My Introduction to Los Angeles

A professional conference this year gave me an occasion to visit Los Angeles for the first time. Although I have been to California twice, I never traveled farther south than Big Sur. I arrived in L.A. two days before my conference began to take in a bit of sightseeing. Like Las Vegas and New York, Los Angeles is an iconic city that is closely tied to the uninhibited side of America, where everything is out of the cage and off the pavement. It attracts huge money, which is shamelessly exhibited in fast cars, flashy clothes, ostentatious jewelry, and mansions that could easily command their own zip codes. Usually we associate the “La-La Land” factor of the city with some of the more affluent sections and suburbs: Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, Burbank, Hidden Hills, and Bel Air. However, there is more to Los Angeles than glitter and gold.

The afternoon I arrived, I rented a car and made the short drive down to Huntington Beach, the place where Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing in the 1920s and graced the town with the title “Surf City.” The wind was especially strong while I was there, so walking out to the end of the long pier to circle Ruby’s Surf City Diner was rather brutal. The reward was witnessing first-hand the largest waves I have ever seen — much higher than those on the Florida coast to which I am accustomed. My visit was capped off perfectly with a few cocktails at the Barefoot Bar of Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant while I watched the Pacific sun set, a spectacle that never gets old.

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Sunset at Huntington Beach

 

View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory
View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory

Early the next morning, I drove to the hills just north of Los Angeles to check out the Griffith Observatory. Whenever I travel, I am always in search of vantage points that will offer jaw-dropping vistas, which led me to this location. I was not disappointed. In addition to a close-up view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, the hill-top site provides near-360-degree scenery featuring the nearby green hillsides, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the skyline of the city in the distance. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the Observatory itself, which serves as a museum of astronomy. From the Fresco painted ceiling above the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance to the wonderful exhibits featuring the sun, other stars, the moon, and planets, the Griffith Observatory is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the mysteries of space. I was particularly impressed to see that a theater in the Observatory is named after the late Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who portrayed Mr. Spock from the Star Trek television series and movies. He and his wife, actress Susan Bay-Nimoy, made a generous gift for the expansion and renovation of the Observatory. I always liked Nimoy as an actor and an artist, but learning about his philanthropy made me admire him even more.

Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory
Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory

My next stop was the place that most vividly puts the tinsel in this town. Still recognized by many as the shrine of the entertainment industry, Hollywood covers three and a half square miles of prime commercial real estate in central L.A. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard is an experience that can be recreated nowhere else in the country. The star-studded Walk of Fame stretches for fifteen blocks and is likely the most dangerous sidewalk in California because most people are looking at the ground the whole time they’re strolling along. Tourists also have near collisions with each other in front of the famous Chinese Theatre, where legends of film and television have literally left their mark with hand and footprints in the large cement blocks in the forecourt. Hollywood & Highland Center is a busy multi-story shopping complex that includes the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Of course, there are plenty of retailers, restaurants, specialty shops, and tourism stands up and down the street. Most impressive to me were the historic facades of the classic old theaters along both sides of the Boulevard — El Capitan, Egyptian, Pantages, and Pacific — they recall the golden age of film from the early to mid-20th century. It is easy to imagine what a glamorous time it must have been. Yes, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be classified as a tourist trap, but how can you visit L.A. for the first time and skip this legendary feature of the city?

Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood Boulevard
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center

My last stop of the day was the Getty Center of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Situated on a 24-acre hill-top campus, the Getty Center is a remarkable combination of art, architecture, and nature overlooking greater metropolitan Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay. The views of the city and the ocean from the various porticoes, terraces, and gardens are unbelievable. The collection, changing exhibitions, and outdoor art on view at the Getty Center reach across European and American history—from medieval times to the present. I was particularly delighted by the central garden, which boasts more than 500 species. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway. A stream that winds through a variety of plants gradually descends to a plaza where bougainvillea arbors explode into bloom. I rushed through several of the galleries in the complex of buildings but was only able to get a taste of this astonishing cultural wonder. I hope to return to the Getty again someday to enjoy much more of what it has to offer, and when I do, I am sure there will be plenty of other treasures to explore in “The town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula” — The City of Angels.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center
Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center

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.

Where the Grapes are Grown

About six years ago, my wife and I were on a business trip in Savannah, Georgia, with her boss.  We decided to have dinner at one of the best restaurants in the historic section of the city, a place called the Olde Pink House on Abercorn Street.  We didn’t have reservations but were fortunate enough to get a table in the basement bar, where there was a fire blazing in a large fireplace, and the light in the room was soft and low.  It was a very relaxed setting, with an old world kind of atmosphere, which is exactly what one should expect in one of the South’s oldest cities.  Our waiter was quite knowledgeable about their wine selection, so we asked him to decant a nice, dry wine to go with dinner.  He brought the bottle to the table, poured half the contents through the filter into the large decanter, swirled the liquid to release the bouquet, and allowed us to smell the wine before he poured each of us a glass.  I have now forgotten the variety (probably a merlot), but I do remember that it was just about the best glass of wine I had ever tasted.  We asked him about the brand, and he told us it was a Hess.  We had never heard of it, but we were determined to find out more about the winery.

Hess Winery
Entrance to Hess Winery

The Hess Collection winery is in the Mount Veeder area of Napa Valley in California.  Grapes have been cultivated on the property at least as far back as the 1870s.  From 1900 to 1929, the property was owned by Colonel Theodore Gier, who built a three-story building that would eventually hold the Hess Collection’s historic barrel chai and art gallery.  After a few more owners and continued development and expansion through the 20th century, a man named Donald Hess purchased 900 acres on Mount Veeder to begin the Hess Collection.  Over 600 acres are set aside as undeveloped land to support wildlife corridors, fish-friendly farming practices, and biodiversity.  The Hess Collection opened to the public in June, 1989, following a two-year renovation of the facility which includes 13,000 square feet of Donald Hess’s personal contemporary art collection.

In 2011, my wife and I took a fabulous vacation to San Francisco, which included several side trips.  One of our excursions was a drive up to Napa to pay a visit to the Hess Collection winery.  It was magnificent.  In addition to tasting several varieties and buying a case to take home with us, we also visited the incredible art gallery and gardens.  According to the website, “Donald Hess began collecting art in 1966. Today, the Hess Collection houses less than a quarter of a collection that is shown in museums worldwide. His collecting style is a personal endeavor driven by passion rather than monetary investment or current trends. He develops a close dialogue with an artist to better understand what drives him or her to create and he carefully limits his focus as a collector to 20 living artists whose work he faithfully supports long term. As is evident by the caliber of the collection, he collects with the uncanny ability to acquire works by lesser known artists who often go on to become well known and respected in their disciplines. His typical commitment to an artist spans decades and various stages of his career.”

Hess Winery garden
Gardens at Hess Winery

My wife and I drink wine fairly often.  We are nowhere close to being authorities, and we are certainly not wine snobs.  Grocery store brands work fine for us most of the time.  Our favorable impression of the wine we had that evening at the Olde Pink House may have had more to do with the company and the dining experience than the sophistication of our palates, but we liked it enough to search out where the grapes are grown, which gave us an even deeper appreciation for the brand.  The story of Donald Hess and his enterprise, which he has now passed down to the next generations, is a fascinating one.   Seeing the actual vineyards where a great bottle of wine originates presented us with a wonderful moment of connection that I’m sure we will remember for a long time.