Category Archives: Visual and Performing Arts

Life as Art: In Front of the Class

by Linda Levanti, Asheville, NC, senior in Humanities

linda-levantiI have a great vantage point from my position in the back of the classroom. Seated near the large picture window, with a glorious view of the massive walnut trees planted during the golden days of the Biltmore Era, I’m quite content. The wall to my back encloses this pleasant space, where like a cat curled on a sunny window ledge, I’m more or less out of sight. I don’t often speak, satisfied to watch the activity from my sanctuary in the corner. Who’d have thought that one day I’d decide to become a teacher? Certainly not I.

It was the unconditional patience and encouragement of my kindly neighbors in a tiny, old-world village in central Mexico that set me on my path to teaching. It’s a constant challenge to communicate even simple thoughts when faced with a language barrier, something we rarely experience in the United States. Accepting me into their beehive of daily activities, these aproned Madonnas were as happy to teach me some Spanish as I was to share a few words of English. I’m humbled and grateful for the many good humored teachers who helped me along the way. Nonetheless, there were still many times I felt terribly isolated by language, and a stranger in a strange land, in spite of the warmth of my Mexican family.

tiendita-el-sauz

Shortly after my return to the United States I started volunteering at the local community college in an adult education class to satisfy certification requirements to teach English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My experience had fostered a desire to help those living in the United States whose struggles with a foreign language are likely a great deal harder than mine had been in Mexico. I want to make a difference in the lives of those who are committed to learning their new country’s language. After completing my training program, I stayed on at the college; I like helping in the classroom. And, the opportunity to quietly observe the instructor, while reinforcing my novice teaching skills, fit in with my predilection for staying out of the spotlight. That is, up until last week.

The class began quite as usual. As students filtered in, I handed out worksheets, and Monica, the level 4 instructor, began to teach. The lesson for discussion was subject-verb agreement. And so, Monica taught English and I helped Monica, that is until her phone rang mid-lecture, and the baby-sitter informed her that her infant daughter was ill…could she come home right away? Monica’s eyes sought mine, pleadingly, as if to say, you do have your certification. Other than the one evening I had student taught an adult class many months before, an experience replete with sweaty palms and horrible stage-fright, I had not taught a class on my own. I wasn’t feeling inclined to do so any time soon. But under the circumstance what could I say? Monica left for home, and I was on! And on my own.

ballerina

It was performance time, and I flashed back on the frightened five year old I’d been at my first dance recital. The delicate pink ballet slippers I’d laced onto my feet, when told it was time to go on stage, no longer felt as enchanting as I’d imagined them. I was scared silly. All the wisdom and life experience I’d gained in nearly fifty years was reduced to the size of a quivering child. Thrust in front of the classroom, with the students’ inquiring eyes focused on me, I felt a vulnerability that caused every fiber in my body to scream “run”, which is what I had done at that first ballet recital. Not a pretty picture when you want to be a teacher. But I was no longer five years old, and fleeing was not an option. My saving grace is that age and hard won experience has provided me with an unwavering resolve, and so I stayed put and opened my mouth.

At a total loss for words, the immediate need to say or do something was bewildering. Quite unexpectedly, I felt as if a stranger had taken control of my senses and I began to dance. Not literally, but in a way that expressed my individuality. Performing as both marionette and marionettist, I was acutely aware of the tension in the strings that propelled my initial movements as an imperfectly executed pirouette spun me from the front of the room toward the large table that was the students’ shared desk. As I drew a chair closer to my audience, inviting them to join me, I remembered how much I had loved my ballet slippers; how good it felt to lace the ribbons and twirl across the polished wooden floor. Without a script, I listened to myself conduct the class. The words flowed and the teacher in me sounded so confident. She was enjoying herself! In getting on stage, I was introduced to a part of me I had never met, someone who seemed to like dancing for an audience. I’d caught an astonishing glimpse of my potential self in those moments in front of the class.

market

Art critic, Michael Kimmelman, wrote in The Accidental Masterpiece that “Life itself might be an art.” If my experience was any indication, I agree. Good art, when real and not contrived, fuels a deep and lasting impression upon viewer and artist alike. It can do that when we let go, and get out of our own way. I believe that this sentiment is essentially what Gunter Berghaus wrote about in the “Happenings and Fluxus” chapter of his book Avant-garde Performance. Based on the idea of unconventional and spontaneous artistic expression that compels the interaction of performer and audience, art is created that shatters life as we know it, effectively changing who we are into something new. The certainly unplanned accident of my performance in the classroom that day exemplified what both “Happenings” and “Fluxus” stand for. Reflective of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s portrayal of the “characteristics” of Happenings, it became a moment of “breaking down the barriers between art and life…[to] transform human beings, and make them change their old ways of seeing, feeling, and being.” It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Initially, my performance fell flat on its face. I wasn’t like Monica. My audience was confused by this unsure presentation of a teacher. I’ve since learned that many students see their teachers, myself included, as if we’re all cut out of the same academic “fabric”, and whether it’s Monica or myself at the head of the class, we are “all knowing” and greater in stature than the students there to learn English. In part, this is a cultural issue and likely a misinterpretation of Americans in general, but nonetheless, it makes for a very tough audience. I was faced with a chasm I had no idea how to bridge. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure they recognized my fear. Those sorts of things speak clearly in any language. Did they realize the degree to which my teaching had become the performance of my life? Probably not, but I do think they recognized themselves through the cracks in the perfect image they had constructed of me as an “American” teacher.

Unexpectedly presented with an instructor they were not accustomed to, the students initially responded to me by withdrawing. My discomfort increased and I felt myself teetering on the edge of the stage, an abyss between myself and the students huddled in the audience. They were reticent to speak; our previous interactions had been minimal. I experienced something that my instructors at NCSU had said about teaching foreign language classes, something that applied to me as well. Students are often afraid to speak for fear of looking foolish or making mistakes. Student or teacher, we all want to do well and look our best. There were moments during that two hour class when I stumbled. I recovered, the world didn’t come to an end, and I kept going. When I performed for that class, it wasn’t perfect. I was nervous at times, and lost my way. And then art happened in one spontaneous moment of laughter.

mexico-kitchen

I’d laughed out loud at how much fun I was having in spite of it all. I couldn’t be frightened any longer. It was just too silly. The students thought it was tremendously funny, and so did I. At that moment the feeling in the room transformed each of us. The “American” teacher, who fell off the stage, wasn’t really any different than they were, and they gladly joined me in my dance. I had their attention. The chasm disappeared, and my students got that it was OK to try, and it was acceptable to make mistakes. We laughed, exchanged ideas, and as we became partners on that stage, no longer separated by perceptions of culture or class, we were performers and audience alike. I reflect that it was much more than just the subject-verb agreement of English grammar that we learned about that day. The art of authentic communication became a Happening. The Happening became the universal language of human interaction. I’ll never know who learned more that day, me or them. I do know that together we created an accidental masterpiece that will remain a vivid image in my mind for years to come.

My son, who is a wonderful artist believes that art should exist only for the moment and then be gone, to allow for other inspirations to take its’ place. My performance in the classroom reflects that sensibility. I’ve learned that art is not the result of paint and brush, nor is teaching, simply the rules of English grammar. They are only the tools we use to express the essence of who we are. When I teach, the art itself is ethereal, but its’ effect lingers on. Like any artist who performs for an audience, I’m sure there’ll be wonderful experiences as I teach and those that may not inspire great art. Either way, it will remind me that life, if lived as art, is its own accidental masterpiece.

guerilla-gowns-happening-the-nine

* This essay was originally written for an assignment in Ann Millett-Gallant‘s class The Art of Life, in which the students are asked to create and partake in an act of performative art, then write about their inspirations, their interactions with their audience, the performance itself, and the results. The fortunate timing of Linda’s unplanned teaching stint as this assignment was approaching led to this “accidental masterpiece.”

Regarding my choice of the kitchen photo from among many possibilities, Linda writes, “of all the photos, you pick the staged photo my husband took of me with a large beer bottle “caguama” and mug! My husband thinks that it’ll make me look like a borracha! (drunkard) which is really funny as I rarely drink.”

Tim’s Vermeer: The Science of Dutch Art

by Ann Millett-Gallant

tims-vermeer-optics

Tim Jenison with his “Vermeer” and the equipment used to make it.

I love a good documentary film, especially one about art, so I was happy to receive Bob Hansen’s recommendation of Tim’s Vermeer. It is an eighty-minute film about one man’s quest for art featuring Tim Jenison, an inventor, video equipment specialist, and entrepreneur who is fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Known as “the painter of light,” Vermeer was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, best known for his portraits, interior genre scenes, and inclusion of detail. For more information on the life and work of Vermeer, see the website Essential Vermeer.

tims_vermeerThe film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, of the famous team of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn and Teller were also a part of the team that produced the film, and themes of documentation and magic pervade it. Other major themes include the nexus of art and technology, photography and illusion in art history, digital technology and technological imaging in art, and seeing through photographic reproduction versus human seeing. These themes relate to two of my BLS courses, BLS 345, Photography: Contexts and Illusions and BLS 346, The Art of Life. Discussions of art history and the media and techniques of artmaking in the film are also relevant to my Art 100 course. Tim’s exposé of Vermeer may be interpreted as challenging the notions of artistic talent and exposing the myth of so-called “genius” painting. Yet, in the process, Tim discovers a newfound awe of Vermeer’s resources and artistic focus.

Tim is most interested in Vermeer’s possible use of early camera technology and reflective devices. Inspired by Vermeer’s Camera (2001), a book by Philip Stedman, professor at University College of London, Jenison crosses continents and narratives of art history in pursuit of the truth behind Vermeer’s oil painting The Music Lesson (1662-1664), and eventually attempts to recreate it. Tim says in the film that he feels a kinship with Vermeer as an inventor and musician. He also explains why he decided to focus on The Music Lesson, stating that it is “so complete and self-contained,” compared with all other Vermeer paintings, and he declares it “a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” Through his research and art project, Tim aims to offer an “alternative narrative of Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

While experimenting with various reflective devices, Tim paints his first portrait from the reflection of a photograph of his father in law. He is modest about his painted product and says emphatically that painting it was a decidedly object experience, rather than a subjective, or personal one. Tim then zooms in on studying image-making and methods of illusion specific to the seventeenth century, which includes optical machines and—most prominently—the camera obscura, an ancestor of early 19th-century photography.

18th-century camera obscura.

18th-century camera obscura.

Tim then compares the painted details of The Music Lesson to optical effects of photography, concluding that Vermeer depicted photographic seeing, rather than human sight. He states that the appearance of “absolute brightness” in the painting is proof that Vermeer painted from photograph, because such light is not visible to the naked eye.

To prove his hypothesis, Tim first visits Delft, Holland, where he learns to speak Dutch, to grind pigments, and to mix oil paint. He also studies the light, furniture, and interior architecture. Finally, he hires artists to make exact replicas of the pottery found in the composition of The Music Lesson. Tim discusses a list of craftsmen and engineers he would need to serve as “experts” in building a life-size model of the scene, saying that he can attempt to complete all the work with a computer.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Tim proves that he is a quintessential “Renaissance Man” (although Vermeer was post-Renaissance historically); to be photographed by a self-built camera, Tim constructs a replica of the scene of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio warehouse from wood, concrete, metal, and glass. Tim’s set is complete with furniture, woodwork, stained-glass windows, and musical instruments. Experimentation leads Tim to discover a system of lenses and mirrors (including a shaving mirror) which, joined with visual color-matching tricks, allow him to build a surprisingly accurate, three-dimensional reproduction of The Music Lesson. Tim also shows his musical skills as he plays on the violin that will serve as his model in the composition.

Earlier in the film, as Tim and Philip Stedman each tried their hands at copying portraits, the music and tempo of the shots slowed down, but they build up again as Tim builds the room and begins to paint the image from it. More dynamic camera work and background music set the stage for many scenes of Tim painting, in which he used his daughter and her friends as live models. This pace is held up for 8 minutes. Time is marked by images of the calendar dates in the lower corner of the screen, as if torn from a desktop calendar. Everything slows down significantly after forty days. At about fifty days, Tim makes a discovery; he finds curves in the painting where there should be straight lines. He explains that Vermeer’s so-called mistake in angles of perspective was a result of viewing and painting a photographic image.

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Following this discovery, time further drags as Tim experiences the physical pain of his actions and seated position, while the viewer watches him paint details such as violin strings, minute decorations on the piano, and the individual threads on a draping, patterned tablecloth. Somewhere in this period, a threat of carbon monoxide poisoning arises in the studio. I must admit, I do not remember why. I may have zoned out. After eighty to ninety days, Tim becomes “repulsed” while painting a royal blue chair with bronze lion heads on the back and correcting his mistakes with a cotton swab. All in all in the film, there are approximately thirteen minutes of footage of Tim painstakingly painting. It feels longer.

In the final scenes, Tim shows Stedman and David Hockney his painting. Hockney, with whom Tim has met previously in the film, is another artist interested in these reflected forms and technologies (see David Hockney’s website here).

Stedman and Hockney discuss Tim’s painting and determine that it is better than Vermeer’s. In the last shot, the humble Tim claims Vermeer was an inspiring inventor and artist.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

The film chronicles important discoveries and historical revisions, but I wasn’t sure if the information alone carried the film. I was just so fascinated by Tim Jenison. He stole the show. He was obviously very smart and skillful, yet also witty, eccentric, and obsessive. It takes one hundred and twenty days for him to paint a replica of a famous Vermeer painting, and the whole project, captured on film, took over five years (2008-2013). For this entire time, Tim’s life seems utterly driven by art and photography.

tims-vermeer-music-lesson

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles) who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

———

* Update: Condé Nast’s The Scene has produced a 25-minute web documentary about Miriam Weeks and her alter-ego Belle Knox that may be worth a watch:

BecomingBelleKnox

Revisiting Richard III

by Doug McCarty

Garage Sale Books.

Garage Sale Books.

I remember when I was quite young, not quite eight years old, and I visited a neighborhood garage sale. I liked to read and was fairly precocious, so it was natural for me to be drawn to a box of old books in a corner, barely visible among all the various knickknacks and junk. Most of what was in the box was pretty uninteresting, the usual Reader’s Digest collections in hardback and the like. I did find something, though, that caught my eye—a tattered three-volume collection of Shakespeare’s works. I think I paid a dime for all three books.

Wm. Shakespeare

William Shakespeare.

Now, what is a seven-year-old going to do with Shakespeare? Not that much, at first. The collection sat in the bookshelves in my room until a got a little older. Once I started, however, I read the entire set, all the plays, all the poems. I may not have understood everything I was reading all that well, but I kept on and on.

Certain plays held my attention more than others, Richard III especially. Any of you who have read the play or seen one or more of the numerous film adaptions know well the historical description of this king as a deformed hunchback with a withered arm who had his nephews (the sons of his late brother Edward IV) murdered in the Tower of London and who seized the crown through nefarious means. This description bothered me from the beginning, although I could never put my finger on why. Shakespeare, of course, could hardly write about the late king in a positive light, given that in 1591, when the play was probably written, the Tudor line that overthrew and killed Richard was still in charge in England. It always seemed strange that such an enigmatic figure was written in such a way, particularly when this character was given some of the finest lines read from among all the plays.

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955

Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III in 1955.

Years went by, and I reviewed the play from time to time, then very little after graduate school. In recent years, I discovered that there was a revival of interest in Richard, especially among those who wanted to reform the negative image created chiefly by Sir Thomas More and dramatized by Shakespeare. After a few moments of online research, I realized that I had been sleeping while new data and information on Richard was being uncovered. Unknown to me, there are several societies and research projects devoted to discovering the truth about Richard, who is, by the way, the current Queen of England’s 14th great-grand-uncle. There is a bunch of new stuff out there, but I will avoid boring anyone with all of it, even though it excites me.

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995

Sir Ian McKellen as a historically-reimagined Richard III in 1995.

The most interesting thing I found out is that Richard III’s remains were discovered underneath a parking lot in 2012 after vanishing over five centuries ago, at the site of the medieval Greyfriars Church, where he was reputed to have been interred. The skeleton was identified, according to researchers, beyond a reasonable doubt as belonging to Richard.

This reasonably-positive identification was made through comparison of his mitochondrial DNA with that of two matrilineal descendants of Richard’s eldest sister, Anne of York. The spine showed considerable deformity consistent with scoliosis, which may have given Richard the appearance of having one shoulder higher than the other.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The Skeleton in the Grave.

The skeleton sustained at least ten wounds demonstrative of battlefield injuries of Richard’s day, when he was killed by the forces of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which was the end of the Wars of the Roses and is typically considered to mark the end of the Middle Ages in England. There are plenty of gruesome details and conjectures about the events leading up to his death, and I invite you to do a web search for yourself, if you are at all inclined.

Portrait of Richard III in National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Richard III

At this point, the team from the University of Leicester who participated in Richard III’s discovery, among other players, is planning to decode his genome, which has set off a flurry of controversy and protests, even involving Buckingham Palace.

Although history has been unkind to Richard, perhaps justly so in some instances, he was by many accounts an able and talented military commander, a king who reputedly enacted laws to protect the poor, and a noble who lived at the very least according to the principles of his time. He remains an enigma and perhaps always will, but that is what makes him so interesting, at least to me.

Merry and Bright: The Spectacle of the Christmas Tree

By Marc Williams

“Spectacle” can be broadly defined as a visually striking display, event, or performance. Spectacle has long been associated with live performance, since costumes, scenery, lighting, dance, and other visual elements are frequently used to enhance the performance experience. In my BLS class, Eye Appeal, we focus on the spectacles that occur not only on stage but also in every day life. In my most recent blog entry, I wrote about the spectacle of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and its spectacular precursors, the cycle plays of medieval Europe–in this post I’ll focus on Christmas trees and other holiday displays.

2013-White-House-Christmas-Tree-e1386618998921The day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2013, an 18.5-foot Douglas fir was delivered to the White House. Since 1966, the White House Christmas Tree has been provided annually by the National Christmas Tree Association. Since that time, the First Lady has been responsible for creating a theme for the tree each year, and its decoration and lighting has become an annual spectacle for those in the Washington, D.C. area—an interesting blend of politics, religion, and spectacle. There were indeed White House Christmas trees before 1966, but more on that later.

The delivery of the 2013 White House Christmas Tree

Evergreens have been associated with winter solstice for many centuries. In Ancient Egypt and later in Ancient Rome, for example, evergreens were brought into homes to celebrate the continuation or return of life following the winter. Some believe these pagan solstice traditions were adapted by early Christians and evolved into our modern Christmas tree. The earliest recorded Christmas trees were found in 16th century Germany and were typically decorated with apples. The apple decorations are associated with December 24, as the medieval Christian calendar celebrated Adam and Eve’s Day on that date. Christmas trees were introduced to the United States in the early 1800s and were sold commercially by the 1850s [source]. At the time, Christmas trees were a new “fad” in America and many people associated Christmas trees with the German settlers who introduced them.

Interestingly, the White House Christmas Tree has a controversial past. The first White House Christmas tree was displayed by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In 1899, while Christmas trees had become more common in America, they were still considered by many to be a fad. A White House Christmas tree was by no means obligatory. That year, Chicago Tribune readers mounted a letter-writing campaign urging President McKinley to buck the Christmas tree trend for a variety of reasons—many letters focused on deforestation, with one writer calling Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Other letter writers called Christmas trees “un-American,” since Christmas trees were still considered a German tradition by many. Given the Christmas tree’s pagan connections, some letter-writers viewed the White House tree as anti-Christian. Controversy surrounding the tree continues today, as some critics wonder if the White House Christmas Tree should focus on tradition rather than religion, or if the tree should exist at all.

rockefeller-center-xmas-tree

The Tree at Rockefeller Center

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas tree in the United States is found in New York City at Rockefeller Center. The tree is positioned just above the famous ice skating rink and immediately front of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition for over eighty years and its lighting has become a major entertainment event. The 2013 tree is 76 feet tall, weighs twelve tons, features over 45,000 lights, and is topped with a nine-foot wide Swarovski star.

angels

Two rows of trumpeting angels are installed along the plaza, forming a lane that frames the tree beautifully when viewed from Fifth Avenue. The lighting ceremony has now become a televised event with celebrity hosts and performers; the 2013 lighting ceremony featured Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, the Radio City Rockettes, and many others.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

The Radio City Rockettes at the 2013 tree lighting ceremony.

Here in Greensboro, residents of the Sunset Hills neighborhood create an unique annual holiday spectacle: a neighborhood-wide display of lighted “ball” decorations. This local tradition began with Jonathan Smith’s family, residents of Sunset Hills, about sixteen years ago. The balls are homemade, constructed from chicken wire shaped into spheres, then wrapped with a strand of Christmas lights. The balls hang from tree branches, some nearly thirty feet off the ground.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

Sunset Hills in Greensboro, NC.

The video below features the 2008 display and Smith discussing how the tradition started.

Lighted Christmas Balls In Greensboro, North Carolina

Have you seen any of these holiday spectacles in person? What role does spectacle play in your holiday celebrations?

Slow Norway

by Carrie Levesque

Winter is coming to Norway.  As I write, on the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 9:45am and sets at 3:30pm.   Since it is common for children here to have to wear their woolen long underwear until mid-May, we have a lot of winter yet ahead of us.

Bergen in Winter

Bergen, Norway in Winter Twilight.

Norwegian culture has developed coping mechanisms over the years to help people ‘stay cozy’ through long, dark winters and bad weather.  “Koselig” (“Cozy”) is one of the first words one learns upon moving to Norway; the word, or some related root word, is ubiquitous throughout Norwegian culture.  To say that you enjoyed a social gathering, you would say, “Vi koste oss,” “We cozied ourselves.”  At the end of the week, people look forward to their “fredagskos,” their “Friday cozy.”  When the weather outside is frightful, Norwegians love to “cozy themselves” in front of a roaring fire and read, knit, or veg out in front of the television.

Because the weather is so lousy in Bergen (25 days of rain in the last 30), we do watch more TV in the winter than we do the rest of the year.  We mostly enjoy sports we didn’t get to watch at home, like Norwegian favorite biathlon (which combines cross-country skiing and target shooting) and the family favorite, ski jumping.  My 4-year-old insists ski jumping is her future.  I’m glad we live somewhere with free healthcare.

Norwegian Ski-Jumper Anders Bardal in Mid-Flight.

Norwegian Ski-Jumper Anders Bardal in Mid-Flight.

We watch winter sports on TV in part to fill the NFL-shaped hole in our lives and in part because, well, there’s not much else on that appeals to our still-rather-American tastes.  Recently, Norway’s public broadcasting system, NRK, has started to garner international attention for being exceptionally, spectacularly slow.  Earlier this year, the New York Times gently mocked their enormously popular program on firewood, featuring expert tips on chopping, drying and stacking it, followed by eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace, “all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations.”  Riveting stuff.

Lars Mytting

Lars Mytting of Elverum, Norway, author of the bestselling Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying, and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning.

This fall, NRK aired a four-hour documentary taking viewers through the process of how a wool sweater is made, from the sheep shearing to the sewing of the final seams.  They then devoted an additional five hours of airtime to an attempt to break the knitting world record.  Said the producer, “it’s kind of ordinary TV but very slow, although they’ll be knitting as fast as they can” (Yahoo).  Unfortunately, I missed the broadcast and so can only imagine the drama that five hours of fast knitting can create.

This week it was announced that “Slow-TV” (“Sakte-TV”) is the 2013 “New Word of the Year” here in Norway, and Television Business International has named Slow-TV the year’s “Best New Format” (TBI).

The thing is, Slow-TV is not really all that new in Norway.  Their first live slow broadcast was in 2009, when they covered the scenic train trip from Oslo to Bergen, minute by minute, for 7 hours and 16 minutes.  Thirty percent of Norway’s entire population watched.  A year later, when the program was exported to Danish TV, 170,000 Danes tuned in, at a time of day when the channel was normally off the air.  This suggested to the network that it “wasn’t just Norwegian patriotism driving viewers to their TV screens,” but a broader “need for a soothing, anti-overload experience”  (NRK).

(Here’s a ten-minute clip from Bergensbanen, worth viewing in full-screen):

A year later, NRK cameras followed one of the Hurtigruten, the fleet of ships that has transported people and goods up the coast of Norway, from Bergen north to the Russian border at Kirkenes (1814 miles), for over 100 years.  The resulting 134-hour broadcast can still be viewed from the program’s website, where they also discuss their reasons for producing such programming.

“Primarily because we’re a publicly funded Public Service Broadcaster with a responsibility towards Norwegian culture; a responsibility for covering things important to the inhabitants of a small country, a country that in spite of, or perhaps because of, our significant oil wealth has a vulnerable culture. And programmes like this aren’t economically feasible for a commercial channel; to a large amount of the public it probably seems completely useless, but to some of our viewers it can have a very high value, be something they wouldn’t get in any other way, and in twenty or two hundred years, it will be a strange document of life at the edge of civilisation from a different time” (NRK).

View from Hurtigruten.

View from Hurtigruten.

(You can stream the entire 134-hour program at nrk.no/hurtigruten/.)

Though I may not yet be sufficiently Norwegianized to sit through so many hours of fire crackling/sheep shearing/coastline passing, it’s not difficult to appreciate the state’s efforts to preserve these aspects of Norwegian culture that make Norway Norway, and provide such a koselig “anti-overload experience.”  We might laugh at the slow hokiness of some of this programming, but as a friend of mine commented when I posted a status about this phenomenon on Facebook: “Remember this when you return to the land of bloodbath-and-misogyny network programming.”

Norwegian Halvard Hanevold Shooting from Skis in a Biathlon Competition

Norwegian Biathlete Halvard Hanevold Shooting from Skis.

I leave you with “The Cabin,” a video from the Ylvis brothers poking fun at cabin culture, another slow way Norwegians like to unplug and cozy themselves.

Happy Holidays?!

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Ah, Christmas.  ‘Tis the season, deck the halls, joy to the world, and all that stuff.

Christmas Tree, 2013

Christmas Tree, 2013

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, and yet, celebrations often come with obligations and complications.  Christmas, for those of us that partake in it, has multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings.  For some, Christmas is a religious observance.  Although I respect the Christian origins of the holiday, I don’t follow any particular religion, have been to church only a handful of times, and associate Christmas more with elves than I do wise men.  Christmas is primarily a commercial event for many people, and although I do enjoy giving and receiving, I appreciate the thought put into a gift more so than the dollar amount.  Finally, Christmas, for many, surrounds family traditions.  For me, the term “family” is as diverse as the specific activities that I enjoy with different family members. “Families” can be groups you are born or adopted into, ones your divorced parents marry you into, ones you yourself marry into, and ones that accumulate throughout your life from circles of friends and colleagues.  I enjoy spending time with all these individuals, but I value more personal time with smaller groups than large gatherings where I exchange small talk with a variety of people. I also appreciate private time during the holidays, in which I have more time to paint, write, read, and watch movies. I believe the notion of “celebrating” should not be limited to one set of activities on one specific day.  My rituals aren’t always traditional, but they are genuine and specific to me. So far this season, my mom has come to NC from Ohio to visit me, and we did a lot of Christmas shopping.  I gave her one of my watercolor paintings, and she showered me and my husband with gifts.  Giving to her children and grandchildren throughout the year and especially at Christmas is a great joy to her.  And I certainly benefit and appreciate that joy!  It was fun shopping with her for me, as well as for other members of the family.

Ann with Shark

Ann with the Shark

Here is a photograph of me at the mall, holding a giant, stuffed shark she bought for her grandson (my nephew).  I smiled as I traveled through the mall carrying the shark and people smiled back at me.  I wish I had thought to photo-bomb the Christmas Santa, but it gives me a new activity for next year. The week before Christmas, I went to a matinee of American Hustle with friends who also had free time.  My friend Jay picked me up, and my friend Julie drove me home and helped my dye my hair a festive red.  In appreciation, I made a small painting for her of her favorite flower, the hibiscus.  These kinds of activities may not directly relate to Christmas, but they contribute to my seasonal cheer.

Hibiscus

Hibiscus, 2013

My husband and I have a non-traditional Christmas palm tree he usually puts up, but this year, I wanted to contribute more, so I made a collage of a tree with acrylic paint and images from magazines.  For me, it represents how we design our own, unique Christmas rituals.  I bought him a smoker as an early Christmas present, so he could smoke us a Thanksgiving turkey.  It was delicious, and I am looking forward to the Christmas turkey!  He enjoys cooking, and I enjoy eating everything he prepares, according to my tastes.  It makes him happy when I am happy.  On Dec. 25, as he prepares our meal, I will wear my Christmas-themed pajamas, binge-watch Modern Family on DVD, and indulge in an afternoon glass of wine.

After Christmas day, my dad and step-mom will come from Ohio to Durham to visit me, my step-sister, and our families.  There will be dinners, movies, and possible cookie decorating with my 5 year old niece, as we try not to wake up her 6 month old brother.  Every year, my dad jokes about how I used to behave during Christmas as a child.  When I was young, Christmas was primarily about the presents, although I reveled in all the Christmas activities: making and decorating cookies; hanging all the ornaments, garland, and lights, inside and outside the house; sitting on Santa’s lap; and caroling.  My dad chuckles as he recalls how I would be awake almost all night on Christmas Eve in anticipation.  I loved opening presents and then throughout the day, despite my sleep deprivation, playing with new toys with my cousins from out of town, or playing board games with my grandparents.  I also adored eating a Christmas dinner that I “helped” my mom prepare and falling asleep early in front of the Christmas tree.  Then in a few days, after New Year’s was over, the tree came down, I went back to school, and I crashed.  Teachers would call my parents to express concern about my melancholy.  I attribute this now somewhat with it being winter in Ohio, but I know it was largely due to just letdown and exhaustion.  I would cheer up over time.

These activities may be familiar some of my readers and foreign to others, raising the question: What is the true meaning of Christmas? I think there are many answers.  Perhaps the more important question to ask is how to take the elements of joy we feel at Christmas and spread them throughout the year.  I would say to everyone, regardless of the season: bake, if you enjoy it; sing if you feel compelled; decorate your surroundings with color; relish time with loved ones; be generous and thoughtful; and have a piece of red velvet cake with ice cream and savor every bite.

Luminaries on UNCG Campus

Holiday Luminaries on UNCG Campus