wet earth

The Joy of Starting Out

It can take many years for an artist to cultivate the necessary balance of craft and vision to create work that seems to spring directly from the artist’s soul.  In such cases, the artist’s early student work may be viewed as preliminary, as somehow less important; some artists are so embarrassed by their early work they may even repudiate or destroy it.

I’m always sorry when I hear about artists dissing their early work.  I love the freshness and honesty of student art, before issues of market and reputation and career have the opportunity to take hold of the artist’s mind.  I have been to comprehensive exhibits of major artists and have found myself more enchanted and moved by the youthful attempts, however awkward or unpolished, than by the glory of the later masterpieces.  Innocence tends to fall away like dead skin as we grow older.  I’m grateful when that innocence is preserved, on canvas, paper, wood or stone, as a reminder of the joy of starting out.

Two current exhibits offer the opportunity to immerse oneself in such an atmosphere of joyous beginnings.  At the MPC Art Gallery, Curator Melissa Pickford has installed a delightful collection of work by eighty-eight MPC students, with a wide variety of media on view, including sculpture, paintings, works on paper, glass work, mixed media and jewelry.

Some of the works on display stand out with especial depth and insight.  William Joseph Enus’s “Yesterday’s Catch,” a bronze sculpture of a fish skeleton perched on stone, delicately touches on themes of mortality and transience.  The fish skeleton swims through unseen water, a ghost of its former living self, yet still in motion, like a memory.

“Romp,” by Karl Schaefer, transforms a lump of slate rock with marine shell inclusion into a proud elephant, bejeweled and godlike.  “Bad Hair Day,” a sliver of kiln-fused glass by Priscilla Gilbertson, is also about transformation, as a woman with a rueful expression stares out from the pale amber glass, a boob resting on one arm, the inky line of her resigned mood settling into the lovely glass with something approximating acceptance.

Several works from students in printmaking classes are particularly strong, such as Diana Paul’s monotype “Indigo,” a sensitive and carefully thought-out study of texture, dimension and line.

Two mixed media works refer to harsh political realities outside the sanctuary of the studio.  In “Every 15 Seconds,” Sarah Morris evokes the violence inflicted on women.  A pair of high-heeled shoes, one fallen to its side, is encrusted with small shards of broken mirror and swathed in fake wig hair, making the point that beauty standards and physical assaults arise from the same impulse to violence.

Lucinda Andersen’s “Freedom for Tibet” is a moving depiction of the use of fire in the Tibetan quest for self-determination.  A clipping from the Monterey Herald about the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk is burned around the edges, a chilling reminder that the fires of suffering in distant lands touch us all, no matter where we live.

Two of my favorite works in this show look across to each other from opposite walls.  In “Franz: Sheep” (seen above), an oil on canvas by Danielle Ventura-Enus, the bold use of color balances a sweetness of form.  And in the ink drawing “Guitarosaurus,” Michael James Buckley fuses the animal and the musical to create an image of startling originality.  I love the idea of a musical instrument as a kind of sea serpent or dragon, transporting the musician, and perhaps the listener, to the higher realm of the imagination.

Other kinds of creatures, living on land or sea or in the air, are portrayed in a gorgeous exhibit at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum.  Featuring sixty-three artworks and ten sketchbooks by the fifteen talented students in CSUMB’s Science Illustration Program, “Illustrating Nature” is a treasure chest of biological and creative exuberance.  The art of scientific illustration is generally focused on imparting clear and factual information to the viewer about a species or an environment, yet as this exhibit shows, there is plenty of room for the artist to tell a story and shape the viewer’s understanding with a sense of the artist’s personal design.

One example of this is in Kathleen Cantner’s acrylic painting “Mycelia of Pleurotus ostreatus Attacking Nematodes and Bacteria.”  A small grouping of oyster mushrooms lives on the bark of a tree, its mycelia penetrating the surface, reaching toward the tiny organisms that here are rendered in hot pink and demure green.  The angular, balanced design of this work creates interest and even suspense in the viewer, inviting him to peer more closely at those busy mycelia.  The creamy background colors of blue sky and tan wood further draw the eye into the kind of invisible biological drama that for most of us goes unnoticed.

Art, of course, is all about noticing.  Katie Bertsche’s “American Dippers at Yosemite,” offers a composite view of several elements—birds, rocks, sky, hillside and mountain, trees and tree leaves, water bug—that serve not to depict an actual moment but rather to tell a story of place.  The river’s waterline, reflecting the shifting sky above, bisects and transcends the borders of the picture frame, a perceptive illustration of the flow of life moving outside and beyond the boundaries of human desires.

Two works by Andrew Leach pulse with the raw energy of nature.  In “Animal Cicada,” the colorful magnified insect shines and seems to pop out of the picture with dimensional vitality.  Leach’s “Gull and Crab” (ink on scratchboard) is masterful, bringing the viewer down to the elemental level of biological struggle, while the calm lines of sea, sky and horizon offer the larger perspective: this too shall pass.

“MPC Art Students Exhibit” through May 25 at the Monterey Peninsula College Art Gallery, Tuesday – Friday, 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.  On Thursday, May 10, there will be a reception at 12:30 – 2:00 pm and an Artists’ Talk at 1:00 pm.

“Illustrating Nature” through June 17 at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, 165 Forest Avenue, Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Memories on Stage

Memory is inherently theatrical.  When we remember a scene from our past, our childhood, or even from the lives of those who lived before we were born, we are the writers, directors and producers of long-running plays that live in our minds.  For years we may continue to perform these stories on the stage of our memories because of the hold they have on our feelings, attitudes and behaviors.  Yet it can be dangerous to be the exclusive audience of these productions.  By sharing our stories with someone, we raise the curtain on our lives, letting in light, air, and perhaps a different perspective.  In the best of circumstances, this can be a healing exercise.

It can also be the material of art.  In Jane Press’s powerful play “My Mother’s Keeper,” currently playing at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel, a woman’s memories and family stories are translated by her writing and by a stellar cast and crew into a dramatic, humorous, and often moving investigation into the legacy of an unforgettable family trauma, underscoring the courage it takes to unravel the shame and silence that can follow in the wake of a painful event.

“My Mother’s Keeper,” directed with sensitivity and insight by Robin McKee, begins with Press alone on stage.  Her opening monologue, wonderfully delivered, establishes the rowdy particulars of her Jewish show-business family in Los Angeles, and introduces us to Ida, Jane’s grandmother and the central figure of the play.  This solo opening crucially reflects the personal nature of Press’s memory-play.  Many characters will be vividly brought to life in subsequent scenes, and yet one could see the entire play as a kind of extended, illustrated monologue, similar to “The Glass Menagerie”—another play about mothers and memory.

The central story of Jane’s monologue revolves around a black bird that had belonged briefly to Marlon Brando before finding itself in Jane’s family’s living room.  The bird’s foul-mouthed antics make for great comedy, but the deeper point is that the bird merely absorbs and repeats the language it hears.  And, the bird lives in a cage.

And so is launched the story of “My Mother’s Keeper,” a tale of four generations of mothers and daughters caught in patterns that are handed down one generation to the next.  After the opening monologue, young Jefdi (the talented Cambell Walker, alternating with Saffi McNulty) listens to her grandmother Ida (Suzanne Sturn) recount stories from her past.  This scene establishes, perhaps at greater length than necessary, the affection between grandmother and granddaughter, a bond that is less complicated than the fraught mother-daughter relationships of the play.

Later, Jefdi assists Ida in setting up for Mah Jong; the subsequent scene is pure delight, as a marvelous cast of women (Diane Grunes, Helaine Treganza, Helene Simkin Jara and Carol Skolnick) play Mah Jong, gossip, eat, smoke, discuss the all-important subject of family, and help tease out further the character of Ida, who would prefer the women to “Play, don’t say.”

For Ida is a complex woman: both indomitable and kind, unyielding yet filled with love.  Her story, and the source of her pain, are revealed in Act Two, in two extraordinary scenes. The first unfolds like an operatic aria, Ida unburdening her heart about a man she loved and lost.  Sturn is simply amazing in this scene, as Ida recounts a sorrowful, spellbinding tale with the kind of dignity, haunted emotion and stoic forebearance that may no longer feel healthy in our therapeutic age, yet which can only be viewed with awe and respect.

The following scene, which I won’t describe, is a theatrical tour-de-force that viscerally plunges the audience into a moment in 1914 when everything would change for a young daughter, and for the daughters who would come after her.

The remainder of the play brings the action closer to the present, as Jane interacts with her brittle mother, Della (the superb Susan Forrest).  It is unusual, and risky, to introduce a major character at this late stage of a play, and yet the choice pays off at the play’s conclusion, when all four generations can face each other in an atmosphere of forgiveness and a mature understanding of the complexities of a mother’s love.  (The beautiful lighting design is by Joanna Hobbs.)

“My Mother’s Keeper” is a play about listening and bearing witness, about enduring in the memories of the next generation, and the next.  If hurt people hurt people, so may healed people heal people.  Such is the gift of art that arises from the creative fire of personal experience.  “I’ll last,” Ida says to reassure a granddaughter frightened by the prospect of the grandmother’s death, for the grandmother knows the child will never forget her.  Press’s beautifully written play, a labor of love and a significant achievement, should also last—it’s the real deal.

“My Mother’s Keeper,” at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, 4th and Guadeloupe, Carmel-by-the-Sea, May 4-27th, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, with an extra show on Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day) at 7:30.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 831-920-4257 or through ticketguys.com.  To read my previous interview with Press, click here.

Balancing the Books

It’s been a long and thrilling affair, but circumstances have changed and I have decided that it is time to break up.  It is a momentous decision; I am, after all, ending one of the most significant relationships of my adult life.  Breaking up will be hard to do, but if I am going to keep my conscience intact I am left with no choice.

I am breaking up with Amazon.com.

I remember the first time I ordered from Amazon.  It was a whimsical picture book about two hippopotamuses called George and Martha.  The year was 1997, and the book was a gift for my then-boyfriend.  I recall the ease and delight of the purchase: I was in my campus office in Washington, DC, and with a few clicks of the computer mouse the order was complete and the book was on its way to James’s apartment in New York.  Wow!  So easy!

I was an early fan of Amazon, buying books and CDs, writing reviews, enjoying the sense that there was a new place—the Internet in general, and Amazon in particular—for book-obsessed folks like me to share opinions and foster a new and enthusiastic brand of community.

As the years passed, and the consequences of e-commerce began to be felt on local bookstores, I made an effort to balance my Amazon shopping with purchases at other bookstores.  But all those impulse buys, or those more obscure titles I knew I was unlikely to find in an actual store?  Point, click, you’re done.  I knew that Amazon’s success was in direct proportion to the decline of independent bookstores, but like most Americans addicted to comfort and convenience, I forged ahead with my computer mouse and my credit card, consequences be damned.

It was the demise of Borders that finally got my attention.  I loved our local Sand City Borders.  Of course, before Amazon came along, Borders and Barnes & Noble were considered the “bad guy” corporate chains victimizing the small independents.  And that was likely true.  But our local Borders was also a gathering place with a huge selection, a pleasing environment, a place to browse at leisure with a massive inventory of periodicals, plenty of items of local interest, a cafe, and clean bathrooms.  Now it is gone, its building a ghostly husk.

Meanwhile, Amazon has grown into a corporate giant, whose every latest press release sends terror and dread through the corridors of traditional publishing.  With Kindle, their e-reader, they are attempting to lower standard prices for books in such a way that a new generation of readers may think that a $25 book should only cost $10.  That is like saying that a dinner and a glass of wine in a nice restaurant should only cost as much as a latte and muffin at Starbucks.

This is where we are going as a culture, and I am as much to blame as anyone.  Independent bookstores of America, I am truly sorry.  To make amends, I have decided to limit my book purchases to local bookstores.  On the Monterey Peninsula, I especially like River House Books, at the Carmel Crossroads Shopping Center.  They are friendly, knowledgeable, have a great selection which is beautifully displayed, and will order any book in print.  They do not offer the kinds of discounts found on Amazon, but by ordering in person, I am less likely to buy books on impulse.  And the tax stays in California, which, God knows, certainly needs it.

I know I am swimming against the tide.  (Though I am not alone.)  Not long ago, Amazon produced an iPhone app that would allow shoppers to scan the titles of books in physical bookstores, to calculate how much they would save by buying the book through Amazon.  That is not a fair business practice, that is predatory capitalism.  But the opposite can also work: I still visit Amazon to read reviews and decide whether or not I wish to read a particular book.  But now, my list in hand, I go to a physical bookstore and buy it.  (Or I borrow it from the public library.)

Is my little action, my break-up, meaningful in any way?  That is a question we all have to ask, in the face of global warming and economic injustice and other serious problems our “leaders” are too busy raising campaign funds to address.  I believe in following my gut:  Don’t analyze, don’t rationalize, just follow through on the impulse, that persistent voice of inner intuitive wisdom, to make the world a better place, no matter how small or how inconsequential one’s choices may seem.  Does it all add up?  I don’t know.  I do know that my formerly beloved Amazon is now part of the wild and sick imbalance in our society, pursuing corporate decisions that do terrible harm to the ecosystem of books and writers and readers that is my natural home.

And if the day ever comes when the small, local, independent bookstores become so powerful that their sales dwarf Amazon’s, well, a change of mind to redress the balance is just a point and a click away.  Sometimes love is like that.

(Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff for the photograph of Borders.)