10/23/20

Deacon King Kong is Hysterical, Yet Sad

 

Deacon King Kong (2020)

By James McBride

Riverhead, 384 pages

★★★★

 

 


 

Deacon King Kong is a very funny yet dark novel that is certainly one of the year’s best thus far. It is set in Brooklyn during 1969, the year the Mets surprisingly won the World Series. That’s about the only thing New Yorkers could celebrate that year. New York in the late 1960s and into the late ‘70s was a version of Dante’s Inferno–a teeming cauldron of social problems ranging from garbage strikes and decaying ghettos to muggings and riots.

 

Not that the black, Latino, and Italian residents of the Five Ends of Brooklyn noticed. Its odd name derived from its natural boundaries plus a painting of Jesus painted on the back of a church that was once Italian and Catholic but became African American and Baptist. At some point, Jesus was repainted as a black man but whoever did it made a shambles of it. No matter, Five Ends is a close-knit community where folks roll with whatever life throws at them. It is populated by a colorful cast of characters–many of them originally from Possum Point, SC–with nicknames like Beanie, Dome, Stick, Lightbulb, Bun-Bum, Moon, and Elephant. Those handles are so prominent that only a few actually know that “Sportcoat” was born Cuffy Lambkin, or that “Sausage” is Thelonious Ellis and not even the motor vehicle office is aware of  that, because Sportcoat borrowed Sausage’s ID to get his license and he, in turn, used the name Ralph Odum to get his. If anyone knows, it’s Sister Gee, who is married to neighborhood pastor and is the mother hen of the Five Ends’ barnyard.

 

Everyone, it seems, has a racket, whether it’s as harmless as numbers running or as destructive as selling drugs. If you recall Spike Lee movies where folks sit on steps and chuck and jive, that’s Five Ends. There’s little they won’t lampoon, but they know what’s their business and what isn’t. Except for Sportcoat, who is a deacon of the church, though he has little idea what that means other than occasionally doing minor caretaking. He’s decidedly a few marbles short of a full bag, courtesy of “King Kong,” the name he and his friends give to the moonshine they consume. Outwardly, Sportcoat is a happy-go-lucky alcoholic, but he’s also grieving and stuck in time. He once coached and umped baseball, and he tells everyone he intends to revive the local team and steer Deems Clemens into the majors. Never mind that Deems is now a drug dealer, or that Sportcoat shot off part of his ear. Sportcoat doesn’t remember any of that, so he’s not about to go into hiding. After all, he has to help an elderly Italian woman with her garden, another of his odd jobs. (He can’t remember her name, so her calls her Miss Four Pie for the treats he feeds him.)

 

Five Ends is bred for drama and Deacon King Kong has a lot going on. An Irish cop who has returned to his old neighbor tries to warn Five Enders that things are changing in dangerous ways but he’s just old “Potts” Mullen to them, and it’s doubtful many know his first name is actually Harris. Those who give him a second thought notice he seems to be sweet on Sister Gee and nuts about external dangers. They’re right about the first, but wrong about the second; the old days in which Italian gangs smuggled hot goods are giving way to battling crime syndicates and the heroin trade.

 

Deacon King Kong is that rare book that’s both poignant and laugh-out-loud hysterical. There is, for instance, the free “Jesus cheese” that mysteriously shows up once a year at the church, a man known as the Haitian Sensation who might not be Haitian, and Soup Lopez who became a Muslim in jail, but still helps Pastor Gee. Sportcoat is such a colorful individual that we both wish him to be rescued but hope he never changes. His rambling speeches are a cross between the surrealism of George Carlin and a Richard Pryor rant. Another deft touch is that McBride shows us a neighborhood in transition that will probably also shed a lot of its interracial skin. In 1969, it’s still one in which Italians stick with their own but treat African Americans with respect, one in which an Irish cop can admit his attraction for a black woman, and one in which a middle-aged fence and bachelor wants to chuck crime to marry a plump Italian gal and help her run her bagel shop!

 

Deacon King Kong is ultimately about community building, intersecting lives, and colliding worldviews. There’s even a little mystery tale woven into McBride’s storytelling. It would be nice if Five Ends paralleled the Miracle Mets, but McBride is too savvy for saccharine resolutions. Instead, he gives us a slice in time that’s both sweet and bitter.   

 

Rob Weir

 

 

10/21/20

Small Towns: Chesterfield, MA


 

 

The Hampshire County town of Chesterfield, Massachusetts, is an old town that was settled in 1760. Western Mass folks apply the term “hilltown” for a place like Chesterfield that’s perched above the Connecticut River Valley. It also tends to designate a place where once hardscrabble farming took place before those with commonsense stopped shifting rocks and too their plows elsewhere. You’ll see old stone walls in the area from its days of raising Merino sheep, but there are only a handful of farms in Chesterfield now. Mostly its history is reflected in the number of handsome Federal-style buildings that dot what is called Main Road, though it’s really pretty much the road and you have to know where you’re going to wander down a side byway if you’re in any kind of hurry.  

 


 

 


Hurry doesn’t define Chesterfield. It’s one of those places into which people move because they want to slow the pace of life. It’s a pretty close-knit community that still has a town meeting form of government but, in winter, it can be a challenging commute to places such as Northampton (14 miles), Springfield (34 miles), or Hartford (59 miles). Your cellphone probably won’t work in town and the local general store might give you some WiFi connectivity. The only guarantee is inside the town library.

 

 


 

 

Chesterfield has 1,222 people, a historical peak, but it seems like fewer as they are spread across 31 square miles. There’s a post office in the town center and a historical district on western edge, though the latter–basically an old schoolhouse–is tucked amidst some down-market homes and an abandoned building insulated by piles of garbage. But, as in the case of most hilltowns, locals like each other’s company and visitors looking for some solitude can find a few places to stay. Plan on driving for food, though, as Chesterfield has no restaurants. 

 


 

 

Why would anyone from the outside wish to do that? First of all, it’s a pretty place in the center–almost like what people from far away think of when they conjure an old New England town. If you’re a hiker or just like driving around backroads, you can take in some very pleasant scenery. The main attraction, though is Chesterfield Gorge, a Trustees of Reservations property. Its where the glacier sliced through a notch in the rocks through which the Westfield River rushes. Only those with a death wish would try to paddle it. The picture is from the spring. As you can see from the final photograph, in the fall after a dry summer like that of 2020, you can fill your bathtub and it will be deeper than the Westfield, as seen here a few hundred yards from the Gorge.

 

 



 

In normal years, though, the river further downstream offers pretty good fishing. Anyone passing through the area in spring should definitely make a detour off of Route 9, grab some coffee at the general store, and take a peek at the Gorge. Linger in town if you’re weary.

 

Rob Weir

10/19/20

John Lewis: The Kind of Good Trouble We Need

John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)

Directed by Dawn Parker

Aspen Films, 96 minutes, PG

★★★★

 


 

2020 has seen the passing of too many good people. Among them is Congressman John Lewis, who died of pancreatic cancer in July, two months before a documentary about his public life was released. John Lewis: Good Trouble tells of his courageous battles against racism and injustice over the course of his life. As one of the tags to the film sums it: thousands of protests, 45 arrests, and 33 years in Congress.

 

Lewis was the last remaining speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, an event best recalled for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” King’s voice was silenced by an assassin in 1968, but that of John Lewis remained steady and strong over the next 52 years. The documentary takes its title from a famed Lewis aphorism, “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Director Dawn Parker presents a portrait of a man who found his calling in the civil rights movement when he was barely in his 20s. When the Freedom Riders sought volunteers, Lewis was there. When it was time to put bodies on the line to cross the Pettis Bridge into Selma, Alabama, Lewis was present. He was part of CORE, chaired SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) for four years, took part in voter registration drives, shepherded community organizing projects, and when SNCC fell under the decidedly violent sway of Stokely Carmichael, moved away from it and toward politics. In 1986, he challenged his friend Julian Bond in the primary, defeated him, and was elected to the House of Representatives. In his 17 terms, Lewis never got less than 69% of the vote in Georgia’s 5th District.

 

John Lewis was battle-tested, which partially explains why he seemed to have a perpetual scowl on his face. One of the joys of Parker’s documentary is that we see Lewis with his metaphorical hair down. (He went bald early on.) His serious demeanor also came from the fact that he once dreamed of being a preacher and delivered sermons to the chickens on his parents’ Troy, Alabama, farm. As we learn from the film, Lewis retained a fondness for chickens for his entire life–including collecting silly chicken figurines that clashed with the magnificent art in his elegant Atlanta home. Lewis always smiled when talking about chickens. This, and the warmth he exuded when encountering supporters, were seldom-seen sides of the late Congressman.

 

His serious public countenance was linked to a core belief: “Freedom isn’t a state; it’s an act.” Lewis believed in non-violence, was an optimist, and loved his nation, but he seldom hesitated to call out racists and enemies of freedom. He explained his vote to impeach Donald Trump with these words: “When you see something that’s not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something.” Those words defined both Lewis’ civil rights activism and his purpose for being in Congress.

 

Like most documentaries, there are numerous talking heads, some of whom are impressive and articulate, and some of whom are less so. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is among the well-spoken, as are Corey Booker, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Clinton, and Representative Ilhan Omar. Surprisingly, Omar comes across as more sincere than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, or Hillary Clinton, the latter three of whom clearly admired Lewis, though their remarks seemed more scripted.

 

Another small flaw is that the documentary often drifts toward hagiography. It is so tied to Lewis the activist and politician, that at times it feels like John Lewis’ greatest hits. Porter dug up some great archival footage, but we don’t get much of a sense of Lewis’ private life. Porter glossed Lewis’ decision to take on Julian Bond and his use of a dirty trick to do so. Bond was gracious in defeat, but confessed a rift in their relationship, which Porter mentions and drops. We also learn very little about Lewis’ marriage, other than his deep sorrow at Lillian’s passing in 2012. His musician son, John-Miles, doesn’t get much attention either.

 

Decisions must be made when making a biography that gives the sweep of a person’s life, hence I’m inclined to overlook the lacunae in Good Trouble. My takeaway is that Congressman Lewis was that rarest of birds in American politics: a man of conscience. Need I say that we live in a post-truth society? Or that in the age of robber baron narcissism we need more public servants driven by morality?

 

Rob Weir    

 

 

10/16/20

First Cow is a Dry Heifer

First Cow (2020)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

A24, 121 minutes, PG-13

★★

 


 I planned to see First Cow back in March, but COVID-19 closed the theatre before I had a chance to do so. Now I can officially say at least one good thing has come out of the virus. I didn’t spend $10 to see it.

 

Director Kelly Reichardt is known for both her deliberate pacing and her love of the West. Four previous films are, like First Cow, set in Oregon: Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013). At her best, Reichardt gives us small slices of Americana that focus on the kind of ordinary people that Hollywood generally ignores. Her Certain Women, set in Montana, was one of my favorite films of 2016. But Reinhardt seriously misfires with First Cow, a film so slow you’re tempted to check if you have a pulse.

 

The setting is the Oregon Territory of the 1820s. That’s not the official U.S. region organized in 1848, rather a sprawling region stretching throughout the Northwest that encompassed parts of four eventual states, most of modern-day British Columbia, and parts of southern Alaska. At this point in history, the United States, Britain, and Russia all laid claim to the area, none of whom gave a hoot about indigenous peoples already on the land. Non-natives entered a place more akin to the Wild West than that mythical land ever was. Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvet do a superb job of making us see how travelers, settlers, and fortune-seekers could get swallowed up in its very vastness. To the degree that Euro-American style civil authority existed at all, it was in scattered “forts” such as Fort Tillicum (present-day Washington State), which is where our two principals end up.

 

They are Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), the cook for a band of fur trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the lam for killing a Russian, whom Otis feeds on the sly. Otis cashes out and sets off for Fort Tillicum, where he again encounters Lu, who has a cabin nearby into which Otis moves. Fort Tillicum is not for the faint of heart. It is a muddy cesspit with a hard-drinking bar, a small native encampment, and whites living in ramshackle cabins and makeshift tents. The only substantial home in the fort belongs to the Chief Factor (agent) and life there is so rudimentary that the big excitement is the arrival of the namesake first cow. (Its partner died on the trip to Oregon.) Otis and Lu pass their days daydreaming of heading off to San Francisco to open a hotel or bakery, but they don’t have the wherewithal to get there.

 

When they observe the cow being milked by a lad named Lloyd (Ewen Bremner), Lu hits upon the idea of sneaking in at night to help themselves to the cow’s bounty. With the pilfered milk, Otis reverts back to being Cookie and his oily cakes, biscuits, and fritters are soon in high demand. See Otis bake. See Lu sell. See a key character have his cake taken by another. Not exactly what one would call heart-stopping action.

 

Just a few more batches, and it’s California here we come. That small detail is one of the biggest clichés in film. Therein lies a second major problem in the film. Foreshadowing is a time-honored device but in First Cow, the film’s ending is predestined by the modern find that opens the film and all that can possibly be revealed is how it happened. Once the cow’s owner is identified half way through, we know how and why as well. The only thing left is dotting the i’s.

 

First Cow also wastes some of its talent. Gary Farmer is a well-known Native-American actor, but he’s practically silent in this film. The Chief Factor is veteran British character actor Toby Jones, and his role is little more than that of Chief Egoist. You know anyone billed simply as “Chief Factor’s wife” won’t have much to do, and it’s a crying shame to subordinate the sublime Lily Gladstone (Blackfoot/Nez Perce). To add a note of solemnity, First Cow was one of the final projects for the late Réne Auberjohn (Deep Space Nine’s Odo) and it’s a mere cameo.

 

Metaphorically speaking, Kelly Reichardt painted herself into a corner with a poorly storyboarded tale. There is something to be said for making slow-paced slice-of-life films, but when anything remotely dramatic is taken from viewers, all that’s left is boredom.

 

Rob Weir

10/14/20

Rebecca Loebe, Silversun Pickups. Ellen Starski, Devil Makes Three, Salim Nourallah, Wonder Years

 


Perhaps you remember Rebecca Loebe from The Voice or caught her opening for someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, or Ellis Paul. These days she’s been headlining on her own, which is right and proper. As a kickoff to Give Up Your Ghosts, she made material available from her wonderful 2010 debut Mystery Prize. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with this rising talent who, after a stint at Boston’s Berklee College of Music now lives in Austin­. Loebe has a fondness for love songs–just not the ordinary kind. “Mystery Prize” is an example of that. It’s about a first date that might be the perfect man, though she’s not sure: I got my eye on the mystery prize. After all, love is a blood sport, you lose if you draw/You can only win if no one loses at all. “Marguerita” is a lovely song of two lovers. The catch? They are illegal immigrants who have been caught and separated. “California” is a love song to the Golden State, but one she’s leaving before the alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine drag her down. “Land and Sea” is wonderfully enigmatic. Does she wake up to second thoughts, or was it a very naughty dream? Loebe goes for a country vibe on “Married Man.” Its line You can’t knit socks for a married man/No matter how you tell yourself it’s fine is a dangerous attraction cautionary metaphor. Loebe has traveled and produced a lot since 2010, but she still likes to keep things a bit mysterious.   

 


Silversun Pickups
engender strong opinions. Their newest record, Widow’s Weed has been called a “gem” and “emotionally satisfying.” It’s also been dismissed as “forgettable” and “mostly boring.” This LA-based rock band draws comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, which means they’re hard to pin down. Silversun has been labeled post-punk, indie, dream pop, and “shoegazing,” the latter of which fits, once you get past the silly handle and know it’s basically acid rock. In truth, their full electric sets can be ragged and there’s not a lot of poetry in their lyrics. Maybe they’re better unplugged; their four-song set at Paste Studios is good stuff. The quartet is stripped down to just Brian Aubert putting his voice and his acoustic guitar through the paces, and Nikki Monninger laying down aggressive bass and adding harmonies. One offering is their 2009 single “Panic Switch,” which seems to be about an anxiety attack, and the rest are from Widow’s Weed. The most enigmatic of is “Freakazoid” lyrics such as, And this freakazoid/Who needs a little relief/Relief, relief… don’t unlock a song about someone trying to believe he’s trying. (To do what?) “Don’t Know Yet” is a can-this-relationship-be-saved song. Perhaps not; and it’s time to reboot the machine. “It Doesn’t Matter Why” won’t win any literary awards either, but Silversun Pickups is about energy in the moment. Count me among the satisfied.

 


Ellen Starski
has a unique voice that’s husky in a whiskey-steeped way. I adored her debut album, When Peonies Prayed for Rain (2018). And then she moved to Nashville. Sara’s Half-Finished Love Affair is a deeply disappointing sophomore release. I place the blame on the poor judgment of producers Lucas Morton and Max Hoffman. The album is well-written and it’s based on a cool idea. “Sara” is Starski’s composite of women she’s met plus some internal thoughts. She used these to imagine how life and love play out over the years. Alas, Nashville smoothed her edges and turned her into just another doggie in Generica Corral. “Come to Me Lover” cries out for gritty treatment, not echoey processed pop and little girl tones. This is almost as baffling as the faintly Liverpudlian accent we hear on “Have We Forgotten.” “Never Met a Ghost”has a bluesy melody that commands a soulful vocal. Instead, the mix is so thick that Starski could be singing cereal box ingredients. And what’s with the odd spaciness of “The Satellite That Changed Its Tune?” Was Sara in love with ET? The title track is pretty, if one overlooks the dreadful instrumental bridges and the outro with interstellar electronic crickets. Find Your Way” would be a great song if given a Bill Withers treatment and without intrusive percussion. There’s not a song on the album that’s not overproduced.    

 

Shorts

 


The Devil Makes Three
hadn’t released a new album since 2013 until Chains are Broken. You can hear a few tracks off that record, including “Castles,” a nice song about a woman who keeps falling for Mr. Wrongs when Mr. Right is right in front of her. TDMT used to rock out more, but these days they are mostly an acoustic country folk trio (or quartet when touring) anchored by dry-toned vocalist Pete Bernhard. “Castles” features crystalline acoustic riffs from Cooper McBean, the go-to guy for leads, with Lucia Turino putting down the bass lines. Try also “Mr.Midnight,” (2014) with its rockabilly feel, and “This Life” (2011), a bit of country breakdown about making the best of what life throws at you.

 


Maybe it’s the times, but I lost interest in Let’s Be Miserable Together, the first of five planned EPs by Texas songwriter Salim Nourallah. The title track sets the mood with its tag line, If we can’t be happy on our own.. let’s be miserable together. That could be funny, but it comes across as embracing misery. Doses of irony and satire would help, but the EP is mostly a laconic pity party. “Winners” is another example. It could be a devastating take-down of hipsters, but feels more like an outsider’s jealousy. The melodies of two of the tracks, “Assassins” and “A Simple Love,” sound like raw acoustic Beatles tracks before studio enhancements. Wrong album for wrong times.

 


I can’t help contrast Nourallah to the power punk band The Wonder Years. They’re supposed to be filled with angst, right? They are, but these heroes of the Vans Warped Tour temper thrash and bang with wry commentary and the right touch of sentiment. “Washington Square Park” contains likes such as: The whole world’s full of losers/If you get a chance to win take it. “Hoodie Weather” is a very unflattering gottta-get-outta-here look at South Philadelphia, but there’s also sympathy mixed with the sadness. “We Look Like Lightening” is about being scared on an airplane. Yeah, I can relate. Caution: This is one loud band, so you might want to search for acoustic tracks; rest assured, Dave Campbell’s vocals will still raise the roof. And if you find the Paste Studio session, the tracks are mislabeled.

 

Rob Weir

10/12/20

Sienna Miller Redeems American Woman

 

American Woman (2019)

Directed by Jake Scott

Roadside Attractions, 111 minutes, R (language, drug/alcohol use)

★★★

 


 

 

With under $237,000 in ticket sales, American Woman didn’t exactly light up the box office. I suppose that’s understandable given its harrowing subject of a woman whose daughter goes missing. It’s also an uneven effort with a cast drawn from the B-list, though its central actor, Sienna Miller, is the real deal who papers over many of the plot holes. She makes American Woman worth a look, despite its translucent cavities.

 

American Woman is set in Pennsylvania, but Keystoners won’t recognize anything; it was filmed in Massachusetts. The central character is 33-year-old Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller), a single mother to 16-year-old Bridget (Sky Ferreira). Mom is a mess. She lives close to the margin, drinks and smokes too much, has a horrible attitude, and even worse taste in men. It’s not clear if she’s just easy or if she’s doing a little hooking on the side, but Bridget’s father is not in evidence. Deb is the sort to tell anyone to piss off, and that includes her mother Peggy (Amy Madigan), and her sister Katherine (Christina Kendricks) and her husband Terry (Will Sasso), who live across the street.

 

Bridget is no peach either. She’s rough around her dyed hair edges, hangs out with druggies, and has an infant son of her own. Deb and Bridget rocket back and forth between bickering and affection of sorts. The status quo changes over night, when Deb reluctantly agrees to watch Jesse and Bridget never returns. Joni Mitchell famously wrote, “You don’t what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone,” and that’s Deb’s breaking point. Foul play is suspected, but there’s really no evidence for it–one of the film’s holes. The longer Bridget is missing, the more hysterical Deb becomes and the more Bridget becomes more mythical than real.

 

How does one recover from such a blow? Deb’s first instincts are in keeping with her play-tough and live-fast-and-hard patterns. She lights out after Bridget’s boyfriend, who is Jesse’s father, though there’s nothing to connect him to anything other than being a worthless druggie. Old habits die hard. For Deb, there’s always another boyfriend and it hardly matters if he’s married and/or abusive. It’s only when she hits the muddy bottom that she begins to consider crawling out of the pit. After all, someone has to raise Jesse.

 

Another film hole is that the passage of time is too rapidly truncated. Deb does begin to get her act together and starts to see Tyler (Alex Neustaeder), an affectionate ex-boyfriend who is a rehabbing addict. More bad things will happen, and Bridget becomes what detectives call a “cold” case. That will be resolved eventually and one wonders if maybe it would have been better had that not been the case. There are plenty of good things to say about this film, but Brad Ingelsby’s script is not among them.

 

American Woman could have been the turkey its box office suggests, were it not for Miller. She is an underrated actress, perhaps because she has played so many bit parts, has no time for the tabloid press, prefers London to Hollywood, and took time away from movies to perform in theatre. Her filmography isn’t impressive, but her acting chops are. In American Woman she invents her own cycle of grieving: blame, swear, give-up, clear out the garbage, reinvent, and cope. Hers is a portrait of hope tempered by realism. She makes the second half of the film as good as the first half is bad. Although we could use more films about the plight of the working-class poor, Inglesby misfires by writing Miller’s early role as akin to Julia Roberts’ bad-girl act in Mystic Pizza sans her heart of gold. It makes it harder to believe in Deb’s subsequent transformation, but Miller rises to the occasion. Best of all, it comes on Deb’s terms. Hold the metaphorical knight in shining armor or deus ex machina resolutions.

 

The dynamics between Miller and Hendricks are also quite good. Katherine is the good angel to Deb’s devil, with Terry acting as referee. Yet, we see genuine caring peeking through the seams, as well as evolving relationships. I wish the same could be said of Amy Madigan’s role as Peggy. She isn’t given much to do and responds with a walk-through performance appropriate for what was on offer. The same can be said of E. Roger Mitchell, who plays Detective Sergeant Morris. One could accuse director Jake Scott of tokenism, as Mitchell’s is the only black face in sight.

 

You can expect rocky moments, but American Woman is a great example of how a few good performances redeem a half-baked script.

 

Rob Weir    

 

10/9/20

See the Griswold in Old Lyme for American Impressionism

Florence Griswold Museum

Old Lyme, CT

 

 

Old Lyme, Connecticut, is one of the premier centers for American Impressionism. Unless you’re an art geek like me, you might be surprised to know there were any American Impressionists other than Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), and she hardly counts as she moved to Paris in 1874, and spent the rest of her life in France. You can be forgiven, as you’ve been inundated with posters, t-shirts, ties, and other paraphernalia of French artists such as Degas, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir, but when was the last time you saw a coffee mug with a John eHenryHenry Twachtman or J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) image on it? (In case you’re wondering, the latter is no kin of mine; my family came over from Scotland just in time to fight for the Union during the Civil War.)

 

Impressionism is so thoroughly associated with France that it’s easy to forget that it spread across Western Europe and was even found in unlikely places such as Australia, Egypt, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, and Slovenia. If there is such a thing as the dean of American Impressionism, it would be Childe Hassam (1859-1935). Hassam was based in the Greater Boston area, but when American Impressionists gathered, it was in places such as Cos Cob and Old Lyme.

 

Why Old Lyme? There’s a reason why we joke about starving artists. Unless one is born into money or is one of the few to attract notice or better yet, a wealthy patron, it’s sadly the case that most “famous” artists only become so after being rowed across the River Styx. Luckily for a bunch of American artists, Florence Griswold (1850-1937) lived along the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme. She was born into wealth, but never married and when she approached 50, found herself the owner of a sprawling columned mansion in need of repairs, but no steady income. About the same time, Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916) had the idea of forming an art colony. Griswold began taking in paint-splattered boarders and from this the Old Lyme colony was born.

 

Ranger was sort of a semi-Impressionist who called his work tonalist (whatever that means), and Griswold’s home attracted a variety of artists. It soon became a place where American Impressionists such as Hassam, Weir, William Chadwick, Bruce Crane, Harry Hoffman, Edmund Greacan, Lawton Parker, William Robinson, and Everett Warner dipped their brushes. Chadwick, Hassam, and Robinson even built studios on the site, though only Chadwick’s remains. From Old Lyme, they practiced their particular form of American vernacular.

 

Vernacular is the proper word. Impressionism has been called painting with light but of course, the light along the Connecticut coast isn’t the same as that in Provence or the Loire Valley. Nor is the weather. Benjamin Eggleston built a portable cart to work in Old Lyme, convenient for New England’s changeable conditions, not the least of which is her snowy winters. Impressionism is also marked visible brush strokes that make images “impressionistic” rather than “realistic,” and by its preference for ordinary subjects. “Ordinary” is also culturally determined. Neither the Seine nor Rouen Cathedral happened to be close at hand, so Old Lyme artists painted things such as the marshes and Bow Bridge, a humped stone structure that once spanned the Lieutenant. It is also interesting to see how the light changes when Old Lyme artists ventured overseas and painted in places sch as Venice.

 

You can get a fine introduction to American Impressionism by touring Griswold’s home and the separate Krieble Gallery on the grounds. If you need a break from art, there’s also a picturesque trail along the Lieutenant, a barn repurposed as a landscape photography center, well-kept gardens, a small orchard, and (on occasion) environmental education programs. Below find a sample of art on display at the sites. (All photos are mine. You can click on them to see larger images.)

 

Rob Weir

 

Hassam, Ten Pound Island

Chadwick's studio


 

 

 

Lawton Parker, Laurel

 

Warner, Studios Behind Griswold House

Will Foote, Fish Houses Maine
Hoffman, Bridging the Lieutenant

 

Hassam's Studio by Hoffman


Metcalf