Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Real Need for Beauty

It’s summer at the lake and it’s beautiful, but we’re in the midst of a family crisis and all of my energy has been directed there. The worst of it seems to be over, at least for the short haul, but there is still much work ahead. It’s early morning and I’m sitting on my deck looking out at water so placid it could be a painting. Farther out, past the point that sculpts our bay, the wind is churning up the waves and I see two sailboats heading west toward the shipping channel. I hear a mourning dove calling, and now a string of Canada Geese are working their way along the shore. A while ago a kingfisher landed on our dock post and sat still for just a moment before taking off again.

It’s quiet this morning, a Fall chill already in the air. The dew is heavy on the grass, and even though I’m bundled up in sweats and shivering under an afghan, I’m overwhelmed and suddenly grateful for these beautiful moments. I come from a long line of depressives and have had to fight it many times in my life. My own relief comes, I’m convinced, from aggressively seeking out beauty.

But I’m not the first one to grasp the profound healing properties of beautiful things. Since early man we humans have purposely sought out anything that even hints of feel-good properties. We adorn ourselves with objects that have no necessary function other than to please us. We pierce our ears in order to hang shiny doodads from them. From the earliest times we’ve woven fabrics and intricately etched leathers and stitched them into colorful clothing. We’ve scratched and stained our skin, creating fabulous tattoos. We’ve worried our hair and plastered it with glop in order to create a whole new us.

The history of adornment tells us much about what separates us from the animals. I believe its roots are in our almost desperate need for beauty. Beyond our own self-images, we’ve created beauty by gathering seeds and planting flowers in otherwise barren places. We’ve painted gloriously vibrant scenes on cave walls. We’ve built structures of staggering proportions under seemingly impossible conditions for no other reason than to protect and preserve and admire the gorgeous treasures we’ve created.

Throughout all time we’ve lavished attention and affection on our human treasures -- those few mortals who stun us with their own creative visions. From visual and dramatic artists to musicians to writers to sports idols to movie-makers, we love them for their ability to transcend the ordinary and bring us outside of ourselves to a beautiful ecstasy we can never stop craving.

The kind of beauty that calms us to our very souls can be found almost anywhere. I remember seeing a photograph of an old woman standing in a tiny, trash-strewn room. She herself was dressed in rags, but she was smiling and pointing to her one, lone window. She had found an old calendar somewhere and had torn out the pages and taped them to her window. Whatever dismal view she once had was now replaced with visions of the Taj Mahal, the pyramids at Giza; with mountaintop sunrises and Chinese junks on a lovely, winding river.

She found what she was looking for.

Dwarf iris clinging to rocks

(Published in a blog a few years ago. The crisis noted above is long past, but, as in any life, all is not roses. The need for simple joys never ends. )

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mr. Snow Visits the Bend

(NOTE: This is a chapter from my unfinished novel, "The Year of Lost Men", based on accounts of the 1913 Copper Strike in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. My mother was born there in 1918 and was forced to quit school after the eighth grade in order to go to work cleaning other people's houses. When the school principal heard that she wasn't coming back, he actually did go to her father and beg him to let her come back. What I've written here is fiction, and is placed earlier to accommodate the story, but it's what I imagined might have happened.)

Red Eagle Location, Michigan, September, 1912
Mr. Percy Snow maneuvered his brother Harry’s Model-A around a tricky curve, clutching the steering wheel and allowing the wagon ruts to carry him deeper into the dreaded Chippewa Bend.  This was a place he’d hoped he’d never have reason to come.
As he approached the low, dirty-red house the child Anna-Liisa had described to him as the one belonging to her friend, Linnea, a nagging observation finally revealed itself:  There were no signs that any other automobile had ever entered this lane.  The road was a two-track, fit only for horses and cows and the people who led them.  He shuddered with relief as he rolled to a stop at the head of the cow path leading into the Maki yard, and tried not to think about the trip out.
He’d been uneasy from the moment he’d entered Red Eagle Location, and thought, as he drove the half-mile to the Chippewa Bend turnoff, that a wiser man would never have come in the first place.  A wiser man would, at the very least, have recognized his folly and turned around and gone home.
But nobody would ever take him for a wise man.  At that he had to smile,  there was such truth in it.
He leaned his head back and drew a deep breath, and as he did, he noticed that the sky above the trees held no wires.  These houses were still without electricity!  For reasons he could not fathom, his teeth began their annoying chatter, and his left hand shook until he gripped the door latch tightly and pressed it down.
He walked around to the back of Linnea’s house, sighing as he trudged toward the sagging porch steps.  Countless times before, he had come to houses like this one to plead his case.  So rarely had he ever won, he’d begun to take it personally.
He drew a deep breath and, catching a strong whiff of boiled fish, began to cough wildly into his sleeve.  He wiped his eyes and wrapped himself in his last hope—a cloak of deference.  He knocked softly and waited for the door to open.
He thought he had given himself enough time to prepare for this—it had been two days already since Anna-Liisa had come to him—but at the sight of Isaac Maki standing bull-like in the doorway, Percy groaned involuntarily.  He had dealt with this big Finn before—two, possibly three years ago.  Same issue, different child.
The time before, Percy had been on his own turf, in his own tiny office near the front door of the grade school--the office of the principal and of the school board president (for he was both)--with his own people around him.
He shouldn’t have been afraid that day when Isaac Maki pushed open his door—but in fact he had been.  So afraid that he knew the whites of his eyes had shown huge.  So afraid that he couldn't rise from his chair to greet the man.  The argument was lost before it had even begun.
Foreign men frightened him.  After ten years in the Copper Country he’d had to come to terms with that.  It was the space they took up—greater than they needed, it seemed to him.  The way they leaned forward on stocky, muscled legs and held their ground; the way their fists, scarred and blackened from years in the mines,  punctuated the air as they stressed to him, in languages he almost never understood, that the answer was "No”.
And all he’d asked to do was educate their children.
“Who you?” Isaac Maki asked him.  “What you want?”
“Yes, hello there, yes,” Percy said, backing away a little, catching himself as he tripped on an uneven floor board and nearly fell off the tiny porch.  “I’m Mr. Percy Snow?  From the school board?  We talked before, when Matti quit—when Matti had to leave school?”
“Yah,” the man said.  He made no move to ask Percy in.  Through the open door Percy could see the man’s wife standing at the wood stove stirring her fish stew.  He prided himself on knowing, in these minutes when nothing else was clear, that in this Finnish household that pot would contain fish heads.  He’d taken care to learn a little something about the Finns, just as he’d learned a little about the Croatians and the Italians and the. . .
The woman glanced at him then, almost as if she knew what he was thinking.  “Fish heads,” he said, motioning toward the steaming pot, but no one spoke.  “I just meant. . .”
“Aaah, you people,” he heard Isaac Maki mutter, “always sticking nose.  You go.  You go away now.”
“Please,”  Percy said, “it’s about Linnea.  I’ve come about your daughter.”
Heavy footsteps shook the room and the heavy inner door began to shut. It caught on the corner of a thick braided rug, and as Linnea’s father worked to loosen it, Percy pleaded:  “Please, I beg you.  She is a bright girl.  She loves school.  She needs to go on!”
“Enough school,” Mr. Maki shouted,  “Eight years enough.  She goes work now.”
With a mighty jerk, the man ripped the rug out from under the door, and before Percy could even think about the consequences, he pulled open the screen door, shot over the threshold and stumbled into the stifling kitchen.
“Please,” he pleaded to the woman, who now had stopped stirring and was looking first at him and then at her husband.  “You must give your girl a chance—“  It occurred to him then that she might not even understand him.  Red Eagle was a company town made up almost entirely of Finns.  None of these children had started school knowing more than a few words of English.  “Sorry,” he said, and turned smack into Isaac Maki’s raised fist.
“You go out this house,” the father said through his teeth, “NOW!”
Percy pressed against the doorjamb.  The man could have flattened him,  but he didn’t.  I must leave now, Percy thought.  Any thinking man would.  His hand flexed against the screen door.  He made an attempt to push it open, he did, but as he stood in the Maki kitchen he finally knew what had really drawn him here.  It wasn’t Linnea—though Lord knew he would have liked to have saved her.  Linnea—wild, silly, enchanting Linnea—a miner’s wife?  My God—pity the poor man, he thought, and almost laughed out loud.
Yes, it was Linnea who had brought him here, but it was Mattias, the son, who was keeping him in this room even after he’d been ordered to leave.  It shocked Percy that this was so.  In the three years since Matti had quit school, he’d only once, quickly, had a word with him, and then had only seen the boy in passing.  Matti was tramming in the mine, and that thought alone was more than Percy could bear.  He reckoned he had buried any thoughts of Mattias good and proper.
If he’d had a chance to think it through, he would have to say he was here to save all the boys—all those boys he’d had to let go, had to watch descend into those brutal red-rock bowels.  And who, if he had even thought,  would help him save them?  This man who now held the remnants of a rag carpet in his powerful hands, who was ready to pound him flat if he didn’t leave now?  This woman staring at him without an expression he could even read, stirring a noxious fish head stew?
“You’re killing these children!” he heard himself cry out, “You’re killing Mattias!  I saw that boy’s soul.  Where is it now?  And Linnea!  My God, you people, think--!”
He barely felt the fingers curled around his stiff collar,  the huge palm against his back, but in the next moment he was out the door, and then he was running, running away, and he didn’t stop until he’d reached the two-track road again.
Outside the car he retched, then actually vomited.  When he could, he laid his head back against the car seat and took a chance on closing his eyes.  So weary. . .
Someone was at the open window, breathing hard.  He flinched, and then he heard the voice.
“Mr. Snow?"  It was Linnea, shocked, looking to her right and to her left, and Percy knew that she was hoping no one else had seen him.  “What are you doing here?  You go away now.  You have to go away.”
He looked up at the girl and realized that he was crying.  Not just crying, but sobbing, his mouth agape and contorted, his lips pulled back against his teeth.  He could feel it and could do nothing about it.  He saw Linnea gasp and turn away.
He wished with all his heart that he could stop.  He dropped his head against the steering wheel and tried to control himself.
“Mr. Snow?  Shh now.  Please!  Shh now.  You have to stop now.  What happened?  Where were you?”
Slowly he shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter,” he whispered.  “None of it matters.  You’re going to let them kill you.  You and your brother—your hearts, your souls, your. . .your very minds.”
“Who?  Who’s going to kill me?  My Pa?  What did I do?”  She stared at him so long he had to look away.  “What did you do?”
Percy wiped his eyes and tried to focus on her.  He needed to say something.  He cleared his throat.  “What do you see when you look in the future?” he asked her, finally, without answering her question.  “Doing up the whitest wash?  Making up the proudest lunch pail?  A pack of children and a pot of fish stew?  What do you see?”
He waited, but it wasn’t the future she was trying to see.  She was squinting, looking for movement in the upper windows of the house next door.
“Who told you to come here?” she said then.  “Why did you have to come here?  What did you say to my Pa?”  Suddenly she smacked the side of the car door, startling him.  “You ruined everything, didn’t you?  You did.  You ruined everything!  I’ll never go back to school now.”
Again he needed to say something--something to hold her here.  To make her listen.  Something wise.  But before he could say anything, she moved away.  Then she was gone, running down her hollow, into her house, safe from any thoughts of freedom.  He slumped against the car seat and took a deep breath.
What a foolish, foolish man he was.  These people did not want saving.  He remembered that last quick encounter he’d had with Mattias.  He’d run into the boy in front of the post office and in the few moments he’d had, Percy had tried to convince him to return to school.  The boy never said a word.  Instead, he’d fixed Percy with a long, careful look.  In the boy’s eyes was the kind of hostile pity one would reserve for a drunk in a ditch.
No, he thought as he ground the gears into reverse, these people don’t deserve saving.
But then he saw a flicker of movement in the Maki’s low kitchen window.  He  caught the woman’s gaze as she raised the paper shade and pressed her fingers against the window.  Her lips moved, soundlessly, but her eyes held him, pleading.
He nodded before he could stop himself, then turned his full attention to getting out.  Slowly, he backed down the long curving, rutted lane, holding his breath.  He cried out, a small joyous yip, when the tires finally gripped the shiny tar surface of the town road and spun him toward his own place, toward his own people, taking him farther and farther away.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Budget-cutting the Hard Way

I wrote this column in October, 1981.  It's based on a story I read in my birth town newspaper.   I didn't save the original story, but I swear everything I've reported here is true:

I read in the paper that the city manager of a certain 1,000-resident Upper Peninsula village came up with an amazingly clever idea for saving roughly ten-percent of the village's $300,000 annual budget.

He recommended that council eliminate the city manager's position.

So this particular council, with visions of percentages dancing around in their wee little heads, voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.  After the final vote, the now ex-city manager, apparently dazzled by his own audacity, could be hear muttering, "It wasn't an easy decision.  I don't enjoy getting rid of myself."

I shouldn't wonder.  It's never easy getting rid of one's self.  It's especially difficult to get rid of one's self and still be around to say, "I don't enjoy getting rid of myself."  One usually doesn't have that option.

Personally, I think that particular council acted a little hastily.  Maybe they should reconsider and give that poor man a second chance.  I can't help but wonder if, in the act of doing his duty, in the heat of the budget-cutting moment, he simply forgot who the city manager was.

On the other hand, it could be he was grandstanding.  Maybe he was saying, in effect, "See, I'm taking my budget-cutting responsibilities so seriously, I've even willing to let you consider doing away with--heh, heh--my job.  Of course, I don't expect you to really--heh, heh--do it; it's just my little way of expressing my willingness to explore all options.  Heh, heh."

But maybe council had other things on their minds at the time and didn't get the "heh, heh".

Another possibility is that he really had been thinking of getting rid of himself.  It can happen.  I've done it myself from time to time.  Luckily, since there was no urgency attached to my decision, I have been saved up to now by my penchant for procrastination.  Then, too, there wasn't $30,000 at stake.  Nor did I have to worry about an over-zealous city council being ready to pounce on my ponderings at any given moment, then rushing to make them a reality before I could even say, "Kidding!"

Whatever the reasons, what's done is done, and the end of this strange-but-true story is sad, if predictable.  Since that unfortunate turn of events, the now ex-city manager hasn't had one single job offer.  In all honesty, could he have expected anything else?  I mean, as much as I would love to go on sympathizing, it seems to me he could have at least worded his announcement a little differently.  There aren't many employers--especially in this day and age--who would be willing to go out on a limb and hire a man who had just recently gotten rid of himself.

It stands to reason that any potential employer /interviewer would have no choice but to scribble across the now ex-city manager's application, "The applicant lacked substance. . ."


Friday, June 11, 2010

A Truly True Commencement Speech

I wrote this column on June 1, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, when finding the quoted commencement speech was especially meaningful--at least to me.  And now, in 2010, it's further proof that some things just never, ever change. No, never.  Not ever.

A Commencement Speech to Cheer About

I've always thought that a commencement speech must be the hardest kind of speech to make.  People--the most important people, often with better things to do--spend hours writing speeches they know before they even begin speaking nobody is going to really listen to or, in any sense, believe.

All across the country, millions of graduates are hearing thousands of commencement speakers passing on the tried and true--"Reach for the stars!", "Hold your heads up high!"  (which goes without saying if you're going to be reaching for stars) and, always, "Now go out there and show them the stuff Alfred E. Newman High (wait for applause) is made of!"
I've sat through so many of those speeches wishing the speaker, just once, would have the guts to say, "The world's a mess out there and I wouldn't wish this day on my worst enemy, but, as I've always said, better you than me."

And just last week, as if it had been planned, I found one.  It was written by a famous writer and it was an imaginary speech written facetiously for a friend who was about to deliver your standard, canned speech to an auditorium full of graduates anxious to throw their caps into the air and be done with it.  The writer suggested this speech, (excerpted) instead:

I suppose you think I'm going to give you one of those "You are going out into the world" speeches.  Well, you're perfectly right.  You are going out into the world and it's a mess, a frightened, neurotic, gibbering mess.  And there isn't anyone out there to help you because all the people who are already out there are in a worse state than you are, because they have been there longer and a good number of them have given up.

You, my young friends, are going to take your bright and shining faces into a jungle, but a jungle where all the animals are insane.  You are going from delinquency to desuetude without even an interlude of healthy vice.  You haven't the strength for vice.  That takes energy, and all the energy of this time is needed for fear.  And what energy is left over is needed for running down the rabbit holes of hatred, to avoid thought.

The rich hate the poor and taxes.  The young hate the draft.  The Democrats hate the Republicans and everybody hates the Russians.  No one can plan one day ahead because all certainty is gone.

War is now generally admitted to be not only unwinnable but actually suicidal and so we think of war and plan for war and design war and drain our nations of every extra penny of treasure to make the weapons which we admit will destroy us.

And meanwhile there is no money for the dams and the schools and the highways and the housing and the streets for our clotting and festering traffic.  And that's what you're going out to.  Going out?  Hell, you've been in it for years.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could look at your world and say, and hear yourself--"This was once true but it is no longer true.  We must make new rules about this and this.  We must abandon our dear wars, which once had a purpose, and our hates which once served us."

You won't do it.  It will have to slip up on you in the course of generations.  But wouldn't it be wonderful if you could greet the most wonderful time in the history of our world with wonder rather than with despair?

The author of that imaginary but splendidly, acutely accurate commencement speech was John Steinbeck.  He wrote it in 1956.  Makes you wonder what kind of merry-go-round we're on, doesn't it?  And who's going to make it stop?


Monday, March 22, 2010

Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

I wrote this column on March 29, 1983, when Michigan was in the midst of a horrific depression.  The rest of the country was in the midst of a recession, but, as always, manufacturing states like Michigan were hit harder than most.  The unemployment numbers in Michigan in 1983 reached 14.6%, a number not seen again until 2009.  The Midwest was known as the "rust belt" as more and more companies moved to the southern lower-wage "right-to-work" states. (The "Sun belt")


Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

The March 29 [1983] issue of the Houston Chronicle carried 120 pages of employment ads.  No, that's not a typo. . . 120 pages.  It boasts the largest classified ad section of any paper in the country. (The same week's Detroit News carried 17 1/2 ad pages.)

Big things are happening in Houston and apparently the folks up north have gotten the word.  The Chronicle says that in the last six months, their Sunday sales in Michigan have leaped from 200 to 3,000 papers a week.
The Little Professor bookstore in Dearborn alone has a guaranteed sellout of their 1,000-plus weekly order--sometimes within the same day of arrival.  That in addition to their 800-900 copies of the Dallas Morning News.

At first it was kind of fun, those Houstonians being the big cheeses, but now they're wondering if 120 pages of employment opportunities isn't carrying southern hospitality a little too far.

There's consternation down there in oil country.  The front page headlines of that same issue of the Chronicle read, "New 'Okie' comes from Michigan and Houston is his California".

Inside, article headlines read: "New 'Okies' swarm from Michigan to Houston's job-rich land of plenty"; "Houston, Dallas papers snapped up in Michigan"; "Snow Belt exodus--Why 1,000 a week stream here--jobs", and "Hillbillies in Michigan,Yankees here".

The gist of it all is that the jobless from the north are swarming into Texas without so much as a hint of a job.  They're coming in vans and pickup trucks containing all their worldly goods, "assuming", said one spokesman, "that the streets are paved with gold".

Well, they are paved with gold for the professionals, the engineers, the accountants, the chemists and the computer experts, but for the run-of-the-mill factory worker, they want it made clear there just aren't any factories down there.  At least not yet.

And if, by some chance, the factory worker is fortunate enough to find a job similar to the one he left, he can expect to make anywhere from $5 to $10 an hour less than he made in Michigan.  There are few unions down there and they seem to like it that way.

I did a little rundown on the 120 pages of ads and this is what I came up with:

Professional (managers, supervisors, consultants, etc.)  22 pp.
Engineering-Technical  20 pp
Data Processing (computer operators, programmers, etc.)  10 pp
Admin. - financial (accountants, auditors, analysts)  5 1/2 pp
Sales  7 1/2 pp
Office - Clerical  25 pp
Crafts-skills-trades (machinists, toolmakers, welders)  9 pp
Medical  8 pp
Misc.  (hairdressers, food service, maintenance, etc.)  13 pp

Good news for teachers is that there a shortage in Texas critical enough so that they are combing the northern countryside for candidates.  Clericals are in such demand that, if I can believe the personnel placement ads, beginner receptionists can start at $10,000 to $12,000 a year.   (1983 dollars)

That's the good news, if you happen to be one of those people.  The bad news is that Houston hasn't yet made ready for all of their guests.  The housing boom of two years ago is fast becoming a shortage and  the small-townish mass transit system is woefully inadequate, making horrendous traffic jams a way of life.  Sewage and flooding problems are keeping maintenance crews working overtime.

In addition, the city of Houston is regularly running TV ads pleading for additional police recruits to help with the growing crime problem.

Still, with all its faults, a city in the sunny southwest with a newspaper that can carry 120 pages of employment ads has to look pretty good to someone out of work in Detroit with no likely prospects.  And Houston wants you.  That's clear.  They're even going so far as to retrain in some instances.  But they're also asking that you take your time, do a lot of research, and don't burn all your bridges behind you.

Clearly, this is a big step to take--and more and more of you are taking it.  So maybe we should talk some more about this.  Have you been to Texas, or are you planning to go?  Do you have a job waiting?  Do you know someone who is down there now?  Are they making it?  What are they doing?

Write me in care of this newspaper and we'll do a local follow-up in a few weeks, if the response is there.

(Note:  I heard from one guy who said he was going down and would let me know how it was when he got there.  Never heard from him again.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Diego Rivera - Assistants Remember the Genius

In March, 1986 I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to interview Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, two fresco artists who worked on the famous Industrial murals produced by Diego Rivera in the 1930s. I wrote this piece for the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers, where I had a weekly book column and wrote occasional freelance articles. This piece was published on March 20, 1986. Lucienne and Stephen were in the area teaching and lecturing for a couple of weeks, and we talked on the phone a few times so that I could clarify some of the info in my notes. Once we got the business out of the way, our conversations usually turned to the difficulty of being liberals in the Land of Reagan. I wish I had had the good sense to have recorded those conversations.

Lucienne and Stephen were funny, smart, quick and totally devoted to one another. Even after all those years, Stephen seemed still in awe of the fact that Lucienne, the daughter of a famous composer born into a family of means, was his wife. She knew it and used it playfully. They were quite a pair.

Lucienne wrote to me after she got back to California and invited me to their ranch. I never went, of course, and I don't know how sincere the invitation was, but the invite itself was enough for me. I still have it, along with the copy of Dimitroff's book, which Stephen insisted I keep. When I asked him to autograph it, he was as flustered as I would have been, had he asked me for mine.

_(photo 1985, courtesy of Alexander Kaloian)_____________

March 20, 1986:

When artist Lucienne Bloch was a young girl in her 20s, during the height of the Great Depression, she gave up a job teaching sculpture for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin to grind powdered paints for Diego Rivera--a backbreaking, poor-paying, thankless job, at best.

She met the famed Mexican muralist in 1931 in New York, at a banquet given in his honor during an exhibition of his work. "My romantic notions of art and life, at age 22, were knocked out of joint by this burly giant of a man, and I marveled at his preposterous opinions," Bloch wrote in a recent article for Art in America titled, "On Location with Diego Rivera".
What swayed her the most, Bloch wrote, was Rivera's notion that man doesn't control the machines, "The machines control us," he told her. "We are the catalysts that transform the raw materials of the earth into energy. We are the continuation of the geologic process."

Last week Bloch and her husband, Stephen Dimitroff, another of Rivera's early assistants, stood in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art, transfixed by the 53-year-old Detroit Industry murals. They stared at them, moved closer to pick out certain touches, and delighted in them as though they were seeing the 27 frescoes for the first time. As though they themselves had not worked on them.

"Can you imagine the genius of the man?" Dimitroff said. "He was incredible. It was the thrill of our lives to work for Diego."

When Bloch asked Rivera at the banquet if he would let her grind colors, the muralist already had a reputation as a self-centered perfectionist who worked his assistants until they dropped, then refused to pay them a dime when a nickel would do. He had the energy of 10 men half his age, and if he worked 20 or 30 hours straight, as the Dimitroffs said he often did, his assistants worked as long, without questions. And there were plenty of young artists, including Dimitroff, who begged for the job.

Stephen Dimitroff was born in Bulgaria but his family eventually settled in Flint [Michigan], where he and his father worked in the auto plants. He went to Chicago to study art, but left in a fury when the art school wouldn't recognize his three yeas of night art courses in Flint.

In his book, "Apprentice of Diego Rivera in Detroit", Dimitroff remembers:

"An overwhelming urge to reject art schools and meet a living, active artist, Diego Rivera, had propelled me by night bus and streetcar to the DIA. That early chilly November, 1932, I ran up the marble steps boldly. I winked at the bronze hulk of Rodin's The Thinker - then the fact hit me that this was Monday, when all the museums of the world are closed!"

Dimitroff cajoled the guards and finally got in by saying he had to get back to Flint
"where my dad was laid off from Buick". The guard turned away,saying, "Well, son, if I don't see you go in I can't stop you."

He met Rivera and told him he just wanted to watch. He did that for days, going back each night to his $2.50-a-month room, until finally somebody let him grind colors.

"It was the depression then, you have to remember, and nobody mentioned money," Dimitroff said with a laugh. "But I was there to learn. It was what I wanted to do." He was finally hired when one of the assistants suddenly quit.

Rivera asked to see some of his paintings and the young man was terrified. "I showed him landscapes and still lifes and portraits of my family, including one of my dad coming back from the factory with his lunch pail. [Rivera said] 'Very fine, sketches good--but you you not paint workers' factory? That's interesting.' I was stunned. I didn't know how to answer. The factory was just plain routine to me."

At one point Dimitroff stopped working long enough to pose for Rivera, whose habit it was to choose real people for the subjects of his paintings. He appears as a pink-shirted worker on the North Wall lifting a motor block with another Rivera assistant, Art Niendorf.

Stephen Dimitroff, DIA, cleaning his 1933 portrait

Though Bloch and Dimitroff both worked with Rivera in Detroit, they didn't meet there. "I left for New York one day, and Steve showed up in Detroit the next day," Bloch said. They met for the first time months later in New York when Dimitroff and Niendorf came to her door begging for money.

They'd been sent from Detroit to Rockefeller Center to prepare the walls of the RCA Building lobby for Rivea's next job--three frescoes commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller depicting "Man at the Crossroads". Rivera kept "forgetting" to send the two men their living expenses and they were dead broke.
"You're the only one we know in New York," Niendorf told Bloch. "Can we borrow $20?" When Bloch hesitated, Neindorf said she could be chief photographer for the Rockefeller project. Bloch says now "It was the most significant $20 I ever parted with."

Throughout her days with Rivera in Detroit (where for several months she shared an apartment with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo) and in New York, Bloch managed to find time to keep a diary. A passage, dated March 20, 1933 has Bloch looking for the Riveras in New York after they'd arrived there fresh from the Detroit project:
"I met Dimi (Stephen Dimitroff) at RCA. We went together to the Barbizon-Plaza and looked all over for the Riveras. They were in (Mexican artist) Covarrubias's apartment. They looked great! Diego is relating with hilarious gestures the scandal in Detroit about his frescoes. There are many 'experts' who want to remove them--or whitewash them. Puritanical groups are shocked at the big nudes. Some object that the workers in the factory scenes don't look happy. But the greatest of the commotion is the panel which some call a 'travesty on the Holy Family'. This is a small panel, glorifying the great medical research work of science. It shows a blond baby (The model, Bloch said later, was the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, which Rivera sketched from newspaper photos.) gently held by a nurse with a pretty white cap framing her face. A doctor, the likeness of Dr. Valentiner, director of the DIA, stands by, vaccinating the child. In the foreground are the ox, horse and sheep--the source of serums needed to control epidemics. A beautiful theme! Newspapers are having a holiday on the furor the mural causes. Luckily Edsel Ford shows real GUTS not to weaken before the hue and cry of the bigots. I'm impressed. Maybe he's got some of his Dad's stubbornness. Diego says that thousands of people are visiting the Art Institute who never went there before."
Today, a half-century later, Rivera is back at the DIA, in the form of a major retrospective on view through April 27 before going on to Philadelphia, Mexico City, Madrid and West Berlin. It includes Rivera's huge preparatory drawings--or "cartoons", in museum lingo--found in the basement of the museum in 1979, after the Dimitroffs and others assured staff members the drawings existed and should be there.

And the Dimitroffs, major forces during Rivera's United States stay, are back, too. They're here at the DIA's invitation to teach and lecture on Rivera's Detroit frescoes. Twice a week they're at Detroit's Norther High School teaching the lost art of fresco painting to gifted students who "with such joy, do all the dirty work", Bloch said.

The adults in the class come from Cranbrook. "There's a 70-year-old man who's just marvelous," she said, adding, "He's so full of life!" Bloch herself is a 75-year-old dynamo who admitted she works all the time. "We're only happy when we're working," she said, "Our work is our joy."

The lecture schedule is filling up: Oakland, Jackson, Flint, Adrian College and more, before they head back on March 30 to their home in Gualala, 125 miles north of San Francisco, on the edge of California's wine country.

And if the year 1986 is significant at the DIA (the retrospective celebrating 100 years since Rivera's birth is a major event designed to coincide with the DIA's Centennial celebration), it is no less significant for the Dimitroffs. In September they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The two fell in love in New York while they worked on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center frescoes. After seven months of work the murals were almost completed when Rivera, an avowed Communist trying to get back in the good graces of the party, painted the head of Lenin into one prominent scene. The sponsored protested, but Rivera refused to remove it. All work stopped and the murals were eventually smashed to bits.

As Dimitroff and the other assistants ground colors and applied the five coats of plaster needed for Rivera's style of fresco, Bloch shot roll after roll of film. Later, when the assistants got wind of the shut-down, the photographs took on a new importance. Near the end, when RCA guards were ordered to confiscate cameras, Bloch tucked her little Leica into her blouse and entered the building with Dimitroff, saying they had last-minute work to finish up. While Dimitroff pounded on boards to mask the sounds of the clicking shutter, Bloch took the final photos of the murals--including the controversial head of Lenin.

"It was insane, that destruction," Bloch said. "Ill never understand why they couldn't just cover the murals with canvas. To destroy such a work. . .and to think it could have happened to the Detroit murals, too."

Rivera went back to Mexico and the Dimitroffs never saw him again, though Bloch corresponded with her friend, Frida Kahlo. The Dimitroffs set up a lecture tour to discuss the "Fresco Debacle", as they called it, and when the interest waned, Bloch signed on as a WPA artist.

"You had to take what they called a 'pauper's oath', saying you didn't have any money, " Bloch recalled. "Steve absolutely refused to do it, even though he was so broke, but I wanted to. They asked me how much money I had and I told the truth--I said I had $60. They weren't going to let me sign up and I said, 'Listen, by next week I'll have nothing. My rent is due and I have to eat.' Well, they wanted a woman fresco painter so they let me go."

She painted two frescoes in New York City, one at the Washington school, since torn down, and one at the Women's House of Detention.

About that mural she later wrote," Conversations with the inmates revealed with what sarcasm and suspicion they treated the mention of art. I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them--children--framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. In their make-believe moments the children in the mural were adopted and renamed. Such response clearly reveals to what degree a mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us."

They moved to Flint, Dimitroff's hometown, where he worked as a machinist and later a draftsman, and she taught art classes twice a week at the Flint Institute of Art.

"After we'd been there about eight years--by that time we had three kids and a house--we proposed a mural for the offices or dining room at General Motors," Bloch said. "Something in the style of Rivera. They weren't the least bit interested. That's when we decided we had done all we could in Flint, so we sold the house, loaded up the kids, tents and sleeping bags into the car and headed out west.

As they surveyed the frescoes at the DIA last week before rushing off for another speaking engagement, Bloch said, "Since those days with Diego, Steve and I have never stopped working together. And our great love is still fresco painting. We do other things out of necessity. You can't make a living from frescoes--each one takes too long--so we've done book illustrations, mosaics, anything anyone asks of us.

"Sad to say, fresco painting is become a lost art. It's scary to see in print how much work goes into it. It sounds more complicated than it really is. There's a joy to it. You can see it in the students at the fresco workshop. But it is very difficult work--time consuming--and artists nowadays sem to want to do everything spontaneously. They don't seem to understand that even the spontaneous Japanese and Chinese brush painting is done only after 30 years of studying. Very disciplined study.

"So our joy is turning people on to painting frescoes again. Aside from a man we heard about in Texas, we seem to be the only true fresco painters left in this country. And that is so sad."

( Stephen died in 1993 and Lucienne in 1999. Her NYT obit is here)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

In 1983 - Programs--or People?

(This is the second in a series of columns I wrote during the 1983 recession in Michigan. To read them in their proper order, either start at the bottom (A Community Call for Help) or click on each post in the Archives to the left.)

January 26, 1983 -

Last week I went to a conference in Romulus called "Serving the Poor and New Needy - A Community Challenge". Most of the participants were people who were involved in one way or another in community-needs programs. Some have had their acts together for years now and probably shared more information than they received. Others were just beginning and were there for guidance and direction.

The information was there in amazing abundance and I haven't yet had time to digest it all or put it in any kind of order, so that will come later. I do know, coming out of that workshop, that if I were in any kind of trouble--whatever it was--my first call would be to Community Information Services. They are the know-alls, hear-alls, see-alls around here and can direct callers in a matter of minutes to the right places.

The main purpose of the workshop was to bring all those Community Needs people together to pool all of their resources and talents into one giant task force and come up with a well-coordinated master plan for taking care of the needy in the out-county area. An ambitious project, to be sure, but if the outpouring of care and energy was any indication, it'll happen--and happen soon.

Of everything I saw and heard--and as impressed as I was--I can't get the workshop's keynote speaker out of my mind. The Reverend Edwin Rowe is pastor of the Cass United Methodist Church and champion of the "old poor (as he calls them) in the Cass Corridor.

Feeding the poor is nothing new to him. His church feeds upwards of 1200 people each and every week of the year. But there are some distinct differences between the old poor and the new poor, he says, that must be recognized. There's a toughness in the old poor--a lack of panic--that you don't find in the new poor.

"When you're finding ways of feeding people, it isn't enough that you worry about their nutritional needs. You have to worry about what it does to these people when they have to stand in line for three hours."

There was a certain arrogance about Pastor Rowe as he talked about the arrogance of the people who have elected to take on the task of feeding the "new poor". As one participant said later, "He was a real downer".

But if some of his words struck a nerve, very possibly it was a nerve that needed to be struck. Listen:

"We should stop going to meetings about the poor where only staff people are and start going to meetings where the poor people are. And if you're going to feed them, don't just feed them. Sit down and talk to them."

"What goes on is not feeding people but being known as a person who feeds people. There's a real temptation to grandstand. I call it the "Mother Waddles of the Year" syndrome. If we're going to be at all effective, we have to get our own need to be stars out of the way."

"There's a real arrogance in making people stand in line for food. Give them money instead, so they can go into stores like you and me and buy the same junk food (if they want) that we're able to do. When we give them vouchers (food stamps, etc.) we put a sign on them. If you give them money, nobody has to know who's unemployed and who's not."

"If we're not careful we will allow ourselves to set up an entire 'poverty industrial complex' where we will be in complete control and we'll expect people to be thrilled about the coming of surplus cheese. 750,000 poor people is an army which you and I have refused to organize. If we told these people the real truth about how it got that way, then they would insist on organizing and our jobs might be on the line."

". . .and we have to get the federal government not to get local communities to take care of their own, but to take responsibility for what they've done."
Whether you agree or not, it's all part of the "awareness" we've talked about so often. When you stop thinking about the poor as people and see them only as a part of your program then you're doing it for you and not for them.

A few of the people there were honest enough to admit that it's real easy, once you get into this thing, to focus only on ways and means and numbers--forgetting that these are real, live, feeling people you're supposed to be dealing with.

As one woman said to me, "The people with the food--and thus the power--have to ask themselves why they are offended, or even frightened by the suggestion that the poor be given back a certain amount of control by giving them money to spend as they choose. They have to ask themselves if they aren't enjoying too much the power they've been given."

Update: Rev. Edwin Rowe, quoted in this piece, worked tirelessly during that period to ease the woes of the people so devastated by the recession. I lost track of his activities over the years, but I searched his name today to see if he's still around and still working at it. To my great joy, I found that he is. As you can see in this YouTube video, he's still actively working for the poor and the disenfranchized, organizing and marching and being the kind of man of the cloth that would do his Maker proud.