Stuff And More Stuff (A Visit To The Mercer Museum)

One of my closest friends, Alan, lives in Paris, France, so we don’t get to see each other too often. My wife Sandy and I are crazy about him and his wife Martine. Wonderful people. Smart, gracious and, if the conditions are right, up for pretty much anything. Alan and I have been buddies for 50 years. We met at college in Vermont lo those many years ago. He and Martine were in the USA for a couple of weeks recently for family gatherings and to tour New England a bit, and they also visited Sandy and me for a few days. We all had a terrific time together.

The weather was hot while they were with us. By 10 AM each day the sun was kicking ass. Sandy and I had hoped to show Alan and Martine some beautiful outdoor sights in Philadelphia or its environs. Maybe Morris Arboretum. Maybe Longwood Gardens. Maybe Philly’s Old City section and its nearby Penn’s Landing waterfront. But we scratched all of those ideas off our list. None of us felt like dealing with the heat. Where to, then?

Doylestown's Mercer Museum.
Doylestown’s Mercer Museum.

I’ve written a number of times about Doylestown, PA, a fine village in Bucks County about 20 miles from Philadelphia. Doylestown was the home of Henry Chapman Mercer, a talented and brilliant chap with eclectic interests who lived from 1856 to 1930. He designed and constructed three large and unusual buildings in Doylestown, one of which, the Mercer Museum, fit the bill as an indoor destination for Sandy, me and our friends. On the first full day of Alan’s and Martine’s visit, that’s where we headed.

Henry Mercer was a traveler, an archaeologist, an outside-the-box thinker and a collector of myriad objects. He also was well-heeled, a circumstance that allowed him to indulge his passions and to live pretty much as he chose. The collecting bug bit him early in life and took hold very strongly in the 1890s when he saw the effects that industrialization was having on the American way. Before they would be entirely phased out and disappear, he decided to amass examples of the handmade objects that once were, and in some cases still were used in typical homes, in everyday trades, on farms and in workshops. The tools and household and recreational goods, in other words, that defined how folks lived in the 1700s through roughly 1850.

Mercer spent much time at junk dealers, auctions and country sales, and often for little money purchased an astonishing array of items, thousand and thousands of them. But where would he keep all of this stuff? No problem. The amazing Mercer designed a sprawling idiosyncratic castle of sorts to house his Americana collection. A small team of workers built the structure in just a few years. The Mercer Museum opened in 1916, and Henry immediately donated it and the stuff to the Bucks County Historical Society, which to this day owns and runs the operation.

I was pretty certain that Alan and Martine would like the Mercer Museum. It’s not well-known, why I don’t understand. But it is fascinating and maybe one of a kind. The building alone is worthy of examination, a concrete behemoth awash with windows and topped with a dizzying display of towers and chimneys and who-knows-whats. Mercer selected concrete as his primary construction material because he desired a fireproof enclosure for his collection, and it certainly seems as though he made the correct choice. To date, no flames.

A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.
A dory, a sleigh and much else, all suspended from the ceiling and arches in the atrium.

And the collection? “Incredible” is an understatement. Thirty thousand or more things to eyeball, many of which you’re not likely to encounter elsewhere. A well sweep (it drew water from wells in pre-pump days), a stagecoach, a hay rake with 24-inch-long teeth, components of a water power saw mill . . . not to mention smaller items such as tools used in hat making, tinsmithing, coopering, the healing arts, you get the idea. Mercer suspended some of the big boys (a dory and a whaleboat, for instance) and also some of the little guys from the ceiling and arches of the museum’s large central atrium, where the effect is hallucinatory. It takes long looks to figure out just what it is you’re looking at, despite the quite good signage. And Mercer apparently had a real sense of the whimsical, as chairs, chests, baby cribs and other artifacts I couldn’t easily identify dangle from the ceiling, often upside down.

The Hat Making room.
The Hat Making room.
High Wheeler bicycles "floating" above a stagecoach.
High Wheeler bicycles “floating” above a stagecoach.

Most of the tools and results of America’s myriad trades, thankfully I suppose, are much more neatly displayed. They are divided up, by occupational use or other categories, in rooms, alcoves and niches that surround the atrium on six different floor levels.

Brown is the color of the day at the Mercer Museum, since so many of the objects on display, especially the hefty ones, are made of wood. Alan and Martine and Sandy and I took our time in the Mercer forest, but after two hours started to run out of gas. Alan said the museum is one of the best he has ever been in, and I concur. This trip to Mercer was my third or fourth. A fellow visitor, whom I chatted up slightly while we both gazed at eight-foot-tall High Wheeler bicycles hanging from the ceiling above a western Concord stagecoach, got it right when she said that “[Henry Mercer] makes hoarders look good.”

A few suggestions to the interested. Go, definitely go to the Mercer Museum. But make the voyage on a sunny day, as there is a paucity of artificial light there. And skip the dead of winter. The museum is unheated.

As mentioned hundreds of words above, the day following the Mercer experience featured temperatures just as disagreeable as its predecessor’s. Once again, an indoor attraction it would have to be. Where? (To be continued)

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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The Michener Museum Shines Yet Again

James A. Michener Art Museum.
James A. Michener Art Museum.

One of the things I like about art shows is that they can surprise you (in a good way). It’s a gas when a museum or gallery curator comes up with a new slant or assembles a themed exhibition that makes you say “great idea!”  That’s part of the fun of going to places such as the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA. Not always, but often you can expect the unexpected there. Five years ago the Michener mounted a fascinating display of costumes worn by movie stars in famous movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather jacket from The Terminator was in the house. So was Elizabeth Taylor’s gown from A Place In The Sun. That show caught me off guard by its coolness and inventiveness. Its idea seemed obvious, but only after the fact.

A similar sense of forward thinking surrounds a current Michener exhibition, the long-titled Iron And Coal, Petroleum And Steel: Industrial Art From The Steidle Collection. The works on view have been borrowed from their permanent home in State College, PA. There they reside within Penn State University’s Earth And Mineral Sciences Museum And Art Gallery, another mouthful. Hats off to the Michener for knowing of the off-the-beaten-track Steidle collection’s existence and for smartly organizing the paintings and their messages.

Edward Steidle (1887-1977) was a mover and shaker for many years in the worlds of mineral and petroleum extraction and use. An engineer, teacher and college administrator, he was dean from 1928 to 1953 of Penn State’s College Of Earth And Mineral Sciences. He also collected art, much of which he commissioned, that depicted the earth industries in action. The students at Penn State’s earth and minerals school were surrounded by examples of ores and extraction implements in the school buildings. Steidle, to my mind somewhat of a visionary in this respect, wanted artistic representations of the same also to be on view at the university.

Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.
Bituminous Coal Tipple, painted by Louise Pershing in 1936.

Louise Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, from 1936, was the first work I grabbed onto at the Michener after quickly scanning the collection.  I loved its muted tones, the hulking mass of the tipple and of the hill in the foreground, the clouds of smoke issuing from all over the canvas, the lonely patch of green grass. Pershing mapped out her painting precisely and filled it with feeling.

 

Pershing’s oil painting represented a pretty good number of the ah-hah moments that I had in the Steidle galleries. What struck me first when I walked into the exhibit were the colors on the canvases. As with Pershing’s work, largely they were subdued or somber, the hues of earth and coal, of heavy equipment. As I walked around the galleries I noticed some other things. For one, nearly all the paintings were strongly designed and observant. Steidle had a good eye for art. Also, I was completely unfamiliar with the 40 or so artists in the show, excepting one or two. Post-Michener research confirmed that most of them had nice modest careers in their day but didn’t make it to the ladder of fame — only a few have garnered Wikipedia biographies. And I saw that a good number of the paintings were by women, not always the case on museum walls.

Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.
Miners In A Lift, painted by Henry Poor in 1947.

The Michener’s Steidle exhibition is a winner because it includes a boatload of works equal to Pershing’s Bituminous Coal Tipple, some maybe even better. Henry Poor’s Miners In A Lift, for example, which he painted in 1947. Five (or is it six?) coal miners are within the tight wooden cage, about to step outside the mine entrance, their shift over. Emerging from near-darkness into light, their eyes are hugely distended. The painting tells life stories, as the workers’ uneasiness about their dangerous occupation is on their faces. The confined framework of the painting brings power and immediacy to this work. It probably was my favorite at the Michener show.

The Steidle collection is said to be one of the best collections of industrial art in the USA. When these works were created, coal and steel were massively important industries in Pennsylvania and nationally. A few decades later they pretty much collapsed. The paintings are in that sense a time capsule of what once was. The historical aspect of the Michener show was presented clearly and didn’t make my eyes glaze over, the museum avoiding ponderous explanations on its informational placards. But, half-baked art aficionado that I am, I was more interested in the painterly aspects of the Steidle exhibit than in straight history.

Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.
Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press, painted by Rose Ann McGary in 1936.

Take, for instance, Rose Ann McGary’s Forging The Shaft: Hydraulic Forging Press. She painted this canvas in 1936. It shows workmen shaping red hot steel, and would have earned a thumbs up from the artist Fernand Léger and his fellow Cubism descendants. A carefully assembled construction of planes, cylinders and boxlike shapes, Forging The Shaft takes Cubism’s original color scheme of grays and browns and adds, just off-center, an explosion of pink. It is both a contained and dynamic painting.

The Steidle show closes on October 25. There’s still time to see it.

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Puck’s The Place (A Venue And Concert Review)

I’ve written several times on this blog about Doylestown, PA. In the extensive suburbs of Philadelphia, Doylestown is perhaps the prettiest, the most charming, the most interesting village. I’m referring not to Doylestown’s generic housing developments, but to its quite large historic district. This section is worth a visit, and for many people, such as my wife Sandy and me, multiple and regular hellos.

Puck's outstanding neon sign.
Puck’s outstanding neon sign.

You like art? Go to Doylestown’s high-quality Michener Museum. You like non-blockbuster movies? Try the County Theater. You like artifacts from America’s pre-Industrial Revolution past? The astonishing Mercer Museum was built for you. And if you are a popular music buff, the place to frequent in Doylestown is Puck, a spot with chic indoor and outdoor eating areas and, incongruously, a grungy cellar where singer-songwriters and rock and country and funk bands take the stage a few times each week.

I’ve been to Puck’s music room 15 or more times over the years. Puck’s management brings in a wide array of musicians, a few of whom are touring artists with decent-sized national followings. But generally the players at Puck are little-knowns from Greater Philadelphia. I once had a small career as a music presenter for a summer music series in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood (see my article The Music Biz And I). It was at Puck that I found several local acts (Cheers Elephant; Toy Soldiers; The John Byrne Band) who knocked my socks off and whom I ended up booking for the series.

What I like about Puck’s music room is its casual and boho vibes. Aside from the handsome bar, the space has been inspired by Frat House Finished Basement Magazine. The mottled floor could be mistaken for a Jackson Pollock painting. There are pillars that obstruct views of the stage. My kind of place.

As for the music, I tend to approach Puck with an open mind, with few expectations, and usually everything works out just fine. Many times I find the music to be good but nothing special. And sometimes, as with Cheers Elephant et al., I’m wowed. On a recent Saturday night, Sandy and I both were floored by Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders, the opening act of a double bill. I’d never heard of them, had little idea how they would be. What they were was tight and exciting, a country band in the classic mode, with some latter day tweakings. Anyone who favors Waylon Jennings, Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakum would find good fun with Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders. For me, their 45-minute set was 45 minutes too short.

Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders, as I’ve learned from post-concert research, is a Philadelphia area band just starting out. They are working on a maybe-soon-to-be-released EP. Their Puck engagement, much to my amazement, was their public debut. Lance Davis, the leader, apparently had a fairly long career as an engineer and producer and rock musician, but for various reasons put all of that on an extended hiatus a number of years ago. In 2014 he emerged from his musical hibernation with country tunes on his mind. As the band came together, Lance decided that each member needed a colorful stage name reminiscent of the kinds of names (Ernest Tubb, Buck Owens) that once populated the country charts. Voilà, Lance adopted Grady Hoss as his moniker. The others in the group were dubbed Bucky Vennerson (in real life, Vince Federici), Dusty Reigns (Dan O’Neil) and Earl Smokesman (Charlie Heim).

Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders on stage at Puck.
Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders on stage at Puck.

Lance and pals played nine songs at Puck, eight of them originals. The songs were good. Lance’s vocals were heartfelt, his high notes reverberating with longing or regret, as they should in tales drawn from country music’s traditional wellspring. Lance strummed an acoustic guitar all evening, his face half-hidden beneath a big Stetson hat, and The Sidewinders created a rich palette of sounds around him. I knew I was in for an evening of treats right from the opening moments of the opening song, Rivertown. The chuga-chuga Johnny Cash-like beats from Heim’s drums and O’Neil’s electric bass built a strong template. Federici’s guitar licks ignited and pushed. And guest pedal steel guitarist Dave Van Allen’s poignant statements were as Nashville as you can get.

Two head-nodding honky tonk numbers followed Rivertown. I didn’t catch their titles, but their themes were classic country: lost souls and drinking. “Lord, I don’t know where I’m going/But I just want to get there” came from the first, and “I’m going back to the bottle/Back out in the rain/Back to the girls I need to see” from its successor.

So, how were these guys able to sound so good in their first-ever club performance? I imagine it’s because they’ve practiced a whole lot, and because they have heaps of talent. I can see this band going places. They without doubt have the chops, the look and the laidback attitude. What they will need to make it, if indeed making it is part of their game plan, is a bunch more original songs. As I discovered at home a few days later, two of the eight originals that I heard at Puck predate GHATS. They come from a rock album, The Hovercraft Diaries, that Lance released nine years ago. Maybe Lance possesses much new countrified material that he didn’t reveal at Puck. If not, I hope that composing sessions are on his agenda. Grady Hoss And The Sidewinders are a band about which I’d be happy to say one day, “I saw them when . . .”

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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I Apologize For This Movie Review

There are quite a few reasons to visit the old village section of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Art (Michener Museum), music (Puck), historic curiosities (Mercer Museum), restaurants (too many to mention) all make Doylestown a worthy destination. And movies too, which are to be found at the County Theater.

Recently my wife and I drove with friends to Doylestown for dinner and a movie. Dinner took place at Chambers 19 Bistro & Bar. The four of us enjoyed our meals. It’s a good spot in the center of the old village. After dinner, around the corner we went to the County, which has been on site since 1938. The present theater is a reinvention of the earlier County, a  mainstream theater whose fortunes began to decline in the 1970s. Since the early ’90s the County has been a  two-screen art movie house, and has helped secure Doylestown’s status as a fine place.

Binoche and Stewart among the clouds
Binoche and Stewart among the clouds

The movie that we watched is Clouds Of Sils Maria, a hyper-wordy character-driven drama set mostly in Switzerland. Now, some people have a gift for understanding nearly every movie that they see. Film critics for sure, or so it would seem, and some laity too. I don’t have that gift. How many times has a movie (at theaters or on television) caused me to scratch my head intermittently? Oodles, thank you. Clouds is a challenge and makes me appreciate what professional critics do for a living. Dialogue and plot details fly by quickly in Clouds. If you aren’t in Sherlock Holmes’s league, plenty of both will elude you. Despite all of that, I think I came away with some understandings, in a broad sense if nothing else. And I wasn’t the only semi-lost soul. My wife and our friends weren’t certain about what they’d seen either. Each of us  recalled scenes differently, or maybe didn’t recall them at all. I believe that the writer and director, Olivier Assayas, would have beamed at our struggles, as I don’t doubt that he had in mind to create an open-sided movie elusive to pinning down.

Clouds Of Sils Maria revolves around the morphing relationships between a famous actress in mid-career, played by Juliette Binoche, and two far younger ladies. One is her personal assistant (played by Kristen Stewart) and the other is her co-star (played by Chloë Grace Moretz) in a play, a revival, being readied for the London stage. The play headed for revival is Maloja Snake, in which Binoche’s character, Maria Enders, had starred about 25 years earlier as a young woman involved professionally and apparently romantically with a much older lady. In the revival Enders has graduated to the older person’s role and fantasy/action movie star Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz) takes on the young lady. Enders’s personal assistant Valentine (Stewart) helps Enders prepare for the play, reading and discussing the script with her. But all is not easy or simple in Maloja Snakeland. For our three protagonists, real life and the stage play uncannily and surreally seem to intertwine. Where does reality lie? Art, after all, reflects life. Binoche, Stewart and Moretz do fine work in this dizzying stew, playing off one another with panache and believability.

Well, like one of my friends said after the movie, this one is not for everybody. Plot offshoots overstretch its length by at least 20 minutes. And getting back to those pesky details . . . This morning I read the New York Times review of the movie, which is where I learned that the younger woman in the play has a sexual thing going with the older. Was this actually mentioned in Clouds? I sure don’t remember hearing about it. Maybe the Times reviewer had been given a crib sheet by the film’s producers before he saw the movie. Maybe I’m just slow. Probably both. I could mention many other such puzzlers. But that’s enough.

Yet, you know, I liked Clouds Of Sils Maria. It made me think, usually a good thing. My ultimate take on the movie is that the Binoche and Stewart characters were emotionally close but not quite right for each other, and needed separation in order to move on with their lives. Separate they did, though the circumstances and motivations involved are ripe for long discussions. I’m betting that as years went on, Enders and Valentine ended up just fine. Not so sure about the quality of Ellis’s fate down the road, though.

If you are wowed by nuanced acting, beautiful scenery and swirling dialogue, I recommend Clouds Of Sils Maria to you. I also recommend that you read at least two reviews, other than my mediocre effort, before you head off to view it. I should have done some advance reading myself. The Times review will be helpful. The New Yorker’s too. Like me, Anthony Lane, The New Yorker critic, seems to be more than a bit unsure about what the heck was going on. Which makes me feel better about my own perceptual shortcomings.

Rocked By Rockwell Kent

On a fine and sunny recent weekday afternoon, my wife and I headed north to what has become a suburban oddity, a genuinely good-looking and thriving town, one not marred by poor design and too many nail salons and tattoo parlors. I speak of Doylestown, in somewhat bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Our mission was to survey the three new exhibits at the James A. Michener Art Museum. The Michener is a splendid place. Modern and comfortable and spacious, it holds a diverse permanent collection anchored by works of 19th and 20th century Pennsylvania Impressionist landscape painters. Best of all, the Michener itself curates, or brings in from other museums, many special exhibitions each year. To me, a lot of them are fascinating and well-done. I’m not hard to please. Sometimes.

The three Michener shows on our agenda were: Rodin: The Human Experience — Selections from the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Collections; Kate Breakey: Small Deaths; and The Artist in the Garden. The Rodin and Breakey exhibits are a-ok. Auguste Rodin was famous in his lifetime, which ended about 100 years ago, and is no less so today, for good reason. His bronze statues and modelings are something else, often wildly undulating. The Michener is loaded with them right now. The Breakey display is of her large, in-your-face photographs of birds and flowers. The birds are newly-deceased (not by Breakey’s hand), and the flowers are decaying. Breakey, whom I’d never heard of before, hand colors the photographs, creating powerful images and giving new life to her subjects.

Rockwell Kent in his late 30s
Rockwell Kent in his late 30s

But forget Rodin and Breakey. The visit to the Michener would have been worth it to me for one art work alone, the first one that caught my eye as I made my way into the exhibition halls. It is “Winter Sunrise, Whiteface Mountain,” an oil painting from 1952 by a favorite of mine, the should-be-more-famous Rockwell Kent. He painted the picture near his home in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This oil, part of The Artist in the Garden exhibit, is broadly angled and limited in its mostly-muted color choices. Half-bare trees run along the bottom of the canvas, sun-brightened mountain ridges dominate the middle, and a murky green sky looks down at everything below. The painting somehow captures nature in an elemental way, which is what many great paintings do. I stared at the Kent for quite a while. The information card next to the painting said that Rockwell thought of nature as one unending garden, or something or other like that, and that’s why the curators included this most non-garden-like painting of trees and mountains in the “Garden” show. Well, they’ve probably stretched the point really wide, but that’s fine with me. Otherwise I’d never have seen this work.

Rockwell Kent died in 1971 at age 88. He had been a fine art painter, a book and magazine illustrator, a political thinker and activist, a wilderness adventurer, a chronicler of his life and travels, a farmer. Yup, an all-around cool guy. In 1927 he designed the logo used to this day by Random House book publishers. He gained a lot of fame for his pen and ink drawings of a 1930 edition of Moby Dick.

A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)
A view of the ceiling at Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod (Photo by J. Kaufman)

In a small way, he has been a part of my life for almost 20 years, dating back to when I first set foot in the Cape Cinema, on Cape Cod. Cape Cinema is an art movie house, whose vaulted ceilings and walls, most incredibly, are dynamically covered by a mural portraying the heavens and its mythological residents. Rockwell designed the mural in 1930. He climbed scaffolding and painted some of the square footage himself, but he was smart (or otherwise occupied) and left most of that heavy lifting to his collaborator Jo Mielziner. Their labors resulted in gorgeous swaths of yellows, oranges, purples and blues. I’ve been to Cape Cinema many times, because my wife and I are Cape Cod lovers and also cinephiles. With each visit there, my connection to Kent, as it is, seems to renew. Is there another movie theater like this in the world? I doubt it.