Life imitating art imitating life

In last week’s post, I mentioned a recent exhibit my mother and I went to at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The museum has an impressive permanent collection, and each spring, florists descend upon the galleries to interpret works of art using flowers.

Though the exhibit is an annual four-day event, this was the first time for both my mother and me to see it, and I’m so glad we braved the crowds. I only had my cell phone with me, but I thought you might enjoy seeing a few of my favorites from my phone’s camera.

Calla lilies and one of my favorite paintings in the museum

In some cases, as with the arrangement above, I could easily see the inspiration for the colors and shapes of the blooms the artist/florist chose.

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The delight of tiny trees

While I was visiting Raleigh a few weeks ago, the art museum held an annual exhibit called Art in Bloom. I was thrilled the four-day exhibit coincided with my trip, and my mom and I met at the art museum one overcast, chilly morning to enjoy the extravaganza.

Most of it was indoors (more on that part of the exhibit in a future post). Crowds meandered through the museum, clumping around floral exhibits. There was an outdoor part of the exhibit, though, and I’m so happy my mom and I decided to step outside, despite the coolness, to see what was in store.

What awaited us was a collection of bonsai trees.

The Triangle Bonsai Society brought several of these tiny trees to the museum, and members hovered around, happy to chat about the trees, whether theirs or someone else’s.

While I had been fine with just my cell phone for the inside exhibit, I sorely missed having my good camera with me for these trees.

My mom’s favorite was this tiny blooming lilac:

One of the things I never realized about bonsai trees is that they can have different owners over their lifespan. The sign by the lilac tells that while the tree itself is about 15 years old, its owner has only been training it for the last two years.

This Japanese white pine is about 40 years old (!), but its current owner has only been training it for three years.

The intricate moss pattern at the base of this next bonsai made it my favorite. Plus, I love that it seems to be looking at the elms growing behind it, as if to say, “I’m just as much a tree as you.” Can you see its tiny buds beginning to open?

This tree below had the neatest base. I didn’t get to ask any of the bonsai experts if they knew whether the tree had always lived on that particular rock base. The base and the tree trunk mirror each other’s shape and color, and one without the other would not be as interesting. I’m not sure I would have even given the tree a second glance, if not for its base. But look closely at the sign. This tiny tree dates back to the late 1800s. Can you imagine the responsibility each new owner must feel to keep this bonsai flourishing?

I snapped this last shot as Mom and I turned to go back inside. Every time I look at the picture of this one, with the metal sculpture in the background, I cock my head right and then left. I wish they had flipped the tree around to twist in the same direction as the sculpture. Then again, maybe someone was trying to make a statement about life not imitating art.

This Sargent Juniper bonsai is about 65 years old.

I wonder if bonsai trees have a lesson for us about our dreams. They’re beautiful and thriving, despite their diminutive size. They spark curiosity, inspire smiles, and force their owners to learn the specialized skill and discipline of cultivating them.

Because our culture whispers to us that small dreams aren’t as meaningful or significant as grand dreams, maybe, just maybe, these tiny trees can help us see that even our smallest dreams are worth pursuing.

The art of hand-lettered words

Several years ago, I took an introductory calligraphy class with calligraphy artist Don King. He was a great instructor, even for as poor a student as I was. Watching him create calligraphic letters was nothing short of mesmerizing, and he occasionally brought in beautiful pieces he had done to illustrate particular techniques.

From him, I learned that calligraphic art is equal parts engineering and artistic talent. This may seem a contradictory combination of science and art, but King’s life may also seem a contradiction. He served in the US Army’s Special Forces before deciding he would prefer to take orders from himself. There’s no gruffness left over that you might anticipate from a career military man, only discipline.

Along with that discipline—he constantly told us to practice, practice, practice every day to improve—and his artistic talent, he generously shares his gift for encouraging and teaching budding calligraphers, sometimes leading multiple classes in a season.

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Don King with some of his artwork

Don sent out an email recently announcing an exhibit of some of his 2D and 3D work, and unlike my usual procrastinating self, I didn’t wait until the end of the exhibit to rush over. (Facing a cross-country move has made me carpe diem more often than usual of late.)

The exhibit is at a local church and is only open to the public when the church holds services. But two other times each week, Don has agreed to escort visitors through his works. If you’re in Raleigh, NC, and love this kind of beautiful work, make sure you see it (more details at the end of the post).

He graciously agreed to let me photograph his work and even him, asking afterward, “Did that look as unnatural as I felt?” I laughed. I’m also one who feels about as unnatural as possible when someone asks me to pose for a photo. Some of us prefer to create and let the light shine on our creations rather than on ourselves.

Don’s work does shine. Some of it literally, with metallic paint and even costume jewelry pins he inherited from his mother and is now using to inspire unique works of art. There’s one of these pieces I would buy in a heartbeat if it didn’t mean one more thing to wrap up for the move. (Most of what he is exhibiting is for sale.)

These photos provide details of some of the pieces on exhibit. You can visit Don’s website to learn more about him and his works, but nothing beats seeing them in person. Go if you can. The exhibit runs through October 30.

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A detail from John’s Revelation. Many of Don’s works incorporate Scripture, his favorite source.

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A 3D piece called Why Not?

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A delightful piece called Joyful Noise

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A 3D piece Beginning inspired by the turn of the millennium and 9/11

The story behind Beginning is an intriguing one, and in case you don’t get to hear Don tell you about it himself, I’ll share a bit of it with you. He was creating a piece for the new millennium and came into his studio one morning to find that the easel had fallen and dashed the work into little pieces. He saved them, not suspecting the tragedy of 9/11 that would inspire this work and enable him to put his own rubble toward its own new beginning.

As I looked at piece after piece, I was reminded again: we lean increasingly on computers to produce calligraphy and lettered “art,” but simply nothing beats what an artist can do with a real calligraphy pen.

More on the art and cost of letters
Learn more
about the exhibit. I’ll try to post here as he announces days and times he’ll escort visitors through the exhibit. This week, he’ll be there today (Wednesday, Sept. 10) and Friday, September 12, from 4-6 p.m. both days. The church is Crossroads Fellowship, located at 2721 E. Millbrook Road in Raleigh.

See some of the “hands” (we might call them fonts in our modern age) Don uses in his work.

While we’re talking about hands and fonts and why sometimes computers aren’t better, check out this Huffington Post article about the cost of the font Comic Sans.

I’d love to hear what you think of Don’s calligraphy, whether you view it on his site or get to visit his exhibit. Maybe you’ll be inspired to sign up for one of his classes or find a local teacher near you.

Mandela’s sketches of prison

This past weekend, a friend and I went to the lobby of a building, looking for its exhibit of Nelson Mandela’s sketches from his time in prison on Robben Island. The exhibit was elegant in its simplicity, nothing boasting or grandiose, all the better to draw out the same sense of elegance-in-simplicity that Mandela’s sketches evoke.

The exhibit drew connections between South Africa’s time of apartheid and the American south’s own Jim Crow era, and lining the entry were dates and comparable events in South Africa and in the southern United States, not that many years apart from one another.

Etched into cool, frosted glass, this view greeted us before we stepped into the exhibit room – really just a pass-through area from one building to another – as if inviting us to enter into the prison itself:

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A cold, stark greeting for visitors

The rest of the window that looked back toward the lobby was filled with two doors that had been salvaged from old tobacco warehouses. These, too, hint at an oppressive prison of sorts.

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Jim Crow era doors that marked separate entrances

I’ve seen pictures and movie depictions of such doors, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stood in front of actual doors marked with that era’s shame. It was a relief to turn away from them to encounter Mandela’s sketches, writings and own thoughts everywhere, even on the floor:

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Mandela returned to Robben Island with a photographer to capture a small part of what he had experienced there, but Mandela didn’t want to use the photographs or his own sketches incite anger. Rather, he wanted to inspire and give courage and show that this place had been unable to break his spirit or his resolve or his hope or his character. He accompanied each sketch or series of sketches with carefully written words that help the visitor step into Mandela’s shoes.

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Nelson describes his desire for these sketches.

In these sketches entitled: My Robben Island, I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it. This is what I would like to share with people around the world and, hopefully, also project the idea that even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life’s challenges. NMandela

The colors Mandela used in his sketches were cheerful and bright, and I was struck in this first series that he had drawn windows without the bars that are so clearly there in the photograph:

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The hospital offered a different sort of freedom in prison: the exchange of information.

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Bars on the windows

Mandela wrote of political prisoners feigning illness to go to the hospital, as it was the only place where they could get word of what was going on in the outside world. Imagine the hope that sustained them on these hospital visits, as they heard of a world changing outside their island prison. Perhaps that’s why Mandela left the bars out of the windows in his sketch. It was a room of some small freedom.

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The stark prison yard

Mandela wrote about memories of marking a tennis court in this yard and of planting a small garden. These activities were not allowed at first, but eventually the prisoners were able to convince the guards to let them use the space for something other than sitting and marching.

He wrote of the wonderful outlet of the physical activity, and though the gardening brought life, it brought poignant and painful reminders, too:

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The memory of a cherished tomato plant

A powerful memory that I have is of a beautiful tomato plant that I coaxed from tiny seed to tender seedling to a strong plant that gave plump bright red juicy tomatoes. Despite my efforts the plant began to wither and die and nothing I did would heal it. When it died I took it carefully from the soil, washed its roots and buried it in a corner of the garden. I felt sad. It once again reminded me of where I was, and the hopelessness I felt at being unable to nourish other relationships in my life. My wife, my children, my family and my friends. It made me realise the beauty, simplicity and sacred value of family, of loved ones and friends. I swore to myself that I would never take another human being, their friendship or their love for granted ever again.

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An inescapable reminder

Mandela featured the prison tower prominently in several of his sketches, and he wrote of returning from grueling work outside of the prison walls that at least enabled the men to do something physical. The prisoners talked as they walked back to the prison, but Mandela noted that they became quiet as the tower grew closer.

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My favorite sketch

The prisoners found ways to remain hopeful, in spite of their bleak circumstances and surroundings. Though the prisoners weren’t allowed inside the church, it served as a beacon to them.

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Mandela’s cell, with his possessions colored, another element of the hope he found in the prison.

Mandela’s jail cell was small: he could walk it in three paces and said that when he lay down, his feet brushed one wall and he could feel the other wall against his head.

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An 8×8 outline of a Robben Island jail cell. Mandela’s account suggests a slightly smaller space.

Imprisoned for 27 years, it’s no wonder Mandela felt his was a long walk to freedom.

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a long walk …

The curators for the exhibit grouped Mandela’s sketches under four headers, and it was then that I understood the ellipsis in the exhibit’s name.

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… to freedom

Mandela’s journey was a long walk … to justice … to equality … to opportunity … to freedom. And somewhere along the way, he was able to shed any bitterness that might have conquered lesser men.

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What strikes you most about Mandela’s sketches? What inspires you most about his long walk?

Humor and other diversions

Originally, I thought today’s blog post would be my response to Chad Stafko’s snarky Wall Street Journal article about runners, Okay, you’re a runner. Get over it, but then I read Mark Remy’s hilarious response here in his Remy’s World column at RunnersWorld.com. So I’ll just share the links with you and tell you a different story, though it also has to do with emotions like anger and humor and other things integral in the aforementioned articles. Enjoy! I’m curious to know which article you relate to more.

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My day started off all wrong yesterday. I had gone to bed the night before anxious about an email related to some work I’ve been doing, and the emails started up again early in the morning. Confusing, long emails filled with the “my way is right” subtext.

By 8:30, my breathing was jagged, and my mood was, too. I knew I needed a diversion. I had the perfect thing in mind. Over breakfast, when I would normally be checking email or Facebook, I decided to cull my growing magazine pile and came across an article about an art installation at the local museum. An artist, Tom Shields, had put chairs in trees. You read that right. The magazine article included some great pictures, but this was something I had to see for myself.

I grabbed my camera and plenty of warm layers to combat the chilly wind and headed out the door. On the way to the museum, I bought a salted caramel hot chocolate. There are very few foul moods that a salted caramel hot chocolate can’t make better.

Here was my first look at the little patch of woods, a mini forest of sorts, where the chairs were. I knew they were there but wondered how close I would have to get before seeing them. The title of the installation is Forest for the Chairs, but at first, I was missing the chairs for the forest.

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The camera could see what my eyes could not. Can you see the chairs yet?

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A closer look

I felt like I had stepped in Wonderland, or an Escher drawing or maybe even Oz. Continue reading