Thursday, July 30, 2020

Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo, Italy

Patrick Brydone
, A Tour through Sicily and Malta: in a series of letters to William Beckford, Esq., of Somerly in Suffolk, from P. Brydone, F.R.S., 1773. English Edition: New York: Evert Duyckink, 1813—

This morning we went to see a celebrated convent of Capuchins, about a mile without the city; it contains nothing very remarkable but the burial place, which indeed is a great curiosity. This is a vast subterraneous apartment, divided into large commodious galleries, the walls on each side of which are hollowed into a variety of niches, as if intended for a great collection of statues; these niches, instead of statues, are all filled with dead bodies, set upright upon their legs, and fixed by the back to the inside of the niche: their number is about three hundred: they are all dressed in the clothes they usually wore, and form a most respectable and venerable assembly. The skin and muscles, by a certain preparation, become as dry and hard as a piece of stock-fish; and although many of them have been here upwards of two hundred and fifty years, yet none are reduced to skeletons; the muscles, indeed, in some appear to be a good deal more shrunk than in others; probably because these persons had been more extenuated at the time of their death.

Here the people of Palermo pay daily visits to their deceased friends, and recall with pleasure and regret the scenes of their past life: here they familiarize themselves with their future state, and choose the company they would wish to keep in the other world. It is a common thing to make choice of their niche, and to try if their body fits it, that no alterations may be necessary after they are dead; and sometimes, by way of a voluntary penance, they accustom themselves to stand for hours in these niches…


I am not sure if this is not a better method of disposing of the dead than ours. These visits must prove admirable lessons of humility; and I assure you, they are not such objects of horror as you would imagine: they are said, even for ages after death, to retain a strong likeness to what they were when alive; so that, as soon as you have conquered the first feeling excited by these venerable figures, you only consider this as a vast gallery of original portraits, drawn after the life, by the most just and unprejudiced hand. It must be owned that the colors are rather faded; and the pencil does not appear to have been the most flattering in the world; but no matter, it is the pencil of truth, and not of a mercenary, who only wants to please.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

The senescent departure of Emerson's life

Karl Blossfeldt photo adapted (2018), Roy R. Behrens
Edward Simmons, From Seven to Seventy: Memories of a Painter and a Yankee. New York: Harpers, 1922, pp. 19-20—

The last time I saw Mr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson was in 1879 [three years prior to Emerson’s death]. I was in my twenty-seventh year, had just returned from California, and was spending some time in Concord [MA] before going abroad. Charles H. Davis, the painter, was visiting me at the Old Manse, and we both went over and supped with him. He seemed much older, but was still that example of perfect serenity I had known as a boy. His memory was beginning to fail him, which made him a bit querulous, but his daughter Ellen supplied it whenever she could. For example, he forgot that he had ever seen Tom Taylor's tribute, or apology, to Lincoln, in Punch—in spite of the fact that it is included in the Parnassus [Emerson’s own anthology of poetry] and read it to us, at my request, with astonishment and delight. He read beautifully. and his voice retained all of its old hypnotic quality.

While his memory failed in the detail of names and places, he still retained, in most cases, his fascinating mode of expression, and the process of thought was still there. He said the night Davis and I were there—

"Last week, it was the day…the day that…who was it was here? Ellen, can you remember? Oh! It was our religious friend." He referred to [John Greenleaf] Whittier.

He asked, upon going out for a walk, "Where is that thing everybody borrows and no one ever returns.” He meant an umbrella and had forgotten the name.

This story was told me by my mother. They knew (the women) that opinion of [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow was the same as theirs—the Bromides—and that the two men, of course, loved and admired each other—which they did not. Of course, Mr. Emerson must go to the funeral of the poet. Accordingly. the poor man was pulled up, himself more dead than alive [Emerson would die one month later], and brought down to Cambridge. He sat at the church, seemingly unconscious of the raison d’etre of it all. Then he rose (holding on to his coattails was not effective) and joined the procession about the body.

On crossing the Cambridge Common later, he suddenly stopped, faced around toward the church, and then looking at them, said:

"I do not remember the name of our friend we have just buried, but he had a beautiful soul."

In some people, the loss of memory can be a blessed thing.


•••

Edward Bok (his account of visiting Concord MA, at age eighteen, to obtain Emerson’s autograph), The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years Later. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921, pp. 54-59—

After a while she [author Louisa May Alcott, a close friend of Emerson] said; "Now I shall put on my coat and hat, and we shall walk over to Emerson’s house. I am almost afraid to promise that you will see him. He sees scarcely anyone now. He is feeble, and—“ She did not finish the sentence."But we'll walk over there, at any rate.”

[…]

Presently they reached Emerson's house. and Miss [Ellen] Emerson [his daughter] welcomed them at the door. After a brief chat, Miss Alcott told of the boy's [Bok’s reference to himself] hope. Miss Emerson shook her head.

"Father sees no one now," she said, "and I fear it might not be a pleasure if you did see him. “

[…]

"Well," she said, "I'll see."

She had scarcely left the room when Miss Alcott rose and followed her, saying to the boy, "You shall see Mr. Emerson if it is at all possible."

In a few minutes Miss Alcott returned, her eyes moistened, and simply said: "Come."

The boy followed her through two rooms, and at the threshold of the third Miss Emerson stood, also with moistened eyes.

"Father," she said simply, and there, at his desk, sat Emerson—the man whose words had already won Edward Bok's boyish interest, and who was destined to impress himself upon his life more deeply than any other writer.

Slowly, at the daughter's spoken word, Emerson rose with a wonderful quiet dignity, extended his hand, and as the boy's hand rested in his, looked him full in the eyes.

No light of welcome came from those sad yet tender eyes. The boy closed upon the hand in his with a loving pressure, and for a single moment the eyelids rose, a different look came into those eyes, and Edward felt a slight, perceptible response of the hand. But that was all!


Quietly he motioned the boy to a chair beside the desk. Edward sat down and was about to say something, when, instead of seating himself, Emerson walked away to the window and stood there softly whistling and looking out as if there were no one in the room. Edward's eyes had followed Emerson's every footstep. when the boy was aroused by hearing a suppressed sob, and as he looked around he saw that it came from Miss Emerson. Slowly she walked out of the room. The boy looked at Miss Alcott, and she put her finger to her mouth, indicating silence. He was nonplussed.

Edward looked toward Emerson standing in that window, and wondered what it all meant. Presently Emerson Ieft the window and, crossing the room, came to his desk, bowing to the boy as he passed, and seated himself, not speaking a word and ignoring the presence of the two persons in the room.

Suddenly the boy heard Miss Alcott say: "Have you read this new book by [John] Ruskin yet?"

Slowly the great master of thought lifted his eyes from his desk, turned toward the speaker, rose with stately courtesy from his chair, and, bowing to Miss Alcott, said with great deliberation: "Did you speak to me, madam?"

The boy was dumbfounded! Louisa Alcott, his Louisa! And he did not know her! Suddenly the whole sad truth flashed upon the boy. Tears sprang into Miss Alcott's eyes, and she walked to the other side of the room. The boy did not know what to say or do, so he sat silent. With a deliberate movement Emerson resumed his seat, and slowly his eyes roamed over the boy sitting at the side of the desk.…

For a moment he groped among letters and papers, and then, softly closing the drawer, he began that ominous low whistle once more, looked inquiringly at each, and dropped his eyes straightway to the papers before him on his desk. It was to be only for a few moments, then! Miss Alcott turned away.

The boy felt the interview could not last much longer. So, anxious to have some personal souvenir of the meeting, he said: "Mr. Emerson, will you be so good as to write your name in this book for me?" and he brought out an album he had in his pocket.

"Name?" he asked vaguely.

"Yes, please," said the boy, "your name: Ralph Waldo Emerson."

But the sound of the name brought no response from the eyes.

"Please write out the name you want," he said finally, "and I will copy it for you if I can."

It was hard for the boy to believe his own senses. But picking up a pen he wrote: "Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord; November 22, 1881.”

Emerson looked at it, and said mournfully: “'Thank you." Then he picked up the pen, and writing the single letter "R" stopped, followed his finger until it reached the "W" of Waldo, and studiously copied letter by letter! At the word “Concord" he seemed to hesitate, as if the task were too great, but finally copied again, letter by letter, until the second "e" was reached. "Another ‘0,'" he said, and interpolated an extra letter "—in the name of the town which he had done so much to make famous the world over. When he had finished he handed back the book, in which there was written:






The boy put the book into his pocket; and as he did so Emerson's eye caught the slip on his desk, in the boy's handwriting, and. with a smile of absolute enlightenment, he turned and said:

"You wish me to write my name? With pleasure. Have you a book with you?"

Overcome with astonishment, Edward mechanically handed him the album once more from his pocket. Quickly turning over the leaves, Emerson picked up the pen, and pushing aside the slip, wrote without a moment's hesitation:




The boy was almost dazed at the instantaneous transformation in the man!

Miss Alcott now grasped this moment to say: “Well, we must be going!"

"So soon?" said Emerson, rising and smiling. Then turning to Miss Alcott he said: "It was very kind of you, Louisa, to run over this morning and bring your young friend."

Then turning to the boy he said: "Thank you so much for coming to see me. You must come over again while you are with the Alcotts. Good morning! Isn't it a beautiful day out?" he said, and as he shook the boy's hand there was a warm grasp in it, the fingers closed around those of the boy, and as Edward looked into those deep eyes they twinkled and smiled back.

•••

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Banality epidemic | a nationwide memory loss

Poster (©2017) Roy R. Behrens
Studs Terkel in Touch and Go: A Memoir. New York: The New Press, 2007, p.232 and 236—

“Banality” is the operative word…

Britney Spears, a pop singer, shaves her head and goes into rehab. Most Americans know her name. She is a celebrity. None of the contestants in a recent episode of Jeopardy, a popular TV quiz show, knew who Strom Thurmond was. For most of the twentieth century, on the floor of the Senate, he was the drum major of segregation. Not even his fathering a black child was within the ken of the Jeopardy participants. Nor did they know the name of Kofi Annan (the newly former United Nations secretary general).…

What happens to all Alzheimer’s sufferers is tragic. What I’m talking about is what I call a national Alzheimer’s—a whole country has lost its memory. When there’s no yesterday, a national memory becomes more and more removed from what it once was, and forgets what it once wanted to be.

We’re sinking under our national Alzheimer’s disease. With Alzheimer’s you forget what you did yesterday. With Alzheimer’s finally, you forget not only what you did, but also who you are. In many respects, we [in the US] have forgotten who we are.

We’re now in a war [in Iraq] based on an outrageous lie [about “weapons of mass destruction”], and we are held up to the ridicule and contempt of the world. What has happened? Have we had a lobotomy performed on us? Or it it something else? I’m saying it is the daily evil of banality.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

life is an ever-shifting network of categories

Poster (© 2019) Roy R. Behrens
Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behavior and the Arts. New York: Chilton Books, 1965—

Our lives are bathed in a continuous flow of signs which we interpret to catch the world in an ever-shifting network of categories. The condition of human life is continuous categorical metamorphosis. We are forever engaged in constructing around us an architecture of categories as fluid and yielding to our interests as the air. There is nothing man has not sacrificed, including millions of his fellow human beings, in the vain effort to fix that architecture, to stabilize his categories. But all knowledge, all science, all learning, all history, all thought are unstable, cannot be made static, even by the majesty of the law armed with the power of brute force.

Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Zerubavel | perhapstheyshouldhavetrieditearlier

Event poster (©2016) Roy R. Behrens
In view of the many painful events and discussions that are currently on-going, were I asked to name a book that everyone (young and old) could benefit from reading, I would strongly recommend Rutgers sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1991). This is one of its many powerful thoughts (p. 80)—

It is society that helps us carve discrete islands of meaning out of our experience. Only English speakers, for example, can “hear” the gaps between the separate words in “perhapstheyshouldhavetrieditearlier,” which everyone else hears as a single chain of sound. Along similar lines, while people who hear jazz for the first time can never understand why a seemingly continuous stretch of music is occasionally interrupted by bursts of applause, jazz connoisseurs can actually “hear” the purely mental divides separating piano, bass, or drum “solos” from mere “accompaniment.” Being a member of society entails “seeing” the world through special mental lenses. It is these lenses, which we acquire only through socialization, that allow us to perceive “things.” The proverbial Martian cannot see the mental partitions separating Catholics from Protestants, classical from popular music, or the funny from the crude. Like the contours of constellations, we “see” such fine lines only when we learn that we should expect them there. As real as they may feel to us, boundaries are mere figments of our minds. Only the “socialized” can see them…

•••
RELATED LINKS
Eviatar Zerbavel, Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable
Eviatar Zerbavel, Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance
Roy R. Behrens, On Slicing the Cheese and Treating the Menu Like Stew: On Creativity and Categorization

Friday, June 12, 2020

the prairie as a lookalike of oceanic vastness

Full online article (1998)
Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828. UK: Edinburgh, Cadell and Co (1829)—

The resemblance to the sea, which some of the [American Midwestern] Prairies exhibited, was really most singular. I had heard of this before, but always supposed the account exaggerated. There is one spot in particular, near the middle of the Grand Prairie, if I recollect rightly, where the ground happened to be of the rolling character above alluded to, and where, excepting in the article of color—and that was not widely different from the tinge of some seas—the similarity was so very striking, that I almost forgot where I was. 



This deception was heightened by a circumstance which I had often heard mentioned, but the force of which, perhaps, none but a seaman could fully estimate; I mean the appearance of the distant insulated trees, as they gradually rose above the horizon, or receded from our view. They were so exactly like strange sails heaving in sight, that I am sure, if two or three sailors had been present, they would almost have agreed as to what canvas these magical vessels were carrying.

Henri Matisse, Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line), 1905


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Eccentricity | When being blunt doth not sit well

digital montage © Roy R. Behrens 2020
Wilfred Scawen Blunt, diary entry dated June 17, 1893—

The party was to meet at the pier of the House of Commons and go up the river in two steamers. As we did not know precisely where the pier was we stopped outside the House of Lords [aka House of Peers] to ask a policeman.

Dialogue:

I: “Can you tell me where I shall find the pier of the House of Commons?”

Policeman: “No, sir, indeed, we have plenty of peers in the House of Lords, but I have never yet heard of a peer in the House of Commons.”


•••

Osbert Sitwell (brother of Edith Sitwell and Sacheverell Sitwell) whose father was Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) (British writer, politician, and notorious eccentric), in The Scarlet Tree (Book IV of his Osbert's autobiography)—

When younger he [his father] had invented many other things; at Eton, for example, a musical toothbrush while played Annie Laurie as you brushed your teeth and a small revolver for killing wasps.

According to a Wikipedia biography of Sir George Sitwell

He banned electricity in his household well into the 1940s and made his guests use candles. He deliberately mislabelled his self-medication to stop anyone else using it. Sitwell lived on an exclusive diet of roasted chicken.

William Blake Poster (2011) Roy R. Behrens

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Leacock Peacock | Entrapped by duplicity now

Montage / collage website
Stephen Leacock, Humor: Its Theory and Techniques, with Examples and Samples (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935)—

He is the [jack]daw with a peacock's tail of his own painting. He is the ass who has been at pains to cultivate the convincing roar of a lion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Privy aperture: Set right down I'll mark 'er 'round

Roy R. Behrens, front cover, Journal of Creative Behavior (1976)
Buck Johnson, quoted in Remar Sutton and Mary Abbott Waite, eds., The Common Ground Book: A Circle of Friends. Latham NY: British American Publishing, 1992, p. 272—

Cousin Sally wanted an air conditioner, so she went into Metter [Georgia] to buy one, and they said: "Miss Sally, what size you want?"

She said, "I don't know."

They said, "Well how many BTUs do you want?"

She said, "I don't know a thing in the world about BTUs. All I know is I want an air conditioner with enough BTUs to cool a b-u-t-t as big as a t-u-b." She was really large.


•••

Rockwell Kent in It’s Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955, p. 177—

…I laughed when he [Mr. Young, an old carpenter who worked with him in Maine] told me of “the big fat lady over on the main” for whom he was building a privy. “Now you be sure and make it big enough,” sez she. Said Mr. Young: “Lady, you set right down there and I’ll mark her ‘round.”

Roy R. Behrens, rear cover, Journal of Creative Behavior (1976)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Flu pandemic and quackery in Iowa in 1918

Roy R. Behrens (©1980), Cream City Review
Richard Critchfield, Those Days: An American Album. New York: Dell, 1986, p. 189—

[Jessie in Postville, Iowa, writing to Anne in Minneapolis, October 28, 1918, in reference to the Spanish flu pandemic] . . . Hope you and the children got there safely. Helen got ill just after you left. It seems to be a recurrence. She had it awfully hard last year. I’m keeping her out of school. So far the rest of us have been spared. We keep hearing wild rumors. One is that some doctors and nurses at Camp Dodge outside Des Moines were caught injecting flu germs into patients and were court-martialed and shot. Another is that fifty black soldiers who died of flu were buried in a mass grave behind the hospital. Who can be believed? Dad says none of it's true but that so many of the young boys who got drafted and are down at Camp Dodge are sick and going overseas. One of the fellows we knew died of flu on his way to France and had to be buried at sea. Liquor is outlawed here, but the police will issue medicinal whiskey permits if Doc Schmidt signs them. No more than a quart and the man is watched. Doc Schmidt got hold of what he calls “pneumonia serum.” He told Papa, “I don't know if it's any good, but c'mon over and I'll give you a shot.” So he went. I tried a new medicine, “Vick's Vaporub,” with Helen. Folks have been trying just about anything—onions, kerosene, Hicks tablets, mustard poultices, lemon juice, turpentine, linament. Papa had me make up some little cheesecloth breath strainers. But there's plenty of quackery…

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Entangled threesome | a walking Läocoon

Coles Phillips "fadeaway" magazine cover illustration (1916)
Above Magazine cover illustration for the October 1916 issue of Good Housekeeping by Coles Phillips (1880-1927). As shown in this example, he was especially known for paintings in which edges of the figure merge with the background. Tragically, he died of tuberculosis at the early age of 47. We reproduced another work of his in an earlier blog post.

•••

Ford Maddox Ford as quoted by Simon Nowell-Smith, compiler, The Legend of the Master (London, Constable, 1947), p. 44—

I was once walking with him [Henry James] and Mr. John Galsworthy…[whose] dachshund Maximilian ran sheep, so, not to curtail the animal’s exercise, the Master had provided it with a leash at least ten yards long. Mr. Galsworthy and I walked one on each side of James listening obediently while he talked. In order to round off an immense sentence the great man halted…He planted his [walking] stick firmly into the ground and went on and on and on. Maximilian passed between our six legs again and again, threading his leash behind him. Mr. Galsworthy and I stood silent. In any case we must have resembled the Laocöon, but when Maximilian had finished the resemblance must have been overwhelming. The Master finished his reflections, attempted to hurry on, found that impossible. Then we liberated ourselves with difficulty. He turned on me, his eyes fairly blazing, lifting his cane on high and slamming it into the ground: “H…” he exclaimed, “you are painfully young, but at no more than the age to which you have attained, the playing of such tricks is an imbecility! An im…be…cility!”

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

a wreath of trefoiled shiny leaves—just like ivy

© Mary Snyder Behrens 2002
Above  Mary Snyder Behrens, American Canvas No 006.  Mixed media, assemblage (©2002).  5.5 x 4 in. Private collection.

•••

Rockwell Kent, It's Me O Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955, p. 21-22 [recalling his early childhood]—

…above all, and forever dear to my thoughts, there was Rosa, our young nurse from Austria. It was Rosa who dressed me in the morning and put me to bed at night. It was Rosa who taught me to say my prayers, and to believe in them…

It was always in German, of course, that with Rosa I prayed, and German—long before I spoke English—that I spoke. And it was Rosa who read us Struwwelpeter aloud, teaching us how wicked it was to kill birds and hunt hards, how sinful it was to make fun of little black boys, how disastrous it was to not watch your step and to tilt back in your chair at table, and how fatal it was to play with matches or not eat your supper every night. It was Rosa who walked with us in the fields and woods, who made us daisy chains and garlands of flowers, and who, sitting with us under the great oak tree—a veritable "charter oak"—wove me a wreath of trefoiled leaves, green shiny leaves just tinged with russet red, wove me the wreath and put it round my brow. Such pretty shiny leaves, like ivy! Ivy indeed it was: poison ivy. It was the doctor who prescribed the milky lotion, sugar of lead, for a swollen and disfigured child. And it was that child who got hold of it and drank it, and who almost died. It was Rosa who, more than any other, fills my memory of those years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

small like the wren, chestnut hair, eyes of sherry

Trammel: White Wish © Mary Snyder Behrens (2005)
Above  Mary Snyder Behrens, one of a series of small (palm-sized) mixed media artworks called Trammels (2005). This is Trammel Box (White Wish), made of cloth, thread, and twine in which a box-like metal form is encased.

•••

Emily Dickinson (describing herself in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson)—

I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the chestnut Bur, and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves.

•••

Charles Darwin

I remember a funny dinner at my brother's, where, amongst a few others, were [Charles] Babbage and [Charles] Lyell, both of whom liked to talk. [Thomas] Carlyle, however, silenced everyone by haranguing during the whole dinner on the advantages of silence. After dinner, Babbage, in his grimmest manner, thanked Carlyle for his very interesting lecture on silence.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Ice cream, drinks and the half and half Iowa man

Above An advertising postcard featuring a tavern owner from Bonair IA named John Pecinovsky (1899-1942). After opening his tavern in the late 1930s, he attracted wide attention, was sought after by tourists, and was featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not, when he began to wear an outfit that was dark-colored on one half (bearded) and light on the other (clean-shaven). He was buried dressed the same way in nearby Cresco IA. See our earlier, related post.

Bonair has all but vanished now, but there is an American writer (she teaches writing in France) named Janet Hulstrand, whose relatives were from Bonair, who is in process of writing a memoir about her Midwestern origins called A Long Way from Iowa. See her post from 2014 titled A Little Town Called Bonair. I believe it was in Cresco (or was it Decorah?) that my father (who grew up near Ossian IA) saw Buffalo Bill and his Wild West extravaganza, c1912.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Kenneth Gogel | Recalling a wonderful teacher

Above Kenneth Gogel, The Nervous System. Collage (1973). Permanent Collection of Art, University of Northern Iowa. Among his most memorable artworks is Gogel's portrayal of “the [very] nervous system” of US President Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. Gift of Roy R. and Mary Snyder Behrens.

•••

In the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate art student at the University of Northern Iowa, one of my favorite teachers was an art education professor named Kenneth Gogel. He had been a student of Victor Lowenfeld at Pennsylvania State University. He was particularly interested in children’s drawings, and what those might reveal about (in Lowenfeld’s words) their “creative and mental growth.”

Part of the reason I liked him so much was his eccentricity. He had "a mind of his own,” so his comments were often surprising. His artwork was equally unpredictable. He wasn’t committed to staying within a consistent approach to art-making, whether medium, style, or subject matter. In one of his experiments, he used photo booth self-portraits and xerox (innovative at the time). In another, he rigged up a kind of terrarium, the sides of which were covered with a card-like material punched with random circular holes; inside the terrarium were ladybugs, which changed the pattern of the holes (on-or-off, like digital punch cards) as they climbed up and down the interior walls.

Of the artworks he was making then, one I especially admire is a large mixed media work titled A Bride and Her Father Visit the World’s Largest Turtle, dated c1968 (below). It is now in the UNI Permanent Collection of Art. Gift of Roy R. and Mary Snyder Behrens. The original source for the turtle is the vintage print at the bottom of this post.

Kenneth Gogel (c1968), mixed media


Ken and I remained in contact now and then after I graduated, by exchanging cryptic notes. His were usually whimsical observations he made during lengthy faculty meetings or peculiar things he’d run across while nosing around in the library. One time, he sent me the patent diagram for a mechanical drawing device by Jean Tinguely. He was forever looking around at thrift shops and used bookstores, then sending me things that he thought I could use. He sent me my very first vintage World War I photograph of a dazzle-camouflaged ship, the USS Leviathan.

He even wrote to me when I was (miserably) in the US Marine Corps. When I answered candidly, he saved the letter (he saved nearly everything, repurposing the slightest scraps), then simply mailed it back to me fifteen years later.

Years later, when I was teaching temporarily at an awful art school in the South, I was surprised to hear his voice when I answered the phone one day at home. When I asked where he was calling from (I had heard that he was touring the country alone in a recreational vehicle), he replied, “Oh, I’m just a couple of blocks from your house. If you’re going to be there, I’d like to stop by briefly, just to say hello.” Moments later, he arrived, and, in spite of my insistence that he stay for a few days, we talked briefly and off he went. That time, I think he gave me a copy of Karl Gerstner’s A Compendium for Literates.

As an undergraduate, my major was Art Education, so that later, I would teach grades 7-12 for most of a school year, until the draft board broke my contract and sent me off to be a Marine. But in the last year before graduating with a BA degree, I was a student teacher for the first nine weeks of one semester. During the remaining half of that semester, Ken Gogel was my advisor for a full-time research project in which I proposed to read about the role of perception in visual art. I met with Ken only a few times, with the agreement that at the end of the term I would turn in a substantial paper about what I had discovered.

The paper I turned in was titled Perception in the Visual Arts. It anticipated many of the subjects that I would research and write about for the next fifty years. Although I was only an undergraduate, on a whim I submitted it to Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association, the foremost journal in the field. It was published there in March 1969, just weeks in advance of being ejected from the classroom (not having a bone spur) and sent off to an unjust war. I am the same age as the man who now pretends to be the US President.

Public domain

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The blooming, buzzing confusion of daily life

Digital montage © Roy R. Behrens 2020
Lee Simonson, The Stage Is Set. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932, p. 51—

[Newspaper columnist] Walter Lippmann, in analyzing the creation of stereotypes that make public opinion, says: “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which has been picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.” And he goes on to demonstrate how largely our conclusions about the world we live in are based not on a fresh perception of experience, but on the stereotyped pictures of the world already in our heads.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A thud of consonants | an upholstery of tears

Roy R. Behrens © altered book collage (1992)
Above Roy R. Behrens, collage, mixed media, altered book. Private collection.

•••

Anatole Broyard, Aroused by Books [his dismissal of the poetry of Dylan Thomas]—

Such a fatigue of adjectives, a drone of alliterations, a huffing of hyphenated words hurdling the meter like tired horses. Such a faded upholstery of tears, stars, bells, bones, flood and blood…a thud of consonants in tongue, night, dark, see, wound and wind.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Trammels | perception is always a transaction

© Mary Snyder Behrens (2005)
Above (with close-up below) Mary Snyder Behrens, one of a series of small (palm-sized) mixed media artworks called Trammels (2005). This is Trammel Box (Home II), made of cloth, thread, and twine in which a box-like metal form is encased.

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E.H. Gombrich, Topics of our Times, pp. 169-170—

Perception is always a transaction between us and the world, and the idea that we could or should ever perceive an image without the preconception or expectations we derive from prior knowledge and experience would resemble the demand that we should make an electric current flow from the positive pole without connecting the wire with the negative pole. The image is one pole, the title often provides the other, and if the set-up works, something new will emerge which is neither the image nor the words, but the product of their interaction.

Detail of the same artwork

The ingenious posters of designer Abram Games

Abram Games, WWII-era poster
Without hesitation, one of the finest designers in modern history was British graphic designer Abram Games (1914-1996). Shown here are two rather similar but equally excellent posters he made during World War II, both of them appealing to the wartime public to be self-sufficient. As is characteristic of many of his posters, they are astonishing visual puns. In an essay in his book, Topics of Our Times (London: Phaidon, 1991), British art historian E.H. Gombrich acknowledged that Games was indebted to the "deliberate ambiguities and illogicalities" of the work of such Surrealists as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. But many of those works, he went on to say—

were pointless… [and] were aimed at defying the canons of reason to shake our complacency. In the art of Abram Games the very puzzlement caused by such arresting images is given an added purpose. We attend because we are momentarily baffled, and thus we are ready to seek for the message, which we will remember all the better for having discovered it in such a flash of recognition.

Abram Games, WWII-era poster

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A designer remembers the writer Guy Davenport

Remembering Guy Davenport
Guy Davenport was an American essayist, fiction writer, poet, translator, painter, illustrator, university scholar and professor, and a recipient in 1992 of a "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation. For more than a decade, he and I exchanged letters of a length of one or two pages, sometimes as often as weekly. I saved all his letters, with copies of nearly all of mine. To correspond with him for so many years was among the wisest things I’ve done. Yet in truth, it was always exhausting since the intensity of his letters was forever a woeful reminder that I was writing not simply to an ordinary person but to a remarkably talented man whose powers of observation were astonishing at very least. more>>>

Acclaimed film of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird

Cover of The Painted Bird (1976)
In 1976, I was asked by Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski to illustrate the dust jacket for the special tenth-year edition of his celebrated novel The Painted Bird. We have only recently learned that a much-acclaimed film version of his book has been completed, and is now on tour for screening. Produced and directed by Václav Marhoul, it will be released in the near future. more>>>

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Snaggle-toothed | a dancer and a mountain lion

Don Lorenzo Hubbell (n.d.)
Above Photograph of Don Lorenzo Hubbell, Arizona trading post owner. His family founded the Hubbell Trading Post (a National Historic Site) on Highway 191 near Ganado AZ. He was supportive of the efforts of American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who worked with the Native Americans in the area of the Four Corners during FDR's implementation of the New Deal. Hall also described Hubbell in a later, brief memoir, titled West of the Thirties (NY: Doubleday, 1994), in which this photo was reproduced.

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Edward T. Hall, An Anthropology of Everyday Life: An Autobiography. NY: Doubleday, 1992—

Lorenzo had been given the Navajo name of Nakai Tso (the Big [or Fat] Mexican). A snaggle-toothed man of tremendous girth and immediately obvious appeal, Lorenzo chewed tobacco, which he spit into a coffee can on the floor next to his foot whenever he needed to stop and think. Each conversation was punctuated by a splat as Nakai Tso, like a practiced bombardier, zeroed in on that can. His skin was mottled from what must have been a liver disorder; he spoke with a gravelly rasp that was more like a thick whisper than an ordinary conversational voice. He was able to communicate expressively with his left eye while speaking out of the right side of his mouth. When he pushed himself out of his chair, the movement transformed what only a moment before had been a mass of flab into a cross between a ballet dancer and a mountain lion—the grace, ease, and speed of his movements were truly extraordinary. Relatively expressionless of face, he nevertheless had a twinkle in the eye that came and went with the tempo of the conversation. To know what was happening in his head, one had to attend the twinkle. When he encountered lies or fraud, the twinkle became a glint. Like most businessmen in the West, Lorenzo wore the pants of a nondescript gray business suit supported by narrow suspenders, a shirt to match, a tie, and a straight-brimmed four-X beaver Stetson hat. I never saw him dressed any other way. In spite of a rather rough exterior which was typical on the reservation in those times, Lorenzo had an air that set him apart. As I had suspected, he was no ordinary man.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Memoir | Learning from Iowa poet James Hearst

I still clearly remember the day I met Iowa poet James Hearst and his wife Meryl Hearst for the first time. I remember it in part because I have a photograph of it. It took place during my freshman year at the University of Northern Iowa (known as the State College of Iowa in those days). I was an art student, and I had just returned to Iowa from a summer in California, where I had the fortune to study pottery with a person who had been among the first women students at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. The UNI Department of Art hosted an on-campus event in which non-art members of the faculty were invited to a gathering at the ceramics studio quonset hut, where they painted their designs on greenware pots that had been wheel-thrown by the students. In that surviving photo, I am quietly standing beside music professor Don Wendt and Meryl Hearst. James Hearst is not in the photo, but he was nearby in his wheelchair. …more>>>

Thursday, February 20, 2020

More than 50 years ago | The Maucker Portrait

In 1966, University of Iowa painting professor James Lechay was commissioned to paint a portrait of the president of the State College of Iowa (now the University of Northern Iowa), J.W. Maucker. When the painting was completed and displayed prominently in the library, it prompted a controversy that went on for months, with most of the debate taking place in the student newspaper.

To a lot of people, both faculty and students, there was not enough resemblance between Lechay's portrait and its subject. "The first time I saw the President's picture," lamented sociology professor Louis Bultena, "I muttered, 'If that looks like President Maucker then there is no reason why it should not be said that I look like the Queen of Sheba.” (Possessed of a rare sense of humor, as well as a talent for sleight of hand magic, Professor Bultena later confessed that ”I have since been told that I do bear a distinct resemblance to the Queen of Sheba, so it's all very confusing.") more>>>

Monday, February 10, 2020

Salvador Dali's Dreams of Iowa Fields in 1952

Few people know the story about the visit of surrealist artist Salvador Dali to the University of Northern Iowa campus (Iowa State Teachers College at the time) in February 1952. Not surprisingly, it has moments of hilarity. An updated version (enlarged and redesigned) is now available online at this link.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Coming noon tomorrow to North Liberty, Iowa

For weeks I have been working on a new presentation for the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, which I finally finished yesterday. Titled IOWANS IN NEW MEXICO: The Newcombs and the Navajos, it's the story of the involvement of my ancestors, for nearly four decades, with the Navajo people of the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.


My ancestors were from Manchester IA. Two of my great aunts (Pentony sisters) married Newcomb brothers (also from Manchester), while a third Newcomb married a Wisconsin woman, later known as Franc Johnson Newcomb, who became an authority on Navajo sandpainting and folktales. A third great aunt married a photographer in New Mexico, who worked for the National Geographic Society, and took some of the first archaeological photographs of the ancient dwellings in the region of Pueblo Bonito NM. As a child, I heard about these people (they sent kachina dolls as gifts) and now I have unearthed the details. What a story.


I will present it for the first time publicly tomorrow, Friday, January 31, 2020, starting at 12 noon, at the Community Center in North Liberty IA (just north of Iowa City) at 520 West Cherry Street. Sponsored by Humanities Iowa, it is free and open to the public.


Here is the formal description of the program, as posted on the website of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau—

Around 1907, in advance of New Mexico's statehood, three brothers from Manchester, Iowa, moved to the vicinity of the Navajo Indian Reservation, near Gallup. For the next thirty-odd years, the Newcomb brothers (Charles, Arthur, and Earl) worked for, owned or managed remote trading posts on the vast reservation. Newcomb, New Mexico bears their name.  Two of them married sisters from Manchester (Madge and Isabel Pentony), the sheriff's daughters. A third Newcomb brother married a Wisconsin teacher (Franc Johnson Newcomb) who became a leading authority on ceremonial sandpainting and helped to establish the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. For decades, the Newcomb brothers and their wives lived among the Navajo, learned to respect their traditions and actively promoted handcrafted native arts and crafts. They later wrote insightful books about their years as Navajo friends and neighbors. Roy R. Behrens (the speaker) is descended from the Pentony family, and as a child, he often heard stories about his New Mexico relatives. This is a fast-paced 50-minute talk about the Newcombs, the Pentonys, and the Navajos, illustrated by rare archival photographs.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

As much chance of surviving as a sewer rat

American book designer Merle Armitage
In the early 1940s, shortly after the novelist Henry Miller had moved back to the US from Paris, he concluded that a noncommercial artist in America "has as much chance for survival as a sewer rat.”

Refusing to borrow or to hire out for "stultifying work," he sent out a letter inviting support from the readers of The New Republic, requesting, among other things. "old clothes, shirts. socks. etc. I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, weigh 150 pounds, 15 1/2 neck, 38 chest, 32 waist, hat and shoes both size 7 to 7 1/2. Love corduroys.”

The appeal worked and a number of curious mailings arrived, one of which contained a complete tuxedo. "What'll I ever do with this?” Miller asked a friend, then used it to dress up a scarecrow that sat for a generation on the picket fence in front of his Partington Ridge house in Big Sur, California.

Among other gifts was a cash contribution from Merle Armitage, an Iowa-born book designer, civil engineer, set designer, concert promoter, gourmet cook, art collector, and author. Armitage was living in California then, and soon after, when he visited Miller’s home for the first time, he described his own profession as that of an “impresario." "But I have heard that you were a writer,” replied Miller. "If the truth were known," Armitage explained, "I write books so that I will be able to design them.” In fact, by that time Armitage had designed nearly two dozen books, some of which he had also written.

But Miller was incredulous: “Does a book have to be designed?” he asked. “A book is a book, and I don’t see how you can do anything about it.” more>>>

Friday, December 27, 2019

The worms are now eating dead Ernest again

Above and below: Two photographs that surfaced only recently in the post-retirement agony of downsizing. They appeared side by side in an issue of The Northern Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Northern Iowa, on October 14, 1975. I was an assistant professor then, and, as part of the freshman foundations program, had initiated a student competition called the Rube Goldberg Drawing Machine Contest, in which students were challenged to invent absurd self-operating contraptions that would somehow result in a "drawing" (loosely defined). I was also one of the judges, as shown above. The caption for that photo reads: "A judge at the Rube Goldberg content, Roy Behrens, did not seem to get a great deal of sleep the night before the contest, or he just saw a great looking piece of art." In the photo at the bottom, I have been joined in the judging by writer Robley Wilson (who was editor of the then-famous North American Review), who is attired in a fine-looking British judge's wig. The caption for that photo reads: "A large crowd was on hand…and some of them are shown looking at the first place entry in the drawing machine contest." I still remember the first-place winner, invented by a student named Mark Mattern. At the end of a sequence of absurdly unrelated events, it made a silhouette of a dog—with gun powder.

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A memorable humorous passage from David Meyer's memoir of his friend Ernest Summers, in Ernie and Me (c2003)—

His name was Ernest Summers and he told this joke about himself: When he was dead the marker on his grave would read, "The worms are eating in dead Ernest."