Chihuly Collection a Must-See


Chihuly Collection

Morean Arts Center

720 Central Avenue

St. Petersburg, Florida


There’s scarcely a major art museum in the country that doesn’t have at least one piece of glass from Dale Chihuly. If you’ve been to MFA Boston, there’s a soaring installation of green spikes in the restaurant space and foyer that fronts the American wing. It has been variously described as a giant icicle, a bottle brush, or a thin evergreen tree. Those who live in Western Massachusetts can also see a Chihuly’s composition of entangled tendrils in the lobby of the Mt. Holyoke College library.


There is a special thrill in seeing a lot of Chihuly’s work in one place. To do that, you have to go places such as Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Seattle, or Florida. I recently took in the Chihuly Collection in St. Petersburg, Florida, which is part of the city’s downtown Morean Arts complex. I was enthralled.


Chihuly hails from Washington State and, to his legions of fans, is considered the dean of modern blown glass in the United States. After dropping out of college, he returned and obtained his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and an M.S. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also established a university glass arts program said to be the first in the country. (Some dispute that.) He also has a New England connection in that he obtained a second masters, a MFA, from the Rhode School of Design. Chihuly holds numerous honorary degrees and has been showered with awards and honors around the globe. He even worked for a time on the Venetian island of Murano, where I’ve been lucky enough to visit.  


Before delving into the St. Petersburg collection I should note that Chihuly has his detractors. I’m not sure if it’s still true, but for a time he held the distinction for having the largest blown glass piece in the world. For some critics that was emblematic of Chihuly’s penchant for showmanship over artistic merit. It probably doesn’t help that Chihuly exudes a piratical look with a patch over his left eye that is the result of a 1976 auto accident in London that blinded him in that eye. (It was ironically the result of smashed glass.) More to the point, though, it left him unable to use a blowing tube. In other words, he designs his works and consigns it to others.


Personally, I’m not a fan of the work at MFA Boston and am put off by the snaky evocations of the one at Mt. Holyoke, but I’m happy to place Chihuly at the forefront of American glass arts. Most museum glass displays bore me with their rows upon rows of cut crystal, decanters, bottles, vases, and showy centerpieces for rich people trying to impress other rich people. Chihuly’s work is more organic, energetic, and vibrant. Much of it exudes life as well as light. The St. Petersburg collection consists largely of selected works from various series he has worked upon.


One of these is of baskets, some of which were inspired by the Navajo or Japanese design. Quite a few are simply products of his imagination. These are the first thing you encounter at the Morean. 




I am very fond of his evocation of the sea. Some of the most impactful pieces are seen from below as you gaze upward at ceiling-mounted displays. It’s as if you are underwater amidst a bed of shapes, foliage, and colors.



Speaking of colors, Chihuly embodies the ethos of Japanese minimalism in a stunning collection of spheres, orbs, and globes resting in a boat-like receptacle like giant marbles. Some spill out and we see how perfectly they are formed and polished. They refract with such exactitude that the eye sees a spectrum of color. 





It’s a personal taste to be sure, but my least favorite are his chandeliers, flowers, and hanging lights. Some of these evoke Persian art; others are faintly Art Deco. Not that I turn down any one of them as a gift!  


St. Petersburg is loaded with museums, but I recommend you make the Chihuly Collection a must-see if you find yourself there. (For the record, it’s the only place I could imagine living in the entire state!)


Rob Weir



Wonder Women of Country, Holly Lerski, Crow & Gazelle, Spencer LaJoye, Evan Boyer



The term supergroup is so overused that the moment I see it, I grow suspicious. In the case of Wonder Women of Country, I yield to whomever first gave that handle to the trio of Kelly Willis, Melissa Carper, and Brennen Leigh. Willis, of course, is the best known of the three having rocketed to fame in the 1990s in the pop/rock-infused genre that is today’s country music. It was sheer genius to join forces with Carper, a standup bass player who is more Hank Williams and Patsy Cline than modern country, and mandolin/guitar/vocal talent Leigh. Put them together and they are a dynamic combination. Among the gems is the cheeky western swing of “Fly Ya to Hawaii” sparked by a hint of yodeling, Willis going retro on “Won’t Be Worried Now” and singing of love gone missing on “Another Broken Heart” to Leigh’s turn-back-the-clock electric lead, and a bass-heavy calypso reworking John Prine’s “I Have Met MyLove Today.” The eponymo
usly named Wonder Women of Country release returns us to the harmony- and tune-forward country music of yore. Wonder Women of Country are my artists of the month.



Holly Lerski has been a musical nomad. She’s British and learned to play Led Zep licks in her ‘tweens during the 1970s, played rock in the ‘80s, and was inspired by Jeff Buckley in the ‘90s and first decade of the ‘00s. Then she traveled to the United States and was blown away by the West: the prairies, the mountains, the Pacific, the redwoods…. Sweet Decline is her foray into Americana. With titles such as “Chicago,” “Joshua Tree,” “Carmel,” and “Yosemite,” she leaves little doubt about her lasting impressions. “Sweet Decline” also reflects her immersion in the West, right down to the splashes of pedal steel in the mix and lyrics comparing the mountain ridges to the curvy stickle back of her thoughts and down the middle of the sweet decline. Its wistful edge suggests she’s musing of her journey into middle age. “Tall Trees” is elemental in both metaphorical and literal ways as she hints at a fractured relationship that can be healed with love that endures like centuries-old giant pines. But don’t worry; there’s joy on the album. “Oh Cassy Run” is bouncy in the ways older Joni Mitchell songs used to be (though Cassy is a dog). She also has a fine song titled “Nepenthe,” a word that usually means a mythical Greek drug of forgetfulness, but all indications are that Lerski has her memories intact.



As Above So Below is the debut recording from the duo/life partners Mike McClure and Chrislyn Lawrence who perform as Crow and Gazelle. That unusual moniker owes its origin to the first two tarot cards drawn during an early date. Each spent a lot of their youth in fundamentalist parts of Oklahoma and Texas, but as the title track reveals, they opted out of harsh tenants for a more universalist faith in which the gap between the human and the divine is narrower. “Still Free to Fly” dispels wisdom in how they dumped the libertine view of freedom in favor of one that replaces drifting in the twilight with one that celebrates not needing to wander. If you have any doubt about what they mean, check out the lyric version of “Blackbird." To don my reviewer hat, though, I found McClure and Lawrence more admirable than musically enticing. For my tastes, the album is too safe and of a piece. 




Spencer LaJoye has released Shadow Puppets, an apt title on several levels. LaJoye grew up in an evangelical household, but uses the pronoun they, identifies as non-binary, and is religious but adamantly non-Christian. This Michigan-based singer songwriter is unafraid to play in churches or to assert their experiences. On the title track LaJoye confesses … all I got is a shadow so big, a shadow so wide/it’s a darkness I fit my whole self inside, and later boldly discusses top surgery in an offering directly titled “Surgery.”  LaJoye has been well received by many communities of faith, in part because of songs like “Plowshare Prayer.” It is, in my estimation, the best song on the album. It is deeply spiritual, appeals to a higher power, and challenges believers to live up their creeds. Listen to the link as the close captioning reveals the depth of those sentiments. LaJoye has a powerful message and an even more powerful voice. The arrangements, though, could use much more diversity.




Evan Boyer is about to drop The Devil in Me. In the namesake song he comes off as the anti-Spencer LaJoye: I’m a bad man doing bad things/I’ve walked the line so many times for all the joy it brings/I’ve got a bad way, pray for me like rain/I should have died so many times and all the souls would have been saved. I couldn’t find a clip of this excellent gritty song, but I suspect that this Dallas-based Americana artist who draws comparisons to Jason Isbell and Tom Petty is more bark than bite. “Burn the Ships,” backed by the excellent Texas band Della Rose, is soulful country that’s more a man searching for a landing place than a bad boy anthem. “Cedar Creek” is positively sweet, the hard edges of his big voice notwithstanding. Ditto “Home to You.” Hey Evan, get some more vids out there so more people can hear what I did.


Rob Weir


Witchcraft: More Than Just Salem




Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials (20230

By Marion Gibson

Scribner, 261 pages + back matter.



Many people think “Salem” the moment the word “witch” is uttered. There is little doubt that the events in 1692 Massachusetts are a stain upon the pages of American history, Yet they are a mere blip on the far bigger, older, and ongoing global scapegoating record. That’s why Marion Gibson, a professor at the University of Exeter in England, devotes just one of her 13 chapters of Witchcraft to Salem.


Scholars have long known that the persecution of witches runs deep in the veins of Western history, hence Gibson begins her study with the 1485 trial of Helena Scheuberin in Austria. It’s not even close to being the oldest witch accusation in the West­–the Old Testament sanctions killing witches­–but it was a watershed in leading to mass witch hysteria. Scheuberin was acquitted, but her case fired the zeal of demonologists and led to the publication of guides on how to identify witches (and male wizards), the most infamous being Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, which held sway for centuries.


Untold numbers of women suffered in the post-Scheuberin period. An estimated 35-50,000 were executed between 1450-1750. Gibson recounts the toll in North Berwick, Scotland in the 1580s-90s–one tale of which influenced Shakespeare’s MacBeth–and those in Europe’s “colonial edge” of northern Scotland, Scandinavia, and North America. These tragic details are known to scholars, but there is a lesser-discussed synthesis involved in Gibson’s readable account. She reminds us that witchcraft upheavals through the ages take place for many of the same reasons across time–religious disputes, non-scientific speculation, political manipulation, fear of outsiders (Jews, travellers, the Sami people), the Reformation­, offshoots of warfare–but also that the very definition of witchcraft has been malleable.


The Bible indeed mentions witches, but how do we explain the rarity of accusations in Europe prior to the 15th century? Gibson argues that witchcraft has undergone cycles in which it was superstitious to believe or to not believe in it. In the 1620s, Joan Wright became America’s “first” witch. She was a respected healer, herbalist, and midwife in Virginia, but because she wasn’t always successful in her ministrations and the colony was starving, she came under suspicion. As far as we know, Wright survived but the transformation from healer to witch planted the very idea of Satan loose upon North American soil.


Gibson detected “echoes” of witchcraft paranoia after Salem and the rise of Enlightenment thinking–during the French Revolution, homophobia outbreaks, attacks on indigenous beliefs, and during sensational murder trials– but the prevailing norm in the West shifted to associating malevolent witchcraft with archaic superstition. In chapters set in Sub-Saharan Africa Gibson reminds us, though, that the Western norm is not universal. Nor does the Western ideal always have salutary effects. In her final chapter on Stormy Daniels Gibson shows how rejection of the power of witches can be manipulated for political advantage. She speculates that Donald Trump’s charge that his detractors and accusers are engaging in a “witch hunt,” is an attempt to tar them with ideological superstition.


This is both an enlightening and entertaining book, though it has its flaws. I appreciated Gibson’s attempts to globalize witchcraft fears, but she is open to the charge of having written a Eurocentric book that’s merely a drive-by peek at the rest of the world. This, in my estimation, is fair commentary. There would have been nothing wrong with confining her study to the West and, having heard her speak, she had plenty of material to have expanded Western examples.


Gibson sometimes draws distinctions too sharply. In later chapters she presents modern-day witchcraft as a return to the standards before Joan Wright’s trial; that is, that witches are either benign or engage in healing arts. That depends on who you ask! If she’s right, Trump’s evocation of a witch hunt is a political gamble. There are plenty of evangelicals and cultural conservatives who continue to demonize homosexuals, witches, spiritualist mediums, astrologists, those holding non-Christian beliefs, and (paradoxically) scientists. Some ministers and priests would happily append Malleus Maleficarum to the New Testament.


I wish to emphasize that I’m one of the scholars who has delved into the topic at hand and thus my eye is more critical than that of the average reader. You need not wade in academic waters to enjoy Gibson’s short volume. You’ll learn a lot if you do.


Rob Weir