Art & culture


We Are Boston

On Sunday night, J and I took the T into Boston to see legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain and his “Masters of Percussion” perform at Symphony Hall. Before the concert, J and I had dinner at the Prudential Center, where gold and blue banners hung in honor of this month’s Marathon. “We are Boston,” several proclaimed, while others promoted the Twitter hashtag #LoveBoston.

We Are Boston

After dinner, J and I had time to browse on Boylston Street, then we made a pilgrimage to 298 Beacon Street, the site of last month’s fatal fire. It was a mild and bright evening, with the sun angling low toward the horizon, and it seemed like half the city was outside sitting on park benches, cycling, pushing baby strollers, or walking dogs. A steady stream of passersby stopped to quietly consider the sad, burnt-out building on Beacon Street where two firemen lost their lives, and a line of passing cars slowed in deference to the blue police barricades and gold “Caution” tape that surround the site.

After the fire

At Symphony Hall, we watched a parade of Indian families arrive and take their seats, women of all ages dressed in elegant silk saris and colorful shawls. There were several surges of latecomers held up in Boston’s notorious traffic, and Hussain worked this into his act, explaining how one song’s intricately layered rhythms were inspired by Indian traffic jams, with lumbering trucks weaving down the center of the street; smaller vehicles like carts and rickshaws zipping around the trucks; pedestrians impulsively darting in front of trucks, carts, and rickshaws; and stray dogs and cats milling everywhere, in blithe disregard of all these human comings and goings.

Waiting for his master's takeout order

The piece Hussain played while describing this scene moved in its own unpredictable and syncopated time, slowing down then speeding up in hypnotic bursts. This is how both our lives and commutes are, Hussain explained. So much rushing to pile into our cars, then so much waiting in traffic. What kind of unpredictable and syncopated commutes had the latecomers weathered on their way to Symphony Hall, followed by the wait to claim their tickets, followed by a frantic scurry into the hall and toward their seats, only to finally arrive, breathless and ready to listen?

Love Boston

After the concert as J and I wended our way out of Symphony Hall and toward the T, I was filled with a surge of gratitude for this, my adopted city. I’ve never been swept up in an Indian traffic jam, nor have I experienced the shouting conductors and lumbering buses of Lagos, which Teju Cole had described so vividly at Friday night’s reading. But because I live in a city where the likes of Zakir Hussain and Teju Cole pause in the course of their own syncopated journeys, I can glimpse the world right here from Boston, one of the many places where many roads intersect. “We are Boston,” those gold and blue banners proclaimed, and on Sunday night, it felt like loving Boston was one and the same as loving the whole wide world.

Resigning himself to the paparazzi

The last time I saw Teju Cole was in February, 2013, when he gave a talk at Boston College, and I used that talk as an excuse to show you a picture of his hands signing my copy of Open City. Last night, Teju was in Cambridge signing copies of his new book, Every Day Is For the Thief, and at that event I found myself taking yet more photos of Teju’s hands, signing.

Hands

I’ve always been fascinated by people’s hands, as they say so much about a person’s life and livelihood. As I type these words, for instance, I have a green inkblot on the ring-finger of my left hand: proof that I wrote in my journal today, my fountain pen coloring the callus where my pen rests. Being Italian, I find it impossible to talk without using my hands, and part of the appeal of going to a book signing is watching a writer use his: does he gesture when he talks? Are his fingers long or short? Is his handwriting emphatic and bold or languid and serene?

Pen in hand

I realize that most writers (myself included) do the majority of their writing on a computer keyboard, their words being typed rather than handwritten. Still, there is something oddly intimate about seeing a writer with pen in hand: an artist in action wielding the tool of his trade. I’ve known Teju Cole for years now, so I’ve seen him sign book after book: when it comes to book signings, you might say I’m an old hand. Regardless, it’s inspiring to see a writer touch a book born from his own hand: a tangible thing he imagined, brought into being, and now sends out to the world.

Click here to see more photos from Teju Cole’s book signing at the Harvard Book Store last night.

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Last weekend, J and I took the T to Harvard Square, where we went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Although we each had been to the HMNH before, neither one of us had been there in years, and we’d never been there together. We each were overdue, in other words, for a return visit.

Fragile

The last time I went to the HMNH, I’d traveled from New Hampshire with a busload of college students on a field trip, but I abandoned the group as soon as we disembarked, exploring the museum (and writing a pair of blog posts) on my own. When J and I went to the HMNH last weekend, we retraced the route I’d taken on that previous trip, making a beeline for the glass flowers, an eye-popping collection of botanical specimens crafted from glass during the period between 1887 and 1936 by the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Fragile

The Blaschkas were glassmakers in Dresden who were trained in the art of Bohemian glass making and ultimately found a niche creating amazingly lifelike glass models of invertebrates and plants that are showcased in natural history museums around the world. (The National Museum of Ireland’s natural history museum in Dublin, for instance, contains a collection of more than 500 Blaschka invertebrates.)

Fragile

In an era before plastic, the meticulously detailed plant models the Blaschkas crafted were a huge improvement over the wax and papier mache models botanists had previously relied upon to study plant anatomy. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical teaching tools, they aren’t “just” flowers: one of the things that amazed me on this return trip to the HMNH was artistry with which the Blaschkas crafted entire plants out of glass. There are leaves of glass, stems of glass, and even tiny rootlets of glass. One case, for example, shows enormous glass bees pollinating enormous glass flowers…

Big bee

…while another case shows a cluster of disease-spotted apples and a branch of moldy apricots, a display designed to show the effects of plant diseases on fruit.

A few bad apples

A few bad apples might not be as pretty as the colorful vases and beads usually associated with Bohemian glassmaking, but understanding the effect that mold and blight can have on fruit crops is an important lesson for any budding botanist.

Rotten apricots

The Blaschkas were artists whose dedication to their craft is apparent in every glass model, but they also display the keen eyes of amateur scientists. Because the glass flowers are intended as botanical specimens, they need to be accurate, not just pretty.

Fragile

One of the things I love about the glass flowers is the way they bridge the realms of art and science. Flowers are inherently pretty, but there is something beautiful, too, about an anatomically accurate diagram of a living plant.

Fragile

The glass flowers are teaching tools, but they are also aesthetically amazing. The more you understand botany, the more you can appreciate the beauty of a well-designed flower, and the closer you examine a pretty posy, the more you appreciate the intricacies of design that hold that flower together. Because glass is a fragile but enduring medium, the Blaschkas left an enduring scientific and aesthetic legacy that continues to amaze and inspire.

Fragile

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History: enjoy!

Reaching

When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.

Asleep

Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.

Wandering

But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.

Posing

Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.

Perchance to dream

Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?

Needs a manicure

“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.

J with sleepwalker

Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

I did indeed go to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, as planned, and I took the requisite shot of my legs reflected in the shiny base of Josiah McElheny’s “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism,” a cube-shaped case containing rows of mirrored-glass bottles whose reflections repeat toward infinity. Given an endlessly repeating reflection, the temptation toward reflective photography is equally infinite, so it seems somehow fitting that I’ve revisited (and re-photographed) this same piece over and over and over.

Ad infinitum

Birthdays are a natural time for reflecting on the repetitive nature of our (sadly) finite lives: none of us, after all, is getting any younger. We might revisit (and re-photograph) the same artwork time and again, but we can’t step into the same proverbial river twice. The “me” who photographed this piece in 2014 is different—older, wider, but not necessarily wiser—than those earlier incarnations who photographed this piece in 2010, 2009, and 2008. Looking at those pictures, now, I can date them primarily by what I’m wearing: I no longer carry that purse; I still wear that skirt and boots; I no longer fit into those jeans; and I literally wore out those sandals, which the manufacturer sadly doesn’t make any more. “Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism” is part of the museum’s permanent collection, but everything around it (myself included) has done nothing but change since it was acquired.

Endlessly repeating, with legs

The illusion of McElheny’s piece, in other words, is that of objects endlessly repeating without changing: something that never happens outside the artificial realm of art. We humans repeat ourselves for a time, returning to the same scenes to do, think, and say roughly the same things over and over again…but our current selves don’t perfectly mirror our previous selves. Artworks, on the other hand, don’t have birthdays: they don’t gain weight, wrinkles, or gray hair, instead freeze-framing a particular moment in time that we changing and aging humans can never return to. Only in novels do portraits age instead of their subjects, Dorian Gray’s peculiar predicament being one that none of the rest of us share.

Bottled

I recently finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which tells the curious and convoluted story of Ursula Todd, a woman with endlessly repeating lives. Ursula has a seemingly infinite number of chances to live the life she was destined to lead: whenever her life takes a turn down a less-than-promising avenue, darkness falls and she is born again. Like the protagonist in the romantic comedy Groundhog Day, Ursula Todd has (and apparently needs) multiple chances to make the right choices in her life; the rest of us, it seems, are fated to botch and bungle our way without hope for an infinite number of re-tries.

Self-portrait with endless reflections

It might be tempting to wish for endlessly repeating lives, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. A few days before Henry David Thoreau died, he was asked by a family friend what he thought about the afterlife, and Thoreau famously replied “One world at a time.” Even without the hope or threat of endlessly repeating lives, our days repeat themselves with startling regularity: another day, another dollar; another year, another birthday. Some mornings when I’m taking the dogs to and from our backyard dog pen, I marvel at the cyclic redundancy of such mundane chores: surely in a past life I was a farmer tending livestock, my entire world revolving around the in-goes and out-goes of animal care. We might not have infinite lifetimes to attain our destiny, but we do have a lengthy repetition of days. What is a life, after all, but a collection of moments, “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow” repeating themselves, one after another, for a certain spell, a finite resource not to be wasted.

Opening tip

On New Year’s Eve, J and I went to an afternoon Celtics game, where I took my final photo of 2013: an image of the opening tip I shot on my phone. I intentionally didn’t bring a camera to the game since I knew I had to take only one more shot to meet last year’s 365-day photo challenge, and a cellphone shot would suffice. So with this one shot, my 2013 challenge was done, and I took no photos on New Year’s Day: the first day in a year I didn’t snap a picture of something.

Two squirrels, one mourning dove - Jan 5 / Day 5

I’m grateful to have completed last year’s photo challenge, which I can revisit any time by scrolling through my “365 in 2013” photo-set. Now, though, I’m looking forward to being free of that particular challenge. Shooting a photo a day was easy in the spring and summer when the earth was green and new flowers emerged at every turn. In the barren days of November and December, however, finding something new to shoot became more of a challenge: there’s only so many times, I learned, you can take closeup photos of sleeping cats.

Standing - Feb 15 / Day 46

Since I took so many photos during 2013, however, I had little problem coming up with 13 images for the photo calendars I make each year for family and friends: 12 photos for 12 months, plus a cover image. Selecting images for this year’s calendar was one of the first things I did after I submitted final grades last week, and it was fun (as always) to review twelve months’ worth of photos in advance of the new year.

Snowdrops in snow - March 27 / Day 86

Now that I’ve crossed those two photo commitments off my to-do list, now my only remaining creative challenge (for the time being, at least) is January’s Mindful Writing Challenge, in which I’m committing to write a “small stone” every day during the month of January. I’ll be posting January’s stones on Twitter, tagging them #smallstone. I participated in the Mindful Writing Challenge last year, and I’m looking forward to a month-long challenge that focuses on wordsmithing than photo-snapping: a chance to flex a different set of creative muscles.

Three of the four photos illustrating today’s post appear in my 2014 calendar; click here to see the complete photo-set, or click any of the following links for previous years’ sets: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Enjoy, and happy New Year!

Technicolor hippies

Last Friday was my ten-year blogiversary: it’s been ten years and a few days since I posted my first blog entry on December 27, 2003. Part of me feels obligated to write some sort of retrospective post—some overview of what I’ve gained or attained from ten years of blogging—but the Zennie in me is leery of such talk. In Zen circles, this question of “what have you attained” is a trap: a snare designed to pull you out of the present moment by asking you to make a judgment about the worth of your past endeavors. The question “what have you attained” is a sticky lure because it’s so easy to wonder what you “should” have attained in a given period of time. After ten years devoted to a single endeavor, what do (or should) I have to show for it?

Braids

That is the snare, right there: looking back at ten years of blogging, has it been “worth” it, or has it been a “waste”? This question is a trap because it presumes we can (and thus should) “get” something from everything we do: after ten years of blogging, shouldn’t I be able to capture in a neat nutshell the thing I’ve “gained” from all that effort? But life isn’t a souvenir shop where every experience gives you something you can take with you: life is, instead, a series of liquid moments that cannot be captured or contained. Given ten years of water flowing under the proverbial bridge, exactly how drenched have I become? Instead of trying to capture, contain, or quantify the river of time, how fully have I experienced and appreciated each and every drop?

Be-ribboned

I’m amazed that ten years have passed since I began blogging: in some ways, the years have flown by, but in other ways, December 27, 2003 seems like a literal lifetime ago. Given that I never consciously planned to spend ten years of my life blogging, it seems remarkable that proceeding “one post at a time” eventually added up to an entire decade of posts.

Hanging out

On the other hand, my life ten years ago seems like an entirely different existence than my life right now. In December, 2003, I was married to my ex-husband; newly moved to Keene, NH; and stuck on a dissertation I’ve since finished. Ten years ago, I was “stuck” in more ways than one, and I needed an outlet: a way both to express myself and to make sense of the world and my place in it. I had long kept a journal, but my faithfulness to that task was sporadic, and blogging gave (and continues to give) me an accountability—an audience—that has kept me writing. It was my ex-husband who believed blogging would be a good medium for me, and he was right: my blog and my dog were the two things of inestimable value I took from my first marriage.

Embroidered

Reggie is now gone, but my blog lives on, having become a catch-all for both my day-to-day life and my creative existence. Many days, my blog is simply a diary, but occasionally it serves as a travelogue, scrap-book, or faithful friend who listens without advice or interruption as I struggle to make sense of whatever thoughts are rattling around my head that day. If I go too many days without posting, I feel a nudge pushing me back to it: this curious impulse to “feed the blog” has kept me writing in a way that no other trick or temptation has.

On the fringe

My favorite post from this past year was “The Marathon I want to remember” because it’s one that took me days—almost a full week—to write. Sometime the act of composing a post is a technical challenge: a problem of finding the right sequence of words to express an intended message. With my Marathon post, however, the challenge was deeply personal: how do you express a gut reaction you yourself don’t fully understand? Writing that post felt necessary; I needed to explain to myself (more than to anyone else) my response to a traumatic event in order to understand that response. When I think of the profound things that have happened in my life over the past ten years, I have inevitably made sense of them by writing and posting about them: my completion of my PhD, for instance, or my separation and divorce, my second marriage, Reggie’s death, and my decision to leave Keene and Keene State.

Hippies in furs

I’ve pondered in the past whether an exhibitionist urge underlies the decision to blog the details of one’s personal life, a question that seems almost quaint in this age of live-Tweeting and Insta-selfies. When I started blogging, social networking was in its infancy, so blogging about one’s life seemed alternately weird and pretentious: who am I, in a word, to think my daily life is worthy of a frequently updated webpage? I never wavered, however, from my sense that it’s natural for writers to write about what they know, and what subject do I know better than my own life? Nowadays, of course, nearly everyone has a Facebook account, and nearly everyone (presumably) is fascinated by the minutiae of other people’s (presumably) real lives. Perhaps I simply started ahead of the curve.

Retro hippies

In retrospect, I’m grateful to have been blogging for years before I jumped on the social media bandwagon: now that everyone can (and does) say anything instantaneously and unedited online (occasionally with regrettable consequences), I’m glad that years ago I established my own rules of what to share and what to keep secret: my own personal privacy policy. In an age where it’s easy to blurt out anything to an invisible audience, I’m glad to have a decade’s worth of practice saying things chiefly for my own benefit.

Earth goddesses

This past March, on the occasion of the ten-year blogiversary of Beth Adams’ “The Cassandra Pages,” I wrote a post pondering the “real work” (and perhaps the “real worth”) of blogging, and what I wrote then pretty much rings true now. What is ten years’ worth of blogging “worth”? Well, I’ve written (and shared) far more in the past ten years than any other, and I certainly wrote more by blogging than I would have if I weren’t. So after ten years of blogging, what have I attained? Right now, I’m writing a post I plan to share, and I hope to continue posting day-by-day, post by post, as long as it feels productive. How do I define “productive”? I don’t know, other than a gut sense that as long as there are words to say and days to say them in, I guess I’ll continue writing and sharing one post at a time, starting with this one.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from Hippie Chic, a collection of 1960s- and ’70s-era clothing that was on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts this past summer: a bit of grooviness I never got around to blogging.

Flipped

Way back in August, 2005, I used photos of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune, which was then on display at Mass MoCA, to illustrate the sickening, out-of-control feeling I feel before the start of a new semester when I’m afraid a well-planned syllabus will not save me from crashing and burning in front of a classroom of first-year college students:

Topsy

After all these years facing the same old back-to-school panic, you’d think I would have learned how to ease into that feeling, letting it permeate my being rather than fighting it. Theoretically, I believe panic is a wave that can be smoothly ridden if you allow yourself to roll with it…but instead of surfing I almost instinctively slam on the brakes, screaming, while cranking the steering wheel wildly this way and that. Wanting to control everything at all times, I can’t stomach the flowing sensation of being fluid and afloat.

Ruts

It’s been more than eight years since I wrote that description of what it’s like to panic before the first day of class, and I still do it. Not only do I still panic before the first day of class, I find myself clenching my fists some mornings, wondering with a knot in my stomach what I’ll do when that day’s batch of first-year students looks at me and asks, “What are we doing in class today?”

I had to chuckle, then, when J and I encountered Okay Mountain’s “4-Wheeler Rollover” at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park earlier this month. Right about now is the time of the semester when my paper-piles loom the tallest and it feels like I’ll never dig my way to the light of day again, so right about now is when it’s tempting to throw up my hands and say, “Buddha, take the wheel!” But instead of doing anything so drastic, I’ll remind myself to relax and roll with it. The paper-piles loom, but at least I’m still upright and ambulatory, not spun out, stranded, or stuck in a rut.

This is my Day 19 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Mightier than the sword

This morning I awoke to the news that Doris Lessing has died. I’ve read only one of Lessing’s novels, The Golden Notebook, and I read it years ago: long enough ago that I don’t remember much about the plot or characters. What I remember about the book, though, is that it was challenging to read, but it somehow felt significant. Even when I didn’t “get” what Lessing was trying to do with her character of Anna Wulf, I somehow found myself resonating with what I might call the “story behind the story.”

Lucy Stone, sitting on stone

I read The Golden Notebook years ago, when I was (unsuccessfully) trying to juggle grad school, teaching, and an ultimately failed first marriage. I read The Golden Notebook because through all of this, I was a sporadic scribbler, starting then abandoning a seemingly endless series of never-filled notebooks, trying to make sense of my life between the lines. Not one but several people suggested I “must” read The Golden Notebook, given its female protagonist’s similar struggle to use writing to make sense of her life and the multiple selves that women create as we try to juggle the various roles society expects us to flawlessly fill. Wulf juggles these disparate demands by dividing her life into several neatly compartmentalized notebooks, and she ultimately finds wholeness when she integrates these separate selves into a single narrative: the all-encompassing Golden Notebook of the novel’s title.

Phillis Wheatley

When I finally read The Golden Notebook after so many ardent recommendations, I initially didn’t find myself relating much to Anna Wulf: the superficial details of her life were too far removed from mine. Ultimately, though, I realized that The Golden Notebook wasn’t really about Wulf or the particulars of her life and work: instead, the book is about the centrality of self-expression in women’s lives. The Golden Notebook communicated this theme through the example of Anna Wulf just as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own used the example of Mary Beton, Mary Seton, or Mary Carmichael: the name you assign to Woolf’s narrator doesn’t ultimately matter because the experience Woolf describes transcends the particular details of this Mary or that. What Mary faced is what Virginia faced; what Anna faced is what Doris faced; and what all the Marys, Virginias, Annas, and Dorises of the world face is what Lorianne does, too. The details of an individual woman’s story don’t matter as much as the determination to TELL that story.

Abigail Adams stands up for herself

Self-expression is central in women’s lives because women who are not heard become either self-destructive or passive, bowing under the weight of society’s conflicting expectations. Women who are not heard become either Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare or Euripides’ Medea, venting their anger either inward or out. Freud may not have understood what women want, but he spoke truth when he said that depression is anger turned inward. In a society where female rage is demonized, it should come as no surprise that many women are depressed, their experience having no outlet other than self-destructive behaviors.

Lucy Stone contemplates Phillis Wheatley

Men, of course, need to express themselves…but our society is used to listening to men. When a man raises his voice, we assume he has something to say, but when a woman raises her voice, we condemn her as a witch, a bitch, or both. In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing was unflinching in her attempt to chronicle one woman’s life as an exemplum of all women’s lives. Anna Wulf creates her own identity out of disparate influences and among conflicting expectations, and Anna Wulf does this self-crafting through writing. THAT is what I took from The Golden Notebook. Regardless of whether you’re a Mary, a Virginia, an Anna, a Doris, or a Lorianne, self-determination is inextricably linked to voice. Regardless of whether anyone seems to be listening, write as if your very life depends on it, because ultimately, it does. If you don’t create your own unified self, society will slice you into petty roles of its own choosing. I’m grateful to Doris Lessing for underscoring this fact in The Golden Notebook, and the world seems a smaller place because of her passing.

This is my Day 17 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, which I photographed in April, 2010 and blogged the following month. One of the things I love about this memorial is the fact that both Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone are shown WRITING while Abigail Adams is shown standing up for herself, all three women finding a better use for a pedestal than simply being placed upon it.

Flared

Before J and I went to the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park on Sunday, I was frankly undecided about Orly Genger’s monumental installation “Red, Yellow and Blue,” which was recently unveiled there. I knew the piece was big: according to the deCordova’s website, “The work is comprised of 1.4 million feet of rope collected from the Eastern seaboard and 3,500 gallons of paint, weighing in at over 100,000 pounds.”

Undulating

Apart from the sheer “gee whiz” factor of someone taking the time to knot, paint, and arrange that much rope on the deCordova’s sprawling grounds, I didn’t initially get the point of the piece. In paper or pixels, it didn’t make sense. Why go to the effort of making what looked to be a brightly colored, giant macramé fence?

No climbing

Like any monumental installation, however, Genger’s “Red, Yellow and Blue” has to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated. In short, the work grew on me as soon as J and I started walking along it. You can’t take in the entirety of “Red, Yellow and Blue” in a single glance or from a single vantage point. Instead, the work unwinds like a panorama, with your own two feet giving the work its impetus.

Ridgeline

“Red, Yellow and Blue” first appeared in New York’s Madison Square Park, where the red, yellow, and blue segments were displayed separately, the size of the park defining the work’s shape. At the deCordova, however, the piece has room to roam, running along an undulating ridge of grassy fields, rocky outcrops, and meandering road. You don’t so much stand and admire “Red, Yellow and Blue” as much as you follow in its footsteps, skirting its curves as if it were a river or stonewall.

Strolling

Rainy stroll

Blue wandering blue

Wandering

In this regard, “Red, Yellow and Blue” reminded me of another (temporary) New York installation: Christo’s “The Gates,” which I’d visited (and blogged) back in 2005. Before I saw the saffron curtains that Christo and Jeanne-Claude placed in Central Park, I didn’t “get” that project either: what is the point of decorating a landscape that looks fine bare?

Hillock

What I took from “The Gates,” however, was the experience of walking them: Central Park looks fine without saffron curtains, but that added element invites you to revisit and redefine your relationship with the place. Instead of casually walking by the same old landscape, suddenly you notice that landscape in a new and different way. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee, acres of saffron cloth or miles of knotted rope bring order to chaos, transforming ordinary Nature into the stuff of Art.

Splayed

After we’d returned home from the deCordova, I viewed this slideshow of the work’s creation, which gave me a whole new appreciation for the technical difficulty of transforming miles of rope into something monumental.

Figure from the Sea

But even before we’d left the deCordova, J and I got a glimpse into the logistics of Genger’s installation. Before returning to our car, J and I joked about a line of shrink-wrapped pallets arranged at the end of the parking lot. Did these contain landscaping materials, were they the stuff of another installation, or were they themselves a work of art?

Rope for Red, Yellow and Blue

A closer look revealed that these pallets contained sections of knotted rope, sorted by color, that remained from the piece’s installation earlier this month. Are the leftover raw materials from a monumental installation themselves art? I’m not sure, but this much I know: I’ll never look at the grounds or parking lot of the deCordova Sculpture Park in exactly the same way ever again.

This is my Day 14 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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