Saturday, July 12, 2014

words to Hope Clark I need to remember for me

From a comment I made to C.Hope Clark's blog on 7/10/14

As long as I keep my focus on the craft- whether it’s writing this, reading a book, trying to figure out how to describe the clouds or grass, or writing my stories- I’m good with me and the world: virtual and real. When I feel that way I open the door to some online thing and challenge myself. Then I head for the hills until I’ve made what I learned from others into something that is MINE.

I think people assume confidence, motivation, passion, purpose, etc. are things that are just there and if they aren’t then there’s something wrong with us. But I see them as muscles that need to be trained and which need time to rest and recover after a good workout. Or like a bank account into which we put good result and withdraw the above after a bad experience. Doing something new or big is actually a huge withdrawal of energy/confidence etc. So it makes sense that we need to step back and do only those things which fulfill us. Like gardening for you and disappearing from human reality for me.
I also think that we start making stupid proofreading mistakes and the like when our smarter selves (the banker/trainer) is trying to tell us to take a break and recover or go do something totally unrelated. It happens to burnt-out jocks all the time.
I guess what I am trying to say is forgive yourself for all that you haven’t done and more importantly, forgive yourself for all you will never do.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Love in the Wars at Bard SummerScape July 2014

Love in the Wars
Bard SummerScape at the Fisher Center, Annadale-on-the-Hudson
July 10- 20, 2014
Box office: 845-789 7900

Imagine the fields of Ilium, awash in mud and gore.  Through the angry mist and beneath a burning sun, legendary heroes yell insults over the clash of iron as bone breaks and flesh is torn. Between the Argive camps and Troy’s great walls, men have lived and died for ten years because of a mythic beauty whose face launched a thousand ships. In this place there is no room for women unless it is to serve as a chalice for male lust.  Even at home, women are of no consequence.  This is a Man’s world: rational, orderly, controlled, traditional. In this world, one is mightier than all others: the son-of a god, mighty Achilles.
Now imagine that across this chess board rides a screaming, one-breasted, wild herd of horsewomen pounding vanity and virtue into the muck beneath their fierce mares’ hooves.  They come to bring home men with whom they will breed before tossing them aside as unnecessary as orange peels.  Before them all rides raven-haired Penthesilea, she-wolf; mother-bear; lioness.
In the midst of battle, they come face to face—Myrmidon Achilles, son of Thetis and Amazonian Penthesilea, Ares’ daughter.
The once expansive, dramatic world of war condenses into a moment so fraught with tension the air thickens. The atmosphere is so oppressive it squeezes the very breath out of your lungs.  Sound echoes silently, pregnant with potential.  Motion stops. Two worlds wait to see what will happen next.
Now imagine a bare stage upon which artisans have used their craft to turn wood, cloth, word, light and vibration into a play at which you will sit and watch what happens next.
Come see Love in the Wars at the Fisher Center during Bard’s SummerScape and experience what no one has experienced before: the premiere of the first English translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 play, Penthesilea, written by John Banville, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll with sets by Marsha Ginsberg, lights by Tyler Micoleau, costumes by Oana Botez and staring Birgit Huppoch and Chris Stack as Penthesilea and Achilles. 
But mostly come to see how a production crew and actors not so different from your neighbors (though perhaps better looking) have taken a German play which Goethe said was unplayable and made it into something timeless and accessible to anyone who has every wanted to kill the one they love.  It is a play about power, pride, and the degree to which love and hate war with each other to destroy.  And, it is about how absurd and funny it is that people do such a silly thing while around them the world tries to go on about its business.  
Though I expect it will be hard to not get swept up into the story, I hope you will take notice of how light, wood, cloth, voice and sound are used to suck you into the action.  Consider how the tension of opposites—light/dark, loud/silent, large/small—are used to amplify the story. Realize that behind the 90 minutes with no interruption lies months and months of thought, research, construction and deconstruction.  Everything you experience while in the theater has been taken into consideration so that you will feel as if you were there, on the fields before the walls of Troy, waiting to see what Penthesilea and Achilles might do.  I’m sure that by doing so you will feel what I felt in my brief visit to Theater Two: the incarnation of something like thunder on a hot summer’s day.

And when the play is done, sing your praises to the actors, the designers, the laborers, the writers and to yourself for being willing to walk for just a little while among the muses of days long turned to dust and shadow.

Polo in Pine Plains

Polo in Pine Plains
            Have you ever stood a few feet away from 10 horses running full speed directly at you? It’s a rush that brings out something primal in a person–or at least in this particular horse-crazy girl.  Add mallets, a tiny white ball, a huge flat field of pristine grass and the bluest sky Columbia County has to offer and you have my idea of the best thing to do on a weekend.  Welcome to Mashomack Polo—coming to you in thunderous 3D every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day in Pine Plains, NY.
            And it’s free. You don’t even have to dress up or wear a fancy hat.
            All that’s required of you is good manners and a willingness to replace divots.
            Held at the 1900 acre Mashomack Preserve just a few miles south of Pine Plains on Route 82, the Mashomack Polo Club has renovated an old dairy farm and turned it into an international polo venue.  Unlike most clubs, spectators are welcome to drive right up to the field where you can pull out a chair, a cooler and a picnic basket to watch the games.  They encourage questions and there are always several knowledgeable people to help you sort out what’s going on.  And there is an awful lot going on.  I’ve been going for a few years now and will do my best to explain it, but I’ve a long ways to go before I’d consider myself truly knowledgeable.
 Do, however, believe me when I say that it is a really fun thing to do and essential if you have even the slightest horsey/sporty bent.  It is probably the closest you will ever come to experiencing a fraction of what it must have been like to face down a cavalry charge.
Essentially the game is like most ball sports: the ball must go through the goal at either end of the field. There are 4 riders a side (men and women can compete on the same team) with two umpires in striped jerseys who are also mounted. There are flagmen at each goal.  Using a long, fairly flexible mallet, riders wallop or dribble a hard plastic ball about the size of a baseball from the back of ponies (they are actually horse-sized but are referred to as ponies) often at full gallop. There are many rules, most of which are designed for the safety of the horse, that determine who has the right of way over the approach to the ball or how a ball may be hit.  This is where talking to experienced players comes in handy as it is often hard to tell exactly which rule has been broken. But given time it starts to make sense.
Each rider has a number.  Generally number 3 is the best player and is responsible for setting up the offensive riders (1 and 2) with number 4 acting as defense. Unlike other sports, sides of goal are switched after every goal in order to give each side a chance to play with or against the sun. There are penalty shots as well.  Think hockey and soccer and you’ll get the idea.  For more information, I’ve found this site most helpful:
The best way to learn the game is to attend one of the many championship matches they hold.  There you will see some of the top international players ride.  To watch someone dribble a tiny ball at the end of a six foot stick through 7 other horses at a gallop is like watching Mikhail Baryshinkov dance from the theater’s wings. 
I recommend subscribing to their email as game times vary and weather can be a factor.   You can find out more at
            And if you are interested, they give polo lessons using trained polo ponies.  So get your game on and come play! I’ll see you there.

Mashomack Polo Club 7435 Route 82, Pine Plains NY 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


I've been doing a lot of contest writing lately.  I think I've written over 12 new short stories and a few essays in the last few months.  I can't publish any of them until they win. There's something kind of neat about sitting on these stories like they're eggs.  One day they'll hatch and pay me back for all my patience.  Until then I think a lot about Meryl Streep and how much she loves what she does.  And how good she is.  And how human she is.

I'd like to be that good at what I do- and get the recognition.  And I could really use the money right now.

So I guess this post is to my muse.  I'll keep feeding you and trusting you.  I'll keep showing up and keep my fingers flying.

Just please, please, don't let me lose my land because I can't pay my bills. And please make it so I can feed myself and my animals.  And a little vacation would be nice too.

I think it'll be okay.

How the Other Half Loves

Photo by Daniel Region

How the Other Half Loves
Ghent Playhouse
6 Town Hall Place
            Watching Alan Ayckbourn’s play, How the Other Half Loves, is a little like watching a gold medal table tennis doubles match. Dialogue pings and pongs back and forth between the characters. Actors cross above and below each other barely avoiding a collision. Plot lines swirl and tangle themselves as time and space meet over dinner.  It’s a biting comment on marriage, workplace ethics and class.
And it’s funny— very funny. 
Premiered in 1969, the play follows three couples as they try to sort out their marriages and further their careers. Frank Foster (Sky Vogel who doubles quite ably as director) employs Bob Phillips (Todd Hamilton) who has had a one-night stand with Fiona Foster (Prudence Theriault). Bob’s wife, Teresa (Christina Smith) is a frustrated mother with a wild offstage child. In an attempt to conceal their affair, Bob and Fiona implicate another couple–the Detweilers (the Featherstones in the original production).  William Detweiler has recently been hired by Frank.  Detweiler’s wife, Mary, is a shy and retiring woman who is being trained by William to be a good “businessman’s wife.”
Just to add a bit of zest to the mess, Ayckbourn has staged the action, which takes place simultaneously in two separate houses, on the same set. Indeed, he has two dinner parties taking place on two different nights at one table in the same scene.
If you are finding it difficult to follow the synopsis, imagine the skill it takes to enact it.  It’s a little like tossing a hot potato back and forth while dancing a complicated figure as you speak your lines at precisely the right time and pitch. All the while making sure you’re funny and engaging as well as convincing.  Nor is it just the actors who have to be on their toes. Lighting, especially during the dinner party scene, plays a major role in creating both the illusion of separation and a sense of unity throughout the piece.
After having watched several YouTube videos from bigger theaters’ stagings of Ayckbourn’s famous dinner scene, I have to say that the Ghent Players and their crew rocked it solid.
In particular, Sam Reilly and Amber Herrick, as the Detweilers, showed great skill in handling the speedy transitions required of them. Christina Smith and Todd Hamilton both did a wonderful job of creating drunken chaos while Prudence Theriualt made her dinner party chilly. Throughout the play, Sky Vogel’s Frank, the maestro of misunderstanding, does a great job of speeding up or slowing down the action.  His performance helped to center the maelstrom.  Major credit must go to lighting designer Ben Heyman whose use of a chandelier/hanging dining room light fixture helped the audience track what was going on.  His lightboard must have been sizzling from the rapid changes!
Set designers and decorators (Ben Heyman, Sky Vogel, Todd Hamilton & Nancy Hammell) did well given the space constraints. I think that the contrast between the uptight Foster’s upper/middle class home and the slovenly white-collar house of the Phillips could have been made more obvious. Joanne Maurere’s costumes evoked the polyester-era well though again I felt that the class divisions were not quite strong enough.
One major point of confusion for me comes from a note in the program stating that the play is taking place in the present.  There is a conversation between Frank and Teresa in which Teresa places the action as happening in the early 1980s. The clothing and props reminded me of the ‘70s while the furnishings were much earlier.  This led me to wonder about the accuracy of Ayckbourn’s comment that the play needs to be placed in 1969 and being British, I assume he would prefer a British setting.  Stereotypes help a writer take short cuts so it is much easier to imagine the Fosters as the stereotypical distracted British lord and self-important lady of the manor.  The Phillips’ drunken brawls and the Detweilers’ middle class modest and fearful demeanor have been BBC fodder for decades.  Too, English accents designate class better than American leaving American producers with the challenge of showing class through design elements rather than language.
But I’m not sure if How the Other Half Loves would have been more poignant if there had been greater class delineation between the couples.  Ultimately the writing is so funny and the action so quick that one is never given a chance to experience the pathos of affairs, poor communication, sycophancy, wild children, drunkenness and manipulative spouses.  I suppose pacing the play differently would give the audience a chance to think about what is happening and to identify with one or more of the characters and situations.  But then it would become what I was afraid it was going to be: one of those terribly pedantic, stilted, depressing domestic tragedies in which clever people say nasty things about nothing in particular.
Happily, the Ghent Playhouse met the challenge well and I had a wonderful time.  I laughed a lot.  And I came away feeling very proud of my community theater.   Well done!

And… please be sure to buy raffle tickets for the 50/50 drawing!  For a mere pittance you get a chance to bring home half of all they collect— the other half going to the theater.  

The Man From Housatonic, Mass

            If Hemingway, Twain and Garrison Keeler were to somehow have a son, that son would be Bob Gray.  A much beloved long-time resident of Housatonic MA, Gray has been writing a column in The Berkshire Record for 30 years as well as publishing fiction and nonfiction in well recognized journals.  A former teacher, he has added self-publishing to his resume.  Housatonic: Life in a Backwater of the Beautiful Berkshires is a collection of favorites from his column with a few newbies thrown in.  More than a memoir, it’s a book about a town, a time and change.
            Six miles north of Great Barrington on Route 183 (the same route one takes to get to the Rockwell Museum and the Tanglewood Music Center), Housatonic is an old mill town with a thriving artistic community, quiet streets and empty factories.  It was not always thus.  The Housatonic of Gray’s book is filled with the noise of factories and a cast of characters as wonderful as any southern short story: “Fuge”, the one-armed umpire with a magical “flipper” for a left arm; “Sparky” who rakes the schoolyard for coins once the snow melts; “Charlietaxi” the respected Town Selectman and the YoYoMan who slides into town on the first days of spring to peddle Duncan Yo-yos (my preferred brand as well). 
But it is Bob’s friends who provide the joy in this book. Their adventures would have made Tom Sawyer jealous and Huck Finn proud.  In the story, Crucifixion on Pine Street, the gang puts on a Passion play complete with cross and rabble.  Ice rinks, rafts, basketball, girls, and injuries are just a few of the topics Gray covers in his nostalgic look back at the 1950’s and 1960’s.
My favorite story, How Sweet It Was, tells of Montana’s candy store.  I too used to spend my time in class figuring out how much, and which kind, of candy I could get for my money.  The candy store is now a restaurant, Pleasant & Main (which I will be reviewing in a few weeks) whose owners have decorated it to look and feel just like it must have back in the day.
I enjoyed reading this book because I have heard Bob tell these stories.  He is a natural storyteller; everything out of his mouth sounds like the beginning of a great short story. There is a way he has of sharing deep wisdom and personal experience that is profound and unintentionally hysterical. Much of this comes through in the book though, like most written works by storytellers, I found myself wishing for more development of character, more details, and more atmosphere.  But this is in some ways the mark of a really good storyteller: they always make you want more.
Bob Gray is an experience everyone should have the pleasure of enjoying.  You can hear him tell his stories the first Tuesday of every month at Deb Koffman’s In Words Out Words open mike at her gallery in Housatonic (137 Front St. Showtime is at 7pm).  If you are lucky, you can catch him tootling about town and ask him to get a beer and some nachos at the Brickhouse Pub. He’ll tell you all about the way things were back in the day.

 Or buy his book.  It can be purchased through Amazon or at the Book Loft in Great Barrington.

Meaningful Noise

Miss Saigon, Rhinebeck 2014
One of the problems I have with the modern tendency to turn everything into a musical is that great material, excellent acting, and a profound message are put to music in such a way that it makes it difficult to really experience them.  Rhinebeck’s production of Miss Saigon is a case in point.
 Set over a period of three years in Vietnam, the action centers around a disillusioned GI named Chris (Jarek Zabczynski) and a village girl turned prostitute named Kim (Jasmin Sue Rogers) who meet and fall in love a few weeks before the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. The plot twists on the fate of Chris’s and Kim’s Amerasian son, Tam (Derrick Maxwell). 
            Rogers’ drop-dead amazing performance as Kim gives the play a poignancy and reality that humanizes the loud Broadway splash of the score.  I would have loved to listen to her sing her parts acoustically just for the pleasure of hearing the heart and strength of character she puts into her role. The chemistry between Zabczynski and Rogers is palpable. So too is the tender connection between Rogers and her little brother, Maxwell, whose comfortable stage presence illustrates the real tragedy of the story: the fact that the sound of history is the wail of mothers losing their children. Originally inspired by a photograph of a Vietnamese mother sending her daughter off to her American father, the show is often seen as a love story. But I think of it as a homage to women and the abuse they suffer at the hands of men.  For me the question Miss Saigon asks is, “What about the women?”
            Unfortunately, the answer is as it has always been. They have one choice: sacrifice yourself.  Sacrifice your body, your heart, your life, your child.  Perhaps if Schonberg and Boubil had been less concerned with pounding the audience with sound, the sorrows of the Vietnamese women might not have gotten lost in the noise.  Thankfully, the cast and crew of the Rhinebeck production do their job well and I left the theater grateful for all that mothers have done to make the world as wonderful as it is.
            Thank you, Mom.
            Now for the fun part.
Jarek Zabczynski is affecting as a Chris. He is entirely lovable, which is important because otherwise Kim’s love for him would have made the play ridiculous.
            Sal Polichetti is Rat Pack, slimy perfect in the role of Engineer, combining just the right amount of irony and optimism for the Fagan-like character who moves the action through history much as the Emcee did in Cabaret.
            Elizabeth Gerbi (as Chris’ wife) and Daniel Rushton (as  Kim’s rejected fiancĂ©) portray just the right amount of confusion and anger over the situation.
            As John, Chris’ friend , Jovan Bradley’s bluesy voice and straight from the hip integrity do well as the voice of reason in an otherwise irrational situation.
            Shouts-out to the chorus of men and women for managing to perform complex numbers in such a tiny space and in particular to the women who open the show in brazen and fleshy glory. Their presence on stage highlights the plight of all the invisible women affected by the idiocies of civilization.
            The stage crew… WOW! How on earth did you manage it?  You are awesome geniuses.
            Choreography, sound and lighting performed the difficult job of simultaneously responding to the grandiosity of the score while creating a claustrophobic environment in spite of a few technical glitches.  And personally, I think feeling the vibration of sound was as powerful as having a helicopter fly overhead. 
            Costumes and props: oft ignored but truly appreciated for the way your work completes the illusion. 
            Praise for director Anna Marie Paolercio who took a gigantic Broadway show and squeezed it onto the small stage thereby helping me understand what all the noise was about.

            Miss Saigon will be playing at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck May 2-25. Tickets: (845) 876-3080 or visit

Not Just a Dog

Bill and Dorothy Berloni of William Berloni Theatrical Animals
            Bill Berloni got his start training dogs for the role of Sandy in the 1976 Broadway hit Annie and has been bringing wagging tails to audiences ever since. Currently he has Roxie helping Audra McDonald in Lady Day, Trixie in Bullets Over Broadway and is in pre-production of Because of Winn Dixie with his wife and partner, Dorothy.  Both have given their lives over to finding, training and providing a home for their canine stars as well as finding work for other animal actors. In addition, Bill is a behavioral consultant for the Humane Society of New York and does lectures all over the country. 
            I was lucky enough to catch the two in-between shows and caring for their pack of dogs at their farm in Connecticut.
            RV: Discovering Sandy and learning how to bring out the performer in shelter dogs has been an adventure for you. What does it take to do what you do?
            BB: I like to have a year to get a shelter dog ready for a role. That includes getting it healthy since most shelter dogs have health concerns, giving it 3 months to socialize and learn basic obedience then 6 more months for me to develop their natural talents.  But often I’m given a limited amount of time depending upon the director’s needs. In those cases, I tell the director they’ll get what they get because I won’t push a dog.
            DB:     It’s basically a 24-7 lifestyle. We keep most of our dogs here at the farm when they aren’t working a show.  I’ve got a full-time assistant who does much of the socialization and acclimatization work so I can take care of administrative details like making sure the dogs and their handlers are at the right place.  Bill has to oversee every job as well to make sure the dogs are being treated fairly.
            BB:  It takes a lot of good people doing good things.
            RV: You have to have 2 dogs for each role generally as well?
            BB: Yes, everyone has the right to get sick so we have to make sure there’s a back-up ready just in case something goes wrong. Plus we have all the retired dogs here. They’re part of our family.  Also, any dog that I’ve brought home that did not like performing will stay here until we find a good home for them.
            DB: Our life is largely organized around our dogs because their work requires them to do 8 shows a week, 52 weeks a year for several years. In order to keep them used to their work schedules we feed after 11 p.m. because that is when the show is over.  But otherwise when they are home they are off-duty, so they get to be dogs.
            BB:  Letting them be who they are—that is, allowing them to express their breed characteristics and individual personalities—is key to their mental health but also to the type of work they do when they perform. Ethically, I can only get them to do what is in their nature to do.
            RV:  What do you mean by ethically?
            BB: My animals aren’t robots and don’t just do tricks. They are beings who deserve the same respect given to human actors—well, maybe better! I don’t care who the director is or how important it is to get the shot, I will not ask my animals to do something that isn’t good for them. If my dog is stressed, then they’ll have to wait until it’s ready. I like to tell directors that if they do it my way, they’ll get it in one take.  You can’t force nature. 
            DB: That’s why Bill is so good at what he does- he has an instinctive sense of what is really going on inside the dog.  He’s not a dog-whisperer, he’s a dog-listener because he brings out the true nature of that dog. It shows in their performance.

            BB: There’s no point in asking anybody, especially an animal, to do anything that makes it unhappy.  It is a challenge however because it has cost us jobs.  It’s something everyone has to think about: how to make a living and be ethical at the same time.  But our family, our employees and our dogs are more important to us than fame or fortune. 

Pleasant & Main

Pleasant & Main Café
1063 Main St.
Housatonic, Great Barrington, MA 01236
(413) 274-6303
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” G.B. Shaw
            Go eat here.
            Better yet, bring a really delicious book or an excellent friend, and eat here.
            “Pleasant and Main is the best thing that’s happened to Housatonic.” Say many locals. 
Restaurateur Craig Berg has reclaimed Jack’s Grill, formerly known as Montana’s General Store, in the quiet artsy hamlet of Housatonic just north of Great Barrington.  The atmosphere is reminiscent of the old general store.  Berg has used old floor boards he found in the basement for tables and lined the walls with wood shelves filled with a most interesting collection of turn-of-the-previous-century memorabilia. Spacious yet familiar though still elegant, I can almost imagine wearing a gingham dress here and ordering a Latte to go with a piece of apple pie.
What I most enjoyed about my experience there, besides a fascinating conversation about living off the land, Norwegian farming practices in Wisconsin and what Berg’s mother could do with a wood stove, is the fact that I could taste each ingredient in my meals.  In other words, everything had flavor. 
The menu is simple and completely dependent upon what is appropriate to the season.  The breakfast and lunch menu remains the same Tuesday through Saturday but the dinner menu (served Thursday through Sunday–$15 for appetizer and main course, $20 with dessert) changes week to week.  Called “Community Suppers”, the dinner menu reflects what is going on in town as well as what delicious foodstuffs Berg was able to harvest from the land or to gather from small, local farmers with whom he has developed a personal relationship. He feels it is important to know everything he can about the food he serves, preferring to buy from people who love their soil, fields and animals.  I believe it is this care and passion for the whole process of eating that gives his food and restaurant its wonderful flavor.
I recommend getting dessert with lunch or dinner.  I shared a banana split and a lemon crepe with my mother over dinner. Strange combination? Not so. The lemon crepe refreshed my palate to better appreciate the chocolate fudge. I’ve no idea what he did to the bananas or walnuts, but it was the best banana split I’ve had ever.  And his croissants taste like how I remember croissants tasting in Europe.
This is not the kind of place to rush in and rush out. Other reviewers have said the service is slow. I did not find it so but perhaps that is because I went to Pleasant and Main to savor the experience and to spend time with my friends.  Indeed, the idea of being a communal feeding ground is part of Berg’s long term goal. A vision which stems from his memory of the meals his mother served migrant farm workers over a big wooden table back in Wisconsin.
So Google Housatonic and find your way to a nice little town and a good little eatery. Then take a walk down Main St. to visit some nice galleries. And tell them Renee from the Lakeville Compass sent you. I’d appreciate it.
Plans for garden seating and an old fashioned soda fountain are in the works for after Memorial Day.  Community supper menus are available every Wednesday on their website:

Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper
At the Rockwell Museum
9 Route 183, Stockbridge, MA
            Two very disparate personalities are on display at the Rockwell Museum through October 26. One lights up the room and invites you in to play; the other asks only to be left alone in the shadows.
The Unknown Hopper: Edward Hopper as Illustrator follows Hopper’s struggle to become a “real” artist while earning his keep as an illustrator in the 1910s.  His mentors and peers have work exhibited as well so that the show represents a history of the greats in illustration during last few decades of the Golden Age of Illustration.  To cap it off, Murray Tinkleman’s show is still up and serves as a perfect example of the evolution of narrative art.
Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) travelled much the same path at about the same time.  One wonders, however, if they were looking out the same window.  What stands out about Hopper’s work is his love for shadow, for introspection and for capturing what I call laundry-mat-moments: those times when one sits in a public place utterly lost in one’s own thoughts. His most iconic painting is Nighthawks (1942) in which three people sit late at night in a corner deli. Compare this to Rockwell’s Saying Grace (1951) or Freedom from Want (1943) and it is easy to see the very different way in which the two viewed the world, or at the very least, how they felt about people in general.
What is interesting about Hopper’s earlier illustrative work is the fact that he was forced to paint people “prancing about” at a time when it went against fashion to be gloomy.  Not only did this depress him, it brought a signature tension into his commercial work. This is especially apparent in his covers for the Morse Dry Dock Dial magazine and for Hotel Management Magazine.  If Rockwell saw a world full of home-cooked meals and children playing, Hopper’s world fit more into the Gilded Age of Wharton mannerism.
It is in his book illustrations that the real Hopper starts to come out of hiding.  Achingly visceral and tangibly emotional, these charcoal drawings are breathtaking. They also serve as examples of Hopper’s creative process since he, like Rockwell, spent a lot of time making studies and analyzing his ideas before putting them to paint. It is wonderful to see how he uses charcoal to explore mood and its relationship to lights and darks.
While the paintings of his peers give you an overview of his artistic development, it is the relationship and work of his wife, Josephine Nivision Hopper, that is most descriptive of the man. An artist and performer in her own right, Jo Hopper used her skills to pull Hopper through his many serious bouts of depression and writer’s block by working alongside him and sparking his competitive streak. I found her watercolor of her favorite cat, who had a chair and plate at their dinner table, to be a nice break from the brooding mood of her husband.

What this exhibit brings to mind is the question of nostalgia.  Is the past sweeter than today as portrayed by Rockwell?  Or is it full of the romantic struggle of hidden lonely souls as is seen in Hopper’s work? After seeing this show, my answer is that it depends upon what you choose to see when you look out the window.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Baseball, Rodeos and Automobiles: The Art of Murray Tinkelman

Baseball, Rodeos and Automobiles: The Art of Murray Tinkelman

Part of the Distinguished Illustrator Series

At the Norman Rockwell Museum Stockbridge, MA.

March 29 – June 15, 2014

            If the folly of humanity has gotten you down—go to the Norman Rockwell Museum. Then spend some time with the stimulating Murray Tinkelman.

            Though not generally well-known, Tinkelman is considered a legend in the Illustrative Arts. In order to appreciate his contribution to the genre, it is important to understand a little bit about the history of illustration; a topic for which Tinkelman has considerable passion, so much so that he travels the country giving lectures on the subject.           

            Historically, art has been used to illuminate religious iconography and to glorify the wealthy. After the printing press and public education made reading a part of everyday life, art became a popular medium for selling goods as well as telling stories. Originally, all illustrations were either etchings or engravings which meant that every image depended upon the skill of the engravers and the printers to accurately transcribe the artist’s work. With the invention of the halftone process of photo-engraving, illustrators became the controlling force behind the image.  This invention sparked the Golden Age of Illustration (1880’s-1920’s). Norman Rockwell’s early popularity stemmed from the narrative styles of this era.

            Commercial and illustrative art of the 1930’s through the 1950’s was heavily influenced by Rockwell’s Populist narrative style.   Murray Tinkelman grew up in a world filled with images that sold the American Dream but which also belied the ugly underbelly of America. In contrast, most Fine Artists of the time were focusing on portraying their experience of what they saw as the real America.  When Tinkelman entered the advertising marketplace in the mid-1950’s, there was as large a divide between the imagery of the Illustrative and Fine Arts as there was between the races.

            Enter Murray Tinkelman, the artist-illustrator.

            Tinkelman’s early work has the feel of an engraving that is trying awfully hard to be a cartoon. His work earned him numerous awards but it wasn’t until he absent-mindedly doodled a rhinoceros in 1970 that he became a legend. This break-through is the focus of the exhibit.

            There is plenty of information available at the museum about his career and development as an illustrator so I want to take the time to tell you HOW he does what he does—because it is truly amazing. 

            He draws out the image as perfectly as possible in pencil and then uses a very fine technical pen, called a rapidograph, to draw tiny lines all over the sketch.  His first line always starts at 12:00 and ends at 6:00.  Working over the entire piece instead of sections, he then cross-hatches more small lines, each of which starts at 1:00 and ends at 7:00.  Then again from 2:00 to 8:00, continuing until he has filled the image with enough cross-hatches to achieve a middle-grey tone.  After this he works on the areas which will be lighter until he gets to 11:00.  If you look closely you can see this clock pattern. For a more thorough description of his process, please use the following link:

            This method gives his images a layered, sunlit, movement that is somehow incredibly still.  He ranges from whimsical “Mechanimals”, to expressive portraits of Native Americans at a Powwow and of cowboys at the rodeo. His later work involves a nostalgic look back to the ‘40s and ‘50s of his youth: details of old cars, homages to baseball heroes, movie monsters and Coney Island Kodak moments. 

Do as he recommends in the museum video: stop and listen with your eyes.  If you do you will see the colors he creates in black and white.

            Tinkelman describes his illustrations as “interpretive and descriptive” as compared to Rockwell’s narrative style. This is most especially shown in his illustrations for Ballantine’s re-release of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, the originals of which are shown in this exhibit.  The profound effect of his work and teaching methods within the Illustrative Arts comes from the fact that he was asked to illustrate books not because they amplified the text, but because they added to the content of the book itself.  He made what had once been a consequence of literature into a part of literature and an art unto itself. The once “mere” illustrator was now seen as an Artist with as much standing as many of the great Fine Artists.  With respect comes power and with power comes creative control. Because of Tinkelman, author and illustrator have become equal parents in the creation of what we read: a union perfectly illustrated by the art of Wendell Minor whose work is also shown at the Rockwell Museum through May 26, 2014.



Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Bird Eater

A Review by Renee Vaughn

Published Lakeville Journal Compass 4/10/14

            Do you remember your first kiss?

            Not the first, fumbling experiment but the first, real kiss that woke you to possibilities of sensation and emotion hitherto unknown?

            Reading Stephen King’s The Shining for the first time was like that first, real kiss.

            But just as it’s not fair to judge your current lover by your first sexual experience, it’s not realistic to hope that you will get that white-knuckled, stay-up-all-night, gluttonously orgiastic feeling of reading King for the first time from any current author in the horror genre. With that being said, I stayed up late into the night reading Ania Ahlborn’s The Bird Eater. It wasn’t the best kiss I’ve ever had, but it reminded me enough of Stephen King’s work to keep me going and in the end, to be not too disappointed. In fact, I may download a few of her other titles.

            The Bird Eater is the tale of a broken man who returns home to confront the family ghoul. In the process he gets a chance to revisit the first girl he ever kissed and to learn a lot about not recovering from grief. I don’t want to tell much more than this as I’d hate to ruin the suspense for you.

Like King, Ahlborn’s major characters are beset with tragic flaws to which we can all relate: cowardice, addiction, self-pity, a stubborn inability to change and an optimistic belief that good can conquer evil. Similarly, her ghoul mirrors King’s evil incarnations of that which is most terrible about humanity at its worst.     

The Bird Eater is satisfying read; especially if you are house-sitting at an old farmhouse on a dead-end road as I was when I read it. Ahlborn has some truly great, cinematic images in which the lead character, Aaron Holbrook, struggles with his doppelganger demon who has a penchant for birds. Her language is deft and though repetitive, it does the job. She shines at describing the haunted house in which the bulk of the action takes place. I was also thoroughly impressed with the number of ways she managed to describe the way a person’s heart thumps when they are scared. The biggest compliment I have for her is that her characters dietary habits made me crave an iced glass of Coca-cola. Make sure to note the many references to classic horror movies she uses.

Her work is descriptive, page-turning and will make a good little movie when it comes to that.

I felt the first chapter gave away too much of the story. I found myself reading to see how it was going to come together rather than feeling trapped by my desire to see what was going to happen. I think the ghoul would have been much more frightening and the psychological development of the main characters much more intriguing if we had been allowed to take the trip along with them. This book reads a bit more like a TV “we-know-who-done-it” mystery than a true ghost story. I suggest you skip the first chapter until you are about half-way through. But do read it as the first chapter is good enough to stand on its own as a great horror short story.
            A Polish transplant, Ania Ahlborn, self-published her first book, Seed, and rose quickly to the top of the “as-good-as Stephen King” ranks. She followed it with The Neighbors and the The Shuddering. She has a great blog accessible through her website: