We took a quick trip across the border recently, for business, and drove through some of the small towns at the very top of New York State. In comparison to the well-kept Quebec farms, these areas look hard-hit by the economic downturn, just as it does in central New York where I grew up. The original downtown of Champlain, New York, is pretty much abandoned, the fine old brick and stone structures empty, boarded-up, windowless. Rouse's Point, on Lake Champlain itself, has a large marina and some restaurants on the main street, but all the shopping has moved to new little malls with a grocery store, post office, drugstore, liquor store and laundry on the outskirts. For bigger shopping trips, the residents probably drive down to Plattsburgh, 20 miles south.
We stopped for lunch at a diner, The Squirrel's Nest, in Rouse's Point. The diner was one half of two connected storefronts; the other was a bar with a few tables and a heavily-varnished massive wooden bar with curved ends made of glass blocks; it looked like it had been there a long time. We sat at a booth in the diner and ordered the soup and half-sandwich special. The soup was hamburg-macaroni -- what my mom used to call hamburg chowder - and it was just as delicious as hers. The turkey salad sandwich came as a piece of roast turkey in bread with mayonnaise - not exactly turkey salad, and without a tomato slice or lettuce leaf in sight -- but good anyway. The placemats and the walls were decorated with black and white historical photographs of the town: fine old homes and hotels, sleighs and snowstorms, factory workers, women in white shirtwaists, carriages, old signs. A few old artifacts and antiques also hung on the walls. As in central New York, a lot of people look to the past for their identity; why wouldn't they?
A stuffed squirrel presided over the restaurant's old soda fountain, with its stainless steel fixtures. "Wow," J. said, "I wonder if they can make a milk shake."
I shrugged. "Why don't you ask?"
But the waitress - a teenage girl -- looked confused at the term "milkshake" and said she'd "have to ask the kitchen."
"Don't worry," J. said. "I was just looking at the old soda fountain and wondered if everything was still working."
"Oh, no," she said, "that stuff is just there for show -- it's, like, from the fifties."
"Yep," I said to J. after she walked away. "And so are we!"
Cornfields, Paris Hill, New York. 5" x 12", acrylic on paper
Speaking of landscapes, as I was a few posts back -- this is what it looks like where I grew up. While living all those years in Vermont, I could never get used to the field of vision being entirely taken up with mountains covered with trees, and very little sky. I liked that too, but I always missed the pastoral landscape of central New York, broken up into a living quilt of fields and hedgerows, streams and winding roads.
I'm always interested in matters of art and culture: what's happening, and how and why we interact with it as a society and as individuals. Clothing is one particularly fascinating aspect of that; visual art another. In the past couple of days I've come across several good articles on these subjects and wanted to share the links with you.
@Berfrois, here's a thought-provoking interview about art, style, clothing, and the consumerization of non-conformity. In it, the Russian artist Margarita Tupitsyn talks about the evolution of her own personal style, and the liberation she felt when first discovering the non-gender-specific clothing of Japense designers. The Art of Style: An Interview Between Margarita and Masha Tupitsyn.
"For Japanese designers, clothing was about expressing who you are through clothing, not simply signaling cues of desirability...Today, everyone, artists included, aspire to be part of the mainstream. There is no alternative culture anymore. --Margarita Tupitsyn
Archaeology meets life in this essay by Elizabeth Mosier that moves from putting together pieces of colonial china to sorting a fabric stash left by her deceased mother-in-law.
"Memories are my material; writing is the way I keep myself from shattering...
My point is that we value objects (or not) according to the personal meaning that we bestow. Perhaps it’s sacrilegious to say it, but in the months since the sauceboat’s discovery, I’ve often wondered if the pristine Bonnin and Morris pickle stand on exhibit at the art museum escaped the privy pit not because it was treasured, but because it is absurd. In life as in memory, what we don’t use is preserved intact. But the archaeological record is often created in crisis, with emotion guiding what we take with us and what we leave behind." -- Elizabeth Mosier
Having just come back from my family home, which always leaves me full of thoughts about objects and places, time and attachments, this piece resonated -- but so did a quote from Martin Buber sent to me by my friend V., with whom I had discussed my emotional reaction to that recent trip. I recognized myself in the writing of much-younger Mosier, but realize I am heading much more now -- sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gratefully -- into the territory Buber describes:
"Insofar as a human being makes do with the things that [he/she] experiences and uses, [he/she] lives in the past, and [his/her] moment has no presence. [He/She] has nothing but objects, but objects consist in having been.
"Presence is not what is evanescent and passes, but what confront us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence."
-- Martin Buber, I and Thou
Finally, I've long been fascinated by the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic, whose most recent piece is "512 hours" at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Unlike her celebrated and controversial "residence" at MoMa, where, for eight hours a day for three months, Abramovic sat silently across a table from visitors who queued for the privilege, in London 160 visitors at a time are allowed into a bare gallery after leaving all their electronic devices in lockers. Abramovic "places" them in the space and tells them what to do, which forms yet another comment on our participation with art and the role of the artist in controlling not only herself but her public, and thus confronting both "normal" society and its tendency toward conformity. This review in the London Telegraph deals with those issues head-on (the first part is descriptive; you'll need to read to the end to get the full commentary by this reviewer.)
In appearance Abramovic looks like a cross between Clytemnestra and an Earth Mother. Her beauty is inseparable from a personality so powerful that she can silence a room just by entering it...
Everyone in the gallery seemed blissfully happy but what I was seeing is what I imagine the open ward of a mental hospital in which the inmates have been heavily sedated must be like. The combination of the long wait in the queue and the atmosphere of soporific peace and quiet presided over by the commanding mother figure, had reduced everyone I saw to happy zombies.
Except me. It took me exactly 30 seconds to realise that I live in a parallel universe to all the people around me. Whenever I’m on a train or aeroplane and the captain tells us all to sit back and relax I long to reply that I’ve spent my entire life trying not to relax and I’m not about to start now. I hated every second I spent in this show. I longed to escape and can’t tell you what relief I felt on emerging from it into a world of light and air where people walked and talked normally, where they checked their iPhone, raced for the bus and had deadlines to meet.
Yet even as my mind raced with all these thoughts I was perfectly aware that of all the people who visited that show I was the one who most needed to be there. The important thing about Abramovic’s work is not what your reaction to it is, but that you react to it at all. -- Richard Dorment
I'd love to hear from any readers who actually attended one of Abramovic's performances in London and/or New York. Even more specifically, what do you think about the provocative statement in the first article, "Today, everyone, artists included, aspire to be part of the mainstream. There is no alternative culture anymore." ?
I've just come back from a few days visiting my father, during which I stayed alone at the lake house. He came up during the days and we worked together to get the property ready for him to move back there with his girlfriend this summer. For me, it was a wonderful retreat from city life, combining some good hard outdoor work with a chance to enjoy the solitude of the natural world, and seeing a few friends. As it turned out, I had some rather startling encounters with other creatures -- but that story will be told later!
In the mornings I got up early and took my breakfast down by the shoreline. There were birds singing; chipmunks scurrying; sunfish, bass, and carp basking in the shallows. The three mornings were all different; one day the lake was completely still, another breezy, another foggy. At night I went out on the deck to look at the stars, and slept with the bedroom door open, listening to the frogs and insects. It was just what I'd needed, and worth the long drive back and forth through the Adirondacks and the Mohawk Valley.
My dad is doing really well. At 89, he's planning to compete in table tennis in the New York State Senior Games next weekend in Cortland, and though he's got some stiffness in his legs, seems to be functioning well on his replacement knees and hip. I sure hope I inherited those particular genes; he inspires me to stay as active and limber as I can.
My dad and me at the lake about thirty years ago, in the 1980s.
Staying in the house my parents built also has its sadnesses and strangeness; not much has changed and there are so many reminders of my mother, without her actual presence. I wouldn't say it feels "comforting;" it doesn't. I can't help but wonder how much longer my dad will be able to take care of the house, but I'm glad he still can, and wants to. Of course, these realities make me constantly aware that I'm getting older too. But the sadness doesn't have a sharp edge anymore, nor does my fear of the future. Even rock becomes smoothed by time, and nature, the great teacher, accepts each day in turn.
An unarranged snapshot of a piece of my studio, May 26, 2014. Big Iceland drawings on the wall; Montmorency Falls (Quebec) print at bottom left, two New Zealand acrylic paintings on the drawing table, an oil of Lake Willoughby (Vermont) on the top of the cabinet at right.
When I'm working on a piece of artwork I'm not consciously thinking about much except whatever's going on between my eyes, my hands, the particular medium, and my emotions. Subconsciously, though, I'm entering deeply into the subject, looking at it as if I've never seen it before - which, to be honest, it feels like I haven't, such is the intensity of that concentration. Over the past two weeks, as I've worked on the Ruahines paintings -- the most focussed period of attention to art that I've had since doing the Iceland drawings -- I've stepped back after a long session and looked around at the studio. There are some still lives here, and some portraits, but the overarching theme is landscape. And it's made me think about why I do this: why I keep returning to the landscape as a primary subject.
Artists paint what they love. I guess that's the simple answer. Still, it seems like there must be clues to a deeper dialogue going on. (I like cats, but I don't spend my life painting them!) My friend and fellow artist Natalie d'Arbeloff spoke once about my "deep feeling for the landscape," and although no one had ever put it that way before, I knew she had touched on an essential fact. The land speaks to me, and resonates within me, not just when I first encounter it, but for days and even years afterward: the California coast, the pastoral hills and dales of England, the raw elemental quality of Iceland, the flat plains of Quebec and the St. Lawrence estuary in the Charlevoix, the rocky Maine coast, the agricultural hills of central New York where I grew up -- and so many other places. I love the vibrancy of cities, but I'm not drawn to paint them. There's something about the wildness and solitude of open nature that speaks directly to my spirit, and I think I'm always trying to capture that feeling of being a single eye surrounded by something powerful that quiets me, amazes me, moves me, and somehow mirrors me.
I'd like to say "powerful and eternal," because there has always been that element in the landscape - that it was here before us and will continue after us, changing perhaps but continuous in a way that human beings are not. However, the word brings up another reason to paint, which is to try to say, "Look. Look at the beauty and preciousness of this earth." I am not of the school that believes people will ever change their behavior by being bludgeoned, but I do think people need to be made aware of what's in front of their eyes, and that a relationship with it is not only possible, but somethat that is meant to be. Not only is the natural world endangered, but so are we, by our increasingly fragmentary, individualistic, self-centered lifestyle, driven by consumerism, technology and speed. Most people are more afraid of the natural world than drawn to it; fewer and fewer are at home in solitude, or able to be in natural places without being somehow "entertained" or tethered to their cellphone lifelines, or the screens on which they capture their experiences. It's no wonder we are at a point of environmental no-return.
I am horribly upset about the Artic glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, but nearly powerless against the economic forces and political-corporate alliances that drive climate change; we do what we can politically and individually but obviously even collective efforts by citizens are not enough. Some of that feeling definitely goes into my art: not as rage, but as witness to what has moved me and mattered to me all my life.
Bean Fields, Paris Hill, NY. 14" x 10", oil on canvas. 1990.
And there is another kind of witness, that of recorder -- in a different way from photography. I did the painting above a long time ago: it's a view across the fields of a very small hilltop town in central New York that I've always loved. I remember standing there that day - the way the heart-shaped bean leaves ruffled in the wind, the call of hawks overhead, the smell of the mown hay. This view no longer exists; the NYS Department of Transportation saw fit to build a highway that bisects this field and cuts to the left of the hill in the distance; the reason I'm sure was that a wide road would be easier and faster for truck traffic and snowplows - this is a place notorious for blowing and drifting lake-effect snow in the winter -- thus avoiding the little town center with its right-angle turn. It's not a change on a big level, and perhaps only a few of us care, but to me it's an example of so much that's wrong with modern society. Painting the vanishing or endangered landscape carries a different kind of weight from photography; it seems less overtly political but perhaps it can speak just as powerfully.
We're shaped by experience, by people, and by memory, as well as by our own particular talents and passions. This past week I've been thinking a lot about my mother, on the anniversary of her death, and how she loved the landscape too. She was a ceramic artist and painter who didn't do much artwork after her twenties, but she continued to see with the same eyes, and to help me see. I owe a great deal of my emotional response to the land to her way of relating to it, as well as her encouragement to me in my own art. I don't paint for her, but she's always there: quietly joyful and fiercely protective of art, landscape, nature, and whoever and whatever she loved.
It dawns open and expectant, as wide as the sea.
but soon will be whizzing by, hurtling me closer and closer to that final destination.
But sometimes, more often now, I remember to see the landscapes opening up on the sides,
the ones that hold still,
the peace that sits so quietly under the trees.
Happy New Year to all of you!
We got back last night from a several-day visit with my father in central New York, in celebration of his 89th birthday. It was a really good visit: we arrived on Thursday and had a lovely meal with him and his grilfriend, made an informal dinner party for close family and friends on Friday evening, went out to dinner with some of his other friends on Saturday, and drove back to Montreal yesterday -- with, of course, a lot of other visiting inbetween. It was great to see him doing so well after his October hip surgery, and lovely to have some time to stay at the lake house and enjoy the snow and the quiet. As I've written before, the agricultural landscape "back home" is deeply imprinted in my memory; it's beautiful in all seasons and I really like the graphic quality of the fields and hedgerows and woods when the land is covered with snow. We saw a lot of deer, a lot of hawks, a lot of crows, and many flocks of geese, including some snow geese.
It wasn't an easy drive back yesterday; although the main lane was clear on both the Thruway and the Northway, it was slippery and snowy every time we had to cross into the other lane, and salt and wet road grime were constantly being thrown up onto the windshield. As soon as we crossed into Canada, where the use of salt is much reduced, the roads were very snowy, but that was ok - the visibility was actually better and the windshield stayed clear even though we had to drive more slowly.
We arrived about 4:30, unpacked, had a quick dinner of some leftovers we'd brought with us, and I had to leave for an evening dress rehearsalf or tonight's Messiah performance with the McGill Chamber Orchestra. That was pretty exhausting, vocally and physically, and today, after a restless night, I'm hoping to take an afternoon nap so that I feel a bit better for tonight's marathon. The acoustics are better in the cathedral if the choir is out from under the arch behind the chancel steps, so a decision was made this year not to use risers. That means we'll be standing throughout the entire oratorio -- and I'm not looking forward to that! But the concert is sold out, and it's always a happy event, with fine soloists - including the counter-tenor Daniel Taylor and bass Alexander Dobson - and a spirited beginning to the center of the holiday season. The Canadian soprano soloist, Jana Miller, will be making her Carnegie Hall debut, also in the Messiah, on December 18th.
Our big work projects are done, and I'm looking forward to some time now to do some art and some baking, and enjoy being with friends, in and around the musical events of the coming week. I hope the end-of-the-year frenzy is winding down for you, too, if indeed that's the way it is in your life.
The New York Times published a great slideshow of images from the NY subway last night. I was on the Montreal métro heading to and from choir, and saw quite a lot I would have liked to photograph too, but even on Halloween night, French privacy laws make it difficult to take pictures of people in public. Nevertheless, I stole a few shots. My own neighborhood was full of little ghouls and goblins, but what amused me the most were the adults hosting the trick-or-treaters; on one porch a tall fairy in blue wings arranged her pumpkin lanterns and bowls of treats, and then settled into an armchair to wait for her visitors; across the street a pink-wigged witch and a shark stood in their doorway, handing out candy. And outside the Mont Royal metro, a large pod of forty or fifty zombies danced in slow motion to music the living couldn't hear.
Like our clothes at other times, Montreal Halloween dress-up tends to have a fairly dark flavor, though I did see a man in a bright orange tuxedo and top hat through the window of a blue train, and rued the fact that my camera wasn't in my hand!
After returning from Washington and spending one night at home, I spent the last week with my father and his girlfriend, after my father had a hip replacement. He's recovering well but it's a pretty big deal at his age; probably at any age.
Blogging and online activity came to a halt, as I had no access to the internet except at a fast food restaurant at the other end of town, and at the town library, where I couldn't make phone calls. I'm still feeling the inner quietness of a week spent mostly offline: an involuntary fast that I now feel almost reluctant to break. Coming back, although I missed reading your blogs and corresponding by email with a number of people, I realize that a slower pace feels much better to me, and much more supportive of who I am and what I want to do creatively. It's too easy to get speedy and reactive, in this noise- and word-filled space; pretty soon you don't even notice it. I don't want that to happen again.
In that rural, hilly part of New York State, the landscape speaks to me at a great depth, and something within me responds. I feel drawn into silence, wonder, and calmness the same way I was as a child. The air is fresh and filled with the songs and flight of birds; clouds build up and blow across the skies; the crops ripen; the seasons progress. You feel connected to the earth, from the sun on your head to the texture of grass, or glacial gravel, or plowed land under your feet; the smell of the earth fills your nostrils.
When I had a chance, as I did errands or had brief visits with old friends, I took the back roads and looked at the landscape, finding myself remade in the odd, rich compost of memories and current self-awareness. The socio-economic climate in Chenango and Madison County is depressed, though some businesses -- such as Chobani yogurt -- are growing. I was sad at a lot of what I saw, and sad about current politics that have left so many people feeling abandoned, helpless, lost, and despairing. I was stunned by stories I heard about domestic violence and horrific car accidents; I clutched at every bit of good news and opportunity. But nature itself -- so glorious in the late autumn -- still gave its gifts to me. I came home with ideas for new artwork, and gratitude that seems fitting on this day when Canada thanks the earth for its abundance and beauty.