Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part I)

Her last name is pronounced “myuza,” which sounds like music and muses.  Its origin is Kashubian, from an ethnic group that hails from Poland on the Baltic Sea.  Interestingly, Margaret Muza is related to the Jacob Muza who in 1872 established a colony on Jones Island (really a peninsula named after James Monroe Jones), essentially squatting there without a title for the land and inviting families from German-occupied Poland to immigrate there.  The fishing on Lake Michigan was a tempting lure for the Kashubian settlers, who had fished the Baltic for centuries.  Within 20 years, 1,800 people lived and worked on Jones Island.  I told her that I had just recently been introduced to Kaszube’s Park, the smallest park in Milwaukee, a few weeks prior: it was the first stop on Adam Carr’s Detours bus tour of Milwaukee’s south side.  Our interview would begin and end with Kaszube’s Park, in fact.

Not wanting her mother’s side of the family to be left out, Margaret then told me of her Irish great-grandfather, who got a third class ticket with a friend on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.  When his friend announced that he couldn’t go, Margaret’s great-grandfather, not wanting to travel alone, sold his ticket.  This stroke of luck is one reason why Margaret Muza is the newest Pfister Artist-in-Residence.

Before she became the Artist-in-Residence, however, Margaret used to work at Sweet Water urban fish and vegetable farm, where she filleted fish all day.  Handling so many fish made her hands rough and scaly, so much so that she would joke that she was actually becoming a fish.  She muses now how at Sweet Water she had linked herself to her Kashubian past.

Lucky for The Pfister, Margaret is not a fish, but an exuberant and accomplished tintype photographer who owns Guncotton Tintype, continuing a craft made popular in the United States in the 1850s and 60s. The process involves coating a thin sheet of metal with a dark lacquer or enamel to create a direct positive.  Margaret uses silver and a varnish she mixes herself, made from tree sap, lavender oil, and alcohol.  A tintype can be “coated, sensitized, exposed, developed, fixed, washed, dried and varnished in less than 10 minutes,” which helped make this process so ubiquitous at carnivals and fairs, as well as on the Civil War sidelines, where photographers set up portable darkrooms.  Everyone from children to presidents sat for these (almost) instant photos.

Guests at The Pfister have already begun having their photographs taken in the studio, which has been transformed from the bright and modern white walls that highlighted former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson’s large-scale abstract paintings into a cozy green drawing room or living room with plush furniture, a writing desk and bookcase, a record player, and, of course, tintypes everywhere you look.

One side of the studio is set up for portrait taking and sports an impressive tintype camera the size of a St. Bernard, which Margaret will use to take, you guessed it, large photographs.

The closet has been converted into a darkroom.  And the room is replete with delightful vintage ephemera: toy cars, old books, golden fruits, wooden deer, feathers, statues, jars with tiny objects, mirrors, and even a little bat paperweight.

On the wall behind her desk hangs a huge print, reminiscent of an old postcard, of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. It is quite impressive against the green walls and juxtaposed to the many artfully scattered objects.

In this first in a two-part series about Margaret Muza–past, present, and future–I asked Margaret about the genesis of her craft.

Why tintype photography?

I love old things, old images.  I’m bigtime into history: everything was made so well and so beautifully.  It kind of breaks my heart that we seem to be getting away from that.  I get sentimental about it.

When I was little, whenever I wanted to do something, I couldn’t wait to get started fast enough.  So it doesn’t surprise anyone that I started doing tintype photography with no background whatsoever.

I remember that I once wanted a treehouse so bad.  I asked my mother, “Please get me wood.  All I need is the stuff.”  She was always getting rid of different kinds of scraps, but she never saved me the things I needed for the treehouse.  So I at least ended up making a seat, a kind of bench, up in the tree.  It’s still there, though someone else owns the house now.

Back then, I wanted my own spot, my own space–and I tried making it myself.  So later, when I discovered tintype, I just had to figure it out, too.  I knew that I’d learn faster on my own.  So I flew to New York to take a workshop, then just started collecting all the things I would need: all the chemistry, a manual, my first camera, darkroom lights, and so on.  Most of it I was able to find on Craigslist, either used or built.

Who or what are your muses?

My four sisters.  I’m comfortable with them.  I know them.  We help each other out.  And they and my one brother are the prettiest people I know, so they are the perfect models for me. And my two youngest sisters both sell vintage clothes in separate Etsy shops, so it’s easy to get that old feel in my photographs.

What is it about old photographs that you love so much?

There’s something about old photos that used to have a creepy effect on me.  Something about the people in them.  I wanted to know what it was that made them like that.  Was it that people were more intense-looking way back when?  Was it something about the process?

I think about the early scene in the film Dead Poets Society, where Mr. Keating has all the students lean in close to the glass cabinets to peer at the old photos of students past.  He wanted them to see into the photos, almost past them–into the past.  And that’s when he starts whispering to them really slowly: “Carpe.  Carpe diem.  Seize the day, boys.”

 Most importantly, why green?

It’s hemlock green, to be exact.  I have a problem with white walls.  I wanted a relaxing color so I could make the studio like a living room.  This is what my house looks like, so I wanted people to peak in and see a reflection of who I am.  The studio is going to be, after all, like a window into my life and my art.

In Part 2, then, I will learn about the first few weeks of her residency and how Margaret is planning to seize the day (and year) and help guests connect with the past while still keeping them very much in the present.  

I almost forgot!  I had said that my short session with Margaret began and ended with Jones Island.  I had just packed up and was headed to another meeting when a young man poked his head in and started looking around.

He was admiring a huge wooden half-moon onto which Margaret was getting ready to paint a face (photos forthcoming of the finished product, which will look incredible in her photographs!).  He remarked that he has a good friend in California who makes similar moons for sets and that he loves all things vintage, especially tintypes.  He hadn’t realized yet that Margaret was a tintype photographer and doubled-over in amazement. We asked if he also did tintype.  He doesn’t, but said he works for the United States Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan and his boat is moored– guess where?  Jones Island.  I had to leave the two of them at this point, but I look forward to learning and sharing more of their conversation in the next post!

 

 

 

From Abstracts to Tintypes: Passing the Brush to Margaret Muza

On March 24, Pamela Anderson revealed her collection of art produced during her residency at The Pfister.  The Pop-Up Gallery was alive with color and conversation before the pièce de résistance, the unveiling of her Legacy piece, which will soon grace the hallway next to the legacies of the former AIRs: Reginald Baylor, Katie Musolff, Shelby Keefe, Timothy Westbrook (well, his is in a glass case on the grand staircase landing), Stephanie Barenz, Niki Johnson, and Todd Mrozinski.

Here are just a few remembrances of the evening–and a sneak peak into the new AIR’s revamped studio.  Get ready to be transported to a different era with Margaret Muza’s tintype photography.  Story coming soon!

Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels, introduces Pamela
Friends, family, and guests prepare to watch Pamela pass the torch to the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza
Margaret Muza, Todd Mrozinski, and Donna Basterash
Renee Babeau and some people I don’t know 🙂
Heidi Parkes and Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri
Two happy friends
Someone mugging with Melissa Dorn Richards
Guests mingling and contemplating Pamela’s artwork
Margaret Muza, Heidi Parkes, and Renee Babeau
One of Pamela’s sons, Adrian Cumming
Pamela giving her cousins Daniel and Anthony Anderson a close-up tour of her Legacy piece
Pamela trying her hardest not to cry–and somehow looking confident and proud of a year’s work of creating
Peter Jason activating his inner art critic while his girlfriend lets him do his thing
Voilà! Pamela’s Legacy piece
The Pfister family will miss you, Pamela!
But we know that you’re itching to get back into Material Studios & Gallery in the Third Ward!
It’s amazing what Mary Rose and the painting crew can do to transform a space . . .
. . . with, of course, a few added touches from Margaret! Stay tuned for my interview with the new Artist-in-Residence . . .

FOOD AS ART: Pamela Anderson’s Legacy Dinner

Me and Pamela (Photo: Molly Snyder)

When I first wrote about the Pfister Hotel Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson a little over a year ago, I contrived a letter from her to me, written from a plane:

Dear Dominic,

I’m writing this from 28,000 feet.  Soon, I will touch down on the hotel’s carpeted runway and disembark in my new studio-for-a-year.  I haven’t met you yet, but I sense your imminent arrival at my doorway.  From the window seat–-a must-have when I travel–-I am snapping photos real and imaginary.  Right now, the sun guides the plane, a Catalan yellow sun the way Miró reimagined it (we’re actually over Lake Michigan right now, but my mind has traveled to Catalonia before).  The clouds are high, muting the sky in a pastel blue that Diebenkorn would have appreciated (I’ve traveled to the west coast with him before).  I’ve been around the world with painters past and present, Dominic, but would you believe that I’m only beginning to map my own voice now?

Now that she has passed the Artist-in-Residence “brush” to tintype photographer Margaret Muza, I have had occasion to reflect on her residency, the map of her artistic voice throughout her residency, our friendship, and her last week at The Pfister Hotel.  Even though one of her favorite places is the window seat of an airplane, Pamela couldn’t be more down-to-earth.

When I first encountered her in the studio, she had only just moved in to begin her year as the Artist-in-Residence and I was still applying for the Narrator position.  I was to write two sample blog posts.  It would have been easy to just talk to her about abstract art and color and paint, but instead we went deeper than that, almost right away.  

We talked about voice:

I certainly had a voice before.  I’ve been mapping it all my life, just as you have been mapping yours, the contours of your inscape, the swirls of your unique fingerprint–that’s what voice is.  Not necessarily something that can be heard or seen.  It’s always inside us, but it’s about developing it.  There’s so much in our world that we have access to visually, that for me, as a painter, finding that fingerprint has been difficult.  It’s difficult for all of us, because we have this sense that it’s all been done before.  You must feel the same as a writer.

And bravery:

But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings. That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?

And about artist’s signatures:

My massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”  That means my voice is being heard.

Over the next year, I would get to know her voice (expressed with large tools as well as her own vocal cords), her bravery (bold and untamed but also refined and patient), and her Pamela-ness (I can recognize a “Pamela” very well now, I think).

I learned from Pamela’s voice that it is very important to listen, mainly because one has to: her voice is light and contemplative, often with an inflection that suggests that she is thinking several steps ahead even while she’s talking to you.  

I observed her paint a single stroke then step back to listen to the painting talking to her.  The next layer of color might not appear for hours.  I enjoyed coming back a few days later and seeing how it had transformed.

I heard her voice in the variety of instruments she used to express it–the brushes, scrapers, even mops–and the palimpsest-like layers of thick paint and light washes, blocks and lines, patches and wisps.  I heard a different kind of voice when we commiserated over political issues and social justice.  I heard other versions when she talked about her sick Kismet or her new house in Sherman Park or her friend Michael’s award-winning film or her Scandinavian heritage or a fabulous dinner she and her husband Steven had just made.

I delighted in little things like watching her mix her paints and clean her brushes, taping the outer edges of a paper, painting the edges of a canvas, changing the orientation of a work-in-progress to see if the new direction spoke to her.  

I enjoyed talking to her about emerging shapes, unique color combinations, the need for white space, and the power of creating depth on a flat surface.

Growing up, I always considered myself too by-the-book and representational and timid when it comes to creating art (I was a classical guitarist who could rarely play without reading the music and a ribbon-winning artist whose drawings and paintings were glorified tracing-paper pastiches of other people’s work).  The synchronous freedom and intention of Pamela’s work, then, excited me.  

What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers? Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?  

I’ll come back to these questions later.  But first, here’s another question: How does an artist as unique as Pamela celebrate the end of her residency at the luxurious Pfister Hotel?  With down-to-earth graciousness, humility, and gratitude.

And a five-course meal, of course, compliments of Chef Brian Frakes and his team.

About 50 people gathered in the Imperial Ballroom on March 21 for the inaugural Artist-in-Residence Legacy Dinner.  Pamela welcomed us with characteristic humility (“The whole year has been so special.  I’m kind of just getting the hang of it!  I am feeling blessed and grateful that I’m here, living my dream.”) and a reflection that set the tone for the rest of the evening: “The conversations with guests have been the most meaningful to me.  I have learned more about myself.  The conversations make you dig deeper into the things we take for granted as artists.  ‘Why color?’  ‘Why abstract?’  Yes, why color?  Why abstract?  Questions like these forced me to think about why I do what I do and how I’m developing my practice.”

Why does each of us do what we do?  Why do we do what we do the way we do it?

Some guests were asking these questions of Pamela when she invited them to write words on little pieces of paper while they enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails.  Not exactly little pieces of paper–more carefully cut out mixed greens, Belgian endive, even Styrofoam cherry tomatoes.  As people wrote down their favorite colors, textures, words, and such on the delicate papers, they knew somehow that they wouldn’t just be observers and consumers at this meal–they would be participants.  And if the paper cut-outs and Sharpies were any indication, the evening would be both elegant and fun.

If that wasn’t down-to-earth enough, each course was named after a different theme.

The first course was “Family”: Verlasso salmon belly carpaccio with beet cream, chive crème fraiche, and aquavit dill splash, accompanied by an arugula scallion salad, pumpernickel, and a glass of Maison Nicolas Pinot Noir Rose from France.  This little delicacy, we learned, was inspired by her Finish-Norwegian-Danish heritage, as well as her son: the Verlasso salmon came to our plates compliments of her son’s sustainable fishing business in Chile.  

Before we ate, however, another surprise for guests: former Artist-in-Residence Stephanie Barenz was on hand to offer her interpretation of the “Family” dish.

I am glad,” Stephanie began, “that Pamela picked this course for me to speak at because family and home have a big role in my own personal artwork.  I am always comparing point A, where I came from, to point B, where I am going.  And my guess is that whether you realize it or not, you are constantly doing this, too.  As we think about our homes we think of rootedness, what identifies us as individuals, and all of the experiences that have made us who we are.  The course we are about to eat is comprised of many different elements that speak to Pamela’s childhood and family memories. Speaking of rootedness, there is even a beet, a root vegetable, in this course.

“I am a drawing teacher, and one of the first drawing exercises I do with my students is a blind contour drawing.  In this way of drawing we look at the object or thing that we are drawing, and let our eyes follow the contours or outline of the object.  We don’t look at our page and we never let our pencil or tool leave the page.  There is a metaphor here.  As you move from point A to point B in your life, maybe away from your home to a new place or relationship, you look forward but still have your hand on the page, or in the place that you are rooted. So in this next drawing prompt, I want you to look forward at something in the room, maybe it is something that reminds you of home, like your partner sitting next to you or a familiar dish in front of you, and I want you to do a blind contour drawing.”

So, alternating between forks and wine glasses and Sharpies, fifty guests in the Imperial Ballroom broke into uproarious laughter as they trained their eyes on each other–of objects around the room–and got back to their roots, so to speak.  As they enjoyed a sophisticated salmon appetizer, they were transported to a younger time of doodling and giggling and writing on the table tops when a parent wasn’t watching.  (I forgot to mention that all the tables had white butcher paper table runners.)  It was certainly difficult to keep my own eyes off the paper and my pen rooted to the paper–and I wasn’t alone–but the challenge was certainly a refreshing diversion from customary dinner time propriety.

Pamela chose me to interpret the next dish, entitled “Comfort,” comprised of butternut squash ravioli, beurre noissette, maple charred cauliflower, fresh ricotta, amaretti gremolotta, and sage, joined by a Peter Yealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  I had planned on recounting to the dinner guests how Pamela is, like this dish, both sweet and savory, but instead wrote a poem I called “Comforting Metaphors,” each line inspired by one of the components of the dish.  See if you can match them up:

The girl in orange pajamas hibernates in her favorite quilt.
A puddle of spring rain imprints a muddy field.
The charred sequoia has just released its seeds.
A lone cumulus hangs on a blue fall curtain.
The earthy spice of dry clay crumbles in the farmer’s hands.
But why should anyone die who has sage in their garden?

The last line is borrowed directly from folk wisdom regarding the healing properties of sage.

My haiku-like lines were no contender for the surprising stand-up by one of my predecessors, Molly Snyder, a (insert scare quotes, as per Molly’s demonstration) “local celebrity” thanks to OnMilwaukee.com.  After Pamela talked about growing up on a farm, we sliced into the “Wisco Pork” dish–a Meaux mustard pork tenderloin with parsley dust crust, horseradish, Yukon pea puree, chocolate pork jus, and a Zinfandel from Seghesio Angelas Tables (Sonoma)–and Molly regaled us with her story (more like a performance) of being an eating contest champ.  Arms flailing in front of her face to mimic stuffing her face with everything from cream puffs (“easy”) to bacon (the pork part of the story = “difficult”), she had us laughing in between succulent bites of pork.  

And have you noticed that each small plate came with a full glass of wine? The party was just getting started.

Enter me again to help introduce the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” course, inspired, as you might guess, from one of Pamela’s favorite childhood foods.  This was not your mom’s PB&J, however.  Chef Brian transported us with a peanut butter and chocolate terrine, a vanilla bean anglaise, and a Merlot blackberry syrup, and paired it with Dibon Cava Brut Reserve from Penedes, Spain.  And this was not an easy one for me transform into words.  How to make PB&J interesting?  (Thank you for the challenge, Pamela!)

I knew from talking to Pamela that she liked her sandwich to be made a particular way and that it often accompanied her when she began her life as an artist, crayons at the ready.  But it was all the other details she told me about, the specifics of place and time and light that intrigued me even more.  Therefore, like I had with my first imagined letter of hers, I borrowed her words and transformed them.  I called the poem “Plums”:

Do not pick the plums.

She knew the sting
of her mother’s voice,
like a wasp shaken from its nest,
if she dared eat a plum.
Less a wasp, perhaps,
than the irrational nip
of an adult who had heard
too many reports of children
choking on rippled pits.

Nonetheless, trousers rolled,
she tiptoes to the back stoop,
teetering a plate, a glass,
a notebook, a bucket–
one eye on the plum tree,
the other on her juggling act,
the third already composing
in her child’s mind
with the pandemonium of colors
she carries in her ice cream bucket
of crayons.

At least her mother
had buttered both sides
of the Wonder Bread
and slathered a swirled pillow
of peanut butter on one side
where the raspberry jam
could rest, blanketed
by the other wondrous slice–
softness upon softness upon
softness upon softness.
No danger here, though
when she takes her first bite,
a slick glob of jam will slide down her chin
and onto her shirt, which she will lift,

She finds the only slice of sun,
places the milk and sandwich
in the shade, listens as the crayons
thud softly onto the warm stone,
and nestles the notebook in her lap,
pausing to listen to the big elm canopies
in the front yard sway in the wind.

No coloring book today,
with its lines, its borders and rules.
Today she will fill the blankness
of these pages with a riot of red
and orange and yellow, of purple
clouds and black fields, scratching
the paper with prodigious swoops
of her arm, pausing occasionally
to bite half moons into her sandwich.

An arm jostles the milk glass.
The white splashes her hand
and seeps through the cracks
toward her notebook, but she finishes
etching a burnt square of sienna before
rubbing the milk on her pants
and snatching up her drawing.

She listens for her mother inside,
and walks defiantly off the porch.

She picks a plum.

She bites.

The earthiness of the peanut butter
meets the tart ripeness of the plum.
She shudders, but not because
she is afraid of the pit that lies inside.

When she returns to the porch
it is with sticky hands ready
for new crayons
and new pages.

Stephanie brought the meal to a close by inviting us to one more drawing activity to accompany dessert, themed “America’s Dairyland”: shaved triple cream, black pepper honey, and a fried cracker, served with another champagne.  She began by referencing one of the first paintings that I had seen of Pamela’s, one year ago, the one that inspired the 28,000-feet-in-the-air letter: “One of my favorite series of Pamela’s is a series she did of aerial views of America’s farmland.  You can see one of the paintings on the easel in the corner.  When you look at these aerial views, they appear to look like a quilt, all different colors, patterns, and textures coming together to form a tapestry of sorts.

“There is a quote by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors, that I really like.  He said, ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’  As you look at the food on your table, it is and has been a part of many different places and stories, which is a really beautiful thing if you think about it.  Living in Milwaukee, we get the privilege of being very close to the farmland or dairyland that produces the food that we eat.”

“Going back to Pamela’s paintings of farmland and to this idea that each thing we eat has a story, I would like you to create a mini version of this quilt idea. Take your crayons or pencils and put several different patterns or textures next to each other that remind you of rural Wisconsin. Maybe it is a red square next to a patch of green, that references a barn and a field of soybeans. Or a muddy patch next to swirling white, which may remind you of how the fields meet the sky.”

Just as Stephanie suggested, Pamela is going to take these “quilt” images–along with everything else sketched on the butcher paper–and create a new piece of art from our food-and-wine-fueled experiments. Stay tuned!  

Before the evening was over, however, Molly, Stephanie, Stephanie’s husband Zach Wiegman, and Pamela read the Word Salad to which we had all contributed during the cocktail hour.  The often surprising, sometimes humorous, juxtaposition of words was poetry in itself!

I was delighted that my year with Pamela had begun and ended with the Midwest Aerial Views series.  The abstract patterns–inspired by a blending of the organic and the artificial, the natural and the human–offer both a distanced perspective and an introspective opportunity to see oneself in the greater scheme of things.   It wasn’t just about colors and shapes and lines and scrapes; it was about seeing and understanding and interpreting and translating the world.

So, back to my earlier questions: What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers?  Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?

I’ll say this: I was an English teacher for 22 years.  I’ve probably had about two thousand students.  When, for instance, one student decided against becoming a sanitation worker so he could become an English teacher, that was one of the highest honors one could ask for.  As Pamela’s year at The Pfister was coming to a close, I finally got the guts to try painting with freedom and intention.  I’ve a long way to go, but I have Pamela to thank:



Pamela, you have not only “passed the brush” to the new Artist-in-Residence, you have also inspired me.

Photo credits: Molly Snyder, Cassy Scrima, Pamela Anderson, Shelby Keefe, and me

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, dark, 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

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-11-40-10-am

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

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-9-50-42-am
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?