Saturday, April 21, 2012
Friday, July 1, 2011
“When I was twenty, I could have jumped out of that window and not have gotten hurt because I had some great legs. Now if I jumped off a step I’d probably break a hip. It’s inevitable the body gives out.” Willie told me this during an interview on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where he has lived for the past ten years.
Willie is eighty. I interviewed him in a second story office belonging to Andrew Youngren. Andrew developed and maintains Willie’s website, jazzeveryone.com.
(Full disclosure: six days after the interview took place Andrew would marry my stepdaughter Emily and become my son-in-law.)
Willie has been playing trumpet for close to seventy years.
“I can’t play as high or as long, but I can play smarter. My ability to grasp and deal with the concepts is stronger, but the muscles are weaker. The lips are muscles like any other muscles. How long and how tight can you keep your lips together? You’re constantly flexing and retracting your lips. Everything is somewhat controlled by what you can physically do.”
Willie loves to talk and tell stories. He gives a great interview. Often, he’ll get going on a sentence headed in one direction and then jump to a tangential topic or even something unrelated. Sometimes he loops around and gets back to the main point, sometimes not. He can be snappy and impulsive or slow and thoughtful. Maybe this vocal style reflects years of jazz improvisation. Maybe he relates to conversation the same way he relates to written melody; something to be played with, something to be made uniquely your own.
Willie talked about his career as a performing jazzman as “biting the apple.”
“New York is the Big Apple,” he said. In the late fifties and sixties he played in and around New York City with some of the great jazz musicians of the be bop era. “A bite of the apple also means something good you get a bite of and want more. One bite leads to another.”
The apple is, of course, also the forbidden fruit, the symbol for original sin. “Go ahead and bite it I bet you’d be delighted.” (From the Oscar Brown Jr. song Forbidden Fruit.) Delighted, yeah, but biting that apple inevitably leads to expulsion from the garden.
From his late teens to his early thirties, the period Willie refers to as his “playing year,” his story was dominated by where, when and with whom he made music. The plot line is of a steady climb to the top of the jazz hierarchy and the plot device is being in the right place at the right time. Willie puts a lot of emphasis on the beat. Timing is everything, well almost everything. His life story is like that, too.
After avoiding the draft for several years, when he finally landed in the army, he was tapped to be in a jazz group attached to the Third Army Band. His unit included the pianist Wynton Kelly who would become his teacher and mentor and the key that opened the door to the New York jazz scene.
More than once, the group Willie was playing with opened for a more renowned ensemble whose trumpet player was drunk, AWOL, or otherwise indisposed. Willie would sit in for the missing player, get the gig, and move on with the better-known band.
Over the next ten years Willie worked steadily, playing and recording with such musicians as Phineas Newborn, Al Belleto, Woody Herman, Walter Perkins, Peggy Lee, and Slide Hampton.
Willie got married to the singer Jerri Winters. She was beautiful and talented. You can listen to her sing “In the Wee Small Hours” on Youtube and be reminded how good someone can be without ever being famous.
In a photo from the sixties, an album cover for MJT+3 (Modern Jazz Two + 3 Quintet), Willie shows up as a blond, pale, nondescript white boy sitting, literally, in the shadow of four, debonair black guys. “Blacks don’t own music,” the eighty-year-old Willie said. “But, jazz is certainly their domain. I had to prove I could do it.” With evident pride, he told the story of the time Dinah Washington grabbed him after a solo and said, “You sure got some soul for a white boy.”
Meanwhile… however… but… at the same time… under the surface… all was not well… Willie had a cocaine habit he couldn’t fund. He dealt some drugs. He got busted and went to jail. He got a light sentence, time served and three years probation, but he lost his cabaret card. From Prohibition to 1967, in order to appear in a New York nightclub, performers had to have this license issued by the city. Willie was in good company in being banished from the Big Apple. Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday and Lenny Bruce had also had their cards revoked. However, these more famous performers could find work elsewhere. For Willie, it was as though a flaming sword had been placed in his way. Not being able to play jazz in New York City clubs essentially ended his career.
When Adam and Eve got a bigger bite of that Apple than they could chew they got banished east of Eden. Willie went west, briefly, to Texas, then south to his hometown of Orlando.
After their banishment Adam and Eve had a pack of troubles. One of their sons killed the other. This fratricide led to the exile of the survivor, Cain. He got married to some woman from god knows where. Things just went from bad to worse.
Willie, on the other hand, reinvented himself as a jazz educator, kicking off act two of this American life.
In Orlando, Willie taught third grade, married for a second time, opened a music store, then another, and another.
“It was like, buy my instruments and I’ll give you lessons,” He said. He found he had a good instinct for teaching. He began to think deeply and systematically about how to develop jazz basics in young musicians.
He said, “I’m at a serious level of ability in my field, not the summit, but up there. There are better players than me, sure, but not many of those people can tell you a word about what they do. There are similarities about what people do to get there. You got to be able to analyze that, break it down into simple steps in order to be able to teach it.”
Willie created a system for teaching jazz and a curriculum that he marketed to schools along with workshops and stints as an artist in residence. He liked the work and, without ever focusing on it, he made money.
His theories and lessons are now available on line. “Jazz Everyone,” Willie said, “Serves the community in a more complete way than is available any where else.”
“So, Willie,” I said during the interview. “Given that you’re eighty, you must spend some time thinking about the fact that you’re not going to be around forever.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll be here forever. I’m part of one giant paradigm of consciousness that gets organized into a sense of self. That’s ego. Right now I’m convinced I’m here as Willie Thomas, but the paradigm will reorganize itself and I’ll be convinced I’m someone else.”
I’m not sure if he is putting me on or not.
Andrew has returned to the office and is working at his computer.
“Hey, Andrew,” Willie calls out. “Google ‘Vedanta’ or some shit like that. It’s all in there. I’m not apprehensive. I’m aware it could be harder or easier. I don’t dwell on it because I stay busy.”
“When you get to be my age,” he continues, “People start telling you there’s stuff you can’t do, stuff you shouldn’t do. You got to watch that shit. You can start believing it and that creates limits, self-imposed boundaries. I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to make sure I got something to do that keeps me going beyond my limits.”
Willie has a special interest in two trumpet players, brothers, Ryan and Justin Kisor, that he began working with when they were in high school in Sioux City, Iowa. Ryan is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and regularly plays with jazz luminaries such as Wynton Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, and Horace Silver. Justin is just out of the service and is starting to build his career. Willie plans to spend next fall in Sioux City giving Justin a hand.
“It’s an ego thing,” He said. “A power trip. I know I can do it so I want to do it just because I can.”
I said, “That seems to me the best of possibilities; when you do good for someone else and feed your own ego at the same time.”
And I think, “It is a good way to keep the giant paradigm of consciousness organized in such a way that you stay convinced you are Willie Thomas, at least for a few more years.”
Friday, April 29, 2011
Since 2008, every February 22 has been Nancy King Day in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps the original decree was for one day only – February 22, 2008 – but the tradition lives on.
4/23/11 – I am in Portland, Oregon, the coolest city in the USofA. I am in the coolest spot in the coolest city; the café of Powell’s Bookstore. I am drinking a soymilk steamer with a shot of hazelnut syrup, a pretty cool drink, but arguably not as cool as a latte, or a cappuccino, or an Americano. Unfortunately, for my cool factor, I recently gave up caffeine.
You don’t have to take my word for it that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the country. I will offer you various proofs of this fact.
Proof #1 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In a recent medical study conducted by Kaiser Permanente 2,500 citizens of Portland were randomly chosen and interviewed by phone. They were asked to describe their tattoos. Fifty three percent had tattoos. Every fourth person who acknowledged having been tattooed was offered fifty dollars to attend a screening with a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner. One hundred screenings were carried out during which each person’s tattoos were carefully measured and photographed. Results showed that on average 6.8% of the participants’ body surface was inked. Therefore, extrapolating from this data, with a total population of 583,776, there is approximately, 582 football fields worth of tattooed flesh within the Portland city limits. *
I made the trip to Portland to dye Easter eggs with my west coast grandchildren, an annual tradition. I hoped to combine the visit with the grandkids and an interview that I planned to turn into a profile for Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man – Part 2. However, I couldn’t connect with the subject of the profile, the jazz singer Nancy King.
A couple of months ago during another interview for the blog with my friend, the jazz photographer Fran Kaufman, she said to me, “You know who you should really do? Nancy King. She is fabulous. Fabulous! When she performs in New York every singer who is not working is there and they all have a story about how she has influenced their career.” (A profile of Fran will appear here in the near future.)
I got Ms King’s number from Fran. She told me it was hit or miss whether Nancy would answer the phone. In fact when I called I got a recording of a man’s voice saying, “We can’t answer the phone right now. Please call back later. If you want to send a fax begin transmission now.” This was followed by the high-pitched whirr that fax machines emit.
A little bit of Googling got me to Ms King’s Facebook page. I sent a message sayng I was Fran’s friend, that I was planning a trip to Portland, that I would like to see her perform and that I’d like to interview her for my blog project. I was pleasantly surprised when I got this message back in less than twenty-four hours: “Hi John, unfortunately, I have no gigs during the time you will be here. But, I would love to meet with you about your project! Call me when you get to town! Look forward to meeting you, Love, Nancy
PS tell Fran hi for me please! “
The night before I flew to Portland I called Ms King’s number again and again got the same message with the fax machine whirr at the end. I sent another Facebook message. In Portland on Thursday afternoon I called again. No answer, same message. I sent another Facebook message. No response. By Easter morning, having heard nothing, I realized this was going to be the trip to Portland during which I did not interview Nancy King.
Proof #2 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
Food cart cuisine was invented in Portland. In Boston, eating out involves making a reservation at a restaurant, ordering from a menu of maybe twenty-five items, and dropping fifty bucks. In Portland you go to the center of a paved parking lot, sit at a picnic table under a tent and choose food from a variety of carts parked around the periphery. Each cart has a specialty. In the parking lot at the corner of SE Hawthorne and Twelfth Avenue, to offer one of many possible locations, you can mix and match from Perierra Creperia, Bubba Berni’s New Orleance Café, El Brasero Mexican Food, Wiffles Fried Pies, Potatoe King Belguim Fries and Pyro Pizza. Therefore it is possible to dine on a clam strip Po’ Boy, a basket of chili fries, a glass of orchata, and bites of your grandson’s banana and Nutella crepe for about $12. **
Within a couple of blocks of Powell’s Bookstore there are two large record stores; Jackpot Records and Everyday Music. I try Jackpot Records first, but they don’t have anything by Nancy King. The young woman helping me is exceptionally beautiful. She has on a low cut black t-shirt showing a lot of cleavage and tattoos that seem to swirl across her shoulders and down her chest. “Nancy King is a local jazz singer,” I tell her. “Do you have a section for locals?”
“Yeah,” she says. “But it is all rock and alternative. Let me check the computer.”
A couple of minutes later she says, “Only one thing shows up. A live album from 2006 and its in short supply. You’re going to have trouble finding anything. Have you tried Everyday Music? That’s your best bet just because they are so big.” This is typical customer service in Portland, Oregon: be extremely pleasant, do anything you can to help the customer, show some cleavage and tattoos.
At Everyday Music a friendly young man waits on me. His tattoos start at his wrists and disappear up his t-shirt sleeves. He is wearing a narrow brimmed hat that Louis Prima could have sported around Las Vegas in 1960.
I ask him, “Do you know off hand if you have anything by Nancy King? She is a local jazz singer.”
He says, “We don’t really have an inventory, but jazz is through those doors and everything is alphabetized.”
Yes! Not only do they have three copies of Live at Jazz Standard, also Ms King has her own section separated from the other CDs by a black plastic divider with her name embossed on it in white letters. (Nancy King’s discography includes ten full albums and guest appearances on fifteen others. They are not easy to come by. Amazon lists five titles, I-Tunes about the same.)
I carry a copy of Live at Jazz Standard back to the counter.
“You found it,” says the young man.
“Yes,” I say. “Have you heard her?”
“I don’t really listen to jazz.” The Louis Prima hat had misled me.
“I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but she is really quite amazing.”
He says, “Well… I hope you enjoy it.”
Moments later, I slip Live at Jazz Standard into the CD player of my rental car. I listen to it all the way through for the first time as I drive around Portland, through downtown, past the iconic Michael Graves’ designed municipal services building, along the river, out to the Southwest suburbs near Lewis and Clark University where my stepdaughter, Helen Devol, lives with her family, listening to Nancy King, driving through Nancy King’s city.
Proof #3 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In Portland, little league coaches only give positive feedback and never loose their patience. Take, for example, my grandson Simon’s coach. His name is Todd Mansfield. Here is a transcription of everything Todd said during one twenty-minute period of a game: “Great swing!” “Nice job!” “Way to back him up!” “There you go! Yeah!” “Good eye!” “Awesome! Way to stop that ball.” “Good job, buddy. Way to cover second!” “Very smart! Way to hold that runner.” “Saved a run. Your thinking!” “That was sweet! What a ball player.”***
Nancy King presents lyrics with amazing lucidity. It is never necessary to strain to catch a word. Nor is the meaning of a phrase ever anything but admirably specific. And yet, what is going on is anything but simple or ordinary. I’ve heard the words to “Aint Misbehaving” sung a thousand times.
I don’t go nowhere
But I don’t care,
‘Cause all your kisses
Are well worth waiting for
Honey, I’m savin’
All my love for you.
I’ve heard Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald sing them. Nonetheless, I am most convinced by Nancy King’s version that this is a woman who knows she’s made a good deal. It has involved some sacrifices, but she has no regrets. It is a breezy song. It is a sassy song, but its sentiments are not trivial. Nancy King swings it, but she doesn’t disrespect it.
As good as she is with a lyric, at some point during most songs she cuts herself free from words and goes into extended periods of scat singing. When she does this, there is a sense or release and expanded possibility that is thrilling. Her voice becomes purely instrumental and her improvisation is remarkable for its variety and creativity. I’ve never heard better.
Proof #4 that Portland, Oregon is the coolest city in the USofA:
In Portland, vegan is the default position. The city council recently debated, but did not pass, a “non-binding resolution” that would have “officially discouraged” the eating of meat and other animal products within the city limits. The discussion that resulted in the tabling of the resolution included the view that such a statement would be “insensitive to ethnic and cultural minorities that traditionally eat meat.”****
4/25/11 - Besides my stepdaughter and her family, my sister in law, Loie Drew, also lives in Portland. On Monday morning, she was scheduled to come over for coffee. I sent her a text asking if I could draw on her I-Pad. I hardly ever send texts at home, certainly not to people over sixty. I bet I would text a lot more if I lived in Portland.
When Loie arrived, I used an app called Sketchbook Pro to draw Nancy King, working from one of the photos on the cover of the CD. I’ve drawn on other people’s I-Pads a few times before, just enough to see the potential, but not enough to feel at home. I bet if I lived in Portland, I would own an I-Pad and do all my drawing on Sketchbook Pro.
The I-Pad drawing seemed like the right portrait to accompany this profile since all my contact with Ms King so far has been digital: Facebook messages, CD recordings, Youtube videos, and internet searches. It is a lot of information, but it is all second hand. I hope sometime soon to be able to write Nancy King – Part 2: The Interview and Nancy King – Part 3: Live in Concert.
* The study and statistics are fictitious, but the point is factual.
** Personal experience accurately reported from an outing on 4/22/11.
*** Personal observation, Cardinals vs. Dodgers, 4/22/11, Stephenson Elementary School ball fields.
**** This is a total fabrication.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Poetry as Therapy
Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s, Tony, Marti’s husband of 27 years, gave her an ultimatum. He said either she come home and be a proper wife or the marriage was over. The ultimatum was not unexpected and Marti’s answer was a forgone conclusion. Home was the Caribbean island of St. Thomas where the couple had lived for many years and had raised their five children. However, Marti had been spending more and more of her time at her second home in Charlestown, Rhode Island and she had no intention of returning to the role of “proper wife.”
As her children had gotten older and left St. Thomas for better schools, Marti had found less and less to hold her on the tropic island. In Rhode Island, however she got caught up in a new passion: poetry, especially the idea that using poetic forms to express deep feelings could have therapeutic benefit.
Tony became her x-husband, she wished him well, made Rhode Island her full time home, and became a poetry therapist.
The idea that writing poetry can have therapeutic benefits is not a new one. It wasn’t even new thirty years ago when Marti got a masters degree in Creative Arts Education and taught poetry in state institutions, including hospitals and prisons serving the criminally insane. The National Association for Poetry Therapy offers this description of the roots:
Poetry Therapy, or poetry which is used for healing and personal growth, may be traced back to primitive man, who used religious rites in which shamans and witchdoctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible. It is also recorded that around 1030 B.C.E., the music of a shepherd boy named David soothed the "savage breast" of King Saul.
Historically, the first Poetry Therapist on record was a Roman physician by the name of Soranus in the first century A.D., who prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed. It is not surprising that Apollo is the god of poetry, as well as medicine, since medicine and the arts were historically entwined.
Early in her career, Marti had a mentor and partner in her work as a poet therapist. His name was Dr. Art Berger. Art was a charismatic presence in psychology in Rhode Island at that time. Partially through the influence of his brother Stan, who was chairman of the psychology department at the University of Rhode Island for many years, Art, who was more artist than clinician, more hipster than academician, was an early advocate and practitioner of expressive therapy, working with inmates in the prison system and patients at various state hospitals. The work that he and Marti did was funded by state grants in the arts and in mental health. Together they wrote about the theory and practice of poetry therapy and put together anthologies of the writing that came out of their workshops. Writing in 1984 they had this to say about their work:
In a mental health institution the reading and writing of poetry can be a therapeutic process… The writing of poems is a problem solving activity using fantasy to elicit fresh meaning, exaggeration to clarify, symbols to illuminate. Transforming feelings into words heightens awareness of self. Giving form to thought is a growth experience compatible with therapeutic aims… We use as stimuli films, poetry, popular music, folklore, advertising and journalism. Our goals for these groups are to (have patients) compose out of their inner self and life, thereby keeping alive the sense of who they are, and to assist the growth in others through a sharing of their experience and values.
To read these words and Marti’s descriptions of her visits to locked wards is to be reminded how much the field of psychology has changes in thirty years. Marti began doing this work before the height of the historic push for deinstitutionalization, before psychotropic drugs reached their current level of effectiveness, and before length and type of treatment was determined by insurance companies rather than doctors.
In the current era, when mental health services are judged mainly in terms of economic efficiency, Marti’s faith that writing poetry can make you a healthier person may seem a little naïve. On the other hand, no poet, or artist, or musician will need much convincing of the validity of this premise, because they will have had their own experience of being kept sane, engaged, and fully alive through artistic expression. Read some of the poetry that was written with Marti’s guidance.
I played hero
I saved my brother
from my father’s blows
I have played helpless
but got beat up anyway
my father said he was sorry
when he was 45 and couldn’t
drink any more
then he died
I play forgiving.
How to be running water
is a flowing kind of thing
even though I’ve been polluted
I can’t be destroyed
I have different currents
and feel no fear
I started at the mountain tops
and flow down into the valleys
I can break dams
and release myself
I can make electricity
and light up cities
I keep flowing and lead,
like sunlight through the air.
I’ve slept under bridges, on roofs
One time, drunk I slept in a dryer
At a laundry mat and was woke
By women stuffing clothes on me
I slept in a dog house
And in the park with the birds
Slept in cars and most anywhere
Because I had no place to go.
The prison inmates and mental hospital patients, having written these poems, would then be written by the poems. It seems obvious that struggling for these insights, seeking the words to express them with clarity, committing them to paper, sharing them publicly would change the writer.
Poetry as Eros
I spent this past February 15 attending Marti’s workshop on erotic poetry. I thought what better way to spend Valentines Day than being encouraged by an 83-year-old poet to think about and write about sensuality. Marti teaches by providing examples from both her own poetry and from more famous poets; Carl Sandburg, Galway Kinnell, Morton Marcus, May Swenson, and ee cummings among them. She moves through a series of stages from the sensual, to the erotic, to the bawdy, providing writing prompts for the group to respond to. She responds to each participant’s written efforts with enthusiasm and delight. I remember feeling this way in kindergarten; as if I was the only five year old who had ever done quite such a good job of writing his name. Of course, I want my next poem to be even better so I can again get Marti’s encouragement and praise.
Marti says that when you awaken your personal sexuality your entire erotic self becomes alive and robust. You adopt a whole new way of being in the world, open to all the beauty around you. When we accept the pleasures of the sensual the whole world shifts. The image of the arrow shot by Cupid is an image of arousal, but arousal as a bridge to connection, to love. “When we are making love, the whole world is making love with us and that is the erotic.”
Marti says that in all world mythologies the gods are sexual beings and sexuality is held sacred. Therefore, she offers the prompt to write about, “a truly erotic experience worthy of the gods.”
I write the first draft of a poem called “Beyond The Reach of Science”.
Seismologists in white suits
Take core samples of the earth.
Drill down a million years
To predict the potential for rumbles and quakes.
Naked in our bed,
We undermine their work.
We slip below the surface into cracks and crevices,
We flow like water, like lava, deep down
Where science can’t reach.
With our tectonic slip and slide,
Our subterranean liquid jiggle,
With the amplitude of our shaking and
The magnitude of our thrashing and
The oscillation of our body wave moaning,
We are the log-a-rhythm of the earth’s holy vibration;
The epicenter of its transcendental throbbing.
Without us for lubrication,
The earth would seize up, become static.
It couldn’t hum and buzz as God intended.
Its hard work, somebody’s got to do it.
I’m glad it’s us.
I want to thank Marti for the inspiration. I can’t wait for next Valentines Day.
Life as Poetry
Sometimes life rhymes just like poetry. Sometimes a stanza gets repeated and brings things full circle. Sometimes the repeated stanza has a whole different meaning because of the poem that precedes it.
After many years of promoting the creativity of others, Marti is making more time to write her own poetry. Long ago, she recalls a therapist saying to her, “You’ve met your obligations to others. It is time to meet your obligation to yourself and the to world.”
Certainly, that is not an either/or proposition, but a balancing act we all have to perform all the time. Marti does it with grace and generosity.
Marti recently wrote a series of poems called Want Ads. Here are two:
A circus person
Who can pitch big tents
Promote local show
Control excited crowds
Must love big cats
Dub in as a clown
Fly the trapeze
Be at ease with elephants and antelopes
Finder of lost children
Be willing to travel
Consider the circus as home
Experienced ring master
Should also be Freak show barker
Bare back rider
Certified animal analyst
Must enjoy stars in children’s eyes
Does not mind sweeping up popcorn
If available visit us in person
When the circus is in town
Among my reactions to these poems are the following: they sound like a pretty good description of the advertiser and they are also good descriptions of what it takes to live into old age with creativity and vitality.
Friday, March 4, 2011
Photo of Sandy
My Portrait of Sandy
Preparatory drawing for a woodcut of Keesha
Earlier woodcut of Keesha
Portrait of Sally
Woodcut of boat
Woodcut of horse
Sandy With and Without
Sandy showed me an artist’s journal from a couple of years back called “Mornings with Keesha.” Keesha, her beloved dog and her companion on her morning walks, died three years ago.
“I went out first thing every morning and did a drawing or small water color. I would explore different parts of the Island, so I was gone at least a couple of hours. I would then bring something back to the studio to draw in the little journal as I was writing about each morning’s travels.”
Her current journal is called “Mornings Without Keesha.” The death of Sandy’s dog was a profound loss for her.
She started drawing pictures of Keesha in the woods with the idea of doing a woodcut that would be partially a companion piece for one she did of Keesha a few years ago and partially a process of mourning the lost dog. This was a piece she felt she had to do.
“It was blocking me from moving ahead,” she said. “It was a particularly complicated project and for a while I gave up the idea of making it. I found I couldn't start another woodcut until this one was made.”
Sandy feels that her time of mourning for Keesha has passed.
“I am ready for another dog if I can have one,” she said.
She is now working to complete the woodcut.
Her studio is filled with drawings on tracing paper of Keesha lying in the snow, facing away from the viewer, partially hidden in thick undergrowth. This image contrasts sharply with the wood cut that was done when the dog was alive. In that one, Keesha is very present, presented in sharp focus laying in the shade of a beautifully realized tangle of branches.
Taken together, these two images convey touchingly the way the dog has gone from being present in Sandy’s daily life to living in her memory. This is art put to good use; taking deeply personal experience, making it universal, communicating it.
It takes six month to a year for Sandy to develop a major woodcut.
She draws for several weeks, not only to get the image just right, but also to plan how each component will fit on a different block of wood. The image is then transferred to the wood, sometimes to linoleum glued to the wood. All the negative space is then carved away. The remaining raised areas are inked and printed. Sandy estimates that this print of Keesha will require fifteen to twenty blocks, each printed separately, perfectly aligned with each other, to reveal the final image. Line, texture, shading, pattern, and color are added one block at a time. It is a precise, time demanding, physically challenging way of making art. It is a testament to Sandy that her pictures look effortless.
Kerri Spier Talking About Sandy
I became aware of her work when I was doing framing. She was working on a big woodcut of her dog, but she fell on the ice and hurt her wrist. She was looking for someone to carve for her and I’d done a lot of woodcuts in college.
I like the actual process of carving the wood as much as the printing, maybe more. Often I like the blocks of wood more than the picture.
I was sort of in awe of her. She was like the guru. I was honored she asked me to carve for her. She’d give me the block and I’d take it home to work on and bring it back when I was done. She would outline what she wanted me to cut away, just the rough stuff. She did all the details.
I love her work. She takes everyday blue-collar scenes and makes them art. She did a lot of boats, but not the pretty sailboats, working boats like ferries and tugboats.
If she asked me to carve again, I’d jump at the chance.
Sandy at Boulter Plywood
Sandy goes into Boulter Plywood in Somerville, Massachusetts with tracing paper and graphite. While the contractors are lined up, she lays the tracing paper over interesting pieces of wood and rubs with the graphite to get an image of the grain and texture.
The guys who work there say, “Hey Sandy. Look at this one. I been saving it for you.”
Sandy on Pop Nichols’ Estate
During the happiest years of her childhood, Sandy’s family rented a converted barn on the property of Pop Nichols in Greenwich, Connecticut. Pop Nichols lost his money in the crash of “29 and converted several out buildings on his estate to rental property. In addition to the barn, he remodeled the former icehouse and chicken coops for people to live in.
Eccentric people came and went. Sandy and her brother Bill had the run of the property including the main house. Sandy’s mother had a victory garden, the family raised chickens and Sandy sold eggs.
Next door lived Mr. and Mrs. Wesley. They were very wealthy people who had a stable where they kept Al Baba, Mr. Wesley’s mount, and Bayberry, his wife’s. Sandy was horse crazy. She would loiter near the stable in hopes of getting to sit on Bayberry. It was well known that Ali Baba was too spirited for a child.
During Sandy’s years on Pop Nichols’ estate, her cousin, Marilyn, would spend school vacations with Sandy and her family. These visits always made Sandy’s mother nervous. However, Sandy looked forward to Marilyn being there because you never knew what was going to happen when she was around.
“My cousin was the instigator and I was her very willing accomplice,” Sandy said.
It was Marilyn who turned Sandy into a horse thief.
“Come on,” whispered Marilyn in the night. She was already out of bed and starting to get dressed. “No one will ever know. It will be so cool.” They were sleeping in a room that had a door that opened directly out of the house, so it was easy for them to sneak out.
The draw of the horses was too much for the girls to resist. They went to the neighbor’s stable and took turns riding Bayberry through the moon lit fields. This adventure happened every time Marilyn came to visit and Sandy became less and less worried about getting caught.
Then one day she came home to find Mr. Wesley's car parked in front of her house. Sandy’s parents did not socialize with their rich neighbors so she knew she was in trouble. The jig was up! Time to pay the fiddler.
Mr. Wesley said, “A girl who loves horses as much as you do should have the opportunity to ride. However, she should earn it, not steal it.”
Arrangements were made for Sandy to work in the stable every Saturday. She cared for the saddles and harnesses, cleaning the leather with saddle soap and polishing the metal. In exchange for her work on Saturday, she was allowed to ride Bayberry on Tuesdays. Eventually, she was even allowed to ride Ali Baba.
Besides horses, Sandy’s other childhood passion was her nature collections. She had so many snakes, turtle, and butterflies that Pop Nichols allocated her a room in the main house just to hold her butterflies. The rest of the collection remained in the barn with the family.
One day, Sandy was sick and brought her tiny pet garter snake, Ziggy, to bed with her for comfort. Ziggy disappeared. Sandy’s mother and sister Pat turned the house upside down looking for the escaped reptile. They couldn’t find him. The next morning, Sandy’s mother was brushing out her hair and found Ziggy curled up in her braid.
Sandy in her Winter Studio
For the last three years Sandy has been renting a house on the North end of Block Island to use as her winter residence and studio. She spends the rest of the year in her home and studio in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Her history with Block Island extends back to the early 1960’s, but this current rental arrangement suits her well. The large room she uses as a studio is filled with light and the view is of pond, beach, and ocean. It is breathtaking.
As Sandy was telling about her adventures in Horse thievery, she was preparing to draw Sally Spier. She attached a roll of white paper to an easel and laid out ink, brushes and watercolors. Sally is a tall, skinny fourteen year old. She is a beautiful child who seems to have no vanity about her appearance. On the other hand, she is extremely confident about her intelligence and loves to challenge adults to games of Scrabble, which she inevitably wins.
As she began to draw, Sandy said, “At first look at me, then you don’t have to. I’m going to do your eyes first and I’m not going to talk about my life while I’m doing them.”
Sally’s hair fell down over the right side of her face.
Sandy said, “Thank you for wearing your hair that way. I only have to do one eye.”
A few minute later, she said, “I’m going to start over. I got your eye too big for your face.”
She rolled out more paper and began the drawing again.
In the end she produces a good likeness that also subtly captures Sally’s personality. This drawing shows what she looks like, but also you get a sense of what she is like. The insightful part of the portrait happens in her gaze that is both direct and hidden, in the trust of her chin, and in her elongated, adolescent body that contains equal parts of gracefulness and awkwardness. It is easy to imagine that Sandy was a lot like this herself when she was going on those nighttime rides on the barrowed horse.
“Almost all my work is portraiture,” Sandy said. “It is always a particular boat, building or animal. Getting a likeness is very important to me.”
Sandy has achieved a degree of financial stability and professional recognition, many artists, even very talented ones, never reach. It has taken a long time. She’s been twice married and divorced and once widowed. She was a teenage mother and a high school dropout. She moved from job to job and place to place. She has always been grateful for the early support of her family. In 1962 they helped get her established on by buying a home for her there. Sandy feels this was a huge turning point in her career as an artist. Despite the chaos and uncertainties of her early years she has always had confidence in her self as an artist and her ability to follow her personal vision. Today, she is just where she wants to be, doing just what she wants to do.
I asked her how aging has affected her creative process.
She said, “I always have a sketchbook I’m working in. I have about twenty-five of them. I notice I can’t get an image as quickly as I could when I was thirty. I’d give anything to have my old brain back, but if I take my time and work at it, I can get there.”
I asked her about goals for the future.
She said, “Its an adventure. I don’t know what is coming next. There is a tree down the road. I’ve had my eye on it for about three years. I don’t know what I’ll do with it; maybe a collage, maybe a painting.”
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Three sketches of Chris Waters:
middle: a portrait done while he was teaching in Connecticut
bottom: a drawing by a fellow student done in Paris
Chris has been a poet for seventy-seven years. He published his first poem when he was seven years old. Here it is:
When I go out shooting, I always
Like to shoot;
But I can’t do it now
‘Cause I’m only a little boy!
I’ve just got a bow and arrow toy.
When I grow up, I might catch a bear!
And it won’t even cost me a fare!
I’ll do what the Indians do.
They kill bears and shoot birds, too.
So when it is spring, I like to sing
And pretend I am a bird!
This poem appeared in the New London Day in Uncle Andy’s column in the fall1933.
Chris’ latest poem to be accepted for publication is entitled “Elegy for Fred Howard.” It will appear in the magazine Caveat Lector. The poem contains the stanza,
Another? Down there, Cousin Bea’s
Life was the church. Never, I’m sure,
Did she use the word. (I once did.)
“Y’all butter up two while they’re hot!”
Patience is a virtue,
Virtue is a grace. Put the two together
And you’ll have the price of eggs.
Chris says, “I’m surprised they accepted it. It’s a long poem and, after all, just an elegy for a friend. I think the appeal was the surrealism. The way my mind was jumping all over the place.”
Surrealism, as an artistic movement and as a philosophy, emerged just after World War I. In fact, Andre Breton, who wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto, had treated shell-shocked soldiers and knew first hand the horrors of that conflict. The surrealists attribute the war to an excess of rational thinking and bourgeois values. If such tragedy could come from rationality, they said, they would throw their lot in with irrationality. An art movement developed based on disorienting juxtapositions, surprise, incongruities, automatism, and free association. There was a general disdain for established tradition and a belief that art could set people free.
The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can… adults learn best if presented with a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired. The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding… for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own.
How to Train the Aging Brain
By BARBARA STRAUCH
New York Times
December 29, 2009
Could it be that creating surrealist imagery, letting his thinking jump around and find new connections, tunes Chris’ brain, keeps it running like the lovingly restored, V-8 engine in a vintage car?
“My father came from Down Under,” Chris said. He was born in New Zealand to Australian parents. The family returned to Australia. Harold Waters was a merchant marine. He jumped ship in Seattle when he was sixteen or seventeen. He was quickly arrested for robbery, because he was young, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had money in his pocket. He was back on the street in a couple of days and made his way to San Francisco where he joined the Coast Guard.
“They liked it if you were an American citizen,” Chris said. “But they weren’t that particular.” Apparently, they weren’t even particular enough to care that the young enlistee, who claimed to have been born somewhere in the Midwest, spoke with an Australian accent.
(Harold would eventually publish books about his long career in the Coast Guard. A typical one, Smugglers of Spirits: Prohibition and the Coast Guard Patrol, came out in 1971.)
Chris’ mother, nee Theodora Beatrice Baring-Gould, was English. She was visiting American relatives in North Carolina when she encountered Harold. They were married on December 25, 1925.
“It was a marriage made in hell. He booted her right away,” Chris said. They were no longer together when Chris was born on November 8, 1926.
Theo moved back and forth between England and the States with her young son. Chris went to eight different schools in eight years. She worked as a secretary and clerked in grocery stores. His father was nowhere to be seen. His mother fabricated a story that Harold was “at sea.”
Chris said, “It was hard scrabble.”
Theo and Chris eventually settled in New London. They were there when an officially unnamed hurricane struck. Known as The Great New England Hurricane, it was one of the most destructive storms of the twentieth century. In New London, a short circuit in a flooded building started a fire. Spread by 100 mile per hour winds, it burned part of the downtown business district.
While I was interviewing Chris in his home in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, I sat in a beat-up leather armchair in his cluttered second floor office. On the wall just opposite me was a black and white photograph of a startlingly beautiful woman. I became a little preoccupied with this picture. It wasn’t just the beauty of the woman that kept drawing me back. The style of the photograph was also arresting. It looked like a still from a Fellini film. I imagined it came from a lost masterpiece made about 1954 as his neorealism was morphing into something more baroque. The woman searches the back alleys of Rome for her missing lover, played by Marcello Mastroianni. At the same time, she is remembering the loss of her childhood sweetheart during the war. Two men departed from one young life. One loss wouldn’t be enough to explain the sadness in her eyes.
In reality, it is a photo of Chris’ daughter Jennifer.
Paris has been a pivotal city in Chris’ life, a place that has engaged him deeply and provided the impetus for life changes.
After serving in the army in W.W. II and going to Harvard on the G.I. bill to study economics and French, he found himself working in a dead end job at an insurance company on Wall Street.
“This was a very depressing time in my life,” he said.
His escape was to go to Paris in 1950, to The Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne, to study French culture and language.
“I took it seriously. Most of the Americans were there to have fun in the bars. I did that too, but after my studies. I did well and got interested in culture in general.”
Upon his return to the States, Chris met his first wife, Lenore. They were married from 1952 to 1975 and had two daughters, Jennifer and Gwyneth.
Chris taught French and math at the Salisbury School in Connecticut. It was another bad year for him. It seemed like a dead end and he wasn’t comfortable socially in the milieu of an exclusive boarding school.
One of his professors from Harvard arranged a fellowship at the University of Washington in Seatle, and he got his doctorate in French. With this credential he embarked on his life’s work. He had a long, distinguished academic career, including twenty-nine years at the University of Rhode Island. He retired from teaching in 1991.
What are you going to do now? means
they don't know you, is like
How are you? and no one wants to know.
Golden years sounds like fuzzy brains, the point is
time to do what you haven't done, or
doing more of it, and or better.
Lots of reading, writing, scarcely any
arithmetic, the rest to be sorted out, sort of
as if, given a day to live, decisions were in order.
Death Rowers know the Governor will
relent. Pensioners know they will outgrow
their charts. The thing is though to live until
you die. Neither a peach-complexioned nor a prune-faced
I yawn, open my eyes, see her eyelids move.
Retirement is four days away. Price the Cat
stirs at my feet at my voice: "It's almost over."
Then I feel guilty. He goes to the vet's tomorrow.
Chris’s daughter Jennifer, of the hypnotic photo, has renamed herself Jennifer Blowdryer. Jennifer Blowdryer fronts a couple of punk rock groups, does spoken word, writes, and organizes performances called Smutfest. A recent project, which can be seen on her website, is called “86ed Stories.” It consists of video and audio interviews of people telling stories of getting kicked out of places. Many of these stories are surprisingly touching and poetic. People who feel unwanted talk eloquently about their outsider status and the indignities they have suffered. The over all tone is harsh and unsentimental, but there is real feeling and insight. Jennifer plans to use this material to create a theater piece. Buy your tickets now.
In the “86ed Stories” interviews, Jennifer has a baby-doll voice. In her photos she is still beautiful. It has been a good year for aging punks. Patty Smith just won the National Book Award.
In 1968 Chris was back in Paris. He was on sabbatical from The University of Rhode Island and arrived on the tail end of student uprisings that had shaken French society and nearly collapsed the government of Charles de Gaulle. The term Mai 68 is used to refer to a general shift in France from a tradition-oriented society to a more modern and liberal one. France’s history of colonialism was very much open to scrutiny and criticism as part of this social revolution. Black French writers of Africa and the Caribbean had a new visibility and prestige.
In this context, Chris met Leopold Senghor, the poet and first president of Senegal, who many consider to be one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century.
These experiences in Paris refocused Chris’ academic career. In 1970 he taught a course in Black French Theater. He developed this material into his book Black Theater in French, A Guide.
In 1975, Leopold Senghor invited Chris to teach English in Senegal. Some of his most resonant poetry resulted from his time in Senegal.
The crowd rose and cheered Papa Ndaye who led
a conga line around Assane Diouf Stadium. Griots
alongside him sang his virtues, marabouts
threw cowries in the sand, drew mystic lines with sticks.
How could Papa lose? The other wrestler,
whose name you could forget, bowled him over right away,
pinned his shoulders. The referee took off and is still running.
Around 1942, Harold Waters paid a visit to his 16-year-old son in New London. He wanted to have his picture taken with the boy, but Chris’ clothes were too shabby for a formal portrait. Harold took him shopping so he’d look sufficiently prosperous in the photo.
About this time Chris found out he had a half sister. Her name is Jane Davis and she goes by “Tippy.” She lives in Oakland, California. Once, Chris and Tippy were going though some of their father’s old papers. They discovered that he had written to acquaintances in New London at the time of The Great New England Hurricane to ask about their well-being.
“He knew I was in that storm,” Chris said. “But he didn’t mention me.”
Tippy told Chris that the old man had asked for him on his death bed.
Chris became a father for the third time relatively late in life. His second wife, Dora, gave birth to his son Matthew four days before Chris’ fifty-fourth birthday
On the morning of an ice storm, I called Chris to ask him a couple of follow-up questions. He had been outside shoveling his driveway.
“I know they say someone 84 shouldn’t shovel, but the shape I’m in its not a problem.”
A non-lethal skin cancer took a Mike Tyson-style bite out of Chris’ right ear. Otherwise he is healthy and fit. He plays tennis, rides his bike and swims several times a week.
I asked him if he has always been athletic.
“I think I had it in me,” he said.
However, he moved around so much as a child he never had the chance to develop skills at sports. In high school he was more of an observer than a participant.
“When I turned 18 and was in basic training I did quite well. I was #1 in sit-ups and push-ups.”
I told Chris that I had been reading and admiring Jennifer Blowdryer’s “86ed Stories” and was interested in the ways in which she had followed in his footsteps.
He said, “She seems to have inherited more from my father. She is a very gifted writer of prose.”
I asked Chris how aging has changed his creative process and he returned to the theme of Surrealism.
“I’m freer now. Surrealism gives free range to ones imagination. I have the right to completely change my mind. The metaphors are broader if you don’t compare two obvious things, but they are still metaphors.”
He adds, “You have to develop your ability to be beautiful. There is an extent to which it is given, but you’ve go to develop it… You have to describe what is around you, but also what is going on around you.”
I like that as a definition of poetry: poetry describes what is around you, but also what is going on around you.