Monday, December 27, 2010

In Which the Word "Better" Appears Seven Times (More if You Count the Title)

to everything there is a season

In another season, that may as well have been in another lifetime but was only five months ago, my life changed. Or rather, I changed my life. I left my desk job, began this blog, opened an online shop, and registered a business. I named it after one of my tattoos, two tigers inspired by a book of old Chinese ink drawings, alike but unique, placed in a yin yang position as a symbol of both balance and completion.  Since autumn 2002, they have been perched on the back of my left shoulder as guardians and reminders of the spirit of fierce pursuit and wise poise I wish to bring to all my endeavors, but never have I needed to draw upon their strength and grace as I have this year. When the time came to create a signature image for my new professional artistic activities, the obvious choice was some rendering of this old tattoo. After many failed attempts to re-create it, I simply turned my back on the mirror over the sink in my bathroom, stood on tiptoe, and took the photograph you see in the banner at the head of this page. It strikes me now that all the elements that went into this capture – resourcefulness and spontaneity, something familiar, yet requiring a literal stretch to achieve, self-reflection and self-revelation – were ideal auspices for the new life ahead.

In one of those amazing instances of good timing and good fortune that occasionally befall me, the newsletter pictured above, the biannual publication of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, of which I am a graduate, showed up in my mailbox last week. I recalled sending a thumbnail image and a quick alumnae update to their website months ago as I began my brave new life, and that it was the first time I really felt I had anything legitimate and worthwhile to announce to such a readership. Imagine my delight when my image was chosen to grace the cover of the bulletin of a multidisciplinary academic arts program that is now considered one of the best in the country, appropriately one about which most of its students claim “it changed my life!” In January 2003, a few months after receiving my two tigers tattoo on a visit home to New York, and a month after turning 40, I received my MFA in poetry in what I consider my second home, Vermont, after avoiding the perils of traditional schooling for nearly two decades. But this place is nothing if not untraditional. The students are all ages, from all over the country and world, and many have full rich busy lives outside of the arts they are somehow still amazingly devoted to and talented at producing.  They are not concerned with following trends or making it big, just making good work, better work, the best of which they are capable. Then something wonderful happens, and these unprepossessing outsiders, misfits and underachievers start publishing, and showing, and performing everywhere. Receiving this item in the mail was the perfect way to reaffirm how far I have come in 2010 and how far I will go in 2011.

spoiled for choice

One of the things I’ve come to understand along the way is that while I have an inner need for peace, quiet and singularity of purpose, I am always going to be one of those people who can’t just do one thing and certainly can’t do nothing at all for very long. I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to choose between being a writer, a photographer and a maker of apparently highly desirable crocheted accessories, and have finally decided that Two Tigers Creations is all of those things – written works, photographic works, and yes, even a seasonal line of fiber works that are a little less than art but a lot more than craft. I’m a maker of things. I am happiest when engaged in the process of creation at some level – the planning, the execution, the completion, and the true conclusion in the joy of handing something I made to a stranger and knowing it gives them joy. I can’t and won’t choose between the ways I can do this. If this means violating one of the cardinal rules of self-promotion and marketing, which is to specialize and streamline, the better for the limited attention of the public and dealers to grasp who you are and purchase what it is you have to offer, so be it.  I’d rather enjoy doing three things I love and always feel I am not giving enough time to each, than do just one and always feel I have abandoned some essential part of my creative motives and mission. 

ever onward

This is the week I (and others I’m sure) typically spend time looking back or looking forward, cleaning up or clearing out the old to make way for the new, whether it’s closets and files or a soulsearching review of the year. I do all of that, filling bags with shredded paperwork, and also making lists of what I am proud of and grateful for, and where I found myself lacking, and finally constructing a highly flexible and provisional plan for both my soul’s journey and my practical agenda in the months ahead. I thought I’d share some of this online, as they say that announcing things to the universe by offering them in written form or spoken aloud is a good way of letting the universe know you mean business. And I do mean business this year, literally, because one of the main headings on my To Do list is to Be a Better Businesswoman, right next to Be a Better Artist and Take Better Care of Myself and Others. I have barely begun this list and it already bears the mark of a former library assistant’s zeal for organization, classification and a ruthless attention to detail, so I’ll give you instead the spirit of the Better List, which is to make peace with the ongoing challenge of balancing financial necessities and creative urgencies, including better self-promotion online and off (yes, this means you will see me on facebook soon, just in time for it to be replaced by something else!), revisiting the darkroom skills I learned many years ago among other ways of exploring classic photographic techniques, tools and presentation, a new book of poems and photographs, a calendar, and the item that never leaves my list from year to year – lose 15 pounds!

 yesterday and forever

As for what I am most proud of and grateful for, see above.  Thank you, Brian. And thank you, all you good blogfolks who follow me and support, inspire and encourage me though we have never laid eyes on each other and don’t even share a time zone or in some cases a language or a continent! I wish you the best for a new year full of courageous acts of creativity, good health and positive progress for mind body and soul, and new discoveries and pleasures where you expect them least and when you need them most!  

Gone for the year - see you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
Christ on the Cold Stone, ca. 1530
Oil on panel

For a long time I felt unfairly treated in the cruelty of my birthday falling within weeks of Christmas. I realize it might be considered petty, even sacrilegious, to feel upstaged by Jesus Christ, as if he were my bratty older brother who got all the attention, even moreso after his well-publicized tragic premature death! But too often my natal celebration was lost in the preparations and distractions of his, and even with the best intentions, paled by comparison and never lived up to its full potential.  Just the way New Year’s Eve can become a desperate mission to have the best day of the year, with all that pressure of not having another chance for another long year, my birthday suffered from a series of failed attempts at the ideal or ultimate commemoration, until I realized that a broader philosophy needed to be adopted. I rejected all norms for birthday fetes, and established a winter festival for which the anniversary of my birth was a mere recommended beginning, and could continue up to, include and outlast Christmas, with no one day bearing the burden of being the last word in seasonal amusements and satisfactions.  My festival has no fixed end, either.  It only lasts until every interested party is partied and gifted out and ready to submit to the deep depression of deep New England winter, which can last until April, so you better have plenty of comfort and joy stored up in advance!

 The Hand of Man - Alfred Stieglitz
American, 1902

Decemberfest 2010 began with a whimper on my actual birthday December 7th.  I had all the right elements in place – had taken a wonderful train ride the day before to my home town and arrived pleasantly drunk on free red wine thanks to the generous car attendant in first class, and gratefully amused by the characters on the Manhattan subway, whose winner for the day was a tall man in a business suit and large furry black coat who looked like a cross between one of the Men in Black and a pimp. He was also wheeling a small rack of large canvases behind him, which looked like his own paintings!   

The Flatiron, 1904
Edward Steichen (American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Gum bichromate over platinum print

But the next morning I woke to a cold windy gray day, feeling tired and uninspired, and emerged to encounter one frustration after another – museums closed, weather bitter, no desire to walk, eat, shop, shoot or any of the things I associate with a successful day in the city. I went home defeated and had a lovely dinner with my wonderful parents, yes, but all in all the day was dull and unremarkable and I wondered where all that “travel magic” I am always blessed with had vanished to.

December 8th I woke after a bad sleep with the awareness that this was the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon. I made a mental note to find time for a brief visit to his memorial in Central Park as part of my day’s itinerary. Then I proceeded to do all I had wanted to do the day before – a visit to Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which was deserted, windless, and warmed by a bright sun in a clear sky in the midmorning that made for ideal high contrast shooting conditions for black and white film.

I visited my 115 yr old bonsai in the Conservatory, sturdy, wrinkled old friend I have now greeted in every season for nearly two decades. 

I had a wonderful soup and sandwich lunch watching young school groups led through various indoor plant exhibits, from tropical to desert flora, and felt hopeful that future generations will learn to love and value nature thanks to places like this. I even saw some VERY late cherry blossoms outdoors, white, fragile as tissue paper, yet delicately tenacious on the bare trees in spite of 30 degree temperatures.  Every view offered me a photographer’s dream of angles and shapes and light playing with each other. Every listless negative feeling of the day before was replaced with vitality and joy.

When I emerged from the subway and entered Central Park at 72nd street, passing the Dakota, where John lived and died, I could see that the police presence and stanchions for crowd direction anticipated masses and possible trouble. I recalled 30 years ago in my old bedroom at my parents’ home uptown listening to a small radio as a dj on the night shift broke the news and then opened the phone lines for callers, playing Lennon songs through the night and sharing shock, disbelief and grief. No tweets or texts back then, just people coming together with real voices and bodies, as they would assemble later on the streets, through the night and days to come, as John would have loved. At the official memorial in 1980, held in one of Central Park’s largest areas for public events, no gathering of thousands in that space was ever as silent or unified.

As I said, I meant to file by and pay my respects to the IMAGINE mosaic with its increasing collection of offered flowers and memorabilia, but could not even see it for the people, row upon row, cameras raised high like periscopes, citizens and news media alike. But I moved toward the sound of a strummed guitar just as he gave up trying to play near the mosaic and moved to a park bench off to the side, and soon found myself among a spontaneous Beatles songbook singalong. 

Other musicians arrived, and the crowd instinctively, respectfully parted as they joined the cluster at the bench, a bongo drummer, a mandolinist,  two, three, four acoustic guitarists. And we sang – in perfect harmony – for an hour. If I didn’t have to meet my Dad on the other side of the park at an appointed time, I’d be there still.

I had shot my last roll at BBG, and got only one photo of the event, the b&w one above, as I arrived. It never occurred to me to reload and take more, even if now I wish I had captured what happened there. Oh well. I’m not a journalist. The images of that experience are burned in my head where they belong, though I’ve since scoured individual flickr sites and sorted through literally thousands of images, including those of one dedicated photographer who must have been at their station the entire day as the crowd changed faces but kept its numbers strong. There, I did find a few photos of myself, caught in the act and almost lost in the I do have proof.  I would like to make it clear here that these photos are not mine and not to be reproduced.

All too soon, I had to leave and meet my father at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a show of to me unknown Netherlandish painter Jan Gossart, a great talent who combined the lessons of antiquity, the upfront humanism of the Italian Renaissance, and the great attention to detail of the Northern masters. His image of Christ, an unparalleled realistic rendition of not an idealized concept but an actual man in torment awaiting his horrible destined end, with a twisted figure based on the massive and muscular yet broken Apollo Belvedere, begins this post. I apologize for using it as a witty visual reference to my birthday rivalry with JC, and now humbly request you view it again for all its raw power. 

 Paul Strand (1890-1976)
Iris, Georgetown, Maine, 1928
vintage platinum print 10" x 8"

Then it was on to another gallery to view the Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand show, a humbling and inspiring experience, as I alternately felt reassured that these great artists possessed the same vision as I do, the same attraction for certain compositions, and troubled that I will never be able to translate that vision into the final results that they were able to produce.  Then again, my results are my own, great art or not.  See Paul Strand above, and me below:

My day ended with another lovely dinner shared at home with my parents, and another trainride the next day, back to Boston, with an equally generous wine-pouring car attendant!  Now that Decemberfest is properly launched, I intend to celebrate for several more weeks. I do not mean by this that I will spend a lot of money and consume a lot of calories and alcohol (not that there is anything wrong with that!) but that for a few weeks I will suspend all “should”s and “oughta”s and instead focus on what feels good, to mind, body and spirit, in whatever affordable and relatively harmless form that can take. I urge you to do the same, and if questioned, say, "it’s okay, it’s Gabriella’s birthday!!"

  Reach for the sky!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Romance of the Rails

Today is my birthday. Because I like symbolic gestures, I’ve scheduled this post to be released at exactly 8:50 am EST the exact time of my birth 48 years ago in a Manhattan hospital.  I will be back in Manhattan at that moment, in the apartment I have known for almost 40 years, many of those as a resident, and no year having gone by without being a guest. I will likely take a long walk in my native town and pass through places my feet have touched and eyes have reflected hundreds of times over the years. Some journeys take you forward; others take you back, but every journey, whatever the gains and losses encountered along the way, is about movement onward.

I write those words with a smile, knowing that I have so often lamented that my life is going nowhere, or going wrong. With the perspective of age, I can now see that it was always going exactly where and how it needed to go, and that I could not be sitting here as the person I now am had any of those gains and losses been missed. I now understand that the happenings I construed as delays or detours or even disasters were all uniquely designed to keep me on track and safely arrived at my destination. But I haven’t always seen things this way. I haven’t always had this philosophical detachment from and faith in right outcomes.  I wanted it all to be as clear as showing up on time with the right stuff and proceeding from point A to point B.  Maybe this is why many years ago I came to love train travel.  It gave me exactly what was missing in my life:  getting somewhere.

 Old Penn Station, NYC, archival photo

I love waiting rooms in train stations. Not only do they have inspiring and expansive architecture, like secular cathedrals erected to the gods of travel, but they hold the history of every passenger who ever left one place and went to another, for business, for pleasure, for family, to experience new things or revisit old ones, to embrace adventures or escape them, to change who they are, or rediscover who they always were. 

It’s all there, in the great everchanging hanging board of destination cities and times, in the sellers of tickets who literally hold your future in their hands, in the great iron horses waiting on the tracks, ready to carry hundreds of souls to their destinies. It’s all there to feel anew as soon as I step into the great vaulted spaces, ceilings high to hold all those aspirations, my footsteps echoing on the polished floors, the air astir with the passing of persons with places to go, the very manifestation of a world of human possibility.

Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner, 1844

I love the first forward movement of the train when I am in my seat and ready to go. There is always that slight tug backwards and then the first shift forward, like an animal recoiling before it can leap. I feel it in my gut, the way your stomach flutters when you set eyes on a lover, and in my mind I feel that same excitement and contentment of knowing now something is HAPPENING, now I am GOING SOMEWHERE.

But I also love the last moments of approaching the end of the line. For the route I most often take, the Boston to NYC Amtrak, this means my native city coming into view in the distance, and identifying all the buildings I know so well, seeing that crazy impossible cluster of tall buildings and the millions of lives in and around them, all standing together on a tiny sliver of island, and knowing that is where I come from, that is why I am who I am, that is the cityscape whose image is engraved on my heart.  Then we enter the tunnel to pull into the station and those last moments of rushing through the subterranean darkness make my heart beat faster. I am transformed; when I exit the train in Penn Station, I leave behind who I am outside NYC, I become again the determined headlong urban walker, weaving untouchable through the masses of people, more people in five minutes than I normally see in a month back in Boston, like a shark through water, retracing a course I know so well I could do it blindfolded. The electricity rises in my bloodstream. I’m home.

I also love arriving in a new unfamiliar place, the feeling that anything can happen, the focus and acute senses needed to navigate an entirely unknown place and people and get to where I need to be, a hotel, further transportation. I have always claimed that I have “travel magic.” I do a lot of research when I travel, but there is always an element of the unexpected, and when I have taken great leaps of faith that things will work out, they always do, thanks to a combination of my own openness, curiosity and instincts with a lot of help from the kindness of strangers who seem to materialize at just the right time with exactly the right information or services. Knowing I have this luck does not mean I rely upon it, but I have come to embrace that sense of friendly uncertainty as both exciting and instructive. Its application to everything unfamiliar that presents itself to me has been one of the saving graces of my life.

Compartment Car 293, by Edward Hopper, 1938

I also love everything that happens between departure and arrival, especially on long distance train rides. It’s one thing to board a plane and several hours later find yourself across the continent in another time zone having only witnessed cloud formations and the seatback in front of you, and quite another to witness every city and every shift in landscape that lies between beginning and end. A few years ago I had the great good fortune to take the train from New York to New Orleans. My cabin was small and the hours many, and yet, I have never felt time pass so quickly or had more spacious accommodations. The rhythm of the rocking of the train lulled me to sleep at night, and the sight of one town after another kept me window-gazing between the calls for meals in the dining car where I met fellow travelers, train enthusiasts and lovers of adventure.  By the time I reached the final stop in New Orleans, I felt so content and energized I would have stayed on that train and let it take me anywhere. When would you ever feel that way upon leaving an airplane?

There is a timelessness and universality to staring out the window of a moving train, aligning me with all the artists of the past for whom train travel served as a theme or motif, from the French Impressionists to Kerouac to Tolstoy to Hitchcock who understood the romance of the rails, but also aligning me with my own past and future selves. All of life seems like it is on track and making its way from where it once was to where it must eventually be, and that is a wonderful feeling to have in times of such great uncertainty. 

Happy Birthday to Me. And to all of you good people out there, may your travels this holiday season be safe and satisfying!