Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Four Horse Town

We live in Pokagon Township, a name whose pronunciation distinguishes locals from outsiders. You are probably thinking it is POE kah gone. Wrong. Poe KAY gun, for future reference. Be that as it may, after casting the 278th and 279th votes this afternoon, we drove home through our tiny village, Sumnerville. There is one church and one business in Sumnerville, and the latter has been in continuous existence since 1835, giving it historic status.

The Old Tavern Inn, once a stagecoach stop, has cultural status as a popular burger joint and a watering hole for people who drive pick-up trucks. Apparently there were cowboys chowing down today after exercising their right to vote, just up the road. We live in the past and the present, still knee deep in autumn leaves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


While city trees were ripping apart and crashing onto parked cars in Brooklyn and Queens last week, here in rural Michigan an old giant was being intentionally and methodically brought to earth across the road from our building.

Although a venerable sentry for the Sumnerville Bible Baptist Church, Old Tree was also a threat and a nuisance as it shed its branches in windstorms, and Dan the Minister had no alternative but to have it taken down--- heavy limb by heavy limb. We are relieved that all the neighborhood foresters survived the Felling Bee, and we are mesmerized by the sheer volume of wood, of accumulated vegetable growth -- photosythesis writ large -- that lies on the ground. The ancient girth of Old Tree stumped garden-variety tools, and someone will have to find a chain saw with a 36" blade if the remainder of the trunk is not to be a permanent lawn ornament in front of the church.

For all its dignity, the tree seems to have had an unfortunate name. Botanically, we are a casual lot around here, and we sort of agree that it is a Stinkwood tree. Green-a-Planet says that the Stinkwood is "tough and strong, and polishes well, but is difficult to work. It is a good general timber suitable for making planks, shelving, yokes, tent-bows and furniture. The African people have always used it to make a variety of household articles. It is also thought to have magical properties. The wood is mixed with crocodile fat as a charm against lightning, and many people believe that it has the power over evil and that pegs of wood driven into the ground will keep witches away."

Perhaps the mighty root system will continue to keep this little village free from harm.Taking the giant down required two hard days; reducing it to firewood will take weeks. We are grateful for its life, from shade to heat, with good juju.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

I Have Quit Picking Huckleberries

After a hot and humid summer, the new season gave us a cool, bright, windy day, and with great pleasure I went a few miles up the road to the annual pow wow of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. It is an event of great vitality, spiritual significance, and beauty.

Called Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa, the pow wow celebrates the harvest, and the name means literally "I have quit picking huckleberries." In my years here I do not think I have seen a huckleberry, although I could be wrong. An ancient tradition, the pow wow serves as a reunion, a renewal, and a chance to dance.

These dances are the focus of the public experience, and how wonderful they are. Wearing regalia that defies simple description, the participants are as flamboyant as the men's fancy dancers, as dignified as the women's shawl dancers, as deliciously noisy as the women's jingle dances, as rooted in practical tradition as the men's grass dancers, and as revered as the Great Lakes Old-Style dancers.

People being people, the celebratory dances are also competitive, and I was told that dancers travel a "pow wow circuit" that involves performance categories ranging from the Tiny Tots to the mature adult dancers. And, yes, there are stars, favorites, and rivalries.

Whether participating in the come-one, come-all Intertribal dances or in the category competitions, dancers do not move alone. In meandering single files, they circle the dance arena. All the girls' jingle dancers, for example, are in view at the same time, and although they are competing, they are dancing together. There is much to be learned in this community.

Although the family lineages are long and deep, it is obvious that they include new blood, and it is not unusal to see blond boys dancing in fierce competition with their Native pals. A close look at the image here reveals not only light hair but plaid Old Navy shorts. The pow wow is quite a patchwork that includes fry bread pizza.

The traditions also teach respect and acceptance. An important part of the Grand Entry of the dancers is the recognition of veterans - Native American and other. Deep gratitude is shown to all those who have served their country. All are asked to look after the elders and to have good thoughts.

So I go to the tribal land and walk each year through the campgrounds that are filled with tents and woodsmoke. I go in part to look at the craft of the regalia, in part to observe the earnest energy of the children, in part to eat fry bread. But mostly I go in gratitude for the grace of people whose ancestors inhabited this land and were stewards of its bounty, its huckleberries.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Double Dutch

If I go down Indian Lake Road, cross the bridge, and turn left onto Creek Road, it feels like I am in the Netherlands of my imagination --- although without the spare, flat vistas. These two barns are tucked deep in the dense Michigan woods that hug the edges of farmland, but they seem to have been constructed by the Dutch settlers of this region with a mind's eye looking to the old country.

The Dutch presence is pervasive here, particularly at election time, when the roads are peppered with signs for the Hoogendyks, VanderBurgs, Bowkers, and Behnkes.

In addition to the Dutch in this part of southwest Michigan, there was a 19th century African-American population second only to that of the Detroit area in its size. According to one historian, the experiences of our county's African-Americans were unlike those of northern urban African-Americans. The economic balance and dependency that developed between Cass County's white and black populations helped to minimize racism, promote cooperation between the races, and create an African-American community of prosperity and confidence unique in the North.

The fate of the indigenous population, the Potawatomis, is a sad and sorry story of injustice to be told another time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Big Sale

I will be showing mixed media work and some pastels in West Bloomfield, MI July 31 and August 1 at the Orchard Lake Fine Art Show http://www.hotworks.org/orchardlakefineartshow/

I am offering a 10% discount with a mention of this notice or of the e-mail announcements I have sent. This also extends to friends and neighbors you might direct to my space at the show, #227.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Catching Air and Letting It Go

I am wild for wind turbines. I can't get enough of the white height and grace of them, and the moving space between the blades seems as visible as those big wings themselves. The first wind farms I ever saw were around Palm Springs, and the turbines actually looked cool in the sere, hot desert. On and on they went, spreading over dry hills for miles, and my fascination was cemented.

Thinking of wind turbines as Western creatures, I was surprised and delighted by the array along the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Issues surrounding objections to the Nantucket Sound Cape Wind project are foggy to me, enamored as I am. The easy answer is that I would rather have a wind turbine than a yacht. But then again, I live in an old school that has five restrooms and no closets. What would I know?

I do know that I lost my heart to Iowa's wind farms when we recently drove to Denver and back. On one particular dim, damp, hot morning --- with the sky preparing for some extravagant storms --- we just gazed at the wind workers in the field down the road, and wondered how much it would cost to get one. Or two. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Plein Air in Plain View

Christine Brenner and Christopher Castelli have been with us at The School for nearly a week, and our days have been filled with good conversation and incredible food. We have cooked Aloo Gobi & Lemon Dal, Chicken with Tomatillos & Hominy,  and Polpetti & Spinach. Christopher made popovers, and Edward made butter. We have watched: Snow Cake, The Music Man, You Can Count on Me, Zoot Suit, Walk Out, and Sunday in the Park With George. We are close to swooning with the pleasures of friendship and sensory experience.

So Christine offered a display of enviable discipline, setting up her easel in the lee of the Blue Sprinter. It was not long before she had a trio of kibitzers who had a thing or two to tell her about blue. As if she didn't know.

Tonight we will take a break from high culture to watch the South Bend Silver Hawks play the Fort Wayne Tin Caps. It's a busy life, this being artists.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Olga at 95

I am lucky enough to be celebrating my mom's 95th birthday today, separated by some miles but not by feeling. On the ground in Cleveland, she will be taken out for dinner by her favorite friends   -- who are younger than I am --- to her favorite restaurant on Lake Erie with a view of the city lights and the water.

Olga is a remarkable person. She is spunky, bright, curious, stubborn, flexible, loyal, opinionated, generous, optimistic, honest, and good. She graciously accepts assistance now that she is older, and has only praise and kind words for those who help her. She is passionate about current events, books, and the Cleveland Indians. For her knowledge and judgment, she was prized as a seller of children's books and an expert on the US First Ladies. Competitive and smart, she takes no prisoners in Scrabble or at the bridge table. She has expected a lot from life and given much back.

Her company is sought by people of all ages because of the warmth of her personality, the range of her interests, and the modernity of her attitudes. I have never, in all my life, heard her say, "I'm too old for this."

There is one beautiful and pivotal thing she does customarily say, however. Looking around, taking life in as it happens, she smiles and asks with pleasure, "What could be better than this?"

Baby Olga is held by her grandfather, the orchardist Harry Frank, nestled next to Lizzie Frank. The people in the fine hats are Baby Olga's parents, Luella Frank Shortess and Jesse Cloyd Shortess. Jesse was an artist who died young, and Luella was a postmistress and peach vendor. The mournful woman seated in the front is Cousin Edna Beaver, and we do not know why the occasion made her feel so low.
Pennsylvania, 1915

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Jack and His Kubota

When Edward and I bought The School from John McQueen a decade ago, we became the custodians of a thousand trees. City kids that we were, we failed to supervise them, and, in the passing years, those trees became the masters of our long views. Thanks to our neighbor, Minister Dan, and his chain saw, we have recently gained more light and space.

Yesterday Dan's friend, Excavator Jack, made quick work of the stumps and brush, while we stood around, not getting poison ivy and sore backs. At 76, he is quite the agile and opinionated machine operator, and we were impressed by his turns-on-a-dime.

This morning we do not feel so enclosed by brush and trees, but the chipmunks are  outraged and letting us hear about it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Red Letter Day

I love this day. The National Spelling Bee begins in Washington, and it is the only thing on television I will not miss. No way; no how. Imagine it: two days of watching youngsters who are eager, bright, determined, geeky, gawky, adorable, emotional, impudent, scared, generous, curious, wiggly, multi-colored, and --- above all --- wrapped up in words.

This event, dear ones, is not just about knowing how to spell. It is about figuring out words, learning where they come from, and how they veer away from their origins just when you think you've got them nailed. It is detective work, with the gumshoe part accomplished in repetitive discipline. It is being able to lasso the spelling, once you know if it is from the Greek or the Latin.

The great Spelling Bee competitors have patience, timing, and cool. They do not jump their guns, and they are not intimidated by the judges or the clock. If they faint, they get up and ask for the language of origin, earning a place in sports comeback history.  Think of the spectacularly serious Akshay Buddiga, dropping out of the camera's view in 2004. Few remember that year's skinny Hoosier champ, David Tidmarsh, but Akshay has a fan club. Shows to go you; spelling is sexy.

For the spectators, the bee is a rolic of satisfaction and mystification. Bless ESPN3's heart for letting us watch the spellers as they unravel words and knit them back up - writing them in the air, on their palms, on the backs of their numbers, and in our hearts.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Long Lineage of Long Living Women

Now here is a bevy of mothers and daughters! All but the worried baby lived into their ninth decades, and she has a good start on keeping up with the Franks. Although I have other equal parts of Shortess (the tall, artist & preacher genes) Jansen (the moody, wandering Norwegian genes) McMahon (the moody, wandering Irish genes) I owe a lot of my determination and stamina to these beguiling ancestresses:

Lizzie Beaver Frank, my great-grandmother
Luella Frank Shortess Shambach, my grandmother
Olga Frank Shortess McMahon, my mother who is now a bright and vital 94

I hope I have passed on to my daughter, Kirstin and her daughter, Sterling some of the gifts I have received from these sturdy and beautiful creatures.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What I Do on Friday

It takes a lot to keep me from my Friday visit to La Central, the panadaria on South Bend's west side. If you have never had Mexican pan dulce, find a panadaria pronto, and prepare to be delighted. "Pan dulce" directly translated means sweet bread, but these bakery goods are not as sweet as they look and rarely seem like bread. They are not quite pastries; they are themselves.

The textures are light and soft. The colors can be as pink and yellow as the closet of a seven year-old girl, and the shapes are fantastical. No doubt each traditional form has a name, but --- not knowing them --- we call various pan dulce by their nicknames: the flower bud, the cigar, the Edvard Munch face, the alligator, and the You Know the One. There are huge crumbly cerise cookies and sugary oval pods with gooey fillings. There are whorles that flake like croissants, and sturdy anise-flavored scone-like things. If you are lucky, you will be able to grab a pumpkin empanada before they are all gone.

Each panadaria pretty much looks like every other panadaria. No sexy patisserie style here, but instead you'll find utilitarian pan dulce cases lining the walls, shuttered with clear plexi knee-to-head doors. At the cash register counter, you will pick up a round metal tray as big as a pizza pan and a pair of spring-loaded tongs. Then you will start piling the pan dulce on the tray. Go ahead. Try to stop yourself. I think I will try this one, and this one, and of course this one, and on it goes.

At La Central, the best panadaria in South Bend, I take my tray, towering with treasure, to Andres, the owner and head baker. He puts them all in a big grocery bag, doing the math in his head. If Edward and I show a little discipline, the supply will last until the next Friday, but that doesn't happen often.

My Friday trip to La Central is one of the wonderful sensory traditions that Edward and his family have shared with me. As everyone knows, nothing beats knowing how to judge a tamale. I will need many more years to master that one.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Animal Adventures

So off goes Edward on his daily walk. He expects to be noticed by several chained and nasty dogs who serve more as sentries than pets. He will not be surprised by the galumphing rush of wild turkeys as they try to fly about four feet above the field. He will probably hear the plopping of frogs into ponds and the rumble of tractors. He may encounter snapping turtles, horses ambling in pastures, and have the pleasure of stepping over roadkill raccoons, oppossums, and snakes.

But this will be a new one: a young, brash, and very heavy bull will come charging at him. Separated only by a puny wire fence, the two face off, and Edward hollers, "Go away!" The bull does, only to wheel around and return for another confrontation of wills. Edward strolls nonchalantly along, hoping the bull does not realize how flimsy the wire fence is. The bull loses interest, as bulls will, and Edward makes it home, none the worse.

Yes, there were a few tense moments, but it was nothing like Edward's encounter with the groundhog. Or the bat. Or the wolverine. Ask him about them someday.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Luxe and Luscious

I mixed happy business with sensual pleasure this afternoon at Lemon Creek Fabrics. It may be a little shop in the sleepy town of Berrien Springs, MI, but Lemon Creek is a destination for high-end interior designers from all over the country. It is a regular candy box of long gorgeous bolts of upholstery fabrics that cost $200 per yard elsewhere but are sold by Judi and John Dugan for $15 to $30 per yard. The beauty and the feel of these textiles take your breath away.

The yards, I might mention, are wider than your wingspan, and, for the price of a pair of Zappo's shoes, I came away with an armload of shiny, shimmering, crunchy, cozy, smooth, vivid, and subtle fabrics for making bookcloth. Bookbinding suppliers sell handsome paper-backed materials for covering books, and they do a yeoman's job. Making my own from these  silks, however, is magic for my hands and eyes.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New Work: Air, Water, Warmth

Edward and I will leave tomorrow in the new, deep snow to drive through new deep snow towards Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Orlando, and -- at last -- Miami. For the outdoor show in Coconut Grove http://www.coconutgroveartsfest.com/ this weekend, I have made new work that speaks of the sea, moving air, geography, and marks on a map. How fortunate I was to be able to incorporate beautiful photographs taken by my son, Ryan Torgerson and his wife, Paige. I digitally combined them with other images and maps for printing on steel and bolted the metal to wooden backboards made by our good cabinetmaker friend, Dennis Snow http://dennissnow.com/about.htm 

It was pure pleasure to photograph some shells I have treasured forever and to invent, with other photographs, their source. I used the images over and over, nesting them in piles of handmade paper, sewing them into books for the wall. So, as the snow piled up around The School, my studio became a sort of paradise, all azure, white, and green.

The new work can be seen at http://blog.eugenietorgerson.com/?p=378

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Better Than A Studio

When it comes to creativity, an automotive repair shop takes the cake. It is downright thrilling to see Ron, Derek, Henry, and Greg look at a problem, talk it over, and proceed with ingenuity and good humor. The lesson for me is seeing how the creative process at Dowagiac Auto unreels with without ego, false modesty, or delibitating self-doubt.

It is no wonder then that  I like hanging around the shop with my camera, trying to stay out of the way, looking at stuff. My favorite things are heavy and rusty, and if I behave myself, they will let me take something home. Got a great brake rotor once.