Road Trip: Puppets and Fine Art in Storrs, CT


Did you know that the University of Connecticut is the only place in the nation where you can get a masters degree in puppetry? Neither did I. If you’re in the vicinity and are looking for a quirky side trip, drop into the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. It won’t take long, as the museum is just two rooms with a connecting corridor.

The lobby fronts the room that holds the permanent collection, a Puppetry 101 survey. There you will find everything from Balinese shadow puppets to Howdy Doody, Jiminy Cricket, Lamb Chop, Pinocchio, and classic Punch and Judy figures. You will also find works from famous designer/puppeteers such as Frank Oz, Bill Baird,  Buffalo Bob Smith and, of course, Jim Henson. I found the historical and international puppets more intriguing, but Henson’s works are great fun for the insight they shed on the spells a great puppeteer can cast. When you actually see iconic figures such as Kermit the Frog, Fonzie, or Grover, you notice right away that there’s not much to them aside from some fleece, flannel, and buttons. Puppets are an art form, but the real artistry lies with the performances that transform humble materials into characters that magically become “real.” 

The rest of the Ballard is devoted to changing exhibitions. I saw a display of works from the Puppeteers Collective that were mostly agitprop figures in the traditions of the San Francisco Mime Theater and Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater. The Ballard is located at 1 Royce Circle in “downtown” Storrs. There’s not a lot to the town of Storrs, but you will certainly notice its central core of shops, cafes, and tidy apartment blocks. Most of the businesses cater to students, so the area is as dead as a marionette with broken strings when UConn is on break, but you’ll have no trouble finding a quick bite to eat or a decent cup of coffee.


If you can extend your visit, the campus is just across the street from the Ballard. If you venture up past the pond and fountain, you’ll come to signs directing you to the university’s William Benton Museum of Art (245 Glenbrook Road #2140). It won’t overwhelm you with masterpieces, and that’s a good thing as it affords opportunities to discover artists you might otherwise breeze by on your way to view works you’ve been conditioned to think you must view to boost your cultural capital. I was quite taken by works from Ellen Emmet Rand (1875-1941), who was one of the few female artists of her day to cop major donor work from the rich and powerful. Most of her work, though, has a way of capturing the inner essence of her subjects—many of them women. 


Other personal discoveries included Ministry of Salvation, a sculpture from Alex McFarlane that is a wry but poignant commentary on the link between religion and power; Barbara Takenaga’s patterned abstractions painted directly onto rose petals; and Lien Truong’s “Family Sitting #2,” which invites speculation on the nature of the nuclear family. There was also a nice (and perhaps sexualized) work from Judy Chicago, a visit to the gaudy world of Coney Island from Reginald Marsh, and “Portrait of the Poet Jan Vos” from second-tier 17th century painter Jan De Bray. I was educated by taking in a harbor scene from Dwight Tryon; he used to teach at Smith and has a gallery named for him, but I don’t recall actually having seen his work before.

Storrs seldom shows up as a daytrip for anyone not attending a basketball game, but you can easily wile away the morning there. That will leave plenty of time to get to Hartford to do what you may.

 Rob Weir


Local Art and Local Food at Art in the Orchard


Art in the Orchard
Through November 26, 2017
Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road
Easthampton, MA

Kermit the Frog wasn't talking about farming when he said, "It's not easy being green," but he could have been. Maybe a 127 acres sounds like a lot to you, but imagine how many peaches, raspberries, and apples you'd need to sell to compete with corporate giants like Dole, Kraft, or Smucker's. We can wax nostalgic about family farms, but these days it's Goliath against David with a busted slingshot. If you want to survive, you'd better be creative about it. Perhaps art and apples sounds like one hungry man sharing one sandwich yet against all odds, it seems to work.

Each summer and fall, Alane Hartley and Russell Braen, owners of Easthampton's Park Hill Orchard transform part of their farm into an outdoor sculpture garden—mostly for local and regional artists. Much of what is on display for 2017 is quirky, some of it is a better concept than finished piece, and a lot is magical. All of it is a great excuse to buy fresh, non-commercial fruit, stroll amidst beautiful fields in the shadow of Mt. Tom, and converse with friends—the more the merrier. Here are a few of my favorites.

I'm often impressed by junk metal parts assemblages, though I seldom "like" them in the sense of thinking they are great art. But Wade Clement's Superweed really works because it is well situated. It springs from a pumpkin field like some sort of mad science project and it's hard not to think about the chemical crap Monsanto and its ilk pump into the food chain to induce largeness without wholesomeness.

Bob Turan imagines post-industrialism in his Geode Time Capsule. It put me in mind of a larger version of religious work from the Middle Ages in which pious artists meticulously carved scenes inside of nuts or small balls of ivory.

One of the strongest works is Through the Looking Glass by Eileen Jager. It's simple in concept—paneled mirrors and glass strung between two points—but the wind and light constantly change our perspective. Sometimes we peer through, sometimes we see refracted images, and often part of our vision is simultaneously crystal clear and distorted. The lesson of this is obvious, but poignant.

Michael Melle has gained well-deserved praise for his burlap, wood, straw, and wire figures. Some might have encountered his outdoor tableaux of figures from the paintings of Camille Pissarro that accompanied a 2011 retrospective of Pissarro's work at the Clark Institute of Art, or as installations at the Three Sisters Sanctuary in Ashfield. Easthampton has his powerful Refugees—a family fleeing with its meager possessions toward an uncertain destination. It could be any group at any time, though it certainly evokes various Irish Famine sculptures throughout North America.

It's not my favorite work overall, but I liked bits of Sheena: At the Fight Over the Last Fish by Mark Fenwick. It's based on a graphic novel, but I was most drawn to Sheena's face and its ice-blue eyes, all framed by a wreath of red flowers and a shell necklace.

Kudos to the youngsters from the Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield for understanding the idea of "organic" art better than anyone else. Their Bumble Bee/Barn is a bunch of boxes attached to posts at various angles and filled with bamboo and wooden tubes suggestive of birdhouses and beehives. They are painted in lavender and set perfectly by a field of wildflowers alive with honeybees, butterflies, and birds hard by a working beehive. 

Slim is a holdover from last year and Michael Tillyear's wacky band is a whimsical delight. Were it not for Grommit, Tillyear's wooden pooch would be a serious candidate for the cutest canine in art award.

The hillside nearest the fruit stand is alive with wire, glass, and steel outlines of Our Tribe, Michael Poole's reflection on the various types of people who make up a community.

Chris Woodman has produced the most imposing (in a good way) piece in this year's art crop. His A2 soars into the heavens with such might that, on a sunny day, it rivals the blue skies and clouds in majesty. It's a riveted steel piece that invokes ship figureheads and the art deco ornamentation of streamlined trains and 1940s automobile hood ornaments.

I'm a sucker for masks and faces and Beckie Kravetz has been a mask maker. Her Reunion is a grouping of freestanding faces fashioned from clay that look like a jocular Easter Island update.

I can also tell you that this year's peaches are works of art and that the slushies are reliably good. Local food, local art—what's not to like?

Rob Weir



Bad Ideas: September Edition


Why is lunacy so rampant? Here's another installment of head-scratching stuff.

And a sleeping driver accomplishes both.
1. Topping the list is the Trump administration's decision to cancel an Obama executive order that would require periodic sleep apnea testing for people involved in mass transit and long-distance trucking. The same rule would apply to pilots and railways engineers. Call me crazy, but somehow or other it seems like a good idea to make sure that the person behind the wheel of a loaded 70,000 pound truck isn't likely to fall asleep at the wheel. This shouldn't be a political issue—it's just commonsense. That's the position taken by the National Transportation Safety Board, the folks whose recommendation Obama took. But not Trump.

Such reflexive aversion to all regulations is bereft of logic, morally bankrupt, and dangerous. I expect no less from the Snollygoster in Chief, but are there any other adults in the room? Apparently not in the American Trucking Association, which lobbied hard to have Obama's order reversed despite the fact that one in eight fatal accidents involves a long-distance truck. The ATA is the last group that ought to oppose this—unless it simply sees drivers as single servings of meat. Somehow I don't foresee a lot of sympathy coming their way in the very immediate future when self-driving vehicles and investment in light rail decimates trucking as we know it.

Not on this planet!
2. A close runner-up was the decision of K A Design to market the New Swastika shirt. The 5-watt light bulb went off somewhere in the firm that made it think it could reclaim the swastika's ancient Sanskrit meaning of good luck and prosperity. While it's true that the symbol has appeared in many cultures, including ancient Babylonia, India, and early Christianity, can we just say that the ship has sailed on how just about everybody in the world who doesn't work for K A Design perceives it now? I wonder if the firm will even survive this harebrained scheme. Whether or not it's true, it really looks like a backdoor effort to legitimize fascist genocide.

Can you find sexism with Google glasss?
3. There have been mishandled rumblings inside Google and Facebook . Google stumbled in firing the author of a long internal sexist memo that justified the testosterone-fueled culture of Google. I'm not defending the little oinker who wrote it, but there are two PR problems here. First, it was not supposed to be a public document, so there's a bigger security problem inside HQ. The bigger issue, though, is that it's one of the worst kept secrets in the world that Google has a severe gender problem. Unless a comprehensive program to redress sexism inside Google swiftly accompanies this firing, it will smack of tokenism and add fuel to smoldering resentments about to flame.

That's the official story!
It comes as little shock to hear charges that Mark Zuckerberg stands accused of manipulating algorithms that push conservative content to the top of Facebook postings. Some think he's positioning himself for a run for something, though he's just 33, and would just meet the constitutional age threshold in 2020. Besides, most indications suggest he's prone to libertarianism of  its more paranoid permutation. If the allegations are in any way true, his decision is a weird one. If any company's business plan is dependent upon not pissing off people, it's Facebook's. It allegedly has two billion subscribers and I'm pretty sure not all of them are conservative or libertarian. Put another way, angering FB users might actually create a real challenge to its dominance. At present Google+ and upstarts like Diaspora and Ello are mere pretenders, but that reckless disregard for users could change that. These days people are quite testy when it comes to politics.

And therein lies a tale.
4. This is not a defense of the Teamsters per se, but if you've followed the Top Chef trial in which union leaders are accused of trying to extort jobs from the show's producers by harassing some of its personalities, you've got to wonder why the TV crew thought it could go into a union town like Boston without negotiating with the pro-labor mayor, the Teamsters, or other organized bodies. It concerns me that rough language is now lawsuit material. Again, this isn't a defense of violence or for-real threats, but I worry we've lost our ability to distinguish between anger and actual threats It's basic: If you hone in on people's livelihood, they are going to take offense. I've been on a few picket lines, and I know that tempers rise. Lots of "we oughta" scenarios arise—almost none of which are more than blowing off steam.

A jury decided the case in favor of the Teamsters, though a civil suit remains. However it comes out in the end, I think it's time that we realize that bullying and unpleasantness are what happens in a society in which organized labor doesn't have many other resources at its command. We have stripped away the very idea of countervailing forces and have given moneyed interests the upper hand. That's a bad idea.


Love and Other Consolation Prizes: Sweet and Likable


By Jamie Ford
Ballantine, 330 pages.

A novel about forced emigration, a harrowing escape from death, youngsters being sold in raffles, growing up in a whorehouse, the effects neurosyphilis, and spending one's adult years trying to mask the past doesn't generally lend itself to adjectives such as "sweet" and "charming," but this one does. Those familiar with Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, know that he can tackle bleak subjects with a light hand—too light for those who see his work as analogous to an overly sunny Ken Burns film—but with enough aplomb to make his books engaging reads for my tastes.

Ford opens his novel in China in 1902, a decidedly non-propitious year. It is just twelve months after the collapse of the Boxer rebellion, millions are addicted to drugs, foreigners are picking the corpse of the decaying Qing Dynasty, and rural Chinese face hunger and starvation. Such horrors would have been the fate of Yung Kun-ai, had not his mother sold him to a shipping company bound for North America. Yung, who is about five-years-old and has been told the ship is owned by his "uncle," is crowded into the fetid hold of a rusty ship with dozens of others—the girls earmarked for brothels and the boys for picking cane in Hawaii, mainland servitude, or being dumped in the ocean if approached by maritime inspectors. As if Yung doesn't have enough problems, he is a "half-breed" pariah because his father was Caucasian. He too would have drowned, had he not used his mother's hairpin—his only link to his birthplace—to cut his way from the bundle to which he was hastily tied and tossed overboard.

Yung is plucked from the waters of Seattle harbor and, after a few more misadventures, is taken in by Mrs. Irvine, a moral crusader and patron of both a children's home and a Christian academy. As Ernest Young*, he spends seven years with Irvine, before parting company with her. As her final "gift" to Ernest, she takes him the world's fair, the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific (AYP) Exposition, where he is raffled off to the highest bidder. Yes—you read that right; children were raffled at the AYP. Ernest's new patron is Florence Nettleton, known professionally as Madame Flora, and her profession is the world's oldest. Hijinks, heartbreak, an eye-opening education, love, and other consolations are about to come Ernest's way in Seattle's Tenderloin district, where Flora runs her high-class house of ill repute.

The novel jumps back and forth in time bound by the AYP at one end, and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition that gave Seattle its iconic Space Needle and monorail system at the other. We meet Ernest as a boy and teen in the early 20th century, surrounded by the painted ladies of the Tenderloin, the colorful household staff, and his special friends Maisie (Flora's daughter) and Fahn—on both of whom he holds serious crushes. These parts of the book are essentially a coming of age story, albeit a very unorthodox one. In 1962 we encounter an aging Ernest, a married man whose wife has dementia-like symptoms. He passes his days caring for his wife, hanging out with Pascual, his Filipino best friend, and visiting with his daughters: Juju, a journalist, and Hanny, a flirty showgirl. Juju is slugging it out in the old boy's press room and the 1962 world's fair provides her with a good excuse to write the story of turn-of-the-century Chinese immigration to Seattle. Her parents would make excellent subjects, except her mother's memory is unreliable and Ernest's tongue isn't flapping.

Ford plots his story well and this novel moves at such a crisp pace that it seems much shorter than it is. It is fair comment to say that overall Love and Other Consolation Prizes is closer to pulp fiction than to that elusive (and often over exalted) category called "literature." The action, details, and relationships of Ernest's AYP years are far more interesting than the parts of the book set in 1962—and not just because coming of age tales tend to be more satisfying than leaving the stage narratives. Although we are left to piece together what happened in the intervening fifty years of Ernest's life, Ford's book could benefit from a sprinkling of red herrings as it's too easy to predict the book's overall arc. This makes certain resolutions feel more convenient than convincing. In addition, Ford captures the "feel" of the early 1900s better than he does mid-century. Juju, in particular, seems too modern for 1962. All of this aside, young Ernest, his circle, and his world are so winning that one can take, if I might, consolation in them when future thrills wear thin.

Rob Weir 

* Ford, whose father and grandfather were of Chinese descent, interjects a biographical parallel in the Anglicization of Yung Kun-ai. By all rights, the author should bear a Chinese surname, but his paternal grandfather changed his family's last name to Ford for mysterious reasons.


Julieta is Almodovar's Best in Many a Moon

JULIETA (2016)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Warner Brothers (Spain), 96 minutes, R (nudity and sex)
In Spanish with subtitles

After a long string of regrettable cinema experiences, I gave up on Pedro Almodóvar. For me, he had become the Spanish Woody Allen—a self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual constantly recycling shopworn ideas and trying to hide his lack of creativity behind a screen of pretentious dialogue the likes of which no earthly person actually utters. When a trustworthy soul told me that Julieta was different, I relented and I'm glad I did. This is the best thing Almodóvar has done since Talk to Her (2002). Julieta is everything Almodóvar has been lacking. It is focused, tightly structured, and humane. In fact, it's that rarest of films: one about tragedy that is simultaneously sweet, hopeful, and biting.

Almodóvar skillfully weaves three Alice Munro short stories to cover approximately thirty years in the life of Julieta Arcos. We first meet her older self as she is on the verge (pun intended!) of the downward slide away from middle age, but toward a new adventure. She is about to leave Madrid and relocate to Portugal with her attentive and sensitive long-time partner Lorenzo Gentile (Darío Grandinetti). A chance encounter with Beatriz, a young woman who was her daughter Antia's childhood friend, opens a sealed off chapter of Julieta's past.  Beatriz bears the news that she briefly saw Antia in Switzerland, which sends Julieta down a rabbit hole of depression, regret, and deep hurt as her daughter left home at 18 and severed all contact with her mother. Julieta impulsively rejects Lorenzo and moves back to an apartment building where she and Antia once lived. There she composes a confessional journal, but to whom? She has no way of contacting her daughter.

Almodóvar has never been a fan of linear filmmaking, but this time he connects flashbacks with the present so expertly that we easily connect the tragic dots that led to mother/daughter estrangement. A train journey and two chance encounters touch off the butterfly effect. Or perhaps I should say the ruminant effect, as a magnificent stag charging across a snowy trackside field symbolizes determination and desire, but also reckless passion. The human encounters tie Julieta's future to Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman with a comatose wife and animal magnetism; his Bride of Frankenstein-like housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma); and a free-spirited sculptress, Ana (Imma Castro). Each will play a role in the mother-daughter drama.

Passions of all sorts are unleashed in this film: libidinal, intellectual, artistic, maternal, spiritual…. They play out against various tragic backdrops, including drowning, disease, infidelity, guilt, and unspoken resentments. As you might surmise, the latter two are, in their own way, more deadly than mortality itself.

Almodóvar cast exceptionally well in choosing Adriane Ugarte as Julieta in her young adult years and Emma Suárez as her older self. Ugarte is breathtakingly beautiful, but Suárez is so much like her facially and physically that we can easily imagine Ugarte thirty years hence as a still-attractive woman whose innocence has been tempered by sophistication and experience. Grandinetti also strikes all the right chords as an urbane gentleman torn between lingering and moving on. All of the secondary characters contribute convincing performances.

It is worth paying attention to many things that could easily be overlooked amidst the emotional pulls of the film. There is a lot of foreshadowing and repetition that marshal Munro's three stories into a circular structure, but also visual details that reel us in, such as the use of bold patterns, the stark jolt of contrasting colors, and the use of art as both texture and prefiguration. Plus, few rival Almodóvar when it comes to etching the film's arc upon the human face. Days later you could be shown a dozen random stills from the film and extrapolate the script from the characters' expressions. Though the movie is just an hour and a half long, its emotional scale feels epic.

Those who like Almodóvar's more loosely structured films have been lukewarm about Julieta, but I feel the opposite. With Julieta, Almodóvar wins a reprieve from my no-view ban. It would, however, take a miracle for Woody Allen to win a pardon.

Rob Weir  



World Music Releases: Neotolia, Janka Nabay, Nie Project, Rakkatak

Jazz can be too complex for its own good and come off more as a personal pursuit than something for mass consumption. But when it’s good, it’s transportive. Turkish-born/Boston-based vocalist Nazan Nihal and pianist Utar Artun are amazing in their own right, and when they join forces with world musicians from places such as China, Iraq, Finland, the USA, and the Near East, they are spectacular. Neotolian Song mixes Turkish song, originals, and jazz in an ethereal West-meets-East brew of everything from piano, cello, violin, guitar, and drums to Chinese flute and erhu (two-stringed fiddle) to Turkish ney (flute), oud (mandolin-like lute) and qunun (zither). Nihal’s vocal range is so wide that on the title track her high notes approach the pain threshold. By contrast, “Manastir T” is as delicate as a glass figurine, and her take on an ancient melody in “Lydianic” is bird-like. Thoughtful arrangements abound. The strings in “G + El Kuruttum” cry out like a muezzin over Artun’s rain-like piano notes. “Pendulum” swings like its namesake, with dancing vocals, pulsing instruments, and big cascades of piano; “Rondo Afro Turca” mixes vocal thrums and scat with a tune reminiscent of breezy Latin jazz; and “Degmen Benim” scurries with the suggestiveness of a tune chasing itself. This is a triumphant release. ★★★★★
@nazannihal #utarartun

Do you want to dance? Ahmed Janka Nabay fled the civil wars of Sierra Leone and now lives in the United States, but he’s still the foremost modernizer of Bubu music, which began life as ritual witchcraft music for the Temne peoples, but now beguiles in a different way; it’s played during Ramadan! Nabay takes it to the party on Build Music. Although songs like “Sabonay 2016” bear serious messages such as women’s empowerment and peace, the instrumentation would be more at home in a discotheque. Traditional Bubu melodies use bamboo flutes and blown metal pipes, but Nabay’s band mostly uses Casio keyboards. In fact, most of the album consists of three or four repeated notes that sound as if they could have been made on a child’s melodic. Add consistent beats and Nabay’s voice, which is at turns growly, polished, or winsomely sexy and is backed by a female chorus. “Santa Monica” is another that touches on weighty matters—his harassment by local police—but has a sunny feel. Most of the album is even lighter—“Bubu Dub” with its repeated lines “My baby loves to dance/she likes to sing… all she does is jump and dance;” or the Caribbean-like “Stop Jealous” with decidedly non-poetic lyrics such as: “Oh my baby, I really love you… Baby I love you… I love… My baby I love you.” Okay, so don’t look for a Nobel literature prize, but if you want to sweat and shake, this one will answer. ★★★

The world needs more folks like the dozen musicians in The Nile Project. Their new album Jinja is a follow-up to 2013’s Aswan and like it, seeks to unite and educate peoples who live in the eleven nations along the 4,258-mile-long Nile. The group brings together musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda, sings in six languages, harmonizes voices, and blends various lyres, harps, flutes, and guitar styles. The sound is, at heart polyrhythmic and the percussion a complex marvel. That such things happen amidst songs that at first listen seem simple is testament to the musicianship. The harp on “Mulungi Munange” is so light that it evokes a balalaika, but suddenly electric instruments intrude with a big bump and female ensemble singing powers a piece in which the percussionists pound through, across, and into the melody. Later a male voice is added, but it’s like a knife slicing into the mix. The result is edgy, filled with nervous energy, and pop-like in feel without being like any pop you’ve ever heard. All sorts of modes emerge: the North Africa ambience of “Allah Bagy” with its trance-like and praiseful lyricism; the improv horns of “Tenseo” with a dramatic male voice that would be operatic were it not for its microtonal slides; the kora/saxophone/guitar/vocal conversations in “Biwelewle” that create a hooky melody; and the emotive vocals and muscular instrumentation of “Ya Abal Wuha.” Another amazing piece is “Uruzi Nil,” which is quick-paced and scurrying and its flute/electric mix reminiscent of Jethro Tull in places, yet is also jazzy and free-spirited. Kahlil Gibran once said that, “Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” The Nile Project is certainly doing its best to make that true. ★★★★★

The term "fusion" often fails to live up to the hype. In the case of Toronto-based Rakkatak, though, it's appropriated and appropriate. The goal is to take Indian classical music, give it a contemporary twist, and knock down a few barriers along the way. The music is built around the tabla playing and occasional raga vocal scales of Anita Katakkar, and the dreamy bass of Oriana Barbato. Two women fronting an Indian music ensemble is just the start—Katakkar's heritage is Indian/Scottish/Canadian and Barbato is Chilean. Featured sitar player Rex Van der Spuy is of South African and Indian extraction and, when not manning the sitar, is a video game designer and prolific tech author. Small Pieces, Rakkatak's third CD, is as advertised—music designed to lull you into submission rather than impress through volume or showiness. "Medley" fuses a hypnotic groove with a segued cover into The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and, like all nine tracks, takes its time in developing. Much Indian composition is built on the concept that music should "color the mind." To that end, "Dreaming" is a somnambulant stroll and "Thoughts of You" is drifty and introspective. My favorite piece is "Rain After Fire," composed in response to Western Canadian wildfires. Bass and tabla lurk in the background with quiet drama, with the sitar evoking on again/off again showers that spurt, drip, and fade to mist. Those who want a splash of loosely structured jazz should sample "XYZ" with its atonal flirtations, or the creative noodling of "Riffing on 9." ★★★★

Rob Weir

 Note: YouTube footage and album tracks often vary in presentation stye.


Christina Baker Kline's Triumphant Look at Christina's World


Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow Publishing, 325 pages.
★★★★ ½

A weathered frame house and farm buildings sit atop a timothy-covered slope, but our gaze is diverted to the lower foreground, where we see the back of a spindly dark-haired woman twisting her way up the hillside on thin arms and unmoving legs. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is among the two or three most famous American paintings of all time, but what do we know of its subject: Christina Olson (1893-1968)? A quick search reveals that she was nearly immobile by the time Wyeth completed the painting in 1948, a victim of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a form of muscular dystrophy. But who was Christina? What was her family life like? What did she think and dream?

Christina Baker Kline snared me with this early passage in her subject’s voice:

People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He [Wyeth] wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house from an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head. He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me.

This lovely passage sets the tone for the life that lay beneath Wyeth’s canvas—one marked by history, family, longings, lost opportunities, and seized relationships that give Christina Olson a breathing subjectivity that not even as draftsman as skilled as Wyeth could capture.

We learn about the house—built on Hathorne* Point, Maine by Captain Samuel Hathorne II in 1743, and remodeled by generations of Hathornes, all descendants of Salem witchcraft judge John Hathorne who fled to Maine to escape the ignominy of that surname. Christina’s mother, Katie, bore Hathorne blood, though her feisty nature might have gotten her in trouble had she been born in Salem 200 years earlier. It was probably fated that she’d marry a man whose name changed from Johan Olauson to John Olson. The Olsons would have been just another big farm family with its joys and tragedies had not Andrew Wyeth arrived in 1939—a dozen years after Katie died and four since John’s passing. By then, the only Olsons left in the house were Christina and her devoted brother Alvaro.

Kline fleshes out the deeper family histories in ways that remind us that frozen images are lies. The inherent sadness of a self-sacrificing brother caring for his crippled sister in a remote part of Maine tells us nothing about the various turns in people’s lives that led to one path being chosen rather than another. MD is a progressive disease. Christina had a hard life; she fell down a lot, but she didn’t always emulate a crab to move from place to place. As we learn from the novel, she even fell in love with a summer visitor—and it wasn’t Andy Wyeth, twenty-three years her junior, whose presence in Maine began with his courtship of a different Cushing local: his future wife, Betsy James, who knew the Olsons. Andy emerges as Christina’s kindred spirit—a young man who had been sickly as a child, understood Christina’s plight, and befriended her as an equal, not an object of pity. He spent thirty summers in Cushing, coming and going as he wished to a makeshift studio in unused second-floor rooms of the Olson house.

A Piece of the World is a novel that imagines dialogue, discussions, and circumstances, but it hews closely to what is known of its subjects. Kline hails from Bangor and knows Maine life too well to sanitize it. Her prose is lovely, but it’s not rose-hued—more like the somber earth tones Wyeth used. There is something inherently honest about this, with the joys shimmering brighter in contrast to the sorrow and the lonely family cemetery beyond where Christina is posed in the painting. It is a triumphant novel which, ironically, Christina’s World was not until much later. Wyeth called it “a complete flat tire,” and the Museum of Modern Art purchased it for just $1,800. Today its value would be in the millions. Wyeth’s relationship with Christina was a greater treasure, though; when he passed in 2009, per his will he was laid to rest in the Olson graveyard.

Rob Weir

*You will find various spellings of this name, including Hathorn and Hawthorn. Colonial spelling was not standardized.