March 31, 2005

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 3:55 pm

The art each of us produces is supposed to be autobiographical, but I never thought it would happen to me. Although I live an artful life, much of what I make with my hands I classify more as pragmatic, utilitarian crafts. The greatest message I believe most of my artsy-craftsy projects project is that I am a pragmatic, utilitarian kind of gal. My latest project started out as another practical endeavor but secretly, I was revealing a truth about myself I never knew.

Our hall bathroom has a blank wall directly facing the door. There is a lot of cool family memorabilia in the bathroom, which is our play on the term “family bath,” but you have to walk into the room to see it. We needed something on that blank wall to lure people in, and capture the theme of the room to passersby.

Since it is a bathroom, we decided an attractive medicine cabinet would serve storage needs and be nice to look at. But the piece had to have some history about it. I was fortunate to find a $5 solid oak cabinet at the Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale. It needed some love, but it matched the other woodwork in the room perfectly. Now I needed to turn the practical into an art statement.

A wide, wooden frame surrounding both the mirrored door and the shelving portion of the cabinet were just asking to be carved. The place in my brain that sends up ideas while I take a shower exclaimed, “How about a quote about the importance of family.” Google helped me find the perfect quote by Gail Lumet Buckley: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present and future.” I decided to paint this prose on the mirror and carve all the surnames I could collect from both sides of the family that have contributed to my kids’ bloodline.

I started emailing my relatives and my husband’s relatives and the names started pouring in. The list grew, and I started to carve what I call The Parade of Maiden Names into the cabinet. My name, Engelbrecht, and my husband’s name, Smyth, are centered on the mirror doorframe and the generations of names follow up and down the cabinet.

This process made me examine my name. Although it is a difficult name for Americans to spell and pronounce, there was never really a time in my life that I intended to change it when I got married. My parents would joke that I used to say I hoped I married a man named “Smith” or “Jones,” but I didn’t really wish for that. Besides, I did end up marrying a man named “Smyth,” but no one can spell or pronounce his name either.

I grew up in a very traditional household. I do not consider myself a feminist. It just never made sense to me to change my name. I was born Christina Engelbrecht and that’s just who I am. My paternal relatives are a very proud and vocal people and I knew from day one what it meant to be an Engelbrecht woman. When I was in my early 20s, my maternal grandmother wrote a history of my mom’s family. It wasn’t until then that I realized, “Wow, these are pretty cool people and I barely know anything about them.”

While collecting names for the cabinet, I talked to several people on both sides of the family who regrettably had lost track of the family that belonged to their mother or grandmother. Some relatives couldn’t even remember their grandmothers’ maiden names. An extensive family tree on my husband’s side goes back to the 1600s with one surname, and most of the carriers of that name have their wife’s maiden name identified on the tree. But it took a lot more work for me to trace the tree that went with each of those maiden names, even though their ancestral contribution to the family is just as important as the men’s.

A light came on with the cabinet carving that I am not an Engelbrecht woman. I am a Ritter-Engelbrecht woman. Or more accurately, a Roebker-Maetting-Kuhlman-Wagener-Brunow-Bruening-Steege-Sept-Keller-Kudzinskly-Ritter-Engelbrecht woman, and I am not going to forget that.

March 28, 2005

Literary Support For Our Troops

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

Bob Etheredge of Orinda recently reminded me that April is National Poetry Month. I admit, I do not have that marked on my calendar. To hear that it is National Poetry Month immediately brings visions of young suitors courting maidens under the apple blossoms or Bohemians in small, smoky spaces listening to one another bare their souls in verse. I appreciate a good poem when it comes my way, but I rarely seek one out.

Poetry is a fundamental part of life for Bob and his father, Sam. I met the Etheredge boys when Sam edited a compilation of poetry that really struck my fancy. His book, “Poetry for a Lifetime,” is full of famous and beloved poets and their poetry. A lot of the poetry in Sam’s book I knew, and a lot of it I didn’t. Sam prefers a good rhyme to more contemporary experimental poetry, and my old soul agrees with him on that one. Sam also enjoys giving a little history or back story to poems to put them into context, which makes “Poetry for a Lifetime” an interesting and enlightening read, especially if you like history. When I received a copy of “Poetry for a Lifetime,” I read a little bit in bed each night before sleeping, which is something I had never done before. Sam had told me that I would find this practice would produce fulfilling literary moments, and he was right.

Now Bob is expanding my horizons through two new books which pair poetry with some practical tips, stories, star maps, mythology and first aid instructions. One is called “The Camper’s Companion” and the other is “The Military Companion.” They are designed to be books on the go, created to fit in your pocket or your knapsack and be pulled out for a campfire story or a quick moment of sanity during a tour of duty. The books are similar, but “The Military Companion” has a more militaristic flavor with the inclusion of inspiring speeches, war stories, world flags, military information, maps and poker rules.

Both books are fun to read, as well as educational and edifying. I am not a camper, nor have I been in the military. I honestly don’t see tents or fatigues in the same mental illustration as poetry. But I know Sam found great comfort from writing poetry during his service in World War II, and I’ve heard the same tale from military folks who served in wartime and peacetime. I know some of the best poetry gets written when people are experiencing the extremes of emotion. I know some of the best poetry gets read when people are looking for words that voice a strong emotion. These books made me realize that I need to elevate poetry to the pantheon of artistic fundamentals at the human core. I know for many of you, that was already obvious.

MiraVista Press, Bob’s company that publishes these books, has been sending copies of “Poetry for a Lifetime” to troops in Iraq for several months and gotten favorable responses. Now, Bob is giving all of us the chance to support the poetic nature of our soldiers by offering “The Military Companion” and “Poetry for a Lifetime” at half price if they are designated to be sent to Iraq. MiraVista will use names from, send the book to a soldier or Marine and pay for the shipping. MiraVista’s Web site,, has all the details.

For two years I’ve read the signs and listened to the rhetoric “Support Our Troops.” I didn’t know how I could substantially do that, other than clapping in church on Sunday morning when the clergy announces that congregation member so-and-so has returned home safely. But giving a soldier the gift of poetry and prose? That’s the kind of support I can give.

March 14, 2005

Our family Dragon

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

If I had to rank the arts in the order in which they emotionally stimulate me, I would have to put painting near the bottom. It would be miles ahead of, say, rap music, but well below theater, music and movies. I am in awe of people who can speak through paint, but paintings themselves often don’t speak to me.

We have a lot of artwork hanging up in our house. Less than a half of one percent involves brushstrokes of any kind, and that is because my husband has some Asian brushwork in his office.

I brought no paintings into our marriage and my husband brought one. It is entitled “Khisanth’s Lair,” portraying a rather fierce looking dragon guarding his treasure while some armored gents invade his cave. It is a scene from a book my husband enjoyed, although now he can’t remember the title. He bought the painting while in college and paid a small fortune, in college-student terms. The Dragon, as we call it, hid in a box for several years awaiting a wall of honor in our first home.

I didn’t like The Dragon when I first saw it. Not only did I find the subject a bit frightening, but I am not ordinarily a fan of the fantasy genre and the painting underscored the nerdy side of my husband. But when we bought our first house, my husband announced his intention to hang the dragon. I had to acquiesce, although I requested it be hung in his office.

I couldn’t control how my husband felt about the painting, but I could control the environment in which it was hung. The walls of Khisanth’s cave are deep blue and artist Tom Denmark painted them as if candlelight is casting light and dark blue ellipses around the lair. I imitated those elliptical shade variances using a faux finish on the walls of the office so that it was as if the whole room was Khisanth’s lair. This made the setting acceptable to me, even if the painting wasn’t.

The Dragon hung to the side of the office computer, and as I used to wait for something to download, or for writer’s block to clear up, I would stare at it. I began to admire the painter’s technique, making the coins and gems of Khisanth’s treasure glisten in the light through manipulating color and shape on a flat canvas. At moments, I was convinced that if I could touch that treasure through the framed glass, the coins and gems would feel authentic. I still wasn’t a fan of the painting, but I appreciate the talent behind it.

When we moved to house number two, the family office was downstairs while the main living floor was upstairs. We decided to hang The Dragon over my desk in the living room. But we moved from that house in only 10 months, and The Dragon was packed away in its box.

Its intended destination in house number three was back in the office, but two years passed and something kept us from hanging it. It was always way down on the weekend to-do list.

Over the last several months, we have been converting a spare bedroom to a library. One wall is perfect for The Dragon so we took it out of hiding last month and hung it. We stepped back to admire it. My husband had a satisfied smile, my son squealed with delight, my daughter said “Whoa!” and I cried. It felt like a reunion with an old friend whom I hadn’t even realized I missed. Now our treasured Dragon is on the job guarding our treasured family books.

March 1, 2005

What would we do without creative managers?

Filed under: Art and About Creativity — admin @ 2:26 pm

The big awards season for movies and music was accompanied by the usual press criticisms of award winners for thanking their agents, lawyers, accountants and managers on national television. I am continually baffled by this criticism.  The winning actor, musician or filmmaker is merely thanking all the people who helped him or her live a successful, artistic life. Those gifted in the arts often are not talented in knowing how to share their gifts with the public without an organized support team behind them. The creative support teams for artists are also visited by muses.

Pediatrician Samuel Lewis of Lafayette is never at a loss for creative ideas to help promote young people in the performing arts. The long time fan and supporter of Belasco Theatre Company in Walnut Creek tirelessly promotes Belasco’s shows, its performers and its outreach program. But he is quick to say that he doesn’t sing or dance himself. Lewis’ gift is knowing the vital importance of getting kids on stage to perform, whether they are from a fortunate home or come from a family who, for myriad reasons, may not be able to give their child a shot at singing and dancing on the stage. Lewis also knows how important it is to give theater tickets to kids who don’t usually get an opportunity to see live theater because he knows seeing live theater can be a transforming experience. And Lewis knows that children who are given a chance to succeed on the stage will often gain the self-esteem, pride and self-confidence required to succeed in school and take that first step to becoming successful in life.

As Lewis says, “There’s some serious big-time talent out there who don’t have a way to share their talents.” It is within the scope of this observation that Lewis’ creative mind shines. Lewis bought some professional DJ equipment and formed the Smooth Motion Disc Jockey Group featuring three outstanding Belasco Theatre Company performing artists, Jonathan Smothers, Dave Abrams and Amber Clay. Smothers and Abrams come from tough backgrounds but have learned to soar via their musical talents. Clay was the top performing arts student at Skyline High School in Oakland last year.

Smooth Motion has been getting into motion performing at private and corporate parties. Using music from Shania Twain to show tunes, they play songs, sing and dance, do some karaoke and basically keep a party in high-gear fun. The money they earn from these gigs is going to their college funds.

This part of Lewis’ idea is great, but a Lewis idea is always multifaceted. Now that Smooth Motion is earning some money, they are starting to host dance parties for local seventh through tenth grade, to give young people who aren’t old enough to drive a safe and fabulous night of entertainment. But it doesn’t stop there. These dance parties are also fund-raisers for non-profit organizations. The first dance benefited the Step Up for Kids Foundation. A couple of bucks from each ticket went to the foundation. This spring there will be three dances to raise money for the new Lafayette Library.

Lewis’ idea is inspired and inspirational at so many levels. He has given Smothers, Abrams and Clay the chance to share their talents and earn money for college doing what they love. Smooth Motion is using their talents to give back to the community through fundraisers. Local kids have a safe place to dance and party away from school and home so they can be free to express themselves. Kids who attend the dance can be empowered by watching the success of their peers in Smooth Motion. And the kids attending the dance get the message that they are important enough to deserve live performers who go beyond simply playing CDs to singing and dancing at a party in celebration of youth and the arts. A volunteer manager who provides this opportunity for our kids deserves a lot of thanks from us all.