Thursday, March 28, 2019


Highway of Combes le ville-Giovanni Boldinni


‘The sky is the daily bread of the eyes.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I've never seen a moon in the sky that, if it didn't take my breath away, at least misplaced it for a moment”. Colin Farrell 


   I love this painting. I LOVE this painting. It is perhaps the most important painting I have ever seen in my life. I first saw it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was in junior high school, and a few of us one afternoon, for some unremembered reason, decided to go the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I came upon the Boldini in the first floor gallery of European Art on a wall on the left of the gallery, and it literally stopped me. I was caught and amazed. I looked at it, moving closer to take in the all the beautifully crafted colors, the subtly changing shades of green and brown marking the highway, the scale of the carriage and the people, and the placement of the trees along the road. Then I noticed the sky in this painting-the varying shades of blue that seem to infuse the scene with magic, the way the background sky seemed to just arise and appear to slowly dominate the scene, and the marvelous clouds that seem to be quietly, majestically,  and steadily in motion. The scene felt alive; real, and I was hooked. Every time after that whenever I went to the museum I had to see that painting. In my high school years, in my early 20’s- for some fifteen or so years I visited this painting as often as I could. It changed location during those fifteen years, but I had to see It and I tracked it down. When they took it off view for some 15 years I was saddened. And when I saw it back on view in the 1990’s I was astonished and joyous and-I literally burst out crying when I first saw it again. This is probably the single most important painting I have seen in my life. For this is the painting that has made me forever look up and marvel at the sky.

   I was an urban kid and did not have too much experience being outside the city. Some summers we stayed for a while with relatives in Coatesville when I was a kid, but I really didn’t notice the sky then. I liked the trails we walked, the dirt roads, and the sounds of the freight train going to and from Lukens Steel. But I paid little attention to the sky. But in my high school years I had more outside experiences, and they happened after I had seen that painting. So I was much more aware of the sun, the clouds, the moon and the wondrousness of sky. I went to the Folk Festival and to Be-Ins and was listening to music outside in the day and in the night. I started going camping and birdwatching and could look at the sky away from city lights. Looking up became of vital importance to me. Fortunately, when I married Penny, she was a camper and birder as well. In fact we had a tent-camping honeymoon in Maine and Nova Scotia. And through our 40 year-long relationship we had so many incredible experiences with the wonders of the sky: seeing several eclipses over a lake at Montezuma State Park in upstate New York, watching full moons in West Virginia, Canada and upstate Pennsylvania; seeing dozens of meteor showers away from city lights and marveling at the sheer number of stars and meteors; waking with the sun numerous mornings in our campsites and watching many magical and colorful sunrises. And I will never forget the experience we had one night at one of her cousins’ house in Arizona: laying on sleeping bags for a couple of hours outside on the deck, watching a moose walk by the house, and looking up into the clear night sky at the Perseid meteor shower as a wolf howled. Watching the sky has become an important part of how I take In the world, and it brings me pleasure and joy.

   I am thinking of that now because I am again doing more walking and specifically more early morning walking. If I leave the house around 5:30-6:00 AM I am catching the last of the nights’ darkness and watching the day coming into being simultaneously. If I look south and east, I often see the orangish, yellowish, reddish streaks that are beautifully announcing the day. And if I look to the north and the west I can still see the moon sitting shyly above the roofs. It is just hovering there, watching over us for just a little longer. No matter the mood I am in upon awakening, seeing day and night simultaneously improves it, if only for a while. It is quiet amazement that I can tap into as I start my day. It is glorious.

    I owe all of that to Boldini and that magical highway in France. Encountering his work was the start of a lifetime of my “skyjoy.”  The way experiencing his marvelous work of art has influenced me still astounds me, and I am so grateful. I think I will visit the Art Museum again in the next week and spend some more time in Gallery 155. I have to say, “Thanks” to a painting.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring Prep in Nature and in Life


‘Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men”
                           Chinese proverb
“Springtime is the land awakening. The March winds are its morning yawn.”    
                              Lewis Grizzard
  Walking in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill these last two weeks has been very interesting and invigorating. There has been an air of expectancy along Germantown Ave. as more and more people have been out and about. The weather has been a big part of it, of course. We have had days in the 60’s and 70’s that brought everyone out of their homes and onto the streets. And we have also had day like today which have started near freezing but by mid-day are in the 40’s and 50’s. Despite the occasional days of temperatures in the 30’s for an entire day, we are in the midst of seasonal change now, and for most of us that is a most wonderful thing. Even though we have not had the miseries of winter to the extent that many places along the East Coast have had this year, we still had winter. And for many of us the official calendrical end of that season is a cause for rejoicing.
    The calendar says that spring arrives on Wednesday, March 20th at approximately 4:58 PM. That is true; this is the astrologic and calendar time when the vernal equinox happens. The sun shines directly on the equator, the length of day and night are about equal, and what we call “spring” is officially here. But there is also another time for spring, and we have been in the midst of it for a little while. We have had clear hints of spring well before the equinox; that is what stoked our expectancy a few weeks ago. On many of the lawns in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill daffodils and snowdrops have been pushing up their shoots and quietly making their appearances for at least the last two weeks. Purple, white and yellow crocuses have been adding color to fronts of houses and backyards. Little red buds have been visible on the many cherry trees in the city. Robins, mourning doves, house wrens, and chickadees are back at the feeders and in the trees. The cardinals, who have been around all winter, are now pairing up and singing their songs more loudly and boldly in the early morning. We look up and there are more and more hours of sunlight, and the average temperature for the week has been above freezing. This has been going on in the Northern Hemisphere for several weeks now, and it is what is called, “meteorological” spring. And it always arrives before the calendarial spring.
    Weatherpeople and climatologists check temperature averages and climatic conditions and use those as a guide to when a season begins and ends. When a level of consistency in these conditions arrives, we have, according to them, started a new season.  To them it has been spring for a few weeks now. For them the climatic reality in our Northern Hemisphere has already started that time of rebirth and renewal-the time when the earth says, “Lets go through this again.” Our landscapes and surroundings have already started being born again. We have been waiting for the calendar to catch up.
   For most of human history this time has been the start of the new year. Spring is when the earth seems to come back to life and everything around us is being reborn and/or remerging. The whole universe seems to 'start over” with animals emerging from hibernation, moving into different locations for a while, and mating. It’s a time when flowers, plants, and potential crops reappear, and the ground seems aching to be fertilized. It is a time for rebirth on a massive scale, and it is inevitable and unavoidable. We as humans are a part of that universe, so we also say, “Let's start again; let’s begin anew.” It is a time when “possibility” lives again; we can even imagine doing it a little bit better this time. In culture after culture all around the world we humans embrace this time in the age-old way we acknowledge anything that is important to us; we do it symbolically. We participate in many religious observances and rituals which focus on stories of rebirth and renewal at this time, whether it is Christianity’s Easter, Judaism’s Passover, the Persian house cleaning and fire jumping ritual of Noruz, or the Chinese dancing in lion masks to scare away bad spirits that may have moved into the house in winter. We do it culturally as well. We literally “clean house,” often redecorating, getting the garden ready, and sweeping out the old and letting in the new. We change our wardrobes, buying new clothes and wearing fabrics that have a lighter color scheme. We paint the house, plant gardens, and more. Humans have to acknowledge the changes in the universe, and we have to do things to show that we acknowledge them. And just as it is in nature, this buildup to the main event is as important as the main event itself.
   Nature is in part, a process or series of processes. It is not as if on March 19th nothing is happening and then suddenly, “BANG” spring is here. Spring is the result of dozens of steps-smaller occurrences and changes that lead to or result in the big event. The meteorological spring can be looked at as Nature’s way of “prep’– of the universe building up to and taking steps towards the big event.  That crocus on the lawn, the loudly singing cardinals, the budding cherry trees; these can be looked at as Nature’s prepping for the big event and giving us a hint of what is to come. They are nature’s “Trailers” or “Coming Attractions” Likewise, the rituals we humans do to celebrate spring are generally not single day or single event affairs. They are a series of steps and events leading up to the major event.  Easter and Passover, for example, have steps and actions that precede the actual event, and they happen over a period of time. Like Nature we move toward our main events. Most of them are simultaneously results of what has gone before as well as indicators of what is to come.
   So spring is here now. We can savor and enjoy the increased hours of sunlight, the gradually increasing temperatures, and the re-coming to life of lawns, gardens, woods and more. The cycle is continuing, and we humans work to find our place within it. I hope that for all of us it is a celebration of life and of looking toward a more hopeful future. For me, that is one of the promises of each spring and each of the rituals connected to it. We can endeavor to make some changes, learn some new things, find some improvements, and maybe even do better this time around. To me that is a huge part of what is about: hope, becoming, and possibility. Enjoy the season.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

UPDATE: Black History Month and Children's Books

Black History and the New World of Children’s Books
DUKES FANS “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut
"We should emphasize not Negro History but the Negro in history. What we need is not histories of selected people or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice." Historian Carter G. Woodson, 1926, father of Negro History Week,now Black History Month "Books Saved My Life" Saying on T-Shirt sold at Uncle Bobbie's coffeeshop in Germantown
One of the things that I have been doing since I retired from teaching is serving as a volunteer librarian at a local public elementary school. Penny, my late wife, established the program at this school in 2015 when we both retired, and it involves some 18 or so retired teachers and educators who spend 4 mornings a week reading books to students, helping them choose and take books out for their own pleasure, helping them with research projects, and more. There are many reasons I love doing this, but one of the biggest is that I get to discover, read, and share with the kids books that I could not have imagined existing when I was their age-or even older. The world of children's books is undergoing a major change, and the volunteering puts me in touch with that. When I was in elementary school in the 1950's there were no reading books that featured people who were remotely familiar to me or who lived in neighborhoods such as mine. There were lily-white Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, and houses with picket fences around them. During history time we rarely mentioned people who looked like me except in discussions of slavery in the South, George Washington Carver and the peanut, Langston Hughes' poetry, and one or two other Negroes, as we were then called. Now I was not ignorant about or unaware of the accomplishments of blacks in the US; my family subscribed to the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper as well as Jet and Ebony magazines, and we frequently discussed issues of civil rights, as the Movement was growing through the 50's and 60's, both in strength and news coverage. Public schools at that time, though, did not pay much attention to dark skinned people except in some limited and/or stereotyped ways. While we were not totally invisible, we were in no way fully "there." Fortunately, there were public libraries and I loved to haunt their stacks. Those places had books about a wide variety of topics, people and issues that appealed to me. It was at the library that I first found out about Black cowboys and later started wearing cowboy hats as a tribute to them. It was there I discovered writers such as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, and many more. It was there in the late 1960's and 70's that I could encounter the work of the burgeoning "Black Arts Movement" and expand my ways of thinking. Libraries were a place where I could go beyond what I knew to encounter and embrace new ideas, new people and new thoughts. To me, libraries are essential parts of a civilization, and school libraries are important ways to introduce young people to reading, questioning and learning. So helping to keep a public school library open in a city that does not have enough funding to fully staff its schools is, to me, a vital thing to do.
But the thing I love most about volunteering has been discovering how radically changed the world of children's books has become. There are now an amazing number of books featuring characters who look like me, stories about people who look like me, and biographies and history books about people who look like me. Yes, I know these changes have been happening for some time now, but were I not volunteering in the library I would probably be unaware of the extent and reach of these changes. There are loads of stories now where African-American characters feature prominently and they and their lives are the main point of the story. And they live in a variety of times, places and situations, just as we do in the real world. There are also a lot of biographies for children now, not only about famous African-Americans, but also of folks very few people know about. One of the things I love doing for my read-aloud sessions with the kids during Black History Month is to read biographies about these lesser known people, many of whom even I did not know about until discovering them in a children's book. Many of these new biographies are also picture books, so I get to introduce young students to African-Americans such as Kansas potato magnate Junius Groves, New York City's Molly Williams, the first female firefighter in the United States, Texas cowboy and wild horse trainer Bob Lemmons, Maryland's astronomer, almanac-writer, and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, and many, many more. The kids I read to may be unaware of how momentous the existence of books such as these really is, but the importance of this is not lost on me. This has been a quiet but stunning revolution, and its effects will be long lasting and far ranging.
So I invite you to become a kid again for a little while and read some children's literature that can take you to some new places in the world and in your mind and give you some new information, new thoughts and new realizations. Go to your local public library and explore. Re-discover how much fun reading and learning can be just for its own sake. Enjoy the pictures, the stories and welcoming some new people into your life. It will be a wonderful and thrilling experience. (some of my favorite books the library has introduced me to; No Small Potatoes: Junius Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas Tonya Bolden; illustrated by Don Tate Molly, by Golly: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter Dianne Ochiltree; illustrated by Kathleen Kemly Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney Dear, Benjamin Banneker Andrea Pinkney illustrated by Brian Pinkney (and a good website for searching out African-American children's books: )

An Arc of Promise: The Artwork of Jerry Pinkney

 “When you look at my art, you can see my attempt at fulfilling and instilling that promise of light over dark…Each piece of art that I complete strengthens my connection to black history…to see its shape and form in my imagination, to move forward towards a promise fulfilled.”    Jerry Pinkney
  A few weeks ago I wrote about my volunteer work at the Kelly Public Elementary School in Philadelphia and how one of the joys of that has been discovering how many books there now are that feature people that look a lot like I look-books whose existence I could scarcely have imagined when I was an elementary school student. There are biographies, story books, slice of life books and more that feature and highlight peoples of color in all sorts of ways. Last weekend I was fortunate to see an amazing and powerful exhibit about someone at the forefront of this development, renowned illustrator and visual storyteller Jerry Pinkney. Born and raised in Germantown, Mr. Pinkney is one of the world’s most prolific and honored illustrators in the world whose work appears in dozens of books, magazines and even on the walls of several National Monuments. This exhibit is both a tribute to his outstanding work, and an explanation/demonstration of how he works. It is both fascinating and moving.
     The exhibit is at Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of art and artists in the Philadelphia region. When they do a special exhibition centered on one artist the museum always presents a deep and multi-faceted look at both the art and the artist. So in this wonderfully arranged presentation we get a full picture of Jerry Pinkney, seeing many of his most memorable illustrations and gaining insight into how he thinks about, researches and prepares for a given assignment. We get a sense of the ideas and inspiration behind an illustration and of the work that goes into it. We see just how and what makes Jerry Pinkney so much more than just an illustrator.
  Jerry is, of course, a very talented illustrator. His brush strokes, use of color, sense of scale, and attention to detail make his work stand out and draw the viewer into each illustration. But there is much more than that to a Jerry Pinkney illustration. Some 100 examples of his work are in the exhibit, and for most of them he has notes explaining why he drew a certain thing a certain way. Why the 5 year old girl carrying a load of firewood in an illustration from the Museum of the African Burial Ground, for example, is as thin as she is and why she seems to be looking a little off to the side. Why in another illustration of a group of runaway slaves crossing a river, one person’s eyes are wide open and looking ahead even as most of the other escapees are looking back toward from where they have come. The facial and body expressions of people in his work convey and express great feeling; we come to look at the people in his work as real people with real lives, real feelings and real effects from what is described in the narrative of the particular book he is illustrating. The way he draws eyes, hands, and mouths, for example, say a lot about what is going on in the book and gives an insight into the characters. So, too, with the way he poses bodies and pays attention to backgrounds. A hawk, or a mountain or a cloud is not just “there in a Jerry Pinkney illustration; they say and represent important things about the narrative. For these reasons I think of Jerry Pinkney not just as an extremely talented illustrator, but as a visual storyteller as well.
  Myth and fable are important parts of Jerry’s interest, so the exhibit features drawings he did for books about the Biblical prophet, Elijah, Lakota Native American tales about the eagle, and Black folk hero John Henry. In these books there is a sense of magic to the illustrations; scenes seem to shimmer and the brightness or darkness in each illustration seems almost like special effects in a film. His use of light and shadow is amplified in these books, almost as if the books are taking place both in this world and another world simultaneously. And his subtle attention to background make each illustration feel complete and part of a much larger reality.
  I urge you all to make it to the Woodmere and experience the beauty and power of Jerry Pinkney’s art. Note also that there are a number of special events connected this special exhibition that are taking place at the museum as well.
Here are links to all that is happening.
Woodmere Museum
9201 Germantown Ave
Philadelphia, PA19118
For me this exhibit was remarkable. I will attend it again as well as get to some of the special events connected to this exhibit. It is a great tribute to an amazing artist, and it is a clear example of the power of art to move, to teach and to inspire.