Thursday, December 7, 2017

Captive Audiences

While in California, packing J. Paul Getty’s art collection for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I rented a new model that Chevrolet was just introducing; the Chevy Vega. I could have rented anything, since I was given enough money to rent a full size car. While I crated the Getty paintings I stayed at the Santa Ynes Inn, a few miles away from the Getty Ranch.  The Vega shuttled me back and forth.  Because each painting’s original shipping  crate was stored in a barn-like structure, I didn’t have to construct any new boxes.  That shortened to task considerably and I found that I was done two days early.  That allowed me time to explore California a little in my rental car, as far south as San Diego and Chula Vista.    I suppose it proves I have no knowledge or taste in vehicles that I bought  myself  a Vega immediately upon I accepting the position of museum technician at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. I paid twelve hundred bucks for a brand new, little scarlet Vega. What I really wanted was a van so I could haul art and materials.  A real van would have cost a significant amount more.  This Vega was called a panel truck, something between a van and a station wagon.  But it really looked more like a partially finished car, just lacking major amenities. 
There were no side windows behind the driver and no radio.  There was no rear seat and only a vacant pit where the passenger seat would usually be located. I got a deal on the car/van because of the absent seat.  My guess is I saved a hundred dollars or more without that seat. This  wasn’t a no frills vehicle, it was transportation devise with no creature comforts at all.  Also, as there was no passenger seat, there was obviously no seat belt for any potential rider, either.  I invested three dollars in a couple of old red velvet cushions at a Goodwill shop, one to sit on and the other as a back rest,  in the event I ever had a passenger.  The two cushions were low,  allowing the rider to have a dogs-eye view out the side window. Anyone who sat at that height would have an upward angle shot of the tree tops and sky through the windshield.  It was like sitting on the floor at the dinner table, while the host sits in a chair.

Ellen Johnson was a well known modern art historian at Oberlin College and  had many friends in the Art World.  Visitors to the museum and college were frequent. The list of guests could have served as an abridged Art World Who’s Who for the sixties and seventies.  Just to name a few, there were Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Miriam Shapiro, and Alice Neel.  That gives a teeny tiny glimpse of the range of Ellen’s  friends.   Sometimes when Ellen had a guest, I’d be asked to make the trip to the airport to either pick up or drop off a visitor. I had some interesting passengers.  Most seemed to find the peril and perspective at least novel. Most riders commented on the unique vantage point. Perhaps I should have been professionally aggressive with my captive audiences and let them know that I was an artist and wanted them to look at what I was doing. I imagine if they were uncomfortable with the seating that I could really have made it the trip from Hell! But I actually just wanted to make their ride pleasant and talk about the art matters of the day.

Neither Richard Spear, who was the Director of the museum, nor Ellen Johnson ever rode in my car.
I’m not certain they ever looked inside the vehicle.  Therefore, I don’t think they realized what an odd trip it might be for anyone they sent me to pick up at the Cleveland airport.  They simply knew I had a car and would gladly pick up visitors.  Some visitors never rode in my car.  They’ll never know what they missed.  Others survived the journey by closing their eyes, digging in, and treating it like a bad taxi ride.  Hey, I’ve had bad taxi rides in Rome and lived to talk about them or taxi ride in Baltimore  where I could have sworn there was a deceased passenger hidden under the seat. I do have some fond memories of those daring enough or unfortunate to have been subjected to my hour long  red cushion ride with their eyes wide open. 

Clement Greenberg and Dan Flavin were two riders who stand out.  Dan Flavin  was robust
and as close to being a roly poly guy as you might imagine.  He arrived at the airport the morning the world found out about Picasso’s passing.  We talked about Picasso.  Flavin said he thought Picasso had died long before. Neither one of us was a Picasso fan , but it was THE art news of the moment. He didn’t have too much to say about Picasso, but we both admitted that Picasso’s passing made the day significant.  I knew he  had a job as a museum guard long ago, so we compared notes on museums.  He was easy to talk  with.  Of greatest interest to me, he talked about his personal life and how he functioned as an artist, parent, and citizen.  As a matter of fact, our visit went well beyond the ride from the airport.  I spent the better part of the day with him sharing the museum’s extensive pressed glass collection. The collection was in storage, behind wooden panels and protected by plate glass.  So, I spent the better part of the day removing panels and opening cases.  To my surprise he had a deep knowledge and interest in nineteenth century glass and its conservation problems.  He pointed out to me the pieces which had changed color, due to over exposure to sunlight.  I had not considered that glass could be photosensitive. To this day I do not know if he had another reason for flying to Cleveland that day.  The museum did not own a piece by Flavin and I don’t think he gave a talk.  He appeared to be there just to look at the glasses.  He also talked of how the people in his day to day life didn’t know, and didn’t have to know, that he was an artist.  His life as an artist did not overlap with or conflict with his identity as a parent.  He told me that most people who knew him saw him as a dad who goes to ball games, attends PTA, and is somewhat politically active in the community.

That way of living seemed fine and reasonable.  Dan Flavin didn’t want to set himself off from other people by wearing an artist’s identity.  He said he had a job to do and a life to live and he wanted to get the most out of it he could.  So, spending the day examining old glass goblets brought him joy and I’m very glad I was there to share it.

Clement Greenberg said he hadn’t been feeling well and was fairly low key.  I suppose I had read something into his being so quite that would best be blamed on his health and not, as I had thought when I met him, due to the personal attacks he was under at the time.  There was a great deal being said about Greenberg “ruining” David Smith’s sculptures.  I certainly knew enough to avoid talking with him about that controversy.  From this distance, it would have been nice to actually know what he thought and why.    From high in the driver’s seat, looking down on this soft spoken man, I had a perspective not found in books. This wasn’t the pushy, mean person he was sometimes portrayed as.  He didn’t even ask if he could smoke a cigarette in my car, which I assumed he might.  I seem to recall that he said he’d given up smoking and drinking. Here was an elder statesman who clung to the sides of his velvet seat and spoke  about Picasso’s death and what it is to outlive that which  you are remembered for.  I enjoyed our all too brief conversation about art, life, death, and legacy.   He said, wait a few decades for the dust to settle, then you’ll start to understand the legacy.

It wasn’t long afterward that I traded in my little Vega for one with a real  passenger seat and a fold down one in the back.  A ride anywhere in that passenger seat was generic.

A Forest Green Boy

Oh, yes, he was a forest green boy, born to paint.  One cool May morning he sprang, fully grown,  from a gallon bucket of Sherwin-Williams exterior oil paint. He spurted up and out and commenced a focused dance. Dipping hands and brushes into pools of liquid color, swirled around and around, spreading luscious giant snail paths of rich, gooey, greenness in the wake of his movements.  The act was all there was at that moment.  He was an instrument meant to deliver shiny, slippery, deep green to all he could reach.  

That little green boy was barely three.  He still needed a cap to keep his head warm on a cool May morning, in 1950.
His hair was so blond and short under the cap.  It almost was no hair at all.

He’d seen grown ups apply paint before.
It looked like fun.  Maybe it looked like a grown up thing he could do, too.  All it took was an open gallon can,  a paint brush, and a surface begging to be painted.  His thoughtful father must have needed his help, otherwise why would he have opened the can and gone away?  He was a natural, and paint flowed easily.  Unlike other boys his age and older, who might use paint to make an image of a dog or sun or mom or dad,
this green elf painted to paint.  Here was an action not a depiction.  A three years old in the flow.  A three year old can easily get into the flow. 

Later on, perhaps when the paint can was emptied, he was captured by adults and stripped of his otherworldly tools and powers, at least for the time being.  Either Mom or Grandma Rose must have said, “Show me your hand.”; as she snapped the picture. 

I remember the good sound of laughter, and no angry yelling.  Mom or Grandma must have told dad to shut up since it was his fault anyway.   I can also smell the gasoline soaked rag and feel it being rubbed, sometimes a bit hard, on my face and hands. Dad started to do the rubbing, but Grandma took over.  I can see her big, almost puffy fingers.  Her fingers turned green as my greenness dissolved.  The smell of the gasoline was powerful.  The scent of the paint was even greater.

Open cans of paint were pretty much kept out of my reach for some time to come.  At least that must have been what happened.  I do remember a related episode. My father used to take me with him when he had some carpentry work to do for someone, a small weekend job.  The job might have been as simple as hanging a door.  There was the time I learned that killing ants on someone else’s balcony railing with a hatchet might not be worth trying a second time.  I was three and a half and had no protector to document the event or the consequences.  Hatchets were out of reach thereafter.

Most of my early childhood was spent with my father’s family, mainly Grandma and Aunt Dee.  Mom’s family seemed invisible, although they lived only a few miles away.
Visits to and from my Mother’s family were rare, but I do recall the strange smells and sights of those visits.  As an adult I can identify those smells and sights.  As a child they were alien.  Grandma Kinnee kept a clean German house, with a white kitchen, open windows, and the smell of bread rising.  Maybe a pie was baking or rhubarb sauce was being taken off the stove and put into a bowl for chilling.  There were flowers everywhere in the yard and the grass was cut so frequently the smell lingered forever.
I could run in the house and the screen door slamming would announce my entrance to Grandma even before I reached the top stair.  Grandma was home.  It was the house I had been born in, or at least where my mom and dad were living when they had me. My one-legged grandfather died when I was nine months old, and being his namesake, Grandma Kinnee made me a prince.  I was never more than 200 feet away from her until I was four.  Grandma’s was safe, clean, fresh, and home.

My Mother’s family was “other.”  They could have had horn growing out of places I wouldn’t know about.  I felt uncomfortable with them.  Mom’s mother was not called grandma.  She was Mum.  Mum was Canadian. She didn’t bake things, like bread or cookies or pies.  She didn’t have much of a yard.  It was about the size of half a car.  Her house was dark and filled with things, like pictures on the walls, a piano, books; piles of books spread all over the place.  On the floor carpets covered other carpets.  Each room had its own peculiar odor, unrecognizable at the time, but heady and sexy as hell today. The adult nose recognizes ambergris, sandalwood, candles made of bees wax, teas with milk, marzipan, burnt toast with marmalade.  This house, to a tiny boy,  wasn’t safe and comfortable.  This was a place where invisible things were afoot.

Most strange of all was an aunt who was seldom around at all.  She was the oldest of eight children and most independent.   She was sent to study art at Cranbrook while she was still a precocious child, sometime after her father tried to kill a fly that Mary had drawn on the wall.  Mary’s room was upstairs and held the constant aroma of the most bizarre.  I knew what it was even at the time, but couldn’t put my mental finger on it.  I was too young to know and only had a hint of recognition that triggered memories of green paint.  Mary’s studio was filled with untouchable things.  The stagnant air loaded to capacity with oil curing on canvases, copal medium and turpentine in tin cups, and a palette with the skin forming on globs of paint.   This was too strange for a tiny little child under his German grandmother’s wings.

Some flowers bloom right away, and others are meant to blossom later.  Each thing has its own time.  While the little forest green boy was kept clear of hatchets and buckets of paints, he was still a little forest green boy.  The gasoline took off only the top layer.  The paint sank in deeper. 

Maybe my mother has pictures OF THINGS, likenesses that can be referenced to the  visible,  I might have produced as a child.  I don’t believe she does.  Because I don’t remember doing any that would have counted to me.  Unlike my aunt’s fly, I had never produced free work that might be seen as “lifelike.”  I never took pleasure in representing the visible world and saw no point to depicting it.  On the odd occasions I was goaded into making something to fit someone else’s view, I discounted the product immediately.  Sounds twisted or conceited doesn’t it?  Actually I hope you answered: no.  I can only remember being interested in making something that had never been before.  There was attraction in that, the allure of the act of painting something instead of painting something that looked like something. 

So, today the little forest green boy comes with me into my own studio.  He’s there with me every day, or so I hope, popping from a can, squeezing himself out of a tube, and wearing a skin of paint, even if it’s acrylic and not oil based.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Periodic Euphoria

Paint Job

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Tiny Piece of Shrapnel

Whether or not the TSA agents notice it depends upon how high the X-ray unit is set. Every so often I am stopped and asked about the piece of metal that has been embedded in my back since the summer of 1967. Otherwise, I am waved through. It is only a small chunk of shrapnel.

I remember the blood and the pain and the hole in the back of my shirt at those times. I was driving  a large International Harvester tractor along Interstate 94 in St. Clair County. My summer job was cutting the grass.  I drove a big mower and worked on my tan until the boss made wearing a shirt and long pants obligatory. This was my second summer on the mower crew and I was quite accustomed to the routine. Early in the morning the mower drivers would report to work at the main garage of the St. Clair Country Road Commission. We'd be transported to where we had left the tractors the night before.  Usually there were two mowers playing leap frog along each side of the highway, all headed in the direction of Detroit.  Late in the afternoon the transport would pick us up. At that time we would park our machines in a cluster as far from the road as possible, pile in to the truck, and head back to the garage.

Relatively speaking there was not much volume on I-94 and although we crossed  the highway to trim the median, we were cautious.  It was unlikely we would be hit by a car or truck.  The mowing crew was considered safer than the paving crew. Every once in a while a worker  on the chipper or recap crew would be sideswiped by an impatient driver who had a different idea what the word slow meant. I thought what we did on the Interstate was carefree until one of the tractor drivers was mowing the incline around a culvert and tipped his machine too far. The tractor rolled over, dumping him off and squashing him.   This happened not on our crew, but to a solo mower along a trunk line.  What was especially sobering to our summer crew of college boys was the dead mower had ten years experience.

Each day I had the same routine. Go to the garage and punch the time clock, be driven to my mower, cut grass in the direction of Detroit, then be picked up late in the day and returned to the garage and punch out.  After work I was still living at home with my parents and siblings.  After dinner I hung out with other college students.

When I first met the other students I was somewhat surprised that so many my own age had summer employment less than a hundred yards from my home. I met the first group on the beach and they invited me back to their barracks. There were girls and boys from all over. None of them were from Michigan and no two attended the same college. They were a diverse group. We'd buy a case of beer at the party store, located midway between their housing and my home. We'd sit and talk and listen to music.  Some of the students were internationals. One girl was from France, another from Italy, and there were guys from Trinidad & Tobago and India. They were all working for the Gratiot Inn, a summer resort on Lake Huron. They had been hired for the summer to be chamber maids, waiters, pool boys, and such. The prettiest girls got to be hostesses for the dining hall. I didn't meet the pretty ones. They were too busy with the older guys. I mainly hung out with the guys from outside the USA. I don't know why, I just did. Maybe it was because I had never traveled beyond my home state and could learn a little bit about the outside world through them.

I brought a few of these kids home and introduced them to my parents.  We might sit in the back yard at the picnic table and talk.

I could see Bill McDonald looking out his living room window as we passed his house. Bill was our next door neighbor.  He was perhaps two years younger than my father. I don't really know what Bill did for a living, but he was an asshole by nature.  He painted his house and everything he owned with white paint, white enamel. Even his riding lawn mower was painted white. His riding lawn mower was only used after dark to take full advantage of the headlights on his noisy gas driven toy.  This meant he cut the grass after the ten o'clock news.  I didn't watch the news. I should have.

I already had grown tired of my neighbor.  He was always showing off his hunting gear.  He may have been the first deer hunter I knew who wore full camouflage and face paint. He left home to go deer hunting, driving a couple hundred miles with brown and green grease smeared on his face.  I saw him driving his pickup looking like this and it wasn't even hunting season.

My dad wore a red and black, Hunter plaid wool coat when he headed to the woods. On his face he wore a grin. Dad always came home with the pheasant or buck or whatever was in season.  I don't recall that Bill ever came home with deer. That was not why I disliked him. When I was a kid and dad wasn't home, Bill would see me in the yard and wave me over, as if to talk to as a buddy. He'd almost always offer the same advice, "Keep it in your pants".  I wondered what he meant at the time, being only a kid. He'd follow up this friendly man-to-man talk with moaning about his bad back and how lucky I was to be in such good shape. His compliment was calculated to encourage me to show off my strength, as he always had some bullshit task he didn't want to do. It would exacerbate his poor back, you understand.  I was naive and respected the requests of my elders.  However,  I quickly learned what was going on. Being reminded that my zipper should be kept closed and handed a warm bottle of Vernor's Ginger ale were not proper payment for unloading twenty sacks of concrete mix from his white pickup. Oh, and stack them this way, not that. If he backed up the truck up another foot the unloading might be easier, but why waste gas when you have the dumb neighbor kid conned?

After that, I avoided eye contact with him and always looked out the window before venturing into the yard alone.  I saw as little of Bill as possible. I did not like being used. Now, being in college I did not see him at all, except from a distance. I preferred it that way. I did not need his advice about keeping it in my pants either.

On one particular July morning in 1967 I was mowing on I-94, as usual. I would not have noticed if there were the usual number of vehicles headed to or from Detroit. Maybe the traffic flow was away from the city. I would not have noticed if there were olive drab trucks filled with National Guardsmen southbound on the freeway. My task was to cut grass and I had not heard the news about what was going on in Detroit.  The orders for the day were to reach the county line and then head back north trimming the median.

The grass was thick as I chewed my way along the northbound lane. It was too deep to see what had been a melted steel belted truck tire, like a python hiding in the weeds. I never saw it.  The rotor blades picked up just enough to fling bullet-size chucks of steel in all directions. I saw nothing and heard nothing. One moment I was driving forward, the next I was slumped forward, clinging to the wheel and trying to shut down my tractor. I felt a burning sensation and reached around to touch my lower back. I had a handful of blood.  I didn't know what had happened. The other mower saw me stop and raced over.  He thought I had been shot, but he hadn't seen anything. I suspected my mower blades had tossed a rock or something.  There was nothing sticking out of my back, but I was bleeding. I wasn't yet lunch time.  In my lunch box I had some paper napkins. The other mower Jerry-rigged a bandage for me and I compressed the wound. As if by some miracle, the driver who had dropped us off not too long ago showed up.

He was there to pick us up, haul us in. There was rioting in Detroit, he told us, and we were being evacuated as a precaution. The driver then say my back and called in for directions to the closest emergency room.

In the emergency room the doctor said it wasn't a gunshot wound, so far as he knew. He patched me up, gave me a tetanus shot, and released me. He had no x-ray machine, so didn't know about the shrapnel.  I wouldn't know about it for years, by which time the doctor who discovered it said I was safer to leave it alone. That day I went home from work early. I would have with or without the puncture wound. The road commission said we'd each be notified when to return to work.

I had not followed the news, but suddenly I was interested in hearing what was going on in Detroit. The other college students working at the inn were as interested as I was.  What they knew they got from the radio. I watched coverage on television. I'd never experienced anything quite like this, or as geographically nearby.  Still, it was far enough away.   Then as suddenly as I had been stung in the back while on my mower, I discovered fear at home.

Returning from telling my friends about my experience, I found a double-barreled shotgun pointed at me from close range.  Our next door neighbor, Bill, was cocked and loaded and screaming in my face about my dark-skin friends and how if I brought one past his house he'd use his gun on both of us. You know that he didn't say dark-skinned.  He told me I was being a smart ass to say that my Indian friend wasn't black.  I didn't understand his fear, but I did experience it second hand. I did not pee my pants.

My parents could not stand Bill as a next door neighbor and a few years later it dawned upon my father how to get rid of him. My father borrowed a for sale sign from a realtor friend. He stuck it in the front yard then made some phone calls.   As soon as Bill saw the prospective buyers were dark-skinned he put up his own sign. His was real.

Bill was gone within the week.

I had no idea my father's doctor had so many friends willing to play at house hunting.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

An Organ Recital In Notre de Dame de Paris

One-Man Band and an Audience

As I sat in an uncomfortable chair in the nave of Notre Dame de Paris, I was alone in my own thoughts and one of many in an audience that filled the cathedral. I am no stranger to organ recitals at Notre Dame.

The seating was not designed for comfort, only for efficiently accommodating a large number of people in the space. Had the chairs been otherwise, more members might have drifted off to sleep than actually did. I wondered before the recital commenced what I might write about this experience. Would I review the performance, talk about the ambience?

Should I describe the aromatic impact of walking into this sacred space and being refocused upon entrance by the omnipresent cloud of incense?  Then, once seated how the communal smell of hundreds of humans neutralized the holy scent?

Did I feel compelled to describe how the direction the audience was facing seemed backward for a concert? We faced the altar, not the organ. Our backs were turned on the unseen performer, who even if the seating changed direction would remain invisible. Or, did I need to note that an organ, especially one that is designed to fill this particular space with glorious sound is essentially a one-man band? It is a gigantic air fueled set of tin whistles played by ten fingers and two feet. It is an orchestra of one that dominates the aural interior of the cathedral.

Instead, I want to talk about the audience, the somewhat captive group of people who self-selected to attend. Hundreds of people paid to sit in uncomfortable chairs to hear an organist perform four pieces by four composers: Bach, Liszt, Roger-Ducasse, and Durufle.  A percentage knew not only the composers but had played these pieces. More were on the other end of the spectrum. There were families who brought their children, couples on a date, individuals, a music enthusiast sharing with a friend, others who saw a poster and had money in their pocket. People choose to attend this concert for their own reasons.  Some knew what they would experience, some had vague expectations, others did not.

After the Bach finished a few people got up and left. They had heard enough or maybe the seats had gotten to them. Another handful departed during the Liszt. As the concert progressed, more drifted away.  I listened to the final two pieces and afterward thought of how local television news reporting manipulates their viewers into staying to the end by teasing with promises of some breaking news payoff or film coverage of cute baby pandas. Films came to mind that give those who stick around for the credits, out takes or bloopers deleted from the movie. Then, I thought how this concert promises only sounds played by one invisible musician, which if you pay for your seat you may stay through the entirety of the performance or leave as you wish or nap, or cuddle with the person with whom you came.

Then I thought how experiencing a gallery of artworks, paintings can be considered in a similar way.  There are those who look at a painting in the way an organist in the audience listens to the Bach. There are the boyfriends brought along who would prefer to be sharing affection than looking at a painting or listening to an organ recital, yet are there none the less. There are the families, the curious and the incurious. There are those passing by wondering what this is all about. There are those who ask for nothing, seek nothing, and get nothing from the experience.

And finally, there are those, some from all of the above and then some more, who consciously or unconsciously look or listen and allow themselves to step outside of the day-to-day world for then entire duration it takes the organist to play these four pieces, or just a chunk, a nanosecond.

There are those who listen to music played start to finish and those who are satisfied with what they hear on the elevator. There are those who glance, in passing, at a painting and those who stop in their tracks to be swept away by a tidal wave of color and line.

The unseen organist and the painter or poet work with our idioms to take those willing to follow an escape for the soul.

Paris 2017 #81

Sandy Kinnee

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Coiled Garden Hoses

Coiled Garden Hoses

Never could get the knack
of how to recoil a hose.

Mine are always
spaghetti al dente 

 Paris 2017 #53

Sandy Kinnee