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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 92

photo copyright © Carol Bergman 2022

Would it help if we could itemize every lost or misbegotten soul,

Enter every name in vellum registry?

Would it summarize my life to list every object

I have touched with these two hands?

 

-Campbell McGrath from "The Mercy Supermarket"

 

 

Dedicated to the one million who have died from Covid, and to the friends, family, colleagues. spouses and significant others they have left behind.

 

 

It's been almost a month since I wrote a "Virus Without Borders" post, but yesterday my small town in upstate New York went on emergency alert. Numbers are up, masks are strongly suggested, and restaurants and bars will be allowed to set up outside tables in the coming weeks without special permits.

 

So here we are again, or still. Meanwhile, the long Covid cases accumulate, nearly 7 million Americans in all, including me, and research projects are underway. All this, my readers will undoubtedly already know. I am reiterating it here as a prelude to the ongoing discussion about individual responsibility as I was faced with a moral dilemma this week when a friend called to ask if an anti-vaxxer friend of hers, who finally caught Covid, and is still testing positive, should teach a weekly scheduled dance class in a local art center, a class which she attends.

 

I concede that protocols and instructions are confusing these days, but this was a no-brainer for me: Don't let me near that person, please. I don't want to get Covid again. And keep her away from others, if at all possible, until she tests negative. This is what I told my friend, who passed it along to her friend, who passed it along to her friend, and so on.  It was just an opinion, my opinion, not a mandate, not a law, no enforcement possible.

 

I still had a moral conundrum, though. Now that I know there is a woman walking around town positive, going to work, and threatening to teach a class in a public space, what do I do? What can I do? If I do nothing, I am complicit. At least that is how it feels to me. So I called the Chief of Police for advice. He's a thoughtful and empathic man who grew up in the community and still lives here. At first he said that it was up to me whether or not I exposed myself to someone positive, which I had no intention of doing. And then he suggested a call to the Ulster County Department of Health, to what end I am not sure, perhaps for more advice. But that was the day everyone had gone home early because of a tornado watch. So, there was no answer. By the next morning, I'd slipped the knowledge of the super spreader person to the back of my mind and slowly, painstakingly, repotted my rescued basil plant. Someone had left it on the front lawn, maybe for the deer, I wasn't sure. It's doing well, which I can attribute to giving it lots of light, water and tender loving care. If only we could do the same for one another.

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Basquiat

BASQUIAT

 

 

In our all-or-nothing culture, creative work is too often either apotheosized or ignored. You're a rock star or you're nothing. The public has little appetite for nuance.

 

                 -Jed Perl in the New York Review of Books 11/4/21

 

All I could think of as I walked through the narrow, packed gallery was that this adorable, talented boy died of an overdose at 27, that the narrative of his tormented inner life has been lost in the exploitation of his work, and that both his mentally ill abusive Latino mother, who nurtured his artistic inclinations before she succumbed to her own demons, and his abusive Haitian father, have escaped responsibility for their son's short life in the hagiography of this exhibition. Basquiat ended up homeless on the streets of New York, became addicted to cocaine and heroin, suffered greatly as he tried to get sober, and then was gone. And despite this awful backstory, or perhaps because of it, he created a lasting body of work now worth millions, $110.5 million just recently.

 

The work is intentional, energetic, mysterious, uplifting, sometimes crass, usually profound and inspiring, especially to young artists today, by all accounts. But in the years since his death, it has been sold at auction for profit by his family;  his two sisters, with the help of their step-mother, mounted this immersive exhibition. Is any of this profit going to rehab programs, or research about trauma and addiction? I have found no evidence of this in the Basquiat family's internet footprint, and my query to the media relations department was answered anonymously: the pricing is "commensurate" with other New York City attractions such as the Van Gogh immersive exhibtion, which had no original art at all. 

 

How do the artifacts, scraps of paper, and re-created living spaces illuminate Basquiat's life and his artistic process? I am not sure they do. Indeed, at times, it feels voyeuristic, rather than informative, to be looking inside the cleansed, pristine living spaces of the dysfunctional Basquiat household. Not to mention that there is no place for the voyeurs-- aka audience-- to rest and contemplate, and no backtracking once one gets to the end.  Is there accommodation for those with a disability? I hope so.

 

I had entered on a press pass, but my cousin, a well known print-maker who adores Basquiat's work, had bought a $45 ticket without flinching. I pondered that price, and the opportunity to skip the line with me if she had paid $65. Price for seniors, students and military: $42 and for children under 13: $40. That's a whopping lot of money for a family, say. No surprise that on the day I was there, just about everyone in the gallery was an older lighter-skinned person, commensurate with where most of the privilege resides in the United States. The irony of this would not have been lost on Basquiat who railed articulately against economic and racial injustice. 

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Forever Free

 Icons by Jacques Hnizdovsky. All the woodwork is hand carved by local artisans. The image does not capture the chapel's magnificence. 

Forever Free

 

 

We try to be free and try to be more free over time.

 

-Jill Lepore

 

 

I drove up to the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kerhonkson, NY on an overcast spring day. Tucked away on a mountainous, long, quiet road, I made a wrong turn and texted Father Ivan. "It's the building with the crosses on the top," he replied. I had already experienced his wry humor during our first telephone conversation. And there he was waiting for me in the parking lot in the cool drizzle, a one-person rescue party.

 

The church is an architectural masterpiece set in a wooded enclave that must feel both safe and welcoming to its parishioners, about one hundred in all, more on holidays when relatives and friends attend services. When the war in Ukraine started, the community mobilized. Many still have family in Ukraine, or family and friends escaping Ukraine, or family and friends who are fighting in the resistance. Stacked in the corner of the undercroft are cardboard boxes and donated medical supplies to be packed up and shipped to Poland. It is a continuous operation, almost military in its intensity and precision. "And after the war is over, there will be reconstruction," Fr. Ivan said as I commented on the floor-to-ceiling boxes. Parents and children work together tirelessly in the relief effort based at the church. They hope to eventually host up to fifty refugee families.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ivan Kaszczak is an historian and within minutes we were discussing the history of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, before, during and after Stalin, its persecution under communism, its long and proud history of resistance, and the first wave of refugees that arrived in America in the 1950's. Fr. Ivan still speaks Ukrainian to his parents. He has served the church in Kerhonkson for eleven years now; before that he was an Air Force chaplain.

 

"I saw how the military works," he told me.  "Professional soldiers don't want to fight; they want to retire." In other words, they don't want to come home maimed or in body bags. I thought of the volunteer Ukrainian freedom fighters, the Russian soldiers—cannon fodder—our  own war of independence, my family's flight from Europe. I still have days when I don't think I am meant to be an American, then I stop myself and ask, Unless we are indigenous, survivors of colonial genocide, what is an American anyway? We are either descendants of immigrants, refugees, brutal enslavement, or brutal wars. This one feels like the Thirty Years War, back to the Dark Ages or, in more recent history, the atrocity of Bosnia.

 

 Fr. Ivan took me up to the chapel, a repository of shared memory and preserved ancestral culture. A local  artist, Jacques Hnizdovsky, who died in 1985, used parishioners as models and, according to Halyna Shepko, one of the parishioners, a few were a bit uncomfortable when they saw their features rendered in the icons—the hands, a nose, the expression in the eyes—a bit of wry trivia, it made me smile. In my experience, like many persecuted peoples, Ukrainians have a highly evolved sense of humor. "Think of Billy Crystal," Fr. Ivan reminds me. One of Crystal's grandmothers was from Kyiv, the other from Odesa.  As I write, the runway at that port city's airport has been destroyed. And there is more to come, alas, before Ukraine is at peace.

 

Donations of medical supplies are accepted at the church drop off box. Monetary donations may be sent to the Ukrainian American Youth Association PO Box 35, Napanoch NY 12458 or at the following Go Fund Me link: Donations for Ukraine   The UAYA have already raised $100,000 worth of supplies.

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The Vibrating String

Mary Frank @ The Dorsky Museum

 

Mary Frank: The Observing Heart installation view, with permission.

 

 

THE VIBRATING STRING

 

 

There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money either.

 

-Robert Graves

 

 

I went to the Dorksy Gallery on the SUNY New Paltz campus to see the Mary Frank retrospective. That sounds important and intentional but, in fact, I'd never heard of Mary Frank or, to my knowledge, seen any of her work. She seems to be an artist's artist, much appreciated and admired for many years, a drawing teacher, but little known until later in her life as an artist who sells. "She didn't play the game," I heard someone say as I meandered the gallery. I might have added: and she was a woman coming of age in the 1950's when the New York School—mostly white men—became the center of the art market's attention.

 

My father was a collector (Vienna Secession) and my daughter is an artist and I am an art aficionado and an artist groupie. By this I mean that art and artists have been in my life since I was a child when I went to galleries with my father in New York City and stood next to him as he discussed  a work with either enthusiasm or disdain. If his sentence began with words such as, "Look how that house just sits there. How did s/he do that?" I knew he was considering a purchase. He was an eye surgeon, with elegant long-fingered hands, and he drew well himself. I could not draw well and became a writer instead, drawing with words as best I can.

 

I find discussions with artists about their process—usually  in their studios in the presence of their work or works-in-progress—inspiring.  I go to shows and galleries and sometimes write about artists. I do not "follow" contemporary art per se, but I remain curious and open to everything. My one criteria for writing about an artist and/or an exhibition is my emotion as I enter the gallery or studio. How do I feel? What is this work evoking in me?  I was blown away by Mary Frank's sculptures, in particular, and could not believe I hadn't seen any of these breathtaking works before. Why all these broken bodies?

 

Well, of course, a tragedy, a trauma in her life, not that she refers directly to this tragedy when she is interviewed. But her daughter died in a plane crash in Guatemala at the age of 21 and her son—who had a mental illness— died just a short time after. I did not know this until later, but the broken bodies built out of clay in separate pieces immediately felt like a dismemberment, flesh and bone scattered in an explosion, the explosion internalized in the artist. Like a violin's vibrating string, it immediately activated my own wartime losses, and the eviscerating bombardments and atrocities now happening in Ukraine.

 

It is artists—and writers, too, of course—who help us process pain and atrocity, as they set to work creating metaphors to assuage universal human suffering.  I thank Mary Frank for her prescient and prophetic work.

 

"Mary Frank: The Observing Heart" will be at The Dorsky until July 17, Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. -5 p.m.

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