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…”
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!
I heard a song on the radio tonight, a woman singing about “America,” lamenting its propensity to become ever more unsatisfactory. I cannot disagree with her criticism, yet maybe she is just too close to be able to appreciate its positive nuances. Or maybe there is another song which sings the praises, I don’t know. It made me think about what it means to love a country, an abstract ideal of a place contained within corporeal geographical boundaries.
You might think that I, having abandoned my country, would be less than patriotic. It seemed almost effortless to go elsewhere. Actually I was born in Canada but was thoroughly absorbed into the United States by the age of about eight, whether by indoctrination or simple distraction I don’t know. I do know that when I was born my mother was gnashing her teeth at the snow and darkness, waiting for the day when she could return to a place as close to Oklahoma as her husband’s professional life would allow. I know this necessity was critical because we lived in a motel in Austin for a couple of months until my father could maneuver his way into a job at the University. He arrived confident that he would be indispensable here, and his wife’s urgent need for her “America”, as soon as possible, lit a fire under him.
I think it killed my mother’s soul that I decamped as I did, allowing myself to be absorbed in the form of duffel bags and boxes into the Italian miasma. Surely at first she couldn’t foresee the months stretching into years and decades. She and I had never liked Italy, briefly visited twice in my childhood. There was nothing of value I could see here; just shabby truckloads of tiresome paintings and architecture, broken statuary and annoying men who stared for too long. She was forever a rural Oklahoma girl, who, in her own time, could not wait to get as far away from home as possible. She was always much too diplomatic to tell me how my choices had hurt her. I wonder how her mother, in her time, had thought of her daughter’s own wanderlust and rejection of life on the farm. I am betting that she understood.
“Home Sweet Home,” mixed media on paper
It is a terrible thing to try and express provincial metaphors which no one shares. Or crack a lame joke which is met with blank stares. Or endeavor to recount a wonderful experience which becomes tedious in the telling, as every nuance must be explained in plodding precision, patiently tolerated by the listeners as long as it does not go on too long. A shared culture is a wonderful thing, do not underestimate its charms!
Imagine telling a story without being allowed to use certain ideographical expressions, or word forms such as pronouns or adjectives. Who was this Jackie Gleason fellow? What do you mean, the five second rule? Why would a person be a potato on a sofa? Why do you insist on using those bucket-sized drinking glasses? A friend once provoked me by saying that I could never really understand a certain Italian singer/songwriter because I lacked the baggage, the cultural knowledge, the historical background. So right he was. Intellectually I can understand the meaning, certainly the musical sounds, but what I hear is unavoidably different, somehow skewed and hollower than the artist intended.
I think that living in a different place, a culture where much cannot be taken for granted until it is internalized, creates a unique appreciation of provenance. Imagine a woman who finds the presence of children irritating up until the day she finds herself unable to contemplate life without her own. Suddenly she understands that her offspring have given her a stable and sustaining anchor, and she is able to love all those other children as well. She knows what they are, is able to empathise with them. Being away from my home has allowed me, as I came to absorb the Italian culture, to appreciate my American-ness. My country has become so much more important to me in its absence because I have been able to distill my ideas of it through a foreign filter. It is almost intoxicating.
So this is how I have come to be a fiercely patriotic person, and while I am forever attached to Italy with many roots, it is the United States of America that I love. Can one really love a country? No, probably not, but I carry around inside me a solid and comforting load of shapes, smells, stories, and conventions that are uniquely my own and are dearer to me than most things. My hope is that my children will also absorb this love and weave a truly wonderful tapestry out of their double load of culture. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they married members of yet other cultures? I am prepared to travel.
“The Choice” pencil on paper, 28 x 40 inches