Sunday, April 14, 2019

British Portraits at Columbia Catalogue

Just over a month ago, I blogged about the new exhibition about four British portraits that we have on view at Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. The paintings are from Columbia's permanent collection. I'm pleased to share the news that the pamphlet-type catalogue we've published is now available for free to download from Columbia's Academic Commons network (click here). I'm incredibly pleased with this came out, which is a testament to the incredible design skills of Katherine Prater, one of my co-workers. The essays are extended versions of the didactic panels Mateusz and I wrote.

Ten days ago, on April 4th, we hosted an invitation-only Evening at Avery to celebrate the exhibition and bring more paintings out to show. Dr. Meredith Gamer was our keynote speaker, and my co-curator MM and I also gave brief talks that were well-received. My thanks to Paul Jeromack for sending me pictures he took from the evening, which I am posting here.

The Social Media Phenomenon (aka Naked Men)

24 hours ago, I was in Chelsea to see two exhibitions: Jeff Miller's show "Through the Looking-Glass: Alter Egos & Others" at the Atlantic Gallery; and "The Young and Evil" curated by Jarrett Earnest at David Zwirner. Soon afterward, I posted on my Instagram account pictures showing installation views and object shots from both shows. Whenever I post on Instagram, the norm for me is about 50-60 likes. Occasionally, it goes up to the 80+, and I've had about 4 posts that were liked by over 100 people. Let's face it: despite some personal "fans" (you are reading this right now!), I'm not a social media phenomenon, nor have I ever aspired to be. So you can probably imagine my complete shock and surprise how--only 24 hours later--I now have over 1,300 likes on my Instagram post about the exhibition at David Zwirner. I am literally stunned by this and--dare I say--even a little disturbed by it. I said to AA at least twice today "post a picture of a painting of a naked man..." Clearly that has something to do with it. But there has to be something else going on. I wonder if it is some sort of algorithm, pushing the image higher in the search for people or coming up randomly on people's Instagram posts because friends-of-friends-of-friends are liking it, and it's growing exponentially as a result. I don't think my hashtags (e.g. #queerart #stonewall50 etc.) are that special, but maybe I'm wrong. It has occurred to me that perhaps the gallery is somehow actively pushing the feed, but I don't see how they could do that. In any case, it's all completely bizarre how over 1,300 people I have never met, who live everywhere in the world, are liking these pictures. A few have commented and asked questions, so I've helped identify the works and responded to them. Some have started following me now, which is how this is supposed to work I imagine, and I in turn have chosen to follow a few back.

What is fantastic about the exhibition (which has now closed--yesterday was the last day) is that it presents a number of pictures never published before and rarely, if ever, seen by the public, all depicting works of art by a group of gay male artists (and women close to them) who were all active in the 1930s and 1940s in New York City.  The artists on view include Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Platt Lynes, George Tooker, and so on. The style of art is largely figurative, somewhat surrealist, frequently provocative (and unapologetically so), and using older painting techniques out of favor at the time (e.g. tempera paint). Ultimately, it presents an alternative canon of American art, and it challenges the modernist tendencies that lean towards abstraction and social realism--art movements almost completely dominated by heterosexual men, culminating in the mid-century, uber-macho-modernity of Abstract Expressionism (i.e. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc.). One of the artists who has been underappreciated and clearly comes to the foreground in the show is the Russian-born artist Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957). The image you see above is by him: The Lion Boy, 1936-37, gouache on paper mounted onto canvas. The stark hyperrealism of the muscular, blonde youth whose mane-like hair bursts from his body even more strongly than that from his head is without a doubt incredibly startling to see. The fact that it is uncomfortable for some to even see it now, or the fact that so many others are enamored of it because of its eroticism, reinforces how unusual such images are in our society. Would anyone have reacted the same way if it was a painting of a nude woman with blonde hair? I doubt it. Even if it were a spectacular painting, I can't imagine that it would have generated over 1,300 likes just 24 hours after I had posted the picture.

Going back to Jeff Miller's show, if you're in the NYC area, you should go see his show too before it closes next week. Like the other exhibition profiling gay male artists, Miller exhibits his own interpretation of the idealized male body. His drawings have a fascinating energy to them, and his hyperrealistic sculptures play with ideas of ego and superego in their doubling effect. So far, though, the post of his pictures on Instagram has only generated about 40 likes in 24 hours. The thing is, that is actually a great number! But when compared to the other post, it just demonstrates that there is something more going on that has to explain how the other post has literally shot through the social media roof.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Review: Beyond the Face (and Carrie Mae Weems)

Earlier this month, ARLIS/NA Reviews published my short review on the new book Beyond the Face: New Perspectives on Portraiture, which was published in 2018 by the Smithsonian Institution, National Portrait Gallery, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. Edited by curator emerita Wendy Wick Reaves, the book includes her introduction and sixteen essays by junior and established scholars on aspects of American portraiture. You can read my review here. The book truly does offer new insights into thinking about American portraiture, historical and modern/contemporary, with a particular emphasis on non-white artists and representations thereof. The essays on photography were among the most interesting, and I mentioned in the review that one scholar's take on a photograph by Carrie Mae Weems was brilliant. I thought I would engage with that a little more here.

Nikki A. Greene's essay, "Habla LAMADRE: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Carrie Mae Weems, and Black Feminist Performance," focused on these two women artists, but more importantly engaged with the way that women of color have been excluded historically as makers of art from the great museum collections and exhibition programs. Weems's 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum was unprecedented, as she was the first African-American woman to have a show there. I remember the exhibition well; it was incredibly moving and powerful. Weems's photographs from her Museums series position the artist as a Ruckenfigur, displaying her body shrouded in black to the viewer as she stands outside the great cultural institutions and museums worldwide as an outsider. In her essay, Greene writes of the image you see here, Guggenheim Bilbao, 2006, as follows:
Weems journeyed to northern Spain ... to encounter the seduction of the sweeping, undulating, titanium walls of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997. In the photograph Guggenheim Bilbao, Weems stands as a dark silhouette in her black, long-sleeved dress with her back to the viewer .... Weems stretches her arms outward to rest her hands on a white railing that heightens the chasm between her and the museum as water gently ripples below her. The framing of this photograph plays on the building's ship-like forms, with stern-like triangular peaks making Weems appear as if she is viewing the museum across a body of water from her own ship. Weems's serenity in the face of the immensity of the museum's presence grounds the viewer, encouraging a pause as the two ships purportedly confront each other. This moment of recognition of each other's position in space acknowledges their unreachability. (pp. 294-95)
What Greene also intimates with this ship-like allusion is the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the ongoing legacy of slavery as a hindrance to people of color, in this instance in an art world dominated by white privilege and the 1%. Greene's reading of this image is wonderfully intuitive.

The next book I'm scheduled to review for a publication is this: Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body by Anthea Callen (2018). The book focuses on the nineteenth century. It should prove an interesting read, incorporating issues of science and medicine along with artistic practice, framed by the development of heterosexual, homosocial, and homosexual identities over the course of the century. Or so I hope!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

British Portraits at Columbia Exhibition

On February 11th, we officially opened a new exhibition at work that I curated with PhD art-history student Mateusz Mayer. The show is entitled Hoppner, Beechey, Fisher, Lavery: Researching Columbia's Portraits, and is on view in Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Wallach Study Center for Art & Architecture, until May 10th. It is open to the public Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm. This focused exhibition showcases four rarely-seen historical British portraits from the permanent collection, and transforms them into objects of study rather than present them as traditional museum-style masterpieces by these artists. The portraits were painted between the years 1800 and 1927, and the show highlights new discoveries that we have made about them, ranging from biography to provenance to political propaganda. As examples of British portraits, the show also seeks to query the idea of "British-ness," both in its historical context and in the age of Brexit.

One of the paintings on view is the work you see here, a portrait of King George III by Sir William Beechey and his studio. The portrait depicts the king wearing a field marshal's uniform, his bicorn hat and Star of the Order of the Garter prominent ornaments to his outfit. The painting is an artist's copy of his life-sized portrait of the king that he exhibited at the 1800 Royal Academy exhibition, now in the Royal Collection. The painting became so popular (arguably a form of political propaganda) that Beechey's studio produced numerous replicas and copies, some with various backgrounds and in half-size and portrait-bust versions. In the background of this portrait is Windsor Castle, the king's primary residence, where Beechey likely painted the original version. This painting was a gift to Columbia in 1943 by Mrs. Mary Hill Hill. Her doubled surname is not an accident: her father and husband, both of whom were railroad magnates, had the same last names, but there were no family relations between them. Although originally from Minnesota, Mrs. Hill Hill lived at the time of the donation in Tarrytown, NY, and auction catalogs after her death show that she was an avid collector of 18th-century British portraits and George III silver.

A free accompanying exhibition catalog will be made available very soon, so I'll post a link to the PDF version when it's ready.

First Snowstorm: 2019 Winter

This snow season has been a bit strange. We had an early first snowfall back in November, and while we've had a couple of light flurries since then, it's taken until during this past night and this morning for us to have what I would qualify as being some semblance of a snowstorm. This is a photo I took outside our loft window about 7:40am this morning (and, yes, it is coincidentally the same view that I posted last time!). By that time Newark Airport was reporting over 4 inches of snow. It's all supposed to stop in a little while, but then snow again tomorrow and all Sunday night, so Monday morning commuting should be a bit miserable. It's always lovely to see the snow come down and blanket everything in shimmering whiteness; the dirty snow and mucky slush is the let-down afterward. Overall, though, this has been a light snow season as compared to other years.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Projects of 2018

Here is my last "highlights" list from 2018...a little late, perhaps, but not by much... (Here is the 2017 list.) I've discovered it's beneficial for me to record these events because it helps me take stock of the activities I've been involved with and what I've accomplished. I have a tendency to forget things and move on, and reflecting on these things annually makes me realize that I am doing quite a lot professionally and that I need to stop being so self-critical about what it is that I am not doing.

The picture you see here commemorates one of the more memorable events. In early October, I joined my fellow Solomaniac friend & colleague Carolyn Conroy and numerous descendants of the Solomon/Salaman family for the rededication of the Salaman family graves and a visit to the recently rededicated grave of Simeon Solomon, all at Willesden Jewish Cemetery in London. It was a special and humbling moment to be there.

In addition to all our travels (professional and vacation), here is the 2018 list of projects...

Saturday, January 5, 2019

600 Posts!

When I wrote my annual New Year's post, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that was my 599th blog post. When I went back to see when #500 was, I was even more surprised to realize it had taken place on New Year's Day in 2015...AND that #400 had coincided with 2013 New Year's. It seems oddly serendipitous, then, that my 600th post is happening now, and still rather amazing that I've had this blog going for 10 years now. I've decided to leave the design of the blog as-is for now, but it's always fun to look at statistics and see how the site has been reached and what are the most popular posts.

The blog statistics show that I've now had 185,536 page views since August 2008, with visitors mostly coming from U.S. Internet addresses, followed by Russia (!), France, United Kingdom, and Germany, with Italy just barely behind Germany. Readers are mostly coming from Internet Explorer browsers still, although that has dropped down a few percents since 2015 to 36%, while Firefox (30%) and Chrome (22%) use has gone up respectively by 4% and 3% since 500 posts. Not surprisingly, Google searching accounts for about 2/3 of all the statistics in terms of being directed to specific posts. When I look at the most popular blog posts since August 2008, I have to laugh that #1 has remained the most frequently visited/read post (you wouldn't believe how much spam commentary I get on that one!). What was #4 on the 500th mark has bumped up to #2, and remarkably my #s 3, 4, and 5 are all new posts since 2015. Who knew that my Inauguration Day 2017 rant would generate such a high number of reads!? Here's the current ranking:
#1: Male Enhancement [Jul. 5, 2010; 2675 views]
#2: Post-Queer Art History [Oct. 13, 2009; 1699 views]
#3: President Tyrant [Jan. 21, 2017; 1590 views]
#4: Poem #2 [Jan. 30, 2017; 1451 views]
#5: Poem #1 [Nov. 29, 2016; 1350 views]

It is interesting that my recording of two poems, relating them to certain events at the time, come up as being so popular. I suspect it has to do with the fact that someone is searching for the actual poems or poetry by the authors (in this case respectively Emma Lazarus and Florine Stettheimer), but I appreciate their discovery here and makes me wonder if there is a renewed interest in reading poetry? Last year, I read Richard Blanco's memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, which was so fantastic in terms of his life experience as a gay Latino in America, but also his zeal and drive for poetry and writing, and reading his poem at Pres. Obama's inauguration. Perhaps we all need more poetry in our lives...

Thank you to the readers who contact me with encouragement to continue blogging along!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy 2019!

Earlier today I was speaking to Uncle Eddy and I said to him, "Can you imagine it's 2019?!"--to which he replied, "NO!" The way time flies by, it won't be long before we hit 2028, the centenary of his birth! We spent a lovely Christmas and the week afterward with AA's family in Kansas City, MO. Aside from family visits, I indulged in my first-ever KC barbecue dinner (delicious, but heavy on meat), and we visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, and the National World War I Memorial and Museum over the course of the week. We flew home on Sunday, then headed into the City the next day for a New Year's Eve dinner with AR, GM, and GG. It was pouring in NYC, so everyone gathered for the Times Square ball-drop got drenched, including Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper (above), whom we watched while staying toasty warm and dry just a few blocks away watching and supporting our fellow gays on TV. (Other than watching Anderson Cooper get drunk on shots, it wasn't as eventful as we would have hoped though. Or am I being nostalgic for Dick Clark?)

Today for New Year's Day we had a quiet day at home. We ate for dinner butternut squash soup, cod with lemon and pomegranate, and steamed broccoli. Then we watched the gay-themed movie The Cakemaker (2017, image right), in which a German baker goes to Jerusalem to find the family of his recently deceased lover, with some awkward consequences. It wasn't a bad movie...the acting and directing was good, there were some existential questions about sexuality worth pondering, and there were a few important moments about Jewish/Gentile cultural differences, but it was a bit slow. I am craving black forest cake now (you have to watch to get the message).

Happy 2019!

Monday, December 24, 2018

Cities of 2018

The past few years (e.g. here and here), I've been recording a list of all the cities outside NJ/NY that either I visited for work-related purposes, or that AA and I went to for a vacation. There is little doubt that the two most remarkable places we visited in 2018 were the furthest north and the furthest south I've ever been before: Iceland and Costa Rica. Both of these trips were remarkable for being very nature-oriented. 

Reykjavik is fine city, but it was our Golden Circle tour that brought us to Thingvellir National Park, where we saw the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates crashed against one another--a humbling experience--as well as the site where their Parliament met for over 1,000 years until they built an actual building in Reykjavik in 1930. The waterfalls and geysers were spectacular as well. Iceland is like being on another planet; it's completely desolate but remarkable for its unusual geological formations and hot springs. We missed the Northern Lights and the spa experience, so another visit is in order! Save money if you're thinking about going, though, because it's not cheap!

On the complete opposite spectrum, Costa Rica's southwestern Pacific coast was unlike anything I ever experienced, with spectacular views and wildlife that made me smile non-stop. Monkeys howl in the trees around you and greet you on your patio (and, yes, try to steal your food!), and there are giant iguanas, tropical birds, and actual crabs that walk right past you too. We went zip-lining while we were there, among other adventures--something I never thought I would do (picture at right, climbing stairs to the next zip!)--and I loved it. It was an incredible outdoorsy trip with a wonderfully relaxing hotel at the top of a mountain.

We also had wonderful opportunities to visit with family, and another great adventure happened in our own backyard when, in one day with AA's family, we toured NYC by boat (Circle Line), land (walking the streets), and air--a helicopter tour (photo at the top!). The helicopter tour was exhilarating...if also admittedly a tad frightening...but that's what these adventures are all about...pushing yourself just a little further to experience all that life has to offer. We always take stock and remember how fortunate we are to be able to travel, and we are forever grateful for these experiences of the world. Here are the Cities of 2018...

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Athens/Atlanta, Georgia
Fairfield, Connecticut
The Hague/Delft, The Netherlands
Kansas City, Missouri (leaving for here tonight!)
Leamington Spa, England
Liverpool, England
London, England (2 visits)
Manuel Antonio/Quepos, Costa Rica
Montreal, Canada
New Haven, Connecticut
Ogunquit, Maine
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Quebec City, Canada
Reykjavik, Iceland
St. Petersburg/Palm Harbor/Tarpon Springs, Florida (3 visits)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

La Traviata at The Met

Giuseppe Verdi's opera La Traviata, first shown in Venice in 1853, is undoubtedly one of my favorites in terms of the music and arias. There's something incredibly lyrical and moving about upbeat, vivacious celebrations like "Libiamo, ne' lieti calici," and emotionally bittersweet duets like when Violetta and Alfredo profess their love..."Croce e delizio al cor." I've seen this opera live three times in my life (yes, I've kept a record!): the New York City Opera in Clearwater at Ruth Eckerd Hall on March 23, 1996; the Florida Grand Opera in Miami on November 18, 2003; and now The Met Opera in New York on December 11, 2018. Third time was the charm for sure; the performance was wonderful.

I had gotten tickets for us as a birthday gift for AA, and what intrigued me about this version of the opera was that it was a new production staged by Michael Mayer, and it would be the premiere of The Met's new musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The orchestral performance was fantastic; to quote The New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini: "I expected his 'Traviata' to be good, but not this good." Tommasini goes on to describe soprano Diana Damrau's performance as Violetta as "extraordinary...singing with big, plush yet focused sound," and baritone Quinn Kelsey as Germont as "grave and formidable." Both of them were excellent. I was admittedly a little disappointed in tenor Juan Diego Florez as Alfredo, not because he sang poorly but because he was not strong enough, but apparently that was part of his characterization of Alfredo, to make him more shy and uncertain. I thought the new stage production by Mayer, with seasonal changes in lighting, and a neo-Baroque Second Empire interior, were lovely and appropriate. The costumes did seem to come out of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but overall it added to the colorful, moving performance overall.

The Met's website for the production has excellent videos with scenes and arias, as well as background information on the production, all worth watching. In reading the Playbill, I was surprised to discover that La Traviata first premiered at The Met in 1883, one month after they opened, went on hiatus for nine years, and since then has been performed over 1000 times, in a number of different well-known productions. Going to The Met can be extremely expensive these days, but we were fortunate to have discounted tickets I got through Columbia. I've been to The Met a few other times before, having seen performances of Aida (2012) and Tosca (2015). But it is worth noting that my very first live opera experience, when I was about 13 years old, was at The Met. Uncle Peter and Aunt Florence had been given last-minute box seats for Rigoletto that a friend of theirs could not use, and knowing my rising interest at that time, they invited me to go, so I went with Uncle Peter. The funny thing was that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow sat in the box next to us...and left during one of the intermissions! Going to The Met at that age (on a school night!), seeing my first opera live in that setting, was one of those lifetime memories you never forget.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Morier and Persia Exhibition

It may seem strange to be blogging about an exhibition that has now closed, but it only occurred to me last night that I never wrote about the exhibition Looking East: James Justinian Morier & Nineteenth-Century Persia that we recently had on view in our display cases in Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. (Chalk it up to having been too busy for months to actually write about it!) The exhibition was part of the MA in Art History Presents series, the second in a new series in which the MA students curate an exhibition utilizing art from Columbia's permanent collection, under the guidance of Dr. Frederique Baumgartner (director of the MA program, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University) and me (curator of Art Properties, Avery Library, Columbia University). You may recall that earlier this year we opened the first of these shows about the 17th-century printmaker Robert Nanteuil.

This exhibition centered around the portrait you see here of the writer and diplomat James Justinian Morier (ca. 1780-1849), attributed to the painter George Henry Harlow (1787-1819) and painted in 1818. At first glance the portrait is a theatrical depiction of Morier dressed in Orientalist clothing, but in fact there is some historical accuracy to his clothing as representing what men wore in the early years of the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) in Iran. Morier was part of the British diplomatic service that sought to establish a peace treaty between Persia and Britain during the years of the Napoleonic wars. Morier wrote and illustrated two travelogues about his time in Persia (published in 1812 and 1818), and then went on to have an illustrious career as a Romantic novelist with his most famous book being The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan (1824). The exhibition sought to contextualize the historical period in which the painting and his illustrated texts (including the image of the "Persian Breakfast" you see at top), while considering ideas of colonialism and Orientalism in the writings of Edward Said and Linda Nochlin. I curated with one of the students a supplementary section as well, focusing on a selection of Iranian ceramics from the collection.

It was quite a successful exhibition, and we produced an excellent online companion exhibition, including a series of essays by the students introduced by Baumgartner and me. This project was inspired by research I had done previously on this painting, having given two conference papers about it in Pittsburgh in October 2015 and in Raleigh in January 2017. It's a great tale of how a painting first draws you in because of its appearance, but the more you look into it and consider all the imagery, as well as the background of the sitter and his world, it shows how art can convey new ideas and still have an incredible lifeline 200+ years after the events in which it was first painted.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Books of 2018

The annual New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 came out a few weeks ago, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were two books on the list this year that I already had an interest in: The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (which I bought but haven't read yet) and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (which I did actually read and found interesting, like a literary, Corot-like veiled-mist tale). Among the novels on this new list that intrigue me and are now on my Amazon wish list are The Witch Elm by Tana French, Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, and The Overstory by Richard Powers. One major book not on their list because it came out afterward--and which, of course, is now on my "to read" list!--is Michelle Obama's Becoming. AA is reading it, as is my friend MT, and both are totally absorbed.

The book cover you see above reflects what I would say is the best novel I read this year, The Handmaid's Tale [1986]. Even though I have not seen the new series, I decided to step into the infamous dystopian world created by Margaret Atwood over 30 years ago, and I was enthralled. The book is fantastic and frightening; it feels so real and plausible, particularly in light of how things are going these days politically. Even better, it's beautifully written, slow even at times, the protagonist paying attention to details and inner feelings and memories in a way that is haunting to read. Atwood announced recently she is writing a long-awaited sequel, about which I'm uncertain how I feel. Part of me is curious like others to know where Offred actually went and what happened to her, but another part of me worries the sequel will be too influenced by popular culture today and won't live up to the author's own masterful exploration into this disturbing futuristic, misogynistic world. Speaking of misogyny, last year about this time I was reading Madame Bovary and I still think it was a beautifully written novel and highly recommend it to people all the time. It even topped my list of the the best novels I read between 2014 and 2017! Other great novels that I read this year included: Julian Barnes's existentially obsessive biographical novel Flaubert's Parrot [1984]; Penelope Fitzgerald's community of miserable, hateful people in The Bookshop [1978]; the sad Everything I Never Told You [2014] by Celeste Ng, which was on the NYT 2014 list; and Ruth Rendell's foray into racism and murder with Simisola [1994]. I also read this year the mid-century classic Lolita [1955] by Vladimir Nabakov, and I absolutely hated this book, not even so much for the nauseating storyline but because the writing itself drove me nuts.

Since I wrote last year's post on Books of 2017, I have read 32 books. I finally took the time to read Sculpture: Processes and Principles [1977] by Rudolf Wittkower, with which I had familiarity but had not read in its entirety before now. It really is a fantastic overview about techniques in stone carving and modeling for anyone interested in knowing more about the great European sculptors of the past. Bridging the gap between art and biography, two of my favorites this year were Art for the Nation: The Eastlakes and the Victorian Art World [2011] by Susanna Avery-Quash and Julie Sheldon, and self-described "tranny potter" Grayson Perry's memoirs, co-written with Wendy Jones, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl [2006]. Another great biographical account was Richard Blanco's memoir For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey [2013], which I read after we visited the excellent exhibition of his poetry with photographs by Jacob Hessler in Ogunquit, Maine. In the realm of American history, I read Jon Meacham's new book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels [2018], the cover of which you see here. This book was such a fascinating overview of highlights in American history from the colonial period through the 1960s, showing how so many of our great leaders, including Lincoln and FDR, enacted social change because of the influence of the people, social activists and civil rights leaders, the true "soul of America." The book is a great testament and response to the politics of today.

Right now, I'm currently reading two books. On the literary fiction side, I am finally reading Jane Austen's Persuasion, published posthumously two centuries ago. I am nearing the end and I am worried it won't have a happy ending! I'm also reading Richard Holmes's fantastic collective biography The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science [2010], reminding us that science was not the separate discipline we perceive it to be today, but part of the exploration of the natural world along with art, literature, and music in the decades before and after 1800. This book has made for some relaxing bedtime reading, before turning in and dreaming each night...

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Passing of Caryl Ambrose

It's never easy to lose someone who is a close family member. About ten days before we celebrated Uncle Eddy's 90th birthday, our cousin Caryl M. Ambrose passed away at the age of 74 on Thanksgiving after suffering for many months with a terminal illness. I took the picture you see here a couple of years ago, with Caryl seated on the left with her sister Marilyn and Uncle Eddy, all of us taking in the sun after having lunch on the waterfront in Dunedin, FL. We all take some comfort knowing that Caryl is no longer in pain anymore, but because she always exuded an incredible strength of character, independent spirit, zest for what is right in the world, and an unending love for her family, her passing is challenging to process. Caryl was my second cousin. While her grandfather and my grandmother (Nana) were brother and sister, they were at opposite ends of a family timeline, almost twenty years apart in age, so that in fact my Nana and Caryl's father, Uncle Tommy, were close in age. Caryl was always interested in learning more about family history and loved when I would tell her about any new discoveries I had made in the Ambrose-and-Bagge English side of our family history. She was a Bronx-born girl, like so many in our family, and lived most of her life in NYC where she ran a travel consultant firm, then retired early and went to Florida with Marilyn, and had a whole new second life there as a nurse. Here is her obituary that her sister and brother wrote:

"Caryl's final safari was to heaven on 11/22/18 at the age of 74. Her life was a tale of two cities-New York and Tampa Bay. Her company, the African Transfer, specialized in safaris to Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. She then went on to another career as a nurse where she lovingly rescued many needy folks and furry creatures. She leaves behind her sister Marilyn, brother Dennis (Laura) and his family in Illinois – Nephews TJ & Glenn. Niece Ashley, great nephews Aiden and Anthony … and her rescue cat Chris … as well as numerous, wonderful kissing cuzzins and many lifelong friends."

Caryl never stopped wanting to know how everyone else around her was doing. She would write letters--actual handwritten letters, as recently as earlier this year to me--in which she remembered everything AA and I had going on, wanting to hear all about our travels (Marilyn would always add the funny side-bar comments and jokes in the letter!). Caryl was a caregiver, someone who instinctively wanted to help, to her own detriment in that she refused to let on about anything happening with her own health. Before she moved to Florida, I had always seen both Caryl and Marilyn as the savvy independent sisters, the first in NYC the second in Chicago. Caryl ran her own business, traveled worldwide, took care of some beautiful cats and dogs, and still managed to look after all of our great-uncles and other aging relatives. When my father and I planned a big trip to Italy and England back in 1991 (long before Internet search engines!), she coordinated our entire five-week trip, with flights and hotels and train tickets. I remember being completely amazed at how she was able to pull it all together so easily.

The one thing about Caryl that I will always cherish and keep close to my heart, though, was her encouragement and support of my writing. This is not something many people know. When I was a teenager, she heard that I was trying to write a novel, a family saga of sorts set in the 1800s (I was heavily influenced by John Jakes's Kent Family Chronicles at the time). Without any hesitation, she told me to give her a copy of the manuscript and she would "show it" to someone she knew "in the business." I was completely in awe that she "knew" someone and had connections like that, so I gave her a copy. The truth is, I have absolutely no idea if she actually showed it to anyone or not--even more truthfully, I hope she didn't because it was a horrible, early attempt at writing! The point is, she believed in me. She didn't assess my talents, she saw my drive and interest, and she was one of the first people in the family to encourage me to do this. That simple gesture on her part inspired me in ways that I still feel to this day in all of my efforts when I write something, whether it's an article, fiction, or even this blog. That gesture made me realize how a simple action can help support and encourage someone in ways no one can ever know. I will miss her energy, her laughter, her letters, and her love of family, but her spirit lives on in so many of us.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

90 Years Young

Last weekend AA & I went back to Florida to help celebrate with family & friends Uncle Eddy's 90th birthday. He's the last of the brothers & sisters from that branch of the family that produced all of us, and he's been so generous and good to all of us that he deserves this milestone marker of his life and times. What's the one favorite thing we all love about his life? That he worked at the Bronx Zoo! These days, he is settled in an assisted living facility, uses a wheelchair most of the time, and is rather thin, but he's still got his "marbles" moving around properly in his head and he hasn't lost his hearing or his sense of humor, so overall he's doing pretty well. Here's to Uncle Eddy...90 years young!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Hotel Archaeology

Quebec City has one of the most picturesque historic centers that I have ever visited in North America. There is something incredibly charming about all the flagstone facades, the cobblestone streets, the dated historic buildings, the division of upper and lower cities each with their own interesting sights, and the inherently French provincial vibe that the old town exudes. AA, his cousin GDA, and I just returned from a brief visit there (after a couple of days in Montreal). The temperature was unseasonably, frigidly cold, and there was about a foot of snow on the ground with flurries continuing our entire visit. You can see below the picture of AA and me outside the Chateau Frontenac (now a Fairmount Hotel) and witness our winter-like experience! But the overall icy-cold experience helped open up the holiday season for me, so it was all worth it.

Even more intriguing was the hotel where we stayed this time: Auberge Saint-Antoine. This was an incredibly relaxing, luxurious hotel/spa experience; when you leave for the evening for dinner, you come back to your room and discover turn-down service, herbal tea, subdued lighting, and a CD with Diana Krall singing soft jazz. What fascinated me about the hotel most, however, was how they incorporated archaeological artifacts as part of the decor and history of the site. The hotel was originally a fort and merchant house in the 17th century, and over time the grounds and buildings changed. When the hotel underwent renovations about 15 years ago, they excavated hundreds of cultural artifacts, like fragments of ceramic dishes, glassware, knives and forks, leather shoes, cannonballs, pipes, ... the list goes on and on. All of the artifacts have been beautifully displayed in vitrines embedded in the walls (as you in the above image). Even the rooms are themed and named around a particular ceramic fragment. Most of the artifacts date from the late 18th/early 19th centuries, but it is fascinating to discover some objects dating back to the late 1600s.

The personal service, the comfortable room, the delicious food and cocktails, and the archaeology-as-decor all make for a wonderful experience in one of the most picturesque cities I know. I look forward to another visit in the near future!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

First Snowfall: 2018-2019 Fall/Winter

The meteorologists had predicted some snow flurries for the NYC area today, with most of the actual snow heading further north and west. Well, imagine everyone's surprise when the snow actually starting sticking and didn't go away! Yes, today was our first snowfall of the 2018-2019 fall/winter season. I was stuck in my office working through most of it, so I didn't get to take pictures. AA, however, was working from home, so he took this picture you see here during the afternoon hours when the snow was coming down pretty heavily. It was a very wet snow, and by the end of the day had turned into slushy ice-like rain that was very slippery. Nothing too pretty about that kind of snowfall today!

It seemed rather ironic to me, then, that here we are freezing and getting iced by Mother Nature, when right in the heart of NYC at Rockefeller Center, Christie's auction house this evening broke the record for the most money a work of art by a living artist ever sold at auction: the hammer price went for $90m! The painting is the one you see here, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, by that grand dame of a British queen, David Hockney. According to The New York Times, "The painting was executed during a three-month period of intense creativity after the artist broke up with his American art student lover, Peter Schlesinger. Many viewers assume that the scene is set in California, where Mr. Hockney has lived for decades. But the canvas was painted in London, based on photographs taken at a pool in the South of France." I was fortunate to have seen this painting at the recent Hockney exhibition at The Met, and it was the star of the show, an exquisite composition with incredible color, without a doubt one of Hockney's best works. And now with the price tag to match. Oh, but to jump in that pool right now, instead of bundling up with the heater on beside me...