Thursday, December 2, 2010

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Meyer May Home - 11/30/10

In 1908, Meyer May commissioned the famous American architect to design a home for him and his family. May was a wealthy businessman who owned a successful clothing store in Grand Rapids. The neighborhood, now known as the Heritage Hill district, was, and is, filled with Victorian style homes, and Wright’s prairie style design, completed in 1909, stood out like a sore thumb.

It has low horizontal lines and more than 100 windows, including art-glass skylights. Electricity was considered a probable fad at the time and homes were being constructed with gas jets alone or with both systems. Wright rejected this and installed electric lights only throughout the home (it wasn’t until the 1930s that 90% of urban homes had electricity). Ahead of his time in many ways, Wright also installed a central vacuum system. The overall feel of the home is warm and open. Interior walls appear only where they need to be for structural support.
It’s inviting once you are inside, but Wright made it difficult to locate the main entrance with the reasoning that if you did not know where the entrance was, you were not welcome.
Alas and alack, May’s family grew and he put on an addition not of Wright’s design, and the home was subsequently sold several times over the next decades. In the 1960s, it became a multi-unit rental, with carports and extra entrances added. The garden was paved over for parking. Disrepair ensued.

In 1985, the Steelcase Corporation purchased the structure. They took two years to painstakingly research and renovate the building back to the original Wright design. All additions were removed and the garden was restored. Some of the original furniture was retrieved and other accouterments were added as faithful reproductions or antiques from that era. It is now considered to be the most complete restoration of a Frank Lloyd Wright house in existence (or maybe that’s just a Grand Rapids claim :).
Wright not only designed the space, he also designed the furniture, chose the carpets and colors, and designated where pictures should be hung by posting two plugs in the wall. He never designed another home in Grand Rapids. Although he was commissioned for a home close to this one, he left the country in 1909 with his mistress, scandalously, and never worked in Michigan again. His life and other work fill volumes.  

The kitchen is not open for touring and has been converted into a modern facility, suitable for hosting exclusive dinners by the Steelcase Corporation. Today the company would not be in a position for the purchase along with the unlimited-budget restoration. But in 1987, the home was opened to the public for tours and was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a beautiful combination of light, space, and lines, and is a delight to behold.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Grand Rapids Symphony - 11/20/10

The evening began with Ritirate notturna di Madrid, by Boccherini (1743-1805), arranged by modern composer Luciana Berio (1925-2003). It was a charming, short piece with little evidence of Berio’s modern work.  The program notes were very informative in explaining Boccherini’s intention of portraying an approaching, and then departing, band on a street in Madrid.

Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 was composed as one movement, and although it was fast-paced, the various sections were easily discernable. Although it had its moments of beauty and interesting instrumentation layering, it was our least favorite of the evening.

The highlight of the evening was Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. The music is incredibly  dramatic and used to that effect in various movies. Probably everyone in the world has heard the opening “O Fortuna.” Text and translation were provided in a separate 4 page insert and the noise of paper rustling was disconcerting at times. If one is unfamiliar with the text, the issue becomes whether to follow along with the translations or to sit back and wrap yourself in the music. It’s a difficult call.

By not following along or not knowing the text, one might wonder at the shrill, grating solo by Brad Diamond (Oh, you’re a swan being roasted; in that case, well done.) One would also miss the ribaldry and humor of the poems.

The other two soloists had much bigger roles to play. Carrie Hennessey sang beautifully with her smooth, soprano voice, but Aaron St Clair Nicholson was the star of the night. His baritone range was extensive and each solo was expressively performed. There were a few times, however, when the chorus seemed to be overwhelming him.

The Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus was very powerful yet so controlled. There was never a voice hanging on after a cut-off and the performance was extraordinary. Occasionally throughout the work, the Grand Rapids Youth Chorus rose to play their part in the performance. At the conclusion, Music Director David Lockington looked quite pleased, and the audience was as well.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

ArtPrize - Fall 2010 - the Big, the Bad, and the Beautiful



Thousands of words have been written about this event and I’m going add a few more with these observations.

If your entry is not in the central downtown district, you don’t have a chance of placing in the top 25.

If you create something huge, and you are in the central downtown district, you will likely be in the top 10.

Create a face or a landscape made out of tile, used wine corks, plastic balls, etc., and you will get people’s attention.

People who never otherwise come downtown Grand Rapids will wander around the city like lost souls, irritating everyone who regularly frequents the city.

Driving downtown is treacherous for reason stated above.

For ArtPrize purposes, people will go where they can see the most for their time. Hence, outlying areas displaying 1-10 pieces will not bring in people, and this should not surprise anyone.

Venues displaying only through an outside window are lame and should be discontinued.    

Venues closed during the day on weekdays are equally lame and should be shunned.

Meijer Garden was a well-run venue hosting numerous exhibits. It had a regular bus run but still didn’t have a chance of competing with downtown venues.

All that being said, I loved wandering around looking at the ArtPrize exhibits and hope that it will bring more people into Grand Rapids on a regular basis. I’d like it to be easier to view every exhibit without spending two weeks driving around to do so, however.

“Art” is lost among the venues and the large creations. Although I admire the craft, the  ingenuity, and workmanship of many things I saw, was it art? I am fond of Nessy and the Steam Pig, but are they art? They’re creative, outdoor sculptures meant to engage and entertain. I loved the sentiment and story behind the huge penny, but is it art? The mermaid out of toothpicks? That’s just tenacity and toothpick craftsmanship. An exhibit at a downtown church was mostly religion-infused opinions, and a few interesting works of art were lost among them. Another downtown church was open during the day only on weekends when crowds were the thickest so it was skipped.

The one entry that really had an impact on me was the photography of Ryan Spencer Reed in the DeVos Place. Entitled “Detroit Forsaken”, the photos looked like scenes from a third world bombed-out country, but it was inner city Detroit. If he had been displayed in the Art Museum, he might have had a chance.     

For all of its weaknesses, ArtPrize brings great benefits to the city, not the least of which are the many outdoor murals that remain part of the city scape. And perhaps everyone who comes downtown next year will know how to get to the Art Museum, except the person who deliberately walked on the salt and earth exhibit.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Beat Goes On...but not for long

In an earlier life, the store was part of a local chain of music stores called "I Believe In Music," 1970s to the late 1990s. Mario worked for the chain and when they sold this location, he bought it and gave it its Sonny & Cher inspired name. After 31 years in the music business, Mario started liquidating his inventory last December.

Walk into the store and, except for some modern day music on display, you are stepping back into the 1960s. I expected to catch a whiff of pot (not that I would know what that smells like) but was just greeted by the scent of old cigarette smoke.

Autographed pictures and record albums cover the walls. The back shelf is filled with collectible dolls, most in unopened packages; among the oldest were a Grace Kelly and a Barbie loves Sinatra. Rows of CDs fill the room along with some DVDs and a few VHS tapes and 8-tracks. Of the two large incense displays, one was empty - sold-out. People still burn that stuff?

I bought a few CDs for myself and a Grateful Dead t-shirt for my son, took a last look at a 5' round metal peace sign wrapped with lights that was leaning on a board painted with a portrait of Elvis, and wished Mario all the best.

Update 2013: The Beat is long gone as of this year and the building completely remodeled.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Festival of the Arts 2010

This weekend extravaganza had something for everyone - art, music, entertainment, and yes - food! Food vendors lined the street and hawked their wares. Many had a person out front of the booth offering enticing free samples. Just the names of some booths were entertaining enough: Great Wisdom Meditation Center - Krishna Consciousness - Free Spirit Worship Center. Such promises!
Performers were everywhere; if not on the stage, they were waiting in the wings. I found tiny dancers that I have to say sort of creeped me out; they were so made up and so young, six year olds that brought to mind Jon Benet Ramsey. More interesting was a 30-something-year old dancer adjusting her leg brace under her long dress. We both laughed but no picture was allowed.
Unofficial vendors and performers popped up here and there. When I sat down to eat my souvlaki, the bench down from me on Monroe Center had a hawker and associate trying to sell candy bars and pop from plastic bags. I did not witness any success and when the associate moved to my adjacent bench, I moved on to Rosa Parks Circle. There I found a little group gathered around a woman seated on the grass, selling paper flowers. Besides her flowers, she was over-exposing her expansive cleavage and I wasn’t sure what was really bringing in the sizable crowd. The audience for the concert was sparse here at lunchtime and heavier at Calder Plaza, where unofficial street dancers also populated the area.
Two large tents on the Calder Plaza protected a myriad of variable art/craft booths, some more interesting than others. Juried art was found in the Old Federal Building, some amazing and some not so much. Lovely live music drifted down from the second floor, and all in all, it was a wonderful sensory experience. Interestingly, taking pictures was allowed in the building, but not in the artist tents. Even so, I felt a little uncomfortable taking them. So I compromised with my conscience and didn’t use the flash, and took just a few. Pictures of the artists and their works would have been more interesting but they were more protected than the juried work.

On my way out, I passed a boy holding a "Free Hugs" sign. He and his friends were standing on the corner, watching girls go by, and waiting for reactions. You can see by the looks on their faces, they were receiving some.
One of my favorite parts of festival is people watching, and those working the booths provided some of the most interesting photos. I hope you enjoy them.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chihuly Exhibit, Meijer Gardens - 5/12/10

The Dale Chihuly blown glass exhibit at Meijer Gardens is spectacular. We viewed it last week on a cloudy, cool day, well after the heavily-attended opening. Our plan was to take the tram to view the scattered works of art but we were informed at the Conservatory that we would not then be able to see every sculpture. So we took the brochure listing the site locations, and went back to the main desk for the standard Garden guide that showed those locations.

Volunteers posted at each exhibit were very helpful and we asked each time for the optimum route to the remaining sculptures. When we consulted our guide at Hekman Pond for the next best direction, she pulled out a map that showed the Chihuly exhibits with their locations. Just a minute now - why isn’t that available for visitors? It’s only in the hands of the volunteers, which is nice for them. But regardless, we did manage to get to each work, on foot, and without the ultimate location brochure.

The name of the exhibit, “A New Eden,” is maybe a little over the top but the works are magnificent and are wonderfully placed in beautiful settings. Various shapes rise up from the ground, towers ascend to the sky, colors float on water, plants spring up in the conservatory, and light explodes. The only site that was underwhelming was “White Belugas”; we missed it the first time as it looked like white garbage bags on the far side of a pond.

This exhibit is well-worth seeing and continues until September 30. If nothing else, it provides impetus to appreciate the beauty of Meijer Gardens, where art becomes one with nature.