Archive for May, 2007

Too many boots

May 30, 2007

This past weekend, the United States celebrated Memorial Day, a holiday created to remember our war dead. Aside from parades down America’s main streets, though, it has devolved into a fun three-day weekend. The unofficial kick-off of summer, a time to fire up the grill perhaps for the first time of the season, a time when municipal beaches and pools open.

Sunday we went to an outdoor exhibit that brought the original intent of the holiday home: EYES WIDE OPEN, an exhibition on the human cost of the Iraq War.

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The exhibition, created by the American Friends Service Committee, features a pair of boots for each U.S. military casualty as well as a field of shoes and a Wall of Remembrance to memorialize the Iraqis killed in the conflict. It started in January 2004 in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. Then there were 504 pairs of boots on display. This trip through Chicago, there were 3,452 pairs of boots.

I really try to keep my politics out of Blue Kitchen. To me, this exhibit transcends politics. Whatever your political beliefs, as you walk among the grid of far too many boots, stopping to read the names of the young men and women they represent, looking at mementos left by friends and parents and spouses, you can’t help but be confronted by the real and awful cost of war. Any war.

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The art of advertising

May 23, 2007

I’ve always been intrigued by the intersection of commerce and art [I think I’ve even said these exact words here before—and probably will again]. It’s one reason I find Walker Evans’ photography so interesting, with its many depictions of often hand-painted signs on storefronts and buildings. And why I find signs like this one in my new neighborhood so charming.shake2.jpg

One thing that charms me with these lovingly but amateurishly produced signs are the sometimes unintended results—the oversized, steaming hot dog apparently being a cause for concern rather than delight, for instance.

susanna_truax_1730.jpgThese commercial artists come from a long and proud tradition. Limners were anonymous itinerant painters of 18th-century America who usually had little formal training. They were primarily portraitists, and their work was generally characterized by flat, awkward figures in richly detailed costumes. Between portrait sittings, many of them also filled in as sign painters to make ends meet.

I for one hope the tradition continues. There is plenty of slick marketing blandness in the world. Keep the homemade stuff coming.

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“It’s not a diary, it’s a journal!”

May 16, 2007

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Not sure what’s got me thinking about high school this week, but what can you do?

With any luck, everyone remembers a teacher in his or her life who made a difference—or at least imparted something interesting or valuable that stuck in the brain more or less permanently. I’ve actually been very fortunate and had several such teachers. Including one whose lasting effect surprised me later in life. Certainly when I was sitting in Miss Carroll’s English Literature class in high school, I didn’t expect her to make the list.

But make it she did. Twice, actually. The first time was for telling me about Samuel Pepys. Pepys [pronounced Peeps, at least by Samuel’s branch of the family] was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor and one of eleven children. He rose from these beginnings to become an adviser to King Charles II, the acknowledged “right hand of the Navy” and later, a member of Parliament.

samuel_pepys.jpgOf course, none of this would have made him more than a blip on some doctoral student’s radar screen, except for two things: First, he was a prolific diarist, writing huge volumes of diaries for ten years. Second, those ten years encompassed both the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Our high school textbook, being a high school textbook, focused primarily on these two major events and Pepys’ description of them as they unfolded, told very much as one would in a diary—or today, perhaps, in a blog. Here’s part of a passage from September 2, 1666, describing the fire’s beginnings: “Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .”

But while the textbook stuck pretty much to such matters as this, Miss Carroll—tall, big-boned, imposing maiden aunt Miss Carroll, with her equally imposing bosom and her crooked toothed smile [somehow appropriate for a teacher of English literature]—hinted at another side of Pepys’ diaries with a twinkle in her eye. It seems Pepys, the great man and knower of kings was also a sometimes petty and petulant man [particularly around his servants] and quite often a knower of women who weren’t his wife. And this being his personal diary, he felt free to record it all.

All of which makes for some fascinating reading. I didn’t pursue it at the time, but Miss Carroll had lodged it in my brain. It bubbled up from time to time until finally one evening, I found a slim volume of excerpts in the library. And more recently, I came upon this wonderful website, Samuel Pepys Diary. It contains excerpts and commentary, by year and by topic. And if you seriously get hooked, it contains the entire unabridged diary, all ten years of it. There’s even a cake recipe for the cake that was being baked in the oven of the King’s baker—the oven that started the fire.

Take a look at this wonderfully personal view of history. And if you end up bookmarking it, thank Miss Carroll and that twinkle in her eye.

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“Stare.”

May 9, 2007

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An interesting thing happened on my way to what I thought I was going to write about this week. Kristen over at Gezellig Girl did a quick post on the WPA—the Works Progress Administration, which later became the Work Projects Administration. Whatever you call it, it helped put a lot of Americans back to work during the Depression. And it helped strengthen the country’s infrastructure, building highways, streets, public buildings, airports, utilities, small dams, sewers, parks, libraries and more.

It also put a lot of artists to work, primarily in the creation of murals for all these public buildings. And that got me thinking about another of the New Deal programs, the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and one of my favorite photographers of all times, Walker Evans.

Evans was one of the photographers hired by the FSA to document the struggles of the rural poor and migrant agricultural workers during the Depression. He worked mainly in the south, creating sensitive portraits of the dispossessed and perfectly capturing a time and place. In the process, he pioneered the documentary tradition in photography.

sprott_ala.jpgFor me, his photographs of commercial architecture and scenes—shot formally and usually head on with an 8×10 view camera, but somehow often feeling almost matter-of-fact—just grabbed me by the lapels the first time I saw them, gave me a good shake and said, “Everything’s important. Everything’s worth taking a second look at. Pay attention.” I’ve been trying to do that ever since.

And we all own these photos. How cool is that? The photographs done for the FSA are now in the Library of Congress. Which means we Americans own them. Over the years, I’ve ordered a number of prints made from Walker Evans’ original 8×10 negatives for a very nominal fee—I think 24 bucks or so for a black and white 8×10 last time I bought one. They’re not vintage prints made by Evans or even printed on fiber-based paper—they’re made by photo technicians at the Library of Congress, printed on resin coated paper. But they’re still photographic prints, his images made from his original negatives. By now, they may be doing them digitally—seventysomething-year-old negatives need protecting, after all.

If all this gets you as jazzed as it does me, you can find out more at the Library of Congress online photography catalog.

And as it happens, one of my favorite photographers of all times is also the author of one of my favorite quotes of all times. Here it is.

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” —Walker Evans

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Chicago, the city of big art

May 2, 2007

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Yeah, yeah, I know. Carl Sandburg said big shoulders. But Chicago is home to some really big art too. One of the biggest—and best—collections of monumental outdoor art in America, in fact. Like Alexander Calder’s 53-foot Flamingo in Federal Center Plaza.

It all started with the Chicago Picasso. Dedicated back in 1967 by the first Mayor Daley and inexplicably immediately embraced by pretty much the entire city, it was a gift from the artist—even though Picasso never set foot in America during his entire life.

This work was the impetus for the city’s Percent-for-Art Ordinance, enacted in 1978. It stipulates that a percentage of the cost of construction and renovation of municipal buildings be set aside for the acquisition of artworks for these buildings.

Largely because of this ordinance, I can schlep visitors around downtown and matter-of-factly say, “Oh, yeah, there’s the Picasso. And across the street there is the Miro. Oh, look—there’s the Chagall. And over here’s the DuBuffet. And the Nevelson. And the Giacometti.” And when I’m standing at the corner of Dearborn and Adams, facing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s elegant trio of buildings that make up Federal Center Plaza, I can say, “And this is one of our two Calders, Flamingo.” [The other is a massive motorized mobile in the lobby of the Sears Tower.] I’m sure I’m probably insufferable when doing this. And that’s kind of part of the fun.

Maybe I should have started with the Picasso, since that’s the piece that got the ball rolling. But my favorite is Flamingo—I love its grace and energy and lively color. Someone once asked Calder about the name. He admitted he’d called it that simply because “it was sort of pink and has a long neck.” Nice.

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