, long harvest dining table with mid-century chairs, a few shabby chic antiques, and of course, great art work. The kitchen is an afterthought and the bathrooms are clinically austere. Even those things that most people would check off as “negatives” turn out to be cool when you think about it in this context.

People my age connect industrial lofts with the life-style we read about and lusted for during our prime years — the 1980s and 90s. That environment triggers for us images of style and culture, chic-everything! We want to return to those years when we could wear those clothes, go to those parties, be on everybody’s “A list”(even if none of those things existed for us in real life.) We want to not worry about schedules for hip replacements and cataract surgery. We’re sick of chasing down the lawn care man. Don’t get us started about Spectrum!

Beth is moving. Her loft is available. Dreams can come true! 

But just one sec. This dream comes without garage. No extra storage space - anywhere. Water pipes and drains come down from the two floors above through the bare ceiling announcing the neighbor’s baths and toilet habits. Those huge windows? No view of spectacular city rooftops or a nighttime light show. The view is one of paved parking lots and adjacent building windows — when the shades are open. Most of the day, they are closed to keep out heat and bleaching sun. Electrical outlets are few and lighting that works requires a miracle worker. Ikea can only do so much!

The bitter truth: the ideal loft has become a cliche. They come from an era that has passed. And we have aged out of LOFTS. 

So the question: what is the perfect environment for those of us who have aged out of the single 3-4 bedroom house? It isn’t that we can’t deal with the lawn guy and Spectrum — we just don’t want to! We aren’t ready to turn over our lives to a management company. We want a unique and creative living environment but one with full benefits.  


Typical loft, version #2
(Friends, never fear. I am NOT ready to move. So far, the universal ranch style house that Chip and I built 6 years ago still works for us.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

THIS IS THE LIMIT!

I'm taking jazz piano lessons.


Twenty-five years ago, my two best friends and I quit smoking. We were not social smokers. We didn’t smoke to look cool or to follow the crowd or smoke with our spouses (our spouses were non-smokers.) We didn’t care that smoking was bad for us. We ignored Surgeon General’s Reports and public shaming. 

We were smug smokers. We had a few rules: I never smoked in the bedroom I shared with my husband. Another of us never smoked in the car. But one of us couldn’t get out of bed in the morning before having her first hit.

We smoked because we were addicts. We loved the smell. We loved the release — that pulling into our lungs the smoke and  — ahhhh, the release, blowing away all our tension, all our pent up rage. We liked the rituals. Talk on the phone, light up a cigarette. Begin painting — light up. THINK about something to paint (or write) — light up a Kent. Smoking was associated with everything good and creative. It unlocked the idea gates and lowered the self-enacted prohibitions. It was our best friend.

But we quit. It was hard. We got hypnotized. We went to “Cessation Clinics.” We got chewing gum and arm patches. We sucked on straws and hard candy. We invented reward and challenge games. We tapered off; we quit Cold Turkey. We finally made it across the finish line. We became reformed smokers.

A year later, we made a pledge. “When we get really REALLY old…so old that we have one foot in the grave anyway…so old that we can thumb our noses at everybody…we will take a carton of cigarettes into the woods and smoke until we pass out. We’ll do this when we get REALLY REALLY OLD…75!!!” 

Now what? I’m 75 and I don’t feel REALLY REALLY OLD. I don’t believe I have one foot in the grave. And I don’t want to smoke — at all!  

It’s hard escaping all the “when we get really old” stuff. In January, I convinced my husband that we really needed a brand new car — one with current safety features. We are not as agile as we once were. Our reaction time isn’t as sharp. We are the customers for flashing lights and warning sounds that alert drivers about crossing lanes, and on-coming anything. 

And while we were talking “cars,” maybe it was time to become a single-car couple. Our schedules are self-made and therefore, adjustable. We don’t have jobs. We could live easily with one car. 

So we made the logical steps. We now have one common vehicle with all the safety gadgets in the world. I hate the new car; the safety gadgets drive me insane. As I calmly drive down the street, the car begins tooting and flashing and I wonder “what the hell is going on and how can I save myself?” It’s taken me months to figure out that those warning screams are merely because I’ve crossed some insignificant line in the road.

And the one car life? I know I am spoiled. I get that most of the world is starving while I kvetch about having one car. Set that aside for a minute and examine the process that led to the decision. It was made on the basis of age. We’re “supposed” to lead quiet lives — we’re old. We’re “supposed” to have limited social engagements, limited volunteer obligations, limited …everything!  

Enough already! I accept some limits but not all. Give me a break. I’m only 75!


The new color - "Salvage" - dining room wall...just because


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

MAG FINGER LAKES EXHIBIT, 2019

John Elliott, Ithaca, American Elm
Here’s a math problem.

I moved to Rochester in 1969. The Memorial Art Gallery Finger Lakes Exhibition is held every other year. Assuming that I have seen every single Finger Lakes Exhibit, how many shows have I viewed? 

Did you get 25? You are more or less correct. Actually, the Finger Lakes has not always been a biannual. For a long time, it was held EVERY year. Then somebody had the bright idea to segregate “fine art” from “craft art” and tried to alternate the two from year to year. That didn’t work out so well.

Once or twice, the show was cancelled altogether for reasons I can’t recall and some of us gave it up for dead. But we were wrong and here it is again — crafts and non-crafts together in wedded bliss thanks in large part to this year’s judge. 

And therein tells the tale.  Any juried art exhibit is the direct subjective opinion of the juror — one person or sometimes a small group of people. If that person happens to know a lot about ceramics, sometimes there will be fewer ceramic pieces because he/she is a sterner critic. If that person loves, loves, loves all animals…well, I don’t know…they should walk down the road to the County Fair I guess.

You are all smart readers. You get the point! Art is personal. End of story — almost. Let’s assume that you are an electrical engineer. You’ve never taken a class in aesthetics — design or art. But you do see the beauty in circuitry. Does this qualify you to judge a major competitive art exhibition? Or you’re a security guard for Walmart. Same question. 

See where I’m going with this? The answer is “maybe.” Your opinion is actually important and you probably have great innate instincts. But this year’s actual juror was Marilyn Zapf, assistant director of the Center for Crafts in Asheville,North Carolina. She’s spent her adult life studying design. So she got the job of picking pieces for this show — approximately 75 from the 800 submissions.

Hard job, huh? So as you walk around the show, what you “get” is Marilyn Zapf. She likes near-obsessive repetition. She loves pieces made from many, many identical - or almost identical -  parts. She adores graphs - precisely drawn, cut, or folded. She also likes black and white photography of urban scenes and I can’t begin to explain that except maybe it’s the graphic nature of derelict streets and rusting signage that she likes. 

And you see what’s just happened? I begin explaining Marilyn Zapf based on what I suspect could be true. Dear readers, I’ve just cracked the case for you concerning “art criticism.” Any judged show reflects the eye of the beholder.  Like the old Tom Paxton song lyric: “I picked up a pickle and said ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.’” 

Well, there it is. I did vote for my favorite piece in the show and I’ll share that with you. It’s John Elliott’s huge chunk of American Elm, doing a ballet on one smallish branch. This piece has guts! Presence! Tells me an entire story! Makes me want to know its story! Brings tears to my eyes! I love this piece. (Did I recommend you read “The Overstory”? I am steeped in tree lore this summer. There are worse things to be.) 


Let me know your pick.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

OF IRISES AND FAIRIES



Siberian irises are blooming. Quick! Go see! There they are! Have you ever seen anything as beautiful as they are at this exact minute? They will last only a day or two. But until they wither, the structure, the color — they are the very definition of “perfect.” 

I look for words to explain this miracle but nothing comes. Then I remember a Bible reference about lilies: ‘Not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as one of these.” And I know that I am not alone — that other writers struggled just as I am flailing around now, prodding my brain to find an adequate descriptive language of love and awe. 

Summer is just beginning. You don’t need to remind me that the extravagant burlesque of peonies, cone flowers, daisies, roses and sun flowers is right around the corner. Wait for your particular moment of zen. Mine is right now. 

You and I may not be around for the next cycle of these miracles. We all know that there are no guarantees. How do we cope with this reality? 

Before I reach the very bottom of despair, I remember. Slow down. Listen. Smell. Look more. LOOK MORE!

Chinese elm trees grow throughout the woods in the ravine behind my house. They release seeds this time of year.  Actually, the seed itself is tiny, cushioned in the middle of a diaphanous membrane almost like a round punched out, dried onion skin. The engineering of these little floaters allows them to skim across the slightest wind current, spreading the seeds — and trees — into new possibly fertile homes. 

As I walked Abbey and Lucy around our property today, I happened to glance into the woods. There’s a slight clearing in the middle of the trees — a space where sunlight coming down nearly reaches the ground unobstructed. Today, the air was full of elm tree seeds, free floating like dust motes. The sunlight caught each one. They glittered!  At first, I thought I was seeing lighting bugs — impossible in the middle of the day. The vision was so unusual — so magical! — that my internal computer scanned but had no reference. The closest I could come — tiny fairies! 

A numinous experience: “surpassing understanding” — “filled with a sense of supernatural presence.” 


As I review my picture library of past years, I notice that I photograph the Siberian irises every spring. I’ll undoubtedly photograph them again next spring if I am able. I’ll try to keep my eyes open for floating fairies.

Friday, May 10, 2019

I BOUGHT A DRESS

Last year I bought a dress. 
I don’t buy dresses.  
I don’t wear dresses. 

Before this one, the last dress I bought was for my daughter’s wedding. She’s been married 24 years. 

I bought the “wedding dress” while on vacation in South Carolina. It was southern — filmy chiffon, rusty colored with flounces around the bottom — mint julep-y southern.  Never buy a dress while you’re on vacation. Vacation purchases are nearly always a mistake. I feel the same way about vacation artwork, vacation preserves, and vacation pets. When you get home, you spend days wondering if you lost your mind. The answer is obviously “yes” but now you have two puppies and sweet as they are, one has chewed through every rug in the house then thrown up next to your bed. It’s too late to drive all the way back to Kentucky…or Virginia…and are there “return policies” for pets? Trial periods? “Use by” dates? 

 The Tara Dress was on my body exactly 4 hours — maybe 5. Then it was relegated to a spare bedroom closet. We moved three times — three times the garment bag moved - unopened - with Scarlet O’Hara untouched. 

I finally sent the dress off to the consignment store. It got sold. Somebody else is wearing the flounces. I got a check for $22.00. All in all, a good trade. Consignment stores are better than catholic confessionals.  It’s the old “Out of sight” thing and you get money back.

So, you rightly ask, why did I buy another dress? Because I’m old. Because I go to a lot of funerals these days. Because I looked in my closet and counted 14 pairs of black pants and wondered if I’d fallen into a rut. And I discovered on line shopping! 

I like the newish dress and I’ve worn it three times already — once backwards. (That was a tiny mistake. The material is stretchy. Each section has a slightly different black and white print. It looked perfectly fine backwards! Except the pockets were pointed the wrong direction. I was at a funeral and reached for a tissue. That’s when I knew.)

Sue's Unique style
“Don’t pickle things.” I tripped over this sentence in the New York Times today. I love that sentence. It means don’t save the good china for “special.” Or the good undies. Or the dress. Life is short. You bought the dress so wear it. If you can’t bear to use the good china, give it away to somebody else. Your grandmother won’t care and your mom wishes she’d had the sense to give it away herself.

Things! 14 pairs of black pants? I’m taking seven pairs to the consignment store. Then I’m looking in the very back of every closet. Maybe some things just need some fresh air and new eyes.

Here’s a picture of Sue. I’ve always admired her unique, individual style. I’ll bet she doesn’t own 14 pairs of black pants or a Tara chiffon dress. That hat? Leather jacket? She’s had as long as I’ve known her. She doesn’t pickle things.  I like that about Sue.



Monday, April 22, 2019

EASTER CONVERSATION

watercolor by Kyle Mort "Low Battery" (will work for food?)
Yesterday, sitting around an Easter dinner feast with friends, conversation steered to one of the all-time philosophical questions: You come into a pot of gold (millions of dollars? billions?). What will you do?

Sure, you go to your attorney, financial advisor, and spiritual leader for advice. Of course, you pay all your debts and set up safety nets for family members. And then?

What’s stopping you from doing all those things now…even if on a limited scale? Start again.

Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York, is an exquisite little architectural gem sitting nearly in the shadow of infamous Auburn State Prison. It’s named for a young (rich) man who died in 1931 leaving a bequest to build an art museum in his home town. The Art Center opened in 1981.

Schweinfurth is unpretentious. It doesn’t own a thing except the space where it sits. A small staff of fewer than half dozen women run the place. Nearly all their exhibitions feature New York artists except the annual prestigious national quilt exhibit. I haven’t seen a financial report. My guess is that the place “makes do” with a combination of funds: memberships, donations, a few grants, a modest endowment. 

Its existence is a gift, a “feel good” escape for stressed visitors. In my fantasy, this could be my “what next.”

"Continuum" by Russell Serrianne (very Victorian!), wild vine tendrils with clear shellac surface
Last week, the horror of watching Notre Dame burn, one of the world’s architectural treasures, unified France and the world in grief. Few events are big enough to achieve that these days. The last time? 9/11…and the U.S. was forever changed in ways that would astound former generations.

Immediately, pledges of millions of dollars began pouring into France to restore the 600 year old spire of Notre Dame and for an entire 24 hours, we thought “there is good will across the world after all.”

In a blink, protestors in Paris took up the cry “Wait! Money for a building but not for people? We are the working poor and we deserve attention.”  

There you have the age-old conundrum: Feed the physical or feed the spirit? 

Why must this be a choice? Isn’t it possible to take care of the physical needs of the world’s population with enough left over to enrich the spirit? The most insane thing I read last week was our President actually saying that our country “is full — no more room for immigrants.” That follows another official’s view that “solar energy will use up the sun” and “wind turbines cause cancer.” 

It’s the division that’s the problem — not the supply.

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The Svalbard Globle Seed Vault in Norway
Speaking of supply, there are 1700 seed banks in the world. These are repositories to insure against strains of plants becoming erased.  In past years, crops have died out due to blight, insect infestation, and climate change. Now, new crop diseases are increasing faster than world scientists can diagnose and stop infestations. Seed banks are life insurance policies meant to keep the human race from starving.

But seed banks themselves are always under threat. Several were looted for their plastic containers in Afghanistan. Others in Syria were destroyed by war and the typhoon that hit the Philippines destroyed another. Others have failed through lack of government funding.

(HUNGER, a novel by Elise Blackwell, describes a group of scientists who work in a seed bank in Leningrad during World War II. In 1941, Germany completely isolated Leningrad. People were without supplies for 900 days and resorted to eating bark stripped from trees, animals in the zoo and moss growing on rocks. Sex was traded for teaspoons of sugar and invaluable art treasures traded for cups of flour. The novel follows scientists faced with starvation or defending the seed bank there.)

In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was officially opened in Norway. Cold and dryness are the required preservatives for seeds  and the Norwegian seed vault is located a mere stone’s throw from the northern most populated outpost on earth. It is deep within mountains surrounded by permafrost where the average temperature is -18%C.

But sometimes insurance policies fail. The earth is warming faster than anyone predicted and faster especially at the upper northern hemisphere. The permafrost is melting and water from melted ice has already entered the outer entrance to this fortress. Scientists are scrambling to shore up the entrance but how long can they bail? 

Nothing is a “sure bet.”