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Monday, October 14, 2013

Farm Artists Grow Green Acres

Children run in and out of artist Doug Retzler's Gourd Palace Spirit House in front of
Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va, at the end of the exhibition
Which foods are healthiest—animal fats, grains or vegetables?  Will sustainable farming feed the world or are GMOs the answer for stretching our crops far and wide? 
Michael Bradford of Potomac
Vegetable Gardens makes vegetal art

Americans don't agree about food, just as they can't reach consensus in politics. So we look to some extraordinary artists who can fill the void, farmers who are also artists.  They use their creative gifts to solve problems and sustain us.  Museums on the National Mall are closed at the moment, but the Arlington Arts Center and the Katzen Arts Center at American University have been hosting two parts of an exhibition, Green Acres: Artists Farming Fields, Greenhouses and Abandoned Lots.  The shows features works by farmer-artists who have developed novel farming practices to inspire self-reliance, improve food quality, serve the community while demonstrating sustainable techniques that can teach and inspire.   

Potomac Vegetable Farms in Purcellville and Vienna, Va., uses sustainable techniques, makes its own highly regarded compost for fertilizer and avoids all forms of chemical interventions. PVF was one of thirteen local farms featured in Permaganic Co's Soil Olympics demonstration at the Arlington venue of Green Acres.  Michael Bradford is one of the farm's own artists, though he is not in the exhibition.
This vegetal art by Bradford was at Potomac
Vegetable Farms, one of 13 farms in  Permaganics'
Soil Oympics, part of Green Acres

From a movement that began over 40 years ago, independent Curator Sue Spaid has pulled together the legacy of these artists and presented some current projects, too.  After many years in the planning, the first exhibition was held last year at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, before going to the Arlington Arts Center and the Katzen Arts Center.  The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Exhibition Award program which supports thematic exhibitions that challenge audiences and expand the boundaries of contemporary art, provided funding for the exhibitions.  Many of the original artists, such as Permaganic Co, came from the Cincinnati area, but agricultural participants from the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia corridor have been involved, too.

Joel Salatin, a farmer in the Shenandoah Valley, wrote one of six guest essays in an excellent exhibition catalogue.  He advocates for local foods and Polyface Farm's non-chemical, sustainable and humane techniques, earning the title "high priest of the pasture."  In Manifesto 2050, Salatin asserts that our industrialized food chain, with its price supports, monocultures, the food police, extensive processing and GMOs, has assaulted our health and made Americans profoundly ignorant about food and farming.  "We're populating our future with young people profoundly disconnected from their ecological umbilical cord," Salatin exclaims.

photo of Agnes Denes, Wheatland, New York, 1982, in the Katzen Arts Center exhibit
Denes was one of the first farm artists to make a statement.
Another essay is by artist Agnes Denes, who in 1982 planted 2 acres of wheat in lower Manhattan. The land was at the foot of the World Trade center and two blocks from Wall Street.  Her act, with the help of two assistants, called attention to our values, our mis-management and waste of resources.  The peaceful paradise was in contrast to the world of competitiveness, money, congestion.  After the harvest, the land was replaced by a big development, but many office workers were sad to see it go .  

Susan Leibovitz Steinman worked with community volunteers to build Straw Bale Farm, out of
straw oat bales, concrete blocks, PEX pipe, metal trash cans, fruit/nut trees, plants, mulch, organic
fertilizer and soil.  At the end, visitors were welcome to take kale, squash, tomatoes, etc.

Two artists, Doug Retzler of Baltimore  and Susan Leibovitz Steinman of California, built edible landscapes with community volunteers.  On the grounds of the Arlington Arts Center, the works allowed visitors to observe the growth and change, and to help themselves to the food from these edible landscapes. Children enjoyed running in and out and all around Retzler's Gourd House Spirit Palace.  Steinman, an advocate for community, portable and raised-bed farms, wrote another essay in the catalogue.  Newton and Helen Harrison of Harrison Studio also wrote an essay which is a poem.

Mei-ling Hom, Mushroom Cap -
A Mycorestoration Module, 2012,  oat straw, jute
twine and mushroom spawn

Films, drawings, photographs and installations demonstrate the farm artists' techniques.   A piece I found fascinating was Mei-ling Hom's  straw beehive, something artist Doug Retzler described to me as "a Mycenaean beehive," referring to its shape. However, it's actually a sculpture which has been inoculated with mushroom spawn and is titled Mushroom Cap - A Mycorestoration Module.  Resting on a tabletop and lying dormant now, all it needs is water and mushrooms will grow. 

 In addition to the plants, there was Don Devine's Sheep Farm and the wool which comes from it.   Shannon Young's outdoor installations incorporated shopping carts as transportable gardens. Exhibits at the Arlington Arts Center were dedicated to two main topics: Biodiversity and Innovative Farming Strategies.
In Philadelphia, a Federalist entryway to a permaculture site called Urban Defense,
at the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center, 2010

Community Awareness, Farming Communities/Community Farming and Farming Mysticism are the three broad categories on exhibit at American University.  On the wall, it announces that "the best urban defense is urban permaculture."  A picture of Urban Defense in the Schuylkill Environmental Education Center, Philadelphia, shows that the entry to a urban farmsite mimics Federalist architecture in historical Philly.  
Bundle of Sticks (Chicken Coop) by Homemeadow Song

Homemeadow Song splits the installation, Bundle of Sticks (Chicken Coop) into two parts.  The farm artists are Vicki Mansoor and Peter Huttinger. Their biodynamic agriculture techniques, influenced by Rudolf Steiner, are related to remediation and renewal of the orchard at Homemeadow Song.  In constructing a bioswale to manage and sequester rainwater, they've improved the habitat for red currants, native plants and bee forage.  An urban homestead is a living organism, a complicated system of interdependent organs in motion within the cycles of seasons, an exhibit label reads.

The exhibition continues one more week in the architecturally beautiful space of Katzen Arts Center at American University.  Everyone who can go is encouraged to see the ideas presented there, Tuesday-Sunday, 11- 4.  If you can't go, the catalogue, Green Acres by Sue Spaid, is full of inspiration, thoughts and ideas:  
                  "As urban farming works
                   Where we as artists
                   Taught ourselves and anyone else
                    Who was willing to learn    
                    How to feed ourselves...."  excerpt from Newton and Helen Harrison's poem

I'm hopeful that through agriculture and the local foods movement,  a great divide, the misunderstanding between the urban and rural parts of the US, can be bridged.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Backroads of Crete

The Church of St. Nicholas in Kourtaliotis Gorge, Crete
Piles of stones beside St. Nicholas Church
The Backroads of Crete are full of olive orchards and orange groves, but also some interesting surprises. There are numerous gorges on the island and when our biking group was on the way to the beach at Plakias, we went through the Kourtaliotis Gorge. Of course it was beautiful, but nestled in the rocks and oleander was a tiny church, St. Nicholas.  It seemed to be a place where only a handful of monks prayed a long time ago.  Behind it were small piled-up shrines of stone, which resemble votive offerings beside the church.  These stones reminded me of what I saw after the hurricane two years ago.  I think they're mainly markers visitors make to claim a history to the place.

The smallness of country churches in Greece was a surprise to me; it reminded me of the North Carolina mountains where there are so many small churches in close proximity to each other.  Of course, they, too, were probably built before modern means of transportation.  In contrast, there are so many huge, medieval churches in western Europe, even deep in the countryside.
A typical memorial erected among the orange groves of Crete
Even smaller than Crete's country churches are shrines on the side of the road which look like miniature churches or buildings.  They're memorials to loved ones who've died and we saw them frequently.  Dennis, whose mother's family came from Crete, reprimanded me for taking photos of graves in churchyards and said it was bad luck.  Hope it is not bad luck to take pictures of these roadside shrines.

One time Cindy (she lives in Shanghai and was also on the lookout for great photos) & I came upon an abandoned church, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  We both took pictures, but I wanted to check out the inside.  It looked to be Middle Byzantine in style and my guess was that it came from the 12th century.  She went on, but I tried to check out the inside. 

A 14th century church between the villages of Koufos and Alikianos
The door was locked, but through the narrow opening, I could see in the center of the church was a fresco of Mary surrounded by two saints.  It was too narrow to photograph, but the image was clear despite two obvious vertical cracks.  There were more frescoes to the sides and above, but I really couldn't see them.

On the outside of the church, there was also  fresco of Mary in the arch over a side door. This painting in the tympanum was badly damaged, but I took a picture (below).  It also had painted trim  directly under the arch in a beautiful red and blue pattern.

A badly damaged fresco of Mary over the door dates
to the 14th century

On the lintel below, there is a red cross.  Of course, it's never a good idea to paint the outside of a building and expect the image to stand up to time and weather.

A sign on the road pointed out the name.  It was the Church of the Zoohodos Pigi (in Greek and in English, but what could that possibly mean?)   When I had the chance to check the Internet, there were a few other churches of the same name in Greece.  It took awhile to find a reference to this one, which is between Alikianos and Koufos.  Apparently it was quite important at one time. It was built later than I thought, in the early 14th century following an earthquake of 1303, but over the foundations of a 10th century church.  (Earthquakes have always been a problem on this island, and in much of the Mediterranean.)

Zoohodos Pigi means "life giving source."
 Zoohodos Pigi means "life giving source."

The frescoes could have inspired Greece's greatest artist, El Greco, who grew up in Crete, with this tradition.  No one knows exactly where El Greco was born, but his family was from Chania and this church is about 10-20 miles away.   I'm also reminded that these paintings were done about the same time or only slightly later than when Giotto was doing amazing things with frescoes in Italy.

Not far away, we had already passed a town called Alikianos where there was large new Greek Orthodox church, light blue and terra cotta in color.  So it's easy to understand why a church in the middle of nowhere isn't in use, but I hope that the Church of Zoohodos Pigi will be restored.

There's a new Greek Orthodox church in the village of Alikianos

The same day and just a few miles down the road, as we had to go up hills too steep for my endurance, we came to the biggest surprise of all  --  Someone had recently dumped excess oranges in a pen and the goats were chomping away, peels and all.  How funny to realize that the many delicious Greek goat cheeses come from goats who feed on oranges!   This reminds me that I'd like to find out how to make that delicious orange cake (sometimes called orange pie) from Crete.  I bought some honey in Crete and could use it.  But when I ate my grocery store orange today, it didn't taste quite like the fresh, delicious oranges of Crete.
The Goats' lunch -- so good!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Marseille: New Glass Designs for an Old Port

Villa Méditerrannée, a new building by Stefano Boeri, has an auditorium below the sea, but much if its exhibition space is suspended in mid-air.  This view leads to the towers of Marseille's 19th century multi-colored marble cathedral.
France's oldest city and one the great ports of the Mediterranean has been revitalized to become a European Cultural Capital of Europe this year.  Some of the most innovative practicing architects of today are making their mark on the city, cleaning up old areas and transforming it into an exciting new seaport environment.  Abandoned parts of the old port and places where immigrants first entered the city are in the process of being turned into new commercial areas, with restaurants, art galleries, museums, music venues and shops.

Marseille became a Greek city about 2700 years ago.  The
 island is where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.

Sheaths of glass, concrete and metal, the materials of new architecture, butt up against the old stone towers, hills and masts of this port which geographically reminds me of San Francisco to a certain extent.  (Reminiscent of the Alcatraz, there's an island in the harbor containing Chateau d'If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.) Yet, the feeling inside is more rugged and grittier than San Francisco, with a multinational flavor.

Ricciotti designed MuCEM with
a ramp linked to Fort Saint-Jean

My photos taken last month showed the MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) nearly finished, adjacent to the Villa Méditerranée.  The 236 square foot box building, right, will be the country's largest museum outside of Paris. In essence, the building has two facades, the glass covering and the concrete covering.  The outer covering is a dark blue concrete which I actually thought was made of steel/ it shields the glass and museum visitors from the intense Mediterranean sun.  The "lacey" outer face and "glassy" inner building and the two parts connect with a ramp.  A walkway also links the new building to the very old 12th century building and tower, the Fort Saint-Jean.
From another vantage point (Parc du Pharo), the 19th century multi-colored marble cathedral pops up behind the t concrete lattice patterns of the brand new Museum of Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM).

Architect Rudy Ricciotti's style has also raised eyebrows. He designed a floating gold roof on the Louvre in Paris to house the Islamic collection and a Jacques Cocteau museum in Menton.  Each building is quite different, though, unlike Frank Gehry's architecture.  MuCEM's concrete shell resembles a fisherman's net. Its concrete is blue-gray, but that color will change with reflections of light, water and the sun. Ricciotti calls the eight different lattice patterns "sun-breakers."  They are meant to shield the southern and western facade from intense sunlight.  MuCEM opened June 7, 2013.
A fishnet pattern of concrete
shields MuCEM from intense
sun on the south and west.

Next door is the Villa Méditerrannée, a product of Italian architect Stefano Boeri's design studio, and a building devoted to exhibiting Marseille's Mediterranean culture.   It has a huge, cantilevered roof, but below it is an area with a view into the sea basin.  The building's auditorium goes under the water, too.  The museum officially opened last weekend.  Its exhibitions and films visualize the present and the future of the sea.  Supported by the region of Provence-Alpes-Cote'Azur, Villa Méditerannée hopes to encourage communication among the many countries which have ports on the Mediterranean   It can be understood as an exciting new cultural center for the entire Mediterranean region. 

Another view of Boeri's Villa Méditerannée, with Ricciotti's MuCEM and Fort Saint-Jean to right.  Glass is used extensively in the new buildings to take
advantage of reflections of sun and water.
There are other new museums, including the Musée des regards de Provence, where the old health station had been and where immigrants first went as they entered Marseille. The museum has a Michelin three-star restaurant. 

There's a new museum of decorative arts and a fine arts museum at Palais Longchamp has reopened after being closed many years.  (That museum and the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence are hosting large exhibitions of the shares a major exhibitions of the many important artists who painted in the region, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, etc. In fact, Arles and other venues in Provence are sharing in the European Cultural Capital events.  The Palais du Pharo, on the shoreline of Marseille has a large sculptural exhibition of steel arcs by Berner Venet, in celebration of the events.) 
In the Parc du Pharo, the sculptor Bernar Vernet designed 12 steel arcs, called
Desordre, created a pattern of light and shadow against the shoreline.

Reflective glass creates is s museum without walls,
at FRAC, a regional museum of contemporary art.

It seems that all the contemporary architects working here--the local and the international ones--respect the city's very irregular seaport.  They design with the knowledge that water reflects light and that glass reflects water and light.  Multitudes of glass heighten the reflections many times over.

FRAC (Fonds regional d'art contemporain or the Regional Collection of Contemporary Art) opened in March, 2013.   The building has about 55,000 square feet.  Its the work  work of Japanese architect Kenzo Kuma. The exterior is covered with 1,500 panes of glass, all of which have been recycled and enameled in the workshop of Emmanuel Barrois.
Kenzo Kuma designed FRAC, a regional museum of
contemporary art
Kuma, like Ricciotti, is concerned with shielding the sun. (It's interesting that exhibition while I was there concerned environmental art.) The glass is hung and diverse angles, offset from the building at various places.  Kuma tries to evoke a museum without walls, and a feeling of openness prevails.  There is a beautiful, peaceful aura to his building, a feeling modern Japanese architects convey so well. Kuma also said that he imitated the flow of space learned from the study of Le Corbusier, a labyrinthine, interlocking flow of space.  
Le Corbusier, Cité Radieuse, 1947-52.  It has 347 apartments on 12 stories

Going to Marseille warrants a trip to the Cité Radieuse, Le Corbusier's masterpiece of modern architecture, formerly called l'Unité d'Habitation.  
Entrance to Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse
The ground floor rests on muscular "pilotis" made
of concrete, which hold up the building

His blueprint for modern living, completed in the 1950s, unifies all aspects of living, eating, school, doctors and recreation in one building. Unfortunately, there was a fire last year which harmed some units but most of the building is intact.  Many portions of the building have recently been painted and the colors make a brilliant splash reminiscent of Mondrian.  It's hard to go to the restaurant without disturbing clients or to visit one of the individual apartments without an invitation. 

The ground floor lobby radiates warmth and color
As much as I don't necessarily think architects should try to be sociologists who tell people how to live, but this building succeeded and the residents like it.  The concept and design were repeated again in Nantes, Berlin, Briey and Firminy.  Le Corbusier proved that the modern concrete  could be beautiful, colorful and expressive. Concrete, usually when reinforced with cast iron, need not be sterile.  

An art school is on the rooftop.  The
force of brutal concrete pushes
against the sky
The day we were there, a film crew was making a television commercial on the roof and all kinds of goods were set blocked off and set aside for film use.  It was May 22nd, and the sky was making some interesting cloud designs.  Like Antoni Gaudí, Le Corbusier made his ventilation shafts into expressive, sculptural forms.  The brutal, rough-hewn concrete has force and muscle which come alive against the muscle a alive against the sky.

The rooftop is a communal terrace and residents have a straight view to Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea.   We're left with the feeling that yes, Marseille is a city with muscle and it will be a force for 2700 more years.   
Notre-Dame de la Garde, perched high above
the old port, has protected the
boats for years

Construction was going on everywhere the other time I went to Marseille, in 2011. The photo below on the left, taken at that time, may represent a vista that's gone now.  It was on the other side of the port and opposite the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Fishing and seafaring have always
been the business of Marseille. 

Boats, fishing and seafaring will continue for a long time, as long as we respect and protect our resources.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Looking Up: Skyscapes of the Civil War

Frederic Edwin Church, Meteor of 1860, is in the collection of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt
Photos of the asteroid and a meteor which hit in Russia this past week reminded me of Frederick Edwin Church's painting of a meteor, now on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition, The Civil War and American Art.  This month we celebrate President's Day, Black History Month, and Spielberg's film of Lincoln in the Oscars, while the exhibition presents the historical and sociological aspects of the civil war as interpreted by artists of that time.   Many paintings and photographs on display tell those stories, but there's also a sub-theme of landscape as metaphor.  The scenery of two Hudson River School artists, Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, present geological and astronomical wonders with deeper meanings.
Church's Meteor of 1860 connects to Walt Whitman's poem in Leaves of Grass, Year of the Meteors (1859-60).  While Whitman's poem spoke of John Brown's rebellion and the election of Abraham Lincoln, it also described "the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven," and "the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads.  (A moment, a moment long it sail'd its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)  

Church painted two large meteors followed by a trail of smaller sparks whose trail runs parallel to the earth.  Like Whitman's description, his vision also appeared at night; it lit up sky in pink and cast a glowing reflection on the water.  He wrote about the event he had seen from his home in the Hudson River Valley, Catskill, New York on July 20, 1860.  Could he have seen this rare event as an omen?

Frederic Edwin Church, Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852 collection of the Fralin Art Museum, University of Virginia
The earliest painting by Church in the Smithsonian exhibition is The Natural Bridge, Virginia, a geological formation in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which George Washington had surveyed and Thomas Jefferson had owned at one time.  His painting pulls our eyes upward to the  meticulously painted detail of the rock against white clouds and a brilliant blue sky.  Another story is told towards the bottom of the painting, where a black man explains this geographic wonder to a seated white woman, putting him in the authoritative position.
Frederic Edwin Church, Icebergs, 1861, from the Dallas Museum of Art

In 1859, Church had traveled by boat from New York to Labrador in search of icebergs.  He exhibited one result,  Icebergs, in New York on April 24, 1861, two weeks after war had broken out at Fort Sumter.  Church responded to the national strife, renaming the painting The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs, thus signaling his political stance. Church allocated all exhibition fees to a fund established to support the Union Soldiers’ Fund.  The large, impregnable iceberg is said to represent the North itself.  Church also may have wished to commemorate the Battle of Fort Sumter and signal his sympathies in another well-known painting owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Our Banner in the Sky.
Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Fund, Merrill Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, and Richard A. Manoogian Fund. The Bridgeman Art Library
Church traveled worldwide in his exploration of nature, natural wonders and exotic landscapes.  In 1862, he painted the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador.  Volcanoes are frequently seen as harbingers of war and upheaval.   Frederick Douglas had said in 1861, "Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on earth."  Cotopaxi, along with Icebergs, is one of the four large paintings which may be seen as allegories of the causes and events of the Civil War.

Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Church painted the northern lights in 1865 based on sketches provided by explorer Israel Hayes' sketches from a voyage to Labrador.  Aurora Borealis is an expansive view of nature in blue, green yellow, orange and red.  The halo of lights makes the sky look grand, while a boat shrinks next to its magnificence.    Generally the northern lights were interpreted as omens of disaster, but fortunately the war ended during the year in which it was painted.
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

There are other important paintings by Church in Washington, DC, including the National Gallery's El Rio de Luz.  The Corcoran Gallery of Art owns Niagara Falls, 1857, above.  During the 19th century, lithographs of this painting circulated the country at a time when travel was not easy and photography was not widespread.  It's worth going to the Corcoran to see the painting.  A gorgeous rainbow rises through the mist and spray, but is only visible by surprise when one stands in front of the real painting, not computer reproduction.  Frederic Church can be thanked for painting and interpreting the art of nature and for reminding us of mother nature's greatness.