Somebody asked for a family photo from the wedding. The short answer is that I was so busy attending to the many duties of the FOG that I didn’t take one. But here’s the next best thing: a picture of Richard and his dashing groomsmen. Right to left you got the best man, the groom, Richard’s friend since childhood Scott, and Richard’s grad school buddy Arthur. They cleaned up pretty well.
Yesterday Russell presented us with a combination birthday/Mother’s Day present: this very cool granite piece for our backyard flower beds. He made it using a machine that project a stream of high pressure water and a sand-like substance and can cut through just about anything. The shaped pieces of granite then fit together to form this beautiful three-dimensional sculpture that shines brilliantly in the morning sunshine and changes in feel and appearance as the sun moves across the sky and shadows play upon its surface. We love it and think it fits perfectly in our yard.
One of Russell’s friends and fellow Cranbrook Academy graduates is interested in urban farming. Emily has started a fruit farm in the middle of Detroit on some derelict property, in hopes of bringing fruit and a neighborhood resource to families in the area who don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s an incredibly cool idea that shows that, once again, one person and a dream can really make a difference in America.
Emily’s efforts are being chronicled in a Detroit Journal video series called Emily Appleseed. You can watch the first episode above. Russell himself makes an appearance in the second video, below, helping to clear the property and following a tractor to turn the soil. He looks like a natural farmer. His grandfather, Bill Kishman, who was a farmer for many years, would be proud. The rest of the series can be found on YouTube.
A few days ago a drama teacher at Richard and Russell’s school gave Kish some pictures of the kids when they were in various productions, years ago. There were some snapshots of Russell dressed up like a Native American for one school play, and this picture of Richard in a somewhat Harry Potterish old man costume and makeup for another.
The pictures brought back memories, of course — and they were all good ones. Any parent who has watched their child perform in a school play remembers the tension and nerves as the show time neared, because you were praying fervently that there wasn’t some mishap or stumble after the weeks of learning lines and practicing and staging. But then the curtain would go up, the kids would perform like champs, the parents would feel a sense of great relief, and in the end it was clear that the kids who were in the show had a ball.
And years later, when you think about your kids’ school years, it turns out that the theater performances created many of the strongest memories. When Richard was in kindergarten he played a squirrel in a short play called The Tree Angel and had the first line. The teacher said she picked Richard because she was absolutely sure that he would not be nervous and would say the line without a problem, and she was right. I felt like I learned something important about our little boy that day. Several years later, Richard played Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, even sang a song on stage (“Cheer up, Charlie . . . “), and did a great job. Russell, too, had his turns before the footlights, memorably playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz and the aforementioned Native American character, who I think was named Bullseye and (intentionally) got a lot of laughs in another show.
The point isn’t that our kids were great actors or stars, and their participation didn’t turn them toward Broadway or Hollywood for their adult careers. But those school plays did give them a chance to shine on stage and to know firsthand what it was like to perform in front of an audience — and, in the process, to get a better sense of themselves and their capabilities. School is supposed to do that. The fact that the performances are warmly recalled by parents, years later, is just the icing on the cake.
When I look at these old photographs, I think about the school systems that, for budgetary reasons, have cut their theatre programs, or their orchestra or choir programs, or their art programs. When the budget axe falls, those programs get chopped first, on the rationale that they are non-academic and therefore non-essential: after all, the standardized tests that seem to drive school policy these days don’t check whether you can act or sing or play an instrument. But that reasoning is wrong-headed, and also sad. It doesn’t recognize how those programs greatly enrich the school years and help to produce more well-rounded students who have tried something new and now are bonded by the shared experience of performing before an audience — and it also deprives the parents of that deep, lasting thrill of learning something new about their child.
Over the years, we’ve accumulated a lot of Russell’s artwork, dating back to his first paintings from the dawn of his artistic endeavors in middle school. They’ve been stored, and now Russell is home for a brief visit, to decide whether to keep those pieces — or to remove the heavy staples one by one, strip off the early efforts, and recycle the valuable wooden frames and, where appropriate, the yards of canvas, and set them aside for use in creating new pieces that are more befitting his current artistic vision.
it’s kind of wistful to see him disassemble the older pieces that have become part of the family repository of stored items . . . but it’s also nice to see that he is winnowing out the older stuff and looking forward to what he can create with the wood, and canvas. For artists, and for the rest of us, too, the vision must always be forward looking.
Russell graciously gave Kish and me some of the artwork that he created this past year at Cranbrook, and I lucked out with this new piece for my office. It fills a gap on my wall that appeared when one of my colleagues fell in love with some of Russell’s other work that had been hanging there and decided she just had to have it for her home.
I’m not sure how long this piece will last before someone else decides to make a bid for it, either, but I sure will enjoy it while it’s here. I don’t know if Russell gave it a title, but I have mentally dubbed it The Door. I just love the color, and composition, and ambiguity of it, with Russell’s riff on the Michelin Man standing in a way that suggests both uncertainty and fascination and peering out onto an open but unknown vista that could represent Opportunity, or Promise, or the Strange New World, or just about anything you want.
I’ve got this new piece on the wall right next to my computer monitor, and it makes me smile with pleasure every time I walk into my office. That’s what art should do.
Russell decided to stay in Detroit, in part, because he felt a certain energy there, and in part because it is so affordable. After living for a few years in Brooklyn, he knew how ridiculously expensive living the New York City artists’ life had become.
As always, Russell has a pretty good set of antenna for a developing trend. A few days ago the New York Times carried an article about how NYC artists are moving to Detroit for the same reasons Russell has long articulated. Why not? Detroit is a cosmopolitan city. There is still a lot of art-buying wealth there, as well as space galore and buildings available at prices that New York City artists couldn’t even conceive.
There’s a certain vibe to Detroit, too. The article linked above refers to “ruin porn” — an apt phrase that captures the kind of slack-jawed wonder at the decaying cityscapes that we have noticed in our visits there and reported from time to time on this blog. The dereliction not only makes you ponder how a great city fell so far, but also what can be done to raise it back up again. Part of the allure of Detroit for young artists and other risk-takers is the chance to be part of what could be a great story of urban renaissance. For an artist, that sense of frontier-like opportunity not only is bound to stoke the creative fires, but it also gives the city’s art scene a certain cachet that may well attract attention — and art sales.
I’m rooting for Detroit.