Van Gogh comes outdoors at the Clark Art Institute

Summer Previews season has come and gone, absorbing all else … and the Best of the Berkshires has come after … and I am beginning to breathe again. As the summer launches, so do major shows at the local museums. My new intern and I spent a day at the Clark in Williamstown and at Mass MoCA in North Adams in her first week on the job, and we left intrigued and full of questions.

As a boy he knows the names of birds and collects beetles in glass jars. As a young man teaching himself to paint he finds perspective in alleys of poplars, texture in birds’ nests and color in petals.

He came to Paris to discover Impressionism, and he left it again for Provence to paint landscapes with vigor — the chalk dust of the path, the vivid sky and steep green terraces of hills with tunnelled limestone.

Vincent Van Gogh's 'The Olive Trees,' courtesy of the Clark Art Institute

Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Olive Trees,’ courtesy of the Clark Art Institute

“He painted the rhythms of a scene — he painted the landscape as a living thing, more than any artist before him,” said Clark Art Institute curator at large Richard Kendall, in an interview this spring.

Kendall has curated “ “Van Gogh and Nature,” the Clark’s broad summer show in Williamstown, with Chris Stolwijk, director of RKD/Netherlands Institute for Art History and a former curator at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, and Sjraar van Heughten, an independent curator and former head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum.

Though Van Gogh spoke of nature in more than a third of his letters, Kendall said last week as the show opened, no exhibit or extended research project before has focused on his connection with the natural world.

In the late 19th century, science had become part of popular culture and daily life, Kendall said. Magazines talked about Darwin’s finches. Naturalists gave public talks. Families took walks together and looked at the stars.

And in Europe, as in America, wild lands were changing and vanishing.

“Nature had been taken over by men,” Kendall said.

So he defined nature for Van Gogh broadly — the sky and the rain and the grass, flowers from a garden, olives trees in an orchard — pine trees filling the sky outside an asylum.

In his show, Van Gogh emerges as a passionate reader who painted and wrote prolifically, exchanged work with many other artists, began and ended love affairs, entered into debates and warm friendships, wrangled with art dealers … and dealt with what may have been a form of epilepsy. And he continued all his life to know the Latin names of moths.

Kendall has read Van Gogh’s letters and followed his life to trace his need for the outdoor world.

And the show speaks to me, because standing among these paintings would quicken any pulse, and because I can understand a need for mud and frogs and pickerel weed.

Van Gogh painted undergrowth in Paris parks and left the city feeling numbed. I vividly remember walking into the medicinal gardens after four days in Firenze, a beautiful city made of stone, and breathing and feeling the earth and the spring grasses. And I can imagine Van Gogh looking out the window in Tarascon at the jumbled rocks and cold, clear air, as I do when I take the train from New York to Wassaic.

“The sky was a hard blue with a great bright sun that melted just about all the snow — but the wind was so cold and dry it gave you goose-pimples,” he writes to his brother, Theo, from Arles in the south of France. “But even so I’ve seen lots of beautiful things — a ruined abbey on a hill planted with hollies, pines and grey olive trees.”

He saw the land as a painter, in shape and color. He also thought with it. The life in his garden made its way into metaphors. Grieving for a childhood teacher, he writes to his sister Wilhelmein:

“We can no more judge our own metamorphoses impartially and sagely than the white salad grubs can theirs.

“For the same reason that a salad grub has to eat salad roots for its higher development —

so I believe that a painter has to make paintings — perhaps that there’s something else after that.”

He sees the world with a clear eye and finds a deep pleasure in observation. The scientist in him values detail, and the artist glories in the sun on the rocks and adds brightness in the way he sees it. And he works with a will and consoles himself.

I recognize the wry, bright man who wrote — “Must I tell the truth and add that the Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésiennes going off to make their first communion,11 the priest in his surplice who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the absinthe drinkers, also seem to me like creatures from another world?  1v:3 This doesn’t mean I’d feel at home in an artistic world, but it means I prefer to make fun of myself than to feel lonely. And I think I’d feel sad if I didn’t see the funny side of everything.”

To be a bay — feeling thankful for Potawatami and Mohican insight

Wiikwegamaa means “to be a bay” in Potawatomi.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is trying to learn her people’s language as an adult, and long-distance, and she writes that on a morning when she is struggling with it, that word gives her an insight into a way of thinking.

“In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sound. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for a moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between those shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.”

Berkshire Eagle File

Berkshire Eagle File         Mallard ducks explore the melting ice on Cheshire Lake.

Last Sunday I got myself a book at The Bookstore in Lenox, where Matt Tannenbaumhad first handed it to me in December and told me I should read it. Robin Wall Kimmerer is (she says on the book’s cover) a mother, a scientist, a professor and a Potawatomi woman, and in “Braiding Sweetgrass” she brings together her family and past and present, a lifetime’s love of plants, her scientific training and the learning from her people that has sometimes shown her what her botany classes have lacked.
Her book soothes me at the restless end of winter. I’m having long, wondering conversations with it in my head. When I think of the word bay as a place, I think of it in motion too, the current of the tide, the gentle swell under the wooden rowboat, the eider ducklings washing over the rocks at the point. Can a noun have its own fluid life? But I understand her point, and I love the idea that words can be animate, that a bay can be a living being. 
The Mohicans language holds the same sense of animate and inanimate, I was told years ago — Lion Miles of Stockbridge talked with me when he was compiling a dictionary of Mohican and I was still writing for the old Southern Berkshire Advocate. He told me in Mohican, mountains have souls. I have wanted to know more ever since.
And now I know one more thing about Potawatomi. Kimmerer says she began to learn it after a language class with all of the native speakers now alive. When her book came out, in 2013, we had nine. Nine people who had learned the language from their parents and spoken it all their lives. Only nine. And the youngest was then 75.

Music from the far side of the Atlantic

He said in the south and west of Ireland, along the coast, in some places the language has never been broken. For years the English made it illegal to speak the Irish language — they outlawed the dance, the music, a way of thinking. And he grew up knowing Irish as a kind of game, scattered sounds his father would speak and ask him to repeat. But when he came to the coast to visit family in older generations, he heard Irish as a live thing.

Liam Ó Maonlaí performed at Mass MoCA to a crowded club. He has a history in rock music, and his concert ranged from Bob Marley to Louisiana ballads to the desert festivals of Mali, and woven through them he played and sang old Irish tunes on whistle and Bodhran and piano.


His first whistle tune came from the southwest coast. He had learned it, he said, from a fiddler and craftsman who heard this music on the air one night. And Liam said it might have been whale song — magnified by the curaghs in the harbor, skin boats resonating like drums.

The man who wrote the tune told Liam that he played it by the water and whales surfaced around him to listen. Thirteen of them. Liam said he hoped it was true. So do I.

Whistle has a strength and resonance for me. I play soprano and tenor recorder, rustily for my own pleasure. This weekend, back at Mass MoCA on Saturday afternoon, I sat in with the weekly music jam at Lickety Split, floating on the music. A wind player on Irish flute started the Ash Grove, a waltz I’ve known for close on 30 years, and I followed the melody, and he played harmonies over and around and through. Sharing music is an exhilaration.


Contemporary psalms and the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Oh taste and see — I lift my eyes to the hills — he leads me to walk beside still waters — I want to be at home with you all the days of my life

I’ve known about psalms as long as I can remember, as quiet words tucked into long ago Sunday mornings. They come up at memorials. I’ve thought of them as words for occasions, somewhat stately, sometimes sonorous, maybe martial (“as a sword in my bones, my enemies reproach me …”) I’ve rarely thought about what they are: songs. A psalm is a poem of praise.

I’m thinking of them now, and they feel as immediate as melting snow. Yesterday afternoon Rachel Barenblat, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, led a writing workshop on contemporary psalms as part of this year’s Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.


This workshop stood out, in a festival rich in memoir and design and welcome to people new to writing, because it focuses on an element of craft. Taking time to look closely at a kind of writing, at the world it comes from and at the world outside the window — these things work powerfully together.

The festival has already pulled me in more than once. On March 1, Karen Skolfield, a poet from Pioneer Valley, led a panel of writers talking about the heady, confusing, joyful and stressful experience of publishing a first book. I talked with Karen when I covered the festival and read as much of her poetry as I could find. (As an update, thanks to the snow Dani Shapiro had to postpone her keynote, and she’s now coming on May 3.)

Last Wednesday, Nell McCabe set a crowd at Mission Tapas laughing out loud with her warm, wry reflections on dating in the Berkshires. (She ended the evening with the idea of starting a regular open mic — something I’ve been missing acutely since the WordxWord Tuesdays at YBar wound down. If you’re missing live poetry too, you might let her know.)

And tonight at 7, Amber Chand will lead her own workshop on “the Heroine’s Journey.” The festival’s more than 100 events run through March 31, and I can’t list them all here, but I can think over the shape of the whole thing and feel glad that poetry moves people around me. And now I’m writing psalms to the last weeks of winter.

Continue reading

Shivering with Joy: Shantala Shivalingappa dances

On a clear night at the end of February, snow frozen in layers knee-deep, Shantala Shivalingappa danced at Williams College. She danced with her fingertips, with a lift of the chin, a flexed ankle, a ripple in the small of her back.

She moved sometimes with carefully controlled gliding and stillness — sometimes leaping, whirling, skipping in deft footwork across the stage. A woman who knows her body has power, a woman who can express playfulness, pride, anguish or joy in the tilt of her head, her shoulder, her bare feet.

She is beautiful.

Photo by Christopher Duggan / Courtesy of Shantala Shivalingappa

Photo by Christopher Duggan / Courtesy of Shantala Shivalingappa

That night, in ‘Akasha,” she danced Kuchipudi, a South Indian style. She danced in close-fitting supple cloth like golden silk, smooth across her back and pleated at the knees. For some pieces she wore bells at her ankles. She had painted the tips of her fingers a deep rose, so that stage lighting would bring out each quick movement.

Kikkeri Suryanarayana Jayaram accompanied her with live flute music, rising and falling in runs that reminded me at times of the way French Canadian music can put in another turn and filip of notes every time I think I’ve come to a lilt or a pause. Two percussionists, Ramakrishnan Neelamani and Haribabu Balan Puttammaplayed with rapid pattering like a hard rain, their fingers and voices building steadily faster in a rolling beat — and what kind of drum carries that warm, low thrum like a stringed instrument in the background?

It was music to fill a room, and I leaned into it. When Krishna played in the mud like a child, and Shivalingappa danced in a light, swift spinning across the stage, the singing lifted into a warm tenor as frankly joyful as the folk songs I grew up on. I would find myself unconsciously leaning forward, smiling with my head and shoulders, and at another point I was quivering, almost in tears, as she embodied a woman with anger and grief in the set of her shoulders — lithe, strong, passionate and deeply aware of honesty.

She embodied a  woman in one place, a man in another, a god playing like a child, a goddess in triumph, all in words more than 600 years old. Ramesh Jetty (J. Ramesh) sang poetry, and Shivalingappa danced poetry. The idea of making a poet’s words live in the body, and bringing them on stage, moves me strongly.

In one work, she danced a scene from many points of view, moving from one to another with a whirl. It was a poem in a woman’s voice —the goddess Alamelu Manga turning with bitter sadness from her husband, the god Venkateshwara, who had deceived her. 

It was not written by a woman. Wanting to know more about the writer, I looked up the name in the program: Tallapaka Annamacharya. In his long life, 1408 to 1503, he composed songs that have strongly influenced the musical traditions of Southern India — as many as 36,000 of them, though more than two thirds may have been lost.

He wrote in Telugu, a language close kin to Sanskrit. And he was well-known in his lifetime as a writer and composer — and then forgotten for more than 300 years. Some of his writings were re-discovered, etched into copper plates and hidden in a temple at Tirumala. Think about that. Hundreds, thousands of songs and poems — and they were gone, if what I read is true, so completely that no one knew they existed. 

Who found them again? What brought someone into that room … and how did they feel when they knew what they had found? How did it feel to read those words for the first time, after all that time?

And now his words have such a range that I can hear them in a college theater on a winter night. Here in the single digits and sparking cold, Shivalingappa danced to a poem written 8,000 miles and 600 years away. Where Annamacharya was born, in Andhra Pradesh, people are expecting thunderstorms tonight. And on warm nights at this time of year he wrote prayers and arguments with his god and expressions of desire in women’s voices. 

In 2005, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman translated some 100 or more of those poems into English. And I read one that said what I felt when I left the theater that night, walking across Greylock Quad in the sweet, cold air, and feeling my blood move, feeling awakened. Curiosity should never be quenched.

“You say you want to bathe 
when the waves subside.
Is there an end
to the endless mind?”

Monet, memory and museum storytelling

On Sunday, while the wind blew loose snow into crests and fissures, my parents and I slid into one of the last days of the Monet/Kelly exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. The show took up a long gallery divided by a white wall. In the first half hung later Monet works — the sparkling coves and steep coast of Belle-Ile, Rocks at Port-Goulphar.

The seascapes contrasted sharply with scenes from his garden at Giverney in thick brush strokes and dark color, blood red, yellow, green. I could make out the surface of the water, looking at a distance, but the bridge and the tree canopy above  wavered in thick jagged lines. Kelly saw these, we read, in Monet’s abandoned studio.

Wait, we said, what happened? He painted that dark tunnel of overgrown rose garden four years before he died — my mother checked the dates. How did he come to paint these scenes and leave them behind?


Continue reading

Probing into the future of books

“Books are changing,” she said, “but I don’t see them being replaced.”

She sees technology and physical books evolving side by side to complement one another. And as people can get things more readily online, she sees more value put on physical objects.

Kate Barber is a book artist and bookbinder, member of the Book Workers Guild and publications assistant at WCMA. As the liason in charge of the Publication Studio, she has spent the fall and winter making books and showing people from the inside out how books are made.


Digital books may have advantages for research, she said, as more people can get access to more books and can search the text. Digital books may also be accessible to people who cannot easily read books on paper, including Barber’s mother.

But digital books raise questions of ownership. A physical library will not vanish because a corporation gets into a copyright dispute, because Amazon pushes a button or because the power goes out. And for an artist, digital texts have limitations.

“There’s an art and craft to physical objects you can’t produce digitally,” she said. She can see her own art books online, but the experience of reading them is not the same.

She knows artists who do make books for e-readers, she said, but she finds richness in the physical works, the craft in them, the textures and the materials. She makes her own paper.

“It’s difficult to get away from the codex,” said Wayne Hammond, assistant Chapin librarian at Williams.

Even online, it appears in digital form, he said. Ideas of proportion and legibility developed centuries ago and carried over into printing.

Barber has found those ideas holding firm even in younger generations of readers who have grown up with digital alternatives as a given.

In the Publication Studio, students of all ages have been excited about making their own books, she said — working wtih the equipment, seeing how it’s done and watching theor book become an object. School-age children, fifth-graders making journals and olders students who have all grown up in a digital world have all seemed to feel that a project was not fully real until they had a book in their hands, she said.

Publication Studio has both digital and physical copies of the books made with their presses, she said. She has an iPad loaded with almost 200 Publication Studio materials and often has students look at them both digitally and on paper, to talk about how the medium affects their reading.

She finds a difference in her own.

“There’s a time and space books employ,” she said, “and losing it affects how I translate what I’m reading.”

In reading a book she paces herself by the turning of a page, and the constant speed seems to affect her concentration and ability to sink into a text and think concretely about it.

In print and online, writers themselves keep a different pace.

A book burrows deep into its content, she said. On the web, content comes in short stretches.

Hyperlinks can create a matrix or network of intormation. She takes notes online now so she can hyperlink them, and she has seen digital textbooks with embedded video and links.

She finds them useful, but at a cost. Hyperlinks break concentration — a reader constantly has to choose whether to read one narrative or move to another.

Wayne Hammond agreed that digital resources can do more, in-depth and low-cost, than print resources — and that print resources can in other ways do more than digital ones.

The brain works in a different way when people read online, he said. Some people look at a paragraph and think it’s too long.

A webinar she recently attended encouraged Christine Menard,  head of research services and library outreach at Williams College’sSawyer Library, to write at a seventh-grade level for an adult audience. She did not find this assessment encouraging.

“I’m reading two biographies now,” Hammond said, “one written at that level and one clearly not — it uses words like ‘perduring.’ They’re accurate, precise and unusual. If you never expose people to hard words, they will never learn them.”

Life in the newsroom

The Features and A&E editors are laughing at the desks next to me. The sports editor and the business editor are talking about the Packers. It’s a quiet late afternoon in the newsroom right now, as the day shift winds down and the evening shift (smaller now than it used to be) begins.

Mine is a mid-size regional newsroom, a close-knit group, some young and some old. Most of us have lived here for awhile. Some of us have advanced degrees and some worked their way up from cub reporter (and some have both). Some have decades of experience and some a few years. One thing we all have is a lot of tires-on-the-road, feet-on-the-ground and seat-in-the-meeting-chair time in the towns around us. Another is a lot of experience in talking to people. A third is a friendly tendency to argue over the desks about what we need to ask, who to call to find out, who has confirmed that figure and who disputes it, and how can you show Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s friendship concretely in your lead sentence?

And a fourth is a deep handed-on knowledge of this place, a fabric of contacts and background and excavations and names to faces, and for me — a deep love for the mountains, the tough, bright people who live here and all they make and do.


What you’d see, though, looking at me right now, is a computer on a desk and a double row of books under a tall window. Looking around this old mill under the fluorescent lights, I wonder how this place feels to someone walking in.

My friend Ethan recently recommended the Nieman Lab weekly e-newsletter, and I read today a conversation about preparing non-journalists for fellowships in the newsroom. An organization called OpenNews sends technology fellows into newspapers of various sizes and has taken a look at ways to help the fellows find their feet.

I know there are elements of working here that I know without thinking but that are not obvious to everyone who has not absorbed the thinking of a working newspaper. Reading this conversation, I’m thinking about what I would like to tell people and what I have told people in seven years of interns and conversations about conversations. Here’s a start.

Continue reading

Museum Hack

A Nubian woman is sitting in a rowboat with her knees drawn up. Water ripples under the bows in Arabic script. I wonder where she is going with her few goods tied in a cloth bag and a weight on her shoulders.

I’m standing in a gallery of Fathi Hassan’s paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art on the one night of the month when the museum stays open past 8 p.m. A young guide has just asked 10 of us whether art without meaning has a purpose, and I am at the farthest end of the spectrum saying “no.”

I explain, when she asks, that I want the artist to think and feel — that’s part of making — and give me something to think and feel. I don’t mean these paintings should make sense to me, but to the man who made them. If they mean something powerful to him, they will become powerful for me, and these are powerful. I would say the same thing about Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract “skunk Cabbage” flaming orange and blue across the hall.

Does the guide agree? I’m wondering now as I write this, because she is part of the Art Hack team, independent guides here to take us digging in the museum. And from where I stand, giving meaning is what they do. WCMAWestH

I can hear the people around me that night saying “Really? In a risque Broadway-style send-up of Franz West with Mad libs? A pipe-cleanered wearable homage to tin-can telephones? An ugliest-selfie-with-early-American-portrait contest?”

Yes. Because the burlesque came along with a conversation about what it was like for West to live in Vienna after World War II, knowing that most of the people around him had probably supported the Nazis in silence if not in action. He grew up across the hall from his mother’s dentistry practice, where they didn’t use anaesthesia. Think of being a child with that kind of dislocation and tangible pain on all sides.

Our tour guide in this room said West wanted to protest against what he saw as rules in the art world: art had to mean one thing, and it was made by a genius who was usually male … But he is male, and his work is also frankly, comically, glaringly male. (I know what people in North Adams call those tall, bulbously pink pillars at Mass MoCA.)

He didn’t want people to feel distanced, confused and out of place when they saw his work, she said. He didn’t want to baffle people in galleries. But what he did was baffle people in galleries. He made shapes that had no meaning at all.

If I want people to feel connected to my work, I don’t give them meaninglessness. That’s exactly the arrogant, distancing tactic he disliked. I would give people something in the work to think or feel. I would give them something that meant something to me. In fact, I would want to give them what the Museum Hack team were giving me in their stories and games and music — and sheer excitement.


It felt good to laugh and banter with hashtags, and to have a lithe woman with dancing eyes and a you’ve-got-to-see-this excitement pull the group over to a miniature scene. I am still baffled by Franz West’s work, but I will remember the glimpse of him as a scared boy in a dingy hallway. And I’ll remember even more William Michael Harnett painting onions and a wooden pipe with a cream and amber bowl on a table top in Munich next to a folded copy of the Deutche Presse 1882. He painted with a photographic precision in the days when impressionism was hot. No wonder he liked newspapers.

The enthusiasm among these intelligent, laughing people filled the museum. And it gave me ways to slow down and absorb the artwork. In Fathi Hassan’s exhibit, paintings on paper glow with writing, black against white, gold against black, filling and forming shapes of distant hills, water falling over high barriers, a crescent moon.

In a silent kind of charades, I moved a group of people by touch into a tableau to suggest a word. A beautiful young woman with thick dark hair falling about her shoulders stood in the center, hands on her hips and feet planted firmly.

As our guide told us about Fathi Hassan’s childhood, growing up in a Nubian community respectful to women and at the same time in Egypt, in a city where women are hassled and shamed in the streets, I thought about our word — it was “matriarch.” It comes from the Latin, “mater,” mother, and Greek, “arkhes,” to begin, to command. A matriarch is a woman at the head of a family who descend from her, who grew in her.

In the beautiful flowing script on the wall I could trace a powerful woman guiding her family. She walked in the streets of Cairo  past hissing men. She left her home when the Aswan dam flooded her village and had to resettle in a stone-paved Italian city. She was a student Facebooking angry, hopeful messages at the beginning the Arab spring.

As the guide talked I thought what a great job this is, to find these stories. Imagine having someone set you loose in a museum exhibit to find these solid, beautiful things, to fall in love with a painting and get people talking about it. What a great job. And then I thought, it’s mine too. Maybe they can teach me to do it better.

Winter expedition in the Southern Berkshires, Part 1

Remember “Wallace and Gromit & the Wrong Trousers”? I sometimes feel about that enthusiastic about clothes shopping —being 5 feet tall can make it hard to find anything in my size that isn’t pink with sprinkles on top. So last weekend I set out to turn a useful errand into an exploration. On a clear, sparkling-cold sunny day, I went looking for vintage shops in Lee.


It began, really, with the Dec. 18 Holiday Gift Guide. I was looking for local examples of different kinds of shops (plant nurseries, chocolatiers, booksellers, imprters of olive oil …) I was also realizing, again, how hard it can be to find anything local online. Try Googling “Berkshire Vintage” and you’ll get reams of consignment shops an hour or two away, on the far side of Northampton or Albany. The Berkshires has a good range of vintage shops, and I came up with more than 15 within about half an hour of my house, but it took careful digging to find them.

So I decided to investigate. Vintage and consignment can mean anything from opera hats and flapper beads to lightly worn brand names. They appeal to me because they often mean unusual, inexpensive and colorful and because they can be good at odd sizes. I like natural fabrics, cotton and wool and linen, and I love the kinds of colors that never seem to show up in clothing stores: forest green, garnet, amber, plum, navy blue, chocolate. Clothing with a sense of history appeals to me too. When Greystone Gardens lived in Pittsfield, I remember trying on Victorian blouses with lace collars.


On this day, though, I began with places I had never seen before. The first one sits on Route 20 just south of the Lee Main Street, after the 90-degree left-hand turn. Beside a quiet motel (where I turned around when I missed the driveway), a long white building with a long porch houses “Re-wear.”

This is clothing on the comfortable end of fashionable, and they have a reasonable selection in my odd size, form-fitting in soft fabric. The place feels pleasant, uncluttered, and the woman at the counter welcomed me with friendliness without pushing. The light felt warm, the dressingroom spacious, and the bright bead necklaces, costume brooches and hats give it color. I left meaning to come back.

More to come …