Monday, March 31, 2008

O World, I Cannot Hold Thee Close Enough

A silver 2004 Toyota Corolla, an electric blue 1981 Nissan 280ZX, an old Jeep Wrangler with a rusted out floor, an orange 2004 Scion, a rebuilt schoolbus-yellow 1989 Chevrolet stepside pickup truck, a silver 2002 Camaro, a red 1995 Z28 Camaro, a little white 1997 Corvette, a big huge red 1994 Suburban, a 1992 Ford Probe, a 1992 Mercedes ML320, and a 1995 Windstar van with four flat tires. What do all these cars have in common? They are all parked in my parents' driveway!

Being at home this week, I realized that the longer my family lives in North Carolina, the more "redneck" they are becoming. Now their house is becoming one of those places you see in the middle of the country with a front yard full of cars that don't run, and chickens everywhere. My brother is supposedly fixing up several of those cars, but he seems to have a problem buying more cars before fixing up and selling the initial ones.

It was fun to drive my dad's silver Camaro around all week though. It has a sun-roof and a really loud and powerful engine. However, it was a sad day at the gas-pump when I realized I had to fill the thing up with premium gasoline, thus spending a small fortune. Living in NYC without any car at all for the past 6 months, I've lost touch with the skyrocketing gas prices. Why aren't people all buying hybrids and riding bicycles around?

My spring break was a roller-coaster ride, and not just because I was racing around in a sporty car all week. It was a time for serious personal reflection. A time to come to terms with personal failure, as well as the peace that comes with the knowledge that ultimately I'm making good choices in my life and because of that I am sure that only good things can come of it all. I feel as if I'm living my life as fully as I possibly can, and as a result there is naturally pain, which is often a necessary part of growth. And ultimately there is the possibility of so much joy and gladness. The world is too amazing and wondrous for any sort of regrets. I love my life!

Now I am back in New York, where it's peaceful and quiet (no little dogs barking me awake in the morning, no brothers talking loudly in the other room while I'm trying to sleep!) and the air is clean and fresh (it just rained, and the incense-man in out on the sidewalk selling his wares). It's nice to feel at home here. At home in my own life.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


How do you fall out of love?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Girl Gone Wild

It's springtime and the sap is rising. The sun is out, the flowers are in bloom and I'm filled with restlessness and energy. Yesterday was a particularly busy day. I did good-girl things in the morning: bought fabric for the quilt I'm going to make, worked on a sewing project for my mom's birthday, and got my haircut. Hmmm... haircut. Maybe that's when I began feel a little bit wild.

I met up with a friend for lunch and we found ourselves discussing tattoos. No, I didn't go get one--I'm still not that wild! But I think she's going to get one, so we looked around town to see if we could find a tattoo parlor. But then she had to get back to work. Then I went home and convinced my brother to drive me around town in the Corvette, with the top down. We blasted rap music and wore sunglasses and pretended we were all that. But the only people that really noticed us were the guys that hang around outside the McDonald's. Oh well.

Soon it was time to meet my friends for sushi, and that is when a diabolical plan was formed.

In order to understand what happens next, you must understand that several years ago, the Chapel Hill Institute of Religion got a new director, and he brought an exuberance to the job that, while admirable, manifested itself in some odd ways. For example, he papered the walls of the classroom, floor to ceiling, in photos of temples from around the world. Now I love me some temples, but it was very jarring to the eye. Then, he drew an elaborate picture of Jesus on the chalkboard. Just good enough to be eye-catching, it wasn't a horrible drawing, but it was wierdly creepy. Larger than life, it's eyes seemed to follow you around the room, which was very distracting on Sundays during church classes. We tolerated it as a novelty, thinking it would soon be replaced by other drawings or sacrificed as a result of needing the chalkboard for its intended use. But no. The chalk Jesus remained for years.

Somehow, over sushi, the subject of the chalk Jesus came up, and my friends and I joked about how we could get rid of it. I suggested that I could alter it in some subtle way to trick its author into destroying it himself. Maybe I could make one of the eyes wink. So a plan was formed. Janet had a key to the church, and there would be no one there to see us...

I don't consider myself a bad person for defacing a chalk drawing of Jesus. It had its run, served its purpose, and needed to go.

Looking back, I think it might have been more realistic if I'd chosen the other eye instead. And because I didn't have any dark chalk to work with, it's not the best job in the world, but it gets the point across. I only wish I could have planted a hidden camera to see Brother Nichols' face when he discovers it. Because my personal theory is that his chalk drawing of Jesus was really a subconscious self-portrait, he might be more offended than he really ought to be.

So, after that, all full of adrenaline and childish glee, Howard and I celebrated our prank and topped off the night by retreating to Tyler's Taproom and winning third place in the pub quiz, as we polished off a piece of dark chocolate cake. I'd say it was a pretty good day.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

North Carolina

It's my spring break, and I decided to take a "real" vacation and visit North Carolina, where most of my family lives. I've been here a few days now, and I'm trying to remember why I wanted to come here. I'm having a great time--don't get me wrong--but, as usual, it's not what I thought it would be.

First of all, it's kind of cold here. Desiring an escape from the lingering NYC cold, I envisioned a sunny south, where I could louge poolside and drink smoothies. Reality check: it's March. But there are daffodils, forsythia, and redbud in bloom, and, while I saw snowflakes yesterday, today the sun is shining.

Secondly, I was really looking forward to seeing my friends, and for the most part that has been extremely enjoyable. I spent a wonderful evening with my old book club last night, and was able to catch up with people I love, who I haven't seen in ages. But I have one friend who is very sad. Because I care about him deeply, it makes me sad to seem him this way. In fact, it hit me harder than I thought it would, and last night I found myself tossing and turning, and trying to understand why it was affecting me so strongly. I know that I can't make someone happy--only they can do that. And yet, it seems so clear to me what he should do to improve his life. Sigh...

It's good to see my family, though there are changes there too. One of my brothers is in prison. Another one is quitting his job, with no real plan for what to do next. My parents are in Idaho, visiting my grandmother who is going into a nursing home. I want to help my family somehow, but I don't know how. The only thing I can think of to do is clean. So I've been vacuuming and dusting cobwebs out of the corners. I think I'll go weed around the peonies that are emerging in the garden, and pick some daffodils. Spring is here, and that alone gives me hope. It amazes me sometimes that this world contains such beauty and such sadness all at once.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Christ Is Risen

Happy Easter! My roommates and I decided to have a sunrise Easter service on our rooftop this morning. We woke up at 6 a.m. and, bundled in coats, scarves, hats and blankets, climbed up to the roof to sing Easter songs and share scriptures with each other and the few friends brave enough to come join us. It was beautiful. The sky was pink and blue and as the sun rose everything turned golden. Birds sang, and the city woke up.

Corina told us that in the Greek Orthodox church they have a traditional greeting on Easter--instead of just saying Happy Easter, they say "Christ is risen!" The other person answers with, "Truly he is risen!" I like it. It's true that Easter has not become as commercialized as Christmas, but still I think we easily forget that Easter is the celebration of Christ's death and resurrection, which is joyful because it included the Atonement for our sins, and established the resurrection, which makes it possible for us to have eternal life. The scriptures say it best.

"He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces..." Isaiah 25:8

"For behold, he surely must die that salvation may come; yea, it behooveth him and becometh expedient that he dieth, to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, that thereby men may be brought into the presence of the Lord. Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death--that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual. But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemth mankind, yea, even all mankind, adn bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord." Helaman 14:15-17

"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." 1 Corinthians 15:20-22

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" 1 Corinthians 15:55

Christ is risen! Truly he is risen. Have a beautiful Easter day.

Pictured above is "Rescue of the Lost Lamb" by Minerva Teichert.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Drama's Done

Moby Dick is a masterpiece. I need to read it again, I think, because I still don't understand it fully--does anyone? If I had to sum it up I would say it's an odyssey. A story of searching for the meaning of life, for control over your own life. It shows how futile it can be to try and run from your problems--you must face them, though the solution may be much different than you imagined. In many ways it is a tragedy, but it might also be viewed as a triumph in the end. But it encompasses so much more. The book I read had an introduction, which I read last (I can never understand introductions to books until I've read the actual book), that said that the book might be seen as an answer to the question, "what is God?" and that it gives six completely different answers. It is Shakespearian, surrealist, old-fashioned and yet completely relevant. I am going to have to think about it for several days, now that I've finished it, to let it truly sink in. But I'm not going to tell you how it ends--you will have to read it yourself!

In other news, it is Spring. It was my roommate's birthday yesterday and she ordered a cake from a Harlem bakery and asked them to write "Happy Spring" on it. Whoever did the frosting got really excited about the lettering, though, and the cake ended up with "Happy Spring G." It tasted delicious.

I've started running again, after a winter of dormancy. The other day I ran against the rain, and today it was the wind. I hope I don't have to do battle with all of the elements--is fire next? But it feels so good to work my muscles again. And I have a secret weapon. Horse liniment. Don't laugh--it really works! A few years ago I twisted something in my back and couldn't turn my head to the right without having shooting pains. It got so unbearable until one day my mom came to my house and rubbed horse liniment on my back. It's actually for horses--she buys it at the same country feed & seed store where she buys her chicken scratch. It made my skin turn hot then cold and then I could move again without pain. Today when I came back from running, I stretched for a while and then sat down to work on my crochet. But when I tried to stand up a little while later, my calves were doing wierd things--painful things. So I got out the horse liniment and magically the pain went away! I know, it's crazy, but it really works--I promise.

The best news of all is that I got A's on both my papers! The one I wrote while in the grip of a sleeping-sickness, and the one I wrote at 2 in the morning the night before it was due. And today was my last class before Spring Break! I have had such inspiring lectures this week by several completely different teachers, that I'm already starting to mourn the end of school. But I am still looking forward to a break. I know that Charleston was kind of a vacation, but next week I'm headed for a real one.

Oh, and by the way--the illustration above is by Barry Moser, one of my most favorite printmakers. I really need to stop stealing images off the internet and attaching them to my blog without any attribution. It's terrible of me!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Rainy days are my least favorite type of New York City days. The subways are more crowded and everyone is wet. You've got a dripping umbrella in one hand and have to hang on to the subway with the other hand, so you can't read your book on the train, even if there were room to maneuver. Then, out on the street, walking along the sidewalk, everyone's umbrellas get in the way of each other as they try to pass, and you see people with horribly mutilated umbrellas trying in vain to stay dry. Some people can't see where they are going because their umbrellas obscure their view, and they bump into other umbrella wielding people. And despite your umbrella, there are puddles to accidentally slosh through, cars and bikes and people to splash water on you, and when you duck under some scaffolding, and fold up your umbrella, you get a huge stray droplet that lands right on your head--or in your eye. And then when you get to class, you're all wet and there's nowhere to put your umbrella.

After class, when you go running, it's just sprinkling at first, and it never rains hard, but it's only natural that you become more and more wet as you run, and the people in Harlem stare at you because nobody in Harlem runs for fun, especially not in the rain. Strange men in suits with umbrellas say, "It's pretty wet out here, isn't it?" as you run by, and a river of water starts to flow down your scalp, into your eyes, dripping from your nose, and you have to stuff your mp3 player up your sleeve so it won't malfunction. But it feels so good to run, so you can't stop.

I do like rain--don't get me wrong. It's bringing the green back to the city and making the crocuses pop up! I guess I'm just wishing we had better technnology for staying dry on rainy days. Umbrellas are so old-fashioned and cumbersome. Maybe I should revive the plastic hair scarf from the 60s? Or maybe we could have big air dryers in buldings so we could quickly dry our umbrella sufficiently to be able to place it back in our purse, and our clothing too, so as to look presentable. I don't know what the answer is, but I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow.

P.S. I'm at the end of Moby Dick, and I promise I'll finish it tomorrow and tell you what I thought. Today I got to tour the India Club, by the way, which is full of maritime art, and it made me remember not to neglect my book--I've just been sidetracked by the stories I'm reading for book club.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Don't Remember Where I Left Off

So I think I was talking in my last post about going to Millford Plantation, which was by far the most beautiful and elaborate house we saw. It is currently owned by a man who restored it and lives in it part of the time, so it had a mixture of new and old furniture within it, but it was fun to try and use my developing "connoisseur" skills to determine what was right for the period and what was a modern interpretation. Dang it--I wish I had pictures to show!

Millford was so much fun. We had lunch on the porch and got to try out a "joggling board" which seems to be a South Carolina favorite. It's kind of a cross between a rocking chair, a bench, and a see-saw, and so much fun. I also impressed my classmates by going into the old barn on the plantation, which looked completely beautiful on the outside, with columns to match the nearby mansion, but which was filled with bats on the inside. I stepped inside and heard a strange squeaking noise coming from all around me, and then I realized what it was. The barn has wooden tubes for sending hay from the upper floor down into each stall for the horses to eat, and apparently the bats have made these their homes. I'm not afraid of bats, luckily, and I thought it was great that they were there, because South Carolina needs all the insect-eaters it can get! But I though the bats sleep during the day--why were they all squeaking?

Anyway, what else can I tell you about my trip? I just had a wonderful time, and enjoyed every moment of it. I will definitely go back to Charleston again!

Now I am back in a cold gray Northern city... but it's really fun to see my sister again--it was wierd being away from her. Now that we have been roommates for the past 6 months, I feel like we are closer than we have ever been, and I love it. She's got a boyfriend now, though, so I can't have her all to myself anymore.

She had news to tell me--things that happened while I was away. There was a crane that collapsed part of a building in mid-town, and there was some kind of shooting on our street one night! No one was hurt, but my sister heard a fight, a shot, and then there were police everywhere, she said. Don't tell my mom!!!

Well, I suppose I should unpack my suitcase, although I'm just going to have to pack it up again in a few days when I go on another fun trip!

Monday, March 17, 2008

I'm Back! Guess What I Did.

Charleston is my new favorite city. This was by far our best school trip so far. I did so many things and saw so much that I can't possibly tell you all of it, but I will try to give the short version. My one mistake is that I forgot my camera! Then again, if I did have it, I probably would have been so caught up in the moment that I'd have forgotten to take pictures anyway. Well, it just gives me an excuse to go back.

We left Wednesday from Newark (getting to that airport wasn't as bad an experience as I thought it would be, although I did have to wake up at 5:30 am, after having dreams about missing my flight!) and went from a gray cold New York morning to a warm sunny Charleston afternoon. I felt as if I'd entered the garden in "The Snow Queen" where it is perpetually summer. As soon as we arrived and checked into our hotel, I was out the door walking around downtown Charleston, falling in love with it. There were people sitting in doorways playing guitars, horsedrawn carriages going down cobblestone streets, hidden gardens visible through cast-iron gates, huge porches covered in flowering vines, camellias blooming everywhere, parks around every corner, fountains, Federal architecture, palm trees... you get the picture.

Our first group stop was at the Charleston Renaissance gallery, where we looked at southern art and empire furniture. Then we headed over to hear the keynote speaker for the opening of the Charleston Antiques Forum, a half-a-week long event with speakers every day on various topics within the antiques field. The keynote speaker happened to be the Countess of Arran, from England, who spoke for 2 hours about her house Castle Hill in Devonshire. She was very nice, but her slideshow included every single species of flower in her garden--she recited all their Latin names--and pictures of her children growing up, as well as her grandchild's first birthday party. But after that we had a delicous dinner and good rest.

Our hotel was very nice, within walking distance of everything that we needed to do. Plus, they served a wonderful continental breakfast as well as kept a tray of cookies out at all times during the afternoon for refreshment! On Thursday we spent the day touring early 19th century houses, such as the Nathaniel Russell house and the Aiken-Rhett house. Charleston is full of big beautiful houses that date from before the Civil War, when the Southerners were still rich. The reason that so many of these old houses survive to this day is because after the war the people were too poor to tear them down and build new things. Many of them have been passed down through Southern families and still contain many of their original furnishings, which make them fascinating to visit and study.

On Friday we attended one of the Antiques Forum lectures, which were held at Charleston's Gibbes Museum. Matthew Webster talked about Drayton Hall, a magnificent plantation house about an hour's drive from Charleston. He is the person in charge of the preservation and conservation of that historic home. After his talk we drove out to the house and Mr. Webster gave our class a private tour of the place, which is still gorgeous despite its state of disrepair. It was interesting to imagine what it must have been like when it was owned by one of the richest men in South Carolina, surrounded by rice fields (the major South Carolinian crop of the time) and furnished to the nines. Now it is empty, with peeling paint and bare floorboards, yet still retains its elegance.

The next stop, my favorite plantation on the trip, was Middleton Hall. Actually, the house no longer exists, as it was burned by the Yankees in the war, but one of its out-buildings has been restored and filled with objects from Middleton's history, including some of its furniture (Duncan Phyfe anyone?) and art. The plantation's magnificent gardens are kept up wonderfully, and the place has a functioning farm with sheep and a blacksmithy, where tourists can see what the old times were like. You can also tour the slave quarters, and have your mind boggle at the lives of these rich plantation owners, many of whom owned over a dozen plantations and thousands of slaves. But I loved the gardens here, which were extensive and seemed to go on forever. Here were the ancient live oaks (one was over 400 years old) dripping with Spanish moss, the reflecting pool with swans and ibises, grass so green it made us all want to do cartwheels, and a surprise around every turn, from an exquisite antique marble sculpture to a live alligator. Yes, there was actually a live alligator basking in the sun not a hundred feet from the garden path! But he didn't seem interested in us. The gnats were, though--I got more than a few bites...

I had the best Southern food at Jesstine's, and I'm just mad I didn't go back a second night during this trip, because it was SO good! The three things that make a great restaurant in my opinion are good napkins, lotion in the bathroom, and excellent really edible food. Jesstine's had all these qualities plus great prices and very nice service. I'll be back!

Another fun time was the Young Collector's Soiree which kicked off the Charleston Antiques Show (like the WAC only smaller and more Southern-oriented). It was more like a backyard wedding reception, held at a historic home, with an open bar and tons of appetizers. My classmates really had a blast with the drinks, and I just enjoyed watching them go crazy. We kind of formed our own section of the party, away from all the preppy pink-Lacoste-sweater-wearing Southern boys Lilly-Pulitzer-strapless-dress-wearing Southern girls. The best part: we all got gift bags with free Lancome makeup in them! The afterparty continued at the Rooftop Bar (I think it actually has a more elegant name than that) which had a pool, heated outdoor seating (the Charleston nights were chilly), a great view of the city, and terrible music. I went home at a decent hour, but apparently some of my classmates went to a church-turned-pub after that and danced into the wee hours.

But it was fine because we had all of Saturday to ourselves. I spent the morning at the Antiques Show, and at the art museum. They have a beautiful collection, a lot of portraits of Charleston's old and venerable citizens from years past. I was pleasantly surprised to see a portrait of Madame Gautreau (remember Madame X?) which she had painted after Sargent ruined her reputation. The painting isn't nearly as beautiful, but it was interesting to see how the artist used some of Sargent's same devices: her head in profile, one arm bent and the other straight. I can't remember right now who painted it, but I will check later.

I did some shopping, and found a great vintage clothing store, but I exercised restraint and didn't buy anything. I did, however, buy some yarn at a great store called Knit, which I wish was in New York! This was the best yarn store I've ever seen, and I think I found some stuff I can use to make one of my dresses. Hopefully. If not, I will make something fabulous out of it.

It was a beautiful day, but towards dusk the wind started to pick up and it rained, and before long there were tornado warnings in effect. Basically, there were tornados all around Charleston, but luckily none hit us! However, the next day there were trees down on the interstate, which made traffic terrible as we tried to drive to Millford Plantation. But the weather was back to being sunny and gorgeous, as if nothing had happened.

Millford Plantation was probably the most magnificent house we saw during the whole trip. But it's midnight and I'm really tired and so I think I'm going to finish this travelogue tomorrow...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Sunny South

I'm headed South, so I won't be posting for a few days... Not that I've been posting much lately anyway! Sorry. It has been a busy week, even though its not half gone.

I'm taking my yarn to Charleston to hopefully crochet some scarves. My sister has a shoe-store in Idaho, and I came up with the brilliant idea that all year I could make scarves and hats and send them to her in the Fall to sell in her store. Everyone needs scarves and hats in Idaho. So I'm going to get started on that. I still have not found the right yarn/string to make my dresses, though I'm searching. You'd think I could find anything in New York, but it's surprisingly hard. The prices are so high. Maybe I'll find a good yarn store in Charleston.

It's going to be so nice to not wear a coat! But the forecast is predicting rain for the weekend, unfortunately. It is Spring... but still. I want my first time in Charleston to be perfect.

So here is today's Melville quote from Moby Dick: (Maybe I will see some ships in Charleston harbor!)

"Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life."

This was interesting to read while traversing the NY subway, and when I read it I looked up and around me. Subway cars are remarkably quiet for the number of people crammed into them. Most people sit or stand in reverie--each in their own little world, their personal Tahiti, despite the unloveliness around them. Maybe no man is an island, but there are times when, like Melville says, we row to an inner island and spend some time alone surrounded by a sea of people. One almost has to do this in a big city like New York, because otherwise everyone would get claustrophobia and their minds would explode just thinking about how many people there are walking around this tiny "Manhatto" (as Melville calls it) and what all their lives are like and how their paths intersect.

In other news, did you hear about Spitzer? Did you hear about Craig Jessop? Also, some movie director is scouting locations for his new Catherine Zeta-Jones movie and might choose my street!

Better get to bed--I have to wake up before the sun and somehow get to the Newark Airport by 7:30 a.m.!!! Ugh.

Monday, March 10, 2008

You may wonder why I am blogging so early in the morning. Well, I'm up bright and early after a long night practically of practically giving birth to my latest term paper. After much labor, the piece seeemed to suddenly and amazingly materialize in my hands, as if on its own. I still can't quite believe its finished, and I'm not completely sold on its merit, but it's done thank goodness, and I can now move on with my life.

Hurray for Daylight Savings! I don't know why we can't just stay on this time schedule all year round. I love being able to go running after work and have it still be light outside. On the bus to church yesterday my roommates and I ran into a friend. When we sat down next to him, he struck up the conversation with, "Dontcha love Daylight Savings?" and I burst out with an effusive Yes! He glared at me and said, "I was being facetious." Apparently some people resent losing an hour of sleep. To me, its a small price to pay for evening daylight. However, I have one suggestion that might work as a compromise: we should set the clocks forward at 4 pm on Friday, so as to simultaneously gain an hour of evening sunlight, and lose an hour of the workday!

Okay, enough. I'm off to class to turn in my paper.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Spring Is Coming, I Know It

Guess what? I'm better! And what's more, spring is just around the corner. That brings us to today's quote from Moby Dick:

"For, as when the red-cheeked dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods; even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile."

I really love Melville's metaphors. Later on he describes Captain Ahab as hibernating within himself, like a bear in a hollow tree, sucking on the "sullen paws of its gloom." It's beautiful.

Well, the red-cheeked dancing girls April and May have not quite arrived in New York yet. Instead we have their sister March, more of a manic-depressive tease. One days it's sunny and warmish, the next is rainy and chill. Oh well, at least we are seeing the light at the end of winter's tunnel. And, best of all, I have the sunny South to look forward to. Every day I check the weather of Charleston and Chapel Hill and smile thinking about the time I'm going to soon spend sitting in sunbeams.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Scandals of Art

One of my favorite things about American art history is the scandals. This week I got to hear about two of my favorite scandals as my class studied the 19th century American expatriate art scene.

John Singer Sargent was a prodigy artist. He was an American born in Italy, raised in France, who spoke like an Englishman, looked like a German, and painted like a Spaniard. At a young age his talent outstripped that of his teacher, the portrait painter Carolus Durand, and he received many commissions. It was easy to flatter his sitters, and he did not want for customers. However, he wanted something more--a fame that would guarantee his name a place on the lips of everyone at the prestigious Paris Salon.

Virginie Gautreau was a girl from New Orleans who had married a well-to-do French doctor. Something like a Victorian era Lindsay Lohan, with the same sort of stage mother, she sought fame and attention by going to all the parties in the latest fashions. A stunning beauty, she enhanced her pale skin with lavender-white powder. When Sargent first saw her he was so struck by her beauty that he offered to paint her portrait. She and her mother knew that a portrait by Sargent unveiled at the Paris Salon, the biggest and most talked about art exhibition in the world, would be an excellent way to secure their place in high society.

However, when the final painting was unveiled at the 1884 Salon, it caused an uproar that neither the artist or the sitter was prepared for. Originally, Sargent had painted one strap of Virginie's dress falling down over her shoulder, and this, not to mention the plunging neckline, was considered extremely offensive. Then there was her pale skin, powdered like an actress!

It's hard for us to understand the negativity heaped upon this beautiful image, living as we do in a much more permissive society. But we can understand the embarrasment that Virginie felt as the whole city of Paris reviled her portrait. She pleaded with tears to have the portrait removed from the Salon, and Sargent unwillingly relented. His fame was assured, but it was not the reaction he had expected--now no respectable families wanted to have him paint their portraits. He repainted the strap on her dress, and fled to London.

Eventually Sargent gave the portrait of Virginie Gautreau to the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the condition, set by Virginie, that it not be titled with her name. "Madame X" has lived in New York ever since, and now enjoys a prestigious place in the newly renovated 19th Century Galleries.

Sargent's troubles echoed a similar scandal of a few decades before. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in Massachusetts but chose the life of a cosmopolite in the art world of Victorian London. He started out as a very talented academic artist, but over the course of his life his style became looser and looser until he was practically an Impressionist, though he cared nothing for the Impressionists obsession with effects of light and color. Aesthete would be the best name for him--he just wanted to create beautiful, decorative images, with carefully composed elements. He was an early advocate of the modern "art for art's sake."

However, the English art scene was far behind him. When Whistler submitted "The White Girl," to the annual Royal Academy exhibition in 1862, it was rejected. It was also rejected by the Paris Salon in 1863. Finally, hung at the Salon des Refuses, where all the rejected paintings were exhibited, the piece was received with shock and horror.

That the subject was Whistler's mistress was beside the point. She was painted with her hair undone, appearing as if she'd just got up out of bed. Her hand clasped a flower that to the Victorian sensibilities sent an erotic message. And why was she standing on a horrible bear rug? In a world where a portrait of a woman was either a formal society portrait or a classical allegory depicting some sort of virtue, such a painting was seen as morally degenerate. Whistler, undaunted, continued to follow his heart and paint pictures whose primary purpose was aesthetic beauty.

His style became looser and looser, and in 1877 his "Nocturne In Black and Gold," the night scene of fireworks over the Thames, was considered so awful that the art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and won the case, but only in principle. Ruskin only had to pay a farthing to Whistler, who had been bankrupted by the trial. But Whistler nevertheless continued to paint and acheived international recognition for his work, eventually becoming one of the most beloved of American 19th century artists, all scandal forgiven and forgotten with time.

Now we look back at these paintings and wonder why people back then couldn't just accept them as the beautiful pictures they are.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Something Fishy

No quote from Melville today, as I didn't get much time to read. I usually read on the Subway to and from class and work, but the trains were so packed today, I couldn't move! Maybe because it was a rainy day, I don't know, but I had never seen it this bad. I kept thinking that at the next stop people would get off and make room, but no. It's times like this when I feel like big cities are actually more backward than small ones. No one should have to be packed so tightly into a small and smelly metal box that wobbles and shakes as it speeds through a pitch-black underground tunnel that they cannot even move or turn around to see who is touching them in a most uncomfortable way. Sigh... that's New York for you. You gotta take the bad with the good.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Yes, but...

"Yes, there is death in this business of whaling--a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the less of my better being. In fact, take my body who will, take it I say, for it is not me." ~from Moby Dick

How many ways can I procrastinate working on my paper? I don't know why it is so difficult this time 'round. So now I'm taking a break. And I was thinking today that, now that I'm reading "Moby Dick" and enjoying it so much, I ought to include quotes from it in my blog, because so many things about this Melville masterpiece have struck me while reading it.

I liked this passage because I've found that as I grow older, I care less about my body. That's not to say I don't exercise and brush my teeth--what I mean is that I don't stress out about things like whether my hair is curly or straight or if I've got a lot of freckles on my arms. Someone asked me the other day if I missed being a teenager and I very quickly said no! I like being an adult and feeling comfortable in my skin, unconcerned with how others may perceive my looks. I used to perm my hair and wear tanning lotion in the hopes of looking like a "popular girl" at school. In reality, I just had overly frizzy hair and orange legs. Now I see that all different kinds of bodies are beautiful, and I understand that it is what's on the inside that counts. Not to be all cliche and sappy, or anything. But do you know what I mean?

"Oh I see now" as Whitman would say. I see now that I must perfect my spirit and not necessarily my body, because my spirit is the true me, the part that will last beyond the grave. Now the question remains, does perfecting my spirit include writing a good term paper?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Some New and Old Favorites

Today my class visited the Works on Paper Fair at the Armory (it was strange going back there and not having Winter Antiques Show duties!) and I saw some familiar favorites such as:

Alex Katz. I love his work because it is so simple and flat. This is the type of thing I've always tried to accomplish in my own woodblock prints: very minimal, yet very evocative.

Martin Lewis, a fantastic printmaker of the 1930s and 40s. He had an interesting point of view in all his works, and an amazing sense of movement and rhythm. The deep blacks in this drypoint are what printmakers go crazy for!

Kyra Markham is a new name to me, so I'll have to see what I can find out about her. I really liked this print I saw of laundry in the city. You don't see that anymore--and I don't think the laundry would get clean that way these days.

Then, a fantastic artist named Richard Cartwright. He lives in England and works in pastels. I really like his dreamlike landscapes, which have an element of magic to them. Of course, they are much better in real life, because they are huge, and you get a better sense of what the artist was trying to say with this vast and repetitive forest of stick-trees.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Homer & Inness Paper

This is Winslow Homer's Veteran In a New Field painted in 1865, the year that saw the end of the Civil War in the United States. That same year, George Inness painted Peace and Plenty, shown below. Both paintings are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, until recently, hung near each other in the American Wing. On the surface, they each depict scenes of farmers working in the fields. Such scenes of everyday life, or "genre paintings" were popular during the 19th century, especially among city-dwelling art collectors who saw rural life as somehow idyllic and virtuous.

My assignment is to write a paper comparing and contrasting these two paintings. I haven't started it yet, but I have a lot of notes, and I'm probably going to get started on it as soon as I finish my blog today. I'm just trying to organize my thoughts and figure out how to say something meaningful.

What most people talk about when discussing these particular paintings is that they were reactions to the war and were each messages by the artist about how the nation had survived and now must get to work rebuilding, and that all would be well--the nation would now prosper because it had overcome a great challenge. But I think in my paper I will go into more detail about why the farm-scape was a metaphor for all that. Why the field, why the farmer? Why the harvest?

The explanation is multi-layered, which makes it all the more interesting. It so happens that during the mid-19th century there was an artistic movement in France, now called the Barbizon school. The Barbizon painters rebelled against academia and went out into the farms and fields near Paris and painted the landscape and the farmers. Not idealizing them in any way, their works showed the beauty of the common man. Many saw this as a reaction to the government of France, the industrialization, and the consequent surge in the population of Paris. The Barbizon painters were scoffed at in the beginning, their work reviled as ugly. But eventually, their message caught on and their work began to be collected, especially by wealthy Americans who thought that European paintings of any kind were better than what was to be found in America. Both George Inness and Winslow Homer would have seen these French paintings from the Barbizon school in New England homes as well as reproduced in print form. They understood what artists such as Millet and Courbet were trying to say about the farmer and the land. As if it were a language, both Inness and Homer used Barbizon-inspired imagery in their paintings to convey messages of peace, prosperity, hope, and mourning in reaction to the war.

The difference was in their style, and in their personalities. Winslow Homer, a reclusive and taciturn man, who trained as an illustrator of magazines, chose a solitary man as his symbol of reconstruction. For him, it was up to mankind to work as one and do the work necessary for the nation to carry on.

On the other hand, George Inness was a garrulous man, though frail in health, with a wife and children. His primary love was the landscape, which he painted very romantically. He was also deeply religious, and followed the teachings of Swedenborg, giving his paintings a spiritual depth. In Peace and Plenty, the setting sun seems more the subject of the painting than the farmers, as though implying that God is the one in charge, not man.

Of course, I have much more to say about these paintings than can fit here. I must write a 15-page paper, after all. I plan to go more in depth about the Barbizon influence, the land and farmer as a metaphor for virtue and peace, as well as explore the Biblical references in both these paintings. Hopefully it will all make sense! At least I have learned a lot in doing research, and have gained a greater appreciation for the work of both Inness and Homer.