28 February 2012

Food, fabrics and yarn in Portland, Maine

On February 25-26, DH and I blew into Portland, Maine, to visit friends. It was wicked windy, as we say here in New England, so when I say "blew into," I mean it literally, as our trusty Honda was buffeted by arctic clipper winds all the way.

While Portland is justly celebrated for its lively waterfront - still a working port - a bit of online research led us to the road (somewhat) less traveled, edgy Congress Street.  In my "A to Z" report of our trip, I'll start with Z - Z Fabrics, at 316A Congress St.  However, if you visit after March 1, please note that the store is moving to 477 Congress St., having outgrown its current sliver of retail space. A nice, edited selection of fabrics, and I found just the right backing fabric for a quilt top.

Z Fabrics store, original space.
Next on our tour of Congress St. came the Angela Adams home furnishings store. Ms. Adams is a Maine native and has done her home state proud.

Angela Adams store.

Back into the cold outdoors but not for long, as we entered the cozy, wool-lined KnitWit shop at 247A Congress St.  A busy, lively place despite the shopper-discouraging blustery cold. Of course, there's no better place in winter than a friendly yarn shop.

KnitWit yarn shop. I bought yarn to make a hat to match my teal jacket.

Foodie images - including Katie Made Bakery, and mead tasting.

From fiber to food and drink - we left Congress St. and walked two blocks to the Maine Mead Works brewery (meadery?) for a mead tasting. No appointment, just show up. We tasted nine flavors of mead, which is wine fermented from honey, and liked the Blueberry and Dry Hopped best. Evidently 30% of Maine's bees now work for Maine Mead Works. Who knew?

We fueled up at lunchtime at Katie Made Bakery, a corner storefront at 147 Cumberland Ave., and each slurped a delicious cream of broccoli soup, before sharing a roast beef and caramelized onion sandwich. The cupcakes looked delicious; maybe next time.

Grace restaurant, a former church.

After taking in a Degas show at the Portland museum, we all enjoyed dinner at Grace restaurant. In a very imaginative example of adaptive reuse, the sanctuary of a deconsecrated church has become an eating place with just the right balance of fun and formality.  We enjoyed an excellent meal, comparable to anything in Manhattan, and at one-third the ticket price.

Japanese saying - we eat first with our eyes.
 I especially have to rave about one dessert - a peanut butter roulade with candied celery (lower right in the image above.) Remember eating peanut butter on celery sticks as a child (or an adult, for that matter)? Well, this version has gone to France and received Cordon Bleu certification. Sponge cake hugs a peanut butter filling;  neither cake nor filling are too sweet, and the candied celery provides a crisp herbal note that's just right.  A delicious way to cap our trip to Portland.

Images of Portland.

20 February 2012

Tammis Keefe website launched!

Silk-screen print designs by Keefe - handkerchiefs!
 In the words of the late Meg Greenfield, ground-breaking writer and editor at The Washington Post, "the fifties are a badly researched and badly reported time." (Quoted in New York in the 50's, by Dan Wakefield.)  Popular cultural history about the 1950's often places too much emphasis on the extremes of "atomic" design and the excesses of consumerism - the era is reduced to an effulgence of drip paintings, plywood chairs, avocado appliances and boomerang motif Formica.

Partly to help illuminate another side of the 1950's design legacy, but primarily because I love her work, my husband and I have created a website celebrating the work of an artist active in the 1950's who deserves to be better known - Tammis Keefe.  Learn more about Keefe, and see some of her delightful designs, here:
Tammis Keefe (1913-1960) 
Photo of Keefe credit: http://makingitfun.blogspot.com/2010/11/tribute-to-tammis-keefe.html

13 February 2012

Regional Islamic Art at the Met

Details, architectural elements and ceramic plate.

In January, DH and I traveled to Manhattan, visiting offspring and viewing an exhibit at The Cloisters (see previous post.)  After lunch, DH and I, refueled and recharged for another art excursion, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to check out the newly-reinstalled collection of regional Islamic art. The formal title of the installation, in fifteen galleries, is the rather cumbersome Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.  That last part is important, as there are now more people of the Islamic faith in Indonesia than in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran combined.

While more accurate than just the title Islamic art, which implies that all objects on view are a monolithic, uniform response to religious tenets, the new label is a bit unwieldy.  For convenience, I will refer to this exhibit as regional Islamic art.  Holland Cotter, whose work I generally love,  reviewed the exhibit for the New York Times, but fell into old habits of Orientalism with the title "A Cosmopolitan Trove of Exotic Beauty," and didn't help matters with phrases like "...regionally rooted but absorptively cosmopolitan." My thesis adviser at MIT would have scotched that adverb absorptively, and rightly so.  However, the Times has a wonderful interactive feature on the galleries, the Interactive Guide to Islamic Art. Visit it here http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/30/arts/design/20111030-met-islamic-wing.html?ref=design

Left, textile fragment. Right, wall tiles.
One of the best aspects of the new exhibit, especially for a textile junkie, is that no longer are items segregated by materials.  In the old days, all the ceramics and all the glassware, for example, were often grouped together in their own galleries. Major donors, such as Benjamin Altman, typically specialized in one type of object, gave their collections to the Met and wished to see their collections displayed more or less intact. In this scheme of things, fabric fragments, which did not display well on shelves, became curatorial step-children.

Although a gallery exclusively of glass, or of metalwork, is probably easier  to organize and display, integrating various materials makes clear how artisans from different regions and time periods approached recurrent themes and motifs. For example, in the image above, the wavy vine and flower motif was variously interpreted, in fabric and in tile, by two different designers making specific, informed choices about color, scale and form.  At long last, the curatorial emphasis shifts from the craftmanship and beauty of these objects - the technical achievement has long been admired - to the artistic interpretation of recurrent themes and meaningful symbols. Also, this inclusive approach makes the Met's collection of objects immensely more useful for artists and designers working today in various media. The two vine-and-flower interpretations have inspired me to sketch quilting designs for borders.

Details, textile fragments.
However, there is one throw-back to the former organizational concept of rooms dedicated primarily to objects of a single material, such as glass or ceramic, and that is a gallery of carpets, centered around the so-called Simonetti Carpet, woven about 1500, and, to paraphrase Holland Cotter, a portable monument. See it here: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/140009475

The Simonetti carpet, beneath a modern wood panel ceiling.
My image is a bit blurry, as the available light level is low to protect the pigments of the carpet, but in person this room just glows.  I wish a less visually intrusive railing had been installed, but understandably the Met needs to protect its masterpiece.

Nur ad-Din room, photo 1975, credit Metropolitan Museum.
Another special room is a reconstruction of a period reception room from a home in Damascus, dated 1707.  I couldn't get a good image without a fish eye lens, but the photo above, from 1975, gives an idea of the room.  With its geometric precision, and warm wood tones, an aura of orderly calm emanates from this space.

Gallery, with ceramics, metalwork, fabrics and carpet.
Most of the galleries feature a mixture of objects in different materials, grouped by chronology and geography.  Having said how wonderful it is to see the fabrics finally on display, I do have a quibble with the curators for placing some of the textile fragments too high for proper viewing! The galleries have double-height ceilings, which allows for large carpets to be hung vertically; in addition, the exhibit designers obviously didn't want to have a lot of empty wall space, so some textile fragments fill the upper walls.  It's better to have these fabrics on display rather than in eternal storage, but it is frustrating to have only a distant view of such detailed weavings; next time I'll bring binoculars!

Another gallery, with the Emperor's carpet.
Above is an overview of the gallery with the so-called Emperor's carpet, a fabulous knotted pile textile supposedly owned at one time by Peter the Great.  Seats and excellent lighting allow comfortable, up-close-and-personal viewing of miniature paintings.

Page from the Shahnama, or Book of Kings.
While representations of people are not common in religious buildings in many Islamic regions, there is nevertheless a strong tradition of figurative art in secular settings. 

Reciting Poetry in a Garden, tile panel, 17th century.

The geometric, floral and calligraphic traditions in Islamic regional art are well known,  and justly celebrated in these galleries.  Master craftmen were imported from Fez, Morocco, to create a courtyard based on patterns in the Alhambra. The artisans are doing plaster carving in the image below. In a nice touch, the gallery audio guide features the craftsmen speaking about their art, with translation. 

Image credit, the Metropolitan Museum.

Detail, contemporary carved plaster.
In addition to the audio guide and the interactive online guide, there is also an excellent online essay on the history of displays of regional Islamic art at the Met, by Rebecca Lindsey. http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/features/2012/displaying-islamic-art-at-the-metropolitan

Image from 1933 exhibit Plant Form in Ornament, with Iznik bowl, real carnations and Italian velvet. 
The image above is from Ms. Lindsey's essay. This 1933 exhibit was a repeat performance of a highly successful exhibit organized in 1918 specifically as an "industrial art" exhibit, a resource for manufacturers, artisans and designers. For me, this type of exhibit is the apogee of museum function - scholarship  and an exploration of the artistic process of abstraction which results in beautiful, timeless objects in various materials.  In this one example, the curator has joined the original source - the carnation - with the Turkish artist's floral abstraction in clay and glaze, and placed both bowl and flower on top of yet another interpretation, this time in fiber, by an Italian textile designer.  This example also shows why the word "exotic," besides being an explosive word in the world of art criticism, isn't accurate.  Patterns ultimately sourced from regional Islamic art have had a huge influence on Western consumer goods, whether the source is acknowledged or not.

The newest configuration of the regional Islamic art galleries doesn't have actual flowers - maybe for an Art in Bloom-like special event? However, the placement of objects in newly-orchestrated, rational groupings means that these works, besides eliciting an emotional response to their beauty, can begin a dialog with us about the cultures that produced them.  Greater comprehension will make the textiles, ceramics and other items no less marvelous to look at.

03 February 2012

New York Public Library centennial

Left Entrance. Right Lego lion, by Nathan Sawaya.

In January Jay and I went to New York, to see offspring before they became busy with their academic studies.  Research interests took us to the business and mid-town branches of the New York Public Library.  We also visited the mother ship itself: the famous New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.

Extended through March 4, 2012, the library presents a centennial show of the library's history, Celebrating 100 Years. For FREE, you can see, among other things, a Gutenberg Bible, a manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence, and e. e. cummings' typewriter, which does indeed have a shift key. Learn more here: http://www.nypl.org/, and look under menu heading "Classes and Events".

There is a self-guided tour brochure available.

Grand lobby. A Beaux-Arts Palace for books and people.

McGraw Rotunda.

One of the stations on the self-guided tour is the McGraw Rotunda, home to four realist murals painted by Edward Lansing as part of the Work Projects Administration program for artists. The oversize wall paintings were unveiled by Mayor LaGuardia in 1940.  If the theme of the murals - the history of the recorded word - were continued, what would any murals depict today? Jeff Bezos holding a Kindle? My husband, who himself has a dozen high-tech patents, ready to toss his Mac out the window as he confronts yet another bug in Microsoft's Word?

Medieval Scribe, Edward Lansing.
The library continues to collect all manner of artifacts, including contemporary prints, many of which are on display.

Details of prints by (left to right) Blanche Lazell, Ryan McGinness, and Sonia Delaunay.

Reading room with paintings of publishing headquarters, such as the Time building.

The library was built at a time when the phrase "aspirational consumption" applied to public buildings - by erecting such a rich environment for knowledge and learning, New York society sought to establish that it valued not just remunerative pursuits, but those of the mind as well.  The NYPL is an unusual entity, as it is funded through a combination of both public and private sponsorship. Fortunately a number of modern philanthropists have stepped up to the plate in recent times, meeting the demanding capital and maintenance needs of such a structure.  If only the access to the materials matched the excellence of the collection.