Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fine Art in Las Vegas: What are the odds?

If you live in Arizona, as I do, and drive north, you will find that eventually the road is blocked by the Grand Canyon. You have to go around. I went west, to Las Vegas, so I could continue from there, up north into Utah. Las Vegas was the last outpost of so-called civilization in that region so I stayed overnight and half a day, to rest up. Got a room in a major casino hotel for under $50. I don’t gamble, so I felt pretty smug that I had beat that pricing system.

But they did get me for $25 for admission to the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art. It’s a small space, showing perhaps three dozen paintings at the most. The show I saw was called “A Sense of Place: Landscapes from Monet to Hockney." It had numerous artists from widely varying times and places, but all the pictures addressed the show’s theme. Pieces were on loan from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.

How could that work? You might wonder what 19th century impressionism has in common with 20th century abstraction and precise representationalism. The answer is curation. This show is all heavily influenced by the skill and sensibility of the gallery’s curator who was not identified, but could have been Tarissa Tiberti, the gallery’s director.

Monet’s 1885 Haystacks at Giverney, for example are hung next to photographer Skeet McAuley’s 2001 image of golf course greens, and you notice that both scenes are quiet, sun-drenched, and both convey a strong sense of open space, and above all, a sense of place. The juxtaposition gives brilliant insight into both works.

My favorite juxtaposition was David Hockney’s intensely colorful "Garrowby Hill" (1998), hung next Torben Giehler’s 1999 "Boogie Woogie," a Mondrianesque abstract gridwork. And again, the juxtaposition makes you see both works in a new light, in this case, as aerial views of landscapes, and again you appreciate the sense of place conveyed by both.

Other artists in the show were Marc Chagall, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Robert Rauchenberg, Lichtenstein, Millet, Christo,Vik Muniz, and many others unknown to me before this show.

I spent over an hour in the small gallery going around and around the tight circuit, learning more each time. Each piece is a beautiful masterwork in its own right, but their creative and playful juxtapositions added a surprising new level of understanding.

This was not the sort of thing I expected to discover in Sin City. But I’m glad I paused there long enough to see it. See The show runs through January, 2012.
(Sisely on the right here)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tucson Glass Festival

The Tucson Glass Festival was held from April 8-10, 2011 to celebrate art in glass. Originally the show was planned to be national but too many participants canceled after Arizona passed its racist anti-immigration law earlier in the year, so the organizers soldiered on with a local festival, and it was intimate and successful (from the point of view of a consumer of it, anyway).

There were tours of the Sonoran Glass Art Academy, which included demonstrations and instruction, with plenty of “product” for sale in the galleries, and likewise at the Philabaum glass studio and gallery, and other galleries around town.

A special highlight was a demonstration of technique by the brothers de la Torre, Einar and Jamex, originally of Guadalajara, now living and working in Esenada, Mexico and San Diego. They worked at Tom Philabaum’s studio in Tucson to produce a fantastic, life-sized glass head in their signature style of cartoonish, colorful, ironic, and witty construction that the three of them had designed the night before in the Ethiopian restaurant across the street from the studio.

The brothers were assisted by Tom Philabaum and a team of experienced glassworkers. The two-hour project was fascinating and almost medieval in its exercise of techniques that go back many centuries. I asked Tom Philabaum about the absence of safety equipment. All those bare arms and legs look awfully vulnerable moving around glass at fourteen hundred degrees, I said. But he replied, "I would rather work naked. You have to be able to feel the heat from the glass to know what it is doing." The man is clearly one with his material!

The glass bust that emerged was grotesquely beautiful, pinkish, as if its scalp had been removed, and decorated with something like a crown of laurels, except they were prickly pear pads, and topped with a sort of Mohawk haircut that made the whole thing reminiscent of a conquistador. It’s gaping mouth displayed the words “Baja Rizona.” Why not “Baja Arizona?” someone asked. Because, Jamex said, the two middle “A’s” are combined to one, and then it sounds like somebody is laughing, “Ha-ha, Rizona!” That is the kind of weird, eccentric humor the de la Torre brothers are known for.

The brothers have a major show now at the Tucson Museum of Art, called Borderlandia. It is a show that has traveled through the west, perhaps elsewhere. It presents a wide range of colorful glass pieces, some free-standing, some wall mounted, some animated by electric motors and videos; all of them baroquely elaborate, immensely intricate, and stuffed full of “found” trinkets and souvenirs culled from dollar stores. Some of their iconography is serious, tragicomically cultural, religious, and bitingly political, and some of it is just plain goofy fun.

The work highlights, overall, ethnic commonalities and differences among people living along the southwest border. They use images from Mexico, American pop culture, the Mayas and the Aztecs, and even some pre-Columbian images. Juxtaposition is their preferred method for making narrative comments, such as by filling a traditional religious altar with pop-culture icons and images of politicians. The show is overflowing with political and cultural meaning, but it is also a huge dose of eye-candy and a magnificent display of the glass artist’s craft.

The bizarre bust that the brothers made for the Glass Festival demonstration ended up looking something like a Spanish Conquistador who plays in a punk rock band in a Day of the Dead celebration. It was hastily stuffed into the annealing oven before it could be thoroughly appreciated, but even so, the artists asked the small crowd of observers if there were any early bids for it. The bidding stalled out at $2,000, but at least it was an open.

I’m not sure when the formal bidding for it is, but they said they would not be surprised to see $7,000. Proceeds benefit the nonprofit Sonoran Glass Art Academy’s Youth Development Program.

Viva el vidrio!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

T.S. Monk On Monk

T.S. Monk, drummer and bandleader, is the son of renowned pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk. I think T.S. also stands for Thelonious Sphere, same as his father but anyway, Monk the younger goes by T.S. He founded the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, dedicated to honoring (promoting) the music of his father and educating and nurturing new jazz talent.

T.S. tours the world performing his father’s ensemble music. In Tucson recently, he presented a show for which he is known, called “Monk on Monk” with a brass and piano sextet. It was quickly expanded to ten players with the addition of a tuba and bass sax, and some other horns, for a smoothly blended “Monk’s Mood.” The sound was good overall, and of course anyone who loves Monk’s music can’t get enough of it. Nevertheless, individual performances seemed lackluster. Nothing sparkled except the instruments.

T.S.’s drumming tends to the musical, which I like. He is 60 years old now, so one cannot expect fireworks. The different drums are tuned over a wide pitch range (I don’t know proper drum terminology) and he uses that variability to produce some melodious solos instead of the usual whap-bang theatrics. The playlist was not tremendously satisfying. It emphasized lesser-known works, such as Little Rootie-Tootie, Boo-Boo’s Birthday, and Crepuscule with Nellie, tunes that he explained were dedicated by his father to the family. I suspect there are still copyright issues with the “big” tunes, like ‘Round Midnight and Epistrophy, that prevent them from being featured. Still, it was good music, if lackluster.

T.S. put out a disc in 1997, also called T.S. Monk on Monk, which included just about the same playlist as this show, but had in the band such luminaries as Roy Hargrove, Dave Holland, Christian McBride, Wayne Shorter, and many others. Now, that music pops, so I conclude that the Tucson concert was not lukewarm because of the playlist but because of the players. Or maybe it’s something about Tucson itself that makes performers sleepy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Joshua Redman

I saw a great performance on an improbable Sunday afternoon by Joshua Redman’s quartet at Portland, Oregon’s Performing Arts Center. It was near the end of the 2011 PDX Jazz Festival and I was only in town for the weekend, and there were only a few tickets left, so I was forced to spring for high-dollar seats, in the second row orchestra section, sitting right behind Joe Lovano, as it happened.

Online it said that Redman would have Aaron Parks as his piano player, and I have been following Parks since I “discovered” him, playing for tips in a Tully’s café in Seattle some fifteen years ago. Alas, it was not to be. On piano was Aaron Goldberg, who is fully competent but not as exciting as the other Aaron. Redman did play a Parks-written tune, and acknowledged him as a good friend. Matt Penman was on drums and Eric Harland on Bass.

I have enjoyed saxophonist Redman (and his father, Dewey Redman), since the early ‘90’s, when he still had hair. His 1993 album, “Wish,” recorded with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, is still a favorite. He has come a long way since then and now is a major star. In his mid forties, I would guess, he is an interesting-looking fellow, tall and lean, with long, slender fingers, and a head that runs diagonally from the crown of his shiny pate to the tip of his huge jaw and protruding lips. But none of that affects his great music. He plays straight ahead jazz, hot and complicated but without the squeaks, blats and whinnying horse sounds that many players (including Lovano) often resort to. But he also does a fine, lyrical ballad with real feeling.

Redman seems a very gentle soul, with a soft voice, utterly authentic. It is somewhat surprising that when getting ready to play, he has a genuinely worried look on his face, as if he were wondering if he would be up to it, if it would be good. I have no doubt he is worried about that, for his playing is alive and spontaneous. Nothing about it is rehearsed. He does not know what's going to happen, so he really is venturing into the void every time he plays. When his piece is finished and he raises his head from the saxophone, he looks completely disoriented. He glances around in a panic, trying to remember where he is and what is going on, as if he were emerging from a dream. And that is probably exactly what is happening in his head. He is a modern day shaman who guides us into another world.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blues with Grace

Abounding Grace Sanctuary, a Lutheran Church in Tucson, hosts local and regional music performances almost every week. Churches give me the creeps, and this one was no different, but I took a deep breath and went to see Joe Bourne, Arthur Migliazza, and Tom Walbank. The last two are local stars. Walbank is a guitar and harp (harmonica) wizard often found at Tucson’s 17th Street Market. Migliazza is a stride piano and boogie-woogie master, formerly of Tucson, but who now lives in New York. Tom and Arthur are old friends and often appear together in Tucson (not often enough). Joe Bourne is a jazz singer from Cambridge, MA.

Migliazza led off with his signature version of Yancy’s Blues, a genuine foot stomper. Bourne then sang several tunes with piano accompaniment. The accompaniment was great. I especially liked a rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” because Arthur really slammed the downbeat note on the left hand in each bar. Plus I am just wild about any tune in 4/4 time over a 6/8 rhythm. I don’t know why. Arthur also did a version of Pinetop Blues that had people in the audience literally gasping in astonishment, interrupting often with applause.

Bourne sang many jazz standards competently, but he was not my favorite. He just did not swing, and that is death for blues. He hit every note dead center, exactly as written, but that’s not enough. To swing, you have to use rubato, play with the music, interpret it. Bobby Darin had swing. Bourne doesn’t. Also, his accent was uninteresting. In “Georgia On My Mind,” he actually said “Georger” at one point (Boston area accent). However, he did do “Motherless Child,” an old slave song from the late 1800’s and he did it a capella, as a Negro spiritual, not as a blues tune, and it was very heartfelt and moving, and really showed off his voice well. That’s obviously his forte, not jazz singing.

Tom Walbank came in at the second hour and knocked everybody’s socks off with his dazzling harmonica work, which is unbelievable. He has a composite piece of pre-World War I tunes that he has put together that is astonishing. He is hooting and barking and yelling and singing into the harmonica even as he plays it , creating his own rhythm section as he goes. It’s just amazing, seemingly impossible.

The show was $15 per person, ran about 90 minutes and was attended by about 150 people, mostly members of the church, I would guess, and mostly fifty years and older. I saw nobody under forty, which is a shame. The kids wouldn’t know who Count Basie is, true, but nobody can resist a hot boogie-woogie piano or a wailing blues harmonica -- nobody. I left early because of the growing lack of oxygen and the increasing smell of humanity in the windowless, airless room. But I was well pleased to enjoy Arthur and Tom again, individually and together.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ruins at Casa Grande

This is not really a performing arts event, or if it is, it is one that occurred at least six hundred years ago. The Hohokam Indians of southern Arizona had a prosperous civilization between Phoenix and Tucson between A.D. 1200 and 1450, at which time they disappeared. I took an archaeological tour of the remains of their civilization, sponsored by The Archaeological Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that acquires and preserves endangered archeological sites across America ( The guide for our group of eight was Allen Dart, M.A., a professional archaeologist and Executive Director of the Old Pueblo Archaeology Center in Tucson (

We began with the ruins of the “Great House” at Casa Grande, AZ. “Casa Grande” means “great house.” The town is named after the ruins. The great house was four-story public building, probably a meeting place and a center of government, built around 1300. It is made of adobe-like bricks, which essentially “melt” in the rains, so it is badly decayed. It has survived seven centuries mainly because the bricks are cut from the rock-hard caliche soil of southern Arizona. That is soil saturated with calcium compounds, the bane of gardeners today. There isn’t much rain in southern Arizona (only about 12 inches a year today – no telling what it was 700 years ago), so the building has stood up surprisingly well, considering the technology. The Park Service put a protective roof over the ruins in 1932, to slow down its rate of decay. Since the 1800’s, the Park Service has also added several structural supports to keep the remaining walls from collapsing.

The great house is interesting architecturally. Its exterior walls are not straight on the vertical dimension, but curved inward toward the top, giving the whole structure a graceful look, like a piece of pottery. This design supposedly added greater strength to the overall structure when the wooden roof beams tied the top of the walls together. At least that is what our archaeologist said, but that doesn’t fit with my intuition of how the forces would work. In any case, it would have been a beautiful building when new in 1300 or so.

The interior rooms are small. Even the large ones are only about 10 x 14, although ceilings are 20 feet high. Interior doorways are so low that you would have to be about five feet tall to use them, or bow to pass through. They are so narrow that you have to turn sideways to use most of them. I don’t know the average height of the Hohokams, but I suspect that the shape of the openings in the structure are due to a combination of temperature management and structural necessity (there are no arches or non-adobe lintels).

The rooms are now derelict, full of bird droppings and rodent holes, with the walls sporting carved graffiti from the 1800’s. The graffiti is itself interesting sometimes. Travelers apparently stopped here for shelter in the 19th century. “Carlos 1889,” carved his name about 12 feet up a wall, so there might have been a wooden floor part way up at one time, or else Carlos stood on some wooden structure, now lost, or else Carlos was a giant. Thanks, Carlos. You could have left us a little more detail.

There is some speculation that the great house was used for astronomical observations. There are a couple of interesting holes in the south façade that archaeologists say provide a line of sight with the sun at summer and winter solstices. That seems plausible, but I doubt that the entire compound would have been devoted to that single purpose.

Around the great house, on a flat site about four acres, there are low adobe walls, remnants of outbuildings, which are thought to have been used for storage of grains, or possibly as animal pens. There is no archeological evidence that anyone ever lived at the great house or its outbuildings (i.e., no fireplaces found), so it was probably strictly a government compound and a general meeting place. If the outbuildings were indeed used for food storage, that implies that they had a system of taxation, and if so, you wonder what public services the taxes supported. Probably religious ceremonies, but who knows. I guess we still have the same question today about how our taxes are used!

The Hohokams had no written language so we don’t know much about them, or even why they disappeared. One prominent theory, endorsed by archaeologist Dart, is that a long period of drought dropped the water level of the nearby Gila River so low that it could not fill the irrigation canals any more. So the crops died and the civilization collapsed. Another theory is that there was some sort of a political revolution when the rulers became tyrannical (as rulers are wont to do), leading to destruction of the social order. The revolution theory and the drought theory are not incompatible. My favorite speculation is that the Hohokam people did not disappear, but just dispersed. Their descendants are, by Native American oral tradition, the Tohono O’odham Indians around Tucson today.

One more interesting feature of the ruins site is the ancient ball court near the great house. The court is much smaller than I had imagined, only an oval depression in the soil about fifty yards long. There is some archaeological evidence that such structures were used for a kind of team ballgame, and there is some documentary evidence associated with similar sites in Central America. The speculation is that the Hohokam would have used a stone ball wrapped in leather, or possibly a ball made of a hard, plastic-like substance composed of hardened tree resin and an unidentified waxy material. What the game was like or how it was played, or why, is unknown. Was it just for fun? Was there betting? Or were they not really “games” at all, but deadly serious theater symbolically representing cosmic forces, or even contests among competing tribes? Archaeologist Dart suggested that the ballgames were discontinued in the 1300’s, so the culture must have evolved. The so-called ball courts could have been used also for theater or for speeches, as the acoustics are very good around the rim, for someone speaking in the center, as Mr. Dart demonstrated. Normally, the public is not allowed into the environmentally and archaeologically sensitive area where the ball court is found, but we were special because we had a card-carrying archaeologist with us. (The whole group was closely shadowed by a Park Service ranger the whole time anyway).

After a picnic lunch, the group drove off to visit several other archaeological sites in the area, including the “Grewe” site to the north, where the Hohokam first settled. For reasons unknown, the center of their civilization gradually migrated south to the Casa Grande site. The Grewe site is largely unexcavated, so there is nothing to see but some large, fenced-off, open fields of brush and cactus, and a large Wal-Mart. Dart told us that ancient artifacts were discovered when they dug up the area for the construction of the Wal-Mart, and to their credit, the Wal-Mart people stopped, and changed the whole plan of the store and its parking, to leave the ancient underground artifacts as little disturbed as possible.

We visited a few other sites in the area that only an archaeologist would be able to recognize as ancient ruins, and saw some building foundations and some depressions in the ground that were clearly ball courts, if you knew what you were looking at. It was interesting to realize that all around these small towns like Florence and Coolidge were ancient Indian ruins. You would have to have a trained eye to see it though.

Finally we visited a site called the Poston Butte Ruin, which I think was actually private property for which Dart had been granted access. There we walked over a featureless desert of rolling hills. Except Dart told us they were not “natural” rolling hills but ancient Indian garbage mounds. Once we knew what to look for, it was easy to see five and six-hundred year old pottery shards everywhere, some of them quite beautiful. As the rains fall, the dirt of the trash piles gradually erodes, exposing the piles of broken pots and other artifacts. I found a six-hundred year-old stone scraper tool. It was a thrill to hold it in my hand and wonder about the person who had made it so many centuries ago. Mr. Dart, with his special “archaeologist’s eyes” found a tiny bone carving of a coyote, only an inch long. I could have looked right at that fragment a dozen times and never seen it, but after it was identified, we could see it was a beautiful and detailed work of art. I don’t see how such a carving could have been made with stone-age technology, but there it was.

Naturally, we put all artifacts back on the ground exactly where we had found them. It is pointless to collect such artifacts, and illegal at most sites (i.e, in National Parks), and an anti-scientific vandalism, and a cultural desecration. As we were told. Repeatedly. See for the full speech/sermon.

After a long day of hiking, I got accustomed to walking with my eyes on the ground, alert to the many artifacts that are in this area. I started to develop “archaeologist’s eyes,” maybe a little, and at least, got a good feel for what archaeologists do and what ancient Indian archaeology is like in this part of Arizona.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Gary Snyder, Zen Poet

American poet Gary Snyder studied oriental languages in the mid ‘50’s at Berkeley, where he hung out with Beat writers such as Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac. Though he is still often grouped with the Beats of the fifties, he actually missed that movement in American literary history because he moved to Japan in 1956 to study Buddhism and write. He won a Pulitzer in 1975 for his poetry. He said, "I don't want to be known as a Beat poet. I was there and I knew Alan and Jack and the others but they went a different direction. That was not me."

Snyder recently graced the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center with his presence and read some of his classic and recent work. He is now 85 years old, one of the last survivors of the generation that shaped the literary scene in the 50’s and ‘60s. Picture is from – G. Moretti.

His poetry blends a love of nature he acquired growing up in the Pacific Northwest, with the insights of Zen Buddhism. He uses short, simple words, nearly all observational. A metaphor is rare in a Snyder poem. Yet somehow he manages to straddle the impossible gap between particularity and universality. Example: “Earth Verse”: Wide enough to keep you looking / Open enough to keep you moving / dry enough to keep you honest / Prickly enough to make you tough / Green enough to go on living / Old enough to give you dreams. Longer works are equally thoughtful, moving, humorous and insightful.

At the U of A Poetry Workshop I gained a new respect for him and his poems. I had read and long forgotten some of his work in the 1970’s and he is not a poet I would actively seek out today, but this opportunity got me to sit down and direct my attention to his work and I was well pleased. (He said: "I never say that I am a poet. That is really bad. I say I write some poetry. That is OK.) I am impressed at how keenly observed, well-selected observational statements can invoke themes of universal cosmology, with rarely an abstract noun in the text. It makes me appreciate that abstraction is much easier to write than good sensory observation.

Nevertheless, there is a sour note permeating his work. It is what the Zen literature calls “the stink of Zen,” the parading of one’s superior insight under the pretension of humility. It is subtle, for there is no obvious self-aggrandizement in Snyder’s work. Yet there is more going on than mere admiration of nature and observation of life. There is an implicit pretension that the poem is simply direct description of life keenly observed, but I also see the outline of a large ego badly hidden behind the ostensible impersonality of objective description. That conflict of intentions is what I find distracting in his work. It pretends to be egoless description but isn’t, really, and how could it be? No decent literary work can be written without strong conveyance of its writer but Snyder seems to pretend otherwise. This is a minor annoyance that does not negate the real enjoyment that his poetry brings.

His well-known collections include Riprap ( 1959), and Cold Mountain Poems (1965) and Mountains and Rivers Without End (1965).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Native American Art in Santa Fe

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts recently had its grand re-opening in Santa Fe after a six month renovation. What I saw there was real cutting edge visual arts, nothing like the beaded-moccasin-and-turquoise-bracelet type of show I half expected.

Among several excellent exhibits in the beautiful new galleries, two really stood out. Alaskan artist Nicholas Galanin had two groups of works, both stunning, in an exhibit called "Oblique Drift." One group was “The Imaginary Indian” series. In these, traditional Tlingit masks are attached to a background of French toile, a wallpaper or curtain pattern showing a repetitive monochromatic drawing of a pastoral scene, such as a group of (white, European) people having a lovely picnic under a tree. In some cases the Indian mask is behind the fabric, smothered by it, visible only in bulging outline. In other examples, the mask is attached to the front of the canvas, but disturbingly, the toile pattern extends over the mask, as if the oblivious picnicking youth in the drawing have infected and spread over the Indian tradition like a fungus (which it did, of course). The effect is very powerful.

Another series from this same artist is called “The Curtis Legacy,” referring to 19th century photographer Edward Curtis who photographed Indians to illustrate the noble savage. Galanin’s pieces are large, almost life-sized color photographs of naked women, many full frontal, bending over backward and literally “in your face” with it, but always covering her own face with a colorful traditional Indian mask; but not even a genuine Tlingit mask, the artist notes on the card. These are manufactured commodity masks from Malaysia, mere tourist souvenirs. (I could find only one cropped sliver of an image from this group on the web, and no photography was allowed in the show). (

The effect of these photographs is a startling and moving objection to the mainstream culture’s objectification of the human body in general, and the Native image in particular, and its desacralizing of Native Americans' own sacred images. The pictures are also a commentary on the globalization of cultures, to the loss of some. While these images are ostensibly humorous and ironic, there is also a great deal of anger in them. I could almost hear in these pictures the artist shouting vulgar, witty epithets to Curtis and the larger white society on the topic of the so-called Noble Savage, curses that would make you cry instead of laugh.

Another artist also showed powerfully evocative works in video, in an exhibit called "Round Up." Torry Mendoza presented a series of a half dozen or so short video works of less than 10 minutes each, in which he confronts, analyzes and excoriates the “The Hollywood Indian,” and the feelings and attitudes that have seeped into the mainstream collective consciousness as a result. In “Kemosabe Version 1.0” he remixes conversational snippets between the Lone Ranger and Tonto (from the television series), against a driving techno beat background. As the catalog says, “He scrutinizes the duo’s relationship by remixing a conversation between the two, revealing a master and servant disposition similar to the disparate relationships assumed by the nation-state with Native nations.”

In “Stupid Fucking White Men” he ridicules Kevin Costner’s wannabe Indian persona in the film, Dances With Wolves, by remixing short clips from Costner’s pseudo-Indian dance around a bonfire. The result is hilarious, but as with Galanin’s work, also deeply, bitterly angry. In Red Man and Savages, Mendoza concatenates short clips from Hollywood films in which white men and women played caricatures of Indian parts, stars such as Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Burt Lancaster, Lee Van Cleef. The stereotypes are patently ridiculous now, but they weren’t then. A couple of the shorts were less impressionistic and more documentary in style, but all aimed to illustrate Hollywood’s history of degrading stereotypes and outright hostility toward Native Americans (think John Wayne in The Searchers). It was a compelling and moving series of short films that I sat through twice.

There were several other exhibitions of outstanding work but these are the ones that captured my imagination most. I was not able to determine if these exhibits are traveling or permanent, and if traveling (most likely) how long they might be expected to remain at the MoCNA. But anyone who has a feeling for contemporary Native Art should pop over to Santa Fe before it is too late. (You can fly direct into Albuquerque and drive to Santa Fe in an hour).

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday on the Mountain

Temperatures in Tucson are over 100 degrees F. for most of June, July, and August, so one hardly needs an excuse to visit Mt. Lemmon in the nearby Catalina Mountains. At 9,000 feet, the weather is a refreshing 75 degrees and the ecology is Ponderosa pine, a nice change from saguaro and prickly pear.

At least it used to be pine forest up there. A terrible fire ripped through the top of the mountain in 2003, destroying much of the ski village of Summerhaven. Homes there now are nearly all new, rebuilt since the fire, and while the ground is still bare, seedlings have been planted and some growth is coming back. It takes about 90 minutes to get there from my end of town, and above 5000 feet you can turn off the air conditioning.

My excuse to visit the reconstructed Summerhaven was a free outdoor music concert on a Sunday afternoon featuring Black Leather Zydeco (see and hear at ). The concert was part of a summertime series put on by Live Acoustic Venue Association (LAVA), a non-profit promoter of live music in Tucson (see / ).

I am crazy about Zydeco and I am sorry it has fallen out of favor so it was nice to hear Black Leather Zydeco, a charming group of old guys who have also obviously fallen out of favor, but are happy to still perform that magic music. Their style is classical, Cajun Zydeco, a genuine folk music from southwestern Louisiana, and that was nice to hear. They sing it in Cajun French patois, which is cool. However I confess I prefer the commercial, “black” Zydeco of the type made popular by artists such as Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco. I know, it is not pure, but that’s what I like.

Still, Black Leather Zydeco did a respectable job on genuine instruments (the concertina and washboard vest, for example) and they were lively enough to get my foot stomping. The bass was way overmiked, the speakers were fuzzed out, and the vocals were, shall we say, lacking in diction. But hey, it was good music and the price was right.

The concert grounds (where a pre-fire building obviously stood once) offered hot dogs, caramel corn, beer and T-shirts but for lunch I walked down the narrow highway past the pizza place, the only traditional restaurant in the “downtown”, to a small metal trailer selling crepes. The place is called “Planet of the Crepes.”

This place is so obscure, it does not even have an address and TripAdvisor has never heard of it so I couldn’t review it there. Needless to say, no phone or web site either. But it looks like enough capital equipment to be permanent for the summer months anyway. It must be hauled somewhere during the winter. But the food is terrific. An attractive young woman working alone fries up a crepe (a very thin pancake) in less than 10 minutes and wraps meat and vegetables into it, serving it in an inverted cardboard cone. You munch down on it from the top. It’s sort of like a tortilla wrap but not really. You sit on a picnic table stacked with old issues of the Economist magazine while you wait. (I got the sense that the proprietor probably has an advanced college degree).

What makes these crepes worth having is the creative and tasty ingredients. I had one wrapped around tomato, raw spinach, goat cheese, mushrooms and basil pesto. It was fantastic, and a lot of fresh food for $5.50. My wife had a more breakfasty bacon and egg number, but we were both tempted by the special, the “Figtastic” for $7, made of brown butter figs with sage, prosciutto, and brie.

Other offerings include a breast of smoked duck with havarti and arugula. There is a “sweet” crepe column for those wanting more of a dessert thing, for example one with fresh strawberries, Nutella, milk chocolate, and whipped cream. I think it is worth a trip to the top of Mt. Lemmon just to get one of these crepes, even if there is no free concert! (Although I don’t know if she is there every day, or only when there is a concert. Next time I will ask.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Juneteenth at Arcosanti

June 19 celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves, specifically, the slaves in Galveston, Texas, whose owners “did not get the memo” until 1865, two full years after Lincoln’s proclamation (and at the end of the Civil War). But finally all the slaves were free in the U.S., on a date somewhere around June 19th, now known as Juneteenth.

The twelfth annual Juneteenth “Celebration of Freedom” was held at Arcosanti, a large property held by a private foundation near Prescott, AZ. I checked out the festival and had a pretty good time.

Arcosanti is the name of a 4,000 acre desert preserve on which Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri built, in the 1970’s, a few concrete buildings to illustrate his vision of urban living for the future. This is somewhat ironic since the buildings are in the middle of absolutely nowhere, hardly urban. But there are some living quarters there and the plan is to someday be able to house 5,000 people in a model community. The principles of the project include an emphasis on self-sufficiency, reliance on solar power, recycling of resources, and in general “good vibes.”

Apparently a few dozen volunteers and architecture students do live there and there are a few accommodations for guests. See .

As for a vision of an urban future, I remain skeptical. Soleri was clearly fond of poured concrete and the buildings, while not exactly like military bunkers, are far from aesthetic. And the whole place is in serious disrepair, so the unpainted concrete structures are pocked and cracked, chipped and patched, discolored by weather; and painted surfaces are faded, cracked, and stained by leaching. Some new construction was evident, even if maintenance was not. The living quarters I glimpsed could only be described as squalor, but then I guess it is basically a neo-hippie commune right now, so maybe the place is not at its best. They have a foundry there where they manufacture bronze windchime bells that are apparently widely appreciated. Sales of those (in the $100’s and the multi-$1000’s each), support much of the operations. The bells do sound beautiful, complex, beautifully resonant and are as well-tuned as they are well-priced. There is also a ceramics center where they make clay chimes for those of us not willing to spring for the bronze. I saw one greenhouse, surely not enough to feed even the volunteers, although the “vision” posters and architectural models show a community rife with acres of greenhouses and people living like bees in a hive.

I took the guided tour, or half of it anyway, and observed an extremely strong sense of founder-worship that was cultish, information-free, and so off-putting, I slipped away. It is possible to be respectful of a founder without being reverent. A little background research on Soleri reveals that he is a serious architect and urban planner (still alive, I believe, although he would be in his 90’s) who would be appalled at such worship.

The setting out in the desert is stunningly beautiful. I stayed in one of the guest rooms, which was a 10 x 14 box made of concrete on five sides, and glass on the sixth. It was austere, to say the least, with no heat or air conditioning, no TV, no telephone, but electricity, clean towels and running water and a tiny bathroom where you could actually take a shower while sitting on the toilet. Still, the room was quiet and reasonably comfortable, and it was wonderful to be awakened at dawn by the sun lighting up the basalt cliffs across the dry river bed.

The Juneteenth celebration was enjoyable. Apparently it is organized and run by Milton Canon, a saxophonist and president of the Prescott Jazz society, with help from his son, the Rev. Michael, and his lovely wife, who poured at the wine and cheese reception. There was no printed schedule of events so it was always a mystery what was going on at any time, but I did enjoy several good acts in the concrete amphitheater. The featured group was Henry Turner Jr. and Flavor, a sort of Blues-Funk-Reggae dance band. ( free mp3 samples at .

Turner rapped about music, black history, and the meaning of Juneteenth, and played lead acoustic guitar. He knows how to lay down a hypnotic groove, although I should say that inhaling some of the second-hand smoke in the air probably enhanced my appreciation. The stage was flanked by large black and white portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. These were never mentioned or explained, perhaps because the meanings were self-evident. The crowd was disappointingly sparse, maybe half black and half white, but only a hundred or so total. Around the outside of the concrete steps on the top level were booths selling everything from kettle corn and “cowboy dogs” to masks, dashikis and “ethnic” crafts. The whole vibe was very friendly and I was surprised the place was not jammed with people.

Around 8 pm there was a dance under the Arcosanti (concrete) arches. Turner and his group kept continuous hypnotic dance grooves going for hours, including some memorable original reggae tunes, such as “Rastaman in the White House.” Lots of people danced while children ran and played among the forest of legs, eating popcorn and generally having a good time, as I did.