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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Art to Help Save the Planet

"Waste artist" Alex Bako with some of his work/
What most people view as used materials and junk to discard, Alex Bako sees as art, intricately crafted work that he hopes will ultimately cause people to think about what they throw in the trash and inspire them to employ the 3 R's of a better environment - recycling, repairing, and re-purposing.

Bako is one of hundreds of DC-area artists with exhibitions at this year's Artomatic in Crystal City, a 5-week free event that celebrates the tremendous diversity and creative talents of local artists and performers.

We caught up with Bako tonight as he was taking some photos of his show, which he labels Wastes Are My Medium: Upcycled Artwork Using Recycled Materials.

While the idea of exhibiting art is relatively new to Bako (this is his 1st major showing and he has only been serious about his art for a short time), working for a better environment has long been central to his being.  There was an environmental science degree from Yale. There were the years spent as an environmental engineer in the Air Force. Then, 3 more years working around the world with environmental concerns for the World Bank. Finally, there was time spent as an environmental consultant, a job managing environmental programs for the city of Washington. But, despite all his efforts, Bako felt his message was still not being received.

"We make claims to be green, but we live in a disposable society for convenience," Bako says. "We don't repair things, we replace them. As a result, we fill our landfills and incinerators."

After much deliberation, Bako, who says he's always enjoyed creating and repairing things with his hands, decided he could promote a much stronger environmental message as a full-time artist than he could as a government paper pusher.

But first, of course, he would have to get permission from his wife, Larissa. It's expensive to live in DC. And going from a two to a one-income family would definitely mean a change in lifestyle. "I am really lucky. My wife is so supportive. She said  'it's not a paycheck, it's your passion. Go for it,'" Bako said, noting that his wife had just brought him the Heineken he was sipping as we talked.

More Bako bag work
Then, as if on cue, Larissa, who still works at the DC environmental office where she and Bako met, turned the corner. She admits that there have been changes. "Our apartment, it's now an art studio. We have stuff everywhere. For our romantic outings, we go dumpster diving," she said with a hearty laugh.

But Larissa said she wouldn't consider returning to the couple's previous lifestyle. "This is a new chapter of our lives," Larissa said. "I think it's a tragedy when you have a talent and you can't express it."

In fact, Larissa said she is growing to love the life of an artistic couple. She enjoys the things that she and Alex can do jointly in this new endeavor. "He's the artist, but there are things we can do together," she said, pointing to some decorative items she had sewn into one of the works. "That home ec class sure did pay off."

But how do you describe the work itself? Like all strong artwork, it first catches the eye; then  engages the mind. The central focus of all the work in this Artomatic exhibition is burlap bags decorated in colorful company logos, sayings, and artwork that once held large amounts of coffee. Bako frames the opened, stretched bags with wood pallets and decorates them with other discarded items he collects from trash bins, businesses, and warehouses around DC.

Larissa, who holds a degree in communications from Howard University, said she really enjoys watching each piece of work, which can take as long as 40 or more hours to produce, emerge from its embryonic state to a finished creation. "It's like watching someone write a beautiful essay. A piece may go through 4 or 5 drafts before Alex is finally satisfied with it," she said.

Even though a relative newcomer to the world of environmental art, Bako has been encouraged by the initial reception to his work. "At the coffee shop where I got the first bags, the owner said to let him see a project when it was finished. He looked at it and said on the spot he wanted to buy it. He asked me how much I wanted for it. I really had no idea what it was worth so I said $500. He said 'wait here, I'll write you out a check right now."

So what's next?  Bako is not sure. He knows it will involve art. And it will involve the environment. "I feel I'm in an explosive, evolutionary period," he says. "I want to take this environmental theme as far as I can take it."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Violence Is Youthful
Her husband is not the only artist is Larissa's family. Her brother, Howard Etwaroo also has his first public exhibition in the Artomatic room next to Baka's. Etwaroo's work makes some interesting  statements about minority status and violence in the contemporary world. Larissa said the works were just sitting in her brother's basement until she convinced him to participate in Artomatic. And Judy and I are glad that Larissa has such strong persuasive skills. Both of us really liked the social power of the work. Here are some of Etwaroo's pieces so you can decide for yourself.

Art created by Etwaroo

Walt Whitman: He Changed the Subject

Walt Whitman: America's Bearded Bard
Washington DC and Brooklyn New York were 2 of the most important places in the life and writings of the great American poet Walt Whitman. And so it was fitting today that the Library of Congress had 2 contemporary poets - one from DC and one from Brooklyn - read from Whitman's poetry and discuss how his writing influenced their own work.

The special Whitman program was another in a series of birthday celebrations for famous writers (Whitman was born on this date in 1819) sponsored by the Manuscript Division and the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library.

The programs always follow the same format. Two writers read some of their favorite works by the author being feted. They then read from their own works and talk about how the feted writer influenced them and their work. Afterward, a Manuscript Division historian talks about selections from the writer's collection housed in the Library of Congress that are then able to be viewed by those attending the session..

DC area poet and University of Maryland professor Stanley Plumly said that much of his work "comes directly out of Whitman."

"The marvelous thing about Whitman to me is that he changed the subject of American poetry," Plumly said. "It's hard to overestimate how great this poet is."

Plumly said that one of Whitman's defining characteristics was his ability to "identify with the other, indeed the least of the others." Whitman's empathy for the disadvantaged and the outsider was obviously, in part, an outgrowth of his homosexuality and his years spent as a Civil War nurse and a  government worker in DC.

To demonstrate parallels between his work and Whitman, Plumly compared 2 of his poems "Faaragut North" and "Reading with the Poets" to Whitman's  "This Compost."

Joshua Beckman, a poet and editor from Brooklyn, called Whitman "a friend" whose work still speaks to him. Beckman read the long, but powerful Whitman poem "The Sleepers" and his own Whitmanesque "The Inside of an Apple."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Today's Whitman program was the 4th such event we had attended at the Library of Congress. Previously, we had attended sessions for Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Tennessee Williams. The last of this series - a program for poet Gwendowyn Brooks - will be held next Thursday.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Unbuilt Washington

An alternate Washington Monument
Washington DC is a city of well-known monuments. The Washington Monument. The Capitol. The White House. The Lincoln Memorial. The list is lengthy. But before the buildings were the iconic structures they have become today, they were a series of architects' drawings and plans and mockups.

And, of course, in almost every case, they weren't the only designs considered. Can you imagine a Washington Monument with a giant round base at its bottom? Or a Pentagon with a 24-story tower rising from its middle courtyard? Or how about a Venetian style canal leading to the steps of the Capitol?

Well, architects could. And not only could they envision them, they drew up complex plans for such structures. And it is these plans and designs that formed the basis of Unbuilt Washington, an exhibit that just ended Memorial Day at the National Building Museum.

How about this for the Lincoln Memorial ...
If you known anything about the design of the city Washington, you know much of the credit for the look of the goes to Charles L'Enfant. However, L'Enfant was often late with his drawings and reluctantly had to be fired by 1st President George Washington. So, even in its beginnings, the district became the vision of many planners. Even Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, submitted architectural plans for what the new capitol city should look like.

Many of the plans on display featured pyramids and domes and British-style gardens that are virtually impossible to equate with DC given the way it looks today.

Some of the more interesting projects are those that never came to fruition. For example, in 1940, the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a massive project for Washington which was named Crystal Heights for the amount of glass it woulds contain. If built, Crystal Heights would have been the largest hotel and apartment complex in America. It would have included a shopping arcade, a theater, and underground parking for 4,000 cars.

... or this for our Capitol?
But some of the unrealized projects on display could still become a reality. In 2000, a design competition was held to "show how you believe the most powerful man or woman on Earth should live and work." One of the winning designs featured a futuristic "tree-fort" where the president could go to escape the inherent pressures of the job. Another included a giant screen outside the new White House where the first family and other dignitaries could have real-time conversations with visitors.

Tips, Tidbits, and Tales
The Unbuilt Washington exhibit has closed, but you can visit the Building Museum's new exhibit simply titled Homes throughout the summer. To see what you will see, click here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Jefferson Bible

Thomas Jefferson, the principal designer of the the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd president of the United States, was a man of innovation and experimentation, but he was a man of habit, too. And one of his habits was to engage in 30 to 60 minutes of reading nightly, mostly "of a moral nature." Often, these passages would come from the Bible. But not just any Bible - an  84-page personal Bible Jefferson designed which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth but what has come to be called The Jefferson Bible.

That Bible formed the basis of the recent The Jefferson Bible exhibit at the Smithsonian's American History Museum.

For his bible, which he created in 1820, Jefferson excerpted parts of the 1st four books of the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Knowing that any tampering with the Bible would pose problems, Jefferson only made one copy for his personal reading and reflection.  However, it was sold to the Smithsonian in 1895 for $400 by Jefferson's great-granddaughter. Obviously, over the years, the original book began to deteriorate. After a year of intensive conservation, Jefferson's Bible was restored and placed on display as the central focus of the exhibit.

In a letter written to John Adams, Jefferson explained his decision to limit his bible to the 4 gospels. "We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus ... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

Jefferson believed that all religion was personal by nature. "No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another," Jefferson wrote in 1776, the same year American became a county.

Jefferson, ever displaying one of the best scientific minds of the Age of Reason, maintained that all should "fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion"

"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must approve of  the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear," Jefferson added.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Smithsonian exhibition on the Jefferson Bible closed on Memorial Day. But you can learn more about the project on-line by clicking here.

Retro Future Visions of Space

Future Highway by Elstabo
In the 20th Century, images of the future were everywhere. The flying cars of The Jetsons. The robot in Lost in Space. The communicators for Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Star Trek crew.

Of course, no one can predict the future with any sense of certainty. Some of the futuristic gadgets  proposed by artists, engineers, and scientists were close. Others missed the mark. We have privately funded space ships but we still don't vacations on the moon or Mars.

Using this idea of unrealized science fiction ideas as a starting point, 15 DC area artists have contributed original work to the latest exhibition at the Artisphere entitled Elevator to the Moon: Retro-Future Visions of Space. The artists drew inspiration from many of the flawed ideas of the last century to create a new vision for the future.

The works are intriguing and thought-provoking. And since art is meant to be experienced, not explained, we will let a sample of the works on display speak for themselves. Look at them and figure out what they are saying about us people and our place in a future still to be.


Monkey Sea by Jared Davis

Valkyrie's Regard by Scott Speck
Rapture Rocakteers by Dana Ellyn

Space Buddies by Matt Sesow
The Thinking Cap or All Your Brain Are Belong Us by Todd Gardne
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Artisphere ins Roslyn is a great free facility to take in new art and performance. You can check out its latest offerings by clicking here.

Call It Year 1 in DC

In retirement, a bench is nice ...
This Memorial Day marks a special DC anniversary for us. It doesn't seem possible, but one year ago this weekend we were moving into our Crystal City apartment. That means we have spent a full year living in the DC area.

When we moved to DC, we were sure we would like it. But we didn't realize how quickly that like would turn to love. Washington is the prefect place for us to retire. It is filled with so many of the things we value - art, book talks, history, politics, music, theater, great walking, interesting people, and marvelous food.

We decided we wanted to share this love of place. One way was to create and publish The Prices Do DC blog, where we could document all the things we were doing. Of course, a blog is a learn-as-you-go experience. I decided to spend the month of May redesigning and revamping the blog to make it better. In fact, we have not published an entry since May 15. We thought our 1-year anniversary would be perfect to unveil our new effort so here is the 1st post of our Year 2. (If you are reading this post by email, you can check out the complete revised blog by clicking here).

... no matter where you find yourself
But we wanted to more directly continue the strong ties with family and friends we had established during our 6 decades in South Jersey. That's why we decided to host all our family and friends who wanted to come to DC. Some stayed for 2 days; some for 2 weeks. We enjoyed them all. We hope they don't mind, but as a small sign of how much we value their friendship, we're going to include as list of those who stayed with us.
  • Chuck and Lynn Timberman and their grandson Ethan (3 times including New Year's Eve)
  • Bob and Marion Spence (2 times)
  • Bob's brother Bill and his wife Claudia, who spent their wedding anniversary with us.
  • Ronnie and Theresa Fooks
  • Brian and Ronni Weinstein
  • Jack and Kathy Neff
  • Layne Ball and Sandy Morrissey
  • Shoshana Osofsky and her husband, Frank
  • Jim Boner and his daughter Jells
  • our friend from high school Gary Peacock
  • our son Michael and daughter-in-law Shannon, who gave us our greatest gift ever in our grandchildren Audrey and Owen.
  • our niece Tara, our grand-nephew Devin (congrats on your brand new driving permit) and our 2-year-old niece Kylie.
  • our sister-in-law Sandy Knapp and her daughter Anna, who was checking out colleges in the DC area
  • and our 1st visitor Kerri Motil, who stayed with us for a week while she engaged in a master's  program at the Hilton just down the street
Then, while they didn't stay with us, we were able to spend some time with friends and familywho were staying in the DC area. They included:
  • Don and Sandy Olbrich
  • Irv and Esther Marshall
  • Bronnie Sewall and John Connolly
  • Joe and Pam Garwood 
  • our cousin Linda, her daughter Jennifer, and her husband Sam
We also dined with 3 of my former students who are living and working in DC..
  • Michael Brooks and his wife Chiquita
  • Kate Sheppard and her soon-to-be husband Dean
  • Art Sewall and his wife Jen (We also got to attend their wedding in October in Philadelphia and visit their new home in Virginia)
Finally, there were some dinners and other events with 2 long-time friends who live and work in DC
  • Bruce McCulley, who went to elementary school with me and marched around the stadium track with Judy and me at our Bridgeton High School 1969 graduation
  • Steve Ferrara, who was my roommate at Villanova University.
So year 1 is history. We are convinced that year 2 will be even better. We will continue sharing our experiences with you in this blog. And remember - if you don't live in the DC area and would like to spend time with us, there is a guest room and separate bathroom that we hope will get even more use between now and next Memorial Day.

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
As I mentioned, we didn't publish much in May because we were redesigning The Prices Do DC blog. But that wasn't the only reason. We spent more than half  the month in none-DC activities.

We traveled to New Orleans for 6 days for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. You can check out  our experiences ion New Orleans by clicking here.
Can you find Judy and I in this Jazz Fest crowd?

Then we flew for a 3-day weekend in rural Indiana for the wedding our our niece Lisa and her husband Tony.
Another Snyder wedding. Congratulations Lisa and Tony

Finally, we spent 6 days in Knoxville so we could attend our 3-year-old grandson Owen's birthday party and then watch Owen and his sister Audrey while their parents went to Atlanta to find a new house for their July move to that city.
Owen at his cowboy-themed birthday party...



... while Audrey celebrates in song

And, oh yeah, in between the traveling, I also had all 4 of my wisdom teeth extracted. Ah, the joys of aging.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

New Orleans and All That Jazz

We won't be publishing any posts in The Prices Do DC blog while we spend 6 days in New Orleans attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

This is the 2nd weekend of the annual festival. Last week's headliners were The Beach Boys, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

This weekend I am looking forward to seeing Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, The Iguanas, Bruce Hornsby, Mavis Staples, Ziggy Marley, Steve Earle, My Morning Jacket, Warren Haynes, Herbie Hancock, the Eagles, the Foo Fighters, and Bonnie Raiit.

Then there are New Orleans artists such as the Henry Butler, Ivan Neville's Dumstaphunk, Wayne Toups, Bonearama, Allan Tousaint, Big Sam's Funky Nation, Better Than Ezra, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffin, Galactic, The Funky Meters, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.

If we can stay awake we can choose from late night club shows by more than 80 artists including Grace Potter, Soulive, New Birth Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Rockin' Dopsie, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Let the good times roll and we'll resume our blog posts when we get back to DC.

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