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.

To the Boathouse

{Lakeside, Sweet Briar}

This spring I’m down at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for a residency.  I’m already well into a long draft of the book’s second-to-last story. With all the bookwriting, there’s not a lot of mojo left for blog posts.  But there are long walks to the Sweet Briar boathouse with its spindling floors and greening, weather-gnawed clapboards and the music of the lake on those old woodwind pilings.  The perfect antidote to these lengthy days (and late nights) of writing.

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.

Sugimotodera

I arrived at Sugimotodera Temple just after four o’clock, after a long afternoon of being lost.  My map was stretched to fit the dimensions of the page on which it was printed, and so northbound streets slanted west, and the map’s roman alphabet transcriptions of road names meant nothing next to the Japanese street signs.  I was actually aiming for Hokokuji (not, as it turns out from subsequent days’ explorations, too far away), but I came upon Sugimotodera first and stopped, transfixed by that light.

I was lucky the monk let me in; it was late in the day for Japanese temples.  Most close around four or four-thirty.  But I’d been walking such an awfully long time by that point, and I suppose it showed.

By the time I arrived, the temple had emptied of anyone who’d visited earlier in the day, and I was here in this space by myself.  Striking, how quiet and bright it was on the hillside after the busy grey streets.  How the air cleansed.  I stayed until the border of my welcome, drinking in this yellow light, these white banners, which in my foreign eyes turn to pattern and shape.  It is so liberating to be freed of text.

The stairs here are cobbled and worn by footsteps.  They slant and waver, tilt into themselves and tumble together.

The wooden temple glows in the afternoon light, the warm boards coppered and golden.  Under dense roof thatching, it stands on its slender stilts, this steady scaffolding.

These Women

As I get ready to leave for Japan, I think a lot about these women.

In the 1970s my mother traveled alone to Japan on her annual leave from Pan Am.  This photo is from shortly after her return: my mother (on the left) and my aunts.  These strong, ambitious, adventurous women who are part of the tapestry of people I love and on whose support I stand.

Bookshopping: Powell’s

Powells

I’ve been going to Powell’s Books for decades; it’s my favorite bookstore.  During my few days in Portland, I went to Powell’s in the afternoons to do a little bookbrowsing and miscellaneous research-trip preparation (and to visit this novel, which arrived home the day I posted about it.)

Powells

One of the things I like about Powell’s is the way it mixes new and used books together on the same shelf.  So you can find all the copies of a book in one place and pick the one — and the pricepoint — that suits you.  There’s a way that this arrangement makes the experience about the books themselves and not about which spending bracket you fall into.

This is echoed even in the featured shelves of award winners and recommendations.  New and used books are mixed together here, as well.  And the Award Winner shelves don’t only promote this year’s winners, but mix in award winning books and writers from all different timeframes.  These books have value and weight and contemporary relevance at Powell’s far after date of publication.  Good books resonate.  In an era of flash news, it feels good to be someplace where we can circle back on an novel, revisit.  Where these books from decades apart are weighted together in the same conversation — alphabetized on the feature shelves so that they stop being temporal and abut each other across time and content.

Powell’s has a whole huge room devoted to its featured shelves and tables — and does a remarkably creative job at recommending books to us.  There is a “Choose Your Adventure” table full of books about people traveling to other places, and a “Knockout Narratives” table of essay collections, where Consider the Lobster and Sloane Crosley’s new collection and Marilynne Robinson all feel at home.

Their recommendations in general are robust and wide-ranging, including both the oft-cited new books receiving critical acclaim and well-written new books that have gotten little attention.  Because in the end there are so many wonderful new books written, and we wind up reading and hearing about so few.  Powell’s allows some of those we’ve missed to resurface.  I find things here that I wouldn’t otherwise, and am grateful for the books I come across when I visit.

Powell’s has multiple branches scattered through Portland and one of the most active, ambitious reading series in the country.  So huge its main location requires a map and several solid days to explore fully, Powell’s is a cornerstone in our national literary culture.

I am fortunate that it has also been a recurring fixture in my life as a reader.  On this visit, I was thinking about how I might write about Powell’s, and I thought about how it’s a place to check in with regularly, to visit and revisit.  It’s a part of the rhythm of my reading.

Even during the years when I’m not able to visit in person, Powell’s is my default for ordering books online.  And in those moments when you aren’t able to buy from a local bookstore, I urge you to do your online buying from Powell’s, too.  Because this bookstore is an integral part of how we think and talk about and read books here in our country, and it’s important that we support it.

Reflective Day in Portland

Reflective Day in Portland

Between stops on this research trip, I planned a few days in Portland, Oregon.  My extended family is from Portland, and I used to visit every few years.  Growing up, I always believed I’d wind up living in Oregon.  Still for me, there is a sense of coming home when I go to the Pacific Northwest.  My body relaxes into belonging.

On this visit, I stayed at my great-aunt and uncle’s house on the hillside.  I love this house — its energy and views and the way it admits daylight.  I wish I reserved the word love for places like this one.

I’ve learned on this research trip how important these few days of reflection can be.  For the most part, my research has been conducted on this trip at a pretty relentless pace.  In between Seattle and Japan, these few days in my great-uncle’s study overlooking the trees gave me an opportunity to gather my thoughts, to process information and impressions.

It felt right to do so in this space that belonged to my great-aunt and uncle, who had their own connections to both Japan and Seattle.  In the sunlit quiet of their living room, I looked through their 1930s jazz records, poured tea from their Japanese teapot.  It felt good to be connected with them across time through these shared spaces.

University of Washington

As I’ve been walking through the University of Washington campus this week researching for a story in my collection that’s set, in part, here in Seattle in the 1930s, it’s occurred to me that my father’s father was a student at the University of Washington not much after that.

My father’s father, who died a few years ago, wasn’t one to share much about his past.  But he came to school here at the University of Washington as a newly orphaned teenager.  He played the flute and the piccolo and diligently studied science.  In just a few years his life would take an entirely new arc: he’d join the army, study medicine, go oversees, settle east.

In subject and content the stories in my collection have nothing to do with my family.  Yet the idea for the first story sparked from a letter my mother’s father wrote home from wartime Hawaii.  By coincidence, through the winding intricacies of research, the last story in my collection has led me to Seattle.  Somehow, twelve years and 3,000 miles later, this book that started with the letters of one grandfather has now brought me to the other.