On El Greco, Aretha and Art in the Bar

Last Saturday Betty and I hung her photography exhibit in Boise at an event titled Art in the Bar V at the Knitting Factory Concert House. It turned out to be a 15-hour event and it took us a few days to recover from that experience.

Betty shared booth space with her photographer and writer friend, Sheila Robertson. This all took place in a larger space with a wild and diverse mix of artists and arts from tattoo to performance art. There was zombie art, nude photography, surrealistic paintings, horror photographs Photoshopped from various other photographs, metal sculpture, jewelry, funny political and pun drawings, found art sculpture, ceramic mosaic and a lot of stuff I don’t know what to call.

The Lineup

There was a lot of what I will call digital art. The man in the booth next to us, portrait photographer Allan Ansel, said to me, “Digital is the new canvas.” I had to think about that for a while. El Greco and Velasquez and Rubens painted on canvas. So did Picasso and Matisse. So did Jackson Pollack. A wide variety of ages, philosophies and methods, but they all painted on canvas. Why can’t modern artists paint on canvas?

I think about El Greco who was painting in Spain four hundred years ago, and how his highly dramatic and expressionist paintings brought consternation to his contemporaries, but we like him a lot now because much of our present work finally caught up with him in the 20th century. I think what I am getting at here is that what seems foreign and new and weird now might be acceptable, even revered down the road. So if digital canvas confounds us now, maybe it won’t later.

El Greco

When I was in Vietnam I remember waking up from a nap hearing Aretha Franklin sing “Respect,” over and over and over and over. While she was singing out of a little battery powered portable record player, a bunch of Marines and Corpsmen were singing along with her, over and over and over and over.

At the time I really liked soul music from singers like Sam Cook and Smokey Robinson, but Aretha was something else again, a wild-bird-flying-up-loop-de-loop voice that sang that song like avian acrobatics. It was different, and they played it, they sang it, over and over and over and over again. I jumped off my cot, groggy, my head banging inside and I screamed for them to “Knock it off.” Lucky they didn’t get all over me and whip my butt for my behavior.

One of the men singing the loudest had come to our company from another battalion that had done some serious damage in the A Shau Valley…some damage that could (but didn’t) have caused a My Lai kind of reaction from the American public. At least that is what that Marine and the other Marines that came with him told me. I remember after I jumped up and shouted at them to turn that horrible music off, he stopped and laughed at me. Let’s call him A. A laughed at me.

And I can remember four months later hearing the Beatles singing “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” and the Jefferson Airplane singing “Somebody to Love,” not knowing if I should like it or disdain it for the break with what I thought was real music.

I remember A standing up there as I obviously showed some confusion about what was and was not proper music. He grinned and his gold-capped teeth caught the glint of the sun, and he raised his long muscular arms over his head, and showing off the twin, silver plated, .357 Python revolvers snug in their shoulder holsters, he said “Brother, you can’t stop the train that’s coming. Music brother, music, like you’ve never heard it. Can’t stop. Love it.”

I think of El Greco and Aretha and John Lennon and how A was right, you can’t stop it even if you want to. It’s coming at us like a freight train. Nor can I stop digital media, digital art, poetry slams, techno-thump-boom-boom-thump-thump music, or tattoos.

Sitting in a chair watching all the people come up and look at Sheila and Betty’s photos, I observed the wide variety of folks: old, young, children, Ivy League, cowboy boots and hats, people struggling with walkers, and the illustrated people with all their piercings and tattoos. Even though I had decided that I needed to accept the wild art I was exposed to, I still wasn’t sure about the colored, tinted, narrative skin I kept seeing on the young men and women.

Admiring Art in the Bar

I noticed a young man—a big strong man—carrying a little boy in a backpack. That young man had things in his ears that looked like they’d let fifty-caliber machine gun bullets pass clean through, and his skin was tattooed on the arms, the neck and who knows where else. I wondered why he did that to himself and I wondered how it might feel to have all those tattoos removed.

He came up to a neighboring booth and took his backpack off and picked up his son and hugged him. They looked at some digital art and then the illustrated man whispered something to his little boy, and they laughed. They smiled and they laughed and laughed and laughed.

The Winds of Diyarbikir

Guest blogger Sheila Robertson takes us into a snapshot of the past.

I stand on a windy hill, watching dust whirl over the dun-colored soil. Two women in black chadors work in a field, gathering purple-flowered herbs, and an old man sits in the shade fingering his evil-eye beads. Wildflowers and thistles wave between large faced blocks of stone tumbled and strewn in ruin across a rocky knoll. My map says I am at Suayb City.

I toe through the sand-colored rubble and peer into a network of underground rooms. The cool, dank air draws upward from a few larger chambers that contain livestock cribs. The whisper of ancient languages curls up from the dark and the dust under my feet while sunlight plays over layers of more recent civilizations piled on top. A tumbled church. A crumbling mosque. My guidebook has brought me here. It says cuneiform tablets have been found nearby; that the caves are the site of very early civilization.

Today, this place is a few mud-brick houses on a wind-tracked rise. Around them the ruins and goat paths are filled with the laughter of ten Kurdish children competing for attention and leading me from tumbled lintel to toppled column. They point to exotic inscriptions and carved designs, and then scramble on excited to show me more. Black hair, black eyes and bright laughter. I wonder what blood runs in their veins; what tribes their ancestors belonged to. Mongols, Turks, Hittites. What conquering armies swept over this hill and what civilized histories deposited them at this point. A fluid thing, this dust owned by Tamurlane, Alexander the Great, Darius III, and Nebuchadnezzar.

The children offer me yellow wildflowers and I twist them into the girls’ hair. The boys jostle each other and want their pictures taken. I don’t understand Kurd, but they have learned enough English to wheedle. They are hoping the Americans will leave behind a few kurus, or if they are fortunate today, a lira.

Han el Ba'rur Caravansary

I bend to scoop a handful of the tan earth. My childhood Sunday School lessons inform me that Abraham lived a few hills away, in Harran. The prophet, Jethro, settled here and taught in these caves after The Flood.

In the dust I imagine camel caravans trekking this way trading in silk and spices and new ideas. In the wind I hear the clashes between Byzantines and Turks. The battles among followers of Yahweh, Allah, God and Sin, the ancient moon god who ruled these hills before the rest. Today, Allah owns the hearts in this land and Turkey controls their lives. In the Arab Spring there are rumblings from Diyarbikir and the dream of free Kurdistan rides the wind.

But for the moment, the children are laughing and the dust swirls around us and the wildflowers nod.

(Diyarbikir is the unofficial capital of the Kurds)

Sheila Robertson grew up in the west where she lives and enjoys the out-of-doors. She is a writer and photographer who loves to explore the world. Read more of Sheila’s blogging at http://blogsheilarobertson.blogspot.com/ and check out her photography at www.sheilarobertsonphotography.com.