COVID-19 claimed another cultural figure this past week when Ronald Lewis of New Orleans died. Lewis was respected locally in the city as a member of the legendary Mardi Gras Indians and for his efforts to preserve and pass on the traditions and history of its culture. The Mardi Gras Indians are by far one of the most colorful ‘krewes’ of Mardi Gras, not only in its costumes but in its heritage.
Their traditions date back to the 1800s when Native American tribes living in the area helped to shield and protect runaway slaves. The Mardi Gras Indians honor the friendship and bonds that were formed during that time in modern day Mardi Gras parades. Today, there are more than 40 Mardi Gras Indian tribes that includes the Wild Magnolias, the Yellow Pocahontas and the Choctaw Hunters of which Lewis was once Council Chief.
I’ve never had the chance to see the Indians parade, as their parades usually occur after my annual visit to New Orleans during the Carnival season. But a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to catch members of one of the tribes perform one afternoon at the little outdoor stage in a section of he French Quarter down by the Mississippi River in what is known as Dutch Alley. The area is filled with tourists who wander in the Artist Co-op, stroll through the Mask Market (see blog post Reveling and Revealing at the Mardi Gras Mask Market, Feb. 2016. ) held here the weekend before the big Mardi Gras parades or visit the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park’s Visitor Center where you hear a jazz session, read about the history of the genre and pick up a recording or two of some of the local musicians. The Visitor Center is a stop that I recommend everyone make when they are in the city.
The tribal members performing the day I saw them wore their beautiful feathered and beaded costumes. I had seen many lustrous prints made by photographer Christopher Porche West of Indian members in their costumes displayed on the walls of the Snug Harbor jazz club. But never had I seen one in person until this one day.
Each tribal member creates and sews their own costume or ‘suit’ as they are known. The beading is intricate and detailed and takes hundreds of painstaking hours to finish. The colors are vibrant and shine in the New Orleans sunlight. The feathers are carefully placed one by one and when worn sweep with the wearer’s motions. On the costumes are ‘design patches’ that are first sketched on a canvas before decorated with beads and sequins. Each patch tells a story and matches the overall design and color of the costume. These costumes truly are artistic creations and can cost thousands of dollars in materials. Sadly, the suits are worn for only one season, then are broken down and reassembled into a new costume for the next year.
Lewis recognized the importance and value of this tradition and the mastery of the skills needed to create each of these suits. He created in his backyard The House of Dance and Feathers to preserve and educate others about the culture surrounding these unique organizations. His collection of masks, suits, figures, and other related artifacts have been on display there since 2003. It has been open to the public by appointment but, as the website notes: “We’re pretty flexible and we’d love to see you down in the Lower Ninth Ward. Just give us a call and we’ll make an arrangement for you to come and visit.”
Whether or not Lewis’ family will continue to maintain The House of Dance and Feathers is not certain. If they do, I plan to pay a visit next time I’m in town. I only wish that I had known about it while Lewis was still living and would be there to share the stories he told. One thing that is certain is Lewis’ contribution and efforts to bring attention to the extraordinary culture of the Mardi Gras Indians will not be forgotten just as the African American descendants of those runaway slaves have not forgotten the role Native Americans played in sheltering their ancestors two hundred years ago.
The music world lost one of the jazz greats this past week when pianist Ellis Marsalis died in New Orleans at 85 as the result of complications from COVID-19. Marsalis was no less than a giant in the jazz world, having taught and mentored thousands of young musicians privately and through the University of New Orleans’ jazz program, a program he founded. He fathered four musician sons, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason, who are themselves outstanding and well-known jazz players.
Every Friday night for years, Marsalis sat down at the baby grand on stage at Snug Harbor, the legendary jazz club on Frenchman Street in New Orleans to play for the audiences who gathered at 8 and 10 p.m. to hear him. I was lucky enough to be among them a couple of times. Marsalis was not showy at the keyboard. The times I heard him play his styling was more like that of Duke Ellington, classy, elegant and sophisticated. “Mr. Marsalis’s interpretations were impressive in their economy and steadiness,” New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote. “Sticking mainly to the middle register of the keyboard, the pianist offered richly harmonized arrangements in which fancy keyboard work was kept to a minimum and studious melodic invention, rather than pronounced bass patterns, determined the structures and tempos.”
I count the times I heard him play at Snug among the best concerts that I’ve ever attended. Upon occasion, his celebrated sons would join him for a song or two. Both Branford and Delfeayo sat in with him once when I was in the audience. I caught Jason’s show on another evening at Snug. And once, Wynton and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performed at the Mount Baker Theatre here in Bellingham, WA. So I managed to hear all of them, who were named in 2011 named Marsalis and his musician sons Jazz Masters by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is regarded as American jazz music’s highest honor and until then had only been awarded on an individual basis.
Marsalis was dedicated to educating young musicians, a legacy that he passed on to his sons. I witnessed this first hand the year that Wynton came to Bellingham. After the concert, Wynton and a few musicians from his band, walked down the street to jam in the bar of a local Mexican restaurant where another musician, Chuck Israels, who they knew was playing. Naturally, a crowd quickly filled the place. I phoned my high-school age son, Marshall, who, inspired by the concert, had gone home to with his musician friends to jam. “You need to come down here,” I told him that Wynton and group were playing in the restaurant bar.
e boys hustled back downtown but, because they were not of legal age, they had to stand on the sidewalk outside to listen. Someone from the crowd inside, who knew about my son’s band, told Wynton that they were outside. Upon hearing this, Wynton stepped away from the little stage, went outdoors to talk to the boys and invited them to come inside where they were told to stand and listen.
Years later, Marshall, a drummer, was in New Orleans with my husband and I. Together, we made our annual pilgrimage to Snug Harbor, to catch Charmaine Neville who performs her high energy show on Mondays and also Stanton Moore (probably the best drummer in the world, according to my son) who has the Tuesday night spot when he’s in town. Charmaine is considered a ‘grand dame’ of New Orleans jazz world. Like Marsalis, she fosters emerging jazz musicians and invites them to join her onstage for a song if she knows they are in the audience.
I met Charmaine personally the first night Snug re-opened after Hurricane Katrina. There were only about a dozen of us in the audience. I’ve made sure to say ‘Hello’ to her before or after a show ever since. On this particular evening, I mentioned to her that my son, a drummer, had been with us.
“Where is he?” she demanded. I motioned to the street outside saying that he had already gone out the door. Charmaine marched out to where my three sons were standing with my husband and asked, “Which one is the drummer?” I pointed to Marshall.
“Come on back in,” she ordered. “I want you to play with me in the next set. Come on.” My son, who is shy for a drummer, followed her inside because it was clear that Charmaine was not going to take “No” for an answer.
Midway through her second set, she asked Marshall to come and sit in. Her drummer passed over the sticks to my son and, as he settled in, she asked him to tell the audience where he was from, what the name of the band was and what they played. Then they started up. Marshall was clearly nervous at first but began to get into the music as they jammed. Afterwards, Charmaine gave him a hug and told him he could play with her anytime he was in town.
It’s that kind of nuturing spirit that both Marsalis and Charmaine were and are known for: the tradition of handing down from one generation to another the gift of music. With Marsalis’ passing this last week, that responsibility now falls to all of those who he trained and shared his remarkable talent and love for the music.
Wyton reported in a Facebook post, that his father said to his son Wyton just a few days before he died when his son cautioned him about COVID-19: “Man, I don’t determine the time. A lot of people are losing loved ones. Yours will be no more painful or significant than anybody else’s.” While his words are true enough, it can be said that his passing leaves a very empty spot at the piano at Snug Harbor.
The crisp, clear autumn days of the Pacific Northwest draw you outdoors to garden, hike or just take a walk, as I did one recent Sunday. I borrowed my neighbor’s dog, Tuppie, and together we strolled down the hill and onto the campus of Western Washington University (WWU). WWU is a beautiful setting this time of year for a leisurely walk. It’s a long campus that stretches across 220 acres and backs up against the 620-foot hill of Sehome Arboretum this time of year, the deciduous trees of the arboretum turn a golden yellow and are stunning against the deep color of the towering evergreens.
The campus is full of color too as the trees there, set against the red brick and brown stone buildings, are vibrant reds, oranges and yellows and shed their leaves to carpet the walkways through the commons.
I’m fortunate to live close to campus so that on weekends, when the campus is quiet and crowd free, I can take a relaxing walk through it. The university is home to one of the finest college contemporary outdoor sculpture collections in the United States. Founded in 1960, the collection has grown to include at least 37 public sculptures in large part due to funding from the state’s one percent for art program the National Endowment for the Arts and through the generosity of the Virginia Wright Fund.
Scattered throughout the campus are monumental works by such renown sculptors as Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Beverly Pepper, Nancy Holt and Tom Otterness. It’s amazing to be able to amble through at one’s leisure, stopping along the way to study and view these public art pieces. Autumn is an especially wonderful time to admire and photograph them because the rich colors of the season seemed to bring out the weathered patinas of the works.
On this particular autumn day, I decided to photograph some of them even though I had only the camera on phone with which to do it. (Poor planning on my part.) Seeing them against the autumn palette of the campus trees and vegetation painted vivid images. Tuppie, my black and white canine companion on this day, was patient as I squatted, knelt down, backed up and moved in and out searching for the best angle that would convey what I was seeing. Fortunately, she was happy enough to sniff out the surrounding territory as I was angling about.
Red Square is an expansive red brick plaza surrounded on three sides by classroom buildings on three sides and the university’s library on one. Near the center is a big circular pool with a fountain that sprays jets of water high overhead. Noguchi’s big iron block sculpture sits diagonally from the fountain. It’s balanced on three corners with huge holes punched through its three upward-facing sides so that when standing beneath it your gaze is directed skyward. There’s something very hopeful to me about this sculpture because it raises you up, just by unconsciously forcing you to look upward. I love standing inside, watching the clouds above shift and change. And when you’re within the sculpture, it’s as if you’re observing everything outside of it unseen as people pass by.
The newest addition to the collection is a split boulder, polished on its two faces and dotted with subtle pastel dots that remind me of the colors I saw at Arizona’s Grand Canyon. “Split Stone, Northwest,” by Sarah Sze was installed in May, 2019. It sits on the grassy lawn with the university’s Old Main Administration building rising in the background. At one time, another sculpture, Donald Judd‘s “Untitled” stood near here but was removed five years ago to be restored after the welded seams that held together the structure’s steel slabs began to deteriorate. The sculpture has just recently been resited on campus, on the grassy area next to the university’s Flag Plaza at the south end of the campus. I have yet to see it in its new spot as this autumn walk took place before the piece was replaced.
One hour after I had set out with Tuppie for a 30-minute dog walk, I was back home, refreshed by having taken the time to not only stop at some of the sculptures but to capture them in the morning autumn light and color. Even though I have taken that same path many times over, today’s was like a new adventure. It’s the impact that public art, like this university’s incredible collection, can have on a person.
“Can meet for quick lunch at 1:30. You need to pick place.” The text from my son, Tim, came in at 11:30 a.m. I had just enough time to change clothes, walk to the subway and travel from where I was staying in Brooklyn to 63rd and Park in Manhattan where my son was working for the day.
Fortunately I had a little extra time because I accidentally round myself on the wrong train. Luckily, I soon discovered my mistake and was able to get off and switch to another train that delivered me within blocks of my destination.
I walked from the station up Lexington Avenue looking for a restaurant where my son and I might meet to eat. At 62nd I turned to head over to Park Avenue and then up towards 63rd Avenue. I saw the building where my son was working but no restaurants or cafes. So I started back towards Lexington. I hadn’t quite gotten to Lexington when a sign on a wall caught my eye. “Maurice Sendak Exhibition and Sale,” it read. The poster featured an illustration I recognized from the Sendak’s classic children’s book, “In the Night Kitchen.”
Curious, I opened the red door, stepped inside 128 E. 63rd and found myself at the Museum of Illustration. The museum, founded in 1981, is the home of the Society of Illustrators, established in 1901 to promote the art of illustration. Its membership has included such illustrious artists as N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, among others. The five-story townhouse was purchased in 1939 by the society for its headquarters and over several years was renovated to create offices for the society, two galleries and a bookstore on its lower floors for special exhibitions and programs and on the third floor a lounge and library for its membership. In the 1960s, that space was converted into a handsome bar and a cozy but airy dining room that, I discovered, is open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. for lunch.
It was an ideal spot for my lunch with my son and sent him a message to join me there. In the meantime, I walked into the main gallery where the works of illustrator Maurice Sendak were on display. Sendak is regarded by many as “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Night Kitchen” were two of the best read books on my sons shelf when they were growing up so it was a treat to see Sendak’s original sketches, watercolors and ink drawings in this special exhibition. More than one hundred pieces hung on the walls representing some of Sendaks’ rarest work from his books, theatre designs and commercial assignments. Incredibly, all of them were for sale but at prices beyond my pocketbook.
I hadn’t quite finished viewing the entire exhibit when my son came in. Given his limited 30-minute time for lunch, we went directly upstairs to the bistro, took a table and quickly ordered. I chose the Cobb salad which was fresh and delicious and reasonable. Halfway through my meal, Tim received an alert on his phone from a friend.
“Where’s your meeting?” he asked referring to my appointment that afternoon. I told him. “You’re not going there,” he said firmly. The area, he explained, had been placed on ‘lock down’ when pipe bombs, delivered to various locations throughout the city, had been discovered.
With my meeting postponed, I suddenly had two free hours. I decided since I was already there, and somewhere safe, to spend the afternoon at the museum and its relaxing bistro. I went back to the Sendak exhibit and finished looking at the Sendak exhibit. Then I worked my way up the artwork hanging on the stairway wall to the narrow halls of the second floor where illustrations by the members and now in the society’s permanent collection of 2,500 were
displayed. Magazine illustrations, comic books drawings and cartoons was included.
I returned to the third floor bistro so I could have a closer look at the Norman Rockwell mural that permanently hangs over the bar in the lounge and the illustrations from Mad Magazine and E.C. Comics in the Tales from the Crypt special exhibit. A number of the bold, strongly stylized black and white comic book illustrations came from horror titles, appropriate since Halloween was just around the corner. Weird Fantasy, Weird Science, Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt were among the comic book titles represented. The illustrations were detailed, gory and violent in some. Their graphic-ness disturbed some when they first appeared but their creators were also pointing out hypocrisy, prejudice and inhumanity. More than 70 pen and ink drawings from the 1950s by some of the genres most celebrated comic artists were on view. I took my time examining each and reading the extensive commentary written by the curator Rob Pistella.
The afternoon went by quickly. Before I knew it, it was time for me to leave for my appointment rescheduled from earlier that day. My plans had taken a sudden turn and given me the unexpected time to spend in this little unassuming New York museum. In future trips, I’ll check the museum’s calendar and gladly return to the bistro for another lunch.
One of the things I love about travel is the surprises it often brings, even when the trip is tightly scheduled, as it was for me on a recent visit to New York City. In town for both business and personal reasons, I managed to work in some unexpected stops at a couple of places in the city I’d not been previously.
The first came on Tuesday. My day was full of meetings with me running back and forth from Greenwich Village to the lower West Side on the subway. It started with a lovely lunch meeting at Mary’s Fish Camp in the Village; then I hopped the Number 1 train to my next appointment on 29th and 7th Ave after which I returned to the Village to drop in on a filmmaker at her office in the West Village.
With my day over, I had a couple of hours free before I was to have dinner with my son. I had learned about an exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology called quite simply: “Pink.” In all the years that I’ve been to New York, I had never gone to this little museum, located on 7th Avenue and at 27th street on the college’s block long campus. FIT is part of the State University of New York‘s system and focuses on those disciplines related to the fashion industry.
The special exhibit, “Pink: The History of a Pretty, Punk, Powerful Color,” explores the changing significance of the color pink in fashion over the past three centuries. It’s eye-popping displays of mannequins dressed in clothing from the 18th to the mid-20th century are elegant, colorful, curious and brilliant. Represented in the 80 ensembles is everything from glamorous gowns to hip-hop influenced threads. Children’s clothing from the past are presented as are contemporary men’s and women’s suits, dresses, pants and lingerie. From high fashion to the everyday, it’s all included in this special exhibit.
You’ll see designs by such contemporary fashion industry giants as Valentino, Gucci,Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. And there are styles by the more avant-garde such as the Japanese designer, Rei Kawakubo. It’s quite a treat to see some of these styles up close and so beautifully shown.
Hot pink, pastel pink, pale pink, bright pink. Every imaginable shade of the color can be found in the exhibit. “Pink” curator Valerie Steele also places into perspective the color culturally and explores how it came to be so strongly gender associated with women. That was not always the case. In fact, you learn in the exhibit that pink had neither a feminine nor masculine connotation in the 18th century but rather was associated with “elegance, novelty and aristocratic splendor.” Perhaps one explanation for this is because the dye used to produce the brighter shades of the color popular at the time was newly discovered and came from Brazil, undoubtedly making it an expensive and limited to only those who could afford it.
The idea that pink was for girls didn’t taken hold until the early 1900s and was further reinforced with the highly publicized purchase in the 1920s by railroad tycoon Henry Huntington of artist Thomas Gainsborough‘s renowned paintings, “The Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence. In the 1950s, according to the curator’s commentary, that the stereotype solidified. But the exhibit also explores how other non-Western cultures have embraced and continue to use the color in dressing both sexes.
I spent nearly two hours browsing through and photographing the exhibit. Pink is, after all, one of my favorite colors (as long as it’s a warmer toned pink). I have had and still have a lot of pink in my wardrobe. When I was a teenager, my bedroom walls were painted a hot pink. So the FIT show was an appropriate stop for me to make.
The clothing in FIT’s exhibit is handsomely and tastefully lit against black backgrounds that make the clothing and the color stand out. If you find yourself headed to New York between now and Jan. 5, plan to visit the FIT exhibit and museum. Admission is free, it’s fairly easy to get to by public transit and it’s certainly not an exhibit that you’re likely to find elsewhere.
As for my other ‘surprises’ from this trip, you’ll need to wait for an upcoming blog.
“We are all one. No matter whether the color of our skin is brown, black, white, red, yellow; no matter whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist; no matter where we come from. We are all one,” said artist and former timber businessman David Syre welcoming guests to the dedication of the 38-foot story pole he commissioned to stand on his Whatcom County farm.
I was fortunate to have been among the 100 who attended that recent rainy day having been invited by a friend who was the guest of the artist, Lummi carver Felix Solomon. I had met Solomon just the week prior at his home where he graciously took me out to his workshop where the totem lay awaiting transport to its new home. The 35-foot cedar log had been transformed by Solomon over the past several months from a rough piece of timber into a majestic and colorful totem. Solomon had been given little guidance by the commissioning Syre, leaving it up to the master carver to come up with the figures and design for the pole.
Solomon drew on his familiarity with the work of carver Joseph Hillaire, in carving this pole, to carve both sides of the pole instead of just one. Hillaire (1894-1967) is regarded as one of the greatest Coast Salish artists and carvers of the 21st century. His work was extensive but may be best remembered for his two friendship poles carved for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, one of which went to Kobe, Japan where it was placed. Hillaire and a generation of Lummi carvers ahead of him instituted what is known as ‘story poles,’ according to Seattle Art Museum curator Barbara Bretherton. The poles are tall like totem poles but they tell a story.
Solomon’s story pole represents “The Creation of Life Story.” At the top of the pole is the eagle, the being that flies closest to the spirit world but is still connected to the earth, according to Solomon. The moon in its talons represent feminine energy and the reproductive cycles.
Directly below are placed the faces of five animals found on Mount Baker, the Nooksack River and in the Salish Sea–the wolf, the mountain goat, the bear, the cougar and the sea wolf or Orca.
Next comes the design which Solomon received special permission to use in this pole, the Sun Dog, which was on the door of the Lummi Nation chief when they signed the Treaty of 1855 with the United States. In that treaty, the Lummi relinquished much of their native homeland but they retained the rights to the natural resources found there, specifically the salmon, and have seen themselves as protectors of these resources ever since. It is one reason the Lummi Nation has been a key activist in local, state and regional environmental issues.
Below the Sun Dog design is a concave oval that Solomon says represents the Lummi elders and ancestors. The crescents on the side are the voices that pass down the tribe’s stories from one generation to
On the back side of the pole are rain clouds that pour into the Nooksack River with the River Woman holding a basket of life in her hands. At the bottom can be seen spirit dancers, two-legged humans who were the last to be created.
In order to accommodate the 39-foot cedar log from which the totem was carved, Solomon had to expand his workshop by building on an addition. The massive totem took Solomon months to hand carve once he worked out the design. It had to be specially engineering with hidden reinforcements from the bottom so that it would stand securely once positioned into place. Just sliding the pole from Solomon’s workshop and hoisting it carefully onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the Syre farm was in itself an engineering feat. Solomon gratefully recognized those responsible for that part of the project during the dedication ceremony.
Originally, the ceremony had been planned to take place around the totem. But rain forced organizers to move it to under the tent that had been erected for the grilled salmon luncheon that followed. Before the ceremonies began, Beverly Cagey brushed the pole with branches of cedar, blessing it while her husband, Jack and their grandson, Hank, accompanied with singing a chant and drumming.
Guests gathered beneath the big tent, just steps away from the log cabin that stood close by the Nooksack River. Nooksack tribal drummers led the small procession that included both the artist and the patron down the short path from the cabin to the tent where Darrell Hillaire, Lummi Nation elder, stood at the microphone waiting to introduce the speakers and witnesses and welcome the day’s guests.
Syre spoke and told how he viewed this story pole as one of unification. Solomon thanked him for the opportunity, gave a brief description of his work on the pole and recognized those on his team who had assisted during the process. Then, as is tradition, Solomon presented the four ‘witnesses’ he had designated for that day with ceremonial blankets which each of them draped over one shoulder for their turn to speak about what they had ‘witnessed’ that day. Among them was a childhood friend of the host, a Nooksack tribal member, who remembered the times the two had together playing along the river and in the woods on the farms where they grew up. They had not seen each other in nearly 50 years and had, as
the friend put it, “a lot of catching up to do.”
Jack Cagey, a Lummi Nation elder, stood from his place at the table where I was sitting and spoke of the need for greater communication between generations, for the need to talk face-to-face and not just through electronic devices. Another of the witnesses, Candy Wilson, read a poem that I found particularly moving, the name of which I unfortunately missed in her introduction. Their words were eloquent, appropriate and heartfelt. Clearly they were speaking about more than just the pole; they were making a case of for humanity and the practice of it towards one another.
Ninety-minutes later, the ceremony drew to a close and everyone was invited, elders first, to share in the grilled salmon luncheon that had been prepared especially for the day. The meal is as much a part of these ceremonies as the ceremony itself because it gives time for those who gathered that day to share not only food with one another with stories across the table.
By the end, the rain that had steadily fallen had stopped so that people could walk across the field to where the story pole towered and admire Solomon’s finished work. Indeed, it is a commanding and colorful piece. It is one of Solomon’s finest accomplishments to date. The public isn’t likely to see this fine story pole unless they catch a glimpse of the eagle’s upward extended wings from the country road that passes close by the pole’s location., ut it’s sure to stand for a very long time on this private property as a powerful reminder that, in the words of Syre: “We are all one.”
Summer is a reason in itself to celebrate in the Pacific Northwest but this summer, there’s one more thing to celebrate and that’s the silver anniversary of the Bellingham Festival of Music.
I’ve written before here about the festival which happens every July since I moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham. In fact, the festival is one of the reasons that brought me and my family to Bellingham. Although I didn’t realize, the festival at the time we first began to consider and explore this area was only three years old. As the three visits we made before deciding to relocate here were all in August, we missed the festival but became aware of it.
Soon after settling in, we began to buy tickets to attend some of the concerts and we’ve been faithful festivalgoers ever since. Through the years, we’ve heard some amazing music performed by an orchestra with top-notch players from major orchestras around the country, including the N.Y. Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony and the Montreal Symphony. And the guest artists who have soloed with them are world-class. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here in my small community listening to the kind of classical concerts that you usually only find in large, metropolitan cities.
For any music festival to have survived 25 years is an accomplishment, let alone one that thrives in a community of 100,000 (and less when it first began) and now runs on all volunteer help. Much credit must be given to the festival’s hard-working boards who put in hours and hours of time all year to bring the festival together.
A salute must also be given to the man who’s been the artistic director and conductor since the beginning, Michael Palmer. Palmer, who I’ve come to know in recent years, has a gift for pulling together musicians, most of whom only play together once a year, to present tight, strong performances of classical favorites as well as contemporary new pieces. It’s a strenuous and demanding job in the three short weeks of the festival’s duration.
Of course without such talented and professional musicians, the festival would not nearly be the quality it is. Sitting among the ranks of players are the first oboist for the Boston Symphony, the first violist of the Cincinnati Symphony, the first clarinet and flutist from Atlanta’s Symphony and the first bassist from Seattle’s Symphony, to mention but a few.
This year, much to my delight, also joining the violin section is a young woman named Rachel Frankenfeld Charbel who grew up in Bellingham, played in the Sehome High School orchestra before going off to college at the University of Texas in Austin to study music. She was among one of my sons’ closest friends as a kid and now plays with the Cincinnati Symphony. It makes the festival’s 25th anniversary particularly special to those of who have watched her mature into the fine musician she now is.
Also special to Bellinghamsters is the Calidore String Quartet that has become recurring guest artists at the festival. This young, gifted ensemble has emerged as a major chamber group winning awards, prizes and recognition throughout the world. To have them return every year for the festival is a special treat for all of us. The violist also happens to also be a Bellingham native and coincidentally, a classmate of Charbel’s.
Only three concerts remain in this year’s 25th anniversary season; one this evening with guest violinist Simone Porter playing Prokofiev’s “Violin Concert No. 1 in D Major;” a free chamber concert on July 18 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art and the final closing concert on July 20 featuring the festival chorus singing Poulenc’s “Gloria” with the orchestra. If you’re in close range, I encourage you to attend one of these and if not this year, plan to go next year and celebrate yet another season with the Bellingham Festival of Music.
On this weekend in the U.S., people are honoring the memories of the country’s military who died in action. But another memorial is on my mind today prompted by an article that appeared the other day in the local newspaper. That is the beautiful totem pole memorial that stood along the trail of Whatcom Creek on the edgeof Whatcom Falls Park in our city.
Sadly, the totem was recently removed, I read in the Bellingham Herald after someone vandalized and ‘tagged’ the pole with graffiti. Not long ago, a friend of mine had told me that the box that sat atop the pole, was missing and wondered why. Now the entire pole and the two carved wooden benches that sat beside it are gone after city workers removed them and placed them in protective storage until they can be restored.
While the city’s action is commendable, that of the vandals was disrespectful and, frankly, inexcusable. I am giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt that they apparently are unaware of that they not only did they deface a significant Native artwork, but in so doing they insulted the artist, the Lummi Nation and the families of those killed in the 1999 Bellingham pipeline explosion for whom the pole was intended to memorialize.
The 15-foot cedar log pole was created by the Lummi House of Tears carvers under the direction of Lummi Nation’s master carver Jewell James. Its bright, bold and beautiful paint was applied under the supervision of head painter Ramona James. The pole took months to carve and paint before finally being erected and dedicated during an Earth Day ceremony in 2007. “The pole is to restore the stream and its habitat and to remember the three boys who lost their lives,” carver James told American Profile reporter Heather Larson.
James referred to the three boys–Liam Wood, 18, Wade King and Stephen Tsiovras, both 10, who were killed when the Olympic pipeline (now owned by British Petroleum) carrying gasoline exploded dumping an estimated 277,000 gallons into the creek that runs through Whatcom Falls Park, located in the middle of Bellingham. Liam was fishing after having just graduated from high school; Wade and Stephen were playing, as they often did together, further down creek. It was a day that darkened the sky over Bellingham as the black cloud billowed above the park. The explosion literally stopped life in town as everyone, myself included, wondered what had happened and emergency first responders rushed to the site.
The explosion made national news, changed national pipeline regulation (although the families of those who died will tell you not enough) and some believe awoke Bellingham to the dangers that unregulated and aging pipelines pose for not only our city, but others like it throughout the country.
I was present, along with a few others, on the day of Lummi Nation gave and dedicated the totem and benches to the city. The ceremony was emotional and moving with other Pacific Northwest Native Nations witnessing the event in order to pass the story along to the next generation. Those gathered listened solemnly as carver James spoke eloquently about the need to promote healing for all those impacted by the explosions, wildlife as well as human life, and about the importance of being good stewards of the environment. Members of the Lummi Nation, also delivered a heartfelt messages for the family members attending. Lummi drummers and flutists played. Blankets were draped around the shoulders of the deceased boys’ young friends, now high school students, participating in the unveiling during the ceremony.
Then, James asked the family members of the victims to bring forward the items that they had brought to be placed into the memorial box positioned atop the totem. One by one the personal belongings of Stephen and Wade were handed up the tall ladder to the tribal member who carefully laid them inside. A teddy bear, a baseball card and cap were among the things. The lid was fitted tightly and sealed. Tears streamed down the faces of not only the family members but others who were that day.
And, as the ceremony was ending, two solitary eagles soared and glided over head, just as James had told Wade’s mother, Mary, earlier that day that they would.
It was a day I’ll never forget. When I read about the vandalism of the totem and its removal, my heart ached. The city is apparently intent on repairing and restoring the totems and benches but in the meantime, there is a huge emptiness where they stood in the opening by the creek. The runners, walkers and visitors who pass by it will miss it. The totem served as a somber, dignified reminder, as well as a memorial, to those who tragically died on that early June day in Bellingham. That’s what’s on my mind this Memorial Day.
This was supposed to be a piece about the fabulous cactus salad that my friend Juan Ramirez cooks up. But during the course of putting it all together the other evening, the topic turned to violins. Specifically, his violin.
A composer and violinist, Juan has been in residence in Bellingham for the past three weeks where he has played in the first violin section with the Bellingham Festival of Music orchestra. Last year, his work, “Suite Latina”, was performed by the orchestra with the Calidore String Quartet as soloists. The music evokes the sensuous dance rhythms of the composer’s native Mexico. The piece was originally written for string quartet and first performed at the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival in 2001. Juan adapted it for quartet and orchestra, especially for the Bellingham Festival where it was given its world premiere and a standing ovation from the audience.
But the celebrated composer is also known for culinary artistry as well, with his specialty being his native Mexican dishes, especially his mole, made from a family recipe. It’s a recipe that takes him three days to concoct and includes much grinding and pulverizing of ingredients using a blending machine from India in order to get just the right texture and consistency. Most Americans I know think of mole simply as sauce with Mexican chocolate as the key ingredient. Chocolate, specifically cocoa, is a main ingredient in Juan’s family recipe, but it is only one of 18 ingredients that go into his tasty, slightly spicy sauce. Adding his mole, which is more pasty than the runny stuff usually poured over standard Mexican fare, to homemade enchiladas or to chicken turns the ordinary into an extraordinary treat!
I watched Juan in my kitchen warming the mole on the stove and assembling the equally as delicious cactus salad made with nopales, or the big, flat paddle-like leafs from the prickly pear plant, that we began talking about violins.
I asked if he ever had any trouble traveling with his violin on airlines, given the recent headlines about one professional violinist whose instrument the airline, United, insisted be checked as baggage instead of carried on board with her. “Not since the new laws,” Juan answered referring to the FAA rules revisions in 2015.
Then I asked where, when and how he found his violin. “That’s a good story,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. His violin was made in 1748 by Carlo Antonio Testore of the Milano school of violin makers who were crafting their instruments in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It’s uncertain exactly how it came to America, but it was the possession of a plantation owner in Macon, Georgia prior to the Civil War. He gave it to one of his favorite slaves who, upon the plantation owner’s death, “laid this instrument away as a keepsake,” according to a 1916 letter detailing the history. The violin became the slave’s son, after his father died. The son had moved to the small town of Pratt, Kansas where he worked as a train porter.
At the mention of Pratt, I stopped Juan and told him that I was familiar with the town, having grown up in Kansas. What a coincidence, I thought, for a musician who lives in Atlanta and plays with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to be standing in my kitchen mentioning Pratt, Kansas! But the story continues..
The son, unable to pay a debt owed to F.A. Erwin, the writer of the 1916 letter, turned over the violin as payment. Eventually the Testore ended up in a violin shop in Wichita, Kansas. Juan was a student at Emporia State Teachers’ College (now Emporia State University) in Emporia, Kansas (also a place with which I am very familiar) when he visited the Wichita shop to have his bow rehaired. The shop owner took the violin out of its case, Juan said, and handed it to Juan to play. “I fell in love with it and the sound,” he recalls. But being a college student attending Emporia on a scholarship, he had no money with which to purchase it. The violin went back into its case.
Juan transferred from Emporia to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. When his teacher told Juan he needed a better violin he knew exactly the one he wanted. But when he contacted the Wichita violin shop owner Juan was told that an 80-year-old doctor had bought it for his son who had decided to take up the violin. Juan was disappointed.
Three years later, the violin shop owner notified him that he once again had the Testore violin. The doctor’s son, it seems, had switched from violin to accordion, and the violin was returned to the shop. Elated by the news, Juan dressed in his best clothes and walked down to the bank to ask for a loan in order to buy his prized instrument. With the money granted, Juan booked a flight and headed back to Wichita where the shop owner took the violin out once again and handed it over to Juan.
It has now been his violin for nearly 46 years and he’s not likely to part with it anytime soon. You might say the story has come full circle. Juan plays it as a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia, only a little more than an hour’s drive from Macon where the instrument first was traced. And in 1988, Juan took it with him to Milan, the city where it was made, and played it in the city’s cathedral.
His story wrapped up just as the cactus salad was ready to chill in the refrigerator. Those same hands, which so nimbly had moved all over the fingerboard during the playing of music by Leonard Bernstein in the concert the night before, now turned to the delicate task of rolling enchiladas drizzled, inside and out, with Juan’s grandmother’s mole. That is another story.
Birthday surprises usually come in the form of parties or gifts. I’ve received both. But last year for my birthday, I was surprised to learn about a new relative. And fortunately, it came as a welcomed surprise.
The news arrived not with someone standing on my door, but in the form of a large mailing envelope sent from Sweden. I immediately recognized the return address as that of Bo, cousin to my aunt Marie who was married to my father’s brother, Dale. I’ve known Bo nearly my entire life. His family and my own have become like extended family. I spend time with them whenever I go to Sweden, as I did earlier this summer.
When I opened the envelope from Bo, I expected to find a birthday card, but was surprised to find much more. Inside was a letter that read: “As you are very like Pippi Longstocking in many ways there is some connection to her in you I must say…As the author Astrid Lindgren who wrote the book is a kind of relative to your mother.” Along with the letter was a family tree linking my mother to the Swedish author as a fourth cousin. My mother’s fourth cousin?
What a discovery! Astrid Lindgren is one of Sweden’s most treasured authors. Her books about the freckled-faced, pig-tailed girl, Pippi Longstocking, has become a children’s classic throughout the world. Her books have been translated into 70 languages and made into several films and television series. There is even an Astrid Lindgren’s World, a children’s theme park and a popular family destination located outside Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby.
Lindgren herself was honored last year when her picture was placed on the 20 Swedish kronor, replacing that of another beloved Swedish children’s writer, Selma Lagerlöf. Bo had enclosed one of the freshly printed bills inside my letter. In addition, Lindgren and the characters from her books became the subject of a set of shiny silver commemorative coins. One of these, along with the folder with spots for the other coins, I also found in Bo’s package. I want to collect the entire set.
Having learned about my Lindgren connection, I of course made it a priority on my recent trip, to visit Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby where she was born, where she is buried and where Pippi’s adventures are set. It was a part of my trip to which I was most looking forward.
I drove into Vimmerby mid-afternoon on a Saturday. It was only a 48 minute drive inland from Vastervik, where my husband and I had disembarked from the Gotland ferry. The shops in Vimmerby’s town square had closed at two o’clock. I would not buy any Pippi Longstocking souvenirs to carry home. We strolled into the charming square, empty except for a handful of visitors like ourselves.
At one end of the square sat the old, mustard-colored Town Hall and opposite is a lovely hotel with patio tables on the porch. In the center of the square, near the hotel, are several small play structures taken from Lindgren’s books: a sailing ship,a cottage, Kindergarten-sized children were crawling in and out and climbing up and down in delight.
On the other side of the square, nearer the Town Hall, is a life-size sculpture of my famous cousin sitting at desk with a typewriter. It felt a little odd to meet my newly found relative in this way, but was quite an honor at the same time.
I next sought out her resting place in the neatly kept, hilltop cemetery. Thanks to some local residents, I found her gravestone, alongside that of her parents and sister. It was a simple stone for such a celebrated figure, quite humble and unassuming. I wondered if it reflected her personality in life.
As we walked back through the streets of Vimmerby we noted the spots where Pippi and her sidekick, Tommy, had their adventures. Then we headed out to the Lindgren family home, where Astrid was born and lived as a child. The little house is located on a farm known as Näs in Vimmerby. It stands exactly as it was when Astrid grew up there, having been restored by Lindgren herself. Tours of the house are available almost daily except when closed for the winter from mid-December until March. Unfortunately, we arrived after hours. Had someone been around I might have told them that I was a ‘cousin’ from the U.S., in hopes that they would take pity on me and allow me inside.
Also on the property, owned by the city of Vimmerby, stands a modern glass-walled exhibition hall where her life and achievements are displayed. But again, we were too late and unable to go in. I was disappointed but until only a year ago, I didn’t even know that the woman remembered here was even remotely related to me. Now that I do, I will return the next trip to see both the house and the museum.
Back in Stockholm, three long, large banners hung down from the city’s concert hall. On two of the red banners were the words: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award with the name and image of the winning author—Meg Rosoff—printed on the center banner. The award is presented annually to presented to authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and reading promoters to honor her memory and promote interest in children’s and young adult literature. It is the largest such literature award in the world.
Lindgren’s apartment in Stockholm where she lived for 61 years, is also open for tours but reservations must be made in advance. Even though we were unable to secure reservations, Bo accompanied me to apartment. The apartment itself looks out over a large park, Vasa Park, bustling with children. Lindgren would be pleased, I’m sure, to hear their gleeful shrieks and young laughter outside her window.
Next time I visit Sweden, I will return to these places for an inside tour. For now, however, I have the commemorative coins Bo sent to me and the 20 kronor bills that I collected and carried home to share with my family. How many people can say that their cousin appears on their national money? What a birthday surprise that was!