Downsizing My Library

There’s a wonderful little essay by Walter Benjamin called “Unpacking My Library.” Scholars tend to cite The Arcades Project or “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” when it comes to Benjamin, but the library essay is another gem. Written in 1931, Benjamin’s essay basically concerns his life as a collector, and more specifically a bibliophile, and describes the thrill that comes with tracking down rare editions and owning them. For him, it’s not just the content of the book that’s important, but the possession of the object and the memories that go along with its acquisition.

I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot lately, because I recently did the opposite with my own library: I divested myself of about 1/3 of my books.

Really the whole point was to create more hideaway spaces for Iris.

This isn’t the first time I’ve purged my belongings. When I moved into a smaller place in 2016, I ended up getting rid of my college notes because I realized that they no longer reflected my work as a scholar. I hadn’t looked at them in over a decade, and it was unlikely that I would do so in the future. I also maintain a practice of getting rid of one piece of clothing for every new piece I acquire, so that my wardrobe remains approximately the same size at any given moment. There have been plenty of times where I’ve put some objects in storage, only to completely forget that I ever owned them in the first place, so I often end of donating those too. When it comes to material goods, I like to think that I don’t get overly attached to anything.

After boxing and hauling around my books for years, I decided it was time to clean them out too. With Brandon and I moving into a new place, and with comprehensive exams and all the reading that goes along with them occupying my near future, I figured it was as good a time as any to clear some shelf space both physically and mentally.

I’ll be honest though, it was hard. I had to spread it out over several days, and found myself getting emotional toward the end. I hadn’t reread most of these books in years, and some I hadn’t even touched at all. Why was it so hard to get rid of them then?

Part of my hesitance was undoubtedly cultural. Books are arguably one of the most powerful forms of aspirational consumption. We’re taught from a young age that reading is an important way to both improve oneself and get lost in another world. Owning books enables you to project your interests and hopes to others. Even if you haven’t read the book, you intend to, right?

Books have been prized as precious objects for centuries. In fifteenth-century Flanders, the Duc du Berry showcased his wealth and power by commissioning an extravagantly illustrated book of hours, or prayer book. Thanks to mass printing books have become more affordable, but the material object still exudes a certain tactile magnetism. Kindles may be more convenient, but how many of us still prefer to hold a book and physically turn the pages?

Image result for tres riches heures
Limbourg brothers, New Year’s gift exchange, from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, ca. 1412-1415.

Beyond the broader cultural appeal, however, there’s also a strong personal dimension to these books. Part of that comes from being an academic: I read a lot of books, so why not have a lot of them, especially if I’m going to continually consult them?

Yet downsizing my library also meant confronting some long-forgotten dreams of mine. When I was in high school, I used to daydream about having a large library of my own someday, which used to go hand-in-hand with a similar aspiration of cultivating a vast rose garden. Looking back, they were the kinds of dreams someone my age could reasonably have before 2008, when home ownership still seemed feasible.

But these dreams, as pleasant as they are, don’t reflect my life in reality. After I went to college, I awakened a restless streak that has never fully quieted down. Rather than stay in one place, I’ve bounced around the country every few years. Instead of building a library of my own, I’ve discovered the joys of public libraries, and encountering books I might not have read otherwise. During my time in Roswell alone, I read about Pueblo revolts, rabies, eels, dinosaur skeletons, the neurology of politics, and more. Because I wasn’t committed to buying any of these books, I felt I could explore different genres and read things outside of my art historical wheelhouse.

That’s why getting rid of the three books above was especially charged for me. While I donated the other books in bulk, I personally put these in three in a little free library as a symbolic gesture, a way of relinquishing, or at least revising, an old dream. I bought and read these books in high school, as the first tentative step toward building my vast library. But I hadn’t looked at any of them since at least 2003, and after boxing them up and hauling them around for years, I decided it was time to let somebody else enjoy them.

By letting them go, I was also giving myself permission to update my old dreams. I may not own a beautiful house with a library and garden, but I’ve hiked the Tetons, ridden my bike along Lake Champlain, and watched sunsets in Santa Fe. My life may not look like the one I had envisioned in 2003, but frankly, I think this one is a lot richer.

And just because I don’t have a vast library now doesn’t mean I won’t have one in the future. Even after downsizing, I still have a lot of books, so my shelves are by no means empty. But rather than daydream about a future collection I may never have, I’ll enjoy the ones I’ve got now and continue taking advantage of other public collections.

A Maine (and New Hampshire and Vermont) Adventure

Brandon and I recently took a vacation up to New England to visit friends and family. It had been about two years since I’d last visited, so I was due for an excursion. As for Brandon, he’d never been to this region aside from a quick work trip to Connecticut, he’d never been to this region before, so it was all new to him.

At my aunt’s camp in Windham, Maine. All you need is a golden retriever or a yellow lab and you’ve got a perfect setting for an LL Bean photo shoot.

We divided our time between three states: Maine, where my parents live; New Hampshire, where my sister lives with her family; and Vermont, where I spent two years as a curatorial fellow at Shelburne Museum. We spent a lot of time at the beach, and just outside in general, as the weather was pretty idyllic.

It was a lot of fun being able to take Brandon around and show him places where I used to live and work. He had done the same for me when we visited his friends and family down in Florida a couple of years ago, so I enjoyed returning the favor.

No trip to Maine is complete without lobster, in this instance at my aunt’s house in York.

We also made sure to eat plenty of tasty food. I always look forward to eating fresh lobster when I’m back East, but it was especially fun seeing Brandon try it for the first time. I was also relieved that he enjoyed it. After talking it up for three years, it would have been deflating if he didn’t like it.

In a culture that prides itself on constant busy-ness, going to the beach to explore tide pools, snorkel, throw rocks in the water, or just stare out at the water is an understated protest.

Aside from the fun of being able to revisit old haunts and spend time with family, going on vacation was also a good way to shake up my routine and reexamine my working habits with fresh eyes. I’m a big proponent of getting away from work periodically because I know from previous experience that you’ll likely burn out if you don’t. Going to New England was a good opportunity to take a break from my work, enjoy a change in surroundings and the creativity that goes with it, and reflect on how I can maximize my free time by being more efficient in the future.

From tide pools to barns, exploring New England also brought fresh subjects to my daily abstractions.

This was especially revelatory when I was visiting Vermont. This was where I had learned printmaking, and while I haven’t pulled many impressions since moving to Virginia, revisiting the place where I first tried it out reignited my passion for it.

Iris Trio, 2018. This is one of the last major prints I made, and that was over a year ago. It’s time to start pulling again.

Once we finish moving into our new place later this month (more on that in a future post), I definitely want to invest in a pin press and start making impressions again. After all, my research is only one facet of my life, and going to New England reminded me of the importance of keeping my other interests alive.

This is still one of my favorite places, but I don’t need to live here to have a satisfying life.

Revisiting Vermont also reminded me how far I’ve come. As I mentioned in my old blog, I especially enjoyed living here, which make my initial relocation to Roswell somewhat difficult. While I knew my job in Roswell offered more professional opportunities, there was always a sense of pining for Vermont, if subconsciously. I didn’t regret relocating to New Mexico, but part of me always wondered how things would have turned out if I had managed to stay at Shelburne. During this recent visit, however, I didn’t feel that wistfulness, because I know that my professional, financial, and personal life is all the better for having left. Between being able to pay off my student loans, curating exhibitions such as Magical and Real, exploring the archive that would form that basis of my research here at William and Mary, and meeting Brandon, my life is richer for having left my comfort zone. Sharing my favorite places in Shelburne and Burlington with Brandon was a lot of fun, but I’m definitely glad I went to Roswell.

No trip to New England is complete without a picture with a giant lobster sculpture.

All in all, we both had a great time, and look forward to future adventures here together.

A Cat for Virginia

A few weeks ago, my parents emailed me a picture a cat belonging to their neighbor, Virginia, and asked me if I could draw of portrait of it for her.

The cat in question, who is unquestionably adorable.

Apparently, Virginia had seen a picture I’d done some years ago of a cat in my parent’s house, and all but absconded with it. My folks thought it would be a nice surprise then, to offer her a picture of one of her own cats, done by the same artist.

This is the drawing Virginia admired. Sadly, the cat pictured here, Boris, is no longer with us.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like drawing from photographs. They’re fine as references for details, but I’ve never liked copying from photos wholesale. I used to draw from photographs pretty regularly in high school, but subsequent art classes and studio sessions have instilled a preference for drawing from life. For me, drawing from a photograph is a translation of a translation, and something gets lost in the process. Don’t get me wrong, every artist has a different practice and I know several artists who work successfully with them, but I don’t count myself among them.

Virginia is one of the sweetest people I know, however, so I happily made an exception in this instance.

I started with a series of sketches to get to know the image better. Just as I know my best writing usually comes from extensive editing and revision, I need to sketch a subject several times before I feel comfortable with it and start approximating its actual appearance. Each time, I made adjustments as I honed my observations.

Eventually, I started getting something that looked less like a cartoon and more like a cat. This study then became the basis for the final drawing. I don’t draw cats regularly enough to consider myself a portraitist, but I still wanted to at least resemble what I saw in the picture.

With my final study in hand, I then began working on the final version. I started with a light pencil drawing on watercolor paper, and then went over the outlines in pen and ink. Once that dried, I erased the pencil. The drawing that Virginia had admired was rendered in charcoal, but since I knew the drawing would be traveling with me, I didn’t want it to get smeared or smudges in transit. Instead, I opted for a mixed media approach using pen and ink, ink wash, and paint.

Once I had the pencil outline, I used ink wash to begin adding values. Once that dried, I began adding paint, alternating between paint, ink wash, and line drawing to add details.

After about three or four hours, I had this:

This ended up being more fun than I thought it would. I had debated whether to keep it black and white or use color, but ultimately I was so taken with the cat’s pretty blue eyes that I felt obligated to render it in color. While I was concerned that working from a photograph would produce a stilted image, I think I managed to avoid that. The daily abstractions I’ve been painting have definitely made me more comfortable with painting in a looser manner, particularly in the cat’s body, which helped bring a sense of energy back to the composition. I’ll admit I still didn’t get the face quite right, but it’s close. As long as Virginia likes it, that’s all that matters.

Also Brandon says I need to start drawing our own cats more often.

I Watched the Roswell, New Mexico Pilot, and This is What I Thought Of It

After debating for months whether or not we should do it, Brandon and I decided to watch the pilot for the relaunch of Roswell. Our curiosity about how the show would interpret the place we lived in for several years finally overpowered us. I’ve never watched the original iteration of the series, so I don’t have that nostalgia working for or against me when it comes to this show.

We both went in expecting it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of the city. From the opening narration describing Roswell as a sleepy little town in 1947 (it was actually the second largest city in in New Mexico at the time), to a mountainous landscape that is more akin to Santa Fe than southeastern New Mexico, the Roswell we were seeing wasn’t the one we actually lived in. Not surprising, considering it was filmed in the Santa Fe/Las Vegas area.

Most of our riffing could be applied to any show supposedly set in a real location: the actors were too attractive to be average residents, the shops portrayed don’t actually exist, etc. etc. The parts it did get right, the small-town gossip, the drive-by shootings and other acts of violence, only seemed to highlight the negative aspects of the area.

To be fair, it’s encouraging to see a Latina in one of the lead roles, especially considering that more than 50% of Roswell’s population is Hispanic. The show also tackles issues of immigration and legal status, with the whitest characters being quite literally the illegal aliens. They also got the name of the county right (Chaves County), and the road you take into Roswell if you’re coming from the north, 285.

What got Brandon and me, however, was that the sense of place was off. I know they were going for an otherworldly feel, and heaven knows New Mexico has plenty of that, but most of the filming takes place in Las Vegas, a small town about 2.5 hours north of Roswell. That may not sound like much, but geographically and culturally, Las Vegas and Roswell are two very different places.

This was particularly apparent in the way Roswell approaches its UFO culture. In the show, Roswell has more or less fully embraced it (I always saw at least one person wearing the iconic diner outfit during the UFO Festival, but no one actually dresses like that in Roswell in everyday life), but the reality is more complex.

Roswell was founded in the 19th century as a ranching and agricultural community, and generations of people have lived there doing exactly that. White settlers first arrived around the 1860s, but indigenous and Hispanic communities predated them.

Particularly frustrating for science-minded folks is the fact that Roswell was home to real, hard science research before it became associated with ufology and conspiracy theories. During the 1930s, Robert H. Goddard, one of the first rocket scientists to seriously experiment with liquid fuel propulsion, relocated from Massachusetts to Roswell to continue his experiments, and spent the next 12 years building and launching rockets. His wife and partner, Esther Kisk Goddard, played a key role in documenting these experiments as well as doing pioneering work in extracting photographic stills from moving film. Their research continues to inform rocket science today, and the Roswell Museum is home to an important collection of their work.

Roswell also didn’t have a UFO tourist scene until the 1990s because the government had told residents to keep quiet about whatever had happened in 1947. I personally blame the enormous popularity of The X Files, and before you get on my case about not liking it, I used to watch it every week when it was on TV. In short, the whole Ufology thing is a relatively recent newcomer to Roswell’s cultural landscape. While Main Street certainly has a lot of UFO-themed places, there’s an ambivalence about it. At least when I was living there, it wasn’t so much a joyful embrace of kitsch as it was a sense of obligatory decoration. Walking downtown, I always got the impression the storefronts were saying: “look, we know this is what the tourists are into, but it’s not really our scene.” On the whole, residents other than a handful of artists tend to ignore the whole UFO scene altogether.

This sense of understated exasperation with the UFO scene becomes more relatable when you consider all the things that Roswell residents do get passionate about. In addition to its ranching, Roswell is home to a lively arts community. A lot of this comes from the phenomenal Artist-in-Residence program, which has been bringing artists from around the world to Roswell for over 50 years, but there are a lot of homegrown artists too. The gallery above, for example, belongs to Bone Springs Art Space, a labor of love from artist and educator Miranda Howe. A Roswell native, Howe spent four years renovating this vintage space, and is part of an artistic family that has been working creatively in Roswell for five generations. Her grandfather taught art classes at the Roswell Museum back in the 1950s, for instance, and her great-uncle was a prominent photojournalist. Her uncle, Kim Wiggins, is a prominent western artist, while her brother, Jeremy, paints with fireworks. Her mother, Elaine, started an art educational facility known as the Creative Learning Center. And that’s just one example of the creativity you’ll find in Roswell. While I don’t expect a show about aliens to address this side of the city, it is frustrating to see all that labor and effort get overshadowed.

The other thing off about the sense of place is the landscape. As I mentioned, Roswell is primarily filmed around Las Vegas, and the landscape here can range from hilly to mountainous. That’s fine, except that’s what you find primarily in northern New Mexico.

Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the southern plains.

Southeastern New Mexico, where Roswell is located, is more akin to west Texas. It’s primarily flat with the occasional plateau or mesa. It does have one mountain, El Capitan, which is a landmark of the area. At first glance, the landscape might appear sparsely vegetated, uncannily clear and crisp due to the dry air, and even terrifying in its openness.

Yet there is a beauty to it, and part of my journey with living in Roswell was learning to see and accept it on its own terms. There are geological features like Bottomless Lakes, for example, which features a variety of water-filled sinkholes enveloped by red rocks. Even within the town itself, there’s a bright palette embedded in the soil or stretching across an evening sky if you’re willing to look for it. Indeed, one of the reasons I started painting abstract color blocks in the first place was to capture Roswell’s colors and counter anyone who argued that it was nothing but brown.

Artist Peter Hurd (1904-1984) understood Roswell’s distinct character. A Roswell native, he studied with illustrator NC Wyeth in the 1920s before returning to his home state to study and paint its beauty with an artist’s understanding. In paintings like The Gate and Beyond, he captures the stillness that characterizes this place while demonstrating its surprisingly colorful palette as rendered through pink soils and a turquoise sky. No wonder Roswellians love his work; through his paintings, he told residents that their town was worthy of aesthetic contemplation.

And the thing is, there are hilly regions around Roswell. San Patricio, where Hurd lived and worked as an adult, is located about 50 miles west of Roswell. Its landscape undulates as much as anything you’ll see in Las Vegas, and in the warm glow of the evening light, it’s just as spectacular. Yet it’s different from what you find up north, and anyone who has spent time in southeastern New Mexico would recognize that immediately if they watched the show. Having been fortunate enough to visit San Patricio on several occasions, it’s just a little frustrating to see it get elided with the Las Vegas landscape. Not that there’s anything wrong with Las Vegas, I’ve been there too and it is beautiful, but it’s not synonymous with southeastern New Mexico.

But I’m starting to sound curmudgeonly. After all, what people want in a show like Roswell, New Mexico is aliens, and that’s definitely the focus. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the show. If it makes you happy, by all means, watch it.

Image result for i'm not saying it was aliens but it was aliens

Just don’t assume that what you see on TV is the real Roswell. If you want to see that, go there and experience it for yourself. Also, don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t look like Santa Fe or Taos or any of the more famous communities in the northern part of the state. Instead, approach it on its own terms, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you see.

Thinking About Relevance

Most academics I know want their work to be relevant to today’s issue’s and concerns. After all, showing how your research sheds light on specific social or economic issues can make it easier to get your work published, to receive grants, and even just have an answer to the ever-aggravating but vital question, “who cares?” In short, showing how your work matters can help vindicate all the time and energy spent on researching what can at times be pretty obscure topics.

I’ve been thinking about relevance quite a bit in my own work recently. To be fair, I think the idea of arts accessibility is an important topic, so exploring that more deeply by considering how the WPA approached it is a worthwhile pursuit that we could stand to learn more from. But I’ve also been thinking about another topic pertaining to art centers, in light of some of the feedback I’ve been getting from the research I’ve shared so far.

Whenever I present, I usually focus on three facets of the Roswell Museum’s programming: exhibitions, classes, and special events. Of the three, one event gets the most attention, and that’s the staging of Los Pastores on December 27, 1938.

Los Pastores is a mystery play that was performed in Roswell beginning in at least the mid-19th century. Mystery plays are dramatizations of the Bible that first developed in medieval Europe, and likely followed Spanish colonists to the Americas. Mystery plays tend to take a lot of creativity with the stories they tell, with devils, angels, and other characters adding elements of comedy or drama to the narrative. While some have been written down, they were primarily an oral tradition, with each region developing its own interpretation.

Image result for mystery plays

Los Pastores is a comedic retelling of the Nativity from the viewpoint of the shepherds. Basically, they hear about the birth of Christ, devils try to intercept their journey, and shenanigans ensue. Eventually all ends well, with the shepherds arriving at the site and paying their respects to the Holy Family. In Roswell, Los Pastores was an oral tradition performed in Chihuahita, Roswell’s historic Hispanic district. Roland Dickey, director of the museum at the time, learned about the play during a visit to Chihuahita, and invited the all-male cast to give a special performance. They did, and it was very well-received, with about one hundred people attending. For comparison, 80-100 attendees at an exhibition opening today is considered good, so this was a high number, especially given that Roswell’s population was about 12,500 compared to today’s 48,000, give or take.

C:\Users\s.woodbury\Desktop\Los pastores 2.jpg
Tomas Sapiens and Gregorio Dominguez, 1939. Sapiens (left) was the director of the play, and was teaching it to his nephew, Dominguez.

This performance was important for a couple of reasons. One, it was the first time that the play was performed outside of Chihuahita, giving the rest of Roswell an opportunity to witness a unique cultural performance from one of its communities. Second, the play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it.

Let me repeat that. The play was performed in Spanish, and the audience enjoyed it. When was the last time you heard about Americans responding well to hearing Spanish?

One of the attendees at the “Presenting the Collective” conference I went to last month suggested that I explore this point more deeply in my future research. As has been noted in recent studies, Americans are particularly hostile to hearing languages other than English, especially Spanish. We’ve all seen videos where somebody shouts out “Speak English!” or “Go Back to Your Own Country!” or something to that effect whenever somebody speaks a language other than English.

What’s frustrating about this hostility is that the United States has always been a polyglot region. Texas was home to several German communities for instance, and of course, New York was always home to multiple ethnicities and languages. Some of the most seminal modern literature of the twentieth century plays with different languages and idioms, from Call It Sleep to All I Asking For Is My Body, and a lot of our colloquialisms stem from Yiddish and other languages, whether it’s kibbutz to demarcate gossip, or Italian’s pronto in lieu of ASAP. Some early Americans even advocated making Hebrew the official language of the United States rather than English, as part of an effort to make a linguistic as well as political break from Great Britain.

The western states, where Spanish is most often associated with foreignness, is particularly complicated, as Katherine Beton-Cohen explores in her book, Borderline Americans. Prior to the mid-19th century, territories such as New Mexico and Arizona were territories of first New Spain, then Mexico. The families who lived there had often been there for generations, much longer than the Anglo settlers who moved there in the wake of the Homestead Act. Yet despite their longevity, they are often associated with foreignness, with the Spanish language being associated with un-Americanness.

C:\Users\s.woodbury\Desktop\Los Pastores 3.jpg
The cast of Los Pastores.

This is what makes Los Pastores so important as performance. Like many southwestern communities, Roswell was polyethnic, with the Hispanic population primarily keeping to itself in Chihuahita. For the most part, the museum followed these social and racial boundaries by offering classes in different parts of town, with Hispanic students going to classes in Chihuahita, and white students going to other locations in Roswell. Yet for this one special performance, the Hispanic community shared Los Pastores, a part of their cultural heritage, with their Anglo neighbors. Not only that, they presented it in Spanish, just as they would for their own community. And the audience enjoyed it. Newspapers at the time all commented on the positive reception, and Roland Dickey remembered it as one of the most successful events ever staged at the museum.

I don’t know how this will play into my future research, but in an era marked by hostility toward the different I agree with the student who spoke to me. It’s important to show historic examples of tolerance, because it disspels misconceptions about America being monolithic or monolingual. Not only that, it offers an example of the fruitful exchanges that can happen when we’re tolerant, and how much richer life can be when we embrace and explore differences.