June 18, 2004

Journey of a Reformed Arts Snob

Filed under: Art and About Me — admin @ 4:02 pm

I’m a performing arts snob. People who perform dance or music or acting in a formal theatrical setting with a designated stage carry more weight with me than street performers, folks dressed up in animal suits at Disneyland, mariachis or magicians. Puppeteers barely make the cut, existing on the fringes of “legitimate theater” along with ice shows. I’m not saying this arbitrary hierarchy is appropriate, but it is a construct in my head that has been bolstered by the fact that I haven’t ever found myself connecting with performers outside the four walls of a building that has the words “theater” or “amphitheater” in its name. A lot of people do connect with the performers I’ve mentioned. And it’s not to say that I haven’t stopped and admired the talent of someone performing outside the conventions of my mind, but I haven’t gotten chills or cried or laughed due to their talents.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey-style circus is on the top of my cringe list. I think it’s because of the clowns — if a show has clowns, it can’t possibly be high art (please, no letters about Commedia del’Arte. I haven’t rationalized that yet). The animal acts don’t help any.

Last summer, my son, Tyrian, went to the circus with his grandparents and ten months later, it still comes up regularly in conversation. He was two-and-a-half at the time and everything about the show tickled his fancy. He chatters on about the animals and the ringmaster and the acrobats and the dancers and the music and yes, the clowns. He still pores over the over-sized 70-page souvenir program narrating the highlights of the show and asking if he can go see it again. Since he is comprised of no less than 50 percent of my DNA, this reaction astounds me. Definitely a triumph of nurture over nature.

Since Tyrian is now three-and-a-half, his father and I decided it was time to take him to his first big-time musical, “The Lion King.” I was certain that if he liked real elephants, he would surely love people dressed up as elephants.

I may be the first to go on record saying that “The Lion King” is not a great show. I agree with the rest of the world that director Julie Taymor’s theatrical interpretation of the movie is brilliant, but the story itself is quite boring, and the show suffers from a slow downhill slide beginning right after the invigorating opener, “Circle of Life,” hits its last note. Tyrian loved the opening number, and he clapped enthusiastically throughout the show after all the fast songs. He wiggled through the slow songs. When the show ended, he seemed more excited about going home on BART than the spectacle he had just experienced. Before leaving the theater, his dad forked over $10 to the souvenir program seller because I wanted to give Tyrian every opportunity to relive the theatrical event.

In the past two months, Tyrian has never cracked the spine on that program. He’ll politely answer “yes” when adults ask him whether he liked the show, but he has only spontaneously mentioned it once to me while we were passing a BART train on the freeway.

The circus, however, continues to come up. So I took a moment to read about the circus performers who so profoundly sparked my son’s imagination. They are dancers, singers, performers and athletes whose bios read very similarly to the credits of “The Lion King” cast. They have triumphed over “the legitimate theater” by touching the heart of my open-minded son, and giving his mom a lesson in what it means to be a performing artist.

June 7, 2004

The Happy Faces at Costco

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:01 pm

If you ever shop at Costco in Concord, you may have run into Michael, the grinning gentleman who stands at the exit and double checks that the items on your receipt match the items in your cart. Michael has been a leader in the Happy Faces Art Movement at Costco. In lieu of slashing a highlighter line across the exiting receipt to show it has been given the once-over, Michael began drawing happy faces on receipts about a year ago and now the whole Costco door staff follows suit.

Those happy faces bring immense joy to my children, who anxiously await the end of our shopping trip when they can ask the door attendant to draw a happy face. All Michael’s colleagues do it now, and what is delightful for me is that the happy face on our receipt is invariably mirrored in the faces of the Costco employee doing the artwork.

Everyone’s happy face is a little different. Michael does the traditional circle with dots for eyes and nose, and an upturned mouth. But like handwriting, the variations on the theme appear to be infinite. I have learned that any combination of shapes, scribbles, zig-zags and swirls can be combined to make a happy face. Since personally I have never investigated the possibility of developing a signature happy face, I sometimes wonder where my artistic voice would lead me if I got to stand at a door day after day honing a beaming icon.

One trip, my kids and I were privy to a conversation between two door watchers. A young man had decided to break the shackles of convention and draw flowers instead of happy faces on his customers’ receipts. Without missing a beat, his female colleague asked what kind of flower he was going to draw. He thought maybe he would do a tulip with a short stem and two leaves. The woman wondered aloud whether a flower would be as universally well received as a happy face. The man firmly defended the flower idea declaring it was definitely a picture everyone would enjoy. Yes, this was an actual conversation.

The happy faces at Costco are a heartwarming touch of humanity amid the sterile warehouse environment of megastore commercialism. They provide an intimate topper to an impersonal shopping experience among the hundreds of crates and stacks and overfilled shopping carts. Costco is the last place I would expect to make an artistic connection with someone, but with those happy faces, the people who stand at the door instantly change from nameless employees to fellow human beings.

I’ve wondered if the impact of the happy faces would be as significant to me if I lived at a time when communication was still generated primarily by the human hand. I’ve always felt there’s an intangible personal connection when something has been physically touched by another person before coming into my hands, such as a letter or note or piece of art.

My son recently got a handwritten letter from his aunt and uncle asking him if he wanted to become their penpal. A follow-up note to me said that they didn’t mind if the letters were email or snail-mail. For a moment, I thought about how much easier it would be to have my son dictate emails to me. But then I remembered how excited he got when that letter arrived in the mail, and how he carried it everywhere he went. I think through that letter, my son felt his aunt and uncle had physically spanned the 3000 miles to connect with him. That human connection is what life is all about. We will definitely be sending a handwritten reply.