Thursday, April 28, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Connection: Graycliff Estate

During my recent trip to Rochester, Maggie and I took time away from the bridge table for a Frank Lloyd Wright two-fer.  We spent the morning touring the 26,000 square foot Darwin D. Martin Complex in Buffalo.  The afternoon was dedicated to Graycliff Estate, the Martins' light-filled summer home on Lake Erie. The home was built at the behest of Isabelle, who was the client of record. The organic style of the 8-1/2 acre estate differs radically from the prairie style of the Buffalo residence, with nary an art glass window. The clear windows allow light to flow in and open wide to permit air to circulate on lazy summer afternoons. Nor do rooms have the dark molding featured extensively in the Martin House.

Isabelle's Graycliff home

Wright's design was inspired by the home's location. The house is punctuated with balconies and porches covered with overhangs that are simultaneously stylistic and functional. (The cantilevered overhangs mimic the shoreline while creating shady areas where Isabelle could seek respite from the sun.) The stucco portion of the home is rust colored to tie in with the coloration of the local tichenor limestone. Wright even included pieces of limestone with embedded fossils in the walls to enhance the organic feel.

Wright's attention to detail was meticulous. The living room has doors that open to the front and back of the building that are offset to create air flow rather than a wind tunnel. The concrete in the tennis courts was dyed a reddish tint to match the terracotta roofs of the nearby buildings. And it came as no surprise that the walls throughout the property are made from the same stone used in the buildings. 

And what would a lake house be without a water feature?  A  man-made pond with a surrounding garden is situated outside of the porte cochere where people in the guest house (originally the chauffeur's quarters) could enjoy it as well. Wright wanted a second water feature between the home and the shore to further the effect of the lake flowing through the house, but Isabelle said enough was enough. The area was used instead for a sunken garden.

Bethlehem Steel built this sturdy staircase to provide access from the grounds to the water. (The bridge connecting the estate to the tower has been dismantled for safety reasons.)  Maggie and I laughed as we imagined servants balancing trays of food and beverages to serve Isabelle and her guests as they lounged by the lake.

After Isabelle's death in 1945, the Martin children put Graycliff up for sale. In 1951 the property was sold to the Piarist Fathers, a group of Hungarian priests.  The estate became a place for the priests to rest, meditate and study, as well as a home for retired priests. Not surprisingly, the Order made some changes to the buildings to accommodate their needs. The buildings were winterized. A school house was built with dorms attached to house both students and refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. And the front porch was converted into a chapel. (Wright visited the estate in 1958 and was dismayed to find that his carefully crafted design was no longer visible. He offered to design the chapel for the priests--at what cost is unclear--but they politely declined.)  The Order continued to live on the estate until 1997, when it was sold to the Graycliff Conservancy.

The property is about halfway through a $7.5 million renovation, with most of the exterior work finished. The inside definitely needs lots of TLC.  It will be fun to visit again once the renovation has been completed. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Connection: Darwin D. Martin Complex

Interior of Larkin Company administration building

I missed an opportunity back in the 1980s to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater home and have always regretted it. So I was thrilled when Maggie squeezed a trip to Buffalo into our schedule to visit Wright's Martin House Complex and Graycliff Estate.

Darwin D. Martin was a self-made man. He began his career selling soap door-to-door with the Larkin company when he was 12. His hard work came to the company's attention almost immediately, and he was moved to Buffalo at the age of 13 to work in the office. Over time, he rose to become the equivalent of the company's chief operating officer.  One of his tasks was to build a new headquarters for the company. Although Martin initially wanted Louis Sullivan to design the structure, his Chicago-based brother told him about Frank Lloyd Wright, an
up-and-coming young architect. The rest is history.

Barton House

Darwin was so taken with Wright's talent that he also retained him to design a complex for his family. The site was just ten doors down from where the Martin family was currently living. Wright's first assignment was a starter home for Darwin's sister and her family. The Barton House is a modest 2,000 square foot home with one art glass window design used throughout. (This was Wright's nod to working on a budget.)  Interestingly, each art glass design became the property of the owner so is unique to the property for which it was created.  Wright's estimate to build the home was $4,000; it came in at $12,000. (And we're talking 1903 dollars.) 

Darwin D. Martin House
Wright then moved on to design Darwin and Isabelle Martin's 15,000 square foot home. The house's long horizontal lines exemplify Wright's prairie school design. The house is constructed of Roman bricks, which are narrower and longer (not to mention more expensive) than regular bricks. The grout between horizontal layers of the bricks is dug out to enhance the streamlined design. Entry areas to rooms have dropped ceilings that make the rooms themselves appear even more spacious.  (This is known as Wright's "compression and release" technique.)   Moldings are used to draw the eye to the 14 unique art glass window designs, the best-known of which is the 750 piece "Tree of Life" design.  (If all the woodwork in the house were laid end to end, it would extend for eight miles.)

Tree of Life window
While Wright gave the Martins a floor plan showing how each room should be furnished, it wasn't until years later that he began "client-proofing" his homes by building the furniture in. (Fallingwater, designed in 1935, has more than 80 built-ins.)  Darwin and Isabelle's bedroom is perhaps the best example of an unusual Wright design, with an interior wall in the middle of the room which the headboard of the bed was set against. (The furniture is not yet in place in the Complex, which is $4 million away from completion of its $50 million renovation. Consequently, we relied on our guide to explain the lay-out of the mysteriously shaped room.)

Darwin's relationship with Wright continued long past the completion of the Martin Complex in 1905, the estimated cost of which is $300,000. Darwin's devotion to Wright led him to act as Wright's private banker of sorts until the Martins lost all of their money in the crash of 1929. When Darwin died in 1935, Wright owed him $70,000. The money was never repaid.  Isabelle abandoned the property with back taxes due and moved to Graycliff Estate, also designed by Wright.

Reconstruction of the Pergola in 2006
The buildings in the 29,000 square foot complex sat unheated and empty for nearly two decades. In the 1950s, the property was privately purchased and subdivided. The Martin House itself was converted into three apartments.  What was (and is now again, thanks to the renovation) the carriage house, conservatory and pergola were bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings. The carriage house is the first Wright building restored from the ground up.

All in all, my first visit to a Frank Lloyd Wright home was worth the wait.  But our day wasn't over, with our next stop being Isabelle's Graycliff Estate on Lake Erie.  Stay tuned for my post about our visit. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Five More Things I Learned in Nashville

Nashville schooled me on the ins and outs of country music and more. Here are five more things I learned during my recent visit.

Livingston Taylor
1) Quiet environments with singer-songwriters are more my "thing" than a loud bar on Broadway. (I know this is a real shocker.) And so I loved our visit to the Bluebird Cafe, made universally known by the TV show "Nashville." The concert featured Livingston Taylor (James' brother), Pat Alger, Don Henry and Jon Vezner in the round.

Bluebird Cafe logo
There was definitely a mutual admiration society going on among these guys, with lots of songs written by Alger sung over the course of the evening.  (Alger might be best known for co-writing songs like "Unanswered Prayers" and "The Thunder Rolls" with Garth Brooks before Brooks was a household name.)  There were lots of sweet songs with lyrics about how "ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds" and "love made a fool of me."  But I like a country music song that makes me laugh, and Alger's rendition of "BFD" by Don Henry and Craig Carothers did just that.  Here's one of the verses:

It ain't no B.F.D he's got his C.M.T
No S E X but that's okay
At least he ain't no S.O.B like that Ph.D
That took his EX and ran off to L.A.

Biscuit Love's bonuts
2) It's hard to find a healthy meal in Nashville. I have to admit, though, that I specifically sought out the most caloric dining experience we had during our visit -- breakfast at Biscuit Love.  What started as a food truck in 2012 has segued into a local hot spot complete with a 45 minute wait (in a light drizzle, I might add).  After a guy in a condo across the way came out with a sign proclaiming "the bonuts are worth the wait," it was a given that we would start off our meal with an order.  In case you're wondering, bonuts are essentially fried doughnut holes made from biscuits and topped with marscapone cheese and blueberry compote. Deadly and delicious. My next course was the East Nasty, which was Bon Appetit's 2015 sandwich of the year.  The sandwich begins with a biscuit and then a fried boneless chicken thigh and sausage gravy are layered on.  In my defense, I didn't have lunch that day.  

3)  The Grand Ol' Opry got its name in an unexpected way. Radio station 650 AM WSM was established in 1925 by an insurance company. ("WSM" stood for "We shield millions.")  A country music show followed an opera program.  The lead in of "You've been listening to that grand old opera" eventually led to the show being called the "Grand Ol' Opry." 

Jackie Lee on the Opry stage
The live radio show lives on today, and Andrea and I took in the Friday night performance.  Being an aging star is not a problem at the Opry, and the host of each half hour segment seemed older than the last.  (Host Bill Anderson, for instance, was inducted into the Opry in 1961. He was adorable.)  Each performer sang two songs and got his or her time in the "circle."  The Opry was originally broadcast from Ryman Auditorium (also known as the "Mother Church of Country Music").  In the 1970s, the concerts were moved to the Opry's current venue for better sound and air conditioning.  A circle of wood from the Ryman stage found a home on the Opry stage, leading to lots of "may the circle be unbroken" comments.

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner
4)  Dolly Parton has more going on than a pretty face and big hair. (Admit it -- that's not the "big" that you thought of.)  Parton made a name for herself on The Porter Wagoner show, which she co-hosted from 1967-1974.  Their break-up provided the inspiration for her song "I Will Always Love You" (made most famous by Whitney Houston).  Elvis wanted to record the song but would only do so if she gave him half of the rights.  She trusted her business sense and bravely said thanks, but no thanks to the offer.  The song went on to make her over $39 million in performance rights.

5)  While catching a ride with Uber is not unique to Nashville, our trip did introduce me to this way of getting around. My observation is that Uber drivers are much chattier than your typical NYC taxi driver (my point of reference). I think it's because they know your name and therefore feel like you're acquaintances. The driver who dropped us off at Biscuit Love told me that he wanted to "punch me in the face" for going there. I thought it was because he was jealous of our upcoming dining experience.  But no, it was because he thinks Biscuit Love is overhyped and that the biscuits at Burger King are just as good and much cheaper. Coincidentally, he was also our driver to the airport later that day, so I had the opportunity to tell him that we had enjoyed our feast.

As Andrea and I parted at the airport, our consensus was that "we didn't hate" Nashville.  I know, high praise indeed.  Even though it wasn't our favorite destination of all time, it was a wonderful get-away.  We're open to suggestions for next year's adventure. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Five Things I Learned in Nashville

With Andrea
Nashville might not seem like the most obvious destination for someone who's not a big music person (and definitively not a big country music person).  But neither Andrea nor I had been there, and it's sort of mid-way between New York and Punta Gorda. So off we went.  Here are five things I learned while there:

1)  Nashville is the country's number 1 destination for bachelorette parties.  Try as we might, it was hard to find a music spot on Broadway that was free of exuberant 20- or 30-something women wearing matching shirts and looking for free shots.  They made me feel old and crotchety.

Bill and Andrea
2)  Bill Demain, the guide for our Walkin' Nashville tour, calls country music "the place where Saturday night meets Sunday morning." Since country music's roots lie in the storytelling of Appalachian folk songs and the morality of hymns, this seems like a perfect description.  Further support was found in a lyric we heard that went, "I'm looking for a girl on a Sunday morning who still smells like Saturday night."  The songwriter's inspiration was memories of growing up in a household where his parents didn't care what he did on Saturday night so long as he had his butt in a pew come morning. 

3)  Patsy Cline really, really, really didn't want to record "Crazy," which was written by Willie Nelson. In the early 1960s, Willie used to hang out at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. Tootsie was a big supporter of her singer-songwriter friends and paid for them to make demos that were interspersed with country hits on her jukebox.  One night Cline's husband Charlie was at Tootsie's and heard "Crazy." He hunted Tootsie down and told her Patsy had to record that song. Willie happened to be there, Tootsie made the introduction, and Charlie and Willie headed home to wake up Patsy. (It was 2:30 in the morning. I suspect there might have been some alcohol involved.) When they arrived, Willie played his demo. Patsy took Charlie into the other room.  "It's a terrible song," she said, "And that guy cannot sing." Charlie didn't give up, though.  He played the demo for Patsy's producer, who also loved it.  After much arm-twisting, she agreed to record it, but would only do two takes. Cline grew to like the song after it hit all the Billboard Charts and made her zillions of dollars.

Sam Dunson artwork
 4) Have you ever noticed that the State of Tennessee is shaped like the barrel of a gun?  That's really neither here nor there, but I realized it when I saw a map of the state after viewing this work by Sam Dunson at a Nashville gallery. The guy working there explained that the sculptures depict the three uses of guns: to hunt (hence the wooly fur), to accessorize (complete with bling) and to kill people (funeral flowers).

Jackson Delaney

5) Most of the bands that play in the honkey tonks on Broadway are, in fact, bar bands rather than musicians who are about to hit the big time. (Why we were even a little bit surprised by that is beyond me.)  We were, however, wowed the minute Jackson Delaney opened his mouth.  His resonant voice can go so low it's ridiculous. And I had to buy his CD after he played his original tune "Shotgun Wedding."  Really, how could I resist these lyrics:

Gonna be a finger on the trigger
When her daddy finds out
His baby ain't been eatin'
But she's putting on pounds
Shotgun wedding
And a boy in a bulletproof vest.

To hear the entire song (which you can download on iTunes), click here.

I have a few more Nashvillean tidbits to share, so stay tuned for the next installment. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Asolo Repertory Theatre presents "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar

The Pulitzer Prize winning "Disgraced" opens with Amir, dressed in full lawyer regalia from the waist up and only his underwear from the waist down, posing for a sketch being drawn by his wife Emily. While the moment makes the audience laugh, it's a brilliant introduction to a play that highlights the assumptions people make about what they see.

The idea for the portrait arose after an unpleasant incident at a restaurant when a waiter treated Amir in a prejudicial manner. "It gave me an idea," Emily says. "A man, a waiter, looking at you. Not seeing you. Not seeing who you really are. Not until you started to deal with him. And the deftness with which you did that. You made him see that gap. Between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are."

Emily's concept was also inspired by her recent visit to the Met where she saw Velasquez' "Portrait of Juan de Pareja." A casual viewer of the portrait would assume that de Pareja was a nobleman based on his dress and demeanor. The fact is, though, that de Pareja was not nobility at all but Velasquez' slave and assistant.

To director Michael Donald Edwards, "Disgraced" is a play about ideas such as identity, assimilation and cultural appropriation. "It's a play that has the potential to offend and upset everyone," he said. "But it's also a play that creates the opportunity to promote thought and discussion. Our job [at Asolo Rep] is to be an artistic leader in our community and to make the world in which we live a little better."

The "everyone" who might be offended includes Muslims, Jews and African-Americans, constituencies represented by characters in the play. The final character, Emily, is a white woman captivated by all things Islam, as seen in her art, her knowledge of the Quran, and perhaps even her choice of a mate.

Michael Donald Edwards
While preparing to produce the play, Edwards met with community leaders representing these various constituencies, including a rabbi and the imam for the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton. (Edwards shared that the 20-something imam appeared at his office wearing shorts and flip flops. His surprise jarred him as he realized that, despite being immersed in the cautionary tale of "Disgraced," he had bought into the media's portrayal of what imans look like.)  A complete list of the people Edwards and others involved in the production met with can be found by clicking here. (Information is also provided about Asolo Rep's "Faces of Change," a documentary theater project that explores the issue of how faith both divides and connects us in America today.)

Although I haven't shared the plotline, you have probably gathered that "Disgraced" is an emotionally charged play that challenges audience members to consider the foundations on which their own identities are based. It raises questions about today's complicated world without providing any neat answers. Anticipating audience members' desire to talk about what they've seen, each performance of "Disgraced" is followed by a moderated discussion. At the performance Janice and I attended, cast members Dorein Makhloghi (Amir), Jordan Ben Sobel (Isaac) and Bianca Jones (Jory) joined in.

Makhloghi, Sobel and Jones
The audience did a lot of talking, but I was most interested in hearing what the actors thought. Makhloghi commented that each character has the opportunity to be both right and wrong during the course of the show's 90 intense minutes. Sobel, who is Jewish, said he was surprised that he empathized most with the character of Amir when he first read the play. And Jones' comment about the play's theme of assimilation was a simple, "Yeah, I get it."

"Disgraced" has so much hype surrounding it that I was concerned I would find it like the Emperor's new clothes, with everyone jumping on the bandwagon because it would be politically incorrect not to do so. I'm happy to report that "Disgraced" deserves the accolades it has received and then some. Ten days after having seen the play, I'm still digesting it.  And I would be remiss not to mention that the acting is terrific and the set and way the passage of time is handled are brilliant.

"Disgraced" plays at Asolo Repertory Theatre through April 24.   

Postscript about Velasquez and de Pareja:  Velasquez created the painting of de Pareja in preparation for his portrait of Pope Innocent X, a work with color contrasts and compositional elements similar to those in the "Portrait of Juan de Pareja."  Velasquez later freed de Pereja, who went on to become a painter in his own right. The Ringling Museum happens to own one of his works, which is displayed in Gallery 14. The portrait of Amir (aka Darien Makhloghi) was painted by set designer Reid Thompson. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Marietta Museum of Art and Whimsy

Flamingo by Frederick Prescott

I've driven by the Museum of Whimsy in Sarasota dozens of times, always intending to stop and check it out. After all, it's hard not to wonder why there's a giant flamingo on Tamiami Trail. But I'd never made it in for a visit. In large part, this was due to the Museum's limited hours. (It's open from 1:00-4:00 on Thursday through Sunday during the season.) If I'm being honest, though, I also hadn't made it a priority because I expected the space would be full of kitsch with no "real" art.  I finally made it there a couple of weeks ago with Dorrit and Lindy in tow. It was definitely worth the stop.

The Museum is the creation of Marietta Lee. Lee's original occupation was as a nurse, working primarily as an EMT/paramedic. Haunted by a particularly gruesome crash scene, Lee began to sketch what she had seen. She felt her spirits lift. Not long after, she left the medical world to pursue a career in art. She graduated from the Ringling College of Art and Design in 1991.

By Theresa Disney
Lee's belief in the therapeutic power of art has never faltered. In 2009 she founded the Museum of Art and Whimsy in order to "create a space where people could relax and forget their problems even if only for a brief moment, to slow down, smell the roses, and enjoy the present."

The Museum is in the process of expanding (with a cafe and gift shop in the works) and didn't open in December as it usually does. So many people were knocking and peering through the windows, though, that Lee broke down in February and decided to let visitors see the Museum in progress. As a result, wall cards for the works were not up during our visit, so I am only able to identify the artists in the creations shown here. Feel free to make up your own names!
By Joyce Curvin
The collection is a combination of works Lee has commissioned and works she has found across the country. (One docent laughingly said that Lee can't be let loose when an art show is around.) All of the art in the Museum was made by artists who make a living by selling their work.

This paper mache K-9 was created by Joyce Curvin and, like all of Curvin's works, is made of "multi-cycled" materials. This cutie's core is a 2 litre soda bottle; a tuna can provides the foundation for his face. A St. Pete artist, Curvin is now on my list to look for at art shows in the area.

With Dorrit and Lindy

Some of my favorite works were the ceramic totems created by Mexican artists Dan and Nisha Ferguson (working together as DaNisha Sculpture).  Dan creates the molds and Nisha does the painting. Their work comes together in the design of the sculptures. The towers in the Museum proper feature barnyard animals while the totems in what will be the cafe are made of fish. They are a great example of fine--but fun--art.

The kitsch level increases as you walk into the gardens with its monkeys hanging from the trees, flamingos populating the grassy areas and flying pigs taking a break from their adventures.We were drawn to the benches with hippo and cow heads, respectively. (The outdoor works had name plates and these were called "Hippo Chair" and--wait for it--"Cowch.")  They were created by Keith Bradley from steel, horseshoes and found objects.

With Lindy and Dorrit

A visit to the Museum of Art and Whimsy won't make you think about art and its political context or place in history. But it will make you appreciate the power of art to engage your light-hearted side and, as Lee intended, lift your spirits. And there's something to be said for that.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Alabama Story at Florida Studio Theatre, Part 1

Florida Studio Theatre's "Behind the Scenes" program gives theater lovers a glimpse into the process of getting a play from the page to the stage.  I took the session on "Outside Mullingar" with the intention of checking the program out for next season. I now understand why the class was full of veteran students as there was no question about whether I'd sign up for the next session covering Kenneth Jones' "Alabama Story." It's just way too much fun.

"Alabama Story" tells the story of a political controversy in 1959 Montgomery over "The Rabbits' Wedding," a children's book written and illustrated by Garth Williams. (Williams also created the artwork for "Charlotte's Web" and "Little House on the Prairie.") The "problem" with the book was that it depicted a white rabbit and a black rabbit who get married. In an era of segregation, politicians could only imagine that the book was intended as a pro-integration political statement. Senator E.O. Eddins, the book's most vocal detractor, sought to have "The Rabbits' Wedding" banned from Alabama's public libraries. Emily Wheelock Reed, director of the Alabama State Library system, went toe-to-toe with Senator Eddins in a fight to keep the book on library shelves.

In preparation for the show, Dr. Helen Moore led the cast and crew through diversity training. Dr. Moore is uniquely situated to provide this training (which she's done for corporations across the country, including Lockheed Martin). Not only did Dr. Moore personally live through the era of Jim Crow laws, but she's a descendant of slave Robert Smalls. (Smalls gained a mention in history books for commandeering a Confederate transport ship during the Civil War and sailing it to Union waters.)  

Director Kate Alexander
Director Kate Alexander employed the training as a way for the actors to "get in touch with the truth behind the story." The session included an exercise in which everyone lined up in a single row and then stepped forwards or backwards in response to questions asked.  Are you a white man?  Take a step forward.  Are you a white woman?  Take half a step back.  By the end of the exercise, Chris White, the lone African-American in the cast, was standing at the back of the room by himself.  The visual had the desired impact.

Kate talked about the challenge of creating characters who are appealing in spite of their racism. "Bad guys don't come with pitchforks," she said. Veteran FST actor Andy Prosky, who plays Senator Higgins, is charged with the task of making his character likeable. Kate shared that finding the balance has taken its toll on Prosky, who became overcome with emotion during one of the rehearsals. (As a side note, Senator Eddins apparently did many good things for the State of Alabama, including being one of the state's biggest supporters of a strong--if segregated--library system. For this reason, Jones changed his name in the play to Higgins, although his identity is clear to people familiar with the controversy.)

The play's second story line flows from a chance encounter between Joshua Moore (played by Chris White) and Lily Whitfield (played by Rachel Moulton). When Joshua and Lily were children, Joshua's mother worked for the wealthy Whitfields. Housing was provided in an outbuilding across from the Whitfield family's "Big House." As adults, Lily and Joshua recall the building quite differently. To Lily, it was a "carriage house;" to Joshua, a "dogtrot." As kids, though, these differences were accepted and didn't prevent them from being friends. 

One of the many benefits of taking the class is getting a copy of the script. This allows me to understand references that might otherwise pass me by in a single viewing of the play. For instance, Joshua makes a comment about using the Green Book while he travels. Like Lily, I'd never heard of this book, which, as Joshua explains, "tells colored folks where it's safe to eat and sleep when they're traveling." (The book is now extremely collectible. Last year, a 1941 edition sold  for $22,500 at Swann Galleries in New York.) To read more about the Green Book, click here.

Throughout the season, Florida Studio Theatre has held a series of panel discussions entitled "Dialogues on Diversity." Three sessions will take place around the themes of  "Alabama Story," including a talk about banned books and a panel about LGTB issues in which the playwright will participate. The sessions are free and open to the public. For information, click here.

"Alabama Story" will run at Florida Studio Theatre from April 6-May 28.