Art & culture


Dead or only sleeping?

This time last year, I blogged several photos of Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys,” an outdoor installation at the DeCordova Sculpture Park featuring five bronze knights crumpled in a grove of pine trees. Ford’s work is one that looks better as it ages, a subtle patina of neglect adding to the poignancy of slain soldiers lying among fallen leaves.

Pine Sharks

Because I’ve been going to the DeCordova for years, I remember another piece that was previously on display in this same grove: Kitty Wales’ “Pine Sharks,” which featured three circling sharks welded together from the rusted hulls of castoff appliances. As coincidence would have it, I blogged that installation back in 2009, the last time Photo Friday featured the theme, Metal.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Metal, as well as my Day Twenty-One contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Cassie cuddles her chew toy

As I write these words, it’s a gray and rainy morning, and I have a spare 15 minutes before I need to shower, dress, and head to campus. The dog lies on her bed chewing her favorite bone, focusing all her attention on it as she does every morning after breakfast, as if all the world depended upon her ability to chew a simple toy.

Cassie relaxing

My classes are prepped and my bag is packed, and my journal sits on the dresser on the other side of the room, mostly neglected these past few weeks while I’ve been sick. Soon enough–tomorrow, or the next day, or the next–I’ll return to it and the simple ritual of writing four longhand pages every morning, but for now, I leave both my journal where it sits and the dog where she lies, choosing to type these words with my fingertips on my tablet, just a bit of verbal doodling before the serious work of the day begins.

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

WWI recruitment posters

Earlier this afternoon, while procrastinating my ever-present paper pile, I spent a half hour sorting through pictures I’d taken back in August, when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of World War I recruitment posters.

I want YOU

The exhibit included pieces from Britain, France, and the United States, including the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing to viewers with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army.” It was interesting to see the various visual techniques artists employed to grab viewers’ attention while communicating a simple appeal to enlist. The posters featured the usual patriotic images you’d expect from wartime propaganda, along with altruistic reminders that “everyone should do his bit” and a stoic, quintessentially British claim that it’s better to face bullets on the front than be killed by a bomb at home.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

One of my favorite posters featured an understated guilt-trip, with a sheepish but respectable-looking man unable to answer his children’s simple question, “Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?” Better to face bullets on the front today, apparently, than to feel unmanned by the earnest questions of your still-unborn children tomorrow.

There was one image I shot, however, that promptly ended my procrastination and sent me back to my paper-pile. In one corner of a brightly colored poster urging young men to “serve in France” was a simple imperative to DO IT NOW.

Do it now

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

Sunny idyll

Last weekend, A (not her real initial) and I took advantage of a bright and sunny autumn day to drive to Northampton, where we wanted to see Tara Donovan’s “Moire” at Smith College followed by an exhibit of Henri Matisse drawings at nearby Mount Holyoke College.

Tara Donovan, "Moire"

The Tara Donovan installation at Smith was a bit disappointing: instead of being an entire exhibit, the installation featured only two pieces along with a video overview of Donovan’s oeuvre. Since A and I had seen a jaw-dropping exhibit of Tara Donovan’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art years ago—and since I’d seen Donovan’s eye-popping cloud of Styrofoam cups at the Museum of Fine Arts earlier this year—the installation of over-sized adding machine rolls spread across the Smith Museum gallery floor like a kind of topographical map was interesting, but underwhelming. I was glad we had the Matisse exhibit at Mount Holyoke to justify the distance we’d come.

Floor and wall tiles

But before we drove from Northampton to South Hadley, we went downstairs at the Smith College Museum of Art to go to the restroom…and boy, I’m glad we did. When Smith renovated its museum restrooms in 2002, they asked two artists to design the décor of those otherwise practical places, and the result is both delightful and surprising. Who expects a public restroom to be an art installation?

In the ladies’ room, Ellen Driscoll’s “Catching the Drift” features a blue and white palette that reminded me of the blue and white porcelain I’d seen on view at the MFA in 2013. Because of that exhibit, I wasn’t surprised to see a blue and white tiled floor or blue and white tiled wall in the Smith Museum’s ladies’ room…but when I walked into a stall to do what I’d come into the ladies’ room to do, I did a double-take to see cobalt blue swirls and patterns in the toilet bowls.

Blue toilet

These swirls were fanciful and fun, but they were also reminiscent of the blue streaks of toilet bowl cleaner you use when scrubbing a bathroom. “Catching the Drift” features the aquatic creatures that live downstream from our sinks and (yes) toilets, and it made me wonder what happens, exactly, to all that bright-blue toilet bowl cleaner after we’ve scrubbed and flushed it away.

While A and I were washing our hands and trying not to look too obvious as we snapped photos, a trio of women came into the ladies’ room and started taking pictures of their own. I overheard these women debating whether to go into the men’s room to see its different décor, and after the youngest of them suggested it would be perfectly fine for women at an all-women’s college to venture into an underused men’s room, they disappeared. By the time A and I emerged from the ladies’ room, the trio of women was exiting the men’s room. “Coast is clear,” they announced, so we ventured into the one place at Smith College we truly never expected to visit.

Urinals

In the men’s room, Sandy Skoglund’s “Liquid Origins, Fluid Dreams” employed a more neutral palette, with black and white drawings of mythic tales of creation and transformation decorating wall tiles, toilets, and urinals. Whereas Driscoll’s aquatic creatures are blue and fluid, Skoglund’s black-etched mythical beings are restrained and geometric, filling a repeating grid that is both orderly and calming. If the Smith Museum’s ladies’ room is a realm of dewy dreams, the Smith Museum men’s room is the realm of artfully-arranged science, with each meticulously drawn diagram filling its proper spot.

Handicapped stall

Although Tara Donovan’s “Moire” was a bit disappointing, I’m glad A and I drove all the way to Northampton to see it. Had we stayed home, we would have never realized how creative an artist-designed restroom can be.

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

Kleberg

Yesterday morning the schedule-gods smiled and I had a spare half hour to write in my notebook, at home, after having crossed off a list of chores: dishes loaded into the dishwasher, laundry piled into the washing machine, cats fed, and litter boxes cleaned. In the spare half hour before I left to teach three classes and prepare two more before coming home and collapsing, ready to do it all over again, I took a spare half hour to write in my journal.

Thank you for saving my life

Whenever I’m away from my journal, I struggle the first day I come back: what to say, and where to start? What I like about journaling is the way it requires you to consider each thing in turn: a neat line of words following words. During a hectic week, my thoughts buzz and swarm, too many flying past at once. When I sit down to write, though, these racing thoughts temporarily slow, with me considering one thought then another then the next. The whole mad dash of ideas, obligations, and must-remembers still zooms past, but for a half hour or so I focus on one face in the passing throng, then another, then the next.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

Writing, in other words, takes the place of therapy for me: it is a place where I consider and make sense of my thoughts, a sanity-making device. It is also a kind of devotional act. I feel a sort of reverence and fidelity to the page—this present notebook—and feel a pang of guilt when I stray from it, a faithful friend who has never strayed from me.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

It almost doesn’t matter what I write in my notebook; all that matters is that I do write, coming back to the page that reflects with such honest accuracy the contents of my wandering mind. It doesn’t matter what I write, in other words; it just matters that I have written. In this regard, I see writing as my own secular kind of prayer, as I doubt God cares much about the words we use when we pray, only the fact that we show up and spend some time.

Jamie Wyeth retrospective

With writing as with prayer, I think you show up as you are, then words are provided for you, each one appearing of its own accord. Both writing and prayer involve great faith. Not only do you need to believe your wishes will be granted, you also need courage to even utter those wishes in the first place. Do you dare open your heart and share the unspoken desires you find there? Do you dare think you can address God without God laughing in your face? Both writing and prayer require faith that what you say is both true and worth saying. Both writing and prayer demand you have courage to continue even when (especially when) no one seems to be listening.

Pumpkinhead (self-portrait)

Both writing and prayer, in other words, require infinite faith in yourself: faith that what lies in your heart is true and worth sharing, and faith that you deserve to be heard. Before a child can ask her father for bread rather than a stone, that child must believe she is deserving of bread. Whether God is there reading my words or hearing my prayers is almost beside the point. I myself benefit from the courage it takes to write or pray, whether or not anyone is listening.

(I wrote this entry last week and only got around to posting it today. The photos illustrating today’s post come from the Jamie Wyeth retrospective on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts through December.)

Budding

This morning, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I watched the Grand Central Station scene from The Fisher King: one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments. Williams plays a mentally troubled homeless man watching the woman of his dreams walk through a busy train terminal, and for the two minutes she’s passing through, the chaotic crowds coalesce into a grand, beautiful waltz befitting the high-vaulted splendor that is Grand Central Station. It’s a magical, perfectly choreographed moment where hundreds of strangers move to the step of one man’s love: a scene where Williams doesn’t say a single word, his expressive face speaking volumes.

Raindrops on rose

When a special person passes through even the most ordinary place, the mundane becomes magical, at least for a moment, until they disappear in the crowd and the music reverts to hubbub again. That’s what it feels like this morning after Williams’ death: the waltz has ended, the crowds are no longer choreographed, and the sunbeams no longer scintillate with stardust.

Red rose

It would not be an exaggeration to say I grew up watching Robin Williams. I was nine years old when Mork and Mindy premiered, and it was one of my favorite TV shows. As a brown-haired tomboy, I wanted to be Mindy, a free-spirited, Jeep-driving girl living in a city that sounded both outdoorsy and cool. When Mork moved into Mindy’s attic, Mindy didn’t lose an ounce of her independence: Mork wasn’t a boyfriend, after all, but an alien. Long before we learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I learned from Mork and Mindy that the best way to relate to the opposite sex is through humor and an open acknowledgement that men really are from another planet.

Pink rose

Years later, Dead Poets Society came out when I was halfway through my undergraduate English studies, and it gave me a new role model in Mr. Keating, a renegade teacher who encourages his buttoned-up students to think for themselves. I can’t say Dead Poets Society made me want to be an English teacher, as I was already long along that path, but it did stoke the fire of my enthusiasm by invoking two of my favorite authors: Walt Whitman, whose image hangs on Mr. Keating’s classroom wall, and Henry David Thoreau, whose commitment to live deliberately served as the Dead Poets’ motto.

Rainy rose

I wonder how many English majors have watched Dead Poets Society time and again, as I have, wishing they could be a Mr. Keating in some student’s life? Mr. Keating wants to change the lives of his students, and he does indeed succeed, but he learns too late that sometimes changes happens for the worse, not the better. Dead Poets Society is a tragedy that ends in death…but then again, so is life. Dead Poets Society is deeply romantic in its suggestion that a passionate teacher can inspire students, and as an undergrad English major, I drank that idea deeply, like a drug.

Raindrops on rose

By the time Williams appeared as the working-class community college professor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, I was a graduate student living in Boston, where the film was set. By then, my Dead Poets Society dreams had been tempered by the reality of teaching actual first-year college students, none of whom stood on their desks and hailed me as “O captain, my captain!”

Wild rose with bumble bee

In my dreams, I wanted to be Mr. Keating, but in reality, I was more like Maguire, who in the movie teaches a course on “Dying and Bereavement” to a nearly comatose class of indifferent students. While his college roommate has become a revered professor at MIT, Maguire teaches at Bunker Hill Community College, where his talents are clearly going to waste. Most fans of Good Will Hunting remember the funny scenes where Matt Damon wins Minnie Driver’s heart by schooling snobby Harvard boys with his smartass wit, but what I remember from the movie was the awkward moment of recognition as I watched Maguire try to engage his students. George Carlin once said a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist, and Williams captured that truth perfectly in his portrayal of a tender-hearted but tired professor who has weathered many heartaches.

Red rose

Robin Williams is remembered and beloved as a comic, but what always resonated with me was the way he captured the vulnerable, serious, and (yes) sorrowful side of his characters. Yesterday when I heard of Williams’ suicide, my first thought was, “Didn’t he know how many lives he touched?” I sometimes think being a teacher is a lot like being a stand-up comic: there’s nothing like the thrill of connecting with your audience, but there’s nothing worse than the sensation of crashing and burning when your material falls flat. When the laughter and applause subside, there’s nothing left but the nagging question, “But was I good enough, really?”

Raindrops on rose

I understand mental illness well enough to know that no number of fan letters, awards, and accolades can lift the shroud of depression: depression is, after all, a bug in the brain that makes it impossible to believe such affirmations. Still, I find myself wishing that at the split second before he slipped from this station to the next, Robin Williams fully realized the joy, wonder, and delight he inspired in so many of us.

The title of today’s post comes from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” which features memorably in a scene from Dead Poets Society. The photos illustrating today’s posts show some of the roses and rosebuds I’ve gathered (digitally) over the years. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for so many years of laughter, life, and joy.

Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,971 other followers