February 17, 2006

Giving Myself the Gift of Mozart

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:51 pm

If you just flew in on a spaceship, you may not know that 2006 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since last year, there has been much ado in the global music world about planned celebrations, concerts and extravaganzas in honor of the event.

Since the publicity began, I have wondered about how the world could celebrate Mozart more on his 250th birthday than they do the rest of the time. Here’s a man who has annual festivals and professional ensembles named after him. A radio station like KDFC plays Mozart in the Morning to begin every workday. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to assert than on any given day of any given year, someone is playing Mozart. His life, his work and his genius are well remembered, regarded and perpetuated.

Not that I don’t like Mozart. Mozart in the Morning is the way I start my day. Performing Mozart’s C minor mass in college was one of the high points of my singing career. I love his tempos, his passion and his rhythm. His work should be celebrated every day of every year.

Mozart’s actual birthday, January 27, was an enlightening day for me. It started with one of those coincidences that make you wonder about the existence of a Greater Power. I am fairly certain that my five-year-old son did not wake up that Friday morning aware that it was Mozart’s birthday, but during breakfast, he started humming “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Spooky, huh?

Then, I was driving my son to school and it occurred to me that the wonder of the 250th global birthday party did not stem from the professional musicians who were packing their 2006 repertoire with Mozart, or repackaging tried-and-true favorites to fill seats. The significance of the event was in the number of amateur musicians who were using the occasion to delve into Mozart. Community choirs are tackling his work. Avocational instrumentalists are forming Mozart quintets to experience his music. For the 250th celebration, this composer who is regarded with fear and awe by amateur musicians for his technically challenging rhythms and proclivity for high-density compositions is being viewed as accessible. The end product may be imperfect, but the process of communicating with Mozart across the divide of time and talent is too tantalizing to miss.

Upon this revelation, I realized that although I have sung a number of Mozart’s choral works, I couldn’t remember every playing Mozart in my 10 years of piano lessons. A quick look at my music book collection confirmed that. I was not surprised. My skills and musical interests did not intersect with Mozart’s canon when I was taking lessons.

I had a few hours to myself at home alone with our piano that day and I couldn’t resist giving Mozart a try on his birthday. The Internet allowed me to almost instantaneously have my pick of sheet music and within minutes, I was at the piano. What happened next I mostly want to keep between me, Wolfy and my baby grand. I can tell you it wasn’t disastrous, it wasn’t spectacular, and no concert pianists’ careers were threatened in any way. But it was enjoyable and made me feel like part of a special birthday.

I’m more in my element singing Mozart and on March 19, I’m joining one of those intrepid groups of amateur musicians when the Chancel Choir at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette performs Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” as part of an evening of Mozart’s music in concert at 7 p.m. There are some masterful professional musicians on the program as well. Come join our heartfelt birthday party for the Master himself.

January 24, 2006

Using Your Cell to Express Yourself

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 9:49 pm

I am not a cell phone person. I was given my first cell phone as a teenager to be used for emergencies and I still carry my phone for emergencies only. Sometimes the emergency is needing to call my husband to tell him the cutest piece of furniture at the thrift store needs a good home. But other than that, I don’t use it to make calls and no one calls me on it because they know I probably won’t answer.

Cell phones have gotten pretty artsy in recent years, and I’m not talking about the whimsically colored and patterned phone your teenager is carrying. The variety of phone rings in the world is astounding. Peripherally, I hear the individualized rings polluting the sound space around me. I never considered them more than a nuisance or outright irritating, depending on the place the phone was ringing. I growl when someone tells an “amusing” story about how he was at the movies and at the emotional peak of the film, his cell phone suddenly rings “Beat It.” I’m all for individual expression, but not every time is the right time to stand out.

For the last few months I’ve been borrowing another person’s cell phone. Since I am not a cell phone person, I did not bother to change the ring when I got it. I never heard it ring before receiving it, and for the first two months it sat silently in my purse. Then one day I was driving by myself when samba music started to play. I couldn’t help myself as I started car dancing while trying to mental locate where the music was coming from. By the time I realized it was my phone, it stopped samba-ing. It was a lilting few moments, and then life moved on.

Several weeks later, my husband and I were cleaning up the kitchen when the samba started again. It still took me a second to remember what it was. My completely befuddled husband exclaimed, “What is that?!” While his eyes scanned the room for the responsible technology, I noticed he couldn’t stop his arms and legs from samba-ing. I said it was my phone and he laughed. It was not a ring he associated with me and he wasn’t surprised to learn I hadn’t chosen it. Still, the ring transformed an uninteresting chore into an impromptu samba session for a minute or two.

I have to admit, I’m hearing more rings in line at the supermarket or when standing at the pump at the gas station that make me smile. There are some good rings out there. My husband, who is the polar opposite of me when it comes to the cell phone realm, told me a story that indicates these rings are prompting discussions about whether a person’s audible identity as reflected by his cell ring matches his public image. Matt was testing a new service provider by carrying his sister’s cell for a few days. It rang “Mozart” at work and his coworkers commented on the mismatch. My husband made the fascinating observation that he didn’t really like the Mozart because he wanted a “phone to sound like a phone.” My husband’s regular cell rings two rings, one identifying someone calling from work and another for the rest of the world. To my ears, both these rings are musical and don’t sound in the least like a phone “should.” Even the definition of a phone ring is expanding while it becomes more individualized.

It seems that if an iPod helps you express who you are to yourself inside your headphones, cell phone rings have become a sound identity outside your mind, almost an accessory item like jewelry. We’re all characters in “Peter and the Wolf” with a personal melody to accompany our journey through life’s daily adventures. Bubbly extroverts choose ear-catching jazzy numbers. Someone with a more subtle approach to life chooses more mellow tones. A teenager doesn’t have to have the same ring as her stodgy parents. A cell phone can even express our effervescent inside selves in a “safe” way when our reserved outside demeanor gives away few clues.

Obviously, I am beginning to appreciate cell phones as communication devices beyond the power to transmit your voice from here to there. You still better only call me if you are on fire, though.

January 9, 2006

Finding Art in the Most Unexpected Places

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 9:41 pm

One of life’s simple pleasures for me is when art and/or creative expression pop up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. I’ve been collecting some of the best examples in my life over the last few years, and people have sent me stories about run-ins with art that they experienced. These anecdotes go to show that that at any given moment, the arts can enhance our lives.

For instance, in San Diego, there is a Labor and Delivery nurse who plays “Happy Birthday” on her violin for all babies born during her shift. She doesn’t play the violin very well, but what a special way to greet an infant with welcoming music. Any of us who deliver a baby or find ourselves in the delivery room at that big moment could easily sing “Happy Birthday” to the newborns in our lives. It’s so simple, it’s a wonder it’s not already a long-held tradition in our culture. Maybe we could make it one.

Three days before Christmas, I was in line at the post office at lunchtime with my two-year old daughter. There was the expected and requisite line. My daughter was well-behaved and we were making steady progress toward the front when the man in front of us commented on the wait. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a red balloon and proceeded to sculpt a mouse for my daughter. Watching my daughter’s face go from surprise to delight no doubt mirrored my own reaction. A few minutes later, the stranger performed the same merrymaking trick for the next child to join the line. It was a happy holiday indeed!

In the category of “Why didn’t I think of that?” artist Susan List told me about a gig where she was hired to paint at a couple’s wedding reception. Susan does plein air painting, meaning she has the skills to compose and complete a painting on site, which she did during the course of the event. She said her painting process entertained guests and the newlyweds got a unique record of their wedding day. Hiring an artist to paint during the wedding day was the couple’s idea and what a brilliant idea it was! Every couple wants their wedding to be unique and individualized. What better way than to commission an original piece of artwork created amidst the emotion and energy of that special day? It’s almost enough to make me want to do my wedding over again.

Sometimes we find art in places where it shouldn’t be all that unexpected but alas, it is. Mel Ahlborn, President of the Episcopal Church & Visual Arts, sent me a link to an article in the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne, Indiana. It discusses churches which are exhibiting sacred and non-religious art to “highlight the spirit of creativity, rather than focus only on what is expressly sacred or artists who are specifically Christians.” The article cites Christians in the Visual Arts, a non-profit organization that works to inspire and encourage artists to engage the secular culture with art that speaks to the transcendent without being overly religious. CIVA also strives to honor art, whether made by Christians or not, that depicts the world and life with veracity and beauty. As one CIVA board member states, “The church needs both kinds of art and should encourage Christian artists who make each.” I think this should be a no-brainer for any religious or spiritual group, but a story like this wouldn’t be in a newspaper if it was common.

I’m not supposed to be writing about this last one, but I can’t help myself. I’ll be appropriately vague to protect the identity of the person whom I am describing because I promised this person that I would not write a column about what he or she did. However, at a holiday event, this person presented me and several others with hand-crafted holiday decorations that this person made. This person adamantly denied any prior inclination toward being artsy and craftsy, but this person had decided to try some creative expression this holiday season. This person “blamed” my column for making her do this. All of this was reported with a big smile. Obviously, the experience was not too painful. There was nothing more special under my tree on Christmas morning than the multi-symbolic gift this person gave me.

The moral of these stories? There is no better time and place for the arts in our lives than this time and place.

December 28, 2005

What Price Creativity?

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 2:39 pm

Sometimes I drive myself crazy with the need to be creative. I value original thought and creative expression so highly that the compulsion to honor these impulses often tromps practicality, pragmatism and rationality to the point of certifiable insanity.

A recent and arguably most insane example began last May when I was stripping grass paper from a hallway off our entry. The hallway housed a large, 50-year-old door chime, covered in matching grass paper to “conceal it.” The chime offended my aesthetic sensibilities and I took it down, intending to easily replace it on a trip to Home Depot.

Wrong. Everything at Home Depot that didn’t look ugly, sounded ugly. I turned to the Internet.

I Googled “doorbells” and hundreds of sites came up. Looking at the vast array of door chimes, it dawned on me that this could be an opportunity put a personal stamp on the experience of entering our home. I wanted to find a chime that could greet visitors with the strains of my favorite music programmed into it. This door chime is located in a public area so it also had to look as good as it sounded.

I found a company called Doorbell Expressions that made an oak unit with a faceplate that could be custom engraved with any design. The guts of the unit was a tiny computer that recorded 12 seconds of music. I placed my order. The custom faceplate would have the Comedy/Tragedy theater masks logo, our unofficial family crest.

It took two months for our new door chime to arrive. For eight weeks straight my mom asked me if our doorbell was working yet. When the chime finally arrived, it looked great but we quickly discovered the little unit couldn’t handle the rich range of frequencies produced by an orchestra. What we got was more static noise than music. Then we remembered the single-instrument introductions of the characters in “Peter and the Wolf. The mellow clarinet of the cat theme recorded beautifully. We hung the doorchime, pushed the bell and nothing happened. We re-wired and tried again. Nothing.

Rich at Doorbell Expressions conferred with his doorchime engineer and they hypothesized that our 50-year-old, two-wire system was incompatible with their unit. But they did not give up. After two weeks, the engineer sent drawings of a way to re-wire the unit without tearing into our walls. It worked — for four days. Then the music started playing uncontrollably by itself. I unhooked it from the wires, but that darn cat theme looped itself into eternity. I had to kill it to make it stop.

Rich told me to send the doorchime to Jim in Iowa, whose company made the unit. I sent the chime off and waited for two months. They eventually found a software glitch and repaired it. I got the chime back in a box postmarked Kansas City, Missouri. This was a well-traveled door chime.

Impatient to wait for a break in my husband’s schedule to help me record the cat theme sound bite, I decided to play the notes myself on the piano. After all, I took 10 years of piano lessons and it was time I put them to good use. It worked — for four days. Once again, I had to kill it. I was frustrated, angry and even shed a few tears. I chanted, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I blamed the old house wiring. I blamed the new computer technology. I blamed Rich and Jim.

Jim graciously repaired the unit one more time. Upon its return, it worked for four days. Jim said he’d replace the unit with a new one, which he sent promptly. It lasted for 13 days, but only after my husband replaced our doorbell, thinking that might be the problem.

With a heavy heart, we returned the doorchime to Rich and Jim, but kept the faceplate as a souvenir. Google helped me find another programmable unit that isn’t outwardly artistic but sounds nice. Our current doorchime transformer isn’t powerful enough to get a whole tune out with one push of the button, but that’s easily fixable. The unit made a clunky debut over the holidays when the transformer could only manage to power two notes of a song with each push of the doorbell as the relatives came over for a visit. But those two notes made people smile, although I don’t know if they were amused, bemused or confused.

Was it worth all the time, extra expense and frustration just to have a few seconds of personalized music? As soon as they let me out of my padded cell, I’ll let you know.

November 15, 2005

Living the “White Christmas” dream

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:21 pm

The stage version of “White Christmas” has opened again in San Francisco. You may recall that the theatrical adaptation of the 1954 film premiered in San Francisco last year to great reviews and even better ticket sales. It was so successful that this year, they have added productions in Los Angeles and Boston.

The film version of “White Christmas” is to my family what “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to other clans. In filmmaking craftsmanship, “White Christmas,” starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, is one scene away from being a perfect movie. In the categories of holiday schmaltz, feel-goodness, love, joy and downright good entertainment, it is the perfect movie. To this day, I have a burning crush on Danny Kaye. And I cry every time General Waverly walks into the barn-turned-stage and is surprised by the hundreds of soldiers from his former battalion who have shown up to remind him of what an impact he has had on their lives. (If you don’t know the scene I’m describing, you seriously need to head to the DVD store.)

So out of morbid curiosity, I went to see the stage show last year. For me, the production had a huge task ahead of it to convince me to like it. On casting alone, how could it even compare? And part of the charm of the movie is that it is decked out in all of MGM’s musical splendor and sophistication. I love stage musicals, but there is no way to mimic the thrill of a well-filmed and edited dance sequence.
I knew that I the sentiment I was bringing to the theater was shared by many of the audience members. I took my seat with a mixture of trepidation and hopeful anticipation.

From the first moments of the show, I was disappointed. I felt that the heart of the movie and its characters was gutted to appeal comedically and musically to the lowest common denominator.  I’m not saying that the movie script is Shakespeare, but when you’ve seen it hundreds of times, you notice the multiple levels of nuance and subtext in every word and every song, and in the performances of the actors. It’s far deeper and cleverer than it appears on the surface, and none of that was apparent in the stage show.

Judging by the crowd reaction, however, I was alone in my assessment. I started to grumble louder and louder as I observed the audience succumbing to the dumbing-down of American entertainment. They were falling for drek, and nothing steams me more. I not so patiently waited for the torture to end.
Then the cast began singing the classic title song, and they did a not-so-bad rendition of it. And then the audience started singing along, just like the soldiers do at the end of the movie. Hundreds of people suddenly became a choir singing the most mellow, heartfelt and comforting music I had heard all season. I started to cry.

I cried so hard, my attempts to sing along were only squawks of choked sound. I was overcome by a community of people sharing the common background of a beloved song. This show had inspired a theater full of strangers to join together for a few minutes of holiday harmony before re-entry into the disharmonious world. It was oral tradition ceremoniously being shared by the tribe. It was the unabashed joy of art and life being lived in the moment. It was the pure essence of live theater.

My heart grew three sizes that day. I remembered that no matter our artistic differences of opinion, nothing is more unifying to mankind than a shared artistic experience. Thank you, “White Christmas,” for the best gift of the holiday season.

October 25, 2005

Music is all in the family

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:28 pm

I have always been fascinated by why I am the way I am. What components of my character are cultural or genetic? Why do I act the way I do, like the things I like, and pursue the fields I pursue?

My queries on this subject sometimes focus specifically on how my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. passed on DNA for certain talents, interests, skills and abilities.

Sometimes I focus on my American-ness. I have studied how Americans have gotten to be so American. What portion of our collective personality came over on the Mayflower? Or on a ship through Ellis Island? Or on a slave vessel?

On an individual level, for those of us who are not of Native American descent, can we still find in ourselves a little bit of our ancestral homeland, even multiple generations removed from that geography?

From there, my question gets even broader. If I assert that England is the cultural seed of America, then how did England get to be the way it is? What part of England was Anglo before the influence of the Saxons infiltrated enough to create a hyphenated Anglo-Saxon culture? What part did the Jutes, Franks and Frisians play? And don’t forget the Romans. And the part religion played through the development of Christianity. I can literally take my ponderings back to the beginning of time. (This was my focus as a history major in college, can you tell?)

Having children only bolstered my interest in these topics. As I watch how they develop, I smile when I notice the repeating themes from my side or their dad’s side of the family. Even so, I recently learned that my interest in the past caused me to overlook family history making in the present. The lesson came via my cousin, Kelly.
My cousins on the Engelbrecht side of the family are all quite a bit older than I am. When I was born, most of them were more than a decade ahead of me. My oldest cousin is only a few months younger than my mom. None of my cousins lived in California. I saw them fairly often, but I did not have a real relationship with any of them.

When I was a teen, Kelly moved to Menlo Park and as a local relative, he became a regular at family events and holidays. I am a quiet person and he is a quiet person. He would ask me questions and keep track of what I was up to. As a teen, I didn’t think to ask him anything about himself.

Just as I entered adulthood and was ready to have more of an adult relationship with Kelly, he moved to Vienna where he has been ever since. He’s very faithful about visiting me when he’s in town, but that isn’t very often.

On one such visit, I was delighted to learn that he had an interest in Engelbrecht family history and was actively documenting and archiving as much about the past as he could. That was a major thing to have in common, but it didn’t surprise me because we have several folks in the family with that same interest in questing for our forefathers and foremothers.

But this past Labor Day, he bowled me over when he handed me a CD he had made. It was just a hand-copied version of some songs he said he had recorded with a group of musicians. I inferred that he had written the songs. I asked for no more information and he didn’t give any. After he left, I listened to the title track, “Yesterday Forever,” and thought it was catchy.

I didn’t get back to listening to the entire CD until he sent me the final version in the mail, in a real jewel box with a real booklet with photos, lyrics and credits. I didn’t read any of that, though, before popping the CD in my car player on my way to my daughter’s soccer class. So I was completely caught off guard to hear my cousin’s lyrics sharing some incredibly personal facets of his life story. I felt like he was letting me read his journal and it was very emotional for me. Through his music I was experiencing living history.

After soccer class, I rushed home so I could read the CD booklet. I needed to know more. Who was singing? Who were the musicians? Did Kelly really write the songs? I was stunned to learn that he wrote the music, lyrics, sang and played acoustic guitar on the recording. I was overcome by incredible familial pride and also ashamed that I never knew this musical side of him. We have a lot of musicians in our family. I had never grouped Kelly with them. I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought about the people I come from.

I have opened my eyes to looking for answers in the present, as well as the past. Who knows what clues to my origin lie in others who are walking and breathing and singing in the here and now.

If you’re curious, you can listen to samples of “Yesterday Forever” at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/quininetribe.

October 11, 2005

The scariest thing about Halloween

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:00 pm

I dread October. The horror of Halloween haunts me all year. I should revel in a holiday that spurs people to heights of creativity in masking their true selves beneath an imagined persona. Instead, Halloween forces me to confront the ugly truth I suppress from the world: I don’t sew.

Not that I can’t sew. I own a sewing machine, and a needle and thread. I have the skill set to use them. I would rather wear holey clothes than get either of them out.
Not that every Halloween costume requires sewing. But the good ones usually do. The original, never-before-seen, did-you-make-that kind do. I value original thinking and superior execution most highly. I can do the thinking part, but my execution is lacking.

I was born of a woman who is an excellent seamstress. My childhood costumes were incredible. I may have been just a fairy, or an Indian or an angel, but my costumes were homemade, one-of-a-kind expressions of that fairy, Indian or angel as conceived by my mom and me.

Sometimes, our efforts to be unique led to frustration and foolishness. When I wanted to be a bunch of grapes, Mom made a green jumpsuit and she and I papier-mâchéd almost two dozen orbs. I painted them purple, and then we safety pinned them onto the jump suit. Since they were made of paper, and heavy from paste, many of the representational grapes didn’t last the length of the school parade as they fell off in a trail behind me. We had to do repairs before trick-or-treating that nights. That same Halloween, Mom saw another person dressed as grapes by pinning purple balloons to herself. Duh!

The pressure I put on myself to be unique took its toll, and I was greatly relieved when I reached high school and was too old for parades and trick-or-treating. I ignored Halloween for the next 15 years.

Then I made a tactical error. I had children. And much to my chagrin, they want to celebrate Halloween. My mom, now a Grammie, has done a complete 180. For the last two years, she has taken the kids to Target and (Gasp!) bought ready-made costumes. The kids looked adorable but I was still desperate to encourage them to add some original features to the cookie-cutter commonness. No go. They wanted to look like everyone else. With a sad heart, I went to my son’s first Halloween parade last year and watched as one unoriginal kid after another filed by.

I became noticeably irritable with the creative zombies who came to the door trick-or-treating having done nothing more to earn their booty than forking Mom or Dad’s cash over to some mega-mart for an instant costume, no brain cells required. I actually refused some older kids candy because “they should know better” than to simply put on a rubber mask with their street clothes and call it a costume. My 4-year-old told me he would relieve me of door duty at that point. I went and drank a bottle of wine.

This year, both kids said they want to be Jedi. Not a specific Jedi like Anakin Skywalker or Obi-wan Kenobi, but just “normal Jedi.” I asked my son, the spokesman for the pair, what he thought of when he imagined a Jedi costume. He said, “boots, pants, a shirt and a Jedi robe. Especially a Jedi robe.”

Except for the robe, that costume sounded pretty assemble-able. It looked like I could scrape by one more year without sewing, but still help my kids be their own unique Jedi. I know licensed Jedi costumes exist, but they are a bit pricey. I decided we’d see how we could do on a budget putting our own Jedi attire together.

The three of us spent two hours wandering around Target picking up the necessary costume elements. I admit, finding clothes that represented the Jedi ‘s basic wardrobe was a creative exercise in itself. The piéce de résistance was finding belts for the tunic-style shirts that reflected the space-aged primitiveness of the Star Wars universe.

Feeling victorious but exhausted, we started to head toward the checkout when my son asked, “What about the robes?” I told him I wasn’t sure if we could find robes, to which he matter-of-factly replied, “You can make them.” I let him live in his dream world overnight before I fell off my pedestal the next day when I told him I wouldn’t be able to make a Jedi robe. We agreed to purchase the pre-fab ones.

Once again, the Seamstress Ghost of Halloween Past spooked me, but I had one last chance to save face. The spandex pants I bought my young Jedi were too long and needed to be hemmed. I could still vindicate myself with needle and thread. I meticulously measured and pinned the pants legs. I did two fittings on each patient child before starting to sew. I made five Frankenstein stitches and gave up. Non-stitch hem tape is the friend of the Jedi.

September 28, 2005

Recognizing the value of “perceived value”

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:51 pm

I am always fascinated by the concept of “perceived value” when it comes to the arts. There is a pecking order which categorizes creative output as either highly valued or undervalued.

Sometimes value is based on the amount of money something is worth. A painting by Picasso, for example, is generally regarded as something worth a lot of money.

Sometimes value is merely emotional or sentimental, like tourist art, which costs more to frame than the inherent value of the piece itself. But if you could measure the heart palpitations of the owner of the tourist art, the dollar to heartbeat ratio might easily be equal.

Some financial value determinations seem to have to due with the substratum of the artwork. Newspaper is cheap and easy birdcage liner. Most of the writing informs or amuses the reader for a brief moment and then it is forgotten. Newspapers and their content have very little perceived value.

Film historians are panicking because the celluloid (an expensive medium) on which many early films were captured is disintegrating. Some of those films are classics, and many are not, but film has a high perceived value so a tremendous amount of money is spent to preserve it.

It works for performing arts too. For instance, I know I have moaned when a favorite rock group is demoted from a prestigious venue on its last tour to a second-rate facility on its current tour. My perception is that the group must have fallen from public grace a notch. Their perceived value has declined, even though they are likely playing the same music they always have.

Trying to interpret financial perceived value is merely a curious exercise for me. But the hypocrisy and discrepancy in evaluating sentimental value can get me pretty riled up. There have been a couple of offenses recently in my life.

The first was a personal infraction. I am creating a family art gallery in the bedroom wing of our home. To get in, the artist has to share blood with one of us. It is our family way of honoring the creative heritage of some ancestors who are no longer with us, some who live too far away to see all the time, and some up and coming creative contributors to the family line.

One day when I was collecting data to learn about the history of a quilt, one family member said, “Oh, that was just a kids quilt thrown together.” Now what does that mean? Is this piece being undervalued because it is a children’s quilt? Or because it was “thrown together” without needless hours of toil? As art, there was a discrepancy between our perceived value of this piece.

The second infraction was more general, but just as disturbing. A talented and sophisticated designer with her own show on HGTV framed a piece of children’s art for the room she was decorating. She commented that with the frame, “ordinary kids art can become a museum-quality art piece.”

There are a lot of problems with this statement, but the only one I am going to dissect is the use of the word “ordinary.” She could mean “ordinary” in terms of the piece being “common,” or “run-of-the-mill.” I know a lot of people see kids art this way. A canvas smeared with paint has more perceived value than a piece of construction paper with finger paints on it. For many of us, the finger-paint piece is automatically relegated to the refrigerator and we install spot lighting to showcase the canvas above the mantle. Which one is true art and which one is a mess? Sometimes the difference is negligible, but the “ordinary” construction paper masterpiece is worth no more display effort than lifting a magnate on the refrigerator.

“Ordinary” could also mean that there is such a prodigious output of kids’ art that finding some in a house with children is not an unusual or extraordinary thing to do. People with kids do often find themselves surrounded by original artwork. I was struck by something one father said to my son’s preschool teacher when he picked up his kids and was handed a stack of paintings. “Look at all these paintings. This stuff is so special that we put it in a box in the garage. How can we throw it away?” Examine that statement. Is putting his kids’ art in a box in the garage really any different from throwing it away? That attitude makes the refrigerator look like the Louvre.

I have a soft spot for kids art because it is always so fanciful and colorful, two qualities I admire. I also find it anything but ordinary because for most of us, the prolific art years taper off as we grow and by the time we hit middle school age, we have a hard time filling that box in the garage.

I think the output of visual artwork from children during a finite period in their lives is extraordinary. It will only be ordinary when I can walk into 45-year-old Bob’s house or 77-year-old Mary’s apartment and see their daily artwork up on the refrigerator.

September 14, 2005

Drinking In the Artistic Spirits of New Orleans

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:36 pm

By the time you read this, it will be almost four weeks since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I have been hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of reminiscences about New Orleans. Part of that is due to the statistical probability that with all the New Orleans press, someone else must have already said what I have to say about New Orleans as an exemplar for celebrating the arts in everyday living. Remarkably, I haven’t seen that perspective voiced yet.

I also feel somewhat guilty giving New Orleans one more warm fuzzy memory piece as if the lives and culture in that one city are more important than anyone or anything in Mississippi. Coverage has been lopsided, I feel, with less ink and airtime going to the Mississippi devastation and aftermath. But I have never been to Mississippi, and I have been to New Orleans and New Orleans happens to be a place I can’t forget.

My one and only visit was two years ago. I was prejudiced against the city going in, with its famed Mardi Gras celebrations, 24-hour bars and the laissez-les-bons-temps-rouler attitude. I’m not a big drinker or partier and you would never catch me in the Crescent City during Mardi Gras. It seemed like my personality and the city’s were diametrically opposed. And as it turned out, during my visit I never went into a bar and I was in bed by 11 p.m. every night just as the city was waking up.

But New Orleans by day surprised me and I felt incredibly at home, as if I had visited many times before, if only in my imaginings about an utopia for the arts. In the daytime, when the streets were relatively empty of people and the noise from the bars and neighborhood hangouts was silenced, the true heartbeat of the city pumped loud and clear. New Orleans was undeniably a city that celebrated the arts and artistic expression in the small, everyday moments of life.

Distant strains of music played constantly. If it wasn’t a lone instrument several blocks away, it was a person singing as they passed on the street. I saw high-end art and street art, local art and imported art everywhere. I saw people dressed with an individualistic flair that most of us don’t have the guts to even imagine. Performing artists on street had genuine talent rightly commanding the attention they garnered.

I liken the artistic approach to life by New Orleanians to my experience with their food. Whether I was eating in an inexpensive eatery or the grandest of fine restaurants, every bite was exquisite. I can still taste several delectable dishes from my stay. That’s also how I felt about the visual and performing arts I experienced in New Orleans. From the lowest rung of the arts echelon to the highest, every sampling was exquisite.

I don’t have a romanticized view of New Orleans. We did not stay in the best part of town. Our rental van was stolen and trashed our first night in town, including my son’s car seat. A discourteous streetcar driver did not give me (seven months pregnant at the time), my two-year-old son and my husband enough time to get off at our stop, abruptly closing the door in our faces just as we reached the last stair. When we asked for directions at the next stop to get back to our intended destination, she slammed the door in our faces again and drove away. And the all-time rudest exchange I have ever had with another human being was with a restaurant bathroom attendant in New Orleans.

Still, the so-called Great Cities of the World that I have visited didn’t have the visceral impact on me that New Orleans did. Two years later, my memories are as fresh as if they were just made, and they pop into my head on regular occasion. Paris, New York, London and Rome are fabulous cities, but they didn’t nestle their way into my heart.
As a Bay Area native, I’ve always felt we have a lot going for us where the arts are concerned. The general community is supportive of the arts. San Francisco and Berkeley provide a wonderful stage for artists to take risks and push the boundaries of their genres. But I would call the overriding nature of the Bay Area arts scene to be rather refined and highly intellectualized. In contrast, the day-to-day arts environment in New Orleans felt raw, and was as easy and natural as breathing. Nothing else could have been more intoxicating for me.

August 31, 2005

The Magic Powers of Photo Paper

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:11 pm

A recent episode of the Cathy comic strip had Cathy’s mom wondering what to do with all the photos people were emailing her or handing her on disk. She didn’t feel right about throwing them away but didn’t want to keep them, either. I felt her pain. I am equally perplexed about what to do with the unsolicited pictures people give me, digital or otherwise.

I used to think photo paper had a magical property that prevented me from throwing away any image that was handed to me by a friend or relative. From an early age, I remember politely enjoying the photo and then with great guilt, shoving it in a drawer until I could decide what to do with it. When the drawer was full, those photos convinced me they were worthy of being put in a memorabilia box.

Recently, I have been organizing and arranging all my memorabilia into scrapbooks. As I worked back in time to things I have kept from childhood, I was confronted once again by a lifetime of unwanted photos. Some of the pictures are of people whose names I can’t remember. But there is something about that photo paper that causes me to give time and synapses to contemplating whether or not these rejected photos should have a second chance at being glued down for all posterity.

My regard for photo paper was only re-enforced when my son was born 5 years ago, just about the time everybody was getting a digital camera. Since he was our first child, we took thousands of pictures. We posted the best ones on our Web site. Some family members emailed us that they were thrilled with the pictures, but wondered if we had any “real pictures” to send them. I knew that “real pictures” didn’t just mean printouts — they wanted images captured on film and developed onto photo paper.

I understood what they were saying and I complied. I also began to hypothesize that photo paper was powerless until it did a mystical and mysterious dance with 35 mm film. This had to be the reason that printouts of digital images on photo paper were second rate for my relatives. For almost a year, I shot everything digitally and on film. This is the awesome power of photo paper.

I also had a problem framing a digital image printout. I perceived the frame to have a certain worth, and the printout didn’t live up to that value. However, I had no issue framing mass-produced movie and theater posters and covering my living room walls with them. It occurred to me that maybe the photo paper wasn’t enchanting me, but rather the image was. It is said that when photography was first introduced to some cultures, they had an adverse reaction to it because they believed the image was stealing a part of the soul of the person in the picture. Maybe there is something to that belief, but instead of photos “stealing” the soul, they are actually capturing a bit of the soul.

By mentally replaying my relationship with photo paper, I realized that I never had qualms about throwing away a personality-free picture of a mountain or a cathedral. It was the faces in the photo that had a hold of me, not the paper. Even faces of people I don’t remember have value. It’s as if the human face is the art, and I feel it should be mounted on a medium worthy of priceless treasures. In my worldview, that means plain old ink and regular paper aren’t special enough.

As time and technology advances, I have come to accept that the image is the important thing, not the paper it is printed on. This means that without too much therapy, I can now frame a digital printout. I still have a tough time throwing away unwanted pictures or deleting an email with a photo attachment. I am the queen of purging in other areas of my life, but those photos have a spell on me that I still can’t break.