Old Town Weekend

It’s the first weekend of December – the start of Old Town’s holiday shopping spree, kicked off by the annual Scottish Walk.

A cold rain turned to wet snow as we set out for our parade watch post on St. Asaph St. We arrived just as Alexandria’s motorcycled finest came down the street, leading the annual parade of pipe and drum bands, be-tartaned clans, dogs of many breeds – irish and welsh terriers, scotties, westies, irish hounds, and interlopers (goldens and a single german shepherd). A Scottie beside us claimed his turf and dashed to the end of his leash to chase awayany two legs in kilts or furry four legs who came too close.

No Robertson or MacFarland clans this year, but the Donalds, Chisholms, Hays, and lots of others braved the weather proudly.

Santa atop a fire struck draws the parade to an end, and along with the rest of those lining St. Asaph, we headed toward the shopping scene, then home for a brief rest before hitting the party scene.

Two parties, the first just down the street.  The row houses of Old Town are mostly two or three story structures, some brick, others clapboard sided, each house in a strip painted its own color – green, blue, pastel shades, occasionally white.  The houses often share an attic that runs the length of the row of houses, and owners sometimes find that animals skitter back and forth across attic floors without regard to individual ownership – an interesting if often annoying aspect of communal living.  The nearby home was decorated more formally than Mark and Lori’s home – with walls and furniture darker and more elegant in tone.  M and L’s house is brighter with furniture more modern in design and art work mostly from the 20th century.  The row houses lend themselves nicely to both decor approaches, but I was struck by the very different moods that can be created in houses of similar design and proportion.

We spent the evening with Salt Lake friends who now live just a few blocks away in Old Town.  Theirs is an end house in a row, very narrow, but beautifully renovated to remove walls in the downstairs space making the home open and very warm. We spent time renewing a 35-year friendship, sharing a delicious supper and catching up with friend and family stories.

Sunday followed a pattern we’ve adopted for this day after Old Town festivities.  I attend Christ Church (built in 1773, same year as Union Church, Claremont NH) and we celebrate with a pre-Christmas feast of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  The Rt. Rev.  Jane Holmes Dixon, Retired Suffragan Bishop of Washington, was the preacher at CC; a very short sermon, but much to the point:  pray for something significant to come forth from the gathering in Copenhagn.

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District of Columbia – National Gallery

Off to the National Gallery using Washington’s wonderful Metro to rail us from Alexandria into the District.  Our intent is to see the exhibition of selections from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff bequest, a huge collection of primarily modern/contemporary paintings, mostly American, donated to the Gallery after the death of Jane Meyerhoff. 

Some of these works I have seen over the years as they have been lent to museums, but most were new to me, although the artists were not.  In fact, I saw several works whose creative genius was represented in my own family collection.  And the connection set me to wondering what it is about the visual arts that makes the untalented but appreciative want to collect works and hang them on their own walls.  I don’t know what motivated the Meyerhoffs; in fact, I’m not certain about what pulled my parents to collect – on a very, very, very much smaller scale.  I think my mother may have been moved by association with young artists working in the area we lived in – New York’s Greenwich Village.  Perhaps the encouragement of art and artists by President Roosevelt during the Depression inspired them.  Perhaps they really were moved by the art itself – the line, the color, shapes, the way forms moved across the canvases, the way the parts related to the whole. 

I’ve always felt a bit conflicted about collecting art for ‘home use.’  My sister and I have some of what our parents collected; but they donated some to museums, and I have given some to my children.  My own purchases are the work of artists living in the areas where I have lived or visited; so I have some paintings from the Southwest and several small paintings by Jim Furman, a New England artist. 

My conflict is between my appreciation of the art hanging on my own walls, and my wish that art be available for the experience of the wider community – that everyone could have that perspective-changing experience my step-brother offered when he suggested that art should and does change the way one sees things.

The National Gallery displays art creatively; and the selections that make up the Meyerhoff Exhibition are no exception.  There are many other paintings from the Meyerhoffs in other parts of the Gallery, but this exhibition is organized in a way different from any I have heretofore experienced.  It is not arranged by date, or by artist, or by style – but rather by theme:

“Ten themes—Scrape, Concentricity, Line, Gesture, Art on Art, Drip, Stripe to Zip, Figure or Ground, Monochrome, and Picture the Frame—illuminate specific works across the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection. The resulting juxtapositions, often surprising and provocative, provide a new way to tell the story of postwar American art, and of a great collection.’ Quoted from the web site for the exhibition (see link on the left of this page).

In addition to the provocative grouping themes, there are quotes on the walls that further jar the viewer into deeper reflection on what the senses and the soul are seeing.  I have listed some of these below:

TS Eliot (poet): Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

Philip Guston (artist):  It’s the unsettling of the image that I want.

Leo Steinberg (art historian):  Whatever else art is good for, its chief effectiveness lies in propagating more art.

GK Chesterton (critic):  Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame.

A Sunday at the Hood

Last Sunday, we spent the day in Hanover; church at St. Thomas, brunch at the Inn, and a visit to the Hood Museum.  A highlight of St. T was the choir’s sparkling gift of “And the Glory of the Lord,” from Messiah.  The standout at the Inn (apart from expectedly good food) was the gingerbread doll house in the reception area. And we fed our art-hungry souls at the Hood, particularly in the second-floor modern/contemporary exhibition.

When I stepped out of the elevator into the first room, my eyes traveled from a large Mark Rothko on one wall, to an equally large Mondrian opposite, to an also very large three-dimensional work by a Japanese artist on another wall.  I had no words except “Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!” 

What is it that was touched, tapped into, drawn forth, in the experience?  And is that what we attempt to evoke in making space for art in our public spaces – and in commissioning art to fill them?

I was equally struck by a presentation of works and a teaching video of Sonia Landy Sheridan.  Sheridan describes herself as a ‘research artist.’  She has been artist-in-residence at MMM, working as scientist and artist with very high-tech imaging devices to manipulate images in an amazing variety of ways.  What was evoked for me, particularly in watching the video, was a thrill, an excitement, and an affirmation of the importance of being open to possibilities that certainly evade the ready awareness of most of us, but are present in our imaginations, even if deeply buried. 

College and university museums, public and private, struggle to define and realize their missions.  How do they balance the goals of service to the academic program of the institution, the art interests of the wider community, and display of  contemporary art?  How do they choose among types of art?  Among times and places from which the art is selected?  How do they balance between building on the strengths their existing permanent collection and introducing works that ‘fill the gaps,’ or develop strengths in other areas?

Intro to Three Sabbatical Blocks

Nigh onto a score of years ago, I attended, with son and daughter-in-law, the opening of an exhibition of my step-brother Steven’s sculpture. Steven created his works in wood; he had early on developed a style with curved, highly polished shapes, and had now moved into more rough-hewn and free form objects.

As we looked at his works, Lori, my daughter-in-law, stood in front of one work and puzzled over it. The piece was two vertical pieces of wood, hung side by side a few inches apart. My memory (with a poor sense of measurement) sees them as slightly different lengths within a 3-4 foot range. They were slightly carved out through most of their vertical length, one more than the other, giving them the appearance of dugout canoes in early construction phase. Lori asked Steven what he intended with the work. Steven’s answer set me on a two-decades long ponderment: “It isn’t what I might have intended or thought about in producing this work; what matters is how you [the viewer] see things after this.”

Steven’s thoughtful response lies at the heart of my intent for this time of sabbath leave. I want to explore the spirituality of a secular culture as it is expressed in art, and particularly in public art.

Of course, this means defining spirituality in a way that does not require its expression through participation in the corporate worship of a religious faith.

And so I ask readers of this blog to reflect on a non-religious definition of spirituality. I do have some thoughts of my own, which I certainly will include from time to time; but I hope to generate a discussion that may shed light on the theme and contribute to my exploration of the visual arts in public places.