Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rambling: The "truth" about Santa . . . As I've come to believe it.

School's out so I'm taking a break from the research for a bit, so for now, here's a "rambling" inspired by my friend Jessica.

She was wondering why Santa gets all the credit for the good gifts and it got me thinking. See, Santa is a special topic of interest for me. I've always loved Santa, first the guy himself, then later the legend and the spirit. Growing up in Germany I was extra lucky because we also got to celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th and he would leave candy and small gifts in one of our shoes we left outside. Over the years my mom always made a big deal about Santa in our house, every year it was amazing to see what Santa would bring. Later I started to believe what my friends at school were saying that Santa wasn't "real." For a time I believed it, even though my mom continued to sign gifts "from Santa."

At some point during my teen years I stumbled upon the classic editorial, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause." If you haven't read it, I urge you to look it up and read it for yourself. In it, veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church, of The Sun, a New York newspaper, tells little Virginia that Santa exists, "as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy." The part that has really stuck with me over the years is when Mr. Church explains:

"Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."

Like Mr. Church, I feel that Santa is part of the magic of not only the holidays but the rest of the year as well. By teaching children to hold on to their belief in Santa we teach them to hold on to the magic and wonder of their childhood and to bring that into their adult lives. How "dreary" indeed would life be! The real world is hard enough as it is, we need as much magic as we can find. Being excited for Santa each year helps keep that childhood wonder in our hearts, whether we're 2 or 92. Additionally, Santa is an excellent example of love and generosity we can use to teach those principles to our children.

For those of us who are Christian, Santa can work in support of the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Santa and Jesus are not mutually exclusive. I think a lot of American's have forgotten the fact that Santa is derived from the European legend of St. Nicholas, a 4th century saint from Myra, in what is now modern day Turkey, known as being the patron saint of children. Jesus is the reason for the season but Santa is an important addition to the holiday that can further the message of love and goodwill to all. Santa gives and only asks for our love in return.

This leads me to how Santa is still very important to me. As a 30 year old today, I, like Francis Pharcellus Church and Virginia, still believe in Santa Claus. Santa still leaves me gifts in my stocking and has never forgotten me or left me behind. Santa lives on and will always live on because Santa is the spirit of magic and childhood excitement that my mother has made sure I never forgot. Mom has always been an integral helper of Santa. Santa's "elves" are the mothers and fathers who diligently sign gifts "from Santa," eat the cookies and drink half the milk left for Santa, and nibble on the carrots left for the reindeer, and go to great lengths to make sure that their child gets those special requests whispered into Santa's ear.

Like the year I asked Santa for Rudolph (yes, as in the reindeer). Christmas morning I woke up to a stuffed animal Rudolph and a note saying that Santa needed the real Rudolph but had sent this special gift in its place. Such a simple thing but of all the gifts I received as a child, that small stuffed animal is an absolute highlight. At the time it was a sign that Santa was completely real, but as I grew up it became a symbol of the love my parents have for my sister and I, that they would look for that stuffed animal so that I wouldn't be disappointed.

So, Jessica, you may feel disappointed now because on Christmas morning your sons will be thanking Santa, but I can pretty much guarantee you that if you teach them the lesson that Mr. Church taught little Virginia, they will grow up to see just how important your role in their Christmases were all those years when they were little. The Christmas I received Rudolph, I thanked Santa, not my mom, but as an adult I thank my mom every year, not just for what she does for me now, but for all the years when I was little when she did everything she could to keep the magic and wonder of Christmas and Santa alive for me. And that is the best gift of all. Of everything my mom gave me growing up, the most important was the gift of belief: in Santa, in magic, in dreams!

By encouraging a belief in Santa, you're not just perpetuating a commercial product, you're teaching your children to believe that anything is possible. You may not receive the thanks now, but you will when they are older. I thank God every day for my mom, for everything she did to make Christmas special, including the work she did in the name of Santa. One day, God willing, I will do the same for my children, and Jessica, I bet yours will do the same for theirs.

That is the real gift that Santa gives.

Merry Christmas everyone! And don't forget to leave out the cookies and milk for Santa and some carrots for the reindeer!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Research: Phoenix Art Museum - Site Visit Report

Two blogs in one day, oh my! Here's another project I did for my biography class, looking at portraits as part of biography.

Phoenix Art Museum - Site Visit Report

I’ve been visiting the Phoenix Art Museum for several years and have been a member for more than two years now. I frequently visit and love to wander the galleries, visiting certain paintings and pieces of art as if they were old friends. Several portraits in particular inspire this feeling. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve viewed them or how long it’s been since my last visit, but when I see these portraits it’s as if the subject is greeting me. One painting, especially, has always caught my eye. Spring Flowers (In the Conservatory) by Julius Stewart took my breath away the first moment I saw it and during our class visit to PAM it had the same effect. The recent renovations to the gallery have been beneficial to the piece as it’s now facing out towards the entrance, so you can see it as soon as you turn the corner. Now as I visit the museum as a member of this Biography class, I find myself viewing the painting in a very different way and the women seem more alive than ever. After reading Hermione Lee’s Biography: A Very Short Introduction and the Introduction and first chapter of Richard Brilliant’s Portraiture I have a different view of portraits, and of Spring Flowers in particular. I now realize that portraits, though not necessarily a traditional biography, still have many biographical qualities that, even if they don’t lend themselves to an individual biography, still assist in creating a group biography of a particular time and place.

At approximately six and a half by eight feet, this oil on canvas dated to 1890, is an impressive sight. Even from far away its detail leaps off the canvas and the figures seem to come alive. The painting features four women in a conservatory, I would imagine one in a large Victorian mansion in Belgravia or Mayfair. The women are gathered around a table with a large display of pink and red peonies. One woman is arranging flowers, another has paused to inhale their fragrance, one has her back turned towards the viewer, reclining on a chair and talking to the fourth woman, who is standing to the side holding a small bouquet. Each woman is appropriately dressed in late-Victorian attire, though this fourth woman looks like she’s either just recently joined the group or is about to leave.

Spring Flowers is a great subject to apply the six aspects of portraiture that Dawn Uscher shared with us. In regards to focal point, the two women that appear in conversation are looking at each other. Since the one has her back to us, we see less than half her face. The woman who is arranging the flowers is looking at the arrangement in front of her, and the woman behind the table is looking down and off to the side. None of them are looking out from the canvas which gives the painting an almost cinematic feel, as if it’s a still frame from a movie, each of the characters frozen in time, yet I still imagine they might start moving if I turn my back.

Their facial expressions are very interesting, and this has always been one of the things that attracted me to the painting. The two women who are talking, are smiling lightly, and appear very interested in what they are talking about. The one who is arranging the flowers has a very focused look on her face, but at the same time looks as if she’s listening to the conversation or thinking about what is being said. Though her eyes are firmly on the flowers, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about them, it’s as if she’s a little distracted. Perhaps by the gossip her friends are discussing? The woman in the back however, seems completely off in her own world and while she is sniffing the flower she almost has a melancholy look on her face, you can’t help wondering what she’s thinking about.

Their gestures are very simple and casual. The woman reclining on the chair has one arm resting on the back of the chair, while the other lays relaxed in her lap. The woman she is speaking to is lightly holding a small bouquet of flowers in one hand with another resting on a chair behind her. The other woman seems to be gently coaxing a light pink peony into place in the elaborate arrangement and the woman in the back is holding a flower up close to her face, just under her nose and has her other hand placed lightly against her chest.

Their clothes are spectacular, and are certainly the main reason I’ve always loved this painting. They are all dressed in period 1890 day dresses with high necks and full skirts and each dress is different. The woman arranging the flowers is wearing a pale, ivory dress with a high neck and what looks like some kind of peplum at the waist and the woman in the back is dressed in a dark mauvy-gray with puffed sleeves. However, it’s the two women in front that are the most spectacular. The one on the chair is wearing a navy blue dress with gold embroidery on the bodice and the sleeves. She has a high neck but one that seems a little looser than the other two. Her sleeves are only three-quarter length and feature elaborate gold trim at the elbows. Her skirt looks like satin and is very full with tucks and gathers forming a small bustle in the back. The other woman is wearing a visiting ensemble consisting of a skirt and jacket in white with pale blue stripes, the skirt has a front overlay that is pulled up at the sides and gathered to the back and the jacket has a notched lapel and a rounded hem at the bottom. Under the jacket she seems to be wearing a pale blue blouse and has finished the look with a golden straw hat covered in yellow flowers with a matching blue chiffon ribbon that cascades down the back and is tied under her chin. The artist has taken great care to capture the clothing and the fabric each dress is made out of.

The center of the painting is dominated by the flowers as the main object. There is also the table they are sitting on, a few chairs as well as planters and other flowers and plants in the background. But the peonies in the center really draw the eyes into the middle of the canvas, and thus the middle of the conversation of the women. It really makes you want to be there as a fifth member of their little party. They are also the brightest and most colorful part of the painting.

The setting is clearly a beautiful and large conservatory, possibly a more quiet corner, but you do get the sense of it being a large space, even if what we are seeing is surrounded by plants. It also seems well lit, possibly with natural lighting coming from above through sky lights.

There is a lot of information to be pulled from this piece, almost every time I see it I notice a new detail that had gone unnoticed before. Though nothing is really known of the women depicted it is nevertheless a stunning portrait of these four women completely in their element. It’s a perfect illustration of what Richard Brilliant means when he says, “The oscillation between art object and human subject, represented so personally, is what gives portraits their extraordinary grasp on our imagination.” (7) This painting is an impressive work of art, stunning not only for it’s size but also the great detail captured within it, but the human subjects represented are done so in such a beautifully personal way that they seem to come alive on the canvas. Similar to Brilliant, Hermione Lee in her book uses the metaphor of portraits for biography and tells us that portraits suggest empathy, a bringing to life and a capturing of the character. (2) This is also true in regards to Stewart’s painting. Looking at these women I can imagine their lives and feel a certain empathy towards them and whether I know these women or not I can still imagine who they might be. This painting also seems to be a perfect illustration of Lee’s comment on Victorian biographies, which she claims could be, “eloquent and vivid.” (62) The painting’s eloquence is seen very clearly in it’s vivid use of the six aspects of portraiture. But it also illustrates Brilliant’s point that portraits, “exist at the interface between art and social life and the pressure to conform to social norms enters into their composition because both the artist and the subject are enmeshed in the value system of their society.” (11) Spring Flowers, while being a beautiful piece of art, also clearly portrays the social life and the value system of late-Victorian society through its use of the six aspects of portraiture. The depiction of the clothing, the setting, the facial expressions, and gestures in particular, all reflect the typical life and attitude of women during this period. Their clothing represents the way that women were almost like living dolls, dressed in their finest and meant to amuse their husbands. The setting of the large conservatory, positions them almost as beautiful birds, kept in a gilded cage. Their facial expressions and gestures are exactly what one would expect of a proper Victorian lady: sweet, gentle, demure, and proper. Brilliant also explains that portraits, “reflect social realities. Their imagery combines the conventions of behavior and appearance appropriate to the members of a society at a particular time, as defined by categories of age, gender, race, physical beauty, occupation, social and civic status, and class.” (11) The social reality of life for upper class women in the late-Victorian era is definitely represented in Spring Flowers.

Lee does, however, bring up some ways that portraits can complicate the idea of biography. She explains, “The image of the portrait, though a more appealing one than the autopsy, also suggests what can go wrong with biography -- flattery, idealization, flatness, inaccuracy, distortion.” (3) Spring Flowers is certainly a very flattering and idealized version of reality for women during this time, however, while this complicates its use as biography, I don’t feel that this reasoning should discount it completely. Just because something is a flattering and slightly inaccurate version of a person does not mean it shouldn’t be counted. All biographies are someone’s interpretation of a life, no matter how much research is done. Lee also mentions that her metaphor has limits saying, “there are obvious differences between portraiture and biography: “‘Biographical subjects...rarely stand still.’ They speak, they change, they grow old, and they die.” (4) But again I feel that this is not necessarily grounds to discount portraiture completely. Though a portrait may only be a snapshot of a person’s life, it nevertheless still documents that life in that moment, and still counts as a valuable representation of that life.

Finally, it is something Lee says further into Biography: A Very Short Introduction, that led me to my conclusion that portraits, possess many biographical qualities that, while they might not lend themselves easily to an individual biography, still assist in creating a group biography of a particular time and place. In Chapter 4 Lee mentions the National Portrait Gallery in London, a spectacular museum, that she explains was, “founded in 1856, with a historical, patriotic agenda . . . Portraits -- and, later, photographs -- of British people of note made a visual biographical collection of, and for, the nation.” (64) Having visited this museum myself and after spending part of an afternoon wandering through gallery after gallery, this museum is a beautiful example of how portraits can create biographies of a group of people or a culture during specific periods of time, whether it be the royal family of England or upper class Victorian society. In the case of the latter, Spring Flowers, would be a lovely addition to such a group biography.

Works Cited:

Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Lee, Hermione. Biography: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Book Review: Retail Hell

Ok, the semester kind of got a bit crazy and I wasn't able to post as much as I would like. Now that I'm officially on vacation hopefully that will change. So here's something that I meant to post a while back about a book I read for my Biography class. It was definitely the least "academic" book I read this semester and I read it in one sitting. The following is part of the report I did. Enjoy!

Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store, Confessions of a Tortured Sales Associate

This hilarious book is a must read for anyone who has ever worked in retail as well as anyone who just loves to shop. Freeman Hall calls on past experiences from twenty-plus years of working as a “retail slave” and tells his story as a handbag salesperson at a high end department store in the Los Angeles area in California. Throughout the book the store is referred to as “The Big Fancy” but Hall explains in the “Author’s Note” many of the details have been changed and that the stories and people depicted within come from different stores and points in time. As the back cover states, “The stories are all true -- only the names have been changed to protect the damned.”

Hall writes the book in the first person and from start to finish takes the reader on a journey into the crazy world of retail. The book is broken up into three Acts with a special bonus section as a “Free Gift with Purchase.” Rather than using numbered chapters the book is, instead further divided into several titled essays relating to the general themes of the three Acts. The use of the term “Act” as a divisional tactic, instead of the typical “Part,” seems deliberate, and throughout the three Acts of the book, you begin to feel like you’re watching three Acts of a play. Along the way Hall introduces us to a zany cast of characters. We meet Suzy Satan (the store manager), Judy “The General” (manager of the handbag department), a group of crazy co-workers divided into the Demon Squad and the Handbag Angels, and finally the revolving door cast of customers that Hall had to battle on a daily basis. Hall breaks the customers down into general categories or nick names for specific customers, and devotes one or two essays to each. Examples include, Shoposaurus Carnotaurus, Nasty-Ass Thieves, Little Piggies, Picky Bitches, and Devil Spawns.

Throughout the book Hall evolves from a regular guy who can’t remember to use the term “handbag” instead of “purse” (heaven forbid) and can’t tell a clutch from a tote or a Ferragamo from a Gucci, to a handbag connoisseur and model employee. His stories are all told in vivid detail and (sometimes explicit) language, to a point where you can really visualize the people and events he is describing. To anyone who’s never worked retail, many of the stories might seem over-the-top or unbelievable, but for those of us who have ever been retail slaves ourselves some of these stores hit close to home. From dealing with corporate drones who try to push a team player objective to crazy customers trying to get away with the retail equivalent of murder, many of these essays are so relatable they might just cause post-traumatic retail stress in the reader, so be warned.