Category Archives: Visual Arts

On Returning Home and Missing My Family

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We took so many group photos, it was kind of hard to choose one. But here’s the family in Brooklyn Heights.

So, I can’t say this better than Lindsay, but writing a last post is difficult. And this time, perhaps thankfully, I didn’t have a 36-hour train ride home for meditation. Instead, I’ve taken these last two days in Georgia to tune out and think about what this CSU NY Arts Immersion trip has meant to me. Back at home, I found myself sort of immediately bored without somewhere to walk on Saturday evening and then sort of immediately maladjusted to the truly “free” Sunday that I had without a trip or meeting scheduled—without the buzz and hum of the city in the background. So, I do miss the city with all of its stimulation, all that it offers. But, of course, I’m going to talk about “family” for my last post…because, like the last trip taught me, it’s about the people that accompany you on a trip as much as the place you travel to.

From the beginning, this group referred to us as a “family” and insisted that we take a group photo for nearly every outing. This was quite a contrast to our last group in 2012, who ditched us as often as they could to go out exploring. While that group was interested in discovering the city on their own, this group wanted to experience it together, which meant a certain kind of openness to just about any event that was planned. They put serious trust in their professors to show them the city, and then they could reflect for themselves. For instance, when I suggested a theatrical reading of Russian literature at Joe’s Pub, almost everyone came along—and even though we were all lost because we hadn’t read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, this group made the best of it. They used humor to get through it, seeing who could laugh the loudest at a show that none of us could really understand. It might have been a dreadful event, but this family made it memorable anyway.

From what I could tell, when this group was disappointed with something, they talked through it. This, again, suggests an openness. Instead of a quick dismissal—an “I hated that”—they talked amongst themselves and then with us about what left them curious, questioning, or uncomfortable. For instance, after a visit to the MoMA, Rylan and I discussed postmodern art with one of my English students, which led to an interesting debate about works like those of Jackson Pollock and the significance of visual art as political and meaningful versus that same significance in literature. After our tour in Harlem, many students felt uncomfortable that our tour guide took us into the housing projects; they discussed this together and then with me a little, which led to some of the most honest conversations about race and class that I’ve ever had. Another instance: one art student pulled me aside at the International Center for Photography to talk about the composition of a certain series of photos, which she felt looked poorly Photoshopped. Even though she disliked the series, she was engaged with trying to understand why the photographer would use such techniques. And, of course, in my class meetings where we discussed literature, we inevitably drifted away from the actual texts and spoke about our own experiences in the city, whether good or bad.

Even if we all felt homesick and tired and maybe even tired of each other at some point in the trip, we remained a “family,” as the students put it. Family, to me, means sharing experiences in honest and open ways–unafraid to question, to engage, to make decisions about what we value in art and life, or even our values and how they change. To just know that you can trust someone else with your true feelings about what you’ve just experienced. That is the real purpose of this trip in my mind—to establish that kind of rapport. It’s not to try and cram in every artistic and historical event in New York City into three weeks time, so that students can dance through them and later talk about their experiences like badges or trophies (“I saw this; I went here; I’ve done that before”). Instead, the purpose of this trip—and I think travel more generally—is to form lasting bonds with your travel mates, to reflect together on what you are seeing and learning, to miss the people more than the place when you get home.

Like the authors that we read for this trip, who were all searching for connections with others in places far from their homes, that’s what we seek when we venture to new places out of our comfort zone. I’m glad to have found that with my 2014 New York family. We talk so much about the importance of family in the South, about how family sustains us and keeps us grounded in place. But after this trip, I know that the concept of family extends beyond the bounds of our blood relations and our region. I know that, despite all the depressing literature Southerners may write, those connections forged are very real, and that perhaps, in contradiction to some of my earlier posts, home is transportable if you are with your family.

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A Southern Girl Says Goodbye to New York

Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).

Carson McCullers' Home in Nyack, NY.

Carson McCullers’ Home in Nyack, NY.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia's in Harlem).

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia’s in Harlem).

I've dreamed of seeing Minton's ever since I read Ralph Ellison's "The Golden Age Time Past," one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Minton’s ever since I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Golden Age Time Past,” one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

These are the "stars" that matter to me.

These are the “stars” that matter to me.

Catch the group in the glass  as we step into the Apollo.

Catch the group in the glass as we step into the Apollo.

The South lives in Harlem.

The South lives in Harlem.

Coney Island get-away.

Coney Island get-away.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

Minetta's,  a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

Minetta’s, a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub--the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas's favorite watering hole.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub–the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas’s favorite watering hole.

The end of our literary tour...with the beginning of great American literature.

The end of our literary tour…with the beginning of great American literature.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I've gained here.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I’ve gained here.

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Sweet Musings on Art, History, and Consumption

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

Interacting with art and history at the Kara E. Walker installation, A Subtlety.

My professor partner-in-crime, Rylan Steele, makes sure we all see great art while we’re here, and man, am I glad. I had seen articles about the Kara E. Walker installation pop up on Facebook, but I hadn’t thought much about whether I’d go while visiting NYC. After a semi-grueling (but marvelous!) day spent touring Brooklyn Heights with Sherill Tippins and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Rylan and I hopped in a cab, made it to the Domino Sugar Factory, and waited in line with hundreds of others to see the Walker installation titled A Subtlety.

In short, it was amazing and not at all subtle. While the sugar mammy sphinx and her sugar baby helpers were a sight, the place itself was something to behold. The smell of sugar hits you instantly when you walk in—both sweet and sour. The walls of the space are muddied with molasses stains, and piles of dark brown sugar rest in every crevice. Beautiful but dirty. (Perhaps that sums up the exhibit itself—beautiful and dirty, sweet and sour?). But these descriptions have been given again and again, and Evette Dionne’s and Kirsten West Savali’s articles speak particularly well to some of the emotions that Walker’s installation brings to the surface. There are scores of well-written reviews out there, and I’m not sure that I can add more in terms of interpretation, but I do want to talk about Walker’s work in a southern context.

 Walker has southern roots, having lived in Atlanta during her adolescent years and then remaining there for college, and her work often showcases the iconic image of the mammy figure that she incorporated into her installation at the sugar factory. Now, while I know that this piece is specific to the history of Brooklyn and the destruction of the factory, I also read that part of Walker’s inspiration in continually re-creating these stereotypical black icons came after seeing a giant mammy-shaped restaurant outside of Natchez, MS. And this is what I want to think about: why that restaurant remains—not in any ironic form—and then why an installation like Walker’s would probably not see a 45 minute line out the door in the Southeast. Certainly, across the mill towns of the South, there are historical spaces doomed to demolition and gentrification where Walker (or other artists) might create a similar installation. But I’m not sure that Southerners are ready to see this image outside of an offensively kitschy roadside attraction— this time so gigantic, so horrifically iconic (that the mammy stands in as our American “sphinx”). And I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the emotions we confront when we see it. Because those are emotions about slavery, labor, oppression, and exploitation of people’s bodies and minds—specifically of African Americans and specifically of African American women.

But maybe I’m wrong: maybe lines would form, maybe the wait would be hours, just to be a part of something controversial. When I saw people snapping selfies with Walker’s sphinx looming in the background, it made me feel uncomfortable—as if I was part of a trend, some art installation fad—not a part of an intellectual artistic endeavor. This is not in any way a critique of Walker’s installation, but more a critique of the audience–of thinking about what it means to stand beneath an artistic rendering of American history with an audience that may not be fully aware of its meaning. For instance, many of my college students in Georgia get the Civil War and Civil Rights movement confused, and so many of us (Southerners or not) still consider Gone With the Wind to be an iconic American film, maybe even a substitution for actual history, when we need to be thinking about those iconic characters and settings in a critical way.

This is what I think Walker’s installation does…but I also wondered if her statement wasn’t lost a little. Like the rest of the spectators, I stood there gawking, almost as if the sugar mammy sphinx was a consumable roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere Mississippi.

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The Last Stop

This is not nearly all that is leftover from my trip. Some things cannot be counted.

When you’re trapped on a train for 30+ hours, you have plenty of time to think and reflect. When will my next hot shower be? Next hot meal? Will I ever see my dogs again? My friends and family? Who will panic first: me, one of my students, the four-year-old sitting five rows up? What did I forget? Who did I forget to buy a souvenir for? Did I lose any weight from all of that walking? Was this really the right time to quit smoking? (Turns out “no” on that last question, so don’t get too excited). But of course, as a writer, I was mostly thinking about what my last post would look like—how I would sum up this trip, how I would convey what I’ve learned and experienced overall.  And this is how it turned out—a return to an old lesson again.

I was nervous about this trip when we started talking about it last August, but by May, when everyone had paid his/her money and it was absolutely official, I was physically ill with anxiety. There was the planning: excruciating for someone as disorganized as I can be. There was the fact that I had never spent more than three days in New York City, and now I was going to have to navigate it…with 21 other people. 21 other people that I didn’t know that well: 19 students, 2 faculty members. It turns out that this is the lesson. It’s never about the place; it’s always about the people. No matter where you are, people have the potential to ruin your experience or to enhance it. I’m not talking about the helpful (and sometimes rude) strangers I encountered. I’m talking about our group—our family of 22.

I was also privileged to catch up with two old friends while I was on this trip, one that I hadn’t seen in months and one that I hadn’t seen in several years. Sitting on a rooftop in Williamsburg, I confessed to one of these friends that I didn’t feel very open anymore—that maybe this inability to be “open” was dragging down my self-esteem a good bit. She calmed my fears by telling me that this was common with folks our age—she’d heard plenty of people in their mid-thirties and forties express this sort of anxiety. I was still thinking about that conversation, along with the rest of the trip, as I struggled to survive the long road home. I sort of knew that, once I got back to Georgia, I was going to realize that I now feel more open. And that this wasn’t only because of three weeks spent immersed in the arts in New York City, but that this was actually mainly because of three weeks spent with an open and endearing group of people.

Let me tell you about them. On our second day there, one student expressed that her favorite thing about the city was that she didn’t feel like a minority there, that no one asked her “what are you?,” that she felt accepted and a part of something. On the third day, one faculty member laughed the entire time we had to pay INDIVIDUALLY for 22 Metrocards, which saved me from a near-panic attack and taught me not to worry so much about the details. Another student—of legal age—remarked that he had been to only one bar in his life before this trip and now he was out with his peers every night. My other colleague researched and led us on a lovely tour of Greenwich Village and the East Village, reciting poetry to us at nearly every stop (my favorite was a recital of the Ramones at the old CBGB’s). More than once at a museum, I overheard an art student explaining the significance of a painting to an English student. On my own, I conversed with art and English students about the importance of Jack Kerouac, the real “story” of hip hop, the experience of eating Ethiopian food and soup dumplings. We talked about music, about writing, about reading, about art and photography, about shoes and shopping, and sometimes just plain old life B.S. I did plenty of eavesdropping, and on their own, this group talked about relationships, their families, their goals and pursuits, their adaptability to what was around them. The students seemed to fall in love with the city—or at least certain aspects of it. They seemed to fall in love with each other, mostly metaphorically, and treated each other with respect. Then one of them literally fell in love with a New Yorker, and I wondered if he’d get on the train with us. And then two of the students didn’t. They didn’t get on the train. They found an apartment in two days. They stayed in New York City to pursue life dreams (or just some summer fun), very Carson-esque, even if they don’t realize it right now. All of this—ALL of it—comes with openness, an openness to the place and an openness with other people.

It occurs to me that, in 1940s Brooklyn, this is what the February House was all about. A grouping of artists that lived together, discussed life, became inspired and reflective because of these discussions. Sure, there was competitiveness, disorder, arguing, even some loneliness and some lostness, but as author Sherill Tippins sums up, each of them had been inspired either to create or did create some of the greatest work of their lives. And they formed lasting friendships, lasting memories. So, now, left to look at the trinkets brought back with me from the great city of New York, I am most moved to consider the people that lived with me for three weeks and inspired me to cultivate their openness. To lose the anxiety and just adapt. To live fully with curiousity. Thanks, y’all.

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The World’s Playground

Weegee’s Coney Island in 1938.

Often this trip is about making connections between my experiences. In that way, I feel like I’m writing about literature, analyzing the confluences of what I see. Last week, we visited the International Center of Photography, a small peaceful space that was hosting a show by Weegee. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Weegee before, but I was instantly taken by his journalistic detective-style photos of New York City crime in the 1930s and 1940s. Murder was his business, and in his black-and-white images of violently brutalized people, massive fires, and crime’s innocent by-standers, he beautifully portrayed the sometimes-isolated feeling in the city.

But Weegee had another favorite subject for his photography: Coney Island. In his Coney Island photographs—as the exhibit argued—Weegee captured a different side of New York: the playful spontaneous side of New Yorkers crowding on a beach for a day away from murder and crime. I was struck by the juxtaposition of these images: the crowds witnessing a murder and the crowds thronged together in play.

So when I visited Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade on Saturday, Weegee was foremost in my mind. Even though the beach community is more commercialized and consumerized today, if Weegee were around, he’d still capture a similar spirit in the people.  Although the crowd was thick (I mean thick), somehow I didn’t feel crowded like I sometimes do in New York City. There was an air of revelry as mermaids and mermen made their way up the central street aside the undersea floats. On the beach, families lounged together while their children played in the water and built various sand statues. There were absolutely no pretenses there: it was carnivalesque without the dark side. I listened to the mermaid bands parading up the street; I shrieked atop the Wonder Wheel (swinging car!); I watched one of our students brave the cold ocean waters; I sat on a dirty curb and devoured a Nathan’s hotdog.

On the way home on the subway, our train was suddenly stopped and we were told to evacuate. As we pushed past the platform and up the stairs, six to eight police cars swarmed the station and rushed down to the train. Although we were quickly returned to a new train (without ever learning what exactly had caused the sudden evacuation), I thought of Weegee’s two photographic subjects. My day of revelry at Coney Island ended with a return to the city crimescape—perhaps a metaphor for the differences in attitude between the World’s Playground and the City that Never Sleeps, which Weegee captured so well.

My Coney Island 2012.

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What’s in a Museum?

Museums. We’ve already been to a few of them, and we’ll keep going for the next two weeks. While clearly the goal in a museum is to see the art and/or history, I’ve found myself thinking about what else a museum means—what is its purpose? I’ve also discussed this with colleagues lately—how does a museum capture not only art but also the memory and history of people, places, eras? Why do people insist on taking photographs in museums to capture their memories? (Strange questions to ask when I’m writing and posting photos as part of an “arts” trip.)

Still, if I return to Auden and my earlier questions about a moral and modern American society, how do museums function in this society? Are they useful because they offer the public a way-in to “high” art? Is spending two-four hours on a whirlwind tour of a 6 -floor museum really a “way-in”? Are we just consuming art to say we did so—that we had that experience? And, anyway, as Auden and the others at February House were asking, what is the function of art?

I’m sure I can’t answer these questions, but I do know that there is something artificial about the museum experience. For a minute or two—as throngs of camera-snapping visitors scuttle by and around me—I almost forget that I’m viewing something incredible. I’m certainly in favor of bringing art to the people because I detest most high/low cultural divides (except maybe in literature and food, and even then I want all folks to experience all the stuff I know is better); generally these divides are created to shut people out—maybe even shut people out of a means to power. While I want art brought to the masses, I also don’t want it to become meaningless like the mass-produced prints and posters I see in the shops and on the street fronts. Just because we’re selling something, does it have to be meaningless?

But maybe here’s the American moral clause: any little anything can be art here in America, even if it’s for sale, even if it’s not in a museum. As an individual, I get to choose what I view as art. So, if a mass-produced poster of a masterpiece bought at an overcrowded museum makes me happy, so be it. I’m sure I’ve created a unique meaning from that poster and that experience. Right?

Will sitting on that clam shell really increase your experience?

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As Told by a Math Teacher

When I was in high school there was a teacher who told the class that Math teachers teach Math because they prefer to keep things short and simple with as little words as possible. He said that Math teachers don’t like English because it’s the opposite. We use as many words as possible to describe something and then ask what somebody meant by it. No, Math is just much easier to understand and keep straight. I’ve never liked math, but I was/am good at it to a point. I can see what the guy was saying, but still it bothered me a little bit. Because in no way should ? + b = 5c3/27(A) or whatever ever described as simple when it turns into degrees and such. When numbers turn into letters and letters turn into numbers it shows that something went terribly wrong.

At any rate, the group went to the Museum of Modern Art today and I ran into Courtney in one of the galleries. She was looking at this wall of frames with numbers and squiggles varied on them. And by wall of framed I mean, like literally a TON of frames with numbers and squiggles. However, some of them had lines with legit math problems like 2 + 3 =6 and then squiggles. Or something. I’m describing it because my photo taking skills are really bad so the picture sucks. Anyway, some of them were all squiggles, some all numbers, whatever, you get the point. But I looked at Courtney and decided(without reading the info about the work) that this artist must have been an English Major who was describing what happens when you force people(like English Majors) who generally don’t like math to do it.

Literally there was a legit math problem and then squiggles. It’s like whenever I see the new Math I II or III text books and it looks like a novel with numbers in it and I go WTF and I’m So Glad I Missed That. Math people look at pages at prose or poetry and do the same thing and read every line as blah blah blah. We look at math and go…blah blah blah. It’s the same thing. But when it comes together, it is just numbers that equal squiggles. So. Thanks to this piece of art my conclusion is this:

It isn’t the shortness or simplicity of math or the complexity of English that is the problem. It is the mixing of the two. Math should keep the numbers. English should keep the letters. The world makes sense. 😀

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