Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rolling Stock

Preface:  What was your favorite toy when you were a child?  Thinking back to Lincoln Logs and footballs, electric trains and chess sets, it was hard for me to decide...but then I remembered the collection of little cars that occupied so many hours of my time when I was young.

Rolling Stock
childhood memoir
by Greg Larson

     The industrial elevator carrying two vehicles on the platform slowly came to a stop at the top of the shaft.  Immediately, the giant pillow shifted closer to the platform; the vehicles drove out onto the pillow case and parked on the soft mounded surface.  I grabbed the shiny black Morris Minor sedan and the brilliant orange cement truck and held them in my hands to take a closer look.  They were brand new…not a scratch on them, and on the bottom they were marked “Made in England.”

     At eight years old, in 1959 I was confined to my top bunk bed.  The doctor’s orders were for bed rest after my tonsillectomy, but it was difficult for my mom to keep me still.  To help me occupy the time in bed, my older brother built an elevator using parts from our erector set, and my mom and dad surprised me with the two toy vehicles they purchased at the dime store.  It was like Christmas in April.  The vehicles were not your run-of-the-mill toy cars and trucks; they were a new toy selection called Matchbox cars.  I was a little guy.  These were little cars.  It was a match made in heaven.

The first tiny, shiny cars of my collection

     I’d seen them in the display window at Duckwall’s, but I convinced myself that I could not afford to have my own.  The least expensive cars were 50 cents.  They were the prettiest little cars and trucks, and there was such a wide variety of colors and types from industrial vehicles to race cars.  But they seemed out of reach until my parents gave me the first car and truck.

     Wanting to build a collection of Matchbox cars, I was thrust into the world of commerce and finance at an early age.  My weekly allowance for completing household chores was 10 cents.  The thought of five weeks wages to obtain one car was almost too much to bear.  In my desire to possess the toy cars, I developed an accelerated savings plan based on my limited knowledge of income and expenditures.  I noticed the weeds in the yard were beginning to grow in earnest that spring.  Once I had recuperated from the tonsillectomy, I suggested to my parents that I could dig weeds for 10 cents a bucket.  To my surprise, they agreed.

     I had visions of stacks of dimes as I began with determination to rid the yard of weeds, but quickly learned the meaning of full measure.  My mom did not allow anything but full buckets with the weeds packed tight.  The buckets which I presented to her that were three-fourths full with fluffed-up weeds were not acceptable.  After investing more sweat than I had expected over several days in the afternoon sun, I was able to garner enough dimes to build a small collection of cars.  They each came in a simulated English matchbox, and my friends were envious of the smart looking group of cars.

Each car was packaged in its own box

     They were my favorite toys.  Nothing came close to my passion for Matchbox cars.  I coveted them so much that I would put the choicest cars in my pocket on Sunday morning and sneak them to Sunday school and church.  Surely God would bless them, I thought, even if I kept them hidden in my pocket.  If my little brother spied them as we rode in the backseat from the suburbs to the church in downtown Wichita, he would let out a squeal which would gain my parents’ attention, and the toys would be confiscated for the remainder of the day.  During the drive into town, which was the longest of the week, I looked for the most unusual real vehicles driving on the street or parked at the construction sites.  I fantasized that I would someday have a fleet of my own trucks.

     In the formative years of childhood, I had no idea of the impact the Matchbox cars would have on my architectural career.  I focused on every design detail of each car and quickly developed a keen sense of spatial concepts; I created roads, buildings and racetracks, using toy blocks, boxes, and pieces of wood.  I learned that the Matchbox cars were H-O scale, which matched the scale of H-O train sets.  There was one small problem.  We did not have an H-O scale train…we had a Lionel train set, which was much larger in scale.  Also, some of my friends brought over toys that didn’t match the scale of my cars.  This mismatch was a major burden that I had to bear during my years of playing with toys.  It really grated on my sensibilities when the scale of things didn’t match.  In my daydream fantasy world, everything was H-O scale, and I built cities and train layouts in the corners of my mind.

     My Matchbox collection grew, and I was ready to make a major addition…a Pickfords cab with a flatbed trailer and a Caterpillar bulldozer to fit on the trailer…the total cost being two dollars!  Again, I had to get creative in order to accumulate almost a half-year’s worth of dimes.  The big money could be made from mowing lawns or taking care of pets while families were on summer vacation.  My mom helped me line up a few of these jobs which built up my cash reserve and I was finally able to make the joyous trip to Duckwalls.  I was nervous with excitement, and ran down the store aisle to the Matchbox display, which I knew by heart.  I could have found the Pickfords truck with my eyes closed.  How sweet it was to leave the store, clutching the bag with the tiny Matchbox toys inside.

The centerpiece of my collection was the Pickfords truck and trailer

     I played with the cars almost anywhere, from our rec-room tile floor to outdoors on the patio or porch.  Sometimes I would climb behind the juniper shrubs and build roads in the damp, cool soil.  Frequently, I would get together with my friends to compare our collections and play with our combined fleets, pretending to build cities or race the cars around the room.

     When I turned thirteen, my interest in playing with the cars had declined.  I gave my five-year collection of cars to my younger brother, with the understanding that I could spend time with them whenever I had the desire.  To me, it was a temporary loan of the collection, since a piece of my heart would always reside with all of the rolling stock.  I’d driven too many miles and built too many cities with them.  I just couldn’t walk away from something that was such a big part of me.

     But other interests beckoned…scouts, piano, newspaper route, and most of all, drawing.  My eighth grade drafting class was the happiest hour of the day.  I honed my sense of scale that I had developed with the Matchbox cars, and enjoyed the accuracy of measuring and drawing while I used my T-square and scale.  The cities and buildings that I constructed in my daydreams were no longer H-O scale…they were actual size, and were fancier and more detailed than ever before.

     Note:  A special thanks to Michael Farley for allowing me to photograph his mint-condition Morris Minor and orange cement mixer, as well as the Matchbox package front.  The other photographs are what remain of my original collection, including the Pickfords vehicle. My collection has a few more scratches than Michael's, nor do I have any of the original boxes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What is Art?

Preface:  Yes, I tackled one of life's compelling questions.  What makes something beautiful to observe?  What preferences or tastes do you have?  In the end, we each have to come up with our own answers.

What is Art?
Non-fiction essay
by Greg Larson

     I’ve been on a curious sort of journey.  It has involved some travel, but it’s mostly been a search within the mind…a self-directed path to find the answer to – what is art?  The question will always be there, and the definition is elusive at best.  What compelled me to seek an answer? It was a framed lithograph print created in the 1980’s, to which I have a deep connection.

     The print depicts a mountain pass in Colorado.  The artist, who trained at the Kansas City Art Institute, used an impressionistic style, making the mountainside, the sky and the horizon come alive with a mixture of paint and pastels.  My connection to the print has greater significance because it was selected for use in a hotel renovation on which I worked.  I was given the proof print, which I framed.  Several years later, on a Colorado bike tour, I rode my bike over the pass shown in the artwork.  Today, I look at the print and I smell the mesquite, feel the cool breeze in the aspens, and see the twinkling reflections of sunlight from the cars along the railing at the top of the pass.

     Recently I decided to research the artist to find out what type of art she is now creating.  After viewing the website, my concept of art was shaken.  My preconception of the artist creating impressionistic landscapes was nowhere near the artist’s current path.  She now resides in San Francisco and has exhibited worldwide in cities like Bucharest, Vienna, Moscow, Sydney, and New York.  Her work has evolved into media and visual art, combining drawings, photos, and video.  After reading some of her descriptions of recent projects, it was difficult for me to comprehend the end product, let alone the rationale behind its creation.  The artist’s website descriptions of some of her exhibits included:

Tesserae of Venus – Images of a strange future of energy producing landscapes, saturated by a carbon atmosphere.

Bloodellipse – a 2004 interactive screen protesting the Iraq War.

Slipstreamkonza – attempts to capture “slipstreams” of the invisible and inaudible processes of carbon synthesis into sound and image. [Was she trying to capture the sound of grass growing on the prairie?]

     Although my expectations of what this artist should be producing were shattered, I assume that she has taken a creative path that is meaningful to her.  In light of my own struggle with trying to understand her recent creations, I heightened my quest to better understand - what is art?  The subconscious journey became a compelling march for an answer, and it continued for months.

     It seems to me that art becomes art when the artist or viewer steps back from the day-to-day act of living, when they begin to contemplate their existence and their relationship to the world.  What the artist communicates and what the recipient sees or interprets is not always the same.  Religious and political art have been a form of communication for centuries. Of course, the church and the businessmen were the patrons, and to a degree, controlled what was to be communicated or created.

     One portion of the artistic journey took me to Paris, where the morning sprinkles pattered on our umbrellas as Gretta and I waited in line to be among the first of the day to be admitted into the Musee d’Orsay.  Once inside, we scurried through the main level and rode the elevator to the top level, where the Impressionist paintings were located.  I was in heaven!  The experience moved me as I sat on the benches and looked at masterpieces in every direction.  It was as if I were viewing a private collection in the crowd-free galleries. Artwork by Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Monet and Pissarro spoke to me on a personal level, sharing what the artists had seen and experienced.

     After seeing the paintings up close and in person, it became clear to me the Impressionist artists of the 19th century decided to break free of patronage and just paint for art’s sake.  They painted in a style of color and light that was bold and new to the art world.  They selected subject matter and viewpoints that were unusual to the standards of the time.  The art critics of the 19th century tried to reject the impressionist’s work.  What a difference a century makes in how we interpret their artwork; Impressionist paintings are now some of the most prized possessions in the world.

     But…freedom of expression can be viewed as a pendulum that swings in either direction to the extreme.  David Byrne, in his book Bicycle Diaries, writes of his struggles with the concept of beauty and art.  He shared a story about a German artist, Otto Muehl, who was into making art a sensory event or a happening in the 1960’s.  In one such display called “O Tannenbaum,” Otto lay naked with a woman under a Christmas tree.  He then had a butcher tear the heart out of a pig and throw it at the couple.  Otto then climbed a ladder by the tree and urinated on the woman and the pig’s heart.  One of the viewers started screaming, “You swine!”  The crowd became restless and chaos ensued.  Otto was arrested.  It causes one to ponder…what is art?

     Andy Warhol was an American artist from Pittsburgh and many consider him a bit extreme, although he is hailed as the father of Pop Art.  While visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I decided to visit the Warhol Museum to see the wide range of art he created.  I first viewed his variations of soup labels and product boxes shown in creative arrangements.  Then I experienced the mylar balloon room, which was my favorite exhibit.  The room was full of shiny, silver mylar balloons floating in all directions, always moving around the airstream created by a strategically located fan.  I felt as though I were in a dream, and sensed that my body wanted to float with the balloons.  It was the closest I’ve ever been to weightlessness.  The final exhibit we viewed was a steel sculpture (quite fitting for Pittsburgh).  Andy had intentionally peed on the sculpture, causing rust stains to appear. I guess he thought it was his ultimate brush stroke.

     My younger brother once introduced me to a client of his in Western Kansas.  He was a retired wheat farmer with no formal art training, but he created what I consider folk art.  As he approached 80 years of age, he relinquished the day-to-day farm operations to the younger family members.  Once retired, he felt compelled to sketch and paint many scenes that he remembered from past years…cowboys, fences, cattle, horses, birds and fields.  I’ve never seen a happier person.  He gave us a tour of the little art gallery he created in his basement.  We could have stayed all day as he told one story after another.  The gallery was full of his original paintings along with copies he had made on a color copier in town; each painting and copy was set in a hand-crafted wooden frame.  Clear, thin plastic was the protective cover, in lieu of glass.  At the end of our tour he told us we could pick out anything we wanted to keep.  I still have the framed copy of the picture I selected of a meadowlark sitting on a stone fencepost, singing its melodic song.  On the cardboard backing of the picture the artist wrote in long-hand with ballpoint pen:

The Magic of the Meadow Lark

Birds bring a special kind of pleasure to our world, a magic all their own.  We admire their brilliant colors, their unique companionable voices – and envy their power of flight.  Birds remind us daily that this small creature is truly a most impressive creation – and one that we earthbound artists strive to emulate, but can never duplicate.  Painting them has brought me to a greater awareness of the miracles of our world!

Blessed is the fellow from whom little is expected; he won’t disappoint you.

     It was clear to me this man was truly in tune with his Western Kansas environment and he didn’t want to change a thing about his age, his lot in life, or his love for the world around him.

     The latest leg of my journey led me to Denver, Colorado.  On a crisp summer morning, beneath a patio umbrella, I had an extended discussion over breakfast with friends, Ferenc and Leslie, who are both multi-talented artists.  It was one of those long conversations that you wish would never end, and at times it seemed the discussion would continue on to infinity.  Leslie, an accomplished painter and poet, gave me a copy of a poem she had submitted to a competition sponsored by the International Society of Poets.  Her poem was selected as the winning entry, and was published along with the editor’s critique.

     “What a crock,” she said quietly referencing the critique.  “He had no idea what I wrote about, or what compelled me to write it.”

     We came to a reasonable conclusion that there is no specific or uniform standard to determine - what is art?  The motivations to create it and the critiquing of it are as varied as the people involved.  In the end, each person has to decide for themselves what type of art appeals to them, and how deeply they want to explore it.

     My friends concluded, “Just view the art and enjoy it!”

     So, I’ve decided to give the mental struggle a rest. I’ve written my own definition of art for what it is worth:

     Art is a creative, expressive form of communication which appeals to our senses and allows the artist and/or the viewer to ponder their existence and the context in which the expression is created and displayed.

     This spring I intend to take a trip on my bicycle to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and sit in the sculpture garden.  Rather than trying to understand what I’m viewing, I think I’ll just relax, take in the view, soak in the sun...and be thankful for my existence.

South lawn of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City
internet photo