Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Weather - Variations on a Theme

Chicago is known for it's notoriously harsh winters, although they are not always so. Some years we get lucky, temperatures remain relatively mild and snow melts as soon as it hits the ground, as opposed to creating hazardous ice slicks seemingly designed by nature to test the mettle and reflexes of the local citizens. Unfortunately these are often followed by summers so torrid that the soles of the feet burn on the sand as the natives run for the relief of the cool waters of the lake.

Last winter, while not as fierce as some, overstayed it's welcome, resembling a lingering guest that doesn't seem to know when it is time to depart. This year subzero cold was followed by a snowfall which lasted 27 hours providing me with the ironic sight of plastic snowmen on front lawns half buried in snow.

Several years ago we had the "storm of the century". Foot after foot of snow piled up. The muscular, hunky form of Jim Cantore was on the weather channel being blown about on Michigan Avenue by 75 mile per hour wind gusts. He jumped about with glee like a little kid, as lightening broke through the blizzard conditions. Lakeshore Drive, normally filled with cars and buses speeding to their destinations was snowbound and deserted. As we watched the storm from inside our apartment the violent wind gusts caused our building to sway. The prisms and sun catchers in our windows swung back and forth while miniature waves were formed by the water in the toilet. Several of our friends, my partner included, hiked through the drifts to experience standing in the middle of Lakeshore Drive devoid of the traffic that ordinarily have made this act impossible. Videos of cars stranded and abandoned on the drive, buried to their windows in snow, were shown around the world. The second day after the storm buses began to move again along seemingly random routes defined by those streets cleared enough for them to maneuver along them. Standing snow on the sidestreets was two feet high, drifts towered higher than that. The tops of cars peeked out from the thick white blanket giving the signs reading "no parking when snow is over 2" deep" a certain gallows humour.

The next October, driving from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone we encountered winterlike cold and a snowstorm whose large fluffy flakes quickly produced several inches of soft white down. With no wind the snow built up on the branches of the lodgepole pine forest just outside the park creating a breathtaking tableau. The cold and snow stayed with us the next day. We have a photo of my partner and I, bundled up against the chill, standing next to a diminutive snowman someone had built on a rail alongside a trail which wound about one of the park's iconic geothermal features. We returned that year to a milder than normal winter and agreed that the coldest we had been, all season long, was that day in Wyoming in October.

Some people question how we can stand it. Why would we, not only choose to live in Chicago, but defend it as we would anyone, or anyplace we loved. These people have never experienced the magic of the snowfall we encountered one Christmas Eve.

The snow was full and soft, the temperature just below freezing. It created a hush broken only by the sounds of adults giggling like children and the choirs in the churches we passed raising their voices in song in celebration of the holiday ahead. The snow caught in the crevices of the solid Victorian homes which lined the streets where we walked and gathered in the evergreen swags they had been festooned with in honor of the season. We stopped for a time and attempted, with other adults we met that wondrous night, to build a snowman. Alas, the snow was not solid enough to hold together and our construction soon fell apart. We smiled as we bade them farewell and continued through the beautiful silence, a special lack of sound unique to snowfalls like these.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Chicago's Art Institute - Eating Egyptians at Christmas

As I have mentioned before, I am in retail. The Christmas season is my most hectic time of the year. So, when I found myself with a weekday off in late November with nothing pressing to accomplish I took the bus to the Art Institute to catch several exhibitions that would not be up after the holidays.

Sometimes special exhibitions seem to grasp at straws for a connecting thread to tie seemingly random pieces together. "Art and Appetite" was one of these. It is billed as a celebration of American art involving food, a rather broad and general theme. Despite this the modest exhibition's 100 items on display were well curated and easy to go through.

It opened with Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want", the iconic portrait of a multigenerational family about to enjoy a holiday feast. A Lichtenstein dot painting of a turkey, from a private collection,  provided a  modern and amusing counterpoint to the more traditional Rockwell work in the opening gallery. I always enjoy viewing pieces that are held in private collections as to see them can be a truly "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

Throughout the rest of the exhibition the pieces are set up in chronological order beginning with the 18th century and culminating with pop art. The final gallery included works by modern masters Andy Warhol and Claus Oldenburg.

The 18th century is represented by still lifes of food by James and his nephew Raphaelle Peale mixed with showcases of serving pieces from the same period culled from the Art Institutes vast holdings. Period pieces were utilized throughout the exhibition as sidebars to the artwork on display.

The next area focused on the Antebellum era. Here a large carved wood sideboard was on display amid the paintings. A rising middle class provided more demand for art and finer goods and the dining room became an important part of American homes.  Again, still lifes dominate the art. One piece by Severia Roesen, on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, of various fruits set among draped bunches of grapes created an especially lush tableau.

An unusual Sargent depicting a dining room after a midday meal; I am more accustomed to his work as a portrait artist; shared space with 2 William Merritt Chase works featuring fish, gutted, scaled and ready to fillet. The stark realism of the Chase works created an interesting juxtaposition with Sargent's soft impressionist eye.

The area focused on the 30's and 40's was anchored by Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks", returned to it's Art Institute home after, once again, being lent out to another institution. It is among my favorite works of art in the museum's holdings. It is interesting however, for an exhibition centering on works about food, that even though the painting is set in a diner, there is no food depicted in it. This omission was something I had not noticed until I overheard a mother pointing this out to her two young children as they moved through the exhibition.

The final gallery focused on Pop Art. It included one of Andy Warhol's iconic soup can paintings, an obvious choice for a celebration of American art involving food. Displayed on the floor is one of Oldenburg's trademark soft sculptures depicting an oversized fried egg. Unfortunately the white fabric surrounding the yolk has somewhat yellowed with age.

There were two other areas I visited on this trip. One, "When the Greeks Ruled Egypt" focused on the 300 years, between 332 and 30 B.C., of Egyptian occupation by the Greeks. It seemed to be an excuse to show some of the Art Institute's ancient Egyptian holdings as some of the pieces on view pre or post date this period. Several of the artifacts were on loan from Chicago's Oriental Institute's extensive collection.

My last destination was a new addition to the museum. In a gallery of it's own, necessary for it's size and appropriate for it's importance, is an 18th century Neapolitan creche, one of the few outside Naples. Due to it's fragile nature it will be displayed for only 5 weeks each year during the Christmas season. Collectors and the art world became interested in this rare art form after the creche at the Royal Palace of Caserta was destroyed by bombing during the second world war. There are 200 figures in the tableau, many, remarkably due to their age, retaining their original silk costumes. As angels fly overhead the holy family is shown in the center of the piece, attended by the three Magi. On one side are the shepards and their flocks, on the other is, oddly, as I don't remember this being mentioned in the gospels, a tavern scene. This is apparently traditional in these tableaus. The influence of the cultural and ethnic mix of Naples during this period is evidenced by the varied races and nationalities represented. The Magi and their servants range from African to Middle Eastern to European. Two figures in the foreground are wearing wooden clogs, typical of The Netherlands. The piece is so detailed it is difficult to fully appreciate in one's first viewing. I look forward to making a visit to it a part of my holiday tradition, making new discoveries from year to year. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Christmas Memories or When Holidays Attack!

Each Christmas season we create new memories as well as cherish old ones. Over the years, through heirlooms, gifts and our travels, I and my partner have amassed a vast collection of ornaments and decorations, each with a tale to tell.

There is the beautiful, round, Belgian lace ornament purchased in Brugge. Reminding us of our visit to Venice are the delicate, miniature, glass Christmas tree and the figurine of Santa riding a gondola which have a home for the holidays each year in our china cabinet. A wooden string puppet of Pinocchio, bought on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, hangs on the tree. Further up in the branches is the tiny blue delft train engine we picked up our first morning in Amsterdam. A ceramic church from the gift shop of Florence's Church of St Croce shares space on the top of the china cabinet with a turn of the 20th century plaster figure of St Nicholas unearthed by my mother in the home of my great grandmother. There are delicate, vintage glass ornaments I cannot recall a Christmas without. My boyhood stocking hangs on the hall closet door. A set of small china bells, again I do not recall a Christmas without them, peer out from a shelf. Contemporary pieces by Christopher Radko and Wedgwood speak of the generosity of  our friends.

The ornaments dangle from garlands hung in every window of our home. Hundreds more adorn the tree. Each one, as I carefully unwrap it from the tissue in which I have wrapped it with equal care the year before, brings back to mind a person, a place, an era or a particular moment in time.

One Christmas, prior to meeting my partner, the weeks leading up to the holiday had been bitterly cold. Some days the highs did not even reach zero. It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve. As I was standing on the heating grate in the store I owned at the time, trying desperately to stay warm, the phone rang. It was my landlord informing me that, although the pipes in the 3 flat in which I lived were intact the pipe outside which brought the water into the building had burst leaving my residence "high and dry". Due to the holiday repairs could not be made until the day after Christmas, leaving me, essentially, homeless for 36 hours. A flurry of phone calls produced a plan. I was scheduled to clean a friends apartment while she was visiting her family in Michigan. Housecleaning was one of several things I did in those days to keep body and soul together. I would stay at her apartment Christmas Eve. Several other people and I had been invited to share Christmas dinner with a friend and her family. I would spend Christmas night at the home of one of the other guests, sharing the couch with her 50 pound dog Mookie. So far so good. I was picked up at the store. We stopped by my flat to give my cats water, ferried in a pitcher from the store's bathroom, and enough food to get them through my absence. Changing into the clothes I would be cleaning the apartment in, I grabbed p.j.s, clothes for Christmas day and essential toiletries and we drove off to the first of the couches I would be sending the next two nights on. The remainder of Christmas Eve played out without further incident.

Christmas morning arrived. I hung around my friend's freshly cleaned apartment waiting for the call telling me when we would drive over to the dinner. The call came and I began the short stroll to the friends home where we would meet up. The cold snap had ended and the temperatures had climbed high enough for me to open my coat as I made my way.

The neighborhood had a large Mexican population. Along the way were a number of small, family owned discount stores. To my amazement they were not only open for business but packed with customers. Someone later explained that the people were out spending the cash gifts they had received.

On the way to the dinner we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a canned ham, our contribution to the festivities. Upon our arrival we met and greeted the other people we would be spending the holiday with. Our host and her genial, easygoing husband, his parents, quiet verging on banal, the hostesses father and....her mother. This is the point at which things began to "go south". To call the mother grossly unpleasant would be insulting to those people who are grossly unpleasant. She remains to this day, one of the most hateful, miserable women I have ever met. She seemed determined to suck everyone into her personal holiday vortex which appeared to emanate from the deepest, darkest bowels of hell.

The first issue was with my choice of a hostess gift, a wonderful, vintage holiday themed apron the hostess was so enamored with she donned it instantly and continued to wear it the entire time she was preparing dinner. Her mother, apparently, did not share the daughter's aesthetic. "Why would anyone bring something that was used and old" she queried?

Shortly we moved to the kitchen, in part to help pull dinner together, but mostly to escape Satan's mistress as she continued to hold court in the living room. Our tranquility was not to last as shortly the mother entered the kitchen and began to voice displeasure with virtually everything. She felt the kitchen was too small and crowded so ordered, me, a guest, to wheel the children's high chair down the hall to one of the bedrooms. I met up with the hostesses husband in the hallway pushing the chair in front of me.

"What are you doing?"

"Your mother told me to put this in one of the bedrooms."

There was an instant look of terror in his eyes."Then you better do it", he stated.

The worst moment came when we opened the canned ham we had purchased only to find it was frozen. As this was not mentioned anywhere on the packaging of the ham or at the market where we had bought it, it was an honest mistake. Instead of saying something such as "Oh how funny. Thanks for the thought, we'll enjoy it in a day or so when it thaws." Or something equally gracious so as to quell a guest's embarrassment over the incident, the mother raised her voice and screeched "A FROZEN HAM!!! WHAT SORT OF IDIOT BRINGS A FROZEN HAM!!!" She repeated a variation of this remark several times.

It was at this point the hostess produced glasses and alcohol. We drank the alcohol as if it were water and we had been lost in the desert.

The last humiliation was the dinner itself. The table in the dining room had been beautifully set with the hostesses best china, crystal and silver. The mother had decided that since we were not "family" we were to be seated at a small table in the kitchen eating off of mismatched everyday plates with equally plebeian utensils. Perhaps she felt offering us paper plates and plastic forks and spoons so they would not have to be washed would appear disrespectful and tacky.

We continued to drink.

As soon as politely possible, we broke into a dead run out the front door. We were somewhat surprised that the mother did not suggest we use the back one.

We arrived at the home where I would be sharing a couch with a large, willful dog. Although he and I were buddies several times over the course of the night he pushed my feet to the floor when he felt they were in his way.

As we got out of the car, as if in atonement for all we had endured, a Christmas miracle occurred.

There is a rare, meteorological event known as "thundersnow". The snow, as rain in a summer thunderstorm, falls fast and heavy. Through this opaque white curtain disbursed flashes of lighting can be seen. These are followed by the sound of thunder, the boom muted by the heavy snowfall. It is a spectacular experience. As this day neared it's end we stood in the yard covered in snow marveling at nature's magic as it created a new Christmas memory.