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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The Out of State Game

It’s the height of the summer travel season, and I have been on the road often lately, traveling to New York City for video shoots.

And since my colleague Bob prefers to drive our Dodge Caravan, I am free to sit in the passenger seat and pass the time by playing the Out of State Game—one I am sure many other people play.

It goes like this: I scan the traffic in search of out of state license plates, and when I spot one I ask myself a series of questions: Could I live there? Would I be willing to pack up and move there? What would my life be like if I went there?

I guess it boils down to just four words that could determine your level of happiness: Here or There? Stay or Go?

This sense of longing to migrate somewhere else is the subject of a short poem in my new collection Sidewalk Stories.

Elsewhere

Elsewhere—a state of mind:
Reno or Raleigh,
Topeka or Tacoma,
an imaginary vacation
from my current geographic position.

Elsewhere—another place to be,
an alternate zip code.
Elsewhere—when shall I go?
To where shall I roam?
Elsewhere—I’m eager
to embark on the journey,
but the target city is unknown.
Elsewhere is calling—is beckoning,
and I’ve already left home.

In reality I don’t need road trips to ponder these thoughts. I play the Out of State Game every day while walking through the parking lot of my apartment complex, which is home to many college students who come from faraway places.

Some of the states represented include Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana.

But there is one plate that always thrills me and sparks my imagination. A white metal background with reddish-orange cursive lettering. California. California. California.

When I see a California plate, I rekindle the dream of relocating to Los Angeles, trying to carve out a living in the film or entertainment business. I consider if I could survive the freeways, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, crime and high cost of living.

My fascination with California can be traced to my love of John Steinbeck novels and LA-based film noir movies from the 1940s, e.g. The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.

But the allure of California also stirs memories tinctured with regret, as I think back more than 20 years, to the time after I completed my master’s degree in film and video from American University. In the summer of 1993 I returned to my hometown of Rome, New York, to finish my thesis.

Afterwards I went to work for the City of Rome in the recreation department, doing odd jobs like refereeing adult league volleyball games and teaching an after-school woodworking class. And in the spring and summer of 1994 I served as an administrative aide to the mayor. However, the funding for the temporary job ended in the fall of 1994, and I had decided that I would take about $2,500 in savings, pack up my used gray Chevette and head to Hollywood, hoping to launch my career as a production assistant or entry-level staff member.

My mother rejected that idea, and in the course of an afternoon she and my sister talked me into embarking on an alternate, “safer” plan of moving to Venice, Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where I could stay with a friend of my Aunt Theresa and pursue employment down there.

My Aunt T. is a Roman Catholic nun, and her best friend, the late Father Charlie, a Redemptorist priest, had an extra bedroom in the condo provided for him by the Diocese of Venice. My mom and sister thought that with my endocrine-related health problems, residing in a stable environment near Aunt T. would be preferable to living alone on the West Coast. I folded and scrapped the idea of going to California.

At the time the entertainment industry was burgeoning in the Orlando area, located more than two hours away from Venice, and I was hopeful I could get a job there. But full-time opportunities were scant and when my savings started to drip away, I took a low-paying feature reporter/editor position at the Venice Gondolier newspaper, swinging my career in a different direction, one toward journalism—a path that would bring me to stops in Ohio and Arizona but never to California.

So now when I see a California plate, all I can do is wonder how things could have turned out if I had mustered the courage and gambled on a life in California. Would I now be an accomplished producer, director or studio head? Or would I have ended up impoverished?

I bemoan that I didn’t take the risk when I was young, and while I am not too old to move somewhere else, it’s seems unlikely to happen. But I try to chase away the regret because it serves no purpose and has no place in the 2017 version of my life.

I must accept the decisions I made without wasting time punishing myself by reflecting on what might have been. That’s easy to say, but hard to do because I can’t stop my eyes from seeking out Golden State plates on the streets of Syracuse.

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