Today I roamed through Bird Library at Syracuse University while searching for some summer reading. I took home five books, including Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Bag of Bones by Stephen King. And as I am wont to do, I pulled a book off a shelf at random, flipped it open to the middle and began reading the first text I saw.
The book had a light green cover with the title The 1916 Poets (edited by Desmond Ryan). It contains a selection of poems from Irish authors. My eyes settled on the poem “Litany of Beauty” by Thomas MacDonagh, and I found the words inspiring, particularly the lines:
Beauty of dawn and dew,
Beauty of morning peace
Ever ancient and ever new,
Ever renewed till waking cease …
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second exhibit I checked out wasThe 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a follow up to a freelance article I wrote about artist and educator Sister Joselle Orlando of Syracuse. In our original interview, Sister Joselle told me a few stories that could not be included in the short magazine piece and web article published by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, and so I’ve decided to collect them here.
With her short stature, salt-and-pepper hair and tendency to talk with her hands—hands that have labored for many years—you could easily picture Sister Joselle Orlando as an Italian grandmother standing in a kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta fagioli (pasta beans) on a cold winter night. But these days Orlando, 74, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, New York, stays active by working on personal art projects, teaching art classes, and serving as a hospital volunteer.
As a young girl growing up in an Italian-American family in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Orlando loved to draw and her father, Salvatore, a machinist who worked in an airplane factory, showed her how to blend colors with crayons. Her mother, however, opposed her daughter’s budding creativity and wanted her to focus on the fundamentals of her education. Orlando says her mother, Mary Carmella, a homemaker and seamstress, once told her, “You go and learn your spelling and you’re not coming out of that room until you know them.”
But as a rambunctious child, Orlando says she rebelled against her mother.
“It took me until about fifth grade before I actually learned how to read or how to do math. So I fought with my mother all through the early stages of my education,” she says. “But I always loved drawing and I knew that I could sing. So the fact that I couldn’t read or spell or do math, once we had music or art, I had more confidence, so that kind of balanced it out.”
When she was in fourth grade, Orlando’s family moved to a neighboring town and the Felician sisters from Lodi, New Jersey, educated her. Through the Felicians, as well as her parish church, Orlando found herself drawn to St. Francis of Assisi, and her affection for the saint strengthened her faith in the Lord and sparked a desire in her to pursue a religious life.
“When I was 18 and ready to graduate, I finally said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to enter the convent.’ And she said, ‘Over my dead body you’re going to enter the convent.’”
Orlando says her mother wanted her to become a secretary. But Orlando followed her instincts. She wrote to the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse and they wrote back and welcomed her into the community.
She recalls the pain of leaving home on Sept. 1, 1959, and beginning her new life. “My mother would not come with me that day, she was sobbing terribly. My dad and my brother, my future sister-in-law, and I drove to Syracuse and they dropped me off at the back door. They left and I entered the convent. It was a bit of a dramatic way of entering the community, but I really knew that this was my call from God.”
Sharing Knowledge about Art and Life
Because the Sisters of St. Francis recognized Orlando’s artistic talents, she says the community wanted her to pursue an education in art with the goal of becoming a teacher. Orlando received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and education from Syracuse University in 1974. She later earned a master’s degree in art education from SU and a master’s in religious studies from St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia.
Orlando spent more than 40 years in the field of education, teaching at both the elementary and secondary levels, and her profession became a calling, as she derived joy in molding students and helping them to develop their artistic skills.
She says, “I love to teach and to see how either children or adults evolve and discover talent within themselves and can say to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I did this.’”
Sister Jacqueline Spiridilozzi, who is also a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, has known Orlando for more than 40 years and says her vivacious and free-spirited personality is reminiscent of the character Maria from The Sound of Music. Spiridilozzi says Orlando always gave her students the “space, encouragement, and direction” needed to “bring out the best, promote the potential.”
Orlando has mentored many students throughout her career, including Sarah Guardia-Weir. Guardia-Weir met Orlando when Guardia-Weir was a freshman at Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, where Orlando taught art and served as a campus minister from 1995 to 2007.
Guardia-Weir says Orlando “showed me so many tricks that advanced my art skills and creativity.” She credits Orlando for helping her to get accepted into the demanding architecture program at Syracuse University.
But the relationship went beyond just the teaching of technical skills. While studying at SU, Guardia-Weir reconnected with Orlando, who was working and living in Syracuse at the time.
She says Orlando “taught me the power of friendship and the enjoyment of life through art … to have an adventure and trust in God’s path.”
Guardia-Weir graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a minor in ceramics. She works at an architectural firm in New Jersey and remains active in art, making crafts for her family and friends.
And she remembers some inspirational words Orlando shared with her that still resonate today. “I was worried about aging and worried that life might get boring as my young ideas fade,” Guardia-Weir says. “But Sister explained, ‘As an artist, I can assure you, even at my age that the gift of imagination will never die.’”
Challenged by Jerome Witkin
Bright sunlight streams through the windows of the converted chicken coop that now serves as Orlando’s art studio in Fayetteville.
On this morning, a clear subfreezing day in late February of 2015, Orlando sits at a long table, working on a bright watercolor painting of St. Marianne Cope dressed in her habit and standing in a Hawaiian setting.
St. Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. She helped to found St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse in 1869 and later devoted her life to caring for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaii. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21, 2012.
Orlando dips her brush in water, swishes it around, dips her brush in paint, and applies it to a white-yellow flower seen in the foreground. Later, she rises, walks a few feet, and points out a print of what she considers her favorite painting. It’s an image of dark cave area with a face visible in the scene.
She painted the piece in 1990 while she was a master’s student at SU, and she recounts how one of her art professors, renowned figurative painter Jerome Witkin, taught her an important lesson about overcoming creative challenges.
In Witkin’s class students had to create a series of large-scale oil works, but they could only use two primary colors plus black and white.
“I painted St. Marianne leaning over a woman in a wheelchair on a beautiful Hawaiian beach,” Orlando says.
Orlando used red and yellow as her primary colors and had worked on the painting for several hours when Witkin came to critique it. As he inspected the piece, Orlando explained to him how Mother Marianne and the other Franciscan sisters had treated patients with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii.
Orlando recalls Witkin’s comments. “He said, ‘And they’re getting close to death, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they were dying.’ He said, ‘Well get rid of the sunset, get rid of the beauty … and show me that they’re suffering with death.’ And he walked away. That was Friday afternoon. They were due Monday. And I took my turpentine, washed the whole thing. I was swearing, I was so angry at Jerome.”
Orlando regained her composure and directed her energy toward the canvas, working over the weekend to paint a darker palette according to Witkin’s instruction, choosing red and blue as her primary colors.
The final scene depicts a leprous woman seated in a wheelchair and the woman appears to be part of a cave. The viewer can also see a leprous child’s face in the canvas, and the only source of light is the small figure of Mother Marianne entering the gloomy cave.
For Orlando, Marianne symbolizes the only source of hope for the desperate victims of Hansen’s disease.
Witkin praised the revised work and called it the best piece Orlando had ever done. But Orlando told him, “If I take this home and show the sisters, they’re gonna think I’m in a state of depression, it’s so dark.” She says Witkin then replied, “You don’t go down to the level of your audience, you bring them up to your level.”
Art as Prayer
One way Orlando combines her artistic and spiritual pursuits is by teaching an “art as prayer” class, in which non-artists learn how to use simple watercolor techniques as a language of prayer; a session is scheduled to be held in her studio in September.
During the retreats, Orlando incorporates the symbol of the mandala as an impetus for meditation. The mandala is a sacred circle that “represents the dialogue between the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven, the conscious and unconscious.” Students engage in quiet reflection, learn to paint mandalas, and share their prayer experiences.
Orlando says the “art as prayer” program helps to enrich the faith lives of participants and gives them confidence in their creative abilities.
“I tell them, ‘It is not the product that you’re going to be displaying in a museum, it is your experience that you have when you’re using simple art tools. It’s what you feel inside.’”
In her community work, Orlando serves as a volunteer in the Surgical Waiting Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.
She interacts with the family members of patients who are in surgery, engaging them in a conversation and listening to their concerns.
Spiridilozzi, who serves as a coordinator for the sister volunteers at St. Joe’s, says Orlando possesses the ability to reach out to others, even strangers, and her presence provides support and strength to patients and their families.
“She kinda has a natural gift for being empathetic and sympathetic,” Spiridilozzi says. “She’s got that warm Italiano heart, and you know she’s just a natural with people.”
Orlando says she doesn’t ask the people she meets what faith they are, “because it doesn’t matter,” but she tries to allay their fears through an informal connection and the power of prayer.
“It’s sharing part of my spirituality with them and letting somebody know that God still loves them,” she says.
Orlando also privately reflects on her encounters with the family members. She will go to an upper floor at the hospital, look out at the view of the city of Syracuse, and pray for the people she has come into contact with. Her prayer is a simple one, summed up with the words: “Oh God help them.”
“You Don’t Go Singing in the Shower”
Inside Orlando’s art studio, a propane heater hums briefly before shutting off. Orlando stands over it, pushing some buttons and trying to coax the heater to stay on; she makes a plea to St. Anthony and then says in a singsong voice, “do your thing, do your thing, don’t go out again.” But when her attempts to revive the heater fail, she walks back to her seat, picks up her brush, and resumes working on the watercolor painting of Mother Marianne.
Her determination to create art and contribute to community life remains strong despite her age. And blessed with good health, she says she has no intention of slowing down her ministry as an artist, teacher, and volunteer. “I have longevity in my family. My dad died at 102 and he was still sharp … and my mother was in her nineties, so I have about another 25 years to go, so hang around.”
Orlando also says she has no regrets about the direction she chose when she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience more than 50 years ago. She believes that what she gave up to God when she entered the convent has come back to her more than a hundredfold.
“And I know that gifts that are given to us to share are not just for us. You don’t go singing in the shower,” she says. “Gifts that are given to us are given for others, and the more you give the more has come back to me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
I received a surprise Monday morning when pulling into the University Avenue Garage at Syracuse University.
I drove in on the Harrison Street side, and after I swiped my card and the arm lever raised, the female parking lot attendant came over to my car and handed me an envelope. After I parked my Focus I opened the envelope and pulled out a Christmas card.
The front of the card had an image of Santa’s sleigh loaded with a small Christmas tree and blue and green-colored wrapped presents.
The greeting inside read:
“Warmest thoughts and best wishes for a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year.”
Underneath the greeting the attendant had scribbled a note that read “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Dawn … Parking @ Uag.”
The kind gesture brightened my day. I thought Dawn’s action embodied the Christmas spirit, as she offered me, a passing acquaintance (a stranger really), a gift without expecting anything in return.
I looked up Dawn’s name in the university directory and emailed her later in the day, thanking her for the card. She wrote back that the cards are her “Christmas smiles” and she hands out over 300 of them. She added, “Magic happens when you make someone else smile.”
I agree with that sentiment, and she inspired me to reciprocate the favor. On my way home from work last night I dropped off a Christmas card for Dawn at her UAG booth. She wasn’t working at the time, but I hope she’ll smile when she opens the envelope and feel the same warmth she instilled in me. And I will try to live up to the example of her generosity for the rest of the holiday season.
So I’m walking down South Crouse Avenue after picking up Chipotle takeout after work tonight. It’s raining and I’m holding the brown paper bag up to my chest so it’s shielded under the cover of my black umbrella. I take note of the dainty handle and hope I don’t appear effeminate to the motorists passing by me.
As I turn the bag around, I get a surprise. A flash fiction story from short story writer George Saunders is printed on the back. It’s part of Chipotle’s “Cultivating Thought Author Series.”
As I walk down the hill with the rain pelting me, I try to read George’s Two-Minute Note to the Future (a letter to “future reader”) before the bag turns to pulp in my hands.
And I can’t help but think that George Saunders is everywhere. I say this because 1) I’m currently reading The Braindead Megaphone, Saunders’ 2007 book of essays; 2) yesterday I read The New Yorker’sPage-Turner blog featuring an interview with Saunders about his sense of humor; and 3) our video department at Syracuse University recently produced The Book of Saunders, a half-hour documentary about George that premiered in May on WCNY public television in Syracuse.
And I can testify to the fact that kindness is not an act for Saunders, who has been called the Chekhov-Twain-Vonnegut (insert other famous author here) of our time. In person George is nice and genuine (with an “everyman” quality), and his humility almost makes you forget about his razor-sharp intellect and literary prowess.
Here he takes time to pose for a picture with a fan/production grip (me) just outside his writing shed in upstate New York.
And after I eat my Chipotle chicken bowl I debate whether to toss the bag in the trash. I feel guilty about it, since a fiction gem from George shouldn’t be thrown out—banished to the bottom of my kitchen garbage can; it deserves a better fate than mingling with apple cores and coffee grounds.
But then I think George wouldn’t mind, and I’m sure I’ll read something else by/about him tomorrow.
The images are also part of a Stone Canoe art exhibition entitled Vein 8. The exhibit runs until Feb. 8 at ArtRage gallery in Syracuse.
The documentary photographs were captured at the demolition site of the Kennedy Square public housing project on East Fayette Street. They are part of an art project I am working on about declining buildings and structures in central New York.
I found the site haunting, possessing a stark beauty, and I thought about the lives of the people who once inhabited the housing units. I wondered where they were living now. And it seemed a dark spirit remained embedded in the disintegrating materials.
Since I am new to DSLR technology and I am still learning how to edit photographs in Lightroom 5, it will take me some time before I complete this project. But I’ve enjoyed the challenge so far, and I have a variety of building images to process and consider.
The two images in the journal were taken with my Pentax K1000 camera and the negatives were scanned so I could edit them in Photoshop.
On a rainy Wednesday evening I broke the monotony of my work week. After leaving the office I went to Syracuse University’s Bird Library to edit some nonfiction story manuscripts and write longhand in my journal.
I drank a cup of coffee as I worked and after I finished writing, I perused some large format art books stacked on the shelves nearby. I opened a book containing Raphael’s drawings and then leafed through a heavy volume featuring artwork by Caravaggio. Huge color plates demonstrated Caravaggio’s mastery of light and shadow, and the powerful images depicting Christ’s life, crucifixion and entombment stirred my soul.
After leaving the library I decided I would go to Panda West restaurant on Marshall Street for takeout Chinese.
I hadn’t eaten Chinese food in a long time and decided I would treat myself. While standing near the front counter I looked through the paper menu trying to decide what to order, and when the woman up front finished talking to a customer, who was paying his bill, she turned to me and said, “OK, you know what you want?”
And I decided in the moment to eat in rather than get takeout. “Table for one,” I said to her.
“Sit anywhere,” she said.
I sat down at a table for two in a corner of the restaurant with my back to a window facing Marshall Street. A young, thin Chinese waiter came over with rice chips and a stainless steel kettle of tea. I have always loved the taste of house tea in Chinese restaurants (oolong I think), especially when it’s served piping hot.
The man handed me a menu, but I said, “I’m ready to order. I’ll have steamed chicken with mixed vegetables.” He said, “Sauce on the side?” And I said, “No sauce, just plain.”
“Just plain,” he repeated and nodded his head. He left to put the order in and I took off my coat, opened my duffel bag and pulled out the arts section of the New York Times.
I then listened to a stocky Middle Eastern or Indian man talking to a woman at a table in front of me. I think they both work in the medical field and I heard him mention the practice of anesthesiology. The woman leaned over the table toward the man, straining to comprehend each word emanating from his dark lips.
I relaxed amid the dim surroundings of the restaurant and half-listened to other diners talking in low voices. About ten people were scattered throughout the large dining room at that time—a few older couples, a group of Asian college students and some female students.
I scanned a few articles in the Times and refilled my small white porcelain tea cup several times, and then the food arrived at my table. It seemed like it took about 7 to 10 minutes to cook. The chicken and vegetables were presented in a round bamboo serving dish and the waiter placed a small bowl of white rice on the table. I was hungry and I ate quickly.
When the waiter came around again I asked him to box up the leftovers. I paid my bill and the waiter returned with my leftovers, a fortune cookie and a few pineapple chunks on a small plate with toothpicks sticking out of them. I don’t recall my fortune and the pineapple tasted like the Dole canned variety, but I appreciated the after-dinner offering.
I left my tip at the table, put on my coat, hat and gloves, slung the book bag over my shoulder and darted out into the damp night. I walked along Marshall Street, turned right on South Crouse Avenue and made my way to the bottom of the hill toward Genesee Street.
Dining out midweek was a rarity for me. I think the last time I had sat down to a meal in a restaurant before going to Panda West was when I ordered a short stack of pancakes at Cosmos on Marshall Street on a Sunday morning after mass at the Alibrandi Catholic Center near campus.
And the beauty of this mundane Wednesday night meal at Panda West was made clear to me when I stepped into my one-bedroom apartment. After putting the leftovers in the refrigerator, I realized I would not have to fix anything for dinner or eat another meal at my small card table in the living room, accompanied by fictional guests in the form of movie characters beamed out at me on my laptop via a Netflix streaming video.
I experienced contentment by eating dinner like a normal person, at a restaurant, surrounded by other human beings engaged in conversation. And even if I wasn’t part of the discussions, at least I was there, out in the world, regardless of being alone.