You Should Have Been an Architect

After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.

As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.

Orthographic of stairs
Orthographic of stairs

In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.

Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.

Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?

Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri
Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri

Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.

I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.

So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.

I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,  I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Art to learn more about how I have done this.

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Behind Each Work of Art

David
Statue of David, by Leonardo da Vinci

There is more Behind Each Work of Art then the artist’s imagination, creativity and skill – much more. Frequently when you look at a beautiful work of art you have no idea of how it was made or what it took to make it. The process is lost. That is especially true when it was made in the distant past and when it has attributes that make it special. That is even truer — if that is a word — of the economic conditions and the culture that made its creation possible. When the work of art is massive and, as in some cases, when it took many years or even generations to create, there is always the open question about the conditions that made its creation possible. Importantly, when it took many, many workers to create it, they had to be supported and provided for during the entire time. How the societies were able to accomplish that, and how the works of art have survived the ravages of aging, wars and hostilities, as well as the process of production — how they were created and what made their creation possible — is lost to history as well.

Some of the renowned works of art that have survived are the Pyramids in Egypt, the Mayan pyramids and temples, the Taj Mahal and Hagia Sophia, the Turkish Cathedral in Istanbul. They are still around to be seen, experienced and admired. In part because they were made of materials, like stone and metals, that survive the ravages of time and the elements. Art works made of other materials, like wood, sod, leather, cloth or ice, are not so lucky.
Baskets are a classic example. Almost every society has them in one form or another. They were made from local materials.
Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As with every other art form and craft, some reach of the level of fine art. Some of the contemporary American ones that have reached that level are in the Smithsonian Collection. They can be seen in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum distributed by the University of North Carolina Press). Unlike the buildings, monuments, and artifacts that have survived, all we know about the baskets of yesteryear is the impression that they left in pottery shards — the remnants of the pots they were used to make. We don’t know what the baskets were made of or how they were made. The same is true for all the other works of art that degraded naturally or were lost through the ages. My art history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Clemens Sommer, based the course on the concept that “art is a product of the culture”. It is interesting to reflect on the double meaning of the word “product” in that context.

It is important to recognize that behind every work of art there is a process.  Along with it is the creator’s skill that is required to bring it to fruition. Often it is a skill that only they possessed and held as a closely guarded secret. It died with them. Moreover, the technology and the economic conditions have to be just right, to provide the components necessary to make it all happen.

Patrons, such as Isabella D'este of Mantua supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.
Patrons, such as Isabella D’este of Mantua
supported the work of Leonardo DaVinci.

It is also necessary to support the creator and the others involved in the creative process. During the time it takes to create the work of art, the artist and everyone else involved in the process must be able to take care of themselves. Either they are able to provide the goods and services involved themselves or someone else must provide them. It could be a spouse, partner, a friend. a patron or the result of a grant. The bottom line is that without those goods and services and that support the piece would not, could not exist. Furthermore, the culture has an important role. In addition to providing the technological and economic conditions that made it possible, it gave rise to the idea — the concept — and it acknowledged the importance of the work of art once it was completed.

The acceptance and approval of the work of art is manifest when someone purchases it. Both the buyer and the artist are made better off. Its new owner was willing to give up the purchase price and whatever else they could have bought with it. The artist leaves with the funds that hopefully allows him/her to achieve their objective, with the realization that someone liked the work enough to pay the asking price. Perhaps it will encourage them to create additional pieces. In addition to the artist’s time, energy, resources, and funds (TERF), other materials, tools, and equipment are used to create the work of art– to bring the idea into its physical form, someone else’s TERF had to be used to make and provide them. They are integral to the piece. It could not exist without them.
As important as the artist’s contribution is, the role and value of the goods and services provided by others cannot, and should not, be neglected. Typically, those who provided them, expect to be reimbursed for their contribution. They are part of a bigger picture. When viewing any work of art, whether it was created in the distant past or more recently, it is important to understand the work from the perspective of this broader context. The preconditions that led to it must be present. Important as it is to acknowledge and honor the work itself and its creator, it is equally important to understand the economic, technological, and cultural conditions that made the work of art possible. Behind each work of art is a great woman: The Earth Mother.

The Fieldston Years

EthicalCultureLet me tell you about the advantages of a good high school education and the importance of one’s experiences during those formative years. I was a 1930’s kid. I entered The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in September 1941 as a Third Former, a high school freshman. Fieldston is an educational arm of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is the granddaddy of the humanistic movement. It was founded by Felix Adler in the 1880s.

Three months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we were into World War II. The war ended in August four years later, shortly after our Class of ’45 graduated. Of the seventy-six students in the class, fifty were girls. Many, if not most, had been together since kindergarten, either at Downtown Ethical or at Fieldston Lower and Middle School. I was the only Queens kid.

My previous school experience was in traditional Queens public schools — PS 48, 23, 21 and 20. In fact, I was accepted by Fieldston directly from 8A. Consequently, I never finished the eighth grade and never graduated from elementary school.

We lived in Flushing, a mile away from the end of the No. 7 IRT subway. It took you to Times Square. From there you picked up the Broadway Subway and traveled to the end of the line at 242nd Street and hiked up the hill to Fieldson. To avoid the long, daily two-way commute during the week I boarded with three local families over the next four years. Being away from home during the week helped me learn how to take care of myself. Continue reading “The Fieldston Years”

At 87

I can no longer say I’m 86 going on 87; I’m 87. It’s been a good year — 2014. My birth year and the calendar year almost match since I was born on January 7th.

I’m feeling fine, although I must admit to tiring more easily, and that I can’t walk as fast, or as far as I used to in my younger years. Both my cardiologist, and my internist said they don’t want to see me for another year. I’m going to try to hold them to that.

I treat every day as a holiday. They have been fun and productive.

Bernie order a crepe from the crepe truck at Erin and Grace's wedding.
Bernie order a crepe from the crepe truck at Erin and Grace’s wedding.

The big news is that my coworker, colleague and buddy, Erin Coyle, and her partner, Grace, got married. First on October 4th in DC and then again, a week later on the 11th here in North Carolina. Both ceremonies were fantastic and it pleases me to have helped make them happen. As it turned out, the second one was not necessary. The law had changed. Can you imagine that? Two beautiful, fine young women getting legally married to one another. Moreover, the marriage was recognized by both the Federal and the State governments. That never would have or could have happened when I was younger. Some things have changed.

Not all changes have been for the better. When I was growing up and moved to North Carolina in the 1940’s, it was the most liberal of the Southern States. Frank Porter Graham was the President  of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill at the time. He later became our U.S. Senator and so did Sam Ervin. Last year, many who participated in our Moral Mondays were arrested in Raleigh, as the Federal and State governments have become more and more under the control of corporations and big money. The last time I checked, the Supreme Court said that corporations were “persons!” I thought “persons” had a heart. When I taught economics, the role of government was to rein in corporate excesses. That is my field. I promise, for now at least, I’ll get off my soapbox.

When I was growing up, the people who lived within the boundaries of any of the 48 — now 50 —States, were responsible for its governance and represented it at the federal level — not outsiders and outside money. Admittedly, governments as economic institutions have problems and imperfections. especially in periods of change. I can speak to that professionally. From a lay perspective, there are clearly political issues as well. Oh, I’m sorry. I promised I get off my soapbox. 87-year-olds forget!

In part, at least, those changes have caused me to shift my focus. I was focusing on a project called: The Imperfect Health-Care Market: Making it work for you. But healthcare is in the hands of the stakeholders, promoting their own self-interest, not those of the potential beneficiaries. What I have to say will not be heard by those who could improve the situation. 

Instead, along with Erin’s help, I am working on the economics of art and craft. Here’s some of the papers that are currently in the works:

    • An Economist’s Take on Pricing Art and Craft — A Pricing Manual

    • The Economics of Fine Art and Fine Craft

    • Behind Each Work of Art

The big news is that Erin and I have just published a book, called: The MiniBook: a Guide to Self Care. And this is only the first volume! It is a compilation of my sayings and the images Erin created to go along with them. For more about the book check out out our website. It has been well received. If you like what you see, we’d be glad to send you a copy of the book or prints of any of the images along with the sayings that turn you on.

And, of course, there’s always the blog. But you already know about it.

Welcome to the New Year — 2015

Peace and Love

Think Before You Say “Yes”

Last August I talked about the Cost of War and how taking it into consideration beforehand improves our understanding and choices. In this post I would like to show how those deliberations help in our day to day decisions as well.

When someone asks you to do something — anything — think before you say, “Yes”. As adults our primary responsibility is to take care of ourselves first. That involves providing the basic inputs required to survive. It also includes fulfilling any commitments and obligations that we have taken on including the tasks involved in every day living. Either we perform the required tasks ourselves, provide goods and services to others in exchange for the ones they provide us, or earn the income necessary to purchase them.

Regardless of how we get those goods and services, what we use up is our own time, energy, resources and funds. Let’s call it our TERF. Since there are only twenty four hours in a day, the amount of TERF each of us has available is limited. Survival requires that certain things be done first including making sure we have enough of the basic inputs — clean air, fresh water, food, rest, clothing and shelter. Providing for them is our primary priority. That always requires a certain amount of our TERF. Another priority is allocating the TERF required to fulfill any commitments and obligations we have taken on. They include those involving our spouses or partners, having and raising children, taking care of sick or aging parents, friends or animals, etc. Here again, each of them requires more of our limited TERF.

Continue reading “Think Before You Say “Yes””

Same Sex Marriage

Marriage is a statement about a bonding and a commitment between two people. Outsiders and the State can and should honor that commitment, especially since it does not adversely affect anyone else.

samesex14_PH3_babiesThe nominal rationale, by those that oppose same-sex marriage, is that heterosexual couples are best suited for raising children.

Let’s start by saying that is an assertion. Where is the proof? Even if it were true, having and raising children is not the only reason for marriage. As I said earlier, it is about bonding and commitment between consenting adults. Turn it around. Would you want anyone to tell you who you should be with, what is right for you, and what you should do? Now let’s look at “the best for the children” argument. Having children is not the reason most couples get married. Certainly not all want or have them. Some who do, sometimes can’t. Moreover, the bonding provided by marriage lasts long after the children have left the nest. That is simply not a basis for providing the rights and privileges of bonding only to heterosexual couples.

Taking it a step further, just in case you haven’t noticed, many couples break up. When they do, the children are raised by a single parent, the separated parents, or someone else. At other times, a single adult or teenager gets pregnant. If she does not want the child, or can’t afford to take care of herself much less the child, and is not permitted to have an abortion, then her options are limited. At times the child is raised by a parent that didn’t want it, frequently under impoverished circumstances. That is especially difficult if the parent does not have sufficient education and experience to get a well-paying job. Moreover, she must spend much of her time taking care of the unwanted child. Sometimes the mother and/or the child require governmental services, or at other times the child may become a ward of the state. Many of those who are opposed to same-sex marriages are the same individuals who want to eliminate government services and reduce the size of government. Do you really believe the child and society are better off in any of those circumstances, than if the child was raised by a couple in a loving homosexual marriage?

 The bottom line is that heterosexual marriages are “the best place to raise children” is not a rational basis for not permitting and honoring homosexual relationships and providing those who wish to engage in them the same rights and privileges as all citizens. Though it may not be my sexual preference or orientation, I can still see no reason for denying those for whom it is their rights and privileges.

Continue reading “Same Sex Marriage”

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.