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Russian nesting dolls

This month at the Newton Free Library, there is an exhibit of Russian matryoshka dolls in three glass cases in the main entrance hall. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the monthly displays in these cases: they’re simply something I pass on my way to pick-up or drop-off books. But because I know J admires Russian nesting dolls, I stopped long enough to snap a few photos, the way you do when you see something you know a loved one would love.

Russian leaders nesting dolls

What initially caught my eye was a medium-sized Mikhail Gorbachev doll that contains within him his Soviet-era predecessors. I had to snap a photo to share with J because I knew that years ago during a business trip to Prague, J bought a large Boris Yeltsin that contains within him the same sequence of Russian leaders all the way back to the tzars. Although I’m no expert when it comes to Russian history or Russian nesting dolls, I recognize the zeal in J’s voice when he recites the names of Russian leaders like a litany, the smallest tzar not much larger than a grain of rice.

Russian nesting dolls

J is a connoisseur of matryoshka dolls, but I’m just a newbie, drawn to pay attention to something simply because someone I love is an admirer. I suppose this is how parents become well-versed in dinosaurs, Legos, or anything else their children love obsessively. I have to admire a collector’s zeal, even if I know little about his or her collection. When it comes to Russian matryoshka dolls, I admire the meticulous way one figure fits into another, a single doll containing an entire collection, each individual packed with its predecessors like a person carrying his own history.

Diaphanous

Yesterday J and I went downtown to see Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,” which was unveiled (or, more accurately, installed) over a segment of the Rose Kennedy Greenway back in May. I say the sculpture was “installed” rather than “unveiled” because the piece itself is like a veil, or a net, or a web: a semi-translucent, windblown shroud that spans a section of park that used to be an ugly elevated highway.

From afar

“As If It Were Already Here” (which J and I informally dubbed The Webby Thing for lack of a better way to describe its shape and appearance) billows in the wind and invariably draws attention to the sky and skyline. Yesterday was a beautifully sunny day, and folks were lounging on Adirondack chairs and hammocks on the Greenway grass: what better way to spend a weekday lunch hour or coffee break?

Curling

A steady stream of passersby paused to take cellphone snapshots of The Webby Thing, which has a website mapping its Instagram images. Although I too took a dozen or so shots, The Webby Thing was difficult to photograph, as diaphanous things often are. Photos don’t portray the sheer size of the thing, which spans a city block and stretches from skyscrapers on one side of the now-buried highway to another. In some shots, you can see color stretched like a veil across the sky, but from other angles all you see are spiderweb-like strings.

Wispy webs

“As If It Were Already Here” was installed in May, in an operation that entailed a cadre of coordinated cranes. (Click here for a time-lapse video of its installation.) Although the piece looks flimsy, according to the artist’s website it contains over 100 miles of twine, has over half a million knots, and weighs approximately one ton. Support cables are bolted to nearby buildings, and yesterday workers were re-tensioning its tethers, making sure the web was securely anchored.

Adjustments

The Webby Thing is mirrored in the many windows of surrounding skyscrapers, making me wonder what kind of view neighboring office-workers and hotel guests have of a gossamer ghost that floats like a giant jellyfish over passing pedestrians.

Flag with reflections

Hokusai

Whenever J and I go to the Museum of Fine Arts, I find myself spending almost as much time looking at other museum patrons as I do looking at the art itself. I find it fascinating to watch how people interact with art: how much time do they spend looking at an individual work, or how much time do they spend fiddling with the buttons on their audio guide? Do they like to gaze at something thoughtfully from afar, do they sit and consider an entire roomful of art in a single glance, or do they go straight up to a piece and snap a picture before moving on?

Hokusai

I guess you could say I appreciate art appreciators. I find myself wondering what people are thinking as they silently stare at a given work: do they like it? Are they puzzled by it? Do they find it intriguing without quite knowing what about it intrigues them?

Hokusai

Much of my own art appreciation happens on a nonverbal level–there are works I simply like without being able to explain why I like them–so I often wonder whether others interact with art in a similar way, wandering through the galleries in search of something that Simply Speaks to them, regardless of whether it’s a renowned or well-known work.

Hokusai

In any given exhibition, there’s always one or two works that draw a crowd, either because they’re highlighted by the curators as being Important or because they’re just pretty to look at.

Hokusai

But what intrigues me most of all are the quiet, overlooked corners where you’ll sometimes find a lone soul having a private moment with a particular work. What is happening in the mind of a lone observer standing face-to-face with a centuries-old masterpiece? Is it some sort of communion where the artist’s vision reaches beyond the frame, spanning the centuries to trigger a response in a person he could have never known?

Hokusai

Click here to see more photos from Hokusai, which is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through August 9th.

Facing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between words and images. I share a lot of words and photos here on my blog, and I produce a lot of words and images that never get posted here. I consider myself a writer who also takes pictures, the “taking pictures” always taking second place to the “writing.” But although I consider myself more a shutterbug than a serious photographer, I have to admit how reliant upon images my writing has become. Although I certainly can describe things without an accompanying photo to illustrate, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, it’s often because I haven’t been looking at (or photographing) much.

Overhead

I’m coming to realize that looking at things–particularly new or interesting things–is an important part of my composition process, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with what I’ve been looking at. I guess you could say I’m a visual thinker: whereas some people are inspired by ideas or sounds or even smells, my personal muse seems have big, wide-open eyes. When I’m in search of inspiration, looking is more fruitful than thinking: thinking just leads me in circles, but looking at something interesting perks me up in a way that few other things can.

Through leaves

Last weekend while I was at Northeastern University for the BRAWN Summer Institute, I went to a session on place-based pedagogy. I’ve always described Hoarded Ordinaries as being a blog about place, and when I taught a first-year writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College, I encouraged my students to choose research topics that similarly close-to-home: “topics they could touch” was how I described it. Now that I divide my days between two different campuses, I’ve struggled to incorporate place into my teaching: it’s hard to feel rooted when your teaching is neither here nor there.

Signature

During that session on place-based pedagogy, however, something remarkable happened: we took a field trip. Half of the participants went to examine the Student Center food court, and my half of the session went outside, walking over to a brick wall where Los Angeles-based street artist El Mac recently painted a mural representing the union of arts and sciences. Our official assignment was simply to look at the mural, and when we reunited with the other half of the group, we discussed the various uses of these two spaces: indoor and outdoor. But what fascinated me most wasn’t that ensuing discussion but the simple act of looking an an interesting image.

Leafy

Having taken so many photos of the Wall at Central Square, I’ve developed a certain fondness for the look of spray paint on brick. And having once had an office inside Holmes and then Nightingale Halls–two of the academic buildings housed in the re-purposed factory where El Mac’s mural is situated–I love the look of the neighborhood these days. A brick wall can be a frustrating obstacle–something that blocks the sky and gets in the way of forward progress–or it can be a canvas of opportunity, a window into a world you can envision only with your inner eye.

Click here for more photos of El Mac’s new mural at Northeastern. “Just looking” is a title I’ve used for two other blog posts: one describing a summer walk around my neighborhood here in Newton, and the other featuring one of my favorite photos.

Emerging

In the hands of talented artists, even the most simple materials are transformed into metaphors. Last weekend when I attended the BRAWN Summer Institute at Northeastern University, I was captivated by “Banquet for Unity,” an installation by Farzaneh and Bahareh Safarani featuring gold mesh butterflies emerging from Mason jars.

Aflutter

Surely we’ve all had Mason jar moments: times in our life when we feel contained, our wings beating uselessly against our constraints. For a butterfly in a Mason jar, freedom is close enough to see, but impossible to reach. A trapped butterfly will exert herself to the point of exhaustion because she has no choice. There’s nothing more tragic than a butterfly contained because butterflies are designed to fly. Their element is air, not earth, and everything in their essence points up, ethereal.

The moment when a bevy of butterflies alights into the ether–sunlit dust motes rising up rather than falling down–is breathtaking, even if the butterflies move only in your imagination, where your own soul is free.

Aloft

Remembered

Yesterday when I heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had received the death penalty for his role in the Boston Marathon bombing, I knew I’d have to visit the newly dedicated memorial to slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. Whenever I’m at MIT, I stop by the spot outside the Stata Center where Collier was killed by the Tsarnaev brothers while sitting in his police cruiser, and since I had plans to be at MIT today, paying my respects at the newly dedicated memorial seemed fitting.

Ellipses

When I heard yesterday afternoon that the jury in the Tsarnaev case had reached a decision on his sentence, I stopped what I was doing and turned on the TV to watch. Just as I’d wanted to hear the verdict in the case as soon as it came in, I wanted to hear the sentence as it was announced. But as soon as CNN reported that Tsarnaev had been given the death penalty for placing the bomb that killed Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu, I turned off the news coverage. Although I wanted to hear the sentence that would determine Tsarnaev’s fate, I didn’t want to hear endless editorializing about that sentence.

Big heart; big smile; big service; all love.

Instead of listening to opinions and arguments about the wisdom or appropriateness of the sentence—what do you, I, or anyone else think should be done with Dzhokhar—I wanted simply to sit with the solemnity of the decision. What is it like to kill anonymous strangers—innocent bystanders you somehow think have wronged you—and what is it like to hear a sentence of death in return: an official legal pronouncement that he who lives by the sword shall die by it?

Ovoid

Tsarnaev will have ample opportunity to contemplate his own death as his lawyers file appeal after appeal, but neither Collier nor the other Marathon dead had that luxury. Two years ago on a beautiful April day, the Tsarnaev brothers irrevocably changed their own and countless others’ lives with the flip of a switch. Neither the death penalty nor life in prison can change that fact: the dead are still dead, severed limbs are still lost, and the grief-stricken still grieve. “Closure” is a word uttered by optimistic and well-intentioned folks who dare open their mouths in the face of irredeemable heartache. It doesn’t matter whether you, I, or anyone else supports the death penalty: before the jury decided anything, Tsarnaev and his brother made their own irrevocable choice.

Arching

The memorial erected to Sean Collier is a graceful and expansive thing, constructed of slabs of smooth gray granite that arch elegantly overhead. The five upright slabs, I read, radiate outwards like the fingers of a hand, but the point where they intersect is empty and ovoid, evoking the empty-handedness that is the human condition. The monument draws you in and invites you to circumnavigate it, and as I walked around taking pictures from this angle and that, several passersby stopped to look at and walk through the monument, touching the stone and reading its inscriptions.

In the line of duty

Nobody seemed to be talking about Tsarnaev and his sentence; nobody seemed to be talking at all. When you stand on the spot where a promising life was cut short, it’s difficult to find anything at all to say.

Willow tree in bloom

Only after spring arrives and the trees burst into flower do I realize how much of the winter I’ve spent looking down. In winter, I trudge around in a bulky coat, hat, and scarf; on the coldest days, I top it all with a hood. Thus bundled, I keep my eyes down, my attention focused underfoot on the treachery of ice and snow. Like a mummy, my view of the world in winter is just a slit through swaddles.

Oak catkins and leaves

Spring sets my feet free in sandals, the sidewalks finally clear underfoot. In spring, you appreciate anew the miracle it is to walk the earth. In the spring, you don’t have to watch every step; in spring, your whole body feels as light as shirtsleeves. Walking at the end of an interminable winter feels like freedom, your ankles liberated from boots and the sinew-testing challenge of knee-deep snow drifts.

Dogwood flowers

Come summer, after the trees have finished leafing, their crowns will contain my view like a cap and I’ll look to the ground once again, searching for flowers and ground-creeping plants. But in early spring, the world’s inverted, with an ephemeral fury of flowers high overhead: blooms against blue.

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