Thursday, July 30, 2015

Art, Plants, and Mexico: Frida Kahlo at the New York Botanical Gardens

As long time readers of these missives know, traipsing around New York City is one of my favorite things to do. New York gives me opportunities to engage in two of my favorite things-encountering new museums and exhibits and walking around a big city. Last week my wife and I went up to New York to go to the New York Botanical Gardens for the very first time to see their exhibit on the art and gardens of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, one of my favorite artists. We went with two long time friends of ours, and we had an amazing time. I had known Kahlo's artwork and had known about her connection to Mexican muralist and artist Diego Rivera. But I had not had any real knowledge of her as a gardener or cultivator of plants. Nor had I been seriously aware of the role of nature in her art and life. This exhibit provided tons of information and examples of that side of Kahlo, and it was mindblowing. I learned much more about Kahlo, Mexican plants and fruits, and Mexico in the 20th century than I had ever known before. 
Kahlo produced a whole catalog of works, including a ton of self portraits. What the works at the botanical gardens focus on, though, are the works that highlight the connections between her work and her knowledge, love and care for the fruits, plants, and flowers of her native Mexico. Frida 's life and work celebrated the unique heritage of Mexico, from the worlds of its native peoples to its interactions with its European conquerors, African slaves, and immigrants. There were paintings that featured types of indigenous melons and fruits that I had never heard of much less seen or tasted. There were native trees and plants used in ways that served as powerful sexual and social symbols and that commented on social situations in Mexico and beyond. Like the US, Mexico is a country of cultural mixtures, and Frida used many of those mixtures in her work. There were elements of Christianity, native religion iconography, native animals, and more. And with her use of deep rich colors, her symbolic points and humor stood out clearly and powerfully. While this section of the exhibit was somewhat small, it was quite powerful and effective. It highlighted a part of her art in a way I had not really noticed before.

The main observatory building at the gardens was devoted to the plants and trees of Frida's Mexico, and for me this was the highlight of the exhibit. There were tons of different types of palms, cacti, succulents, and ferns of different shapes, sizes, and environments, and it was almost overwhelming. There were things growing out of the sides of trees, projecting from pots in the ceiling, snaking around other plants, and lining replicas of the fence and walls in Kahlo and Rivera's Mexico City residence. Tree ferns of different sizes and shapes lined platforms, walkways and stairways throughout the building. Day and water lilies abounded in the indoor and outdoor pools, and there were more orchids than I ever knew existed in the greenhouses. It was like being in an alien environment-nothing was familiar. Everywhere you looked there was something new, exciting and strange. We spent a long time in the observatory and could easily have spent more. It was wonderful disorienteering.

The final stop of the exhibit puts Frida and Diego Rivera in the context of a Mexico fresh from revolution and independence and trying to face the modern world and adjust to it. It is a two walled presentation of the Mexico City of Kahlo and Rivera with reproductions of some of their public artwork and the layout of the central city, their residence and studio, and the public places of downtown Mexico City. There are wonderful representations of some of Rivera's storytelling murals, photos of Kahlo's Casa de Azul residence, and photos of Kahlo as a youngster and in her gardens. This part of the exhibit marks Kahlo's importance not only as an artist, but also as a symbol of her time and place, and as a unique personage able to draw history, culture, and art together in a way that spoke and still speaks to people in powerful and transformative ways. The whole exhibit, in fact, is a celebration of her unique position and vision, and it was truly inspiring and enlightening. It is at the Botanical Gardens until September, and I may well go up and see it again. It is that compelling and interesting. It was another great trip to New York and another wonderful Big Apple experience.

(Here is a link the Botanical Gardens website and the Frida Kahlo exhibit:

Friday, July 17, 2015

July 17, 2015

The trouble with weather forecasting is that it’s right too often for us to ignore it and wrong  too often for us to rely on it. ~Patrick Young 

If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. ~Raymond Inmon 

This has been a strange summer weather wise. As I have been out walking around in the early morning it seems as if it has either been super hot, sticky and humid or thunderstormy, windy, and showery. Around the neighborhood whole forests seem to have sprung up where there used to be neat little sidewalk gardens and lawns. Some flower gardens have been battered and drowned and suffered windblown damage. Some stately old trees have lost limbs and bark and are looking bruised and tattered. And many wooden fences are bent over and looking rather the worse for wear. And the weather forecasts have not seemed to have been on top of a lot of these developments. Storms have come in suddenly from the west or from the south, turning days that were forecast in the morning as partially cloudy ones with, say, a 40% chance of precipitation into days with severe thunderstorm warnings and flood alerts by 5 that evening. People have lost power, traffic accidents have increased, and creeks and rivers have hit new heights. It has been a summer of extremes weather happenings.

Walking in the morning has given me some views of this. Several mornings I have had to cut my walk short due to the rain. I normally like walking in the rain-I find the normal gentle rains of spring and early summer really invigorating and pleasant. But several mornings this summer have featured intense rain with rumbles of thunder and threats of thunderstorms and intense bouts of humidity that just sap my strength and do me in. There have also been a few days where the temperature has been in the mid 80's by 6 AM, and the normal refreshing feel I get from walking early in the morning isn't readily there. Yet for some reason I have still walked, and I am not quite sure why. Somehow I know that being out early is still good for me, and I think the discipline of doing that probably helps me as well. Now I am not normally a very disciplined person-it is hard for me to stay with something for a long time even if it is “good for me.” But the getting up early and walking is something that now seems to be a part of who I am. And it seems to be serving me rather well. For one thing it allows me to start my day in a good mood. Inevitably when I am out walking I have noted something interesting, said ,”Hi' to someone I haven't seen in a while, heard an interesting bird call, or otherwise had my mind engaged in something I would not have engaged with otherwise. I also find that I am able to engage with a calmer, more free flowing and maybe more creative part of myself on these walks. I often resolve some concerns that I have been thinking about, whether it is a personal concern or issue or even the arrangement for a song. My mind can also be hyper-alert and I can notice some things that I had been unaware of before. Lately, for example,  I have been noticing how certain alleyways on the sides of houses in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill lead to fantastic little back entrance ways and cute off-street living spaces. So this walking does good things for both my spirit and my brain. And that seems to go beyond the mere comfort of whether it is raining or not. 

So I will continue to endure the weather and keep walking in the morning. It seems to put me in a great place, connect me to the world in a good way, and start me off in a positive position to meet the world. And the weather-well, I will just have to take what is given and look at it in the best light. I have to remember what a friend of mine says; “It is always the bottom of the ninth with weather and nature-they always have the last at bat.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

First Blog Post

I love words. I love reading. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by words. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries. I read newspapers and magazines and comic books. At one point my mother had to ban cereal boxes from the kitchen table because I could ignore the people around the table while reading the back of the cereal box. I did crossword puzzles and studied the Reader's Digest ,"Grow Your Vocabulary" pages. I loved and love the sounds of words and the implications of the sounds of words. Even today"mellifluous" and scrumptious" and "detritus" and "multi-syllabic" make me smile. Years ago Cecelia Traugh, a former Middle School head, did a wonderful lesson with kids analyzing the descriptive verbs in a piece of political reporting. She noted how different an impression it created if the article said a candidate "walked" into a room" or "strode" into a room; "entered" it or "ambled into" it. I still think about that when I read political coverage, and I note how aware of these subtle differences advertising copy writers are. They know the power a carefully chosen verb or adjective can have. I say all that to say that I love words and all that they they can do, and that I have been truly enjoying the fact that I now have the time in my life to do some serious reading. And by "serious reading" I don't necessarily mean reading "weighty tomes" or books about depressing subjects such as climate change or income inequality. I mean that I now have the time to seriously practice the art of reading-of seriously interacting with and enjoying words.

   I love authors who can put words together in such a way that I can see, feel and/or taste what they are saying. It's sort of a "synesthesia" effect; they shake up my senses, make me more alert or aware and make me see new things. William Faulkner was one such writer, and even though I have some real problems with a lot of his presentation and interpretation of the world, I love the way the feel and sound of his sentences transport me to a different time, place and climate. Larry McMurtry did that same thing for me in Lonesome Dove. Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with its wonderful speech patterns and descriptions of smells and sights, also does this consistently. In an interview I read in high school he mentioned the Russian writers who influenced him, and that led to me to Turgenev, Chekov and others who were able to make me see and feel the 1800's in Russian ways history books couldn't. Toni Morrison is another author who does that for me; I often think of her description of the troubled, tortured main character in her novel Sula. Morrison's description still resonates: "..had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. But like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” Whew! And there have been so many others from so many different genres: Raymond Chandler, Ursula LeGuinn, Kenneth Patchen, Alice Walker, Yukio Mushima; Octavia Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more and more. The list is endless; it will never run out.

     Currently I am reading two very different writers in two very different generes who both love playing with words. One is Diane Lord, a Barbados-Canadian writer who wrote a wonderful poetic and magical take off on a Senegalese folktale called Redemption in Indigo. Part folk tale, part meditation on the nature of arrogance and part a look at the unintended consequences of unrestrained egos, it is delightfully told in the voice of a narrator who loves playing with words and sentences. In explaining why the heroine of the story, Paama, left her constantly hungry husband, Ansige, for example, Lord writes: "I can hear some of you complaining already. "A woman who cooks and a man who eats should be a match made in heaven!" Do you really think so? Then you have not grasped that Ansige was not an epicure but a gourmand. Paama's talents were wasted on him." And the novel takes off from there. I am also reading Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. An intense and bluntly beautiful story set in the Ozark mountains, it has paragraphs such as, "A picnic of words feel from Gail's mouth to be gathered around and savored slowly. Ree's feelings could stray from now and drift to so many special spots of time in her senses when listening to that voice, the perfect slight lisp, the wet tone, that soothing hill folk drawl." Both writers have these beautiful stretches of words that make me stop and go back and read them again. Often I have to read them out loud just to feel the sound of their words on my lips and to hear them in the air. It is a treat.

   I have some other books I am planning to read and re-read in the next few months, and I would be interested in knowing what books and authors speak to you in special ways. I am always up for a good read and for being turned on to a new author or two. If you feel moved, please drop me a line and let me know. And now....well now I have the time to seriously read.