Monday, October 26, 2009

Yellow world

Indigenous sugar maples have morphed green

summer sails into a glowing yellow canopy top and

side-lit by a high blue October day intent on exhibiting

intensity and offering a pilgrim, perhaps, a life lesson or two:

Is this yellow caution, a warning of the impending seasonal

change and mind-numbing grey of Ohio’s winter?;


perhaps product of an abundance of light made available

to us here on low-humidity, high barometric fall days

that offer us good reason to be mindful?;


merely the musings of the Earth Mother growing yet another

project starting with transforming canvases from insect-eaten and squirrel-harvested earth tones

to colors shifted to the yellow end of the spectrum, providing trekkers ambient light even here in the shadowed north, sitting among spent and decaying refugees, losing hue daily

leaving their still-bright selves amid still-warm breezes to offer this attentive time to smell rich wood smoke and consider the significance of the Fall.

Tom Schaefer

October 2009

Today’s elder idea:

In the name of the Bee,

and of the Blossom,

and of the Breeze. Amen.

Emily Dickinson

Monday, October 19, 2009

Prayer fire

Prayer is an interesting concept. My dictionary’s first definition calls it ‘an address (as a petition) to God.’ ‘An earnest request or wish’ is also mentioned, as well as ‘a slight chance.’

My understanding of prayer, though, has broadened past these Webster standards over the years. Some time ago it was suggested by a Marianist at the University of Dayton that when women sat for hours at the loom in days past, or churned butter or kneaded bread dough, they could be considered in prayer. This past summer, when Cindy and I were at Nada, she spent time at the sewing machine as I spent time with writing and image making. We both considered that focused time prayerful.

Zen mindfulness, likewise, could be considered prayer under this broader definition. If you are concentrating on splitting wood or washing dishes, and are totally present with the task, it could be considered prayer. I suppose it is the act of being present with whatever task you have at hand, even writing a blog entry, that I endeavor to include under this broader umbrella. Sounds a lot like meditation, too.

And that’s where I found myself last night after a wet and cold weekend here in southwestern Ohio. It was my family’s plan to be camping at Hueston Woods for the last few nights, but cold rain put a real damper on it. Both girls and their kids were gearing up for the worst, but the weather report just didn’t improve. We decided that being miserable in a sleeping bag, in this time of H1N1 flu, wasn’t quite worth the benefits of our spending time together. We traded down to a spaghetti dinner at Jenni’s house Saturday afternoon where a good time was had by all. The s’mores were mighty fine good, too, with marshmallows roasted over the ‘camp fire’ we built in Bill’s new fire pit in their back yard.

But it was Sunday night’s blaze here on my back porch that got me to thinking about the prayerful qualities of fire. A fire like that one invites you to sit quietly and just be, hands extended toward the flames for warmth in what could be a considered prayer position. First lines of poetry started running through my head, as did prayerful thoughts I addressed to my deity of comprehension, something I call the Spirit of the Universe. I thanked the Spirit for allowing me to be present in this life; for the beautiful fall Sunday that followed Saturday’s rain; for the honor of raising two fine young women; for the blessing of grandchildren; and the hope of using my talents for good.

Sitting around a fire is a commonality that still connects us to ancestors far back in time. Such understanding and appreciation is worthy of a quiet sit where heat beats away the coming cold and somehow reduces us, and life, to something essential.

Meditation? Prayer fire? Mindful, indeed.

Today’s elder idea: Late in the afternoon, there’s a period when the light turns so strange, so bronze and still, that it’s like tintype -- as if it’s trying to hold that angle of light for as long as it can, for us to look at the fields and woods and meadows in that sharp light one last time before falling away. One last time....

Rick Bass

‘October 18’

from Winter (notes from Montana)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Art pix: Digital or souped?

Perhaps a few years ago the topic of this entry may have been slightly controversial: Do you use film or pixels to record the really meaningful stuff for your portfolio, picture frame, or family album? Film had a century-long and winding road before it was accepted as art. I’m sure some folks still argue that photography is too mechanical to be considered real art. But at least light and chemicals had to be manipulated properly to get a keeper to make it out of the final wash tray instead of ending up in the trash can. But pixels? Just how much control must a practitioner have before work can be considered art worthy?

I have built three different darkrooms in three different houses where I’ve perched, so I was certainly invested in trying to make art in my own place. Sure, I shot lots of snaps and had them processed at the local camera shop, but for the really cool stuff I wanted to give away, it was darkroom soup for me. Just black & white, mind you. Mostly 8 x 10s matted in homemade frames. Just about all 35 mm format. I did a bit of E-6 color processing, too, but on two very important roles shot back in the early 80s, I blew something in the process and all went green. Disaster, but I still used the shots in slideshows anyway. I guess it proved that I wasn’t quite the suave photog I had hoped I had become. Humility is never a bad thing.

When I retired from teaching eight years ago I was gifted with my first digital camera. It was a small Nikon with a 6 megapixel capacity, though I found I could bring home knock-out shots about three-quarters that size. They were amazing. And I could look at them -- and play with them -- immediately on my computer. Landscapes. Portraits. Macro close-ups. Easy to print through Apple’s iPhoto. Wow. I printed some myself with special computer ink, but nobody could tell me how archival those prints would be. Zapping images off to Apple with Kodak equipment seemed like the best way to go.

I was a pretty quick convert. With all the fun I was having on my Mac, I pretty much left the darkroom. Not that the space is wasted, mind you. The grandkids have helped me convert that narrow little room to The Train Room. Running an N-scale Amtrak passenger liner around the counter under the amber darkroom safelight is often requested by short visitors.

In many ways, I’d say I’m more serious about photography today than I’ve ever been. And trust me, I’ve enjoyed stalking good pictures in the wild since I was in high school. Digital just makes more sense.

Still, the idea of mixing chemicals and playing with physical light to actually make images come up on a piece of paper is a bit of magic I don’t really want to give up on forever. While the darkroom currently houses model trains, I have not dumped trays and thermometers, darkened storage jugs and timers in anybody’s garage sale. My trusty Besseler 23C enlarger may be resting in a plastic garbage bag trying to stay as dust free as possible, but it can be easily reassembled if a grandkid asks how in the heck I made those pictures framed in the dining room.

I thought making black and white prints was magic back then and I still marvel at what Ansel Adams accomplished during his music-influenced momentous career. I’ll be more than happy to teach a little of that magic to anybody who wants to see it happen. It is pretty darned cool. And you can see it happen under amber lights in real time. Pixels are great, but hanging out with a kid in the darkroom is even better. I spent lots of afternoons in the darkroom at Studebaker Junior High with kids who wanted to learn. I sure hope one of my grandkids asks. It’s another one of those things this grandpa is good for.

Today’s elder idea: Photography is the most potent ... the most stimulating medium of human expression in this day. Call it Art, term it Craft, place it with journalism, science, physics, or self-expression -- it is not to be denied.

Ansel Adams

in The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, Book 2 (1998)

photo: daughter Jennifer, souped in the darkroom (before being scanned) c. 1977

Sunday, October 4, 2009

From the Crescent City

I currently sit high atop the New Orleans Sheraton hotel -- on the 41st floor -- looking south along night-lit Canal Street toward the Mississippi River and Algiers. I have spent more time in this big American city than any other and have come to love it like no other town I’ve ever visited. If you have spent much time here, perhaps you know what I mean.

To be frank, New Orleans is a pretty tough town. The murder rate here is traditionally high and even before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the streets were in horrible shape and it wasn’t ever hard to find a lot of litter. The place has been lived in and partied in hard for centuries and, I suppose, that’s part of its charm. The oldest section of the city, the French Quarter, dates back to 1718. The place absolutely drips with character and age.

I have come to know this city primarily because of family: Cindy’s sister Anita has lived here for close to thirty years. We make it down to visit at least every couple of years. More than that, though, it was two post-Katrina work trips that have deepened my love for the place. The first time down, I joined a dozen or so volunteer folks from my Dayton church to gut as many houses as we could in five days. Some of those houses have been fixed up by now. And I’m also pretty sure one of them was bulldozed after we left. The front wall had shifted well off center and, oddly enough, it had to be gutted before it could be condemned. Go figure. The second trip was spent stapling in insulation, hanging drywall, spackling, and sanding. Being in service to others has a tendency to make connections. So it was with me.

Other ample reasons to love this place is the food and the music. No other American city can match either. My favorite food story dates back a dozen years or so. Cindy and I had joined Anita and her husband, Amasa, for a lunch of po’ boys (think sub sandwiches) at a particularly famous and common looking place whose name escapes me. It was a little corner dive with simple tables and chairs. But, oh, after waiting in line for thirty minutes, were those sandwiches amazing! Afterward, Cindy and I peeled off to do some window shopping. We were looking at some jewelry someplace, alone with the proprietor in his store. He asked us if we had just eaten lunch. We said, yes, and then he proceeded to tell us exactly where we ate. He was spot on. He could tell where we ate lunch by how our clothes smelled! Wow.

Music has been pretty special for us here, too. We have tried to time trips around Jazz Fest in the spring. And while that hasn’t always been possible with our calendar during teaching days, whenever we come we try to make it to Snug Harbor on Monday nights when Amasa plays keyboards with Charmaine Neville. Very cool. Charmaine, Amasa, and friends, articulate some of that special blend of sounds that are uniquely American -- and uniquely N’awlins.

Our visit this weekend, though, centered exclusively on art and music. Anita is an artist and last night her newest exhibition opened at the prestigious Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. And then today, fourteen-year old daughter Ayla had a ‘coming out’ party celebrating her first CD of original music. She composed all fifteen songs with the help of her dad. A fun time was had by all, including a handful of her Ben Franklin High School classmates.

I’d like to lay an appropriate number superlatives on you about Anita’s show, but I would fail terribly. Her work is busy and bold and symmetrical -- and unique from anything else we saw in a half dozen other galleries along Julia Street. This is her first exhibition since Katrina, which has wrenched her life around in ways few can imagine. The browns and blues in her pieces are subdued and muted in remembrance of flood waters and the mud it left behind. Still, her work is intricate with minute details and very much hopeful.

After this amazing family weekend, I’m even more in love with NOLA. Such a place.


Anita’s exhibition, Dimensional Patterning: Sewn Constructions, runs through 28 November 2009. See the Current Exhibition link at:

Ayla’s CD, Some Super Silly Snappy Songs and a Few Works of Genius, is published by Raspberry Punch Music. See:

Google Amasa Miller and you’ll hit the jackpot. For the Charmaine Neville Band, see:

Today’s elder idea: In the post-Katrina world of New Orleans, we have experienced first-hand ... disassembly and reassembly into a new order that usually occurs over long stretches of time. The works in this exhibition are a direct visual reflection of the way I experience New Orleans and its rhythms, patterns, and textures. There is structure here in our physical and visual reality, our pace, and our culture. While there are rough edges and grittiness, there is also delicacy and an asymmetrical balance. Often there is a window into which one can glimpse something different, surprising, and valuable.

Anita Cooke

from the artist’s statement for Dimensional Patterning: Sewn Constructions