Saturday, May 31, 2014

Provincetown Artists: Blanche Lazzell

Blanche Lazzell, Tulips, White Line Color Woodcut, 1920, approx. 12" x 12"

It's almost sort of summer here in New England, which means it's time to think of summer places, which for us often means Provincetown. And Provincetown means "art colony," as well as a few other things, such as the place where they have "Bear Week."

Among the most beloved artists of the art colony's early years is Blanche Lazzell, one of the most celebrated practitioners of what is called the white line wood cut. Her compositions could be a bit cubist, which was the new movement of the time. But for me, it's the "mellow-osity" of her colors that pleases most. This still life simply feels peaceful to me, which, ironically, P-town does as well. We often go out after Labor Day, and one's attention then focuses more on the tranquil harbor than on the zany, edgy street life of Commercial Street.


Hans Hofmann, abstract oil

Michael Mazur, Rocks and Water, monotype

Michael Mazur, Pond Edge II, oil painting

Irene Lipton, untitled oil

Mary Giammarino, impressionist oil

Monday, May 26, 2014

Vincent Harding: Friend of Humankind

Humankind lost a true friend last week. A friend and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., the historian, author, and activist Vincent Harding, who died at age 82, was a towering, irreplaceable figure in the fields of peace, justice, religious pluralism, and social transformation, fields within which I have done my work for the last two decades. I am extraordinarily blessed that Dr. Harding is among those I have worked with.

When talking about Dr. Harding with friends, I invariably say that he was a truly great man. Why? First, he brought with him the power of lived history, including the triumphs and the losses of the movement. It was Harding who drafted King's famous Vietnam speech, in which the civil rights leader took the then controversial stance to oppose that tragic war, the logic being that a commitment to nonviolence is, as Ken Butigan says, based on an "awareness of the oneness of all being." Further, commitment to the well being of the poor and dispossessed at home must acknowledge the horrible toll being taken on the poor villagers of Vietnam. To the end Dr. Harding wore a button that said "War Is Terrorism," which is correct.

When King was killed a year later, Dr. Harding couldn't help but wonder if the Vietnam speech had somehow encouraged, as he put it, the assassin's bullet to finally find his friend. He found peace with this when their mutual friend James Lawson assured Dr. Harding that Martin never did or said anything he didn't want to.

But his power came from more than this intimacy with history. It came from the way he never succumbed to bitterness, even after losses such as that of his friend Martin. It came from the way he wanted us to keep our "eyes on the prize" of true freedom and well being for all people, a goal which is ongoing, which includes but is not limited to the expansion of civil rights. He gently but forcefully urged and encouraged everyone he met to believe in themselves and their capacity to make a positive difference. He urged us to understand that, as Aime Cesaire put it, "the work of humankind has just begun." The task of truly being sisters and brothers to one another is just starting, as we now understand the benchmark of human rights, and as we now enter the era of undeniable globalization and interconnection.

His power came from the fact that, despite the racism with which he contended, and which all of us must contend, he always expressed his gratitude to have been born in the US, where, because of our unparallelled racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, we face challenges greater than those of more homogeneous societies, but where we also have much greater potential. We can be an exemplar of the power that comes from creating the world's most complex multiracial democracy, a microcosm of what the world must become. Last August, I actually did a brief post on this topic. I quoted Vincent as saying:
"Let me say this with a slight bit of humor as well as something deeper: It's a way of testing the wisdom of God for making such a strange variety of beings, giving them the capacities that we have, and telling them to get together and figure out how to live together, how to love one another, how to share, and how to bless one another and bless this world. I think of this as a reflection on America's potential."
Most moving was the gratitude he gave for his life and the love he says he was so blessed to have received. Just last fall I did a video interview with him (see above) in which he stated that because of the power and pervasiveness of the love he has received he felt confident that this love would follow him into whatever would come next, after death, if indeed there is a continuity of life or of energy. Speaking at the Quaker retreat Pendle Hill just days before he died, he said that he was "loved into life." He loved so many of us into life, and when he greeted us as "my brother" or "my sister," in the manner of the Christian peace movement, it felt really good to be included in the family of one such as him. Be well, brother Vincent. You did good work here.


I haven't included much biographical information here, but there are plenty of good pieces available online now, including these.

Ken Butigan's tribute at the Waging Nonviolence website is really wonderful.

The New York Times obit focused on the Vietnam speech and related struggles.

At my work website, I created a page that provides a bunch of links to interviews and other things he did with our center. You'll see some of the same language there as I used here.

Click on "Vincent Harding" in Labels to see my other posts here featuring Dr. Harding.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Questions & Answers

I get a lot of questions from readers. Here are a few.

What is poetry?
Poetry is a way of composing in the air, about three feet above the canvas.

What is spirituality?
Spirituality is what is on the other side of the finish line, where friends and others gather to offer congratulations on a race well run, more like the Special Olympics than the other Olympics.

What is life?
Life is a convention where the like minded gather to network and compare notes and visit the booths of others and maybe make a sale or two or have a couple drinks and tell some fish stories.

What is love?
A wise man said love is mutuality, but there is Cupid's love which pierces the heart and the love in holy books which blankets and nurtures creation with gentle rain.

What is fun?
Fun is when you forget yourself for a little while. Or, if you are a cat or a kid, getting inside a box.

What is important?
To try and never give up.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sigmar Polke Rorschach Painting

Sigmar Polke, Untitled Rorschach, 1999

No, I don't see anything sexual here. Seriously! I see a Christ-like figure in the center offering a sort of benediction, with two dancing figures spinning off to either side. Now, before I congratulate myself for being spiritual and enlightened, it might be that not seeing sexual suggestions here is "sicker" than the supposedly (in my mind) more elevated response. Whatever. No one does talk therapy anymore, right?

This image has been everywhere online, since MOMA is having a big Sigmar Polke (1940-2010) retrospective right now. I'm not that familiar with his work actually, so this is an opportunity to enter into a learning curve. The WSJ describes the show as "enormous and noisy."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Field Guide to Ed Reform

Some definitions will help:

This only means one thing: performance on standardized tests. Keep in mind, this is a very thin measure, representing a fraction of what most of us think should constitute good education.

This means just two things: 1) an emphasis on standardized tests, and 2) more and more privatization of schools, often in the form of charter schools. I think it's a stretch to call something "reform" when it's guided and supported by the most powerful and wealthy among us.

Teachers Unions
Usually this phrase is meant to suggest that the unions and the teachers they represent are merely self interested and against the success of students. The truth is that unions stand up for what the overwhelming majority of teachers see as good education, education that will serve students and society best. This includes skepticism of the testing movement Where the unions go wrong is to protect the seniority of bad teachers and to be excessively legalistic about compensation for hours worked. They do themselves no favors.

Charter Schools
Charters were meant to be laboratories of innovation which would then share their strategies with "regular" public schools. Charters would experiment with everything from drum circles to uniforms. Since the implementation of the testing regime, however, charters have become known for their laser-like focus on test results, which subverts the initial idea of pedagogical or educational diversity. Charters have proven maybe a tad better on test results than "regular" schools, but there are serious issues related to them not serving the most difficult to teach students. Further, charters can drain money from the budget that goes to the other schools. One consequence, intended or otherwise, is the hollowing out of our public school systems.

Teach for America
The truth is that for all its noble intentions, Teach for America is based on the idea that education has suffered because the smartest among us have avoided it. So now we have Ivy Leaguers and such entering the field, which is fine. But there's a lot more to teaching than knowledge. A lot. My mentor teacher told me he didn't become a good teacher until his fifth year. Most Teach for America teachers leave the profession well before that.

High Stakes Testing
And why do teachers leave? The environment is one filled with disrespect toward teachers, from students all the way up. Top down mandates such as the testing fixation never feel good, and the creativity that drew people to the profession is replaced by fears about under-performing on tests. Good teachers get publicly stigmatized when the scores are low, even though so many factors are beyond the teacher's control. The testing can also strike fear into the hearts of students who just aren't comfortable with pressurized test taking.

Take Over and Turnaround
Schools that "under-perform" can be subject to takeover by the state or school districts. So-called turnaround specialists are called in, but they never are really able to make that much of a difference. Until we tackle poverty, turnaround will remain a chimera. In the meantime, lots of good teachers get fired in the take over process. As do some bad ones, but the brush is too broad. And because of the high stakes, cheating on the part of school administrators is rampant nationwide.

Race to the Top
Obama's signature ed initiative, it might as well be called Race to the Bottom. It dangles bribes of big money out there for states that implement the most "reform" strategies, including the dubious ones discussed here. You know what? Republicans might have a point when they talk about dissolving the  Department of Education. Race to the Top follows up on No Child Left Behind, which institutionalized high-stakes testing back around 2002 or so. It's ironic that one of the true bipartisan acts of our fractured era is one with questionable impact.

Instead of standardized testing, teachers advocate something called formative assessment. The best testing is testing that lets a teacher know quickly where a student is at, and how best to help the student going forward. This kind of assessment is completely lost in the "reform" environment.

Finland is always held up as having the model school system. But theirs is an homogenous society. I bet that when you take into account the fact that US public schools educate many, many students for whom English is a second language, or who live in poverty, we actually do a better job than is acknowledged.

Michelle Rhee
The biggest celebrity of the reform movement is good at one thing: firing people. She's tough!

Diane Ravitch
Former Bush administration education official switches sides and becomes Michelle Rhee's bete noire, as well as one of the fiercest critics of our testing and privatization regimes. Does she have the zeal of a convert? Yes, but she is fundamentally correct.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sinead & Ferron: Tales of Two Break Ups

They are both singular female artists who've got so much going on that they can get by with just one name. And they have both composed break up songs of the highest order, though the experiences they relate could not be more different in emotion and tone. Sinead's "This Is the Last Day of Our Acquaintance," is pure acrimony and bitterness; Ferron's "Ain't Life a Brook" is stoic, but also wistful, melancholic, and even a bit nostalgic. What they do share is very clear imagery that drives the narrative forward while also resonating as pure poetry.

The lyrics of "Last Day" focus on the sterile, anonymous nature of getting legally divorced. A once intimate lover is now described sarcastically and bitterly as nothing more than an acquaintance. "This the last day of our acquaintance / I will meet you later in somebody's office / I'll talk but you won't listen to me / I know what your answer will be." Romance has devolved into a matter of finalizing "the details."

Where Sinead's core image is an office, Ferron's is a brook, a gentle, even soothing part of the natural world. Like a brook, the relationship took its natural course. When the lovers were together things were good, and after they parted things were good, too. Well, good enough once the edges of the pain got smoothed. And the pain isn't cause for acrimony or guilt. "But ain't life a brook / Just when I get to feeling like a polished stone / I get me a long drawn look / It's kind of a drag to find yourself alone / And sometimes I mind / Especially when I'm waiting on your heart / But life don't clickety-clack / Down a straight-line track It comes together and it comes apart."

Both Sinead and Ferron are true artists who have been marginalized: Sinead as a bit of a nut job, and Ferron as a niche practitioner of Women's (i.e. lesbian) Music. But they clearly transcend any boundaries such as these that have been superimposed from without. Brava!

P.S.  Can I just add as a personal aside that Sinead looks equally cute with and without hair?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sandys Moore & Hannah Bureau

Sandys Moore, The Falls, oil on canvas, 42" x 36"

Last weekend was Open Studios here in Somerville, always invigorating. It was during Open Studios a few years ago that we discovered the painter Sandys Moore. (Visit her website here.) Her works tend to be highly abstracted landscapes. Nothing bleeding edge here, just beautifully composed pieces with complex color palettes and strong brushwork. Just the kind of thing we tend to like. We actually ended up buying this piece, called "Quarry."

Sandys Moore, Quarry, oil on canvas, 16" x 13"

As it turns out, her daughter Hannah Bureau is also a a talented painter, one receiving a lot of positive recognition. Among other places, her work is represented at the Julie Heller Gallery in P-Town, and we always check up on her progress when we stay out there. This image is from the gWatson Gallery in Maine. The petal, it appears, hasn't blown that far from the blossom.

Hannah Bureau, Ebb Tide, oil on canvas, 16" x 24", 2012

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Power of Crackpot #3: "God's Children"

For the third entry in my "Power of Crackpot" series, I offer you the Kinks' "God's Children," one of Ray Davies' most beautiful songs, a rough gem much loved by those who go beyond the surface of the Kink's greatest hits. I chose this version because it features an image of the 45 RPM single, magically nostalgic for us boomers. I would get them at the five and dime and spin them on my GE Wildcat.

At any rate, this song was from a now obscure movie called Percy, which, as things would go in 1971, had a storyline about a penis transplant. No doubt a bunch of guys were really stoned and thought this would be a great idea; even the guys with money agreed. I tell you, all bets were off back then.

Wisely, Ray makes the song one that rails against transplants in general, which is nevertheless where the crackpot comes in. I mean, I won't be refusing an organ transplant if it ever comes to that. But more critically, it praises that which wasn't made by man, an attitude we could use more of, even as it becomes more scarce.
Man made the buildings that reach for the sky
And man made the motorcar and learned how to drive
But he didn't make the flowers and he didn't make the trees
And he didn't make you and he didn't make me
And he's got no right to turn us into machines
As with most crackpot songs, much of the power hinges on the use of a generic, all-encompassing pronoun. If we opted for something more specific than "he," we would start diluting our Bad Guy, who could be your next-door neighbor. And the whole thing begins to break down under the weight of logic.
Oh, he's got no right at all
'Cause we are all God's children
And he got no right to change us
Oh, we gotta go back the way the good Lord made us all

I don't want this world to change me
I wanna go back the way the good Lord made me
Same lungs that He gave me to breathe with
Same eyes He gave me to see with
Even those of us who have our doubts about the existence of "God" as implied in these passages acknowledge that a seductive trap of the modern world is our emphasis on and faith in our power to control. Actually, I doubt that Ray Davies himself even believes in this God. On the other hand, religious conservatives in the US actually believe the sentiments in this song in a more literal sense, which is often unwise, such as when it urges inaction in the face of climate change. But in a way they are closer to something important than those who believe we can just engineer our way out of our problems.

So, if it comes time for me to receive an organ, I will gladly accept. But I also will always believe that the most beautiful things in this world are those things not made by man.

Oh, and play it loud to get the full impact of it's ragged glory! You will sing along, even if you are an atheist. I guarantee it. That's the power of crackpot.

View previous entries in the Crackpot series: The Pretenders' Back On the Chain Gang and Bob Marley's Redemption Song.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

John Trudell: Baby Boom Che

Listen to the whole thing. "There's something good in feeling good." Dylan is said to have called this the greatest Elvis song ever. I don't know that whole body work, but it sure seems likely to me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Spring Identity Crisis

In our backyard the peach, cherry, and red bud trees are in full blossom. It's a glorious profusion of pink and lavender. Wait ... is my yard too gay?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Donald Sterling: Job Creator?

Setting aside the odious racial components of Donald Sterling's ill-considered, unhinged musings on "the way things work" (he's not a racist, but the world is racist, so . . .), I was struck by his exalted vision of himself as a creator of jobs: he gives the players money and the material things they need to live. As if these world class athletes would be out of work and destitute if he didn't own the Clippers, or if the Clippers didn't exist for that matter. He would seem to be the hero of Mitt Romney's story of the "job creators" who should be left alone to work their magic, helping the rabble as they (the Bestowers of Well Being!) grow wealthy. Why aren't we all more grateful, Mitt and Donald must wonder.