A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Ringing in the New

The most common meaning of the word "ring" is a circular band worn as ornamental jewelry around a finger.  A ring can be made out of almost any material, and is worn by both men and women.  The custom of giving a ring has been around for almost 5,000 years.

Although rings can be worn on any finger (and "pinkie" rings are popular) in most of the world a wedding ring is placed on the fourth finger, known as the "ring finger".  This can be traced to Roman times when Appianus is credited with saying that the ancient Egyptians found a nerve linking the left hand's ring finger to the heart.  The Romans called this "nerve" the vena armoris or vein of love.  Henry Swinburne wrote about it in his book about marriage, Treatise of Espousal, in 1680, thus ensuring that custom endured.

Today, besides wedding and engagement rings, we wear class rings, we hand out championship rings to our winning professional sport teams, we may even wear a mood ring (that changes color in response to body temperature via a thermochromic liquid crystal).  Even the Pope wears a signet ring - the Ring of the Fisherman.

Throughout the centuries there have been many designs, including the infamous poison ring, with a little compartment to hold poison or drugs.  But in case you think there is nothing new under the sun in terms of finger jewelry, here are some rings you may not have run across in your day-to-day activities...

Elsa Mora is a multimedia artist living in Los Angeles.  She has several blogs focusing on her art, but the ring above is from her blog on papercutting - The Heart of Papercuts.  The ring sold immediately upon her posting it!

Philippe Tournaire is a jewelry designer in Paris.  Never having been formally trained, Tournaire let the world be his teacher.  He travelled extensively and examined jewelry and techniques wherever he went.  As news of his work spread by word-of-mouth, he began to exhibit some of his pieces in jewelry exhibitions to great fame.  Of particular interest are his architectural rings...

Chinese Pagoda

New York


Finally, There is a special ring for men who aren't sure about the response they will receive to their marriage proposal (see top image).  If this is you, consider the "Hypnotic Engagement Ring", from the state that brought us former Governor Palin.  This ring uses Scintillating Hypnogyration Technology (SHT - patent-pending) to send subconscious prompts.  Featuring 1.41 carats of small round diamonds, this ring costs less than a ring with a single diamond of the same carat weight.  As one happy customer says, "Why spend $10,000 to land a trout when you can spend $5,000 to land a trophy King Salmon?"


Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Library by Any Other Name

Image courtesy of arcspace.com.

It was the Viipuri Library.  Then it was the Nadezhda Krupskaya Municipal Library.  Now it is the Central City Alvar Aalto Library.  Whichever name you prefer, its architecture is unique and its design internationally acclaimed.

Built in 1933-1935 and designed by Alvar Aalto, the library is now in Vyborg, Russia, although it was built under Finnish rule and in the city's Finnish name, Viipuri. It is considered to be one of the first examples of "regional modernism".  It is famous for the wave-shaped ceiling of the auditorium.  Aalto claimed the shape was based on acoustic studies.

Aalto was commissioned to design the library when he won first prize in an architectural competition in 1927 for the building.  His original proposal went through some serious changes, going from Nordic Classicism to a severely functional style to its final purist modernist incarnation.

The use of the undulating wall eventually became a hallmark of Aalto's architecture, as did the sunken reading-well and cylindrical skylights.  He differed from modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier in his use of natural materials, in this case wood.

The building was damaged in WWII, and the city itself was ceded to the Soviet Union.  Soviet authorities planned to repair it, but it never came to pass.  The building was empty for a decade, during which further damage was done including the destruction of the wave-shaped ceiling.  During the 1950s architect Aleksandr Shver drew schemes for its restoration in the contemporary Stalinist classical style as he did not have access to the original design plans.  The building was renovated during 1955-1961, and housed the central library of Vyborg.

Until the time of Gorbachev very few people, including Finns, visited Vyborg. Rumors spread about the library's total destruction and information about its true condition was sketchy at best.  The building is currently included in the Russian Federation's list of objects of historical and cultural heritage.

The building remains in public use while restoration is being done under the direction of the Alvar Aalto Academy.  This group includes architects Tapani Mustonen, Maija Kairamo (once of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities) and three architects once employed by Aalto, Eric Adlecreutz, Vazio Nava, and Leif Englund.

About 800 visitors each day visit the library.  It was listed as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by World Monuments Watch for the 2000-2001 and 2002-2003 years, and that group awarded the library a Certificate of Exceptional Accomplishment for its restoration work in 2004.  Because the funding has been intermittent, progress on the restoration has been slow.  Although cosmetically the library looks like it hasn't been maintained, work has focused on structural repairs, with the cosmetic touches to be the final ones.

Besides the Russian and Finnish concerns, restoration has been accomplished with additional funds from the Getty Foundation, the Mies van der Rohe Foundation in Barcelona, and the Swedish Government.  It is nice to see so much cooperation in rebuilding and restoring a library, especially in an age where funding for libraries keeps falling by the wayside.  Now if only there was a similar concern for its book denizens...

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the Viipuri Library website.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Giving America the Boot

He had tried a number of jobs without success but, unlike Dubya, these jobs were undistinguished so failure only hurt himself.  His last job was clerking in his brother's dry goods store.  But the call of the hunt was too much for him.  So were his wet and cold feet.  Leather boots let water in.  Rubber boots made his feet sweat.  He decided to solve the problem.

The Maine Hunting Shoe.

In 1911 Leon Leonwood (L.L.) Bean worked with a cobbler to design a boot with leather uppers and rubber bottoms and came up with the Maine Hunting Shoe, and the cornerstone of a successful business.  He began working out of his brother's shop.  Cleverly, a year later he was able to get a list of non-resident hunters who had Maine hunting licenses.  To these he sent a three-page flyer stating:

"You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are 
not properly dressed.  The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by 
a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the last 18 years.  
We guarantee them to give perfect satisfaction in every way."

L.L. was aware of the power of mail order as exemplified by Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.  One hundred orders came in for his boots.  However, ninety of them came back with the leather tops ripped from the rubber bottoms.  He refunded their money making good on his guarantee.  He solved the problem with triple stitching and the use of better quality materials.

He relied on word-of-mouth and worked hard to build a mailing list.  His initial profits went to advertising. Customer service was an utmost priority and built his reputation.  By 1934 his flyer had become a 52-page catalog.  He began to have in-person visits to his factory in Freeport, Maine, and in 1951 he opened the store 24/7 all year.  There are no locks on the Freeport store.

The Field Coat, introduced in 1924.

While the business began with the Maine Hunting Shoe, other products were soon added:  the Field Coat in 1924; the Chamois Shirt in 1928; and the Boat and Tote® Bag was introduced in 1944 as Bean's Ice Carrier.  Just last year a new sub-brand called the L.L.Bean Signature was launched.  This collection, designed by Alex Carleton, is a modern interpretation of classic items with updated style and a modern fit.

Chamois Cloth Shirt, introduced in 1928.

The original Freeport store resembled an old factory.  The business office was on the 3rd floor which was accessible only from outside stairs.  Mail orders were filled on the 2nd floor.  A mail chute led to the first floor where L.L.'s brother was post master in the street-floor post office.  Visitors could watch moccasins being made, and repairs to hunting boots done under their lifetime guarantee.  The hallway of the staircase functioned as a bulletin board used by hunters to share information.

The flagship store in Freeport, Maine.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The new Freeport facility resembles a campus with different departments in different buildings.  It features a trout pond in the middle of the store, and 3,500 gallon freshwater aquarium replicating a 25-foot streambed.  Aside from the different store buildings, there is also a cafe, a coffee shop, the 16-foot boot sculpture, and Discovery Park, a venue for outdoor concerts and events.  Plans are to develop a 700 acre "adventure center" in Freeport.

Catalogs are sent to over 160 countries.  There are retail stores in Japan and China. These are a big step from their rather timid initial experiences with retail stores.  At first their retail stores were not so successful.  They learned from experience things such as making sure their store had parking lot access when in a mall - it's kind of hard for customers to tote their kayaks through a mall to their vehicle.  By hiring people with storefront knowledge and experience, they were able to make their retail stores successful.

Despite the homey, folksy look of their catalogs and interiors of their stores, not to mention the "ah, shucks" tone of their company website, now virtually all their clothing and the majority of other products are imported, which is disappointing.  The Maine Hunting Shoe, the Boat and Tote® Bag, and a few other items are still manufactured by L.L.Bean.

Even your dog will like L.L.Bean's "Wicked Good Dog Couch".
Image courtesy of Lynn Quire.

L.L. passed away at the age of 94 in 1967.  The company passed on to his grandson, Leon Gorman.  In 2001 Gorman took the position of Chairman, appointing Christopher McCormick CEO - the first non-family member.

It would be the perfect company if they would sell American-made products only, not to mention the jobs that would create.  But one cannot argue with the truth and simplicity of L.L.'s Golden Rule:

"Sell good merchandise at a reasonable profit, treat your customers 
like human beings and they will alway come back for more."

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of L.L.Bean.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Bonvicini's London installation.  Image courtesy of Jennifer Carlile/MSNBC.com

Eight years ago one of the most influential artists in recent years displayed an installation that is still causing waves.  It is going viral AGAIN in emails, albeit without crediting her with her work, and misinforming the locations of the piece. The piece is a toilet within walls made of one-way mirrors.  Inside one can see out, but no one can see into the structure.

Monica Bonvicini's "Don't Miss A Sec" was installed at two places in Europe.  One was in 2003, where it was placed on the construction site of the then future Chelsea College of Art and Design, across the street from the Tate Britain Museum. The other was in Basel, Switzerland in the middle of the Basel fairgrounds.  It is not in Houston, Texas, as many emails state.  The toilet is usable.

At the center of Ms. Bonvicini's work are architecture and public spaces.  She likes to examine the relationship between physical and social spaces.  "Don't Miss A Sec" is about the desire to see it all and the failure to be able to do so.  It pushes beyond the absurd what is public and what is private.

A person cleaning the installation in London.  Image courtesy of Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

She came up with the idea in 1999, when she sketched it while on an airplane.  She related it to the urge to not miss anything, to the notion of "see and be seen".  If you use the toilet, you can still see the next art work, who's passing by, who they are talking to, what they are wearing, and other social "must have" information.

Image courtesy of Ai Binami.
In London, the use of the prison toilet-and-sink unit pertains to the site, which was once the Millbank Penitentiary where prisoners were held before being shipped to Australia in the 1800s.  Her idea riffs off Jeremy Bentham, the renowned jurist, philosopher, and reformer.  His best known idea was for a prison building he called a panoptican.  This was a cylindrical building with a central tower that allowed guards to see all the prisoners in their cells without being seen by the prisoners.  (Today this is accomplished with the use of surveillance systems such as closed-circuit television.)  "Don't Miss A Sec" reverses this concept by giving all the power of viewing to the person inside the piece.

Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill, painted prior to
Bentham's death in 1875.  National Portrait Gallery, London

Ms. Bonvicini was born in Venice, Italy, and currently lives and works in Berlin. She attended the University of Arts in Berlin where she studied painting.  She transferred to Cal Arts where she was allowed and encouraged to explore her interests in architecture and art.  Since 2003 she has been a professor of sculpture and performative art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Monica Bonvicini has gone on to other work, but this piece seems to have caught the fancy of internet users all over.  An homage, perhaps, to the insatiable curiosity inherent in humans - I refer both to its popularity and the fact that one can answer nature's call without missing the action.

Unless otherwise noted, images of installation are in Basel, Switzerland, and are 
courtesy of the artist, Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan, Italy, and West of Rome Inc., Los Angeles.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mariachi, a Folk Music of Mexico

Image courtesy of Señor Codo/Wikipedia.
Mariachi is music native to Mexico, mainly associated with Jalisco, but also the western states of Nayarit, Zacatecas, Aguacalientes, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Colima.  Its exact birthplace is unknown, as early Mexican folk music was not documented.

In 1519 professional Spanish musicians accompanied 
Hernán Cortés when he arrived in Mexico.  The native population already had their own musical style, to which they added the European influence.  Later in the colonial period, black slaves brought music from Africa which further enhanced the style.

Image courtesy of Guillame Corport Muller/Wikipedia.
Traditional mariachi songs are typically love songs, either happy or sad.  But mariachi is now interacting with other mainstream genres, and it's not uncommon to hear a type of mariachi/pop or other fusion.  It is important in the study of Mexican music as it has become an emblematic form reflected in popular radio, the first Mexican films, and now globally.

The original mariachi were street musicians or buskers.  They wore peasant garb and had no concern for presenting a group appearance.  In the early 1900s groups began to wear modest uniforms.  Eventually the chosen dress was tight and ornamented pants, short jackets, embroidered belts, wide bow ties, boots, and sombreros.  These were the clothes of a traje de charro, a horseman or wealthy hacienda owner.  There are other types of street performers:  Jarochos (from Veracruz) or norteño bands from the northern states.  Groups that include accordions among their instruments are tejano.

Image courtesy of Gerardo Gonzalez/Wikipedia.

The instrumentation has changed over time.  Circa 1900 it was common that a group had four musicians, and the instruments used varied among groups and regions.  In central Jalisco there may have been two violins, a vihuela (a small instrument similar to a guitar with five strings and a convex back), and a guitarrón (like a vihuela but larger with six strings - kind of a cross between a guitar and an upright bass).  In southern Jalisco and Michoacán more likely two violins, a harp, and a guitarra de golpe were used.

After 1910 groups became bigger, and more instruments were used and in more numbers.  The use of the guitarra de golpe and the harp lessened and the modern classical guitar was adopted.  Wind instruments were added, such as the trumpet. Today the common instrumentation is three to six violins, two trumpets, a vihuela, guitars, and guitarrons.  All of the members of the group may sing.

Mariachi Torrez, image courtesy of www.talentbookingusa.com.

There's long been a rumor that the name came from the French word for "marriage".  In the 1860s, the French occupied Mexico.  Legend has it that during this time some French soldiers investigated the noise coming from a wedding party.  Asked what was going on, the Mexican guests shouted "c'est une mariage" ("it's a marriage") but with their Mexican accent it sounded like "mariachi".  This is a nice story, but untrue.  The first written documentation was in a letter by a priest, Cosme Santa Anna, in 1852.  Since the word and the musical group predate the French occupation, the phonetic similarity is coincidental.  Scholars agree the word comes from an indigenous language but differ on which one.  Some think it's from the Coca people of Jalisco, others believe it's from a tree in the Cora language of Nayarit (the wood from which may have served as a platform or stage for the players).  

Mariachi in Guadalajar, Jalisco, Mexico.  Image courtesy of Gerardo Gonzalez/Wikipedia.
The best mariachi groups have eleven or more members, all well-trained.  At the other end are groups with seven or less members, little or no formal training, who wander offering their services.  Most groups are in between.  Mariachi Vargas is the gold standard of mariachis, begun in 1898 by Gaspar Vargas, and taken over by his son Silvestre, considered by many to be the greatest mariachi of all time. 

Mexico City became the center of mariachi music in Mexico.  Likewise, Los Angeles is the urban mecca for mariachi in the United States.  The famous mariachi group Los Comperos founded their own supper club in Los Angeles, La Fonda.  This was the world's first venue to showcase mariachi.  The Los Angeles Institute of Ethnomusicology at UCLA organized Mariachi 
Uclatlán, the first effort in the academic study of mariachi.  Today educational institutions in the Southwest offer classes in mariachi music.
A mariachi band in Zapata, Texas.  Image courtesy of Billy Hathorn/Wikipedia.
Since the 1940s there have been a number of all-female groups, and mariachi groups of mixed gender are common today, especially in the United States.  Groups are expected to play songs upon request and some groups have 1,000 or more songs in their repertoire.  Since little written music is available, it has to be learned by ear and memorized.

Image courtesy www.lacountyarts.com.
One traditional aspect that cannot be ignored is the grito mexicano (Mexican scream) - a yell done at specific interludes of a song by the musicians and/or the audience.  It starts with the first syllable held as long as possible, leaving enough breath for a series of trills.  Listen to the young woman below, then practice as much as possible.  Mexican music can be a scream!