The Alphabet Ends at Y…

Sue Grafton

While in Venice with jet lag, awake all night, I learned that Sue Grafton had died. This hit me rather hard. She was an author whom I almost felt like I knew, in the way that you sometimes feel you “know” a celebrity you’ve never met. I introduced myself to her books one day as a fourteen-year-old when I stopped by the library to get a book to read on my lunch hour during a summer job. It was A is for Alibi, recently published. I’ve always been a mystery fan; this one was about a young, female private investigator named Kinsey Millhone who is sassy, street-smart, intelligent, and independent to the point of being almost neurotic. A next-generation Nancy Drew and Miss Marple, living in a parallel universe to Jessica Fletcher, and a soul mother to Veronica Mars, who wasn’t even an apple in anyone’s eye yet. Like me, I’m sure lots of women and girls saw something of themselves in her – as did Ms. Grafton, who admitted that Kinsey was her alter ego. I read somewhere that Ms. Grafton’s inspiration was her divorce – unable to sleep, dreaming up ways to get away with murdering her awful husband after something else he’d done.

I loved all of this, and went back for more. At that time, the alphabet only went to C, so I had to wait a year for each further installment. As the alphabet played out, Kinsey continued to be a feminist role model and pioneer for this new type of female detective. Meanwhile, the books expanded their scope a bit to discuss social issues; in one, Ms. Grafton tries to plausibly recreate and solve a real-life cold case from Santa Barbara, California (the real-life setting for the fictional Santa Teresa). That book’s appendix lays out the facts of the real case, and a plea for information that could bring Jane Doe home to her family, and her killer to justice.

The books became a traditional, yearly Christmas present, a constant way to mark time over the years. Right up through grad school, I was reading the then-current novel (R is for Ricochet) in a hospital waiting room.

Around this time, due to work and school, I fell off from reading the new book as soon as it came out and then pining for a year or more while waiting for the next (the precursor to binge watching Netflix!). Just a month or two ago, I read that Ms. Grafton had published Y, the planned second-to-last book. I made mental plans to catch up with the last 5 or 6 books that I’d missed, and to reread the entire series in the lead-up to the publication of Z.

Then I heard about her death, and I’m sadder than I can say.

After this summer’s publication of Y, she hadn’t yet fleshed out, let alone written, Z. Her daughter said that, given her mom’s (well-known) hatred of adaptations, there would be no ghostwriter or posthumous additions to the series. There is no Z. As the family statement read: “As far as we’re concerned, the alphabet ends at Y”.

I once read that Ms. Grafton called this series of books “my life’s work”, and that struck something in me. As a fellow artist, I feel an ache for an unfinished body of work that was so, so close to being complete. I wonder how Ms. Grafton made peace with it.

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent, 2017

Some thoughts on the movie Loving Vincent

It is both spectacular and maddening.

The plot is ridiculous: Armand Roulin, twenty-something son of the bushy-bearded postmaster whom Van Gogh painted so memorably, is tasked by his father with traveling to Paris in order to deliver Vincent’s final letter (to his brother, Theo). Armand has reservations about doing this, and ponders his obligations while drinking too much, but eventually goes to Paris, where he discovers that Theo has also died. Armand quickly decides that he must travel to Auvers, where Vincent died, in order to deliver the letter to a friend with whom Vincent was close in his final months (Dr. Gachet, also memorably painted by Van Gogh).

First plot objection: Why didn’t Armand even consider locating Theo’s widow, Joanna, in Paris? If I were her, and I found out this drunken punk decided to give my spouse’s final letter to a friend of approximately one year’s standing, I’d be furious! [But of course, if he’d attempted to find Joanna in Paris, this would be a different movie].

Here’s what I loved about the movie:

The most engaging moments were the first ones of the moon, and of Arles, and then late in film when Dr. Gachet appears. I actually caught my breath when I saw him leaning on that famous table, with his head propped in his hand.

The film correctly and nicely recreated the flatness of many of Vincent’s paintings, particularly the portraits, with little depth between the figure and the wall behind.

It was probably at its best depicting landscapes.

It was visually stunning in many ways. I caught my breath several times. It was clearly an accomplishment, but that being said, it was clear that the original paintings were the real triumph here.

The opening credit sequence was magical; I could have watched that moon shapeshifting all night.

The film recreated 74 Van Gogh paintings, and it was a complete thrill to recognize them.

Loving Vincent was first shot as a live-action film on sets recreated from Van Gogh paintings. The film was then broken down by frame and painted, each painting (65,000 of them) was then photographed, then painted over for the next frame. Eventually, all of the frames were animated. This way of working reminded me of William Kentridge’s charcoal drawings that turn into films. In both types of films, you can see the results of this way of working in images like the windmill turning – you can see the track of the blades in the impasto of the oil paint.

Here’s what bothered me about the movie (in addition to the overarching plot):

I questioned sub-plots too, finding it hard to believe the suggestion that Vincent may have been romantically involved with not only the young Marguerite, but also flirting and chatting with several women by the riverbank. Vincent was way too awkward, and that just wasn’t his style.

The accents were off-putting. Both Roulins, father and son, have two wildly different accents.

The film’s title is a little much…it becomes more palatable when you realize that was the way Vincent signed all his letters (“Your loving Vincent”). But still. Too literal and cloying for my taste.

Sometimes the film felt a little CGI (related to the figures), and a little slick…and Van Gogh was the antithesis of slick.

The end credits reveal that some characters were not real people, but rather “inspired by” people in Vincent’s paintings. Vincent’s life was dramatic enough; I’m not sure the film needed to invent additional “characters”.

No one loves a good mystery more than me…but if I heard this correctly, the final analysis is that the bullying teenager basically committed manslaughter by fooling around with a gun…while Vincent committed a suicide of sorts, by stoically not accusing the teenager, and letting it be assumed the gunshot was self-inflicted…meanwhile, Dr. Gachet, who acted as Vincent’s confessor and entertained his deathbed laments that he was a financial and emotional burden on Theo, essentially granted Vincent’s suicide wish by not removing the bullet and allowing Vincent to die (slowly)…sounds like murder!…especially since, as another character points out, Gachet had been a military doctor in a war zone; he should have been able to easily remove the bullet, particularly since it wasn’t immediately fatal. Physician, do no harm!! Would a doctor really have allowed a healthy man in his thirties to slowly and painfully expire like that?

The murder theory comes from a biography by Naifeh and White. Maybe there is a case for that, but knowing that the filmmakers have invented some (silly) aspects of the story and smoothed over others to make for a tighter film, I feel like I need to research for myself before I can believe this.

Final analysis:

The film is beautiful in many places. Not many films can make you catch your breath – and not just once, but over and over.

I want to keep watching it…but maybe with the sound off? Yes, I’d like to see it again. There is real magic in this movie, even though you are also a little too aware of how hard the magician is working to produce the rabbits.


Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

More Moby Dick

Moby Dick by Kiss My Shades

On this day in 1851, Moby Dick was published. I admit to having a fascination/obsession with this book.

I lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Herman Melville once also lived. (He also lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was born). The parts of the novel that took place on land are set in New Bedford. Just like in the book, there really is a chapel, called the Seaman’s Bethel, with memorials on the wall to the sailors and fishermen lost at sea.

New Bedford hosts a Moby Dick Marathon every January, where the novel is read out loud in 25 hours, on-site at the Whaling Museum and Seaman’s Bethel. I attended three of them, stayed for the duration, and read a couple of chapters out loud. If you stay (a small crew, to be sure), you get your name in the paper, and a free book related to Moby Dick (one year the prize was actually an academic work about the marathon itself).

The holding power of this book astonishes me. The interest from people all over the country who travel for the marathon, the locals who stay up all night once a year to hear it read out loud, the artists who still make fresh artwork based on this story…

There’s another book I love, called On Beauty and Being Just that talks about this phenomenon of loving something beautiful, like a work of art, and replicating it with another work of art to put more beauty into the world.

Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin-Frock

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

I love going into what I call “real places” and seeing “real art”. For example, there’s an editioned print (not a poster) in the bathroom at the mall, or a quality painting hanging permanently at a bar.

I was in the Philadelphia International Airport recently, and even though rotating art exhibitions are becoming more popular at airports, I was still struck by an exhibition called Invisible Cities by Terri Saulin Frock. Regrettably, I could spend just a few minutes perusing the work before I had to be on my way, but it was technically extremely well made (I’m becoming more and more insistent on that point), beautiful in every sense of the word, and conceptually fascinating.

Small round ceramic vessels transition into one another via a tumbling conglomeration of ceramic matchstick-like bridge structures. Others stand on their own while simultaneously sprouting and supporting an entire civilization of these matchsticks from their tops. Others tilt and bow to matchsticks sprouting from their sides and by their feet. They’re a combination of the lovely – imperfectly handmade, with fingermarks to prove it – and geometrically precise additions, which grow lives of their own as they multiply. The tension between two extremes is fascinating: organic and geometric, stable and unsteady, individual and proliferating multiples, vertical and horizontal.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

The source of inspiration is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, called “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”). I haven’t read this story, but have read Borges off and on; the last time I made a conscious effort was in grad school, and I feel it might be time again.

A synopsis of the story: a Chinese professor, Dr. Yu Tsun, living in Great Britain during World War I, is spying for the Germans and is about to be caught. He desperately needs to communicate an important bit of information – the location of a new armory – before his imminent capture. With British intelligence hot on his heels, he visits another professor, while pondering the thwarted creative life of his ancestor, Ts’ui Pên. Pên had been a respected government official but gave up this post in pursuit of two goals: to write an epic novel, and to create an epic labyrinth, “one in which all men would lose their way”. After his death, anyone who attempted to read what he wrote found it to be nonsense that circled back on itself, and no one ever found any labyrinth. So much for that. Tsun meets Dr. Stephen Albert, who has studied Pên’s seemingly meager output. Albert excitedly reveals that Pên was a genius, not a slacker after all; his life’s work was creating a novel that was a labyrinth in and of itself. The reason it read as nonsensical was because each step in the novel, each character’s decision, simultaneously led to every possible outcome of that step or decision. It was not a linear path, A to B to C, but an ever-expanding network of forking paths, each yielding a multitude of rich possibilities, which circled around each other and sometimes crisscrossed back to an earlier point. Albert illustrates his example by saying that in their current scenario, two possible circumstances are that Tsun visits his home as an enemy, yet from a different series of alternate decisions, also visits as a friend. All possibilities are simultaneously present. Tsun, extremely gratified to learn of his ancestor’s victory, sees his pursuer out the window, takes out a gun, claims he comes as a friend, and deliberately shoots Dr. Albert. He is subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to death. But he also wins, because the Germans bomb the armory during his trial. He has successfully communicated the location of the armory to them – in a town called Albert – by murdering someone named Albert so that the Germans would read about the crime in the news and act on his planted clue.

Yeah, let that sink in.

So these invisible yet proliferating cities, with their contradictory yet completely harmonious natures take on a life of their own. What a beautiful homage to this story. And what a mindblower.

Invisible Cities, Terri Saulin-Frock, 2017

McGurk Mysteries

At my art opening the other night, I engaged in a rather mind-blowing conversation. While I was chatting with a visitor, he idly looked at my business card holder on the countertop, and kind of brushed his index finger along my name. Half to himself, he said he hadn’t heard that name since he was a kid…

As he trailed off,  my brain leapt ahead of his words because no one ever knows my name! It’s a lone wolf of a name…shared by almost no one, not to be found on keychains, in pop culture, or any roster or directory of any kind. You just never – well, almost never – run into it, so I was intrigued. 

He went on to say that he’d read a series of mystery stories as a kid – I practically cut him off to joyfully shout “McGurk Mysteries!” – and then we were off an running on a trip down memory lane about these books. 

I very fondly remember these books from my childhood, and personally owned a good many of them. They featured a ten-year-old boy named McGurk, who ran a private investigation service, the McGurk Organization, out of his basement. I don’t remember how the series came to my attention back in the day, but the main attraction for me was to see my name in print (outside of looking at my own handwriting, that never happens). Meanwhile, my friend said he wanted a window on what it was like to live in the suburbs with a stable family. His memory was excellent, by the way, recalling an astonishing level of detail about the author, illustrator, titles, and plots as if he’d read the series last week, instead of over 30 years ago. 

I was completely tickled by this connection we’d made, which looped back through my childhood and brought us together in the present day because of a shared understanding of my name – of all things. I decided to reread a couple of the books, and checked out two from the library.

I was a little disappointed that the book (it turned out that one was enough) didn’t quite stand the test of time. But, it was funny to see all the detective fiction tropes that were checked off in kid-size boxes:

  • a flawed detective (McGurk is impatient and stubborn, with flashes of risky behavior)
  • a willingness of the Organization employees to shade the truth (especially to those in positions of power)  
  • a strained relationship with local law enforcement (the police chief doesn’t have time for juvenile detectives)
  • good guys working against limitations (curfews, the need to attend school during the day)
  • the unmasking of the villain in dramatic fashion

Moving beyond the books themselves, I couldn’t help thinking that my own love of mysteries relates to my affinity for abstraction…multiple layers of meaning, a chronology that might seem less than straightforward, some red herrings, shrouds, and veils – but ultimately a framework that is flexible enough to tell many tales and engage many topics.

I’m indebted to this art lover for sparking this utterly enjoyable conversation and train of thought.



The Homely Protestant

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant

I love Robert Motherwell because of his smarts. While so many of his (male) contemporaries were making fools of themselves in bars, he was making poetic work – about poetry – and other big themes, and writing intelligently about it too. I read the wall text for this painting at the Met and was reminded again of why I love him.

To paraphrase, Motherwell was struggling with naming this painting, and finally remembered a Surrealist technique of engaging with chance. He opened a book (Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce), blindly pointed his finger at the text, and upon opening his eyes, saw that his finger was resting on the phrase “the homely protestant”. “Of course!” Motherwell said. “It is a self-portrait”.

It’s amusing to me to imagine the emphasis on different words. Of course, it is a self-portrait. Of course, it is a self-portrait.

Interesting musical footnote #1:

I believe the Beatles used this same technique for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but they did it the other way around by choosing the phrase first, and constructing the song around it.

Interesting musical footnote #2:

I just learned that Motherwell was from Aberdeen, Washington. Safe to say that he was the most famous native until Kurt Cobain came along?

Dore Ashton, In Memoriam

Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website
Dore Ashton, from Queens Economic Development Corp. website

I always loved reading Dore Ashton’s writing. It’s clear, but elegant and beautiful. Her friendships with artists put her in the unique position of being able to reveal anecdotes that cast their work in a new, more personal light. In her hands, they were significant yet little-known accounts that further enlightened the artists’ work; they were never gossip, nor did they ever inflate her own role. Not many writers can pull that off.

It’s because of her writing that I am charmed by the thought of Joseph Cornell, the shyest of shy people, holding a small afternoon gathering at his house in Queens, at which he was uncharacteristically charming and voluble. At the end of the party, he gleefully whispered to Ashton about Octavio Paz, who was in attendance with his wife: “Was he really an ambassador?”

That childlike wonderment has informed my sense of his collage boxes ever since. What a new and delightful way of looking at them.

Another personal favorite is Ashton’s account of a visit to Mark Rothko’s studio in the late 1950s, when Rothko deliberately kept the lights off. Ashton compared the silence and dark to that of a cathedral, and as her eyes searched in the dark, she felt, more than saw, the presence of his paintings. At one point, a white cat walked into the middle of the room; the visual contrast was enough to startle her. For me, this story reinforces the two most important things about Rothko’s work: the theatricality of it all, and also the weightiness of his search for morality and truth in his paintings.

Thank you for some of the most graceful and captivating writing about art.

Roof Life

Roof Life, by Svetlana Alpers
Roof Life, by Svetlana Alpers

Recently I was at the library, and on the shelf near the book I was looking for was a different book. It caught my eye because it was written by one of my former professors, Svetlana Alpers at UC Berkeley, someone whose lectures I thoroughly enjoyed. On a whim, I checked it out.

It was a bit of an oddball (not an insult) and I can’t stop thinking about it. Through vignettes of various lengths, Professor Alpers unpacks the psychology of looking, and settles on how a certain amount of remove and distance is needed to really see something. She writes about selling a Rothko painting from her parents’ estate after their deaths, witnessing the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers from her window, looking at photos of herself, and selling her family home (which just happened to be designed by Julia Morgan), among other memories.

The artist in me lit up to read these intimate details about a Rothko painting, for example. Art porn.

But she was after something deeper. In a short passage, she wrote about witnessing the events of 9/11. She didn’t write about it in a dramatic way, but thoughtfully, with reserve. I appreciated that, because so much of the words around 9/11 are designed to provoke a reaction, and I find that to be cheap. Cheap emotion from cheap shots. The way she described the scene – watching from a little bit of distance, noticing the odd way that the cityscape flattens the scene, feeling the simultaneous remove yet complete personal investment in what she was witnessing – is exactly how I also witnessed those events 15 years ago (although I was farther uptown than she). I happened to read that passage on the morning of the anniversary, which I was steadfastly attempting to honor in my own private way, without watching or reading any news accounts, as I do each year. The day is difficult enough without the sensationalism of those images, and it’s always tough to strike a balance between remembering while not falling prey to that crassness. (Patriot porn).

Anyway, I picked up the book early in the morning, determined to not wallow in anniversary tributes. I was at that point in the book where I wasn’t sure yet that I’d finish it – far enough to wonder if it’s really my cup of tea, but not so far that I felt I’d given it a fair shot. I had no idea that it touched on September 11th at all, but it suddenly came up, and there I was, reading about that day, against my intentions. But I didn’t mind; in fact, I welcomed the opportunity to read this compassionate, understated account that so closely matched my own feelings.

This book sort of appeared when I needed it. I felt that was the most perfect, profound tribute. I couldn’t have read anything better had I searched for it that morning.

Encouraged, I kept reading. I learned about the home Professor Alpers lived in while she taught at Berkeley (fascinating because it was designed by one of my favorite architects, Julia Morgan, a treasure of Berkeley, and also because I was learning about the private life of one of my professors, including a dispute over earrings bought at a tag sale that ended a friendship. School porn). She even mentioned my art history class at one point, though when I Googled the painting she referred to, I didn’t remember having ever seen it, and I felt guilty.

I waxed nostalgic when she mentioned various details about Berkeley, or especially New York, where she lives now. I enjoyed reading her descriptions of contemporary art, since our class together focussed on much older art history.

In the end, Professor Alpers advocates for the practice of looking. Looking in order to learn. Looking because it’s fun. And beautiful, even when the subject is painful. And by looking – beginning to see.

Behind the Scenes (The Painting Fought Back)

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

The author David Foster Wallace once said something like, When writing a book, there always comes a time where you fall to the ground and bang your head against the floor. I see a lot of parallels between writing and painting, but I don’t feel this way with every painting because there are some that almost paint themselves. Then there are definitely those that want to wrestle you to the ground, grab you by the hair, and forcibly bang your head down for you.

This was one of those paintings. Now that I’m finished, I can talk about it without feeling like I’m going to jinx it. Or, like it’s judging me. You can see up there at the top, hanging out, looking innocent. In reality, I think it’s the most difficulty I’ve had in five years. I probably went through a good 17 different versions of this painting, including turning it to different sides, completely wiping out sections, changing or moving elements, even starting over completely from what I thought was already a finished painting.

Yes, here’s the painting that I thought, for a brief moment, was a finished work:

Beginning point (sort of!)
Beginning point (sort of!)

I even exhibited it, but I knew it was wrong when I saw it again on the wall at the show after not having seen it for a while. My head kind of snapped, and I made a little half-gasp under my breath. All of a sudden, it just wouldn’t do. It no longer seemed resolved. It bugged the hell out of me.

When the show was over and I got the painting back to the studio, I tried not to look at it, but it always tugged my eyes over. I knew I’d have to do something about it. After some time of assessing it, I started to work on it again.

Work-in-progress, Stage 2
Work-in-progress, Stage 2

I didn’t document it completely, but now you can see a big difference in the overall structure of the painting from the so-called starting point. See that little pointing, square blue shape from the top right of the Starting Point painting? I liked that, and it stayed, but see how everything around it changes.

Work-in-progress, Stage 3
Work-in-progress, Stage 3

Follow the little blue square as it moves to the upper left…see how I turned the painting 90 degrees counterclockwise? For a while, that seemed to make more sense. Eventually, I turned this version upside-down and settled on that orientation for the final. The blue square ended up at the bottom right.

And those were just some of the major changes. There were many minor ones that probably only I would notice. And then, one day, when you’re lucky, you look at a painting and it tells you it’s finished. There’s nothing more you can do to resolve the energy and the tensions between the parts. It fits the way it is.

Hopefully, this one will stay that way this time…

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Original illustration from Clement Moore's poem, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, public domain, via

Here are most of the original illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith that accompanied the Clement C. Moore poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” when it was published in 1912. They’re gorgeous! Merry Christmas!

Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith

Mockingbirds and Collage: Discuss

Here’s a great quote from author Tom Robbins:

“Mockingbirds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they’re born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mockingbirds aren’t content to merely play the hand that is dealt them. Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovative, willful, daring, not bound by the rules to which others may blindly adhere, the mockingbird collects snatches of birdsong from this tree and that field, appropriates them, places them in new and unexpected contexts, recreates the world from the world.”

It reminds me of making collages–that process of taking a real something, and by changing the context, making it into something else.

Thanks to artist Mica Angela Hendricks for turning me on to this quote.

Fun Fact: Robbins has been a resident of Seattle and/or Western Washington for the past 40 years. Hi neighbor!

Happy Anniversary, Moby Dick!

Moby Dick by Kiss My Shades

On this day in 1851, Moby Dick was published. I admit to having a fascination/obsession with this book.

One of my favorite things about it is the many, many artworks it’s inspired–from the famous edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent, to this really striking digital image.