Whale Ship / Gold Ship

Airport update at home in Bellevue, Kentucky, Wednesday, September 10, 11:30 am

After writing the above entry, I wanted to learn more, if I could, about the artist Tony Berlant.  A search on the web led me to the site of the LA Louver Gallery in Los Angeles, where he had recently exhibited brightly colored paintings on metallic surfaces, still anchored with brads.  Further research led me to his home page and to a gallery I hoped might forward to him an email message from me about my experience at the airport.  They did.  And Tony Berlant sent me an email a day later inviting me to give him a call in his Santa Monica studio.  How different from trying to do original, cross-country research in the 1980s.

I called at 11:30 the next morning, Eastern time, figuring if it was too early at 8:30 California time I could leave a message on his studio phone, inviting him to call me at a time convenient to him.  I was a little surprised that he answered at that early hour in his studio.  It was early, he said.  This was “my first call today,” but I did not wake him up and he was happy to chat.  How interesting that chat was.

Detail of the "gold" in Berlant's Gold Ship

Detail of the “gold” in Berlant’s Gold Ship

No, it was not a whale ship.  He had been thinking of the “gold” ships sailing in and out of San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush.  No, that was not necessarily a whale in the water whose whiteness had immediately made me think of Moby Dick.  Berlant had actually been thinking of prehistoric creatures in the sea, of the mystery of the sea as perceived and imagined by humans, the color white therefore being accidental and not intended as symbolic of Melville’s whale.  No, he had not even seen the harpoons I saw pointing at Moby in the water as harpoons.  They were just dark lines in the water for him.

Detail of what I saw as a harpoon pointing at a white whale

Detail of what I saw as harpoons pointing at a white whale

Tony was happy that a visitor to the airport such as I had seen so much, even though it was not intended, in the collage he had completed so long ago.  He was glad it was still at the airport, though he could not remember at which gate.  My interpretations were actually very compatible with his intentions, for his goal as a semi-abstract artist is to create images that will inspire a variety of associations in viewers.  He had created this work at the time of the initial AIDS crisis, and he had been surprised when some members of gay community had seen the gold flames of candle-like shapes he had painted inside the vertical cables of the Golden Gate bridge as memorial candles for those who had died, even though that was not his intention.

What some saw as memorial candles to AIDS with in the vertical cables of the Gold Gate Bridge

What some saw as memorial candles to AIDS victims within the vertical cables of the Gold Gate Bridge

Ah, yes, Berlant had read Moby-Dick in high school.  He had enjoyed it as a story then, but not nearly as much when he read it long after creating Dancing on the Brink of the World for the San Francisco Airport.  He could see why I saw what I did in his imagery.  He is even now surprised, in retrospect, that he did not make any of those associations at the time.  “You can say,” he told me near the end of our highly enjoyable conversation, “that I now find it quite remarkable that I was not aware of any of those associations at the time.”  He seems to work free of specific associations so as to make viewers free to make associations of their own, therefore occasionally surprising even himself in what he sees in what he has done.  I am very grateful he invited me to give him a call.

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Airport Whale Ship

New entry begun at San Francisco airport, August 30, 11:00 am

Whale ship mural seen from my working desk in Terminal 1 of San Francisco Airport

Whale ship mural seen from my working desk in Terminal 1 of San Francisco Airport

I was proofing Emily Hyberger’s Kedger Piece from my Fall 2003 Douglass and Melville class when I glanced across the corridor of Terminal 1 (I am writing on a table at Max’s Eatz and Fresh Bakery) and saw what looked like a whale ship in some kind of collaged mural directly across from my table.  The ship reminded me of some of the ones Tony de los Reyes had painted (and smeared over with red bister) in the Moby-Dick show I had seen in Santa Barbara a few years ago.  I took a photo of the ship before I went back to editing, taking care to show the edge of the table at which I am working in the foreground.  I also waited until some people were walking by to give a sense of scale.

Just now, after editing the two-page spread for Camilla Asplen’s Moby-Dick Cookbook from my Spring 2004 class in Moby-Dick & the Arts, I looked up and saw the White Whale, Moby Dick, in the lower left corner of that collage across from my table.  The whale was facing in the direction of the ship.  In his presence, the water now seemed to be filled with the wreckage of whaleboats, including harpoons pointing in the direction of the whale.  These reminded me of the corrosive harpoon embedded in the flesh of the old bull whale who is tortured, before being killed, in chapter 81 of Moby-Dick (“The Pequod meets the Virgin”).  The artist clearly knew Moby-Dick very well, something you can also see in the long horizontal extension of this collage to the immediate right of the whale ship, whose whale-like shapes are not only suggested in the water beneath the city of San Francisco and the tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, but in the huge, elongated blue whale shape anchoring the shoreline of the city itself (see photo at top of this entry).

White Whale in lower left corner of San Francisco Airport mural

White Whale in lower left corner of San Francisco Airport mural

I had first seen the white whale while a woman talking on her cell phone had her suitcase sitting in front of it.  I gestured, and she kindly moved it without any break in her phone call, glad to hear afterward the story of the mural next to her.  The label mounted near Gate 25 of Terminal 1 indicated that the artist was Tony Berlant and the title of the artwork was Dancing on the Brink of the World.  Berlant had created this work “with found metal on wood with brads.”  The work had been commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Airport Commission and completed in 1986-87 (the years in which Frank Stella was creating the first metallic reliefs in his Moby-Dick series).  Berlant was born in 1941, three years before I was, and I had never heard of him or his work during the two decades in which I have been pursuing Moby-Dick art.  How wonderful to see this work by accident, as I was waiting for my plane to Phoenix, while working on a catalog of Moby-Dick artwork by my students in Northern Kentucky.

You can see the edges of the found metal and the heads of the brads very clearly when you are up close to Berlant’s work.  Similarly, you can see the edges of the fragments of the broken plate from which Emily Hyberger had created her Kedger Piece for my class in Douglass and Melville in 2003.  From this broken plate she had assembled a seascape whose black whale ship is sailing through a dark sea whose choppy waves also suggest the shapes of whales.  The white edges of the whale-ship shape clearly show the dividing line between the pristine white of the original plate shape and the black that had been painted over its inner suface before Emily had broken it to make something of its found pieces.

Emily Hyberger presenting her Kedger Piece to the class in December 2003

Emily Hyberger presenting her Kedger Piece to the class in December 2003

Emily explained in her artist statement that “one of the pieces had some white showing that looked like a whale’s tail, and I went with it.  I made a white whale right behind the ship, like it was following it.  It wasn’t planned, but I really liked the finished product.  It made me think of the chapter in Moby-Dick . . . where Melville talks about the whale’s tail coming out of the water, pointing toward the heavens.”  The heavens in the night sky of Emily’s Kedger Piece, painted on wood, include “the consellation for Cetus, the whale.”

Heading Home

Entry written at San Francisco airport, August 30, 10:05 am

Yesterday I walked to Peete’s Coffee Shop at College and Alcatraz in Berkeley hoping I could find somebody who could help me find the incoming email messages on my iPhone. Somehow, I was only able to activate the “Entire Mailbox” mode.  Some guy, very busy passing confidential messages on his cell phone, kindly took a moment to explain that all I had to do was to press the “Received” bar on the screen to reclassify all 4000 messages in my machine in chronological order.  I was so happy he did this.  First, I learned that one of my recent graduate students who had undergone open-heart surgery had now recovered enough to begin sending email messages again.  Second, I heard from Kimberly that she and Ingrid had “set” the program for the Dickinson Valentine’s recital.  In addition to the 12 songs by Copland and the 5 by Heggie, they would be singing three by Andre Pevin.  I can’t imagine anything more delightful to look forward to.

My visit with my aunt ended well.  We had a long talk in her enclosed garden after she had watered the plants.  I can’t get over the beauty of her roses and dahlias.  This morning the creamy yellow roses were again resplendent at least an hour before the morning sun touched them directly.  The morning light was cutting across the tops of two tall cypresses and flooding the stuccoed facade of a neighbor’s house above and beyond the garden.  The sharp light high above the orange dahlias rising tall through the loaded branches of Afton’s espaliered apple tree created a Florentine scene worthy of Cezanne’s geometries of space and light.  On to Phoenix in about an hour.  On the plane, free time to proof a little more of Emma Rose’s spreads for the Moby catalog.

Afton’s creamy yellow roses still in shade on morning of August 30

Afton’s creamy yellow roses still in shade on morning of August 30

Newer Every Day

New entry later in the day on August 28

The larger context for the Dickinson song recital is the exhibition of Emily Dickinson art by my students at NKU that I am co-curating with my recent Moby-Dick student Emma Rose Thompson from January – May 2015 in the Eva G. Farris Reading Room of the W. Frank Steely Library at NKU.  The Valentine’s Weekend festivities will provide a showcase for the student artwork and the students who created it. In addition to the recital of Dickinson songs (in the Greaves Concert Hall nearby) we will have a Marathon Reading of Dickinson’s 1775 poems in the exhibition space itself, beginning on the Friday morning and ending on the Saturday afternoon.  I have never conducted a Marathon Reading of Dickinson before, but Cindy Dickinson, the program director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, tells me that it takes 14 to 15 hours.  The Friday night concert will punctuate the two-day reading of the poems.  The conclusion of the Marathon on Saturday afternoon will be followed by a panel discussion featuring the student artists and an Emily Dickinson Tea Party.

Kimberly Gelbwasser, soprano

Kimberly Gelbwasser, soprano

The reason I am writing about this in Oakland today is that yesterday I got an email from Kimberly with some very exciting news.  She and Ingrid have decided to perform as part of their February recital the full set of five new Emily Dickinson songs by Jake Heggie that had its world premiere two weeks ago.  Heggie wrote the songs for soprano Kiri Te Kanawa.  He performed them with her at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago on August 12.  Jake, knowing of my interest in Dickinson as well as Melville, had told me of the Chicago performance in advance.  I would have loved to go hear it, but I was so busy with the whale ship voyage and its aftermath that I could not make it.

I knew that Kimberly and Ingrid would be considering some of the earlier songs that Heggie had set to Dickinson poems, so I emailed Jake to see if the score for the five new songs was available in a form in which Kimberly and Ingrid could study them as possibilities for their February recital.  He sent a PDF of the five songs that I could share with them.  This new song cycle is called Newer Every Day, from a Dickinson quote at the beginning of the score: “We turn not older with the years, but newer every day.”  Heggie’s new songs are set to these five poems (to which I’ve added in parentheses the numbers from the Johnson edition of the Complete Poems):

Silence is all we dread (J 1251)

I’m Nobody!  Who are you? (J 288)

Fame is a bee (J 1763)

That I did always love (J 549)

Some say goodnight—at night (J 1769).

These songs differ greatly in subject, mood, and length—as we would expect from the range of Dickinson’s artistry magnified by the imagination of Heggie’s musicality.  The shortest is a setting of this four-line poem “Fame is a bee. / It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.”  The song that first caught my attention when scanning the score is number 4, “That I did always love.”  This love poem would be perfect for our Valentine’s celebration.  Its subject goes well with that of my favorite Dickinson song, Heggie’s “As well as Jesus” (from his Faces of Love cycle).

Beginning of Heggie’s “That I did always love” (J. 549)

Beginning of Heggie’s “That I did always love” (J. 549)

I would have been thrilled if Kimberly and Ingrid had chosen even one of the Newer Every Day songs to perform.  To hear all five at once will be a real treat.  Kimberly had told me the day before I left for California that she and Ingrid had decided to perform all 12 of the songs that Aaron Copland had set to Dickinson poems in 1951.  I have gotten to know and love each one in the two classes I have now taught in Dickinson and the Arts, but I have never heard the whole set in person.  I can’t imagine a better anchor for a full recital of music set to her poetry.

I had not expected to hear anything new about the musical program while I was in California.  But on Monday, the night before my flight, I got an email from composer Doug Pew, a composer who teaches part-time at NKU.  He forwarded an online article by Janelle Gelfend, music critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer, announcing that Heggie’s Great Scott, his current opera-in-progress, had just been chosen for a ten-day Opera Fusion workshop hosted by Cincinnati Opera and the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.  The opera, for which playwright Terrrence McNally is the librettist, has been commissioned by the Dallas Opera for a Fall 2015 premiere.

Before getting on the plane I had forwarded this information to Kimberly, wondering if there would be any possibility, while Heggie is in town for the workshop, for him to meet her and maybe even to coach her on one or more of his songs, if she and Ingrid should decide to perform one or more of them.  It was in her response to that email that I learned, after arriving here in Oakland, that she and Ingrid had already decided to perform his entire set of five new songs.

I had already had Dickinson very much on my mind before boarding the plane.  Emma Rose and I had finished much of our work on the catalog for the exhibition of Moby-Dick art in April 2015 and were now beginning to think about the layout of the catalog to accompany the Dickinson exhibition and related events in February.  As with the Moby catalog, Emma Rose will be designing the Dickinson catalog with the InDesign program in an 8 x 10 landscape format to be published on high quality paper by Blurb.com.  Each student will receive at least a two-age spread in which a reproduction of the artwork itself is accompanied by a short bio of the student, my photo of the student presenting the artwork to the class, and the student’s artist statement.  All of the artworks were photographed by photography major Emily Wiethorn last Spring, and I have an archive of nearly all the presentation photos and artist statements going back to the earliest work in the show, from 1999.

Before leaving for California, I gave Emma Rose a Word document including all of the ingredients she would need for the student artists in our first two categories, Quilts and Portraits.  This would give her plenty to do while I was gone, and I could then supply the rest of the material soon after returning.  Some of the artist statements I have not looked at for 10 or 15 years.  It was very exciting to read them.  Of course I have a special appreciation since I have been present at the unveiling of each of the 40 works by the 39 artists in the show.  I am hoping that all who see the exhibition, and experience our Valentine’s weekend, will be equally impressed with what these students have achieved.

Detail, Dickinson quilt by Stacey Barnes, Spring 2012

Stacey Barnes, Emily’s Garden, for Spring 2012 class in Emily Dickinson and Henry James

Quite a bit had happened with regard to the Moby-Dick artists I am deploying for Covington in 2015 and Cincinnati in 2016, but I will save these developments for a later entry.  Now it’s back to another cool morning here in Oakland.  I expect that gray overlay from the morning fog will have burned away by the time Afton and I go for lunch at her favorite inland restaurant, Le Bateau Ivre on Telegraph Avenue.

Part 1. Looking Ahead to 2015

New blog begun in Oakland, California, August 28, 2014, 7:15 am

It’s great to have the Whale Ship blog behind me.  It was more interesting to write, and more wide-ranging in scope, than I had expected.  At the end of that blog, earlier this month, I left open the possibility of beginning a new blog to follow up on plans for 2015 and 2016 that were in the works, but I had not expected to begin a new blog as early as today.  I am on sabbatical from my teaching for the new academic year that began at Northern Kentucky University last week, so I chose this week for a trip to see my aunt in California and my sister and brother-in-law in Phoenix before plunging into my fall sabbatical projects.

It’s beautiful Bay Area weather here in Oakland, 70s in the day, 50s at night.  My Aunt Afton lives in Oakland near the border with Berkeley, in a Spanish-style house with a lovely enclosed garden in the back.  She is my mother’s younger sister.  She and my sister Carol and I are the end of the Woolley family line. That line goes back through my grandfather Jack, Afton’s father, to Hiram C. Kimball, one of founders of the Mormon religion on the trek to Salt Lake City. Afton is in her late eighties and is living alone.  She still drives on daylight errands, and when we went to Whole Foods to stock up on supplies when I arrived on Tuesday, she not only drove the car but pushed the cart.  Yesterday we had our traditional lunch at Skates on the Bay, an amazing restaurant looking straight out at the Golden Gate.  She had Crab Louie, as always, and I had something that took me straight back to my Puget Sound roots, steelhead salmon.

Afton in her garden, August 2014

Afton in her garden, August 2014

This is essentially a family vacation, so I did not bring much work along.  But enough has happened in the last two weeks to merit the beginning of this blog.  My scholarly sabbatical project is the book I am writing on Frederick Douglass in Cincinnati in the 1850s, a fascinating and compelling project I had to put partially on hold over the summer while preparing for the whale ship voyage, mounting the exhibition The Art of Seeing Whales, and then completing the book-length blog about those and related activities.  The Douglass project came back into focus shortly before leaving for California when I received the final proofs of my article on J. P. Ball’s 1853 daguerreotype of three Cincinnati abolitionists forthcoming in the July-September issue of the Daguerreian Society Quarterly.  The article proofs looked great, but they included a study photo I had taken from Frederick Douglass’ Paper that was far inferior to the image I had consulted at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts a year and a half ago.  On short notice, the AAS kindly gave permission for us to use their image.  The new issue of the DSQ will be distributed to members of the Society in advance of its annual meeting in in New Orleans soon after Labor Day.

WHS Image ID 2248 for DSQ

J. P. Ball’s Daguerreotype of three Cincinnati abolitionists forthcoming in DSQ

Because I will be on sabbatical leave this year, I made it a point to attend the Convocation of the College of Arts and Sciences conducted by our new dean Katherine Frank on August 14 as well as the University Convocation conducted by our third-year president Geoff Mearns on August 15.  I also made sure to attend the reception for new faculty sponsored by the Board of the Friends of Steely Library, of which I am a member, on August 14.  One of our new faculty is soprano Kimberly Gelbwasser, who was singing and teaching last year at Eastern New Mexico University.  I am thankful that she and pianist Ingrid Keller have agreed to perform a full recital of songs set to poems by Emily Dickinson as the centerpiece of the Valentine’s weekend Dickinson Fest I am organizing for February 13 and 14, 2015.  One special development in relation to that recital is what has caused me to begin this blog here in Oakland this weekend.