Spillover

 

One of the destinations of the daily 10,000 step walks my sister and I take is Atwater Park in Shorewood, where one of my favorite pieces of public art sits waiting for us. It is called “Spillover II” by a Catalan artist named Jaume Plensa (thank you, google). Take a look for yourself.

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The artist explained his use of letters by saying we use language to commune with nature and the world, or something like that, which is very nice, but I have my own ideas. I see a guy who consists of a jumble of amorphous, incomplete thoughts swirling around inside and outside of him. As he stares at the water, concerns begin to drain away, slowly emptying his faceless, everyman head. The way he sits, hugging his legs, makes him slightly vulnerable, but the upright head puts him squarely in the world. It fascinates me to think how different the impression would be if that head were bowed, making him looked scared or fetal-like. As is, he’s got more communing to do and he’s going to stick around for a while.

I get the impression he is fairly universally loved by the local people, but, of course, it wouldn’t be art if there were no controversy. Some tourist inspected him, “discovered” the secret message “dead jew” among his ostensibly random letters, and then blogged about it. Scandalous! Outrage! To jump to the end of the story, the artist graciously offered to alter his piece, exchanging a letter or two, so that it could no longer be “misinterpreted”. (Correcting my misinterpretation would probably require more major changes, so I hope Jaume never gets wind of this post . . . )

 

While on the subject of public art, I’ll add another fairly recent addition to Milwaukee’s collection – one that clearly falls at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum.

Meet the (monstrous) “Bronze Fonz”:

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll skip the interpretation of this one and move right to the scandal. Some art director complained and said he would move his gallery if the Fonz went up near it. When that made the news, the phone calls started coming. The art director then recorded some of these messages – which he called “death threats” – and put them on a website. (http://www.hotcakesgallery.com/milwaukee-bronze-fonzie/) Three of them come from 1) a homophobe who somehow sees the statue critique as an insult to the Green Bay Packers, 2) a Canadian who is now seriously considering not coming to Milwaukee, and 3) the Fonz himself (sort of). At first I was a little wary about clicking on “Listen”, but then – as I should have guessed, this being Wisconsin – they were pretty tame. (What does it mean to “end like Dahmer”?) Still, it is beyond my comprehension how some people have the inclination, energy or time to be leaving insulting messages on a stranger’s voicemail. Henry Winkler would not approve.

The end of this sad story of schlemiels (“Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”) is that some musicians remixed the messages and set them to catchy beats. They made me laugh, but now I have this silly and bizarre song stuck in my head. “Gay boy. Dahmer gay boy. Gay boy. Go away . . .”

I think I need to go back to Atwater and look out over the lake for a while.

 

To the Poorhouse

 

Ireland 2018 – Part 3

 

I don’t suppose many of you readers will believe me when I say that I really did try to take a break from American politics while on vacation this year. I limited my news inputs to scrolling through headlines, reading a few breaking news alerts and watching one or two MSNBC videos a day. But seeing as how this trip to Ireland included more political content and history lessons than the last one, it was sometimes difficult not to note the occasional parallel or be reminded of current atrocities while learning about past ones.

One of those moments came when we took up my sister’s suggestion to tour the Portumna Workhouse Center. As an added enticement, the center also had an exhibit of works by the Irish sculptor Kieran Touhy,  who uses peat bog oak as his medium.  This is wood that is found underground in the bogs and can be 1000s of years old. The show was called “Dark Shadows” and poignantly conveyed the same themes as the workhouse tour. I’ve scattered some of his works throughout this post.

For my fellow historically-challenged people, I’ll start with a little background information on the workhouse (aka “poorhouse”) system in Ireland . . .

Even before the Potato Famine years (1846-51), Ireland’s problems with poverty, hunger and homelessness were severe and getting worse. Eventually, the government had no option but to find ways of dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, they did not see it as a problem of an inequitable economic system in which increasing numbers of people could not maintain a viable existence no matter how hard they worked. No, those in power and the position to “do something” saw the problem as one of “surplus people”. How do we rid the countryside of them?

One way was to assist emigration to Australia or North America. Another policy led to the construction of “workhouses” throughout the country. People facing starvation who had run out of options could enter these places and work for food and a place to sleep. Unlike those people in English workhouses, this was not stopover on the way to somewhere else – an interim after which they could leave and find work outside again. No, in Ireland, these houses were essentially the end of the road.

After this system was ended in the 1920s, many of these buildings were torn down or re-purposed; the one in Portumna remained abandoned, but largely intact. Now it is slowing being restored and turned into a sort of museum/education center. While touring it, out guide delicately pointed out some misconceptions about the system – making it clear to us why this was the most feared and hated institution ever established in Ireland”  as well as the general situation in the country at that time. One of the most significant points was that even though the potato crop failed, the farms were producing plenty of other crops – but much of that food ended up being sold and shipped off to England while the home population continued to starve.

 

Here, now, are some of pictures from the inside of the workhouse:

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The layout of the place was basically three rows of buildings around two courtyards. There were separate tracts for boys, girls, men, women, and nursing women with kids under 2 years old. The daily routines of the groups ensured that their paths didn’t cross in the courtyards or dining hall. The high windows ensured that they could not see the others when they were outside. The doors were locked in the evenings by the workhouse “managers”. So parents and kids could spend years just 50 or 100 yards apart from one another and never meet up.

At the end of the tour we ended up where we started and I looked again at the first display sign I had read on coming through the front door:

I asked our guide if the people who came here were all at the very end of their rope – desperate and with no more options. She answered yes.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”  I said. She nodded.

“When you hear about what is going on at the southern border of the US right now – about families being separated – does it remind you of this place?” I gestured toward the sign.

“Well, I guess it does . . . although you always want to think that we learn from history and won’t repeat things like this . . .” Her voice trailed off and she looked off into the distance.

 

– – – – – – – –

Back in the car and our way to Dublin, I scrolled through the days breaking news headlines.

“Trump administration falls short on reunifications before deadline”

“Gov’t: 650 children are ‘ineligible” for reunification”

Today, two weeks later, as I write this, there are still hundreds of state-created orphans in the US whose future is up in the air. And the government has just announced plans to put new limits on legal immigration as the second prong in their plan to decrease the surplus population. To rid the country of riffraff.

 

It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Tumbles

In my second-to-last post, I let it slip that I had been to the opera. In Vienna. The Vienna State Opera. (Can you tell I am feeling pretty good about myself at this moment?) My mother-in-law (also known as “Omili”) had invited the whole family to performance of “L’Elisir D’Amore”  (which is Italian for “The Elixir of Love”) by Gaetano Donizetti. It is not one of those operas that make you wonder if there are worse things than death (think: Wagner) and it’s not one with an aria that can make a prostitute cry (ala “Pretty Woman”), but it was a nice, if somewhat shallow, story. It was basically “boy meets girl, boy gets girl”  . . . with a little help from a bottle of cheap red wine. What made the opera a success was the wonderful singer/actors who not only clearly gave their all, but who all seemed like . . . realpeople. The kind you want to have a conversation or a beer with and tell them how good they are. The kind who let the audience know that the long and exuberant applause they are getting really means something to them.

And then there were the historic surroundings. The impressive building that is the Viennese Opera House – finished over 150 years ago – in which an uncountable number of famous opera singers and audience members had since . . . engaged. Unfortunately, I only had a minute to take a few shots of the entrance and hall – the boxes, the ceiling, the cool monitor in front of me,

and the empty seat next to me . . .

The one my mother-in-law should have been sitting in.

But she didn’t make it to the opera that night – thanks to an instant of incredible bad luck on the way there – one of those “simply in the wrong place at the wrong time” accidents. The kind where you spend hours afterwards obsessing . . . “if we had only not stopped to go to the bathroom . . .” or “if we had only chosen a different route to the park . . .” But we didn’t. We chose the subway. That required us to change trains and the transfer included two steep escalators with one long hallway between them. We never made it to the second one, because the first turned out to be “la scala mobile della sfortuna” (which is Italian for “The Escalator of Bad Luck”).

An extremely rotund little lady standing one step above Omili lost her balance and tumbled backward. Omili was catapulted awkwardly backward too – but, luckily, my husband was behind her to break the fall. Still – with two hip operations behind her, the situation was scary. And painful.

We all managed to get off the escalator and helped Omili to take some careful steps to the nearest . . . nothing! There were no benches anywhere to be seen. No elevators to the street level either. Just that long hallway leading to the next set of escalators, leading to the next platform for the next set of subway trains, which all were obviously no longer an option . . .

Supported by a child on either side, Omili put on a brave face as we started along one of the long hallways in search of assistance.  We tried to assess the extent of her injury and thought it was a good sign that she could take steps. Then I saw a subway worker up ahead walking toward us. He stopped to talk to the rotund woman who had caused our misery. When I reached them, I asked if a wheelchair could be brought.

“Do I look like I am an EMT??” he asked me arrogantly.

We stood there and I stared at him as the rest of my family reached us. My sister-in-law had heard his answer and laid into him in a polite yet assertive way that awed me. He quickly became more helpful and called for an ambulance.

The next helpers to arrive were the police. Well, actually one policeman and one police woman. We were now standing at the bottom of the up-escalator to the next platform. We chatted for a minute or two about the accident. The policeman then decided to go up and wait for the ambulance while the policewoman took down our information. She asked for my mother-in-law’s name and address, and then . . . she seemed to have come to the end of her repertoire. There was a confused silence.

“So . . . are you enjoying your stay in Vienna?” she asked.

Despite her pain, Omili laughed a bit and admitted that she had had better visits.

We all stood there in an awkward silence. Luckily for the policewoman, the commuters coming down the escalator toward us helped her out.  One after another they saw her, breathlessly approached, and then reported “There is a groper up there!!” Or, “There is a man up there grabbing young women!” Six or seven people did this in rapid succession.

The policewoman seemed a bit confused. She asked us if we thought she should go up there, seeing as how the emergency services were on the way. We assured her that it was probably the right thing to do. She left.

Four EMT’s arrived very shortly after that, but they also didn’t have a wheelchair with them. So two of them left to go get one and the other two stood around and engaged in small talk. In the meantime, the policewoman came back. It seemed her partner had things basically under control up there. Another awkward silence ensued. Now that help was here, maybe she should go back upstairs to her partner, she said. We agreed that it seemed like a good idea. She said goodbye to Omili and added, cheerily:

“Have fun!”

Things ended up working out about as well as could be hoped for. Omili was taken to the hospital and checked out. Nothing was broken to everyone’s relief. She opted to stay the night there and insisted that the rest of us still go to the opera as planned.

When freak accidents like this happen there are at least three ways to look at it.

1) You can say it was just simply dumb bad luck. Shit happens. Or . . .

2) You can look for some reason why it happened. What brought this on? Or . . .

3) You can look for some silver lining. Actually we were lucky because it could have been much worse . . .

I am torn between options 2 and 3.

On the one hand, take a close look at the first picture at the start of this post. It is the unused ticket – Seat 13 in Row 13. Isn’t that a sign?

On the other hand, what if the fat lady hadn’t tumbled and we had made it up that second escalator and on to the platform where the groper was standing? And what if he had seen us?  Then again, one of the witnesses had said he was grabbing “young” girls – so we probably would have been safe. Thanks to Omili, we will never know.

 

Morning at the Improv

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 39)

 

At some point – I assume – every teacher will have a lesson when everything goes differently than their best laid plans. They arrive in class only to discover that some crucial piece of technology refuses to work, or a flu epidemic has halved the class size, or as is often the case with me, they suddenly look at what they prepared and think “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

So they improvise.

And many teachers will tell you that these improvised, spur-of-the-moment lessons can be incredibly fun and much more memorable than the usual fare.

 

I went into my class Monday morning with a plan. We were kicking off a big, school-wide project around the theme of “Art”. Starting the next Monday, the kids would be able to try out different art forms for themselves – from ceramics, to painting, to sculpture, to carving, to weaving, etc. – but beforehand we would be learning about various artistic movements and different epochs in art along with their historical backgrounds, from cave paintings to Picasso, from da Vinci to Banksy. So all their lessons this week, whether World Studies, English, German or even Math, would somehow be connected to the topic of art . . . starting now. This lesson –this moment  – would be the big Kick-Off. I had it all planned out.

 

First I was going to do a general survey of what the kids associated with the word “Art”. Then I had a set of 26 cards based on the book “Museum ABC”. Each card showed 4 very different works of art with some object in common. And these 26 objects each began with a different letter of the alphabet. They had to identify the objects (in English!) and lay them out from A to Z. After that, I would point out examples on the cards from different art movements (Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Abstract, Surrealism, etc.) and have the kids come up with differences.

 

So back to Monday. I sat down on the carpet in the circle of kids and announced the official beginning of the project.

And then there was a weird, fairly long silence because I suddenly found it difficult to bring the banal question “What is Art?” over my lips. I knew instinctively that it wasn’t going to work.  Talking about art was not going to edify these kids. To really learn something, you need to experience it.

Time to improvise.

“We, humans,” I said, “all see the world in our own unique way. And most of us want to show or communicate to others how we see things. Art gives us an almost infinite number of ways to do this. I want to do a little experiment with you guys to demonstrate what I mean. Now close your eyes.”

The kids eyed me somewhat dubiously, but then decided to play along.

“Picture a chair.”

There were some murmurs and short requests for clarification. (“What kind of chair?” – “That’s up to you.”)

I looked around the circle of kids with their eyes closed, and added

“As you are imagining your chair, think about a few details . . like, what color is it? What is it made of?”

I waited for a few seconds and then asked, “Does everyone have a picture in their minds?”

After everyone had said yes, I told them to open their eyes, then handed them a piece of paper and said “Now go draw it. You can use colored pencils if you want.”

There was a mild but palpable excitement in the room (which surprised me) and they all spread out.

About ten minutes later most of them had wandered back to the carpet with drawing in hand. I had them lay their pictures in a circle on the carpet around the word “chair”. We all then sat down around them and compared for a while.

“Clearly, we all have different ideas about what a chair is and we used different styles in drawing them. One style is called ‘Realism’ – it means trying to paint the object as realistically as possible – exactly like it is. Almost like a photograph. Which of these is ‘realist’?”

About 11 fingers immediately pointed at Benny’s drawing. He was the only one who had used a ruler and thought about perspective.

“Not all artists draw objects exactly. Instead they show the object the way they see it or feel about it or experience it. Their impression of it. This is called ‘Impressionism’ – which of these looks a lot like a chair, but not like a photograph of one, somehow softer, less exact, more creative, lines that aren’t straight . . .

Fingers pointed at several pictures this time. A discussion started up about one of the choices because it didn’t look enough like a real chair.

“But it reminds you of a chair. Or makes you think of chair without really being a chair, doesn’t it?”

Most of the kids agreed.

“That is called ‘Abstract’.  The form of the object is distorted but usually still recognizable – in this case as a chair. Though . . . sometimes you have to be told what it is before you can see it.”

From there we found something Expressionist (in which the emotion was more important than the object) in Fred’s attempt to draw a dentist’s chair. He had gotten frustrated and scribbled over the part where the patient’s face would be. The result was slightly frightening. We discovered a Cubist chair (a collection of rectangular forms) and Symbolist executive chairs – one of which could be mistaken for a (middle) finger (salute). There was even one slightly Surreal chair (with fluffy looking jetpacks).

I was amazed at how long this little demonstration held their attention and at how they really seemed to get it. Even young Jonathon, who was clearly embarrassed about his own chair and reluctant at first to add it to the others on the carpet. I could almost hear him thinking “Benny’s chair is so good and mine looks so stupid and wrong!” Ten minutes later he was beaming about his cool, abstract style of drawing.

Unfortunately, because this was all unplanned, I didn’t have examples ready to show them right then and there, but I prepared this poster in the evening. The following morning, we ended up talking about it again for almost a half hour as one kid after another asked me questions about one of the movements (mostly the one their own chair drawing was assigned to . . .). Then we finally got to the Museum ABC activity that I had originally planned. It turned out to be way too easy and they were done in two minutes flat. So – Thank Goodness for spontaneous inspirations!

The next time I try this – and I definitely will (!) – I’ll have the example pictures ready to go. But I can say with confidence already that it won’t be the same magical experience. It is also entirely possible that two minutes before class starts, I will suddenly think, “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

A Round Dance

I should probably do something to make up for my last post. During my three weeks in the States, most of the conversation and the ENTIRETY of the news revolved around the antics of the pwesident and his circular firing squad of cronies. It was “All Twump, All the Time”. He eventually wheedled his way into my blog. But now I am home again and after stumbling through two days of jetlag, I am ready to write about something that has nothing to do with American politics – maybe something European and cultured . . . sophisticated . . . snooty, even.

Luckily, it just so happens that I went to the opera yesterday. “Rigoletto” by Giuseppe Verdi. And not just in any ol’ opera house – but one that had been built outdoors inside a huge stone quarry:

As we took the roundabout walkway that descended into the quarry, the impressive stage slowly came into sight. And when we took our seats, I was happy to see that the ones directly in front of mine were empty for four rows – leaving me a perfect view. The stage itself was at least four times the size of a normal one, and having no ceiling, it allowed for dramatically large objects in the stage design.  The natural rock wall behind it was integrated into the backdrop and light show. The sound system surrounding us would put us deep inside of the music:

 

 

The sun set and the opera began. The sheer enormity of the stage props made the players seem tiny at first – but that might fit well with one theme of the opera – the general smallness of people. They scurried around the stage like insects while huge projected images loomed over them. (Only their singing voices were large enough in dimension to compete.)

For those that don’t know the story (as I myself didn’t until reading up on it during the two hour drive to the quarry), Rigoletto is a court jester serving a womanizing Duke whose most profound statement is that love must be free (and apparently, fleeting). He then proceeds to seduce (ruin) one girl after another with Rigoletto’s help. The jester’s reward is the kick he gets out of ridiculing the girls’ husbands and fathers once the deed has been done. However, when one of these offended men puts a curse on Rigoletto, it begins to haunt him obsessively – to the point where he considers paying to have this father killed. It is a glimpse that somewhere inside him, there might be something like a conscience. Why else would this curse get to him so badly? For one brief moment, he seems to realize that as a person, he is not much better than a hired assassin. He uses his tongue as his sword while aiding and abetting the juvenile, narcissist/playboy in charge, possibly against his own character. I couldn’t help but think of all those rep . . . (nope, no, not going to go there, back to the plot . . .)

Rigoletto’s most human quality is the love he has for his daughter whose existence he has kept a secret from everyone. (You see where this is going now, don’t you?) Oddly enough, he also keeps his real name and what he does for a living a secret from her – as if he asked himself “How could I look my daughter in the eye and say I support this man?” (Oops, darn it! back to the opera.)  Of course, he wouldn’t want his own daughter anywhere near the Duke, much less, god forbid, alone with him.

 In a Shakespearean-style, implausible mix-up, Rigoletto ends up unwittingly helping in the kidnapping of – you guessed it – his own daughter who then becomes the Duke’s next conquest. Enraged, Rigoletto returns to the assassin and this time goes through with the deal – but with a new target: the Duke. When his daughter tells him that she still loves the man, he forces her to watch the Duke go after his next conquest and then sends her away. She sneaks back and sacrifices herself to save the Duke. She manages to stay alive just long enough to be discovered by her father, sing a (fairly long!) aria and apologize, as if it were her own actions and not her father’s that brought all this about. Then she dies.

Things never seem to go well for the female characters in operas.

But that is not quite the end. Rigoletto holds his dead daughter and screams out something about “The Curse!!”  In other words, “look what has been done to me!” rather than “look what I have done!”

Aahhh, 19th Century morality. Gotta love it. Those were the days. So great. Wish we could be (made) so great again . . . (oops, sorry!) . . .

No, I did not think about Twump and his minions all through the opera. In fact I didn’t give them a second thought. They came slinking back today as I wrote this post. Thankfully, last night the music and singing and stagecraft were so wonderful, that they allowed me to suspend the present and shake off my modern feminist and political sensibilities for three straight hours (which went by in a flash!) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of this horrible horrible story.

 

PS. The cool fireworks afterward helped too. You don’t get those in a dumb ol’ opera house.

      

Seedy Alley Surprise

This must be my 20th trip to Milwaukee, so it was nice to find a little hidden treasure just a five minute walk away. At first site, it is nondescript and uninviting little side alley, that makes you stop and consider taking the long way around:

 

But once you enter, you find yourself surrounded by this:

Here was my favorite part:

Saturday Matinee

My best blog buddy, Lyart, does a weekly thing where she introduces artwork or a particular artist to her readers. I am stealing her idea today, to show some of the work of my sister. In addition to writing and photography, in the past few years she has been having fun creating cool and quirky 3-dimensional pieces. On my second last evening here, she pulled out her USA puzzle and I spent over an hour having so much fun with it.

USA puzzle

 

She had researched each State to come up with something of historical significance that happened there – and not just the good and patriotic stuff. The darker chapters of US history are not glossed over. As you put the puzzle together, the best and worst parts land side by side to create an honest and multifaceted whole. Each puzzle piece is a miniature work of art, a history lesson, and a quiz question all rolled into one. A few examples:

Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights
Area 51 alien autopsy meets the origins of Miranda rights

 

Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite
Brave and non-violent civil disobedience borders on its exact opposite

 

What these pictures don’t show well is the attention to detail. To take in each puzzle piece, you have to view it from all different angles:

Rosa in the window
Rosa in the window

 

The beginning of the end of segregation
The beginning of the end of segregation

 

It occurred to me how fabulous this would be as teaching material for US History. I even contemplated for a while how I could steal it when I leave here for my other home in Austria tomorrow. Unfortunately, it is a bit bulky. I think my sister might notice. Maybe I’ll just slip this one piece into my suitcase:

Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)
Proudly a Cheesehead (despite McCarthyism)