Wednesday, May 20, 2020

"Valentine" by Elizabeth Wetmore

It took Elizabeth Wetmore 14 years to write her debut novel "Valentine." It wasn't that she was sitting at her desk every day at a loss for words. Life gets in the way of the work of an aspiring writer. She had to make a living and raise her son. But she also set the book aside for large chunks of time due to "lost nerve." The literary world is better for Wetmore's perseverance. "Valentine" is nothing short of remarkable.

I won't sugar coat it. The first chapter of "Valentine" is brutal as we are introduced to Gloria, a 14 year old Hispanic girl living in Odessa, Texas.

"Sunday morning begins out here in the oil patch, a few minutes before dawn, with a young roughneck stretched out and sleeping hard in his pickup truck...

Gloria Ramirez holds herself perfectly still, she is a downed mesquite branch, a half-buried stone, and she imagines him facedown in the dust, lips and cheeks scoured by sand, his thirst relieved only by the blood in his mouth...

She keep her eyes on the pickup truck and her fingers begin to press themselves lightly against the sand, counting one, two, three, four -- they are trying to keep her from making any sudden moves, to keep her quiet, to keep her among the living for another day. Because Gloria Ramirez might not know much on this morning, February 15, 1976, but she knows if he hadn't passed out before he sobered up enough to find his gun or get his hands around her throat, she would already be dead..."

Gloria does survive, literally dragging her beaten and bloodied body barefoot across the oil patch to a house in the distance. And so begins a story of the girls and women of Odessa whose lives intersect with that of Gloria, from the woman whose front porch she ended up on that morning to a recent widow who saw Gloria get into the truck with the roughneck to a young girl to whom Gloria is a cautionary tale.

Like Gloria, Wetmore grew up in Odessa. And while she left at 18, West Texas was where her mind went when she searched for inspiration. She went through old newspapers, looking for a different perspective than that of her own upbringing. She was struck by the violence of a place where oil ruled. With each boom, men descended upon the oil patch to make a quick buck. Crime rose, including assaults on women and girls of color.

In an interview at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, Wetmore said she "interrogated most deeply" whether the victim in the opening chapter of her book would be Latina or white. She realized that decision would yield two very different stories. Ultimately, she felt compelled by the "poison of racism" to make Gloria the linchpin of the story. (She noted that Odessa didn't desegregate its schools until under threat by the Justice Department in 1982.)

While the book opens and closes with Gloria, Wetmore's objective was to "give voice to the stories of women without a lot of resources and education." I was struck, if not surprised, by how young the women were when they became mothers. In one scene, an 18 year old Mary Jo and a 15 year old Ginny are expelled from school due to their pregnancies. These women, and their daughters, are just some of the characters we hear from in the book.

I developed a real soft spot for Ginny's daughter Debra Ann (D.A.) She's smart and kind and good-hearted but filled with a deep sadness since her mother recently up and drove away without her. D.A. befriends Jesse, a homeless veteran who's trying to make his way back into the world. They help each other, D.A. by providing Jesse with "borrowed" items from her home and those of her neighbors and Jesse by giving D.A. a purpose other than marking the days off on the calendar since her mother left.

In one short scene, D.A. sneaks into the widow's garage to take a frozen casserole from the freezer for Jesse. By all appearances, the coast was clear. But inside she finds Mrs. Shephard sitting quietly in her dead husband's running car. Corrine turns off the car to find out what D.A. wants. And while D.A. doesn't know what she has just prevented, we do.

"Valentine" is filled with almost throw away moments like this that devastated me. The cumulative effect is a powerful lens into a world I feel fortunate not to have experienced firsthand.

Read. This. Book.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Florida Studio Theatre Prepares for the Future

"It's not good or anything," Jason Odell Williams opined about the first draft of his new play America in One Room. "I just kind of blurted it out."

Williams is one of 32 playwrights, sketch writers and cabaret creators now working as staff writers under short-term contracts with Florida Studio Theatre. Funding for The Playwrights Project was obtained through the Paycheck Protection Program. (Try saying that three times fast!) It's a creative way to keep theatre professionals working while giving FST a stockpile of new work to produce once it's safe to go back into theaters.

Writing for the Project is different than writing for a commission. With a commission, the writer works independently on his play, making a multitude of revisions before sharing a draft with the applicable theater. It's a solitary process and months typically pass before the initial reveal. For the Project, Williams and his new colleagues are under a five week deadline to produce first drafts. But they aren't just sitting in their home offices writing away alone. They have Zoom calls where they can bounce ideas off each other. As soon as a draft is done, a reading is scheduled so they can hear their work out loud and get to work on revisions. While it would be impossible to develop a ready-to-produce play during the short tenure of the program, participants will get a good start.

FST has a strong commitment to education, including of its audience members. Why let a little pandemic get in the way of that mission?  And so the Theatre is continuing its series of talks with  playwrights about their works' development and their processes -- virtually, of course. First up was a conversation between Williams and FST's Catherine Randazzo about America in One Room. It was fascinating.

Jason Odell Williams
When asked where his plays come from, Williams said he just "lives in the world looking for the spark of an idea." In the case of his latest work, that spark came from an article in The New York Times last October with the headline "These 526 Voters Represent All of America. And They Spent A Weekend Together." Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Wrong!  It turns out when people are face to face, they can talk about their differing views about hot topics without getting all inflamed. Their perspectives might just even shift a bit. This sounded like an idea worth exploring.

Williams realized the play wouldn't be very interesting if a bunch of people just sat around talking about issues in a calm manner. Where's the drama in that, as unusual as it might be?  In addition, he wants to create a different audience experience than the equivalent of sitting at our computers watching a performance online. (Please, no more!!!)  And so he's adding an improv element to the show, with audience members joining the cast onstage. Think The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. While the comparison might not seem wholly apt given Williams' serious subject matter, his plays always include a healthy dose of humor. America in One Room will be no exception, and with any luck the audience participants will enhance that element of the show.

Even with some safeguards built in, it's easy to imagine an unscripted political discussion getting out of control. Williams acknowledged the open-ended nature of both the audience members' comments and the actors' responses will make the show "unpredictable" and "dangerous." The opportunity for something really exciting to happen will exist, though, and each performance will be unique.

Without doubt, it's an ambitious idea. But Williams believes the return to a world in which we sit in a room together and watch a live performance is going to feel momentous. It seems like the perfect time to take some additional creative risk.

Students in FST's Behind the Scenes class are delving more deeply into the Project. Over the course of six weeks, we will read some of the work that's being created and hear from writers working in four different genres. Even as I sit here, Williams' first draft of America in One Room is waiting in my inbox for attention. He will join our class to talk further about the play and to get our feedback. It's the closest I've come to having a real theater experience in what seems like forever. Thanks to FST for making it happen.

To read the article that inspired America in One Room, click here. And to learn more about Florida Studio Theatre's Playwrights Project, click here and here. Kudos to everyone involved in the Project, and good luck.

And now I have some reading to do.


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Robert Indiana Designs "The Mother of Us All"

Cut paper maquette
One of the many things on my "to do/see" list before our homes became our worlds was the "Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete.  Does that sound right up my alley or what? Happily, a bit of the exhibit was brought to me at home when the MFA's Margaret Murray Zoomed with Philomena Marano, former studio assistant to Robert Indiana.

Perhaps you, like me, flash immediately to Indiana's ubiquitous "LOVE" sculptures upon hearing his name. It turns out Indiana also had a foot in the theater world, as he designed the costumes and sets for two productions of "The Mother of Us All." Marano worked with Indiana on the Bicentennial production at the Santa Fe Opera, and she shared her insights as we watched a slide show of cut paper maquettes from which the costumes and sets were created. It was an enjoyable break from what has become a rather humdrum existence.

"The Mother of Us All" is an avant garde opera with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. It was their second undertaking together, after the groundbreaking "Four Saints in Three Acts" with its all-black cast. In "The Mother of Us All," Thomson and Stein take on the subject of women's suffrage, with Susan B. Anthony front and center. But her journey is anything but the one with which we are familiar, as Thomson and Stein created a non-linear work in which historical and fictional figures find themselves side by side.

Stein herself is a character in the opera, although that wasn't her intention. Unfortunately, Stein passed away before having the opportunity to see the opera performed. Thomson decided to honor her by adding her character to the show. But how, since she wasn't included in the libretto? Thomson turned to friend and lover Maurice Grosser for assistance. Grosser added both Stein and Thomson as commentators on the pageantry. It seems fitting.

Murray noted that Stein was quite fashion-forward and was fast friends with couture designer Pierre Balmain. In fact, Stein wrote a piece about Balmain for Vogue in 1946, complete with photos by photographers like Horst P. Horst. Stein herself was one of Horst's subjects. (Click here to see the photo.) This little tidbit about Stein's connection with the fashion world kind of blew my mind. I always envision her wearing the frumpy dress from the portrait by Picasso.

Stein made sure the opera included Pauline, her beloved Model T. (The car was named after Stein's favorite aunt.) It worked for Indiana, who spent a lot of time driving around with his parents when he was growing up. It was these travels that inspired his use of letters and numbers in his art, resulting in his referring to himself as a "sign painter."

Marano said creating the paper maquettes was like "drawing with an Exacto blade." ("Blades" would be more accurate, since she apparently exhausted dozens of blades when creating these near life-sized works.)  It was a multi-step process, as she would trace Indiana's drawing for each costume on velum and then on paper. (Apologies for missing why the velum step was necessary.) She recalled the painstaking work of cutting out the black pants for Daniel Webster's attire. Tweezers were a staple in her toolbox for placement of small embellishments, as were Q-Tips for the glue. The maquettes were then used to create the performers' costumes, which were oddly made out of felt. I can only imagine how uncomfortable those unforgiving outfits must have been for the singers.

Although the maquettes are faceless (in the tradition of silhouette art), Marano noted the audience could get a sense of the characters' personalities just by looking at them. From Webster's black hat, we have no difficulty identifying him as a bad guy in the story. (In the opera, he debates Susan B. to show the audience the type of opposition she faced.) Indiana Elliot has a much more easygoing temperament.

While it was interesting to hear about the design process, my curiosity was even more piqued about the opera itself.  With the centennial of women's suffrage upon us, it could hardly be more timely.  And so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole, reading Zachary Woolf's review in The New York Times of a production performed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in February. The four performance run featured singers from Juilliard and musicians from the New York Philharmonic.  Here's a portion of Woolf's review:

"With its stylized (almost abstract) interweaving of the romantic and public lives of its characters -- its account of personal and political achievement as both resulting from endless trudging struggle -- the piece remains as fresh as ever. Each time I see it, it feels like it's been ripped from the day's headlines.

Ink drawing of Susan B.'s drawing room
For example, Stein's Susan B. on male politicians: 'They fear women. They fear each other. They fear their neighbor. They fear other countries. And then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other.' And Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, writing in The New York Times on Feb. 5 about the impeachment vote: 'In the United States Senate, like in many spheres of life, fear does the business.'

This production's final image has that fear explode into sudden violence: In the silence after the serenely despairing final aria, a trio of men stomp a ballot box until it's crushed. Even after voting rights are extended to all, we see clearly that they're hardly secure. The fight is never over, though banners lowered from the balconies assure us that 'failure is impossible.'"

Photo from the Santa Fe Opera production. 
Powerful stuff indeed. To watch a performance of the opera by the New York Metropolitan Opera, click here. (It runs one hour and 45 minutes and has subtitles despite being in English.) To listen to the music from the final scene from the Santa Fe Opera production, click here.

Last, but not least, to see all of Indiana's cut paper designs and ink sketches for "The Mother of Us All," click here. The collection is housed at the McNay Art Museum's Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts.  (Note to self: Get to San Antonio when travel is safe.) "Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney" is scheduled to run at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 9th. Here's hoping the MFA will be able to reopen in some manner before then.

Stay safe, and don't forget to vote!


Monday, April 27, 2020

A Bit of Old Florida in Sarasota

Path in Red Bug Slough Preserve
In the good old pre-virus days, when I was out and about and spent a lot of time in my car, I'd occasionally drive by Red Bug Slough Preserve. I was never tempted to stop and check it out despite its location mere minutes from my home. Really, could any name be less appealing?  Happily, I relented when my nature-loving friend Deb suggested a walk in the Preserve (with appropriate social distancing, of course).  It's a bit of old Florida right here in Sarasota.

Before I get into what's nice about the Preserve, let's talk about the name. A slough (pronounced "sloo") is a broad, shallow channel filled with flowing water except during extreme periods of drought. In the case of the Preserve, a series of marshes was channelized to facilitate water flow into the Phillippi Creek Watershed, which in turn flows into Roberts Bay. So that's the "slough" part of the name. There doesn't, however, seem to be a definitive answer as to why "red bug" was included in the name of the Preserve. It's thought to be a reference to a tiny red mite known as a red bug that can found in dry, sunny, open areas. I guess it's better than "Skeeter Drain," a moniker locals are said to use from time to time. (No mosquitoes have yet to make their presence known during my visits.) Really, though, couldn't the people who created the Preserve come up with a name more reflective of its beauty?

"Anyone for a worm?"
The Preserve's 72 acres provide a playground for local wildlife and birds. It's not unusual to see freshwater turtles and birds like this anhinga, which cooperatively posed while enjoying its breakfast and airing its somewhat worse for wear wings. (The Preserve is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, so it's definitely worth checking out if you're a birder.) I haven't yet come across more exotic creatures like river otters and gators, but Deb assures me they're there.

Nor have I encountered four-legged animals like raccoons and bobcats that prowl the Preserve, and that's okay with me. Again, Deb verified that these animals frequent the area. In fact, one of her neighbors recently found a dead bobcat in her yard. Since it wasn't alive, dealing with the remains was outside the responsibility of animal control. The neighbor was advised either to put the bobcat's body in the trash or bury it. It received a proper burial. But I digress.

The Preserve features a small lake in addition to the slough. 
While it's nice to come upon a feeding bird or some frolicking fish (yes, fish do frolic), it's the peacefulness and natural beauty of the Preserve that makes me return. There's something majestic about the towering oak trees laden with Spanish moss (which I just learned is a type of bromeliad). Especially in this strange time, walking the trails makes my body--and mind--relax and say "ahhhh."

The Preserve was acquired for environmental preservation at the turn of the century (which was already 20 years ago!) through Sarasota County's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program. Other purchases through the program include Lemon Bay Preserve, Warm Mineral Springs and Old Miakka Preserve (not to be confused with Myakka River State Park). Since the Program's inception, Sarasota County has made 71 acquisitions totaling more than 35,000 acres.

"Hello!"  
The ESLPP is voter-approved and funded primarily through local tax dollars. But the State and other non-profit land protection organizations have contributed to the acquisition and improvement of some of these properties, including Red Bug Slough Preserve. Funding for the purchase of the Preserve was made available through the Forever Florida project. Forever Florida is the State's conservation and recreation lands acquisition program. The program is the largest of its kind in the U.S., with more than 2.5 million acres purchased under Forever Florida and its precursor, Preservation 2000. The Nature Conservancy was also tapped to provide funding for some of the Preserve's amenities, including picnic tables which I'm most hopeful people will be able to safely use again in the near future.

This is an unprecedented time in all of our lives. I feel fortunate to live in a place with plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine. If you're in the area, add Red Bug Slough Preserve to the rotation of places to walk. You won't be disappointed.













Monday, April 20, 2020

Hearing from Author Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel with Amber Sparks
I've been thinking a lot about Emily St. John Mandel since the coronavirus broke out. Not about Mandel per se, but about her "Station Eleven," a novel set in a time following a pandemic that wiped out most of the world's population. I was drawn to the dystopian story because it features the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and Shakespearean actors who move from enclave to enclave bringing the arts to survivors. But though it's one of my favorite books, it's not one I would recommend reading right now -- nor would Mandel. In a recent interview sponsored by Politics and Prose, Mandel said some people who recently read "Station Eleven" have expressed anger at her. Obviously, her envisioning of a pandemic didn't cause one to occur. Still, she kind of gets it. With that elephant in the room out of the way, Mandel was free to talk with fellow author Amber Sparks about her recently released "The Glass Hotel."

"The Glass Hotel" defies easy description. GoodReads calls it "a captivating novel of money, beauty, white collar crime, ghosts and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it." And it skips around in time.  Hmmm.

Mandel's interest in the Madoff scandal was the spark for the novel. Mandel said she's fascinated with the psychology of wrongdoing. How can you intellectually know you're guilty and caused the ruin of countless people and still believe you're an okay person?  Her research for the book included reading "The Wizard of Lies" by Diana B. Heriques, "Too Good to Be True" by Erin Arvedlund, court testimony and witness impact statements. As she wrote about the Ponzi scheme, Mandel envisioned the fund employees who helped facilitate the fraud as a sort of Greek chorus, or a group of people operating as a single unit. Having worked as an administrative assistant for 12 years, she could relate to their camaraderie and understand -- kinda, sorta -- the trust they were forced to feel for one another as mutually dependent wheels in the cog of the massive fraud.

Her interest in "counter-factual lives" is a theme that runs throughout the book. It's something we all contemplate from time to time. How would our lives have been different if we'd gone to a different school? Married someone else? Decided not to take that job? Mandel said she "likes this idea of a counterlife and being haunted by the choices one didn't make." And so her characters occasionally linger -- sometimes for an entire chapter -- on visions of what their lives could have been.

You aren't alone if you find this description of "The Glass Hotel" a bit off-putting. Mandel herself said, "It turned into a frankly weird book." (This on the heels of explaining that she writes without an outline.) Rest assured, though, that the novel is a terrific read. Take, for instance, a portion of the passage Mandel read during the talk about when the fund employees realize their world is about to shatter.

"We had crossed a line, that much was obvious, but it was difficult to say later exactly where that line had been. Or perhaps we'd all had different lines, or crossed the same line at different times..."

Oskar, specifically, considers this line -- and the idea of a counterlife -- a bit later in the same chapter. And then the Greek chorus jumps back in.

"'I realized there was fraud going on,' he imagined telling an admiring future employer, 'and that was the day I walked out. I never would have imagined walking off a job like that, but sometimes you just have to draw the line.' Although the line, for Oskar, had been crossed eleven years earlier, when he'd first been asked to backdate a transaction. 'It's possible to both know and not know something,' he said later, under cross-examination, and the state tore him to pieces over this but he spoke for several of us, actually, several of us who'd been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you're not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. We'd all die for the truth in our secret lives, or if not die exactly, then at least maybe make a couple of confidential phone calls and try to feign surprise when the authorities arrived, but in our actual lives we were being paid an exorbitant amount of money to keep our mouths shut, and you don't have to be an entirely terrible person, we told ourselves later, to turn a blind eye to certain things--even actively participate in certain other things--when it's not just you, because who among us is fully alone in the world? There are always other people in the picture. Our salaries and bonuses covered roofs over heads, crackers shaped like goldfish, tuition, retirement home expenses, the mortgage on Oskar's mother's apartment in Warsaw, etc.

And then there's the part of the equation that could somehow never be mentioned at trial but that seemed extremely relevant, which is that when you've worked with a given group of people for a while, calling the authorities means destroying the lives of your friends. Our lawyers asked us not to bring this up on the stand, but it's a real thing, this aversion to sending your colleagues to prison. We'd worked together for a very long time."

Later, Joelle talks with Oskar about how they came to be part of the scheme. "You ever think about why we were chosen?" Joelle asked...."I mean, here's the question, and I'd be genuinely interested to hear your thoughts: How did he know we'd do it? Would anyone do something like this, given enough money, or is there something special about us? Did he look at me one day and just think, That woman seems conveniently lacking in a moral center, that person seems well suited to participate in a ---".  Food for thought.

Politics and Prose uses crowdcast for its online talks,
a platform that allows viewers to ask questions of the author. 
While the Ponzi scheme is a fascinating part of the book, it's just that -- a part. There's so much more. And while the plotlines are disparate, they are brought loosely together through the character of Vincent, a woman who's a bit of a chameleon. It's her brother Paul whose night out goes desperately wrong at the top of the novel.  Later, Vincent works as a bartender at the Glass Hotel, where she meets the charming and extremely morally dubious fund manager Jonathan Alkaitis. Later still, she works on a cargo ship from which she disappears. A discussion of her character alone would provide ample fodder for a book club discussion.

Thanks to Politics and Prose for making its author talks available online during this strange time. Click here to see what's coming up. You can also check out their YouTube channel to view past author talks, including the interview with Mandel. (Click on "Videos" to see what's available.)  And don't forget to support your favorite indie bookstore!





Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Enjoying the Barnes from Afar

"Redheaded Girl in Evening Dress"
by Modigliani (1918)
I have assiduously followed the advice that there's no need to be productive during this pandemic. I'm closing in on the final episode -- number 69 -- in "The Unit," a show about a special forces team and their wives, and have just started a new 1,000 piece puzzle featuring games from my childhood like "Mystery Date." Yes, mindless is the name of my game. But I do occasionally succumb to an educational enticement. Case in point: "Barnes Takeout." The Barnes Foundation's offering for art lovers stuck at home is pure joy.

Each day -- more or less -- a new video becomes available on YouTube featuring a curator, educator or scholar talking about one of her favorite works in the collection. Each video lasts no more than 15 minutes, so it's easy to fit into my hectic (?) schedule. And with more than 3,000 objects on display in the museum, there's no fear of running out of art to discuss no matter how long we shelter at home.

It's a treat to focus on individual works of art in the collection. Barnes' ensemble approach to display means that each room contains literally hundreds of pieces. When you're in one of the galleries, the amount of great art around you is almost paralyzing. Even the most careful observer is certain to miss quite a bit. All the more reason to enjoy hearing from one of the museum's experts.

The first work I chose to learn about was Modigiliani's "Redheaded Girl in Evening Dress." There's just something about those elongated faces that draws me in every time. Curator Nancy Ireson's talk about the piece was filled with interesting tidbits about the freedom Parisian women experienced during WWI. Women were suddenly able to live independently and support themselves. This young woman chose to work as a model, a job that allowed her to take her rightful place among Paris' bohemian culture. While I appreciated the background, the best part of Ireson's talk was the close-ups of the painting. To get a close look at Modigliani's brush strokes and use of color was glorious.

"La Famille" by Henri Rousseau (between 1890 and 1900)
Next up was Henri Rousseau's "The Family." I haven't always been a fan of Rousseau.  I just wasn't quite sure what to make of those jungles. Over time, though, his naif style won me over. In fact, I even used his work "The Football Players" as my screen saver for a while. (Click here to see that painting.)  But I digress.

Ireson was once again my guide for exploring this painting. Her sense of humor became apparent as she talked about the child who's front and center. "My goodness," she said. "It's not the most attractive of children, I think it's fair to say, and it's huge."

She then fills us in on Rousseau and the little known about the family depicted in the painting. Rousseau didn't begin painting in earnest until he was in his 40s. (He made his living as a toll and tax collector until he was 49.)  So a painting like this was likely a commission from a local family in honor of a celebration of some sort, perhaps the baptism of the "rather large baby." It's probable that the family business was wine making, as the patriarch sits on a cask and the men all hold glasses filled with a rose colored liquid. Rousseau's primitive style seems just right for this type of portrait. Ireson was quick to point out this descriptor is not intended in a derogatory way nor would Rousseau himself taken offense.

"Supper Time" by Horace Pippin (1940)
Then I turned to Horace Pippin's "Supper Time," as explained by Director of Adult Education Bill Perthes. Although the Barnes' collection is internationally renowned for its impressionist, post-impressionist and early modernist paintings, Barnes' tastes were more varied. Oh, to have had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his love of art.

Again, taking the time to really look at the painting with Perthes as my guide was highly rewarding. I appreciated his highlighting of details I might have only subconsciously noticed, like the "sputtering" frying pan on the stove and the sweat stains under the mother's arms. While we know it's winter by the snow outside the window, this cabin is toasty warm.

The painting was created on several pieces of wood bound together. Pippin allowed the grain of the wood to show through in several places, including the subjects' skin. But the tidbit I found most fascinating is Pippin's use of a hot poker to draw the outlines in the work. This unique technique is all the more amazing when you learn the artist's right shoulder was injured in battle in WWI, making use of the poker quite challenging.

"Bird (Lobster Claw)"
 by Thomas Maling (1945)
I'll leave you with one of Thomas Malings' charming "Creations," as described by Senior Instructor Kaelin Jewell. This is an object you would almost surely overlook during a visit to the Barnes. It can be found in a gallery on the second floor on a drop leaf desk beneath a stunning Matisse still life. Maling's "Bird" and "Pelican" bookend (and are dwarfed by) a large pewter coffee pot. The story behind these Creations finding a home at the Barnes is the type of information you could only get from an insider.

Dr. Barnes and Maling met in Maine when Barnes and his wife were there on vacation. They became friendly, and Maling expressed an interest in Barnes' "little hobby" of collecting art. The 70-something old Maling had his own little hobby of creating small objects that reflected his environment. Maling reported seeing a claw hanging in a shop window and realizing it had a face; all it needed was a little paint. Voila! We have a bird. And in case you're wondering, his feet appear to be made from lima beans.

Barnes and Maling began corresponding when the artist sent Barnes some of his Creations to share with the Foundation's students. It was in one such letter that Maling told Barnes about the genesis of "Bird." Barnes wrote back, saying he appreciated the objects "not only for their intrinsic artistic value but because they are concrete proof of our teaching that art can arise in the most commonplace events of life."

To enjoy Barnes Takeout yourself, click here. Warning: It's addictive. Thanks to my friend Angel Hissom for bringing this project to my attention.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Embracing Our Differences 2020 Exhibit

"I Have a Dream" by Shangxi Wu , an 11th
grader from Pleasanton, CA
For the 17th year running, Embracing Our Differences has organized an international art exhibit that "uses the power of art and prose to promote diversity." Putting the exhibit together is a herculean task. This year the 50 works of art and quotes were chosen from 16,118 submissions from 127 countries and all 50 states.  Each piece is recreated in billboard size for the exhibit, which is held in Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota. The best part of all is that the exhibit is used as a teaching tool for students, with many teachers bringing their classes to enjoy and discuss the artwork and quotes.

I tagged along on a virtual tour of the exhibit given by Embracing Our Differences' Education Director Ben Jewell-Plocher. We started with Shangxi Wu's "I Have a Dream," the work that won the Best in Show - Student award. (The student's school receives $1,000 for its art program.) A bit surprisingly (to me, at least) is that one of the selected quotes was perfect for this work. Marsha Danzig from Ohio had written, "Living life as an amputee is the ability to stand tall like a mountain, even when you have no feet." As we looked at the work, Ben asked us questions similar to those that would be asked of touring students. What do you notice first? What's the meaning of the rainbow? How do you know the man is homeless and an amputee? It's a clever way to promote critical thinking skills in young students. 

"Can I Touch Your Hair?"
by Habib Hajallie from Dartfor, UK 
The Best of Show - Adult award went to "Can I Touch Your Hair?" by UK artist Habib Hajallie. The detail in this self-portrait is both impressive and thought-provoking. The background contains information about the city of Freetown from a 1940s book entitled "Sierra Leone Studies." The capital city was founded in the 18th century by freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia and Great Britain.  While it's difficult to tell from this picture, a map of the city runs across the artist's face. He is clearly connected to this place.

As to the more obvious aspect of the work, Hajallie has in fact been subjected to requests from people to touch his hair. While recognizing these individuals' intentions are likely innocent, he is always struck by their racial insensitivity. Even worse, such a request makes him feel like an animal that they want to pet. To read his entire artist statement, click here.

"Subway" by Yuke Li of Woodside, NY 
The Best in Show - Quotation was awarded to Osprey, FL 6th Grader Brian H., who submitted "If you stand by, then who will stand up?"  The quote was matched with "Subway" by Yuke Li. As a huge fan of public transportation, I particularly like this work. And it's certainly true that subways and buses are great equalizers. As Li said in his artist statement, "In the subway, we are all passengers. No matter where we come from, no matter what religion we have, we are heading together in one direction. We are all the same."

"El Sueno Americano" by Clifford McDonald

Ben also highlighted a work entitled "El Sueno Americano" (The American Dream) by Clifford McDonald from Sarasota.  McDonald is a teacher at The Visible Men Academy in Bradenton; his subject is one of his students. While it's hard to see in this photo, hidden in the boy's eyes are the American and Mexican flags. Ben shared that the boy came to visit the exhibit with his class. Not surprisingly, he was a bit nervous. Any concern was assuaged by the enthusiasm of his fellow students when they saw the photo.

The image takes on even greater meaning if you're familiar with The VMA. The tuition-free charter school educates at-risk boys in grades K-5.  As its website explains, "The VMA vision is to lead boys towards the realization of their innate strong character -- boys who are family orientated, community conscious and globally aware." In a world in which test scores drive many educational programs, it's inspiring to find a school that strives to create well-rounded and socially conscious kids.

I'll leave you with the unintentionally apt "Solitude" by Romanian artist Andreea Zimbru. It's hard for this work not to resonate in these days of social distancing and self-isolation. The accompanying quote by Karlyn Knudson of Washington state reads, "It was a beautiful flower...until you smacked it out of my hand and called it a weed."  It's all a matter of attitude and perspective.

If getting to Bayfront Park to take in the exhibit isn't an option, you can see more of the artwork and quotes by clicking here. One bonus to online viewing is easy access to the artist statements. The website also includes lesson plans that might come in handy if you know someone who is home schooling their child.

Thanks once again to Embracing Our Differences for sponsoring this wonderful exhibit.





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