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Monday, March 26, 2018

The Billy Rose Fire

Fire and paintings do not mix.
(This is a reasonably accurate digital reconstruction. I did NOT run out and take a picture of my stupidity for old time's sake.)
About fifty years ago, when I was a sophomore art student at Ohio University, my wife and I lived in a 12 by 60-foot mobile home. One Sunday afternoon, we invited my parents over for a barbecue (my dad was big on barbecued chicken). I set up a brand new grill on the concrete pad just outside our "trailer" (or caravan as the British call them), and proceeded to light the charcoal "briquettes." That required a special lighter fluid just a little less flammable than gasoline and somewhat more so than lamp oil. In any case it was a rather time consuming, hit or miss operation. In this case it was both.

The left painting is now known only through this photo. The painting on the right I redid the following year.
A strong thunderstorm wind came up to speed ignition but the accompanying shower threatened to leave us with chicken tartar on the menu. We had a small metal storage building next to our magnificent abode so I decided to move the grill just inside the broad access door (dumb move on my part). What with the wind, in no time the contents of the building were on fire. The steel building was a total loss (above) and came within about a foot and the Chauncey (Ohio) Volunteer Fire Department of incinerating our mobile home as well. In the process I lost two Christmas paintings (above), which I'd stored in the building awaiting the appropriate season for display. Except for that we were quite lucky.
This present day reconstruction of Rose Hill appears somewhat smaller than Billy Rose's ostentations mansion, (tiny inset) but does suggest the architectural opulence that went up in smoke in just a few hours.

  In the early morning hours of April 2, 1956, the famous Broadway impresario, Billy Rose, was not so lucky. A fire at his Mount Kisco, New York (a northern suburb of NYC), destroyed not only his multi-million-dollar, 28-room, Georgian mansion (now referred to as Rose Hill) but his entire private art collection consisting of at least seven Salvador Dali masterpieces, as well as numerous others by classical artists such as J.M.W. Turner, Franz Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, and others. Taken together, the art was probably worth more in dollars and cents that the sprawling mansion (which was far removed from a mobile home and had almost enough wings to take flight). No one was injured in the conflagration, though fighting the fire was something of a comedy of errors. The fire department had to be called from a neighbor's phone (a half-mile away) thus they were quite late in getting there, only to discover that the nearest major water supply was a lake over a mile away (to which a hose had to be run). By daybreak, it would seem to have been hardly worth the bother. (Life magazine took pictures of the bubble but no photos of the fire or the ruins seem to exist today).

Billy Rose's close friend, Salvador Dali (1944) posing with his series, "The Seven Lively (or Animated) Arts." All were lost in the fire. Dali later reproduced at least one of them from memory for Rose.
Not surprisingly, when the press interviewed Rose as to his loss, he was not inclined to talk about it: "Let's just say it all burned up. That’s all I want to say. I lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced with money.” Although some of the works by classical artists were probably worth more on the art market at the time, nearest and dearest to Billy's heart were the series of seven painting he had commissioned from his friend and sometimes collaborator, Salvador Dali, dealing with "The Seven Lively Arts"--opera, ballet, cinema, theater, radio, art of the concert (music), and Boogie-Woogie (dance). Four of them survive in black and white photographs. Missing below are The Art of Theater, The Art of Radio, and The Art of Ballet.

Typical of Dali from the late 1940s.
Dalí and Rose first met during preparations for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, where the artist was commissioned to create a pavilion that he called “Dreams of Venus," while others described as a “surrealist funhouse.” The pale-pink facade, covered with weird protrusions and statuary, led into a space filled with naked women, bizarre tableaus, and a radical combination of references to the Renaissance, current pop culture, and the risqué. Rose helped Dali achieve his vision using his experience as a nightclub owner known in putting on raucous shows of his own, among many other profitable showbiz ventures.
As you can see in comparing this version of The Art of Boogie-Woogie with that just above, the recreation is only an approximation of the original.
Beginning with that collaboration, a long friendship was born. Dalí went on to supply the illustrations for Rose’s 1946 autobiography Wine, Women, and Words. But before that, Rose envisioned a theater extravaganza for which he enlisted the surrealist’s help. In December 1944, with World War II still raging, Rose bought the Ziegfeld Theater and transformed it from a movie house back into its original incarnation as a showcase for the arts of the stage. To christen the theater, he decided to put on a musical revue that would both introduce the space under his new management while being a Broadway spectacle the likes of which New York hadn’t seen since the before the war. His new play was titled The Seven Lively Arts, which told the story of a group of young people who come to New York to woo the arts.

The only known photo of the interior of Billy Rose's mansion.
In addition to the art of the stage, Rose decided that he wanted to wow his theater guests with art of the painted variety. He asked Dalí to create seven works of art to be displayed in the lobby of the theater that would depict the seven arts also referenced in the show: theater, popular music, opera, ballet, classical music, movies, and the radio. Life magazine, which photographed the paintings in the series for an art feature, reported that Dalí created the works while “locked in a cubbyhole high in Ziegfeld Theater.” The result were canvases that were classically Dalí, surrealist visions of the forms and effects of the arts in question. Of all those destroyed in the fire, only Dali's Seven Lively Arts: The Art of Boogie-Woogie was recreated by the artist (above).

One might argue that Billy Rose was even more famous for his collection of wives starting with Fanny Brice in 1929 until his death in 1966.
Billy Rose’s Seven Lively Arts would go on to have 183 performances, but its run at the Ziegfeld was outlasted by the Dalí paintings, which remained on display for 10 years. Two years before the devastating fire broke out, Rose moved the paintings to his mansion in Westchester. Their loss—and the loss of most (but not all) of his worldly possessions was devastating to Rose. Incidentally, I should note that Billy Rose collected wives (above) like some people collect art. None of his wives burned up in the fire.
Billy Rose, 1947, Salvador Dali


Monday, March 19, 2018

Mona Caron

Outgrowing, Mona Caron's urban weeds left unattended, though in this case grown for their medicinal qualities in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
There was a time when I was growing up during the 1950s and 60s when virtually every family in Stockport, Ohio, had a garden. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but the tradition extended back to pioneer days and the Victory Gardens of the war years. In any case, it was often my job to get out in the hot sun and "hoe the garden." Weeks were my enemy. They were an ugly invasion force which had to be carefully uprooted to die in the same bright sun that was also killing me. Yet the American mural artist Mona Caron would contend that weeds are beautiful. Indeed, hers are. Hers are also a painted warning as to what heights weeds might rise to if left to grow unattended. Hers vary from a fairly modest one or two stories in height to as much as fifteen stories high painted on the blank ends of high-rise office and apartment buildings (above).
 Collaboration with Liqen, Mona Caron, public art commissioned by the City of Vigo, Spain. 
Muralist Mona Caron has created a worldwide "Weeds" series, with colorful renderings of humble plants growing ever taller on buildings in cities such as Portland, São Paulo, Spain, Taiwan, and elsewhere. The San Francisco-based artist often partners with local and international, social, and environmental movements for climate justice, labor rights, and water rights. She selects plants, both native and invasive, that she finds in the cities where she paints. She combines the words "artist" and "activist" to form "artivist" in describing herself and her gigantic murals.
Taking Root, Mona Caron.
Hers is not an art for those
afraid of heights.
Taking Root (above), featuring the first tiny wildflower that made it back to the once barren piece of land it now stands upon, after its rehabilitation from industrial pol-lution. The roots contain narrative miniature paintings representing the land's history. Caron also integrates tiny details into the main visual elements of her murals, several of which contain intricate miniature details, invisible from afar. These typically narrate the local history to chronicle the social life of the mural’s immediate surroundings. Such images visualize future possibilities created in a process that incorporates ideas emerg-ing from spontaneous conversations with the artwork’s hosting communities while paint-ing. Caron regularly shares process videos and photos of completed works on Insta-gram. She also delves into the narratives behind several of her murals on her website.
Caron's Weeds series growing with time-lapse photography.

The Mission Blue Butterfly is the central image in Mona Caron's mural of Brisbane, California (below). This mural narrates the history of the small town within a display of the native flora of nearby San Bruno Mountain. The silhouette of San Bruno Mountain spans the whole background of the mural, while a number of native flowers (many of them butterfly host plants) are depicted in the foreground. The town of Brisbane is painted nestled within the large, protective shape of a Mission Blue Butterfly, a local endangered species.

The Mission Blue Butterfly, Mona Caron.
A series of smaller pictures within the mural depict moments in the history of Brisbane, in chronological order. These are painted monochromatically in sepia tones. The outside shape of these images changes gradually from a butterfly to a star. The star is the symbol of the town because of the oversize wooden pentagrams that homes in Brisbane traditionally display on their façâdes, so the butterfly changing to a star symbolizes the transformation of a natural setting into a man-made one. The star outline continues changing to that a book, which at the end transforms back to a butterfly. This represents hope in education and our younger generations, as modeled by the work of the local Brisbane Educational Support Team, who spearheaded this mural project.

Stream of Life, Mona Caron.A stream of water in the forest becomes a stream of people in the city. Both are the key to the vitality of their environments.
In addition to history, weeds, and butterflies, Mona Caron also paints current events in line with her activist tendencies. A prime example is her Bike Flower in Curitiba Brazil. The Mural was created for the 2014 World Bicycle Forum as they celebrating the blossoming of the city through its embrace of lighter-treading means of every-day transportation. In most of her murals that involve art for mass street actions, Caron worked in team with her longtime friend and comrade-in-art, the fellow artivist and puppetista, David Solnit.

Bike Flower, Mona Caron, Curitiba Brazil
Caron often joins Solnit in facilitating the collaborative creation of, portable images that are used to amplify the visual impact of rallies, while adding the experience of art making and the language of theater to the actions and struggles. The street art pieces are closely related to her other mural work, but are instigated by activist groups, or were made in support of a specific issue, during a moment of heightened public debate around it.

A Weed in Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mona Caron.

When asked why she paints weeds, Caron first lays claim to the pejorative term "weeds", owning it, as it describes not the plants' intrinsic value but their action. Whether invasive species or benign wildflowers, plants act as weeds when they appear clandestinely, autonomously, in surprising urban places. This is why she creates some of her murals as on-site animations: to let the paintings not just BE, but ACT like weeds. Although a large number of them are classified with the ominous-echoing term "invasive non-natives," all immigrant plants are native somewhere. If they are here, it's because the global environment has been disrupted. It's a consequence of globalization, which is part of the metaphor.

Manifestation Station, painted
utility box by Mona Caron.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Ed Emberley

Ed Emberley joins his creations.
Ed Emberley's thumbprint
instructional illustrations. 
At the most elementary level, children, and even adults, have long been taught to draw using basic shapes--circles, triangles, rectangles, squares, and thumbprints. Thumbprints? I'm not sure if Ed Em-berley is quite old enough to have "invented" the teaching of drawing using basic shapes, but he can certainly be credited with the use of thumbprints for that purpose (left). Although I don't remember hav-ing learned to draw through such methods, I do recall having used Ed's thumbprints as the basic shape in teaching children as young as six and as old as sixteen the basics of drawing using what I termed the "rule of thumb."
I called the cartoon-like little creatures "thumb-buddies." At the most elemental level, a child's thumbprint pressed into a sponge dampened with watercolor then printed on paper leaves a simple oval image ideal for any number of human and animal creatures. The older students created "Thumb-buddy" stationary with such figures placed in the upper corners of a blank page and on a matching envelope. My high school students then packaged them in re-sealable plastic bags. The art club sold them ten for fifty-cents. We didn't make much money but the teens loved it and learned from it. (Kids that age seldom wrote letters, even back in the 1970s.)

Emberley's books fill shelf after
shelf in many bookstores.
Ed Emberley's most popular books teach kids (and adults sometimes too) how to draw through a refreshingly straight-forward method. Emberley’s step-by-step instructions visualize how a diverse range of creatures, people, and objects can be created by using just a few shapes—and the occasional thumbprint. Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Animals, for instance, uses a small half circle, which he transforms into a porcupine through the addition of a few staccato lines (for spikes), and a tiny dot (for an eye). In Fingerprint Drawing Book, fingertips dipped in paint and pressed to paper become butterfly wings, tadpole torsos, and snail shells. Emberley has made 22 of these drawing books over the course of his career, many of which remain in print today. Drawing Book of Animals, for its part, has sold over a million cop-ies since it was first published in 1970. Emberley has also written and illustrated mesmerizingly beautiful children’s storybooks, like Drummer Hoff, which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1968. 

Today, 22 books later, Ed
makes a living largely by
 just signing his name.
Ed Emberley was born in 1931 in Malden, Massachusetts (a northern suburb of Boston). He was raised in Cambridge. From an early age, Ed was surrounded by makers. His father and grandfather were both carpenters, his mother, a dressmaker. The family didn’t have money for lots of toys, but there were always pencils and paper around the house, and Emberley’s grandmother would occasionally give him a box of his grandfather’s wood scraps. He played with them for hours--lining them up, making shapes from his DIY blocks. He went on to study traditional figure painting, sculpture, and etching at Massachusetts School of Art. He eventually decided it was illustration he liked best. After graduating, he made ends meet by working as a freelance direct-mail illustrator, which entailed sending illustrations to greeting card companies, children’s magazines, and religious newsletters, then receiving payment by mail in return. It was a tenuous career if ever there was one.

Ed Emberley's art from basic shapes.
Emberley, who is now 87 years old, is something of a jokester. He’s also one of the world's most successful children’s book illustrators—due in no small part to his playful, experimental approach to art. Emberley is a firm believer in not taking art too seriously. While studying at the Massachusetts School of Art in the 1950s, Emberley gained a reputation for dragging a papier-mâché dog around campus on a leash. Despite the popularity of his books and a loyal following, Emberley admits that he’s surprised by his success. He is coy if you ask what inspired his career in illustration. “I still don’t know,” he answers, mischievously. His books, however, tell a different story.

Not all of Emberley's drawing lessons use live
models. This one uses wheels, not legs.

Teaching the alphabet through drawing.

I wonder if Bob Ross got his
start like this.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Nancy Fouts

Butterfly Owl, 2012, Nancy Fouts. Though stopping short of a true oxymoron, Fouts' taxidermy sculpture is certainly surreal.
This is not a pipe, 1929, Rene Magritte

Today, most people (adults at least) are familiar with the term "oxymoron." If you think about it with any depth and clarity, most of us are oxy-morons. For the benefit of those who don't much think about the word at all, an oxymoron is usually two words put together which seem to be contradictions. Sometimes we refer to them as "figures of speech." One of the most common, derived from WW II, was "army intelligence." My favorite (as pertains to art) is "pretty ugly" followed closely by the similar mismatch, "awfully good." Today, as in the past, one type of art relies heavily (though not exclusively) on the oxymoron for much of its content. The more famous example is a painting of a typical pipe (the smoking device), painted by Belgian artist, Rene Magritte upon which across the bottom, are emblazoned (in French) the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). Though such an example involves a phrase rather than a couple words, the oxymoronic contradiction between the words and the image is not lost. That is to say, this is literally not a pipe, it is a painting of a pipe. Magritte originally referred to it as "The Treachery of the Images" but very wisely shortened the title in making his point less obtuse. This painting, from 1929, and most of his others, are but one branch of Surrealism.

Where there is painting, sculpture very likely marches along arm in arm as with Man Ray's Indestructible Object (upper, left), from 1923 in which he created a truly surreal, oxymoronic sculpture by attaching a line of carpet tacks to the bottom of a hand iron making it impossible to use, and thus giving it no other reason for being other than as a (tacky?) art object. It would seem that the Ken-tucky surrealist sculptor, Nancy Fouts, took her inspiration from Man Ray with her painting/sculpture, Madonna Iron (left). Fouts claims her main goal is to “disrupt roles and associations we give objects, changing orders and mixing things up a bit.” Perhaps the genius behind Fouts' juxtaposed con-nections is how she can pair two sim-ple objects such as in her Butterfly Owl (top), created in 2012, to yield a sculpture that is interesting, insightful, and a little uncomfortable (a beautiful masked predator).

Cactus Balloon, Nancy Fouts
Nancy Fouts
Nancy Fouts pairs unlikely objects together to create a surreal combination of nature, humor, religion, and wittiness into some clever mashups for her Unthink series. One would reasonably presume that a cactus and a balloon would be natural enemies. Yet with her Cactus Balloon (above), Fouts pairs the two. I'm guessing the cactus was grown from a seed inside an airless balloon filled with a moist, nutrient-rich soil. Though American-born, and trained at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, the artist has lived most of her life in London where she pursued a career in advertising while keeping art within arm’s reach by run-ning a gallery with her husband. As a modern-day surrealist, Fouts injects extra-ordinary insight into ordinary items gathered mostly from visits to flea markets, and eBay.

Though I could find no title indicated for this piece by Fouts, one might reasonably call it "Songbird."

A critic has referred to Fouts as an ‘art prankster.’ She uses playful techniques to changes our perceptions, and in so doing, questioning and changing the roles of objects, icons, and relationships. She uses simplicity and clarity to disrupt the familiar. Although her playful composition makes the piece above both witty and charming, there remains the specter of a creature having found a way to overcome a mute handicap. Fouts frames her sculptures in her studio against a white background to parody stylized consumer product settings, before distorting their functions. In doing so, she brings us into contact with a world that is out of kilter with our sense of normality.
Humor paired with
the profound.
Purse with Teeth (upper image) and Still Smiling, Nancy Fouts
Fouts takes her cue from the Surrealists, producing immaculately executed weird objects, such as a money purse with teeth (above) or skull with dentures. The gallery that represents her, Pertween, Anderson, & Gold, recently asked her to branch out into painting. The results have been a series of customized Old Masters. In her version of Vermeer’s Lacemaker the painting’s occupant is sewing up a tear in the front of the canvas; she has superimposed real antlers onto Monarch of the Glen, and Cezanne’s Black Clock was made a working timepiece. Her "Jesus" series of works (below) reflects much the same thinking.
Surrealism or sacrilege?
Electric Rocking Chair,
Nancy Fouts
Fouts and Banksy, the world’s most famous guerrilla artist, think alike. They share the same comedic values, although Fouts’ work is less political. She adds, “Banksy sent me an email saying he loved my work. The only difference between Banksy and me is that he can afford to buy my work, but I can’t afford...his.” On the other hand, Fouts is scathing about the Surrealist move-ment’s most famous name, Salvador Dalí: "He was a prick. He signed old blank pages! He was not a real Surrealist, he was a show off. He was playing the crowd to scratch a money-grubbing itch."

There's nothing ambiguous about Nancy Fouts view on war and the means of killing accompanying it (below).

The guns are covered with rose thorns. Hand grenades and
"lovebirds" are recurring images in Fouts' works.

After Rodin, Degas,
Nancy Fouts