Archive for Art

Up Northwest

I drove up to Fayetteville on Monday morning to spend a couple of days with my best friend Lesha, owner of Little Mountain Bindery. I haven’t been up to the north part of the state at all during the first half of this year, but during the last month I’ve been up there three times.

First, we went to Newton county to my family cabin over the fourth of July weekend. The next weekend, Hubby and I drove up to Branson to see Terry Fator in the RFDTV theater. This week I went up to the home of the Razor Pigs to sit in Lesha’s quiet little studio and house, hang out with my “nieces” Miranda and Naomi, and talk about books and life.

I can’t express how much I miss her most of the time. When we both left Little Rock in 1999 to go to MFA programs 2,000 miles apart, I didn’t know what to do with myself without her.

Who would I call when I was angry at a significant other? Who would know exactly what I mean when I say, “You know, I’m really sick of domestic fiction. These days, if you’re going to write a neurotic suburban meditation on dysfunction, you ought to just go ahead and write a memoir. It will sell better”?

She’s read almost every book I love with irrational passion, including the world history Salt. So when I complain about “domestic fiction,” she knows exactly what I’m talking about from her own literary ramblings.

No one in my current set of local friends really shares this level of book geekdom. I have wonderful writer friends all over the country who are but an e-mail away, but it isn’t quite the same as explaining the plot of my slow-moving novel to Lesha over a glass of wine in her kitchen.

I realized on this trip that I’d missed a lot of things in her life — the girls are growing up so wonderful and smart. I also noticed that, somehow, Lesha became an amazing artist during the past few years. I watched her work on book restoration at her bindery most of yesterday afternoon.

She was competent and confident; her hands were so steady. I’ve admired the blank books she’s made for me in the past, and the work on display in her studio (including beautiful paper boxes), but I’d never really spent time watching her restore someone’s beloved text to a new life.

When I arrived at the bindery Monday afternoon, she was carefully painting a leather treatment onto the new covers of ten or so Dickens novels, published around 1900. They belonged to a woman who got them from her father, who treasured them. Lesha and her team matched the marbling on the original covers, restored the bindings, and restamped the spines with gold lettering.

Yesterday, she worked on a bible that needed a new cover. It was obviously routine work for her, but she handled it with a care I rarely see in my own working life. I looked around at the other projects lined up on her work tables. A huge 24 X 12 inch scrapbook lay on the opposite table, where it too, was awaiting a new cover and binding. It was filled with stories about local literacy projects — obviously the accomplishments of someone’s life’s work.

I envied her ability to bring meaning into the everyday during those few hours –that quiet confident magic of reincarnating someone’s treasure. I was struck with how important her work really is. Without people who know how to sew bindings by hand, we will eventually lose the original artifacts of literature. Those Dickens novels will last another hundred years now.

She and I often dream together about ways we could, somehow, manage to live in the same town. But I’d rather have her off up northwest if she’s going to spend her time at the bindery.


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Anonymous Photographs

A few years ago, through a weird coincidence, I ended up owning all the personal photographs of my hometown’s most recent “crazy lady.” Maybe these women aren’t as visible as they were when I was a child, but it used to be common for small towns to have at least one woman who lived alone and acted however she felt, regardless of the social norm.

When I was growing up, that woman was M.T., for a lot of reasons. For one, she wore a full-length fake fur coat and a knee-length strand of pearls everywhere she went long after she was the age that could pull that off. And she wore it year round. For the rest of the story, you’ll have to wait for me to get brave enough to blog about or write about in an essay.

Lucille Morris 1935

I bought M.T.’s personal photos at an auction of her materials after she died. Eventually I’m going to get my hands on her manuscripts, too, but that’s another story.

I’ve owned these photographs for a very long time. I bought them in my hometown,  but I lugged them along from Arkansas to Colorado and back again, then all over the state until I finally settled in Little Rock. Recently, I pulled them out of storage and started looking through them.

I was looking, at first, for pictures of M.T.; I want to write an essay about her based on photographs from different stages of her life. But those rare pictures of her are mixed in dozens of photographs from different time periods of people I don’t know.

Most of them aren’t marked. Some of them are probably M.T.’s family. Some of them belong to the family she lived with for many years at the end of her life, whose name I think was Eudy. Possibly Otto Eudy. That’s all I can seem to gather from the materials I have at hand.

I started looking at some of the photographs in this box and realized I have a real treasure here. I may not know any of these people, but their snapshots, especially those from the 1920’s and 1930’s, are amazing. For example, the picture above is one of the few photographs I have that has a name on it: Lucille Morris, 1935.

Anonymous Couple circa 1920-1930

The scan doesn’t show it well, but the black in the ink of this photograph has a beautiful shiny luster to it that makes Ms. Morris seem even more striking than she already does.

The thing that really surprises me about many of those photographs is that they show so much detail, even in black and white. I feel like I can see every line in Ms. Morris’s face here.

This second photograph of an anonymous couple which I’m placing, based on their clothes, circa 1920’s or 1930’s, also shows some great detail. Both of the faces are obscured or faded here, but the clothing is sharp and crisp. The detail on the clothing makes the photo seem very iconic to me — as if this is a photo of the quintessential “flapper” and her man.

The next photo that struck me was this shot of an infant in his or her crib, shown to the right here. There’s something almost artful about the way the child is placed right at a sharp divide between shadow and light, but still the baby is very clearly lit in the picture. The child’s face is crisp and clear here, and its expression is clearly contented. The detail in the bassinet creates an interesting movement between the child’s smooth forehead and that blast of sunlight in the back ground.

Finally, I have a much smaller snapshot of two girls outside what I think is maybe a school or some kind of public function. It’s a snapshot that has an almost posed air about it. As if the photographer was trying to get the two girlsAnonymous two young girls circa 1920\'s to “act casual. ”

I like the detail of the clothing here too. I’m amazed at how ornate some of physical materials are in many of these photos. The gather of the skirts in this picture, alone, is pretty amazing. Look at the careful gathers of fabric in the baby’s bassinet; or at the creases in the “lover boy’s” pants in the second photo. It’s a part of the past that I personally rarely get to see.

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Movie Review: “Young@Heart,” Documentary

Stephen Walker’s look at seven weeks in the lives of the Young@Heart Chorus is truly delightful and sad all in one awe-inspiring packing. I hate to use so many cliches in one sentence about a film, but I can’t really do better than to repeat all the typical movie muck and say, “No, really, I mean it.

This group of 70-90 somethings in Northampton,Massachusetts has been signing together under the direction of Bob Cilman for 25 years. What makes them unique, of course, is that they tend to sing songs that are completely unexpected from their particular age group.

They sing punk, classic rock, and contemporary rock all carefully chosen by Cilman to create some truly new interpretations. “I feel Good” or “Stayin’ Alive” or even the Ramone’s “I wanta be Sedated” become completely different songs under this chorus. When a 92 year old woman or a 80-something man who must wear an oxygen machine sing The Ramone’s lament about emotional pain it takes on a layer that I’m pretty sure the Ramone’s never considered. The song suddenly turns into a lament about the pain and indignities of old age. When the same man sings the first verse of “Stayin’ Alive” and claims “I’m a ladies man,” it takes again another level of humor and personal tenacity. It’s wonderful.

Walker follows the chorus as they prepare for a new set of songs and a new European tour. He focuses on several specific members of the chorus, two of which die before the end of the film. While I realize that’s a bit of a spoiler, I don’t think the knowledge will ruin the film for the average viewer. There is so much joy and so much sadness in a single Young@heart moment in this film, that I think the deaths will jerk tears out of anyone even if a person knew they were coming.

This chorus gets everyone excited, from the view of the audiences in the film. The first concert we see is at the local Northampton jail, just an hour after they’ve heard one of the chorus members has died.  During the concert, the prisoners are so moved by the chorus’s performance that they burst into tears during a song the group sings in tribute to their lost friend. When the concert is over, these rather rough looking dudes break huge grins and genuine gushing enthusiasm. One tattooed young man hugs a gray-headed chorus member and declares, “This is the best performance I’ve seen in my entire life.”

During the last concert in the film, there are ten-year old boys in the front row seriously getting down to just about every song. They look like normal ten-year-olds at a WWF match, all aglow in the coolness that is wafting down from the stage.

I spent the vast majority of the film laughing at the pure honesty of the filmmaker and the chorus’s ability not to take themselves too seriously. One example of this rests in the small “music videos” that break up the general narrative. These brief videos are extremely joyful and you can just see the “giggling” behind the eyes of the chorus. This results in a truly fantastic portrait of life and music that is completely original, just like its subject.

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Movie Review: “The Lord God Bird,” Documentary

I remember how energized I felt after the 2005 announcement by Cornell Ornithologists that they’d spotted an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas.

Like most “outdoor types” in the state, I was excited for several reasons. I was excited about the possibility of conserving more wilderness, I was thrilled that our woods were getting some serious scientific attention. But more than anything, I was excited about the very fact that a lost species had been refound right in the middle of North America.

I have to confess on the outset that I’m a believer. There are, apparently, two minds on the Ivory Bill issue. When we sat down in our seats at the Riverdale 10 Theater on a Sunday morning to watch “The Lord God Bird,” a documentary about the discovery and search for the Ivory Bill at the Little Rock Film Fest recently a gregarious woman sat next to me. She immediately asked, “So, are you two believers?”

I had to confess. “I am!” I said. I pointed at my husband. “He’s not.” The gregarious lady was thrilled. “That’s exactly our situation! I’m a believer and he’s not,” she said pointing at her own husband. Our quarrel, like the scientific debate still raging on the rediscovery of the Ivory Bill, rests on a short, blurry video tape shot by a UALR professor.

In a way, our status as believers in the current evidence is sort of the center of George Butler’s “The Lord God Bird.” It focuses on three intersecting narratives. First, it tells the story of John Dennis, the ornithologist who championed the possibility of Ivory Bill existence for all of his adult life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by the ornithological world. Second, it examines the story of the 2004 sighting that started the search and resulted in that disputed video tape (and its aftermath).

Finally, it examines the place of the Ivory Bill in our collective imagination, first for their mysterious vanishing (one graduate student in the film talks about the bird as a kind of “ghost”), and then as a symbol of the tenacity of nature.

As a believer, I’m happy to say that “The Lord God Bird” definitely angles in favor of the Cornell lab’s interpretation of the evidence. While it does present a differing interpretation of the facts, more time is spent detailing the “believers'” interpretation. The director encourages the audience to see Cornell’s interpretation as the triumph of an underdog by contrasting it with John Dennis’s story.

George Butler’s examination of local attitudes about the discovery was mostly fair. He made the point that I think is a legitimate concern for landowners in the Big Woods area. There’s a scene where Butler follows a trio of duck hunters who stress that they’re thrilled some of the land might be conserved, they just don’t want their own land taken away from them.

That why, the hunters said, that if they found an Ivory Bill on their own land, they wouldn’t tell anyone about it. I thought this said a lot about Arkansas, actually. Arkansas supports conservation insomuch as it supports the right to hunt and use land. It’s support mostly stops when there’s any sort of government mandates involved. It’s exactly what I think most folks around here would do too.

Butler’s examination of the history of the Ivory Bill in the U.S. included some wonderful moments, especially with his interviews with Nancy Tanner, the wife of Ornithologist Jim Tanner, who first refuted John Dennis’s claims to an Ivory Bill sighting in the Big Thicket in Texas during the 1960’s.

I was, I must admit, thrilled to see that Butler included story of how the Arkansas Canoe Club message board launched the whole current Ivory Bill search. A guarded post about the original sighting in 2004 by a ACC regular member Gene Sparling made its way via e-mail and introduction to Cornell, and eventually, to the sightings in Arkansas. I hope this is a sign that environmental groups, scientists, and outdoor sports advocates are starting to learn from one another. It’s definitely true in this case.

“The Lord God Bird,” is worth watching if it comes to a film fest near you. It’s just out of production and made one its earliest screenings of the finished product at the Little Rock Film Fest. Generally Butler does a balanced job of presenting the rediscovery and the current controversy surrounding it. However, if you’re a hard-core skeptic, this one might do more to push your buttons than inform you.

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Interview: Writer David Koon

David Koon of the Arkansas Times is also a fantastic fiction writer. He’s a recent winner of Glimmer Train’s Fiction open with his story “Four Sisters” and he’s published work in Crazy Horse and New Stories from the South.He did his undergraduate work at UALR (where I first met him in a Creative Writing workshop), did an MFA at Iowa, and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Currently, he lives in Little Rock with his wife and son, Sam.

I asked David mostly about his relationship with Arkansas and his fiction writing.

As an Arkansas native, how much does the culture of the place influence your fiction?

Oh God, that’s a tough one. I guess the thing I love about being from Arkansas is that it has — both in terms of terrain and culture — all these different areas: mountains and hillbillies in the northwest; river delta along the Arkansas and White and Ouachita; big city in the middle; piney woods and oilfielders down south; Mississippi River and gone-to-seed plantation culture over in the east. What I’m saying is, I suppose: If you’re a writer from Kentucky, you kind of have to write about mountains and hillfolk. If you’re a Texas writer, you kind of have to write about cowboys and the lonesome prairie (or at least the legacy of that). Here in Arkansas, though — unlike any other state almost — we’ve got a little bit of everything, and each place really does have it’s own culture and food and way of speaking. That leads both to a delicious hodge-podge of people, but it can also lead to these horrendous collisions of culture. That gives a writer a lot to write about.

I find myself often moving back to landscape over and over again in my own writing. There’s something about certain vistas, or views of the world, I guess, that keep me fascinated. Do you have any particular images or subjects in your work that you think are inspired by Arkansas? What about the landscape of Arkansas influences you as a writer?

I hate to compare myself to Faulkner, but I am like him in as much as I find myself writing again and again about the same little piece of dirt — a place that can be contained in maybe a hundred square miles. I can even tell you where it is: An area just southeast of Little Rock, in a rough triangle formed by Redfield, England and Sweet Home. That’s all Arkansas River delta through there, and it’s the place where my father’s people came from before they starved out and had to come to Little Rock during the Great Depression. I’ve known that area solely through my father’s and grandfather’s stories, so in my mind, it’s this place where just about anything can happen. Back during college, I wrote a whole series of stories about an enchanted swamp down there that my grandpa called The WIllie Bell Woods. There really is a Willa Bell Woods down there, but mine was full of ghosts.

I read a quote that I’ll try to repeat here. I never figured out who said it. The quote goes something like “All children born in Arkansas are born with boomerangs on their asses, no matter how far they go away, they always come back.” You “came back” to the state, so to speak, after doing your MFA in Iowa and your PhD in Louisiana. What did you think about the place when you left? What do you think about it now?

You know, though I’ve known a lot of people who couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Arkansas as soon as they could pay for a bus ticket and a duffle bag big enough for their stuff, I missed it every day that I was away. I’m glad I lived elsewhere — I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who are born, raised and die in the same zip code. But when I was gone from here, in the back of my mind there was always this nagging sense that the background noise wasn’t right — that in a crowd, the accents weren’t right somehow. Though I met loads of fine people and made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life, I really couldn’t wait to get back. I hate to sound like a xenophobe or a rube, but I’m only really comfortable here.

You’ve done some great work at the Arkansas Times over the past six years. What have you learned about the state that you didn’t know before you started working in journalism here?

I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned over the past six years is that there are people out there walking around Arkansas right now that are more fascinating, twisted and funny than any fictional character somebody like me could dream up.

Considering your journalism has you working for a “liberal” publication in a state that, until recently, was pretty “red,” what stereotypes have you had reinforced since you came back? What stereotypes have you had destroyed?

You know, I try — and I encourage my creative writing students — not to think in stereotypes, just because they tend to lead a writer to the easiest possible conclusion. For one thing, the stereotype never really fits once you get through the shell every person sort of exudes over time to protect themselves. For another, it’s just plain old lazy thinking — the refuge of those who can’t imagine that a person outside of themselves might have deeper motivations than their class or race or job or political affiliation. However, I can say that as far as assumptions I’ve had destroyed since I became a reporter, the biggest thing is the idea that there’s a rigidly enforced divide between blacks and whites in Little Rock. As a reporter, I’ve found, time and again, people trying to tear down the old walls that have separated us in Little Rock, Arkansas and the south in general. While that doesn’t extend to everything, I’ve seen blacks and whites honestly and humbly reach out to one another often enough over the past six years that I’m sure the idea of a Black Little Rock and a White Little Rock is more politically expedient myth than anything else.

You went from being a writer in academia to a journalist and editor for a weekly newspaper. Do you approach fiction writing differently now that you’re out of the ivory tower, so to speak?

You write what you know, I suppose, so back when I was a student, my writing was — I’m sad to say — a lot more self-centered and self-indulgent (that’s kind of the lot of the student, when you think about it: whether you’re going to school to learn air conditioning repair or quantum mechanics, that0 quest for knowledge is an inherently selfish act. It can lead to a lot of unselfish things, but for the time your in the class room and absorbing, it’s all about you). That has been the experience of many, many writers I’ve talked to. ON the flip side, getting out of college — getting married, and a kid, and a house and a job — makes the circle of your worry broaden, and writers always do better with that dark cloud of pressure hanging over them. Given all that, I think my writing has really matured over the years. I can really feel my characters’ pain when they’re worried about the rent or the car or that child with a 103 fever. You can read that as a student, but you’re never going to be able to fake it until you’ve experienced it.

What is your definition of the word “hillbilly”?

My mother’s people are all from the mountains above Conway, so when I think of the word Hillbilly, I think of them: proud people. full of music and laughter. Beer drinkers, churchgoers, pulp wood cutters. Excellent singers and hunters and cooks. People who can find you a ginseng root or a quinine tree or a fender for a ’52 Dodge. The best joke and story tellers in the world.

Where is your favorite place in Arkansas? What do you like about it?

My favorite place in Arkansas is pretty much anywhere on or along the Arkansas River near Little Rock. I haven’t been on the river in a boat in probably fifteen years, but I love to stand on the bank on summer afternoons and just watch it roll by.

Where is the one place in Arkansas you try to avoid at all costs? What’s so awful about it?

I have to say that I don’t like Pine Bluff much. Though I hear it was once a really beautiful place, it’s a big, sprawled out afterthought of a city these days. My family and I have to drive through there to go visit my wife’s relatives, and it just seems to get seedier and seedier.

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My Little Rock Film Fest Line Up

We are all set. We have our weekend passes, we have our tickets to the gala.  Tonight I just had to sit down and figure out exactly which films we’re going to be able to squeeze into three days.   I’ve narrowed it down to a few, we’ll see how it looks! I fully plan to offer up reviews of the Arkansas-centric films.  Here’s the line up so far:

Thursday May 15:   War Eagle, Arkansas  7:00 at the Riverdale 10

(Hubby & I both too tired to drag ourselves out of the house last night.  We’ll rent it. )

Friday May 16:  The Riddle 6:30 at the Riverdale 10   (Not enough time to do this and get ready for the Gala!).

                         The Gala at the Clinton Presidential Library 9:00

Saturday May 17:  The Ungodly  1:00 Riverdale 10 

                               Left/Right    7:00 Riverdale 10

Sunday May 18:  The Lord God Bird  11:00 a.m. Riverdale 10 

                          Silhouette city 5:00 p.m.  LR Chamber of Commerce

You should fully expect reviews to be posted here when the weekend is over! 

We went to see Judge Reinhold talk before a screen of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” last night. It was actually rather fun.  It turns out that Judge is now a fan of Arkansas and is working on trying to give the film industry better incentives to come here.   

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Orphan Story#1: The Phalanges

Note: Yes, I do really write “serious” stuff. I just don’t write about writing much. It’s so . . . meta, or something.  I also don’t share my writing on this blog because that’s too meta too.  If you want to read my best work, you’re going to have to buy the journals where it shows up (or the book, maybe, eventually).  However, I’m realizing that there are some pieces of “creative writing” (whatever that means anymore) that might fit for the blog. Below is a snippet of a piece of writing I’ve done that fits nowhere. I can’t seem to squeeze it into anything larger and it doesn’t really work on its own for something a literary journal would take. So I’m presenting it to you in the hopes that it might lose its orphan status by getting a read or two.

Orphan Story#1: The Phalanges

I was born into a house where my father’s huge textbooks lay on every surface. Later, when we moved to Little Rock for Dad to attend Medical School, they transformed into medical books. One room of our rent house was devoted to ceiling-high stacks of back issues of the Journal of the American Medical Association. I started reading at two years old, through a combination of memorizing my favorite stories and a little instruction from Mom. I was completely familiar with the notion of careful word choice by the time I hit kindergarten, because Dad used me as a study tool for his anatomy class. This had the effect of my deciding that there were correct words for certain things, that most people just got them wrong, and it was my job to correct them when it happened.


I went to kindergarten at Fair Park Elementary on the edge of the Hillcrest neighborhood in Little Rock. By then, Dad was already in Gross Anatomy II, so I’d already spent a semester memorizing the medical terms for my body parts. I suppose to test our cognitive skills, the Kindergarten teacher had each child stand up before her and recite the names for certain body parts. She pointed to my forehead and said, “What’s that?”

 “My cranium,” I said.

“No, your forehead,” the Teacher corrected me.

No, it’s my cranium.”

The teacher ignored me and moved on. “What are these?” She waved her hand in front of my face.

“Phalanges,” I said.

“No, fingers. Those are your fingers,” she insisted.

“No they aren’t. They are my phalanges. And those things at the end of my feet are phalanges too.”  The teacher stared at me, incredulous.

“Do you have a dictionary?”  I said. 

My mom got a phone call at work later that day and I got my first academic victory. Mom had to explain I was using the scientific terms for bones, since my father used me as a living dummy to study for his anatomy class. The teacher didn’t quite know what to do, so she looked it up. When she discovered I was right, she just let me say whatever came out of my mouth in reference to body parts. It’s a good thing we didn’t do the Human Body for our class play, because I would have refused to say breastbone and insisted on saying manubrium. I was that sort of kid.


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