Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Art Matters.

When I took my first art history course it was simple. In fact it was just as simple when I took my last art history course. Art history was like regular history: a linear progression of events, or movements, starting with cave paintings, which were prehistory really, and going up through the millenia with widely spaced high points: Egypt, Greece, Rome, then there was the Renaissance, and the rediscovery of perspective. Neo-classicism gave way to Romanticism and then Impressionism was followed by Fauvism or Expressionism. As the chronometer ticked over to the 20th century everything exploded into a bunch of isms: Cubism, Orphism, Futurism. World War I prompted Dadaism and Surrealism. Before World War II the major center of art was Paris. After World War II it was New York, with Abstract Expressionism followed by Pop Art followed by…well, if they made it to that point the art history classes just sort of fizzled out there. Nothing was left: art history had ended. For some art historians Andy Warhol’s soup cans were the capstone. For others the end had come before that: the first time a prehistoric person placed pigment on a cave wall was leading up to the moment Jackson Pollock dripped a blob of paint, breaking the connection between brush and canvas that had been the basis of all art. The greatest emphasis was on artists who were mostly white and mostly European and mostly men, artists who were centered in Italy, Paris, and New York, with brief asides to Berlin, Moscow, and London, because they were the Artists Who Mattered.
Even from the beginning, from that first art history class, there was a question in the back of my mind: what about artists in other parts of the world? Artists from Japan, the South Pacific, South America, and Africa influenced a lot of those 20th century isms, so why did the mostly anonymous artists who produced those works matter less than Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso? The history of art history follows a pretty simple pattern. Vasari, whose Lives Of The Artists is considered the first work of art history, focused on artists he knew. In the 16th century the internet was pretty rudimentary and unreliable; dial-up hadn’t even been invented yet, and that remained true up to and even through 1950 when E.H. Gombrich published The Story Of Art, the book that was either used or influenced every art history course I ever took. And I get it. In order to make sense of art, in order to make a story of art, a few scholars had to pick what they liked and cram it into an alley. And to keep the art history classes simple we students were supposed to ignore the buildings, the whole cities, the whole world on either side.
I like taking pictures of graffiti I find but I’m also always curious about the artists behind it, and some time ago created an Instagram account just to follow them, and through that I learned that an artist I’d seen, whom I only knew by the tag Betor, had died of a drug overdose on Christmas Day 2016. Or rather it helped explain some pictures I found. Through Instagram I learned Betor was part of a group of artists who worked together and influenced each other–what art historians might call a movement, or what they might label with an ism.

These works aren’t done by Betor. They’re done by friends of Betor, artists who admired his work. They’re tributes. There are more on Instagram, and messages too from artists who knew him, and others who are sorry they never met him but admired his work. I feel the same way. Betor was a person who mattered. An organization, A Betor Way, was founded in his memory to help anyone struggling with addiction.

There is no one story of art. Art doesn’t end with the death of any artist, or with any particular movement. And if I had to give only one explanation for why I’m so interested in graffiti it would be this: because it matters.

 

So Long, And Thanks For All The Coffee.

Every possession and every happiness is but lent by chance for an uncertain time, and may therefore be demanded back the next hour.

-Schopenhauer

Some of my best ideas come to me in coffee shops. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, although I’ve had those best ideas in coffee shops I know well. Maybe it’s the combination of the familiar and the strange—the constant interruptions of people coming and going. Once while I was writing a story in a coffee shop, a story that wasn’t going that well and that I was only writing down to get it out of my head, a woman asked me, “Are you journaling?” I said yes and we talked for a minute and then she got her latte and left. Then as I went back to writing the story took a weird turn and became so much better. Don’t knock the person from Porlock, but that’s another story. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had some good ideas in coffee shops and those have just happened to foster other good ideas.

I also prefer local coffee shops. They all have some features in common but every one is unique, too—unlike those chain places that you find everywhere. So I’m sad that one of my favorite coffee shops, JJ’s Market, closed December 22nd, 2018.

JJ’s has been around since 1971—almost as long as I’ve been alive. When the Noshville Delicatessen next door, a more recent arrival, closed and a developer wanted to raze the block the owner of JJ’s went to court. His lease, after all, was good through 2022. That was a few years ago, but when I talked to the owner he said a lot of circumstances meant he had to close. The leaky roof would cost $100,000 to fix, and JJ’s was the last tenant on a block in an area where new buildings, and prices, are going up. The midtown area of Nashville used to be a funky place with bars and coffee shops, but thanks to gentrification it’s rapidly getting defunked. In spite of JJ’s being just a block away from a major chain coffee shop, not to mention a chain that specializes in pastries and, just one block over, a chain bagel place, it remained popular and crowded. Some mornings there I listened in on business meetings with four people in suits, and it tickled me to think high-powered deals were being made at JJ’s funky, wobbly tables and overstuffed sofas. The leaky roof with exposed ductwork and the bare brick walls added to the charm. Once I overheard a musician talking to an agent—and being around creative people might be another reason I get good ideas in coffee shops. People left books lying on tables or in the bookcase by the register, where there was also a selection of board games.

JJ’s was more than just a coffee shop. You could even say it was world famous, included in Ariel Rubinstein’s Atlas Of Cafes. The front section had coolers with a wide selection of craft beers. You could also get some local brews on tap, or fill a growler to go. They had a selection of European chocolates, magazines, Japanese snack foods, and ceramic mugs made by a local artist. And there’s something really funny about a place with its own specialty coffees called “Studying Nietzsche” and “James Brown”.

Companies like WeWork are creating workspaces for people who want to get away from the traditional office, and hotels are redesigning their lobbies to be community hangouts, but JJ’s created a community space decades before just by being what the community wanted.

A poem literally stamped into one of the tables ends, “You are marvelous./The gods want to twilight/in you.”

It’s a sad but fitting epitaph for a coffee shop that was part of the community, was even a community unto itself, for almost half a century.

Hail and farewell, JJ’s Market.

 

Goodbye, Old Friend.

Source: Wikipedia

Friendship must have been very important to Penny Marshall. The first thing I thought of when I read about her passing was, of course, Big, which, until I read about her passing, I thought was her first film. In fact before reading that she was gone I could only think of two of her films off the top of my head: Big and A League Of Their Own. I didn’t realize that I’d seen and enjoyed several other films of hers, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash, which was her directorial debut, until reading one of several remembrances.

Anyway I didn’t think of the famous piano scene in Big but rather the scenes between Tom Hanks, as Josh, and Josh’s friend Billy, played by Jared Rushton, who’s still a child and who, even as Josh starts to take on real adulthood, remains his anchor. The scene where Josh and Billy take Josh’s first paycheck to the bank and ask for “Three dimes, a hundred dollar bill and 87 ones,” then gorge on junk food is exactly what you’d expect a couple of kids to do, but it’s the chemistry between Hanks and Rushton, who don’t just seem like a couple of kids but a couple of friends, that makes it work. Robert DeNiro was briefly considered for the role of the adult Josh and he and Rushton spent an afternoon shooting hoops together, just getting to know each other, and I assume Hanks and Rushton did the same. And David Moscow, who played the young Josh, and Jared Rushton would become real friends, hanging out together even after the movie was done. That, to me, is more meaningful and makes the film more important than the fact that Marshall was the first woman director to have a film gross more than $100 million. Financial success is great but the emotional impact lasts long after all the money gets splurged.

It’s the sort of thing I always hope for with most films I watch—that the actors who portray friends onscreen are friends offscreen too, although I know it rarely happens. Still it’s nice to know that it does happen sometimes, and that it happened in Big and in other Marshall films.

In fact for any of us who grew up on ‘80’s sitcoms it’s also nice to know that the reason Marshall and her Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams worked so well on-screen is because they got along so well off-screen.

And Marshall’s early sitcom success followed by such a great career as a director completely undermines the saying that there are no second acts in American lives. She had an amazing second act. There was a genuine warmth and interest in people that ran through all her films, from Awakenings to Riding In Cars With Boys, and I keep coming back to Jumpin’ Jack Flash which is less of a spy story than it is about the need to connect with another person—even through a computer screen, and that’s why, even behind the camera, she felt like a friend.

Hail and farewell Penny Marshall.

 

Under The Sea.

Source: BBC

When I was a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist. My family would go on summer vacation in Florida and each day we’d go to the beach where I’d swim and collect various creatures. Then back at the house I’d draw whatever I found, or I’d draw other things—I did a lot of drawing too, and making up stories. I felt strangely divided between wanting to be a scientist and wanting to be an artist, and although I didn’t pursue a career in science I did realize that art and science aren’t that far apart—aren’t different, really. There’s a creative aspect to all scientific research, and art provides a way to share what’s learned, and both are a way of understanding the world.

Because of that I like to think of Stephen Hillenburg as a kindred spirit. We weren’t that far apart in age so I couldn’t say he was a childhood hero—although it’s a sobering thought that a child born the year Spongebob Squarepants debuted could be nineteen years old now—but we shared that duality. Hillenburg started out teaching marine biology but left it to pursue a career in art—in animation, specifically, and even though I think teachers are really important I think he had an equally important impact by giving us a world that was pure silliness.

He was also very private, and in a world where too many of our heroes or even kindred spirits turn out to have feet of clay—where we learn so much about people we admire it can be hard to keep admiring them—that’s okay. For all that I feel a connection to him personally I’d rather think I know him through the characters he created, and while, like all classic animated characters, they always sprang back to their original selves, the denizens of Bikini Bottom had personalities and emotions as deep as Rock Bottom. Consider this: Patrick Star is continually joyful and full of life and once, when asked how stupid he is, replied, “It varies.” And yet he also worked hard to impress his parents—at least until they turned out not to be his parents, and gave up the brain coral that turned him into a genius, deciding that ignorance really is bliss. Squidward, perpetually grumpy, got so fed up with Spongebob and Patrick he moved to Tentacle Acres, but realized that living with people just like him didn’t really make him happy. Sandy is a squirrel who lives underwater, the only girl in the main group, and while she occasionally gets homesick for Texas, she realized home is really where you’re surrounded by those who care about you. Mr. Krabs is a perpetual cheapskate who nevertheless is willing to spend money on his daughter and, hey, as bosses go I’ve had worse. Even Plankton, the show’s villain, has a soft side—he has a computer wife named Karen (which was also the name of Hillenburg’s wife)—and is able to let go of his quest for the Krabby Patty formula once in a while and just have fun. And then there’s Spongebob himself: he finds joy in everything, from blowing bubbles and catching jellyfish to working at a griddle and scrubbing toilets.

And there’s a wonderfully weird group of other recurring characters, from Mrs. Puffs, Spongebob’s boating instructor, to Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. They’re a diverse enough group that almost anyone could find a kindred spirit in there, although I did once take an online quiz, “Which Spongebob character are you?” and was surprised to get the answer “Gary”, but that’s another story.

Source: Giphy

Spongebob has been with us and will be with us for a very long time, but it feels like Stephen Hillenburg was taken too soon.

Hail and farewell.

We Can Be Heroes.

I have a complicated relationship with comic books. For some reason I never had any when I was a kid. It’s not that my parents had any objections to comic books, but I don’t remember going anywhere they were for sale. When I was, I think, in second grade there was some kind of school contest and I won a single issue of <i>The Fantastic Four</i>. I don’t remember what the contest was exactly–I wasn’t really paying attention, and maybe if I had I could have won more than just a single issue, but that’s another story. And I loved it. I could never figure out where to find more, though. I hear people talk about comic books racks at the drugstore or the grocery store, and eventually, when I was in my teens, the bookstores in the mall had racks with offerings from Marvel and DC, but at that point I’d moved on. I was making regular trips every Thursday–new comic day–to a local comic book store where I spent my money on mostly independent titles. I liked, if I could, to pick up a comic from issue one so I wouldn’t miss any of the backstory. I avoided the old classics because the size and depth of their universes intimidated me. My friends were all big X-Men fans and yet I avoided it because I felt I’d missed so much. I was fascinated by them–and several times seriously considered getting back into Spider-Man, my childhood hero–but kept my distance.

And yet there had been a glorious summer, maybe in between second and third grade–I don’t really remember because I wasn’t paying attention–when every afternoon the local UHF station ran a series of Marvel cartoons from 1966, and, starved for superhero action, I soaked up a good dose of Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Namor of Atlantis. The stories were great but at first the animation seemed a little shoddy and goofy to me–characters barely moved, and the design seemed, well, flat. Over time it grew on me, though, and I realized these were faithful interpretations of the originals. The quality of the animation may have been intended to save on costs, but it also captured the spirit of the comic books. I like to think the singular genius behind all of these characters, Stan Lee, had a hand in making the comic books characters he created and helped write the stories for, accessible. And that he got a kick out of the catchy theme songs. They opened me up to the worlds of comic book stories, and those comic books I collected in my teens–that included The Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman–probably wouldn’t have existed without him.

Tom over at Tom Being Tom has a great tribute to the comic books of his youth and the profound influence Stan Lee had on him and, reading it, I realized that even before I started collecting comic books regularly Stan Lee had an influence on me too, and even that his influence reached beyond just giving us memorable comic book characters who’ve become part of our collective culture. He made it possible for us all to be part of the world of heroes.

Hail and farewell Stan Lee.

Here are some of the openings to those old cartoons. Enjoy the catchy theme songs.

Feet, And Everything Else, Of Clay.

Source: Cartoon Brew

When I was a kid I’d spend hours playing with modeling clay, creating miniature worlds and the strange creatures that inhabited them. When I was finished I’d mash them up and start over again, although what I really wanted to do was Claymation. Some magic tricks are even more impressive when you know how they’re done, and after seeing how it was done that’s how I felt about Claymation. It just fascinated me that every motion, every gesture, every change of a clay figure was produced through the slow and patient work of a pair of human hands, and not that different from what I created, then destroyed, at the kitchen table. I even created characters, wrote scripts, plotted out movements, but cameras were expensive then. Well, they still are, but most of us carry cameras around in our pockets all the time.

What I didn’t know until I recently heard about his passing was that the genius behind a lot of the Claymation I loved so much was Will Vinton. Vinton created the term Claymation. He won a 1975 Academy Award for his short Closed Mondays, which I remember seeing bits of but not in its entirety until now—thanks, YouTube—and several other projects. His studio produced, among other advertising campaigns, the California Raisins and Domino’s Noid, which has a weird and dark history. His studio also produced the Claymation Christmas Celebration which I loved even though I’d outgrown playing with clay by the time it first aired.

I never even knew his name but he was one of my childhood heroes.

Hail and farewell Will Vinton.

Ordinary People.

Some critics complain that Neil Simon’s plays rely too much on jokes which, to me, is like complaining that Shakespeare’s plays rely too much on iambic pentameter. And Neil Simon started out as a comedy writer, along with his brother Danny, working on, among other things, Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows in a writers’ room that also included Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and I can’t begin to imagine what that was like.

His plays are generally romantic comedies, built on a style that can be traced back to ancient Greece and fairy tales–he once said his own life was “kind of a Cinderella story”–but he went beyond the traditional happy ending. Neil Simon was always interested in what happened after happily ever after. Barefoot In The Park, his second play and first big hit, picks up where most romantic comedies end, and his next and probably most famous play, The Odd Couple, centers around two divorced men. The funny thing, though, is that Oscar and Felix enter into kind of a marriage—when Oscar asks Felix to move in with him he even asks, “What do you want, a ring?” And then they end up going their separate ways, although they’ll always have the weekly poker game. Even in his later plays Simon keeps returning to the themes of divorce and how families break up or stay together. In the semi-autobiographical Lost In Yonkers it’s mostly seen from children’s perspective, reflecting how, when he was young, Simon’s father deserted the family for long periods and his mother took in boarders to pay the bills while sometimes sending her sons to live with relatives. Simon said, “The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five.” Escaping into comedy, starting with the films of Charlie Chaplin, was how he survived.

Even though comedies traditionally end on a happy note many of his plays, his best plays, have open or ambiguous endings. While he always affirmed the human desire to survive he also reminded us that after every ever after there’s another story, another beginning. His characters and plays realistic–only once does a character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, in Jake’s Women–but he also wants them to find happiness and fulfillment, and they find it through laughter. He said, “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”

Here’s a better line, one that could be a philosophy for life: in Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a tribute to that old writers’ room, one of his characters says, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.”

Hail and farewell Neil Simon.

Her Conviction.

Source: Goodreads

Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.

If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.

It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.

And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,

I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.

That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.

Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.

Hail and farewell Charlotte Rae.

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