Do You Love the Place Where You Live?

S7305184Do you love the place where you live? Its backyards and alleys, its houses and people?

Collages6Do you love its weather (physical, political, and otherwise)? Is it a place where spirits soar?

State College walk around March 23 2017-001Can you identify its colors, its faults, its charms?

State College walk around March 23 20171Does it accommodate art and embrace differences? Does it know where the wild things are and save a space for them too?

Collages4  Is there an evident pattern of pride that gives you a boost . . .

State College walk around March 23 20173s7305126.jpg. . . . rather than making you feel buttoned down?

State College walk around March 23 20172Do you love the place where you live?

State College walk around March 23 20174 Is it a place that is welcoming to strangers, yet where you can imagine your chickens coming home to roost?

 

These pictures were snapped a couple days ago, when I was walking around one of the neighborhoods of my hometown — the town of State College, Pennsylvania. My husband and I live about a ten minute drive away on its rural outskirts, but this neighborhood is quite special to us. When first dating, back in the ’90s, we walked these sidewalks for hours every night, talking and getting to know one another. I’ve lived here most of my life, with the exception of six years after college, so perhaps it’s natural that there came a time when I wanted to move away from this area and make my home in a sunnier part of the United States (the desert southwest was calling to me).

Lately, though,  I’m having a “second-honeymoon” feeling about the place where I live. State College has small-town charm and, at the same time, a population that is culturally diverse, thanks to the local university and, in particular, its graduate-student program, which draws many international students into our fold. For almost its entire existence, State College has revolved around welcoming newcomers — because of Penn State University, that is its business — and this welcoming nature makes for a town that is lively and friendly. To wit: while taking my stroll on Thursday, I looked up and saw a young man flying in graceful, arcing circles above the yard of his house. He was doing arabesques and changing positions as he went round and round, many feet off the ground. “Can I take your photo?” I called to him over the wrought iron fence of his yard. “Sure, come in,” he said, and in the space of ten minutes I learned a little of his history. (His name is Dimitry, he studied circus arts and, for a while, lived and performed in New York City before moving back to State College, which is where he grew up too. The long-poled contraption that suspended him as he flew in elegant circles above his yard was a gift he recently bought himself for his 26th birthday.)

“Are you happy to be back here?” I asked him as I was leaving, silently wondering if someone who has lived in the Big Apple would find State College to be more than a little too small. “I am!” he said without hesitation. “I love it here.”

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Forget-Me-Not, from “100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names”

March came in like a lion this year, and the weather here is quite wicked at the moment, but I’m thinking of gardening and, particularly, of flowers. One of the most fascinating and charming books ever written on the subject of flora is Diana Wells’s 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names.  I have a hunch that most people who enjoy gardening also enjoy history, and Wells’s little book is a gathering of historical facts on each of these flowers, most of them quite entertaining, as she writes with a lovely sense of humor as well as intelligence. It’s the type of book you can randomly open to any page and find delightful reading for a minute or two, for most of the flowers are described in only two pages, but the writing is so good I read it from cover-to-cover when I first bought it, many years ago. Whenever I pluck it from my shelf, I think to myself that it would have been the perfect gift for my grandmother, who was the most bookish gardener I ever knew (which is saying something, as gardeners are a bookish lot!) and who would have delighted in reading the histories and myths attached to her favorite flowers.

Below I’ve excerpted the author’s enchanting entry on one of the early flowers of spring, the forget-me-not. A friend of mine has these tender blue flowers growing so profusely in her garden, they look like a blue mist spiraling around her pathways in the months of April and May.

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BOTANICAL NAME: Myosotis.  FAMILY: Boraginaceae.

Its botanical name comes from the Greek mus (mouse) and otis (ear). This is from the rather touching perception that the leaves are shaped like a mouse’s ears. John Gerard called it “scorpion grass” and believed that it cured scorpion bites, though there are no scorpions in England—but maybe it was best to be prepared.

The name “forget-me-not” comes from the Old French ne m’ oubliez mye, which in turn was a translation of the German vergiss mein nicht. The best known legend about the flower is of a German knight picking a posy of forget-me-nots for his beloved as they strolled together on a riverbank. He slipped and fell in, but before drowning he threw her the flowers, crying, “Vergiss mein nicht.” This excruciating story could really only have merit were it to be sung onstage with a suitably distraught and bosomy soprano and some excellent trap-door mechanisms. Botanically it doesn’t hold much water.

Blue is a celestial color and it almost always clothes the Virgin Mary in medieval paintings. Flies reputedly will avoid blue rooms, which is why dairies were often painted blue. Gardeners treasure blue flowers, which are rarer than any other color in our borders. Blue and yellow are also the colors that most attract insect pollinators, which is what interested Christian Sprengel in forget-me-nots. Sprengel, rector of Spandau in Germany, was investigating the role that colors of flowers play in the process of insect pollination. He so neglected his pastoral duties to pursue botany that he was dismissed from his post. In 1793 he published The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers, which demonstrated his belief that all nature had a connected purpose. It was, however, unenthusiastically received by his contemporaries, leaving him too depressed to publish anything more. It was not until 1841 that Charles Darwin read the book and recognized the truths in it, which he incorporated into his own research.

“Forget-me-not” is one of the few flower names that almost everyone knows and remember, and the flowers commonly decorate Valentine cards and the like. They grow in damp places and are, indeed, bluer that the Virgin’s robe. The most memorable place they grew, however, was in Lady Chatterley’s pubic hair, where her gamekeeper lover planted them, saying, “There’s forget-me-nots in the right place.” When she looked down at the “odd little flowers among the brown maiden-hair,” she said, “Doesn’t it look pretty!” The gamekeeper’s reply is unforgettable: “Pretty as life,” he said. †

— Diana Wells, from her book 100 Flowers
and How They Got Their Names

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100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names, copyright © 1997 by Diana Wells (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1997, pp. 72-73)

 

A Little Art History: Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately. Back in December, I wrote a post about being an avid art lover in the first half of my life, and how that passion had basically faded to the degree that I’m no longer keen on going to museums — my tastes having narrowed to the point where I know exactly what kind of art I like, and I’m more inclined to indulge my particular whims than go in search of art elsewhere. For the most part that feeling still holds, but lately I’ve been doing some excavation into my life, digging up works I’ve kept over the years, and I realize that art appreciation on one level or another has been at the core of almost everything I’ve ever done, writing-wise. For example, there’s a coffee table book I wrote and published in 2002 about artists and other creative types of people who live in my hometown; an unfinished novel in which my protagonist is a young woman from the South, in the 1930s, who falls in love with a travelling artist, follows him to New York, and in the course of her journeys becomes an artist herself; and works I kept from my college days pertaining to art history that I can’t seem to throw away. Thinking about the latter, I thought I’d create an ongoing (though random) series on my blog under the tagline “A Little Art History,” in which I’ll examine works that particularly speak to me. And on that note, here is my first entry:

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Pablo Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques

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Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso, completed in Paris in 1905. Oil on canvas. (From the Chester Dale Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

 

During the end of 1904 and the first half of 1905, the artist Pablo Picasso produced a group of works treating a circus theme. These paintings illustrate a transition from his Blue Period to the Rose Period, possessing a warmer palette, a more relaxed use of line, and a change in mood to suggest a more subtle feeling of melancholy. Family of Saltimbanques, 1905, his most famous painting from the Rose Period, provides an intimate glimpse into the life of a circus family. Like most of his works on this theme, Picasso chooses to show the performers behind the scenes, in their personal relationships, rather than in their masquerades before an audience. In doing so, he seems to emphasize the loneliness of any artist, whether trapeze or painter, whose work tends to isolate him from the rest of society. In the Harlequin, a favorite motif, Picasso unmasks a serious, often sorrowful, and very human person who is in direct contrast to our image of the laughing clown.

Picasso made numerous studies for this work. In fact, several of his earlier works of 1905 can be called studies for this painting because these same characters he painted in the beginning of the year found their way into the Family of Saltimbanques. The most important study belongs to the Shchukin collection in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. In this preparatory sketch, the acrobats are positioned against a background which includes a horse race, a crowd, and houses. By omitting these details in favor of a desert background, Picasso places more emphasis on the figures themselves. Their sense of community forms the only barrier from a world of emptiness.

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Family of Acrobats sketch by Pablo Picasso (from the Shchukin Collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow).

Although his palette is warmer than the monochromatic blues of the previous period, Picasso uses a delicate touch in applying the color. In some places it seems almost transparent—particularly in the seated figure of the woman, whose skirt seems to fade into the neutral setting—as if to suggest the ephemeral nature of life itself. This quality inspired the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who lived with the painting for fifteen years, to write in the fifth of his Duino Elegies: “But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little more fleeting than we ourselves—so urgently, ever since childhood wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?) never-contented will?”