Me — Then ’til Now

Recently I’ve decided to change doctors. I have decided to see a physician that has more knowledge about the specific needs of those of us who are aging. The medical history form for the UNC Geriatric Clinic requested that I tell them about myself. It is probably a bernieonstjohnlittle more lengthy than they required. Somehow it morphed into a blog post! So here goes.

I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey on January 7, 1928 at 25 minutes to midnight at 4 lbs/10 oz. Arriving two months earlier than expected, I had to be fed with an eye dropper. I went down to 3 lbs/13oz. before my weight started to pick up. I was told that I was wrapped in absorbent cotton and put into a cigar box. (I must admit I don’t remember any of it, but I guess that’s because of my aging.)

The family moved to Queens in New York City when I was six months old, first to Jackson Heights and then, in 1936, to Flushing. My younger brother, Arnie, was born when I was three. Like most other Queens kids most of those early years were spent in public schools. Summers were spent at camp. At 12 I became a Boy Scout in Queens Troop 45. The next three summers were spent at Ten Mile River Scout Camp Keowa in the Adirondacks. In my second year I was chosen for the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s honor society. I became a Star Scout, but never made it to Life or Eagle Scout.

In June 1941, I completed the first half of the eighth grade. In September I was accepted by and went on to high school at Fieldston School in Riverdale. Fieldston is the educational arm of the Society for Ethical Culture. To avoid the long daily commute from Flushing to Fieldston, I boarded with a family in Riverdale during the week.

Continue reading “Me — Then ’til Now”

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Baskets? Yes, Baskets!

virgin_islands_national_park__virgin_islands_usSomething happened recently that I’d like to share with you. I’ve decided to change tacks and follow my heart and my gut. Together, Erin Coyle and I have been trying to help others understand the broken health-care system and how to work their way around and through the intricacies of it.  We’ve enjoyed doing it and have even gotten some favorable responses. From time-to-time some of the ideas have shown up as blog posts or as topics on my website: www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

Early in November, I got a call from the St. John Historical Society. They were planning a meeting in December honoring St. John baskets, and they asked me to come down to talk about them. The Virgin Islands, volcanic in origin, rose out of the ocean like mountaintops cropping out of the sea. The two larger ones are St. Thomas and St. Croix. The smallest — St. John — is where I lived for eighteen years. When I first moved there in 1987, I studied St. John basketry. Through basketry, I met Mr. Herman Prince, St. John’s premier basketmaker and basketry teacher. When I told Mr. Prince that I wanted to write an article on St. John baskets, he said, “Before you write an article about baskets and basketry, you

Mr. Herman Prince. St John's premier basketmaker and teacher.
Mr. Herman Prince. St John’s premier basketmaker and teacher. (Picture courtesy of the St. John Historical Society.)

should learn how to make one.” So I took his course at Hawksnest. Not only did I learn how to make a basket, I also learned much about the culture. In 1990, I published a basketry article, entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John,” in The Clarion, the magazine of The Museum of American Folk Art. My interest in basketry didn’t end there; during my 18 years on St. John, I collected more than 25 baskets, many made by preeminent St. John basketmakers.

The phone call from the St. John Historical Society got me thinking. Sometime in late November, I pulled the collection of baskets out of the attic, looked them over, and realized how special and beautiful they are. Five of Mr. Prince’s baskets arein my collection, as well as others from St. John basketmakers such as Louise Sewer; her daughter, Lorrel; Victor Sewer; Felicia Martin; and Ina George. I also own a basket made by renowned basketmaker Jackie Abrams, who visited St. John in 1993-94.

Looking over my baskets, I thought, “Wow – some of these baskets really are fine art.”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum had just launched a basketry exhibit: “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” on display from October 4, 2013 to December 8, 2013. Looking over the catalog, I realized that one of the 63 baskets in the exhibit was made by my old friend and teacher, Herman Prince! His “St. John Market Basket” was in the exhibit and is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection; you can see it on the exhibit’s website and on page 144 of the show catalog. One of Jackie Abrams’ baskets was also in the exhibit as part of the Cole-Ware Collection.

I began to really think about my time on St. John, especially the time I spent with the basketmakers. Many basketmakers that I knew, including Mr. Prince, have already died. I quickly realized that if I don’t tell the stories about them, valuable information about the basketmakers and the baskets will be lost, forever.

Preserving the collection – and the stories that go with it – is important not only so people can learn about St. Johnian basketry and its relationship to the culture; it can even preserve and pass on the art of basketry itself. One of the baskets in

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

the collection is a miniature St. John basket with a cover, made by Ms. Lorrel Sewer. She learned basketmaking – the form called wist work – from her mother, a premier basketmaker in her own right. Ms. Lorrel gave me the basket for the collection in 2000. A number of years later, I got a call from her asking if I would be willing to send it back to her. She wanted to make another one, but she had forgotten how to make the cover.

Ms. Lorrel had lost that skill, and there were no other basketmakers alive to teach her. Because I had preserved the basket by keeping it as part of the collection, she was able to re-learn how to make a basket cover by studying her own work!

So what I’ve decided to do is to make a video that documents my collection of baskets. It will bring the baskets and their history to light and to life. It will honor the basketmakers who came from the small, isolated island community of St. John. I want to help tell the story of how they raised the level of the baskets they produced to museum-quality fine art. I want to make sure that the stories, memories, and culture of these beautiful people will not be lost! I plan to donate the video and  all of the baskets in the collection to the St. John Historical Society. I want to honor the makers and help preserve their stories and culture for future generations of historians, visitors and viewers.

In short, I have decided to follow my true passion. For now, the other important things we have to offer will just have to wait.

Clothing

eskimowoman
This is Inuit elder Qappik Attagutsiak in her traditional caribou and sealskin clothes. Location: Arctic Bay, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canadian high Arctic
Photographer: Sue Flood

Like all mammals, humans have fur. Some of us have more, others less. In addition to our fur we have created clothing to help protect us from the environment or to take advantage of it. Clothes have other functions as well. Like plumage it attracts members of the opposite, or the same, gender. It can be used to attract attention or to hide. Or used as an indication of the group we belong to and of status, rank or position in the hierarchy. The name or number on it can identify the person. It can be an indication of affluence. Clothing can also be part of our kit bag of tools, allowing us to do whatever job we undertake better. Importantly, it is a way to express who we are and our creativity.

Clothing is an art form as well as one of the basic inputs. Like the others it is dependent upon the materials that are available, on our ability manipulate them and the skills of the artisan. As the changes in it over time demonstrate, it also depends the environment, the current technology, the tools and available resources. Like all other art forms it is a product of the culture. And within that culture it depends on the imagination and creativity of the artist and, in this case, of the wearer as well. Whenever we see a piece of clothing or an image of it, a number of questions may come to mind such as: who created it, what is it made of, how does it fit into the environment, etc. In addition to covering us up or not and protecting us from the environment, clothing has many other functions:

  • It varies depending on environmental conditions.
  • It helps us stand out in a crowd or to hide.
  • It identifies us as a member of a team or group and as who we are.
  • It is an indication of class, status and rank.
  • It can serve as a tool helping you do your job.
  • It is an art form.

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Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft

yurt
Kyrgyz Yurt, Afghanistan
Photograph by Mattieu Paley, National Geographic
Blanket-draped yaks hunker down outside a young Kyrgyz couple’s yurt on the eve of a summer trading journey. Made of interlaced poles covered with felt, these portable homes are packed up and reassembled for seasonal migration. Wooden doors are imported to the treeless plateau from lower altitudes.

Think of shelters and clothing as art. Some of them are really fine, museum quality art.

At that level each is a masterpiece of achievement. The artist –whomever he or she was –stepped up and used their creative imagination and fine skills to produce a functional and beautiful structure or fine piece of clothing. They accomplished that in spite of the fact that they were constrained by the technology and tools of the time and the materials and resources that they had at hand. Most of the materials were local, some were traded for. Each piece — each fine work of art — came into being as a result of their skill and their creativity using the materials they had available. Furthermore, each artist had a deep understanding and respect for the materials they used. Let’s look at some examples from that perspective.

Having seen them, ideally what would you like to know about each of them? The answer is simple. It would be the information provided for any piece on display at a museum. That includes:

Shelter

Thatched-Houses-Skye
Thatched roof cottage, Ireland

Rumor has it that as a species — Homo sapiens — we originated in Africa and migrated all over the globe. On a daily basis each of us requires some essential inputs like clean air, water, food, clothing, rest and shelter. See Viewing the Body as a Complex Machine. Shelter provides protection from the elements like heat and cold, the wind, rain, etc, and from daily and seasonal variation and their extremes. The nature of the protection required depended upon where we were living and on the materials that were available locally as well as the skills and tools of our ancestors. That is where our creativity as a species came into play. Using the resources that were available locally and their imagination, our ancestors created shelters to protect themselves from the elements. They were all different and beautiful. They included: Cave dwellings, TeepeesAdobes, Sod hutsThatch housesIgloos, and Log cabinsMany different structures evolved. Those are just some of them.  Aren’t they beautiful, artistic and creative? For a better understanding about what we would like to know about each of these shelters as works of art see Seeing Some Shelters and Clothing as Fine Art and Fine Craft. Continue reading “Shelter”