Friday, August 28, 2009

Art Saves, or How I Learned to Love Graffiti

A month or so ago, when I finished reading Scott McCloud's collected Zot (which is on sale at that link for more than half price) I mentioned that there are two comic books that really changed my life. One of them, which I discussed in that entry, was "Planet Krypton", and the other is Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg's The Plain Janes. Neither comic, by itself, was all that life changing, but both of them happened to come along at just the right time when I happened to need a shove.

The Plain Janes is the story of Jane, a pretty and popular high schooler who survives a terrorist bombing in the city. As she picks herself up off the sidewalk, she finds a single dandelion and a Polish art student's sketchbook with "Art Saves" printed on the cover. Jane decides that if these tiny, fragile things can survive, so can she, and she takes "art saves" as her new mantra when her frightened parents uproot her to the suburbs where she can be safe. High school in the suburbs is, as high school everywhere tends to be, soul crushing but on her very first day Jane has the chance to befriend the cool cheerleader types and become again the popular girl she once was, and she decides not to. Instead, she decides to sit with three outcasts, Jane, Jayne, and Polly Jane, and together they are the Plain Janes.

Now in a clique of her own making, Jane decides that art can save them all. It can save them from boredom, from apathy, and from the way that high school can marginalize some people and leave them on the outside. Joined by James, the only member of Buzz Aldrin High's Queer Club, they become P.L.A.I.N., People Loving Art In Neighborhoods, and they become guerrilla artists. They knit hats to put on all of the city's fire hydrants in winter, and build pyramids out of paving stones in construction sites. They wrap newspaper boxes and mail boxes up like presents, and cover the lawn of the police station with gnomes. The authorities consider it graffiti, disruptive acts of vandalism, but P.L.A.I.N. has a mission to celebrate art in small ways and bring joy to the masses, and people begin to follow them. There are chalk drawings on the sidewalks and flash mob singalongs and exploding balloons filled with glitter, and in the end, art saves the Plain Janes. Art gives them self confidence, and purpose, and lifts them up from the people they were so that they become the people they want to be.

This isn't an entry about how I moved to Tennessee and became a whole other person instead of continuing down the same path I'd been on for years in Albany. Sorry if it sounded like that for a minute. Instead, this is an entry about art, random art, beautiful art left by people for others to enjoy, and how art saves. It didn't really save me from anything, but it changed the way I look at the world around me. I was trying to explain this to my friend Dabs a week or so ago, and we both kind of laughed it off, but I meant it. In looking at the advertisements and vandalism and the basic colors of the world around me with a different eye, I stopped seeing annoyances, and I started to see art. Now, every time I leave my apartment, I bring my camera with me, because I might see something wonderful. Right when I was trying very hard to stop being a pessimist and start being an optimist, this comic came along and gave me a shove in the right direction.

What is art? The art history teacher in "Art School Confidential", wonderfully played by Angelica Houston, asks the class this. She rattles off a list of the great works of the western world's artistic cannon, and is immediately met with the smug response that "everything on that list was painted by a dead white guy". That response is, of course, part of the movie's wonderfully satirical slap at the pretentiousness and self righteousness of college students everywhere, but there's also a grain of truth in there: art doesn't have to come from the "great masters" to be great. Given that, is this art?

urban art

Or this?

at heart

What about this?

dancing girl

This one looks like art, so is it?

mona lisa

Or this one?

starry night

This is the question that Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts, asks her art history class in "Mona Lisa Smile". Is it art? Is it any good? Betty Warren, ably played by Kirsten Dunst as a "mean girl" for the 1950's set, responds that it's not art until the right people say it is.

I've decided that I'm the right people.

This is art:

boy with arrows

So is this:

sale window

and this:

mailbox collage

and even this:

strange panda

It's art because someone felt something when they made those things, and when I see them, I feel something, too. It may not be the same thing they felt, or even the thing they intended for me to feel, but that person and I are connected for the briefest of moments. It doesn't have to be in a museum or on a wall or in a sculpture garden or a classroom or anywhere expected. It's there, and if you want it to be, it's art, and like Jane, I believe that art saves.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Rubber Duck Race

Every year our city has a rubber duck race to benefit the Boys and Girls Club, and every year I end up buying a duck or two. I never get to actually see the race because it's usually on the same weekend that we have opening and the kids moving in, but this year our schedule is off. Opening was last week, the duck race was this week, and Jeannie invited me to go down and see it with her.

We didn't get to actually see the race, though, because of this:

baby rage

I'll get to that.

The day started out well. We left on time, a rarity for the two of us, easily found parking, and headed down to the riverwalk, which was packed:


I had no idea so many people actually came to see this, especially since the river moves extremely slowly and some years it takes as long as five hours for all the ducks to make it from one bridge to another. We got there about a half hour before the ducks were dropped into the water, which gave us time to see real ducks:

actual ducks

inflatable ducks:

inflatable duck

and for the kid to start crying:

fretful baby

because some other kid shot him with water from his ass:


The crying there was understandable, as being sprayed with ass-water can be traumatic for anyone. We gave him a cookie, strapped him back into the stroller, and looked for a spot to view the race. Unfortunately there was no good way to get the stroller down onto the seats in the stands besides carrying it:

waiting for ducks

We ended up down under the bridge, where it was shady and we could see the riverboat go by:

bridge and hospital

Star of Knoxville

Unfortunately, that's right where the kid started crying. We had no idea what he wanted, but that's the problem with kids: you never know what they want. You have one, and then until they learn to talk you're just a hostage to the noises they make and are willing to do whatever you can to make them stop. I, for example, figured we could just wheel the stroller under a tree and ignore him for a while, but Jeannie for whatever reason decided we needed to take him back to the car and go home. I guess this is the difference between having children and being childless. Anyway, that's how we went to the duck race but didn't get to see the race or the ducks.

On the way home, I mentioned to Jeannie that having kids seems to pretty much ruin your life, which she shared with Brian. He let me know that it doesn't really ruin your life, but instead makes you question what you're doing, what your goals are, where you can go, how spontaneous you can be, what plans you can make, where you can eat, what you can eat, what you can spend money on, what's important to you, what you care about, etc. etc. etc. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that sounds pretty life ruining to me, but I'm a selfish person with no biological imperitive to reproduce and am clearly not meant to enjoy parenthood. Everyone who has kids must see something I don't, but I get to see a movie without calling a sitter. I'd call it an even trade.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chicken Not Pie

Tonight the carpool and I decided that we all needed to eat out, mostly because we've been doing training and opening and stuff for the past three weeks or so and no one has any actual groceries in their apartment. I've had macaroni and cheese four nights in a row because there is nothing else in the apartment besides my lunch supplies, and since I'm taking that in to work every day I at least want a different meal at dinner.

Fortunately for us, a new restaurant opened within walking distance, a combination Italian and Southern place. The combination seemed a little sketchy to me, like one of those restaurants that tries to do a little of everything and ends up doing nothing well, but Jeannie swore that it was good so Anna and I just kind of shrugged and went along.

I ended up getting the chicken pot pie, something I didn't eat when I was little. It was one of those dishes that seemed fraught with danger, because it came all sealed up. What if some of the chicken was dark meat? You couldn't tell because it was sealed inside. What if it had onions in it? Were they small onions, or big hacked off chunks of onions that you'd bite into and get that combination of crunchy and slimy that makes onion so gross? There was no way of knowing. Anything could be inside the pie crust, any number of gross things that you didn't want to eat but might get tricked into eating because you couldn't see. Potpie seemed a sinister, conniving sort of food.

Besides, the brother liked it, so it had to be inherently evil.

As I've gotten older, though, I've actually started eating vegetables, and branched out into every once in a while eating a piece of the chicken that's not snow white (but not with bones in it! Oh, God, I'm so not ready for that still), so potpie suddenly sounded good.

chicken potpie

The potpie left me unhappy.

It tasted good. I cleaned that plate, and contemplated asking for a spoon to scrape up the leftover, but at the same time, that's not potpie to me. I know about trends toward deconstruction and reinvention and all of that in food, but I don't want a piece of pastry floating on a bowl of potpie filling. If I order a potpie, I want a pie, damn it. This was more like a potpie stew and pastry crouton, which is fine, but not what the menu suggested. When I order pie, I want pie.

I would have ordered some for dessert, but I was afraid of getting a bowl of apple pie filling with a cookie floating on top.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We survived!

The students have returned to campus, and we survived getting them in. This is not to say that it happened without problems, but I think this year went pretty smoothly overall, and today we sort of celebrated by attending Volfest on our way home from work:


Even though we're all kind of exhausted and cranky, the students are pretty excited, and it manages to rub off on us.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hello, Dolly

Yesterday I decided I needed to get out of town for a while, so I got in the car and headed down Chapman Highway.

Open Until

There's a statue down there that I keep intending to go see and keep not getting to, so I figured I might as well just go while I had no firm plans and needed to fill some of my time. According to my directions, I could find it easily on the Sevier County Courthouse lawn:

Sevier County Courthouse

It's not that eagle statue, though. It's the statue of Dolly Parton:


I didn't expect the statue to look so much like her, though, or at least like she looked in a specific era before plastic surgery. I guess it makes sense that it should, but I thought it would end up more like bad wax museum figures, where it looks vaguely like them and your mind fills in the rest of the resemblance by suggestion. Not so in this case:

Dolly (2)

Dolly (3)

That's definitely Dolly.

Since it was already early and I was only a mile away, I decided I might as well go spend a few hours in the most wonderful, most horrible place on earth: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I like to refer to Pigeon Forge as Ten Stoplights Worth of Awful, because it's like Vegas and Branson and Hazard County and Walton's Mountain all rolled into one somehow, all shiny and touristy and awful and dazzling all at once. It's the "all at once" part that really kills the whole thing, because there is no concept of restraint. Nothing is too bright, too out of place, too terrible to contemplate building in Pigeon Forge, transforming the road to the most beautiful national park in the region into ten stoplights full of the tackiest tourist crap available in the United States.

I don't mean the regular stuff, like the fifty or so pancake houses:

45 kinds of breakfast

I can't even imagine 47 different kinds of breakfast.

I don't even mean the stuff like the two different Christmas outlet stores across the street from each other:

fat santa

It's stuff like this:

The Titanic

That's the Titanic Museum and Attraction, opening in Spring 2010. It's now the first thing you see when you come over the hill by the Wonderworks:


And that's the central conflict in the town of Pigeon Forge. The city can't seem to decide on an identity, choosing between down home touristy stuff that makes you smile and over the top artificial stuff that couldn't seem more fake if it tried, like the Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride:

Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride

I walked past it on my way to see the statue on the front of the Lazer Arcade:

lazer monster

When I walked past, I noticed the two tourists staring at the dinosaur, but I figured they were doing the same thing as me, walking around, staring, soaking in the tacky. When I went past again, walking the other way a good half hour later, they were still there, and I thought, "What could possibly be that interesting?" and looked closer. They're mannequins. The tourists in front of the fake jungle filled with fake dinosaurs are fake people. I can't think of anything that sums up the bad side of Pigeon Forge better.

Given that, my friends always ask what I love about Pigeon Forge, and it's the slightly less fake side. I have a soft spot in my heart, the same one that likes giant Rubik's Cubes and the World's Largest Ten Commandments, for older homemade tourist attractions, and they're still there in between the minigolf with the extremely blue dyed waterfall:


and the light up neon ice cream parlor:

ice cream in neon

I mean places like the Three Bears General Store:

short a bear

which inexplicably only has two bears, or Lid'l Dolly's outlet store:


where you can stand and wonder what possible letter that apostrophe could be replacing, or the Smoky Mountain Candy Makers:

Smoky Mountain Candy Makers

where the mural on the side caught my eye. I mean, look at that kid:

black eyes

He may be smiling, but his eyes are soulless black pits. Was I going to get candy, or going to hell at the hands of a child monster straight out of Japanese horror? The answer, of course, was sugar:

soda bottles

Sugar of all kinds, including still being cooked:

candy making

I don't know what was in the kettle, because I didn't ask, but it was steaming and boiling and spinning away:

candy kettle

And, of course, it wouldn't be a tacky touristy candy store without the obligatory chocolate Dolly Partons:

a wide spread of chocolate boobs

I've only been in two candy factories in Tennessee, and I've seen chocolate Parton bosoms in both. I'm starting to wonder if it's just East Tennessee, or some kind of statewide thing, like Florida oranges or Georgia peaches. Come to Tennessee, and enjoy our chocolate celebrity boobs!

Leaving the candy store, boobless, I realized I was only a few short steps away from the Hillbilly Village:

Hillbilly Village

Not only did they advetise souveniers and gifts, but also an exhibit of moonshine stills and hillbilly cabin life:

free exhibit

Why, it was practically a museum! After spending a minute falling in love with the vintage metal elephant ride out front:

red elephant ride

I hurried inside to be educated. The first thing I learned was that hillbillies and racism go hand in hand, based on the items in the gift shop:

rebel beach towels

Mammy dolls

It probably explains why I saw George Bush bumper stickers in the parking lot and not a single one for Barak Obama. After I saw enough of the memorabilia, I decided to tour the exhibit, which looked more like a vacant lot:

hillbilly cabin exhibit

It kind of was educational. I learned that hillbilly women often lounged on the porch without feet:

hillbilly woman

that hillbillies built their cabins with their own hands and also made moonshine:

this old house

that the cabin roof let in a lot of daylight:

cabin light

and that these may or may not have been one or more moonshine stills:

moonshine stills

I also learned that the Hillbilly Village doesn't recognize that there might, alphabetically, be any male names between Joe and Joey:

there's a name missing

so I stomped off in a rage without buying anything.

Fortunately I almost immediately saw an older, run down mini golf place that happily let me walk around their course for free:


tragic kingdom



Give me a rotting shark:


or crumbling castle:

pink castle

and my heart soars again.

God Bless America

God bless America, and God bless Pigeon Forge in all its touristy, jerky-pushing glory:

beef jerky outlet

Now if they would just hurry up and get that Titanic exhibit open so I could start trying to convince someone to go with me.