Vermont Studio Center: Some History

In the Red Mill Gallery: Founders Jon Gregg and Louise von Weise are at left.


Here’s an interesting article about the Vermont Studio Center and its founders, Jon Gregg and Louise von Weise. Although it was written in 2002 and some of it is a little outdated, it gives a good sense of the feel of the place.

Although meals are no longer only a half-hour in length, It’s still true that the program is noncompetitive. Laptops and cellphones still aren’t allowed in the dining area, or even on the first floor of the Red Mill. Although it makes me sound very 20th-century, I appreciate this. Other residents and I have spoken about how liberating it is to be released from the pressure of having to check your cellphone all the time. (Or, in my case, if you’re not checking, of having to explain why not!).

This is a wonderful place. It was described last night during a reading by author Michael Steinberg as a “magical kingdom”. This comes through in the article, so check it out!

Vermont Studio Center: Meditation House

The Vermont Studio Center has a building devoted to meditation 24 hours per day, and a group meditation begins every morning at 7:30, for those who are so inclined. I’m a beginner when it comes to meditating but in the spirit of rejuvenation and sparking the creative spirit, I resolved to meditate on a regular basis.

The Meditation House is just behind the Red Mill, and on the first two mornings, I walked through the dewy grass in the cool early morning light to get there.

These meditations aren’t guided, which means that although the group sits together and may begin and end together, there is no further structure, no guide who provides instruction, leads the group or makes suggestions for a focus point.

As a beginner, structure is helpful for me since I don’t have the discipline yet to get my mind “there” without it. Left on its own, my mind was like a puppy, playfully scampering all over and not doing what I wanted it to do, which was to sit still.

I’m borrowing this analogy from Jon Gregg, who, along with his wife Louise von Weise, founded the Vermont Studio Center. In fact, I stole the analogy outright from a talk he gave on meditation and creativity. After my two meandering meditations, I hoped he might be able to enlighten a beginner like me about the necessary discipline, and shed light on how meditation might help in making artwork.

Jon said that our brains process about 90,000 thoughts per day. I did the math–that’s more than one per second, including during sleep. Because our brain will look for more “good” thoughts, and try to avoid more “bad” ones, we might often find ourselves caught up in circular arguments, overthinking, and/or getting wound up by our emotions. At the very least, this gathering and pushing away takes alot of energy.

The over-analytical and over-emotional habits that our brains have developed can lead us to create melodramas for ourselves. One example that he gave goes like this:

A resident at VSC feels the signs of a cold coming on. The resident says No way. I can’t believe this. I made such careful plans to come here and counted on it. I took time off from work. I spent all day on the train to get here. I’m going to lose a whole week and I’m not going to feel good and how am I going to make the special soup that I always have when I get sick. I’m going to be wasting time. I’ll get less work done. I’m off-schedule already. Etc etc.

These circular and anxious conversations are a familiar scenario to me. They don’t accomplish anything. This person is still going to have the cold, and hasn’t done anything to accept it or get over it. Anyway, the cold will go away on its own and life will go on.

Related to artistic production, Jon said that these types of (often internal) conversations can also be constricting. The anxiety can be directed not only toward the mark-making that you do as an artist, but also toward who might be watching. This could include what someone who is casually walking by the studio might think if they happened to catch a glimpse of a piece that’s in an unfinished, vulnerable state (guilty). This could be something entirely imaginary, such as what would your advisor from grad school say if he saw you working this way (guilty). Or something really far-fetched and non-productive, like how does this mark fit into art history as a whole (guilty). Guilty guilty guilty!

Why should an artist be worrying about any of those things, when the first order of business is actually to commit that mark to paper/canvas/etc. If you haven’t even done the work yet, you can’t be worried about who might see it and what they might think if they did.

Where meditation can apparently help with ending these circular conversations is to keep you grounded in the present because it’s about awareness and noticing things. If you’re quiet enough to see what’s going on, then you’ll notice things. And if you notice things, you get a little distance on the situation and you can step back.

You’ll notice when you’re having an unproductive conversation with yourself and step back from it. Notice when you’re getting wound up over nothing and step back from it. Notice when you’re being anxious and circumspect about what mark or color to put down next, and get over it.

This noticing and being aware of the present is supposed to allow you to be where you are, if that makes sense, whether that’s in the studio or not. Whatever you’re doing, free it from other narratives. If you’re chopping wood, you’re chopping wood. If you’re carrying water, you’re carrying water. If you’re painting, you’re painting–not worrying about what might happen later, outside of the studio and beyond your control.

Jon said meditation allows you to pare things down to you and what’s essential. Meditation clears out the channel, so to speak, so that can happen, by allowing you to recognize how much you typically clog the channel with thoughts.

In essence, he said it allows you to get out of your own way.

Your breath is your reference point, and paying attention to it creates a dialogue with yourself. Just you, not anyone else.

Sit down (for me, laying down is not an option since it would lead to sleep) and straighten your spine. Don’t be tense. Your jaw should be loose. Hands can go on your knees or be clasped in your lap. Eyes can be open or shut. It’s not about suffering; you can move if necessary. There are less “rules” than I thought. A religious component is not necessary. Candles are not necessary; they were used only because there was no electricity once upon a time. Incense is not necessary; this was used only because people didn’t bathe once upon a time.

Make the body calm. Still the internal chatter.

Your breath will slow naturally. Pay attention to it going in and out. Focus on that. If your mind starts wandering, go back to noticing your breath and don’t berate yourself for having strayed.

Meditation is sometimes called the art of starting again, and I’m not sure if that’s facetious.

After that pep talk, we did a group meditation for ten minutes. Here’s how my meditation went:

A light tap on a metal bowl to signal the start of the meditation. A beautiful, deep sound.

I breathed, and thought about my breathing, as instructed. So far, so good.

I felt the cool air going in and out of both nostrils. Excellent. Excellent noticing, and actually, an excellent sensation. Being able to breathe well through my nose is a novelty for me, since until last month, I couldn’t take in any air through my left nostril.

Noticing this made me think of my ENT, Dr. Stacey Silvers, who performed the surgical procedure.

Uh oh, a meandering thought. No problem, though.

Start again. Still noticing the breath, but disproportionately noticing how it feels in my left nostril. This brings me back to the surgery. Bloody bandages.

All right.

Start again. My nose still hurts a little sometimes, but not too much.


Start again. I’ve gotten past the surgery now, but Jon’s talk has reminded me of some recent melodramas I’ve created.


Start again. Jewelry shopping.

Start again. I can hear others breathing.

Start again. My right thigh twitched.

Start again. Stencilling letters.

Start again.

And so it went, until the gong sounded again to signal the end of the meditation.

The puppy and I need more practice. Stay tuned.

Vermont Studio Center: the Village of Johnson

I’m writing this as I sit by the Gihon River with my feet up on a log, drinking a Canadian beer, wearing a t-shirt. It’s 72 degrees at the end of October in northern Vermont!

Is it cheating to not work in the studio all afternoon? Maybe, but I couldn’t resist; this was a perfect day to take a walk around the village of Johnson.

There are a few trees left with some fall foliage but for the most part, fall peaked about two weeks ago up here. Though most of the trees are bare, there are a few stubborn holdouts and boy am I glad they waited for me.

The colors around town are very dramatic; besides the lingering foliage, many buildings are painted red, yellow or white. So there is a delightful variety and placement of colors at any given time: a red tree in front of a white house. A yellow tree all alone. A red tree against a red building. And like any good fall scene in New England, the reds and yellows play off the green grass and blue sky.

The skies and the river and the hills have tapped into a need in me that I tend to deny and forget…I’ve been hungry for these colors, and to see trees and hear running water. It’s great to feel natural gravel and grass under my feet, as well as man-made touches that I haven’t felt underfoot for a while, like wooden porch boards and carpeting.

Variety is the spice of life, isn’t it?

Besides these personal connections with nature, there are also the communal kind. We save food scraps to feed to local pigs; recycling bins are everywhere and we recycle as a matter of course.

There’s no time to fall in love with New England like a warm fall day when the leaves have changed and the sky is blue.

I’m smitten with this town.

Marvin's Country Store, next to Johnson's Woolen Mills

Vermont Studio Center: Home and Studio

My studio! (The Edda Jakab Studio, Wolf Kahn building)

Welcome to another installment of the Vermont Studio Center Chronicles.

My first day was cold and rainy, so I’ve stuck pretty close to home so far. Let me show you around my house and studio:

They are very central not only to each other, but also to the main campus building (called the Red Mill). Those three buildings essentially form a triangle, and you can walk around all three in about three minutes. It’s fantastic to have no commute! (It reminds of New Bedford, where my apartment was just a short walk from school).

The rumors about no cell phone service are for the most part true, at least for my provider (Verizon, which has lesser coverage here than some others). I’ve found one three-foot radius in the gravel parking lot outside of the Red Mill where I have service, but even there, my call was dropped. I don’t mind this so much, since I’m not one to talk on the phone, but it’s been making it difficult to arrange a drop-off with the carpenter who has been constructing wood panels for me.

A pleasant surprise is more internet connectivity than they originally promised; the studios are now set up for wireless. My studio is huge and full of space and light! That’s where I’ve set up my little blogging operation.

My area of the building used to be a town gym in the 1920’s, with bowling lanes in the basement. There are several different parts to the building since it was originally three different buildings (besides the gym, there were the town offices, and then the town garage in the back). They’ve all been renovated over the years into one structure, albeit with different wings and twists and turns.

Studio door jamb with names of past residents

There are always interesting things to look at in a studio. Here’s the Life Drawing room, where anyone can come to draw a live model.

Life Drawing Room


My house is part hunting lodge, part frat house, and part Grandma’s. Those of you who know me will know that I find that eclectic mix to be absolutely charming! I have my own room but share a bathroom on my floor. (I may do a post on just the bathroom; there’s a lot to see in there). There is a kitchen, but since meals are provided in the cafeteria over at the Red Mill, I don’t think we’ll be using it much.

Diney House, second floor common area

Diney House, another second floor living room

My bedroom


The colors of my room

My bedroom is much bigger than I’m used to in NYC. The wall colors are two different shades of green. I wonder if someone ran out of paint, or bought the wrong color…they are two interesting choices to accent each other, so I’m not sure if that was the intention. The bright green is close to that on a house down the street from my aunt, Sheila, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; whenever we drove by, especially in the winter against the snow, it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. Now that I think about it, it hurt in the summer too, because then the trees and grass were also a bright, but completely different, shade of green. I guess it was hard for the rods and cones to process all that competing greenery! It’s weird but I like it.

There are nice touches, like lots of artwork, either donated or left behind by past residents, on the walls of the house. There’s more heat than I was expecting (in both living and work spaces) but I wouldn’t call it toasty. My New England blood is OK with this, but a sweater and layers are pretty essential.

And now, back to work in the studio! I think I may have finished my first painting last night, but I need to sit with it for a while and make sure today.

My first painting?

Vermont Studio Center: Arrival Day

I hope that the information I plan on posting about my Vermont Studio Center residency will be entertaining (for those of you who are tuning in to find out what I’m doing up here) and useful (for those of you who may be planning to apply for a residency here or elsewhere). I’ll do my best to make it both!

I took the train from NYC and it was a really enjoyable ride, especially with the New England fall foliage on view. There aren’t enough trees in NYC to really gauge when fall arrives, or certainly to appreciate all the changes that take place in the landscape just a few miles away. It was great to look out the window until the sun went down. When we arrived, we saw that there were no leaves left on the trees–we’re so far north in VT (almost to Canada), that autumn has already come and gone here. So, it became clear that those 8 hours spent on the train were the extent of my fall season. And I do realize, as I read that again, how sad that sounds…

It’s wonderful here so far! Stay tuned for more information about VSC and Johnson, about my adventures in the studio, and I also plan a feature about the Mexican restaurant that I can see out my studio window–it’s run out of someone’s home!

I’m off to my first artist’s reception–cheers!

Taking a Leap: An Interview on the Creative Life with Liz DeBetta

I recently spoke about creativity with the multi-talented Liz DeBetta, actress, costume designer, founder of Rosie J. Designs, consultant and coach.

Liz, you’re an actor, you make beautiful costumes for plays.  I know you’ve fairly recently jumped back into this creative life, after being on a break for a while.  Can you talk about how you were able to make a leap back?

Well, that side of me was really dead for a long time due to life and circumstances being what they were for a few years…I was in an abusive marriage and had a chronic illness, so I had a few years where I just physically and emotionally couldn’t continue to go out and audition. I taught high school English during that time–and there’s a lot of creativity in teaching–and I would get involved in small productions of community events here and there.  But for a while there, things were just shut down.  That’s ok, that’s life, that’s what happens, you get through it and move on to the next thing.  It’s kind of a long convoluted story.

It always is…

But it’s why I’m here now.

Did you get healthy and say now it’s time to get back to my creative life?

Well, I founded Rosie J. Designs while I was on medical leave.  My ex-husband said why don’t you do something with scholarship pageants, you love being involved, you’re good with the girls, you have an eye for wardrobe.  And I thought, can I do that? Then someone contacted me about consulting with a pageant contestant–teaching her poise and presence, interview skills, all that stuff.

Out of Order

So that helped to feed your creative life, that part that had been missing?

Absolutely.  I still–there was a long time in between–I ended up having to go back to work full-time, and ended up with a corporate job, which is pretty much the death of anybody creative, I think, because it’s no fun to work with someone constantly over your shoulder and with that much structure and that many rules…

…that aren’t your own because in your creative life, you’re the boss.

Yes, absolutely. Creative people tend to thrive in less-structured environments where they can utilize the creative side of themselves to problem-solve and get the job done.

 So then what happened?  Did you have some kind of wake-up call?

I had finally hit a point where I kept saying to myself, I need to get back to acting, really, I need to do something.  Simultaneously, my marriage wasn’t working. I would go to work and start to cry for no reason.  And then I had a panic attack one day driving to a meeting. I pulled into the parking lot and I thought I was dying.  And that was my wake-up call that something was seriously wrong.  That was my body telling me you have to stop, you have to re-assess, and you have to fix yourself.  This is not your life.

I decided to leave my marriage and then at the same time I got laid off from my job, without warning.  So to me that was the universe saying go ahead Liz,  [making gesture of washing hands] start over.  Make your life what you need it to be now.

Danton's Death

So the lay-off was good news.

Absolutely.  I mean it wasn’t [makes face]–because great, I’m leaving my husband, I have to move and pay all the bills…but once I got over the initial shock, I thought no, this is good because I can really leave it all behind and get back to the things that feed me on a creative and emotional level.  So that was really the culminating point.

So what did you do?

I said I’m going to move back to New York and figure it all out, one day at a time.  And that’s the thing as an actor:  it’s really important is to listen to your instincts and follow your impulses and let things happen as they happen as opposed to thinking ahead too much.  I tend to overthink.

I think I’m hearing you say that if you’re too rigid about your plan…

Absolutely.  It’s a loose plan.  Sometimes my plan is day-to-day or week-to-week.  And that’s OK.  I’ve been learning to let go of this idea that I have to have a straight path.  My path has never been straight.  Lots of loops and turns and detours…yeah, I’ve taken a lot of detours! [Laughs].  And they’re generally not dead ends which is a good thing.  It’s just getting me to the next place.  It took a little while longer but something happened which was valuable along the way.

Do you get any flak from people who don’t understand why you don’t just take the straight path?

I’m fortunate that my parents are both creative people, they have backgrounds in theater, and they directed tons of plays.  I grew up going to rehearsals with my parents from the time I was five years old.  We just thought we were so special, my brother and me; it was like, Yay, we get to go with Dad to rehearsal today!  My parents took us to Broadway from age five or six; they really immersed us in a lot of art and culture.  So they understand my need to be creative, I think they knew it from the time I was small that I wasn’t going to be like other people.  My mom always said to me–she was an English teacher:  “To thine own self be true”.

They still worry though…and I’m like you know what?  I’ve been really happy in my life since I moved on.  I haven’t been sick.

That was my next question.  It sounds like you didn’t even look back.  You’re not second-guessing.

No, why would I?  I am so happy.  [Laughs] Just happy to be alive every day and to have met so many wonderful people in this past year and to get back to the things that make me tick.  You can always find a way to make money; there are ways.  Not everybody needs to have the same direction.  The world would be really boring if that were the case.

When people have a problem with the path they’ve chosen, I think it comes more from fear than from anything else.  People think they have to take a certain path or a straight line.

People sometimes say: “What are you doing with your life?  What do you mean, you don’t have a real job?”  I do have a real job!  My life is my job!

An Ideal Husband

Alot of people say to me, “Oh I wish I could be an artist but I just can’t…what would my mom say, or what about my car payments?”  There’s always something holding them back, but it’s not them.  It’s their mom or their car.

It’s a fear of the unknown.  “What’s going to happen if I do this?”  Well, what’s going to happen if you don’t?  Then you end up living a life, or what I consider half a life–you’re existing and you’re doing your things day to day but is that really your purpose?  You know what, what’s the worst that could happen? [Shrugs]  You go back and you do what you were doing before.  But at least you tried.  At least you gave yourself the opportunity to see what the possibilities are.

 What were some things you had to do in order to re-enter the creative world?

I’d been out of the loop for so long–I didn’t have headshots anymore, my resume was kind of old–[exasperated whooshing noise], what am I going to do?  Well, I had a photographer friend who said “Hey, I have some new camera lenses I want to play around with, why don’t you come down to my studio and I’ll take some pictures of you so I can practice”.  So that worked out, now I have that piece in place.  What do I need to do next?  I have another friend from high school and we reconnected, and he said “Oh, do you know about Central Casting?  We should go one day and get in the registry and then we can at least do some background work”.  OK great.  So that happened.  I did a little Law & Order.  I really firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and that it all works out.

Danton's Death

You already know this because you’re my friend, but a conversation we had a few weeks ago gave me a kick and made me ask myself some big questions. I decided to leave a really unhappy job that I’ve had that I was afraid to leave–going back to that fear thing.  I’m not second-guessing it, but I guess I’m looking for tips!

First, always have faith in yourself and the choice that you made, that it was the right choice.  It‘s taking a leap of faith and investing in yourself.  Sometimes I get really overanxious and worried about what’s happening, and what’s the next thing, am I going to be OK next week or next month.  I have to pull myself back, take some deep breaths.  We have things that are in our control and things that are out of our control.  This is my advice:  remember the things that you can control.  You have control over what you do on a daily basis and as long as you’re doing something every day to work toward whatever your goal is, then you’re going in the right direction.

You have to trust in your ability to be open.  I think more people need to be open.  We get closed off to so many opportunities because we’re afraid…you definitely couldn’t have moved forward because you were stuck.  It drains your energy and you don’t have the focus and energy you need for your creative pursuits.

I’ve noticed that.  My time is exactly the same because I’m still at my job for now, but more ideas come to me now.  It was like a drain got unclogged.

Like at my corporate job, I was running somebody else’s business which ultimately was running me.  I didn’t have time or energy for anything else.  You’re in the job for the health insurance or the paycheck every two weeks and it ends up being counter-productive.

I love having something different to do every day now.  One of my friends said: “God bless, because I couldn’t do it.  I need to know what I’m doing every day and at what time”.  Some days I’m just reconfiguring my website or sending emails or doing technical or administrative stuff, but it’s all on my terms.

Part of being able to make a leap back into a creative life is being self-aware and knowing that this [pointing for emphasis] isn’t working anymore, this isn’t where I’m supposed to be.

What was it like to be back?

Well, I said all right, I’m ready to audition for theater again.  I got a call [to audition for Happy Hour:  Sex, Relationships and Sometimes…Love] and I thought well, this is not like anyting I’ve ever done before, ever.  I’m classically trained, I have a background in musical theater, Shakespeare, serious stuff, I’ve done really pithy plays, and then here I was doing this crazy, farcical…

…almost improv sometimes…

Yeah, but that’s why I did it, I said this is so far from what I’ve done, it’ll just be fun, it’ll be an experience.  See what happens. It was me being open.  And then that led to so many other wonderful things:  joining the Michael Chekhov Theatre Company…I got the chance to do Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, some original plays…. sometimes we need to stop and look at what has happened and do a little backtracking to reaffirm that Yes, I am on the right path.  Because this happened, and as a result this happened [making rolling gestures], and then this happened, and then this, and it’s all forward momentum.

Costume design, An Ideal Husband

Please read more about Liz on her website–there are more wonderful things there that she was too humble to mention during the interview–and feel free to contact her through

Chaos and Classicism at the Guggenheim

Or, Classicism, Propaganda…and Jury Duty

Otto Dix, Skin Graft (Transplantation)

I’ve always thought that history could best be taught through art and music.  So cheers to the Guggenheim for putting together a great history lesson with Chaos and Classicism:  Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936. The show blew my mind, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it almost two weeks ago. What follows is a simplified summary, along with some personal digressions:

Wounded Veterans, World War I

We begin in 1918, at the end of the first World War, with 15 million people dead and another 20 million wounded. This destruction was made possible by the debut of weapons of mass destruction such as mustard gas. And yet, many soldiers survived what would once have been mortal injuries because of simultaneous advances in medical technology. Skin Graft (Transplantation) shows a soldier in a hospital bed, awaiting surgery to re-attach his nose and put his face back together.  This is the dilemma facing the world in 1918: modern technology has literally broken this man apart; modern technology will also attempt to fix him.

This was a difficult bargain to live with, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the chaos and destruction of the war (seen here etched on the body but also having taken its toll on the land and on the psyche of Europe), led to a desire for solidity and security. In this context, looking back to the distant past was reassuring.

But artists had to reach way back. The art movements which had been in vogue before the war (such as Cubism, Expressionism and going a bit further back, even Impressionism) seemed too ephemeral, dealing with fragmented reality and moments in time.  There was a renewed desire to show stable “things” (like figures, and still life objects) rather than abstract ideas.  Figures were depicted as idealized beauties, harking back to those seen in Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) statues: physically perfect, muscular, almost hairless (the better to showcase each muscle), young. Whole.This was a far cry from the scars visible in the real world of 1918.

The show called this the desire for “a more durable self”, a nice turn of phrase. You can see the shift clearly in Picasso for example, as he moved from Cubism with its pointy edges and shifting perspectives, to this solid, simple, Classical beauty.

Picasso, Woman Playing Mandolin, 1910

Fernand Leger, Woman Holding a Vase, 1927

Other Cubists like Fernand Léger also couldn’t resist the turn back to Classical, sculptural figures:  he nods to Greek architecture here not only with the vase shaped like a Greek column but the figure itself: her solidity, rigid posture, even the pleats of her dress are reminiscent of a column with flutes.  But there is a clear updating of the figure as well:  she is stylized and sleek for the machine age, with a breast like a cannonball and fingers like pistons.


Emile Jacques Ruhlmann sofa
1920's Fashion

The return to Classical aesthetics was reflected not only in painting and sculpture, but in dance, furniture design, photography, fashion, film, and architecture. Note the scrolled arms of the sofa, like the capitals of an Ionic Greek column as well as the gauzy white dress, so similar to what the goddesses of Greek statuary wore.

Which brings me to a particularly arresting point of the exhibition–how the desire for more stability in the years after WWI, reflected in the art of this time, led to increased nationalism in the arts, even to the point of propaganda as political leaders began to use the arts to advance their own causes. The exhibition shows how the Classical aesthetics were reconstituted for the purpose of the Fascist and Nazi regimes, taking on a new life in service of their agendas. Artists who did not adhere to the program were in trouble.  The Germans even had a name for this–Degenerate Art–and a method of dealing with it, but that’s for another post.

Architecture provides an illustrative example, especially in Italy where Mussolini actively worked to redesign Rome in order to put his visual and ideological stamp on it.  It’s possible there, and in Sicily, to compare examples of Classical architecture with nearby Fascist buildings, and to see the common lineage, while also identifying the differences in style and agenda.

Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro, EUR, Rome

Even though Classical Greek art and architecture can be massive in size, they were always developed on a human scale using a strict proportion that governed height to width. The Greeks, and the Romans who copied them, endeavored to always make their architecture accessible to the eye and human frame (the Parthenon was designed to house a large statue of Athena so always had the human body in mind from its inception). The Greek aesthetic was to inspire awe through beauty. Decorative touches such as friezes and statuary placed above and within the architecture were designed to enliven the structures, and further delight the human eye.

In contrast, the architecture developed under Mussolini shows no grace, no sign of a human touch, such as a tapering of a column or a decorative capital at the top of a column. This human element was removed from governmental architecture in particular in order to signify the absolute strength of the government. Buildings take on a massive, dehumanizing, impersonal look which dwarfs the individual. Mussolini’s architecture program was especially active in the south of Rome, in a neighborhood now called EUR and in Palermo, Sicily. I’ve visited both, and the contrast between these buildings and others based on the Classical (the Colosseum, the Pantheon, temples at Greek sites such as Agrigento and Siracusa in Sicily–not to mention Greek ruins on Greek soil) is marked. There is no detail where the eye may linger, seemingly no room for a human body. The sense that the individual is alone against a monolith is overwhelming. It looks and feels cold and unfriendly and alone.

While we’re talking about ancient Greece and architecture, let’s pause to mention my current surroundings.  I’ve already mentioned that the exhibition had struck a chord with me in the way it was able to illuminate history and the connection between art and historical events. Coincidentally, I was summoned for jury duty and found the message driven home in an even more thorough way.

NYC, Supreme Court Building, 60 Centre St.

I’m writing this as I sit in the jury pool room at 111 Centre Street, where Classical Greece, nationalism, and my present day experiences have all intersected. References to ancient Greece have been the order of the day here at the courthouse. An orientation film shown in the morning mentioned Aristotle several times, and lovingly lingered over images of courtroom decor, featuring paintings of figures copied from Greek vases.

I look out the window and see elements of Classical architecture in Lower Manhattan: white stone buildings with friezes along the tops, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, rooftop statuary with flowing robes (does it sound like the Acropolis yet?), arches and rotundas–all harking back to the Classical aesthetic of Greece and Rome. All communicating the lofty ideals of Order, Reason and Law. In this part of town, dominated by court buildings and police headquarters, it makes sense that the architecture would also be deployed in the service of encouraging law and order.

Statue Atop NYC Municipal Court Building

I’ll be the first one to say that the references to ancient Greece in the film were ennobling and tapped into a sense of undeniable patriotism and duty within me (as they were certainly designed to do). Yet, there is also more than a tinge of nationalism on display: in the orientation film, past jury members (real or actors, I don’t know) pose in front of the same architecture I can see out the window, and praise a sense of patriotism inherent in the legal process, and the ennobling of spirit that comes from performing one’s duty in a society bound by the rule of law. One woman comes out and says what others have only implied: “America has the best system in the world”.

Over at 60 Centre Street, where I was brought into another jury pool, the building’s interior and exterior echoed even more dramatically the Classical aesthetics.  In addition to the columns inside and out and other elements of Classical architecture, there is more Classically-inspired artwork on display inside.  (Even the minor wall decorations feature acanthus leaves, which were prominent in Classical artwork).

Note the Corinthian columns supporting the rotunda at bottom, and the Greek figure at bottom center, right

The walls of the jury room on the fourth floor are filled with painted canvases glued to the wall to seem like ancient frescoes.  The paintings are of historical scenes of clipper ships in New York’s harbor, horse-drawn carriages on the city’s streets, a map of New Amsterdam (as New York City was once called), the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and a street scene with citizens in tri-corner hats in front of Federal Hall with its Classical columns and pediment.  These are attempts to idealize the past and make it relevant to the current day in order to encourage civic engagement.  Downstairs there is a rotunda ringed with Corinthian columns and capped with an elaborate and colorful ceiling fresco which draws together many figures from history.  Included in the assembly are famous judges such as King Solomon, as well as an ancient Greek (identifiable by his white robes) and the Roman emperor Justinian. Pilgrims, and other identifiable Americans such as Washington and Lincoln are also included in the tableau, with a turkey and bald eagle painted on pedestals as though they were stone statues in the Greek style.  The idea is to include Americans in a long line of great thinkers and doers, and by extension, to reach out to those with business in the court building (such as jurors like me) and include them too in this stately company.  Again, to encourage lofty ideals and behavior such as civic engagement, all with a nationalistic tinge.

So my experiences in the court buildings show me that the turn back to the ancient past for purposes of inspiration still works today, and manages to support our own feelings of nationalistic pride and patriotism.  As I mentioned, the ideas put forth in the Guggenheim show continue to percolate and prove themselves to still be relevant.

Leaving architecture and returning to the fine arts, images of physical perfection shift during the strengthening of the Nazi and Fascist regimes during the 20’s and 30’s and become displays not just of strength and bodies in their prime, but displays of brute force. This was in keeping with the might of the dictatorships in Germany and Italy during this time, and a symbol of the gearing up for World War II. Men are often overly muscled, mask-like to the point of seeming dead inside, or faceless; figures are oversized.

Mario Sironi Manifesto 1932


Take a look at this photo of Mussolini with his helmet, and then the sculpture of Mussolini called Profilo contino del Duce (Continuous profile of Mussolini), from 1933 by Renato Bertelli.  It is Classical and sleek, and may seem abstract but if you look at the edges, you’ll see it’s Mussolini’s profile, looking in every direction at once. This is symbolic not only of the speed of bullets, cars and machines, but also of his all-seeing, all-knowing nature as dictator.


Take a look also at this painting of a German rowing team from 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics, which was to be a showcase of German power on and off the athletic field. These men are almost grotesquely muscled, having taken the ideal of muscular Greek beauty to an extreme show of might.

Water Sports, Albert Janesch

For me, the scariest–because it’s the most illustrative of the dark strength of Fascism–is the sculptural portrait of Mussolini called Il Duce (Condoltierro [Dux]). Made in 1929 of iron, it is a blend of bullet, phallus, and ancient military helmet all at once, combining multiple symbols of masculine strength but not a shred of humanity. As a symbol of darkness and cold power, this sculpture is also a direct ancestor of Darth Vader’s mask.

Il Duce, 1929, iron, by Thayat

Speeches, sanctioned biographies, and other writings reinforced the link between the Classical aesthetic and the Nazi or Fascist agenda. Mussolini’s mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, in her biography of Mussolini, wrote: “Originality and tradition are not contradictory terms. By returning to the purest traditions…one does not renounce the originality of modern times, but only polishes off the rust and purifies our art of imitative alloys”.

In the context of what was to come in Europe, the word “purifies” makes my blood run cold.

Hitler, similarly, directly linked ancient Greece to Germany in 1936:  “Never was Mankind closer than now to Antiquity in its appearance and its sensibilities”.

The exhibit ends with an excerpt from a film called, appropriately enough, Olympia. It was created by Leni Riefenstahl, famous Nazi film director, using footage from the Acropolis in Greece as well as the Berlin Olympic games in 1936. Over the course of the film clip, haunting but impressive sequences of the Parthenon morph into Greek statuary, with their beautiful faces and pale marble skin. The wall text just outside the screening room, which quoted Hitler as (almost laughably) calling the Greeks “Nordic” and attempting to link them physically and genealogically to the Germans, almost floated in front of me as I watched the camera lovingly caress these pale, perfect faces. Eventually, on film, the statue of a Greek discuss thrower morphs seamlessly into a German athlete in the same coiled crouch, the same cocked arm, the same muscled form. The German then spins, in slow motion, and releases the discus into the sky.

It’s stunning to see this propaganda draw a direct genealogical line from ancient Greece to Nazism, in just a few images.  Those were Hitler’s Olympics, the first time his ambition for Germany (along with his disdain for “non-Aryan” athletes such as Jesse Owens) was unveiled to the world.

This show is on view until January. While this period of artistic development has never been a personal favorite of mine, as a history lesson, it’s priceless.  I guarantee it will keep working on you for days.

88 Years in the Closet

In honor of National Coming Out Day today, I want to tell you a story about my dear friend and pen pal, Loraine Barr.

I first became aware of Loraine via a 2007 essay she wrote for Newsweek magazine called The Love That Will Finally Speak Its Name.

The essay was charming and blunt and heartrending and hopeful.  Loraine described her early dating life (men, though reluctantly), her awakening to her lesbianism in college, her first love, how she was compelled by law and custom to keep this part of herself secret from her family and friends.  Mindful that gay people could be fired from their jobs, and also having felt the sting from close friends who preferred not to know the truth about her and her “roommate”, she and her partner of 44 years never said a word about their relationship.  They even kept separate bedrooms for show.

Can you imagine?  When my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary last year, family members flew across the country to be there.  Speeches were made.  Strangers congratulated them.  And Loraine and her dear Mary were in hiding for 44 years.  I find that terribly sad.

But, she writes:

Finally, after almost nine years since my beloved partner’s death, I am able to do what I could never have braved in earlier years: present myself herewith to the world as a lesbian, along with all the women who ask to be judged by the full facet of our characters.

Why am I now able to speak the unspoken? A friend at the retirement community where I live recently came out in the local and national newspapers. When I saw her do that, I thought, for heaven’s sake, nobody can fire me, I’m 88 years old, my parents are gone.

Still, I was frightened. It took me several days to put this essay in the mailbox. I owe a lot of credit to people who are comfortable enough in their own skins to say, “This is who I am.”

And so she came out.  She said “This is who I am.”  (At age 88!  In a national magazine!)

Loraine’s essay shook me.  She had put her finger on thoughts and feelings and fears that are so universal.  I cried, then I tore the article out of the magazine and put it away.

Periodically, I would re-read it, cry again, and put it back.  Finally, after two and a half years of this, I decided to look Loraine up, to let her know how much her article had moved me.  I wrote her a short note of appreciation, thanked her for her courage, and shared some of the things we had in common–most notably that I too had “the most loved and loving, giving, understanding and delightful partner imaginable”.

Imagine the thrill when Loraine wrote back!  We’ve been corresponding now for some months, and she even mailed me a DVD of a wonderful documentary that was made about her.  It’s called 88 Years in the Closet and was included in quite a few film festivals, won an award for Best Documentary, and aired on PBS.  As you can see from the trailer, Loraine is a delight!  And her story is powerful.

Today, please read Loraine’s article and watch her movie to judge for yourself how far we’ve come.  And please also think of our LGBT youth who have struggled with this decision and its aftermath–especially those in recent days who have been tormented and bullied to death.  I do believe there is strength in numbers.  Happy National Coming Out Day.

If you’d like to order a copy of Loraine’s story, the filmmakers can be reached at

Equality on Trial: Prop 8 Reenactments, Scene 2

Wait No More NYC, a group of New York City activists working for LGBT rights, reenacts testimony from the Prop 8 trial in Washington Square Park. Featuring Maura McGurk, Kris Lew, Eddie Jones, Julia Yoler, Tom Crockett, and Michael O’Day.

Sandra Stier testimony, Part 1:

Sandra Stier testimony, Part 2:

What if a historic trial happened and nobody could see it? This year, Americans could not watch the Proposition 8 trial—Perry v. Schwarzenegger—because Prop 8 supporters successfully appealed to block cameras from televising the trial.

Wait No More NYC, a group of activists lobbying for full equality for LGBT people, brought testimony from the trial to Washington Square Park, with actors embodying the roles of the real-life plaintiffs, lawyers and other witnesses.

Conceived of by Cleve Jones and the Courage Campaign, Equality on Trial allowed everyone to bear witness to the moving testimony that reveals discrimination, but ultimately speaks of love, the hope for equality, and full recognition of the importance of all our lives.

Marisa Tomei, Josh Lucas, Alan Cumming, Patricia Clarkson, and other supporters of gay marriage all over the country have reenacted their own scenes.  See the Equality on Trial website for more information, and to view other reenactments.

Garden Party to Support New Bedford Art Museum

Maura, at the Garden Party, with Feathered Nest artwork

The New Bedford Art Museum is pleased to announce the Garden Party On the Bay on Friday evening, July 23, 2010 hosted by Phoebe and Chip Perry at their Marion home. From 6:00 – 9:00 P.M. guests will enjoy live jazz, strolling on the lawn, sailboat gazing, an open bar and hors d’oeuvres. All proceeds support the educational programs and exhibitions of the New Bedford Art Museum allowing it to continue its mission of engaging the public in experiencing, understanding and appreciating art.

A creative and generous parliament of artists has taken their cue from the Museum’s exhibition Taking Flight!: The Birds of John James Audubon from the Collection of the New Bedford Free Public Library. Organized by Jean Kellaway and Phoebe Perry, each artist has interpreted Audubon in their own media. Their work will be the center of the Museum’s Silent Auction. The Garden Party on the Bay will be a rare opportunity to collect the work of an important area artist and keep the Museum flying at the same time.

Read the full article.

The Sketchbook Project Covered in Chicago Art Magazine

“Brooklyn-based Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project is ephemeral by nature despite its roots in very tangible objects: sketchbooks. The project is designed to engage a number of artists through this versatile medium and eventually create an easily accessible library of innovative and interesting contemporary art for the masses.”

Read the full article at:

McGurk’s sketchbook can be viewed here.

The Sketchbook Project in Time Out Magazine

“Seeing the first draft of a work of art often reveals more about an artist’s motives than their final piece does. For the past four years, the Art House Co-Op has asked artists to share bits of their inner creative lives with a traveling exhibition called “The Sketchbook Project.” The rules are simple: Art House mails out a package containing a blank Moleskine sketchbook and one of 30 themes, and participants interpret that theme in their own styles…”

Read more:

McGurk’s sketchbook can be viewed here.

Check It Out at The Sketchbook Library!

The Sketchbook Project tour is on!

McGurk’s sketchbook can be viewed here.

More information is available here.