Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Literary Blind Date

Blind date. The mere words send a chill down my spine. But a literary blind date?  Now that's a concept I can get behind!

While exploring downtown Greenville with Pam, M.Judson Booksellers was a natural stop. I browsed the tables and looked at the staff recommendations before noticing an intriguing display of brown paper-covered books under the heading "Blind Date." What a fun idea!

I spent some time reading the descriptions, seeing if there were books I could identify.

One option: --a tough fourteen year old girl and her survivalist father; --an innocent crush, a beautiful friendship and a way out into the free wide world;   --Quote from Stephen King: "This book is ugly, beautiful, horrifying and uplifting." The book: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, one of my favorite reads from last year. (Click here to read my review.)

Then there was this one:  --National Book Award Finalist for Fiction; --Family saga spanning four generations in Korea and Japan; --Beautiful story of what immigrants sacrifice and achieve; -- What makes us part of a family? A nation?  The book, of course, is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Needless to say, I couldn't resist selecting a mystery date for myself. After perusing all my options, I settled on the one with this description. The concept of a children's author with a secret past piqued my interest. My new companion: A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass.

We arrive in the novel's world almost simultaneously with a young actor. The charming Nick Greene has just won an Academy Award; his next role is that of Mort Lear in a biopic about the author's life.

The studio became interested in Lear's story when he revealed in an interview that he had been abused as a child. The purpose of the visit is for Greene and Lear to continue their surprisingly candid email conversation and for Greene to get a feel for Lear's day-to-day life. But there's one problem -- Lear fell off a ladder and died just days before Greene's arrival. That leaves Lear's longtime live-in assistant Tomasina (Tommy) with responsibility for hosting the actor while grieving and coming to terms with her new role as executor of Lear's estate.

Glass uses this set-up to explore her characters' driving forces. Although Lear is dead, his life is the glue holding the story together. We learn early on about the unusual way Tommy and Mort met and how that chance meeting shaped their lives. Greene's visit provides the perfect opportunity for Tommy to reflect on her time with Lear as an ever-present witness to his personal and professional life. Despite their closeness, she learns he's withheld an important part of his story from her. Can we ever really know another person, or ourselves for that matter? This question is nestled among other themes the book raises, including loyalty, ego and morality. Weighty topics indeed for a blind date. But really, who wants to waste time being superficial?

I enjoyed A House Among the Trees, but it didn't shoot to the top of my list. I'll go on another date with Glass in the future, but, as they say, there are many fish in the sea. Titles in my bookshelf awaiting my attention include Red Notice by Bill Browder, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and Hotels of North America by Rick Moody. So many books, so little time.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

In Dialogue with Nature: Glass in the Gardens

McClellan's Mango Tango (blown and sand etched 
glass -- 21x12) 
When I discovered Duncan McClellan's gallery in St. Pete, I thought I had died and gone to studio glass heaven. The gallery represents 90 international glass artists working in all iterations of the medium. And then there's McClellan's own remarkable work. Sarasota residents reluctant to make the trek to St. Pete can get a feel for the work of McClellan and some of his fellow artists at Selby Gardens' exhibit In Dialogue with Nature: Glass in the Gardens.

I was front and center for McClellan's talk at Selby about his work and the exhibit. He is as charming as he is talented.

McClellan's fascination with glass dates back to a car trip his family -- mother, father and eight children -- took from Florida to New York City to see Michelangelo's Pieta at the World's Fair. McClellan recalled with a laugh the "tinkle can" in the back of the vintage station wagon that was a necessity given his father's unwillingness to make comfort stops whenever one of the many kids had to pee.

McClellan's Vines (blown and sand
carved glass -- 39x19x19) 
The family did, however, stop at the Blenko Glass Factory in Milton, West Virginia. Duncan remembers the awe his younger self felt at seeing the molten glass turn into a physical object. He was hooked. It was some time, however, before he began his own work in the medium. "At five years old, I couldn't afford it," he said. "Plus I was too short."

McClellan's formative years as a glass artist were spent blowing glass in Ybor City. He was later invited to study and work at the ARS Studio in Murano, Italy. He was only the second American on whom this honor was bestowed in the studio's 200 year history.

McClellan shared he had to learn how to carve out mistakes from some of his early work. This "happy accident" led to his art form -- designs carved onto glass.

McClellan's Fiftieth Cousins

McClellan's process is quite complicated (and apologies to him if I don't have it quite right). Works of the size shown above can take four people to blow. Given the choreography required, McClellan calls it a "ballet with molten material."

When the form has been created, it is overlaid with color and then annealed (cooled slowly in the oven). He then undertakes a six stage process of grinding and polishing the glass to create his canvas.

Once McClellan has settled on his design, he uses resist tape, pencil and pen to sketch out the image. He wields an exacto knife for the carving. A large piece might weigh in at 40 pounds out of the kiln. When McClellan has worked his magic, the piece might have slimmed down to 22 pounds or so.

McClellan's commitment to his art extends well beyond his own creations. "The power of art can change not only a particular place or neighborhood," he said, "But a whole community."  It was out of this belief that McClellan established the DMG Gallery and, later, the DMG School Project.

McClellan's Cold Winter Night
(overlay sand carved glass -- with interior 
carving- 12x8.5)

McClellan converted an old tomato packing plant into his gallery/studio/home. It is gorgeous -- and well away from the hustle and bustle of downtown St. Pete. After some prodding, McClellan spearheaded an even larger project -- establishing St. Pete's Warehouse Arts District. (Click here to read about WADA, which is one of five art districts in the city.) The adage "if you build it, they will come" comes to mind.

If you're interested in checking out the WADA galleries, you can do so in one fell swoop during St. Pete's monthly Second Saturday ArtWalk. And McClellan's hot shop is always in action during these events.

The objective of the DMG School Project is "to provide educational opportunities to both artists and the community while contributing to the development of glass as a creative medium in both St. Petersburg and the international glass community." That's a mouthful!

The Project fulfills its mission by offering master classes, demos and lectures. Thanks to its mobile hot shop, the Project can take its program to groups that can't make it to the studio. Since the Project's inception, more than 10,000 participants, including many young students, have learned from McClellan et al about the creation of studio glass. For more info about the Project, click here.

Mariel Bass Peony Bottles
(blown and hot sculpted glass)
For the record, McClellan talked as well about the other artists participating in the exhibit. I particularly liked these bottles blown and sculpted by Virgin Island artist Mariel Bass, who's only been working with glass for three years. But there's no doubt McClellan is the star of this show.

If you're in the Sarasota area, a trip to Selby Gardens to see the exhibit (and the gardens!) won't disappoint. The exhibit runs through September 2. For more information, click here.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

SCAD FASH Presents Dressing for Dystopia

While the Pierre Cardin exhibit was brilliant, the real reason Sarah and I were at SCAD FASH was to see the exhibit featuring costumes from The Handmaid's Tale. "Dressing for Dystopia" includes 45 ensembles created by Ane Crabtree for the show. Like the show (and the book before it), the exhibit is chilling.

The difference in mood between the brightly lit rooms of the Cardin exhibit and the darkened rooms of "Dressing for Dystopia" was striking. The featureless faces emphasize the interchangeability of these people. The only face specifically identifiable was that of the pregnant Janine; it bore a scar where her eye had been gouged out. While the faces of the powerful in Gilead were also blank, they somehow seemed to have more stature.

It was easy to identify specific episodes in which the costumes were worn. The exhibit began with the clothing June, Luke and Hannah wore in their attempted escape from capture. The glitzy dress and Playboy bunny outfit (complete with ears) worn by June and Moira at the brothel were on display. Rita and Nick stood side by side, and I could almost see the knowing look they exchanged. And in this tableau, I could feel Serena's envy as she admires the Putnam baby.

Every detail in the costumes has meaning, especially their color. Art history buffs won't be surprised to learn the blue of the wives' dresses is a reference to the Virgin Mary. Still, how creepy is that?

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Crabtree explains the handmaids wear red because, "Red is the colour of a womb, of a wanton woman, a scarlet kind of mark upon a pious world of dark tones in the visual landscape, and also in a tiny intimate space." (In case you're not up on the news, women protesting the Administration's stance on issues from abortion to immigrant family separation have taken to wearing handmaids' capes and caps. A sign from a protest last week read, "Give back the children you stole.")

In addition to the costumes, the exhibit included a few of Crabtree's sketches. On some of her drawings, Crabtree included a quote from the script that seemingly provided inspiration for her work. Here Aunt Lydia says, ".....[So they could have] their Tinder. So they could trot around like beasts. Such wickedness. They were dirty women. They were sluts."  Seeing the written words felt almost like a slap across the face.

Click here for a fascinating article about Crabtree's thoughts on color and the cultural references she incorporated into the costumes. And for a more general interview with Crabtree -- and a look at some of her mood boards -- click here.

It would have been easy to spend an entire afternoon in the exhibit, revisiting plot lines and delving into the characters' motivations. But it was kind of eerie to be in the midst of this dystopian world. Besides, we had things to do, like catch up on the final episodes of Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale.

"Dressing for Dystopia" is on display at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film through August 12.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

SCAD FASH Presents Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future

I have a bone to pick with Pierre Cardin. No, it's not that his couture would look ridiculous on me (even if I could afford it). In fact, to the point of cost, Cardin was the first couturier to create a ready-to-wear line of clothing for a department store. He was rewarded by being expelled--ever so briefly--from the Chambre Syndicate, the governing body for French fashion.

My gripe is that Cardin introduced the ubiquitous practice of putting his logo on clothing. He later expanded his branding by licensing his logo for items from pens to purses. Is sporting a designer's logo really a sign of good taste?

Now that that's off my chest, we can turn to Cardin's quite impressive contributions to the fashion industry. Sarah and I took in an exhibit of his mod work at The SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. (SCAD stands for Savannah College of Art and Design.)

The exhibit included clothing from all seven decades of the designer's career, with a focus on his "space age" designs. Most of the attire is on loan from The Pierre Cardin Museum in Paris, although a few dresses came from SCAD FASH's own collection. Many of the mannequins are wearing hats, an accessory Cardin introduced to the runway.

Cardin was always one to push the envelope. "The clothes I prefer are the garments I invent for a lifestyle that does not yet exist -- the world of tomorrow," he said.

It's difficult to see in this picture, but the dress the chic mannequin in all black is wearing has a built-in cone bra. Sarah's memory immediately went to Madonna prancing around onstage in these bras. Jean Paul Gautier's creation--circa 1990--seemed so revolutionary at the time. In fact, the bullet bra dates back to the 1950s and is well-known to fans of Mad Men and movies featuring Jane Russell. An article explaining the genesis of the bullet bra noted the bras gave women's breasts a "missile" look. Perhaps that was what attracted Cardin to the concept. (To read the article -- and see some pretty hilarious pictures -- click here.)

Sarah was generally much more observant than I was, noting as well (from a distance) the codpiece the male mannequin boldly wears. Wasn't that look from Shakespearean times?  Sadly, no explanation was provided.

Sarah also keyed in on the connection between SCAD FASH's circular displays in the exhibit and Cardin's Bubble Palace. Both recall Cardin's near obsession with the circle, as evidenced by his creation of the ever-so-flattering bubble dress. For a great article -- again, with fabulous pictures, this time of Cardin designs incorporating circles and the bizarre Palais Bulles -- click here.

This fabric in this dress makes heavy use of circles, but Cardin's larger goal was to create a kinetic effect. I can only imagine how dizzying it would be to watch a model twirling down the runway wearing this dress. Perhaps a dose of Dramamine was provided with your ticket.

I don't mean to make light of Cardin's genius. His work was groundbreaking, and the exhibit truly was fabulous and a great deal of fun.

In fact, Sarah and I couldn't resist the urge to get in on the act. It was purely happenstance that we were wearing coordinating colors. Maybe in our next lives, we'll come back as fashionistas.

Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future will be on display at SCAD FASH through September 30. For information about the museum and its exhibits, click here.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Surprises at the Greenville County Museum of Art

Andrew Wyeth Concert Grand (1994)
Pam and I entered the Greenville County Museum of Art (GCMA) with little in the way of expectations. What a wonderful surprise awaited us!

We headed straightaway to the Andrew Wyeth exhibit. GCMA has the largest public collection of Wyeth watercolors. Wyeth has said the medium was his favorite due to its expressiveness.

Personally, I found the exhibit a bit underwhelming. Compared to his wonderful Christina's World, the watercolors seemed a bit drab. But we were intrigued by a couple of surrealistic paintings from his later life. Concert Grand was one such work. The hands that eerily rise from the snow are a replica of a bronze cast of Wyeth's own hands given to him by a friend.

Pottery by Dave Drake (1840 and 1857)
Next up was an exhibit of Art and Artists from South Carolina: David Drake, Jasper Johns, William H. Johnson and Grainger McKoy. The exhibit contained a wide variety of work. The most fascinating story was that of potter David Drake.

Dave, as he was known, was a slave in Edgefield, a town known for the production of utilitarian stoneware. Dave's last name came from his first known owner, Harvey Drake, who is thought to have trained him as a turner.

At the approximate age of 35 (recordkeeping for the birth of slaves not being a priority), Dave was hit by a train and one of his legs was severed. The injury left him incapable of working the foot treadle to turn the pottery wheel. Dave partnered with a slave named Henry (whose arms were crippled) to make his work. The pottery created by these two disabled men was some of the finest in the Edgefield region.

But Dave's story doesn't end there. Despite laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read and write, Dave was quite literate. He made no effort to hide his abilities. In fact, he even inscribed his pottery. The pot to the right reads: "Lm Aug 1857 Dave/I wonder where is all my relation/Friendship to all and every nation."
William Henry Johnson's
Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing (1942) 
We were also intrigued by the story of African-American artist William Henry Johnson.

In 1918, Johnson moved from his home in Florence, South Carolina to New York City. There he studied at the National Academy of Design under the tutelage of Impressionist painter Charles Hawthorne. (Johnson supported himself during this period by working as a hotel porter, cook and stevedore.)

In 1926, Hawthorne helped finance Johnson's trip to Paris, where he worked in the style of artists such as Van Gogh and Soutine. He met and married Holcha Krake, a Danish artist. They made their home in Denmark, where Johnson's work was well-received.

In 1938, the couple moved to New York to escape the rise of Hitler. Although the inter-racial couple suffered some racism and discrimination, they were welcomed into the Harlem community. Johnson developed his own style, combining linear design and African tribal art in his representation of African-American subjects. I loved the folk art-feel of his work.

Detail from Sidney Dickinson's
Maggie the Octoroon (1917)
Then there was an exhibit celebrating the gorgeous art of Sidney Dickinson.  Dickinson's aunt, Charlotte Thorn, was co-founder of the Calhoun Colored School in Calhoun, Alabama.  The school was created in partnership with Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute to educate rural black students in a time of segregation. (To read more about this impressive project, click here.)

Like Johnson, Dickinson studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. He also studied at the Art Students League of New York. But in 1917, he made his way back to Alabama and lived at the Calhoun School for a year. While there, Dickinson painted evocative portraits of some of the students, including Maggie the Octoroon. (In case you're wondering, "octoroon" means a person of one-eighth black ancestry. Webster's Dictionary states that it is an outdated term now considered offensive.)  His work totally blew me away.

Matthew Rolston's 
Harry born 1955 (2010-2014)
We ended with Matthew Rolston's Talking Heads: The Vent Haven Portraits. Rolston was discovered by Andy Warhol, who commissioned him to photograph subjects for Interview magazine.

In this series, Rolston photographed ventriloquist dolls dating from 1820 to 1980 from the collection of the Vent Haven Museum in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. They were a bit unsettling, but I liked them.

Rolston has said that the series "examines the notion of human projection in relation to human simulacra -- the ways in which we the viewer project life into the lifeless."  I admit to doing a bit of that while taking in the exhibit, as I "recognized" current celebrities in the faces of the dummies. Am I alone in thinking that "Harry" looks an awful lot like Timothy Hutton?

With our visual adventure completed, Pam and I headed out to enjoy the rest of downtown Greenville's offerings. I am eager to return.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Three Things I Learned While Visiting the South Carolina Upcountry

With Pam
My friend Pam didn't have to ask twice if I'd be interested in visiting them this summer. The beauty and cooler temps of the mountains versus the heat and humidity of Southwest Florida? I was booking my ticket practically before we were off the phone.

My experience in this part of the world had been limited to 24 hours in Asheville a couple of years back. So there was a lot to take in in my short time in the Upcountry. Here are three of my take-aways:

With a Rosie the Riveter bear
1)  There are bear in them thar hills.  Pam got my attention on the drive from the airport when she mentioned the coyotes, snakes and bears in the woods throughout their area. Recently, their dog Chase was fascinated with some baby cubs hanging out in a tree in their front yard.  Luckily, he kept his distance from both the cubs and the mama bear.

The Bears of Hendersonville are more my speed.  Each year, merchants sponsor a bear to reside downtown. Local artists are paired with the merchants to determine how they would like "their" bear to be painted.  In October, an auction is held at which the bears are sold. Half of the proceeds go to the downtown merchants association and half to a charity. (It wasn't clear whether the merchant or the artist choose the charity.)  Then the process starts all over again.

In 2017, the Bearfootin' Public Art program raised over $50,000.

2)  The rules of the duel.  Aside from the wildlife, the Upcountry is a very civilized place.  I was fascinated by the section of the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville dedicated to the nullification "debate."

In 1828, Congress passed a law raising the fees on imported manufactured goods. This tax greatly affected South Carolina and other Southern states and was referred to as the "Tariff of Abominations."

Many in South Carolina believed states had the right to decide which federal laws were constitutional. Vice President John C. Calhoun, who hailed from South Carolina, secretly published a pamphlet in support of this view. In 1832, South Carolina called a convention and nullified the Tariff of Abominations as it applied to their imports.
Dueling pistols and case 

Nullifiers and Unionists lived in discord as the debate continued. Benjamin Perry's pro-Union editorials in the Greenville Mountaineer stoked the flames. Turner Bynum's words in the pro-Nullifier paper, The Southern Sentinel, were equally passionate.

The two men met for a duel on August 16. Both men got shots off.  Perry's bullet hit Bynum in the hip, and he died of complications.

The rules for dueling were codified in 1858 in John Lyde Wilson's The Code of Honor: Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling.  If anyone could actually parse these rules, I give them credit.  Rule 1 reads, "The first offence requires the apology, although the retort may have been more offensive than the insult. Example: A tells B he is impertinent, etc.; B retorts that he lies; yet A must make the first apology because he gave the first offense, and then (after one fire), B may explain away the retort by subsequent apology."  At that point, the parties have the option to walk away or continue on with their fight.

The Code of Honor was the law of South Carolina until 1880, when dueling was outlawed.

3) Shoeless Joe Jackson lived (and died) in Greenville. You don't have to be a baseball person to have heard of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Jackson was one of the Chicago White Sox players accused of accepting a $5,000 bribe to throw the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Interestingly, Jackson scored 12 base hits in the series, a record until 1964.

Jackson and his fellow players were acquitted of these charges in a trial in 1921. Nonetheless, the League imposed a lifetime ban on Jackson et al.

In case you're wondering, Jackson got his nickname when he took his cleats off during a minor league game and played in his socks. His feet apparently were sore from the previous day's activities.

Greenville is home to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library, located opposite Fluor Field. Pam and I felt satisfied with a look at the plaque instead of a full-blown tour. Like Joe, our feet were a bit weary, and we had miles to go before we rested.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali's Spain

Clyde Butcher at work in Cadeques, Spain 
(photo by Niki Butcher)
Photographer Clyde Butcher is often referred to as the Ansel Adams of Florida. His large-scale black and white landscape photographs--especially those of the Everglades--are an homage to the beauty of this natural resource. But what does his work have to do with the art of surrealist painter Salvador Dali? I set out to the Dali Museum in St. Pete to find out.

The Dali Museum commissioned Butcher to photograph the Costa Brava (or wild coast). This piece of the world in northeastern Spain is "where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean." It's also where Dali called home.

Never one for understatement, Dali said of his life there, "I lived like a nut...going into raptures in front of nature that is also art." So it comes as no surprise that the Catalan landscape had a significant influence on his art.

In addition to Butcher's photographs, the exhibit includes a slide show that juxtaposes some of Butcher's images with Dali's paintings of the same landscape. It was incredibly illuminating.

This pairing shows the relationship between the striking Head of Cullero in Cap de Creus and Dali's "Untitled (Iceberg)." Butcher's photograph is one of my favorites in the exhibit. But I just couldn't visualize the audio tour's description of how Dali saw this rock formation as a head balancing on its nose. Voila! No need for an imagination thanks to the exhibit's curators.

The exhibit also features a video of Butcher sharing his reactions to Dali's landscape. "I felt like I was dreaming," he said.

Butcher expressed his hope that visitors would  be able to relate more to Dali's paintings after seeing his photographs. It sounded a bit optimistic to me. But this pairing of Butcher's "Sa Costa des Camps d'en Gasanyes 1" with Dali's "The Average Bureaucrat" helped me do just that.

I learned that Dali loved exploring the pockmarked rocks of the region, delighting as he found little creatures and the like hidden in these miniature caves. Dali's bureaucrat similarly has concave areas in his head that hold seashells. The relationship between Dali's physical world and the world of his art hit me over the head like, well, a ton of rocks. (Note that Dali didn't intend this painting as a compliment to hard-working government employees like his father. Instead, the bureaucrat's niches are a reference to the empty-minded nature of these workers.)

At Dali's Port Lligat home
I also was enamored of Butcher's pictures of Dali and Gala's home. I wasn't shocked to learn it has a number of unusual features.

Dali considered the egg a symbol of rebirth. To him, eggs also provide a connection with purity and natural processes and enable memories of the womb. (His memory was clearly better than mine.)

And so his home prominently features a number of egg statues. Why not?  Other atypical d├ęcor includes a stuffed lion in a grotto and a life-size Michelin Man by the pool.

"Castor and Pollux, Dali's Garden Wall" 
Statues of the heads of Castor and Pollux sit proudly upon a garden wall.  The mythological twins were reputed to have been born from an egg, as were their twin sisters Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.  While none of the Butcher photographs showed the brothers head on, the face of one twin is broken down the middle. I don't know my mythology well enough to know if that's a specific reference or if this was done at Dali's request.

I would be remiss not to mention a bit about Clyde Butcher and his process. He began shooting in black and white after his son was killed in a traffic accident. The mood suited him better. He also believes people focus on the image more in a black and white photo than one in color.

Butcher typically works with large format cameras. Schlepping a voluminous amount of equipment is just part of his process. But for his trip to Dali's world, Butcher decided to shoot with a digital camera.

"The Seal, Cap de Creus 4"
This didn't, however, change Butcher's renowned patience for waiting for just the right light and composition (even if this requires standing for hours in a swamp). Unlike the way most of us act when our phones are opened to the camera function, he didn't "shotgun shoot." In fact, some days he took as few as two pictures. He reports using all but 20 or so of the shots he took during his visit.

Clyde Butcher: Visions of Dali's Spain will run through November 25. For more information about the exhibit and the Dali Museum more generally, click here.

A Literary Blind Date

Blind date. The mere words send a chill down my spine. But a literary blind date?  Now that's a concept I can get behind! While expl...