Sunday, March 17, 2019


My woods
I am reading Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver — poem and prose writers inspired by nature. Their words drip with profundity in beautifully artistic ways. I want to be them — to observe the spiral of a hawk, disturbing the air enough to set off tornados worlds away from his and my suburban nesting ground — to discover a universe in frozen puddles and to rejoice at the pregnant budding of pre-spring apple saplings. 

I want to find meaning in the mundane. Instead, I’ve spent the winter watching Netflix.

A thaw arrived this week. For a few days, my neighbors were tricked into believing that winter is ending. We are easily fooled. But sure enough 97 year old Shirley who lives two doors over, stood on her back deck and fired off golf balls toward the woods. I looked up from lunch and there she was, using her 7 iron as a walking stick, wandering down the hillside in search of her balls.

I sent my husband out to help her. She likes him better than me. He’s tall. She likes to lean on him. Shirley told him that she’d recently been in the hospital but she couldn’t remember why and that she didn’t realize she’d walked so far away from her back deck and was now wondering how she’d ever get back home. Thank goodness he showed up!

Shirley doesn’t watch Netflix. She practices Chinese brush painting. And she drinks Vodka. I wonder if Dillard and Oliver drink Vodka?

Doug, next door to Shirley, taps and collects tree sap near winter’s end. In time honored practice, he boils the sap down in his outdoor “sugar shack” to make his very own syrup. Doug invites his church “men’s group” to a Saturday morning breakfast of campfire pancakes and fresh syrup. My husband goes too. The pancakes aren’t very good. 

There aren’t too many maple trees in our back woods so Doug taps a whole variety of trees. Boiling down sap to make syrup requires a lot of sap! He should host a “taste off.” Identify and compare the tree whose sap made which syrup. I have a friend whose neighbors plan a monthly wine tasting. Same thing.

Pancake Day is a full party day at Doug’s house. Late in the afternoon, his elderly parents arrived to share the fun. I wonder why they thought they could drive their Lincoln into the woods? The path back to the shack is narrow; wooded ravines fall off on both sides. The shack sits at the end of the path on its own small island pad. But there they went. 

Half way back, the Lincoln took a nose dive off the path and now its front end dangles over the edge of the ravine, back tires anchored in the muddy path. Tow trucks came and went — a sheriff or two. My husband went over to “look things over.” (It’s a “man thing.”) He suggested calling the fire department but Doug is pretty embarrassed. How to explain that a Lincoln is stranded in his woods? I mean…who would try such a thing? Maybe  they should consult Shirley. She’s been around the block a time or two. At least, she could give them all a shot of Vodka. 

It’s lunch time again: Day #2.  The car’s still there. I don’t know what became of the parents. Doug is still boiling tree sap. My life.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


THE LATE MRS. PERSIMMON (oil on linen, 30in.x26in.) 
Last week, Main Street Gallery in Clifton Springs opened a Robert Marx art show. The paintings assembled are all of a piece. In this work, ghostly skeletal shapes and pale funereal flowers dissolve into somber backgrounds. Two death masks stare back at viewers from gold leaf. 

Mr. Marx has painted a death sonnet.

Robert Marx celebrated his 90th birthday a few years ago.  Until then, he got out of bed every morning, dressed and drove to his studio several miles from home to work a full day. Two or three years ago, he moved his studio to the lower level of the home he shares with his wife, Francie. He still works a full day — every day — but (as the comedian said), the commute is shorter.

Until he retired, Bob taught art at the State University, Brockport campus. Before that, he taught at Syracuse University. His personal art iconography  became familiar throughout Upstate New York —portraits of needle nosed (mostly) unisex figures staring hollow-eyed from waxy backgrounds. He abandoned graphic color contrast choices early on in favor of grayed down, browned out, blackened shades to define clothing, accessories, and backgrounds. 

Robert Marx (artist statement)
Bob has enjoyed a respectable degree of acclaim. After more than half a century, people still want to purchase and live with his art. Those of us whose job it is to contemplate meaning in narrative art find his images challenging and fun to analyze. From an outsider’s view, his life looks satisfyingly full.

I asked Robert recently “Can you teach someone to be an artist?” He answered immediately: “No!”

I keep rewinding that conversation. He’s right, of course. Humans are problem solvers. It’s the problems that inspire our quest for solutions that send us down life paths: fireman, teacher, plumber, drummer. So we take classes or apprentice or experiment to find the solutions to those problems that capture our interest and our imagination. Any of us can learn art techniques. Does that make us “artists?” 

“Music is not in the notes but in the silence between them.” (Claude Debussy) 

I can play Ragtime on my piano as long as little black notes are placed on skinny music score lines…but I can’t play “ragtime.” I have no feel for it…I can’t improvise…I don’t know what “walking the base” even means. 

I enjoy playing the piano but I can’t label myself a “pianist.” “Solving the problems” of being really good at playing the piano required more work, more dedication, more totality than I was capable or willing to devote to the solutions. So it is a hobby.

Art is not a hobby for Robert Marx. He is an artist and after years of problem solving, understands the blank spaces — the silence between notes. 

At the gallery opening, me, Kathleen Leahy talking to ?, and Robert Marx

Saturday, February 2, 2019


One of my Bill Stewart pieces, circa 1995
Bill Stewart is leaving town.  I will miss him.

I can’t pinpoint my introduction to Bill’s outrageous clay sculpture.  Maybe it was a 1970s Finger Lakes Exhibition at Memorial Art Gallery. 

Rochester was an art version of Alice’s Wonderland in those days. Chip and I, dragging our young daughters along, discovered Shop One on Troupe Street in the Corn Hill district of the City. Shop One began as the whim of faculty superstars from the School for American Crafts. It provided a place for them, their students and their friends to exhibit and sell what became history-making art pieces.

Three Crowns, nestled between the Erie Canal and factory buildings in Pittsford, was such an exquisite building that I wanted to live there — with or without its contents. Years later, I went searching for that building. It was gone — or so changed that I couldn’t recognize it — another sad day!

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, as many as two dozen independently owned art spaces existed in Rochester. Oxford Gallery on Park Avenue is the lone survivor. 

A recent essayist wrote that galleries “are the beating heart of the art world.”  They provide a mechanism through which artists’ works find routes into great collections, and along with marketing art, they nearly always serve an educational function. Gallerists research art markets, and publish books and often write essays for trade magazines.  Art galleries  provide a place to exchange ideas and in doing that, they automatically become builders of community. 

It’s dangerous to spend much time walking down memory lane — no side rails to keep you from falling off into the abyss! But there’s no denying: the giants that lived in Rochester and carved new territory in decorative arts  have died, retired, moved away, or closed studios. A significant era has ended  as surely as our industrial giants— Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb — now gasp on life support. 

A case might be made that artists’ studios and social media have replaced galleries in this era of self-promotion. But clinging to its glory days as an “art capital” is over-stating Rochester’s present status. We might as easily point to the growth of micro-breweries as proof of manufacturing health. 

I wish the best for Bill Stewart and his family. His unique art informed and delighted us. Now that he and his contemporaries have left the stage, we wait for the next act. 

But where is the stage?


Thursday, January 10, 2019

IT'S 2019!

Today is January 1, 2019, the last “teen” year I — and probably you — will ever know. I read that on facebook. Does it matter? Maybe. Add it to the growing list of other things I will never again experience. 

I expect I’ll never see elephants walking down Main Street in my town again. I did once. They walked from the train where the circus disembarked and ended their Main Street stroll at the auditorium where the Shriner’s Circus was setting up. They did not obey traffic lights. 

I will never again wear the Armani silk, size 8, suit hanging in the closet downstairs. I am no longer in the business world. Do business people still wear silk Armani suits? Even if the jacket has an amazingly cute Oriental collar and a Rockette lineup of buttons cutting through the  front? “Office casual” has taken over. I don’t know what that means.

I will never buy another new car… as soon as we finish the negotiations to buy this one. It’s too hard. First, the cars all look exactly the same; it’s hard to remember which ones you test drove yesterday or last week. Every single car is apparently a prize winner. I’ve never heard of any of these prizes. No matter what amazing clearance sale is advertized, after all the discounting, the price comes out the same. 

There are places I will never visit again — the Liberty Bell, Old Faithful, Disneyland. 

I will never own a cat. That window has closed. I don’t much like cats. I read Ursula LeGuin’s last book “No Time to Waste” which I liked. She wrote a lot about her cat. It obviously brought her much pleasure and comfort. I was not persuaded. 

I refuse to invent New Year’s Resolutions ever again.  If I haven’t tackled it, tried it, tasted it or visited it by now, I never will and probably didn’t much care in the first place.

How to react to this new reality?  With some relief, some nostalgia and some sadness for the list must include “I will never create another garden.” And “I probably will never again breathe in the smell of a newborn baby.” Some things about growing old are unexpectedly blissful; others are heartbreakingly sad. 

The trick is to find grace in both.

Friday, December 14, 2018


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.

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018


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


“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.