Sunday, January 10, 2021

BILL STEWART REMEMBERED

 When Peter was little, he took everything apart — old toasters, radios, television sets. He  was obsessed with how things worked so it was no surprise that when he grew up, he became a mechanical engineer. 


Some kids are like Peter — born with an obsession that never leaves them.  I’m betting that Bill Stewart was one of those kids. I’ll bet his pockets were perpetually full of “treasures” — shiny rocks, shards of bone and shells, pieces of twine and odd bottle caps. Throughout his life, Bill remained fascinated with obscure, funny, quirky objects of human life — mechanical toys, plastic G.I.Joes, doll parts and shop tools.  All those things and a million other bits appeared in his art — sculpture that bristled with texture and pattern. And co-incidentally, formed a unique narrative of life stretched throughout the 20th and into the 21st Century.


No-one casually meeting Bill Stewart would ever have pegged him as an intellectual and certainly not an artist. He could talk sports as easily as contemporary painting; loved sailing as much as visiting museums. He was rarely without a baseball cap on his head and hardly ever missed Saturday morning breakfast with “the guys” in the local diner, the-flannel-shirt-overall-Carhart crowd. Growing up, Bill was part of an average, middle class American, mid-western family -- none with any particular interest in the arts. He entered college with no clear career goals. 


That changed when he stepped into the art department, particularly the ceramic studio. There, he was free to knit together various strings of interest and talent: working with his hands, spatial perceptions, weird sociological observations and setting, working toward and meeting specific self-made goals. The Master’s Degree in Art gave him a key to lifetime security teaching at S.U.N.Y. Brockport. He and Bonnie raised three sons in that nearly idyllic rural setting. Bonnie taught english in the regional middle school. 


A review of his art over near-fifty years of work illustrates Bill’s exploration of ideas, techniques and interests. At its core are a few unchanging basics: 


  1. Always sculptural and figurative (Bill had little interest in functional pottery and to my knowledge never did any work at all on a potter’s wheel.)  
  2. Obsession with texture. 
  3. A unique visual language. Only a few other artists — recently labeled “Outsiders” — share a similar vocabulary. 
  4. Shining through always, a sly sense of humor.


The academic art community never quite knew what to make of Bill or his art. He simply didn’t fit the categories. The work was purely sculpture (fine art?)  but hand built of clay, (craft?)  It was easy to underestimate the seriousness of Bill's art. Living and working on the east coast may have further been to his disadvantage — the Funk and Ashcan Art Movements on the west coast seem most similar to Bill’s visual playbook and could have offered him more support and intellectual recognition.


But those of us who knew him, loved the core of the man and recognized the originality of the work. His fans always looked forward to the next curveball that Bill was forever throwing in our direction. He didn’t disappoint. 


Bill Stewart died December 30, 2020


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See major pieces by Bill Stewart installed in Rochester, New York, at Monroe County Airport, Grove Place Neighborhood (Selden Street)

and Memorial Art Gallery. 

One of the last major sculptures Bill Stewart finished now installed at Memorial Art Gallery.

 Bill Stewart at his home with "Socks", 2019

Monday, December 21, 2020

THE EYE SURGERY TANGO

 I got an eye job.  I didn’t know I needed one. I wasn’t even sure what that was. I view all surgery as questionable and facial surgery as mostly vanity unless you were born like Sylvester Stallone with a tilting head and permanent lip snarl — the result of “assisted birth” by a doctor too aggressive with forceps. 


None of that happened to me. I merely reached mid-70s and my eye lids gave up trying to stay all the way up. I thought I was just tired. Or maybe sick of the world anyway so why would I want to see the whole disgusting scene?


But there I was, in the Office of Torture —the annual eye exam. No place that I can think of attacks my self-confidence quite as acutely. The assistant begins “which is clearer” and I immediately begin melting into the chair…”Please, please, please don’t call on me today. I didn’t prepare! I meant to read the assignment but the dog threw up and I needed wine.”


Not only is A not one bit clearer than B but I can’t tell the difference! And then I totally give up and admit that the entire wall is a blur. Just let me out of here and I promise I’ll never drive again! 


But Madame Hilda says “well, just guess.” That’s when I tell her that I’m sorry but I can’t read the Greek alphabet. Hilda is not amused. She leaves in a huff “I’ll call the doctor in now.” 


Uh-oh! Now I’ve done it. I have eye cancer!!! 


A “Field Vision Test” was next. It was more fun than the “A or B” routine. You sit in a chair and click when you see a little light appearing anywhere on the screen. The lights dart around like lighting bugs and before too long I was just clicking the damned remote figuring what the hell — guess work got me through school — it could work again.


I failed.


So here I am two weeks after surgery.  I visited the eye surgeon last week. He said “I’m surprised you can see anything with those cataracts.” This came as complete news to me but it explains a lot…like why I see three moons…why my neighborhood is full of sparkles…why night time driving is a lot like “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” My entire universe has become one giant Star Wars episode. I guess I’ll have the cataracts removed in February or March but in a way, I’ll miss all the sparkles. Who doesn't like sparkles?



Sunday, November 15, 2020

ODE TO SANDWICHES

CLASSIC GRILLED CHEESE WITH TOMATO SOUP
Can you think of anything more perfect than sandwiches?


First, you get bread — any kind! Glucose intolerant? There’s a bread for that. Nut allergies? No problem! Problem with gluten? Yep, found one. And any shape will do:  flat, pocketed, round or the classic “loaf.”


My mom never made bread — the kind that requires yeast and kneading. She baked cornbread and biscuits. “Wonderbread” — in the polka dot wrapper — was my initiation into soft, white bread. I was about 6 or 7. Pauline, my next-door neighbor, could go inside her house any time and bring out white-bread-and-yellow-mustard-sandwiches which she shared. Before too long, I was buying Wonderbread on my own and graduated to butter-and-sugar sandwiches — the slippery slope to bread addiction.


All kinds of exotica can be added to basic bread dough — seeds, berries, nuts, spices, sea salt (is sea salt a spice?) Plain, toasted or fried. Even steamed - although I’ve never been a fan of wet bread. Does steamed bread really count? Isn’t that actually a dumpling? Or maybe for Brits, a pudding? 


(Aside: I’ve been thinking about french toast. In theory, it’s fried bread. But if there’s no filling, it’s not a sandwich. Same with plain old buttered toast — even if you put jam on it — unless you smash two pieces of toast together and then, voila! you have yourself a jam sandwich!)


In years past, I did enjoy canned bread. Canned bread is very dense and very dark brown. The best thing about canned bread is that it doesn’t go stale in the can so if you’re outfitting a bomb shelter, say, you can fill an entire shelf with canned bread. Later, you’ll be glad you did.


Which brings me to sandwich fillings. Like bread, there are no rules and nothing is out of bounds. Is your sandwich eater a vegetarian? Sure there’s the ordinary lettuce-and-tomato add-to but that’s just a start. Cucumber sandwiches are the hoity-toity of tea parties. Or watercress. Why would anybody bother eating watercress even on bread? During late summer, nothing is any better than a ripe tomato sandwich with mayo when the tomato is so juicy it drips all down the front of you and ruins your white t-shirt. 


 Any combination of cheese and meat filling makes a tasty sandwich. Basically, that’s why the refrigerator is full of possibilities. No piece of pork roast is too small to save. What about the half eaten chicken breast? That too. It doesn’t really matter who initially left it on their dinner plate. Tomorrow, it’s fair game for anybody’s sandwich. 


You can even do a sandwich with OTHER BREAD as filling! Fancy places call that a “club sandwich” but you can’t get around it — one layer is another slice of bread! 


If a vegetarian is still around who eats dairy, go for grilled cheese. Paired with Campbell’s tomato soup, everybody can time-travel. You are 8 years old again. It’s a cold Saturday morning and “Sky King” or the “The Lone Ranger” is on the television. Mom calls you in for lunch before forcing you to get dressed and get outside. Grilled cheese sandwiches always remind me of the Lone Ranger playing on a black and white television sitting across from a scratchy sofa upholstered in dark brown nylon.


The King of Sandwiches: nothing beats the left over Thanksgiving dinner sandwich — turkey, dressing (there’s bread-inside-bread again), and cranberry sauce! Yes! Fruit! Inside a sandwich! Want more fruit fillings? Try thinly sliced apple on turkey. Or peach chutney on pork. Sometimes, I skip Thanksgiving dinner and go straight to the left over sandwich.


Sandwiches require no eating implement! No tools at all! It’s totally appropriate finger food no matter what company you’re in. All dressed up in hat and gloves? Tiny triangles (sandwiches!) At a wedding? Funeral? Bris? Canapes…just a fancy word for sandwich. Doing a big party for the neighbors? Office? Church? Lay the table with bread and sliced meat and walk away. Everybody knows what to do — no explanation needed. Having a cook out? Hot dog and hamburger buns: sandwich bread in disguise.


I nominate sandwiches as the perfect food.



 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

THE WEEK THAT WAS


 Last week, I reported that Chip was sick. He had pain in his ear that radiated down his jaw and up into a sinus cavity with total hearing loss and sleepless nights. SOMETHING SERIOUS. 


Four health professionals pointed tiny wands into his ear canal, scratched their heads and said the wrong things. For six days, he took prescription drugs, tried heating pads, ice packs and acupuncture. I suggested rubbing his ear with a dirty t-towel then burying it in the back yard at midnight then I remembered “No, that’s the treatment for warts.” 


I was no help at all.


On day #6, he got in the car to pick up yet another prescription, hit the Down garage door button instead of the Up and broke the door. That thing on top of cars? That looks a little like a shark fin? We don’t have one now. I can only get one radio station — FM. It plays polkas.


On day #7, he saw an Ear, Nose, Throat specialist. 


“Yep, you have a fungus growing in your ear.” The PA cleaned it out. Chip took pictures. It looked a little like pureed over-ripe mushroom. Instant cure! (He never gave the t-shirt thing a chance.)


Today’s New York Times says “good luck to newly elected President Biden but everything hinges on a cure for Covid 19. Nothing else much matters — getting the economy back on its feet, confronting solutions to racism, climate change, restoring dignity to the White House.” 


It occurs to me that maybe we haven’t gone to the right specialist.


“There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.” (James Baldwin)


Not everybody was thrilled about the national election outcome but I think there is plenty to be happy about: more women elected to public office than ever before including a transgender Congresswoman, four native American women, and in Oklahoma (my home state) a 27 year old binary-sexual person to the State legislature. (I had to look it up.) Stacey Abrams emerged as a powerful energy source, somebody everybody should want on their team! 


What to me are signs of evolution are — to some people —  signs of America’s growing pagan-satan-worshipping, socialistic depravity who lament (that’s a good civil word) that “this president was elected by women and blacks.” 


So? What’s your point?


Stay well and wash your hands.


Our little red barn....













 





Sunday, September 27, 2020

ROBERT MARX; AN AUTHENTIC LIFE

 Robert Marx had the kind of tall, rangy body that hinted at the youngster he must have been — outdoors, riding horses, planting trees, comfortable in his skin — a Sam Elliott/Clint Eastwood kind of man. He smoked cigarettes in those days — a habit he gave up after a heart attack about 40 years back —wore plaid flannel shirts nearly exclusively, and grew the mustache that he wore the remaining years of his life.


I didn’t know him when he was young, of course. Nor do I know how he got from Germany, his birth place, to the United States. A bunch of talented European artists landed in Upstate New York during the 1950s and 1960s — Kurt Feuerherm, Tage Frid, Frans Wildenhain, Hans Christensen, Robert Marx.  Who said “they came for a better life?” That sounds about right.


They took jobs teaching in newly developed college art departments. I asked Bob Marx in an interview last year: “Can you teach art?”  He answered “No. You can only guide people.  I worked alongside the students in class. They could ask questions, watch how I did things.”


Is that enough? I don’t know that either. I’ve never taken an art class. Design, yes. But not art. Sure, even I could learn perspective, color theory, art history. The great violinist Itzak Perlman said “Music is what happens between the notes.” 


Art is what happens beyond technical skills. 


These artists brought with them a universe of talent and equally important, an “old school philosophy” of what it meant to be an artist — to lead an artful life — a life of authenticity. They approached life with curiosity and intellect and generosity. 


“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.” (Paul Klee)


Robert shared the last third of his life with Francie. While he was tall and quiet, she is tiny and bubbly. Robert twinkled; Francie is LED super-wattage. They were regulars at classical concerts and loved good movies. Walls at their house are lined with books and favorite movie videos. Until a year or two ago, they thought nothing of loading up the car and starting out on multi-state swings to visit old friends and galleries.


I asked Bob: Have you kept any of your paintings? 


“Yes, I have 5 or 6.”


Why did you keep those? 


“I was trying to get to something and they came closest.”


I think Bob was referring to the music between the notes…his art. 


Robert died September 21, 2020. He was 94 years old.  



 

Robert Marx (photo by Joan Stormont)


Monday, September 21, 2020

COG IN THE WHEEL OF LIFE

 So, you’re old. Really old! Now what? 


You are no longer defined by the job, nor the children, nor the things you bought for your powder room, nor the tile you choose for the re-do of your powder room because guess what?  That was twenty-five years ago and who cares? Nobody much comes to your house so nobody ever uses it!


You are old and depressed. It’s called being “irrelevant.” Now what? You used to be “somebody.” Everybody knew you. Well, maybe not everybody when you really think about it. But you had friends that met twice a week. Now they’re dead or moved to Phoenix.  Chris Rock says in a NY Times interview that you can’t count on friends anyway. But you think your friends are different? Ha! They’ll still move away to be close to “the son in Nevada.”


You worked at (an office, a factory, a store, a farm) and somebody was always needing something that you had. Now? Everything you have is old, worn, out of date, or lost in the last move. Or also irrelevant.


You tried volunteer work which you hated. Your book club/sewing circle/Bible study group dissolved — the Covid 19 quarantine was the final straw. You looked through all the pamphlets for “Continuing Education for the Elderly” and wanted to throw up. You’ve been thinking about writing your memoirs but your life hasn’t been all that interesting and your grandkids don’t read anything unless it’s on their “device.”


Frankly, you did all that “searching and expanding your horizons” stuff in your 40’s and 50’s. You found yourself, made peace with the whole mess and moved on. (You still can’t actually meditate. You try but all you really do is sit with your eyes closed and think about what you’ll have for lunch.)


So what now? (By the way, two caveats for this “irrelevant” situation: you will never be shuffled off to Buffalo if you are rich and give your money away. A whole bunch of people will still call on you with their hands outstretched. Also, if you know how to shake the money tree — if you were a huge donation finder in your previous stints on non-profit boards. But don’t count on that last one. Those sources you tapped? They’ve died or moved to Ft. Myers.)


Google passes on some answers to the age relevancy thing.

First, make sure you can hear, smell or see as well as possible.

Keep up with technology.

Listen to current music.

Go out (after 5:30 pm).

Do not criticize styles - remember your hair in high school?

Entertain and mix up the guest list.

Don’t talk about your health problems (outside the doctor’s office).

Stay as physically active as possible.

Make yourself an authority on something specific or…

Own all the tools!!!

TALK LESS, LISTEN MORE AND ASK QUESTIONS.


O.K. Maybe. But something’s missing from this list — something I can’t quite put my finger on — something I can’t quite find. 


I think it’s this: respect yourself. You are still a significant part of the universal script. Your contribution to this crazy play is necessary. So play your part with gladness and gusto.

  

Charcoal drawing by Peter Allen, "Made In New York"













Friday, September 11, 2020

SOME DAYS ARE JUST LIKE THAT

I’m having trouble writing these days — writing anything at all — emails to family and friends, letters of outrage, birthday messages to grandchildren. I sit down at the computer, type in a line or two and then….nothing. Finally, after I’ve looked out windows, and gone for another handful of salted nuts, I hit the “save” button. After a few days, my desk top is covered with them...debris from days of writing failures. I send them all to the trash. Frankly, that slight effort feels like accomplishment.


Is this depression? Reality? Age related? Diet related? I’m also not exercising as much and that leads to all kinds of mental mayhem. 


Or is this grief? 


This is the 6 month anniversary of “Lockdown” — half a year. Will we ever sit in a crowded theater again? Host a come-one-come-all party? Cheer for our favorite team among  a crowd of fans? Hug and be hugged in return?


We need a warning siren installed in our brain  — SHUT DOWN NOW. SYSTEM OVERLOAD. TAKE COVER.  We do. The sirens are all over the news: alcoholism is up. Gun sales have increased which predicts an increase in suicides. 1 in 4 young people between ages 18 and 24 think seriously about killing themselves. Domestic violence. Public unrest. Anger. BAD DREAMS! 


Whew….anybody have a spare bottle of Valium? 


What do we do with all this cosmic sadness? I wish it was an easy prescription …a pill. “Take 1 daily with ice cream.” 


This week I visited a friend. She lives in a Shangri La that she’s built with hard work, creative genius and admittedly, $$$. It’s been 40 years in the making…beautiful flower gardens, a bird sanctuary… peaceful fields of grasses… a pond designed for frogs and children. She climbs off her tractor, throws her workman gloves across its seat and walks toward me.


“Sit down. I’ll bring out some iced tea.”  We sit outside the required 6 feet apart. In every direction, the view is delicious. If you lived here, could anything bad ever happen? But she is not immune to sadness and trials — her life includes its quota of scars. 


“I asked … to rototill that patch over there. I’m moving shrubs.  He’ll do it, but for him, it’s a chore. Like ‘please vacuum the living room’ chore.  Not for me. I loose myself out here. Sure, it’s hard work but I just….” 


She looks around and begins pointing out changes since my last visit. She doesn’t say “love” … or “satisfaction”…or “accomplishment” but those are obvious. I remember the definition of “happiness” from the Yale happy class.  Here it is. She's offered me a transfusion. I soak it in for an hour before driving back into town.