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Thoughts from the First Day of Toronto Pursuits 2014

July 15, 2014 in Art, Canada Travel, Classical Pursuits, Famous Artists, Famous Museums, Great Artists, Special Events, Summer Fun, Toronto Pursuits

Susan Lahey signs up for Twitter Just before giving her talk on Chinese Decorative Arts.

Guest Post by Ann Kirkland of Classical Pursuits

The first full day of Toronto Pursuits was a great success. It was great to see and meet some of the new people and find out about how they discovered Toronto Pursuits. Some people said they were here for their love of discussions and great ideas. Others were from Toronto and lived here their entire lives but never knew about it. Many were repeat attendees who keep coming back to Toronto to join us and partake in sessions and discussions.

“The Forbidden City” Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

On Monday, we started the day with sessions and then after lunch had a great talk from Susan Lahey and learned more about an insider’s view of Chinese Decorative Art. We took a trip with her to the Royal Ontario Museum to see an exhibition on “The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors.” Ian Scott shared his wealth of knowledge of Eastern and Western opera.

To finish off a rewarding day, we had an intimate reception at the Park Hyatt in Toronto. The week is just getting started and there is much more to come. Stay tuned!

Read more about Classical Pursuits and the Toronto Pursuits program.

Liter-Etsy: A DIY Guide to Bookish Goods

January 24, 2013 in Art, Classic Literature, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

I have always loved stuff. I can’t explain it: I’m not materialistic, and I don’t own or desire name brands or designer goods. I just love stuff.  My friends (affectionately, I think) refer to me as a hoarder from time to time, though after watching an episode of Hoarders where a woman saved expired raw meat in her refrigerator’s ‘crisper’ drawer, I’m beginning to take offense. Plus, the stuff I love isn’t bad; it’s beautiful, it’s artsy, and it’s unique. As that under-the-sea hoarder, The Little Mermaid, once sang, “You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty…But who cares, no big deal, I want more.”

When I was younger I had many collections. Apart from the typical stuff (books, stamps, postcards), I collected spoons. You know, those baby-sized spoons gift shops sell in both ritzy hotels and highway rest stops?  You know, the ones your friends look at and say, “Who would ever buy that?”  Well, I did. You think I am kidding? For a while, my spoon collection was hung proudly on the wall of my parent’s dining room.

Most of the stuff I love, however, is handmade.  I’m not a visual artist, but I like to think that in another life I could have been. I did snatch up the “Best Female Artist” superlative back in high school, but I was one of only two students who elected to take an art class — and I was the only girl.  What little remains of my artistic ability, I invest into wine-laden craft nights and DIY art projects.

So it’s no surprise my artsy, DIY, stuff-loving brain nearly exploded with the advent of Etsy, a website dedicated to the production of small-batch, beautiful handmade goods (with a large vintage presence on the side). What’s best, it’s easy to find artists who are into the same wacky things I am. For instance, there’s practically a surplus of bookish knick knacks and literary ephemera. Whether you’re looking for a unique gift, adding to your personal stockpile, or squirreling away goods for a rainy day, Etsy has a multitude of crafty sellers who will amaze you with their bibliophilic whimsy.

I recently did a little online window shopping and handpicked some of my favorite literary Etsy shops. Each artist melds his or her love of literature with a passion for both crafts and fine arts, yielding a beautiful (often surprising) collection of items that anyone would be lucky to own. Why purchase your stuff anywhere else? Through Etsy, you can directly support the artists who made it…and apparently, just for you.

Check out my “favorites” for my personal picks. If all else fails, Etsy has some lovely decorative spoons that my twelve-year-old self would have been all over.

Obvious State

Writer and illustrator Evan Robertson’s shop offers original illustrations, posters and prints with a literary slant. He believes that “the best thing about paperbacks (apart from the smell, of course) is that when a little jewel of a sentence grabs you, you can underline it.”  His posters, depicting his own artwork alongside quotes from literature offer a unique way to underline – by hanging it on your wall as art.  The 32 gorgeous black and white designs featured on Etsy include the words of authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Vladimir Nabokov, Jack London and Virginia Woolf.


Anyone who knows me, or got as far as the title of this blog post, knows that I love a good pun, so right away I was drawn to this shop.  The owner, Lauren Davidson, offers unique on-trend brass cuff bracelets with literary edge.  Each is engraved with a classic quotation from the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickenson, among others.  The designs on each are beautifully rendered and connected with the artwork associated with the text.

Castle on the Hill

London-based artist, Jess Purser, creates gorgeous works using pages from classic books.  She predominantly offers ACEOs, which I recently learned stands for Art Cards Editions and Originals.  The works of art can be made from any medium (Purser paints on vintage book pages before mounting on card for durability).  The only requirement of an ACEO is its miniature size; 2.5” x 3.5” – the size of a standard sports trading card.  (Where was ACEO collecting when I was an artsy child in need of a hobby?)  Her book page canvas serves as a unique template for her art, which takes a variety of forms apart from ACEO.  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet bookmarks, Jane Austen greeting cards and French literature post cards, oh my!

Uneek Doll Designs

Artist Debbie Ritter came upon the idea for Uneek Dolls while creating inhabitants for a dollhouse her husband had built. Afterwards, she quickly realized that miniatures provided a way to create the authors and characters from classic literature that she loved so much.  Custom orders are accepted, but with such a wide selection of authors, historical figures and literary characters to choose from, I’d be surprised if there was anyone she missed!  From Edgar Allen Poe to Edna St.Vincent Millay.  Looking to score some brownie points with the book-loving child in your life? May I suggest a dollhouse Pemberley? I know where you can find a miniature Elizabeth Bennet ready to make it her home.


The Siberian Mammoth: An Unexpected Guide to Cuba’s Revolutionary Past

January 14, 2013 in Cuba, Film, History, Movies, Political History, Politics

The title of the documentary about the making of I Am Cuba doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: I am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth seems to bear an especially obscure relationship with the country. For the puzzled traveler or movie fan, it’s enough to be aware that this Italian film explores a culture clash between the Soviet film-makers who went to the country to make a propaganda film on behalf of Castro’s new regime and the Cubans who were their audience.

The 2005 documentary The Siberian Mammoth opened up the processes behind the making of the mysteriously beautiful propaganda film I am Cuba, after it had been rediscovered by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola. In a time before Cuban tourism had become an option for the offbeat traveler, I am Cuba was a brochure of a political rather than commercial kind. In the 90s, it was easier for hip audiences to enjoy it for its unreal beauty rather than its uncomfortable revolutionary propaganda. The film was directed by a well-known Soviet film-director who ended up alienating Soviets and Cubans both. Kalaznov had worked for Soviet authorities who were impossible to please for long. Before making I am Cuba, he had been banned for several years by the authorities from film-making due to “negativism.” Given these competing demands it’s difficult to know what audience this film was really aimed at. It was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a “Bolshevik hallucination”. For the contemporary viewer, its beautiful imagery is confusing. Each shot wistfully points to some greater ideal, so that the pace is both slow and hard to follow, like melting ice—first static, then rapidly slipping into the sublimated, altered reality of the triumphant people’s revolution. The inevitable revolutionary sacrifice portrays Cubans as suffering idealists drawn towards action in a dreamlike state. This is a film that shows a Cuba of great natural beauty, but just like an advertisement, it has no real use for the reality of the place and its inhabitants. What’s stranger still is how the actors conform to its artificial purpose. The explanation behind this is that they were untrained Cuban actors selected by the Soviet Directors.

Cuba is a place that has been draped in romantic mystery for many reasons; often literary and cultural, but mostly political. Now that the country is open to tourists, it would be an interesting piece of homework for a traveler to watch this film along with its documentary counterpart as preparation for a visit. At this point the writer has a confession to make: I have seen I Am Cuba, but I have not seen The Siberian Mammoth. Nor have I seen Cuba. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit, I’d like to sharpen my memories of that beautifully shot propaganda film with this documentary about the culture clash between the foreign film-makers and their subjects.

Site of Iconic Wyeth Painting Named National Landmark

July 18, 2011 in American Art, Famous Artists, Famous Museums, Great Artists, Maine travel, Uncategorized

Andrew Wyeth’s art is quiet. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, whose works scream out for attention through bright colors and bold shapes (Rothko and Mondrian), or seduce with lush layers of paint and incomprehensible abstractions (Pollock and de Kooning), Wyeth’s paintings are subtle. They whisper their intention to the viewer. Muted colors and barren landscapes mark Wyeth’s most recognizable works, but all of his paintings share a common sense of stark intimacy.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about Wyeth’s art. Earlier this month, the house in Maine depicted in his most famous work, Christiana’s World (above), was named a national landmark. “It’s now affirmation that it’s an American icon,” said Christropher Brownawell, executive director of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, in an interview with the Associated Press. On July 1, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, announced that The Olson House, along with 14 other locations, is now officially recognized by the U.S. Government.

The news shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with American art. Though he didn’t fit into any of the major artistic movements of the 1940s, Wyeth was an exceedingly popular artist; something about his pieces felt recognizable in that post-depression era. I like to think it’s because his scenes are so touching and instill an immediate familiarity in the viewer: we can’t help but feel as though we’ve been there. His style may not have been as flashy as that of his contemporaries, but Wyeth’s work has long been recognized as different, respected in its own right. Quietly, it captured the era.

Painted in 1948, Christina’s World was titled after the woman who inspired the image, Wyeth’s neighbor, Christina Olson. But while the painting is ostensibly about her, Wyeth did not use Olson as a primary model. Instead, he called upon his wife to pose for the scene, recreating the moment he looked out the window and saw his neighbor, who suffered from polio, making her slow crawl across the yard. Looking at this painting, I believe I can see the love he had for his wife, and the sad respect he had for his subject. The landscape is bleak and muted, but there is a tenderness in the way Wyeth depicts Olson. I feel instinctively, as many have before me, that this piece captures something essentially human, something even bigger than the scene, more important than the farmhouse.

Though I’ve seen the painting in person—it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—I haven’t yet visited the location in Cushing, Maine. But somehow, I feel as though I have been there, as though the moment he depicted is not in a place or a time, but happening constantly. It’s an ineffable thing, but one I’m not quite ready to mar with a visit to the actual location. But despite my personal reluctance, I’m happy to know that no matter what, the Olson House will be there when I’m ready to see it.

Upcoming Exhibitions: Andy Goldsworthy at the DeCordova Sculpture Park

July 7, 2011 in American Art, Andy Goldsworthy, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Massachusetts Travel, Uncategorized

Image courtesy of Andy Goldsworthy

I was introduced to the art of Andy Goldsworthy when I was eight years old. I was staying at a friend’s house overnight for a giggly, girly sleepover that we expected to last all night. After my friend fell asleep earlier than anticipated, I began looking through the books on her parent’s coffee table. I was a little bit restless and slightly homesick, but quickly forgot such pressing issues and focused on the pages in front of me, which were covered with familiar items arranged in entirely unfamiliar ways. I may not have remembered the artist’s name, but I can recall those images vividly. The book was unlike the science books my parents owned, unlike the big encyclopedias we had lying around. Even as a kid, I could tell the photos in it were something special.

I find it unsurprising that my first foray into contemporary art came by way of coffee table, especially considering Goldsworthy’s massive popularity. The Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee recently called him “one of the most popular artists alive,” and wrote about the very same glossy pages I once poured over in the quiet hours of the night. “Goldsworthy’s works are known to art lovers — and millions who would never willingly go by that description — largely through his handsome books, which reproduce sumptuous photographs of his installations in picturesque natural settings. You find these books on the coffee tables of bankers, lawyers, journalists, farmers, and teachers all over the world. They are ridiculously seductive, disarmingly emotional.”

Seductive is the right word for Goldsworthy’s work. While beautiful, it also carries a touch of the uncanny. According to Freud, the uncanny is that which we can recognize, yet still feel is slightly off. Many translators have given a literal interpretation of the German word as “unhomely,” and though they don’t carry the connotations of Freud’s recognition, Goldsworthy’s installations are often un-homey. They exist in situations we can easily recognize—beach, woods, lake—but reveal patterns and a sense of artistry that does not truly belong in nature. While the artist’s interference is visible in every piece, it always feels slightly disguised by the natural materials and simple shapes. Undeniably lovely, Goldsworthy’s works also contain elements that are at once eerie and dramatic.

While I’ve admired his pieces for years, I have never had the chance to see them in person until this spring, when the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, opened their new exhibit Snow. Featuring a small cross-section of Goldsworthy’s work, including a collection of the aforementioned photographs, two large snowball drawings, and the video, the collection serves as an introduction to the upcoming large-scale Sculpture Park installation. The massive granite structure, aptly-titled Snow House, is still in its beginning stages, but the deCordova Museum hopes to have it on view by winter 2013.

Though we have some time before we can see the permanent structure, it sounds as though Snow House will be worth the wait for Goldsworthy’s fans. The piece will be interactive and continually changing, much like the natural phenomena that inspire his work. “Andy’s going to create in our sculpture park — sort of dug into the hillside — a granite-lined chamber, big enough to walk into,” Capasso described in an interview with WBUR, “and every winter when it snows our staff and various community groups will create a nine-foot diameter snowball inside this piece of architecture.”

The deCordova is still seeking help funding the project. Interested parties can donate to the artistic cause online or by calling Catalina Rojo, the museum’s Development Coordinator.

Museum of Fine Arts Recognizes Nazi-Seized Piece in Permanent Collection

June 28, 2011 in Dutch Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Uncategorized

On Monday, the Museum of Fine Arts announced plans to make restitution to the heir of a Jewish art dealer killed in the Holocaust after determining that a 17th century Dutch painting housed in the permanent collection at the Boston museum was seized by Nazis in World War II.  The image in question is an oil portrait of a wealthy couple seated in their living room, created in the late 1600s by Eglon van der Neer. Though the MFA Boston acquired it for $7,500 back in 1941 from a New York art dealer, the painting is now valued at nearly $550,000.

Though stories like this always carry a tinge of sadness and unease—considering the bloody history of such a simple object—it seems like the MFA handled the circumstances in best way it could: with complete transparency. Unlike several other institutions, including the Leopold Museum in Vienna and the MoMA in New York, the MFA Boston was proactive in making the truth known. According to an article in The Boston Globe, the MFA Boston published an image of the painting online back in 2000, along with six other pieces, asking for additional information about the work and divulging their own questions about its history. With a little help from Google, a heir of the original owner, Walter Westfeld, found the piece and began working with the MFA Boston’s curator to discover exactly where the 29-by-27-inch canvas came from.

With the help of Westfeld’s relatives, the MFA Boston has been able to piece together certain bits of information to form a (somewhat) complete picture. As it turns out, the van deer Neer was most likely seized from Westfeld before he was taken off to Auschwitz. Back in 1941, when they first acquired the piece, the MFA Boston was told only that it was “brought to this country by a refugee some time ago.” However, in 1943, the museum became aware of the possibility that it was not what it originally seemed. A French dealer named Robert Lebel contacted the museum and explained that he had sold it to Westfeld a few years prior, and that the rightful owner (Walter Westfeld) was seized shortly thereafter, along with all of his possessions. Though there is no way to be completely certain that Westfeld didn’t sell it of his own volition, museum officials concluded that it was extremely unlikely.

Anyone who reads this recognizes the inherent sadness in the painting’s violent past, but it is important to remember how much it means to the family that the MFA Boston was willing to be open and honest about its collection—and open and honest with its pocketbook. The descendants of Walter Westfeld (now known as Westfields) have had a difficult time locating Walter’s original possessions. In recent years, they have tried everything from suing the German government for restitution to appealing to American lawyers for aid. Though there really isn’t a “happy ending,” it seems that everything is finally as it should be. The art will continue to educate generations of viewers, and the Westfeld family will finally have some small form of justice granted to them.

“We feel very good and very thankful for how the museum dealt with us,’’ Fred Westfield told The Boston Globe. “We had a lot of help from some of the people at the museum over the years, once we started to claim that the painting really did belong to us.’’

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