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?)

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

Listening Lately: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens

On the way down to my VCCA residency last month, I caught this interview with Rhiannon Giddens and have been listening to her new album Tomorrow Is My Turn ever since.

She’s so open in talking about her own creative growth and the development of this latest project.

The album is potent: comprised of a diverse range of songs, it feels cohesive, and therefore radical in its multifaceted, holistic rendering of women’s voices.  And beyond that there is the pleasure of Giddens’ singing and the album’s deft arrangements, the coherence of her various influences.  We can hear on this album her passion for old American music and folk songs, her classical training and the years she’s spent developing and honing her particular talent, the imprint of spirituals and country and swinging downbeat grooves, and the occasional Celtic lilt of her part-time life in Ireland.

Giddens’ choices create an album at once intriguing and provocative, wideranging and empathetic and profoundly evocative.  In honoring this particular assemblage of women and their songs, she crafts what feels like a contemporary mandate.  This album insists on a certain, far-expanded and complicated understanding of where we’ve come from; it makes demands of us now.

(“Waterboy” feels like a particularly apt song to listen to this week as we all struggle to listen better and more empathetically.)

I’ve been particularly loving her renderings of “Black is the Color” and “Last Kind Words,” which sent me into a spiral of research the other night.  This recent piece of long-form journalism from the New York Times Magazine offers particularly valuable insight into this staggering song and the fascinating story behind the two women singers and guitarists who made it.

Museum Picks, VMFA

{Five favorites (+ one)}

On our trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Mom and I decided to pick two galleries to visit.  We opted for South Asian and 21st Century.

South Asian art always has such an appeal for me.  I love the architecture and sculpture and textiles.  VMFA has some particularly exceptional pieces, including an entire 19th century pavilion and silk Gujarat textiles so finely embroidered you are reduced to abject admiration of each tiny, precise, vibrant stitch.

Mom read Arabian Nights in its entirety one summer when she was a kid and has had an affinity for its jeweled-toned illustrations since.  So this North Indian / Mughal watercolor and ink illustration appealed to her right away.  Not unlike Scheherazade, this vina-playing yogini has completely captivated her audience.  Check out all those fine lines and darts of bold color.

One of the things I found myself thinking about as we walked through the South Asian gallery is how cross-cultural and geographically interconnected artist creation has always been.  The museum’s curatorial staff believe the illustration is a Mughal copy of a North Indian painting.  The embroidered textile was created in the worldwide embroidery center at Gujarat, which traded textiles to the European market.

After an obstacle-ridden year, Ganesha has had a lot of resonance for me lately as the remover of obstacles.  And in his correlative role as the lord of new ventures and patron of arts and letters, he feels like a good presence to hold onto during this new year of risk-taking and book-writing.  Back in November, when I was just beginning to wrap my head around this new adventure, Mom spent a weekend with me in Baltimore, and we went down to check out the Ganesha at the Walters Art Museum down the street from my apartment.  This week Mom overcame a few of her own big obstacles, so with both of us starting new ventures, this Dancing Ganesha feels fittingly celebratory.

The 21st Century gallery was a great complement to the South Asian collection: equally fabulous and, in its own way, both as spare and as ornamental.  Barry McGee bought empty liquor bottles from nearby San Francisco Mission District hobos and painted them with portraits of their owners.  This clean-lined piece carries a lot of tangled social commentary and resists being reduced into any one, simple message-based meaning.  Yet for all its interest in societal observation, the piece is also deeply human.  The portraits are expressive and startling in their empathetic reach.

Mom and I both stopped to sit for a while with Mickalene Thomas and her Interior: Two Chairs and Fireplace.  The rich pattern and ornamentation of this rhinestoned 1970s-inspired interior has put all kinds of art history into play, including all those early-Nice Matisse interiors I love.

And though we had chosen our two galleries, we couldn’t help but stop briefly in 20th Century to admire Beauford Delaney’s stunning portrait of Marian Anderson*, which is too arresting and luminous and potent not to see in person.

*(And certainly too brilliant for my phone’s camera, so I’ve borrowed this picture of it from VMFA.)

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts / Road Trip

  

With my spring VCCA residency wrapping up, my mother flew down to Richmond to join me for an impromptu mother-daughter road trip back up to the (reportedly still snow-patched) north.

We headed right for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I’ve been dying to see, and even more so since I found out about the Chihuly glass installation commissioned for their courtyard.  The sculpture garden did not disappoint: lush and green and spacious, and full of modern pieces installed in dynamic interaction with their surrounding space.  People from Richmond had wandered in for lunch at brightly painted cafe tables scattered on the various patios and for picnics on blankets on that hearty green expanse of grass.

We headed up to Amuse for the most sumptuous lunch I’ve had at any museum restaurant (I’m still dreaming of that coq au vin and fresh-baked herbed bread).  And there’s nothing quite like enjoying an exceptional meal with an aerial view of Henry Moore and red glass-reed Chihuly.

Our favorite piece in the garden wound up being Jun Kaneko’s ceramic Untitled, Mission Clay Pittsburgh Project, which you can see in the first picture and which, along with some of Kaneko’s other work, is the largest freestanding sculpture made of clay.  The medium is so unexpected; there is an organic feel to this even form, and Kaneko evokes an expressive depth through the splashed glaze and richly patterned surface.  We were transfixed.

Current Reading

{The Paris Review + Chai Green Tea}

The interview with Hilary Mantel in the new Paris Review is amazing.  And it’s such ridiculously good timing as I work on this book of historical fiction and wrestle through its myriad attendant challenges.

Mantel talks pretty frankly about this writing process:

When I come to write what I call a big scene, especially in… any historical material, I prepare for it.  Whatever I’ve done on that scene, I put aside.  I read all my notes, all my drafts, and all the source material it’s derived from, then I take a deep breath, and I do it.  It’s like walking on stage — with the accompanying stage fright.

And, she continues:

When I’m writing a novel about historical figures, I have to be everybody.  It’s strenuous…. When people are real, though dead,… I consider them my responsibility.

It is a heady business, this writing fiction set in the past.  So happy to have come across this new interview.

Plus, perennially grateful for the stash of green tea my mother sent to Virginia for my residency.  The chai in this blend cuts any bitterness when, writing along mid-scene, I invariably forget and leave it over-steeping.

Hey Baltimore & DC, What a Weekend!

Baltimore and DC, you all have the best weekend coming.  Jonathan Harper’s new collection Daydreamers comes out tomorrow and One More Page Books in Falls Church is feting the launch with a 5:00 reading and party.  You can (and should) buy this fantastic new book and put it at the top of your list for spring reading.

Daydreamers

The BMA is also getting in on the weekend action with a Contemporary Print Fair on Saturday and Sunday, which is an terrific opportunity to pick up original new art and see and support contemporary talents.

And up the road, the Smith College Club is hosting its inimitable and enormous annual book sale all weekend.

Smith College Book Sale 2015

And because this weekend really is the best, you can continue the party with a Silent Art Auction and Celebration of the Arts gala (complete with emerging performing artists), brought to you from my old friends at the Howard County Arts Council.  Tickets start at just $50 — a steal!

Book Research, Japan

My research in Japan has been more amorphous than my research in Seattle and Hawaii, where my days were scheduled into tight timelines of meetings and archives appointments.  Which is not to say that my time here is freewheeling by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, my trip to Japan is charted by the geography and trajectory of my book.  My days here are organized by research.

It’s just that the nature of this research is different.  In Japan I visit temples, shrines, Taisho buildings, specific houses and villages that appear in the book, the few remaining pre-war Tokyo neighborhoods.  And even as I make careful notes on architectural detail and landscape and historic references, I understand that my research here also encompasses a more nebulous set of impressions and observations and thoughts.

Here I am tracing a vanished landscape.

One of the great challenges of writing this book set in Japan and Hawaii and a few other places during the second World War, is that so little survives of that landscape.  Places are paved over, torn down, bombed out, rebuilt.  And in some ways this confers both a freedom of imagination and the obligation that comes with it.  We can know these places only through invention, through the access fiction alone can give us to our past.

For the section of the book that’s set in Japan, I am gathering the intangible.  I am looking for a felt sense, an imaginative access point.  For all the small cues and sensations that later become the fuel and spark and sustenance of creative work.

I do not know yet what they will be or how they will enter my work.   Only that they will arrive as I remain present in these places, and that I will trust in the unforeseen ways they might infiltrate and populate my book.  So much of artistic process is this gathering, this blind trust.  Allowing ourselves to float suspended and see what connects.