Thursday, May 30, 2019

An Extraordinary Painting

   Here is a painting that has fascinated me for years.

Young Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus In Front of

Three Witnesses 

by Max Ernst, 1891-1976

 I first saw this at the Museum of Modern Art—I think it was a show about surrealism but I can’t find it on MOMA’s website.  It’s a shocking painting, almost six feet tall as I remember it.  Mary is sitting in a shadowy corner of a de Chirico like space before a bright blue sky,  spanking the heck out of the toddler Jesus—so hard his little bottom is bright red and his halo has fallen to the ground.  It’s a violent image—all sharp angles and brilliant colors.  She wears a  red dress and her lap is covered with a blue robe. Her arm is high over her head—she’s really letting him have it. And she’s doing it in front of witnesses; there’s a window through which Ernst and his friends, Paul Elard and Andre Breton are watching. Why are they there? Their presence is creepy and voyeuristic.

    It knocked me out and raised a ton of questions.   At first I thought it might be a response to Ernst’s grand tour of Europe’s great museums and cathedrals and a glut of simpering Madonnas.

     John Russell said Ernst’s anger dates back to the death of his sister, Maria.  Ernst blamed his father, the Catholic Church and God.

     I didn't think much about Mary as I grew up; my grandmother never mentioned her. I think she didn’t want to tell me what a virgin was.  I can hear the conversation,
    “What’s a virgin?”
    “Well, she wasn’t married. “
    “Then how could she have a baby?”
    “Well, her husband didn’t know her.” 
    “How could they get married if he didn’t know her?”

    MomMom was relieved to keep Mary in the background. Ernst made Mary the center of our attention.

    Now that I know what a virgin is and how babies are made, I’m taking a closer look at Mary. So much of what I feel about her comes from the way artists, mostly men, have depicted her. Let's begin with the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she'll get pregnant and give birth to the son of God.

   Dante Gabriel Rossetti made her look like a patient in an asylum. She can't get far enough away from him and his lily.  She seems to be saying “Whatever you have in mind, just forget it!” 

 In Fra Angelico’s Annunciation the way she holds her stomach makes me think she’s about to be sick but then I see that her hands are mirroring Gabriel’s hands. And she says, “Oh, Ok.” 

    And then she sings the beautiful song that Bach wrote for her—The Magnificat; “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”  

         She’s all in. Traveling on a donkey in her ninth month?  That can’t have been fun. Giving birth in a stable?  Not something you want to try for yourself.

        I remember the moment when I had had enough of natural childbirth and said, “OK, give me some drugs.” The cheerful little nurse said, “Nope, too late.”  I wanted to kill her, and the feeling that washed over me was sheer terror. It only lasted a moment but I haven’t forgotten it.  I had it easy compared to Mary but she gets through it and you don’t hear her complain. She gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.

     This is The Adoration of the Shepherds--I don't know the artist.

     Look at her face- she really loves that baby. 

     She doesn’t get much time for bonding; pretty soon she’s got company.  She greets them graciously but in her place I might have said, “Thanks for the Frankincense and myrrh but what I could really use is some fresh swaddling clothes.  Maybe now you could all go away and let me sleep.”

    Then she and Joseph have to get out of town because King Herod is looking for them. He wants to kill the baby.  Back on the donkey and more traveling.

    Finally they get home to Nazareth and settle down to raise Jesus, the Son of God, God in human form, come to earth to rescue humans from their sin.   No pressure there.   

    As all human babies do, Jesus grew and developed a will of his own.  What did he do to set his mother off?  How long did she stay calm, answering his questions, persuading him to eat his supper and go to bed, before she finally lost it?     

       I once heard a child welfare advocate activist say,   
      “Anyone who says, ‘How could you hit a child?’  has never spent a day with a two-year-old.” 
    One of my church friends, at her wits end with her toddler, said, “Was Jesus ever a two-year-old?”  I wanted to show her this painting.  See?  Yes, Jesus was a two-year-old and even Mary could be driven crazy by a two-year-old's willfulness. 

    What did Max Ernst have in mind when he made this extraordinarily vivid painting? What did putting such anger on the canvas make him feel? Was it cathartic?  I have no idea. Do I care what he intended?  Not really.  He painted it, framed it and hung it up for all to see. That's the deal when you make art; you send it out into the world and let it inspire whatever it may. 

         I only know what it says to me.  It says Jesus was fully human, experiencing everything it means to be human, including a spanking. That’s my take. 

     Once again, art and faith have converged to show me something new and wonderful.  This irreverent painting has deepened my reverence for the heroism and humanity of Mary, the Mother of God.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

I Love My Neighborhood

I love my neighborhood, the Far West Village. In our early days here a visitor said, “Wow, you live in the Boonies.”

We moved into our home in 1981. It was only two blocks from where we had lived but Washington Street was a line of demarcation between the brownstones of the Greenwich Village Historic District and the factories and garages of our new block. It was remote and industrial but the building had an elevator and we were expecting our second child—who turned out to be Sam.  I’d had it with lugging toddler Jessie, the stroller, and the groceries to our third-floor walk-up.  In those days, Skippy peanut butter came in glass jars, and I was mortified that Jessie repeated what I said when I dropped an extra large jar and it smashed.

Our new block stood between two elevated roadways. To get to our place you walked under the  viaduct line of the NY Central Railroad, dodging what the pigeons roosting there dropped on the street. It was now disused but left alone because no-one knew what to do with it. It was right below our windows. t looked like a wild garden.

To the west, we were only steps away from the beautiful Hudson River but the remains of the Westside Elevated Highway, shut down in 1973 due to lack of maintenance, stood in the way.
 A great debate was raging as to what should replace it but in the meantime it moldered, rusting and crumbling, looking like a sleeping dragon. We never went near it.

Next door to us was the Superior Ink Company where the inks I used in my etchings were made.  Some neighbors didn’t like to smell the ink cooking but it was the aroma of art to me.  Across the street was a smokehouse whose smell I didn’t love; it was definitely not like bacon sizzling in the kitchen.

Directly across the street from us stood what was once a Police stable, then the studio and home of artist Lowell Nesbitt, of the massive flower paintings.  When our building became residential and he feared for his privacy he installed in all his windows large stained glass versions of his paintings—on the second floor vegetables, on the third floor, flowers.

When he turned on all the lights It was beautiful.

Lowell celebrated the cocktail hour every evening by inviting the young men who hung around the neighborhood to pose for him.  The entrance to his home was the ramp for the horses, and all the walls were covered with huge drawings of comely, naked young men.

Next door to Lowell was a garage filled with busses and a big sign that said,  “Learn to Drive a School Bus.”  Next door to the garage was a bar.

The meatpacking district was only a few blocks to the north; I mean the real Meatpacking District with real meatpacking and a lively, maybe even decadent nightlife. Remember where Glenn Close lived in Fatal Attraction?  That was our neighborhood.

In 1989 the remains of the Westside Highway were removed and we could see the river and New Jersey beyond.  We heard rumors about what would come next but not much happened—debate still raged.  We’d take walks there but it was still urban and gritty.

in 1991 the railway spur from Bethune Street To Gansevoort that went by our windows came down and real estate developers came sniffing around. The two now empty corner lots at Washington and West 12th quickly because construction sites. The plan for the building right next to us, 756 Washington Street, included a brick wall just twenty feet from our window but our neighbors got together and persuaded the builders to move to a different corner of the lot.  Phew.

Lowell Nesbitt moved away and Diane von Furstenburg took over his stable and the smokehouse.   After a few years she sold to a developer and in a twinkling everything-the smokehouse, the stable, the garage, Superior Ink, the bar on the corner—it all came down.  Now we had four construction sites on our block, all at the same time and another visitor said, “You live on the block from Hell.”
Well, not quite. I once overheard a young woman describe an ordeal she had live through,
“it was a living Hell but it could have been worse.”  It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t Hell.

Now, I have to say, our block is quite posh. There are two elegant apartment houses across the street.  The doorman at number 385 has the keys to our building and helps out if we forget ours and our doorman’s on a break.  He also keeps extra poop bags just in case.

The site of the little bar on the corner is still an empty lot, with grass growing.  I look there for dandelions.

756 Washington Street, which had threatened us with a brick wall has an open court yard planted with birch trees, a lovely little Japanese maple, and a pergola entwined with wisteria.

The Superior Ink site is a 17 story condo named the Superior Building; the doormen wear white gloves and always give us a friendly greeting as we walk by.  And we do walk by, because Hudson River Park has bloomed right under our noses.  Arthur and I walk there almost every evening.

Diane von Furstenberg left the block but she remained in the neighborhood and worked tirelessly to transform the old rail line into the High Line, an elevated park now a destination for visitors from all over the world; at least once a week someone with exotic accents asks me how to get there.

My sister-in-law said recently, “This place was pretty scary when you moved in.” Nice of her not to say it back then.  Did we feel scared? Did we feel like pioneers? We were just happy to find a place we could afford with an elevator. Did we know such dramatic changes were coming? We had no idea.
In Vermont they say, if you don’t like the weather wait a minute and it’ll change.  We waited 38 years.  We liked it then and we like it now.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Today is My Mother's Birthday

Today is my mother’s birthday.  She would have been ninety-two.  I can’t picture her as an old lady; she was vigorous up until the day she collapsed on the golf course.  I’m pretty sure that’s the way she wanted it.

 I was born on her twenty-first birthday.  I once, looking for some love, asked her,

“What was the best birthday present you ever got?”  I thought she’s say, “My darling baby girl.”

She replied, “I guess it was the blue bike I got when I was eight.”

“Hey, what about me?”

“Oh, right.  Well, you were nice too.”  Fishing for compliments never pays off.

 It was nice sharing a birthday with Mom. She was energetic and creative and I’d always have a great party.  Then Dad would do something nice for her.  The year I turned nine and she turned thirty I had the first slumber party of all my friends, and the next night Mom and Dad went into the city to have dinner and see The Music Man.  They brought home the cast album and I can still sing every song.
I have many gifts from my mother. One of them is Myopia. And I ‘m grateful for it.

When I met Arthur he was directing a play that had this line,
“The whole family was blind as bats; around that dinner table there were thousands of dollars worth of ground glass.”

“That’s funny, don’t you think? But unrealistic.” Arthur said.

“Well,” I said. “Maybe not...”  That was a pretty fair description of my family’s dinner table.  
When I was eight Mom noticed that I was squinting and a new ritual began.  Going to the eye doctor was important enough that I could skip school and Mom and I made a day of it.  We’d get dressed up and take the train into the city. It was the Long Island Railroad, so we probably arrived at the late great Penn Station, and how I wish I could remember that.

First the appointment, which was no big deal because eye doctors don’t give shots.  I’d pick out a frame, choosing for myself; my first pair was plaid with little scottie dogs at the corners.  
Afterwards we’d go out to lunch, maybe to the Automat, and then shop for a new winter coat. No little brothers, just Mom and me.

When I put those glasses on I was amazed at the change. Now I could see every leaf, every blade of grass without squinting. Maybe my love for drawing fine detail stems from that moment.
The new sharpness defined my other way of seeing. Without the details the glasses provided I became more aware of color.  I could shut out the world and turn inward, to my dreams and my imagination.  That didn’t serve my school work but it certainly helped my art.

Mom and I were both adept at whipping off the glasses when a camera appeared. In Junior High I only put them on in class.  But it was important to me to see who was walking down the hall so I learned to identify a person’s posture, body shape and gait.  This came in handy when I studied life drawing in art school.

That’s a lot of benefits from what might have been a disability.  So thank you, Myopia.

And thank you, Mom.  We had lovely times together.

But as I grew up we found plenty to disagree about. She was always in charge and rarely in doubt.  She moved straight ahead, never had second thoughts, and certainly never asked what I thought.   Even to her choice of paper towels.

She used Scott Towels and I preferred Bounty, which are far superior.

I’d say,  “You know, Mom, at the Printmakers’ Workshop we have to clean up heavy printing ink with Benzine, and we find Bounty to be wonderfully absorbent and you can wring it out and re-use it.  Really, you should try it.”

“Well, I don’t use paper towels much.”  So why were they sitting on her counter?

On my next visit, when I saw she was still using Scott, I said, “You know, you get much more for your money with Bounty.” No answer and the next time I visited, there were the Scott towels.  Flimsy, un-absorbent, throw-away-after-one-use,  but she was committed to them.  Why wouldn’t she take my advice when I was so obviously in the right?
After Dad died she told me she was considering moving to an assisted living community, but she wasn’t sure.

Then she said, “Maybe you could come with me to check it out.” I looked at her and thought, without saying, “You’re asking me?”  She never asked my advice. It felt like the beginning of a whole new way for us to be together.  But we never had that chance. A month after that conversation Mom collapsed on the golf course and died eleven days later.

Now that she’s gone she lives inside me. I think about her all the time, and replay old conversations.  For instance, I go with Mom to inspect the assisted living facility.  We look around and she says,
“Well for Heaven’s sake!  They have Bounty towels here!”  She turns to me, her eyes shining with enlightenment, and says,

“Oh, Barbara, you were right.”

Thursday, May 9, 2019

It's Almost Mother's Day

Sometimes the universe, via the grapevine, the internet, the New York Times or the Bible sends me a message that I can’t ignore. This verse, which I had never heard before, is one of those.   found it in a hymnal. It's from Paul's second letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 5.

“I am reminded of your sincere faith that lived first in your grandmother and your mother and now lives in you. I remind you to rekindle this gift of God for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.”

I thought of my grandmother, Louise Russell, and her daughter in law, Ginny Brown, my mother.  MomMom and Mom. They both married into the Swanson family and both answered to the name Mrs. Robert S. Swanson.

Mom married Dad at nineteen.  On her first Christmas visit to her new family she got into a pillow fight with her husband, his little sister and three brothers.  MomMom stormed into the room to quiet them down, saying, “Now that’s enough!  I want quiet and that means You-and you, and you, and you, and you, and…” she looked at her new daughter-in-law and giggled.

They were two very different Presbyterian women who loved each other dearly. They both loved Jesus, MomMom with her whole heart and Mom with a few reservations.

When I was five, and I know I was five because we were living with my grandparents and we moved away when I started first grade, I heard Mom say to MomMom as she heard a song on the radio,
“Oh, I love this song, ‘Under a Blanket of Blue.’”  It was a pop song and I knew even then that MomMom didn’t approve. She only liked hymns. She didn’t hold with drinking, dancing or smoking.
Mom’s idea of fun included all three but she never smoked around MomMom.  “When I’m with her I don’t even feel like smoking,” she said.  I understood that.  When I was with MomMom I wanted to be just like her but sometimes it felt like her way involved too much saying no.

When I was fifteen I tried once again to be a Christian the way MomMom was.  I told Mom. “I’ve asked Jesus to come into my heart—I’m going to be born again,” or something like that.  Mom’s reply was, “Well, OK, but not for too long.”  As always, she didn’t explain herself but I got the point.  She didn’t like the restrictions.

Recently I had a dream that I was staying in the guest room at MomMom’s house.  It was on the second floor but I found a door and walked out into a beautiful garden, with a fountain and birds singing.  I asked her, “How come I never knew about that garden?”

She replied, “I didn’t think it was safe for you to know about that.”

Mom loved MomMom dearly and respected her, but didn’t follow her blindly.  She thought you could love Jesus and also go to the prom.  It’s a balance I‘ve been thinking about all my life.  I think these two women  together showed me a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Theology in the Air

“Barbara--that woman across the aisle from you--she’s crazy,” said  Arthur. We were on a plane headed to Paris. The flight would continue on to Tel Aviv and we were surrounded by Orthodox Jews and a church group from the mid-west. I really didn’t want to hear about a crazy person. I looked.  She seemed perfectly ordinary—a fresh faced woman in her thirties, attractive in an open, friendly, way.

“Why do you say that?”

“She’s reading the Bible.”

“Arthur, that doesn’t make her crazy.”

“She’s wearing a jumpsuit.”

Still no red flags for me, but I started paying attention.

\When the stewards came around to offer us lunch the woman next to our neighbor requested a Kosher meal.

Our neighbor said, “You’re ordering Kosher?   May I ask, exactly what does that mean?”

The Orthodox woman said, “We observe certain ways of preparing food, especially meat, and we keep meat and dairy separate.”

“Well, that’s just fascinating. How do you know all that?”

“It’s written in our Holy Book.”

“I see. Now, is that the Quran?”

I thought OY, and waited for at least a verbal bomb but the Orthodox woman simply said, “No, the Quran is the holy book of Islam.  Ours is called the Torah.”

“Well, that’s just fascinating,” said our neighbor and we all settled down to enjoy our lunch.

I’ve told this story for years in a snarky, don’t I know better manner. I’m sorry for that.  

The lady in the jumpsuit asked, in a polite and friendly way, and the other woman answered in the same manner.  How many times have I turned away, not asking and keeping my ignorance to myself.  There were endless times when If I had only asked, my life would've been infinitely simpler and more interesting.

What did I know about Islam?  Muhammed Ali, Elijah Muhammed—it seemed kind of mysterious and forbidding and when Cat Stevens declared himself a Muslim I felt he’d gone over to the dark side.  I lived in ignorance for many years.

I dropped out of college and went to art school but it always bothered me that I hadn’t finished my degree.  I took courses over the years and in 1998 I found out about Empire State College, part of the SUNY system, where adults can get credit towards a bachelor’s degree for life experience.  The Art Student’s League had kept track of the time I studied there and I only had to take one course for credit.

That course was Indian and Islamic Art.  As in any culture, Islamic art is entwined with the religion so first we learned the five pillars of Islam.

As I said last week about Passover and Easter, Judaism and Christianity, I’ll focus on what draws us together.

That class made a big difference in my life.  This was a whole new world. I learned that in the Islamic tradition a garden is an earthly depiction of Heaven. The intricate patterns, brilliant colors and slightly off kilterperspectives really spoke to me, awakening my creative yearnings and inspiring a whole new series of drawings.

My faith and my art were intertwining again.

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 ...