June 2014

Art glass

Earlier this month, J and I went to two open-air art festivals: the Beacon Hill Art Walk at the beginning of the month, and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival the following weekend. I’d been to the Beacon Hill Art Walk before–on previous visits, I primarily enjoyed the opportunity to explore hidden courtyards and alleys not typically open to the public—but J and I had never even heard of the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival even though it’s been around for more than 30 years.

Glass figure

“En plein air” is a French term that refers to the practice of painting outside in the open air, as a landscape artist with an easel might. Although the Beacon Hill Art Walk and Coolidge Corner Arts Festival featured a handful of landscape painters and photographers, there were also many glassblowers, potters, welders, and other artisans who typically ply their crafts inside. But even though many of the works J and I saw might have been created inside, they seemed to come into full bloom when displayed outside in the open air, where tents provided shade while encouraging the free circulation of both breezes and browsers.

Historical Society parking only

Another term that the French use for painting outdoors is “peinture sur le motif,” which translates as “painting on the ground.” I love this phrase for the simple image it creates of artists who are literally grounded, both their bodies and their easels rooting them to the scenes they capture. “Painting on the ground” pins you to a particular spot: instead of painting metaphorical castles in the sky, you paint whatever you see right here, right now, in this present place and time.

Booth after booth

Although J and I didn’t see anyone “painting on the ground” at either the Beacon Hill Art Walk or the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival this year, I’d like to think the artists we saw are metaphorically grounded: local artists and artisans proudly sharing their work with an appreciative community out in the open air.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. Enjoy!


Yesterday J and I had an errand to run in Jamaica Plain, so we took a leisurely stroll around Jamaica Pond, one of the jewels in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and although J and I have spent a lot of time exploring the Necklace’s easternmost jewels, I’d only been to Jamaica Pond once and J had never been there at all. We were, in other words, long overdue for a visit.

Pond with clouds

On Friday night, J and I had watched a PBS documentary about Olmsted’s work designing parks all over America. The documentary was an hour long, but we thought it should have been twice as long, given Olmsted’s incredible body of work. New York’s Central Park was the first landscape Olmsted designed, working in partnership with Calvert Vaux, and that project alone would have been enough to make most designers’ career. But the green gem Olmsted and Vaux set at the heart of Manhattan proved to be so popular, a long list of other cities hired Olmsted to design similar landscapes, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a system of parks in Buffalo, the Niagara Reservation in New York, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Yellow iris

Olmsted began work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace relatively late in his career, after he’d established a home and landscape architectural firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. The goal of the Emerald Necklace was to connect Boston’s existing Common and Public Garden with the sprawling woods of Franklin Park, and it involved transforming the Muddy River, a sluggish stream wending from Jamaica Pond through the saltmarsh of the Back Bay Fens, into a scenic waterway bordered by wooded trails.

Mallard silhouettes

Whereas Olmsted completely transformed the Back Bay Fens from a stagnant backwater to a scenic lagoon, he did relatively little to re-engineer Jamaica Pond. A glacial kettle hole that once supplied both drinking water and ice to local residents, Jamaica Pond didn’t need the sanitary improvements that the Back Bay Fens required. Instead, Olmsted’s engineering at Jamaica Pond primarily involved the planting of trees and the placing of paths. Today, a paved pedestrian pathway surrounds the pond, which attracts a steady stream of locals looking to walk, fish, row, or simply relax in the sun.

Rowboat and geese

When you stroll through Central Park, you’re interacting with an entirely manmade landscape: before Olmsted and Vaux got their hands on it, Central Park was a featureless wasteland filled with shanties and pigsties. Central Park’s underlying terrain—its hills, stone outcrops, and waterways—were all designed and then assembled from the ground up to provide an intentionally picturesque backdrop for soothing strolls. When you look at Central Park, you’re not looking at a natural landscape as much as a landscape painting: a picturesque scene, that is, that was intentionally composed.

Turtle with reflection

Jamaica Pond, on the other hand, is a natural jewel, but even the most precious gem looks better in a well-designed setting. More than a century’s worth of fishermen, dog-walkers, joggers, baby-strollers, and sun bathers have flocked to Jamaica Pond, but the pond and its environs still look natural and even pristine. As J and I walked, I marveled at how simultaneously well-used and tranquil the park seemed. On our entire circuit of the pond, J and I were never out of immediate earshot of other park-goers, and for most of the way we could hear and even see passing traffic on nearby roads. But despite these omnipresent reminders we were in a popular and even bustling park, the pond and paths felt quiet and serene, as if we were further away from civilization than we actually were.

Pedestrian path

A well-designed park doesn’t shy from aesthetic deception, and visitors to an urban park are happy to be deceived. About halfway around the pond, J noted that all the people we encountered automatically observed the cornerstone of urban protocol, quietly smiling or gently nodding at passersby but otherwise giving them no notice, allowing strangers the privacy of their own personal escapes. Whether you’re on a bike, on foot, in a boat, or on a bench, you won’t be alone at Jamaica Pond, but you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away. The park’s that way by design.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.


Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

The dragon's eyes

Here’s a confession: most of the time when I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I wander without reading the placards that identify and explain each work. Instead, I eschew the edification of curatorial commentary and let my uneducated eyes lead me. What I’m looking for on these museum-rambles isn’t an art history lesson but something far more primal: I’m looking to feed my dreams.

Dragon and Clouds

I’m not a particularly imaginative person. Most of my waking hours are spent dealing with the-way-things-are, not envisioning the way-things-might-be. By night, I seldom dream anything memorable…and when I do remember my dreams, they tend to be filled with boring, mundane details, like yesterday’s laundry or tomorrow’s groceries. I’m the last person on the planet, in other words, who would dream of dragons: most of the time, I’m mired too deep in the daily drudgery.

Dragon and Clouds

A museum, however, is a stockpile of the strange. If your own imagination is starved, you can go to a museum and glut yourself on the fantasies of others. I’ve never dreamed of dragons, but Soga Shōhaku clearly has, his version of the legendary creature sprawling over eight painted panels that span some 35 feet. Shōhaku died in 1781, but the dragon of his dreams lives on, mesmerizing people like me who could never imagine such a creature on our own.

If you want to see Soga Shōhaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” yourself, it will remain on display at the Museum of Fine Arts until July 6th.

Works on paper

It’s been just under a month since I submitted the last of my spring semester grades, and I still feel like I’m decompressing from the term.

Works on paper

I always spend the first few weeks of any academic break catching up with the mundane chores that fall by the wayside during a busy semester: only come summer do I have time for doctor visits and cleaning the bathroom and weeding through cluttered closets. In the immediate aftermath of a semester spent grading piles of student papers, it feels good to devote myself to something less cerebral: even the simple act of sorting, shredding, and recycling old paperwork feels productive in a way that paper-grading never does.

Works on paper

It usually takes me a few weeks after the end of any given semester to feel like writing again. One of the unfortunate occupational hazards of being a writing instructor is your brain often feels like it’s filled to overflowing with words, words, words, and spending time on even your own work only exacerbates the problem. These past few weeks I’ve been walking a lot, reading a lot, and scribbling a lot in my journal, but I haven’t felt like writing anything worth sharing.

Works on paper

Today I went to Framingham State for a professional development workshop: summer is, after all, when college professors take time to evaluate their teaching methods and make adjustments for the coming year. In the gallery next to the room where my colleagues and I met to discuss strategies for encouraging critical thinking, a new exhibit of “Textured Assemblages” by Robert Johnson, Jr. features canvases covered with crumpled paper, the lines of composition “written” in three dimensions rather than two.

Works on paper

I sometimes wonder how many pages of student prose I’ve read over the twenty years I’ve been teaching; I’ve never been brave enough to crunch the numbers. But if I were to assemble all the papers I’ve read, commented on, and then graded, surely I’d be able to cover countless canvases in innumerable galleries. Is it any wonder it takes me a while to decompress at the end of an academic year when I’ve been crowded, crumpled, and (yes) compressed by such a workload?


This past weekend was the third annual Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) Summer Institute, a chance for Boston-area college writing instructors to spend two days talking shop. Being a writing instructor can be a lonely endeavor. On days when your students are under-motivated, it can feel like you’re the only one in the room who is excited to read, write, and talk about reading and writing. The BRAWN Summer Institute is one of those rare instances when you’re surrounded by people who think commas are cool and revision is revelatory.

Blue ribbon

When I arrived at the Institute on Friday morning, I learned that one of my colleagues had a medical emergency and couldn’t lead her scheduled workshop: could I possibly take her place? The session was on peer review–the practice of asking students to read and provide feedback on one another’s drafts–but since I was scheduled to attend another workshop, I hadn’t read the scholarly articles my colleague had chosen as background for the session. I was, in other words, completely unprepared to lead a two-hour workshop about the pedagogy of peer review; all I had were my own experiences (good, bad, and ugly) trying to facilitate peer reviews in my own classes.

Husky pride

The beauty of the Summer Institute, however, is that participants are self-motivated. How many folks, after all, would willingly volunteer to attend two full days of workshops in at the end of May, when the outdoors and other summer temptations beckon? When I introduced myself as the last-minute (and entirely unprepared) substitute facilitator for the session, I explained that all I had to offer were some basic questions to guide our discussion. What do we mean, exactly, when we use the term “peer review”? What do we hope or expect students to gain from the activity, and what hopes and expectations do our students bring? What challenges do we face when we ask our students to comment on one another’s writing, what strategies do we employ to cultivate a sense of community in our classrooms, and how do we know when peer review is “working”?

Destination NEU

As writing instructors from colleges around the greater Boston area went around the room introducing themselves and describing what they hoped to gain from our discussion, one woman perfectly summed up my experience of the Summer Institute: “It’s good to be here all together in the same room, talking about what we do.” If you care about what you do, you cherish the opportunity to share your experiences (good, bad, and ugly) with colleagues who face the same challenges. Ultimately, what we want for our students as writers is the same as what we want for ourselves as teachers: a chance to share our work with an audience who is willing to offer feedback, give encouragement, and provide camaraderie along the way.

This year’s BRAWN Summer Institute was held at Northeastern University, where I received my PhD ten (!!!) years ago. The Northeastern mascot is the husky, so that explains the unusual number of painted dogs gathered all together in the same room.