At the Root

It’s easy to get spoiled when you live in a city with a great museum, which is precisely what I have with the High Museum here in Atlanta, Georgia. The latest special exhibition, which closed May 7th, was Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950. Comprised of 200 works, the exhibit was broad in scope and filled with artists both well-known (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Grandma Moses, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth) and obscure.

Organized by region, the artworks depict the South, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1915 to 1950—a period spanning Prohibition, the Great Depression, and industrialization. The pieces share a common theme, though, according to Stephanie Heydt, the High’s American art curator: “All of this work is about memory and the history of a place as experienced across time.”

That’s the thing that struck me as I toured this exhibit–the feeling that I was seeing “memory and history of a place across time.” Each of the five sections of the exhibit were painted a different color and arranged to tell the story of the region, so it was clear when you moved from one to the next.

I toured the entire display once, beginning with the South and ending with the West, taking my time and using the audio tour to learn more about certain artists and their works, and then went back to the pieces that spoke the loudest. As I walked, I noticed myself growing more and more removed from the work—not because the pieces weren’t lovely or challenging, but because there was no personal connection for me. The art from the American West was like looking at the surface of Mars.

In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” But I think the opposite is true as well. Home is the place you have to take into you. It’s unavoidable. In the place you call home, the cadence and vocabulary of the people who live there find their way into your mouth. The food they make fills your belly and satiates your spirit. The music they create is the soundtrack of your life, and their traditions mark the rhythms of your days as surely as solstices and cold snaps.

I’m a product of the South (with a dash of Midwest thrown in for good measure). To me, home is fields of cotton and tobacco. Homemade biscuits. Revivals in white clapboard churches. Country stores. Friday night football games. Poke cake. Johnny Cash. Sun tea in Mason jars and backyard gardens filled with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

 

“Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton (1942/44)
I think that’s why “Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton struck me. I only helped harvest tobacco a few times, but brother was it enough. That is disgusting, hard, hot labor. You can tell just how hard it is from the man’s face. Look how the wrinkles and creases in his skin mirror the leaf in his hand. Even his hat and shirt look crumpled and tired. The little girl on the right is still fresh, but she’s new to the trade.

Other workers are working in the background at the drying shed, and I can imagine they are somewhere between these two on the spectrum. These are people I know and have spent time with. Decent, hardworking folks who are trying to scratch a living out of the earth, some years with better results than others.

“Farmers” by Ben Shahn (1943)

The same is true of the men in “Farmers” by Ben Shahn. In this piece, they’re at an auction, buying equipment from a farmer who’d gone bust. They’re looking for a good deal, knowing all the while that, with just one bad harvest, they could be next.

“Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey (1946)

But working land is hardly a “privilege” reserved only for poor, hardscrabble whites. Pieces like “Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey make it clear that black hands planted, tended, and harvested tobacco too.

“The Building of Savery Library” by Hale Woodruff (1942)

And then there are moments when you see blacks and whites working side by side to create something grand like a university library like they are in Hale Woodruff’s beautiful mural, its colors so bright they draw you across the gallery to get a better look. There’s hope here. Beauty. Progress.

But like any exhibit worth its salt, Cross Country contained pieces that shock people out of their complacency, ones that made patrons face something unpleasant or come to terms with something they’d rather not. In moments like these, Lucille Clifton says it best: “it is friday. we have come / to the paying of the bills.”

“Man With Brush” by Frederick C. Flemister (1940)

Frederick C. Flemister
 provided that moment for me. He was born in Georgia and went to school in Atlanta. He called the South home too, but this is what his South looked like.
“The Mourners” by Frederick C. Flemister (n.d.)

All those lovely Southern things I mentioned earlier? I bet he experienced and loved them too, but Flemister also had to deal with violence, racism, and lynchings like the one depicted in his work.

Though it’s done in a style reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the Pietà, there’s no mistaking what’s happened. A man has been murdered and, like Christ, lies draped across his mother’s lap. The perpetrator is riding away in the background. The noose, though cut, looks sharp as a blade. The deed is done, and all that’s left is for the mourners to cry to heaven while a blood red scarf billows in the wind. The scene is beautifully rendered, but that doesn’t soften the blow. On the contrary, it highlights how hideous the moment truly is.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this is also part of the place I call home. Like the child in the painting, I want to run away, to turn my head, to pretend it didn’t happen. But there’s no denying it. I’ve been to the place where Mary Turner died. I currently live thirty minutes away from Forsyth County, which remained “White Only” through brute force for most of the 20th century. (Read Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips if you’d like to know the entire story. It’s gut wrenching.)

Yes, home is a place you take in, but you have to take all of it.

I may never have lifted my hand in violence or knowingly ostracized someone, but oh, so many have…and done so willingly. “The Mourners” depicts something at the root of my South, planted long before my little branch ever came to full flower. But that doesn’t change the fact that it must be recognized, rectified, and resisted from now on if we’re ever to scour such atrocities from this good earth. Removing a monument of Jefferson Davis won’t do that. Facing the truth, however hard it may be, and calling it by its right name? That just might.

Cézanne on the Highway

In his essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde asserted, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

He believed artists taught people to find beauty in life and nature through their creations rather than the other way around. One example he sites is the fog in London. Though it had been there for centuries, people only noticed its beauty because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects.” Hence, “They did not exist till art had invented them.”

Until recently, I would have taken issue with this. In my mind, nature is beautiful for its own sake. After all, it’s created by a God who delights in lovely things. And even if we never truly “saw” and understood it, that beauty would continue to exist in the world because He wishes it to.

That being said, I have always believed art can help us appreciate the excellence of the natural world in new ways or to a greater degree than we did previously. For instance, take the watercolor by Cézanne below. It is currently on display at the High Museum as part of a collection called Cézanne and the Modern, which will be in Atlanta until January 11, 2015.

L.1988.62.45
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906) Trees Forming an Arch, ca. 1900 – possibly later Watercolor an graphite on buff wove paper 60.2 x 45.8 cm. (23 11/16 x 18 1/16 in.)

I highly recommend getting the High’s audio tour. There are typically two tracks–one for adults and another for children–and I often listen to both as they contain different information. For only $6, you get a lot of extra information about the artists as well as a few lessons on art history.

Matthew Simms, Professor of Art History at California State University, Long Beach, contributed much to this audio tour. Regarding this piece, he said:

“Drawing offers tonal information. It tells you what areas are dark, where forms begin and where the end. Color gives chromatic information. What is the local color of something? Is there a shadow? Is it in light? Is something greenish or more yellow? Cézanne uses his two tools—the pencil and the paintbrush—to contribute different kinds of information. The end result is a watercolor in which drawing and color combine to create a vibrant sensation of a view into a forest.”

I can appreciate the loveliness of a forest path dappled with light. I’ve walked many of them and experienced the peace and tranquility they have to offer. I’ve noticed the quiet interplay between light and shadow, heat and cold. But I’d never noticed the different colors light can create in such a space.

A few days after learning this information, I took a walk around Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and noticed that the light that passed through green leaves took on an entirely appearance than it did when it passed through yellow and orange leaves. Both were beautiful but in different ways, and Cézanne (and Simms) showed me how to appreciate the contrast.

L.1988.62.47
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906 Watercolour and soft graphite on pale buff wove paper 48 x 62.5 cm
I also learned Cézanne loved to emphasize something called the “kinship of forms” or “forms that rhyme with one another” in his work. For example, notice the apples, grapes, and carafe in this piece.  They all share a harmonious roundness. Their shapes “rhyme” with one another, which is an interesting word choice that I quite like. The apples and grapes aren’t as perfectly spherical as the belly of the carafe, but there’s an undeniable “sameness” to them. Like the words “place” and “grace,” these shapes rhyme. They look as similar to my eye as the words sound to my ear.

Learning this didn’t just help me see the world around me in a new or better way. It changed how I understood the things I perceived. It made me think Wilde might have been on the right track.

Last weekend, it was blustery here in Georgia. It was the kind of wind that gave the cold air a set of teeth and helped it bite through denim and fleece. I was loathe to go out in it, but I’m glad I ended up braving the elements. While I was sitting in traffic, I noticed a jumble of leaves–orange, red, yellow, and brown–swirling on the street. The wind whipped them into graceful swoops and spirals of color. The sight was lovely to be sure, but nothing I hadn’t noticed before.

But the same wind was also buoying the birds in the sky. Like the leaves hovering inches from the ground, the small birds were all angles, and they danced around one another in an intricate pasodoble of tail feather and wing. For a few seconds, flora and fauna moved with an inexplicable synchronicity. They “rhymed” with one another.

Alone, each one would have been lovely and ripe with meaning. But together, they revealed the harmony of earth and sky and became something altogether different. I’m not sure if life was imitating art or the other way around, but for the briefest of moments, I was presented with something sublime.

*****
What about you? Have you ever had your perception altered by something artistic? Do you think music has the same kind of power as visual arts? What about dance? I’d love to hear how the two work together to shape your viewpoint.

Watching the Watchman

Okay, y’all….a bona fide miracle has occurred.

After many months, I have managed to create a poem….or something that might pass for one after several rounds of intense editing and good bit of tooth gnashing. I went to the High Museum here in Atlanta on the last day of the member preview of the new exhibit—Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis. It’s awesome to be able to enjoy the special exhibit with fewer people around. It was busy, but it wasn’t the bone-crushing crowd one usually finds there on a Saturday. I believe an individual membership is $65 or so. Totally worth it.

As always, the High has done a great job with this touring exhibit, and the big draw–Vermeer’s enigmatic masterpiece–has a room of her own. (It might not be exactly what Virginia Woolf had in mind, but I think she’d be pleased nonetheless.)  Yes, an entire chamber of the special exhibit area is reserved for a painting no longer than my left arm. To me, it felt like she wasn’t so much on display as she was holding court, receiving a steady stream of visitors who wish to request an audience. The only other painting I’ve ever seen receive that kind of treatment is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Fitting, since Vermeer’s lady has earned the nickname “The Dutch Mona Lisa” for her enigmatic gaze and mysterious backstory.

However, there are thirty-five other paintings to enjoy–everything from landscapes to portraits and tronies. I took my time perusing them, wanting to savor the quiet time in the museum and to examine each painting myself before listening to the audio clips on the virtual tour. I found myself looping back around to examine several paintings, none more so than the two works by Pieter Claesz, both Memento Mori pieces. I was particularly fascinated by the accuracy of the items in Vanitas (see below). I kept staring at the overturned glass thinking, “How in the heck do you paint GLASS? How do you use pigments to create something transparent?” Stunning stuff.

Imagine from Wikipedia.org

Eventually, I made my way around the corner and saw Vermeer’s only work in the collection, and it was positioned for full dramatic effect. Before it, viewers are educated in the art of Dutch portrait painting and the use of a Camera Obscura, and both Vermeer and his subject have brief bios posted for all to read.

But it all leads to the final room–a muted green sanctuary that houses just one painting. I must have spent twenty minutes examining it, and when my back and feet reminded me it was time to sit down, I plunked down happily on a padded bench at the back of the room. It was then that I noticed the lone guard. There were four or five more positioned throughout the exhibit, but he was the only one near the Vermeer painting. And I found myself fascinated by him. I wondered, “What’s it like to be the guard tasked with keeping a masterwork safe and unmolested by the world? He’s someone no one notices because they’re too busy looking at the thing he’s protecting.”

Image from Wikipedia.org

Well, that musing led to the poem I mentioned several paragraphs prior. Again, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve penned verse, so don’t expect too much. There’s still a lot of rust to shake off, but it felt good to be using that part of my brain again.

WordPress isn’t the best place to post poetry, so I’ve found that screen shots work. If this is hard to read, click on it. You should get a slightly larger version to peruse. Let me know your thoughts. And if you’ve already seen the exhibit, tell me what you thought!

watchmen

Sight To See

For the March issue of In Touch Magazine, I take a closer look at the elements of the crucifixion and what we miss when we don’t study them intentionally.

If you’re interested in receiving a free subscription to the magazine, visit this page. You can also read the entire magazine online each month by visiting intouch.org/magazine.

 

In a Manner Worthy of the Saints

I have had a lot of conversations with the ceiling this year. Most of them begin with, “Are You sure, Lord? I mean really sure?” Most of the time, this question pops out of my mouth when He’s asking me to do something for which I feel woefully unprepared. I know He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—that everything that happens does because He has the perfect knowledge and power to make it so. However, I sometimes look at where I was eight or nine years ago and compare it to now, I am speechless.

At In Touch Ministries, I serve as an editor and a writer for the magazine, which is something I never imagined myself doing a decade ago. But, in all that time, He was preparing me spiritually to do the things He has ordained. I am humbled beyond measure that the Creator of the universe not only knows me and calls me His child, but also loves me enough give me a talent with which to serve Him. In short, this article is proof that God is truly in control.

I taught a wonderful young woman named Catie Carter who passed away in June of 2010, but before she left, she managed to touch thousands of people in the Jacksonville area. God wasn’t content to let it stop there though. Because of His perfect plan, I was in a position to share her testimony with millions of readers around the world. I have no idea how many people the Lord will touch as a result of this connection. But He does….and always has. I simply cannot wait to see what happens!

I would like to thank Catie’s family–her parents, Jimmy and Kerri, and her siblings, Emily, Jimmy, Lindsay, and Ellie–for being willing to share their precious girl’s story with me. Because of your courage, faith, and strength, people you and I will never know will have a chance to meet her and will be changed as a result.

**In Touch Magazine is a free monthly publication. If you are interested in subscribing, please visit this website.**

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Today, I treated myself to a visit to the High Museum here in Atlanta to take in the new exhibit titled Picasso to Warhol: 14 Modern Masters. Like all the exhibits on the special second floor space, this one didn’t disappoint. I didn’t like it as well as the Dali exhibit they put on last year; however, I think that was due to the different depth of each. Trying to cram fourteen artists into a space that served previously to feature one made the current exhibit feel a bit rapid—like a stone skipping across the lake rather than plunging in, which is what I prefer.

However, it was nice to see these fourteen men and women near one another; it was easy to see how one influenced the other or how one used his or her predecessor as a springboard into a new creative sphere. It was also a nice exhibit because it included multiple mediums–painting, photography, film, sculpture, collage, and many others. It was arranged chronologically by the artists’ ages, and it flowed beautifully from one mini collection to the next. Many of the sculptures were stationed on slightly raised platforms in the middle of their respective spaces, and that meant patrons could walk around them and take each in from multiple angles and perspectives. It was crowded but never felt that way due to the exceedingly well-designed layout and spacing between pieces.

The audio tour, which can be purchased for $6 ($4 if you’re a member!), is well worth the cost as it allows you to gain greater insight about several key paintings in the collection and enriches the experience as a whole. The High also created a pretty excellent app called ArtClix, which allows those who have downloaded it to snap pictures of paintings, access audio/video information about them, post those photos on social media sites, and interact with both museum staff and other patrons nearby via comments. It’s free, which is always nice, and it can also be used once you leave the museum.

I discovered several things about modern art and myself during the two and a half hours I spent touring the exhibit, first with my audio tour and then again with my iPhone as my guide.

1. With the exception of Nude Descending a Staircase, I really do not care for the work of Marcel Duchamp. Say “Shame on you!” if you want, but I toured the space featuring his work twice–very slowly–looking for something that spoke to me. I got bupkis.

2. I did discover that I have an affinity for Giorgio de Chirico, an artist about whom I knew very little about before today. The dream-like quality of each of his works is utterly compelling, and while he only painted everyday objects, the manner in which each is presented makes them seem totally foreign.

Giorgio de Chirico’s “The Enigma of a Day”

3. I have underrated the work of Jackson Pollock. Granted, it is not as technically masterful as Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt van Rijn, but there’s something more to it than squiggly lines and splashes of paint. Today, I learned that he didn’t paint on a canvas that had been stretched on and stapled to a frame. Instead, he laid it flat on the floor and walked around it do to his work using a method called Drip Painting. (As a result, he became known as Jack the Dripper in certain circles.) He said it made him feel more connected to the work because he could approach it from all sides, be on the same level as it so to speak. He would paint using sticks and other objects rather than simply paintbrushes and perform a sort of choreographed dance around the canvas, slinging paint according to his mood, and then repeating the process again with another color to create a multi-layered work that seems simple but becomes more interesting once you start looking at it and trying to trace the origin, source, and rhythm of that movement. In a way, the canvas is a map of that dance he did to create it. The creation (and creator) of it is still “alive” inside of it in a manner of speaking. You can even see his hand prints in the upper right hand corner.

Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A”

4. Museums might just be okay for kids…some of them at least. For this piece, there was an Artclix info page, a track on the adult audio tour, and a track on the family/kids audio tour. I listened to mine, stood there contemplating, and then noticed this cute little girl staring at Number 1A the same way I was. She was moving her arms, imitating Pollock’s movement as best I could tell, and she was really into it!

I’m not normally a fan of kids at museums. Often, they’re bored by the second painting, and the remainder of the time they’re there, they’re whining or trying to touch the art. Most curtain climbers who I’ve come into contact with don’t have a volume control on their voice boxes either. Museum rules be damned! They see no problem telling everyone around them, especially when they have to go to the bathroom (including which “number” they have to do of course) or what they think when they see a naked person. Generally, they ruin the artistic buzz of everyone else in the gallery until either their parents give up and take them home or they fall asleep in a sweaty heap on someone’s shoulder.

However, this little one made me re-evaluate my stance. She was obviously digging on what she saw, interacting with it in a way that I think Pollock would have enjoyed. She stood in front of that large canvas, braids flopping and boots thumping on the floor, and embraced it as best as her little arms and growing mind could. Simply put, she couldn’t get that same experience from simply reading about him in a textbook or from a photograph of the artwork. I’ll put up with the others who beg for juice boxes they can’t have in order to afford kids like her the opportunity to experience art as a young-un.

I snapped a few photos with my camera phone, but they really don’t do the moment justice. However, I hope you enjoy looking at them almost as much as I did taking them!

I knelt down to take this one and am glad that no one arrested me as a creeper. I’m pretty proud of how it came out considering my low tech camera and my lack of skill.
Taking it all in.
Channeling Pollock…
Yep, that’s life imitating art that’s imitating life!

Lost at C

Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.

I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”

The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.

I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys  at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?

Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?

The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.

I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.

I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.

Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.

The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).

It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!

Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!

***

Lost at C

A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey

The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea

of writhing, cacophonous keys.

In the distance, as if discarded by his master,

a slave’s head bobs without a sound

amid the endless waves of splintered wood.

His suffering sets the tone.


But I’m left longing for the tone

that sounds when striking middle C,

the note among all others that would

help me place my fingers on correct keys.

A familiar place, safe and sound

on the instrument I longed to master.


In how many homes was it the master,

the symbol of domesticity? In tones

of chestnut and mahogany, the sound

made by each was like the sea,

rhythmic as a metronome, as key

to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.


If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would

still remain in the hands of a master

who’d polish its surface and clean each key,

tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,

relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C

atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?


Would someone open the lid to release the sound

and the family history locked within the wood?

Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see

that while time is something we can never master

we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones

and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key


to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key

signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound

of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone

for all that was, that is, and that ever would

be. None of us live lives made from a master,

without uniqueness, our own variation in C.


Knowing this is key to what otherwise would

be a sound failure. One cannot master his past

by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.