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.

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires

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.

Resolutions and Rivulets

Two years ago, at a New Year’s Day brunch in New York City, my partner Tim and I made a resolution:

Write a book.  Record an album.  Enjoy.

(Somewhere, there is a video of us resolving this.)

These weren’t resolutions we expected to accomplish in one year, but resolutions for our largest and most important goals as artists.  And for two years, they’ve been the guiding forces of our lives.

On New Year’s Day this year, we whiled away the entire day in Cambridge — first at Starbucks, perched above Harvard Square, then for several blissful book-browsy hours, at the Harvard Coop.  As I have done most days this year, I worked on my book.  And sitting looking out over the Square, I thought about those resolutions we made.

Tim’s album Rivulets was released today.  Five years in the making, Rivulets is his best work yet.  Dynamic new jazz compositions, filled with a sense of expansion and play.  Check it out:

Announcing Rivulets!

Rivulets is a dynamic album of new compositions from jazz pianist and composer Tim Peck. In support of this release, Tim Peck Trio will take Rivulets on tour in March, with anticipated tour stops in Boston, New York, Baltimore, Nashville, and other cities. Visit www.tpeck.com to learn more.

Building on the strengths of the trio’s 2007 release, Ms. Matched, Rivulets explores intersections between composed and improvised music in the trio format. By combining influences from modern jazz, contemporary classical, and international music genres, Rivulets creates a series of dynamic new vehicles for improvisation.

The members of Tim Peck Trio are in-demand musicians in the greater Boston jazz scene, and have performed with such musical luminaries as George Garzone, Bob Gullotti, Charlie Kohlhase, and Ben Schwendener. The trio has developed an engaging group sound, and Rivulets showcases its lyricism and conversational interplay.

Tim Peck Trio is Tim Peck, piano; Sean Farias, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums.

 purchase Rivulets on 
iTunes • Spotify • CD Baby • Bandcamp

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

Morocco

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.

National Book Awards

Years ago, when I was just a couple years out of college, and missing the experience of intensive community reading , I decided to read all of the National Book Award Finalists in Fiction before the winner was announced.  I thought it would be fun to understand how the panel was thinking about contemporary literature — and to see whether I agreed with their choice of winner.  But most of all I wanted to challenge myself with that kind of deep, engaged reading again.  And the books I read that year opened me during a time when I was just starting to understand myself as a reader and a writer in our contemporary canon.

Tonight I loved getting to live stream the National Book Awards, which felt like such an electrifying experience.

And then, to top off the night, there was this:

So thanks to my love for engaging with me in vocal couch-side cheering tonight, and to everyone who does the difficult, arduous, empathic, and euphoric work of writing new books.

I’m halfway through Ta-Nehisi Coates’s exceptional Between the World and Me, but I haven’t read the other NBA winners yet.  Have you read any of them?  What did you think?

Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Twice now, I have gone to the Brooklyn Museum to see Zanele Muholi’s portrait, video, and installation exhibit, Isibonelo/Evidence.  Muholi’s portraits of South African lesbians occupy one long wall of the gallery.   In the photographs, the women look straight at the camera with the full force of their individual strength and identities.  As portraits unto themselves, the work is captivating.  The photographs are displayed close together and en mass, stretching across three long, tight rows that extend almost the full length of the gallery.  They are sharp and arresting: compelling as portraiture even without their context.

But Muholi’s work derives further impact from its context, and the exhibit is as much installation as portrait gallery.  Isibonelo/Evidence evolved as a form of response to the dire and mounting instances of rape, murder and violence against lesbian women in South Africa.   Flanking the portrait wall in the Brooklyn Museum are two chalkboard panels: one with the daunting facts of violence laid out in the disturbing, orderly neatness of a timeline.  In it, Muholi records incidents of violence against South African lesbians.

On the opposite panel, handwritten messages chronicle women’s experiences of rape, beatings, and murder, the threats they face and fear they live with.  They talk about the practice of ‘corrective rape’ – based on the horrifying notion that through rape men can ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual identity.  It’s a devastating thought, the very mention of which feels like a physical gut-punch.

In response to this violence that surrounds them, the portraits become actualized: they are in themselves radical acts of self-definition and defiance.  The women Muholi photographs look right at us. It is a challenge for action and compassion.  And it is undoubtedly also an act of courage.  By sitting for their portraits, the women have revealed their lesbian identity to an audience that may include the very men who perpetrate this astounding violence.

Muholi’s portrait project is art and it is beyond art.  It is action.  It is advocacy and protest and self-identification in its profoundest sense.

The Brooklyn Museum has a particular commitment to exhibiting art that engages with contemporary injustice.  And leaving Muholi’s exhibit, I thought about how the experience of seeing her work, and Kehinde Wiley‘s before it, feels qualitatively different from the experience of reading a newspaper, which often leaves me with a feeling of hands-thrown-up hopelessness.  Here though, I felt humbled and dazed and spent and also engaged.  I didn’t feel the hopeless resignation sparked by even some of the best journalism.  Instead I felt a heightened sense of empathy and activism in the face of pain.

There are still two more weeks to see Isibonelo/Evidence, and I highly recommend it.  The exhibit will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through November 8.

Upcoming Readings

This has been a year of incredible progress on my first short story collection.  With the generous support of a Ruby Grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, I was able to spend almost a year focused entirely on my writing.  I traveled to Seattle, Japan, and Hawaii and conducted research that caused my book to shift and grow in directions I’d never expected.   The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts then gave me a home and a community in which to write new stories for Moon Over Sand Island.

So I am beyond thrilled to finally be able to share a few sneak previews of the new stories in the collection.  This fall I’ll be giving two readings in Baltimore.  I’ll be reading at the Starts Here! Reading Series this Monday, September 21. Then on Sunday, October 4, all of this year’s four inaugural Ruby Grant recipients in literature will be coming together to give a reading at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.  (See details below.)  At each of these events, I’ll be reading different stories from Moon Over Sand Island.  I would love for you to join in the fun!

STARTS HERE!

Monday, September 21
7:00 pm
Artifact Coffee
1500 Union Avenue, Baltimore

 

The Ivy Bookshop

Sunday, October 4
5:00 pm
The Ivy Bookshop
6080 Falls Road, Baltimore