PLUME SERVICE 4.0 | February 22, 2017 | Victorian Paintings Gone Wild (Warning: NSFW…just kidding…come on…they’re paintings!)

Before we get to the results of the fourth Plume Service writing workshop, let me just say: This is not what I had planned!  It’s not important what I was going to have the writers’ focus be; what’s important is that we decided to begin by brainstorming a list of different genres and formats with which we could experiment that evening.  You know, alluring ones like lists, emails, and texts (snore); stirring ones like personal ads, advertisements, and autopsy reports (morbid); passionate ones like stand-up comedy and . . . bad reviews (now that could be fun).  Thumbs up, thumbs down.  2 out of 5 stars.  Critical commentary.  Then someone, I can’t remember who, mentioned (shhhhh) e . . . r . . . o . . . t . . . i . . . c . . . a.

Amused, I turned around to gaze at the painting of Venice that had attracted so many Plume Service writers before.  A gondola.  A ship.  A tower.  Waves. This was going to be hard.  But then, when you think about it (really, take a stroll down the halls and along the walls of the ballrooms), The Pfister’s walls abound in sultriness.  Consider these suspects:

(just kidding)

Time for a cold shower?  Yikes.

And consider, too, the names: “Flirtation” (there are two of those!).  “The Kiss.” (Are those two babies?!) “The Captive.” (Wow. Thank goodness for feminism!) “Trysting Place.” “The Chess Game.”  “Love’s Dream.” “The Royal Love Feast.” “Admiration.”

Bad reviews and erotica it was, then!

Will all of these make the cut and grace the walls of The Pfister?  I dare say, probably not.  A little (a lot?) too risque.  But I can say that the writers accepted the challenge without batting their eyelashes, they wrote with passion and concentration, they shared their pieces out loud at the end, snapped and clapped their praises for their fellow writers, and discussed the intricacies and honesties in each story.  Sure, there were a few blushes and giggles.  But the experience was liberating, refreshing.  How often do we talk to each other with such candor and immediacy about sexuality, let alone sensuality?  Without shame or embarrassment?  And how often with relative strangers?

We’ll start with a tame one.


Richard Lorenz’ Sunday Afternoon (as interpreted by Christina Oster)

Phyliss and Benjamin liked to color within the lines.  They were regimented people with allegiance to the “dullsville du jour.”  Sadie Saccharine was their feisty neighbor, a woman of vibrancy who brought flirtation and festivity to any and all she encountered.  Sadie had a way of encouraging Phyliss to make bold changes and take chances.  After all, it was Sadie who encouraged Phyliss to change her name spelling from the typical two L’s at the end of it to two S’s.  She had flirtatiously said, “Think Phyl-iss – like a kiss!”

Phyliss and Benjamin had a horse ranch with brown horses and black cows.  They ate porridge for breakfast and spaetzle for dinner.  But when it came to evening, it was retire to bed–not much spark for the forbidden.
A knock at the door occurred one Sunday afternoon.  Sadie appeared, dressed in Victorian Secret, whispering to Phyliss.  Benjamin, eating porridge, tilted his ear closer, then raised his eyebrow.  Intrigue ensued. He set down his porridge, approached the ladies, winked, and playfully asked, “Color me three?”


R. Wood’s “Seascape” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

I saw you resplendent from across this small world.  In a time of flowering and self-searching.

I came here with a lover, Armand, but around your waves a new muscle of spirit and flesh pulses in me.

The greenery where we lay is too stifling.  His hands around my shoulders and neck while we lay.

I’d rather you bed me.

But instead you bed the body just passing below my line of vision.  He slipped, this nude man with matted hair.

I imagine his soft penis and mine kissing like your waves do among the endless cerulean.

Your song bids me come.


Andrea Secondo’s “Tired Out” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

He had set the table an hour before Armand got home.  Typical of him, lateness–but he understood, too, the hectic nature of his days.  After gossip of the sun-soaked day, Armand fell asleep.  The wine didn’t help matters.  I will bed him gently, he thought.  I will tuck his covers around his chin, admiring the soft body that has loved him for so long.

In the dark, Armand’s toes will curl around his calf, his soft murmurs, drunken, as sweet as when they tangle together, under the richness of God’s graces, the sun stroking their faces along with the usual suspects.


“Diana of the Hunt” (as imagined by Monica Thomas)

She’s come bearing horns made of moon, shaking brick and bound in garb of mushroom sack and thick rope.  Young Athena, bare-chested in bejeweled breastplate, by her side.

Look, look–how on the distant hillside they frolic to nude-photobom Susan Boyle’s left-breasted man-spread selfie.

These twins in braids splayed naked in the shallow pond as the lean greyhound laps up water, hellhound held in tight fists by her collar.

Uninitiated, the right bank eunuch is gearing to cross legs, wearing nothing but a thong.

The hem of Aphrodite’s apprentice rides way above the knee while a servant squats in front, strumming the female master’s lute from behind.

Far left, these lovers share throbbing hearts and Paul Simon’s soft, sly face.

The arrow pierced the tip of the smooth, erect pole at the right bank.

One battle-clad Amazonian arm hangs blue ribbon laundry from the May Day frame amongst the golden blindfold and the herald’s horn.


“Untitled Landscape” (as interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

The thought of your touch sparks my core.  It makes me miss you more. It was there, painted on a spring dusk when the trees had just witnessed its first yellow leaves, when the air was so quiet and the flow of the river so tender, that you could hear the gentle scratching of the grass on feet.  On a day like this, we took what the world had given us and became all in one. Your breasts, like two tender fruits of heaven, rested on my bare skin. Your hands joined to mine; the way your curls rested on my shoulders as I leaned inside against the riverbank.  I could feel the cool air on my back as your fingers gripped the skin on my hips.  I could feel us now and I could live this moment forever.  Every strike on your pelvis made the gentlest bounce on your curls.  As I prepared to climax, I could feel your grip tighten, almost there, almost there…

Crap, I dozed off for a minute.  I find myself staring at a simple painting of a nature scene with a pair of trees and a river parallel to a dirt road. And in the glorious scene of it all, I could only think about two things: how I felt like the biggest loner, and the intricate things I must do to act cool while I hide this boner.


H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” (as interpreted by Dominic Inouye)

One critic of H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” purports that “Bras sees the background as less important (sic) which can be seen in the lack of detail.”  While this may be so, it may be equally valid to argue that the background details that are more important.  The background details and the foreground ones–and, to be sure, the cardinal’s costume itself.

Consider, for instance, Bras’ choice of decorative flourishes, however undetailed or blurred: to the left, a painting of a mysterious, foggy island, the kind to which one would row for a clandestine tryst; the equally enigmatic wallpaper swirls obscured by a too-large and ominous cardinal shadow; the arched doorway to the right revealing a curtained space perfect for a quick change . . . of scenery; the velvety table clothing creating another ideal hiding space; not to mention the elaborately mussed folds of the cardinal’s very own robes, bunched oddly enough to hide a, well, . . . And, of course, the slight mountain of carpet, most likely unrecognized by most, rapidly pushed up in haste as feet scrambled away, revealing a small, drak, gaping cave.


“Man and Woman With Guitar” (as interpreted by Ana Moreno)

As they did every evening after supper, Elizabeth and her husband warmed themselves close to the fireplace, talking about the day’s occurrences and other topics of immediate importance.  Elizabeth’s husband was an older, worn, tired man who thought of nothing but trade embargos, tobacco shipments, and balancing his money purse.

As he drifted off to sleep, Elizabeth’s mind began to wander as her fingers lightly strummed her guitar.  Her fingers intentionally stroking each string, she looked intently into the glowing embers and began to imagine his fingers softly running up her thigh.  The chords melded together as she imagined the tips of his fingers brushing against her wetness. Instinctively, Elizabeth spread her legs, inviting his dreamlike touch to encompass her entire beiing.

Her strokes became strategic, intentional, one building on the other.  With each pluck of the guitar, Elizabeth imagined her husband’s fingers being thrust inside her.  Her rhythm became heated, eccentric.  The sounds emerging from the guitar became stronger, harder.  Her breath began to quicken.  Fingers strumming in continuous motion.  Building and building.  Until one final, immense crescendo sprung from her guitar as she moaned in outwardly emphatic pleasure.

Elizabeth’s husband stirred in his chair at the sound of his wife’s immense pleasure, though he did not wake from his solitude.  He was a man of business and comfort, Elizabeth thought as she composed herself from her all-encompassing orgasm.  He has no time to think of such lowly things as pleasing me.

If only, though, she thought.  If only.

PHOTO ESSAY: Get Inside Yourself by Getting Inside the Box

Come on in.  The door is open.

Make your Self at home.

Don’t be shy.  There aren’t any rules.

Lounge.  Relax.  Write.  Doodle.

And share a part of your Self on the walls.

This project is a metaphor for that inner place we go to when we take creative risks.  It also represents the playful creative spaces we built as children, like a tent made of blankets, or a shelter made of branches, places where we felt secure and free to express ourselves.  I have to silence the outer world sometimes, so I asked myself, When have I felt the most secure.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

Wait.  If The Lounge was a place to relax, what’s The Retreat?

Perhaps it’s a lounge that’s a little farther out but more inside your Self.

Look around.  Read the artifacts, like laundry hanging to dry.

Strike a pose like nobody knows.  This is your retreat.

Just don’t forget to leave your own artifact: a message, a hope, a musing.

There’s room on the line for everyone.

This project was a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase ‘think outside the box.’ To me, it’s trite and empty.  I mean, every brushstroke, every creation, is a risk.  When we take our biggest risks, we go inside.  That’s why this is called ‘Inside the Box,’ because it’s like getting inside the self.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

A Drawing Room?  Isn’t that like The Lounge and The Retreat?

Does the name of the box dictate what I must do?

Ah . . . no lava lamps or hewn logs here.  Only a chandelier of freedom.

Take a risk.  Draw a nude.  Announce your calling.  Preach the light.

I don’t like the word ‘should.’  It’s a difficult word.  I’d prefer ‘I could do ___.’  This is all about letting go of ‘should’ so that people have the freedom to create what they want.  These are safe spaces, then, with no requirements.  I ask people to try to refrain from using the word ‘should’ while they create in the boxes.

~Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri

Jeanne’s mother (left) emerges from The Retreat.
Jeanne (right)

Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri’s INSIDE THE BOX exhibit runs through March 4th in The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery.  The immersive environments invite you to leave a mark on the world, to share part of your Self (in fact, the word “character” comes from the Greek kharakter meaning “engraved mark” or “symbol or imprint on the soul”).

Jeanne works mainly with watercolor, acrylics, and mixed media, so these large-scale boxes certainly challenged her artistically (and logistically–once you see how tall they are, think about how she got them into The Pfister’s elevators and doorways . . .).  She comes from a long line of artists, including her four sisters, her mother, her uncles, and her grandfather.  Her studio is located in the Marshall Building, 207 E. Buffalo, Suite 602.

Accompanying the boxes are selections from her series “Cabled Together,” which, according to her artist statement, explores the “often-overlooked power lines, cables, and wires that connect us. The tangled webs of wire, the ways in which they divide space, the mystery of the many gadgets that accompany them, and the structures on which they hang or which they support are intriguing and fascinating.  I travel frequently, thus my work represents cables in a variety of environments.” 

That’s a Big Clock: Robin and the Polish Moon

Robin Campbell, The Pfister Hotel’s house carpenter for eight years, retired two years ago.  But he came back for Gallery Night last Friday to see the work of his friend Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s fifth Artist-in-Residence (AiR), as well as the work of the other AiRs past and present. When she arrived, she described him in avuncular terms as they greeted each other warmly.  “I designed the huge frame for her painting in the hallway,” Robin beamed.

I had originally attended the opening of “Bridges: Artistic Passages“–an exhibition of current works by all eight AiRs, including the exhibit curator, Pamela Anderson–with the intention of writing about bridges and passages, with interviews of the AiRs and guests.  It was, perhaps, too early in the evening to capture a good story: downtown was spilling out onto the streets and into cars and buses, homeward bound.  Perhaps some of them would make their way back downtown for some art appreciation.  Many of the artists were also participating in Gallery Night at other studios.  (I plan to go back and capture my impressions of the exhibit in a future blog; you should visit, too!)

In the meantime, however, I caught the eye of someone across the room, who looked at me almost knowingly, inviting me to his table like he had something important to tell me.

I had not known that the Hotel had a “house carpenter” (I wondered where the workshop might be).  “In my shop at home,” Robin informed me. He then proceeded to flip through his phone’s gallery, like an eager teenager, to show me tables he had masterfully refinished, cabinets and shelving he had designed and built, and an impressive moveable wall in an upstairs ballroom.  He regaled me with a story about how all the doors in the ballrooms had needed tweaking one year (“None of them would close, they were all crooked”) and how he saved the Hotel a lot of money by correcting all eighteen or so doors–in only a day and a half!   As his finger swept through the photographs, it dawned on me that the beautiful glass case on the grand staircase landing was probably–“Yes, I made that, too.” (I was embarrassed that I had walked by the case so many times without realizing that the dazzling blue dress encased within it was crafted by Timothy Westbrook, the fourth AiR.  I thought it was, well, what did I think?  A ball gown from 1893?)

He also designed the case for Niki Johnson‘s Tether, the deep red tub lined with feathers and fur that sits across from the art studio.

There’s also a massive butcher block table that looks like puzzle pieces that Chef Brian Frakes pulls out for special presentations, and Paint Department Supervisor Mary Rose told me later that he also built all the podiums in the hotel and the long tables in the basement’s Salve Staff Canteen.

It was clear that Robin took exceptional pride in his work, as well he should.  He turned that pride to humility for a moment, though, when he told me how Stephanie had honored him in one of her paintings during her residency.  The woodwork was interesting, but now I wanted to follow him down this path.

Stephanie had joined forces with Narrator Molly Snyder to collaborate on a book of paintings and writings inspired by their time at The Pfister. Called The Carriersthis collection is both rooted in Milwaukee and transient with departures and travels and arrivals.  In one of the rooted painting-story pairings, “Robin & the Fisherfolk,” a small fishing boat in the foreground is overwhelmed by a turbulent magenta-yellow sky and a tower of concrete, construction cranes, southside homes, and a strangely dark and imposing Allen-Bradley Clock.  One of those homes is the one Robin grew up in.

Robin & the Fisherfolk (2013) by Stephanie Barenz. Mixed media on canvas, 84″x60″.

During his childhood, his family lived five blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower.  His house was on the west side of the street, looking east. It’s the house on the middle-right in Stephanie’s looming tower, the one with the porch.  The moonlight was so bright it would shine right into his house and onto the desk in his room.  His family, as did many in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, called it the “Polish moon,” a sobriquet in honor of the Polish immigrants of Walker’s Point.  What I love is that Robin made it seem like it was only his family that called it that; there was that sense of pride again.  As an accompaniment to Stephanie’s painting, Molly captured a similar special pride in her short story:

by Molly Snyder

“We never had to have a clock or thermometer in the house,” Robin mused, “because all we had to do was look out the window.  And my school was two blocks away.  We’d watch the guys washing the glass of the clock–especially when we were studying.  It was so cool, how could you blame us?

Robin had been enjoying the appetizers and had somehow devoured all but a lonely raisin, which he picked up, then placed back on the plate.  I understood that the stark white plate was one of the 40-foot, 3-1/2 inch clock faces.  “You knew it was a big clock, obviously, but when you saw a man up there?  Then you told yourself, ‘That’s a big clock!'”  The only photo I have of Robin is this one of him pointing to the raisin man:

Raisin man.

We saw Stephanie arriving, but before they greeted each other with friendly memories and hugs, Robin left me with this: “Eventually, I got to work as a painter in the offices and parking lot of Rockwell Automation– and guess what?  I was up there on the side of the building on one of those swing stages, just like the guys I’d see from my school window.  It’s funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it?”

 

PLUME SERVICE II | December 10, 2016 | More “Hearing Voices”

Amy Miller finds a comfortable spot on the stairs to write.
Here, Amy listens intently as Morganne MacDonald reads her story.

As promised, here are a few more stories inspired by the paintings in The Pfister Hotel.  The first was written by Amy Miller–we squealed in delight at its ability to be both formal sounding and naughty.  The second is another by Amy, a letter from a character in the hazy painting who is barely recognizable at first.  And the last is mine, also a letter, based on the dark-haired woman’s gaze vs. the glazed eyes of the red-haired woman, the position of the old man’s hands, and the dichotomy of Catholic religious items and the reasonable scale.

“The Poppy Field” story is one of imminent marriage, “Moonlight Scene” is about a hoped for return to married life, and “The Fortune Teller” tells the story of a young woman looking for good fortune in the love department.

Enjoy!

“The Poppy Field” (Louis Aston Knight)
by Amy Miller

The sun was warm for late summer.  The scent of the flowers was strong in the air, delightfully suffocating in its heaviness.

Isabelle looked over at her sister Henrietta, already dressed in her best clothes and wearing an apron to protect against soiling.  “Dear sister, I am so happy to be here with you,” said Isabelle, plucking another perfect, pink bloom.

“Not as happy as I to have you with me!” replied Henrietta.  “Just to think, the two of us picking my marriage bouquet.  It will be as if you are holding my hand down the aisle.”

Isabelle could hear the joy in Henrietta’s voice.  It was heartwarming, even in the heat–and the dizzying profusion of color abounded around them.

“You have accepted a good man.  I’m sure he will bring you a happy life.:

“Thank you for your blessing, dear sister.”

“Well, it’s really his blessings you will be concerned with this evening,” said Isabelle with a conspiratorial nudge.  

Henrietta gasped and blushed.  “Izzy,” she cried, with playful horror.

“Well, Is it not true?  T’would be a sad life to be bound to a man who could not fulfill all his duties.”

“Izzy, I’m sure he will make me happy,” Henrietta said, dropping her gaze and blushing.

“Moonlight Scene” (H.M. Kitchel)
by Amy Miller

20 September 1872

Dearest Majorie,

I write to you by light of fire and full moon.  Camp tonight is by a small stream bed.  Work fills my days, but it is in the long, lonely hours of the night that my mind turns only to thoughts of you.

I have managed to capture an excellent harvest of valuable pelts.  If all goes well, this trip will buy us provisions for a comfortable winter.  We may even have enough to try buying seed to plant in the spring.  I know how pained you feel at the risk I take on these trips.  With any luck, this one may become the last.

I hold your handkerchief close to my heart each time I sleep, trusting your love and divine providence to watch over me and hold me safe from harm. I long for the day we shall be together again in one house, as husband and wife should be.

I will post this letter to you when I next arrive at a fort.  I hope it will find you well and safe in your father’s care.  Tell him that soon he shall have a son-in-law worthy of the title.

Yours in love.

“Beneath the Table” (inspired by Ludwig Vollmar’s Fortune Teller)
by Dominic Inouye

Dear Herr Vollmar,

I write to you today with a quite serious request.  Two days ago, I accompanied my younger sister–you’ll remember her as Lotta–to your home, despite my initial concern about two girls such as us visiting a stranger, let alone a man, in his private abode.  You must know that it was not without a moral struggle betwixt us that I finally conceded to this most curious venture–if only, I told her, to unleash my feminine venom should anything unseemly occur.

She sought your sage advice, believing you to be a man of both your word and a man of God, inspired by the holy scriptures.  Indeed, the icons and crucifix and prayer beads that hang on your wall seem to speak to this truth.  But, sir, I studied you, since I am an observant and cautious girl, just as my mother always taught me to be.  Your holy words, on the contrary, belied the archaic babble inspired by the arcana of your dusty tarot cards, hidden as they were beneath the table.  I was wise to your charlatanism, but refrained from intervening, as my sister had willingly clasped her heart over her ears.  She would have been as deaf to my plea for her to leave your foolery as she was deaf to your foolery.  You spoke no godly words, only ones of devils and towers, hierophants and suns–and the Hanged Man–which she no doubt heard as favorable signs gleaned from the Old Testament or, better yet, the Apocalypse, that her long months of pining for a certain young man, nay fool, would soon be over.

This is why I write to you now, in her absence, to insist that you never allow her to visit you again; neither will she procure your services nor will you promote them. For you have gained in coins what she has lost in faith and decency.  Yes, she has more hope now, but it is misguided, turned awry by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  I promise to not be too slow to call your bluff and reveal you as the false prophet you are.  For now, she must not know I have made such demands on her behalf.  I trust you will heed this warning.  

Sincerely,

Neté Fuchs*

* In German, Fuchs means “fox hunter.”

PLUME SERVICE II | December 10, 2016 | “Hearing Voices”

What is “voice”?

It’s what comes out of our mouths when we speak, the reverberation of air through our vocal cords that makes particular sounds, with a pitch and a timbre, a tone and a frequency.  But is that all it is?

Is it the expression of our unique style, whether spoken or written (or even painted or danced)?  A feel, a beat; a rhythm, a pace?  The formality or informality of how we are communicating, indicated by our vocabulary and inflection and even our body language?  Is it our accent, revealing our genesis, a region whose inhabitants have trained their vocal cords to reverberate in “ahs” versus “ohs,” a drawl, a click, a cadence–to say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain”?

Is it a descriptor, as in “professional voice” or “stuffy voice,”  “silly voice” or “natural voice” (whatever that is)?  Is it our way of interpreting a situation in which we vary our vocal cords to fit an environment, like a “church voice” versus a “teacher voice”?

Or is it even bigger than all this?  Is it part of our identity, our very self . . . a power that we are given or that we develop or that we sometimes choose? And something that can be taken away in a suppressive and even oppressive way, as in “taking away someone’s voice”?

The six writers who gathered with me this past Saturday afternoon for the second Plume Service writing workshop determined that it could be all of the above.  While the first Plume Service asked participants to step into a painting and experience it on all five sensual levels–seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling–this second gathering invited the writers to try on a different persona and develop his or her voice.  No landscapes devoid of humanity this time.  Only paintings which featured humans or ones with humans distant or obscured and therefore unheard.  Their goal was to let these humans talk and to venture into the distance or through the haze to meet up with those humans who they could barely see.

The ultimate goal, as with the first Plume Service, was to amass creative pieces of writing inspired by the painting in The Pfister, from which I will be able to choose selections to accompany the paintings with placards and, I hope, audio.

After an insightful brainstorm around the definition of “voice,” the participants each wrote down three adjectives that they (or others) would use to describe them.  Then I asked them to ask themselves “Is this how I talk?” and “What does it even mean to ‘talk’ this way?”  For instance, I wrote down observant, gregarious, and kind.  One way, I told them, that I speak gregariously is that I use people’s names as often as possible, addressing them often and referring to them as examples (a skill I mastered while a teacher).  I also look people in the eye and try to engage them as interesting individuals worthy of my attention.  The examples they gave were all quite personal and revealing, almost confessional at times.  But we talked about what it means for someone’s voice to be “shy” or “sassy” or “anxious” and interrogated the validity or profundity of these meanings.

We could have talked for hours, I think.  But the paintings were calling out: “Hear our voices” (whisper) or “Hear our voices!” (cry) or “Hear our voices” (lament or plea).

And off they went to explore.  When they returned, I was surprised to learn that even more people had chosen to write about Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice (note to self: Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice is off limits for Plume Service III!).  I have already published three poems from the first workshop all inspired by this one painting.  I don’t know what it is about this painting: Is it enigmatic?  mysterious? inviting? soothing?  Is it that we all connect somehow with ships going out to sea and ships returning?  A coming and a going?  A longing for adventure and a yearning to return?

Whatever it is, I give you three more versions of Calderon’s oils.  The first is by Cian MacDonald-Milewski, a senior in high school, who writes an interior monologue in the voice of a man returning to his wife and child. The second, by Iris Geng, steps out of the painting and describes the scene from the Calderon’s perspective.  And the third is the first of a pair by Christina Oster: the Venice poem is in her father’s voice and a second, inspired by a different painting, is in her mother’s.

“Man in Tall, Docked Ship Thinking to Himself” 
by Cian MacDonald-Milewski

I am so glad to be home to see my wife and child.  It has been so long . . . I wish I wouldn’t have had to leave them for so long . . . When I left my child, she was so small, so bright, like a yellow daisy on a warm summer day in an open field.  I pray that they have not struggled while I was away. Now that I have gained enough coin from my venture to secure us, I hope I will not have to venture again.  I do not want to be ripped from my family because of finances . . . I will tell my wife the love that I feel deep inside my soul, this ember that has only been fueled while I have been away.  When I see my child, I will whisper in her ear and tell her promises of being there for her forever and always.  I long to embrace my wife and child and never part from their side again.

Cian

When participants heard Cian’s piece at the end of our workshop, they remarked at his vivid, poetic use of language and the formality of his thoughts, which, he says, he was trying to choose his words purposefully in order to replicate what might be a cultured voice from the late 1800s.

Iris’ poem chose a different angle with a short narrative from the perspective of someone observing the painter Calderon who was observing the scene on the water.  She captures nicely a potential disruption to an otherwise peaceful day.

“A Partly Cloudy Day for Painting”
by Iris Geng

It’s a nice, partly cloudy day at the dock of San Marco Square.  The painter had set up.  A schooner with massive sails toward the dock and a gondola with six guests tries very hard to row to get out of the way of the schooner.  The rowers sing out loud to coordinate and energize the gondola, but the three passenger couples are observant.  

“Watch out for that sailboat!” cries the man with a red hat and white gown.  

“No worry,” his friend says calmly.  “We have the right of way.”  

The fear on their women’s faces relaxes after hearing his remark.  

“What a gorgeous day to be on the canal,” the woman in blue chants.  “I am looking forward to our meal near the Riolto Bridge.”

Iris (left) and Christina (right)

This next Venice poem is the one by Christina Oster.  It is written in the voice of her deceased father, who succumbed to dementia, writing an imagined letter to his wife.  In a recent email, she shared, “Due to my father’s dementia right before he passed, they never had a chance to truly say ‘goodbye’ to each other.  This exercise proved the perfect way for me to bring closure of some sort to his unfortunate passing 6 months ago.”  The poem that follows is inspired by a different painting, Antonio Torres’ Grecian Girl, and written in the voice of her mother, writing to her husband.  Both are haunting and sad, but also, as Christina writes, words of closure.

“From Father”
by Christina Oster

Mother,
Demon vessels have demented my sails.
Waves crash, carrying away sediment filled with sentiment.
A mirage to think that my mast was made of steel.
It is not.
My mast is frail and feeble, getting weaker with the pelting storm.
But, my love, don’t ever question your presence through it all.
My view of Venice is not a blur.
I do recall.
I recall your beauty, your heart, your service.
I am soon approaching inevitable shipwreck.
But I will forever remember what the sea has forced me to forget.

“From Mother”
by Christina Oster

Father,
Finally, our Parthenon crumbles to ruins.
The Aegean Sea sailed your ship to sunset well before I could perform a final tidy-up.
My exhaustion prevails, but faith through my passion and pain will pulse and persist until our life
Our structure
is someday restored. 
But for now, my love
I have poured my last service.

Christina

I am thankful that Cian accompanied his mother to this workshop and unabashedly shared the romantic words of the sailor.

I am thankful that Iris, who is Chinese, overcame her anxiety about her written English so that we could see the Venice painting (yet again!) from a new perspective.

And I am thankful that Christina felt empowered enough to share her work with six complete strangers, let alone see in the two paintings an opportunity for personal healing and growth.  In her words, “Thank you for reuniting me with a style of writing that I’ve abandoned for far too long. I often think I can only write a certain way – a more edgy, promotional, advertise-ish way. I forgot that the romantic, compassionate voice still exists.”

It doesn’t matter who you are: there is surely a painting in The Pfister Hotel’s beautiful collection that is bound to hook you, draw you in, transform your vision, and help you find (or reconnect with) your voice.  I hope you’ll consider joining me for Plume Service III.  The January date is yet to be determined, so stay tuned!

As always, thank you for reading!

p.s. More Plume Service II stories and photos to come–including my own!

p.p.s. And stay tuned, also, for a little post on a little thing that happened to me this past Sunday: I got married and had brunch at The Rouge with 25 of my closest family and friends! 🙂

Plume Service Vol. 1: Sensual Perspectives of Time & Space, Cont’d

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In today’s edition of Plume Service Vol. 1, you’ll read different stories inspired by the same painting.

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A View of Venice (Charles Clement Calderon)

The Olive Branch and Stone 
by Zoë Lindstrom (aka Countess Zoëlla Germaine)

Blue wind,
Yesterday you were our enemy.
We rolled our hearts
with the old sea–
salt monster–
the nets yielding unspoken things.
Ochre sun and stone,
such strangers you became–
the church bells chime,
olives and grapes and girls are crushed
and waiting.
Too rich a lie, too small and shrill and bustle–
this land.
Welcome to shore
my ghost captain,
though you belong only
to the line
between sea and sky.

A View of Venice
by Alexa Hollywood (aka Madam Odohata)

As an old woman, I live as much in my reveries as my real life.  Venice . . . a friend once called it a beautiful city and an open sewage system. I remember Venice, indistinct, as if in a haze.

In this painting, I see the ship, Venice as a major power, a crossroads of civilization.  And I remember the Doge’s palace.  I remember all of the Hieronymus Bosch paintings.  One of the most powerful men in the world collected and contemplated visions of Hell.

I walked the narrow sidewalks along the canals, crossed the tiny bridges.  For the uninitiated, it was a maze to get lost in, briefly recover, and get lost again.  The sidewalks were wet, sometimes with dog poop, sometimes not.

I was with two Jews.  They did not want to visit churches.  I understood.  I also understood the Renaissance and earlier about art in churches.  I missed so much.  But I reveled in modern-day Venice.

But I reveled in modern-day Venice.  The Venetians could be rude.  We jumped on a water taxi.  The operator closed the gate as someone tried to jump on.  One Venetian began to argue with another Venetian about civility.  Drifting down the canals, we could see the magnificent palaces.  Now, I wish I had visited Peggy Guggenheim’s palace.  It seems visual art is a recessing gene in me that has emerged in old age.

And so this is Venice, to me, an old woman and a diarist.  And the old woman notes the artist’s lifeline: 1870 to 1906.  Child, what could you have become?

Here’s one more inspired by a more zoomed-in Bondietti painting of Venice’s canal shoreline:

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Venice (H. Bondietti)

Venice
by Aimee Sellon (aka Salvadora Hemisphere)

Venice is sinking, you know!
And yet so much has remained
the same–

happy bird stalking tourists,
children refusing to end their play,
young ladies deep in conversation,
ocean wind and a pleasant salty scent
with the hint of fresh fish.

Although the sun shines,
the air is cold.  But this place is
warmth.  The buildings are
kind, the water is
honest, the stone streets
remember your face, the wind
knows when you are feeling
sad, and will gently touch your hand
until you are feeling better.

Coming soon: Men curl, kittens mew, and moonlight  pierces the night sky!

The next Plume Service will be Saturday, December 10, 12-2:30pm, in the Mezzzanine!

Sign up on Facebook (search “Plume Service”) or contact me at hotelnarrator@gmail.com

Plume Service Vol. 1: Sensual Perspectives of Time & Space

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About a week ago, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, fifteen people participated in the first ever Plume Service writing workshop, the first in a series of monthly writing experiences whose goal is to bring The Pfister’s paintings to life.

We gathered on the mezzanine, with a view of the lobby below and an ear to the flurry of activity into which we would soon enter (or from which we would retreat, as it were).  A beautiful spread of tea sandwiches, wine, and other beverages promised to keep us satisfied for the following two-and-a-half hours.

Participants wore nametags with their real names and their noms de plume, which included delightful disguises like “Lelia Allen,” “Lady T,” “Alexis St. Amand,” and “Salvadora Hemisphere.” I invited them to unveil and reveal the stories in the paintings they would view today, whether in the lobby, the 2nd floor, the 3rd, or the 7th.  Their methods: use their senses and their perspective.  Today, they would–not literally, of course, I warned them!–hold their ear up to a painting and listen to what the subjects were saying or enjoy the waves lapping onto the shore.  Today, they would lick the paintings and taste the apple or the cold, thick air.  They would sniff deeply to detect the flirtatious perfume or Venetian river banks, reach out and pet the hunting dog or the delicate dress, and, of course, observe closely or from far away. They could, too, if they were careful, step into a painting and become part of the landscape or join in on a conversation–or eavesdrop.

Their range of observations, I told them, did not have to be limited to the framed space that each artist had offered us.  Instead, they could imagine what was to the left or the right, above or below, in the foreground or the background.  They could, too, unstick the paintings from time and travel to the moment prior or just after, or three years before or two days after.  They could focus on the entire painting or just one part, one just one painting or many.  And they could choose to write in any form they wished: narrative, poetry, monologue or dialogue, pure description.  The operative word was “could.”  No limits, no rules.  Just use their senses, play with perspective–and don’t touch the paintings! 

I certainly got my exercise trying to find the fifteen writers all over the four floors.  At first, some of them dispersed in pairs or small groups, but eventually I found almost all of them in various states of contemplation: sitting on the carpet in the long second floor hallway in front of an intriguing painting, lounging on the chaise on the grand landing, scribbling prodigiously while standing, or relaxing in the lobby or the mezzanine.

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We talked about each painting briefly: about the sensuality of Love’s kiss or where the woman with the empty basket was going. About the longing gaze in one or the surprised expression of a monk as he witnessed the canoodling of two lovers.  About the three women in the sea of curling (as in the winter sport) men or the composition of the hunting dog painting.  Each participant had found his or her writing home for an hour or so, had taken that time to escape from the hecticness of their own lives to contemplate a work of art and be moved by it to tell stories.

When we reconvened in the mezzanine, they spent some time sharing their writing with their fellow participants.  Few instructions were needed–they leapt directly into the experience with positive, affirming, interested attitudes.  In one corner there was laughter about a witty poem, in another there were nods of approval and insight.

20161112_134156 20161112_134133 20161112_1341340Finally, to cap off our first Plume Service, we retreated to the plush white carpet of the Pop-Up Gallery (many with wine in hand–white wine, not red!) and gathered in a circle for an informal reading of our work.  Each new work was greeted with snaps or claps and often words of praise.  You can tell by the photos that much fun was had as we honored each other, each others’ writings, and the paintings that inspired them.

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Over the next week or so, I will be sharing excerpts from some of these writings for your reading pleasure.  After the workshops are concluded in early spring, I will be working with The Pfister to create placards to accompany some of the paintings and an audio tour that will enliven guests’ stay at the Hotel.

The next workshop will be held Saturday, December 10, again from 12-2:30 pm.  Same goal, different focus: VOICE.  Please sign up on the Plume Service Facebook page or RSVP at hotelnarrator@gmail.com.  I hope to see some of the same faces–and new ones–next month!

For now, enjoy a little literary Plume Service!

consuelo_fould_reverieReverie | Zoë Lindstrom aka “Countess Zoëlla Germaine”

Stay–
he said it once to me,
in a simple garden
before corsets
crushed the colors
of my breath.

Wait–
he placed a raw hand
on the ivory roses,
tinged salmon by the evening,
caught in their last pure meaning
before the frost.

No, I did not–
I did not linger then,
though later I pricked my fingers
with the thorns of privilege
in the grey garden of another.

Now
I wait,
I stay,
seeking to look again, with clear girls’ eyes,
at that moment.
Was it you I loved–
or the image of petals
left in mercy on the flower?

 

From the Mezzanine: Milwaukee Art Museum Teens Descend on The Pfister

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Windblown and soggy, they escaped the dark cold.  They entered the bright gallery space where new art was being hung for an upcoming exhibit, one girl wrapped in a beach towel for warmth, others with curls worried about frizzing.  One boy shook his purple hair, others nudged each other as they talked about their day. Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin their experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally, if “formal” means taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin the experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally–if by “formal” I mean taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Helene Fischman, the Manager of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Teen Leadership Program, had arranged to bring these twelve teenagers to The Pfister, a few blocks west of where they typically meet, to learn about the Narrator program and to practice their writing by responding to their experience of the Hotel.  This special Teen Advisory Council is, according to MAM’s website, “designed to develop teen leadership skills, build teen career connections to museum- and arts-related professionals, and bring about systemic change within the Milwaukee Art Museum.”  The teens–who attend schools as diverse as Marquette, Rufus King, and Milwaukee High School of the Arts–were invited to serve on the Council based on their demonstrated leadership and enthusiasm for the arts in previous MAM programs.  Helene takes them through intensive exercises that focus on how to respond to the world around them in different ways.  And, as was clear by how they acted with each other and with Helene and me, she teaches them how to respect that world and the people with whom they interact.  They are currently creating a monthly eNewsletter–with articles about goings-on at the Museum and around the city, recommended pairings of art and music, comics, interviews, and more–and getting ready to set up a Teen Art Exhibition.

Before most of them got a chance to view the magnificent lobby (only two of them had visited before), I offered them a mini-history of the Hotel as we relaxed in the Pop-Up Gallery.  I’m not the greatest historical storyteller (aka I’m no Peter Mortenson), so my histories usually get reduced to timeline highlights.  However, the teens listened dutifully (and with what seemed genuine interest).  In fact, we even had some good laughs.  For instance, once I told them that a fire destroyed the grand Newhall House in 1883, everything after that became, for the teens, about fire.  They guessed, incorrectly of course, that Guido Pfister died . . . wait for it . . . “in a hotel fire!”  That four days after the Hotel Pfister opened in 1893 . . . wait for it . . . it, too, “burned to the ground!”  (The correct answer?  The stock market crashed.)  So we had a little fun and took some liberties with the history of the “Grand Hotel of the West,” amused by Dick and Harry (the stately lion guardians), awed by the idea of the glass ceiling, tickled by the fact that someone wrote a march just for the Pfister Hotel, and, well, I’m not sure what they were thinking when I told them there used to be Turkish Baths where the WELL Spa + Salon is now.  I detected a smirk or two.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

We made our way to the Mezzanine, got ourselves settled on the floor again, and I talked to them about the joys and difficulties of being the Pfister Narrator, in particular what it’s like approaching strangers.  “Sometimes, honestly, it feels like I’m looking for a date,” I tell them.  “I know, that’s creepy, but it’s kind of true.”  I give them my best Joey from Friends: “How you doin’?”  Sometimes, I add, it takes some coaxing and getting over inhibitions or even language barriers.  Sometimes it’s about seeking out the “loudest” person in the room, whether that means volume-loud (like the LSU fans when they were here to go to Lambeau) or appearance-loud (like the one person in the room that looks like he works on Project Runway, covered in tattoos and incredible floral skinny jeans).  I admit that sometimes I’ve prejudged people unfairly (“too sporty,” “too quiet,” “too north woodsy”–whatever those things actually mean, which is nothing) and that I’ve more often than not been humbled by what people are willing to share with me.  I meant to give them these examples in particular: the “too sporty” guy who I thought was just going to talk about golf but who told me that the time he felt most alive was after he gave one of his kidneys to his eleven-year-old daughter and started embracing Buddhist values; the “too quiet” woman who wowed me with her photography and oil paintings, embracing her inner Bohemian; and the “too north woodsy” guy who talked about fishing like it was a spiritual experience.  I do share with them one of my most recent Humans of the Pfister, Claudia, an Associate at The Pfister who was serving wine and hors d’oeuvres at a recent function that I was at.  I told Claudia to take a break from pouring us wine–we could do that ourselves–and tell me a story about a fear.  After breaking down her inhibitions a bit, I got to hear her moral philosophy on the light and the dark.  I’ve come to not be surprised when eloquent wisdom comes from the mouths of anyone I talk to here at the Hotel.  I think I used the word “humbled” at least a dozen times.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

It was time, then, for the teens to do what they were here to do, which was to explore the Hotel and respond to it.  Helene and I had decided to offer them three main observation subjects: Painting, People, or Pillars (a third “P” that meant any of the architectural details of the Hotel).  I invited them to imagine what was to the unseen and unrepresented left or right each painting’s scene, or above or below, beyond or in the foreground.

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I suggested they observe guests’ and Associates’ characteristics and eavesdrop a little, or even talk to them if they seemed willing.

Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And Helene asked them to consider what the pillars or carpeting or handrails had to say to them, or imagine who had constructed or walked or touched these elements in the Hotel’s past glory days.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And then they were off.

Some of the teens headed directly to the third floor, others ventured down the stairs into the lobby, gazing up at the ceiling or walking down the hallway toward Mason Street Grill.  At least one remained in the mezzanine, contemplating the rendition of Domenichino’s The Hunt of Diana.  Jack West and I were doing some serious art criticism about this piece!

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Jack West (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

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Helene had encouraged them to be patient and take some time to look around, observe, and listen before they took their thoughts and imaginations to paper. As Helene’s beautiful photos show, the teens took her words to heart and also embraced the Hotel’s offer of “Salve”:

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Josiah Grabber (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Marcelo Quesada (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Tom Krajna (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sarai Van Leer (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Joicelyn Brenson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Suvan Praseutsack (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sheyenne Wilson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Margaret French (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

When they all returned, we took a break, ate some boxed dinners prepared by the MAM chef, and talked about, among other things, the seniors’ college application process (two of the teens were still juniors), where they were applying, what their dream schools were.  The teens enjoyed each others’ company, clearly enjoyed having Helene as their leader, and welcomed me into their conversation with ease and delight.  In particular, talked a lot with Montaser Abduljalil, a polite and inquisitive young man.  We talked about art at his school and the school where I used to teach, about my photography project called ZIP MKE, and about how marvelous the Hotel is.  Monty, as people call him, loves that “one of the Pfister’s goals is to make your stay feel as cozy and home-like as they can, with carpet and marble everywhere and the welcoming staff.”

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

When we moved back to the Pop-Up Gallery where there was more light and less noise (the lobby was hopping!), I learned that some of them had talked to Pamela in her studio and that Monty had approached Dr. Jeffrey Hollander at his piano and talked to him for awhile, learning how Hollander remembers every song that anyone has ever asked him to play.  (In fact, before we left for the evening, Monty asked him to play Debussy’s Claire de Lune–and was simply in awe when he heard Dr. Hollander play it.  We had to stay to hear the entire piece.)

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Dang, these kids were good!  And then, again gathered in a circle on the floor, Helene and I heard each of the teens share what they had written.  Each was written in a different style and form.  Some were poems, some were lists of observations, others were dialogues imagined or overheard, still others were written from the perspective of, say, the carpet or an empty display case, as with Sarai Van Leer’s insistent poem:

Empty
A space waiting to be filled
Hollow, for decoration?
They are saving me for something special that’s why there is nothing in me yet.
Every other one is filled with careless objects,
Just things to look at
Never to take note of
Wine, conditioner, advertisement, glasses, and more liquor
Why am I empty?
They must be saving me for something special, right?
I mean they must be!
I won’t be just something to pass by and look at,
Never to take note of!
Yet, I am special.
I am not filled
Nothing is there, my beauty is too precious
Too beautiful to be filled with nonsense objects.
I am something to take note of!

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Sarai’s inspiration

Or Thomas Krajna’s elusive “Vending Behind Closed Doors”:

Fitting in is obsolete.
Practicality and manner outweigh her. Endless possibilities of consumerism.
One action outweighs your trust.
The windows can’t see.
The doors can’t see.
Technology inputs and uneventfully changes history.

And Marcelo Quesada’s vision of the lobby:

The people mingle. The walls tower, a rich light brown of milky coffee. They curve in a heavenly, sweeping motion towards the ceiling, switching to a creamy baby blue that sings of church hymns and lullabies from my mother. The angels, depicted as children–soft, floating, just like the warm mumble of the lobby conversations. The piano is distant–the notes drip and sing and dance off the mocha walls, giving dead paintings a kiss of life. Glasses of ice and liquor clink and swish in a familiar gesture. Soft, dim yellow lights warm the space. It is full.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Monty (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

All the pieces were rough drafts, but each held a new an interesting insight into the life of the Hotel–and each was read not from the floor but from a ceremonial chair, holding the ceremonial Nerf skull.  And, more important than the writing they had accomplished, after each reading the teens snapped or clapped for each other and rolled an orange to someone who would be the designated reviewer, offering one thing they liked about the piece their Council colleague had shared.  This was no time for critique, just celebration and positive response.  It was a pleasant bookend to the evening, which had begun in a circle of warmth from the cold and warmth in each others’ company.

Oh, and did I mention that Monty was taking photos the entire time?  A few of his photos are above in the article, but here is only a handful of the nearly 75 that he sent me.  I don’t think that last Wednesday will be the last time that Montaser Abduljalil (or the other teens*) will be visiting The Pfister Hotel!

 

PLUME SERVICE: Bringing the Art to Life

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If these walls could talk…

Over 80 Victorian paintings and other art pieces grace the walls of The Pfister Hotel, an impressive art collection worth more than the original cost of the Hotel in 1893.  It is considered to be the largest collection of Victorian art in any hotel in the world.  Each art piece captures people, animals, and nature, sometimes posed, sometimes in medias res, in the middle of some exquisite, or mundane, action.  Very often, the carved and gilded frames are artworks in themselves.

On Saturday, November 12th, from 12 noon to 2:30 pm, you will have the opportunity to join me for PLUME SERVICE, the first in a series of free writing workshops that will have you not only staring intently at the paintings but stepping into them (well, not literally–I don’t think the Marcus Corporation would appreciate that!) and imagining what it would be like to exist in their worlds.  If not stepping into them, then stepping back and contemplating the bigger picture, the world just outside the frame. What’s to the left and the right that the painter’s eye has cropped out?  What’s happening above or below?  What is that figure looking at beyond the boundaries of the canvas and wood?  If not stepping into or stepping back, then stooping a bit closer to the oils and watercolors to notice details you might have missed.  If not stooping to look, then bending an ear to listen, perhaps imagining the taste of a fruit, even breathing in deeply through your nose to smell the salty air (no one will judge you!).

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What is Diana telling to her women at the beginning of the hunt?  What are the two women talking about at the altar of Athena?  And what is going on in the head of the nude figure at the edge of the pool?

The paintings offer us intriguing compositions and perspectives and colors, but since Domenichino, Bompiani, and Mayer are no longer here to give us the scoop, we’ll become art (and artistic) sleuths uncovering the stories these paintings tell and expressing them in our own words, through flash fiction, poetry, and other written forms.

 

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I want to know how the girlfriends in Scadrone’s painting met, what’s going to happen after the chianti is bottled in Giachi’s, and who loses Lesrel’s card game.  I’m curious to know the words to Peluso’s romantic serenade or how the woman in Grolleron’s piece is going to get that man to leave. her. alone!

Speaking of which, there are plenty of, uh, amorous scenes–I’ve never seen someone so happy while cutting an apple.

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I also wouldn’t mind hearing your vivid descriptions of the horses in Schreyer’s “The Wallachian Post-Carrier,” the title of which fails to capture the raw intensity of hoofs and sweat and earth.  Or of Lindsay’s “Mahomet,” the noble lion (who actually looks a bit perplexed), and even of those too-cute kittens in a basket by LeRoy.  Oh, and the monks–very amusing!

I envision the pieces we write together becoming placards that will accompany the paintings on the walls and, quite possibly, becoming audio recordings that will be available to guests who would like to take an art tour.  Imagine: your words becoming part of the life of The Pfister Hotel.

So please join me on November 12, bring your favorite notebook and writing utensil, and prepare to bring the Pfister’s art alive in a new way!

You can RSVP by emailing me at hotelnarrator@gmail.com or by visiting the Plume Service Facebook Page.

NOTE: The December workshop will be on Saturday, December 10.  We will continue our work of storytelling.  You can certainly attend both–there is a lot of art!–but you do not have to attend the November workshop in order to join me in December.  And stay tuned for early 2017 plans!

Getting HAPPY at The Pfister: A Story of Loss and Recovery

Suggestion: Turn up the volume on your device, click play, and prepare to get happy!

Photographs from Guillaume Duchenne’s 1862 book Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine

One of the many privileges of being human is that we experience emotions.  While some might argue that other creatures express emotions, too, or that it’s not much of a privilege that we have to experience the painful ones, no one can argue with the fact that we are indeed “moved out of ourselves” (Latin emovere – “move out, agitate”) by a myriad of complex feelings stemming from the four basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust.  These emotions, each registered by different combinations of our 42 facial muscles, can cause us to love, cry, scream, or punch.  Sometimes we bottle them up or keep them hidden; sometimes we let loose and express them with reckless abandon.  And in our digital world, we don’t just register emotions with our faces: think of the billions of emoticons and gifs and memes that we use now to express our feelings.  Emotions are the stuff of our lives–and the building blocks of the stories we write about ourselves.  One such storythe directorial debut of Michael Patrick McKinley–hit the screens during the recent Milwaukee Film Festival.

While the festival is over, if you missed the Milwaukee premiere of McKinley’s delightful documentary Happy, don’t fret.  Just put on a happy face and head over to The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery for a glimpse into the sketchbooks of the subject of the film, Leonard Zimmerman.  Curated by Steven Uhles and hosted by Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson, “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” features numerous prints from Leonard’s sketchbooks, an enormous collage of 32 photographs with Happy stickers in them, and an extended trailer of the film created just for this exhibit.  

20161004_140539Uhles describes Leonard’s art, with its whimsical robots and recognizable motifs, as “art as memoir.”  Even though this exhibit can only offer visitors a miniscule, microscopic fraction of his sketches, one can find even in it Leonard’s story of love and loss, depression and recovery–a story of falling in love and creating a life with Brian Malone, then losing him to cryptococcal meningitis.  The sketches depict Leonard’s subsequent depression and how his art became therapy, how it helped him hold on to his love for and memories of Brian and recover his capacity for boundless happiness.  Additionally, as with all good memoir, one can find in the sketches echoes of one’s own life events.  

The collage of Happy stickers–created by the Coalition of Photographic Arts–speaks to the participatory nature of Zimmerman’s art: the ubiquitous stickers of his Happy campaign, with the endearing smile and flashing bulb that people all over the world have attached to parts of their cities then shared with Leonard through social media.  While the yellow smiley that appeared in 1963 stares blankly ahead, this smiley tilts its head, its eyes have life, its bulb flashes a message of happiness.  Anyone can get free stickers by sending Leonard a self-addressed stamped envelope.  

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Gallery visitors consider the Happy collage.

One of the first things we hear about Leonard in the film comes from Alex Wier of Wier/Stewart, the branding, advertising, and graphic design company where Leonard is a designer.  Alex says, “Leonard comes from a different planet.”  Yes, Leonard’s infinite number of smiles and laughs are contagious, and yes, he can bring “childlike enthusiasm” to seemingly bland ad campaigns like ones for banks.  Yes, Leonard loved Christmas so much as a child that his tinsel and light displays rivaled, surely, Clark Griswold’s, and his parents even wondered, “Where does this child get all these things?”  But I have an inkling that Leonard is not really an alien from outer space, that his story is the story of being human on this planet.  One of wonder and delight, and one where there’s room for pain and suffering.  

We embrace our pains in different ways.  Leonard seems to have embraced it in every way possible.  In the film, we hear him embrace it with raw honesty, as when he describes for the camera the spinal fluid from Brian’s first spinal tap.  He describes how he embraced it with confusion and disorientation after Brian died, as when he would walk into the grocery store only to abandon it in tears because Brian usually did the shopping–he didn’t know what to buy.  He embraced it with self-medication, too, (“I didn’t think I would hurt”) and eventually had to move back home to Augusta after he lost his job and the house that Brian and he had bought together in Savannah.  

20161004_140530“My best friend was my notebook,” Leonard says in the film.  His sketches, some of which can be seen in the Pop-Up Gallery, allowed him to express his early love, the loss of his love, and the love that remained after his loss.  What emerged were lovable robots, some distinctly Leonard and Brian, others distinctly masculine or feminine, but more often than not, his robots eschew gender or race or sexuality.  Which brings us back to memoir as art: he has interpreted his life for himself, then shared it with us so that we can interpret it and interpret ourselves into it.  As one guest at the gallery’s opening night says, “His art is refreshing.  It makes you think about your own emotions, where you go through break-ups, life, death.  This one is about holding in that bad and not wanting to release the negative energy.  And in this one he has an indifferent face–but he has a bag puppet which suggests that he still has emotions.”

When people like his sister and old art teacher got him canvas, encouraging him to take his sketches one step further, he started painting again and Leonard was born again.  His paintings became a timeline of his emotions and experiences, his process one that echoes his own life: “I always paint messy, then clean it up along the way.”  

One of the best sequences in the film, for me, is one in which we watch Leonard painting in his studio, a soft spotlight on him and his easel in the middle of the room, the background darker.  With headphones jamming–probably to Sam Smith or Telepathic Teddy Bear, both featured heavily on the film’s soundtrackand red Chuck Taylors on his feet, he swoops around his painting with gusto and giddiness, with bright, broad brushstrokes and thick black outlines.  We see his messiness and what he does to “clean it up.”  Ane we can only imagine what he’s thinking as he paints.  Probably something like the quotation from Mother Theresa that he used during a TEDX Talk in 2014: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

Seeing the TEDX Talk for the first time brought director Michael McKinley to tears.  He says that something stuck with him, until six months later, while he was in Las Vegas and had his “epiphany”: to make a documentary about Leonard’s story.  An audience member at the film’s showing that I attended asked Michael why directors don’t make more inspirational movies instead of ones that leave viewers feeling ambiguous about their feelings or just plain empty.  He replied, “There need to be more movies that do the opposite of movies that make you feel sad and crummy.  Now I’ve got the bug.”

20161004_140548Another audience member wanted to know when she could see the film again so she could share it with her family and friends, but Michael reminded her that releasing a film to DVD or streaming while it’s still going through the film festivals gets tricky.  It could be another year, he said, to which she replied, with an apocalyptic tone, “The world doesn’t have twelve months.”   

Well, you’re going to have to wait awhile before you can see the entire documentary, though, because Happy is indeed enjoying the film festival circuit.  It premiered at the Historic Imperial Theater in Augusta, Georgia, delighted viewers at Milwaukee’s festival, and will soon show at New York City’s Chelsea Film Festival as one of only 24 North American films selected.  It will also appear, so far, at the Savannah Film Festival later this month, and the Southern City Film Festival in Aiken, South Carolina, in November.  Its likely that Happy will make it into other festivals as well.  So you could hit the road and head east or south–or be satisfied for now with the “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” teaser, which will remain popped-up in the gallery through October 23.

And in the meantime, do as Leonard does: “You can make the choice to be happy, because happiness matters.”  And visit Leonard’s website and Facebook page to follow his adventures.  And don’t forget: self-addressed stamped envelope sent to him will get you four Happy stickers all your own!

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Michael Patrick McKinley (l) and Leonard Zimmerman (r)

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