Category Archives for "Living Legacy"

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.  ​

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. ​