This little cat has a lot to be thankful for.
I am interrupting my regularly-planned blog posts to post a review of a play I saw this week at the Wilma Theater called School Pictures. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen: a one person performance by playwright Milo Cramer, who portrays a number of middle-school students they worked with as a private tutor in the City of New York before the pandemic. To take on all these parts in one play is quite an undertaking, but there’s more. Cramer sings all the parts in a high-pitched voice while accompanying themself on various musical instruments: a ukulele, a toy piano, a regular piano, and a portable organ. Sometimes they sit on the floor. Sometimes they sit on a chair. The set is sparse, an almost bare stage with minimal props.
Sound weird or tedious? It’s not. Cramer’s performance is engaging, well-paced, and entertaining. Nothing drags. You get drawn in to the personal stories of the students which are a combination of comedic, poignant, sad and illuminating.
Towards the end the play, Cramer wheels a tall blackboard onto the stage and resumes the role of teacher, instructing the audience about the institutional inequalities that plague the New York school system. There’s no preaching. Cramer’s arguments are all the more compelling because they engage in a dialogue with the audience, and lets everyone draw their own conclusions.
School Pictures will be at the Wilma Theater until November 20.
Halloween is over. The Phillies won’t be going to the World Series. We have reset our clocks. This means the Fall season is upon us. I don’t think a lot of people really liked the paintings of dead rats that I posted last week, but I always suspected there was a reason that I never had a future as a highly-paid blogger and influencer. No matter.
One of my favorite activities is walking through the different neighborhoods of Philadelphia. This week was the ideal time for it. As always, I take pictures on the way.
Swann Fountain. I always thought it was called Swann Fountain because of the Swans. Come to find out, that’s Alexander S. Calder’s pun. The fountain is a memorial to Dr. Wilson Cary Swann, founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society. Those Calders were full of jokes. Read this about Alexander Milne Calder’s joke on Philadelphia from the top of City Hall.
Speaking of City Hall,
Here’s a shot of City Hall Tower from inside the courtyard. Billy Penn is up there making mischief, but you can’t see him in this shot.
And here’s a picture of City Hall Courtyard with a repainted compass and map of the original City of Philadelphia in the center.
Here’s the recently-installed I Heart Philly sign in Love Park. The heart was originally bare. Now, it’s covered with stickers of flags from around the world along with messages from people who have stopped by.
And what would a visit to Philadelphia be without stopping at the Love Statue? Except there’s something fishy about the above photograph. You probably can’t tell what unless you’re from Philadelphia. Maybe even then you can’t.
Here’s another shot which reveals the answer. The Love Statue sits at the start of the Parkway looking northwest towards the Philadelphia Museum of art. The picture that shows it with Philadelphia City Hall in the background has been flipped around. Which is why you should remember that things aren’t always what they seem.
I know mixed media artist, cartoonist, painter and printmaker Phoebe Murer from Fleisher Art Memorial where we both serve on the student advisory committee. So I jumped at the chance last month to tour her studio which was on this year’s Philadelphia Open Studio Tour, sponsored by CEVA, the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.
Phoebe’s work can be startling for those expecting portraits, still lifes and studies. Yes, there are some of those because she is a formally-trained artist. But, as a self-described person “on the spectrum,” she has had to navigate the sometimes brutal institutions and bureaucracies that occasionally seem to do their utmost to suck whatever is unique and creative out of us. If you are not on the spectrum, but are even a little bit different, you surely know what I’m talking about.
Phoebe takes these experiences and makes art out of them. She uses conventional art materials and mixes in a healthy amount of wit, humor, truth, love, and perspective. The emotional kind.
A self portrait
More Self Portraits
I learned that when Phoebe was in high school, she made a collage at the end of each year. Later, she made paintings of some of the collages
Phoebe keeps rats as pets, and they are very important in her life. (Before meeting Phoebe’s friends, the only rats I had ever met were in my kitchen late at night, or in the crawl space beneath my old house. ) She has a little rat cemetery behind her house and paints a sleeping beauty portrait of each furry friend after they die. Rats live about six years, so there have been many rats in Phoebe’s life.
A “mask-ini” rendering of an imaginary bikini made from COVID masks. A humorous reaction to the difficulties mask wearing can cause for some on the spectrum
Some words about this year’s POST tours.
I didn’t go to many other art studios this year. Why? Read on. The way POST works is that art studios in certain neighborhoods, like South Philadelphia or West Philadelphia, are open to the public on a given weekend day. In the past, CEVA provided easy access to the addresses of art studios that were participating on a given date. So if I wanted to visit several studios that were participating on, say, October 15 in South Philadelphia, I could find their addresses together on a list and plan my route.
This year, CEVA provided a link to a poorly-designed interactive map which was extremely cumbersome to use on your phone. I was not the only person who had this problem. There were brochures that listed the addresses of which studios were open on a given date by area, but they were scarce to the point of non-existence, (although someone at a South Philly studio cheerfully told us we could pick up copies at CEVA’s office in Rittenhouse Square, a mile and a half away. )
There were booklets that gave the addresses of the studios, but these were listed in alphabetical order by name of the artist and not grouped by date or part of the city. The QR code in the booklet inexplicably took you to the same thing. It should have taken you to a downloadable PDF with the addresses for each studio participating in each neighborhood on a given day. I truly hope CEVA does better next year. POST is a wonderful program.
In my book club, whoever recommends the book for a given month gets to host the meeting, either at home or in a restaurant. With the home meetings, we have taken to serving dishes inspired by the cuisine in that month’s book. Since I recommended the book and was hosting that month’s meeting, I decided to try my hand at West African cookery with a concentration on Nigerian cooking.
When I told some friends that I was in search of recipes, some exclaimed that they loved Ethiopian cooking. And so do I. But Africa is a big continent. Ethiopia is almost 4,000 miles from West Africa. Eurocentric people would not be likely to confuse German cooking with Spanish Cooking, even though those countries are much closer to one another. Do we imagine that all African cooking is the same? When I first went online is search of West African cookbooks. I found some books like this one that had a heavy colonial twist and not what I was looking for at all. But thankfully, here are people who have been committed to documenting and preserving the culture of the African Diaspora, including food culture and traditions.
I was in over my head from the start. I have always been able to make good gnocchi from scratch. But when I married, I learned that I could not make a decent matzo ball. Even from a mix. Fufu is the West African equivalent of matzo balls. I managed to churn out some passable-looking fufu after a couple of attempts, but I don’t know if my fufu was any good. I didn’t have a benchmark. I think my fufu was better than my matzo balls, but not by much.
A diaspora is defined as the dispersion of people from their original homeland. People don’t usually leave their homelands without a good reason, normally displacement by war, famine, political oppression, or for better economic opportunities. Or a combination. And when people leave their homelands, they bring their food with them. It creates a sense of community in the new place. Sometimes it marks them as “foreigners” to the native population. I remember hearing stories about how my W.A.S.P. relatives considered my Sicilian-American father to be somewhat of an exotic character with his garlic and his homemade red wine. He, in turn, thought their creamed gravy and biscuits would kill him. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.
There is a population of emigres from African countries in Philadelphia, and an African Grocery in West Philadelphia. So after finding some good websites for recipes and watching some videos, I made my way to the All African Grocery in search of ingredients.
I came back with a bunch of strange (to me) ingredients. I also got fresh peanut butter, some spices and dried crawfish. I couldn’t find dried locust beans, so I bought them online. And there were many other ingredients, such as Scotch Bonnet peppers and plantains, that I could get at the 9th Street Market near my home, as well as Little Saigon neighborhood, and the plethora of Mexican Groceries in the area.
Locust beans. A tasty condiment used in West African cooking.
Dried crawfish. You pulverize it in a grinder and add it as a seasoning.
Here’s what I made. Aside from the ill-fated Fufu (see above. Read more about Fufu here. And no, I did not beat cassavas into submission. I bought a mix like this one), I made two hearty stews, a plantain dish, and African pepper sauce.
Making Vegan Egusi soup, recipe here.
West African Peanut Soup. Here’s a recipe. I left out the chicken and substituted black eyed peas which I purchased at the All African Food Market.
Fried plantains recipe here.
African pepper sauce. Recipe here.
I have to take this opportunity to rave about this pepper sauce. The scotch bonnet peppers were so hot that they made me cough and burned my hands when I was seeding them. But they changed totally in the sauce. Yes, they were still hot, but it was a warm, foody hotness that crept up on you gradually and enhanced the flavor of the food you added it to, rather than making you miserable. It was especially good in the hearty peanut stew which already had one of the peppers in the main recipe.
My verdict? West African cooking is substantial and spicy. I love the combination of sweet potatoes and black eyed peas. The pepper sauce is divine. I will definitely be making more of these recipes. I made everything without meat or dairy, but if you like chicken, oxtail or goat, this is the perfect cuisine. For a comprehensive all Nigerian recipe site, click here.
And now back to what started all this, the novel, Things Fall Apart. Interestingly, the title of that book comes from the poem, “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats. Part of the impetus for “The Second Coming” was the Irish Easter Rising in 1916, which some have argued sounded the beginning of the fall of the British Empire. Both the novel and the poem are about societal and cultural change that upended the worlds of the people involved. There have been diasporas throughout history. They continue today. That’s one reason why it’s important to preserve traditions, including recipes.
Here is an interview with Chinua Achebe.
I have fried my brains this week helping to plan Clayathon 2023 at the Seaview Hotel in Galloway, NJ next February. It was easier to plan my wedding. We are all hoping that people will feel safe enough to attend and that COVID will not take a major surge, although winter is not the best time for indoor conferences. Our last two conferences were virtual. We will have a virtual component this year, but Clayathon started as a live event and is going back to its roots.
I have a bunch of polymer projects on my work table right now in various stages of completion. I continue to make earrings. The pictures below are of earring I’ve made through the years and the techniques I’ve tried include lampworking, ceramics, metal etching, resin, wirework and enameling. It’s been fun.
More earring history here.
I admit that I am brain dead right now and that I am not up to a detailed blog post. I am in the process of going through and organizing for sale or donation possessions that I have stored in my house for years, including camera equipment, musical instruments, depression glass, artwork and other items that I have squirreled away in my 916 square foot abode. The process has taken me on a trip down memory lane, which is sometimes difficult to navigate.
One of the ways I’ve taken to relaxing lately is to pour myself a glass of wine after my husband goes to bed, and sit with Boris and watch YouTube. There’s a lot of junk on YouTube but there’s so much valuable and entertaining information, I can hardly believe it’s free. I have some recommendations.
The first is a documentary on M.C. Escher from 2013. One of the big revelations for me in watching this documentary is that Escher was greatly influenced by Islamic art and visited the Alhambra where he did a lot of drawing. It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Read more about Escher’s experience at the Alhambra, here. And then watch the wonderful documentary.
But wait! Just like the Ginsu knives, there’s more! I’ve always loved to draw and I’ve struggled with drawing in one form or another for years. Just ask Boris. So I have a great deal of admiration for illustrators. Pete Beard, who is an illustrator from the U.K., turns out to be quite a filmmaker too. He’s put together a video series called “The Unsung Heroes of Illustration.” Each video is about 12 minutes long give or take, meticulously researched, engagingly narrated, and lavishly illustrated. I believe there are about 84 short films.
On the YouTube site, Beard says, “I had always thought that many illustrators from the past got nothing like the attention they deserved so I decided to make some videos about a few of these almost forgotten talents. The unsung heroes series was originally intended to be about illustrators from what’s known as the golden age of illustration. But I soon realised that meant ignoring many early 20th century illustrators who strictly speaking didn’t fit that description. So I compromised and ended up with parameters of those born between 1850 and 1910.”
Beard has a number of other worthwhile videos on his channel that you can watch after you’ve finished with the The Unsung Heroes of Illustration.
I made my way to West Philly last weekend to meet my friend Patty for West Craft Fest in the Woodlands. The Woodlands is actually a cemetery with some notable Philadelphia personages buried on its grounds. It was the perfect day for an outdoor craft fair.
I ran into my friend Nicole Rodrigues there. Nicole is a print maker and ceramic artist. See that honey in the above picture? Nicole’s father keeps bees and put up the honey. I went home with a jar of it and can’t wait to try it.
There were an abundance of artists selling candles and prints this year. Not of particular interest to me. But the work at the Barbaric Yawp Workshop stopped me in my tracks. Kasidy Devlin, who runs Barbaric Yawp with his wife, Natalie Kropf, gave me a short explanation of the mask making process. The masks, he told me, were made of vegetable-based leather which is wood fiber which is soaked and treated to form the masks. There is obviously a lot more to it than that. These are not your ordinary masks. These are works of art that you can wear or display. If you want to learn more about these incredible masks or buy one, click here. The Etsy site is here, and the Instagram site is here.
I have had roofers banging on my house for a good part of the week, so it’s been hard to concentrate. Speaking of houses, Vlado Milunić, one of the architects of the Dancing House in Prague, Czech Republic, died this week. He and Frank Gehry (who has a special affiliation with Philadelphia) designed the structure in 1992. Here’s a picture I took of the Dancing House in Prague a few years ago.
The Dancing House, Prague, Czech Republic