When I was raising kids, the lovelies, I had very little time to write songs, play guitar, send little postcards and play out. But I did both, kids and art, because of my inner drive. I’ll never know whether my children or I or both would be better off now had I never followed that drive. These compulsions don’t ask our approval and I, for one, seldom question their motives. But I’m doing it now.
Worn wood bleachers, shade and sun.
Camp kids, kickball, home run.
One girl slides in the dust and jumps up
announcing through gap tooth grin,
It didn't hurt. I'm OK!
Annie Oakley squint, outlaw braids
are OK too.
They dance, with her, back into the game.
Asleep in the trees, I feel my fingers itch from palm to tip, but dream swelled eyes resist the open air. I hold the netherworlds and blindly smile and scratch, until I stop: the itch remains.
Sleep undone, I spring the lids and there she is, madonna moon, a silver shimmering sheen. Hanging baskets join the boughs to rock this pearl, this tiny apparition.
‘The sower broadcasting his seed was an image that had been with him almost since he had become an artist. It stood for a painter - or an evangelist - sowing the seed of beauty and truth.’
Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles
My mother’s standard answer when complimented on her cooking was, ‘I just use good recipes.’ As though, with the right recipe, tasty food just makes itself.
My nephew drives his invention, pictured here, around southern California, for no apparent reason. Were he selling busses, boats or amusement, he’d have the perfect schtick. Crazy contradiction gets our attention.
His cousin, new college grad, went from cap and gown to shirt and shoes in a day, writing code for a midwest start-up. He loves his job but sometimes wishes he’d majored in design, a place he gets lost in.
History is art, because story is art. Able writers interest us in world events by framing them in story. And by the way, you and I are world events.
The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War tells the story of Warren G. Harding’s 15 year affair with Caroline F. Phillips. Of their fiery correspondence, many of his letters remain. The book is a fascinating juxtaposition of personal revelations and global political fault lines. In the heightened patriotism of World War I, Phillips’ German sympathies threatened her personal safety and Harding's political solvency. When she was suspected by the nascent FBI of spying for the enemy, Senator and future President Harding sent her this cautionary plea:
‘You have the intellect, the soul and personality, please command the poises befitting your superiority.’
Warren G. Harding
Sometimes lives of the past can dwarf our ordinary lives, but it’s worth remembering that we know these people through story. Boringness has been edited out. Even primary sources, letters in Harding’s own hand, were sculpted by the author. Ordinary and extraordinary lives, framed and pondered, reverberate through story craft.
This week, Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio asked me to represent myself and 60 artist colleagues for a television interview. Grappling with how best to explain my storytelling work in schools, I wanted to ‘command the poises’ - an artist mantra so aptly penned by Harding. A kind friend sent me these words just before the interview:
‘You are smart, sharp and a role model. You'll be terrific.’
Thus bolstered, I stepped before the cameras. I had a hunch my audience would glaze its eyes at concepts like ‘arts/curriculum integration,’ so I looked my interviewer in the eye and reenacted an Ohio & Erie Canal digger of Harding’s era. I became humble Italian-American Tony, one of my fourth graders’ favorite immigrant entrepreneurs, plying his enthusiasms with twinkling grace. What better way for students to frame, absorb and remember the past?
When story happens, large or small, nerves give way to art, preparation matures into performance, boringness vanishes and the rest, they say, is history.
Critics have dismissed Paul Gauguin as an artist who could not draw well, and knew it, who therefore turned to a more primitive style of expression. Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin was the never published companion catalogue to Gauguin’s French exhibition of 60 paintings and block prints completed in Tahiti. The public of Gauguin’s day judged his work harshly, the same work that later left Pablo Picasso in Gauguin’s thrall and fetches millions in today’s market.
These strains of a master’s tortured past were the stuff of two mini-lectures last night in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Ingalls Library. As I listened, I remembered Stephen Colbert pointedly asking Tom Campbell of the Metropolitan Museum of Art what makes art “art.” Who decides what’s worthy? Campbell explained that trained experts determine the authenticity and significance of older works, but he had no words for what makes art good, or bad.
Last night, surrounded by a tacto-visual repast the librarians had laid out for us - clippings, postcards, prints and the like - we heard muffled cheers erupting from adjoining offices. Who knew, the CMA staff watches Wednesday night football?
Our hosts explained later that the museum had just learned of a much hoped for acquisition for its collection. “What is it?” we asked. “Can’t tell you,” they answered, beamingly mysterious. We’d have to wait, like everyone else, for the morning paper.
My mother would have loved this story. Then again, she most likely listened in, her beneficent ghost haunting us calmly in that still space. Jane Sylvia Hewes Weber was painter, librarian and mother. She plied shelves at home with art books and dragged her kids and grandkids to museums, including this very Cleveland museum. Thanks to the librarians and Gauguin’s fragrant works, I now know where to find my mother when I miss her too much to ponder. She is there, on the walls, in the spaces of art she found worthy even as she found her own efforts wanting. Undaunted as the wild Gauguin, she painted on canvas and upon her progeny’s lives with a certain brave innocence. She let us be seers and seekers; she bade us be air.
Her ghost, with a nod to Monsieur Gauguin, inspired these lyrics once:
Watercolor on my shoulder. Watercolor in my hair.
Watercolor on the border, water in the air.
Promise me to be the water. Promise me to be the air.
Susan Weber, Air
Then there was that time I stepped out of my comfort zone into an acting class taught by Scott Plate. Asking his students to journal about their experiences, he promised to read every word. I soon began to richly dream, and freely add the findings to my journal.
The dreams were vivid and complex, my sense and sensitivity at full tilt. A gift, I thought, that just when assigned the task of introspection, dreams should surface, ripe with illustration.
Bill Moyers recently aired an interview from 2004. He asked Maurice Sendak, author illustrator of ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ how he calmed his own demons.
'Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can't explain. I don't need to. I know that if there's a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal. I can recollect it, I can notice it. I'm here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me.'
Maurice Sendak, Bill Moyers Journal
Elsewhere I’ve tracked the rational act of making this video. Here you’ll find the visceral exposé.
I’ve been Paul Fresty’s friend since our paths crossed in a songwriter circle many moons back. Suddenly last summer, my imperious muse bade me go see Paul’s Beatles cover band (Revolution Pie) perform for a crowd of groovers and shakers. Beatlemania was palpable as the stars, settling over the lovers of magic like a sweet dream. My hand knew not whither to aim the lens in the midst of this wide angle lovefest.
What you see here, to the sound of one fine band and its devotees, is how one of those Beatles tunes moved me. To film it. To seek out images worthy of its joy. To combine, revise, revisit, refine - and finally send it all up to the webiverse for you and your fond friends.
Anyone who’s edited video knows you floss your ears many times with the audio tracks in play. Thanks to Revolution Pie, mine was a happy duty. As for the visuals, well, what better excuse than classic McCartney-Lennon to delve for the best in humanity?