The Arts Voyager, 4-19: Happy Journey
Artifacts and artisans in Maryland; poet-artists in New Jersey; poets and artists in Pennsylvania
|Carole Huber's "Maquis in Province," with text by V. Beards, is on display through April 30 as part of "Poets and Artists" at the gallery of the Oxford Arts Alliance in Oxford, Pennsylvania, which on April 19 hosts an evening of poetry readings. Image courtesy Oxford Arts Alliance.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
PERRYVILLE, MD -- When the Metropolitan Museum is presenting a bunch of black sheets as art -- the culprit here is Richard Serra, who used 'paintsticks' if you want to get technical about it -- it's time for the art voyager to get out of town.The only downside of the 2.5 hour Amtrak trip from Penn Station to Aberdeen, Maryland is you have to pass through New Jersey. (I did my time, which gives me bashing rights.) So if one of your train treats is pouring a cup of hot thermos coffee to drink as the Sun rises over the landscape (and trust me, on Amtrak, you'll have to bring your own, as the local variety is more like coffee-flavored hot water), you'll have to wait 'til Princeton Junction, about an hour into the trip, for anything resembling scenery (it's not for nothing that the Martians of Orson Welles and Howard Koch's "War of the Worlds" picked nearby West Windsor to land; the farmlands provide good camouflage)(actually, Koch told me that Welles just threw a dart at a wall map), and even then you only have a half-hour window before you hit Trenton. (My return journey was at night, prompting me to realize that New Jersey may be the only route that looks better in the dark. Fittingly, Simon & Garfunkel were singing "My Little Town" on my Discman when we rolled into Trenton; "Nothing but the dead alive back in my little town.") When I went to school at Princeton (a few years after Thornton Wilder, who inspired the headline above), we had fun telling visitors that from Princeton Junction, they had to "take the Dinky to the Wawa," the Dinky being the tiny shuttle train that takes travelers from the Junction to the town/campus, where it stops near the Wawa grocery. When the university announced plans last year to tear down the Wawa and replace the Dinky with buses to make way for an expanded arts center where the train depot was, a Save the Dinky campaign drew more than 7,000 followers (nj.com reported), and the university had to back down. (Art Voyagers interested in Kurt Schwitters might want to descend Amtrak, or NJ Transit, at Princeton Junction and... take the Dinky to the Dada... to check "Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage," the major exhibition of the Dada-ish artist running at the Princeton Art Museum through June 26.)
Perryville, the small town near Aberdeen situated on the mighty Susquehanna where it opens out onto the Chesapeake, used to be a railroad town until the highway killed the railway, at least as far as a local station stop goes. (One difference between the U.S. and France, where I lived for nine years including three in the southwest hamlet of Les Eyzies, home to the oldest cave paintings still open for viewing in France and the first cro-mag discoveries, is that trains still stop at many small villages.) Overlooking the river in Perryville, its Rodgers Tavern, named after Colonel John Rodgers, who raised the 5th Company of the Maryland Militia during the Revolutionary War, was a regular stop for General George Washington. And for those who might be nostalgic for the bombs bursting in the air, the military proving grounds in Aberdeen provide a regular echo of that glorious past. ("And here I thought that was hunters," I told my hosts.)
My friends live in a 250+ year-old house where Lafayette actually did sleep, from which one can see the river. I got to eat freshly laid eggs for breakfast every morning, as well as the invigoration of work around the garden and yard, carrying wood, tossing branches which had been blown off during a recent storm over the ravine across the road, and walking the dog, usually down the road to the public boat launch. (Also keeping me company was a cat with a temporarily gammy leg, who endearingly took to following me around on her three good ones. We also discovered the skull of one of her ancestors on the terrain.) One bright morning I ran into a woman who had lived in Perryville back in the day before moving to Baltimore, a black woman with a languorous southern drawl, who had returned to show her husband a bit of her past. "The dock here used to be more ramshackle," she told me, "and one could fish all along it." "For what?" I asked. "Perch mostly." The woman also gave me a scoop. "There's a new fresh fish market opening in Port Deposit." But these days, all is not easy for fishermen; a bulletin board at the launching dock also carried a warning about the zebra mussels which have invaded the Susquehanna and Chesapeake, and which, among other things, can latch on to boat bottoms and gum up engines.
My favorite walk with the dog became the cornfields above my friends' house, populated this time of the year by mud-encrusted husks. The last time I'd been here, 13 years ago, my friends had been worried because the man who owned the land had died, and they fretted that his son might sell it to developers for the spectacular view over the river, but he hung on to the acreage and leases it to farmers. Indian arrowheads have been unearthed there.
I would have been content just to hang around in this setting, watching the sun set over the Susquehanna from an old metal rocking chair or wooden porch swing, but was glad that my friends decided to show me about. On Saturday, we took some extra dog food she had over to the home of an artist neighbor, who eventually coaxed her shy dog out to greet us, whereupon we hiked up to a sort of range where she keeps a cornucopia of artifacts (some might call it junk, others cultural detritus; for me they're artifacts: Old signs, records, cans and bottles with colorful evocative packaging). Three refrigerators are reserved for the clay she makes out of local soil for her pottery; talk about organic! The range is also home to about 21 cats, who had a field day with the dog. I also scored; on our way out, the artist gave my friend a bag full of food products which she only wanted for their containers; the only requirement was that we return them to her when they were emptied. I scored lemon-herb and garlic-herb containers of Old Bay seasoning, a local favorite of mine, so much so that I even once made a colleague from Washington bring a can all the way to Paris for me. The woman also gave me the card for the Poets & Artists exhibition you see reproduced here being held at the Oxford Arts Alliance's gallery in nearby Oxford, Pennsylvania, where there's a poetry reading tonight at 7 p.m.
After this my friend took me to Kilby Cream outside of Rising Sun (yet another small town where shops are shuttering; even the head shop is no more. The town's mayor was indicted last year, the Cecil Whig reported -- don't you love a county where even the Whigs are still kept alive? -- for alleged felony theft by scheme and embezzlement, charges she denies.), where they make their own ice cream from their own cows. The scoops of apple pie ice cream served up by a thin young woman in the midst of reading Eliot's "Middlemarch" -- or maybe it was "Silas Marner" -- did, indeed, taste like the kind of ice cream you make yourself with an ice cream maker. We walked over to say hi to the black and white cows, sloshing about in a lot of mud behind a fence. My friends clearly have a nose for ferreting out fresh farm-raised food in these parts; later I got to sample the best sausage and hamburger meat I've ever had, and which they'd bought from another local producer trying to make a go of it selling meat. "I think it's important to support the local producers," my friend told me.
That night, my hosts took me to another genuine colonial house or rather, mansion, perched at the edge of the Susquehanna State Park, and whose original builder was major colonial gentry. The current owner took me on a tour of the various floors, explaining what was original and what had been added; I most liked the small doorways, the curved-in stairs, the overall smell of aged wood, an enclosed porch which seemed to hover over the embankment, and a modern embellishment: the current occupants had lit each room with different-colored Christmas lights.
|Kurt Schwitters's 1922
"Mz 371 bacco [Mz 371 bacco]." Collage of cut and torn printed, handwritten, tissue, and coated papers on paperboard. Sheet: 11; Image: 6-1/4 x Sheet: 7-1/2; Image: 4-7/8 inches. The Menil Collection, Houston.
Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Copyright 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, and courtesy Princeton University Art Museum.
When I attended Princeton, I wrote a story for the New Brunswick Home News about the Princeton Cemetery, final resting place for the likes of Grover Cleveland, Jonathan Edwards, Paul Tulane (whose giant statue on a horse is turned away from the university, apparently because it refused to name itself after himself) and Aaron Burr. (I even talked to the president of the -- apparently non-direct -- Descendants of Aaron Burr, one Samuel Burr, who insisted that Burr had gotten a bum rap; that Alexander Hamilton!) If there's a theme to this travelogue, it's that coming back to this country from France, where history is publicly preserved in every village and town, usually in an 'old section' of town, I am relieved and re-assured that it is still prized and can still be found, and in living condition, here -- not just in relics like arrow-heads and preserved inns, but in people living in colonial houses and caring enough about their history to know it and regal visitors with it thoroughly, and in artists who re-envision the artifacts and artisanal food producers who take the economic risk to keep alive that way of life of our ancestors, even in hard times where the odds and the malls are against them.
Among the books at my friends' house where Lafayette slept are a row of century or so old tomes by Mark Twain, a complete collection, in only slightly faded green binding. I could sense Mr. Clemens aching to jump out of those books so he could do a much better job of chronicling what his poorer servant has attempted to do here. He might need a car instead of a horse and buggy as the train doesn't stop in Perryville anymore, but he'd still find enough grist and even a bit of grit for at least one more tome.