Blondie, MassMoCA, the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, Shaker Museums, Dogs, and the Impossibility of Failure - Part 1

Blondie, MassMoCA, the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, Shaker Museums, Dogs, and the Impossibility of Failure - Part 1
 These get explained at the end of Part 2.
Last weekend my husband, Bill, and I took a mini vacation trip out to Western Massachusetts. The primary reason was that we had tickets to see Blondie at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), but also, we just really needed to get away. We secured a cute, super retro (authentically; this was not a hipster re-creation), goin'-to-grandma's style apartment through Airbnb for the weekend, which turned out to be perfect. It was in a working class neighborhood of Adams, within sight of the old textile mill where it is probable the building's original residents, in the 19th century, worked. There was a huge Catholic church, convent, and school next door, clearly built by Polish immigrants. This in itself was a small scale immersion in the history of the place and I spent some time online researching the town, its industrial history, and even the streets and buildings that surrounded us. This trip was a three day, non-stop inspiration fest. Let's start with Debbie Harry of Blondie. She is 73 years old. Her voice is different now, but it is still strong, and her energy level onstage is astonishing. I went to this concert in large part because I wanted to get away for a weekend and because my husband really loves Blondie and a whole selection of other 80s era music I thought I'd prefer never to hear again. As it turns out, I truly loved this concert and discovered that Blondie is making new music that I like infinitely better than the old hits. It didn't hurt that Debbie Harry came on to the stage wearing a jacket with neon-reflective multicolored honeybees all over it and has recently released an album called "Pollinator." The back of the jacket was emblazoned with a...well...blunt message about keeping planet Earth life-sustaining, which I also appreciated.
Debbie Harry and Blondie performing at MassMoCA, August 3rd, 2018
Inspirational messages taken from this experience?
  • Age is a number. Aside from things beyond your control (truly random illness, accident, and the usual raw deals some people are handed health-wise), decisions you make today may well determine whether you're literally or metaphorically rocking on stage at 73 or rocking in a chair unable to do much else.
  • Keep working. Change. Grow. "Pollinator" is a great new album that doesn't sound like previous work. Debbie Harry and the band are not motoring around a golf course in Florida nor are they only playing the same familiar songs many of their fans probably came to hear. I hope the work I'm doing even two years from now looks very little like what I've been doing for the past five, let alone in twenty years' time.
  • Wear bright colors at least some of the time, whether you're 23 or 73.
The next day, we went to MassMoCA. We had been there about a month before but had been pressed for time and unable to see a lot of the exhibits. So we went back with a whole day to spend in the museum. This really was an immersion in every possible sensory exposure to contemporary art. To be completely honest, I have not always been a fan of contemporary art, but I am coming to realize that I was probably just never looking in the right places. MassMoCA is a fully engaging museum of sometimes immediately resonant, sometimes baffling, sometimes repulsive works. Very little of it left me feeling nothing, although there was a bit of that too. If anything, though, those pieces - the ones that left me with nothing - were a lesson in the variety of human nature. To someone, somewhere, they spoke volumes. One of the exhibits that particularly fascinated Bill fell in to the realm of performance art. It's called the Cold Hole. When unoccupied, it is just a large viewing window looking in to a chamber filled with snow, ice, and a square cutout with a ladder in it leading to frigid cold water. Anyone who's done a polar dip for charity in New England knows what it would feel like to jump in to the Cold Hole. On the day we were there we were lucky to see someone actually jump in. This act can be done by a museum go-er through special arrangement or by a performance artist, I believe. I am not 100% sure, but I think on this day we saw a performance artist. I could write an entire post on what I felt watching this woman as she approached the hole (for which I have no pictures), as she stood over it for quite some time preparing herself for the shock of the water, in that brief moment of free fall in, and as she pulled herself out and walked toward the viewing window. Always one to create life metaphors, I had many. I will let you draw your own. As it is, this post on the weekend overall is going to have to be split in to two for time and length considerations. The word that kept coming to me as I viewed the art at MassMoCA was "brave." As I looked at some of the work, or in some cases, interacted with it, I realized that these artists are incredibly courageous. Even the work I couldn't connect with, or, I'm acutely embarrassed to admit struck me as "I could make that..." (a thought and phrase I abhor, but there I was having it myself), was nonetheless bold. How many of us would have the courage to make a career of creating objects, sounds, or experiences for others to view that were intensely personal, time consuming, financially risky, and open to amateurs like me gut reacting with, "I could make that...?" The truth is, I could not "make that." I can make what I can make, but not that. Only that piece's creator has that ability and honor. I reacted to most of the art with deep astonishment, appreciation, and some kind of connection, but it doesn't matter how I - one person - reacted to any of it. The incredible, head exploding thing to me was the brave vulnerability of the artists, of all kinds, in putting their work out in to the world, saying what they had to say, and accepting both praise and criticism as part of the deal. The "Mass" in MassMoCA of course stands for "Massachusetts," but I could not help thinking of it also in terms of the masses of people who visit every year. It's a lot of exposure. These artists should be wearing capes and tights. These next images are unedited, taken with my cell phone in the museum. Unfortunately, I can not take the hours today to edit each one of them, but at some point may go back and improve this image set. I would be remiss if I did not mention the coffee shop on the premises, Tunnel City Coffee. Bill and I went off our diets a little bit, but the scale told me on Monday that no harm was done. We did split the cookie and the biscotti in to two pieces and shared them.
Delicious pastries and cookies at Tunnel City Coffee, North Adams, MA on the campus of MassMoCA
Inspirational messages taken from this experience?
  • Good coffee is always worth the extra money.
  • Eat the pastry occasionally, preferably with someone dear to you.
  • When you create, do it for you. Not for the critics. Not for the fans. Not for that person who thinks, "I could make that." For you.
  • Making art is inherently scary sometimes. Be brave. You might just find your work in front of millions of people some day.
  • Those last two things may well feel like jumping in to a cold hole.
  • You may often want to give up. Do not, because at some point someone is going to stand in front of your work with their minds and hearts on fire taking it all in.
So what do you do with a little time to kill in North Adams after you've spent the day at MassMoCA? You go to the Museum of Dog. This is a little museum that's only been open for four months. You can tell that they are still putting it all together, but if a museum has a Rough Collie display like this, I'm happy. Our Collie, Wyeth, would have been so proud. We're definitely taking him back there some day.
Collie display at the Museum of Dog, North Adams, MA.
Inspirational message taken from this experience?
  • Have a dog.
  • Go to the Museum of Dog as they develop and grow.
  • If there's something you really love, share it with the world.
So, that was Friday night and part of Saturday in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. The next blog post will be about how we spent another part of Saturday and then Sunday at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, the Hancock Shaker Village and Museum, and the Mount Lebanon Shaker Historic Site. Look for that one later this week or weekend. In the meantime, be inspired, wherever you find yourself.

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  • Elizabeth Miller
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