Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Family Christmas

Before the new year begins I thought I would take a few days away from art and write about a family Christmas as close to the North Pole as my family goes.  That turns out to be Traverse City, Michigan where my older son Danny lives.  In the summer, it is known as the Cherry Capital, much of the rest of the year I would call it the Snow Capital!  It is right on Lake Michigan and is a popular resort town where many celebrities have summer homes and the film maker Michael Moore lives full time.  It is extremely well known in the nearby states and much less so in the rest of the country.

Danny invited all the family for Christmas and all accepted.  We flew from Santa Fe, my younger son from Los Angeles,  my daughter with husband and 2 sons from Philadelphia and my older children's mother and husband from New York.  Add to that Danny's son and daughter, his girlfriend and her two daughters and her parents and it was a typical American family amalgam of 17 for Christmas dinner.

But as you all know the holiday really begins on Christmas Eve and this was no exception.  We spent it not on the outskirts of Traverse City where  one house is next to the other but 15 minutes away in rolling hills where  the houses are  further apart and, of course, the snow is deeper.  This was at Danny's girlfriend's home.  The Christmas tree in the window with the snow behind was magical.

Her family has a tradition of small bites on Christmas Eve to which all contributed.  My 14 year old grandson, Aidan,  is turning into quite the chef and contributed a delicious pulled pork worthy of Corky's in Memphis, Tennessee.  There were meatballs, shrimp, cheese, home-made sweets, a fabulous smorgasbord of flavors.

Christmas morning at Dannys started at 7a.m. with stocking opening by those 15 and under which we did not attend but we did join in for the gift giving.  I have never seen so many wrapped presents under a tree before.  For an idea of how many gifts were given just multiply one from each to each and multiply by 17... Well,  thankfully it wasn't quite that extreme.

After an informal lox and bagel lunch, a tradition that, I believe came more from the Jewish side of the family, we had some much needed exercise, a long walk for some while others went for a swim, making room for a huge brisket and turkey dinner.

Where does the gift giving tradition come from?  The obvious answer for Christmas is the three Kings bringing gifts to the Christ Child, but we can be quite sure the tradition started long before that. Almost every culture and religion has occasions on which to make gifts.  Think about how many holidays you might give a gift and sometimes you just do it to make someone happy, like bringing flowers home for your significant other.  And think of how disappointed we are if we perceive that the recipient, no matter his/her age, is not pleased with the gift.  The act of giving is a human instinct that we find necessary in order to feel fulfilled. 

The strain of having a group of people together, with even more at stake if it is family, is naturally exhausting, especially for the hosts who make this all happen.  Why do we do this to ourselves once or twice a year?  Because it is not only the way we bond and keep in touch with family but also get to meet and mingle with those who have joined the greater family recently.  With an infinite number of variations this tradition exists throughout the world and is usually focused on the winter solstice.

With all best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013 !

Sunday, December 23, 2012

New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate Y Más

What better subject for Christmas Eve than cuisine and chocolate!  Above is the title of an exhibition that just opened at the Museum of International Folk Art here in Santa Fe.  I must confess that while it is the most popular tourist attraction among the State run museums I have never been a big fan, but this time they hit the nail on the head. 

This show is beautifully thought out and installed.  What has been getting the most attention and praise are the kitchens that were set up including a New Mexican Hearth, a Spanish Kitchen and a New Mexican Colonial Kitchen.  The Hearth is a model of what would have been built in a traditional one room house made of adobe bricks mud and plaster with a kiva fireplace which one still finds in houses today. The family lived in and cooked in this room until the family was settled and could afford both the time and money to expand the building.

The curator of the exhibition, Nicolasa Chávez is 14th generation New Mexican on her father’s side, which is unusual even in this part of the world.  So who better qualified to work on the subject of the history of Southwest cooking.

I was not surprised to learn that a great many foreign foods were brought to the Southwest, what I did not realize was that our exports caught on abroad.  Tomatoes and peppers were imported into Spain from the New World.  Tomato sauce was not known before that.  I must say I remember when I was a child and taken to Italy and I found out you couldn’t get pizza there.  Boy, was I disappointed!  Never fear, today it is as ubiquitous in Italy as it is all over the United States.

One of my favorite food and drink combinations is wine and chocolate. Chocolate has been part of the Mesoamerican culture since 1800-1400 BC and was first discovered in North America by Christopher Columbus on one of his later voyages to our continent at the very beginning of the 16th century.   It had been known in New Mexico, however, since the 11th century.  It was originally drunk unsweetened and was not to the taste of the European settlers.  The cacao bean, on its own, is quite bitter but after ingredients such as sugar, milk, honey and cinnamon were added it gained in popularity.  It was only in the mid-19th century when the United States military began its occupation of the Southwest that the tea and coffee they brought with them replaced chocolate as the most popular drinks.

Though, New Mexico may not be the first place you would think to start a vineyard tour,
vineyards were planted here as early as 1629 by Franciscan Monks at various missions along the Rio Grand Valley and  we had the earliest wine production of any of the territories.  By 1884 New Mexico was already producing a million barrels a year and was the 5th largest wine producer in the country.  There was a lull during the 20th century but today, again, there is a great deal of wine produced here.

What I wish I could show you here is a 50-minute video shown in the exhibition courtesy of the University Arizona Press.  It is called, “Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods” and it traces not just it’s history in the Southwest but it’s entire 3,000 year history.  One can learn so much about this fabulous international food. The film was produced by Arecho Productions inc. and it can be acquired directly here.

Clearly there is a lot more to the exhibition than I have outlined and much of the information is about the cross fertilization of foods between this part of the world and Europe.  Even though the exhibition will run for another 12 months, by its very nature it is ephemeral.  I do hope that they produce a catalog for the show so that the focused presentation of the exhibition and its content won’t be lost.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What To Do With The Kids

The other day it went down to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in Santa Fe after one of the warmest falls ever.  This started me thinking about how many peoples’ lives would be moving indoors.  Particularly for city children, comes the inevitable question how to keep them entertained.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the Stiebel solution is often the art museum.  Yes, we were those “terrible” parents who would drag our kids with us when we would head off to an auction sale or an art exhibition. 

When my wife was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum many long years ago she would often have my 2 children in tow and, of course, that afforded the kids many things to do that are not available to the general public, such as helping her in the storerooms and, when they were younger, playing with the models made by the designers for exhibitions. My daughter, Cathy was always the student, patient if not fascinated.

Danny peeks through a model 

One day Penelope noticed that Danny, then about five years old, wasn’t interested in the pictures in an exhibition. When she stooped down to his level she saw that the lampers, in order to light the pictures properly for the adults, placed the lights at such an angle that caused a reflection right into the child’s eyes so he effectively saw nothing but glare.  To get him to engage with the paintings she had to pick him up. Over time Danny became really good at making up comical explanations of what was going on in paintings, until we convulsed with laughter.

I think the best “game” of all is making up one’s own story about a work of art.  The myths that were painted by the old masters, like images of Venus, were often done to legitimize the painting of a nude, but they had to incorporate the figures into a story.    We have an image at our gallery of the Building of Noah’s Ark.  It was painted by a student, Nicolas Bertin, at the end of the 17th century to accomplish an assignment with which he won the Prix de Rome.  The task was to paint a picture showing men dressed, semi dressed, women in beautiful gowns, animals, and a building, i.e. the ark.  But why not let the child that you are escorting make up their own story.  Through that exercise you may see the painting differently yourself and gain a whole new perspective on it.

Recently, Penelope took a four-year-old to the Wheelwright museum here in Santa Fe.  The exhibition they were going to see was about Mary Cabot Wheelwright (1878 – 1958), the founder of the museum.  Looking through books she found a photo of Miss Wheelwright when she was about the 4 year olds’ age.  This allowed the little girl to identify with the woman and the exhibition, giving her a sense of association with the show, and she thoroughly enjoyed it.  Proof came some time later when she met a contemporary in another museum in a different state and her father overheard her say, “If you want to see a really good museum you have to see the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe!

Hunter the tired museum goer

Our son, Hunter, was probably just a little older when we first took him to the Louvre in Paris.   As you know the Louvre is daunting by any standards; once I timed my walk to see one painting which I needed to look at in order to confirm an attribution of a painting that I had. I went in the main entrance of the Museum spent less than 5 minutes in front of the painting and walked straight out again.  It took exactly 30 minutes!  That is a long, long time for a child.  So, Penelope decided first what kinds of pictures and sculptures would be fun for Hunter and where she could build up the story before arriving at the work of art.  One was the Winged Samothrace, the Greek Sculpture of about 190 B.C., because it was huge, had wings and was armless and headless.  Also, it was not far from the entrance and one had to go past Greek and Roman antiquities and sarcophagi.  Hunter became fascinated with dead people in stone coffins and later when we took him to churches, tombs and reliquaries with the saints bones would totally mesmerize him, resulting in endless questions.

I must confess that Penelope and I would often give short shrift to the more modern galleries until one day when Hunter was a teenager we noticed him lagging behind in those same modern installations.  We knew then that he no longer needed a guide and could teach us a thing or two.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


I presume that by now most of you have heard about the new Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln”. I saw it last week with fear and trepidation.  I believe I was worried that I would not like it because all I really heard about it is that it was very long.  Since I am always screaming for an editor this was what I presumed my fate would be.  I needn’t have been worried. 

I have been trying to figure out what has had me so interested in Lincoln.  In 6th grade I wrote the longest report that I ever wrote before college, a 30 page hand written document about Lincoln for a history teacher. At the age of 12 or 13 the assassination of a president was a dramatic and engaging event though this was years before President Kennedy was assassinated. Lincoln’s story and that of the Civil War are inseparable.  In that conflict over 600,000 Americans were killed more than in any other armed conflict before or since. I just found and re-read my school paper and while it gives many of the highlights of Lincoln’s life it does not refer to one of Lincoln’s most important accomplishments, achieved just two and a half months before his death, the passage of the13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The purpose of the 13th amendment is well known even if not by its number.  Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  Lincoln’s earlier “Emancipation Proclamation” had no bearing on the South after the Civil War, therefore, Lincoln felt it necessary to have an amendment to the constitution passed by congress.”

This is the focus of the film and through it we learn many things about Lincoln’s life such as his relationship with his Secretary of State, the Congress, his children and his wife, Mary.  The latter has so often been depicted as simply mad but the film gives her a far more sympathetic portrayal.  In a human scenario Mary begs her husband not to allow their eldest son, Robert, to join the Union army but when Robert says he will not be able to live with himself if he does not serve, there comes a moment when a father, even if he is the President, has to cut the strings.

We have to remember that Lincoln was a Republican and at the time the Republican Party consisted of the liberal legislators and the Democrats were more conservative.  Many of the Republicans were also concerned about giving the Negro total freedom and they did not want to move too quickly.  I personally believe that much of the resistance we see today towards our President are based on similar prejudices.

Daniel Day-Lewis is fabulous as Lincoln and the pain the Civil War inflicts on the President is never far from the surface.  But what amazed me was how great the entire cast is.  An Academy award for Sally Field, best known as the Flying Nun, for her role here as Mary Todd Lincoln would not be out of the question. David Strathairn as William Seward is totally believable as the ever-loyal Secretary of State.  Tommy Lee Jones is so convincing as the radical liberal senator Thaddeus Stevens, who wants nothing less than immediate total equality for all people, in my opinion, practically stole the show.

 The surrender is shown in a very brief meeting where Robert E. Lee sits regally upon his horse and Ulysses S. Grant goes on foot to greet him, and possibly says something that is not heard but Grant’s clear respect for Lee shines through like a beacon in an otherwise dismal day.  The scene probably lasts less than a minute but I found it one of the most emotionally moving of the film.

I would have concluded the film with the passage of the 13th amendment by the Congress on the 31st of January 1865 and not continued to the assassination as well as a flashback. I guess that I am again calling for an editor, but that is a thought more in the interest of the director making the film a bit tighter.  I was, however, not bored, there was so much to learn.  I did not realize that on the night that Lincoln was shot his son Tad was watching a play in a different theater and heard the announcement from that stage.  I would love to sit down with Steven Spielberg and learn why he felt the extra scenes were necessary.