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The Perfection of Pasadena

Last March in La Jolla, I met a woman from Edinburgh who raved about the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.Always interested in exploring new venues, I pushed for more details. Years ago, we had risen at 4:30, boarded a van and in those wee hours had trundled to our seats for the New Years Day Rose Parade. When the crowd dispersed after the splendiferous floats, we looked for our pickup on the emptied streets, taking in storefronts, lanes, less than ordinary streets. But my new acquaintance’s expressions of awe about Pasadena had impressed and so I decided we should go.

From the renovated Roaring Twenties boutique hotel still in the state of renovation to a Thomas Keller inspired meal to the supreme museums , Norton Simon and Huntington, this was a dream visit to Pasadena that overturned our initial notions of a rather dreary city from many years ago.

Truthfully, driving from San Diego towards LA is a pain, and almost makes me regret the decision, thinking the speedy little train that runs along the idyllic coast would have improved my mood, but then navigating from train to hotel, to museums would have been a chore so we have no choice but to be stuck in traffic, moving very very slowly. Yet I had checked that Norton Simon only opened at noon so we had actually planned for a later start.

Because my background is art history, I often complain that people do not really look at the paintings, reading the descriptions at the side, and besides my training provides me a way to look at a work and explain it to my husband, pretty close to the audio narration. However, we decide to take advantage of the audio guide as a way to investigate the collection’s highlights. Although explanations appear to last roughly 3-5 minutes, I with a Masters in Art History and years of study , learn something new!about every piece before which I stood. Apparently the entire guide takes about 4 hours, we stayed for 21/2.

True to my subverting nature, I begin the tour at the end, rather than the beginning, my eye caught by 19th Century Masters, intrigued and pulled towards familiar works from textbooks. Bernard’s wooden cupboard decorated with Breton women, then abstract shapes in Vuillard’s little piece of women lead towards Van Gogh’s colourful renditions of trees, his mother, reminding me of his “ unique” colour systems, heavily impasto strokes and wild genius. Nearby are Gauguin’s painting of Tahitian locals in missionary garb, looking directly at us. Degas’ attempts to get right the legs of his dancers along with the his wax cast sculpture that have the power to freeze me on the spot, remembering the discussion of the adolescent girls as young prostitutes pushed by their poverty into the arms of patrons. I observe the tipped head of the pubescent dancer much like a young race horse contemplated for its fine lines.

A thundering Manet of a rag picker recalls for me the genius man who initiates modern art, he forgoing a realistic background, erasing its depth in a silvery backdrop, the words of his friend Baudelaire in his head, influences of Velasquez in his heart. Reading the brochure later, I’m saddened to see I’ve missed the Goyas and Ingres, those timeless prints and paintings forever etched in my head from university art study.

Because the guide is so good, we give ourselves over to it, proceeding slowly on the hard floors, sitting when we can. At the very end of the hall, past Giacometti’s stretched soul, colourful and monotone Picasso’s, an enormous Sam Francis beckons. Maybe it’s his use of globs of blue and blacks, open wide spaces that float across the canvas.They attract me beyond the light- filled precision of Northern Renaissance masters or the exuberant physicality of the High Renaissance, or even the clever transformations of Braque and Picasso that eventually lead me on to these abstractions by painters like Frankenthaler, Klein , Pollock and the more lyrical Francis. For me, it is the craft of application of paint that suggests the abstract artist’s knowing along side his realist comrades of the underpinnings of shape, form, colour, line, perspective but choosing to go directly to your soul and heart, eschewing the usual human or landscape representations that evoke your pity, joy, intelligence, the predecessors commandeering the old tricks of the trade: such as figure placement in triangles, the Golden Rectangle, meaningful eye glances, etc. With a focus on the media that artists use, the most brilliant artists go directly for your gut , your emotions, wringing from you angst or sublime happiness, a wicked dab of blue hitting a glob of red just in the right way so the white that conjoins them leaves you a space to catch your breath.

There are stupendous Rembrandts here at three points in his career. The guide again providing more for reflection too: that the portrait of the boy is unlikely his son Titus, ( wrong age ); that the canvas may have been cut. ; that the fuzzy thing on the boy’s shoulder could be an homage to Rembrandt’s recently departed monkey. The colour modelling and self- probing expression of the faces on his portraits as well demonstrate even to the ingenue how extraordinary a master Rembrandt was/ is.

There is so much here, but the guide, truly deepens the experience.The sculpture garden based on Monet’s at Giverny’s in France although not an exact replica does replicate the water lilies gently floating there. Glimpsing the oversized powerful Maillol sculptures of women makes you pause and gasp. And you have never truly looked at a Henry Moore until you realize how his shapes based on bones and natural forms , for example, are echoed in Nature until you observe them here. Set among lavender, hermercallis, germander, bay figs, silk floss trees, tulip tree and lemon- scented gum groves( to only name a few), the marriage of form and setting is unspeakably sublime. Especially when the sun touches both hard and soft surfaces, illuminating deeply while obscuring them. And have I almost forgotten Rodin’s Burghers of Calais at the entrance, their intensity framing your approach as they, heavily hewn from rock, intent on their path move away from the building.You in.

The Huntington is no less an excursion into the fantastic. At the Library Exhibition Hall, you are confronted with the Gutenberg Bible, a milestone in world history, the 15th Century oeuvre that initiated the spread of literacy. Nearby are Shakespeare’s plays, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a note from Abraham Lincoln along with Susan B. Anthony’s legal defence for voting illegally. It is overwhelming and simultaneously humbling to stand before these benchmarks. I enquire if these are perhaps facsimiles , for years prior, having dragged my family to Chantilly to view Les Riches Heures de Duc du Berry , I was disturbed to learn the originals were kept under tight lock and key, away from the eyes of hungry tourists. But these at the Huntington are the real deal!

The American Gallery reminds me of the Isabella Stewart in Boston with the marriage of furniture and paintings. Here we find quilts, tables, spinning wheels and early portraits. Having just finished Cernow’s Hamilton, I am fascinated with three separate paintings of George Washington. Much as I would have expected, tall, unassuming, quietly intelligent and thoughtful. The Mary Cassatt as well displays a believable mother-child relationship , the push and pull evident in the faces of the pair.The European Gallery offers us free audio guides, but although descriptive, they are not as insightful as the ones at Norton Simon’s.

I too could pick out the contrasts of the famous Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence – although I did not know she died shortly after the painting of this portrait of tuberculosis. The Blue Boy is a stopping point, for he is beautiful, an icon, most recognizable as a symbol of childhood, well! a wealthy doted upon one, albeit the incredible brushwork on his gleaming outfit perfectly suggesting both rich fabric and artistic talent by Thomas Gainsborough, the favourite accomplished portraitist in the 18th Century. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse is well explained by the guide as well , with a focus on the atypical colour choice of her brownish dress to highlight the whiteness of her skin and the Greek figures in the background, selected for their symbolism , erased, redrawn. Momentarily we stop at the 15 foot high stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, not fully appreciative of William Morris and the Pre– Raphaelite resurrection here. With a collection of 400 paintings, 300 sculptures, 2500 objects of decorative art, 20,000 prints and drawings, this one single gallery housing European masters is a home for concentrated study, not a mere day ramble.

Before we head back to San Diego, we want to meander in the gardens. Wisely we have brought our readers so as to find a shady nook and rest among the beauty of this immense 207 acre estate.Although the Rose Garden wonderfully overwhelms in scent and fragrance, not to mention size, colour, variety and elegance of bloom, today we can only wander the perimeter as the pathways are blocked off. And although the Chinese Gardens are exactly and beautifully recalled as we remember them in Shanghai, it is the Japanese Gardens where we rest and read after pursuing the paths that treat us to small bridges overlooking iridescent fish and bonsai gardens. These 12 acres were renovated in 2011-12 with a new tea house by a Kyoto- based architect and craftsman. Situated on the slopes of a canyon, Japanese red pine, junipers, cycads, willows, wisteria and sweet olive trees bend and frame the restful scene. Fruit trees such as apricot, cherry and flowering camellias, azaleas, lilies, iris and lotus all coalesce in a storybook setting. Not surprisingly, we have been directed to this particular garden, time and again by previous besotted visitors.To augment the experience here, there is the historic five- roomed Japanese House that recreates the realm of an upperclass dwelling in the 19-20 th Century. Much of the structure crafted from Japanese woods that included persimmon, red pine and zelkova were also built in Japan and shipped to California in 1904. Complementing the construction are American- sourced woods.

There are subtropical, Australian, and desert gardens as well as a special botanical garden. But we must return to San Diego, our feet beginning to tire after more than five hours exploring gardens and galleries.

We planned to stop at Vaca in Costa Mesa adjacent to the Segerstrom auditorium. Their Paella Valenciana, a combination of chicken, scallops, chorizo, prawns, bomba rice, saffron aioli is exquisite and worth a visit. The previously night Bacchus Kitchen in Pasadena was likewise an anticipated fresh food delight, exactly as chef Thomas Keller might have expected in his pursuit of fresh ,local, simple foods where the delight resides in the produce itself. I order the crispy duck breast on chervil chive barley, orange- scented olives, sautéed green radishes, in rosemary oil. My husband chooses the New Zealand lamb that he proclaims is the best he has ever experienced, somehow not “ lamby.”. Handcut fries with homemade ketchup resemble no fry, even cooked in duck fat, that we have ever eaten, these so light, crispy and delicious. The absolute queen of fries, we agree.

And finally our boutique hotel Dusitd2 Hotel Constance, a renovated posh hotel from the roaring twenties its elegance renewed , its Art Nouveau spirals and curves charming: in ceiling decoration and hallways, bar banquettes and courtyard ( no wonder a movie company is pulling up as we depart for the Huntington). Refurbished with future plans for a gardentop swimming pool, self parking and a Cuban bakery to further enhance this luxurious stopover.

Fortunately the drive from Costa Mesa to San Diego is swift so we are back home at a reasonable hour, reflecting on the perfection of Pasadena.

Kusama and The Happening

A happening is a performance, event, or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. The term was first used by Allan Kaprow during the 1950’s to describe a range of art-related event or multiple events.( Wikipedia)

Not having booked for the Kusama event in the city, I joined the long lines that snaked around the corner of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in Toronto. Finally on my third try, I managed a ticket: interested in discovering the hype that was drawing thousands in persisting for hours in a line for daily rush tickets. I had read about Kusama, most articles focusing on her pumpkins, depression and withdrawal from society. So originally I did not have a sense of what Kusama’s art was about.

Whether the not usual attendees, particularly young folk, were just interested in joining lines or actually had a sense of Kusama ‘s installations, I do not know but about 70% of my fellow participants looked to be between 20-40, young, hip, a number with baby strollers, intent on garnering same day entrance.

Kusama’s six rooms are a mix of Alice in Wonderland and the Happenings of the 60’s, where one, (at least a Baby Boomer!), almost expects Alan Ginsberg to be reciting poetry outside the doors or a sardonic sage Andy Warhol stuck in a clutter of bell- bottomed followers lolling outside the space that becomes your own for 20-30 seconds. For the set up of Kusama’s show, for this “ happening” , the viewer follows a path and patiently waits for their own personal entry into each of the six rooms.

Beginning with the weakest room, Kosama declares that she had used her fear of sex to create an environment of soft red and white stuffed phalluses. This room is entitled Phalli’s Room and it is like standing in a garden of drooping, sad little red and white cacti, rendered harmless by their cuddly shape and decorated dotted surfaces. Yawn. Interestingly, these misshapen penises lose their identification as sexual warriors ready to attack. In stead they might decorate a mirror in a teenager’s room or be thrown by toddlers at one another amidst their other stuffed toys. Kusama appears to have overcome her fear through subjugating and transforming the texture and shape of the phalluses, rendering them impotent. I recall the work of the Surrealists such as Magritte, de Chirico, Dali who also played this game, trivializing nightmares, fantasies and neuroses through shape, size and context in their art.

The next rooms combine light and mirrors to provide that sense of infinity with which Kosama is associated. In “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” , her arrangements of refracted lights change from green to pink to red and you might just be caught in a kaleidoscope of fascinating glittering shapes. The end of eternity for me was fantastic, generating awe. As if on a ledge overlooking the scene ( my husband said one took on the persona of an alien from outer space), you are privy to all the fantastic shimmering lights of the world, dazzling, radiant, a subdued and changing colour spectrum . It reminded me of continual fireworks that rather than bursting above, continue to gleam from beneath your feet, engulfing and surrounding you as if you DO stand at the very edge of the world.

In stead of the lights I associate with the cast of a city emerging atop a river or lake generating an implosion or inner explosion , the scene feels calm, magical, wondrous and overpowering as Alice might have as she shape shifted. If this is the end of the world and eternity, it is a last mesmerizing grasp of beauty, somehow satisfying and ironically reassuring because of glittering golds and navy blues intermingled with the soft tingle of a radiant colour pallet, regally reminiscent of the Hiroshima Memorials to the victims of war. With dangling rectangular lights emerging from the backdrop of smaller illuminating gold and orange lights, momentarily the box within which you stand for your 20 seconds goes dark : no doubt to signal the absolute end, yet you’ve seen the demise of eternity in its magnificent glory of refracted light and steadfastly believe it will return- which it does. Or perhaps you are sated and ready to end your life with this final burst of beauty. So ironically again, you do not accept the darkness as the absolute end, only a pause in the beauty that has warmed and engulfed you.

In the following box ,” Love Forever,” you become a voyeur and through a window observe more of those fascinating lights now arranged in colourful hexagons, approximating the dizzying effect of love. From a darker beaming floor, a performer might commandeer your attention in Las Vegas to the streaming visual shower of neon sparkles on the ceiling as you can fix your gaze at your sweetheart through the two windows at either side of the box, peering as a voyeur might at your heart’s desire. In truth, it faithfully approximates that flash of magic one experiences when they catch sudden sight of their beloved. Hot pinks, lush reds , happy greens flood over the lights that continually change until all the colours converge and dazzle, creating both a confusion of depth, space and flatness, an illuminated walkway towards your beloved glimpsed and observable in the peeking windows. Being with my hubby of almost 45 years , this was my favourite. He is enclosed in the window for my eyes only, and I his in “Love Forever” in the midst of gorgeous lights that radiate into our own eternity.

Similarly,” The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” is as well a panorama of a non ending sea of lights, most concentrated at a horizontally plane, some greens and blue, a city scale at midnight when every street light, shop light, house light is turned on, dancing against the velvety black of a night sky, but many small bright iridescent accents also shout out too in a created sky. This recalled for me the Yad Vashem Children’s Garden in Israel of the rising and descending spiral of individual candles/ lights against the darkness, both a cry out to an enduring presence but terrible disappearance of tiny flickering souls.

You have followed Kosama’s little path into this incredible place of beauty where the opposition of loss and presence combine, signalling the yin and yang of life: forever and nowhere; destruction and beauty; light and absence. And with these juxtapositions, you enter your own interaction with the mysterious, incomprehensible ebb and flow of what it means to be human- and the loss of that.

To ensure no iPhone pictures, an attendant accompanies you into “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins”, the final box. And as the pink phalluses, this is a static composition full of interesting immobile shapes transforming a memory of homegrown gourds into a tactile form. So as we began our journey with soft art creations reminiscent of Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine( think of the former’s huge hamburger) and her artist friends in the 60’s so we come full circle back from our lightfilled experiences.

We return to Alice’s world in a place of polka dotted stickers, chairs and tables covered with those dots applied by the participants. It is an exhibit of the visitors- making as are the best kind of artscapes wherein it is is personalized and made meaningful by the viewers’ own minds and bodies: the artist providing you the props, the means to internalize and come to grips with the elements proffered, participants organizing and making meaning through memory or suggestion -as most will by recalling an explosion of fireworks, a sudden burst or closing off of light.

The gallery has given you a set path through which you follow and enter into the rooms, but no one controls your response to what you see or feel. The arrangement of horizontals, mirrors, rectangles guides your reaction because we are programmed to think of clustered horizontal arrangements as sky or lake, the directionality of these surfaces imprinted by your own experiences of sky, land’s end, etc. or chaos wherein there is no pattern, organization or structure whatsoever . But Kusama’s intimations are merely beacons we need not accept in our personal realms, yet we do gravitate to the signposts in our experience as guiding our perceptions. That she approximates love as a kaleidoscope of colours to suggest emotions may be a common feature of love, that we cogitate that the end of eternity may be a cessation of all lights crashing from the ablaze of lights stimulates rational overlays from books, stories, our own acceptance of what we have experienced empirically. So she plays with our senses as notions of reality, subverting as she has done the phallic symbol from fear to friendly.

Although Kusama created many of these boxes in the 60’s, they are brilliantly refreshed, rendered new by the iPhone. Every person I noted entering was taking a selfie to extend and remember and record the experience, much as the infinite mirrors expanded the images bouncing from the originals. The viewer could now take the scene away, making it their own on their own mirror/ camera, they as the true subject of the exhibit, the happening, the light creations as backdrop to themselves.

Perhaps it is a sign of the times and obsession with selfies, that the younger audiences do not really come to see the art. Note how many of Van Gogh’s irises are mere decoration for a ridiculously grinning self portrait. These “new” happenings are self centred, the gaze turned inward, not out towards the works or even the world: light the most appropriate means to be used to satisfy this passion of the instantaneous, certainly a present day symbol. In the twist of this art as once a communal happening to a contemporary inner personal moment for self-aggrandizement, Kusama affords a dying yet endless vision, an evanescent one such as that caught momentarily on the iPad, that lasts a second, capturing the viewers’ fascination of themselves at a particular event, eyes turned towards superficial self, not a piercing glaze of insight.

At least Alice went down the hole in search of the white rabbit, meeting and confronting the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter, but here the spectator is both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber, searching not for another, but their own elusive Cheshire Cat smile. Yet pursuing the white rabbit does suggest a chase of the impossible or a dream, the white rabbit so curious, so strange that Alice cannot help following. Yet too, our sense of this exhibition is a happening that exists on multiple levels, the physical and the spiritual, enduring and singular; Kosama achieves this brilliantly.

The wait in long lumbering lines well worth the journey, a mocking Timothy Leary winking behind a light in eternity.

Road Trips, Habits and Such

Whenever I eat chocolate cake, I must wash it down with milk. Howard grimaces but recognizes with a guffaw that this is my habit: a pattern gleaned from my childhood. 

There are so many habits, customs, shtick, stories we bring from our pasts.

 On Mothers Day, Ariel was regaling my grandsons with stories from her own growing up days. As always, Erica the youngest, was the trickster. Ariel related how Erica in Montebuono, Italy would jump up and down on her bed screaming “Jolliflex, Jolliflex” and then dive beneath her covers at the approach of Howard’s or my footsteps on the stairs. Ariel reminded us of the demise of Pighead, a makeshift toy(?) made from a styrofoam cup that I finally threw out the window when Pighead had oinked one too many times and Erica raged for hours and hours grieving her “favourite” toy. We recalled her penchant to eat only chocolate and fries for almost three months during Howard’s sabbatical in Europe. We chuckled over the night secrecies of Jordan and Howard who scampered out at midnight to locate Chinese food in the narrow streets of Paris. In a tiny hotel on rue Dauphin, Ariel remembered the walls being so thin that she could overhear the conversations between the couple in the room next door :

“I’m so hot ( no air conditioning in Paris in the summer).”

“ So? Leave!”

 We reminisced about the numerous trips we shared with our children and their antics. Listening intently but convulsed with laughter, my seven year old grandson almost burst with merriment at the stories his aunt was weaving about the tricks and mischievous behaviours of her sibs. For me these tales were a reminder of our being together, often trapped in Citroens or Puegots for hours, discovering new gites, and castles.

 We, just a family, wandering on shady off –route highways through a carefully charted course: through a variety of areas in Paris, from Dordogne to Brittany, our path engineered around castles and the locations we had booked from pamphlets and brochures. There were castles and churches and art galleries and parks and tourist attractions. And for some crazy reason we had encouraged Jordan to jump the cordon in a castle where Leonardo da Vinci had slept ( apparently) so we could take his picture next to a Louis XIV bed, and the booming voice that shook the room, menacing, “De l’autre cote, si vous plait..”

 My son had an imaginary friends( Apple),and alter-egos ( Peter Ishnu, for one) and was a lovable, happy guy . He who cried bitterly to leave his friend in Toronto for the three month trip, weeped even harder to depart Europe. For me, the blazing glory of fields of swaying sunflowers in Arles as Van Gogh must seen them overwhelmed me. At Masion- Carree in Nimes, France built about 12BC and dedicated to Augustus Caesar’s adopted sons, Erica took to the temple’s stage to belt out her own rendition of “ Doctor, Doctor”. Bewildered watchers gathered to witness the irreverent sight.

 Our trip that year culminated in a stone farm house in Italy. Across the dusty road from us , Mrs. Joseph, the owner from New York lived or rather grandly and elegantly inhabited her space. She had brought an architect from Yale to build two houses, for herself and her son- who showed no interest at all so she rented his, the one where we were staying for a month .It was to be one  excruciating breathless summer, but obviously not worried about the extremities of the impact of heat on fragile perishables, the fabulous lady commissioned a huge cream cake for Ariel’s birthday. As well there was a cream-coloured crocheted top.

 I will never forget the scene of entering her house and witnessing a cache of people discussing Thomas Hardy to the whirr of humungous flies circling their heads, like miniature helicopters. To the barrage of scorpions that overwhelmed us that day, she calmly reminded us to make sure we shook out our shoes and socks every morning. Having addressed our query and enquiring if we would take tea or coffee, she continued her conversation on Hardy’s literary style and symbolism.

 The Red Brigade was rumoured to have their headquarters nearby in the mountains. We eagerly anticipated our suppers on Sundays in a castle, El Castillo, that offered the best and thinnest pizza ever. At the edge of Mrs. Joseph’s property, were horses that Erica liked to pet. She in particular was covered in bites so large that we might have been staying in some poverty-bound third world county. Lucia, Mrs. Joseph’s housekeeper, made us lasagna, but when we slammed the oven door so hard that the glass splintered on the ceramic floor ,we were without an oven for a week. In deed, it was so hot, (the Monsoon season, they demurred ) that summer that we were prostrate on the beds, fanning ourselves with books abandoned from former renters. When the water stopped running, we had to drive into Rome, for we did not comprehend Lucia’s impassioned explanation, “ Agua, adesso!”

 What did my children learn from these forays, what new habits did they form? Certainly Erica’s palette did not expand, nor did Jordan ever forgive my penchant to pinch those annoying me in the backseat or take action against “Pighead”. Nor did he develop a thirst to admire the stained glass of churches in lieu of the crack of a bat. Yet the sweetness of the Mrs. Joseph’s birthday cake has hovered in Ariel’s mouth forever, I believe. Did they develop a predilection for travel, secretly embracing new habits or developing new patterns? 

How can I know? We, as parents happily returned home, because “ home is the place…”, yet desirous for more adventures, again packing up our kids and hoping they would imbibe our passion, and into the new generation share their own special adventures with their own children




A-travelling: looking for home

I’m travelling from town to town…
one day I might settle down…
but you know I hanker to be free…
drifting is the only life for me…

My husband’s cousin, Harvey, is a professor at Yale. He teaches Russian. Harvey was born in Canada, but when he sings this little ditty, his words are softly slurred by an Eastern European accent and he gets a dreamy look in his eye. I had never heard this song before, but the words resonate:

A-drifting, the world is my home…

I understand Harvey’s lilting tune because I feel most at home away from home.
I’ve tried to contemplate when that wanderlust first began. Maybe, it was summer vacations when my family packed up the car and we drove across the States. Yet the smell of my carsick sister’s rangy stuffed dogs that she insisted on bringing pervades my memories and I know that was not the start.

More likely, it was the voyage to Europe on the British Empress with my socialist aunt and uncle when I turned 18. He, a World Federalist and she, a member of Voice of Women felt my education would be incomplete unless I toured old age homes in Sweden, the Tivoli in Copenhagen and department stores in Finland. It seemed somewhat ironic to cruise first class and dine at fine restaurants, but I hardly complained, taking in the sweetness of immense chocolate-dipped strawberries with the sour smells of mixed ages housing. My eccentric aunt’s itinerary included sculpture parks where we would wander for hours, exchanging insights on the solid sculpted bodies that lived amongst the greenery in Vigeland and the artists who had produced them.

But again, my reminiscences when I was barely out of adolescence are interrupted by memories of my prissy cousin who taletaled when I stayed out all night with the cabin boys. Naomi was a strange companion. I passionately loved my aunt, with her flaming red mouth and dyed jet-black hair that covered the bald spots, but my cousin was a lumpy snarling thing, inheriting my aunt’s squat figure and my uncle’s bookish introspection. Naomi resented my aunt’s mentorship of me. I recall the look of disgust on her face, standing on one side of a turnstile in some foreign place, clutching her purse to her chest, and me on the other side, entreating her to please, please, deposit a token in the slot so I could return to the hotel. She held me in her stare, hoping perhaps to make me disappear if she glared long and hard enough, forcing me to join some other family and leave hers in peace. But I met her gaze, imaging myself lost and homeless in dark alleys. Eventually she paid my way with a shrug as if to indicate that like some miserable charity case, I must, after all, be tended to.

My Aunt Marion‘s love of aesthetics most certainly played a role in my evolution. She was my Auntie Mame, hosting soirees for me alone as dazzled ingénue. She turned my father away at her door, but I was always welcome. Her invitations to me never ceased. She tempted me with strange and delicious treats, holding forth on topics as diverse as pastry-making, world peace and the disappearance of species of wild birds. Her intonation and knowledge seemed boundless and I drank it all in, traveling vicariously through her narratives that promised to go forever.

Returning from China, the Galapagos or Istanbul, she would issue forth special invitations to my family. We were to gather at her feet as she provided the context for specially chosen trinkets she had located in a remote village or market. Papier mache, tin or wood required an hour at least of her reverie on its provenance. I loved her in spite of the ramblings and the affectation duly noted by her brother, my father. He disliked the similarities between us, fearing I would adopt her high flaunting ways, odd dress and patronizing manner. She was the ambiguous art to his rational thinking. Her tone was disrespectful to him, mysterious and challenging and neither one could comprehend how they had been related by error of birth.

She encouraged my art, purchasing extravagant paints and books for me, never asking what I had accomplished. In truth, I did little, wasting valuable paint and opportunity. I doodled, covering all available surfaces with images of movie stars. Hardly an incipient Andy Warhol, I knew better than to share these bits of nothing with my family of logical thinkers who guffawed at my frivolity.

Eventually I stumbled into an actual art class and determined that I would see for myself the thousands of slides flashed on the screen, day after day, in darkened lecture halls. Mesmerized by sumptuous details, I poured over textbooks, wondering how the originals of famous pictures might differ from the black and white reproductions. I was intrigued by bizarre stories that surrounded both artisans and artists who laboured for patron and church. I would speculate by what foul deed fingers of saints had been delivered into gilded reliquaries and whether or not fragments of cherished saintly noses or toes were authentic? I dreamed of dark cloisters where talking was forbidden but hunchbacked monks laboured nightly over embossed Celtic letters. I ruminated over whether pattern books of approved designs had arrived by mule or penitent, smuggled from abbey to abbey along with casks of wine. I shivered as I imagined the voice of Vincent Price intoning Edgar Allan Poe’s poems: fitting backdrops to dimly lit caverns where nefarious deeds had occurred.
I marvelled at the artistry that rendered skies transparently clear and faces so exquisitely tortured that you could feel their hearts crying out from their birdlike rib cages. Were there deadly mysteries that entwined Franciscan and Benedictine monks in the capital letters of illuminated manuscripts? Nothing would prevent me from following the routes of the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Even if I had to do it on my knees! I hungered to pray beneath Giotto’s frescoes in Italy and taste the mangoes of Gauguin’s Tahiti. I was driven to see for myself, tickled by the lurking adventures projected on screens in those lecture halls. So far from the lives of my dodgy family.

I worked at three jobs: a girl from the city, who easily chose the wrong direction when two roads intersected; a girl so caught up in daydreams that she often forgot she had feet and landed in a heap on the ground, elbows and knees bruised and bleeding. I lived in my head, preferring the intoxicating beauty of things and the lure of strange places to the daily routines of everyday people. I surmised that artists had escaped their dreary lives through their art, fantasizing life at court, calling out for reforms for the poor, soaking up moments of sun-drenched perfection, envisioning a life different from their own. They were like cousin Harvey, always traveling, hankering to be free. In my quiet moments, I wondered, were they driven by aesthetics or just running away from home?

What was I seeking? Was I recreating the conversations I had shared with my eccentric aunt? Was I turning on my family’s conventional mores and snubbing my nose at my father, his tradition of hard work dissolved by the images of observant madonnas and plump cherubs? Their faces beamed at me, not scowling or inveighing that I was wasting my time and energy.
To stereotype my family as materialistic and bull-headed is hardly fair, for my father, much like an old time watchmaker deliberated in his shop, perfecting the circuits that would give rise to perfect pitch and melodious tone as he tinkered with amplifiers, speakers and tuners from which the richest of sounds of music soared. Amidst an untidy blur of parts and paraphernalia, he was the silent focused explorer, making his workbench the scene of adventures of the mind. Fixed, solitary, unmoving, concentrating, a stone sculpture, he posed, unaware he was transfixed.

Paintings bored my father. For him, visual aesthetics were trivial; for me, they were everything. Tonedeaf and rebellious, I scorned his focus, haughtily lauding my passion far beyond his. I continued to drift, further away from him who preferred the hard-headed logic of my science-obsessed sister, never able to untangle the cobwebs of wires that covered his table and our relationship.

A-drifting…I hunger to be free

I traveled to Chantilly to examine the Duke of Berry’s illuminated manuscripts, painted by the medieval Limbourg Brothers. My diversion concerned the eyelashes of peasants perhaps plucked to form microscopic brushes to paint individual blades of grass. Each jewel-like page gleamed with secrets that beckoned and taunted. Yet, when I discovered that only facsimiles were on view, the originals under lock and key in ancient libraries, I was disillusioned, put out, offended and I imagined the bespeckled pinched-faced guardians of the books, glaring down from locked towers, jeering at daughters like myself who chanced to believe they might be privileged to look on the work of Masters. I thought I glimpsed the ridicule of my father’s eyes beneath the heavy brows of a skyhigh gargoyle.

I moved on to the south of France where there were light-filled landscapes and detailed drawings of sudden nooks and hidden lanes. Songs like Starry, Starry Night that commemorated Van Gogh’s desire to create a Japan in the south of France called like a siren. A field of sunflowers. A fierce red bed tilted dangerously upward. Self-portraits. The journals. Letters to brother Theo: they also spoke of strained relationships. But I rationalized that my true quest centred on seeing where a misunderstood genius had risen and fallen. Perhaps witness, voyeur, but always a seeker, always on the move, wanting to understand more and look through the tormented eyes of artists.

In Amsterdam, I found the Dutch Masters. I didn’t much like his portraits of Rembrandt’s three voluptuous wives. Too much flesh and flabby thighs that reminded me of myself. I knew he had dislocated heads and rearranged bodies in his work to produce an effect, a twist of the spine, a glorified moment: a modern airbrushing or an assemblage of impossible parts that could not exist in nature. My sketches were weak, arms and legs unattractively protruding because of my lack of skill, not a desire to portray perfection. In the back of my head, my aunt’s encouragement wrestled with my father’s shaking head at his scowling child. Her smiling support to his frowning annoyance.

Sometimes I ran madly from floor to floor in art galleries, afraid I would miss a vital clue. Once at the Rijksmuseum, I lingered long and studied hard the faces before me. A meaningful look or a gesture opened up reverie that could last for hours. Often just the richness of a colour or a well-placed icon spoke of a culture, a time, a place documented in an artist’s work and I was partially sated for awhile as I escaped the time and space of my own family. In truth, I found few clues there.

I searched on, contemplating Rembrandt’s paintings that chronicled his aging. He seemed so in love with his own image. I lingered before those portraits, desirous of learning truths, but saw only an egotist fascinated by his own face. His secrets were safe from me. But, perhaps by capturing his youthful reflection in paint and prolonging an expression, he might deter the advance of time, providing him with more time to contemplate the issues that also ate away at his soul. I knew his haunting gazes had survived, the topic of lengthy dissertations and art store sales, bought by perplexed seekers like me, hoping to discover the right questions to unlock the mysteries that connected life and art.

I sensed my father’s stern eyes watching me. Like Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, I longed to be swept up and receive fatherly approval. As I trudged out from the museum, I found myself in a flowermarket, my dark thoughts given sudden reprieve by the bright colours of tulips and marigolds, saved from further introspection.

My knowledge of art history grew, informing me of processes, providing me with background, context and critique, but still my imagination intervened, plotting against my rationale brain, teasing and turning my thoughts away from the actual works of art and acceptance of family at home.

Travelling propelled me on. Galleries in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin called and I responded. Obsessed, driven, fixated I was: always plotting to rearrange my relationship with my father, rendering it somehow whole, and like a jigsaw puzzle make all the sharp pieces fit smoothly together, but I moved away- not towards him. Father back home was a few expressionistic scratches on someone else’s drawing pad that maybe, might one day become a recognizable picture, but for now, for me, he remained only an underpainting.

Eventually, I stopped my travels, settled down, got married, had kids. I dragged them to the golden churches and tantalizing museums in Europe, hoping to fire their imaginations. I lacked my fiery aunt’s panache, low-keyed to their wide- eyed but polite interest. Soon, I lost my fascination with dried paint, arguing with myself that it was only artifice, reproduction, replica, aesthetic frivolity. I turned my attention to the frames that surrounded the art and I noted the care and materials that were most often ignored and I recalled my father as ancient goldsmith, a fine jeweller who by his attention to detail, made it possible for sound to sing. He was the paint, the binder, the means through which art could be realized. He ensured the best processes and most recent technology kept music from becoming stagnant or out of date. His focussed examination, his passion for his art ensured the communication between music and its creators as on-going conversation, a living process that relied on his knowledge of both entities. He was, in his way, essential to art.

In my quiet moments beneath the stained glass of gothic cathedrals, I realized that I had been mesmerized by the talk of travel in my aunt’s transcendent aura. I had emulated her by dashing in and out of scenarios, judging, dismissing, holding court, searching for trinkets that could represent more. I came to realize that the lure of fantastic locales and the canvases of famous painters beckon us deeper into mysteries that are merely the keys to unlock secrets. It was not Aunt Marion’s fault, my father’s, or even mine, for that matter. We all inhabit our own universes, some collide, others just miss one another: it is the way of the world.

In the end, I had my trips, the searches, the images and maybe, that was enough. But maybe like Oz, travel was only an illusion.

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