City-Wide Open Studios Tour

Help spread the word about the “guided tour” I’ll be leading of four artist studios in and around New Haven on October 18 at 3 p.m. as part of City-Wide Open Studios.  Here’s the info from their site:

As an Americanist, Rena Tobey gives talks and leads interactive public tours for museums, as well as writes about American art.  Her particular interest centers on the development of and challenges to American identity as read through painting.  In addition to researching historical works, she also conducts interviews and collects oral histories with contemporary artists. Rena is passionate about resuscitating awareness of nearly-forgotten American women artists.

Rena’s tour is on 10/18 from 3-5 pm, the starting location TBA, and will visit the following artists:

Karen Dow


Susan Clinard


Stephen Grossman

Bill Meddick

My plan for each studio is to let people look around on their own first, then join the artist and me for a dialogue in front of one work.  We’ll explore the artist’s process, intention, and underlying narratives in the particular work.  Everyone will have a chance to ask questions, too.  We’ll use the time on the shuttle bus between studios to draw connections and comparisons among the artists we visit and explore an over-arching theme for our time together.

Here’s the link for tickets.  Pre-registration is required.

Join me in meeting these artists.


Providence, RI makes a spectacle of itself (when it has funding), every other Saturday night in the summer and early fall.  That’s when the confluence of 3 rivers becomes a highly-witnessed ritual called WaterFire–fire that dances on water for many hours after dark.

2014-09-27 17.43.11Set-up happens early.  By the time we got there around 4, it was long-accomplished, and the crowds were already gathering, staking out their preferred vantage point.  And you can see the braziers, made up of baskets of wood, are ready to be lit, 86 in all.


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Providence becomes Venice for a night, with gondola rides for the fortunate few.  The rest of us are content with a stroll along the river banks to tents with crafts, cultural tidings, and food, then over to a park or two, before settling in for the show.

I was mesmerized by the reflections.

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But it’s what happens after dark that makes the magic happen.

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Volunteers, wearing all black to blend in with the night, process with torches–some lit, others not.




Boats slowly begin to disperse along the river.  Meditative music plays an accompaniment.  Here you see the river is still dark as one boat passes by, the torchbearer clearly visible, as if inspecting a parade ground.

Then the lighting begins.

Like the Olympics, the torches onshore are lit, one lit passing to the next, a chain reaction.  Here’s a tiny taste.


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The torchbearers onshore stand still like sentinels.  The braziers, fully lit, begin to leap and twist and crackle.

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The smell of a campfire.  Getting hot along the riverbank.

As if checking their work, the boats circle again.

The music calms and cools.

Taking a long view, we can see the circle of fire that extends under the bridge in one direction…

…and pointing to another in the other direction.

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There’s nothing to do now, but watch, breath in, listen, feel, and reflect.

Printing Food

JulianneWell, here’s another fun show to add to your fall exhibition schedule!  Julianne Biehl, dear artist friend of my mother and me, has a print in the tasty new show at the Newport Art Museum: Palate to Plate: Prints & Recipes From Members of The Boston Printmakers.

So what’s a Dallas/Colorado artist doing in a Boston print show in Newport, RI?  Well, the Boston Printmakers is an international group, and the 99 high-calibre artists in the Newport show are from all over.




What brings them together is this theme of food and printmaking, or prints of food accompanying their recipes, collected in this charming cookbook/catalogue.

In this era of 3D printing, where the printer can make a plastic car or a gun that shoots, there’s something refreshing about an exhibit of ideas on paper.  But no worries, there’s lots of variety in the visual interpretations.  Each print is its own surprise, its own story.  Julianne’s is quite typical of her painterly style and passion for color.  Here’s my not-so-great image of her page in the catalogue.

Recipe and Image in Book Vegetable soup is Julianne’s favorite soup.  Some kind of hot, wowza!

To read her recipe, click to enlarge the image.



Julianne’s and my mother’s paintings talk color together with great verve.  Here’s the painting “Joyous Song” by Julianne that I get to enjoy.

So if you’re heading to Newport for a day of beauty, make sure to catch the scrumptious exhibit.  Although you do take the risk of leaving very hungry!

History and the quandary of why?

What I love about history is that the more you study, read, and consider, the more of what we think we know becomes unclear, unknown, and unsatisfactory.  The myths and one-sided explanations just don’t cut it anymore.

You never know when you'll run across a Colonial in CT

You never know when you’ll run across a Colonial in CT

My friend Mary was visiting, spurred initially by the genealogy she’s been researching.  She’s been tracking three branches of her family back into the 1600s, and she stops before crossing the pond to the “old country” of Wales, Scotland, or England.  I was fascinated.  As she told me the migration patterns and professions, I started to ask a lot of questions.  I wanted to know why.  I could easily fill in the blanks with all kinds of stories and suppositions.  Mary just answered, “I don’t know.”

So when she and I went on a walking tour of the wonderfully preserved Colonial town of Benedict ArnoldNorwich, CT with a particular focus on Benedict Arnold, we both hung on every word.  We wanted to know why.

Here was a person well recorded, in all his faults.  Perhaps the most hated American ever (maybe next to McCarthy after the fact), Arnold was known to have betrayed his mentor George Washington, and hence his country.  Indeed, the good people of Norwich dug up the headstones of all the Benedict Arnolds and tossed them into the Niantic River.

Yes, all the Benedict Arnolds.  Our Arnold was the 5th.  He had an older brother who died before him, with the name Benedict Arnold.  That boy and his father were buried in the graveyard when the headstones were flung out after our Arnold’s disgrace.  Our Arnold’s name was changed to Benedict after his brother died.  So imagine what it may have been like in the 1740s to have a long line of ancestors, with a burden of a ‘name’ to carry.

indexHow one responds to that burden says something about character.  Franklin Roosevelt banked on his name, but also revered his fifth cousin Theodore, who served as his political model (as we all learned in the excellent Ken Burns, exhaustive documentary this past week).  Eleanor Roosevelt initially responded differently to family and societal pressures, with fear, until, through her own adversity, found her voice and began enacting the Roosevelt values of serving the greater good.  They are one stellar family.

But our Arnold’s father responded to life’s mountains and valleys by becoming a drunk.

The Lathrop brothers took in Benedict Arnold (the 5th) and his sister Hannah, after their parents die. They are second cousins. BA apprentices to learn the apothecary trade (1756-1760) and is treated like a son.

The Lathrop brothers took in Benedict Arnold (the 5th) and his sister Hannah, after their parents die. They are second cousins. BA apprentices to learn the apothecary trade (1756-1760) and is treated like a son.

As we learned on our walking tour, several taverns for “tobacco and news … and rum” lined the Norwich Green.  And as a young boy, our Arnold went into the relevant tavern to drag his profligate father home.  Our Arnold became a lifelong teetotaler.

So a man with that type of steady conviction annihilates the heroic stereotype by waffling on a key issue.  Where did his loyalty lie?  Or was that choice quite so simple?  The war could have gone either way, for quite awhile.  The colonies were brutally split in their attitudes toward king and country.

Our Arnold’s second wife was a Loyalist, and she palled around with an officer in the British Army.  Her ambition and ability to fed upon our Arnold’s insecurities are one common source pointed to for his betrayal.  “Surely, dear, you would do better under the British.  These rebels keep passing you over for promotion to General.  And you’ve been wounded twice for their hapless cause!” I can hear her saying.  “Life in London would be divine.”  Except when it wasn’t, as was the case for the Arnold’s.

But again is the story just that simple?  The nagging wife, the unfed ego?  As Mary would say quite forthrightly, “I don’t know.”

Gravestone for Hannah, Benedict's sister; all headstones with the name Benedict Arnold (his father and older brother who predeceased him) were removed from the cemetery and tossed in the Niantic River, but the bones remain

Gravestone for Hannah, Benedict’s sister; all headstones with the name Benedict Arnold (his father and older brother who predeceased him) were removed from the cemetery and tossed in the Niantic River, but the bones remain

Swarms of Swallows

Migrating tree swallows are gathering for a big party, before heading south, at the mouth of the Connecticut River.  So I jumped on board our birder boat, and we headed down river toward Long Island Sound.  2014-09-14 17.25.34

Along the way, we saw familiar sites, like kooky Gillette Castle…

…and several bald eagles, probably residents, not early arrivals for wintering over…

—and osprey, egrets, herons, cormorants, kingfisher…

it was a busy evening on the river.

Soon I noticed yachts were following us, and the number of kayakers was thickening.  By 6:10 p.m., we have found a spot with a good view of a channel where the tree swallows, along with their friends the purple martens and barn swallows, come to roost.  This means settle in for the night and go to sleep, after a day feeding to build up their weight to get ready to fly south.

A mature tree swallows weighs the equivalent of 2 quarters and has a wingspan of only six inches.  So they have to bulk up for their long trip, perhaps as far away as Mexico.

This is an especially pretty bird, with shimmering color that ranges from turquoise blue to iridescent purple.



Not long after we arrived, the birds did, too.  They swooped in and around from all directions, numbers increasing.

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If you enlarge this image, you will begin to get a sense of the swarm that’s about to happen.  As we looked through our binoculars, one leader said, “it’s like a spray of ground pepper across the sky.”

The swallows gather together for a sense of safety, congregating at night.  In the morning, they will burst from their perch and travel up to 30 miles before returning to just this spot at sunset.

The masses of birds begin to form in what has been called a ballet.  With the naked eye, I could see patterns forming and disbanding and changing and re-forming.  Sometimes a band would dive down, skimming the water for a drink or a bath-before-bed, then do a “fly-up” en masse.

I hope you can hear the commentary in this video.  This is the most birds the leaders had seen “in a long time.”

Estimated number of birds?  500,000.  Yep, a half a million.  And if you could see the swarm, you’d believe it.

Sunset.  7:01 p.m. The sky was so gorgeous, with different colors from each direction, that I put together this slide show.  What to watch?  The birds or the rapidly-shifting sky?

If these were paintings, they would be called fake, overly-sentimental, cloying.  But really.

Meantime, many birds are still flying overhead at sunset.  As if they had an internal alarm clock, in ten minutes, they had all found a place to roost.  But these little dive bombers did not go gently.  They literally formed a tight funnel, like a tornado, twirling and whipping, then plunging down.  I have never seen anything like it.

“Astounding.”  “Astonishing.”  “Amazing.”  The adjectives multiplied.

Then, suddenly, it was over.  We all burst out in applause.  What a performance.



Spencer and Holt

As always, I’m thinking about women artists.  I had another article published in Art Times Journal, this time on Lilly Martin Spencer, a remarkable woman and artist.  Check it out here.

And I’m writing for Site Projects about public art works in New Haven for a new digital catalog.  Here’s my essay on Nancy Holt’s work.

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Nancy Holt, 1938-2014

End of the Line/West Rock, 1985

Environmental Sculpture, stone, masonry, steel, 11’ x 28’ x 18’

Location: Southern Connecticut State University, Farnam Avenue, near Brownell Hall, New Haven, CT.

2014-09-09 14.37.41Carefully placed granite boulders snake along as if guiding the viewer to a ritual site. They point to the curving line that now swoops up, rocks piled high. The stones are fitted together, like a Connecticut stone wall, to form a monument—Nancy Holt’s End of the Line/West Rock. The environmental sculpture’s gentle stone curve cups the viewer, drawing attention to the central rings of steel. The manmade and natural meet.

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Stepping into the designated steel circle, the viewer peers through this concentric-ringed viewfinder for a perfectly framed picture of the West Rock outcropping. The view includes the manmade, too, a University building. Holt has again blended nature and the constructed, a frequent juxtaposition in her work.

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Holt was part of the Land Art movement, beginning in the late 1960s, which coincided with environmental awareness activism and the dialogue about what materials and scale constitute fine art. This work demonstrates how the geological formation is transformed into art when the viewer is guided to see it as such, by looking at it in a frame. The gallery is now the land, the picture is the focal point determined by the artist. Holt has altered the place and shaped viewer perception.

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The work is site specific. Holt has engineered the sculpture to take advantage of the available natural and constructed features of the site. The parking lot and buildings were already present. Holt sited her sculpture on a hilltop with a clear view of the New Haven landmark. The 51 boulders march ever closer together along the 355-foot approach. The circular marker has been measured for the best vantage point through the viewfinder, with its 8’ outer ring and 6’ inner ring.

The sculpture makes the viewer aware of the often-overlooked, preserving and celebrating it.  Holt’s love of photography is evident in the picture-framing device she uses. With End of the Line/West Rock, Holt asks viewers to be mindful of their impact on nature and to take responsibility for it. She said, “I am giving back to people through art what they already have in them.”

Commissioned: The State of Connecticut’s Percent-for-Art Public Art Program

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What I don’t write is that Nancy would be turning over in her newly dug grave, she passed in February, to see the site as it is now.  Weeds are growing over the site marker.  Discarded water bottles, Coke cups, broken pens, human detritus are tossed all over.  Sigh.

Essence and Repartee


A movie.  A play.  Each trying to get at the essence and pull of art forms, creating passion, pleasure, and power for those beyond the creator.  Is it possible to do such lofty things  and still have a plot?  Apparently not.  Still…

The film “Words and Pictures” sets up an arbitrary ‘war’ over which is more important, a more essential form of expression.  No surprise that the conclusion is that both are needed.

The fun comes in the arguments between the artist and the poet–both tortured souls, of course, suffering for their expression.  I happily went along for the ride for their moments of repartee.  And to think about the debate for myself.  If you’d enjoy watching two beautiful people argue about ideas, I recommend this film.

Nathan Lane in "It's Only a Play."

Nathan Lane in “It’s Only a Play.”

I’m not so sure about Terrance McNally‘s postmodern play about theater called “It’s Only a Play.”  The celebrity cast acts out the aftermath of a Broadway bomb that involves writing a play about the aftermath of a Broadway bomb.  Get it?

Well, it doesn’t matter a bit.  You go for the cast’s witticisms.  Biting, absolutely of-the-moment topicality they are, coming off as more snark than valentine.

The play is essentially plotless, and what little there is mimics “Words and Pictures” for being completely predictable.  Here it matters more.  With no plot and over-the-top caricatured characters, the show-must-go-on spirit is its own bust.

But don’t listen to me.  The audiences howled with delight, gave a standing ovation when cued by an actor, and had a great time.  I sorta did, too, admiring the rapid fire repartee of Nathan Lane with anyone and everyone else on stage.  He is truly a wonder.  And it does feel good to just laugh.

08_Selfie_183_TY-v2-WT_Thinner_BlurSince the characters were so snarky, I feel like I can be, too.  Matthew Broderick has phoned in his third wooden performance in a row, in my books.  His youthful charm and nebbishy ways don’t play cute anymore.  I keep wanting to tell him he can both bend and turn at the waist and move his arms.  A nutcracker is more animated.

And Stockard Channing, as much as I love her and found her funny here, is so stretched and mauled from her facial plastic surgery, that it’s a wonder she can move her lips.  Really, plastic surgery should have died with Joan Rivers.

Good.  Now that I have that out of my system, I will say I want more from McNally.  A theater pro like him?  Make me care!

“Shakespeare in Love”–now that’s a show that’s a love song to theater, with beautiful people, ideas, humor, and a plot.  Maybe just skip both of these newer shows and see that movie again.  Or, if you dare, wait for the British stage version to come to Broadway.

Now it was McNally today who bemoans all the talent from London dominating the stage here, arguing all the more reason why there are no more great American playwrights on Disneyfied Broadway.

What do you think?

The theater of quirky mansions and living history

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What fun to be welcomed into Eagle’s Nest, the Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island, by Coco Chanel.  Her heavily accented English was a bit hard to understand, but there’s no doubting her pride in appearances.  She was very straightforward in advising, “the best pearl is the one that looks good on you.”  William Vanderbilt insisted all his women wear pearls, and you should see the size and number of strands in the necklace his wife Rosamund wore swimming!

Given the chance, I would have engaged Coco on her belief that “a woman who does not wear perfume has no future.”  But alas, I was one of a large group of 1932 donors to the Huntington Hospital Fund.  Vanderbilt promised us all a personal tour in exchange for our generosity, then promptly rushed off the New York.  I think he was avoiding us.

So he foisted his tour on Coco, his Irish cook Delia O’Rourke, Ellin Berlin (Irving’s wife), his brother Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, and his crisply cold mother-in-law Agnes Lancaster.

I met Coco (2nd left), the mother-in-law (seated center), brother Harold (back center in red bow tie), dear Ellin (in red necklace, outfit by Coco), and Delia (middle row, 2nd right)

They managed to show us about the house, while also telling stories about themselves.  Harold is darn proud of winning the America’s Cup.  He and his brother are into cars and boats.  William has 10 yachts and was attracted to this Long Island site because of the deep water harbor for his boats.  Naturally.

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He is credited with bringing the first automobile to the U.S. from France.  This roadster is from 1904, and he won a race in it by going 92 mph.  Whoa!



Things were pretty calm among the various guides, except for Coco and Delia, the cook, who had a ‘lively’ discussion about dinner.  Delia took it like a champ, before sighing she’d get a bucket and go dig up some clams.  Coco ducked off for her meeting with Vogue.

Delia told us about all the meals she had to plan–3 a day each for the nursery, 28 staff, and family and guests.  Each had a different menu.  It takes three hours to plan the meals with Mrs. Vanderbilt, and great project management!  All the food has to be top drawer, and she said the staff are her biggest critcs.  “Morale is high when the food is good” is the motto of the house staff.  She typically works from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.  No wonder, she values the precious key to the wine cellar, saying this is where she likes to end her day.

2014-08-30 12.52.28She seemed to have the most knowledge of the house, which Vanderbilt designed and built.  It reflects his eclectic, offbeat taste, as a Spanish style mansion, filled with stuff he bought from around the world.  Yes, there’s your whale shark, mummy, and shrunken heads.

But also he swept up monastery furnishings.  Seems a bit like the DuPont/Winterthur aesthetic.  Buy it all, buy it now.  Choir benches, a refectory table for the dining room table, the sacristy cabinet intended for monks’ robes holding linens, the alms counter, with its slots for coin donations, serving as a sideboard.

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Ellin showed us some furnishings and art, which he collected for their appearance, not their meaning.  Medieval works in the hall–just like how they look.  Don’t care about religion.

She was my favorite, because she’s “saucy but amusing,” and I liked hearing her stories about her marriage.  Did you know that Irving wrote “Always” for her?  But even better, he signed over the royalties for the song to her (he did likewise for “God Bless America,” benefiting Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts).  That set her up for life.  Although we didn’t get to stay, Irving was to play the 1270-pipe organ that night, with 6 p.m. cocktails.  I’m not much of a fan of organ music, but hearing Berlin play Berlin…that would have been fun!

Nice view

Nice view

Mrs. Lancaster arrived six weeks after the honeymoon and never left.  You can see why.

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She is a very proper lady, with her hat (indoors) and gloves.  I did appreciate her showing us her daughter’s dressing room, which with mirrors on 3 sides, meant that Rosamund didn’t have to strain to see herself from all sides.  She designed her own closet, and it was functionally clever.  Her rose marble bath was, well, over the top.

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But even with the Biltmore fortune, the place has some noticeable need of repair.

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Maybe not as decrepit looking as Gillette Castle, designed to look like a craggy Romantic ruin.  Its Romantic setting, looming over the Connecticut River, just begins to tell the story.

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Nice view

Nice view








William Gillette was a theater guy who made his fortune, yes, in the theater.  Yes, really.  Pre-Hollywood, he did quite well acting, playwriting, and patenting set design innovations.

You’re wondering, how could that make him a fortune?  Probably, it came from his most famous role–Sherlock Holmes.  He worked with Conan Doyle to make Holmes more theater friendly.   Gillette gave the character the deerstalker hat and pipe.  “Elementary, my dear Watson” was his, too, apparently.  Soon Gillette, who played the role some 1300 times, was so identified with the character, that people thought Holmes was real.  His castle became known as ‘Sherlock’s Castle’.

After 60+ years in the theater, Gillette decided to retire to Connecticut.  Like Vanderbilt, he designed and built his home, which took over 4 years, completing it in 1919.  He filled it with more of his inventions and designs with plucky Holmesian ingenuity.

Like the Vanderbuilts, he dabbled in railroads, building a track, bridges, and tunnels around his castle.  Plus his own Grand Central station.  Just for fun.

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View from Grand central

View from Grand Central








Inside and out, the castle is constructed of local limestone, giving that massive appearance of a medieval castle.

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For the inside, he hired master carpenters to carve wood wall paneling, ceilings, and more throughout the three story structure, all based on his designs.  Each door is unique, and he designed the clever window locks and lights, too.  He scaled the stair rails to be short so he would look even taller than his 6′ 4″.


From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of teh table with hidden cat potties...

From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of the table with hidden cat potties…


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Gillette adored cats and had lots of them.  Weirdly, he designed this table for the 1500 sf Great Hall, to hide cat toilets inside.  Hmmm.  Not every idea was a winner.





You gotta love the trick cabinet for the bar, with a locking mechanism useful during Prohibition, since when closed, the bar looks like part of the wall.  He loved to fool his guests, too.  Since the trick involved no simple lock, but a series of levers and secret parts that had to be pressed just right, his guests struggled to get inside it.  Gillette could enjoy their frustration from the “surveillance” mirrors he placed strategically under windows, effectively hiding them.

Here in the stairway The hidden door is right in the center, not the open door.  It Is very hard to see.

Here in the stairway, the hidden door is right in the center, not the open door. It is very hard to see.



After all that, the third floor art gallery, just as he left it, was a bit of a let down.  Long live the quirk!

The study

The study

Love the light swithc, which looks like railroad pulls

Love the light switch, which looks like railroad pulls