David and Sufjan

After a logistical obstacle course, Steven and I drove to Richmond Tuesday to see our friend, David Stith, play with Sufjan Stevens.  We had a good dinner at the home of poet Ian Bodkin, fellow MFA candidate with me at Vermont College of Fine Art, and his wife Wendy.  Ian made an amazing spaghetti sauce that included turkey and mushrooms–richly textured and aromatic (Thanks Ian).

The National, Richmond, Virginia–one of those old-school performance halls with ornate paneling, gilted woodwork, chandeliers.  Inside, everyone was standing packed together listening to David’s opening songs–his voice harmonizing with himself as if he were a one-man choir, through the magic of some kind of instantly recording microphone.  Really, you must hear it for yourself if ever you have the chance.  Midway through the third song, surprise trombones joined in!  I must admit to wriggling with joy at the whispered voices muttering nearby, “Who is this guy?  He’s amazing!”  Suppressing my desire to scream, “That’s my friend!  He gives me tea and writes letters!” I simply answered, “The musician who’s playing?  He’s David Stith, S-T-I-T-H.”
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Field trip to DC

My friend, Paulette Moore, and I gaze up at Finch's "My Business, with the Cloud." Paulette communicated articulately with her hands. Photo by Steven David Johnson.

Yesterday I rode a charter bus with Steven’s art students to Washington, DC, to visit art galleries.  Sun shone and the air was perfect for a long sweater.  I’ve learned, through decades of looking at art, that the best way is to choose only a couple of exhibitions to savor slowly, rather than trying to take in too much at one time.  Good art is like dark chocolate–a little bit satisfies more than ingesting too much.

In the National Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875–an exhibition of both painting and photography–appealed to the romantic in me.  Henry Peach Robinson constructed some of his photographs from multiple negatives, carefully selected to create a compelling narrative, and sometimes mixing media by hand-coloring the resulting image. They’re the equivalent of today’s digitally manipulated photographs.  Over a hundred years later, these feel contemporary to me, almost like a movie still image.  I like the stagey-ness, the carefully researched period costumes in which Lady Clementina dressed up her daughters.  This art era drew heavily from literature, history, mythology and religion. Follow the link below and you can see some highlights from the exhibition, including photographs of Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll’s muse for Alice in Wonderland.


In a completely different vein, in the Corcoran, Spencer Finch’s exhibition My Business, with a Cloud, fascinated me, although in some cases I found the concepts more appealing than the finished art pieces.  He took a scientific/artistic approach to cloud studies, exploring cloud shapes and other weather-related forms in a variety of media: fluorescent light tubes, watercolor sketches, ceramic tiles, plastic. For instance, a series of cloud studies was made with pieces of Scotch tape to build layers of whiteness that resembled different cloud shapes.  Who knew Scotch tape could be so beautiful?   Or a big blue cellophane “cloud” held together with clothespins, suspended from the ceiling.    Four brown watercolor drawings depicted the water stain he sees on the ceiling above his bed.  Most of this exhibition, especially the blue cellophane cloud, felt ephemeral–not something likely to be found in galleries a hundred years from now, but pieces that stand, for now, as fleeting moments of nature’s awe and beauty.  Like clouds.

Also stopped in at the Natural History Museum, and recalled a line from Myles’ book that I’m reading.  Writing of Robert Smithson (you know, Spiral Jetty guy?):

The true ground of all of Smithson’s art and thought is the dialectic between the art in the mind and the art in the world, the work drawing the viewer along a path of creation and destruction and calm.  This man was a kid who, way back when, was far more delighted by the Museum of Natural History than the Met” (The Importance of Being Iceland 82).

My painter-friend Paula once told me she secretly preferred Natural History museums to art museums, and I’m inclined to agree–at least these days, when natural history exhibitions have gotten so beautiful.   How fun when art and science converge in The Hyperbolic Crochet of Coral Reefs, a community-based project currently on display at the Natural History Museum.


And the human origins exhibition is a wonder beyond words.  I have no words, so will simply post an image of the moment of silence I experienced there.

Sharing a contemplative moment with a human ancestor. Photo by Steven David Johnson.

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Conversation with Grandma Davis

Today, on her birthday, I called my grandma, and enjoyed a wide-ranging talk about the family gossip, literature, magazines she reads (The Smithsonian and National Geographic), television, writing, her hearing aids, and handicapped accessibility.  As usual, I enjoyed her witty banter (“They think they’ve fixed the church to be handicapped accessible, but it’s more ‘capped’ than ‘handy’!”), her spouted opinions (“Well, National Geographic is meant to be non-fiction, but how can they be sure what happened millions of years ago?  Seems like it’s at least part imaginative fiction!”), and appreciation for beautiful things (“Your father and D. sent me a bouquet of flowers in fall colors–lilies, snapdragons, and it’s either cosmos or asters . . . so nice to look over and see them”).

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On Contradiction

I read this passage today in David Jauss’s excellent book on the writing craft, Alone With All That Could Happen, in which he quotes Simone Weil:

” ‘We are only certain,’ she says, ‘about what we do not understand.’ The way to understanding, then, is through uncertainty, and the way to leave false certainty behind and enter the realm of uncertainty is through the use of contradiction: ‘As soon as we have thought something,’ she advises, ‘try to see in what way the contrary is true.’  Importantly, the purpose of investigating ideas dialectically is not to eradicate one or the other idea, for contradiction, she argues, is an essential element of both truth and beauty . . .” (Jauss 187)

I love this notion.  Jauss’ entire chapter is about finding truth through contradictions, and I find it so freeing to hear someone  advocating this.  For a long time, I’ve had this problem–that is, I’d perceived it as problematic–of being absolutely confident of one thing, then immediately being equally sure of the exact opposite.  In crafting critical essays, often, I’ll stake a claim on a particular thesis . . . and immediately find piles of evidence to the contrary.  I tend to respond this way to political ideas, too, finding useful, though contradictory, ideas from both political parties, and wishing that all of us could do a better job of harmonizing them in practice.

It’s not necessarily, I think, a lack of conviction when someone brings contrary ideas together, but perhaps a means to a deeper truth.

After all, wasn’t there once a wise religious leader who was fond of pulling together all manner of baffling contradictions, saying things like, “Whomever would save his life must lose it” and “Whomever would be great must be the servant of all”?

Uncertainty is certainly an uncomfortable place to stand, but as I grow older, the more vital it seems for understanding.  Therefore, I’ll continue to be awed by both evolution and Jesus, by music and silence, by the wisdom of children and the elderly, and by, oh, everything and nothing.

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Traces of Tralfamadore

Traces of Tralfamadore Farm, an installation piece that found a home in 2008 at the Davison Gallery of Roberts Wesleyan College, arose out of an apprenticeship with fiber artist and farmer, Nancy Slye.  I’m working on an essay linking the farm with Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, from which Nancy took her farm’s name.

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