Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thoreau’s Journal

“A perfectly healthy sentence is extremely rare.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I don't mind repeating the statement, "If a man is worth knowing at all he is worth knowing well." And one of the best ways to know people well is through their letters (Van Gogh) and journals, especially when they have been dead for some time. In fact, journals are possibly the most intimate way to know a person, because when you meet "in person" you seldom get to the deep things in one encounter. If at a party, art opening, a lecture or passing on the street you only exchange niceties, and perhaps encounter the spirit of the person. Even then it is the spirit of the person for only that moment in time.

A journal gives you years of intimate insights as you follow the flow of a person's thoughts as it weaves its way around circumstances, experiences, the most nebulous and the most mundane fragments of a life.

It's been my pleasure to read a number of writers' journals over the years. Thomas Mann and Andre Gide were both Nobel prize winning authors and one can glean much, much, much from a writer's journals and notebooks. If you're serious about a writing career I would recommend Gide's especially. All four volumes.

I myself have endless journal entries with which I stained dozens of notebooks over a period of thirty years. Unlike Gide, or Mann, or in this case Thoreau, the "good stuff" would probably amount to a very thin book in contrast with the volume recently edited and assembled by by Damion Searls. And Searls' version of Thoreau's Journal, while a hefty volume itself, is but one tenth of the original 7,000 pages of material.

To a journal writer like myself, this is quite an output, considering that his journal work lasted only 24 years. Then again, he didn't punch a time clock from eight to five like most of us.

Thoreau's life and world were not like ours. There was no Internet. And though the industrial age was flexing its muscles he stepped back from there, retreating to space where he could become acquainted with, even intimate with the natural world. But he was not a monastic. At Emerson's house in 1857 he met John Brown, who led the raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the powder keg events preceding the Civil War. This fateful meeting caused Thoreau to take up the abolitionist banner. And though Walden is his most well-known book, his book on civil disobedience and the obligation to follow one's conscience was probably his most influential.

As nearly all journal writers do from time to time, Thoreau made entries on the process of journal writing. “We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them. Impulse is, after all, the best linguist, and for his logic, if not conformable to Aristotle, it cannot fail to be most convincing.”

I've often considered journal writing a place to hone the skill of capturing nebulous and ethereal ideas and transforming them into concrete words. Or like a man with a butterfly net whose specialty is ultimately pinning these beautiful "finds" in boxes so others can appreciate them.

This excerpt from an Amazon.com reviewer of the book explains how this particular volume was assembled. "The primary objective was to have it read as a representative version of the full journal rather than as a collection of excerpts. The editor therefore tried to balance material among the seasons and months, including keeping one of each month relatively unabridged. Another goal was to make it readable, so there is very little in the way of notes. Entries were chosen by personal preference, not historical importance. As you read, the date appears on the left page and Thoreau's age on the right so you always know where you are both in time and in his life."

Here are some of the headings for various entries:
The Loss of a Tooth
The Dream Valley

His fragment on poetry includes this beautiful thought. “No definition of poetry is adequate unless it be poetry itself.”

Here's another excerpt, which I recently shared on my Facebook page. “Men see God in the ripple but not in the miles of still water. Of all the two-thousand miles that the St. Lawrence flows – pilgrims go only to Niagara.”

What's impressive, and surprising even, is how good the writing is. Like other writers, he used his journal to polish his craft. He appreciated the value of a good sentence, and the two million words he penned were selected, chosen, not simply thrown down to fill space in a notebook.

You can read what others have to say about this book at Amazon.com or go for the overview of his life at Wikipedia. Either way you'll be rewarded. Or you can download it to your Kindle or Nook and take it with you on your next trip.

As you embrace the day, take time to stop and smell the roses.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ten Minutes with Cellist/Artist Kathy McTavish

The haunted, dynamic quality of Kathy McTavish's cello is fairly well known here in the Northland. What is probably less well known is how articulate she is, as you will see in this interview. Her multi-media collaborations open new horizons for the imagination, and those who choose to engage are rewarded.

Ennyman: What is it that first drew you to the cello as a vehicle for communicating the deep things stirring inside you?

Kathy McTavish: I first heard the cello the summer after third grade. The public schools in Minnesota used to have more arts programming. At my school in St. Paul, kids were shown different instruments and given an opportunity to learn to play in the school band or orchestra. I heard the cello and completely fell in love with its sound.

Despite the frustrations associated with learning the physical aspects of playing and the new language of wordless sound, I kept at it. I practiced for hours. The cello became an escape from a school world that I felt outside of. It was like a boat. I was taught Western classical music. It was the only path. I excelled for a time and then I felt a longing to be more engaged in the creative process in some way other than being an interpretive player. At the time I didn't know of how to do that. I studied music theory / composition but couldn't find my way. I pursued other things for a time and then I came back to the cello.

I started to explore the cello's sounds more broadly. Thanks to the generosity of local musicians, I started to explore improvisation. Free improvisation was a door that opened up a creative voice for me. It changed my relationship to my instrument.

E: I was fascinated with your Phantom Galleries Superior presentation last fall because of the multimedia experience and how you wove so many mediums into that space. How did that project come to be?

KM: I loved the idea of the Phantom Galleries and I respect anything that Erika Mock is involved in creating. I was drawn to the space between the old Androy Hotel and the Main Club and I wanted to interact with that vacant storefront. I had started expanding my sound work to include light and images / moving pictures and I brought this fusion work to that project. Many of the images used in the still-motion films were from the area around Tower Avenue. I collaborated with the poet Sheila Packa to embed words in the final installation. It was challenging for me to work without being able to use sound directly. Because the space is locked the viewer is left to gaze in through the window and the only sound becomes the streetscape ambient sounds. I wrote music for all of the films and included this in the online companion site for the exhibit.

E: You also write in an evocative manner that captures imagery in a lot of dynamic ways. Have you always been a writer? What prompted you to produce your book Birdland?

KM: I'm not really a writer. Thank you for your kind words about that book. I wanted to improve my ability to talk about what I do. I also wanted to explore in words -- the dream story that lived for me while I created the "birdland" exhibit. I found that writing helped me bring to life the ghosts that were present for me while I worked. I feel that an artist needs to risk something and for me, this was a vulnerable process. I felt very emotional trying to wander the strange world of words -- quite adrift.

E: Who have been your most significant influences as an artist?

KM: I love Patti Smith, abstract expressionist artists, beat poets. I love collaborating with Sheila Packa. I learned so much from working with Richie Townsend in the cosmic pit orchestra. I am inspired by local artists, writers and musicians. We are very lucky to live in this area. We have an openness to new ideas, experimentation and cross-media collaborations.

E: You've done a number of collaborations. How did those come to be?

KM: I have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with some wonderful people in a broad range of styles / art forms. I have worked with other musicians but also with poets, dancers, visual artists, and film makers. I like to learn from other artists. Collaboration brings that learning to a very visceral level that changes a person in ways difficult to describe.

E: My guess is that with each completed project you have something else in the wings. What will you be pouring yourself into in 2012?

KM: The multimedia installation "birdland" is at the Duluth Art Institute until April 8 (more online at: www.cellodreams.com/birdland.html). On February 3rd another collaborative exhibit will be up at the same Phantom Gallery space that I now occupy. This project is called "cruzando / crossing". It is a bilingual installation created by the Argentinian visual artist Cecilia Ramon, poet Sheila Packa and myself. I am working on a film called "night train / blue window" that will be complete sometime this Spring. The Jerome Foundation just funded work on a project called "graffiti angel / holy fool". This work has two aspects. The first, an experimental music / still-motion film will premier at the Zinema 2 this summer. The second, a multi-media live performance, will premier at Sacred Heart this Fall. All of my creative projects have a companion online exhibit space so you can watch them unfold at: www.cellodreams.com.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Zenith City Writers Event Proves Rewarding

If I were only permitted to read the Duluth News Tribune one day a week, that day would be Thursday. As nearly anyone who follows the art scene here in the Northland knows, or ought to know, this is when The Wave appears, a section of the paper dedicated to music, the arts, theater, food and movies. Hats off to Christa Lawler and all the DNT staff responsible for helping the community be more aware of all the exciting events and happenings taking place here.

Last night's event at the Teatro Zuccone proved exceptionally rewarding, an event I would not have been aware of had it not be highlighted on the Best Bets page of this week's Wave. To some I s'pose it would have sounded boring, a gathering of writers reading from their work. But the essays, poems and stories were anything but boring and it was pleasing to see a nearly packed house.

The theme was New Beginnings and the lineup was comprised of Lucie Amundson, Gary Boelhower, Anthony Bukowski, Tom Isbell, Dennis Kempton, Christa Lawler, Paul Lundgren, Elizabeth Nordell, Ryan Vine and Andy Bennett, who played the role of host and Master of Ceremonies.

I arrived early as if going to a rock concert. The room was quiet and I found a spot that seemed suitable near the front. The Teatro Zuccone is a wonderfully intimate setting for music, drama and last night for writers reading their works. As eight o'clock approached the decibel level increased dramatically, a palpable, almost wild energy filling the air. Mind you, this was a group of people gathering to hear writers. Peering across the room one could see a most ecclectic audience, from college students to old fogeys like me.

Finally, Andy Bennett, director of development with the Renegade Theater Company, ran to the podium to welcome the crowd and kick off the evening. You knew we were in for a ride as he read an essay about his junior high school experience titled Fresh Start. His humorous prose captured all of us instantly, or was it the entertaining delivery? His insights into the educational caste system, from his own personal point of view, evidently resonated with a crescendo of applause acknowledging a good story.

The distinguished Anthony Bukowski was then introduced. Mr. Bukowski read a short story titled "The Maritime Trader" about a married couple named the Krummys. (Here's where readings like this fail one, because we hear a name like that and in the book it might be spelled a half dozen other ways. Suffice it to say, I chose to spell Lloyd and Verna Krummy's names with a K.) The story tied in with life in the Northland as it involved a man with a telescope and a wife who ran off with a deck hand on one of the ore boats that frequent our port. More applause.

Ryan Vine, whose many publication credits left my head spinning, read a piece called Rule Book. It was fun and whimsical with sideways themes, some quite thought provoking.

Elizabeth Nordell, a story teller who also teaches story telling, recited a story rather than reading it. Her animated delivery is practiced, and the manner in which she constructed the story was equally skilled. You could tell the audience liked her, and at this point I wondered if writers have to be performers as well in order to be appreciated. The answer to this question followed immediately.

Tom Isbell, professor of theatre at UMD, read a segment from his novel The Hatchery. His vivid crisp prose hit like a punch. Isbell's words, not his delivery, gave us pause. A strong piece that made for a good place to break for intermission.

After the break Lucie Amundson, a former editor at Family Handyman (among other places), began with a long entertaining introduction which included humorous descriptions of life in the suburbs. (To her relief "Competitive Lawn Maintenance" is not a major sport pursued in Duluth, where she now resides.) Amundson, who described herself as "a wordy pole dancer" mentioned having notified a few friends that she was going to read a story that included nudity. The incident involving nudity was indeed hilarious.

Gary Boelhower, a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of St. Scholastica, followed. Dr. Boelhower shared four short essays tangent to the theme, "In the beginning was the Word." One of the pieces was titled "First Song." The essay or prose poem detailed how the letters of the alphabet are first presented to us with such innocence, but as we mature we learn new words that begin with these letters. By the end he has recited countless lists of A-B-Cs invoking references to wars, battles and the many stains on our human history caused by man's inhumanity to man.

Dennis Kempton, founder of Ouevre magazine, shared an extremely personal memoir titled Red Chalk. The piece appears in his book of essays titled Distance. The story, powerfully written with its candid pain flowing across the surface, could not help but tear your heart. As I drove home later I wondered how many others were reminded of the recent news stories of the horrors committed at Penn State. Kempton is to be commended for his courage as he shared this experience of being young, powerless, tyrannized and abused.

Christa Lawler followed with a narrative she called The Duplex. Christa's delivery and clever use of language shows how finely honed her wit has become over the years she's been pouring out prose for the newspaper and other outlets sixteen hours a day.

The night ended on a high note with Paul Lundgren giving us a rundown of what grocery shopping means to a newly married man, beginning with those early memories of trips to the grocery store with mom through all the phases in between, culminating in the challenge of running an errand for your lovely spouse carrying a shopping list that may or may not correspond with the items you find at that final destination, the Super One.

All in all, the net-net here is that we have a lot of talent in this town, and if you ever see it listed again that a bunch of writers are convening to share their work, don't underestimate it. Cheap entertainment and culture have kissed.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Olde Toothpaste Challenge

The other day I was in the grocery store picking up a few items when I realized I was getting low on toothpaste and should pick up a tube. When I reached the section I had to scratch my Head because of the impossibly vast array of toothpaste options there in front of me. Tooth whitening, cavity fighting, bold tasting, fluoride enhanced... I finally went to the Crest section and here were still more choices. Ultimately I bought this spectacularly packaged, Crest Complete Multi-Benefit toothpaste, that not only whitens but gives you a cinnamon rush.

What a beautiful package. Not only is it red, white and blue, it's got some kind of holographic waves flowing across the background/foreground . It also has its main features repeated in Spanish so this dazzling product can be marketed in San Antonio and Los Angeles.

The whole experience of making this purchase brought to mind an Andy Rooney segment from the old Sixty Minutes show. Rooney was a pugnacious, wry wit who made millions distilling a week's worth of thought into a sixty second barb. By way of contrast, there are probably hundreds of local talk radio heads who make a few bucks by stretching sixty seconds of thought into sixty minutes of air.

One of Rooney's pieces was titled The Cost of Ingredients, which begins like this: "I keep looking at things I buy and keep thinking about how they got to cost that much." I can still hear his sarcastic snarl when I read that.

Andy Rooney begins this segment talking about packaging, citing a few examples. He then zeroes in on Crest. He bought two tubes of Crest, at two different places, one for $1.99 and the other for $2.39. Rooney had the ingredients tested at a place called Industrial Testing Laboratories. He wanted to know how much the ingredients for this product cost. To be fair he noted that this same procedure could be carried out with other popular toothpaste brands, so he wasn’t exactly picking on Crest.

He learned that the ingredients cost a total of twelve cents. Experts estimated that the tube and box cost about five cents.

Crest sold 200 million tubes of toothpaste that year, which would mean they spent 24 million on ingredients. With $10 million going to packaging and $41 million on advertising, the company spent half as much on ingredients as on marketing. And the revenue for all that toothpaste, at two dollars a pop, would have been $400 million.

But when I look at the box my Crest came in, I have to say it's really a work of art. It's simply beautiful how they manage to get so much information in such a small amount of space. Here are pictures of cinnamon, with fireworks around them, which means your tongue will be hopping for joy when you taste this paste. If the bright colors and images don't seal the deal, you can read the sales copy on the back. "Feel it working. Know you're covered."

Then the real benefits, in type so small you may need a magnifying glass. Fights Cavities. Removes Surface Stains Freshens Breath.

And the whole thing is repeated again in Spanish, because Hispanics also carry magnifying glasses in their pockets when they go shopping.

In fact, this box of Crest would be a useful tool for teaching Spanish to American children because being bi-lingual is useful in a country that will one day have more Spanish speakers than English.

Finally, let's get to the drug facts. The active ingredient in this tube of Crest is Sodium Flouride, o.243%. It's purpose is even stated clinically. This is an anticavity toothpaste. Other ingredients include sorbitol, water, hydrated silica, disodium pyrophosphate, sodium lauryl sulfate, flavor, sodium saccharin, sodium hydroxide, carbomer, xanthan gum, carnauba wax, cllulose gum, titanium dioxide and red 40. Feel better now? I wanna go brush my teeth again!

But wait. There are also some warnings. "Keep out of reach of children under 6 yrs of age." That's a little scary to me. And here's the really scary part. "If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact Poison Control Center right away."

Maybe three times a day is safer than every fifteen minutes after all. Have a great weekend. And don't forget to brush.

EdNote: You can find Andy Rooney's The Cost of Ingredients on page 169 of his book Years of Minutes.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Are You Really Ready for the Cars of Tomorrow?

One hundred years ago Cadillac did something radical. They introduced a car with a self-starter. Hard to believe today that if you wanted to start a car way back when, you had to stand outside in the cold and crank it. I'm sure this wasn't a lot of fun for a young Minneapolis man on a first date when it was twenty below zero. But someone came along with an idea and decided to do something about it.

Cars have come a long way since then. But there was a time when cars didn’t have tubeless tires, or hydraulic brakes, or shock absorbers. And at one time your only choice when it came to color was black. Eventually cars began to have brain boxes, little computer chips that took care of more and more facets of your vehicle’s operation. But to be honest I’m just not sure how comfortable I am with where this is all going. I know that the people designing these cars of the future have good intentions, but…

Last summer a Pop Science article titled “How Intelligent Cars Will Make Driving Easier and Greener” caught my attention because for some reason the idea of cars doing all the thinking for us humans seems a little disconcerting to me. The article stated that not only will our cars predict what other drivers will do, they will also predict what pedestrians will do next as well. Now this month Wired magazine has a feature story that insists the next car you drive will drive itself.

Hmmm. I have a problem with this. For example, I recently spent six hours talking to tech support in India in an attempt to get our H-P computer to communicate with our H-P printer. Do I really want to be on my cell phone with a tech guy in India when my car fails to go in reverse? Or decides to drive to the Napa auto parts store when I want to go eat lasagna at Olive Garden?

That’s really not my biggest fear. What about when car thieves of the future start hacking your Camaro’s control center and drive it off to some slice and dice parts warehouse? It all just seems so weird to me.

But the honchos behind all this nigh tech fandango are committed. This past October the 18th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems convened for five days to discuss the future of transportation in this country. These folks are earnest about the possibilities of connectedness and travel. And there are plenty of companies involved in bringing this emerging technology into the automotive field.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the article in Wired, falls all over himself in praise of Google's efforts in the development of these futuristic robotic cars. Here's one excerpt.

“The Prius begins to seem like the Platonic ideal of a driver, against which all others fall short. It can think faster than any mortal driver. It can attend to more information, react more quickly to emergencies, and keep track of more complicated routes. It never panics. It never gets angry. It never even blinks. In short, it is better than human in just about every way.”

The Wired article isn’t really about what Toyota and Ford have been doing for near two decades. They were exploring what the Google-nauts are up to, because Google seems just as invested in robotic transport systems as the old-timey players.

“While Google wants to create, in essence, computers that drive, the auto industry has been trying to make its vehicles drive more like computers. Bolstered by increasingly powerful and affordable sensors, sophisticated algorithms, and Moore’s law, the world’s carmakers have been slowly redefining what it means to be a driver, encouraging us to offload everything from shifting gears to parallel parking. The automated car isn’t just around the corner—it’s here. The more interesting question isn’t when we will let go of the wheel completely but what form and purpose the car will have when we finally do.”

I’m grateful for the many benefits technology has given us. But when you look at what it costs to fix a driver’s side door window because the electronic switch doesn’t work ($400), it starts to concern me where all this is headed.

For some reason I’m not quite ready to give up control of my steering wheel. Of course, for all we know the jet airplanes we fly on from city to city or continent to continent have only had pilots in the front to make us feel comfortable that some human is in control up there.
According to Wired, “The next generation of gearheads won’t obsess over horsepower and torque; they’ll focus on things like radar range, communication latency, and pixel resolution.” Really? Tell that to the Fast and Furious crowd. But then again, maybe I'm just an old fogey.

My next question relates to insurance. If my futuristic Ford Focus runs into a school bus and kills three kids, is Ford responsible or is it my fault because I was in the back seat with my girl friend?

Oh well… What will be will be.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ten Minutes with Artist/Cartoonist Simon Gray

Last week at The Stagecoach, a relatively new gallery in Downtown Duluth, I saw some paintings by Simon Gray for possibly the first time. I was attracted to the intellectual playfulness as well as the structural design and execution of the pieces themselves. Local potter/artist Tonya Borgeson suggested that I would find it worthwhile to look at more of Gray's work, and when I did I remained impressed. He now lives in the Southwest so this interview was conducted by email.

Ennyman: How did you first become interested in art?
Simon Gray: I come from a family of artists. My grandfather, father and uncle all painted water colors. My brothers all drew and painted and creating art was the only thing I was ever interested in doing all through school.

E: Who are your biggest influences?
SG: My second major in my BFA program was Art History, I think the symbols in my work come from my interest in primitive people's art on cave walls and stones. We humans have always left symbols behind us.

Apart from that, my current influences range from film and television to advertising. I am inspired with the overlay of information on top of backgrounds and how that draws focus, and creates a narrative.

My biggest influence is the television news where you have a talking head in front of a background, another image up and to the side of the head and a scroll of words below the head. Somehow we take all this in a matter of course, and the narrative may or not be cohesive but it is always compelling to me.

E: How did you come to take an interest in cartooning?
SG: The cartooning quality comes from simplifying personal symbols so they become almost shorthand for me.

Cuneiform was the original starting place for my symbols, then Asian characters, then some simplified 2d images, and finally they evolved into the forms they are today.

E: I find it interesting the way your small 3-D images on various wood surfaces transform the whole piece into a 3-D landscape. What are you trying to accomplish with these pieces?
SG: I consider myself a Literal Artist.

LITERALISM - (Literal Painting) - Usually, consists of 3 things:

1. Multiplicity of painting styles on the same surface.

This establishes a surface, then denies or breaks that surface. The illusion of depth is both created and destroyed.

A visual tension is created that parallels the literal tension, felt by those of us who were taught by Modernists. We are wrestling to reestablish communication with our audiences. This communication was established by the Realist painters, broken by the Modernist painters, and has been occasionally nodded at ever since.

Most painters today have fallen comfortably into one of two camps: The seamless illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface, or: The establishment of the surface, by the deliberate application of the media.

But there are a few of us playing in the vapors between.

It’s not realism. It’s not abstraction
It’s both. And neither. At the same time.

It’s realism, under a plate of glass.
It’s abstraction, with a drop shadow.

2. A visual narrative, that may or may not make sense.

The visual narrative is unique to the artist. My works are screen shots. The running text scrolling under the nightly news, with imagery floating in the background. A talking head. Sound bites. Bits of conversations. Talking points. Some very important. Some nonsense. But all of it is a part of my daily existence. The same as it was for the painters in the caves of Lascaux.

3. A feeling of history, in the imagery or materials.

History is a key part of the picture. I am one in a long tradition of human beings who feel compelled to scratch out imagery on some kind of surface. The surfaces of my work must reflect this history. Some surfaces are found, and bring their own past. Some I have deliberately aged. The role of history in my work also has a personal connection for me. My grandfather, father and uncle were all self taught landscape painters. I still use their brushes.

To me this is just a mirror of the contemporary society I live in. My paintings are literally pages from a continuing diary. The imagery is what is in my head at the moment, and the background is what was suggested by the materials. I don't try to force too much of myself onto the materials.

E: What are you currently working on and where do you see yourself in five years?
SG: Currently I am working on found metal blanks. Most of my materials are salvaged or re-purposed surfaces. The detritus of modern society. The surfaces come to me with a history already and I can carry that story forward and add my own narrative.

I cannot predict what my next piece will look like, let alone projects 5 years down the road. The materials direct me, they are my path, I just follow.

E: What's the best way for others to see more of your work?
SG: The best place to see my work is at simongray.com. I am constantly uploading images. There is a link titled 'art' that leads to a page of paintings, some of which I did when i was living in the UK a few years ago.

There is also a wealth of other madness and scribblings there including music, books and my online cartoon series 'Yelling At Bees'. Maybe I to have too much spare time on my hands... hmmm.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Championship on the line. Ball on the five yard line. Though the quarterback has brought his team to this moment through many an adversary, he must still punch it into the end zone or all will be for naught. And even though it's only an intramural football championship on the line, it still feels as significant as...

It's the last play of the game. I was that quarterback. I called for an option, faked a hand-off and rolled left. There was absolutely nothing between me and the goal line. Tony Ruggerio was standing in the end zone wide open as well. For some reason I bolted for the goal instead of throwing the ball. Sadly, two steps from victory, I was snagged from behind. Game over.

I didn't really dwell on it a lot but it did sting because I made a bad decision. True, Tony could have dropped the ball. But he was wide open and he'd caught them all year. The following year I was off to college, then moved to Minnesota. My family moved to Pennsylvania so going home no longer meant returning to New Jersey.

Ten years later I visited my old neighborhood in Bridgewater, I ran into an old friend who was on that team. As soon as he saw me, instead of saying "Hi, how've you been?" he said, "Why didn't you throw it?"

That's the problem with being the goat. And you never forget. In fact, I cannot remember a single play from that intramural football season. I remember only the one, and it still stings.

So think of that when you think of these famous goats.

Billy Cundiff
It's bad enough that he missed that field goal in the last seconds of the NFL Championship this past weekend. Nowadays, the response in cyberspace is instant. And merciless. Having had the chance to tie the Patriots and take the game into overtime, he muffed it. I'm sure he'll never forget that kick for as long as he lives.

Bill Buckner
The guy had a stick, winning a batting title in 1980. He played in the All-Star Game for the Cubs one year. And he had over 2,700 lifetime hits in his twenty-year career. But this is not how we remember old Bill. Instead when we here the name Bill Buckner, with think of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Things were looking good for the Red Sox going into the 8th inning. But then, when the Mets tied it up the game went to extra innings. In the tenth, with two out, a simple grounder to first baseman Buckner should have clinched the World Series. Instead, he muffed it. Three singles followed and the Mets re-gained their stride... as well as the win. It would be many years still for the Red Sox to get the ghost of Babe Ruth off their backs.

Steve Bartman
Hoo boy. Talk about a goat. This poor fellow had to leave town. He is probably living somewhere under an assumed name so that no one from Chicago plugs him.

The incident occurred in October 2003 in another game six. This one was for the National League Championship. The Cubs were five outs away from winning the game and playing in their first World Series in over half a century.

In this incident the goat was not one of the players. Rather it was a fan seated in the front row of the left field corner. A fly ball was hit into the corner. Left fielder Moises Alou went to catch it, but the enthusiastic Bartman interfered, knocking it away. The next thing you know the Marlins, who should have been finished, were racking up runs, eight of them in all. Series tied, momentum shift, Cubs' hopes quashed. Marlins took game seven and went to the World Series.

Death threats followed and Bartman had to disappear. Life is hard, but especially so when you're a scapegoat.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Museum Home of Matthew Onan

I met Matthew Onan this past fall at the opening of Stagecoach, a new gallery in downtown Duluth. In the usual manner I asked what kind of art he liked to do and he mentioned a few things and we exchanged contact information. In his first email to me he stated, “I don’t think I mentioned that my biggest/favorite/most complex piece of artwork is my house.”

The first weekend in January I took the tour, and it made an impression on me. I've often heard and used the expression, "A place for everything and everything in its place," but I'd not actually seen it so applied to a living space. I felt challenged to do a more thorough job of organizing my own life.

What follows is an email exchange between myself and a young artist whose life, to a great extent, is art.

Ennyman: Your whole house is a work of art. How did this happen?
Matthew O: I enjoy beauty, as does every person, but more than the average person I need it as much as possible… visible all around me. Thus, ever since I was young, I would place things that I liked, that looked good and nice to me, on my walls, dresser space, etc., and arrange them so that they were “at their best.” By that I mean that their overall position within the context of the entire room, their near and distant neighbors/juxtapositions, all maximized the inherent beauty of the object. The object then was for ALL the objects, pictures on the wall, etc, to achieve their highest possibility.

Likewise, I always felt for and strove to achieve the highest possibility for the room itself. This was almost always done with objects, pictures, etc., that I had at hand, collected through the years. This process was repeated in approximately ten different rooms/apartments/studios in my post-high school years. Coming to live in this house then, I applied the same techniques, a process which took roughly three years. Not until the finishing touches were taking place did I start to think of it as art. Now I do, and quite strongly. It remains as static as possible, meaning that I keep things very neat, and while it is (naturally) still a functional space, I try to minimize the variance of those things that must come-and-go, change; for example, mail, dishes, kleenex boxes that become empty… for each of these contingencies I have a fixed method, or response. I view the house as a single piece of art… like a Dali painting that one can enter and move around, three-dimensionally. That metaphor does not fully work, but in ways it does. (I say Dali because he composes with things that are by definition unrelated, and random, but via his juxtapositions and overall composition, everything “works.”)

E: Your home repeats a red yellow green blue motif. What is the significance of these colors for you?
MO: The planet is green and blue, with a red core and yellow firmament. That’s one way to put it. It’s more of a feeling though, a feeling that the four colors evoke… they all like each other and are happy in each other’s presence. Most simply, they look good, and right, and balanced together. Green and blue especially… I guess because they are the “umbrella colors” to life.

E: You’ve designed each room so that it has a “best vantage point.” Do you have a favorite vantage point for the whole of your home?
MO: I did have you sit at that chair for it had a “best vantage point” aspect to it, though that was more an exception than the rule. I should have perhaps said a “better vantage point.” The set of rocks on the shelf going down to the basement, and the driftwood on the shelf in the laundry rooms are the two pure examples of a “best” vantage point (that I can think of now). Otherwise it is more an aggregate of vantage points. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect to describe. Take a statue for example. There are an infinite number of vantage points. The sculptor himself saw the work from this multitude of angles (there is a way to reconcile “infinite” to a human capacity, i.e. the sculptor’s seeing all the vantage points but this is not the place.) but no one else has, or will, or is even able to. Living in this house, this space, has given me a similar experience, in that I have had a very wide array of vantage points, and time to take everything in, and finely tune things in their arrangement and juxtapositions. Like a sculptor I feel that the finished product is still accessible to others minds’, but, necessarily, the full effect can only be felt by me. This is distressing in ways, but the distress fades when I realize that this is how it is for everyone, for all creations, experiences, etc…. the idiosyncrasity of life in general.

As I mentioned to you also, I hope one day for a post-bachelor student to do their thesis on this house/space/piece. I would allow them to live here, by him- or herself… and really soak things in… engage and study. This would make me very happy; for there to be someone who can, with time, begin to really “get” the place. This is not to say that someone like yourself, or the kind Ann Klefstad, (both being talented, insightful artists) don’t “get” some of the things I’ve done, or strove to get across, but there is this necessary element of time that I would like someone to delve into. In summary, the best vantage point is an aggregate of vantage points… not only directly, but also between the rooms and floors there are themes and connections… from obvious to intricate, but even the obvious need to steep into a person, due to the overall complexity. Lots of thought and fine-tuning went into this place, and being that it can only be seen one wall, or room at a time, (and these from so many vantage points!), it necessarily takes a longer, more patient process than most works of art. This seems, or may seem, to imply this has an edge on other forms of art, which is not my intent, or true. Rather, it is just different. Being so large, even a relatively simple, two-dimensional picture may be looked over too quickly, as there are so many surrounding distractions, even in a given room.

To the original question, which I hope I didn’t stray too far from, if I had to pick one vantage point it would definitely be that chair in the living room. From there areas of four rooms (one being an entryway) are visible. Also, as I mentioned to you, it is where I spend the most time, thus it has become perhaps the most (via largely the subconscious) finely tuned, i.e. reached its highest potential, insofar as it is a single vantage point; for again, the highest potential comes from the slow engagement of as many vantage points as possible.

E: You also “make art”… not just design your living space. What are you currently working on?
MO: I just finished a collage in homage to Paul Gauguin, using only images of his paintings. My aim was for something that he would like. There is lots of energy, or a sense of controlled chaos, with his vibrant color being very apparent. The scale of size is very large, which is something necessary to begin to try to portray a life like his. And his self portraits dominate if not in size, then in quantity, which is something he would approve in, or even insist on, if say he were to have commissioned this. In other words, he had quite the ego! I’m also doing some landscapes with wax and paint. They’re not large. Perhaps 5” x 7” on average.

E: What music do you listen to while painting, drawing or making your collages?
MO: I’ll put the iTunes on shuffle, when I do have music going. It’s probably a 50-50 split between having music on and silence. I like it all though, from female opera and heavy, heavy metal on one side of the spectrum, to acoustic and slower indie on the other side, with my favorite band ever, Modest Mouse, and orchestras being good examples of not so much the middle ground as spectrum spanners.

E: In closing I would suggest that it has been a while since someone made such an impact on me in so deep a way as Matthew and our time in his museum home. The very patient manner in which he shared his space with me, the very deliberate manner in which he orders his life has caused me to think more seriously about the almost reckless pace of my own life, with its debris everywhere. There's an almost worshipful attitude to and respect for the space, each room becoming a form of sanctuary. For this reason I wanted to share it here.

Thank you, Matt.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Catch All

Ever notice how hard and crusty bread gets when it's all dried out? Hard to chew. It can even cut your gums. It's still nourishment but not a delightful way to get it. Do you think the same thing applies to dry text books in school? They contain information nourishing to the mind, but it's presented so dried out you can hardly chew it.


Last summer when I made up my mind to publish my novel and several volumes of short stories as eBooks, it seemed that I'd better go ahead and get an eBook reader. When my Kindle arrived we became fast friends, and I even wrote about it in a few blog entries including this one with the non-ambiguous title Love My Kindle.

Well, this week I discovered at least one drawback to eBooks and the devices that you read them with. Despite the ten day battery life, they still need to be re-charged. And if you live in Minnesota, but leave your recharger cord in Florida where you spent part of your vacation, you will not be happy when your Kindle runs out of juice. I have yet to have this kind of problem with a paperback novel or magazine.

Fortunately, even though our local Target store had the re-charging cords on backorder, our local Radio Shack came through for me and -- voila! I can read again!


Along the same lines, what are we going to do when the world as we know it comes to an end and there is no more electricity? I better hold onto my Reader's Digest Complete Do It Yourself Manual so I know how to fix things around here. The last time I replaced my toilet by watching three videos on YouTube.

Speaking of eBooks, someone said they wanted to read some of the stories in my Unremembered Histories, but they didn't own a Kindle, Nook, iPad or Kindle Fire. I asked if she had a Chrome browser, and she said yes. Voila! She can read my books!

In fact, you can read eBooks on smart phones, too. Follow this link to a page where you can download Free Kindle Reading Apps for all your favorite devices. (O.K., not all, but a surprising number of them nevertheless.)


The trigger for all this rambling was an item I saw at Business Insider that indicated surprise that people were using their Kindle Fire tablets more for reading books than for surfing the web. Maybe the Kindle brand is so strongly associated with books that it becomes natural to groove with it in that manner. What could be more important than reading books?

Here's a little something to serve as a closing thought on all these matters, a poem by Beverly McLoughland called Surprise.


The biggest
On the library shelf
is when you suddenly
Find yourself
Inside a book-
(the HIDDEN you)
You wonder how
The author knew.

Have a wonderful day in your neighborhood. Thanks for stopping by.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

You Can’t Always Know Who the Good Guys Are

After a tour of duty in Afghanistan, former rock star wannabe Vin Sarno returns to his Savannah homestead to figure out where he wants to spend the next chapter of his life. Shortly after returning home he decides to kill time by helping with his father’s “Ghost Tour” business. Doing midnight walking tours through Old Savannah brings back memories of Kabul, including a bad experience with some real spooks he encountered during a short prison stint in that shattered land.

You Can't Always Know Who the Good Guys Are is journalist Gerald Flanagan’s first novel and once it gets going it’s a riveting nail-biter. The pace at first feels like the angst of an existential stain squeezed from an over-sized abscess. But once Flanagan paints the setting, the story is a runaway train and though you’ve been down this track before the only thing you know for sure is that your hero will never be the same.

In the midst of everything is an unrequited love with ambiguous possibilities. Aliyah is the daughter of a Taliban chieftain who finds it impossible to believe Sarno can bring her the deliverance she so longs for from this insane life she’s endured. There are few places on earth where it is more difficult to be a woman.

Flanagan, who served as an embedded journalist in the Iraq war also lived in Karachi, Pakistan and Kabul where he reported on the hunt for Osama bin Laden for two British magazines and the Washington Post. With ease he paints the scenery which serves as backdrop for the story.

The Savannah portions of the book have just enough levity to release some of the tension readers will experience. The graveyard and ghost stories that have become entertainments today contain kernels of horror that find echoes amongst the Taliban. The manner in which the author takes the impossible and convinces readers that it is probable is quite astonishing.

Perhaps at the root of the story is Sarno's pain at knowing that his future with Aliyah can never work out, and that the entire mission of his life has been an epic struggle in futility. Nevertheless he knows no other path.

What I like most about the book is when Flanagan causes the story to intersect with real events, including when Pat Tillman was killed by "friendly fire" and the first attempt on Osama bin Laden near the caves below the Khyber Pass. The net result is to create the impression that this fictional adventure/drama may actually be a true account of events that journalists are restricted from writing about.

Ultimately, if you can't find the book at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble, the reason might be that this review is itself a fictional review of a fictional book. If you like fiction, especially the kind where you have trouble discerning the line between real and improbable, you may enjoy my own books of short stories, especially Unremembered Histories and Newmanesque.

In the meantime, have a great weekend. There is always more to look forward to. And tonight, if you're in Duluth looking for something to do, visit Beaners Central to hear singer/songwriter Caitlin Robertson perform at Seven. Heartwarming music, and good java for a cold January night.

Unless otherwise noted, all paintings and illustrative material at this site has been created by Ennyman.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ten Minutes with Gary Swanson, The Modern Primitive

Last Friday night there were three art openings within walking distance of one another in Downtown Duluth. That morning I wrote about the PRØVE, Ochre Ghost and Washington Galleries in the hopes of generating a bit of a Gallery Hop that evening. Gary Swanson's sculptures were on display at the Washington in a unique presentation with two other artists.

Earlier this week I met with Swanson to learn more about his background and motivations. His American Primitive series is simply marvelous. I don’t know if all public school art teachers are this thoughtful and insightful, but if even only half were I believe I’ve found a new basis for hope in public education.

Ennyman: How did you first take an interest in art?
Gary Swanson: My interest in art stems from watching my mother while growing up. She was a very crafty lady. She was creative at using materials she could find. She grew up in the Depression era. She never threw anything away. It left a mark on her. We couldn’t eat at the kitchen table because it was always covered with projects she was working on.

We were also a musical family. My father taught and we sang a lot as a family. I also had a cousin who had an effect on me, Louanne Peterson. She was a painter who also did collage and assemblage art.

E: You got a BFA in 1980. What attracted you to teaching art to elementary school kids?
GS: I didn’t find teaching. Teaching found me. While getting my art degree I took education courses, “just in case.” Teaching was Plan B.

My wife Jean and I were hired in Solon Springs. They were seeking to fill one position with a person who had both art and music training. We said to them, “Hire us and we’ll split the job.” This worked out great for us as one of us was always at home while the other was at school. She’s now choir director in Solon Springs. After eight years I moved to the Maple school district where I’ve been for 23 years.

The more time I spent in the classroom, the more it felt like a calling.

E: What prompted you to return to school and get your MFA?
GS: There were incentives. You could raise yourself on the salary scale by continuing your education. The district wants you to continue picking up credits. It was different when our kids were little. In 2005, when the kids were grown it made sense.

When I went back I decided to focus on outside art. By that I mean the art of primitive cultures, children, and, let’s say, cognitively challenged. All of these groups are highly intuitive, self-taught artists. I wanted to focus on outsider art and its influence on modern art.

I began with German Expressionism and how it became a bridge to modern art. This became the foundation of my concept of “Modern Primitive” in which I fuse discarded materials with modern manufactured materials.

I’ve always wanted my work to be authentic. I wanted to make a statement.

E: What role does art play in the schools? Why is it important to support our art programs?
GS: Thankfully, in our district we’ve had strong support (for the arts.) But you have to make an effort to make the art visible. Any time I can put artwork for public viewing . I’m all over that.

Children’s art, from the standpoint of creativity, problem solving and fostering imagination, is key to education. Art movements have shaped our culture. And fostering imagination I vital.

There can be an emphasis (in our culture) on herd mentality. Art and music offer a reprieve through freedom of expression.

I like to say that I’m an art facilitator, not a teacher. Their art is just as just as important. They inspire me.

E: What kinds of objectives does an elementary school art teach set for his students?
GS: I try to give them a variety of materials. Materials drive the pieces. It’s your reaction to the materials that create the outcomes. Different kinds of paint, wood, etc. I plan out materials and let them discover, giving them a chance for discovery.

Swanson explained that “You have to keep your art behind the curtain.” By this he meant that it is the natural inclination of the students to want to emulate the teacher. In the art realm, his aim is to avoid this happening so that their on innate creativity emerges.

E: You went to college in the late 70s and again this past decade. How has the teaching of art changed over that period of time?
GS: The technology, especially the Internet. In the 70’s you would dig through the library to find artists and study their work. Now, there is so much online. You can find examples of every artist’s work. You can reference and cross-reference…

In my experience there’s more emphasis today on environmental issues. Green art wasn’t even on the scene. Social issues are also being reflected in today’s art. There’s a greater awareness of political correctness. There’s also a greater sensitivity to community, which surprises me a little. There’s a greater sense of community and community action.

E: Who are your favorite artists?
GS: I’ve been attracted to the work of Jean Dubuffet. Raw art. His work is fascinating. I also like the boxes of Joseph Cornell. Marc Chagall. Louise Nevelson. The list could go on and on.

Gary Swanson's assemblage sculptures reflect a certain comic streak that is within the artist himself. When he describes some of the ways he teaches, including wearing costumes at times, you get a sense that here is a thoughtful man who knows he is blessed at having found his calling. It was a joy meeting him last Friday evening and again for this interview Tuesday.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

DAI Gallery Celebration Makes For Memorable Evening

Last night's Duluth Art Institute Gallery Celebration at the Depot revealed just how vibrant the Twin Ports art scene is becoming. The quantity and variety of visual works on display showed just how much inebriating fermentation has been going on here in the Northland. Tangier 57 was on hand to provide the perfect melodic accompaniment for this night dedicated to the arts.

The Duluth Membership Show seemed more extensive than ever, crawling over every available surface in the Depot's Great Hall. Inasmuch as one of the rules for displaying your work is that it has to have been created within the past year, it just seems remarkable how many patrons of the arts were exhibiting this year, from passionate beginners to lifelong professionals, and everything in between.

Many of the names are familiar from Tonja Sell, Gary Reed and Scott Murphy to Lee Englund and Tonya Borgeson. But there are countless new faces as well. For example, this was the first time Aaron Kloss has participated, contributing a painting titled Twilight Birch Triptich (right).

Many of the pieces show the artist's appreciation of our natural surroundings with themes like Lake Walk Snow, Winter's Blast, Woodland Art, North Lake Cairn, Lake Superior, Lester River Waterfall, Ode to a Flower and Over the River, Through the Woods.

Some pieces reference art history, like Teresa Kolar's 3 Birds with Kandinsky Circles, and Kris Nelson's Van Gogh's Chair Emerging, which I found particularly fun. (Fun is perhaps the wrong word when discussing the sensitive and anguished Van Gogh, but the piece itself was delightful to encounter.)

Upstairs there were additional exhibits. In the balcony area known as the John Steffl Gallery you could take in Steve Read's (un)natural reactions, a cross between minimalist sculpture and the expressions of nature, particular in relation to the North Shore. Kathy McTavish's Birdland filled the George Morrison Gallery with evocative sound and imagery.

To sum up, even if you missed the opening, the work will be on display through March 1, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. And for those who want to do more than simply see the pieces, you may wish to engage the artists themselves. Kathy McTavish will be leading an artist dialogue on February 2 at 5:30 p.m. and Steve Read will conduct the same on January 26, again at 5:30 p.m.

Whatever your taste, there's something for everyone. Maybe you look at something and don't "get it" but then you walk around a corner and it's an "Aha"... Art can do that to you. Sometimes it can even change your life.


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