Monday, September 12, 2011

Got to Get Back to the Garden

Eat me, I'm edible.

Before we move completely into Fall, I want to share some photographs from the daytrip my mom, sister and I took to Powell Gardens in early August. It was a glorious day, if a bit humid. You accept summer gifts when offered. A mild muggy day is much more appreciated than a hot humid day. We visited Powell Gardens during their Butterfly Festival, which allowed us to get up close and personal with a variety of the winged creatures. During our visit, we ate food grown on site, paced the vineyards, wandered through vegetable gardens, reveled at the variety of flowers, moved along overgrown paths, and gazed into water gardens. It was absolutely stunning, and I felt like I belonged to Nature. 

Grrr!!! Lisa makes a good Tyrannosaurus Rex, no?

Mom had to pose twice. Can you tell she was ready to stand up!?

I think I was going for vapid and confused, but it didn't quite work out.

The “Jurassic Gardens” exhibition ran simultaneously. We essentially stepped back in time by focusing our attention on ancient plants. You could almost smell dinosaur in the air.

Powell Gardens is located about 30 miles east of Kansas City on a beautiful tract of land. Or, more likely, it’s all the gardening that’s made the place so gorgeous. I highly recommend visiting. It’s good for the body and even better for the soul. Walking a garden path allows you to take one step at a time. You have space to breathe deeply and contemplate.

Look on for a little visual stimulation:

Complementary colors on green. 

That is a gorgeous green, whether it appears as pond scum or lily pad.

Do not eat. These are meant for decorative purposes only.

That the vegetable patches formed a "Quilt Garden" was only apparent from above.

Lisa and I climbed to the top of the silo to view the Gardens in their entirety. Mom refused the view. She's afraid of heights!

Sunflowers are my favorites!! They remind me of home. They remind me of wild, beautiful bright things!

I like conjoined sunflowers (with feeding bees, no less) even better. I'm one who appreciates a good anomaly.

Not that I am anywhere near marriage, but I couldn't help but daydream when I saw this charming chapel on-site.

It's no wonder predators retreat when they see guys like this. Even I found his red "stare" to be a bit intimidating.

Both the asymmetrical drying and the symmetrical growth apparent in the cacti appealed to me.

I named him "Little Boy Blue."

Shaggy texture paired with abstract shot.

Green tomatoes all in a row. They put me in mind of grapes. See below.

Mom and Lisa sure look intent, intent on plucking a bunch of grapes, that is. ;)

Where's Waldo? Amid the dried leaves, I found a copycat butterfly! It was my best discovery of the day!

Not quite ripe!

There were many gorgeous types of lily pads. These resemble cannibalistic Pac-Men.
What are your favorite plants? Like I said, I have a thing for sunflowers and wildflowers, as well. I’m a fan of succulents, and I like owning plants that allow me to mistreat them more often than not. I LOVED the lily pads I saw, too! Do you garden? Where would you recommend a beginner like me to start if I wanted to grow my own?  Which public gardens do you recommend I visit?

Alison :)


The World Trade Center, September 11, 2001.

Shell-shocked is the best way to describe how I felt by the end of the day on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The day started out ordinarily enough. I was a junior at the Kansas City Art Institute, and, as an upperclassman, I finally had tons of creative freedom and the opportunity to get into the classes I was really excited to take. Like every non-studio day that semester, I had gotten up early to attend my Performance Art elective. It wasn’t always easy to wake up after late nights in studio, but I really loved everything I was learning. Our class was tiny, with no more than five or seven students. We were all sitting in a circle on the floor of Epperson Auditorium, the school’s main lecture hall, discussing the day’s chosen topic. A student who was not in our class came in the side door and told us the US had come under attack by terrorists. He also said the Media Center was playing the footage on TV.

Our teacher was permissive, so we all headed from our building across the sidewalk to the building next door, where the Media Center was located. We all felt a sense of excitement, as if we were going on a field trip. It was fun to have our normal schedule shaken up. None of us had any reason to suspect or expect the worst. As we entered the building, one of the long-time Art History professors came running down the stairs looking bewildered and more disheveled than usual. As he passed by, he said, “This is what the US gets for its defiance.” (You have to remember, the 9/11 attack took place less than a year after the United States had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. It was not a leap to think American attitudes on international issues and the environment might have had something to do with the attack.) That was the first signal that something was clearly very wrong. Whatever had happened was severe enough to scare the heck out of an old hippie who seemed to have witnessed it all.

When we got upstairs, the room was full of people. I sat on an empty stool in the back row. A TV on a cart had been pulled front and center. I saw the New York skyline covered with billowing smoke. I turned to the guy sitting beside me and asked, “What’s going on?” He said one of the towers of the World Trade Center had fallen down. I said, “What do you mean, it fell down?” Then, as I watched, I saw the second tower follow the first to the ground floor by floor by floor. I still don’t think I understood what was happening. I don’t think any of us did.

I don’t remember if I went to any other classes that day or if they were canceled. All I remember is sitting on my best friend’s couch, where we watched hours and hours of news footage. I don’t think we could watch the Twin Towers fall enough times. We listened to eyewitness accounts and stories of survival. We watched firefighters, police officers and EMTs canvass the area. We flipped the channels for new footage and information. We never tired of hearing the same details repeated, clarified, and then reworded again. I don’t think I even blinked that day - except when I was crying. We just couldn’t understand how or why the Twin Towers and all those lives were simply gone.

Either a day or a week later, the campus gathered together for a candlelight ceremony. Afterward, we painted banners to send to New York. As I recall, none of the work was particularly good. I don’t know if the paintings ever actually made it to New York. I don’t know if it even matters. The action of painting felt good; it was a cathartic group event. We were stuck in the Midwest and unable to see or help anyone in New York. There was such a strong desire and a need to DO SOMETHING. Like a lot of people, I think what I was feeling for the first time was a joint patriotic goal in the PRESENT to work toward. This was nothing read in a history book. I was INVOLVED. I wanted New York to heal, but I had no idea how to make that happen.

I didn’t know where the actions of that early morning would lead, but I knew whatever happened, it would be bloody and more innocent lives would certainly be lost. Already, I heard people calling for payback and Saddam Hussein’s head. I am not sure if I learned the word Taliban that day or not, but it and the name Osama bin Laden entered my vocabulary soon enough. Overall, I felt fearful and worried for the lives of Americans and non-Americans alike.

Fear became a steady state of being in the United States. For the first time in my life, I felt like the United States was vulnerable to outside forces. It seemed like the main political goal was for America to secure itself from THE OTHER, no matter what the cost. I remember hearing the words “Terror Alert” so often, they became meaningless. It was just the status quo. I think about the kids I work with in my new job in higher education. The majority of them are no older than 22. Most of them developed their political consciousness in a United States changed by 9/11, its aftershocks and the rhetoric that has developed as a result.

My sister, an 8th grade English and Social Studies teacher, has students who have NO memories whatsoever of a pre-9/11 world. What do we tell them? How do we explain this event to people who haven’t yet been born? All I know is the last ten years have passed quickly, and they have wrought many changes, some I agree with and some I don’t. At the same time, daily life remains, in many ways, unchanged. I wish I knew where we would be on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but I can’t predict it. I hope we are recovered and more hopeful as a nation. I hope the people who lost loved ones or experienced horrors that day find peace. I hope all the societies we have affected since then will be on their way to recovery, too. I hope I can have something personal and true to tell my (future) children about that day and about these past ten (and forthcoming) years.

What were your experiences of the original 9/11? How have they influenced you and how you think today?


Friday, September 9, 2011

"Is Work Art?"

Touch Sanitation, Performance, 1978-1980.
Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles spoke with candor, compassion and common sense during her lecture last night at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her work centers around maintenance, labor (both personal and communal) and the environment. For 30 years, she has cultivated a connection with, and created work about, the New York  Department of Sanitation. In addition to her long-standing role as artist-in-residence with DSNY, Ukeles has installed public art and put on performances both nationally and internationally. She has also been the recipient of many prestigious awards and fellowships.

Ukeles’ work derives its power from ritual, repetition, compassion for others, and sensitivity toward the life cycle of objects. Anger with how dismissive people were of her after she became a Mother inspired a new body of artwork. Her indignation led to her “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” written in 1969. Since then, Ukeles’ work has been preoccupied with the systems that make our lives run smoothly. She asks, “Is Work Art?”

In her well-known performance, Touch Sanitation, 1979 - 1980, Ukeles sought out and shook hands with each of New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers. She told each worker as she took his hand, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” During this eleven month project, she spent 8- to 16-hour shifts with the workers, getting to know them, how they position themselves, and how they are positioned by others, in our society. 

Ceremonial Arch Honoring Service Workers in the New Service Economy, Steel arch with materials donated from New York agencies, 1988.

Ukeles’ artwork makes clear the disconnect between the making of trash and the dealing with trash. Cleaning up after others does not make one garbage, but people often overlook, or treat as trash, those who perform dirty work. I know this from personal experience. I worked as a housekeeper in a hotel one summer during college. Even though some people were polite to me, there were just as many people who either discounted me or treated me badly. These people did not know me, yet assumed they were better than I was, due to the role I performed in their lives. Ukeles turns that notion on its head by making us conscious of who takes care of the trash we create. The life cycle of trash continues after it leaves our homes.

I very much admire Ukeles’ respect for and connection with an overlooked population. As some of you know, I teach art and other skills-building classes to adults with intellectual disabilities, and I think the general public is equally dismissive of these amazing individuals, too. I know better than that, though, because I have spent time getting to know my students and their thoughts. Each of my students has as much depth as any other person on this earth. Like Ukeles, I love the group I have adopted as my own. Because of my experience, my students, the other teachers, the student aides, teachers’ assistants and I together make a we. This is a very important aspect of Ukeles’ work. She transforms they and them into we and us, essentially erasing the stigma attached to one’s work or the words with which we define a person. 

The Social Mirror, Mirror-covered New York Department of Sanitation truck, 1983.

Ukeles also makes transparent the relationship between what we do and how it affects what we do it to(meaning the Earth). Her relationship with Fresh Kills is a good example of this. Fresh Kills is a “retired” landfill on Staten Island. At 2,200 acres, it is the largest landfill in the world, and a section of it is being developed into Freshkills Park. Ukeles is essential to the process. She has spent years considering, conceptualizing, walking, filming and photographing there. She has reflected upon the nature of this place and has planned permanent sculptures. Sadly, and confusingly for Ukeles, part of Fresh Kills was reopened less than a year after its closure in 2001 to become the resting place for the wreckage and debris from The World Trade Center after 9/11. In fact, Ukeles’ brothers and sisters at the DSNY performed a lead role after the attack on the Twin Towers. They cleared debris from the streets so first responders could access the site. The wreckage from the The World Trade Center fills 55 acres at Fresh Kills. Ukeles had been involved with the site before 9/11, but she knows the presence of its wreckage, including the dust left from incinerated human beings, changes what the site means to people. The renewal and re-balancing that takes place here will have to be psychic, as well as physical. This space, reliant upon natural cycles and human ingenuity, will grow over time into a place of healing, in more ways than one.

Ukeles is a storyteller extraordinaire and a generous spirit. I feel so lucky to have heard her speak. Her lecture was incredibly moving and meaningful to me. After the lecture, I made sure to shake HER hand and tell her just how inspiring I thought her words and works were. Throughout her lecture, I noticed ritual was apparent in all of her works. Because repetition and the ritualizing of repetitive actions are important in my own work, I just had to ask her which came first - an interest in ritual or an interest in repetitive labor which led to ritual. She told me her father had been a rabbi, and ritual was something she had always known and been inspired by.

As a last thought, we (I) often refer to art making as work - it’s either what you do or the product of what you do. As anyone who creates can tell you, art making IS work, work of the most fulfilling sort. 

What kind of art do you love? Which artists inspire you? What can you "work on" for 8 hours at a time?

Alison :)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do Do Di Do Do


Just taking a moment to say, "Mahna Mahna!"

I attended a GREAT lecture tonight at the Kansas City Art Institute. I'm feeling pretty hopped up about it. I'll give more details tomorrow.

Alison :)

P.S. I LOVE The Muppets, in particular, and puppetry, in general. What are your favorite segments from the The Muppet Show and/or Sesame Street?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Moving Toward Entropy

The auctioneer spoke so fast! The bidding went almost as quickly.

Personal connections imbue memorabilia stuffed into drawers, great finds mounted on walls, and random junk filling space with significance. As soon as a family is gone and its belongings are dispersed, a home becomes a house, devoid of specificity. Possessions travel along different trajectories; this particular commingling of things cannot recur. The stories and memories remain, while the props and stage are lost.

Morose were my thoughts at the auction of my grandmother’s belongings last Sunday. A life is so much more than its trappings, but it hurts to witness the palimpsest which wears the meaning of objects smooth.

My little cousin (who's almost as tall as me!) and I. We found the mask in Grandma's basement.
On the other hand, even this last gathering at my grandma’s house allowed my family to forge new and lasting bonds.

Before the auction, we took home an assortment of my grandma's belongings we really loved, but it was still sad to separate everything amongst each family member! Have you ever auctioned off a family member's possessions? How have you incorporated objects you've inherited into your own home?


I love the wonderful surprises to be found only at auctions, thriftstores, fleamarkets, antique stores, and other such locations, but I often wonder about the past lives of objects. How 'bout you? What objects with a mysterious past have you bought? Have you ever determined their provenance?


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parades, Pageants and Pies

My mom, sister and I at the Ethel Harvest Jubilee in tiny Ethel, Missouri.

Choosing the cutest, most vibrant baby during a beauty pageant is a nearly impossible task. I should know. Not only have I been sucked in to watching multiple episodes of Toddlers & Tiaras, my mom, sister and I judged the Parade Floats, the Ethel Harvest Jubilee Queen Contest, and the beautiful babies during the 52nd annual Ethel Harvest Jubilee this past weekend.

Ethel is charming, and you should see the surrounding countryside!

 Ethel is a picturesque Missouri town of 62 residents (according to the last census). The place is gorgeous, and the townsfolk are friendly and welcoming. Because Ethel is too small to have a football team, the Jubilee is kind of like a fair and Homecoming combined. The townsfolk were kind to us even after we judged three of their finest young women during the Jubilee Queen contest on Friday night. The town may not have been so forgiving if we had judged their babies first. 

Brandi kicks off the 52nd annual Ethel Harvest Jubilee.

Some of our favorite entries in the Parade.

 Accessible only by back roads and winding state highways, Ethel is not the kind of place most people visit. We ended up there only because the Jubilee’s emcee was my sister’s good friend and co-worker Brandi. Brandi hails from Ethel, and she wanted to get some unbiased minds involved in the Queen contest. We decided judging a beauty pageant was just one more unique and unexpected bonding experience for the three of us. It turns out, we were slated to judge the Jubilee Parade floats and the baby pageant, as well.

Going over the judging guidelines with Brandi and Bill.

Where the interviews took place. I'm glad I wasn't in the hot seat!
Never in my life did I imagine I would judge a beauty contest. Yes, I watched my share of Miss America pageants as a kid, hoping I would someday grow up to be as well-spoken, talented and beautiful as the contestants were. However, pageants have never been part of my life, and judging one has never been on my bucket list. I found the experience to be surprisingly rewarding. It was wonderful to spend a little time getting to know the girls. We put each on the hot seat and asked them as many questions as they could answer in four minutes. Believe me, four minutes can be a VERY LONG TIME. I found that when spending time with the three highly talented Queen candidates, I (obviously) focused more on their words and goals than I did on their looks or dresses. I was influenced by how poised and confident they seemed in front of the crowd and before us, their judges, though. Basically, the girls were all bright, talented and lovely, so the smallest details made a difference in how we appraised the overall character of each. 

The band played oldies, and inflatables were provided for the kids.
We visited the Food Tent for homemade frito and fruit pies and biscuits and gravy.
The Jubilee Queen coronation occurred Friday night. My mom, sister and I held places of honor during the parade, were introduced before a live audience, interviewed the contestants, devoured frito and fruit pies, and met a lot of good people. After our duties were finished, we stayed in a 4-star hotel run by the nicest hosts you could imagine. When I say 4-star, I mean the well-decorated and thick-toweled home of Kim and Kevin, longtime friends of Brandi’s family. We were supposed to stay at a well-known local hunting lodge, but, apparently, the whole place had been rented out by a film crew. I guess outsiders do know about Ethel. We were really grateful to Kim and Kevin, as they opened up their home without having had much time to prepare for visitors. 
When we got to the Jubilee grounds in the morning, we were treated to biscuits and gravy and Cokes. After taking in some sustenance, we were ready to judge the babies. The babies were divided into several age categories, and each was more difficult to judge than the last. Babies are adorable and just shouldn’t be pitted against each other. Everyone placed from 1st to 3rd, which you would think would make everyone feel good. It was horrible to see the faces of the mothers whose children received 3rd place, though. They would look morosely at their children as if wondering why we judges didn’t see their babies as the most special and darling in the world. And they all were. That was what made our positions as judges so incredibly difficult!

All in all, I had fun, but I don’t think I’ll quit my day job to become a full-time pageant judge. It’s just too much pressure!

With good ol' Missouri soil beneath my feet.
Also, while I hardly ever leave Missouri and haven’t ever left the continent, I find myself having the most interesting experiences despite these geographical limitations. I hope to be a world traveler someday (sooner rather than later), but I think, in many ways, you really can experience the riches of the world in your own backyard.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Analogia - Joni Mitchell : The Mamas and the Papas

The other night while I was organizing my closet (The people who know me well are recovering from a faint right now.), I listened to The Greatest Hits of The Mamas and the Papas following Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. I noticed both Joni Mitchell and The Mamas and the Papas were inspired by Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, a location important to pop musicians during the 1960s. I only knew of the status of Laurel Canyon because I recently watched a biography about Joni Mitchell which mentioned it. I realized The Mamas and the Papas'  song “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” must be referring to the same canyon as Joni Mitchell’s song “Ladies of the Canyon.” After doing a little research, I found this was, in fact, the case.  I also thought it interesting that both Joni Mitchell and The Mamas and the Papas expressed their longing for California through songs.

 While I love listening to music, and often think about the musical traditions passed from generation to generation and how music evolves over time, I don’t often consider the bilateral relationships - the musicians who knew and inspired each other, the artists who faced similar pressures and cultural experiences, the people who overlapped. However, I always appreciate coming by these little unexpected moments of understanding and clarity.

Here are the four songs that sparked the realization that The Mamas and the Papas and Joni Mitchell shared time and space:

Laurel Canyon

"Ladies of the Canyon"

"Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)"

"California Dreamin'"

It's Not Summer

Watching the Royals play. Don't you just love the kid in the background?

Me with winged hair and vintage tee. Kate with hat and special edition tee.

...Until you’ve counted fireflies and attended a baseball game. I got my firefly fix much earlier in the summer, but my friend Kate took me to my first ballgame of the season on a recent balmy Friday Night. The Kansas City Royals played The Detroit Tigers, and, for me, it was a win-win combination. I am a Kansas Citian, but I went to grad school in Detroit. Thus, both Cowtown and The Motor City feel like home to me. I was going to be okay no matter which team won.

The Tigers took an early lead, but the Royals caught up in time for a 10th inning. Rookie Johnny Giavotella spiced up the game when he made his first Major League hit and then later stole third. Despite the excitement late in the game, the Tigers finally bested the Royals 4-3.

My favorite moments of the evening included sharing girl talk and inside jokes (outside) with Kate, people-watching, eavesdropping on nearby conversations, checking out the players’ booties, and, yeah, watching some baseball!

What is your favorite baseball team? What activities make your summer?

Alison :)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wreathed in Flowers

What I made this week from paper flowers and a vine wreath.

 Very few things are as satisfying as finishing a handmade project. Because I am fast in thinking but slow in completing, so often on the go, or simply prefer to spend my time reading, I like to pepper my creative life with projects I can finish easily in one sitting. I bought a paper flower-making kit a couple years ago from the wedding section at Wal-Mart. I sat in front of the tv night after night folding flowers (Did I really want to make flowers, or did I just like having an excuse to watch hour and hours of The Ghost Whisperer and Criminal Minds? You decide.). The flowers turned out lovely, and the process was more forgiving than you might expect (no such luck with origami, as my friend Kate and I discovered the other night). I dropped the finished flowers in a vase, and there they’ve been since completion. 

I love these flowers in soft pastels, but brights would look fab, too.

A few days ago I decided I was tired of my vase full of flowers,  and I couldn’t bear to have them on my coffee table for one more minute. However, I had put so much effort into making the flowers, I didn’t want to trash them completely. Instead, I wrapped their stems around a vine wreath I already had. I had just enough flowers to cover the face of the wreath, while sweetly overlapping one another. 

Paper flowers have so much depth. They're great for layering.

It took minutes to transform my vase full of flowers into a pretty wreath. If you want to make your own, you can buy paper or silk flowers pre-made, craft your own paper flowers as I did (although that will extend the length of the project), and wrap the stems around a Dollar Store wreathe. Super easy. Super sweet. Pretty cheap. You could make enough flowers to completely cover your wreathe from front to back if you’d prefer. I don’t mind the “raw” edges on mine. I think wreaths such as this would make beautiful wedding or party decorations, and you can be sure I’m filing the idea away for later.

Have you made any quick and easy projects lately? I’d love some new ideas, if you’d like to share! What tricks do you use to keep yourself motivated to finish longer/larger projects?

Alison :)