Are you a culture vulture too?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)

I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.

I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.

My favorite media are radio and film.

I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)

Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.

Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum  (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.

I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.

Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places),  has showed me more amazing art.

Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.

 

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A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)

 

Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.

Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.

As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.

I recently loved Old Stock, a terrific Canadian musical that’s just ended a two-month Manhattan run, and is headed for Bristol, England and Edmonton, Alberta.

I also saw a dark/powerful art show, “Berlin, Before and After”, at New York’s Neue Galerie, one of my favorite (small!) museums.

Living anywhere near New York City costs a fortune: highway and bridge tolls, taxes, commuting costs, crazy-high rent so you have to take advantage of all its various cultural offerings.

A daily list of low to no-cost NYC fun is The Skint; (“skint” is a British word for broke.)

 

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This amazing image was in the hallway across my room in a boutique hotel in Rovinj, Croatia

 

I do read a lot, but mostly non-fiction, magazines and newspapers. I just finished astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir, “Endurance” and am now reading “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” from 1929.

I write for a living (as some of you know!) so am always hungry for inspiration.

 

How about you?

 

What has shaped your cultural tastes — friends? family? the internet? TV? YouTube? formal education?

 

Any terrific recommendations to share?

 

A New York City museum of everyday life

By Caitlin Kelly

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If you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve still probably heard of the Met Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Maybe the Guggenheim.

If you’re planning a visit, I urge you to visit one that will forever change your perception of the city, and of the early immigrant experience in the U.S. — the Tenement Museum.

It is simply extraordinary, in telling the true stories of the lives of early immigrants to New York City, who lived in these two narrow buildings on Orchard Street, on the Lower East Side at the start of the 20th century.

It’s also extremely popular, with tickets selling out months in advance. 

I visited it years ago, and never forgot it. This week I was lucky enough to be able to have a quick group tour in the evening and it left me, once more, deeply moved.

I can’t show you any images as photography is not allowed.

You climb steep metal stairs into a brick building, constructed in 1863, and step into a narrow dark hallway with battered metal mailboxes set into the wall on the left-hand side.

The building stood empty from 1935 to 1988, so you’re stepping into a time capsule. The walls are cracked and the front wooden doors to each apartment still have their original panes of glass above them.

Inset into the front hallway walls are large oval paintings and bas-relief curlicues, attempts at elegance.

The steep stairs to the second floor have pressed metal treads and the banister is thick, smooth dark wood. A narrow hallway there offers one tiny public room containing a toilet — shared by all occupants of the floor’s four apartments.

We visited one apartment that had belonged to an Italian family, and which contained some of their personal belongings: a lace dresser scarf, photos, other objects.

It’s a stunning reminder what life was life for these newcomers, who left their hometowns and villages and cities many miles behind them, mostly from Europe.

They might have once enjoyed gorgeous, sweeping sunlit views of woods and farmland and fields and mountains — and now their two front windows faced east over a grimy, noisy, narrow city street lined with brick buildings in an unfamiliar city in a new country.

The apartments are very small: a front room with two windows; a middle room with a deep sink, a minuscule bathtub and a coal stove, with a window between the front room and kitchen to allow light to penetrate, and a small rear room.

The total square footage? Maybe 250 square feet, a space that held, at least, two adults and children, maybe more. (This is the size of my suburban New York living room, for context.)

No closets.

No telephone.

No privacy.

No silence.

No outdoor space beyond the steps — aka the stoop.

Thanks to simple, thin cotton curtains and other objects, the rooms feel as though their occupants have simply stepped out for a while — kitchen cupboards full, a checkers game on the kitchen table with its colored tablecloth, a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one wall.

It’s also a so different from the exquisite, costly objects on display in most museums, remnants mostly of the wealthiest lives and their rarified tastes. This is a museum of real life, as everyday working New Yorkers lived it.

The flooring is weathered linoleum designed to look like woven textiles and beneath that you can see weathered wooden floorboards.

To stand in that space is to feel intimately and viscerally what it must have been to leave everything behind except your hopes.

An art adventure: NYC to Philadelphia

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.

It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.

But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.

Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.

I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.

One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.

This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.

We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.

My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.

The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.

It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.

I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.

I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.

On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.

I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.

I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.

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A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.

I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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New York’s 9/11 Museum now open: will you visit?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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It has taken a long time — and $700 million in donations and tax dollars — but the museum commemorating the attack on New York City on September 9, 2001 opens to the public this month.

President Obama went to dedicate it today:

The president’s remarks highlighted a somber ceremony at the new institution marking the worst foreign attack on American soil, one that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of fear, war, determination and clashes of values while redefining America’s place in the world. Surrounded by the wreckage of that day, deep underneath the ground where two planes felled the twin towers, the president and the other guests vowed never to forget.

From CNN.com:

Objects big and small from the greatest terrorist attack on American soil now make up a museum dedicated to that tragedy and the 2,983 people who perished. It is one of America’s largest and most ambitious memorial museums, almost entirely subterranean and erected in the graveyard of Osama bin Laden’s victims.

Construction worker Frank Silecchia found a crossbeam in the rubble that resembled a cross. It became a key exhibit at the new museum.

A police officer found Genni Gambale’s red wallet on the roof of a Marriott hotel, a few blocks south of the Trade Center, days after the attacks. In the wallet were a scorched American Express Corporate card, a $115 coupon for Lenscrafters, a Brooklyn Public Library card, pennies, nickels, dimes.

Now under thick Plexiglass, the wallet tells of a life cut short. Gambale was one of many trapped on the upper floors after American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. She was 27.

I asked a friend if he is going to visit, and his response was swift and furious.

“No! They’re charging $24. The monuments in Washington are free. I think it’s obscene to charge money for this.”

I agree.

(It is free to family members of 9/11 victims, and $18 for seniors.)

I doubt I’ll go, but for additional reasons beyond a very high ticket price. I try to avoid even driving past the site of the former World Trade Center; I find the area frightening, depressing and filled with terrible memories, both visual and olfactory.

For many weeks after the towers fell, you could smell them many long blocks north, like some evil, dark wraith twisting between the skyscrapers. It was oily, chemical, acrid — and unforgettable.

There was no escaping it.

If you were in or near lower Manhattan (or D.C.) the day of those attacks, you likely have no appetite at all to relive the terror, doubt, confusion, grief and sorrow we all experienced.

That morning, I was in Maryland on a journalism fellowship, while my husband Jose, (then a boyfriend about to move, that very day, into my suburban apartment), sat in Brooklyn with all his possessions packed into boxes.

Instead, he heard the distinctive roar of an F-15 fighter jet overhead, a sound he knows, and knew we were at war.

He helped The New York Times to win the Pulitzer Prize that year for photo editing of those awful images. This was no “it’s only a movie” moment.

Instead he ran into a local drugstore, handed off the rolls of film from Times’ photographers — ash-covered from the collapsed towers, traumatized, running as fast they could — to develop it as quickly as possible then transmitting it to the Times’ midtown newsroom from the computer in his otherwise-empty apartment.

I reported the DNA testing of remains story, and it ran in newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, Britain and France. I also interviewed a volunteer morgue worker for Glamour, a women’s magazine.

The details were impossibly grotesque and I cried a lot.

A friend of ours, Richard Drew,  took a photograph that defines the day. It is a terrible, terrible image: Falling Man. These are real events that touched people we know.

The museum includes video and audio of the event — plus intimate artifacts like wallets and ID cards of people who became body parts, some still not recovered.

I listened to some of those audio tapes when I was a reporter at the New York Daily News. Jesus. It was five years after the event, but it might have been yesterday.

No, I can’t hear that again.

Ever.

So, I’m not going.

Would you?

The Met: Drunk On Beauty

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Image via Wikipedia

It’s a sin to live within striking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and not go, often. I shrivel not at the $20 suggested donation, (I paid $10 today and have unembarrassedly paid much less), but the crowds. But I was way overdue for for an aesthetic infusion, so, today, after a terrific French lunch with fellow former True/Slant Afghanistan writer P.J. Tobia, I wandered over.

A wild, weird, amazing show is on the roof right now, Big Bambu, by the brothers Doug and Mike Starn. They have been building the most unlikely structure imaginable, a sprawling, ever-expanding series of walkways and stairs and poles, lashed together with cord of different colors. It is hallucinatory to sit atop the Met, as the sun starts to sink over the rooftops and towers and peer through a thicket of pale bamboo at the gleaming Deco towers across Central Park.

I took some time to savor some of the galleries, a kaleidoscope that whirls you through millenia within steps. I admired a Greek gold diadem from the 5th century, Frankish pins, Olmec pots, Coptic tunics, a Hoffman silver tea set.

I sat on the broad stone steps and watched the pale stone blush with sunset as a cellist, violinist and flutist played quietly.

I always come home from the Met a little drunk.

Drunk on beauty.

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'Beetle Queen Takes Tokyo': A Bug-Obsessed Woman's Documentary On This Week In NYC

Loved the passion for insects from Jessica Oreck, a young woman animal keeper at the Museum of Natural History, whose first documentary opens this week in Manhattan at Film Forum.

She’ll even show up Wednesday and Friday at 6:30 and 8:20 with live beetles. Apparently (?), Japan is mad for beetles, one collector paying $90,000 for a rare specimen.

I heard her interviewed yesterday on one of my favorite radio shows, The Leonard Lopate Show, and her unlikely enthusiasm for creepy crawlies was lovely. If a woman could be said to be the patron saint of insects, she’s in the running.

Here’s a short video of her and photos of her apartment, with lots of tiny, cool things carefully curated within it like a mini-museum, with an interview with her, from one of my favorite websites, apartmenttherapy.com.