American Graffiti.

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

Bigger Bird.

Source: The Art Newspaper

The artist Alex Da Corte is putting Big Bird on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where he’ll stay from April 16th through October 31st. Strictly speaking it’s a sculpture of Big Bird, painted blue, which is a nod to Big Bird’s Venezuelan cousin, who’s named Garibaldo. Da Corte was born in the United States but his father is Venezuelan and Da Corte spent several years of his childhood there. Big Bird also has a blue cousin in The Netherlands named Pino, and in the 1985 film Follow That Bird Big Bird is captured by a circus, caged, dyed blue, and forced to sing as “The Bluebird of Happiness”.  

It’s weird to me to think that I’m part of the first generation to literally grow up with The Muppets. From The Muppet Show and Sesame Street through so many movies and spinoffs and appearances—Oscar The Grouch even once came to a church some friends and I were going to for a weeklong Vacation Bible School when I was five—that it’s hard to know what to say about them, or about Da Corte’s sculpture, other than that I absolutely love it and wish I could see it in person. Talking about The Muppets is like talking about Greek myths. More specifically it’s like talking about Greek myths in, say, 400 B.C. Jim Henson—the Muppet Homer, if you follow my metaphor—is long gone but the stories are still very much alive, very much part of our current cultural fabric.

Maybe that’s partly because the Muppets are such a reflection of who we are. They don’t look human—most of them aren’t even supposed to be human; they’re frogs and pigs and bears and dogs and rats and shrimps and whatever the hell Gonzo is supposed to be. (Yes, I know, he’s an alien.) That’s the thing, though: we can project ourselves onto the Muppets because, like us, they come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, colors, and personalities. And they’ve been brought to life by a wide range of very talented performers who, though they’ve mostly stayed behind the scenes, projected themselves through the characters. Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird—who, you could even say, was Big Bird, told a funny story about Jim Henson moving the Ernie puppet out of the way.

Ernie was on the floor, right where Henson needed to stand. 
‘So he kicked it to the side,’ remembers Spinney. ‘After the scene I picked Ernie up and said, “Are you alright after that bad man just kicked you?”‘
As Spinney recalls, Henson replied, ‘Oh that’s funny, are you sentimental about the puppets?’
‘I said, “Well yeah, they’re kind of real to me,” while Henson said, “To me they’re just tools.”

Yeah, if you grew up watching Sesame Street and the Muppets that might seem pretty dark, but the Muppets are alive because of the people behind them, which is also why we can project ourselves onto them.

Da Corte’s sculpture, by the way, gives Big Bird a ladder, giving him the power to climb even higher, and he’s perched on a crescent moon in imitation of Donna Summer. The title of the sculpture is As Long As The Sun Lasts, taken from an Italo Calvino short story. So there’s a lot of cultural layering here, but at the heart of it is Big Bird, which reminds me of something a friend said when the Muppets, who were on SNL in its early years, returned with Jason Segel in 2011: “It doesn’t matter who you are, whose show it is, or what else is going on. When you’re with the Muppets they’re the stars.”

Being There.

One wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Source: Wikipedia

April is National Poetry Month which got me thinking about poetry as an art form and also poems about art. And there are so many, from poems on Grecian urns to multiple poems inspired by Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.

However recent events made me think about a very specific one: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem Facing It, about his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Komunyakaa is Black, descended from a grandfather who came to the United States as a stowaway from Trinidad. He grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana, just sixty miles north of New Orleans, and he’s written about exploring the woods and picking blackberries to sell by the side of the road. He also served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

I met Komunyakaa once, which was a real thrill for me because I’m a fan of his poetry, after he’d given a talk about William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, which he described as “a distinctly American short story”—a story of terrible secrets, death and resistance to change, but also a glimmer of hope in the possibilities of revelation and understanding, and life going on. Then he read some of his poems, including Facing It, and I thought about how great poetry should be read aloud, how the sound and sense go together.

I also thought about the first time I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just a little over two years after its installation, just under a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. It was a school trip and the teacher talked about how Maya Lin, the memorial’s designer, was the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

The poem “Facing It” is a distinctly American poem: a grandson of an immigrant standing before the work of the daughter of immigrants, seeing himself in it, but also finding hope in reflection and understanding, and life going on.

Writer’s Block.

Source: Nickelodeon Fandom

Centuries ago cable TV finally came to my neighborhood. People of a certain age will understand the significance of that just as there will presumably be a time when people will remember “cutting the cable”, assuming that time hasn’t already come and gone. Anyway my friends and I would run home after school—usually to my home, which, for some reason, was where we gathered—and turn on this new network called Nickelodeon so we could watch You Can’t Do That On Television and Danger Mouse. And then, later in the evening, usually after my friends had left, there was Kids’ Writes.

If you’re feeling nostalgic right now for that era of Nickelodeon the YouTube channel poparena has a playlist called Nick Knacks that are an incredibly deep and entertaining and explore the channel’s history and shows. They track how Nickelodeon went from a commercial-free “green vegetable channel” of mostly cheap PBS castoffs that struggled to fill a twelve-hour broadcast day to a massive multi-media conglomerate.  

The premise of Kids’ Writes was simple: kids wrote in with ideas for sketches or songs and a troupe of adult performers would act them out. At the end of each show they’d put up an address and encourage kids to send in their ideas. If that sounds familiar PBS’s Zoom had the same idea.

I’ve been trying for years to write something about Kids’ Writes, trying to find some hook that would lead into it, something I could say, like maybe how I sent in an idea and they performed it. Except I didn’t. The fact is I never could come up with an idea even though I wanted to so badly. I thought it would be so cool to see my idea performed—maybe I could even convince my friends, who hated Kids’ Writes, to watch it. But I couldn’t come up with anything. I was completely blocked. It was weird because, before that, I had no trouble coming up with stories, but somehow as soon as Kids’ Writes came along, as soon as I had what seemed like a place to share those stories, all those ideas I’d had either seemed wrong or just disappeared.

That may be just as well—it turns out the show only had one season and all the stories performed were selected before production started. I don’t think they were being dishonest when they asked kids to send in ideas. Maybe they hoped they’d have a second season, and I’m sorry they didn’t. But I also imagine I’d be disappointed to have my idea rejected or, worse, get no response even as the same episodes of Kids’ Writes ran over and over. There were just seventeen episodes and they continued airing until 1987, although I quit watching it long before that. I don’t think I even made it through one cycle of reruns and, really, I think I liked the idea of the show more than the show itself.

Anyway I was recently asked to write something for work, which was a pretty cool thing. Creative projects don’t come along often in my job and I was excited just to be asked. And then, of course, I couldn’t come up with an idea. I struggled to find a hook, some way in, something to say, but the well was dry. Performance anxiety of a hell of a thing.

Finally I sat down and just started writing. I won’t say it’s that simple—I did have an idea of what I wanted to do, so I had somewhere to start, but it was so vague I kept putting off even starting. I couldn’t take that first step, metaphorically, because I didn’t know what the next step would be. But when I finally did sit down and start writing the next step appeared, and the one after that, and the one after that.

And, as an added bonus, I finally came up with a way to write about Kids’ Writes.

Heavy Metal.

Source: periodictable.com

I’m not a jewelry guy so maybe this isn’t that strange but I overheard a jewelry store commercial and was thrown to hear that they had rings made of tantalum. Even if you’re into jewelry that may sound weird to you—maybe even if you’re into metallurgy or alchemy. Actually if you’re into alchemy tantalum probably isn’t your thing because it wasn’t discovered until 1802. Anyway most jewelry is made from silver or gold, occasionally platinum, or brass or pewter if it’s costume jewelry. Tantalum is a weird choice for jewelry. How often do you even hear about tantalum?

Well, odds are you have some. If you have a cell phone it probably has tantalum in it. In fact tantalum has a pretty bloody history—and that history is recent. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled in part by a skyrocketing market for tantalum and another element, niobium—also used in jewelry. They’re frequently found together in an ore call coltan that is so abundant in some places anyone with a shovel can dig it out of the ground, and the high prices it can get make scooping up coltan a lot more attractive than, say, farming, even though you can’t eat cell phones.

That’s pretty dark, and now most of the world’s tantalum comes from Australia. I’m pretty sure Anders Ekeberg, the scientist who first isolated tantalum, didn’t have a clue it would be so valuable or cause so much suffering but then he did choose to name it after Tantalus, a mythological figure who murdered and cooked his own son and was condemned to Tartarus where he’d stand in water he couldn’t drink, under fruit he couldn’t eat, eternally thirsty and hungry, which you might think about the next time you describe something as tantalizing. And the name choice wasn’t just a coincidence. Because tantalum is found with niobium Ekeberg knew Tantalus was the father of Niobe, another tragic Greek figure: her children are murdered by Apollo and Artemis and she’s transformed into a weeping rock, and, seriously, ancient Greek myth writers, isn’t real life bad enough?

To get back what started me down this morbid path in the first place, tantalum jewelry does seem like a good idea if you’re looking to wear something that’s tough and made to last. Consider this: the melting point of gold is 1064 Celsius, the melting point of silver is 962 Celsius, and the melting point of platinum is 2041 Celsius.  Tantalum only melts at 3017 Celsius. Even though it’s not found in its pure state in nature it’s incredibly non-reactive: its nemesis is hydrofluoric acid which can also dissolve glass and, oh, it will kill you if it gets on your skin. So, yeah, it’s got a nice ring to it.

 

Behind It All.

It’s been, well, about a year since I was last in an art gallery. The office where I worked before the lockdown is right across the street from the Vanderbilt University campus and sometimes when I needed a break I’d walk up to the Sarratt Gallery and see what was on display. In fact I had a short-lived job writing art criticism and wrote about two exhibits at Sarratt before the magazine folded. Something I’ve never thought about in any art gallery or museum, though, is the walls behind the paintings or other artworks on display. Well, who does? Curators, I guess, but, really, have you ever been in a museum and turned your attention away from the paintings and looked at the walls? And it’s not something I would have thought about if I hadn’t read about New York City’s Frick Collection being temporarily moved from the opulent mansion, built in 1912, where it’s normally housed to a 1966 office building that’s an example of the aptly named Brutalist architecture.

Here’s a good example of the difference, first paintings in the Frick Mansion:

Source: New York Times

And here are some of the same works in their current digs:

Source: New York Times

I guess whenever I looked at paintings I was always on some level conscious of where I was—I mean, I did once get lost in the Cleveland Museum of Art because it’s huge, and when I went to the Louvre, where I also got lost because it’s even huger, but that’s another story, I looked around and thought, yeah, I could believe Napoleon rode horses through these hallways. I still knew what building I was in. I just never really stopped to think about how the surroundings, even the color of the walls, affected how I was seeing the paintings on those walls. And I know curators and even some artists are very particular about painting placement and even lighting. I just didn’t give it that much thought.

It’ll still be a while before I go back to an art museum or gallery. I know I’ll be getting a COVID-19 shot sometime soon, but “soon” is still pretty vague. When I’m finally back out and about, though, it seems fitting that I just won’t be thinking about what I’m seeing but where.

The Art Of Nature.

Source: Astronomy Picture Of The Day. Hit the link for a more detailed description of what makes this particular sun pillar unusual.

“I also think it’s pointless for a human to paint scenes of nature when they could just go outside and stand in it.”–Ron Swanson

One of my lifelong obsessions is coming up with a simple, clear definition of “art”. And yet every time I think I have it nailed down something comes along and challenges some or all of whatever definition I’ve come up with. Something that’s made to last? Not necessarily. Dance is an art form and unless it’s captured on video—or maybe even if it’s captured on video—it’s fleeting. A shared experience? Again not necessarily. A well-crafted cocktail is an art form that might only be for one person—and again not meant to be lasting.

Source: Also APOD

The one thing that’s consistent, I guess, is that all art is something made by a person or persons. I once went to an exhibit where an artist had put some pieces of a tree that had been cut down around the floor of the gallery. He said he was trying to make a statement about how, contrary to the idea of art holding up a mirror to nature, nature itself—untouched—can be seen as art. Nice, I thought, but someone still cut the tree down, the artist selected pieces, and put them in a gallery which kind of undermined the point he was trying to make.

As for the point I’m trying to make the pictures I’m sharing here are from Astronomy Picture Of The Day. The first one captures a rare sun pillar, a phenomenon that happens when sunlight is refracted through hexagonal ice disks falling through the atmosphere. The others are light pillars that appear when a ground source of light is reflected by ice crystals in the atmosphere.

These aren’t made. They just happen. Several people might see them or they might happen when no one is around to see them. Although I guess it’s only when they’re seen that they could be defined as art.

Leaving A Mark.

Source: BBC

I used to think a work of art had to be made to be lasting to really qualify as a work of art. Isn’t the point of art, or at least one of them, to be around after the artist is gone? And if it’s not made to last it’s unlikely to reach a wide audience which, I thought, would also be one of the reasons for creating a work of art. Art is meant to express something universal and eternal so it should aspire to be both of those things.

And then I look at the snow art twelve people in Finland created and, well, how could that be anything but a work of art?

Sure, it’s not made to last, but that’s okay. That may even be part of the point: enjoy it while it’s here because tomorrow it’ll be gone, and that in itself is a universal message.

Source: BBC

And it is reaching a wide audience because it’s being shared through pictures. Also we’re talking about Finland which I’m pretty sure has snow on the ground ten months out of the year so it’s also a lasting work.

 

 

Sweet To The Heart.

Source: Instagram

Almost every year in February somebody—maybe several somebodies—would bring a bunch of candy Sweethearts to the office. There’d be a bowl at the front desk near the door, and usually another one in the back by the photocopier, and maybe another in the kitchen. By the time Valentine’s Day had passed they’d be gone and it would mostly be my fault because I couldn’t pass by without grabbing a handful, and for some reason I may have had to make a lot more copies than usual from early to mid-February.  

I was worried a few years ago when Necco, the company that originally invented Sweethearts candies back in 1901, went bankrupt, probably because most of their candies are basically just sugary chalk, but I happen to like sugary chalk. I love the sugar rush I get from sitting at my desk eating a handful or two of Sweethearts, and while most of them are crunchy it’s fun to find that one that’s inexplicably soft and chewy.

Most of the messages baffle me, though, just like they did when I was a kid. I get the meanings. I’m just not sure how they’re meant to be used. If, by some chance, you find one that says exactly what you want to say to another person, what if they’re not around? And what kind of a romantic gesture is a tiny little candy anyway? Again, I like Sweetheart candies, but I think a big box of chocolate would be better for making a statement, as long as the person you’re wooing isn’t allergic to chocolate, and if they are I think a big box of Sweethearts is going to be full of mixed messages.

Source: Demilked.com

And then there are Tommy Siegel’s Candyhearts which crack me up and which I meant to talk about, especially since he has a whole book of ‘em, but I’m kind of hopped up on sugar right now.

Source: Demilked.com

Get Lucky.

Me with Ozzie, the mascot of the Nashville Sounds, and a couple of the players. Not gonna lie. Ozzie was the best part.

So there’s a big sporting event coming up this weekend which I keep forgetting about. It’s not that I don’t love sports. It’s just that I don’t love sports. Sure, I do enjoy watching baseball, and also I really love billiards, and billiards matches have been shown on ESPN so that officially makes it a sport. Then again hemorrhoids commercials have also been on ESPN and I don’t think those qualify as a sport, but, hey, if you enjoy it go for it. I’m also the leader in my local fantasy croquet league, but that’s another story.

This did get me thinking about my favorite part of any sporting event: the mascot. Actually most major events—football, whether American or what the rest of the world calls football—basketball, even golf don’t have mascots, and you can’t tell me golf wouldn’t be greatly improved by an oversized character dancing around the links. It also got me wondering about the origins of mascots generally. The term originally meant “A person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck” and  apparently comes from a French operetta, La Mascotte, about a young woman who is “la Mascotte”, a person with the magical power to grant luck as long as she remains a virgin—so she’s the only one who can’t get lucky.

Most early sports mascots were animals, a tradition that continues in the names of many sports teams from the Seattle Seahawks to the Tampa Bay Rays, although the Rays’ mascot is inexplicably a big purple hairy thing named Raymond when they could potentially have the coolest mascot ever in the form of a stingray. Several years ago I went to a Rays game with my parents and had a great time—the Rays won—and I thought it was a great thing that Tropicana Field not only has a stingray tank but the stingrays have the best view of the field.

Fortunately the rays also have a net to protect them from foul balls hit by the Rays.

There was also Ozzie, the cougar mascot for the Nashville Sounds, who followed the giant baseball headed Homer Horsehide and who was followed by Booster, a rooster mascot.

And then there’s Gritty, mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, who’s been described as frightening and an “acid trip of a mascot” which is my favorite description ever.

Source: The Philly Voice

All this just makes me think how much I’d like to be a mascot, to don an oversized costume and get up to some antics. Mascots are fun and add to the entertainment of any game and maybe they even really do bring some luck, and who doesn’t love that?

Coffee Talk.

Source: Reddit

According to the Mug Alignment chart I’m Chaotic Neutral, not because of my personality or anything, but because I’m left-handed. And that’s more important than anything else when it comes to how you hold your mug even though most mug designers don’t think about. I know most people aren’t southpaws but, hey, nobody’s perfect. The problem with coffee mug design was something I first noticed when I was a kid and got a coffee cup that said “I Love My Springer Spaniel”. At the time I didn’t drink coffee but I did have a Springer Spaniel named Friskie and I loved her—in fact I still have that coffee cup, but I keep it at work because it might offend our Dalmatians, but that’s another story.

When I did start drinking coffee in college I’d sometimes use that cup and because I’d hold the handle with my left hand the part with “I Love My Springer Spaniel” faced outward. Some people told me I was holding my coffee cup “the wrong way,” although those were the same kinds of people who, when I was young, would tell me I was holding my pencil in the wrong hand. Hey, you do you, but my brain is wired so left is right. And I thought it made sense that the picture should be facing out. I knew I loved my Springer Spaniel, but other people didn’t. It was meant to be a conversation starter. If you’re drinking coffee in a public place or even a semi-public place like a dining hall or breakroom wouldn’t you want a funny message or picture to be facing out so other people would see it? Sure, some people are introverts and aren’t looking to start conversations but those people are unlikely to be drinking their coffee in public or semi-public places anyway.

Here’s another example—a coffee mug from the now defunct JJ’s Coffee Shop that I got back when it was still funct, and their excellent brews were a real trip to Functy Town. Here’s the obverse side:

And here’s the reverse:

The ICC stands for “Integrity, Confidence, Consistency”, the motto of the owner of JJ’s, which is also printed along the bottom of the mug—although I got it for free because the guy who made it accidentally printed “Itegrity” on it because I’m pretty confident he wasn’t consistent about his spelling. Anyway it bugs me that when I hold it the JJ’s logo faces me, although I usually don’t carry it out in public or even semi-public so I’m not starting any conversations.

What I’m really getting at is that most coffee cups are designed for right-handers but they shouldn’t be. Ideally coffee cups should be made with reversible handles. Obviously this isn’t easy and will require a great deal of engineering skill and thought—otherwise someone would have done it already.

Or, you know, they could just put the picture or message or whatever on both sides.

Source: Walmart.com

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