The Lady and La Salle

La Salle (1643-1687) ~ Raoul Josset

Larger than life, envied in success and plagued by failure, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle may have landed on Texas shores by mistake, but he certainly left his mark. 

Born in France a century after Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked west of Galveston Island, and two centuries before the first shiploads of German immigrants made their way inland from Indianola, La Salle followed his brother to New France (now Canada) in order to enter the fur trade.

Once in New France, he discovered a preference for travel over trapping. Launching a first expedition to the Ohio River in 1669, he spent several years combining business with the pleasures of exploration. In 1682, he traveled the length of the Mississippi River, laying claim to the entirety of the immense drainage basin for France, and naming the territory Louisiana, after King Louis XIV. (more…)

Appreciating Small(s)

Victorian Tussie-Mussie, or Bouquet Holder

Some of the best words in the world are fading away.

Unless you’re lapidicolous (given to living under a rock), you know language is labile (unstable and given to change). Shakespeare’s forsooth and great-Grandma’s tussie-mussie have disappeared from common speech, along with a gallimaufry (jumble or confused medley) of other archaic, unrecognizable or overwrought words: the linguistic detritus of an older world that didn’t feel itself constrained to messages of 140 characters.

What hasn’t changed is the human need for euphemism.  From the fifteenth century phrase with child to our modern senior citizen, words and phrases like passed away, concrete overshoes, and broad across the beam always have served as a kind of verbal code for cautious or bashful conversationalists.

When it comes to euphemism, my fondness for smalls has endured since childhood.  Each time my mother asked me to hang laundry on the outdoor line, she would admonish, “Be sure to hang the smalls on the inside.”  

Smalls, of course, were underwear: the panties, bras and briefs not fit for public display.  Hanging them on inside lines, between the sheets and the towels, kept them from public view. It was a common practice, meant to save self-conscious, clothes-hanging children from embarassment, and to prevent nosy neighbors or curious passers-by from drawing conclusions about the owners of the garments after scrutinizing the lace, ribbon, patterns or color of the unmentionables. 

Less embarassing was another, quite different collection of smalls. Smalls also referred to the eclectic assortment of sewing remnants, baubles, and bits found in boxes or tins at the back of any woman’s closet.  They were pretty things, frivolous and sparkly. They could keep any child engrossed for hours: sorting, selecting, re-arranging and admiring their glowing, intricate beauty. Snippets of lace, broken strings of beads, buttons and ribbon, tatted flowers: all were as compelling as they were tiny. 

Sometimes, women re-purposed lace to decorate lingerie. Just as often, it trimmed bed linens or Baptismal gowns. Tatted flowers were stitched onto doll clothes, or glued onto stationary. Pearls, faceted glass beads, and bits of jet were restrung into necklaces for dolls, or little girls.  Buttons served as coins in a million play-transactions, while imagination transformed rhinestones into diamonds. Harsh as moonlight on snow and brilliant as the stars, the little gems embedded themselves into a thousand childhood dreams.

Accustomed as we are to a bigger-is-better mentality, we tend to discount not only the smalls of that simpler world, but small in every form. We equate small with insignificant: judging small items to be less valuable, small plans unworthy of consideration, and small events of little consequence.

Such easy dismissal trivializes the power of the small and the singular. Small treasures, distillations of beauty and elegance that fit into the palm of a hand as easily as sunlight fills up a meadow, are approachable, rather than overwhelming. They speak with their own voice, and teach their own lessons.  They reveal their truths with a certain intimacy, and they endure over time, at least in part because of their hiddenness.

My early fascination with all things small only increased with the gift of a small sterling box, tucked into the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The year I received a new bicycle as my “big” present, I was more than satisfied. In my excitement, I turned away from my stocking, until my parents urged me to have another look. When I looked, I discovered the box, buried beneath a cellophaned string of candy canes, a chocolate Santa, and some colored pencils. Perhaps two inches across, filigreed and shining like a star, it was padded and lined with burgundy silk.  Hinged, but without a clasp, it wasn’t suited to hold much of anything. It simply was.   

Not my treasure, but very much like my treasure

Some years ago, I realized the box had disappeared, washed away by the great tide of life. Still, I cherish its memory as the first of an assortment of smalls that have fallen into my life.  

A rhinestone bracelet from my grandfather, gold weights from Ghana, a bronze medicine pot, an intricately carved soapstone candle holder, a wooden fife, a pocket watch, a tangle of silver bracelets bartered for across the sweep of western Africa: none of these treasures would fetch an extraordinary price in the marketplace, yet each is priceless. Exquisitely crafted, inherently beautiful, overlaid with the patina of memory and polished by decades of loving touch, they are my life: ready to be fitted into suitcase or bag.

Today, even as my mother and grandmother hoarded their small collections of treasure, I cherish my own small discoveries: talismans and touchstones that serve to enliven memories of where I have lived, and from whence I have come. 

They also remind me of those who accept the challenge of creating on a smaller scale: painters and writers, musicians, sculptors, and photographers who by accident or design find themselves scaling things down in order to maximize impact.

A delightful example of “small is beautiful” can be found at the Little Gems exhibit currently showing at the West End Gallery in Corning, New York. Highlighting the work of artists who may or may not work regularly on a smaller scale, it includes several works by GC Myers, whose thoughtful and thought-provoking Redtree Times is one of my regular reads.

His extraordinary style translates beautifully to smaller-sized works, proving that strong lines and bold color don’t require a large canvas for their effect. This year’s pieces seem to continue a movement toward more jewel-like tones, making the paintings even more appropriate for an exhibit of “Little Gems.”

Wisdom of the Wind ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″
Trailblazer ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

Of all the paintings entered into the show, I find myself most drawn to The Outlier’s Home. Apart from my fondness for his use of amethyst and turquoise, and the subsequent transformation of the iconic Red Tree, I find myself delighted by a perceived echo of Mark Rothko’s work. I first encountered Rothko’s bold, brash canvases as part of the Menil collection in Houston, and I love imagining the sight of The Outlier’s Home hung next to something like Rothko’s Green Over Blue (1956).

The Outlier’s Home ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

As Gary has proven over the course of several exhibits, small doesn’t have to lead to art that is prissy or precious. I suspect that, seen in person, these small canvases would do even more effectively what they do well enough here: focus the eye, the attention and the heart in arresting and memorable ways.

Ribbons and lace, a scattering of beads. Sterling boxes gifted by love and silver bracelets discovered by chance.  Washes of paint and smudges of charcoal arranged by an artist’s hand. Each of these tiny treasures reminds in its own way that, while bigger always is bigger, it isn’t necessarily better. In life as in art, even the small has its place. 

Storms Are On the Ocean ~ GC Myers  4″ x 6″ 

In the ages-long struggle against adversity, the smallest gesture counts.  In the midst of the world’s anonymous masses, the most insignificant and unnoticed person is worthy of infinite respect.  The most hidden event may alter the course of history forever, and the larger forces pulsing through society and occasionally raging through the natural world are not the only harbingers abroad in the land.

In the midst of the blizzard, each single snowflake counts. In the midst of the flood, a single rock stands firm. In a forest of doubt the straight tree of truth still rises up, and in the midst of every flock flies the small and solitary singer, lilting its heart to the sky.

To see Gary’s Little Gems paintings full-sized and read his comments about them, please click here.  Comments are welcome, always.

A New Artistic Paradigm

Once upon a time, when journalism was journalism, gossip was gossip, and propaganda was recognized for what it is, aspiring beat writers learned to begin their news stories by answering six basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? 

The useful mnemonic device has a history stretching back to Cicero, although early rhetoricians framed the questions differently, and the form evolved over time. Perhaps most famously, Rudyard Kipling, in his well-known Just So Stories (1902), included this bit of verse in a tale he called “The Elephant’s Child.”

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew).
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest.

Questions beginning with one of these six famous words are especially useful for information gathering, since none can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  Anyone hoping to write an informative news story, provide a good interview, understand historical context, or carry on enjoyable dinner conversation with a stranger soon will appreciate the importance of the five W’s and an H”. (more…)

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 2:55 pm  Comments (114)  
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A Museum Bridges the Gaps

I knew he’d be there, waiting.  I’d seen his photo and heard a story or two, so I wasn’t fearful of missing him. He wasn’t going anywhere.

Still, when I turned and saw him at the end of the gallery, I was taken aback, both by his air of patient weariness and by his obvious disregard for the people who’d clustered around him. Edging closer, I listened to their conversation.

“What’s his name?”
“Don’t think he’s got a name.”
“He sure enough looks real. I was about ready to ask him the time.”
“Yeh, and if he’d answered, you’d have been right surprised.”

At Crystal Bridges, it doesn’t take long to become comfortable enough to join in.

“He reminds me of my dad,” I said. “That’s how he’d look when Mom made him go shopping with her.”

After the laughter subsided, one of the women looked at a man I took to be her husband and said,

“That’s right. I’ve seen that look. But the artist ought to have put a woman on that bench, too – for all the times we’ve been dragged off to hardware stores and farm sales.”

Clearly, Rod Bigelow, Executive Director of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, had it right. Asked about his favorite piece in the collection, he said,

“My favorite work of art changes regularly, but today… it’s a Duane Hanson sculpture titled “Man on a Bench”.  It’s literally a depiction of an older gentleman sitting on a bench. I like it because of the way our visitors interact with the sculpture – they’re surprised by it, intrigued, sometimes taken aback in that they think it’s real. It elicits great response, from all ages.”


There’s a lot to interact with at Crystal Bridges, beginning with WalMart heiress Alice Walton. Once she put her energies – and her considerable money – behind her vision of accessible, quality art for the people of Arkansas and surrounding states, the reactions were swift and often predictable.

(more…)

The Sweet Weight of Memory

Looping around the old wooden house like a graveled and oil-coated oxbow, the driveway eased up into a yard littered with bits of sunlight-snagging metal: enameled porch chairs; galvanized tubs reserved for icing down watermelon; a hand pump hung with dippers and buckets.

At either end of the just slightly bowed roofline, ceramic insulators surrounded an array of lightning rods. Inside the house, ceramics overflowed the kitchen – mis-matched mixing bowls, pie plates, an orange refrigerator jug – while smooth, hexagonal tiles spread across the floor.

Apart from an étagère tucked into a living room corner to provide a resting place for tiny porcelain vases, candy dishes and a caterpillar won at the County Fair, the only purely decorative bit of ceramic art in my grandmother’s house was the cheese board kept in her kitchen.

Given that she departed Sweden for the United States from the Baltic Sea port of Gefle, and given that Bosättningsaffär translates roughly as “household furnishings store”, it seems likely the board was an advertising piece for a local shop. Still, its provenance remains uncertain. Perhaps my grandmother received it as a departure gift. Perhaps she herself purchased it, then wrapped and carried it away as a comforting reminder of her old-country home. Whatever the explanation, it arrived in America as one of her most cherished possessions, and throughout her life it rested, icon-like, inside a glass-fronted cabinet.

Once, I asked if I might hold it. The look she gave me suggested I’d asked to blow up the house, but the cabinet doors swung open and for a moment its surprising weight rested in my hands. “You take it, Grandma,” I said, my heart pounding with anxiety, my child’s mind convinced that, should I drop it, I’d be forever banished from my family.

Today, the weight of it hangs on my wall, sufficiently well-secured to please even my grandmother. An object of beauty in its own right, it testifies beautifully to the power of family ties and history. Still, as far as I know, it’s never held a chunk of cheese. It probably never will. (more…)

Published in: on September 20, 2013 at 10:03 am  Comments (107)  
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