Monday, July 29, 2013

Art, artists, and gratitude

Bill and I have just come back from five days in Boston, though we stayed out of town in the lovely coastal village of Rockport.  Of the five days, it rained three.  No; I'm not feeling hard done by; I suspect that many of us are having rainier holidays, and if you can't find something indoors to do in Boston, you are vacationally challenged.  On our first rainy day, we drove in to the New England Aquarium, which re-opened after a complete refurbishment, most particularly of its giant tank.  In many ways, we saw nature as artist, inventive, colourful, more varied than I would ever have imagined.  She works with every colour, every kind of spot or stripe or polka dot, every shape for fins, heads (check out the yellow cow fish online), bodies.  And colour combinations.  Deep purple with deep rose.  Deep blue with bright yellow stripes. The most remarkable silvery blue clothes fish that always travel in schools, flashing as they slip by.   Some artist, whose name I have tried to discover, created a remarkable coral reef for the big tank.  After new and more effective plexiglass was installed, they started adding the fish, beginning with the smallest ones, letting them find their hiding places in their new coral reef before adding bigger ones.  These are not the coral reefs that you would find today, but are replicas of older reefs; in turn, the reefs are as inventive as the fish, growing in strangely wonderful shapes and colours.

 I'm also grateful to the aquarium for the kind of environmental work they do, some of which is rather subtle.  Of course they advocate for marine life.  But one of the first displays you walk into has sting rays gliding through the water.  A young woman sits on a rock in the middle of the shallow pool and encourages you to pet the sting rays.  They feel like a rather cruddy old boot with a layer of soft clay on top.  But they like being petted and swirl around their pool to come by the people just to get attention.  The aquarium brings sea life into our hands and sets up a rather improbable relationship between people and...sting rays?!
On our second rainy day, we went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Throughout the museum there are neon installations like the one you see above, which greets you at the door, and one  which read, simply, POETRY.  It was absolutely charming to come across groups of young artists like those you see below, most of them attempting to translate three dimensions into two.  This makes the gallery a kind of living place.  
Also lively was an encounter we had with an older woman whose hat Bill admired.  She was dressed to kill in a black straw hat with red roses and wore an "Adlai all the way" button, which might tell you something about her age.  (Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and lost both times to Eisenhower.)  She stopped and had a little chat with us, telling us to look her up if we were ever in Woburn before traipsing off with her friend.  She might have been one of the portraits by Sargent in the MFA's new American wing, portraits that manage to suggest personality--rather than simply likeness.  Then later there were six Picassos, one for each of six radically different phases of his career.  A wall of calm Monets, three late Van Goghs....I can't really capture the richness of the day, partly because Boston's collection strives to give the viewer a little bit of everything rather than focusing on a single vision like Chicago with its large collection of impressionists or the McMichael Gallery with its Group of Seven paintings.
On our third rainy day, we went to the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell Massachusetts, which used to be a mill town and is now a distant suburb of Boston.  Lowell's streets are edged with lots of charming brick buildings, but these are now filled with spas, candy shops, musty antique stores; Lowell's businesses have been eclipsed by the very tony Burlington Mall that's about twenty minutes closer to Boston.

On our sunny days, we walked on the beaches, through a granite quarry, and through two artists' colonies, chatting with the artists about their work.  One kind gentleman who does patterned black and white raku, was delighted to tell me exactly how he did it.  He gets white stripes or lozenge shapes on his pots by putting on a layer of slip before the pot is fired.  After the pot's firing, after it is closed in a garbage can with combustible sawdust, he douses is with cold water and the slip pops off, leaving spaces that have not been smoked by the firing.  We talked to an older woman who is just learning to paint on silk and wants to talk about her husband's work with a palette knife in his more recent oils.  I loved going to the shops that were also studios, like the one at the top of the page.  Seeing what they collected and needed around them gave me some insight into their work that you don't get from a minimalist white gallery.  You can see all the daily odds and sods that art is really made of--like a can of turpentine among some decorative vases.

And the gratitude?  Well, we got caught in a couple of rush hours; at one point, it took us 2 hours to make a 45-minute trip.  The day we were at the Museum of Fine Arts, we had been sensible enough to take the train up to Boston, and then catch the tram for the Museum.  At the end of the day, when we were done, we found ourselves among Bostonians heading home from work in heavy rain.  The tram car was so crowded that the driver announced that they were sending us another pair of cars and could we please not push our way in.  Once to North Station, where we caught our train, we found ourselves in the grey cold among the commuters who travel for an hour or more to get home through landscape that is sometimes industrial, sometimes coastal, but on days like last Thursday predominantly yet beautifully grey.  I had to shake my head again and again in order to keep this image of a daily, tired journey through a somber landscape from overwhelming the art I had just been glorying in.  I tried to imagine what this journey would feel like at the end of the day before I remembered that I used to catch a bus in downtown Boston and travel an hour out to Brandeis University, where I edited the work for a social science research group before grabbing my copy of War and Peace and getting back on the bus again. On public transit, you can make use of this time.  And perhaps you can get used to doing what you have to do, as I did.  But it still gives one pause and inclines one to quote T. S. Eliot's Wasteland.

On the rainy evenings, I read.  I began with Richard Ford's collection of short stories (from Ken Probert's library) A Multitude of Sins.  I admired the craft.  Each story is set in a different city, and the background is an integral part of the values and conflicts of the story.  I imagined Ford on a long road trip, simply driving to cities, hanging out for some coffee or a few martinis (judging from what his characters drink in this collection) and trying to figure out what made them tick before he moved on to a different community.  Characterization and narrative voice are all masterful; the plots are small gems, some of them even built like a gem-stone, with half a dozen different facets of a person's character being pulled into the experiences and memories of a single evening.  At the same time, though, I found myself discouraged by Ford's vision of people behaving badly.  True, it's what makes for drama.  Yet, I asked myself, don't most of us go through our lives striving to behave better?  That was only my first, fervent hypothesis:  probably most of us go through our lives trying to get what we want.  Yet if, like me, you've had a minor train wreck in your life, one that seemed major at the time, you begin to shift your priorities and to strive for something less like a train wreck, which usually involves a lot of self-reflection and an attempt to treat people with care and kindness and respect.  So I spent quite a number of rainy hours asking questions about plots and how they reflected human lives.

As an antidote to Ford's beautifully-crafted cynicism, I read Robert Pogue Harrison's Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition, which begins thus:  "Human beings are not made to look too intently at the Medusa head of history--its rage, death, and endless suffering.  This is not a shortcoming on our part; on the contrary, our reluctance to let history's realities petrify us underlies much of what makes human life bearable:  our religious impulses, our poetic and utopian imagination, our moral ideals, our metaphysical projections, our storytelling, our aesthetic transfigurations of the real, our passion for games, our delight in nature....More often than not in Western culture, it has been the garden, whether real or imaginary, that has provided sanctuary from the frenzy and tumult of history."  I had been looking at the Medusa head of history just before we left for our holidays, trying to absorb two facts from India:  that 23 children had died of pesticides in their school lunches, and that India has an extensive and expensive school lunch program which is cursed by so much graft and bribery that children get a fraction of the food the government supposedly pays for.  What does one say for a country that cannot organize its priorities, its laws, its values to give safe food to children?  What, then, does one say for a country that rarely bothers to ensure that children have enough food?  Harrison's book is teaching me that the "fall" from the Garden of Eden is a fall from a life of relative ease into one of care, the (cultural) moment when beauty and hard work--if not suffering--stand in a tenuous balance that gives the beauty achieved its meaning.  But if one cannot find the beauty? I came back from my holidays, then, with questions.

On evenings when it didn't rain, we walked.  No questions here:  just beauty.

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