Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

My hometown is Vandalia, IL, which is the former state capital and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. U.S. 40 follows the National Road’s pathway. About eight miles east of Vandalia, you can discover the site of the first post office in Fayette County’s Cumberland Township (later called Otego Twp.), and the site of two pumps—-one for people and one for horses—that had existed in pioneer days.

My friend Mary Burtschi (1911-2009) was a devoted local historian of Vandalia. She was one of the major reasons I became interested in local history. In her book Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln’s Land (1963), she writes:

“In 1828 the mile stretch through the bottom land east of the Kaskaskia River [at Vandalia] was still heavily timbered. It was a tremendous undertaking clearing the sixty-six foot strip through underbrush and forest trees of such gigantic size. The roadbed itself was only thirty feet wide. Both oxen and horses were used to pull the huge stumps around which chains were fastened. The workers grumbled; it was too much physical exertion and they felt they were poorly paid. A song or rhyme that has been handed down describes the wretched condition of the pike:

“The roads are impassable—Hardly jackass able:
I think those that travel ‘em
Should turn out and gravel ‘em.

“Past the Statehouse square rolled the wheels of Conestoga wagons carrying settlers into a new life and hauling freight into a frontier territory and stagecoaches carrying travelers who would view the new land and then return home to sing its praises or to disparage the glowing accounts that had been written about it. A parade of critical visitors wanting to see the new democracy at work on the frontier cam through Vandalia. Many were convinced that the emotional religion at the camp meetings, the insolence of servants, and the free-for-alls in the grog-shops were too much for the educated man to tolerate. The impressions of the road and of the town recorded by these travelers is a part of Vandalia history.”

Mary quotes according from the German writer Frederck Gustorf, Edmund Flagg, and William Oliver, the latter noting an execrable well along the road. She continues:

“The ‘execrable well’ of which Oliver speaks was probably not the Twin Pumps on the Cumberland Road, located six miles east of Vandalia. Ezra Griffith, who came to this area in 1830, built the first frame house in Cumberland Township. The building, erected in 1835, contained the Cumberland Post Office, a store, and living quarters for the Griffith family. Across the road on the north side stood the wooden Twin Pumps with a horse trouble, hewn out of logs, at each one. The pump on the inside of the fence was used by the Griffith family for stock; the other on the outside of the fence was used by the traveler. Mr. Griffith maintained the pumps and provided a tin cup for the traveler to use. On the south side of the road for a quarter of a mile extended a line of shady locust trees. Here the traveler stopped to water his horses and to rest under the shade.” (pp. 145-146, 148)

Not long ago, I was over in my home area, Fayette County, IL, to take photos for the cover of an upcoming poetry book, and to photograph a few tombstones for the Find-a-Grave site. I visited the Pilcher Cemetery and the Griffith Cemetery, both in Otego Township; the two cemeteries represent much of my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother Crawford was a lifelong resident of Otego Twp. (and is buried in the Pilcher); she was friends with members of the Griffith family, like Chester Griffith who attended her church (and was a source for Mary’s history above). I think Ezra Griffith may have been a brother of my 3-great-grandmother Esther Washburn, but I’ve not proven that; the Griffith and Washburn families settled the area at about the same time.


Coming back out onto U.S. 40 from the Griffith Cemetery road, I took a picture of the little area that had been the site of the Twin Pumps. But I also photographed the memorial to the site had been erected across the highway on the south side. It’s been there a few years but I’d not taken the time to photograph it.


It was a beautiful, sunny summer morning, and I remembered again why the summer of 1974 was so important to me. I was a teenager and driving the seen-better-days ’63 Chevy that had been Dad’s stepfather’s. I was completing two genealogy projects: a family history of the Mom’s family, and also a record of all the tombstone inscriptions in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, IL, where much of my mom’s side of the family are buried. (I write about my hometown roots and genealogy projects in other essays on this blog.)

To do the work, I started in the morning. I put on shorts and tank top but I figured that solitary hours spent walking in the grass didn’t require shoes, so I didn’t even bring them along. A visitor to the cemetery one day didn’t expect to see a barefoot, longhaired young man examining tombstones and carrying a clipboard.

One morning, driving down IL 185, I had an emotional experience of belonging, a sureness that I would always feel a deep connection to this place: my hometown Vandalia and the surrounding Fayette County. (My main blog has a photo of the area of that highway.) During the ensuing years, my home area has been (to use Frank Zappa’s phrase) a conceptual continuity for me. All the history teaching and writing that I’ve done connect to the summers I did local genealogy projects. And all the Bible-related and religious work that I’ve done (including most of my eighteen books) relate back to my grandma Crawford (buried in that cemetery), who inspired me to do genealogy and first got me interested in the Bible and spirituality in a very preliminary way that bloomed a year or two later.

Places like Twin Pumps are important for local history and for all my own modest efforts during the past forty-some years.


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Recently I came across the term “ruin porn” in a New York Times article. I know this kind of non-erotic but addictive pleasure: the fascination with decrepit buildings and ugly landscapes. In fact, when I was a little boy, I loved the sign of automobile “junk yards” along highways as my parents and I traveled. (My parents dashed my fascination by reminding me that each wrecked car represents someone injured or killed.) I’ve also recently discovered the concept of urban exploration, or Urbex, the practice of discovering and documenting places that are in decline or abandoned, or unseen because they’re part of the urban infrastructure.

I’ve written about abandoned landscapes, for instance, here: https://paulstroble.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/sav-mart-memories/ The other day, as my daughter and I browsed the local Art Mart, I discovered among the book selection a new book by Tong Lam, Abandoned Futures (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013).

Lam is a visual artist and historian who, according to his website, uses cinematographic and photographic techniques “to explore and document industrial and postindustrial ruins from around the world, as well as China’s hysterical transformation.” He researches “modern and contemporary China and East Asia, technoscience, media and spectacle, ruins, colonialism, and nationalism.” He is an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto. His websites are http://photography.tonglam.com/#/home?i=279 and http://www.tonglam.com/home.html

This interesting book captures a variety of abandoned and decaying landcapes. As the blurb on Amazon indicates, the despairing and apocalyptic images do contain hope, in the way trees and other flora return to the human-built scenes and begin to thrive.

I hate to use the word “haunting,” which seems overused, but it’s the word that comes to mind as I leaf through Lam’s photographs: futuristic UFO-shaped vacation homes in Taiwan, a factory, the abandoned island-city Hashima in southern Japan (used in the James Bond movie Skyfall, a “non-place” of thousands of discarded cars and vehicles in the Mojave Desert, buildings in ruined sections of Detroit, an empty carnival, a closed Bible college and seminary in southern Arizona, and others.

Lam’s commentary is important and thought-provoking, and should be taken to heart. For instance, he writes, “in many liberal democracies, government deficits and the retreat of the welfare state have resulted in service cuts and hospital closures…the most curious type of medical ruins are those highly specialized facilities that are suddenly rendered irrelevant as a result of paradigm shifts in medical science.” (The book has no page numbers; this is from chapter 9, “Maximizing Life”). Other kinds of ruins happen because they were made cheaply with no intention of long lives, and so buildings are discarded sometimes before they were completed; consequently, decline happens not over centuries but in a few decades or a few years (chapter 1, “Time Speeds Up”).

“Financial capital may be abstract, but the ruins it created are real. From the Global North to the Global South, the tsunami of financial capitalism sweeps away job security and certainties, destroying cities and lives… it turns out that Capitalism 2.0 has not gotten any smarter” (chapter 8, “Bubbles”).

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Here is a talk that I gave last month to our local interfaith breakfast group. My theme was sacred places in religious traditions.

A few years ago I wrote this book of Christian devotional theology: You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Upper Room Books, 2006). The subject is the spirituality of the sense of place. I began with the observation that, although I received quite a bit of religious instruction as a kid, attending Sunday school at our small town church in Vandalia, IL, my most ongoing sense of religious feeling that rooted everything else was the physical space of our small church. I wondered about how the sense of place informs our religious feelings.

The title comes from Psalm 18, and my explorations had to do with ways that God creates spiritual place in our lives in the context of specific physical places.

I asked several friends to share places in their lives that they specially associate with religious growth or religious insight, whether or not it was a “big” spiritual experience. One friend talked about her college dorm room being a special place of religious growth and reorientation following her brother’s suicide. Several people recalled family farms and rural places, and several remembered places of particular beauty, like the ocean and the mountains. Another friend even talked about the way she hid under her bed as a child to get away from her loud brothers and began to feel God’s presence in the comfort of that room.

I also talked about difficult places, like accident sites or places associated with some disaster, like battlefields and the like. Cemeteries generally can be sacred places in this informal scene, but of tragedy and comfort.

For this group, I decided to dig a little more into the subject before coming back around to personal sacred places.

There are a number of “big” spiritual places,” which I didn’t really consider in this book but which are part of our religious heritage.

In his article “The Temple Mount as Sacred Space,” Tzi Freeman notes that the Bible contains what he calls “dual systems,” like Heaven and earth, G-d and humans, Creator and created, etc. Sometimes they meet, and these we might call the sacred places beloved in different world religions.

In Judaism, for instance, there is the Temple Mount, said to be the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, the threshing floor that David purchased from Araunah the Jebusite, and the site of the two Temples. It is the place where where God chose the divine Presence in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Of course, the Temple’s destruction is mourned on Tisha B’Av, and Jews do not walk on the Mount itself. There are also four holy cities associated with different times in Jewish life: Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius.

In Christianity, sacred sites include those in Jerusalem and Israel associated with Jesus’ life.

The holiest sites common to all Muslims are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Specific holy places are the Grand Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Nabawi) in Medina, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The site on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque sites, along with the Dome of the Rock, is also called the Noble Sanctuary and is the Temple Mount in Jewish heritage. The holiest sites in Shia Islam are the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, and the Imam Husayn Shrine with the Al Abbas Mosque in Karbala.

The most sacred place in Sikhism is the Sir Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

For Baha’is, the shrine of Bah’u’llah in Mahji near Acre Israel is the holiest site and the Qiblih, that is, the direction of prayer. The second holiest is the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa.

In Neo-Druidism, Stonehenge is a key holy site, and also Glastonbury.

In Hinduism there are tirthas, or places of pilgrimage. Benares (Varanasi) is the most famous and sone of several holy towns. There are seven ancient holy towns: Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, and Sabarimala, Kerala are said to be the most major Pilgrim cities in Hinduism. Of these, Varanasi (also known as Benares) in Uttar Pradesh is considered the Holiest ancient site and it is considered by many to be the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.

Among Buddhist sacred places are sites associated with Gautama Buddha: the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India; Kushinagar, India; Lumbini, Nepal; and Sarnath, India. There are also stupa, a mound-like structure that contains relics like the ashes of a monk. These are places of meditation.

In the LDS Church, there are several sacred places in history: the grove where Joseph Smith experienced the presence of God and Christ; the Hill Cumorah where the sacred records were hidden, locations of other of Smith’s spiritual experiences, and LDS Temples.

Theology about Places

Even though we identify sacred places among reliigous traditions, the theological distinctions about their sanctity differ.

In Judaism, the Tabernacle was a holy place which was safeguarded by limiting access to it, only priests entered it, and after the Temple was built, only the High Priest could enter the innermost place, and only on Yom Kippur.

There is of course no longer a Jerusalem Temple, and synagogues do not replace it. Synagogues are consecrated spaces that can be used only for the purpose of prayer, but a synagogue is not necessary for worship. Worship can be carried out alone or with less than a minyan, and communal Jewish worship can be carried out wherever ten Jews (a minyan) assemble. Worship can also be carried out alone or with fewer than ten people assembled together. However there are certain prayers that are communal prayers and therefore can be recited only by a minyan.

But Judaism also considers Shabbat a sacred place in time, an inherently holy place that does not exist in space.

In Islam, what is called the Bayt al-Ma`mur (the Much-frequented House) is located in the seventh firmament, which is the House around which those in the heavens circumambulate. This heavenly House is directly above the earthly Ka’ba and is the template for the Ka’ba, so that the Ka’ba is in turn a replica of the heavenly house where angels circumambulate, providing an important “axis mundi”. Yet this is not the place of direct communication with God nor the place of only a select few, but is rather the axis mundi and, of course, the qibla for prayer.

In Christianity, although places associated with Jesus’ life are often called holy places, there are not requirements for Christians to visit these, as there is in Islam with the pillar of the hajj. You could say that in Christianity, Jesus himself is the holy “place,” present in the sacraments. For instance, when Catholics have eucharistic adoration, they affirm that Christ is right here and present in this place.

In Hinduism, temples are sacred because human have access to the gods, who are present there. At the center of the temple is the murti, or the physical image of the deity, which in turn is considered to be and treated as the living god who is attended to by worshipers. Believers can thus behold, or take darshan, of the deity, because the diety can be simulaneously and fully present in many and possibly an infinite number of different places.

Legendarily, Ashoka divided the ashes of Siddhartha and distributed them to 84,000 stupas through his realm, so that the land of Buddhism is filled with these holy places. Some believed that the enlightened mind of the person enshrined there continued at that place. Over the years, stupas were themselves ocnsidered manifestations of the sacred world. The Great Temple at Borobudur in Java, Inonesia is a series of stupas, where pilgrims circumambulate.

In the LDS Church, LDS temples are the fullest expression of sacred space, into which only church members in good standing and with a temple recommend may enter. But LDS chapels are also places of saccred ritual, without restriction of entry, and family homes are also places where the Holy Ghost can be present.

Religion as unconnected to a particular place.

As I was working on this talk, I was very intrigued by the thesis of Yi Fu Tuan, who argues that, in a very strong sense that religion is antithetical, to sacred places. (Religion: From Place to Placelessness. Text by Yi-Fu Tuan. Photographs and Essays by Martha A. Strawn. Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2009.)

One way that religion is antithetical to sacred space, is the prohibition against idolatry, which would include any notion of localizing the presence of God. Certainly a major aspect of the Ka’ba is that the Prophet Muhammad removed all idolatry from the place so that it could be wholly devoted to Allah who is never identified with any earthly thing.

Another sense of religion’s opposition to sacred place is the theological assertion that God encompasses all places. For instance, in Chinese religion, there is specification of levels of heaven and of Pure Lands. But the vastness of the universe in Hinduism and the Abrahamic religions aren’t necessarily plotted. For instance, Tuan notes, in the Comedy of Dante, Hell is geographical but Heaven is not.

In Native spirituality, too, is a belief in balance and mutuality among beings, which includes the sun and moon, meteorological phenomena, and features of the earth. “All these beings are imbued with power; all are alive in some sense.” Many locations can be sacred places, “filled with numinous aura…. alive by virtue of the narratives nad the rituals that may accompany them.” Likewise, common to the Chinese, there is a notion of cardinal points. Chinese, however, have less stress on narrative.

In Europe, however, we do not have this “clear notion of cosmic space demarcated by the cardinal points,” but rather a universe created by God in which God still acts. Thus churches can be built anywhere, because no particular natural places are specifically sacred.

Interestingly, Tuan notes that although Christianity places great stress upon the life story of Jesus, there is less stress than in Native spirituality upon the landscape, since he was always moving around. (Also, one might add, there isn’t necessarily unanimity of conviction about sites. For instance there are two traditional sites of Jesus’ tomb.)

In Christianity, too, worshipers focus not so much on places but upon worshiping “the Father in spirit and truth,” as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John. Thus, the community is broadened to encompass many places—but also to transcend time and space, since the community of Christ includes the dead as well as the living. And, like Jesus, early Christians moved around and were not very localized. Christians were called “pilgrims” in early antiquity, people who were literally or figuratively on the move, dis-placed.” One could draw a comparison with arhats in Theravada Buddhism: monks who are rootless rather than rooted to a specific place.

Judaism of coruse has no place of intrinsic holiness: that was the Temple, destroyed in 70 AD. Now, any clean room that contains Torah scrools and in which a minyan can worship becomes Makom Kadosh, or Holy Space. I began my little book with the observation that the Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as “place” because God is “the place of the world.” A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

Sacred Space As Many Places

The author Peter Knobel writes, “Sacred Space is where God dwells and hearts are moved.” There is the Holy Place (mikdash) of the Temple where God dwelled, and also there is the holy space in the hearts of people who are moved to zedaqah. He points to ways that Jews can create “a whole space so that God can dwell among us, perhaps in ways that create Jewish identity and community via streaming services and online education, a “synagogue without borders”

Knobel raises a different understanding of sacred space: Holy Place as the site of good deeds. But this understanding verifies Tuan’s thesis that religion is antithetical to place, for (as in Quran 2:177), piety can happen anywhere, not just in specific places, and piety can possibly be anonymous and private, known only to God.

There is also a sense that story-telling facilitates the drive toward placelessness. We may not go to a specific place with intrinsic holiness, but we can retell the story. In important ways that shifts the “location” of sacredness” to time over place, analogous to the Jewish sabbath. In my Upper Room Books study, I discussed how personal locations become “sacred”: our own sacred places become personal locations that are in turn connected to the narratives of our religious traditions. These locations are identifiable in place terms but also temporal terms: for instance, the way I experienced a deep spiritual experience of peace and healing in the summer of 1996 in a particular but very mundane location.

So our contemporary understanding of sacred space/place are complex. (1) There are locations in religious traditions that are very key within the narrative and historical existence of those traditions, and that narrative-historical existence in turn points us to, or intersects with, the spiritual world in ways understood differently in each tradition. And (2) there can be an infinite variety of more personal and communal sacred places, because they are not only connected to the sacred religious narratives but also the personal narrative of each believer’s heart.

(At this point I opened for questions from our group. Several people, reflecting a spectrum of religious traditions, commented on their own understandings of sacred place. The idea of Sabbath as a “place” lead to some interesting discussions. Connected to Knobel’s idea, we also thought about how the internet can create “virtual sacred places” “without borders,” for instance @Virtual_Abbey on Twitter, and others.)

S. R. Burge, “Angels, Ritual and Sacred Space in Islam.” Comparative Islamic Studies 5.2. (209) 221-245. Accessed at equinoxonline.

Peter S. Knobel, “Sacred Space is Where God Dwells and Hearts are Moved.” http://www.reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/trumah/sacred-space-where-god-dwells-and-hearts-are-moved

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Small Town America, by photographer David Plowden, is a favorite book. I wrote and published this review in Springhouse several years ago. The book was published by Henry N. Abrams, Inc. in 1994 (price $49.95) and although it’s no longer in print, it is available via Amazon sellers and used book sites.(1)

The American small town remains fixed in our imaginations. Those of us who have left small hometowns lament, paradoxically, at the changing social forces that beset small communities. Qualities remain fresh in our minds: the excitement that once typified the small business districts; the perceived slowness of time and pace; the ability to conduct serious business transactions on a first-name, handshake basis; the neighborliness along with the provinciality; the easy association of names and families; the lack of privacy that contrasts with the often-preferred anonymity of urban and suburban existence.

When I originally wrote this review in 1996, I had just self-published a set of previously-published essays in a little book Journeys Home. Therein, I remembered my mostly happy childhood in a small southern Illinois town, Vandalia, IL. In the years since I’ve continued to write about my home places, interjecting stories in otherwise my books with topics unrelated to the small-town theme. To use Frank Zappa’s term, the small town (and the larger themes of place and of human community) have comprised my “conceptual continuity.” If you have a similar kind of loyalty to your small town roots, you’ll appreciate Plowden’s words and pictures.

In spite of their seeming simplicity, small towns are very complex places, both in terms of social dynamics and in their potential for varied portraiture. In his introduction to Plowden’s book, David McCullough, author of acclaimed historical biographies, notes how different are the portraits of small towns among works by writers like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and Larry McMurtry (not to mention, he notes such different movies as It’s a Wonderful Life and Blue Velvet). Several photographers, like Quinta Scott (Route 66: The Highway and Its People, 1988, text by Susan Croce Kelly), Drake Hokansen (The Lincoln Highway, 1991), Richard Avedon (In the American West, 1983), and the novelist and photographer Wright Morris (The Home Place, 1947, Photographs and Words, 1991) have published haunting photographs of small town people and places.

In this book, David Plowden has brought together 111 photographs of small towns, taken over 25 years, into a composite portrait of “any town” U.S.A. Plowden has published several collections of his photographs. In the accompanying essay, Plowden recalls Putney, Vermont, where he was born in 1932. Liveries, general stores, “tonsorial parlors,” grist mills, and blacksmiths of the town had, by the time of his childhood, largely given way to barbershops and small cafes, local telephone operators who handled all incoming and outgoing calls, busy railroad stations, and a variety of downtown stores. Transactions were informal and trusting. One’s private affairs were public knowledge. The late-1800s facades of the business district featured modern signs more suitable for ubiquitous automobiles. Change inevitably comes, with interstate highways, Wal-Marts, and other franchises. The postwar generation, eager to be progressive, razed old buildings. Grand old hotels became homes for the elderly. Farms became “agribusinesses.” Prominent citizens died. “His” Putney no longer exists.

Many of us understand the poignancy of that change. Several years ago, in a Flagstaff, AZ, bookshop, I found Plowden’s earlier and angrier book, The Hand of Man in America (1973). Using his own words plus an array of black and white photos from around the country, Plowden called attention to the destruction wrought to American landscapes thanks to industry, strip malls, superhighways, and the loss of local heritage. Writing about local change can be subjective, for what is condemned as garish in one era is deemed old-fashioned in the next, and a few of Plowden’s 1973 examples of visual ugliness look to me today as quaint and even nostalgic.

Small Town America, while including concerns about social change, is a more positive though still elegiac account. That’s a value of photographs and judgments like his; they help us track social change and judge the value of structures that are part of our human-built landscapes. Plowden includes a generous number of black and white photographs from towns from New England to the West. He prefers buildings and rooms that hearken to his own childhood and includes fewer architectural steles characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s tourist trade. His exterior portraits include grain elevators, quiet railroad crossings, Victorian-era commercial blocks, and other styles and ornaments of vernacular architecture. He includes one photo of a wonderful old gas pump that still carries its glass crown.

Most of Plowden’s photographs depict interiors: antique hardware cabinets still in use, heavily used roll-top desks, general stores, barbershops, theaters, hotels, taverns, post offices, courtrooms, lodges, libraries, schools, and churches. I love one church interior that has the old-fashioned wooden display board for weekly attendance and offerings. Such photographs call attention to the towns’ “glory days” yet testify that the furniture and fixtures of bygone eras are by no means removed from everyday life, nor rejected for not being modern.

He also photographs several people: a horse trader, a rare blacksmith in the full regalia of his trade, a kid on a bicycle, children in school, a librarian, a judge, farmers, a barber, a tavern owner, a woman who runs a restaurant, a bearded restaurant customer working on his beer, and other small town folk. Like Quinta Scott’s Route 66 individuals, and unlike Richard Avedon’s Western people, Plowden’s several portraits of small town people look natural, in the midst of their life and work, and by no means unhappy. They’re the kind of people you and I know well.


1. This book is one of several books that Plowden (who turned 81 last October) has published, like the recent Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden. His website is davidplowden.com.

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Andrew Wyeth

A couple years ago, my wife had business in New York and I came along. One afternoon I walked over to MOMA to enjoy, among other things, the special exhibit on abstract expressionism. I walked through rooms of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and Newman, and also enjoyed seeing art by Warhol, Lichtenstein, and others. Still looking at paintings, but also momentarily disoriented with respect to the exit, I wandered through an opening into another room, turned the corner, and realized I was standing in front of “Christina’s World,” which I’d forgotten was located at MOMA. What a change from the expressionists! I’d seen the photos of this painting–which is about 3 feet by 4 feet—many times, of course.

Long before I started writing about “the sense of place,” I enjoyed Andrew Wyeth’s art. In the early 1980s I purchased Thomas Hoving’s Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), in which Wyeth discusses with Hoving his Kuerner and Olsen paintings and his relationship with the two families. Interestingly, Wyeth commented that people wrote him about “Christina’s World,” saying that he expressed their own lives in the picture; and yet those people didn’t notice that Christina was disabled. At the time I lived in a very rural area and I appreciated Wyeth’s ability to artistically depict great, unspoken significance in natural scenery and everyday objects. Wyeth told about his unplanned moments of inspiration, as when his friend Karl Kuerner pulled some homemade sausage off meat hooks on the ceiling. Wyeth, noticing the ugly hooks, used them in the painting “Karl.”

When our local Borders store closed, my daughter and I sadly stopped by and took advantage of sales. (We had loved our Borders in Ohio, which closed several months ago.) I noticed Anne Classen Knutson’s Andrew Wyeth: Memory & Magic (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2005) and purchased it. The book explained well the artistic and subconscious reasons why many of us love Wyeth’s art. In her essay “Andrew Wyeth’s Language of Things” (pp. 45-83), Knutson quotes the historian Wanda Corn that Wyeth’s paintings frequently feature windows, vessels, ajar doors, and womb-like spaces. “In general, the objects he paints fall into three categories: still lifes in nature, vessels, and thresholds” (p. 45). Knutson writes, “Many of the natural and domestic objects that Wyeth foregrounds in his paintings have long been used in western rituals of mourning and death. Flowers, trees, and other organic matter are traditional metaphors for death and the fragility of life, and the enduring properties of granite and other rock symbolize the persistence of memory… Vessels are often used in memorials as metaphors for memory storage, and thresholds suggest transformation, a concept often explored in images of mourning. When Wyeth is not representing the transience of life, he often tries to freeze time in his paintings, just as nineteenth century postmortem photographs were sometimes placed within the face of a stopped clock” (p. 47). His paintings also depict the ephemeral quality of life: the Olsen’s house in “Weatherside”, for instance, seemed to be dying and disappearing (p. 68).

Little wonder that Wyeth’s paintings are attractive and compelling to many of us because memory, death, mourning, and a consciousness of life’s impermanence are universal! Someone could do a phenomenology of Wyeth’s images and symbols via the philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space” and the way (if I recall Bachelard’s argument correctly) those images and symbols are ontologically prior to their expression.

Knutson comments that although Wyeth’s paintings seem realistic, “[h]is realism is magic realism, prompted by drams and imagination rather than observed reality” (p. 47). (The first essay is by Michael R. Taylor, “Between Realism and Surrealism: The Early Work of Andrew Wyeth”.) Interestingly, Wyeth’s paintings are often inspired by but do not depict powerful personal memories. For instance, the painting “Indian Summer”—a nude woman, seen from behind, who is looking into darkness—was inspired by a angel figurine that was a Christmas tree ornament (p. 47). “Winter, 1946,” a hill down which a boy runs awkwardly and uncertainly, has its background in the accidental death of Wyeth’s father, as does “Christina’s World” (pp. 58-59).

Like the latter two paintings, Wyeth often “merges” human figures with the landscape. But compared to some paintings, the Helga pictures are more consistently about vitality and rebirth rather than loss. My family and I visited the Helga exhibit at the Canton (Ohio) Museum of Art in 2004. In those drawings and paintings, Helga becomes a kind of embodiment of nature (Knutson, p. 61). But although as strong and “other” as a landscape—unlike Christina, Karl, and some others, Helga never makes eye contact with the viewer—her significance is not simply landscape. As David Kuspit puts it: in people like Christina Olson and also Wyeth’s African-American models, “[A]gain and again we see Wyeth looking for signs of ego strength in people in whom one doesn’t expect to find it. But Wyeth always takes a lingering, searching second glance, discovering strengths of character in everyday people–a self-respect oddly rooted in respect for the body, whatever its problems” (David Kuspit, “The Meaning of Helga,” Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures (exhibition book), Washington, DC: International Arts & Artists, 2004, p. 9).

Wyeth died in 2009. His obituary in the New York Times gives an interesting overview of his life and career: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/17/arts/design/17wyeth.html

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A while back, I saw a feature on “CBS Sunday Morning” about the artist Ed Ruscha. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed his art before—my own fault. I’d love to have a print of paintings like “Standard Station, Amarillo Texas” (1963) or “The Canyons” (1979) or the graphite “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” (1964) (or the photographic book), or the painting “Noise, Pencil, Broken Pencil, Cheap Western” (1963), and others, and I want to look for his art at the MoMA when we’re in New York next spring.

Born in 1937, Ruscha (pronounced roo-SHAY) is an LA-based artist, photographer, filmmaker, and printmaker. As this article from a recent exhibition in Stockholm indicates, Ruscha has been identified with both pop art and conceptual art, and his work has commonalities with surrealism and Dada, but, according to this article, Ruscha’s art isn’t wholly identifiable with a particular movement(http://www.modernamuseet.se/en/Stockholm/Exhibitions/2010/Ed-Ruscha/Fifty-Years-of-Painting). He is a contemporary of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, was influenced by artists like Jasper Johns and Edward Hopper, and was featured in very early exhibitions of pop art. His West Coast subject matter makes him an interesting artist in the pop and conceptual art traditions.

After the “Sunday Morning” report I ordered the heavy retrospective history, Ed Ruscha by Richard D. Marshall (New York: Phaidon Press, Inc., 2003). Leafing through the book, I loved the quality of his art explained in the above Moderna Museet article, “Ruscha’s overarching theme is words and their constantly shifting relationships with context and message. In all his paintings there are tensions and frictions at play: between foreground and background, between text and image, and between how words look and what they mean.”

Unfortunately, the print in Marshall’s Ruscha is small, and gray rather than black—a strain for this middle-aged person—so I’m still dipping into the text as best as I can while enjoying the many reproductions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed an article by Laura Cumming (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/18/ed-ruscha-hayward-baldessari-tate). Cumming notes how Ruscha “painted words out of context, giving them a non-verbal life of their own as figures in a landscape; and he pictured words as images.” “His humour is perennial but it coexists with profundity.”

I found another article, an interview with Ruscha by Martin Gayford (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/6224022/Ed-Ruscha-interview.html). Gaylord writes that Ruscha’s work “gives one the feeling of being on an endless road through an immense landscape, interrupted by puzzling messages on billboards, at once folksy and mysterious, a journey through a wide space the only features of which are logos, gas stations and parking lots. Joan Didion – another literary admirer – wrote that Ruscha’s works ‘are distillations, the thing compressed to its most pure essence’. They are also sometimes surprisingly funny, in a laconic, Marcel Duchamp-meets-Clint Eastwood sort of way. Ruscha invented an entire artistic genre – one of several in his repertoire – that consists of nothing but words and phrases, floating in vaguely defined space: All You Can Eat, ½ Starved, ½ Crocked, ½ Insane, Chicken Rivets, Girls Girls Girls, Defective Silencer Units, Etc, and – especially ironic in the current circumstances – I Don’t Want No Retro Spective, a pastel from 1979.”

As with these other referenced articles, that whole essay and interview are worth reading, with many more insights and discussions that I can summarize. I was interested that Ruscha’s friend, with whom he drove Route 66 to California in the 1950s, was the musician Mason Williams, whose pieces “Classical Gas” and “Baroque-a-Nova” have been favorites of mine for over forty years.

In still another article, http://www.beatmuseum.org/ruscha/edruscha.html, the author writes this: “Born and raised Catholic, Ruscha readily admits to the influence of religion in his work. He is also aware of the centuries-old tradition of religious imagery in which light beams have been used to represent divine presence. But his work makes no claims for a particular moral position or spiritual attitude.” As I dig into the Marshall text in the days ahead, this theme is something I’d like to learn more about.

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ImageLate last fall, I listened to the Diane Rehm radio show as I drove to the supermarket, and her guest that day was Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Harvey discussed her upcoming book, “The Civil War and American Art” (Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press, 2012), resulting in turn from the museum’s exhibition.

I pre-ordered the book once I got home and it arrived in time to be enjoyable Christmas holiday study. Harvey writes, “Surprisingly few American painters engaged directly with the war as it was being fought. There was little market for depictions of Americans killing one another, and artists found it difficult to immediately identify heroes and pivotal battles. Without the luxury of time and reflection, these artists approached the Civil War in a more elliptical matter” (p. 1).

That elliptical manner and use of metaphors are among the things so fascinating about the paintings depicted and discussed in this book. For instance, George Caleb Bingham painted Order No. 11 (1865-1870), depicting a forced evacuation of homesteaders from western Missouri, but Bingham protests the evacuation by invoking 15th century paintings Expulsion from Paradise by Masaccio and The Lamentation by Petrus Christus (p. 12-13). The depiction of Arctic ice in Frederic Edwin Church’s beautiful The Icebergs (1861) calls attention to a contemporary image, in Washington DC and elsewhere, that slavery’s end was as inevitable as icebergs melting tropical water (pp. 31-32).

Harvey writes, “During the first half of the nineteenth century, landscape painting was a simulacrum of American Life and values. Landscape metaphors and imagery permeated the American consciousness” (p. 19). Opposite that quotation is the example of Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849), one of my own favorite paintings. But a common metaphor for the war was ominous weather, and landscape paintings began to look darker, like Martin Johnson Heade’s Approaching Thunder Storm from 1859 and Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Coming Storm from 1863 (p. 64). A haunting painting is the enigmatic The Girl I Left Behind Me from circa 1872, by Eastman Johnson, depicting a young woman standing in a strong wind (p. 230). Also haunting are a pair of paintings by John Frederick Kensett, Sunrise Among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport (1859) and Paradise Rocks, Newport (circa 1865), the very same scene, but the second painting is so much darker and more somber (pp. 68-69).

There were also battlefield paintings, such as Frederic Edwin Church’s Our Banner in the Sky (1861, p. 38, the one I inserted above), James Hopes’ Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862 and Bloody Lane (p. 7), Winslow Homer’s Sharpshooter (1863, p. 150), his Skirmish in the Wilderness (1864, pp. 158-159), and Gifford’s The Camp of the Seventh Regiment near Frederick, Maryland (1863, p. 126). I’m putting together a future college course about religion during the Civil War, and one painting reflecting that experience is Gifford’s Preaching to the Troops, or Sunday Morning at Camp Cameron near Washington, May 1861 (pp. 116-117).

Artists also movingly depicted the lives of free blacks and recently freed slaves, like Thomas Waterman Wood’s A Bit of War History: The Contraband, The Recruit, and The Veteran (1866, p. 209), Edwin White’s Thoughts of Liberia, Emancipation (p. 210, reflecting the controversial idea of sending blacks back to Africa), Eastman Johnson’s The Lord is My Shepherd (1863), his A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, March 2, 1862 (1862, p. 201), and Homer’s A Visit from the Old Mistress (1876, p. 219), reflecting “the dismay felt by an overwhelming majority of former slaveholders that their slaves did not in fact love them or wish to be enslaved” (p. 218).

Harvey also examines wartime photography, since the Civil War was the first war in which photography (and the often gruesome images of battlefield casualities) was important.

I love Hudson River School paintings and mentioned a book about the school in my 7/2/12 post. Harvey’s book depicts how the “primal experience of nature” depicted in those earlier paintings carried over into paintings of the 1850s and after—but became more stark and reflective of the national tragedy (pp. 17, 19). It is also an excellent source for those of us who love studying the Civil War, and she quotes many writers and politicians of the time as she discusses the pre-war years, the war itself, Reconstruction, and Reconstruction’s collapse. Of course the photographs and paintings are interesting to appreciate as you leaf through the pages, but the chapters are very informative and interesting.

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