Contemporary Magic Makers

 Magical is a word I’ve used too rarely lately instead my conversations have been laced with dark words such as demonic, crazy, and tragic. They are my response to the bad news that floods in daily on local and global fronts. Magical is a word at the opposite end of the spectrum- and I’m talking about white magic– describing the luminous powers of the human imagination to totally transport us, and allowing us to see what was not there before.  But this summer I had two art experiences that were just that- magical,  and thus worth sharing because we are all in need of being reminded of the wondrous things humans do.

3a6eb091c99a16105ba1fe5eb59ff399In early June I was touring galleries in the Chelsea district of New York with my daughter Sofia and her Danish friend, Magnus. Thanks to Magnus we stopped in to see “The Marionette Maker” at the Luhring Augustine gallery created by Cardiff and Miller, a Canadian artist couple known for their sound and theatrical installations. We’d just left the Gagosian gallery which was exhibiting Richard Serra’s  mammoth metal slabs positioned like giant dominoes that could easily topple. We’d tread nervously and briskly through fearing our minor weight could create just that tipping point.  The mood  in the Luhring Augustine gallery was altogether different, the audience there looked spellbound and like they might never leave.

We too began to circle clockwise around the vintage camper trailer  parked in the middle of the space. This was the stage for the Cardiff- Miller drama. With each loop around we noticed new things, we saw the marionette maker, a small puppet hunched over his drawings and imagining new designs. In different parts and windows of the trailer other small marionette figures gyrated each in their own reverie. Animated by simple robotic technology, a musician strummed obsessively at his electric guitar, an opera singer and her pianist practiced, then there was a life size woman sleeping. She was so real we watched for her chest to move up and and down, holding our own breath for a long time as we studied her.  Our voyeuristic trance was interrupted by the convincing soundtrack of rain and wind that filled the space outside the trailer. We were no longer inside the white walls of a gallery in New York, what forest clearing had we landed in? Who was creating the weather?

At the end of summer I drove through hundreds of mile of forests on I-95  to get to the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. I was traveling up with a good friend and her daughter to visit the Bread and Puppet Theater at their home in Glover. We didn’t want to miss the last of their Sunday outdoor performances. I have been a Bread and Puppet theater fan for most of my life and to see them at their home base was one of my bucket item lists. Once off the highway you follow a small road for miles, and then without warning you cross their threshold. There is one of their painted school buses- with CHEAP ART painted big over the windows. Their home base is a large farm which has a natural amphitheatre perfect for an audience of at least three hundred and more to sit. Behind the amphitheater is a pine forest that has been planted. The forest is now at least forty years tall.

In the amphitheater we watched the drama of Gods and men of our contemporary world being played out by puppeteers wearing large masks and simple cloth costumes that stretched out dragon-like with several people in them or soared skyward thanks to the use of poles and stilts.  And of course there was lots of music and words. Some of the words lingered like a chorus, paraded in and out on cloth banners painted with big wet brushes, positive words such as  Courage, Hope, Awe, Listen.

A huge barn on the farm is the repository for decades of paper mache puppets of all scales waiting to come to life again, each a character in a timeless story. New puppeteers continue to come in waves to animate the paper mache into stories for today.  The planted Cathedral forest on the hill holds a more permanent and sacred stillness, here shrines and commemorative huts have been built for the puppeteers who have died. With each name and their dates we sense the shortness of their journey, the time-sensitive element of our existence. Who would have thought that paper mache would outlast flesh and blood?

Both experiences, one confined insidepeter-schumann a New York gallery and the other on acres of farmland were a full immersion for the senses, leaving me with a sense of wonder and awe. The creators of the Marionette Maker were not present in the gallery but their cosmic mind was in every element of the installation. I could imagine them at work on their next creation in their studio in British Columbia, somewhere where they can see the open expanse of a starlit sky every night. At Glover, I did see Peter Schumann the wizard behind Bread and Puppet.  If you didn’t know him you would have thought he was just a rumpled old man with his battered hat helping to cut bread, behind him a huge earth mound oven built from the soil there. But here was the sour dough bread of the Bread and Puppet, the simple sacred offering that he has made for over fifty years, baking and sharing it with almost every performance. The recipe is his mother’s. So I too broke bread with the many others who had been transported by the magic created that day – with such simple materials and such a wondrous mind. Thank you, please keep doing your work, we need it now more than ever.

 

Weaving Together the Many Elements

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Woodcut Print by Antonio Frasconi, Cover for Fully Empowered /Poems by Pablo Neruda

I rarely have the time and distance to reflect on the many threads of human and natural history woven together during public art projects that I design.  This is especially true during the Poetry of the Wild projects which are now in their thirteenth year. This month, a fine and expansive article on Poetry of the Wild written by Professor Suzanne MacAulay appeared in the Journal of Literature and Art Studies. The article is titled Communities and the Poetic Imaginary: A Folklore Essay on the Poetry of the Wild Project.  I am very grateful to Dr MacAulay for giving me that long view, she knows the project well from being one of the patrons when it was installed in Colorado Springs in 2006, to studying it as an art historian and folklorist. In the article she identifies many of the cultural parameters addressed by Poetry of the Wild including, environmental aesthetics, cultural identity, poetic sensibilities, communal creative actions, and sense of place. Reading Dr MacAulay’s analysis confirms the value of orchestrating creative platforms for communities to connect with their places in a reflective, affirming, and tactile manner. She also reminds us that at the core of Poetry of the Wild’s philosophy is creating an excuse to walk and reflect by having to go out and find the poetry boxes. Too often in our contemporary culture our engagement with the natural landscape is replaced by the virtual landscape. This project reminds communities of the simple and transformative powers of walking.

This month I also began the book project for Poetry of the Wild. Its time to bring together the many voices of place that I’ve been so fortunate to work with and learn from. Curating the history, poems, and artwork from this project will generate its own new challenges, long walks will undoubtedly help me in unraveling the thoughts and shaping the book.

Paris 2015/ Ego or Eco

Study for chair forest by Ana Flores/15

The Paris climate talks this week includes representatives from over 200 nations. We are watching closely because there is much at stake. It’s a very positive change that the format for the conference outcomes is structured around each nation proposing their own climate change strategies- with financial and technological help where necessary– and not a top down dictate of what has to be done. This hasn’t worked for the past 20 conferences– no one likes to be told what has to done.

If this brings changes another strategy for a new conference format would be to have open air meetings: sitting in a forest, by a river, by a shoreline, so that the planet could be present and have a voice. Being imbedded in the natural world would moderate all those human egos that surface in windowless conference spaces. The representatives might be reminded of their larger eco-selves.

7KPvFwS We’ve all been to conferences that go on for a days and each day there is less and less oxygen in the room. Too many people have come a long way to state their business and all those egos will want to have their say until there is no air left.  All those emissions from debating and jet travel will add up to more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Maybe during the next climate change conference they’ll invite the planet in to speak. Nevertheless the planet is speaking and there is nothing stopping each of us from listening wherever we are.

 

 

 

 

 

Aloft

A gracious letter from Cuban art collector and friend Ron Brasch recently arrived including a catalog of his collection which I’m in. The image on the front brought to mind a very short and marvelous story by Eduardo Galeano called “The World”. The piece on the cover is by Ernesto Rancaño, who works in Cuba.

ron jHere is the story:    The World

A man from the town of Neguá, on the coast of Colombia, could climb into the sky.

On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated human life from on high. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.

“The world,” he revealed, “is a heap of people, a sea of tiny flames.”

Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some  people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them without blinking, and if you approach you shine in fire.

Recent news from my friends and patrons who blaze with life…

1. Cuban Art from the Ron and Una Brasch Collection: Spreading its Wings, Colorado Springs Museum of Fine Arts, Oct 3rd- Feb 21,2016,

The show includes two of my pieces: Black Madonna and Soul of Exile

2. Networks 2015 Artist Video Portraits Airing on PBS Dec 20, 6:00—7:00 p.m. and December 27, 6:00—7:00 p.m. ( check RI PBS website)

On Nov 1st the videos created by Richard Goulis premiered to a full house at the RISD Musuem. Richard did a wonderful job of capturing complex lives and working processes in just 8 minutes. I was honored to be among the artists featured including: David Allyn, Jillian Barber, Deborah Baronas, Peter Diepenbrock, Gretchen Dow Simpson, Jerold Ehrlich, David Frazer, Paul Housberg, Barbara Owen, Lisa Perez, and Richard Whitten.  The NetWorks project is supported and produced by the magnanimous Joseph A. Chazan, M.D. who believes in the importance of documenting, celebrating, and fostering  the rich and diverse contemporary visual arts community in Rhode Island. To view previously released NetWorks video portraits, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/NetWorksProject2008

Lost Terrains

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Homage to Cuban Woman by Ana Flores

When you lose something as sweeping as your country you grasp for remnants– old family photographs, a cracked tea cup, a piece of jewelry. These fragments remind you of where you came from and who you once were, then you move on– you must. But this lost terrain stays in you like compost. Unexpectedly the smell of jasmine in the steamy evening breeze  will bring you back home – to Vietnam, to Louisiana, or in my case, Cuba.  

You can recapture the taste of the lost earth by cooking the food of your motherland, drinking its aromatic coffee or wine, eating its ripened fruit . Spoonful by spoonful you are transported back – if only for a few fleeting moments. All it takes is a good cup of cafe con leche or home made black beans for the forgotten island to expand inside me. I close my eyes and see the royal palms dancing and smell the sea. The French have a word for this taste of a condensed ecology, they call it terroir. It’s a word commonly used to describe the taste of place to be savored in a good wine. I embrace the larger concept of that word which is how the fullness of a particular place can be powerfully conjured by smell and taste. 

June 7, 2014 - Mediterranean Sea / Italy: Italian navy rescues asylum seekers traveling by boat off the coast of Africa. More than 2,000 migrants jammed in 25 boats arrived in Italy June 12, ending an international operation to rescue asylum seekers traveling from Libya. They were taken to three Italian ports and likely to be transferred to refugee centers inland. Hundreds of women and dozens of babies, were rescued by the frigate FREMM Bergamini as part of the Italian navy's "Mare Nostrum" operation, launched last year after two boats sank and more than 400 drowned. Favorable weather is encouraging thousands of migrants from Syria, Eritrea and other sub-Saharan countries to arrive on the Italian coast in the coming days. Cost of passage is in the 2,500 Euros range for Africans and 3,500 for Middle Easterners, per person. Over 50,000 migrants have landed Italy in 2014. Many thousands are in Libya waiting to make the crossing. (Massimo Sestini/Polaris)
Mediterranean Sea / Italy: Italian navy rescues Rohingya asylum seekers

This last year I have been thinking a lot about the concept of terroir as a coping mechanism for displacement while working on a public art project to honor and collect Rhode Island Latino immigrant stories. The project called Cafe Recuerdos and commissioned by RI Latino Arts features how coffee can be a memory catalyst for where we came from as well as a ritual to settle us into our new homes. The project is built as a functional coffee cart including portraits and vignettes inspired by oral histories published in Nuestros Raicesbook by Marta Martinez. Cafe Recuerdos will soon be visiting many public sites in Rhode Island and collecting new stories.

Its creation has happened during a time when there is an unprecedented number of refugees globally. Every day on the news I hear tragic tales of desperate people fleeing their home because of war, conflict, economics and environmental disasters. Unesco numbers tell us nearly 60 million people are displaced, in 2014 alone 14 million fled their homes. Many of those millions may never really resettle. There are refugee camps that have residents who have been in limbo for twenty years.

I ask myself what will the long term coping mechanisms be for these people and what can we do to help? With our shrinking resources on our planet and exponential growth of the human population will our sense of place reduce down to scratch smell patches or a taste of something out of a bottle or can? There are no easy answers but then I pause and think haven’t the most successful immigrants always been those who let go of those lost terrains, adapt to their new locales and bring back that lost earth in condensed experiences.  

I’ll be eager to hear the stories collected through Cafe Recuerdos and learn from those.The project launches with an artist talk and viewing on August 15th at the South side Cultural Center in Providence. Click here for more on that and the 2015 schedule for Cafe Recuerdos.