Reward

By Vladimir Brezina

As a reward for setting out in our kayaks on a cold, snowy Manhattan circumnavigation, we raft up in the shelter of our favorite barge…

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… and get out the cheese, apples, and hot tea!

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A contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Reward.

Squirrels, and Skvirels

By Vladimir Brezina

Begging squirrel

On an overcast, dull winter day in NYC’s Central Park, there is not much color and nothing moves—except squirrels!

(click on any photo to start slideshow)

And who knew that the word “squirrel” was so hard to pronounce? See here—

So, for days now, Johna and I have been saying “skvirel” to each other :-)

Rule of Thirds

By Vladimir Brezina

Another oldie but goodie… The red leaf conforms to the Rule of Thirds, and there is some colorful bokeh in the background—as requested by this week’s Photo Challenge, Rule of Thirds.

The red leaf

Swimmers

By Vladimir Brezina

Swimmer

Here are a few shots from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where we escaped for a few days from NYC’s bone-chilling cold. (Of course, the cold was there waiting for us when we got back; the coldest day in recent memory is today.)

Some of these shots conform to the Rule of Thirds, this week’s Photo Challenge—even though I never consider this rule when shooting, and don’t like such rules in general :-)

The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

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It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

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That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

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And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”

Christmas in February

By Johna Till Johnson

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Maggie’s Magic Garden

Last week I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: I went to Maggie’s Magic Garden to take a few photos.

Vlad and I had passed this space many times. It’s a community garden, a small, open plot of land surrounded by buildings. As the seasons changed, it provided a lovely glimpse of nature amidst the urban setting.

So I was curious to see what I’d find in midwinter, after the first few snowfalls of the year. I don’t know what  I expected, but it wasn’t what I found: Christmas in February!

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Christmas in February

My favorite part of the Christmas decorations was the homemade creche, with what looked like a bedsheet draping over the figurines. (Also note the angled angel over the manger.)

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Homemade creche

And there were more secular decorations as well…

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Bright candy canes

Alas, I wasn’t able to get into the garden to explore—despite the sign, it was closed when I visited. But it clearly lives up to its description: Magical indeed. I’ll be back there in the spring, to see what magic is afoot then!

Valentine’s Day Symmetry

By Vladimir Brezina

An oldie but goodie—

Happy Valentine's Day!

A second contribution to this week’s Photo Challenge, Symmetry (the first contribution was here).

And, of course, Happy Valentine’s Day!