LA Cultural Forays – Travel Tips

Los Angeles is more than surfing dudes and starlets. But you knew that. Our recent visit included a toe-dip into some truly world-class cultural institutions.

The Museums

LACMA

Streetlamps on Parade

In conjunction with a visit to the adjacent LaBrea Tar Pits, we visited three museums in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) complex. We wandered down the serene walkway of the Pavilion for Japanese Art vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s sinuous Guggenheim—a sure cure for I-10 traffic stresses. We didn’t allow time (perhaps a week-and-a-half!) to fully take in the other buildings’ exhibits, but did hook up with a Resnick Pavilion tour of a temporary exhibit about artistic cross-fertilization between SoCal and Mexico, “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico: 1915-1985.” Led by a knowledgeable and interesting docent, we got a lot out of it.

We walked through the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, happening upon Chris Burden’s delightful Metropolis II (see it in frenetic action here), which actually runs only limited weekend hours. Even at a standstill, amazing.

On another visit, I want to check out the Craft and Folk Art Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, and the Automotive Museum, all of which are in LACMA’s vicinity.

12/12 UPDATE – The Getty Center reopened 12/8 after a two-day closure due to wildfires in the vicinity. Buildings were kept closed to protect the collection. Why the art can stay.

Getty Center

Bougainvillea bouquets at the Getty

The lengthy trip (in terms of time, not distance) to the Getty Center ends at a tram stop, from which you’re whisked uphill to the art museums proper. Again, there are multiple buildings, with views to the hills, the Pacific, and downtown in between them. We took a grounds tour, learning about the architecture and construction choices, as well as the landscaping, which is equally part of the complex’s design. The “museum highlights” tour sounded like an efficient idea, but is totally dependent on the current whims of its docent-leader. Ours had a deep affinity for Saint Jerome. Even so, she got us in and out of several buildings. Paintings are distributed over the top floors of several of the pavilions, where they can get better light, and decorative arts occupy the bottom floors. A temporary exhibit I gladly spent time in was “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas.” (One of my many odd passions.) So much was lost, and what was saved is so remarkable.

Music and Theater

Walt Disney Concert HallWe weren’t willing to take out a new mortgage on our house, so did not purchase tickets for a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. However, we took the acoustiguide tour of its several floors, which allowed us to see many parts of the building, excluding the auditorium itself—too much demand for rehearsals, they say. Beautiful, and the building’s curved aluminum skin changes color and appearance as the light changes. (You can take a virtual tour at the website above.) And within walking distance, theoretically, to our hotel.

 

One evening we attended a performance at the Ahmanson Theatre, across the street from the Disney Concert Hall. The theaters in the complex have a full season of opera, plays, and other performances. We saw the musical Bright Star, written by Edie Brickell and Steven Martin (yes, that one). The story was more than a bit predictable, but the production and cast were first-rate.

So You Shouldn’t Starve

Patina, a $$$$$ restaurant in the performing arts complex serves delicious food, with (more of a rarity these days) impeccably gracious service. It was our gastro-splurge. We had a nice lunch at the Getty, as well.

Books to Toss in Your Suitcase

Columbus

“A lot of today’s Hollywood films don’t have a lot of patience. They sort of expect the audience to get bored really quickly, so they’re like, ‘We’ve got to have an explosion every 10 minutes.’” That was said about the dystopian science-fiction sequel Blade Runner 2049. It’s hard then to imagine how a film like Columbus, the debut film of writer/director Kogonada,  got made at all or that American audiences would sit through it. I liked it.

Set in Columbus, Indiana, home to an astonishing collection of modernist architecture, the buildings speak to a young city resident, Casey (played by Haley Lu Richardson). She’s been offered a chance to go to Boston to work and study with a prominent woman architect, but has decided to stay where she is, shelving books in the local library. She lives with her mother, recently recovered from a bad meth habit, and is afraid to leave her. They treat each other like thin-shelled eggs that require constant vigilance. She has an admirer at the library (Rory Culkin), who, like her mother, urges her to go.

This stasis changes when she meets Jin (John Cho), the New York-based son of a prominent Korean architecture scholar who suffered a stroke while visiting the town. He’s in the hospital and may never recover consciousness. He and Jin have had a distant relationship and Jin feels little connection now. He wants to get back to his life. The father is probably closer to his long-time assistant (Parker Posey), who, like Casey, has given up her individuality to play a supporting role.

Richardson and Cho bring great depth to their parts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them—indeed, the entire cast—work. There’s not a lot of yelling or acting out. And not one explosion.

The example of Casey, denying herself so much to protect her mother, weighs on Jin, just as his encouragement to follow her dream inspires her. This sounds simple, but the movie never drifts into the banal. The healing power of architecture is often referenced and the Columbus buildings, lit from inside at night or seen from odd angles, are stunningly beautiful. They loom over the characters studying them like benign watchmen. Arty, and satisfying—as Sean P. Means said in the Salt Lake Tribune, “a tender, beautiful gem that should not be overlooked.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 84%.

Meadow Brook Hall: SE Michigan Gem

Meadow Brook Hall

photo: Mark Goebel, creative commons license

If you’ve visit Southeastern Michigan, you probably know about charming Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. You may have taken in  a Ford factory tour (conducted in the super-automated Ford F-150 plant, not the grimy industrial behemoth nearby. PS—if you are tempted to blame off-shoring for the loss of American manufacturing jobs, one look at the floor of this factory will give you second thoughts. The culprit isn’t just foreigners, it’s automation. Hardly an assembly-line worker in sight.)

You’ve enjoyed the fantastic murals cropping up in downtown Detroit. And the area’s stunning museums, the zoo, Belle Isle, Hitsville, USA. The trendy upscale restaurants. But if you sojourned in the Motor City without wheels of your own, you may have missed another compelling attraction, Meadow Brook Hall and gardens, 40 minutes north of downtown in a bucolic section of the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Personal Tragedies & Great Wealth

The 180-room Tudor revival mansion was the home of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson. Her first husband, John Dodge, died in 1920, a victim of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and his younger brother Horace died less than a year later. She became one of the wealthiest women in American when she and her sister-in-law sold the brothers’ automotive business for the equivalent of more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars.

John left Matilda with three young children, and in 1925, she married wealthy lumber merchant Alfred Wilson. Tragedy continued to stalk her, however. John and Matilda’s young daughter Anna Margaret died the year before her remarriage. In 1938, her only son Daniel died on his honeymoon, when he drowned off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.

By then, the Wilsons had built Meadow Brook Hall, now a National Historic Landmark, completed in 1929. Everywhere you look, inside the house and on the grounds, there are details to intrigue and delight the eye and loads of great stories. Once Matilda was surprised by a party, when the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra struck up “Happy Birthday” for her, and a young Frank Sinatra sang.

Meadowbrook Hall

Meadow Brook Hall offers a house tour several times a day—our guide was knowledgeable and talked more about the history than the minutia of decoration which so often bog down tour guides. You also hear about Mrs. Wilson’s significant charitable enterprises, including providing land and funding for the establishment of Oakland University, and her brief stint as Lieutenant Governor of Michigan. The Hall offers a “behind-the-scenes tour,” which includes servant quarters and the attic (I wonder whether you can climb Alfred Wilson’s secret staircase!). Also a walking tour of the estate, woods, and playhouses. The garages hold classic Dodge vehicles from the early 1900s.

Top off your visit with an outdoor concert at the nearby Meadow Brook Amphitheatre.

Books to throw in Your Suitcase

  • Once in a Great City – by David Maraniss, highly readable history of the many facets of Detroit—cultural, racial, economic, political—in 1963
  • The Turner House – by Angela Flournoy, a novel about a large black family as the city of Detroit changes around them. My review.

Capitol Ideas

California capitol

The California Capitol; photo: Jeff Turner, creative commons license

Two years ago a visit to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield revealed such a feast of 19th c. stenciled decor, state capitols have been added to my must-see list. Let me guess: you haven’t seen the capitol in your state since junior high. (Visiting school groups is a good reason to plan your visit for the summer or off-hours.)

Capitol buildings generally offer tours, or you may be able to roam freely, helpful brochure in hand. The legislature may or may not be in session. Either way, those chambers and the building as a whole are likely rich with history, symbols of the state, statues, portraits, and murals, as well as sheer decoration and impressive domes. Tour guides are especially interested in telling you how much things weigh.

The California Capitol

The capitol building in Sacramento (completed 1874) was a little hard to get into in June, with construction on the grounds and some entrances closed for security reasons. The south entrance, facing N Street, is open. The building is set in a forty-acre park that contains a lovely rose garden and memorials. The Vietnam War memorial was especially moving, as were the tributes to fallen firefighters and peace officers. Inside is a small museum, with permanent historical exhibits and a feature gallery.

The House and Senate chambers were beautiful—perhaps the hope is that surrounding legislators with elegance will lead to lofty thoughts—the House mainly green (for California) and the Senate mainly red (patterned on London’s Houses of Parliament), or so the guide said. It was fun reviewing the portraits of California governors that line the hallways to see whether I could recognize any of them. I did identify Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the basement, where the tour starts, are murals painted in a particular dark style called “California decorative” that is repeated in some works at the nearby Crocker Art Museum.

The Pennsylvania Capitol

Harrisburg is such a down-at-heels city, this seems like a dubious destination, but the capitol is beautiful. When President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it “the handsomest building I ever saw.” White marble and gold leaf are everywhere in the lobby (lobbyists, too), and the floor comprises Pennsylvania-made Moravian tiles interspersed with mosaics symbolizing animals, industries, occupations, and historical features of the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome - Harvey Barrison

Pennsylvania Capitol Dome; photo: Harvey Barrison, creative commons license

Looking up, you can see the 272-foot, 52 million pound dome, reportedly inspired by the one in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, while the lobby’s grand staircase and three-tiered gallery were designed with the Paris Opera House in mind.

William Penn was a Quaker and a highly religious man, and biblical quotations abound in the capitol’s décor and in the rich symbolism of the many works of art (another attempt at fostering high-mindedness, perhaps). Many of the murals, including those in the Supreme Court, were painted by Philadelphia artist Violet Oakley. Oakley was the first woman artist to receive such a commissions, which began when she was only 28 years old. Over a period of 25 years, she painted 43 murals for the capitol.

Books to throw in your suitcase

For Sacramento:

  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – an award-winning memoir about Chinese immigrants in California (and so much more) – this one I’ve read and highly recommend, even though it takes place in Stockton, not Sacramento
  • Locke 1928 by Shawna Yang Ryan – if you are particular as to place, this is the story of the tiny town of Locke, a few miles outside Sacramento, which was a hotbed of vice
  • The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler – hey, you’re on vacation

And Harrisburg:

  • Visit The Midtown Scholar independent bookstore
  • Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley – classic reminder of life before women’s lib, set in Philadelphia
  • Plain Missing (An Amish Mystery) by Emma Miller – the writing of mystery and romance novels set in central Pennsylvania’s Amish country has become a cottage industry

Sedona Area’s Astonishing Copper Museum

Shell Casing Art, Copper Art Museum

Shell Casing Art, photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The tiny town of Clarkdale, Arizona, midway between Cottonwood and Jerome, in the outskirts of the much-visited Sedona region, hosts the not-to-be-missed Copper Art Museum. One of the first metals humans discovered—it and gold are the only ones that have a “color”—copper has been mined and worked for ten thousand years. Clarkdale was a company town for copper mining in the nearby mountains.

Through imaginative displays in the town’s former high school (built 1928), visitors see much more than art, they get a taste of mineralogy, astronomy, and history, plus the beautiful and varied ways copper has been put to use in architectural decoration, kitchens, winemaking, and war. Who knew?

On display are 525 brass (copper + zinc) artillery shell casings that World War I soldiers scavenged and transformed into one-of-a-kind artworks, startlingly intricate molds inspiring lavish desserts, religious works and paintings on copper, a wall of beer steins.

The extent of the collection suggests a seriousness of purpose, yet the curators have a light touch. They include yearbook pages from the high school, binding the current use of the building to its past. They include amusing and interesting “fast facts,” such as details about various copper-related crimes. They explain why copper is the desired material for certain medical uses, doorknobs, and in jewelry. And they provide a straight-faced set of definitions for carrot, caret, carat, and karat, for the confused. You make your way through the museum following copper footprints embedded in the floor.

There’s something fascinating and beautiful for everyone here!

Crime novels set in and around Arizona:

The Sinister Pig – A disused Mexican copper mine figures in this Tony Hillerman classic
The Blue Hammer – Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and a leggy blonde in the desert
Rage Against the Dying – female protagonist takes on a serial killer in Becky Masterman’s exciting debut

Or pick your own mayhem at Scottsdale’s fantastic Poisoned Pen Bookstore, 4014 N. Goldwater Boulevard. Floor-to-ceiling mysteries, thrillers, and crime and 300 author events a year!

Queen City Culture

Taft Museum, Cincinnati

Taft Museum of Art

Last week I reported on the remarkable hotels and some of the sights and history of Cincinnati. Here’s a rundown of arts opportunities for tourists, and we certainly did not get to all of them!

Museums

The Taft family has done much to create a lasting legacy of arts programs in the city. One of the family mansions downtown has been turned into the Taft Museum of Art, whose permanent collection includes a wide representation of different artists and styles, and a lot of beautiful Chinese porcelain. Nicely displayed, approachable.

We made no attempt to cover all the ground of the Cincinnati Art Museum, ignoring the permanent collection in favor of interesting temporary exhibits, “Van Gogh in the Undergrowth,” effectively curated to demonstrate the influence of painters of his era on each other. Plus an exhibit of the work of the legendary Lexington, Kentucky, Camera Club. Lovely gift shop, too.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is a memorial, a detailed story of the slave trade, and an enlightening examination of the people who sought freedom north of the Ohio River and those who aided them along the way. Multimedia presentations.

American Sign Museum

American Sign Museum; photo: 5chw4r7z, creative commons license

The quirky American Sign Museum, whose main exhibition is set up like an old-time Main Street, the museum explores the evolution of advertising signs of every type (who knew there were so many!). It’s designed to tickle your nostalgia centers, like Simple Simon with the pieman on the sign for Howard Johnson’s 28 Flavors—pistachio was my favorite.

Arts

We didn’t partake of the renowned Cincinnati Orchestra (also started by a Mrs. Taft), and the Kennedy Center had invited the Cincinnati Ballet to perform its “Nutcracker” in the nation’s capital. But we did see a lively, well-staged performance of Much Ado About Nothing by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is soon moving to new and expanded quarters.

Architecture

Loved the Romanesque City Hall and the old telephone exchange, with a parade of dial phones carved into a frieze above exterior windows. Many other buildings had charming art deco details. And cannot overlook the beautiful fish sculpture on the exterior of McCormick and Schmick’s downtown outpost!

Saint_Peter_in_Chains_Cathedral_Cincinnati_Ohio_

Stained glass in Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnati

Right by City Hall at Eighth and Plum are two stunning religious edifices. A classic Greek design, the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Chains (1845) has large murals depicting the stations of the cross that were done by Cincinnati artist Carl Zimmerman, inspired by Greek pottery painting. The sienna background with gold, black, and white figures creates a most unusual—and beautiful—effect. A magnificent gold mosaic glows from behind the altar, and the stained glass is a plaid of colored and clear panes.

We were lucky that a bat mitzvah was about to take place at the Byzantine-Moorish Isaac M. Wise Temple (1866) across the street, and we slipped inside to see the interior before the service began. The Temple’s astonishing painted décor covers every surface, much like religious buildings you may have seen in Central Europe. This historic temple is “the fountainhead” of Reform Judaism in America.

In Mount Adams, we stopped into the Holy Cross Immaculata Church (1859), smaller and more traditional than St. Peter in Chains, soaring white and light inside, with spectacular views of the river and city from its hilltop perch.

Also in this series:

Frida Kahlo: Her Casa Is Our Casa

Kahlo, desert

photo: Jodi Goalstone

After setting all-time attendance records with 500,000 visitors at New York’s Botanical Garden (NYBG), Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life is firmly planted in Tucson through next May.

Tucson Botanical Gardens is the only other American institution to display the inspiring homage to Kahlo’s Casa Azul, her childhood home in Mexico City. That distinction is fitting because Sonoran Desert plant species are quite similar to the ones at Casa Azul. Kahlo described her beloved home this way: “Mi casa no es tan cómoda, pero tiene un color muy bonito. My house is not so comfortable, but it is nice of color.”

According to an article in the Desert Leaf, a Tucson magazine, the idea for the exhibition germinated when the NYBG’s vice president for exhibitions interviewed a job candidate who had worked and studied in Latin America. Discussing their joint botanical passions led them to the idea of showcasing Kahlo’s gardens.

NYBG engaged hundreds of scientists along with Broadway scenic designer Scott Pask (a part-time Tucson resident and graduate of the University of Arizona) to recreate the key structural elements.

Kahlo, Rivera

photo: Jodi Goalstone

Renowned for her unsmiling, direct gaze and iconic unibrow as much as her artistic acumen, Kahlo found refuge and inspiration in her gardens. After her marriage (not to mention separation, divorce and remarriage) to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, they purchased property adjacent to Casa Azul and tripled the size of the gardens. They lived there from 1929 until 1954.

According to exhibit materials, Rivera, at Kahlo’s suggestion, designed a four-tier pyramid structure to house his large collection of pre-Hispanic artifacts. Agave and cacti crowned the palapa (woven grass) roof to reflect the blend of indigenous culture and history. This representation is what the visitor sees as a centerpiece of the exhibition. Other plantings around Casa Azul included yucca, organ pipe cactus, bougainvillea, and jacaranda.

But the area wasn’t meant only for solitary contemplation, according to Mexican artist Humberto Spindola. NYBG commissioned him to recreate The Two Fridas, a Kahlo double self-portrait using amate (bark paper) typical of Aztec and traditional Mexican folk art, which Kahlo often used in her work.

photo: Jodi Goalstone

photo: Jodi Goalstone

Spindola told the Desert Leaf: “(They) held many fiestas and gatherings at the house and gardens, entertaining their many artist, poet, writer, and communist friends” with platters of Kahlo’s wonderful food, lots of tequila, and live mariachi music. They surely made an unusual couple; Rivera was about a foot taller than the 5’3” Kahlo and was 20 years her senior.

If you are planning a Southwest sojourn, Tucson is a diverse and distinctive destination. It now is a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, and has a host of notable attractions including the Desert Museum, Mission San Xavier del Bac, and walking, hiking, and horseback riding in Sabino Canyon in the surrounding Santa Catalina Mountains. Additionally, there now is daily non-stop air service from JFK to Tucson on American Airlines.

For more information on the Kahlo exhibition, go to www.tucsonbotanical.org.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.