Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dali & da Vinci - Where Minds, Machines and Masterpieces Meet

"American Neighbors" by Roger Shimomura (1996)
When Janice and I headed to St. Pete last week, our primary destination was the Museum of Fine Arts.  I'd never been to the Museum before, and its current exhibit entitled "Monet to Matisse on the French Coast" sounded worth the journey. We enjoyed the Museum, which is the equivalent of a Whitman's sampler with small collections of everything from Renaissance art to Modernism. The Monet to Matisse exhibit, though, was not particularly exciting. In fact, my favorite visual of the day was a contemporary work in the exhibit on Japanese woodblock prints -- "American Neighbors" by Roger Shinomura.

And so we were glad we had decided to add the Dali Museum to our adventure.  Janice had never been to the Dali before, and  I was interested in the Dali & da Vinci exhibit.  While I always love visiting the Dali, I didn't have high expectations for the da Vinci show. Both the Warhol and Picasso exhibits at the Dali were interesting, but nothing worth writing home (or blogging) about.  (Having said that, it was a Dali-esque experience to do a "screen test" a la Warhol in connection with that exhibit. Click here to get a sense of how painfully long five minutes can be.)

Dali at International Surrealism Exhibition
The brochure for the exhibit explains that both Dali & da Vinci "shared an ambition to use the tools of art to explore the whole of the human experience." Of course, their approaches to accomplishing this goal were somewhat different. 

When we entered the gallery, I was drawn to a small (kind of creepy) recreation of an underwater breathing apparatus that da Vinci had designed.  On the adjacent wall was this picture of Dali wearing the diving suit in which he delivered a lecture at the London International Surrealism Exhibition in 1936.  (Dali apparently almost suffocated during the presentation and had to be released from the suit by a fellow participant.)  Why, you might ask, would he lecture in this gear? Because "artists, like deep sea divers, explore the unconscious to surface hidden treasures of the mind.
Dalinian Analysis of Famous Artists

Janice and I got a huge kick out of Salvador's "Dalinian Analysis" of the work of 12 artists, including himself.  He rated renowned artists from da Vinci to Picasso to Vermeer in nine categories like color, originality and composition.  Dali awarded da Vinci a score of 20, the highest possible mark, for genius, mystery and authenticity.  In fact, with a maximum possible score of 180, da Vinci received a 166.  Dali awarded himself an aggregate score of 148; Mondrian's total was 4.  

Rendering of "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955)
Given Dali's respect for da Vinci, it wasn't surprising to find that Dali tipped his hat to him on several occasions -- sometimes even in a serious way. Dali's Masterwork "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" is his homage to da Vinci's "The Last Supper."  This rendering was displayed with a copy of da Vinci's work and the red lines show how the compositions of the works align.  The work is done in a style Dali referred to as "nuclear mysticism." 
Halsman's "Dali as Mona" (1954)

Dali is Dali, though, and he sometimes couldn't resist his creative impulses. With the help of photographer Philip Halsman, Dali became da Vinci's Mona Lisa.  This 1954 photograph seems to reference Marcel Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q.", a work in which the Dadaist gave Mona a moustache and goatee. Dali takes it a step further, imposing his own eyes and moustache on the work along with his hairy hands clutching some gold coins.  When Halsman asked Dali what he saw when he looked at the photo he responded by saying -- with reference to the money -- "a paragon of beauty."  (For a hilarious look at other artists' take on Mona, click here.)

The Dali-daVinci exhibit runs through July 26th.  Check it out if you get the chance.    

Monday, May 11, 2015

Play Lab at Florida Rep

My curiosity was piqued last year when I heard about Florida Rep's 1st Annual Play Lab. It was an opportunity to see staged readings of new works, one of which would be presented this season. Talk-backs with the playwright and actors would take place after each reading. All for $10 per show. How could I resist?

My favorite reading was "Split in Three" by Daryl Lisa Fazio. Florida Rep's production of the show just closed, and it got rave reviews. But here's the crazy thing -- I enjoyed the staged reading just as much as the full-blown production! So when this year's Play Lab rolled around, I didn't hesitate before signing up for the entire Festival.

Mike Magliocca as the Tin Man
in "Journey to Oz"
My week-end of theater started off with a production of "Journey to Oz." The play was commissioned by Florida Rep as part of last year's Play Lab, and I opted out of the reading because it was a children's show. What a mistake!

Playwright Christopher Park is the Artist Director of The Experiential Theater Company, a group that brings "immersive, interactive theater" to kids in the United States and the U.K. And so I wasn't surprised when kids - and adults - were invited onstage to join the fun. While the play focuses on Dorothy's travel to Oz via tornado and the ensuing events, nods were given to Frank Baum's other Oz books (14 in all). A great time was had by all, and I'd highly recommend the show to kids of all ages.

Playwright Cynthia Babak and partial cast of "Where I Dwell"
My favorite reading of the week-end was "Where I Dwell" by Cynthia Babak.  It's a finely crafted story about family and relationships and loving each other in spite of your differences. Ms. Babak's writing is beautiful, and the nine-member cast was amazing. The show got a standing ovation after the last word was spoken.

Then came the talk-back. As far as the audience was concerned, putting "Where I Dwell" in Florida Rep's line-up for next year was an easy decision. But Bob Cacioppo, founder and producing artistic director of Florida Rep, had some logistical concerns.  To him, the script reads more than a screenplay than a theatrical production. Seventeen locations are called for. The audience immediately began brainstorming workable ways to stage the production. One person suggested projecting settings onto a screen. Another talked about the move towards minimalist sets.  A third suggested having a run just as a staged reading. Time will tell what happens with "Where I Dwell," but I'd go out of my way to see (or hear) it again.

Ad for "Firestorm" at Kitchen
Dog Theater in Dallas
I also thoroughly enjoyed the other Play Lab drama, "Firestorm" by Meridith Friedman. The leads in the reading - Robin LeMon and Zolan Henderson - were coming right off a matinee performance of "Split in Three."  They had no trouble switching gears, though, and did a terrific job with the thought-provoking story. While the play is set in the context of a political campaign, it's really about marriage and race and the consequences of past decisions. I loved its humor and the fact it made me think about some of the choices I've made in my life. And I liked the ambiguity of its ending (which the playwright shared has been changed several times).

Florida Rep is a member of the National New Play Network, and "Firestorm" came to the theater's attention through this organization. One of the ways NNPN gets new plays out to audiences is through its rolling world premiere program.  The concept is simple: NNPN will provide financial support to three (or more) theaters that mount a production of the same new play. It's an amazing opportunity for playwrights to work with different creative teams to produce their shows. In addition to the funding, participating theaters get the status of hosting a world premiere. A rolling world premiere of "Firestorm" is currently underway, and I'd love to see a production by Florida Rep added to the list.

The comedies in the Play Lab line-up didn't grab me nearly as much as the dramas. "The Dingdong" by Mark Shanahan is an adaptation from "Le Dindon" by Georges Feydeau.  Feydeau is the father of modern farce, so the play had the expected complicated (read silly) relationships and comings and goings.

"J'Oy Vey" by Lojo Simon and Anita Yellin Simons told the story of two women - one Jewish and one Christian - who spend a night with their twin granddaughters as Christmas/Chanukah approaches. Although the audience seemed to enjoy the reading, I felt the playwrights went for easy laughs.

From my perch as a mere theatergoer, neither play seemed sufficiently special to warrant the resources for its development and production.  (Capiocco shared that each show costs between $250-300,000 to produce, and I expect a world premiere would be more.)  Perhaps, though, I'm just not a comedy person. 

Regardless of whether or not any of these shows appears at Florida Rep again, it was a great week-end of theater. I'm already looking forward to next year.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the Tampa Museum of Art

The art of Norman Rockwell is synonymous with The Saturday Evening Post. And why wouldn't it be?  From 1916-1963, he created 321 covers for the magazine, reaching more than 2 million households each week. Rockwell called himself a reporter of present events and contemporary America. The American media called him the "Dickens of the paintbrush."  Regardless of what words you use, there's little doubt that Rockwell was a master storyteller.

Welcome to Elmville
The American Chronicles exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art gives visitors an opportunity to see the scope of Rockwell's work.  The Norman Rockwell Museum, which organized the show, created a terrific family guide that encourages kids of all ages to engage with the art.  In addition, each painting has a fulsome description that fills viewers in on the background for the image. "Fun facts" are interspersed throughout. Take Rockwell's "Welcome to Elmville" as an example.  The painting shows a new-found way for towns to raise money -- the speed trap. Viewers learn that typical speed limits were 20 mph in business districts and 45 mph on highways and that Ford's Model A cars could run at 60 mph. The family guide invites kids to come up with a slogan for the painting, giving the example of "Welcome to Elmville - a place where life slows down." (I couldn't come up with anything more clever.)

While I was impressed with The Saturday Evening Post portion of the exhibit, I have to admit that Americana doesn't fully engage me. It's an interesting slice of life that goes in one eye and out the other.  But there's more to Rockwell's art.

Rockwell in his studio
In my last post I wrote about hearing Ruby Bridges--whose image is captured in "The Problem We All Live With"--speak at the Museum about her memories of integration. Rockwell's foray into political art ended his 47 year relationship with The Saturday Evening Post. It was the policy of The Post to only include images of African-Americans at work in service industry jobs. A painting about the issue of integration was clearly not going to grace its cover. And so Rockwell parted ways with The Post, taking his work to Look magazine.

Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)
The most striking painting in the exhibit was entitled  "Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi)."  In 1964, Look commissioned Rockwell to create a painting to accompany an investigative article about the murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi. The exhibit includes some of the reference photos and notes that Rockwell compiled over the five weeks he dedicated to creating this work. His notes included information not only about what the men were wearing and how they had been killed but also that the temperature exceeded 100 degrees that day and that victim Andrew Goodman was an atheist. The painting was originally intended to span two pages, with the right hand page showing Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and the other lawmen responsible for the killings with guns and billy clubs in hand. (This version of the work was included in the exhibit as well.) Ultimately, the magazine decided that the inclusion of only the men's shadows conveyed the sense of menace more effectively.
I found my thoughts returning to "Murder in Mississippi" in the days following my visit to the exhibit. It's a prime example of the power of art to make us think and feel. 

"American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell" will be on display at the Tampa Museum of Art through May 31.  It's a show well worth making the effort to see. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ruby Bridges Speaks

"The Problem We All Life With" by Norman Rockwell (1964)
Even if you don't know the name Ruby Bridges, my bet is that you recognize her picture.  In 1964, Norman Rockwell memorialized Ruby's walk to her first grade class at William Franz Public School in New Orleans. The time was 1960, and desegregation was just underway in Louisiana (six years after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education).

I had the chance to hear Ms. Bridges speak at the Tampa Museum of Art last week in conjunction with an exhibit of Norman Rockwell's art. Her words were moving and inspirational.

Integration protesters
As Ms. Bridges took the stage, video played of the angry crowds whose gauntlet she had to run each morning with four U.S. marshals clearing the way. (Many women and children were in the crowds, and they were all too happy to have their pictures taken to show their opposition to integration.) But before we get there, the story of how she came to be at William Franz is worth sharing.

When integration finally loomed in New Orleans, segregationists worked to devise ways to keep the black children out of their schools. The first step to gain eligibility to attend a white school was to pass a written test.  (I haven't been able to find out the content of the test, but I do know this wasn't a requirement for the white kids.)  Approximately 130 children took the test, and only six passed.  Ruby was one of those children. 

And so, after much debate between her parents, it was decided that Ruby would go to the all white William Franz Public School.  At the time the decision was made, two other little girls from her neighborhood were scheduled to attend with her.  They dropped out, however, leaving Ruby as the sole black student in the school.

Ms. Bridges said she didn't know much about what was happening.  Her parents had told her she was going to a new school and that was that.  Ruby had attended kindergarten, so school was nothing new to her. But having to take a test to get in made her realize something special was happening.  Perhaps she was going to college, she thought.  When the U.S. Marshals showed up to drive her (and her mother) the five blocks to school, she was confused, but she got in the car as her parents instructed. The procession of neighbors following the car to the school reminded her of a Mardi Gras parade.  So did the noise of the crowd when they arrived at the school as people chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we don't want to integrate." (Not knowing the meaning of the word "integrate," Ruby later used this chant when she jumped rope with friends.) 

Ruby and her mother were escorted into the school and to the principal's office.  The office had windows, and she could see lots of adults coming into the building and leaving with their children.  "College is a busy place," she thought.  The reality was that the parents were taking their kids out of school in protest. While everyone knew that two New Orleans schools were to be integrated that day, nobody knew which ones. At the end of the day, Ruby was the only child at William Franz.

Barbara Henry and Ruby
For many months, Ruby was taught in a class by herself by Barbara Henry, a teacher who had recently moved from Boston.  Ruby was not permitted to eat in the cafeteria due to threats to poison her.  On the rare occasions she and Mrs. Henry went to the playground, no kids were outside.  There were only a few men in suits lurking at the perimeters.  (They were plain clothes policemen protecting her from harm.)

It was a lonely time for Ruby, but she and Mrs. Henry became best friends.  They never missed a day of school.  Eventually, Mrs. Henry realized there were four other first graders being taught in a separate classroom.  She had to threaten the principal in order to get the classes combined (and then it was only for part of the day). Ruby finally had some classmates and, over time, friends. 

By the time Ruby entered second grade, first and second grades in all the New Orleans schools were integrated.  It still wasn't easy, but, as Bob Dillon sang, "The times they [were] a-changing." As current events show, however, we still have a long way to go.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Chicken Shop" at Urbanite Theatre

It's always exciting to get in on the ground floor of a new venture.  And I feel like I'm doing just that with the launch of Urbanite Theatre in Sarasota.  The theater was founded by Brendan Ragan and Summer Wallace, recent graduates of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory. According to its website, Urbanite Theatre is committed to "fresh works, burgeoning playwrights, and actor-driven productions."  Urbanite's production of "Chicken Shop" by Anna Jordan hits the mark on all three points. It was an extraordinary afternoon of theater.

When we entered the black box theater, I was struck by both the space and the set.  It's definitely intimate, with seating for approximately 55 theatergoers. In lieu of programs, information about Urbanite and the actors' bios was projected on a wall.  I like the approach -- both cost effective and environmentally friendly.

The set reflected the two worlds to which we would shortly be introduced.  Approximately three quarters of the stage was taken up by an apartment where a mother (Hillary), her young lesbian lover (Katie) and her 16 year old son (Hendrix) live in an uncomfortable arrangement. A bed and bureau that defined the parameters of the life of Luminita, a sex worker, claimed the remainder of the space.  

Throughout the afternoon, the action shifted from one set of relationships to the other.  On the home front, Hendrix is simultaneously dealing with bullying at school over the fact that his mother is gay and coming of age in a home lacking in testosterone.  In Luminita's world (over a chicken shop - hence the play's name), we quickly come to realize that the choice to work as a prostitute is not her own. In fact, she is so terrorized by her pimp that she won't even open the curtains to see the sun. When Hendrix decides to find a prostitute to shepherd him into manhood, his path crosses with Luminita's, and they strike up an unlikely friendship.

Ashley Scallon as Luminita
The story is gripping, and at points I realized I was hardly breathing as I waited to find out how the scene was going to end. It was the acting, however, that put the afternoon's performance over the top.  Ashley Scallon's ability to convey the depth of Luminita's despair was remarkable. Her vacuous gaze into the middle distance said more than words could ever convey.  Jason Bradley was powerful in his role as Leko, Luminita's pimp. He evoked a sense of simmering violence whenever he was onstage. Joseph Flynn, a 19 year old actor, was convincing and sympathetic in the role of Hendrix.  He is definitely someone to watch. Lauren Wood and Lucy Lavely competently rounded out the cast.

I came away from my first Urbanite outing thinking, "This is why I go to the theater." I am eagerly looking forward to the rest of the season, which features the regional premieres of "Reborning" by Zayd Dohrn (June 12-July 5) and "Isaac's Eye" by Jason Hnath (Aug. 14-Sept. 6).  I hope you'll join me in checking out this wonderful addition to the Southwest Florida theater scene.  Don't delay, though -- the extended run of "Chicken Shop" is sold out and tickets for the other shows are selling fast. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Critiquing Your Artwork with Ileane Taylor

Ileane Taylor
One of the perks of being a member of the Visual Arts Center is attending its Artist Development series. Although I am not an artist, I love these get-togethers. They allow me a glimpse into the artistic process while teaching me a thing or two that enhances my art appreciation. Plus they're just plain fun. The latest session on critiquing your own artwork with Ileane Taylor was no exception.

From the time Ileane began taking art lessons at age 14, critiques were a part of her process. That doesn't mean she has become immune to the sting harsh words (or, even worse, silence) can leave when she asks a friend or fellow artist for her opinion on a work in progress. She is a firm believer, however, that constructive commentary is necessary to grow as an artist.  With that in mind, she gave a quick overview of the components of pictorial expression she would use as her reference point for the rest of the afternoon:  Motivation, Composition, Drawing, Focal Point, Color and Emotional Response.

"My Husband's Hands" by Ileane Taylor
Ileane looked at some of her own paintings with a critical eye before sharing her thoughts about other artists' works. First up was a painting entitled "My Husband's Hands." Ileane's motivation for creating this image was her fascination with her husband's fingers. Over the course of their marriage, they have grown from a size 6 to their current size 12 1/2. She shocked the group by using chalk to draw an arch on the painting to emphasize its composition. (As the artists squirmed in their seats, Ileane reassured them that she wouldn't do this to their works.) Ileane talked about the importance of getting the anatomy of the hands right and the use of lights and darks to invoke a somber, contemplative mood.  Overall, she feels this is a successful work.

"Peaches and Owls" by Ileane Taylor
Ileane wasn't as easy on some of her other paintings, particularly her "Peaches and Owls."  What was she thinking, she asked, when she decided to pair a burrowing owl with peaches?   With a quick scratch of chalk, she showed how the composition of the work is out of balance, with an unclear focal point.  And, she wondered, how long would the little owl's legs actually have to be to reach to the bottom of the plate on which the peaches are resting?  At the end of the day, she said there is "so much wrong with this painting" that she'd start all over again if it were a work she wanted to hang.

Work by Thelma Daida
Thelma Daida was the first artist to share a work for the group's critique. Thelma is an abstract artist, which gave Ileane the opportunity to talk about the difference between intellectual and non-intellectual abstract paintings.  In an intellectual abstract, the viewer can discern images in the painting that provide a reference point.  Non-intellectual abstracts--like this one of Thelma's--rely solely on form, color and line for their impact.  The group liked the work with its strong colors and composition. The focal point is a Chinese character in the upper left quadrant.  There was some discussion about whether the work would benefit from a second character. Ileane's suggestion:  cut one out and see! 

Joy Sanders' lovely work provided an opportunity to talk about light and shadows. The sun shines through the window and hits the woman's back, which would leave her face in the shadows. Similarly, the white chair should be a bit grayer given the lighting in the room. The chair also draws the viewer's eye to the edge of the canvas (which violates Ileane's "no fly zone" rule of not having important elements within an inch of the edge of the picture). So, while the painting might faithfully replicate the reference work, Ileane felt that it would benefit from a bit more attention. 

Work by Joan Balmer
Over the course of the session, we looked at more than a dozen creations.  It was pure coincidence that the last work was unanimously lauded by the group as highly successful.  This fiber work by Joan Balmer depicts aquatic life and mangroves in a balanced, colorful and engaging way.  The use of netting to demark where the water line would be is nothing short of brilliant.  It was the perfect note on which to end the afternoon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Punta Gorda's Public Works Department

Our latest Citizens Academy session found us at the Public Works Department.  Department Director Rick Keeney kicked off the session by commenting that the members of his Department are the "unsung heroes" of Punta Gorda. After spending the morning learning the scope of what these men and women do, I'm in whole-hearted agreement with his characterization.

Here are some of the highlights:

Student Bruce Tompkins
--The Public Works guys are responsible for maintaining 116 miles of roads, 55 miles of sidewalks, 5079 street signs and 25 doggie doo stations. They also maintain PGI's 50 miles of canals (which translates into 100 miles of seawalls) and Burnt Store Isles' 7.5 miles of canals (15 miles of seawalls). 

--For PGI residents like me, the canal maintenance program was particularly interesting. The PGI canal system was built in the 1960s and '70s. Approximately 27% of the original canals have been replaced.  The seawalls are held in place by "dead man blocks" that extend 16 feet into the yard.  They weigh 1500 pounds. Tie back rods connect the sea wall panels to the dead man blocks. 

Recently poured sea walls
--The sea wall panels are built on site at the Public Works Department.  (Yes, this is unusual.)  Each panel is six inches thick with a rebar in the middle and weighs approximately 5,000 pounds. (Note: The original walls were only four inches thick.) They typically pour 15 panels a day to keep a supply on hand.

--Residents who live on the canals are in a special tax district that funds canal maintenance and reconstruction. The annual tax is $500 per lot; i.e., it is not based on linear square footage of seawall. 

--Residents are responsible for their own dredging outside of the navigable channel. While boat owners sometimes complain about not being able to dredge as deep as they would like, there's a good reason for the restrictions. The berm at the bottom of the canal helps hold the sea walls in place. Less berm translates into more maintenance.  Similarly, homeowners should not edge along their sea walls.  While the look might be nice at first, the eventual crumbling of their sea walls due to water seeping in behind them will not be attractive. 

--The discussion about the sanitation division (essentially trash and recycling collection) had the students on high alert. You heard it here first: The City is considering moving from the 18 gallon blue recycling bins to a single rolling 48 gallon bin. Some studies indicate that the larger bins promote more recycling. Given Punta Gorda's demographics, its residents might also prefer rolling their recycling out to the curb to lifting and carrying.  (Note: Despite the two bins we currently have, PG's recycling is single stream, meaning you can mix plastics and paper.)

--Plastic bags are high on the list of bad things people put in their recycling bins. Bags can easily get tangled in the sorting machinery, leading to the operation being shut down while the bag is manually removed. Pizza boxes and styrofoam are also no-nos. So are those popular LED and CFL light bulbs, which contain a small amount of mercury. Home Depots/Lowes have bins for their disposal.

--We toured the Public Works grounds and were treated to a demonstration of a pot hole being filled. The hot patch is 300 degrees when laid down.  In order to compress the area, workers use a rolling machine with a handle that swings front to back. For larger pot holes, the worker flips the handle over to his teammate at the midpoint so neither have to step on the hot patch.  It takes approximately 20 minutes to set and cool. 

--The Facilities' Division is responsible for all the traffic lights in town.  This includes the blue lights on traffic signals that raise so many questions. FYI, the blue light is lit when the traffic light is red. So, if a car goes through an intersection with a blue light burning, it's another indication that the driver was in a bit too much of a hurry. 

--The Engineering Division has the "pleasure of taking care of projects while they are being built."  Their current projects include the pickleball court conversion in Gilchrist Park and the re-bricking of Durrance Street. They are also responsible for ADA compliance of the City's sidewalks and buildings. When a road is resurfaced, the adjacent sidewalk has to be upgraded. So, for instance, the sidewalks on Aqui Esta have "tactile surface warnings" that alert visually impaired pedestrians to an approaching intersection and curb ramps that allow wheelchairs to enter the intersection. (The curb ramps are great for bikers as well.) 

I will admit (with some chagrin) that I have taken the job done by the Public Works Department for granted. Thanks to the Citizens Academy for raising my awareness.  Now it's time for me to get my recycling to the curb.