Monday, March 31

Nagwan & LACMA

Last week I was asked to take one of the visiting Egyptian scholars from the Villa, Nagwan, to see LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). So, once more I found myself playing guide for another Egyptian visitor, just as I was a couple of years ago during the King Tut exhibit at LACMA. Nagwan is a curator for the Coptic Museum in Cairo (I think by now I've made friends with curators in cities from Alexandria to Luxor) and she was very nice. I amused her with my very bad Arabic, and she was enthralled with the medieval and Renaissance Christian art in LACMA's galleries. She’s a Copt (an Egyptian Christian), so she had fun going from painting to painting identifying saints. I asked her what it was like being a Copt in Egypt, and she just shook her head. Then she asked me if I had heard about the Muslim Brotherhood. (The Muslim Brotherhood is a political organization in Egypt that wants to make the government of Egypt an Islamic government rather than a secular one.) Egyptians can be melodramatic sometimes, but she seemed genuinely afraid that someday the Muslim Brotherhood—a party who openly says if it were in control it would hang the Christians of Egypt up “by their shoes,” as Nagwan put it—would gain power and get its wish. Also during our visit my former boss and Deputy Director of the museum, Nancy, even made a point of saying hello to us and gave Nagwan a book about the history of LACMA. Of course I also took her to the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum there, even though I knew she'd hate it. I was right--she hates contemporary art just as much as I do. We did have fun taking self-portraits in Jeff Koons's "Cracked Egg" exhibit, though (see picture). All in all it was a pretty fun and relaxing afternoon.

Thursday, March 27

The Folly of Human Conceits

**Warning: I'm in a reflective mood at the moment, so proceed to read this posting at your own risk.**

Lately I've been absolutely hooked on a History Channel series called "The Universe." As the title suggests, it's about the universe. I love this program--it seems like the more I learn about space, time, and the universe, the more I feel as if I know nothing and yet still I want to know more. My burgeoning interest in space has been helped along in the past year or so by the three visits I've made to the Griffith Observatory here in L.A. Perched atop the Hollywood hills very close to the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, the Griffith is a space museum and a planetarium in one and it's one of my favorite places in the city. Aside from those explorations, I've also checked out some astronomy websites, like this one which publishes images from the Hubble telescope. In my cyber-wanderings, I also came across an image and a quote by Carl Sagan that is wonderfully thought provoking, simple, and profound all at once.

This image was taken by the Voyager spacecraft as it exited our solar system for the last time. The dot you see in the photo (which has been circled to help your eye find it) is a view of Earth from about 6.4 billion kilometers away. Sagan notes that this dot, obscured in a beam of scattered sunlight, is our home:

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known. ”

So friends, let's deal more kindly with one another, and let's not forget to preserve and cherish our pale blue dot. It's all we've got.

Monday, March 24

California Sunshine

I hope everyone had a happy Easter! Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous day out here in SoCal. Naturally I was working (my schedule is Wed-Sun), but the sunshine outside kept me in high spirits. Since the day was so nice I took the kids on the family “Art Odyssey” tour out to the Villa herb garden to play the “herb garden game” instead of spending the time in the galleries. The kids really enjoyed running around the garden trying to find the herbs that were listed in the ancient Roman recipe I gave them. We gallery teachers also hid some brightly colored Easter eggs in one of our gardens. Inside were scavenger hunt clues people could use to track down a particular work of art in the galleries. I guess they did it last year and people really got a kick out of it.
In spite of the sunshine, I was happy to leave work and head to Eric’s parents’ house for Easter dinner. Eric, who specializes in cooking/roasting/grilling meat, had cooked a huge ham for dinner. As is always the case at a Wells family holiday meal, there was a TON of food. It was nice to hang out and chat for the evening and enjoy the weather. Eric is on his spring break this week, so I’m anticipating a spike in his video gaming hours (mercifully, happening mostly when I’m at work). This afternoon he played a few games of basketball with some of his fellow students and came limping home, tired but triumphant. His team won two of three games.
Today is the only day I have off until this weekend, so instead of running around doing chores like I usually do I went to a movie with a friend. We saw “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day,” which we both really liked. Unfortunately this film is only being released in a limited number of theaters, so most of you who aren’t in L.A. probably aren’t near a theatre where it’s showing. But if you are, check it out! After the movie I treated myself to a leisurely trip to the bookstore and came out with a couple of new books I’m looking forward to reading. Most of the time I avoid the bookstore in favor of the library—I learned long ago that my reading habit far exceeds the capacity of my bookshelves, so the library is a great way to save coin and space—but today I felt like indulging the habit.
As is always the case with days off, today went much too quickly. Ah, well—there’s always this weekend!

Wednesday, March 19

One word: Carpool

This week I paid $3.79 per gallon for gas. I think that about says it all. At this rate, L.A. will soon be seeing those $4 a gallon gas prices all of those news anchors have been warning about. Actually, anything other than regular unleaded is now over $4 at most gas stations around here. One word: carpool. The Getty already has a car pool incentive program in place, but with $4 a gallon gasoline there will be an incentive most people will sure as heck pay attention to. I don’t intend for this to be a introduction into a diatribe on the government, oil companies, and corrupt politics that led to this new stress on my wallet. I just want all of you who are out there where gas prices aren’t quite so bad to appreciate it. Trust me--it could be worse!

So, taking into consideration the cost of gas, I decided to get around on my own two feet on my day off. Now that daylight savings time has returned I’ve been taking advantage of the extra daylight hours to walk around my neighborhood. We live close to a community park, so there are plenty of good sidewalks to take advantage of (not always the case in L.A.). I find it very relaxing to plug into my iPod and hit the pavement. Now that the weather is warming up we are having some beautiful afternoons around here. I even managed to put in a good walk Monday afternoon even though I’m currently suffering from a cold and a sore throat courtesy of Eric (a weak, germ-infested vessel). Copious amounts of honey vanilla chamomile tea and a few restful hours curled up with a book by one of my favorite authors seem to be helping. I did everything short of hosing Eric down with Lysol to avoid getting this stupid cold, but it was hopeless.

Monday, March 10

Onion Rings?

One day last week I brought a sixth grade school group to our last stop on their one hour tour of the museum, themed “Heroes, Gods, and Monsters.” The last stop I planned was a staple on the “HGM” tour—a very well-preserved statue of Heracles (that’s Hercules to all of you Latin speakers). Whether they’ve studied the story of Heracles yet in school or not, most kids are familiar with this hero and his story courtesy of the Disney movie. We had a very good discussion about Heracles wrestling and defeating the Nemean Lion, and I began to answer some final questions. As I was about to wrap things up, one little boy who I had seen start to raise his hand a few times finally raised it high. I called on him. “Why is he naked and where is his pee pee and what are those onion ring things?” The class teachers were standing at the back of the room and they immediately looked anywhere but my direction. Chickens. Just so you know, the part of the question that gave me pause was not the naked question—I get that one all the time. By this time I’ve had so many conversations with strangers about naked guys and missing penises, it doesn’t faze me one wit. What genuinely confused me was the onion rings. I had no idea what the heck he was talking about--maybe he was hungry. After all, it was almost lunchtime. I tried to figure out what he was asking, but he wouldn’t point out what he was talking about. Eventually a student next to me said, in barely a whisper, “Between his legs.” Oh. Realization dawned and I said, very matter-of-factly, “He’s naked to show that he is a hero, his pee pee got knocked off, and THAT is hair. Time for lunch!” The look on that poor sixth grader’s face when I said “hair” told me that puberty was going to come as a very nasty shock to him.
Geez, and I thought the naked question could get dicey sometimes. At least that is easily explained: Nudity (that’s how we describe it in art history—“naked” has, well, connotations) in Classical art means something. It means you’re probably looking at a hero, a god, or an athlete. It also was a way artists showed off the beauty of the male body, which was in their mind the most beautiful form the human body could take. Sorry, ladies—you are, in the words of an ancient Greek author, “deformed males.” Anyhow, pubic hair is another issue altogether, especially when you’re talking with a sixth grader who obviously has no idea of the pubescent horrors that await him.
Teachers accompanying school groups are always very worried that the students are going to ask about the nudity—God forbid kids should ask about what’s right in front of them. I’ve found if you answer the question matter-of-factly and don’t act shocked or scandalized, the kids don’t think much of it. Besides, I would never want to discourage a student from asking a question by making them feel as if they’ve done something wrong by asking about something they’re genuinely confused about. Just this Friday another gallery teacher got an email from a teacher about a student who had drawn a sketch of a nude on the project she had them work on in the museum. The email asked our gallery teacher if she had given the student permission to draw an anatomically correct male. Our teacher responded, saying the student was likely just drawing what he saw in the museum and yes, she had told the students to use the art they had seen as inspiration for their drawing project, although she did not specifically suggest they draw a nude. The response I think this narrow-minded educator deserved is much more to the point:
Dear Teacher,
Grow UP!

Monday, March 3

The Garden Path

This is the last day of my monthly three day weekend. I charged out of the office so fast on Friday I left an Amber-shaped hole in the wall as I left. Earlier this week, on Wednesday, we had two gallery teachers out sick on the same day. There are only four of us, so that meant half of our force was decimated. So, it was a crazy morning, but it also turned out to be one of the most beautiful sunny days we’ve had here in awhile. After lunch, I asked one of the other teachers if she’d like to go for a walk in the gardens to take advantage of the weather, and she thought it was a great idea. We ended up playing hookie for a good hour and a half, wandering through the gardens, chatting about nothing in particular, and soaking up the sun. It was a relaxing diversion after the craziness of the morning. The Villa's gardens are awesome. I can't believe rich people get something like that all to themselves.

These days aside from the usual teaching I'm also simultaneously preparing for a staff ed. session on Greco-Roman Egypt, teaching the UCLA ancient Egyptian religion class, and trying to study for the exhibit opening next week called Color of Life. These changing exhibits are fun to have at the museum, but it's a little stressful when they first arrive and you have only a short amount of time to learn enough about it to teach and discuss it intelligently with the public. This new exhibit features polychrome (multi-colored) sculpture from the ancient world through contemporary art. The academic premise of the show isn't very sound, but I think the public will like it.
Now that I have the exhibition catalogue for this show, I've been reading through it. Looking at some of the objects, I'm really wondering how we're going to handle any school groups we might bring into those galleries. Nudity is one thing--I can handle that--but one object, the Anatomical Venus , is quite another. It looks like a serial killer has carefully and dramatically exposed her innards--and she's pregnant. Disturbing. She was a wax model originally created in the 18th century CE to be a scientific, anatomically correct model for doctors to study. As such, she can be opened and closed. Her face is truly jarring--she looks dead or drugged or both. Even though the Venus is the stuff of nightmares, I prefer dealing with that wax model compared to contemporary art because at least the Anatomical Venus has an historical context. For the most part I loathe contemporary art, but it appears sometime soon I'm going to have to find something good and/or interesting to say about it because this show contains contemporary sculpture too.
I just realized yesterday that the 28th of February, came and went and I didn’t even think about the fact that it marked five years since Eric and I have been together. Of course we’ve only been married a year, but if we’re counting time served (and I do) it’s been five. With a little luck and careful application of the right drugs, I think we just might go another five.