Archive for the FRIENDS Category

Greenwriting on the Skarpa

Posted in Art and Culture, FRIENDS, history, Life and What about It, Literature, Poetry, Poland with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2022 by Louise Steinman

My Afterword to Katy Bentall’s Greenwriting, published by (and available for purchase from) the estimable Bored Wolves Press, Krakow.

drawing by Katy Bentall

It’s dark when we arrive at Katy’s house in the Polish countryside, early fall, 2019.  My friend and I, both road-weary, climb a flight of wooden stairs to retire. My friend installs herself in the bedroom of Katy’s daughter, Magda, now a young doctor in London. I bed down in the room that belongs to Katy’s son, Sammy,  a classics major at the University of Warsaw. Everywhere there are stacks of book, fascinating books. Philosophy. History. Poetry. Books in Polish. Books in English. I want to look at all of them, but I’m so sleepy. Before I crash, I peek into Katy’s room/studio, noting piles of notebooks, vibrant watercolors.  A chorus of frogs serenades me through the open window as I fall asleep.

in the hammock at Katy’s house in Dobre

I met Katy Bentall in Warsaw a few years earlier, through a mutual friend. We bonded over a shared love of drawing, spending afternoons sketching, observing, and talking in cafes, on park benches. In the years following, I continued to find sustenance and inspiration from Katy’s artwork and writing, admiring them from my home in Los Angeles, often via Instagram. Her drawings and watercolors were a portal, for me, into a world so different from my own urban environment, and so fascinating:  the stout mushroom seller forever keeping vigil over precious fungi; the fortune teller, the pear man with his cargo of smoked fruit; the russet-red fox who feasts on fallen plums

Upon waking, light streaming through the windows, I am delighted, ecstatic, when it sinks in that I am actually here. I’m in Dobre, in this airy wooden house nestled into the Skarpa, the upland of the Vistula River, famous for its loess valleys and fields of wheat and hops, apple and pear orchards. From the front porch, there is the thrum of bees, the overwhelming scent of wildflowers, mint. (Later I will meet the neighbor who makes lip-smacking elixirs out of them.)  In the dining room, I recognize the chairs, the bowls, the blue and white checkered tablecloth, the brown teapot from Katy’s drawings. I know as well those beautiful yellow pears on a plate on the table (not available yet, to be made into pear cake, because they are going to be drawn. Please don’t eat the still life!)

This house and little studio hut on its grounds is the “pracownia,” the laboratory, that the visionary Polish art critic and philosopher Mariusz Tchorek built for his British wife, artist Katy Bentall.  Tchorek designed the house in collaboration with the noted Polish architect Rudolf Buchalik and constructed it with the assistance of local builders (son Sammy, then two, carrying two bricks at a time in his little plastic wheel barrow up the hill imitating the builders). Mariusz Tchorek passed away in 2004; his spirit is a benediction in this house, on this land.

Over the years, when their children attended schools in Warsaw, the Tchorek-Bentall family used the house as a summer and holiday retreat. Now, her children grown, Bentall has installed herself in Dobre full-time. It’s where she carries on her experiments in “greenwriting”— the exquisite drawings, paintings, collages, and texts—evidence of her determination to “live lightly” on the land, to bear intimate witness to the community in whose midst she lives.

In the afternoon, we drive the short distance from Dobre to Kazimierz Dolny, the ancient town on the Vistula, which has been, since the early 1900’s, a haven, a summer colony, for Polish artists. Katy’s weekly trips to the outdoor market and the bakery here are source for some of the Balzacian cast of  people, their gestures, their exchanges, that inhabit her drawings. The old woman with the bright blue beret is not in the bakery this afternoon; but there’s the table where she usually sits. Over the months, years, Bentall has observed them carefully, lovingly.

“Where does the impulse to draw something begin?” asks the late writer/artist John Berger. For Katy Bentall, the impulse might arise when she looks out the window and glimpses Basia, the neighbor’s wife, “skinny and strong, she could snap me in half,” ferrying a wheelbarrow full of logs. Basia who comes three times a week, who keeps the boiler going in the cellar. Pivoting from sight to paper and pen, the artist melds observation with imagination.  Fifty years from now, perhaps a hundred, when someone looks at the lively lines of this drawing, they’ll see Basia, skinny and strong and her wheelbarrow— a moment reclaimed from time’s oblivion.

drawings by Katy Bentall

That lag between seeing and drawing, what Bentall terms the “memory glance,”  is why, she explains, “if you look carefully, my drawings usually look All Wrong.” It’s what gives them, in her words, “the weirdness.” That’s what I love about them. Arms too long end in fingers which turn into bundles of sticks. We’re not talking realism; we’re talking penetrating essence.

The pandemic winter of 2020 in Dobre was, Bentall reported,  “so cold it hurt to swallow.”  The artist invites us to take a night walk with her on a snowy eve, painting the scene with words. Feeling safe in the velvety dark—suddenly she’s face to face with a wild boar. She stands frozen in place, waiting for the beast to cross the ridge, then watches in astonishment as seven more boars follow, like “shadowy giant mice scampering over a mountainous iced Christmas cake.” The wonder of this winter vision negates any fear. In the morning, she searches out the boars’ footprints in the snow, marvels at the differences of various creatures’ modes of movement: the hare’s “a high-speed train leaving a whooshing sound in its wake,” to “the little ruffled feet flecks of the partridge as they fluttered by at dawn.”  Exhale.

Later that spring, during the pandemic, Katy wrote me: “All I have felt able to do is allow the garden to be as wild and self-seeding as possible and watch the wildlife thrive! There are plenty of hidden human interventions required but at least I don’t dominate. I suppose this is the point of the drawings—they are meant to not dominate—still art continues to try to dominate—I am struggling with this thought. What matters? Why make art? What does it mean to live lightly? To affirm those around us.”  

drawing by Katy Bentall

How do we affirm those around us when the world is in turmoil, when the world is in pain? The artist plants sunflowers. It’s a gesture that makes perfect sense, and yields one of my favorites of Bentall’s drawings: the figure in red bending under the sunflower’s extravagant gaze, its shower of knowledge, human fusing with the thrust of nature. 

John Berger, himself both artist and writer, chose to live in a remote village (his in the French Alps). Like Katy Bentall, Berger valued the rhythms of rural life, the wisdom of those who worked and lived close to the land, and to animals. When he drew, he wrote:

I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter if pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells. I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved—each according to his own mode—in a comparable manner of searching. Drawing is a form of probing. The first generic impulse to draw derives from the human need to search, to plot points, to place things, and to place oneself.”

Greenwriting is a record of Katy Bentall’s searching and probing.  Her drawings are the way she places herself— an artist, a British woman living in a foreign land—in this house, in this village, in this miraculous and troubled world.  

 How these drawings delight me! 

 I trust they will delight you as well.

-Louise Steinman, Los Angeles

Sept 17, 2021

Resister in Sanctuary: We Won’t Go

Posted in FRIENDS, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Los Angeles, Peace and social justice, social justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2018 by Louise Steinman

Maizlish_Sign

Joe Maizlish at Induction Refusal, 1968 Black and white photograph/L.A. Resistance Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

In one glass case, what first draws my eye is a REMEMBER JOE MAIZLISH bumper sticker identical to the one I affixed to the bumper of my dad’s Ford Mustang in 1968. Yes, I do remember Joe Maizlish. Decades ago, I wrote to him in while he was in federal prison, where he served two and a half years of a three- sentence for refusing induction to the draft. Joe, now a psychologist and mediator, in present-day, is my neighbor in Silverlake.

The item, along with posters in fonts of various degrees of psychedelia, is on exhibit at WE WON’T GO: The L.A. Resistance, Vietnam and the Draft (at the Central Library’s Getty Gallery until August 19). Curated by Winter Karen Dellenbach, an L.A. Resister, together with Ani Boyadjian, Research & Special Collections Manager for the Los Angeles Public Library, this inspiring display of civil disobedience was drawn from the Los Angeles Resistance Archives, acquired by the library in 2014. The collection includes letters, posters still and moving images, diaries, mimeographed newsletters, draft cards and other ephemera donated by members of the L.A. Resistance and their supporters. Essentially, this is a chronicle of the non-violent anti-draft activities of the L.A. chapter of the Resistance, a nationwide movement.

I recognize a black and white photo of General Hershey Bar, with his signature plastic B-52’s worn as medals. The real General Hershey, a Nixon advisor, was head of the Selective Service, and General Hershey Bar was a familiar sight at anti-war rallies in the ’60s. “Fixin-to-Die Rag” (Country Joe and the Fish) cues in my head:

Well, come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books and pick up a gun
We’re going to have a whole lot of fun”

MORE on Los Angeles Review of Books

 

Anna the Almaziful: Remembering Anna Valentina Murch (1949-2014)

Posted in FRIENDS, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Louise Steinman

img453 On Friday nights, the Sabbath prayer that my husband and I recite is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We light the candles and chant: “In the name of Anna the Almazifull, the Everliving, the bringer of plurabilities…” and as we praise Anna’s “haloed eve,” I think of my beautiful friend, Anna Valentina Murch, who died this year. It’s been nine months; I’m having a hard time believing she’s gone.

She was lovely, my friend. Playful. An artist through and through. Anna’s house on the peak of San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, shared with her husband and collaborator – Doug Hollis– was full of candles and mirrors, living room windows open to the glittering city below. Anna loved light and shadows; harnessed them to great effect in her installations for museums and public spaces over the last decades. Her lighting design for Portland’s new Tillicum Bridge (with Doug) completed after her death, casts jewel-colored beams of light above into the night sky and below, onto the surface of the Willamette River.

16543200-mmmain Anna and I held an Old Country in common; though hers was probably more Nabokov’s White Russia and mine hewed more to the shtetles that Isaac Babel described in his diary. Her mother’s family was from St. Petersburg, and fled to Shanghai after the Revolution (when my grandparents emigrated to the Lower East Side). During the second World War, Anna’s father—a British naval officer—was stationed in Shanghai, and fell in love and then married Anna’s mother—a beautiful red-haired Russian actress.

Her mother, Valentina, played a role in the 1948 film of Anna Karenina, and, like the romantic title character, eschewed the maternal role. Anna was packed off to a strict English boarding school at the age of three. Her liberation came in her twenties, art school and graduate work in lighting and architecture in London. Her adventurous spirit brought her to the U.S, to San Francisco.

Her first art works as a newcomer to the American West in 1976 were in the desert. She planted glass rods in the shifting gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico, a test missile site. Where did one space begin and other end? How could beauty co-exist with destruction? Light with dark? The presence of geological shiftings and fault lines in her adopted land, both geological and psychological, engendered a series of “volcanica” installations, red neon illuminating black coal. Anna always wanted to know, wanted us to wonder, what lay underneath the surface of things?

“I want things to unfold slowly,” Anna once said of her installations. “Often my things are quiet and simple enough that it takes time—a kind of slow overlapping—before people feel it.” She wanted to make time palpable. In her installation, “Voyages” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you entered a small room, crunching underfoot stones washed smooth from years of river time. You could feel time in your feet.

From early childhood, she was fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings, old barns in the Devon countryside she knew well, stone houses in north England, bombed out residences in London. Who had lived there? What secrets and memories had been shared in what were now the empty shells of dwellings? The remnants of a structure often provided the basis for an imagined archeology. She was also consistently  fascinated with psychological thresholds, boundaries, and what it was that empowered people to cross over them.

She built her “Staged Garden,” on the crumbling concrete foundations of an abandoned lot in downtown San Francisco. At night, the installation was entirely transformed by gelled theater lights, hidden in the long grass, which illuminated the stage and left long low shadows. A “stage door” lit by blue neon—though sealed– beckoned from a niche of weathered bricks. To explore the piece as a spectator, you became a performer.  And part of the performance was the sight of bejeweled opera patrons promenading past the empty ghost stage on their way the San Francisco Opera House two blocks away.

Anna loved dressing up, giving dinner parties, inviting friends for Twelfth Night with the house glittering with candles and redolent with savory aromas from their kitchen. She adored hats, silver sandals, a jacket with a good cut. Even when she had to wear a wig, she did it with style. annahat2 She was explicit as to what I meant to her as a friend. We talked about artist- husbands and the demands of our jobs (she was a much-loved professor of art at Mills College for two decades), about balancing our responsibilities while trying to do our own creative work.

On our last visit, in January, we took a slow walk around Bernal Hill, leaving “the boys” as we called them, to their own pace. We sat on a bench and looked out over the city. She told me she knew she didn’t have much time. I wanted to push it away, to say that wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. it was likely true. She still had good days, like the previous week, which ended with Anna and Doug strolling arm in arm on the sand, tide lapping around their bare feet, in Pacifica. I reached them by cell, their voices were happy,light. They’d made it to the beach without having to walk down steps. Doug said they would go there again, it was so easy.

“Space is our friend, but time has death in it,” the poet Gaston Bachelard has written.   Perhaps the fact that much of Anna’s art was a meditation on time helped her cross the threshold from this world with what appeared as equanimity. She told me she was not afraid of death, and I believed her. The more time you spend in a space, she once said, the more choices you have in what you see and how you see it. She had bravely struggled with, lived with breast cancer for years. She worked in the garden and together with Doug on their collaborative public art projects almost to the last day. She spoke on the phone to old friends here and in England. As Doug said, “She used her time very wisely.”

On that day in January, our last visit, in the late afternoon, the four of us brought deck chairs up to the garden, leaning back to catch the last rays of winter sun, clocks of our life spans ticking. Anna shoulder to shoulder with Lloyd to the right; Doug next to me on the left end. It was a sweet and unburdened hour, four friends talking quietly or sitting in companionable silence as we might have on a trip together to Yosemite or Joshua Tree. We left in early evening, so that Anna could get some nourishment, so that we could drive across the Bay Bridge and relieve the babysitter at our nephew’s house. We said goodbye with such tenderness, pushing hard against the thought that this could be the last time we’d see each other face to face in this world.

In the name of Anna, the Almaziful, The Everliving,

The bringer of plurabilities

Haloed be her eve!

Her sing time sung,

her rill be run, unhemmed,

as it is uneven. img452 [top photo: Anna, SF, wearing Jim Pomeroy’s shell earphones… they really work!]

Book of Dreams

Posted in Art and Culture, FRIENDS, Life and What about It, Performance, So&So&So&So, Theater with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2011 by Louise Steinman

“A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read,” says the Talmud. In the little shtetlach of Eastern Europe—in towns like Zhitomir and Radomsk where my father and mother’s families came from—travelling booksellers once plied their routes. Among the most popular items they offered for sale were dream books. In the pages of those books you could learn the meaning of any dream: the baby born with the head of a carp; the midwife dancing in the beet field; the miller’s daughter with the extra eye, your long-lost brother with shoes aflame.
In my performance “Sinai/Sinai” (created with poet John Marron) in the early 80’s, I made my own appearance as a Dreampeddlar. To the melancholy chords of a harmonium score, my peddlar entered the stage dressed in a long overcoat weighted down with his over-sized book of dreams.

An artist friend, Richard Posner, made that marvelous Dream Book, a three-ring binder with a white stork embroidered on the front and a camel from a flour sack on the back cover. Richard was a bricoleur; he used whatever was at hand to make luminous works of art. Glass was his primary medium, and his stained glass windows were in the collection of the Exploratorium in San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert. An installation he created in Berlin, “Der Wider-Haken-Krauter-Garten” (The Live Not on Evil Garden) used broken glass and healing plants to create what Richard called “a work of transformation” from “waste material into living things.”

Richard died this past spring, victim of a homicide in Tucson, Arizona. When his body was first discovered by the Tucson police, it was reported as “the body of an anonymous 62 year-old man.” Later, Richard’s name was restored and his many accomplishments—numerous public art commissions, four-time Fulbright scholar– were mentioned in the press.

A few weeks ago, several of his friends gathered for a memorial in the Malibu home to commemorate his life. Richard was a difficult man with many problems, including mental health issues all exacerbated by poverty and lack of health care. He could be exasperating. He was neurotic and needy. “Sometimes Richard drove me nuts or maybe it was him reminding me that I was nuts,” wrote one friend. He was also loyal and brilliant.

My dear teacher Rabbi Singer—also Richard’s friend and teacher — wrote to me after he heard the news: “I have his nine wine bottles Menorah on the deck outside. It is just a row of nine wine bottles fused together by some plastic compound. I could never throw it away. It works. It expresses the desperate, makeshift genius of the impoverished to turn on the lights.”

This gathering of friends took a tour of Richard’s artwork from our various collections. Petra Korink, Richard’s wife from Berlin, brought several of his GWOTBOTS (Global War on Terror Robots), constructed from toys gleaned from Berlin flea markets. Richard, an intrepid wordspinner, gave them names like “Blind Leading Blind in Mad Cow Circles.” Our host, Dr. Ralph Potkin pointed out one of Richard’s glass Kitschina, what RP called “a May-December marriage of German ‘kitsch’ with Hopi Indian Kachina dolls.”) Susan Rubin talked about Rich’s Coping Saws, cast and found glass tools which Richard constructed from the detritus of a decade of stained glass and windows broken in the 1994 Northridge, Ca. earthquake. We posed for portraits in his “Bird-Brained Bicycle Helmets”

and we contemplated ethereal glass marbles with fragments of Richard’s ashes. Rabbi Don read the Kaddish and Petra read Wyslawa Szymborska’s poem, “The Heavens,” which begins:

I should have begun with this: the heavens.
A window without a frame, without curtains, without glass.
An opening with nothing beyond
but a vast opening.

I’d rooted through my basement for the occasion, and unearthed that Dream Book that Richard made me decades ago. I sat on a leather chair in Ralph’s house, my back to the Pacific and facing Richard’s friends. I reached into the transparent pockets the artist created in the book, where the storyteller could stash whistles and a mirror, a clothespin, a Jew’s harp or a pocket watch on a gold chain.

[still from my film, “The Strange Tale of Shabbatai Sevi”]

I opened the pages to reveal the dream images within: an erupting volcano; an astronaut tumbling through space; a city under siege; a white horse rearing up under his rider; a veiled woman with a birdcage balanced on her head; a shining green Star of David.

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