Archive for January, 2010

Looking at art is always nice. Well, usually. Spending time with an artist who created work you like or love? Well, that’s a treat beyond belief. Time slows down and speeds up and your synapses start firing off like crazy. Things just shift a little to the left. Here, some artists we’ve been lucky enough to meet along the way…

This week we’re joined by Tanner Latham, a Birmingham, Alabama-based freelance writer and (getting fancy here) multimedia storyteller. (Nice, right?) Before going out on his own, Tanner spent 10 years wandering around as a travel editor for Southern Living. A folk art enthusiast, Tanner’s put together a unique collection: “I’ve met the artist for every piece I own. Each work of art has a story, and I want to know the truth of that story. Who wants to slog through a mire of interpretation, when you can hear it from the artist’s mouth?”

A fine day of storytelling and art. Tanner's purchases: "Wild Cat" and "Tree of Life."

I ponied up for the half case of Schlitz, because that was the least I could do. My friend David had driven us down to Montgomery, AL, and had scheduled our visit with Mose Tolliver at the artist’s house. David said Mose preferred the brand, and it would ingratiate us to one of the icons of modern folk art.

Though Mose was well into his 80s (he would pass away the following year) and confined to his recliner, he grew increasingly animated as he told stories, particularly about a recent trip to see his girlfriend at a local nursing home. We toasted the afternoon, then his daughter pulled out a trash bag full of paintings stashed beneath a bed. She said Mose had done them in the 1970s. David and I each bought two.–Tanner

Debby made these sketches of dancing lesser prairie chickens on a chilly morning, in a blind, in the dark.

Though I was an art student back in the day and handy with a pencil, it had been years since I’d tried to sketch. But last year, in a cow pasture at the crack of dawn, I met Norman, Oklahoma-based nature artist Debby Kaspari, a presenter at the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival. Debby’s gifts dazzle and inspire me. Her sketches are full of life, her pen and ink drawings are magnificent. Once home, I subscribed to her blog, and pestered her until she became my friend. Now, with Debby’s kind encouragement, I’ve picked up a pencil and started polishing my rusty skills. I’ll never produce anything of Debby’s caliber, but I’m having fun trying.–Sophia

In Herb's world, bulls are green and made of crayons. It's a good world. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Herb Williams wasn’t around the first time I went to his studio. But, thanks to his material of choice–crayons–I instantly liked the guy. He melds the playful and the serious. The Nashville-based artist’s sculptures were my favorite combo: both familiar and a little wacky. And, thanks to the Crayola crayons that perfumed the room, I instantly felt more creative myself. The next time I “met” Herb was by phone two years later when I interviewed him for a profile. It took almost another two years to meet him in person–new studio, same Crayola scent–and get to see how much he really loves creating new works. And that just made me like his art that much more.

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Classy me. (Thanks to Charyn Pfeuffer for snapping the photo--and for filling me in on the local laws.)

Yes, law and order and restrictions on drinking in public and open container laws have their place. I mean, without all that, the U.S. would be like one giant post-frat party college campus. But, now and again, it’s so nice to leave all classy and elegant behavior behind and walk down the street with a beer in hand.* So, looking back to my trip last week, I raise an only-in-my-mind $2 beer special to Las Vegas for allowing its visitors to drink in public. I know it’s a tacky thing to celebrate (and an even tackier way to put it) but, for a little while there, the to-do list could suck it. There was fun to be had. Much fun.

*But, please, be careful out there, ok? And driving under the influence? NO! When you tire of walking, call a taxi. K, Bub?

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The cast members of Cirque du Soleil's "Viva Elvis" jumpsuit into their jobs.

Anybody know what the usual career trajectory is for a lasso expert? It’s not something I ever figured I’d think about but a travel-related coincidence brought the question on.

Last February, I spent some time at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. One highlight of the trip–and there were many–was lasso expert Loop Rawlins’ one-man rope-spinning gun-slinging whip-cracking show. And it was truly a one-man gig. If I’m remembering correctly, he even set the set up and hit play on the music.

Last Tuesday night, I sat down in the theater of the shiny-penny new Aria Hotel & Casino at CityCenter for a preview performance of Viva Elvis, the latest Cirque du Soleil show to hit Vegas. Several scenes in, the stage was dominated by a bunch of hungungous Elvis-as-cowboy sculptures. But the massive Warholian Elvi–that’s the plural of Elvis, right?–weren’t the jaw droppers for me. Loop was. There he was, lassoing away on the stage–and I’m darned sure he didn’t have to set up the stage this go-around.

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The phrase popped into my head, in Roberta Flack’s voice, and hunkered down, becoming a solid earworm. “The first time ever I saw this place.” It seemed like a good title for a Three-fer but for the life of me, I couldn’t nail down what we should write about to fit the title. So, rather than doling out an assignment, I decided to toss out the title and let these girls do with it what they would.

This week’s guest writer is the excellent writing, ukulele playing, tweeting, blogging, traveling Pam Mandel, who struck us as the perfect creative force to take the idea and run with it. And we were right.


What a view! So that's why everyone comes here ... Photo by Pam Mandel

It took me 15 years to get to the top of the Space Needle, that icon of the future as seen from the past. It was my badge of honor, that I’d never seen the city that was my home from the single thing that defined our skyline the most. But the IMAX was sold out and the weather was so pretty. We squeezed into the elevator, three friends and a lot of strangers, and took the 43 second ride to the top. The city laid at our feet, a perfect topographic map, my house over that rise, the ferries sliding across the sound, the water curving away around the green islands.

It was perfect.–Pam


You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? (It's still NYC.) Photo by Jenna Schnuer.

I took one hell of a deep breath. With just one swipe of my MetroCard, I’d traded in the busy hubbub of my then-neighborhood for really old (as in 1697 old) New York City: the largest tract of undisturbed farmland within the city limits. Though I’d lived in the area my entire life, I had no idea the Queens County Farm Museum existed. But–a long subway and bus ride away–there it was. Along with a giant pig, the requisite farm dog, a bunch of chickens, and one big brown cow. And a windmill and old farmhouses. And the ability to breathe. Deeply. I found that there, too. And it stayed put until the subway doors closed behind me on the way home.–Jenna


Though it looked different at the time, this was among my first views of my current hometown.

Considering how little I remember from my first visit to Dallas—I was job hunting, having already decided to move here—it’s odd that I remember making a phone call from Lemmon Avenue and Oak Lawn Boulevard, a major intersection. I don’t remember how I got there (Did I drive? Take a bus?) and I wasn’t sure how to get back to Fort Worth, where I was staying with friends. I called my host and described the intersection, but she had no idea where I was. It was my first clue that Dallas and Fort Worth are not the same place. The intersection has changed, but when I pass it now (as I do often) I see present and past, simultaneously.–Sophia

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Jenna Is With Elvis

There's nothing that can't be improved by a little Elvis.

There's nothing that can't be improved by a little Elvis. Photo by Jenna Schnuer.

No, no .. she’s not dead or hunched over a toilet (as far as I know). She’s in Las Vegas (Viva!) and her laptop seems to have had too much fun … it’s gone nonfunctional, and writing a post for you in the hotel business just isn’t feasible. So until she is back home this weekend, where her reliable desktop will get the job done, she sends this photo of Elvis beanie babies as a placeholder. Just because.

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What Makes a Place Home?

What sort of person chooses to live in a spot like this? Photo by Sophia Dembling.

If you could live anywhere in America, where would you live? Atop a mountain in Colorado? By the beach in California? Nestled among lakes and trees in Wisconsin? In a small town? A big city? Los Angeles? New York City? Oxford, Mississippi? Providence, Rhode Island?

I think about that a lot when I travel, both where I would like to live (everywhere!) and about the choices of others–especially when I see houses like this, planted in the middle of nothing, miles from anything, isolated and exposed.

I understand that not everyone can pull up stakes and move if they don’t like where they’ve landed, but the fact is that someone at some time looked at this great desert expanse and thought, “This is where I will set my roots.” What was it about this spot that said “home” to that person? What kind of people choose to live in a place that would make them feel so small? What is it like to open the door each morning and step out into this overwhelming scenery? How does it feel to live so naked to the sky, the sun, the moon, the wind, the cold, the heat, and people like me, pausing by the side of the road to look, take pictures, and wonder about you?

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So this whole Flyover America thing kicked off a year ago. A whole year. One of the best bits about writing Flyover America is, post posting, waiting for the comments to come in. The back and forth with all of you is just great fun (and you crank up our I-want-to-see-that! in a big way).

From our early days as a bloglet living on the site of our birthparent, World Hum, one reader has joined in the conversation more than the rest. If we gave out FoFA badges, Chris Brown would, most certainly, get a gold-plated one. A “faithful FA reader since day one”–his words, not ours–Chris has been to 49 states (he just needs Alaska to complete his collection) and a bunch of other countries. So we thought it fitting to invite the Huntsville, AL-based aerospace engineer, registered patent agent, and paintball field owner in to add his voice to this week’s Three-fer Friday. Oh, he also chose the topic: I went for the sports, stayed for the place.

They're waiting for you in Bemidji.

“Only in college hockey could Alabama-Huntsville and Bemidji State (Minnesota) be bitter rivals. And without college hockey I would never have driven nineteen hours from Huntsville to Bemidji in my 1986 Cutlass Supreme. Fortunately for me, I did get to see beautiful Lake Bemidji and the Headwaters of the Mississippi. I got to see the famous statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, who local legend says was made anatomically correct but later neutered at the insistence of offended townspeople. Best of all, I learned the meaning of Minnesota Nice from guys like Millsy and the Beaver faithful at watering holes like the Corner Bar. I really only hate those guys for 60 minutes at a time.”–Chris

West Virginia is cash poor but beauty rich. Photo by Sophia Dembling.

I’m not big on spectator sports; the last team I followed was the Amazin’ Mets. Yeah, I’m that old. But had my first travel-writing assignment not been whitewater rafting on the raucous Gauley River in West Virginia, I might not have visited this exquisitely beautiful state.

West Virginia keeps a low profile, probably because it can’t afford to get our attention; only Mississippi has a lower median household income. But since that first trip, I’ve returned to WV a couple of times, exploring Charles Town, taking the waters in Berkeley Springs, learning a thing of two at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. West Virginia is our Cinderella state–poor but beautiful.–Sophia

This is Rhett. According to his bio, his "favorite foods include corndogs, hotdogs, chili dogs, and BC Eagles." Photo from goterriers.com.

Another college hockey tale. As an undergrad at Boston University (1988-1992), I preferred watching games from the discomfort of the old Walter A. Brown Arena–now games are played at the fancy schmancy Agganis Arena–but, when away games around town called for it, I went. Looking back, I realize I probably wouldn’t have ventured up to the land of the Boston College (blech) Eagles–Chestnut Hill, MA–or out to Northeastern’s section of Boston all that much. I saw more, experienced more, and expanded my understanding of Boston. (But, seriously, those B.C. kids were trouble–during one game they hurled pennies at our heads. Classy, eh?) Oh, um, cause Terrier pride keeps on keeping on: huzzah for the 2009 NCAA men’s hockey champs!–Jenna

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