Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Erica Ferencik owes Tyler Comrie, the book cover designer of her debut novel, a big thick moose steak lunch. 

Last week, while walking out of the library and passing by the new releases, Comrie's cover pulled me in like a rip current. I had to read this book. The cover begs the question: who could survive this raw rush of energy?

 The River at Night tears apart any beliefs you might hold dear about human superiority over Mother Nature. Ferencik's Maine wilderness is no place for Candace Bushnell. The novel's setting extends far beyond a few pushy squirrels in Central Park. Titillating her readers with danger from hungry wolves and bears in the shadows, Ferencik explores the relationship dynamics among four women who are on a river rafting trip, led by one self-styled "Mr. Big," all of the action by way of James Dickey's Deliverance

The story unfolds through the first person viewpoint of Winifred Allen. Win works as a graphic designer for a struggling food magazine in Boston. She seems as resigned to the inevitable pink slip as a trout is to the gnashing teeth of a black bear. ​She is also divorced and grieving the death of her brother. And then, there's the first-world blight of comfortable women. Win loathes the way she looks in her clothes.

Will Win find the courage to go freelance like real-life graphic designer Tyler Comrie? Fortunately, the story is more intriguing and complicated than a mid-career woman searching for the right job, the right man, the right ordinary life. 

"The doors to the wild Self are few but precious," writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype. Ferencik sends Win down deep to find those doors through past tragedies, emotional pain and disappointments. The river shows no mercy to the self-created narratives Win has for living small. 

The River at Night

Erica Ferencik's debut novel serves as testimony to how a writer becomes an "overnight success" in thirty years.

The River Runs Deep

​There are a few spots early in the novel where you feel the author's scaffolding of the story has been left in place. Perhaps some might say "still water runs deep." Once the action starts, Ferencik's prose shows her wild Self. This novel is a terrific ride. 

"We whipsawed around a bend, and everything changed again...A meringue of white water for what seemed like miles. Water quickened, leapt, broke, and foamed again. And always we kept falling, the river dropping out from under us again and again. Blinded by white waves that broke over our heads, we banged down and down, my knees and spine stunned and throbbing with pain."

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

River and Rocks

When There's a Will There's a Way

Through the churning water, the bone-chilling cold, and vicious mosquitos that you'll swear are biting at your neck as you turn each page, there's more to this thriller. I won't spoil what happens next to Win, Pia, Rachel and Sandra because this novel belongs on your summer reader list. A River at Night is one one book that you can judge by its cover. 

Academic Publishing Hashtags and Where to Find Them

Hashtags, those old-fashioned pound signs (#) that we place in front of words to organize our information and spark conversations (#helloitsspring) on social platforms, could have been claimed as intellectual property and patented by former Google designer Chris Messina

In this interview with Business Insider, Messina said​: "The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea."

Messina's intellectual property is the string of code he wrote for the hashtag. This handy symbol pulls together topics of interest, allowing readers to search for related people, places, things, and events across the Internet. As writers, editors and publishers, how do we harness this "stupidly simple but effective idea?"

This blog post provides an overview of three tools:, RiteTag and Tagboard.

Chris Messina Tweet

Initially, Twitter rejected Messina's suggestion about the hashtag as "too nerdy," translated to mean, perhaps, it's tailor-made for conversations among academics and their publishers. 

How Hashtags Work

A hashtag's power comes from its relational connections to content. The three tools discussed in this post allow you to weigh the value of hashtags in relation to your goals and audience. To go a step further, you can dig deeper into these relationships by frequency, influence, time of day, among other parameters. 

Keep in mind a hashtag does not deliver equal results across all social platforms. In fact, if you use hashtags on Facebook, for example, the hashtag appears to trigger something akin to Hester Prynne wearing the Scarlet Letter, directing readers away from your content. According to a 2016 study by Buzzsumo, Facebook posts without hashtags have significantly higher levels of engagement. 

Alternatively, hashtags can be excellent tools for facilitating engagement on platforms such as Google+, Instagram, and of course, Twitter. ​

3 Hashtag Tools to Focus Your Influence in Academic Publishing

As a new member of the Society for Scholarly Publishers, I'm looking forward to the annual meeting in Boston, May 31 to June 2, 2017. The meeting hashtag is #SSP2017. Since there is not much activity with this specific hashtag yet, I used last year's hashtag (#SSP2016) to identify conversation influencers from the 2016 conference.

Tool #1: You'll notice in this graphic (right) that we are looking at  #SSP2016 in the center and the spokes of 10 related hashtags. At first blush, the related hashtags do not provide much insight. However, the Top Influencers tab was more helpful. In addition to learning about the size of each network, I played around with several hashtags in relation to these influencers and found valuable information. 

SSP 2016 Top Influencers's Top Influencer feature cuts to the chase.

hashtags data by

Tool #2: RiteTag: This tool is visual and intuitive. The algorithm called to my attention that #SSP2016 is a hashtag used in multiple contexts. So while I had the sense from that the related hashtags were not helpful, I recognized immediately why in RiteTag

By design, a conference hashtag has a short lifespan. To mine the hashtags for more value, I took advantage of RiteTag's comparative horsepower. I selected the following hashtags: #copyright, #scholcomm, #scholarlywriting, #phdlife, #publishing, #academicwriting, #books, #AcWriMo, #scholarly, #editors, #universitypress #pubtech, #articlewriting, #academicpublishing, #openaccess.

In this second screenshot, we see what is trending in the moment. RiteTag gives helpful tips for pairing hashtags in relation to conversation trends. For example, while I am writing this blog post, tweets containing the hashtags #socialmedia paired with #scholcomm are trending. Before I schedule the post link for Twitter, I can select the optimal hashtags as well as the best days and times to share the link. 

Word of Caution​

​If you are like me, you could spend hours frolicking among the hashtags, losing focus and wasting valuable time. To stay on task, you might try these tips.  

  1. ​Before you begin, write down the goal of the exercise and refer to it in order to stay out of the weeds. 
  2. Use the platform's own save feature or a curation tool such as Pocket or Evernote to save searches for future reference. (For example, save your search by using tags such as: Twitter, How to Hashtags, Ritetag).
  3. Set a time limit and stick to it. 
SSP2016 Tag on Rite Tag

By design, a conference tag has a short life span. It's ideal for live tweets from the conference; but the farther away in time, the more diluted the hashtag becomes by other conferences with using the same hastag. 

Popular Twitter hashtags for scholcomm

RiteTag gives helpful tips for pairing hashtags in relation to conversation trends. Multiple studies show two hashtags per tweet is optimal for engagement on Twitter.  

Tool #3: Tagboard: The clean, sleek, and ridiculously simple design of Tagboard makes it a pleasure to use for hashtag research. 

From the screenshot, you'll notice Tagboard displays hashtag results by network and post type. ​Because each social network has its own audience (similar to cable channels), you do not want to post the same content across all networks. The Tagboard channel and post filters make it easy to see current content and presentation style.

Immediately, I see three benefits.

  1. Tagboard is a useful curation tool for influencer content that I might want to share in my networks.
  2. Tagboard's visual content layout offers insight into what types of original content would work best on specific channels.  
  3. I can comment and engage with the audience directly in the Tagboard interface. This is a big plus. 

Tagboard displays hashtag results by network and post type. 

Hashtag Ownership is Based on Influence

Hashtags are easy to learn, flexible, and a powerful way to segment conversations. I encourage you to create a goal, make a list of hashtags, and try out all three tools. Not only might you be more influential in social conversations than you think, you might also discover new opportunities to engage with colleagues and to make new connections. Please share your thoughts and favorite tools in the comments section.

For my networking goal, I believe Tagboard's functionality is a good choice. Below is the Tagboard I created. I look forward to meeting you in Boston!


My Tagboard to follow and engage in conversations about the Society for Scholarly Publishers Annual Meeting in Boston. The skyline image of Boston is from, which is my favorite site for royalty-free images. I created the header in Canva

Coda: An SNL #Hashtag Blast from the Past

Lincoln on the Importance of Writing

The Sugar Palace in Darrow, Louisiana, once home to 753 slaves, is the last place I expected to see Abraham Lincoln. This magnificent sculpture in Houmas House (formerly the Sugar Palace) is remarkable. According to the docent leading the tour, four of these sculptures were made. Three are accounted for with collectors. One is missing (a tantalizing mystery for a future novel). And just to put Houmas House in historical context, it was the largest sugar plantation in the country at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. 

Lincoln on the Importance of Writing​

While American marketing campaigns focus on George Washington as a backdrop for selling cars and winter closeouts, it is Presidents' Day plural, meaning it does include Abraham Lincoln. On this day of honoring Lincoln, his voice, captured in the two quotes selected for this post, is as powerful today as it is prescient. 

Abraham Lincoln

"Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world...enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space." ​

​In his speeches and letters, Lincoln possessed an indelible fearlessness, which we are so hungry for in this world. This quote about writing is from Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3

More the 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln, (only Jesus Christ is the subject of more books). 

Have you read a biography of Lincoln? Please share in the comment section. ​

Are the American People Listening? 

"If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted."

A Man for Our Times

In last week's New York Times Book Review, Colson Whitehead reviewed George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth. 

So, Let's Suppose​

Lincoln is, literally, in the Bardo right now. We know from his writing that he believes time and space are fluid states. What question would you ask him?

Now, more than ever, we need his answers. 

Please post your questions in the comment section.  ​

6 Secrets to Reading Like a Publisher

Publishing is a competitive business. Can you recall a writing conference that did not include overcrowded sessions on how to pitch an editor? 

Neither can I.​

As Stephen King once said...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

While conference speakers expound on the editor as "champion for your book," they pay scant attention to an editor's process of reading a manuscript. Granted, every editor is different; but, every editor is also responsible for turning a profit on the books they acquire for publication. Successful editors have a process for reading manuscripts with business acumen and efficiency.

A major part of the "hard work" King refers to means that you, the writer, must broaden your reading skills in order to think like an editor who acquires manuscripts. 

In this post, I share my 15-years of experience reading and buying nonfiction books for publishers such as HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Routledge, and McGraw-Hill International.

Talent is cheaper than table salt

Reading Like a Publisher 

Secret #1: The writer's voice is obvious in a 90-second cold read​.

I love an amazing first sentence as much as the next editor. However, I like to pick a manuscript page at random in order to start reading wherever my eye lands on the text. I do this because I know you've been trained at workshops to make the first page sing like an opera star. But can you sustain your voice throughout the manuscript? That is the question I turnover in my mind while I read on. 

Secret #2: From reading the manuscript, what other medium could showcase the writer's voice and story?

​In my General Interest Books (trade publishing) course at Pace University, I required the graduate students to read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda, now retired editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. These students represent the future of publishing. One day soon, these new editors will evaluate your manuscripts. When I opened our class discussion by asking about their first impressions of Korda's book, the first student said, "it would be a great book if it had pictures."  The rest of the class agreed.

This soon-to-be editor knows by instinct that the future of storytelling is visual. And, a good agent knows that the greatest earning potential comes from the myriad of licensing opportunities in multiple mediums for your work. The more licenses sold, the more opportunities for the publisher to sell books.

Today's editor reads manuscripts while thinking about tomorrow's new revenue sources.  

Secret #3: The market for this manuscript is ....

A book's category must be clear to the editor, the marketing and sales teams, and, most important, to readers. Editors understand the market dynamics in their list category, including the nuanced differences among authors. 

While reading a manuscript, even now as a consultant, I jot notes while making comparisons based on the subject, the market, your brand, platform, and how your book compares and contrasts to other titles. To learn more about specific categories, I recommend that you review the BISC codes. Published by the Book Industry Study Group, these codes are used by publishers and booksellers to place your title in the appropriate category on the bookshelf and to appear in reader search queries on Amazon. Like the editor, your job is to be confident where your book fits in its category. 

Secret​ #4: What is different in this manuscript and what makes this difference significant? 

Here's where your title and subtitle are critical. The main title represents the book's promise to the reader. The subtitle explains how you deliver the promise to the reader. In marketing parlance, this is your value proposition. To illustrate this point, here are three nonfiction books I'm in the process of reading.

1. ​Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura. The main title marries two evocative concepts: silence and beauty. The subtitle sends me off on a challenging journey. Suffering is a necessary catalyst in order for me to uncover, feel, accept, and transform my personal understanding of faith. 

2. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Revolution is a powerful word. What kind of revolution am I going to learn about? The Blockchain Revolution. What do these authors promise to explain to me? They are going to show me why they believe the technology behind Bitcoin is going to transform how people conduct all business and social financial transactions. 

3. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin​. Love it! The main title is slang for money. The subtitle explains who needs the money (writers) and what writers want most (after readers, of course) to make a living from their writing. Hallelujah.  

Secret #5: How has the manuscript changed and/or deepened my perspective?

It is often said that Joseph Campbell, the preeminent American mythologist and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, stood on the shoulders of C.G. Jung, father of analytical psychology and author of The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society (a must read now more than ever!). In other words, no writer is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, mentors, and the people who inspire us to pursue our passions and to share them. 

I believe this question of how the proposed manuscript is advancing ideas and conversations is a critical factor for an editor to consider when making a publishing decision. Every editor wants to believe that his or her publishing decision contributes to making the lives of people better. Another way to think of this secret is: why does the world need your book? 

Secret #6: I would recommend this book to ....​

This is the best part. After I've read the book proposal, sample chapters and/or the manuscript, I make a list of 10 people that I believe will like the book too. Within a publishing context, I consider booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, the sales reps, other authors, friends. Who would enjoy and/or benefit from the book?  Enthusiasm is contagious.

Publishing is a networking business. If 10 people do not flow easily from my pen in a stream of consciousness, ​I know I have an interesting book, but not necessarily a marketable one. This why I pass on interesting books. The standard is interesting + marketable. 

Read On and Rock On

So, we know you are talented. Now, you have a process for doing the hard work. With this knowledge, you will be able to put yourself in the editor's shoes while reading your manuscript. Raise your game and compete to win in the publishing arena. 

Happy 2017 and New Teaching Space!

While walking through Central Park on a bright November day, I saw this rainbow (header image) in a fountain. Little did I know that it was sign of good fortune to come. Several days before New Year's Eve, I received a phone call from my dear friend Mr. R.D. Chin to meet him on West 30th Street, near Penn Station. With his lovely wife, R.D. secured a gorgeous space above an art gallery in midtown Manhattan. "It's a place where we can all teach," he said. This is a dream come true.

The Teaching Space to Grow in Community

​With this new chapter for Melissa's Coaching Studio, I hope you will come visit as well as join a discussion or take a workshop. Beginning in February, I'm offering several different events.

Chi: A Journal Writing Workshop

Writing is the perfect way to make the invisible visible. Writing together, we will learn how to express the best of who we are in the world. Learn how to channel your chi into journal entries, affirmations, and much more. We'll be writing, reading passages from the mystics, sharing, and helping each other through the art of words. More details here.

Perfect Pitch Thursdays

Do you have a book idea? But, you have no idea how to crack the publishing world? I'm dedicating four, one hour session every Thursday afternoon to work one-to-one with writers. Well work on your pitch and networking strategies in order to help you bring focus, clarity to your concept, brand, and platform. More details here.

Book Club 307

I'm so excited to start this book club. Book Club 307 is for agents of change. It is no coincidence that I selected Kelly Link's Get in Trouble: Stories, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for our first book discussion. We meet the first and third Tuesdays of the month. More details here

Social Media Labs, Marketing Workshops, Career Strategy Seminars in March!

3 Universal Truths of Authorship

The writer's life is ruled by three universal truths of authorship. During my book publishing career, I've seen these truths play out for dozens of authors. May these tidbits help you in those moments of doubt about why you wrote a book in the first place!

​1. The Book Never Feels "Done."

Writing is your internal world.

You started with an idea. Developing the idea, you fall in love with the concept, whether fiction or nonfiction. The story is incredible and you want to share it with the world. 

Publishing is your external world.

The path to publisher is circuitous. Once there, though, the steps in the publishing production process are the same: copyediting, design, proofreading. You participate in a back and forth over many details. Finally, the book files go to press. 

The Taunting of "Perfect"

Shortly before the final copy of your book arrives, you awake in the middle of the night, sweating. You've composed the PERFECT SENTENCE that would make all the difference in chapter two, if you could just revise it one more time! But, you can't.

Your inner critic takes over. You start to doubt the entire process. Happy anticipation morphs into a gooey dread. The cure, here, is to prepare for "done."

How to Prepare for "Done"

Define what "done" means and looks like for you. Write, by hand, a paragraph about the future of your book and how your life will be different as a result of publishing it. 

Manuscript Never Feels Done

TIP: Create your own "Done" checklist. This is a great way to hold yourself accountable. It becomes much easier to let go of the final manuscript when you know you've met your own expectations. Inevitably, your editor will ask for revisions. Your checklist gives you a baseline for considering her revision suggestions. 

2. The Book is Out of Your Control

From the time you conceived the idea through the final proofread, you maintained a measure of control over the book. During the process, you may not have liked some of the decisions the publisher made. For example, almost every author I know has a horror story about how they felt dismissed about the cover choice. Trust me, you were not dismissed. Nine times out of ten, the publisher does know best. It's their business. 

When the book arrives in your hands, it is a real, physical thing. My all-time favorite example comes from the final scene of Julie & Julia. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, is at the stove when Paul Child, played by Stanley Tucci, walks through the door carrying the mail. Among the letters, there is a package. Julia opens it. It's the book. She looks at it and clutches to her chest. She is so happy. Paul is thrilled. It is a beautiful, private moment.

 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, just as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, transformed from a writing and publishing exercise to a new book in the world. At moment of publication, the editor "lets go." Readers judge books. Word of mouth is the primary mechanism for selling books. Your editor moves on to the books for the next season. 

You, on the other hand, might be feeling naked and afraid. ​The reader is a book browser you don't know personally. Think of your readers as the 10,000 people you will never meet in person. It is precisely at this moment when you need to let go and resist the temptation to "correct" readers about what you intended for the book.  

Julie and Julia Book Cover

TipJulie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell is an excellent example of a blog to book project, plus movie deal!

3. The Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Once upon a time, one of my authors contacted a book reviewer for The New York Times and told her how she obviously did not understand the book. Another author accused the host of not reading the book at all, during a live, national news show broadcast. 

In both cases, these authors were using what Albert J. Bernstein calls their dinosaur brains. According to Bernstein, ​people's irrational and emotional acts are based on primitive flight, fight, and freight responses. 

Of course, it is natural to feel you need to defend your book. You are human. But what is even more important, you are writing other books. Your career path is ahead of you. ​

As you might image, the publisher gets very angry when authors contact reviewers. Why? It is unprofessional, reflecting badly on you and your publisher.

What to do instead​

Be thankful for every review, especially the harsh reviews. It is better to have a review with a strong reaction than a tepid one.

Step back, read reviews for consistency. Are reviewers commenting on the same issues or different issues? What are you learning from the reviews? Learning is key to your future success. 

Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Tip: It's a challenging transition: moving from the publishing process to finished book. Suddenly, the 10,000 people you will never meet are talking about your book. Resist the temptation to "correct" their points of view in reviews. 

Try This Exercise to Prepare for Your Book's Publication

Make a list of the ten questions you want to be asked. Then, make a list of the 10 questions that terrify you. These are the questions you fear you will be asked in an interview or at a book signing event. From this exercise, authors discover that the questions they most fear yield some of the best stories about how the book came into existence. Facing your fears is an act of courage. Readers connect with authenticity.  

​So, no dinosaur brains. Go forward to express the best of who you are. Find your own universal truth.  

"So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing." -- T.S. Eliot #amwriting #bookpublishing

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Van Gogh Unfinished

Vincent van Gogh unfinished means (fill in the blank). This prompt's potential is limitless. 

Rocking the art world last week, The New York Times reported Sketchbook Attributed to van Gogh Pits Scholars Against a Museum. The sketchbook's 65 drawings trace back to van Gogh's time spent in Arles, France. According to Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a University of Toronto professor emeritus of art history, and Ronald Pickvance, author of two book about van Gogh's life in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the sketchbook is a remarkable discovery for several reasons. However, one reason caught my interest. Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook is based on sketches made in a commercial ledger. 

​In my recent post on Ledger Art: A Narrative of Resilience, I wrote about how Native American artists, confined to reservations, used government ledgers as a medium to record their stories and history. They used ledgers because ledgers were all they had. Welsh-Ovcharov contends van Gogh did the same thing. He used any medium available to sketch. Welsh-Ovcharov and Pickvance believe the van Gogh sketches are authentic. When short of money to purchase canvases, van Gogh had a reputation for drawing and painting on any material not nailed down. The sketchbook is a commercial ledger, most likely given to van Gogh by the proprietors of the Cafe de Garé. Van Gogh lived at this cafe and inn while in Arles from May to early September 1888. 

From my longtime friendship and association with Dominique-Charles Janssens, Founder and President of the Institut van Gogh and owner of the Auberge Ravoux, van Gogh's last home and where he died, I've heard many stories. With joie de vivre, Dominique describes Vincent swiping tea towels off the tables at the Auberge. Six of Vincent's tea towel paintings are now in private collections. So for me, Vincent sketching in a commercial ledger is not a far-fetched reality.

Alas, though, I am an enthusiast and not a scholar or art expert. ​With all the fake news swirling around us, what is the truth?

The Van Gogh Museum Statement

In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum is the sole authority responsible for the authentication of van Gogh's work. ​The Museum released a statement citing several reasons why the sketchbook is not van Gogh's. 

  1. Characteristic style not in evidence.
  2. Brownish ink not typical.
  3. Topographical errors.
  4. Sketchbook's provenance raises many questions.​

According to Louis van Tilborgh, a senior researcher at the Museum, the sketchbook was reviewed in 2008 and 2012 with same conclusion: the sketchbook is not authentic. 

Given the financial value of van Gogh's work, the likelihood of forgery is high on the Museum's list of concerns whenever someone claims discovery of a "lost" van Gogh. In fact, while researching forgeries for this post, I noticed that investigative reporter James Ottar Grundvig is the author of Breaking van Gogh: Saint-Rémy, Forgery, and the $95 Million Dollar Fake at the Met published last month by Skyhorse Publishing. 

When it comes to van Gogh, everyone seems to have an angle. ​

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Creative Truth or This Much I Know is True

The one thing I know is true is this: when you enter Gallery 825 inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will see more people clustered around paintings by Vincent (as he signed his paintings) than any other artist. And if you take seat and observe people, as their eyes travel over the colors and textures, you realize you are in the presence of the spiritual connection between artist and viewer. It is remarkable.

Every now and then, I'll take my dog-eared copy of Dear Theo: ​The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh edited by Irving and Jean Stone to Gallery 825. Reading one or two letters surrounded by the paintings is deeply moving. Amid his doubts and obstacles, van Gogh's vision and hope for the world remains extraordinary. 

Creative expression is what makes us human and it is through this impulse that we each have the potential to bring more beauty into the world. We are all unfinished works in progress. And that is an encouraging truth. ​

van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh. 1887. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 825.

Note on the Post Header Image: van Gogh's unfinished canvas of the Village of Auvers-sur-Oise was one painting among many by other artists included in the MET Breuer's exhibition: Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. I could not resist taking a photo of the people gathered around Vincent's canvas. No other canvas drew as much attention in this particular gallery. 

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible was a fantastic exhibit and merits its own blog post. So many posts to write!

How do you manage your time for creating content for your blog? Please share your tips!​

van gogh unfinished painting

Viewers gather around van Gogh's unfinished painting of Auvers-sur-Oise at the MET Breuer, September 2, 2016. 

Ledger Art: A Narrative of Resilience

Resilience, according to Merriam-Webster, is the capacity of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressive stress. I think the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the rounding-up and squeezing Native Americans into land reservation spaces against their will, qualifies as compressive stress. Making the resilience of Native Americans, as expressed in Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, all the more haunting and awe-inspiring. 

The exhibition is free and in its final weeks at the Museum of the American Indian, One Bowling Green, New York City. The Museum is a branch of the Smithsonian and housed inside the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The building itself is situated on roughly the same spot as the first settlement in New Amsterdam. Fort Amsterdam was meant to defend the Dutch West India Company's fur trade along the Hudson River. In 1625, New Amsterdam was a province extension of the Dutch Republic. The Native Americans supplied them with pelts in exchange for European-made goods. 

However, Unbound does not include the Iroquois or Mohawk tribes, who were "Keepers of the Eastern Door" along the Hudson. You can learn more about these tribes and others in the Museum's main exhibition hall, which includes an expansive collection of objects, photographs, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. 

Unbound focuses on the Tribes of the Plains. The Great Plains is the broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe, and grassland, that lies west of the Mississippi River. The area covers parts but not all of the following states: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Minnesota, Texas, Wyoming, Iowa, and the Canadian Provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Curated by Emil Her Many Horses, Unbound traces the evolution of narrative art from historic hides, muslins and ledger books to a wide selection of contemporary works by Native artists, the majority commissioned by the Museum exclusively this exhibition. 

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House

Balcony view of Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House built 1901-07.

Timely, Indeed.

Recently, The New York Times reported that 280 Native American tribes gathered in Near Cannon Ball, North Dakota in what activists called "the largest, most diverse tribal action, perhaps since Little Bighorn." (Also known as Custer's Last Stand.)

The tribes of the Great Plains are protesting a pipeline that they fear will contaminate the river and their water supply. Given the lackluster federal and state government attention to the water crises in Flint, Michigan, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Huntsville, Alabama, just to name a few, the tribes in North Dakota make an important point. Not to turn this post into a rant, but clean water is a precious resource, one that we cannot afford to take for granted.

Unbound is organized in four sections. Introduction, From Past to Present, Warrior Art, and Contemporary Expressions. In this post, I share my favorite pieces and reflections from two separate visits to the Museum. 

Tribes protest water pipeline



Buffalo hide shows horse raids

In Native American culture, the human world and the natural world co-exist. According to Larry Littlebird, author of Hunting Sacred: Everything Listens, hunting is a sacred act. When the buffalo is slain, the hunter is grateful for the animal's sacrifice.

As a result of this sacrifice, the hunter's community will be nourished and clothed. The buffalo's hide makes an excellent canvas for storytelling. On this particular hide, the stories are about stealing horses.  Whenever I give my presentation about horse mythology, one of my great passions, most people do not realize that in the Americas, horses were extinct two million years ago. Native Americans came to know the horse from their interactions with European explorers. 

Native American Blackfoot mythology refers to the horse as Pono-Kamita, which translates to English as "Elk Dog." The Elk was their point of reference. In another example, Lame Deer, a Sioux Medicine Man, explains: "we have no word for the strange animal we got from the white man--the horse. So we called it sunka waken, "holy dog." 

Ledger Art as a Medium for Storytelling 

"As life on the Plains changed, artists used pictorial storytelling to record the past and preserve the future," according to the Exhibition Fact Sheet. In other words, after the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876), the U.S. government completed its relocation of Native Americans to reservations. The Museum designates the Reservation Period as 1870 to 1920. 

As an aside, you might be wondering, as I was, about how and when the U.S. government issued formal apologies to Native Americans. Here's an interesting article from the Indian Country Media Network. 7 Apologies Made to American Indians

Ledger Art is testimony to the human spirit, which seeks any available medium for self expression. As you see from the thumbnail, artists took used government-issued ledgers and transformed them into vehicles for telling stories about love, community, and war. ​

Artists use colored pencils, gold marker, ink, graphite, and glue. ​Notice the ledger's date (1895) in the upper-righthand corner. I took this thumbnail from Grand Entry, 2012 by Darryl Growing Thunder (Assiniboine/Sioux, b. 1967). 

Ledger Art Detail

Detail from Grand Entry, 2012 by Darryl Growing Thunder. (Assinboine/Sioux, b. 1967)

From Past to Present

In the first drawing, notice that the horses appear to have Elk antlers growing from behind their ears. This is the confluence of the mythical and the reality. 

Here we have the charms of love. The woman is on her way to fetch water with her bucket when she is surprised by a suitor playing a flute. The number of horses behind him indicates his interest in marrying her.

​In the second drawing, four of the five women hold fans suggestive of the stars and stripes of the American flag. The woman in the center holds a parasol in one hand. Native Americans often traded goods with the Europeans in exchange for parasols. In her other hand, she holds her handbag with a U.S. flag depicted on it. 

Ledger Art Courtship

Drawing of a Courting Scene, 2012. Norman Frank Sheridan Sr. (Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho, 1950 - 2014)

Ledger Art Independence Day

Independence Day Celebration, 2012. Lauren Good Day Giago. (Arikara/Hidatsa/Blackfeet/Plains Cree, b. 1987)

Independence Day Celebration, 2012 by Lauren Good Day Giago is based on historical photographs of Fourth of July celebrations on the Fort Berthold Reservation. "My people weren't allowed to do our traditional dances. They would allow us to come out, dance, and be together as a people on Independence Day, " Giago says. 

Warrior Art

Choosing a favorite piece to share with you from this part of the exhibit is difficult. I'm drawn in by the majesty, magic, and unique energy of each artist. 

For me, Mountain Chief, 2012 by Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet, b. 1968) gallops throughout the exhibition and captures all that is sacred in storytelling. ​

Guardipee depicts renowned Blackfeet warrior Mountain Chief with a fallen foe and two captured horses. His own mount is lavishly illustrated with symbols. On the front legs alone are a yellow disc symbolizing the Creator Sun, red dots representing the strength of the horse, yellow markings indicating accomplishments, and pyramids that signify mountains, which are considered the Backbone of the World. (from Museum note)​

Mountain Chief, 2012 by Terrance Guardipee (Blackfeet, b. 1968)

Contemporary Expressions

It is not possible to change the past, but it is possible to shape the future. Two pieces by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971) charge forward. "I intentionally distort portraits because people have a distorted understanding of Native people. As artists and keepers of culture, we have a responsibility to promote the truth," Pappan says. 

Ledger Art

Wah Zha Zhe Creation, 21st Century Ledger Drawing No. 54, 2012 by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971) 

Drawn as solid dots inside circles, stars form the background of this portrait of Chief Bacon Rind, one of the last of the Osage chiefs. The stars reference the Wah Zha Zhe, or Osage, creation story about people stepping down from the stars. (from Museum note)​

Ledger Art

Culture Crossroads, 21st Century Ledger Drawing No. 55, 2012 by Chris Pappan (Osage/Kaw/Cheyenne River Lakota, b. 1971)

Based on an old photograph, the drawing depicts a seated man and his mirror image coming together to create what Pappan refers to as a third eye. The image represents two ideas, cultures, or identities coming together to create something new. (from Museum note)​

A Light Touch

In a profile of artist Dwayne Wilcox for the Heritage Center, he said this about his work: "A lot of the images I do are a reflection on how Native people view the outside world rather than how somebody might be looking at us and putting us under a microscope so they can write a book about us from their perspective. I want to show our perspective, from the inside, looking off the reservation."

In this drawing, the dance contestants check their smartphones prior to their performance. The title for this piece is a play on words. W​ánci (pronounced ONE-g) is the Lakota word for the number one. 4G Better Than One-G shows how new technology is present in Native life. 

Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains

4G Better Than One-G, 2012 by Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota, b. 1954)

Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains closes December 4, 2016 at the Museum of the American Indian. Don't miss it. This exhibition is extraordinary in its beauty and in the subtle ways it challenges the viewer to think about history and the way forward. 

We Will Always Remember

This first video is a look at the 9/11 Memorial. The second video is a beautiful, haunting prayer sung by cantor Ari Schwartz at the Interfaith service held on September 25, 2015. In closing this post, I share the story behind Double Check (post image) by Seward Johnson and its significance when I saw it for the first time. We will always remember. 

Double Check by Seward Johnson

The feature image for this post is Double Check by Seward Johnson. During a visit to Grounds for Sculpture, I saw this image for the first time and it was surreal for me. On September 11, 2001, I was living in London. A few minutes after 2 p.m., a colleague interrupted a meeting to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I reassured her that it was probably a hobbyist flying a Cessna plane. ​

She asked me to step into her office. On her computer screen, I saw the reality.

The story behind Double Check is one inspiration. A few weeks after September 11, 2001, the rescue workers found the statue in the rubble. It had been on display in Liberty Plaza. Although scratched, the statute was intact. 

During the same time period, a copy of the statue was on display in Germany, where people had turned it into a makeshift memorial. Johnson recalled the statute back to the United States via Rome. In Italy, people left notes of support for New York. Johnson collected the tributes. He cast the statue in bronze with the pieces exactly as he had found them.

The original sculpture is now in its original location, today called Zuccotti Park. ​

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