Suspended is Belief

The scene is set for dreaming.

Like dewdrops caught in a silken net, thousands of crystal droplets shimmer in the slightest breeze above a secluded parterre in Dumbarton Oaks.

For the last year, this unexpected confection of light and space has enchanted visitors to the historic garden at the north end of Georgetown. The work of the Cao-Perrot Studio of Los Angeles and Paris, the “Cloud Terrace” was supposed to have been dismantled last November, but it has proven to be so popular that the garden directors decided to leave it up all winter. It’s now expected to be gone at the end of March. We’ll see.

In the meantime, the quiet shimmering beauty of the work continues to draw crowds who attempt to capture its mysterious allure with cameras great and small.

Cameras click like castanets, trying to catch pixie dust.

I was lucky the first time I went to see it. Perhaps because it was a weekday, and a rare sunny day between windy storms, there were few people there. I could sit and savor the way the hand-tied Swarovski crystals catch and throw the light.

Such a distinctive temporary art installation seems all the more striking in Beatrix Farrand’s classical garden setting, where little has changed in decades.

Even the most meticulously designed garden is subject to the relentless tide of time. Blooms come and go. Trees age and die. The entire composition of a garden is in a continual state of flux. You could say that every garden is a temporary work of art. Many gardens vanish when the gardeners who created them pass on. Luckily, when the great gardens of the past are championed and sustained by successive generations of garden lovers, our lives continue to be enriched by these dynamic works of living art.

I don’t know what Beatrix Farrand would have thought of the “Cloud Terrace,” but it’s clear as crystal that modern crowds can’t get enough of it.

Ship of Cools

Shifting shades of color transform the Kennedy Center to a house of cool.

The Northern Lights are shining above the Potomac this month, thanks to a brilliant festival of Scandinavian culture at the Kennedy Center.

The Nordic Cool exhibition, which runs through March 17th,  showcases music, theatre, dance, film, art, and culture from the countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and more. It’s a stimulating smorgasbord of ideas and talent, and many of the presentations are free.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the many offerings is the nightly spectacle produced by Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug, which recreates the effect of the Northern Lights on all four sides of the Kennedy Center each night from sunset until 11 p.m.. Subtle at times, breathtaking at others, the effect is mesmerizing.

Inside the center, free exhibitions range from stunning stained glass birds to demonstrations of Nordic cuisine and informative displays highlighting the history of the Nobel Prize and plywood. Yes, plywood.

For me, however, the work that really hit home was the remarkable creation of Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen, whose installation titled: “Are We Still Afloat?” evokes a giant ship, broken in two. The nautical illusion is all the more marvelous considering that it is fabricated entirely from a thousand used shirts hung on lines. Laundry never looked so cool.

Ship of Shirts

Visual art involves the magic of translating the human experience into something universal that speaks to us without words. This “ship of shirts” spoke to me, of souls gone, of hearts broken, and of hope still aloft in the wind.

The Earth Remembers

Landscaping at the National Museum of the American Indian reflects harmony with nature.

On the razor-thin borderline between the new and the old, we the people balance on this elusive current moment.

It changes constantly, as do we. Our efforts to hold onto the moment, to capture the past, or predict the future, generally fall short. Yet we keep trying. I like that about us.

Here in D.C. there’s a lot of emphasis on the present, in the form of news. Yet the rush of time is such that nothing has a shorter shelf life than news. Today becomes yesterday, and the ravenous public looks for what’s next.

Among the more inspiring aspects of life in the nation’s capitol is the reverence given to our shared history—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is easier to take, of course. The glories of the art museums, the beauty of the landscape, the pride in our heroes—these things are evident in the war memorials, the grand presidential monuments, and such.

But those parts of our history which are more painful and shameful to recall are also on display, lest we forget the cost paid by some, and the debts we can never repay.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), one of the relatively newer structures on the National Mall, stands out from its mostly marble neighbors. Its striking golden stone facade and sweeping curvilinear architecture instantly bring to mind the grandeur of the American Southwest. But inside, the scope of the museum extends even farther, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, representing the collected histories of all the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

It’s an overwhelming subject, and for someone like me, of Scotch-Irish heritage, something of a guilt trip. The native people who lived on and cared for this land we all love were systematically forced off it by the pioneers, most of whom came from Europe.

We who have overrun this land in the past four hundred years haven’t done such a swell job of preserving it. The Dust Bowl springs to mind.

But for this very reason the NMAI is an invaluable resource to educate and preserve the history and the spiritual heritage of the remarkable country in which we all live.

Monuments to heroes are all well and good. But even more important are the memories and history of our shared past. Where we will end up remains a mystery. But if we can at least remember where we came from, and how we paid for the trip, perhaps we can be mindful not to waste what we have left.

The newest totem poles in D.C.

Bear With Me

Crafted in resin, Xavier Veilhan's "The Bear" suggests origami with attitude.


You’re walking down the street, or perhaps riding by on the bus, numbed by the stone gray face of the winter city, when suddenly a burst of tomato red, taller than the average bear, shocks you awake.

The glorious creature lighting up a corner outside the Phillips Collection is another provocative example of the work of French artist Xavier Veilhan, whose intriguing installations have earned acclaim from critics worldwide. His installations at famous locations such as Hatfield and Versailles have dazzled visitors with the unexpected mash-up of past and futuristic concepts.

“The Bear” is part of Veilhan’s first major U.S museum exhibition in the United States, in The Phillips Collection’s ongoing “Intersections” series, which highlights works that offer fresh perspectives on the influence of the past on the present. Veilhan’s work often combines modern technology with classic themes.

One of the perks of living in a major city where an international community supports and appreciates artistic endeavor is the abundance of public art. Many of the museums in D.C. are open to the public year-round free of charge. But even the museums which must depend on private donations and public support give us glimpses of the wonders inside their doors.

Thus we have the red bear seemingly directing traffic on the corner of  21st and Q Streets. He’ll be gone soon, off to startle other viewers after February 10th.

I wish I could keep him in my front yard.

Pix Elated

Lichtenstein's pop eyes speak volumes.

Perspective is everything.

The first time I ever read Moby Dick it was a Classic Comic. It cost ten cents. I thought it was a fairly gripping yarn, but it lacked the love interest which, at the time, I felt was an essential element to any story.

Years later in high school, when I was compelled to read the actual unabridged novel, I realized that there was much to be said for the comic book format. So much less blubber, for one thing.

Suffice it to say, the appeal of Moby Dick remained an enigma to me until I read it again in college, guided by an inspired professor who confessed that it was Melville’s sense of humor which really got to him.

This was news to me. Yet as I voyaged once again into Melville’s foaming prose, I found not only amusement, but moments of transcendent wonder. Go figure.

No doubt the passage of time had changed my perspective on whales, men, and the heartless workings of Fate. And, as time went on and I revisited other great works of literature such as A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables which I had first read in comics form, I came to appreciate the pleasures of the long slow read.

However, while my admiration for comics has held steady, in the last few decades graphic comics have sparked a kind of cultural renaissance of their own, with highbrow artists producing a whole new world of thoughtful, groundbreaking works suffused with drama, humor and the whole existential enchilada that is modern life.

On a recent trip to the East Wing of the National Gallery we took in a retrospective of works by Roy Lichtenstein. His brilliant conceit, to put comic style art on the wall, large and in-your-face, challenged centuries of traditions built on classification and exclusion. Seen larger than life and bolder than Iron Man, the artful appeal of this comic art is irresistible.

To me, anyway. But then, I’m a sucker for Melville, so perhaps not the most reliable source.

Lord Plushbottom of the old comic strip Moon Mullins lent a philosophic tone to the Sunday funnies.

Echoes of an Infinite Scream

It's a big planet; someone has to pollinate it.

Too long for a science fiction title, you think?

Yeah. In these attention-challenged times it would need to be shorter, sharper.

But I have to say when I read that Edvard Munch’s beloved work “The Scream” sold for $119.9 million at an auction on Wednesday, I felt a kind of primal rage.

I understand the appeal of the work. Surely we’ve all been there, felt that. And Munch’s depiction of a soul in torment is subtle in a florid sort of way. Unlike the works of other more literal artists (Hieronymous Bosch springs to mind with a pitchfork), Munch didn’t illustrate actual nightmarish scenarios. “The Scream” instead reflects the existential horror which lurks just below the conscious level of thought. You never see the monster under the bed, after all. The imagination has no limits.

I love art. I think life would be immeasurably diminished without it. But there’s something obscene about that amount of money being spent on a small pastel. If we had already solved all the world’s problems, eliminated famine, war and pestilence, then, maybe, we could earmark a bit more for decoration. But I realize that’s not how the world works. It’s supply and demand everywhere you go. And as my husband commented when I began ranting about the price of the painting, “They’re not making any more of them.”

Yeah. Well. I get that. But I feel that way about Earth, and the sense of urgency doesn’t seem to be universally shared.

One reason this particular “Scream” is said to be worth more than the average poster is that it has a few lines by the artist describing his inspiration for the work hand-written within the frame:

I was walking along a path with two friends — the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

Now it makes sense. Munch, it appears, was an environmentalist, waaay ahead of his time.

In 1962, back when the word ecology was something new and many people thought recycling was a kooky fad, Rachel Carson wrote “The Silent Spring,” a prescient warning on the unchecked use of pesticides and chemicals. Many people thought she was a kook too.

But now, when bee colonies are disappearing around the world because of exposure to the toxins spread by corporate farming, when frog species are vanishing as pollutants poison once pristine habitats, and the toxic clouds forming above cattle feedlots can be seen from space, it’s time to wake up and smell the methane.

Yes, I am a tree-hugger, haunted by the silent screams of disappearing nature.

Earth is the Big Tree and we’re killing it. If it falls, we all go down with it. Probably screaming our heads off.

Where is Munch when we need him?

Peak Pocket Park

A ribbon of poetry lures strollers into the park.

It sneaks up on you and steals your heart.

One minute you’re walking around the corner of a typical neighborhood block, small houses crouched in the shadows of burly new condo developments, and then, a sliver of silver on the sidewalk catches your eye. You turn and see a crescent moon gleaming in the concrete. And beyond, tall evergreens frame of view that goes on for miles.

Moon Walk

This is Fremont Peak, one of Seattle’s treasured pocket parks. Though it’s only been open since 2007, it already has the grace of ages thanks to the vision of the designers who gently inserted new art into the half-acre site perched high above Ballard. It’s a good spot to watch sunsets over the Olympics. In one direction you can see the ships passing through the locks, while to south the skyline of downtown Seattle rises beyond the ridge of Queen Anne.

Ballard and Beyond

The limitations of a pocket park – its diminutive size, its lack of recreational facilities – are outweighed by its intimate scale, the thoughtful details which give the space the character and charm of a beloved retreat.

Some parks speak to us in bold fonts, with grandeur and the broad strokes befitting public settings. In contrast, a pocket park whispers, its message, one of stolen moments, secret pleasures, as if to say: This time, it’s personal.

Make Way for Planets

A Sunday Afternoon at Lac Vert

Summer lingers at Green Lake.
Summer arrives late at Green Lake.

If Georges Seurat had lived in Seattle, he would have been drawn to Green Lake, compelled to paint its shifting scenes of people, water, shadowed lawns and fluttering tree canopy.

Of course, in 1884, at the time Seurat was painting his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” in Paris, Green Lake hadn’t really come into its own as a playground for Seattle urbanites. For those wishing to visit the park at that time, a trolley extending from the city provided an easy option. These days the trolley is gone, but nothing stops the crowds from flowing into the inviting lakeside spaces, especially when the sun shines.

This past September week summer finally visited Seattle. Nine days in a row of temperatures in the 80s. We dug out our fan and plugged it in.

Good times.

But if Seurat were to visit Green Lake now I suspect he might be a bit taken aback by the changes in fashion and social conventions since his time. Hardly anyone uses parasols anymore. Skateboarders and inline skaters whiz past the strollers on the path around the lake. And Georges might be dumbfounded by the constant stream of joggers sprinting by. The mood is tranquil, but hardly sedate.

Yet sometimes, when the light is right, if you squint your eyes and stare at the lakeside scene, you can still get a glimpse of what Seurat saw.

Wired Wit

Shadows enrich the subtext of Little's wire art.

What a week.

The apocalypse dreamers must be riding higher than the floodwaters left by Hurricane Irene. It’s not often that a week begins with an unprecedented 5.9 earthquake in our nation’s capitol and finishes up with a hurricane bigger than Texas slamming into the Big Apple.
From the chatter of the talk shows, a conspiracy of sci-fi proportions might be presumed to be at work.

And yet. Somehow, as the floodwaters recede, the aftershocks diminish and the Dow-Jones resumes its customary pogo bouncing of alternate anticipation and dread, life, as we know it, goes on. The famine in Africa worsens. The violence fueled by differences of political and religious views lurches on with the tireless zest of a zombie horde. Racial prejudice continues. The drug wars rage on.

In light of all this, the passing blows of a hurricane and a small earthquake hardly register.

We experience life as individuals. When something cataclysmic happens to you, it’s hard to step outside the frame and look at the big picture.
One of the functions of art is to help us do just that – to broaden our limited perspectives and get a glimpse of other points of view.

Some artists write novels to address these ideas. But reading, for many, is too time consuming, too much like work. Music has long been a wedge to crack open the doors of perception. But listening requires an open mind. Visual art has an advantage of immediacy. And sometimes, the longer you look, the more you can see in a work of art.

Seattle artist Spenser Little creates provocative works from twisted wire that explore fundamental issues of human existence. In spare imagery that brings to mind the great line drawings of Saul Steinberg or Toulouse-Lautrec, Little creates extraordinary images of men, women and words. Many of his works include pithy quotations from the likes of Oscar Wilde or Ambrose Bierce. An original inventive spirit animates all of his works, from the smallest dog sculpture to the stunning near-life-size portraits.

You can see his works most Sundays at the Fremont outdoor fair. Weather permitting.

What Lies Beneath

"Fin Art"

Images of whales abound in the Northwest. Tourists come from miles around in hopes of seeing orcas breach the surface of  Puget Sound. Cute cartoons of  black and white whales adorn everything from coasters to key chains.

Surrounded by the casual commoditization of the idea of killer whales, it’s easy to forget the power and awesome reality of the actual creatures.

But on a windswept expanse of open ground at Magnussen Park in north Seattle a remarkable work of public art conveys the mystery and the grandeur of whales in an unexpected way.

Seattle artist John T. Young created “The Fin Project: From Swords to Plowshares” in 1998 using 22 decommissioned diving plane fins  from 1960s U.S. Navy attack submarines. Massive steel fins rise out of the ground, some atilt, some buried deeper. The effect is subtle yet striking. As you walk among them you can’t help imagining giant creatures below the surface.

It’s what you can’t see that sparks the imagination.

The work resonates in many ways, but yesterday, as I revisited the site, I found myself thinking of the way we all carry on blithely on the surface of this Earth, taking for granted its solidity, its gravity, the secure foundation of our homes and hopes, forgetting, as we humans are so apt to do, that the Earth has issues of its own. The horrific devastation in Japan from the most powerful earthquake in its recorded history reminds us how puny we are in the big picture. The Earth shrugs, our fragile civilization collapses.

In the years to come, as we rebuild from this most recent natural disaster, more such events are inevitable. The continued survival of mankind will depend on our ability to help one another. Beating swords into plowshares is a start.