Museum musing

On a drizzly, quite autumnal day, I returned to one of my favorite places, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our main purpose this trip was to visit the American Craft galleries, where wood-turner and artist David Ellsworth’s work, including some collaborations with his wife, glass-bead artist Wendy Ellsworth, currently resides for a one-year exhibit. It’s not every day that I can enter a world-class museum and say, “I am friends with the artist who created this marvelous object!” Kudos to the Ellsworths and to the museum for recognizing the importance of David’s astonishing work.

photo-3

Crafted from a dense burl of wood, precisely bandsawn, these sculptures from Ellsworth’s “Line Ascending” series range from 2 to 5 feet in height and conjure possibilities from dinosaur horns to mountains to minarets.

I had not had a chance on previous visits to walk through the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the museum, so despite the drizzle, we followed the paths through the 1-acre urban park. The hardscaping is very nice, though by now a bit cliched, since it seems every city garden in the US uses New York’s (admittedly amazing) High Line as its model. The Anne d’Harnoncourt garden likewise utilizes native plants in the garden areas–a trend of which I approve. The views of Philadelphia, its fountains and the river, are nicely framed, and the park is laid out well for “rooms” to contain or display large sculpture. I am sorry to report that few of the sculptures resident at present are appealing, though. My spouse remarked that one of the Sol Lewitt pieces “looks like a barbecue grill platform.” In another setting, that might not have been so obvious (or so funny). Nonetheless, it was pleasant to wander the sculpture garden paths and muse on things aesthetic instead of thinking about the large stack of student essays awaiting my attention.

Evaluating freshman composition papers requires a different aesthetic altogether.

 

 

 

 

Steel roots: Flower Show

Steel Roots series, Steve Tobin, at the Philadelphia Flower Show 2014

Steel Roots series, Steve Tobin, at the Philadelphia Flower Show 2014

Terrific place for Steve Tobin’s steel roots sculptures: this year’s annual Philadelphia Flower Show. Usually, I attend–and this year’s theme is art!--but circumstances prevent it this time. But the PHS (Philadelphia Horticultural Society) has an up-to-date website, and the Flower Show has its own Facebook page; so I can attend virtually without braving the icy roads and the crowds. I will, however, miss the marvelous olfactory thrill of walking into the main hall and getting stunned by the scent of fresh flowers.

Spring is a long time coming this year. I still can’t see anything but snow in my garden. Here’s hoping for thaw and the charming sight of snowdrops blooming…

Trees & tombs

On a brisk and clear autumn day, I visited Brooklyn’s magnificent and park-like Green-Wood Cemetery. Established in 1838, the burial grounds were planned as a gently-rolling landscape of hills, winding paths, ponds, and specimen trees in what was then rural Long Island. The “History” tab of the National Historic Site’s webpage says:

By 1860, Green-Wood was attracting 500,000 visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls as the country’s greatest tourist attraction. Crowds flocked to Green-Wood to enjoy family outings, carriage rides and sculpture viewing in the finest of first generation American landscapes. Green-Wood’s popularity helped inspire the creation of public parks, including New York City’s Central and Prospect Parks.

These days, US citizens feel far less connected to death, and the concept of picnicking among gravesites may seem creepy. The organization devoted to keeping up the cemetery as a historic site (it is, by the way, still an active cemetery) offers tours: visitors can tour the catacombs, visit graves of famous people, take an architectural monument & mausoleum tour, and see the sculptural highlights of the cemetery.

The sculptures are largely figural pieces and tend toward the Gothic sentimentality of the late 19th century: draped urns, weeping maidens wearing Greek chitons, triumphant angels, busts and full-length portraiture, columns and more columns (Corinthian being far and away the favorite). If such monuments appeal to you, Green-Wood is decidedly worth a visit; it is also a favorite among history buffs. A Revolutionary battle was fought on those grounds, and there are some early graves from the Dutch pre-Revolutionary era, not to mention the inherent historical interest of a major city mortuary established in the 1830s.

Here’s a flickr site devoted to images of Green-Wood.

~

While history and art interest me a great deal, what most arrested my attention at Green-Wood were the trees. Seldom do I get to see dozens of 170-year-old oaks, 100-year-old weeping beeches draping their boughs over paths and tombstones, large female gingko trees that drop their smelly orange fruits on the ground, old elms that survived Dutch elm disease, enormous cedars and firs of every description, majestic walnut trees (the woodlot at my house sports only some weedy black walnuts). Three tall, long-armed people embraced the circumference of one of these old oaks…

GreenwoodTree2-26Oct2013

Loving up the trees at Green-Wood.

~

There are hundreds of species of trees at Green-Wood, aptly named; and in fall the colors are handsome. I can imagine the pastel colors of the flowering trees there in spring!

So I think of the place of the dead as a fantastic terrarium of living things encased in city streets, a bubble of micro-environment–470+ acres–wherein thrive trees, a wide variety of birds, ornamental grasses and flowers, shrubs (too many hydrangeas, perhaps), squirrels and, judging by the dug-up divots evident in grassy areas, skunks, opossums, and possibly raccoons.

And yes, I recognize that cemeteries have a reputation for good soil because the plants are “fertilized” by human remains–undeserved reputation in modern times due to sanitation requirements and at Green-Wood, where many of the interred are not even in the ground. Even if and when human decay complements the soil nutrients, the idea doesn’t bother me. I am enough of a scientist, and enough of a Buddhist, to appreciate the biocycle.

Here’s something lovely

…from Maria Popova at the Brainpickings site: book loving and writing and art and literacy and library connect to produce this event/display at the New York Public Library. I was in the city just last week–rats, I missed this. (But I did see Ken Price at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent part of a lovely afternoon at Untermyer Park again).

~ Please click on the links! (I know they’re kind of hard to see on this theme)~

MEANWHILE…

I’m on blogging hiatus again while I get accustomed to my work week and while we prepare for the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival (or on Facebook here) this coming Friday and Saturday. Not a time to get much writing done, nor much reading.

A festival participant prepares apples for drying

A festival participant (19th c) prepares apples for drying

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

Young apprentices (18th c) at work

“The Visionaries” [a poem by a friend]

"Diana" by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; photo by Pete Finneran 2000. Image courtesy of Brookgreen Museum.  www.brookgreen.org

“Diana” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; photo by Pete Finneran 2000. Image courtesy of Brookgreen Museum.
http://www.brookgreen.org

A poem by Beejay Grob © 2013

The Visionaries

We too had seen the gardens
sculpted by every season now.
A significant collective ‘we’–
myself, and practically anyone
I could target; one-by-one,
rain, autumn, winter night.

The family album holds each
posing sandwiched on a tailgate
flocked outside the aviary;
all standing straight as statues,
shot by the granite Pegasus.
Everyone except you, Muse.

Beneath a hospitality of waving
palmettos, feathering Carolina skies
from here to Charleston,
the stone-silent Visionaries
lean in from their perch,
reflecting in their secret oracle.

I took a stab at it when Orion
hung low over midnight oaks,
a carved moon enlightening Anna:
Why so many huntresses?
I determined her quivering gifts
sighted monumental occasions.

Walk among the springtime
blooms, the lubbers mating openly,
or in summer’s dead heat–
count the times she made a point
to cast herself as Diana,
the female Archer.

~ ~ ~

National Poetry Month, 2013. Many thanks to Beejay Grob, who wrote the poem and who introduced me to the beauty of Brookgreen Gardens in spring.

Brookgreen Plantation and Sculpture Gardens, Myrtle Beach SC

Mortise & tenon

In a post late last year, I examined a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem for the way the lines and images might be considered as hinges. Another metaphor for how poems work–one I have been churning in my mind for a couple of years now–is joinery of another kind: mortise and tenon. What joinery does in woodworking is allow the cabinetmaker to connect separate pieces of wood together in such a way as to allow a little movement as the wood responds to temperature and moisture changes. Good wood joinery requires experience and thoughtful attention, as there are often additional challenges such as connecting end grain to long grain. Amateurs resort to screws, nails, and glue to cobble projects together because joinery takes time to learn and requires technique and practice that the average DIY “carpenter” does not possess.

True craftspeople learn, practice, and employ conventional joinery techniques and often develop their own signature styles. The craft of woodworking parallels the craft of poetry: there are tools and techniques, strategies and conventions, patterns to follow, and inventions and innovations to create. Both crafts join together materials that seem alike (wood to wood, words to words), and yet it can be damned hard to get those connections to hang together solidly and make a coherent and stable whole.

~

Odate's

Odate’s “Pride of New England” [1982] photo: Laure Olender

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My friend Toshio Odate was trained as a shoji maker and has worked as an educator, artist (sculpture), and craftsman-in-wood for most of his 82 years. Possibly his best-known book is the practical but also spiritual Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use. This text will teach you how to choose, care for, sharpen and use traditional Japanese hand tools, meanwhile illuminating the history and spirit of the woodworking craft in Japan. Toshio reveres the work of humans, the human touch, the effort of making that goes into a handmade object; and his sculptural pieces reflect his passion. The large sculpture above, Pride of New England, stands on his property under the hardwood trees and above the nearby creek. Nothing holds these huge slabs and trunks of wood together but hand-cut joints: mortise and tenon, mostly.

~

I’m going to try to explain a connection between poetry and joinery through a brief examination of the poem “Whereof the Gift Is Small” by Maxine Kumin. This poem appears here, and I think you ought to check out the link to a Q & A on this poem, as it is enlightening and amusing (as Kumin so often is).

Whereof the Gift Is Small

       Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
him underground. Wet feet, wet cuffs,
little flecks of buttercup on my sneaker toes,
bluets, violets crowding out the tufts
of rich new grass the horses nose
and nibble like sleepwalkers held fast—
brittle beauty—might this be the last?

~

This lovely small poem is framed by phrases from Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey’s sonnet “The Frailty and Hurtfulness of Beauty,” so right away we have an old poem joined to a new one; and as Kumin admits in her commentary on the piece, “Picking lines from others’ poems is hazardous and I don’t recommend it.” Woodworkers will recommend that old, seasoned wood not be joined to green wood for practical reasons. Good reasons, too. But that does not mean one should never attempt it or that it cannot be successfully done. A master like Maxine Kumin can succeed–but with caution.

How might one approach the joinery of words as apparently distant from one another in tone or image as “sneaker” and “rubythroat”? The grave of the gelding (a gap, into which something solid may be placed) gives the reader one opening. There is also the stepping-down aspect of the images, each connecting to the next. The bird appears higher in the poem, quite literally, up there with the lilacs fading on their tall stems; but the alyssum blooms much lower to the earth, as do the bleeding hearts where the bee is busy. The grave and beetles take us deeper. Then, up ever so slightly, to the low-growing buttercups and the damp cuffs of the speaker’s trousers and the noses of still-living, grazing horses…with a “brittle” reminder that this season is short (“the gift is small”). If you are familiar with Surrey’s poem, there’s a marvelous resonance here, though I feel Kumin’s tenor is a bit less cynical than Surrey’s.

dovetail joint

dovetail joint

Kumin’s poem is not a full sonnet, and some of her end-rhymes are slant. A modernity pervades her piece, yet the older poem’s language and sensibility are evoked nonetheless. How elegantly she achieves this balance. I think the first joint in the poem appears at line 4, at which point the nature imagery of the first three lines, which could incline to the romantic, solidly connects with the real fact of death. This line also introduces us to our speaker: the gelding is “my” gelding. Line 6 provides another clear connection: the speaker here exists very much in the present moment, wearing sneakers, noticing the buttercups. This line fits into the poem like a well-cut dovetail, linking the pastoral descriptions with the reflective mode the speaker turns to after observing the horses. And there, between the em dashes, we find Surrey’s “brittle beauty,” a tenon that fits the space and holds the entire brief poem together.

Good joinery is often invisible except to those who appreciate the work and take the time to look for it. Toshio solved the engineering challenge of constructing his sculpture through a process of reflection, experiment, experience, and revision. How like a poet’s work that seems to me! When I told him I feel his work is analogous to poetry, he was initially flabbergasted. Maybe the surprise stemmed from a difference in the approach to poetry across cultures, or maybe from a difference in the way a plastic artist perceives a largely abstract art like poetry. Maybe I could not explain my idea adequately to a person for whom English is not a first language. Actually, I’m not certain he believed there is as much human touch and hand-work involved in poem-making as there is in woodworking or the sort of made-by-hand sculpture Toshio does. We agreed not to fully understand one another.

About a year later, I attended a special event at his home, a celebration of the Object as Being, for which I composed a poem. That summer, he called and said, “I think maybe I understand now what you mean.”

~

endnote: If you’re interested in learning more about Toshio Odate, here is a 1996 article from The New York Times and a 2009 blog post (including a short video) from Tom’s Workbench, as well as a short on making shoji screens–from Martha Stewart’s network.