Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Gates

This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of The Gates, Christo and Jean Claude’s monumental work which transformed Central Park for two weeks in February, 2005; 7,503 vinyl rectangles holding orange curtains, standing along 23 miles of pathways in the Park.

Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are know for their site specific works of art, particularly wrapping large objects, like the Reichstag in Berlin.  They worked on this project for years,  and met with mighty resistance until our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “Sure, let’s do it.”  I love him for that. We were still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there are things we never get over, we have to move on and doing something huge just for art, for fun, for the heck of it, had great appeal.

I was able, through the New York Artists Circle, to sign up to become a worker in a gray smock, carrying a long pole with a tennis ball at the tip.  Our job was to stand guard at our station, deter vandals and when the wind wound the curtains around their supports to unwind and set them free.
I found it enchanting.  There was a snow storm the night before my first day and the saffron curtains were even more brilliant against the white.  Here I am at my post, clearing the path and learning once again that shoveling snow is a great way to keep warm.

Look at the way the puddles reflect the color of the curtains. And doesn’t my pink hat look nice against the orange? I wish I still had that hat in January of 2017.

I thank my friend, Carol Leibenson, for finding this shot in her files when I had lost it.

Here we are getting our smocks autographed by the artists.  I'm a New Yorker and I would die before asking a famous person for an autograph but this was different. I am in awe of these two and what they achieved.

Central Park, so often deserted in winter, came alive.  Every morning I walked past the statue of the King of Poland, looking over Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn.  Now there was a curtain in front of him and as the sun rose behind him in the east I thought, “Wow, he’s never seen his shadow before! I wonder how he likes it?”

The whole world came to celebrate, especially Christo and Jean-Claude’s biggest fans, the people of Germany.   I asked one visitor, “So who’s running Germany while all you guys are over here?”
There was the most lovely feeling of community under those arches. The whole project was completely open and democratic; it reached every square foot of the park and you couldn’t pay more to get a better seat.  It was for everyone.  A young man came up to me and asked, “How do I get to the Gates?” And I said, “You’re here!”

Dogs are allowed off the leash in the park before nine am, so they’d come out to play and their human companions would visit.

My partner was a young woman who was also not tall so we couldn’t always reach high enough to unwind the curtains.  A tall man came along with his family and helped us; when he freed the cloth his children yelled, “Yay, Daddy!”

 The hotdog venders, usually lucky to make a hundred dollars on a winter day, were raking in the money—as much as a thousand dollars a day.

My son, Sam, called me on my cell and said, “Mom, it’s really cold today.  Can I bring you some extra warm clothes?”

The  project was funded entirely by the sale of Christo’s artwork. There were no volunteers. Although many of us would have participated for nothing; everyone got paid. When I received a check for three hundred and fifty dollars Sam said, “Mom, you should buy yourself something nice with that money, because you worked hard for it...and...have you given away ten percent?”  So some of my lessons had taken root.  I asked him where I should direct my tithe and he suggested an organization working to legalize marijuana.

“Uh, anything else?”

He was working as a barista, so he suggested I increase my tips whenever I got coffee. "There's nothing like finding a five in the tip jar!" So for the next month I was a big tipper.  It was a ripple effect of the Gates.

And then it was over; the gates were taken down and all materials were re-cycled.  Nobody could buy a gate and put it up in their yard.  That ephemeral nature added to the magic.

I was so impressed--awed, really, that I asked myself what I had done to come anywhere close.  I remembered that when I stood and gazed up at Mount Rushmore I asked myself, “Should I be working bigger?”

I had always wanted to start an exhibition program at my church.  I served as co-chair of a capital campaign to restore the church’s south wing, an 1874 McKim Mead White Gothic Revival that had suffered some years of neglect. One of our dreams was to hang art in the beautiful Great Hall. But after raising more than a million dollars and overseeing design and construction and listening to the church members who hadn’t done the work but didn’t like the results, my co-chair and I took some time off from church work.

Then Christo and Jeanne-Claude inspired me.  If they could pull off the Gates, after twenty years of negotiating and planning, surely I could persuade the church to hang some pictures in the Great Hall.  I presented my idea to our pastor, Jon Walton, and he replied that a church in the Village should serve the artistic community.   The result was Art at First, a program of exhibiting art by emerging or unknown artists.  We've had some great shows.

 It’s much more fun to be in the game than to watch it, and if you think you can’t do something, just give it another go.  You might be surprised.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Addendum To Brown

In talking about things I love that are brown how could I have forgotten Lucy?

After Jessie and Sam left home I knew it was time for a dog.  Arthur kept saying all the mean dad things like, it's too much work, you won't take care of it, on and on.

But he was planning behind my back and on my birthday this little bundle of love flew in from Council Bluffs, Oklahoma.  Her kennel name was Stormy but thank Heaven we changed that. It was just like when I met Arthur--I knew at once that we were meant for each other.

I described Lucy as "the love of my life" in front of Sam, who reminded me that's a term I should reserve for my husband.  Well, yes, Arthur's very nice, but he doesn't wiggle all over with joy every time he sees me.

This year for my birthday Molly made Lucy's portrait.  It's a great likeness, don't you think?

Friday, January 25, 2019


"Colois made for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart."
- John Ruskin

I agree with that. Coloris one of the things that make my life worth living. On the other hand, the wrong color can send me into a tizzy.  When my church installed a brown rug with orange zig zags in the lobby I hated it.  Just thinking about it kept me up at night.

    “How could they have picked it?” I whined to my friend, David.  “It’s so awful, it makes me feel parched just looking at it.”  And, worst of all, “Nobody asked me what I thought.”

    David said, “You know how people with perfect pitch hear a wrong note and it hurts their ears?  I think you may have perfect color pitch, and you’re extra sensitive, because, really, Barbara, I didn’t even notice that rug.”  He was right.  Some colors have all the powers for me that a cookie had for Marcel Proust.  Have I read Proust?   David says when asked that question we should always answer, “Well, not in English.”   I haven’t read Proust, but I’ve read about his magic cookie and the transporting powers of our senses.

My mother loved color.  She said,  “When you shop, don’t flip through all the dresses —just glance over the whole rack and only look at the ones that catch your eye."

In other words, it’s the color that counts.

She always dressed me in red.  Here I am in a red jumper—but look at my shoes.

That famous painter, Winston Churchill, said this about color; “I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”

I used to agree; Brownwas boring and even depressing. I keep two water jars on my drawing table to rinse my pens and brushes—one for the reds and one for the greens and blues. I hate the muddy greenish brown you get when you mix too many colors.

I once spent the summer in a house that was all brown--brown rug, brown walls, brown imitation marble kitchen counters. The sun never came out, it was rainy and chilly and I wore the same ratty blue sweater every day.  I thought it was the fault of all that brown until I remembered that it was the summer my grandmother died and oh yeah, I was in mourning. 

But  then I had a dream of a beautiful rich brown--yes, a dream that was just about a color--brown with a lot of red and gold flecks, and tiny green sprouts springing from it. It was gorgeous. It woke me up to the glories of brown.  It’s all the colors together in various combinations. It’s the earth, birthplace of so many good things.

Then along came Molly Louise, my granddaughter.  After generations of only bluegreen or gray eyes in our family, hers are a deep luminous brown. Can you be sparkly and velvety at the same time?

I will never speak ill of Brown again. Hazel, chestnut, umber, sepia, sienna, cocoa, fawn, bronze, amber, auburn, russet, mahogany; I love them all. 

Did I mention my mother’s maiden name is Brown?
Oh, yes, and chocolate.

In the house at the top brown plays a supporting role--bringing out the reds and greens.  Here's brown as the star of the show.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Song of the Bronx

This is one of my favorite drawings because it covers many of my obsessions; architecture, in particular Beaux Arts, New York City, baseball, the Yankees,(that's Babe Ruth) animals, angels.  Well, those ladies cavorting on the roof don’t have wings, but they might be angels.  I put then there to fill an empty space then decided they were too prominent so I shaded them.  There are always decisions to be made and I never plan ahead beyond a vague pencil sketch.  I like to let a picture evolve; sometimes there are nice surprises and sometimes there are disasters.  I never know. Does my perspective look a little off?  My Dad once said to me, "I like how you get things a little wonky."

The Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo stands at the head of Astor Court, a series of Beaux-Arts pavilions surrounding the sea lion pool.  The red brick buildings are adorned with sculpture to tell who lives inside.  This was the original zoo, opened in 1906.  It was progressive for its time but they've learned a lot since then about caring for wild creatures and the big animals have since moved to more commodious quarters.

I’ve spent some of my happiest hours here, starting with my fifth birthday party. That was back in the day when you just threw a gang of kids in the car and took off. Mom stowed the cake in the bottom of Alan’s stroller.

The years passed and Arthur and I took our own kids to the zoo. We always went early, arriving as the gates opened. We liked it best in winter, especially when it was really nasty out and nobody else came. The animals seemed glad to see us.  Once a sandhill crane came right up to us and rubbed his head on the bars as if he wanted a scratch.  And as we entered the Sea Bird Aviary this little penguin spotted us from across the pool, dived in, swam to us and popped up as if to say Hello. It was a lovely welcome. That's my hand in the blue glove.  I was tempted to tuck him under my coat and take him home but I didn't.

I was deep in my bird drawing period in those days and could have spent hours in the World of Birds but Sam, age three, walked out  saying,

“I seen enough birds.”

Now my kids take their kids to the zoo and the Elephant House is the Zoo Center but sometimes you'll find an animal there-like this White Rhino. Jessie took this shot and sent it to me--she knows about me and rhinos.

Here's Teddy making friends with a baby Llama--is he an alpaca?

The zoo is now part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. —saving species all over the world.
Here is their mission statement:

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: +1 (347) 840-1242.

It's a wonderful place that's brought me enormous happiness and  inspiration.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019


When I was little riding in the car at night I loved  seeing the trees when the headlights shone on them--I got the feeling that they had a life going on that I didn't know about; as if I had surprised them in some secret tree community life.

Years later, when droving to Vermont I would look at the elm trees that grew along Route 22-their bare branches twisting against the sky--they were so elegant, they seemed to be dancing.

I thought, and this is always a good idea--I should draw that. I went home and began to draw those trees from memory. I've never stopped drawing trees.  I've had other obsessions--Baseball, the Rhino, but when I feel dried up and no ideas come, I turn to a tree, maybe an image that caught my eye in a magazine, and I get to work.  As my hand moves my mind starts to wander and the ideas start to flow. Thank you, Trees.

Then all those beautiful  elms began to die from Dutch elm disease.  That was devastating-- was awful to see them lose their leaves in June and then have to be cut down, leaving only a stump to mark their place.

But there's hope.  The elms of Central Park, in New York City, were not affected.  Perhaps the disease carrying beetle couldn't make it in New York.  But botanists are developing a disease resistant strain of the elm.

Yay, science!  Yay, New York!  As Maira Kalman, an artist and writer I greatly admire, said, "We have trees, shat else do we need?"

Read about it here:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

I Have a Hawk on my Head

Yes, I have a hawk on my head.  I met this beautiful creature in Cuba.  I think her wings must have been clipped and that makes me sad, because she should fly, but I'm grateful to meet her face to face.  As she sat on my arm I marveled at her dainty talons.  Of course, if I were a mouse I might not find her so winsome.

I've been drawing birds for years, and I admire hawks especially. I made this drawing of two osprey as a gift for my grandmother. For years a mating pair made a home and raised their chicks in a tree at her home in Sag Harbor. They disappeared for a while, because of DDT. Then they came back. Thank you, Rachel Carson!

[As I wrote this, spell check changed "a mating" into "amazing", and that works for me.]

This makes me think of my brother, Rob Swanson, a photographer and former hang glider--I think that's as close to flying as a human can get.  He told me he once came up behind a hawk in flight and startled him badly.

Here's Rob's osprey.  I feel sorry for the poor fish, but that's life; the osprey has to feed his family.  Rob said, "You know, in the moment before he died, that fish had a chance to view the world in a way he never had before." I wonder what consolation that was?

For years Rob worked as a photographer for the Burlington Free Press.  During the 2016 presidential primaries his shot of a young Bernie Sanders celebrating his victory as mayor of Burlington was on every front page in the nation.  Now Rob's concentrating on birds.

You can see more of Rob's work at Rob Swanson Photography

When I'm with Rob I'm much more aware of the birds around us.  He especially loves to watch turkey vultures soar for hours on thermal air currents just like hang gliders. Or the other way around.

My grandson Teddy said, "I've heard bad things abut vultures."  But does he know the vulture's service to the earth?  Did you know that when cholera and other deadly diseases, often found in carrion, pass through the vulture's body they disappear?  Let's hear it for the Vulture--nature's sanitation engineer!

I continue to find it amazing that every living thing has a place and a purpose. It takes me to the Bible verse my grandparents took as their motto; Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord, to those that are the called according to His purpose."

I'll be writing about 8:28 in the future, about how it offers me great comfort and makes me scratch my head, perplexed, both in the same moment.

Here's another verse that has sustained me in times of despair; "They shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles."

Christmas in July

I've been feeling a little uninspired and overwhelmed by papers and stuff, torn by needing to clear the decks and get rid of everything ...