Some Italy, some Texas, some Ohio. Some of my favorite places, small oils on board and some large ones on canvas.
Some Italy, some Texas, some Ohio. Some of my favorite places, small oils on board and some large ones on canvas.
It is summer again; a particularly rough one this year. No rain, and then no rain, and heat that is epic and relentless. Poplars, plane trees, loquats and willows and almonds; all are losing their leaves to the wind and scorching sun, and the smoke from the fires that are never far away adds a red filter to the landscape. But trees are intelligent, and by throwing their leaves to the ground they conserve their diminishing reserves by transpiring less moisture to the air, and at the same time create their own mulch as dropped leaves carpet their personal patch of soil. It is sad to see, and their humans can be seen on watering days dragging rubber hoses around like ships’ anchors, sweating and swearing in consternation at the lack of moderation that nature sometimes exhibits.
And yet there is a tree here in Italy (where it was introduced and thrived just as it has in any temperate climate where ships and currents have brought its seeds the world over) which seems to luxuriate in this weather. Not drought, not floods, not cold (not too cold!) not even fire or the ax can deter them from occupying their position as conquering barbarian horticultural horde. They persist, gritting their woody teeth and snickering at their vegetable cousins’ frail designer foliage.
With this in mind, I would like to post my favorite description of Eucalyptus trees, written by a fabulous author who traveled in this area over a hundred years ago. He was a character, and I highly recommend my favorite book by him, “Old Calabria.” His name was Norman Douglas and he was an undisciplined, embibing Scottish wanderer with pedophile tendencies, a world traveler with no fear, and a tough old coot who could really write.
From “Old Calabria,” * the author describes his distaste for these trees as he makes his way from the station of Policoro up toward Rossano Calabro, localities which are about fifteen miles from our house:
“You walk…from the station along an avenue of eucalypti planted some forty years ago.” (circa 1875) “Detesting, as I do, the whole tribe of gum trees, I never lose an opportunity of saying exactly what I think about this particularly odious representative of the brood, this eyesore, this grey-haired scarecrow, this reptile of a growth with which a pack of misguided enthusiasts have disfigured the entire Mediterranean basin. They have now realized that it is useless as a protection against malaria. Soon enough they will learn that instead of preventing the disease, it actually fosters it, by harboring clouds of mosquitoes under its scraggy so-called foliage. These abominations may look better on their native heath: I sincerely hope they do. Judging by the “Dead Heart of Australia”–a book which gave me a nightmare from which I shall never recover– I should say that a varnished hop-pole would be an artistic godsend out there.
But from here the intruder should be expelled without mercy. A single eucalyptus will ruin the fairest landscape. No plant on earth rustles in such a horribly metallic fashion when the wind blows through those everlastingly withered branches; the noise chills one to the marrow; it is like the sibilant chattering of ghosts. Its oil is called “medicinal” only because it happens to smell rather nasty; it is worthless as timber, objectionable in form and hue–objectionable, above all things, in its perverse, anti-human habits. What other tree would have the effrontery to turn the sharp edges of its leaves–as if these were not narrow enough already!–towards the sun, so as to be sure of giving at all hours of the day the minimum of shade and maximum of discomfort to mankind?
But I confess that this avenue of Policoro almost reconciled me to the existence of the anaemic Antipodeans. Almost; since for some reason or other (perhaps on account of the insufferably foul nature of the soil) their foliage is here thickly tufted; it glows like burnished bronze in the sunshine, like enameled scales of green and gold. These eucalypti are unique in Italy. Gazing upon them, my heart softened and I almost forgave the gums their manifold iniquities, their diabolical thirst, their demoralizing aspect of precocious senility and vice, their peeling bark suggestive of unmentionable skin diseases, and that system of radication which is nothing short of a scandal on this side of the globe…”
Bella l’Italia! Shiny square pavement stones in antique piazzas, ornate iron balconies, yellow plastic buckets; street market with colorful produce, green plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets, yellow plastic buckets; strollers out for the passeggiata, cool evening breeze, blue plastic buckets, green plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets; shop windows glowing (yellow plastic bucket, gray plastic bucket, blue plastic bucket) with interesting merchandise; people at the cafe drinking (blue plastic, yellow plastic, green plastic, gray plastic) Campari and having appetizers; narrow (gray plastic bucket)streets (yellow plastic bucket) lined (blue plastic bucket) with….yellow plastic buckets, blue plastic buckets, gray plastic buckets, brown plastic buckets…what is that horrible smell?.. green plastic buckets, another row of plastic buckets and more plastic buckets after those. A conga line of plastic covering every few feet of sidewalk; a colorful and crowded PVC parking lot.
Hoorah, we have solved the garbage problem! Here in Bernalda the local movers and shakers have decided, thanks to some obscure European directive and an excess of optimistic organizing zeal, (and remember that Hell itself has Italians as the organizers, while its chefs are all British) that modern society’s embarrassing effluvium must be sorted. Ah! What green thoughts! Let us by all means sort. Let us follow the Progressive operational thought pattern which places all emphasis on hopes, dreams, and injudicious optimism, and none on final outcome. It is the thought that counts!
We have been issued buckets. Each household will have a green one, a yellow one, a blue one, a gray one, a brown one. One for glass and metal which must be clean (washing out the dogfood cans is one of my favorite tasks, and do not forget to remove the paper label!) or it will never be picked up. One for clean plastic. (I said clean, so get out the soapy water again to wash out that juice bottle!) If the plastic is deemed unclean, it will never be picked up. One for paper, and yes, dare I say it must be clean paper, no used paper here. No oil spots, no soap residue, no pizza stains. The bucket will be shaken, and if the music isn’t right it will not be emptied. It will be opened for inspection, and if failed, it will not be collected. One for organic detritus, which accounts for the smell factor. And lastly, one for “indifferentiated” items. This describes all other refuse which is either stained, greasy, of mixed materials, or otherwise not identified items (I will let your immagination run wild here, but remember babies don’t wear diapers for fashion).
We have all been hired for a new job! It takes a chunk out of the day, sorting through the garbage in order to place it in the appropriate cannisters. And here is the most diabolically clever part of the plan: Each cannister is to be picked up on a different day! So if, like us, you live at the end of a long country road, there is the obligation to carry UP the correct bucket for that day, and carry BACK yesterday’s color to fill again. Of course, while the wait ensues for the “waste managers” to arrive you will need yet another bucket as a temporary receptacle. This system is particularly noxious when the summer temperatures are high and the organic refuse becomes a petri dish producing alarming odors. * Where there are wild dogs and hogs and cats…some extra clean-up will also be required by the homeowner.
Need I add that the “waste managers” are not punctual?
If we understand our own human natures, might the outcome (in a country where garbage collection has been problematical even back when it involved tossing a full plastic bag into a dumpster) be predictable? Yes. The roads, the back streets, the countryside is filling with garbage. People are lazy, people do not have the time, some people are jerks, people have lives which don’t allow for hours a week to sort through malodorous collections of s**t. The irony is that while a brand new dump (it helps if there is a sign which declares dumping illegal) can generate spontaneously in a flash, the New System does not allow the “Waste Managers” to pick up any garbage that is not pre-sorted! It is a Goal! for the rats.
If a bag or cannister is deemed unworthy because of an ominous tinkling on “Paper Day” then imagine what a new roadside amalgamation’s destiny will be? Yes. To grow, to decay, to spontaneously (or not) combust, to join hands eventually with another pile and create a hellish landscape for the enjoyment of locals and tourists alike. La Bella Vita indeed. So far I have seen general amnesia on the part of manufacturers, who continue to package otherwise insignificant items in multiple wrappings; aluminum packets around tin cans in “economical” bundles enclosed in cardboard…which somehow (since we have convinced ourselves that “Now we can just recycle it!”) have multiplied and diversified. I remember when bottles were reused and a big bag of aluminum or steel could be traded for cash. This arrangement also magically contributed to roadside cleanliness and the development of a work ethic in youngsters. But I digress into logic…
Italy is a country that thrives on its tourism. Of course I have thought this through, as have others, and we have our ideas, any of which would be superior to this new “solution.” I am amazed, disillusioned, and embarrassed. I try not to think about the first impression that streets lined with ugly plastic bins and piles of garbage in between has on tourism. Or it could be that tourists here, having heard about Naples and its garbage debacle for years, just take it in stride. Do they expect things to be this way? This is more depressing than imagining their reactions as shocked and appalled!
I could go on, but I have some toothpaste tubes to dismantle and my cannellini cans should have been soaking long enough now to remove the labels before I wash them out with soap…and I forgot to burn the pizza boxes in our fireplace. And today is “green.”**
*Of course, living in the country with dogs, chickens, and a compost pile, this isn’t our particular problem. But most live in apartments and houses in town.
**By “green” I mean the color of the bucket.
I have been away from writing for a while, some might say I had been “busy,” and I have been, but mostly I have been distracted by the daily to-and-fro-ing of life. My life especially, half here, half where? And there is too much entry-level information swarming around; in two languages it is very distracting.
Has anyone else practically given up reading books as I have? We should all shed a tear for what we are missing, even with our Kindles and our constant connection to the cacophony of Nothing-really-important-but-all-very-interesting-indeed!” The equation “more info=less knowledge” is terrifying.
There are a lot of people in Italy who don’t read much, if at all. It is not coincidental that the most extensive initial market saturation of cell phones was in Italy, or am I drawing an unscientific conclusion? In the area where I live, finding a reader is rare, and even these few have lamented that their electronic connections have all but extinguished the activity of reading for them, too. You can leave your spare books on the curb, but nobody will take them.
I titled this collection of small paintings the “Fugue” series, because the scientific definition of the word seems to describe our current predicament poetically. Not in the musical sense, but in psychiatry, it means “a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the preceding amnesia.” Or “
Thanks to everyone who came to the opening, and especially to Sam Yeates whose work is half of the event, and quite wonderful. The show at Davis Gallery will be up until about mid-November, so we hope you all can make it! Meanwhile, below are some of the pieces of my work that are in the show.
The Davis Gallery is located at 837 West 12th Street, in Austin, Texas.
We shift our eyes away and sidle toward another subject if we can. But I believe most of us are curious about our inevitable demise, (of course we are curious about our own, but who can we ask?) and it is particularly enlightening to observe how other cultures deal with IT, when the time comes. Our customs, naturally, say a lot about us.
“Rusty Gate” oil on canvas, 40 x 38 inches
My mother passed away recently, and my father followed her by only a few months. We lost my husband’s parents, my brother-in-law, a couple of friends, all in the past few years. So I have had occasion to experience the contrasts in how we treat our dead, those mysterious and terrifying leftovers of the people we once loved.
My mother was efficient in her passing, not one to needlessly draw out her time in the spotlight. After all, she wasn’t discussing politics. We called the “funeral home,” that most uncomfortable term, and a soulful duo appeared, he tall and she short, demure and helpful ravens in swooping black coats. Disguised in a black zippered bag, she was rolled away, negotiating the doorways on her last exit from her home. Since my mother’s specific request was not to have any viewings, a practice she considered crass and an indulgence of base human curiosities, we never saw her again. Our dealings with the funeral folks were short and sweet, just a subdued shuffle around the casket car lot, the exchange of documents and signing of checks, and off she went on her final flight to her resting place in Oklahoma. She told me that the term “at rest” would soon mean much more to us as we put on years. She was tired. As to the preparations carried out in the facility, the less known the better. I think we all understand that the ultimate, “prepared” version of our deceased relatives is nothing if not husk-like. When my father followed her, the mechanics were the same, although his hospital death allowed for even less family participation, making the “undertakings” even more obscure. He would have appreciated the pun.
Here in Basilicata things are different. There is no “funeral home.” Among the first to know will be the local printers shop, who will prepare the black and white manifesti* which will go up around town before the deceased begins his or her preparations for departure. Provisions for the body’s burial are entirely the responsibility of the closest relatives, and home is where the funeral starts. Those preparations usually involve washing and dressing, maybe shaving, combing the hair and placing the hands upon some treasured item. There is no embalming. The household where the deceased lived prepares for visitors by placing the body in a central position, usually on the dining room table, and chairs are circled around the periphery of the room in anticipation of a day of visitations by friends and relatives. We arrive, are greeted, a hug or a nod, a few words, and we find a chair and sit down. Sometimes a daughter, a brother will be carrying on a long conversation with the deceased, softly murmuring, chuckling, or more rarely, tearfully grasping at clothing or swaying from side to side. There is hushed conversation between visitors, mostly remembrances of episodes in the life of the departed, but sometimes wholly unrelated to the matter at hand. “Remember when he fell out of that tree stealing figs?” “What did you buy to cook for lunch today?” “Did you hear about Pinuccio who is still in jail?” Each visitor is free to stay as long as he needs to, or wants to, or, in my case, as long as I can stand it. It is distressing for a “sanitized” American to participate somehow. I admire the customs immensely, but intellectually. I am uncomfortable. Until recently, there were places where a family could hire one or more women, the “prefiche,” who would carry on lamentations for a fee. These “chiangenn”** have often made their appearance in literature, understandably: they are equally fascinating and horrifying.
In a small municipality, the funeral procession is on foot from the home to the camposanto.*** Visitors to Italy may note that the most attractive area of a little town is often the cemetery, clipped and polished and centrally-planned. Family chapels are complete, and the larger areas of communal use are tastefully decorated with flowers on saints days and birthdays. What a contrast to the rusty rebar and cement which festoon the town’s buildings, adding subtle anguish to our streets, unpainted stucco revealing that a dwelling for the living is of secondary importance after all. Larger cities often have towering cement cell blocks of tombs, accessible from indoors, the crusty concrete bleeding white lime deposits, fading pictures of loved ones. Anemic electric candles flicker in the gloom. These are not peaceful places for contemplation, and I am reminded of our “self storage” lockers for our overflows of junk… “Self-storage” indeed!
We are used to saying our final goodbyes and leaving our loved ones to their final rest, in peace. Things are different in Italy, but more on that in part two.
** lamenters, (in local dialect)
Una mostra d’arte! A show in Italy, in a beautiful little hill town in a charming antique house, what could be better? I would love to be positive, but waxing poetic won’t put much of a shine on this experience, I am afraid.
I have a couple of dear friends, who are also women who paint. This being so, we like to get together every so often and show what we have been doing, exhibiting our new work with a relaxing meet-and-greet. I anticipate these occasions with warm feelings of camaraderie, and I wasn’t disappointed with our hours together this time; chit-chat on the couch, tarallini and some decent prosecco. Pisticci is a magical little white fairy town, an aggregation of cubic ticky-tacky dwellings, aligned as if to shout down the Italian tendency toward disorderly conduct, on top of a steeply-eroding hill. Words don’t do justice to the spectacularity of its appearance, day or night. It is the perfect ambiance in which to display one’s paintings.
Or so I thought, until our numerous visitors began to shun anything which didn’t depict either a familiar house, a favorite corner, or a relative or friend. I have always intended that my landscapes would proselytize Lucania, showing its singular charms as I see them. I am out for the “feel” of the place, and my subjects are often invented, changed-up, amalgamations of places. They are not immediately recognizable places which can be classified as “my uncle!” or “my uncles house!” I underestimated our visitors’ predilection for familiarity with the subject! So each evening progressed, our lovely, tiny little gallery having an invisible divider at half-room. It was as if a provincial deus-ex-machina had plugged in one of those ultrasound machines for mice, keeping out onlookers who might venture beyond the confines of their tiny known world. I can only imagine what reaction, or lack thereof, an abstract or conceptual piece might have instigated. I am sure that if a conceptual piece included local white houses and relatives it would have been a resounding hit!
Not all our visitors were affected by the force field, and there was an occasional request about prices…Oh mortification! Why even offer for sale in an ambiance in which potential buyers expect to get two for the price of one? I had three requests and each simply stared blankly and turned to leave after I supplied a price. To add insult to my own injury, I even misquoted a price to one gentleman, multiplied by three, and I cannot blame him for asking me, (bless him) “Isn’t that a little high?” Yes, I said, and I truly meant it. Please forgive me. I never expected to sell in this little venue, and having to quote American gallery prices, even reduced by half, is one of the things I detest most. This is where the gallery should take over, the smoothest of middlemen, to relieve the artists of being subjected to undue suffering, making them barkers at their own humble sideshow act. The bearded lady shouldn’t have to sell discounted tickets to the same people who will come to snicker and throw popcorn at her in the half-light, after all.
I packed up my wares and dashed away as quickly as possible on the last evening, with the knowledge that my best-laid plans again had gone askew. When selling is not the target, what we artists have to give our viewers is a glimpse of what we love, what we see, what we wish to say in our particular language. I don’t believe there are any artists who, having dedicated themselves to learning their craft, producing the work, putting together and publicizing a show, expect that practically no one will even look at the pieces there! It had never happened to me, up to now that is. A word of advice to the wonderful people who come to see a show, and are precious: If the artist is present, please have a look around at all four walls; it is small payment for artists who work very hard to share their work with you.
And so I am left with the impression that in some way I have given the best of myself for nothing. “First world problems, mom!” my son says, and he is right. Of course it is an exaggeration, a small tempest which has made the tea in my pot bitter. With this in mind, here are a few of my paintings of Basilicata. I hope (and I absolutely trust you will!!) that you will look at them, and they will brighten your day. Will I show again under these circumstances? Of course I will, mothers never remember the birth, after all. And there will be more work, new work, and I simply cannot resist sharing with anyone who is willing to come and see them. Thank you all for allowing me to show them to you!