A Narrator’s Farewell Part III: Bringing the Hotel’s Paintings to Life

Finally, I leave you and the Pfister Hotel with twenty (soon to be twenty-one–I’ll explain later) creative works written by me and participants in the five Plume Service writing experiences that took place between December and April.  My original goal was to bring all 80 of the Victorian-era paintings in the Hotel to life, so for the first two workshops, we perused the halls and walls of the lobby level, the mezzanine, and the 7th floor ballrooms.  I soon realized that capturing the spirit of all 80 in a few Saturday afternoons or weekday happy hours would be an impossible task!

With grand intentions, I asked participants during our first workshop to step into the paintings, then step back and contemplate 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?  

I asked them to stoop a bit closer to the oils and watercolors to notice details they might have missed.  To bend an ear to listen, perhaps imagining the taste of a fruit.  To breathe in deeply through their nose to smell the salty air.

I wondered: What is Diana telling her women at the beginning of the hunt?  What are the two women gossiping about at the altar of Athena? What is going on in the head of the nude figure at the edge of the pool? 

How did the girlfriends in Scadrone’s painting meet?  What’s going to happen after the chianti runs dry in Giachi’s, and who loses Lesrel’s card game?  What are the words to Peluso’s romantic serenade, and how is the woman in Grolleron’s piece going to get that man to leave her alone?!

The paintings offered us intriguing compositions and perspectives and colors, but since Domenichino, Bompiani, and Mayer are no longer here to give us the scoop, we became 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.

On subsequent occasions, we would experiment with microscopic and macroscopic perspectives, with voice, and even with erotica and mock bad reviews of the paintings.

In the end, we created literary renditions of the twenty-one paintings on the mezzanine level that wraps around the lobby.  In time, these creative works will appear on placards next to each painting, accompanying the smaller nameplates that already exist.  Until then, I serve them up here as my final Plume Service to you and the Hotel.  Bon apetit!

“The Poppy Field” by Louis Aston Knight (interpreted 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.

“Sunday Afternoon” by Richard Lorenz (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

I Thought It Was You

Brother, the time we grew, the times we saw the ships along the pier leaving men of hope and sharp ideas and came back mules of war, or part of them.  I remember when we rode along the tall greens back when we were too young for men.  When the kids would play and we’d chase after them.

Then war took us, and our groups were divided.  Years after, I found you, with a large bandage around your body; you’d been hurt.  Remember laughing about it?  We stayed up all night and traded stories: the good ones, the fun ones, the bad ones, and really bad ones.

Then, it became hard to talk.  You managed to get a job outside of town in a rich man’s place, while I stayed in a poor man’s den.  Months passed and no sign of you.  I heard he has people take care of you, but sometimes I don’t know.  I miss you, brother.  We are old now.

The other day I saw someone with a scar that looked like the one you had on your left side, but he didn’t turn to say Hi.  He went right through. Maybe . . . no, he couldn’t be you.

“Grand Match of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club” by John le Conte Edin (interpreted by Ana Moreno)


Everyone squints and reaches to see.  All eyes lock on the final throw.  Two women and a boy huddle, trying to keep warm; they can see their breath as they blow to warm their hands.

“Mr. Wadsworth would like a glass of the red wine and an orange,” remarks the boy.

The crowd becomes hushed as the final curler from the South throws his potential match-winning curl.  

The Apple Thief

The women and girls converse:

“How silly these men are, letting such a game consume them.”

“Such a waste of time in my opinion.”

“Elizabeth and Sarah took a basket of oranges, bread, and wine to sell.”

“Oh, did they take Elizabeth’s boy with them?  The one who is always running about?”

“Oh, yes, yes.  And thank goodness, too.  That boy is nothing but mischief.”

“Do you know he stole an apple right off of my tree last summer?   I will never forget it.  I was looking out the window, admiring a beautiful, crisp day, and all of a sudden that scoundrel runs right up to our apple tree, glances around to see if anyone is looking, plucks a fruit right off a limb, and proceeds along his merry way!”

“The nerve!”

“I know.  And you can imagine how his mother reacted when I gave her a piece of my mind.  Paddled him good, she did.”

“Well, it is good she took him with her.  We don’t need the likes of him galavanting around.”

“Not that they will sell much anyway.”

“Oh, I agree.  I feed my husband far too well for him to need anything else from any other woman.”

They laugh.

Talk About the Weather

The men and boys converse:

“Well, Mr. Wadsworth.  What is the news today?  What of that shipment of tea that was set to come in this morning?”

“It has yet to arrive.  Storms in the south seas.  I hope all three ships make it ashore.”

“The weather has been horrendous as of late.”

“Yes, I agree.  Just the other day, Caroline’s wash was ruined when a storm blew in from the east.  All evening–and even at night–she could not be appeased.”

“All this talk of women at a curling match?  Does not belong, I say.”

The crowd silences itself as Mr. Price throws his final curl.  The anticipation is almost palpable in the crisp evening air.  Men and boys strain their eyes, contort their bodies, and scamper to get the best view as the curl skid gracefully across the ice.

Untitled Landscape (interpreted by Monica Thomas)

The lake says goodbye
to reflection
as the sun hides.

The sky says goodbye
to the light
of day.

The road says goodbye
to days
uninhibited.

And the winds
And time
And memory
Never say goodbye.

“Seascape” by Robert W. Wood (interpreted by Kavon Cortez-Jones)

Mezzanine viewpoint
against the Cali coastline
the water crashes.

“A View of Venice” by Charles Clement Calderon (interpreted by Christina Oster)

From Father

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.

“Grecian Girl” by Antonio Torres (interpreted by Christina Oster)

From Mother

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.

“Diana of the Hunt (after Domenichino)” (interpreted by Alexa Hollywood aka Celeste Hagiopate, Punk Theosopher & Poseur)

Celeste Hagiopiate Reviews a Painting at the Pfister Hotel

Oh look, a Tableau.  Victorians loved their Tableaus. Here, a zaftig Diana is posed in a most wooden position, two arms raised.  She stands to the left of the center of the painting.  She is far too modest to stand center stage. But damn it, she demands to be seen.  Dark trees in the background circle her brighter figure.

She is at the apex of an isosceles triangle of stilted figures.  In the background and to the right is another triangle, far more sparse and off-kilter than the opulent composition in the foreground.  (Postmodern Aside: Dom Inouye, Pfister Narrator, has asked us to notice and amplify one small detail.)

Look.  There is a chaste, bare-breasted nymph at the bottom of the painting.  She is pointing aimlessly.  Her index finger directs our eyes to the great beyond.  Those Victorians!  Stupid girl, she should be pointing at Diana or at the very least, pointing to the drunken revelers in the distance.

Was this painting meant for a mansion?  I suspect so.  A lunging hound honors the position off center and just a little lower to the right.  A direct line can be drawn between it and Diana.  This is a geometrically precise painting.  What, you expect a lush, adjectival poem about a pretty little scene from the old crone?  Leave that to the dewy-eyed twenty-year-olds.

Coda: I’m drunk.  I don’t sing for my supper or for my Cabernet Sauvignon.  Lousy voice.  I can be coaxed to write and recite a brief address.  I do it to entertain myself.  If it entertains you, well, that is an extra bonus.

“Fortune Teller” by Ludwig Vollmar (interpreted 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.”

“Chianti” by E. Giachi (interpreted by Monica Thomas)

Pointed shoes
on slats of
dry cedar. 

Muslin bodice
straps falling off
left shoulder.

Another unshaven
man with wandering
hands.

Another empty
cask of wine
and he’ll be out.

Untitled (interpreted by Thea Kovac)

The cold hearth of  

a dark fireplace 

tall enough to walk through
is not the source

of light that limns 

her alert profile
soft neck

fingertips poised mid-stroke

above the guitar strings

his shoe buckle
round trouser buttons

climbing his shin

gnarled knuckles

sagging head

Does it matter if they are lit from yonder lamp or perhaps
lightning? 

He sleeps on.

“The Dancer” by Adolphe Piot (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

The Sarah Nobody Knows

Creeping and eloquent in style–synonymous but wild in spirit and form–she feels a breath on her toes and nobody knows her. A gallant girl but holding on by the position of Sarah. At times Sarah stops, an applaud crashes, while the Sarah nobody knows hears a clapping of the soles. The fancier the carpet, the quicker the groove, the Sarah nobody knows is the one she’d approve. But bitter is Sarah, competing for first place. While the Sarah nobody knows competes for a face . . . in the world.

“The Cardinal Reading” by H.A. Bras (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.

“Landscape” by Leon Richet (interpreted by Bethany Price)

You haunt every step of mine and the bovines, too,
off in the fields gazing at each others’ tails.
When I walk home it’s heavy since
there is a constant incense stick burning
in my ears–a smoke trail
of whispers to yourself,
going mad, naive of my eyes closed–
listening to your brain forest prose.
I wish I had the pastel colors
rich enough to paint you my agony.
And in this willowy terrain
where the wind
where the treetops
where the elements moan in power,
their dominion is my shelter.
I am drunk here, losing control
of my hands
sifting through grass and branch,
climbing a leaf god to descend
in a bruised-love state,
my tiny white hat dotted
with greenery.

“Teddy Roosevelt’s Door” by Richard LaBarre Goodwin (interpreted by Christine Henke Mueller)

Mr. Richard La Barre Goodwin
North Dakota 1809
Portland, Oregon

My Dear Goodwin,

I have left the Maltese Ranch in search of solitude.  The woes in Washington have left a bad taste in my mouth.  I am in need of the open plains, a horse, and my destiny set in my own hands.  I know that I will need to return to Washington, but for now, this ranch and the beauty of this land shall give me space and time to think.  You have asked me to explain my absence and so I will respond by sharing with you my thoughts, my hopes, for this country.

I fear a disaster in the Capital.  Cleveland is a despicable man!  The scandal that surrounds him precludes him from holding this, the highest office, in our country.  How can such a person be held up as a model for a nation to follow?  The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on.  Sometimes people get their ends reversed.  This seems to be the case with Cleveland.

Let me explain to you what it is upon I think this nation’s future lies.  I stand for the square deal.  But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service . . . Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests.

I look out from behind this closed door and I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.  Moreover, I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.  I do not think that these views will land me in good standing back in Washington.  But I know, of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.  I look out on these vast lands and the expanse of prosperity that this country has to offer and I find that I must rise up and fight back against the corporate greed taking hold over our government.  The effective fight against adequate government control and supervision of individual, and especially of corporate, wealth engaged in interstate business is the chief reason that led to the formation of the National Government.  It needs to be restored. Perhaps I shall be a dark horse and return.  Time shall tell.  

For now, I must gather my heart for what I think shall eventually be a fight to lead this country forward with progress.  How shall I do the work that is worth doing?  I know the worst thing I can do is nothing.

I hope this letter finds you in good health and that this Winter does not irritate the wounds you have suffered.  Ah! to be a retired soldier; such must be the life!

Yours with esteem, 

Theodore

“The Kittens” by Joseph LeRoy (interpreted by Alexa Hollywood)

It was the perfect place to hide the murder weapon. He saw the basket of taxidermied kittens in a small bedroom on the third floor. The delightful felines had belonged to Great Aunt Euphonia. How she had grieved at their untimely demise. Every one of the little dickens had climbed then fallen into a huge vat of cream. Alas, they expired before they could churn it into butter.

Daily, Aunt Euphonia carefully arranged flowers in the basket and then artistically strewed some about. The murderer inhaled the fragrance of roses, sighed as he saw delphiniums. The kill had been good, clean. He carefully wiped the blade of the knife so as not to leave blood stains on the sentimental tableau. He placed the knife diagonally in the bottom of the basket. Chortling, he walked back to the master bedroom. 

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

Moonlight whispers between the leaves
As night approaches and twilight grieves–
The passage of congealed time
To the memory of a dream sublime.
Forgotten yet is the scent of dawn,
For the veil descends on the pathways drawn
Through the tangled forest of thought
Where tears are formed as memories are caught
And lit upon the Sacred Fire
That is both comfort and funeral pyre,
Beseeched again to the insouciant sky
As the memories fall and tears are dried.
Reflected upon the flowing stream
The echo of reality does scream
Beneath the waiting touch of gloom
For darkness to eat the silver Moon.
But the night itself is another page
In the endless tale from Age to Age.
Still the Cycle revolves to each
As Dusk to Dawn, each other they teach.

“Venice” by H. Biondetti (interpreted by Dominic Inouye)

The seagull time arrives
when men have heaved their last anchors
and slung on docks their fill of fishy nets,
have warbled their merchant announcements
of crusty bread and fragrant pancetta.
Their sea cries announce
the declining day and their right
to the crumbs of the morning
and the severed heads of the afternoon.
Now is the time for women to linger
on the sea plaza, pacing leisurely
under a hazy white-winged sky,
before returning home with baskets
redolent of yeast and cured meat
and slick fins and scales.

“The Dog” by Alexander Pope (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

There are shades, and then there are levels.

I myself have never felt as naked as I do now.  In a standby moment: imagining anything I can be doing with my life, but not doing it, because of fear, complacency, or maybe just plain cowardice.

There is the life we live, real and abrupt waves of “thinking things through” as we go.

And then there’s Life–painted as a dog poised in the most natural way to live–with honesty, heroic tales, great songs that make you cry and the comfort of finding your heart in a warm home.

Some say life is like a wine that doesn’t get better after the fifth try.  It could be that life is the way a Chopin’s nocturne reminds us of two important realities: how fluent and chirp it was to be young, and how your mom is the best person you’ve ever met.   

The dog sits up and lives the life it wants, and that’s the difference. Or is it?

(By the way, if this got you down, there’s a portrait of some very adorable kittens if you just keep walking to your right.  You’re welcome.)

“Tired Out” by Andrea Secondo (interpreted by Ed Wingard)

I don’t wanna drink–
I don’t wanna pass shots back and forth with you–
Why do you peer pressure me?

I drink when I feel pressured.
The intoxication pressures me,
it lessens me, makes me feel minuscule,
as my conscious leaks and I hear caution scream.

I’m melancholy and it bothers me,
it bottles me, swallows me,
so we drink each other until my tonsils bleed.

I know I have someone to call closer  
whenever I’m forced to elude
the bliss in my mental ambience
and the awesome ambivalent aspect
of my equanimity tips overs and spills.

You’re still sober, so I chug–
“Pass me another shot”–
until I get caught and feel the episodic rhythm
call my heartbeat to stop, my heartbeat breath,
the manipulation that dances in me physically
when I can feel nothing and become too numb
to the pain to properly have a functioning cell
in my brain, so No

I won’t drink with you–
I won’t have another shot.

I will sit and think about this thing called life,
so let me
live.


p.s.  I mentioned at the outset that there would soon be twenty-one pieces.  That is because we neglected to interpret Eugene Fromentin’s “The Cows” painting!  How could this have happened?  These beautiful heifers will be lonely and forever frozen at the river’s edge if someone doesn’t breathe life into them!

I will accept poetic submissions until Friday, May 5th.  Email them to dominic.inouye@gmail.com!!!

A Narrator’s Farewell Part I: The Early Months

Dear Readers–

The past year has taken me places I could never have expected, which was exactly what I had in mind when I decided to quit teaching English last June after 22 years.  I knew that my dedication to my profession would preclude devoting serious time to any new pursuits or new projects, whatever they might be.  (Teaching, if you didn’t know, can be a 24/7 job. It’s all you think about.)  It was fortuitous, then, that I accepted the position as the ninth Pfister Narrator a month before my school year was finished–a sign of good things to come.  My summer was filled with a new kind of writing assignment, something quite foreign to me, given my usual summer writing, which consisted of researching and writing curriculum and responding to students on our summer reading blog. Instead of a writing teacher, I was now a writer.  In fact, I remember the first time I told someone that I was “a writer” in response to their query, “What’s your job?”  I was in Toronto to do a marathon relay and a new friend casually asked the question and I casually, without even thinking about it, replied.  I surprised myself–but in a good way.  I knew that I had found something new, something that, if I worked at it, could stick.

Before I explain how it took me a couple of months to get used to this new “job,” I would like to thank a few people, beginning with Donna Basterash, Executive Assistant to the General Manager, and Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, for their support and encouragement throughout the year.  They had faith in me that I would provide a creative portrayal of the life of the Hotel during my residency.  I hope that I did.  Thank you, too, to Colleen Maxwell, who assisted me with social media, and Rachael Kohlenberg, who kept me informed about the hundreds of events on the calendar.  Thank you to Chef Brian Frakes and his team for providing my writing workshops with delicious hors d’oeuvres and vineyard libations each time.  And thank you to former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson for her friendship and insight and support–always.  Finally, to the Hotel Associates who made my residency fun and funny, smooth and effortless, especially bartenders Valerie, Thomas, and Ellie, Concierge Helga, and banquet staff Muny and Matt: thank you!

On April 21st, I gave my final performance as the Narrator, with a two-hour reading of some of my favorite pieces, including twenty creative pieces written not only by me but by some of the participants in my writing workshop series Plume Service.  I called the performance “The Ink Runs Dry,” and I was assisted by and thank wholeheartedly fifteen readers, including former Narrators Anja Sieger and Molly Snyder and the Plume Service authors.  It was so much better sharing the stage with them that it would have been if I was the only one reading for two hours (even I would have bored myself!).

So now, in four installments, I offer you the pieces that we read that night, with short introductions for each.  They serve as both digest and fond memory–and a chance for you to visit them for the first time or revisit them if you have been following my blog over the year.

The ink runs dry.  Enjoy.  I know I did.

–Dominic

p.s. Here is the only existing photo of the evening, courtesy of pianist Mark Davis:

No one could figure out how to go “full screen.”

PART 1: The Early Months

“My Nemesis” | May 1, 2016 

It wasn’t easy at first.  I had to learn to trust my instincts.  I had to learn to take chances.  I had to learn how to navigate a room full of strangers.  This was the first piece I wrote after my first visit to Mason Street Grill, where my friend and colleague (I was still teaching at The Prairie School) Jamie Breiwick was playing trumput with pianist Mark Davis.  

I know the trumpet player,
so I head toward him,
accidentally intercepting
the snap of his 1-2-3
with a handshake-hug,
then, embarrassed, take a seat
at the bar to strategize
how best to write the song
of this Mason Street crowd.   

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

I know the trumpet player,
but I also already know my nemesis,
my competitor, because I can tell
he’s been here for awhile
and already gotten used to
the polyrhythmic beat of the bar and the band,
the bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.

If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”

I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

But neither the trumpet player who I know
nor the piano nor the guitar seems to mind.
Instead, they augment the dinner din
with ironic chuckles and slap my nemesis on the back.
Defeated, I wonder how he has glided so easily
into their blues, gotten to know this room
so confidently.

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize now that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”

To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,

who, it turns out, is a prolific drummer
who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.

“We Are a Corporation”  | May 13, 2016

Mother’s Day Brunch was almost a bust–everyone was, well, enjoying a quiet meal with their moms, so why would they want to interrupt that to talk to me? Until, that is, I approached a crowded table and asked if I might ask them a few questions.  Within a few seconds, I had a glass of champagne in my hand and was seated with them.  Within a minute, a woman at the table named Maria would hit on me repeatedly (I’ve never been so embarrassed!), and after an hour, we had written poetry together, downed more glasses of champagne, and I felt like I had a surrogate family.

This family was hilarious and warm and inviting.  They were loud and obnoxious.  We laughed, we cried (really, we did).  They called their family a “corporation,” and, indeed, they worked together like a unit.  I was happy to share the brunch with them.  Here’s an excerpt:

A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  

Somehow, we decided to write a poem together.  I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line.  From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.  

Almost instantaneously, Nick said, “Under the spreading chestnut.”  We were all surprised by the “chestnut” reference (who comes up with “chestnut” in the first line of an impromptu poem?).  But then he changed his mind: “Oh, no.  We can’t use that.  That’s from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.”  I’d never read it before but discovered that it is the first line of “The Village Blacksmith,” which turns out to have a beautiful reference to the blacksmith’s mother and whose first line reads “Under a spreading chestnut tree”).  Putting on my English teacher hat, I assured him that our poem would contain an allusion to Longfellow, a line lifted partially, borrowed honorably.  All eight of us, with Longfellow as the ninth, would co-write a new poem.

Once the sheet had rounded the table, I prepared to recite our words to a rapt audience.  But we were all surprised when Mike said he wanted to open our poetry reading with his own poem, a lengthy one he’d written for his wife Kelley a while back, featuring a mixture of formal language and modern references to black holes and the galaxy.  “He just sent it to me in a message one day,” Kelley told us, to which all of us responded, of course, “Awwww.”

Under the spreading chestnut,
a mother’s love goes far.
And we breathe a sigh of relief
because we know how beautiful you are.
Your beauty is like the sunset–
so pure and full of wonder.
The love we share will never die–
let no man put it asunder.
Look toward the stars, behind the thunder.
Hide your dreams from those who seek to plunder.
But show them to the Lord above
who’s under the spreading chestnut
where a mother’s love goes far.

“You Can’t Take My Bones” | May 30, 2016

As much as I never looked intentionally for celebrities (in fact, I always seemed to miss them) because I wanted to talk to, you know, regular people, sometimes I’d happen to talk to someone who was so “regular people” that I never would have guessed he was a nationally known news anchor for CBS–or guessed that he, or anyone for that matter, would share with a complete stranger like me such beautiful sentiments.

I want to still have rhythm.  I want to be able to still keep a beat.

Rhythm isn’t just something physical, like being able to walk straight. It’s that sweet cadence that you possess.  It’s music, which you get to interpret.  It’s really everything.  

It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”  He was holding on to the one thing that was his connection to the earth.

Rhythm (snaps his fingers three times) connects everything.  Everything. You know how when people say “My rhythm’s off”?  That means something’s not right.  Some kind of connection.  (smiling) It aligns with the universe. It keeps everything in sync.

“Cordials of Wisdom” | June 28, 2016

I could never tell if bartender Valerie was just toying with me or whether she was truly serious, but it didn’t matter.  I just loved hearing her observations, her musings, her 40+ years of memories of the Hotel.  And I always appreciated it when she’d make the first move and introduce me to someone at the Lobby Lounge bar–she was like my “wingwoman” in many situations.  (Of course, there were also those times she’d say, “Did you talk to so-and-so celebrity?  Or so-and-so really interesting person?  Oh, no?  They just left.”  I had failed.)  One evening, I asked her for some “cordials of wisdom” so I could record them for perpetuity:

On the Art of Conversation.  “Allow the other to begin in one direction, like a straight arrow; allow them to take the lead.  Create the space where this freedom is possible, then begin to fill in the open spaces with yourself.  Follow the arrow down one path or the other path.”

On Keeping It Simple.  “Too many ingredients in a drink confuses the tastebuds.  Too many ingredients with dozens of other ingredients in them creates mud.  To avoid the muddle, in a drink (or life), keep it simple.  Complement simple ingredients with one or two others so that you can taste each one separately; if you’re lucky, then one flavor delights at the beginning, then gives way to another, with a flourish at the end.”

On Representing Your Places Well.  “Whatever places you represent, present them well.  Creating a relaxing atmosphere, a cordial experience, an unforgettable memory–this is who we are at The Pfister Hotel, for instance.”

On How Your Perception Directs Your Course.  “If you think that that black cat crossing your path is going to give you bad luck, then it’s more likely that you will have “bad luck.”  Your belief will affect the course of your day, making you more apt to identify “bad luck” when you might not have before.  Have you ever heard, however, about someone looking forward to a white cat crossing their path?”

in part II: humans of the pfister

Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part 2)

Before my time is up as the Narrator, I wanted to sit down with the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza one last time (though I’m sure I’ll be back many times during her residency!) to get and share with you some of the back stories of the tintypes currently hanging in her studio.  As the walls fill with new ones, including mine (see end of post), and she decides to add larger-scale photos and perhaps change the decor, it’s likely that some of these will be replaced.  She began her stories with one of the most enigmatic ones.  It’s hard not to notice his earthy stare.

This one is my Uncle Tom.  I took this in front of the family cabin my grandpa built in Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Oh, your family has a family cabin in Pembine?  I know exactly where that is!  And it’s 40-acres of land?  Same here!

Well, we go there every summer, but now my Uncle Tom lives in Arizona and rarely comes home.  He was really skinny this year because he was bitten by a scorpion (it’s not the first time!).  He’s crazy . . . crazy cool.  He loves Patron, and I love Patron, so any time we get together, we sit and have some Patron.  When you’re around him, you want him to give you time–he’s that kind of guy.  Again, he’s crazy cool.  Like he calls his wife Vicki “his bride,” as in “This is my bride, Vicki.”

He never lets anyone take his photo, but when he saw me setting up my darkroom behind the cabin, he couldn’t resist asking what I was doing.  I told him that he had to sit for a photograph.  “No, no,” he said.  But he did anyway.

This is my friend Heather.  She’s an animator and editor.  She had her baby five days after that photo was taken.  We decked her out with flowers and she wore that black shawl.  She gave it to me afterward and it’s hanging on the wall behind my desk in the studio now.  I think it’s actually supposed to be a wall hanging like this, but I’m not sure.  It could be a shawl.  It’s definitely beautiful on her!

On the left is my sister Rachel near Cedar Creek.  We were trying to do a mock wedding so I could have samples, hoping people would want me to photograph their weddings with tintypes.  It was a beautiful day in the summer.

On the right is one of my other sisters, Claire.  She’s the most cooperative and available, willing to sit for almost anything, letting me pose her when I have a concept in mind.

The woman on the left is Jolena, and the man on the right is my boyfriend, Jordan.  They’re both double exposures.  I especially love the one of Jordan because of how it perfectly captures his profile.  One person said it looks like he’s looking out of a keyhole.  You thought he was peaking out from behind something frosted?  You can see his profile now, right?

I also wanted to know if any of the ephemera that fills every nook and cranny of her studio held any significance for her.  It doesn’t sound like there are any earth-shattering stories behind any of them.  In fact, as she held up little jars of beads and tiny nails and glitter (“Look at this cute bottle.  It’s like a little salt shaker.  For glitter.”), she mused that she really just like “little things that slip between the cracks.”

One of those things was half shell containing small tintypes no larger than 2×3 inches.  “This is about the size that most people could afford back when tintype was popular,” she explained.  “They could go to the fair and in a few minutes they could walk away with their portrait.  Especially with these little tintypes, you know that someone held it in their hands.  They sat, saw the process happen, held it in their hands–then either kept it or gave it to someone else.  Who held it in their hands.”

There’s a little bit of history everywhere you turn in Margaret Muza’s studio.  I encourage you to stop in, step back in time, delight in more of her stories, and sit for a tintype–maybe, just maybe, in the paper moon.

[insert]

p.s. I didn’t sit in the paper moon; instead, I sat in a white t-shirt against the white lace on the wall.  The effect is dramatic, I think!  Although I’m not sure how to describe my expression . . .

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

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions Edition | “The Classic Look is Made to Last”

Today’s HUMANS OF THE PFISTER post is about “Transitions”–but also kind of an anti-transition story.  It’s more a story about endurance, about a stalwart establishment that has survived three transitions to become a 25-year staple of Wisconsin Avenue, just a half-block west of The Pfister. Meet the proud owner of The Sophisticated Man, Diane Hamiel, herself a sophisticated woman who was sporting sleek gold glasses that flared out to meet her delicate bob and a sharp black top with a poofy lapel, not to mention a kind, witty smile.

I owned the Leather Boutique for women when I first started.  It was mainly for women; the only things for men that we sold were wallets and belts.  The boutique was on 3rd and Juneau, near where they’re building the new arena.  But I lost the store to a fire.

However, that’s when I realized that men need help.  They need someone to help them get dressed up; they don’t have enough places to shop.  So I opened up my first men’s shop in the Prospect Mall in 1974.  We were such a small shop, and people didn’t think we’d survive.  But we were there until 1981 and moved to a bigger space in the Grand Avenue Mall, eventually moving to 322 E. Wisconsin, which is where we still are.

We sell classics.  One of the things I always say is “The man’s ideas may be changing fast, but the classic look is made to last.”  We still have guys wearing things they purchased 20, 30 years ago.  They come in and show you–and they come in with their kids now, too!   I feel like a big-time grandma!

I just love men.  At The Sophisticated Man, we love servicing men!  We can dress you up from head to toe: socks, shoes, underwear, shirts, suits, coats, slacks, hats, you name it.  We help them with personal attention. You can walk into the shop like that [gestures to my jeans and sweater] and you can walk out like you’re going to meet the President.  We dress all the sports stars–they come to us.

What would you hook me up with if I came into the store?

Like I said, we could dress you head to toe.  I mean, you can have your casual look [again, gestures to my jeans and sweater], but–you look like you’re a 15 1/2″ neck, probably a 34-35 long.  Yes?

Exactly.

A Room With a View: Afternoon Tea at Blu (Finally!)


(Suggestion: Play while reading.)

It is no wonder that Blu has been named the Best Hotel Bar in Milwaukee by OnMilwaukee.com.  But it’s not only their thirst-quenching selection of premium cocktails that earned them this billing–or their stunning views of downtown and Lake Michigan, or their bookings of some of the hottest jazz and other musicians in the city, or their BluTender fundraising events for local non-profits.

It’s The Pfister Afternoon Tea.  It took me and Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson almost a year to partake, but last Friday we did, on one of those afternoons when the crisp air and bright sun combine to showcase everything with diamond-like precision.

While many other hotels in the United States offer high tea service (we won’t mention their names), it’s safe to say that The Pfister is one of the only ones that doesn’t just hand guests a menu with dozens and dozens of teas.  Instead, Tea Butlers (or, as I like to call them now, “Tea Sommeliers”) offer guests tableside tea blending.  After guests are seated, a Tea Butler arrives with a gueridon service trolley and, like someone handling precious antiques, lifts each of thirteen beautifully jarred teas, expounds on each tea’s origin, unique ingredients and flavors, and other fascinating miscellany.  The thirteen selections are Rishi Teas, harvested around the world and headquartered in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, which lends local flavor to the exquisite sensations of breathing in each tea’s aromatic subtleties.

Our Tea Butler was Juan Rodriguez, who has been amazing guests with his tea knowledge for eight years.  “I learned a lot from taking the [Rishi] tea vendors crash course at the beginning,” Rodriguez says, “but I also did a lot of my own research, went to libraries and book stores, read a lot about the history of tea, different kinds, and so on.”  His explanations of each tea’s nuances–and how they would pair with the selection of dried mangoes and plums, fresh apple, lemon, and ginger slices, and  cinnamon, mint, and dried hibiscus flowers–were as relaxing as the sunny heights from which we listened.

The exquisitely polished silver tea pots came one at a time (Juan indulged each of us with three different pots as opposed to the usual one).  My round began with the delicate 1893 Pfister Blend White Tea Rose Melange, was kicked up a notch with the Vanilla Bean Black Tea steeped with cinnamon, and was settled with the Tangerine Ginger.  Pamela enjoyed the Jade Oolong, Chocolate Chai, and the Tangerine Ginger as well.  And what an indulgence it was–that’s a lot of tea, that’s all I’ll say.  But before we could indulge, we had to let it steep for 3-4 minutes, after which we were instructed to hold onto the chain of the tea ball infuser so that it wouldn’t fall in . . . alas, someone didn’t hold onto the chain (hint: those aren’t my fingers in the photos).  And so commenced the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules:

Finally: success!

While I waited for the fishing expedition to end, a little research answered a question that was lingering on my brain: Why is it called “high” tea.  I assumed it had something to do with the level of upper-class distinction, with pinkies-in-the-air, with a British custom that I remember reading about and seeing in films in college (I was stuck on Edwardian England, as well as on a certain girl named Erin–Lucy Honeychurch to my George Emerson–who would lavish me with tea in her purple dorm room).  In fact, it was E.M. Forster’s Room With a View–which, come to think about it, is what Pamela and I were experiencing at Blu–that sparked my romanticism of old.  But Lucy’s view from the Pension Bertolini in Florence had nothing compared The Pfister’s view!

I was surprised to discover that the “high” part of high tea was originally a reference to the working men who took their mid-afternoon meal, standing up or sitting on high stools, eating cakes, scones, and cheese on toast with their tea.  It doesn’t seem like there was a cause-and-effect to what happened next, but eventually the upper class co-opted this practice (much like they did with one of my favorite Danish meals, the open-faced sandwich, or smørrebrød).  For them, high tea was a proper snack before hitting the town.  It is rumored that in the early 1800s, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began using mid-afternoon tea and a snack to cure her “sinking feeling” (apparently, the British typically only ate breakfast and a late dinner).  More women began joining her for tea, snacks, and socializing.  And the rest, I guess, is history: Anna has tea, everyone wants tea; John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, develops the sandwich, everyone wants high tea sandwiches; the upper class needs a nineteenth-century version of a 5-hour energy drink before promenading in Hyde Park, everyone wants that boost (which is strange, because promenading seems pretty leisurely to me).

I’m not sure what Pamela did after our Pfister tea, but my niece came into town and we went out for tacos and tequila (for me–she’s only 20), a far cry from the goat cheese and watercress sandwiches; delicate cucumber sandwiches; dill-chantilly, curried quail eggs; chive and herb-roasted turkey pinwheels with red onion marmalade; Scottish smoked salmon rolls with roe; chocolate dipped strawberries with white chocolate shavings; freshly baked blueberry and cranberry scones; lemon raspberry mascarpone tarts; opera tortes; French macaroons; madeleine cookies; and lemon curd & strawberry preserves.

To top it off, the high tea harpist soothed us with songs as diverse as the symphonic version of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and John Legend’s “All of Me,” her fingers strumming beautiful notes while Pamela and I talked about art and creative placemaking, photography and city-building, the upcoming Jane’s Walk and 200 Nights of Freedom, Black Power and the state of education in our country.

I guess even high tea couldn’t tame the artist and activist in us both.  In fact, what it did was both bring us back to a time when both the working class and the upper class shared a similar pastime and propel us forward into new ideas and hopes for the future.

Time to start drinking more tea–and the start of an annual tradition.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions Edition | From Car to Carpool: A Chance to Relax & Regroup

At the end of January, I got in two car accidents in one week.  The first was snow-related: I hit the back of a bus, which had stopped in front of me.  I just couldn’t stop.  It totaled my car.  My dad was able to pick me up and let me use his car, a Mazda Miata that he had just bought and restored last year.  A couple days after hitting the bus, I got hit by a semi truck on my drive down to the Racine Art Museum where I work.  All of a sudden, the semi truck hit the back of the Miata, which swung sideways, and I was being pushed about a thousand feet on the highway.  All I could think was “My dad’s car!”  Of course, he was just happy that I was alive.  But I called my mom and she drove me to work, where my co-workers couldn’t believe that I had actually come into work after being hit by a semi!

At first, I figured I would get another car (the insurance check came in just a couple of days).  I went to the dealership and told the salesperson that I wanted to get another Prius (that was the bus car), but there were none available.  So I started to think about it: This is the first time I can actually carpool to work.  I mean, I could have in the past, but you know, I had my own car.  One of my colleagues lives in Riverwest, so I asked him for a ride.  Why not carpool with him?  Of course, I offered to pay for gas. It’s turned out really well.  If I have to stay late for a meeting or something, I’ve discovered that there is a bus from Racine to Milwaukee that’s pretty decent.  It’s only $3.50!  What’s the price of a city bus?  About $2.50?  Amazing.

And there are other ways I can get to and from work: my mom and step-dad live in Racine, so I can get rides from them; Lyft; Zipcar; and the Sturtevant Amtrak, which I can get a ride to if I need to.  There are so many tools for transportation!

I really like that the accidents made me think about my choices, my schedule.  I think about what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. I am still very involved in the art community in Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee, but in the end, I find that I’m spending more time at home where I can relax and regroup.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions edition | Xenodocheio & Spiritual Connections

Last night I met Dean at the lobby bar, relaxing with a cocktail.  I had just asked the bartender, Shelby, for a cordial of wisdom and she had offered that her “life motto has always been that laughter is a cure for everything. And there’s something you can laugh at in every situation.”  Dean agreed with her, then asked me what I was doing.  I told her and she told me that she had worked for many years in the Spa as a hairdresser and that even though she has her own studio space down the street now, she still comes back to The Pfister for drinks because she loves the atmosphere.  Dean is the first of March’s Humans of The Pfister and without my having to announce this month’s theme of Transitions (the awkward meteorological transition from winter to spring we’ve been experiencing, with balmy weather one day and snow the next gave me the idea), she began with an etymological lesson about transience.

I’m Greek, and the Greek word for hotel is xenodocheio (ξενοδοχειο), which means something like “a place of strangers.”  That’s what a hotel is. They’re not about the locals–it’s a transient place.  And a hotel bar–it’s a real mix of everybody.

I’ve met so many people here at the bar–lots of celebrities, obviously, and, get this, I was Barbara Bush’s hairdresser any time she was here–but I really enjoyed Maya Angelou.  I was sitting her and she came up and sat next to me, just like you are.  And I fanned out on her!  But she was–just like she is.  Cool, laidback.  A guest just like anybody else.

She’s a spiritual person.  I’m a spiritual person.  So we connected spiritually.  If you connect with someone spiritually, then the subject of the conversation doesn’t matter as much.  We could talk about cars or politics or whatever.  But that’s all stupid.  Not stupid–I don’t mean it that way.  But insignificant in the long run.  What you will remember at the end of your life is the connections.

I wanted to capture Dean laughing.  Something was wrong with my new camera (well, it was probably me–I’m still learning about f-stops and low-light conditions and ISO settings!), but I kind of like how her photo turned out: a little blurry, a lot authentic, and even a little spiritual.