Thursday, March 27, 2008

Brainfood #1: Sherman Alexie

"Brainfood" will be an ongoing snapshot of the words and music that are currently capturing my attention. Brief mentions, that's all.

I'm reading Sherman Alexie's 1995 novel, Reservation Blues, the magical tale of what happens when Robert Johnson arrives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the resulting events that unfold when Johnson leaves his diabolically influenced guitar. Soon Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his buddies form the band Coyote Springs, and their lives become changed by Rock n' Roll. A dream-laden, rock n' roll powwow, Res Blues is both funny and darkly somber, simultaneously droll and deadly serious. Fans of Alexie's movie Smoke Signals will recognize Thomas and his chums, as their tales interweave with the film's narrative. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wind, trees

Returning home from a weekend away, we were greeted by a phone message from our next-door neighbor. One of the hemlock trees along our shared fence line had toppled over the weekend, falling on his fence and resting on the tree limbs above. It was a small hemlock that had succumbed to wooly adelgids (commonly called aphids) several years ago, and was very dead.

It wasn’t really much of a tree, more of a tall post that was rotten to the core, and I was able to move it off the fence and snap it off at the base just by rocking it back and forth. I noticed a few more hemlocks that the adelgids had killed, and our neighbor said that a lot of them had been sprayed when the adelgids were around a few years ago. Most of them looked pretty healthy, but a few had died and rotted. Looks like a bit of lumberjacking is in order.

While bugs may be the initial cause, it was the wind that finally did in this tree. It’s spring in Blacksburg, and one of the primary harbingers seems to be wind. Lots of it.

Last April 15th the wind blew particularly heavy all night, banging against the sides and windows of the hillside house we lived in then. It was still blowing strong the next morning, gusting up to 50 mph, battering me with flurries of snow . Walking up to the top of the hill behind our house I was startled to see that the old cherry tree had been blown over during the night. We had picked cherries from the lower branches the summer before, and while the trunk seemed somewhat decayed, it was still a shock to see it gone. It was a daily ritual to walk up the hill, emerge from the woods into the field, and see the sun coming up between the tall trunks in this cherry tree’s small copse.

Of course, that day grew darker in Blacksburg. By noon 32 people had been murdered at Virginia Tech, and all the images that came across the television screens showed police and students battered by wind and surrounded by flurries. A grim, surreal feel permeated the air. This couldn’t be real. Friends and family emailed and called asking if we were all right. The day went on, and the wind kept blowing. By late afternoon, just as I was beginning to leave Radford and head back home to Blacksburg, someone told me that the tree in front of the library had also blown down, bracketing the day with fallen trees like arboreal parentheses.

All of this brings Emily Dickinson to mind (that's her below on the left) . Here's Dickinson's poem #321, commonly known as "The Wind," written in 1862:

Of all the sounds despatched abroad,
There's not a charge to me
Like that old measure in the boughs,
That phraseless melody

The wind does, working like a hand
Whose fingers comb the sky,
Then quiver down, with tufts of tune
Permitted gods and me.

When winds go round and round in bands,
And thrum upon the door,
And birds take places overhead,
To bear them orchestra,

I crave him grace, of summer boughs,
If such an outcast be,
He never heard that fleshless chant
Rise solemn in the tree,

As if some caravan of sound
On deserts, in the sky,
Had broken rank,
Then knit, and passed
In seamless company.

The final note that slammed on the day the trees fell was that my aunt and mentor Eloise died. Her great love was books, and she spread that joy far and wide. She read two or three (or more) each week throughout her life, and distributed countless volumes to family, friends, and libraries. This is photo of her personal library:

Saturday, March 8, 2008

People of the Book

I recently finished Geraldine Brooks’ excellent new novel, People of the Book (Viking 2008). It’s part mystery novel, part historical treatise, all tracing the history of a text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The novel opens with a 1996 visit to Sarajevo by the novel’s protagonist, the Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath, who is sent to the war-torn Balkans to assess the condition of this rare Jewish text. As Hanna tries to determine the illuminated text’s provenance, Brooks intersperses individual narratives that trace the characters whose lives touched the book over the course of five centuries.

Through scientific examination, Hanna discovers much about the book (she comes to conservation from a biology background). There’s blood and wine on the pages, as well as other evidence of its path through the ages. During this fascinating trek we witness the courage of a Muslim who saves the book from the Nazis, and learn about the anti-Semitic world of 1894 Vienna. Tensions in the relationship between a Catholic inquisitor and a rabbi in 1609 Venice introduce more well-developed, compelling characters, while Brooks takes the book’s origins even further back to 15th century Spain and across the Gibraltar to Africa. Brooks brilliantly mixes the past with the present, using Hanna’s story to drive the narrative, revealing the Haggadah's historical record while we learn, with Hanna, the surprising details of her own personal history.
(Below is a map of the Sarajevo Haggadah's journey, from Geraldine Brooks' website)

Some have called this a erudite DaVinci Code, and while that case can certainly be made, this is first and foremost a work of literature, albeit one that’s also a page-turner. Its portrayal of communities and setting is evocative, whether in the Seville of 1480 or in the late 20th century Australian outback, and the character development is extraordinary. People of the Book is a beautifully-told, captivating literary work that reveals much about the power of the written word.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Fearrington Folk Art Show

A few weeks ago we visited the Fearrington Folk Art Show, held each year just south of Chapel Hill, NC. This juried show includes over 30 artists and is one of the finest folk art shows in the Southeast. Definitions of what constitutes “folk art” vary, with some preferring the term “outsider art,” and still others preferring the term “vernacular art.” Call it what you will, the common theme is work by artists who either lack formal artistic training or who have rejected such training.

Art critics and folklorists can wrangle about the terminology, but the simple reality is that the show at Fearrington is a pure delight, filled with great artists who embrace beauty, color and expression. What follows is a sample of what we saw. All the artists agreed to have their photos and work displayed on this blog, and a heartfelt thanks to them.

Just inside the entrance is Missionary Mary Proctor from Tallahassee, Florida, where she runs the American Folk Art Museum and Gallery, a museum/workshop/studio dedicated primarily to her original paintings. As you might expect from her name, this self-taught artist sees her art as a spiritual calling, and often incorporates biblical scripture into her paintings. She's also fond of including found objects in her work, as in the "Music Makes the World Go Round" painting is on the left, which as several 45rpm records as part of this large, evocative work. (Click on the painting to see a larger image.)

Like many of the artists here, her work is featured in Raw Vision, a magazine dedicated to outsider art. Raw Vision’s Steve Kistulentz said this of Mary Proctor:

For years, Mary owned and operated Noah's Ark Flea Market; the name and the animals around her museum and gallery suggest her affinity for all of what she calls 'the Lord's creations.' Before turning to painting, Mary collected buttons, bottle caps, doll parts, costume jewelry, watches, and thousands of other small objects, filling her shop and her home with the small trinkets without having a specific purpose in mind. Then, in 1995, she says, the purpose was given to her in a vision.
Just around the corner was Miz Thang’s booth. Miz Thang, who hails from Georgia, delves deeply into musical themes on her work– just as I walked up two people who knew her material came up and asked “do you have any Beatles paintings?” She paints on custom cut birch wood, using bright colors and working with her fingers rather than brushes. That’s her on the right, wearing the overalls, and that’s her painting of Frank Zappa on the left. Note how she sprinkles various song titles and phrases throughout her painting – “Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Peaches in Regalia," etc.

Tom Blunt's "Funky Folk Art" sports the wonderful motto "Art That Don't Match The Sofa," oh, so true. Reminds me of a comment my parents used to hear all the time. They owned a custom-framing shop and gallery that sold limited-edition prints, and people would often come in to buy things that matched the furniture. Ah, art as commodity. "Do you have anything to match my 1978 blue Barcalounger?" Anyway, Toms' work features brightly colored fish, three dimensional landscapes, fun and functional boxes adorned with more fish, collages with mystic imagery, and wearable art such as pins and buttons. He works from his studio in Richmond, Virginia. That's Tom on the left, below one of his tree-filled landscapes.

Finally, we solved the pressing and delightful question of "what will be bring home to hang over the mantel" when we came the St. Peter's Farm & Folk Art Studio booth. Tim & Lisa Kluttz run their studio in Salisbury, NC. We fell in love with the brightly colored dogs and angelic cats. Their flying dogs series is joy, but we decided that the Red Dog was coming home with us. Pictured below Lisa Kluttz, holding our puppy, who now hangs in our living room.