Saturday, July 11, 2020

Life Lessons from Quarentine in D minor

One of my sons came home from college more than a month early this spring. Covid19 precautions were being taken by schools across the country, making it a time for uncertainty, a distance learning curve, and a lot of family togetherness. One of the first things he asked for when he walked in the door was the sheet music for Cannon in D. All of our children had taken piano lessons starting age 8 but quit after about four years, not long enough to excel. And when you add another five years without practice, I was wondering if he'd remembered any of the notes. I printed the music (March 18th), and the moment I looked at the stanzas, felt the task was impossible. When he assured me he was up to the challenge, however, I felt instantly inspired to make his insanely lofty goal my own, and told him that I would learn it too, "even if it takes me a decade."

The first day, I had to recite mnemonic devices like "All Cars Eat Gas" and "Great Big Dogs Fight Animals" dozens and dozens of times just to get the notes in the first few measures, the easiest measures in the piece. Maybe 10 years wasn't going to be long enough to learn the five pages. I worked line by line every morning and at the two month mark, I was able to play the entire song!  There were some rough patches and I had no sense of dynamics or musicality about any of it. That took another couple of months.

I came to see learning this piece of music as some important life analogies:

1. Action is what matters most.

Talking about doing something doesn't count for much; you actually have to put your energy where your mouth is to get anything done. My son who requested the sheet music has not sat down to learn the first three notes, while I have competed it. Action is everything.

2. Baby steps and daily habits add up.

I never sat for three hour practice sessions. It was 15 minutes one day and 20 the next. Consistency was what helped me get through it with pleasure. No one can eat a whole whale (or whatever that weight is in beef or vegetables) in one seating.

3. What happens first in the day gets done.

Things come up throughout the day and bump some of the today's goals into tomorrow, but the thing you do first, always gets done, whether that's saying a prayer or taking a shower. I had to get my practice time in before my kids woke up and complained about my noise drowning out their noise. It always got done.

4. There are times when you have no idea what you are doing.

When I started out, I wasn't sure which notes to play or what my fingering should be, but I knew how the beginning of Pachelbel's Canon sounded, so knew when I got it right. By page four, I was in unfamiliar territory. I couldn't tell if I was getting it right or wrong. I muddled and muddled and muddled until one morning I heard something that sounded almost like a melody. When you're not sure if you are on the right track, keeping moving forward little by little until the fog lifts and your vision becomes clear again.

5. Negative thoughts will psych you out.

When I'd tell myself, "here comes the hard part," I'd slow down and stumble. But one day I made it through without a mistake and was like, "Oh, I forgot to tell myself to struggle...and it was easy." Any time your focus is on someone else watching you and what they're thinking, or what a mess things are in life, you are taking the focus off solving problems and doing what needs to be done.

6. When you think you're done, think again.

I heard my painting professor talk about the fact that he'd learned to paint 20 years earlier, so how was it that he was still learning to paint? We can always get better. A writer may "finish" her book, but if it's her first draft, she is probably looking at more time and effort in the revisions than she did "writing" the book to begin with. Learning the notes was just the first step. I still had my work cut out for me, trying to make it into music.

7. Personal commitment doesn't depend on anyone else.

Learning this song was going to be a mother-son, bonding thing. We were going to do it together. His lack of follow-through had nothing to do with my end of the bargain though. I said I was going to learn it, so I learned it and I am happier for the accomplishment.  Sometimes we wait for our friends to save up enough to take that cruise with us, or our husbands to get the backyard garden going, when we could have spent that waiting time moving forward, getting things done, and realizing our own dreams.

8. It's never too late to start.

I am encouraged when I see people start a new instrument in their fifties and sixties. I'm not too old to become much better at the piano, and it's not too late for my son to learn this song or any other.  Rather than focus on what we haven't learned yet, we need to focus on what we can learn and get busy doing it.

My Musings about Monuments


Me, leaving my mark on Lennon Wall (totally legal )
Emotions have been running high lately concerning statues, in my town and across the country. Angry people are defacing and toppling Confederate monuments, which makes other people angry. As an artist, I am very conscious that the things we make as individuals and as society, tell our history. I love that people are talking about what stories are being told with these monuments and trying to figure out where to go from here. I don't have strong opinions about most monuments in the news, nor do I have answers, but on my trip to The Czech Republic a couple of years ago, I learned a few things about how they handled similar problems.

The walls of the synagogue covered with names
German Nazis occupied what was then called Czechoslovakia from 1938-1945, which was two years longer than the existence of the Confederacy in the U.S. (1860-1865). There are no statues of Hitler making his triumphal march into Prague, no flags with swastikas on any of the buildings. Do the Czechs even remember who Hitler is? Are they so offended that they erased that part of their history? Of course not. Younger generations learn of Hitler's oppression and atrocities in their country as I did, when I walked the haunted grounds of Terezin Ghetto and concentration camp. The Czechs also preserved the Jewish Quarters of Prague where I visited and saw the meticulously painted names on the walls of a synagogue, of every Czech Jew, killed by the Nazis.




A close up of the synagogue wall. Each name represents a life taken by the Nazis
In 1945, the Soviet tanks came into Prague, ending the Nazi occupation, and the official Communist coup of February 1948, introduced 40 years of Communism to the country. A monument to the Soviet Tank Crew was erected by the government to honor their military. Fast forward to the miraculous Velvet Revolution of 1989, which consisted of non-violent protests, and resulted in a peaceful change of power- a waving goodbye to the Soviet oppression.

A freed people didn't want to honor the Soviet Tank Crew, nor the military state that held them hostage, yet the tank monument wasn't removed. Instead it was painted pink by an art student under the blanket of night! The shape of the tank told one chapter of history, and the updated surface treatment told another. The government that had terrorized them for decades was now left impotent as their deadly weapon was harmless. The monument now stands to memorialize the Velvet Revolution.

The monument to the survivors of communism
The Czechs also created a new monument to commemorate the victims of Communism: a long and slanted staircase showing six bronze men,  deteriorating and breaking apart more with each step. It was created by the Confederation of Political Prisoners and is dedicated to "all victims not only those who were jailed or executed but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism."
The monument includes numbers such as:
  • 205,486 arrested
  • 170,938 forced into exile
  • 4,500 died in prison
  • 327 shot trying to escape
  • 248 executed

I came to this monument in 2018, 60 years after the Communists took over. There were floral wreaths on the ground and seats set up for what looked like a ceremony about to happen. A bus pulled up and out walked some elderly people with yellow scarves. These were those who suffered under the oppressive hand of Communist rule, and they were being honored. I helped a fragile looking man up the monument's steep and slanted stairs, while nodding my head to whatever he was saying in Czech. When we reached the top, I turned to see others, helping other survivors up the difficult path. Generally history is told by the winner. Sometimes it is told by the oppressor, but the masses of every day people, the ones who were censored for decades or centuries deserve to speak. They are not outside history, and they are not less important just because they held less power for a time.
My brother and husband helping a woman up the monument
Me painting my Ellsworth family crest on Lennon Wall
When rock legend, John Lennon was assassinated in 1980, nine years before the Velvet Revolution, his mourning fans painted messages of peace and freedom as well as grievances to the government on a wall across from Legislative Council. The government painted over the graffiti, but it didn't take long before the young activists were back with paint buckets, making nuances of themselves again. This went back and forth enough times, that eventually the government gave up and the wall, known as Lennon Wall, remains one of a few spots in the city where graffiti is legal. It's the perfect example of how graffiti, rather than erasing history, can be used to tell it.

Banksy's sketch of what the sculpture could become
Banksy, famed street artist, gives a similar solution to the problem of the Edward Colster statue in Bristol, England. Let's face it, people are very complicated, and some people who are basically decent human beings are still flawed. Your uncle Fred, for example, may occasionally say racist things out of ignorance. But Uncle Fred would never join the KKK; he knows that's wrong.  There were other people in history, perhaps your great, great, great Uncle Fredrick, who took pride in being a grand wizard for the KKK and he worked tirelessly for segregation. White supremacy was "his thing." See the difference? In the late 1600s, Colster was the deputy governor of the Royal African Company which monopolized slave trade in England. Sure, he had other things going on in his life; he was a member of Parliament and he was also a philanthropist, but his main thing was selling 100,000 people into slavery. So in June of 2020, the people of Bristol toppled the sculpture and put it in the harbor. This was illegal, (*I don't condone illegal activities) but so was toppling the sculpture of King George in New York City after the Declaration of Independence was read. Erasing history? We all know who King George III was and that he lost the colonies in the Revolutionary War. Don't we? Banksy suggests digging the Colster statue out of the harbor and commissioning someone to sculpt the topplers, thereby telling the story of both the 1600s and the 2000 through Art. Interesting idea.

Here are few more things to consider:

The Complexity of the person represented in each monument: Did the good outweigh the bad? Did they repent of their wrongs? What are we remembering them for? Are we taking into account the time and culture from which they come? Are the parts of our heritage we're celebrating truly reflecting our values?

Originality:  Some statues were mass produced, cheaply and are of poor quality. Does this matter?

Intent & context: What objective did the Daughters of the Confederacy, for example, have in commissioning their monuments and when did they erect them? What message did this send to Black citizens? What message did this send to white citizens? Can a plaque contextualizing the reason behind the monument help? Where is an appropriate (if any) place to show these?

Contemporary Perception: Is there a population of Americans who are intimidated or hurt by the message of a monument? Does it mock, minimize, or disregard the reality of a group of citizens?

Remembering: You can't erase history by tearing down monuments and sculptures, because tearing down sculptures (such Lenin, Stalin and Suddam Hussein) is exactly what marked some important turning points in history. Who can forget the fall of the Berlin Wall?  I wonder if sometimes those who are busy making history are  accused of erasing history by those who don't want their status in the present part of history to change. Those who say "History isn't there for you to like or dislike" are right. Some of this dismantling of outdated symbols is part of history, whether we like it our not.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Homemade Home from Cardboard, Trash, and Glue

milk carton and cardboard house I made last week

There's no place like home, and there's nothing like spending a month being home bound to brainstorm ideas for homemade student projects...about home. 
Scissors, glue and paint transform trash to treasure
Architects are sculptors. They have to figure out how to make form follow function. They think through appropriate building materials and aesthetically pleasing color combinations. I want my students to think about rooms in houses, what they are used for and how the architect met those needs (ie. Where does the plumbing go? What rooms have closets?)
 I want them to think about what their ideal house would look like? Would it have a fire pole or a slide to go from one floor to another. Would there be a greenhouse or a maybe a swimming pool?  It's fun to dream and draw. 
jar and card stock house
Then I want to see what kind of magic they can work with an exterior, using every day objects. This week, I took clean garbage and turned it into some miniature homey homes, beginning with a simple jar, wrapped in card stock. Windows and doors can be glued or drawn, a cone roof for the cylindrical house is made from matching card stock.
For a more elaborate project, I took a milk carton, added a cardboard roof, traced and measured to cover the sides with cardboard. I hot glued cut shingles of various sizes, during family movie night.  



Then I cut and glued cardboard strips to create siding, being sure to trim the strips to make room for windows and doors.

 Once the siding was on, the fun part started: adding all the details, like door framing, shutters, and balcony. 
Painting is like icing on the cake, except I did a couple of layers of paint and added some painted trim (balcony railing, molding, and chimney) after painting it, so it would look neater. Between the hot glue and paint that I already had, the project cost about $3, but if you were to buy a big package of hot glue sticks and 3 small bottles of acrylic it would probably cost $8.  Of course you could make several houses with the supplies once you had them. The project took 3 days, working 3 or 4 hours a day. I think this would be perfect for a 2 week (10 hour) project for my high schoolers. I would love to see what they could come up with in a couple weeks.




To make the jar house, check out this video:

The cardboard house video can be found at this link: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HF1hW4fAAjE&t=4s





Saturday, April 11, 2020

My Art and Pandemic Musings

Past-Future, mixed medium, Kristen Applebee, 2012

During this month of shelter-in-place, I have had time to reflect on some key principles of living a meaningful life, including mindful awareness, gratitude, and being able to differentiate between needs and wants.

Being present isn't just a useful strategy for times of worry, such as this pandemic. It is just a way to appreciate life, throughout your life--while you are living it! There are some moments that stand out to me as truly joyful moments in my life. There is nothing extra-ordinary about these moments, except that I was extra-aware. For example, when I was a 19-year-old college student, I ran into my cousin on campus, and we sat on the lawn in front of the library, collecting a few friends as they walked by. Once we were a group of five or six, my cousin  said (probably quoting a commercial), "This is what it's all about, guys, right here." At that moment, I felt the sunshine on my face and the soft grass under me. I felt the energy of eager young college students walking by; I felt loved and I felt truly happy in the moment. That's the only way it's possible to be happy: moment to moment. In my art piece, Past-Future (above) the past and future are represented by ephemeral spaces, the only place with any substance is the present.

Need/Want
My work sometimes contains, transfer drawings to represent the tiny particles of spirit or energy that linger in a room. I once walked into a meeting late...so late that it had ended and the room was empty. I could feel a sense of anger still lingering in the air, like suspended dialogue bubbles. I looked at the arrangement of chairs and the story they told. I'm not a forensic scientist but I do like to think about the stories of objects, and how we leave little bits of ourselves: our scent and fingerprints behind on the places we occupy, the chairs where we've sat. For me, chairs are symbols of environments that influence the people whom they've held (we behave differently in a church pew than a stadium stand or a recliner). Chairs are also symbols of people as they mimic the human form: back, seat, legs, and arms. We exist in an environment that influences us, and we are part of an environment that influences others.
Now, Kristen Applebee, mixed medium 2012

Our environment/society shows it's influence on us by the level of consumerism and busy-ness in our individual lives. It was just a couple months ago when I could be caught saying, "I need to get to Lauren's game early," or "We need some more heavy whipping cream."  Being able to realize that there is a difference between needs and wants is very empowering. In truth, the world wouldn't end if I didn't make it to my daughter's soccer game that day, and my family would have survived without whipped cream on our dessert (or even dessert for that matter). By saying, "I want to get to the game early" it brings more pleasure to the act because it recognizes that it is born of choice. We often get what we want without even realizing what a blessing it is.

I would encourage us all to live in the present and enjoy the gifts of stillness and simplicity this quarantine has to offer, rather than try to rush to the future or get back to the pass. Let's notice the goodness that is part of whatever situation you are in right now and be grateful for the needs that are being met this moment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Cardboard Flamingo Decoration

The end of the school year brings with it a flood of activities. I was looking forward to the spring art show and concert at the end of March. The next day I was going to chaperone on the New York City trip, where we had front row tickets for a couple broadway shows, a guided tour of the MoMA. This week, I was going to take a group of students to see Hamilton in Atlanta. There was the senior trip to Tennessee, water play day for the elementary students, Special Olympics, the school talent show, awards ceremony, graduation, and of course prom, which would have been today. If you follow this blog, you know that I've been trying to get prom decorations together since January. But the school closing which was supposed to go through April 6th, was pushed back to April 13th, and now we won't be back until August. So it turns out there'll be no need for the cardboard flamingo I made from home for this year's Alice in Wonderland Prom.


To make it, I used the front and back of a large box to cut out the flamingo shape with a box cutter. Then I used another box to cut strips (maybe 3" wide) perpendicular to the corrugations. I rolled the strips to make them flexible enough to hot glue to the edge of side. Then I glued wooden dowels to the inside, along with a cardboard strips to make a little box to contain the tops of the dowels so they wouldn't slide all over the inside. I glued the second flamingo shape on top, used masking tape to smooth out the attached corners and painted it all pink. Viola! I had planned on cementing the bottoms of the dowels into a large can and covering the outside with long strips of grass, but the dowels can also be placed in the ground to stand; add a few leis to make it a perfect backdrop for a backyard luau. I may not need this for another year, but then again, you never know if that first faculty meeting back requires everyone to bring large bird shaped decorations. It's better to be prepared.




Creativity and Balance during Quarantine

“As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you’re patient, there may come that moment when while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am.’ ”—Albert Einstein

As someone who loves to feel productive every day and keeps the calendar full, I am trying to learn how to change my pace. Like most of you, I am sheltering in place and slowing down in order to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We, as a society, have forgotten how to be still, and yet this is an essential skill to allow ideas to come. Have you noticed how many people have had time to make things and post their creativity to the internet lately? Songs, poems, and hundreds of people dressing up to recreate masterpieces from Art History, whimsical memes, and Rube’s Goldberg machines. But these are also days to invite ideas that can change your life or change the world.

This isn’t the world's first pandemic, so it’s not the world’s first quarantine. Schools across England closed during the plague of 1665, including Trinity College in Cambridge, who's student, Isaac Newton, was sent home along with his peers. It was at home, not at school, where he played with prisms, invented calculus, and discovered gravity! Six decades before that, the bubonic plague caused businesses, including the theatre shut down. That's when many believe Shakespeare wrote King Lear. 


a view from one of my neighborhood walks
There’s a difference between down time and wasted time. My friend, Fernando, who was a native of Peru, explained it this way, “In North America we spend our time. In South America we take our time.”  Wreck-less spending of money depletes your bank account; unbridled spending of time depletes your soul. 

Here’s what I'm seeing now that people are able to take their time:  The lawns in my neighborhood are better manicured. People are planting and weeding gardens. People are making meals and baking from scratch. They are getting outside to take daily walks, talking with their family around a fire pit. Gardening, cooking, walking, family bonding: these are activities that should be done every day for basic mental and physical upkeep, not just when a government official tells us to “shelter in place.” The life we are used to living is so out of balanced that a granola bar for dinner on the dash between math club and soccer practice and a monthly walk around the block seems normal. If we can’t learn to maintain some sort of balance after the quarantine, we will have wasted a golden opportunity. If we can’t slow ourselves down, something else will happen to slow us down. (My dad calls that “forced relaxation.”)

Breaks are built into the day at companies like 3M so that employees can get ideas, which is why they have 55,000 products: more than one for every two employees! Slowing down allows you to find solutions that you won’t be found until you can clear your head of all piles of information getting in the way. We must never be lazy about thinking, really hard thinking is like doing the hard pedaling to get your bike to the top of a hill. When we sit back and empty ourselves of assumptions and pre-mature conclusions, new thoughts surface and we gain ground like we’re coasting downhill. Some of those new ideas are bound to be really good ideas, inspired even. It is in the stillness that inspiration comes, you can't force it. So do some yoga, eat an apple, take a walk, and take your time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Area, Perimeter, and Tessellations Art Project


Tessellations are when shapes fit together to create pattern with no gaps and no overlaps. Here's a video of how I like to combined math and art in my tessellation lessons for students.



M.C. Escher was born the same year as my grandmother, 1998. He worked as an illustrator and artist. His ability to create elaborate repeated patterns served him well when designing tapestries but he also used tessellations in his etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts.  Here are some of his more simple tessellations.


Because I teach a wide range of grades and ability levels, student work also ranges from simple to complex.