Archive for December, 2006

Get on the Good Foot!

December 31, 2006


Be it resolved that in 2007, I shall:

1) Smile and sleep more

2) Take certain things that I have not been taking very seriously more seriously. Repeat in reverse.

3) Lay off Garrison Keillor. The dude is what he is.

4) Catch up on book stack in bedroom.

5) Loosen up and get tight*

6) Clean the studio sink

7) Mess up the studio sink more often

8) Take advantage of kids’ unused exercise devices in the basement (for the purpose of exercise)

9) Teach Emily to drive a stick

10) Kick up, kiss down

*Advice Dennis Hopper says he got from a favorite painting instructor in art school.


Is too!

December 30, 2006


Deborah Blum on what science can’t tell us about the supernatural on the Op Ed page of today’s New York Times. I’ll keep it up until the Times charges you to read it.

La Réincarnation du père Ubu

December 29, 2006


When Henri Matisse was struggling in his early years as a painter, he scraped together money to purchase a small painting of three bathers by Paul Cezanne. He bought it from the fledgling, soon-to-be-famous art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Later in life, Matisse wrote that the painting served not only as an inspiration, but as a moral guide in his work as an artist. The image compelled him to persevere in realizing his own vision, but it also challenged him to maintain integrity along the way, to respect his debt to tradition, to the masters.

I’ve been a bit lost in the basement lately. Bumping into things. Tripping over my knuckles. Painting pictures I think might hang together in some theoretical series that will be exhibited at a hypothetical gallery. Not painting enough, which might be good, because paint costs a lot of money and because I’m kinda chasing my tail.

On the commercial end, I purposely took a year off from exhibiting in order to just paint on my own schedule. Now, I’m finding it hard to reconnect. My favorite artists’ café in Greenwich Village is likely to close in June when its lease runs out, and it’s fixed for pictures to the end. My gallery in Maplewood—the one I defected to three years ago—now has a Continental Airlines flight attendant running shows as a part time job. I think she’s worked one too many flights to Orlando, frankly. We aren’t hittin’ it off. I have no regrets about defecting, however, because the original gallery I worked with across the street is closed. (It’s like I almost made the right move for a change!) I’m no longer willing to pay into a co-op gallery, and I can’t be bothered to trek things into the holiday show at the Arts Student League. My friend Andrey Tamarchenko who owned a gallery in Montclair bought a farm near Woodstock. His gallery is now an art shool for kids.

I need to meet new people, but I just don’t have the door-knocking enthusiasm I had when I was working in New York. I’m starting to spend actual money on real frames for paintings I would normally shop around. I’m molly-screwing them to the wall. That’s a very bad sign. But the real problem is that I’m not really painting as I had hoped to this year. I’m confused about what I’m doing.

Very late one night last week, I was wrapping presents in the basement. I decided to pop a tape into the VCR—a documentary on Chaim Soutine, the Russian-born expressionist who became a central figure in Paris between the wars. Some day there will be a movie made of Soutine, as there has been of his very good friend Amedeo Modigliani. Soutine’s life—born dirt poor in the Shtetl, catapulted from continued poverty in Paris by the famous Dr. Barnes of Philadelphia—rivals Van Gogh’s for cranky weirdness and high drama. I truly hope the movie is never made. For now, he is a painter’s painter, the guy who brought Rembrandt into the 20th century and became the touchstone for all subsequent expressionists, both representational and abstract.

I don’t have a Cezanne bathers. My standard, my moral mooring, is Soutine. It’s been a long time since I looked at his work or thought about where it came from, however. The documentary, which I bought at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan seven years ago when there was a big Soutine retrospective, is very good. It features interviews from the 1950s with Soutine’s contemporaries such as the painter Pinchus Kremegne and the collector Madeleine Castaing. There is a great chat with Soutine’s bizarre girlfriend, Mademoiselle Garde. I watched the images of his paintings float on and off the screen as I taped red and green paper around boxes. The thing I had noticed was missing when I perused an art book store just that afternoon came back to me. I remembered what I wanted to achieve in my year off from exhibiting, and I realized, with the year nearly passed, that I need to get started.

Today, I made it to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde. It is a wonderful exhibit (it closes in a week) of paintings that passed through the gallery of Vollard, whose support and acumen bolstered the careers of artists from ….Cezanne to Picasso. He had nothing much to do with Soutine, whose career was made by Barnes and the dealer Leopold Zborovski. Still, the exhibit picked up for me where watching the Soutine documentary left off. There was a Cezanne room, a Van Gogh room, a Gauguin room. And then, sharing a room with his old classmate, Matisse, there was Georges Rouault, perhaps my second God of the Basement. Another expressionist, Rouault’s work is charged with an almost savage Catholicism—the kind of heartfelt and intellectual Christianity of a much older France. It is beautiful, thickly-painted work that speaks to the hard business of living in the language of the cathedral window (Rouault was actually an apprentice stained glass window maker as a young man). A great example of his work, a book of etchings called La Réincarnation du père Ubu, was published by Vollard.

Rouault and Vollard had a rather interesting relationship. Vollard basically took everything Rouault did and put it in the basement, never exhibiting it. That was partly Rouault’s wish, as he would paint over pictures for decades before pronouncing them finished. In the end, Rouault sued to get hundreds of his paintings back form the dealer’s estate so that he could burn them.

Soutine is also famous for destroying early works. He would refuse to start a commission until the patron brought him two of his early works from local galleries so that he could take them out of circulation with a scissors and matches. I must admit that I have never been much for that kind of thing, though there may be some bonfires in my future. One of the messages I got this week is that I need to be a little less worried about messing up what Cezanne once called the “finish of imbeciles.” I need to destroy more in the act of creation. I had many other thoughts about painting and life as I sat in the Van Gogh room.

My most recent painting session resulted in a one-shot self portrait. I only meant to tidy up downstairs, but in a kind of frustrated rage I started painting. It felt great to finish something in a single session. The result is more in line with what I’m trying to achieve than anything I’ve done this year. That was a good sign. Another good sign is the cardboard box that arrived while I was gone today: A quart of titanium and six large tubes of Utrecht cadmium yellow hue (I use that stuff like butter). Ubu-like, I went after the box with scissors.

Photo: Soutine self portrait from the documentary Soutine the Obsessed

Number 38

December 28, 2006


In the Jimmy Carter Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a political cartoon from a big-city daily. In a single frame, it depicts 1) a nefarious Richard Nixon handing Gerald Ford what looks like a smoldering pile of garbage on a shingle, 2) the stoic-faced Ford reeling around with the same shingle on which the garbage has been turned back into a sun-drenched White House, and 3) a toothy-smiling Jimmy Carter taking the handoff. That’s what I thought of when I heard the news last night.

Stone Sole Christmas

December 26, 2006


Twenty years ago, a man traced my bare foot on a yellow legal pad in the plaza at Lincoln Center in New York City. He took the tracing home to Spring Lake, Minnesota, and two months later I got my moccasins in the mail. Leather-soled moccasins made by Lyle and Elaine MacRostie, true ‘60s-style craftspeople who came each summer to the fair at Lincoln Center with their fantastic handcrafted footwear. Lyle, tall and thin with a long salt-and-pepper beard, wore a thrift shop fedora and smoked a curved pipe. Elaine, more plainspoken then anyone you’re likely to meet in or around Lake Wobegon, did all the talking. They claimed to have no phone, electricity, or running water. I didn’t doubt it—they had an aura of unpretentious self-sufficiency.

And those moccasins! They are the only articles of clothing or footwear I’ve ever known to feel like an actual extension of my body. Leather against skin, the perfect fit, my tendency to wear them all summer without socks, all contributed to the natrual effect. In the winter, I wore them every moment of my ambulatory life indoors…with woolen socks, or I’d catch cold. I made the mistake of treating the soft leather soles gingerly for maybe a year when I first got them. Then I took them right out on the nature trail.

I expected expert handmade leather moccasins to hold up, but these things were astonishing. They tended to heal like living animals. At any spot where I’d worn through a layer of leather on the bottom, a kind of callus would form. These patches became rock-hard on the outside, detracting not a bit from the buckskin foot massage on the inside. Not that they didn’t look a little roughed up. Some of the lacing sproinged on the tops and the right one favored an open-toe style. The bottoms dried out and calcified. There may even have been moss growing on the bark-like undersoles. Sometimes I wondered if I should really wear them in ShopRite.

I lost one of them at Keuka Lake last summer, and I thought it meant the end of the run. It went missing halfway through our week at the house, and serial search parties came back empty-handed. I sadly put the last duffle bag in the car on the last day, certain I’d never see that beloved hunk of leather again. Then, two months later, a box came in the mail. My moccasin was found behind the refrigerator (where I thought I’d looked!). The owner of the house sent it with a note saying that the Oswego Indians associated Keuka Lake, one of New York’s Finger Lakes, with good luck. Nothing remains lost there forever, he wrote.

About two months ago, both moccasins disappeared at home. They were under neither bed nor couch. I looked. They were under nothing. Only a mysterious digital trace remained: On my daughter’s camera, which she’d leant me, I noticed amid several photos of 14-year-old girls voguing, or whatever it is they do, a photo of my moccasins looking like exhibit A. The shoes that began as a simple line on yellow paper looked in the photo like they were about to have a chalk line drawn around them. Daughter pleaded dumb. I went into despair.

All through November and December, I wore cheesy Sears moccasins with phony wool linings. None of my many transgressions, sartorial or otherwise, ever felt so creepy and wrong. I began losing interest in the things I love.

Last week, when the post office left a note about a package waiting to be picked up at the depot, I assumed it was a present I’d ordered for a friend. Maureen picked it up while I was at work. She told me it wasn’t the package I thought it was, but that I’d like it even better. She and the girls giggled.

By now, dear reader, you may have guessed what was in the box. That’s because you’ve read this far and you probably looked at the photo up top. Please bear with my cluelessness on Christmas morning, however, as I am handed the box all wrapped up.

Yes, Maureen and the girls had hijacked my leather moccasins and returned them to the masters (who still have no phone, but do have a website) for new soles—and remedial stitching that amounts to something just short of a new-build. Lyle and Elaine dyed them dark brown to make new leather match old. In the box, on a yellow sheet of legal paper, was a note saying how glad they were to hear from Maureen, who used to work for the Lincoln Center craft fair organizers in the ’80s. “Those moccasins are 20 years old,” Elaine wrote. “Wow!” Via e-mail, Elaine told Maureen that my rough-worn babies set a MacRostie durability record (though they did have a tougher repair job once on a pair chewed to pieces by a dog). The note said that the original leather won’t last for ever, and that I might want to think about a new pair.

Maybe. But, I’m thinking we can probably just get new tops put on the old pair when I retire!

Thanks girls!
[I am tucking Lydia in on Christmas night.]

Me: And, Lyddie! Thank you so much for sending my moccasins to get fixed. [I pull off my left moccasin and dangle it from my finger over Lydia as she lays snuggled up in her blanket] These are very special to me, and now I can wear them for many more years!

Lydia:… Don’t put that on my bed.

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2006


“There ain’t a holiday made that Chucks* can’t make better!”: Robin G., production chief, home office, Washington, DC.

*Photo: Robin G. in her new Converse Chuck Taylor Candy Cane High-Tops , 2006.

The Firebird

December 22, 2006


Lydia finally settled down at the high school Holiday Concert last night. She’d done well, in fact, until the interminable shenanigans of a boy’s choral group called The Retro Men, performing right after intermission, took her beyond her capacity to sit still and pay attention. Directed by a Burl-Ives-looking emeritus music teacher, the Retros needed badly to be reined-in as they poured their testosterone into a twenty-minute rendition of Sylvester Stalone’s Eye of the Tiger–their third song of the evening! By the end of it, I, like Lydia, had a very strong urge to climb over the seat and play with a little girl named Erin, also largely unrestrained, behind us.

The following performance by the “White Stage Band,” including my daughter Marguerite in the flute row, featured a Warner Brothers cartoon music medley. It was accompanied by a rather fraught sideshow in the second-to-last row of the audience as I fished around in the aisles for a squiggly, ready-to-bolt seven-year-old. I finally extracting Lydia from the even wilder Erin and seated her on the edge of the up-folded theater seat next to me, high enough so that she could see the performance. By the time the “Blue Stage Band” took the boards, I was thinking that Lyddie and I might have to take one of those little pressure-release walks in the hall. I’m glad we didn’t, because “Blue” was cuing-up Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

Yes, Lydia settled down finally—it was about 10 pm—resting her head on my arm as an abridged version of the suite began. I thought she was sleeping, and I closed my eyes.

I listened to The Firebird Suite a lot during the marginally-employed phase of my life that began with Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. It’s beautiful. It evokes the vivid kind of mythological imagery I associate more with painting than with music. Images with a Russian flourish that translate easily into the more round-edged figures of the Nordic mythbook. In fact, my subsequent encounter with Emil Nolde’s mythological paintings—northern German mysteries—connected immediately with the visions that came to me listening to Stravinsky in my dorm room at the Matheny School, which was then, more precisely, an institution, a kind of cuckoo’s nest in the best sense, for physically disabled children and young adults. I worked there as a care aid.

I imagine that many people, knowing only the name of the piece and familiar primarily with Western mythology, associate Stravinsky’s The Firebird with the phoenix rising from the ashes. And the music more or less supports this. But the Russian myth of the Firebird is a lot more like a leprechaun tale: Prince finds and captures elusive pretty-bird, bird begs for life in exchange for magical support in Prince’s quest, etc. Still, the imagery Stravinsky drew from me spoke neither of the firebird I assumed he was describing, nor of the bird his Russian audience would have been familiar with. I envisioned a monster-centric Night Journey ending with triumph and ascension from a decimated, post-conflict mountain landscape on a big lake.

Lydia was not asleep. She was listening to the music. I opened my eyes. I noticed a kid with a Carrot Top hair style in the percussion section. I listened as the teenagers nailed the emotive parts where the melody is launched from a tentative rest, something I am more familiar with in the music of Louie Armstrong and The Hot Fives (Stravinsky, of course, is the great modern composer). But there is something about an entire orchestra carrying off a seemingly extemporaneous pause during the booming final movement of The Firebird that I find moving. Very “post-conflict triumph.” The Blue Band got all the layers of the softer parts right earlier in the piece as well. Very “Night Journey.” And their tempo shifts emulated a montage of silent era newsreel footage–very modern for 1910.

I also watched the conductor—a twenty-something music teacher with a 19th century Russian idealist’s beard. He spoke of his mentor, his teacher at the same high school years ago, when introducing the final piece for the evening–circus music from what he called the “turn of the century.” He meant the turn of the previous century, of course. He was hunched forward, dynamic, a little tentative, not unlike his orchestra. He gave us none of the Band Room inside jokes and corny humor we’ve gotten from veteran high school music teachers in Holiday performances past. This new man had the right touch.

And the right program. Up and down my blogroll, I have tuned-in to some very sad stories this month. Some having to do with seasonal depression. But much of it is a little more deep-rooted. I’ve got a bit of my own, as I always do, with some new twists—I’ve been advised to structure a little exercise into my cramped day if I want to avoid the chemical path, which may prove unavoidable. There is big picture Weltschmerz in my bogroll. There is some personal sadness and turmoil downing even the most enthusiastic Christmas revelers. There are folks just feeling the miles. And there are at least two cases of the all-too-archetypical death at the holidays—three depending on what you count.

But last night, with little Lyddie’s head on my arm and The Firebird followed by pre-World War One circus fare, music gave me its bittersweet taste of the Big Lake. That sublime taste of happiness and hope.

Happy Christmas!

December 21, 2006

The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl – Fairytale Of New York

My favorite Christmas song of all time!
(Video guest spot: Matt Dillon as cop!)

Another favorite: Meg’s Christmas post from 2005

And, the New Jersey Turnpike Horns do Jingle Bells, via Suzette, Exit 106

Bill Nye’s Coolest Shot

December 19, 2006


Bill Nye the Science Guy is best known as the frenetic science proselytizer with the bowtie and the kid’s show on PBS in the 1990s. He came to that job after years at Boeing, where he developed a hydraulic pressure resonance suppressor that is still used on 747 airliners. He also worked as a consultant to the aeronautics industry, in which capacity he worked on the A-12 stealth attack aircraft. He had level three security clearance on that one. He is also a member and fellow the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (Killjoy!)

Here are some final stretches of our breakfast interview. I found him charming, genuine, and an expert enthusiast. I’d like to thank him for granting me clearance to use parts of my day job interview at Cassowary.
Rick: Why did you give up a career as a mechanical engineer to start a kid’s science program?

Bill: Well, sir– I was feeling that my bosses were paralyzed by self doubt. In the 1980s, Japan was this economic powerhouse, making all these fabulous products. These guys I was working for were in fear of–terrified by–anything made in Japan. Looking back, they should have been! Compare the innovation and success of a Toyota with the thoughtless retro-thinking of modern automakers in the U.S., which started in the 1950s. My bosses were obsessed with making a profit every quarter, and when you’re making a new navigation device for a business jet that’s supposed to be 3/8 the size of the original, you can’t do that in three months. There aren’t enough smart people in the world that you can coordinate to make that happen. I was very frustrated with these guys, and I thought the future is kids, not these people.

Rick: But the guys you were working for grew up in the era of better living through chemistry. College students today won’t touch chemistry with a ten foot pipette. They’d rather pursue careers in video and sound engineering.

Bill: Well, that’s my mission. To change the world. There is noting more exciting than science. What could possibly be more fun than science? No! Really!

What does everyone say to chemists at every cocktail party, maybe with the exception of the Chemists Club Eggnog Party because they’re all chemists? They say, “You’re a chemist? Hey, can you blow something up?” Nobody says that to the video guy. And the chemists had better look out if somebody can blow something up better. There is nothing more exciting and cool than blowing something up. I work in television, I’m around television professionals all day. And they want to blow something up. They want the coolest shot of the explosion. I remind everybody that the reason Alfred Nobel got so crazy wealthy, is that he was so good at blowing stuff up.

Rick: Let’s toss around the idea of “being human.”

Bill: Okay–to think of something and make it? Amazing! When I look at squids, gold fish… I don’t think they’re doing that. I don’t think that’s what’s going on with them. Ants—mmmm-maybe. Kinda.

But What makes you human? It’s your ability to know that you’re part of the cosmos. That you’re aware of your place in the cosmos. I don’t think that even my favorite dogs are thinking about that. The biggest thing humans can do is imagine the future. Our brains are big enough to do that.
Rick: …Pee-wee Herman!

Bill: Yeah! Rocky and Bullwinkle–same deal! Sesame Street!

[Here are Parts I and II]

Self Portrait (Examination)

December 19, 2006