Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

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Built-In Inspiration

One of the great things about working for a university is the opportunity to explore iconic buildings on campus.

Crouse College exterior. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Today I had to go to Crouse College—home of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts—to pick up a check from the BBC that was mailed to the wrong office.

I stood on the steps outside the wooden doors, admiring the exterior archways and the designs on the reddish-brown columns. Stepping inside the building, I noticed sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window above me, while one floor up, someone was playing the organ inside Setnor Auditorium.

Stained-glass window inside Crouse College at Syracuse University. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

An artistic ambience enveloped the place, punctuated by warm tungsten lights illuminating the hallways and panels of medieval artwork hanging on the walls. I walked past the Winged Victory statue as I looked for the business operations office, which was occupied by cheerful employees sitting in cubicles. Large windows framed a postcard winter scene with snow falling on a row of evergreen trees. A woman handed me the lost check and I went on my way.

Winged Victory Statue at Syracuse University. Photo by Steve Sartori.

But before I left the building, I wondered if I could get transferred to an office in VPA or at least do a three-month rotation.

Railing and staircase inside Crouse College.

Then I thought, would such a stimulating environment spur my creativity or would I fall victim to sensory overload, viewing and consuming art every day but not producing any work? Too bad I won’t get the chance to find out.

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Vincent in the Waiting Room

While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:

Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987

Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.

Van Gogh print hanging on a waiting room wall.

I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.

Here’s a better image of the painting.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.

Flowers/Flora outside of Upstate.

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Art and Poetry at a Hockey Game

Do the dead still have voices? That’s the question I asked myself on Saturday night as I left the Onondaga County War Memorial after game two of the Syracuse Crunch-Rochester Americans Calder Cup playoff series. The Crunch won 6-5 to take a 2-0 series lead.

The question about death was incited by a solitary moment I experienced early in the game. With about five minutes left in the first period, I left my seat in section 19 to beat the rush to the concession stand. I bought a coffee, a bottled water and an order of chicken tenders and then wandered through the concourse until I stepped into Memorial Hall, the grand space that honors the brave men and women from Onondaga County who gave their lives in battle.

I let my eyes wander around the room. Sunlight streamed through high windows and a row of American flags lined one side of the hall. There were two huge murals on opposite walls (painted by G. Lee Trimm) and bronze tablets with the names of those who died in the line of duty. The mural closest to me displayed figures dressed in World War I uniforms who appeared to be scaling what looked like a large block of white granite.

World War I mural by G. Lee Trimm.

In the bottom left corner of the painting a man stood with his right arm raised, an American flag sweeping down near him, and the words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” written by John McCrae, inscribed over the man’s torso.

According to PoemHunter.com, McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I.

John McCrae in uniform.

I read the poem and the words struck me.

In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

(John McCrae, 1915)

Words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” painted in a mural by G. Lee Trimm.

The poem made me aware of the transitory nature of existence and gave me the sense that death looms even in a place like a hockey arena bubbling with life—with kids screaming, loud music blaring, and fans chugging beer and yelling until their throats become hoarse.

It goes beyond honoring deceased veterans; the poem should make us all feel grateful for the time on earth we’ve been granted, for the opportunities we’ve been given and for the people we love and who love us back. But I think McCrae is also telling us we will all face our Flanders Field in one form or another, and so we had better enjoy living while we can.

For me, living meant savoring four of my favorite things intersecting in one place and at one time—art, poetry, coffee and hockey. And that’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

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Art in the Afternoon

I had time to slip into the SUArt Galleries Tuesday during my lunch hour to catch a couple of exhibits before they close on Friday.

The first is North and South: Berenice Abbott’s U.S. Route 1.

You could almost miss Abbott’s photographs, as her work was tucked in a back gallery space, far away from the Kiki Smith exhibit prominently on display. This raises a question, and please forgive my digression. Do multiple, concurrent exhibits in a museum lessen the impact of the art and lead to fatigue on the part of art-goers, as visitors move through several rooms? If you’re like me, you sometimes get to the point where you want to say: “Enough. I’m done. Let’s go get coffee.”

Anyway … back to Berenice Abbott.

Berenice Abbott in 1979. Photo by Hank O’Neal.

In the summer of 1954 the photographer and two companions traveled the length of U.S. Route 1, from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine. During the trip Abbott made more than 400 8-by-10-inch photographs and more than 2,000 smaller images using her Rollieflex camera. The exhibit presents 50 images from Abbott’s journey, and in these pictures of Maine potato farmers, Florida motels, small towns and average Americans, we are given a snapshot of the nation during the post-World War II era.

Potato farmer, Aroostock County, Maine, 1954.

Two photographs stood out for me. The first was Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954. The image shows some teens sitting on a railing in the foreground while an illuminated, soft-focus Ferris wheel or other amusement park ride spins in the background. You can almost hear the kids screaming with glee and smell the popcorn and cotton candy wafting in the air.

Daytona Beach, Daytona, Florida, 1954

The second image was No cursing, No drunks allowed—a low angle shot of a cop seated at coffee shop counter with his back to the camera. A boy in profile leans against the counter on the other side, facing the police officer. A ketchup bottle and a napkin dispenser sit on top of the white counter, and the composition draws the viewer’s eye toward the boy. The picture possesses a strong narrative quality—in line with the work of painters Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell—and I imagined a scene where the police officer was the boy’s father and he was giving his son a lecture about the value of hard work and the importance of taking responsibility at a young age. In my story the boy worked at the diner after school.

The small size of the framed works and the intimate gallery space allowed me to get lost in the images and discover how people in the U.S. spent their leisure time in the 1950s.

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The second exhibit I checked out was The Hidden Beauty: Exploring the Aesthetics of Medical Science. The showcase of medical imagery, e.g. magnified shots of diseased organs, was organized by Norman Barker, a professor of pathology and art as applied medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Dr. Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, a gastrointestinal pathologist Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The goal of the exhibit is to “leave the viewer with an appreciation of visual beauty inherent within the medical sciences.”

Exploded skull.

Having undergone multiple brain surgeries, I have always found MRIs and CT scans of my skull and brain alluring. And in getting my blood drawn by phlebotomists, I often make a mental connection between the crimson color of my blood collecting in a plastic tube with bright red oil paint smeared on a canvas.

Kidneys.

In roaming through the exhibit space, where I saw images of kidneys (which looked like balls of yarn), the netlike pattern of thinning bones in osteoporosis, a placenta, a smoker’s lung, a healthy human brain (which looked like a Pollock drip painting) and a scan of a patient with prostate cancer, I came away with a feeling of compassion for the patients—the owners of these organs and the people suffering from the diseases on display.

Placenta.

Many of the works offered bright colors and abstract patterns. But for me I was left with a strong theme of universality—the sense that all of our bodies will break down and ultimately fail us. The circumstances may be different, but the results the same. And in looking at some of the pictures, my faith tugged at me and I could not help but think that a divine master, call it God if you want, created this magnificent machine we call the human body.

Melanoma.

Both of the exhibits wrap up on Friday, March 9.

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Dentist Office Artwork

I love when art makes me stop and pay attention to it, to lose myself in the experience of viewing the work. This happened to me earlier this week when I accompanied my wife Pam to the periodontist’s office for an appointment.

While I sat in the waiting room—rocking our nearly three-month-old son Colin and hoping the other patients would ignore what I thought was the smell of his soiled diaper—I stared at some artwork hanging on the walls. There were three oil paintings illuminated by the warm glow of recessed lighting.

The first painting showed a European plaza with flower stands on one side and an outdoor cafe on the other; the pedestrians were dressed in 19th century attire and some carried umbrellas. Even though it was a rainy day scene, the palette contained a mix of bright colors, including pink and violet flowers. At the top right corner of the frame, yellow sunlight fought to break through the clouds.

An oil painting of a European street scene (artist unknown).

An oil painting of a European street scene (artist unknown).

Another image showed a pedestrian bridge over a canal in Venice (or so I presumed) with cypress trees rising in the distance.

Venice scene. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

Venice scene. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

And the third one depicted a woman’s bicycle leaning against a stone or brick building with an arched doorway and a windowsill festooned with red flowers.

Bicycle leaning against building. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

Bicycle leaning against building. Oil on canvas, artist unknown.

I wish I could give the artist credit by name, but I didn’t see a signature on the paintings. Of course these were not masterpieces painted by Van Gogh or Monet. However, the three works transported me to another place and allowed me to vicariously roam through the streets of an Old World city and stand on a bridge in Venice and observe the beautiful scenery.

Looking at these images interrupted the mundane experience of waiting in a dentist’s office and made the time pass more quickly. I also felt happy embarking—at least mentally—on a trip overseas. Although I dream of going on a European vacation one day, I know it’s unlikely I will visit Paris, Rome or Florence anytime soon, due to work demands and financial constraints. You see, right now the priority is paying for cans of Similac Expert Care Alimentum formula and a new bridge for my wife. Not to mention another box of Pampers for Colin.

Colin Joseph Close-Up.

Colin Joseph Close-Up.

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A short profile of Sister Joselle Orlando

One of my freelance stories, a short profile of Sister Joselle Orlando, a Roman Catholic nun in Syracuse, New York, appears online. Sister Joselle, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities and an accomplished visual artist, expresses her creativity and carries on her faith by serving as an art teacher and hospital volunteer.

Close-up of Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor piece. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Close-up of Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor piece. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I conducted an interview with Sister Joselle in her art studio last year, and I would like to expand the story as a longer blog post in the near future. In the meantime, here are two examples of her artwork.

Assumption Church, a watercolor by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Assumption Church, a watercolor by Sister Joselle Orlando.

An example of Sister Joselle Orlando's use of the mandala as a symbol of faith.

An example of Sister Joselle Orlando’s use of the mandala as a symbol of faith.

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Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss

In September I traveled to New York on two occasions to gather video footage for Syracuse University’s Arents Award video tributes, which our department produces; the Arents Award is the university’s highest alumni honor. My colleague Bob and I stayed at SU’s Lubin House, the university’s home base for New York City operations. We also shot a few interviews there. While staying overnight at the Lubin House, I had a chance to walk into the Palitz Gallery on the premises and view the Robert Kipniss exhibition mounted there. The exhibit continues until Nov. 12, and my review follows below.

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The ventilation system hums inside the Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in New York City. But standing in front of some of the graphic works of Robert Kipniss currently on view at the gallery, you may imagine other sounds—a screen door swinging shut, a train roaring in the distance, cicadas singing and the wind moving through tree limbs.

Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss presents more than 30 prints depicting interior still life scenes and rural landscapes composed of plants, windows, houses, trees, hills and fields. Most of the works are black and white, while others have subtle earth tones like mauve, green and brown.

Branches by Robert Kipniss (1967)

The prints are part of the Syracuse University Art Collection, a gift from James F. White, and cover more than 40 years of Kipniss’ career—from 1967 to 2013. Most are small works, the largest measuring 24 by 18 inches (height to width).

These pieces show a consistency in style and composition, as the artist uses a dark palette, dynamic angles and carefully constructed geometric patterns to draw the viewer’s eye and create a moody atmosphere.

Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)

Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)

With the human figure pulled from the scenes, we get the sense of seeing the subjective point of view of a person standing in a living room and looking out a window at a dew-covered backyard or hillside in southern Indiana, or sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning hours, sipping that first cup of coffee and observing the sunlight filtering through parted curtains. Hence, the works stimulate introspection and possess greater allure than straight still life or landscape prints. Their power lies in what they are able to represent or conjure in the mind of the viewer.

 

Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)

Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)

And Kipniss prevails in his subtlety. This is not art on a grand scale showcased in a massive and overcrowded gallery space; instead, this is art to live with and reflect on, objects to hang on a wall and return to on a daily basis.

Kipniss was born in Brooklyn in 1931. Both of his parents were artists and he developed an interest in both verbal and visual expression. He studied at the Art Students League and earned two degrees from the University of Iowa—a bachelor’s in English literature in 1952 and a master of fine arts in painting and art history in 1954.

He won an art competition in New York in 1951 and was awarded his first one-man show. After serving in the Army, he and his wife returned to New York City. He worked evenings at the U.S. Post Office and spent his days painting and writing poetry. He then made the decision to devote his time entirely to painting, which meant he shelved his writing.

He would, however, jot down observations about his life and work over the next several years, and these memories would form the basis of his 2011 memoir, Robert Kipniss: A Working Artist’s Life (University Press of New England).

Kipniss has exhibited his work in more than 200 solo shows. He is represented in the permanent collections of several prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

He was elected to the National Academy of Design and to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in London.

Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)

Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)

The exhibition will remain on view through Nov. 12; it is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free and open to the public. The Lubin House is located at 11 East 61st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. Contact 212-826-0320 or lubin@syr.edu for more information.

After it closes in New York, the exhibit will travel north and then open in January at the Syracuse University Art Galleries in Syracuse, New York.

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The Happy Couple Exhibit

This essay was published in the 2014 edition of Words & Images literary magazine, a student-run publication at the University of Southern Maine.

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I heard the woman first before I saw her or her partner inside the museum of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse. She said in loud voice, “Rick, where are you hon?” The OHA had a few exhibitions running simultaneously on this Saturday in early January 2013, and so it was possible to lose sight of your friend or partner as you made your way through the different gallery spaces and inspected the various works. “Hon, come here, look at this,” she added.

Onondaga Historical Association

Onondaga Historical Association

At the time I was examining the exhibit Manifest Destiny and The American West by Buffalo artist Robert Hirsch. Hirsch presented nearly one-thousand images in a three-dimensional display—with the pictures placed inside jars and serving as a commentary on how the geographic progression across North America shaped U.S. culture.

After I finished looking at the Manifest Destiny jars, I started walking toward where the couple was standing. They were planted in front of some panels of an exhibit highlighting historic stereoscopic photographs.

Rick was probably in his sixties. He was tall, broad-shouldered and bald except for a tuft of grayish-white hair at the back of his head. He had a bushy mustache that curled downward and matched his hair color and he was wearing a tan jacket. The woman, whom I will call Ruth, was small and also appeared to be in her sixties. She was wearing a black fur coat, tall black boots and bronze earrings that looked like costume jewelry. She had short black hair, a birthmark on the right side of her face and she had applied a little too much burgundy lipstick to her mouth.

But it was her dialogue that made her memorable. I am not a casting director, but I believe you could pick Ruth up and place her in a Woody Allen film and without even reviewing the script, she would fit in with no problem. In fact I bet she would steal scenes away from Scarlett Johansson or Penélope Cruz.

I heard her tell her husband, as I assumed they were married, “See, I should have lived in the 1920s. I’d be dead now, but look at all the stuff I would have remembered.”

Something else about Ruth struck me on a personal level; she reminded me a lot of my late mother. My mother had never attended an art exhibit in her life and was not loquacious like this museum visitor, but the two women shared some physical features. Both were short and had short black hair.

My mom: Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

And just like Ruth, my mother would often smear too much of the same shade of burgundy lipstick on her mouth. My mom also had the habit of applying a little too much rouge to her cheeks. If she was getting ready to leave the house to attend the Saturday vigil mass at St. Peter’s Church in Rome, New York, where she lived, I would tell her, “Mom, you need to blot your cheeks. The rouge is caked on.” Her standard reply would be, “Oh shut up. Can’t you ever say anything nice?”

Ruth, Rick and I were gathered inside a small gallery space where Carl Lee’s multi-channel video Last Housewhich documents the destruction of a house in Buffalo, was being screened.

In the piece, on what looks like a bright spring or summer day, a backhoe starts demolishing the house and three separate camera angles capture the action simultaneously. Viewers watch as the scoop of the backhoe starts eating away the roof and walls of the structure, while a man stands near the rubble and uses a power hose to spray water on the scoop and house so no sparks jump to life.

As arresting as Lee’s video was, his exhibit became trumped by a living breathing work of art—the older couple that had seized my attention. And as I stood near the back wall of the room, my focus shifted from the images on the screen in front of me to Rick and Ruth seated on a black bench nearby.

“You see that, it’s three angles of the same thing,” Rick said.

“Yes, I know,” Ruth replied. She paused and then added, “You must think I’m a real idiot.”

I almost burst out laughing because her delivery was a spot-on impersonation of my mother, using the same words my mother had said to me on numerous occasions. But I managed to suppress the laughter swelling inside of me and kept it contained in my throat.

A short time later Rick said to Ruth, “Hon, are tired?” Ruth rubbed her thighs and said, “A little, but I’m OK.”

“Well it’s 2:30,” Rick said.

“No, it’s later.” She checked her watch and said, “It’s 2:40.”

“Your watch is fast,” he said.

“No it’s not. I set it by the stove, and it’s always slow.”

They stopped chatting and watched in silence as the house was being ripped apart in the video. Then, a little while later, amid the grating sounds of the backhoe and the walls tumbling down, Rick turned his head toward Ruth and said, “Are you sure you’re not too tired?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said.

And that’s how I left them. The couple was still sitting there, watching the video when I stepped out of the exhibition space and exited the OHA.

I think what intrigued me most about the couple was their ease of interaction and level of comfort with one another. And I was thankful for having witnessed this slice of life from their apparent happy marriage, a snapshot of two older people behaving in an unguarded fashion in a public museum on an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

I did not assume they lived a perfect life without worry or conflict. But it appeared Rick and Ruth understood and accepted one other unconditionally. In spending a few moments in their presence, it seemed like neither partner had any illusions about the other person, and there appeared to be no mysteries in their relationship still waiting to be uncovered. They had likely revealed all their flaws and weaknesses a long time ago, and yet, they still enjoyed spending time together and remained happily married and devoted to one another. Or at least that’s the impression they gave to outsiders.

I often get a rush of creative energy after visiting an art museum, attending a play or concert or seeing a great film. And while I was walking home my rumination about the couple sparked an idea. I decided they would make a compelling subject for a modern art exhibit.

So here’s my proposal:

A museum would build a large installation showcasing Rick and Ruth as one of the last surviving happy couples in America. It would be a spectacle like something 19th Century showman P.T. Barnum could have curated and promoted.

Rick and Ruth would be placed inside a large kitchen space encased in glass like the diner scene in Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

We would observe them sitting in their kitchen—drinking coffee, talking, cooking and eating breakfast, lunch or dinner, reading the newspaper, playing Scrabble, baking cookies, celebrating their birthdays and washing and drying dishes.

The display would offer viewers an unfiltered window into the life of the couple, and the images, sounds and conversations would document Rick and Ruth’s ease of interaction. The goal would be to reveal the secrets of this happy marriage.

As a result, the exhibit would aim to answer these central questions: What makes this couple different from others? What is the key to their bliss? And what advice or insights do they have for other couples in terms of making a relationship last?

From a technical standpoint, Rick and Ruth would need to be well-lit and microphones would need to be placed on or near them to pick up clean sound; the museum would also have to mount speakers or headphones near the display so the viewer could listen as the couple communicates.

As this idea spun wildly inside my brain, I felt a sense of joy bubbling within and I smiled when I imagined Rick and Ruth hanging out in their hermetically-sealed museum kitchen.

I could almost hear him saying something like, “You know, we’re gonna have to eat a little later because the chicken still needs to defrost before we put it in the oven.”

Ruth would then shoot Rick a dirty look, smack her lips or maybe place a hand on her hip. “Do you think so?” she would say. “God, you must think I’m a real idiot.”

Moments later Ruth would be standing at the counter making a salad and Rick setting the table, and Ruth might turn to him and ask, “Hon, what do you feel like for dessert?”

“Oh I don’t care,” he would say, his eyes lifting from the cutlery on the table. “Anything.”

“Well we have that Entenmann’s crumb cake in the freezer. You want me to take it out?”

“Sure.”

“Yeah, that sounds good, doesn’t it hon?”

“You bet Ruth. It does.”

Then, as the museum would get ready to close for the day, the lights to the kitchen display would be dimmed and Rick and Ruth would depart the exhibition space. And we wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with them when they walk outside the walls of the museum, get into their car and head home for the night.

But I suspect not much would change between them, and I find this reassuring because I wouldn’t want to miss anything.

 

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The Earth Answers: Sarah McCoubrey: Works on Paper

Sarah McCoubrey’s mixed media works straddle the line between the real and the unreal, as the artist manipulates elements of nature to create a rich fantasy world that sparks viewers’ imaginations and is open to wide interpretation.

McCoubrey’s Works on Paper exhibition continues until Aug. 24 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.

McCoubrey, who is a landscape painter and a professor of art at Syracuse University, drew inspiration from hydrofracking sites across the Northeast and the industrial waste beds of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, where she lives.

But for McCoubrey, this polluted landscape is fertile ground for creative inspiration—a place she calls Eden. The exhibition wall text states McCoubrey “begins the process by ‘planting’ outdoor sculptures comprised of natural elements and human detritus she finds at these sites and then makes digital prints of them, adding constructed imaginary elements by hand.”

The result is more than 20 works on paper, composed of digital images, mixed media and ink drawings, depicting a combination of twisted branches, roots and mounds of earth, slender, damaged trees, industrial debris and strange creatures emerging from the toxic ooze and crawling across stretches of barren land.

I witness an older woman sitting on a bench in the exhibition space, looking up at a series of eight panels. “Is that a potato?” the woman asks her friend, who stands nearby. “Yeah, I think so,” the friend replies.

The panels indeed show potatoes—one large potato per panel—in various states of departure. The tubers are taking off, fleeing the landscape either on foot or flying through the air.

And the images provide ample raw material for viewers to invent narratives:

One potato—Escape Vehicle: Fat Potato, 2012—looks a little like a Goodyear Blimp, perhaps floating above a patchwork of farms and fields somewhere between Akron and Columbus; maybe it’s en route to an Ohio State Buckeye football game.

Escape Vehicle: Fat Potato, 2012. Locks Gallery

Escape Vehicle: Potato With Propeller, 2012, shows a potato with wings, a blue propeller and two small trees sticking out of it flying from right to left over what looks like the snow-covered hills of upstate New York.

Escape Vehicle: Potato With Propeller, 2012. Locks Gallery

Another piece in the exhibit, Moving the Buffalo, 2012, recalls the beast from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, as a group of walking figures, constructed out of organic material like branches, transports an industrial-looking wagon across the ground.

Moving the Buffalo, 2012. Locks Gallery

Moving the Buffalo, 2012. Locks Gallery

A stocky man in his fifties stands in front of Boats on the Water, 2014, gazing intently at the work. He then turns to me and asks, “What do you see?”

Before I can answer him, he says, “It reminds me of an eyelid closing.”

The foreground of the image is dominated by a curved patch of dark earth with clumps of roots beneath the surface and small trees dotted above. In the background, we can see boats floating on a small body of water, likely a pond.

Map of the Wastebed, 2014, shows a map seen from above with fish and boats surrounding the site. Is this a scaled view of McCoubrey’s Eden? It reminds me of a treasure map and is similar—at least in terms of intent—to the map of the Hundred Acre Wood from the Winnie-the-Pooh series, written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. The map gives us the setting where McCoubrey’s stories play out.

And this is where the exhibition shines. There’s no doubt McCoubrey’s work is serious, as she calls attention to the damage of toxic waste and other threats to the environment. Her images portend a future world where the Earth seems to undergo a rebellion as the planet adjusts to cataclysmic changes.

Yet she delivers her message softly by hooking viewers with her playful touch and characters that could be found either in a Dali painting or jumping off the pages of a Scholastic picture book.

In fact I believe children would enjoy seeing this exhibition. They wouldn’t need to know anything about global warming, pollution and hydrofracking; instead, they could stand in front of McCoubrey’s prints and giggle at some of the shapes and figures while comparing impressions. It would be the art gallery equivalent of lying on your back on the warm grass and staring at cumulus clouds moving across the sky. And I am sure my five-year-old niece Elizabeth would get a kick out of seeing some potatoes zipping through the air.

Sarah McCoubrey: Works on Paper is part of the museum’s 2014 Edge of Art Series. For more information, go to http://everson.org/.

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