Art & culture


Stickwork

Today J and I drove to Salem, MA to visit the Peabody Essex Museum. Before we went inside, we took a detour around the block to see What the Birds Know, a stickwork installation by Patrick Dougherty.

Exploring

Dougherty is the same artist who created The Wild Rumpus, a stickwork installation I’d seen at Tower Hill Botanic Garden (and subsequently blogged) last October. Although the two pieces are crafted from the same materials and share a similar whimsical vision, their markedly different surrounding make for two distinctly different impressions.

Huddled

The Wild Rumpus is located in the woodsy shade alongside a sunny field: the “middle of nowhere” if you’re a child walking with your parents. Inspired by the classic children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Dougherty’s Tower Hill installation feels wild, or at least woodsy. Looking through its wicker-like windows, you half expect to see deer or other shy forest creatures staring back at you.

Together

What the Birds Know, on the other hand, is at the corner of a busy intersection in downtown Salem. Tucked into a tiny yard next to a historic house, What the Birds Know is surrounded by neighboring buildings and receives lots of visitors. (J and I had driven past it last October, when Salem was thronged with Halloween tourists, and we didn’t even try to photograph it.)

Dougherty’s Salem installation doesn’t feel wild, but cozy: a cluster of neat little houses tucked right alongside human habitations. What the birds of downtown Salem presumably know is how to make a tame and tidy nest right alongside the comings and goings of preoccupied human beings.

Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

I’m currently reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book tells the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years before being arrested for burglary in 2013. The book reminds me of Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about Christopher McCandless, except that while McCandless died after 100 solitary days foraging in the Alaskan wilderness, Knight survived for more than a quarter century on food and supplies he stole from nearby cabins.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

With both books, the question of “why” spurs readers onward. In Krakauer’s book, you eventually learn that McCandless didn’t intend to live his entire life as a hermit: during part of his journey, he befriended others, and he intended to return to civilization after his Alaskan sojourn. McCandless was a social, likable fellow when he was around people, and after living on his own in Alaska for several months, he intended (and tried) to leave the wild. It was a cruel accident, in other words, that McCandless died a hermit’s death.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

Knight, on the other hand, is a true solitary, but it isn’t immediately clear why he shuns human contact. Knight returns to civilization unwillingly. After burglarizing area cabins for more than two decades, he is captured and thrown in jail: a hermit tossed in with criminals. McCandless had specific reasons for shunning his family, but Knight doesn’t seem to hold any animus toward his family in particular or society in general: he just chooses a solitary path.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

McCandless died at the age of 24, but had he lived, he would now be 49 years old: a middle-aged man approaching fifty. Knight survived his stint in the Maine woods, and he was apprehended and arrested at the age of 47. The hermetic lifestyle holds a certain appeal when you’re young, but how does it hold up as you approach middle age?

We can write-off Chris McCandless’ quest as the wayward ways of a young man who hadn’t yet found himself: Krakauer, who wrote McCandless’ story when he was 42, looks back upon his own youth and finds parallels between his life and that of his subject. But if youthful restlessness similarly drove Knight to the forest, what is it that kept him there?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

We’ve all probably had times when we’ve wanted to abandon our obligations and escape into the wild, but those of us who are middle-aged presumably outgrew those inklings, choosing instead to settle down and get serious about the business of homemaking, starting a family, or pursuing a career. But Knight sidesteps all those presumably normal pursuits, walking into the woods at the age of 20 and showing no signs of wanting to return. How do you live 27 years of your life in a solitary camp with nothing but a long list of burglaries to your name? Wouldn’t you at some point decide to pursue another path?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

This is what keeps me reading: I want to see what would keep a man in the woods for over two decades. I can understand the impulse that would drive a person to leave society, but not necessarily the fortitude that would keep him away.

Today’s photos come from a solo trip to Maine I took in September, 2004 and blogged here.

What do you think you're doing?

Today I finished reading One Hundred Demons, a graphic memoir by Lynda Barry. In this work of what she calls “autobifictionalography,” Barry sets out to draw one hundred demons, a practice she heard about in an old Zen story. While drawing her demons, Barry revisits pivotal, often painful anecdotes from her life, which she tells in cartoon form.

The result is quirky and surprisingly powerful: a memoir-like collection of cartoon episodes that point to the persistence of even minor memories. Barry learns (and readers discover) that both our childhood and adult identities are shaped not by major, life-changing moments but by the incremental influence of seemingly innocuous events.

Who do you think you are?

Being an adult, Barry suggests, is like traveling by plane. From the sky, you can’t see children playing kickball in the streets below: the mundane details of one’s childhood are overshadowed by other, more pressing concerns. But when Barry reflects back on her childhood, it is the little stuff that lingers–an early, cruel boyfriend; the moment she became too self-conscious to dance; a first kiss that comes after she’d already lost too much of her innocence. Often, the things we don’t understand or recognize as important at the time are the ones that stay with us decades later.

I first encountered Barry when I read Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I blogged several years ago. Syllabus is a book about art, teaching, and creativity, and the playfulness of that book is what initially drew me in. Barry notes that every child can draw, but adult self-consciousness causes too many of us to put down our pencils and pens. Barry encourages readers to draw with self-abandon, suggesting that there is no such thing as a bad or “wrong” drawing.

Why even bother?

In One Hundred Demons, Barry shows the source of her creative courage. Barry isn’t afraid to draw a wrong line because she’s already lived and endured so much wrongness. When you draw your demons, you necessarily have to face them, and when you face your biggest, most daunting doubts and detractors, you sometime realize they look an awful lot like you.

Inspired by Barry’s book, this morning I doodled the demons that illustrate today’s post. Click here to see more of my demon-doodles: enjoy!

Placeholder

There is in our neighborhood a house that has fallen into neglect. Tall weeds and saplings overshadow the grass, vines are clambering up the walls, and a storm-toppled tree spreads an umbrella of roots over the yard and sidewalk. Every time we pass this house, I say to J, “That house is returning to the elements.” In the absence of a diligent caretaker to keep the weeds at bay, even a suburban home quickly succumbs to wildness.

Toppled

I thought of that house last weekend when Leslee and I visited the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in nearby Lincoln. Every time I am at the DeCordova, I make a point to visit (and photograph) Steven Siegel’s “Big, with Rift,” an installation featuring towering piles of newspapers that are slowly succumbing to decay.

I’ve blogged this installation twice: first in November, 2013, when it was ripening in autumnal glory, and again in January, 2015, when it seemed soggy and dejected beneath a thin layer of wet, sludgy snow. Whereas the other installations at the DeCordova remain more or less the same every time you see them, the compostable nature of newsprint makes Siegel’s piece necessarily temporary.

Don't climb the (toppled) art

I last visited “Big, with Rift” in August, 2015, when it was sprouting ferns and flowers. Poison ivy was climbing one side of its craggy mass, and a chipmunk had burrowed a hole into one exposed edge. What started out as art was quickly becoming nature: you could almost feel the surrounding trees welcoming this looming paper pile back into the fold as one of their own.

Fallen

Given what I’d seen two years ago, I wasn’t hugely surprised last Saturday to see the latest stage in decomposition. “Big, with Rift” has fallen, its newspaper columns collapsing upon themselves while greenery still sprouts from their toppled tops. Like a neglected house, “Big, with Rift” is returning to the elements, its organic innards returning to the soil and nourishing the next generation of decomposers.

Prone

How the mighty have fallen, you might say, or you might draw droll conclusions about Fake News and the “failing New York Times.” There is something sad about a broken statue or toppled tower, but there’s nothing more natural than yesterday’s news becoming the subject of today’s decay.

Facing

It was hot and humid on Saturday, so Leslee and I didn’t spend a lot of time walking the grounds at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, choosing to spend more of our visit inside the air conditioned comfort of the museum galleries. But before we headed for home, we took a quick stroll to see the sculptures in Alice’s Garden and the grassy fields alongside the park’s entrance.

Queen of trees

I always enjoy seeing sculptures outside, as if in their natural habitat. A piece such as Richard Rosenblum’s Venusvine (pictured right) would make little sense indoors. Instead of being held captive in a gallery, Venus needs to curl her toes in the dirt and sprout her sinuous self among the trees.

Although Venus is rooted, like a tree she can unfold her slender arms and toss her twiggy head in both sunshine and storm. Does she tickle from the talons of birds perched on her head, and does she enjoy the summer songs of birds whispered into her ears?

Askance

Today Leslee and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to see an exhibit of abstract paintings by New England women artists. I’m not an expert in abstract painting, but that’s part of the medium’s appeal. Because these works aren’t trying to represent anything specific, viewers like me are free to find their own meaning in them.

Cobalt

Viewing abstract paintings is like looking at the passing shapes of clouds, the flashing forms reflected in moving water, or the flickering colors that glow from the center of a campfire. You can let your eyes rest from their mundane work of deciphering meaning. With no symbols to interpret, you’re left to enjoy the wordless nuance of color, shape, and texture.

Geometry

When I first encountered modern and contemporary art, I struggled to make sense of it. If a painter isn’t trying to represent something like a face or landscape, how can you tell if it is “good” or not?

Only after abandoning this attempt to understand and assess abstract art did I learn how to enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level. When I look at flowers or eat a good meal, I don’t fret over what that food or flowers mean. Instead, I make a purely subjective decision about whether I liked this thing, and why.

Reflected

When I walk into a gallery of abstract paintings, some works grab me and others don’t. Some works pull me in and all but beg me to keep looking at them, and others whisper “Keep walking; there’s nothing to see here.” With the works that beg me to look, I ask myself the simple question of why: why am I drawn to this piece, and what about it do I find interesting, appealing, or engaging?

Neighboring

This subjective question of why opens far more doors than the interpretive question “what does this piece mean?” There are many works I like without knowing what they mean. The things I like about such works are purely aesthetic. I might like a particular arc of brushwork or an eye-popping complement of colors. Something about a particular painting resonates with me while another work leaves me unimpressed and unmoved.

Cerulean

This almost visceral way of interacting with paintings allows for a variety of personal responses; I don’t know what any given artist was trying to say or suggest in a particular painting, but I know there are works I feel warm and almost friendly toward. “Could I live with this painting” is one question that sometimes comes to mind. Is this a piece that could hold my interest for more than a day or two, or is it one I’d quickly learn to overlook or ignore?

Gallery

I sometimes wonder what museum guards think about the works they protect, given the long hours they spend in any given exhibit. Guards are paid to watch museum-goers, not the art itself, but when you spend entire shifts in a gallery day after day, you must acquire a certain familiarity with the works you’re watching over.

Guard

Surely long-time museum guards develop a fondness for some works over others. Just as we inevitably like some neighbors or coworkers more than the rest, I like to think museum guards “make friends” with some of the paintings they sit with.

I’m glad Leslee and I went to the DeCordova today. Given the long hours I spend writing and reading, it sometimes feels good to just look at beautiful things without any need for interpretive explanation.

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