Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh: In Memory Of My Father

Since April 2015, the month in which I began to blog, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on these pages, a fact that pretty well blows my mind. I doubt if I churned out that much product during my high school and collegiate careers combined. Luckily I’ve enjoyed doing the writing, and plan to keep on truckin’.

As Father’s Day 2016 approached I wondered what new article, in memory of my father, I might compose. After some thought I decided to republish the essay that I penned for last year’s Father’s Day. It is titled The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh. There’s something about this story that gets to me. I hope it will do the same for you, whether you’ve read it before or not. Here it is:

 

My father came to live with me and my wife Sandy in Philadelphia soon after his 90th birthday, in 1999. He had been living alone on Long Island, but health issues necessitated his relocation. Good doctoring in the Philadelphia suburbs improved his physical condition quickly, but there was no cure for the declining state of his kidneys. He became a dialysis patient one year after he moved in with us, and he remained on dialysis till his death in 2005 at age 96.

My father was in pretty good shape until the final nine or so months of his life. He loved getting out of the house and joining Sandy and me and others at restaurants, concerts, museums, you name it. On this Father’s Day I’ll relate one incident that I look back on fondly. It was the day that he and I and my brother had a private viewing of a rarely-seen Van Gogh oil painting at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
There are several known photographs of Vincent van Gogh, though they are not fully authenticated. This photo is believed to be from about 1886.

Vincent van Gogh is one of my two favorite artists. The other is Paul Cézanne. I never can decide which of the two I like best. For wordsmanship, however, I go with Vincent. In spring 2001 I read all 800+ of his mesmerizing letters, in their English translation. My father got a kick from this. He told people that I was becoming a Van Gogh expert, which was hardly the case. But my semi-obsession with Van Gogh was rock solid, and it is here that the story really begins.

One day in January 2002 I poked around some Van Gogh websites and discovered that the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which Sandy and my father and I frequented, owned five Van Gogh oils. Yet, I had never seen more than four of them on display there. The painting that I wasn’t familiar with was Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Most experts believe that Vincent painted it in summer 1886, a few months after he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and to contemplate the new techniques and perspectives, most notably those of Impressionism, that had been invigorating the French art scene. Why wasn’t the painting on display? I needed to know.

A few days later, from my desk at work, I dialed the museum and got connected to an assistant curator. I asked about the mystery painting. She told me that the museum did occasionally bring it from storage to the public galleries, but that it had been a long time since that had happened. We chatted a little and then I said thanks and was about to hang up. But before I could the curator asked “Would you like to see it?” Huh? Huh? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yes ma’am, I would.

My father was about to turn 93, on January 19, 2002. A few days before that, to help our dad celebrate his birthday, my brother Richard planned to fly to Philadelphia from his California home. I explained this to the curator and asked her if my brother and father could come along with me (Sandy, chained to her job, wasn’t free to get mid-day time off from work). Sure, she said. Fairly stunned, I set the date for Friday January 18, a non-dialysis day. I knew that something special had just occurred.

The momentous day arrived. We drove to the museum and were met in the west wing by the curator. She was a lively and lovely person and probably was getting as big a charge out of the situation as anyone. Down an elevator we all went to one level of the museum’s cavernous underbelly. We followed our hostess along a long corridor, walking past many locked rooms. At our consecrated storage area she unlocked the door and we entered. Perpendicular to one of the room’s sides were very large moveable display panels. All of them were in their retracted positions. The curator pulled out one of the panels, both sides of which were covered with paintings, maybe 20 per side. I noticed a Chagall on the side facing us. Can’t recall what else. Except of course for a work near the left edge on the top row. The Van Gogh.

Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies.
Copyright Philadelphia Museum Of Art

It was show time. The curator wheeled over a tall moveable step ladder. Richie and I went up first. What did I make of Vincent’s oil? Well, Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies doesn’t have the brilliant color schemes that Vincent was developing in Paris. It is dark, with lots of deepened greens. Maybe that’s why the museum doesn’t bring it out of storage too often. But they should. With Vincent, there’s always something to admire. I took in his trademark broad brush strokes, the intense tangles of flower stems. The greens upon greens.

Richie and I and our benefactor were excited and happy for my father when his turn came. My dad was excited and happy too, a muted gleeful smile on his face, his eyes on alert. I’m sure he knew how lucky he was to do what he was about to do. Holding the ladder rails carefully, up he climbed. Admirable mobility for a guy one day away from the big 93. He gazed at the painting for a good long spell, longer I think than my brother or I had. He spouted words of admiration. He was having a ball. Finally he came back down. Thank you, thank you, thank you we said to the wonderful curator.

Over the following years, my father and brother and I talked about our museum visit many times among ourselves and with friends and relatives. Always with a grin. Always feeling a tingle. And so, I dedicate this Father’s Day essay to Hyman Scheinin, he whom I’m sure is the only nonagenarian ever to climb a step ladder to go eye to eye with Van Gogh.

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The Night I Made A Cocktail Table Go “Boom”

You should count your lucky stars when you act like a nitwit and are forgiven for your sins. That is what happened to me about ten years ago at a jazz concert. It was the night when talentless me accidentally became part of the show.

I hadn’t thought about that infamous evening in a long time, but for some reason was reminded of it recently when my wife Sandy and I took in a Friday night concert at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art (PMA), which had been the scene of my crime. The museum calls its Friday night concert series Art After 5, and it’s a good one. Art After 5 began in 2001 with a jazz-only format, but has morphed over the years to include a wide range of genres. Sandy and I have been to a crazy number of music shows at PMA since we discovered the series in 2002.

Picture this: It is February 2006. Sandy and I are seated in the first of several rows of tables ringing the performance area in PMA’s Great Stair Hall. The hall is enormous, maybe 80 feet high, and is dominated by, yes, a great stairway that connects two levels of the museum. The Great Stair is 20 feet behind us and stares regally at the performance area. Many concertgoers are seated on its marble slabs . . . uncomfortably. Sandy and I prefer comfort. So we made it a point to arrive way before showtime in the hopes of nabbing one of the cocktail tables, which are squeezed together pretty closely. Compared to marble stairs, the chairs at the tables are a blessing for butts. At our table we don’t have much to do except twiddle our thumbs. We order soft drinks and sip at them. We are waiting for jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy and her band to start their show.

Carmen Lundy in performance six years after my cocktail table went "boom." (Photo by Daniel Sheehan)
Carmen Lundy in performance eight years after my cocktail table went “boom.” (Photo by Daniel Sheehan)

At 5:45 PM Carmen and the guys are introduced by Art After 5’s curator. Minutes later they begin to play. They are very fine, and only eight feet in front of our excellent seats. Carmen Lundy, a justly acclaimed performer, is singing with a lot of flair and swagger. Sandy and I are enjoying the show. But halfway through the set something begins to bother me. I feel as though my space is being impinged upon. Someone at a table behind me has inched up a tad too much and is putting pressure on the rear of my chair. I have the solution, of course. All I need to do is slide my cocktail table forward ever so little, after which I’ll be able to move my chair forward too. I push the table very very gently, maneuvering it carefully. But alas, this is a plan not destined to work out. The frigging table loses its balance and topples heavily, its edge creating an enormous sound when it smashes onto the floor. The noise echoes throughout the Great Stair Hall. And everything that was on the table flies off and finds a new home inches from the performers’ feet.

I felt like a schmuck. I was a schmuck. Oy vey, was there anywhere to hide? No way. All I could do was sit there as a couple of servers scampered over, set the table upright, and on their hands and knees quickly swept up ice cubes and pieces of broken glass. They mopped up the soft drink liquids from the floor and retrieved my eyeglasses, which once had been on the table but now were beneath the piano bench. Yet, all the while the band played on as if nothing had happened. Carmen Lundy continued to deliver her song with full emotion. Harold O’Neal’s fingers were flying on the keyboard. Jason Brown’s drums went rat-a-tat-tat and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, and Curtis Lundy, Carmen’s brother, plucked fervent notes on his upright bass.

The set finally ended. Was anyone in the audience staring at me? Probably. But I was too embarrassed to look around and find out. I knew one thing I had to do though. Apologize. Carmen Lundy was standing near the sound board, 20 feet to the right of the performance area. I stood up and made my way to her.

“Ms. Lundy,” I said. “I’m the idiot who knocked over the table. I’m very sorry. I feel like a fool.”

Carmen Lundy gave me a good hard look for a few moments and then did the darndest thing. She put a hand on one of my shoulders, looking me straight in the eyes, and said “Don’t worry about it, honey. It didn’t bother us. In fact it gave us energy to play even harder.”

Man, I didn’t know what to say in response to such a stellar attitude. I mumbled my thanks and probably a few other words and shuffled to my seat.

Looking back on all of this the other day I realized once again that I had been in the presence of classiness and graciousness. If our places had been reversed I doubt if dopey me would have been so wonderful. Carmen Lundy, in my book you’re very much okay.

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Q: How Cool Is The Philadelphia Museum Of Art? A: Very

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art, PMA to its friends, is one of our fair nation’s best museums. My wife Sandy and I visit pretty often. Its holdings are fantastic. What’s more, for years the museum has presented concerts on Friday nights, and we’ve been to a crazy number of them. During our Fridays at PMA we look at art for awhile and then hear music in the majestic Great Stair Hall. For artsy nerds like me, that’s usually a winning combination.

As we headed museumward on a recent Friday, we found ourselves in traffic hell. Our car windows were fogging up from steam coming out of our ears, but we wound up having a heck of a good time once we arrived. No pain, no gain, or something like that. Late-ish as it was though, we didn’t have barrels of time to check out art if we were to snare seats at a ringside cocktail table for the evening concert. Those seats ordinarily are claimed 45 minutes or more before concerts begin. When the preferred seating is taken, your option is to place your rear end upon the Great Stair Hall’s grand marble steps. And YOW, that’s a numbing backside experience.

And so we navigated to a modestly-sized and time-friendly exhibit, works by the not particularly well-known Dave Heath. To me and Sandy, he wasn’t even that, as we’d never heard of him. This show (it closes on February 21, 2016) is entitled Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs Of Dave Heath, and comprises numerous 35 mm photos, all in black and white, that Heath took from 1949 to 1969. Also on display is Heath’s multimedia slide show from 1969. This is the first major presentation of his early and midlife creations, and one of the few museum exhibitions that he ever has had. It was organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, with plenty of PMA input.

Sandy and I had the same reaction after looking at Heath’s photos for the first few minutes: “This guy is great,” we agreed. And I’m convinced that he is, or in any case was in the 1950s and 60s. The photographs are very beautiful and very dark, shades of black heavily predominating over those of white. I’ve always felt that this approach allows photographs to breathe emotionally, gives them depth and resonance.

New York City (1964), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
New York City (1964), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
Washington Square, New York City (1960), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation
Washington Square, New York City (1960), by Dave Heath. Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art, Kansas City, MO; Gift of Hall Family Foundation

Heath isn’t a chronicler of the natural world. He’s a people observer, usually in urban settings. And he is a lover of the close-up, often capturing folks deep in thought or in seeming isolation. His childhood was dreadful, and his work frequently reflects the hurt that probably never went away. But not all is aloneness or sadness in the Heathscape. Joyful images are here and there in the exhibit.

Dave Heath lives in Canada and is 84 years old. There’s not a lot of info about him in cyberspace. He was born in Philadelphia, grew up in foster homes and an orphanage, took up the camera in his late teens, and has had a full career as a photographer and photography teacher. His greatest fame and acclaim occurred in the 1960s, the decade in which he won two Guggenheim Fellowships and created the book for which he is best-known, A Dialogue With Solitude. The final pre-production copy of Dialogue is at PMA. Its 100 or so pages, mostly photographs, ring several gallery walls. Dialogue is divided into ten sections, among them Fate, Fragility And Diversity; Youth; Childhood; Ends And Beginnings. Dialogue is a deep photographic rumination on many aspects of the human plight.

Sandy and I ended up spending much more time with Heath’s images than we had anticipated. They are powerful. By the late 1960s though, Heath apparently felt that he had said all he could in black and white. He turned to color Polaroid picture-taking and later to digital photography. None of this is on PMA’s walls, and from what I gather isn’t well-known by the arts community. It’s a fine thing, though, that someone (the good folks at Nelson-Atkins and at PMA) has championed black and white Dave and decided to let the spotlight shine on him.

Before the concert in the Great Stair Hall. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
Pre- concert in the Great Stair Hall. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

Show time was approaching. Sandy and I lucked out after Heath, grabbing two empty seats at a stage left cocktail table in the Great Stair Hall, a mere six feet from where Arun Ramamurthy soon would be bowing his violin. Arun Ramamurthy? Sandy and I knew as much about him as we had about Dave Heath an hour earlier. Brooklyn-based Ramamurthy, though, is a growing name to be reckoned with in classical Indian music and in musical cross-pollinations. At PMA he brought along Perry Wortman, on upright bass, and drummer/tabla player Deep Singh. The Arun Ramamurthy Trio began its first set at 5:45 PM.  They played a hybrid of South Indian classical music and jazz.

When it comes to music, I’m an appreciator, not a scientist. I understand little about any musical genre’s technical side. Scales, chords, the inter-relationships of notes and how they shape harmonies . . . forget it, I’m at sea. But the big picture I understand, as did the 200 others listening to the Ramamurthy group. We all clapped madly after each piece. Sure, Arun’s melodies and voicings on violin would be pretty unfamiliar to most American ears, but they were beautiful.

In the Great Stair Hall, Arun sat on a platform, chairless and shoeless. He held his violin vertically, bowing with his right hand, working the strings with the fingers of his left. The trio played five songs in the first set, three of them originals, all drawn from or reflecting traditional South Indian classical ragas, melodies and motifs. The music was elastic, minor-keyed and highly improvised, improvisation being a major component of both classical Indian music and jazz.

Arun began song number one unaccompanied, coaxing mournful sounds from his instrument for three minutes. Wortman’s bass then entered — low, gripping notes played slowly, repeatedly — and Singh’s drums too. Singh played carefully, tantalizingly, creating a steady and simmering beat. One drumstick tapped a drum’s rim. The high hat and cymbals shimmered just so. All the while Arun stroked melancholy lines. This was Ramamurthy’s original song, Conception. I was reminded of All Blues, and other numbers, from Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue album.

The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

The fifth song, an Arun original whose title I missed, found Deep Singh on tabla. The tune was energetic, Arun going pretty wild on violin, Wortman choosing notes eloquently and perceptively, as he did on each tune. Another thing I noticed was that Arun and Deep barely could keep their eyes off each other. They were in a strong musical relationship. And Singh’s fingers were absolutely flying, maybe wearing grooves in his tabla’s skins.

There was a sixth song, but it was not a full trio number. It was a classical raga played by two humans, Arun and tablaist Deep. They were joined not by Wortman but by a droning electronic accompaniment provided via an app on Arun’s smart phone. Amazing.

Dave Heath and The Arun Ramamurthy Trio. Another several hours well-spent at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

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A Pretty Park Can Be Pretty Hard To Find

Back in 1981 the Philadelphia Museum Of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs by Robert Adams. Adams took the photos in the 1970s. They were images of western American states, the desolate areas, primarily deserts and mountains. I remember the show fairly well. No matter how remote the locale, nearly every photograph bore evidence of man’s hand: A telephone pole, tire ruts in the sand, roads winding like barber pole stripes around magnificent mountains. One of Adams’s points was that pure wilderness is long gone, so we better get used to it and be glad for the great though adulterated spaces that exist. I imagine that even if you found yourself in the middle of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, and I don’t wish that fate on too many of us, you wouldn’t have to wait impossibly long before an airplane passed overhead. Man is everywhere. Yikes.

Now, a half-baked embryonic distillation of those thoughts was in my head recently when my wife Sandy suggested that we walk around the grounds of Abington Art Center, a few miles south of our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sure,” I said, “good idea.” But what I didn’t say is that I’d prefer to stroll some expansive Adams-like terrain. In my dreams. Around here in the burbs, man for the last 75 years has been relentlessly busy cutting down trees and pouring cement. Around here, you have to count your lucky stars that any good-looking patches of territory of any sort still exist.

Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.
Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.

Abington Art Center is one of those patches. The center contains the manor house and some of the grounds of a former estate. The house is used for art classes and gallery exhibits and the like. The grounds mostly are a huge lawn that slopes away from the rear of the house and 10 or 15 acres of woods. It’s a lovely place. And it is more than manor, grass and trees. Scattered here and there on the great lawn and on side lawns and in the woods are all manner of sculptures, about 50 all told. Sandy and I had a good time at the center. For two hours we looked at trees and artworks and burned off a few calories while walking a couple of miles.

The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.
The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.

I like the outdoors. But I’m hardly a naturalist. My knowledge of flora and fauna has more holes than you can count. And so at Abington Art Center I found myself admiring a specific leafy tree species, of which many examples exist in the center’s tiny forest, having no clue what I was looking at. They weren’t maples or oaks. Those I can identify. Whatever the trees were, they were  the tallest at the center. They measured well over 100 feet from bottom to top and didn’t wander leftward or rightward on their way towards the heavens. Their mothers must have told them from an early age to stand up straight. What also fascinated me was the play of light within the woods, how one tree’s upper reaches might be caught by the day’s intense sun, while others only a few feet away were out of the sun’s direct path. Contrasts of this sort always have appealed to me.

Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora's construction of burnt tree branches.
Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora’s construction of burnt tree branches.

The sculpture I thought the most of in the woods was Alison Stigora’s Mazzaroth. It’s an assemblage of burnt tree branches fitted together tightly to portray . . . what? A serpent? The movement of time? As the years go on, Mazzaroth will crumble and become one with the forest floor, as will the trees surrounding it.

You’re not going to confuse many of the sculptures at Abington Art Center with creations by David Smith, Louise Nevelson or other deservedly famed artists. Few if any are on that level. Some though, like Mazzaroth, had me looking them over from different angles because I liked them a lot. Take two on the great lawn, for instance. They are placed near each other and are as different as they can be.

Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.

What is a lopsided small wooden cabin doing on the grass at Abington? Well, it’s a whimsical piece of art and is right at home there. Weather-beaten, cute and loveable, it contains within, of all things, a bed, chair and table lifted straight out of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom in Arles, France. This work is Knox Cummin’s Habitation Suite: Cabin Van Gogh. Vincent I believe would have been charmed  by Cummin’s idea to build such an unlikely homage, and also by the view of foliage from the cabin’s open back side.

David Schafer's orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.
David Schafer’s orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.

Uphill from the cabin stands what looks a bit like a lifeguard tower painted in bright orange, some of its support slats atilt. David Schafer, the creator, named his piece Untitled Expression: How to Look at Sculpture. I suspect that the notions behind the giddy orange tower are partly conceptual. Sculptures, like just about anything, are multifaceted. No need to try and pin down a precise meaning. Observe, surmise and enjoy. One of my takes, subject to change, is that the sculpture is alive yet indecisive, that it is shaking out its stiff bones and readying to inch forward but hasn’t gotten into gear quite yet. And what’s going on with that public address system speaker? I remembered later that it had a practical purpose once, as a recorded message played from it for months after the sculpture was first installed about six years ago. Sandy and I were at Abington Art Center at that time and heard the message. If we were put into a deep hypnotic state, maybe we’d recall what the message was. Gone silent, to me the speaker now just looks cool.

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

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“Upward” Was The Theme Of The Day

My wife Sandy and I spent seven fun-filled hours on a recent Friday in Philadelphia’s Art Museum neighborhood. The first two of those hours we strolled around the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum Of Art and its surrounding trails and parks. The skies were sunny, the humidity pretty low and the temperature not too unkindly hot. There was no getting away from the sun’s power though, and we sweated mightily, a small price to pay for helping the body build up Vitamin D reserves.

During the seven hours we found a fascinating park that was new to us, looked at lots of art within and without the museum, took in a Cuban music concert (“Havana Night”) at the museum and finished with a tasty dinner at a nearby restaurant, Rembrandt’s. But I’ve decided to skip many of the details about all of that. Instead I’m going to concentrate on a theme that, to my impressionable mind, seemed to unite a portion of what we saw. There’s a good chance that I’m stretching reality to find a connection, but what the hay, that wouldn’t be my first time. Besides, reality is flexible. The theme involves optimism, more specifically our species’ seeming desire and need to stay positive, to grow, to look upward. The notion began to bubble a bit in my sun-dappled head near the start of our Friday adventure when, poking around the museum’s outdoor sculpture garden, we were very happy to find Franz West’s colorful sculpture Lips towering before us.

Franz West's Lips in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art's sculpture garden.
Franz West’s Lips in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art’s sculpture garden.
Steps and Pyramid, two sculptures by Sol LeWitt.
Steps and Pyramid, two sculptures by Sol LeWitt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lips is way terrific. Three giant tendrils, (or are they giant worms?), pointing heavenward in pastel shades of blue, pink and lime. Taking a good look at the squirmy designs, I couldn’t help but think that West was putting his mind and emotions on display, that Lips represented his vision of looking on the bright side, of reaching for the stars. I wondered, what else around here might have had the same inspirations? Well, not far uphill from Lips on the sculpture garden grounds, Sandy and I found two modest and monochromatic sculptures by Sol LeWitt. They were sitting within their personal and unassuming open-walled pavilion. LeWitt named the larger piece Pyramid and the smaller one Steps. Pyramid and Steps were fashioned in 2010, two years before Lips, and are made of concrete blocks. Tiny compared to Lips, they nevertheless are objects that to me suggested that we keep our minds open and on the ascending path. Pyramids point skyward, duh. And although stairs go down as well as up, LeWitt I’m sure placed Steps next to his pyramid to reinforce the “up” reference.

So, I appeared to be on a roll. What else might I fit into my Upward container? One reason that Sandy and I had decamped at the museum area was to check out some of the newish stretches of the Schuylkill River Trail, a river-bounded pathway for pedestrians and cyclists that planners hope one day will extend 140 miles from the bottom of Philadelphia to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. We walked a short distance southward on the River Trail and lo and behold came to a park we never knew about. It’s a haven that Philadelphia created for skateboarders. Paine’s Park is its name, probably because pain and skateboarding go hand in hand. Anyway, 30 or so guys and gals in their teens and 20s were gliding around the park, flipping off contoured walls and doing whatever else it is that skateboarders do. I was amazed by the park’s existence. Skateboarders had once made their home in Love Park, near Philadelphia’s City Hall, and garnered the wrath of city officials and ordinary folk in the process. Rather than continuing to scare the daylights out of tourists and office workers trying to lunch and lounge in Love Park, skateboarders needed their own officially-sanctioned facility. Now they have one. Paine’s Park opened two years ago.

Sign for Steps and Pyramid IMG_0816

Jonathan Monk's two sturdy sculptures, Steps and Pyramid, in Paine's Park.
Jonathan Monk’s two sturdy sculptures, Steps and Pyramid, in Paine’s Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But did my eyes deceive me? There in Paine’s were two creations that looked suspiciously like Sol LeWitt’s Steps and Pyramid. Sure enough, they were near-replicas. Their artist, Jonathan Monk, liked LeWitt’s sculpture garden pieces so much that he paid homage by creating cousins. And he even gave them the same names. But whereas do-not-touch signs are planted near LeWitt’s pieces, the Monk sculptures, fashioned from really tough materials, are meant to take whatever abuse skateboarders can dish out. Sandy and I didn’t see any of the gliders take on the challenge of Steps’ and Pyramid’s narrowly and sharply angled spaces, but I have it on good authority that it happens regularly. Monk’s works not only continue LeWitt’s figurative idea of staying on the upside, they provide the surfaces to allow someone actually to soar.

Skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia.
Skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Zoo's ZooBalloon.
The Philadelphia Zoo’s ZooBalloon.
Marquis de Lafayette.
Marquis de Lafayette.

Yes, I smugly said to myself, there really is something to this idea I have. I looked around. In one direction were skyscrapers in Center City Philadelphia, testaments to man’s hopefulness. And in another was the Philadelphia Zoo’s gigantic and somewhat iconic ZooBalloon. Its daily flights, weather permitting, allow zoo visitors to come close to getting their heads near the clouds. And as Sandy and I made our way back to the museum grounds we passed Raoul Josset’s massive bronze statue of Marquis de Lafayette, his cape-enshrouded right arm pointing to the heavens. “Onwards and upwards, citizens,” the Marquis seemed to be saying.

The two tall works are Brancusi's Bird sculptures.
The two tall works are Brancusi’s Bird sculptures.

Sandy and I entered the museum. She headed toward a photography exhibition. I told her I’d meet her there in a bit after I continued my search for further examples to bolster my theme of the day. The museum holds a superb collection of sculptures by the great modernist Constantin Brancusi, and has devoted an entire room to his works. In it I stood before two related sculptures, Bird In Space and Bird In Space (Yellow Bird), the former made from bronze, the latter from marble. Both are sleek and very beautiful. Brancusi must have felt his spirit soaring as he designed and shaped them in the early 1920s, and post-creation too. Going up!

Paul Cezanne's The Large Bathers.
Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers.

I was tiring. One more stop, and then my quest to try and make a point would end. On many levels, Paul Cézanne is hard to beat. For maybe the 100th time I let wash over me one of his many masterworks, The Large Bathers. It was one of his final paintings, completed shortly before his passing in 1906.  This time I focused on the trees providing cover for the tribe of naked folks at ground level. The upper reaches of the trees are not shown, by design. I could imagine the trees going on almost forever. I believe that in them Cézanne symbolically infused man’s basic nature to ascend and achieve. To move upward.

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

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The Day My Father Went Eye To Eye With Van Gogh

My father came to live with me and my wife Sandy in Philadelphia soon after his 90th birthday, in 1999. He had been living alone on Long Island, but health issues necessitated his relocation. Good doctoring in the Philadelphia suburbs improved his physical condition quickly, but there was no cure for the declining state of his kidneys. He became a dialysis patient one year after he moved in with us, and he remained on dialysis till his death in 2005 at age 96.

My father was in pretty good shape until the final nine or so months of his life. He loved getting out of the house and joining Sandy and me and others at restaurants, concerts, museums, you name it. On this Father’s Day I’ll relate one incident that I look back on fondly. It was the day that he and I and my brother had a private viewing of a rarely-seen Van Gogh oil painting at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.

There are several purported photographs of Vincent van Gogh. None are totally authenticated. This is believed to be from about 1886.
There are several known photographs of Vincent van Gogh, though they are not fully authenticated. This photo is believed to be from about 1886.

Vincent van Gogh is one of my two favorite artists. The other is Paul Cézanne. I never can decide which of the two I like best. For wordsmanship, however, I go with Vincent. In spring 2001 I read all 800+ of his mesmerizing letters, in their English translation. My father got a kick from this. He told people that I was becoming a Van Gogh expert, which was hardly the case. But my semi-obsession with Van Gogh was rock solid, and it is here that the story really begins.

One day in January 2002 I poked around some Van Gogh websites and discovered that the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, which Sandy and my father and I frequented, owned five Van Gogh oils. Yet, I had never seen more than four of them on display there. The painting that I wasn’t familiar with was Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Most experts believe that Vincent painted it in summer 1886, a few months after he moved to Paris to live with his brother Theo and to contemplate the new techniques and perspectives, most notably those of Impressionism, that had been invigorating the French art scene. Why wasn’t the painting on display? I needed to know.

A few days later, from my desk at work, I dialed the museum and got connected to an assistant curator. I asked about the mystery painting. She told me that the museum did occasionally bring it from storage to the public galleries, but that it had been a long time since that had happened. We chatted a little and then I said thanks and was about to hang up. But before I could the curator asked “Would you like to see it?” Huh? Huh? I couldn’t believe my ears. Yes ma’am, I would.

My father was about to turn 93, on January 19, 2002. A few days before that, to help our dad celebrate his birthday, my brother Richard planned to fly to Philadelphia from his California home. I explained this to the curator and asked her if my brother and father could come along with me (Sandy, chained to her job, wasn’t free to get mid-day time off from work). Sure, she said. Fairly stunned, I set the date for Friday January 18, a non-dialysis day. I knew that something special had just occurred.

The momentous day arrived. We drove to the museum and were met in the west wing by the curator. She was a lively and lovely person and probably was getting as big a charge out of the situation as anyone. Down an elevator we all went to one level of the museum’s cavernous underbelly. We followed our hostess along a long corridor, walking past many locked rooms. At our consecrated storage area she unlocked the door and we entered. Perpendicular to one of the room’s sides were very large moveable display panels. All of them were in their retracted positions. The curator pulled out one of the panels, both sides of which were covered with paintings, maybe 20 per side. I noticed a Chagall on the side facing us. Can’t recall what else. Except of course for a work near the left edge on the top row. The Van Gogh.

Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies. Philadelphia Museum Of Art
Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies.
Copyright Philadelphia Museum Of Art

It was show time. The curator wheeled over a tall moveable step ladder. Richie and I went up first. What did I make of Vincent’s oil? Well, Still Life With A Bouquet Of Daisies doesn’t have the brilliant color schemes that Vincent was developing in Paris. It is dark, with lots of deepened greens. Maybe that’s why the museum doesn’t bring it out of storage too often. But they should. With Vincent, there’s always something to admire. I took in his trademark broad brush strokes, the intense tangles of flower stems. The greens upon greens.

Richie and I and our benefactor were excited and happy for my father when his turn came. My dad was excited and happy too, a muted gleeful smile on his face, his eyes on alert. I’m sure he knew how lucky he was to do what he was about to do. Holding the ladder rails carefully, up he climbed. Admirable mobility for a guy one day away from the big 93. He gazed at the painting for a good long spell, longer I think than my brother or I had. He spouted words of admiration. He was having a ball. Finally he came back down. Thank you, thank you, thank you we said to the wonderful curator.

Over the following years, my father and brother and I talked about our museum visit many times among ourselves and with friends and relatives. Always with a grin. Always feeling a tingle. And so, I dedicate this Father’s Day essay to Hyman Scheinin, he whom I’m sure is the only nonagenarian ever to climb a step ladder to go eye to eye with Van Gogh.