Today, I Became a Member

Today, I put my money where my mouth is, or I bit the bullet, or I took the plunge, or I [insert over-worn idiom]: I bought a year-long membership to Nashville’s high-profile, post-office-turned-gallery Frist Center for the Visual Arts. And it feels right. Of all the things I could support, this is a thing that makes sense–for me, I mean. This is something, culturally-speaking, worth investing in. The time was right. Of course, getting the student discount didn’t hurt. But I want to believe that I’ll continue my support beyond grad school, beyond the student discount.

After purchase of said membership, I spent two-and-a-half hours wandering through the current headlining show, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting. Here are some notes scrawled with a gallery pencil:

–“Being in the presence of old paintings by old masters takes me out of myself. It doesn’t matter how unmodern the work may be–when I lean in to see the gradations of fleshy pink used to describe a man’s cheekbone or the fragility of his fatigued eyes, I am transported. It happened in front of a routine portrait (the third Duke of Alba, 1628), no doubt cranked out tediously and for a healthy sum, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is it about paint that transcends the usual? Cameras may master natural color, but paint transforms the natural into the spiritual.”

–“I rounded a corner and was awestruck by a painting that had to be at least ten feet tall, positioned for maximum effect, of a man on horseback. I got lost in it, sketching it very hastily. In my sketch, the rider appears to wear a mask, and the horse has a kangaroo’s head–Guy Fawkes in the Australian outback.”

–“The feeling of standing before something 2,400 years old–the two busts: “Head of Bacchus” and “Head of a Female Divinity.””

–“Statues that seem to breathe.”

–“A first edition of Don Quixote (1605).”

I recorded these impressions in the order that I had them. The three short ones seem random, but I wanted to stay true to my format. Think of them as an ongoing narrative, often broken but always meaningful. Most of the work in the show was from the 16th century-forward, so you can imagine my surprise at suddenly standing before two ancient Roman sculptures and all the eerie feelings of passing-time that such a position stirs, staring at the head of the god of wine and revelry and knowing that not only did ancient hands form this piece but that people probably worshiped it–real breathing, bleeding human beings, like you and me! Eerie, indeed. And certain statues were so lifelike that I would be remiss to spend an evening alone with them–too many horror movies, I suppose. But then there’s the other side of that: amazement at the craftsmanship of the sculptor, to imbue a hunk of marble with such life.

As I drove away, I began to wonder why these guardians of aristocratic “treasures” saw fit to send their art collection around the world, traveling from palaces in Spain to humble Nashville, Tennessee. Was it a desperate effort to shore up revenue for a dying, or dead, social class? Life support for an outmoded hierarchical system? As skillful and admirable as the work is, it is mostly made up of portraits of aristocracy, having little relevance for the common person. Did I benefit from seeing this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. At my most pessimistic, I see the collection as one large reminder that I am not “to the manner born,” wandering among their gaudy, gold-gilt furniture, upholstered with French tapestry fabric. But the optimistic side of myself sees history and the artistic effort of hardworking, industrious painters and sculptors. My feelings about this show are conflicted even now: there is spectacle, but is there substance?

Note: the Frist allows no photography, not even cellphone shots without flash–even the Met allows flash-free photography! I don’t like this but I abide by it. So that’s why there are no photos of the actual show. Only my crude sketch and a couple of shots of the printed program.

A Difference of Opinion

“I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.”                                                     –from “Araby,” Dubliners. James Joyce

 

Rainy days are unpopular in many circles. I hesitate to tell people that I exult in them. A close IMG_1897friend once told me I was “just trying to be different,” and so, by the tiniest of degrees, I turned further inward. The rainy day is freighted with a stigma, like introversion, as in, the loudest among us see it as undesirable. The only time a rainy day is undesirable to me is when I am caught without an umbrella, but a lack of preparation is not the fault of the rain, out there puddling the sidewalk, pattering the leaf litter, dispersing its crystalline sheets in the gray dusk.

 

I suppose rainy days do magnify the melancholy. But, oh! How they magnify the melancholy! A land beset by weather brims with readymade stories—everybody knows this. And not only stories but imaginings. I cannot be the sole dreamer who looks out at the soggy air, the soil rendered as clay, the rain-blackened bark of the sugar maple, and has visions of monsters or shady dealings or doomed romances—hints, even, of the supernatural—all with the creeping fog as backdrop, the mist as backlit scrim. In rain, there is a somber mood (believe me) that delights, ripe with that feature whose signifier has become trite with overuse: ambience.

 

If “ambience” is overused, then “atmosphere” is vague. Maybe it is better to speak of rain in terms of space, in that it creates its own space. It narrows the field of vision, brings it close. Is not the horizon more intimate when sunlight has been muted? Whether by weather or by setting. I mean “close” as in snug, accessible. Depth perception askew, we guess things closer than they are—a coyote’s bark, a scream that we tell ourselves is a mountain lion, sticks that crack under a moving body’s weight, tires sloughing “softly on wet macadam.”[1]Darkness gathers the horizon at night; rain can do it by day, often dimming the transition from sunlight to moonlight.

 

Rainy days provide space for the imagination. Everybody knows this.

 

 

[1] In Provinces of Night, William Gay describes the sound of a patrol car rolling up behind one of his characters on a rainy night. Macadam is broken stone used to pave roads. “Slough” is a beautiful verb.

Goodbye, Nashville…Sort Of

The sun sets on the Belcourt.
The sun sets on the Belcourt.

The sun sets on the Belcourt.  Three arched awnings slant-shade the ticket window.  I sit inside what has always been my ideal coffee shop, Fido, and watch interesting people walk up and down the bricked path alongside 21st Avenue.  In this neighborhood, Hillsboro Village, dusk embodies one of the best things about Nashville:  an independent, artistic spirit that flies beyond the city’s rhinestoned and cornponed stereotypes.  It’s never been about country music for me.  Even when I gave it what I felt was a fair shot, it never quite fit.  Too much of rock’s rebel fire flows in these veins.  As a teenager, I was told that, one day, I would like country music.  Perhaps that’s a foregone conclusion for some in my hometown in rural west Tennessee.  But here I am, pushing thirty-nine, and I would take a fuzzed out, power-chord burst of disjointed indie rock any day.

 

This piece is not about music, however.  Rock writing is excessive enough without my stubborn opinions.  No, it’s about saying goodbye to the city I’ve called home since my mid-twenties.  Goodbye to my coming-of-age, where I learned about the onstage rush that follows a good crowd response at a gig, only to feel the emptiness of realizing that most people have never heard of me or our band.  It’s where I learned how to endure personal hardship, and about the value of friends and family.  (Wow, this is beginning to sound a little too much like a country song.)  Nashville is where I learned that the world is big in a way that statistics and demographics cannot teach.  It’s where I learned that people are generally good, or at least good-hearted, barring the selfishness that afflicts us all.  And here comes the cliche:  it’s where I figured out who I am.  I know it sounds sentimental, but there’s no better way to put it.  When you find yourself alone in a city that is sixty times larger than the town in which you grew up, you tend to learn some hard lessons.  You really learn them.  Internalize them, move forward from them, grow with them.  Nashville symbolizes all of this.

 

It’s true that we’re not moving very far–the opposite end of an adjacent county–but we are, in fact, moving.  For the first time in a really long time, I will not have Davidson County tags on my license plate.  A trip downtown will require a bit more planning.  I will miss the easy access to places like Fido and the Red Door, or to the rock clubs on Elliston Place, or Centennial Park in the fall, when the TACA craft fair sets up its rows of tents.  It’s not that I’ve been going to these places of late, but I’ve grown accustomed to knowing that they are there.  That they are part of the city I’ve proudly called home for so many tumultuous and glorious years.

 

Anyway, a new chapter begins, and I’m actually warming to the notion of a quieter existence in a smaller setting, my growing family around me.  Chances are, however, that when someone from another part of the country asks where I’m from, I’ll say Nashville.  It’s close enough, right?

 

Rewind.  Earlier I said that dusk embodies this so-called independent, artistic spirit, but I did not explain how.  It’s not complicated.  Dusk is magic, wherever you are–city, ocean, mountains, woods.  Dusk is when, thirteen years ago, I recognized the genie-soul* of Hillsboro Village, and that essence extended to include all of Nashville in some way or other.  I felt it then as I feel it now, watching the sun disappear behind Sam’s Sports Bar and Grill.

The sun disappears behind Sam's.
The sun disappears behind Sam’s.

 

*”Genie-soul” is a Walker Percy-ism.  He uses the term to indicate the general feeling of a place:  “every place has [it] or else is not a place.”  You really should read The Moviegoer.