Creative Getaway / Jacob’s Pillow


After months of intensive bookwriting and Kickstarting, Tim and I reached creative burnout on Thursday night.  So we did the only sensible thing: we packed up the car and drove to Jacob’s Pillow for a much-needed dose of creative rejuvenation.

I’ve been wanting to go see the summer dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow for ages.  It felt good to be in a space where choreographers and dancers were practicing and living and creating new work.  Being there reminded me of the feeling of being at an arts residency, surrounded by all these other people embarking on creative projects.  At this moment of creative burnout there was a restorative energy in being in that kind of generative environment.

Plus, Jacob’s Pillow’s has the most spectacular stage for its outdoor performances.  It backs right into a drop-down view of the tree-lined valley and the surrounding mountains, so the dancers aren’t dancing so much in the amphitheater as in the landscape.  It’s incredible the way this vista amplifies the meaning and impact of movement.

We were lucky enough to catch the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, too, and their first piece to Concerto For Two Violins was so jawdroppingly stunning from the rich powerhouse first movement to the subtle, entwined quartet of dancers in “Largo Ma Non Tanto,” that  it was one of those moments where you just sit there and think thank God I’m alive for this.

Our good friends Kate & Robert (of the amazing Oakes & Smith art folk duo), live not too far from Jacob’s Pillow, so we decided to make a night of it and sat up impressively late over wine and brie talking about Edith Wharton and artmaking and Pluto.

And then, because it’s the Berkshires — and what trip to the Berkshires would be complete without a visit to Tanglewood? — we wandered over and listened to the symphony rehearse Mozart to the intermittent peal of thunder and downpour.  During a break in the storm, we walked all through those genteel landscaped grounds and through the strains of opera practice and summer institute orchestras and the tuning of a grand piano.

After a stop at the Amherst Bookstore (where I picked up this book — so excited!) and a great visit with Judy, we wended our way back home and back to work on our own creative projects.  There really is nothing like a couple of days of art and dance and music to interrupt and reinvigorate this long, crazy last stretch of bookwriting.

p.s. Tim’s new album is almost ready!  Check out the preview title track!  (And lend a hand, too?)

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Photography

Mt. Vernon Staircase

Mt. Vernon Staircase / Melissa Wyse & Tim Peck

Last year, I started working on a collaborative photography project.  I’ve been taking photos on an old Pentax SLR camera, and my partner, Tim, has been going into the dark room to develop the film.  Tim is a professional musician and composer, and so for both of us this has been a fun creative enterprise, an opportunity to experiment in a third medium while we complete major projects in our primary fields.

So far, my favorite photos from our series are the ones I’ve taken in my neighborhood in Baltimore.  One of the interesting elements of the collaboration has been that Tim never knows what will be on the film I send him, and I don’t know how he’ll choose to interpret the images once he gets them in the darkroom.  It can be a freeing experience — especially as a writer, where so little of my creative work is open to that kind of collaborative serendipity.  I really like the painterly effect we wound up with in Mt. Vernon Staircase.

Kehinde Wiley

I’ve been quiet online this month.  Partly this is a result of life and bookwriting trumping blog posts.  But also, in the wake of all that is playing out on our American stage — and my home city –, I have felt less like talking than listening.

A month ago, when I was in New York, I stopped by the Brooklyn Museum to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  There’s been a lot of thoughtful discussion about his monumental botanically-inflected portraits, which showcase contemporary black American men in the poses of canonical European portraiture.  The men — who Wiley met and ‘street cast’ for his portraits on American city streets — pose in the postures of Napoleon and wealthy white merchants and aristocrats.  These are positions that assert visibility and social standing and power, and in Wiley’s portraits they insist on a rewriting of black men’s invisibility in the western history conveyed by art, and a rewriting of the ways we image black men now.

Willem van Heythuysen

There is a raw power in this project.  A power to the resulting paintings, which are loaded with dynamism, and to Wiley’s process, which had him sitting down with ordinary men he’d met on the streets, pouring together through art history books and picking poses and paintings to replicate.  What was it like to be in the room with those men, choosing image-making paintings to imagine themselves in?

Ultimately, I wound up spending a good long while in a narrow little vestibule between two larger galleries, watching the projection of Wiley’s digital video piece, Smile.  In the four-pane video, we focus closely on four African-American men’s faces as they smile until they cannot smile any longer.  The experience probes the problematic ways American black men are compelled to smile — so as to seem compliant and unthreatening, as a survival technique, in the face of oppression — and the toll.  As each man in the video loses his smile, he disappears and is replaced by another smiling face.

It was intensely painful and emotional to sit with the video and the men’s wavering, strained smiles, the corners of their eyes and lips faltering with the awful muscle exertion of holding their expressions so long.  Sitting on a little bench in front of the projection, I literally held my hands on my temples to try to keep my eyes from their repeated sympathy spasms and cried.  A few feet away, in a dark corner, hung Mugshot Study.  The piece originated in Wiley’s reflection that mugshots and wanted posters are among the most common forms of contemporary portraiture used to depict African-American men.  His exploration of this particular form of portraiture feels poignant and devastating.  The young man here is so young, and so vulnerable.

Like so many others, I have been reading a lot about policing and prisons and the deaf persistence of the confederate flag and the fraught language of terrorism and race, and trying to listen intently and with great intention to the stories of all our citizens and to our president (again).  This listening has been an important part of my practice of patriotism.

Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and saw Iago’s Mirror by American artist Fred Wilson.  The black-backed Venetian mirror is a reflection on the racial dimensions at work in Shakespeare’s Othello.  But the piece draws into question not just the duplicitous Iago.  For it is the viewer who is reflected in this black glass.  We, too, are implicated in these questions of race.  And because of that, we’re called upon to listen.

Iago's Mirror

Seeing Wiley’s work felt like a way to open up this listening.

Fortunately, for those of you who live in Seattle or Fort Worth or  Richmond, Wiley’s retrospective exhibit will be coming through your cities in the next year, and so you’ll be able to invite this work into your listening, too.

Whitney

I stopped to check out the new Whitney during my New York residency.  The museum’s architecture is stunning, designed to interact with the outside space in thoughtful and provacative ways.  Walking from floor to floor through utilitarian stairways, one is confronted with panoramic, wall-sized glimpses of New York, windows that take you to disparate views of the Hudson River, the city skyline, and the Department of Sanitation.  On the top several floors, doors lead off from the galleries to interconnected outdoor spaces that function as hybrid sculpture gardens and observation decks.  There the full circumference of the Manhattan cityscape is on view right alongside thoughtful selections of contemporary art that range from your typical sculpture garden selections to video projections and Mary Heilmann’s brightly painted Sunset chairs that invite you to engage with both the art and the space around it.

And because that cityscape is being viewed from the Whitney’s new downtown location, it includes not just the iconic outlines of landmark skyscrapers (which it does, breathtakingly), but also the jumble of smaller buildings — row houses and factories and brick and concrete and glass-fronted apartment buildings that have accumulated their New York identity on top of each other over the course of these layered centuries.  The engagement with outdoor space is not just a smart move for this ideally located new space, with its prime views and Highline connection.  It’s also deeply connected to the museum’s work, so that the views don’t just feel fancy but resonant.

The Whitney’s identity is uniquely linked to its stumbling, hodgepodge collection of modern American art, which started with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s acquisitions and grew into an examination of an American artistic identity that is as layered and disparate and cumulative as the New York skyline outside it.

And because this new location’s inaugural exhibit, America is Hard to See (which is as much a mission statement as showcase) reflects on themes of American landscape, these exterior views particularly resonate.  Stepping from the eighth floor’s 1930s depictions of gritty and grand skylines, the views out the stairwell windows feel like an extension of the work itself, an echoing across time and space, a moving between representation and living reality, a reaching forward from the past and out into our own lives.  Art won’t stay still in this new Whitney.  It’s dynamic, weaving in and out of galleries and the day-to-day of the contemporary city.  We cannot engage with it just in the circumscribed confine of the history of art; we take it with us, we carry it outside.

This fluidity is echoed in the exterior staircases which let you move from floor to floor, gallery to gallery, between movement and epoch, from the outside as well as through the interior elevators and staircase.

Architect Renzo Piano even created ways for light to infiltrate the space.  The top floor is lit in part through a ceiling-wide slant of sunlight.

And on the fifth floor, at the end of the gallery, a long couch-lined galley faces a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.  It is a peaceful spot, filled with people and soft murmurs.  Beyond: the sweep of river, the silent progress of water taxis and ships, the distant uplift of the Statue of Liberty.  This is a museum that asks us to take our impressions and reflections and look out.



Whitney

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

        

I first came to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the day after I arrived in New York, on a drizzly Saturday morning.  The garden was full of wisteria and rows of lush blossoming lilacs and the tail ends of cherry trees and tulips.  When I went back again this Tuesday, it as all bluebells and peonies and huge shocks of azaleas.  Rhododendrons that had just budded on my first visit erupted a week and a half later.

It’s like visiting a museum where the exhibit is constantly changing.

Newspaper

The other day I took a writing break and walked to a nearby cafe, where someone had happily left behind two sections of newspaper.  I do the overwhelming majority of my newspaper reading online — which is just fine.  I can barely keep up with the New Yorkers that invariably accumulate; nevermind stacks of newsprint.

And yet.

It is so nice once in a while to read a real, actual newspaper.

I read Jim Yardley’s article on southern Italian Olive Trees, which was by turns sad and lyrical.  He begins: “Across the stony heel of Italy, a peninsula ringed by the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, olive trees have existed for centuries, shaping the landscape and producing some of the nation’s finest olive oils.”

And continues: “The spittlebugs will start flying this month and have served as a primary vector of the outbreak, chewing on the leaves of infected trees and then carrying the bacterium to other, healthy trees, like an unseen wildfire.”

I want to admire Yardley’s evocation here: stony heel; the fortuitous word spittlebug, the language of which is so apt for the threading disease these insects will spread.

And the profoundly human dread that Yardley finds among the olive growers:

“‘We are scared to go to work in the fields in the mornings,’ said Pantaleo Piccinno, a major olive producer…  ‘You leave in the afternoon, and everything looks normal.  Then you return in the morning, and you see the first symptoms,’ he continued.”

Ah, how true is this impulse, this hands-over-eyes avoidance I know so well.

This is one of those articles where the beauty of the writing underlines the human and environmental heartbreak it depicts.  How interconnected a world we are, how laced with loss.

New York, Writing

I am currently housesitting for a friend in New York for a couple of weeks.  There is such a pleasure in the change of pace of working in this city after a month of writing in rural Virginia.

I am finding during this stage of the book writing process a strong inclination toward introversion.  In my borrowed New York City apartment, I read for hours every morning, take long walks around the neighborhood, through the Botanical Gardens, the park.  I read random articles and book snippets in the Brooklyn Public Library and in bookstores and from an abandoned copy of the New York Times at a nearby cafe.  I text my friend Erin and tell her what I plan to work on in my book that day.

Otherwise, I am so happy to be alone with my thoughts.

There is so much labor involved in book-writing.  So much time that is pure work, so much thinking and inhabiting and imagining.  I need so deeply to be alone with both the work of bookwriting, and the sometimes unrelated thinking that surrounds it.

In these years after my divorce, these unexpected years of my early thirties, I seem to be living in each span of months.  Planning my life in spurts of centeredness and certainty.  I do not know what the next spurt will bring me.  I know only the rightness of this moment.  And that I will need this time alone with my thinking in order to get to whatever’s next ahead of me.