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.

Posted in Food, Personal Essays | 1 Comment

“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 | 4 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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