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.

Fang Lijun Woodblock, Seattle

One of my research stops in Seattle was the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.  I was primarily there to visit some of the older pieces in the collection, but I stopped into the contemporary galleries, too, and was completely captivated by this large-scale woodblock print No. 19 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun.  I really like the linear textiles contrasted against the soft sinuous shadows.  The piece renders its figures with such sensitivity — and on a monumental scale.