Art favorites: Mushrooms on a Blue Background

Mushrooms on a Blue Background is stunning for its boldness of color and shapes. It seems deceptively simple, as though anyone could have painted it. But this just isn’t the case. Rather the painting shows that talent can make something look so simple that isn’t.

I love the shades of blue and brown, the shadows that the mushrooms throw, the lines around them delineating their boundaries—and how all of these make the entire painting pop.

Mushrooms on a Blue Background
Marsden Hartley
American, 1877-1943
1929
Indianapolis Museum of Art

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The photography of Brett Weston

I looked at the information about the new Brett Weston exhibit at the art museum. (Full disclosure: I knew nothing about Brett Weston before I went to the exhibit.) The information showed a black and white photo of a rocky beach. Huh. Like a photo I would take in northern California.

As I walked into the exhibit, two photos greeted me. I looked closely at the captions and squealed silently with delight. (Yes, squealed silently. You can do that. Kind of like when I mentally jump from foot to foot with excitement.)

One photo was the photo on the museum website. It was at Carmel Beach. I knew it! Northern California. He did photography in my old stomping grounds. The type of photo that I would take too.

The other photo was of trees in the mist. Knowing full well what they were, I double-checked the caption. Monterey. Yup. Monterey cypresses.

I sighed as I looked at his other photos. He shot at Point Lobos too. One of my favorite places.

Weston (1911-1993) used a medium format camera and created gelatin silver photographs. He was a modernist. I blinked at this word. Modernist. (I am used to thinking of modernist as a label when discussing design, not photography.) In the words of an informational plaque, “Weston understood that all black and white images are inherently an abstraction of reality.” OK. Modernist. Got it. He focused on shapes and textures, which black and white photography is well suited for. As a modernist, he explored abstraction.

Weston himself inherited a photographic legacy. His father, Edward (1886-1958), was considered the father of straight photography. And what is straight photography you might ask? (I didn’t know either.) Per the exhibit information: “This style [straight photography] relies on a simplified technique and dedication to sharp focus, rich tones, high details, and Modernism’s interest in underlying shapes.” Of course, black and white photography is the perfect medium for rich tones and high details.

Alas, the exhibit is small—perhaps 30 photos. Only a handful are Brett Weston’s. The others in the exhibit are from contemporaries of his, many of whom I didn’t know: Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Charles E. Barnes, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Minor White, and Berenice Abbott.

No photography exhibit of black and white photographs would be complete without Ansel Adams. The exhibit includes two Adams photographs: Half Dome and Jeffrey Pine Sentinel. (Side note: The Jeffrey Pine Sentinel is no longer quite so photogenic. I hiked to it about a dozen years ago. It had clearly aged a bit since Adams’ day and is now more of a gnarled, weatherworn tree trunk than a tree.)

Weston didn’t just photograph California trees or beaches. He was into abstract forms, whether a natural formation or an architectural edifice. I was excited to learn about him but a bit put out about his lack of environmental concern. Unlike Adams, Weston didn’t engage in broader, environmental issues. My new idol had clay feet.

Movie review: Loving Vincent (2017)

Loving Vincent is a visual treat. The film covers the year after Vincent van Gogh’s death with flashbacks to van Gogh’s final days in Auvers.

Loving Vincent is not a normal documentary. It is an animation painted by 100 artists. The story takes place in van Gogh type paintings. In fact, you will recognize scene after scene as the story unfolds: Starry Night, The Bedroom of Arles, Café Terrance at Night, The Yellow House, The Night Café, Wheatfield with Crows, and many more. To watch Loving Vincent is to watch van Gogh’s paintings scroll by. (He produced 800 paintings during his lifetime.) In contrast, flashbacks appear as black and white pen sketches rather than as brushstrokes in the van Gogh style.

In the main story, postman Joseph Rouline sends his son Armand to deliver a letter to Theo, van Gogh’s brother with whom Vincent was close. The letter was returned to sender. Armand leaves for Paris but quickly discovers the reason for the letter’s return: Theo died not long after Vincent passed away.

Armand is eager to find someone to give the letter to. He tracks down the man who supplied Vincent with his paints, but Pere Tanguy is not willing to take the letter. Instead, he directs Armand to the doctor in Auvers that treated Vincent.

Off to Auvers he goes wanting to be done with this whole adventure. Only what he finds in Auvers sucks him in. Suddenly he wants to understand Van Gogh’s last year of life and why he killed himself. Stories he hears from various people do not add up and in some cases contradict one other. Who is telling the truth? Who is covering up facts? What exactly happened? Did Vincent kill himself or was he shot by someone else?

The image developed of Vincent is of a genius. Unfortunately, he was raised by harsh, unloving parents who did not see, understand, or nurture his talents. Vincent didn’t take up the brush or an interest in painting until he was 28. By 37, he was dead of a gunshot wound. In between those times, he suffered from breakdowns and mental illness. His death is seen as an unfortunate conclusion to a life of depression, but Armand wonders if this is too convenient an explanation. Unintentional murder seems more likely to him.

Of course, we will never know. But Loving Vincent, through the eyes of Armand, introduces us to the circumstances of his final year of life. We meet the main characters in his life, hear their stories, and listen to Armand question what he has discovered.

The title is a nod to the close relationship between the two brothers, Vincent and Theo. They wrote to each other often. In the end, Armand sends the letter to Theo’s widow, who collected all letters between Vincent and Theo for publication. Vincent would sign his letters to Theo with “Your Loving Vincent”.

Whether one believes in the theory that Vincent was killed rather than committed suicide, Loving Vincent is well worth a watch. It a visual masterpiece, based on the artist’s own works. I came away with a better appreciation of his travails and the rich depth of his works. And I weep for what more he could have produced had he lived.

Fairmount Historical Museum

The Fairmount Historical Museum contains artifacts from and information about the county, the former high school, and notables (including Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield), but the bulk of the museum focuses on James Dean.

So how does it differ from the James Dean Gallery? Well, the gallery seems to be comprised of a collection of James Dean memorabilia from David Loehr. The James Dean collection at the Fairmount Historical Museum is more a history of Dean’s life and personal items from different periods in his life.

The museum is located in a house on the National Register of Historic Places. This Queen Anne house was built around 1888. Prominent local physician JW Patterson resided in the house from 1889 to 1953. (I was unsuccessful in eliciting additional information about Patterson from the museum staff.)

The downstairs rooms are mostly devoted to James Dean. A small side room contains information about Jim Davis and Garfield knickknacks. Upstairs is devoted to a mishmash of things you typically would find in a county museum.

I was surprised to see things about Jim Davis. I associate him with Muncie. (He went to Ball State University.) Turns out that he was born in nearby Marion but grew up in Fairmount. On a farm. With 25 cats. (Yes, 25 cats. Probably outside farm cats.) He suffered from asthma and turned to drawing when he was confined to house or bed. The picture that the museum paints is that of a sickly kid with a lack of natural drawing talent. Apparently with practice he was able to strengthen this anemic skill.

The jewel of the museum is the James Dean collection. The museum contains lots of items from his life—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The front room contains the CZ motorcycle that his uncle bought him when he was 16. (Another room has the Triumph motorcycle that he later bought.) The collection is well labeled with detailed explanations of the artifacts of his life laid out in chronological order.

The museum shows all aspects of his life, starting with the artwork and writing that he did in childhood. His sketches and drawings are quite good. He had more technical drawings, such as one of the Gutenberg printing press and one that detailed the anatomy of a grasshopper. But others were pure artistic pieces. I was smitten by a pastel crayon drawing he did of a moon high in a dark sky, reflecting on water.

I noticed with a smile a “book” he wrote in childhood titled “My Career as a Farmer”. (It reminded me of a book that I wrote after my first hamster died. I wonder what happened to my biography about Oscar.)

When he was young, his father was transferred to California. Unfortunately, a few years later Dean’s mother died of cancer. At age 9, James was sent back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle. After graduation, he moved back to California, attended first Santa Monica College and then UCLA. He switched from pre-law to drama, and then dropped out for his acting career.

Exhibit cases contain numerous personal items and photos, including items taken from his New York apartment following his death. A volunteer at the museum pointed out two items in particular for me to look at. One was a list of phone numbers on a piece of paper. This paper was nearly falling apart from being folded (and presumably carried around in a wallet). At the top of the list? Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star in his last film (Giant). She was followed by Competition Motors (related to his racing career?) and Coulter and Gray (his business manager). A few more down on the list was the number of an exterminator. (Clearly, even the famous have mundane needs.)

The other item that the museum volunteer pointed out to me was a handwritten letter that Dean wrote to his young cousin Marcus Jr. He was beseeching Marcus to change the subjects that he drew. The younger Dean was drawing subjects of confinement, destruction, and war. This weighed heavily on James.

A shot glass caught my eye. It was no ordinary shot glass with the ounces marked on the side. “Say When!” appeared on the glass. The different amounts were labelled: 1 oz for ladies, 2 oz for gentlemen, 3 oz for pigs, and 4 for jackasses. (Hmmm. I see which I am. Definitely not a lady.)

The description on another item made me do a double-take. In 1979, Martin Sheen donated a shirt that Dean wore in East of Eden. Martin Sheen? Martin Sheen wore it himself when he acted in the TV mini-series Watergate. (How did Sheen come to wear it?)

Dean’s love of art, music, and racing were evident in the museum. He drew, he sculpted. (The museum includes a bust that he carved.) He commissioned an artist (Kenneth Kendall) to create a bust of him. (Intriguingly nothing indicated his reasoning behind seeking to have a bust made.) The museum houses one version of the bust. Another version lives at the Griffith Observatory in LA. (Why that location? I later discovered that the Observatory was the setting of a James Dean movie.) A bronze version was made for the James Dean Memorial Park in Fairmount. A few days after it was installed, the bust disappeared from the park, never to be found again. (A new one was installed.)

Some cases house a multitude of items from his racing career—trophies, photos, pit passes. Other cases contain a number of items from movie sets such as rope that he used in Giant, railing from the house in Giant, a monkey toy that appeared in another film. Strangely, one of the cases includes an Oscar statue—which he hadn’t won. Somehow it had come into Dean’s possession and he passed it on to someone else (who apparently gave it to the museum). Origins unknown.

The upstairs is more of a quirky county museum, though most is devoted to the city of Fairmount itself. There are the ever-present arrowheads and archaeological finds, including a mastodon leg bone. The items aren’t labeled or described nearly as well as in the James Dean collection, leading me to wonder what I was looking at. (Were those items from the railroad? What’s the deal with all of these 19th century dresses and hats?)

Individual people are called out but not explained. Olive Rush was a native-born artist, I presumed. James Huston a local writer of non-fiction. And Dr. Henley? Why was I looking at pictures of him? (I wasn’t able to tease much more about him out of the museum volunteers other than that a street is named for him.) I did read about his innovative approach to protecting his blueberry bushes from birds—the use of removable wire cages. (A later investigation into Olive Rush revealed that some of her paintings are at the Haan Mansion Museum of Indiana Art!)

Another room houses old cameras, typewriters, and phones. I was tickled to see a switchboard live in-person. And then immediately to its left was a payphone. (Sobering to realize that is a relic of the past too.)

As with all local museums, the museum contains rooms devoted to military service and high school sports. (Go Quakers!) (Side note: Fairmount was a big Quaker community. Dean himself was raised in the Quaker faith.)

When the Fairmount High School closed in 1986, several people had the foresight to place items from the school in storage. At least some of these items made it to the Fairmount Historical Museum in the high school sports room and in the music room. Various annual class photos of students at the high school line the walls on the second floor. (One point that struck me about the photos: the lack of girls wearing long hair until the 1960s. The change came presumably with the rise of commercial hair dryers?)

The Fairmount Historical Museum is a wonderful complement to the James Dean Gallery. Seeing only one would be an incomplete James Dean pilgrimage.

James Dean Gallery

I must confess. I realized when I was in his hometown of Fairmount that I don’t think I have ever seen a James Dean movie. I thought it best not to voice this fact out loud. Something to remedy in the future.

As I turned the doorknob to the James Dean Gallery, I was greeted by a very friendly dog. After a few minutes, a human appeared, assuring me that Cleo was friendly. (I instantly liked the dog—she has the same name as one of my hamsters.) The guy welcomed me to the gallery (a museum really) and went to turn on the continuous loop video in the back. I was left to wander through the rooms.

The gallery (er, museum) fills the bottom floor of this 1903 Victorian house. The house contains a cornucopia of James Dean mementos and memorabilia. The collection also includes lots of items from his school days such as yearbooks and school sweaters. (One item that made an impression on me was a pair of his shoes. Judging from them, he had really wide feet…says the woman with incredibly narrow feet. In a later photo, I found myself staring intently at his feet. They didn’t seem especially wide but I remembered those shoes.)

The walls of the gallery are covered with movie posters in different languages. Exhibit cases house magazines and books (also in different languages…oh look 映画の友Friends of Movies…with Dean on the cover). But there are lots of other random items. Mugs, watches, plates, cologne, and bobbleheads. (Yes, bobbleheads of James Dean.) An original wax head of Dean from the Coney Island Museum in 1954. Letters and fan club cards. A life mask made in 1955. I knew James Dean was a big deal but clearly he was bigger (worldwide) than I imagined.

And I had little knowledge about Dean outside of his three major movies: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. But Dean was much more than his bad boy film persona. He was actually an artist too. The gallery contains a few of his works, including a watercolor called The Bullfighter.

He was also a race car driver. (I read somewhere that he wanted to race in the Indianapolis 500 but the timing just didn’t work out.) He raced in at least two races (Bakersfield and Palm Springs) but was forced into a hiatus by a movie company until he completed the movie Giant. (They didn’t really want to see their star killed in the middle of movie production.) Ironically, he was on his way to participate in a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car accident. Although filming for Giant was done, it was still in post-production and was released after his death. (The car he was driving and planned to race in Salinas was a real beauty: a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder.)

Ironic note: The gallery website links to a Traffic Safety Video that Dean made on July 28, 1955—a few months before he was stopped for speeding and then an hour or so later killed in a car accident on the way to a car race in Salinas. In the video, Dean warns against driving fast on the road. He used to speed, he recounts, but now only drives fast on race tracks. He ends the video by urging others not to speed…because he is concerned for his own safety.

In the gallery, rooms are named after two people important to the James Dean legend: Adeline Nall and Kenneth Kendall. Nall was Dean’s speech and drama teacher at Fairmount High School. Kendall was an artist whom Dean commissioned in January 1955 to create a bust of him. Kendall went on to paint and draw Dean in a variety of mediums.

A corner is devoted to Nicky Bazooka. Who? This character (Terry Nichols in real life) clad in a leather jacket and riding a motorcycle started appearing in Fairmount in 1980 on the anniversary of Dean’s death (September 30). Year after year, he joined the memorial service at the church and then led the group to the cemetery. He would disappear until the next year. (Unfortunately, his traditional appearance ended when he died on September 17, 2014.)

The video on continuous loop in a screening room plays snippets of rare TV appearances by Dean, starting with the first commercial he appeared in (for Pepsi). Unsurprisingly (since they are rare TV appearances), I recognized none of the titles.

The most curious room in the gallery is the back one which is rather large. It contains nothing about Dean…but rather a collection of items from the 1950s and 1960s. Vintage plates and dishes. Tables covered with beer bottle caps. It felt like an odd end to an impressive James Dean collection. (The James Dean collection is actually the private collection of David Loehr, an ardent fan who apparently had a James Dean museum in nearby Gas City. An NPR interview of Loehr mentions the imminent closing of this museum in 2005. His collection must have been folded into the James Dean Gallery, which opened in 1988.)

After wandering through the gallery, the guy manning the gallery spoke to me about the annual James Dean festival. Each year for 42 years, this small Indiana town of 3,000 is overrun by fans for several days. (He claimed 20,000 attendees. Information from another museum claimed 30,000-40,000. Either way I cannot imagine how the town manages to temporarily ingest such numbers.) The festival includes a James Dean look-alike contest, a parade, and a car show. (1,500 vintage cars? Really? Hmmm. My interest was piqued.)

He then gave me a map of the city and walked me through all the important James Dean spots. He circled the James Dean Memorial Park (on my list), Fairmount Historical Museum (on my list), the spot of the former Fairmount High School (now just a pile of rubble…on my list), Playacres Park with a water tower that sports a picture of James Dean (something to add to my list), his gravesite (on my list), and the family farm where Dean grew up (something to add to list).

Map in hand I petted Cleo and then headed out to continue my James Dean pilgrimage in the sleepy Indiana town of Fairmount.