Monthly Archives: December 2018
My favorite book this year brought goodness and light to 2018 and continues to make me happy as I pick it up and randomly reread a few pages at a time. The book was written as a children’s book, but it is much more than that. Robert MacFarlane is the author of The Lost Words and it was illustrated by Jackie Morris. The Lost Words is an oversized book, and within its covers are pages of “spells” that honor nature with the intent to introduce words to children, words that are disappearing from our language. Each “spell” is enhanced by Morris’ stunning illustrations. The price of the book is worth it, if just to gaze at her art work.
Here’s the backstory to The Lost Words, in 2007 the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped multiple words that described the natural world. The omissions did not go unnoticed and a feisty public debate over the eliminated words ignited. At one point a group of artists and scientists sent a publicly shared letter to the Oxford Junior Dictionary requesting the deleted words be added back into the next edition. The words, they argued, included many British plants and animals that were symbolic of the nation’s cultural ties with the land and wildlife.
The public letter also referenced research that drew correlations between natural play and wellbeing for children. My only contention with that argument is adults should have been included. There is a correlation between natural play and wellbeing for adults too. Adults should not be overlooked simply because we are not as rosy-cheeked and adorable as a 10-year old when we wander (hobble/limp/stumble) through open meadows and dense forests.
The Lost Words is a response to the Oxford Junior Dictionary omissions and reintroduces the words to young readers. There is an ongoing effort to get this book into all primary schools throughout Great Britain. And you dear readers should make an effort to get the book into your living room. If anything, the book is a gentle reminder that if we lose words for something or lose words that describes the thing, then it is more difficult to understand the essence of it. For me the book is a light tap on the shoulder that signals I have a lot more to learn about the outdoors and the words that are used to name and describe all the bits and glorious pieces out there.
Here is a sample of a “spell” included in the book.
‘Newt, oh newt, you are too cute!’
Emoted the coot to the too-cute newt,
‘With your frilly back and your shiny suit and your spotted skin so unhirsute!’
‘Too cute?!’ roared the newt to the unastute coot. ‘With all this careless talk of cute you bring me into disrepute, for newts aren’t cute: we’re kings of the pond, lions of the duckweek, dragons of the water; albeit, it’s true,’ -he paused- ‘minute.’
By the by, McFarlane is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. He shares lost words there too. Here are a few which I have copied directly from his Twitter feed.
Williwaw – a violent squall that blows offshore from a mountainous coast, as cold air descends fast from high ground, accelerated by gravity (etymology unknown).
Rain-bird – common name for the green woodpecker because it was thought to herald bad weather.
A crafty pine-tree rat.
Eichhörnchen – literally, “little horned one of the oak tree”; squirrel (German). In Mandarin Chinese, the characters for squirrel mean, somewhat less poetically, “pine-tree rat”.
Coorie – to hunker down, crouch, nestle, snuggle in, especially when it’s cold, dark & hostile outside (Scots). A winter activity, then, chiefly — though one might “coorie down” to weather of other kinds of adversity.
Willawel – the murmur of wind in the branches of trees, esp. at dusk (Welsh).
Marcescence – in trees & plants, the ‘holding-on’ of dead leaves through the winter months (noticeable especially in beech & oak). A “marcescent” leaf – or, figuratively, person – is one that has withered but not fallen.
Eyot – a small island in a river, also known as an “ayot” or “ait” (all three words are pronounced “ate”).
Brumation – the condition of torpor & sluggishness brought on by winter. Coined in 1965 by the American zoologist Wilbur W. Mayhew to refer to the cold-weather dormancy of reptiles. (By extension, therefore, the indolence induced by Christmas).
Happy Holidays Scramblers. Here’s to a hale and hearty 2019 for each and every one of us.
J sez – keep reading, there’ a book report at the end…
Matt and I have had the opportunity to visit some artists’ studios lately.
Matt works in an art studio basically, where custom wallpaper is dreamt up, painted, cut to order, and shipped all over the world. In November, Vahallan papers held a benefit for Voices of Hope. So in this industrial, yet artistic, space, guests walked around to view and shop paintings, prints, jewelry, photos, baskets, and other goods under festive lights and live music. It’s a unique experience when Vahallan has a show like this. It’s in no way knick-knacky, but it’s not buttoned-up gallery either. It’s a hip event.
I bought a variety of things at the benefit. One item was a fantastic cow painting by Margaret Berry (I never took a picture, but it may be available for private viewing in Oregon. You’ll have to ask Cathy nicely if you can have a look). I love Margaret’s encaustic (wax technique) paintings. A few weeks after the benefit, she agreed to have Matt and me to her studio to look at more of her work. Her home is inviting and filled with art – a lot of hers, and a lot of others’ original work. She’s friendly and has many stories, one leading to another and circling back again. She confessed a long-time obsession with corn and showed us her corn-corner which is filled with corn tchotchkes and spills into other collections (Jesuses, Buddhas, dolls, and family photos among them).
Margaret’s paintings are varied – both representative, and abstract. I bought three corn paintings, all recognizable as corn, but in varying degrees of corn-like-ness. I bought a piece in series called Embers that is based on fire but doesn’t have to be fire if you see something else in it. And I bought a prairie scene painted for a show that benefitted the Willa Cather Foundation.
In the winter, Margaret says her wax doesn’t perform well in her unheated studio, which is a tiny out building next to her house. Though she wasn’t using the studio this cold November, we did take a look around. It is a right-brained storm of paintings from different shows and swatches of examples of varying encaustic techniques. Like Margaret’s engaging personality and conversation, the room flows from one topic to another in a splash of rich colors and texture. But her work space is fluid, and because of the season she had been working at her kitchen island. The cool dried waxy paint was sitting in an unlit burner, looking vibrant and arty, yet orderly, (though Margaret apologized for the mess). The tour was really a nice experience. We left with art, plus that nice feeling you have when you’ve enjoyed a friend’s company, and also some tiny cakes Margaret had been baking.
A couple weeks later I got an invite to another art studio – that of Deon Bahr. When I met Deon last fall (in a class we were involved in at the University), he introduced himself as an architect with a second career as an artist. I asked him more about his work and he was game to talk about it and even humored me with pictures when I requested some. Lucky me! I took Deon up on an invitation to come and see his studio. His work is a perfect combination of precision and math required of an architect plus design and arrangement of shapes and color an artist brings. He makes wonderful, beautiful, orderly paintings and sculptures. I wanted every piece I saw.
Deon is obsessed with the Golden Mean.
Deon’s home and studio, both designed and built by him, are expressions of the Golden Mean at every line and angle.
Like Margaret’s home, the interior of Deon’s is filled with art of his own and others’, mostly known Nebraska artists. His studio is the upper level of his garage and has several projects going all at once: miniatures of future huge-scale sculptures, paintings, figures and cubes that are interchangeable to create multiple views to suit the observer’s mood. As you would expect of an architect, each space is functional. The graded sky light, designed on the principles the Golden Ratio provides natural light; a huge bay window is big enough to allow a front loader to deposit or unload large sculptures; and an almost secret board with a hook flush to the floor is actually a type of dumbwaiter large enough for big paintings to move up to the studio, or down to the garage below.
My descriptions don’t do the work or the workspace justice. It was fascinating and a really incredible afternoon of art in every sense.
And now for my book report with an advanced notice: I love and revere Kurt Vonnegut’s work so much I don’t think I can really write about it with the distinction it deserves, but anyway…
My recent art excursions prompted me to re-read one of my all-time favorites, Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. Matt said about the band Yo La Tengo, “What did we do to deserve them?” I have the same sentiment about KV. Nobody wrote about the human condition like Kurt Vonnegut, (that line is an inside joke for those of you who have already read Bluebeard, and for those of you who are soon to discover it).
In short, Bluebeard is the memoir of Rabo Karabekian, a WWII veteran, and an abstract artist active in the mid-century. The fictional Karabekian was contemporary with the real-life Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, among others. In the story, Rabo’s works were enormous paintings of solid color with overlaying bands of contrasting colors. Twenty years after he painted them, after expressionism had been accepted as “real art,” the paint he used, Sateen Duralux, disintegrated, resulting in blank canvases with piles of dried dusty paint on the floors of museums and prestigious office lobbies where they hung. In Rabo’s mind, he became the colossal joke of abstract art history. True to Kurt Vonnegut’s treatment of his characters, this is just one of many indignities life hands Rabo Karabekian.
Not child’s play
This book is about a lot of things: Abstract art, for one – and the spiritual forces at work that propel artists to create interest, sometimes without conventional figures. This book is an answer to everyone who has ever looked at a Jackson Pollock painting and thought, “anyone could splatter a bunch of paint on a canvas.” Vonnegut, as Karabekian, puts the transcendent significance of abstract images into readable words as easily as and as simple as it is to read Dick and Jane. Nobody boils down complicated issues into just a few pure words like Kurt Vonnegut. In the story, Rabo Karabekian’s paintings – his strips of color, before they fell off the canvas –represented souls free of their bodies, or their “meat” as he described it. Zen-like, his paintings represented the good, inner-part of humans before their physical selves created a violent distressful world.
Bluebeard is also about a lot of other things too: Belonging and Forgiveness. Creation and Destruction. It’s about where we live and where we create. In Rabo’s case, this is in a huge mansion on the Long Island Coast with a potato barn as a studio. What’s in the potato barn is a secret, and I encourage you to read to the end to find out what is there. The story is rich. Pure Vonnegut, this book is so packed with insights and humor, it made me stop reading every once in a while, to shake my head in appreciation of his writing.
It was a perfect complement to my recent run-ins with artists in their spaces.
Happy New Year Scramblers. And Happy Reading.