Sunday, July 20, 2014

Downsizing and Minimalizing: A Few Ideas

As they say, and most of us have experienced, junk accumulates to fill available space. Like house dust it just seems to accumulate effortlessly and perpetually.

Is clutter a habit or a disease? I know that many of the things that people acquire have behind them a tenuous justification that we tell ourselves, but if we were honest, all too often we really don't need it. The unfortunate reality is that if we don't learn how to assume responsibility for our clutter before we die, someone else will be having to deal with it after.

If I remember my history correctly, Robert E. Lee had to leave the army for two years (this was between the Mexican War and the Civil War) in order to deal with all the "stuff" that was left behind when his father passed away.

I have another friend whose wife, when her father died, had to make 28 trips from Minnesota to New Jersey to deal with all the "stuff" he'd accumulated over a lifetime.

A much better plan would be for us to assume responsibility and deal with our own "stuff" ... Why is this so hard?

My father-in-law was a role model in this matter. Twenty-five or so years ago I remember thinking to myself what a nightmare it will be to deal with all the "stuff" he had accumulated. He had a house, garage and eight outbuildings including a barn and a greenhouse, each with attic spaces full of various kinds of content. Over a period of years he determined to empty and dismantle one building per year. He would sell whatever he could in a big rummage sale and burn the rest for firewood or whatever. By the time he needed to move to a two room apartment, he was ready to go. It was, in my opinion, an astonishing achievement. No medals were given, no mayoral citations, but in his simple way he exemplified personal responsibility.

Yesterday on the radio a couple guys were taking about a book one or both had written about minimalizing, and how to reduce the clutter in our lives. For themselves they had come up with a game in which they would pick a month and on each day they would throw or discard that many things. That is, on the fourth, one would get rid of four things.

Because yesterday was the 19th, I decided to get rid of nineteen things. (Why wait till the First to begin?) It felt good so I kept going, and near-filled a large trash bin. Today I will try to get rid of twenty...

How about you? Are you wearied by wondering what will happen to all your things when you're gone? In high school I was in the play You Can't Take It With You, and guess what? You can't.

What I've observed about clutter is that it's essentially like weeds. Though it's somewhat time consuming, unless you deal with them they will overrun the garden and make it useless.

Here's a quote I liked on this matter:

“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first. . . . When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.” ― Victoria Moran, Lit From Within: Tending Your Soul For Lifelong Beauty

That pretty much sums it up. Bottom line: what is my life about? Once we realize this, streamlining -- at least in theory -- becomes easier. Wish me luck. I'm trying to break the habits of a lifetime. How about you?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Did Modern Art Dealer and Collector Ambroise Vollard Make Picasso What He Was?

"He did not like people to watch him when he was painting... as soon as he noticed her... he packed up his things in a rage and away he went."
~Ambroise Vollard, on Cezanne

This spring I was asked if I might be interested in contributing a lecture to the Tweevenings series which the Tweed Museum of Art has been hosting since last autumn. The essence of Tweevenings is that a speaker makes a presentation on one of the works from their extensive collection. From the beginning I've tried to attend as many lectures as I was able (sometimes I have been out of town) and not a one has been a disappointment.

Ambroise Vollard
For me, attending the Tweevenings lectures has not been simply to acquire more facts and names and knowledge. Rather it remains part of my lifelong quest to understand questions like "What is art?" and "What is the role of art and artists in our culture?"

In addition to learning about the Tweed collection I have also met some and heard some interesting people.  In October, I discovered the work of Charles Biederman through a lecture by Bill Shipley. In February Ann Klefstad gave a talk called Double Vision which very directly discussed the faultlines over which our art understanding has trod, specifically the notion of "art for art's sake" often being pitted against functional art instead seeing them as siblings. In all cases I have gained new insights which brought new understandings, as well as a deeper appreciation for the Tweed as a community resource.

My talk in 18 days will revolve around the Pablo Picasso's illustrations for Honore Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, an 1832 story about three painters which went on to influence many future artists including Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso.

Researching the themes surrounding Picasso's drawings, which became a series of limited edition prints, has brought many rewards. One of these has been discovering the degree to which a single collector can have such extensive influence. It's a relatively small step to the conclusion that the Tweeds themselves have made an immeasurable contribution to our Northland which we often can take for granted. And in point of fact, these 13 Picasso etchings in the collection here were donated to the museum by the grandchildren of the late Alice Tweed Tuohy, an avid art collector along with her husband. Ms. Tuohy herself donated over 500 art works to UMD.

Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) must have had an astute sense of the times as he became integrated with the Paris art scene. Artists whose works he collected include Renoir, Gaugan, Cezanne and, famously, Picasso. The young Spaniard Picasso arrived in Paris in 1901. I can't say for sure when Vollard first noticed him, but in 1906 the collector purchased 27 canvases from the as yet undiscovered artist, which included all of his "Blue Period" works. Through 1911 Vollard made purchases twice annually from the young artist, a time transitional not only for Picasso but for modern art as a movement.

Their relationship last nearly forty years, during which time the artist did several paintings and drawings of the collector/art dealer, including an interest Cubist portrait of the Vollard. The patronage of Vollard and the Steins, Gertrude and Leo, kept Picasso financially solvent.

Because etchings were one of Vollard's passions, he leaned on Picasso to produce two series which may have been influential in elevating this craft to a fine art form. These were the illustrations for Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece and the 100 images known as the Vollard Suite, the last three being illustrations of Vollard himself.

Picasso ultimately became a household name far beyond the art circles where he established himself as a pioneer. Was this Vollard's doing? Unquestionably Vollard contributed to Picasso's succes. This might be one reason he was willing to "give back" by producing the Vollard Suite and the illustrations for Unknown Masterpiece. Then again, he may have simply relished the opportunity to explore new creative terrain, as he had with sculpture, theater, and ceramics.

Undoubtedly another factor in his success was his charm. To a public eager to embrace new ideas on the threshold of the Twentieth Century, he made for a good alternative to the somewhat feisty Cezanne or the ultra-sensitive Van Gogh. Picasso became an emblem of modernism, and went on to influence generations of artists in his wake.

By the time Ambroise Vollard died in a freak accident on the way to his chateau, he had collected more than 10,000 paintings and art objects. Had he not died when he did, he may have died a year or two later from a broken heart when the Nazis over-ran his homeland.

To learn more about this topic join us Tuesday, August 5, in the library of the Tweed Museum of Art, 6:30 p.m. ... Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Catching Lightning Without The Botte (A Book Review)

I hadn't read anything about Timothy Bouvine's Catching Lightning Without The Bottle when I first started reading it. A friend endorsed it as a good book so I set it on my "to read" pile this spring. When I finally got 'round to picking it up, it wasn't just the story that was compelling. The writing itself seemed to expertly set the hook so that the reader would be unable to swim away.

The central character in this story is Blake Benson, a superstar ballplayer whose fame has tested his character and found him to be lacking. Benson is a catcher for the Chicago Cubs, and though he's played a role in bringing their pitching staff to stellar heights, he himself has become so handicapped due to his behavior that he is a detriment to the team.

The first chapter describes another one of his benders, forgetting himself (losing himself) in another boozy night of women and excess after a remarkable last inning comeback earlier that day. This is not a random incident for Benson. This has become so routine it's begun to define him. Despite his fame and accomplishments, even his best friend Sandy has come to distrust him, but wants to help him anyways.

Blake makes promises but doesn't keep them and even when told this is the last time, he sneaks off and finds a way to get another drink. When caught he is told he can't fly on to the next game with the team and he's literally left behind.

It should be noted that the Cubs have a ten-game lead and are in first place in the second half of the season. They seem quite capable of doing the impossible for a Cubs franchise that has so many times come up short. Which makes the next plot twist so unexpected. A plane crash takes out the entire team and coaches, except their one superstar, Blake Benson.

Bouvine evidently researched what would happen should an accident like this occur today in the jet age. Everything is totally believable in how this might play out. The author achieves that wonderful quality all readers of good fiction seek: a vividly detailed telling of a story that is not interrupted by disbelief. That is, when the plane crash occurs, the events that follow are never interrupted by the internal voice that says, "Oh that would never happen."

In fact, all the details of the story seem plausible, even when implausible.

The book is a story about a man fighting to regain a measure of his dignity, overcome his self-destructive behaviors and mend his shredded life. Bouvine not only loves baseball, but also understands alcoholism and the mind games alcoholics play.

The book's title comes from a term coined by Leo Durocher, "catching lightning in a bottle." It means performing a difficult feat. Catching lightning without a bottle, then, is achieving the impossible. Which is more impossible, winning the pennant or overcoming his addiction which under extreme duress and in the public eye? Well, I would suggest that writing such a good book for a first novel might also come pretty close to catching lightning.

All six reviewers of the book have given it a 5-star rating thus far. This review sums up what I was thinking:

Whether you are a baseball fan or not, this is a great read that will appeal to everyone of all walks of life. We all have our faults and demons that torment us, but this book is an inspiration to face those negatives in our everyday life. Taking nothing for granted, personal redemption and improving relationships with loved ones and friends are front and center in this great story. You will not be disappointed in this book.

You can read the other reviews and purchase the book here.  Published by Savage Press, 2014.

* * * *

For what it's worth, if you're a fan of minor league baseball, the Reader is celebrating another birthday and publisher Bob Boone is giving away Free Tickets to Wade Stadium for next Friday, the 25th. (Make sure I have my facts correct; pick up a copy of the Reader and check it out.)

Take me out to the ballgame...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Bob Dylan's Linguistic Transfigurations

This blog post was written five years ago today as I was preparing for my first one-man art show in forty years. I remember bringing multiple carloads of paintings, drawings and such to hang, and my CD player to listen to music as I did so. Dylan's Together Through Life had just recently been released and I know that I listened to it multiple times as I hung the show. Hence the thematic blending of art and Dylan in more than a few of these blog posts. There is a sense in which the three of us -- art, Dylan and I -- have been "together through life."

Linguistic Transfigurations

"But for the sky there are no fences facing." ~ Bob Dylan

What set Bob Dylan apart when he first emerged on the scene was not simply the message he conveyed, but the manner in which he conveyed it. His words glittered over the surface of his songs and each movement of light caused spangles of delight in the brain that recognized what was happening here.

Mr. Tambourine Man is filled with language that explodes with imagery, carrying listeners through energizing whitewater rapids of emotion.

The message, to some extent, is an old one. The metaphor above is an original way of repeating a common maxim: The sky's the limit. Or to put it another way, there are no limits. But by putting the wine in different wineskins, Dylan rejuvenated the meanings for a new generation.

The culmination verse summarizes thus:

"Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea
circled by the circus signs with all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves, let me
forget about today until tomorrow..."

Having lived in Mexico a year, I have to believe these lines are, in essence, a linguistically luminous way of summarizing the philosophy of "Manana" which means "Tomorrow." For a moment in time, for today, for the now, let's just live for today, he sings.

Ultimately, becoming a mature adult means that we do have to carry burdens and assume responsibilities. For the young, the appeal of avoiding this yoke is rightly sensed, though adulthood also has its rewards. As we grow, however, let's not forget to make a place for dancing beneath diamond skies.

For some, music is the route to temporary forgetfulness. We lose ourselves in the sweet strains of the strings, chimes, rhythms. And for others, myself here, it is the act of creation which is my dance.

This month, some of my art is on display at The Venue @ Mohaupt Block in a retrospective of interpretations and transformations, both black & white and color, on surfaces of every kind. The Dylan painting at the top of this page will be on display, along with more than 130 other works. And maybe a few surprises.

* * * *

It is now five years later. The Dylan piece at the top of the page -- and a number of other pieces -- can now be seen at Goin' Postal in Superior.

Speaking of Superior, this coming Sunday July 20 is Lake Superior Day, an annual celebration of the Great Lake, the largest freshwater body of water in the world, and an inspiration to many of the artists and residents here in the Northland. The event takes place at Barker's Island, with music by the Boomchucks (among others) plus poets, artists, craftspersons and more. 

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Celebrate it...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Play Ball: All Star Game Memories

Cleveland hosted the 1954 All Star Game.
I've mentioned before how when I was born my parents named my four Teddy bears after the Cleveland Indians starting rotation. It was 1952 and these were indeed Stars -- Bob Lemon, fireballer Bob Feller, Mike Garcia and Early Wynn. Feller, who was an All-Star eight times and a Hall of Fame shoe-in, had a bad year in '52. He rebounded, however, and would ultimately be ranked #11 of all time amongst Hall of Fame pitchers. In 1954 the Tribe would be the first, and last, Major League team to have four 20-game winners on the squad.

Early Wynn, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, would later become a 300 game winner. I remember going to Cleveland Metropolitan Stadium to see him try to win his 300th game at age 43. His first and last game in the Major Leagues were both on September 13.

Add caption
Bob Lemon, a seven-time All-Star, was also later elected to the Hall of Fame. In short I was surrounded by a great set of teddy Bears. I can't remember whether Feller or Lemon was my favorite. Both were black and white, though I believe Lemon was skinny with a white torso and long black limbs and must have lasted the longest of this set of bears.

In 1954 the Tribe not only had four 20-game winners for a starting rotation, Cleveland also hosted the All Star game. What a contrast between the 1954 game of stars and the 1963 Cleveland-hosted game that I attend in 1963. In '54 the Indians had several stars, including my mom's favorite player Bobby Avila. In the '63 team, there were no real stars on the Cleveland team, but our home town team did get one representative, Jim "Mudcat" Grant.

All these memories were triggered by an interview I heard on the radio with Grant, who was later traded to the Twins where he helped lead Killebrew and Crew to the World Series. Meanwhile, the Indians were shamefully bad. The best way to understand the demise of the Indians would be to read Cleveland sports journalist Terry Pluto's The Curse of Rocky Colavito.

1965 was another year in which the team that hosted the All Star Game also went to the World Series. Both teams took it on the chin in the post-season.

Miscellaneous Observations 
A lot has changed since those early All Star Games, especially the salaries. Bob Lemon made $40,000 in a typical year once he was a star in 1950s. The average player today makes four million.

I still have this card.
Last night's Major League Baseball All Star Game was a night game. There's big revenue from television, hence these big games are played under the lights. You seldom hear baseball players complain about being overpaid.

The first All Star Game in Minnesota (1965) was played in the afternoon. The game I went to in Cleveland (1963) was also an afternoon game. The sun was bright and the weather pristine. I remember the American League had Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio at second base and shortstop. I thought they were so cool.

There were many Stars in that 1963 game, including Mickey Mantle. The starting right fielder for the American League was Rocky Colavito, who was back with Cleveland after being traded away at the end of a 1959 season in which he led the league in Home Runs. After retirement, the slugger went to Pennsylvania and had mushroom farms.

There were five Cuban-born players in this year's All Star Game.

Derek Jeter, now 40, is one of the baseball's all-time icons. In last night's game, his 14th as an American League All Star, he received an extremely warm, extended standing ovation from the Minnesota crowd. TV watchers heard a snippet from Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" as Jeter graciously acknowledged the crowd and hugged every player in the clubhouse. The song was selected because of the songwriter's connection to Minnesota.

The two baseball bats at the top of the page have the names of Ed Matthews and Pete Rose on them. Mathews was power hitter and all star with the Milwaukee Braves. In the old days they had a television show called Home Run Derby and guys like Eddie Mathews would go head-to-head (or swing-to-swing) against one another.

The current version of Home Run Derby, which started in the 1980's, is a once a year event held the day before the All Star Game. Like everything else it has a corporate sponsor, so it is called the Gillette Home Run Derby.

Pete Rose was one of the great hitters of all time, ultimately surpassing the Ty Cobb's unbelievable record. Sadly, he had a gambling addiction and was ultimately banned from baseball.

Two weeks ago I finished reading a really good book about baseball called Catching Lightning without the Bottle. It's a great baseball story, and also involves a superstar with an addiction problem. Great plot twists and insights into human nature as well as the game we grew up in love with.

Meantime... life goes on. Live it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Bit of Humor from the Ennyman Archives

"Sometimes it's good to dare yourself to do the unthinkable. And rather than stand in front of an audience with no clothes on, I decided to have a go at stand-up comedy." 
~Evan Davis

I was sorting through folders in my backup drive and found one that collected scraps of material from my year of living dangerously... as a stand up comedian. (Actually, seven months) No, not a professional comedian, just the open mic type of thing at the Dubh Linn Irish Pub in downtown Duluth. Plus a gig in Tampa. The Evan Davis quote up above captures part of my motivation for having done such a thing.

Theoretically, this is all delivered deadpan, which is actually a skill in itself:

I used to do this show as a ventriloquist, but my dummy would never talk into the mic.

I then decided to do my ventriloquist routine with an eggplant but we had two problems.

First, he said he didn’t like other people putting words in his mouth. I said, "You don’t even have a mouth." He said, "That’s the second problem."

Actually there’s a third problem. I don’t know how to throw my voice. At least that’s what the grapefruit told me. But I‘m working on it. I ain’t a quitter.

I've been raising eggplants out on our hobby farm and now have a small herd. Sometimes we have problems because they go bad. How bad? Somewhere between stealing pencils and murder. Most of them just lie.

The next bit was about food shopping. I noticed as I read it this weekend for the first time in over five years that it was not funny. Hopefully I never tried to deliver it. 

The third sketch had to do with Boogers. The material was original, but you really can't go there because Dave Barry owns that bit of humor turf.

The fourth bit began with the Darwin Awards as a lead in to the time I jumped out of a moving car. The material is not really that funny, which I learned when I tried to deliver it one evening.

After a couple more weak passages about mathematicians and a strained paragraph about drugs and alcohol, I found this nugget:

I had a boss once who told me “Stop and smell the roses.” 
I said, "What if they’re American Beauties?"

I thought this observation about postmodernism to be fairly accurate:

Here are the basic tenets of Postmodernism as a philosophy: Certainty is bad. Confidence is wrong. Progress is a myth. History is not going anywhere....  Kind of like my comedy career.

* * * *

A lot of comedy, especially the late night television scene, is news driven. What's "newsworthy" is just so ripe for witty comic interpretation.

Here’s a news item I just read… There's more violent crime in Cleveland than all of England. And more murders in a typical large U.S. city than in France, Germany and Belgium combined.

What’s astonishing is that we're able to achieve these amazing results with 2.5 million of our criminal behind bars. I began thinking there has to be a lesson here.

Maybe we need to realize that our jails aren't jails, but are actually schools.

Personally, I thought this one had a nice surprise ending:

Remember the market crash of 1929 and all those Wall Street brokers who jumped out their windows? Guess what? There was really only one who did that. But it must have made an impression because people are still talking about it. 

Little known trivia fact: When he hit the pavement, it was the birth of modern abstract expressionism.

I dunno... I wrote fifty pages of this stuff. It was fun waking in the middle of the night and scribbling out notes or recording things on my digital recorder. For the most part the gags worked best in my imagination. That single bright stagelight and an audience changes everything.

For what it's worth, Dubh Linn still has the open mic thing going. If you've got the gumption, go stick your head in the door and see what you think.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Visit With Artist Brent Kustermann

Kustermann in front of a portion of his piece "Surgery"
Brent Kusterman's paintings and prints have been making their appearance around town this summer. In May you could find some of his work at St. Luke’s Hospital in the new area set aside for artists. In June he was showing at the Red Mug Coffeehouse in Superior. In July you’ll find his work in the Atrium at the Zeitgeist Building in Downtown Duluth. This past Friday, July 11, more of his art went on display at the Washington Gallery which I wrote about in yesterday's blog.

Kusterman considers it to be the duty of an artist to bring a unique perspective to the world, a process "never fully mastered." He uses a variety of mediums to create his pieces, sometimes even found objects that others might discard to the trash bin. I found his art worth engaging. My guess is that he will continue to find venues for showing his art, and if you show up you may find it a worthwhile experience.

EN: Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Duluth?

Brent Kustermann: I have grown up in the Twin Ports area from Superior to all sides of Duluth. My family moved here when I was young from St. Paul. My parents were offered work here and they felt that the Twin Ports would be a good place to raise a family.

EN: How did you come to take interest in art?

Detail from "Surgery" 
BK: It's hard to pin point the moment when I took an interest in art. I feel that I have always been intrigued by the limitlessness of producing pictures. A portion of that appeal comes from a desire to communicate emotions and ideas with people while also remaining introverted, with respect to deeper questions about the world around us. A bigger appeal is the purity and honesty that comes from laying down colors and designs on a blank canvas or page. I am always interested in what people take away from my work. The freedom of interpretation is amazing. I love it when I have notions about what a piece might mean to me and what other people take away, it is usually completely different. That is the beauty of art; the direct and personal relationship with the viewer and the work. Without that symbiosis the whole thing is pointless.

EN: Where were your trained? Who have been your biggest influences?

BK: I have never really been formally trained. Yes, of course, I've taken classes in college and high school but my academic pursuits always formally fell short. I believe that after twenty plus years of producing paintings I have developed a relationship with the work I do that supersedes the rigid constraints of 'mastering' (per se) Art under the direction of the university. I have however had encouraging and artistic friends and people in my life that have really helped keep me focused when those tacit moments of insecurity and uncertainty have crept in. Nowadays I usually keep my long-winded diatribes about art on reserve for a really close friend who resides in Chicago. Influentially, I have always loved the allure of the German Expressionists. There is something that defies linguistics that is nostalgic and appreciable. Most certainly, the New York School of Abstract Expressionist are at the backbone of my love for painting. It would probably take a lifetime to get through all of them to fully understand the individuality and depth of each contributing member. And, my interest changes often; one day the intellect of Newman next, the seriousness and loneliness of Rothko.

EN: How do you balance career and creative pursuits?

BK: Making paintings is consumptive emotionally, physically, and spatially. I feel as though, if there were a balance that it happens naturally. I say this because I really don't force myself to make pieces. The work I do is a direct manifestation of the energy I feel I must exert artistically much in the same way a runner would feel unbalanced without the endorphin release of a run. At the end of it you feel great. You feel spent. My day job is a completely unrelated matter. I have to eat and I cannot imagine making a living off of art, as nice as that would be, it has never been that way. I am befuddled by the co-mingling of money and art. They are inherently unrelated matters. I don't even know how to price a piece of work. One dollar may as well be a million.

EN: What do you call your style? And can you explain your process of making pictures?

BK: My style? Well, I suppose would be Non-objective sometimes and Abstract the other times. The process for me is to spend time with the canvas (or whatever material) in the studio. Music has a great way of helping me focus and allow myself to sort of shake off outside noise. By noise I mean, all of those small annoying things that we think about through the day; schedules, bills, appointments, relationships, etc. and how we relate to them. Usually, I start without a plan... just an attraction to one color or another and I begin to lay out colors and see how they relate to one another and how they draw an emotional charge from me. This can take hours or months, sometimes completely annihilating a composition altogether or scavenging aspects of the work that should be saved. There is a great deal of time allowed for drying which affords me the ability to work on several paintings at once when things are going right. There are no limitations as far as materials used. House-paint, professional grade supplies, industrial supplies, dirt, found objects, linen; anything that I find intriguing will suffice.

Sometimes these things, compositional-wise, play out in my favor, other times they end in massive frustration. This is the ongoing process of all things, I suppose.


Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Reader.