January 28, 2003

Kid-Friendly Museum Exhibit the Cure for Rainy Day Blues

Filed under: Art and About Kids — admin @ 2:58 pm

My son has a bad case of cabin fever this winter. Those intermittent sunny days that have been sprinkled in between the cold and raindrops since November don’t give him enough time to run around outside to compensate for the days he has to stay in. Oh, sure, we do lots of indoor activities, and he runs his grandmothers ragged three mornings a week, but I’m constantly on the lookout for an engaging yet energy-taxing indoor activity to help us get to spring.

The unlikeliest of places has come to my rescue. The Bedford Gallery at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek has an exhibit through March 9 that is ideal for curious brains and active bodies. “Conceptual Contraptions: The Art of Bernie Lubell and Sheri Simons” is the highfalutin name for a series of pine, string, latex, wire and cloth machines that don’t awaken to their full artistic potential without visitors pulling, pushing, tugging, cranking or squeezing the movable parts. They are all kid-friendly and the docent on duty the day we were there was eager to demonstrate how each installation worked, and to explain the significance of my toddler’s interactions with each piece in a way that he could understand.

As a side note, I brought my son there incognito, even though I have written about the Bedford several times, and I was delighted with how warmly they welcomed a two-year-old into the gallery and took the time to respect him as a patron as much as anyone else. That alone makes this a winning arts activity for kids when so much of the art world is still stuffy and exclusive.

As we approached the gallery, Tyrian broke into a run when he saw the largest installation through the entryway windows. Suspended on wires from the ceiling is a gigantic circular train track, spinning in a clockwise direction due to the force of the electric train traveling around the track. Large cardboard buildings surround the track on the floor, making up a scene not that different from what Grammie and Opa had under their tree this past Christmas. While Tyrian was mesmerized by the swooping and swinging, I could contemplate whether I agreed with artist Simon’s assertion that this piece, entitled “Sayonara,” suggests the realities of life and humanity such as “earnest but misguided efforts” or “fragility and vulnerability.”

Another favorite of Tyrian’s was a piece called “Cheek to Cheek.” He sat on a stool and wore a headpiece that fitted two latex bladders next to his cheek. When he rocked or wiggled, the bladders expanded and contracted. For an expert in wiggling, this was very satisfying fun.

A series of coiled wires run overhead in about a quarter of the gallery and Tyrian discovered that if he plucked one wire in a certain place, a resonant rumble came blaring out a large, wooden horn on the other end of the room. It didn’t hurt the amusement factor that the innocent bystander who happened to be at the base of the horn the first time Tyrian figured out the physics jumped several feet in surprise. Fortunately, she smiled at the tot and even pulled out her camera to capture his fascination with repeating the experiment.

By far, the hit of the excursion was a more complex collection of working parts where my son tugged on a pulley, which set a gear in motion making the most terrific clacking sound while providing the energy to turn an adjacent wheel. With mouth open wide in enthusiasm, I think Tyrian could have tugged and clacked all afternoon.

This machine was in tandem to Lubell’s “Etiology of Innocence,” a three-stage installation whereby a person working a crank starts a latex heart beating, and the sound of the heartbeat emerges around the corner through a horn. On this first visit, Tyrian wasn’t quite ready to digest the significance of Lubell’s interpretation of the nineteenth-century belief that even the most complex life processes could be understood mechanically. But an older child with some science classes under his belt might be compelled to contemplate the similarities and differences between man and machine while enjoying the power of making a heart go “thump-thump, thump-thump.”

I’m fairly certain my son thinks he went to the Exploratorium, while I know that he had a kinesthetic lesson about art, science and engineering. When I tried to convince him we had to leave before our meter expired, he implored “More, more.” You can’t ask for a better response to an art exhibit.

January 22, 2003

What I Did For Love

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:49 pm

My husband and I went to see the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production of “A Chorus Line” a couple of weeks ago. My sister-in-law, Heather Benner, had the lead role of Cassie. As a local FYI, Heather’s singing and dancing resume includes the choral program at Acalanes High School and the California Academy of Performing Arts in Moraga.

I have seen “Chorus Line” several times over the years. The first time was when I was 14. As I often do, I had memorized the original cast recording before seeing the show and had eagerly awaited the touring company to hit San Francisco. That was in the middle of the Broadway show’s then-recording setting 15-year run and the buzz from the show’s multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize had put “Chorus Line” on my “to see” list for a long time. The morning of the performance, I woke up with the unmistakable marks of chicken pox on my neck. I felt fine, so I wore a turtle neck and didn’t tell my parents until the lights started to go down at the Golden Gate Theatre. You should have seen their faces!

My favorite song from the show both then and now is “What I Did For Love,” but I realized when I saw the Davis Musical Theatre Company’s production that all these years I have completely misunderstood what that number was all about. Perhaps because I learned the lyrics with the sensibility of an immature 14-year-old mind, I have always thought the song was about what a person does for the kind of love that comes from adulation. It didn’t occur to me until last Saturday that that famous first verse — Kiss today goodbye/ The sweetness and the sorrow./ Wish me luck, the same to you./ But I can’t regret what I did for love, what I did for love — was about what someone does simply because he or she loves to do it. It’s really a love song to oneself about having the courage to follow a passion without regret, no matter where the journey might lead.

My sister-in-law told me that in the rehearsal process for “Chorus Line,” the director asked them all to consider what they would do if they no longer could do that one thing they love. The context for the song in “A Chorus Line” is that one of the auditioning dancers in the show severely re-injures a knee, which every dancer knows could be a career-ender. Heather said the question led to an extremely serious and through-provoking discussion among the cast.

On the drive home from Davis, I had the same discussion with myself. What is the one thing that I do purely for love, and what would I do if I could no longer do it. It took longer than it should have, but I realized that for me, singing is the one passion I pursue strictly for my own happiness. I asked my mom if I could join a church choir of older kids when I was only four, and have been singing ever since. There was a very dark period of five years during grad school and immediately following when I wasn’t part of any choral group and I longed to find a choir to sing in again. There literally was an emptiness in my life, and a kind of desperation to fill the void.

But I had to find just the right a’cappella group who liked to sing the same repertoire I do, and it had to be comprised of people who weren’t afraid to challenge themselves with tough music. I tend to enjoy pre-20th century composers, and I especially like the music written for the great cathedrals of Europe when the Christian church wasn’t afraid of pomp and circumstance. Chanticleer has most recently made this kind of music and singing famous in the U.S., but would you believe there aren’t a whole lot of us out there looking to be in a glorified church choir?

Amazingly, three years ago I found the Lamorinda-based Chorus Cappella right in my own backyard. It’s group of a little over a dozen — although we would love to grow larger — educated and exacting musicians from a variety of backgrounds who like to spend a couple of hours every week pretending St. Stephen’s Church in Orinda is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and querying what Monteverdi or Lotti were intending when they wrote their masses.

I was very fortunate that Chorus Cappella eagerly and warmly welcomed me and my husband (yes, I married another oddball) into their fold and we’ve been happily making music every since. I find that while other activities slip in and out of my life, especially since becoming a parent, I bend over backward to keep the singing spark alive.

The question of “what I do for love” was definitely worth pondering and made me grateful for the gift I have and the people with whom I share it.

What would I do if one day I could no longer sing? I have absolutely no idea.

January 9, 2003

Some art with your Chow?

Filed under: Art and About Art — admin @ 3:13 pm

My mom asked me the other day if my son and I wanted to try out the new Chow restaurant in Lafayette’s La Fiesta Square. I didn’t realize that the space which formerly housed a produce market finally had a new inhabitant. Mom explained to me that Chow was a San Francisco restaurant that purportedly wanted to become a neighborhood restaurant for the folks in Lamorinda.

I admit, I immediately had a preconceived notion of what to expect. With San Francisco predecessors Chow and Park Chow, Lafayette’s Chow probably had tasty food, but could a restaurant with San Francisco roots actually achieve the atmosphere of a neighborhood restaurant out here? I had my doubts.

We picked a table where my toddler could study the physics of a fire crackling in the fireplace, which left me staring at a wall with a piece of artwork on it. It wasn’t until my entrée arrived that I realized the art was done by Lamorinda’s own Marcy Wheeler. I scanned the room and saw that the restaurant was full of Wheeler’s artwork. This new restaurant had immediately entrenched itself as a full-fledged participating member of the community by sharing its walls with an artist in our community. Well, welcome to the neighborhood, Chow!

I have since learned that Chow is more than just a neighborhood restaurant — it’s also a good neighbor. Owner Tony Gulisano is a Lafayette resident who truly values the importance of community as more than just a buzzword. It turns out that Wheeler’s exhibit during these inaugural weeks of the restaurant is the first in a collaborative effort between the Lafayette Arts Gallery and Chow. The gallery, housed in the quaint cottage across the street from Chow, missed the foot traffic that the produce market used to bring. Gallery co-founder Cathy DeForest approached Gulisano about an ongoing relationship between the gallery and the restaurant and she will now be curating the exhibits that will be up on Chow’s walls. So if you stop in periodically to this neighborhood restaurant, you can take a peek at some of the artwork your very own neighbors are producing.

Now that’s the real spirit of community, if you ask me. What I continue to find surprising is how few of our local business owners take advantage of the wealth of visual artists living in Lamorinda. There are some outstanding business owners in our three cities who are in Gulisano’s league when it comes to integrating the many facets of this community into their businesses. I’m not going to name any because I’ll surely forget some, but I can say that I know some of these businesses owners don’t necessarily live within city limits, but they chose to set up their business establishments here because they wanted the spirit of Lamorinda to be part of their business plan.

I have trained myself to be particularly keyed into what is hanging on the walls when I enter just about any structure. Practically every business has walls with something hanging on them. Retail establishments, doctors’ offices, lawyers, accountants, dry cleaners, coffee shops — you name it, they all have the public traipsing through their doors on a daily basis. I sigh when I see a print of the Bed, Bath and Beyond variety on a wall when it is almost as easy to call, say, the Lamorinda Arts Alliance (284-2788) and ask if they can help with finding original artwork to enhance a space. I can understand if you may not want your walls to be an informal gallery, but then consider purchasing a few pieces you like from a Lamorinda artist and essentially donate the free publicity for them. You never know when someone might be coming into your office for a root canal and find themselves connecting with a piece of art from an artist whose work expresses a shared life philosophy. The use of local art on local business walls is one of the simplest symbiotic relationships I can imagine to keep the definition of community alive and well.