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Photos: Hunterdon Art Museum
The exhibit From the Ground Up: Peters Valley School of Craft” can be seen at the Hunterdon Art Museum (Clinton, New Jersey) or online through January 10, 2021. 

I first heard about an unusual crafting community in New Jersey when Ann sent me a video of her online textile instructor. Peters Valley School of Craft was founded in 1970, but it has the vibe of a early American craft colony. That sense of highly skilled artisans with a united, focused purpose also reminds me of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, which we used to frequent when we lived in upstate New York.

Here’s a report on an exhibit celebrating Peters Valley School’s 50th year.

Ilene Dube writes at Hyperallergic, “I recently visited the Peters Valley Craft Fair, usually held in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. This year, without leaving home, I could drop in on artists in their studios in Buffalo, New York, Portland, Maine, and Bristol, Connecticut, within a matter of minutes, watching them work and talking with them one-on-one about their processes. And this past summer, I was able to attend Peters Valley faculty presentations — one of the highlight events for those studying at Peters Valley School of Craft — every Friday night via Zoom. I traveled to studios all over the world.

“Physically based in Layton, New Jersey, Peters Valley School of Craft is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey — and yes, you can … visit live if you are properly masked. From the Ground Up, on view through January 10, recounts the story of Peters Valley from its earliest formation as an experimental craft colony, to the prominence of its women blacksmiths in the early 2000s. What better way to tell the story than through the works in fiber, jewelry, ceramics, wood, photography, and metal produced during artist residencies?

“Peters Valley began in 1970 as a planned colony of resident blacksmiths, ceramists, fiber artists, metalsmiths, woodworkers, and photographers who populated the site’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Over time, Peters Valley’s (non-degree) educational mission evolved into the craft school it is today, bringing together students with artists of local, national, and international renown for immersive workshops.

“Peters Valley was the ancestral home of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, Delaware Nation, and Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Dutch and British colonists forced their removal beginning in the 17th century, then worked the farmland for generations.

“Peters Valley acquired the land as a result of the aborted, and controversial, 1950 proposal to build the Tocks Island Dam, which would have created a 37-mile reservoir between New Jersey and Pennsylvania but instead became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Among the 72,000 acres acquired through eminent domain was the village of Bevans, now home to Peters Valley.

“The founders had to convince the National Park Service of the value of putting a craft community there, and the original craft fair was produced to gauge interest. With 30 exhibitors, the organizers expected hundreds would visit; thousands came.

“In a soon-to-be-published catalogue, Andrew Willner, one of the first residents-in-wood, recounts that a week before students were to arrive that first summer in 1971, the small team realized everyone had to be housed and fed, and sprang into action.

“ ‘We found a prep table, an old refrigerator, and made a dining room,’ Willner said.

‘The dormitory was fashioned from an old farmhouse. We planted a garden, and by August that garden was feeding people who were enrolled in classes and staying at the valley. For many of us, it was our first experience living communally and it has had lifelong implications. …

“ ‘Learning from each other was an important element. We were in and out of each other’s homes and studios. All of us were able to take a hand at iron forging, jewelry making, ceramic and fiber arts. We even baked bread together.’

“My enchantment goes back to visiting as a teenager when my parents had a summer home in the nearby Pocono Mountains. … The hand-made ceramics and weavings, as well as the soot on the blacksmiths’ overalls and the stir-fried veggies served over brown rice at that early craft festival made me feel like I was among my people. …

“Participants share meals, mostly vegetarian, in the communal dining hall. In the summer of 2019, I met and was starstruck by the blacksmith and faculty member Elizabeth Brim, who renders frilly dresses, strappy stilettos, and bonnets in iron, transforming the gender expectations of her childhood. …

“In addition to its acclaimed blacksmithing and fiber art classes, Peters Valley is known in the ceramics world for its anagama kiln. ‘It gives you surfaces that are stunningly beautiful and really can’t be made any other way,’ said Peters Valley Executive Director Kristin Muller, who found her way to Peters Valley as a ceramic artist and wood-fire expert. Muller’s ‘Pod Vessel,’ fired in the anagama, is on view at the Hunterdon.

“Anagama kilns were introduced to Japan from Korea in the third century. Japanese kiln builder Katsuyuki Sakazume spent a year constructing the 46-foot long, tunnel-like structure, burrowing into the hillside at Peters Valley. Fired only once a year, it takes two to three days to load, and another five to six days to fire, burning 25,000 pounds of wood. A community forms around the ritual, which involves stoking the fire round the clock. The flames, gases, and ashes exposed to the clay in the single-chamber kiln impart their magic to the finished piece. It is said that the fire is an active participant in the process.”

Read more about this unusual place at Hyperallergic, here.

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The United Church of Christ is one denomination erasing medical debt for strangers. A recent campaign led by the church abolished more than $26 million in medical debt throughout New England.

This is such a great idea. It shouldn’t be necessary in a country rich enough for CEOs to earn billions of dollars, but that’s where we are. Today’s story is about churches that have taken it on themselves to relieve struggling patients of intolerable burdens by buying up medical debt for pennies on the dollar.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “Vanessa Matos couldn’t believe what she was reading. ‘I was like, OK, this is a scam,’ she recalled of the letter she received in February. …

“Ms. Matos’s medical debt — more than $900 owed because of complications from surgery at the Massachusetts hospital where she had worked as a nurse — had been forgiven by strangers at a church she had never been to.

“Adam Mabry, the lead pastor of that congregation, Aletheia Church, a multiethnic, 1,400-member Boston-area Christian community, doesn’t know Ms. Matos, and she doesn’t know him; the two have never spoken. …

“Aletheia worked through RIP Medical Debt, a charitable organization founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives, Craig Antico and Jerry Ashton. It uses donations to buy portfolios of medical debt at a fraction of their value — and then forgives it.

“Debt is a particularly destructive consequence of an American health care system that treats medical care as a consumer good. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2018 found that 67 percent of Americans worry about paying for unexpected medical bills. …

“In just societies, these debts do not exist. But in our society, charity must stand in for justice so long as the latter is in short supply.

“Partners of RIP Medical Debt need not raise the actual amount of money they intend to relieve in debt, because the price of debt reflects what collectors could recover — far less than is owed. That means a buyer can eliminate the debt for much less money than the debtor could.

RIP Medical Debt estimates that just one dollar can purchase, and relieve, $100 in medical debt.

“So with a series of relatively moderate fund-raising efforts and donations from corporations, nonprofit and religious groups, and individuals, RIP Medical Debt said, it has been able to eliminate almost $2.7 billion in medical debt.

“Some religious congregations … grasp what our legislators can’t: The cost of survival in this country is unconscionable, and we all share a moral obligation to do something about it. …

“Forgiving medical debt has managed to ally very different Christians behind the same cause.

“Mr. Mabry, for example, cheekily described his theological stance as ‘historically boring and orthodox,’ even evangelical. Most people ‘would associate social concern with progressivism and maybe theological liberalism,’ he said, but ‘the great majority of actual social programs are funded and executed by really frustratingly conservative, boring, historic, orthodox people.’

“The Rev. Traci Blackmon is associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, a fairly liberal denomination. ‘The U.C.C. has no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures,’ the church’s website says. ‘Its overarching creed is love.’

“A recent campaign led by the church abolished more than $26 million in medical debt throughout New England, and the church plans to expand efforts to include the entire country. …

“ ‘We’re buying somewhere close to $100 worth of debt for a dollar,’ she told me, ‘and when you think about how many people’s credit is being ruined, how much access is being denied people because they can’t pay that bill, and I can come and pay your $5,000 bill with $12 — that’s not just.’ …

“The trouble with medical debt is that it is a consequence of the way our health care system is structured, with individuals owing, even in the best case, some out-of-pocket costs for their care. Debt may be eliminated today, but more will begin accumulating tomorrow unless drastic changes are made. …

“There is an apocryphal statement often attributed to Saint Augustine, who helped lay the foundations of modern Christian theology: ‘Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.’ “

More at the New York Times, here.

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Museum of Aromas

Photo: Matija Strlic
Professor Matija Strlic smells a historical book in the National Archives of the Netherlands as part of a quest to archive the scents of Old Europe. Ours not to reason why.

Don’t you love how many vocations and avocations there are in the world? Endless. People seem to keep thinking up new ones. They get interested in some obscure subject, and before you know it, they’re off to the races!

For example, as Nicola Davis writes at the Guardian, there are scientists trying to recreate the scents of Old Europe, from plague repellents to early tobacco.

“Smells can transport us to days gone by,” she notes. “Now researchers are hoping to harness the [smells] of the past to do just that.

“Scientists, historians and experts in artificial intelligence across the UK and Europe have announced they are teaming up for a €2.8m project labelled ‘Odeuropa’ to identify and even recreate the aromas that would have assailed noses between the 16th and early 20th centuries.

“ ‘Once you start looking at printed texts published in Europe since 1500 you will find loads of references to smell, from religious scents – like the smell of incense – through to things like tobacco,’ said Dr William Tullett of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, a member of the Odeuropa team and the author of Smell in Eighteenth-Century England.

“The first step in the three-year project, which is due to begin in January, will be to develop artificial intelligence to screen historical texts in seven languages for descriptions of odours – and their context – as well as to spot aromatic items within images, such as paintings.

“That information will be used to develop an online encyclopaedia of European smells, including potted biographies of particular odours, together with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents.

“ ‘It will [also] include discussions of particular types of noses from the past – the kinds of people for whom smell was significant and what smell meant to them,’ said Tullett, adding that one example would be physicians.

“ ‘That could take us into all kinds of different scents, whether that is the use of herbs like rosemary to protect against plague, [or] the use of smelling salts in the 18th and 19th centuries as an antidote to fits and fainting,’ he said.

“Tullett added that a key part of the project is to highlight how the meanings and uses of different smells have changed over time, something that shows in the history of tobacco. …

“The team say they plan to use their findings to work with chemists and perfumers to recreate the smells of the past, and explore how the odours can be delivered – alongside insights into their significance – to enhance the experience of visitors to museums and other heritage sites.

“The team is not the first to engage the nostrils in the name of heritage – the Jorvik Viking Centre in York is famous for recreating the stench of the 10th century, a feature some have suggested makes a visit particularly memorable.

“ ‘One of the things that the Jorvik Viking Centre demonstrates is that smell can have a real impact on the way people engage with museums,’ said Tullett. But, he said, such engagement does not have to rely on unpleasant pongs.

“ ‘Where smell does get mentioned in museums, it is often the smells of toilets or wood burning,’ said Tullett. ‘We are trying to encourage people to consider both the foul and the fragrant elements of Europe’s olfactory past.’ ” More at the Guardian, here.

I guess there’ll always be an England.

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Photo: Obec Louka
Agnes Kašpárková says that she does her artwork for the pleasure it gives her. The 91-year-old artist works
in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic.

I liked this story from Stefan Andrews at Vintage News about a 91-year-old grandmother who’s a kind of street artist.

“For most of her life, Anežka Kašpárková (also known as Agnes) has been making her income by working as a farmer. … Ever since she retired, Kašpárková has used many of the sunny days each year to make her home village of Louka a little bit more beautiful.

“The village is found in the South Moravian region of the Czech Republic. The [artist] is now an expert on how to decorate window frames, doors and facades across her village with traditional Moravian folk art. She mostly works on flowery patterns, giving a fresh feeling to the old facades worn by time. …

“Other women have done a similar type of decoration in the past and Kašpárková has worked tirelessly to continue the tradition. …

‘I try to help decorate the world a bit,’ she is recorded as saying.

“Kašpárková uses mainly blue paint and works simply with one small brush. Her color choice blends perfectly with the old, white-painted village houses and buildings.

“Kašpárková says that she does her artwork for the pleasure she gets from it, and that she never makes any plan how her next creation is going to look. She just takes up her brush and gets things going. …

“Given her age, Agnes complains that sometimes she finds it challenging to paint. Yet … she has been comfortable enough to climb a ladder almost every spring and refresh the design on the village chapel.” More at Vintage News, here.

Most people know by now that buildings make great canvases for outdoor murals. I myself have blogged a lot about this form of art. The blue Czech designs represent a different take from urban graffiti, say, as does the current London art walk experienced through windows.

Hannah Jane Parkinson writes at the Guardian, “Artists Walk is … a simple idea for an art trail that began as a joint endeavour between printmaker and painter Rosha Nutt, and her art marketing consultant friend Holly Collier. Those who in normal times would be exhibiting in galleries or community spaces can now place their work in the windows or surroundings of their homes for passers-by to admire. …

“ ‘Lockdown was the catalyst,’ Collier tells [Parkinson]. ‘So many artists have moved studios into their homes. Exhibitions and events have been cancelled. It’s pretty depressing being an artist who can’t show work. We wanted to do something that had a positive action.’ …”

“Until 14 December, London artists working in whichever medium – painters, photographers, illustrators, film-makers, ceramicists and more – can pay £15 to have their location added to the ‘interactive map’ on the website, as well as a short bio and links to the artists’ website and social media profiles, plus a custom poster.

“Collier and Nutt pulled the whole thing together in seven weeks. ‘It’s been late nights, early mornings and a lot of elbow grease,’ Collier says. They applied unsuccessfully for an Arts Council grant, but local collectives and businesses stepped in. An estate agent became a sponsor and organised a leaflet drop. Alexandra Palace – usually home to concerts and comedy gigs – lent its support, including what amounts to a quasi window-residency.” More.

Such a creative way to help artists show their work to potential customers in this difficult year!

Photo: Hannah Jane Parkinson
Paintings displayed by Sarah Barker Brown for Artists Walk 2020 in London.

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Blind Photographer

Photo: Liz Bossoli
Pileated Woodpecker in Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Florida.

A disability may make a person think about things in new and interesting ways. Remember the blind architect whose other senses helped him carve out an inspiring career? (Blog post here.)

In a first-person account at Audubon magazine, Liz Bossoli, describes her life as a mostly blind photographer of birds.

She writes, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enthralled with animals. Wherever I went, it wouldn’t take long for me to orient to the nearest one. By age eight, I could identify upward of 100 dog breeds. Yet when it came to birds, my list wouldn’t have gone far beyond Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I often heard my grandfather warmly refer to ‘chickadees,’ but this species only existed vaguely in my mind’s eye as a small, probably cute bird. Until recently, I never actually saw a Black-capped Chickadee in a way that I could appreciate. When my grandparents marveled over a bird at their feeder, I only experienced their joy vicariously.  

“I was born with a congenital condition called Septo-Optic Dysplasia, and as a result, I’m almost totally blind in my left eye and legally blind in my right. Blindness is not a binary condition, but rather affects individuals across a broad spectrum. … I’m among the majority of blind individuals who have some usable vision, and I happen to fall on the end of the spectrum with the greatest degree of functional eyesight.

“I’ve been known to describe myself as having ‘pretty good vision for being legally blind.’ It’s my light-hearted spin on living in an awkward space where I don’t need a lot of adaptive tools or assistance from others, until I do. That also makes it easy for people to forget I can’t see well — including myself. Day to day, I’m not often cognizant of the degree to which my vision impairment affects me. Still, one of the most poignant reminders occurs when I can’t perceive my environment in the same manner as those around me. In my yard, I’m consistently awestruck when a friend immediately points out birds I don’t know are there.

“For nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated by animals, I’ve used art to express that fondness; first, through drawing and then, photography. I purchased my first DSLR camera in 2009, so I could create images that would do justice to the relationships I had with my dogs and other animals in my life. 

“I spent the better part of the last decade honing my skills as a dog portrait photographer, but a 2016 visit to Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida, reignited a passion for connecting with the natural world. That trip to Corkscrew gifted me with up-close encounters with wild birds, unlike anything I had experienced. Equipped with an entry-level zoom lens, my camera gave me just enough visual reach to see the Red-shouldered Hawk that landed on a low branch right above my head, and to engage in a game of peek-a-boo with an active Pileated Woodpecker. …

“Back home, in Connecticut, my husband and I continue to adapt our small suburban property to create a more hospitable environment for native birds. This year, while spending most of my time in my own yard, I appreciate their presence more than ever.  I’ve found myself fully engrossed in the art of bird photography, driven by desire to understand the wildlife around me. My photo of a Gray Catbird even made it into the final gallery of reader submissions for Audubon’s Bird From Home project. …

“I employ three different strategies for photographing birds in my yard. The first two are intentional: I either actively seek out birds that I hear in nearby trees, or I plant myself in a position from which I know I’ll be able to observe birds. The third strategy usually looks something like me being surprised by an unexpected bird encounter, frantically running into my house to get my camera, and returning in hopes I didn’t miss everything.

“Bird feeders, nest boxes, and a birdbath are often just as integral to my process as the camera itself. They take the guesswork out of finding birds to photograph. I admit that photographing birds in these contexts lacks the thrill of successfully locating a bird on a branch, but that doesn’t mean it’s a passive process. For my purposes, any amount of predictability is a vote in favor of creativity.

“And when I do hear the sound of uncharacteristic rustling in the trees or a bird call close nearby, I hope for the best. I rely on the goodwill of birds who are generous enough to remain in the same location for minutes at a time, as I visually scan the area with my camera. Through the viewfinder, I trace the outline of branches in order of my best guess that the sound came from that specific area. I repeat this with other branches until I have to refocus and scan the same area at a different distance from me. In the course of this process, I’m likely pointing my camera directly at the bird I’m seeking several times without realizing it. I estimate that at least 90 percent of my attempts at photographing birds under these circumstances are fruitless, but the occasional success makes the time investment worthwhile.” More.

There’s something wonderful about the unexpected in any art. Take the happy accidents of Raku pottery, for example. I don’t imagine anyone can control precisely how Raku turns out. There may also be good surprises in domestic arts like cooking and knitting, not just horrible glitches. And what about the scientific arts? Scientifically minded readers should check out the eight beneficial mistakes described here.

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Photo: Raph_PH
Juliana Hatfield in concert, 2019.

Musicians and other artists who are not big names don’t get paid what they’re worth in the best of times, and a pandemic is not the best of times.

At the online magazine Slate, William Ralston and Niko Seizov suggest that fans in large enough numbers can help musicians survive by making micropayments. The writers point to a model in China.

“Back in July, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek caught flak for saying it’s no longer enough for artists to record ‘once every three to four years’ — that they need to pump out more product if they want to make a living streaming their music on his platform. As the man cutting their modest checks, Ek would know.

“Streaming on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora accounted for 79.5 percent of the $8.8 billion total global revenue for recorded music last year. But … while these platforms generate mammoth revenues through advertising and subscriptions, they pay out negligible amounts per stream, and only a portion of this ends up in creators’ pockets. To make it even worse, Spotify has proposed a new feature that will enable artists and rights holders to boost specific tracks in the platform’s recommendation algorithms provided they agree to a lower royalty rate for those streams. It’s a race to a bottom we didn’t know existed.

“The shortcomings of the streaming payment model have long been blunted by a swelling live music industry: Streaming barely paid for most artists, the argument went, but at least it facilitated audience expansion so that musicians could better make a living on the road. The pandemic has killed that argument, at least for now — and now many artists must wonder where their next paycheck will come from. It has underlined a profound need to restructure, so that artists can depend on selling their art as well as their time. …

“An integral part of any solution may exist within China’s walled-off internet. On several streaming platforms under the umbrella of China’s Tencent Music … micropayments from fans help compensate artists where royalties fall short. …

“What’s interesting is that only around 30 percent of Tencent Music’s revenue comes from subscriptions, music downloads, and advertising revenue; the lion’s share comes through a commission on one-off payments given to artists by listeners, called micropayments. These can be straight-up donations, or given in exchange for virtual goods. …

“There’s no reason why Tencent Music’s model can’t be applied beyond China. We all inherently crave a deeper emotional bond with our favorite artists, and we will part with money for it. …

“The on-demand streaming model has ruptured the audience-artist relationship. There’s no longer a traditional exchange of X record for Y; instead, platforms like Spotify have become gatekeepers, and music has become more like a utility: unlimited supply for a monthly charge. We listen to curated playlists with the creators demoted to the background, their work consumed by a detached and disengaged audience. With its micropayment features, Tencent Music bridges this gap, and provides artists with a toolkit to foster and more importantly monetize deep fan loyalty.

“Skeptics might say that the Tencent model wouldn’t work in the west because there isn’t the same culture of tipping over the internet. … But western platforms like Anchor and Twitch have been successful in implementing micropayment features in podcasting and gaming, and the same could be true of music. There just has to be a convenient mechanism.

“Social media platforms like Facebook have capitalized on this dynamic … without rewarding artists for their efforts for their own contributions to these networks. Not only are the artists not rewarded, but they must invest in advertising to reach the followers they attracted to their page in the first place.

“The toolkit in the west is materializing. Bandcamp, the independent-focused online music store, has offered the ‘pay what you wish’ model for years. Artists set a minimum purchase price for goods, but leave you free to add more. And during the coronavirus crisis, major streaming platforms have started to tip-toe toward this model. Spotify, for one, has launched ‘Artist Fundraising Pick,’ which allows listeners to make donations via artists’ profiles … but it’s not enough. …

“On Patreon, on the other hand, around 4 million fans, or patrons, subscribe to their favorite creators in return for rewards like exclusive songs, physical merchandise, or private lessons. There are no micropayments per se, but the platform is monetizing the direct artist-audience channel, becoming a digital incarnation of a fan club. …

“One major barrier for Patreon is that it exists as an isolated ecosystem separate from where you actually go to listen to music. … It’s a lot to expect listeners to jump to another site, but Patreon does provide a foundation that could feasibly be integrated into a major streaming platform. …

“In the meantime, we must support artists in any way we can. … When you purchase a record, as opposed to streaming it, a larger amount of money ends up with the artist.” More at Slate, here.

Over at Will McMillan’s blog “A Musical Life on Planet Earth,” the cabaret artist/music teacher has been pondering the same issues. Read him here.

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Photo: Robert W. Hart / Dallas News contributor
Ron Olsen, who launched the rock art trail, holds one of the hundreds of painted rocks at Parr Park in Grapevine, Texas.

People like to paint rocks. It’s an art that’s simultaneously permanent and impermanent. In New Shoreham, for example, the beloved Painted Rock is like a mural or community bulletin board (there’s a real bulletin board, too, online). I’ve blogged about it often, including in 2015, here.

In the summer, you need to photograph your artwork quickly because the rock gets painted over faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But an archaeologist would find all the layers still underneath, and the rock itself has probably been there since the last Ice Age.

Similarly, there are small, smooth rocks people paint for sale, for charity, or for gifts. In a May post I wrote about local kids painting rocks during the pandemic and raising money for medical workers.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a story on another pandemic-inspired rock project, one featuring thousands of painted rocks from around the country.

Cathy Free reports, “Chris Penny figures that his mail carrier must have spectacular biceps by now.

“Most every day for the past seven months, when the carrier arrives at Penny’s home in Grapevine, Tex., he unloads a few heavy bins and hauls them one by one up the driveway to Penny’s front porch.

“The boxes are filled with packages containing painted rocks, most of them intricate works of art, handmade and mailed from people all over the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been sending them to Penny so that he and his family can place them along the Parr Park Rock Art Trail — a mile-long public walking path that has become a wonderland of more than 4,000 art rocks. …

‘These aren’t just any rocks — they’re works of art,’ said Penny, 44. …

“The rocks — painted to resemble everything from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse to a face mask — started arriving at Penny’s house ever since he bought a bunch on eBay after noticing a dozen painted rocks scattered along a nature trail in Parr Park. Penny said he knew right away that he wanted to flood the trail with them and make it a destination.

“Penny learned that the colorful rocks he’d stumbled upon were painted by [Grapevine photographer and RV dealer] Ron Olsen and his three grown children in March, after Olsen returned from a trip to Iceland and discovered that Grapevine, a city of around 46,000 people, had practically become a ghost town due to the nationwide coronavirus shutdown. …

“Soon, he and Penny decided to join forces to transform the trail into an artsy attraction for anyone in Grapevine and beyond who wanted to escape the stress of covid-19 for a while.

“ ‘We wanted to make it a getaway for people and give parents something safe to do outdoors with their children,’ said Olsen, 62. …

“Penny, who runs the nonprofit Broken Crayon, focused on helping women and children living in poverty in the United States and Ghana, said the project has provided his family with something fun and positive to do close to home during the pandemic.

“In the early days in March, after he’d painted several dozen rocks with his daughters and bought dozens more online, Penny posted on Facebook, asking anyone who would like to contribute to the project to mail him their rocks and he’d pay for the shipping. …

“Penny said he’s contributed almost $10,000 of his own money for shipping costs (rocks are heavy), although many people now pay to ship their rock masterpieces on their own. …

“All along the nature trail, visitors will now find painted owls, unicorns, tigers and humpback whales, along with the emblems of favorite sports teams, salutes to fallen soldiers and paintings of beloved cartoon characters and classic cars. Somebody even mailed Penny a giant tic-tac-toe board. …

“Penny’s favorite part of the project is that every rock tells a story. ‘Some people have painted rocks in memory of family members who have died, and others have painted memories of high school, like a favorite teacher or a favorite song,’ he said. ‘One woman painted a rock to honor her daughter because she’s serving with the military in Afghanistan and she misses her.’ …

“Whether a rock is painted by a professional artist or a 2-year-old doesn’t matter, Penny said. ‘When it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as a bad rock,’ he said.”

Check out photos of some beautiful rocks at the Washington Post, here.

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My husband and I are on our own for the first time at Thanksgiving. We ordered turkey takeout, but I did make the apple pie.

I want to avoid perpetuating any Thanksgiving mythology but at the same time write about the enduring appeal of a universal idea — people with differences breaking bread together.

We now know that our traditional Thanksgiving story is both inaccurate and hurtful to descendants of the indigenous people who first encountered the Pilgrims. As you can read at the Christian Science Monitor, here, the New York Times, here, and the Smithsonian, the story of colonial contact is considerably more heartbreaking than uplifting.

This knowledge has been discussed widely for quite a few years now, and yet there are still schools where children make feather headdresses and Facebook friends who post Pilgrims and Wampanoag chiefs holding hands. So what is the appeal, apart from the spin and wishful thinking of conquerors?

Pretty sure it’s the breaking-bread-together part.

I remember my sense of gratitude and privilege (the good kind of privilege) when I was invited to my friends’ Passover seder. How I loved hearing about the words that are said over all the traditional dishes and the history associated with them. I loved learning that I shouldn’t quiz my friend’s father on his WW II experience because “we focus on peaceful topics at Passover.” How else would a person raised Episcopalian gain this interesting knowledge about cultural differences?

Even at non-Covid Thanksgiving meals, you know, we often break bread among differences. Friends regularly say they hope they can keep distant relatives off religion and politics and just focus on things everyone enjoys in common. Because among differences, there are always commonalities.

All of which is my roundabout way of sharing my delight in some unusual combinations of dishes ESL students I know are preparing for Thanksgiving. It’s a merging of cultures.

“For Thanksgiving, I’m going to cook baked pork in sweet and sour pineapple and orange sauce, turkey, Russian salad, and Italian pasta.”

“For Thanksgiving, I plan to cook baked pork with pineapple, cranberry, and ginger sauce. Mashed potatoes and fruit salad.”

“I plan on cooking turkey, rice, pork, and Salut bacalao [Puerto Rican fish stew]. The drink will be Coquito [coconut eggnog].”

“I plan on cooking turkey, potato salad, chicken lasagna, and fruit.”

“I plan to cook turkey, rice, salad, and lasagna. For dessert we will make a brownie and three-milk cake.”

“Our plan for Thanksgiving is to cook a turkey, chicken, rice. And we are going to make a salad.”

Another student told me she usually makes the same things I think of as traditional Thanksgiving dishes but adds corn fritters. This year, she writes, she’s alone and isn’t sure what she’ll make, adding, “The smallest number of people in the home will be best for avoiding Covid-19. I think I’m in the smallest group by myself.”

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Photo: Jonothon Lyons
Theater artist Jonothon Lyons as Buddy the Rat in a New York City subway. “Oh, a dude in a rat suit. Just another day in New York.”

What you need today — a day that even in the best of times can mean anxiety about travel or kitchen prep or argumentative relatives — is Pizza Rat.

Valentina Di Liscia and Hyperallergic explain what I mean. “The internet is squeaking with delight this week at a 23-second-long clip of a figure in a rat costume, complete with a long tail, whiskers, and mousy gray suit, dragging a life-sized pizza slice up the stairs in a New York City subway station.

“As surreal as it may be, the sight is intimately familiar to urban dwellers who remember video footage of a real rodent carrying an entire cheese slice up the platform steps a few years back. The strangely endearing, ubiquitous New Yorker became lovingly known as ‘Pizza Rat.’

“The man behind the very realistic mask in the more recent viral video [is] Jonothon Lyons, an accomplished dancer, theater artist, and puppeteer whose previous credits include the Blue Man Group, Sleep No More, and the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 staging of Madame Butterfly. For his latest act, however, no tickets are needed. …

“Buddy the Rat, as Lyons has baptized his wiry-tailed character, brings the stage to the streets and the subway platforms: getting pets on the Brooklyn Bridge, showing off for Minnie Mouse in Times Square, and encouraging train riders to wear a mask.

“In an interview with Hyperallergic, below, Lyons tells us how Buddy was born and why he’s shaking up the performance art scene right now.

HyperallergicWhat’s the story of Buddy the Rat? How did the character originate?

Jonothon Lyons: Twelve years ago, I was working for a theater company in Portland, Oregon, called Imago Theater, and they have a show called Frogs, where we played big animal characters in masks. I played a frog, a polar bear, an anteater, and a penguin, but I never played a rat, and I always wanted to. In 2009, I made my own rat mask and went out in Times Square and ran around, put it up on YouTube, and it got around 70,000 views. It wasn’t gigantic, but it was enough that in the back of my mind I kept thinking, ‘I need to take this rat out again.’

H: I’ve just emerged from a rabbit hole of TikTok videos of you performing in the costume. They’re incredible, and they’re really resonating with people right now. How did Buddy go viral?

JL: I’m friends with this film director Todd Strauss-Schulson (Isn’t It Romantic, The Final Girls, A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas). I told him I had this rat character I’ve been wanting to do more with it, so we conceived of a little three and a half minute-long film.

“We shot it the week leading up to the election, in abandoned SoHo, as the windows were being boarded up — a very surreal and uncommon vision of New York. After the first night of shooting, a stranger had posted a video of me that got 1.7 million views that day. We wrapped up the movie, and over the next few days I started going out on my own and posting the content to TikTok and Instagram, and it really took off.”

Folks, I’m thankful for a whole lot of things today, but at this particular moment, I’m thankful for anyone who says they always wanted to play a rat! More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Malian musician Oumou Sangaré in Madrid, Spain, 2018.

On my first day at the Boston Fed in 2005, I attended orientation with two other new hires, one an immigrant from Mali. In the years since, especially after Mamoudou returned to Africa, I’ve read with alarm about the many tragedies his country has suffered. How do people live through great upheaval and keep their sense of self and their spirits intact?

Anastasia Tsioulcas has some thoughts at National Public Radio.

“The northwestern African country of Mali is one of the world’s musical cradles. Its rich traditions helped give birth to American blues and jazz, traditions brought by enslaved Africans to these shores. But today, Mali is in turmoil. The country has suffered a long civil war spurred by Islamist insurgents (whose attacks are still ongoing), and the government fell to a coup in August. The country is also trying, like the rest of the world, to cope with the coronavirus.

“Despite all of those challenges, however, Malian musicians are still creating amid the chaos — and have some important lessons to share about how to get through tough times.

“The band Songhoy Blues plays rollicking music of resistance against the political and social threats its country is facing.

“These Malian musicians came together in 2012 after attacks by local and foreign jihadists forced people to flee the country’s northern cities and towns as well as its vast Saharan desert. …

” ‘When the civil war start in Mali, when they banned music, all the people from the north of Mali has to move to the south just to be safe at that moment,’ explains Aliou Touré. He’s the lead singer of Songhoy Blues. …

” ‘When you come far away from your hometown and you meet each other,’ Touré explains. ‘you speak the same language. It’s kind of like a satisfaction of nostalgia when you meet someone who speak your language, who do what you do, who love something that you love.’ …

“The Malian musicians are a thoroughly modern band, but they’re also walking in the footsteps of some of their country’s most revered musicians, like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita.

“And like those other artists, the music of Songhoy Blues is born of struggle — and not just political. When I spoke to Aliou Touré (no relation to Ali Farka) by phone in Bamako, he had just recovered from a bout of malaria. And, like so many other places in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has shut down his country. He says enduring each hurdle is like surfing.

‘As every single band in the world during now,’ [Aliou Touré] says, ‘we just keep surfing on the waves — see what’s gonna happen next day, what’s gonna happen next day, next month.’

“The pandemic shutdown, though, has created some interesting creative opportunities for artists. … The pandemic has also provided a respite for one of the country’s most beloved singers, Oumou Sangare.

“Sangare spent much of the coronavirus shutdown in the U.S. — first in New York, and then in Baltimore. She’s since returned to her home in Bamako. She says the isolation was actually nourishing.

” ‘I rejoiced in my confinement,’ she says in French. ‘I’ve never had the chance to rest like that in the 30 years of my career.’ …

“That period of reflection gave Sangare the creative energy to start work on a new album herself. Sangare also acknowledges that Mali’s ongoing civil strife has taken a severe toll across the nation — across ethnic and geographic boundaries. …

” ‘The whole country is suffering. I think that the Malians must unite. That’s my point of view: It is unity that makes strength.’

“For years, musicians have been at the forefront of urging the country to stay united and to stand for peace. Their voices are now again in the lead — trying to bolster the country’s courage.

“Songhoy Blues decided to name its latest album Optimisme — ‘optimism.’

“Lead singer Aliou Touré says that he’s learned that it’s the only way forward. ‘That’s the only thing keeping us, keeping people smiling, and that’s the only, only way to give ourselves a hope,’ he says. ‘It’s the best way to keep yourself alive. To be optimist, I think, is the biggest message ever that the whole world need to hear right now.’ “

As Bonnie Johnson at WICN jazz radio says, “Stay Positive. Test negative.”

More at NPR, here.

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Photo: Samuel Derbyshire
Kenyan tribesman Ewar Kulany making a Turkana ekichielong stool/headrest.

Whether we know it or not, we’re always passing down family customs, sayings, songs, crafts, and more to the next generation. Sometimes I’m a bit sad that I stopped singing songs in the car as an adult, because there are a ton of old nursery rhymes and folk songs from my childhood that my kids never learned. One time my youngest brother said to them, “Does your mother still sing in the car?” and they had no idea what he meant.

I’ve blogged before about efforts to preserve marginalized languages, and any similar initiative gets my attention. Consider this story on preserving artisan techniques in danger of dying out.

Gareth Harris writes at the Arts Newspaper, “Centuries-old practices and traditions across communities worldwide that might be lost forever — from beekeeping in Kenya to creating the Dalai Lama’s clothes — are being quietly supported and documented online through the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP).

“The scheme, launched in 2018, has been boosted by an [$11.7 million] grant awarded by Arcadia, a charitable fund founded by the philanthropists Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing; the cash injection means the project has been extended for seven years (2021-28). …

“ ‘Locally informed knowledge is in danger of being lost — knowledge that has helped communities thrive in unique environmental, social and cultural contexts,’ says a statement from the British Museum. …

” ‘We are offering communities the resources to record themselves; that is so powerful. It’s a form of auto ethnography as such,’ says Ceri Ashley, the head of EMKP.

“ ‘Once this material has been collated, it is uploaded onto an open access digital database hosted by the British Museum, and a digital copy is also shared with a partner in the country of work so that it remains close to the community whose cultural heritage it represents,’ say museum officials. …

“This year’s supported schemes include a survey of the skills of Venerable Phuntsok Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s personal tailor. ‘Since 1959, he has been responsible for (re)constructing the tailoring requirements of the Dalai Lama in exile. He rebuilt the ceremonial wardrobe left behind in Tibet and developed new garments for use in the unfamiliar environmental and cultural conditions of India. Despite this singularity his practice has never been documented,’ says an online statement.

“Ashley points out that the EMKP team, working primarily online, has worked throughout lockdown, collaborating with an international advisory panel to review and select the next round of grants. …

“Another 2020 project focuses on the manufacture of Ostrich eggshell beads among the El Molo Community in Kenya, capturing their making and use through audio files, video clips and field notes.

“Last year, the EMKP recorded the dwindling practice of beekeeping amongst the Sengwer communities living in the Embobut Forest in western Kenya. ‘Some projects celebrate the everyday, which is so important,’ says Ashley, referring to a 2019 analysis of the traditional natural broom and fibre rope crafts of the Urhobo people of Nigeria.

“Applications are now open for the 2021 round of funding (deadline for applications is 31 January 2021). Instructions online stress that prospective candidates should ‘consider the viability and ethics of conducting this work within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.’ ” Read more at the Art Newspaper, here.

The Kenya beekeeping reference makes me think of a wonderful documentary, Honeyland, about an isolated beekeeper in rural Macedonia. Do watch it if you get a chance. I hope her techniques are being preserved, too.

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Photo: Natural Habitat
Wolves could be the solution to culling deer, moose, and elk that have a brain-wasting ailment. The fear is that the disease could jump to humans because cooking doesn’t kill it.

As the story goes, a wolf protected and raised the human twins Romulus and Remus, which somehow led to the founding of Rome. The notion that a wolf could suckle a human baby has a universal appeal, if not much biological support. It certainly has spawned a lot of art.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Lupa Capitolina: she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Bronze, 13th century AD (the twins are a 15th-century addition).

What are the chances wolves could protect us now?

Scientists concerned that a deadly cervid disease similar to ‘mad cow’ could jump to humans are asking if wolves might detect and destroy weakened animals before people can.

Jim Robbins writes at the New York Times, “Are the wolves of Yellowstone National Park the first line of defense against a terrible disease that preys on herds of wildlife?

“That’s the question for a research project underway in the park, and preliminary results suggest that the answer is yes. Researchers are studying what is known as the predator cleansing effect, which occurs when a predator sustains the health of a prey population by killing the sickest animals. If the idea holds, it could mean that wolves have a role to play in limiting the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is infecting deer and similar animals across the country and around the world. Experts fear that it could one day jump to humans. …

“Chronic wasting disease, a contagious neurological disease, is so unusual that some experts call it a ‘disease from outer space.’ First discovered among wild deer in 1981, it leads to deterioration of brain tissue in cervids, mostly deer but also elk, moose and caribou. …

“It is caused by an abnormal version of a cell protein called a prion, which functions very differently than bacteria or viruses. … The disease is part of a group called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, the most famous of which is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. Mad cow in humans causes a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and there was an outbreak among people in the 1990s in Britain from eating tainted meat.

“Cooking does not kill the prions, and experts fear that chronic wasting disease could spread to humans who hunt and consume deer or other animals that are infected with it.

“The disease has infected many deer herds in Wyoming, and it spread to Montana in 2017. Both states are adjacent to Yellowstone, so experts are concerned that the deadly disease could soon make its way into the park’s vast herds of elk and deer.

“Unless, perhaps, the park’s 10 packs of wolves, which altogether contain about 100 individuals, preyed on and consumed diseased animals that were easier to pick off because of their illness (the disease does not appear to infect wolves). …

“ ‘Wolves have really been touted as the best type of animal to remove infected deer, because they are cursorial — they chase their prey and they look for the weak ones,’ said [Ellen Brandell, a doctoral student in wildlife ecology at Penn State University who is leading the project]. By this logic, diseased deer and other animals would be the most likely to be eliminated by wolves. …

“[Ken McDonald, chief of the wildlife division of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department,] said that maintaining a large enough wolf population outside of Yellowstone to control chronic wasting disease would require so many wolves that it would be socially unacceptable, especially to ranchers and hunters.

“The state’s approach to controlling the disease, he said, is to increase the number of deer that can be killed in places where the disease is growing.

“Ms. Brandell, however, said that wolves may detect the disease long before it becomes apparent to people, through smell or a slight change in the movement of prey, which could be beneficial.

“ ‘Wolves wouldn’t be a magic cure everywhere,’ [Ms. Brandell] said. ‘But in places where it was just starting and you have an active predator guild, they could keep it at bay and it might never get a foothold.’ ”

More here.

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Jewelry company Luna & Stella took its name from the moon and stars.

Every once in a while I feel moved to explain why this eclectic site is called Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog. My son, John, asked the same question when he heard the title nine-plus years ago, saying with mock indignation, “Hey, what about me?”

But the blog came about because Suzanne and my son-in-law, Erik, wanted a blog connected to Suzanne’s jewelry business, Luna & Stella, and they set up this WordPress account. When they asked me to do it, they said I could blog about anything that interested me. I’ve loved every minute of it.

I also love letting readers know when something particularly special is going on at Luna & Stella, and that includes Suzanne’s first-ever Archive Sale, here.

As she wrote to her newsletter subscribers, “You’ll find over 100 of our most giftable pieces at 40 – 60% off the original retail price.  

“Each of these charmsearrings, and rings are designed to be stacked and layered, making them perfect gifts for girlfriends, sisters, mothers, and daughters.  We hope you’ll find a meaningful gift for someone you love, or a treat for yourself. ” 

I’m posting some of my favorite photos from the Archive Sale, including a grandchild’s darling pudgy hand. Time sure flies. No grandchild is pudgy anymore.

Keep up-to-date with Suzanne’s offerings on Instagram @lunaandstella. If you need to contact me, I’m at suzannesmom@lunaandstella.com

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Photo: Alexey Malgavko/Reuters
Alexei Dudoladov, photographed in the remote Siberian village of Stankevichi, Russia, on Nov. 13, 2020.

Sometimes it seems that American media are too inwardly focused, which is why I like getting ideas for the blog from people on Twitter who link to reliable foreign media — and why I appreciate sources like the Guardian and Public Radio International (PRI).

For today’s post I’m turning to PRI’s the World, where Daniel Ofman has produced a broadcast about a student in remote Siberia who had to scale a tall birch to get access to his online classes.

“During the coronavirus pandemic, working or studying from home requires logging onto Zoom or Skype. … Take Stankevichi, Russia, a 39-inhabitant village deep in the Siberian region. That is where student Alexei Dudoladov has been forced to go to great lengths — or rather, great heights — to attend classes online. He must climb a birch tree in his remote hamlet every time he needs an internet connection.

“The 21-year-old is a popular blogger and a student at the Omsk Institute of Water Transport, located 1,383 miles east of Moscow.

“Dudoladov, who also works on his family’s farm, has been posting videos of his daily routine on social media and keeping up with Russian-language TikTok and Instagram for nearly a year. 

“Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and authorities in several Russian regions moved university students to online classes to counter a surge in coronavirus cases. Dudoladov started to take classes online, but internet service at his family farm was patchy or non-existent.

‘Our village has really bad internet, so I found a solution. I climbed a birch tree. Up there I got a pretty good signal. The internet was alright, so I started studying on the tree.’ …

“But the arrival of the Siberian winter presented a new challenge for Dudaladov, who was spending long hours on top of a tree and under the elements. So he posted a video on social media appealing to Alexander Burkov, the regional governor, for a better internet connection — for himself and other students in Russia. 

“ ‘I want to ask you on behalf of all students who have bad internet, how are we going to solve this problem?’ Dudoladov asked in the video, which has since then caught national — and international — attention.

“Dudoladov has been offered some help from people in Russia and other countries, but he is still waiting for a satisfactory solution from the governor. … Dudoladov still catches the internet signal from the top of the tree but says he may know a guy who might be able to help.

“ ‘We hope that Elon Musk sends out his internet satellite system here so that we can have high-speed internet everywhere — not just in the US, but also here in Russia,’ he says.” Listen to the broadcast here.

I love learning what’s going on in other parts of the world just like I love knowing people from other parts of the world. Without PRI, how would I know, for example, that you can train for a career at place called Omsk Institute of Water Transport? (Be sure to look at their webpage.)

And speaking of higher education, without a friend from China, how would I know that a perfectly reasonable place to go to college is the province where my friend’s nephew goes — Inner Mongolia.

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Keane Southard, composer of ‘An Appalachian Trail Symphony: New England (Symphony No. 1).’

People have so many different sides to them! My friend Ann — retired human resource professional, acclaimed textile artist, and hiker — told me recently about a pianist-composer-hiker who conquered the New England portion of the Appalachian Trail and then wrote a symphony about the experience. As I write, I’m listening to this wonderful piece online.

In a 2018 broadcast, Mary Engisch at Vermont Public Radio (VPR) shared part of Southard’s story in a podcast.

Keane Southard,” writes Engisch, “spent many of his childhood weekends hiking and camping with his family in New Hampshire and Vermont. From that early age, he imagined one day he would hike the legendary Appalachian Trail.

“Southard went on to study [music] composition and theory, and all the while, the idea of hiking the trail and composing a piece about the experience percolated in his mind.

In April [2018], Southard completed ‘An Appalachian Trail Symphony: New England (Symphony No. 1),’ inspired by his 66-day, 734-mile hike of the New England portion of the trail.

” ‘I entered the trip knowing I [would] write this piece afterwards, but kind of having a blank slate to start off, and to have the music and the ideas come out of my experience,’ Southard said.

“In this podcast, learn about … how he transformed the trail sounds of footsteps, buzzing bugs and bird songs that he heard along the way into this composition for orchestra.”

Southard tells Engisch, “I’m really inspired by New England. I grew up in Massachusetts, and my parents took me and my siblings on so many trips up to New Hampshire and Vermont. And it wasn’t until leaving New England and going off to school that I realized how much this region is ingrained in me and how much I love it.” More at VPR, here.

At Southard’s website, he writes about the symphony and some of his other compostions.

“In June, I found out that my orchestral work Titanium and Mercury (which is the first movement of my in-progress second symphony but extracted as a stand-alone work) [won] First Prize in the [Eastern European] 2nd International Michal Kloefas Oginski Symphony Orchestra Contest for Young Composers! I’ve never won first prize in an overseas competition before, so it was great to hear this news! 

“The jury told me that my piece really reminded them of Prokofiev (which is a bit surprising to me) and it looks like the piece will be scheduled to be premiered in Molodechno, Belarus, in spring 2021!

“Just last week, on August 10, I had my first performance since February when the British pianist Maria Marchant gave a beautiful premiere of my Prelude No. 17 (For the Left Hand) in London, UK as part of her ‘7 Notes in 7 Days at 7pm’ project.  

“Back in April, I was fortunate to have pianist Adam Marks record a video of my Prelude No. 18 (On the Day of Penderecki’s Death) as part of his ‘One Page Pieces’ project.  As the title suggests, I wrote this short work (about 30 seconds long) on the day I heard that legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki passed away at the end of March.  While not a ‘threnody’ for him, I was thinking about him as I wrote the piece.

“In April, I also found out my Missa Brevis for Choir was awarded the Belle S. Gitelman Award from the composition department here at Eastman.

“And way back in February before the pandemic hit, I was lucky to have a reading of my wind ensemble transcription of John Foulds’ wonderful piece April-England with the Eastman Wind Orchestra led by David Baker.”  More here.

You might also like to check out an interview Southard gave to the Claflin Hill Symphony, here.

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