There are chickens running uncooped down the street here, 104 street in Howard Beach. Maybe they’ll eat them.
Category Archives: Art
It looks like I will soon be working a new assignment, in a park rather than the mean streets of Brooklyn. Green! Summer! Lofty trees! Even a lake.
Yet I already feel nostalgic for this world of impressively staunch street trees, truck exhaust and rough-edged asphalt corners.
I’ve spent the last week on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, a neighborhood that is dominated by Carribbean customs and flavors. I walk around and everything is out of my wheelhouse, out of my comfort zone. It’s amazing.
The men on my job pour concrete sidewalks, and the inspectors deliberate over the quantity of water in the mix.
Meanwhile, without a tree to care for today, I roam. Salvation beckons on just about every corner.
What about the second born and third born? The gospel is tucked away sometimes.
I always want to get the names of the tabernacles down when I’m driving past and regret not being able to. I never knew so many existed.
I like watching how women go about their lives here. There are produce stands everywhere, some with edibles I know.
And some that baffle me. Some kind of space potato, maybe.
The ladies here comb the displays for the perfectly ripe mango or green coconut and select just that one, foregoing a bagful, whether out of economy or exacting taste I don’t know. I love that these markets have not been coopted, all saran wrapped like Shoprite. This is a foreign land where newcomers have retained their habits.
The offerings at Fish World just swam in this moning from the West Indies.
There are baby sharks, delicate porgies and orange striped fish that look like Nemo. Me and the other women get a stainless bowl and a plastic glove and lift the whole fish into the bowl to go to the register. I purchased a red snapper and baked it last night Veracruz style, it was delicious. There’s also a bin of heads and tails and shoppers have a field day with: soup fixings.
Every other store is a hair braiding joint or a nail salon. Women dress to impress, their aspirations indicated by this sign for a beauty shop.
Signage fascinates me, like this lamppost poster. A woman on a bucking bull in Brooklyn.
A very sexy rodeo. Really. Well, meat is a theme here, live or butchered, with some of the stores devoted to it (Meat Mart). You have to work your way through dank-smelling aisles to find the true gems, the items on sale today.
I’m going to miss this neighborhood, its mysteries concentrated in a six block radius. I’m turned inside out, almost levitated by the power of all I don’t know.
Let’s talk bodily functions. One bodily function.
I have crisscrossed Brooklyn many times now saving trees. The availability of a place to pee structures my day. After my commute to the site, always on a residential street with nary a store, the first thing I do is trek to the nearest commercial stretch to beg some bodega owner to use their restroom. It’s 6:45 am. Few places are open. Sometimes the person behind the counter just says No, with a cold, distrustful look in his eye.
Out of order! he sometimes says.
Women behind the counter more often take pity. One said, after the automatic Out of order! and after I begged her, plucking at my orange vest to show I was somehow for real, Only wee-wee? Yes! So I won her over.
The vest counts for a lot.
The day goes on as we proceed to lay new sidewalk and save trees at different sites throughout the borough, and I take breaks when I can to walk off to find facilities at a pizza parlor, a 7-11, a candy store, a diner. The stall at a diner is bare bones.
I come back, the workers are digging. The men are pouring concrete, smoothing it out with their floaters. They’re throwing big hunks of old cement into the bucket of the back hoe.
Did they pee while I was gone?
I ask the engineer on the job: Where do they go?
He laughs. He seems surprised that a woman would raise such a distasteful subject with a man she barely knows. Really, I say. I’ve never seen them leave.
They have their ways, he says.
A laundromat I went to with a kind and respectful proprietor had Halloween decorations all over the walls, including framed ghoul portraits and red bloody handprints across all the washers and driers.
The woman had even decorated the bathroom, so that when you turned to the side this skeleton is what you would see. Giving the paying/peeing customer a little chuckle.
We traveled across the country once, Gil, Maud and I, and before we left Gil ordered some kind of device off the web so that we wouldn’t have to stop so often at rest stops. Maud and I were disgusted, we didn’t even look at it. But now I sort of see the point.
I think the crew might have a pail in the back of the truck. One of them dumps it at the end of the day, like a chamber pot.
Female jet pilots take their facilities with them into the sky. When you’re flying for 11 hours, trekking to a bodega is not an option.
There are books and websites devoted to finding women’s rooms in various cities, including Manhattan. As far as I know there is not one on Brooklyn. But the quest leads me into some nooks and crannies I might otherwise regard as unworthy of my time, like a little Mexican grocery on Avenue U. The owner was polite in directing me to the back of the store, and as I walked through, past the kitchen, the aroma of fresh tortillas nearly knocked me over. So did the pic on the back of the bathroom door.
People ask if there are any women on the construction crews I’ve worked alongside. No, I say. Why do you think that is? we wonder. They’re just so strong, I say, It would be a very unusual woman who could do that kind of heavy labor.
There are dozens, hundreds of women macha enough to work construction. But that’s not the real reason, of course. It’s that a woman couldn’t hold it in.
Mmuseumm isn’t a typical hoity toity museum but a 4×5 exhibition space tucked into an old elevator shaft in Cortlandt Alley, in Manhattan’s Tribeca. An eclectic assortment of collections and individual objects, it aspires according to artistic director Alex Kalman to be a “modern natural history museum devoted to the curation and exhibition of contemporary artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world.” It’s been entertaining and mystifying visitors since 2012.
So you won’t find anything framed or pedestalled here. But you will find 12 eggs in a heated vitrine waiting to hatch, or a grouping of vicious looking fish hooks that one Doctor Robert Insley in Chatham, Mass., removed from a variety of patients.
Curious as to whether this diminutive place was a giant hoax or a cracked art installation or the real thing, whatever that might be – in other words, whether someone was laughing at me as I perused the rubber chicken wing and the real fake pork sandwich on the wall, I checked out a few facts on the web. It turned out that the thing that amazed me most, a collection of heads called Stranger Visions and credited to Heather Dewey-Hagborg, was the real thing.
Next to each head was a cigarette butt or piece of chewed gum or fingernail clipping. The bio-hacker brought the specimen to a lab, extracted its DNA, then ran the sequence through a facial algorithim and a 3D printer to find out what the gumchewer or smoker looked like. Yes, it might actually be a hoodwink. But it looks like those chicks might hatch.
I have been meaning to write and say that I’m taking a bit of a hiatus from writing this blog — but I guess that’s kind of obvious. Not that I don’t adore posting here, I do. And I have the greatest readers in the world. But I am stuck in the middle of novel-world, and my writing in the fictional format seems to be taking all of my mental energy. I’m telling the story of a teenage girl in Revolutionary-era NYC. She looks a bit like this, as I imagine her.
I have her portrait tacked up to my bulletin board. And now I have to get back to her.
I will still post here from time to time, and pretty soon I’ll dive back in to the real world, and my real blog, every day.
Interesting. The artist John Waddell, who is now 93, is best known for his larger-than-life bronze sculptures of young, frolicking nude women. He’s a longtime resident of the Verde Valley, and when I was in Arizona I got to see his tour-de-force Dance grouping in front of the Herberger Theater in downtown Phoenix.
According to Waddell’s bio, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham became a pivotal event in his development as an artist. So the tragic death of four little girls led to his many portrayals of grown females in motion?
Some of the pieces here are quite arresting.
One couple reaches up to the highest boughs.
The representational approach is not my cup of tea, especially. I liked the stuff the tree flung to the ground as much as the sculpture that rose above.
You can’t really imagine it the other way around, can you — a 93-year-old female sculptor receiving acclaim for her dancing young male nudes? No way.
But seeing all these women wending around the sidewalk, all that exertion, all that freedom, brought me out of myself somehow. I felt glad to see them there.
The Desert Discovery Guide invited us to enjoy three zones along a trail that led out from the Scottsdale Senior Center: a hummingbird nest, a saguaro and bat sanctuary, and a butterfly garden.
I foresaw bliss ahead, an afternoon of hummingbirds, bats and butterflies, all in one swooping, fluttering place.
We just had to follow the gleaming glass-embedded arrows.
They look like jelly beans, said my mother.
The mesquite dangled over our heads.
Desert blooms along the way tantalized us. They would be perfect for butterflies, wouldn’t they?
There was a monstrous twin-headed cactii. A bat home! Where were the bats?
Saguaro are unlike any other plant, said my mother. All the others follow a regular pattern. Not so the saguaro.
Walk, walk, follow the arrows. All around, mallow, the peachy-orange blooms that hummingbirds love.
Not a hummingbird to be seen, though, in a nest or out. No sanctuary for bats, no garden for butterflies.
A trail to nowhere, with plants in bud, an empty picnic table, a tall metal sculpture standing alone.
But a kindly elf had constructed an ingenious dog fountain on the dirt, activated by paw pressure.
We went in hope of something and came away emptyhanded, but for a handful of jellybeans and thorns. Sounds like Easter is on its way.
It’s funny. As an author you work and work on a new book, you write, revise, get copyedited, read galleys, proofread again and again. You see the finished product, it arrives at your doorstep in a box of 20 advance copies for you to do with what you will. On publication day you know the book is out in the world. And yet until you walk until a store and see it with your own eyes you don’t know it for real.
So I had a little time to kill in Pleasantville, New York before going to see The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. My favorite local indie outfit, The Village Bookstore, lies just across the street.
You go first, I said to Gil. See if it’s there.
Then I thought that was lame. Screw your courage to the sticking place, I told myself, and ventured in. There my book lay, and it was displayed in good neighborly company, alongside Donna Tartt, Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen and Isabel Allende.
I mildly asked the store clerk if he’d like me to sign some copies while I was there. He seemed delighted, found me a pen, and when I said I hoped people would be interested in Savage Girl he had an answer that made me blush, glow, beam.
Well, he said, I think so. All those people who learned to love your writing in The Orphanmaster.
Now that’s what I call a night at the movies.
If I had to choose between these knitted winners, it would have to be the animal heads.
No, the full-body suit.
No, the meat. Definitely the meat.
After this short commercial break, we bring you back to the Oscars, live.
I pay a visit to the dressmaker. Not just any dressmaker. A time machine artist. A bespoke 21st century fashion designer with the soul of a Victorian seamstress. Cynthia Ivey Abitz is her name, and the clothes she designs are magical.
Gil knew I wanted one of her garments, a sweeping, floating coat called the Hambledon duster. He knew because I begged for one, having been tipped off to Ivey Abitz’s existence by an artistic friend. He had no choice, he gave me a gift certificate for Christmas, and I saved up the getting of it like a stocking candy that was too good to eat right away.
I decided to visit the Ivey Abitz studio, which she keeps on a cross street in the shadow of St. John the Divine, just above Manhattan’s Central Park. I wanted to feel the leather, as they say in the car-selling business, before deciding on the fabric of my coat. For every one of the hundreds of designs available, the client chooses the material.
A fluffy quartet of small cats and dogs share the cozy, sun-filled place, which is crowded with the eccentrically beautiful clothing that has earned her a reputation among the eccentrically beautiful. “Antique inspired garments relevant for everyday modern life,” is how Ivey Abitz describes her designs. I would say they have a patina you can’t find on the Macy’s sales rack, where I am usually inclined to find my wardrobe.
On the Ivey Abitz web site there is a more elaborate manifesto: The collection “gives a nod to the past and present… It’s anti-generic garb. It’s an aesthetic. It embraces certain classic and vintage design elements and gives them life in the present. It’s a celebration of life by getting dressed in something rare and special every day. It’s a state of mind. It’s regalia for everyday life.”
Cynthia, Cynthia, you had me at “nod to the past and present.”
On my visit, the designer bustles around, smoothing, fluffing, brushing away loose threads. I will come home and find loose threads all over me. The hazards of visiting the dressmaker, poor me.
How did she arrive at this unique aesthetic? Ivey Abitz remembers a family friend’s collection of antique clothing she happened to see when she was a kid of around eight, dressed in her summer attire of shorts and tee shirt, and saying to herself, Why doesn’t everybody dress like that? She grew up in Michigan farm country and spent her summers on Lake Huron, where she still has a cottage with her husband Josh Ivey Abitz, her partner in the business.
The two partnered as magazine photographers before they went into fashion but the outfits she designed and wore to shoots attracted more attention than the pictures. The couple have been coming to New York since 2001, and moved to the city full-time in 2008 to be closer to their beloved seamstresses and fabric makers.
Pretty pretty pretty. Everything here is pretty. A pretty way of displaying fabric swatches.
Yellow checks on a dress – we call them frocks here, though — that seem so simple yet are so lovely.
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? floats into my mind, the sad last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Yes, well, what is the matter with pretty thinking? Here in the dressmaker’s studio are silken coats that make you want to go up and nestle your face in them.
The garments come with stories. A shirt I am infatuated with, featuring a delicate flutter about its raw edges, was inspired by Ivey Abitz’s grandmother, who encouraged her to be a dreamer. Another piece took its inspiration from a favorite childhood dog.
Everything is hand tailored and in some cases is handwoven. Ivey Abitz shows me a jacket fresh in from the tailor, not yet blocked, made of a deep rust-colored hand-loomed wool thread. Luscious.
When I ask her if she has a favorite garment she gently rebuffs me, saying that would be like choosing a favorite child. What she does suggest is that when people get to mix and match the designs and fabrics they prefer, they fall in love with their clothes. “They garden, play with children and grandchildren, go to the symphony, sleep in them… everything,” the dressmaker tells me.
I know that when I put on my duster of black and white checked taffeta, I’m never going to take it off.
Here is an amazing story that concerns the Nazi invasion of Paris, a fleeing woman and the apartment she left behind. Not opened for 70 years, when the door was cracked it revealed a person and a style of life in a time capsule you have to see to believe. I think I’ll just hand over the link and let you do the rest.
It was a day of Old Paris in New York. The Metropolitan Museum had an exhibit, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, showcasing a Frenchman who was one of the first people to turn a photographic lens on the world, starting in the 1850s. I think the word “evocative” might have been coined to describe Marville’s glass-negative images, with their rain-wet cobblestones and ancient, crumbling Parisian walls. “When good Americans die,” said Oscar Wilde, “they go to Paris.” I was feeling pretty good.
I prepared myself to see the show with a cup of chicken velouté, properly French and exactly creamy enough. Julia Child’s pronouncement about velouté in The Way to Cook goes as follows: “Soups may be creamed in a number of ways, including great lashings of cream itself – an ambrosial item I shall soft-pedal here in favor of the velouté system with its flour-butter roux… which looks, feels, and tastes for all the world like a creamy soup but can contain as low as zero fat.” The Metropolitan Museum cafeteria is a place where you can eat hoity-toity French soup and eavesdrop as the people around you have erudite conversations about high art. Those speaking English in any case, which was the minority on this polyglot afternoon. The rest of the diners around me, for all I knew, could be discussing race cars or Swahilian TV stars or the price of eggs in Hong Kong.
We crowded into the elevator with a handsome, voluble French family who looked like they would be saved from every one of life’s hardships by the cut of their clothes.
Charles Marville began his career as an illustrator, coming to photography later in life (and early in the life of the medium, as it had only been invented eleven years before he picked up a camera). His early work displayed country scenes and self portraits, like the one of Marville on the bank of the Rhine, hand held up poetically to brow. The cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims offered fertile subjects for his developing eye. I liked the treasures he showed in a tableau at the latter, complete with a mysterious mummified cat. He also did cloud studies, incredibly difficult in an era when everything shot needed a different exposure.
Then Marville found his artistic voice. He began depicting the narrow, winding alleyways and lanes of Paris just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was transforming it with new, grand boulevards and public buildings at the behest of Napolean III. The government encouraged him, too, appointing him the official photographer of the city, with a surprising sense that all this would be going away forever. It was now his job to capture the rapidly disappearing, incredibly textured urban micro-landscapes of the mid-century City of Light. The streets glisten, both with rainwater and the sewage that runs down every gutter.
It was a time that was somewhat appalled to see itself speeding pell mell into the future. Le Temps commented about “grand roads vomiting and absorbing torrents of pedestrians and vehicles” on some of the new perfectly paved roads. It is that very contrast that makes this work so poignant, of course.
Marville frequently used the motif of a “window” or opening at the back of the picture to lead your eye back.
After documenting the streets slated for urban renewal, Marville was assigned to capture for posterity some of the newfangled improvements Haussman had installed. These included two features that were futuristic at the time. Lamposts. There now stood some 20,000 gas street lamps where before there were none. Marville photographed dozens of them.
Called vespasiennes, the name derived from that of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who supposedly imposed a tax on urine, these represented the ultimate novelty, private (relatively) and sanitary (relatively) and lit by those same spiffy gas lamps. The vespasiennes seemed antiquated when they were decommissioned at the end of the 20th century, but in 1860 it was like a spaceship-pissoir had touched down.
“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson. At the exhibit I saw a photo with a heavy brown velvet flap hung down over the front due to the image’s sensitivity to light. There was a line of people crowding up at any one time to lift the curtain and see the magic underneath. It was a nice picture. But I felt that the magic was equally contained in each of the poetic photos around the gallery, impervious to time.
I’ve been thinking about voice. Not the voice of Miley Cyrus, or Roseanne Cash, or even the Russian-born soprano, Anna Netrebko, who belted out the Olympic anthem at Sochi last night. She really shook the rafters.
No, I am trying to get a handle on voice in fiction. Writing a new novel about a girl who lives in New York City during the Revolutionary War, I want to make sure I get her right. And it forces me to deal with some difficult issues.
Can I show her best in the first person or the third? That’s probably the biggest question going in, because while writing “as” my protagonist gives me access to all kinds of emotional complexity, it is also limiting. It’s writing in handcuffs. You the reader can only see what my character sees, and by its nature that is not everything. I can see a very interesting house but I can’t necessarily go into that house. If I bring my character into the house it rejiggers the plot in all kinds of ways.
I’ve determined to go down the first-person path if it kills me.
Probably the most famous use of the first-person protagonist is in Dickens’ David Copperfield, with its wonderful first line:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
The myriad of other first-person first lines include Call me Ishmael in Moby Dick.
There is Notes From Underground: I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.
For a long time, I went to bed early, in Proust’s Swann’s Way.
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. From Plath’s The Bell Jar.
Considering the first lines of books turns out to be incredibly interesting.
Other issues you have to address as the plot unfolds: how much does my protagonist know about the world, how sophisticated is she? My character is a teenager, but is mature beyond her years, as kids of that era were. What kind of language would she use? Should I eradicate all adverbs from the narrative? How smart-alecky is she, how wise, how snarky?
How much historically appropriate language can you get away with using without a page sinking under the weight of Ye Olde? On the other hand, is a word you’re using wrong because it was invented yesterday, and she can’t possibly have known it? I looked up “goofy” today and found that “giddy” would suit the 1776 world of my character’s speech much better.
Is she addressing someone? Hugo in Savage Girl addresses his story to his lawyers. Is my character relaying the history of her life to someone, say a great granddaughter? Is it an epistolary novel, like The Sun Also Rises? Or is the text simply in her head? Is she “talking to the air,” as Gil and I put it when we discuss these questions.
All these and more are the thorns you must cross through in order to reach the fruit when you are writing a novel. Sometimes it helps to have an image as you work, a picture that reminds you of your heroine. I have adopted this 1750 painting by Pietro Rotari, Girl with a Book, which inspires me to find my character’s voice and do it justice. What draws me is not the cap nor the jewels, charming as they may be, but the wry, lovely expresssion in her eyes.
I saw something intriguing at the Winter Antiques Show.
A silhouette, definitely old, refined looking as all such silhouettes are, but somehow mysterious in the way the cut-out man held an unidentifiable object up against his body. It reminded me of the 21st century art of silhouette-artist Kara Walker.
Walker has exploded the conventions of the silhouette. She has created numerous black and white scenarios that suggest the depravities of race relations in a mythical Old South. Disturbingly beautiful, beautifully disturbing.
I learned from the gentleman offering the Antiques Show silhouette for sale that it was in fact the work of a well-known French artist of the nineteenth century. Auguste Amant Constant Fidele Edouart was his elegant name. Born just before the Revolution, he became proficient in his craft at a time well before photography, when this simple depiction of an individual was a cherished “snapshot” as much as a work of art. The portrait before me had been identified as the British Field Marshal Colin Campbell, 1st Baron Clyde, who lived from 1792 to 1863 and had a distinguished career, assuming the role of Commander-in-Chief of India in 1856. That odd object in his silhouette: his military hat.
Edouart began his career in London, cutting out full-length likenesses in black paper, before moving on to Edinburgh and finally the U.S. He travelled the country creating hundreds of portraits as he went.
Something about the itinerant portrait maker touched my imagination. I’ve been reading a biography of John James Audubon. I always imagined the great man making his way stealthily through the woods, sneaking up and capturing the birds he would bring home to paint in such vibrant pictures.
It turned out I was wrong on many scores. Isn’t it wonderful when you are wrong and reality is so much more interesting than your naïve imaginings? Audubon did go into the woods, many woods, all around the country, but he rarely caught anything per se. Instead he shot birds, sometimes dozens at a time. Ironic, perhaps, that the person for whom the Audubon Society was named was so avid a hunter. He would keep a few of his prey for dinner (he went hungry a lot at during some lean years of his life) and posed others with a rig he invented. It was a board with pins and string that held the bird in a position that mimicked life.
What interested me as much as his technique was that The Birds of America, the mammoth series of ornithological color plates we recognize him for now, was for many years a sideline, a labor of love. He couldn’t make money at it. So he traveled around to cities and backwaters on the frontier, in Missouri, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, getting a few dollars to draw peoples’ likenesses and so put food on the table. I would love to see some of these portraits, but the only sketches of Audubon’s I’ve been able to find are depictions of his family. Here is his son Victor Gifford Audubon.
And here is a self portrait.
In the days before photos, people craved having an image of a loved one and a good-sized town would likely have a half dozen artists who were able to provide the service. Audubon was never totally satisfied with his ability to capture the human animal in pencil. I wonder if he ever considered cutting silhouettes.