Category Archives: Art Working

$1 and a World of Art

Never judge a building by its facade.

Never judge a building by its facade.


What can you buy for a dollar these days? Maybe a pack of gum, or a single doughnut. In Chicago, it can buy an entire building. Okay, said building is a 1920s-era former bank on the city’s south side. Long-abandoned and crumbling from one end to the other, it’s the type of structure where the best residents are birds and rats. Artist Theaster Gates, however, saw something else: a world class arts center. The Chicago native, an urban planner with a gallery of prestigious art awards and even more creative vision, literally purchased the 20,000-square-foot edifice for a single U.S. dollar in 2013 from the city and began transforming it into a conclave for exhibitions, artist residencies and the headquarters for the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established in 2010 to foster cultural and artistic development in forgotten and underprivileged neighborhoods. Earlier this month the former Stony Island State Savings Bank was reintroduced as the Stony Island Arts Bank. Among other artifacts, it contains the book collection of John H. Johnson, founder of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines; the record collection of Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House Music”; and slides of art collections from the University of Chicago and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Gates described the center as a “a repository for African American culture and history, a laboratory for the next generation of black artists,” and “a space for neighborhood residents to preserve, access, reimagine and share their heritage, as well as a destination for artists, scholars, curators, and collectors to research and engage with South Side history.”

As a writer, I’m naturally attracted to the slew of books the place houses. But it’s obviously much more than a glorified library. It’s a people’s center; far removed from the ranks of high society cocktail parties and stuffy art museums. Gates has connected the beauty of art and literature – hallmarks of a progressive nation – with communities that some thought worthless. In this volatile election season, where self-proclaimed saviors of the masses regurgitate their ideas of revolution and the future, that’s simply extraordinary.

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates








Filed under Art Working

Food for the Soul

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

As Pope Francis returns to his native South America for the first time since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church, Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz is ready with an edible altar. Composed primarily of thousands of ears of corn and pumpkins, Ruiz’s giant art piece conveys the mixed Indian and Spanish heritage of Latin America. It’s no accident he chose corn and pumpkins: both are indigenous to the Americas. Probably originating from an archaic plant called teosinte, corn was first cultivated in what is now central México as far back as 5,600 years ago. It migrated into North America around A.D. 200 and remains a staple of the Indian people’s diet. Seeds related to pumpkins found in México have been dated to 7000 B.C.

Ruiz’s altar is 131 feet (40 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) high. I don’t know if its presence had an impact on Francis. After arriving in nearby Bolivia last week, the Pontiff did something no other pope – or any well-known Christian leader – has done. He acknowledged the Church’s role in both decimating the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and subjugating the survivors.

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said.

I don’t anticipate we’ll hear anything similar from the Church of England or U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in our lifetime. Those clowns never want to admit they’ve done something bad, especially if no White people got hurt. But it’s a nice gesture on Francis’ part.

Corn and pumpkins survived the European conquest of the Americas and – despite what U.S. history school books say – so did the native peoples. On that note, let’s eat!


Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Workers put the finishing touches to an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion


Filed under Art Working

Anatomically Correct and Socially Uptight

One of nine bronze sculptures by artist Jorge Marin in Houston.  Try not to look too hard.

One of nine bronze sculptures by artist Jorge Marin in Houston. Try not to look too hard.

In January of 2002, as the United States was still reeling from the calamity of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft became overwhelmed with a more pressing matter: two statutes of partially nude female figures in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice. Feeling undignified being photographed in front of them, he ordered one, “Spirit of Justice,” to be covered. At taxpayer expense, $8,000 worth of drapery shielded unsuspecting viewers from both of the art deco statues. These were the same statues that stood behind former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1986, when he announced findings of a Department of Justice study on pornography.

In recent decades, social conservatives have associated nudity and human sexuality with pornography. The dysfunctional comparison has arisen again in Houston where Mexican artist Jorge Marin has – well – erected nine bronze sculptures of anatomically correct male forms in a park. Collectively entitled “Wings of the City,” the figures have taken up residence in the city’s downtown area. Houston is just the latest major metropolitan area to see Marin’s artwork; he’s exhibited his statutes over 200 times. They stood on México City’s heavily-traveled Paseo de la Reforma where millions of people viewed them.

But, to the easily-offended souls of America’s fourth largest city, the statutes don’t qualify as art; they’re pornography. Get real!

“It’s very inappropriate, seeing that they have a lot of kids here,” resident Trena Cole told the “Houston Chronicle” recently.

“I don’t know that it enhances the park,” another resident, Julie Griffis, who lives nearby, also told the Chronicle. “I don’t think it fits in with the theme.”

Other residents, such as Jim Thomas, don’t see any problem with the statues. “We see them as art,” he told the Chronicle, mentioning one of the most famous anatomically-correct nude male figures of all time: Michelangelo’s “David.”

College student Alan Lima pointed out, “It’s part of the body. What can you do? That’s the way you were born.”

Exactly! That’s how we’re born. There seems to be a growing sense of animosity towards the male physique in recent years. It’s gotten to the point where I often see young men wearing two and three shirts during winter and long pants during summer, while their overweight wives and girlfriends parade around in mini-shorts that make me want to call Green Peace about beached whales. Professional basketball players wear shorts so long and baggy they qualify as split skirts. I’ve heard stories of school boys who won’t shower in the locker rooms after physical education classes because someone might think they’re queer.

If the fools who think the statues are “pornography” could get proctologists to help find their brains, they might want to hop over to Houston’s rougher sides where people are dropping dead from drug use and gun violence. Visit a homeless shelter where children often stay and tell me again you think a nude male sculpture is “pornography.”

There’s nothing pornographic or offensive about the male body. I have plenty of pictures of my body. Videos, too! Oh, wait…that’s a different subject. Anyway, check out Marin’s work and try not to get too upset.


Filed under Art Working

Books on a Roll


In this age of digital publishing, old-fashioned brick-and-mortar book stores have to rethink their image in an attempt to remain relevant. The British Museum in London has taken an innovative approach with their own bookshop: they’ve installed a “wheel of books” for the bookshop’s display window. Designed and built by London-based Lumden Design, the “wheel” is comprised of 270 actual books and stands 2 meters (7 feet) in height.

Perched conspicuously at the shop’s entrance, is already achieving its objective in making visitors stop and visit the store. They’re certainly snapping plenty of photographs of the wheel.

“We have strived to create a compelling retail environment which compliments the majesty of the Reading Room, as well as enhancing the architecture of Lord Foster in the Great Court itself,” Lumden declares, referring to a separate area within the shop.

With the advent of e-book readers and various devices to distract people, it’s nice to know a collection of traditional books is attracting people. I guess, sometimes, you just have to think outside of the…er, wheel.



1 Comment

Filed under Art Working

The Royal Family that Laid the Golden Egg

Not for scrap – this Faberge Egg is worth a few million and some change.

Not for scrap – this Faberge Egg is worth a few million and some change.

I don’t know what it is about Faberge Eggs that fascinate people – people, like viewers of “American Idol” and patrons of Botox parties, who have too much damn time on their hands.  To me, eggs are something that comes out of a bird’s ass and ultimately ends up in pancake batter or an omelet.  I mean, Faberge Eggs have to be the gayest things since “Star Trek” (come on – go-go boots; bell bottoms; perfectly-coiffed hair; phasers instead of real guns).  But, I find even this particular story intriguing.

Last week – and just in time for spring – a scrap metal enthusiast walked into the London shop of antique dealer Kiernan McCarthy and bought a Faberge egg for about $14,000 (EUR 10,1200); hoping to profit from its gold content.  But, a closer examination of the item made the customer think he was a rare Russian artifact.  As luck and good fortune often shines upon those not looking for them, the egg turned out to be an imperial Faberge Easter egg made for Russian royalty that’s worth millions.

The egg contains a Vacheron Constantin watch and sits on a jeweled gold stand.  It was given by Tsar Alexander III to his wife Empress Maria Feodorovna for Easter 1887.  Faberge made 50 of the imperial eggs for the Russian royal family, and eight remained missing until now.  Only three of those, however, are known to have survived the 1917 Russian Revolution.

This particular egg will be on display at London’s Wartski Antique Dealers, which specializes in Russian artifacts and Faberge Eggs.

1 Comment

Filed under Art Working

Repairing Jesus’ Birthplace

Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity.

Visitors light candles in the Church of the Nativity.

Christian lore has it that Jesus was born in a manger in the city of Bethlehem and ultimately died to bring peace and joy to the world.  Looking at the centuries-old violence that has plagued the region now called the Middle East, it seems to have been in vain.  But, Palestinian authorities have set aside their animosity for outsiders by allowing a handful of Italian craftsmen to begin much-needed repairs to the roof of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which dates to the 4th century A.D.  Water leaks, seismic activity and general weather conditions have taken a toll on a structure classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The church’s pine and cedar timbers are up to 800 years old and its deteriorating roof was donated by England’s King Edward IV in 1479.

“It’s very emotional to work here,” says Marcello Piacenti, head of a family business that is rejuvenating the structure; something his clan has being doing for six generations.

Workers are applying protective gauze to gold-leaf mosaics, while technicians examine the church’s wooden trusses for hidden damage.

As one might expect, there are internal clashes over the structure’s care.  Monks from Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches have disputed who has authority to clean and repair the church.  The three dominions manage the building under a tense arrangement that seems to mirror the overall Middle East conflict.  You’d think they’d know better.

Finally, in 2009, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, fearing the church might collapse, issued a decree to repair the church.  That brought some agreement among its proprietors, and Piacenti’s company was called in to help.

Whatever religious disputes anyone has, I can only hope they drop all that friction and realize how important the church is.  Christian or not, it is a piece of history and it needs to be preserved.

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Le Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

Lieu de naissance de Jésus : l’église de la Nativité et la route de pèlerinage, Bethléem

1 Comment

Filed under Art Working

A Magna Carta in Houston

A copy of the original “Magna Carta.”

A copy of the original “Magna Carta.”

For the first time in its known history, the legendary “Magna Cartawill leave its birth place of England and arrive in the United States.  Originally issued on June 15, 1215, in a field at Runnymeade by King John, the revered document is a considered a hallmark of democracy with its multiple declarations of various freedoms; including an acknowledgement that taxes cannot be arbitrary, free men cannot be imprisoned without first being judged by their peers, and that justice cannot be delayed or denied.  King John was just trying to avert a civil war, when confronted by scores of rebellious land barons; a clash that erupted anyway, when Pope Innocent III nullified it 10 weeks later.  Somehow, though, the item itself survived.  Copies of the original made in 1217 are kept at the Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust.

Now, one of those versions will go on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“These are truly rare and ancient documents,” said Catherine F. Patterson, a British historian at the University of Houston.  “They are national treasures that have been guarded for centuries and don’t typically leave England’s shores.”

The “Magna Carta” later formed the basis for English common law and is often cited as a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution.  It’s ironic, though, since the medieval treatise applied only to wealthy landowners.  Nonetheless, it remains a historic item.

The exhibit is scheduled to open in February and last for 6 months.  Hopefully, it’ll make people focus on the realities of democracy’s foundations and the struggles for true freedoms.

“People in their minds have the Disney version where the king wakes up one day and says, ‘I have a great idea,’” said Joel Bartsch, the museum’s president and CEO.  “When they come to the museum, they get the real version.”

1 Comment

Filed under Art Working