Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Corner Bones

"Corner Bones II"*

The tea was poured,
The chair set near the hearth,
The book opened to the next chapter.
All was ready.
In the firelight,
The bones winked and flashed.

They were always there now,
Crouched In the far corner of the room.

On soft May nights
When the scent of lilacs
Crossed the sill,
Spawning reverie,
Phantom moonlight
Washed them opalescent.

They were always there now,
Stirring when the phone rang,
Then resettling to the drone of daily talk.

At night, they migrated into dreams,
Settled in the shadowed nooks
Of unknown railway stations
Where frantic seekers
Of misplaced backpacks
Recognized them.

They were always there now,
Shifting just enough to catch the eye
Set on being elsewhere cast.

On summer days when sunlight
Honeyed hardwood floors,
Inviting bare feet to leap and dance,
They snared their share of gold
And tempered pleasure,
Grounding those who thought to soar.

They were always there now,
Hunkered, bent, and glinting,
Always leaching peace.
"Corner Bones"**

* Layering of Vitor Antunes Photograph and partial image from Scott Ketcham painting
      • Vitor Antunes "The Dark Corner" Flickr, May 28, 2011: https://www.flickr.com/photos/janeladeimagens
     • "Loam" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/155923357652/555-loam-2017-46-x-31-oil-
 ** Layering of Sylvia Plimack Mangold painting and Scott Ketcham painting:
     • Brutvan, C. A. (1994). Floor with light at noon, 1972. In The paintings of Sylvia Plimack Mangold (p. 52).  
       New York: Hudson Hills Press, in association with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. 
     • "Loam" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/155923357652/555-loam-2017-46-x-31-oil-

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Questions, Answers, and Learning About The World

Pearl K. Wise Library Windows
It happened during an assembly in the Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS) high school library. Approximately 150 students and many teachers were on hand to listen to a panel of three students who had recently immigrated to the United States. The panelists were going to share their experiences of life in a new school and country and their ideas about how their classmates and teachers, most American born and bred, might better support their ongoing adjustment.

The youngest panelist was a ninth-grade boy from Ghana. I remember admiring his poise: addressing “older kids” and teachers in a language I was still learning would have terrified me at his age. But there was Charles* sharing a prepared statement and fielding questions from the audience.

It was all going smoothly—lots of sharing about the challenges of navigating new cultures in the classroom and the lunchroom—and then, during the question-and-answer segment of the program, one of my colleagues who is passionate about the social and academic success of all our students spoke up. Since the Boston Marathon bombing—the Tsarnaev brothers graduated from CRLS—a number of us on the faculty had been feeling more intensely that we and our students who’d lived only in America needed to know more about the places from which our immigrant students and their families had come. I suspect this teacher’s question reflected both this concern and her desire to affirm Charles as a thoughtful individual. 

“Do you think people should learn about your country?” she asked.   

Charles shifted in his seat. Finally, he replied, “No, I don’t think they have to.”

I looked at another colleague who was also deeply committed to the thriving of all CRLS students. She was a native of Kenya who regularly helped students in her African literature course to recognize their often stereotypical assumptions about Africa and to replace them with informed understandings. What had she thought of Charles’s response? She seemed to be scanning the crowd. I wondered if she was hoping that some student in the audience would offer a contrasting opinion. 

Finally, she herself spoke up, gently but firmly. “You come from a country that’s very important for people to know about. Many enslaved Africans in the Americas came from the areas now known as Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, etc.—and many people of African descent are interested in learning more about where their ancestors came from.”** 

She didn’t speak for long. My impression was that she had felt an obligation to set the record straight about Ghana’s significant role in historical events that continue to reverberate in the present, but that she also was reluctant to “correct” Charles. After all, he’d been asked his opinion in the moment as part of a public event.  And after all, he was only fourteen years old: how many fourteen-year-olds would feel entitled to say to an authority figure, “I need some time to think about that” or “I think I need to learn more before I can answer that”? It was also possible that he hadn’t heard the question the same way his native-English-speaker peers had: as an English language learner, he might easily have understood “should they learn about Ghana” as “must they learn about Ghana,” instead of as “would it be good idea for them to learn about Ghana.”

Frankly, I can think of many other reasons that Charles might have answered as he did—some of which make me wonder how much Charles believed his own answer. 

There are several ways that we and our students become globally educated, especially when the goal is develop the global competence essential to our becoming active, engaged global citizens who can work together to create a better world for all.

  • We can learn from travel experiences that bring us to the places and people we want to understand more, learn with, and work with to solve problems.
  • We can learn at home or in school from the arts, from the media, from print resources—anything that brings the world beyond our national borders into our personal worlds.
  • We can learn through authentic interpersonal exchange—online and face-to-face--with those who live in, come from, or understand other places.

As NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellows in 2012, a group of us from all over the USA had the chance to develop a greater understanding of Chinese education, culture, and life in all three of these ways. One of the biggest lessons I took from the experience, however, is that authentic exchange between strangers is often not easily achieved, especially when the context is a designated question-and-answer period.

As travelers to China, we were advised to ask our most penetrating questions privately rather than publicly. It was advice we heeded generally. But one morning during a Q&A session in a school in Shanghai, a member of our group asked what must have felt like a penetrating question to the Chinese educators who were hosting us: “If there was something you could change about this school, what would it be?”

There was silence and shifting in seats; our Chinese colleagues looked furtively at one another, but not at the local government officials who were also present. 

Finally, one teacher spoke up: “We could not think of anything about this school that we would wish to change.”

Later in the day, the teacher who’d asked the question quipped, “Not even a different kind of chalk?” I don’t think any of us believed the answer we’d heard. We did understood, though, that deliberate inauthentic exchange—the sharing of "information" or "opinions" meant to obscure facts, conceal personal feelings, or satisfy one’s superiors—also produces understandings of other people and places.

Thanks to such tools as the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique and various Project Zero-developed Thinking Routines*** that require students to wonder and probe, many American students have become skilled at asking high quality questions that drive learning. Some have also become highly adept at asking follow-up questions. But that doesn’t mean that all of their well-considered questions should be asked directly. Nor does it mean that they should expect complete or truthful answers to their questions in the moment. In some settings and circumstances, answering such questions directly can be highly uncomfortable—or downright dangerous.

Imagine Charles for one minute more. Assuming he felt an obligation to answer the question he’d been asked, what else might have been going through his head? Perhaps he was wondering if there was a “right” answer and what it was. Perhaps he was wishing he knew more about Ghana; after all, what fourteen-year-old has had the chance to develop a critical knowledge of his own country or any other country? Perhaps he was frightened of giving the impression that he was critical of America, especially at a time when immigrants were being viewed with increasing suspicion. Perhaps he had been explicitly instructed by a family member to say little or nothing about Ghana to those who might misunderstand it or him.    

Interestingly, not one of us in the audience that day asked Charles what he wanted to ask us. When the principal of a new orphanage school in Kampala, Uganda asked the third-graders in one classroom what questions they had for two of us who were visiting from America, the first student to raise his hand asked a factual question that spoke volumes: “Do you have parents?” 

Reflections High Above Shanghai*****
Would Charles have offered a different answer to the question he was asked if a classmate—or even his own teacher—had asked him the same question in a classroom filled with other students whom he had come to know over time? Or if a fellow student had asked him the same question in a small group within the classroom? Maybe. Or maybe he would have given the same answer, but followed it with some explanation. Maybe eventually, all the students in the class would have shared what they thought “other people” needed to learn about their countries of origin. 

Authentic exchange, especially across national and cultural boundaries, is never just about good questions or sincere invitations to participate in it. It’s about relationships and trust. It’s about alertness to perspectives. It’s about access to language that can sufficiently express thinking and feeling. It doesn’t just happen: the relationships, expressive abilities, and classroom cultures that best support it—like the global understandings they seek to create—need time and strategic attention to develop.****

Welcome to CRLS, November 2013
By now, Charles has graduated from CRLS. As I think back to that panel discussion, I find myself wondering how the more mature, more educated Charles would answer the question he was asked that day (at least) four years ago: would he think that Americans should learn about Ghana? That still might depend on who was asking and why, who was listening, and how he was being asked.

* I am calling him “Charles”; actually, I can’t remember his name.
** I reached out to the teachers mentioned above to confirm my recollections of this event. My second colleague shared with me how Charles might have understood the word "should."
*** One set of thinking routines, called Global Thinking Routines, particularly support the development of global competence.
**** There could be a whole other blog post on this topic alone!
***** In 2012, the tallest building in Shanghai was The Shanghai World Financial Center.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Meeting the Monstrous Seductive: Scott Ketcham's Latest Paintings

So already, the paintings of Scott Ketcham that I find the most compelling are also the ones I find the most disturbing. In Scott's most recent works, the beautiful locks arms with the ambiguous, the strange, even the monstrous. Captivated but reluctant, I take the plunge, wanting to love what both rivets and repels me.* There's something about the intensity of my conflicted response that I both embrace and trust.

"Spirit" by Scott Ketcham**
Take "Spirit." Is the beautiful bottom figure dead or alive? If she's alive, has someone put her into a trance, or has she willed herself into a state of unfeeling stillness to endure the swarming of the upper figure up (or down) her body toward her face? Because I don't view the active, intentional upper figure as beneficent, despite the painting's title, I keep looking. Both figures seem to be separated by only a thin shadow or membrane from a mysterious beige-gray void; who or what holds both of them captive?

Using Narrative and Stories to Tame the Troubling 
My habitual way of dealing with the troubling but compelling images that Scott often creates is to make them part of recognizable stories or narratives. So once I cast the bottom figure in "Spirit" in the role of the drowned Ophelia, the figure moving toward her face becomes either a sprite come to mourn or protect her, or even the spirit of a child she will never bear. Ophelia's story is terrible and tragic--she's used by both Hamlet and Polonius, her father--but we can make sense of it.

In some of his recent paintings, Scott has used his palette knife to create dominant texture, making his figures appear to be somewhat battered. In the painting seen in the bottom right-hand corner of Scott's Open Studios flyer, the female figure contrasts with Scott's many somnolent or otherwise passive female figures because she exudes strength and force as she battles and survives. Again, it's narrative to the rescue: her struggle becomes comprehensible when she becomes Persephone resisting the transition to or from the underworld or some unknown figure wrestling her way out of one of Dante's circles of Hell.

"Bated Breath" by Scott Ketcham***
Morphing into the Monstrous
An exquisitely beautiful face teams up with seemingly thick, relentlessly variegated paint to entice me into the world of the startling figure in "Bated Breath." Is she speaking--or struggling to? So often, I wonder if the figures in Scott's painting are, or are in the process of becoming, powerful or powerless. I found my answer in this figure's weirdly narrowed, literally "trunk-ated" body: she became Daphne metamorphosing into the laurel tree or some other tree offering liberation, though at a cost. In Scott's studio, her face glows, rendering her downright beatific.
"Sometimes She's a Python" by Scott Ketcham****
But no less monstrous for being beatific. And she's not nearly as sanguine about her monstrousness as are some of Scott's other figures. The figure in "Sometimes She's a Python," her arms positioned similarly to those of the Daphne figure, seems to relish being partially human and having a not-human part that resembles a serpent or a sinuous, malevolent shadow. Not a hint of oppression here. Perhaps she's rising genie-like through a narrow opening; regardless, she exudes confidence and pleasure. She might easily tempt one of Odysseus' sailors whose total and immediate surrender would blind him to her unnatural hybrid reality.

"Bond of Flesh" Detail
How beautiful, human, and appealing are the two in the detail from "Bond of Flesh," with their eyes closed or downcast in either shared sorrow, carefree slumber, or post-coital languor. They might be Adam and Eve condemned but together, or even two lovers spent not by consummated passion but by the demands of their overscheduled days. As I write this, Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" has just started playing on the radio; the music seems the perfect soundtrack for the peaceful, unconflicted pair to the left. Gazing on their untroubled faces, their easy restfulness, we're envious of the effortless way they complete each other.
"Bond of Flesh" by Scott Ketcham*****

It's only after our eyes trace downward from the pair's faces that they become the contorted co-inhabitors of one heart-shaped body. Our envy perishes before what we now perceive to be conjoined erotic fraternal twins, perhaps at rest, perhaps simply accepting of their fate. If the form we see is literal, its component beings are condemned differently than Adam and Eve. Does he arise from her thigh? Does she have just one limb? As in the previous two paintings, the lower portion of the body attenuates, creating the image's overall heart shape--though the redness at their edges also makes me think of a lamb chop.  

But back to that heart shape, which dominates our Valentine's Day conceptions of love. The text that my class used when I taught Greek mythology years ago explained that the Greek figure of Eros metamorphosed over time into the more harmless figure of Cupid in Roman mythology. So if the form is not literal, maybe what this painting most does is re-eroticize love and redeem it from the sentimentalized romantic. Symbolically speaking, what could more natural, intimate, and erotic than the easy way these two lovers share her spread thighs? Such an interpretation might just banish any thoughts of the monstrous.

In/From The Cambridge Public Library
Baudelaire and the Seductiveness of the Monstrous
As I found myself contemplating the monstrous-erotic-angelic-human, I had an intimation of something literary that blended these elements hypnotically. Baudelaire, I thought. Funny how such moments of captivation--when I most feel that the perverse thing is probably the true thing--often return me to the literature in which I immersed myself as a college student. The concepts of "spleen" and 'idéal" and the perpetual tensions between them, sources of profound despair and intense life both, dominated the poems of Les Fleurs du Mal; I wrote several papers about them. Some of those poems contained women, powerful, larger-than-life women. Not trusting my college French abillities, I headed to the Cambridge Public Library to find an English translation of Baudelaire's collection. 

And I did find those giantesses, those temptresses who offered nothing but their implacable, impenetrable, fleshy languor.****** The following stanzas from "Hymn to Beauty,"******* the second and third of which conclude the poem, muse hopelessly at the immorality or the amorality of these figures, then affirm nothing but the poet's thrall:
Whether spawned by hell or sprung from the stars,
Fate like a spaniel follows at your heel;
you sow haphazard fortune and despair,
ruling all things, responsible for none. . . .

Who cares if you come from paradise or hell,
appalling Beauty, artless and monstrous scourge,
if only your eyes, your smile or your foot reveal
the Infinite I love and have never known?

Come from Satan, come from God--who cares,
Angel or Siren, rhythm, fragrance, light, 
provided you transform--O my one queen!
this hideous universe, this heavy hour? (29)
"Birth of Many Worlds" by Scott Ketcham*********
Hopes and Fears of What's Being Born
Are Scott's paintings expressions of his striving for deliverance from diverse forms of servitude and oppression? Maybe Scott is a Baudelairien kindred spirit intent on plunging into  "l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!" (the Unknown to find the new).******** He's definitely working and pushing at the edges of things, maybe even trying to hasten the birth of something, or multiple things. "Birth of Many Worlds," which also appears on Scott's Open Studios flyer, makes the evolving worlds after which he might be questing soft, bright, and optimistic. Blue-green like our own world, they nestle protected in the natural recesses of the mother body, who drifts untroubled against a field of nothingness, as angelic as the maternal can be.

"Minding the Blastula" by Scott Ketcham**********
But lest we get lulled, too inclined to imagine earth mothers and goddesses, there's "Minding the Blastula," which Scott painted last December. In this painting, the bright, attractive spheres are the reproducing cells of a something yet-to-be-born. Whatever this unborn something is that needs tending by this woman whose hair sits on her head like a bat, it's going to be big--and if not monstrous, or at least strange.

When Narrative Won't Tame the Troubling: Confronting Our Inner Monstrous
So what's most in my mind as I contemplate my twin reactions of attraction and revulsion is the role the monstrous plays in our own basic human grapplings. Is the most illuminating connection the one between the erotic and the monstrous? Or the one between the monstrous and the uncontrolled passionate, the manic, the exhilarating immoderate that blots out all else? Or maybe, what I'm choosing to speculate about here is all too conveniently remote from the mundane comings and goings of our daily lives. Perhaps the monstrous fascinates us human beings, though we fear it, because we always sense that we have some capacity to embody or enact it.

"Mother and Child" by Scott Ketcham***********
That fear of enactment is what makes Scott's paintings in which the monstrous manifests itself in the figures' affects and attitudes so compelling. In these paintings, the figures seem caught, poised to defy or subvert the narratives and roles we most trust to order our worlds. Take the figures in the sardonically entitled "Mother and Child." The pallor of the son who does not embrace his mother and the set of the mother's teeth as she looks beyond the canvas toward that which fills her with longing, despair, or both: these together cast her in my mind as a Medea figure who will soon sacrifice her son as one more act of revenge for her husband Jason's having abandoned her for another. Whether Medea acts out of uncontrollable, tormenting despair or cool, heinous calculation, her murder of her own son is nothing short of monstrous.

But still, I can't despise her because she's so beautiful, and because I can remember having had such an expression on my own face in some circumstance that made me think I might lose my mind. 

The monstrous/strange can be beautiful--and it's far more riveting than the formulaic angelic. Come down to Scott's open studios on November 18 and 19, and have a look for yourself "— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!"************

* With Scott's annual open studios on the horizon, I've been spending some time in his studio and thinking a lot about his paintings and my reactions to them. And that means that Scott is well aware of my frequent twin reactions of revulsion and captivation. As Scott's wife, I want to be able to love his paintings enthusiastically and unconditionally; I want to be able to say to prospective visitors to his open studios, "I know you'll love these." And even more importantly, I don't want to recoil before expressions of my husband's self, which he can't explain--and which he feels no need to explain, even to himself. He claims he's fine with my honest reactions, but I can't help feeling that I disappoint them
** "Spirit" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/164389448427/634-spirit-2017-38-x-32-oil-on-denril

*** "Bated Breath" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/164389748962/640-bated-breath-2017-38-x-32-oil-on-denril
**** "Sometimes She's a Python" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/166968353202/665-sometimes-shes-a-python-2017-36-x-32-oil 
***** "Bond of Flesh" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/164785667177/649-bond-of-flesh-2017-38-x-34-oil-on-denril
*(6) Among the "giant female poems": "La Beauté," "La Géante," and "Les Bijoux."
*(7) Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs Du Mal: the Complete Text of The Flowers of Evil. Translated by Richard Howard, D.R. Godine, 1985. The French original follows these endnotes.
*(8) Final line of "Le Voyage" by Charles Baudelaire.
*(9) "Birth of Many Worlds" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/164389833127/642-birth-of-many-worlds-2017-32-x-40-oil-on
*(10) "Minding the Blastula" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/post/155142055462/544-minding-the-blastula-2016-44-x-30-oil-on
*(11) "Mother and Son" by Scott Ketcham: http://www.scottketcham.com/image/155923251917 
*(12) "— Hypocrite reader, — my likeness, — my brother!" Eli Siegel translation of last line of Baudelaire's introductory poem to Les Fleurs du Mal, "Au Lecteur." https://fleursdumal.org/poem/099

Hymne à la Beauté

Viens-tu du ciel profond ou sors-tu de l'abîme,
O Beauté? ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l'on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Tu contiens dans ton oeil le couchant et l'aurore;
Tu répands des parfums comme un soir orageux;
Tes baisers sont un philtre et ta bouche une amphore
Qui font le héros lâche et l'enfant courageux.

Sors-tu du gouffre noir ou descends-tu des astres?
Le Destin charmé suit tes jupons comme un chien;
Tu sèmes au hasard la joie et les désastres,
Et tu gouvernes tout et ne réponds de rien.

Tu marches sur des morts, Beauté, dont tu te moques;
De tes bijoux l'Horreur n'est pas le moins charmant,
Et le Meurtre, parmi tes plus chères breloques,
Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement.

L'éphémère ébloui vole vers toi, chandelle,
Crépite, flambe et dit: Bénissons ce flambeau!
L'amoureux pantelant incliné sur sa belle
A l'air d'un moribond caressant son tombeau.

Que tu viennes du ciel ou de l'enfer, qu'importe,
Ô Beauté! monstre énorme, effrayant, ingénu!
Si ton oeil, ton souris, ton pied, m'ouvrent la porte
D'un Infini que j'aime et n'ai jamais connu?

De Satan ou de Dieu, qu'importe? Ange ou Sirène,
Qu'importe, si tu rends, — fée aux yeux de velours,
Rythme, parfum, lueur, ô mon unique reine! —
L'univers moins hideux et les instants moins lourds?