April 2006


Today’s Photo Friday theme is Golden, which sent me searching through my photo archives for images of last year’s autumn splendor. Last October was so rainy here in Keene, we all but entirely missed out on the most brilliant reds and oranges, instead being treated to an abundance of gold leaves that fell from sodden trees faster than rain-soaked homeowners could rake them.

In parts of Massachusetts that were spared the worst of our October floods, this wealth of fallen gold provided for some pretty pictures…

…but here in Keene, the seemingly ever-constant rain (and an early snow or too) in October made for problematic picture-taking.

Nowadays here in Keene, the residential landscape is made golden by daffodils and forsythia, the flowering of which has precisely corresponded with the emergence of springtime roofers laying new shingles against rainy days to come.

In case you happened to have lost a silver ankh pendant while walking at Goose Pond here in Keene, rest assured that someone found it and placed it atop a budding branch for you find.

Although I myself didn’t find any ankhs underfoot during this morning’s dogwalk, I did find other signs of life. The spring’s first fiddleheads have begun to unfurl, but you have to keep your head down to see them poking through this year’s mud and last year’s leaf litter. Luckily, I’m no longer a literal bird-watcher, preferring instead to leave my binoculars at home while letting my ears, not eyes, do my birding for me. Listening to spring birds singing from invisible perches overhead leaves you with your eyes free to look down, scouring the forest duff for flora rather than fauna. As moving targets, birds are hard to spot: I never saw much less watched the kinglets, phoebes, or woodpeckers that were making their auditory presence known this morning, but I trust my ears they were there. Plants, on the other hand, stand still long enough for you to notice, approach, and take pictures, plant-watching being infinitely easier than bird-watching.

Quite predictably, this morning I spotted the year’s first trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) at Goose Pond, just like last year: now as then, my backyard violets are blooming as are my neighbors’ forsythias, as predictable as clockwork. In these days after Easter, I’m cheered by a resurrection more regular than any presaged by cross or ankh: year after year, plants spring back from winters that threaten to crush even indominable New England spirits.

Now that new leaves are unfolding like pairs of praying hands, it seems that winter is truly over. For two more weeks, we here in New Hampshire will experience muddy days and dogs, chilly nights and mornings, and a blissful interim existence before the black-flies hatch in May. Has spring similarly arrived in your neck of the woods, and if so, have you found it?

Saturday was a perfect day for a stroll at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park…but it wasn’t the outdoor art that inspired me to drive from Keene, NH to Lincoln, MA. Instead, I drove down to the DeCordova to check out the final weekend of James Surls: The Splendora Years, 19771997.

When Leslee emailed me a link to Ana’s review of this exhibit, I’d never even heard of James Surls. But his website (especially the section devoted to wood sculptures) looked intriguing, and I knew that any excuse to visit the DeCordova is a fine excuse, especially on a mild spring day.

For all my shutter-bugging outside the DeCordova, photography is disallowed inside. So I arrived at the Surls exhibit prepared to do what I usually do inside museums where photography is prohibited, which is to try my best to pretend I’m an art student, camping out in front of a work or two with pencil and Moleskine sketchbook for some low-tech image-grabbing. (Click on any of today’s images for a larger version.)

I’ll be the first to admit I love the ease with which I can snap photos with my digicam…but when I can’t rely on the quick-fix of technology, I like drawing pictures the old fashioned way, too. I don’t consider myself much of a photographer, and I’m even less skilled with sketchbook and pencil…but there’s something delightfully low-tech and even playful about going to a Museum and trying to draw the artworks you see.

With a digicam, you can quickly capture any- and everything around you: snap, snap, snap. With sketchbook and pencil, you have to decide which work you want to focus on, and you have to spend a lot of time really looking at it. When I snap photos of sculptures, I appreciate angle, perspective, and form…but when I draw sculptures, I become much more intimately aware of the precise space the shape inhabits as well as subtle nuances of light, color, and texture.

This being said, what I think I noticed most as I stood sketching inside the DeCordova Museum on Saturday was how little time most folks spend simply stopping to look at art. During the 45 minutes or so I took to scribble these three drawings, some half dozen clusters of museum goers strolled into and then out of the gallery were I’d stationed myself…and each group spent less than five minutes total wandering a spacious room filled with odd and intriguing art.

I guess in an era of Fast Food, we crave Fast Art as well. I can understand the impulse driving someone to breeze through an indoor gallery quickly in order to spend more time outside on a sunny Saturday…but the folks in the sculpture park weren’t spending much time stopping, and no one outside was sketching. Perhaps Slow Art is as rare and precious as Slow Food, and maybe all of the proverbial tortoises among us are destined to get run over, sketchbooks in hand, by digicam and cellphone-wielding hares. As for me, I’m not ready to slow down completely…but occasionally, it’s fun to enjoy art the old-fashioned way, with nothing more than paper, wood, and graphite to mediate your experience.

    Yes, it’s true: the Big Man in that final picture is endowed with an erect wooden member that looks suspiciously similar to one of the gnome-like things I’d blogged from Ikea last March. The title of Surls’ sculpture, Big Man Going to the Arms Race, suggests that military bravado is ultimately about body parts other than ARMS.

Yesterday as I paid my admission fee at the entrance to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA, the gatehouse worker uttered a statement you might not normally hear at the entrance to an art museum: “Have fun!”

Because “art” is considered a kind of “culture,” we often fail to appreciate its fun and downright whimsical side. It’s easy to think that art is like Brussel sprouts: something you consume because it’s good for you. When I used to teach at Northeastern University in Boston, I regularly gave my freshman composition students extra credit for going to (and then writing about) the Museum of Fine Arts right across the street. Inevitably each semester, at least one student would gush that she or he had phoned home after going to the Museum. “Mom, I did something cultural today,” the student would proudly report. It was almost as if the art itself didn’t matter; what mattered was the act of doing one’s presumed academic or even civic duty by going to look at it.

What I love about sculpture parks, though, is that they taste more like candy bars than Brussel sprouts. On a warm and sunny day, it’s fun to wander a park-like landscape filled with odd and unusual shapes. The only thing that’s pout-inducing about the DeCordova are the signs telling you not to climb on the sculptures; otherwise, the place would feel like a sprawling playground for grown-ups.

Indoor galleries are often logically arranged: all the works by particular artist or artistic school are displayed in proximity, so you can trace the evolution of influence from one historically themed gallery to the next. In other words, walking through a well-designed indoor gallery will suggest some sort of relationship between one type of art and another: here are American landscape paintings as contrasted with European ones, and over there are Impressionist works as contrasted with Surreal ones.

In a sculpture park like the DeCordova, on the other hand, I’ve never been able to discern any real rhyme or reason behind how various works are juxtaposed…and I love that sense of randomness. Why should a huge wooden piggybank fall within the same field of vision as a tangled knot of sandblasted steel? Then again, why shouldn’t it?

Sculpture parks play upon the allure of dimension. As three dimensional objects, sculptures are designed to be viewed from all sides…and displaying a sculpture outside allows viewers the literal space they need for such multi-angled enjoyment. The last time I was at the DeCordova, Leslee and I enjoyed Nina Levy’s Headlong from the ground, but we didn’t take an elevator to the roof terrace to see Miss Fling eye-to-eye. In an indoor gallery, curators can carefully control lighting and other environmental factors, but in a sculpture garden, the light and climate of one day’s viewing can be very different from that at another time. Viewing a sculpture that’s weathering the elements, you too are exposed to nature’s changing moods and seasons. When’s the last time you were scolded by a Carolina wren while admiring art? Isn’t this spontaneous juxtaposition of crafted and natural worlds part of what makes a sculpture garden more fun than an indoor gallery?

Although I’ve never seen Nina Levy’s Big Baby covered in snow, I can imagine how disconcerting and even ludicrous that sight must seem. Just because art as a kind of human culture works against nature by striving to preserve media that would otherwise be destroyed by the elements doesn’t mean that art must always be hidden away in secure climate-controlled spaces. Most artworks aren’t rugged enough to be left outside, but those that are illicit another sort of human response. The folks I saw strolling the DeCordova grounds yesterday weren’t acting Serious and Intellectual as they contemplated various works; instead, they were languidly enjoying the warmth and flowers of a sunny April day, the Art being almost incidental to other enjoyments.

Instead of trying to compete with nature, perhaps art would be better served to cooperate with it. A well-placed sculpture doesn’t deflect attention from the natural landscape; instead, it draws attention to the landscape, giving the human eye a point upon which to rest so the entire scene aligns into something discernably frame-worthy. Looking at a spiral tower of bricks, I notice the pine tree towering next to it; noticing the texture of masonry, I note too the texture of corrugated bark and lacy needles. Suddenly an otherwise normal pine tree becomes not simply a backdrop to art but an artwork of its own. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee, a brick tower in a stand of pine trees makes all of nature surround itself, the chaos of nature snapped into aesthetic focus: here is art, no longer wild, capable of taking dominion everywhere.

You don’t even have to be human to enjoy art in a sculpture park. The DeCordova is dog-friendly, so on a sunny spring day, packs of Doggy Aesthetes are out enjoying culture with their humans.

And whereas photography is prohibited inside the DeCordova Museum, the Camera Man (or Woman) is so revered within the Sculpture Park, they’ve even erected a monument to the all-seeing Eye.

Is the proverbial glass half full or half empty? Today’s Photo Friday theme is Full, which raises this philosophical conundrum: is a dog with muddy legs half filthy or half clean?

In case you wonder how Reggie ended up with mud stockings during yesterday’s walk along the rail-trail off Krif Road here in Keene, here’s the dirty ditch that did it:

In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t choose the new car with a tan interior: although those seats would have camouflaged Reg’s shedding undercoat, they would have shown every muddy footprint. Yes, it’s best I opted for the dark gray and black interior…plus a backseat blanket and a doggy seat cover on order.

As much as I don’t delight to have a soggy-bottomed dog tracking mud all over Miss Bling, the new car has to get dirty eventually, and it is Mud Season here in New Hampshire. After a relatively snow-free winter, this spring’s thaw has been unusually dry: whereas last year I’d invite Reg to wade in the clean water of nearby flooded fields after his requisite ditch-dunking, this year those fields are bone-dry.

The choice between getting muddy and staying home, though, is no choice at all. Yesterday, if I hadn’t taken the risk of getting a little mud in Miss Bling, I wouldn’t have seen the first green leaves of the season…

…nor would I have seen Skunk Cabbage sprouting its weirdly hooded flowers alongside a muddy ditch of its own.

If you ask me, pristine cleanness is overrated. If you want to experience the mud season which is Spring, you have to risk dirtying your Bling. Today I’ll find some clean water in which to dunk the dog, and we’ll both feel our proverbial glass is fully Full again.

Covered

New Hampshire has long had many covered bridges, and now it has at least one blanketed bridge. Last night, during another getting-to-know-you drive in Miss Bling, Reggie and I visited the old double-arch stone bridge on Route 9 near the Stoddard-Antrim border, which I’d blogged both before and after last October’s devastating floods.

In the months since I’d last seen Old Fragile, someone has covered her ruined side with a sandbag-weighted tarp, presumably to prevent further erosion.

Covered

I don’t know if there are plans to repair this old bridge: she no longer carries vehicular traffic, so she’s not useful to anyone except camera-toting tourists (and an occasional blogger) who pull off Route 9 long enough to snap appreciative photos. Still, it’s comforting to know that someone is keeping the patient comfortable even if she’s suffering from a terminal case of Gravity. Old relics die hard, and they deserve the decency of a respectful passing.

The picture says it all. When I went to my local Subaru dealership yesterday, I was planning to look at cars, continuing the auto-buying research I’d begun the week before. Trying to decide between buying a regular Impreza sport wagon and an Impreza Outback sport wagon, I was leaning toward the latter…but I wanted to see the former in-person before making any final decisions. And as luck (or convincing salesmanship) would have it, I not only decided on the regular Impreza sport wagon, I drove one home by afternoon, trading in my dearly beloved Little Tank for a yet-unchristened Nouveau Tank. And as you can see from the picture above, even Reggie is happy with my choice.

With any new car purchase, there is of course the important detail of the Inaugural Drive. Since I wasn’t planning to buy or trade any vehicles yesterday, I went to the dealership without checkbook or title…so my first trip in Nouveau Tank was a quick trip home to collect the necessary paperwork and one antsy dog. If you’re breaking in a sport wagon, it makes sense to engage in your usual sports, so after delivering Little Tank’s title to the dealer, Reggie and I were off to walk up Beech Hill: a quick loop that doesn’t involve tracking too much springtime mud in a brand new backseat.

Still, neither a quick trip to deliver paperwork nor a trip to walk the dog seems like a proper way to break in a brand new car, so last night apropos of nothing I drove up to Walpole, NH in order to drive home on Prospect Hill Road, a rollercoaster ribbon of road that crests forest-fringed hills and offers an ever-changing vista of sky and setting sun. Driving on Prospect Hill Road from Walpole to Keene, you pass a farm called Paradise, and you believe the sign; you also rattle a filling or two on springtime frost-heaves, Prospect Hill nicely testing your car’s suspension and your soul’s patience with its seasonal bumps and buckles.

Having properly welcomed my new car with a scenic sunset drive, now there’s simply the matter of christening to attend to. Gary was the one who started calling my new car Nouveau Tank, and it’s a name that works for now. But eventually this new car will deserve her own name, not one that’s derivative. Little Tank earned her moniker when I lived in Hillsborough, NH and drove daily to Keene State, crossing hill and dale in all weather. On snowy nights when I saw other vehicles fishtailing off the road to left and right, Little Tank faithfully got me there and back again, an indestructible fighter.

These days, I live within walking distance of campus, so Nouveau Tank won’t be journeying daily over mountains. And Nouveau Tank doesn’t look very tank-like: whereas LT was boxy and utilitarian in appearance, this new car is both silver and sleek. So what should I call my brand new chariot? Last night when I zipped down Route 12 toward Walpole, I felt like calling her the Silver Streak; when I admire the sleek, smooth lines of her parked profile, I wonder if Silver Siren would be more appropriate. Maybe I should call her Sylver with a y, a nod toward both her color and the sylvan scenes where I envision driving her, or maybe Silver Slider would point to the smooth way in which she handles.

Until Nouveau Tank speaks up to suggest her own name, she’ll go by many. Considering how fancy I feel driving a brand new car, though, maybe I should give her a name that respects her sassy sportiness: Miss Bling.

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