New York City’s beautiful firehouses, like the one at the top of this post, are perfect examples of form following function and they’re so appealing. I love their red doors, their orderly design and the polite way they nestle into a row of brownstones. Each one has a unique design and decoration. I find it deeply moving about my fellow humans that something so necessary and utilitarian is made to be so beautiful.
I was walking with Arthur past Engine Company 14, the one that starred in the movie, Ghostbusters, when a hook and ladder came home. The firefighter at the wheel, who didn’t look old enough to drive, had to turn left but there was a car in his way. He put his hand out the window with a lovely “after you” wave for the car to go ahead, then made his turn and easily pulled that huge truck into the narrow doorway.
“That was so graceful,” I said to Arthur. He agreed.
When something works well, whether it’s a building or a song or just a maneuver, it’s a lovely thing. I try to keep open to the tiny delights life offers up.
This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of The Gates, Christo and Jean Claude’s monumental work which transformed Central Park for two weeks in February, 2005; 7,503 vinyl rectangles holding orange curtains, standing along 23 miles of pathways in the Park.
Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are know for their site specific works of art, particularly wrapping large objects, like the Reichstag in Berlin. They worked on this project for years, and met with mighty resistance until our mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “Sure, let’s do it.” I love him for that. We were still recovering from the attacks of September 11, 2001. While there are things we never get over, we have to move on and doing something huge just for art, for fun, for the heck of it, had great appeal.
I was able, through the New York Artists Circle, to sign up to become a worker in a gray smock, carrying a long pole with a tennis ball at the tip. Our job was to stand guard at our station, deter vandals and when the wind wound the curtains around their supports to unwind and set them free.
I found it enchanting. There was a snow storm the night before my first day and the saffron curtains were even more brilliant against the white. Here I am at my post, clearing the path and learning once again that shoveling snow is a great way to keep warm.
Look at the way the puddles reflect the color of the curtains. And doesn’t my pink hat look nice against the orange? I wish I still had that hat in January of 2017.
I thank my friend, Carol Leibenson, for finding this shot in her files when I had lost it.
Here we are getting our smocks autographed by the artists. I’m a New Yorker and I would die before asking a famous person for an autograph but this was different. I am in awe of these two and what they achieved.
Central Park, so often deserted in winter, came alive. Every morning I walked past the statue of the King of Poland, looking over Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn. Now there was a curtain in front of him and as the sun rose behind him in the east I thought, “Wow, he’s never seen his shadow before! I wonder how he likes it?”
The whole world came to celebrate, especially Christo and Jean-Claude’s biggest fans, the people of Germany. I asked one visitor, “So who’s running Germany while all you guys are over here?”
There was the most lovely feeling of community under those arches. The whole project was completely open and democratic; it reached every square foot of the park and you couldn’t pay more to get a better seat. It was for everyone. A young man came up to me and asked, “How do I get to the Gates?” And I said, “You’re here!”
Dogs are allowed off the leash in the park before nine am, so they’d come out to play and their human companions would visit.
My partner was a young woman who was also not tall so we couldn’t always reach high enough to unwind the curtains. A tall man came along with his family and helped us; when he freed the cloth his children yelled, “Yay, Daddy!”
The hotdog venders, usually lucky to make a hundred dollars on a winter day, were raking in the money—as much as a thousand dollars a day.
My son, Sam, called me on my cell and said, “Mom, it’s really cold today. Can I bring you some extra warm clothes?”
The project was funded entirely by the sale of Christo’s artwork. There were no volunteers. Although many of us would have participated for nothing; everyone got paid. When I received a check for three hundred and fifty dollars Sam said, “Mom, you should buy yourself something nice with that money, because you worked hard for it…and…have you given away ten percent?” So some of my lessons had taken root. I asked him where I should direct my tithe and he suggested an organization working to legalize marijuana.
“Uh, anything else?”
He was working as a barista, so he suggested I increase my tips whenever I got coffee. “There’s nothing like finding a five in the tip jar!” So for the next month I was a big tipper. It was a ripple effect of the Gates.
And then it was over; the gates were taken down and all materials were re-cycled. Nobody could buy a gate and put it up in their yard. That ephemeral nature added to the magic.
I was so impressed–awed, really, that I asked myself what I had done to come anywhere close. I remembered that when I stood and gazed up at Mount Rushmore I asked myself, “Should I be working bigger?”
I had always wanted to start an exhibition program at my church. I served as co-chair of a capital campaign to restore the church’s south wing, an 1874 McKim Mead White Gothic Revival that had suffered some years of neglect. One of our dreams was to hang art in the beautiful Great Hall. But after raising more than a million dollars and overseeing design and construction and listening to the church members who hadn’t done the work but didn’t like the results, my co-chair and I took some time off from church work.
Then Christo and Jeanne-Claude inspired me. If they could pull off the Gates, after twenty years of negotiating and planning, surely I could persuade the church to hang some pictures in the Great Hall. I presented my idea to our pastor, Jon Walton, and he replied that a church in the Village should serve the artistic community. The result was Art at First, a program of exhibiting art by emerging or unknown artists. We’ve had some great shows.
It’s much more fun to be in the game than to watch it, and if you think you can’t do something, just give it another go. You might be surprised.
“color is made for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart.”
I agree with that. Color is one of the things that make my life worth living. On the other hand, the wrong color can send me into a tizzy. When my church installed a brown rug with orange zig zags in the lobby I hated it. Just thinking about it kept me up at night.
“How could they have picked it?” I whined to my friend, David. “It’s so awful, it makes me feel parched just looking at it.” And, worst of all, “Nobody asked me what I thought.”
David said, “You know how people with perfect pitch hear a wrong note and it hurts their ears? I think you may have perfect color pitch, and you’re extra sensitive, because, really, Barbara, I didn’t even notice that rug.” He was right. Some colors have all the powers for me that a cookie had for Marcel Proust. Have I read Proust? David says when asked that question we should always answer, “Well, not in English.” I haven’t read Proust, but I’ve read about his magic cookie and the transporting powers of our senses.
My mother loved color. She said, “When you shop, don’t flip through all the dresses —just glance over the whole rack and only look at the ones that catch your eye.”
In other words, it’s the color that counts.
She always dressed me in red. Here I am in a red jumper—but look at my shoes.
That famous painter, Winston Churchill, said this about color; “I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.”
I used to agree; Brown was boring and even depressing. I keep two water jars on my drawing table to rinse my pens and brushes—one for the reds and one for the greens and blues. I hate the muddy greenish brown you get when you mix too many colors.
I once spent the summer in a house that was all brown–brown rug, brown walls, brown imitation marble kitchen counters. The sun never came out, it was rainy and chilly and I wore the same ratty blue sweater every day. I thought it was the fault of all that brown until I remembered that it was the summer my grandmother died and oh yeah, I was in mourning.
But then I had a dream of a beautiful rich brown–yes, a dream that was just about a color—brown with a lot of red and gold flecks, and tiny green sprouts springing from it. It was gorgeous. It woke me up to the glories of brown. It’s all the colors together in various combinations. It’s the earth, birthplace of so many good things.
Then along came Molly Louise, my granddaughter. After generations of only blue, green or gray eyes in our family, hers are a deep luminous brown. Can you be sparkly and velvety at the same time?
I will never speak ill of Brown again. Hazel, chestnut, umber, sepia, sienna, cocoa, fawn, bronze, amber, auburn, russet, mahogany; I love them all.
Did I mention my mother’s maiden name is Brown?
Oh, yes, and chocolate.
In the house at the top Brown plays a supporting role–bringing out the reds and greens. Here’s Brown as the star of the show.
This is one of my favorite drawings because it covers many of my obsessions; architecture, in particular Beaux Arts, New York City, baseball, the Yankees,(that’s Babe Ruth) animals, angels. Well, those ladies cavorting on the roof don’t have wings, but they might be angels. I put then there to fill an empty space then decided they were too prominent so I shaded them. There are always decisions to be made and I never plan ahead beyond a vague pencil sketch. I like to let a picture evolve; sometimes there are nice surprises and sometimes there are disasters. I never know. Does my perspective look a little off? My Dad once said to me, “I like how you get things a little wonky,”
The Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo stands at the head of Astor Court, a series of Beaux-Arts pavilions surrounding the sea lion pool. The red brick buildings are adorned with sculpture to tell who lives inside. This was the original zoo, opened in 1906. It was progressive for its time but they’ve learned a lot since then about caring for wild creatures and the big animals have since moved to more commodious quarters.
I’ve spent some of my happiest hours here, starting with my fifth birthday party. That was back in the day when you just threw a gang of kids in the car and took off. Mom stowed the cake in the bottom of Alan’s stroller.
The years passed and Arthur and I took our own kids to the zoo.We always went early-arriving as the gates opened. We liked it best in winter, especially when it was really nasty out and nobody else came. The animals seemed glad to see us. Once a sandhill crane came right up to us and rubbed his head on the bars as if he were asking for a scratch. And as we entered the Sea Bird Aviary this little penguin spotted us from across the pool, dived in, swam to us and popped up as if to say Hello. It was a lovely welcome. That’s my hand in the blue glove. I was tempted to tuck him under my coat and take him home but I didn’t.
I was deep in my bird drawing period in those days and could have spent hours in the World of Birds but Sam, age three, walked out saying, “I seen enough birds.”
Now my kids take their kids to the zoo and the Elephant House is the Zoo Center but sometimes you’ll find an animal there-like this White Rhino. Jessie took this shot and sent it to me–she knows about me and rhinos.
Here’s Teddy making friends with a baby Llama–is he an alpaca?
The zoo is now part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. —saving species all over the world.
Here is their mission statement:
Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: newsroom.wcs.org. Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: +1 (347) 840-1242.
It’s a wonderful place that’s brought me enormous happiness and inspiration.
Yes, I have a hawk on my head. I met this beautiful creature in Cuba. I think her wings must have been clipped and that makes me sad, because she should fly, but I’m grateful to meet her face to face. As she sat on my arm I marveled at her dainty talons. Of course, if I were a mouse I might not find her so winsome.
I’ve been drawing birds for years, and I admire hawks especially. I made this drawing of two osprey as a gift for my grandmother. For years a mating pair made a home and raised their chicks in a tree at her home in Sag Harbor. They disappeared for a while, because of DDT. Then they came back. Thank you, Rachel Carson!
[As I wrote this, spell check changed “a mating” into “amazing”, and that works for me.]
This makes me think of my brother, Rob Swanson, a photographer and former hang glider–I think that’s as close to flying as a human can get. He told me he once came up behind a hawk in flight and startled him badly.
Here’s Rob’s osprey. I feel sorry for the poor fish, but that’s life; the osprey has to feed his family. Rob said, “You know, in the moment before he died, that fish had a chance to view the world in a way he never had before.” I wonder what consolation that was?
For years Rob worked as a photographer for the Burlington Free Press. During the 2016 presidential primaries his shot of a young Bernie Sanders celebrating his victory as mayor of Burlington was on every front page in the nation. Now Rob’s concentrating on birds.
You can see more of Rob’s work at Rob Swanson Photography
When I’m with Rob I’m much more aware of the birds around us. He especially loves to watch turkey vultures soar for hours on thermal air currents just like hang gliders. Or the other way around.
My grandson Teddy said, “I’ve heard bad things abut vultures.” But does he know the vulture’s service to the earth? Did you know that when cholera and other deadly diseases, often found in carrion, pass through the vulture’s body they disappear? Let’s hear it for the Vulture–nature’s sanitation engineer!
I continue to find it amazing that every living thing has a place and a purpose. It takes me to the Bible verse my grandparents took as their motto; Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord, to those that are the called according to His purpose.”
I’ll be writing about 8:28 in the future, about how it offers me great comfort and makes me scratch my head, perplexed, both in the same moment.
Here’s another verse that has sustained me in times of despair; “They shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”
I love these quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a resting place to review the old year and get ready for the new; a time for reflection and remembrance.
I think of my grandfather, Robert Sinclair Swanson, who died on his sixty-eighth birthday, Christmas Day, 1958. I was ten, so I remember it all clearly. We called him PopPop. He had had a heart attack years before and was forced to leave his business and “rest.” Nowadays he’d be given a treadmill and a Fitbit and told to get moving. The forced inactivity was hard on him and even harder on our grandmother.
But that Christmas Day all was well. The whole family met at Uncle Jack’s. There were piles of presents; PopPop always insisted that he be given both a Christmas gift and a birthday gift, but since he was delighted with a ball of string or a new pencil his wishes didn’t strain our budgets. There was birthday cake and singing. He carved the turkey and after dinner plucked the carcass clean, ready for the soup pot, and made packets of white meat and dark for each family to take home for sandwiches. When the day was over and we got in our car to leave, my mother said, “Oh, wait—I didn’t say good night to PopPop,” and she ran back for a quick hug and a thank you for the wonderful day. When we got home the phone was ringing. Mom picked it up and said, before even hanging up,“Bob, get back to Jack’s—your dad’s had a stroke.”
And that was that. He had been sitting with my cousin John on his lap. He made a funny noise that my grandmother at first thought was to amuse John, then he put his head back and was gone. It was sad for us and shocking but a perfect end to a life well-lived.
This is a picture from the day after Christmas the year before that one. Santa had brought my brother Alan a set of trains and PopPop declared himself conductor in chief. You can see he’s in his element with two little boys, my brother Robby and cousin Danny, on his lap and several big boys ready to do his bidding. That’s me in the gray sweater, the boys are Alan’s friends. Where’s Alan? He’s upstairs asking Mom, “When is PopPop going home?”
I recently asked Alan what he remembers about that day. He said, “PopPop was a very grandfatherly grandfather and he loved to do boy things. It was great to watch how he did it all so carefully, putting the tracks together and connecting the engines to the cars. Then we’d start it up, and then we’d stop at the station..start and then stop. It was great. But slow. Eventually you want… well…there are two engines and what if we make them crash?”
Mom was always thankful that she went back to say good-bye on that last night. I think she was also thankful that she never told PopPop about Alan’s question. She just told Alan to be patient. When I look at this picture I see a man having a wonderful time and I’m glad he had those moments. I think Alan’s glad, too.
|Here’s a page from my current project; I’m illustrating my favorite Christmas carols and hope to present them next year. This is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” with the angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.
We’re coming to the end of a year that’s been so hard for so many of us, full of discord and fear for our neighbors, our leaders and the planet, our home
But there have been hard times before this.
I have a Christmas card sent by my grandparents, probably in 1943, in the midst of World War II, as Hitler raged across Europe. The picture on the front is a church window with advent candles on one side and an American flag on the other. Through the window we see the star of Bethlehem. Inside the message has those familiar words from Luke; “For unto us is born this day in the city of David…” and “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory…”
and Private Robert Swanson, U.S. Army.
That was my Dad, drafted that June, age18 years and six weeks.
I hold this card in my hand and feel the weight of all those hopes and fears, also pride, patriotism, faith and sacrifice. Those were hard, dark times.
But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out. They got through their hard times and we’ll get through ours. We’ll learn from our mistakes and try to do better. We’ll work together to seek solutions. I just got an email from Environment New York with a plan to save the bees!
Christmas music is full of words that lift me up and fill my heart with joy. This one especially, because each verse ends with angels singing.
My favorite line is the last;
“Now hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”