Friday, March 17, 2017


This week's arts and culture piece is a little report on a 3-day retreat from the world I took recently.

Here's how the piece begins:

The Center for Spiritual Renewal, located on the grounds of the nonprofit retreat center La Casa de Maria in Montecito near Santa Barbara, is a house designated for personal retreats.

A ministry of the Immaculate Heart Community, the center is located on El Bosque Road — “el bosque” means “woodlands” — and the 26-acre grounds are studded with towering live oaks and other gorgeous old-growth trees. Footpaths meander through citrus orchards, an organic garden and onto a hiking trail that goes miles into the Los Padres National Forest.

Everywhere is a tucked-away bench, overhung with hydrangeas or bougainvillea or toyon, on which to ponder. My first night, I sat overlooking San Ysidro Creek and watched the sycamore trunks turn molten gold in the setting sun.

The house, the former novitiate for the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is baronial: nine “distinctive fireplace mantels” imported from Italy, huge bathrooms with majestic sinks, teak-paneled ceilings, wrought-iron staircases, a library. Outside one spacious terrace faces south, another east.



Monday, March 13, 2017


untitled self-portrait

Recently I came across the book Cellblock Visions by Phyllis Kornfeld.

"Cellblock Visions  is a lively collection of inmate artwork, created behind bars, from county jail to death row – the alternative artworld flourishing today in American prisons. Men and women inmates, having no previous training, turn to art for a sense of self-respect, respect for and from others, a way to find peace. They transcend the cramped space, limited light, and narrow vistas. They triumph over security bans with ingenious resourcefulness - extracting color from shampoo, making paint out of M &  Ms and sculpture out of toilet paper."

One inmate is described as follows:

"Dewayne Williams is incarcerated for life in a mental health unit at a medium-security prison. His sentence was originally life, but was later reduced to first-degree manslaughter. He can barely speak except in a low rumble of one-syllable words, responding only to direct questions or asking for something he wants. For many years he was seen walking across the yard with a strip of duct tape across his forehead, his home remedy for headaches.

He was put on medication for epileptic seizures at thirteen (and has been on it all his life), but otherwise Williams had a normal childhood, functioning well in the family. There was no reported abuse and no show of violence on Williams's part until six months before the crime, when he began to rebel viciously against his mother's authority. he didn't fight with his father until one day when he was told to do yardwork. Williams' refusal was vehement, and later that day, he shot his father in the back of the neck.

In prison, Williams was a recluse, too antisocial to double-cell, but he did participate minimally in some programs. For a few years, an art class was held on the unit, and he showed up regularly, without being called. He was mild-mannered and dove into his painting without hesitation, worked with complete absorption, and when he was finished, signaled by shoving the paper across the table and holding out his hand for another sheet.

Self-portraiture is infrequent in prison art. When it does happen, the style is usually realistic, the pose, heroic. Tyrone O'Neil's [another inmate] portrayal of himself, seen later, goes much deeper to reveal layers of inner selves. Here, Williams's portrait is a single aggressive blast of identification.

If he could get red crayon or paint, Williams would use it to paint a broad stripe across his own forehead, taking off the duct tape first. He studied his reflection in a small mirror with great concentration to produce this untitled self-portrait [above]. He saw the red stripe across his head head, his pointed tongue, a vivid bush of facial hair (he was actually clean-shaven). He applied the medium with force. The face is blind with a fury that Williams himself does not speak of or act upon."

Friday, March 10, 2017


This week's arts and culture piece is on a wonderful, heretofore-unknown-to-me artist: Donald Evans.

Here's how it begins:

Donald Evans (1945-1977) “put his whole life and everything that interested him into the stamps of his fantasy world.” So says Willy Eisenhart, author of the wonderful “The World of Donald Evans.”

Evans was born in Morristown, New Jersey, to Dorothy and Charles Evans.

An only child, he grew up in a stable, prosperous and loving middle-class family. He liked to play alone. An older neighbor introduced him to stamp collecting when he was 6. He spent hours poring over the stamps, memorizing the names of the countries and capitals of the world, learning about the flags, currency, local customs and flora and fauna of fiefdoms, dictatorships and obscure islands.

His best friend for a time was Charles Fisk, who came from old money and whose well-traveled family, Evans recalled, “had a fascinating house full of collections of things and lots of encyclopedias.” The two boys built elaborate sand castles and palaces, made maps and calendars and invented characters. Charles’ was named Uncle Rich Harvest. Donald called his character The Queen.

When Donald was 10, he found he could render the places in his imagination “more real by making stamps from them and little letters.” He outlined the stamps in pencil, filled them in with pen and brush and made the perforations by pummeling out rows of periods on an old typewriter.


Monday, March 6, 2017



From a New York Review of Books article by Thomas Pakenham dated December 8, 2016:

Poets, [Fiona] Stafford* continues, are quicker than suburban gardeners to appreciate the virtues of the sycamore. She cites John Clare’s lyrical account of the “splendid sycamore” with its mountain of sunny green foliage. Its sticky leaves, he wrote, were a great gift to the world. We should listen to the “merry bees, that feed with eager wing,/On the broad leaves, glaz’d over with honey-dew.” Stafford also reminds us that Shelley’s bittersweet poem “Ode to the West Wind” was based on his experiences in the autumn of 1819, wandering in the sycamore woods around Florence. Shelley was in a wretched state; two of his young children had just died. That autumn it was the fall of the sycamore leaves that caught his imagination. The dead leaves were driven by the west wind—“Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,/Pestilence-stricken multitudes.” But the trees, he hoped, would “quicken a new birth.” For the west wind was propelling the “winged seeds” as well as the dead leaves. The dead leaves promised new life. “If Winter comes, can spring be far behind?”


*Stafford is professor of English at Oxford University and the author of The Long Long Life of Trees.

Friday, March 3, 2017



This week's arts and culture column is on one of the best books I've read in recent times, or really ever: "God's Hotel," by Victoria Sweet, M..D.

Here's how the piece begins:

“God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine” is a 2012 memoir by San Francisco-based physician Victoria Sweet. The subject is Laguna Honda, a long-term Bay Area hospital that for years was known as “the last almshouse in the country.”

When Dr. Sweet began working in the early 1990s at Laguna Honda — “an elegant, though somber, riff on a 12th-century Romanesque monastery” — patients, nearly always poor, could stay as long as they needed to. There was a turret for a resident priest. There were open wards with a solarium at the end. There were nooks and crannies where the patients smoked, drank, played cards, gambled and occasionally had illicit sex. There was a greenhouse, a barnyard and — I kid you not — an aviary.

Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Laguna Honda more colorfully, in fact, than that for a time the AIDS hospice ward had its own much-beloved hen.

Unhygienic? Maybe. “Although, as a matter of fact,” Sweet writes, “in the months when the AIDS hen roamed the open AIDS ward, she did keep her diseases to herself, as the AIDS patients did for her.”

Inefficient? Certainly. “But there was therapy in her inefficiency. I can’t document the numbers, but it was worth my while to walk into the AIDS ward just to see the spark of interest in those cachectic faces when lunch was served and the AIDS hen began her strut down the ward. It was a spark of life, an extra spark and sparkle that must have extended a life or two by a day or two, which, when you only have a few days left, is worth something.”