Thursday, November 29, 2012


It's almost dark outside; I've had my tea and carrots, and I've paid my bills. I'm just now sitting down to write. What happened to the day? I can answer that: I spent half of it looking for a lost painting, a painting that should be here but vanished.

I'm finally getting around to reading "Rats," by Robert Sullivan (last year's x-mas present) and in the chapter titled "Unrepresented Man," Sullivan writes about a guy named Jesse Gray.  Gray organized rent strikes in New York, using the symbol of a rat to show what life was like in Harlem—in a word, squalid. I bring it up because Gray worked at a time, in the sixties, when the conceit of urban renewal was killing the city, "paving over old neighborhoods in New York in the name of progress." According to Sullivan and everyone else on the subject, the master schemer of this way of thinking was builder Robert Moses, who squashed opposition and smashed flat functioning neighborhoods, replacing them with high rises, isolating and alienated the very people who ended up living in them.

Robert Moses

I bring this up because, while reading, it sparked a memory of a neighborhood in the West Village where I spent some time; a beautiful tree-lined street with an old Jewish cemetery and a plaque on an elegant 19th century townhouse, which proclaimed Charles Ives lived there.

 The Second Cemetery 
of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue
Shearith Israel, 1805-1829
(W. 11th St. btw 5th and 6th Ave)

I hadn't realized at the time but this street, and further west, was saved by Jane Jacobs, an activist and writer, around the same time Gray was operating in Harlem. 

 Jane Jacobs

Jacobs' activism was hatched when she tried to save her own West Village neighborhood from Moses, who wanted to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway through Washington Square Park. Jacobs and other residents organized and fought Moses and aligned city bureaucrats, and won! You might know her for her seminal book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," (1961), a treatise on what makes a city livable, still studied in colleges today. She may be the most influential thinker urban planning has ever had, yet she didn't have a college degree and never studied the subject.

But, okay, bear with me, I bring this up because, and this is really what i'm trying to get at, Jacobs used to go around as a child talking to her imaginary friend Benjamin Franklin, explaining how things in the modern world worked. He would ask questions, and she would answer and they'd have whole conversations, a regular talker that Franklin. What ties Jacobs, who ended up living in Toronto, to Boston (a city you cannot accuse of urban planning) is that Beantown is dominated by Franklin, who, like Jacobs, was an observer of life and a believer in good common sense. He's called the father of American pragmatism, for heaven's sake. Next time I gaze up at this statue I will think of Ben and Jane, and how much our urban spaces owe to both of them. 

Benjamin Franklin at Old City Hall

And to our city rats!

Well, perhaps that's stretching it, but there must be a connection between Ben and Jane and rats and urban planning, don't you think? When we got back from the east coast, where we spent Thanksgiving, I looked anew at my rats. Do they make observations? use common sense? I don't know the answer to that, but I admire their tenacity for living. Here are my own rats most recent portraits: Blu and Lily.

(never noticed before, but Blu looks a little like Jane Jacobs, don't you think?) 


                                                                                                      (scared Lily)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dog over Manhattan

Toot Toot!

Excuse me for tooting my own horn, but I just found out that a drawing I did a year ago has been used to illustrate a story in the newly released book, Still the Same Hawk; Reflections on Nature and New York, published by Fordham University Press. The drawing itself was controversial and although the editorial assistant wanted it for the cover, it was nixed because it showed a dog's penis. But he, Will Cerbone, my savior, fought for it and the powers that be finally decided that it wasn’t going to kill anyone if they saw it, so they used it, and I thank them. 

Dog over Manhattan

The illustration accompanies Robert Sullivan's story, "The Dark Side; or, My Time Spent in the Nature that People would Rather Not Think About." Sullivan is the author of many books, one of which is titled, RATS: observations on the history and habitat of the city's most unwanted inhabitants.

Thanks also to Melissa Cooper who commissioned the painting for her wonderful nature blog, outwalkingthedog. Here is the original post:

More about the new book at:, search for "Still the Same Hawk."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Winter Sky, library and some drawings

Day after election, caught on the wind, these words:  
"All I want from Obama in the next four years," said jogging guy to buddy, "is something small, humble and achievable."  Small, humble and achievable. That stray bit of conversation became my mantra for the rest of the day: smallhumbleandachievable; smallhumbleandachievable. I kept repeating those words like a prayer.

White sky
tonight coming home from the Central Library, where Jonathan Letham and Daniel Mendlesohn (The Lost) were in discussion about the "essay." Their conversation flowed back and forth about writing, about structure, about length and form; about fiction v. faction, (i.e., what is made up, possibly based on fact, or not, versus what is fact, based on one's own perceptions, which may be, or not, true, got that?). Nothing was said about politics, though we were all floating on the historic moment.  

For someone who's been working nights, it was nice to be back in the library hearing a weighty discussion about ideas. Something I'm realizing from taking courses at Art Center: artists don't necessarily tell you why they do the things they do. They don't sit around discussing the who, why, where, when and what fors like writers do, like these writers did so openly tonight. They handle "what's behind the curtain" (Jonathan L's reference to why he began writing essays) in a different way. 

Whenever it snowed in Louisville, where I grew up, the sky would turn white, like it did tonight. I can see that winter sky, with bare cold branches silhouetted against it, the clouds low and heavy, with a light snow coming down, making the road slippery. Let's say I'm heading out of the East End in my VW, through the park towards downtown, taking the curves with a slide.

For most of my childhood I didn't even know real artists existed, and definitely not in Louisville, but one day I saw an ad in the newspaper announcing an art show in the West End, so my friend H and I went, and we discovered that the West End, or, as it was called back then, the black section of town, wasn't so far away, certainly not as far as we'd been told. Also discovered were real artists, living real artists' lives, and from that point on, we went back as often as we could, or at least til the end of senior year. During that winter, the sky was the same in the West End as it was in the East End, with those dark bare branches silhouetted, and I was amazed it had taken this long to find out.

Bringing art back into my life is like revisiting the West End, meeting artists who approach life in mysterious ways, taking bits of reality, mixing it with how they see the world and producing something more beautiful than beautiful, truer than true, realer than real, or the converse, taking something and destroying it, the same as writers do, framing, structuring, making shit up, exploiting circumstance, forming words into what isn't necessarily real, but true.


Some drawings/paintings from my contemporary illustration class with the Clayton Brothers, Christian and Rob. Check out their incredible work at:

ALOUD Program at LAPL: 

Click on pics to see as slideshow