Thursday, January 30, 2014

What Is Art?

What is art?  On the most basic of levels I know what art is – pretty pictures that were either painted, sculpted or sketched. But not all art is pretty, not all art requires the artist to be able to draw.  I look back on my on my education in this country and I realize that something went wrong.  (Actually, I can point to multiple places where the educational system was less than stellar, where things were neglected or ignored, but for the purposes of this essay, I will focus primarily on art.)  I never learned art in elementary or middle school.  But at the time that was fine with me.  I hated to draw.  Drawing meant sitting still and that was often a skill I struggled with.  Hell, I couldn’t even color in the lines, but that probably said more about my interest level and attention span than it did about my talent.  Then I got to high school, where one semester of art was required in my freshman year.  It was one of my worst classes.  I had no “eye” for art.  I couldn’t draw a straight line with the aid of a ruler, my circles were more like jagged ovals and as for my comprehension of which colors complimented each other – well those of you who have seen me dress myself know what a disaster it is when I try to determine what colors go well together.  Hence my uniform of khaki pants and solid colored shirts. Anyway, in theory, I was supposed to be able to choose between art and music for my sophomore year.  While I am fairly certain that I am tone deaf, I wanted to take drums.  I figured at the very least I could make a lot of noise – something I am good at.  But alas, due to scheduling issues, the administration stole my choice, forcing me to suffer through an entire year of art.  Ugh. I was miserable.  My classmates all had some level of competence, but from the moment I walked through the door I was lost.  I have no recollection of what my final grade was, but more telling is that I have no memory of a single project I worked on.  So awful was my experience that I have blocked it out.

College was no better.  In order to graduate, I was required to take an art history class.  Yuck!  It was the worst class I took in college.  I would show up to class in the morning with two croissants and a large cup of coffee. But as soon my coffee was finished, I was sound asleep on my desk.  The lectures always involved an endless stream of slides that the professor droned on about, one after another.  In order to see the slides, she turned the lights off.  Darkness and boredom collided and no amount of caffeine could combat the effects.  The professor mentioned things like shadows, negative space, depth and contours – yawn, yawn, yawn.  The readings were just as bad.  I struggled to stay away as I ploughed through countless articles.  It is not surprising that the grade was my lowest in four years of college. To this day, my dad still reminds me of the C (C+, I remind him, that + somehow important) that I got in art. 
At the very least, my limited experience regarding art in the classroom should have taught me what art is.  But it didn’t.  Yes, I can look at the work produced by some of the greats – Rembrandt, Picasso, and Michelangelo  - and recognize beauty and talent, but my understanding of art stops there.  

The ironic thing is, I love photography.  I have loved photography since I was about nine years old and got my first camera.  Initially, I just liked taking pictures to remember certain events and occasions in my life.  I kept picture albums as keepsakes.  But by the time I got to college, I liked taking pictures of things for no reason other than that they appealed to me.  I would take pictures of things and have people say, “Why did you shoot that?”  And I responded, “Because I thought it was intriguing.”  They would roll their eyes and the moment would pass.  While, struggling through my art history class in college, I also took several photography classes, which I loved.   Somehow, the fact that photography is a form of art eluded me. It seemed I had a knack for shooting things in a way that appeared visually stimulating or pleasing.  I had grown up thinking I despised art, that I had no artistic ability at all.  The truth is, I was probably more artistically inclined than many of my classmates in high school, but because of the limited curriculum for freshman and sophomores, no one ever discovered it.  The really sad part is that in high school there were photography classes, they were just considered advanced art classes.  In order to take them, you needed to have done well at the drawing stage.  It seems unfair.  If I could have studied photography instead of drawing in high school perhaps I’d have had a much more positive perspective regarding art now.  If, instead of being forced to learn “artistic terms” through the lens of Renaissance art, I had been permitted to learn them through a photographic lens I would have excelled where I nearly failed.   All students learn differently.  All students have different interests and abilities.  It’s just unfortunate that schools don’t take that into consideration.  Now here I am, twenty years after graduating high school and in the back of my head I still carry around this illusion that I hate art.  I still believe that I have no artistic abilities at all, despite the photography I do as a hobby.   And still, regardless of my illusions, I have come to realize that all through school I never really got a straight, honest and all encompassing answer – What is art?



Friday, January 24, 2014

Hiking Through the Patagonian Snows

Patagonia, Chile - 2003

            I had spent three beautiful days hiking in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile, but it hadn’t been enough.  I had really wanted to see the towers from which the park got its name, but it had not been possible from the hut that had become my base. The towers were just too far for a round trip hike – sunrise to sunset.  So not wanting to miss them, I signed up for a tour in our hostel.   The night before we were to set out, I fell asleep rather easily despite my excitement.  However, when I woke up, disappointment coursed through my entire body.  Rain beat down on the windows and the last thing I wanted to do was step outside into the cold soggy air.  The fact that it was middle of their winter was bad enough.  I had no desire to spend the entire day trudging through muddy fields as the rain seeped through my clothes.   But I wanted to see the towers and since that night we were getting on a ferry which would carry us through the fjords, I had no choice but to brush aside my disappointment and get ready.  I took a hot shower in anticipation of the chill I would feel all day. I ate a big breakfast, knowing I would probably have no desire to eat lunch in the rain.  And I drank a large cup of hot coffee hoping the caffeine would improve my mood.  When the van pulled up to the hostel I found a seat near a window (to avoid motion sickness), opened a book and started to read.  I tried desperately to dissolve into the pages in an attempt to ignore the rain, but it was impossible.  Large angry drops splashed against the window, taunting me, distracting me and making me increasingly grumpy. 
            Sulking, I lifted my eyes to the window as we turned into the park. Miraculously, the rain had transformed into snow and looking out over the vast mountainous landscape everything was covered in a thick blanket of white.  A childish thrill tickled me as the corners of lips turned up in a smile.  Exhilaration immediately drove out dread, and I could not wait to get out of the van and enter the winter wonderland.  When the van finally stopped, we piled out and rolled in the snow like children. 
            The group started hiking uphill, men out front and women falling behind.  We thought nothing of the division until a snowball landed squarely on my shoulder and the women looked up to find the men had taken shelter behind trees.  A loud joyful scream was followed by the all out attack, snowballs launched down at those of us who lagged behind.  Rising to the challenge, we dropped our bags, took shelter behind trees and launched an attack of our own.  It’s always easier to through downhill, and the men had counted on their better position to defeat us easily.  What they didn’t realize was that several us had played softball and had arms as strong and perhaps more accurate than they did.  For over a half hour snowballs flew across the hills.  It was brilliant, an adrenaline rush like I had never before experienced in the snow and I relished every moment of it.  Eventually, we called a truce, only because our grumbling stomachs had gotten the best of us and we wanted to eat. 
            Following our meal, we continued onward, reaching our destination shortly after noon.  The towers were beautiful, rising up like sentinels out of the snow to greet us, but when I think back to that day they are of secondary importance.  It’s the hike itself, the random impromptu snowball fight and silence of the falling snow that tugs most sharply at my memory.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dr. Seuss Understood: At the Bottom We Too Should Have Rights

The thing I admire about Dr. Seuss is that he can be read and enjoyed by both children and their parents.  Children love the silly rhymes, the quirky drawings and the story at its most basic level.  Adults get the moral and can marvel at how simplistically Dr. Seuss conveys it to children.  Last night, I was reading Yertle the Turtle to my son.  He thinks Mack, the turtle at the bottom, is really cool and he laughs every time Yertle ends up in the mud.  But he is only four, too young to understand that in this country our family is much like Mack.  The land of the free and the brave has become the land of the politically connected and wealthy.  With big business and the banks cuddling up with the government, we little people don’t stand much of a chance.  No matter how hard we, at the bottom, try to improve our lot, we can’t.  Every time we try to stand up, the wealthy, with the aid of the government, just knock us back down.  It is exhausting and, like Mack, I’m tired of getting stepped on.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Anup's World: The Haunting Truth of a Twelve Year Old Nepalese Boy

Nearly 17 years ago, I traveled to Nepal where I met a young boy struggling to survive in an unfair world.  Recently, he contacted me to share his exciting news.  It turns out, 2013 was a good year for him.  He got married, and shortly before the new year, he and his wife had a baby boy.  While I was happy for him, I can only pray that he proves to be a better father than his own father had been.  The following is a brief excerpt from a memoir of my experience in Nepal.

I followed twelve year old Anup through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal into a tangle of broken down, dilapidated apartment buildings.  We had met in Durbar Square and he wanted to show me where he lived, convinced that if I knew the truth I would invite him to trek with me through the Himalayas.  I was new to traveling, fearful and certain that he was trying to embroil me in some sort of scam.  Looking around, I noticed that windows in the majority of buildings were either cracked or missing, doors had rotted off of their hinges and paint, that which remained, was severely chipped.  Women haunted the alleys either doing laundry at communal water basins or digging in plots where the dirt was either too rancid or too depleted of minerals to grow anything they planted.  Their clothes were so old and worn they looked more like rags that may once have been colorful but were now faded.  Hands were dirty, faces exhausted and the few eyes that darted up to catch a glimpse of me were numb.  One girl who said hello to Anup looked to be about twenty-five, but Anup said she was only a year older than him.
            When we reached what could loosely be described as a courtyard, Anup turned right and bounded up three steps to an open door.  Raising my eyes to appraise the building I was about to enter, I felt ill.      Neglected wouldn’t even begin to describe the state of the building in which Anup lived.  Bricks had been torn from the walls and the holes they left looked like giant pock marks.  Seven windows were shattered and jagged glass still stood in the frames.  The front door was cracked, and could no longer be closed without scraping the floor. I was horrified to discover it was actually inhabited.  In the States, it wouldn’t have passed a single inspection and it would have been condemned a long time ago. 
However, Anup entered with the same ease, the same sense of familiarity that I used to have entering my parents’ house every day after school.  We climbed up two flights of stairs, each step whining beneath the weight of our feet.  I held my breath as best as I could, aiming to block out the foul stench that permeated the air; the smell of decaying flesh and bodily waste.  The stairwell was lit by nothing more than a few holes in the wall.  There was no banister, and I doubted any one had painted the walls in the past two decades if they had ever been painted at all. 
            Reaching the second floor Anup turned left down a dark narrow hallway and stopped about half way down in front of a door no thicker or sturdier than a sheet of plywood.  As far as I could discern, there was no numbers or any other mark to differentiate it from any other room.  There was neither a doorknob nor a lock to ensure privacy and security.  Jabbing it with his foot, Anup easily pushed it open.  My horror upon entering the building was nothing compared to the revulsion I felt stepping into his cell.  I won’t even dare to call it a room, since the word itself radiates an element of warmth of which his cell contained none.  It was no longer than ten feet and no wider than six.  The floor was made of cement.  There was no window to provide either light or ventilation.  He had no bed, only two blankets spread out over the floor and a sleeping bag so thin I wondered how it could keep anyone warm.
            Curiously, angrily, my eyes scanned the rest of his room, and the more they absorbed, the more repulsed I felt.  There was not a single lamp, not even an outlet where one could be plugged in.  There was no dresser, no desk and not a single appliance.  Hung on a solitary nail punched into one of the walls was tee-shirt and plaid flannel shirt.  In one corner was a small wooden table that stood about as high as my knee and spread out across it was a pair of socks, a toothbrush and a black comb.  That was extent of his possessions, all he could call his own.  I looked again to make sure I hadn’t missed something, but the inventory didn’t change.  He had no television, no video games, no football or baseballs, no bicycle and not one chocolate bar.  What kid back home could survive in that cell which Anup called home?
            Outside the clouds broke and I could hear the rain lashing against the building.  I wanted to turn around and run away despite the rain, but I was rendered immobile by a lightening bolt of guilt which ripped though my consciousness and burned through my body with such recklessness I’d never forget it.  Not once had I ever gone to bed cold.  Not once did I ever know what it was like to go hungry.  Not once was I ever deprived of a summer holiday.  Yet how many times as a child did I have a temper tantrum in a store because my parents refused to by me a toy I wanted?  How many articles of clothing did my mother buy me that I ended up hiding in the back of my closet to prevent her from pestering me to wear them?  How many times did my parents ask me to do something but I refuse because I was too busy?  And how many times did I declare that they hated me simply because I felt cheated in one way or another?  I expected everything I was given and not once did I ever consider the fact that there were those who went without simple necessities.  Sure there were the commercials – ‘For the price of one cup of coffee you feed a child for a week’; the clich├ęs – ‘You know there are people starving in Africa,’ but how could they compete with the unpleasant reality in which I was submerged.
            “Where is your family?” I finally found my voice, appalled by the realization that this young boy lived alone, far removed from the loving and sheltering arms of a family.
            “My father was a drunk,” Anup explained, his face twisted in bitterness.  “He went out one day to look for work and never came home.  My mother has three sons and could not feed all of us.  Since I was the oldest, she told me to leave.”
            “How do you support yourself?  Where do you get money to eat and pay rent?”  I asked even though it seemed absurd that anyone should have to pay rent to live in such a cold dreadful place. 
            “I give tours of Durbar Square and if I’m lucky tourists will pay me.”  So that’s what he was after from me - money to survive.  But could I really blame him?  What would I have done had I been twelve and all alone on the streets in New York?  But the greater question was – Could I trust him?  Could I trust him up in the mountains where he had every advantage over me?  “That’s why I had to learn English and German.”
            “Did you learn in school?” I asked, amazed that this poor child – disadvantaged in so many ways - could speak multiple languages, whereas I – a privileged white American - could speak only one. 
            “No,” he scoffed.  “Here school is only for people who have money.  I learn from talking to people like you and from reading books that others have thrown away or given me out of pity.”
            “It doesn’t seem fair,” I spoke aloud but the words were addressed to myself and my friends back home, friends who complain they are poor because they can’t afford to stay in a five star hotel or go out to dinner ever night.  
            “It’s not so bad,” Anup frowned, his eyes straying to the bleak walls. “Someday I’ll have a room with a window and I’ll be able to buy enough candles to light up my room to read when it gets dark.” 
His words called me out of my cocoon of guilt, forcing me to further confront the hypocrisy of my life.  “How do you manage?” I asked trying to envision what my childhood would have been like if I had been him.
 “It could be worse.  I could have to sleep out there,” he tossed his head towards the spot on the wall where a window should have been.  “It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but at least I can stay dry and sleep without worrying about who might try to steal my shirt.”  His optimism was astounding.  He was looking at a nearly empty glass, and yet somehow managed to see it as half full. 
“If you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, what would you ask for?”  At that moment I could think of about a half a dozen things that would make his life better, easier, even happier, but I regret to say that not one of the things I thought of matched his response. 
“I’d want to go to school.” 
“School?” I spoke the word as if I hadn’t heard him correctly.  I could ask a hundred kids back home that very same question and their responses would range from horses, to Playstation, to trips to Disney World.  Many of them would probably even be happy to exchange school for one materialistic object or another.  And I was certain that not one American kid, at least none that I knew, ever looked upon school in the same light as the boy standing before me. 
“Yes,” he sat down on the cold cement floor, pressing his back to the wall and pulling his knees up into his chest.  Instead of looking at me while he spoke, he looked at his feet.  “If I could go to school I’d never have to ask for anything ever again.  If I went to school I could get a real job and with the money I made I could buy anything else I might want.”
Completely and totally flabbergasted I stared at Anup, wondering how at his age he came to the same realization that most Americans didn’t make until after high school, if they made it at all.  There were still things I wanted, things I wished for every night, yet I stood there in that lonely cell doubting I’d ever have the means to acquire them.  Perhaps, I had just been conditioned to want too much.  Growing up spoiled I took the little things for granted.  When you have a parent cooking dinner and tucking you in at night I suppose it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important. 
“We should go shopping,” I suggested, turning to the door, having experienced enough squalor for the moment.
“What for?” Anup looked at me with round questioning eyes.
“Boots,” I smiled.  “It doesn’t look like you have any and I’m not taking you into the mountains without a decent pair on your feet.”
“Boots are expensive,” his face fell.  “I don’t have any money.”
“But I do.” I might end up regretting my decision to take him trekking but I feared regretting it more if I left him behind.  In the short while I had known Anup, something in me had changed.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Storytime At My Son's School

Today, I had the privilege of going into my son’s school to make the day special for his birthday.  Since cupcakes are now not permitted in school – which upsets me on so many levels, I grew up eating cupcakes when kids had birthdays and I turned out healthy – parents are invited in to read a story and do a craft with the students to make the birthday student feel special.  When I first spoke to the teacher about my son’s birthday, she said that parents usually come in and read their child’s favorite story.  Well, the stories my son really likes take fifteen minutes or more to read and since I only had a half hour, I wouldn’t have had time to do a craft afterwards.  Besides – I have taught pre-k – most kids that young do not have an attention span that lasts more than five minutes – ten if you are super animated and have a pinch of luck.  So, while I was trying to figure out what story I could read to make the day special, my son asked me if I would tell his class a story that I wrote just for him.  Since I can’t draw, I took some of my photos and fiddled around with them on photoshop  so the students would have something to anchor their focus.  I took pictures from Philadelphia, Denmark, China and Argentina to take the class on a mini-tour of the world – something my son is very accustomed to when it comes to my stories.  Anyway, he was super excited when the class came back from gym and he saw me setting up my props.  Running up to me, he gave me a big hug and didn’t want to let go.  Of course, the story was not new to him so he interrupted practically every sentence, but hey, he knew what was going to happen next and couldn’t contain his enthusiasm – and I wouldn’t have wanted him to, it was his day after all.  I’ve told him many stories and I’m not sure I ever saw him so happy to hear one.  The class paid attention and laughed when they were supposed to so I think they enjoyed the story as well.  Over all, my first attempt at sharing a story that I wrote went very well.  When the story was over, my son announced to the class that the story was his “own story.”  He then came up to me and said, “I love you, Mama.”  Well, that alone made the entire experience worth it.  He may be my only fan, but he’s the best fan I could have.