Adventures in the American City: A New Series from Meet Me in the Drawing Room

As I sat in bumper-to-bumper Sunday night traffic on I-95, I took a quick glance down at the odometer on my 2003 Land Rover Discovery. 168,000+ miles.

Man! If that car could talk, the stories of the open road (and highway traffic jams!) it could share.

If there’s one good thing about being stuck  in traffic for hours, it’s that it gives you time to reflect.

I was on my way home from a weekend in Richmond, Virginia, a city I’ve driven through and stayed in more times than I can probably remember, but only really got to know on this first glorious spring weekend. Inching forward at a sail’s pace, I had the chance to recap the encounters and experiences of the days and hours leading up to the traffic jam.

I've seen a lot of America from behind the wheel of this Land Rover

I’ve seen a lot of America from behind the wheel of this Land Rover

The stuntman and flame juggler.

The museum.

The black-eyed pea falafel.

The Marine wedding.

The row houses.

The gators.

Every city has its cache of stories.

And so, I had a thought: I’d write those stories down and start a series of posts called: Adventures in the American City. The posts will highlight a handful of locals I’ve visited over the past 2 years — the stories of the people who live there, the things that caught my interest (or made me wonder: what were they thinking?), and/or the things I ate along the way (I eat lots of things when I travel…) It’s not a travel guide, just a series of experiences in cities that are not my New York.

A few of the places I’ll be looking at:

Richmond, Virginia.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Reno, Nevada.

And my home-city of White Plains, New York.

“I’ve just randomly named 3 American cities — Greensboro, Minneapolis, and Fort Worth — and you’ve been to all of them,” a guy said to me over a beer. “Is there any where you haven’t been?”

Of course, the answer is: yes, lots. But part of the fun of traveling is knowing that you still have more places to visit.

The other fun of traveling is remembering where you’ve been.

A view onto Manhattan from Jersey City

A view onto Manhattan from Jersey City

If You Can Only Visit One (Painting) Exhibit at the Met this Month

Make it George Bellows.

Like athletes? He paints ‘em. Like seascapes? Yeap, does that too. Religious paintings? Why not. What about rough and tumble street life? He’s a pro.

"Stag at Sharkey's" 1909, one of George Bellow's most recognized paintings.

“Stag at Sharkey’s” 1909, one of George Bellow’s most recognized paintings.

Forget Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It’s a flat-liner. I know, I know, you love Matisse, and of course you do. Matisse is a blue-chip crowd-pleaser,  but the assemblage of paintings reveal nothing new nor nothing unique to Matisse. It is, effectively, thoroughly expected. He painted the same subject over and over. His style changed. He reworked paintings. It has the feeling of a student exhibition — here’s a thesis and here are all the paintings  in our collection (plus a few on loan from friends) that support it.

Instead, wander up to the second floor, where George Bellows waits to knock your socks off.

Once again, Dr. H. Barbara Weinberg struts her stuff as the most formidable curator in Pre-1945 American Art. Well paced and smartly edited, the exhibition is the first comprehensive retrospective on Bellows in half a century.  On display is his artistic range, revealing subjects in his oeuvre often subsumed to his find-them-in-every-textbook painting of boxers caught mid-bout.

George Bellows (1882-1925) died of appendicitis when he was only 42. His career and life were short, his artistic achievement, almost immeasurable.

"The Big Dory" 1913

“The Big Dory” 1913

He is best known as a core member of the Ashcan School — a group of New York painters, mostly students and associates of Robert Henri, whose style and subject matter confronted both the academy and American Impressionism. They were urban realists who painted gritty street scenes of the New York City’s working class, the city’s modernizing landscape, current events, and portraits with dark palettes and expressive brush work. Rather than art for art’s sake, they worked by Henri’s creed: “art for life’s sake.”

Bellows is the most recognizable of the Ashcan School, and his paintings are usually invoked as representative of their overall style. If you’ve picked up a textbook on American Art, his paintings and lithographs of boxers and the development of Pennsylvania Station get prime billing.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

What you don’t typically see are his landscapes, his seascapes of Camden, Maine, his moonlight scenes of Riverside Park, or his religious allegories. The exhibition begins by introducing us to Bellows through what we know best and using his education at Ohio State University and talents as an athlete (legend goes he could have gone pro) as context for the subject that would later become his historical calling card.

"Riverfront, No. 1"

“Riverfront, No. 1″

And then you turn the corner to learn something new, see something unexpected. The first vista onto every new gallery is a view onto another showstopper, but also another a look into another chapter of Bellow’s career.

It’s the kind of exhibit that demands a long linger, as it reveals as much about a particular period in New York City’s history as it does about a canonized artist and the art world he negotiated.

"The Studio" -- catch the references?

“The Studio” — catch the references?

the shore

“The Shore.” No, it’s not Hopper. It’s George Bellows, a Jack of All Trades

My 18 Hours in Madrid: A Museum, Tapas, and a Protest

Driving into a European city always makes my heart race a little. When you’re used to Manhattan’s West-Side Highway and FDR Drive and the numerical grid system that gets you most places you want to go, the diagonal avenues and alley-way like streets of every European city of note, from Paris to Barcelona, are not only foreign, they’re frightening.

And there’s nothing worse than braving the traffic of a European city only to find the streets you need are closed off with major police activity.

the street to our hotel was completely barricaded, because not only did it lead to the Westin, it lead to the Ministry of the Interior.

Turning off the Paseo del Prado, Madrid’s main drag, onto Calle Mayor, the car came to a complete halt. We had noticed the long line of Mercedes Policzia vans lined up along the Paseo del Prado, but we weren’t expecting to hit a barricade. The last time we were in Madrid it was also October and military planes were flying overhead — they were rehearsing for military day. We assumed this might be something similar.

Indeed, they were preparing to show off their military might, but not for a celebration. An “Occupy” protest was planned for the evening and the hundreds of police milling about were readying the Plaza de las Cortes for thousands of dissatisfied Spaniards.

We were granted access to Calle Mayor and our hotel, but were warned that later we might not be so lucky.

Our hotel was located across the street from the Ministry of the Interior, which explained why the protestors had chosen the location. And explained the extra heavy police presence outside the doors.

Let me pause here and say that the Madrid police are very impressive.

Madrid Police wear their uniforms well.

They wear their uniforms well. They’re athletic. They carry guns on their thighs. Their hats give them a simultaneous air of authority and mystery. A Madrid policeman can come to my rescue any day.

We only had a short stay in Madrid and our plan was to go to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza, my favorite museum in Europe, and then go for tapas at a restaurant around the corner that, 4 years ago, had the best fried anchovies. A little protest wasn’t going to get in our way.

The Museo Thyssen-Bornemaisza is one of my favorite places anywhere

Walking the block to the museum gave us a better idea of what the city officials were expecting: something serious.

A month earlier, a similar protest had turned violent and rubber bullets had been fired on protesters. Several were injured. Many went into custody. Perhaps the one consolation this time round was that many of the protestors would be police officers on their day off.

A herd of police dogs. Mounted police. The ever-growing numbers of armed officers. Flashing blue lights. It was hard not to be a little nervous, especially when staying so close to the center of activity.

Those dogs meant business

But when things get tough, the tough order tapas.

The Estado Puro is a tapas bar on the ground floor of the NH Paseo del Prado. On my last trip to Madrid, this was my daily snack stop. Since then, I’ve made my rounds at other note-worthy tapas bars in Madrid, New York, D.C., and then on this trip, Barcelona, and still concluded that the Estado Puro is as good as it gets.

Fried anchovies, cod fritters, and tempura asparagus. Sure it was all battered and cooked in hot oil, but it was delicious and a perfect pre-protest snack.

The other great advantage to the Estado Puro is that its long windows guarantee great people watching. There were hundreds of police milling the streets and yet the residents of Madrid, and even the handful of tourists about, were moving with no sense of concern.

Caught between wanting to play the part of amateur photojournalist and fearing rubber bullets (the hotel had said the protest was supposed to be “peaceful” but “could not guarantee” anything… comforting), I lingered on the street corner waiting for things to get interesting. But when a group of protestors began to gather at the edge of the Fuente de Neptuno, I decided it was time to hustle  indoors. We flashed our room keycard at a back street barricade and scurried down the street into our hotel, up to the third floor, shut the lights and began to watch as the march began.

First, only a handful of people began to lineup along the barricade. A few signs blew in the cold autumn air, but this group looked generally small and nonthreatening.

“They brought out all this force for that?” we thought, as the first half hour passed.

And then, the deluge.

The police stand at attention as the crowd fills the plaza

Thousands poured in, banging drums, playing instruments, carrying banners, chanting. It felt organized and surprisingly joyful, despite the clear anger and frustration in the crowd.

Spain’s unemployment rate is 25%. Jobs are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the numbers on welfare do little to help the country stabilize. Meanwhile, Catalan is carrying on a succession campaign. The unrest as understandable as it is widespread.

close-ups of the crowd

The crowd was a medley of age groups — it wasn’t just restless unemployed college students. They rattled the barricades, chanting in unison and waving their signs. All the while, the police stood at attention.

In all of the anger, there was a clear sense of camaraderie, which despite the growing tension was comforting. Would they “storm the barricades?” There was a violinist leading a small chamber group — chamber orchestras don’t storm barricades. Or do they?

Police cars began to proceed down the surrounding avenues, closing them off as points of entry for additional protestors. The blue lights pierced the nights. Police directed pedestrians away. Was it about to erupt?

No, violinists don’t storm barricades. At least not in Madrid, not this time. After about an hour and a half, the group began to clear. A few small pods gathered in circles to talk. But the excited And then the street cleaners descended.

I awoke shortly before the sun rose and looked out on the plaza, which glistened as if it had rained — all traces of the protest, from sidewalk chalk scrawled statements of unrest to the banners that had covered the barricades were all washed away.

As the sun began to peak over the buildings to the east, I began to make my way West, homeward-bound for New York.

And with that, the lights dim, and she takes her exit, leaving Spain and Europe behind her

 

What Tim Burton and Alexander McQueen Taught Me about Running a Museum

The dress that made me an Alexander McQueen fan for life. There's no doubt he's an artist

When I was an intern at MoMA, the museum launched a mid-career retrospective of the filmmaker Tim Burton. It was met with skepticism. Burton’s iconic status as a mainstream blockbuster-maker, with a cult following, had critics and fine-arts-lovers questioning MoMA’s integrity. It was an exhibition that displayed process, the evolution of process, and a mental stream of consciousness. But are doodles by a director art? Is Burton a mega-museum worthy artist?

When I considered the exhibition at the time, I decided “Tim Burton” was brilliant. From a museum-marketing, public relations point of view, I still believe “Tim Burton” was brilliant.

After witnessing the line-ups and the crowds, and after mingling with the audiences, I saw the value in a marquee art venue like MoMA hosting a mass-appeal exhibition. New audiences entered the museum, memberships increased, and because the exhibition had timed entry tickets, museum-visitors had time to kill by viewing the other galleries. The meatier, more academic, more stunning show “Bauhaus” was on at the same time. I don’t doubt that the increase in the number of under-20-somethings strolling the gallery had a lot to do with Tim Burton.

2+ years later, people are still talking about it. 2 years later, the number one search term that drives people to my blog is “Tim Burton at MoMA.” It was an exhibition that had staying power in the public’s mind.

Then came “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition with the same mass-consumer appeal.

Burton and McQueen are household names in a way Frans Hal and Lyonnel Feininger will never be.

I began following McQueen’s career when he catapulted into the fashion headlines in 1990s. He revived avant-garde haute couture and breathed a much-needed breathe of the rebellious artist into a humdrum fashion world. So, of course, when the exhibit opened in May, I promised myself I’d go.

people were lined up to get into the musem for blocks! records must have been set

“Savage Beauty” closed yesterday, and all  I saw of it was a line of waiting people stretching south along 5th Avenue and fading into Central Park. I can’t, therefore, comment on the show itself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on “Savage Beauty.”

Drawing on global culture as much as on his native Scotland, McQueen’s career echoes those of artists like Matisse and Picasso who took the history of their medium and infused the traditional with a sense of the exotic, the other-worldly. For anyone that has ever seen a McQueen show or seen his clothes in a Vogue spread, there is no doubt that McQueen is an artist. The Costume Institute is an integral part of the Met’s collection and exhibition schedule. Fashion as art and the art of fashion is, essentially, part of the museum’s DNA.

A retrospective at the Met on McQueen was not only natural, but inevitable.

always the showman, his work was as carnal and disquieting as it was beautiful

But what about the management of the exhibition? My understanding is that there were no timed tickets for “savage Beauty” — if you wanted to see it, you had to wait your turn. Standing in line for 2-5 hours — did that permit visitors an opportunity to tour the museum? I’d be interested to see gallery counts. Thousands lined-up, thousands saw McQueen. Did thousands see “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask?”

Membership increased, but then the Met stopped granting early morning member-exclusive previews. Considering that the Met’s ticket price is technically voluntary, the only benefit to becoming a member is the privileged viewing. I bet there were some very angry new members. Were refunds requested? Were they granted?

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a line thousands deep waiting to get into a museum of fine art. On the other, you can’t help but wonder, if that’s the only exhibit they get to see, will they be back?

Don’t Touch the Money Bunny!: Artwork of the Week Makes a Comeback

"Jeff Koons is a big Blow Hard," Ray Beldner. Sewn US currency (after Jeff Koons's Rabbit, 1986)

If my gallerinas and I said it once, we said it 100 times a day — “Please don’t touch the money bunny!” There’s no denying that there’s something cuddly about Ray Beldner’s rabbit made out of sewn dollar bills. Maybe it’s the tilted head and the carrot that screams “pat the bunny!” And then you read the wall label and take note of the title, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, and suddenly it’s not so cuddly.

Commentary on the nature of the art market and the subsequent commoditization of art and artist, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard attacks the blue-chip popular artist Jeff Koons while asking the question: what makes a work of art valuable — the artist, the medium, the subject, or the market?

The soft sculpture effectively renders the dollar bills useless as currency. The bills are no longer tradeable on the market they were designed for. They enter a new market with a new value — as art. Each bill is meaningless. Their value exists only stitched together as an entire work of art. Their value becomes what a collector will pay for them as a unit entitled Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, by Ray Beldner.

Meanwhile the piece asks a number of other questions:

Is Jeff Koons a sell-out — sculpting lite subjects that people want to buy — or a veritable “Pop-Artist” whose work actually comments on the nature of the art collecting as its being collected?

And then again, what about Ray Beldner? Where does he fit in? Is he capitalizing on another artist’s reputation? Is his copy of a popular sculpture a work of art, a statement, or simply a pile of mutilated, worthless dollar-bills?

Fencers Step Out to Save Lives

On September 17th, members of the Fencing Masters NYC team joined forces with Esmeralda Williamson-Noble to raise awareness about suicide and to promote mental health and well-being. At the inaugural Get Your Wellness On! fair fencing was presented as a form of “alternative healing” — a sport that strengthens both the mind and body while also providing a supportive community people can turn to in times of need.

Members of Team Fencing Masters NYC at the Get Your Wellness On Fair (Kathleen, Kurt, Tim, Daria, Melvin)

Inspired once again by Esmeralda’s endeavors, Fencing Masters NYC stepped out on the town on October 28th to use the sport of fencing to help save lives.  After losing their infant son Alexander to SIDS, Esmeralda and her husband Hugh began the Windflower Charity Ball as a fundraiser for First Candle. Over a decade later, the well-attended Charity Gala, with its live and silent auctions, is the organization’s major annual fund-raising event.

To help First Candle in its efforts to unite parents, caregivers and researchers nationwide to advance infant health and survival, the Fencing Masters NYC co-chairs (Tim Morehouse, Daria Schneider, & Kathleen Reckling) donated 2 VIP tickets to our Hammerstein Ballroom event on November 17th. To compliment the auction winner’s introduction to fencing, Olympic Silver Medalist Tim Morehouse donated an hour fencing lesson.

Tim poses with the auction item winner! His 5 daugthers can't wait for their fencing lesson with Tim or to attend Fencing Masters NYC on Nov. 17th

The total package was valued at $750… and as the night began, Tim and Kathleen crossed their fingers! Please! Someone! Bid on us!

Do we have $500? Yes!

How about $1,000? Yes!

Can we have $1,250? Sure!

What about $1,500? SOLD!

At the end of the night, we had met several former fencers and children of fencers — a neat reminder that everyone does in fact know someone who fences. The most exciting parts of the evening? Seeing the Fencing Masters NYC donation become one of the few lots to exceed its estimated value and watching the sport of fencing raise $1,500 for First Candle and SIDS research.

Tim & I were honored to be the Williamson-Nobles’ guests and were proud our donation was able to support First Candle”s mission to “provide every baby with the best possible chance to survive and thrive.”

For those of us working on Fencing Masters NYC, there is nothing more invigorating than sharing fencing and using it to serve others. The auction results are a testament to the power sport has to do good in the community — an athlete doesn’t have to be a Peyton Manning or a Lance Armstrong to raise awareness for a cause, they just have to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Why Blogging Matters

Nearly 6 months ago, I wrote about my beloved dog Jessie, about how she chose to be part of my family and how eventually we had to choose to let her leave this life. Last night, a man named Greg found that now long-ago post. “I’m scanning and commenting on posts made by fellow dog lovers because it must be therapeutic in some way,” he wrote.  He recently lost his 6-year old Irish Terrier and was “reaching out to others who understand.”

Greg’s comment got me thinking. Isn’t that what blogging is really all about — reaching out to others who understand? I went back and looked in my leather-bound journal. I never wrote about Jessie there. I guess when she passed, I needed to share my loss with something less solitary than a diary.

Why do we blog? Because sometimes we need to share something personal with something less solitary than a journal.

A year ago, a young man I knew died by suicide. As a way to both cope with her grief and to provide a support network for others touched by suicide, his mother launched a blog called “Forever Invictus.” One day, she posted a proposal to hold a suicide prevention/wellness  fair in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Readers from around the country rallied together to help her realize this vision. On September 17, 2010, the first “Get Your Wellness On!” event welcomed over 1,000 participants and saved a life. The event was organized and executed by a group of people who met for the first time the morning of the fair, but had already known each other only through Esmeralda’s blog.

Tim is an Olympic Silver Medalist in fencing. He has a blog too. So does Maria, a literature teacher in Italy. They don’t talk about death. Tim talks about fencing, about traveling around the world as he prepares for London 2012, about chilling with Apolo Anton Ohno. Tim’s blog has become an online venue where the American fencing community, a diverse and dispersed group of people who share a sport, can congregate and get caught up on the latest news or pick up some training tips. Maria’s blog “Fly High” is an online book & movie club for Jane Austen and Richard Armitage fans around the world. We hang out on Fly High and gush about our love for 19th century British literature and its 21st century screen adaptations.

When I started blogging, I was really only in it for myself. I wanted to write about me. I wanted people to read my writing. I wanted someone to love my writing enough to offer me a book deal. My alter-ego blog, “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband,” has been more successful in this endeavor. It’s where I write about the way we love and are expected to love now. Thousands of WordPress readers responded to my post “You Borrowed My Dylan CD and Stole My Heart, I’d Like them Back Now Please” — a little piece about reclaiming the intangibles when a relationship ends. It seems every past relationship leaves a trail of damaged songs in its wake.

Reading Greg’s comment put Esmeralda’s and Tim’s blogs and the outpouring of response to “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband” in perspective. Turns out, when I write about myself, I’m writing about you, and him, and her too. While blogs may be the vanguard of political analysis or the source for the latest entertainment news, at the end of the day, blogging is about community — at the end of the day, we want to read about things we can relate to. Bloggers and their posts remind us all that, no matter how unique each of our lives are, living is a common experience. In this digital community of words and comments, there’s always someone we can reach out to who understands.

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