Thursday, July 29, 2010

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert would make a good reference librarian! She has a nose for research and a natural curiosity. I'm sure most of you have heard what a difficult time she and her Brazilian-born beloved, Felipe had with immigration, a situation which at first put them into exile and then catapulted them towards legal marriage. To say that the previously divorced Gilbert had a full-tilt case of premarital jitters would be an understatement. She and Felipe had already had a private ceremony with eternal vows, so in truth she was already married in her heart. It was the legal, financial and bureaucratic aspects of marriage that gave her the heebie-jeebies. Three times married myself, I have to say, I could relate....

So Gilbert took it upon herself to research the subject of marriage, and turned it into Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. No, it's not another Eat, Pray, Love. It's a different kind of book altogether, a mix of memoir and her findings on the institution of marriage. At first I felt a little unsettled by this methodology, wanting more of the scoop on her relationship. But then I settled in and found it absolutely fascinating.

For instance, she presents the "Dads or Cads" theory, a DNA variation related to the vasopressin receptor gene , which makes men either trustworthy, monogamous and reliable or decidedly not. She pores over statistics related to the "marriage benefit imbalance", in which men make out better than women once the vows are said. Gilbert drops in on families in Southeast Asia, fascinated by their marital customs. Never having been a mother, she ruminates on the need for what she calls "the Auntie Brigade", and gives aunties some long overdue kudos. She points out marriage's tendency to tame the wild, comparing it to a bonsai tree. Thank you, Elizabeth, for doing all that research so I don't have to, and for pulling together all the most colorful and telling bits.

By book's end, Felipe and Elizabeth cross all their immigration hurdles and manage to lash their lifeboats together, no surprise. They live in a small renovated church in new Jersey (isn't that cool?). I've enjoyed watching some Internet movie clips of Gilbert speaking, including this one on nurturing creativity. She has such a natural, unassuming manner on stage. And I can't wait to see the movie version of Eat, Love, Pray (in theaters August 13, 2010). As far as I'm concerned, Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Gilbert should BOTH be called America's Sweethearts.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer at Tiffany: a Memoir by Marjorie Hart

I picked up Summer at Tiffany: a Memoir (Morrow, 2007) by Marjorie Hart a few months ago to send to my mother, who at age 91 still leads an active reading life. Then I got to read it when I visited her on Long Island. As perfect as any beautifully wrapped Tiffany box, this is a book you want to recommend to anyone with ties to Manhattan. Though set during the summer of 1945, it has a certain timeless excitement that can only come from a young person's first encounter with the Big City.

Marjorie and her best friend Marty are University of Iowa college girls who manage by a fluke to acquire summer jobs as the very first female "pages" at Tiffany & Co., the swanky jewelry emporium. They only earn $20.00 a week, and must count every nickel to get by. Interwoven with Marjorie's letters home and news of World War II winding down, this memoir is a vivid historical portrait. Their summer in New York is one they find most thrilling, indicated by frequent sprinklings of their excited "ohmygosh" reactions. Agog when movie stars such as Judy Garland walk into Tiffany's, thrilled by treats such as ice cream sundaes at Schrafft's or sandwiches purchased at the Horn & Hardart Automat, Marjorie and Marty also get a taste of New York's nightlife. They date and dance with soldiers, and even celebrate VJ Day in Times Square.

Marjorie Hart did not publish this memoir until she was age 83, realizing that the summer of '45 stories she told her grandchildren were grand fodder for a book. She is a professional cellist and former chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego.

The New York City Hart describes is the one my parents spoke of, my mother as an overseas telephone operator and my Dad a returning soldier/college student. In the 1950s, I was taken into the city for special events. I too remember Fifth Avenue, Radio City Music Hall, Schrafft's and the Horn & Hardart automat. One of the biggest childhood thrills at Christmastime was seeing the city's store windows: Lord and Taylor's (still the best!), FAO Schwarz, Tiffany's. So naturally I took to this book like cream cheese to bagels! Give it to anyone who enjoyed The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. New York, New York -- long may she prosper!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Process and Product: Art Chair Finally Done

The Furniture Bank art chair I've been painting the last few weeks is done! I'm calling it the Four Star Crazy Quilt chair. Quilting motifs often find their way into my collages. And so when I agreed to paint an art chair for the Furniture Bank (see the June 16, 2010 post), I immediately arrived on the crazy quilt idea. Then I had one false start that I painted over. Estimated time spent: about 60 hours in the last 3 or 4 weeks.

So it's a relief to be done, especially because I find my attention moving on to the mixed media assignments related to a class I'm taking at the Art League. Last week I wrote about the art process, and shortly thereafter found myself grappling with the challenges of taking collage to canvas. My appetite for new processes was truly put to the test. I started my first canvas in class, and it was wild with images and paint and all kinds of things glued down too quickly with Mod Podge, a medium new to me. That same night, after I came home, I pulled off some of the buckling, bubbly layers. That was just the first redo. The next day another, and so forth. That canvas is now relegated to the junk heap, but I did learn plenty along the way.

For one thing, from both the chair and canvas projects, I've learned what a forgiving medium paint is. Whenever you don't like the way something looks or you've dribbled where you meant to drabble, well - just paint it over and try again. Do-overs are a very big part of most artistic endeavors. Now I feel better able to judge what will and won't work as far as paint goes. Remember that old cowboy saying: Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement. Sometimes you just have to experiment. The risk that you may have to start over is all part of the process. I started a second canvas today that is looking much better, well worth all the muddling that took place on my first try.

Guess I'll also mention that I've started facilitating a group called Creative Intentions on a new social networking site called Here Women Talk. We'll see what comes of it. In three days the goup has grown to 14 members. A friend in North Carolina joined the site, and soon I followed. Creativity fascinates me. To quote a friend who left a comment here last week: "I love the creative process because I disappear and become what I am creating. I feel eternal." What could be better than that?

photos by KAO: "Four Star Crazy Quilt Chair"

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Art: Sometimes "It's All About the Process"

I've heard people say that for them, art is all about the "process" more than, say, fame or fortune. In any art form, the journey towards a completed work of art can be rich and meaningful. Or it can be torture! Or both.... Discovering what you have to say with music, dance or paint may be a prelude to a finished piece. Yet some of the discovery takes place even as you are making whatever it is you think you are making. There are bound to be changes. Surely you've heard novelists say that their characters took over and sprouted new plotlines. The creative flow can be like that.

In collage, part of what I love is the pure mystery of what emerges. Gathering together a pile of images, then weaving them into some new whole, is for me very satisfying. Sometimes I work with intention, sometimes not. Often what I think I'm doing takes a left turn and ends up somewhere else. Backing up a bit, part of the collage process is gathering all those images that appeal to you. The search for materials, not only gathering them, but sorting them, becomes part of the journey. Unless I am involved in a process of discovery, of continually nudging my materials and obsessions into a new form, I get bored.

Only recently I learned there actually is something called Process Art. Think of Jackson Pollock flinging paint on canvas. Or Andy Goldsworthy building sculptures from icicles or twigs. Yet in true "Process Art", as I understand it, the final product is not the point at all. The actual performance of the art is what it's all about. As the Wikipedia article on Process Art points out, such art as been around a long time in the form of such rites as Buddhist sand painting or Japanese tea ceremonies.

Making art can be very ritualistic. Thinking of artmaking as ritual takes it into the spiritual realm, does it not? Such ritual can become the high point of the artist's life, be they musicians, dancers, sculptors. I'm glad I don't make art that requires public performance, but thinking of performers I know, often they have trouble winding down after the high point of a major concert or show. They make art every time they perform, whereas most visual artists perform alone in front of their canvas or clay, and then if they are lucky, bring their art somewhere out into the world to be seen. Right now I am missing my collage rituals because I am spending all my time working on an Art Chair for the Furniture Bank. I just started a Mixed Media course at the Art League, and in the next seven weeks hope to learn some new tricks for taking collage to canvas, mixing it with paint and image transfer processes. The good thing about taking a break from one medium to try another is that it helps the creative well to fill. Often you learn techniques from one medium you can transfer to another.

There's a new reality show on Bravo televison called Work of Art that I find fascinating. Viewers get to see the competing artists go through their processes to complete various artistic challenges. The winner will be given a one man show at the Brooklyn Museum.

My "Dollscape" collage above is one of the pieces I entered in the Jung Center Anthologie show, which runs through July 14th. When I was at the Center a few days ago, I noticed that very few pieces had the coveted red dot on their labels signifying a sale. I had three of my collages printed on giclee canvas for the show, an investment I may never recoup. But that's alright, making the art is really its own reward. Feeling obsessed enough to keep making art is for me a vital life force. Hope that doesn't sound pompous! And so the journey continues....

collage by KAO: Planetary Reflection (2010)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott

Canadian author Marina Endicott's second novel, Good to a Fault (Harper, 2010), is still on my mind although I finished it more than a week ago. I miss those characters! If you like Anne Tyler (one of my all time favorite authors), try Endicott. Her protagonist Clara Purdy reminds me of Tyler's Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe. Both characters are full of goodness, guilt and remorse.

We meet Clara Purdy, a lonely, mild-mannered insurance claims adjuster, in the first paragraph just as she crashes her car into another car during her lunch hour. Her life will never be the same. Inside that car is a homeless family, replete with two children, a baby and a (very nasty) grandmother. On learning that the Gage family is homeless and that the mother needs a hospital stay, Clara feels so guilty, she invites them all to live with her.

Bad move, good move? Both. Clara finds herself enraptured with the three children, especially the baby, Pearce. When the children's mother, Lorraine Gage, is diagnosed with lymphoma, the temporary living arrangement becomes more permanent. Mr Gage flies the coop, stealing Clara's car and some money. The grandmother reveals her penchant for shoplifting. The plot thickens. Clara leaves her job and becomes totally enmeshed with the Gage family.

In addition to Clara's point of view, readers get inside the mind of Dolly the oldest child, who at age 8 is quite shrewd and street-savvy. Not knowing if her mother will live, Dolly starts snooping through neighbor's homes, looking for cash and valuables she figures she may have to steal later on if her mother dies and/or Clara turns them out. A soon-to-be-divorced priest, Paul Tippet, is also given page space, another lonely character who much like Clara, thrives on helping out this all-but-falling-apart family. And let's not forget Lorraine Gage, stuck in a hospital bed while her children seem to be thriving under the care of Clara Purdy.

A fine mix of characters, and for me a very compelling, both heart-wrenching and heart-lifting read. The novel was shortlisted for Canada's Giller Prize in 2008. I'll be looking for a copy of Endicott's first novel, Open Arms (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001), and hope we'll be seeing more novels from Endicott in the very near future. Happy reading!