Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Art”

Freeway Free in France: Tales of War in Bayeux

20190604_154859docBayeux was the first French city to be liberated by Allied Forces.  Troops marched into the city on a street bordered with cheering townsfolk who waved French and American flags, and offered kisses from happy young women and fresh baked treats from older ones.  The Germans evacuated so quickly that they had no time to organize a defense, so the most of the medieval structures remained intact.

20190604_134313webWe first stopped at Bayeux Cathedral, with its mix of old and new stained glass, its ornate Gothic verticality, its mystic paintings decorating the crypt beneath the alter.  The apse was decked in French tricolor, British Union Jacks, Canadian maple leafs,  and American stars and stripes.  Behind the altar there was a large concert band practicing for Prince Charles’ visit the following day (Wed. June 5).  This was a truly excellent brass ensemble, plus some woodwinds and tympani.  The sound reverberating through the cathedral was thrilling.  One piece was “The Spitfire Overture” and another, appropriate for a visiting Brit, was the lovely, noble main theme from “Jupiter” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.  My partner, a music-lover with bad knees, stayed in the church for the whole rehearsal while I wandered around the side chapels and lower levels.

20190604_145313webRight across from the cathedral is an old store front set us as a Lace Museum, with lovely examples of the prototypically Breton/Norman craft.  Unfortunately, I have since read that the Lace Museum is in danger of being closed, as it is funded by the city of Bayeux and patronage has been light.  So don’t forget to stop in!

Just down the street is a more modern museum of Breton arts and crafts, housed in a former bishop’s palace, with lovely landscape paintings, more lace samples, and a well-stocked gift shop offering post cards and booklets about the medieval city, its role in World War II, and its artistic heritage.

20190604_161740webOf course, Bayeux is most famous for that other artifact of war, the Bayeux Tapestry, now displayed beautifully in a circular museum which allows the entire 200 feet of  embroidered cloth to be shown, accompanied by an audio commentary provided through headsets to each visitor.  (This device not only fills you on details a guidebook may have overlooked, but it artfully keeps the visitors moving forward as the audio commentary moves forward to the next panel.  No pause button. ) Notice the way the borders complement the action, with dead and dying soldiers, archers, and mythic beast bordering the action-packed cavalry sequences.  The Bayeux tapestry is like an early graphic novel, with leading characters easily identified by distinctive dress or hair, and scenes of ribaldry aleternating with the diplomacy and bloodshed.  Definitely a Don’t Miss!

Freeway-Free in California: Exploring the Castle on the Empty Coast (Day 2)

IMG_0260docWe had perfectly an ordinary breakfast at Cambria’s Creekside Garden Diner,  which we would probably have liked a lot better if it had been warmer and we had eaten on their attractive creekside patio. There are two breakfast/lunch places in the same Redwood Square shopping center, both  recommended by a local as the best options for breakfast – next time we will try the other one. No complaints about the French toast with strawberries I had – but it was ordinary, as was the hole-in-the-wall decor.

Then, for a complete contrast, we headed up the coast for the Grand Rooms Tour of Hearst Castle at San Simeon.  We had last visited the Castle several decades ago.  Things have changed.  There is now an elaborate Visitor’s Center with a movie theater and a number of exhibits relating to Hearst’s parents, the Hearst fortune, Hearst’s travels, and more.

 

Previously we  had been able to drive up close to the castle;  now there is a large parking lot near the Visitor’s Center and a shuttle bus which follows a loop driveway through the estate, with a recorded commentary on Hearst’s wildlife collection, riding trails, and so on. We had perfect weather to enjoy the spectacular views  of ocean and mountains from inside the bus and from the patios surrounding the castle.

At the steps of the castle we met our excellent guide.  We were asked to imagine ourselves as guests just arriving on the front patio of the Castle.  Our host might or might not be there to greet us. Meanwhile we  marveled at the fountains and statues which surrounded the entry, and the famous Roman swimming pool.

Inside, we saw the tapestry-clad reception room, the expansive dining room with its regal beamed ceilings and proletarian catsup bottles on the table.

The whole place is like a combination of Versailles and San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Hearst was constantly acquiring antiquities, constantly planning more building. Only the collapse of his publishing fortune during the Depression halted the expansion of his plans. Some of the items he purchased were never used;  some, like the room bought from Gwydir Castle in Wales in a bankruptcy sale,  (see my earlier article “Freeway- Free in Wales”) have even been lost.

20191002_110452webSome of the acquisitions were puzzling – what was the meaning of the Arabic writing in mosaic tile positioned over the player piano in the alcove off the billiard room? The guide was too far away to ask, so this remans a mystery.

Questions had to be asked fast, as the tours are carefully timed – a group could be spied leaving each of the rooms just as we entered, and after  the final room (the spectacular indoor swimming pool)  we had an option of getting on a bus to descend the hill or wandering a bit more about the grounds.  I’d like to go back for a second tour, to see the bedrooms (42)  and bathrooms (61)where the guests could stay and relax. But that’s the secret of a great host, to keep you wanting to come back.IMG_0274doc

 

Freeway-Free in Spain: A Tale of Two Museums

Bilbao’s Promenade along the Estuary is anchored at each end by a world-class museum.  The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum looks like a traditional museum from the outside – a blockish building with a fountain courtyard,  a lobby with a gift shop.  Ho hum. But the museum has re-invented itself in competition with its more famous colleague at the other end of the promenade and its exhibit space, when I visited, was among the most interesting and inventive I have seen.

20190526_160456webAt the time of my visit, the museum had thrown the traditional chronological arrangement of its art right out the window, and had rearranged its El Greco’s, its Goyas, its Gauguin in alphabetical order by subject.  So the Gauguin was exhibited under A for ART, taken out of its frame and put between glass panels so you could see the paint smudges on the edges of the canvas, and some scribbles by the artist on the back of the canvas.  In the same room were examples of art by paleolithic artists as well as moderns ones.  It made me think about the Gauguan in a completely different way.

Here’s a sample of the many pieces of Spanish and European art on view at the Fine Arts Museum:

(The picture on the lower left was taken, of course, in the room labeled “P for Portrait”.)

It was a rainy day when I visited, and I could have happily stayed for hours.

The next day I visited the other end of the Promenade, the Guggenheim Bilbao.  This museum is really all about the building.  The architecture inside and out is so curvaceously fascinating that the art pieces serve as much to enhance the building as to display themselves. Here’s a sample:

Of course, Bilbao is more than the sum of two museums and a promenade along the estuary.  There is an old town. There are modern buildings. I’ll give you a glimpse of that Bilbao next time.

Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway Free in California: San Jose’s Japantown

20190713_144402docSan Jose’s Japantown, centered around the intersection of Jackson and Fifth Restaurant, is one of only three remaining  centers of Japanese culture in the US (the other two being in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.)  Almost destroyed by the forced internment of most of its citizens during World War II, it has bounced back as a nucleus of Japanese restaurants, shops, and community organizations.

If you go to Japantown, it’s best to start with a good meal.  Kubota’s on 5th is an upscale favorite of local Japanese businessmen and their visitors from Japan.  I’m a big fan of their chirashi, which comes with a really good tofu salad along with a sizable bowl of rice topped with generous slices of raw fish.  If you want a more casual meal you might try Gombei,  the sister restaurant around the corner on Jackson, which specializes in sushi.

20190713_134425webAfter lunch, a stroll along 5th street on the other side from Kubota’s will lead you to the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Temple, with its serene garden inviting some digestive meditation.  If you can, enter the temple and admire its beautiful sliding shoji screens, gilded lanterns, and handsome icons.

From the intersection of 5th and Jackson, a stroll up and down Fifth Street gives you a chance to browse in shops featuring Japanese anime action figures and bobble-head toys,  music stores featuring Japanese stringed instruments and taiko drums, houseware stores, and a variety of Japanese and Korean restaurants and tea shops.

My favorite is Nichi Bei Bussan – a gift shop which has been in business over 100 years, featuring all things Japanese, including kimono fabric and patterns, whimsically decorated socks designed to be worn with flip-flops or Japanese sandals, beautiful tea sets and platters, origami paper, craft books, gift wraps, Japanese graphic novels and magazines and charming, helpful sales people who will gladly help you find the perfect item.

After shopping, time to reflect on the history of Japantown. Go back down Fifth street past Kubota’s and find the memorial sculpture and garden next to the Nissei Memorial Building housing the Japanese American Citizens League.  It’s worth studying each face of the three-sided memorial before visiting the Japanese American Museum just a few doors further down.

The Japanese-American Museum traces the history of Japanese immigrants in the US, from their being imported as easy-to-exploit agricultural laborers to their forced removal to concentration camps during World War II.  The museum includes videos, recorded intreviews, and a replica of a family’s space at Manzanar, one of the relocation camps.  You cannot spend time in this museum without feeling a bit queasy at how easy it seemed to have been to deprive thousands of U.S. citizens of their rights, even as our country  fought against the same arbitrary cruelty as seen in Nazi Germany.

On a lighter note, try to schedule your visit to coincide with one of the special festivals.  I recently happened to arrive during the summer Obon Festival, which featured dancers, taiko drummers, men and women in traditional costumes, lots of food and crafts booths, and an open house at the Buddhist temple offering one-hour classes in “Buddhism 101”.

 

 

Freeway-Free in Texas: Magical Marfa

20190325_192143docMarfa, in the Big Bend Country of Texas, is the home of the mysterious Marfa Lights, a phenomenon which has been photographed and videotaped and in honor of which the local Chamber of Commerce has erected a very nice viewing site complete with benches and rest rooms.

20190325_193228webBut the real mystery of Marfa is not the lights, but how a town of scarcely 3000 manages to maintain not just the grand old El Paisano Hotel, build in 1930 with an elaborate facade, courtyard with fountain, grand lobby with Spanish tile floor and check-in desk, beamed ceilings, stuffed longhorn and buffalo heads, and a bustling bar and dining room, but also a second “retro-contemporary ” hotel, the St. George, which is all clean 50’s decor, expansive space, modern art and furnishings, and what looks like another top-line restaurant, as well as a book store specializing in contemporary art.

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And next to the St. George is a large contemporary building which houses a conference center as well as a rec center including a swimming pool with an outdoor bar. The town also boasts several art and craft galleries. How do these establishments scratch a living?

The cast of “Giant” stayed at El Paisano while filming, and the lobby is decorated with posters of shots of the stars on and off the set. If it is not occupied, you can see room 211, which was the party room with a big balcony overlooking the fountain. While waiting for sundown, we had an excellent (three AAA diamonds) dinner of salmon with pesto sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pilar, preceded by a delicious dip trio of guacamole, salsa, and black bean hummus. Not your typical West Texas fare!

After dinner,  out to the Viewing Platform. The Marfa Lights were shy, but the STARS! Orion, normally just a belt with a sword in light- polluted Californa, was festooned with decoration. W had loaded a SkyWatch app on her phone which allowed her to point the phone at the sky and it would tell what constellations we might be seeing there. We confirmed Cassiopeia, the big straggling W, but I couldn’t remember much more from my brother’s Boy Scout Handbook.

On a second evening we stopped in Marfa again (on the way back from the Middle of Nowhere – see future posts!) and discovered more about the magic.  It seems that the city is literally the “lengthened shadow of one man”-modern minimalist artist Donald Judd.  Judd  vacationed in Big Bend country in the 70’s and decided the area could provide the ideal space for installations of his gigantic outdoor (made of concrete) and indoor (made of polished steel) cubic artworks. After renting a summer home in Marfa for several years, he plunged in, bought an abandoned military site with a couple of warehouses, and gradually also bought a number of empty commercial buildings in the downtown, including a National Bank building with lovely tile work which is now the office of his son’s architectural firm, a block-size office buildings which houses the Chinati Foundation,  a facing building for the Judd Foundation, and others. You can purchase an all day (6 hour plus 2-hour lunch break) tour to see both the inside and outside ateliers plus gallery exhibits by other artists, or a 3 hour indoor tour of all the buildings, or a free tour of the outside installations.

The presence of this driving force gave new life to the rest of the town. Conferences organized by the Chinati Fund  invited artists and tourists from Los Angeles and New York, some of whom stayed to open art galleries featuring modern as well as regional and native art. With the artists came foodies who brought the old hotel’s bar and dining room up to 3 diamond standard, and converted another hole in the wall into Stellina, a hip wine bar/restaurant with “some of the best veggie enchiladas ever” per W.  On a Wednesday evening by 8PM the young folk are sitting on the sidewalk with their wine buckets and generous pours waiting for tables, with more coming up the street. 20190327_184100web

Other movies such as No Country for Old Men have also used Marfa for HQ. It’s “the quirkiest town in Texas” per Texas Highways.  And the promoters of Lollapalooza are exploring holding a Burning Man -type festival on the outskirts of town which would attract four times the normal population. But even Donald Judd doesn’t explain why that grand hotel was built in 1930. There is still mystery and magic beyond even the sorcery of Donald Judd. Marfa in the Back of Beyong has almost more liveliness than it can stand, while Ozona, a similarly sized town with an equally attractive center square, and located on a major transportation corricor, molders away.  Go figure!

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

Freeway Free in New Orleans: All that Tourist Stuff

20180520_145218docYou recognize this photo of the Cathedral Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans.  It could almost be a postcard if the cars would get out of the way and the sky be a bit bluer.  It was a warm day in May, and I was glad of the clouds.

 

You recognize these wrought – iron balconies in the French Quarter too.  A walking tour of the area between the Square and Bourbon Street has countless examples of this lovely lace work

.Of course, New Orleans means music.  We saw ragamuffins playing on washtubs, we saw street corner quartets, we sat on hard benches enthralled by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we were escorted to our restaurant by a second-line band.  Music is all over the French Quarter, and it’s all great!

 

And of course, there’s the food – Beignets and Bananas Foster and Jambalaya and Gumbo and so on deliciously, served in well-known trendy restaurants like NOLA and well-known traditional restaurants like Arnaud’s and Brennan’s, and not-so-well-known but still delicious hide-aways like The Court of Two Sisters.

 

And don’t neglect the simple pleasures of walking around the Quarter, peeking into garden courtyards, stumbling across artwork tucked away at the end of arched corridors, and gawking at window displays. Take your time.  New Orleans is a city for leisure – it’s too hot and humid to hurry!

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Hidden treasures: If you need an air-conditioned break, there are two fine exhibits tucked into the building just to the right of the cathedral as you face away from the square.  One details the how’s and why’s and consequences of Hurricane Katrina;  upstairs is a museum of Mardi Gras costumes.  Talk about contrast!

 

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Along the Inland Passage to Kake

P1030471docCruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.”  The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean.  Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant.  Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.

One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional  Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others  She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest.  A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong.  I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?

P1030472webFor Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high.  Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials;  the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole. 

After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.

P1030477webThe lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.

At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction  in a second line.  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed;  as part of the dance, we belonged.

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Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

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