Saturday, January 25, 2020

Local Art Seen: Julia Marshall Watercolors and Drawings @ Zeitgeist

Julia Marshall as a photographer in the
Women's Army Corps in WW2.
The following falls into the category of "I didn't know that!" And maybe you didn't either.

When I moved to Duluth in 1986 I recall hearing something about The Marshall Sisters, but I didn't really know the history of Duluth all that well, other than that there was a lot of wealth generated by the mining, logging and shipping industries.

Over time I learned of the philanthropic work Caroline and Julia Marshall undertook on behalf of Duluth. Their work including formation of the Duluth Improvement Association, purchasing land on the waterfront that is now Bayfront Park.

Julia was a founder of the Duluth League of Women Voters and the Duluth Art Institute, and in 1972 was the first woman to serve as a director of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. She also was a director of the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center in Duluth's Union Depot. When she passed away in 1994, nearly 100 years old, she left quite a legacy.

What I never knew was that Julia Marshall not only supported the arts, she was an accomplished artist herself. This month her watercolors and drawing have been displayed in the Zeitgeist Atrium. The show shows another dimension of her life that may be surprising to many.

Patricia Lenz curated the show and sent me information about this quite remarkable woman.

Following graduation from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, she volunteered in U.S. Army mess halls during World War I. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Army Corps.

Julia was an avid traveler and art/artifact collector. She lived in New York, Chicago, India, and the Middle East and was a long-time resident of Tucson, Arizona, where she began watercolor studies at the Southern Arizona Watercolor Guild.

Among her teachers was Gerry Peirce, a noted western watercolorist and printmaker, who was invited to teach watercolor at the Duluth Art Institute.

During the 50s and 60s she showed watercolors in juried exhibitions in Tucson, AZ and Duluth, MN.
In 1983 the Tweed Museum of Art here featured a portion of Julia Marshall’s work as part of a larger show.

Since her death at her Duluth home in 1994 at the age of 98, her watercolors (and photographs) have been exhibited in a number of venues including:


1998. Minnesota Masters. 7 Women Artists from the Region; Tweed Museum of Art.
1998. JNM Photographs at Tweed Museum of Art, UMD, Duluth, MN.
In 1996, watercolors removed from a storage vault in a Duluth Bank were curated for a series of exhibitions in Duluth and Tucson.
1997. JNM Watercolors at Duluth Depot.
2000. JNM Watercolors at the Lodge On the Desert Sponsored by the Southern Arizona Watercolor Guild and The Duluth Art Institute.
2002. JNM watercolors at Southern Arizona Watercolor Gallery (SAWG) with work of her teacher, Gerry Peirce.
2002. JNM Watercolors, Duluth Art Institute Galleries; . . 2002. JNM Watercolors purchased by Fred and Mary Lewis and donated to the Marshall School Library.


The Julia Newell Marshall Artists fund was established with the Depot Foundation in 2000 using funds from sale of artworks.

Serious Photographer, Too
By the early 1920s, Julia Marshall was captivated by artistic photography. She studied with the former Photo-Secessionist Clarence H. White at the Clarence White School of Photography in New York in 1921-22 and 1927. Her work was exhibited in the 1924 Camera Pictures exhibition organized by the White School's Alumni Association, and in the 1922 First International Kohakai Salon of Photography in Japan.

Pictorial Photographers of America, a national organization begun by White after the demise of the Photo-Secession movement held an annual exhibit: Pictorial Photography in America. Its 1922 catalog featured Marshall's photographic image "Silhouettes—Egypt" showing figures and animals on a low horizon. The publication included only seventy-five illustrations, by the likes of Laura Gilpin, D. J. Ruzicka, Edward Weston, and White, putting her in good company.

In 1923, two of her pictures—again of foreign subjects—were juried into the Pictorial Photographers of America's first annual salon, presented at the Art Center in New York.

She also collected photographic works by many significant fine art photographers and pictorialists. Her collection was later donated to the Tweed and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Her philanthropic activities were many as well as her varied interests. One of her favorite pastimes was canoeing, and her favorite getaway for that: the Brule River.

Check out her work this week. It's just one more reason to be impressed with her life and her example.

Friday, January 24, 2020

As You Said by Cream, in response to the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman

February 2014

Let's go down to where it's clean
To see the time that might have been.
The tides have carried off the beach.
As you said,
The sun is out of reach.
~Jack Bruce, Pete Brown

The passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman earlier this week brought to the forefront once again the dilemma of how to respond to people of exceptional talent, their subsequent fame, and their character disorders. It challenges us because all too often we look up to people who have the same feet of clay that we do. They are not gods. They are flawed. How do we separate their failures as role models from the exceptional gifts they have?

* * * *

The song As You Said by Cream bassist Jack Bruce and poet Pete Brown is from one of the great rock and roll double albums of all time, Wheels of Fire. It's psychedelic, surreal art is an attempt to convey the heady times and the remarkable music that Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker performed on stages both sides of the Atlantic. Clapton was practically still a kid when he linked in with Bruce and Baker, two very seasoned musicians with a volatile relationship.

The music they produced was remarkably sophisticated. Each of the men was a virtuoso. And the songs were poetry in motion, lyric content often hearkening back to historical literary roots. For example, the first stanza of As You Said ends with what is likely a reference to Icarus, who flew too near to the sun. The song is an exquisitely crafted lament, and perhaps serves as a warning about stretching too far or attempting to fly to high. Tales of Brave Ulysses from their Disraeli Gears album is explicitly rooted in Homer's Odyssey.

The album itself draws its title from Ezekiel's vision of wheels within wheels:

13-14 The four creatures looked like a blazing fire, or like fiery torches. Tongues of fire shot back and forth between the creatures, and out of the fire, bolts of lightning. The creatures flashed back and forth like strikes of lightning.

15-16 As I watched the four creatures, I saw something that looked like a wheel on the ground beside each of the four-faced creatures. This is what the wheels looked like: They were identical wheels, sparkling like diamonds in the sun. It looked like they were wheels within wheels, like a gyroscope.*

The chief feature of the double album that so set it apart was the manner in which the first two sides were produced in the studio while the second two sides were recorded live at the Fillmore in March 1968. I have often felt that Side A on this second vinyl is one of the best live rock recordings of all time. The interplay between Clapton and Bruce is unmatched for virtuosity and power as they tackle those blues classics Crossroads and Spoonful. The improvisational breakouts and breathtaking bounty of sound simply soars through the senses.

The personal conflicts between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were something to which the average teen like myself was oblivious. And maybe its this naive obliviousness that enables us to place these mortals on pedestals and treat them like gods.

Much has been written about Clapton as a god, but the real Clapton was a troubled, self-destructive man for a very long time as he wrestled with his own personal demons and pain. Fortunately, he came out the other side, clear-headed, clean and sober. He was rescued by love.

The same cannot as yet be said for Mr. Baker. A documentary has been been produced on Britain's most gifted drummer, aptly titled Beware of Mr. Baker. It's a gripping portrait of a self-centered, dysfunctional human being. As this Guardian interview shows, the great drummer is anything but a role model. Those who loved him were those whom he hurt most.

Which brings us back to Mr. Hoffman. Are we asking too much to expect our heroes to also be role models as well?  How do we respond when our heroes break the law, hurt others or self-destruct? The reality is, we live in a broken world. Disillusionments will be our lot time and again if we forget this truth.

*Ezekiel 1:13-16, The Message

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Anti-War Demonstrations: Are They Moral?

May Day 1971. Public domain.
When we lived in the Twin Cities back in the early 80s I used to read a publication called Vital Speeches of the Day, which I'd check out from the Roseville Public Library. Occasionally I would photocopy certain speeches so I could keep them as reference materials and mental fodder for freelance writing. Last week while organizing a filing cabinet I found a folder titled Sixties with photocopies of a number of these speeches, including this one here titled Anti-War Demonstrations: Are They Moral?

The speech was delivered by a student named Mark Arnold at Oberlin College on May 22, 1967. (Trivia: I did a piano recital at Oberlin four or five years earlier when I was 10 or 11.)

Several things struck me about the speech, which opens with the sentence, "I am opposed to the war in Vietnam." The first paragraph itself outlines a number of reasons why we ought not be in this war. Later in this paragraph he states, "I believe it imperative for the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam as soon as it possibly can."

What's strange, however, is the follow up to this opening. "And it is for that reason (because I believe it is wrong) that I today urge you and your fellow students to end the antiwar demonstrations. I repeat, I urge you and your fellow students to end the antiwar demonstrations."

May Day 1971. Public domain.
His argument for having the antiwar demonstration stop is based on his conviction that they won't work. Demonstrations didn't stop World War I or WWII. The only thing they will accomplish is to have the war be prolonged because it will give North Vietnam the false hope that they can win. (Emphasis mine.)

Any honest assessment of the situation in Southeast Asia shows that the war was already lost. From the vantage point of the future, it's apparent that the ones holding tight to a false hope were the American leaders prosecuting the war.

After his opening salvo Mark Arnold proceeds to essentially mimic parrot-like all the reasons why we have to finish the war and win. First, our government is good and so, by extension, are the intentions of our troops. Second, the Viet Cong are taking advantage of an unstable South Vietnam government. Third, the superiority of our air, naval and ground forces is self-evident. And fourth, most importantly, the thousands of anti-war protests in the U.S. are confirming that we do not have the resolve to win.

He then, mistakenly, asserts that "such demonstrations have not and cannot significantly alter the American policy in Vietnam."

* * * *
I've spent much of my adult life wrestling with how to write about my experience of having been part of the biggest antiwar protest in U.S. history-- and the one with the most arrests--in May 1971. After much reading and research, I've gained many insights. Here are a few.

1) The war was built on a foundation of lies and an incorrect understanding of the motivations of Viet Cong. Our leaders lied to the American people in order to gain the support it needed to justify sending their children to the other side of the world.
(See: The Cold War Killing Fields by Paul Thomas Chamberlin.)

2) For several years most of the media was complicit, accepting the "party line" being doled out by the Pentagon and the president.

3) Mass movements don't "just happen." They are usually organized and orchestrated by people with agendas. The May Day demonstration in Washington D.C. 1971 had been envisioned and executed by the same cast of characters who organized the 1968 protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

4) Protesting is actually written into our U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

5) The biggest mistake presidents Johnson and Nixon made was to write off these marches and sit-ins because they believed they were being directed by the Soviet Union.

6) A Lesson from the Bent Penny Brigade
There are people who looked like protestors who were agents of the government. They were fakes. At the May Day rally in 1971, 200 posers mixed in with the crowd with bent pennies in their pockets to identify them if arrested. (See story link below.)

In light of the above, this question comes to mind: Was the student who gave this speech earnest in his antiwar rhetoric? Mark Arnold lays out the very arguments that LBJ and other government officials used when denouncing the antiwar movement. Did his audience accept everything he said at face value? Was he himself a shill?

In the past half century there has been an immense decline in public trust. According to a Nick Gillespie article in Reason this week, 77% of Americans trusted "the government in Washington always or most of the time." Last year this was 17%. According to Gillespie, "When it comes to the presidency, trust has toppled from 73 percent in 1972 to 45 percent. For Congress, the drop is even worse, plummeting from 71 percent in 1972 to 38 percent in 2019. Trust in the Supreme Court has followed the same general trend."

It's possible Mark Arnold is still alive today. I'd be curious how he feels about his Oberlin speech today.

* * * *
Related Links
Two Days In October: PBS Documentary Points to Fall 1967 as the Vietnam War’s Turning Point
May Day 1971: A Lesson from the Bent Penny Brigade.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Carol Veldman Rudie Sheds Light on Soviet Era Art in Lecture at the Tweed

Dr. Veldman Rudie provides rewarding insights on Soviet art.
Tuesday evening the Tweed Museum of Art hosted the first of four lectures in conjunction with the current featured exhibition Art In Conflict. This first lectured painted a context for the work as Dr. Marsha Zaviolova outlined the themes and styles in Soviet arts. The period discussed runs from the 1953 death of Stalin till the breakup of the Soviet Union 1991.

Carol Veldman Rudie has been lead docent at the Museum of Russian Art since 2005 where she is also coordinator of outreach education. It's apparent she's been putting her minor in history to good use.

In addition to the insightful lecture, those in attendance had the privilege of meeting the newly installed director of the Tweed, Dr. Anja Chávez who introduced our guest lecturer and welcomed us.

Definitely non-Utopian, post-Stalin. 
For historical context, the Russian Revolution took place in 1917. In 1934 Josef Stalin rose to power and decreed that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable art. That is, the State approved the making of art as log as it was Realist in style and Socialist in content. This was the rigid ruling philosophy through 1953 when Stalin died.

Conventional State-approved art. 
The content of Soviet art included Utopian themes in which the greatness of the nation was portrayed, industrial progress, people being productive, etc. Women, now equal to men, were portrayed in all the various roles of men and even looked manly. Looking feminine was considered a bourgeois value of the West. It was OK to look lovely but be active digging ditches.

The lecture showed how there were competing styles in the art. A painting of a woman ironing, painted in a traditional style, was contrasted with a painting of a woman ironing in a non-literal style, an expressionist manner that was not correct even though the subject matter was the same.

After the Revolution abortion became legal and over time there was a declining population. (Also due to waves of starvation as well.) In response Stalin pushed artists to produce idyllic paintings of family life, with happy children, in an effort to encourage people to think favorably about reproduction.

Rich in symbols and code. Alexandr Gazhur's "Pilgrims" 1989. 
Even landscape artists were nudged to produce paintings with Socialist content. Hence we see a painting of a landscape in conjunction with a hydroelectric plant, landscapes with industrial sites.

After Khrushchev we see the emergence of non-conformist art. Painters like Bulotov and Rabine addressed the degradation taking place or the covering up of Reality by the State. We were shown numerous examples of conformist and non-conformist art. The non-conformists, with paintings like "No Exit" demonstrate irony and confront us with the question of what is really true. (This, at a time when the party line was laid out in Pravda, the official propaganda organ of the State.)

Traditional landscape being obliterated by red stars.
One thing you won't find are paintings of prison life, though one artist who was imprisoned did manage to do drawings and sketches of this dark system of gulags.

The Spiritual was another theme expunged under Lenin and Stalin. The Soviet Union was a Materialist culture. Spirituality was not acknowledged. There were, however, artists who incorporated the spiritual into their work. Artists like Viktor Popkov pushed the boundaries in the arena.

The art of Odessa got away with portraying Jewish life and its ways. (For what it's worth, Bob Dylan's father Abram Zimmerman's parents--Zigman and Anna--were from Odessa, emigrating to the United States during the anti-semitic pogroms of 1905.)

There's plenty to see at the Tweed if you get a chance. And with a little background like that presented last night, you will have an even greater appreciation for this Art In Conflict exhibition.

UPCOMING Lectures in this series:
February 18: Art on the Edges: Non-Conformists and Spirituality
March 24: Women in the Soviet Union: Utopian Dreams, Reality Check
April 21: The People's Papers: The Poster Tradition in the Soviet Context

Related Links
A Farce So Dark It Will Make You Laugh: The Death of Stalin (movie review)
Local Art Seen: Tweed Spotlights the Art of Russia

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dylan and Gates (Not Ol' Bill)

Mood Swings (installation detail)
Ever since last summer I've been intending to share some thoughts about Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" from Blonde On Blonde. While reading That Thin Wild Mercury Sound this past fall the urge was re-ignited. Having now completed the book a second time I'm still not ready. Instead, this blog post will focus on one feature of the song, repeated three times on this classic album--gates.

The reason I find the prevalence of this word so intriguing may well, in part, be due to Bob's late-in-life interest in metal sculpture. His 2013-14 art exhibition titled Mood Swings filled the Halcyon Gallery with welded gates. His artist statement included these words:

Gates appeal to me because of the negative space they allow. They can be closed but at the same time they allow the seasons and breezes to enter and flow. They can shut you out or shut you in. And in some ways there is no difference.”—Bob Dylan

And that is exactly how the word can be understood right here in the opening line of "Absolutely Sweet Marie."

Well, your railroad gate, you know I just can't jump it
Sometimes it gets so hard, you see
I'm just sitting here beating on my trumpet
With all these promises you left for me
But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?


Photo by Russ Ward on Unsplash
There's no question this song is about unrequited longing. You hear that plea even more forcefully in "Where Are You Tonight" on Street Legal, but that's a sidestreet and our focus here is gates. In "Absolutely Sweet Marie" the gate is a barricade. We're at a railroad crossing and the red lights are flashing.

Despite a lifetime of listens, I really never gave much thought to how many ways Dylan references gates in his work. In "I Want You" which is also featured on Blonde On Blonde, he this time mentions opening a gate.

And I wait for them to interrupt
Me drinkin' from my broken cup
And ask me to
Open up the gate for you.

And then again we find a gate reference in "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands."

My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
Should I leave them by your gate,
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

In this instance, he has brought something to the gate and is making a gentler appeal to the lady in waiting.

* * * *
Sometimes he may choose to use the word gate because the ease with which it rhymes with other words. For example, in "Everything's Broken" he sings,

Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates...

And in "Simple Twist of Fate"

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate 
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.

Is the gate significant? Maybe not, but might be, because of the numerous other gates here, it may be.

In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" he sings...

Clouds so swift
Rain won't lift
Gate won't close
Railings froze
Get your mind off wintertime
You ain't goin' nowhere

In other words, good times, open gates. Down in the easy chair.

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash
To be sure the word is not always loaded with sexual connotations. In "The Walls of Red Wing" he sings about the gates that hold men in.

Oh, the gates are cast iron
And the walls are barbed wire.
Stay far from the fence
With the 'lectricity sting.

There's the spiritual references, as well.

Well, your clock is gonna stop
At Saint Peter's gate.
Ya gonna ask him what time it is,
He's gonna say, "It's too late."
Hey, hey!
I'd sure hate to be you
On that dreadful day

St. Peter's gate is pretty much the same as Heaven's Door, yes? Where have we heard that name before?

And Heaven, life's endpoint, has been foreshadowed in the Edenic Paradise that Adam and Eve were banished from in the beginning. In "Gates of Eden" from Bringing It All Back Home we find the word "gates" repeated with each refrain:

No sound ever comes from the Gates of Eden

Heading for the Gates of Eden

All except inside the Gates of Eden

There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no sins inside the Gates of Eden

It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no trials inside the Gates of Eden

And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden

Note how switching from describing what's inside Eden to what is absent outside multiplies the force of that last refrain.

The next track on this same album is the one that sank the hook into my own heart's sinews, making a profound impact on me as a youth, and countless others from my generation, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." The word gate re-appears here as well in this most memorable stanza:

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.

* * * *
In Dylan's poignant "North Country Blues" (from Times They Are A-Changin') the closed gates again convey a negative symbolic implication, the end of something. He sings:

So the mining gates locked 
And the red iron rotted 
And the room smelled heavy from drinking.

Songs with other applications of the word gate include All Over You, Quit Your Lowdown Ways, Long Distance Operator, Two By Two, Golden Loom, Foot of Pride, Day of the Locusts, Scarlet Town, When He Returns (Slow Train Coming) and two references to the Golden Gate Bridge in Down the Highway (Freewheelin') and Clean Cut Kid (Empire Burlesque).

2013 publicity still for "Mood Swings" opening at Halcyon Gallery

Freud famously once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." His meaning: It is what it is. On the other hand, the meaning of words and images in Dylan's lyrics are frequently not what they appear to be. Sorting out the multi-layered allusions from the straight-up "it is what it is" meanings has been an endlessly fascinating conundrum for many long-time Dylan enthusiasts.

What comes to mind for me is a dialogue between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in Roman Polanski's 1974 classic Chinatown.

Jake Gittes: Maid's night off?
Evelyn Mulwray: Why?
Jake Gittes: What do you mean, why? Nobody's here, that's why.
Evelyn Mulwray: I gave everyone the night off.
Jake Gittes: Easy. It's an innocent question.
Evelyn Mulwray: No question from you is innocent, Mr. Gittes.
Jake Gittes: I guess you're right.

When is a word pregnant with meaning and when is it just a descriptor? When we dig into Blonde On Blonde, I don't believe it's a stretch to say that no word from Dylan is innocent of deeper layers of meaning. This is what makes his lyrics nothing short of scintillating.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Courage Made Her Influential: Ida B. Wells

Ida Bell Wells
Last week when I shared A Little Girl’s Dream on my blog here, it prompted me to become more familiar with the stories of African Americans who were early pioneers in the pursuit of freedom and justice. Many of their names were familiar to me but I knew very few of their stories, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman preeminent examples.

While doing research this week for Black History Month (Feb 1-29) I came across a list titled the 100 Greatest Books by African American Women. It was an enlightening read. This blog post today on Dr. Martin Luther King Day is about one of these women, Ida Bell Wells.

* * * *
Ida born into slavery in 1862 during the Civil War in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were slaves till the 13th Amendment freed them after the war. In 1877 a yellow fever epidemic killed both of her parents while she was away visiting her grandmother.

The authorities would have split the family but she said she could raise her younger siblings, and took a test that enabled her to get a teaching job. Her only previous experience was teaching her younger brothers and sister.

One day Ida took a seat on a train but was forcibly removed to the smoking car. She sued the railroad and actually won a $500 settlement. The headline in the papers read, “Darkey Damsel Gets Damages.”

Naturally, the railroad didn’t like that outcome and took the matter to a higher court where the decision was reversed.

Ida wrote about these experiences for her church newspaper The Living Way, and even though she never received the money, she saw the impact her writing had on people who reacted to what she wrote. She was learning the power of the written word. In 1889 she became part owner of a black-owned newspaper called Free Speech and Headlight. For two more years she also continued teaching until she was dismissed for writing about conditions at the black schools.

Ida learned early the power of the written word, but it was her courage that most stands out. She wrote about what she saw in order that others would know what was going on.

Ida had friends who ran a black grocery store called The People’s Grocery, which was in competition with a white grocery store. An incident occurred which escalated. Three black men were taken to jail. Then, in the middle of the night 75 masked men came, took them from the Shelby County Jail and shot them dead.

It was this event that led Ida to begin investigating and writing about lynchings. After writing an editorial about another incident, her newspaper office was burned to the ground.

Ida married in Chicago and raised a family there.
Ida was in New York at the time her office was looted and destroyed. She was urged not to return and began writing from up North. She later moved to Chicago.

In 1892 Ida Wells began publishing her lynching research in pamphlet form It was titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. The following year her lynching research was compiled in a book titled The Red Record. Frederick Douglass wrote the introduction.

She was invited to speak in England and Scotland. She spoke with eloquence and passion about the unfair treatment of blacks. Her pamphlets included disturbing photos of actual lynchings.

Ida claimed that "ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution." She believed that the massive rise in such killing after the Civil War was because previous to the war Blacks had more value as “property” of the slaveholders.

Ida found support from white women involved with the battle for women’s rights, becoming friends with Susan B. Anthony and others in the movement.

In 1928 she began working on her autobiography, but it was never finished. She died in 1930 after an influential career. Her story was published posthumously four decades later in 1970. For more than half a century she used her writing skills to promote freedom, safety, and justice.

* * * *
Information for this brief bio came from the Walter Dean Myers' book Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told and Wikipedia.

Related Links
12 Facts About Marting Luther King, Jr. That You May Not Know
Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Visit with Professor Carl Jennings: Art as a Form of Philosophy

Carl Jennings
One of my Christmas presents in 2018 was a book intriguingly titled The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. It's a book about the history of color, with stories and anecdotes about the beauty that colors our world. When I stumbled upon an article about color by a writer on Medium named Carl Jennings, I was intrigued enough to follow the link to his website where color is a primary fascination.

It's only natural, of course. He's an artist, an art professor who teaches at Kapi'olani Community College, University of Hawai’i, in Honolulu. His background and experiences prompted me to reach out, that I might share here some of his ideas and work.

EN: How did you come to choose college in San Francisco, having been born in Liverpool?

Carl Jennings: My family moved from Liverpool to the USA when I was 5. At 18, I wasn’t a big fan of the LA life-style, so after high school I moved to San Francisco. I went to San Francisco State University where I studied Art and Philosophy, and met my wife Tammy.

EN: You got your MFA in England in 1998. How did you end up in Hawaii?

CJ: After San Francisco, my wife and I moved to England where we had our three kids, and I pursued my MFA at what was then Falmouth College of Arts. Hawai‘i happened by accident. After 15 years of not seeing the sun (literally!), we were looking for a move. My wife’s father called out of the blue and said the house he had been renting out in Hawai‘i for the past twenty years was falling apart, and would we be interested in moving there to fix it up in exchange for cheap rent, we jumped at the opportunity. Knowing we could come back after six months, or a year if we didn’t like it. I ended up getting a job teaching art within the University of Hawai‘i System, and 19 years later I am still there!

EN: I myself started toward a B.A. in Philosophy and switched to Fine Arts. How does philosophy inform your art? Do you have any philosophers that you especially identify with?

Death of Charybdis--Ink and acrylic on paper. 22” x 30”, 2019
CJ: I feel that art is a form of philosophy. Words can be limiting, and I felt that images could say, or communicate, so much more. I was really into Heidegger at the time, and his notion of Being and Openness made a lot of sense to me. I responded to the ideas visually, using an abstract, all over, color-field-like language. I felt that painting was a way of exploring these ideas in a more visceral, sensual and immediate way. I wanted to create experiences of the ineffable, or the ecstatic that would envelop the viewer and provide a space for contemplation, much like Rothko and Motherwell. I saw painting as a way of exploring and having a dialogue with many of the ideas I was interested in at the time, especially Heidegger, but also the Kabbalah and Buddhism.

For me art has always been philosophical – a way of asking questions and exploring meaning. Today my philosophical interests lie more with Deleuze and Rorty (heirs of Heidegger in many respects) and the construction of meaning. I am interested in the human imagination and our propensity to create meanings, interpretations and narratives. Like my earlier work, my current approach also embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, but unlike the earlier abstract paintings my more recent work involves a lot of implied narrative, mythology and metaphor.

EN: Who have been your heroes in the fine arts?

CJ: As I mentioned earlier the Abstract Expressionists were a big early influence. They were my first encounter with painting as an experience, rather than just an image on the wall. Their works were big, enveloping and powerful; they opened up a whole new dimension to me. Other influences have included Bonnard, as well as Titian and Max Beckman.

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)--Oil on canvas  48” x 60”, 2018
Today I am very interested in Munch, and some younger painters like Michael Armitage and Josh Hagler. Munch was a great surprise to me. Obviously, I was aware of his work, but I never really got to know much about his work until I visited Oslo a couple of years ago. His work blew me away because he was such a painter’s painter. The Scream, his most famous work, is in my opinion, one of his least interesting images – it’s lifeless and drab, a one-trick pony in my view. The rest of his oeuvre is so different, his paintings are rich, fresh and very contemporary looking. It was a great revelation to discover his work, and I can’t wait to go back to Oslo to see more.

EN: What is your process for making decisions as regards subject matter for your oil paintings?

CJ: I don’t have any one approach. Ideas come from all sorts of places; from something I see, a dream perhaps, a phrase, a doodle, an old sketch, etc. Looking at the work of other artists is also a great inspiration. In terms of my decision-making – the eye is the final arbiter. It can be a great idea, but if it doesn’t move me visually, I will throw it away or paint over it. At the end of the day it has to connect on a visual level, which for me is the same as an emotional level. I have a little test that often I use; after working on something for a while, I try to approach it fresh after a few days of not looking at it. Everything rides on my first impression. I have to be wowed, if not – it goes, I paint over it or throw it away. I have to sense that there is something in it besides me, something ‘other’, a little bit of something else that I did not plan, control or orchestrate. I need to feel like the work is more than just me, almost like it is the work of somebody else. I need to be blown way, and it is my feeling, or gut instinct, on my first impression that tells me that.

EN: What is the story behind “The Houses of the Astronomers”?

CJ: This series grew out of my interest in the night sky – which goes back to my early interest in the ineffable, Abstract Expressionism, and the philosophical ‘meaning of it all’. I had been reading about Galileo, Newton, Herschel, Tycho Brahe and Copernicus as well as Gaston Bachelard’s superb book, The Poetics of Space, where he discusses the subconscious power of spaces, like attics, rooms, basements etc. I became aware of the rooms (observatories) these people worked and lived in, and how in these spaces the stars were much ‘closer’ than say their neighbor, or even the books on the bookshelf. I imagined that somehow the heavens filled these rooms; rooms full of stars, worlds, universes. I had a very romantic notion of what these spaces must have been like.

The theme was also connected to the idea behind a drawing I had done twenty years earlier of a man looking through a telescope whilst climbing a ladder that was being held up by a motley cadre of assistants so that he could get ‘closer’ to the heavens, or in this case God (the drawing was called Deus Absconditas, the hidden God). The whole thing reminded me of the folly and absurdity of human endeavors to try and understand things - but at the same time an absurdity that I found endearing, because it is what we do and always have done. So, the series included houses on stilts and dwellings that were full of stars. One of the underlying themes was scale and proximity and how much our understanding of life is tethered to our scale as humans. The series of paintings was a visual riff on ideas that grew out of this starting place.

Charybdis In Hawai'i (Contact)--Ink and acrylic on paper  22” x 30”, 2019
EN: What are you working on now that has you jazzed?

CJ: I am working on a collaborative body of work with my wife, the photographer Tammy Jennings. The working title is Charybdis in Hawai‘i, and it deals with the impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise in Hawai‘i. Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon and she assisted her father, in his battle with Zeus, by swallowing up land with water. Climate change is going to have a disproportionate effect on many Pacific Island nations and peoples. As I live in the middle of the Pacific, I am acutely aware of what is to come. The work explores, through mythology, art history and climate science the idea of a second coming or ‘contact’ for Hawai‘i (the first contact being the ‘discovery’ of Hawai‘i by Captain Cook.) So some of the imagery will be derived from some of the earliest images of Cook in the Pacific.

According to recent estimates, places like Waikiki will be underwater by the end of this century, regardless of what we do! The work is a way of visualizing that reality. I am usually a fairly positive and optimistic person, but I find my optimism in human behavior beginning to erode. The project is an attempt to visualize the coming reality – and I think we need to see and feel that.


Related Links
Carl Jennings Art: http://www.cjennings.com
Men In Black--The Fear of Color in Western Culture
Carl Jennings on Medium: medium.com/@carljennings