The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Edward Clark Potter

Enfield, Connecticut, is often associated with the manufacture of gunpowder and weapons, but it is also the place where Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edward Clark Potter, born in 1857, was raised in this small township just across the border from southern Massachusetts.  Educated in local schools and at the Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, young Edward defied his mother’s plans for him to enter the ministry and instead enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts for three semesters before heading to Boston in 1879 to study art.  A few years later he moved to Vermont to work at a marble quarry, overseeing stone cutting  there for Daniel Chester French, an established sculptor working in Boston.  In the late 1880s Potter studied in Paris with figure sculptor Antonin Mercié and animal specialist Emmanuel Frémiet.  He returned to the United States in 1890 and married May Dumont of Washington, D.C.  The couple started a family back in Potter’s hometown of Enfield.  His friend and mentor Daniel French encouraged Potter’s interest in modeling animals, and the young artist eventually earned a reputation as one of America’s leading animaliers by the turn of the twentieth century.

Potter and French collaborated on numerous commissioned projects, mostly statues of famous personalities on horseback with Potter being responsible for sculpting the horses.  Potter’s own five equestrian groups, including those representing Henry Warner Slocum and Philip Kearny, demonstrated his growing talent and ability to express the unity between the rider and his horse.  Potter won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Universal Exposition in 1904 for the equestrian De Soto Sighting the “Father of the Waters.”  When his statue of a Civil War bugler on horseback was unveiled in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts, it was praised as innovative and unconventional.

Edward Clark Potter
Edward Clark Potter

Potter and his family preferred to stay in the rural countryside, where he could take care of the animals he raised and used as his subjects for sculpting.  However, Potter also enjoyed his proximity to New York where he was involved in the art community.  He was a charter member of the National Sculpture Society and took a leadership role in the National Academy of Design.  He also made significant original artistic contributions to New York City, including a marble statue of Zoroaster on the cornice of the New York Appellate Court House in Madison Square.  Surprisingly, his most famous sculpting contribution to New York, or any place for that matter, did not come in the form of a person or a horse.

Around 1910 Potter received a commission of $8,000 on the recommendation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s foremost sculptors of the day.  Potter teamed up with the Piccirilli Brothers, renowned marble carvers, to create two statues constructed of Tennessee pink marble.  The two pieces were originally named  Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, but sometime in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt the citizens of New York would need to survive the economic depression.  Architecture critic Paul Goldberger praised the pieces as “New York’s most lovable public sculpture.”  These two majestic lions flank the Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street entrance to the New York Public Library.  Patience still guards the south side of the Library’s steps, and Fortitude maintains his position to the north.  As a tribute to the Lions’ popularity and all that they stand for, the Library adopted these figures as its mascots. They are trademarked by the Library, represented in its logo, and featured at major occasions.

To learn more, consult Top Cats: the Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions by Susan G. Larkin. This publication surveys their history through photographs, cartoons, prints, original drawings, memorabilia, and lively tales.

Self Portrait with Tree by Jaume Plensa

Public art is a standard feature in most large cities across the U.S. and in much of the world.  Art that is made freely available for everyone to enjoy in public places takes many forms: painting, photography, architecture, sculpture, graffiti, and even performance.  Like many tourists, I tend to take photographs of public art when I am visiting cities, and I have collected images from New York, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Rome, and London to name a few.  One of the more interesting pieces I found may not be so well known, although the artist is rather prolific.  One evening in 2011 when my wife and I were walking the streets of Chicago headed out for dinner, we wondered through a section of the city known as Streeterville, a neighborhood roughly east of the Magnificent Mile that serves as the gateway to the Navy Pier.  I was struck by a piece of bronze sculpture we saw at the northern end of Streeterville, at E. Chestnut Street next to the landmark Hancock Center.

Self Portrait with Tree, Jaume Plensa
Self Portrait with Tree, Jaume Plensa

When I first saw Jaume Plensa’s “Self Portrait with Tree” on the sidewalk, my first thought was to make a joke, an annoying habit of mine.  I turned to my wife and said, “Now that is truly a man of letters.”  My apologies — please keep reading.  Plensa is one of the featured artists of the Richard Gray Gallery.  With its main location on North Michigan Avenue and another on Madison Avenue in New York, Richard Gray Gallery is mostly a collector’s gallery and focuses its attention on attracting buyers.  According to the gallery’s website, Plensa is one of the world’s foremost sculptors working in the public space, with over 30 projects spanning the globe in such cities as Chicago, Dubai, London, Liverpool, Nice, Tokyo, Toronto, and Vancouver. He was born in 1955 in Barcelona, where he studied at the Llotja School of Art and Design and at the Sant Jordi School of Fine Art.  A significant part of Plensa’s work is in the field of sculpture in the public space. Installed in cities in Spain, France, Japan, England, Korea, Germany, Canada, USA, etc., these pieces have won many prizes and citations, including the Mash Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.

Plensa has used the theme of the seated figure for many installments, and he has repeated the tree-hugging sculpture in various locations around the world.  Some of the pieces are colossal.  Another thread running through Plensa’s work is the use of letters and symbols to fabricate the figure.  For these particular pieces, he works in an assortment of materials including bronze, stainless steel, and stone.  The Self Portrait in Streeterville is especially interesting because of the letters in full relief on the seated figure’s body, like the type hammers of an old manual typewriter.  The technique lends a bit of nostalgia to the piece.  You can learn more about the work of Jaume Plensa at his website at http://www.jaumeplensa.com/.

Restoring My Soul

Sometime in February while I was scrolling through Facebook, someone posted a short video of himself playing his guitar.  In the message that accompanied the video, he mentioned that he was on a solo retreat in a cabin.  It had never occurred to me until then that a weekend of solitude and reflection could be so attractive.  A wise scholar and friend recently observed that, like she and her husband, my wife and I are “well married.”  It’s a phrase that we had not used before but now fully embrace.  We are indeed well married.  We have been together nine years and married for eight of them.  We enjoy each other’s company.  We like working at the same place, coming home for lunch together and having dinner together, either at home or at a restaurant.  We love to travel; we love to hike; we love working on projects; we enjoy our time at home, especially our evenings and weekends.  My wife has some friends and colleagues that she will occasionally meet for lunch or dinner, and sometimes she makes it an overnight trip.  It is good and healthy for her to stay connected to these people because they have been so important in her life and her profession.  Sadly, there are more such connections in other parts of the country where she has previously lived, and it is difficult to see them regularly, but she makes an effort to do so when possible.

I have a good friend who lives not too far away from us – someone that I have been close to for over twenty years now.  We see each other about once a year or so, and I enjoy catching up with him.  We also stay in touch by phone, texts, and Facebook.  I don’t have as many good friends as my wife does, that is, people I have maintained a close relationship with through the years.  As gregarious as I probably appear to colleagues and acquaintances, the truth is I am a bit shy around people I don’t know, unless I am speaking to groups professionally or performing music.  I was in a band for ten years, so I’m sure there are folks who would scoff at the idea of my being bashful in any shape or form.  There are times, and only for brief periods, when I truly cherish being alone.

When I saw that Facebook video post, I began to think about what it would be like to have a solo weekend, something I have not done in decades.  I started thinking about what I would do for 36-48 hours away from my bride, my sons, my job, our home – away from anyone I know.  I could read, write, study, play music, think . . . and think some more.  I was a bit nervous about pitching this idea to my wife, because the last thing I wanted her to think was that I don’t adore her company.  This woman who clearly loves me unconditionally thought the idea was marvelous and whole-heartedly supported my decision to find a cabin in the mountains for an early spring mini-sabbatical.  Now, as I write this blog entry, it is Saturday afternoon.  I am looking out the window of my retreat cabin in the high country of North Carolina less than a mile from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, checked in with the inn keeper in town, drove a few miles to my cabin, settled in quickly, poured a glass of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey and headed to the front lawn to relax in a comfortable chair and take in the view.  I followed the inn keeper’s recommendation for dinner at a local bistro, which was an excellent choice. I bought just enough provisions at the grocery store to keep me satisfied for 24 hours, and then I came back to the cabin and sipped more whiskey.  A storm came through last night and dusted the surrounding hillsides with snow, just enough to make it pretty but not so much to make it a nuisance.  I got up a little before 8:00, put on the coffee, and started reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel I read many years ago and have mostly forgotten.  I have been reading news and op-ed pieces from the New York Times.  I have had a fire in the fireplace for the last couple of hours, and I have played songs on my guitar that I haven’t attempted in years.  I don’t intend to leave the cabin until heading out for dinner this evening.  I am enjoying a full earth’s rotation of intense relaxation.

Relaxing by the fire
Relaxing by the fire

Just now, as I sat down to reflect on this opportunity and record it, I was reminded with great humility and appreciation of just how fortunate I am.  When people from my past ask me if I’m happy, I usually reply, “I’m the luckiest guy I’ve ever met.”  I am lucky to have a wife who ignores my inadequacies, my rough edges, my occasional crudity, and loves me with a devotion that is almost frightening.  It is also a gift to love her more than I have ever loved another woman.  I am lucky that my sons seem to be stable and healthy in spite of great tragedy and loss they have endured.  I am lucky to have extended family who may not always understand me and perhaps even worry about me, but who also love me deeply and take joy in my happiness. I am lucky to have been raised by parents and grandparents who encouraged creativity, loved to laugh, believed in the virtue of hard work, and exhibited rock-solid faith in their God and their church.  While not having the advantages afforded by a higher formal education, my parents made the necessary sacrifices to ensure that I received the advanced degrees I desired and that have opened up so many possibilities for me through the years.  I have had some incredibly inspiring teachers.

I have lived almost 56 years with few significant health challenges.  I have some modest talents and skills that are fulfilling to me and that I have been able to share with others.  My wife and I have a standard of living that is not enjoyed by a large majority of the world’s population.  We are grateful, even though we know our generosity does not extend as far as it should.  My career path has presented me with so many memorable encounters and experiences, and I know how rare that privilege is.  Lastly, we have the resources that make it possible for me to rent a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains to be self-indulgent for a weekend and to contemplate the precious gift of a good life that I’m sure I don’t deserve but for which I am eternally grateful.  And to my bride, the love of my life: thank you for giving me this place and time.

Santa Fe’s Open-Air Opera

My wife and I made a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico during the summer of 2014.  She had been to the town several times, but I had not.  We both love art, culture, and the southwest, and Santa Fe is one of those places where all three intersect.  We stayed in a lovely, rambling house just off Canyon Road, which placed us in walking distance from the major downtown attractions and more art galleries than anyone could possibly explore in a year’s time — alas, we were there for less than a week.

We also took some excursions outside the town to places like Taos, a famous haven for artists.  I went out to the center of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the 7th highest bridge in the United States and the 82nd highest bridge in the world.  We ate incredible, authentic Mexican food at a little roadside taco stand.  We flew in and out of Albuquerque, so we were able to see some of the state’s desert landscape on the road between the two locations.

We met up with some friends one evening who live in Albuquerque who routinely make the drive up to Santa Fe to attend the opera located just outside town.  They invited us to go with them.  I was not raised with any exposure, appreciation, or understanding of opera.  I was raised with the music of the Allman Brothers  (outside of church, that is); the singing of Elton John; the acting of Robert Redford.  The closest I came to an opera performance was a Bugs Bunny cartoon or a Disney movie.  Even as an adult, although I am more familiar with famous operas, I still don’t know much about the art form.  Unfortunately, my cultural horizons don’t expand very far beyond literature and the thick forests of popular music, theater, and cinema.

For those who fall into this same category, I have good news.  There is a place you can go to appreciate opera even if you have no interest in it whatsoever.  The Santa Fe Opera House has been attracting audiences to watch performances and take in the magnificent views of the mountain ranges of northern New Mexico since 1957.  According to its website, more than 2,000 performances of 164 different operas have been given here, including fourteen world premieres and 45 American premieres.  Many singers whose names are now found on the rosters of the world’s leading opera houses began their careers in Santa Fe.  The company was founded by the late John Crosby, a young conductor from New York, who had an idea of starting an opera company to give American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a setting that allowed ample time to rehearse and prepare each production.

The Crosby Theater was built in 1998 and takes the idea of “open air” to a whole new level.  The modern structure features white sail-like wind baffles, a clerestory window for light, and a backstage that is almost completely open.  The sides of the theater are also open, so the audience can see the mountain peeks rising many miles away.  The breathtaking views are enough to distract even the most devoted opera enthusiast, but for someone like me who is a bit less than enthusiastic, this venue became the attraction.  We had a lovely dinner on the grounds of the opera before the performance.  The show we saw was a comedy, all in another language, of course.  There were hilarious parts, the orchestral music was excellent, and I ended up enjoying it more than I had anticipated.  Still, I can’t imagine a stage performance anywhere in the world that could be more impressive than the setting of the expansive desert as night approaches.  If you love opera, you have to go to the Santa Fe Opera.  If you don’t love opera, this is where you need to go to start appreciating it.

Santa Fe Opera House
Santa Fe Opera House

A Writer By Any Other Name

One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime.  There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery.  Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name.  Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor.  However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.”   Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South.  From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.

It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name.  Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly.  Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious.  Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands.  Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer.  She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.

On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer.  By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there.  Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit.  Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age.  As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.

I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author.  Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession.  To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge.  Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away!  The strategy worked.  Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.”  One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.

Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres.  Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity.  After all, how many writers do you know named Twain?  Poe?  Steinbeck?  Faulkner?  Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name?  Fast forward to the age of pop culture.  It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce.  Who needs a last name?  Atypical works, and it works well.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15.  Her mother outlived her by about 30 years.  I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not.  Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time.  Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius.  Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor.  A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.

Flannery O'Connor's grave
Flannery O’Connor’s grave