You Gotta Have Art

Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.
Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.

For years, my mother kept a button exactly like the one pictured above tucked in a secretary desk in her bedroom. The desk was quite small and finished in country white, with an old-fashioned brass keyhole which was never locked. I would sneak into the room and unfold the desk, revealing all its odd treasures. My mother’s address book was kept there, bulging with notes and corners torn from Christmas card envelopes–so many that she held it shut with an oversized rubber band. There were also cubbies filled with neat little piles of precious papers, an empty jelly jar of dull pencils…and that button.

I looked at the button a lot. I remember its exact size and weight, the sharp barb of the pin. It was not the safety pin sort, but the kind that always protrudes, stabbing mindlessly at curious fingers.

When I consider it now, it is strange how much attention I paid to the little knick-knack. I suppose it looks impossibly mundane, but I loved it. You do gotta have art, I knew. We all knew. Between four siblings, we have studied modern dance, ballet, and theater, violin, piano, painting, photography, string bass, electric bass, viola, clarinet, drums. We got that message. And I loved the pun–“you gotta have heart”–another message taught repeatedly. But the pin’s motto had yet another layer for our family; my father’s name is Art.

We needed art and heart and Art.

I’ve been thinking about that button because my father would have been 85 today, and it is the first birthday to pass without him. As expected, I still need him.

I was a little tender already, then, when I took our three ailing foster kittens in for yet another vet appointment this morning. They have giardia, and though medicated, it’s not improving. One has eye infections, and one started bleeding. Caring for them has been nerve-wracking–they are so tiny, so fragile–and a pain in the neck. I never knew that diarrhea could be tracked up walls, on sinks, floors, doors, cabinets. Up the sides of the cat carrier. Matted in furry tails and feet and backs. How do you get poop on your back, my wee pals? Consequently, we’ve been laundering and bleaching the downstairs three times a day, and still can’t keep up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the vet told me they would keep the kittens at the shelter instead of sending them back home with me. I should have been relieved.

Instead, I was shocked. My anxiety and love for the kittens, plus the frustration that I couldn’t help them, suddenly got confused with my overwhelming grief for my father, and I stood there, eyes welling over the exam table.

The vet smiled and closed the cat carrier. “Say goodbye to the kitties,” she said. “Nice and quick like a bandaid.” And that was it.

I walked out to the parking lot and sat in the car until I could see well enough to drive.

But unlike the proverbial bandaid, the sting has lingered all day.

 

 

 

Illumination

From Illumination. This is an audio installation in the psych ward of the prison hospital. This part of Alcatraz is normally closed to the public.
From Illumination, an audio installation in the psych ward of the prison hospital–part of Alcatraz which is normally closed to the public.

“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”

— Ai Weiwei

After driving carpools to schools on opposite ends of town last Thursday morning, I put a feline fecal sample on ice in the trunk–oh! my glamorous life!–and made my way through the pouring rain toward Pier 39. As a San Francisco resident, I avoid that part of town like the plague. It’s crowded, kitschy, and leaves me feeling swindled and somewhat culpable. Did you make your way from some other continent to eat substandard, overpriced clam chowder out of a sourdough bowl? I’m sorry. I am.

This time it was worth the effort and the heinous traffic, however. This time I was accompanying an art class on a field trip to the Ai Weiwei exhibition on Alcatraz.

It had felt like an indefensible luxury to take time from what I was supposed to be doing–working, tending to three sick foster kittens, preparing my presentation for the next day. What business did I have squandering four hours on art?

What I had forgotten is that art is not a luxury at all.

Art is good for the soul. Making it, viewing it, contemplating it, discussing it. It is the means for communication when mere words cannot convey what needs to be said. Art can speak truth to power, it can enlighten, it can challenge; it can soothe or amuse or complement the sofa. I’m not saying that all art is important, but rather that being able to do it and see it and think about it is vital. Where Ai Weiwei lives, his ability to make art is tenuous. He has been imprisoned and, after his release, continually harassed. His studio has been torn down by the local government in Beijing. He is forbidden to leave China.

I recall being in a snit once in art school, stressed out about some goofy project I had concocted–making portraits of George Bush by drizzling motor oil, of all things. “What am I doing noodling around in the garage while people are starving out there in the world?” I lamented to a friend. And she responded, “What sort of world would it be without any art?”

I think we both have a point.

Though unable to leave his country, Ai has somehow managed to create a provocative and politically charged show at a provocative and politically charged place. There are kites and legos and audio installations. You can sit in a cell and hear orchestral compositions written in a concentration camp or, a few cells down, hear songs by Fela Kuti, and the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. You can read about the charges against 176 political prisoners and exiles from around the world, and write them letters while sitting in the prison dining hall. These are “the heroes of our time,” as Ai says. They have had the courage to speak up, and they are paying a high price.

Ai Weiwei’s vision has landed on our windowsill. Go and see it if you can. 1.4 billion people will never lay eyes on it.

The head of the main kite in With Wind.
The head of the main kite in With Wind.
From Trace, comprised of 176 portraits made from Legos.
From Trace, comprised of 176 portraits made from Legos.
Stay Tuned.
From Stay Tuned. It seemed to me that the walls were singing.

 

Bird by Bird

A different bird.
A different bird.                                                                                            ©2012 Beret Olsen

I was up half the night for reasons unbeknownst to me, then startled early from my sliver of sleep by the odd thumps of an imaginary intruder. Heart pounding, I dismissed my fears, forcing myself to lie still as a board for another forty-five minutes.

Today, bleary-eyed and unproductive, I parceled 15 minutes to close my eyes and breathe. My plan? To reboot and arise again, convincing myself I felt refreshed and clearheaded. But the second my head touched the pillow, the strangest sound curdled in my cat’s throat. Next thing I knew, a flailing blob of black fur hurled itself across the room and a small bird began dive-bombing my eyes. Swell.

Clearly a moment of zen was out of the question. Instead, I heaved myself back into a vertical position and set about finding the bird. I had to get that creature out of the house before the cat disemboweled it on the bed.

The weird thing was, I couldn’t find it. The cat was no help, either. She was just as perplexed as I was.

How long are you supposed to look for a trapped bird?

Eventually I gave up and settled back in front of the computer to knock out some work.

After five minutes of relative peace, there was a little scrambling sound, followed by something hopping on my foot.

You might imagine that the problem was now solved–bird located!–except it can be quite a production to convince a bird to try the open door rather than flying into shelving units and closed windows. It’s like trying to shepherd a drunk friend out of a party, and they keep curling up on a pile of shoes or wandering off into a closet.

Later, I found myself ruminating on the frequent appearance of birds. They are everywhere for me these days. I hear them mentioned in a turn of phrase, a discussion of Halloween costumes, or see one staring at me while I eat breakfast. Two surfed on the hood of my car for a block or two after I stopped for coffee recently. I suppose I shouldn’t mention that the bird pictured above was killed in a brutal showdown in my bedroom and then hidden by my triumphant feline friend. I didn’t find that poor soul for a few weeks. And that’s not all. Almost every book I have read in the past few months has featured birds…including:

  • Little Bird of Heaven–Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt (Not finished. No spoilers!)
  • Ocean at the End of the Lane–Neil Gaiman
  • Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott
  • Imperfect Birds–Anne Lamott

Even Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, had a chapter about a parrot that I read and reread repeatedly throughout the summer. And on my book list to read next? When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I swear. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also read Gone Girl, which has no significant bird that I recall).

If they were all crows, I would assume something terrible were about to befall me. I’m hoping I attract birds for a more benign reason. Perhaps I smell like a flower, or a heap of birdseed.

In any event, it’s time to get a feeder and a bell for the cat.

Home

My assignment today: shoot “home.”

©Beret Olsen 2014
©2014 Beret Olsen

I was desperate to avoid a Hallmark moment, so I turned my camera lens toward the ugliest place I could think of–my sink full of dirty dishes.

I started photographing the surface bubbles in a pan full of oil and water, switching eventually to manual focus. Suddenly, it was possible to see the dying daisies in the window reflected and refracted in the bubbles. Despite my best efforts, then, I was overcome by my own homemade Hallmark moment. Taking a breath, looking slowly and deeply into the bottom of this messy life barrel, I found something of wonder.

Strange bedfellows: Renaissance painting and indie music

A few months ago, I wrote a post responding to a video which I failed to embed properly. Apologies. I suppose it was inevitable that Zero to Hero would challenge me to figure out that mess. I went back and fixed the problem–I think.

For my month of blog fine-tuning–c.f.,  Zero to Hero–I’m supposed to write something which includes embedded media. In honor of this occasion, I have decided to share something that has snagged in the corner of my brain. It is not the usual Bad Parenting fare.

I’m being haunted by a music video.

I find the song mesmerizing. The lyrics are just inscrutable enough to tantalize my imagination. The melody is intoxicating, and the mix is perfect–complicated, well-balanced. What is bugging me is the video itself. I’m still trying to figure out what they were thinking.
The set and arrangement of characters were modeled after what is perhaps Raphael’s best-known painting, a fresco he did at the Vatican called The School of Athens.

School of Athens, from wikipedia.
School of Athens, from wikipedia.

This painting supposedly includes “every great Greek philosopher,” which means everyone from Socrates and Plato to Euclid and Pythagoras. I don’t know any contemporary Greek philosophers, but it doesn’t matter:  the painting was done in the 16th century, so I’m off the hook.

School of Athens was part of a series that was supposed to illustrate a progression from reason (Western philosophy) to revelation (Christianity), and to show how they worked  together–an idea that has been lost in these days of intelligent design vs. evolution.

But what characters has alt-J put in their video? These are not meant to be philosophers. And why did alt-J choose to put this particular cast in dialogue with art history and religion? After a very un-scientific search, the best I could find was an off-hand comment about wanting to set contemporary figures from a “lower socio-economic status” into Raphael’s famous work. Fine. But these are not “poor people,” per se; these are stereotypes from gangster culture:  the liquor in a paper bag, throwing dice, ferocious dogs, big earrings, wife beater t-shirts, heavy chains, spandex dresses. I look at pictures of members of the band and wonder:  what are these pasty white guys trying to say? Are they trying to offer commentary on class and culture? Or simply show off their liberal arts degrees from Leeds?

The lyrics have not helped illuminate this conundrum:

“Three guns and one goes off
One’s empty, one’s not quick enough
One burn, one red, one grin
Search the graves while the camera spins

Chunks of you will sink down to seals
Blubber rich in mourning, they’ll nosh you up
Yes, they’ll nosh the love away but it’s fair to say
You will still haunt me”

The video makes no sense to me, and borders on offensive. If this is what they think poverty looks like, I find it terribly condescending. Kind of like when Miley pops in a grill and acts out her impression of African Americans. Awkward, at best, but likely much, much worse.

At the same time, I can’t stop listening to the song or watching the video in question, so who am I to judge?

****

p.s. I did find out where they got the band name. Press alt-J on your keyboard and you’ll get ∆:  the triangle that appears in their video and as their logo. Triangles are their favorite shape.

Let There Be Light

©2013 Beret Olsen
©2013 Beret Olsen

It was a woeful moment.

I was worn thin from an epic day at work. Chilled, tired, and hungry, my couch was calling.

Unfortunately, in order to sit on it, I first had to conquer the Bay Bridge during Friday night rush hour traffic. For added excitement, it was the first rainy day of the season, which is typically when everyone spontaneously forgets how to operate a moving vehicle. I really, really did not want to make the drive.

I sat in the car, listening to the rain and to some extremely sad songs. As I was following the lyrics in the semi-darkness, I began to notice the rain falling over the words. Then, after a minute or two, the wipers would cut across the page, leaving a blazing trail of light.

I sat and watched for eons. No doubt the folks in the neighborhood thought I was on some sort of stake-out.

This was a shot that needed a tripod and a decent camera–and FILM, for crying out loud–but I was smushed into the driver’s seat and all I had was my phone. I took the photograph anyway. It can serve as a visual reminder:

In the midst of just about any moment–no matter how stressful, or annoying, or banal–there is often something amazing right in front of my face.

Fifty-Nine Years and Thirty-Four Days Ago

©2010 Beret Olsen
©2010 Beret Olsen

A bookish fellow
Studied God on weekdays,
Then made his way to Chaska,
To woo the schoolmarm there.

Mercifully patient,
He waited six months of Sundays
For an answer
To his question.

Instead, they wandered the cold town,
Discussing only anything else,
Turning back before it was too dark
Or too late.

They parted ways then,
She to pore over lesson plans,
He to wend his way to the boarding house
Beside the tracks.

He wondered,
Hardly daring to sleep,
While freight trains thundered
Through the wee hours,
Through his thoughts,
Shaking the tiny, strange bed.

At long last:
Yes.

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A note from Beret:  I wrote the preceding piece in response to a photo prompt posted on 100 word story. They post a new prompt each month…plus it’s chock full of amazing 100-word stories, as you might imagine.