Friday, October 31

Halloween Poetry

A couple of years ago, I was going through old papers and such, and I ran across a very old green spiral notebook with one of my early literary efforts preserved in it. It's not Shakespeare, but it made me smile--in third grade my homeroom was classroom #3, and my class was known for being a bit rowdy. I reproduce the poem here, just as I found it. Hopefully it will make you smile too... Happy Halloween!
The Ghost of Classroom #3
by Amber Myers (age 8)
There’s a tapping at the window,
A moaning at the door,
And something ectoplasmic
Is sticking to the floor…
But don’t panic, don’t be frightened
By anything you see,
It’s really nothing special,
Just the Ghost of Classroom Three.
It doesn’t come out often,
Just once or twice a year,
It wanders around then,
It disappears.
Sometimes it sits at the desk,
Marking books continuously,
But it’s really nothing special,
Just the Ghost of Classroom Three.
Some say it was a teacher
Who met a nasty end,
She had a class of nasty kids
That drove her around the bend.
And sometimes there is screaming,
And it weeps dismally,
But it’s really nothing special,
Just the Ghost of Classroom Three.
She swore she’d come and haunt them,
But they laughed and didn’t care,
And now she haunts the cupboard
(Which otherwise is bare).
And sometimes there are others,
A whole classroom full you can see,
Doing endless homework
For the Ghost of Classroom Three.
Some say it isn’t possible,
And it’s just a story,
But classroom three you must admit,
Feels different, sort of eerie.
And once upon the blackboard,
Someone wrote mysteriously,
‘I’ll haunt this school forever,
I’m the Ghost of Classroom Three.’
There’s a rapping at the desktops,
A rattling at the door,
And something is trying to get out
Of the teacher’s locked desk drawer.
But don’t panic, don’t be frightened,
Don’t scare too easily,
It’s really nothing special,
Just the Ghost of Classroom Three.

Wednesday, October 29

Orpheus, Hetairai, and Sirens, Oh My...

There is an interesting new exhibition opening at the Villa this week. While the subject of the Getty Villa's collection is Classical antiquity, this new exhibit features contemporary art. This is a particularly interesting and challenging teaching opportunity for me because I am by no means a fan of contemporary art. The exhibition I'm referring to is "Jim Dine: Poet Singing (The Flowering Sheets)." The concept of the exhibit is that Jim Dine, a contemporary artist, created an exhibit after being inspired by objects in the Getty Villa's collection. In particular, he took his inspiration from "Poet as Orpheus with Two Sirens," "Statuette of a Dancer," and "Statuette of a Dancer Playing the Lyre."

All of these are ancient Greek artifacts made out of terracotta and are believed to come from southern Italy. The Orpheus and sirens are large, semi life-sized figures, but both dancer statuettes are less than twelve inches high. All of them at one time were brightly painted. The dancer figurines were possibly votive offerings to deities or funerary offerings to the deceased. The Orpheus group, according to the Getty, came from an ancient Greek burial in southern Italy. It has been suggested that the Orpheus figure is the deceased dressed as Orpheus, thus identifying himself with Orpheus's musical abilities and--maybe more likely--Orpheus's return from the gloomy Underworld. (Orpheus was one of a very few ancient Greek heroes that returned to earth after venturing into the Underworld.) Sirens, of course, are strange bird-woman creatures of Greek mythology who sing a "siren song." The sirens' song was so beautiful it was said to hypnotically seduce sailors and lure them to their deaths by causing them to shipwreck on the rocky shores of the island on which the sirens perched.

Statuette of a Dancer
Greek, 330-200 BCE

Statuette of a Dancer Playing the Lyre
Greek, 200-100 BCE

Poet as Orpheus with Two Sirens,
Greek, 350-300 BCE

This Orpheus group evoked in Dine's mind the idea of a poet surrounded by his muses. (This was his creative inspiration, but remember sirens are not muses.) The dancers took the place of the sirens surrounding the poet, and from that image he created his own artistic arrangement. You can see the images of his work installed at the Villa and a short film of Dine discussing the project here. Dine's artistic vision manifests itself in four eight-foot-high painted wood female figures modeled on the dancer figurines arranged around a seven-foot-high self-portrait head. The walls are covered in a poem by Dine, handwritten in charcoal. An audio recording of Dine reading his poem plays in the background. His poem wasn't written explicitly for this project, but it was written while he was working on it. As hallucinogenic as most contemporary art seems to me, I get this exhibit in the sense that I see that Dine is expressing a connection and communion with ancient artists.

In this instance, I think my perspective is disadvantaged with the archaeological truth behind the objects which inspired him. I've already mentioned that his central inspiration for the project, the Orpheus group, is a poet flanked by sirens--malevolent creatures that lured men to their deaths--not muses. Also, all of the objects he took as his creative focus are made of terracotta, and were created from molds. So, the idea of "communion" with the ancient artist loses its romanticism if you know Dine's counterpart 2,000 years ago (or so) was just slapping clay into a mold and firing the figurines in a kiln. Add to that knowledge the fact that these dancers do not at all represent muses. They likely represent hetairai--high-end, courtesan-type entertainers--who danced and played music as a way to demonstrate their cultured talents to their elite clientele. So, you can see how this knowledge kind of takes me out of the artistic mind-set...

However, I understand that Dine is separated from a detailed knowledge of the archaeology of these objects, which allows him to simply let his creative impulses carry him to his vision. For me, instead of seeing a contemporary artist communing with ancient artists, I see a twenty-first century man looking at this ancient artifacts completely through the lens of his own creative experience. The poem jotted on the walls of the exhibit is largely autobiographical, and in this literary expression as in the artistic expression, he sees himself as Orpheus, a poet: "Once brightly painted/I am a southern Italian singer and prophet/Listing to the left of my companions."

Dine's work is visually intriguing, and I can find some meaning in it (unlike a lot of other contemporary art), so in that sense I enjoy it. I was thinking about my own response to his work, and interestingly, I think I would be more accepting of his artistic license if his creative expression was limited to the poem. For some reason the added visual element narrows my window of artistic appreciation.

I didn't intend for this entry to be quite so long, but this has actually helped me clarify my own reaction to the exhibit, and I feel better now about presenting this show to the public. Attempting to assign any meaning for Dine's work for someone else would be doing the visitor and his art a disservice. Besides, as I think I've established here, the central meaning I find in it is the artist's unfamiliarity with the history of the artifacts that inspired him--and the average visitor isn't going to find such information all that helpful in their attempts to understand Dine's work. That being the case, all I can do is present them with the history of the project and then step back and allow them to gauge their own thoughts, reactions, and opinions.

All things considered, I think there is enough creativity in archaeology without contemporary artists adding to the mix. If you have an opinion about contemporary art being shown at a museum dedicated to antiquity, leave a comment--I'd like to hear what you think...

Monday, October 27


Okay, so I'm never writing about fighting germs again. Within twenty-four hours of my post on the subject, I discovered a germy viper in my own nest. Eric (a.k.a. the weakest link) had caught a dreaded rhinovirus, and in spite of my efforts to steer clear of him, there was no hope. When public speaking is a part of your job, one of the worst things to have is a head full of cotton and a sore throat. I managed to drag myself through the week with various Nyquil formulas, Chloraseptic, and cough drops. All in all, it was a relatively miserable week.

Today I'm off and I feel more like myself--just in time to do my chores and laundry for the week. Figures!

Monday, October 20

A Long Week

It's beginning to be that time of year when I really start to miss fall in the Midwest. I love cozy sweaters and cool, crisp fall weather and watching the leaves on the trees slowly turn to a rainbow of earthy colors. The many colors of fall don't really make an appearance here in southern California, and if they do the sight is always ruined by a stray palm tree here and there. The cool weather, on the other hand, is just now beginning to turn mornings into definite sweater weather. Working at the Villa, I'm outside a lot of the time--especially in the mornings when we organize for school groups--so I've been happy to pull out my sweaters to keep me warm on those cool mornings. It was a very long, quiet week.

As cooler weather arrived this week and more kids pour into the museum, I was reminded I'm doomed to fight a losing battle this season. I work in a public place, and a lot of my audience members are kids. Or, as I like to think of them, repositories of vicious rhinoviruses that are just waiting to take on my immune system as their next challenge. This weekend I had a particularly cute group of four and five-year-olds and their parents for my Art Odyssey family tour. The lesson I was doing with them was mainly based in storytelling about heroes and monsters, so I asked everyone to sit around on the floor in front of the object we were talking about. One of the littlest ones seemed to think I was the greatest thing since sliced bread and curled up in my lap to settle in. Most teachers would have taken this as a positive sign that at least some of her audience was engaged. Instead, my first thought was that I should double my dose of Airborne for the day. These little half-pint museum goers are my cutest and most entertaining audience, but there is danger lurking behind those toothless grins. I fortify my defenses with hand sanitizer, incredibly high doses of vitamin C, and super immunity boosting multi-vitamins, but who knows for sure how much it helps my chances of dodging a bullet? The long winter siege has begun.

Time to plop an Airborne.

Sunday, October 12

A Goddess on Her Knees

As some of you faithful readers know, I sometimes post here a Villa "Spotlight" object. (For those of you anticipating a "boring" post full of useless facts mined from the depths of my grey matter and various academic publications, I encourage you to stick it out. There is a punchline.) Each month part of our programming at the museum includes featuring one object from the collection as the month's spotlight. We take people into the galleries once a day and discuss just one object in-depth. This month our spotlight object is the "Cult Statue of a Goddess, perhaps Aphrodite." The "perhaps" in the title on her gallery label suggests we aren't sure of the answer to a fundamental question: Who is this colossal goddess? Without the benefit of the identifying attributes she surely once held in her hands, her identity is uncertain. She could be Demeter, Hera, Aphrodite or Persephone, a fertility goddess. The way that the transparent fabric of her chiton and himation clings to her full and sensuous figure, leaving little to the imagination, strongly suggests Aphrodite to some, but the current scholarly consensus is that Persephone is the more likely candidate.

This is a larger than life sized statue (7.5 feet tall) and is the largest statue in the Villa's collection. Her head looks small compared to the rest of her body, but originally she once wore a veil (see the image of the drawing below), which would have negated that effect. The sculpture was carved from limestone, which shows traces of red, blue, and pink paint. So, when she was first created, she would have been brightly painted, looking very different than she does today. Her head, arms, and feet are made from marble. Combining two types of stone in statuary was not unusual in Sicily, where this statue was probably created. Limestone was a local, easily obtainable stone in Sicily, but quality marble was not. Therefore the Sicilians used limestone for the majority of the statue, and only used marble for her head and extremities. (Importing enough marble to create an entire statue from would have been prohibitively expensive.) Statues created using two types of stone like this are called acrolithic sculptures, and were rarely found in Greece--there was no need for them to use two types of stone because they had plenty of quality marble.

The sculptural style of the clinging clothes allow curators to date the statue to the late 400's BCE, which was when that style was popular in Athens. It's sometimes called the "wet drapery" style, although it's possible the effect is meant to suggest the goddess's clothes blowing in the wind. Personally, I like the "wet drapery" idea--perhaps this statue is supposed to be Aphrodite rising from the foam of the sea, as Greek tradition describes her birth. Some people ask why she even has clothes on, since as the goddess of love and sexuality we're used to seeing nude images of her. Interestingly, the nude female didn't appear in Classical art until the Hellenistic period (ca. 323 BCE - 146 BCE), a time well after this statue was created, so our goddess is fully clothed.

This statue was likely a cult image, and would have been put up in a sanctuary in honor of the goddess. This sanctuary, or temple as we might call it, was the "house" of the goddess on earth. Now, I'm not as familiar with the intricacies of ancient Greek religion as I am with ancient Egyptian religion, but I know the Egyptians saw their cult statues as capable of receiving the deity, thus providing the god or goddess with an earthly vessel. Whether the Greeks saw their statues as having the same capability, I'm not sure, but it certainly would have been an image worshipers prayed to and addressed as the goddess. No doubt the remarkably excellent condition of the statue is due to the fact it once stood indoors. In fact, this statue is the only known cult image from its time that is preserved from head to foot. It's also the only acrolithic statue from its time that still has both its body and extremities (well, most of them anyway).

When she arrived at the Getty, the goddess's body was in three pieces. Her marble arm and foot were broken off, as were other pieces like the fingers on her remaining arm. When conservators first assembled her for public viewing, using epoxy to glue her body back together, there were still cracks that interrupted the flow of the clothing. This visual effect is one of the most admirable aspects of the statue, so the cracks prevented the viewer from a more complete appreciation of the "wet drapery" effect. Conservators ended up filling the cracks in the drapery with a paper pulp solution and painted it so it blended with the color of the stone. Not to worry, the epoxy and the paper pulp solution are reversible, so it's not like they used super glue. Current conservation policy in the museum world holds that any conservation effort needs to be completely reversible in case future scholarship sheds new light on our interpretations or in the case of some unforeseen chemical reaction between the conservation materials and the antiquity.

Earlier this week my fellow educators and I were gathered around the goddess, reviewing what we know about her and discussing all of the things I've mentioned above as well as how we think visitors might react to the statue. At one point someone asked about some damage visible at the goddess's knees--what caused it, she wondered?

"Well," I replied, "if this is the goddess of love--she's probably spent some time on her knees."

Sunday, October 5

A Little L.A. Story

How about a little L.A. story about heat and traffic frustrations? Last Tuesday Eric asked me to pretty, pretty please help him out and pick up his course reader for a class in Westwood. It just so happened that Tuesday was one of the hottest days this week, and I've not been using the air conditioner in my car since the car has been a bit finicky lately. I wasn't exactly pleased to face the heat, but I figured if traffic didn't stink, I'd be able to get it done in an hour or so. Traffic was fine--until I got to Westwood. With the school year now in full swing, the tiny area of Westwood Village was clogged with cars and parking was rarer than a real set of bosoms on Rodeo Drive. I finally found a spot in one of those $3 a minute rip-off pay lots and took off for the course reader materials store, hoping I'd make it back in short order so I could avoid paying any more for parking than I had to.

I discovered the course reader materials location was vacant, so I had to call Eric and figure out if he was just playing a mean joke on me or if the store had moved to another location. As it turned out, the store had just moved up the street, so I managed to get in and out pretty quickly. By the time I made it back to my car, my clothes were beginning to feel like I'd just stepped off the log ride at Six Flags. All I wanted to do was get in the car and get back to the AC and my day off. I can't with any justice communicate the frustration, despair, and raw animosity I felt when I turned the key and heard nothing but a click. Again. Click. Once more. Click. #!$%#&^!

After that mental primal scream I quickly moved into let's-get-this-over-with mode and went to tell the lot attendant my car wasn't starting and I needed to call AAA for a tow. I was sure he would insist on charging me for the time my car was dead in the lot waiting on the AAA tow truck to show up, but it didn't quite turn out that way. My car had literally been in the lot only a few minutes and had been running fine then, so he was unconvinced I couldn't get it started again. He soon found I wasn't making things up. However, he took it as a challenge, and after playing around with it a few minutes he got it started somehow. Even hotter and sweatier than before, I didn't question his mechanical magic. I thanked him profusely and sped away. When I had made it back to the apartment and collapsed in the AC, I reflected how once more my old aphorism had just proven valid: No good deed goes unpunished.

The truth of this statement has been demonstrated to me time and again, yet I keep helping, each time looking for a different outcome. The definition of a psychopath is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. So, I guess this habit makes me a psychopath. Or, more likely, just a plain old sucker.