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Ever sit with about a thousand guys waiting to be interviewed at an employment office? It’s a very interesting experience. I’m sitting there with all these other guys, some of them are nine feet tall, other guys with muscles bulging out behind their ears, other guys have gray suits with pencils sticking out of their pockets. Everybody looks very official. All I have is my letter. I figure if I wear my sweater with the big H on the front they’ll be impressed. It’s my letter. So I sit there with my H, and they call me in. “Mr. Bullard wants to talk to you.”
So I walk in, Mr. Bullard’s sitting back there and he’s got these chromium teeth, and he’s looking at me. “Is this your application here? Your name?”
He gives me a good long look and he says, “You play football? What position do you play?”
I say, “Yes.” I have these little footballs that they give you sewn all over my sweater.
He says, “What do ya play?”
“I’m offensive guard, actually. I play linebacker quite a bit.”
“I remember you!”
“You remember me?”
“Yeah, didn’t you make that fumble against Whiting one night?” He did remember me.
I did make the fumble against Whiting one night. I say, “I did indeed.”
He says, “What was the matter with you, anyway?”
I say, “I don’t know. I didn’t come here to talk about football. I want a job here.”
“We can’t have guys who fumble like that at crucial moments working for us!”
I say, “Are you forming a football team here? I’ve got my letter—I did something right!”
He says, “That’s true.” He starts stamping my application. Be careful of guys who have rubber stamps on their desks. Them guys can be mean.
He starts stamping, writing little things, more stamps on my application. He says, “Here, take this down to Personnel, son.” He gives me the paper and he turns away. I can see immediately that the interview is over. He pushes a little button, it goes ding dong, and they bring in the next victim.
My half-Spanish/half-American daughter and I finally met in Granada when she was about 17. We would sit each evening on the roof of her student residence and watch, across the valley, the floodlights illuminate the Alhambra. We talked of many things and got to know each other a bit. She stayed in Forest Hills, Queens with us for some months, acing her freshman year at Hunter, until her story and mine took a sad, tragic turn. She had lived through too much Spanish culture— its backward culture, its either-or/black-or-white mentality of not conceiving any alternatives between herself and the rest of the world. Out of fear for our safety and inability to alter her, we had to ask her to leave.
Back in Spain, she would not correspond with us, so the inexplicable sadness remains now for over two decades. It’s too difficult, too personal for me to detail–Lorca, your Granada ways remain in my world–and, Federico, maybe you could have written a true tragedy about it, but I could not do it. Though to get some pain out of myself, with some time recollected in tranquility, I composed several poems and artists’ books. Parts of each:
First Day Part 2—Mailboy With Tornado
Mailboy–actor playing Ralph (Shep)
in “Phantom of the Open Hearth”
I was going to buy a car. That’s what my basic idea was—to get this car. And where was this car? Well, it was on a used car lot. Have you ever noticed used car lots have all these light bulbs? Well, those are not just ordinary light bulbs that you have in your house—just rotten light bulbs. There’s a special light bulb for used-car dealers. It makes the paint glow! It has special rays in it. So you can take a car that looks like left-over mashed potatoes in ordinary light, you stick it under these special bulbs at the used-car lot, and it come on like the Taj Mahal. The paint glows and everything.
So every day I was walking past Friendly Fred, The Hungry Armenian used-car lot, and he had these cars there with all the light bulbs, and there was this one car—it was a Ford V8. Gees! Fantastic! You talk about getting the hots for something—I really had ‘em for that car. I could taste it. I figured if I got a job I could really make it big with this car. No telling how far I could go.
Cars are very important. This is a basic thing with people. Man is an ambulatory creature—that means he walks around a lot. There’s no other creature that migrates like man. You haven’t heard recently of a herd of elephants moving out to Ohio, have you? Not recently, and you won’t. They just walk around in the same place.
Man has a basic urge to go someplace else. Of course, part of that basic urge is to believe that if I did get someplace else, it would be better. I’d write that great novel. You get there and you find your knees still hurt, you still don’t make out. You’re gonna do it just as much in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky as you are in Madera, off the coast of whatever it’s off the coast of.
So I’ve got this plan, see. I’m gonna get this car. I could taste it! I would discuss it with Flick and Schwartz and Bruner. And sure enough, school’s out, June third. I go around like mad, I get my work permit. I go around trying to get a job and they have this bulletin board in school of all the various jobs that are available. I apply through this post office box number 6SJ7GT—“Send your qualifications.”
I had fantastic qualifications. After all, I was a first-string guard on the football team, plenty of qualifications. They can use a lot of guards in a lot of places. I was a quick study. I was the only guy on our team who learned our plays in less than six months. All three of our plays.
I went down, I filled out the forms and I waited. I filled out a lot of other forms. Went over to the gas station and asked if they needed anybody. And not more than two weeks after I filled out a form I got this letter in the mail saying that I should show up at the employment office at the steel mill! The steel mill! I’d hit the double jackpot! Everybody knows it’s big money down at the steel mill, so I went down there with about twenty-eight thousand guys.
LORCA & THE POMEGRANATE CONSPIRACY
Some of my Lorca books. Are Lorca and my long-gone Spanish wife, Maria, related? His family name, Garcia, has a same family name as Maria (Yes, I know that Garcia is as common as Jones is here.) Maria was born in Atarfe, a small town near Granada, the same town Lorca’s mother came from; in the city of Granada itself, the Lorca home is just a few blocks from Maria’s family home.
I took Maria to see two of Lorca’s tragedies performed in Spanish in small Manhattan theaters: “Yerma” and “La Casa de Bernarda Alba.” I don’t think she got it.
• • • • •
The Pomegranate Conspiracy–Part of synopsis: “This novel tells the story of Gordon Roberts (the name is a play on Hemingway’s protagonist, Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls), a young American rifle expert in Spain, who dreams of righting the wrongs of the Spanish civil war, thirty year after its end….The fascist dictator, Franco, dies in bed….The Granada conspirators decide to kill King Juan Carlos instead….Emotions and conflicts reach their peak in the Alhambra, the king innocently in attendance for a concert, Gordon and Manolo poised to release their deadly grenades—and Manolo ready to slit Gordon’s throat.” (The contents of the following typed pages are important parts of my Spanish recuerdos/tragedy.)
In The Pomegranate Conspiracy’s
Unpublished Manuscript, the Underlined Texts (In Italic)
are the True Parts, or Words in Spanish.
Non-Underlined are Fiction.
• • • • •
In 1936, near the beginning of the Spanish Civil War,
Federico Garcia Lorca, with several others, was executed.
THE CORPSE OF LORCA.
And I walked out of the stores with a big pair of safety shoes that were forty pounds each, a pair of goggles—and the sound rose and rose and rose and rose—it was screaming and hollering around me.
I had nowhere to go. No place to go. I had no point of reference, and I went into a doorway where there was a telephone. I picked up the telephone and I instinctively dialed zero. And I got this voice on the phone. It was the plant operator.
I said, “I want to talk to Mr. Galambus, please.”
I said, “Yes, Mr. Galambus, who is the superintendent of the rolling shop.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Galambus, of course, sir.” She thought I was a big man.
I get Mr. Galambus. I say, “Hi, Gil, hi, Gil, this is W9QWN ha ha, I’m
over here in the 2AC, Gil. Please come and get me. Oh oh oh.”
Well, twenty minutes later I’m in the Stationary Shipping Department. And that was only the beginning. That day I learned something very important. I haven’t discovered yet what it is.
END OF FIRST STEEL MILL STORY.
RECUERDOS OF SPAIN part 1
Spain might seem an odd place for this timid, conservative fellow to pursue. It’s on the far edge of European culture both geographically and culturally. In some ways it is rough, backward-living in a long ago lost civilization. (At least that’s the way it seemed to me in the 1950s-1970s. It’ significantly modernized since.) Its barbaric dichotomies—its Civil War, its bullfight, its gypsies and flamenco, and, yes, in its romantic illusions, its castles in Spain.
I blame it all on my cousin, Raymond Ben Anderson, who, when I was an impressionable pre-teenager asking him for suggestions on good reading matter, he loaned me Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, which engendered my enthusiasm for Hemingway, bullfighting, classical and flamenco guitar, and almost all other things Spanish. No wonder that, when I decided to make my first trip to Europe, I preceded it with a Berlitz course in Spanish and, the only specific date on my 5-month itinerary was July 7, the opening day of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
I had no idea that in Madrid I’d meet Maria, a young woman from Granada.
(Most people don’t know that American author, Washington Irving, stayed in and was enamored of the Alhambra: “…one of the most remarkable, romantic, and delicious spots in the world.”)
MODEL OF A POMEGRANATE.
PAPER MODEL OF THE ALHAMBRA.
(The small cluster of buildings front and center is the remaining Moorish palace buildings. Behind, with round hole in center is the later Spanish building which destroys the unity of the original buildings—it is here that my The Pomegranate Conspiracy manuscript’s American protagonist and his Granada co-conspirators intend to kill Prince Juan Carlos. [See following description.] To the left is the Catholic church built by the conquistadors.)
END OF PART 1.
And then it happened. My junior year came and I had to sign up for Public Speaking. Either that or I had to transfer to something like general klutz courses, and I wanted to go to college so I had to take this. I realize now the peculiar wisdom of the people who made up that curriculum, but at the time it seemed like one of the most ridiculous things in the world to take. Public Speaking, when I should be studying Latin—something important. So I had to sign up for that thing. I’ll never forget that miserable day.
The first day in the Public Speaking course. All of us were in there and there are always about nine real smart-ass kids who dig this kind of stuff. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, the future salesmen of America. Miss Bonita Parsons taught Public Speaking, and she was one of those very stony-faced teachers. Iron-gray hair, rimless glasses, and she talked out of thin lips. No emotion at all. She said, “Now, the first thing we will do. I want all of you to think for a minute or two, and come up and tell what you’d like to be when you grow up. Don’t worry about it, it’s not important what you’re going to be, we just want you to get up on the platform here and I will time you and I want you to speak for a minimum of one minute and a maximum of two minutes. Let’s start here in the front row with Andrews.”
Silence in the classroom. I could hear the birds out there. I could hear the streetcars and I could hear the busses, and somewhere far away I could hear kids playing on a playground. Life was going on. People were happy. And in Room 201 Jean Shepherd was slowly shriveling up inside to a little, rotten, curled-up, wormy walnut. Inside.
COMPACT LIKE A CLENCHED FIST
(PART 2 of 2)
This wood, coiled rat, is modern, made very much like those created by the revered 19th C. carver, Masanao, the original creator, who is said to be the ancestor of the present carver.
• • • • •
My modern “Ama (fishing girl) and Squid,” I bought in a Fifth Avenue, NY store featuring over-priced objects for sale to unsuspecting tourists—and those, such as I, who know the racket, but decide to buy anyway. I like its look and feel, and still care for it now, knowing it’s an inferior copy of the highly regarded 18th C. original–which I subsequently had the pleasure (for a few moments) of holding and fondling.
• • • • •
Besides netsuke, I’ve accumulated other pieces that feel good
and compact in the hand.
On the left is a Peruvian, Inca canopa, a stone camelid carved as a religious symbol to make farmlands fertile. On the right is a modern stone carving that I bought for the spiral portion, later finding that the ancient, humped-back flute player represents an American Hopi Indian figure, Kokopelli, with many generative powers.
• • • • •
On the left is my casting of the best-known ancient carved figure, believed to be about 30,000 years old, the Willendorf Venus.
(Following is an expanded description I’d used in one of my essays about my Museum experiences. I just encountered info that the Guennol lioness, seven years after the exhibit, sold at Sotheby’s by the owner’s family charitable trust, to a private collector, for $57.2 million.) On the right is my casting of the Guennol lioness, about 3.5″ tall made about 5,000 years ago Mesopotamia, which I saw and first became aware of when it was exhibited in the year 2000 at the Brooklyn Museum. I immediately rushed to the Museum Shop and, as I’d hoped, found a replica for sale. I bought it and went back to the original on display, and held my replica up to compare. It was very good. I have it displayed unsupported, just held up in sand, so I can grab it and hold it whenever I have the desire.
I found that the exhibition, “The Guennol Collection,” is a selection from a family’s artworks that encompass not a confined art-area, but was bought based on their wide-ranging interests—so it reminds me of my own varied interests and the objects I’ve accumulated from so many fields in the arts I love.
New York Times review by Ken Johnson in part: “…they pursued their aesthetic interests like artists, with a refreshing disregard for the usual categories of art history and an absolute insistence on the primacy of personal response. A result is an extremely diverse collection unified by a singular sensibility,…”
“Araya Yabaya Arayaa!”
One of the great terrors that I had in high school involved being signed up for what they called the “general college preparatory course” and having to take Public Speaking. The little handbook listed required subjects you had to take. Okay, I’d fooled around in English—I’d declined verbs, once in a while I’d diagramed sentences and I’d handed in themes. I was great on book reports. I could ad lib a book report. Give me one paragraph of a book, any book, and I could write you a seven-page book report on it that carried weight and got a B-plus. But the course that absolutely terrified me was Public Speaking.
You had to take it before you were a senior. The first year I said, “I’ll take biology instead. I’ll study about worms and stuff, and I’ll take swimming.” So, in my sophomore year, my advisor said, “When are you going to take Public Speaking?” I said, “Well, ah, maybe next semester. I’ll take band instead.” Oh, I was scared. It was approaching. It was approaching. Every couple of days I would walk down the hall and I would see the classroom where Miss Parsons taught Public Speaking. On the floor was a little platform with a lectern and I’d get that sick feeling down in the pit of my stomach.
Every couple of weeks we’d have an auditorium session and some kid would get up and give a talk along with the regular auditorium session. I’d sit way in the back and watch and wonder how the devil this kid did it! I’d say, “Oh boy, he must be scared. Wow! Oh man!” Of course, I’d always put it down like the rest of the kids: “Ah, who wants to get up there and talk in front an audience?” Each one of us had this sense of inadequacy.
Much more to come.
COMPACT LIKE A CLENCHED FIST
(Like an unhostile, living human hand).
I have a great affinity for small objects that are compact like a clenched fist. I say “clenched fist” but visualize an image of a comfortable, living human hand, an unhostile threat. Objects one can hold firmly and fondle, that feel comfortable and that don’t have extraneous, extruding barbs and long spikes that might easily impale one—or that might easily break off.
Inappropriately carved modern
objects referred to as “netsuke,”
not meant to be worn,
but to be displayed by the unknowing.
Note ugly, pointed, non-utilitarian protrusions.
• • • • •
An ultimate example is Japanese netsuke. They have to be small, and, other than the oddball long, slim variety, they have to be compact. Raymond Bushnell was the best-known authority on netsuke, author of several wonderfully thoughtful books about them in addition to a small basic one, An Introduction to Netsuke. He begins this book:
The Japanese love of the miniature in art is well known—dwarf trees, tray landscape, sword fittings, woodblock prints, and other diminutive arts….
Netsuke are works of sculpture in wood, ivory, lacquer, porcelain, metal or other materials.
He points out that a netsuke is part of an ensemble, suspended from the sash and strung to such objects as a medicine case, a tobacco pouch, or a purse, by means of a cord.
It must be designed so that the overall shape is smooth and rounded; no jutting parts or appendages are permitted that might break off or tear a kimono sleeve.
One of the most appealing qualities of a netsuke is a quality that, amazingly, was not carved into it by the artist who created it. It is the smoothness and luster brought about by generations of loving handling and wearing.
• • • • •
My 18th c. piece on the left lost three of its legs long ago–one can see that the broken ends have been worn smooth by wear after the breaks. In fact, the piece was originally, probably, faulty for the jutting of the legs, and now the wounded piece has achieved the more compact shape it should originally have had. Bushnell, in his Netsuke Familiar and Unfamiliar, says, “The older a netsuke is, the longer it has been subject to accidents and exposed to the elements, the more wear and injury it may be expected to have sustained during its lifetime.”
The 19th c. piece also has much smoothness caused by wear and the traditional use of it. It has no broken parts, though the crack in its traditionally held ball does show its age.
• • • • •
20th c. shi shi. I sent Bushell a letter to his question-& answer column in the journal of The International Netsuke Collectors Society. Apparently the carved dividing lines between body parts were carved with a 20th c. Dremel machine—does it matter how quickly/efficiently the artwork is achieved—even with a modern tool? (After all, it’s the creative aspect that matters.) He found my question surprising and intriguing.
The idea for my very small collection was to concentrate, but not limit myself, to the shi shi dog in all its multiple manifestations, inspired by Bushell’s suggestion in Netsuke Familiar and Unfamiliar. I find of particular interest his comments regarding variations on a theme. In describing “specialized collections,” he notes that a particular subject for an extensive collection might have scores of variations, including different carvers, poses, styles, materials, and other considerations.
• • • • •
The piece on the left appears to me authentic—maybe 19th C., the nearly uncarved bottom seeming to be in an uncommon-but-traditional style of carving roughly (Bushell puts it: “Ittobori is a quicker method of roughing out and completing a figure, since it eliminates several steps of smoothing, polishing, and finishing.”) I tend to doubt that a present-day carver would think to do this, as most unknowing buyers would not be aware of that style and would want completely realistic renderings only, not what they’d think were half-finished pieces. That on the right, fully carved and realistic, is one of many current examples that are obviously not older, but seem to have been churned out in China by the hundreds to sell for well under $10 each. (The impoverished carvers probably earn about 20 cents an hour.)
END PART 1 OF 2
I’m playing ball, having a great time. Well, you know, three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock, ballgame starts to peter out, guys are drifting away and it’s getting to be around suppertime. And I go drifting on back home. Now it is almost forgotten. But yet, it remains. If it sounds like a paradox, it’s true.
So I’m drifting on back with Flick and I’m walking along, I come up to the house, I say, “Hey, I’ll see you guys after supper.”
Flick says, “Yeah, let’s go down the bowling alley.”
I say, “Okay, let’s go down the bowling alley. I’ll be out about six-thirty, something like that.”
We always ate early on Saturday. The old man didn’t have to go to work so he didn’t have to worry about coming home for supper. He always ate all the time on Saturday.
So I drift up to the front of the house and all the while I’ve almost completely forgotten what had happened. I walk through the dining room and I go into the kitchen, and my mother’s hanging over the sink!
And I say, “Hi, ma.”
More to come
Among my assorted artsy pieces, there are several that don’t easily fit into fartsy groupings, so I’ve put some of these into this miscellany. They range from Picasso and Henry Moore to Japanese, African, Pierre Alechinsky, and a musical instrument made with an armadillo shell. Some are originals, some are reproductions of one sort or another. (I give a bit of background and some personal association that might make the object come alive—at least for me.)
This realistically rendered animal skull was created by hand, by a contemporary artist, whose name I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve forgotten. With its strange non-anatomical parts, it seems as though it might belong to some other-worldly cult, created for a shaman—one doesn’t know, but for me, this uncertainty is part of its fascination.
• • • •
I acquired this African doll during a lunch hour at an antique-type shop near the American Museum of Natural History. It’s fashioned from a black gourd consisting of three roundish globules, with trade beads and cloth bits (one eye missing). I think it probably has some mystical significance.
• • • •
I bought this Japanese tobacco container and its attached Japanese pipe holder at a small curio shop in a small New England town on the way to somewhere. I thought it was a one-eye-inlay-lost, one-of-a-kind idea of a Daruma (patron of Zen Buddhism). I like the pose of the hands appropriately holding the string connected to the pipe-holder carved as a long-limbed man. This grouping is worn from the sash as would a netsuke and its medicine box or other hanging object. When the cord is loosened, the unattached face is pulled forward to access the hollow body holding the tobacco. I bought the pipe separately on ebay—it has the typically very small chamber for holding the tobacco! It fits perfectly into the holder.
Years later I found that this form, (probably mid-to-late 19th Century) is rather common—a kind of folk style of many similar varieties. One can see a number of them by googling “daruma tobacco container.” I’ve wondered if such tobacco boxes were mass-produced by side-by-side carvers, factory-style.
This instrument, a charango, is usually found in a Peruvian folk-music group—guitar, flute, a drum–or box played like a drum—and charango, its six sets of double strings, usually played as a rhythm instrument. I had this one made for me by a musical instrument maker in Cuzco when I was visiting Peru in 1980.
The charango comes in three styles: least interesting with a bottom side like a very small guitar; with a bottom side of wood carved like a simply shaped armadillo shell; and, most authentic, the bottom made from the actual back and head of an armadillo—such as is mine.
• • • •
These pieces are: a casting from an original Henry Moore clay piece (A company selling museum replicas made this cheap, bronze-painted plaster cast); A white plate with bird from a Picasso-based pottery shop in Vallauris, France that makes duplicates of Picasso originals such as this; a bronze-painted plaster of a Picasso owl from some company that makes good replicas.
The framed picture is a Picasso cut from a book that includes three original, black line drawing lithographs plus this multi-colored one. The story is that the publisher, seeing the three black line drawings, asked if the fourth one could be made with some color—Picasso obliged by making this over-the-top, many-colored drawing.
• • • •
This large plate (about 13”D.) is also from the Vallauris pottery shop. The individual examples, made by artisans copying the original Picasso, can have a variety of color schemes. Only recently did I encounter that it has two left hands! (For convenience, this image comes from an exact one like mine, grabbed by googling the title.)
• • • •
I was fascinated by the bordering, movie-still-like drawings of this piece on the wall of a friend’s apartment. She’d bought it from the gallery where she’d worked. We agreed that she would trade it to me for some traditional weavings I’d buy in Peru–the signed print has now graced my walls for over three decades. (For convenience, this image comes from an exact one like mine grabbed by googling the title.)
Only after I’d possessed it did I learn that the artist, Pierre Alechinsky, is a highly regarded fine artist and that the piece is titled Droit de Regard (“Right to Look”) It’s about 19” X 26.” The center image might be a kind of squatting, winged elephant. Yet, possibly it’s a sphinx, as the figure in the lower left might be a camel, and several of the other surrounding images seem to be, from different viewpoints, Egyptian pyramids.
I met Alechinsky for a moment at a special MOMA opening of an exhibit of his work, where I showed him a Polaroid of my piece. He said it was a rare one. (Mine is from the standard edition of 65.) This was a special evening for me for another reason—I noted a little, folded-up paper on the floor of one of the exhibit rooms. It was a hundred dollar bill—I waited around to see if a worried person would come looking for it, but no such luck (for that person). I spent it on two of the best orchestra seats in the house for me and my then-significant other—we much enjoyed the one-woman Broadway show by Lena Horne.
“Right to Look”
The right to look at what?
To look at all that’s artsy!
He used to sit there, but I’m sitting in the front seat now, working the keys. I’ll turn it over and warm it up for the old man. Arummmm, arummmm, rummmgudagudagudagudaguda. I love to look at the dials. I see it’s got three-quarters of a tank of gas, which is at least two quarters more than the old man usually had. He’s got a big weekend. The needle flicks over toward the C so it’s charging. Gudagudagudagudagudagudagudagudagudarummmm! I put my foot on the gas Rummmummmummmmmm! I feel that little vibration.
So what is the next step? Ah huh. I ease in the clutch. I think I’ll back it up just a little bit to get it out of the sun, get it in the shade of the house. I put it in reverse and I roll it back about, maybe, five feet. It feels good to ease the clutch out. I put the brake on, put it back into neutral. Rummmummmummm. Little do I realize I am approaching a disaster that would forever be part of the folklore of the Shepherd clan. When it is mentioned there would be a dead silence.
VARIATIONS & PRIMITIVE ART
I like various types of “primitive art,” yet many individual examples I don’t much care for. While working on the Museum’s Peoples of the Pacific Hall with anthropologist and social thinker Margaret Mead, I asked her a question that related to works of various indigenous cultures of the Pacific region. It involves political correctness in the world of art. The term “primitive” has negative connotations.
In a 1961 Chicago Natural History Museum scientific publication, Phillip H. Lewis, Curator, wrote:
The utility, or function, of art is part of the European concept of art and leads to ethnocentric bias when Europeans consider non-European art….
It is clear that most, if not all, objects of primitive art, suffer diminution of art value if the criterion of creation for art’s sake alone is involved….
Erwin Panofsky (1955, p. 11) says: “It is possible to experience every object, natural or man-made, aesthetically. We do this…when we just look at it…without relating it, intellectually or emotionally, to anything outside of itself.”…
The characteristic of an artifact which makes it recognizable as art is the aesthetic organization of its visible form. Both Panofsky and Forster emphasize the intention of the artist to make artifacts that will be aesthetically important….
It is possible to distinguish art from non-art on two levels. First, by looking to form alone and with no specific knowledge of the life of the people, we may seek evidence of design and composition for visual appeal. At a second and deeper level, we seek to know the artist’s intent, function and meaning, using knowledge of the culture and the society,…
Primitive art is defined as the art of societies that can be regarded as primitive by virtue of type of social organization. The term “primitive,” although it carries certain invidious connotations and has some confusing aspects, is appropriate, if used to refer to an ideal type of early society and then extended to later societies of that type.
I asked Dr. Mead: “Do you find the term ‘primitive art’ offensive?”
Without hesitation, she strongly responded: “No!”
I’ve acquired my modest collection of different pieces of art under many different circumstances, and I’m a total amateur regarding their significance. I have only a couple of objects from New Guinea and environs. They mostly have some variation on curved, concentric patterns that I recognize (however rightly or wrongly) as being produced by the same or related cultures of New Guinea.
One is a small coconut with abstract surface carving. It has a long carved piece that fits inside the hole in the top. It’s my understanding that the coconut is a container for indulging in betel nut use. The long piece would be used to extract the ground up nut, which is chewed alone or with the addition of lime powder—so maybe the coconut held the lime.
The other two objects I believe are from the Trobriands (now called Kiriwina Islands), a small island group just to the east of New Guinea. The art from the Trobriands, for me, seems rather more carefully conceived and formalized (what I’d say, somewhat less “primitive”) than that of other New Guinea forms. The thicker piece I believe, is a pestle used to grind something like lime or betel nut, in a mortar. The long, thin piece, with its tweezer-like end, I’m told, is like a fork, for eating—possibly for consuming human flesh.
Although not involved in designing a temporary exhibit of art of New Guinea at our museum, I stopped into the exhibit-in-progress to see what kind of material they were installing. I found that the organizers were two Caucasian fellows, who were contracted to collect the material for the New Guinea government’s exhibit, then distribute some of the artifacts to other museums, and sell-off much of the remaining material instead of paying for return shipment to New Guinea. (Selling exhibited material is a practice usually frowned upon in the museum world, so the potential sale was kept rather secret–only a few of our museum people and maybe a few others, were aware of it.) I noted a yam mask from near the island’s north coast, and also a drum I was interested in.
My Yam Mask.
Fortunately for me, the drum involved would have required an elaborate support that preparators had no time to make, so it was hidden in a small tent in the exhibit–no one else had a chance to see it or thus, choose it for purchase. (After buying it, I designed and made the plexiglas support.)
Drums are an important part of social life in New Guinea. I find that mine is more elegant in overall shape–though less elaborate in its carved features–than any others I’ve seen, even in museums. The double-pointed bottom, called “fish muzzle” or “crocodile muzzle,” seems to locate this style in the large, southern, Papuan Gulf region. My understanding is that the drum head–on such as mine where it’s still intact–is snake skin.
Some Examples I Found on the Internet.
My New Guinea Drum.
(The recessed parts of the carving seem
to have been filled with white paint.)
I was upstairs looking for stuff. I went into the bathroom and there was the medicine cabinet. I opened it up and there were these fantastic bottles. There must have been twenty-five bottles of stuff in there. All kinds. I was always fascinated by capsules—they looked like celluloid jelly beans or little Mexican jumping beans. Bottles—yellow, green, purple labels. They said “Take two a day,” or “Take one after every meal,” with all these prescriptions typed out. So Schwartz and I were looking at the bottles.
The elicit urge! I can understand why kids try all kinds of drugs and stuff. Because the first thing I did, I opened up a bottle of yellow ones. They were beautiful yellow ones, and I took one. Went down easy. Schwartz said, “Gimme one of them red ones,” and he took a red one. Then there was a bunch of little capsules with all kinds of colored little bee bees in them. Red, green, and blue bee bees! So I took three of those. Schwartz tried one of the purple ones that was for the “Fit.” I saw, way on the top shelf, they had one of those flat, round, cardboard boxes and it had prescription numbers and I opened it up and there were flat, sort of pastel things in it. “In case of hives.” So I took a half a dozen of them. Both of us were sitting there on the floor eating those things like candy! We must have eaten a few dozen things of various colors. There’s no explanation I can give why it didn’t kill us.
But all of a sudden, way down deep in my gut I felt a feeling which to this day I have not forgotten. It felt like there was an exploding grapefruit down in my gut. I don’t know why a grapefruit, but there was a certain very sour taste that came up at the same time, that kept growing bigger and bigger and exploding larger. Some bizarre chemical reaction, and bubbles started to come up out of my mouth. I saw Schwartz, and I don’t want to describe him, but both of us were lying on the floor screaming and yelling for about half an hour.
And then it passed. And what do you think we did? Opened up the medicine cabinet and started again. People never learn!
End of Shepherd’s morality tale.
Fertility dolls of the Ashanti people of Ghana, Africa, are said to be placed in the waist band of women to promote pregnancy and a healthy baby. (The flat head apparently provides a more comfortable and secure position.) They come in many varieties, most with a fairly simple cylindrical base, and a small percentage with carved lower body and feet. Many examples (that seem to be “authentic”) I find to be badly carved and ugly. Like so many ethnic arts, they also come in the rather common form of cheap stuff made for sale to tourists and other un-initiates—and to many who mistakenly think they have something authentic.
Opening Page Images From Google.
Most Seem Authentic to Me.
Three with Carved Bodies. And one not “Pretty,”
but Probably Authentic.
At right, two on Permanent Exhibit at New York’s
Museum of Natural History.
Three Examples on the Right Have the
More Frequently Occurring Cylindrical Base.
I own one such doll, which I bought in a Parisian antiquarian shop on the Left Bank in 1966. I’ve believed it was an authentic piece, made for local use, then acquired by someone who sold it to the shop, and thus it came into my possession—but I’ve always wondered a bit if I’d been deluded. So, when the American Museum of Natural History began installing a temporary display of African Art loaned by the British Museum, I entered the exhibit in progress and encountered a doll that looked much like mine. The next day I brought mine in and showed it to an authority on African art, the British Museum curator overseeing the installation. He said that the doll in the exhibit was his personal property, and that mine seemed to have been made by the same carver as his—thus authenticating mine.
My Ashanti Doll.
Another example of Shepherd telling a story as a metaphor—especially in an era when youngsters were experimenting with drugs to a larger extent than before. He once commented on the air that life was full enough with exciting possibilities without having to resort to drugs.
I think one of the most exciting parts of anyone’s house is the medicine cabinet. It tells so many sordid stories. Subtle secrets. You go into this guy’s house. You’re visiting the head of the English Department. You’ve been invited to the faculty tea and you’re upstairs and you’re supposed to be washing your hands. You open the medicine cabinet and look. There’s a bottle that says, “IN CASE OF FIT, take three times quickly and say SHAZAM!” Signed Dr. Gumpock. And you wonder who’s having a fit! What kind of fit?
Well, there was this old house—there’s always a house that people have moved out of in your neighborhood. Kids are always drawn to them, and this one time Schwartz and me got into this place. We’re running around in this empty house. There were papers on the floor, an old apple core in the corner and a busted chair, a Sears Roebuck catalog and a pile of old newspapers, a broken comb, that sort of thing.
You know that secret sense of being in a house that isn’t yours? There must be a certain excitement, a satisfaction, of being a burglar. Break into somebody’s house, walk around in it. You open the refrigerator. They’ve found that almost all burglars open the refrigerator. That doesn’t mean that they eat anything out of it, but they open the refrigerator. It’s one of the basic things—it represents food—life, there it is.
More Pharmaceuticals to Come
“Small stone figurines, or conopas, of llamas and alpacas were the most common ritual effigies used in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. [Usually thought of as having been made during the Inca period—before Pizarro—but some may be much more recent.] These devotional objects were often buried in the animals’ corrals to bring protection and prosperity to their owners and fertility to the herds. The cylindrical cavities in their backs were filled with offerings to the gods in the form of a mixture including animal fat, coca leaves, maize kernels, and seashells.” (Brooklyn Museum)
Canopas depict camelids—not the Eastern Hemisphere camels that vary depending on the number of humps, but the South American kind—alpacas, llamas, and also vicuna and guanacos–two forms which seem not to have been depicted in canopas).
One encounters some of the long-necked llamas, but seeming, more frequently carved, are alpacas, carved with stringy hair usually indicated from their throats and down their chest. (The “suri” variation of the actual animal, at least today, have this hair all over the body.) Many carvings are about four inches long, but can be somewhat bigger or smaller. The few reaching 5” long seem to have increased majesty about them. In the Peoples of South America Hall of New York’s museum of natural history, the Inca section has a well-done larger example.
Suri Type of Alpaca and What is Probably a Suri Canopa
I’ve been interested in canopas for decades, so I’ve encountered and printed out scores of photos of them from ebay and by googling. (With two spelling variations, one has to search both.) I have three examples– a small black alpaca, an even smaller one with stringy hair covering its body, and a rather rare, multi-colored carving that had been decapitated in what is thought to have been a ritual “killing.”
My Canopas (and, on Right, a Coiled Netsuke Rat).
Most frequently seen are alpacas in black stone. Rarities occur in ceramic or wood. Some specimens still retain pieces of the offerings in the cavity, and some have not had the 500-year-old dirt removed from crevices in the stone carving. Many variations appear in shape, details, and color. As sculpted objects, I prefer solid black with a body that is a rounded but somewhat flattened rectangular shape, and a distinctly shaped mane down the front which is nearly flat–only slightly rounded–and with well-sculpted facial features. Variations in body shape and in the treatment of the mane make a considerable difference in overall effect, as does the angle of the neck and head—more upraised gives a more stately effect. Some are two-headed!
On the subject of llamas, note the poem
by whimsical American poet Ogden Nash:
The one-l lama,
He’s a priest.
The two-l llama
He’s a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn’t any
* The author’s attention has been called to a type of conflagration
known as a three-alarmer. Pooh
I said, “A picnic! What do you mean a picnic? At night?”
“Yep, they say there’s a picnic down at the forest preserve. Let’s go.”
So I got my bike out of the garage and got out on the road behind Schwartz and Flick and Bruner, peddling off into that fantastic maw—through this enormous, swirling cloud of mosquitoes, dripping sweat behind us as we went, heading to the forest preserve. The first time I ever went to a picnic that began at night.
We arrived at the preserve and there was just a great big banner across the front, and it had a symbol on it. No letters at all. We drifted down the gravel road. And there was a kind of excitement—Oh, a picnic at night! It was a quiet picnic. There was no band playing. In every picnic we went to there was some kind of a cockamamie band. Either it was the Greek-American accordion players or a Dixie band—they always had Dixie bands. Once in a while some of them would show up with a bunch of guys playing little round things—that was the Croatian-Americans. They had these black suspenders and puffy sleeves. But this picnic had no band at all. Nothing.
Through the woods we could see some lights ahead of us. Orange lights bobbing up and down. And then we saw. Are you ready, friends? Are you really ready? I couldn’t believe it. There in front of us was a whole strange, shifting mass of people like some mirage. There were big ones and little ones maybe a foot high or three feet high. There were some big, tall, skinny ones. But they all looked alike. Great crowd of them moving past a long table that had food on it. They had potato salad and it looked like boiled hot dogs. We would not stay long enough to find out.
I said to Schwartz, “What the heck is that, Schwartz?”
Schwartz said, “It’s a picnic.”
Flick said, “Yeah, come on, let’s get some. Flick was the dildock of the crowd. He was always ready to go. If tarantulas were having a picnic, he’d be there. He didn’t care.”
And Bruner said, “Aaaaa, I’m scared!”
I said, “What is it?”
Schwartz said, “It’s the Ku Klux Klan!”
We were at the yearly picnic of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK. Have you ever seen a crowd of Ku Klux Klanners moving around in the woods with their capes and robes and those long pointed hoods with the two little black eyes? With the big cross on the chest?
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
In music, variations can be thought of as repetitions of a theme
with one or more musical aspects changed, either slightly or drastically.
Over the years I’ve found that I especially respond to variations on a theme in art, humor, and other areas. My understanding is that it was rather popular in music of the 17th century. Beethoven and Brahms were enamored of the idea. In the 20th century, Maurice Ravel “had long toyed with the idea of building a composition from a single theme which would grow simply through harmonic and instrumental ingenuity.” First performed in 1928, his “Bolero” is widely known for its obsessive repetition. (However, the extraordinary ice dancing in the 1984 Olympics by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, using five-and-a-half minutes of “Bolero,” doesn’t do skating variations at all, but performs continuously different and elegant moves.)
Hokusai, my favorite Japanese woodblock-print artist, was obsessed by Mount Fuji as a religious focus, and, in 1831, portrayed it in his color print series, “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (contains 46, not 36 images), and in 1834 produced the three-volume monochromatic book set in black, white, and grays, “A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.”
Best-known color prints from “36 Views” and
two double-page and two single-page images from “100 Views.”
My shi shi netsuke, displayed in sand,
including ivory from 18th, 19th, and 20th century.
Also some loose-leaf pages with photos of a few variations.
Picasso, among his obsessions, created many images of the Artist and his Model and Artist with Created Work, especially in color, and in his 1930s series of etchings for Vollard.
An oil, and a crayon image. In the oil on the left,
I like the way he simultaneously depict the model posing,
and as the painted image on the canvas.
Two etchings in the Vollard series.
Some humorists and cartoonists I enjoy also delight in variations on a theme. I especially remember the cartoons of Sam Cobean, who was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950s. Best known are his variations showing the thought balloon above the head of someone who is imagining the person he is viewing (usually imagined naked).
The New York Times of August 11, 2017, in its arts section, has a short piece on Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. They provide a short, additional “variation.” (Note that the first and last renditions shown are very similar, and the second, third, and fourth are very similar to each other.) For me, his sunflowers are metaphors for a larger obsession Van Gogh had with the sun itself–its intense brightness, color, heat, fire (the flowers’ petals are flamelike), and life-giving power itself. I show part of the article, plus my favorite Van Gogh depicting the sun.