The Fun Begins in York

When times were rotten, New York City was nicknamed “Fun City”–a dark commentary on the nightmare of garbage strikes, teacher walkouts, and a financial meltdown. Even in its most hopeless years, New York’s challenges pale in comparison with York, a far smaller and far older place that provided Fun City with its formal name.

The fun begins in York about 10,000 years ago. The Romans showed up about 2,000 years ago–certainly by 71 AD–and you can walk the Roman wall that once guarded the city today. It’s a very pleasant walk on a summer’s day, complete with engaging city views, small cafes, and pretty places to take selfies (admittedly, only parts are original; some are newer, circa 1200 or so, and others, newer still circa 1800-1900). By 875 AD, York was a Viking stronghold–a very large cache of Viking goodies from as far off as Afghanistan can now be found in the British Museum, the result of a York excavation for a new shopping area. Here, we find the roots of York’s current name–the Vikings called their kingdom Jorvik, since corrupted to provide both York and New York their Danish-rooted names.

After the Vikings, York weathered a less distinguished period. One of the worst episodes: the burning of Jews supposedly under government protection in the 1100s–an old castle is still on the site. By 1300, York was both an important government and trading center for England, and remained so until the 1500s. You can walk the streets and see medieval buildings–not unlike walking the world of Harry Potter (celebrated by several souvenir shops).

All of this (except Potter, of course) took place well before anybody even considered the idea of New Amsterdam (founded 1625), or New York (renamed 1664). To celebrate the old days, I visited York with the sole expectation of attending a really excellent Early Music Festival, now held annually each July.

This year’s featured players included The Sixteen (arguably the finest early music vocal group in the world today), and the majestic Gallicantus (a vocal group) in concert with the Rose Consort of Viols (an instrumental group). The latter two performed in an old parish church called St Michael le Belfrey Church (circa 1525) with marvelous acoustics and an equally appealing visual character. The music of Gallicantus celebrated Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and William Lawes (1602-1643), but I was most taken by a contemporary work in the old style by Judith Bingham (b. 1952) called “A Requiem for Mr. William Lawes.” Like so much early music (the term more or less refers to music preceding Bach, Vivaldi, etc.), this is vocal music that reaches directly into the soul, with astonishing countertenors (here David Allsopp and Mark Chambers) singing music that would later become the job of women. The sheer joy of listening to these wonderful musicians would have been sufficient, but the addition of a viol consort–not violins, not violas, as the musicians explained in a private interview, but viols that come up through a different strand of music history and were reproduced from paintings and other scant visual history).

Equally impressive: a Saturday afternoon concert called Revolting Women! featuring music composed by what was likely a small population of female composers from the era. The best was composed by a woman now recalled only by her pseudonym, Mrs Philharmonica, presumably from about 1715. Other names, bound to be unfamiliar, but worth researching, include Isabella Leonarda (1665-1729) and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729). Their work was much enriched by the formidable professor, historian and superior violinist, Lucy Russell, whose name may be familiar from her work with the extraordinary Fitzwilliam String Quarter (which is known for more traditional classical repertoire).

Much as I adore good concerts in old churches, a warm summer day in York offers far too much fun to remain indoors for long. I was disappointed because my schedule would not allow me to attend Richard III at, of all things, a 1000-seat pop-up Shakespeare Rose Theater in the center of town (complete with a shopping and food arcade contemporary to the era). I also had limited time to fully explore Bloom!, a flower festival staged at what seemed to be a hundred places around town. Good used bookstores captured my attention, along with long walks along the river, and the inevitable Betty’s, a 1919 tea shop with wonderful food and spectacular pastries to enjoy along with fine tea service. (In fact, I escaped to nearby Harrogate, where I enjoyed both a lunch at Betty’s and also a walk around the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Harlow Carr gardens, an easy local train ride from classic York train station). Given more time, I would have explored the interior of York Minster, a large and delightfully old cathedral as well–but the lines were long, the schedule a bit restrictive for my 48-hour visit. Including the nearby countryside (moors, Jane Austen, etc.), I would certainly allow at least 72 hours to explore the area, and you’d likely find plenty to do for even four or five days in the York and Yorkshire area (mostly easily reached by train, certainly easily reached by car or even day bus tours).

What have I missed? The quiet pub where the World Cup semi-final victory for England was celebrated in a most dignified manner. The streets outside where everyone’s cheeks (probably both kinds) were painted with tiny English soccer flags, where people sang, loudly with with tremendous dancing exuberance, about how the Cup was “coming home.” Nearly every pub in town was pounding with energy and music–including, inexplicably, “Take Me Home Country Roads” and other boisterous (?) John Denver tunes to which every Brit seemed to know every word; the medley ended with the British (?) classic, “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” All great fun!

Food: very nice classy seafood to be found in Loch Fyne, which is not far from the old church headquarters of National Centre for Early Music (where many concerts are staged throughout the year). Just outside the city walls and down a few blocks, I stayed at the Mount Royal, a good old-style British hotel, perhaps more like an expanded inn, with a very nice outdoor garden and very comfortable rooms with ample space to stretch out. Good respite, very accommodating staff, and lovely to be able to take breakfast (and other meals) outside at leisure before re-entering, well, what turned out to be fun city in the truest sense of the words.

Do take the time to visit York. It’s just a few hours from London. It’s an easy train ride from Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in England, all worth visiting. And the next time I manage a visit, I want to wander the countryside (note to self: allow lots more time to explore this part of the world because it is beautiful, richly historic, and crazy fun).

 

 

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The Tiger, The Hedgehog, and The Grand Decoration

The tiger is George’s Clemenceau, great friend of hedgehog Claude Monet, who turns out to be the last of the impressionists. The story picks up long after Monet had moved to his lovely garden home in Giverny, about halfway upriver from Paris on the way to Rouen. And may recall Rouen because that’s home to the ancient cathedral that Monet painted more than thirty times under all sorts of light. Monet was that kind of artist—obsessive, meticulous, perfectly happy to spend endless hours interpreting the London fog or wheat stacks (similar to hay stracks) not far from his home in the country. When author Ross King picks up Monet’s story, the artist is less enthusiastic about travel, but eager to serve and take healthy part in a lavish lunch before touring the beautiful Giverny garden, visiting the pond and lily pads, or showing off his latest work, most often very large paintings. By now, Monet is far more active than many men his age, still active enough to build a new studio adjacent to the house and fill it with new paintings. Cataracts and other health problems make seeing, and therefore painting with the specific colors he requires, a terrifying challenge. And there is a Great War on the horizon, so his life’s work may be destroyed by the German forces already notorious for precisely this sort of mayhem.

He is also an extraordinarily difficult, insecure, proud man who feels that he must do more for France, provided that doing more is possible on his own exacting terms.

Caught in the middle of what always seems to be a dramatic mess is his faithful friend George’s Clemenceau, who happens to be the nation’s top politician, the man who runs France’s war effort, and is, for much of the book, the only person in the world who can control (and at times, even speak to) the artist.

And so begins the tale of Monet’s oversized, overwrought, absolutely spectacular series of giant water lily paintings—and the custom-redesigned building, The Orangerie, their central Paris home. It is a struggle to the death… the extreme uncertainty that amonet’s temperament, and eyesight, would remain in good working order until the grand decoration, as he called the collective works, were complete.

It’s easy to marvel at Monet’s paintings, but the difficulty he endured in bringing these paintings to life, protecting his work and his artistic soul, and stubbornly insisting that the work be displayed in a very particular way is awesome in the true sense of the word. Is this the craziness and crankiness of an older man who knows the end is near? It would be difficult to argue against that assessment. But here we are, more than a century later, visiting Paris and enjoying the artist’s work in precisely the way he wished, and it’s not easy to claim that his approach was wrong. At the time, sure he was difficult. In the long term, perhaps he was right. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere, not for all, but certainly for some creative professionals. some of the time. Perhaps stubbornness is under-rated.

Author Ross King is both experienced and skillful in recounting the stories of great artists in their prime. One of his best titles is Brunelleschi’s Dome, another in the “is he a madman, or is he a genius?” genre that he handles so well. The best-selling Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a story that has been told in motion picture form–The Agony and the Ecstacy–but his treatment of the material is especially vivid. High marks to Leonardo and The Last Supper, too.

(You should certainly spend time at The Orangerie’s website. It includes a wonderful history, and a virtual tour so you can see all of the great decoration paintings.)

 

 

 

Give the Gift of Power (and Light)

Sure, you could buy friends and family member an Amazon gift card, or a pair of gloves, but it’s fun to think beyond the obvious. Here’s a fresh idea:

Get a Yeti

Sure, Yeti has done an amazing job with their line of pricy coolers that now seem to be available in a great many retail stores. They’re terrific for camping trips, tailgating, and long car trips. However, that’s not the Yeti I mean. I suppose it might be interesting to give someone an abominable snowman, which is the origin of the term Yeti. What I mean is the kind of Yeti that’s made by Goal Zero, a company that specializes in portable power.

The front panel looks a bit complicated, but that’s because the Yeti does a lot of different things. Basically, you’re looking at a big battery that can power all sorts of things. Model 1000, which costs about $1,300, is new for this season. You charge the battery by either plugging it into an AC outlet (18 hours for a full charge), or attaching a set of solar panels, also made by Goal Zero, available separately (in a variety of sizes and capacities). When you need the power, you discharge the battery in a number of different ways: you can recharge a laptop computer more than fifteen times, or a mid-sized LCD television about a dozen times, or your smart phone more than fifty times, or any combination. On this particular model, there are two AC outlets for output, five USB slots, and a 12-volt (car charger), and more. The Yeti 1000 weighs about 40 pounds.

You can spend less money for a lighter, simpler Yeti: the 12-pound Model 150 costs about $200, and you can use it charge a laptop once or twice, or a smart phone about ten times. There is one AC output and there are two USB outlets. There are seven different models; if you are considering a purchase, aim higher than your current needs.

Go Smaller

When I traveled this summer, I insisted upon reliable portable power for my flashlight, tablet and smart phone, but I wasn’t about to carry a Yeti. Fortunately, Goal Zero offers a nifty small battery and charger that makes an ideal gift. No AC power, but the USB system is very well designed. I especially like the Venture 70 Recharger because it will charge a tablet once or twice, or a phone a half dozen times. And, it comes with a built-in (very bright) flashlight. The USB cables frame the device and never get lost. You can charge the device via an AC/USB combination overnight. The Venture 70 costs $150, and you can add a Nomad 20 portable Solar Panel for another $200. The combination allows you to operate, and recharge, just about anywhere. A smaller version, the $99 Venture 30, can be purchased as part of a pre-packaged kit.

For the car

I’ve got my eyes on a combination flashlight, solar panel and floodlight called the Goal Zero Torch 250. I feel more secure because the light can be lit by hand crank, an increasingly popular option for flashlights used in vehicles (crank it for a minute and get two minutes of light). I like the built-in solar panel: it’s modest, and it requires 24 hours of sunlight to fully charge. This clever, well-built device is priced right at $80.

Get a Flashlight

If you haven’t shopped for a flashlight in a while, you may be surprised. I was. Today’s flashlights are high-tech, high power devices that cost $100 or more–and provide a remarkable amount of light. I’ve had good luck with LEDLenser, a German company now controlled by Oregon-based Leatherman, which makes pocket multi-tools. I especially like the model P7-2, which costs $70. It operates on three AAA batteries, and if you press the special button, it will provide 320 lumens–a great deal of light if you are, for example, walking a dog at night. It’s small enough to fit into your hand, or into a purse (or a man bag). I tried some of LEDLenser’s lesser lights because they’re smaller, lighter and less expensive, but I’ve come back around to the P7.2. There are options for flashlights that operate with button batteries, and also flashlights that can be recharged via USB. Lots of options here.

LEDLenser competes in a crowded field, but I like their products and I prefer shopping on their website. Nitecore and Fenix are among the quality competitors. And if you would like to do some serious research about innovative flashlights and features, here’s the place to go.

Painting Outdoors

Technically, the correct term is “en plein air,” which means, more or less, “in the open air” when translated into English from the original French. For the experienced artist, plein air painting means spending the day outside, regardless of the weather, bugs, access to bathrooms, lugging heavy or messy gear, trying to concentrate while passers-by stop to tell you all about how their great niece used to be able to draw but met this guy and things didn’t work out but she’s still a really good artist even though she doesn’t draw as often as she used to and then wonders whether the girl drew, painted, or did something else entirely.

I love to paint outdoors. In fact, I strongly prefer painting outside to painting indoors, even though my easel and other gear is heavy (I paint with pastels, which weigh a lot when you carry too many of them, as I do), but I’ve never been quite sure whether I’m doing things properly. I don’t want to bother other artists who are, clearly, more experienced and more talented than I will ever be. So I muddle along.

Fortunately, the former editor of Plein Air magazine, who was, for many years, the editor of American Artist magazine, has written a very helpful (and inspirational) book entitled The Art of Plein Air Painting: An Essential Guide to the Materials, Concepts and Techniques for Painting Outdoors. His name is M. Stephen Doherty, and he is doing a wonderful job as the print version of a trusted teacher.

Willingness to paint outdoors requires more than straightforward skills. It requires a real desire to be part of the place that you’re painting. It’s a mindset, an attitude, a combination of willingness to be flexible and a desire to capture the light and sensibility that you cannot quite find by referring to a photograph. That’s why the book begins not with a discussion of portable easels (that comes later), but with an insightful illustrated essay posing as Chapter 1: “Why Paint Outdoors?” He focuses on the mental game and also shows himself in the game, on the street, easel set up just beside a construction site so he can get just the right view, messy paint-covered sweatshirt and slight scowl and all. He ponders how much of the work needs to be done outdoors–if you finish up indoors, which is often tempting if the weather or other conditions aren’t ideal–does a plein air painting retain its plein air status if it’s only 20 or 30 percent painted outdoors? How about 70 or 80 percent? No matter. If you do any of the work outdoors, Doherty says it counts.

The book’s emphasis is on oil painting–and that makes sense because most people who paint outside tend to work in oils. But he does take the time to address the needs of those who work in watercolor (which is difficult inside and even more difficult in the field), pastels, acrylics, and so on.

As with most books of this sort, there are profiles of artists that the author admires, and lessons to be learned from each of them. There are also good large photographs of many types of plein air paintings, useful both for inspiration and also for studying technique. I like to see a good history chapter, too, in part because it’s fun to consider myself part of a longer tradition that once included John Constable, and Jean-Baptiste Corot, and best of all, painters who were part of the majestic Hudson River School.

There are bits about drawing outdoors–I wish there was a lot more of that. There is plenty of good guidance about choosing locations, finding the best spot, knowing your physical limits, simplifying what you see so you don’t get lost in details. I wish there was more about patience–after a few hours of painting outdoors, the fatigue is always a factor, and I never know quite when to give it up for the day.

Most of all, though, there are pictures. Lots of pictures that were painted outside. Remember: Doherty was a long-time editor of one of the world’s finest magazines about art. He knows how to choose images, and that’s probably the book’s greatest strength. It is a joy to meander through the pages, browse, stop for deeper study, then move on to well-written commentary about most topics that plein air artists rarely see in book form.

Nice job!

Joseph McGurl is one of many superb artists included in The Art of Plein Air Painting. Click on the image to see more of McGurl’s work.

 

 

The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

Experimenting with a New Medium

We all find our comfort zones, but every once in a while, it’s fun to try something new. For me, something new is, in fact, something quite old: a formulation of colored pastels that includes oil. Remember “Cray-Pas” from elementary school art class? I’m playing with the grown-up version, originally designed by Henri Sennelier, in Paris, in response to his friend Pablo Picasso’s request for oil paint that could be applied in stick form.  Nearly seventy years later, Pastels à L’Huile, or Oil Pastels, continue to be a part of art supplier Sennelier’s product line. Since I enjoy working with pastels, I thought I’d try a boxed assortment of 24 oil pastels and consider the possibilities.

Unlike most media, oil pastels can be used to draw, paint or otherwise color on a remarkable range of surfaces including (but not limited to) paper, canvas, cardboard, wood, metal, plastic, or glass. And like watercolor pencils and watercolor sticks, oil pastels can provide the color in a mix with a solvent–essentially providing a very portable set of oil paints with minimalistic clean-up. They look, feel, and behave a bit like lipstick. Have a look at the video and you’ll see the possibilities.

The best way to get a sense of oil pastels is to buy a few a handful (visit Rochester Art Supply, or Dakota Pastels). For a basic introduction to the art and craft, I picked up a used copy of Oil Pastel for the Serious Beginner by John Elliot (I like other titles in this series, especially the ones about watercolor and pastels). You might also visit a few sites, like Eric Green’s Beginner’s Guide to Oil Pastels, or, even better, Explore Oil Pastels with Robert Sloan which is, easily, the best website about oil pastels in the world.

Sloan’s work with oil pastels is excellent. Below, two images from his website gallery, both already sold, but several equally handsome pieces are available.

Of course, there is nothing like getting your hands dirty. Sennelier’s set of 24 assorted oil pastels is just about right for the start–a spectrum mostly comprised of mid-tones, a bit lacking in lights and darks.

At the most basic level, you can use Sennelier oil pastels as you would crayons–an adult version of crayons, carefully isolating each stroke in the same way that some children keep their peas far away from anything else on the dinner plate. For graphic work, that’s a reasonable approach, but you lose out on some of the magical quality of oil pastels. These little guys (they really are fairly little) blend colors just beautifully–but you must use a very light touch to get the best possible effect. Once you start filling the surface’s texture with the pasty output, mixing and refinement becomes challenging.

I found a helpful way to practice, and refine my technique: I use “the wire side” (highly textured) of Canson’s reasonably inexpensive Mi-Teintes paper, and when I start filling  the small pores in the paper with pigment, I have pressed too hard.

Another helpful note: the stickiness requires a special kind of attention. When blending, the stick picks up the blending color, so it’s not unusual to see a yellow oil stick with a film of, say, bright red or green. With dry pastels, you can usually wipe this off easily. With oil pastels, you must be vigilant, always keeping a lint-free bit of cloth nearby so you can wipe stray colors off the sticks. At first, this is annoying, but I got used to it.

Each stick is supplied in a paper wrapper–very useful to keep your hands clean, because the sticks become sticky and softish. But they do break inside the wrappers, and there’s not much you can do about that (then again, you can buy a larger, thicker version of Sennelier Oil Pastels, which may be preferable for some artists).

On and off for a year, I’ve been playing with these oil pastels. At first, I found them to be exceedingly difficult to control, an emotional return to my childhood frustration with Cray-Pas–just too thick, too rich, too everything for my comfort zone. In time, I came to understand the value of a lighter touch. Now, I find myself happy and content, mostly sketching and blending colors, every-so-softly, finding that I can experiment with color mixes with an immediacy and vivacity that’s not readily available in other media. It’s just plain fun to sketch with oil pastels, and if drift into nonrepresentational mode, so much the better. It’s tough for me to get a clear representation of a real life object with these sticks, but that’s why I use other media. It’s tough for me to enjoy the gentle abstraction that I find easy with oil pastels when I try to do the same with other media.

I tried a blending stick–Sennelier Oil Pastel # 221–and at first, I disliked rubbing what seemed like a white wax candle on my work. Then, I tried again, several more times, and I began to appreciate the way the blending stick pushes the vivid colors together. I can do the same with my finger with dry pastels, but the effect is different here (and, besides, finger blending with oil pastels, at least with my fingers, makes an awful mess).

All of which makes me admire the sample work from Robert Sloan even more. I am not yet at a point where I can exert real control over the strokes–and when I see the precision that he achieved on his big cat drawing, I feel good because I know that it is possible for a human being to exert that kind of control on what are, so far, tools that I have not yet mastered.

That’s the fun, of course. If you already know how to do something, maybe there’s not much opportunity to learn. Right now, I am just a beginner, and I celebrate the frustration, the sheer joy in knowing that I can and will learn, and develop at least a modest form of mastery over what amounts to a sophisticated version of crayons (in the best professional sense of the term).

Samples of my work? Perhaps in a few years. For now, I’m happy as a beginning student in a new medium. No need to embarrass myself. I’m learning a lot, and I’m reporting my progress. And doing my best to spread the knowledge I’m gaining along the way.

Another thing I’ve learned about myself (though I suppose this is common to others, too): I am always drawn to collections of bright colors across the spectrum, but these sets are not always the best choice for learning about a new medium. Lights and darks make all the difference, so I will soon be enhancing my basic spectrum set. For those with a bit of money and a sense of adventure, two other sets are probably a better place to begin than the 24 Assorted selection–the wood box set of 50 “Original Picasso Colors” (on sale at Fine Art Store for $117), or, for $50-60 more, the set of 72 colors in a nice cardboard box (Fine Art Store: $173). Both include a useful mix of light, mid and dark tones–of course, the 72 set is preferable. Or, you can just buy a handful of whatever oil pastels you’d like–Sennelier products are widely distributed throughout the world. Just visit a good art supply store.

Sennelier is not the only company offering portable oil sticks–Holbein sells a very wide range of colors (224 to Sennelier’s 120), and Cretacolor sells a similar product under the name AquaStics, which are water soluble. Winsor & Newton sells much larger and thicker Oil Bars–with a different formulation that categorizes their product as more closely related to oil paints in solid form, less aligned with oil pastels (“Don’t mistake them for oil pastels, though – Oilbars are made to a special formulation of linseed or safflower oil and wax.”–from the company’s website). Sennelier also makes and sells oil sticks.

Reform School

The memory is hazy, but the term is familiar from childhood. Kids who behaved badly were threatened with reform school. I just read up on the term. Sure enough, it was a teacher’s idle threat—reform schools were popular beginning just before the Civil War, and mostly fell apart nearly a hundred years ago. Reform school was a place to send incorrigible boys while keeping them out a adult prisons, where they were abused, transformed into criminals, and often, both.

“Reform school” is one of the few English phrases that might be a tesseract—a multidimensional geometric shape (square is to cube as cube is to tesseract). When the word “reform” is used as a verb, not an adjective, it leads the way to the school reform.

We can flip that term on its head, too. Like reform school, public schooling is an ingenious idea born of a far away period when families were in need of literacy, and citified behavior. Learn to read, write, speak and behave properly, and, odds were, you would find worthwhile, long term employment and economic success.

Looking at the term today, school reform feels anachronistic. Henry Ford’s comment about faster horses comes to mind (“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), even though he never said or wrote those words. We accept school as a permanent institution because we cannot imagine a better modern solution. What else would we do with 50-55 million kids every day? Our economic system is now based upon parents who, by and large, work every day to support increasingly expensive lives. So we think in terms of constantly improving, perhaps even reforming (that is, re-forming, or forming in a new way) our schools.

Perhaps the phrase, and the concept, or reformed schools are too limiting. Perhaps the generation of children and teenagers are as diverse in their interests as they are in their heritage. Perhaps their insistence upon trusting the video and social media on their cell phones is, in fact, a very powerful tool for customized learning.

Perhaps children and teenagers have already bypassed their concerned parents’ desire or need to reform school. Instead, many are already pursuing the divergent, often disruptive, path to learning on their own. Or, perhaps, reformation into classrooms with rows of permanent desks, all eyes on the teacher in the front of the room, really is the best way to train young minds.

Or should we be concerned, instead, with learning reform, or, more clearly, learning reorganized, recontextualized, re-formed, or just plain reformed? How might that look? Would we move from the well-intentioned IEP to a celebration of well-organized self-directed learning?

How does any of that marry the once all powerful needs of industry? Or is everything just moving too darned fast for those needs to matter in a world where digital changes everything much faster than contemporary educators can teach? Are students reforming the beliefs, knowledge and understanding in their minds with a reformulated version of a teacher? Perhaps the key is teacher reform?

Finally, there are the strange bedfellows, curiosity and education. The former is associated independent thinking—parents encourage children to “think for yourself.” The latter is concerned with consistent results for the good of society—teachers encourage children to “learn the curriculum” which allows limited opportunity and encouragement for individual thinking, self-expression, divergent paths, and imagination. We certainly need to regenerate the curiosity and creative thinking that becomes lost in so many students, so many children, as the education system helps them to mature. In short, we ought to re-form or reconstitute curiosity in every grade and in every way. So we might be attempting to reform curiosity, and maybe that’s wise because reforming education sounds like something that might be impossible to do because school boards, principals, teachers and other educators are not trained to think or behave as reformers in any sense of the term.

Reform school? Sure, but let’s not spend all of our intellectual capital on a movement that digital transformation will eradicate with or without our help. Reform learning? Sure, and if we don’t get to it soon, Google will take care of the problem for us, or a Facebook might. And, in any case, kids are already reforming learning, on a massive scale, without adult supervision. Reform the teachers? Their own political solidity may assure the demise of a once noble profession. Reform education? Read your Clayton Christensen—this is an industry ripe for a massive disruption because the incremental variety almost always leads to a forgotten enterprise. Re-form curiosity? You bet! Encourage students to pursue their own paths, albeit in an organized way! Sounds good. Also sounds like, well, like college on a very good day.

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Above, John Dewey, who was doing a lot of writing and thinking about these ideas long before I was born. He wasn’t the only one, of course, and there have been many since, but some of Dewey’s ideas continue to resonate. From PBS: “To Dewey, the central ethical imperative in education was democracy. Every school, as he wrote in The School and Society, must become “an embryonic community life, active with types of occupations that reflect the life of the larger society and permeated throughout with the spirit of art, history and science. When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

The Sage and Family Man

The place was a mess. It had “fallen into ruin: windows were broken, the roof leaked, the terraces had rotted through, graffiti defaced the front of the house, souvenir hunters had chipped away at [the] burial shaft…bats and rats gamboled and searched for food in the empty dwelling.”

Good thing the owner already did. Seeing his house this way would have broken his heart.

After he finished with the Presidency, and politics, Thomas Jefferson finally completed Monticello, and did precisely what he had hoped to do before he got talked into running for president in the first place–he gave himself time to think, roam and inspect his farms, read the classics, write to friends, and, as a “hobby,” built what became the University of Virginia not far from Monticello. Like George Washington, Jefferson was constantly short on funds, the result of a slave-based farming economy that required far more personal attention than a public figure could provide, and some lousy luck.

From the University of Virginia collection

I just finished reading about 500 pages about the life of Thomas Jefferson, my third presidential biography (I hope to read at least one book about every president, which may not be so easy to do because there are gaps in the literature and gaps in my patience for some of the people who served in the office). I began with Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Chernow wrote the Hamilton biography that inspired the musical), and continued with David McCullough’s magnificent John Adams (the basis for the HBO series starring Paul Giamatti). There are lots of Jefferson biographies, including the classic six-book series, Jefferson in His Time by Dumas Malone, and Jon Meacham’s more recent The Art of Power. I chose the new Jefferson book by Rice University Professor John B. Boles because it seemed to be fair-handed, and because it seemed to balance personal and professional life without overdoing it on the brilliance of Jefferson’s accomplishments and authorship. I am not a presidential scholar, so it’s difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the work, or to compare it with other lifetime biographies, but Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty seemed to fit the bill.

Begin at the beginning. Based upon available accounts (Boles consistently prefers available accounts to his own intuition), Thomas’s father Peter was an intelligent, well-read, ambitious man who married well, bringing the Randolph family and the Jefferson clan together in one of Virginia’s great extended families. Peter died young, and left a considerable amount of prime Albemarle County land to the family. So begins the saga of Monticello.

When he was 26, Thomas became a college student, attending William and Mary College in Williamsburg and greatly benefiting from one particular professor, Dr. William Small, a Scotsman, who focused Jefferson’s keen intellect on rational thought. Jefferson wrote that Small had been “to me as a father,” and “to his enlightened & affectionate guidance of my studies…I am endebted for every thing.” Small introduced Jefferson to two friends: a law professor named George Wythe, and the royal governor Frances Fauquier. So began Jefferson’s introduction to public life and politics–in the very small capital city of the colony of Virginia, early in the 1760s.

Through a growing circle of political connections, Jefferson made his way through the courts and eventually into the legislature. Boles presents Jefferson’s professional and personal growth by presenting the young legislator’s growth in good alignment with the colonial struggles against an increasingly aggressive England. Even in his earliest work as an attorney, Jefferson’s principles were explicit: “Under the law of nature…all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to be his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it as his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of his nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.” This was written in connection with an April 1770 case involving a complicated multi-generational question about miscegenation and slavery.

Like George Washington and other wealthy Virginians, Thomas Jefferson relied upon slaves to operate his plantations, operate small businesses, and maintain some degree of economic stability (not his strongest suit). Wisely, Boles does not allow the chronological storytelling to become bogged down in lengthy inquiries into Jefferson’s philosophies about slavery in general or his own slaves in particular. It’s well known that Jefferson has more than a personal stake: his decades-long relationship with Sally Hemmings–and the majority of slaves under Jefferson’s control were members of the large Hemmings family. That discussion is reserved for chapter 29, after Jefferson has reconciled differences and renewed friendship with John Adams, after Jefferson’s 90-plus year old body finally gave out. Boles allows Jefferson a fair amount of latitude here. Basically, the author presents Jefferson as man of his time, and at the time, his behavior was considered perfectly reasonable–despite the fact that Jefferson’s outlook on slavery in general was restrictive. In essence, Jefferson hoped that his decisions and his writings would begin a long movement in which slavery would be eliminated in due course, not as the result of any single action.

There is a great deal of story in these 500+ pages–life in Paris (which he adored), returning to the U.S. and reluctantly becoming the nation’s first Secretary of State, his complete and all-encompassing love for his daughter and so many family members (most of all, Jefferson was a family man), his philosophical differences and battles with John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, his love for and extreme distaste for politics, his raw ambition and relentless curiosity, his utter disappointment with Merriwether Lewis who utterly failed to document the science and much of the detail in his documentation of the famous expedition with William Clark, and his ability to manage an astonishing range of interests and activities that can be experienced, at least in a cursory way, by a largely rebuilt Monticello estate.

So it’s off to James Madison for me. I need to decide whether to pick things up with the Lynne Cheney biography, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, or the Kevin R. C. Gutman biography, James Madison and the Making of America (which seems to be very focused on the U.S. Constitution, and less on the man’s whole life)This decision is made more complicated because of a weak link in the chain: of the two James Monroe biographies that might follow, neither is likely to suit my purpose. Suggestions are welcome.

 

The Future of Television (in Black & White)

9-14-17 NYer

As reported in a magazine that will soon celebrate its 100th birthday.

The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

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