Posts Tagged ‘art’

Happy PJ Harvey Day! Life Lessons on Art and Femininity

PJ Harvey is probably my favorite musician ever. Not just female musician, not just guitar player, not just singer-songwriter — I mean favorite out of anyone who has ever written and/or performed music. I have loved Polly Harvey for well over half of my life, when I first played “Oh My Lover” in my car when I was 16 and was instantly arrested by the first few doleful yet urgent notes. Sometimes I think I never really became a musician because of PJ Harvey, because she already made the music that sounds most like my soul.

Polly Harvey is 44 years old today. She is a Libra, a fact that never ceases to astonish me. Early on I had pegged her for a Scorpio, with her emotional intensity and her dark hair and eyes, and the general quiet composure and reserve with which she holds herself. It’s an amazing contrast to the unbridled, unabashed passion and emotion in her music. I still think of her as spiritually Scorpio, because she has that sense of a still, almost frozen passion — dark, deep waters concealing huge icebergs of churning emotion underneath.

When someone becomes your favorite musician early on, it’s almost as if they’re your spiritual teacher, your spirit guru. A musician or band when you’re a teenager opens up a vista of references for you to explore. Without Polly, for example, I’d never have an appreciation for Bob Dylan or Captain Beefheart or Leadbelly — or perhaps I’d have come to them much later. I’d never be compelled to explore Arvo Part, one of her favorite composers, or any of the farther reaches of modern classical. I probably would’ve read Georges Batailles’ Story of an Eye at some point, but not in high school like I did, when I read an interview when she mentions the book. (Reading Story of an Eye as a high schooler = WHOA. I’m not sure I was fully ready for that madness!)

But it’s not just books and other musicians. Music, I think, teaches you how to feel — or rather, how to make sense and create narrative around often tumultuous, inchaote emotions. I like to think back to that 18th century idea of a “sentimental education,” and how we grow wiser, happier, sadder or more compassionate through our emotional experiences. We don’t get to choose many of our emotional experiences: broken hearts, sudden passings, illness, those kind of things. But we do get to choose our music and movies and books, and these are sometimes just as valuable in bringing us closer to ourselves and the secret melodies of our hearts and souls. Choosing a PJ Harvey record often means choosing uncanny, melancholy, almost pagan-like experiences filled with strange, distinctive imagery and uncomfortable, primal emotion. But what safer guide do you have through the underworld than Polly Jean?

You can argue that there are better lyricists — though I think, reading over the lyrics of Let England Shake, she really stands among the rock greats like Dylan now. You can argue there are more innovative melodies written out there, more technically accomplished singers, better guitar players. But in terms of emotional range and a kind of open-veined expressionism, she’s second to none. She’s taught me a lot about being an artist and a soul here on earth, and I’m forever grateful that such a person exists in the world that puts such beauty and honesty into it. Here are some of the wise things that my rock star spirit animal taught me:


Sparks & Beauties: Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago

It has been a remarkably chilly week for mid-July: the coldest July since 1980-something, according to local meterologists. I don’t exactly mind, really, except for the whole global climate change things, which is admittedly pretty apocalyptic-inspiring. My world is full of ups and downs, peaceful meadows and tumult, and I’m sort of in a very “WHERE IS EVERYBODY/GET AWAY FROM ME” headspace. And since I can’t really figure out the middle ground between the two, I’m kind of just being a recluse. But a glamorous one!

Anyway, there are some bright spots on the horizon: Eleanor Whitney, author of Grow, which I big-upped earlier, gave my book a great write-up at her blog, which made me so happy. As a writer, it is always so wonderful to know your work makes some kind of impact in the hearts and minds of the people who read it. Thank you, Eleanor! And academic superstar, fellow punk expat and feminist of color firebrand Mimi Thi Nguyen gave props to my old fashion blog nogoodforme.com in her recent interview at The Feminist Wire, which made me feel so proud. Anyway: this edition of Sparks & Beauties is devoted to one giant gorgeous firecracker of an art exhibition. I hope you enjoy it!

One beautiful thing possible when living in a city like New York: you get to have up-close and personal relationships to museums. And when I lived in NYC and was going to Columbia, I got to have lots of them, because one advantage of paying nosebleeds of tuition was free admission to places like the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA. After my two years of intensive coursework, I tried to go as often as possible — and I noticed I had very specific relationships to each museum. For me, MOMA was a bit like that person you date who looks good on paper — you think it aligns perfectly with everyone you ever thought you wanted in someone, but there is something missing. Some human eccentricity, some hidden dork factor that makes them genuinely fun to be around.

The Metropolitan, though, was my true love in museum form. For one thing, it was just so immense — I went almost weekly and there were still rooms I’d stumble into, having never seen them, so there was a constant sense of discovery. I had particularly favorite rooms and galleries: I loved the 19th-century American and European painting sections, for example: I’d sit for an afternoon in one of the galleries and just write or read. (I graded a whole sheaf of papers there once, much to the amusement of the guards.) I loved the decorative arts wings, and marveled at Marie Antoinette’s furniture. When I needed to think, I sat in the Temple of Dendur and the immense echo of the large room often soothed me.

I don’t really have a steady relationship with a museum anymore, and that’s a pity. So, in some major respect, my whole take on the “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition currently at the Art Institute of Chicago feels incomplete — it doesn’t quite benefit from the feeling of having lived with and experienced the work in a way that intimacy and familiarity grant it. I also feel as if, since leaving NYC, I’ve lost the “art muscle” that comes from seeing, hearing about and discussing art on a regular basis. It used to be easy for me to “keep up” with modern art, but since being isolated in the Midwestern semi-countryside, this kind of thinking doesn’t come easy to me anymore. Still, I gave it a try on my recent trip into Chicago: I spent almost three hours at the exhibition, as a result, felt like I was cramming in all the beauty and insight that it offered — because it’s truly an astonishing exhibition on aesthetic, intellectual and historical levels. It did its job, though: I walked out of it feeling thoughtful, inspired and energized — appreciative of how the past shapes the present moment, and full of a kind of serene lightness that only spending time with such wondrous art can give you.


On Becoming a City Girl Again, At Least for a Weekend

The past few weekends I’ve been heading into Chicago to see various friends coming in from out of town, so I’ve been gallivanting and flaneuring and gadding about a lot more than I usually do these days, especially since I moved from NYC. And it’s been super-wonderful: being a city girl is kind of in my blood. After all, I lived in them for so long during some very formative years. I have the instincts and inclination towards exploration, adventure and, yes, public transportation that living and working and playing in cities seems to spark in people.

A city, of course, is a type of enchantment: a playground for curiosity and experience. And the wonderful thing about my wanderings and adventures in Chicago is feeling my mind wow and flutter in new combinations, even if the city is familiar with me. There’s just so much to see and take in, starting with the visual inspiration on the street:

Or even the skyline:

And of course, there is access to world-class cultural resources, like the amazing “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity” exhibition I caught at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I’ll write about more in detail later because I found it so rich and intellectually stimulating:

And I got to do things like go to Pitchfork and eat at Cosi (my favorite city chain), take the subway and drink at semi-fancy places. Cities constantly renew themselves, if only because there’s always an influx of new people, new endeavors, new ideas. It was easy for me to slip back into “city mode.” But there were some differences, some things very different about me this time around that changed the way I experience the city and everything it has to offer.


Five Beautifully Brilliant, Inspiring Manifestos + A Few Thoughts on My Own

I’ve been thinking a bit about manifestos lately, about declarations that transcend time, create energy and fuel dreams. While manifestos are often really specific to a situation, there’s a timelessness to the writing that really speaks to me — which is why great ones endure. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of myself — I’ve been asked lately, in more than a few different avenues of my life, to define what’s important and true for me. I’m still thinking about it, pulling my thoughts together, but of course I had to dig up a few of the declarations that made an impact on me:


A very long time ago I was a punk, and I was a girl, and when those two things came together in the form of the Riot Grrrl movement, it was really amazing. I would need a whole memoir (or maybe a film screenplay or three) to really go into “my life and Riot Grrrl” but it would be adequate enough to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today without this particular music-loving version of the feminist movement. I still remember reading it in college and becoming SO EXCITED, the tingling in my stomach when I was reading something that articulated all these inchaote thoughts and feelings into one cohesive statement. YOU ARE NOT ALONE is often one of the most valuable feelings to get from reading; a beautiful manifesto gives that, and gives inspiration to the possibilities that can arise out of coming together.


If the Riot Grrrl manifesto had the most impact on me as a girl, but I think Bruce Mau’s is my favorite creative-oriented one of all time. Architects and designers love it because Mau’s one of their tribe, and a particularly brilliant member at that; I may not be either an architect or a designer, but I find it applicable as a writer for its emphasis on process, change and the importance of mischief, play and mistakes. Read it: it’s ripe for thinking.


Here’s where I reveal my inner Oprahness and my fashion-ness as well. But this manifesto about fashion and style had a big impact on how I shopped, spent and chose clothing, and it would be kind of dishonest not to include it in a list of manifestos that have changed my life, thinking or behavior in some way. (The PDF download of it has the fuller, more articulate explanation behind each point; I like it better.) This is not a style manifesto that told you what was “in” or “out,” or that pink was the new navy, or anything like that. It advocated clarity, thoughtfulness and discernment when it came to matters of fashion and style, and acknowledged the impact of wardrobe and dress on life in ways that aren’t normally addressed in most fashion writing. And it got me to stop buying so much and radically clean out my closet! Some of its tenets — “Commit to quality and it will commit to you” — found applications not just in my closet, but in my personal life. Closets, boyfriends — if a manifesto can effect change in those areas of life, you know it’s working on some level!


This is actually a book by business and marketing guru Seth Godin, and it’s a curious book to read as an artist and writer. But here’s a fun secret: many business books are actually obsessed with growth and self-development, because being an entrepreneur is actually a very creative act at the core of its word. Linchpin was thought-provoking because it expands the idea of art and what artists do — well, perhaps distills it down may be a better way of putting it — and what lingers for me from reading it was the idea of “shipping,” which is Godin’s way of saying relentlessly putting out work as an act of integrity, and the idea of art as a gift you give to the word, which helped solidified my decision to offer any short stories I do on this site.


Here it is:

1. An honest ego in a healthy body.
2. An eye to see nature
3. A heart to feel nature
4. Courage to follow nature
5. The sense of proportion (humor)
6. Appreciation of work as idea and idea as work
7. Fertility of imagination
8. Capacity for faith and rebellion
9. Disregard for commonplace (inorganic) elegance
10. Instinctive cooperation

Short, but it’s dense with ideas and conviction. Reading it again and again, it inspires a new thought or inspiration — which is what the best manifestos do, right?


Of course, this has got me thinking of my own manifesto: what I’d put in it, what I’d leave out, what I’d address. More to come on that later, but I’m dwelling on freedom, white space, and mystery and magic: a combination of the High Priestess card for Tarot, the art direction of Fabien Baron and the imagination of Angela Carter. And some riot grrrl, of course. Manifestos: quick to read, long to think over.

More manifestos!