Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden

Here’s the review I wrote for Art New England magazine about Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden at the Glass House in New Canaan, CT.

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A Liver’s Perspective

In my family, I’m the liver. I absorb everyone’s toxins. This allows the rest of them to be happy-go-lucky eccentrics because I’m there to process their detritus. To detoxify, I exercise, meditate, write, and spend a lot of time in therapy. It works. I’m a good liver and don’t mind the role.

Recently, when I mentioned my status as the liver to one of my more polite friends she suggested that maybe I could be an ear instead. “After all, it means you’re a good listener.” I think when I said the word “liver,” she pictured something unpleasant like cirrhosis. Or maybe the grey, foul-looking lump she finds wedged into the chicken cavity that she always throws out. I think this made her uncomfortable. She said, “Really you can be something else.” I assured her, “I’m okay being the liver.”

The other night at a small dinner with friends I went public that I’m the liver. They all looked a little shocked. We’d been having a civilized conversation about poetry, politics, and aging and then I forced them to think about their organs. I asked them what body part they thought they were in their family. We started with my husband. Someone suggested he might be a penis. That seemed like an honor—something he could feel proud of. He declined. He said, “I’m a stomach. I love food.” I struggled with this but then remembered the recent news about the importance of the microbiome and how the healthy bacteria that colonize it can help prolong our life. I felt pleased. Yes, he could be a stomach. One of my friends, a scientist, suggested this meant we were compatible because the stomach and the liver are nestled side by side in the digestive system. This felt reassuring.

We continued around the table. I learned one friend was a heart, another, lungs. Another friend suggested he was disposable so was probably an appendix. It is always top of the list when you google Useless Body Parts. I really like this guy so tried to convince him to upgrade to a spleen or a gall bladder.

We arrived at our last friend at the table who earlier had been wrestling with some of the racist comments made recently by a Republican candidate for president about Muslim immigrants, of which my friend is one. He said, “I’m definitely a rectum.” I didn’t know what to make of this. He’s a real jokester, too, like my friend, the appendix. He’s probably the smartest of the bunch, so I tried to persuade him to be a brain. We all tried talking him out of being a rectum. He insisted.

I don’t know. If I wasn’t a liver, I might have let my friend’s comment pass. Just assuming he was kidding…right? But because I’m a liver, I took it in and have been processing it ever since.

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Laylah Ali

Here’s the profile I wrote for Art New England magazine about the wonderful artist, Laylah Ali.

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Popcorn

When I was eight years old, the winter after my mother died, I ate popcorn after school every day.

I sat on the green, corduroy couch in our family room in our colonial-style house in Virginia. My freshly popped popcorn smelled of warm butter. I ate it while watching Tom and Jerry cartoons.

I had just walked the half-mile from my elementary school at the bottom of the hill. I crossed our driveway, passed our magnolia tree and jungle gym, and entered through the back.

The house was quiet. No ting-a-ling-ling from the bell my mother rang when she needed help. No nurses scurrying around to comfort her pain. No yapping Sambo, our little poodle. He was gone. He had become too protective of my mother and once tried to bite her nurse. No neighbors, with their casseroles and homemade soups, ringing the doorbell. After a five-year struggle with a brain tumor, my mother had finally died. Now, my little family was living in that period that can only be called the Quiet after the Storm.

My quiet was practically silent.

In these afternoons, I’m not sure why Sam, my ten-year-old brother, wasn’t with me. And I don’t know where Mrs. Franklin, our older and heavy-set caretaker who strongly disagreed with my father on how to cook roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, was.

I know that my father was at work. He was in the Navy and seemed important because he wore a starched uniform, carried a briefcase, and had polished shoes.

I dropped my school bag on a table in our family room and climbed the few stairs up to the kitchen. In the pantry, I pulled out a bag of popcorn kernels. I poured them into the tub of our popcorn maker and flipped the switch on. I watched. At first there was no action–just a pile of hard corn grains. But as the machine heated up, and the hot air flowed, the kernels started to move. As the steam built up, they started to pop. First one exploded out of the pile. Then another. Then they started to dance. They jumped and swirled and collided into each other. Fluffy, white flowers bloomed before my eyes.

I tossed the warm popcorn with some salt and melted butter. I carried the bowl into our family room, turned on the television, and parked myself on the couch. With the bowl in my lap, I picked up one kernel at a time. I rolled it around in my mouth savoring the flavors. I chewed, and then swallowed. Then I picked up another kernel. My mind was restless. I wanted to be doing something, anything, but watching these cartoons. I put my hand back into the bowl. My mind wandered to another place, my future. I felt important. People were paying attention to me.

I made the bowl of popcorn last, nibbling even the unopened kernels. It was a snack I could stretch to fill the silence.

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“So You Know…” A Retrospective by Terry Albright

Twirl

Twirl

It always starts with a dream. In the first one, she and her father have to retrieve a dead baby from the bottom of a well. As she matures as an artist, the baby begins to look like her middle son, my husband, as a toddler. He no longer needs to be rescued. Now he just needs tending to—to be fed, or warmed, or to have his diaper changed. But it’s always obvious to her that this child in her dream has been neglected. It’s a sign, a “sweet signal from her unconscious,” she says, that it’s time to get back to work.

And work she does. For the last 35 years, Terry Albright has gone to her studio daily from 9 am to noon. She knows that by showing up art will get made.

Her most recent show, “So You Know…” and the one she says will be her last, was at Skinner’s Auction House in Boston. The second floor of this open, bright gallery space was testament to Albright’s dedication and talent. Each sculpture was thoughtfully arranged often times on antique furniture, as it would have been seen in someone’s home.

Whisk

Whisk

Most of Albright’s sculptures evoke images found in nature. But these are not driftwood pieces you’d find in a kitschy seaside shop. Albright transforms Mother Nature’s bounty into stunning abstract compositions.

Her earlier pieces, usually constructed out of bittersweet vine, bark or grasses, are large and striking. There’s “Whisk,” made of phragmites and rawhide, and inspired by her hair. It’s an oversized pony tail–in the vein of Claes Oldenburg–but organic, feminine, and delicate. And “Twirl” an intertwined, trunk-like construction of pine bark is reminiscent of a tête-à-tête chair or two contra dancers the moment their eyes catch before they spin down the line.

Bloom

Bloom

After working with bark for over a decade, Albright saw some giant gourds growing out of her friend’s compost pile on Cape Cod. Their curves caught her attention. She started growing her own. She’d harvest, dry and cure them in her garage. She would then cut, stain and fasten these moldy, pungent “shards” as she calls them into refined and polished sculptures.

“Ripple” is a massing of blonde-colored gourd shards fastened with the lightest touches giving the sculpture a weightless feel. It evokes a pile of seaweed but is elegant and graceful. “Tarbaby”—made of tree-grown gourds from the Dominican Republic–could be a tower of black mussels clinging to a rock. It is totemic and airy. In “Bloom” the leather-dye stained shards seem to float and arc like Henri Matisse’s dancers in “La Danse.”

Ripple

Ripple

Albright committed herself to becoming a fine artist later in life. She started at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Mass Art, when she was 36 years old. Before that she’d been busy raising her three sons and completing her undergraduate degree from Harvard University’s Extension School. Mass Art was a commuter school with much younger students and “lots of attitude” she says. She’d sit in the back of class and not make waves. The other students were hungry—they’d come from schools where they were the best artists. “I was Lady Bountiful who was being supported by my husband,” she said, “I lived in a suburb.”

To prove herself, she knew that she needed to start working. She thought, “If I don’t take these next years and start working on my own it’s all going to be, Oh Yah, I did that four years ago.” She said too many women do that. They don’t stick with their plans.

Tarbaby

Tarbaby

So she forced herself to. She had a studio and made herself go in there and be an artist—even if she didn’t feel like one.

Her first project was called, “Mountain of Seven Deadly Sins”—a six-foot-high sculpture inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel.” This large mountain made by dripping semi-hardened plaster over chicken wire, and bittersweet and wisteria vines was fitted with alcoves and clay figures of Sloth, Greed, Envy, Lust, Anger, Gluttony, and Pride. It took over a year to build. She displayed it at her local church. When she brought it home it was too big to get into the house. She put it outside where it fell over in a storm and broke. She took it to the dump.

Then in 1987, after an operation, she couldn’t make art for six months. But she made herself go to her studio every day. She kept a notebook. She set a time limit. “You are going to stay here. I don’t care what you are going to do but you are going to stay here,” she said to herself. She realized, later, that it was in those six months—and the commitment of going to her studio–when she finally thought of herself as an artist.

Birth

Birth

Since then she has been exhibited in galleries and museums all over Massachusetts, New York City and Paris including numerous solo shows as a member of Boston Sculptor’s Gallery.

Albright’s newest sculptures are also made of gourd shards but instead of being ethereal, like her earlier ones, these are opaque and biomorphic. “Birth” is an unformed being wrestling its way into shape. “Screech” could be a creature stepping out of the primordial soup stretching its limbs–made from the neck of the gourd–and reaching for the light. Both demonstrate the evolution of Albright’s vision–one that continues to emerge and re-form.

Screech

Screech

When Albright’s been productive, and working in the studio, she doesn’t have the baby dream. It’s only when she has not been feeding her artistic self that the dream appears. So when she has it, she finds a way back into her studio and starts working. When asked which artists inspire her she responds, “People who just go do it.”

Posted in Profiles, Writing About the Arts | 5 Comments

The “Cadillac” Tax

In 2018, a not so little tax with an appropriately big sounding name, “The Cadillac Tax” will go into effect. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with your car. It’s a 40 percent excise tax on your “generous” health benefits—that is anything above the threshold of $10,200 for individual or $27,500 for family coverage. There’s some controversy about this tax. Do we need it to help fund Obamacare? Or, is it just another pay decrease for workers?

To understand what it all means, take a listen to ‘Cadillac Plans’ Get Obamacare Cut Back. I produced this show for “On Point” on WBUR.

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In The Wake

sarah-baker-age-6-two-years-before-her-mother-died-300x430

Me at six years old.

My graduate school thesis was on grief and it was honored with the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding ALM Capstone in Journalism. Thank you WBUR’s CommonHealth Blog for publishing it. Read it here.

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The Snows of 2015

IMG_6748Well…hello, side mirror!

IMG_6746

Brady to Gronk…

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“Ida”

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The Oscar-winning “Ida” directed by Pawel Pawlikowski is a movie that forced me to ask myself the question, “What would I do if all was lost?”

Set in 1962 Poland, “Ida” (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) is the story of an 18-year-old, orphaned, novitiate ready to take her vows when she learns from her Aunt Wanda (played by Agata Kulesza), her only living relative, that she is Jewish. Wanda is everything Anna, (her real name is Ida), isn’t. She’s a drinking, smoking, powerful former prosecutor, and a manizer—the impure to Anna’s pure. Together, this odd couple embarks on a journey to discover their family’s past in the Holocaust.

Shot in black and white with extended long shots, the spare and reduced scenery has the effect of stripping away any distractions. We are left with a very clear view of the psychological battles each woman is waging as she comes to terms with her past. One wages externally and loudly; the other is quiet and contained. It is a haunting and heart-breaking tale and one that I will never forget.

 

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Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

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Here’s the article I wrote for the CommonHealth Blog on WBUR about overcoming my childhood asthma.

Unraveling My Childhood Asthma: Did Motherhood Cure It?

At 18 months old, while my dad, mom, older brother and I were driving from Virginia to San Francisco for my father’s new Naval deployment, I started wheezing. The asthma attack landed me in the hospital.

Emergency room visits and hospital stays punctuated my childhood and early adulthood. I could have been a tour guide of any Intensive Care Unit: “Over on the right is a shot of adrenaline, or epinephrine — try that first. If that doesn’t work, try the nebulizer on the left and IV over there.” These visits became so routine that as I got older, I often told the doctors and nurses what medicines I needed: Prednisone. Albuterol. Theophylline. These were the mainstays, but there were many others over the years. I took them in such large doses that one time they made my blood toxic.

Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom's fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)
Circa 1970: The author, center, with her brother and mother, shortly before the discovery of her mom’s fatal brain tumor. (Courtesy)

Emergency was a word my family understood. My mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old; she was 28. For five years, until her death, she battled her disease in and out of the hospital, too. I went to Bethesda Naval and she went across the state to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I don’t remember ever seeing her hospital nor do I recall her ever seeing mine.

A Motherless Child’s Stress

Asthma is a disease of the respiratory system. It is serious business. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and Stoic dedicated an essay to it, called “Asthma,” in which he said that of all the ailments he’d suffered, asthma was the worst of them all. “Doctors have nicknamed [asthma] ‘rehearsing death,’ he wrote.

But asthma also has a powerful psychological or psycho-social component; with symptoms potentially exacerbated by emotional stress. As a child, I never realized it, but looking back I see it clearly: for all my suffering, asthma distinguished me. Got me noticed. In a childhood of disorder — marked by my mother’s death, and family chaos and constant moving — my own illness provided order. It wasn’t until the birth of my first child that my symptoms truly ceased.

In my own childhood, the asthma triggers were abundant: animal dander, dust, mold, pollen, cigarette smoke, a common cold, a change in temperature, or, yes, the particular stress of an ever-shifting “home.” When I was exposed to any of this, the airways of my lungs inflamed, constricting my breath. This caused the gasping for air or wheezing sound that is asthma’s signature.

When I was in distress, everyone could see and hear me. An asthma attack is very public. When my airwaves constricted, so would I. My shoulders and back tightened and I would fold in on myself. I must have thought that by making myself small, my lungs would have less work to do. I would stay like that until help arrived.

Often help involved a round with my “Machine” — a blue, compact Maxi Mist Compressor, also known as a nebulizer. I’d wrap my lips around the mouthpiece filled with steroids and saline solution and inhale the cool medicine. Relief was usually quick.

This Machine traveled everywhere with me. Once I started wheezing on a car drive. My dad had to pull over to a 7-11. We plugged the Machine into a socket in their storeroom. I sat on a cardboard box filled with Doritos and started breathing again.

Asthma is episodic. Mostly I breathed normally. In middle school and high school, I even rowed crew, ran track, and played tennis. Asthma is also genetic. Some of my cousins on my dad’s side had it, but no one had it like I did.

Order In A Disordered World

As the daughter of a naval officer, and without a mother, I moved 12 times as a kid into 11 different houses and six different family configurations.

Wherever I went, I took my meds, wheezed and went to the hospital. It didn’t matter if it was Aiea, Hawaii or Washington, D.C. Regardless of the coast or city, of the weather or school, I always had my inhaler, my Machine and my doctors.

In one of these homes, when I was 3 years old, my mother fainted while talking to our neighbor, Mrs. Chang, on the telephone. Mrs. Chang called her name many times. When she didn’t get a response she hurried to our house and found my mom lying on the floor unconscious. That was when the doctors discovered the astrocytoma tumor in her brain. My dad was on a destroyer in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It took him three days to get home. When he finally did, I was in the hospital, too.

This time I practically stopped breathing altogether. The doctors intubated me by way of my nose to get the air moving again in my bronchial tubes. Nasal intubation happened four more times when I was a child. I only remember one of them. I lay on a bloodstained hospital bed after waking up from the anesthesia. My nose throbbed like it had been pummeled. The rubber tube scratched the back of my throat. I bled for days.

“The scariest was the time you had to be air-bagged,” my dad said recently when I asked him about these attacks. I’d never even heard of air-bagging and had to Google it.

“You stopped breathing,” he said. This time I started breathing again not through a tube but with the help of a brown bag.

Unfortunately, my mother didn’t have a brown bag. Doctors tried radiation. They tried chemotherapy. They even opened up her skull three times to scrape out the cancer. There was usually improvement after each surgery. She’d get out of bed. She’d chat again. Her hair would begin to grow back. But the tumor held firm. It won.

Sassy Pants

I have little memory of her being well. I picture her in bed leaning against a pile of pillows. She’s wearing a brightly colored, patterned silk robe to conceal her deteriorating body. Her cheeks are puffy. Her bald head is covered with either a brown wig styled like her natural hair, but with a too-perfect gloss and bounce, or a headscarf, tied gracefully to the side. Even when my mother was at her sickest she always looked elegant, as if a dignitary might stop by at any moment. She was the wife of a rising star in the Navy, after all — a man who would eventually make Admiral.

Right before she died, she called my brother and me into her room. She had something important to tell us. “I’m going to die soon,” she said. “I love you very much and will always love you. Remember that always.” I can imagine the tears and the hugs but it’s all a blur. That is the last time I remember her alive.

Seven months after we buried her on a hill, under a tree, in Arlington National Cemetery, we left her behind and moved again. Another call to duty.

Before all that, when I used to sniff the roses in our garden, eat the not-quite-ripe tomatoes off the vines, and climb the magnolia tree outside our house in Virginia, my mom called me Sassy Pants. In a picture of her, my brother and I before cancer’s arrival, that nickname seems appropriate. We are all wearing striped shirts. My hair is brushed, shiny and pulled back in a little barrette. With my eyes sparkling and my head tilted, I look as sassy as any well-tended kid might.

But as more and more chaos swirled around me as a child—sickness, packing boxes, moving vans, new towns, new schools and new caretakers — Sassy Pants retreated. And someone less demanding and more watchful emerged.

Except with my asthma. It was only my asthma that brought Sassy back out. When I was 13 years old, I was hospitalized for pneumonia. My cough ruptured my air sacs. It then collapsed my lung. I was already in bed hooked up to oxygen and IVs. To re-inflate my lung, the doctors punctured a hole in the front of my chest. They shoved a tube into the top of my lung. The pain catapulted through my back and lodged under my shoulder blade. Comfort was inconceivable. The tube connected to a burbling machine that slowly ballooned my lung. To keep up my strength, I walked the corridors of the hospital wielding this machine and its long extension cord.

After two weeks, I was fully inflated and ready to go home. But when the doctors removed the tube, air whooshed out with it. I knew something was wrong when putting on my shoes winded me. My lung had collapsed again.

This time the doctors punctured a hole in my left side, under my armpit, and shoved in a new tube.

Flash forward 32 years: I’m chatting with a psychiatrist friend of mine about psychosomatic illnesses and I start asking about asthma, and my severe and scary version of it as a child. He said the theory behind psychosomatic illness today uses the example of a three-legged stool. One leg is genetics, one is temperament and one is exposure to stress. When you have all three, you might get one sick person. But when you remove a leg, the stool can’t stand and the sickness might go away. This three-legged stool concept, also known as the biopsychosocial model, was formulated by George L. Engel a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester, who published his theory in the journal Science in 1977.

Love, Babies And Song

After my collapsed lung, the wheezing and attacks continued — through new stepmothers, new towns, new schools, new chaos. Then after college, I moved to San Francisco. I met a guy. We fell in love. I noticed that I wheezed a little less. We moved to New York City. We got married and bought an apartment. Only once did I visit the hospital — and that was when we first moved there.

When I turned 32 and was pregnant with our first child, I stopped taking medicine. I’ve wheezed a few times in the 13 years since. Doctors tell me I still have asthma. But you wouldn’t know that from my medicine cabinet. Empty.

I used to joke that the natural adrenaline needed to stay alive in New York City and not get run over by a cab cured my asthma. Or maybe it was that our apartment was dust and mold-free. Or maybe that third leg on the stool, the one of stress, wasn’t there anymore. I’ll never know.

In my last singing lesson, I had a breakthrough. For weeks, I composed myself like a classical singer with my feet firmly rooted, my body erect, and my hands at my side for maximum focus on my breath and my sound. But instead of it coming out with force, it sputtered. It was as if my breath was clenched, my air tightened. My songs were losing their resonance. And I was losing my confidence. My teacher tried everything from chanting to craniosacral adjustments. Nothing worked. My sound was inhibited, stuck in my body. Last week, she suggested I move with the music. “Throw yourself into it, do an interpretive dance. Really express yourself,” she said. As I sang the George and Ira Gershwin standard, “The Man I Love,” I swayed my body and waved my arms. The sound exploded out and something deep inside suddenly felt “untrapped” and buoyed by breath. The notes weren’t perfect but they were out there — and without a single wheeze.

Sarah Baker is a freelance writer and blogger. She lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge.

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