Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ode to Art Beer

In the1950's GM recruited sculptors to work their skills on a fiber glass bodied sports car, the Corvette. The artists exchanged their normal work man’s clothes and dressed the part in ties and white, starched shirts. For many, it also meant relocation. But at least the pay was steady and that meant a lot to artists with families. My folks had been married about three years by 1957, and I was quite young when they moved. They landed on their feet by finding a rental of "in-law quarters", with the Beer family in Warren, MI. Art was a commercial artist, his wife, Agnes, a gifted school teacher.

I don’t remember much from that time except certain portions of the apartment, and the smell of sweet marshes outside in warm weather. Art regaled Mom with stories about his youth. He held many odd jobs. One was as a traveling window dresser. He’d motor from town to town and do crepe paper ripples behind manikins and in drug store windows. It never paid much, but was enough for a young fellow. One night he found himself in a rural area as it was getting dark. With no place to stay, he considered his options. Art saw some lights in the distance. He made his way to the doorstep of a small farmhouse, and knocked. An elderly man opened the door. "I’ll pay you, if you can put me up for the night," Art said.

"No need for that, I’d be grateful for your company", the man said, and welcomed Art in. Art looked around. There wasn’t much furniture. A large, bare wooden box took a prominent place in the main room. With a start, Art realized it was the man’s homemade coffin. They chatted until late, and the gentleman showed Art where he might sleep. Art lay awake for a bit, then got back up. Taking his tacking hammer and red crepe paper, he worked his magic on the casket’s interior. When the old man woke, he greeted Art with tears in his eyes. "That’s the most beautiful coffin I’ve ever seen".

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Curbside Gleaning

The fine art of trash picking is much maligned and misunderstood. As the elegant area of Germantown in Philadelphia was encroached upon by squatters and students, marvelous things appeared in the Veteran’s Thrift Store on Germantown Avenue. Tuxes of a certain vintage, 78's to be played while you slept that guaranteed health, wealth, and happiness, and even Biedermeier furniture. When older family members died off the less than perfect, quirkier pieces were unceremoniously dumped curbside. We were the beneficiaries. My father loaded his station wagon with the likes of Bentwood rockers, brass drapery weights, cast iron eagles, and solid mahogany drawing shelf units.

25 years ago, my eagle-eyed sister spotted a vintage Navajo blanket half hanging out of a dumpster and gave it to me on permanent loan as it matched my furniture colors. (She wants it back when I die.) With the advent of Antique Road Show, there has been less opportunity lately for really fantastic finds. Even so, our boys’ fort was made mostly from salvaged and freecycled materials. So here’s to trash day! Here’s to finding finds! Onward, to the quest!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fall Grasses

Have you ever considered the subtle colors in grasses and shrubbery along the roadside as you drive by? Amazing variety. From reddish tints to golds and greys, softer greens and even some blue-purples. All of it looks great together without human intervention. Even though color changes come from death really, they show a richness not seen in spring or summer. Full of sap and shining in bright sun, summer grasses scream green, a green with so much yellow a painter can’t truly reproduce it.

Character beauty is revealed more in twilight times too. Wisdom, gentleness, peace, attach themselves to those who learn from life, embrace Christ, and know where they’re going. They can let go of the green, become part of the tapestry God is weaving, enjoy the last of the sun’s warm rays before winter, and anticipate spring. So even though it looks like everything’s dying, it’s actually coming closer to resurrection.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


We just moved into the manse in Winner. The furniture hadn’t arrived yet, and I was looking out a picture window onto the front lawn. A bird fluttered to the ground and hopped around awkwardly. It was bigger than a Robin, a buffy grey brown color, darker on top than underneath, with a speckled chest, a black crescent at it’s neck, and black cheek markings. Someone had painted the back of it’s head with a slash of insanely red nail polish. A disconcerting bit of living vandalism. In a glimmer of yellow underwings another bird landed next to it, bearing the same red mark. Whoa! What have we here? I dashed to the phone and called my favorite expert, Dad. He said, "Oh, it must be a Flicker".That short interchange sparked an ongoing fascination with birds.

One unusual thing about the Prairie, was the wild life. Nestled between two regions, we’d encounter birds from the east and west. A Western Tanager in the Black Hills, both the Eastern and Western Kingbirds on my clothesline out back, a Baltimore Oriole playing in puddles on our driveway, and a solid yellow Warbler with a slightly aberrant song perched on our neighbor’s car door handle. Unexpected sightings became an encouragement that God was there during trying times, when people had backed off. A kind of love letter in a feathered envelope. During a particularly rough time, we saw an immature Bald Eagle plummet into a gully right next to our car as we drove. With two great, silent wing flaps it floated back into the sky. Awesome.

We moved back east, and for the most part it’s been pleasant. Several years ago a family pulled up stakes and left our lives. No explanation. I was sitting at a picnic table near a wooded area, thinking about it, when a huge form flew across the top of my vision and attached itself to the side of a tall tree. It’s crest was unmistakable. To that was added the singular deep drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker. It flew off, and returned, drummed a bit more, and then was gone.

So one afternoon last week, I spent a solid ten minutes enjoying a Yellow Shafted Flicker in our side yard pecking bugs out of the earth. After all these years, it’s still my favorite bird.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

La Maison Picassiette

On a winding road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, near a stream, down the road from a peach orchard, sits a quirky, boxy building encrusted with mirror strips, bits of colored glass, and postcards sandwiched between glass. It still has beauty, like the face of an ancient, dignified neighbor, but like that old person, a little neglected, and needing repair.

Far away, off a main road in the center of Chartres, France, down a footpath, sits a ticket booth. Beyond that lays a narrow three room house, the 36 year work of one graveyard sweeper, Raymonde Isodore. It’s called La Maison Picassiette. (The house of stolen plates). What prompted this man to trowel concrete onto his home and furnishings and embed bits of found pottery, rocks, glass, and shells onto it’s surfaces? What kept him going? Walking for miles to pick up debris. Lugging all that stuff back. Meticulously carving and coloring concrete, laying bit and bit over surfaces, spilling out the house and onto the surrounding garden and courtyard. That driving force. To make order and beauty out of discarded material. To redeem them. To form something enduring. In the physical realm, this is the heart of a frugal bohemian. Making beauty with small resources. But isn’t that what Christ does to his own? He takes the foolish and broken of the world and builds them up into something enduring. Carves and places and lays bit and bit over surfaces, until he has a glorious church without spot, wrinkle or blemish. That’s truly redemptive art.

La Maison Picassiette can be seen on