Friday, December 14, 2018

IS IT TIME TO PUT AWAY THE DIAMONDS?

Necklace by Myong Urso
Lily wore earrings every day. Lily was 80 plus years old and her ears were pierced — probably from the time she was a child, maybe even a baby.  She was European. 

I knew Lily for more than twenty years. I never saw her without those  pearl and diamond earrings.  They weren’t that big as earrings go.  But these must have been heavy because Lily’s earlobes were stretched toward her shoulders. The earrings hung at approximately a hundred degree angle looking toward her neck. It was something you couldn’t help but notice. 

Lily was a bohemian. One time she appeared at a party in a full-out-German-girl-native-outfit complete with embroidered vest and full dirndl skirt. And those diamond and pearl earrings. She demanded attention.

The earring thing scared me a little. I wondered if Lily had unusually thin ear lobes which eventually stretched. Or if never taking earrings off led to elongation of the lobes. I wear pearl studs in my own pierced ears and I rarely take them off. Will I too have lobes that sag along with all the rest of me? (My other parts got a head start. The ears will need to stretch over-time!)

In 1982, Gloria bought a beautiful silver cuff bracelet from Dawson Gallery. The gallery was still young and Gloria was old. We had an exhibition of jewelry by somebody I’ve since forgotten. Pieces were gorgeous but expensive. Gloria, a sweet, grandmotherly woman, swooped in, tried on one of the most expensive and promptly bought it for herself.

I saw Gloria wear the bracelet once.  She had on a tailored wool tweed suit. And the bracelet. I was taken aback .No!No!No!  That bracelet needed a silk shirt.  And a younger body, preferably complementing a beautiful face and flowing hair that got tossed around in flirtatious  conversation. Nothing about Gloria was “flirtatious.”

Wait! What was I thinking? Jewelry discrimination! Do women age out of jewelry? Do our daughters cringe when we waltz out to the kitchen wearing yoga pants and cocktail rings? Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but what about a grandmother? Are we meant to stick to lace and cameos? Will the day come when we need to put away the chunky bracelets along with the car keys and deep red lipstick?

I bought myself a new necklace last week. Myong Urso designed it. She’s Korean. And petite. And has great hair. 

The necklace is longer than normal but can be hitched up or wound twice. It’s made of 4 different hand-made sections of metal chain. Two elements — a large amber bead and a 3 inch straight piece of bamboo — are randomly threaded on the chain length. 

The necklace is pretty dramatic. To pull it off to best effect, it needs to be worn by a woman much taller than me. And younger. One who can wear a slinky black cocktail dress. And toss her hair. I can’t toss my hair. 

I still like the necklace.

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Happy Holidays, everybody. And thanks for reading my ramblings.






Wednesday, November 21, 2018

STORIES WE REMEMBER

ESTHER NISENTHALL KRINITZM, 1 of 36 tapestries
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. According to Norman Rockwell’s paintings, tables across the United States will be set with Sunday best linen and china and enough food to satisfy three times the number of actual diners. Family and friends will watch Father carve the turkey before diving headfirst into the ritual of gluttony.  Ah, America! 

Nearly every culture pays homage to the autumn harvest. Most celebrations involve praying to whatever god blesses crops, singing, dancing, and drinking too much — which explains the singing and dancing maybe. It’s all fairly straight forward stuff except for Canada. They celebrate the recovery of King Edward VII ( 1892) who apparently had a serious illness. My husband’s family is Canadian. Never once, in the 50 years I’ve shared Canadian Thanksgiving with them has anyone ever raised a glass to Edward’s good health. 

American Thanksgiving is unique in the interwoven story of starving Pilgrims saved from certain death by friendly Natives. Reminiscing over school years filled with re-enactments and turkeys fashioned from colored paper, I can’t actually imagine why that story holds such a vicelike grip on our collective culture. It destroys the fiction of white supremacy that our nation seems to hold so dear. Does any other single festival/celebration we honor have at its core heroic brown people saving Euro-white Americans? Not that I can think of but tomorrow among the alt-right, in white supremacists households, I’m willing to bet that if asked, everyone can proudly repeat the Pilgrim story.

Story telling is powerful; it’s primal. We grew up with stories, we think in stories. They invoke emotion and inspire us.  They can teach us about hope and they have the power to change lives. One of the loveliest movements in the last few years has been the growth of StoryCorps. Its mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and a more just and compassionate world.” 

Becoming part of the StoryCorps legacy is easy. No-one need be famous — no heroics required. Stories are registered and remain part of a permanent record kept in the Library of Congress. 

1 of 36 tapestries in "Art and Remembrance"
Monet’s Waterloo Bridge is the current exhibit in the Grand Gallery at Memorial Art Gallery (Rochester, NY).  It’s a show guaranteed to bring in crowds. After all, who doesn’t at least recognize the name “Monet” even if they aren’t sure why. Art history “isms” may not be general knowledge but most people know the names of the Rock Star artists thanks mostly to calendars and poster reproductions. 

But an interesting thing is happening at MAG. Monet is being upstaged by an un-trained Polish woman. Down the hall from “Bridges” are tapestries made by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. She was 15 when German Nazi’s invaded the small Polish village where she and her family lived. With needle and thread and fabric, fifty years later, Esther began the task of re-telling her story of love, and loss and how she and her sister became the sole survivors of her family.  Her memories are made human in these 36 works. 

Monet’s bridges — the same scene painted in different shades at different times of day and year.  Interesting in a scholarly, freeze-dried kind of way.  Esther’s “Art and Remembrance” — pulsing with heart. 

Story telling is powerful indeed.







Tuesday, November 6, 2018

WHAT IS AN ARTFUL LIFE AND HOW DO I GET ONE?



“A good life may be found through craftsmanlike engagement with the actions, objects, and relationships of ordinary experience, through caring about what you do.” Robert Pirsig’s 1970 bestseller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Heady stuff but not exactly a Pirsig discovery. The idea of finding meaning through making things, and creating a thoughtful everyday environment was preached by Victorian William Morris and followers.  

"TROUT" artist: Melissa Greene, Deer Isle, Maine
In the 1980s, mine was the “story of the week” in Upstate Magazine, a piece written by Ron Netsky and titled “An Artful Life.” The cover story meant “free publicity” for Dawson Gallery but I confess I didn’t give much thought to that title. Now I am consumed with the questions: what IS an artful life? who decides? is it some romantic concept? is it attainable? at what cost? 

Melissa Greene and her partner Eric Ziner were my house guests this week during the four day Memorial Art Gallery Fine Craft Sale. Melissa and Eric along with their two sons live on a 60 acre farm on Deer Isle, Maine.  Their artful life is one worth examining. 

Both Melissa and Eric are artists. Eric came to blacksmithing/sculpture through DNA. His father was a graphic designer and sculptor. Melissa — like the apostle Paul — was struck by a career vision while living in Europe. She discovered that Laplanders had a reverent, democratic, respect for aesthetics that was woven into the culture — an awareness that visual delight was as imperative as function. Melissa throws exquisite pots covered with intricately detailed nature and human narratives.

"LOON" bowl, artist: Melissa Greene, Deer Isle, Maine
Melissa and Eric found one another, moved to Deer Isle, Maine (an island with a history in the American studio craft movement. It’s home to The Haystack School of Crafts.) and began Yellow Birch Farm. They are certified organic growers of vegetables that they sell through the local farm market and their own farm stand. They tend, breed and milk a herd of forty goats. Goats’ milk is raw material for the yogurt, cheese and soap they make and market under the Yellow Birch Farm banner.  Several years ago, they teamed with a well-known chef and began a farm-to-table special event dinner service. Last summer, in their barn-turned-dining room,  they played hosts to fourteen of these dinners. Guests are served a fixed menu, planned and prepared to showcase the rewards from their gardens along with meat, fish and poultry sourced from other island producers.

This is all incredibly labour intensive work and they rarely hire outside hands. They screen applicants for four summer intern slots filled from agriculture programs throughout New England. Interns live on the farm during the eight weeks of summer, learning the inside running of an active farm — on the job training — while they earn school credits.

Remember — this is a couple of artists. Yes, they make art. Melissa’s ceramics are prized possessions among the famous and not-so-famous collectors of American studio craft. Eric builds fanciful sculpture but just as often, fulfills orders for functional iron projects such as stair railings and fire screens. Both lead workshops and lecture in their fields. An exhibit gallery space is carved out of the “dining barn.”

Does all this sound like an “artful life?” It most certainly is meaningful labor. Any of us could make a list of pros and cons based on this brief run-down. We might guess that there is absolutely no financial security, that things like health care — illness or accident — can push them right over a cliff.  Age becomes an enemy when constant physical exertion is the primary asset on a farm and while some people might sneer at the free labour of interns, those who have experience working with novices question if time spent training ever equals quality effort expended.

What are the upsides? Freedom of choice? Total independence? Unique near-religious partnership with nature? Self reliance and therefore, stronger — and appropriate — pride and sense of self?

In the search for a quality life, these are trophies that most of us chase. But must we all abandon our offices and return to the soil to claim legitimacy? Frankly, I consider overnight stays in Holiday Inn the definition of “camping.” I don’t particularly like goat cheese but I love goat milk soap and I know just the places to go to buy it!

"The Smithsonian Pot" 
Melissa and Eric have another item in their “pro” column and that is meaningful connectedness.  Their life is one of circles — individual but overlapping, sometimes temporarily with narrow  objectives, i.e. the organic farming community, the very tight civic institutions and connections in their small, isolated  town, and of course, the studio craft world.  

Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays (“Call Them by Their True Names”) writes about political manipulation — the “Ideology of Isolation.” She lays out a convincing argument that American individualism is a tainted ideal — it probably never existed as portrayed by movie westerns. Building on that mythos allows easier manipulation through tactics all too familiar in today’s political climate. It’s easy to cash in on mass fear when the ears that take in misinformation have no counter balancing point of view!  (There’s a reason prisoners’ of war are kept in isolation.)

Call it “love” or “network” or “friendship” or what-have-you. Connections require work to introduce and energy to maintain. They require compromise and acceptance of human frailty. Connectedness requires trading a piece of individualism for the good of community. 

Artful life? I believe it rests on a triangle: meaningful work, connectedness to a community and respect for the role of beauty in everyday life.  













Thursday, October 11, 2018

YOUVE BEEN BANKSY-D

Last year’s major art “happening” — Damien Hirsch’s staged discovery of a shipwreck full of sculpture — is poised to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion dollars in sales when it finally closes in December.    

To pay for foundry fees, staging, etc., Hirsch sold off a million dollars of his art. Subtracting the commission on a billion dollars worth of sales — promotions costs — a little wine and cheese — I’m guessing Hirsch still walks away from this stunt with a few million in his profit column. 

One art critic said that Hirsch “pushed kitsch to the point of sublime.” What’s so sublime about fake art?

Last week, Banksy pulled another fast one.  This one was a little less slimy — funnier by far — a little less icky. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you probably already heard about the Banksy painting that was sold for $1.3 million at a London Sotheby’s auction and just as the gavel cracked down and “SOLD” rang out, the audience watched as the painting slowly melted down below the bottom of the frame and came out in shreds. 

Wow! How fun is that?! The audience — the buyer — all Banksy-d! 

"Love Is In the Bin" by Banksy
But wait a minute! An update on the story. The painting has been retitled by Banksy himself: “Love Is In the Bin.” The high bidder is thrilled to keep the shredded picture because it’s worth more now than its winning auction price. The shredded artwork is proclaimed to be a rare, new breed, original. 

Meanwhile, the visual of a picture dripping in shreds from the bottom of its frame struck a chord in the advertising world. Ikea and Perrier nearly overnight adopted the image and McDonald’s produced posters and ads with the image and french fries dripping from below. My guess is that one of these first ad posters will be worth a bunch of money soon.
McDonald' "french fries" poster

How to react to all this? 

Artsy (online) Magazine just printed an extensive piece on Thomas Kinkade, the “painter of light,” whose images of cabins and cute animals show up in posters, calendars, and dishes. Kinkade died in 2012 at the age of 54. He was charged with sexual infidelity, drug addiction, and general craziness and some think he committed suicide. Maybe it was sweetness overload? The same year, his company earned $4.5 billion dollars. 

Kinkade’s art was the bane of serious art critics and collectors but embraced by Mr. and Mrs. Everybody-Else. One art critic asked a woman who clearly made sacrifices to afford the Kinkade $55 poster why she was buying this picture. She had tears in her eyes as she described how happy it made her — the make-believe world that it illustrated, the one she hoped to find someday for herself, maybe in Heaven if not on this earth. 

The Kinkade cabin in fog/garden/woods/snow
Kinkade capitalized on the gap between the art elite and middle America — the forerunner of our present national political scene.  In much the same way, the message was “them” (the coastal insiders) and “us” (middle America.) Right back to red vs. blue — tribes of “In the Know” and “In the Not!”

The art world has always been in on this divide.  We call it and explain it in other terms but there it is. I am part of it. When I see painted wall murals of big roses defacing a brick wall, I want to scream. The neighbors who live within those city blocks see something entirely different. I can’t explain to them why an old building has dignity and if left alone, has a chance at rebirth. They can’t convince me that with their surroundings gray and in tatters, the view of a huge mermaid swimming along the railroad underpass is uplifting. I want to yell “really?! what does a mermaid have to do with life in the inner city?” And they respond “I’ll never have a cabin with smoke curling from it’s chimney serenely sitting in snow but I want the dream.”

Can we ever find a common meeting place?  I don’t know.  Meanwhile, I am blue and you are red and I am right…and you are right…




Sunday, September 23, 2018

HAWKS ARE FROM MARS: WRENS ARE FROM VENUS

A RED-TAILED HAWK
A hawk moved into my back yard. It’s either a red-tailed hawk or a cooper hawk. Both are common in the northeast; both are adjusting to life in urban environments. 

A red tailed hawk nested  on the side of a skyscraper at the edge of Central Park over twenty years ago. His name was Pale Male. Somebody produced a documentary film about Pale Male. I guess it seemed like a miracle that a hawk could live in the middle of a raging city. Now there are as many as a dozen hawks living in Central Park.  Pale Male found Lusty Louise. 

Life expectancy for hawks falls somewhere between 13 and 21 years, so Lusty Louise is a widow now. Hawks mate for life. Humans, you might want to pay attention here.

Hawks are meat eaters — rodents, insects, small birds, snakes, small rabbits. Only rarely, kittens and puppies. But be alert. A CBS newscast warned viewers that hawks are predators — lock up your puppies and kittens!  CBS didn’t warn girls about predator men. 

Stories about hawks stealing babies is pure nonsense. Babies usually weight more than 8 - 12 pounds and that’s the poundage limit for hawks. But while you’re supervising kittens and puppies, it probably wouldn’t hurt to supervise babies too, just to be on the safe side.

My yard is usually full of small birds — songbirds, wrens, finches. I like them. We put out feeders in the Fall to encourage these quirky little beauties — and so I worried when the hawk moved in.  “There goes the neighborhood,” I said. “You let one in and the next thing you know, here they all come.” I considered moving to a “No Hawks Allowed” gated community. Or maybe Florida.

It’s against State and Federal law to harm hawks. No shooting, poisoning, trapping, stoning, or gluing. Yes, that’s actually in a guideline. I don’t know what “gluing” means. Glue their feet to the ground? Glue their wings together? Glue their little beaks shut? How do you get them to stay still for any of that?  I’m thinking that some federal agent got a little too zealous.

He or she was probably a Democrat/Bleeding heart/Liberal -- a Hawk preservationist. 

Nobody else in my family or neighborhood seems too worried about the hawk influx. I can only conclude (because of my Native American roots. I’M not Native American; I just know a lot of them being from Oklahoma and all.) that the hawks were sent to me for a reason.
Messenger from the Spirit World

Native people claim that hawks are important symbols from the spirit world. If they come to you, they relay the power of clear vision and increased spiritual awareness.  They say to humans “The time is right to take the lead. Take more initiative. Be more active.”

What if their human doesn’t want any of that? What if she’s old-ish and has arthritis and feels that she’s done her share already? What if she just wants to nap? 

There goes that damned hawk making that awful screeching noise again. 

Sometimes don’t you just hate spiritual messengers?




Thursday, August 23, 2018

TINKIE WINKIE GOT CRACKED!

Tinkie Winkie got cracked.

 Poor Tink!

THE ORIGINAL LIMESTONE FIGURES
Tinkie Winkie is one of a major pair of toylike figurative sculptures carved by Tom Otterness from blocks of limestone and commissioned by Memorial Art Gallery. When they were first installed at the entrance to Memorial Art Gallery in 2013, all hell broke loose. Otterness’s past sin — assassination of a puppy in the name of “performance art” —was marched around for discussion. The museum lost some community support —  a number of people gave up their memberships and never returned. 

Other sage heads justified the purchase with the argument that everybody deserves a pass from youthful missteps. And families love the childlike round-y shapes of these oversized stone dolls. Ultimately, family fun trumps bothersome conscience. 

The story line that goes with the installation is more interesting. Ms. Tinkie Winkie is carving a partner for herself. It's emerging from the solid block of limestone standing across from her.  This is the biblical story of creation turned on its head. In Genesis, God created man first but here, it’s the lady holding the hammer. And she’s building a partner who is exactly her same height and size. The material is limestone like her.  These two will be equals.

(Let’s have a round of applause for Mr. Otterness!)

But then Tinkie developed a crack!

TINKIE WINKIE WITH BRONZE ARMOR
Mr. Otterness took back the damaged limestone figure and replaced it recently with one made of bronze. Now look at the piece.  Even better:  gather a bunch of kids (ages 6 through 9) and ask them about the difference. 

Tinkie Winkie is now a comic book figure and there’s nothing “equal” between her and the mate she’s digging out of limestone. The entire meaning of the sculpture  — the axis of equality — is gone. She’s donned an Ironman skin and the “friend” will do as she commands. 

Eventually the remaining large block is likely to crack and will it too be replaced with bronze? Uh-oh….Tinkie Winkie is digging her friend out of stone…there’s no “digging” bronze.” Now what?

I can only guess that somebody predicted scenarios like these and brought all this up in discussion. I would hope that a request for a new female figure  included insistence on cloning Tinkie Winkie right down to color and surface of the original. Instead, we got the dominatrix.


Maybe it isn’t too late? Otterness’ sculptures are pretty much interchangeable. Give him back Ironlady and wait for Tinkie Winkie’s twin to come into town. I’ll breathe easier.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

THE STORIES WE TELL

Kusama "Pumpkin Room"
I went to Cleveland last week. Not the ugly Cleveland. Not the rust belt-y, poverty, river-on-fire Cleveland. I went to the beautiful Rockefeller Parkway, Case Western College, Ohio Botanical Garden Cleveland. The one where international architects like Frank Gehry and Marcel Breuer designed buildings that sit among stately mansions. 

Frank Gehry, School of Business, Case Western University
One of those mansions was previously owned by the Glidden paint mogul. Glidden House was converted into an exquisite boutique hotel with original, legitimate artwork in the hallways. It’s surrounded by exquisite, perfectly manicured gardens. It charges 3X the Holiday Inn rate. I stayed two nights.  Sometimes, you just need to jump off that cliff!

I went to see the Yayoi Kusama exhibit. She’s the nearly-90 year old, diminutive Japanese “polka dot lady” with the flaming red Buster Brown haircut. Her show opened over a year ago to sell-out crowds in Washington, D.C. It equaled that success in New York City and Toronto and is now ensconced at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

The park outside Cleveland Art Museum
People might also know that Kusama — along with her obsession with polka dots — is mentally ill, suffering from hallucinations and nervous disorders. She says that she draws repetitive patterns to obliterate the images in her head. I assumed that’s pretty much why all artists create, ill or not.  

Kusama was the only child of a loveless marriage; her father was a philanderer, her mother played the victim and Yayoi admits that she grew up with very odd messages concerning sexuality. Her early days in the art world were punctuated by her nude art performance pieces, high-profile partying and an uncanny, instinctive talent for marketing her own brand.  By the 1970s, most art intellectuals considered her over-exposed and a spotlight seeker.  

Her return to Japan drew tepid response. She had something of a breakdown, checked herself into a mental institution where she continues to live forty years later as more or less a “live-in, out patient” but with a private art studio. Obviously, given her age, she’s frail but still works and claims that “aging frees the child within us.”  I get that and her installation is full of joy — colors and lights and mirrors and more dots than any one place could ever deserve.

It’s the other thing I want to talk about…the emphasis on her mental health. 

I expected some push-back from my last review. (O.K., so the color on the walls, the framing, the lighting…picky, picky, picky!) It’s the other thing…capitalizing on the state of Josephine Tota’s mental health as a major part of an ad campaign that has my knickers in a twist.

Austrailian Hannah Gadsby delivers a powerful monologue on Netflix. Cherokee native writer Tommy Orange’s current bestseller THERE, THERE is setting the literary world aflame this Fall.  Both stress the importance of stories — stories repeated throughout our lives that go unchallenged and get passed along as truth. True or not, they inform the way we see ourselves, our history, our professions, and our sexuality.

It’s time to take a hard look at the stories repeated about artists.  The magic burden of victimization is delivered with every press release, every chapter in the art history book, that details a slip into mental illness, depression, loneliness, or addictions as though that explains a life’s work. The stories continue the mythology that to be a good artist — certainly, a great one — requires pain and damage and suffering. Logically, the reverse must also be true. Ergo, stabile family, good educational foundation, middle class most of the way…you must fail as a great artist because you missed the suffering class.

Guess what? Facts do not substantiate any of that. Several studies in recent years proved just the opposite. One from 2005 (Stanford Medical Research) found that depression and mental illness decreases creativity. Another from Sweden found that all artists for all media are most creative when they are in positive moods.  There is a tiny bit of evidence that writers and poets may suffer more frequently from depression. I’m merely speculating here but all artists may be drawn to life style choices that diminish their overall health — mental and physical. 

But I want artists to stand up. Be strong. Be proud. Reject the roll foisted on the profession by centuries of excuses: 

“We must not be good business people because’s we’re ‘artistic,’ 

“Our worthiness quotient is less because we’re really crazies. We are unreliable because…” 

“Artists are always poor and suffering, (addicted, neurotic, psychotic);  they should be grateful for any scrap of attention or reward that gets thrown their way.”

In the case of Josephine who began seriously painting after age 70, that right there gives pause. As a seamstress, she witnessed women in all their stages of marriage, parenthood, abandonment. Her paintings reflect the sadness of the female role in the society she knew honed through mature experience.

Was she all those other things — lonely, depressed? Hell, yes, sometimes! Am I? You bet! I’m past 70; let me count the ways!  Is it enough to scare my family sometimes? Yep…but I’m a writer. I’ll use the personal mental stuff because, basically, I have no shame.  

Visual artists give us pictures. And yes, background, politics and mores of their culture and era are all relevant when discussing their art. So talk about that when you’re doing those bios.   

Kusama continues to give us dots — an eternity of dots. It’s hard not to smile when you’re surrounded by Wonderbread dots. And pumpkins.

Wonderbread Dots, Kusama exhibit