Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Wonders of a Good Dog

Meet Skye. She’s a two-and-a-half year old black lab girl that came to my friends Karen and John a couple summers back. They had been searching for a rescued dog for a while, having recently settled into a nice house outside Seattle that has the kind of yard that just begs for a game of fetch. My apologies for the picture… black dogs don’t afford the camera a lot of contrast to work with, and, well, she’s a real moving target so Karen was attempting to hold her still with her foot. Skye is really best experienced in tail wagging 3D.

Skye and her sister were abandoned one summer day. Both purebred and well behaved, they were not the kind of dog one would usually find homeless. It would seem that the current spate of tough times might have forced their owners to make a hard decision about who was getting fed. Fortuitously found and taken to a local dog trainer, the dogs were soon ready for new homes.

Skye arrived with good manners, and Karen and John have worked hard to keep them tuned up. While she is certainly a well loved girl, the love she gets comes down on the side of a besotted doting rather than a flat out spoiling. Her people keep her in line on the important stuff, the stuff that makes her easy for dog shy people (like me) to be around. Like any other intelligent animal that has been rescued, I think she knows she’s got it good here and seems determined not to goof it up. She doesn’t jump up (heaven!), she rarely whines, and she barks only when her job dictates it (people at the door, itinerant critters in the yard).

She is also a real character: while obedient about laying down when told to, she has a cute way of pretending that if she’s not looking at you when you command her, maybe you’ll buy that she didn’t hear you until she gets around to flopping down. It’s not really disobedient, just the typical pas-de-deux one does with a healthily headstrong teenager. She doesn’t chew on anything that isn’t hers, but loves to carry her toys around, her latest favorite being a pair of clean socks. She often sleeps on her back, legs akimbo and tongue lolling, belly right there just asking to be rubbed. Like any other self-respecting dog, she is accomplished in the art of the unsuspecting SBD.

Skye is a beautiful glossy black, and her ears feel like the softest velvet. She has intelligent and expressive gold eyes, the eyes of the retriever breeds, ready to guilt trip you at a moment’s notice. Let’s not forget that she is a dog, not a saint, and so of course she will use those eyes to try to convince you that she hasn’t been petted or fed in a week, perhaps two. She isn’t allowed to beg at the table, but let me tell you, those eyes often get her a treat in her bowl at the end of a meal.

One of her nicknames is “Skye the Wonder Dog” (see what I mean about besotted?!) Those of you who know me know that I am an avowed cat person. But I could be swayed to convert on the wonders of this particular dog… just as soon as I’m done scratching her ears.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh, Canada!

I’ve been to Canada exactly twice. Once during the unseasonable heavy snow surrounding Christmas ’08, and once right now, with a departure to Seattle set for after lunch. I’ve been visiting with Alba and Mike and their delightful family, in Surrey, British Columbia, since Friday.

As you can imagine, the trip of a couple of years ago was reduced by the weather into a couple of low key evenings of slow cooked comfort food and board games, with little sightseeing even attempted. The weather has been glorious this trip, and so we got out a few times into Vancouver. The rest of the time was again low key: board games, iPhone/iPad Scrabble, and more good food, although the lighter, summer version of comfort, filled with fresh veg from the garden.

This stopping for a bit was just what I needed. I’d been on the road for 12 days straight, and logged some very long mileage moments. To sit amongst easygoing friends and home cooked food is such a delight after endless chain food moments.

Other than the sightseeing/wandering that Alba and I seem to be good at (all it takes is an interesting neighborhood with a few funky shops and some gelato to keep us occupied for hours), we did do one Real Tourism Thing and go to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. It is a nice little park full of family friendly education and adventure surrounding a bridge across a beautiful canyon. Alba isn’t keen on heights, but decided to not be afraid that day. I’m cool with the heights, but my heart fusses over climbing long inclines, such as those to get up the second half of the bridge. But we made it across, and twice at that (had to come back!)

Before we crossed we spent some time talking to Native American artists that were demonstrating totem carving techniques. Ben Spencer (above) from the Haila tribe, explained the myth of the Beaver and Raven from his tribe’s history, a tale that explains why a certain river has salmon, and the carving he is working on is a beaver from the story. The beaver is identified by the gnawing stick he holds (across the center) and its tail, coming up from the bottom at the front. Ben told how the tribe’s stories are not just written, but chanted, danced, and sung in long ceremonies. He said that when the tribe started trying to capture their stories in writing, the myths started getting lost. He says the written story is such a small part of it all.

How true. I sit here writing of a few great moments of the last couple of days. But if I told you the whole story it would take a while, and would no doubt include enough wild hand gestures that one could accuse me of some type of spazzy dance. .. good thing I have my photos as totems!

Friday, July 23, 2010

This is what it's going to look like

After visiting Rushmore, I popped over to Crazy Horse, another granite mountain memorial in the Black Hills. It looks like it’s next door on a map, but it’s close to an hour of twisty roads away. Twisty roads are never a problem in a Miata :-)

Crazy Horse was begun in the 1940s by Korczak Ziolkowski, who earned his chops working on Rushmore with the Borglums. Korczak died in 1982, leaving his family behind to keep on carving.

The purpose of the memorial is to commemorate the “many great Indian men,” Crazy Horse being one of them, and becoming a spokesmodel for all. He is (or will be) pointing towards the Black Hills, land that was stolen from the tribes. The carving is only just begun, a real work in progress. The face is in, and some broad mapping of the horse’s head, but other than that, it looks like a strip-mined hill with a mask. It's destined to be huge, the four 60 foot heads of Rushmore fit in the space that Crazy Horse’s hair will take up.

It is a point of pride that the Crazy Horse foundation will accept no federal or state money, so it is entirely financed by the visitors who pay $10 to be offered a look at what is supposed to happen while being offered ample other merchandising opportunities.

The merch surrounding the Indian tribes bothers me. It is beginning to be so same-y that I honestly expect to find “Made in China” lurking on the underside. It’s the same stuff everywhere: feathers and (faux?) turquoise, dream catchers, baskets, leather widgets. I feel like the history of Indian heritage has gotten reduced to the merch version of a sound bite, and I’m not sure which side of us has pushed it there. Are they feeding us crap as an inside joke because we’ll pay too much for it anyway? Do they make crap because it’s what we demand via our purchasing power, and because we won’t pay for true artistry? Oh, and isn’t that an argument for all artists?

And so, having uncanned the merch worms, back to the memorial… In some ways it felt very much like a conversation I seem to have with a couple of students every semester at a critique. “This is what I’m going to do.” Well, then do it. Get it done. Bring me results, not reasons. As we say in quilting… it ain’t a quilt until it’s quilted, which means the final stitches are in. SHOW me.

I have a sense of urgency for getting Crazy Horse finished so that it can better tell a history that is getting lost in the gift stores, and before the land grab gets sanitized through politically correct lenses and emerges as a distorted view, like why the tea got thrown in the harbor in the first place. I get the pride in not wanting to take the money from the folks that stole the land, but really, wouldn’t that be more fun? To finance this huge, in-your-face-white-man, Rushmore-dwarfing memorial with someone else's cash would be quite poetic. And if we are being picky about the source of the cash, aren’t the reservations making a bundle on the gambling habits of the white man? Can’t they fund a little of their own history, or have they embraced corporate greed? Hmmm.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Solving the problem

Art is problem solving. Either you are trying to solve the problem of what to say, and how to say it, or you are trying to solve the more tactile problem of how to make what you envision. And of course, along the way, there are always detours to be navigated, those of change of concept, or of construction issues that demand a change in how things are going to get done. It is part of the process, and sometimes, part of the sweet torment of making art.

Mount Rushmore is a study in problem solving. We are used to the majestic stance of the four faces – their calm visages belie the effort it took to get them up on the mountain. I can’t imagine how hard it was to get this approved, not only the design, but the location. Can you imagine going to the federal government to ask for a mountain to carve up?

In today’s “design by committee” methodology, too many voices with too many disparate agendas would dilute such a project down to a hodgepodge of symbolism that lacks the pure impact of a singly conceived idea (World Trade Center Mess-morial, anyone?). I expected to feel a bit over saturated by this particular landmark of Very Important Presidents, but am happy to report that, in the early hours before the throngs arrived, I found it quiet and majestic, and very nicely augmented by the center that surrounds it.

The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, and his son Lincoln Borglum had to constantly modify the work as they carved and blasted. Here are a few of the things I discovered:
Jefferson started out on the other side of Washington. They have pictures of it! The rock face had too many faults so they blasted it away and moved him over. That’s why there is that flat expanse of obviously carved rock to the left of Washington.
Washington’s shoulders were square to his head at one point, but Borglum thought it looked too static once Jefferson was moved over and so pushed back Washington’s left shoulder to effect a turn out of his face. This also helped Jefferson’s face play better compositionally as it had to be turned towards Roosevelt because of a fault that would have taken his nose off.

Roosevelt is so deep back because they had to pull out 75 feet of unusable rock before they hit good granite. His glasses are ingeniously rendered just by the nosepiece and a curved line on the cheeks.

Lincoln almost didn’t have a beard – the artist went back and forth on it right until it was carved.

They experienced compressor issues every Monday morning until someone figured out that most of the ladies in the town below did their wash on Mondays – they installed a backup generator to compensate!

Mount Rushmore is a story of how art sometimes demands its own evolution. I can imagine the first concept of the four faces, lined up like Rockettes in a straight line. But by being willing to make the changes demanded by the problems, The Borglums made something even better. Sometimes the material dictates what can be done, and if you let go and ride along, something even better than you can imagine appears.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When in Corn Country

Yesterday I drove the width of South Dakota on the 90. It's a long road of flat, flat, flat expanse, bales of grass, and corn fields, punctuated with earnest billboard advertising the local family friendly enticements. Kids love it! Clean bathrooms!

In any other universe, such a place would be too hokey for words. But after hours of nothing, even hokey starts looking interesting. So after a hundred or so miles of billboards for the Corn Palace, and in need of a potty break I thought, what the heck... I'll bite.

I thought Iowa was the corn state but this palace would have you believe that SoDak has inherited the sparkly crown and glittery sash. Started around the turn of the last century, and once originally made all of corn, the building now has a bricks and mortar shell. It is, however, entirely decorated inside and out with murals made of corn ears. It is concert hall of sorts (Kenny Rogers is coming soon!) piped full of yodelly country numbers, many with an easy two-step lilt. The main floor is given to merchandising when no event is scheduled. In addition to overpriced souvenirs and magnets for all the states, it is a corn-a-palooza. Corn jewelery, popcorn, candy corn, kettle corn, corn jelly (?) baskets from corn husks, corn-on-the-cob widgets, corn this, corn that, and corn everything else.

Except for, blessedly, the toilet paper.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Eggs, bacon, sausage and...


No one does paeans to pop culture like the Americans!

There is a SPAM Museum in Austin Minnesota. Unfortunately, I was driving by it in the wee hours this morning and couldn't wait for opening time. But how tantalizing could such a place be?

Out in the middle of a whole lot of nuthin' much, at 1937 Span Boulevard. Free admission too. And just up the road from the Hormel Plant and the Hormel Medical Research Facility (what do they research there... how many preservatives it takes to stop your heart?)

I'll share a fact from the brochure... in 1942 a military base was nicknamed "Spamville" and its location was kept secret. Also, SPAM was taken to the top of Everest.

I have a special place in my heart for SPAM. Not the food, not the junk mail, but the word... being of British heritage I feel it's important to claim my lineage to all things Python. But beyond that, it was my trade school nickname. Sam/SPAM. I thought mine was less than glamorous until my friend Chris Ball pointed out that he got called g*nad...


Sunday, July 18, 2010

And on the other hand...

Steve met me for a couple of days in Chicago – he’s a fun guy to explore with. One of the things we squeaked in was a sprint around the Art Institute of Chicago on their free night (yikes… regular admission is $16). AIC boasts some top works, including a sumptuous banquet of Impressionism, and Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.”

I wouldn’t say that Impressionism is my favorite period of art (yes, I know - blasphemy!) Nor do I consider Seurat a fave within the genre, but I do make point of seeing the game changing works when opportunity presents, and La Grand Jatte was certainly a pivotal work in the arc of Impressionism.

One of the things I learned while teaching at JMU is that our current crop of students, for the most part, think that they know a work when they’ve seen its image. I was surprised to find when assigning a gallery visit paper that I had to clearly state “no online exhibitions.” Such is the saturation of media and imagery that, bless them, they are satisfied with that as their experience… ergo the pesky “go SEE something in a gallery/museum and write about it” assignments.

AIC let you take pix as long as you turned off the flash. So above is a detail shot of La Grand Jatte. This is one of the places where, despite being able to take home my “I was there image” no amount of pixels can compensate for seeing the real thing. The range of colors that Seurat used challenge the camera’s balancing algorithms, and the result, while great, still pales when seeing the brush strokes. The camera allows us to condense a vast canvas into our hand, or the page of a book. It makes flat every nuance of dimension in the paint. That image can’t tell the story of the blue next to the peach next to the green next to the gold. It won’t show you the lusciousness of a thick swab of paint next to a delicate glaze. It certainly won’t allow you to experience the emotional punch that the scale of a work can impart. These stories can really only be told in a face to face conversation with the work.

So here I am, debating another side of the “let us take pictures” argument. Yes, please, let us take them. But seriously, folks, don’t let them be the only way you see art.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I was there... really

Yesterday I made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It’s full of music and a bunch of very cool artifacts, as one would expect, but again, you’re not allowed to take pictures. The signs say it’s because the people that have loaned some of the stuff don’t want it photographed. Ok, but then surely there are decent postcards, yes? Well, no. Only books. Books you really don’t want to buy because they are expensive and take up space in your bags, and are likely to put you in the paying more category when they weigh you in at the airport. Oh goody.

I really think it’s time for it this to end. Of the thousands of people who would make pictures in such a place, how many of them would actually make a profit from their images? A tenth of one percent? A hundredth? First of all, it isn’t possible to get a great photo of anything in this museum. The archivally dimmed lighting isn’t conducive to it, nor are the richly layered displays. Really, no one would pay you for that picture of John Lennon’s Sergeant Pepper’s uniform with the reflections bouncing off the glass case. You would need a tripod and carefully set strobe lighting to get close to a saleable picture. Yes, mad PhotoShop skills might save you, but it still would pale next to a well made shot.

The pictures that interest the common populace are the snapshots. Look Mabel, there’s Elvis’ Cadillac. Johnny, you wouldn’t believe how small Bruce Springsteen’s leather jacket is, you wouldn’t fit in it. Dude, they had the ZZ Top drums with the fur on them. Honey, can you believe all that spandex Freddie Mercury and David Bowie wore? Can you believe that we tried to wear it too? Of course, back in the days before we all had cellulite…

The images we want are point and shoot – literally. They are little flash cards to jog our memories. We shoot them so that we can take them home and point at them while we tell our stories about the hat that Aretha wore to the inauguration, or Les Paul’s first frankenstein’d Epiphone. Or we snap them at a whopping two whole megapixels on our cell phones to send that image of Jimmy Page’s violin bow instantaneously to the Led Zep fan in our circle, to let them know that we were thinking about them. Truly, these are not salable pix. We don’t crave the commerce, we crave the connections.

As you get in line to pay at the Rock Hall, there is a beleaguered young person with a camera, a green screen, and a ratty no-name guitar there, trying to get you to pose for a picture that they will later try to sell you, telling you that they like to photograph everyone who comes to their museum. In the lovely words of the British bloke next to me in line: If I can’t have a picture of their stuff, they can’t have one of me. Rock on, mate.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Water and cantilevers

Yesterday the road led to Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s marvel of cantilevered terraces in Pennsylvania. The road was just narrow and meandering enough that, for a few minutes, I thought maybe the GPS was playing games with me. Before I tell you about the house though, I need to tell you that the fine print on the admission ticket says that I can’t post pictures on ANY website. So look quickly, as I expect to be told to take this down shortly.

In such carefully controlled tours, the quality of the docent can really make or break the visit. I’m happy to say that I got a good one, and a small group too. I will summarize the key points she shared: it was built in the ‘30s as a summer home for the Kaufmann family. Back then, a 3 bedroom house in Pittsburgh went for about $5K (!), and so the budget for this one was set at $30K. Three years and $150K later, it was realized. In today’s money, that would be about $2 million – which might get you a sweet custom home with a chunk of land big enough to not hear the neighbor’s kid practice violin, but certainly not this.

The building is a cascading stack of terraces and levels built around a stone core. The cantilevered terraces began to sag almost immediately, and were recently retrofitted with tension cables to keep it all together. I had the misperception that the water side of the project, the Bear Run stream, went through the house rather than around and under it. The structure was intended to really be part of and respond to the natural surroundings. The Kaufmanns thought they were going to get a view of the stream out of a window. Instead they got the water flowing under the living room and a 270 degree view of the forest and stream from each terrace.

The walls of the terraces were slung low enough to make one of my tour-mates remark upon the safety aspect. Yes, the walls were low, but not that low. Rather than worry about the potential for a fall, I found it delightful to be looking at the results of aesthetic judgment that had not been spoiled with the raised fencing and warning signage usually demanded by the legal department.

The inside of the building was made to make you want to go outside. Every room has a terrace of its own (even the servants’ quarters), and the low slung ceilings were designed to push you outside. There are no window coverings. The personal spaces are small and cozy, the master suite just big enough for the bed and a chair. The communal spaces are expansive, yet designed to foster intimate groupings through changes in ceiling height and placement of furniture. FLW designed most of the interiors too, and so there are sofas, desks and shelves that cantilever from the walls to mimic the terraces. While I’m grateful that it is being conserved and is available for visits from mere mortals like me, the fact that it no longer is truly lived in leaves me feeling a little bittersweet.

FLW designed this in his sixties, and went on to see two hundred more of his designs built before his death. Nice career.

(Image made on iPhone4 with Pano app)

Friday, July 9, 2010

New Adventure

Three years done. One MFA completed, good friends made. Time to leave the 'burg and go home... Off back to Cali on Monday via states I've not traveled through. Hopefully there will be stories to share here. See you on the left side!