Photo Exhibit

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Medina

For a long time now, photography has given me an alternate creative medium, alongside my work as a writer. This past summer, my partner Tim and I traveled through Spain and Morocco collaborating on a new photography project.  Some of the resulting images are now on view at Silver Circle Art Center in Putnam, CT.

If you’ll be in New England, you can see our work in the Art Alley outside of Silver Circle through June 30th. Those of you further afield can also view and purchase prints from our show.  I’ve included a selection of images from the exhibit below. To order prints or see additional images, contact Silver Circle here — or just send me a note.

p.s. You can learn more about the first photography project Tim and I collaborated on here.

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Pajaros in Blue

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Siesta, Chefchaouen

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Fes, Morocco

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Andalucian Hills

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View of Sevilla

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Kissing at the New York Public Library

Tim and I went to the New York Public Library a couple weeks ago and saw the exhibit about its legendary Picture Collection.  It’s been the source of inspiration for myriad artists and writers over the past century — everyone from Andy Warhol to Diego Rivera sourced images through the library’s collection.

We pulled out a portfolio labeled “Kissing” — here, in honor of Valentine’s Day, are five of my favorites.


NYPL Kissing 5

Hassan Hajjaj

This summer, as I was getting ready for my trip to Morocco, I came across this article by Mickalene Thomas in the New York Times Style Magazine.  It’s a travelogue of her trip to Italy, where she participated in the “Black Portraiture{s} II” conference hosted by NYU.  But in addition to participating in the conference, she shared her unique glimpses into art and life in Italy, allowing us to see it too through her artist’s eyes, from graffiti to leather craftsmen to adverts.  She also shared some of the contemporary art she visited during her travels.

And the image she shared of one of Hassan Hajjaj’s photographs stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been trying to learn more about Moroccan art in advance of my trip: both the traditional artisan trajectories of textile artists and wood carvers and leather workers — and contemporary Moroccan art.  Hassan Hajjaj’s work is gorgeous: rich, sumptuous colors; portraiture that plays with Moroccan motifs and textiles and is unabashedly modern.

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

I didn’t get a chance to see any of Hajjaj’s work during my travels in Morocco, but have kept an eye on his work since I first came across him.

So imagine my surprise when I met a friend at the Worcester Art Museum this weekend and found they had a full-on Hassan Hajjaj installation (on exhibit through March 6).  Hajjaj’s work is even more luminous and texturally active in person: the photographs of such a high resolution that the textiles have a palpable tactile quality, the borders of the photographs woven.

The exhibit at WAM is part portrait photography, part video installation, part environmental immersion.  And seeing Hajjaj’s work in this context gave it new dimension.  The exhibit’s walls are painted with patterns borrowed Moroccan textile and decorative motifs.  And the installation includes furniture Hajjaj designed fusing sources such as the traditional leather Moroccan ottoman and the utilitarian material culture of contemporary life: milk crates, plastic paint buckets.

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj (source: Worcester Art Museum)

Titled “My Rock Stars,” the exhibit features portraits of contemporary musicians whose work has inspired Hajjaj and a dynamic film installation of their performance work.  Having just returned from a stay in Essouira, the Gnawan music felt particularly powerful, though the real impact of the film installation came from the collaging of sounds as distinct, individually compelling, and collectively texturally rich as these.

The exhibit is a must-see if you find yourself in New England.  And Hajjaj an artist to watch no matter where you live.

I am crushed that I missed his visit to WAM earlier this year.  So here’s this for an intention: Let my work matter enough that someday Hassan Hajjaj will photograph me.

 

Mickalene Thomas

I’ve been fascinated by Mickalene Thomas since I saw her piece at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this spring.  I’ve seen a few of her pieces in person since then, and have found her interiors particularly interesting.  Thomas’s work in her portraits and her interiorscapes is often lush and richly materialed.

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Mickalene Thomas’s Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I have found myself increasingly compelled by the creative capacity of material culture in my own  life: drawn to textile and ceramic and the richness of interior space.  A year or two ago on one of my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s inimitable Cone Collection, it occurred to me how important surrounding himself with material culture — and particularly textiles — had been in Matisse’s work, and how resonant that feels in my own creative life.

Thomas’s work has always struck me as falling into this same lineage.  Full of the energy of material, both in her subject and her technique.

So I was delighted to see this video of Thomas’s home this week.  (And it includes a Matisse!)

For more on Mickalene Thomas and her work, I was fascinated by her reflections on interior space and her own artistic evolution in this interview.

Maui / Oliver Sachs

A few days into my Hawaii research trip this year, I woke up before dawn and drove down the dark, windy roads from Wailuku to Lahaina.  I had yet to see Maui during daylight, having arrived late the night before.  I took this research trip on a tight budget, relying on the public bus systems of six cities, springing occasionally for the economy class on trains.  But twice in Hawaii I’d had to rent cars to reach farther-flung courthouses and archives, and the previous night at the Maui airport my bargain-basement car rental got upgraded to a Mustang sports car.  It revved when my foot approached the pedal, and I guided it warily around the local streets from the airport to my Wailuku hostel.  In the dark pre-dawn hours, when I headed out for the next day’s research, a light beneath the car door shone a shoe-sized mustang onto the pavement below.

I wound my way from the middle of the island to its western edge.  The darkness of a Maui dark is complete.  The road arced under trees, eventually lined the coast.  I trusted in the darkness that substituted for landscape, sensed rather than saw the ocean, the West Maui mountains overhead.  Before daybreak, I parked on a Lahaina residential street and made my way to the downtown port where I would board my ferry to Lana’i.  I sat on a rock and waited by the clapboard ticket shed.

There was so very little discretionary time on this research trip.  Most days I had barely enough time to get from one archive to the next; usually I was running, scribbling notes on a bus.  I ate granola from Down to Earth by the handful.  Once in a while, I would stop and stand in stilled awe: face-to-face with a place my book described.  At night, I typed notes, prepared the next day’s questions, put on reserve yet more materials from the Hawaiian and Pacific Collections at the University of Hawaii.

Occasionally there would be random moments of stillness.  Like that morning, in the dark by the dock of Lahaina, waiting for the ferry to Lana’i.  And in those few minutes of silence I found this op-ed in that morning’s New York Times: Oliver Sachs had terminal cancer (he has since died).  He had this to say: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

So much of my own life is a vacillation between my richest, most productive life and periods of compromise.  A life in the arts is immensely rich: it opens me to wonderful, thoughtful friends and acquaintance who care deeply about the world and create beautiful work.  It opens me to endless curiosity and exploration, it gives me a regular pathway to empathy, and to the great joy of creative work.  It demands that I take risks.  I am happiest when I am in these moments, facing risk, focusing on my work, stretching, growing, building momentum.  My life is not always that: for periods of months or years I often feel stagnant, focused on my income-sustaining second career, which I have not always found as enlivening as my first.

I am so grateful to have had Oliver Sachs’ words resonating alongside my book that morning.  In the dawning sun, I attended carefully to the details of landscape from the ferry.  Soon, I will be describing that landscape (not this one, photographed, but the one I saw of Lana’i, just forty minutes afterwards) in the pages of my book.  In the moment that morning, I was completely present.  And I was also removed: aware of just what it was to be there and to be my most purposeful.

If you haven’t read the Sachs op-ed yet, please do.  His reflection has the charge of a mission statement.  Here is what I would like my life to do:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  — Oliver Sachs

This Year / Hawaii

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It has been an extraordinary year.  In the course of it, I have traveled in four continents, written my book, built a partnership with a wonderful man, roadtripped with my mother, and connected with dear friends — old and new.  There have been moments in this process — following, as it does, a period of pain — when I have been stunned by life’s capacity for growth and resilience and adventure.

In February, in the middle of my book-research trip, I flew to Hawaii.  I had been to Hawaii once before, at the very beginning of writing my book.  In all the years since, as I’ve worked on the stories in my collection, I have compiled a list of archives and museums and historic sites I’ve longed to visit.  For all these years, I have imaginatively accessed World War II Hawaii, my characters wandering through its hotels and sugar cane fields and internment camps.  But it’s an expensive trip, and I never expected to be able to go back to finish my research.  I found creative solutions; I made do.

When I received my grant last fall — this grant that has changed my life — I almost hesitated to take my research trip.  I had so thoroughly accepted that I wouldn’t get to engage with this creative work, that I could not even recognize how deeply I wanted to.

In the end, I traveled from Japan to Hawaii on a long, backward-through-time, overnight flight.  As soon as I saw the land of Hawaii through the plane window, I felt in my full body the rightness of the moment.  All day as I walked through Honolulu, prepping my notes, walking through spaces that I have inhabited so long in my own book, I just kept thinking, dear life.  It is the title of an Alice Munro collection that I quite like, and that day it also felt like an unprompted prayer.  Here is where that scene takes place, here is a room I wrote about looking just as I imagined it, here is the very building where they danced in that story.  Such an extraordinary homecoming, to come home to places you have never been but so long imagined.  To come home and walk around inside your own book.  Dear life.

There have been difficult moments in the months since, times when the writing has been difficult, or when I have felt unmoored, uprooted, or times when I have felt unspeakably discouraged with myself and the progress of my life.  There have also been moments of such joy and clarity they’ve astonished me.  These, let me hold onto.

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?)