Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Celebrating A Birthday With Walter And George

If I had to choose two personal favorites among American artists, I would choose Walter Inglis Anderson and George Gershwin. I discovered Anderson on my own in the 1970s during the dedication of a National Park Service (NPS) visitor center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The award-winning center featured architectural elements incorporating his motifs as well as interior displays of his nature paintings. Its copper roof and gray-washed exterior blended superbly with the adjacent salt marsh and made the center one of the most beautiful in the NPS. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In regard to George Gershwin, I had an ear for him very early in life as my mom and dad enjoyed listening to his work on the radio, records, and television.

Today, September 29, marks the birthday of Anderson and Gershwin. Both were filled with creative genius. Both lives featured tragic loss. Anderson died (1965) in his early sixties recognized as a local artist and obscure introvert wracked by schizophrenia. National appreciation of his contribution to American art would come slowly and long after his death. Even today he's not well known among general populations beyond the South. On the other hand, Gershwin who was known through out the world would die of a brain tumor at the age of 38 at the height of his career.

Walter "Bob" Anderson, Self-Portrait, 1941
Walter Inglis Anderson, was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1920s, he spent most of his career associated with Shearwater Pottery, a family enterprise founded in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Though deeply troubled with mental illness for much of his life, he produced thousands of vivid works of art - often called "abstract realism" - seeking to celebrate the unity of human existence with nature. I often describe his work as decorated illustrations that play freely with figure and ground and the positives and negatives of visual perception. His realizations of nature explode in the mind's eye. Observing Anderson is a meditative experience. Visit the Walter Inglis Anderson Museum of Art site to learn more about the life and work of this regional artist who only recently has taken on national significance.

Frogs,Bugs, Flowers Walter Anderson, ca.1945

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz and blues motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a spectacular career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to American music had he lived another forty years.

Gershwin in 1937

Here are two examples of Gershwin's musical genius, the first we all recognize, the second not so much.

Studying these artists came much later in my life. In the last five years, that study led to a startling revelation: George, Walter and I were born on September 29. It's a coincidence from somewhere in the stars beyond time. I don't want to attempt an explanation. And there's no delusion here, my friends, I will never approach their genius. Not sure I'd want to. I'll simply leave it at that and enjoy their greatness knowing that we share a quiet and inconsequential commonality.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Robert Simon: A Man With A Plan

The visionary developer, Robert E. Simon Jr., passed away earlier this week in Reston, Virginia, the planned community he designed outside Washington. In his 101 years he watched urban planning and design evolve from Victorian influences to full professionalism expressed in the New Urbanism movement we know today.

Robert E. Simon 

First phase of Reston: Lake Anne, Lake Anne Village and Heron House, 1963
From its modest beginnings, Reston has grown to become a community of over 60,000 residents. Planner including Erik Vogt, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have taken Simon's visions to new heights in several developments across the country. Here are some examples, including a stunning video of Alys Beach, Florida.

Seaside, Florida, location for the film, The Truman Show

New Town  at St. Charles, Missouri, 2008

The modern livable community may seem elusive but a fine blending of residences, businesses, recreational opportunities and transportation systems in a landscape can be raised to the remarkable. Granted, the examples here are costly. On the other hand, the design principles you see can be applied to almost economic spectrum. For that, we can thank Robert E. Simon for helping us see the possibilities of people living in communities designed in nature.



Robert E. Simon Jr., environementguru.com
Lake Anne Village, anonymous photo, George Mason University Repository Center
New Town, newtownatstcharles.com

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Revolutionary Calendar Welcomes Fall

Welcome to Vendemiaire (Grape Harvester)...

...on its first day, Raisin (Grape).

Leave it to the French to have a sweeping, violent revolution that would attempt to wipe out all traces of monarchy and replace it with enlightenment and the Age of Reason. One of the features of the revolution was the Napoleonic Calendar. Its ten day weeks, twelve months of thirty days, and assorted extra days to add up to the essential number, 365/6, made it confusing as a time piece. On the other hand, using seasonal events, plant and animal names, and farming implements to label the days and months made the calendar a work of art. And so we have on this day, September 22, not only the autumnal equinox but also the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic (1792) and the first day of the new Napoleonic Year.

Here in the next 29 days is a vivid picture of the season:

Safran (Saffron)

Chataignes (Chestnut)
Colchique (Autumn Crocus)
Cheval (Horse)
Balsamine (Yellow Balsam)
Carrotes (Carrots)
Amaranthe (Amaranth)
Panais (Parsnip)
Cuve (Tub)
Pommes de terre (Potatoes)
Immortelle (Strawflower)
Potiron (Giant Pumpkin)
Reseda (Mignonette)
Ane (Donkey)
Belle de nuit (Marvel of Peru)
Citroville (Summer Pumpkin)
Sarrazin (Buckwheat)
Touresol (Sunflower)
Pressoir (Wine-Press)
Chanvre (Hemp)
Peches (Peaches)
Navets (Turnip)
Amarillis (Amaryllis)
Boeuf (Cattle)
Aubegine (Eggplant)
Piment (Chile Pepper)
Tomate (Tomato)
Orge (Barley)
Tonneau (Barrel)

I think Vendemiaire provides us a comforting association with a different time and place, a pre-industrial existence where we can easily recognize ourselves as part of nature and not separate from it. That's as it should be. This is the season to be close to the earth and its harvest that sustains us through the cold and dark months to come.

Welcome to Fall and the grape harvest. Let us enjoy it.


Wikipedia entry: Vendemiaire, author unknown, National Library and Bureau of Measures,


Fondation Napoleon, www.napoleon.org

Saturday, September 12, 2015

H.L. Mencken: He Debunked America's Stiff Upper Lip With A Smile

Today, September 12, marks the birthday of Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956), the "Sage of Baltimore." He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. P. J. O'Rourke seems to have picked up the Sage's role as iconoclast and debunker during this period.

Mencken (r.) celebrates the end of Prohibition at the Rennert Hotel in Baltimore, 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-30's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's.

Those who want the full story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed the biography by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers but did not find it as readable.

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

Mencken at his residence in Baltimore, September 1955 

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection would bring a nice six figures at any literary auction. If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised:

No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

N.B. Terry Teachout recently published two important biographies, one about the great American jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader, Duke Ellington; the other about jazz icon, Louis Armstrong. If you enjoy music history or simply a well-written biography both books should be on your reading list.  


prohibition, baltimoreorless.com/2012/05/the-rise-and-fall-of-prohibition-in-baltimore-maryland-1918-1933/

Friday, September 11, 2015

Enlightening The World In Remembrance Of An Unforgettable Day

Lest we forget the lost and the living...

The American composer, Eric Ewazen, was teaching a music class at the Julliard School at Lincoln Center when Islamist fanatics attacked the World Trade Center. He wrote the following hymn shortly after as a portrayal of "those painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness."


Photo: National Park Service

Text: classicalfm.com, Classical music inspired by 9/11

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Patsy Cline: Her Voice Never Fades

The Maryland-Virginia area has produced a number of entertainment celebrities over the years. Just last week, I posted about Arthur Godfrey, an early television star whose name is rarely recognized today. There was another tremendous star that rose out of the region in the 1950s. Arthur Godfrey made her a star, and that star, Patsy Cline, still shines bright more than fifty years after her tragic death in 1963.

Patsy Cline                                                        Nashville, 1962

Never met Patsy. Never knew anyone who did. But I did grow up with her music often hearing it over the radio all day at our family's summer haunt in Burlington, West Virginia. The village was on U.S. 50, just a dozen ridges and forty miles west of her first home in Gore, Virginia and a tad farther from her birthplace, Winchester. Perhaps it was too far to claim her as a hometown girl, but the locals loved her and talked often about how proud they were of a country kid who made it big. 

Cline was born on this day in 1932. Her brief career had a powerful influence on country and popular music that continues to this day. The depth of her popularity can be measured by her Guinness World Record for having the most weeks on the U.S. charts for any album in any genre by a female artist: 722. Out of the total, 251 weeks were at #1 with Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits, originally released in 1967. Here is a sample of that greatness:

Go buy her albums - original or remastered - because pop culture rarely gets better. 


Photo: Les Leverett, WSM Studios, Nashville

Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day Past And Present

Happy Labor Day working America! It's a beautiful holiday in Georgia. Refreshing easterly winds are bathing the state in moderate temperatures and filling the sky with puffy cumulus clouds one usually sees rolling in off the Atlantic. My wife and I are having the pleasure of hosting my former colleague and his wife for the weekend. Ours is a friendship that extends across 45 years and in a broad variety of national park sites from sea to shining sea. Much of our conversation this weekend has been about those magnificent resources we had the honor to preserve and share with others. Of course the nature of our work required us to labor on most weekends including this one in our early careers. It wasn't always that way.

Old Tybee Ranger, Labor Day Picnic, Burlington, WV, ca.1950
My most memorable Labor Days occurred in the '50's and early '60's when I attended the big day-long mill employees picnic. The entire event was free, sponsored by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company that had essentially employed my home town for generations. Three to four thousand people attended those picnics and enjoyed carnival rides, dancing, bingo and board games, swimming, model train rides, softball, foot races and similar activities, real airplane rides, and a playground filled with wonderfully dangerous equipment - the greasy pig, flying boats, a center-pivot merry-go-round, a very tall and fast sliding board -  that could never be built today. It all ended with a movie under the stars at the drive-in theater next door. 

Although many of the kids I played with those days ended up working at the mill many of them went on to college, military service or other opportunities and adventures that took them away from small town life. In the long run I think those who left  made the right decision. Today, the mill exists under another name - Verso - and employs only a shadow of its former workforce, perhaps less than a quarter compared to its post World War II heyday. If it still exists, the Labor Day picnic has to be a mere shadow of the exciting event as I remember it. 

One item that does remain is the union wage and it's exceptionally good. Unfortunately the jobs are few and the quality of life in the region is wanting and now entering its seventh decade of decline. Regardless, throughout my life, I've always made a point to family, friends, and colleagues that all work is honorable. Every employee, from minimum wage to executive salary, contributes to achieving organizational success. That college diploma still largely determines where one will fall on the earnings scale; however, the formula may be changing. In fact, opportunities to develop skills beyond the campus have never been greater. Simply put, the American Dream may be closer to more employees now than ever. That should make a lot of people very happy, even in the midst of our economic downturn. If we could just find a way to resurrect an honest liberal arts curriculum in high school, I would be very pleased. It would anchor tomorrow's happy workers in the principles, ethics, and precedents necessary to understand, appreciate and perpetuate the best of the American experience as we have come to know it. Labor Days as I both remember and enjoy them today remain fine expressions of that experience. I hope yours is a happy day as well.