Category Archives: Art

A Spark on Water Street in Augusta

Once upon a time, towns and small cities in Maine were thriving, busy places. Maine is a state with many rivers, and along those rivers were factories that made shoes, spun wool, and produced paper. There was a downside: Those factories polluted the water and the air. But they also provided good jobs. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the factories left, one by one, to go to places where there was cheaper labor, first in the southern part of the United States and then out of the country all together.

The devastating effect of this on Maine, a small, rural state with only a million people, cannot be overstated. No big tech companies rushed in to fill the void, the way they have in more populous states in southern New England. Therefore, young people left—Maine has the largest percentage of senior citizens in the country.  Many of those who stayed behind pieced together a patchwork life of part-time work.  Or, full-time jobs that barely pay enough to raise a family, buy a house, and pay for a college education. (Hannaford Supermarkets is one of the largest employers in Maine, along with Wal-Mart.)

Not surprisingly, when the great factories fell silent, once flourishing downtowns went into a tailspin. Business after business closed, and all over Maine there were so many empty store fronts that Tim Sample, a Maine humorist, joked about the “Vacant Building Festival” in Eastport, Maine, where the locals supposedly quip that “If you could buy a Greyhound bus ticket with a food stamp, we’d all be outta here.”

Funny, but ouch, and this applies to much of Maine, not just to Eastport.  It certainly applies to central Maine, to Augusta, the state capital, whose downtown on Water Street has been moribund for so long that only an old timer like me remembers when it was thriving.

However, lately there have been sparks of life on Water Street, and those sparks have burst into a little flame. Appropriately enough, Cushnoc Brewing Co., a brewery that also serves pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, seems to have been one of the first to light the spark in Augusta. (My son-in-law Michael maintains that breweries have done a lot to revive communities. Perhaps he is right.)

Along with Cushnoc came other businesses—Otto’s, Circa 1885, and most recently Huiskamer Coffee House, where we went on Saturday to hear our friend Claire Hersom read poetry along with Jay Franzel and Bob MacLaughlin.

Huiskamer Coffee House is a delight. There are couches, comfortable chairs, tables, and Vermeer and Mondrian prints. (What a contrast between the two artists!)  Wonder of wonders, there was good tea—Harney & Sons—as well as good coffee. Grace Fecteau, one of the owners, let us use our own mugs for tea and coffee, but there are ceramic mugs and plates.

Here is a view of the coffee house from our table.

And here is a picture of the delightful Claire.

As the poets read, subjects ranged from the Red Sox to back country roads to being poor in Maine. To having a father with Alzheimer. Some of the poetry was intense, some of it was funny, and all of it was close to the bone.

How nice that the coffee house was full of people listening to poetry. Tea and coffee were drunk, scones and soup eaten.

When Clif and I left, it was still light out, and on Water Street, there were cars parked on both sides of the road. People walked on the sidewalk.

Even five years ago, Water Street was deserted on nights and weekends. Not anymore.

May this spark continue to grow.

 

A Week in Two Acts

Act I

What’s Making Me Droopy

On Monday, Winter let us know it was not quite done with Maine by sending a storm that dropped five or six inches of snow. Once again, Clif had to take Little Green out for a spin, and once again,  the town’s snowplow left a tall, hard ridge of snow at the end of our driveway.

The week before, the backyard was free enough of snow that I had hopes of starting to pick up the many sticks that have fallen over the winter. But no, nature had other plans. No picking up sticks for me, no getting a whiff of spring.

Here is Snow-Gauge Clif in the backyard.

And here he is in the front yard. Despite the snow, Clif still looks perky.

However, I am not quite as perky. You might even describe me as  droopy, and I keep repeating, “Soon Spring will come. Soon Spring will come.”

Act II

What’s Making Me Happy

After moaning about Winter and its bony grip, I thought I would balance this post with something that’s making me oh so happy. It’s a picture of a junco—birder lovers, please correct me if I’m wrong—that I bought at a craft fair last week.

Clif and I were at the fair with our books—we did well!—and right across from us sat a talented photographer named Norma Warden. I chatted with her for a bit, and Norma told me she recently moved to Maine from California. She is unfamiliar with the Maine craft fair scene, and I gave her a few tips.

After spending the morning and part of the afternoon admiring Norma’s work, which blends photography with a painterly sensibility, I bought one of her pictures. Birds and art are two of my weaknesses, and when they are combined at a good price, who am I to resist?

The picture is hanging on the wall by my desk, and every time I look at that little bird, I smile.

Here is a link to Norma’s website, where you will find her lovely art selling for amazingly reasonable prices.

Bring on the Fried Veggies!

We are halfway through March. Although we are still buried in snow, there has been a softening in the air, and as Clif noted, last night the temperature didn’t get below freezing. As far as we can recall, the nights have not been this warm since late fall. So spring is coming, even though we have yet to see her pretty face.

In keeping with planning lots of events for this challenging month, Clif and I headed to The Red Barn for an anniversary celebration—forty-two years! We ordered their crisp, perfectly fried vegetables along with fries and, of course, a whoopie pie for dessert.

More than a little stuffed, on to Waterville we went, to the Colby College Museum of Art. There was a print exhibit, and this wonderful Japanese print caught my eye.  It’s by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) , and how I love this style. My photo doesn’t begin to do justice to this lovely print.

We also saw a strangely compelling short film called Flooded McDonald’s, where, as the title suggests, a “life-size replica of the interior of a McDonald’s” is gradually flooded.  Built in a pool by the artist collective SUPERFLEX,  this McDonald’s was created with such exquisite detail that it looked like the real thing. Clif and I sat and watched as the waters rose slowly in the deserted restaurant. French fries and burgers floated among paper, cups, trays, and straws. Ronald McDonald fell like an old Soviet statue of Lenin, and it bobbed around for a bit before finally sinking to the bottom. Sounds strange, I know, but this video brought forth all kinds of emotions about our consumer culture, trash, and rising waters due to climate change.

Click here if you would like to see the trailer for Flooded McDonald’s.

We are so lucky to have an art museum of this caliber within driving distance of where we live in rural central Maine.

On a more practical level, here is Snow-Gauge Clif to make his weekly appearance until the snow is gone.

In the front yard, I took a long shot so that readers could behold the glory of our driveway.

The backyard looks a little better.  For now.

As you can see, spring is still a month or so away.

Art Is not Obliged to Be Beautiful

This has been a rainy, humid week. While the rain has been much needed, a few dry days would be nice. The house smells like mildew, and I even had to resort to using the clothes dryer. I know from sad experience what clothes smell like when racks are used for wet laundry during rainy, humid weather. Not good!

On the other hand, it has been a good week for going to the movies and to the Colby Museum of Art.

At Railroad Square, we saw two movies: Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s wild, surreal, pointed look at racism and economic injustice in the United States; and Leave No Trace, a sad, beautiful story about an emotionally-wounded veteran and his daughter. If you like character-driven movies, Leave No Trace is a must-see film. In fact, both movies are very much worth seeing.

For a small liberal arts college (1,800 students), Colby has an incredible art museum. It is free and open to the public six days a week. Because we live so close—about thirty-five minutes away—we have the luxury of focusing deeply on one exhibit at a time, which is my favorite way to visit an art museum. For this week’s visit, we focused on Self and Society, a collection of German Expressionist Prints.

On its website,  MoMA notes that  German Expressionism was a “major modernist movement that developed in Germany and Austria during the early decades of the 20th century.” The painters and printmakers—George Grosz and Max Beckmann, to name two—were more interested in portraying emotions rather than the actual physical world. And the emotions they portrayed were usually  dark and grim.

Why wouldn’t they be? Many of the artists had fought in World War I and had witnessed firsthand the ugliness and brutality of that war.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but the post-war period was not exactly smooth and tranquil either. Then  we all know what came next. It seems to me that these Expressionist artists, who would be persecuted during the Nazi regime, had their fingers on the pulse of society. Their art will never go on the cover of chocolate boxes, but art is not obliged to be beautiful.

To be sure, beauty is a part of life, and I appreciate  beautiful art as much as the next person. But ugliness is also a part of life, and there are times when that reality is so great that artists have no choice but to face it and portray it.

Here are a couple of photos I took of prints from Self and Society.

Max Beckmann, “Die Granate (The Grenade).” 1915

 

George Grosz, “No. 73 Restaurant,” c. 1925

 

In the gallery below Self and Society, we came across this—Cracked Question by Elizabeth Murray, who was not a German Expressionist.

But somehow, after seeing the horrors portrayed in Self and SocietyCracked Question seemed absolutely appropriate.

 

 

Don’t Rain on My Books

Oh, the weather! All week it was dry and sunny, simply and utterly beautiful. But then it rained on Saturday, when Clif and I were selling our books at the Windham Summerfest, an outdoor fair.  Luckily we have a very good canopy—brand new—with sides. And luckily the day started out as overcast, with the rain coming mid-afternoon. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gone, as books and water are not a good combination, and we will not set up in the rain.

Although we didn’t sell as many books as we would have liked, Clif and I still had a good time at what was a very nice event created to promote community spirit. (Boy oh boy, we could certainly use lots and lots of community spirit in this country right now.) Also, a woman bought Maya and the Book of Everything to send to her granddaughter in Texas. It always tickles me to think of Maya traveling out of Maine, to places as far away as Texas. Not bad for a little indie book.

However, one of the nicest parts of the day was being next to an artist named Erik Howell. His snappy abstract art really brightened the gray day. It fact, his work was so appealing that we bought a small piece. We were going to give it to our nephew Patrick for Christmas, but we liked it so much that we put it on our dining room. (Don’t worry! Patrick will be getting plenty of other presents from us.)

By 3:00, the overcast sky made up its mind to rain, and under wet conditions, we packed up and left early.  But it’s heartening that even at events that are literally a wash-up, there are always good bits that make up for it. I even got a tip about a big fair in South Paris, Maine, in mid-November.

However, that’s several months away.

In the meantime, this weekend—weather permitting—we will be taking Maya to a Steam Punk Festival in Dexter, Maine.

Should be fun!

Five for Friday: The Golden Age of Illustration

Today’s post is going to be a little different, a reflection of my newest obsession, the golden age of illustration, which ran roughly from 1880 to 1920. As Artcyclopedia puts it, advances in technology allowed for “accurate and inexpensive reproduction of art,” both in books and magazines.

Nowhere was this more evident or glorious than in illustrations for children’s books. Beatrix Potter, of course, comes to mind, but there were many others, too: Edmund Dulac, Jessie Willcox Smith, Walter Crane, and Sir John Tennial, to name a few.

As chance would have it, there is even a Facebook group called The Golden Age of illustration. I joined the group not long ago, and that’s when I became hooked on illustrations from this period, especially the ones for children’s books. Not surprising as I write books for young people.

Many of the images from this period are in the public domain, which means we are free to use them as we wish. Clif, who is a talented graphic artist, has caught the golden age of illustration bug and is working with some of the pictures. He has been enlarging the illustrations, smoothing the pixels, and retouching the illustrations. We plan to sell matted prints at fairs we go to, and he has done research about the artist and the books the illustrations come from. This information will be included with the prints.

Below are five of the illustrations he has worked on, and they are by Edmund Dulac and Jessie Willcox Smith.

This is one of my favorites. The illustrator is Edmund Dulac, and the picture is from the story “A Little Girl in a Book,” written by Mrs. Rodolph Stawell. Funny to think there was a time when women writers went by their husband’s name, but there you are. Progress has definitely been made on that front.

This is another of Edmund Dulac’s illustrations, and it’s from “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s not a scene I’m familiar with, that’s for sure.

Jessie Willcox Smith did this illustration for The Little Lame Prince by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.

As well as this one—Little Red and the Wolf—otherwise known as Little Red Riding Hood.

And finally, here is a Jessie Willcox Smith’s illustration from The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley.

Today, there are many fine artists who create illustrations for children’s books. But for me, there is something about pictures from the Golden Age of Illustration that captures the wonder, magic, and even the dread of fantasy and fairy tales.

I wonder what it was from that period that allowed illustrators to tap into art that goes so beautifully with the stories.

Finding the Unexpected at Colby Museum of Art

On Saturday, Clif and I went to Waterville, to Colby College’s fabulous Museum of Art.

We wanted to see two specific exhibits: Herman Bas: The Paper Crown Prince and Other Works, and City of Ambition: Photography from the Collection.

We did see The Paper Crown Prince, a small exhibit that included a few dreamy, exquisite paintings that symbolically explore the coming of age of teenage boys.

Here is The Paper Crown Prince.

And here is Fitting In.

But we never made it to City of Ambition because I was unexpectedly waylaid by Game Time: The Sports Photography of Walter Iooss. I used the word “unexpectedly” for a good reason. Full Disclosure: There are few people who are as disinterested in sports as I am. For me, watching people pursue, hit, or kick a ball is akin to watching paint dry. Baseball is the worst—do the players even build up a sweat?—but basketball, hockey, and soccer are only marginally better.

I will admit that sports such as skating, skiing, and snowboarding hold my attention longer, say, for five or ten minutes. But to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice—of some pleasures, I believe, a little goes a long way.

So imagine my surprise when Walter Iooss’s sports photographs reached out and pulled me in.  Not literally, of course—I was not, after all, in the middle of one of my own fantasy novels. However, when I intended to just pass through the gallery with his photos, I found that I couldn’t. Every one of Iooss’s photographs told a bright, vivid story, whether it was of someone famous, such as the tennis player Billie Jean King, or of children playing stickball in Havana, Cuba.

Here are a few of the photographs, taken with my wee wonder of a camera, that unfortunately did not do them justice. I had to crop in close to give some idea of the intensity of the pictures, and my reproductions are nowhere near as sharp as the originals. Still, I hope they give some idea of the power of Iooss’s work.

Here is Billie Jean King, Wimbledon, 1979:

Note how petite, almost waifish, Billie Jean King looks. Yet also note the look of intense determination on her face. Here is a woman who wants to win the game, and she has worked long and hard to acquire the necessary skills. Whoever is playing against her had better watch out.

Consider this astonishing shot of the diver Julia Cruz, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 1984.

There she is, in the gray wide open, and she is about to dive backward into water that is way below her. Cruz’s body is poised, muscular, ready. A leap of faith?

Finally, there is Havana Cuba, March 1969.

Iooss writes that the children’s “eyes [are] fixed on the pitch like it’s the only thing in this world. Nothing else matters. To me, that’s sports in one single frame.” Even the dog is sitting in stiff attention.

Yes. For the first time I understand how it is for people who love sports. It’s how I feel about art—in all its varieties—and nature.

Readers, if you live within driving distance of Waterville, Maine, go see this exhibit. Even if you don’t like sports. I expect that you will be illuminated, the way I was, by these terrific pictures.

Fortunately, Colby is close enough so that we can easily return to see City of Ambition. Also, there is no admission fee, which means we can stop in and  just look at one exhibit. We don’t feel as though we have to hurry through the museum, when we are past the viewing point, to get our money’s worth.

The Colby Museum of Art is such a gift to central Maine.