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Robinson_Girl_at_Piano

 

It dawned on me the other day that the piano pieces I play now, I actually learned in 5th and 6th grade. Twenty three years ago I deciphered the notes, rhythms, intonation, but the process of inbuing the composition with content has been ongoing. Some of the works, like Tchaikovsky’s “October,” are still alluring and mysterious, but already, somewhat familiar on a personal level. Having this sense of mutual understanding today between me and the composer, I cannot help but look back on the twelve-year-old self, and, by extension, on my twelve-year-old daughter, and wonder what content I could have possibly filled the music with then.

The first chords of October ring ponderously, dripping foggy precipitation from smoldering autumn leaves. This was my filling, I recall – the melodiously dying, decaying foliage that lives in my marrow and under arm pits, as a child of St.Petersburg. A scuttling squirrel, a chance boletus. Sweet sadness, the end of the line, a natural terminus that comes before the big sleep. Yes, there are some questions posed by the melody lines, some answers, even, but as a child, you don’t know what you don’t know. Even – you don’t suspect that you don’t know it.

I do wonder now how children are able to play adult music with feeling. As my daughter chomps down indelicately on familiar motifs, I wail in exasperation, “For the love of all that’s holy, you’re not chopping down trees here! You are telling the story of love and loss and trouble and deep gratitude and mirth. Can’t you at least imitate emotion?!”   But she cannot help that she is asked to tell another’s story; she has no experience of her own to draw on. And what the child prodigies can do is feasible only because…well…they’re prodigies. Their capacity and ability must extend to an emotional intelligence far ahead of their years. Or perhaps, it is not even the feelings that they grasp through a powerful empathetic organ, but their ability to access a deeper truth to which truly fine art speaks. They tap into it, and are able to share it with others almost without understanding it themselves.

As I drift through another harmonic idea in the second movement, it tickles me to think of Tchaikovsky as a man in early middle age. Far removed in history and geography, we are still quite close epistemologically. We know the same stuff. We know. And we question. It is not a time of ecstatic exploration of one’s early 20’s, nor of resigned contemplation of the aging 60’s. It is somewhere in the middle – involved and thoughtful, comfortable with questions, thankful for a few solid facts. The conversation we can now have through Pyotr Ilych’s music is more intimate and concrete.

And so we converse. He has laid out the format of our discourse, but I provide the emphases, the exclamations, the shades of meaning; the questions. How lovely that this piece has traveled with me, lived in me, for over two decades. How much more connected to it do I feel now, at 35. A stray thought and a quick search leads me to the dates that confirm it: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, and was commissioned to write the series of The Seasons (including October) in 1875. He was 35.

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wave

The finality and sheer volume of the moving water column underlies all of the dreams: a sense of suffocating inevitability smeared with an animal fear. But the circumstances are varied, concocted by an invasive fancy of a fixated mind.

We may be building sand castles. The whoosh-whish of the coastal wind shimmies the pebbles, dry reeds slither down the dunes and the sun bakes at high noon. Our naked backs are turned towards the water and then the seagull soundtrack stops, the shadow of the wall climbs gingerly over our toasted shoulders…we see it mount the ramparts of the castle. Before we have a chance to turn we feel it crushing down on the chaise-longues, plastic neon-green buckets, sunscreen lotions and bathers, and us of course. I gasp for air and jolt up in bed, coarse grains of sand in my mouth, tasting still the saltiness…

Or: I am in Estonia on the Gulf of Finland with my grandparents. Happy feelings as I clamber, hand over foot, carefully up the gnarled pine. Sticky sap leaves black stains on palm and knee, a soft breeze murmurs sweet nothings and bits of hair tickle the nape. Finally up high enough, I turn to look out to the sea and…the sea is standing. I utter a chocked “Ah!” and then the wall collapses over me, my grandparents, the stand-in chaise-lonuges and beach umbrellas. We all a-jumble are rushing with the water down a tremendous slope, and when we hit the bottom…

Or: I am in the city and it’s Independence Day, the movie. I am in the movie and the water comes as seen from a chopping helicopter. Velcroed to the road I tear a leg off and make an awkward, wide step away, then another. Then the water comes and I wake in a cold sweat, wrestling the tangled sheets and half-hanging off the bed, suspended by an unnatural balancing scheme.

These dreams started coming as I was coming of age: 14, 15, 16. I don’t remember that they started, only that it felt like I’ve had them for a long time. Before, I loved the ocean, frolicked fearlessly in the waves but now even the thoughts nauseated me.  Why? It was a mystery.

The pieces begin to fit together after Papa recalled, quite accidentally, an incident we had when I was maybe ten. We were on a beach in Massachusetts, Papa and I holding hands and diving into the waves while the rest of the family basked. An especially strong wave wrenched my hand from Papa and I tumbled dryer-style with the breaking wave, lost to him as he frantically searched the waters. Sure, within a minute I got footing and stood up and the swimming continued, but dad was shaken. For years he had recurring memories of that event, blaming himself for not holding tighter, for putting me in danger. I forgot the incident completely until he brought it up in my twenties.

Memory believe before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Kinship, genetics, unconsciously mumbled words – what is it that passes our fears to our children? The pieces are coming together and falling apart, oscillations of a pendulum, an optical illusion going in and out of focus. Dreams bring up the forgotten, the buried. But even – that buried by our parents.

In conversation with my ten-year old daughter we stumble upon night-time dreams. She shares that her scariest ones have to do with water. She dreams of tsunamis hundreds of feet high, crashing upon civilization. That interminable liquid wall, crushing her and everything around her. An excellent swimmer, always at ease in the pool, the lake, the river, the ocean, where did she learn to fear the wave? How did she know it was scary? Who told  her…?

Gourd_Weave

A few days ago I joined the Texas Gourd Society. I’ve been in love with these creatures for a while, so it’s only right to make it official.

Gourds seem an artisan’s universal canvas. They provide great surfaces for oil and acrylic paint, are ideal for pyrography and wood carving of all caliber, and are all-around pleasant entities. The gentle undulations in their form, the soft, smooth finish, the fibrous innards and sweet, earthy aroma make working with them a soothing, rhythmic exercise as much as a meditative practice. They’re also great for embellishing with weaving, and encrusting them with beads, glass, sea shells, and much more. But what really attracts me to them as an art medium is the fact that they are round.

When you paint on a flat surface, the story you tell has a definite beginning and end. In Western art, I would postulate, it reads from left to right. For instance, the traditional reclining nudes typically have their heads on the left half of the canvas and their feet point towards the right side. That way, as you’re scanning the painting, “reading” it by force of habit from left to right, you first see the head, the key element and then the rest of the body. The edges of the canvas serve as the frame of the composition, a focal lens through which the artist shows us a specific, limited reality.

With gourds, the story depicted has no beginning or end. It goes on and on, or it doesn’t go at all. It is as rhythmic as a musical round or chant, it ebbs and flows and you can grow mesmerized, turning it about its axis, following the patterns with your eyes. Besides offering this unique medium on which to create, the gourd adds flavor and dimensionality to your piece with its shapeliness. A narrow, curvy top doubles as a neck inclined in perplexity. A fat, full-bellied bottom makes a lovely foundation to weave on.

Incidentally, the idea of a perpetual decorative field is not limited to the well-shaped pumpkin. The concept of ornament, prolific in many ancient cultures and reaching into modernity, is the most wide-spread attempt to create a sense of an unending, rhythmic motion on a two-dimensional surface. The patterns and designs repeat with no visible end in sight, often finishing where they started, turning in on themselves, fractalling or transmuting across the borders of wooden carvings, friezes, church walls, dress hems. A more contemporary example of squeezing the perpetual into a flat rectangle of space can be seen in M.C.Escher’s work. Hands continue drawing hands ad infinitum, stairs descend with no visible plan to reach the bottom, birds morph into fish that morph into birds that morph…

But still, the gourd is better suited for this type of work. Plus, you can even use its internal space to embellish the pictorial message on the outside surface. The only problem posed by the unusual shape is how to display it: you can’t hang it on a wall, you can’t put it in a frame. You can’t really even set it down because the artist might have painted or decorated it all the way around on the bottom. But I am certain that those creatives who tackle gourds in the first place, will come up with appropriate ways to display their craft.

In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 

Mosaic

The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.

 

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“Le Pecheur” by Paul Desire Trouillebert

We had been talking about buying pictures for a long time. The same way that people talk about buying yachts, retiring in Tuscany, or becoming an astronaut. At some point Gri shared a solid argument in favor of chosing fine art as an investment option. He said that you can invest in real estate, bonds, stock, or even jewelry. And the object will just sit there, appreciating, meanwhile giving you no joy. However, if you invest in paintings, they will hang on your walls and make you happy. When the time comes, you will sell them and buy new ones, and be happy again.

Ofcourse he did not use those exact terms. He said “you will derive aesthetic pleasure.”

For him it was and will always be about the artistic idea. When, taken to its logical conclusion, the idea pinned him against the metaphorical wall, he confirmed without batting an eye: yes, he would rather buy a beautiful painting by an unknown artist at a garage sale then win an ugly Picasso on Christie’s.

For me, the allure has been multifasceted. Yes, it would be nice if the painting touched you personally, resonating with an inner vibration of your soul. But a piece of art is an object, with its own history, entourage, name. Some think that every house should have a pizza-cutter; others believe a dog is essencial. I think a home should have objects which embed it into the ebb and flow of history. Imagine – a painting created 250 years ago in a small town in Holland: made by commission and sold to an aristocrat, or kept within the family. Think of the journey it’s taken through the rise of industrialization, through wars and cease fires, through regime consuming regime. Hidden in attics, forgotten under beds, the painting lived its secret life, waiting to be rediscovered. The varnish cracked and sometime in the harsh winter of 1929 it was almost burned for firewood. Then, languishing in a county museum, it was dropped by an intern and a bit of the gilded frame chipped off.

I would want to be a part of that journey. As it sleeps some more in an auction backlot in the 2070’s, I want it to remember the many years (a brief time, by its standards) that it hung on my wall, proudly illuminated and peered over. I want it to remember the children’s crazy shouts and squeals, the salmon smells wafting from the kitchen, the oohs and aahs of infrequent guests.

The painting knows who painted it, but often, we do not. At best, it is just a name, forgotten but for those five centimeters of immortality on the canvas. But we would pose conjectures, and through them, that artist would live. Or, if it is a know painter, we would become a part of that story – no longer isolated from the great movements of civilization. We could have been a speck of driftwood, thousands of miles away from any life, isolated in life and in death. But now we would be in the thick of life, swimming along with whales and other proverbial giants, catching the historical current, surrounded by living organisms.

Such were my thoughts, and in my head they would have remained. Except this happened: I chanced upon a website that serves as a marketplace for large fine art auction houses all over the world. Suddenly I was looking at hundreds of paintings a day, many hours spent pouring over descriptions, prices, researching names, dates, shipping rates. Walking outside, my vision began to play tricks on me – the green of the trees smudged in its pastel variations. The cars on the roadways mutated to horse-drawn buggies, and I swear I saw a Danish Red cow with a couple of peasants in that field behind our house. The monochromy of the lake I pass every day variagated into a thousand airy brush strokes of blues, greens and canary yellows, the sky too danced and strutted in all of its impressionistic glory. Yesterday I had a dream that a squarish, jagged-edged spy was following me as I made my escape in a Mondrianesque labyrinthe.

Fortunately, these altered states of consciousness did not impede me from making a few very good bids. And I must confess, as we speak, several paintings from the far corners of the world are making their way towards me. And I am waiting.

I have been waiting…

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