Friday, January 22, 2016


When I was in graduate school, decades ago, my mentor was an aristocratic maiden lady whose father had owned one of the largest woolen mills in New Hampshire. She had taken me and my best friend, Joan, under her wing in a rather futile attempt to turn us into ‘gentlewomen’ (no small task.)  This often involved dragging us up to Westchester where she lived, to meet other aristocratic, elderly ladies living in “restricted” communities. They did things that were unheard of in my family such as “pour tea.” I never could fathom why learning how to pour was an important part of my education, but I went along for the ride.

My parents were Depression poor and largely self educated but what they lacked in status, they made up for in intelligence, curiosity and cultural sophistication They could read Tolstoy in three languages – they spoke at least five – could identify an aria from any opera or a quintet in A Major by Hayden in a split second. But ‘pour tea’? Not in their repertoire. They never taught me how to set a table properly (to this day I still don’t know how) or how to write an appropriate thank you card, but they did see that I studied piano with the man who taught Jasha Heifetz’s grandchildren and made sure I had weekly dance lessons with one of Isadora Duncan’s daughters.

It turned out that one of my mentor’s best friends was selling her house in Scarsdale, and, having no immediate heirs, offered to sell me the family silver for $250. The set included well over 500 pieces,of monogrammed sterling,  at least 50 place settings and serving pieces of unimaginable beauty. Why in the world she thought I could use all that cutlery was beyond me. At that time I was teaching art in a New York City high school, so I had the $250, but I had no idea  what would I ever do with so much silver – let alone clean it. I had no serious marital prospects at the time and, even if I had, he would most likely have been an impoverished musician or graduate student, no one ever likely to give sit-down dinners for fifty. I politely refused the kind woman’s generous offer ($250 was a steal, even in back then) but to this day, I still wonder if I made a mistake.

What still puzzles me is, what could possible constitute so much cutlery? Okay, I get the standard forks, knives, soup, dessert and coffee spoons. But then what? Oyster forks? Fish knives? Grape spoons? Etc. etc. No matter how I try, I can’t get up to a ten-piece setting. Nobody lives that way any more. (at least no one I know) and my family certainly never did.  It’s right out of Downton Abbey where unimaginably complex table manners were a way or keeping the ascending nouveaux riches from breaching the ranks of the upper class. You had to be brought up in an environment where ten-piece place settings were standard procedure; it was not something a suddenly rich tradesman could ever learn as an adult. I remember a story a friend (who came from a poor farming family) told me about being invited to a distinctly upper-crust dinner party and “using the wrong fork!!” Before anyone could notice his breach of etiquette, the butler had slipped up behind him, palmed the errant piece and replaced it with the correct one.

To this day, I avoid giving sit-down dinners. First of all, I don’t particularly like them - I hate being trapped next to a bore - and secondly, I’m never quite sure I get it right. I give great “artist” parties (no humility) but my aristocratic mentor, who tried so hard to make sure I had an appropriate set of silver for my married life, would have been appalled at the sight of a glass goblet containing forks.  

Friday, January 15, 2016


Readers who know me personally know that I live in a big old house, the kind realtors refer to as a “Handyman’s Special.” If you don’t look too closely, it looks pretty good, has lots of period charm, but close inspection reveals many problems, the least of which is the need for a second full bathroom and a laundry room. (Magic Touch Cleaners does my laundry; I recommend them highly).

Secondly, the house desperately needs a paint job, inside and out. The casual visitor, however, is so dazzled by my tag sale treasures, they rarely notice the peelings and the cracks. And last but not least, the house has a cesspool, not even a septic system, let alone city sewers. When we bought it fifty years ago, we were told, in all candor, the cesspool might fail and have to be replaced “at any moment.” The good news is, it’s still going strong

 Despite its faults, it’s a great old house. There’s a beautiful library with shelves made at a nearby mill from trees taken down when the Merritt Parkway was built. There’s a two-story artist’s studio (the previous owner was a mural painter) with a huge north light window and, as a bonus, a floor through, heated attic perfect for storing canvasses and the fifteen overhead projectors I keep just in case a bulb burns out and I can’t replace it.

It’s the attic I want to write about. I’m convinced that there’s a party going on up there every night. There are dozens of paintings stored in racks plus about twenty larger-than-life cardboard cutouts based on all the corrupt developers, lawyers and politicians I have been dealing with over the years - along with their wives, girlfriends, goons, etc. Since I haven’t come through with the performance piece I promised them years ago, I am convinced they put on plays of their own at night when I am asleep, A Brechtian theater ensemble in my attic! I’m especially suspicious when I see them in a different order than they were on a previous visit.
All in all, it’s a pretty lively crowd up there.

In addition, the low eaves at either side of the roof are perfect for storing things that don’t have much height. That’s where I keep the dozens of supermarket boxes I filled with satirical figures set in photocopied backdrops of pre Urban Renewal Stamford. Those are the ones an art critic once said that “if that’s what people actually look like,” she would “fall on her ballpoint pen.” I hate to tell her, but that’s what people actually look like.

Frankly, it’s ok with me if my creations want to party. I would prefer that they go out in the world, party in museums and galleries, but if that isn’t going to happen –at least in my lifetime  - then let them have a good time up there by themselves. I can sleep through anything!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

POST #111: FORM FOLLOWS F---- UP Or, The Scientific Principle of Limited Sloppiness

My sculptor son Ned and I got into a lively conversation a couple of nights ago on neatness in the workspace. The guys in his shop have a sign on the wall that says “Form Follows F----UP. Rosie, my blog helper, tells me the server who sends out my blog does not tolerate lewdness of any kind and will probably take me off line. Anyhow, the principle is pretty obvious: too much messiness and you can’t think straight; too neat and you inhibit creativity. I once walked out of an art teaching job (to scary unemployment) in New York City because the Principal of the school insisted that the room be perfectly neat at all times, no spilled paint, no paper scraps on the floor. Better “hand to mouth” I decided than to try to teach art in such an inhibiting environment.

Of course, the need for order varies from artist to artist and the nature of his or her work.  I’m somewhere in the middle of neatness: too much mess and I can’t think straight, can’t find anything. Too neat and the principle of “limited sloppiness” kicks in and I can’t create. There are artists, however, like the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian, who lived in New York City during World War II. Mondrian was known for maintaining an immaculate studio in his apartment, coming to work every day wearing a suit and a tie, spending months on each painting, carefully moving a limited repertoire of shapes and lines around the canvas.

I find I work best (like most artists) in a state of middle neatness. I recently passed the threshold of acceptable messiness and was forced to hire someone to help me get “organized.” I won’t give out her name because she’s so busy she barely has time to help me. I learned my lesson with Felipe, my handyman, gardener, carpenter, canvas stretcher and “homme de ménage.” He’s better than a husband because you can tell him what to do. I made the mistake of sending him to a friend, who sent him to all her friends and now I have trouble getting him.

Anyhow, X got me organized in two afternoons. We took four carloads of waste matter to the dump, and I never missed any of it. I now need her again because the creepy crud is coming back. Nature abhors a vacuum. Her methods are simple: she is very autocratic, insists that I concentrate on what we are doing, doesn’t allow me to drift off into my usual creative revery. That’s the problem of trying to make order on your own; you get distracted. “Oh, that’s where such and such is! Let’s see what I can do with it”. The “neatanizer” snaps me back to attention and the job gets done. We still have half a studio to go (probably another four loads to the dump?) but she has been too busy to get to me. Apparently, there are lots of artists around who desperately need her services.” While there’s truth to “form follows f---- up,” the problem is getting one’s workplace to the point whereyou can create without distraction …(and keep it there!)