Linda Plaisted is a visual artist whose work I've been following on Flickr for a few years now (full disclosure: sometimes Linda and I send each other neat stuff in the mail, and I have a few of her prints around my house). Lately, I've been thinking about storytelling and how it has a broader reach than writing alone, and while browsing some of Linda's images, I was struck time and again by the narrative quality of much of her work. Linda agreed to let me interview her about her art, and about being an artist, and her answers are interesting not only from a literary standpoint, but also from the perspective of being a person who is driven to create. Enjoy. -- Jamelah
Jamelah: Where do your ideas come from?
Linda: I am informed and inspired by literature, mythology, popular culture, history, current events, my personal life experiences, and by my roles as a woman and mother. I pull in bits and bytes of data and imagery by osmosis and allow these pieces to gestate in the back of my mind until larger thematic ideas emerge. I find I get the best results when I just allow ideas to develop organically without overthinking or trying to analyze the process or even the product.
Jamelah: I see a narrative quality to much of what you create. Do you see your work as a form of storytelling? What stories are you interested in telling?
Linda: I have been making up stories since I first found words and crayons to use as a small child. In addition to driving my mother crazy, I guess I have just always found a way to express something in whatever form was at hand, hence the origin of Manymuses Studio. I have always drawn, written, painted, sang, acted or otherwise found a narrative voice. I am interested now in telling the stories that often go un-noted in our world; the simple, small truths about being alive and aware. The subtle suggestion in the gesture of a woman's hand or the particular arch of a bare branch against the sky speak more to me about what is real than the constant barrage of "must-see" media.
Jamelah: While it's true that looking at images allows a lot of freedom of interpretation on the part of the viewer, do you have something specific in mind when you create that you hope viewers read into your final creations? How do you direct them? (Examples?)
Linda: I have learned that the lens through which I see is not the same one that others use to view and interpret the work. Though I do sometimes use archetypal symbolism or suggest an underlying message in my work, I don't otherwise like to direct viewers. So, while it pleases me when people "get it" or make a connection with a piece, I am happy to allow for other interpretations. I am sometimes surprised when people read into some of my images a "darker" meaning than I had intended, but perhaps the images act as a collective clearinghouse for the subconscious hobgoblins that might otherwise rattle their chains at midnight. Examples -- Four and Twenty Blackbirds series.
Jamelah: Describe your process.
Linda: I try to get out nearly every day to shoot a steady stream of images of my sights and surroundings. This is my daily practice and well of ideas that I draw upon just as a writer would make notes in a daily journal. I use this "stream-of-consciousness" archive as my starting point to express larger thematic ideas that pique my interest, but I also send myself out "on assignment" with specific project ideas in mind, whether it is shooting a model, a still life set up or a specific kind of landscape for an evolving theme. These images are my "rough drafts." I also shoot a large body of texture images, backgrounds, lighting effects, borders and incidental images to use in my illustrations for future reference. I then come back to this varied archive of photographs when inspiration strikes and layer many different images to create my finished narrative pieces. I like to work in series to expand on a concept and see an idea through to some sort of resolution.
Jamelah: How much of what you read finds its way into your work? How does it influence you?
Linda: I have always been an avid reader of everything from children's picture books to literary fiction and everything in between, so I'm sure what I read finds its way into my work, but it's not an immediate process. I tend to internalize stories and characters that might reappear months or even years later in some form. I just did a series based on Shakespeare's female characters, harking back to my years as an English major.
Jamelah: In looking at some of your series, particularly Girlie, Thy Name Is Woman and The Women, I see images that confront the notion that women -- their bodies, their names, their lives -- are objects to be acted upon by outside influences (scientists, writers, lovers). Do you see your work addressing the gap between this tradition and reality? How?
Linda: In my own quiet way I am certainly out to confront the rusty, ill-fitting notions of a woman's place in society. The honest history of the world's women has yet to be told. The story of women's lives are still not being told when history is written as the dates of wars and the men who won them. By heredity, by history and by simple biological necessity, our voices have been muted and the full spectrum of our powers reduced to black and white. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "The torment that so many young women know, bound hand and foot by love and motherhood, without having forgotten their former dreams" applies to so many of us, myself included. I have made it a personal goal of mine to show and tell more womens' stories in 2008 and going forward. The pretty pictures I make pay the way for the important work.
Jamelah: Whether it's writing or painting or photography (or some other art form), many people dream of being able to create for a living, and that's what you're doing. Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue an artistic path?
Linda: I spent nearly a decade giving my creativity away to others while not creating anything from my own heart or for my own soul. Your creativity is your gift. Share it. Do what you love and the universe will reward you.
Jamelah: Bonus: Anything else you'd like to add?
Linda: Always wear sunscreen. Seriously.
Photos -- October, Ecce Cor Meus, and Baptism -- copyright Linda Plaisted, used with permission. Manymuses.com.
1. Check out these visualizations of the entire Jack Kerouac novel On The Road, created by artist Stefanie Posavec. The sample above is the most analog of the series, which shows how colorful vector graphics can be used to display various data points about any novel. I'm not sure how exactly this would be turned into meaningful information, but I like looking at it. (Via Boing Boing, which also shares this Beat pastiche today.)
2. If an artist tried to chart a Richard Brautigan novel in vectors, I'm pretty sure the result would look something like a cup of bowtie pasta (al dente) in white cheddar sauce. Here's an interview with the late novelist's daughter Ianthe Brautigan, who wrote a very good book about her father several years ago and is now, I'm glad to hear, working on a novel.
3. "All of this makes one wonder where the proponents of a 'clash of civilizations' are going to find another civilization to clash with." Hosam Aboul-Ela on Words Without Borders blog.
4. Good for London. By the way, if you or anyone you know would like a wider understanding of the historic context behind the world's bottomless outrage at the Chinese government, I strongly recommend reading Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. This is an unabashedly partisan book, but fact-filled and important nonetheless. I wrote an article about it here last year.
5. Back to the fun side of life: The Office is coming back! And John Kraskinski's film of a David Foster Wallace book is actually going to happen, though, interestingly it is a book of short stories rather than a massive novel as originally hinted. Based on this interview, I am really looking forward to seeing this film.
6. Former gawker Emily Gould has joined GalleyCat! Since I like Gawker and I also like GalleyCat, I think this is pretty cool. In terms of relative talents, Gould is certainly a heavyweight here; this is sort of like when Joe Walsh joined the Eagles. As far as expected changes go, I am expecting to see many more exclamation points in GalleyCat! It's already happening! Somebody else is joining GalleyCat too.
1. The above artwork is from a book called Uncovered by an artist named Thomas Allen who carves printed characters off the covers of pulp novels and arranges them in three dimensions (via Boing.)
2. I've had a strange urge to write about music lately. That's why I wrote this review of Led Zeppelin's re-release of the classic 1976 movie/album The Song Remains the Same. I didn't get to see the reunion in London, but I did have fun writing this article.
3. More about music writing: I love it when authors or critics I discuss in my weekly review of the New York Times Book Review contact me with gripes or other reactions. I recently mocked a Beatles book (because I am a mocker) called Can't Buy Me Love based on a reviewer's comments, and author Jonathan Gould emailed me to ask why I would criticize a book I hadn't seen. This is a fair question, so I requested a review copy and have now read the book.
Jonathan Gould is correct: All You Need is Love is a very satisfying Beatles biography, written with authority and taste. Gould's best skill is in the deconstruction of individual songs like "Eleanor Rigby" or "I Want You (She's So Heavy)". He discerns meaning in each detail (for instance, the background vocals in songs like "We Can Work It Out" indicate that the band members are communicating well, whereas the lack of complex background vocals on The White Album means the opposite). I could read Jonathan Gould's song breakdowns all day, though I was less interested in the historical treatments, maybe just because I've read it all before (" ... as the jet taxied towards the terminal packed with screaming fans at the newly named JFK Airport ...").
I also have some problems with Gould's harsh judgement of Yoko Ono, who couldn't possibly have done the good work she's done if she were the artistic phony he portrays. He's also improbably dismissive of the wonderful skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, who he must be the only person in the world to dislike. Still, small quibbles aside ... Can't Buy Me Love is a solid and well-written Beatles book.
4. Everything happens on Klickitat Street. Here's Denise Hamilton in the Los Angeles Times visiting the hometown of Beverly Cleary, where it all took place. "Which house was Henry's? Where was the vacant lot where the kids found discarded boxes of bubble gum to sell at school? Could that mutt be Ribsy's great-great grandson?"
Minor correction, though: Denise Hamilton asks why Ralph Mouse is the only Beverly Cleary work to ever make it to television. But Ramona was once a series on PBS (though not a very good one).
5. Some poets have been asking me when Action Poetry (our ongoing subterranean creative writing activity here on this site, to which you are invited) will be back on LitKicks. The answer is: soon. I am working on some exciting new software that will make it better than ever. But it's going to take a little more time, and when it's ready I'll be rolling it out in stages. I'm guessing we'll be back in full swing by mid-January of next year (if everything works correctly, which is a big "if").
6. I've been tagged for a meme by fellow blogger Ed Champion (who, by the way, is running for National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors). The idea here is that you have to list the first sentence of the first blog post of the first day of this month for every month of the past year. I've done this below, and here are my main findings: I'm obviously having a rough winter; I'm pretty grumpy; I can write some really long-ass sentences. Hmm, and all this time I thought I was a minimalist. Anyway, here's my twelve:
December 2007: "We're having some tech problems here in the Land of Literary Kicks."
November 2007: "I'm taking a sanity break today; I'll be back to review the Book Review next weekend."
October 2007: "Philip Roth's Shakespeherian-titled Exit Ghost has certainly been kicking up the chatter."
September 2007: "Bravo to Jim Lewis for an enthusiastic and bracing New York Times Book Review front cover piece that begins like this: Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist, and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book ..."
August 2007: "Yeah, I'm unpleased with the choice of Charles Simic for United States Poet Laureate."
July 2007: "I'm reviewing today's New York Times Book Review from a peaceful backyard in rural Indiana, as bullfrogs croak, hummingbirds buzz around my head (did you know that a hummingbird likes to eat half its weight in sugar every day?) and maple trees tower above."
June 2007: "Walking the vast hangars of Book Expo America 2007, I pause to consider what we can learn from this amazing display of publishing ingenuity."
May 2007: "I forgot, in yesterday's post, to post my own response to the question many interesting folks from Richard Ford to Lawrence Ferlinghetti have been answering: why are book reviewers important?"
April 2007: "I can't complain (and you know I like to complain) about a New York Times Book Review whose cover article informs me about a literary patron and publisher I'd never heard of, jazz-age ocean-liner heiress Nancy Cunard, who apparently published Samuel Beckett, anthologized W. E. B. DuBois, made love with T. S. Eliot and took her political idealism to such an insane extreme that she ultimately lost all her wealth and most of her friends."
March 2007: "I checked out Shelfari, a new book-oriented social networking site that's getting some buzz based on Amazon.com buying a stake."
February 2007: "Okay, so I'm way way way behind on all the review copies various nice people have been sending me."
January 2007: "As promised last week, I've begun rereading the only known novel featuring late President Gerald Ford in the title, John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration, originally published sixteen years after the end of Ford's presidency."
I'll pass this meme on to, hmmm, let's see ... Caryn, Jamelah, Christian Crumlish, Eric Rosenfield and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
-- It is a notebook. It is a journal. It is Froot Loops. (I have to love it; I live less than 50 miles from Kellogg's.) The Junior Mints version is pretty cool too, if you're like me and giggle about Kramer dropping a Junior Mint into that dude getting surgery during that one episode of Seinfeld, or if, you know, you like Junior Mints. Some other cool journals: A Reader's Journal, if you are into tracking what you read, and my favorite -- a journal made out of recycled card catalog cards.
-- Also from Etsy: My book club can beat up your book club. I really like this. Now all I have to do is join a book club.
-- Slang flashcards. For when Urban Dictionary isn't enough.
-- Need your books to stop falling over (or know someone who does)? How about some bookends? Not just any bookends. Thurber's dog bookends.
-- Never underestimate the power of a really cool pen.
-- This kind of freaks me out, but it's a pen holder.
-- How could you go wrong with a librarian action figure? I ask you.
-- Keep they're/their/there straight, even if you constantly have to check your shirt. And I don't know how literary this is, but maybe you should get this t-shirt for the hipster on your list.
-- Who doesn't love stickers? Shut up, Holden. (Amen.) Or Only YOU can prevent comma splices! (Do your part.) Or Prufrock is my homeboy. (In a minute there is time to stick this on your car.)
-- Does this count as an homage to Oscar Wilde? I think so, yes.
Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).
Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.
Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:
... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:
Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).
And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.
The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.
Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.
Maybe it is, and maybe I've been oblivious since it's always been my stated purpose here to review the NYTBR on aesthetic grounds. I've always tried to apprehend each new issue, and each article in each new issue, with a blank memory. Rather than seeking out patterns, I've tried to seek out surprises, and I've never bothered to keep track of who's zooming who. So when Richard Brookhiser trashed Richard Kluger's Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea last August I praised his colorful insults ("I felt as if I were inside a bass drum banged on by a clown"), but I was then privately informed by somebody who knows the field better than I do that assigning Richard Brookhiser to review Richard Kluger amounted to a hit job, that Kluger's book could have never had a fair chance with this critic.
I'll have to pay closer attention to this in the future. The greatest political offense I can recall since I've begun reviewing the Review is the choice of Henry Kissinger to review a biography of Dean Acheson (which I have already complained about at length, and even managed to complain about on BookTV). But the big offense here is the fawning before celebrity, the bald desire to be associated with the "stature" of Henry Kissinger even at the cost of running an obviously compromised and self-serving article on the front page when the better choice would have been to send it back to the Kissinger office with a note saying "Try harder next time".
This was an offense against taste and against truth -- however, it was not primarily a political offense, although it is noteworthy that the Book Review editors believed Henry Kissinger to have any stature left to fawn over after he played a key role in encouraging the 2003 invasion of Iraq (forget Norman Mailer, here's your overrated buffoon).
I have also been disgusted by the wheezy, tired politics expressed in the NYTBR by critics like Stephen Metcalf and David Brooks. Yet here, again, the offense is more literary than political. And, I have at times (though not very often) been pleased to find some incisive and admirably idealistic political writing by the likes of Samantha Power in the Book Review. Conclusion: I will look harder for signs of political bias in these pages in the future, though I am not convinced I've spotted these signs yet. Consider my eyes officially opened.
All of which leaves very little time to comment on this week's publication, which contains a plethora of political articles that don't, as far as I can tell, either support or contradict Jim Sleeper's thesis. In fact, none of these articles got my heart racing at all, not even Matt Bai's appreciation of Richard Ben Cramer's 1988 election chronicle What it Takes, which Bai calls "the ultimate campaign book". Bai believes that a book this good can never be written again because candidates now "seal themselves off behind phalanxes of consultants and aides". I'm unconvinced; are we actually now feeling deeply nostalgic for the way Presidents were elected in 1988? I'm pretty sure there were phalanxes of consultants and aides back then too, and as for access, let's not forget what a lone guy with a videocamera and a YouTube account was able to do to Virginia Senator George "Macaca" Allen last year.
These political musings have already busted my length limit (yes, readers of LitKicks, I *do* have a length limit) so I'm going to move quickly through the rest of this week's Book Review. James Longenbach's review of the new Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander translation of Dante's Paradiso strikes me as way too solemn and self-satisfied:
Throughout the three-line stanzas, or tercets, of the "Commedia", the first and third lines rhyme not only with each other but with the second line of the previous tercet. As a result, the poem seems simultaneously to surge forward and eddy backward. The poem feels swift because its energy has been artfully stymied, the way well-placed rocks increase the vigor of a stream.
I'm pretty sure Lil' Wayne does the same thing, though, and the New York Times Book Review never writes about him. A cover article by Jed Perl on John Richardson's A Life of Picasso: the Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 is written with the vibrancy that Longenbach's piece lacks:
The paintings of Marie-Therese that emerged from the artist's own collection have a what-the-hell radiance, a crazy red-and-purple-hot lyricism that can make them feel like transcriptions of sex itself.
But I am surprised and dismayed that both Jed Perl and John Richardson seem to believe that Picasso did great work between 1917 and 1932. As far as I can see, even 1937's "Guernica" notwithstanding, Picasso spent the years after 1912 groping desperately for relevance, and Cubism remains his only great contribution to modern art. I will not be reading this 592-page biography, and I honestly feel sorry for anybody who seeks artistic revelation within. They may find intriguing moments of history and romantic gossip, but in artistic terms Picasso's post-Cubist career was a long indulgence, and a four-volume biography (yes, another volume is coming) of the artist's long life amounts to far more detail than any general reader needs.
Liesl Schillinger is skillfully brutal to Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl, which she considers so far below the standard set by Hoeg's previous Smilla's Sense of Snow that she blames the translator. Walter Kirn is also rather harsh towards The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, though he makes the first story in this collection -- a wealthy American couple who meet disaster in India -- sound quite appealing despite the fact that he's dismissing it as a predictable Paul Bowles retread.
Jay McInerney treats Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read respectfully, pointing out the serious purpose beyond the goofy title:
Bayard tells us, "culture is above all a matter of orientation". Being cultivated is a matter of not having ready any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.
I agree with this. In fact, I personally talk about books I haven't read every weekend when I review the New York Times Book Review, so I'm glad to be able to justify this egregious ongoing act in such lofty terms. See, I'm not just mouthing off here, I'm carefully laying out "the system".
Fifteen years dead Larkin is still a looming presence so I will try and be terse. He writes with clarity and a determined ordinariness that does not exclude (and often underpins) the lyrical. He is always accessible, his language compact, though occasionally arcane. Fond of compound adjectives -- air-sharpened, rain-ceased, bone-riddled -- he shares this with Hardy, with whom he invites comparison though his sentiments are less gawky, what they have most in common a deep, unshiftable despair.
2. The Clarks of Cooperstown, a new book by Nicholas Fox Weber about a family of influential art collectors, has been getting lots of attention in the art world, though it seems the attention is unwelcome by those carrying on the Clark legacy. The book details an admirable long history of art patronage, but it also details some gay relationships in the family as well as a few interesting political associations. Word on the street is that parties close to the wealthy Clark family are leaning on major art institutions (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is running a major exhibition from the Clark collection right now) to not stock Weber's new book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in their museum bookshops. All of which just makes it sound like a book I'd really like to read. You can't buy it at the Met, but you can buy it here.
3. I said that nobody seemed to care about Soft Skull's sudden announcement that it was being folded into a larger publishing company, but it turns out many do care. Soft Skull publisher Richard Nash posted a thoughtful explanation of the changes on Soft Skull's blog. There should be no mistaking the fact that this sale is not an attempt at creative or financial synergy, but rather a necessary consequence of a major book distributor default several months ago. There is a positive angle here, though, in that the merger gives Nash control over Counterpoint Books as well as the future Soft Skull. Richard Nash publishing Gary Snyder? Looks like that's in the cards.
Within the time frame of this comic book's mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many "art history" lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque's idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called "Lysurgia" allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess -- it reminds me of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book's best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: "Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?"
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong "buy" recommendation from LitKicks.
The cavernous beaux-arts building, clad in stone, steel and glass, was demolished in 1964 to make room for a plain modernist complex including an underground train station, a skyscraper and Madison Square Garden. The travesty of this loss is the subject of a heartfelt children's book, Old Penn Station, written and illustrated by William Low. The author's lush and warm paintings pay tribute to the lost architectural masterpiece by imagining them back into being. I got a chance to ask William a few questions about Old Penn Station recently.
Have you gotten a good response to this book? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?
I've had a terrific response to the book, especially with the artwork. The book took over three years to complete, so I am naturally proud of the way that it came out. However, I am surprised by the emotional response to the book. The building was torn down forty years ago and yet the outpouring of sadness and anger continues to amaze me.
Do you think this book appeals differently to New Yorkers and non- New Yorkers?
At first, I'd say yes, especially if the reader is a New Yorker who remembers the original Penn Station or has visited its crowded, underground replacement. For non-New Yorkers, I hope that the art will draw them into the story.
But I hope that this book will not be perceived as a New York book, because Penn Station really is a symbol of a broader change in America. Many believe that the destruction of Penn Station was in part, a result of changing times and attitudes during the 50's and 60's. During this age of the suburban house, many cities suffered when its middle-class residents moved out of the city. Long distance rail travel also suffered when travel by plane became affordable. This had a direct effect on cities and railroad terminals on a national scale.
What words would you use to describe the architectural vision of the old Penn Station? (note: I know you describe it in "kid-speak" in the book, but how would you describe the visual/artistic appeal in "grownup-speak"?
Grandeur comes to mind. That's something that adults can understand. But my focus is really on the child's perspective, and I would imagine that the station must have been an imposing, scary place because of its size. Converting this massive architectural space into a kid friendly place was tricky ... and I decided to focus on light and the effects of the changing light instead, to make it less imposing, more magical.
Are you a "train freak"? Do you find that trains and train stations have always been a big part of your sensibility, or is it just that there is something special about Penn Station?
My father had a Chinese hand laundry in the Bronx next to the elevated number 6 Pelham train. I used to sit for hours by the front of the store reading comics, drawing and watching the train go by. I guess that makes me a "train freak." When I was in high school, I had a part time job in a store in Grand Central Terminal and I fell in love with this space.
This was during the mid-70's, when the homeless slept in the Terminal's waiting room and it was a pretty scary place at night. The financially strapped Penn Central Railroad wanted to overturn the Terminal's Landmark status, to clear the way for its development and possible demolition. Protestors (including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) stopped traffic on Park Avenue South, determined to save Grand Central Terminal from the fate of Penn Station. That was the first time that I heard about this station and upon further research, I rediscovered the original Pennsylvania Station and my heart was broken by its loss.
Do you think the proposed relocation of Penn Station in the Farley Post Office across the street will be a success? Are you excited about it, or do you have mixed feelings about this attempt to replace what was lost?
I have mixed feelings about this project for a number of reasons. I don't know if the new station will ever be built, given the cost and size of the project. Of course, I welcome any change and I would even tolerate the inconvenience during this new construction. But the Farley Bulding is on Eighth Avenue; the station will go further west. That extra block makes a big difference in terms of accessibility, convenience and ease of use.
What are some of your favorite works of classical architecture in New York City that have not been torn down?
Grand Central Terminal is at the top of the list. I just love the restoration and the attention to detail. As a Long Island commuter, I am jealous that we do not get to pass by this incredible station on a daily basis.
What are some of your favorite train stations in cities other than New York?
I've been to the magnificent Amtrak station in Philadelphia and the Union Station in Washington D.C. is also terrific. One day, I'd love to visit the large train stations in Europe.
You can see more of William Low's work at his website. You may recognize his richly expressive painting style if you've ever seen the classic Penguin paperback series of John Steinbeck novels for which he once painted a series of evocative and memorable covers.
But it's his own city that brings out this author's deepest convictions, and Old Penn Station stands as a personal statement about the importance of great public artwork for young growing minds. William Low will be signing copies of this book at Books of Wonder in New York City on Saturday, May 19 (information can be found on on the store's website).
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.