Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session
Ditto

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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If I Were A Painter . . .

I’ve penned some love letters to Cape Cod on these pages, but it has been a while since last I did. Yes, I’m in love with The Cape. My wife Sandy seconds that emotion. The enormous expanses of undeveloped oceanside shorelines; the humungous, otherworldly sand dunes that run for miles within the peninsula’s far reaches; the I-never-would-have-expected-them-to-be-there woods and forests that pepper the landscape . . . Cape Cod has natural beauty up the grand wazoo. And, that being what we most favor about The Cape, Sandy and I spend lots of time poking around the great outdoors during our Cape vacations. But we also like to emerge from the wilderness and do other types of things that ring our bells. For example, we get big bangs from some of the old village sections of certain Cape towns, such as those in Provincetown, Wellfleet and Orleans. They are cute and charming. We wander on their streets, investigate their stores and stuff our faces at dinnertime in their restaurants.

Last October, in Orleans, we took in a cool event one Saturday morning. The Addison Art Gallery, one of Cape Cod’s best, organized it. Two or more times each year AAG selects an outdoors Cape area to be immortalized and invites a bunch of the artists it represents to find views that spark them in said area, set up their easels and paint away. In October, Addison chose Orleans’ villagey heart, in which it is located, as the locale. The artists were instructed to paint and complete their masterpieces between 8 AM and noon, and then to bring the canvases to AAG where they would be framed and hung on the walls and offered for sale that evening at an artsy gathering to which the public was invited.

Maryalice Eizenberg.
Maryalice Eizenberg.

Sandy and I, who haven’t lifted a paint brush since grade school, like to watch good artists at work. So who knows why we got a real late start and didn’t arrive at the five or so square block painting zone until 11 AM. By that time most of the artists had finished their jobs and were packing up or already gone. Luckily we got to see two painters who were still going at it. On a sidewalk near AAG, Maryalice Eizenberg, hooded to shield herself from our friend the Sun, was staring down a big, old, yellow Victorian house across the street. She sweetly translated what she saw, in colors deeper than those 80 feet away. We chatted with her for a couple of minutes as she worked. “Have you seen what Paul Schulenburg is painting?” she asked us. No, we hadn’t. “Take a look. You won’t believe what his subject is.” And she pointed to where we’d find him, hidden from view from her own spot, but only half a block away.

Paul Schulenburg.
Paul Schulenburg.

Now, Paul Schulenburg is an artist whose oils I have seen at AAG over the years. He’s really good. His paintings have a stillness, a sense of completeness, à la Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Sandy and I followed Maryalice’s finger and came upon him. He and his easel were positioned between two houses, and he was zeroing in on a small section of one of the houses, a large and mostly white-shingled affair. But it wasn’t the house so much that he was interested in. What had caught his eye, and had become the focal point of his painting, was a bright green garden hose. Its color contrasted just-so with the less brilliant green of the side lawn, and had plenty to say to the house’s white shingles and red bricks. “Man, this guy is something else,” I more or less thought to myself. “A hose? Yup, and he is doing it proud.”

For reasons unknown, that October day floated to the top of my porous memory bank last week, and it got me thinking. Were there any aspects of my house’s exterior or grounds worth putting down on canvas? I decided to take a look. I would use my best impersonation of Paul Schulenburg’s painterly eye.

Sandy’s and my abode rests in the middle of a typical suburban block near Philadelphia. The house is modest and is surrounded by more shrubs and trees than I enjoy taking care of. All of it looks nice, but ain’t exactly a head-turner. I mean, Better Homes And Gardens Magazine has no plans to contact me anytime soon for a photo shoot. That, however, wasn’t the point. My mission was to pay attention to the details, to notice boffo alignments of objects, neato color contrasts, whatever, that were waiting to be discovered.

IMG_0821IMG_0799IMG_0805My house? Man, I’m glad to be living within it, but, take it from me, its exterior front and sides are vanilla. Tons of bricks and stones with almost nothing quirky or asymmetrical going on. I gazed artistically at one of the few ornamentations, a tangle of gas meter and pipes near the front door, and wondered if it would make for a decent painting. Well, maybe, but  . . . eh. I then walked around back and gave the grounds there a once-over, starting with the shed. How about its doors? Their designs seemed kind of sharp. Or did they? Nah, the scene lacked pop. A blooming Rose Of Sharon in the backyard, however, definitely did pop. How many floral scenes have been painted over the years, though? Maybe 20 billion. The world didn’t need this one.

IMG_0841All was not in vain. Because attached to the rear of the house is a great-looking deck that I figured would hold out hope. Hope morphed into certainty when I spotted something on one of the deck’s supporting posts. It was a knot, golden and aglow, in the wood. That’s what I would paint if I were a painter, I decided. It was a natural, a star waiting to be born. I walked around the knot, snapping photos, checking out various vantage points. And came to think that one perspective gave the best results for my imagined painting. In that vista you see the crazy quilt formed by part of the deck’s underside and the stairs leading up. You see a bit of slate patio and brick surface of the house. The scene’s palette is muted, all wan greys and browns, except for the golden medallion that you can’t take your eyes off of.

But I did take my eyes off the knot in a bit. And then I folded up my fantasy easel and went inside. It’s good to learn things, and I came away from all of this with an insight that never had occurred to me before: A painter in search of something to paint is little different than a writer (moi?) trying to come up with a story idea. And exactly the same is true for dance choreographers, photographers, film makers, chemists, astrophysicists, chefs, you name it, all on the prowl for projects that will make them buzz. The wellsprings of creativity are thick and bubbling, though not always easily tapped.

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(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. The others by yours truly. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)