Know Thyselfie

The selfie. It’s here to stay. If that statement fills you with dread, take heart. It may not be as bad as it sounds. While the proliferation of inane and inappropriate selfies causes us to fear the end of civilization as we know it, the selfie phenomenon has its uniquely engaging qualities as well. We just have to filter through the narcissism parade and duck faces to find the genuine fun and interest. It can be done!

I should confess that I’m not a big selfie taker. It’s probably because I don’t have a good phone for it (yes, I still use a Blackberry). But I did take this one recently in the art model’s changing room at FIT. If I look stressed it’s because the prior two hours involved a total shutdown of all downtown subways in Manhattan due to signal problems. That meant I was caught in the rain with no umbrella and had to walk 30 blocks, through gridlock traffic jams and blaring sirens and horns, from the upper East Side to get to my job at FIT. After drying my hair with paper towels and getting undressed, I took this selfie as I waited for the teacher to start class. What a day that was.

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The truth is that there’s nothing really new about the selfie. The word may have triumphantly found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, but if we define the term to mean simply a picture one takes of one’s self, then it’s been around as long as we’ve had the tools to create such a picture. Before cameras went digital, there were selfies and plenty of them. If we want to stretch the meaning to include images of the self of all kinds – before photographic technology was even invented – then the self-portraits of artists give substantial weight to an otherwise frivolous sounding term. Isn’t an artist’s self-portrait the painter’s version of the “selfie”? So we can just go ahead and crown Rembrandt, who created dozens of self-portraits, the King of the “selfie”.

The earliest known photograph of a human being was, in fact, a selfie. Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist in Philadelphia who ran a silver-plating business, experimented with his camera one day and took this daguerreotype in 1839. Robert doesn’t have to comb his hair, because he’s a badass ;-)

RobertCorneliusSelfie

If the selfie craze of today has earned some degree of scorn it’s probably because it feeds groan-inducing vanity and attention-seeking, two things our culture could use less of these days. The obsessive urge to document every moment of our lives is another off-putting aspect of the selfie generation. I don’t need to see celebrities, or anybody for that matter, on the toilet.

But the urge to “document” is, in itself, generally a good one. I’ve seen quite a few genuinely interesting, humorous, spontaneous and charming selfies that weren’t driven by purely “Look at me!” impulses. If a twelve year old boy meets his baseball idol during batting practice, then sure he should get that selfie with him. He’ll treasure if for the rest of his life.

She was the “Inquiring Photographer” for a Washington newspaper before she met the future President. Here, Jackie Kennedy takes a mirror selfie with Ethel and John, 1954:

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A selfie, Stanley Kubrick style. On the set of “The Shining”, the famed director snaps a mirror selfie with his daughter, while Jack Nicholson stands in the foreground:

KubrickSelfie

Jeff Bridges, using a Widelux lens, takes a selfie with Sam Elliott on the set of the Coen brothers 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski”:

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I like to visualize the selfies that could have been. If you have any disdain for the selfie, picture these imaginary captures and consider how awesome they’d be on social media. It might change your mind. I’ve used contemporary jargon and Internet-era parlance. I’ve also included hashtags, because you have to use hashtags. You have to ;-)

At the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams takes a selfie on his Android with a grinning Benjamin Franklin who, with his fingers, makes rabbit ears behind Adams’ head. Thomas Jefferson photobombs in the background. Adams posts it to Twitter with the caption “We did it!! Freedom in da house!! Grab your muskets colonists!! #yolo #KingGeorgeisapunk #tasteitbitches #pursuitofhappiness”

Michelangelo atop a scaffold near the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Disheveled, miserable, biting down on paintbrushes in his mouth, he stretches out his arm and takes a selfie on his iPhone. He posts it to Instagram with the caption “Wish I never took this commission. WORST. JOB. EVER. #paintingsucks #biteme #myasshurts”

Jo Hiffernan, artist’s model, muse, girlfriend of James Whistler, on a break while posing for Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, takes a nude selfie with the caption “Don’t blame me. Some Ottoman diplomat requested this painting. LOL. #sorryJames #CourbetIsCrazy #imfreezing”. She posts it to Facebook where it is promptly taken down for violating Terms of Service.

An epic selfie. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s photo of himself from the Gemini 12 mission which he proudly shared on Twitter last summer:

BuzzAldrinSelfie

Pope Francis takes the first “Papal selfie” with a group of young visitors at the Vatican:

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So whether we like it or not, we’ll have to roll with the selfies. They have, for better or worse, hit the big time and will even dominate the news cycle in some instances: Ellen at the Oscars, which received over 3 million retweets on Twitter, and even heads of state amusing themselves at a funeral.

I don’t think I’ll be taking more selfies anytime soon, but if I do I know Mona’s got my back. #TeamMuse #artselfie #LeonardoRocks :-)

mona-lisa-selfie-portrait

Fullness of Heart

“I firmly believe that the moment our hearts are emptied of selfishness and ambition and self-seeking and everything that is contrary to God’s law, the Holy Spirit will come and fill every corner of our hearts; but if we are full of pride and conceit, ambition and self-seeking, pleasure and the world, there is no room for the Spirit of God. I also believe that many a man is praying to God to fill him, when he is full already with something else. Before we pray that God would fill us, I believe we ought to pray that He would empty us. There must be an emptying before there can be a filling; and when the heart is turned upside down, and everything that is contrary to God is turned out, then the Spirit will come…”

– D.L. Moody

Christ in the Wilderness, Moretto da Brescia, Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Brescia-ChristWilderness

Easter blessings to my readers. May we all walk in love, light, and understanding, each and every day.

Claudia
xoxo

Love and Grape Juice

I bet you never thought that choosing a Welch’s Grape Juice from grocery store shelves with your Mom could be a heartwarming experience. But I’m here to tell you that it can be. At 79, my mother is an extraordinarily active person. She loves to drive, travel, go to museums, socialize, and experience new things. Whenever I tease her with “old lady” jokes she’s not amused :lol: So when Mom, a few weeks ago, was afflicted with a case of the shingles, her active lifestyle and normally robust health was temporarily sidetracked.

Mom’s shingles have fortunately cleared up, but now she’s struggling with nerve pain, a common aftereffect of shingles, and it’s causing her a great deal of sadness and discomfort. One minute she’s fine, and the next minute the neuropathy flares up, causing excruciating pain. Even though it passes quickly, the constant imminent threat of a nerve attack is an unsettling way to live, especially for someone like my Mom who can’t bear the idea of being “disabled” in any way. Having her independence taken from her is Mom’s worst nightmare.

A pastel drawing by Edgar Degas:

DegasCombing

Shingles is the virus that causes chicken pox when it erupts again after lying dormant in the body for decades. I had chicken pox as a child and recall that it sucked. Shingles also sucks. But my mother is having a much harder time with the neuralgia than the shingles.

With Mom now on a steady regimen of B-Vitamins, Omega-3 oils, alpha-lipoic acid (and ibuprofen when she needs it), she’s on the path to recovery. But like the doctor said, each individual is different. For some the neuropathy goes away in four weeks, for others four months. We have no way of predicting. Mom just has to take it one day at a time.

Another pastel by Degas, Rest:

DegasRest

Mom has avoided driving alone which is understandable, so I’ve been doing her grocery shopping for her. With the exception of me picking her up and taking her to a couple of doctor’s appointments she’s been fearful of going out in public or even leaving the house. Not to the beauty parlor, not to the bank, not even to a friend’s house in the neighborhood. This is all so contrary to her nature. I’ve tried to persuade her to come with me for a little shopping, or lunch, or just running errands, but she’s consistently been saying no. Until today.

After a doctor’s appointment this morning she agreed to let me take her to Fairway Market. There we were, strolling through the aisles, Mom totally relaxed, cheerful, and leisurely pushing our shopping cart as we collected our goodies; I tossed in a box of quinoa, some swiss chard, and a one pound bag of freshly ground coffee, Mom put in some cucumbers (her favorite) and two bagels. With great happiness I watched her as she selected a piece of salmon from the fish counter, and took three small yogurts from the dairy section. And then came the moment of Welch’s Grape Juice! Remember when there was only regular Welch’s Grape Juice, for years? Today we have options; fortified with calcium, fortified with Vitamin C, organic, “Farmer’s Pick”, blended with black cherry. As I knelt down and read the choices aloud to Mom we shared a warm, lighthearted moment and were reminded of our old Armenian relative, Aunt Araxi, who lived to be 100 and attributed her longevity to, yes, a daily glass of Welch’s Grape Juice. That was her theory and she stuck with it! Hey why not? And Mom, by the way, ended up choosing the plain old Welch’s “Original”.

DegasTorso

A visit to the market doesn’t usually make for a watershed moment in a person’s life, but if you knew how tormented my mother has been lately due to pain, anxiety, and depression, you would understand the indescribable joy I felt at the sight her smiling, talking to people, and carrying out a routine activity for the first time in weeks. Mom’s comeback is underway. Oh yes it is :-)

All artworks in this post have been pastels because it’s Mom’s favorite medium, and Degas because he’s Mom’s favorite artist.

A Toast to Verdi

The classical music “flash mob” fad has really grown on me. You can find videos all over YouTube of cheerful cellists, violinists and the like bursting into performance in public places to the delight of commuters and pedestrians. The scenes can truly lift your spirits.

I came across this video that I thought would make a charming Music Monday. Canadian opera singer Jonathan Estabrooks organized and directed this “flash mob” at an upscale New York City event. During the cocktail hour, unsuspecting guests were treated to a spontaneous performance of the merry “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s La Traviata by incognito opera singers who had been blending in with the crowd. Good fun. Raise a glass and enjoy!

 

A splendid portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giovanni Boldini. Verdi sat for this piece reluctantly, but both artist and sitter were quite pleased with the results. Pastel on cardboard, 1886:

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Yearning for Maud

Am I too late for Saint Patrick’s Day? Not according to my clock. It’s almost 9PM New York City time so I’m right in there! Would have posted earlier today but I was busy taking Mom to the doctor’s. I’m sure the patron saint of Ireland would understand :-)

I will seize any occasion to post poetry by William Butler Yeats – a longtime favorite of mine – and this day of celebrating all things Irish will do just fine. The maestro of symbolism and verse had me hooked since the first time I read the sea voyage of “Sailing to Byzantium” and its “no country for old men”, “tattered coat upon a stick”, “singing-masters of my soul”, monuments, mosaics, and “Grecian goldsmiths”. The Dublin-born Yeats is also responsible for what is probably my favorite short lyrical poem ever, “Cloths of Heaven”. I memorized it many years ago and it continues to move me … “tread softly”.

The inspiration behind that poem was Maud Gonne, Yeats’ muse and love of his life – a love that was unrequited. He proposed marriage four times .. and was rejected four times. Though she was born in England in 1866, Maud became an active revolutionary and fervent supporter of the Irish Nationalist movement, having been spurred on by the Land War and the attending civil unrest. She was also an actress and organizer of feminist causes. Of the tumultuous political climate in which she lived Maud wrote, “it is the English who are forcing war on us”.

Photo of Maud Gonne:

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The intuitive Yeats sensed right away that Maud was a force to be reckoned with, and described the moment he first met her as the day “the troubling of my life began”. Gonne, a convert to Catholicism, and Yeats, a Protestant, shared an intensely strong emotional bond and had a common fascination with the occult. But Maud simply could not conceive of marrying the moody poet. Instead, she married fellow Irish Nationalist John MacBride. Yeats was crushed. The union, however, was unhappy and acrimonious. Maud and John had one son, Sean MacBride born 1904, who became a prominent figure in the IRA and later a founding member of Amnesty International.

For decades, Yeats carried a torch for Maud and agonized over her involvements with other men. His continued pain over her having escaped him is manifest in his poetry. But Maud had his number and expressed this alternate view about their relationship:

“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”

Maud telling it like it is! Damn girl. She certainly has point. Here’s an example of that beautiful, lovelorn-inspired poetry Yeats composed from of his heartache over Maud. We may not like to admit it, but loss, regret, and grief really do inspire poignant and powerful artistic expressions.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Charcoal drawing of W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent, 1908:

Sargent-william-butler-yeats-1908

Living Water

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field:
He watereth the hills from his chambers:
The earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

– Psalm 104

On my modeling break at the 92nd Street Y the other day, I walked out of the studio into the hallway, where I filled up my water bottle from the drinking fountain. Very thirsty, I stood right there and took a few long refreshing gulps. I don’t know why I felt so dehydrated, but the cool water flowing down my throat and into my stomach felt like life being breathed back into me. Then I pushed the lever to fill my bottle again and put the cap back on. I knew I would need it for the second half of the drawing session. Just a few feet away from me was a vending machine where I could have easily purchased a bottle of SmartWater if I so chose. Or I could have dashed across Lexington Avenue to the tea shop for a lemon water. Options abound. Pull a lever; water. Turn a faucet; water. Unscrew a cap; water. Fresh clean water, all the time. It’s how we live.

 Bedouin Women Carrying Water Jars, John Singer Sargent, 1891:

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But 700 million people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. That number is simply staggering. Seven hundred million. Can that be right? How does one wrap their mind around such a statistic? Many of us use our checkbooks to donate to charities, as I’ve done with Episcopal Relief and Development and their clean water programs. But the problem persists, and those of us who can fill up our water bottles to our heart’s content without giving it a second thought can’t possibly understand what it’s like for those 700 million.

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Arthur Hacker, By the Waters of Babylon:

Hacker-BytheWatersofBabylon

Of all the basic essentials for life, probably none is more taken for granted by those who have it than water. And none has been more yoked with survival – and miracles – than water. Water heals. Water nourishes. Water baptizes and bathes and purifies. In imagery, symbolism, and stone cold reality, water is the sustainer of life. Water carves out canyons. We gestate in water in our mothers’ wombs. Our houseplants shrivel up and die when watering is neglected. Hunger strikers engaging in political protests still drink water to extend their lives as long as possible. We wonder if scientists will ever discover the presence of water on other planets. Why? Because water = life. Biological life. And spiritual life. Because water is “alive”.

But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him
will never thirst: but the water that I shall give him
will become in him a fountain of water
springing up into everlasting life.

John 4:14

Moses strikes water from the rocks [fresco detail], Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1544:

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I have never had to go to bed hungry. I have never had to walk 20 miles for water. I am a flawed and imperfect human being in more ways than I can count. But I try, with all my heart and soul, to never take for granted my advantages and good fortune – advantages bestowed upon me purely by “accident of birth”, as G.K. Chesterton would describe it. During this time of Lent, when so many give up something as an act of sacrifice or self-denial, people around the world experience deprivation every single day, due solely to their “accident of birth”, and not as some temporary penitential act during a holy season. It is, rather, their normalcy.

Horses at the Watering Trough, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1884:

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The rector at my church told our congregation that he and his wife are sponsoring a water well project in a developing country. This page from charitywater.org describes the different kinds of clean water systems. I still have trouble grasping that something so basic, so seemingly uncomplicated as water, is an issue for millions of people in the year 2015. Maybe I’m naive. I hope I’m not.

This has been my Lenten meditation. It burst into my consciousness as a result of my greedy water-guzzling at the 92nd St Y. And discussion at church. And my daily self-reminder that I am no more deserving of anything than my fellow children of God. Life without gratitude is no life at all.

I am the figure in this painting by my friend Daniel DaSilva, Second Paradise #1:

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Building Blocks

Life as a born-during-the-Johnson-administration 46 year old in a millennial-driven culture felt a little less alienating this week when the rock music world celebrated the 40th anniversary of Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin’s epic double album was released on February 24th back in 1975 and can now be called, officially, “middle-aged”. We’re in good company, yes! I like it :-)

Since I’ve already opined extensively about Zeppelin on this blog, I’ll spare my readers another fawning monologue and highlight instead the album cover for Physical Graffiti. But first I want to mention that I love the MP3 phenomenon as much as anybody. For all us music lovers it’s been, truly, a revolution. But if we lost anything of value with the death of LPs (the need for ample upright storage space not among them) it’s the art and design of the album cover. Particularly the rock album cover. Can you envision them? I’m sure you can. The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Sure there are covers to CD releases today, but it’s not quite the same.

Peter Corriston designed the iconic cover for Physical Graffiti which is instantly identifiable to Zeppelin fans:

PhysicalGraffiti

The source for this image is a block in New York City’s East Village, building street numbers 96 and 98 on St. Mark’s Place. My town has provided countless settings and images that have made their way into popular culture, and it always makes me proud. From the Empire State Building to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, in music and television and movies, New York City is everywhere … and don’t you forget it! Here are the Physical Graffiti apartments:

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The top floor of the building was cropped out and the window spaces on the album were cut out and inserted with liner notes and illustrations. You can read more about the Physical Graffiti album cover at this page.

It looks like I’ve just done a Music Monday at midnight on Saturday. So I might as well go the whole nine yards and conclude with actual music. But what to choose from this magnificently rich, confusing, strange, uninhibited double album? One on which you can detect the wear and tear in Robert Plant’s voice, and savor Jimmy Page falling obsessively in love with his guitar? No we won’t do the masterpiece “Kashmir”, but an acoustic ditty that was recorded outdoors in the garden at Mick Jagger’s house. From Physical Graffiti, this is “Black Country Woman”.

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Have a great weekend, friends! Be back soon. Until then, peace ..