Saturday, September 29, 2012

Fan Girl Fail

          Douglas Adams did a reading at a local bookstore years ago, when we were living in Madison, Wisconsin. K and I are fans, so we went. I don't know why we assumed that it would be an intimate little reading with maybe 20 people.*
          It was not. I suspect that half the population of Dane County was in that bookstore, standing on each other's toes, just to hear Douglas Adams. Only a select few actually got to see him. The rest of us were shoehorned behind tall bookcases and around corners in the many-chambered bookstore. We all clutched small yellow squares of paper with numbers on, which harried bookstore personnel had distributed as we squeezed through the front door, and which indicated our place in the book-signing line after the reading.  K's and my number? 169.
          After the reading, which was wonderful, as the bookstore folks tried to get us to stop pushing and form a nice, orderly line according to the numbers on our yellow squares of paper, K looked at me.
          "Do you really want to stand in line?" he said.
          I looked at the book I'd brought for Douglas Adams to sign. I looked at the yellow paper with "169" written on it. Someone stepped on my toe.
          "No," I said. Someone jostled K. "But I really did want to have Douglas Adams autograph our book."
          "Enough to stand in this line for the rest of the evening?"
          "Um…" Someone elbowed me. Hard. I shook my head.
          "I'll autograph it," K said.
          And because neither of us is a competent fan, able to wait in line while 168 other people get their books signed in a stuffy bookstore where absolutely everyone was standing in our personal space all at once, not to mention stepping on our toes and smacking us accidentally on the back of the head with their copies of Mr. Adams's books, our copy of Mostly Harmless, which, for a glorious half-hour, was in the same building as its author, is inscribed thus:

*We did actually know that Douglas Adams was Famous-with-a-capital-F. We just hadn't quite worked out that Famous-with-a-capital-F Writer doing a reading = mob scene. Please make an allowance for the fact that we grew up in remote, sparsely populated towns where 20 people attending anything was a huge turnout.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Would Monet Have Photoshopped?

          When K and I were in New York earlier this month, we visited the Botanical Garden, where they were showcasing a tribute to Claude Monet, which included a lovely exhibition of actual waterlilies in its conservatory pools.
          Not to be outdone, I'm posting my own tribute to the Man With the Garden—three photos I took of the waterlily exhibition and then photoshopped to look like they were painted by a real live Impressionist master.*

©Nancy E. Banks

©Nancy E. Banks

©Nancy E. Banks

*Why didn't I just paint them in the style of the Impressionists, you ask? Well, it takes me forever to make a painting. And when it is made, it is invariably bad. So I prefer to digitally manipulate my way to greatness. Or at least to competence.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Head of a cleric from a tomb effigy, ca. 1450-60, thought to have come
from the Benedictine abbey of Moyenmoutier.

         I intended to include this poignant carving in my last post, but I was so transported by those Assyrian bas-reliefs that I thought I'd give this face his own post, where I could do him the justice he deserves.
          I first thought this was a death mask, so lifelike and touching is it. It's not, though; it's a carving done by an unknown, possibly itinerant, stone-carver.
          How can someone who was able to work this kind of magic in stone at a time when most stone-carvers worked in a cruder, flatter, more stylized idiom remain anonymous? How can his skills not have been enough in demand for him to be known, at the very least, as "The Master of Wherever-It-Was-That-He-Lived?" How can he have translated the human face so exquisitely into stone and died without leaving us his name or even any idea of where he lived?
          So artists die—unnamed, many of them—but their works live, and they still speak to us half a millennium later. Art matters in this way—it provides a glimpse into history; it tells a story that may otherwise have been lost; it allows us to understand a little better the forces that have created our present.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stone Speaks

          Assyrian art is a designer's paradise. Whenever I have the opportunity to look at Assyrian art, I scurry immediately there and gawk shamelessly with my mouth hanging fully open like an amateur in the face of artistic glory (which in fact I am) at the gorgeousness of the shapes carved into those impressive narrative bas-reliefs; the sheer touchableness of the repeating motifs in the beard, hair and wings; the abstract beauty of the shapes of the muscles in the arms and legs; and of course, those large, almond-shaped, expressive eyes.
          Lord, grant me enough years of life to figure out how those ancient stone carvers managed to make figures that are at the same time flat and beautifully graphic and yet also fully and believably three-dimensional, poised to walk straight off that slab of stone and shake out those magnificent wings and demand our worship.

There is hardly anything more beautiful in art than this.
         The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a small but lovely collection of Assyrian carvings, and since neither K nor I will knowingly pass up a chance to see Assyrian art, we spent an afternoon in the Met last weekend taking it in.

Look at the wonderful texture on his robe facings. And the feather detail on his head.

           You will have certainly noticed that both figures are carrying handbags. Because apparently deities need handbags. You know—to carry their god gear. I liked this detail very much, and had a lot of fun imagining what a deity must carry in its handbag. Thunderbolts? Incense? The seeds of the universe? Curiously Strong Mints? The keys to that temple in Nineveh?
          A bit of research, however, revealed that those are actually buckets, not handbags.* They are thought to hold either water or pollen, and to be used in ritual purification. You can see the eagle-headed deity is holding a cone (thought to be a pine cone) which was apparently dipped in the bucket and used to sprinkle the water or pollen. All this, you will note, is rather speculative. And I found it on Wikipedia. So you might want to take it with a grain of salt.**
          The other thing that just charms me up one side and down the other is the fact that there are captions (or a narrative of some sort) on these reliefs, and they are carved right on top of the figure. And they look all hip and post-modern-designerly and stylish and Artistic-with-a-capital-A. Like the artist was so confident in the excellence of his work that he could just slap some words on top of it and know that it would look even better.
Here is a detail of the type on the first photograph. You can click on it
to enlarge it so you can get a closer look at the beauty of the cuneiform.

          So ancient, yet so entirely modern. Art has the advantage over language here, for even if the meaning of the words has been lost and the language is dead, the images are still alive, and they still speak directly to us.
          (And one of the things that I am sure they are saying is, "Get yourself a fabulous handbag.")

*And also that I have far too active an imagination.
**I myself believe this provides more than enough justification for me to continue to believe the handbag theory. That, and the fact that it's a better story with handbags.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


          K and I were in New York last weekend. We spent Friday morning in Lower Manhattan, near the old fish market on the East River. I took some artsy photos of nautical textures and designs, and also an ersatz celebrity art sighting:

Christo wraps the Brooklyn Bridge.
Well, not really; it was actually being repaired.
But the Christo version makes a better story.
©Nancy E. Banks

Another view of the Brooklyn Bridge, with anchor lines from a docked ship
adding a nice design element.
©Nancy E. Banks

Ship's rigging makes a pleasing design against the sky.
©Nancy E. Banks

I loved the pattern this rope flung over the ship's side made.
The rope's braid pattern is also yummy.
©Nancy E. Banks

Detail of the side of the ship. I like the way the rigor and right angles of the
rectangular shapes contrast with the ovals and the angles of the lines,
as well as the random organic shapes of the rust blossoms and streaks.
©Nancy E. Banks

A carving of a very pretty ship, on a building
whose name I neglected to remember, near the piers.
©Nancy E. Banks

Another carving on the building. I love the
intricate intertwining of anchor, chain, and seahorses.
©Nancy E. Banks

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Never Forget

This side of the Katyn monument also depicts the starvation of Poles sent to by the Russians to Siberia.

          This startling monument is a memorial to the Polish officers, soldiers, and civilians executed by the Soviet secret police in or near the Katyn Forest in Russia in 1940.
          To read more about the monument itself, which is in Jersey City, NJ, and its sculptor, Andrzej Pitynski, click here.
          To read about the massacre, and the coverups, misinformation, and finger-pointing subsequent to it, click here.
          To read about recently declassified documents that show the Allies were involved in the coverups in order to maintain the alliance with the Soviet Union that they felt was crucial to winning WWII, click here.
          I actually only intended to discuss the monument itself, which is strikingly original and very compelling from an artistic point of view, but the facts of the massacre are complicated, ugly, and painful, as history often is, and the monument is a jarring reminder of how common the desire of one group to annihilate another is.  When you see it from the front (this photo is taken from the back), you also have a view across the Hudson River to the empty space in the New York skyline where the Twin Towers once stood, and the exhortation to "Never forget" the September 11 terrorist attacks is also fitting for the Katyn Massacre.
          What I would like us to Never Forget, though, is not the acts themselves, but that fear and ignorance breed the kind of anger and mistrust that feeds these horrific acts. We should never forget that we are all of us capable of great cruelty in the service of our fear and ignorance.
          And we should above all never forget that we are capable of greatness pure and plain when we refuse to let fear and ignorance rule our actions.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


©Nancy E. Banks
          I've been meaning to post this ever since I snapped it last summer in Rome. I couldn't believe that I stumbled upon the quintessential Italian cliché snapshot while simply walking down the street one morning.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

It's Just Not Enough to Have the Best Bacon in Town

     I love butchers. I love their cold cases with the ground beef and steaks and chops and roasts tidily arrayed and glistening redly under glass. I love asking for 3/4 of a pound of ground chuck and getting it in the little red-checked paper boat wrapped up in white butcher paper. I love their knives and cleavers and sharpening steels. I love asking them could they bone a leg of lamb for me and then watching while they do it, in less time than it would take me to undo the butcher-paper wrapping.
     A good butcher is a joy forever. His loveliness increases, even in a blood-stained apron.
     And yet, if K wants a little of the best bacon in town for his breakfast, I will not go to the butcher shop where one goes to get the best bacon in town, no sir; if K wants that bacon he has to go to the butcher shop himself and purchase the bacon and I will not go with him, even to ride in the car.
     Because the butchers at that shop are grumpy. They get all testy with you when you ask for a type of sausage they are not familiar with. They would prefer not to sell you the pound of brisket you requested. They believe your desire to obtain a chuck roast is a violation of all that is Good and True in this world. They wouldn't sell you the best ham in town even if you paid them.
          I have had brusque butchers, and quiet butchers, and shy butchers, and not a few cheerful butchers, none of whom have ever been reluctant to sell me what they possessed and even feel slightly sorrowful if they had no Kalberwurst, but I have never had a grumpy butcher till Kansas City. Is it the humidity?
          My Parisian butcher was kindly. My butcher in Tours was cheerful. My Princeton butcher was busy but cheerful. My San Jose butcher was flirtatious. My Madison butcher was brusque, but he would bone anything you asked him to, or butterfly it, or split it, without making you feel that you were Not Good Enough for his meat.
          I have even negotiated, both happily and successfully, for steak with a busy butcher in a very busy shop in Copenhagen who had no reason to treat me well, since my entire fund of Danish consists of "tak," ("thank you"), which is perfectly useless when you need to specify which kind of steak you want and the shop is jammed with impatient customers who are actually capable of saying exactly what they want in a language the butcher understands, but which did bring a big smile from him when we had finally concluded the negotiation and he handed me the package of steak.
           So I fail to understand how an entire butcher shop could make a cult of grumpiness and still survive financially. Although their bacon really is excellent.      

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Department of Homeland Security (Canine Division)

           My house, 7:45 am.

          The big dog (standing at the living room window): BELLOW!!!!!! (The Terrorist Alert Level has just been raised to RED!!!!!)
          The small dog (running up behind him and hurling herself at the window): ROOOO-ooo-ark! Barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark
barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (OMG!TerroristsFanaticsVisigothsHunsInsurgentsReallyBadPeople
          Me (coming into the living room to see if I need to call the police): It's children, you idiots! Walking to school! Stand down!
          The big dog: Rumblerumblerumble. (They looked like terrorists.)  
          The little dog: BarkBarkBark!!!! (Assassins, I tell you!!!!)  

          My house, 11 am.     
          The big dog (standing at the living room window): BELLOW!!!!!! BARK! BARK! (Perimeter breach!!!!!! All hands on deck! Man your battle stations!)
          The small dog (running up behind him and hurling herself at the window): Barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark
barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (SocialistsPiratesFascists
          Me (to the big dog): It's the mail carrier. Who comes here SIX DAYS A WEEK. This is not a perimeter breach.
          The big dog: Rumblerumblerumble. (It was definitely a perimeter breach.)
          Me (to the little dog): Hobos, Casey? Seriously?
          The little dog: BarkBarkBarkBarkBarkBark!!!! (Hobos! Smelly nasty pus-covered drooling hobos! With fangs!!!!)
          Me: Stand down, crazy dog.

          My house, afternoons.    
          The big dog (standing at the living room window): BELLOW!!!!!! BARK! BARK! (Security Threat!!!!!! Call 911!)
          The small dog (running up behind him and hurling herself at the window):ROOOO-ooo-ark! Barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark
barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (OMG!HeathensPagansScoundrelsVandalsDesperadosMafiosiHoodlums
          Me (to the big dog): That's your neighbor. Walking his dog. This is not a security threat.
          The big dog: Rumblerumblerumble. (It was clearly a security threat. That dog is a terrorist.)
          The small dog: BarkBarkBark!!!! (A terrorist! Yes! With fangs!)
          Me: Why don't you go chase some squirrels?
          The small dog: Barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark
barkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbarkbark!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Squirrels! YesYesYesYesYesYesSquirrelsYesYesYesYesYesYesYes
           Me: Sigh.