Girl-Watching (A Philadelphia Museum Story)

It can take me forever to get around to tackling projects and situations, big or small. Half the time I never — and I mean never — place them in the completed bin. Hell, probably that’s the way a hefty percentage of us humans roll. I take comfort in believing that I’m far, far from being alone in excelling at procrastination.

Which is my four-sentence preface to announcing that I finally am getting around to knocking a certain something off my to-do list that has been sitting there for nearly two years. I began this blog in April 2015 and almost from the start had it in mind to write a story about La Salle University Art Museum, a little-known institution in Philadelphia on the cute campus of La Salle University. Man, my psychotherapist will be so proud of me for bringing this story idea to fruition. “Neil,” he said at our most recent session, “sometimes I think you enjoy being stuck in cement.” I pondered that for a second and then said, “You’re oh so right, Doctor Cortecks. And, believe it or not, my wife figured that out on the day we met. Which is why she nicknamed me Jimmy. As in Hoffa.” Doctor Cortecks liked that crack so much he waived the session fee.

Anyway, returning to reality, a week ago Tuesday, on a most unseasonably balmy afternoon, I decided that a visit to LSUAM was in order. I hadn’t been there in several years and was in the mood for staring at attractive objects. So, into my car I climbed and headed south from my suburban abode, pretty quickly reaching the nothing-special section of Philadelphia in which La Salle University occupies space and time.

img_1366As I mentioned, La Salle’s campus is cute. And as I walked through sections of it on my way to the museum I had my eyes open for cute girls, girl-watching being one of my fave activities despite my certified status as a semi-ancient geezer. Sadly, I saw only one or two, as the grounds were strangely low on people of either gender. But that was OK, because my plan was to check out the ladies at the art museum . . . those on display, that is. It seemed like not the worst idea in the world to take long looks at the paintings and sculptures of females, and to breeze past all the others. And that’s exactly what I did.

img_1370La Salle University Art Museum is tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building primarily filled with classrooms. The museum is small, seven or eight modestly-sized rooms and a couple of hallways, and its contents are quite good. Me, I like museums of this sort where you don’t have to spend half your life examining the wares. To art lovers in the Philadelphia region I recommend a visit. You’ll get to see beautiful stuff, from ancient times to the present, by famous folks (Tintoretto, the Renaissance great, for crying out loud; Jacob van Ruisdael; Henry Ossawa Tanner; Alex Katz) and lots of equally fine pieces by artists you’ve probably never heard of (click here to find the museum’s website).

I suppose I gazed upon 50 or 60 artworks depicting females. And as I gave some thought to my story theme afterwards, four of those depicted women tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I write a few words about them. I’m often eager to please, so I’ll take them up on it.

img_1379To begin, I was wowed by the natural charm and beauty of Father’s Return, painted around 1850 by Harriet Cany Peale, a Pennsylvanian. In the painting, two kids are excited as can be by the sight of their dad walking towards the homestead. He has been away on business or whatever, probably for several or more days. His wife, though, isn’t looking at him. Instead, her eyes are focused on and dripping with love for her young daughter held in her arms. Hey, hubby can wait! Peale swamped the painting with browns and muted greens. There’s nothing flashy except for the little girl’s orange dress and the mother’s bright lips. Amidst all of that, though, it was the mother’s eyes, nothing more than large, dark dots, that I found myself drawn to. They say a lot.

img_1384The lady featured in Maria Brooks’ The Letter shows us a gaze of another sort. Brooks, a Brit, painted her in 1884.  As the story goes, the woman in question has just read a letter from her seafaring sweetheart. And she misses him plenty, as the aching numbness in her eyes makes most clear. This to me is a really lovely painting. Its tight framing, the limited choice of colors, the way the letter reader’s faintly pink skin melds into her surroundings, are parts of an excellent balancing act. The picture made me feel kind of wistful, which is what I’m sure Brooks meant it to do.

Gazes, eyes and lips . . . we’ll wind up these proceedings with some more comments about them, because I was struck by similarities between two works, a painting from about 1930 by the American modernist Alfred Maurer, and a small wooden sculpture made at an unknown point during the 1900s by an uncredited artist in Africa’s Ivory Coast.

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Maurer’s oil, titled Woman In A Window, is heavily in debt to Cubism, the fractured take on things pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s. Sure, this lady ain’t about to win any beauty contests, but I found her loveable. She’s a happy individual. Just look at those big, smiling eyes and the lips giving out an ooh. I’m going to guess that she’s looking through the window at a fun event, maybe a parade, maybe a bunch of children playing games. And, in my view anyway, the window lady has a close relative at the museum, a sister. Needless to say that’s the woman of the African sculpture, who displays not quite but almost the same expressions as Maurer’s heroine. I saw amazement in her eyes and wonder on her lips. She’s not showing her inner feelings as much as Maurer’s gazer, but she is no less enthralled by whatever it is she’s looking at.

Well, there’s plenty to be said for spending time with works of art. They are open to all sorts of interpretations. They can make you think, make you feel swell, not so swell and everything in between. I drove home from La Salle University Art Museum with more than a few notions and emotions skipping around in my little ol’ head.

 

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(If you click on any photo a larger image will open in a separate window)

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Mall Me

img_1036“You need to buy some new jeans,” my wife Sandy had mentioned to me, a reluctant shopper, a few times recently. She wasn’t wrong. Day after day after day I wear jeans, having abandoned other forms of pants when I bid adieu to my decades-long white collar cum chinos career seven years ago. Most of my current crop of jeans is three or more years old. And looks it. Deeply creased and worn areas in the fabrics abound. As do leg bottoms whose threads are unraveling faster than light beams travel. I pondered the situation and eventually submitted. “Want to go to the mall with me?” I asked Sandy not long ago. “I’ll try on jeans. You can tell me how they look.” It was one of those days that, like death, is inevitable.

A big, bright indoor shopping mall, anchored by several department stores (including Macy’s), dwells on once-forested land half a mile from our house. Sandy and I figured that, at the mall, Macy’s would offer the best selection of denim. To Macy’s we went. Sadly, the shopping excursion was not ring-a ding-ding. In the men’s department dressing room I tried on 21 pair of jeans. Some of them squashed my balls demonically. Others, with a modest tug, slid over my waist as if they were greased. What’s  a guy got to do to find a pair of jeans that fits right? Hire Levi Strauss’ ghost to custom tailor them? I stormed out of the dressing room, contemplating throwing myself over one of the mall’s inner railings to the ground level courtyard. Good thing Sandy was there to prevent that from happening. Otherwise the masterpiece that you at this moment are reading wouldn’t be floating around in cyberspace.

But all was not lost, for on the way to Macy’s Sandy and I had passed through another department store. Bloomingdale’s. And I, constantly idea-starved when it comes to blog stories, was amazed by how incredibly good the stuff for sale in Bloomingdale’s looked, not to mention the snazzy displays right and left on which the goods balanced and the aura of pizzazz that pervaded the store. “Man, this place is beautiful. It’s like a modern art museum,” I said to myself. And thus a story idea emerged. Let us proceed.

img_0934img_0935A few days after the day in which I came up jeans-less I was back in Bloomingdale’s. I entered through the portal that led directly to an artistic wonderland, the cosmetics department. Talk about kaleidoscopic vistas, layouts that Andy Warhol would have been proud to design and colors that rocked. I had never paid much attention to cosmetics departments before, but that day I was smitten. Almost sorry that I wasn’t female, I was tempted to sit down on one of the stools ringing some counters and let one of the beauty experts behind the counters have a go at me. Hell, my face could use a lot of help.

img_0941img_0943Next time I will. But I needed to move on, to check out the museum-worthiness of the rest of Bloomingdale’s first level and the two above that. Not far from cosmetics were women’s dresses. By the way, I saw dresses in other parts of the store too, later, and had no idea what the differences were between the various dress sections. Needless to say, I’m a fashion idiot. Anyway, four of the mannequins-in-dresses on the first floor were hot chicks clad in cinnamon, grey, and black. I could imagine those sculpted figures displayed within a gallery of The Big Apple’s Museum Of Modern Art, where they would be meant to represent, let’s say, a commentary on our society’s beautiful people. Lined up nonchalantly one behind the other, they wowed me. And, permit me to add, they were way beyond my league: now, then and always. Wait, I forgot . . . those girls weren’t real. And I also forgot that I’m married. If it weren’t for those two circumstances though, I might have had the courage to ask the pensive blonde to join me for some pizza slices and frozen yogurt at the mall’s food court. But probably not.

And so I wandered for 40 more minutes. After which I decided that my original impression was correct. And I expanded upon it: Bloomingdale’s is like a modern art museum that has outstanding holdings in color field art and pop art. And I’ll throw in some Matisse too. It’s a haven for color arrangements that sometimes smile and sometimes exuberantly clash. And for sculptures (mannequins) that might get you thinking about what they are thinking.

As usual I’ve entered territories that my analytical and intellectual abilities aren’t equipped to explore much further. And I’m also getting hungry. It’s 12:39 PM as I now prepare to remove my fingers from my computer’s keyboard. Almost time to feed the face that needs a lot of help. I’ll leave you with some additional photographic examples of how artsy-cool Bloomingdale’s is. And I’ll remind you not to be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others. And that if you click on any photo in this story, a larger image will open in a new window.

Peace out.

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Stuff And More Stuff (Part Two)

So here I am, about to attempt a Part Two rumination on the time that my wife Sandy and I spent recently with our friends from France, Alan and Martine (click here to read the first installment). Part Two? Man, it’s hard enough for me to write about any topic, let alone something that requires follow-up thought and analysis. In the future I’m going to stick strictly to Part Ones.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the weather was ungodly hot while Alan and Martine stayed with us in the Philly burbs. We all decided to take outdoor activities off the table. On the first full day of the visit, we beat the Sun by looking at 150-year-old American artifacts inside the Mercer Museum, in Doylestown, PA. Where to on the second full day? Hey, we’d had enough history and culture at the Mercer. Why not aim lower and head to a locale whose charms are undeniable and, for some, irresistible? Namely, Willow Grove Park Mall, a gigantic and enclosed shopping mecca a mere half mile from Sandy’s and my abode. Alan and Martine, non-fussy sorts, readily agreed.

At the mall, we split up into pairs, females banding together, ditto for the lesser gender. Alan and I said goodbye to our wives within Macy’s, the establishment we all first had entered from the parking lot. “Call us when you’re done,” he and I said, and off we went. As Alan and I made our way past Macy’s cosmetics counters, heading towards an exit that would bring many of the rest of the mall’s retailers into view, I mentioned something I’ve thought about over the years. “This place,” I said, referring to Macy’s, “is like a museum.” The same could be said for the mall in toto.

Partial view of the Mercer Museum's central court.
Partial view of the Mercer Museum’s central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall's central court.
Partial view of the Willow Grove Mall’s central court.

The Mercer Museum displays 30,000 or more everyday implements and goods from America’s olden days. It’s a fascinating place. The Willow Grove Mall is no less fascinating, when you think about it. You want artifacts? The mall has 1,500,000 of them, I bet, putting the Mercer’s count to shame. Not only are the Mercer and the mall both repositories, they’re laid out kind of the same too, with large open courts (really large at the mall) ringed by several levels of rooms. At the Mercer the rooms (i.e. galleries) are small, each displaying tools and wares from a specific occupation or other category. At the mall the rooms (i.e. shops) may be bigger, but, excepting the department stores, each is narrow in its focus, just like at the Mercer. Shoe stores display only shoes. Electronics stores display only electronics. See, what’d I tell you? . . .  The Mercer Museum and the Willow Grove Mall are pretty similar. Except, of course, that the stuff inside the Mercer Museum ain’t going anywhere. At the mall, a museum in constant flux, the faster the stuff makes its way out the doors, the better the store owners and managers like it.

Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Hats at the Mercer Museum.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.
Lids, a hat store in the Willow Grove Mall.

Department stores aside, the variety of items at the Mercer is, I think, a lot greater than at the mall. But there is definitely some overlap. No, you won’t find smart phones at the Mercer, or a whaling boat at the mall. But how about hats, for one example? Mercer has a room devoted to them and their manufacture. And Willow Grove Mall contains Lids, a sharp little shop stocked from floor to ceiling with caps, mostly of the baseball type.

While Sandy and Martine (as Alan and I later learned) happily wandered through Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Uniqlo and other wondrous spots, Alan and I strolled around the second and third level walkways overlooking the great court. We passed one emporium after another, but entered not a one. Neither of us were in need of any new duds (I mean, we’re talking here about two of the already-sharpest-dressed guys on the planet!), nor of much anything else. And thus to the food court we finally headed, where we sat and chatted about this and that, coming close to solving a couple of the world’s problems, though not quite close enough.

Eventually, Sandy and Martine rang us up. And came to join us at the food area. They’d had a grand time. So had Alan and I, in our own way. Sandy and Martine had made a few small purchases. And, before heading back to the Scheinin hacienda, Martine dropped a few dollars more, taking away some old timey candies and roasted nuts from a colorful and alluring sweets stand at the food court. These were gifts for relatives whom she and Alan would be visiting in Massachusetts in a couple of days.

Thank you, Willow Grove Mall, provider of fun, enlightenment and relief from the Sun’s punishing rays. I bow in praise.

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

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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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