Thursday, April 8, 2021

Thought Provoking Reads, Part 1: "Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

It's been a long year, hasn't it? I have to admit that I haven't pushed myself to do much heavy lifting during the pandemic -- and I'm not talking about the type of lifting you do at the gym. My brain seems to have atrophied along with my muscles. Really, how much mindless tv can a person watch? (That's a rhetorical question since I know the answer -- A LOT!!!)

But lately I've been easing my brain out of hibernation. In the process, I've read two wonderful books that made me think. I even read some interviews with the authors after I finished the last pages. Pretty incredible, I know. 

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Klara, an artificial friend, and Josie, the young girl who adopts her. That premise alone drew me in, and as I was reading, my vision of Klara alternated between one of the robots in the tv show "Humans" and Rosie the Robot from "The Jetsons." (For the record, neither of those shows was on my pandemic watch list.) 

In Ishiguro's world, AFs have achieved consciousness. Klara does a lot of thinking, especially about emotions. Take, for instance, Klara's internal commentary when she's on display in the store window with her fellow AF Rosa and notices other AFs walking by. "When AFs did go by us they almost always acted oddly, speeding up their walk and keeping their faces turned away. I wondered then if perhaps we - the whole store - were an embarrassment to them. I wonder if Rosa and I, once we'd found our homes, would feel an awkwardness to be reminded that we hadn't always lived with our children, but in a store." Later, Klara responds to a comment by Josie's mother that it must be nice not to have any feelings by saying, "I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me." 

Klara soon learns that Josie suffers from a mysterious illness that leaves her bedridden much of the time. Klara's job is to be a companion for Josie, and she takes this responsibility very seriously. She helps Josie navigate her relationships with her mother, a complicated character whom I have decidedly mixed feelings about, and Rick, the boy next door who's Josie's only friend. Klara's goal ultimately becomes saving Josie from the disease that threatens her life. 

Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of
the Nobel Prize Award 
in Literature and four 
Man Booker Prizes

I really don't want to say more about this book, as you should discover the twists and turns yourself. At one point a piece of the puzzle came together and I literally set the book down and said "oh my god" out loud to the empty room. The world Ishiguro has created is disturbing, and the technology he envisions is probably within our grasp. 

I'll leave you with a couple of surprising tidbits about the prize-winning author. First, Ishiguro started his career as a storyteller through music. He was a singer-songwriter from a young age and still considers music his first love. Since 2002, he has written the occasional set of lyrics for jazz singer Stacey Kent. (They met after he chose her recording of "You Can't Take That Away from Me" in an edition of Desert Island Discs.) 

Second, he conceived of Klara's story as a children's picture book. The idea of a non-human narrator is consistent with the genre -- think Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin -- and he could see the colorful illustrations in his mind. When he ran the idea by his daughter, she told him he was crazy and that the concept would traumatize kids. He quickly pivoted to an adult novel. To listen to a short interview with Ishiguro about the book and his original concept, click here:  I am eager to read more of this brilliant author's work. 

Next up: "Homeland Elegies" by Ayad Akhtar

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Cutting Edge: American Collage 1935-Present at Ringling College

"A Land Beyond the River" by Romare Bearden (1957)
Ringling College has hit the ball out of the park this year with its exhibits. (Yes, baseball season is upon us.)  With one gallery hosting the gorgeous Richard Mayhew exhibit and another boasting an American collage overview, I was in art heaven when I visited last week. 

I immediately gravitated to this wonderful collage by Romare Bearden. I loved its simplicity and folk art feel. And there's something about the lettering that just drew me in. 
"All the Things You Are" 
by Romare Bearden (collage and 
It wasn't until I was back home that I learned the story behind the collage. Bearden was friends with playwright Loften Mitchell and made this collage for a play by Mitchell of the same name. (Bearden also designed the set.)  Mitchell's play was about a South Carolina minister who fought for desegregation. Hence the wonderful church in the background. 

If you're a reader of this blog, the name Romare Bearden might be ringing some bells. Bearden was one of the founding members of SPIRAL, a collective of African-American artists that also included Richard Mayhew. Like Mayhew, Bearden was multi-talented. In addition to being an artist, he played semi-pro baseball and composed music. (His "Sea Breeze" was recorded by Billy Eckstein and Dizzy Gillespie.) As to why he was interested in collage, he believed the assembling of different components of a collage "symbolizes the coming together of tradition and communities." For more about Rearden, click here. And to see more of his incredible work, here.  

"March 15, 1984" by John Evans

John Evans' collages are said to be a diary of everyday life -- not his life, necessarily, but that of his East Village neighborhood.  Beginning in 1964, Evans created a collage every day (!!!) from found objects that included ticket stubs and receipts and newspaper clippings. He continued this practice until the year 2000. Another serious of exclamation points is in order. 

This collage -- marked with its title of "Mar 15 1984" in a print that must have been made by a stamp used on library cards in the good old days -- was one of six on display. I just love the mad scientist feel to it with the exposed brain. The "body" is made of a box that has an "average content" of 40 matches. Was there no quality control at that time at Maguire & Patterson Ltd.? The duck-like creatures at the bottom of the collage were known as "Ursuline Ducks" and can be found in a number of his works. They were named in honor of his friend and artist, novelist and playwright Ursuline Molinaro. And then there's the quote on a fortune cookie size piece of paper that reads: "The only things which we commonly see are those which we preperceive, and the only things which we preperceive are those which have been labelled for us, and the labels stamped into our minds. -- William James"  Huh. Give that a think for a minute or two.  For more of Evans' collages, click here

"Secrets Grow Behind the Eyes"
by India Evans (2010) 
Across the room I discovered the art of India Evans, who happens to be one of John's twin daughters. Evans has said, "Erotic energy is the ultimate creative force." You certainly see this philosophy in her work, which made me think of the movie "Eyes Wide Shut."  

Speaking of eyes, the title of this work -- "Secrets Grow Behind the Eyes" -- is embroidered into the fabric. (You can faintly see the writing, which starts from the midsection of the woman on the left.) What does it mean? Why are these naked women wearing bird masks and why do they have feathery tails? What's the significance of the fabric, with its textures that look like they could be land masses in the midst of a red sea?  Your guess is as good as mine. 

What I do know is that Evans' upbringing was quite different from my own. Her parents were -- in her words -- "hard core hippies" without societal hang-ups about nudity and sex.  "Love was their religion," she said. From a young age, she embraced the female figure in all its power and energy. Again, her life view is in her work for all to see and consider. To read a fascinating interview with Evans and to see more of her collages, click here

"Vortex of Doom" by Philomena Marano (2019)
Then there were the collages of Philomena Marano. "Vortex of Doom" is from her Circus Thrills Shows series. John Ringling would have loved it.  

Marano's style of collage is known as paper colle', which, quite simply, means it's all made from paper. "My cut paper process straddles painting and graphic design," she says. "The paper is my palette; my x-acto knife is my rendering instrument." 

Marano first learned this technique as a studio assistant to Robert Indiana for a Santa Fe Opera production of "The Mother of Us All." The avant garde opera about Susan B. Anthony, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein, was the perfect choice for the Bicentennial. The designs Indiana and Marano created were then transformed into sets and costumes for the production. To read about Marano's work with Robert Indiana, click here. (Warning: It's a link to another blog post from an interview with Marano that I listened in on.)

Marano's work is bold and colorful and demands attention. The themes she explores in her art -- thrills, wonder, memory, fascination and escapism -- seem tailor-made for her style. It was no surprise to learn that Marano grew up near Coney Island and became involved in its cultural renaissance in the late 1970s. To see more of Marano's work, click here. I particularly like the Baseball series. Go, Rays! 

Kudos to Ringling College for putting together an exhibit that's both historical and of the now. (I didn't even show you the collages done on skate boards!) To view the exhibit, click here. I am already eagerly anticipating their exhibits next academic year, which will include a show of Therman Statom's glass work. See you in the galleries!  

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Richard Mayhew: Transcendence at Ringling College

"Untitled" (2013) (Oil on canvas) [36"x58"] 
(Note: on an orange wall) 
Transcendence. The word itself has a sense of calm and other worldliness about it. It's the perfect title for an exhibit (and a recently published monograph) featuring the work of Richard Mayhew. 

Images of Mayhew's work, though stunning, do not recreate the experience of gazing directly into one of his paintings. As I looked, my perceptions constantly changed as I noticed new details or focused on a different area of the painting. More important than what I saw, though, is the feeling his work gave me at my core. Even paintings that initially seemed somewhat turbulent drew me in and left me with a sense of serenity hard to come by in the last year. But I've gotten ahead of myself. 

"Desire" (2019) (Oil on canvas)[36"x48"]
Richard Mayhew is a 97-year old artist who continues to make art every day. What a life this man has led. Mayhew first realized his interest in art as a kid watching summer visitors paint the shoreline of his town on the South Shore of Long Island. His father was a sign painter, so he grabbed some of his dad's materials and set up alongside the artists to see what he could do. By the age of 14, one of the artists had taken him under his wing, teaching him the fundamentals. 

Mayhew pursued his artistic dream from that time on, but he had to make a living in other ways until his talent was recognized. He joined the military during WWII and rose to a first sergeant in the marines. He practiced his art even then, delighting the troops with painted images of pin-up girls on tanks. In the 1950s, he worked as a jazz singer in small clubs in New York City and the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains. When his first solo show in 1955 was well-received, he turned off his microphone to focus solely on his art. 

"Above and Beyond" (2009) (oil on canvas)
Throughout his career, Mayhew has been drawn to nature as his inspiration. Mayhew's heritage explains in part the hold the natural world has on him. His father was African-American and Shinnecock while his mother was African-American and Cherokee. From a young age, his paternal grandmother taught him about Native Americans' relationship to the natural world and its spirits. And so, for Mayhew, nature is more than just a walk in the park and some fresh air.

This focus has led many to categorize him as a landscape artist. But Mayhew's own view of his work is more complex. In an interview last year with Hyperallergic, he said, "What I do with landscapes is internalize my emotional interpretation of desire, hope, fear and love. So, instead of a landscape, it's a mindscape.

Mayhew's painting style is consistent with this philosophy. He doesn't work en plein air or create a sketch before picking up his paintbrush. Instead, he said, "When I start painting, I just smear paint on the canvas, for no reason at all. It just gets me started. After I do that, a certain feeling starts to take place and I go with it. So, there's no planning in the happens on the canvas. It's that moment of truth." This is a man comfortable with improvisation.

"Mendocino Series #10" (2015) 
(watercolor on paper) [11"x14"]
Mayhew's collective work includes more than the mindscapes for which he's best known. He has painted portraits and illustrated medicals books and children's books on science and history. He has also shared his love of art as an educator. For 30 years, Mayhew taught at institutions as varied as the Brooklyn Museum School of Art (where he also studied), Smith College and Penn State. 

In the 1960s, Mayhew was a founding member of SPIRAL, an African-American artist collective whose other members included Romare Bearden. The 13 men and one woman organized to discuss the role of African-American artists in the civil rights movement and the larger world. 

"Untitled, ca" (2004-2008) (oil on canvas)[48"x60"]
Unlike the work of the other SPIRAL artists, Mayhew's art does not strike viewers as political. In fact, when the Tate Museum featured the work of SPIRAL artists in its 2017 exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Mayhew was not included. His work didn't fit neatly into the narrative of the exhibit. But to the artist, his mindscapes have a political aspect as they are inextricably woven with the history of African-Americans and Native Americans to the land. "Their blood is in the soil," he has said. (Note: Mayhew's work was added to the exhibit when it  toured the United States.)

Whether a landscape or a mindscape, political or not, Mayhew's paintings made a significant impact of this viewer. He's an artist whose work I will seek out in the future. Kudos to Ringling College and Chief Curator Tim Jaeger for bringing Richard Mayhew: Transcendence to Sarasota. To learn more about Mayhew and his work, click here or here. To learn more about SPIRAL, click here. Sadly, the exhibit closes this Friday so there's no opportunity for a second visit. I (and you) can, however, see the exhibit online on the College's website by clicking here. Happy viewing. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Janaina Tschape: Between the Sky and the Water at Sarasota Art Museum

"Swamp Eating the Moon" (2018) 
Casein and colored pencil 
If curiosity killed the cat, I'm well and truly safe. At least, that is, when it comes to contemporary art.  If I'm immediately attracted to a work, I'm in. But if that little spark doesn't ignite, I'll just pass it by. 

Having made that confession, you'll understand my slight bit of concern when a friend suggested I read the catalogue for the Janaina Tschape exhibit before heading over to Sarasota Art Museum. Suffice it to say that the essay began with a long quote by Nietzsche. I felt I was in way over my head. 

So I thought to myself, "Self, how about looking at what the Museum itself says about the exhibit?" Here goes: "Recurring themes persist -- Kafkaesque metamorphosis and transformation, a feminist resistance to the perpetual policing of the female body, a collapsing of scale undifferentiating the grand cosmos from the infinitesimal cellular, an excavation of the nature of landscape -- but always, most importantly, an exploration of painting as a way of understanding the world." Yikes. 

"The Girl and the Swan" (2017)
Casein and watercolor pencil
And so I went with a more tried and true approach -- going to the exhibit with friends and talking about what we saw. It was the perfect way to see the show. 

When we entered the exhibit, we encountered "Swamp Eating the Moon." I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Deb said the work made her think of Gaudi's architecture. I could see that. The darker areas reminded me of caves and made me think of Cappadocia's caverns. Now, looking at the title as I sit at my desk, I can see the concept of the swamp overtaking its environment. (The Museum doesn't use wall cards, allowing visitors instead to approach the art without any preconceived notions. I'm not a fan of this approach. While there are gallery guides with images and titles of the works, many people don't pick them up. Isn't the title information the artist wants viewers to have? But I digress.)  

Tschape's "The Girl and the Swan" immediately drew me in. Her use of casein, a water-based paint, gives the painting a light and airy feeling, and her girl seems to flow right off the canvas and into the gallery. While I see the swan referenced in the title of the work, I also see the head of a man looking over the girl's shoulder. What are his intentions? 

From "Four Seasons" (2014)
Casein and watercolor pencil
Tschape's "Four Seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn)" generated a lot of conversation. This was one instance when not knowing the title in advance was helpful, as we talked about which season each work called to mind. We had different opinions about the painting shown here. For me, the icy blues called to mind winter; for Libbie the tones evoked water and summer. I could also see spring in the image with the orange and pink pops of color being flowers emerging from the ground. From there, we segued into a hilarious conversation about having our colors done back in the '80s. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry.) For the record, the work shown here is "Winter."

Tschape's creativity is not limited to the canvas. She's also a photographer, videographer and sculptor. The exhibit -- characterized as a mid-career retrospective -- contained examples of her work in each of these mediums. While I generally don't "get" video art, Tschape's "Blood, Sea" was my favorite part of the show. 

Still image from "Blood, Sea"

When we entered the room, we found ourselves in a watery world in which a submerged woman was doing a dance all her own. We were immersed as each of the four screens captured her in a different sequence. The costumes, which Tschape designed, were fabulous and flowed in gorgeous ways through the water. It was mesmerizing, and I truly did not want to leave this world. A repeat visit is definitely on the calendar. 

We learned from talking to the strolling "field guides" that the video was filmed at nearby Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the famous mermaids. While I feel pretty confident the show at the Springs bears little resemblance to the beauty of Tschape's video, a visit to the mermaids is on my "to do" list. To view more still images from the video, click here. And to see a short clip from the video, click here

Libbie in the midst of "Melantropics" (2018/2020)
Fabric and vinyl balls
I'll leave you with a wild installation piece we encountered on the third floor of the Museum. It's just the kind of crazy art I love to discover. (Sadly, while we could wander through it, no touching was allowed.)  The installation -- called "Melantropics" -- is 3720' long and consists of 12 sections. It was created by the artist for the Museum's space while she was in Sarasota preparing for the exhibit. 

It might be more precise to say "Melantropics" was recreated for this exhibit because two previous iterations of this work were done in Brazil. The installation at Praia Do Arpoador appears to have been on the beach, and people were allowed to lounge on it and play with it, even taking portions into the water. I'm jealous. (Click here to see the "performance" of that work.) 

Detail from "Melantropics" 
To circle back to the question of curiosity when approaching contemporary art, "Melantropics" was a work that made me wonder. What is the artist trying to say with this installation?  Thanks to the internet, I could find out with a quick Google search. If you're curious as well, click here. I will share, though, that the name "Janaina" means the goddess of the sea in the Candomble religion practiced by some Brazilians. (Tschape's mother was Brazilian, and Tschape's early life was divided between Germany and Brazil.) This little bit of info provides an interesting context for her work.

To see more of the exhibit, click here. FYI, the second image contains the "Four Seasons" in its entirety so you can make your own assessment as to which work best depicts which season. Better yet, if you're in the Sarasota area, grab a friend and go check out the exhibit in person. Janaina Tschape: Between the Sky and the Water runs through May 2 at the Sarasota Art Museum. 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Roy Lichtenstein: Monet's Garden Goes POP! at Selby Gardens

With Donna at Selby Gardens (or is it Giverny???)
Claude Monet and Roy Lichtenstein are not artists you would typically mention in the same sentence. Monet, of course, is the father of Impressionism. His paintings capturing water lilies and cathedrals and sunrises were immensely controversial when he first created them. Art critic Louis Leroy famously criticized Monet's "Impression, Sunrise" as merely an unfinished sketch or an "impression." (Yes, from this intended slight came the name of the impressionism movement.) Leroy continued by saying, "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!" (To read Leroy's now hilarious review of the entire exhibit, click here.) Monet clearly had the last laugh. 

From Selby's homage to Lichtenstein
Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's work was also criticized in art circles when he came on the scene. What respectable artist would be inspired by Bazooka gum wrappers? And what about his lack of originality? Not only did he recreate images from advertising and the like, but his self-proclaimed selection standard was that the original image be "public, clear and popularized." 

Consistent with this philosophy, Lichtenstein's oevre contains more than 20 print series. But Lichtenstein went further than merely embracing seriality in his art. Collectors who wanted to own a painting or screen print from a Lichtenstein series were required to purchase at least three works from the series in order to get the one they fancied. GULP! indeed.  

"Haystacks (yellow)" by Roy Lichtenstein (1969)
Screenprint on Fabiano wave
While this is all very interesting, it doesn't bring our friends Claude and Roy together. Surprisingly, Lichtenstein did that himself with his creation of "manufactured Monets." What???!!! Yes, Lichtenstein reproduced works by Monet (as well as Cezanne, Picasso and Mondrian). You might wonder what this says about Lichtenstein's opinion of Monet's work. Does he believe the broad appeal of Monet's beautiful paintings lessens their value in some way? (To the point of Monet's popularity, I suspect I'm not alone in having proudly hung a Monet print in my college dorm room oh so many years ago. I thought myself quite sophisticated. But I digress.) It's a question to ponder another day. 

This is a very roundabout way to the point of this blog: Art lovers have the chance to see some of Lichtenstein's Monet-inspired work in Selby Gardens's exhibit "Roy Lichtenstein: Monet's Garden Goes POP!" The show is both educational and great fun.

"Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge" 
by Roy Lichtenstein (1992)
Screenprint on stainless steel
Dr. Carol Ockman, Selby's Curator-at-Large, worked with the Gardens on the exhibit. In a recent talk, Ockman noted that Lichtenstein's "manufactured Monets" incorporate the Ben-Day dot painting technique the artist created. This style -- adapted from the Ben-Day process first used by 19th century printers and photoengravers -- was perfect for Lichtenstein's industrial art approach. The artist used a large template with cut-out dots to create the effect. And while it might sound simple, Lichtenstein said of his Ben-Day dot laden Haystacks, "It probably takes me ten times as long to do one of the Haystack paintings as it took Monet to do his." 

Lichtenstein's use of stainless steel in other of his works -- like "Water Lilies with Japanese Bridge" -- similarly adds an industrial feel. This screenprint includes swirls on the stainless steel that recall the metal dashboards in cars from the 1920s and '30s. The effect was envisioned by Lichtenstein and developed by printmaker Donald Saff of Saff Tech Arts. It was quite a complicated and labor-intensive process as each swirl had to be individually created. Click here for a better picture of the work in which you can see what the swirling looks like.  

Sometimes you're the windshield....
As always with these exhibits, the homage to the artists extends across the entirety of the Gardens. And so there are some great photo opps as you're strolling the grounds. There's a Giverny-style bridge over a pond with Lichtenstein-esque water lilies. There are free-standing polka dotted haystacks and colorful text-driven art that the koi get to enjoy. There's even a recreation of the facade of Monet's home. Serious fun. 

Roy Lichtenstein: Monet's Garden Goes POP! runs through June 27. For more info, click here. And for a great article about the exhibit -- in Architectural Digest no less -- click here. Kudos, once again, to Selby Gardens for combining art and nature in an exciting and accessible way. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Embracing Our Differences Exhibit 2021

"Psychoanalysis" by Leyla Emektar from Turkey
The mission of Embracing Our Differences is to educate and inspire the creation of a better world through the transformative power of the arts. The program includes reading days in kindergarten-third grade classrooms (so much fun!), team-building workshops for high school students, and an annual outdoor art exhibit featuring images and quotes promoting diversity and acceptance. In these divisive times, this year's exhibit was more welcome and inspiring than ever. 

The exhibit in Sarasota's Bayfront Park contains 50 billboards that pair larger-than-life art and quotes. Selecting the works for the exhibit can't have been an easy task. This year's call for artwork and quotes resulted in 15,912 entries from 128 countries and 48 states. Students from 412 schools around the world submitted their work. It's hard to wrap my mind around the selection process. 

"Unity" by Evelyn Homewood, 12th grader - U.K. 

While I always enjoy the exhibit, the selections seemed more artistically sophisticated than in some years. Case in point: Evelyn Homewood's painting entitled "Unity." It's flat out beautiful, and the comparison between the classical Greek goddess with her hair piled atop her head and a woman wearing traditional Nigerian clothing and headdress is rather brilliant. Homewood says in her artist statement, "The image of a woman of an underrepresented ethnicity stands as an equal counterpart [to women typically seen in European Renaissance paintings], challenging our traditional views of art and demonstrating the interdependence and unity of society today." To hear the artist speak about her work, click here

"Contrast of Life" by Teody Boylie Perez, Phillipines
Then there was "Contrast of Life" by Teody Boylie Perez from Davao City in the Phillipines. The colors are so striking that it took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. The towering luxury high rises (not dissimilar to what we see in Sarasota) stand in stark contrast to the precarious stilt houses. A man and his son sit on the shore taking it all in. Perez hopes his painting illuminates the widening division between the rich and the poor. The quote selected to accompany this work is by Clifford McDonald of Sarasota and simply states, "We are not remembered for what we have in life, but for what we have given." 

"Small Struggles" by Emily N., 7th grader, Sarasota
Best in Show awards are given each year in the categories of adult image, student image and quote. This year's winning student work was "Small Struggles" by Sarasota seventh grader Emily N.  Emily's artist statement says, in part, "My piece depicts a little girl standing in front of an aisle of dolls advertised to look like the person buying them. Through my work, I attempt to highlight the little struggles people of color go through every day." I'm impressed by the empathy of this middle schooler. The companion quote by Kimberly Boyd of Georgia seems tailor-made for this work: "Social equality cannot be achieved if the folks making the decisions all look alike." 

"Stand in My Shoes" by Wayne Ramirez, Venice, FL
Best in Show - Quote went to Temilola Aderemi of Nigeria for, "If we were to exchange shoes, would you be willing to walk in mine?" The perfect piece of art presented itself for a pairing in Wayne Ramirez' "Stand in My Shoes." The image immediately calls to mind the photograph of six-year old Ruby Bridges integrating a New Orleans elementary school in 1960. Its power is in its simplicity. In his artist statement, Ramirez notes that Mary Janes have traditionally been marketed to little white girls and that "manufacturers have only recently begun to acknowledge their role in perpetuating institutionalized racism in advertising." Think Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. To see the photo of the young Ruby Bridges -- as well as the iconic Norman Rockwell painting commemorating her bravery -- click here

"Liberty Enlightening the World" 
By Arya Badiyan of Lake Oswego, Oregon
There are many other works in the exhibit I'd like to highlight, but I'll leave you with the work that won the award for Best in Show by an adult -- Arya Badiyan's "Liberty Enlightening the World." In her painting, Badiyan shows a Black Lady Liberty in front of millions of Black people whose lives have been lost to slavery and injustice. Badiyan's artist statement reminds us that in the original version of the statue, Lady Liberty held not a tablet, but chains representing the end of slavery. The visual didn't appeal to American financiers, though, so a switch was made. (Chains do still lie on the ground at Lady Liberty's feet.) Interestingly, the complete name of the Statue of Liberty is the same as that of the painting -- Liberty Enlightening the World. 

If you're in the area, there's plenty of time to enjoy the exhibit, which runs through April 1. Or you can view it virtually by clicking here. To get to the artist statements and paired quotes, just click on an image. Kudos to Embracing Our Differences for once again putting together an uplifting and aspirational exhibit.   

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Visiting the Myakka Elephant Ranch

Lou getting a little drink
Here's a fun fact: Elephants can purr.  African elephants, that is, and only when they're relaxed and content. I learned this first hand during my recent visit to the Myakka Elephant Ranch. When my friend Carole hosed down Lou (the first step in giving her a bath), we could audibly hear the 9,000 pound animal purr with pleasure. But perhaps I need to back up a bit. 

The Myakka Elephant Ranch is dedicated to elephant conservation. In 1930, the world elephant population numbered 10 million. Today, only 400,000 elephants exist, with poaching of these glorious animals for their ivory a significant reason for the drastic reduction in numbers. (Sadly, COVID has had an adverse on the elephant population. As tourism dollars have plummeted, poaching has increased. The proceeds from one black market sale of ivory from an elephant can support a family for a good amount of time.)  The United States is home to a mere 300 of these mammals. 

Libbie and I scrubbing Lou down
The Jacobs family has been in the elephant business a long time. This being Sarasota, I assumed their elephants would be retired circus animals.  Well, you know what they say about assumptions. In fact, Lou, Carol and Patty are orphaned elephants brought to the United States for adoption. Lou traveled from Zimbabwe to Florida to live with the Jacobs when she was a mere 18 months old; she is now 37. Carol and Patty hail from Thailand and are 48 and 47, respectively.

Maintaining elephants is a costly endeavor, not to mention a lot of work. So the Ranch opens its doors six days a week to visitors who want to get up close and personal with the animals. One option for the outing was giving the elephants a spa day. Deb didn't have to ask me twice if I was interested in joining them for the experience. 

Deb getting Carol clean behind her ear
It's crucial for elephants to have at least one good bath a day. In fact, the USDA, which regulates the care of elephants pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act, requires it. Elephants' bodies absorb water through their incredibly dry skin. A good hosing down provides much-needed hydration and cools them off. (They also release heat through their hair and by fanning their ears.)  

The next step is to give the elephant a thorough scrubbing with a soap specifically designed for elephants, hippos and rhinos. The product contains aloe that remains after the soap has been rinsed off. 

A bit of a pedi for Carol
We were encouraged to get into Lou's every nook and cranny to make sure she was good and clean. The quadrant of Lou I was tasked with scrubbing included her rear end. It required a bit of finesse, as I was warned not to get behind her because her tail functions as a giant fly swatter. That was one experience I was happy to forego. 

The final step in the bathing process is applying a mineral-based oil on the elephants' toe nails. Again, it's all about moisturizing.  

You've probably noticed a difference in Lou's and Carol's appearances. That's because Lou is an African elephant while Carol (and Patty) are Asian elephants. There are two readily visible ways you can tell the species apart. 

Check out these ears!
First, take a look at their ears. African elephants' ears are much larger than those of Asian elephants. And then there's the fact that African elephants' ears are shaped like Africa, while Asian elephants' ears are shaped like India. (Of course, this only helps with identification if you have a working knowledge of geography...) Second, Asian elephants' skin is depigmented, with freckles appearing in these areas. 

The species have other differences as well. African elephants like Lou have two "fingers" at the end of their trunks that enable them to pick up objects as small as a dime. We got a display of Lou's dexterity when she unfurled her trunk and plucked a clementine followed by a small apple out of a child's hand. Asian elephants only have one "finger." This differential didn't seem to slow Carol down when it was lunch time as she happily consumed a healthy serving of the 200 pounds of hay she eats each day. (Each elephant also consumes 15 pounds of grain, with fruit and vegetables provided as a treat rather than a staple.) 

With Carol
Here are some other elephant factoids we learned during our visit. 

--Each group of elephants requires a matriarch to function peacefully. Lou naturally assumed this role for the Myakka group. When she's not around to mediate, Carol and Patty will push each other over a particular pile of hay rather than move on to another spot a few feet away. 
--Elephants throw hay and mud on their heads and backs in an effort to stay cool. 
--Their skin is essentially the same depth as that of humans, so they can feel something as tiny as a mosquito when it lands on them. 
Deb, Carole and Libbie with Lou
--Their ear canals are on the outside of their ears. This facilitates their amazing ability to communicate. They can hear fellow elephants "talking" up to five miles away. 
--All African elephants have tusks, while only male Asian elephants sport these teeth equivalent. Tusks can grow to 14' long and extend internally nearly up to the animal's eye. 
--Elephants can power lift up to 700 pounds with their trunks, which contain between 100,000-150,000 muscles. 
--It's true -- elephants have terrific memories. As they travel in search of food and water, they remember watering holes they visited years ago. Their memories extend to basic instructions provided by their trainers once they learn to communicate with one another. Repetition is the key. 

The Myakka Elephant Ranch currently has a spacious outside roaming area filled with tires, basketballs, tree limbs and other "toys" to keep the animals engaged. And while the habitat is more than adequate, it's about to get a lot nicer. Thanks to a generous donation, their current play area will soon be converted into a large swimming pool. Somehow I'm sure this new feature is going to be quite popular with the gang. 

As part of the renovation, another portion of the Ranch will be expanded to serve as the elephants' new dry habitat. With the expansion, the Ranch will become the sixth or seventh largest elephant conservation facility in the United States. The Jacobs' hope is to expand even more over time. 

The Jacobs' mantra is conservation, education and experience. They are convinced the best way to recruit supporters in the effort to conserve and grow the elephant population is for people to interact with the animals. It's a smart approach. Our "spa day" was a special experience and gave me a new appreciation for these creatures. It's also worth noting that a portion of the proceeds from every visit goes to The International Elephant Foundation in South Africa. 

For more information about the Myakka Elephant Ranch, click here. And to see Lou, Carol and Patty in action, click here and watch the first few minutes of this episode of Animal Outtakes on YouTube. 

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