With Every Beat of My Heart

In the “Pulse” exhibit heartbeats can be seen in wave form.

I had reservations about going to see the “Pulse” exhibit at the Hirshhorn. When I heard that visitors were expected to allow their fingerprints to be scanned in and projected large for all the world to see, I felt that modern knee-jerk cringe. Aren’t we all supposed to be concerned about our privacy, especially in view of the massive data breaches that have come to light?

I wasn’t always so uptight. But paranoia grows like mildew, out of sight until it’s everywhere.
Yet from the moment I stepped into the curving darkened gallery where Mexican artist Rafael-Lozano Hemmer’s works are on display, I was mesmerized by the drama and energy in the room. Lights were flashing on the ceiling. Images were constantly scrolling on the wall. Voices filled with hushed delight bubbled in the air.

I stuck my index finger in the first print reader without a qualm, and was immediately shocked to hear my own heart, pounding loud and clear. At the same time, an image of my fingerprint, taller than I am, appeared on the wall, taking its place in the interactive fingerprint stream moving implacably along the wall. Instagrammers huddled in the shadows trying to take it all in.

We are all programmed at a very young age to recognize visual art. We’re taught to look for it on walls, static and quiet. But it’s rare to find art that makes the invisible visible. At the Pulse “Tank,” a shallow pool on the floor in the center of the exhibit, visitors may place a hand on a sensor, which transmits their pulse to the pool, causing ripples of light to be projected onto the wall. When two people on opposite sides of the pool project their pulses at the same time, a rhythmic pattern dances on the wall.

This shared rhythm is at the heart of the exhibit. The pulse which beats below the surface of all life is out of sight most of the time, and too quiet to hear beneath the cacophony of modern human “civilization.” In Hemmer’s “Pulse Room” you can grip a pair of sensors to light one of the many ceiling bulbs which flash on and off, beating audibly in time with your heart. Your own little heartbeat’s star turn only lasts a minute or so, until the next person in line steps up and lends a beat. But your light doesn’t disappear right away. It moves down the line, joining the hundreds of other lights beating in the darkness, until it’s time for you to go.

Sort of like life right? We are all here such a short time, part of the ever-shifting cosmic drum circle.

The truth is, I am you and you are me and we are all replaceable and irreplaceable. Life is not about grabbing and holding and hording. It’s about passing on. It’s about waving into the universe.

Hello Universe. Earth sends its love.

The Wonder of it All

Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman's "1.8."
Visitors fall under the spell of Janet Echelman’s “1.8.”

Sometimes one look is not enough.

I returned to the Renwick this week to see if the crowds had diminished at “Wonder,” the first show since the museum’s reopening last fall following a two-year renovation.

The first time I tried to see the show the place was so thronged that you could hardly take in the scope of the art, much less enjoy it. It was like trying to stand hip-deep in a rushing river. It can be done, but it’s distracting.

It was quieter this time. Perhaps the flashy tulips blooming in front of the White House had encouraged the tourists to stay outside. For whatever reason, I was grateful to get a chance to experience the show at a more contemplative pace. The Renwick I remember from the 1970’s, when it was saved from demolition by the efforts of Jackie Kennedy, was already something outside the usual in the District. Back then it was the first national museum to showcase the studio craft movement.

In the current exhibition nine visionary artists were each given a whole room in which to present a work on the theme of “Wonder.” The results are thought-provoking, surprising, and strangely enchanting. I enjoyed Maya Lin’s luminous glass marble “unfolded map” of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I was mesmerized by the magical harp of light playing across Gabriel Dawe’s miles of embroidery thread. And of course, Jennifer Angus’s Day of the Dead-ish bugs on the wall. Who could resist?

But for me the siren’s song is Janet Echelman‘s stunning “1.8.” The first time I wandered through this, the largest room in the show, I was unable to take it all in. The constantly shifting light above, the people sitting around on the carpet in the semi-darkness — the ambience reminded me of a crowd waiting for a rock concert. I failed to read the explanatory note on the wall.

This time I read the note, and learned that Echelman’s work reflects a map of the energy released by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “The event was so powerful it shifted the earth on its axis and shortened the day, March 11, 2011, by 1.8 millionths of a second.”

Since the dawn of time doomsayers have speculated on how it will all end, and who, or what, may survive to tell the tale. Yet doesn’t it seem altogether possible that, in spite of, or who knows, maybe because of, all our apocalyptic posturing, we won’t see it coming?

At the Renwick I sat on the carpet with a friend and watched the light shift above while we lost track of time and talked of the past and futures possible. Great art has the power to release us from self-absorbed dithering and wasteful anxiety. We have problems in this world. If we can’t work together to solve them we could be washed up in no time at all. Say, 1.8 millionths of a second.

Think about it.


In the heart of the city a secret beach bubbles with fun.
In the heart of the city a secret beach bubbles with fun.

Finally, on the brink of Labor Day, summer’s traditional finale, I made it to The BEACH.

Here’s what it didn’t have: sand, saltwater, the scent of sun screen.

Nonetheless, if you closed your eyes and listened only to the happy shrieks of children and the delighted chatter of adults above the curiously sea-like murmur of the balls, you could imagine yourself at another beach, perhaps one where you dare not close your eyes because, you know, it’s been a good year for sharks.

It's a surreal place to unwind.
It’s a surreal place to unwind.

The BEACH opened on the Fourth of July at the National Building Museum as part of its Summer Block Party program. The interactive architectural installation created by Snarkitecture provides a beach-like experience you can fit in on your lunch hour if you work downtown.

I knew I wanted to experience this from the moment I read about it. But the sands of summer slip through the hourglass faster than fireworks fade from the night sky.

I finally took the plunge yesterday. The buzz of excitement in the Great Hall exactly mimics the blithe soundtrack of a sunny beach scene. The 10,000 square-foot space is contained inside a white wall, high enough to provide a sense of enclosure, but open to the lofty reaches of the museum, which allows beams of sunlight to shaft down on the beach umbrellas.

The BEACH is a state of mind.
The BEACH is a state of mind.

Yes. There are beach umbrellas, and a “shore.” There’s a snack bar and a pier of sorts. But mostly there are people of all ages frolicking in the “surf.”

Some people just have to make a splash.
Some people just have to make a splash.

You could describe it as a plain vanilla ball pit. But it’s a million balls.

And this is part of the brilliance of the design. The way the translucent white slightly squishy balls reflect the light suggest the brightness of the beach. And it’s this brightness that lends a kind of surreal serenity to the scene.

The BEACH balls never get more than three and a half feet deep, and diving is forbidden, but children and adults alike can’t seem to resist the urge to submerge. Or you can just lounge in a beach chair and let the big ball spin.

The BEACH closes on September 7th. If you’re looking for something inside a box but outside the ordinary, don’t miss it.

Kitschy Coup


The edgy sculptures of modern Spanish artist Bernardi Roig exemplify the kind of intellectually challenging work that draws museum interest. His "Man of Light" series, recently exhibited at The Phillips Collection, dealt with "existential dualities of entrapment and liberation, blinding and illumination" among other things.
A mysterious figure carries a bundle of fluorescent tubes. Why?

The new film Big Eyes, which focuses on the dark secret behind a kitsch painting phenomenon of the 1950s, touches on the no-man’s-land between fine and popular art.

There are artists whose work crosses over, embraced by both aesthetes and ordinary folks who just want something pretty to hang on the wall above the couch. Van Gogh and Monet, for instance, both seen as rebels in their day, are mainstream now, their masterpieces transcribed onto everything from dishtowels to shower curtains.

Nothing wrong with that.

But some critics hold that serious art has a responsibility to be edgy, to address weighty philosophical and social issues. The sculptures of modern artist Bernardi Roig of Spain, for example, exemplify the kind of intellectually challenging work that draws museum interest. Roig’s “Man of Light” works, recently exhibited at The Phillips Collection, deal with “existential dualities of entrapment and liberation, blinding and illumination” among other things. Not everyone wants reminders of such issues hanging in their living rooms.

Yet historically there have always been patrons of artists willing to produce images that support political or social agendas. Propaganda is a powerful tool for persuading voters, as well as moviegoers. An image worth a million words sometimes trumps the finest policy speech.

Of course when it comes to art, everyone’s a critic. We know what we like. And we know what we don’t.

Millions of people love the paintings of Margaret Keane, whose big-eyed images sold like hotcakes in the fifties, and no doubt will see a boost in sales from the new film. Yet Keane’s work was dismissed by most serious art critics from the start of her career until much later, after the truth came out that the artist had been swindled by her first husband, who for years took credit for her paintings and got rich and famous pretending they were his. Since then the big-eyed paintings have been reevaluated in the context of the continuing struggle for women’s rights.

The power of art to speak to power, to challenge power, has been dramatically apparent this past week. The murders in Paris of more than a dozen people, many of them comic artists, underscores the relevance of art in our world. By committing their crime in the City of Light, the epicenter of Art in the civilized world, the perpetrators of this latest affront to freedom and peace have raised the stakes in our terrorist-plagued time. And judging by the passionate response in Paris and the entire world, perhaps there is hope that humanity will finally find the political will to unite against this common threat.

Too often in the dialogue of nations communications stall due to failures of language. Mistrust and confusion fester in bad translation.

Art transcends the barriers of written and spoken language. Sometimes the message is simple and poignant. Big eyed children gaze at us not only in kitschy paintings but in sharp photographs of ongoing famine situations. The sight of one can summon the emotional response of the other.

It’s understandable that religious extremists see nothing humorous in comics that mock their views. They’re free to be offended if they can’t take a joke. But in the recent case, by committing murder in the name of whatever they think is holy, they have drawn far more attention to comic art, thus increasing its impact.

Sure, some comics are cute. Some are silly. But artful humor has a role in the fight against the dark side. And never underestimate the art of wrath. In a war of wits the winner has the last laugh.

Art on the Wild Side

Bill Wood's stainless steel work suggests mountains made of sky.
Bill Wood’s stainless steel work suggests mountains made of sky.

We set off to explore the wilds of Foggy Bottom on Saturday. The clear blue skies and mild temperatures provided a perfect framework in which to view the outdoor sculpture biennial‘s fourth season.

I’m a big fan of art, but sometimes it’s just too nice a day to go trawling through the big museums, even when they house world famous art works. For this reason when I’m in a city I always keep an eye out for public artworks, whether sanctioned monuments or inspired graffiti.

I was curious about this exhibition because of the location. Foggy Bottom, where George Washington University, the Watergate, and the Kennedy Center loom large, was once the site of Washington’s light industry. It was the home of glass works, lime kilns, and breweries, a low rent district noted for its smoke and fumes. Thus the quirky moniker.

The neighborhood has gone considerably upscale since those early days, of course. But something of its gritty past lingers in the thoughtful art scene that thrives just under the radar. We strolled up and down the narrow streets and mews, musing over the contemporary works of 15 artists. I wasn’t crazy about every one. But all were intriguing.

One of the standouts for me was a stainless steel installation titled “Square Wave” by Bill Wood. Nine mirrored squares rose out of the garden greenery like a reflective mountain range. As the squares reflected pieces of sky and movement, they also brought to mind the light and energy of a body of water. It was a simple concept, deceptively complex.

Another sculpture, more difficult to capture in a single image, is Mary Annella “Mimi” Frank’s “Remembering Andromeda.”

Mimi Frank's tumble of welled steel chairs recalls the myth of Cassiopeia.
Mimi Frank’s tumble of welded steel chairs recalls the myth of Cassiopeia.

This tumble of small welded steel chair frames appears at first glance to be a chaotic spill from the sky. But when you learn the concept behind Frank’s piece — she was inspired by the Greek myth of Cassiopeia, who was punished for her rebellion by being tied to a chair and left to drift through the stars for eternity — the empty chairs resonate with modern issues of gender and freedom.

It’s one of Art’s great functions to call attention to important topics, to tip sacred cows, to wake the slumbering conscience.

But let’s face it, sometimes all we really want is something pretty to put on the wall. If I had to pick a favorite out of the fifteen works, I wouldn’t have to think twice. Elizabeth Graeber‘s “Garden” made my day. I’ve been an admirer of her work for a while. She’s illustrated funny books, and has a lovely light touch that makes me smile. Her “Garden” will be on display for a few more months on an out of the way wall in Hughes Mews,  blooming like the secret prize at the end of a scavenger hunt.

Rain or shine, Eizabeth Graeber's "Garden" won't wilt.
Rain or shine, Eizabeth Graeber’s “Garden” won’t wilt.

Ripple in Still Water

The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.'s painting.
The light in the forest casts a holy spell in George Inness Jr.’s painting.

What is it about Florida that brings out the crazy in people?

It can’t be simply the beaches and the palm trees, the warmth and the flip-flop-friendly lifestyle. All those things are abundantly present in many other places in the world where the tendency to Nutitude doesn’t seem so lushly present as it does in some parts of Florida.

I’m referring mainly to the touristy regions, of course. Never having lived in the state, I can’t testify to the mindset of the populace as a whole, but during the numerous visits I’ve made to relatives in different parts of the sunshine state, I’ve been impressed by the free-wheeling attitude that seems to thrive in the tourist zones.

Of course, since the days of the earliest explorers Florida has attracted people with an imaginative streak. Ponce de Leon and his search for the Fountain of Youth springs to mind. Get rich quick types have been trying to squeeze the sweetness out of Florida since the first orange groves were planted. And Disney demonstrated that if you build a fake castle in the middle of the sun belt, you can get people to believe their dreams will come true there.

Well, although I was raised on the Mickey Mouse Club and the world according to Walt, these days Disney doesn’t do it for me. On a recent visit to the Tampa area I had modest expectations of some quiet exploration and perhaps a discovery or two. But I never imagined I would encounter world class artwork hidden away in the tiny town of Tarpon Springs, a place best known for its once-thriving sponge business. Nowadays I’d bet the merchants along the sponge docks sell more Greek pastries than sponges. The sponge history still draws people there. Come for the sponges, stay for the galaktoboureko.

However, when we wandered off the beaten path we came upon the cozy Unitarian Universalist Church and happened onto a tour of their prize collection of “mystically tinged religious works” painted by George Inness Jr.

I had never heard of Inness Jr. before, but soon learned that he was the son of famous American landscape artist George Inness.

George Jr. also painted landscapes, but his are imbued with a spiritual subtext that sets them apart. I was mesmerized. In particular I was enthralled by the last work he painted, completed three days before he died. It depicts an endless forest bathed in glowing light. It spoke to me. That, of course, is what all art attempts to do—to communicate an idea, a feeling, a sense of place or person. The painting beckons the viewer to walk in the woods, not to get anywhere necessarily, but to enjoy the trip.

I tried to imagine what Florida must have been like in 1926 when Inness Jr. was creating these paintings. Back then there were no gleaming hotels in Miami, no plastic castles in Orlando, no captive orcas giving two shows a day. And there wouldn’t have been the miles and miles of strip malls and retirement communities. It was a quieter, wilder Florida.

That quiet wild part of Florida is still there. But it’s being pushed out, paved over and polluted by the crunch of careless development. And that’s a shame. In the peaceful pockets of old Florida you can get a sense of the wonder and mystery of the place. Along the back streets of Tarpon Springs we discovered a lovely still bayou, where the only sound was the occasional puffing of a manatee, sticking its nose above the water’s surface to grab a breath.

Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.
Down by still waters, the manatee is coy.

In recent years the gentle manatees have become poster creatures for all that is precious and endangered in the Florida wilderness. As we were waiting to catch our flight home the newspapers were leading with the story of the invasion of green anacondas into the Everglades. Previously it was thought that Burmese pythons, which have been breeding at an alarming rate and decimating the wildlife in Florida’s wilderness areas, were the problem. Now it appears that green anacondas, which get bigger and are more robust than the pythons, present a much greater threat.

So, where does this leave Florida? Hoping for a miracle? Looking for a way to cash in and turn the problem into a revenue stream?

Anything is possible. Except for the Fountain of Youth thing. That’s total hooey.

You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.
You can sip a brew at the Neptune Lounge while trying to figure out where to draw the line between old gods and new.

Paint Me A Picture

Even in the rain the models in Renoir's "Boating Party" represent a sunny ideal.
Even in the rain the models in Renoir’s “Boating Party” represent a sunny ideal.

Among the many unintended consequences of the government shutdown here in D.C. has been the rise in attendance at the city’s privately run museums.

Art lovers looking for somewhere to get their gaze on have been flocking to places like the Corcoran Gallery (which has funding issues of its own), the Textile Museum (soon to be relocated on the GW campus) and the Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle.

The Phillips is perhaps the most beloved gallery in town, not least because it’s home to one of the world’s most beloved paintings, Renoir’s joyous celebration of all things French, “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” That this famous and priceless work can be seen in such an intimate and exquisite setting as the Phillips is one of the wonders of living in this Capitol city.

So much of D.C.’s tourist zone is writ large, in grand marble monuments and stern statues of famous men. It’s refreshing to step into a place devoted to a more private, personal artistic vision.

I’ve taken Renoir’s masterpiece for granted for years, like a beautiful world I can escape into whenever I need a dose of romantic optimism. But I will never look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to author Susan Vreeland, whose historical fiction novel I just finished reading. Vreeland has made a good career out of researching and imagining the stories behind some famous paintings. Her Girl in Hyacinth Blue, based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer, was a bestseller and established Vreeland as a meticulous and gifted storyteller.

I never read Girl. In general I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, which usually feels a bit neither-this-nor-that to me. I like my fiction fictional, all the way through. But I understand how readers who long to know more about beloved artists could be attracted to a fictionalized account.

I read Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party not because I was curious about Renoir, the man. I was curious about the people in the painting. The scene is so relaxed and carefree, the models all look like people who would be fun to hang out with. And this is what makes Vreeland’s Luncheon a success. The story doesn’t simply dwell on the Renoir’s struggle to raise the money to buy his paints and pay for the models and the tremendous amount of food that was consumed during the eight sessions of posing. Nor does it focus entirely on the thematic and philosophic issues that were dividing the up and coming artists of that time in France, when the sense of “la vie moderne” was challenging the old constructs of French society and art.

At one point in the novel Renoir says, “I despise the idea that paintings are investments.” I’d be curious to know if this is an actual quote Vreeland found in a letter or diary. One wonders what Renoir would think of the modern marketing of art.

What makes the novel live and breathe are the portraits Vreeland paints with words of the models themselves and how they interact with each other, and, most of all, how their affection for Renoir and his for them produces the magical chemistry that you can see in the painting. A thousand little brushstrokes coalesce to give an unforgettable impression of a joyous afternoon.

It looks like the sort of party to which we’d all like to be invited. Thanks to Renoir we can at least imagine ourselves there. And thanks to Vreeland, we know the names of all the guests.


A mosaic sun brightens the cloudiest days at the Takoma Park Community Center.

There’s a gentle mist falling outside on this cool September day. It’s not the steady rain the garden needs, barely enough to soften the air, lower the temperatures, and dampen the birdbath. But it’s a soothing kind of benediction after the bright sun and insistent breeze of the last few days. The tiny drops hardly make a sound as they fall.

It was a quiet summer here in D.C.. After last summer’s record-breaking heat and dramatic derecho it’s been kind of a surprise to have so few crashing thunderstorms. Perhaps Mother Nature felt She’d made her point last year.

The memorable moments of each season, each year, hold our attention only until the Next Thing comes along. We are creatures of limited attention spans, and easily diverted by shiny spectacle and the continuous rain of catastrophic events around the world. The work of repairing and renewing is constant. Some lament the loss of what cannot be restored. Others see new possibilities in every change.

The ability to rebound after loss or injury is one of humankind’s most encouraging qualities. I love it when people don’t fold in the face of adversity, or stop learning after they leave school, or stop caring after their hearts get broken.

Sometimes beauty is born from wreckage.

Not long after I moved to Seattle I read Stephanie Kallos’s wonderful novel “Broken For You.” The story, with its Seattle setting and compelling characters, deals with the difficulty of recovering from tragedy, a common enough theme in much literature, but the way Kallos used the medium of mosaic art as a metaphor for transformative healing really spoke to me. All my life I’ve been drawn to mosaic works, especially those which breathe life and beauty into otherwise drab surfaces.

In Philadelphia, for instance, whole blocks have been transformed by the quirky thought-provoking mosaic murals of artist Isaiah Zagar. Using broken bits of mirror, ceramic and glass to create uplifting designs in formerly neglected inner city neighborhoods, Zagar was a pioneer in the field of public art made by and for the people, unsubsidized by government or corporate sponsors.

Such gifts of beauty, produced by the patient process of putting together tiny pieces of color to make something hopeful and inspiring, help us to heal  and deal with the continual barrage of violence that threatens our world. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes—the hurricanes, the floods, the crazed gunmen. The instinct to run and hide is strong, and perhaps vital to our continued existence.

But just as vital is the instinct to pick up the pieces and rebuild, to reach out to the hurt and lost and help find the way to a brighter day. Humanity is a big puzzle. Sometimes it’s hard to know where you fit in. Sometimes you have to step back to see the big picture. And other times you just have to start by picking up a little piece and doing what you can where you are.

Pull yourself together and brighten the corner you're in.

Dig In

Chris Parsons' magical art glistens in the early morning dew.

My current fave nightstand book is a small square chunk titled “The Garden Book,” which might seem unimaginative as titles go, but trust me, like the library in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, it’s much bigger on the inside.

The book (published by Phaidon) offers an illustrated survey of 500 of the world’s most influential gardeners. There are 500 photos, each accompanied by a tantalizingly brief paragraph about the designer or the garden.

Those who have never attempted to make a garden from scratch might be bored already, but for those of us with calloused hands and dirt under our fingernails, this book offers a stunning, inspiring, and humbling glimpse at the breathtaking scope of gardening ambitions.

Some of the gardens included are famous, others not so much. Some are modern, severe and tightly controlled. Some are wildly romantic, lush and drunk with blooms. There are examples of amazing artistry, such as Chris Parsons’ dew garden, a work of ephemeral beauty created by brushing a design on a dew-soaked lawn. Other effects take years to achieve, such as the cloud hedge at Schoten Garden in Belgium.

The cloud hedge in Schoten Garden, Belgium.

Anyone who has waited years to see a particular plant reach its peak will marvel at the patience and vision of some of these gardens. Of course, not all of us have the resources to produce anything on the spectacular scale of La Reggia di Caserta, with its nearly two-mile-long canal and water-staircases in Naples. But then, that garden was built to impress kings. We who simply aspire to produce a pleasant spot for an al fresco lunch may be content with more modest achievements.

I’ve been gardening so long, I sometimes wonder why I can’t seem to do a better job of it. Yet no matter how boldly I start out in January, planning and plotting, by September the decline is unmistakable. Some years it’s drought. Other years bugs, or blights, or heat, or cold, or  fill in the blank with the personal melt-down of your choice. And, of course, the clock is ticking the whole time. You can tell yourself there will be another spring, another summer, but, you know, immortality isn’t as easy as it looks on the big screen.

Yet, in this respect, my little garden book offers a kind of sustaining perspective. Among the many gardens depicted are some whose best days were many centuries ago. Not much is left of Apadanus Palace, the once-magnificent garden showcase of Darius the Great in Persepolis. Around about 1450 B.C. Darius’s terraces and reflecting pools were the talk of Persia, yet now only the stone stairs and a few pillars remain as evidence of his personal paradise.

The fleeting nature of, well, Nature, is both its charm and its ineffable mystery. And now it’s September. The days grow shorter. The angle of the sun casts long shadows across the garden, gilding the bright leaves, the russet grasses. There’s a different kind of energy in the air as autumn begins its mellow drawing in. Somehow, even though the garden is winding down, I feel excited already about the next season.

It’s like baseball, only better. In gardening, everyone wins.

Armed With Truth and Beauty

The goddess Saraswati encourages all to grow wise in harmony.

For those of us unable to feel the electric buzz of religious faith that motivates some people to acts of kindness or terror, there are nonetheless times when we wish we could find something above and beyond the mundane demands of daily life to inspire us to be the best we can be without having to join a cult, or a militia, or a book club.

Recently the spiritual signature of the Dupont Circle neighborhood went up a notch thanks to a new artwork erected by the Indonesian Embassy. The stunning pure-white statue depicts Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and art.

I had never heard of her before I happened on the statue gleaming above Massachusetts Avenue. I was fascinated by the exotic image, so markedly in contrast to the usual statues of men in suits that dominate the public venues in downtown D.C.

Because of this city’s history and the tendency to honor military and political leaders in general, there aren’t as many public statues celebrating the kinder, gentler side of humanity. True, there’s an eye-catching statue of Gandhi just a few blocks away from this new work. But Gandhi was a political figure too, worldly and powerful in spite of his humble aura.

The goddess Saraswati, by contrast, has the fantastic appearance of a creature of the imagination, far too radiant to be one of us. This probably has something to do with her appeal as a goddess. According to the explanatory plaque beside the statue, the objects which Saraswati carries in her four arms symbolize her areas of concern. There’s a book symbolizing knowledge, a mandolin representing art and culture, and a string of rosary-like beads for “unlimited knowledge.” In addition she rises above a lotus flower, symbol of holiness, and she is accompanied by a swan, another symbol of wisdom, according to the plaque.

Style and substance unite in a hopeful image.

That’s a heap of symbols to carry around, if you ask me. Yet Saraswati appears radiantly serene, as if, even though she knows the job of lifting up folks’ spirits and instilling them with knowledge and wisdom may be a bit of a challenge, she’s undaunted.

I like that in a goddess.

I imagine having four arms helps. I’ve often thought that if there were a goddess of housework a few extra sets of arms would come in handy. I can’t see anyone worshiping a goddess of cleanliness though.

Wisdom, on the other hand, has lofty appeal. So many of the world’s problems seem to stem from a woeful lack of wisdom. The seemingly endless conflicts between various religions hardly appear wise to me. But then, maybe I’m just not wise enough to see the Big Picture.

At any rate, I welcome the fresh new face near Dupont Circle, a neighborhood with a rich past of colorful characters and spirited protests.

Will She be able to lift the tenor of public discourse in this city of rumors and partisan feuding?

Goddess only knows.