Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Fragile Nation



I have always taken my country for granted.  My mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, had a much more heartfelt response, aware of how different her life would have been had she not been born here.  Her mother as a girl had not been educated. Boys were educated, but not girls. That had always disturbed my mother and she in turn was deeply grateful to be an American, especially because of the education that she had received in the United States.  She had a special fondness for the American flag and the Statue of Liberty, symbols of that opportunity.

As for me, I was an American, but a jaded one. Aware of our less seemly history from our treatment of the American Indians, to our Jim Crow laws, to the blatant antisemitism of the first half of the 20th century. I brought a certain skepticism to flag waving. I never was a pep rally kind of gal, finding that rah rah approach pretty hollow. And I view nationalism as dangerous, the petri dish out of which bigotry is perpetuated. "I belong, you don't" is its inherent message.

Still, despite my skepticism, I believed that we as a country had made progress and had become a better nation. I believed that our movement in areas of LGBTQ rights suggested the growth of the people of this country. I looked at former President Obama as an indication that we had moved into a new era of greater openness to differences. Our country felt pretty sturdy to me throughout all these changes. Unshakeable I thought.

And then came Charlottesville. I knew there was a dark underbelly, but it remained largely unseen, no longer acceptable in public.  I watched as Trump stirred the pot, inciting racists and anti-Semites, opening the Pandora's box at the fault-line of civil society. With Charlottesville, I saw the unleashing of those demons. 
I suddenly realized that we are still a fairly young experiment in history, a country that is not defined by one heritage, but many, a country that has benefited from its immigrant history even as it has struggled with it. For every step forward, there is a backlash and I think that is especially true right now as minorities become majorities. Hopefully there will in turn be a backlash to Charlottesville as others too look on with horror.

For the first time I see the fragility of this country, as I watch the floodwaters rise, hoping that the bulwarks of courts and our system of checks and balances hold them at bay, hoping that the people of this nation have clarity and purpose about who we aspire to be and in turn demand it from the politicians who serve us. For the first time I feel a tenderness towards the beliefs which underlie this nation, as if it is a delicate seedling that I want to nurture and usher to safety.




Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Nature Museum

We are driving east across Montana on our way to Bismarck, ND. We pass fields with black cows, then expanses dotted with round hay bales.The rolling hills of gold have diminished from the the rugged cliffs of Billings, the layered geological forms of the Badlands, and the vast mountains of Glacier. As the land flattens, the world is sky and clouds. Soon the land will flatten still more. The road spools out before us, drawing us into the changing topography, so different than being delivered abruptly to our destination by plane.  

We are returning from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier where we met up with family; one daughter's family from California, the other Minnesota, meeting in the middle. It is satisfying to have most everyone reunited, a dozen of us, missing but one. This is not our typical vacation, usually transported by plane to a foreign city and immersed in museums.

In some ways it was not so different from our museum jaunts. I found myself considering color and line as I viewed the thermal springs of Yellowstone. The rich yellows, ochers and blues arrested my eye and the steam rising from the springs enveloped the scene in mystery. Lines were etched into the ground and ghostly white trees emerged from the depths. Yellowstone was rich in the elements that appeal to me as an artist. 

Glacier was immense in scope, but of such magnitude, that I found it difficult to visually frame its grandeur. When we went for a hike through the woods, I found myself focusing on more bite-size elements, the way light fell on trees and their sculptural forms, the mystery created by the interplay of light with shadow, the color of rocks as the water moved above them and the sun sparkling upon the surface of the water. 

I am not a landscape painter, but I found the abstraction of forms captivating. When I go through museums, I always am inspired to paint. The landscape inspired a similar response.



One day we stopped at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, curious what a museum in this part of the world might offer. We were pleasantly surprised. A painted river led the way into the museum which was housed in the old jail and still preserved its facade. There were a number of pieces by significant contemporary artists as well as work by artists who were inspired by the landscape. A juxtaposition of Thomas Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone with an installation by contemporary artist, Rosane Vochan O'Conor, also inspired by Yellowstone, was intriguing. O'Conor explored the imagery of Yellowstone through glass, ceramics and image, using the bacteria that create its rich colors as part of her source material.

As we went through the museum we heard the excited  pitch of children's voices. They soon filed in as their parents waited to collect them. 

We eavesdropped long enough to learn that they had participated in a program combining art and science. It obviously had been a success as they took their parents through the exhibit and excitedly shared what they had learned. We listened in amusement as one little girl enthusiastically explained to her mother the role of the bacteria captured in hanging glass forms. As we departed we followed the painted river to a nearby building called the Visible Vault which allows visitors to observe work on the holdings not currently on display.  We were impressed with the way the museum amplified our experience in the landscape and its successful engagement of children and their families. 

And now we return home, eager for this last leg to conclude. We have bid farewell to our Californians and caravan behind the trailer of our Minnesota family. It is a long drive, the reversal of the topography that unspooled on our drive out adds a certain closure to our experience as it slowly returns to the familiar.