May 1, 2012
Last night, the World Wildlife Fund’s Fighting Pandas and the Alliance to Save Energy’s Killer Watts were playing a friendly game of softball on the Mall when a passerby asked if they needed a pinch hitter. That passerby happened to be Bryce Harper, the new outfielder for the Washington Nationals. After making his MLB debut last Saturday with a .333 batting average, 19-year-old Harper is in town for his first home game with the Nationals tonight. After an initial swing and a miss, Harper got back on his game and led the Killer Watts to victory. The Fighting Pandas never really had a chance; as the Washington Post‘s Adam Kilgore said, “He can smash line drives off fences, throw laser beams from the outfield, drive in clutch runs, crash into walls to steal doubles, face the press and boos without nerves and, if it is a day game, neatly smear about a quart of eye black on each cheek.” Just another day around the Mall…
April 1, 2008
So a master kite builder, I am not. I found that much out at the 42nd Annual Smithsonian Kite Festival this past Saturday.
Smithsonian magazine intern Kenny Fletcher and I created and entered a standard two-stick, diamond-shaped flyer in the festival’s homemade kite competition. We built it out of magazine covers, dowels, string and a not-so-buoyant amount of tape. The covers were probably a bit heavier than ideal, but we had to represent.
Kenny consulted some Web sites—one of which advertised step-by-step instructions for building a kite like Benjamin Franklin’s. We employed techniques that we thought would better the functionality of our modest kite: tying the dowels in the shape of a cross; notching grooves in the ends to hold a string that created the frame’s border; and inserting a rubber band in the string to act as a shock absorber in case of strong winds.
It looked impressive. That is, until we went outside for a test flight the day before the competition.
The picture (above) is quite gracious, a real test of reflexes for photographer and assistant editor Amanda Bensen given that the kite was airborne for a matter of seconds. Multiple attempts were made and each time the kite would spiral erratically and then nose dive. We thought, should we snip these strings? Or weight the tail with a set of keys? But, with less than 24 hours left before its competitive flight and a huge deadline pending at the magazine, there wasn’t much time to troubleshoot.
I was the designated pilot, and somehow overnight I went from thinking it had a major design flaw to chalking up its poor performance to light winds. I turned hopeful.
At the festival, I sized up the competition. The kids in front of me in the registration line had kites made of construction paper curled, awkwardly stapled and attached to a string. Cute, but I had an edge over them. Mine looked good.
The guy behind me, however, was being photographed with his enormous, hexagonal, hand-sewn kite, as he boasted that he was a two-time winner. I conceded that he might out-fly me.
A number was tagged to my back and I was put in a large penned off area on the National Mall, manned only by five clipboard-toting judges. A commentator spoke over his microphone as I tried to get my kite up, first facing the wrong direction. Once the judges politely sorted that out, I repositioned myself for take two. It did its usual darting and then plummeted, barely missing a judge. After inspecting my kite, the judges informed me that my bridle was on backwards and that the tail could be longer.
I didn’t know my bridle from my spool, so they suggested I see the Kite Doctor at a nearby tent.
Contestant number 123—a mop-topped ten-year-old also sent to the Kite Doctor – consoled me a bit by complimenting my kite. His mother was bent over re-stringing his elaborate assemblage of crepe paper disks. “My circles are supposed to be three times as big,” he grumbled.
Doc re-bridled my kite, and I tried again in a patch of the mall occupied mostly by families. I found a clearing and attempted to get her airborne, but to no avail. A neighboring toddler was flying his Spiderman kite without even looking up.
In the next few hours, a dragon measuring hundreds of feet long, a three-dimensional crown with a picture of Chairman Mao in the center and a tasseled kite with an image of the Dalai Lama on it—all adhering to the festival’s China theme—took to the sky. By early afternoon, the Mall was dotted by kite flyers, so much so that it was hard to avoid crossing strings. It was tempting to join in the fray, so I tried. Tried. AND!…tried.
There’s always next year. Kenny’s already scheming about new materials.
March 18, 2008
The story behind the somewhat haunting photo of two young boys really drove the point home for me. Elijah and Isaiah, orphans in New Mexico, faced a rocky start. At ages 4 and 5, they were about to be institutionalized because their “high-needs” status prevented them from entering into Foster Care. When a photographer from the Heart Gallery, an organization that uses photography to bring awareness to adoption, snapped some photos of them, she couldn’t get any smiles, only fearful and icy stares. But a couple saw the photo at a Roswell, New Mexico, exhibition and was so moved that they adopted the boys. For Elijah and Isaiah, it was the click that changed everything. To Heart Gallery co-founder Diane Granito, it was a “single, but indicative, moment in their lives captured with compassion and skill” that had the strength to change the way families are formed.
Find more art-affirming stories at the Click! website which launched just last Friday. The site featuring nearly 20 essays from people of all disciplines weighing in on how photography affects who we are, where we go, and what we do, is a facet of a decade-long research project, the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, to make the Institution’s collection of more than 13 million images more accessible to the public. Director Merry Foresta says the stories on Click! “are meant to represent an accumulated archive of different viewpoints and different contexts about photography,” adding that the future holds even more promise of “unique points of view.”
March 13, 2008
Laurie Anderson’s career has ranged far and wide since her jump from avant-garde performance artist to 1980s pop music star. In addition to experimenting with electronic instruments like the talking stick and the tape-bow violin, she’s written the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “New York” and recently served as NASA’s first artist in residence. Anderson will be giving a free lecture on Andy Warhol (sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum) at 4:30 in the McEvoy Auditorium on March 15. I got the chance to catch up with her last week.
You started out in the 1960s and 1970s as an artist and you became a pop hit in the 1980s. How was that transition?
I didn’t know anything about the pop world. I was just an artist in New York and I had made a record that I was distributing by mail order. People would call me up on the phone and say, “Can I get this record?” I would go over to a carton, pick it up and go to the post office with it. I had pressed 1,000 records of something I had done on an NEA grant called O Superman. Then I got a call one afternoon from a guy in Britain who said “I’d like to order some records. I’ll need 40,000 Thursday and 40,000 more on Monday.” So I said, “Right. Okay. I’ll get right back to you.”
I called Warner Brothers and said, “Listen, I need to press a bunch of records, could you help me with it?” And they said, “That’s not how we do things at Warner Brothers Records. What we do is you sign an eight-record deal.”
And I was like, “What?”
So anyway, that’s what I did, because I thought that could be interesting. I tried very hard not to be seduced by that kind of world. I tried to have a lot of fun with it and I think I did. You get out of a car and everyone is screaming, it was just funny for me. They were like, “Can I get your autograph? Oh my god!” and “It’s really you.” For me I felt like an anthropologist.
Anthropologist? You’ve also worked in McDonald’s. Is that how you stay fresh, by trying different things?
I had gotten into kind of a rut with my life as an artist. You know how you make these elaborate plans and you start living them out without really getting into the experience?
I thought “How can I escape this trap of just experiencing what I expect?” I try to jump out of my skin. I normally see the world as an artist first, second as a New Yorker and third as a woman. That’s a perspective that I sometimes would like to escape.
So I put myself in places where I don’ t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know how to act. I worked on an Amish farm, a place that had no technology at all. I also worked in McDonald’s. They were all really, really fascinating experiences.
You’re coming down to D.C. next week to give a lecture about Andy Warhol and his “Little Electric Chair” series. Why Warhol?
I feel like we are living in Andy’s world now. It’s the world that he defined in so many ways and his obsessions with fame and violence and ego. You just look around and go, “Wow, he was doing that 30 years ago!”
American culture was going that way and he nailed it. It’s completely fascinating how he came up with those categories and American life became that way.
Why the electric chair?
I think for me it combines a lot of things. One was this idea of tabloid stuff. We don’t allow images of people being electrocuted, for example. Another is the factory image, the multiple stuff, it’s a kind of death factory. People pass through that and it involves technology as well in a way, it’s the power of electricity….
Are you running out of time?
I am running out of time. My assistant is waving his hands, saying “You have to go now or you’ll be dead!”
(Photograph courtesy of SAAM. Saturday’s event is part of the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.)
March 11, 2008
Ready for another guess-this-picture game? We snapped this mysterious whirligig somewhere Around the Mall at the Smithsonian. Tell us what you think it is.
Is it a propeller on steroids? The world’s coolest water slide? A Frank Gehry gone gonzo?
Check back later, when we reveal what it is.
(Photograph by Scott Stark)