Tag Archives: art

My One Woman Show at MoMA

Some days, you end up rolling around on the floor in a black muslin bag at the Museum of Modern Art; some days you don’t. TODAY was my day to writhe around on the floor for the edification and entertainment of a crowd of spectators. It’s all Yoko Ono’s fault (she’s used to the scapegoating so we’re cool).

The day started out so normally. A bagel in the hotel lobby, some visiting with other bloggers, a little bit of squealing and much glee. Normal. Then a short walk to the museum where I promptly headed for the Jacob Lawrence “One Way Ticket” exhibit featuring his 60 panel series on the Great Migration of Southern Blacks northwards in the first half of the 20th century.

But I got lost. I went allaway up to the sixth floor instead of stopping on the third and I wandered straight into Yoko Ono’s exhibit “One Woman Show.” I was about to turn around and ask a volunteer for directions because when you’ve seen one apple rotting atop a plexiglass column, you’ve seen them all. (I kid, I kid…kind of) I’ve had positive encounters withe several Ono pieces over the years, but I wasn’t much in the mood for her today.

11143323_10206036801192114_6007822362586092663_oThen I turned a corner into a little room labelled “Bag Piece.” Two walls were lined with small photographs taken of Ono’s performance of the Bag Piece at an art festival four years before I was born. In the corner of the gallery, a large black fabric sculpture moved smoothly like some kind of alien creature. I assumed it was an armature covered in fabric and preprogrammed to move according to Ono’s design.

However…as I stood there watching the bag move through its poses, I realized that there was a person inside. The figure stretched and posed and swayed and slept, all in the burqa-like confines of the black bag. A small sign next to the platform read “All are invited to participate in the Bag Piece.”


I was genuinely moved as I watched the creature move about inside the bag. There was no way of knowing whether it was male, female, young, old, like me or not like me. Having grown a couple of babies, the imagery of the Bag Piece reminded me of carrying another life. It also made me think about how we go from an insulated womb state where we are unlabeled and intact before we have to leave the bag and take our place in the world of labels and assumptions.

The creature in the bag slowed into a Cobra pose then twisted around to a sitting position. The voluminous black bag wiggled a bit until a foot popped out. As the crowd giggled, the foot turned towards the sound, and the big toe nodded hello. Then another foot. The waves of fabric  pulled back to reveal a tall, thin young man–a MoMA employee. He asked if anyone else wanted to give it a try.

Rampant enthusiasm, people. It’s gotten me into many a pickle, but today it got me a One Woman Show at MoMA.

I kicked off my shoes and climbed under the bag. The black muslin was very thin, so even though I was completely shrouded, I could see the outlines of my audience. I discovered that there was a mirror behind the crowd that I could use to watch my own performance.

The platform backed into a corner, so working on the womb idea, I tucked myself into a little ball in the corner. I rocked and swayed. I slid across the surface towards the audience. I stretched up and did some belly dancing arms (another leftover of rampant enthusiasm). I worked the edge of the platform, coming as close to the viewers as possible, but still hidden in the bag. Inside the shroud, I smiled silently. Only movement. I slithered up the wall and back into the corner. Back where I had begun, but different.

I decided my time was up. I threw off the bag and let myself laugh.

Art isn’t some serious exercise in remembering names and dates and movements and theory. Art is about slowing down to look, whether from inside the bag or without.



Wordless Wednesday–the Blitz in Colour

Along the same lines as yesterday’s post about early Kodachrome photos, I offer you these startling images of London in the grip of an incessant German bombing campaign, The Blitz.  

London during the Blitz

Life Goes On, London During the Blitz

blitz bus

A bus travelling in black out conditions falls into a bomb crater on Ballham High Road.

blitz parlaiment

The Houses of Parliament, 1941. Note the anti-aircraft balloons dotting the sky.

blitz park

Carrying On. A man reads a book in a London park, as an anti-aircraft balloon lies in the background.

London in the Blitz

Smoke, every morning of the Blitz

Oh What a Gift!

Have you ever read the Robert Burns poem, “To a Louse?”  It’s about a woman sitting in church showing off her fancy bonnet…but she doesn’t realize that a fat gray louse is crawling around on it.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunned by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

 She tosses her head with pride that she’s the center of attention, unaware that the louse is the reason people are staring at her and pointing.  The Scots dialect makes a little translation necessary, but you get the drift.  My favorite part of the poem is the conclusion, which I’ll render into Englishish:  

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us

Oh, what a gift God might give us, to see ourselves as others see us.  It would from many a blunder free us.  

See that new logo up there?  It was designed and drawn by my friend Jose Luis Silva.  You might remember him from such favorites as “Dust to Dust” or “Short But Sweet.”  He’s a genius and I trusted him with my face (which for a woman of a certain age is no small feat).  

At L'Express on Park Avenue

At L’Express on Park Avenue

Luis asked me for some guidance on which direction I’d like to go with the logo, so I told him that I wanted something black and white, friendly and fun, maybe a caricature.  I suggested that he use this picture of me that he took when we were in New York for our friend Spencer’s memorial service in January.  I love this picture because it surprised me.  For once I didn’t see a wrinkle or a size or gray hair–I saw me.  The laughing me, the loving me, the feeling me.  What a gift Luis gave me in this snapshot–to see myself as others see me.  

Then he recreated it for the logo.  The first version was a pretty exact replica of this photo, but my giggle covered by splayed fingers looked too much like Hannibal Lecter in a mask.  I asked him to try it again with my hand in a different position.  He perfected the hand, but my now-uncovered smile looked a lot like The Joker’s  creepy slash.  Luis listens to a lot of death metal, so I was thankful there wasn’t blood dripping from my eyeballs or a baby head clenched between my teeth (maybe in the next version!).  

I said, “Um…can you change my mouth?  I look a little…evil.”  His reply was, “But, sweetheart, you ARE EVIL.”  And my answer?  “Of course I am, but I don’t want to LOOK EVIL.  This is marketing.”  Luis commented on the interesting challenge that caricature poses for the artist:  finding the balance between rendering your subject, but exaggerating primary features for effect.  

The next version looked far less evil, but now I was looking too nice.  Jimmy Carter nice.  (Isn’t this starting to sound like a stereotypical “Honey, would you move the couch over there so I can see how it looks” dialogue?)  At this point, I knew he had the hair, the eyes, the face shape, the nose, the clothes, the wine–everything was right except my stupid mouth.  I muttered, “I don’t look like THAT!”  Then I walked to a mirror, put my chin on my hand and smiled…and discovered I DO look like that.

Luis’ next version was The One.  He gave me some new smaller teeth and I was finally comfortable.  It was a done deal when I pulled the image up onscreen and turned my laptop to Carlos.  He took one look at it and chirped, “Mama!”  

I am so grateful to have a friend who can see me.  And show me to myself.  And tolerate me through the revisions that I needed before I could see myself.  Oh what a gift!  

If you would like to hear “To a Louse” in a charming rendition, click on the following image to hear an award winning recitation!

Hear the winner of the William Law Memorial Trophy from Calderwood Primary performs 'To a Louse'.

Hear the winner of the William Law Memorial Trophy from Calderwood Primary performs ‘To a Louse’.

Doris and the Dragon

I am still thinking about the idea of “shielding the joyous” and specifically the things that we do to shield our children from the horrors of this life.  The story that I am going to attempt to tell has been haunting me for a couple of days now.  I’ve told it to friends before, but I’ve never tried to write it out.  Here goes.

In the spring of 2004, just a few months before he was diagnosed with leukemia, and just a few months after we had set up house together, Richard and I went to Prague for spring break.  He had been a few years earlier, when the Czech Republic was established after the fall of Communism.  Prague has suffered under many masters in the 20th century–the Austro-Hungarian empire, then a few decades of republic, then the 1939 takeover by the Nazis, followed quickly by the Soviets.  It would take another 40 years to overthrow the Communist stranglehold in Prague’s “Velvet Revolution.”

See?  It’s a huge story and I don’t know how to explain it.  We know what the Nazis did all across Europe–Prague was in no way spared.  Prague had long been a center of Jewish culture, with five robust synagogues in the Jewish Quarter before 1939.  This was the city of the “Golem.”  But, like 6 million others, most of the Jews of Prague were murdered.  Modern-day Prague’s Jewish community finds itself with more synagogues than it needs for worship, so five of the old synagogues have been turned into a collective museum of Jewish history.  The Maisel Synagogue holds a permanent exhibit of Jewish history from the 10th-18th century.  The Spanish Synagogue (designed in Moorish style) serves as a repository of precious silver artifacts and a concert hall.  Klausen Synagogue features displays about everyday Jewish life and traditions.  The Old New Synagogue is the home of the Jewish cemetery with graves dating back to 1439.  The fifth synagogue–Pinkas Synagogue–is the one that brought me to my knees.

pinkasovaThe building itself has been unconsecrated and all ceremonial fixtures have been removed.  All that remains are its sandstone walls, a soft and glowing pinkish hue.  On those walls have been painted the names of every one of the 80,000 Bohemian and Moravian Jews who were murdered.  It took two artists five years to inscribe eighty thousand hand-painted names, with their dates of birth and death.  The names of the dead are arranged in families and grouped by the towns and villages in which they lived, so neighbors are reunited in this memorial.  Pinkas Synagogue is one of the most holy places I’ve have experienced.  Every wall, every silent surface…rings with names.  Beside the space for the Holy Ark are painted the names of the death camps where these people were turned into sky and earth and memory.  Pinkasova is “a long epitaph commemorating the names of those for whom a tombstone could not be erected.”

One of those names is Doris Zdekauerova, age 12.

How do I tell this next part?  How can I explain?  Outside Prague lies Terezin, the “transit camp” where many of these Jews began their journey toward the gas chamber.  Terezin, or Theresienstadt, was the Nazi’s model camp.  It’s the one they let the Red Cross film.  It’s the one they made a propaganda film about, called “The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews.”  Terezin had an orchestra and even staged a children’s opera.  It was a prison, but on the surface it looked nicer than most.  Still, it was a place of hunger, brutality and terror.  Terrified parents and children were forcibly kept apart.  The children were housed in large dormitories.  Doris lived there, for a time, until she was “sent East.”

The adults of Terezin decided that the best thing they could do to shield their children from the darkness surrounding them was to set up structure.  School lessons, plays, art classes–all conducted furtively with whatever supplies could be scavenged.  One teacher, an artist named Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, has gone down in history for her work with the children of Terezin.  Friedl had trained at the Bauhaus and her lessons with the children grew from the Bauhaus philosophy of exploring emotion and inhabiting experiences.  She encouraged the children to paint, draw and make collages to express their experiences.  Most importantly, Friedl ensured that her young students signed every piece of their work.  It was theirs.  Something they had created.  Their truth.  Their story.  Like most of the 60,000 prisoners of Terezin, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was transported to Auschwitz where she was killed.  But before she left Terezin, she managed to fill two suitcases with 4500 pieces of art made by her 660 students.  Of the 660 children who signed works of art, 550 were exterminated “in the East.”  But their teacher hid their work and after the war was over, the two suitcases were discovered and turned over to the Jewish Museum of Prague.

Collage made from scavenged paper, Terezin

Collage made from scavenged paper, Terezin

You can see it.  I did.  The art collection is on permanent exhibit in the second floor gallery at Pinkas Synagogue, the house of the names.  You climb the stairs as if your life hasn’t been changed already by the silent witness of 80,000 names and then you see the children’s drawings.  Those rooms are some of the quietest I’ve ever witnessed.

Each piece of art is labeled with the child’s name, date of birth and date of death.  The first time I saw one without a date of death–with the caption “Survived”–I sobbed.  The drawings are arranged by theme:  “Traditions,” “Family,” “Transportation,” many of them feel like “Life Before” and “Life After.”

I found Doris in the section labeled “Fear.”  I remember one drawing, by another child, of a screaming guard.  That’s what I had expected from a child in the camps who was asked to describe fear.

But Doris Zdekauerova–born July 15, 1932 and died October 16, 1944–drew this:

A drawing by Doris Zdekauerova

A drawing by Doris Zdekauerova

A princess with flowing blonde hair in a clean white dress with puffy sleeves.  Standing calm beside a fire-breathing dragon.  That was Doris’ expression of “fear.”  She had to have known that her life had descended into the belly of a more dangerous beast, but while looking at this drawing, I felt an overwhelming sense of what the adults at Terezin had been trying to do.  They created a world within a world.  A safer place for the children to remember a few things about being children.  Those adults did such a good job of shielding the children that Doris, when asked to depict fear, drew a dragon.  Doris and the Dragon.  A girl.  The fire.  Her name.

Eight Million to One

Yesterday, I told the story of the chalk portrait of Spencer Cox, drawn with such skill and love by Jose Luis Silva.  I’d tell you where to find it so you can see for yourself, but it’s already gone.

Why sweat over art that will be washed away before you lie down to sleep that night?  Why write stories and fling them into the digital winds?  What remains of the work we do?

I am a storyteller (genetically, historically, unabashedly) so I tend to attach roles to the people in my life.  (You’ve met Fartbuster, right?)  Spencer was “the AIDS activist.”  I know other people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS, but Spencer was “my friend who lives with AIDS.”  I remember where I was sitting back in the early 1990’s when I heard the news that he had the virus.  I was sitting in a dainty mahogany armchair with Queen Anne legs, mother of pearl accents and a pink taffeta seat that my mother had covered with scraps for my graduate school apartment.  That was the same year that Arthur Ashe revealed he had AIDS.  So Spencer was dying, then.   I filed that away.  I hadn’t seen him since college.  I didn’t see him again for years.

Then came the 20th year since we all met at the Governor’s Honors Program in 1985.  We had email by now and a reason to get back together.  I had a freshly broken heart from the death of my husband from leukemia.  Spencer knew a lot about watching people die, so we began to talk about grief and surviving and getting back to living.  I remember a time when he compared grief to the silt at the bottom of a lake–sit still and it will clear, let it sift down and you will see the glints of gold.  Grief will rest after a while.  Mud distills into gold.  He didn’t make it back to Georgia for the 20th reunion, but we were connected again and I was grateful for his wisdom about dying.  And I was grateful that he was still alive.  I had no concept of how much he had done to make life available to people living with HIV.  Really, no idea.  I thought he was a fundraiser or something in New York and wore an ACT UP t-shirt on weekends.

Then came Facebook.  The years collapsed into nothing and we were all back together again.  My Vivi stories convinced Spencer that they were soul mates and he looked forward to serving as her Auntie Mame.  We got together a few times and I joked that he was the only friend of mine who doesn’t get a lecture about quitting smoking.  He barked out a sooty laugh and said, “The cigarettes will NEVER have time to catch me!”  Oh, how we laughed.  Twenty years and he was still here.  I told him that he was the most interesting person I knew and he snarled, “Jesus, I’m a 40 yr old man who lives with my mother.”  He was 43, by the way.  What a luxury, to outrun AIDS long enough to lie about your age!

Spencer cox ACT UP marchWe did get to praise Spencer’s work before he died–there was the movie, the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”  We who had loved him at 16 began to learn what a giant contribution he had made to the fight against the plague of AIDS.  Spencer had always been larger than life and now he was getting to tell his story on the big screen.  He changed his Facebook name to “Spencer Squeaky Cox” after meeting Sarah Jessica Parker at a showing of the film and deciding that he needed a catchier triple moniker.  He was so alive in those heady days of interviews and panels and premieres.

I knew it was bad when I didn’t hear back from him for a week.  Then I got two phone calls at work within minutes–Bryn and Debra.  I answered the second one because I knew.  He was gone.  I didn’t have a “friend with AIDS” anymore.

At the memorial in New York, the eulogists spoke in chronological order:  his brother, his GHP friends, a college buddy, early NYC friend, ACT UP comrades, his ex, his broken-hearted and furious apologist.  Spencer’s magnificent work unfolded before us.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.  The video tributes from Anthony Fauci, Anderson Cooper, Larry Kramer–talking about that boy I met in Valdosta.  Tony-winning composer Tom Kitt played the piano as his sister, Katherine, sang “I Miss the Mountains” and I sobbed.

It began to sink in that even as Spencer was gone, there were people in that theater who were alive today because of him.  The face of AIDS that I had attached to one person in my life was all around me.  Many men who sat there in the light from the stage and nodded with an understanding that glowed from their sharp cheekbones and careful eyes.  Spencer’s drive.  His passion.  His pig-headed genius.  He did it.  He got protease inhibitors pushed through.  He found a way to fight the plague.

I heard the eulogists say “eight million people are alive because of Spencer,” several times but that number is so large that it is impossible to envision.  Then the man sitting beside us turned and said, “I’m one of them.”  Eight million people living.  One man, living.  I could touch this man.  I did.  Not a handshake or even a hug.  With some reflex that came from deep in my heart and overrode all my polite training, I reached out and stroked his fine cheekbone.  I cupped his aging face like I was his mother.  I wanted him to know I was happy he was here.  Eight million….to one.

Dust to Dust

On Saturday morning, over 800 artists met under the live oaks in Forsyth Park to draw.  Each artist was given one square of sidewalk, one box of chalk and three hours–the rest was up to them.  The Sidewalk Chalk Festival is hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, so the quality is astounding.  Undergrads, grad students, high school hopefuls, alumni, faculty all drawing their hearts out as we stroll by or picnic on the grass.  In the mid-afternoon, judges judge, prizes are awarded, thousands and thousands of pictures are snapped.  Then as the sun sets, it’s all washed away.  It’s just chalk, after all.early portrait


Jose Luis Silva spent the day drawing a portrait of our friend, Spencer Cox, who died in December. Luis had been working on the portrait for an hour when we showed up. The grinning mug that he had summoned to life there on the sidewalk was already stopping traffic. People paused silently to watch him work with just black chalk, white chalk, his fingers and a watery brush.

Luis paused long enough to share hugs with me, with Brantley, with Jill. We three had loved Spencer when he was a bold boy at Governor’s Honors and again as a wizened man. In the interim years, most of us were unaware of Spencer’s work to get AIDS drugs approved by the FDA. He had disappeared on us during those New York years. At his memorial in January, many of Spencer’s dearest friends had commented on his chimeric habit of disappearing, of slipping away then reappearing years later. We started saying goodbye to Spencer when he was diagnosed with AIDS in the early 1990s. Hell, Spencer was supposed to have been dying for twenty years but he never did. Then he did.  It was hard to believe he was gone gone.  

in progress


Thanks to the work that Spencer did to get protease inhibitors approved by the FDA, eight million people around the world are living with AIDS today. Living. Today. Yet he’s gone. I can’t find words for the….irony? Pathos? Tragedy? I can’t, so I’ll quote from Peter Staley’s eulogy, “Grief Is a Sword”:

Eight million people on standardized regimens. Eight million lives saved.
 It’s a stunning legacy, and so bittersweet. How could that young gay man, confronted with his own demise, respond with a level of genius that impacted millions of lives but failed to save his own?
This death hit us hard. We have grappled to make sense of it. Why did he stop his meds? What role did his struggle with crystal meth play? Was this a failure of community? Are there lessons we can learn?

The first lesson for me has been about impermanence–Spencer is gone.  Yes, it was complicated.  Yes, he did great things with his genius.  Yes, he did horrible things to his health.  Yes, we can learn things from his life.  Yes, there are things we will never know.  No.  He is gone.


adding the ribbon


But there he was again, emerging from the sidewalk beneath Luis’ fingertips. Luis drew the figure first. Then he added texture to the shirt and the hands. He added highlights. A couple of strokes from a stick of chalk and the distinctive patch of white in Spencer’s beard came back to us. A little bit of chalk dust and there was my friend.  

When he was diagnosed with AIDS in his early 20s, it seemed foolish to dream of living to 30. Miraculously, he made it to 44. It was still miraculous for a man with AIDS who had survived the plague years to die at the advanced age of 44; it was still tragic for a man in this day to die of AIDS at 44 when drugs are able to offer many more years.

Luis surrounded his black and white portrait with a vibrant pink and purple background. Colors are never as simple as “pink” and “purple.” It took yellow and brown and gray to make the pink and purple work.

He added Spencer’s name and the years of his birth and death in the top left corner. That’s when the passersby started asking each other, “Who is that?” In the top right corner, Luis added a red ribbon for compostional balance. Once they saw the red ribbon, fewer people asked who Spencer was. Oh, AIDS. Another one bites the dust.

reference portrait


The dust.  Saturday’s weather couldn’t have been more pleasant–warm spring sun, dappled shade, light breeze. Even in that idyllic climate, every motion–from the breeze to the sighs of careful crowds–took its toll on Luis’ creation. Near the end of his three hours of allotted drawing time, he turned to me and said, “That’s the thing about chalk. I use the water to make it stick better, but the face is already changed from when I drew it. Just in a few hours.” His hand fluttered between the photocopied picture of Spencer that ran with the New York Times obituary and the chalk portrait there on the ground before us. Chalk art changes as you make it. It can’t be anything but impermanent. 

When Luis declared that he was done, we sat under the oaks and we didn’t talk about Spencer. We played with the tired baby. We drank beer and iced coffees. We sent the big kids on errands. We packed up and headed home at a sensible hour, like grown ups do.

I wonder what it would have felt like to stay there until the park emptied out and the cleaning crew came through with their hoses. I wonder what it would have meant to me to watch that patch of white in Spencer’s beard wash away into nothing as it joined with everything around it.

An artist creates a portrait that changes as he draws. A musician plays a note that fades at the same instant it is born. Eight million people breathe in; eight million people breathe out and the dust shifts around them. Before we can know a thing, it has moved on.