Sunday, August 19, 2018

Touché, Universe

You know that thing people say when they’re trying to make sense of the nonsensical? I could never get behind it. They knowingly evoke the Universe, saying, Everything happens for a reason. Oh it seems so trite and overused I could spit

So as much as it pains me to admit it, I am of late turning on the receptors and tuning in to signs. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a bit more sleep, the tide of stress is ebbing, and we’re in the easy chair of August that I’m just noticing more, but it seems they’re everywhere. Unexpected conversations, cleverly-placed objects. Someone I keep bumping into. A situation I can’t change. 

Signs that whisper, This way. Yoo hoo, you’re meant to go this way. 

An example. 

Self-portrait, 1912. Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

One day after I’d brought my class to Les Abattoirs, Toulouse’s contemporary art museum, I took a few sleep-deprived minutes to browse the store. A couple of postcards featuring the artist Helene Schjerfbeck jumped out at me, and I thought, Who is that, who on earth is that angel who escaped my attention until now?

Costume Picture II, 1909. Ateneum

So I uncovered Helene’s work — she was Finnish, and worked in France for a time — which then led me to this extraordinary website championing women artists. I know what I’ll be up to this afternoon. And tomorrow, and the day after that . . . 

Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937. Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Nice work, Universe. 

Some signs appear like confirmations. A few months ago, we visited friends who’d recently had a baby. Just the day before, I’d got my ukulele out for the first time in over half a year, to learn a few chords and strumming patterns. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I'm longing to play. And there, in the corner of our friends’ little house, sat a ukulele, in a case identical to mine. A sign, I thought. Confirmation. Do it. Yes, do it. 

Here’s another: Le petit garçon and I were reading recently, and I saw this, which would totally have escaped my notice six months ago. It seemed to say, Recognize this? A little reward for all your hard work lately. 

from Astérix Legionnaire. Albert Uderzo & Rene Goscinny, 1967.

Some signs are suggestions, and I’m so glad to get them. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing lately, and it’s a stagnant August in France. I need a nudge. 

Last week at the library I came upon this wall where people put up notes offering services or searching for piano lessons, art lessons, an odd jobs person, a room in the country in exchange for English conversation. I was inspired to leave my own note. 

like bibliothèque, or discothèque, or mediathèque… but for partaking!

I love the mix: effort, followed by throwing the ball up in the air and just seeing where it lands. Lay the groundwork, set the stage, and then stand back and allow fate — OK, The Universe — to do its thing. Already I've had responses from Lionel, Nicolas, and Lola. Who knows what might happen? 

On another museum visit, I saw the work of Eduardo Chillida who referenced the philosopher Gaston Bachelard. Household to the French, perhaps, but only vaguely familiar to me. Where had I heard his name before? Aha! The Poetics of Space. That book Michael Howard introduced us to back in his painting class in Seattle. Howard’s paintings of houses made my heart leap then, and it turns out they still steal my breath. Could it be time to revisit them? 

Michael Howard: 156 Herman, 2011. Thanks to Prographica/KDR Gallery, Seattle.

Harman Site, 2011

764 Maddock (Daly City), 2013

And another. After visiting my morning farmer’s markets last Saturday I ended my errands at the co-op. A man in a dapper cap stopped me after I’d paid and said, Look, your basked is so beautiful, the arrangement of colors. Definitely worth a photograph. I hadn’t really thought of it till then, and I looked down to discover he was right. 

But I’m not always sure how to read signs. Some seem to say Do This Now; others forewarn; still others are gently-placed prompts: I see that you’re a little lost. This is important. 

In one common scenario, and I don’t like to admit this, a “sign” appears too demanding or scary so I just pretend I don’t hear anything. Not now. Don’t contradict my plans. And don’t you dare try to tell me Everything Happens for a Reason

For perspective on coping with the Universe’s less pleasant offerings, I turned as I sometimes do to Improvised Life, which offered another option: What might be the hidden lesson or value in this situation? This seems like it sucks. It DOES suck. But could there be a veiled message here? 

I love this approach. I have long imagined I have a committee of angels who present things to me, sometimes clear, other times obscure, to guide me. 

I vehemently resist physical signs, the things beyond my control. But alas they seem to abound lately. At the end of a usual run recently a strain surfaced in my left calf. I waited several days, then a week. After two weeks I thought, OK, this is getting ridiculous, I’m going to lose my mojo. So I tried, but after ten minutes I felt that familiar pang and knew I had to stop. Two weeks became three, then more easily four, and here we are over a month later. 

After engaging in a good dose of annoyance followed by self-pity, it occurred to me that maybe this was my body saying, Yo, quit this, you’re not 20, you can’t burn candles at every end and expect to just keep sallying forth. Take it easy. And even if you don't rest, you’ve got other shit to take care of, so go spend some time on that. 

During significant foot surgery some years ago, I — who assumed that my life (and the size of my body, which I equated with basic worth) depended on maintaining physical activity — learned that great things can happen when one gets off one’s feet and sits on one’s ass for a while. You go slow. Or ask for help. You have time to rearrange your closets and throw out all the clothes that don’t spark joy and never look back. You read more poetry, and drink coffee and read the entire Chronicles of Narnia

So maybe The Universe is saying Be careful about getting too obsessed, particularly about conflating body size with value. That’s a dangerous road you’re starting down, so your committee is removing it from your options for a spell. 

Besides, it’s too hot to run anyway. A forbidding forecast calls for Sweltering for the foreseeable future. What might be that hidden value? They’re in cahoots, the weather and my calf, saying, You’re not invincible. Life is short. Check your motivation. Take a little break, and come back refreshed and restored. 

So I suppose that this summer all signs point to Attention. Everyone’s out of town, or closed, or unavailable. Boo hoo hoo — I could really get down about this. But on the other hand, no one’s asking me for anything, either. And right here, today, in this moment, I am totally fine, and actually quite comfortable. The fan is on me, it’s not too stuffy in my little corner. I can sit with this anxiety about the heat that’s to come. Will the future arrive in the form I think it will anyway? The Universe seems to be saying: Embrace this life, this body, this one that’s right here, this moment and then the next, when it arrives. 

A song lands in my head. Molly gave it to me some years ago, and that’s no coincidence. 

Enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think 
Enjoy yourself / while you’re still in the pink 
The years go by / as quickly as a wink 
Enjoy yourself enjoy yourself / It’s later than you think.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Back in Business

I keep reading about the summer starting, how to spend summer, summer reads, what to do with all those berries you’re swimming in, and I’m just not quite there yet. Maybe it’s that I was submerged in teaching and visitors and then more teaching, returning to the world of all-nighters and fueled by coffee and not enough sleep, absorbed in the cubists and the fauvists and romantics and post-impressionists to the point that I’ve not noticed what season we’re in. But weeks after its official end, and it still feels to me like spring only just began. 

André Derain: Henri Matisse, 1905. Tate Gallery. What I’d call a perfect painting, were a perfect painting to exist . . 

It's the weather's fault too, I swear. During the two or so three months since my last post, whilst the blog has sat gathering dust, lonely and unattended, we vacillated, in Toulouse, between hats and down jackets and tunics and sandals — sometimes on the same day. With all the rain, the Garonne flooded its banks and was higher than I’ve ever seen it. 

Wasn’t it just yesterday Claritin D and I resumed our friendship where we left off last year? I resisted till my eyes were on fire, and the inside of my nose was gently but cruelly being caressed with feathers, and my skin erupted in bumps at the mere mention of a field of unmown grass. I only just got used to returning from drawing in the evening intoxicated by the rich smell of jasmine. 

I’m so glad that May included a revival of the compost collective. I thought I was alone, but it turns out there are other Toulousains who share my passion for putting their carrot peels and coffee grinds and onion skins in a bucket and carting them to the park to create a communal pile of nourishing soil. 

One of the best things about this town are the three connected public parks which lie close to le petit garçon’s school. The Jardin des Plantes is the largest, with the Jardin Royale across the street, and then the Grand Rond, with its large central fountain. The first year we were in Toulouse, there were a set of compost bins in each, and although I wasn’t an official subscriber I used and treasured (and wrote about) them. My composting ritual was one thing that helped me be here, get my hands in some dirt every once in a while, tolerate the fumes and commotion of a new city. 

Segment of wall in the Jardin des Plantes. Photograph by Mike Peel (

But then one day I arrived to the park and all the bins had disappeared. My heart sank. Left behind was just a note, saying like, Sorry, the experimental phase of this project is over, we’re reassessing how best to continue, but we’re gathering in a few weeks and you can come to help us discuss what’s next. 

I barely understood a thing at the meeting, confounded as I was by the vocabulary — strategy! ecology! city planning! — and the speed at which everyone spoke. However, when they asked for my name and which park I was associated with I somewhat randomly chose the Grand Rond, which proved to be the most organized and motivated of the three. 

Over the next few months my group worked with astonishing speed and efficiency to return composting to the Grand Rond, and although I missed a lot of the details I understood that we’d finally set a date to assemble and install the new bins. We gathered one May evening; four-fifths of us looked on while the other fifth did the actual physical labor. We received instructions on what to compost and how, what makes for an ideal pile. This being France, people brought food and drink to make this a moment of convivialité. We toasted, we clapped. I received my official green compost bucket which I now wield proudly as my badge of membership. 

We started a listserv, where fellow members write to express their appreciation, or small concerns or admonishments. My favorite was from someone who was distressed to find almost an entire baguette in the bin, plus egg shells that had not been crushed and an uncut grapefruit. People! 

Another observed that the bins were getting full and that we were completely out of brown material!!, followed by a smart-assy “quel succés!”. 

After just a few weeks the container was chock-full, and we were going to have a first-bin-emptying ceremony of sorts. But the aforementioned shitty weather kept intervening, and it was called off multiple times due to rain or wind. Notes flew back and forth, alerting the group to the latest plan, including unsolicited responses detailing people’s attendance or lack thereof. (Favorite example: I have a dentist’s appointment, in which I expect to have my mouth numbed, and I’ll be twenty minutes late.) While we waited, to curb overflow, the organizers put a lock on the bins and shared the code only with members. This caused one person to resign in protest, not wishing to be part of an effort that in any way is elitist and opining that the city should be able to organize ecological efforts accessible to everyone. Fair play. 

To cut this long story short, we’re back in business. Today as I undid the locks I could feel the heat emanating from inside. I opened the lid and the gloriously pungent odor of decomposing vegetable matter enveloped me. Mmm — glorious. 

Perhaps in spring everyone’s just so ready to say eff you to winter. At long last; and in Toulouse it took so damned long. This year, it no doubt had to do with the state of the world. Enough already. For me, it was some combination of this plus lack of sleep and early menopause, I swear to you, that caused my attitude to be much more along the lines of screw you than joy to the world. Not pretty; but in a way affirming at the same time. Screw it, says the flower, I’m coming up. I’m coming through this earth and yes I need sun but if all you’re giving me is rain I’ll take it and I’ll work with it. There won’t be many of us but we’ll be the darkest, plumpest cherries you ever saw.  

I was given an unexpected gift of new strawberries and cherries and le petit garçon and I made our first clafoutis. Everyone said Too-eggy this and I-don’t-like-the-texture that, and to all of them of course you know I’m saying Screw you, make your own, or don’t eat it, here, gimme that, I’ll take yours. 

See you again, real soon.  

Thank the gods we don't see this wacky practice anymore!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

re-discovering ingres (as in ANGry, except more adenoidal)

A couple of angels recently alighted on my doorstep — or right in front of my face, really. To start, I was hired to teach an art class! To adorable college students from the US studying in Toulouse for a semester. I say the title of the course and imagine the low rumble of a tympani crescendoing into a loud boom: MASTERWORKS OF FRENCH ART!

It’s a dauntingly broad topic for me. Just shaping the whole thing into a coherent structure is hard, let alone filling it with content, then squeezing it into twelve short sessions. And art history? My general department, yes; but I’m much more at home with a stick of charcoal than a laser pointer.

Not surprisingly The Voice has taken up residence, seizing the opportunity to ask, The hell do you think you’re doing young lady, pretending you know anything about art, let alone art history? Who do you think you are, some kind of authority? Sigh. I look her in the eye, open the door, tell her to leave. I need to focus. It will be fine. I don’t need you; you’re not welcome here.

It requires repeat effort. She’s persistent.

So, I’ve begun soliciting ideas from friends. Asking “What do you think”, or “In your opinion”, or “From your perspective” stretches without overwhelming my capacities in French. I even managed to facilitate a group conversation at my figure drawing session, amongst four passionate draughtspeople, one a historian. I pepper our conversations with encouragements: “Really?” “I had no idea.” “You don’t say!” Vraiment? My unwitting recruits are helping me build my syllabus.

Port de Collioure - a day trip from Toulouse. André Derain, 1905. Oil on canvas.
Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 
I start by asking, Who are the — we’ll say five or so — most important artists in French history, in your view? Or I’ll ask for personal favorites, so they won’t feel as if suddenly they have to be experts.

Marc’s response was immediate and unhesitating: the Impressionists, without a doubt. Not just because they’re so well-known, but because with them, things changed dramatically and forever.

During our discussion, as we delved further back to the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who happens to be from this region, he and Nathalie introduced me to a new expression.

Have you heard of a violon d’Ingres? I’d not, of course, so Marc went on to explain. Well, he said, if a person has an Obie, she might refer to it as her violon d’Ingres. At first, I was a little puzzled. How many people actually get an Obie award in their lifetime? Particularly in France, how many people have worked in Off-Broadway theatre? How common can this expression really be, if it only applies to a teensy fraction of the population?

wrong Obie, Una.
Ça veut dire quoi, “Obie”? I ask them, tentatively, to clarify. Marc, with enormous patience and as if it’s perfectly normal to not know what an Obie is, described how, you know, sometimes you have something, an activity say, that you engage in passionately and which is outside of your work or job. Something you really enjoy and devote a lot of time to, like knitting or a sport or some kind of craft or something. Hm, I think, that sounds an awful lot like a … HOBBY! Yes, a hobby. Of course — he’s saying ‘obby! We’re speaking English! (Further puzzlement, accompanied by head tilt, and side question to self: Does he really think I have no idea what a hobby is? Shake head in wonderment.)

As it all begins to make sense, I try to keep my cool, let the conversation flow rather than reveal that I’m just emerging from a rabbit hole. No one need know that for a moment there I thought we were talking about theatre exploits. Of course of course, I say, bien sûr, and casually steer us back to Ingres.

Mis-hearing is part and parcel of my life in France. I’m perpetually poised for the very likely event that someone will say something, I will think it’s one thing, and turn down some road; then I’ll stop in my tracks as I realize my mistake. Heel of hand to forehead. Ah! That’s what they meant! That’s what we’re talking about. Quick about face, retrace steps, turn down opposite street, run to catch up. And so forth, until the next intersection, the next erreur.

I’ve decided it’s not all bad. Life was like this already, only now I’m freer to admit it. It’s quite possible I'm misinterpreting; let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt.

But what a great saying, right? A hobby or passion — your violon d’Ingres. It turns out that the great Ingres, born just a stone’s throw from Toulouse, was both an artist and a violinist. It was his secondary artistic passion; he even played second violin for the orchestra of Toulouse as a young man. Man Ray borrowed it, for the title of one of his best-known photographs. So did a restaurant in Paris. Le petit garçon, his violons d’Ingres are, for the moment, soccer, sports cars, and chess. My violon d’Ingres is in fact the violon, so there you go, perhaps I can call it my violon d’Una.

Le Violon d'Ingres. Man Ray, 1924. Gelatine silver print.
  © Man Ray Trust ARS-ADAGP (The J. Paul Getty Museum)    

Despite my wrong turn, it was a great conversation for me. If I can’t actually provide clear or insightful content to a conversation, I can at least prompt people, and encourage them to talk. So I asked, what is it about the Impressionists? We talked about Duchamp and Surrealism and Dada, about conversation-changers, about artists, French or non, who assembled in Paris. I loved that they were so smart about it — running through the broader periods of art as if they discuss them over breakfast every day.

Paganini. Jean-Auguste-Dominic Ingres, 1819. Graphite.
Collection le Louvre, Paris.

So I think it’ll be okay, this class. I figure, if I all I do is introduce someone else to the beauty of Nude Descending a Staircase, or this gorgeous little ditty by Pierre Bonnard I stumbled upon this week, that alone will be deeply satisfying.

Nu  descendant un escalier n° 2 - or as Teddy Roosevelt apparently unhappily called it,
"a naked man going down stairs". Marcel Duchamp, 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art

L'Omnibus. Pierre Bonnard, 1890. Oil on cardboard.
Right here in Toulouse at the Fondation Bemberg!