Friday, May 29, 2015

POST #87: THE AESTHETICS OF ANYWHERE …or how to never be bored

We never sent our children to summer camp. My husband (a child psychologist) felt that they had enough structure in their lives during the year and should have their summers free. Since there were three of them, close in age, and I worked at home, we were able to pull this off. The oldest, a scholar, liked to read so he was content with frequent trips to the library. My youngest had lots of friends and “playdates” and enjoyed going to thrift shops with me. And my middle child, the one who became an “environmental artist,” had a world all his own that kept him occupied. We have a small stone and concrete pond on our property, no more than 6” deep. Every spring, it fills up with rainwater and a lively aquatic life moves in: salamanders, tree frogs, water striders and a large variety of insect life. He would pass his summers happily engrossed in the pond, maybe not what you or I might find fascinating, but perfect for him. He still spends a lot of time looking at clouds and weather and rock formations...and turns them into art. I just got some photos from him from Vancouver Island showing me some intertwined strands of black and white sand he had just discovered.

Small versions of Stonehenge's "menhirs" hold up local mailboxes
I thought about this while walking up Webb’s Hill Road a few days ago with my friend Elena. She’s an artist-architect and a kindred soul. Webb’s Hill is not a hill for conversation. It’s one of the steepest climbs in Stamford and at one time, until Long Ridge Road was constructed in the mid 1800s, was a rural path, the “high road” that connected Stamford to Bedford Village. I feel sorry for the poor beasts of burden that had to carry wagonloads up the incline. It’s great, however, for wordlessly observing nature and Elena and I found lots of “art” to look at, some of it natural, others (inadvertently) man made.

Photo by Elena Kalman
The first thing we noticed were the weird tar lines that went up and down the road in irregular patterns. I thought at first they were drips from machines that repaired potholes, but then, shouldn’t they drip in a straight line? Why do they meander, go back and forth, over and under, creating skeins of black tar in beautiful abstract patterns that look like Chinese or Persian calligraphy? Elena tells me she sees them everywhere and has been photographing them for a while. They bring to mind those gigantic Andean images that can only be seen from the sky.

Along the way we encountered tree fungi that looked like prehistoric mushrooms; we saw huge, convoluted burls guaranteed to make a wood worker’s heart pound in anticipation, plus lots of exquisitely patterned tree trunk barks. We stopped to admire all sorts of rocks, aggregates of quartz, mica and granite, as well as a great variety of plant life, both accidental and deliberate. There’s even a pair of standing stones, gatepost sentinals that look like menhirs, the upright monoliths one would find at Stonehenge

On the way home, I added to my collection of squashed cans. I like them messy,  dirty and decayed. In fact, to make them more interesting, I’ve been known to kick them back into the road to add to their patina. When they’ve reached an appropriate level of grunge, I mount them on black Velcro and place them in small, baroque frames, part of a series I’ve been working on for years called “Found on the Ground.” If you’re looking for beauty, you don’t need to go very far. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

POST #86: SAM KAHN THE ARTIST (1927-2007)

My husband died over seven years at the age of 80. He was a Clinical Child Psychologist by training, an expert in play therapy with children. He was musical, an authority on classical jazz, a phenomenal athlete – any sport – a licensed arborist, a community leader, a world-class husband and father, But he was not an artist – or so we all thought.

When Sam was in his sixties, he was too ill to work full time as a clinician – I think he had kind of had it with pathology anyhow – so he got a Connecticut State Arborists’ license and began to treat trees. Since his climbing days were over, there wasn’t much future there and so he spent his time involved in community activities, managing our garden, listening to music and then –to everyone’s surprise (I should say “amazement”) he became an artist, first carving in wood and then painting on paper. He had never had any art training, in fact, he was noted in our family for his “lack” of art ability. What was going on? Maybe it was the series of small strokes he had suffered?

His work was totally unique, unlike anyone elses’ – childlike in concept and execution, no perspective, anatomy, no realism, only vibrant design and execution. “The World According to Sam Kahn”. Visitors to his “studio,”  (Eve’s former bedroom), were stunned at what they saw: “Sam?” they would ask in amazement as a riot of uninhibited carvings and paintings appeared before them. Sam, taking their accolades as his due, would continue to work. “You did that?” Although I do not consider myself expert in “Outsider Art” (the untrained artist category that best describes his work), I knew I had a genius on my hands…and a very confident one at that.

Sam soon began to exhibit his work publicly. If he were included in a group show, I felt sorry for anybody else whose work was there. As they say, he “blew them out of the water.” One year, Ken Marcione, the art curator at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center invited him to put his work in a small room just outside the main galleries where the winners of the annual state art competition were being shown. At the opening, the rooms with the winning work were devoid of visitors; everyone was crowded into Sam’s small space, looking at art that was new and original, not the “same old-same old.” He was a star, but a cool one, accepting celebrity status as his due.

Sam worked until a few months before his death. I knew he was dying when he could no longer paint; he would sit for hours staring at a blank sheet of paper. That’s what happens to artists when they no longer can create, they die. Anyhow, a couple of years ago, we packed up all his drawings and constructions, his notes, his “press,” put them in huge boxes and shipped them down to the “Self-Taught Art Collection” at the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. I hope they appreciate what a great artist he was and give his work the attention it deserves.

P.S. If you click on the images in the body of this blog, you can enlarge them and get a better idea of the work.

Friday, May 8, 2015

POST #85: Teaching Children How to Draw (and why you shouldn’t)

Every once in a while someone asks me to “teach art” to their children. Aside from the fact that my blood runs cold at the very thought of it, I tell them it’s a waste of money; they would be better off going out and buying art supplies. Children are natural artists up until the age of eleven or so when they get self conscious, sorting themselves into artists and non-artists based on their ability to draw in a realistic manner. The “good drawers” are ones who might profit from lessons after they reach puberty, but leave the others alone. You’ll ruin them.

As I may have mentioned a while ago, the first job I had when I got out of college was teaching art to 12-14 year olds in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx (Purgatory). I had taken several courses in Art Education, very high minded and theoretical and I was up on the latest research in the artistic development of children. My “bible” was a book by a German refugee intellectual, Henry Schaeffer-Zimmern, called “The Unfolding of Creative Artistic Activity.” (I think that was the title; can’t find any reference to it on line) and I always began the semester with one of his favorite projects, something he called “Ducks in the Pond.”  Once  (and if) I quieted the class down, I would say in a hushed voice that I was going to describe a beautiful scene, and they were to listen carefully because they would be asked to draw it. My only requirement was that they work on it for a full twenty minutes (an eternity to a twelve year old), fill the paper and include everything I described. I gave out paper and crayons so they would be ready to start.

Here is how “Ducks in the Pond” goes:
It’s a beautiful sunny day and I am going for a walk in the park. I come across a path I have never seen before, follow it and find myself in front of a round pond. There are ducks swimming in the pond (maybe some fish too) and a fence around the pond to protect them. The pond has trees all around it. Maybe there are other people in the park, maybe benches, plants, maybe not. At the end of twenty minutes, I collect their work and tape everything up on the blackboard according to their different ways of “seeing.” My goal is to show that the visual (camera) way (the children who are generally considered “artists” by their peers) isn’t always the best and that some of the non-visual, design-oriented interpretations are far more successful. Often, the non-photographic interpretations are better at clearly describing the scene than the more visually accurate ones. I tape the class’ work up and it is immediately obvious that there is no “right” interpretation, but many different ones. Beauty (and art ability) comes in many forms. You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from those who “can’t draw.” This class is going to be fun! Schaeffer-Zimmern illustrated his book with exquisite drawings done by children from various cultures and degrees of intelligence. He also used examples from past cultures that did not employ Western linear perspective. Not every child creates with a camera eye and it is important to value and encourage those who create works of art with their own, inner eye. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that art critics and historians recognized that not every work of art needed a vanishing point.