Ron Mueck at the Modern

Years ago, while going through the permanent collection at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, I came across a miniature of an elderly woman. Her hands were clasped, her back hunched as she sat, weariness marking the lines around her eyes which were tinted a dark pink at the edges. She took my breath away. Had she been rationally sized, I would have mistaken her for a real woman, so lifelike was everything about her, from the complexion of her skin, to the wrinkles, the grey hair, the expression of her face. I loved her, and had I been able to place my hand over hers, I would have done so, and whispered hope into her ear, for despondency was chiseled in all her features.

BN-XT456_MUECK0_1000V_20180306173549Untitled (Seated Woman), 1999

On February 16, the Modern opened its second exhibit by the fantastic Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are realistic in every way except in scale. Born in Australia, but residing in London, Mueck’s career began as a puppeteer for children’s television shows, such as Sesame Street. By the mid 90’s he was transitioning to fine art. He is incredible, not only for his realistic detail, but for his ability to convey emotion and thought in subtle ways. Take, for instance, this larger-than-life couple at the beach:

Ron-Mueck-Fondation-Cartier-photo-Thomas-Salva-yatzer-12Couple Under An Umbrella, 2013

So much is expressed by the way he held her arm- in an affectionate, familiar, and leisurely way- as if after all the years, it was his nature to reach for her, rest on her. And yet, this resting he does on her points to another of the subtleties of this exhibit, which includes six sculptures completed over the last ten years. Five of the six consist of human subjects: two male, two female, and this couple. I couldn’t help but notice the antithetical activities between the sexes: work/leisure; struggle/enjoyment.

Notice the disparity between these two figures:

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Woman with Shopping, 2013

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Drift, 2009

One feels the weight she carries between bags and baby, while he floats, buoyant on the water. Her hands are full while his, adorned and empty, rest at his side. Even the weather surrounding them seems a signal to the radical differences in their environments. She is dressed against the cold, bundled and pale. He is slick and tan and enjoys a cloudless sun.

The next figures also pair together in my mind, possibly because they are both nude and holding sticks:

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main_1200Woman with Sticks, 2009

Ron Mueck 07Poke, 2017

While she is carrying a load, burdened by the back-breaking work, he holds a singular pole, fashioned himself, for an unknown purpose. However, looking at the title, one can assume it is for a laugh, for pure enjoyment.

All of this is speculation; Mueck is silent, allowing his art to speak for him. After seeing the marvelous woman bent backwards, I wanted to know the title. What more could Mueck tell me about this woman? Why did he make her? What is he trying to say through her? I found the placard and it simply stated the obvious: Woman with Sticks. The next figure was the same: Woman with Shopping. He says nothing more, but the women themselves disclose enough. After viewing the man in the pool, I expected to find the title similar, perhaps “Man with Float.” Instead, Mueck wrote something entirely different- Drift– and leaves the interpretation up to us. He does the same with the other man. Rather than “Man with Pole,” we see the title Poke.

In addition to the six statues, (of which four are miniature and two on a grand scale) there is a video of Ron Mueck at work. Like his figures, it is silent for the most part, and yet it proclaims persistent toil as he gives all of himself over to these masterpieces, most of which take over a year to complete. He is fully concentrated, deep in thought, in a world all his own as he forms these characters he knows in the profound way only a creator does. I left in awe, grateful for Mueck’s ten years of dedication to his craft, invigorated by the myriad of ways to communicate and the intrinsic value of art for its ability to touch the soul of a person and make them better for it.

This exhibit is on display until May 6, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. See it before it’s gone. P.S. Sundays are free, so bring the whole family! (Note: exhibit does contain nudity. Use your best judgment.)

The Civic Society

I have been introduced to James Baldwin this year and I find him to be such a compelling voice, both in his time, and surprisingly, now: both within me and within the culture I live in; a culture seeming to carry around remnants of past sins as it plunges into a future of unprecedented darkness. This is not what I mean to write about, but I think part of me needed to say those words, make them concrete, see them in black against a white screen. Now I have, and a space that was occupied with tension inside me is eased slightly and I can move on to what I mean to write about. Baldwin writes:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent- which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important.

As I have begun writing this past year (I think I will always say that I have just begun it) I have noticed some interesting and perplexing effects. The one I anticipated was isolation. To read and to write are occupations of retreat, though I suppose it depends on what type of writing and reading it is. But for the most part, the reader retreats into the mind of the writer, either to the writer’s thoughts or to a world within the writer’s mind. The writer does the same. In writing, he retreats into his own mind. Even if the writing is nonfiction, even autobiographical, the writer leaves the world of reality to enter only his own reality. At this point, two lives are being led: the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Moving between one and the other is one of the hardest things for me to do; maintain a life of balance. John Steinbeck wrote his friend and editor, Pascal Covici, about this very thing as he was writing one of my favorite books, East of Eden:

When I work on a book to this extent and with this concentration, it means that I am living another life. As it goes along, increasingly I give to the second life more than to the first. Then I must be very hard to live with in real life, not because I am mean but because I am vague. Things ordinarily done are forgotten. My expression must be one of fogged stupidity- my responses slow.

I believe this is why I stopped writing when I had children and why I was so resistant to taking up the pen again some years later, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Soon after I started writing, I noticed how my body interacted with the real world around me- doing dishes, giving a bath, having dinner with my family- while my mind was still in retreat. All of a sudden, having everyday conversations when I picked my daughter up from school became a difficulty. In fact, engaging with others in general became something that required intentionality and anomalous effort.

What I wanted to do was blend the two lives; bring my inner life out into the open. I quickly found that the outside world was not in a place to receive my second life. When asked the question, “What’s new with you?” I would answer with opening the door to the inner life of my mind, by talking about what I was reading or what I was trying to write. This was mostly met with a concentrated brow of confusion or encouraging nods as the other person pretended to actively listen as they occupied themselves with other things. Either way, the conversation was ended, usually awkwardly. I cast no blame in this- they just didn’t know how to respond. After a while, I closed the door, answered “Nothing really,” and the gulf that separates those two worlds grew larger.

For a whole year I continued in this, relying heavily on one or two friends to bridge that gap. The evidence of my life has proven to me time and again that despite being introverted, I require community. I have an innate hunger to interact with others. The connection between author and reader via text is a treasure to me, but it is surpassed by the interaction between author, reader, and other readers. The discourse that follows from that group collectively takes the text further than any one of the individuals can carry it. This is why book clubs abound. We are a people hard-wired for community. Our joy in reading something reaches its height when we praise it to the point that someone else reads it and returns to us praising it as well. Pleasure leads to worship which culminates in corporate worship. (Look to sports fans and one will see this clearly.)

The world seems to be growing more and more “frighteningly indifferent” to the arts, but I am young and have a history of only thirty-four years. In my naivety I can assume rarity in our culture that is no stranger to the past. The pendulum always swings. But as Balwin notes, the very indifference of the many raise the passion of the few. I began my search for “the few” and have found some of them. I am a member of the Fort Worth Women’s Chapter of the The Civic Society and have joined a writers group with Art House Dallas. In my time with these two groups, I have been gifted with encouragement and fellowship. At these meetings I am galvanized by the ideas of others and valued for the work I do. The door between my two lives is left open and the people, and I, walk back and forth.

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The next Civic Society meeting is Saturday, February 17, and we will be discussing George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” If you are interested in joining me there, send me a message.

Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Key As many of you know, WWII historical fiction is right up my alley. A majority of my “Want to Read” fiction on Goodreads consists of WWII fiction. I even have a book in my mind that I will write someday. So I went into this thinking it would be a layup.

It starts with two stories: the 1942 story of the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup of Jews by the French police. It is the story of one ten-year-old girl and her family and their tragic separation. The second is a modern-day journalist studying the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup (nearing it’s 60th anniversary) and finding her own link to the history there. The chapters go back and forth between these two stories.

The 1942 story is wonderful. It draws you in and you picture what is happening in your mind; you put yourself there. You do it despite the writing. The 1942 story is told from the third person: The girl did this, the girl thought that, etc. It detaches the reader from the story, but despite this, you enter in.

The modern-day story of the journalist, however, is told in the first person. Yet I found myself struggling to relate to her. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t really even like her that much, though she gave me little to like or dislike. She, and her story, was bland. About half way through the book the 1942 story ends, and the rest of the book is the modern day story, which by now has intertwined with the story of the past. I remember getting to that first chapter that didn’t take me back to 1942, back to the little girl- my heart sank. That was the story the reader wants to hear.

In literature, there is story, and there is beautiful writing, and a handful of times, you find a gem that combines the two. This one absolutely leans toward story- there is nothing beautiful in the prose. It doesn’t read like music, it isn’t moving, it doesn’t create a scene you are entranced with. It is plain and tells a story. This is ok when the story is fantastic. This story could have been fantastic. But in the end, it wasn’t. Rosnay had a great beginning in her mind, one with amazing potential. But in the making of it, too much was lost. I wish she had stuck with the 1942 story and seen it through to the end. I wish she had made that the only story, the first-person account. It could have been….so much more.

(If you, like me, love WWII fiction, I recommend instead reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore This book took the majority of my reading time for two months, and it is one of the best books I read all year. As I shared in another post, I am doing self-directed schooling with a friend. I have, historically, stuck rather closely to fiction. I am so driven by story that instructional nonfiction is difficult for me. But I want to get better, so I am bridging my way into nonfiction with books that still contain story, like biographies and memoirs. In several books I was reading, mentions of Theodore Roosevelt abounded. Knowing little about him, I began to feel that I would enjoy him very much. So for my passion assignment, I decided to read this book and practice some letter writing between Roosevelt and some of his closest companions, working at writing from different voices, both male and female, as well as from a different time period. When the book arrived at my house and I saw that it was nearly a thousand pages, I considered changing my assignment. I still carried memories of the Bonhoeffer biography and, though I am fascinated with WWII, it took everything in me to trudge through that giant book. This book, in contrast, took as much work as sailing on a breezy summer day- so enjoyable one hardly notices the effort. The wind simply carried me where I wanted to go.

One reason for this, no doubt, is Theodore himself. He is a difficult man to be neutral about. Then as now, one either loves him or hates him. And despite my being in the former category, some of his actions or ways affronted me. Edmund Morris did a wonderful job of describing both the strengths and weaknesses of his peculiar personality. He depicted Roosevelt enthusiastically but neutrally, with few exceptions. Roosevelt made this easy to do because of how public he made his life: befriending countless journalists, having written thousands upon thousands of letters, and consistently journaling from a very young age.

I especially enjoyed his youngest years: traveling with his family, the boundless energy, the early fascination with ecology, and more. I attended Harvard with him, where he began to stand out amongst his peers, grieved with him over the death of his parents, his wife, his brother and sister-in-law. I rode West with him through the Badlands becoming a cowboy, rallied with him for justice in the Civil Service Reform, prowled the streets of New York in the middle of the night as the Police Commissioner, prepared and potentially provoked war as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, only to head the Rough Riders and lead out in battle amidst the jungles of Cuba. I returned with him to take the Governorship of New York, quickly succeeded by the Vice-Presidency, and only months later, the day in which he became the youngest President of the United States, following the assassination of William McKinley. That is where this book ends. To read more (as I will) you can follow him through the Presidency and the after years of his life.

If you enjoy biographies, this is a fantastic one, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being selected by the Modern Library as one of the top 100 nonfiction books of all time. I enjoyed every hour of it.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

51+5EHbLWwL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_ I chose to go through this book with my Bible study group. I enjoy Tim Keller and this was a subject I needed to delve into.

I came to this book in some desperation. I believe a number of things that are not evidenced by my daily life. We all feel this to some extent. For me, prayer is the area of my life that least resembles what I believe. Insofar as I am able, I’ve had to ask myself Is it really belief? Part of me thinks and feels in black and white. We believe something, we act in accordance. If the action is not there it is because true belief hasn’t taken place- doubt is in the mix. The other part of me knows all too well that the spirit can be willing and the flesh still weak. This is the murky condition in which I opened this book to read and to work out these inconsistencies alongside some others. If you are one of those others, thank you for the patience, the honesty, and the safe place you have been each Tuesday night this past semester. I know some weeks I came ready to fight and at other times, clearly indifferent.

If I was hoping to get some clear answers, this was not the book. Luckily, that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tend to find wanting the man or woman who has all the answers. I was looking for help- a space and a people and a guide to help me wrestle. This book was the guide, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you really want to dive deep, I would recommend reading this with at least another person to robustly discuss it with. Within some bounds, Keller is open to several different methods of prayer and gives the reader a multitude of different tools. This widened my natural understanding of prayer and gave me the freedom to pray differently than I have historically.

One of the early questions we discussed as a group was How did you learn to pray? Did your parents teach you, did you only hear prayer from the pulpit, or was it at school? We all had widely varying answers, coming from a multitude of different backgrounds religiously, but the bottom line was we weren’t taught. Prayer is not something usually taught. It is something you watch and try to copy, but not directly instructed. I can understand some reasons for this, but overall, it seemed to have negatively affected many of us in the room to have never had any instruction. In that way, this book was helpful without being too narrow on how one should pray.

If you enjoy Luther, Calvin, or Augustine, then you will particularly appreciate some of the history of thought surrounding Christian prayer. It was a bit long, and toward the end, I was just ready to be done with it. My biggest critique of the book was that it took 300 pages to give instructions for how to pray, how not to pray, and extensive examples of prayer that would take significant amounts of time (some of the referenced theologians had the habit of praying for three hours a day). This seemed in stark contrast to the Lord’s Prayer, which was Jesus’ answer to the plea teach us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer: a simple, short, direct, thoughtful, unsophisticated prayer. To Keller’s credit, not all of the methods required an hour or more, he encouraged the reader to start small, and raised up the Lord’s Prayer as the ultimate example. Even still, one could come away from such reading overwhelmed and a bit disheartened. This does not, for me anyway, override the amount of helpfulness the book contained. And based on our group’s reflection on never having been taught how to pray, its existence is absolutely necessary.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ivan I bought this to read to my five-year-old. She is creative and loves story. She is, herself, a storyteller. She has the ability to be moved without losing it. Because of this, I’m able to read to her things that I would otherwise wait on until she’s a bit older, things I still haven’t read to my seven-year-old because she’s so sensitive she wouldn’t handle it well.

Again, there are no chapters. This one is written like snapshots in the daily life of Ivan. Some are a few sentences. Some go on for a few pages. He is a gorilla, after all. It took me some time to get Ivan’s voice right (since I was reading it aloud). I probably should have read further ahead of time to get a better feel for Ivan, who seems at first, rather aloof. But as the story progresses, the many pieces of Ivan begin to come together, and it is beautiful and touching. I will warn you though, that there are many sad parts, like when Ivan’s family is killed by humans, or when his best friend dies. It does, however, have a happy (but not too-happy) ending. Judge the appropriateness of these subjects for your children- you will know best. Penny Mae loved it, as did I.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway I began this book in a study of point of view, specifically when an author has several POV characters. There are rules for this, and though Virginia Woolf breaks most of them, she is heralded for it. Artful prose, like poetry, is that balance between following form, and knowing when to break with the form. Being consistent enough with your reader that they can follow where you are leading them, but making exceptions at some points to allow you to take them by surprise. We readers want this too. We bore of the books that do exactly what we predict, and even those that do what we want.

It is beautifully written, and reflected the inner life of the mind well. I valued hearing the inner monologue and its relationship to the outward actions of each of these characters. It would often bring up a memory or a thought such as, “Yes, I’ve done that before,” or “Yes, I have felt that same way.” It allowed me to connect with the characters, especially those of which, if one hadn’t heard their inner monologue, one would have guessed they had nothing in common, or even made up their own simple reasons for why that character did what they did. It is equal parts novel and study in human nature.

The difficulty I had with it was the lack of structure. At first I was baffled. There are no chapters. It begins and does not stop until it ends. I knew, before reading, that it would only cover one day of time, but dozens of pages in and only 15 minutes into the day, having jumped from the thoughts in Clarissa’s head to (anyone!) the florist, the couple passing by on the sidewalk, then back to Clarissa- I was bewildered. It jumped, and it jumped, and it jumped again with no warning, no transition. Once, about 10% of the way in (I read it on a Kindle) I realized this is what the whole book would be like, and I was able to let go of every assumption and drift along the current of her thought. Some people would take to this style of writing better than others- it may be too scattered for some. I did find it hard to keep up with all of the characters- some she returned to over and over again, while others you would hear from for a few pages and then never again. You never knew if this person, whose thoughts you were hearing, would be a significant part of the story or not.

All in all, it is truly different from most books and beautifully written. And if you are nervous because you’ve seen the movie The Hours, fear not! It was barely resembled.

The Art that Pours In

Everyone gets asked the question: What is your favorite album of all time? And we always want to set some parameters- am I stranded on a desert island? Is it all I can listen to for the rest of my life? Because even the best can get old.

But I recently listened to an album the other day- my answer to the question- and realized that unlike most music I was obsessed with in my teenage years, this one has lasted through decades. I think, in fact, that if I had come across this music at any point in my life, I would have loved it, because it touches somewhere deep inside. This one doesn’t just connect me to one time in my life: it transcends people, place, and circumstance to continue to speak to me where I am. It spoke to me then; it speaks more to me now. The words are poetry. I learn something new every time I sing, and when it’s over, I’ve been seen and felt and understood. I have experienced connection, the foundational goal of art.

As a writer, I believe beauty has to be discovered before it can be created. We are not God. We don’t create something out of nothing. We discover something, and create something else. We require inspiration. This is why writers are readers. This album, along with countless others, but this album in particular, inspires me to create. I fill in the gaps of each song with a story, and then another, and another, because they give me the freedom to. The lyrics paint pictures enticing me to paint more:

When I think of heaven
deliver me in a black-winged bird
I think of dying
Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
Render up my body into the burning heart of God
in the belly of a black-winged bird

And this particular album is a two-disc live album in which the songs that are repeated vary significantly from one disc to the other. Our art is always shifting, and I am reminded when I hear these double versions, that my writing is never dead. I have watched, this semester in particular, the evolution of my work, and taken joy in its different facets. Revision can be a burden, but it is also freeing to know that there is no final destination in which the words cease to grow. We are, my words and me, never arriving. That is a humble and good place to be.

This album encourages the artist in me and the humanity. It sings me Beauty….enjoy.

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(Click the album to hear it for free on Spotify.)

The Kitchen Table Collective

I am flirting with the idea of going back to school. I love being a student and plan to be one for the rest of my life. There are so many things we take for granted while in college, because we’re too young to appreciate them: living in a well manicured garden, the library, the time to dive deep. But the greatest thing I took for granted was having professors. No matter where I live, however beautiful my surroundings or substantial the archives, I will not come into daily contact with experts in their field who are committed to teaching me what I do not know. And for the next few decades, I will not have the time I once had to sink into the material.

I make up for it in books, as best as I can. So when my friend Sarah approached me about  creating self-directed assignments and having checkpoints we could keep each other accountable with, I got really excited. We create two assignments for ourselves, one centering on something we are currently passionate about. Creativity can take you off on tangents, and we want to go with it when it does. The second assignment centers on something that is challenging to us. The third assignment we create for each other. It centers on an area of conviction. We know one another well and can spot things that are a bit off or that could be really fantastic if considered. This is a kind way for us to sharpen one another by saying, “Here is something I see. Dig in and get to the bottom of it. I am rooting for you.”

This is our first semester, and I am already seeing such fruit from this work. My assignments involve Theodore Roosevelt, letter writing from different voices and periods of time, assembling a group of people to critique selected poems and revising them accordingly, and journaling several times as I write a poem about a theology I believe with great difficulty. Both my challenge and conviction assignments have me well outside of comfort: asking people for help, deep vulnerability as I wrestle with a belief, and receiving good criticism of my work and pushing myself to make it better. My passion assignment rightly has me obsessed, curious, and imaginative. I am learning with each one and enjoying every moment of it.

My kitchen table is one of the few pieces of furniture in the house that I got just as I wanted it. A custom order- round, gray, simple yet varied. It is a place I gather with others, a place I find nourishment, a place where I’m pushed to my limit. It’s a place where ideas are begun, questions are asked, a place where people process their lives together. So Sarah’s name for our little enterprise, “The Kitchen Table Collective,” fit perfectly. If you live here in Fort Worth, send me a message and join us next semester. If you don’t and you want something like this, sit down at your own kitchen table, gather your people, and start a collective of your own. There are no professors here (I wish there were!), but we make the most of it. A mind is always better with another.

A New Endeavor

In my last post, I wrote about how I have started writing again. No one was more surprised than myself to find poetry coming out. It was utterly unexpected, and brought with it joy unprecedented. I don’t always have the time to devote to a long piece of writing. Poetry has offered me a chance to work on a piece and actually finish it; to hold in my hands a completion- an accomplishment of a kind, no matter how small.

Writing can be such a lonely endeavor, but in the sharing of it, it becomes less so. I have found such encouragement from friends; those in my physical life, and those of you who have followed this blog. Thank you! I hope you have been able to connect to something in the poems I share.

My family and I celebrated this weekend the publication of two of my poems: Grandpa George, written about my favorite farmer, a man so connected in my mind to the earth and its fruits, that every time I see open fields he is found in them. And a different version of There’s No Hiding In a Closet, though I like the version here on the blog better- proof that I am learning the process of revision. All my thanks to Sleeping Panther Press for publishing these pieces in the 2017 Panther City Review.

I am learning as I go and trying to get better. For that reason, I have taken down some of my poems due to submission guidelines. In the future, I won’t be posting any poetry until it has reached publication or been sufficiently rejected. Either way, I can’t wait to share with you more. I am still writing, sometimes more slowly than I would like, but there is still joy in the process and rest in the room it creates inside. Thank you for being in it with me.