Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's Look at Titles with Dorothy Howe Brooks

Jane Spencer with Dorothy Howe Brooks
Not being an artist, I have never faced the task of coming up with a name for a piece of art. I can appreciate the challenge, though, as I often struggle to come up with titles and subheadings when I'm writing a feature for Florida Weekly.  And so I was interested in poet Dorothy Howe Brooks' insights on the art of naming an artwork at the Visual Arts Center last week.  It was loads of fun.

By way of introduction to her subject, Dorothy talked about the difference between titles of poems/other forms of literature and titles of artwork.  In literature, the titles are front and center.  They are cues that give the reader a sense of what is coming up and influence whether you want to forge ahead into the writing.

In art, titles tend to be secondary.  When you walk into a gallery, it is the artwork that beckons.  When a work grabs your attention, you go closer to get a better look.  Then you might look at the wall card to find out who painted the work and what it's called. A good title will enhance your appreciation of the work.  A bad title runs the risk of turning you off.  

O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell"
The most common type of title is fact-based. "This is a painting of xxxx," the artist tells the viewer. This approach establishes a context and can be particularly illuminating for more abstract works. Dorothy used Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hill and White Shell" as an example.  Most everyone recognizes the nautilus shell, but the fact that the background is a hill often eludes viewers until they learn the name of the work.  The title adds to the viewer's experience as it piques their curiosity as to whether such a hill really exists in nature. 

Patricia Anderson Turner's "Mud cookies" 
We talked a bit about how a factual title can establish the political context of a work. Sue Taylor shared how struck she had been by Patricia Anderson Turner's social commentary pieces, particularly her “Mud Cookies.”   At first glance, you see a colorfully dressed woman holding some disks.  The title was intriguing, however, and led both Sue and me to read Patricia’s explanation of the work.  We then learned that the disks are “cookies” made out of mud that Haitian women feed their children.  This was a very powerful use of a fact-based title. 

Dorothy categorized other ways to title works for us.  A title can focus attention on a particular aspect of a painting.  Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” draws our attention to the glimmering light as the sun rises on the day.  A name like “Harbor at LeHavre” (the original title of the work) is informative, but doesn’t share with the viewer what really struck the artist about the scene.

"Study in Blue and White" by Dana Cooper
Other types of titles might reveal the artist’s inspiration in a common narrative (a myth, perhaps, or a historical event).  Or it might focus the viewer on a craft element of the work, like Dana Cooper's "Study in Blue and White."  A title can name an emotion being expressed by the artist (an approach Dorothy does not favor because it seems to dictate what the viewer should feel).  Finally, an artist might go with “Untitled” as the name of her work, leaving its interpretation wholly to its audience.

Carol Fogelsong's work
 Then the real fun began as Dorothy showed us some works without revealing their titles and asked us to suggest names.  First up was this work by Carol Folgelsong.  We quickly realized how hard it is to develop a good title (particularly, as one artist suggested, for a work you didn’t create). Suggested titles were “Flight’s End,” “Captured,” and “Out of Reach.”  We talked about how the bright colors evoked a happy, whimsical feeling that was contrary to some of the names we’d come up with.  (FYI, Ms. Fogelsong named her painting “Lost and Found.”)

Becky Donatucci's work
We also brainstormed to come up with a name for this painting by Becky Donatucci.  So many different types of titles could work for this one.  A fact-based title could name the cemetery or what is presumably a church.  You could call it something like “Blue Door” (an approach many people favored).  Someone suggested “Before and Beyond,” a title that uses a metaphor.  Another person proposed “Perspective of Shadows,” drawing focus to the craft element of the work.  Ms. Donatucci went with this approach, titling her work “In the Shadow.” 

The session was engaging and thought-provoking and lots of fun.  I surely will pay even closer attention to the titles of artwork in the future as I consider what they add to my experience.  Let the viewing begin!       

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Table at Ringling International Arts Fest

Moses with puppeteer Laura Caldow

I have a crush.  His name is Moses.  He is a table puppet.

Perhaps a bit of an explanation is in order.

Last week was the 6th Annual Ringling International Arts Festival.  The Festival welcomes performers from around the world to introduce Southwest Florida audiences to dance, theater and music productions that push the envelope a bit.  I was able to make four of the seven shows.

Tangram was a combination of juggling and dance that left me a bit baffled.  Keigwin + Co. featured a contemporary dance company whose work was beautiful and funny and thoroughly engaging.  (Just to give you a sense of how contemporary the choreography was, several pieces featured a mattress as a prop that the dancers jumped over and fell on during the course of the dance.)  "The Intergalactic Nemesis - Book 1:  Target Earth" was part old style radio show (complete with a Foley artist), part sci-fi, part graphic novel.  It was very creative, and I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Then there was "The Table" by Blind Summit.  Blind Summit's mission is to "present new puppets, in new places, in new ways, to new audiences."  Traditionally, the mention of a puppet show calls to mind Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop.  With the hilarious "Avenue Q," though, the art of puppetry has been elevated to adult theater.  I also was fortunate to see "The Winged" at last summer's ACCT WorldFest hosted by Venice Theatre. It was a beautiful performance featuring lifesize puppets by Armenia's Yerevan State Puppet Theater.  I am now wide open to being entertained by a puppet, and Moses captured my heart.
Moses post-performance showing off for his adoring fans

From the opening moments of "The Table," I was in.  Mark Down, director of the show and one of the puppeteers, explained a bit about table puppetry and how the show came about.  As Mark went through his explanation, Moses warmed up, rolling his neck and shaking out his body.  The audience was in the palm of his little hand.

Table puppets are different from hand puppets or life size puppets or marionettes.  They require three people to operate.  Mark was responsible for his head and left hand (and the hilarious dialogue).  Laura Caldow was bent over during the entire show manipulating Moses' feet.  And Sean Garratt was in charge of Moses' right hand and his rear end (which got in more than a little gyrating).

Being a table puppet can be exhausting
"The Table" was commissioned by the Jewish Community Centre in London to celebrate the Passover Seder.  I hope they knew what they were getting into!  The show is done improv style, so there is no script that explains Moses' role in the bible.  Sure, there were some references to Deuteronomy and Moses climbing Mount Nebo and "epic biblical puppetry," but most of the show was pretty random.  At one point Moses raised the question as to what made him a "Jewish" puppet.  He is, as he pointed out, made of cardboard.

Throughout the show, Moses blatantly flirted with a woman in the front row.  I can't remember her name, so I'll call her Eileen.  Eileen caught his eye from the start, and he heckled her and asked if she would be willing to "give it a go" (with much suggestive hip waggling).  It was truly hilarious. And then the plot thickened.

It turned out that Eileen has some experience with"string puppets" (marionettes to us lay folks).  When Sean went offstage looking for a ladder (don't ask), the puppeteers needed a third to keep Moses in action.  After much prodding, Eileen came onstage, only to pull Moses' hand right off his arm.  This was definitely not part of the plan, and the puppeteers were besides themselves laughing as they tried to work out how to move forward.  

Getting acquainted with Moses (with Laura and Sean)
After the show, the audience had a chance to get up close and personal with Moses.  I deliberately waited until the end so that I could get to know him a little better.  (You might notice that I have my hand on his little bum.)  I learned that the show started at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (no surprise there) and that a particular puppet head can be used for approximately 25 performance.  (The body can usually go for 100 performances unless an unwitting audience member rips part of it off.)  The cast was personable and enthusiastic and clearly loved the reaction that their show had received. 

"The Table" was truly a fun and unique afternoon of theater.  It was a reminder to be open to experiences that might sound a bit out there.  You never know when you're going to fall in love. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Psychology of Music: What Instrument are You?

I've recently started going to the quarterly talks benefiting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra known as "Medical Grand Rounds."  I will admit to being a bit apprehensive about attending given my total and absolute lack of knowledge about neuroscience and physiology.  (The mere fact that I am writing those words is remarkable in and of itself.)  But I was interested, so decided to check it out.  The sessions are fascinating.
Dr. Tony Gil with Maestro Ponti
Last week-end's talk featured Maestro Raffaele Ponti, who spoke about the psychology of music.  Dr. Tony Gil introduced the subject with some "basic" information about "your brain on music."  The fact is that listening to music that you enjoy -- be it Rachmaninoff  or the Rolling Stones -- triggers the release of dopamine in your system.  Dopamine is the "feel good" chemical that is your body's reward for doing something you enjoy (more traditionally, eating and sex).  With that background in mind, the Maestro took the podium.

Maestro Ponti 
Raffaele began with a basic introduction to an orchestra. (I for one always appreciate a bit of "classical music for dummies.") An orchestra has four sections:  strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. A musician's choice of instrument depends in part on his or her physical attributes. Having short arms is a bit of an impediment to being a trombone player, for instance.  But once you've gotten past these physical aspects, Raffaele posits that there is a connection between a musician's personality and her instrument.  Here's a quick and dirty summary of his take on the topic.

Strings:  Violins are the core of the orchestra since they create the melody.  Violinists are often high strung and have large egos. Violas, on the other hand, are the "unsung heroes of the string section."  Their larger, darker sound bridges the gap between the violins and the rest of the orchestra, but they don't get any glory.  The bass, too, is a supporting instrument, so bass players are generally team spirited.  Everyone loves the cello, which does get some solos, so people who play this instrument have personalities that fall somewhere between those of violinists and violists.

Woodwinds:  Oboes are used to tune the orchestra, so oboists tend to think they always do things right.  Flautists and piccolo players are a bit flamboyant and love the attention they garner with their solos. Clarinetists get the chance to play a lot of notes, and they tend to love the technical aspects of music.  The bassoon is an instrument you almost never actually hear, so their players are content to be an important--if invisible--part of the team.

Raffaele showing off his honorary
MD (music director) white coat
Brass:  As a trumpet player turned conductor, Raffaele made no qualms about saying that trumpet players are the troublemakers in the room.  They tend to have big egos and want to be heard (literally).  "There's a reason you put them in the back of the hall," he said.  Trombonists, on the other hand, tend to be very easy going, and tuba players are just nice people.  (They would have to have a bit of a sense of humor, too, to be willing to schlep their instruments around.)  One of the roles of the French horn is to merge the woodwinds and brass sections.  The fact that the bell of the French horn actually points away from the audience says it all.

Percussion:  Percussionists spend their lives thinking about things that they can bang, scrape or pluck to make music.  They tend to be quirky and fun but patient since they are always setting up the next instrument to play.  (Pianos are technically considered percussion instruments since music is made with the strike of the hammer.)

Raffaele had encouraged his listeners to think about which instrument best suits their own personalities as he talked.  For once, I wasn't the only person making notes.  And here's the exciting news:  Medical grand rounds attendees have been invited to sit in "their" instrument's section at the CSO's rehearsal on November 15th.  It's an adaptation for adults of the CSO's "musical chairs" program.  Needless to say, I am all over that.  I won't, however, reveal what instrument I've selected until I share the experience with you here.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Drag Queen Bingo at The Bottom Line

Me with Bootsey (who bears
a striking resemblance to Dame Edna)
Life in Southwest Florida has something for everyone.  There's art and music and a full array of outdoor activities. There are gator hatchings and roller derby and pirate festivals. And then there's Drag Queen Bingo with Bootsey Cloverdale and Lady Licious.

Every Sunday afternoon at The Bottom Line bar in Fort Myers, people gather to be entertained by these drag queens extraordinaire. My friend Kathy Grey had been invited to check it out and asked me to tag along.  Why not?  I'd heard about this phenomenon and was eager to see what it was all about.  

We settled into our seats with Kathy's friends, waving more than a little smoke out of our eyes.  Although the game is advertised as starting at 4:00, that's really when people arrive to get lubricated for the bingo.  Bootsey roams the floor with a cart selling bingo cards and working the crowd.  You can tell from this picture that she is quite shy and reserved.

 Like any bar, there are a number of big screen TVs.  A couple were showing football games.  Other had NASCAR on.  And then there were several screens airing what I eventually figured out was the Mr. LA Leather 2014 competition on ReelGay TV.  I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.  

When it was time for the game to start, Bootsey explained the rules for people--like me--who were virgins to the experience:
1.  Whenever they call out a number that's on the "O" line, you are required to raise your arms above your head in a circle.  You will be punished if you do not do this.  (There was talk of having to go onstage and do 50 reps on the thighmaster.)  They are serious about this.  The first time an "O" number was called out, I went for my camera instead of following the rules.  Bootsey walked right up to me and I was sure I was heading for the stage.  Luckily, I got a pass as a newbie, but I whipped my arms overhead as mandated the rest of the time.  
2.  When you have one number left to get a bingo, you yell out, "I'm coming!" 
3.  If you get a bingo, you run onto the stage and spank Lady Licious vigorously.  
4.  If you incorrectly say you have a bingo, you must don the pink dress that's hanging onstage and wear it the rest of the night.  
5.  You must curse the people who get a bingo because they have made the rest of us into losers.
Periodically, the ladies would take a break from calling the bingo game to do a song or two.  There was, for instance, a song whose tune was taken from Mary Poppins' "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."  The refrain had been changed, however, to "Super trashy, cheap and nasty, country bitchy drag queens."  (Try it and you'll find it's actually quite catchy.)  I would say that Julie Andrews would be shocked, but she did do Victor Victoria.  Lady Licious' contribution was to the tune of Tina Turner's "Private Dancer," only she needed a private bathroom.  It was not what you would call a tasteful song. 

Kathy doing her first jello shot
After being there for three hours and playing four games of bingo, I hit the road. It was definitely a fun--and different--way to spend my Sunday night.  The only reason I won't be going back soon is the smokiness of the bar.  It's been a long time since I've had to air out clothes when I got home from a night out (and I definitely haven't missed it).  Still, I'm happy to be able to take drag queen bingo off my bucket list. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

FSU/Asolo Conservatory's New Stages Program

Each year the second year students in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory program perform a series of four shows.  I fell in love with last year's students well before the curtain fell on their first production. So I was excited to have the chance to see them perform one last time as a company before getting into this season's shows with the newly minted second year students.   The fact that the show -- a 45 minute version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream -- will be traveling to schools across Florida made the production even more special.

Conservatory third years taking
questions post-show
It is no exaggeration when I say that I smiled throughout the entire performance.  The audience laughed along as the play moved from Athens Academy (Go, Minotaurs!) where Demetrius and Lysander vie for Hermia's love to a forest where crazily dressed fairies make their mischief to a play-within-a-play performed by maintenance staff.  I was swept into the story at the beginning and the high energy of the actors and creativity of the adaptation held my interest until the final bow.

More talk-back
This will be the seventh year of the New Stages program, an extension of Asolo Rep's Education and Outreach offerings for schools.  Over the next few weeks, the company will appear more than 40 times in productions in cities as widespread as Tallahassee to Tampa to Miami.  It is estimated that 12,000 students will be reached,  many of whom will experience the magic of live theater for the first time.  Each performance will include a talk-back afterwards at which the students will have the chance to ask questions of the cast.

The entire cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream
A study guide about the show has been prepared for teachers to use with their students before seeing the production.  The programs for Asolo Rep's shows are always chockful of interesting information, and the study guide is no exception.  One section succinctly highlights the dueling perspectives on whether Shakespearean plays should be modernized or performed as in the bard's time.  In addition to laying out the two sides in the debate, tidbits of info are included such as the fact that The Lion King is a take on Hamlet.  (Who knew?)  There's also a terrific section that introduces students to the different groups within the play.  The fairies, for instance, are outsiders who didn't want to live within the confines of society.  This type of information is sure to help kids relate to the characters they see on stage.  Click here if you're interested in taking a look at the guide.

Perhaps the most exciting performance will be held on October 17th at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Culver Bay.  In this production, the cast will be joined by American Sign Language interpreters who will perform as the actors' "shadows."  I can only imagine how powerful this experience will be for actors and audience members alike.

If your interest is piqued and you're in the Sarasota area, the performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream on October 11, October 23 and November 8 are open to the public.  The shows will take place at different venues. For more information, click here.

Each time we go to a Conservatory performance, I thank Dorrit for suggesting last year that we get season tickets.  But don't take my word for how much fun it is to see these stars of the future.  Check it out for yourself.   The season kicks off with David Mamet's The Water Engine, which runs from November 4 - 23.  I hope to see you there.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Art Criticism at the Visual Arts Center

The mere thought of picking up a paintbrush or a piece of clay strikes terror in my heart. (Sadly, I kid you not.)  And yet I found myself at a session last week on "How to Critique Your Art" at the Visual Arts Center.  The session was the first in our new artist development series.  And while it was obviously geared towards artists, I was not the only person in the room who is "only" an art appreciator.  I always figure the more you know, the better!

The session was led by Liz Hutchinson, a leading artist in our community.  Liz talked a bit about ways to look at art--objective, subjective, with imagination--and then asked for the first volunteer.

Sculpture by Judi Roth
Judi Roth offered up three beautiful small sculptures.  This work features a teeny tiny bird's nest. The whimsy, patterns and texture of Judi's pieces delighted the group.  Liz was struck by the fact that the piece wasn't circular as you might expect.  (Another of Judi's pieces was a bird bath--complete with a rubber duckie--that had a notch cut out.)  She suggested that Judi's "trademark" might be the unexpected shapes of her works.  This thought prompted Liz to share with the group her advice when an artist asks how to develop his own style.  Her response:  "Take an aspirin and call me in the morning!"  She assured the group that an artist's style will emerge naturally if you give it time.

"Rowing Ashore" by Lyn Jensen
Lyn Jensen's stunning digital photo brought a lot of commentary from the group.  Lyn explained a bit about the process, which involves layering several photos into the final work.  Liz admired the way that the light shines through the leaves, noting that without that element, the darkness would overwhelm the work.  Someone mentioned the "accidental associations" that viewers bring to a work -- in this case, the book "Boys in the Boat" (which Lyn wasn't familiar with).  I fell in love with the colors, which reminded me of an early morning in Nova Scotia.

Jane Patton's work
 I was surprised by Jane Patton's work, which depicts her husband Tom with a nice-sized bass.  I associate Jane with botanicals and enjoyed seeing her venture into another subject.  Liz's first question was "Where are we?"  Jane and Tom used to live on a lake, and Tom would sometimes come home from work for lunch and do a bit of fishing (hence the starchy white shirt and tie -- a contrast that immediately made everyone smile).  Liz used Jane's work as an opportunity to talk about the color spectrum.  Apparently yellow is the "hottest" color and should be used judiciously.  The brightness of the dock, while perhaps reflective of its color in real life, is a bit overwhelming and makes it hard to see Tom's hand.  Liz encouraged artists to take a step back in the midst of their painting and ask themselves what their work is about.  Here, the painting is about Tom and his fish, not the dock.  So you don't want the dock to be what people's eyes are drawn to when they see the picture.  (Jane told me she's reworking the dock to add more gray.  I liked the work as it was and am interested to see the revised version.)

Michael Cahak's work
I had stepped out of the room when Michael Cahak explained the medium for this abstract, which reminded me of an encaustic.  (It was on a piece of paper, though, so I know that's not right.)   Abstracts in particular are hard for people to comment on.  Perhaps more than any other style, you either immediately like it or not.  (This is my comment, not Liz's.)  Her approach to the work was interesting.  She turned it horizontally and upside down from the way Michael intended it to hang and asked the group which way they liked it best.  Surprisingly (to the artist), the group preferred the work on its side with what looks to me like tree branches hanging down.

Mary Lou Miller's painting brought lots of "oohs" and "aahhs" from the group.  This photo really does not do justice to the amazing colors in this watercolor, although you do get a sense of the texture Mary Lou created in the nest.  Liz didn't have much commentary about this work (which she proclaimed a "seller")  other than that the baby herons add to its interest.

It was an interesting and engaging 90 minutes.  I enjoyed some of Liz' other tidbits of advice for the artists, like how to respond to questions about how long it took to create a painting ("35 years, 8 months and 4 days" -- i.e., the artist's lifetime) and to remember that "putting a frame on a painting is like putting a dress on a woman."   I am already looking forward to the session next month on "How to Name Your Work" that will be led by poet Dorothy Howe Brooks.  There's always something fun going on at the Visual Arts Center!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Punta Gorda's Got Murals

Punta Gorda is a community that takes pride in its history.  It's also a community that loves its art.  The two are brought together in the work of the Punta Gorda Historic Mural Society.  And I finally had the chance to go on a walking tour to learn the history behind a few of the murals that I pass on almost a daily basis.  There are 28 murals in total, so there's still a lot of walking to be done!

"Life and Times of George Brown" by Michael Vires
"The Life and Times of George Brown" is one of the most recent additions to the city's mural collection.  (There are actually two paintings on this subject, but they count as one mural for purposes of the Mural Society.) It's located on Marion Avenue on a wall in front of the Old Charlotte County Courthouse.

George Brown was an enterprising African-American who at one time owned more than half the land in Punta Gorda, including the land where the mural commemorating his life and work is located.  He is best known for running a shipyard and boat works company and was an early adopter of equal pay for all of his employees.  Mr. Brown's commitment to Punta Gorda was evident in many ways, including a willingness to pay his taxes early on several occasions in order to enable the city to make ends meet.

Videographer David Sussman made a cool time lapse video of artist Michael Vires creating these murals.  To watch the video (and learn a bit more about Mr. Brown), click here.

"Movie Memories" by Michael Vires
Mr. Vires also painted "Movie Memories," a series of three paintings capturing the locals' favorite form of entertainment from the 1920s until the early 1960s.  (If only we had a movie theater in Punta Gorda now!)  This painting captures several aspects of the culture -- the "adult only" balcony, a time when you might be able to afford to buy popcorn at the theater, and the messenger delivering reels of film from the "white" movie theater to the "black" movie theater.  Like most towns in the South, Punta Gorda's history includes segregation.  And so there were two theaters in town that served the different populations.  Both saw the same movies on the same night, with the white audience viewing a reel first while a messenger stood by to bike it over to the black theater.  This mural can be found on the "privacy wall" at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center.

"Postcards in Time" by Jack Reto
In 1917, former President Teddy Roosevelt came to Punta Gorda to do a little fishing. The world's largest manta ray--an 18 footer--was caught off Captiva in 1915 by a man named Jack Cole.  Always the eager sportsman, Roosevelt wanted to best the record.  Roosevelt contacted Cole, who agreed to an outing.  Roosevelt and Cole stayed on a houseboat in Charlotte Harbor near Punta Gorda with five crew members.  The first step was to teach Roosevelt how to throw a harpoon.  (He apparently became proficient quite quickly.)  Roosevelt did manage to spear--and pull in--a 16' 8" manta ray, but Cole's world record remained intact.  To read a story from the 1917 St. Petersburg Times about this adventure, click here.   This painting is one of seven that comprise the "Postcards in Time" mural by Jack Reto.  It is located on the Andrew's Building at 126 Nesbit.

Libby (in front with hat) and her followers
Our tour guide for the evening was Libby Schaefer, and I was surprised to learn that the walk wasn't sponsored by either the Mural Society or the Historical Society.  Libby is "just" a woman who loves to share her knowledge of Punta Gorda's history, especially as viewed through its murals.  So she periodically leads these walks (for no charge!)  The next walk will be at 9:30 a.m., on Saturday, October 11, at 9:30.  The meeting point is Hurricane Charley's.  I am not sure of the exact spot, but trust that if you wander around a bit, you will find Libby and a gaggle of people.  It's sure to be a fun way to kick off your week-end.