The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The Day We Almost Met (Women in Shakespeare)

The day Mia and I almost met was Super Bowl Sunday, 2008. We were living in Boston, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, and neither of us was a football fan. It was Mia’s birthday, and all of her friends (affectionately, I’m sure) ditched her to go to Super Bowl parties. They invited her, of course, but she couldn’t think of a more hateful way to spend her birthday, so she decided to take herself, alone, to the theater to see a play. I’m a baseball fan; football has no appeal for me, and I also decided to skip the whole thing and take refuge in taking myself, alone, to the theater.

Mia’s play was Women in Shakespeare. Mine was Angels in America. We were in the same building on the same afternoon. We could have passed each other in the hallway, at the ticket window, at intermission. After her show, Mia treated herself to dinner in a restaurant nearby, seated in the window. I walked by this restaurant, next to that window, on my way home. We didn’t see each other.

The reason I know all this is because we did meet, 17 days later. Our separate Super Bowl outings came up in conversation and the landmark of her birthday and the Super Bowl allowed us to pinpoint it exactly. The odds, they seem incalculable. It’s still incredible to me.

We decided we’d always celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, though we call it The Day We Almost Met, and we promised ourselves that no matter what we did, it would never involve football! That part of the deal is easy to keep.

I spent the night before TDWAM in the studio, and painted this. We spent the actual day apart because Mia is in Italy for the year. (And, like 2008, the Patriots lost. I won’t root against my hometown team though).

Don’t Look Now (or, Watching Horror Movies About Venice, While in Venice)

Don’t Look Now, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie

Going from US Pacific time zone to Venice, Italy was a nine-hour time difference, and I was struggling. My journal states, in a mix of Italian and Spanish: “Io sono en una guerra contra il jet lag!” This meant sleeping half the day (not my style, but I simply couldn’t help it!) and staying awake until 4:00, 5:00 or 6:00 am.

I quickly ran out of guidebooks and other things to read. Italian TV (lots of game shows) is OK only in small doses. After a light skim through news from home (I tread lightly these days) and ruing the lack of activity by the Red Sox in the offseason, I was looking for ways to pass the long nighttime hours.

I remembered an old horror movie I’d watched once, Don’t Look Now, that took place in Venice in the winter. I had vague memories of Donald Sutherland, walking through foggy streets and catching glimpses of a red-coated figure who may or may not have been following him. I found it on YouTube (full version!) and proceeded to watch it on my phone in all its cropped, tinny-sounding glory.

Here’s the thing: I really liked it. Some flourishes feel a little over-the-top in the way that only a film from the 1970s can be (clothing and Sutherland’s facial hair, naturally; the volume of the score, and a sometimes overwrought cutting back and forth to red ink stains symbolizing blood). But the things it gets right are wonderful: tension, grief, scenes of art conservation within the church.

The best part was watching the city of Venice take the stage as an important character. Venice is a city of narrow alleys and canals; it’s entirely for boats and pedestrians, and it’s made up of glances. Indoors, yes, you can stand in a church and stare at artwork as long as you want, but outside…You catch glimpses of people before they turn down another alley…they cross your path up ahead and are visible for just a second before the wall blocks them from your view again…a boat passes by and then you’re looking at its stern as it heads away from you. That kind of looking is foreign to Americans, where country roads provide an approach and city blocks are long. We’re used to having the time to visually consider our surroundings. The movie really captures the sense of how things move in Venice – and capitalizes on it to generate confusion and tension – things floating by your periphery and they’re gone…on the water, passing by in alleys…you turn around and it’s just gone. Blinks, moments. Which is funny in a place that’s essentially not changed in 500 years.

Buon Natale!

Canaletto, Venice: The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day, c.1733-4.

Buon Natale from Venice, where I’ve gone to meet my wife over the holidays.


My painting!

My painting arrived safely, and one day early! Washington state to Brooklyn!

I didn’t realize how much I was on pins and needles until now.

My understanding is that the drill is charging, and the painting will be hung tomorrow….more anticipation!

Real Art in Real Places: The Bye & Bye, Portland

Real art from The Bye & Bye – bathroom mural!

I absolutely love discovering REAL ART out and about in the world…not poster prints, and not “featured artist” stuff at local bars and coffeehouses, but real art made by a real artist. Something that has been purchased, framed, and is clearly loved.

The Bye & Bye in Portland, OR was exciting because they have real art all over the walls! Every room has several pieces that are framed and/or featured in a special nook that complements the piece, including a large showpiece that defines the entire bar area. All of it is well done, and well, cool.

Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!
Real art from The Bye & Bye – permanent and framed!

Moomins Moomins Everywhere

Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.

Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.

But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.

Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.

Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.

“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”

“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.

Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.

Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.

Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).

Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.

Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.

Painting Goats?!

But what does that mean?!

Driving along the Long Beach Peninsula in our beautiful state of Washington, I saw the above roadside sign, and had to pull an immediate U-turn. “Painting Goats” raises more questions than it answers.

Yes, there really are goats who paint with real art materials on this art studio/working farm. We took a tour with one of the owners. While I would have loved to have seen a painting goat in action, we did see various artworks, and learned about individual painting habits…apparently, some goats are more invested in painting than others. They generally like to imitate their humans, which is how this talent came to light in the first place, but some persist in painting, while some are very quickly ready to move on. We met some of the goats too.

We bought a small painting for a Christmas tree ornament.

Another first-time experience: we dug up our own potatoes, onions and carrots!

Cullercoats Women

Winslow Homer, Looking out to Sea, Cullercoats, 1882

My dad, who is fond of writing notes and memos, has recently sent two cards in a row from Winslow Homer’s Cullercoats series. We’re both fans of Homer, so maybe there’s nothing more to it. The theme is officially working women (fisherwomen and washerwomen of this British seaside town). But coupled with a recent public speech where he chose to highlight his relationship as Mia’s father-in-law – a proud father-in-law to a lesbian who is married to his daughter – instead of simply introducing himself as my father and leaving it at that, I think these scenes of women together mean a little more to both of us. This one is my favorite, with a dark- and light-haired woman (Mia and me?) in a close, intimate moment on top of the bluff, lost in contemplation, united in their mutual interest of what is happening below.

Debut – Isolier as Knight

Isolier as Knight, Acrylic on wood, 8″ x 10″

This painting is inspired by the character Isolier in the opera Count Ory by Rossini (the recent production by Seattle Opera was called The Wicked Adventures of County Ory).

Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].

In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.

Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.

Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).

This work was also inspired by my recent trip to the Met…and someone asked me if my currently bald head had anything to do with this depiction…am I Isolier???

I don’t know where this work is going…all I can say right now is that this character intrigues me.

Debut – Offering

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x 12”

This painting is perhaps best seen in person, because of its sculptural quality, and because I’ll encourage you to touch this one!

It’s made entirely of found objects, one being the “shelf” which I found on a walk near my house, and the others being pieces of tile flooring, which I found during a swim in Messina, Sicily. They are worn down, like sea glass, and in fact have been in the water since 1908, when an earthquake felled all of the buildings at Messina’s shore. I found a whole bag of this tiles, and didn’t even need to search for them; they’re just there at your feet. Whole hotels’ and buildings’ worth of these artifacts, tumbled into the sea.

That sounds poetic and awful enough for my romantic imagination. But I was thinking about marriage and the sacrifices we all make to keep relationships going. This one starts with a small, yet beautiful, offering. Somehow, that’s not seen or appreciated, or enough. And when that’s the case, there’s another, bigger item that will be offered up next. And then another, that’s more intricate, more beautiful, and bigger, so much so that it’s crowding the edge of the shelf it’s displayed on.

Acrylic, driftwood, sea-worn tiles from 1908 earthquake-induced building collapse, hardware on panel, 12” x12”

For those who know that my wife is living in Italy for a year, this piece might seem like a direct and angry reflection of that “sacrifice”. In fact, this was created earlier, maybe even before we began talking about that particular adventure. For sure, there is some hopelessness and frustration that inspired this piece, but it came from a different time and place. I’m actually enjoying many aspects of being alone this year (and despairing at others, naturally) so please don’t worry about me.

Debut at Art Attack

Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom, Acrylic on wood, 9″ x 12″

This painting made its debut at the last Georgetown Art Attack. Inspired by a story on the tiled floor of the cathedral in Siena which shows Fortuna trying to balance between a shipwreck and a round globe. Yikes.

Met Faves – Van Gogh and *Real* Art History

Van Gogh, La Berceuse, 1888

Visiting Arles, France made a huge impression on me. This is where Vincent Van Gogh had the most productive painting period of his life – one of the most productive of any artist’s life, in fact. Almost everything he painted at Arles is recognized as a masterpiece, and is recognizable by even casual observers: his bedroom, sunflowers, the cafes. It’s where his palette took on the bright yellows that we recognize as classic Van Gogh. It’s where he realized a dream of creating an artist residency, so to speak; Paul Gauguin came to join him to paint in the bright sunlight, and was his roommate. It’s also where Van Gogh really began to descend into madness.

Standing in this room in the Met, there were at least five van Goghs around me that were painted in Arles. It was easy to picture these, and dozens more, hanging on the walls of Vincent’s cottage, and stacking up along the wall. I was in New York, and I was in Arles at the same time.

Seeing La Berceuse was difficult. This was the painting he was working on right before his major breakdown. You’ve heard of it – he cut off a piece of his ear, possibly threatened Gauguin, who moved out, was committed to an asylum for the first time, and spent the rest of his life actively battling mental illness – while continuing to paint, of course, even if it was the hallways and grounds of his asylum.

La berceuse meant “lullaby”, literally, the woman was rocking a cradle, by means of the small rope that you see in her hands, which was tied to the cradle that lies outside of the picture frame (if you didn’t know the backstory, you might not even wonder what the string in her hands was). Van Gogh painted a series of these (he said this particular version was the best) and struggled mightily…he explained his inspiration for the painting, which was much larger than any person would divine on their own by just looking at it. He wanted something to comfort sailors who were at sea in horrible storms; he envisioned creating an entire altarpiece of multiple berceuse paintings, with sunflower paintings as candelabras scattered amongst the soothing images of lullabies and rocking cradles (albeit, invisible cradles). Vincent often used the metaphor of stormy seas to describe his own feelings of being overwhelmed and adrift, so it’s fairly obvious that he wasn’t just talking about local sailors, but also himself. So, there was much riding on this project for him personally and artistically. His various stresses converged – the stress he felt over this very high-stakes (for him) project, the stress on his body because he wasn’t taking care of himself and drinking too much, and the stress of learning that his own behavior was driving Gauguin to depart from their shared artistic experiment in Arles.

And so, he snapped. On Sunday, December 23, 1888, he cut off his ear (or at least a part of it). Gauguin, although he was at a hotel that night due to the tension in the house, has described the blood spatter evidence, so we know that Van Gogh either cut himself in front of La Berceuse, or cut himself in another room, then went to stand in front of it.

What a loaded painting. I don’t care for it, visually; I don’t think it stacks up to his best Arles work – which I was surrounded by, at least five or more in a ten-foot radius. But this is art history right in front of me.

Met Faves That Wouldn’t Let Go

Gertrude Stein, by Pablo Picasso, 1905 – 1906

The standouts for me, the ones I just stood in front of, and stood, and stood. Where crowds come, and you wait it out, and then you can be alone, just you and the painting. Then the crowd again, because everyone feels something special in front of these works; they’re famous for a reason.

Is Gertrude Stein my favorite portrait of a woman, done by a man? Maybe. Picasso really understands her. She looks cultured, and wise, and capable of taking on anything (managing artist salons, the War, living as a lesbian). Those hands are simple yet beautiful. The slight Cubism of the eyes also feels just right.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1660-1662

I stood in front of this painting for a very long time. I felt like this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. (And of course, the photo doesn’t do it justice). I was in a room with four other Vermeers…in a world where only 34 are known to exist, this felt like heaven. What a privilege.