PART 4. KID ENCOUNTERS
In everything he does in his kid stories, young Shep learns about his world, both in school and in the neighborhood. This involves such varied diversions as promoting nasturtium seeds, amassing a collection of decayed teeth, and being the butt of a cruel April Fool’s joke. (Decades after this experience, April first will represent a major disaster in the creative career of Jean Shepherd, but that’s a story for another time.)
“Selling Seeds, Door to Door to Door”
I remember one time Miss Shields talked us into selling seeds and about seventeen kids immediately raised their hands and said they were gonna sell seeds. Well, I must have been six months old when I discovered I was the world’s rottenest salesman. I am just not a good salesman—I break out in a rash.
I was about in second grade and the terrible desire to be in a group led me into one of the great traumatic experiences of my entire life. The group does it—they just move you, whatever it is. Miss Shields came into the class one day and said, “We have a very special thing today, children. For those of you who would like to earn a little money for the Halloween party and for our big class party and also would like to earn a little money toward buying a set of World Books for the library. We’re going to have a seed-selling drive.”
Near the beginning of my 1966, four-month’s secular, young fellow’s, solo grand tour through Western Europe in my new VW Beetle, I picked up a tourist brochure in Copenhagen.
I knew I’d be visiting some of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals, yet I thought it would be of personal and “artistic interest” to get a feel for a few village churches—ones that the average peasant (such as myself–half a millennium ago) would have gone to weekly.
Entering many houses of worship over four months, I honored varied faiths: the synagogue in Toledo; the great mosque in Cordoba; the cathedrals I climbed the spires of–Cologne, Chartres, and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. The drama of the architecture, the art of the interior décor. Awe-inspiring, overwhelming, impressive, magnificent, all of them!
On the way to Stonehenge (during those days when one went right up to the monument and touched the sacred stones), one sees, just over the diminutive green hills, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, dramatic in its very low surroundings, for being free of the urban building-clusters in the center of most cities.
Stonehenge has its own drama—the wonderment at what unknown passions moved and hoisted those stones. What psychological intensity made them do it—the faith of Druids or Who-ids? Alternatively (Having gone underground in Rome), how did I think it would have been to worship in the early days of developing, primitive Christianity, amidst the caverns and human skeletal parts in the Catacombs? I imagine it felt cozy and worrisome, and inspiring in its special way.
All of the above, in their architectural grandiosity and emotion, fill me with admiration for their artistry (maybe even the Catacombs).
How would it have felt, snuggled comfy,
of a Sunday? I liked them a lot.
Warm, inspiring, family-friendly.
Thinking about all these lofty ideas, what does it all lead up to?
At the moment, I encounter three simple-minded and incomplete responses. How did I feel?
My favorite church song as a kid:
There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood.
No lovelier place in the dale.
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale.
Oh, come, come, come, come, come to the church by the wildwood…
(Is it obvious that I’ve come from a Protestant background?)
I get on the bus. It goes about twelve-and-a-half blocks and a lady sits next to me. Without any preamble, she says, “What is that thing that is hanging on your sweater?”
I say, “What!” She says, “Hanging on your elbow.”
I look down, and hanging on the right elbow of my plaid sweater is an enormous dark-blood-and-orange, solid glass and rhinestone brooch, which somehow had hooked itself on me in my trip through the jewelry department! I look at it and say, “Oh, I found my pin, ha ha!” I take the pin off and I look at this fantastic object, and it is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, being blood-orange and lined completely with rhinestones and silver-plated lead. It weighed at least a pound-and-a-half. Somehow it had hooked on me when I had brushed through the jewelry department. Fifteen minutes later I am home. I am sitting in the kitchen waiting for my mother to get home from the PTA. She comes into the kitchen and I say, “Ma, I got a surprise for ya.”
She says, “What?”
I say, “I got a pin,” and I give her a blood-red brooch lined with artificial diamonds and chromium-plated lead. It weighs a pound-and-a-half.
And she says, “This is beautiful!”
“Yeah. I picked it out.”
She says, “Why do you give me this? It’s your father’s birthday.”
I say, “Well, I figured that dad would prefer it if I gave you a present.” Oh, what a rotten thing I was doing. Oh! And she says, “That’s very nice!”
About a half-hour later the old man comes home and my mother says, “Look what Jeanie did! He gave me this for your birthday.”
He looks across the red cabbage and the meatballs at me and he says, “Why, that’s very nice. That is the best present you could have given me!”
With becoming modesty I say, “I thought it was very pretty.”
My kid brother was burned up. Because he got my father a thirty-five-cent baseball glove and he was really bugged. Obviously I had scored big. I can’t tell you the end of this. I just can’t tell you the end of this. As a matter of fact, I won’t tell you the end.
[END OF PART 3]
What do Falling Water, The Vietnam Memorial, Machu Picchu, and some other sites have in common? At least in part, they all intrigue me because their art fuses man-made, three-dimensional work with the landscape they inhabit.
(Some other ”Earth Art,” or “Site-Specific Art” such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” “Mount Rushmore,” [both of which I’ve only seen in photos], and even “Stonehenge” [Which I visited when one could still walk up to it and touch it] also inhabit the landscape, as do some modern urban parks and even landscaped rooftops, but they don’t interact with the environment beyond their perimeters—though “Spiral Jetty” in photos, does vary in effect as more or fewer impurities in the water change the water’s color.)
Best-known is Mount Rushmore, in which carved portraiture emerges out of the mountainside. As a patriot, I’ve always admired it, but only recently have I connected it in my mind with my interest in landscape sculpture.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is well-known for the dramatic visual effect of the building jutting out, set over a waterfall, fusing the two. His patrons had assumed that the house would be located so that from it one could view the waterfall, but Wright had in mind the fusion of water, rock outcropping, and building.
Falling Water Exterior
Falling Water Living Room
What many may not realize is that the interior is also fused to the landscape’s bedrock outcropping, which surfaces at the fireplace floor in the house’s living room, forming part of the center of family life.
Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial is built into the earth. The shiny black marble, maybe symbolizing mourning, sliced into the universal burial ground of earth, not only contains the names of the fallen, but reflects the viewers themselves as they look and mourn. The sight of so many visitors responding to the memorial indicates the positive emotional intensity it evokes. It’s the simplicity and the purity that embodies something fundamental within us all.
Lin has written, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain ….The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further.”
The entire site of Machu Picchu was designed and built as an integral part of its immediate landscape and the surrounding mountains and valleys. The Incas revered nature—the sun, the ground, natural features. Buildings rise up as parts of the bedrock of the mountain upon which they are an inseparable part. Stairs are carved from the living rock, as is the Intihuatana sun dial stone and other special carvings. [All Machu Picchu photos and Pisac photo below by Al Naso.]
The Site Perched 2,000 Feet Above the Urubamba River
Stairways Carved From the Rock
Curved “Temple of the Sun” Built Up From Bedrock, and Carved
Entrance of “Royal Tomb” Cave Under the Temple.
A Carved “Altar” at Pisac, another Inca site.
Nearly right in front of my face and I was woefully uninformed about it, is the recently designed and put-into-glorious-use, “High Line,” Manhattan’s Westside elevated gardens that transform unused railroad track structures. Instead of tearing the whole thing down, it’s been transformed by designers, including landscape designers, taking into account the particular attributes of each grass, bush, flower, and tree to sculpt an elegant landscape for looking at, relaxing in, wandering through. It’s urban design beyond anyone’s expectations. It is Falling Water and Machu Picchu for the 21st century! It’s glorious—I gotta go and experience it someday.
The book, On The High Line, by Annik La Farge, describes the project: “Thirty feet in the air, rebuilt and planted on one and a half miles of abandoned, elevated railroad track snaking through Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line turns the dream of escape offered by most urban parks inside out.
The High Line invites you deeper into the city than you’ve ever been before.”
[Photos copied from the book. Top by Annik La Farge, middle left by Rick Drake, right by Annik La Farge, bottom two by Rick Drake.]
I get out of the bus and walk nineteen blocks back to the dime store. I go upstairs to the toy department. I stand in front of the box that says GRAB BAG! WHAT’S IN THE PACKAGE? And there’s the skinny lady with the black hair and the rimless glasses, and she says, “Have you opened your package?”
Shirley Temple Paper Doll Prize
I say “Yes.”
“You want your quarter back?”
Boing! Reaches in, gives me a quarter and I hand her the Shirley Temple cutout book, and without a word I go back downstairs. The greatest lady I’ve met in years!
Well, I get downstairs. By now I’m feeling funny. I’m feeling all kinds of guilt things ‘cause I know it doesn’t make any difference. She took that book back but it doesn’t make any difference—I had loused up! (There’s a much better word for it.) I had done it and I could not escape it.
FINAL PART OF “GRAB BAG” AND GIFTING PART OF KID BOOK TO COME
SOUTH AMERICAN HALL and INTIHUATANA
The Machu Picchu stonework called Intihuatna, ”hitching post of the sun,” is one of the world’s great pieces of sculpture. Situated on the highest part of the site, which itself is a piece of landscape sculpture, it was created by the Incas around 1500. It’s carved from the very bedrock of its site. It’s about six feet high by about ten feet long. During my four months in Peru on a Fulbright Grant in 1980, I stayed three days and three nights at Machu Picchu. I spent hours looking at, photographing, and caressing the Intihuatana.
The raised area, upper left, with tourists,
with stone-walled crop-terraces on its left,
a stone staircase leading to it in the center,
the Intihuatana is on the flattened top of the hill,
mostly blocked from view here by a small wall.
[Photo of site courtesy of Al Naso.]
It’s considered the finest part of the world-class site. At the time of my visit one could sit on it and caress it—until years after my visit (during the making of a beer commercial), a piece of video equipment fell on it and damaged it.
Now there’s a rope barrier keeping away beer companies and worshipers such as myself .
At the time, I was designing the basic architecture, cases, down to the smallest details of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Peoples of South America Hall. I realized that a full-size cast of the Intihuatana, placed at the far end of the pre-Colombian section on its raised platform, would form a dramatic centerpiece, perfectly placed in the “Highlands” section, just on the edge of the contiguous Amazonian Peoples part of the Hall—symbolizing the highlands of Peru and the beginnings of the jungle landscape where Machu Picchu is located. Exploring the area behind the Museum of Anthropology in Lima where I had residence during my stay, fortuitously I encountered a full-sized cast of the Intihuatana, the mold it had been made from, and the Peruvian craftsman who’d made it.
He showed me a small scale model he’d sculpted and I asked if I could buy it. I wanted if for my own pleasure and also to provide support for my entreaty to the anthropologist in New York I’d have to convince, to allow a full-size cast to be positioned where I wanted it in the Hall. This anthropologist was an expert in Inca culture, and loved the Intihuatana.
At my request, the Peruvian museum had agreed to ship a full-
size cast at cost, which would provide a dramatic focal point
for our entire Hall. Based on the scale model (about 7” X 19”)
a preparartor made an illustration-board replica of it,
calculated the dimensions for the full-size one and built it
of gator-board, placing it in the Hall to show the effect.
My 1980, preliminary floor plan for the Hall.
The ramps shown in plan & elevation.
On the plan, see the Coast to left, ramp up to Highlands, ramp down to Amazon. (The dark brown in the plan represents my slate “Inca Road.”) The tan Intihuatana, shown where it should have been, positioned in center/rear of Highlands. For me, the features of a ramp up, the highland material on a raised platform, and ramp down to the lower geographical location of the jungle, are important for several reasons. 1. They give the visitor a sense that, rather than there being a single, monolithic sameness to the material, there are three distinctive parts to the Hall; 2. The ramps and levels give visitors a sense of actively moving through the varied museum environments—Coast, Highlands, Jungle–a sense of participation; 3. Most crucially, regarding the information the exhibition imparts, it effectively distinguishes the geographic importance that affects the cultural differences between the landscape areas—symbolizing this through the ramps and platform. This is what designing can help do to impart information.
Small part of Peruvian Coast in foreground, with gray slate “Inca Road,”
as a visual attraction and directional assist for the visitor,
leading up the ramp to the Highlands.
At the far end of which would have been
[the absent focal point], my intihuatana.
For all his love of the Inca and the Intihuatana, our Museum anthropologist said that, as the piece is so much at-one with its site (Machu Picchu, mountains all around, etc.), it should not be shown out of its environment, our Museum anthropologist felt so sen-si-tive-ly. So there is no focal point to the Hall—there is a bland, near-flat, scale model of the Inca town ruins he himself had studied. What I have of that battle-lost is my wonderful sojourn in Peru, the completed permanent Hall I designed, my unfulfilled dream of a better final result, and, in my study near my Shep Shrine, the two scale models of my favorite sculpture.
[Recently, a specialist in ancient Peruvian culture contacted me to discuss my hall in order to incorporate my input into her book on Peruvian archeological studies. To my surprise and disgust, she told me that a major American authority on Peruvian archeology (who, in 1980, had seen my design drawings in New York) had claimed to the Lima anthropology museum—and to the world—that symbolic ramps up to the Inca highlands and down to the Amazon jungle section of their hall was his idea for re-designing their permanent exhibition. (I believe he was promoting himself to be an important consultant for their new hall.) She, the author of the forthcoming book of Peruvian studies, had thought that I had been given the idea by the archeologist!)
She told me that this world-renowned anthropologist had made the claim in Lima in 1982. I sent her an e-mail attachment of my floor plan. As it shows my “eb” initials and the date “4-’80” in the lower right corner, it proved to her satisfaction that the design feature was indeed mine, and that the world-famous authority had stolen it from me. She told me that in her research for her book, she’d discovered that the prestigious anthropologist had been guilty of other similar lies. One knows that VIPs lie when it serves their purposes—but it’s nice to also find that sometimes, fortuitously, they’re exposed.]
I’m looking at this chromium-plated tie clip with that obsidian-colored pheasant rising from a field of purest green glass, and my eyes are bugging out with desire. I don’t know whether they are bugging out with desire to own that clip myself, or to give that clip and somehow get back at what was the problem that caused me to come about in the first place.
Possible my old man had the same problem. In fact I know he did! Later on it came up. I’ll never forget the time he beat me bowling, left-handed—and he was a right-handed bowler! He did it just to show me who was boss. I was working on a hook and he says, “I’ll beat you with a straight ball left-handed and give you thirty pins to spare.” He beat me by forty-seven.
Well, I’m standing there in the jewelry department looking around, and I’m weighing one possibility against another. I finally decide that maybe I’d better consider it for a while.
So I left the jewelry department and went fooling around in the model airplane department for about fifteen minutes for reasons of my own. I was hung on escape even then—flight, get away from it all, fly, go! I was looking at stick models—ROG—Rise Off Ground models. There’s the hand-launched model and there’s the ROG model. I’ll never forget the time I got to know a kid who held the North American Junior Title for endurance model for aircraft indoor ROG Division. Talk about unsung heroes!
So I’m this kid, see, I’m going through the jewelry department of Woolworths. It’s a funny thing—every time I see a Woolworths sign today I warm inside. I can’t stay out of those places. Yet I itch when I go in Sardi’s. That’s the difference between a guy that makes it and others. It really is, I’m telling you. In this world you gotta get rid of your old skin! If I could learn to walk with clear eye, with straight back, into Tiffany, by George, within two weeks I would be a Tiffany type. When I think today of getting ahold of a tie clip, where do you think I head? They’ve still got the chromium number down there with that obsidian pheasant rising from the field of purest green glass.
I suspect that low-level objects d’art never change. I believe that in the days of the Roman Empire the slobs were buying plastic roses. We never think of any slobs in those days—they were there. If there’s anything that is universal, it is us—the Woolworths crowd. Believe me, in an average year there are more people who walk in and out of those swinging doors of Woolworths on Times Square than ever see the inside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And they go in for the same thing—to look at the wonders of civilization.
MORE GRAB BAG TO COME
FOUND IN TRANSLATION
“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear
and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs
any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him
nor I aint looking to see none agen.“
Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (published 1980) is a strange, perplexing, wonderful book. Written by an American author living in England, it entertains by its use of language and its picturing of a post-apocalyptic, post atomic war that had happened long ago.
On the Internet, “Learning to Read Riddley”
by Anna Lawrence Pietroni begins this way:
In Riddley Walker, thousands of years in our future, the people of Inland are trying to drag themselves out of the mud. Theirs is a post-nuclear society hungry for a story to make sense of what’s happened. They have no creation myth, only hellish narratives of destruction played out in the Eusa Story and an inherited, tentative dream-fragment of ‘boats in the air and picters on the wind’. English as we know it has been worn down and reconfigured, but while Riddley’s world may be stumbling through a new Dark Age, his language isn’t primitive. Riddleyspeak is direct, economical and energetic; we roadit, we meatit, we Norfed, we Eastit; a command is a ‘Do It’; leadership is ‘follerme’.
An amazon.com Customer Review by E. Coaker in part comments: “Riddley Walker is a 12-year-old who faces the loss of his father and a series of mounting troubles by going on the road in search of meaning. He meets other outcasts and tries to understand what it was that made the former culture (our current culture) so powerful, and how it is that so much knowledge was lost. What passes for political leadership is a puppet show in the tradition of Punch and Judy,…”
COVER OF A REPRINT EDITION
which contains a short,
helpful guide to the language
by the author.
Another Customer Review, by Ted Byrd, comments in part: “The vernacular spoken in the book was so ingeniously devised that it constantly supplies information about this future humanity through its construction and usage.”
Another Customer Review, by A. J.: “The novel is admittedly difficult to read and understand; the words require extraordinary concentration to absorb what Riddley is trying to say, but after the struggle I was left with the impression of having just read a work of brilliance.
I’d originally read the front page of The New York Times’ Book Review Section, but didn’t rediscover the book to read it for the first time until decades later. It took me a while to get used to the language, but it’s worth it.
Inspired to do an “artists’ book,” a kind of translation, I extracted a number of prominent passages from the book and did graphic interpretations of 32 of them, each one on a separate, stiff board. On the back side of each I placed a portion of an important “story” found by Riddley’s people.
Since I was kid I’ve been saving files of stuff that grab my attention. Of course that includes articles about literature. I read with great interest the New York Times Book Review’s front-page review of Riddley Walker and, fascinated, cut and saved the review as well as other reviews of it. But I never got around to reading the book until a co-worker at the Museum of Natural History began promoting it among members of the Exhibition Department. Now I’ve read it twice.
Every once in a while I’ll find, in my files, something from decades ago. It makes my obsessive cutting and saving of all that browning and crumbling paper worthwhile! So it was with Riddley Walker.
In that June 28, 1981 Times Book Review Section, page 1, Benjamin DeMott wrote: “Set in a remote future and composed in an English nobody ever spoke or wrote, this short, swiftly paced tale juxtaposes preliterate fable and Beckettian wit, Boschian monstrosities and a hero with Huck Finn’s heart and charm, lighting by El Greco and jokes by Punch and Judy. It is a wrenchingly vivid report on the texture of life after Doomsday.”
A most incredible, entertaining, wondrous book.
Well, I’m in the jewelry department going past all this stuff. Of course a kid doesn’t know the difference, really. I guess that’s where you separate the slobs from other people. Do slobs really thing that the diamond is a very expensive substitute for the zircon? The slob world is a very complicated world.
So I’m fooling around in the jewelry department and this is when it hit. I’m looking for a tie clip for my old man. They have a collection of chromium-plated tie clips there. Have you ever seen a chrome-plated tie clip on a seventy-five cent tie? The combination is enough to set the blood of any good, card-carrying slob to racing.
Oh boy, when I think of some of the stuff I picked for Christmas gifts in those days. Did I ever tell you about the orange and alabaster perfume squirter that I once gave? That’s another terrible disaster.
I’m walking through the jewelry department. I was probably eight or nine years old and I’m about to spring for a chrome-plated tie clip that has a pheasant rising from a field of purest green glass. I’m looking at this with a great deal of interest because, you see, it is the only one that’s for twenty-five cents. It’s the big one, the most expensive one. All the rest are strictly a dime. This one’s a quarter.
My life savings at that time totaled probably forty cents, and this meant a considerable outgo and it meant a considerable tribute to lay at the feet of my father—the one half of the team that produced me. At the same time I didn’t know whether or not I was objecting to the fact that I was in that world, or whether I dug it. I suspect that the reason, secretly, without knowledge, but with great animal instinct, I was buying an atrocity to give him was to fling it in his face! You brought me into the world—take that, you crumb! Yes, Hitler’s marching in Europe and you brought me into this world! A few years and I’ll be marching in Europe! You brought me into this world, you crumb! Here—chromium—put that on your seventy-five-cent tie! Bum! Well, of course, this is a problem.
“ACCIDENTAL” ARTISTS’ BOOKS ?
I categorize a wide variety of artworks as “artists’ books.” This includes some that were probably/certainly not considered so by the people who made them. I’ve mentioned the pre-Columbian Mexican codexes, composed solely of images/pictographs that relate stories of the real and mythical histories of their cultures. And William Blake’s books that he must certainly have considered as a synthesis of art and word that he could only have considered such, though maybe not labeling them that way. Two books that I have in reproduction are rather unusual ones, no matter how one thinks of them. The artists who made the originals would not normally be called “artists.”
LEDGERBOOKS BY AMERICAN PLAINS INDIANS
The publisher of this work references certain kinds of books that were made, and comments that some 19th century Native Americans, in schools run by the dominant culture,etc., used ledger books to draw pictographs telling stories of their native culture. These were historical narratives. These kinds of drawings, and the authentic books containing them, are held in museums and are collectors’ items.
A 1996 article by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice comments that “Plains Indians developed the hybrid genre of ledger drawings after the Civil War, when, under the pressures of dislocation and increased military aggression, they exchanged their traditional painting surfaces of stretched animal hide for more-easily transported ledger books….” He notes that the ledger books were turned sideways to draw on. [Probably because their environment and their histories more conveniently fit a horizontal format. This book’s illustrations are 7” X 11.5” and I assume that this is the common size of an actual ledger book.]
I bought this book thinking that it was a representative facsimile of such books, and I enjoyed it as such. Reading more of the publisher’s descriptive matter, I found that what I had in my hands, The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle, was “inspired” by authentic Native American Indian art-books, and had been made and published in 1994 by authors Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman, and artist Adam Cvijanovic. So, the Native Indians were not trying to make artists’ books—and the present authors/artist, appreciating those original works, had made an imagined replica, a very well-done homage, creating their own kind of artists’ book. (The first images represent the more traditional culture and the final one here shows the native peoples now regimented in schools and other formalized, European-style settings.
MURIEL FOSTER’S FISHING DIARY
The original of this book was begun in Scotland in 1913 by Muriel Foster, fisherwoman, and, unintended, she was the maker of an artists’ book composed of her fishing-diary entries for the next 30 years. There are over 180 pages, 5″ X 10″ some of them with double-page spreads. In this facsimile, comments by her niece indicate that Muriel Foster never expected others to see her work, but that it was “simply a private document of one of her most pleasurable lifelong activities.” Described by the facsimile’s publisher in 1980, Foster “was a keen naturalist and an artist capable of succinctly capturing the essence of the countryside she traversed.” It is a work of quiet elegance.
You don’t have to know you’re an artist to be an artist.
I’m in the jewelry department one day. Now we’re getting right down to the basis of guilt here. Of course in the dime store world guilt exists on two levels, spelled with or without the “u.” Sometimes they’re synonymous, by George!
Reminds me of that statue just outside the main road that went through Jackson Park in Chicago. Have you ever heard of a famous sculptor by the name of Lorenzo Taft? Does that name mean anything to you? Was there ever such a sculptor? I don’t know. This was a fabled name in my family. Every time we’d drive past this pile of masonry my old man would say, “That was done by Lorenzo Taft.” He knew who Lorenzo Taft was because he’d read it in The Tribune. He got his fantasies in rich and copious quantities from that paper. But somehow it made it more official. We’d go past that statue and he’d say, “That was done by Lorenzo Taft.”
It was a pile of people standing on one another’s heads and underneath it said, VICTORY OVER ALL—LIFE, ETERNITY, GOD, AND some other thing I can’t remember. A long curving pile of concrete, people standing on top of each other with flags. Some of them were holding tridents, those big forks with three prongs. One of them was holding an enormous cornucopia! He was pouring grapes and apples and grapefruits and stuff out on the head of a cupid who was sitting there picking his foot.
I was very impressionable at that age. And somehow the name Lorenzo Taft began to be very important to me, and I suspect that a lot of people voted for many Tafts after that purely on the basis of these early recollections that weren’t pure recollections but were somehow connected with cornucopias and grapefruits and oranges and guys who held up big tridents and cupids that pick their feet.
ABSTRACT VISUAL RELATIONSHIPS
ROWENA REED KOSTELLOW
I studied industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute from 1955 to 1959. Its design department featured a near-godlike instructor, Rowena Reed. For three years I had classes she taught. Whatever she said came from a knowledge and understanding of what it meant to make something beautiful as a three dimensional abstraction. (That theoretical understanding could eventually be applied to any functional product.) We students tried to absorb her every word.
She didn’t teach the design of products as one might expect, she taught the pure fundamentals of how solids and concavities fit well together! The theory and practice of esthetic criteria objectified in three-dimensional design problems. She showed and described the abstract essence of what it was to design—what elements of shape and juxtaposition synthesized into an object that was esthetically pleasing and alive–dynamic. Her classes were philosophical exercises in the theory and practice of designed composition. Thus, she’s quoted as expressing the “structure of visual relationships” underlying all art and design, and she also said, “If you can’t make it more beautiful, what’s the point?”
[The bold-type paragraphs to come are from this book,
which is a monument to Miss Reed’s philosophy and activity for most of her life.
Quoted parts are from people she worked with and taught.]
The book about Miss Reed’s work comprises: “a set of lessons for creating and understanding abstract three-dimensional design. Rowena Reed Kostellow helped create this curriculum [with her husband Alexander Kostellow], she refined the program, was Chair of the ID Department at Pratt where she taught for over 50 years.”
“You took a battery of courses in two and three-dimensional design and the work in one class reinforced what you were doing in other classes. In 2D design you began drawing simple things in line while in 3D, Rowena would have you working in wire–it was the same line in three dimensions. In nature study you might go to the Museum of Natural History and sketch animals on paper. Then in 3D you’d make three-dimensional sketches of animals and the 2D teacher would have you make drawings of the abstract equivalent of animals in line. Meanwhile Alexander was giving color lectures to lay the theoretical foundation and Dean [of the Art School] Boudreau was lecturing on art history and the use of color in the art of Giotto and Rembrandt. The synchronized, simultaneous, reinforced learning experience was the secret.
Abstraction doesn’t come easily to most fledgling designers, but she insisted that an understanding of abstract visual order was at the heart of good design and that by perseverance and hard work students could master that order. She refined a methodology for teaching that led students, step by step, to an understanding of, and ability to use, what she called “the structure of abstract visual relationships.”
Rowena Reed had the unshakable conviction that “foundation” studies aimed at exploring abstract visual relationships are essential to creating and appreciating art and design. She focused her own attention and considerable gifts on exploring these relationships in the three-dimensional realm.
My idea of design (not meant to contradict her, but to expand on what I consider good design) is a phrase I got from Louis Sullivan’s writings: “form [ever] follows function,” which, for me, suggests that if one designs an attractive object for people to use but it does not function well in its purpose, it ain’t a good “design.” Yet, for me, because Rowena Reed was imparting important principles, studying under her was a life-enhancing, exhilarating experience. As Elements of Design puts it, “…she was a person of commanding presence and demanded enormous effort from her students.”
We youngsters just out of high school, not very knowledgeable about the world outside academia, wanted every moment of her attention. But she spent what seemed to me then, considerable class time chatting with a group of older students recently returned from years in the army. I didn’t know until decades later that Alexander Kostellow, her husband and colleague in their deeply engrossing intellectual life’s work in design and esthetics, had very recently and unexpectedly died and left her bereft. I see now that she must have been seeking solace by communicating about adult matters, probably talking about real life, with those veterans. Maybe they, in their more astute ways, were better at articulating their understanding of both life and design. Now I can understand it, but then, sometimes, I was jealous and felt neglected.
[More from Gail Greet Hannah’s book about her.]
Rowena Reed influenced her students as much through her presence in the classroom as by her principles. She was quiet and imposing. She spoke softly and authoritatively in complete, precise sentences. She used physical gesture with conscious deliberation and to great advantage. (Once, looking at a snapshot of herself taken by a student, she exclaimed, “Notice how three-dimensionally I’m sitting!”)
“Rowena did influence her students’ designs by her enthusiasm for dynamic movement. She didn’t get as excited about quiet, static design.” But there’s strong resistance to the idea that she fostered a “style.” “There was no more of a “style” being taught in Miss Reed’s class than in a strictly regimented ballet class.”
One of Miss Reed’s reiterated principles was that a design response in her classes should have three major elements: a dominant, a subdominant, and a subordinate. She also illustrated how strong relationships between elements in three dimensions should not be bland but dynamic, describing this by first placing her two hands together and then separating them, retaining a mirror-image of each other in a non-dynamic way:
Then she’d slowly separate and twist her hands
in the relationship
between them so that a dynamic tension
seemed to exist between the two–
the space itself became an element–it became alive.
This special tension is what she expected in our designs.
Regarding homework assignments, instructors would give specific requirements. I tried to faithfully follow what the instructors told us to do. My responses were not very elegant, and I got only average grades in most subjects. Students who got the applause and top grades were those whose answers to the assignments produced beautiful results—that totally ignored the given requirements. I guess I was naïve. My homework result was once described by Miss Reed as “mediocre.”
Miss Reed and me, bespectacled,
maybe absorbing her theories.
♦ ♦ ♦
In retrospect, I believe that–rather than immediately producing a beautiful response—my answering the problem as given, taught me much more of the essence of her theories by instilling them in me like my second nature. My favorite memory of her demonstrates that belief.
At the climax of each school year, all design students had to organize a little exhibit of completed projects, everyone’s displays amassed in a large room for an afternoon— referred to as “Judgement Day.” Displayed at the summit where the gods lived–for every professor to see our year’s work, and where we would be judged.
One of Rowena Reed’s advanced subjects that year was to apply her principles to a simply realized, sculptured human figure. I don’t remember what I did for that particular assignment. But some evenings later, having finished regular homework, just playing around with some stiff wire—but obviously with her principles subconsciously ingrained–I made a figure about seven inches high. I opened a can of “SculpMetal,” a putty-like substance apparently made of metal powder dissolved in some kind of liquid that, exposed to the air after one used it, hardened to solid metal. I applied it to the wire figure, the shapes emphasizing their dynamic relationships as best as I could. I don’t remember why, but I brought it to class the next day and set it on the long student worktable in front of me.
Miss Reed approached and quietly stared
at my little figure from all sides.
“That,” she said, “is the best answer
to the figure problem I have ever seen!”
Only rarely had I done anything that caught a design teacher’s special attention! She appropriated my figure as her possession, let me borrow it for our annual judgement day, then took it back. After all these decades, I retain both that photo of my judgement day’s unexpected success positioned in front, and the additional, isolated photo I took.
Without thinking about it,
I’d absorbed her teaching
and properly expressed it.
I wonder where my little
three-dimensional masterpiece is now.
I hope my name is still on it
with her comment about it.
♦ ♦ ♦
The book about Rowena Reed says that she died of a heart attack in 1988: “Just as she had been surrounded by family and friends throughout her life, she was surrounded by them in her final days. Near the end, as her eyesight failed, she mourned her inability to carry on her daily, ritual reading of The New York Times.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The tool she recommended that we all use for minor sculpting was known among the faithful as “The Reed Tool.” The art supply store had other similar shapes to choose from but this one had her special imprimatur—it was The True Tool The Master Preferred, so, reader, I bought it–and I’m still married to it. More than fifty years and five major homes later, its little battle scars show that I use it for odd jobs around the house. Every time I see it and touch it, I’m reminded of Rowena Reed Kostellow and I revere it.
GRAB BAG SURPRISE
I’m this kid and I’m in the dime store. This is a dime-store culture we live in. Hardly any nation in the world has dime stores like America. How long has it been since you’ve been in Woolworths?
It is, in a sense, a microcosm. It’s really a condensation of everything there is. They’ve got the art department, they’ve got the plastic lampshade department with the plastic roses on them that light up in the dark. Oh yes! And they’ve got these enormous tigers with gold chains hanging on ‘em. Beautiful! Just magnificent! With gilt claws. And with diamonds in their teeth. Never saw anything so beautiful. They have these plaques that you hang up that look like African natives. Made out of plaster. Special sale on linoleum and a special on ping pong paddles. They’ve got a pet department with these plastic parakeets at a dollar-ninety-eight and the saddest thing of all I saw the other day was a pair of finches on sale, two for a buck. Life is cheap in these United States, let me tell you.
I’m fooling around down there in the dime store. I’ve always had a very definite weakness for dime store salesgirls. I don’t know what there is about that adenoidal-type girl who’s standing back of the candy counter selling the spearmint leaves and the artificial peanuts that taste like banana oil. There’s always a guy talking on the PA system saying, “Will all of you shoppers who have not received your free ballpoint pen please step over here to Aisle Seven. Aisle Seven.” And in the middle of it all they have goldfish for sale in little plastic bags.
So there I am, this kid, and I’m fooling around in the dime store where they always have maroon woodwork with gold trim wherever you go. I’m in the maroon and gold dime store with these big fans hanging down, and there’s the insufferable coffee and this gigantic barrel on which it says “Hires Root Beer. Draw Yourself a Real Stein” right next to the hot dog platter, and it’s a place where they sell jigsaw puzzles and the plastic roses and all the other objects d’art, which are so beloved by the hoi polloi of which I am a sworn, card-carrying member. I’m a true hoi polloi-er.
I’m flubbing around in the jewelry department, which in a dime store is in a sense, a true education in mores, attitudes, fear—the whole business. I’m flubbing around, planning to make a purchase for my father’s birthday, which is the kind of obeisance we pay to the great gods who have produced us. Obeisance, or perhaps, a sharp reprimand. I wonder about that interesting problem. We’re pulling both ways all the time. There’s the death wish on one side and the desire to grow into King Kong on the other. They’re pulling us all the time between them. King Kong is clinging to the Empire State Building and I’m living in the dime store world where you buy things.
Star of Stage, Screen, and Television
I had a couple of contacts with Lois Nettleton, as she had been important in the life and early New York work of radio humorist and commentator, Jean Shepherd. People I interviewed about Shepherd for my book, Excelsior, You Fathead! had talked about her. Here, two VIPs at the early Village Voice, and the cartoonist/playwright:
Jerry Talmer says, “Lois was a gorgeous woman—and Jean was so detached.” Ed Fancher comments, “Lois Nettleton—an absolutely gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful person.” Jules Feiffer complains that “…when I was with them, Jean only wanted to talk about himself and his own ideas, while Lois would ask about me.”
I became fascinated by her and collected many photos of her.
See a few of them below. (Horizontal=1-5, vertical=A-D)
Miss Chicago, semi-finalist in the Miss America Pageant, 1948 (1A). She studied acting before coming to New York. Critically acclaimed, she won various awards including two Emmys and an Obie—In 1969, in a Village Voice front page story, she sits between Jean Shepherd and Anne Bancroft (2A). She’s the wandering tourist in the documentary, Village Sunday (2B). She played Frank Sinatra’s love interest in Dirty Dingus Magee, and for over a year, Lois and Sinatra were “constant companions” (2C). Understudy and occasional performer as Maggie the Cat in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She starred in the1961 Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun” (3D). In The Golden Girls Season 2, 1986 she played Dorothy’s lesbian friend Jean (4A). She played George’s girlfriend’s mother in “The Gymnast” episode of Seinfeld, Season 6 (4C). Her frequent comment when signing her name was “Happiness” (5).
Lois expected to invite me to her apartment on East 57th Street when she next came to New York. I had composed so many questions to ask her and I’d been excited, expecting to actually meet her and talk with her. I was becoming obsessed with the idea—after all, when she’d received the copy of my book about Jean Shepherd that I’d signed and sent her, she, a Hollywood movie star, had called me from the Coast to thank me! She’d sent me a long, hand-written letter thanking me for writing my book about him. But before we could meet she became ill, and died in January, 2008.
Her good friend and executor, Hollywood director and producer John Bowab, invited me and I met him in the apartment Lois had used for over forty years. It had various mementos of her years living there with Shepherd, including several oils he had done in various modern styles. As we sat in her small kitchen, John gave me the dozens of notes she had written to discuss with me my book about Shepherd, and directly behind me on the wall she had hung one of his signed, original drawings of New York buildings.
Here I was in her apartment, just the way she’d left it and just the way I’d expected to meet with her face-to-face, looking in her eyes, touching her hand as we met, and shaking it and feeling her warmth. Being in the aura of her persona. Now that can never happen. Yet, I do possess some very personal fragments of her. In her sweetness and effusiveness she’d written to me:
As we sat in her kitchen, John asked if I’d like a cup of coffee and I said yes. He gave me a cup and spoon, and got down from a cupboard a jar of instant coffee and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, “you’re drinking Lois’ coffee.”
HOW THE ATOMIZER BOMBED
Oh boy, was the Christmas going down the hot air register at that point. It was going down! Just dead! My old man takes it again. Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. Ah-eeeek. “Let me look at this thing.” He goes out into the kitchen, he takes his pliers. There was a little nozzle on the front. He takes this nozzle off, and he opens it and he looks through. He says, “For crying out loud, it’s stuffed up!” He takes a toothpick and he’s poking it through and he’s pretending like he’s fixing it. He blows through it. “Now it’ll work.” He screws the nozzle on again Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. He says, “There, it’s working!”
I say, “Lemme see, lemee see!”
“No, it’s working, don’t worry about it. It’s working.” Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. “Why don’t you get back and play with your sled. Ann, it’s working now.” Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. Nothing is coming out and he’s hoking it up. “Hey, it’s working now, Ann.” Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek.
“Ah, what do ya mean? It’s not working, dad. It’s not working at all. I can tell it’s not working at all.”
Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. He says, “Go on back. Look, it’s working good. You can smell the perfume!”
Of course, the thing smelled of “Evening in Paris” all the way from here to Indiana Harbor and back.
He holds it up. “Can you smell that?”
I say “Yeah.”
“Well now, you see, it’s working, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Even I won’t admit it. “Yeah. Yeah.”
My mom says, “See, it’s working, isn’t it?”
Yeah. We all agree it’s working—yeah.
END OF ATOMIZER STORY!
Tim Ely’s Alchemy & Lois Morrison‘s Marco Bull
I own a couple of elegant, one-of-a-kind artists’ books. The two here are sufficiently outstanding and different from each other so that I think of them together and show them as a special group of two.
THE ALCHEMY OF INVESTIGATION by Tim Ely
Ely’s typical work depicts what appears to be an alien landscape with a map-like form. The intelligent and apparently scientifically-oriented inhabitants have their own alphabet and indecipherable, diagrammatic signs and calculations. The second layout has a number of cutouts (shown here in white) that allow one to see the page underneath. The techniques used include hand lettering and some airbrush, which colors the pages beneath through some of the openings. The top image is the dimensional front of the book with a metallic finish. The book is about 7” X 7” and contains 4 fold-out panels, each double-sided. Many of Ely’s one-of-a-kind books are larger, and thus, more visually complex.
THE TRAVELS OF MARCO BULL by Lois Morrison
Morrision’s work is sometimes constructed with hand-made, sewn-on shapes and hand-stitched text, as is this one-of-a-kind book, which includes an elaborate, separate cover. The recycled maps are made of cloth by the military so that, if drenched in water, they remain usable. Her work, as in this example, exhibits a playful wit. Another series focuses on St. Ostriche, of which one is cloth and one is a pop-up book. This book is about 8” h X 6.5” w, with about 10 panels, with content on both sides.
These two books suggest a bit of the unpredictable variety
encompassed in the world of artists’ books.
A page spread (slightly cropped) from “Sighte,”a limited edition printed book by Tim Ely (art) and Joe Napora (text), hand-printed, on hand-made paper by Ruth Lingen.
A page spread from one-of a kind cloth book, “The Miracles of Ste. Ostriche” by Lois Morrison.
We’ve had our supper, it’s now nine o’clock, and you’re very nervous inside and you’re throwing up. Very terrible. So finally the time comes. At that point, because I had built up this giant thing about the atomizer in my mind, I was really more interested in what she was going to think of the atomizer, so that I didn’t even think about what I was gonna get. Very strange. So there it was, with its big tag, “TO MOM,” I’d stuck it out in front of the tree.
Finally everybody’s opening their presents and I’m looking. “Hey, ma, don’t you want to open that? I wonder what—hey look, ma!”
She’s playing it pretty cool. “Well, I’m not in any hurry. You just open yours. Look at this, isn’t this wonderful—a donut cutter. Isn’t that wonderful.” She’s looking at her other stuff. “Oh boy, what a wonderful bathrobe.” All the while there’s this thing lying there.
“Hey, ma, ma, there’s one other one there.”
She finally picks it up and says, “Let’s open this one up.” Well, she opens it up. Have you ever seen those really corny takes they do in the class B movies? My mother says, “What! This is beautiful! Where did you get all the money to buy this? It’s fantastic!” She’s really playing it up big. “Look at this!” She holds it up and shows it to my father. She squeezes it Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek!
He says, “What is that?!”
“Look at that,” she says. “Something that I have always wanted. For years, ever since I was a little kid I always wanted a perfume atomizer! I always used to look at perfume atomizers! Look at that! It’s great!”
I’m sitting there, beaming all over the place. My ears are red.
“Isn’t that fantastic! Great!”
My brother’s grinning—he’d held the secret all this time.
So I say, “Hey, ma, go get some perfume. Put it in.”
She says, “Okay, I’ll do that.” She takes her four gallon bottle of “Evening in Paris” perfume she’d received as a gift. She unscrews the top and she takes this giant bottle of “Evening in Paris,” glug, glug, glug, pouring it in there. She tightens it all up. She says, “Now, okay.” It goes ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. Nothing comes out. “No, wait.” She shakes it ding ding ding. Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. Nothing comes out!
I say, “Here, mom, let me tighten the top!” I tighten the top. Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek.
My old man says, “Here, wait a minute. Here, lemme check it. You didn’t put it in right! For crying out loud! Whatsa matter with you women?” He opens the top and he fools around with it, shakes it, blows it out, puts it back on. He goes ah-eeeek ah-eeeek. Nothing.
My mother says, “That’s alright. It probably needs to get broken in. It’ll probably work better tomorrow afternoon. You know, it’s Christmas and everybody’s excited and nervous. It’ll probably work better tomorrow afternoon.”
I’m sitting there under the tree. “Work better! It won’t work at all! It’s rotten. It’ll never work! It’ll never work!”
She says, “Now wait a minute. Just a minute. Let me hold this thing.” She shakes it Ah-eeeek ah-eeeek.
IS IT FOR REAL?
Is it real or is it a forgery and why does it matter? If one responds to a work of art, why does it matter? I remember being asked by a high school teacher to respond to this question in front of a class. I can’t remember what I said, but I think I can remember the essence of my reply.
I said that, though one might be deceived into thinking that a work of art is by the recognized artist—and that, therefore, why does its authenticity matter—I believe there would be something not-quite-discernable in an authentic artwork that subtlety affects one’s response to a work actually done by the master. Plus, a master artist has created an oeuvre that incorporates some new aspect of our world and his response to it that those who come after to copy it are mere imitators—not creative originators, and that is part of how and why we honor a work actually created by the originator.
(From time to time one encounters a news article in which a painting purportedly by some old master is apparently proven to be fake. I don’t presume to be able to able to distinguish fakes/authentics at this stratospheric level.)
In my examination of email listings of objects for sale on ebay, I can almost always, immediately recognize fakes of some artists. They inevitably exhibit an amateur’s superficial and inaccurate impression of what the faker believes is the style of the original artist. They are bad fakes. I’ve encountered many obvious fakes of Picasso and of John Marin, two of my favorite artists.
One day a few years ago I encountered on ebay a watercolor described as a Marin original. It looked good, but it also looked familiar. It had very strong echoes of one of my favorite Marin etchings, “Brooklyn Bridge From Brooklyn (The Sun)” made in 1915:
Had some forger, roughly copying a reproduction of the original etching, simply done an “original” watercolor based loosely on it? If so, the watercolor would be almost worthless. The seller claimed that his father had had it for decades hanging on his living room wall. That proves nothing. If an original by Marin, it would probably sell in a reputable gallery for over $25,000.
Studying it, I decided that the sketchy marks throughout were what one might describe as “crude,” but that they were, in their form, too well-done in Marin’s style to have been easily faked—they have the look of authentic Marin marks. Also, the distribution of colors was expertly done, exhibiting an artistically knowledgeable result most forgers would not have had the subtlety to fake.
Was it real or was it fake?
Maybe Marin had done the etching first and decided
that he wanted to follow it up
with a watercolor based on the etching.
The opening bid price was only in the mid-hundreds—far too low an opening amount for an authentic, original Marin. If I could win it, I’d keep it on our wall, adoring it for a couple of years, then, in need of the cash, we’d sell it to a gallery for maybe 8 or 10 thousand—if it were found to be, indeed, authentic. Yet, even the low amount in the hundreds was too much for my family to risk in the event that I, in my amateur’s deluded enthusiasm, found that it was fake. As it had received no bids, I offered the seller a couple of hundred, explaining that I questioned its authenticity, but I was turned down. I don’t know if it sold. Maybe I coulda had an original, really important Marin for almost nothing, or maybe Id’a been duped. Looking at my computer screen every day, over the years, I’m reminded of my dilemma.
JEAN SHEPHERD Kid Stories Gifting Atomizer 2 of 4 & (55) ARTSY Found In Translation Part 2, Cendrars and eb
So I go up to the lady in charge of the atomizer section. There’s about five million people shopping in the dime store, of course! Stacked up like cord wood. You know what a mess it is trying to get waited on. Even when you’re a grownup and you can yell back it’s very hard. But, as a little kid!
So it takes me about forty minutes to get this woman, and she says, “Alright, here.” She takes it down and I take it for a quarter, and have it wrapped in the gift-wrap department. Boy oh boy, it is fantastic! Absolutely incredible. I am really knocked out of my skull with this thing. Because it is the biggest gift I can ever remember buying for my mother. A big thing.
So I take this thing all the way home sitting in the back seat of the Graham-Page, and I’ve got it stuck under my sheepskin coat where nobody can tell what I’ve got.
Of course my mother says, “Did you do any shopping?”
“Yeah, well yeah, ha ha.”
“What did you buy?”
Randy is going, “Yawayawayawa.”
I yell, “Shut up, it’s a secret!”
Of course it’s a fantastic secret what I’ve got for everybody. I got this giant plastic Lotto game for my kid brother, which he will care for like a shot in the head. I never knew a kid who cared a nickel for Lotto, but they always get gifts of Lotto sets. So that’s what I got for him. And for my father, a shaving brush. It was the only shaving brush I knew that molted. It was a twelve-cent shaving brush and it went through its actual molting period the first time he stuck it in hot water, oh boy!
The whole big thing, of course, was the atomizer. I could hardly wait. You know, you always want to show it to somebody. “Hey, ma, I bet you can’t guess what I got you.”
“I thought it was supposed to be a surprise. I don’t want to know.”
“Well, that’s right, it’s a surprise, but I bet you can’t guess though!”
Then she’d say, “Well, what did you get? A fielder’s mitt?”
“Ah, come on, ma! Not a fielder’s mitt. No, I bet you cant’ guess really. First of all, I’ll tell you it’s a little package. It’s very little. You’ll probably think it’s not much because it’s very little, see, but you’ll be surprised, because it’s fantastic. It’s a very little package.”
And she’d say, “Well, let’s see. A diamond ring?”
“Ah, come on, ma! No, it’s not that little, it’s bigger than that. Here, I’ll go get it. You can look at the package.”
This great scene was building up until finally Christmas Eve comes, which is when we had our Christmas gifts and all that stuff.
MORE ATOMIZER STORY TO COME
FOUND IN TRANSLATION Part 2—CENDRARS & eb
La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, poem by Blaise Cendrars about a trip he made as a young boy, artwork by Sonia Delaunay-Terk in 1913, is an early twentieth century artists’ book, when the form began to interest an increasing number of artists. There are only a few of this Cendrars/Delaunay works in existence, and they now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. In museum installations, I’ve seen a couple of the originals. They were designed to be folded into a small packet—when I asked a gallery owner to open up his copy he said it was too fragile, and loses value every time it’s handled.
I would have liked to do my own artwork from a good English translation, but I’ve only encountered a couple that I’m told are not as good as they should be—so I wrote my own poem about my own train travels.
As I was traveling to work on the Long Island Rail Road at the time, I wrote my poem, and in a computer drawing program, designed my homage to the original. Each of the ten panels is connected to the next with key rings and grommets. The panels are about 8” high, so, when extended, it hangs about 80” high from a pair of hooks. (It’s said that if the approximately 50 copies of the original La Prose du Transsibérien were hung end to end they would be about as tall as the Eiffel Tower.)
Top two panels, a middle one, and the final one.
As an aspiring poet, I was delighted to encounter on the New York subway system, overhead placards devoted to poems in a series called “Poetry in Motion.” (What were they–about 15″ X 40″?) I note, only recently, that just as Cendrars’ poem and my homage, these poems-in-motion are posted in a context of traveling (on the subway).
I thought that an amusing idea would be to make my own little poetry plaques (3” X 7”), reproduce dozens of each, and distribute them willy-nilly on empty subway car seats for riders to encounter. The top borders I reproduced from an original large sign. I hoped that some innocent citizens were pleasantly and artistically entertained.
I present four of the nearly dozen poem plaques I produced.
Note my lower-right description on each.
[Click on to enlarge.]