Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

The Greatest Love Duets & Arias of Opera

What better time spent on this Valentine’s Day than to bathe in the gifts of the operatic canon. I’ve selected only one from a given composer (i.e. we know Puccini or Verdi alone could fill an ENTIRE list). I tried to balance obvious choices with some less so. Surprisingly, none from Mozart inspired inclusion here.

Some embody a new or even first love (such as the Louise and Rigoletto selections), others a more mature, spiritual love (such as Tristan und Isolde and Die Tote Stadt). I’ve included translation excerpts in a few instances, where the text is particularly purple and ripe. I hope you enjoy this collection.

And, by all means, share your favorites, or any I missed in the comments. it was a challenge to narrow down, as you can imagine. Admittedly, the offerings are much more lean in the baroque realm, and none from modern opera <sad trombone>. And, yes, it’s terribly heteronormative, but alas, if you’re like me, you can project all sorts of fantasies onto these stories too ;-P

So, draw up a warm bubble bath, light some candles, get a great view of the stars, hop in the sack, and push <PLAY!>…

Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein (duet)
Arabella (Richard Strauss)

Depuis le jour
Louise (Charpentier)

“Since the day I gave myself my destiny seems all flower-strewn. I think I’m dreaming under a fairy sky my soul still intoxicated by your first kiss! What a beautiful life! My dream wasn’t a dream! / Oh! I’m so happy! Love is spreading its wings over me! In the garden of my heart sings a new joy!”

Ja vas lyublyu
Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky)

O Nuit Divresse (duet)
Les Troyens (Berlioz)

“Endlessly intoxicating night of ecstasy.”

Signore ascolta
Turandot (Puccini)

“Her heart is breaking! My, how long I’ve walked with your name in my soulWith your name on these lips!”

Gluck das mir verblieb (duet)
Die tote Stadt (Erich Wolfgang Korngold)

“Joy, that near to me remains, come to me, my true love. Night sinks into the grove, you are my light and day. Anxiously beats heart on heart. Hope itself soars heavenward.”

Mild Und Leise
Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

“Don’t you see it? Brighter and brighter how he shines, illuminated by stars rises high? …(It) sounds out of him, invades me, swings upwards, sweetly resonating rings around me? …be engulfed — unconscious — supreme delight!”

A te o cara (duet)
I Puritani (Bellini)

Caro Nome
Rigoletto (Verdi)

“Sweet name, you who made my heart throb for the first time, you must always remind me the pleasures of love! My desire will fly to you on the wings of thought and my last breath will be yours, my beloved.”

A levé toi
Romeo et Juliette (Gounod)

Dove sei
Rodelinda (Handel)

Signore deh non partire
L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Claudio Monteverdi)

Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix
Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns)

“My heart opens itself to your voice.”

Any glaring omissions, or ones you would like to add in the comments? Fire away!

The Cultural Phenom of the National “Diva”

Thanks (again) to Vinyl Divas, I discovered the singer “Gohar Gasparyan.” I youtubed her, simply because her name was so eccentric, and her mug not exactly the prettiest. I immediately smelled a camp classic discovery. Well, I was both wrong, and right. Turns out, she was very lovingly considered “The Armenian Nightingale.” It struck me that each country or culture seems to have their divathe one considered to be the greatest, and to inspire and somehow embody the spirit of the nation.

Here’s a look at some of the biggies. Some of these names immediately came to mind, but a few took a little more digging. Some are genuine classics, and a couple (ie: Gohar and Yma) have one foot firmly (if unintentionally) in camp. One of the qualifications of a true diva is a title, nickname, or single name (ala Cher), as most all of them prove. Pathos is a requirement, and often a tragic life and/or death the deal maker for that highest rung of fame in posterity. In some cases, an operatic diva reaches this highest level of mainstream public adoration, but only in those cases did I include them here. Of course, the diva phenom and the gay sensibility are inextricably linked, and although that is surely part of my own inspiration, it is not the focus here.


Gohar Gasparyan (’24 – ’07): “The Armenian Nightingale”

“In ’48, she migrated to Soviet Armenia, along with hundreds of thousands of other Armenians from the Middle East.” Upon her death, she was billed “The greatest master of the Armenian Opera Theater, the People’s Artist of the USSR, the hero of the Social Labor, the National Artist of Armenia, the Mesrop Mashtots order-bearer, and the professor of the Yerevan State Konservatory after Komitas.” In her prime, she displayed beautiful control and range:

This video ofO beau pays from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots shows she had the chops, but no technical or interpretive greatness in western opera to qualify her as a true operatic legend outside of Armenian rep. She delivers priceless camp at 7:05, with a shameless peekaboo that will have you rolling! As with all true divas, she was still worshipped in her later years, when her voice and body were in decline, because her heart and expressivity were at their most potent (the accidental whistle on her “sh” consonants is precious).

Continuing Discovering National Divas —>

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

Noone needs to be told how dire the state of emergency is in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake on January 12th. Although there are surely many disaster-response organizations doing good work, my familiarity with Doctors Without Borders encourages me to share this link. Through my friend John, who is in the DWB network, I know that this organization does invaluable work in responding to such disasters. Click on this banner image below to make a donation!:

Read the most recent SF Chron article: Haiti aid flow grows; feuds over reaching victims. The death toll may reach 200,000. Although no less tragic, that’s nearly two times the civilian death toll in the six year war in Iraq.

My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved-ones, and to the spirit of those whose lives were cut mercilessly short. I offer up the prayer and plea that the rescue and relief efforts be able to reach those in need as soon as possible.

Vancouver Olympic Schwag: Can You Resist?

One of my most curious and amusing memories of attending the Salt Lake Games with friends was the fast emerging and potent addiction to Olympic schwag, particularly collectible pins! I remember running from shop to shop, table to table, in Park City, seeking the most stylish, most beautiful, most perfect pin(s).

I liken it to going to an auction, or taking part in a raffle. Somehow you get roped up into thinking you MUST have the targeted item, and that your very happiness depends on it. Thankfully, I’ve enjoyed wearing the pins I purchased then to later skating events, and around big competition time, so they proved themselves worthy purchases.

I thought I’d share a little taste of this addictive smack with you! I have no association with the Vancouver 2010 Store, and am only sharing these images and links for your enjoyment. Just think of me as your schwag enabler.

Figure Skating Pins

These two are available here and here. Other figure skating pins include: hanging skates, glitter skatesladies’ spiral against Canadian maple leaflayback spin, Mukmuk mascot on Zamboni (hilarious!)Quatchi & Miga mascotspairs’ silhouette (garish), dimensional skating figure (tacky!). And, if you just MUST have an Olympic “Happy Easter” skating pin, it is available here.

jcm’s Favorite Vancouver 2010 Pins

This left pin features an Aboriginal salmon illustration. This is part of a beautiful, larger series. To be honest, I had no idea there was Aboriginal culture or history in Canada. I only knew of it in Australia. Whodathunkit? These pins ALSO educate!

The right pin has a cut-out of the Paralympic logo in silver. I actually prefer the Paralympic logo and pins to the Vancouver Olympic logo and pins. I also like the looks of this simple pin quite a bit, and for other sports, this Canadian maple leaf ski pin is the coolest!

More Figure Skating Schwag

Other figures skating schwag that is not yet out of stock including this hot pink luggage tag, a rather drab looking magnet, and poster.

Even though Christmas is past, I’ll be placing my order for the top left skating pin, and likely the Aboriginal salmon pin today! You see any favs on the store site?

The Best Things in Life Are Free

(No, contrary to this title, this is not a post about Janet Jackson’s 92 hit.)

I have since discovered that in the blogosphere this is hardly news, but as we sat on our couch, and watched one of our weekly favs, CBS Sunday Morning, it was news to us. I was quickly swept away by the warm, fuzzy possibilities of it…a vision of society rapt in mutual love and celebration. It was as if the participating cities were joining together in one big Coke-like I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing “Be-In”. Being an idealist, this is just the sort of thing that tickles my fancy (or ivories…read on).

San Francisco had hearts, Cincinnati pigs, and Chicago cows. I have always supported and been drawn to these sorts of large scale, outdoor, public art exhibits…but this takes the cake! Leave it to the Brits to show us up, and come up with the winningest idea.

The What

Introducing: Play Me, I’m Yours, a pretty radical idea…one part interactive art, one part sociology study, in the form of a fleet of street pianos. I’ll let the well phrased deets (in quotes) from the Cow Pianowebsite speak for themselves.:

“Street pianos are appearing in cities across the world. Located in skate parks, industrial estates, laundrettes, precincts, bus shelters and train stations, outside pubs and football grounds, the pianos are for any member of the public to enjoy and claim ownership of. Who plays them and how long they remain is up to each community.”

The Why

“The pianos act as sculptural, musical, blank canvases that become a reflection of the communities they are embedded into. Many pianos are personalised and decorated. Questioning the ownership and rules of public space ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ is a provocation, inviting the public to engage with, activate and take ownership of their urban environment.”

It’s no surprise that placing a free-to-use musical instrument smack dab in the middle of a busy civic setting is a welcome gift that can be a balm to soothe (or annoy the periodic grump), a spark to connect, or even just a momentary diversion to amuse. It all depends on the musical offering of the player…the receptiveness of (a) likely passer(s)-by…and the mingling of their two or more spirits! Or, a lone player on an empty street can enjoy a rare stolen moment.

The Where

“The first pianos appeared in March 2008 when 15 pianos were placed into the streets of Birmingham, UK.”

More recent sites have included Sao Paolo (’08), Sydney (’09), Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk, England: ’09)…and currently London (check out the piano map)!

Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty Images

Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty Images

The Who

It is an arts project by Luke Jerram, a self-described “colour blind installation artist, who fuses his artistic sculptural practice with his scientific and perceptual studies.”

Lighting London on Fire: More Proof

I now leave you with this classic, which Londoners rightfully own.:

Hopefully the next stop will be SF, so we can all gather ‘round and sing “Go West”, by the Village People. What song, in your current hometown would you most want to hear/play/sing-along with on a street piano?

Audience Etiquette: Some Prudent, Some Dull

In his weekly online Music News column, Janos Gereben, at the San Francisco Classical Voice, “The Go-To Place for Classical Music in the Bay Area”, just posted the following editorial. It provoked quite a bit of reaction: both laughter and debate. I posted a response to item 3, which in turn elicited further banter. See my comments below, and other’s responses at the bottom of the Music News link.

Polite Suggestions for Audience Behavior

Benedict Nightingale, theater critic of the Times of London, pulled together the top 15 rules of etiquette, and we offer just eight of them it would behoove concert and opera audiences to observe:

A Proper Audience Member* Never whisper, let alone talk, during the performance. Don’t hum along with songs, even if they’re by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

* Always apologize if someone is forced to stand as you make your way to your seat, but if you are late (and you should never be) reduce your apology to a quick, sorrowful nod.

* Don’t clap actors’ entrances, even if they’re famous, or their exits, even if they make them in the swaggering style that half-invites applause. All this is dated and naff and makes you look like a celeb-hungry prat.

* Have nothing to do with standing ovations unless a performance is close to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In America such ovations have become meaningless and, if they don’t occur, they indicate disapproval. We don’t want them to become regular here.

* No need to dress up, let alone wear dinner jackets and evening gowns, as was once the case. But try to be a little better dressed than the critics, who often look as they’ve been grabbed from a washing machine that hasn’t yet been turned on.

* If you see a sleeping critic don’t necessarily wake him or her up, as guilt is likely to ensure that his or her review is more favorable than it might otherwise be. But don’t let him sleep too deeply or he may (and this has happened) crash into or across an aisle, causing injury to the innocent.

* If critics irk you by scratching notes on a pad, be forgiving. They’re only doing their jobs. And virtually all critics accept that lighted pens, once common, are now verboten. If you see a critic turn one on, whisper something tactfully germane, like “you blind sod, switch it off.”

* If the child you’re bringing is chatty, gag it. If it’s fidgety, handcuff and shackle it. And if you’re altruistic enough to bring a school party to a Shakespeare matinée, threaten potential wrongdoers with tickets to the next revival of Timon of Athens, to be followed by a ten-page essay on the ethics of Apemantus.

jumping clapping man says:

June 30, 2009

“Although the “Polite Suggestions” are clearly as much tongue-in-cheek as they are real, I wholeheartedly disagree with item 3: “Don’t clap actors’ entrances, even if they’re famous, or their exits, even if they make them in the swaggering style that half-invites applause.”

In Netrebko’s 3rd performance of Traviata at SFO she got some applause as she sexily lifted her leg in the back seat of the 1929 Chrysler, and made her first stage entrance. I thought it was an appropriately quick nod to a much loved diva returning after a too long hiatus, and given the glamour of her arrival, via limo, in the right, festive spirit (she is, after all arriving at a party).

I always crave a bit of the unabashed audience passion shown so overtly at La Scala, and even at times at Salzburg (ie: disgust at Mortier’s “Fledermaus”, in the form of whistles and storming out of the house). A too polite audience is also a dull, status quo one. I want electricity! No, I don’t want lots of music or singing to be drowned out by applause, but supportive and brief applause can be a lovely accent to a vibrant performance…and a lovely nudge to a diva/divo from a knowledgeable and appreciative audience to really “bring it”! Don’t we want at least a dose of the unhinged adoration and excitement of the Golden Age? Well, the audience plays a role in that as well.

The beginning of the live recording of “Scuoti quella fronda” (the Flower Duet from Madama Butterfly) by Price and Horne, from their LIVE from the Met concert is accompanied by an enthusiastic outburst of applause from the audience. I have become so used to the performer/audience connection reflected in that recording that I always miss that when I hear another rendition of the duet. Yes, it was a concert, not a full stage production, but it really ignited the moment.”

Barnyard Golf or Love Making?

After my City Grazing double-take last week, I wouldn’t have guessed another groovy neighborhood discovery was lurking so closely. Having lived in my hood for about 15 years, it’s rare to come upon something entirely fresh, within a few block radius…let alone something on a grand scale. The northeastern tip of Golden Gate Park alone is rife with history, but I thought I had covered pretty much every path. El wrongo!!!

Well, around noon today, I headed out on my lunch break to practice a monologue for my callback in the out-of-doors. What other show is better suited to a rustic park setting than Hair? Me thinks there isn’t one. I knew it would help put me in the right state of mind, and help my characterization of hippie leader Berger take flight (hopefully).

I wandered onto a narrow dirt path just off the paved walking path winding down from the intersection of Fulton and Stanyan, and hung my jacket on a eucalyptus branch. Just as I was preparing to start, I discovered someone sitting quietly on a nearby bench and writing, so I continued my search for an empty glade. Our homeless neighbors also love this region of the park, so I figured I would likely have a few of them as an audience. Maybe they could even offer some hippie tips?

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

Photo by Octoferret/Flickr

I walked up a dirt path that branched off to the left of the main path, where I had never gone before. It’s always looked like a vehicle path for the park worker’s use. As I came around the bend, a stone wall and some steps became visible. Once even closer, a huge cement courtyard opened up before me, with a giant 20-or-so foot wide horse sculpture on the opposing wall, formed by a natural cross-sectioned hillside about 50 feet high. The inside of the horse sculpture had crumbled away, leaving only the outer features and details. This gave it a real feeling of antiquity…although, I was pretty sure I hadn’t just uncovered a lost ruin.

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Horse Sculpture: Before & After

Frankly, it was the perfect site not only for my personal run-through but would be just right for an entire production of Hair (I’ll get on that)! It became clear from multiple vertical metal rods (and the horse sculpture sealed the deal) that it was for horseshoeing. However, it was in such shambles and disrepair, it felt haunted. I could easily imagine countless romantic trysts, late-night drug-induced adventures, and homeless encampments here. In fact it’s been counted as the Number 18, in “Best Place to Make Love in Golden Gate Park”. A “For Screamers” category is even included…although this locale didn’t make that list.

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

Horseshoe Pits: 1930s

These “Horseshoe Pits“, as they are called are also on the National Register of Historic Places in San Francisco, noted with the year 1922. And, to be exact, there are 16 pitching courts of this largely out-of-fashion game, also referred to by the nickname “Barnyard Golf”. I’m hopeful for the sake of this landmark alone that there is a burgeoning horseshoe following. The Golden Gate Horseshoe Club website reveals that this court is used for periodic special annual events, but most likely not regular weekly or even monthly use. Since there is a well kept, grassy horseshoe court down near Stern Grove, it doesn’t appear the city can fill up and upkeep more than one court, with its largely aging fan-base.

Aerial MapNot surprisingly, I discovered online that a skate park had been proposed for this area, a perfect usage of the space, in my mind. But, apparently the poor site lines, thanks to surrounding hills and trees, were deemed less than ideal, since it would be inhabited largely by youth. That park has instead been (or will be) built at an Upper Haight, Waller Street site.

The book “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories” by Chris Pollack & Erica Katz helped the big picture of this locale’s history come together. The courts construction was in 1926 (later than the National Register record above), and the GGHC tended the courts. Previously it was a rock quarry, from which San Francisco streets were built.

The Horseshoe PitcherThe two concrete bas-reliefs, created on the face of the largest rock formations, include the horse, but also “The Horseshoe Pitcher”, a sculpture by Jesse S. “Vet” Anderson, who was a member of the GGHC, and a cartoonist and caricaturist for the Detroit Free Press.

“The sculptures had been overgrown and long forgotten but were revealed in 1968 by Youth Corps volunteers…The hill above the courts rises 384 feet above sea level to what was once a 100,000-gallon water reservoir that doubled as an aquatic garden for irrigating the Panhandle and nearby park areas. This hill has been known by many names: Mt. Lick, Plateau Hill, and Reservoir Hill.

The site was further developed, in 1934, as a Depression-era Works Progress Administration venture; hand-hewn stonework was laid to define the court area. The work included a raised gallery for spectators and a star lined with large red rustic boulders from Conservatory Drive East.”

Hmmm, a game of Barnyard Golf anyone?! I’ll leave the GG Park lovemaking to you and yours!

Four-Legged Environmentalists

Last week, on my way to the Geary Ave. post office to drop off my Q2 tax payment my eyes beheld the strangest sight. I checked my rear view mirror, then stopped the car mid-street, and backed up a bit to get another look.

On the west facing hillside of Lone Mountain, on the U of SF grounds, I spied a tribe of goats. Had I not gotten enough sleep? Did someone slip me something in my morning juice? Was this some kind of prank played by outgoing graduates? Was it the experimental work of some progressive agriculture program at the school? No, no, no…and no.

City Grazing

What I beheld was city grazing. This tribe appeared to be about 20 goats or so in size…with plenty of cute little kids kickin’ around. Thanks to a temporary sign posted near the locale, with their name on it, the truth was revealed. When I returned home I looked up their website, and discovered a business that provides goats for beneficial purposes, primarily weed control in city settings. Amusingly, they’ve also recently been referred to as “Rent-a-Goat”.

Apparently, according to their website, we have the City of Denver to thank for their trailblazing work in the field of raising city goats for these purposes. And, the most compelling benefit of using goats for this is that “fifty goats average 1/2 acre per 8 hour day”. WOW!!!

City Grazing Sign

Here are some other key benefits noted on their website:

Why use goats in San Francisco?
There have been various approaches to weed control, none fully satisfactory nor efficient. Using goats is an efficient, holistic, environmentally healthy approach to weed control allowing us to restore degraded land in a shorter period of time.

How do goats help restore natural areas?
Using goats is based on a natural process, like bison grazing the prairie. Goats eat dried and fresh above- ground plant parts. They break plants down into digestible pieces by their saliva. Their hoof action also tramples plants into smaller pieces. Plants slowly decompose releasing nutrients into the soil. Goats also work desired seeds into soil with their hooves. Goats can restore large areas in a shorter time period than people.

Why is using goats environmentally healthy?
Grazing is an alternative to mowing and herbicides. Goats eat plants, eliminating debris and recycling nutrient elements. They maintain beneficial soil organisms. Goats exclude the use of heavy equipment minimizing soil disturbance and compaction. Goats trample dried brush, create a natural mulch and add organic matter to the soil.

Goats are best used in sensitive areas near waterways, rivers and lakes where chemicals are prohibited; on steep embankments difficult for people; on ditches, canals, rocky and wooded areas where mowing or spraying are difficult or inadvisable; in large areas where manpower is unavailable and costly; on very degraded land where human efforts would take years.

Hand weeding can disturb soil, bringing more weed seeds to the surface; creates plant debris that goes to landfills; extracts nutrients from the soil; disturbs soil organisms; and is labor intensive. Mowing uses heavy equipment that compacts soil; creates air pollution; leaves stubble, does not eliminate plant. Herbicides may contaminate ground water; may kill or disturb soil organisms; do not allow seeding at same time; may damage desired vegetation; may have risk to personnel.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

SO, keep you eyes glued for city grazing in your hood!

History in the ‘Nati

An Outing of Conscience

This post is a sequel to Art in the ‘Nati, and covers my continuing adventures in Cincinnati over Easter weekend.

Exterior: Travertine DetailSomehow, through over five years of regular visits to the “Queen City” I failed to get to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It opened in August ’04, on a very prominent site, clearly visible as you speed down I71, through downtown Cincy. Each time I made that drive I would bookmark the Center for a visit “next time”. Finally, “next time” arrived…and the
Center became the second stop on my
touristic adventure.

It is billed as part of a new group of “museums of conscience,” along with the Museum of Tolerance, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Civil Rights Museum. The exterior features rough travertine stone from Tivoli, Italy on the east and west faces of the building, and copper panels on the north and south (from Wikipedia). The rough hewn nature of the travertine feels very akin to the stories held inside.

Annie at the CenterSadly, because of the debt the museum has accrued, and low attendance, a dark cloud seems to hang over it. None of my Cincinnati family or friends had really said anything unsolicited about it, and certainly didn’t tout it as must-see. Despite that, I was determined to experience it. I headed down with my folks, sis and her children, Annie and Brian. I was interested to also see this history through their younger eyes as well.

It is positioned in the perfect spot, historically and conceptually…on the banks of the Ohio River, on the Ohio side, within plain view of Kentucky (Covington). As you enter the Center, you have the view that former slaves had as they set foot into their newfound freedom. There is a sinuous “river” crafted out of flat slate rocks, which you walk cross while entering the Center, symbolically crossing into freedom yourself. The “river” rocks are a blueish-grey tone, so the color aids in the illusion. The same undulation seen in this “river” is echoed in the walls of the building itself, also illustrating the fields and rivers that were common on the road to freedom.

The audio tour introduces you quickly to the unforgettable story of William and Ellen Craft, a slave couple who escaped to freedom due to his cunning and her daring. Thanks to her light skin, she was able to pass as a male slave owner, also feigning injury by putting her right hand in a sling to avoid having to write or sign anything (since she didn’t have those skills). Their creative hoax paid off. I hadn’t remembered being taught about this in grade school. A “tranny/drag” ex-slave! I should have known cross-dressing was one road to freedom. Here are further details on their story, and other cross-dressing successes.

img_3848The giant The RagGonNon quilt by Aminah Robinson is the first featured piece in the collection. It tells the story of the slave trade, from Africa to America. The button and shell eyes on some of the sewn slave faces were haunting…like something out of Coraline.

Slave Pen: A Horrific Reminder

The principal artifact of the museum is a slave pen (built in 1830), which was discovered on a farm in Mason County, Kentucky. A larger tobacco barn had been built around it in the early 20th century, hiding it from plain view and giving it the appearance of any other barn. Thankfully, it protected the pen from the elements for a century. Not, surprisingly, there are apparently hundreds of log (slave) pens like this hidden in tobacco barns all over the country. See this fascinating step-by-step of how it was dismantled and reassembled.

The cramped one-room pen tells the story of a generation of slaves who were kept inside, on Captain John W. Anderson’s farm, waiting to be taken to the auction block.

Slave Pen, from Mason County, OH

Approaching the pen, and walking through its belly is a haunting journey. With the help of the audio tour, you not only imagine the horrors that occurred here, but hear stories from both a slaves’ perspective, as well as the slave traders’. It certainly called to mind my visit to l’île de N’gor (“Slave Island”) in Senegal.

“The pen was described by an ex-slave as “worse than a dog hole.” Men were chained to the straw-covered floor of the second story, while the women, charged with taking care of the men and cooking, were free to move about the house. Human waste and garbage would fall to the kitchen from cracks in the upper floor, and the close quarters led to outbreaks of cholera…the men were tethered two-by-two to the central chain by shorter shackles that allowed them only to sit or lie down. The smothering sense of confinement, barely breathable air and lack of privacy drove some mad.” (By Marilyn Bauer, The Cincinnati Enquirer)

Road to Freedom

Fortunately, after experiencing the pen, we experienced some levity and hope in the form of a movie, previewed in the beautiful theatre. It is an artistic vision portraying the road from slavery to freedom, rendered by three different artists. The first was an abstract, mostly pastel rendering of themes of oppression and darkness, moving into soaring freedom and colorful light. The second was a more literal story-telling of a journey to freedom. This artist actually partially erased her drawings to create each animated frame, as well as a sense of almost blurred movement. She used primarily deep browns and blacks, to create a stark palette, but with some warmth and hope. The faces she depicted were rich in character and stories, but exhausted, and seemingly hopeless.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted.”
— Harriet Tubman

Levi Coffin's WagonIn ESCAPE!, an exhibit which needs no real explanation, we learned about the brave abolitionists, and methods to freedom. An Oskar Schindler-like man named Levi Coffin created a wagon with a false bottom, which allowed him to hide multiple slaves under supplies.

Karen Heyl SculptureWe enjoyed multiple marble wall sculptures by Karen Heyl, the same artist that at the beginning of her career created The Wall of Creation, a hundred-plus foot wide sculpture in Good Shepherd Parish, where my folks and grandpa belong. I love work like this that allows light to play along its surfaces, and create the rather subtle definition.

I was very pleasantly surprised that the museum also pays tribute to all efforts to “abolish human enslavement and secure freedom for all people.” So, there are inspiring references to and portraits of Harvey Milk, Gandhi and other heroes of justice and champions of civil rights movements on the top floor of the museum.

Critics of the Center (and there are many) feel that a more affordable, existing building should have been re-fashioned to serve as its location. Also, the public money the Center has received has come under fire, as there are MANY other sites that educate about the Underground Railroad that survive without that aid, and yet are now threatened by the existence of this Center. I hope the qualms will subside over time, and that the Center will not only survive, but come to thrive, as this is a story that NEEDS to be told, and has potential for more impact in this civic setting!

The bonds are broken!