Last summer I dipped my feet in the cool refreshing waters of adventure. I traveled south, with safety points and visits with friends plotted along the way. This summer, I have jumped off the high dive! I have embarked on a solo trip cross country and I highly recommend it for everyone! I am a New Yorker. Raised by New Yorkers. We like our delis. Our hard rolls. Our bagels with a little schmear. OK I like it with a little schmear, just a little, because I like to taste the bagel, and otherwise all that schmear, makes me light headed, and lead bellied from that slightly chemical, metallic wrapped, cream cheese schmeary taste.
I was admittedly afraid to go south last summer. I have seen movies and read books, Deliverance, Sling Blade, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bastard out of Carolina, The Prince of Tides, well OK that one is a bit closer to home……You get the message. Right? I did. Darkness lurking in every small-minded, ethno-centric, bible-bumping, right wing, Christian zealot corner of every southern town and city. I cannot begin to tell you how much I loved that trip, the south, the culture, the people, I did however stay out of the backwoods, and mostly hugged the coast. From Washington DC to Savannah, Georgia, Tallahassee, Florida through Perdido Keys, Florida, Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans, Louisiana, I loved the south!
I am a New Yorker, we like the coast. We are slightly afraid of going in-land. There are not many subways beyond, say Brooklyn, or Queens. And there is that train route to New Jersey and Hoboken, but feh, now you are talking state lines, and it’s almost like crossing borders and what not. Many of us, of a certain age, have ethnic ties to immigrants, we may believe that one day, if some need occurs, we may need to go back to our homelands, and we will not want to rough the plains and prairies, of the Midwest to get there. We will stay closely rooted to the coast in case we need to make an exodus to our mother countries, the home land, or our great-great-great grand mother countries for that matter.
The trip last summer primed me, and I have started my journey west. Following a Fast and Furious jaunt through a few states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, I landed in Chicago. I sweated over this stop. My first stop a city? I want to broaden my horizons, not keep them familiar and safe, I work and worry and discuss, but plan loosely. I am venturing off independently, so I must carry a great load of angst and a little cooler full of despair, amidst the art supplies, the backpack and camping gear, the thumping, rousing, thrill-seeking, warrior that is me, and the multitude of cameras and gear in my solo wagon train better known as the black Corolla.
So, for the record? Chicago, it turns out, is nothing like New York except for the tall buildings, wait, I mean the fact that they each have buildings that are tall. Remember, fellow history buffs, and everyone else, wipe off your 5th grade History of the United States acumen. Mrs. O’Leary, the damn cow, the lantern…Chicago had the, twist of the word, shine of the light, fabulous opportunity to rebuild, Phoenix from the ashes, and it is an rchitectural delight of style and design and wonder. Yes, it’s true I took the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. Magnificent.
I was fortunate enough to contact a friend of a friend living in Chicago prior to getting into the city. I called the friend of the friend with reluctance and obligation. Friend insisted. Maybe I would stay at their home? I would never impose. I am after-all a New Yorker. My father, would barely feel comfortable staying with his own siblings as they all grew older. We don’t like to “put people out.” I am starting to learn, us New Yorkers of a certain age and ilk, aren’t so concerned about putting anyone out, we are more frightened of the luncheon meats in place of the cold cuts, and why can’t anyone else make a good slice of pizza? I know, in Chicago this is blasphemy, it is like speaking of the Yankees in Boston without a loaded weapon or an escape route. I contacted said friend of friend, and it turns out I would have spent a week in her care and taken every spectacular gem she offered of things to do and see from her hands. Somehow or other we started talking about my journey post Chicago and she mentioned outsider art, in passing. Huh? What? Cow-a-Bunga and Bongo Bongo!! Did she just not just say outsider art tour? I am overjoyed, and happy, and I can’t pretend to keep my no eye contact, don’t let the neighbors know your serial number, your place of origin, how you vote or what you ate for dinner poise. Why do we hang all our dirty laundry on the lines, and scream and fight in our paper thin walk-ups if we are such secret-keepers? Anyway, I am all beamy excited at the mention of outsider art. She promises to send me a link or two, I am thankful and I say good bye.
Somewhere around Gary, Indiana, the orange glow of the toxic sky, darkens and the rains fall, heavily from the heavens. I stop quickly for gas and throw my phone in the pocketbook, yes New Yorkese, it’s like a purse, only, well, yeah it’s a purse, or a handbag, and I travel on. When I arrive, 30 minutes north of Chicago, in a Hotwire bargain mystery hotel, that seems a bit closer to the city than it is. I am looking forward to sleep and the next days adventure. I missed the message from friend of friend of the spouse variety, who I enjoyed charming and open conversation with a couple of months earlier, in the safe hamlet on the river with a train line ready in a heartbeat for quick and timely escapes, in New York. He leaves a message, inviting me to stay with them, and jokes about the depressive impact this faraway suburb will have should I refuse. I appreciate the humor, the invite, but without a frame of reference for how faraway I am, the inviting hotel suite quickly comforts me into sleep.
I start my first day in Chicago on a photography quest to find a small piece of myself in the outlying ethnic neighborhoods and I am not let down. I feel “home” here. The buildings, and homes, and churches are familiar. That sense of community and shared communal struggle with making ends meet, getting ahead, providing for family, is evident throughout. The great American dream is alive and well in these urban immigrant enclaves and it fills me with calm to witness as an “outsider” with the inside scoop. The knowledge of simple beginnings and immigrant struggles to provide a better life for your children and your children’s children is deeply engrained in my heart and soul.
Next I make it to Millennium Park and get up close to the steel and silver shine emanating from the sculpted masses that were created from the hearts and hands of Frank Gehry and Anish Kapoor. There is whimsy and light heartedness and a calling out for interaction and connection. You cannot get close to these two diverse sculptures without entering into a relationship with each artist. I think back to a comment made by a friend just a few days earlier. “Touching the hand of God…” I have a new perspective of this quote, the idea, I think of the artwork of Michelangelo, the great artists, through the ages. Connections larger than life. The electricity is everywhere here in Chicago. And of course it is where electricity was first showcased to the masses at the 1893 World’s Fair. Surely that spark is from coming into contact with something so much larger than ourselves, even larger than Frank Gehry, or Frank Lloyd Wright, or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies, known as one of the pioneering masters of modern architecture, surely was on to something when he said, “God is in the details.” The details of Chicago cannot be captured in a small personal essay.
A visit to the Art Museum makes me tingly with joy. This does not happen frequently. Or ever, well maybe on some occasions.... I am walking around this city with the biggest goofiest smile. All day. Like some simpleton. Honestly. If anyone from New York saw me, I would be banished from the borders. Surely I look like I just had a big piece of clown pie and what is the joke? I am elated. And it doesn’t end. By the time I am finished tripping over the joy and brightness of the city, and finally safely on the River Tour, I call friend of friend thanking her for the links and the advice. She recommended seeing the exhibit, Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago. I can’t say enough about this show. The size and scope, stellar! There is an unfinished piece with two panels, one that reaches close to the heavens or so it seems, by Monet, and costumes throughout. Suddenly I am transformed to Paris in the late 1800s, pure magic! And even as I stumble through the crowds, giddy with joy, I can barely get close to some of the art. I buy the book, to have this collection, and can't wait to look deeply at the works, and the history. It is truly amazing and even more so because I have been immersed in research regarding a Russian mystic and her salon on the Rue Saint Dominique at this precise time. I am enthralled with the serendipitous nature of this exhibit and I half expect to see the name of Madame Swetchine, appear in the descriptions.
As I am thanking friend of friend, I ask for a dinner recommendation, she offers two. One is for a Blues restaurant in Marina City, known as the the corn cob buildings, or that's how they were described to me, and well, absolutely! The corn cob buildings!. She explains the lobby is filled with outsider art and it might be a great place to start. As I approach, I notice it is The House of Blues, and I am slightly discouraged, as I think of this as a chain, like going to The Hard Rock Café, or maybe even Applebees…silly, foolish me. I walk in and want to start screaming like a love sick Paul McCartney fan circa 1967 or so…but that’s ahem, well before my time…The lobby doesn’t just have outsider art. It is some crazy, wild, earlier unknown at least to me, mecca. A shrine! Hanging on these hallowed walls is the art, a massive collection of originals from MoseT, Annie Tolliver, Dr. Imagination and so on and so forth. I am not a screamer, squealer, look at me in public type a gal. I am able to maintain my NYC stance somewhere, thank you very much. But it will take several states and a whole lot of trouble to wipe this grin off my face soon. And oh, by the way…troubles?….I got the Blues CD collection to carry me right on through to the other side of any troubles….
Southern outsider, self-taught artists…..you cannot but see the hand of some god or another at work here. It is truly spiritual, and electrically charged. And I have that dumb-founded smile to prove it.