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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sisters of Mercy

A couple of years ago at a friend’s house, I spied a sepia photograph of a bride on her wall. From the 1920s, it was very elegant; the bride wore a stylish dress and elaborate veil and was holding a large bouquet of flowers. It looked like an ordinary, if rather grand, professional wedding portrait and so I was taken aback when my friend told me it was a photograph of her great-aunt dressed for her final vows to become a nun. Now I had heard of the whole Bride of Christ notion, but I didn’t realize such extraordinary lengths were gone to with wedding portraits and tulle and such (the distinctly bridal First Communion get-ups I used to see in my New York neighborhood, notwithstanding). If I thought about it at all, I would have envisioned a simple white dress and veil.

I was convinced that if this family had such a portrait, others must exist and thought what an amazing collection it would make if one could assemble them. The exhibition and book possibilities made my mouth water. All these women…what were they thinking as they sat in their finery contemplating their futures? It seems incredibly poignant and I’m sure the photographs would reveal a rich mine of human emotion. Of course, trying to locate any photos has proved to be a challenge. Searches on the Internet have come up empty and I haven't even bothered with the Catholic Church knowing they wouldn’t be inclined to provide any assistance.

In recent years it seems the church has toned the fuss accompanying the ceremonies down considerably. But you can see how making such a to-do had been a brilliant move on its part, playing on every girl’s fascination with weddings. That a wedding (and most important, a dress) was still in the cards made becoming a nun so much more appealing and the bitter pill of entering a convent so much easier to swallow for everyone involved. It also helped secure the involvement of wealthy girls whom the church was known to target, since they’d have to sign over their inheritance. Members of this group and their families, in particular, were accustomed to marking life’s milestones with extravagant displays. The dress and ceremony would satisfy this requirement and the photograph would provide a lasting memento of the daughter who, in many cases, the family would never see again.

I still have hopes of finding a treasure trove of these portraits in the archives of some old photography studio. I would love to shine a light on them again for all to see.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pick Up Sticks

Jonathan Brilliant’s an artist after my own heart, elevating ordinary, everyday humble objects into the realm of the sublime. His Stick Stack Show is currently on view at the Visual Arts Center in Richmond, Virginia where Brilliant is 2011 Artist in Residence. The show is an offshoot of the Have Sticks Will Travel World Tour that began in 2009 eventually expanding into a series of site-specific installations recreated over an 18-month period in 13 different galleries. The current iteration in Richmond took two weeks for the artist to install.

Composed of items (stirrers, cup sleeves and lids, etc.) readily available at what Brilliant refers to as “his natural environment,” namely the corner coffee shop, he transforms them into wondrous sculptures. I particularly loved the monumental, The Richmond Piece, an undulating wall of 70,000 interwoven wooden coffee stirrers held together by tension and compression alone. It has a pleasing organic quality thanks to the material and amorphous shape. Well lit, it casts dramatic, twiggy shadows that extend the piece well beyond its physical borders, creating a negative image that splashes against the wall and floor.

I also loved Brilliant’s works on paper, which are elegant and retrained. The stir stick impressions are fresh and serendipitous and the lithograph, The GR Haze and laser cut, 18 Rabbit were just plain beautiful.

Brilliant may be making a comment on the caffeinated culture we live in, but I like to think he’s just working with the materials at hand. Certainly, the labor-intense, almost OCD nature of the work suggests a practice that is caffeine fueled, or at the very least Brilliant is tipping his hat to the jag and jolt that’s found within a cup o’ joe.

White as Wool...

I love it when you stumble upon an artwork by someone you’ve never heard of before that just blows your socks off. A couple of weeks ago this happened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts when I came across Tristin Lowe’s incredible life-sized whale sculpture, Mocha Dick. 52 feet long and constructed of creamy industrial felt, the sculpture features an inflated interior frame, which imparts a lifelike tautness to the form, suggesting skin covering flesh and bone. A venerable beast, this whale is battle-scared from a life spent roaming unfriendly seas and features clusters of finely detailed, appliqué barnacles across its surface and two soulful eyes that gaze out from within puckered lids. It's a work of real power that conveys both awe and empathy for the animal.

I liked the yin and yang dialogue between the exceedingly realistic details and the medium, which is pure artifice with its exposed stitches and zippers crisscrossing the wooly surface. The piece took six-months to create in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and involved a team of technicians and apprentices overseen by Lowe.

Exhibited alongside the sculpture are a whale oil lamp, a Robert Salmon painting of whaling ships in a harbor and a Rockwell Kent of a sailor on a ship’s rigging, I gather they are present to anchor the piece within the whaling narrative, but they seemed anemic—completely de trop, in fact—against the backdrop of such a show stopper.

At first I thought Mocha Dick was the artist’s play on Moby Dick, but I read in the exhibition dialectic that Mocha Dick was a real albino sperm whale that inhabited the waters off Mocha Island in the South Pacific. Mocha Dick was legendary, reputedly having attacked 20 whaling vessels. He was described in Knickerbocker magazine in 1839 as “white as wool . . . as white as a snow drift . . . white as the surf around him.” The account appeared in the magazine again in 1846, five years before Moby-Dick was published and while it's widely accepted that Melville was inspired by the events surrounding the sinking of the ship, Essex by a whale, given the similarity in Mocha Dick's name and the fact he was also albino, it’s clear he played a part in Melville’s inspiration.

Lowe acknowledges a longtime fascination with both Moby-Dick and maritime history, but he says the work's also about something more: “This project was like the story of Moby-Dick—embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea. It is not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.” 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Park Avenue Haversham

For a number of years my mother was president of the Chapin-Brearley Exchange, the wonderful now-defunct consignment shop that benefited the scholarship funds of those two New York City girls’ schools. The Exchange originated as a swap meet of sorts for school uniforms, morphing over the years to include party dresses and sporting equipage, and eventually women’s, men’s and boys’ clothing. Drawing from a pool of crème de la crème New York closets, including, after her daughter, Caroline, started going to Brearley, Jackie O’s, the Exchange was a treasure-trove of incredible finds. 

Years before Patricia Field was dressing Sarah Jessica Parker in vintage, my sister and I, on our limited allowances, were combing the Exchange’s racks for bits of finery with which to adorn ourselves. You never knew what you’d find there and it was the source of many divine articles of clothing that are still in my closet 35 years later: a beautiful gold silk 1940’s kimono jacket that looked like it could have been worn by Katharine Hepburn, a pair of sealskin Lapland boots with turned up toes and an ivory bangle carved from (I’m sorry to say) an elephant tusk, to name just three. What I liked best were the things that seemed to have been picked up on a whim during someone’s far-flung travels, only to be jettisoned later on when they returned to their homes...and reality.

The Exchange set the stage for one of the most unusual New York stories I know. The year must have been 1969 because my sister was still at home (she graduated from Brearley in 1970). My mother had received a call from the lawyer of an alumna—I forget from which school—who’d recently died and had left all her personal effects to the Exchange. There was such a quantity of belongings, and I suspect, in addition to space constraints, my mother feared the potential feeding frenzy that might occur among the Exchange volunteers when confronted with such booty, she had everything brought to our house for sorting and pricing. 

This is how our living room came to be transformed temporarily into Ali Baba’s cave. There were boxes and boxes of unopened Caron perfume, silk scarves, Indian saris, beaded evening bags and cashmere twin sets, most of them never worn and in their original wrapping. In addition to these items, there were several exotic robes, including a magnificent Chinese brocade tunic. It was a special piece and my mother arranged for a curator from the Metropolitan Museum to examine it. He was bowled over by the beauty of the thing, noting that the number of digits (eight I think?) in the claws of the dragons featured in the design signified the rank of emperor. (The robe was donated to the museum on behalf of the estate.)

Though this was all very exciting to a 12-year old girl, the really interesting part occurred before the things arrived at our house. My mother had met the woman’s lawyer at her apartment on Fifth Avenue to see what was what. After they finished, the lawyer explained to my mother that his client had another apartment that might contain additional items. 

The second one, which she’d used as her office, was a few blocks away on Park Avenue. Upon entering the apartment, it appeared to consist of only one study-like room with desks for her and her secretary. But the lawyer opened a jib door in the wall to reveal the rest of the apartment, which had been closed off for over forty years. 

It clearly had once been a very elegant space, but was now completely derelict. My mother described how the paint was hanging in sheets off the walls and sun-bleached draperies in tatters. The windows were filthy and everything was covered in a film of dust including the breakfast dishes still on the table. In the bedroom closet, beaded flapper gowns, probably Chanel and Lanvin, hung in shreds, and in the bathroom and kitchen was evidence of long ago quotidian life suddenly interrupted. To say my mother was floored, is not an exaggeration. On an ordinary day in the middle of New York, she’d run up against a real-life, 20th century Mrs. Haversham.

As it turned out, the woman’s husband had had a heart attack while they were having breakfast sometime in the 1920s. Devastated, she’d walked away, shutting the door on apartment and her life there, only to return once it had been altered into her office space. All these years later I am still astounded by the person who would make such an extravagant gesture in terms of grief and wealth, holding onto that valuable piece of real estate for all those years. 

I wonder if it worked. Wouldn’t being in the same city/neighborhood/building, have been only less painful by a matter of degrees than in the apartment itself. Of course, I have no way of knowing the particulars. She may well have left New York for a period of time and returned after the pain was somewhat less. But all that aside, the story stands as an amazing tale in the annals of New York (and beyond) and it always makes me wonder at all the other stories that might be out there.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Last week I went to see Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s charming valentine to Paris, his daughter and the "cinemagician," Georges Méliès. We got there early only to be subjected to a barrage of ads for Coke and cars and, worst of all, a faux movie trailer for Activision's new toy/video-game hybrid: Skylanders, which features Spyro, the fire-breathing purple dragon along with 32 other characters. Watching it, I felt like I might have an epileptic fit and my niece who at 19 has been subjected to way more technology than I, said she couldn’t follow it—just the ticket for the ADHD crowd! The cutsey animal figures are designed to hook small children, but their bratty attitude, special effects and heavy metal soundtrack will ensure they stick around through puberty. I can picture them with their jaws hanging open as they stare wide-eyed at the screen and pity the parents who will be badgered into buying the crap. My niece and I both thought the trailer/ad was horrendous: violent, smart-alecky and just plain obnoxious. No wonder society is going to Hell in a hand-basket if this is what our junior citizens cut their teeth on.
I happen to be a fan of animation. I used to regularly attend an animated film festival when I lived in New York, which featured short films made by people like Gary Larsen. I find I can return to an animated film again and again, I think because, in a very real sense, it is a piece of art. I am captivated by the visuals that transcend whatever narrative is going on. My favorite animated film is The Triplets of Belleville. I think I could write a dissertation on it. It is so visually rich with so many wonderful touches that evoke France and the French. The Triplets radiates humanity. I love how the characters look, how the dog ages as the film progresses and his film-length grudge against the train. Sylvan Chomet employs live action film within the animation, which makes for a really interesting effect. There are also several different animation styles used throughout from retro looking black and white employed to render the wonderful Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire-like personages, to hard-edged lines and rich color, to areas which use a light, delicate hand and pale hues. There's very little dialogue; when it is used (with one exception), it almost sounds like French gibberish: conveying the language without really saying anything. The soundtrack is simply marvelous with a swingey '30s sound. I recently viewed Sylvain Chomet's newest film The Illusionist which I am happy to say is on a par with The Triplets. The film's protagonist is based on Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot. The animated film includes a snippet from Tati's brillaint, Mon Oncle. Tati is someone I liked mildly when I first saw his films years ago, but now I think is brilliant. His social commentary, made primarily through the use of sight gags, is spot on.
Other animated films I admire are Waking Life, The Secret of Kells (beautiful soundtrack) and Waltz with Bashir, which uses animation brilliantly to tell the story of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, an event almost too horrific to relate using ordinary means.
While I was watching the abysmal Skylanders’ ad, I was thinking specifically about a relatively new film to me, Paprika, an anime confection by the highly regarded Satoshi Kon. Its bright colors and zippy vibe can compete with Skylanders, but Paprika is so imaginative and visually stunning, you don’t feel like watching it is going to burn out your eyes and rot your brain. On the contrary, you are simply dazzled.


In case you hadn’t noticed, weddings are bigger than ever. There are three Say Yes to the Dress franchises on TV, the original at Kleinfeld’s (which is actually pretty good, providing little vignettes of people’s lives (the saleswomen, classic New York characters and the clients) along with some lip smacking style voyeurism) followed by ones from an Atlanta and a Beverly Hills store and a fascinating Reality TV offering from the UK that tracks over-the-top gypsy weddings.

Recently, my attention was directed to a couple of wedding planners’ websites which each feature slideshows of some of the weddings they have planned. It’s an amazing window into 21st century American civilization. It speaks volumes about our society. The weddings are beautiful, no question about it, with even the smallest detail whipped into shape. Each wedding is unique, boasting imaginative touches specifically tailored to a bride’s style. Yet, despite the beauty, something seems to be missing. The absolute perfection is suffocating and ironically, though the goal is hyper personalization, the weddings come across as incredibly impersonal.

Now I confess I am a little cynical about marriage even though my parents were happily wed for 64 years and were parted only by death. But, from where I sit with, apparently, a front row seat to Kim Kardashian’s shenanigans not to mention all the “Family Values” hypocrites (Newt, Vitter, Sanford, etc. You know who you are!) I have a right to be cynical. Personally, I think more people should focus on the marriage part rather than the wedding part, which as Kim K. and many others before her have demonstrated has become an opportunity for young women to play Queen for the Day.

Not so long ago before we all got so entitled, brides and their mother’s did their own planning, now, even the middle class hires wedding planners. Is it really that complicated? Isn’t it just like throwing a big party? It all seems a little spoiled and princessey to me.

I went to a wonderful wedding a couple of years ago, which was a haute WASP bohemian affair if you can imagine such a thing. It was at the bride’s family’s beautiful farm in Upstate New York. Exuberant controlled chaos is how I would best describe the affair. India played a big role in the festivities including the fabric for the dress and the bride’s jewelry; her family is in the textile business and all of them have spent a lot of time in India. The aisle for the ceremony, held in a field under an oak tree, was delineated using pots of dahlias, obviously just purchased at the local co-op. To keep the heavy blooms upright someone had lashed them to PVC pipe. They’d begun to disguise, the pipes, but time must have run out because not all of them had been camouflaged and the pots were mis-matched. There must have been 300 guests. To accommodate them all three non-matching tents had been set up haphazardly on the lawn, which was on two different levels. The tents were decorated with yards and yards of Indian fabric. Let me tell you they looked fabulous, large pink paper lanterns were suspended from the main one, which glowed with lovely, warm light. At the reception there was an attempt at a Virginia Reel accompanied (not very well) by the bride’s uncle on the bagpipes, the food on grills was unevenly cooked. But the band was great, the wine (private label) flowed and the colorful guests whooped it up. It was one of the best weddings I’ve been to I think because it wasn’t a hermetic ideal, nor was it an event that’s ultimately about reliving the past (through the glamorous photographs) in the future and gaining an edge with your peer group. No indeed, this wedding was relaxed, joyful, in-the-moment and exceedingly personal. And that my friends, is the definition of real class.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crystal Bridges

Ever since I first got wind of it, I have been rubbing my hands together in delight at the anticipation of the opening of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s just too delicious for my inner snark to resist. First of all there’s the name. Crystal Bridges. Who names an art museum that? At best, it sounds like a shopping mall, at worst, a “memorial garden.” But the museum is serious stuff (the embarrassingly cute video on its website notwithstanding) no Thomas Kinkade's "paintings of light" or Little Mermaid cels here. Norman Rockwell is represented, but then so is Jenny Holzer and, even more bizarre, given his skewering of corporate imperialism and the destruction of the environment, Walton Ford. (No family connection, I trust!)
I have not seen the Moshe Safdie-designed complex in person, though I've studied the photos. Let's just say that if I saw it and didn’t know what it was called, I would call it Crystal Bridges. It’s glitzy with a lot of glass and yes, what look like bridges over turquoise expanses of water. At night, it lights up like a Christmas tree. It would not look out of place in Las Vegas or Dubai.
The museum focuses on American Art from the colonial era up to the present day and it’s been busy Hoovering up as much as it can from private collections and smaller museums and institutions that have fallen on hard times. Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic has been sucked up for a cool $68 million as well as Asher B. Durand’s iconic Kindred Spirits from the New York Public Library. Most disturbing, Ms. Walton recently visited the Maier Museum of Art, at Randolph-Macon College in Lynchburg, Virginia, which boasts a superb collection of American paintings. It’s a particularly sad state of affairs given the genesis of the Randolph Macon collection. Started by art professor, Louise Jordan Smith, who felt that a liberal arts education must include familiarity with the art of one’s own time, she established an annual contemporary art exhibition in 1911, and nine years later, the Randolph Macon Art Association, which raised funds for the college to purchase a work from each exhibition. 

Operated on a shoestring, the collection grew over the years to include seminal pieces by Modern American masters as well as a significant holding of 19th century art. Smith purchased incredibly strong work, including George Bellows's glorious Men of the Docks. Acquired for a few thousand dollars, it appreciated to many tens of millions over the century or so it was owned by Randolph Macon and was the first to go in 2007. Now, with Walton sniffing around the place, you know the others are also in jeopardy. What a contrast these two women provide: Smith had limited funds and only her amazing eye to go with and a belief in bringing art work directly to students; Alice, equipped with a fat wallet and the best art consulting advice money can buy seems to be motivated by the desire to build a monument to herself.
I have purposefully avoided reading anything about Crystal Bridges as I wanted to put my own particular spin on things. But I did catch a fawning article in Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2011/11/14/how-alice-waltons-crystal-bridges-exposes-the-foolishness-o-occupy-wall-street/ using the museum as an example of how ill begotten Occupy Wall Street is. The gist being we should be grateful to billionaires like Alice Walton who have the means (and the low tax bracket) to bestow gifts like this on us. More specifically, the reporter lauds Walton for creating jobs and stimulating tourism when she could have easily been spending her money on baubles. A let-them-eat-cake attitude if I ever heard one, this perspective, among other things, completely misses the point of OWS. 

I certainly am grateful for the generosity of wealthy donors. But let’s not go overboard whitewashing their wealth in the process. To talk about Crystal Bridges in terms of some sort of sacrifice (she could be spending money on bracelets, private planes, mansions) is ridiculous. Shoot, Alice Walton could build a museum in every state and still not feel the pinch; she's a BILLIONAIRE several times over. In reality the museum, big and attention-grabbing though it may be, is a pittance of the debt the Walton family, who epitomize the expression: “a few profit, we all pay” truly owe America. As Elizabeth Warren so eloquently puts it: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own—nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces [sic] that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory—and hire someone to protect against this—because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless—keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
I will go further: to me, Wal-Mart is one of the real villains in our economic downturn, not to mention the dumbing down of American standards and style. Wal-Mart made its billions eviscerating businesses and towns across America and selling imported schlock, mostly from China to people who didn't need it and couldn’t afford it, all the while taking advantage of its workers. I ask you, what’s to like?
Okay, yes, in the creation of Crystal Bridges, Ms. Walton has created jobs and boosted her hometown’s economy, but how many/what sort of jobs? I doubt the crème of the museum (the curators and administrators) come from Bentonville—and how big an impact (“a corner of northwest Arkansas”) are we really talking about? My one hope is that the art will speak to people and maybe raise them up in some way out of their Wal-Mart-induced fog of mediocrity.
If, as the Forbes writer suggests, Alice Walton is motivated by generosity why didn’t she establish a foundation that would support small museums around the country like Randolph Macon’s that are struggling to maintain their collections, rather than raiding them? New York’s wonderful American Museum of Folk Art almost closed earlier this year. No doubt it and many other struggling institutions around the country could do with an injection of Wal-Mart cash. (Reportedly, Ms. Walton refused to support the museum because she was offended by the work of Henry Darger. Oy.) But this kind of support doesn't grab headlines the way a splashy new museum does. 

All the eleemosynary posturing aside, Crystal Bridges is about ego, self-aggrandizement and legacy; it's Alice Walton's gambit to add the sheen of culture and taste to the Wal-Mart name with what I can’t help feeling is a heavy dose of nya-nya-nya-nya-nya directed at the art establishment.In the end for me it’s a missed opportunity because I question whether we really need another traditional American Art museum. Why not instead take a page from Louise Jordan Smith’s book, or Herb and Dorothy Vogel's for that matter, and support contemporary emerging artists, living people who could really use the money and who's life's work pushes American culture forward. (I’m not talking Jeff Koons here.) Now, that could be really exciting. But this requires imagination, bravery and most important, connoisseurship—a real understanding of art and what the role of contemporary artists is. They are not supposed to regurgitate the past ad nauseam; their work should be rooted in the present, reflecting the era and atmosphere in which it was created. Of course, if Alice Walton is put off by Darger, there’s not much hope for her in this department. Better to stay safe within an area where the boundaries are laid out and the standards are set and for this end, Crystal Bridges (the name, the design, the mission) fits the bill.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hidden Costs

Last night I re-watched the elegiac Manufactured Landscapes. The documentary follows photographer, Edward Burtynsky as he travels through China documenting factories, quarries, recycling yards, mines, dams, the epicenters of the country’s massive industrial revolution. The images are both beautiful and repellant. The scale is jaw dropping with the landscape transformed on a magnitude to rival Mother Nature. I admire Burtynsky because he forces to confront what is normally hidden.

I first became acquainted with Burtynsky’s work at the Corcoran where his show, Oilwas on view. Oil has been a major focus of Burtynsky’s since his “oil epiphany” over a decade ago experienced while driving a car powered by gasoline and partially constructed with petroleum products on a tarmac road. In chronicling the soup to nuts of what he calls the “key building block of the last century” Burtynsky has traveled the globe exploring everything from extraction and refining, to the car culture—and the freeways and mind-numbing suburban landscape it has promoted—to oil’s denouement in the form of tanker salvage, abandoned oil fields and vast dumps filled with automotive detritus.His stunning, large-format color photographs of this netherworld are haunting meditations on the real cost of oil.

Regarding these surreal landscapes transformed by man, we realize how totally disconnected we are from what actually happens in oil production. Like Upton Sinclair before him, Burtynsky pulls off the veil, showing us things we weren’t meant to see. These otherworldly landscapes of mind-boggling scale compel us to consider the flip side: nature and our relation to it.

Burtynsky is an artist on a mission, he wants to highlight oil’s collateral damage, but his work is not preachy. He neatly finesses that balancing act between message and medium, letting his eloquent images do the talking. Burtynsky admits he’s conflicted and says his photographs are metaphors representing the dilemma of our modern existence: we depend on nature to provide the raw materials that support our lifestyle with all its attendant conveniences, yet we’re in an uneasy position because our demands place the planet’s health (and thus our own) in jeopardy. And it’s not just First World denizens and the environment Burtynsky is concerned with, as his series on oil tanker deconstruction attest. Here, young Bangladeshi men scrape crude oil out of rusting hulls, working sometimes neck deep in the ooze. The show’s final image, crude-filled footprints, speaks poignantly to the human toll such employment costs.

The photographs are gorgeous with crystalline focus and color that can be both subtle: Oil Fields #27,Bakersfield, California, USA, 2004 and arcade glitz bright: Breezewood, Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. I happen to be a sucker for work that combines beauty and ugliness. It’s why I love Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie and, of course, Andreas Gursky, who like Burtynsky uses subject matter not known for its beauty, oversized scale, repetitive pattern and splashy color to comment on our contemporary world. There’s a real frisson in a challenging image that’s rendered so exquisitely. Oil Refineries #22St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, 1999 a dramatically-lit nocturnal shot of pipes and ducts that evokes both Mondrian and Sheeler is a favorite; I love Burtynsky’s dump series where mountains of tires, oil filters, drums and other automobile cast-offs are both beautiful and unsettling.

Burtynsky’s arresting photographs articulate grave and complex concerns about the oil industry and its fallout, providing the perfect response to the avaricious and simplistic “Drill Here, Drill Now” attitude. After seeing how oil transforms the world into something untenable thanks to Burtynsky, I for one, don’t want drilling anywhere near “here.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

Quirky, Quaint and Cosmopolitan: Charlottesville

(This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Virginia Living. Here is the unedited version.)

When I moved to the Charlottesville area from New York City in 1993, I was looking for a kinder and gentler existence in a setting that was rural yet urbane. I had fallen under Charlottesville’s spell as a little girl accompanying my father—who earned his law degree at the University of Virginia in 1940—on his annual pilgrimage to Law Weekend. Held in early May—one of the loveliest times of the year here—the weekends were the perfect introduction. The lilac and boxwood-scented air, Jeffersonian architecture and, most of all, the beautiful landscape made an indelible impression on me. 

The Charlottesville of my youth was a delightfully exotic departure from all that was familiar to this New York City girl; it was then sleepy, genteel and very Southern. Native Boo Barnett, 55, a writer, describes the city as “so quiet, all the neighborhood dogs lay about in the street. You’d ride by on your bike, they’d open an eye, lethargically wag a tail and then go back to sleep.” I wasn’t exactly looking for that Charlottesville when I settled here—I knew it was long gone—but I hoped its vestiges remained.

Comprising just over 10 square miles, and boasting a population of nearly 45,000 (closer to 120,000 when combined with Albemarle County, which is considered part of the greater Charlottesville Metropolitan area) Charlottesville is a far cry from New York. And while I was willing to downsize from a big city, I didn’t want to end up in a dull backwater. I needn’t have worried. Charlottesville’s mix of artists and writers, students and scholars, natives and entrepreneurs who live and work here speaks to Jefferson’s enduring legacy of creativity as they come together to make Charlottesville a happening place with a rich and varied cultural life and a sophisticated, big town vibe. 

There’s a strongly international flavor. In addition to those individuals brought in by the University, Charlottesville is a resettlement site for the International Rescue Committee, which places a couple of hundred refugees here every year, many of whom end up making Charlottesville their permanent home. This mix of people makes for a lively human olio. And while some people stick within their particular group, others move easily between the different circles. And there is that hard to articulate sense of place that so appealed to me as a child and which still seems to hover in the air—a combination of history, landscape, tradition and way of behaving that evokes “Southerness.”

History is a constant presence. I remember soon after I moved here standing on the train platform and overhearing two men intently discussing some aspect of the Civil War talking as if it had happened just yesterday. Best known as the home of Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia and Monticello, Charlottesville was formed by charter in 1762 along the all-important Three Chopt Road, connecting Richmond to the Shenandoah Valley. Named for George III’s consort, Charlottesville was originally targeted for tobacco, but the crop didn’t do well and wheat and land speculation soon took over. That they were lucrative is clear by the abundance of great historical houses gracing the area. From the outset the Rivanna River occupied an important role. At Jefferson’s urging, a channel was created in the river to make it navigable for cargo bateaux. Such high hopes initially were had for the Rivanna that Charlottesville’s port near the site of the Woolen Mills was called "Pireus," (sic) after the port city of Athens. But as a reliable transportation route, the river proved to be problematic.

Between 1779 and 1781 the Convention Army composed of British and German soldiers was imprisoned in Charlottesville. (Today, you can see evidence of this in the names Barracks and Hessian roads.) The “Paul Revere of the South,” Jack Jouett made his famous ride from Louisa to Charlottesville to warn Jefferson and members of the Virginia Legislature of an intended raid by General Tarleton on June 4, 1781. During the Civil War, Charlottesville was spared the brunt of the conflict; its one claim to fame being the Skirmish of Rio Hill in which Custer was repulsed by local Confederate militia. More destruction was prevented when town and university officials preemptively surrendered to Union generals Sheridan and Custer on March 3, 1865.

Nowadays, Charlottesville has a decidedly Liberal bent though the same cannot be said for the surrounding counties. Many who move here from away have an idealized view of the area, glossing over the issue of slavery. But slavery was central to Charlottesville’s prosperity. The slave auction block was located in front of #0 Court Square and it’s rumored that when the late afternoon light is just right, one can still see the letters of the auction sign on the wall of the building.

Desegregation proved to be a challenge for Charlottesville, as it did for many places. The schools were shut for a time and white families scrambled to start private white only institutions to educate their progeny. The Robert E. Lee and Rock Hill Academies flourished in addition to private tutoring set-ups in basements across town. In 1960 in reaction to desegregation a particularly egregious urban renewal program was approved dooming the African-American neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, a 20-acre tract of land west of the Downtown Mall. It was eventually razed displacing 600 law-abiding, church-going, employed people. Uprooted, ostensibly to improve their living conditions (though the very fabric of their lives (homes, neighborhood, social networks and jobs) was effectively destroyed) they were shepherded into housing projects.

Charlottesville was a different place then; the Old South was still very much alive. One of my earliest Charlottesville recollections is breakfast at the Farmington Country Club during one of those mid-1960s Law Weekends. Back then, one dressed up and breakfast was an event, served in the formal dining room, then painted a soothing dove gray. My freshly scrubbed sister and I, in matching seersucker dresses, were served “turkey hash” and waffles with twin pitchers of heated maple syrup and melted butter by “yes sirring, no ma’aming” elderly black waiters moving soundlessly about the hushed space. I drank it all in, delighting in the gentility and ceremony, though even as a child I could sense that something about the hierarchy wasn’t quite right.

A lot has changed since then, for instance people still say “yes ma’am” and “no sir,” but now it’s just a courtesy exchanged among equals, but things aren’t as rosy as they might be. Charlottesville native, Eugene Williams, 83, a long-time civil rights activist (his two daughters were plaintiffs in the desegregation case against the Charlottesville school system) who grew up in segregated Charlottesville bemoans high unemployment and academic underachievement among African-Americans today and offers his perspective on the state of things: “We have come a long way, but at the same time we are moving backwards. In many ways, Charlottesville was more integrated during segregation than it is now.” He cites the dearth of black faces in businesses along the Mall, where once upon a time in restaurants at least, the staff (chefs and waiters) was all black. "I would like people to be more vigilant at seeing where discrimination exists in education, employment and housing" he says. "It's still present in every one of them.” These are sobering words to hear in 2011 when many of us believe that racism is behind us, but it is healthy to hear them for only then can they be addressed.

“For a small city, Charlottesville is doing a great job culturally,” says Deborah McLeod, director of Chroma Projects, a changing exhibition space and collective of artist studios located on the downtown mall, one of the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the nation, which boasts a lively street scene and restaurants, theaters, art galleries and shops including the recently renovated 1930s movie palace Paramount Theater which offers a wide variety of entertainment from HD simulcasts of the Metropolitan Opera to Ravi Shankar, Chinese acrobats and Lucinda Williams. If you walk around to the side you’ll see a scaled down marquee over the segregated black entrance—a potent reminder of the past.

The Mall also hosts the Virginia Festival of the Book in March, the Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph in June, and the Virginia Film Festival in October. McLeod has observed Charlottesville’s art scene for 25 years. “Charlottesville has been facilitating its artists in a more comprehensive way,” she says, “and I find more interconnectivity now.” Second Street Gallery, established in 1973 and the oldest contemporary art space in central Virginia, is now located inside the City Center for Contemporary Arts building on East Water Street along with two other non-profit groups: Live Arts (a community theater) and Light House (a youth media organization). McLeod points to the new institutions that have popped up too, like The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative in Belmont—a small arts organization that promotes young and emerging artists—and The Garage on 1st Street—a multi-purpose arts and events venue—who have what she describes as fresh young voices that speak outside the established arts organizations and galleries. This, she says, “is the kind of healthy growth a good city should enjoy and encourage.”

And it does, not just in its arts scene, but in its music scene as well. Even before the homegrown Dave Matthews Band found national fame, Charlottesville was a music mecca with Miller’s (where Dave used to tend bar) on the mall and Trax on West Main Street. Today there are five state-of-the-art venues including the Paramount, the Jefferson, the Southern, the Pavilion and the John Paul Jones Arena. I catch up with Andy Gems, owner of the Southern, as he’s setting up for the Friday night show. “For a town its size, Charlottesville has an amazing music scene—at times it’s a blessing,” he says, “other times it’s a curse. But the competition’s good because a rising tide raises all boats.” For top-shelf acts like the Rolling Stones, U2 and Lady Gaga, Scott Stadium and the John Paul Jones Arena at UVA are the most accommodating of large crowds. Charlottesville’s taste in music runs the gamut though, and the Tuesday Night Concert Series at UVA’s Cabell Hall throughout the academic year along with the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival in September, feeds this community’s appetite for world-class musicians. Gems, who moved to Charlottesville from San Francisco in 2002, says he loves the urban yet small town feel of the place. “It’s about restaurants, food, music and art. What more do you need?”

And indeed, Charlottesville is a foodie’s paradise. My favorite place to eat in Charlottesville has to be the C&O Restaurant, which opened in 1976. Housed in a former railroad bunkhouse on Water Street, it is a Charlottesville institution. With appealing dining spaces, cozy downstairs bar area, imaginative seasonal menu, their veal liver in mustard sauce served with garlic mashed potatoes is my go to comfort food and definitely not your mother’s liver and onions, and pleasant staff, it’s no wonder C&O continues to be so popular. “I had a customer remark to me one evening in the restaurant that the C&O was one of the most honest places he’d ever been,” says owner Dave Simpson, “that made me feel great.” Simpson says that in the 32 years he has been at the restaurant the thing that has kept him interested is the relationships he has forged with his regular customers. He describes delivering food to families with newborns and catering those children’s graduation parties or wedding receptions years later. “It is astounding,” he says, “how one small corner of the world can attract such bright, funny, earnest and dedicated people year after year.” Other notable restaurants Downtown are Bang!, Fleurie, Petit Pois, Hamilton’s and Escafé. For a walk down memory lane there’s Timberlake’s Drugstore’s lunchroom, which has fountain service and, in colder months, a fire burning in the grate. For a quick bite there’s pizza from Christian’s, Chinese dumplings from Marco and Luca, or crêpes from The Flat on Water Street.

Once a modest, working class neighborhood, Belmont just over the Belmont Bridge from the Downtown Mall has attracted a young, hip crowd who’ve been gentrifying the area and luring top-notch restaurants. Chief among these is the superb MAS, which specializes in tapas. The Local, Tavola, Belmont Bar-B-Cue and La Taza are all within a stone’s throw of each other on Hinton Avenue and Monticello Road. Michael Keaveny opened Tavola in “Little Brooklyn,” as he likes to call Belmont, in 2009. “Being in Charlottesville has exceeded all my expectations,” says the chef and owner who has worked in restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Napa Valley. “I like to think of Virginia as a region of Italy, considering how the Italians would work with the raw materials we have here.”

With its eateries, butcher, baker and chocolatier, the Main Street Market is all things to all foodies. Locally-sourced raw materials are a mainstay for many of the vendors here. From the famous pimiento cheese at Feast! to the breads, cakes and pastries at Albemarle Baking Company and the delectables at Gerhardt’s Chocolates, the market offers a bounty of comestibles sure to impress the most discriminating epicurean. On Saturday mornings from April to October, a bustling farmers’ market is in full swing downtown. But Charlottesville residents also have Foods of All Nations located at the Ivy Square Shopping Center near the university, the go-to emporium for arcane and international ingredients like marmite or peanut soup mix. Foods (as it is familiarly known) is still going strong after more than 50 years in business. “Back when Foods opened, none of the big supermarkets carried the international selection we stocked,” says Butch Brown, the president of the company. To keep competitive, Foods maintains a friendly atmosphere that’s big on service. “We know most of our customers by name and offer charge accounts.” Newcomers to the scene are Whole Foods, which just opened a mega store to great acclaim and in 2012 Trader Joes will open a market.

Somewhere along the way Charlottesville became known as the “Hook” or “Hookville.” Some say the hook referred to a C grade; others say it arose because once you’ve spent any time in Charlottesville, it "hooks" you. Whatever the history, the “hook’s” residents are just as interested in spirits as they are in sustenance. Robert Harllee, 53, opened Market Street Wine Shop located one block off the mall, in 1986 and hosts Friday evening wine tastings that take on a party-like atmosphere. In addition to their vast selection of wine and beer, they also carry a wide assortment of bread, cheese and other comestibles. Tucked into a basement, it resembles an actual wine cave. It’s funky, fun and loaded with atmosphere. “Despite the growth, there’s still a small town feel to Charlottesville, especially in the downtown area, says Harllee. “There’s a real sense of community and local issues matter a lot. In the course of a day, I encounter poets, novelists, dancers, actors, visual artists—everybody seems to have something they do, some passion they pursue, beyond their job.” 

One of those passions could include the business of wine-making: There are some 25 vineyards in the Charlottesville area, most notably White Hall, Barboursville, Keswick, Blenheim and King Family.

“I think of Charlottesville as laid back and kind of quirky,” says Amy Gardner, 40, owner of shoe boutique Scarpa on Barracks Road since 1994. “It’s full of interesting and eclectic people who are bright and creative.” Gardner who looks like a fresh-faced college student embodies hip, young Charlottesville. She is just one of a number of shop owners who purvey goods to an affluent, plugged-in clientele. Yves Delorme on the mall sells luxurious bedding (a not so local secret is this shop’s blowout Thanksgiving sale) and Caspari’s flagship store on Main Street showcases, in addition to the cards and cocktail napkins they are known for, furniture accents with a European twist. The Warehouse District—a new area of shops in former industrial buildings bordering Garrett Street—includes stores like C&A Camp with stylish inventory from around the world that owner, Carlin Stargell Camp, refers to as “classic luxury.” I have my eye on one of the fabulous Cari Borja asymmetrical coat she carries.

You’d expect a place like Charlottesville with its rich history to be a center for antiquarians and there are several very good antiques shops. Your best bet is the Ivy Square Shopping Center where Kenny Ball, Joseph, Joseph and Joseph and Mirabelle all vie for attention. Further west on Ivy Road you’ll come to the Curious Orange Shop and ultra-chic And George. For more eclectic taste, there’s John Sarah John a hybrid of antiques shop, interior design studio, espresso bar and event space on West Main Street.

As might be expected in a university town, Charlottesville has plenty of used bookstores; three notable ones located in the Downtown Mall area are Daedalus Bookshop, Blue Whale Books and Read it Again Sam. You’ll find the latest addition, the funky Random Row in a former car mechanic’s up on West Main Street.
“If I had only one word to describe Charlottesville,” says Carol Troxell, 63, owner of New Dominion Bookshop located on East Main Street, the oldest independent bookseller in Virginia, “it would be ‘smart.’” Troxell moved to Charlottesville in 1971, and though the city has changed dramatically during that time, she says the its overall tenor has remained the same. “Charlottesville’s still full of an interesting mix of people who are engaged with the world.”

And that mix of people balloons by more than 20,000 when classes are in session at the University of Virginia. UVA, established by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, may be Charlottesville’s best-known institution, and for good reason. Ranked in 2011 as the number two best public university (tied with the University of California Los Angeles) by U.S. News & World Report, UVA has earned the top one or two spots since the publication began ranking public universities 14 years ago. Additionally, UVA ranks in the top 25 of America’s best universities, both public and private. And its history is deep. Located on the west side of town, Jefferson’s Academical Village is the campus’ centerpiece. Known as the Lawn for the terraced greensward it overlooks, the U-shaped design is crowned by the Rotunda (based on Rome’s Pantheon) and features a long colonnade fronting the original 54 student rooms and 10 larger structures known as pavilions. Housing for professors and their classrooms, the pavilions are of unique design intended to reflect the various branches of learning and to showcase different architectural orders. Nowadays, the rooms on the Lawn as well as the parallel Range (site of Edgar Allen Poe’s room) are highly prized. Says Sara Allen Harper, class of 2011, who lived on the Lawn during her senior year. “I felt so much pride living there, thinking about all the people who had lived there before me and wondering what their experiences had been. It was also a bizarre and unique experience on account of all the tourists and even other students who you ended up sharing it with!”

My fellow locals occasionally gripe about the constant construction and endless expansion of the campus. I must admit I enjoy the summer when parking spaces at the Corner are plentiful and the lines at Bodo’s bagel restaurant’s three locations shrink. But all in all, people recognize the boon the university affords the town. (UVA and its health system are the area's largest employers providing over 17,000 jobs according to the city’s 2010 Comprehensive Financial Report.) Says Ida Lee Wooten, director of community relations at the university: “City residents do express concern about traffic in the University area, but in the past two decades I’ve seen the university and city of Charlottesville increasingly working together to build a strong community.”

Surrounded by mountains and lovely countryside Charlottesville promotes an active lifestyle, with hiking, biking horseback riding and skiing topping the list. There are two active foxhunts: Farmington and Keswick. Since foxes aren’t pursued and killed once they’ve “gone to ground,” there isn’t the same controversy as in England. Non-riders can get a taste of the pomp and circumstance associated with the sport when at Thanksgiving, Grace Church in Keswick holds its Blessing of the Hounds. It’s a scene straight out of the 19th century. The field turned out in full regalia with the “pinks” (actually scarlet coats) of staff and visiting hunt dignitaries very much in evidence, hounds and horses assembled in front of the church. If that’s not enough equine activity, the Foxfield Races are held in April and October. There’s also an annual horseshow in Keswick and a Farmington-Keswick point-to-point both held in the spring.

Charlottesville is “a progressive city that values education, the environment, social justice, the arts and our history and is a cultural, social and economic hub in Central Virginia,” says Mayor Dave Norris, 41 who has lived in Charlottesville since 1995. Norris points out that unemployment in the city is consistently lower than the national average. The small-town, big university atmosphere attracts a cosmopolitan and diverse crowd, many of whom have been lured by the bevy of top rankings the city has earned. It has been named one of the Top "Brainiest" Metropolitan Areas by The Atlantic, Number One City for Retirement by Kiplinger.com, the Healthiest Place to Live by Men's Journal magazine, and the 4th Best Place to Live in the Country by Kiplinger's Magazine. Indeed, the floodgates may have opened in earnest when Cities Ranked & Rated ranked Charlottesville as the #1 Best City to live in USA & Canada in 2004. 

Unfortunately, all this growth brings with it sprawl, traffic and homogenization. A lot of problems are blamed on the influx of people. But some of the worst offenders in the sprawl department are homegrown developers who seem oblivious to the perils of fouling the nest. As for “the Donald,” his recent acquisition of the Kluge estate and winery (and, if he gets his way, Albemarle House) has cast a pall over southern Albemarle. More sinister though is the fact that the killer of Morgan Harrington, the 20-year old Virginia Tech student who was murdered after she was stranded outside a Metallica concert) has not been caught and the word on the street is he’s a local.

But there is good and bad in all places and in balance, Charlottesville has much to offer. Suzannah Fischer, 45, owner of gift shop O’Suzannah’s on Fourth Street, says, “I take huge pride in being a C-Ville native. I am still reminded of so many of my childhood experiences, despite the growth the city and counties around us. Of course, most every landscape of C-ville has changed, but the vibe is still relaxed. I think the city feels progressive with an emphasis on families and community. Once you make your home here it's nearly impossible to leave. There seems to be something that draws us back, not just a feeling of missing home, but feeling you're missing out on something if you are not here.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Family Values

Is it just me, or do others loathe the stick families you see on the back of minivans as much as I do? The glib, pro-family message they send strikes me as essentially homophobic and I can’t help but feel there’s some creepy religious undertone to it all.

The stick families are not only vapid, but seem to reveal a peculiar level of self-absorption. First of all, do the people who have them really think others on the road care about their stick figure families? And, call me paranoid, but do they really want that kind of information (i.e. the names of their children) out there?

Someone pointed out to me that 9 times out of 10 while the figures are stick, the person driving the vehicle is usually fat. Is this some kind of weird group body dysmorphia disorder?

I have fantasies of all the unorthodox families I could come up with for the back of my car, I’m sure someone’s beaten me to this. I sure hope so and that I’ll see their handiwork soon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Xu Bing: Tobacco Project

“I am interested in an examination of inherently human issues and weaknesses through an exploration of the extensive, entangled relationship that exists between human beings and tobacco. ..
Taken together, human weakness and the meaning of tobacco form a kind of awkward relationship, a relationship that reveals the innate quality of self-professed helplessness.” – Xu Bing

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond to see Xu Bing: Tobacco Project, which explores the production and culture of tobacco. The VMFA show is the third part of a trilogy that began with Xu’s residency at Duke University in 2000 followed by a 2004 show in Shanghai. It is fitting that the final piece of the trilogy is in Richmond as Virginia is tobacco’s ground zero. Leading up to the show, Xu toured Philip Morris in Richmond—one of the largest cigarette production facilities in the world—and visited a tobacco warehouse and several family-owned tobacco farms in Southside Virginia.

It was in researching the Duke family that Xu zeroed in on tobacco, which has figured largely in Chinese culture since the 19th century and holds particular resonance for him as his father died from smoking-related lung cancer. As with most anything when you begin to scratch the surface, you discover a whole world opening up, and Xu’s explorations into tobacco expanded to include its history, production and marketing.

The VMFA show is an iron fist in a velvet glove, quiet and serene, yet packing a punch. There is beauty and inventiveness, humor and awe. The first thing you notice as you approach the show is the smell. Sweet and heady tobacco reaches out to you from several rooms away. It’s a powerful metaphor for tobacco’s insidious pull. I loved Traveling Down the River, which features an eye-popping 30’ long cigarette laid atop a reproduction of the great 11th century Chinese scroll Along the River during the Qingming Festival. The painting is considered the Mona Lisa of China. So to besmirch it in this way, with ash and burn marks is akin to blasphemy. An accompanying text likens Xu’s piece to Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which features Mona Lisa sporting a graffiti moustache and goatee.

Backbone, a collaboration between Xu Bing and René Balcer, is a book presenting historical tobacco logos printed onto oversized pieces of cigarette paper. Here they are exhibited unbound, individually framed and hung en masse on the wall. The names are so delightful (Black Satin, Custard Pie, Queen of Ophir, Pure Cream, Dew Drop)—quaint, innocent, puffed up, evocative—they inspired Balcer to create a free-verse blues piece. A recording performed by Captain Luke and Big Ron Hunter is available by calling a number provided by the museum on your cell phone. Xu is known as a print- and bookmaker and he has a field day with the fine paper, interesting logos and distinctive cigarette tins and boxes, inscribing texts on cigarettes, presenting uncut and thus unsmokable cigarettes in custom made containers, joining well-known corporate names to cigarettes, and the like, marrying words, images and materials in ingenious ways.

Xu was in Richmond in advance of the show for a two-week residency. He worked on several large pieces, some new; some recreations of past site-specific works assisted by graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly regarded School of the Arts. Included among these is the star of the show: 1st Class (pictured above), a giant tiger-skin “rug” made from 550,000 1st Class discount cigarettes. The cigarettes are arranged with alternating filter and tip facing up to create the distinctive orange and white tiger pattern. The effect is astounding. The piece just stops you in your tracks. It’s a thing of beauty, but it is also a thing of beauty made from such mundane and easily identifiable things that are completely and utterly transformed. As if all this wasn't enough, when you walk by it, the white changes to brown as the tobacco becomes visible, creating a whole other effect. Simply extraordinary.

Though I am happy to embrace the piece on visual merits alone, when I think about why Xu chose a tiger skin, I guess I look at it as the subjugation of the once fierce and proud Chinese/Asian people through cigarettes. Specifically choosing a discount brand of cigarettes with a phony, highfalutin name to make the piece, underscores the treachery.

Unfortunately, the catalog accompanying the show doesn’t have a good image of 1st Class. (I do understand this is because the catalog had to go into production in advance of the recreation of the piece in order to be ready for the show.) The image supplied is the Shanghai iteration of the piece, Honor and Splendor; it’s unfortunately bisected by the room’s columns, detracting mightily from its explosive effect. I did like the cigarette filter paper used as end pages though. It made me wonder about the origin of that distinctive orange, flecked appearance. Turns out in the old days premium cigarettes had cork tips that didn’t stick to your lip like plain paper ones.