Raleigh, NC was in the news today. About a hundred of their citizens pulled down a couple statues from the Confederate Monument in downtown Raleigh late Saturday night. I watched the video and was amazed that I would ever live to see that. It took me back to 1989 when I moved there for my first permanent job after graduate school and experienced living in the South for the first time.
I remember that group of statues well that held pride of place on the Capital grounds in downtown Raleigh. I used to say that Raleigh lacked a soul, that it was just bits and pieces of a variety of things placed together without cohesion. Its downtown boasted a bank on practically every corner and a church to go along with every one of them. And all those Confederate monuments. At least that’s how I remember it. Before I came to Raleigh I’d never seen Confederate monuments. I certainly came to the right place. They were grouped together around the capital building in a park-like setting, commemorating the Confederate dead and those who worked to preserve the young Confederacy. Or so I thought. I even have a story I’ve told on numerous occasions about those monuments and a friend from Chicago who came to visit me my first summer there. Driving around to show him the city I included the monuments in our tour of downtown. And as we idled in front of one of them, he turned to me with a rather confused look on his face and said, “But we’re not in the South, are we?” I raised my eyebrows and mustered my best shocked Southern accent and told him, “Oh, I wouldn’t let the locals hear you say that, if I were you!”
But I see today that those monuments have all been taken down, the rest of the job having been accomplished at the order of the North Carolina governor over an abundance of concern for pubic safety, having witnessed the public taking actions in their own hands the night before. Evidently there has been controversy regarding these Confederate monuments in the state’s capitol for years with a growing number of people advocating their removal in light of changing times. For many, they were a blight on their city and state and an all too familiar reminder of the history of slavery and oppression of blacks in North Carolina and throughout the South. However, in 2015, the legislature passed a law protecting the monuments and making it all but impossible to remove them.
Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, and a sea change swept the country from pent-up emotion and centuries of oppression like we have never seen before. Support and outrage not just from African Americans, but also from white people as well. Finally joining in chorus that enough was enough.
On Saturday, law enforcement stood aside as that group of 100 people strung ropes around 2 statues and pulled them from their footing, and dragged them through the streets of downtown, people kicking and shouting at these bronze symbols of the iniquities against them writ large.
I used to feel a little smug in knowing that I lived below the Mason-Dickson Line and was well aware of why those statues existed in Raleigh. Yet my knowledge of geography doesn’t excuse my ignorance of the actual particulars of black people’s lives throughout the country and their daily reminder of the racism that still exists in every corner. Nor did it inform me of the real reason those statues were erected in the first place, not only in Raleigh but throughout the country. My life was easy down there and not terribly different than how I grew up in the heartland of Indiana where the few black families in our little town lived on the west side of the railroad tracks in the poorer section of town. Our lives intersected at school and that was about it.
In Raleigh, just east of the palatial governor’s mansion the streets abruptly became residential where a large population of impoverished black people lived in run-down houses, weeds growing up in some yards, and a pall of hopelessness pervaded. It was a strange juxtaposition, to say the least, to experience the grandeur of the governor’s house with the Confederate monuments only blocks away and drive into the heart of a living neighborhood that looked little better than sharecroppers’ shacks.
I still think of that compact neighborhood nestled up against the heart of North Carolina’s capital city. It was such a stark reminder of the nation’s history. People living in the shadows just trying to get by. Where were their monuments, except those that provided a daily reminder of where the country wished to keep them?
As we move forward with our art business we find it extremely useful to get away occasionally for a couple of days to focus on our future as artists. The last time we did so was in 2017 and at that time we discovered a very nice spot to do just this kind of thing.
The deluxe cabin near a lake in Southern Illinois that we stayed in two years ago was so nice we decided to make a return trip there for the 2019 version of our Cowango retreat. Having a fire pit and hot tub on the back deck might have had something to do with it too. All work and no play…. you know.
We got to the cabin in the late afternoon and after unpacking we took a nice stroll through the woods and down to the pond. The turtles were out in force and looked to us for some snacks which were not forthcoming. They swam off disappointed at our lack of hospitality.
We got down to business the next morning. Each of us had prepared an opening gambit. Just for laughs and to break the tension I led us both in the “Failure Bow” routine where we both announce to the world our greatest failures in our lives as artists. Then we each take a grand stage bow and get a round of over-the-top applause. Seems weird I know but by the end we were both laughing off the things that seemed just earlier to be a big deal.
Stefanie had a sack full of crafty goodies and set us both to the task of making a time capsule book, to be exposed to the elements and recovered later for examination. She had tissue paper, ribbons, tree bark, an old book with great image plates, and a pile of other stuff. We cut, pasted wrapped, and folded like a couple of school kids. At the end we twisted twine around the “books” and talked about where we might hang them when we got back home.
After a few more warm-up exercises we tried something to help us expand our focus. I had read about a form of brainstorming called “ideation” where the object is not just to throw ideas around uncritically in the spirit of quantity over quality. Ideation uses a slightly different approach. Instead of just saying whatever comes to mind it tries to introduce new stimuli, challenge assumptions and work to break patterns of thinking. Ideation tries to excite your brain in new ways and create what the champions of the concept call “lateral thinking” (indirect and creative approach, not step-by-step).
First we were required to clearly state our objectives and to make them short and precise. We came up with four really good ones but the one that jumped out for both of us after we formulated it was, “To behave like an artist every day”. That may sound perfectly obvious but just making the statement and committing to follow it every day was powerful. Too often we find a way to be casual and not “all in” on that idea.
From there we moved to an exercise that created a list of linked concepts related to our art business. We were directed to come up with a concept associated with our business and then just say whatever it suggested to us, related or not. The idea was to get at a broader range of ideas and then figure out what might link the two. We cranked out about ten of these pairs and then went back and tried to discover the linking concept.
We were both amazed at the fertile ground this turned over! We were soon filling pages of the giant electric green Post-it Note pad we brought along. We both hummed at buzzed with ideas and energy. Just what we came for.
The two day retreat filled us up, re-energized us and made us more committed to what we really want to do. By the next morning we had a skein of stickies running across the the back deck, full of value statements, objectives, plans and a five-year outlook for Cowango Studios. And it gave us a new catch phrase “Say yes! Go yeah!”. There’s a story to that, ask us about it sometime.
The choice of transportation down from Groningan was a no-brainer with the train wanting 22 Euros and the bus 7. So we jumped on the FlixBus for a three hour ride down the neck of the Netherlands, across the long bridge that crosses the IJsselmeer and into the capital city. We negotiated the hubbub at the bus station to find the intercity train to Central Station and soon found ourselves in the large plaza in front of the ornate train station flanked by the cathedral and the canals. Amsterdam at last!
Onto the tram to our lodgings a short distance away, a room in a row house on Ijburg, a small island east of city center. A very prim and functional collection of modern buildings, orderly and sensible as only the northern Europeans can be. We let ourselves in with the new gizmo electronic lock and app thingy, met the owner and the house dog (a sweet bulldog named Arthur) and unloaded our gear. Dinner was Thai at a hopping little place that was a beehive of activity, table service, carryout, delivery via van and bike. Everywhere the “Koh” restaurant logo bags were flying every which way towards their hungry recipients.
The next morning we set a plan starting with the Jordaan district since that promised to be the “Greenwich Village of Amsterdam” in our guidebooks. We trammed back to Central Station and jumped on the number 13 which promised to take us there. When it didn’t take a turn west as indicated by my tram guide we jumped off and hoofed it. Back a few blocks we found the tracks torn up on that leg of the tram which might explain the detour. But the walk didn’t disappoint.
Lovely shops and cafes, canals lined with boats and river cruise boats descending, we crossed the Westerkerk church square in front of the church, the one mentioned in Anne Frank’s account of her attic stay as a beacon of hope in her desperation. We walked up the Prinsengracht along a lovely canal and then enter the Jordaan district. We strolled the lanes full of others doing likewise, past restaurants and shops, crossed a canal every two or three blocks, just generally soaking in all the sights of this city.
We became fully engaged with this city’s beauty. Less frenetic than Paris but every bit as full of life and wonder, the classic old merchant’s residences framing the canals. Amsterdam is a gift to those fortunate to visit.
We found one of the old courtyard buildings called Hofjes, this one called Sint Andrieshofje, which appeared to be closed. Then just as we were turning to go a lady exited and bid us enter. Small and formal, but with a communal sensibility we seem to have lost in urban life, the residences all faced a common garden area. We pictured the denizens sharing a morning or evening conversation with their neighbors in this convivial setting.
Our map pointed out another church square which we rounded looking for an entrance. This may be the first church I’ve ever seen that didn’t seem to have a front, back or side. Small locked doors here and there, one tiny private chapel, no stepped portico, mysterious and closed off. Strange place.
Next we looked for a gallery that Stef had identified way back along the Prinsengracht. Stopping halfway at the Westerkerk we shared a hot dog in the church square before entering the church. Westerkerk is just down the street from both Anne Frank’s house and Rembrandt’s.
He was buried in the church floor but since he died a virtual pauper his bones were exhumed and destroyed after twenty years. Just the way things were done.
Back along the canal we found the gallery and the painter/artist/owner, full of her bright swirls of variegated paint daubed tulips. Actually very nice and my description doesn’t do them justice. I told her I’m not a huge fan of flower painting but hers I liked.
We found the tram to the Rijksmuseum. This place was always high on my list and it was a real thrill for me just seeing it. Rembrandt and Vermeer live there. We entered through the arched courtyard and stopped to hear a quintet playing in the great acoustics. Two violins, two accordions and a large triangular bass guitar made some glorious music. Beautiful. Stef picked up their latest CD.
We descended into the very modern museum entrance area (much like the Lourve set up) and made our way into the galleries. We saw the “Night Watch” signs and followed the crowds. Turning into an amazing old, stately ornamented gallery, Rembrandt’s masterwork glowed on the distant wall ahead. I was drawn to it but Stefanie wanted to take in some of the smaller pieces first so we agreed to meet up later.
The painting is so full of action and life, Rembrandt’s well rehearsed penchant for chiaroscuro and the emergent glow of warm humanity rising from in full display.
The Vermeers were tucked in a side gallery and his lovely and sedate image of the milkmaid in yellow and blue pouring out of that pitcher looked every bit as worthy of all the attention that’s been given it. I became attached to another Vermeer just a few paintings away. A street scene, very common and unremarkable as such but lovingly captured in fine detail. Later, I noticed Stefanie lingering in front of it and, as is frequently the case, our compared notes highlighted the same painting. We both agreed it was our favorite.
This art house is one of the wonders of humanity. Beside the stunning masterpieces on display, the setting elevates the viewer’s senses to receive them.
The clean understated design ornamentation, the muted colors in the stonework, in the tile and wall paint, every element is adjusted to enfold the viewer in a calmness and presence and so prepare them for the experience of high art. Its enough to re-establish my faith in the power of culture to redeem us from banality.
We passed several hours in the museum until the voice over the P.A. told us the museum was closing and to make our way to the exits. Back outside the classical quintet was still working the crowds.
We found a nice Indian restaurant via our handy mobile wi-fi and once again took the tram, this time north towards city center to find it. We were now on a 72 hour tram pass since our first 24 hour pass was up. We got off at the nearest stop and walked towards Rembrandtplein where we found a great meal of curry stew and tandoori. After dinner we enter the square named after the great artist and they had a sculptural rendition of his most famous painting, “The Night Watch”. People posed for pictures with the main figure head honcho guy. But Stef found the only female character in the work, and posed greeting her with a curtsy.
That ended our first day in Amsterdam. We returned to our lodgings and restored for the second day.
Our first stop on day two was the Catholic Cathedral, Nicolaaaskerk, that dominates the central square, just adjacent to the train station. The church’s existence is an amazing thing in itself since Catholicism was forbidden in Amsterdam by William of Orange after the peaceful Protestant coup which appropriated Catholic property and drove all religions except the state-sanctioned Dutch Reformed Church underground.
The church is dark and somber inside, no doubt mirroring this period of history which turned one Christian faction against another. Another model for what not to do when the founders of our country built on the ideas of John Locke and others by instituting strict separation of church and state.
We continued our walking tour by taking in the tower called the Schreierstoren that dominate the old harbor. It was from here that Henry Hudson set off to found New Amsterdam in the U.S. and the city of New York (which it later became) has a plaque attached to the structure commemorating that event. We poked our heads inside to see the great little restaurant that takes up the space today. Walls lined with cool oval ceramic flasks, each with the name of a different fine liquor.
Stefanie used her guide book to direct us towards the next destination, the “hidden church” called Museum Lieve Heer op Solder. The guide book showed a general location but we got off track and wound up wandering through the Red Light District. We first became aware of our location when Stefanie noticed some decidedly erotic wrought iron fence work depicting two different varieties of hetero sex acts. At first I thought that this was just a remnant from bygone days as a randy seaport until the next store front window presented a woman in lingerie pantomiming a none too subtle suggestion of available pleasures.
I guess 10 am is as good a time as any. We laughed and acknowledged that we had indeed crossed over into Amsterdam’s own “Storyville”.
We finally found the church museum tucked away in this land of the purveyors of carnality at a price. This place was in stark contrast to that section of our visit. As mentioned. Bill the Orange drove Catholics into private worship and the result was the construction of a number of these “house churches” which served the faithful of the Church of Rome for several hundred years. The structure is a maze of winding halls and staircases, leading up from the living quarters into an amazing clere-story vestibule that looks just like a tiny church but built into the upper floors of an Amsterdam house.
This is the only remaining example of this phenomena of religious persecution. At one time there were dozens in Amsterdam. This one has been lovingly preserved. I recommend it highly to any visitor.
The next stop on Stefanie’s wonder tour was the Beginjhof which necessitated another tram ride. Finding it was tricky since the entrance is not well marked. We actually walked around a large city block and that included a stroll through part of the Amsterdam Museum. We viewed a great exhibition of the city’s history there, purely by an accident of unintentional wander.
Discovering that our destination was closer to the area back where we started (another “swerve”!) we took a break at a small cafe for coffee. Stefanie wanted to visit an antique shop so she lovingly allowed me to stay at the cafe. She found a beautiful round silver box which she snapped right up.
Coming back around the block our GPS finally locked us into the small door entrance. The Beginjhof is an active convent but the main feature is a simple frame structure that gives the place its name. Possibly the oldest building in Amsterdam, having survived fire and decay. The courtyard was a lovely stroll and we enjoyed the quiet respite from the urban bustle.
It was getting on towards dinner so we looked for a restaurant that served Indonesian Rifstaffel. The one that looked inviting was a bit of a distant tram ride south but it was near a park so we jumped on then off and walked there.
The park was full of people walking the paths and lounging on the grass. Ducks and geese swimming in the pond. We snapped some shots of an unusual looking pair of geese for later identification.
Back on the tram we found the Indonesian restaurant was now the former Indonesian restaurant, no longer in operation. So, back on to our plan B site, this one back on Rembrandtplein. We crossed the now familiar square to enjoy a full Indonesian/Dutch Rijstaffel dinner. Maybe twenty dishes layed out because apparently, not making up your mind about what’s for dinner can work to your advantage. Really tasty though, great chicken/pork/beef curries and chutneys and spicy vegetables and rice. Amazing what excess can bring.
Our last excursion was to be the Eastern Docklands, what used to be the main commercial shipping area before the main action shifted to the west side. We got off at the end of the line and walked to a bench overlooking a huge sea access, just in time to see a giant black barge leaving the harbor.
On the way back we transferred to another tram by walking past an enormous windmill as the evening came on. This one now houses a hot after work spot for young Amsterdam professionals as the crowd spilled out all around al fresco. I took some nice sunset pictures of Stef with that classic Dutch landmark in the background.
The darkening Amsterdam windmill provided the fitting final image to our memorable stay in this most engaging city.
We rode the train from Switzerland through Zurich and Bern towards the Rhine, switching in Mainz for the train headed for Koblentz. As we moved up the valley into this gorgeous part of Germany we began to see the river cruise boats wending their paths in grand procession with the barges up the Rhine. Then appeared the small villages; church-steepled with castle ruins and vineyards above, those that we and the cruise patrons so prized.
Reaching our destination of Bacharach we found no taxi or bus and so wheeled our luggage into a quaint little German village with our very own Stahleck Castle rising above. We got to town center and took a little breather, asking for directions to get to our hotel. Hotel Bluechertal is just two kilometers uphill or so we were told and we launched off into the afternoon sun. The town in lovely but the joy of the sights began to fade as we moved up past the old Tor at the city walls. After about one fully laden mile my calves and feet began to burn. Our hotel street address was in the 300’s and counting up to get there we ticked off house after house, way past the estimated 2K.
It was my reservation plan to book this place and both Stefanie and I were soon wondering at my choice. She began pointing out other accommodations with vacancies along the way… just saying. I was in my one-step-at-a-time mode racking my brain for the reasons of economy and vacancy which made me choose this distant abode. Eventually we passed the highly symbolic cemetery. House number 213 below it and house number 214 above.
We eventually made it there and all was forgiven (I think) as we met our young host at the lovely pink and white guesthouse. He was from Romania and his Aunt and Uncle bought the place as an investment, rehabbed it into a real gem and put him in charge. Nice guy. We collapsed in our room.
Our evening meal was just down the hill a ways at Gasthouse sur Alten Muhle. The propriaters were hustling to serve the full house but got us a fine spread of sauerbraten and duck with a raspberry “is” to cap it off. The beverage of choice was Apfelsaftschorle, a carbonated and slightly dry apple drink that made me an instant convert.
We returned by way of the cemetery where we took a break to sit and admire the graves, each heaped with fresh flowers.
We had only one day to scout Bacharach so in the morning after a more than ample breakfast at the hotel we scampered back down the hill to find the path up to the castle. First though we poked into the Lutheran church at the center of town and tried to read the Reformation information written on large posters in German. Then we looped through the far end of town downriver, crossing the old city walls towards the Rhine. There was a river cruise boat docked that looked tempting but we took a pass and crossed back into town.
We bought some snacks for the hike up to the castle and clambered up the hill. The Rhine river and the town of Bacharach soon lay spread below us. The castle is impressive and largely intact, now a youth hostel which was today full of excited children on a day trip from school. We took in the views of the valley as a light rain commenced.
Down another path to the old unfinished cathedral dedicated to the former St. Werner called the Wernerkapelle. That just happens to be my middle name, which I got from my Grandfather Werner Gieschen! That and the songwriting team of Bacharach and David seemed to form a perfectly sensible explanation as to why we chose this town to visit. The story of Werner is both tragic and hopeful. He was a murdered child who the locals used as an excuse to commit yet another pogrom against the local Jews, accusing them of the murder and of using his blood in their rituals. The boy was canonized (since revoked) but now the hollow shell of the cathedral is used as a monument to the dangers of intolerance.
We finished our stroll downhill and spent some more time exploring the town. Finding a lovely high trail on the opposite side of the the road we headed back towards our hotel.
This path led through vineyards laden with red and white grapes prime for harvest. The green rows of vines ran up and over the hills above out of sight.
Our evening meal brought us back to the same restaurant. It was the only one serving near our hotel and after our meal the previous night we were happy to return. We felt the same about this town of Bacharach. Maybe next time on a bike or boat tour to see more of this remarkable river valley.
In the morning we had the hotel proprietor call us a cab to the the train station (see above).
Our interest in travel has something to do with our need to find the swerve. The led-by-the-nose tours suit some but not us. We set out to build adversity and surprise into our personal all-inclusive package. We want to be able to remind ourselves that things like sitting between train cars as a result of thinking it was a good idea to save nine Euros on unassigned seats is nothing more than a gift from heaven to enhance our lives.
The hitches and unforeseen hesitations are the swerves that create the pulse of travel.
This was our plan as we set off to grab a slice of Northern Europe. I have never been to this part of the world and neither has my wife. It was a gap in our travels that we needed to fill. And it was the draw of meeting friends in Paris and Switzerland and the Netherlands that set the outlines for our itinerary.
Our overnight flight left me wide awake with excitement while Stefanie was able to snooze a bit. The route to Paris ran first to Frankfort with its awkward funnel through customs that a weary business traveler commiserated with us on, “The worst!” he said. No ranks of Uzi toting police at the airport as I was led to believe. Then on a jump flight to Charles De Gualle arriving in Paris in the early morning. We got help with our transit connection from a group of young travelers who like us were trying to find the best and cheapest mode to city center. The bus into town seemed promising but more expensive then the Metro so we found our way to the train station and rode into Paris. The outskirts were unimpressive but after popping out of the subway tunnel in city center we emerged onto the glorious limestone and Mansard roofed landscape of Paris I’ve known from pictures and film. Cafes seemingly every three storefronts, busy Parisians hustling off to work, we spilled onto these streets with our luggage in tow and tried to get our bearings.
Promises of easy access to free WI-fi went unfulfilled (as they would continue to be) so we asked the kind shop steward for directions to Petite de Champs, the address of our lodgings. He pointed us off on a tramp of about ten blocks which we accomplished and proceeded to turn down the street that had Petite de Champs in the name. We found the address over a door that was supposed to be green but wasn’t. Door locked. Asked at the cafe if we could borrow his phone to call the lady and she described her place in variance to what we were seeing. We should have known something was up.
She said the key was upstairs under the mat. Since we couldn’t get in the street door the cafe guy somehow produced a key and let us in. We lugged our travel belongings up four flights and upon winded arrival found no key under the mat as promised. We collapsed in the hall and a dog bark inside one of the flats brought a young lady to the door. Yes, address and apartment number were correct, no she didn’t know our host’s name. This is truly weird. We were clearly missing a piece to this puzzle.
Back we go down to the cafe to discover through a second call and the cafe man’s astute observation that there were TWO Rue Petite de Champs. This one was Rue Croix Petite de Champs (“the road that crosses” our Petite de Champs). So off we march to find the correct Rue and the aforementioned green door and all the details familiar to our host’s descriptions. Our first swerve.
To get to our real Paris abode we climbed another four flights of well worn stair treads to the sound of our screaming calf muscles and behold, find the key under the mat! Our room was tidy and totally sufficient to our needs. We managed to contact our friends who had been if France now touring alredy for a week and made a plan to meet that afternoon. After a long travel day with swerves large and small we settled in for a snooze.
That didn’t last long because we were in Paris and the city was waiting just out there! Off we went to find our friend’s lodgings which were in the same area of Paris, the First Arrondissement north of the Seine. We mapped out the walk to get there but to no avail, missing a turn and requiring further instructions from yet another in our chain of kind shop owners who served us so faithfully. Turning down Rue de Hyacinth we were greeted by our friend’s “Bonjoir” from his second floor balcony. We reunited with our good friends Wolf and Charlotte from San Miguel de Allende and Charlotte’s son Ethan. Sat in their salon (this is Paris after all) to catch up and make our plans for the next few days.
We launched off for an afternoon walk through the gorgeous and immense Lourve courtyards where a cellist was busking under an arch that led towards the pyramid.
Great acoustics there that did his talents proud. We lingered a while to listen and became acquainted with the magic that is The City of Lights. Then down to the Seine to see Notre Dame in one direction and Musee d’Orsay in the other. Our original lodging was to be on a barge in the Seine in front of the Musee but our host there had to cancel due to some hitch with periodic maintenance. Sadly, it was not to be for us but we had moved on. Walking back through the Louvre courtyard back into our neighborhood we found our dinner restaurant. I had duck confit which was fittingly outstanding. The waiter helped me learn to say “I don’t speak French” so I could beg off as needed. I was using “no parlez vous” which accused the person opposite me of not speaking the language. I was also working hard on my “Ravi de vous rencontrer” (“nice to meet you”) which served as my only accomplishment of a multi-word French phrase during our stay in France.
The next day Stefanie and I went back to the Louvre, this time actually going inside. We entered through the pyramid and sat down to map out our visit since this most enormous of art museums requires a strategy to trim the seemingly infinite possibilities. We headed first to the French and Italian painting of the 16th and 17th centuries. We were both stopped dead in our tracks in front of the Holbein portraits. Soft and pulsating flesh that has actual blood flowing through it as best I can tell. Firm and telling hands. Eyes that beg conversation. These people emerge from the years as fully alive and unburdened by any mists of obscurity history presents.
We found an amazing veiled bust of a woman in the Egyptian wing that stood our neck hairs on end. She had all the mystery of the ages wrapped in her half hidden face and could easily have been mistaken for the work of a modern master.
Rooms and rooms of paintings. On through early Renaissance Italian works where Stefanie called me back to pause because I had rushed by a bit. She was right as usual. These were delicate and everyday human renditions that broke from the religious/aristocratic subject matter.
Then rooms and rooms of furniture for the era of the the King Louis’. Seemingly endless collections of amazing craftsmanship but largely vacant of people who, including me, find the style overbearing and fusty. All that effort by expert furniture makers who I’m sure thought their efforts were proffered in a style that represented the pinnacle of everlasting beauty.
Finally, and more by chance than design we crossed by the famous “Winged Victory” to the more populated wing where the icon of all things art resides. “The Cult of the Mona” was in full throng and the packed rooms focused their cameras on the tiny, charming, sedate portrait that causes people with only a nodding familiarity with art to change their life’s course in order to view. The painting looks just like the reproductions and is just about poster sized as well. Nice but I wasn’t exactly moved to tears by the encounter.
“The Cult of the Mona” throng who were taking pictures, on the other hand, were more interesting to me. The cultural anthropologist in me was interested in expanding on the theory of large groups as they relate to cultural icons. I also wondered how time will operate on this painting. Will we ever actually get over it? Is there life outside the cult? In my picture of the swooning multitudes I counted three who where actually looking with their own eyes at that particular moment.
The next room is where I found my true joy. Against a side wall in a room full of absolute masterpieces was the monumental “Raft of the Medusa” by Theodore Gericault. Depicting the crisis moment after an apparent shipwreck in tossed seas (based on an actual shipwreck with tragic loss of life), the painting presents the survivors huddling and comforting each other while the more intact denizens of this piece of flotsam raise a red cloth to signal a far distant ship. An image of human struggle to maintain hope in the face of nature’s imposition of mortality.
We headed to our rendezvous (Paris thing again…) with our friends in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. We were late but they were later. Our plan was to walk into Sain Germaine across the Seine and time was getting way from us. That and the long line into Notre Dame led us away to cross the river leaving the famous Cathedral for our next visit to Paris.
The West Bank of the Seine is where we came upon the well known green boothed book sellers called “bouguinistes”. We strolled the Seine’s bank and examined the wonderful contents of each booth. Some had the uninteresting plastic tourists mementos but most had great old posters, postcards and photographs tracing the history of Paris. Several vendors were selling truly beautiful etchings and lithographs, many with cityscape and landscape subjects from the past centuries.
We turned back to review the stands once more because our target was the famous Shakespere Booksellers shop. This landmark of Paris was owned by the person who first published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and did it while others were still scratching their heads over it. Tight little aisles and racks of books new and old. And full of my favorite variety of human beings; those who read actual books!
Upstairs were small nooks and rooms like comfortable pockets with chairs stuffed right for a relaxed afternoon read. Quiet people with heads pointed towards some tome of literate fantasy or other account of the human project.
Outside we sat on a bench for a little refreshment and it turns out our choice was a famous place of repose. A group of tourists wanted to sit and have their pictures taken there. I obliged, by getting up and saying “What, did Hemmingway sit here?” which seemed to amuse them. I’ll have to dig into the bench’s provenance.
We then walked into the neighborhood of Paris that took the prize from us both: Sain Germaine. Here is the true pulse of Paris; in the voices from the cafes and in the silence from old churches, in the beat of the people strolling at ease in the slanting rays of the sun, in the rhythm of five and six story grey limestone edifices capped with the Mansard roofs rising up to shout “Paris!”. I did not want this episode of our travel to end. The pulse had become my own.
Our last full day in Paris found us in the antique market in Saint-Ouen. We were only able to walk a corner of the endless warren of tent and booths but there was an abundance of unique things to wonder at. I bought some small metal plates for some future art project but we mainly just wandered around amazed.
In the afternoon we taxied to the site of the Klimpt Lumieres show. This exhibition was supposed to have closed before our arrival but was extended because of the large crowds interested in seeing it. We waited for our friends to come because they had the tickets but they had taken the Metro in the wrong direction and so we waited. We finally managed to find Wi-fi and she emailed us the file with the magic scan code to get us in.
The room was in an old factory building and had several block-like structures breaking up the space. The light show was in progress. People were sitting everywhere lining the walls, becoming part of the colors and shapes projected on everything. Floors, ceiling, walls, people all becoming part of the animation. The first segment we saw was based on the work of another member of Klimpt’s Vienese art scene, Egon Schiele. Bright, childlike drawings of people and cityscapes flowed and pulsated around us. Our friends finally arrived and found us gaping at the show.
Next was a black and white pattern show that was truly astounding. Set to electronic music it was a out-of-body transportation event that came as close to psychedelia as any non-chemical experience I’ve ever had. I guess it goes to show that the real chemicals that do the trick are already in your brain. I became an instant convert to the power of this new psychic force and began telling everyone within earshot that all of humanity would benefit by being in this room, right now, seeing this!
The portion of the program with the Klimpt images was set to classical music and the gorgeous paintings of this artist became for a time a world we could inhabit. The entire production was very moving. We stayed to watch the entire sequence of these three exhibitions several times. Art immersion.
That evening we gathered one last time in Paris for dinner to enjoy the one thing I wanted most before leaving, the famous French crepe. I had a savory crepe with cheese, potato and smoky ham bacon for dinner and a raspberry/creme fraise one for dessert. We walked back home in full Parisian glow.
The next morning we wheeled our luggage to the Metro and headed to the Gard de Lyon for the train to Switzerland.
It takes a lot of nerve for a guy who does 2-D art to suddenly try making a sculpture. I’m not sure I could just start by telling myself “How about making a sculpture Dave?” Instead I came at this project through my love of fiber arts (being a batik artist) and thinking about what would happen if…
I did a collaboration project with a neighbor of mine as part of a local event focused on bringing artists in the area together to create something they never would have made on their own. The two of us came up with a sculpture we called “The Stream that Floats the Rock.” He made a hollow paper-mache “pod” using plant fiber insulation material (“eco-friendly insulation”) and I batiked a long silk ribbon with a continuous abstract pattern that changed and repeated elements. The ribbon was then weaved inside the pod (which had crevices that served as peep holes) and the whole contraption was lit with tiny led lights and hung from the ceiling.
Making it was an interesting experience, working out a method of building it in concert with another head-strong artist. But we never once threw objects at each other or let loose strings of expletives and there was no permanent damage. We are great friends still. So we succeeded at that anyway. The sculpture was interesting but less successful.
This is a view through one of the peep holes:
In the process, I overestimated the amount of batiked ribbon I would need and went home with 30 or 40 feet of the stuff which I stashed away for about a year and a half. The collaboration project got me thinking about some other thing I could make that sort of resembled it but was more like a lamp made completely out of the ribbon. I kept thinking about how I could make it out of this colored silk ribbon. How would it hold its shape?
I remembered hearing about this fabric stiffener stuff another fiber artist was experimenting with a few years ago… started with a “P”… Paverpol, that’s it (thank you Google.) I ordered some and spent several of my regular daydreaming sessions trying to work out the logistics of how I could build this thing. I wanted to make an armature that could be disassembled after the fabric was stretched across it, so that the cloth would retain the evidence of the structure but not actually need it any longer.
After running through several ideas in my head, I came up with this:
I used 3/8″ dowel rods and drilled holes into two blocks of wood to make caps for the top and bottom. The center was spread out using a disk of wood, creating the desired shape. I eventually learned that the shape I was after was called elipsoidal (I knew it was called something…). The disk in the center created a problem because I wanted the silk ribbon to weave through the middle so I came up with a ring and cable contraption to hold the dowel rods out while I removed the wood disk. This is it:
One other thing I noticed after I got this ring in place was that the dowel rods tended to pop out of the holes in the caps; there was pressure along the longitudinal axis which pushed up and down and made the whole thing ‘pop open.” So, I made a tension cable connecting the top and bottom caps attached with a quick release latch.
Now I was finally ready to “weave.” Well my first attempt was less than successful. I painted the colored ribbon with the Paverpol, let it dry, ironed it flat (that was a whole process I didn’t factor in!). The stiffened fabric worked great. I rolled it up and weaved it around and through. When I was done I excitedly removed the dowel rods by loosening the cable wire in the ring and sliding them through pre-drilled holes in the top cap (and also through another hole in a rotating block I screwed on top that kept them in place until removal time.) Worked like a charm but… the form was a disaster! It all kind of crumbled in on itself and stretched out from it own weight when hung. Not enough internal structure. And the weave pattern was too chaotic (no pictures… trust me, you don’t want to know.)
After a period of mourning I tossed the whole shebang in a utility sink full of warm water to see if I could soak off the Paverol and start again. Time to regroup.
I wouldn’t do it if I thought no one was interested. Those artists who say they do it for themselves have forgotten that the reason they started doing art in the first place was because someone encouraged them.
So it starts with that: communication.
I want to engage you emotionally. I want to make an image that teases you, makes you refocus, gets you interested. If it’s a realist piece I will use composition, color, value to demand that interest. Those formal qualities should support, give heft to, whatever narrative content might present itself.I say “present itself” because I have learned that the story part usually starts out pretty basic (ie: I “like” the image) and only later gains depth and resonance upon reflection.
If the piece is abstract I use these same same formal qualities but it’s the story it tells will really be more about the internal mental and emotional processes I experienced while making it and about the actual event that occurred in handling the media as the image was made.
But common to both is emotional communication. As an artist, I have as my greatest desire the need to come across to you. I want to speak to you with this visual language. If casual everyday conversation were fully satisfying, if just talking was really consummately rewarding, we probably wouldn’t feel the need to try some other way to communicate. Visual artists are those people who notice that imagery can have a powerful life enhancing effect on us. A piece of visual art acts as this extra channel of communication, one that passes by verbal and even intellectual constructs of our world. We make art because art talks in ways we can’t.
Yet really, it is conversation that I am after. It’s just that with art, this conversation sometimes begins as in silence: a quiet conversation between you and the art. So what about actual verbal conversation? Well it should happen as well. While definitive explanations leave me cold (like explaining a joke) I also disagree that “nothing needs to be said.”
Visual art gives us something of immediate value that shifts our focus away from thinking that life can be explained. An excellent piece of artwork creates an immediate positive response, becoming a sort of talisman from another world, one that informs us that a different kind of information is available. Not explanatory or discursive, but suggestive, sensual, even voluptuous. It causes us to witness a powerful truth that lies in our senses and their ability to inform and communicate something beyond words. Though art has no literal meaning, it should convey value. Though art is about non-verbal communication, it should get us talking in new ways.
Art communicates by inference and suggestion, not by explanation. We don’t get answers here, at least not in a logical or conclusive sense. If we’re lucky, a successful piece of art will give us a well asked question. And questions can get us talking.
Our annual trip to our home near San Miguel de Allende is always part getaway and part project. Since the house is up for rent all year we can count on some upkeep or build out project to accomplish. But there is also the priceless studio time to enjoy and we found ample time for that. For us the “getaway” means “get in the studio!”
This particular trip gave me a sense that we are engaged in a project with mystery, a mystery that makes requests; I would call it an exacting mystery. By that I mean to suggest a mystery that isn’t simply confounding, or enchanting. But instead one that provokes you and turns into action. A mystery that demands something from you.
Each time we return to San Miguel I find the place that I remember. The light on the warmly colored buildings, the charm of their antiquity, the tight sidewalks that force you into the street when others come your way. The familiar landmark buildings of colonial Mexico that send a charge into you just to see them again. The energy that seems to come from the architecture and from those snug little streets passes into us all. It has drawn us all here and now it performs an animation of our spirits. I can see that others feel the same way. I am in a crowd of elevated emotions. Just by being there.
The crowds are bigger now. This town seems to have been rediscovered by the Mexicans from Mexico City and elsewhere. The weekend numbers are now weekday numbers and the weekends draw more. I don’t object though. I am part of the throng.
One night in San Miguel we caught a great documentary on aging (“Still Here” at the lovely Angela Peralta Theater) for free as part of the Guanajuato International Film Festival. Afterwards it was on to the Jardin to join the evening crowd and grab some great street food (hamberguesa with fried ham, bacon, cheese, tomato, onion, pickled jalapeño) then finally making it to a terrazzo restaurant where we sipped tequila sangritas and ate pollo con cacajuate and sopa de azteca. There was a mezcal cart parked next to our table but we just admired the bottles without getting more involved then laughing at the worms. Not tonight my little gusanos!
The film festival was new for us. In the mix of so much engaging festivity that is the ongoing pageant of San Miguel, some elements change from novelty to become familiar friends revisited. But a surprise or two always seems to pop out at you from the night and the town.
So each time we return we find what we remember but we also find something new. Something that we will someday remember.
And this irresistible thing, this thing that draws us here, this mysterious force that emanates from the buildings and rises from the streets reanimates me. It doesn’t just enfold me in reverie. It demands something from me. It makes me spark. It is an exacting mystery.
My creative life is my response. If I can make something from it then the art that may result should provide another challenging mystery to others. My response must be to serve it well.
The distance is only about three miles. A short drive down a very bumpy cobblestone road from San Miguel to Rancho Alcocer. Its a drive we’ve made repeatedly during the year and a half it took us to build this casita out here. But actually its a lot further.
The charms of San Miguel de Allende are by now legendary. With its delicious blend of old Mexico and contemporary vibrancy, it has all the elements for an exciting stay in Mexico. We discovered it to be an incomparable place to visit but seriously flawed as a place to actually live. Through a series of surprising happenstances, we ended up building our house in a small village just outside town. Did I mention “very fortunate” happenstances?
We thought of that distance on the drive back from San Miguel last night after visiting with friends there. A short distance to drive reveals a huge difference in kind.
It takes no time at all to remember the difference from there to Alcocer. The light pops off the hills here through the crisp air and jumps back to me in sharp delineation. The rains of July have turned the hills green and they rise up against white clouds and a too-blue sky. In the other direction, the old dam holds the lake above the valley that falls to the far plain, then draws my eye on away.
The silence is predominant, but not pure. It is punctuated by the coo of a dove, the crow of the rooster, the squeal of some delighted child in the distance. But it hovers and enfolds and embraces. Without it, the small rush of wind that ‘hoools‘ in the windows might not be heard. It provides the character to this pause.
The dogs that bark at night and the speaker trucks that occasionally blare through the village reel me back in from the idylic. But they are only some small bit of bother. The massive might of the peacefulness remains. Its strength becomes mine over time.
We’ve come a long way here in our country, and the same could probably be said of most of the developed world. It was only a generation ago that our families got most of their meat from the wild or from the domestic animals they raised. Even in my early childhood we raised a few chickens, and I have memories of my grandmother chopping off their heads in preparation of our Sunday dinner. I’m only one generation away from subsistence off the land, which includes butchering your own hogs and chickens for meat, along with shooting the occasional rabbit or squirrel for variety.
Aside from the chickens that were sacrificed in my childhood, I wasn’t raised that way. We went to the grocery, and I learned to buy meat by the way it was marbled and the expiration date on the cellophaned package. My meals arrived neatly, cleanly, magically from the store, and I didn’t have to think about how they got there.
Yes, we are mostly a different society today than what my mother grew up in.
We have new neighbors to our south who have a farm in Livingston County just to the east of here. Brandon loves the openness of their farm there and the wildlife it affords. Wild turkeys and deer spot his fields on a regular basis. He knows their habits and that of the wood ducks and other creatures that abound. He hunts, too. Something of a passion, as I understand it.
Tonight Dave was making dinner and decided to open a bottle of chardonnay to accompany our pork chops. For some reason the cork refused to budge with our little twist-and-pull corkscrew, even with his many attempts. Remembering that I’d loaned our corkscrew to our new neighbors a few weeks previously when they were still without one, having recently moved in, I thought I’d ask for a return favor to use theirs. So I trotted next door and rang the bell. Brandon and Kathleen were both there as was their trusty corkscrew, one of the more powerful types with arms that you press down once it’s inserted.
“Do you guys like duck?” Brandon wanted to know as he popped the cork from my wine bottle. Sure! I said. “Well, I’ve got an extra that I shot today. You can have it if you want.” Without thinking too much I said that would be just dandy, and he headed off out back to retrieve said duck. I kind of expected what he brought back, considering it was a fresh kill from earlier in the day. Upon return he held out an intact — that is, undressed, fully feathered — female mallard duck suspended from her limp neck. She was an adult of fair size and strangely present, is the only way I can describe it. A dangling dead duck seemed unreal, uncongruous from my experiences. Yet, here she was, being offered as an early Christmas gift, all because of my taste for duck.
I reached out and took her in hand. Her neck feathers were soft and luxurious, and her poor head drooped to one side, eyes closed in submission. Her body was cold but still pliant, evidence of her recent loss of life. And I considered her life and what she had given today. I stroked her head, “Poor little duck,” I said. “Thank you for your spirit and for your life.” Kathleen smiled and said she believed that too.
But what to do with her? I mean, I’d never dressed or gutted even a chicken, much less a wild duck. How do you begin? “You’ll have to tell me what to do here, Brandon. After I pluck her, how do I gut her?” All I could think of were her guts and my ineptitude sure to make a mess of things and contaminate the meat. He told me one possibility and then said that I could simply make an incision along the breastbone through her feathers, and then one cross ways at the base and peel back the skin, feathers and all. “Then you just fillet the breast and the tenderloins underneath,” Brandon explained.
To say the least, Dave was nonplussed to see that I’d not only gotten our wine uncorked but had been gifted with a dead wild mallard as well for my efforts. Not wanting to let time take its toll, or lose my resolve, I set to work in our kitchen sink on our little duck. Thinking of Brandon’s instructions, I felt along her breast and found the breastbone running vertically. There I made a cut, with another at its base. My fingers sunk deep into her feathers covering her breast, soft and downy to my touch. They felt more like fur than feathers. I couldn’t help but think how pelt-like they felt, how warm they must have kept her. The skin and feathers peeled away easily and I was able to isolate the breast meat and remove it, not unlike cutting up a whole chicken you buy from a grocery. The difference was that I still had a duck in my sink, and I couldn’t divorce that from the experience. I found my stomach more unruly than I’d have liked. I seemed to be observing what I was doing in a rather detached way. Most assuredly out of necessity.
I had hoped to save a couple of her irridescent teal wing feathers as a reminder and a tribute to her, but they proved too hard to extract. So, I wrapped what was left of her body in a bag and took her out to the trash. I think of my grandmother, my mother, and all my ancestors before who would have found this all an unforgettable part of their day, and more than likely, a reason for celebration of the bounty they were receiving. I haven’t been toughened by their experience, and so I’m left contemplating what I’ve been given and what it means.
It is a bounty still, but I can’t forget the blessing of her life.