Sunday, August 21, 2011

An Ode to the Cornfields

Lend me your ears! what I would say if I were super lame. Poor, neglected Armchair. All of these months without attention and now I'm dusting her off with a post about corn.

I recently spent 3 weeks singing in the cornfields of rural Illinois. It was a beautiful experience, both personally and professionally. But this isn't a blog about my musical life (or really anything at all in particular at this point), so what do you care? And if you do care, too bad, because I'm cultivating my ability to tie a mental bow on a great experience and attempt to move forward with some degree of speed. Onward and upward. On to tomorrow (shout out). Or maybe, in the immortal words of Doris Day (who I recently learned is still alive and planning to release a new album, hence this song being stuck in my head for days), Que Sera, Sera. After all, the alternative to forward motion is wallowing. And wallowing, as evidenced by my junior high school diary, generally results in terrible writing. Or worse, poetry. So instead, to tie the metaphorical mental bow and honor my genuinely lovely experience in Illinois (and satisfy my little writing itch), I present to you a ridiculous tribute to corn. It makes sense to me.

Corn has been a friend of mine for a while now. Do you ever think of things in terms of how you'll remember them when you're 100? The six years I spent living in the Midwest will probably be distilled into two or three main ideas. And one of them could very well be the image of the cornfields. My grandkids will ask, "So what was Earth like at the turn of the century, Gran?" Elderly me will say, "What? I don't know. Corn, I guess. Corn everywhere. What's it to you, anyway? Why is this space pod so cold? SOMEBODY GET ME A SWEATER." Obviously, this will all take place on Mars in some kind of colony that we created after Oprah died and society on Earth imploded.

But it's true. Corn has been a powerful, if unassuming, presence in my life for the last few years. And you know what? I don't know much about it, apart from the fact that I like to eat it, it's supposed to be "knee-high by the Fourth of July," and it's generally inhabited by frightening children. So let's learn something.

First of all, the more globally-oriented/technical/agriculturally precise term for "corn" would be "maize." Most of us are familiar with its origins. It was first cultivated by native Mesoamericans something like 7,000 years ago. People who study these kinds of things are apparently pretty interested in its domestication. Nobody (I guess these people are generally archaeobotanists and the like) is sure how or why it happened the way it did. They use a lot of technical lingo like "intercrossing teocinte" and frankly, I don't have the patience to sift through it all for you. Know that a wild plant was domesticated, spread across the Americas, and rapidly became the most important staple crop for the indigenous population. Then the Europeans stopped by and grabbed a few ears for themselves. And the rest is history. Once again I'm reminded of how I really need/want to get around to reading Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Technically, corn is a grain. It seems obvious now, but if someone had asked me yesterday I probably would have said "vegetable." Sweet corn, the type we eat fresh, has a higher sugar content and is harvested earlier. So-called "field-corn" is used mainly for things like animal feed. Yum. For a plant with such a hum-drum reputation, it certainly finds itself in the middle of a lot of socio-economic and political issues. Pesticides, growth hormones, biofuels...meth. And it's right in the middle of our big ol' global food issue. (Thank you, National Geographic, for the frightening Population 7-Billion series.)

I've always been curious about the mechanics of corn harvesting. I mean, those fields are big. I looked into it. Then I got mind-numbingly bored. Then I found this video of a corn harvest in action accompanied by the Carmen Fantasy. Which doesn't make any sense. But still, jackpot!

Had I grown up in the cornfields, I probably would already have known how it worked. Perhaps I would have even seen it done. What little I do know of adolescence in the cornfields, I know thanks to my dear friend and once-roommate, Sally. Sally grew up in a wee town called Portland, Indiana. You might be inclined to think they have some kind of "port" and therefore a significant body of water. You would be wrong. They do, however, have a lot of corn. Also, lest you lovable East Coast elitists think otherwise, a cornfield upbringing is not to be scoffed at. Sally, it must be said, has been on Jeopardy.

Anyway, as I am nothing if not a diligent researcher, I recently said to Sally, "Hey, I'm writing a blog post about corn. Say some stuff about it." She supplied me with a couple of excellent anecdotes, my favorite of which was a story about a childhood friend of hers who, upon finding herself in a car making its way down a road surrounded by the high corn of late summer, would yell, "CORNCAVE! CORNCAVE!" There was also the young cousin who was manipulated into helping shuck corn by adults who told her each ear was a "gift" that needed to be "unwrapped." So, naturally, every time she successfully shucked an ear she would yell gleefully, "IT'S ANOTHER CORN!" I have memories of shucking corn, too, but it was New England corn. Whole different thing.

Sally was also the first person to introduce me to the urban legend about thieves and bandits jumping out from the corn at four-way stops on country roads. They would then smash your windows and steal your stuff I guess? I think she told me this actually happened to a friend of hers, but I'm skeptical. She's a tricky one, that Sally.

More Facts about Corn
  • 50% of U.S. corn is grown in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota
  • Some corn can grow to be 39 feet high. 39 feet! ...but most of it is bred to be about 8 feet.
  • The "Corn Belt" includes Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky.
  • Corn is produced on every continent. Except Antarctica, obviously. Isn't it annoying how you have to say that every time something is on "every continent?" Can't we just stop including it as a continent and just have it be its own thing?
  • Archaeologists have popped 1,000 year old popcorn. Gross. And awesome.
  • If conditions are right, corn can sometimes grow 3-4 inches in one night. I know because I sat and watched one time. Just kidding.
Further Corn Research
Corn and Hollywood

(I have to throw this in, too, since I found it back when I was looking for a Doris Day video. 1:25 is the best part, hands down.)

Anyway, presence of tongue in cheek notwithstanding, I really do love those darned cornfields. Until next time, Corn!

Friday, May 13, 2011


You know, what I'd really like to do with this blog is chronicle my adventures in an actual traveling armchair. You know, rig-up a La-Z-Boy with a set of wheels. Maybe motorize it. Put in some cup-holders. I'm sure it's already been done. The "car" comes to mind. Or the Jazzy. Or Roundhouse (1:46).

Wheeled upholstery, believe it or not, isn't unprecedented in my life. My high school boyfriend, Andrew, once put wheels on a couch. It's a simple story.
Andrew had a friend, Dave. Dave's parents had a couch. One day, they decided they wanted to get rid of it. So they put it on the front lawn by the side of the road. Andrew and his buddies, lit by some kind of divine spark, decided this would be the perfect place to gather for beers and late-night sh**-shooting. It quickly became a phenomenon. Rules were established, a television was brought out, and, most importantly, wheels were added to the couch's bottom, mainly to facilitate swift movement back to the house in the event of inclement weather and/or something non-couch related demanding the boys' attention, like work... or throwing a brick of lard at a Wendy's (true story). Really, I think everyone just liked the idea of having a couch on wheels. Over time, The Couch came to represent something greater than the sum of its parts. It encouraged the ridiculous, fostered the unexpected, and most importantly, answered the question, "Why?" with a resounding, "Why not?" All quite Hawksian, really.

Anyway, there you have it. Wheeled upholstery. I want some. Also, don't you like the word "upholster?" Upholster? I don't even know 'er! ...Am I right?

Unfortunately, most of the exploring I did on my most recent trip abroad was done on my own two feet. This is where I was:

Quito, Ecuador. Most of which is south of the Equator. Obviously, you have a single burning question: Which way did the toilets flush?

Answer: I don't really know. I looked once and was sure I saw it going the "wrong" way, per the myths and legends. But now I'm not sure. In addition to receiving differing reports from my peers,
I've read that it's all a bunch of nonsense. Apparently, the Coriolis Effect doesn't come into play at all in the realm of flushing. Something I read said that if there is a difference in flush direction, it's just the way that particular toilet was manufactured. Which, I suppose, makes sense. But still raises some questions: Why wouldn't toilet manufacturers in this day and age have established a standard flush direction? Do they actually manufacture toilets differently depending on geography? What about imported toilets? And how about regular drains? (Why didn't I observe the drains??) And if it is the Coriolis Effect, what happens when you're directly on the Equator? Does it go straight down?? Or worse...straight up?? Who knows.

So what brought me to Ecuador? Believe it or not, a singing gig. And, as if that weren't awesome enough, some of my best friends came along, too. Pretty incredible.

Like so many epic adventures, ours began in Indianapolis. All in all, it was an uneventful journey. In a good way. The most exciting moment was probably when one of my earplugs got stuck and I had to pull it out with tweezers.

It was misty and cool when we landed in Quito, not unexpected conditions in a city that stands at 9,000 feet in an Andean river basin. We had gotten ourselves pretty worked up worrying about altitude sickness, so it was a pleasant surprise when we didn't instantly crumple to the ground upon exiting the aircraft. At baggage claim, my friend Bill and I admitted our disappointment with the colorless stamps in our passports. Talk about a first-world complaint.

Culture finally slapped me across the face when we left the arrivals gate. It was crowded and chaotic and we stuck out like big, sore, Gringo thumbs. Outside, waiting for the vans that would take us to our hotel, we were approached by a beautiful little girl, baby on her back, trying to sell us gum and candies. She was the first of many youngsters who would pull at our strings, both heart and purse.

Nobody admitted it at the time, but I think we were all a little nervous when we pulled up to our hotel. The street was grimy, graffitied, and ominously quiet. But Los Quipus turned out to be as lovely an accommodation as we could have asked for. We learned quickly that in Quito, outward appearances say little about the quality of what lies behind. You adapt quickly to the litter and graffiti, or miss a lot of what Quito has to offer.

My favorite plant in the courtyard of Los Quipus.

You can find sterile and manufactured in Quito if you know where to look. A good place to start might be the "Dining" section of my Rough Guide: Ecuador
, which inevitably led us to overpriced, "western-style" restaurants in the Mariscal district, many of which were described as "authentic" or "traditional." Mariscal (named for Mariscal Sucre, famous freedom fighter) is home to most of Quito's hotels and hostels and is described by locals as "Gringoland." But it's by no means all bad. When you're tired and hungry and sick of pretending you know what you're doing, it's nice to go to a Tex-Mex place with an English menu and a guy in a sombrero. (Speaking of hats, there's something important you should know before we go any further. Prepare yourself. The Panama Hat is, in fact, Ecuadorian. Not Panamanian. It's true!)


Tourism in Quito does require a certain amount of savvy. It can be exhausting. First and foremost, there's the water issue. In addition to abstaining from tap water generally, there are tap-rinsed fruits and vegetables to consider and tap-created ice to be avoided. The trickiest adjustment is brushing your teeth with bottled water. More than once I unthinkingly rinsed my brush in the sink. So I boiled some bottled water and rinsed it again. Probably unnecessary, but I won't advocate one way or the other because I don't want to be blamed for your hypothetical future parasites. I'll just say that our group exercised varying levels of caution and by and large, we were all relatively okay. It seems to be kind of a crapshoot.

Another potentially unpleasant surprise is the fact that one can't really flush one's toilet paper. Quito's plumbing is a wee bit too delicate. So to speak. Instead, there are bins by every toilet for paper disposal. I frequently forgot, and honestly, there were no discernible consequences. But I don't know, I wouldn't want it to be my toilet paper that destroyed an entire city's sewage network. So, again, I'll leave it up to you.

Then there's crime to consider. Quito is certainly not the world's safest destination. My advice would be to apply the requisite amount of common sense for travel in any larger city, and then up-it by a couple of degrees. We were, in fact, witnesses to some small-scale crime. One afternoon, one of the women in our group was taking a photo with her phone when a man ran up and tried to pry it right out of her hand. He ran away too quickly for anyone to stop him, but luckily her phone (and her person) came away unharmed.

Taxis were also a bit of an adventure. A friend of mine insisted that there's a ring of unlicensed cab drivers who execute faux-abductions to scare their fares into handing over money and valuables. I wouldn't be surprised. Cabs are plentiful, cheap, and easy to hail, but it probably is safest to have your hotel call for you. And if you do hail one, make sure you can see a four-digit registration number on the sides and top of the car. Our only incident occurred when a driver tried to charge us $5 for what we knew to be a $3 ride, maximum. A simple, "No, muy caro" was all it took and we patted ourselves on the back for being awesome non-suckers. So I can vouch for the real threat of rip-offery.

On the issue of money, here's a fun fact: Ecuador uses the American dollar. You'll find, though, that because most things are relatively inexpensive, you'll wind up using a lot of Ecuadorian coinage. They mint the coins themselves (same denominations plus a $.50 piece) but use U.S. issue bills. They also use a heck of a lot of $1 coins, which I wish we used more often here because they're golden and make me feel like a pirate.

Quito's highland climate means the temperature is basically the same all year: low to mid-60s. Their "winter" is really a rainy season, with April bearing the brunt. Mornings were consistently sunny and beautiful but around midday, clouds started building over Pichincha, the friendly neighborhood volcano. By mid-afternoon, it was all rain, all the time.

A view of Pichincha

You'll never catch Pichincha looking the same way twice. My guide book described it as "brooding." I'll give that one to the Rough Guide. It did brood a bit.

Our best day in Quito found us at the Basílica del Voto Nacional, a neo-Gothic church built in the late 1800s, following Ecuador's independence from Spain. Its best feature is its general Ecuadorian stamp of originality. The gargoyles are way cool. Instead of grotesque monsters, they're all native Ecuadorian fauna. Birds, tortoises, iguanas... the list goes on. (In case you've forgotten, like I had, the Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador. All those endemic species help make it one of the world's "megadiverse" countries.)

Rough Guide had mentioned spectacular, "not-to-be-missed" views from the top of the Basílica, alluding slightly to some kind of potentially frightening ascent. When we asked someone how we might get up to the towers, we stumbled into a tour. Our guide was warm, excited, and only spoke Spanish. It was fantastic.

And they weren't kidding about those towers. It's like an Amazing Race challenge getting up there. We're talking tiny metal ladders that allow you to look down hundreds of feet while you're climbing and rickety wooden bridges à la Indiana Jones. Meanwhile, our guide hopped around like Spiderman, pointing things out to us in enthusiastic Spanish. (Short aside: It's said that the Spanish spoken in Ecuador is among the clearest and most easily understood in the world. As a result, Quito is home to a host of language schools and has become a very popular place to learn Spanish. I should mention that I asked one of our Colombian colleagues about this and he shook his head and said that the clearest Spanish is actually spoken in, you guessed it, Colombia. Beats me.)

Basílica del Voto Nacional

View from the Basílica of El Panecillo. El Panecillo means "The Little Bread Roll." Apt, wouldn't you say? It's home to the Virgen de Quito (erected 1976) and serves as the southern boundary of Quito's historic Old Town.

Frightening stairs at the Basílica. The pictures just don't capture it.

Inside one of the clock towers. Great Scott!

El Murciélago Hombre

Quito's Old Town, where you can find the Basílica, is a fascinating area. You expect the winding, narrow streets, the picturesque plazas, and the Spanish Colonial architecture. You don't expect it to have such a lived-in vibe. Your average "Old Town" in, say, Europe, tends to be a bit Disney. Nobody really lives in the "Centro storico" part of Venice. They live in scary mainland areas like Mestre, home to the most frightening hotel I've ever had the pleasure of staying in. Seriously, there were prostitutes on the corner right beneath our window. I didn't sleep at all. Come to think of it, I stayed in a frightening hostel/campsite in mainland Venice once too. We slept in these weird pods things and found out later that the place had bed bugs. None of this has anything to do with Ecuador.

The Old Town area of Quito is different. It certainly isn't the city's residential hub, but you still get the sense that a real community exists. Particularly if you wander a bit off the beaten path because your stupid
guide book has a map that's impossible to read. You're more likely to pass a shop that sell tiles or underwear or stereo systems than a shopt that sells souvenirs or touristy trinkets.

La Ronda. A street for tourists, supposedly lined with shops selling traditional goods. When we went, it was completely deserted. Naturally.

Iglesia de Santo Domingo. Plaza Santo Domingo is one of the Old Town's three main squares. The other two are the Plaza de la Independencia and the Plaza San Francisco.

Super-creepy mannequins seem to be a thing in Quito. Perhaps the Guayllabamba River Basin is the actual Uncanny Valley?

Karaoke. Universal.

View of El Panecillo

Teatro Bolívar. As you can probably tell from the picture, it was built in the 1930s. If I remember correctly, a fire destroyed it in the '90s and it's still undergoing restoration. We had lunch at a cafe right across the street. Good old Simon Bolívar has his mitts on just about everything in South America, doesn't he?

Did I mention we were there during Holy Week? Well, we were there during Holy Week. Which meant we were lucky enough to be there for the Good Friday processionals, one of the most culturally intense experiences I've ever had. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures. We didn't want to risk bringing anything even remotely valuable since Old Town becomes absolutely packed
with people for the event. (I kept what little money I brought in my bra... which seemed like a great idea until I actually had to pay for something. Awkward.)

The procession begins in the Plaza San Francisco and wends it's way through Old Town, up to the Basílica and back, over the course of something like 7 hours in total. It begins with hundreds of penitents in purple hoods (called Cucuruchos
) carrying crosses and paintings. Among them are men in tunics and thorny crowns dragging real wooden crosses, stopping periodically to catch their breath and wipe the sweat off their brows. Other men engage in various degrees of self-flagellation, some symbolically and others covering their backs with real and painful-looking red welts.

Eventually, two enormous litters process out of the plaza. The first carries the Virgin of Sorrows and the second Jesus the Almighty. Hundreds of people join the procession and the streets become a sea of humanity as far as the eye can see. Music to accompany the procession is broadcast from the Plaza San Francisco, most memorably a canned version of the same dreary hymn looping endlessly. Many of the spectators lining the streets mouthed the words automatically. Every detail of the ceremony seemed to be deeply ingrained.

While the penitence and faith were clearly quite genuine, the atmosphere surrounding the procession was, it has to be said, pretty festive. Vendors were selling ice cream and balloons, women in tight tank-tops were strutting with their boyfriends, kids were running and playing. It could have been the Fourth of July. Except that we were in Ecuador. And it was April.

I can't leave you without any visuals, so here are some pictures taken by some stranger somewhere:

On the following day, we had an opportunity to take a mini-day-trip to a town north of Quito called Otavalo, home of South America's largest open-air market. Every Saturday, indigenous people from 70 surrounding villages come together to sell their wares. I had saved almost all of my souvenir shopping for this particular excursion. According to my book, The Otavalo Market was the #1 Not-to-Miss place in Ecuador. Once in a lifetime, right?

It started out well. The drive north was beautiful. At some point we crossed the Equator, but wherever it was, there was no fanfare. Close to Otavalo, we stopped at a little tourist shop where people were having pictures taken with llamas and enjoying panoramic views. To our surprise, three young girls in traditional garb hopped on our bus and sang to us in Kichwa, the indigenous language of the region. It was great. But after the driver dropped them off, things took a turn.

Inexplicably, our driver took us past
Otavalo into a town called Cotacachi. Unfortunately, our time was limited since we had to get back to Quito for an evening concert. So this little detour cost us precious hours in Otavalo. I was a little ticked. So, unfortunately, the lovely little town of Cotacachi (prized for its leather goods) will forever be the town that wasn't Otavalo. They'll be fine though. Apparently they're quite affluent.

When we did finally get to Otavalo, I almost immediately lost my friends in the sea of color and the din of haggling. So I went on a solo souvenir tear, haggling my little heart out. Haggling, it turns out, is a blast
. Granted, they're experts at making you think you're getting a good deal. Still, it's fun and you come away feeling accomplished. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of Otavalo, either. In my excitement, I left my camera on the bus.

Vista on the route from Quito to Otavalo



My favorite picture from the trip. It would be in Cotacachi. .

Cotacachi's main square.

They were having some kind of festival in Cotacachi. And no festival is complete without Barney, obviously.

Want to know more things?

Iglesia de la La Campañia

A gilded Baroque church and one of Quito's major highlights.
Some History, Courtesy of Lonely Planet
Worth a read, mainly because there was an important Incan ruler named Tupac. Yes, Tupac.
Rough Guide Ecuador
Despite my complaining, it wasn't all
bad. I've just come to trust Rough Guide implicitly so this one let me down a bit with its terrible maps and disappointing restaurant suggestions. In Rough Guide's defense, Quito is a sprawling, lengthwise city that is difficult to fit neatly onto a map (I would imagine, I'm not a cartographer) and most of the best restaurants didn't really have names. So I'm giving them a mulligan. But they can't coast on 2006's life-changing Indonesian meal in Amsterdam forever!
National Geographic's Take on Ecuador
Because I love National Geographic.
Ecuadorian Cuisine
One of Ecuador's highland delicacies: Guinea Pig, or Cuy. I didn't try it, but a colleague who did said it tasted like (you guessed it) chicken. Another said rabbit. Makes sense. The array of fruit is amazing and if you happen to make it there during Holy Week, you'll have the opportunity to try Fanesca, a stew served only during Lent and Easter. They make a pretty big fuss about it. Bill and I thought the first restaurant we went to was actually called
Fanesca because the banner announcing that they were serving it was bigger than the restaurant's actual sign. Oops.

So there you have it. A taste of Ecuador. All worth it for the llama finger puppets I brought back.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Compendium Suspendium

A word on the title:

As this post is a compendium of information, I wanted to include the word compendium in its title. As for suspendium, I just thought it sounded good. So I Googled it to find out whether or not it's an actual word.

Apparently, it is. And a really nerdy one, at that.

Suspendium. It sounds great, doesn't it?


I promised you a compendium, so here it is:

Some Websites I Like and Will Share with You in Lieu of Actual Content

1. Various Cities in First Person View (on

Pretty self-explanatory. And totally neat. I want to know who is doing the filming. If it were me, I would almost definitely trip and fall at some point. Which would be hilarious. But also painful.

2. MapCrunch

Click "Go!" for random Google Street Views around the world. Awesome! You might find yourself wishing more countries/locations were represented, but beggars can't be choosers, right?

3. A Guide to Sleeping in Airports

Surprise: North American airports are the worst for sleeping. The best? Singapore's Changi Airport, winner of the site's 2010 "Golden Pillow." Why? Well, I'll copy and paste the list of the airport's amenities and you can judge for yourself:

Airport Services/Facilities:
WiFi, Internet Kiosks, Food-24 hours ($), Baggage Storage($), pay-in Lounges ($), Shower ($), Gym & Spa ($), Massage ($), Swimming Pool & Jacuzzi ($), Convenience Stores/Supermarkets ($), Prayer rooms, Business Centres ($), Singapore City Tour, Nature Trail (including a Butterfly Garden, Cactus Garden, Fern Garden, Koi Pond, Orchid Garden, Sunflower Garden, Fragrant Garden, Night Light Garden), airside Rest Areas with snooze chairs, Aviation Gallery, Children's Play Area, Entertainment Deck (including a Jam Studio, Lan Gaming, Music Area, MTV Booth, Movie Theatre, XBox and PlayStation consoles), The Slide @ T3 - 4 storey slide ($), Grand Prix Race Stimulators ($).

4. World's Largest Roadside Attractions

A horribly clunky website, but I can't help myself. I adore this kind of thing. (Some of you might remember my brief obsession with Indiana's own World's Largest Ball of Paint.)

5. Atlas Obscura

For my money, the best website on The Internet. Bold claim? You betcha! I love it. I love it, love it, love it. Click on "Take me to a random place" and lose a couple hours of your day.

So there you have it. Compendium. Suspendium.

Next week I'm going to indulge another of my obsessions: converted spaces.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Armchairs in Art: 'Tis the Cézanne!

Welcome to the third and final installment of Armchairs in Art.

Let's take a look at Monsieur Paul Cézanne, Armchair Artist extraordinaire. Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839. Ever been to Aix-en-Provence? I have. All I can really tell you is that it's small and has a tapestry museum. I mainly associate it with Coolio's magnum opus Pterodactyl. Which my friend and I watched in our hotel room. In its entirety. Dubbed in French. Ridiculous, but actually one of my favorite travel memories.

It's been said (by people on the Internet) that Cézanne paved the way for modern art. His exploration of geometric shapes and "fracturing of form" were concepts essential to the development of the Cubist movement. He also painted scary little men.

Achille Empéraire, 1868
Oil on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

Strong start, right? Monsieur Empéraire was an interesting character. Think John Leguizamo in Moulin Rouge. Is it me, or does it look like he's wearing Chuck Taylor's? I'm going to be honest, this painting creeps me out. He looks like something out of Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre (see minute 2:44). Or better yet, this. Now I can't stop laughing. THIS BLOG IS A FREE-FOR-ALL.

Anyway. Here are some more of Cézanne's gems of armchair artistry. I'll let you pick your favorite. I'm partial to Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory. And not just because it sounds like something from Clue.

Portrait of Victor Choquet, 1877
Oil on canvas
Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, 1877
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, 1890
Oil on canvas
Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, France

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory, 1891
Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Portrait of a Woman (in a Striped Dress), 1892-6
Oil on canvas
Barnes Foundation
Lincoln University, Philadelphia, PA

Portrait of a Woman in Green Hat (Mme Cézanne), 1894-95
Oil on canvas
Barnes Foundation
Lincoln University, Philadelphia, PA

Young Man with a Skull, 1896-98
Oil on canvas
Barnes Foundation
Lincoln University, Philadelphia, PA

And now, let's go crazy. Since we're wrapping up our whole "art" thing, I thought I'd better get in some shout-outs to my other favorite artists.

Lady in Yellow, 1888
Thomas Wilmer Dewing, American, (1851-1938)
Oil on wood
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

This is beautiful. I want to be her. Also, she lives in one of my most favorite places, the Gardner Museum in Boston. If you have a weird fascination with art theft, like I do, it should definitely be on your radar.

And because I'm obsessed with anything that happened in Austria-Hungary around the turn of the century, we'll close with these guys:

Alfons Mucha, Czech, (1860-1939)

Fritza Riedler, 1906
Gustav Klimt, Austrian, (1862-1918)
Oil on canvas
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria

Edith Schiele, die Frau des Künstlers, sitzend, 1918
Egon Schiele, Austrian, (1890-1918)
Oil on canvas
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria

So there it is. Armchairs in Art, The Complete Series. Hope you enjoyed it.

For more:

Egon Schiele
Gustav Klimt
Paul Cézanne
Alfons Mucha
Leopold Museum (Largest Schiele Collection)
Österreichische Galerie Belvedere (Austrian Gallery at the Belvedere Palace)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Armchairs in Art: Van Gogh

Welcome to Part Two of Armchairs in Art!

Last week we discussed Señor Pablo Picasso, one of the lucky bastards who actually achieved international celebrity in his own lifetime. Today, we're traveling even further back in time to talk about a guy who wasn't nearly as lucky.

Poor old Vincent.

Off the top of my head, here's what I can say about Vincent van Gogh:

Brother named Theo.
Those ugly potato folks.
Don McLean.
And obviously, the ear thing.

Okay, I actually know a little more than that. Definitely more than I knew about Picasso. Thanks, in part, to our old friend Simon Schama, who devotes the sixth hour of Power of Art to Van Gogh. As my good friend Carl so perfectly put it, the actor Andy Serkis "blows minds" as Vincent. It's true. Whether or not he blows minds as Gollum, née Sméagol, I'll leave to you.

(FYI, Power of Art covers Picasso, too. But it's on the 3rd disc. Which I haven't yet gotten from Netflix. So. You know. I'll get back to you.)

Anyway, I also learned quite a bit about Van Gogh in Amsterdam at, you guessed it, the Van Gogh Museum. That was back in 2006, during the crazy two week period in my life when I traveled solo to Belgium and the Netherlands. And off we go on a tangent!

If you've never traveled alone, go do it. Sure, I got lost in the pouring rain a couple times. Which is exponentially worse on one's own. Also, being a poor defenseless girl, my after-dark options were slightly limited. (I spent one particularly sad evening watching the film adaptation of Starsky & Hutch alone in the hostel common room.) And, worst of all, there's nobody to back me up when I tell people the first thing I saw in Amsterdam was a live camel.


Here's what I love about traveling alone. You have to talk to people. It becomes a necessity. I met people I never would have spoken to had I been with friends or family or a tour guide or an iPod. One night, in a hotel bar in Amsterdam, I spent four hours in deep conversation with a Mexican guy, an old British dude, and the cute Dutch bartender. All thanks to the necessary boldness that comes with traveling alone. You gotta be bold. I wonder what that bartender is up to.

Anyway, you know who else was bold? Vincent van Gogh. That was one bold dude. Usually when you see a picture of a chair you think, "Oh hey, that's a chair." One look at these paintings and you're all, "SHAZAM! Now that's a CHAIR!"

Ok, maybe not. But I bet you like these as much as I do.

Gauguin's Chair, 1888
Oil on Canvas
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

As you may or may not already know, Paul Gauguin was Van Gogh's roomie for a time. It didn't go that well. Maybe because Van Gogh was always painting the furniture. Dude probably just wanted to sit down. (Also, who smells a Jersey Shore parody? Vinny and Pauly G? Enh...?)

Van Gogh's Chair, 1888
Oil on Canvas
The National Gallery, London

Of course, Van Gogh painted his own chair, too. People make much of this pair of paintings, particularly the question of their symbolic meaning. Van Gogh said little on the subject himself, but there's a wealth of speculation to be found. Everything from the reasonable (Simplicity vs. Pretension) to the slightly more outrageous (Gauguin's Chair as a Phallus-Bearing Symbol of Van Gogh's Mother Issues).

Want more Van Gogh? How could you not! Check out these videos, courtesy of a way cool site I discovered today called Art Babble. If you still want more, watch the videos on the site proper where they provide a sort of Pop-Up Video type feature in the form of a scrolling bar to the right of the page that provides links to supplementary information. I really like the way they've set it up.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Armchairs in Art: Picasso

I like art. If I weren't a struggling musician, I would be a struggling art historian. Like Simon Schama. Except he's not struggling. And not exclusively an art historian. Also, he's a dude. And Jewish. And from the UK. So really, nothing like Simon Schama.

It's true, though- few things relax me more than a good documentary about art. Which probably means it's better that I'm not an art historian by trade. This way, I can watch Sister Wendy without having to question the quality of her scholarship. Not that I would even be watching Sister Wendy in this scenario. I'd probably be writing a really unoriginal paper about Monet in some awful library with fluorescent lighting. Here, I can sit back and appreciate art from the comfort of my metaphorical armchair.

Speaking of Simon Schama, my most recent Netflix delivery included the first 2 discs of his 2006 BBC series, "Power of Art." In each hour long segment, he focuses on a particular artist through the lens of a particular masterpiece. It has everything: sweet dramatizations, cool music, fun biographical and historical tidbits, and even the odd joke. I love it. So, I started thinking, what can The Armchair bring to the table when it comes to a discussion about art? Probably not much. But what if we narrow our focus down to something more specific? Say, art that... includes actual armchairs?


Welcome to Part I in the series, Armchairs in Art. Each week, we'll explore a new artist and a new painting or paintings. Paintings... with armchairs in them.

Let's dive right in.

Pablo Picasso

Here's what I can say about Picasso without Googling or Wikipeding:

20th Century
Blue Period

Here's what I can say about Picasso after having done a bit of research:

First of all, Spanish baptismal names are amazing. Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain in 1881 to a middle class family who encouraged his talent from an early age. Around the turn of the century, he moved to Paris and started hanging out with folks like Gertrude Stein and Guillaume Apollinaire.



And later, Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky.



You know, the down-to-earth set. He divided his time mainly between Spain and France, made art, and enjoyed the company of many women. (There's a nutshell for you.)

One such woman, Olga, was a dancer in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and Picasso's first wife. She is the subject of our first armchair painting.

Portrait of Olga in the Armchair, 1917
Oil on Canvas
Musée Picasso, Paris

Not what first comes to mind when you think of Picasso. In terms of artistic periods, the years from 1912 to 1919 were marked mainly by a shift from "analytic" to "synthetic" Cubism. Even if you're not familiar with Cubism, you can probably guess that this painting has little to do with it. This can be partially explained. In the late teens, without abandoning Cubism, Picasso went through a brief phase of what is apparently referred to as "New Mediterraneanism." During this time, he was influenced by the works of earlier artists like Renoir and Ingres.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Portrait of Madame Leblanc, 1823
Oil on Canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

That's pretty easy to see. Allow me to offer another, purely speculative explanation. Pablo and Olga weren't married until 1918. My guess? This painting (and maybe the whole of the "New Mediterraneanism" thing) was part of the courtship. You know, less to do with aesthetic principles and more to do with "sleep with me." I read in at least one place that Olga initially resisted Picasso's advances and fiercely protected her virginity even after the marriage (at least for a while). You definitely get a feeling of coldness from her portrait. Who knows? (I mean, other than all the people who have written papers and books about it. They probably know.) One thing is clear- she was certainly more the posh socialite than the Montmartre/Montparnasse Bohemian. I imagine the portrait would have pleased her. I like it, too.

Then again, I also like this:

Large Nude in a Red Armchair, 1929
Oil on Canvas
Musée Picasso, Paris

Yowza! Here's Olga again...looking a little different. I'm kind of obsessed with looking from one painting to the other in rapid succession. Look at the bright red of the armchair. Fantastic. And the body! Olga may or may not have been a little ticked upon viewing this. I don't think it's too surprising that they soon split. (His real "muse" at this time was a teenager named Marie-Thérèse Walter, brief companion and mother to his elder daughter, Maya. Sadly, Marie-Thérèse hanged herself four years after his death in 1973. She wasn't alone among Picasso's women in taking her own life, either. His second wife, Jacqueline Roque, shot herself in 1986.)

So there you have it. Armchairs. Picasso. These aren't his only "armchair" works, but it's a good place to start. Want to know more stuff? Here are some links.

Official Website
Bio at (Great!)
Excellent Timeline
Matisse & Picasso
Musée Picasso (Paris)
Museu Picasso (Barcelona)