Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bird Girl, BBQ & Biking

"Bird Girl" bronze statue by Sylvia Shaw Judson (1936)

Time for another extended bout of introspective navel-gazing... after the fold...

My almost daily routine down here is a familiar ritual that begins with an early rise, biking in the couple miles to downtown Savannah at sunrise, and getting a breakfast croissant and coffee at the Caraway Café. Not withstanding researching and writing the thesis paper, I have been spending quite a bit of time at SCAD's Jen Library which is conveniently located right across the street from the cafe, and incidentally right up the road from Norris Hall, home of the Sequential Art department. I typically camp out for six or eight hours on alternate class days, and for those days when I've class I'll still spend a couplefew hours perusing the stacks and working in the sketchbook. Most days I set up on the second floor in the periodical section, right by some big windows that overlook the street below (see picture below). This was before being forced to relocate upstairs to another, comparatively quieter floor due to the inundation of annoying idiots who somehow missed out on the fact that they were in a goddamn library and should keep their voices down - why they don't have any quiet zones in this library is baffling. This is the time of the semester that there are a fair number of students like myself who are on a very short mental leash, aka fried, and the annual Halloween fetish for zombies has an even creepier resemblance to reality as haggard students shamble around "campus."
Meanwhile, the neighborhood also consists of word-famous Leopold's Ice Cream, and next-door to that is the cinematic epicenter for the upcoming Savannah Film Festival, which in lieu of rolling out a red carpet does set up some very nice orange pylons. I'm always bemused and embittered at the range of contrast on display: the overlap between the classes, between the haves and the have-nots... from make-believe models in designer shoes stepping over drunks, neck-craning tourists on a "ghost walk" who look right past the very real and much scarier specters of the haunted homeless picking trash from garbage bins, to crack-houses just down the street from lavish mansions with their iron bars that try to offset the imprisoning effect with ornateness and antiquity. There are the many shops with big, beautiful windows that in the quiet, early hours of the morning showcase instead the surrounding pavement which is littered with the corpses of beautiful, but dead, little songbirds. Not unlike so many people, they have mistakenly bashed away their lives by thinking what's inside these stores was a sort of freedom, a way out. And then the street is swept clean again in time for the new crowds of customers.

Broughton Street from Jen Library

Recently I’ve been sampling a bit of the cultural scene, which involved a visit to the Telfair Museums. This is actually a network of three different buildings in the historic district, one of which is the Telfair Academy of Arts & Sciences proper, housed in the landmark Telfair Family Mansion. Built in 1818 it is a gorgeous example of the "Regency" architectural style, with a lavish interior of sweeping stairs, vaulted, cathedral-like ceilings and ornate columns. Ornately framed society portraits and plaster casts of 1st century sculptures are interspersed with rotating exhibits from their collection of 18th -19th century paintings. One image in particular caught my eye: George Wesley Bellow's 1913 oil "Over To Blackhead," which was done after a trip with Robert Henri over to the artist colony on Monhegan Island in Maine. Another interesting moment came after reading a caption to Willem de Kooning's 1953 oil "Baseball Players," which attributed a quote and a perspective that I'd long been paraphrasing in my own classes and personal approach to drawing and art:

"A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image."

One of the centerpieces in the collection is the famous “Bird Girl” statue, which attracted a lot of attention after being published as the cover to the bestseller “Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil.” So much so that it was removed from Bonaventure Cemetary and donated to the museum. Photographs not being allowed, I resorted to the traditional art student method of taking notes and did the opening sketch posted above. In the meantime, the security guard/docent who was shadowing me got asked by another patron: “what was the name of the person that the statue was a headstone for?” which stumped not only him, but anyone else at the museum I asked (answer: the Trosdal family plot). Not, as the docent jokingly said, over Duane Allman's grave, nor did it gush bourbon from one bowl and beer from the other even if it was originally designed as a fountain.

Jepson: light & shadow

Then it was over to the Jepson Center for the Arts, a thoroughly modern structure built in 2002 that is geared to the display of more modern, progressive works. The building itself is an artwork itself, an architectural accomplishment that is quite an abrupt contrast from it's historical surroundings, not unlike how the stark presence of UAF's Museum of the North stands out in Fairbanks. Of the half-dozen exhibitions, one that was notably outstanding was "Alter Ego: A Decade of Work by Anthony Goicolea." Photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation works A particularly impressive piece was a diptych where a hand-drawn (42 x 58" graphite and acrylic on Mylar) negative is paired with a positive mirror image (chromogenic print). Goicolea also favors large-scale photographic prints of digitally assembled compositions culled from structures, people, props and animals that are all skillfully woven into a single cohesive image that portrays an environment that is unified yet has an uneasy, haunting aesthetic. Also of note was a small side-gallery with a collection of 19th century stoneware from a South Carolina district (Edgefield, which features a unique alkaline glaze), in an exhibit titled "Beyond Utility: Pottery Created by Enslaved Hands." Created by African-American slaves, the almost archeological vessels, jugs and jars in many cases are credited to either "unknown" or "attributed to Dave, the Potter."

I got your culture right here

Enough of the artsy-fartsy, now let’s talk foodie: the regional culinary flavor of distinction (aside from a Low Country boil) is hands-down the barbecue sauces. Sadly enough, the Pacific North-West region is largely bereft of any other option in the sauce department than the usual ketchup-based red stuff. But waddling over to the closest Piggly-Wiggly reveals shelves of the classic Carolina species, of which this particular supermarket chain supports local businesses by stocking some notable selections. Most involve a yellow mustard (mustard seed, mustard bran), apple cider vinegar, caramel, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, honey and/or some combination thereof including their respective proprietary blend of seasonings.There are several regional and sub-regional variations on the theme, all of which deserve their own respective research, and since time is running out for my tenure, I anticipate the importation of several gallon-sized jugs back to Maine. First on the list is personal favorite Hunter’s Pride (Guyton, GA), Update: dang I had forgotten another good local one, Busy "B" (Pembroke, GA), followed by local hero Johnny Harris (Savannah, GA), which is second third only to Williamson Brothers (Marietta, GA), with an honorable mention going to Shealy’s (Leesville, SC).
However, during my couple-mile commute to class on bike, I pedal right past a modest little setup right on the side of the road called Randy’s Barb-B-Q. About that time of the morning they are just firing up one or more of the several large cast-iron smoker units, and I get to catch a tantalizing whiff of what’s to come later on, around lunch-hour. That’s when there’s always a line of folks cued up outside the window of the tiny little one-room hut where boxes and bags of ribs or chicken are doled out to a hungry crowd of customers. If I get out of class early enough and head straight on back, I can just catch a hearty meal ($8 for a “medium” which is a generous portion) and stuff a double-bagged serving in my backpack, which is still steaming five minutes later when I get home, slathered with their secret sauce.

...nom nom nom...

One side effect of my commute is the "biking-on-bubblewrap" syndrome, which is to say that this is the season the live oaks are bombing away with their load of acorns, and the pip-pip-pippidy-pop under wheel is a constant noise everywhere I ride. Biking around Savannah also makes one deeply thirsty, and not just because of the heat or humidity either. It incurs a keen appreciation for the fragility of life, as not a week has gone by without some narrow miss involving crazy traffic, inattentive drivers, or an equivalent deathride in inclement conditions. My house-mate has pointed out how usually every quarter there are several or more SCAD students who get hit by a car while riding about (not to mention the widespread and commonplace occurrence of bicycle theft), but that is more than likely due to the equal stupidity of many idiot bikers. Nevertheless it can get a bit tricky maneuvering next to heavy traffic when your confined to essentially a single-track concrete chute less than a couple feet wide that borders most streets, and is angled so as to catch the voluminous run-off from the frequent and sudden storms. Dodging broken glass, downed limbs, clumps of Spanish moss and the occasional magnolia bud is a challenge all the while at elbows-length from folks speeding whilst chatting away on their cell-phones. I bike defensively, which involves what I like to think as an Alaskan sensibility: not unlike some of the other bigass hairy things in the road, I'd probably cause at least as much vehicular damage as a moose would, so people tend to swerve well around me.

Beer Troll: The Alcoholic's Dungeon

Anyways, back to being deeply thirsty. The number-one place to slake my thirst is still Moon River Brewing Company, where a couple folks still remembered me from eight years ago, which in a way is touching, if not testament to how much creative juices were imbibed back in the day. In fact, "Creative Juices" was the title of what remains to this day the only group exhibition of sequential art graduate students to happen at SCAD – more to come on that account in a later posting. I did venture back down into the cavelike cellar where that show had been displayed, and it evoked many a nostalgic memory. Or that could have been the fault of the Swamp Fox IPA.
Now the other drink down here (Savannah, not the cellar) is of course... sweet tea: “An important part of the tradition of the South, it is often consumed daily as a staple drink” which would account for many a rotten tooth and diabetic hummingbird. It’s also a misdemeanor for an establishment in the state of Georgia that serves iced tea not to also offer sweet tea on the menu. Of which I have lately been enjoying quite a few as an accompaniment to my other guilty pleasure, subs. A good sammich is a thing of simple, honest pleasure, a beauty to behold, and surprisingly enough a damn hard thing to find, but the best one in town can be had at Screamin’ Mimi’s independent pizzeria. "Break your chains - eat local!"

Obvious differences aside, I am always reminded of how another subtle aspect of living down here is contrasted with my years of trekking about the tundra. Mainly I think of what a complete opposite experience it is up in Alaska with the wide, wide open landscape, as opposed to here, where instead it's channeled inward, somewhat ingrown, closed off and away from any line of sight, and you're always under an omnipresent canopy, ensconced in a tunnel of green. Everything that doesn’t move fast enough is eventually draped in moss or twined in kudzu, and you are always drenched in sweat.

Forsythe, forsooth

From biking or walking about, to the daily routine of re-arming the house security system, the continual level of hyper-vigilance at all times, being "over-aware" of one’s surroundings is a little bit mentally and emotionally fatiguing, and a couple times to date I’ve just felt completely stressed-out, worn-out and overwhelmed to the point of semi-paranoia and extreme homesickness. From Alaska to Maine, and now here in Savannah, it seems at times I’m always surrounded by herds of tourists, and you just get really tired of not belonging. Much as it's always fun to embark on another adventure, I miss being a part of a community, it reaffirms that I am at heart a country moose mouse, and being amidst strangers in a rush all the time is noisy and depressing. It's a deeper dislocation: I've been lost from the Brooks Range to the Okefenokee Swamp , and there's nothing scarier, worse - or easier, than being lost in a crowd in some city somewhere far from family or friend. Might be a case of the moss-is-always-greener syndrome, but the "leaf in the wind" does grow a little old, as these constant reboots have a finite use before the need for a period of connectiveness and incubation begins to grow. I think in terms of an overall perspective on such patterns, there's a tendency to go to extremes before finding a balance.
Not to paint a grim picture by any means, as the kind generosity of a few folks have definitely made this artistic "boot camp" another memorable adventure - not the least of which is the presence of some adoptive orange fuzzies that make it seem like a home away from home, wherever the hell that might be...

Brudda Nubbs and Squeeks
And as always, here’s the link to the slowly growing Deep South photograph album in my Picasa web-galleries.


  1. We moved so often when I was growing up, I'm not even from where I was born. Consequently, once I settled in this house I have never seriously entertained the idea of packing up and leaving it. The thought crosses my mind often enough, but no theoretical attraction in another place is strong enough incentive to destroy the connections I have here.

    On the flip side, as a habitual stranger I had long ago been trained out of the habit of seeking and forming attachments or even a lot of casual associations that don't spring automatically from necessary functions like work. Even when I was still in college I would go to my apartment or dorm when I was not scheduled to do something else. I regret the waste of opportunities to read and ask questions of professors and fellow students in every discipline. I had been made solitary by the difficulties of being the new kid over and over, then ripped away by the time I started to establish a position. It simply was too much trouble.

    The connections I have here are important to me even though I appear to be solitary and unconcerned. It's all relative.