Book Review

Grimmly Yours, Disenchanted and Disgruntled

Michelle Hartman's poetry collection

What is it about fairy tales that people find fascinating?  Perhaps the message of “happily ever after” serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the mundane awfulness of a reality in which we really don’t win the lottery, don’t find $50,000, and are soundly rejected by True Love.  Or perhaps the message of “nasty little people always get their comeuppance” delights our desire for harsh justice.  What happens, though, when the usual plot goes awry?  One result is Michelle Hartman’s poetry collection, Disenchanted and Disgruntled (published by Lamar University Press, 2013).

Hartman’s collection is a cynic’s view of fairytales, a skewering of those syrupy happy endings of perfect man/perfect woman, match-made-in-heaven relationships.  Add a goodly dose of backstory to fairytale characters (remember the talking frog prince?), some helpings of headline reality, and let the enchantment begin.

The book has 3 sections:  Fairytales, Myths, and Reality.  The first poem in Fairytales, “The Grimm Age,” plays on the famous Grimm Brothers, and their collection of tales including that familiar, magical phrase, “Once upon a time.”  Those 4 words recall readers to their childhoods, when possibilities were without number.  But Hartman just as quickly subverts that call to memory by defining the phrase precisely and situating it into grim reality. Hopeful anticipation becomes adult realization that there are “no dwarves, talking horse, well or frog / no fancy dress, glass slippers, carriage or castle”.  The ending lines: the “only man to make magic / with your body / will be a mortician” emphasize how fairytales cater to images of eternal youth, beauty and perfect relationships; impossible ideals for mere mortals whose experiences of sorrow, heartbreak, and death show in their aging bodies and on their wrinkled faces.

The ending poem in the Fairytales section is a rollicking, modern version of Snow White.  The speaker’s Texas twang rolls out the story of “Snow”, bringing to mind friends swapping stories and scandal as they tackle their barbeque:  “Girl, you mean to say you ain’t heard about Snow White? . . . /She follered that angel up to Dallas / Whar she found that gal living with seven men — / and not regular men mind you – they’s / what you call little people.  Girl, / it makes my skin crawl.  That’s all I’m saying about that.”  Outrageous fairy tale meets outrageous Texas storyteller – a funny combination that exposes Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to realistic gossip and a parent’s perception of other people’s children.

The Myths section explores ideas such as the myth of the happy family, sacrifice, and rituals.  What if the smiling family in the faded photo were only mugging for the camera even as they thought of “Jake got out of the pen / three years ago  can’t hold a job / Aunt Rose died in 75 / breast cancer / Marion in 82 – alcoholic / Libby married no-count /mechanic from Tulsa” (“Used People”)?  Or, what if Cinderella were truly bitter about her incarceration with the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, and commanded, “when I leave here / they can burn the sack cloth and distribute the ashes” (“when I leave here”)?  The question of ‘what if’ becomes a dark undercurrent when the poet addresses the crucifixion in “Jesus, interrupted”:  “what if you wanted to travel / but your people need you / to die – participating or not / what if you were not / the one foretold, simply / the one available”.  In the Myths section, the poet adroitly flips beliefs like cards, showing the reader first one side, then the other side.  That, the poet seems to be saying, is how life is:  one begins with friends, taking a nice stroll, reaching a certain point, “Then, loaded with packages you glance / back, where others used to be / but they have gone on with their lives / and you are too far ahead / to return” (“That’s how life is”).

The last section, Reality, includes darker activities that society seems to ignore.  For instance, in “gunshots and heart attacks”, the speaker ponders what really happens at a motel:  “girls pressed / into prostitution / lovers separated / suicides” – definitely not activities one likes to think of when sleeping on a motel bed.  There are, however, other poems that introduce whimsical perspectives. One such poem, “Reading poetry responsibly,” is a short, how-to guide for poetry readers:  “Know your limits / unlimited poetry reading can lead to run away emotions, rash / exploration of conscience and possible contact with a heretofore / denied inner child.”  And, of course, just as other products warn to ‘Never Swim Alone’ or to always ‘Drink Responsibly,’ the poem urges readers to “Never read poetry alone. / Have someone whose political and religious leanings are the same as / yours and who can be trusted to take the book away when you begin / to show signs of cognitive thought.”

Hartman’s Disenchanted and Disgruntled is, in turns, funny, morbid, sad, dreamy and thoughtful – thoroughly human and a little offbeat, just like a quirky friend who makes us smile despite bad news.

Special thanks to Boadicea Robertson for her contribution.

Essay: October: Over for Another Year

October, or “Pinktober” as it has been called, is over for another year, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I no longer have to be visually beaten with that awful color. Little pink ribbons everywhere; neon-pink shirts; soft pink high-lights on waterfalls, fountains, and yes, even on buildings; endless advertisements showing Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure,” and even food products packaged in shiny pink. And a seemingly-constant barrage of media showing women agreeing that if only the world would throw money at this or that or the other cause/foundation/corporation will “we find the cure to cancer/we eradicate cancer.” Please. All of the “October looks good on you” hoop-la is enough to make a cynic vomit. But. Before you begin yelling, cursing, or entering angry comments about what you just read, know that two of my friends had breast cancer, and another friend died of cancer when she was yet in her twenties. Another dear friend has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Two of my great-aunts died of breast cancer, and my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer. I had breast cancer in 1997. And I also thought, at the very beginning of my diagnosis, that Pinktober was a great way to fund breast cancer research. At some point, though, my enthusiasm waned.

I can’t pinpoint the exact day, hour, or minute that I realized I disliked pink with such great intensity. And I don’t know when I equated eradicating cancer with the same likelihood of achieving world peace.

Maybe my cynicism started the day I talked with hospital staff regarding how much my initial surgery would cost. Because I had no insurance at the time (and I was working full-time, but for two different schools), I would have to pay for the surgery, recovery room stay, any medications or anesthesia, plus all the doctors, specialists, and nurses involved with the surgery. The cost? Somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. (I found out later that radiation alone was $20,000. That’s not counting the doctors, radiologists, or other specialists involved with radiation treatment.) I had $600 in my account. The staffer kindly told me the hospital could work with me for financial planning, and did I want to reserve the operating room? I tersely thanked the staffer and told her I would have to call her back. I remember thinking then that getting sick was for rich people.

Or perhaps cynicism started with twinges of unease when I walked into the hospital gift shop and saw an avalanche of pink for sale: angel pins,
Pink Angel Ribbon
ribbon pins, bows, hats, scarves, bandanas, sunglasses, t-shirts, soap, socks, and caps. Maybe, though, pink was chosen because people associate it with femininity, softness, and comfort. And perhaps people find comfort in knowing doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics, and organizations are doing their best to help, in some way, cancer patients. But why did everything have to be pink? Why not black, for the anxiety and depression upon hearing the doctor say, “The biopsy results indicate the tumor is malignant.” Why not red, for the anger that can build up with older doctors who recommend full instead of partial mastectomies (the surgery costs are cheaper, after all) ?

Perhaps my cynicism started after my first (and last) Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” participation. My sister actually signed me up, along with my mother and herself. The race/walk began at 8am, and we had to get up early (like 5am early) to be there at 7am. I admit to being surprised at the tremendous turnout. So many women, so much pink — it was like a river of pink, flowing to some great distant ocean of hope.
Komen Race
And women talking with women about family, about health, about the sisterhood that forms between breast cancer patients – if compassion was all that was needed for a cure, breast cancer would have been eradicated several times over at that one race. So, yes, my initial reaction was, “This is awesome.” But later, seeing how quickly people left the race-site, leaving behind mounds of crushed water cups, yogurt containers, napkins, and other plastic or paper containers (probably containing PCB), I started pondering, how much did the pre-race advertising cost? How much did the race supplies, t-shirts, speaker fees (there were some “inspirational speakers” talking to the crowd before we all started running, jogging, or walking the race route), and prizes cost? How much of the race proceeds paid those costs, and how much went to research? I was already a skeptic within 30 minutes of finishing my first (and last) Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure”.

Possibly, my cynicism kicked in just before my first chemotherapy treatment. I found out healthy foods would become hard to eat – citrus fruits would burn the inside of my mouth, certain vegetables would not digest well and should be avoided, and other foods could taste metallic. Fortunately for me, I could still digest dairy products. And that’s when I started reading food labels. And found out that the yogurt I so enjoyed was made with dairy that was stimulated with the hormone rBGH. You know what that is, right? It’s the hormone used to help dairy cows produce more milk to meet consumer demand. In 1996, though, that same hormone was linked to higher colon and breast cancer risks. So – the company that wrapped its yogurt containers in pink every October to “raise money for the fight against breast cancer” actually sold a product linked to cancer. I equated it with someone who espouses peace, but sells massive amounts of weaponry to anybody willing to pay. Not until 2008 did the organization Think Before You Pink take on the dairy industry. The organization’s online campaign caused General Mills and Dannon to go rBGH free by August 2009; two-thirds of America’s dairy products are made by those two companies alone. Why, after reports in scientific journals, did two mega-companies continue using rBGH ingredients in their products for 13 more years?

Cynical? Absolutely. Angry? Yes – but not towards those people who so want to help their friends, family, or other loved ones but don’t know where to begin. And not towards the nursing staff, doctors, or other support staff who are focused like lasers on their patients. I’m angry at people who believe that profiting from symbols of fear is good business. Wrap Pinktober in feminine, soft, and comforting images with pink ribbon, and watch the profits soar, even after a corporation has donated a specific percentage towards “fighting breast cancer”.

Here’s a serious truth, a harsh reality: breast cancer and its accompanying treatment is not any of those images you see during Pinktober. The treatment protocol I experienced did not make me feel feminine; first, I had a long thick tube inserted in my side to drain body fluids after surgery. Then I had a smaller, silicon tube inserted in one of my veins, leading to my heart, to administer chemotherapy (C5FU and Adriamycin, also known as “Red Devil”). I began to resemble the Borg from Star Trek: Next Generation.
The Borg
The treatment itself most definitely was not soft; I was injected with enough chemicals to kill cancer cells, temporarily destroy my esophagus, make my heart feel like I had run a marathon every three or four weeks (yes, I used to run in 10K races), and make my head burn as the hair follicles died and the hair fell out in clumps. I developed a chemical smell that made mosquitoes, gnats, and other flying insects avoid me. And comfort? The resulting inner scar tissue makes having mammograms highly uncomfortable experiences.

I am most definitely not comforted when comparing statistics from 1940 and now: In the 1940’s, 1 out of 44 women could expect to have breast cancer. Today, 1 out of 8 women can expect to have breast cancer. You are more likely to have breast cancer now, in our wonderful, technologically-advanced society, than win the lottery or get hit by lightning. If breast cancer occurrences continue at that rate, women “could face a 1 in 4 chance of developing breast cancer.” Can anyone tell me why, with so much money supposedly donated for “the fight against breast cancer,” breast cancer statistics seemingly indicate the disease, not research, is winning?

No, pink is not a color I would choose to wear, especially now, when I notice how commercialized that color has become. Corporate “pinking” makes me wonder how much of the generated sales truly benefits cancer patients, cancer research, or community services, and how much of those pink sales go into producing more cancer-linked products for unwary consumers.

Essay: Calling Cards to Business Cards

In the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, cards that were exchanged between parties fell into two groups. The first group was the trade card. These were generally larger than today’s business cards and served to advertise one’s business. They were carried by business owners and could be handed out, or left at homes as a form of advertisement. Socially, the calling card was the proper way to announce one’s visits to a home. Visits were often made on predetermined “home days.” The servant who answered the door would have a silver platter to serve the card to the party that the caller was seeking. At social events, a man would give his calling card to every lady present. The single man’s calling card was smaller in size than the card of a married gentleman. Contrary to popular belief today, women of the era also had calling cards. Their cards were larger in size than the men’s cards because men carried their cards in a small case in their breast pocket while the women had elaborate cases, which served as fashion statements. The typical card of either gender had a name in fancy script, possibly an address, and room to write a message. The quality of the printing and paper was an indication of the person’s social status. Although the expensive engraving in Victorian times was a luxury, many people spared no expense for their calling cards even if other sacrifices needed to be made (Calling Cards).

Business cards today serve as more than just a way to leave a phone number for a potential customer. They serve as an introduction, a marketing tool, and a way to add to a woman’s personal branding. An example of branding through memory association is the professional headshot on the front of the card.

Business card companies such as Tiny Prints allow for a photo to be incorporated within the business card as shown.

Headshot
The headshot card

Business cards may be designed according to the type of business, the style of the individual, or even to target a particular market. For example, a woman who is working in a male-dominated industry, like information technology, might require a simplistic, conservative design.

IT Professional
The IT professional business card

A designer or boutique owner may see the best fit as something that reflects a sense of personal creativity or the style of marketed products. One card may appeal strictly to an upscale market, and another may invite a more mainstream clientele. In another scenario, for a woman who is in accounting, a simple straightforward approach is best;

Accounting
The Accounting business card

whereas, a floral designer might add a whimsical icon.

Floral Designer
The Floral Designer business card

The quality of today’s business cards is determined by the design’s originality and the card stock thickness. Fortunately, digital printing has made even the highest quality cards affordable.

It is becoming more frequent today for a woman to have multiple business card designs. One may be a marketing tool with pertinent social media links and a QR code. Another may be used strictly for introduction within her industry while a third may be scaled down to just a name, phone, email, and small message space for social situations. This third version, designed to allow for personal and work privacy, may be the advent of the 21st-century calling card. In the future, we may see more widespread and accepted use of the QR code and the addition of hologram headshot photos, but the need to hand a card to someone is a personal touch that probably will continue despite advances in electronic communication.

Today, Labor Bureau statistics show that 53.1 percent of managerial and professional jobs are now held by women, which is an increase of 26 percent since 1980. Several surveys also reveal that approximately 83 million women own businesses. The demand for business cards is evident from these figures as is the need for diversity of style. A woman may hold any position today, or operate any business, and her business card must reflect exactly who she is and how she desires her business and herself to be portrayed.

Special thanks to Kate P. for her contribution.

Literary: Transforming with Poetry

Poetry. Don’t avert your eyes. Don’t start thinking of something else. Don’t believe that poetry has to rhyme, fit a certain rhythm or meter, or even that poetry is “too hard to understand.” Poetry is playing with the music, imagery, and abstraction that is language. Poetry puts words on a tightrope and makes them dance without a safety net, relying on the poet’s ability to balance the tension between “too much” and “too little.” Poetry goads our sensibilities and skewers our stereotypes. But enough about poetry in general; let’s take a look at some current poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells.

Michelle Hartman is the current editor of the online poetry journal, Red River Review.

Michelle Hartman
Michelle Hartman
In her soon-to-be published Disenchanted & Disgruntled (Lamar University Press), Hartman’s poems tackle the female imagery within fairy tales. Hartman states that “most of the alternative fairytale poems I’ve read focus on philosophy or horror. But I think the focus should be on the victimization of young girls – a toll that has become a financial satisfaction to companies such as Disney.”

Quite a few people have grown up with Disney versions of fairy-tales and are none the wiser of the darker, bloodier originals of, say, Grimm’s fairy-tales. For example, in Disney’s version of Cinderella, the stepsisters’ actions in trying on the “glass slipper” and subsequent punishment veer sharply from the Grimm’s version. In the Grimm’s earlier version, one stepsister cuts off her big toe and the other stepsister cuts off her heel in order to fit into the shoe. But, both times as they ride away with the prince, a dove sings about the “blood in the shoe” (apparently, the prince didn’t notice that detail). The stepsisters’ punishment occurs when they escort Cinderella to her wedding– the dove flies down and pecks out their eyes. Disney fairy-tale films “are so popular that they have practically obliterated their sources . . . . [and] Romance takes over. The girl’s best hope for survival is that ‘Some day my Prince will come’ “ writes Joan Gould in Spinning Straw into Gold (2005, p. xx). Although many of Disney’s earlier fairy-tale films have an evil and wicked stepmother as a protagonist, a missing or disinterested father, and a prince or other male figure cast as the ultimate hero for the damsel in distress, Hartman acknowledges that Disney’s “recent offerings . . . portray a more self-empowered female protagonist.”

Two of Hartman’s poems use the “ ‘damn fairy tale frog’ that has led so many women astray. There are two perspectives here: one of surrender to the helpless, ‘I need a man to save me’ mode of living, and the second portraying a more powerful woman.” Hartman adds, “I think what I want to stress is that there are only two things you can safely do with a talking frog: stomp it or sell it.”

The following poems are excerpted from Hartman’s forthcoming book of poetry, Disenchanted & Disgruntled, to be published by Lamar University Press.

“Looking for Mr. GoodFrog”

Introducing herself
by first name
in meeting
of hollowed-eyed
gaunt jittery
princesses
an epiphany
hands wart-strewn
dry, cracked shook
as she spoke
depicted descent

slow sliding
first frog
then one frog – at a time
diseases passed
by low-rent amphibians
swamp trekking – job loss
family intervention
feverish need
just one more press
of lips
one more plunge
into euphoric possibility

senseless victim
of enchanted excesses

“a final note”

peach-toned fingers of sunlight
flee the sky before
roll of navy blue onslaught
footlights go up in the pool
nervous frog star wannabes
turn up for their
off-off -Broadway performance

cricket and cicada orchestra
swells into opening prelude
a small frog starts
wash it, wash it
as three baritone bulls blast out
I’m stoned

chocolate, chocolate
Greek chorus chimes
cadence melding into natural charm
just before it becomes routine
a timid tenor floats to mid-stage
in dulcet tones he sings of prince
turned to frog
at witch’s wicked whim
he warms to his tale
makes nearby doves cry
hits crescendo
tiny webbed feet folded
o’er his heart

a boulder smashes
bits of tenor splatter
nearby rocks—
so many wandering notes—
princess wipes her hands together
walks away muttering
nobody likes a whiner

The second poet, Ann Howells,

Ann Howells
Ann Howells
is a board member of Dallas Poets Community and editor of their journal, Illya’s Honey. She has been published in Red River Review, Concho River Review, Borderlands, Avocet, Sentence, Plainsongs, and Sulphur River Literary Review, among others. In 2001, she was named a “Distinguished Poet of Dallas” by the Dallas Public Library, and in 2005, her poem “La Resistancia” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her following poem, “Initiating My Daughter,” speaks of fairy-tales, but also emphasizes the power of transformation that happens when a “girl-child” becomes both “Snow White and Rose Red, / virgin and goddess, / woman.”

“Initiating My Daughter”

Before your childish body
rounds and softens,
before some smooth-skinned boy
rocks your equanimity,
as night’s bright crescent
pierces the Eastern sky—
we curl in the porch swing,
lap robe tucked around our feet.

Moonflowers twine the railing,
lucent, blue-sheen faces tipped
as I explain little winters
that come before spring, before rebirth:
womb damp, lush with fern—
cushioned bower, life cradle
where once I cradled you.

Before you outgrow fairy-tales
still half-believed,
before the first blood spills—
I whisper mysteries in your ear,
your eyes wide with wonder
that you, girl-child, are pilgrim
in this ancient rite.

Before you turn in seasons,
before you pull and press the tides,
know you hold life
behind your flat belly,
clasp miracles in your hand—
Snow White and Rose Red,
virgin and goddess,
woman.

Transformation is again evident in Howells’ next two poems, “Mother/Daughters” and “Those Girls from K Street.” In the former, the speaker is a grown woman, come to visit her mother. While the mother is portrayed as ailing in some way (perhaps just ailing of old age) and focusing, like a very young child, only on her own wants, the grown daughter’s thoughts reveal the complexities of relationships between elderly parents and grown children. The transformation that children become adults and their parents become childish with old age is unspoken, but hangs in the air with the poem’s last stanza. In Howells’ poem, “Those Girls from K Street,” the speaker is still a young girl, restrained by the authority of “Mama says . . .” that ends each stanza. But, as the speaker and her sister watch other, less-restrained girls exuberantly play active games, “Mama says” diminishes as a controlling force. The speaker seems to tremble on the edge of transformation within the last stanza, remarking on “red lipstick and snug sweaters,” and claims a rite of passage for herself and her sister with the last line, “We want to be just like them.”

“Mother/Daughters”

I take my mother’s hand
warm and firm beneath the sleeve
of a new bed jacket,
kiss her cheek.
She is receiving today
in her sitting room
ensconced amid plump pillows
in her comfortable rocker.

You haven’t been to see me
in such a long time.

She displays the fresh manicure
my sister has given, ignores
the covered basket on my arm,
gestures, Your sister came twice
last week—she brought me flowers.

Not flowers, I think, a plant
forced into bloom against its will—
paperwhites they’re called—narcissus.
Here, Mama, this was so delicate,
so beautiful, it reminded me of you.

How could my sister have presented it
with a straight face?

Then, I smile brightly
Here, Mama, I thought these
would be a nice mid-winter treat
and full of vitamin C too!

I proffer the basket, napkin-lined,
brimming with tart, fleshy, over-sized
raspberries

“Those Girls from K Street“

Chains of four or five, attached
hands-to-waists, soar past,
shouting and squealing.
Knees pump, skate keys dangle
at their necks. Down 14th and up K.
Mama says they’re rowdy;
Mama says they’re wild.

Sister and I, noses to the pane,
watch them crack the whip,
scare pedestrians from the curb,
jeans rolled to the knee, baggy
shirttails fluttering behind.
Mama says they’re trouble;
Mama says they’re rude.

At the corner store, we watch them
jump rope—double Dutch—one rope
turning left, one right. They run in
at a crouch, leap side to side
for ever-so-long without missing.
Mama says they’re low class;
Mama says they’re trashy.

Cinderella dressed in yellow,
peroxide-streaked ponytails bounce
with quick, hot-pepper jumps.
They wear red lipstick and snug sweaters,
crack their gum, drink Dr. P from bottles.
Mama says they’re cheap;
Mama says they’re common.

We want to be just like them.

The transformation of a child into adult, an idea into a piece of art, an observation into a general truth – all appear in poetry. All we have to do is decide to read the poetry that is available to us.

Special thanks to Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells for their contributions.

Weekender: See Art Live at Gallery Night

What can a small Texas town offer up for entertainment?  One venue is Gallery Night in Haltom City.  The event is sponsored by the local Art in the City committee and the Haltom City Library.  Local artists and performers will be featured on Saturday, September 8, from 2pm to 8pm.  That’s right – live artists, not merely television images, will project their creativity, without any broadcast filters, commercials, or graphic special effects, straight to the public’s senses.

Gallery Night

Artist – when people are asked to name artists, the usual names are listed:  Van Gogh, DaVinci, Picasso, Renoir, maybe Jackson Pollock or Robert Maplethorpe are mentioned.  Strangely, no women artists.  But with some prodding, the names drag out:  Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, maybe even Rachel Ruysch or Annie Leibowitz.

There could be dozens of reasons why most people confidently list male artists and then fumble when asked for names of women artists.  Maybe because the culture still places primacy in the masculine and not the feminine?  Such a cultural perception seems evident even with a quick Google search.  Type in “famous artists” and see the results. The “Famous Artists Gallery” lists Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, Andre Derain, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet . . . no women.  Even the “Top references for famous artists” suggestions at the bottom of the page display all male names – no females.  Only when the word “women” or “female” is added to the keywords do the results change.  Apparently, there is an underlying assumption that women artists are so few and far between that they are mere subsets of the artist community. In fact, women are more often considered to be the subjects of the male artist (see how strange that division is when the word “male” is used to mark difference?), rather than artists in their own right. In this way, women have been objectified not only by the male artist’s gaze, but also by the viewer’s gaze.  There is even a recent study that discovered people saw women “as body parts,” while men were perceived “as whole” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/07/26/men-women-bodies.html).

How does a society then, change its perception to seeing both females and males as “whole”?  And understanding that the noun “artist” is gender-neutral?  One way, perhaps, is to experience art in all its forms, and by many different people.

Gallery Night at the Haltom City Library gives patrons that chance to broaden perspectives.  The Art in the City exhibition features women artists such as the following:  Bennie Johnson Wood,  Bennie

current president of the Trinity Arts Guild,

Sheila Cahill, Sheila

and Carola Locke.Carola

How did these women get their start in art? All three women became interested in color and drawing during their childhood.  Locke remembers obsessively drawing horses “in elementary school”; Wood reckons she was 7 or 8 when she picked up Crayola watercolors and paper.  “I wasn’t very much for drawing,” she says, “but take a Crayola and paint what I was seeing was great!  I painted flowers, and thought it was beautiful.”  Cahill remembers her interest started during elementary school, as well: “I was 7 or 8, too; I made a clay turtle, and dried it out in the sun.  My dad encouraged us to draw and be artistic.”

These 3 women are wrapped in the identity of “artist.”  Not “woman” or “female” artist, but quite firmly, “artist.”  Locke believed she was an artist as she drew horses; an added factor, she says, was her older brother, “who was an amazing artist, and so it was natural to assume that I fell into the same category.”  Wood states her mother “wanted me to take piano lessons, but if I saw someone painting, my hands would ache to do that.”  Wood started considering herself an artist first in the 1960s, when one instructor, lecturing about art and the individual’s desires, told her audience that, “if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you will never go anywhere.”  That statement, Wood says, “had a profound effect on me, and from that day on I never looked back.  I’ve taken 83 workshops with instructors that I thought could help me further my career and desire.”  The third artist, Cahill, laughs when she says, “I’ve painted for more than 20 years, but only got serious in the last 8 to 10 years.  I still consider myself an amateur since I haven’t sold a lot.”

Although their childhood artistic proclivities are similar, the women use different mediums for their art.  Locke paints acrylic on canvas, and that’s her “only medium.”  Wood states she has worked with all mediums, but in 1980 she was introduced to watercolor; that introduction led her to Principles and Elements of Design, and changed the way she painted.  “It’s no longer just picking up a tube of paint; you decide on a color scheme and stick to it,” she states.  Cahill responds that she “used to be a hard-core, nothing-but-Oils-person,” but since she has started watercoloring classes, she is enjoying those.  And, she has completed some “works in Acrylics, and loving that.”  But Cahill doesn’t stop at those mediums.  One of her friends got her “hooked on carving gourds.  I enjoy the tactile nature and organic feel of working with the gourds,” she adds.  History plays a part, as well, since Cahill thinks about how the gourd as an art medium “has been used for a very long time, both as a utilitarian and decorative vessel.”

Clearly, these artists enjoy what they create, and, given how long they have been perfecting their craft, they have produced many art pieces.  Picking favorite pieces to display can be difficult, especially when an artist like Cahill thinks “that if an artist does not like their work, it is not finished.  I like most all my work; I know to some it is not appealing, or it is amateurish, or it is not expressive enough, but that’s okay; I enjoy it.”  And Wood likes “whatever I am working on at the present.  I have been told I need to stick to one subject.  That is boring to me.  I love all forms of art – impressionist, abstract, and experimental.”

But even before the artists can pick pieces to display, they first consider whether the pieces are finished.  Knowing when a piece of art is finished can be another difficult stage.  For example, Locke reveals when she finishes a piece of art, she usually feels “a mix of relief, depression, and worry.  It’s an odd combination, I know, but relief at being finished, depression as if I am at the end of an adventure, and worry that I have missed some detail and will find that detail a week later after the painting has sealed.”  Cahill’s take is more optimistic – she “almost always” feels good when she finishes, “sometimes it’s because it just flowed out of me with every brush-stroke going where it belonged, or sometimes I feel good because it was so difficult, and I made it through and achieved what I had set out to do.”  Wood’s art pieces are scrutinized yet again:  “When I first think I am finished, I put it in a prominent place where I can view it from every direction; even turn it upside down.  Sometimes after watercolors dry, they do need tweaking.”

Finally, the art pieces pass the artist’s inspection, and are deemed worthy of exhibiting or selling to others who are fascinated with art.  Locke’s works are displayed in “various gift shops and coffee houses, though,” she adds, “I have displayed in galleries and salons as well.”  Cahill admits she hasn’t yet exhibited her pieces, primarily because she enjoys creating her works more than working to establish them in a gallery.  However, she is “planning on participating in the October Art in the City Art Festival,” which is held at the Haltom City Library as well as this September’s event.  Wood’s pieces can be viewed at the Trinity Arts Guild, the Fort Worth Northeast Sub-Courthouse, the Bedford Library, the Euless Library, Fort Worth Public Library in downtown Fort Worth, and Terry’s Motors.

Bennie Collage
Bennie Johnson Wood
Cahill Collage
Sheila Cahill
Carola Locke
Carola Locke

It’s possible, of course, that not everyone can come to the Haltom City’s Gallery Night and enjoy the local artists.  That doesn’t mean people should never seek out art, for, as Cahill remarks, “art today is all around us.  It is in everything from wallpaper to advertising . . . when you go on vacation, you should go to the local galleries. . . look for art competitions online to view newcomers’ works.”  Locke suggests people look for art “in local coffee houses, cafes, and gift shops,” and Wood orders, “go to every local art show and sale.  Local library, State Fairs, one-man shows, group exhibits.  You never know when you will see some art that will open doors for you that will never close.”

Indeed.  Art is an open door for imagination, and art “does not exist only to entertain, but also to challenge one to think, to provoke, even to disturb, in a constant search for truth” (Streisand).  Of course, sometimes what the audience searches for is simply . . . another way of looking at the world.

Special thanks to Sheila Cahill, Bennie Johnson Wood, and Carola Locke for their art images and discussions.  For more online art, try http://www.abcgallery.com, http://www.metmuseum.org/, http://www.nmwa.org/ (National Museum of Women in the Arts), and http://www.womanmade.org/ (Woman Made Gallery).

Book Review: “Warning: Adolescent Crossing Ahead”

Earthquake MachineThere are lots of books about an individual’s self-discovery, exploration of different cultures, and relationships with others.  But the stories we remember are those that wield language as deftly as a surgeon wielding a scalpel.  A straight cut here, a cross-cut there, and the heart of the matter is laid open for the audience.  Such is the writing in Mary Lowry’s The Earthquake Machine.  The protagonist is Rhonda, 14 years old, who wants desperately to escape the “beigedom of her parents’ house,” secretly wishes her body stays “thin and angular, like the boys at school,” and thinks the only person who is honest with her is her parents’ gardener, Jesus.  At times the novel is painful to read, disturbing, even, but resonating, nonetheless.One of the passages that resonates is how Rhonda views her secret visits to Jesus, who lives in an old, abandoned servant’s quarters in her parents’ backyard.  The small building is hidden by a sprawling rose bush, and Rhonda visits Jesus only at dusk, the moment she thinks of “as the purple time, no longer day, but not yet night, a time when rules could be broken and borders of language and country and skin color could be crossed with ease” (9).  That suspension between two states of being is symbolized by Rhonda, herself, who is no longer a little girl, but is not quite an adult woman, either. She breaks rules by speaking with Jesus without her parents’ permission; she has crossed the physical border of the rose bush and its thorns, leaving behind, for a time, her parents’ beige lives.  On the other side of the rosebush border is Mexico, represented by Jesus.  Rhonda is immersed in Spanish, and when she learns to speak the language, she keeps that secret as well, forming a separate identity that only exists beyond the border, where Mexico comes alive with Jesus’ stories of where he grew up and places he visited.

Rhonda uses her other identity when, on a river trip, she leaves her friends and journeys across the river to Mexico. Just as she did in her parents’ backyard, she abandons her identity as “Rhonda” and slips into a different identity.  First, she is a lost Angel of God, appearing to a bartender who has visions caused by eating peyote, then she is Angel, a homeless, orphaned boy, then she is Angel, a young woman.  Her time spent in Mexico is anything but beige boredom; her life turns into a series of rollicking adventures in which she starves herself to maintain her boyish disguise, escapes from a gang of young boy thieves, falls in with a band of women highway robbers who disguise themselves as men as they rob travelers, then proudly revert to women to appear in their local towns and villages; and finally ends up with Jesus and his mother.  At this point in the story, she retains the name Angel, but slowly reverts back to being a young woman, aware of her sexuality, the separation and fluidity of gender, and the questions of faith and its representations of the Divine.  After an earthquake shakes Mexico City, killing Jesus and his mother, Angel (Rhonda) retraces her steps back to the border from where she first crossed, carrying with her “her anger and her desire”.

Anger, desire, violence, and romance appear linked in some of the disturbing scenes of the story.  Towards the beginning of the novel, Rhonda experiences an orgasm while bathing.  Her mother Louise May mistakenly believes that Rhonda has drowned in the bathtub, and even though Rhonda sits up, alive and startled by her mother’s scream, Louise May slowly descends into mental instability.  She and Rhonda’s father begin arguing, each argument escalating in anger.  The final violent act occurs late one night as Rhonda, fearful for her mother’s safety, lays in bed, reading a romance novel and experiencing the pain and discomfort of her first period.  Tom, the father, leaves a handgun on a wooden shelf, “in case you ever decide to do the right thing,” he tells Louise May.  Rhonda hears the blast, runs to her parents’ bedroom, and sees her father beside “what was left of her mother’s head.”  Rhonda’s blood, the precursor to creation, is juxtaposed with Louise May’s blood, the product of violent destruction.  The romance novel Rhonda was reading, filled with scenes of budding romance and desire, is juxtaposed with the anger, violence, and despair of a dying relationship between Rhonda’s parents.

Another disturbing scene of roiling emotions occurs towards the end of the novel, when Rhonda crosses back into the U.S.  She decides to find Mansk, the river-trip guide who had seduced her but had then rejected her advances when he was reminded of her age.  Rhonda has held her anger at his rejection close in her heart, and wants nothing more than to use her knife to stab him, to cause him as much physical pain as she felt at what she sees as his betrayal to their own emotions.  On her way to his shack, she thinks about that moment, before she crossed:  “Mansk had touched her and it was as if he’d robbed her of something.  She thought she’d been damaged forever; she’d thought the dust knocked from her wings would never regenerate.  But the desire had stayed with her” (293).  Burning with thoughts of revenge, Rhonda attempts to destroy Mansk’s pottery kiln and pottery, but is stopped by Mansk himself.  After a struggle in which Mansk is slightly wounded by Rhonda’s knife, Mansk tells her, “It’s not just you hurting.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry. . . . I’ve had nightmares.”  Rhonda realizes, then, that what she really wanted was “to have power over the man whose memory she had given too much influence.”  As Rhonda takes control of the sex, she does not feel satisfied in her heart.  Although she has gained power, she still feels empty. It is only later, after they have bathed away sweat and blood, and fallen asleep, that she awakes, and has an epiphany that stems from the faith she has in herself, and her belief in a goddess that helped save her life.

Thus, by the end of the novel, Rhonda has matured into a strong, independent woman.  She uses her knowledge of her father’s verbal and mental abuse of Louise May to ensure she can live with her own godmother, Nina; her vow to publicize her father’s brutality causes him to give in to her demands.  Rhonda cherishes her friends, who stand beside her and support her as she tells her father what he must do.  And, she finally experiences closure from her mother’s death, as she, her friends, and Nina visit her mother’s grave, carrying a picnic lunch and a Virgin of Guadalupe candle.  During that “purple time” of evening, when borders of life and death can be crossed, and new identities slipped on, the group finishes their “celebration picnic”, packs up their picnic things, and leaves the candle, “glowing in the deepening dusk.”

Weekender: “The Only Thing Pink About Growing Up Cowgirl is a Sunset”

High Desert Princess

Take a day and visit Fort Worth’s National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Located in the Cultural District of Fort Worth, surrounded by art and science museums, the National Cowgirl Museum is a wonderful place to go for visual reminders of women’s strength and determination, seen in the faces and forms of cowgirls.

The Museum’s current collection of 11,000 artifacts (5,000 of which are paper documents) aren’t displayed all the time; according to Heather McMaster, the Museum’s Collections Manager, each artifact has specific guidelines for display.  The guidelines dictate the types of display cases, the humidity (usually 48% to 52%), the lighting, how much space must be allotted to each artifact, and even the time that the artifact can be displayed.  In addition, if the artifact is on loan from a donor or another museum, the “Deed of Gift” can further restrict press access, as well as the timing of the display.  That’s a lot of juggling for the Museum staff.

Planning exhibits and displays begins one to 1 ½ years in advance; the detailed planning takes about 4-6 months.  Museum staff must obtain the artifacts if they aren’t already on-hand, write text for the artifacts, acquire specially-built display cases, special lighting, and a few hundred more details that culminate in the new exhibit’s debut to the Museum visitors.

The Museum has permanent displays and exhibits; in fact, there are 4 permanent galleries, and the most recent addition is the Dale Evans exhibit, much of which was donated to the Museum personally, by Dale Evans herself.  Artifacts such as her saddle, shoes, eyeglasses, typewriter, and some manuscript pages can be viewed in a special Spotlight display.

The Museum also has a display that focuses on Annie Oakley, another legendary cowgirl.  “She was a woman ahead of her time,” McMaster commented, “encompassing both athletic ability and a lady-like demeanor.”  Oakley’s amazing shooting abilities led to a starring role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; one of the Museum’s photographs shows Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Moses) sitting in front of her tent, the epitome of a young lady taking her afternoon tea outdoors.

Other notable displays feature retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Tad Lucas, and Temple Grandin.  These women, McMaster said, “challenged the idea of “cowboy” in the American West, and became role models for other women.”  Justice O’Connor, after growing up on the Lazy B Ranch near Arizona, in 1981 became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Tad Lucas (born Barbara Lucas) began her professional rodeo career in 1917, and became known as the “world’s best female rodeo performer.”  Temple Grandin is famous for designing humane livestock facilities and for her research on livestock behavior.

Other exhibits are “travelling exhibits,” on loan from other museums, or donors.  And the National Cowgirl Museum responds in kind, loaning out artifacts to be displayed elsewhere, such as The Journey Museum in South Dakota, which specializes in artifacts of the Western Great Plains.  In fact, the Sandra Day O’Connor exhibit is packed and ready for travel for another museum’s fall exhibition.  Such exhibit loans can be from 6 months to 1 year.

One of the more popular travelling exhibits was the Apron Chronicles, which was “comprised of 150 vintage aprons, 46 framed photographic portraits and accompanying storyboards.”  Aprons not only were displayed in cases beside story panels, but also criss-crossed the ceiling like international flags.  McMaster described how the aprons came from different women, from the 1930s and 1940s.  The stories ranged “all over the map”.  Each panel in the exhibit told “the true stories of these women behind the aprons.  Since aprons are seen as icons of  “woman in the kitchen,” McMaster added, “the stories destroyed that stereotype.”

Hard Twist

Another travelling exhibit is on display now at the National Cowgirl Museum.  The current exhibit, “Hard Twist:  Western Ranch Women,” is displayed on the first floor of the Museum.  An impressive photography display by Master Photographer Barbara Van Cleve is open for public viewing until October 28, 2012.  The photographs show all aspects of a cowgirl’s life.  Some of the “regular ranch business” of branding cattle, horse and cattle round-ups, feeding livestock, vaccinating and treating livestock are pictured, but then other photographs capture the big skies, open spaces, and volatile weather that accompany any working cowgirl.  Still other photographs show generations of cowgirls with their families, digging out trucks from frozen mud, and handling an open sledge to feed livestock in several feet of snow.  In all of the photographs, though, one thing is perfectly clear:  strong women shine like the North Star.

Special thanks to Heather McMaster, for her amazing knowledge of the Museum’s collections, and to Cindi Collins, for her wonderful background lecture regarding the photography of Barbara Van Cleve