American Graffiti.

Some people call it ugly. Some people call it art. I call it urban enhancement.

Celebrating The Public.

Source: Nashville Scene

I love public art, especially large murals on buildings, and I feel very lucky that we seem to be in a time when those are very popular not just in Nashville but in cities everywhere. There are probably a lot of factors that have spurred the creation of murals everywhere but one thing I think has helped is a widespread desire for community, and public art is a great way to foster community. Murals on buildings that people drive or walk by are something we can all share. There’s also something very special about the fact that you don’t have to go to a museum or gallery to see them. You don’t even necessarily have to make a special trip just to see them. Often you find them on your way to somewhere else.

Source: Nashville Public Art

The murals I’m featuring here are the work of Nashville artist Charles Key. Unfortunately I didn’t take these pictures myself but I’ve seen his work around, but only in passing. Even though he has a very distinctive style, I didn’t realize I was seeing murals by the same artist.

Key was featured in a Nashville Scene article last month and his own thoughts on community, and especially the need for art in the neighborhood where he lives have stayed with me:

Why not shine light? My thing is I want to spark somebody, some little kid — spark their imagination. … Maybe I could keep somebody on the right path through this small gesture that I’m leaving in these communities.

Source: Tennessee Tribune

Sartor Restartus.

I may look like I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear but that’s only because I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear. As much as I’d like to say my slovenliness, at least around the house, is the result of a carefully studied sartorial choice, an affectation of looking disaffected, the truth is it’s usually the result of fumbling through drawers in the dark and pulling out whatever shirt is available before I throw on yesterday’s jeans. Although I do sometimes dress up, sort of, preferring a button-down paisley shirt and I at least put on today’s jeans, and sometimes I put on my red shoes and dance the blues.

Something else I never thought much about is the idea that agriculture started because early humans needed food, but prehistorian Ian Gilligan came up with the idea that people might first have started cultivating plants they needed to make clothing. As they migrated toward colder regions, or as temperatures dropped because of changes in the climate, which happened around ice ages, simple animal furs and skins weren’t enough. He distinguishes between two types of clothes:

Simple clothes made from thick furs were probably sufficient when hominins began to occupy northern Europe during colder glacial stages from half a million years ago. Complex clothes are closely fitted around the body and can have cylinders attached to enclose the limbs properly; additionally, they can have up to four or five layers.

One of the problems with studying clothing is that even the sturdiest woven cloth is fragile compared to tools and pottery, and at least as far back as the 18th century, if not farther, clothes were recycled into paper for books, so if you ever find a first edition of Pride And Prejudice you just might be holding some of Mr. Darcy’s underwear, but that’s another story, and also means that clothes have a short shelf life. This makes early fashion hard to study, but archaeologists have found prehistoric sewing needles, and there’s more evidence in lice. Clothing lice would only have evolved with, well, clothes, and genome research traces them back to about a hundred thousand years ago.

It’s an interesting thing to think about even as the world of haute couture is collapsing, at least from the perspective of the sort of people who actually think it’s wrong to wear white after Labor Day. My own feeling, and this is just a thought, is that agriculture for food and clothing might have evolved together. Cultivating any crop, whether it’s cotton or wheat, means a lot of time in the sun and early farmers would have wanted protection from the sun while they were sowing and reaping. But now that I’m thinking about why we wear clothes maybe I’ll put a little more thought into what I wear.


This Island Earth.


A coworker and I were talking about travel and I said I really love islands, especially small islands because I feel it’s possible to explore every part of them and not miss anything.

“Are you a completist?” she asked.

I’d never heard that term and it sounded vaguely insulting but I just said, “Yeah, I guess I am.” And I liked the term. It sounded better than incompletist which is probably more accurate, but that’s another story.

That was a few years ago but I was reminded of it by New York City’s new Little Island Park, an artificial island set on top of a bunch of funnel-shaped pilings that look like something out of a futurist utopia. If it were in a movie I’d think it was a special effect but, no, it’s really real—smaller than Gulliver’s Laputa, but nicer, and easier to reach.

Source: My Modern Met

I keep looking at those pillars, though, and thinking how fragile they look. My inner cynic says that every utopia has its dys, an ugly underside that props it up, but it’s really more complicated than that. Little Island Park is a beautiful, if unintentional, metaphor for our world: a great place to be but carefully balanced and dependent on collective effort. Our world is an island unto itself but also connected to and floating in a very dark, very cold sea.

Source: My Modern Met

In spite of that somewhat morbid turn I’d really love to go there. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to New York but if I ever get back Little Island Park will be high on my list of places I’d want to go, even if it means missing something else.

Source: My Modern Met

In Position.

Several years ago I went to local yoga classes. It was fun and good exercise, mostly—I liked a lot of the poses but really hit my limit with the Sarvangasana, and I just couldn’t manage to go all the way into the next pose, Halasana. I told the instructor, who was younger, that at my age I didn’t think it was a good idea to put my ass over my head, but the truth is it’s something I always had trouble with, even as far back as seventh grade when I got a low grade in gym class because I couldn’t do a forward roll. Coach Withers said, “Come on, I’ll help you through it,” and he got me to tuck my head down as far as it could go and then he grabbed me and flipped me over. I immediately got up and said, nope, never doing that again. I still got a passing grade because, let’s face it, no one flunks gym, not even that one kid who refused to take a shower, but that’s another story.

I’m pretty sure I got a passing grade in the yoga classes too, even though we weren’t being graded, and we had two different instructors who alternated Saturdays. One was kind and supportive and tried to gear her choice of poses for the beginners in the class. The other was kind and sort of supportive and also working on a high level yoga instructor certification and would get all of us to try out more rigorous poses. She’s the one who got me to do the Sarvangasana for the first time, which involves lying on your shoulders and stretching your legs upward, and then suggested I go for the Halasana, which is the next position and involves lowering your legs toward your head, and said, “Come on, I’ll help you through it,” and that’s when I said, nope, not falling for that one again and headed for the showers.

The “Namaste” pictured above was carved into the railing at the center of this bridge which is a nice spot for looking at the lake.

Seeing “Namaste” carved into the center of the railing of the bridge at Radnor Lake reminded me how much I enjoyed those yoga classes, which, regardless of the instructor, always began and ended with the Hindu greeting. Hiking is great exercise and I very rarely have to worry about overstretching or getting into an uncomfortable position on the trail, but I need to get back to the challenges of yoga, even with the possibility that I might fail.

A Matter Of Time.

Source: Fanpop

A couple of weeks ago when I met friend and fellow blogger Ann Koplow one of the things we talked about was the art of blogging, a subject I meant to bring up in my first post about our meeting, but I got distracted, which often happens to me, especially when I get into an engaging conversation, as Ann and I did, although I can also get distracted when I’m by myself, and I was going to share an example of that but now I’ve forgotten what it was because one of the dogs started barking in the other room and I had to go see what was going on and while I was doing that I thought I’d get some water and the next thing I knew I was outside in the driveway surrounded by parts from our car’s engine, but that’s another story.

Anyway Ann asked me an interesting question: “How long does it take you to write a blog post?” And I was so surprised that I said, “About a day,” which seemed like an honest answer at the time and which may be correct, but I’ve never really thought about it and feel guilty about not giving the question more thought before I answered, or at least not saying, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.” I could have said that everything I write has taken me my whole life, and it’s true that every idea is the summation of a lifetime of experience, but it’s just as true that all writing is selective—everything’s edited even before the actual editing—and there are things I could have written earlier in my life if I’d just gotten the idea. Some posts take hours to write and even though I’m an obsessive reviser don’t have a lot of changes. Some take months or years and end up being something very different from my original idea. Before I started actually writing this I wanted to fit in a joke about “How long is a piece of string?” but that got cut.

Ann writes a blog post every day which is impressive but I could also understand what she meant when she said it was a meditative process for her. I write almost every day and try to write every day, even if it’s just a few minutes of jotting thoughts down in one of my journals, because I feel better when I do.

Something else I think most writers can relate to is I’m always thinking about writing even when I’m not engaged in the act. Probably every writer has had the experience of suddenly coming to in their backyard surrounded by car parts and thinking, “There’s a story in this.”

There’s no single answer to Ann’s question and that’s what makes it so important and useful for consideration, so I thought I’d throw it out there. How long does it take you to write a blog post?

Source: Fanpop

It’s Inspiring.

Back in 2015 I started writing about graffiti because I saw a lot of it around the neighborhood where I work and a lot of it was interesting to me and I thought it would make a good subject for blog posts. For a similar reason I had a short-lived stint writing about local art exhibits for a local magazine: there was a gallery near me and I went to it regularly and always felt I had something to say about the exhibits but until the magazine started up I didn’t really have a place for all my thoughts. And then the magazine folded after just one issue and I hope that wasn’t my fault, but that’s another story.

Obviously what I’m getting at is I drew inspiration from the graffiti and art I saw. And I really shouldn’t be making a distinction between graffiti and art since I’ve always argued that graffiti is an art form. Some of it’s great and some, well, isn’t, but then you can walk through almost any art gallery and say the same thing.

I started with the above picture even though I didn’t think it was great but I still felt I had something to say about it. It inspired me because it seemed like whoever scribbled that had something in mind and then lost it and sort of trailed off, or maybe they were just practicing.

Inspiration is a funny thing. Recently Mona over at Wayward Sparkles wrote about inspiration, specifically naming her muse, which I got a kick out of because muses personify inspiration.

It’s funny but when I started writing this I had a clear idea of where I was going and it was going to be elaborate and profound and, I hoped, funny too. I was inspired to say something about how personifying inspiration is…a thing. And now it’s just sort of trailed off and I’m pretty sure my muse is Thalia, the ancient Greek muse of comedy, because she’s got a sense of humor.

Getting Poetry.

Source: Arts Council, Greater New Haven

As another National Poetry Month draws to a close I’m reminded that I majored in English in college with a focus on poetry in spite of the fact that in high school I had one of the world’s worst English teachers. That’s the kind of irony someone like Ogden Nash or, hey, me, could turn into a poem, and maybe I will one of these days, but decades later it still rankles me a little. What made her so terrible is how she’d go on and on about poetry as a high rarefied art that mere high school students couldn’t understand. She focused on William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

And she’d go on at length about how this was a deeply meaningful and profound poem but that it would be futile for any of us to try and understand it because we didn’t have the education, and, now that I think about it, she obviously didn’t have the education either because she wasn’t sharing any insights.

I understand if you’re thinking that maybe she was being clever and trying to get us to seek out information on our own by using reverse psychology. Maybe she wanted us to do some independent study and find that Williams was emphatically reacting against the difficult and obscure poets that had come before him. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarme, for instance, felt that poetry should be difficult to understand; he even said that poetry, like music, should require special training to be read, but he was missing the fact that while it takes training to read music anyone who can hear can listen to it.

Anyway the sad fact my teacher just happened to be a terrible teacher who didn’t know what she was talking about. A few years after I graduated from high school, after I’d gone to college and studied poetry, I met her and we started talking about William Carlos Williams, and she insisted that The Red Wheelbarrow was full of deep and obscure meaning, and that This Is Just To Say was borderline pornographic. I kid you not.

What also got me thinking about this is an article in The New Criterion that starts with this:

A subscriber to this magazine writes with a problem: “Although I have advanced university degrees, I have never ‘gotten’ poetry.”

And I get it. A lot of it is the way poetry is taught. It’s taught as though it’s some rarefied art and if you don’t get it you’re either uneducated or you’re deficient in some way or maybe you’re just stupid. Let me be blunt: you’re not. Most poetry is not as hard to understand as some teachers and literary critics would like you to think, and I’d even argue that none of it should be. Poetry may use language in unusual ways, or it may not, but it shouldn’t be out of anyone’s reach. Yes, there are a lot of layers and nuances to poetry but you don’t necessarily need to know your iambs from your anapests or the difference between metonymy and synechdoche to appreciate poetry.

Let me put it another way: if you have a smartphone, or, as most people now call them, a phone, you probably know how to use it. You don’t need to know how it works, how it’s made. You don’t need to know how to build one yourself. There are ways you could learn all that if you wanted to but, again, it’s not necessary to get your phone to do what you need it to do.

The same is somewhat true of poetry. The barrier to entry is just much lower. If the words on the page or, if it’s a spoken poem, that you hear are meaningful to you, if you enjoy them, then you get it.

Getting It All Wrong.

Source: Wikipedia

The importance of Vincent Van Gogh to art history can’t be overestimated. He didn’t just leave behind a massive and profound body of work that includes several iconic paintings. He’s also the archetypal misunderstood and starving artist. He’s the painter all the critics and collectors—especially the collectors—got wrong in his lifetime. I remember in the early ‘80’s hearing about a Van Gogh being sold in an auction for a “disappointing 13 million dollars” and I thought, yeah, I bet Vinnie wouldn’t have been disappointed. And to get back to the critics, well, the 1996 film Basquiat sums it up pretty well in its opening lines: “Everybody wants to get on the Van Gogh boat. There’s no trip so horrible that someone won’t take it…No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another like Van Gogh.”

I’ve always taken it as a given that Van Gogh’s reappraisal was gradual and the work of a lot of different critics who gradually came around to seeing his work differently, but really I was wrong. Or at least I was missing a big part of the story. Vincent’s brother Theo was extremely important but until recently I had no idea—and most people don’t seem to know—how important Theo’s wife Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger was. There’s a lengthy article on her in The New York Times Magazine and the title, “The Woman Who Made van Gogh” is not an exaggeration.

In short, when Theo died—just six months after his brother—she started teaching herself art history and criticism and spending time in artistic circles while also promoting Vincent as a genius whose paintings deserved to be seen and valued. Without her we wouldn’t have the myth of Vincent Van Gogh, and paintings like Starry Night might be packed in an attic somewhere or, worse, destroyed, instead of hanging in major museums.

Still I think this reappraisal gets some things wrong. I’m not sure Van Gogh’s paintings are the first to be viewed with the artist’s psychology being such an important part of how they’re interpreted. Van Gogh may be the most dramatic example of a shift in art criticism toward more personal interpretations, but there had been artists’ biographies published since at least Vasari, and I doubt any critic could honestly claim to look at, say, Michelangelo’s work without thinking about his life or the times in which he lived. Art criticism really started as a way for writers to promote their friends work—or take down their enemies.

The magazine article also, I think, gets Jo van Gogh-Bonger wrong too. She was married to Theo for less than two years and it was a transformative time for her. The article concludes that promoting Vincent was her way of “keeping alive that moment of her youth, and allowing the rest of us to feel it.” I think she was more complicated than that. Her diaries show that she was ambitious, that she had a desire to change the world, long before she met Theo.

The idea that Vincent Van Gogh was plucked from obscurity is also at least partly wrong. He met and hung around with prominent painters of his day, including Toulouse-Lautrec who made a portrait of Vincent. There’s a great scene in the 1956 film Lust For Life in which Vincent, played by Kirk Douglas, meets Seurat, played by David Bond, who gives a lecture on how to arrange colors on a palette. Sure, it’s fiction, but it seems plausible.

Then there’s the overarching issue: art history isn’t fixed. How do we judge Vincent Van Gogh’s importance, really? Most people think his paintings are great—including me—but we can’t say, objectively, what exactly makes them great. We can’t even say if his life story is part of what makes them great. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

When We Go…

Source: Dying Art

So I knew a guy who decided he wanted a tattoo, and his girlfriend suggested—really strongly, I think—that he should get her name, which was Linda, tattooed onto his arm. He wasn’t so sure and finally came up with a compromise: he got “Love Is Not a Dying Art” tattooed inside a heart on his arm. And even though I lost touch with him years ago I’m pretty sure that relationship didn’t end well. This is also almost entirely unrelated but I thought of him when I ran across the website for Dying Art, a company that makes creative caskets.

Source: Dying Art

They’re based in New Zealand and, well, I can’t think of a nicer place to die.

It does seem a little strange to me that someone would want a personalized casket because, well, it’s not like they’re still around to enjoy it. Although I also think, hey, if in the end you want to blow all your money on a glitter casket, go for it.

Source: Dying Art

There’s no better time to do something that makes you truly happy. As Mark Twain wrote in “At The Funeral”,

If the odor of the flowers is too oppressive for your comfort, remember that they were not brought there for you, and that the person for whom they were brought suffers no inconvenience from their presence.

Most of what they offer is a standard coffin shape with a personalized outer design but looking through their gallery there are some absolute gems, especially this memorial plaque:

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