RIP Anthony Bourdain (June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018)

This one stings. Today and in coming days we’ll be hearing a lot of descriptions for Anthony Bourdain: celebrity chef, TV host, travel guide…but to me he’ll always be remembered as an extraordinarily gifted writer.

Not sure how Bourdain preferred to think of himself—the tragic fact he took his own life hints at some conflicts that weren’t readily apparent to the world. But I do recall hearing him laugh once when someone called him a celebrity chef. He said something about not having worked as a chef in a while. “But when I was, I was a working chef. There’s a big difference.”

He could be caustic, critical, devastatingly witty…and also sensitive, charming, and always blindingly intelligent and insightful. But now it’s clear these were public faces—the private might have been very dark, very different. We just don’t know.

We know only that he leaves behind a young daughter, who must be broken by this. We know that his good friend Eric Ripert found his body, and will surely be haunted by that for life.

We know this truth: suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems. We know it leaves behind grief and anger, confusion and havoc.

I don’t want to judge Anthony Bourdain, because I don’t know what brought him to that terminal place. I want to remember him as a storyteller, as one of the most interesting people who lived in these very interesting times.

Everything’s a little darker this morning, and it’ll probably stay that way unless and until this makes some kind of sense. I suppose all we can do is hope he’s found the peace he felt was lacking.

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Weekend craftiness

So here is a purposeless little project I wrapped up this weekend—because sometimes I feel the call to make something, even if that something has no practical value whatsoever. Sometimes the making is simply for the making’s sake.

It started weeks ago when I found a wind-felled limb from a nearby maple tree, which included this odd curlicued branch. Didn’t have any sort of notion what I’d do with it, but I cut it off and brought it home, trusting that inspiration would chime in sooner or later.

And so it did. I’ve been wanting to dip my toe into lapidary for some time, and accordingly noticed that this ovoid chunk of petrified wood (which seemed apt for this project) fit rather well within the loop—even better once I stripped the bark and sanded the wood. Then I got recursive: a setting within a setting. There’s a dimple in the lower-right face of the petrified wood, so I affixed within it a small meteorite fragment. There is also (you can just see it in this image) a peridot gemstone set into short end of the maple branch. Interestingly, peridot can sometimes be found within meteorites, although judging from the price I paid for this specimen I have to assume it’s mundanely terrestrial.

There you have it. A successfully completed project lacking any objective other than to marry together some unlikely materials, and to give me something unusual to place on my desk and look at. I’ve decided to give it a grand name, inspired by its components from the past, and from afar: Space Time Continuum. Not bad for a stick, eh?

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Remembering Belleau Wood – a century of sacrifice

On Memorial Day we honor those service members who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. It’s fitting and fortuitous then that Memorial Day 2018 falls so closely to the centenary of the pivotal First World War Battle of Belleau Wood. Between June 1st and June 26th 1918, American Army and Marine forces fought alongside the French and British to stop an all-out German offensive. U.S. casualties included 1,811 killed, and more than 7,000 wounded.

Earlier that year the war’s Eastern Front had dissipated; Russia had undergone its revolution, and the victorious Bolsheviks sued for peace. Fifty German divisions were freed up for transfer to the west. By March they were arrayed against the Allied defensive lines within 100 miles of Paris. The German Spring Offensive was intended to break through and isolate the capital before the newly arrived American forces could be completely deployed. It was a solid plan, and it very well could have won the war.

Throughout May elements of five Imperial German divisions attacked all along the line around the River Marne. On the first of June they broke through around Chateau-Thierry and entered the Belleau Wood sector. They surrounded on three sides American forces, including the 2nd Division and a brigade from the 6th Marine Regiment, which were guarding the Paris-Metz Highway. These were reinforced by reserves, including the 23rd Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and the Marine 6th Machine Gun Battalion, all of whom endured an overnight forced march to take their place on the line. They were all that stood between Paris, and the German Army.

The Americans held.

The battle raged for 26 days, at times devolving to bayonet charges and hand-to-hand slaughter. The French and British lines recovered, stabilized, and they were able to reinforce the beleaguered Americans. The Germans were pushed back from Belleau Wood, and the salient left from their breakthrough was enveloped and eliminated. The Germans retreated from France, and in October began suing for peace. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended.

The bravery of American forces at Belleau Wood had repercussions beyond what they could have anticipated, beyond even the beginning of the end for the German-Austrian Central Powers. It marked the rise of the United States to world-power status. It prompted the realpolitik remapping of Europe. And it heralded the mythic prominence of the U.S. Marine Corps, reportedly referred to as Teufelshunde (“devil dogs”) by awed opposing German soldiers.

On Memorial Day 1937 the Aisne-Marne military cemetery, located near Belleau Wood, was dedicated. It includes 2,288 Allied graves, 251 of which inter unidentified remains. To this day, and hopefully for all time, American, French, and British citizens honor these graves and give thanks for the sacrifices they represent.

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Innovation to the rescue

Here are a couple inconvenient truths for you: anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change is a fact, and we’re now way past the tipping point where behavior changes can avert disaster. So what is left to us?

Glad you asked.

Though the notion might be controversial to some (those with reasonable concerns about Pandora and her boxy precedent), it seems to me that innovation—science and technology—are the only viable solutions. Sure, they’re what spawned this catastrophe—in a less enlightened time we embraced the all-encompassing use of non-renewable energy without consideration of side effects. Aside from the willfully ignorant, we now know better. We’re now capable, I think (I hope), of leveraging technology to fix the mess we’ve created.

Cast your eyes toward Goodyear, venerable tire maker, corporate anchor of my hometown. They’ve recently introduced the Oxygene, a concept automotive tire based on current, available technologies that would reduce waste, promote sustainability, and actively reduce atmospheric carbon.

The Oxygene’s superstructure is semi-rigid, non-pneumatic, 3D-printed from powderized rubber waste. It houses a living sidewall, a colony of moss growing inside the tire, that’s watered by moisture picked up from the road, actively scrubbing carbon dioxide and releasing pure oxygen. And more: the photosynthesis actually creates energy—enough to power lights, road sensors, and LiFi connectivity.

If that all sounds too good to be true, well, this is where we remind ourselves this is a “concept” tire. Whether or not the Oxygene ever goes to production remains to be seen. Fingers crossed.

The point is valid, though, and it’s worth emphasizing: engineers and designers are working this problem. They’re grappling with the realities of climate change, and they’re creating viable solutions. The Oxygene tire might seem far out, in every sense of the term, but it harnesses proven, existing technologies. There’s no reason it, or something like it, can’t start converting carbon today.

Goodyear isn’t alone here. Dozens of companies are designing all manner of active carbon scrubbers. Other would-be Captain Planets are building ocean skimmers to remove the floating trash that pollute our seas, and genetically engineered organisms that can consume discarded plastic and spilled oil.

It’s lateral thinking. It’s a new, innovative approach. And it just might save the planet.

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Donald Glover’s American philosophy

Definitions fail us when we attempt to classify Donald Glover’s four-minute manifesto, This Is America. It’s a music video only in the most limiting sense. More accurately, it’s an experience, and not necessarily a pleasant one. DBA “Childish Gambino” (legend has it Glover created his rap identify via the online Wu-Tang Clan name generator), Glover created a catchy, thoughtful, honestly crafted tune, then paired it with a visual assault that can—probably will—jar you to your soul.

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Txt like an Egyptian

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In a move sure to be cheered by classicists everywhere, the Unicode Consortium group, they who  guard the emoji gates, have proposed adding more than 2,000 Egyptian hieroglyphs to the approved character sets encoded on new smart phones, computers, and other digital devices.

The proposed list roughly corresponds to Egyptian iconography available to scribes during the early Greco-Roman period, roughly 300 BCE. Earlier, in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdom periods (2700 BCE – 1000 BCE) the Egyptian “alphabet” consisted of around 700 characters. This soared to more than 7,000 during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which culminated with the reign of Cleopatra.

Which is no doubt interesting, but the larger point is that we can finally stop dabbling in pictography for our digital blatherings, and start using the original real deal. And although most of us haven’t yet learned to spell “Eggplant” in Ancient Egyptian, something tells me we’ll all soon know how.

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Another “new” Da Vinci

Every few years, it seems, the world is treated to a new Da Vinci attribution—that is, some Renaissance painting that held low-key status in a minor collection suddenly goes stratospheric as it is newly credited to the maestro himself, Leonardo Da Vinci.

It’s happened again: “A Miracle of Saint Donatus of Arezzo,” a wood-panel painting and once part of an altarpiece at the Pistoia Cathedral in Tuscany, has been identified by conservators as an early apprenticeship work of a 23-year-old Leonardo. The painting is on display at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

The museum has owned the painting since the 1930s, when it was actually tentatively attributed to Da Vinci. As the work is unsigned, and perhaps out of an abundance of caution, the museum’s catalog revised the attribution to “disputed.” Then in the 1970s, they credited the work to Florentine painter Lorenzo di Credi.

The confusion is perhaps understandable, and not only due to Leonardo’s regrettable habit of not signing his work. During his days as a student in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop, he contributed to numerous large-scale commissions, wherein he and other apprentices were expected to fill in scenery, background figures, etc.—this was artisanship, not necessarily artistry (or so it was seen at the time). The school itself was considered to be the creator; individual hands were irrelevant.

Posterity’s saving grace, and the reason for this new attribution, is Leonardo’s unparalleled technical mastery, which was evident in even his earliest work. We’re still uncovering the minutiae of his techniques (which helps explain the errors of attribution in previous decades), but we understand now that Leonardo’s use of perspective and vanishing points, and well-nigh microscopic details such as reflections painted onto the surface of subjects’ eyeballs, were unique enough to be signatures in of themselves. All of these are evident in the Saint Donatus painting, and although it’s more than likely that other students of the Verrocchio school contributed to the work, it’s as clear as it might be that Leonardo da Vinci was the primary artist.

All of which makes one wonder: how many more undiscovered Da Vincis still wait for us out there?

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Earth Day 2018

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A museum’s merry mea culpa

Owning up to one’s mistakes is considered one of the hallmarks of maturity. But the inclination to cover up or gloss over the most egregious boners? That’s how most of us roll. Still, due respect is owed to the insufferably honest among us who fess up even when they don’t have to.

Case in point, the curators and conservators at the Grant Museum of Zoology in London—they inherited a mistake, you might say, in the form of a dusty old bottle found unmarked and uncatalogued in the specimen stores. This itself is far from unusual, especially for natural-history collections. Pre-modern collection methods were haphazard at best, usually resulting from some Victorian gentleman idly gathering objects for his cabinet of curiosities, and these in turn being later donated en mass by heirs or estate agents. Museums tended to accept such largess with weary smiles, before shucking them onto the back shelves for some later docent to suss out.

That was the assumption here—an orbular artifact, preserved in a sweet-smelling solution, long ignored, at long last noticed. Museum manager Jack Ashby recounts the story in an engaging blog post, recounting how curators recently decided to take a closer look. A lot of early assumptions were quickly ruled out: it wasn’t an eyeball or a testicle. It wasn’t biological at all, in fact. It was self-evidently mysterious, though, in that its diameter was more than twice that of the bottle’s neck. How did it get in there?

That was the clue that (probably) broke the case. What do you find in a fancy bottle alongside a pickled, smooth-skinned orb? Souvenir plum brandy. A century or so of infusion likely swells the fruit to this sort of state. A label falls off, the bottle is forgotten, then later found by descendants who assume it must be “museum material.” It winds up in a museum collection, where it’s forgotten and found all over again.

Ashby admits this is speculation—conservators have disposed of the original liquid without testing it (they said it smelled boozy, though)—and have refilled the bottle with a more suitable preservative. They’re opting to hold on to the plum, speculation be damned. They’ve been entrusted with it, after all. It might be someone’s long-lost libation, but hey, curators gonna curate. We just think it’s awfully nice of them to share the unlikely tale.

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A death in Trump Tower

Todd Brassner died on Saturday, a victim of the 50th-floor fire at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan.

Brassner, 67, was an art dealer and collector, with a particular interest in Pop art, and a long association with Andy Warhol (Warhol painted Brassner’s portrait, seen here, in 1975).

Since the 2016 election, Brassner had been attempting to sell his apartment in the building that served as the headquarters of the Trump Organization, and effectively, of the Trump presidential campaign. He called called life in the building “untenable” but was unable to attract a buyer.

Brassner was found unconscious and unresponsive in his apartment and was transported to Mount Sinai Saint Luke’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Four firefighters were also injured in the blaze. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Todd Brassner’s apartment, like others in Trump Tower, lacked emergency sprinklers. A 1999 New York law mandated sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings, however Donald Trump, along with other developers, lobbied to prevent the law from being applied retroactively. Trump Tower was built in 1983.

As of today, Trump has not addressed the sprinklers (or lack thereof) in his tower, or the death of Todd Brassner, or the injured firefighters. His tweet on Saturday was succinct yet self-congratulatory:

According to the New York Daily News, one of the only times Trump is said to have spoken of Brassner, it was to refer to him as a “crazy Jew.”

Slurs and prejudice aside, Donald Trump’s disregard for decency is probably his most telling character trait. He could have made the safety of his Tower residents a priority—that would have been the moral course—but he wasn’t required to. So he didn’t.

Amoral expediency has been his lifelong guiding star. If he could find any way to avoid paying vendors and creditors, they would go unpaid. If he could use bankruptcy as a business tool, he’d go bankrupt. He did it again and again.

These tactics are unsavory on their face, but since they’re not technically illegal, in Trump’s world they’re fair game. His defenders argue that he’s a master of the game, a businessman who makes use of the tools at his disposal. But to them I ask: What about right and wrong?

That question is imperative, not least because so many of Trump’s defenders and supporters count themselves among the religiously faithful. Their parsing of the Stormy Daniels story, and the seemingly unlimited other examples of Trump’s infidelity and immorality, have already demonstrated a shocking level of flexibility where core principles are concerned. You have to wonder how far that goes.

Because the only conclusion I can draw is, Donald Trump doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong. It’s not that such considerations don’t concern him, they’re simply not on his radar. His one and only driving force is What’s In It For Me? Every thought, word, and action is designed to serve him and his agenda. Anything that runs counter to that is to be subdued, circumvented, or crushed—by whatever means necessary.

Is that good business sense? Debatable. I am certain though that it’s symptomatic of sociopathy. That’s a lamentable character trait for the so-called faithful to admire. It’s even worse for the leader of the free world.

Todd Brassner’s death just might demonstrate the danger inherent in power without ethics. Given Trump’s nature and trajectory, Todd Brassner’s death might not be the last.

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Got her covered

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A vicarious thrill and no small amount of pride to see that the real talent in the family, the mother of my spoiled-rotten child, maestra of the molten glass Jennifer L. Worden lands the cover spot and featured artist interview in this month’s issue of Akron’s incomparable arts and culture magazine, The Devil Strip. Do check it out.

And with that, hat’s off and innumerable thanks to the hard-working, unimaginably self-sacrificing management and staff who make our monthly Devil Strip fix possible. For three years Chris & the gang have bled the stones and turnips, squeezed the eagle (choose your miracle-working metaphor)—to keep the presses rolling. It clearly hasn’t been easy, and they could use a hand. If you have the wherewithal to help, please do. If not, please spread the word.

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Lend me your art

The lending library is probably one of humanity’s greatest cultural institutions (stands to reason, then, that the first lending library in the Americas was founded by a veritable cultural institute in the flesh: Benjamin Franklin). It’s an ideal that’s kept pace with technology—modern libraries are technical hubs in of themselves. And although your local library is now a place for internet access, for movies and music, its core mission hasn’t changed. Want a book? Borrow a book. It’s that simple, and that wonderful.

My own local library system is at once both an exemplar and a standout in these regards. I’ve grown up with them—got my first library card at age eight—and have in turn watched them grow. They are and have long been a cornerstone of our community.

So leave it to them to take library lending to the next level: the Art Library. It is precisely what it sounds like. Partnering with our regional art museum and with area artists, it makes available original works—paintings, prints, mixed media—for borrowers to enjoy in their homes.

We’re an art-centric city, happily enough, so even though there’s a fair number of pieces in the library’s collection, all were spoken for (presumably hanging happily on walls throughout the fair city) when I first made inquiries.

Reservations were welcome, however, so I pored over the catalog and spotted the one I wanted: an original Mothersbaugh. Yes, that Mark Mothersbaugh: son of Akron, Devo singer and keyboardist, celebrated visual artist. I chose his 2007 print, Ashtabula Perambulator. It’s a haunting image—a simple manipulation of a fairly mundane photograph, somehow resulting in a jarring, visceral imprint. It’s a Rorschach blot straight from the uncanny valley.

So I had to have it. Or more accurately, I needed to borrow it.

The lending period is four weeks. Renewals and extensions are allowed, so long as other patrons haven’t submitted reservations. Mine was on the books, so whoever was previously enjoying Motherbaugh’s creation was duly put on notice.

Finally, two days ago, I got the call. And do you know, we raced to the library? We did. The younger Deconstructor accompanied me, so most traffic laws were obeyed. But still, we raced.

Even the faux-crating was exciting. Unboxing it was exciting.

It was packed with care, complete with instructions for curation and display, for care and preservation, along with a laminated catalog card introducing the unwary to the Mind of Mothersbaugh.

In an eyeblink, in no time at all, it was on my wall. And then time stopped (the way it must when good art is in the room) because all I could do was stand and stare.

So that’s where it’ll stay, for a short while, at least. Four weeks, in all likelihood.

But that’s okay. Because when my time is up I’ll just go borrow another.

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Down this rabbit hole you must go…

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Sasha Matthews for the copyright win

In theory, American copyright laws are among the most creator-friendly in the world: in a nutshell, if you conceive it, and if you preserve it in a durable format, it belongs to you, under aegis of  U.S. jurisprudence, for as long as you’re alive (what happens after that is a bit murkier).

That doesn’t stop certain scalliwags from pulling every string they can to separate artists from their rightful intellectual property—the more vulnerable the artist, the more at risk they are to manipulation. And, some scalliwags might suppose, the most vulnerable, easy-to-manipulate artists are probably the youngest ones, right?

Not on Sasha Matthews‘s watch.

Sasha is a 13-year-old New York cartoonist, already well established and on her way to super-stardom. She was working on a submission late last year for the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards—had spent considerable time on her submission package, in fact—when she noticed some troubling verbiage in the contest’s rules:

The student irrevocably grants an assignment transferring…all rights, title, and interest (including all copyrights) in and to the submitted work (‘Work’), such that the Work, and all rights relating to the Work, shall be the exclusive property of the Alliance.

Oh hell no.

Sasha Matthews took a stand. She not only cancelled her submission, she also called out the piratical policy through her medium of choice (as we’re railing about copyrights, it’s bad enough I lifted her photo without due process; I won’t do the same with her cartoon. Click here to see it in all its glory).

At last report, Scholastic Awards says they are considering revising their copyright policy.

Regardless of that outcome, artists, writers, and creators of every stripe owe this cartoonist a debt of gratitude. Thanks for having our back, Sasha.

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RIP Stephen Hawking (Jan. 8 1942 – March 14 2018)

I imagine they felt a little like this in March, 1727. Issac Newton had died, and the world was left to wonder: Who will explain the universe to us now?

Stephen Hawking has left us at the age of 76—roughly a half-century after they said he should have died, having been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease) while still a young and impossibly brilliant scholar and thinker.

The progression of his ailment, and the ways he coped with it, is an inextricable part of his story. The ‘robot voice’ that most of the world knew him by—cutting edge technology when it was created, viewed as a necessity because here was a man who needed to communicate with us—became his voice; the novelty of it passed and we stopped noticing it, really. Because the things he said (and wrote) were far more fascinating, and immediate, and vital.

His most pioneering work was in the area of black holes—odd, incomprehensible entities that were entirely hypothetical in the Einstein era. Thanks to Stephen Hawking we “see” them (after a fashion), we measure them, and we know they lie at the heart of almost every galaxy, including our own. There’s an old story, possibly apocryphal but somehow I don’t think so, of some unnamed physicist, upon learning of Hawking’s posited method for detecting black holes, tearing through his department and shouting to his colleagues, “Did you hear? Stephen has changed everything!”

And so he did. He found a universe of equations and mystery and occultation, he grasped it, and somehow managed to delineate it to us all. He was perhaps the greatest explorer of our age: sitting quite still, he voyaged to dimensions no one else could have imagined, he mapped them, and brought back for us their proofs and artifacts.

If ever a hero has earned his rest, it’s this one. But still, not without a great deal of unabashed selfishness, I can’t help thinking: Who will explain the universe to us now?

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