Saturday, December 29, 2007

What is Art - Part Three

What does it mean if something fails to move us, but it's supposedly art? Is it not art? Is it failed art? Fails to move whom?

When my family and I move through a rose garden we enjoy smelling the blooms and calling to each other, "This one's strong," "I don't get any smell from this one," and then seeing which roses have a totally different effect on the others. We've been amazed at how many roses will be overpowering for some of us and faint to others, and vice versa, which proves it's not that some of us simply have more sensitive noses.

I think art is the same way. Some messages reach certain people and not others. It's like wave-length. An artwork sends its message on a certain frequency, and individuals are either tuned to it or not.

I believe people can learn to receive on channels that have previously been closed to them, and we can also learn to interpret (and enjoy) messages that previously were unpleasant (like acquiring a taste for coffee or wine). You can cultivate your tastes, in other words, so that you appreciate or even love things that previously meant little to you.

The point I'm making is that individual people can't determine the status of art - it takes a wider audience to know what is going on. Some valuable art may only speak to a narrow sector of audience, and a handful of people may be insufficient to receive the message. On the other hand, a great work of art will speak to so many that it will eventually gain wide acclaim and notoriety. Michelangelo's David, Picasso's Guernica, Handel's Messiah, Bizet's Carmen, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Balanchine's setting of Rite of Spring... They do this by moving so many, and moving them more than most artworks can. This is perhaps a subjective measure of their success as artworks.

So what does it mean if a particular piece is not generally understood? It might mean it is appealing to a narrower audience, and most of us won't "get" it, or it might be failing in the attempt to move us.

And that last sentence carries the germ of another question. If an artwork fails to move anyone, is it a failed artwork, or not an artwork at all?

I believe that in certain human spheres intention has value. I bet most people would agree with this. If a person hurts someone else, their intentions matter a great deal. Was it deliberate or an accident? Even if the injury doesn't happen (the person misses) the intention is vitally important. If there was intent to harm, then a crime happened, and the person can be tried and punished; if there was no intent to harm, then we consider that no crime happened. Intention in the art sphere is similar - and I believe it can grant the status of art to an act or an object.

The hard part is understanding the intentions. Do all paintings in art museums and galleries count as art because someone calls them that? I don't believe so. I think some paintings are meant (intended) to be art, and some paintings are not. What I'm saying is that the attempt to create a piece that communicates and moves its viewers makes the piece an artwork. It might then fail or succeed, have value or not. Most paintings are not attempted on this level, with this much at stake. They may fail or succeed on technical grounds (good composition, visual interest, a good likeness of their subject, etc.) but they aren't trying to "mean" more or move us. They might be good or even great paintings, but I would submit that they never were art. They are a complex form of craft, or illustration, but not art. Here we have a yardstick for telling craft from art. Either might be good or bad - but they are intended to accomplish different things, and we thus apply different yardsticks to them.

If you think about it, we now have four combinations.

Combination #1. Intention to be art + it moves us. This is plainly art by my definition.

Combination #2. Intention to be art + it does not move us. By my definition this is either failed art or art for a narrower audience (and we're not in it), but it might be hard to know this, unless the artist explains the intentions. I think the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh prove this combination. During his lifetime he sold only one painting, for a pittance, and was almost universally misunderstood. He wrote of his intentions, what his work was attempting, to his brother Theo, so we know he truly intended the paintings to be art. He was a few decades ahead of his proper audience. Now thousands of people are regularly moved to tears or to joy by his paintings. (Shown above - Irises by Van Gogh.)

Combination #3. No intention to be art + it does not move us. By my definition this is not art - but unless the artist tells us about the intentions, we might mistake it for art for a narrower audience or failed art.

Combination #4. No intention to be art + it moves us. This is interesting. Is it art regardless of the lack of intention? Or is it like a natural wonder, such as a sunset or the sea, which can move us without any "intent" or anyone meaning anything by it? By my definition it is not art - though people might be moved by it. A real communication must be "meant" by the communicator. Anything else is just static (or apes typing Shakespeare). No deliberate art action (no one deliberately attempting to be an artist), so no art.

This insistence on artistic intention sets the stage for our first short foray into modern art. Let's discuss the ready-made.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp signed "R. Mutt" on an ordinary porcelain urinal, named it Fountain, and displayed it in an art show. This rocked the art world and made international news. In a recent poll of 500 art experts this work was proclaimed the most influential modern artwork, ahead of anything by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, etc. Why? Because it made so clear, for the first time, that the most important requirement for art is the creator's intention that it be art.

Did this piece succeed as art? Hugely - because it powerfully isolated this principle and shouted it to the whole world in a way that could not be ignored, and it strongly moved thousands of people.

But what is happening (in the light of my definition) if some other artist now does something similar? Is it adding something new or different? If not, then, at best, I think it's an imitation of or homage to an artwork. It's quoting, rather than speaking. I think that's craft, personally. And not very challenging or admirable craft in the case of a ready-made (also sometimes called "found art"), unless something new is brought forward in the process.

Some things only need to be said once. If I see other ready-mades, other objects arbitrarily raised to the level of art by artist fiat, I might grin (or grimace) but I move on to the next gallery. Many other types of art can be reinterpreted and performed ad infinitum with interest and value, because they are rich in content or form - but Fountain has been deliberately stripped of everything but the one statement. So another way to understand why Duchamp's Fountain is so unique, and possibly worthy of the top spot in that poll, is that it should be an art movement with only one piece. All others are redundant. When material doesn't matter (only intent), then we don't need another ready-made of some other material.

It's like a bomb - loud and memorable, but only one note. So I will happily move to more conventional works for my next posts.

What is Art - Part Two

The ground gets even softer in today's installment - ever more room for disagreement. I'm going to ask you to follow me a bit and see if these next steps make sense. What I have to do next is a bit like building an arch - I can't expect the stones to stay up one by one, it's the collection of them that makes it stand. So I need to assemble a number of points that may be weaker on their own, but let's see how they hold up when they are all together.

Art carries a message.
I think most people would say art is known in the experiencing of it. We "get the message." I think this is why so many people, confronted with a puzzling work of art, something they can only assume is a work of art because it is presented as one (it's in an art museum or gallery, or it's performed on a stage), ask the question, "But what does it mean?" We expect art to speak to us. Another common expression I hear from people in museums is, "That does nothing for me." We expect art to do something to us.

Unlike other human acts and objects, art is supposed to speak to us. It pushes our buttons. It reaches inside us.

Art is a form of communication. This implies a receiver, a viewer, a reader, an audience. We'll come back to that.

But not all that carries a message is art.

For physical objects to convey information is a marvel, if you think about it. Writing and reading are amazing inventions, and powerful skills, requiring a kind of intelligence that distinguishes humans from other animals on earth. To a large degree, it's writing that made civilization possible. We can record thoughts so someone else can "get" them when the thinker is absent.

Now I'll do a mental move I've done several times already: if all that conveys a message is art, then the term is not very interesting or useful. So there should be something different about art that separates it from other forms of communication.

I believe that most people would agree that art communicates on a level that goes beyond the words or mechanics of the communication. Art is a way to pass on what can't be said directly with the words, or with paint, or with sounds.

We are bombarded every day with messages. News, advertising, e-mail, snail mail, road signs, turn signals on cars around us on a highway... the list is endless. When a communicator manages to assemble the pieces so they say more, then it might be art.

Let's take jokes as a simple example. Just about everyone knows you either "get" a joke, or you don't. What exactly is it we're "getting"? We're getting that odd mental/emotional event when the joke twists things around and we end up with something odd, something unexpected. If that twist is pleasing, we smile; if it's funny, we laugh. But is a joke art because this extra something happens?

And what about inuendo, or other messages meant to be "read between the lines." There is more there than meets the eye - but is it art?

I think most people would say, no. Art needs to do more, to be more.

I'll just get right to it, straight to the keystone of the arch I'm trying to build:

Art must move us
It must change our point of view. Maybe only a little, or in a gentle, silly way, but there must be some change. That idea of perspective, of the place where you mentally and emotionally live, is mixed up in this. Art hits us where we live, and leaves us changed in some way or moves us to a new place. It may just make us really stop and think. It may open a window in our soul that wasn't there before. It may change our opinion of things. It may galvanize our emotions around an idea or a cause.

So to assemble the entire collection of art statements so far...

Art is not a value word (it can be good or bad, succeed or fail, be beautiful or ugly or neither), and it's not automatically better or more important than other kinds of things.
Art is different from craft (though the two may be related - something for another post).
Art is human, deliberate, and not defined merely by its medium or by who is doing it.
Art must move us by communicating something deeper than the surface content.

I know some will disagree with this view - insist that it is too simple, but I will again ask for patience. Let's first explore some of the murkier nooks and crannies of the subject using its light; I believe it will hold up pretty well.

So, using this definition, how and when is art done? How do we know? Who gets to decide? How does my definition apply to different types of art and different works and artistic movements?

Those are interesting questions, I think, and I'll tackle some of them in the next post.

(Photo above is of a graphite drawing of mine, "The Church of the Great Outdoors." I generally consider myself a painter or draftsman, since I am not usually trying to create works of art. This image is an exception - I had something to say. Others will have to judge if I said it well enough to be understood at all.)

Friday, December 28, 2007

What is Art - Part One

Before I start another series of statements about what art is or isn't, I want to mention two more cautions.

Caution #1. There is little firm ground in this debate - whatever I say about art, even if the vast majority of readers would agree, will draw some debate. And the further we get into this conversation the softer and more treacherous the ground will become.

Caution #2. I work this whole argument around in my head in two directions, and arrive at different types of conclusions depending on how I proceed. So I fear this will be a bit like a moebius strip - a thing that seems to have two sides, but you can travel to either side without crossing any real division between them. Be prepared for a clearer but confusing conclusion to all of this. Art can be like "six impossible things before breakfast."

OK - here are the simpler steps.

Art is from Humans
I think most would agree that art is a human endeavor. I know people who would like to treat nature as God's work of art, but even if we all believed in the Creation, it isn't useful to call "everything" art. I think the word is only interesting or useful if it applies to a much smaller set of things, and I believe most would agree that it is meant to apply to things made by humans.

This eliminates all sorts of beautiful or moving things as art (though they might be subjects for art). Sunsets, animals, the night sky, frost patterns on a windowpane, natural landscapes...

But Not ALL from Humans is Art
Are ALL human caused things art? A snore? A footprint? A landfill? A city? I'm deliberately moving from the casual and accidental results of human passage through time and space to more deliberate or intended items. Let's sort these out a bit more.

Art is Deliberate
There is a subset of the things people cause which are made deliberately. They are made with some skill or for some purpose. Archeologists call some of these things "artifacts" which brings together the word art with a Latin root meaning "made." I think it's safe to say art objects are a subset of artifacts. Plainly not all artifacts are art - sheets of plywood, toilet seats, traffic lights... Works of art are a particular kind of deliberately made artifact.

OK - let me point out at least one way we're already in trouble here. Some art leaves no object or tangible "artifact" behind. Some art is act, instead of an object. We'll explore this more later (it gets into all sorts of fascinating questions like "Where is the art in this work?" and "Who is the artist?"). For now, let's pretend the acts have an existence similar to the objects - and for either to be art there is something that distinguishes them from other human created objects or human acts. One separator is that the act/creation is deliberate.

That isn't to say accident or chance can't be employed in the creation of art. Chance and accident are part of the story of many commonly revered artworks, but a human will is engaged in a particular kind of act when creating art. Some modern art shaves that act of will down to an absurd point, to make a point, but I said we'd come to that later - not yet.

So now we have to proceed to what separates art objects from other artifacts (and art acts from other human actions), and here I will run us off a small cliff, and then leave you hanging until the next post. Two more statements.

Art is Not Defined by Its Medium
That is to say you can't tell something is a work of art by looking at what it's made out of. I think most of us would agree that just because something is on a canvas and framed doesn't make it art. Just because it can be written on a musical score and played on a guitar, violin, gamelin, or didgeridoo doesn't make it art. On the flip side, there are works of are that are made with rocks and earth with bulldozers for the primary tool. There are works of art that exist only in the memories carried in oral traditions.

So now we get to the real heart of the matter, I think. Are all books art? Is all poetry art? Is all pottery craft? Is jewelry ever art? Can a quilt be art?

Art is Not Defined by Who Makes It
While Picasso's signature may have become a valuable item, and might even command a tidy sum in an auction, is everything scrawled by Picasso a work of art? I don't think that would make much sense. Is every move of a ballerina art? If she dances to a favorite band while out at a club with friends, is it art? It might be, but not just because she's a ballerina in other venues, though her training in dance might make it more likely to happen.

So what's the difference? If you can't tell it's art by what it's made out of, or how it's framed/staged, or who is doing it, how can you tell? What makes some pottery art and some canvases not? What makes some landscapes art and some poetry not? Why is a dancer's walk to the bus stop not art, while a scrawl of graffiti might be? When is an artist "doing" art? What makes a doer an "artist"?

Again, I would maintain it's not the beauty or "goodness" of the item or the act. Art can be obviously flawed (indeed some deeply moving art is seriously flawed) and it can be disturbingly ugly; craft can be practically perfect and breathtakingly beautiful and still not be art. I intend to discuss examples once I lay down a few more principles.

So what do I think is the difference? That's for the next post.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is Art? - Prelude

What is art? (My dear wife might now say something like, "Don't you mean, 'Art who?'" - but she has already told me she won't touch this question on-line with a virtual forty foot pole.)

I have pondered and debated this question for nearly thirty years, and I studied the question and did an honors thesis on it in college (where I graduated with a degree in Philosophy including Aesthetics). It's a confusing question, that makes people angry (or bored) - but I think I've got it mostly sorted out now. I hope by writing these posts I can clarify for myself, in this public place, what I mean by art - and hopefully, if you read all this, it will clarify what YOU mean by art.

The largest problem most of us have in any conversation about art is that we usually aren't talking about the same things. So let's get a few things clear up front.

Item #1. I am going to assume that the word "art" or the idea of a "work of art" has a distinct meaning. It means something in particular, and clarity is possible. If you don't think that's true, perhaps my posts will persuade you of it by the end, but I think we have a better chance of understanding each other if we can grant this item at the start - at least for now.

Item #2. Art is not a value word. It's not like "good" or "wonderful" or "best" or even "beautiful." We sometimes use the word this way - to elevate something by calling it a work of art - but that's not the correct technical use of the word "art." Art can be good or bad, can fail or succeed, can be beautiful or ugly or neither, and still be art. So art is a type of thing - not a way of saying how good a thing it is.

This idea that art is somehow "better" than other objects causes most of the heat in the arguments. Americans are egalitarian, and they hate to see some objects, or some work, raised above others. And many artists and art critics are snobs, and that causes further damage (I've done my share of that). But this idea that "art" is somehow "higher" than other things is misleading and just clouds all conversation. Art may turn out to be more difficult to do well, or more rare than some other types of objects - but we have yet to decide what art IS, so it's too early to say that.

Item #3. "Art" should be distinguished from "craft." I will plainly state here that I have seen many works of craft that were more valuable, more beautiful, and took more human effort than other items which I believe are works of art. This gets back to #2, above - just because something is "art" doesn't make it better, more valuable, or more beautiful than "craft," but there is a difference, and unraveling that difference is a large part of the work I plan to do in the next few posts.

Item #4. Some "art" is about art, is commenting specifically on the status of art, and is even deliberately breaking the rules that define art - all in the name of art. This sort of game is lots of fun for some people, especially for people who understand the jokes or implied comments, but it has greatly confused most of us. I intend to discuss these works as we travel along - but they make the most sense later. For now, though, it is important to realize that a lot of modern art is weird in this way - and so we'd be better off leaving it out of the conversation for now. Let's say that some modern art is like "the exception that proves the rule."

In the next post we'll start with "everything" and start chipping things away that aren't art. This might help us get closer to what it is - or at least help us find some characteristics of "art."

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Signs of Christmas 4

And today, Christmas Eve, is normally when we would be getting things ready to go over to my mother-in-law's house, for what has been a 26 year tradition of dinner, church, photos, carols, and gifts. But this year we were at home, and Mother is in Pennsylvania, her first Christmas away from home in probably three decades or more. I hope it is going well for her, and that her youngest granddaughter is loving having her Ama there for Christmas.

We put the ornaments on the tree last night, so today they were lovely in the sunshine. I can't decide whether I enjoy the tree more in the day, when I can really see the hundreds of unique ornaments (and ponder the stories and memories behind many of them) or at night, when the lights make it magical and I see only hints of the ornaments.

We went to church this evening (yes - even I went) and I enjoyed the warmth of so many familiar faces and the power of the singing. The youth choir sang, and our little corner of the nave had five current adult choir members, several others who have been in choir (including myself) and the leader of the Compline Choir. So we had major volume, part singing and descants going in the right hand half of our three pews. It was almost as good as singing in the choir. The sermon was good, and made the point well ("If Christmas gifts are often telling you something about the giver's view of you, or of who they wish you were, then what does it mean that God gave His son to us?"), and it was lovely to be in the middle of the prayers again - especially such thorough ones as we prayed tonight.

And, of course, Eucharist is indescribable.

Merry Christmas, everyone - God bless all of you.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Signs of Christmas 3

Saturday we finally put up the tree - probably the latest we've ever done it. Things have to come down from up high in the garage (it's an artificial tree - allergies to real ones). Things must be gotten out of the attic. The tree itself is over 20 years old, and the tree pole, which has holes drilled into it for the branches to be inserted, is splinted like a boyscout first aid exercise, with the handles from an old fireplace tool set and (what else) duct tape. It's all hidden inside the tree, so it's OK, and it's fun to extend the life of dear old things.

I put together the pole and home-made wooden base (must be bigger and broader than normal; we have cats! - so it has extensions like outriggers to prevent capsizes). Then I searched for the tree skirt which must be put over the pole before any branches are put on. Couldn't find it. Searched the boxes again. Searched the garage. Finally searched the attic and found it in a bag I'd handled twice but thought was unrelated to Christmas.

So when I got back down, and we started, now about thirty minutes later than intended due to the tree skirt episode, I decided a tranquilizer was in order. Even at 10:00 in the morning there is nothing like a finger of Benedictine and Brandy to change one's view. The tree project looked quite different through the goldfish bowl of my snifter - before and (here in the photo) after we finished. The glass is empty, so you know my mood has already been elevated. For years my father would get a bottle of B&B for Christmas from our parish priest in New York - and he didn't like it (though he never told Father Kranch that). Now I ask for it for Christmas whenever I run out (it takes a while to finish even a small bottle, since I only drink it during this season).

With carols on and the Christmas elixir coursing through my veins, I let our eight year old put the tree together. I brought branches to him as he worked. He needed a footstool to finish the top, but he did the whole thing and was quite pleased. I've found that kids LOVE to have control while the grown ups play the supporting roles. And with my patience augmented with some of the good monks' tawny blend, I enjoyed his pleasure even more than usual.

Then I did the lights, which I prefer to put on after I've plugged them in. I like handling the brightly colored strands - it feeds my color sweet tooth. This year we have inherited two old beautiful crystal bulb strands from dear wife's childhood. They are persnickety, and go out if nudged, but one strand of these old lights is more beautiful
than all the others combined.

Then silver garlands to fill in the old sparse tree, and we're ready for ornaments later - probably after dark, when it will feel more like Christmas.

We have been collecting ornaments since before we were married, and we continue to find each other one or two every year. It's a wonder we can get them all on the tree. Every year the first to go on is Yule Tunes - the first ornament we bought after we were married.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Signs of Christmas 2

A few days ago I came home to the heavenly smell of Pulla, a Finnish bread my half-Finnish-half-Estonian wife makes with the kids at Christmas time. This year our eight year old braided one, and was very pleased with the result (and rightly so - it was lovely). They spent about half the day on it. Estonian Christmas cookies and Pulla are the two baking events that mean Christmas in this house (see Moomin Light's post and pictures of the cookies here). Both use cardamom, an unusual spice that gives them a unique spirit. Both are complex, long processes that are occasions on their own.

Pulla's recipe is so involved it's on the fronts and backs of two 3x5 recipe cards. The cards are to the right (click image for a larger view). Back when we first got married I made a small set of recipe cards by hand for my sweetheart, and put food related Bible verses on each. She used these two for the Pulla recipe her grandmother made. I have no idea where the others are.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Signs of Christmas 1

Our neighbors next door, who have pulled our street together into a community that rivals any church I've ever known, organized a holiday party two weekends ago. The idea was that each house would briefly entertain with some sort of light finger food and a complementary wine. Five houses hosted, and several other neighbors joined in, though they couldn't host. It was great fun. We started and ended at the neighbor's house (shrimp with a sparkling white to start - mulled whine and a chocolate fountain with fruit and cake cubes to end) and then various members of the usual circle stayed until midnight playing our monthly round of dealer's choice poker. We walked up and down the street in little groups, carrying our wine glasses, as we switched kitchens every thirty minutes or so. Oddly, every house that participated was the same floor plan, though with a few modifications to interior walls downstairs. It was interesting to see the different ways people decorated the same space.

Our house was second in line, and we didn't have any Christmas decorations up. Most of our neighbors had their outside stuff and their trees already - we're always later, because the season is too soon and too much for us, anyway. And the cats get in the tree, and we have to stand guard over it, so it doesn't go up until pretty late or we'll be worn out before we get to Christmas.

So for decoration I took advantage of our latest blooming pincushion mums, some pine branches, and sage branches, and added some red yarn bows to make it look a bit more seasonal. These were on either side of the bay window that dominates our living room (it's mostly windows). I love that this combination of Christmas and chrysanthemums is possible here - it encapsulates what I love about our climate. We also added some red Christmas table cloths in the kitchen, and another of these wall vase bouquets in there, and called it enough.

It was a nice way to start the holiday season at home, and it was great to catch up with the neighbors. I tried to play to lose $40 at poker, but ended up a dollar ahead, instead.

And now it's the 21st and we still don't have our own tree up. We'll do it tomorrow.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

When All Becomes Painting

One of the things I do love about this first dark month of cold weather is going to bed and being under the comforter. There's a special kind of magic, probably from childhood, in curling up in a cold dark room, under a pile of blankets or quilts and getting warm.

Before going to bed each night I have been reading a few pages of a beautifully illustrated book about Hundertwasser. I bought it in Nashville, in July, and stashed it. About a month ago it seemed like the right time to finally unwrap it and I have been savoring it since. I turn only two or three pages and each new gorgeously colored illustration feeds me. I go to bed hugging myself with glee at the brilliant reds, yellows, and glowing light of his watercolors, and the spontaneous personal place they depict.

Then as I lie in bed, getting warm in the lush heap of covers, my mind turns everything into paintings. Even the position of my arms and legs is a painting, and, with my eyes shut, I change the composition by moving them. I dream of things I saw in my day and they also turn into paintings. And then I really dream, and winter dreams are so vivid I can taste the salt and feel the wet cool of the spray on my face as I struggle to keep the boat upright as we pass over brilliant, fantastic reefs. Or I continue a travel dream, in Provence, with an uncle I have never met, and one of his friends, who keeps getting us lost and thus into all sorts of unexpected and deliciously real places behind the tourist lines.

Even with all the stress at work, and the stress of the holidays, everyone is friendly in my December dreams this year, and even the French speak English.

Actually the photo above is of the afghan my Nana made me when I was a teenager - one of the earliest installments of her deal with God that she couldn't go until she'd made one for every grandchild (it worked). In the fall we cover the brilliant blue all-weather fleece with mismatched blankets, so we can be convertible on each side. Nana's afghan goes on my side.

In the deeper winter weather I get the comforter down from the high shelf in our bedroom closet, where it's been hibernating since spring. It's creamy white, and has a round labyrinth quilted pattern on it and deep lacy ruffles on the sides and bottom edge. It was a wedding present from my in-laws, for our first bed, a queen size, and it doesn't quite fit on our new king size bed. But that just makes it cozier somehow, as we avoid the cold edge (which it doesn't really cover) and curl up in the warm middle, to dream and wake and feel the other nearby, and drift off again until another red winter dawn.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Path Between the Seas - David McCullough

An engineer friend at work lent me The Path between the Seas to read, and I decided to read it during my lunch hours. I wasn't so sure this was my kind of story, but he's an interesting guy, and he's led me to fascinating new territory before, so I started right in. I found that many days it was hard to tear myself away from it and get back to work.

You might not think that a story about digging a big ditch would be riveting reading - but David McCullough makes the history so compelling, and he chooses his stories so carefully, that it had to be good reading. I had read his 1776 and John Adams and both were quite rewarding. The canal tale is actually full of political intrigue, accounting and financing schemes on a scale to bring down national economies, and towering figures, some of whom embodied the spirit of the time (Ferdinand de Lesseps and Theodore Roosevelt) and some of whom would provide a foretaste of the age to come (George Goethals). The book brings the enormous engineering challenges to life with vivid details and connection to the human element. The story also helps to explain the start of our troublesome relations in Latin America, and it casts light on the sad story of the decline of France from a major power in the mid 1800s, to the nation that would suffer defeat in the Franco Prussian War.

The history of the canal also showcases the rise of certain types of management, medicine, government, revolution, social reform, and political campaigning. It proves repeatedly that even in global events, the focus and vision of one charismatic or highly efficient person can turn the tide - and that person need not be in office or a national figure.

I found it was almost worth the entire read just to get the nuggets of dialog between Teddy Roosevelt and ANYONE else. I need to find a good biography of TR. I wonder if Mr. McCullough wrote one... well look at that, he did.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Figurines at Redmeg's

I was visiting Redmeg's Flickr pages and found this set of figurines.

I was enthralled with these. They are so bad, so evil, even, and so cute and well designed all at the same time that I'm fascinated. Yuck. Wee. Weird.

Meg has a link to the creators. Kidrobot. Many of Meg's are Mongers.

Why do I like the smorkin figures? I think I'll leave that question unexplored.

I have a link to Meg's blog and art pages over there on the right.

The end result is that I ordered a random dunny of my own.

Friday, December 14, 2007


I have been fascinated with striped maple, also called moosewood, since I first saw it and identified it in New York as a kid. In the mountains of North Carolina I watch for them in the fall, because the large leaves turn a striking clear yellow. The few blemishes are almost always the vivid green of summer, and the contrast of the green and yellow, and of the light leaves with their darker surroundings in the understory shade, always make me giddy. I want to keep the leaves forever, and use them to power my heart.

This 19 inch square painting, entitled Moosewood, was done in a two day burst of energy, probably only five or six hours of time, and I'm pleased with the more spontaneous feel, with the way the leaves turned out, with the colors, and with the mooseness. I carried it around in my heart and head for a few days before I had a chance to paint it. Click on the image for a larger view.

Again, as with Solar Power, this painting is a step on a long road to free my inner artist and my inner child. I've hung this in my office at work, right next to Cats and Koi.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Large Furry Growths

These large furry growths on computer monitors and heat registers are seasonal here, happening only in the colder months. They come and go without intervention on our part, and we're only mildly allergic to them as long as we vacuum more frequently.

If there is a sudden increase in the number or size of the growths, we'll have to do something about them. Meanwhile we just take precautions that they won't be spread, though we've heard reports of spontaneous appearance in several other houses on our street. Probably carried by airborne spores.

We'll keep an eye on it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Solar Power

Dad and I were talking recently about one of his favorite TV shows - one that documents all sorts of new technology and science. One episode was about alternate energy sources, and Dad described large towers, filled with a fluid that is heated to high temperatures by an array of parabolic mirrors directed by computer to always focus the sun's light on the fluid reservoir. Even on a cloudy day there are enough focused photons to heat the liquid and produce large amounts of electricity with the heat. Dad said the towers are bathed in so much concentrated light that a band around the middle of the reservoir glows.

I haven't seen the towers or looked them up, but Dad's descriptions went around in my head. Ultimately the concept of large towers full of light, providing power for all our homes, inspired a painting. Click on the image for a larger view. This isn't at all how I picture the towers, but it's how my inner child feels about them, and about clean energy like that.

I'm trying to move towards a more childlike expression in my artwork; this painting represents a few small steps in that direction. I like some parts of this quite a bit - other parts less so (still too controlled). I'll get there, and I'm happy about the journey I'm on. I painted another piece in the last few days - one that rose up in me very strongly and just poured out onto the paper. I'm happier with it, as it represents even more loosening up. I'll show it in another post.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Winston Part Nine - Last One

About a year ago I started this blog. One of the earliest posts is about Ollie's Bakery, on Brookstown Avenue, in Winston-Salem. We had gone there for a bite to eat before all five of us attended the Nutcracker at the Stevens Center. We loved the baked goods, and the cute bakery.

A few months after that, a local Winston writer and editor found my blog while looking up Ollie's. She then checked out my linked art website and liked my watercolors. She bought a few, and asked me, by e-mail, if I'd be interested in an illustration project. Long story short, we have been collaborating on a book, and I have completed five of seven paintings for it. We have communicated and viewed the pieces, one by one, entirely by e-mail, but we intend to meet when I pass the paintings to her for the next step.

So when Moomin Light and I took our daughter to see the Nutcracker again this year (leaving the sons at home this time) my wife mentioned that IF I got over to Ollie's, some baked things would be welcome after we got home. I had to be reminded where Ollie's is, or I would not have been able to find it.

At the end of my golden afternoon of Winston wandering, which was rich enough to yield over eight blog posts, I did stop at Ollie's. As I got out and took the photo above, I thought about my partner on the book project, and how this place brought us together in the first place. Sort of.

I went in and ordered a confusing array of breads, cookies, and buns, asking about the sour dough content of various loaves, asking for some to be sliced and others not, and asking that some things be bagged separately from others for the long trip home. While I was doing this I was gently interrupted by a woman who asked if I was Steve Emery. My heart stopped beating, I think, and I answered on automatic pilot, because my mind contained nothing but wonder that we were meeting here quite by chance. She offered me her hand, and I shook it and then gave her a hug. We feel like we've gotten to know each other by e-mail and through the shared project. It had been five months or so since she'd last been at Ollie's, and only an odd chance that she was there then. I had only been once, the last time we came for the Nutcracker. Each of us only intended to be there three or four minutes. The odds against us meeting were enormous, and yet it happened. We were both delighted, and talked for several minutes, shared some samples of an unusual cookie, and then parted, since each of us had someone expecting us.

She wished me, "Merry Christmas." It was the first time I'd heard those words this season. I had had Christmas music in my ears in various stores and restaurants, and I'd had them in my mental soundtrack all day, and had welcomed them. It was the first day of December. We were here for the Nutcracker. My usual guard against Christmas season too soon, had been lowered this day, and her Merry Christmas was perfect, as well timed as our meeting at all.

She had said to me, "If you wrote a short story about this, no one would believe it." Like the sunset we saw behind us on our way home that evening, the colors too rich and spread around in a way that led my wife to say (as we frequently do), "You could never paint a sunset like that - no one would believe it." The entire day had been as improbable and beautiful as that sunset, topped by the near miracle of a chance meeting at Ollie's.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Winston Part Eight

When we lived in Winston, near Hanes Park, one building stood out for beauty and placement. Saint Paul's Episcopal, on the top of Summit Avenue. It lent an English look to the hill overlooking the athletic fields and the track. (Click any image for a larger view.)

Here's the church from the south side. It's not ornate, like Duke Chapel, but it's lines are all lovely, the proportions are majestic, and the stonework delights me every time I see it.

The entrance, which faces east, is particularly beautiful with the curving walks and neat green grass covered with red maple leaves.

Above that front door is carved this friendly motto. We never attended a service here, and can't speak to the truth of this sentiment, but across America 11:00 on Sunday remains the most segregated hour of the week. Nothing like worship to make us all seek "our own kind," and that usually ends up meaning color, race, ethnicity, social status, and sexual orientation. So I have to wonder what the congregations look like at Saint Paul's, or Centenary Methodist, or First Baptist - all prominent old churches near downtown. I'd like to think they are truly welcoming of "all people."

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Winston Part Seven

They've torn down some of the older buildings on Fourth Street (I can't for the life of me recall what used to be there) and the side of the Pepper Building reveals the mason's equivalent of dust swept under the carpet. The space between the walls was just filled in willy-nilly, with little rhyme or reason and probably in very little time. This has been the practice of masons since Ancient Rome and earlier, making these in-between spaces a treasure trove for archeologists, as everything under the sun might get tossed in to take up the space.

Here is a closer view of the crazy work. Click the images for a larger version.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Winston Part Six

When I first came to Winston, I was looking for a job, and Moomin Light and I, a few months away from our wedding, were looking for a place to live. I had quit college, having gotten lost in art school (East Carolina University, 1979-1980), and I was going to work while she finished undergrad work at the NC School of the Arts (for music - the flute). I got a job with Wachovia, in their student loan division, and my cube was on the fourth floor of the Phillips Building, which still looks just as ugly as it did in 1981, when I started. I was making $900 a month before taxes.

I was once given a tour of the Wachovia mainframe computer. It took up the entire 6th floor of the Phillips Building (where the walkway connects it with the blue tower that was the Wachovia headquarters then) and human beings in white lab coats were some of its moving parts, changing out data packs and disk drives based on requests coming up on the terminal of the main operator.

Our first home was a tiny four room flat in the Amber Apartments, rented then, as now, by Home Real Estate, which hasn't changed their logo or signs in 25 years. No, they have made one little change; they didn't have a website back then. We were in number 11, the last door to the right, on the end of the second floor. This gave us extra windows (we didn't know then how important they are for us). Rent was $160, about a quarter of my take-home pay every month, and we couldn't really afford to keep the base-board electric heat very high. Fortunately the loud Greek family above us kept their apartment at about 80 degrees all winter, so noise wasn't the only thing coming through the thin ceiling. The trains that roared through across the street woke us up the first few nights, then we stopped hearing them. We kept our old Toyota Corolla (Floyd, short for Die Fledermaus, because he was as drab and gray as a bat) parked up the hill on the street, so we could pop start him when the battery was dead. His exhaust system was gradually reconstructed with tomato sauce cans and coat hangers, and the battery was held in with a rope.

Then we moved to this little house out on one of the streets off Country Club Road. We had a back yard, a small vegetable plot, where I first discovered I could not grow tomatoes, still true twenty five years later to my sorrow. We had three cavernous rooms which we struggled to keep heated to the upper 50s / lower 60s, going further and further into automatic over-draft debt every winter month, until the warmer weather allowed us to catch up just in time to start it all over again the following November. We lived here until it was time to move to Chapel Hill, when we traded places and Moomin Light went to work as a statistician at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and I went back to school. Several years before she had switched flute at NCSA for math at Wake Forest, where she graduated with distinction.

I miss Winston-Salem. I drove past these old places to get the photos, and I then drove from the little house along Kinnamon towards Stratford Road. We used to walk several miles on this route on warm summer nights, getting two ice-cream cones at Baskin and Robbins in Thruway Shopping Center. We didn't have much money, but we had lots of time, and we built the start of a good marriage there. My college major at UNC (Philosophy) was not particularly useful in my job hunt after graduation, but the computer experience I had at Wachovia, after being promoted into the DP department, got me a job and a career since. We both became Christians and then Catholics in Winston-Salem. Much of our current lives have strong roots in the three years we lived there, and I will always love it.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dad's Cancer - A Darker Day

Dad had his last surgery - to remove the source of the trouble, his thyroid. They found more tumors, two of them inoperable.

So now we rely even more than before on prayers, and on radiation, and Iodine 131, which will make my Dad a temporary nuclear hazard - Mom will only be able to share a room with him for an hour out of each 24 - but there is a chance it will find and kill all the rogue thyroid cells.

The immediate issue is the surgery made it hard for Dad to swallow. So if you like really concrete prayer requests, that would be a helpful one.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Winston Part Five

I noticed this carving on an old office building, "O'Hanlon's." Nothing now in the building seems to have anything to do with that name.

It's like the old Wachovia building, with the name still carved over the doors. When I worked in Winston, at Wachovia, they were a state-wide bank, and their headquarters were in a new blue glass building, diagonally across the street from this old one.

That building no longer says Wachovia - it's now the Winston Tower, under renovation, attempting to make it a
premier space downtown, again.

Some years ago Wachovia moved their Winston presence to this white tower, with a faux dome on top. That was long after I stopped working there to go back to school (in Philosophy at UNC-CH) and Wachovia had burst their NC status, bought banks outside the state, and moved the main headquarters to Georgia.

Tobacco's history in the city was also a series of steps up, to larger and more modern buildings. From this Art Deco tower built in the late 1920's, Reynolds expanded (and moved their top execs) to a new building in the early 1980's.

That newer building used to be World Headquarters for the RJR Nabisco company, but the recent history of smoking and smoking related litigation in the US has forced a series of changes over the years. The tobacco holdings are now made less of, the building is now a "Reynolds American" building, and the company no longer flaunts the camel everywhere - though others in Winston are cashing in on that history.

This rooftop scene sums up a lot of what has changed about Winston-Salem over the last 100 years. The cupola could be on a Moravian church - the Moravians were a highly religious community that founded Salem, and brought a particular architecture to Winton. The crane, while it's presiding over destruction of some early 20th century buildings and the construction of some larger 21st century complexes, looks much the way cranes did in the 1960s. And the satellite dish represents the telecommunications and technology that have given such a boost to all the towns in the Triangle and Triad areas of NC since the 1980s.

I just hope Winston manages to hold onto the best parts of it's past, and the downtown ends up a pleasant patchwork of the old and new for generations to see and enjoy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Winston Part Four

Winston contains some great Art Deco period architecture. Here is some work on the side of the old telephone company building, out on Fourth Street. Click images for larger versions.

But the most important Art Deco in Winston is in the building that was the precursor to the Empire State Building, and served as something of a prototype: the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco headquarters on Main Street. It was completed in 1929.

Every year they put up a huge wreath in the main entrance, which is all brass and chrome and was restored to it's 1920's grandeur in 1982.

And here are two portions of a mural on the ground floor. I had to shoot them through the window, as the building is closed on Saturdays. They show tobacco becoming an important trade item in the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, and then the popularity of smoking, first with pipes in the 1890s, and then cigarettes in the 1920s. Note the camels and the tobacco flowers.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Winston Part Three

The late afternoon was creating interesting reflections and light effects down Fourth and Trade Streets, which made me decide to attempt some self portraits in the windows. So here is the first try, on a north/south running street. Interesting, and I like the association with an art gallery, but I wanted the more intense light out on Fourth Street.

So then I tried this one, where I appear in the lower left. I'm standing on the north side of the street, and the window is on the south side. Well, actually I'm in the middle of the road, trying not to get run over. You see me here in my trusty field coat, with the big pockets for ammunition and small game, even if I've never gone hunting. Instead it has the camera bag in one big pocket, and my medium sized moleskine in the other. Click images to see larger versions.

Finally I caught this shot in another window on the north side of Fourth Street. Look at the camera, Steve - no the one in the window, dummy.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Winston Part Two

I always admired the architecture of the First Baptist Church in downtown Winston, but I was never there in the late afternoon with a camera. The light on the golden brick and stone, and the round shape of this church, set it apart.

The building across the street must have distressed the congregation when it went up in the late 70's, blocking the view to the south and creating such a jarring juxtaposition with modern architecture. Originally built for Integon, it now says GMAC on the top. I enjoyed the reflections of the church in the building's facets. I took several shots; this was my favorite. Click to see larger images.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Winston Part One

We went to Winston-Salem today so Moomin Light and our daughter could see the Nutcracker ballet at the Stevens Center.

We first went to the West End Cafe (which we recall from it's earlier tiny location up Fourth street, and which we continue to call Animal Cafe, from the wonderful children's book).

Then I dropped the ladies off at the theater and I was turned loose with a camera for nearly three hours.

I have loved this town since I worked for Wachovia, back in the early 80's. It was my first full-time job, after I quit college to marry Moomin Light, and while she was at School of the Arts and then Wake Forest. I rode the bus back and forth to work, went to downtown churches for daily mass or to pray with friends, and ate lunch in downtown restaurants. I knew some of the panhandlers by name. I Christmas shopped for Moomin Light in downtown department stores. Winston-Salem might be where I feel most at home on earth.

The first thing that caught my eye today was all the crazy ornate work at the tops of the late 19th, early 20th century buildings. So much careful detail up where almost no one notices. Here are several samples. Click on the photos for closer looks.

Modern buildings are meant to be read from further away, and so they skip the detail. I suspect the cost of artisans has a lot to do with it, too. Older buildings were more intimate, and obviously meant to be viewed from across the street. And while artisans were expensive then, too, the money was spent to show off.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Unpaved roads... I've written particularly about roads in the last light of the day.

Here are two shots of roads on the Cone Manor, and two shots of the Commissary Road on Mount Mitchell - both in North Carolina, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Click for larger views.