A Reflection on Squash and the Arts

squash-art-1I recently attended my first squash match at Brown University’s Pizzitola Sports Center. It was an afternoon featuring the top men’s singles players from Brown against Princeton in one of the last meets of this season. Beyond the spectacular display of athleticism and strategy, I found myself enjoying an unexpected inter-disciplinary arts extravaganza.

It’s a fast, hard game, not for the feint of heart. The improvised, high speed same-sex pas de deux, performed by opponents in a circumscribed  4-walled court, has an intensity and grace that rival a choreographed modern dance concert. With speeds up to 176 mph, the repetitive, percussive Edgard Varese-esque thwack of the ball against the cubicle walls is hypnotic and engaging. Could artist Sol Lewitt’s  Wall Drawing #118 have been inspired by the trajectory of endlessly surprising angles traveled by a squash ball in play?  A player’s ability to change the direction of the tiny hollow rubber ball at the last instant is a tactic used to unbalance one’s opponent. Gravity appears to be defied. Sound and movement are driven, unpredictable and exciting, the elements of great theater

And then… there are the walls.

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Each court is covered in what looks, at first, like an updated abstract version of Upper Paleolithic Chauvet Cave painting. Bearing the scars of thousands of black marks chronicling prior squash battles, the white walls simultaneously exhibit documentation of the past as well as a live performance-art work in the making. In the visual art world, this kind of process-based art-making, where drawings are mostly composed of the residual markings of movement, emerged from the  Abstract Expressionism and Action painting movements. Although I found the multiple squash matches exciting and engrossing, I confess, I found the walls equally enchanting. As I watched speeding balls creating the accumulation of new black marks in varied compositions, my mind wandered to art history.

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Jackson Pollack’s landmark 1940s drip paintings were the result of his actions, the paintbrush merely an extension of his arm. Each movement would fling paint onto the floor canvas.  In the late 1950s, Shiraga Kazuo, eliminated the paintbrush altogether and used his entire body as the art-making tool. Suspended, he painted with his feet on floor-based canvases, and once wrestled mud as a public performance. John Cage’s Cleaning My Pen, an undated artifact from the composer’s days at Black Mountain College and Art Center is, as advertised, a sheet of the repeated black ink marks with which fountain pen users are familiar. cleaning-my-pen-john-cage

William Anastasi’s pocket drawings of the late 1960s involved paper sheets folded into eight squares, making them small enough to fit into the artist’s pocket. As he walked, he held a tiny, soft pencil against the exposed paper inside the cramped space of his pocket; the resulting marks graph his movements. When he deemed a section complete, Anastasi refolded the sheet, creating a new blank surface; the process began again.

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Using paper as a stage, dancer Trisha Brown, in her work It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, moved across a sheet large enough to encompass her whole body. Holding pastels or graphite in her fingers and toes, she rolled, pivoted, pushed, skidded, pulled and swooped, breaking her materials, skipping them over the surface, rubbing up the texture of the floor beneath, sweating, fidgeting, smearing, resulting in a series of drawings.its-a-draw-trisha-brownBarb Bondi is an artist working today in the tradition of mark-making as evidence of human activity.  In her ongoing Work Effort Subset Series, she dusted the wheels of her office chair with powdered graphite to record the imprint of the chair’s wheels as Bondi completed a week of work,  making tangible the efforts of labor.

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To create her work titled Suspension, Bondi slept in a head-to-foot spandex body suit enhanced with compressed charcoal fragments to record body movement. She slept on a 72 X 38 inch piece of Stonehenge paper mounted on plywood. When she awoke, the charcoal had marked her movements during sleep. 

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Kevin Townsend, another contemporary artist, created Residue of a Shadow. The gallery installation of gilded tea bags filled with powdered graphite, responded to any movement in the space, transferring graphite which marked the wall, creating the drawing.  Townsend states, “Deposited over time, as human movement through an interstitial space caused the bags to sway- the force of each impact adds a fine layer of graphite…So much of what I’m working with now is about what is left behind, the residue. Our memories are like this, the accumulated residue of our actions, the debris of sensation and cognition accumulated over time, marking us.”

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My squash meet reverie may not reflect the passion others have for this compelling sport. Nor will it be of much value in the continuing debate on inclusion of squash as an olympic sport. But take a look, next time you can, at the art that is happening  where you least expect it.

 

Noah, Politics and Baseball

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This Shabbat, what is striking about reading the Torah portion chronicling the story of Noah and the Great Flood is not only its message of hope but the coincidence of its appearance this year in the calendar, midway between Election Day and the World Series, 2016.

As Rabbi Rachel Zerin shared in her uplifting comments about the story of Noah and the Flood, we are in the midst of a seemingly endless, toxic, Presidential election season. Our collective spirits have taken a beating. Zerin pointed out the symbols making Noah’s story one of hope in the midst of his experience of the destruction of the world. In spite of blinding torrential rains, as Noah built the ark, he included a window to provide a view of future clear skies. Noah had to have been an optimist to gather pairs of animals to insure repopulation of the planet. Flooding from the 40-day storm lasted 150 days longer. Due to impossible conditions, this extreme “rain delay” kept the people and animals on the ark for 7 more months before they could exit and resume the business of living the future that Noah’s optimism had enabled.

It is difficult to imagine the scene in those final ark-bound hours. I find it just as hard to ignore coincidence of the timing of final game of the World Series just a few days ago. As reported in the New York Times, “If you are going to endure years — no, generations — of futility and heartbreak, when you do finally win a World Series championship, it may as well be a memorable one. The Chicago Cubs did just that, shattering their 108-year championship drought in epic fashion: with an 8-7, 10-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 7, which began on Wednesday night, carried into Thursday morning…”

On top of the Cubs and fans’ 108-year wait for a win, rain threatened to postpone or even reschedule Wednesday’s game. The weather held up through the eighth inning.  The Cubs carried a 6-3 lead, six outs away from a cathartic victory. But a double and a two-run home run by the Indians wiped out the lead tying the game. The deadlock held through the ninth inning. The top of the 10th inning was rain delayed for about 15 minutes by a deluge. Once it let up, the Cubs came back strong to score and win the game and the Series. In the case of this modern day miracle, there was no need to simply imagine the scene. Television and social media gave us a front row seat from which to witness the emotions of long-suffering Cubs fans praying, sobbing, chanting, wielding signs and amulets at Wrigley Field and beyond.

Perhaps I am alone finding comfort in this particular constellation of Torah, politics and baseball. Just as travelers, when lost, can always rely on the stars to guide them, I believe that years like these, when the world seems to have lost its moorings, we need to appeal to the cosmic and Divine. I may not have control over much, but I do choose to lead a kind-spirited and moral life and to celebrate the power I have to cast my vote on Tuesday, even if it rains.

God works in mysterious ways. I await, with faith and hope, whatever happens next.

Elul: The Heart of the Matter

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Now, in the Hebrew month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the time to get to the heart of the matter. This is a time of awakening ourselves (aided by the sound of the shofar every morning but Shabbat) to the task of a thorough personal accounting, from the year that is ending, of our deeds, our relationships and our souls.  Elul is also seen as a map to our inner heart potentially serving as the key to the depth and power of our inner heart. The Hebrew letters that make the word “Elul,” aleph, lamed, vav and lamed, are an acronym for the phrase (from the biblical Song of Songs) ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which means “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” This sacred song has been thought of as analogous to the love between a married couple, our relationship to the Divine and our relationship to keeping the Sabbath. I think it can also symbolize our relationship with the self we hope we can become, the marriage of who we have been and who we strive to be.

At the start of of Elul, according to the Zohar we are achor el achor, meaning “back to back.” The work of the month is to be panim el panim, “face to face.” In a year that has perhaps been difficult in our personal and professional lives, our country’s political life and a challenge to hopes for peace and repair of our planet, we are, appropriately, deeply discouraged. Hopeless, that our prayers have not been heard, we turn away from our dialogue with the Divine presence we define as God. But we also turn away from ourselves, in despair, turning our backs on our goals and dreams.

My Elul prayer for us all is that during these strange and dispiriting times that we do not also become disheartened. Instead of losing heart, we must use this opportunity our tradition provides to do an “about face.” May our reflections, re-evaluations and dreams during all the days of Elul and the yamim noraim 5777, provide us with humility, insight and optimism for the year ahead and always.

September 11, 2002: The One-Year Anniversary Revisited

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I don’t believe time alone heals all wounds. The pain of that day still feels fresh now, years later, as we mark the anniversary of the traumatic events of September 11, 2001. We commemorate this anniversary, in public and private ways. In addition to my private reflections, I’ve been remembering my community engagement project, Postcards To God: From Point Lookout to Ground Zero, which brought together over 1,000 people in a landmark program of remembrance and healing to mark the one-year anniversary of 9/11. The project is now permanently housed in the Hofstra University Library’s Special Collections 9/11 Archive.  I co-authored Postcards to God: Exploring Spiritual Expression in Disabled Older Adults, the subject of a scientific research project exploring spirituality and artistic expression, published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work, based on data collected during pilot workshops of the project.

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Margery Winter: Textile Art You Could Crawl Into and Stay A While

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“Jewelry District” 2016 42”/72” Wool, plastic, natural and synthetic hair, acrylic paint, markers

 

I had a lucky introduction to Margery Winter’s intelligent, engaging work last week when I was bowled over by her fiber wall sculpture, presented in a 2-person exhibit with conceptually related work by her husband, Milo Winter, at the charming and intimate ArtProv Gallery in downtown Providence.

My immediate reaction to Ms. Winter’s work was visceral; her spectacular woven, boiled, stitched, painted wall pieces, invite touch and more. I found myself longing to crawl up into and explore the felted folds, erotic and urban nooks and crannies of her cleverly manipulated textile pieces. Inspired by the energy of the Jewelry District neighborhood where she lives and works, Winter captures the area’s “graffiti, crumbling facades, excavations, light and shadows, obtuse angles, linear patches and evidence of those who wander through this maze.” Winter fools the viewer with painted acrylic shadows, creating the illusion of volume juxtaposed with authentic shaped sculptural felt tunnels or actual shadows cast by raised sections of each piece. She is no stranger to drawing and design, as evidenced by her “Spacial Structure,” (1974) a handsome early etching included in the exhibit.

Winter alludes to human presences observed, albeit fleetingly, in her city-scapes. The glimpses of people who briefly inhabit her sculptural urban maps are referenced by strategic and humorous placement of things like an armless sleeve climbing over the top of one piece and flattening to join the grid. Winter’s use of real hair, loose and braided, adds another textural, somewhat dark dimension to her work. In an era of urban violence, with unedited images of terrorist atrocities broadcast regularly in the media, for this viewer, the hair presents a somewhat disturbing reference to trophies of war garnered by scalping.

Screen shot 2016-07-18 at 11.22.00 AM   Winter employs materials and techniques mastered in her impressive commercial career in fashion publishing and needlecraft. She demonstrates her expertise and love (she calls it “lust”) for yarn, fabric, texture, pattern, and color. Her abstract notations chronicling her vision of downtown Providence and modern city life in general, stand on their own as striking, beautifully crafted specimens of the genre of fiber sculpture installation and will hold their own in museum, corporate or private collection.  ArtProv Gallery, 150 Chestnut Street Providence,  401-641-5182 Show Closing July 22!Screen shot 2016-07-18 at 12.11.06 PM

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*Margery Winter with “Around The Block” 43”/82” 2016

Bill Cunningham, Where Art Thou?

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Like many others, I was saddened to learn that the visionary Bill Cunningham,  is no longer with us. I have moved from New York and, subsequently, had stopped hoping he would appear on his bicycle and stop in front of me, enchanted by my cobbled-together fashion statement of that day. Maybe then I would have composed myself to tell him that he was a hero of mine, one of the good guys who inspired us all to try a little harder to celebrate the exquisite beauty to behold even in the ordinary,  if we keep our eyes and minds open.

Bill Cunningham 2“Bill Cunningham, Where Art Thou? A Post Fashion Week Reflection” was originally posted  on September 15, 2013 

New York City

I thought, by now, surely Bill Cunningham would have spotted me on the streets of Manhattan,  especially last week when I was having an especially good fashion day decked out as I tend to be, in a playful combination of vintage consignment shop, pristine dead-stock thrift shop finds and my original jewelry hand-crafted from recycled materials.  My oversize red plastic stop sign tote bag has brought smiles to passers-by (and stopped traffic) and I frequently am asked by passersby where they can purchase various items that I am wearing. I’ve even predicted the “What They Are Wearing” trends way early- for example, all that bright yellow in today’s NY Times Style section? Been there, done that: when last yearI snagged a pair of electric lemon yellow Anne Taylor Loft  light weight wool trousers, apparently a  sample, at my neighborhood Goodwill store. That definitely would have earned me a spot in Bill’s column, but I suppose I was ahead of the curve, and of course, timing is everything.  So you can imagine my utter amazement this afternoon, when I’d  thrown on a sweater over my running pants and hopped onto the 79th Street crosstown bus to catch the last hours on the last day of a museum show I’d been dying to see and suddenly noticed that the lovely gentleman who was sitting down next to me was wearing an unmistakable, distinctive blue cotton jacket. I thought I was imagining this, and tried not to stare.  How could this be happening?

20160303_104240_resizedCould Bill Cunningham actually be sitting down next to me on the bus? It was not supposed to happen this way! He was supposed to be on his bicycle, with his camera!  I was supposed to be wearing on of my great outfits! He’d spot me, be smitten and simply have to take my picture and find out all about me and my uncanny sense of style!  We rode along in silence as I pondered the situation. What could I say? “Mr. Cunningham, I am a great admirer of yours because you are a true visionary who defines fashion because you see it before others do, and I have always wanted to meet you, but just not today…” But I said nothing. I was in the window seat so when I stood to exit  I apologized for disturbing him and mumbled something about being a fan, but I fear my words were muffled by the driver’s announcement of the next stop. What am I supposed to learn from this brush with one of my great heroes, I asked myself?  The lesson, I suppose, is that fashion is in the eye of the beheld.

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Like many others, I was saddened to learn that the visionary Bill Cunningham,  is no longer with us. I have moved from New York and, subsequently, had stopped hoping he would appear on his bicycle and stop in front of me, enchanted by my cobbled-together fashion statement of that day. Maybe then I would have composed myself to tell him that he was a hero of mine, one of the good guys who inspired us all to try a little harder to celebrate the exquisite beauty to behold even in the ordinary,  if we keep our eyes and minds open.

Bill Cunningham 2“Bill Cunningham, Where Art Thou? A Post Fashion Week Reflection” was originally posted  on September 15, 2013 

New York City

I thought, by now, surely Bill Cunningham would have spotted me on the streets of Manhattan,  especially last week when I was having an especially good fashion day decked out…

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