15 July – Feast of St. Swithin and Our 32nd Anniversary

St. Swithin, stained glass

St. Swithin, stained glass

Today is the feast day of many saints – the big web calendar of saints lists fifty-five of them, many largely anonymous.

A favorite is Saint Swithin (or Swithun), a ninth-century English bishop reputed to possess a post-mortem talent for weather forecasting (Perhaps, given his view from above, he may have some advance knowledge of cloud movements?).

A charming legend recounts how he miraculously restored a basketful of eggs, carried for sale by a Winchester egg woman, that had been maliciously broken by some workmen.

A warning about putting all one’s eggs into one basket? Or that, having done so, there is still hope? Or a love from the common street vendor? Restoration?

Who knows.

In any case, I wish to mark today because it carries great significance in my little life – a life as anonymous as that of most of today’s patron saints.  For it was 32 years agotoday that I was married to my wife, Mimi, the source of most of the good things that have happened in my life.

Mimi and  in NYC's Central Park, one snowy December

Mimi and I in NYC's Central Park, one snowy December

May this good fortune long continue.

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Published in: on 15 July 2009 at 12:44 pm  Comments (1)  
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13 July – Feast Day of Blessed Jacobus of Voragine, Author of the Golden Legend

St. Christopher, Guardian of Safe Journeys, from Jacobus' Golden Legend

St. Christopher, Guardian of Safe Journeys, from Jacobus' Golden Legend

Hard to imagine the history of Western Art without the participation of this thirteenth century inadvertent writer.  Jacobus was archbishop of Genoa, which would provide him a small place in Italian Church history, but inarguably his greatest gift to us was his compilation of the lives and legends of the saints, in the text popularly known as the Golden Legend. Not a properly readable set of stories, it serves more as a gathering of seeds for sermons and other oratory. The tales range from the sublime to the most fanciful, with gruesome helpings of misogyny and antisemitism (perfect mirror of its age).

If you ever wondered why those saints in Gothic and Rennaisance art and architecture are occupied with odd tasks, or are carrying curious artifacts, the Golden Legend is your key. Jacobus’ writings provided the visual clues to religious compositions for centuries.
As a footnote to St. Christopher, above, herewith a short poem I wrote comoing home last night from the Ford Amphithetre and Gregorio Luke’s presentation on Rufino Tamayo:

Dragging east along Hollywood

Big chunk of moon hanging low

under the Bronson Street sign.

It was: Take the moon or take the freeway.

I hooked a quick right onto the 101

Under a falling star, home to my baby,

Who fell asleep

Praying I would get home safe.

12 July – Feast Day of Saint Veronica

veronica iii Today’s issue of the New York Times Travel section has a short but not so sweet piece on our Los Angeles neighborhood, Highland Park.

Sadly, NYT’s first foray into the 90042 got it wrong, or at least came up woefully incomplete.

Three of the four businesses mentioned lie along a mere block-and-a-half of York Boulevard;
and the fourth, the admittedly fun Society of the Spectacles eyeglass shop, is just down the street.
What??
No Figueroa Street, the long, broad and longtime heart of Highland Park??
Apparently not:
The most egregious comment (one hopefully taken out of context)
comes from Cafe de Leche’s owner Matt Schodor, who says,
“The landscape has changed significantly. Now, everything is centered on one street.”
Oh. Is it? What about:
Avenue 50 Studio, a non-profit community arts and culture gallery, founded in early 2000 by local artist Kathy Gallegos, was one of the first – and still flourishing – cultural outposts to put out a shingle in the neighborhood. Housed in what was, decades ago, a small automotive garage, in a hardscrabble landscape abutting the Metro line snaking up to Pasadena, Avenue 50 now shelters two artist studios and an Etsy-ite fabric artist, as well as providing Northeast L.A. with monthly exhibitions of cultural significance and outreach; as well as concerts, poetry readings and workshops, weekly yoga classes, the occasional Women-Only massage party, and more.
[Note: I had the good fortune to have a solo show for my then-a-birthing “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project there the year Avenue 50 opened, and I have had (I think) four more shows there in the intervening nine years, and was tapped to serve on its Board of Directors when the gallery went 501 c-3 several years back. ]
Figueroa Street between Avenue 50 and York boasts all sorts of cultural richness of the sort that precludes many of us from ever needing to fight the westbound traffic of the Santa Monica 10 Freeway:
Chicken Boy, the once-beleaguered and now much-beloved tongue-in-cheek Statue of Liberty of Northeast L.A., perched (of course) above Future Studio Gallery, an appropriately quirky venue for pretty quirky art, replete with a souvenir shop;
The Highland Theatre, where first-run movies are shown in modest circumstances for less than the cost of a louche’s latte;
A cornucopia of great taco trucks and, increasingly, pirate/private nighttime taco stands, where dedicated men and women sizzle buche, carnitas, cebollitas y mas, with griddles and gas tanks under jury-rigged mood lighting in alleyways and in front of grocery stores and (Yes!) tire repair shops  – Just one dollar for a salsa verde stairway to heaven.
There’s much more I could add, but the morning grows long. In the end, perhaps there’s little reason to fault the New York Times for its incomplete reportage on a distant zip code, for naively compacting a vibrant community to four shops on three blocks.
After all it took the Los Angeles Times nine years to write its first review of Avenue 50 Studio, just down the hill from where a number of its now-laid-off reporters once lived and commuted….
As Saint Veronica’s vera icon teaches us, the truth is often far more complex than it looks on the surface.

The Feast Day of Saint Reinhold and the Passing of Robert Graham

robert-graham-reliefFrom what I knew of the man, Robert Graham would have enjoyed this little tale.

 

Saint Reinhold was a tenth century bishop, assigned to oversee the construction of an abbey in Cologne. No mere supervisor, however, Reinhold threw himself into the abbey’s stonework with such skill and zeal that his carving soon outshone the handiwork of the stonemasons under his care. Disgruntled by this turn of events, and envious of the saint’s superior craftsmanship, the stonemasons grabbed their hammers and beat him to death.

 

Ah, the tempestuous art world.

 

Last Wednesday, on the 1048th anniversary of Saint Reinhold’s final, crushing critique, hundreds of us gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Downtown Los Angeles, to honor the gentleman carver and sculptor Robert Graham.

 

I came alone and sat near the back – as misfortune would have it, I had yet another memorial service to attend, and would need to leave before the final benediction. Even so, when that time came, the rows all around and behind me would be filled: Frank Gehry in the row before me; Donald Sutherland across the aisle; Harrison Ford passing in front. Really, though, the mind registers the faces and names, then rapidly – especially in such a setting – readjusts to the realization that we are all, at base, small and frail human beings.

 

Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. For me the twin moments were the human ones at, or near, the beginning and end of the service:

 

Noriko Fujinami, Graham’s studio director, presiding quietly and comfortingly from the center aisle, moving over to place her hands on a mourner’s shoulders from behind; silently embracing a newcomer.

 

And then: As the service began, we were asked to join the choir in singing “Amazing Grace,” a song that hadn’t passed my mind in decades, as Cardinal Roger Mahony and entourage entered with the casket from the rear. Looking up from the printed lyrics – “How sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me” – I caught the cardinal reaching into the fount of holy water at the rear of the cathedral, and taking great handfuls and literally pouring out great draughts of it, repeatedly: the holy water cascading over the beautiful wood, as though Roger was trying to exorcize some deeper personal pain at the loss of his friend.

 

Much later, after Communion, and before the Eulogies would restore a sense that our life, at least, goes on, Robert’s widow, the actress Anjelica Huston, was escorted by Msgr. Kevin to a podium, from which, veiled in black, she read William Butler Keats’ poem “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace.”

 

First, what a joy it is to hear poetry read by someone who knows how to do so. But of course, how fraught with emotion and meaning this was, given the context. As Anjelica came to the sixth line – “The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire” – her voice broke, became hoarse holding back her tears, as ours poured down. She struggled to regain control over the next two lines, and then spoke the rest quietly, tarrying softly over the half-benediction / half-plea of the final four lines:

 

“Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.”

 

Whatever followed seemed superfluous.

11 Jan 09 – Feast Day of St. Peter of Alexandria, from whom San Pedro Bay Derives

castratiWhat with the recent spate of dour local arts news – downsizing, near bankruptcy, layoffs, and cancellations – the three brochures for local arts organizations tumbling out of Sunday’s paper bestowed an aura of belated Christmas gifting.

 

Printed in full color on good card stock, they advertised the schedules for, respectively, the Los Angeles Art Show (Good for a $5 admission discount);  REDCAT at the Disney (A true keeper, chockablock with detailed info on great programming); and the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, at Santa Monica College.

 

Over 150 worldwide art galleries at the Convention Center in two weeks; opera, Cajun, and jazz at the Broad through the spring; and experimental cinema, theatre, dance, music and ideas at REDCAT through the year – all give rise to hope for the arts scene despite the economic downturns here and ahead.

 

The stunning kicker, though, is this: All three tumbled out of, not the Los Angeles Times – which offered, instead, the usual Target, Best Buys, and CVS adverts – but the local edition of the New York Times.

 

One couldn’t help thinking how their placement in the NYT must register as yet another none-too-subtle dismissal of the cultural relevance or importance of the handful of critics still soldiering on at the LAT. So sad.

 

15 September – Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows

detail of Santa Maria Road
detail of Santa Maria Road

Sometimes a story will arrive to fill a void. From the beginning of my time working on All the Saints it was my goal that it not be seen as “capital C” Catholic, but as “lower case c” catholic: that is, not institutionally religious, but drawing from and encompassing many cultures and experiences.

 

Still, because All the Saints clearly riffs on traditional Christian/Catholic imagery, I occasionally sensed a discomfort among Jewish friends, which gave me pause and occasioned a sense of personal artistic regret. I hoped for a way to illuminate our tortuous history together; a way to honor the ways in which the symbols I was using had caused so much pain.

 

I found the path on Santa Maria Road.

 

Santa Maria Road, as I wrote in my book, “arches north and eastward off Topanga Canyon Boulevard,” where it is defended by “Restricted Entry” signs; and, after passing through a shady glen of horse ranches, becomes “a dirt and dusty pathway into the southwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley.”

 

When I stood, caked in Santa Maria’s dust, gazing into “this canyon of willow and sage,” I thought of one of several saints named Santa Maria: Saint Mary of Egypt, an early – and rare female – mystic hermit, who dwelled in the wilderness for forty years, her clothes worn away in decades-long penance, her body covered by her long tresses. It was easy to picture Mary of Egypt enraptured in this near-wilderness, and I couldn’t wait to return to my studio to portray her.

French miniature of Mary of Egypt
French miniature of Mary of Egypt

Unfortunately, a bit more research provided a historical source for the road’s name. Jesus Santa Maria, a Mexican settler from the 1870’s, endures on this sole Topanga Canyon road sign. Jesus lived in Topanga for decades, “hauling cords of manzanita into [Los Angeles] via the circuitous route of the period: north from his ranch to El Camino Real (now Ventura Boulevard); and from there, southeast into El Pueblo.”

 

Now my Road had a namesake; what it needed was an origin for Jesus’ last name. Wondering how someone acquired a last name like Santa Maria, I phoned one of my advisors on All the Saints, historian Stafford Poole, whose focus is on life in Colonial New Spain.

 

As fate (or the saints) would have it, Father Poole had recently researched this very theme – the naming practices of New Spain – with an emphasis on the Sephardic Diaspora. Indeed, he had just given a presentation on this very topic.

 

Father Poole informed me that nearly all Mexicans with last names such as Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, or Santa Maria are descended from the forced converts – conversos – from Judaism to Catholicism during Spain’s and Portugal’s periodic medieval pogroms. Forced to convert and take on uber-Catholic names, and still expelled from their home countries in 1492 by King Ferdinand (Yes, it wasn’t just Columbus who set sail that year), many became “Hidden Jews” who, over time, assimilated and adapted, integrated or reinvented themselves, into anti-Semitic societies in the New World.

 
 
I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, La Virgen de Dolores, one of the more empathic depictions of Santa Maria, for my painting; and I thought immediately of my friend Doris for my model – a dear friend of many years, whose face traces her life’s experiences.

 

 

As it happens, Doris, who is Jewish, has always joked that I should portray her as a saint; now I was about to invite her to let me do just that:

 

“Doris,” I began the phone call, “Remember how you always want me to portray you as a saint?”

 “I want to be the Virgin Mary!” she startled me.

“Well,” I considered, “That’s actually why I called – but first let me tell you the story and see if you still want to do it.”

 

After I related the history of Santa Maria Road, and after Doris and I had a good cry, she insisted that she had to do this; and we set a date for me to photograph her.

I think the resulting painting – her haunting visage as Our Lady of Sorrows, drifting above “this pilgrim’s dirt path, a Road affronted (as Jews have been for centuries) with “Restricted Entry” signs” – is perhaps my finest portrait. It certainly conveys the pain and endurance hinted at in its tale.

 

As we prepared my All the Saints exhibition for the Autry Museum, Doris confided that she was herself a hidden Jew: her parents elected to hide their heritage to facilitate assimilation into the Navy and a Wasp-only government society. Only in college did Doris discover – and embrace – her true inheritance. Her parents had erected “Restricted entry” signs on the branches of their family tree.

 

 

30 August – Feast Day of St. Fiacre, the Misogynist

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

The fall of 2000, when I began the rich journey through the soul of L.A. that would become All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I was researching – with an eye to portraying – the streets named for saints in and around Downtown Los Angeles.

It was in this way that I found myself one morning in the lobby of a drop-in shelter on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row; and it was at that moment that I noticed – how could I not? – the lovely young woman in the photo at left.

Jevona welcomed my request to photograph her, and as I did, she began telling me, unbidden, her life story. It proved a sad, difficult tale, with avaricious men attempting at every turn to take advantage of her. As she told me several times, “If I would sell my body, I wouldn’t be homeless.”

That fall I connected Jevona’s situation with the legend of Saint Agnes – Santa Ynez – whose street I needed to portray. One of the aspects of All the Saints’ first year of of which I am most proud is the positive effect my painting of Jevona as Santa Ynez had on this frail young woman – Ah, if only that could have lasted.

The troubled and troubling ways in which men have, and still, historically abused women is beyond lamentable, thus important to remark and to overcome.

Therefore I bring this relationship up today, for today – Saturday – is the feast day of a particularly unpleasant misogynistic saint (so-called), Fiacre, of Ireland. I recommend taking a few minutes to read his tale from Jacobus de Voragine’s great Golden Legend.

The gist of it is that he felt himself wronged  – “full sorry and wroth” – by one woman and then, after solitary reflection, decided to take revenge on all women.

As Jacobus tells “he made his prayer to our Lord that no woman should never enter into his church, without she be punished by some manner of sickness. ”

His awful prayer, it seems, was granted: one woman lost an eye; the foot of another “swelled by such manner that all the leg, knee, and thigh of it was grieved with sickness.”

Nor were these isolated instances: “many other miracles have been thereof showed.” It seems also a continuation of his demonization of women, that he is invoked against syphilis, venereal disease, and sterility.

As we struggle for gender equality and for honest and open relationships between women and men, let us recall today all the Santa Ynezes who have struggled – and struggle still – against all the Saint Fiacres.

28 August – Feast Day of St. Augustine, son of Santa Monica

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Detail of my painting for Santa Monica Boulevard, All the Saints

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the chief theologians of the Church; writer and philosopher – and, in his youth, a rabble-rouser, carouser, and his mother’s great and constant sorrow.

a petition left in my gallery

a petition left in my gallery, Summer '08

His mother, Monica, was a widow who, like so many mothers among us, raised three kids – two daughters and a son – alone. Augustine showed great promise, yet got himself into trouble, distancing himself from his upbringing, ignoring his mother’s please to change.

His conversion to the writer and philosopher we know across the centures – the author of City of God and Confessions – was a cumulative act Augustine himself attributed to his mother’s unceasing love, concern, and faith in his ability to change. And it was because of her unyielding love, despite her son’s misdeeds, that Santa Monica was canonized as a saint.

In my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I connect the narrative arc of Augustine’s and Monica’s relationship to the troubled lives of mothers and sons who negotiate the dangers, attractions, unquiet, and pain of the street.

As I wrote:

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes, “In what abyss was I buried?  And you extended … toward me your merciful hand, to bring me out of that profound darkness…”

 

Here in the City of the Angels, where so many mothers weep for sons who are victims of violence or perpetrators of violence; where so many families are connected by prisons and hospitals, courtrooms and morgues; it is that merciful hand, like the optimistic long-suffering love of Santa Monica, that can help us out of the darkness, that can help us to heal.

another petition left in my gallery

another petition left in my gallery

 May we all be healed.

23 August – Feast Day of Santa Rosa de Lima

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Santa Rosa de Lima, color pencil/paper, 1994

Yesterday morning I went out into our garden, my mind preoccupied with the violence that haunts our home in Mexico.

Seated on the patio steps, I was drawn out of my funk by an unusual three-note trill emanating from somewhere beyond the bouganvillea.

I was searching for the source when suddenly it appeared – its form somewhat like a jay’s, but devoid of brilliance  – on a telephone wire: within brief seconds it was gone.

So suddenly had this songbird disappeared, I was still gazing in its direction when a monarch butterfly drizzled into view from stage right, below and before the bouganvillea.

Startlingly, the songbird reappeared, pouncing from out of view; plucked the butterfly with its tweezer-like beak; and set about enjoying breakfast on my studio roof.

A quick exploratory poke or two; and the narrative took another unexpected twist: the monarch arighted herself from the asphalt and ambled its uncertain way, slightly rougher around the edges.

The songbird watched for what seemed eternal seconds, and then took off; exit stage right.

Tonight as I write this, family, friends and villagers are marching for peace and justice through Creel, back home in the Sierra Tarahumara, an eternal week to the minute after thirteen of their neighbors were machine-gunned into near-oblivion by the janjaweed of the drug lords.

I choose to take yesterday’s butterfly, universal symbol of rebirth, as a sign that we the people will eventually prevail.

17 August – Feast Day of San Jacinto (Saint Hyacinth)

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

What can I say; I have a particular fondness for San Jacinto, the purple saint. There’s a street bearing his name in the Silver Lake Hills of Los Angeles, north of Sunset and overlooking, intermittently, the silvery lake to the northeast.

It’s a rather sedate drive – apart from the confectionary castle at its mid-point – but, as I wrote in my book (p.65), the street exhibits some mystic tendencies, as it “ambles lightly about the Silver Lake hills, tracing a circumscribed path: Two hundred paces downhill, south by southwest. Turn. Then two hundred paces uphill, north by northeast. Repeat. A sacred Zen dance, good for the heart and legs.”

San Jacinto’s best legends are all, in fact, about ambling lightly.

 

One I illustrated some years back (at left) recounts how, when the village of Kiev was overrun by “fierce Tartars,” Jacinto grabbed a large, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary and, ‘though she weighed more than he, carried her with no perceptible difficulty to safety.

 

The legend I treasure more, however, is sometimes confused with this one; perhaps it occurred later on the same journey.

 

San Jacinto came to the River Dnieper or – what do we know – the River Vistula (Wikipedia informs that the two were once connected) and needed to cross whichever river it was that he, short of boat, needed to cross.

 

What to do? He crossed the river on foot.

Indeed.

And, it is recorded in the Acta Sanctorum XXXVII, 316, No. 38, that:

 

“the footprints of the saint remained on the water, even after he had crossed the river; and that, when the stream was calm, they could be seen for centuries afterwards.”

 

Sigh. Aside from its self-evident zen poetry, three things etch this tale in my heart.

 

First, when Jacinto was candidate for canonization, the Acta Sanctorum again assures us, “four hundred and eight witnesses were rigidly examined on this very matter, and they all attested on oath that they had seen these footprints with their own eyes; which, they said, the natives of the country call ‘the way of Saint Hyacinth.’ “

 

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

Second, his English name, Hyacinth, traces back to Apollo’s young lover Hyacinthus, who was killed in rivalry with Zephyrus: Hyacinthus’ spilled blood, which Apollo gathered, legendarily formed the liquid seed for the Hyacinthus orientalis (Interestingly, Wiki also informs us that “Hyacinths are sometimes associated with rebirth”).

 

But, for the water hyacinth, I cannot help but presume that the name derives from the legend of San Jacinto, for the plant is a tenacious free-floating perennial, remaining on the surface of any waterway to which it is introduced despite ‘most any efforts at extermination or control.

 

San Jacinto demonstrated this self-same tenacity for me the first year of All the Saints, when I created large prints of the Eastside Los Angeles saint-streets, and installed them in city bus shelters. San Jacinto Street had been among this first batch, and I had focused on his watery legend in my portrayal.

 

My friend Sally Stein and I went around to photograph each of the bus shelter installations. When we came to the San Jacinto Street installation at, as I recall, Sunset and Fountain, Sally remarked that she was surprised she wan’t seeing any light reflected on the glass covering my piece – only then did we realize that the glass had been utterly broken and lay all over the cement, and that someone had pulled hard on my print to remove it, but to no avail:

 

San Jacinto had held on, steadfast even in the L.A. night.

San Jacinto Street, photographed festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000

San Jacinto Street, photographed by J Michael Walker, festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000