This 6' × 24' graffiti mural is the work of Gamma Acosta, Longmont, Colo. "Crayons" is his statement about the Sandy Hook school massacre, done a day later. It's gone now, boards and all, to an anonymous art collector who wanted it preserved. Normally Acosta, who paints on his uncle's vacant building, would have painted over it to make way for his next mural.
The Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York, is a rare find, a time capsule preserved and put on display for we, the generations that followed. What’s more, it is just down the road from Springwood, the Roosevelt home that is birthplace and burial site of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself was instrumental in keeping both homes intact and open to the public, donating his own home to the National Park Service upon his death and persuading the Vanderbilt heirs to do the same when it was clear that no one would buy the estate and its Italian Gardens even at a tiny fraction of its value. It was the foreclosed McMansion of its day, even though it was by far the smallest of the Gilded Age mansions built by the many grandchildren of shipping and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, it didn’t even last through its own generation before it became impractical to live in or care for in the economic devastation of the Great Depression.
Two seasons of the above and below stairs drama of Downton Abbey (and a knowledgeable young guide) helped to bring this gently faded and stuffy house to life for us as we walked through. The windows are closed and shaded to preserve the furnishings and keep it cool, but he reminded us that the home was intended as a summer cottage and in its day the windows would have been thrown open to the sumer breeze off the river and every room filled with flowers from the row of greenhouses just across the lawn.
And while its contents are largely intact, the gardens are only now being revived. Having only come recently to gardening I understand now that it is always the garden that is the first to go when a property loses a caring, resident owner. Architecture may take time to show wear, but it only takes a single season to destroy a garden – and in a year like 2012, punctuated by drought and torrential rain, even tended gardens can be decimated. The Park Service had an interest in preserving Sara Delano’s rose garden – FDR’s and Eleanor’s burial sites are situated next to it – but the Vanderbilt’s more elaborate tiered Italian garden with it vast greenhouses did not merit thefunds for preesrvation – the current restoration is funded by private donations, and the volunteers were hard at work when we visited. I didn’t expect it to be so romantic, with heart-shaped beds of pink petunias and so many of the trees flowers I recognize from my own garden, but then I remembered that even then they had to cultivate plants that could survive in New York rather than the warmer climes of southern Italy.
I don’t know if it is a sign of the times or my own skewed sense of history that fuels my current fascination with the early Twentieth Century. Sometimes there are too many parallels, sometimes too few. From my admittedly untrained perspective, Hyde Park reflects the convergence of the styles that dominated the previous and coming centuries. The old money, sober Dutch influenced but early American style of the Roosevelts at Springwood (their walls adorned with family portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart) looked down its nose at the Gilded Age, with the decadent, new-money European obsessed opulence of the Vanderbilts (their walls covered with tapestries of the Medici family crest) and finally followed by the more eclectic, earthy arts and crafts style adopted by Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill (very little fine art on the walls, decorated almost exclusively with photographs of people and events of their own time).
The house at Val-Kill itself is a harbinger of trends to come, a factory building converted into a home, and it’s dropped ceilings, galley kitchen and folding chairs are testament to the fact that not all progress is forward. Part of all of these styles endure, their longevity or re-emergence dictated by the changes in the American way of life. Just like the start of the last century, war and excess are steering us back to the small-is-beautiful after many years of bigger-is-better. Contraction and preservation in the face of uncertainty is not such a bad thing, if such appreciation brings wisdom and, with it, hope.
Now and then I post photographs of windows because I suppose I like what symbolize and how they gave composition to an image or structure to an otherwise unstructured world – I love the implied order of right angles. Wade Zahares is an artist who loves windows even more than I do, I think, and he creates art that portrays windows in ways and colors in I can only dream about. And the more of his art I see the more it matches up with times and places in our lives, including this Boston area triple decker from the ’80s and his more recent coastal New England landscapes and harbors. There is even what appears to be a midwestern plainscape – I have never felt so validated by another person’s art.
And as if that isn’t enough, he portrays trains and rolling vistas in prints and illustrations for wonderful books. We first discovered Zahares’ art though the 1998 book, Window Music, which delighted my young children and still delights me.
And for all of the sharpness of the images and vibrance of color, he works in pastels; I love the juxtaposition of sharp angles and bold landscapes – sometimes with the turf rolled back to reveal fantastic infrastructure – with the occasionally gently smudged pastel. It is fine art that stands up to the cacophony of the garish digital age, paying homage to some great pop art but keeping a kind of hand-forged integrity.
Zahares’ art, in its way, turns LettersHead on its own head, offering up 21st century art in a 20th century way. He does in images what I try to do in words, and the time he has devoted to his craft has produced spectacular results.
Thank you to Wade Zahares for giving us permission to use his art in this post.
I work out to Steve Martin‘s banjo music. I imagine he would be appalled to know that, but then again maybe it’s a marketing idea. I sort of admire people who can go the gym and work out regularly but I am not one of them. The idea of getting in my car and driving somewhere to exercise just seems wrong, not to mention embarrassing for someone who refuses to wear sweatpants anywhere, ever. If it’s too cold to walk outside, looking out the basement window and listening to The Crow gives my mind something wonderful to do while my body is busy being miserable. It’s perfect. Forget Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and the rest of the thumping-base workout music – it all only reminds me of how young I am not. But banjo music brings out the young in everyone. It is inherently happy, endlessly sunny and an invitation to love life. The winter melts to spring, the rural roads stretch before me, and when I am finished I can go and write.
Speaking of which, a while back my daughter and I went to hear Steve Martin himself talk about his life and play a little banjo. At the end of the interview by insipid entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik (I am loathe to even give her a link), Mr. Martin took questions. One person whined to him about writer’s block and asked him how he kept himself creative and he was blissfully bemused. In effect, he told her that, having worked so hard to get to this point in his life that he can now pursue his ideas whenever the mood strikes him. No pep talks, no tricks of the trade, just a very candid glimpse of someone who has earned the right to do nothing and thus pursues everything. Think about it – writer, comedian, actor, director, playwright, poet, collector, musician. Even if you did have writer’s block how could you think someone like Steve Martin could provide you with any more wisdom than he already has?
Last week our daughter asked our son, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and, he said, “An artist.” Until now the answer was always, “I don’t want to grow up.” Breakthrough. All parents hope that their children will find a passion, something they can and want to do with their lives. It’s not always a vocation, not always a career, but something that creates a spark that, with any luck, turns into a fire.
Our extended family is blessed with talent of all kinds, artistic in particular, that has manifested itself in many ways. Our home is filled with art by people we love, from paintings to photographs to greeting cards to quilts to books to magazine covers. Some it of it viewed by thousands, some only by us, and so I think about where his desire to draw will take him because it is, in part, up to us to guide him toward his goal.
The world is full of artists who do other things so that they can pursue their art on their own time. So few are able to fill their days and their bank accounts by making art. And our boy is what people would call an outsider artist, pursuing what is, for now, a narrow, if vibrant, aesthetic that is not uncommon in people on the autism spectrum. It has a childlike quality joined with a certain kind of exactitude that makes it appealing but not necessarily marketable. And as much as that would be wonderful for him, it is the satisfying process of drawing and completing that we hope to preserve throughout his life; for every artist it is as much about the act of producing a bit of art as it is about having it when it’s finished. Whether one works for days, months or years on a piece or is compelled to finish it in one sitting, the worst thing that can happen is to stop creating altogether.
Note: the drawings here are older (about 2008), because more recently completed work is large or oddly sized and not easily scanned or photographed.
I have always loved the graphic design, ideas and lines of Wright’s architecture but when I see his acutal work I am often disappointed by the poor workmanship, the dark corners or the clunky oakiness the detail work and furnishings. But I just found a posting of a Cincinnatti house that has the interiors and light as I always hoped they would be – it’s an old posting on another blog but the Boswell House photographs are stunning. The Hooked on Houses blog is actually a lot of fun. And the novel Loving Frank (cloying title, great novel based on real-life events) is a worthwhile read.
A tree sculpture exhibit at Fruitlands Museum.
What is it that gives people the gift of presentation? The dainty little packages of sweets that arrive from family – the way the cookies are wrapped and arranged in paper cups and tissue, full of fruit and crumbling butter and sugar, the way the bread and muffins hold together just right, topped with sugar that does not melt or become sticky and berries that hold together, saving their juice for the bite rather than leaking it out into the dough. It is more than flouring and sugaring, it is as though the ingredients know who is forming them and understands their responsibility to perform just so.
The birthday card constructed out of leftover mailbox letters and a paper bag, with a tiny line drawing that makes it suddenly, unexpectedly art. It is another kind of composition where mind and hand have instructed the materials perfectly.
Some of us can learn and copy the tricks, but imitation as flattery can only take us so far. Eventually we will be found out. When do we learn what we have inside ourselves that is organic, when do we know what we can do that is truly ours to give?