Friday, December 18, 2009


This week I reprint an updated version of a column that originally appeared in the Times-News in November 2002.

Isaac Rosenfeld had דזשאָיע דע וויוורע. I dare to use Yiddish for the term “joie de vivre” because the World Wide Web, not conceived until well after his premature death, allows me to translate French to Yiddish online, even though I do not know the Hebrew alphabet. Rosenfeld, who was as well versed in Yiddish as in English, would have been amused.

I met Isaac Rosenfeld when I was an undergraduate physics major at the University of Minnesota and he was a faculty member in the English department. At the time, that department was outstanding: Allen Tate was there, Robert Penn Warren had just left for Yale and his influence continued, and a coterie of promising young faculty included Saul Bellow, John Berryman, Morgan Blum and Isaac Rosenfeld. All these younger faculty taught undergraduate courses such as the “world humanities” course in which I was enrolled.

Saul Bellow and Isaac Rosenfeld had grown up together in Chicago, ambitious children of immigrant Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement, friends and competitors. Bellow claimed that Rosenfeld was the only fourteen-year-old in Chicago to have read all of Immanuel Kant. Rosenfeld’s early New York success in the 1940’s led Bellow (still in Chicago) to consider that he had been left in the dust. Yet Bellow is the Nobel Prize winner, while Rosenfeld left only his voluminous journals and five incomplete book manuscripts when he died at age thirty-eight, ten years after his one novel was published.

The English department at the University of Minnesota in the 1950’s was a magnet for literature students. I often ate in the dormitory cafeteria with graduate students who considered Rosenfeld to be the golden boy among the young faculty. A poet and essayist who was profusely published in the Partisan Review and other national literary magazines, he was considered possibly the next great American novelist. One reviewer compared his first novel Passage from Home (1946) to Henry James’ What Maisie Knew.

The course that I took from Rosenfeld focused on late nineteenth century art, literature and philosophy, and he chose to spend almost half the term on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He linked Marx, Freud, and other writers of the time to that monumental work that combines literature with philosophical thought and political commentary. Only much later, after moving to Western North Carolina, did I discover that Rosenfeld had taught War and Peace the previous summer at Black Mountain College. He had provided me my first encounter with the influence of Black Mountain College. Then while I was in graduate school I received word that he had died from a heart attack at age thirty-eight.

Even to his closest friends, he became known as an author who had not lived up to his potential. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky declared in a 2000 newspaper interview that his favorite poem was a Yiddish translation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pinsky attributed the translation to Saul Bellow, who promptly corrected him. The ironic poem, a loose translation of Prufrock into Jewish cultural terms, is the work of Isaac Rosenfeld, and can be accessed at Here it is for my readers who are literate in Yiddish:

Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtok

Nu-zhe, kum-zhe, ikh un du, 

Ven der ovnt shteyt uf kegn dem himl 

Vi a leymener goylm af Tisha b'Av

Lomir geyn zikh 

Durkh geselakh vos dreyen zikh 

Vi di bord fun dem rov

Oy, Bashe, freg nisht keyn kashe, 

A dayge dir

Oyf der vant fun dem koshern restorant 

Hengt a shmutsiker betgevant 

Un vantsn tantsn karahod

In tsimer vu di vayber zenen 

Ret men fun Marx un Lenin

Ike ver alt...ikh ver alt... 

Es vert mir in pupik kalt

Zol ikh oykemen di hor, meg ikh oyfesn a floym? 

Ikh vel tskatsheven di hoyzn 

un shpatsirn bay dem yam,

Ikh vel hern di yam-moydn 

zingen khad gadyo

Ikh vel zey entfernv 


© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #463
December 18, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009


After eight years and 423 Sunday columns, Arts Spectrum ceased appearing in print in March 2009. It continues on the web, keeping abreast of the visual and performing arts scene in Western North Carolina through weekly columns with no revenue.

The search for a sustainable financial model for serious journalism is time-consuming. Currently concentrating on support for Arts Spectrum, I am reprinting some past columns. This week's post is
an edited version of two columns that originally appeared in the Times-News in September 2004. The focus is on changes in copyright law that favor large entertainment corporations, impair creativity, and violate the intent of the U.S. constitution.

Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the cartoon movie with synchronized sound that made Mickey Mouse a star. Walt Disney’s fame began with that creation. At that time, copyright protection lasted for 28 years, and could be extended for a second 28 years. The copyright on Mickey Mouse would have expired in 1984, after which the material would pass into the public domain and could be used or adapted by anyone. Since 1984, we could all be making our own Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and selling them, without getting permission or paying royalties to Walt Disney.

It was self-serving that Walt Disney, Inc. lobbied in 1976 along with other entertainment corporations for changes in the laws of intellectual property that extended existing copyrights by 19 years. In 1998 the “content industry” (Fox, Disney, Time-Warner and others) lobbied congress for the “Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” that added another 20 years. Mickey became exclusively Disney corporate property until 2018.

The United States Constitution, Article I, section 8, clause 8, states that “Congress has the power to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Intellectual property law is a balancing act, resulting in a fair contract between creators and society. Constitutionally, the goal is to promote progress. In return for that progress, the creator is given “for limited times” the power to control his creation and extract royalties. In 1790, Congress decided that “limited times” meant 14 years plus one renewal for a total of 28 years. There were two legislative changes between 1790 and 1909, when the copyright duration became 28 plus 28, the term in effect when Walt Disney was motivated to create Mickey Mouse.

That appeared to be sufficient incentive for fifty years to cause artists and authors to create. However since 1962, with corporate lobbying for extensions, there have been eleven more changes in law so that now corporate-held copyrights will last for 95 years.

In the view of legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, a constitutional expert, recent changes in copyright law have only benefited the corporate holders of copyrights on old material. They have not benefited the creative artist, and in fact hinder creativity.

New media and new technology require changes in copyright. Lessig recognizes that the position in 1790 (when America had 174 publishers, printing presses and a law governing only maps, charts and books) is different from the position in 2004 (when anyone can be a desktop or Internet publisher, and copyright needs to encompass music, records, architecture, drama, film and computer programs). However, he feels that the changes that have been enacted have favored the corporate entertainment industry, and have actually hindered creativity, which was the constitutional intent of establishing copyright in the first place.

Lessig is the author of two important recent books regarding copyright: Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) and Free Culture (2004). In these works, he points out that checks and balances are at the center of the American concept of constitutional government, and should be at the center of American law controlling intellectual property. He condemns the extension of copyright duration by a factor of three, far exceeding what is needed to reward individual creativity, and also questions the extension of copyright protection (originally governing copies) to include control of “derivative works” in an encompassing manner not envisioned in the Constitution. Corporate lawyers now mount vigorous attacks on actions formerly considered “fair use.”

An example is in order. In a 1990 documentary about stagehands at the San Francisco Opera, a television set in the corner of the screen displayed 4.5 seconds of The Simpsons. Filmmaker Jon Else thought this would be covered under the “fair use” doctrine that allows small samples of a copyrighted work to appear in other works without permission. To be safe, he contacted Fox to obtain clearance, was initially denied permission and ultimately was quoted a licensing fee of $10,000. Else erased that 4.5 seconds of The Simpsons from the TV in his movie, eliminating an amusing touch that illustrated the backstage ambiance during the opera.

I began by describing Steamboat Willie, the work that made Mickey Mouse a star. But was it even a Walt Disney creation? Earlier in 1928 Buster Keaton released his last independent silent film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. Disney’s cartoon was a parody of the Keaton film, done without obtaining permission because everyone in that age built on previous work. Were Disney creating his product of genius today, Keaton’s lawyers would sue him, claiming this was a “derivative work” that infringed Keaton’s copyright. Beyond that, the contemporary song Steamboat Bill inspired both films. If they created these films today, both Keaton and Disney would be arguing with the corporate owners of the song about rights and royalties.

As Lessig points out, much of art is adaptive and derivative from prior works of art. If rapacious corporate legal maneuvers continue to prevent artists from building on previously published art, the ability of individual artists, composers, authors and performers to create will be impaired. The extension of the legal concept of copyright control may benefit the “information industry” with its vast reservoir of copyrighted films, music and publications, but individual creators are under attack.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #462
December 11, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009


After eight years and 423 Sunday columns, Arts Spectrum ceased appearing in print in March 2009. It continues on the web, keeping abreast of the visual and performing arts scene in Western North Carolina through weekly columns with no revenue.

The search for a sustainable financial model for serious journalism is time-consuming. Currently concentrating on support for Arts Spectrum, I am reprinting some past columns. This week's post is a lightly edited version of a column that appeared in the Hendersonville Times-News on October 14, 2001, a month after “9/11” changed both the political world and the artistic environment.

These are tough times for cultural journalists, or so says Kate Taylor in the Toronto Globe & Mail (September 27, 2001). In the aftermath of the September 11 carnage, just how important are the arts?

For most news media, the answer is “not very.” Even before these events, newspaper editors in a poll rated the arts last in importance of fifteen categories for news coverage. Many regional newspapers have eliminated dramatic and musical criticism altogether, and their cultural news consists of gossip, scandal, and box-office grosses.

Perhaps the artists and critics themselves are partly to blame for this. Deconstructionism and post-modernism may be an unintentional joke that posterity will smile on benevolently. Recent artistic theory may in fact constitute intellectual baggage that restricts spontaneity by creative artists. By the time reaction occurs, the stimulus may no longer be news. Since art appears to have lost its ability for rapid reaction, it may be an error to even consider arts reporting as “news.”

This slow reaction is not true of the human need to express suffering and mourning through iconic and poetic expression. Public art appeared soon after the September tragedy. The Baltimore Sun (September 30, 2001) reports that “the multifaceted artistic community of America’s largest city” responded swiftly with impromptu memorials. The New York Times (October 1, 2001) reports that these improvised shrines were often conceived around poems. The Chicago Tribune (September 25, 2001) discusses these shrines: “They are personal. They are peaceful. They are human. And they seem to be part of an increasingly common way of publicly mourning the dead in this country, in New York, in Oklahoma City, in Colorado, and in Chicago.”

But these outpourings were naive art by amateurs or transient spontaneous works by professional artists. In our time, high culture seems to have become retrospective in nature, and unable to react rapidly to events in the news.

Early in the twentieth century, slow reaction was not the case. The poet Wilfred Owen wrote powerful poetry regarding World War I from the trenches of Flanders before being slain. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica was a contemporary comment on the brutality of the Fascist rise to power in Spain in the 1930’s, while Berthold Brecht’s play Mother Courage told and ominously foretold the sufferings of common people in European wars. North Carolinian Randall Jarrel’s poem “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” was a graphic response to the sacrifice of young life in World War II. And the abstract expressionist school of painting was based on a life-affirming post-World War II American optimism after the defeat of the authors of the Holocaust and despite the continuing threat of nuclear war.

From a report in New York Magazine (September 24, 2001) we learn that “If the consensus is correct, the arts may change dramatically… In Western society, the response of art to a change in social conditions is never uniform and rarely obvious… If there is to be a profound change in art, however, its early harbinger will be impatience - even disgust - with the broad worldview that has sustained art during the past 40 years.”

That sounds like the start of something interesting. Perhaps rapid reaction to critical contemporary events will arise again in the arts. The re-examination of American values and actions now underway may incline the artistic world to value-based gut reactions and away from clumsy deconstructionist evaluations.

© 2001, 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #461
December 4, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009


The freight trains didn’t park over the level crossings this year, the trolley shuttle worked and the parking areas weren’t muddy. To top it all off, the weather was summer-like in Asheville. Everything cooperated to make this November’s River Arts District Studio Stroll a joy.

With more than 130 industrious artists, crafters and instrument makers now creating on the Right Bank of the French Broad River, there are more studios than ever. I visited six of the eleven buildings in one day. It appeared to be a record turnout of potential art patrons, their children (including some really young children) and more dogs that I recall seeing at previous strolls. These take place twice a year, on the second weekends in June and November. My goal at this year’s November Stroll was to meet some recent arrivals and to revel in the company of people who prize creativity.

Alwin Wagener creates decorative and functional hand-forged iron works in his
Wagener Forge studio in the Wedge. A member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, he has taught at Warren Wilson College and the John C. Campbell Folk School.

A winner of many competitions during the years he taught art in California,
Bernie Segal retired to Fairview. He now has a sculpture studio
in the Riverview Station.

Una Barrett is a talented young jewelry maker who graduated from the highl
y regarded craft program at Haywood County Community College. Barrett was in Riverview Station when I last saw her work, but has now relocated her
Relics of a New Age workplace to the Phil Mechanic Studio.

Sally Sweetland is a painter and art teacher who has settled here, with studio space in the Riverview Station and a teaching affiliation with
Fleta Monaghan in that building.

“Strings Attached” is the title given by Madison J. Cripps to his marionette business, which has been in the River Arts District less than three months. Cripps sells handcrafted puppets and provides puppet performances.

David Kabler and Mitch Rumbelt operate
Eyesore Video in the Wedge. This guerilla filmmaker specializes in underground music cinema, and films almost exclusively in Asheville.

Acme Industrial Thinking was formerly in the Wilkie Arcade, but has gratefully moved into the Wedge. They revel in creative projects, and proudly displayed the props that they created for films by Eyesore.

I watched tw
o of Robin Rector Krupp’s hourly demonstrations in her studio in the Warehouse Studio Building. Krupp formerly illustrated (and wrote) children’s books but now concentrates on painting full sheet watercolors of “Wild! Animals.” A natural teacher, she adjusted each demonstration to be appropriate to the audience. An adult audience heard about how to paint the wild animals. who seldom hold a pose. Krupp works from thousands of photographs that she takes in the wild and at zoological parks. She will be a visiting artist during summer 2010 at the Western North Carolina Nature Center. A later audience had several young children, so the artist concentrated on describing how a children's picture book evolves from original watercolor illustrations through a long process of creation and editing.

Mary Charles Griffin, Barbara Fisher and Laurie McCarriar got a quick wave of my hand at the Warehouse. Each of these artists deserve full coverage, as do Constance Williams, Barbara C.L. Perez and so many other talented River District Artists that I dropped in on but have not yet written about. I will never run out of interesting artists and crafters so long as I hang out in the River Arts District. The next stroll will be June 12-13, but many artists accept visitors on Fridays, Saturdays or by appointment.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #460
November 20, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009


The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design is one of those small jewels that make this area so special. This regional center of the University of North Carolina studies Twentieth Century Studio Craft in America, working collaboratively with UNC-Asheville, Appalachian State University and Western Carolina University. This is the appropriate location for such a center since southern Appalachia is world-renowned for its indigenous fine crafts.

In the decade since its inception, CCCD has sponsored national panels and events, achieving a reputation as the primary site where history and criticism of craft are treated with the same academic rigor that is applied to art history and criticism in universities. A major effort has used a private grant of $500,000 to fund the writing of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, the first-ever undergraduate textbook on the subject of Studio Craft. When the University of North Carolina Press releases this peer-reviewed book in 2010, I shall have more to say about this landmark effort.

The Center has grounds and a short hiking trail with intriguing public sculptures by David Tillinghast (Earth Mound and Underground Bell), Harry McDaniel (Fiddleheads), Roger Halligan, David Nash and others. I am surprised at how few people are aware of the Center’s small public gallery and the quality of the exhibitions that are mounted there.

The current exhibition, entitled Different Tempers: Jewelry & Blacksmithing, is an intriguing exhibit curated by art historian Suzanne Ramljak, editor of Metalsmith magazine. Taken as a whole, it is a study in scale. The work of fourteen fine craftspeople from eight states is on display, running the gamut of metalsmithing. There are pieces of coldworked precious metal jewelry and there are massive forged steel pieces. “From tiny shiny to heavy metal” was the flippant description passed on to me by CCCD director Dian Magie.

Button is an imaginative piece of jewelry created by Melanie Bilenker of Philadelphia, PA using ebony, resin, Ms. Bilenker’s hair and precious metals. Massive Wrought Cuff I is a piece of blackened silver wrought by Natasha Wozniak of Brooklyn, NY.

Moving to a slightly larger scale is David Clemons of Little Rock, AR. His sculpture The Trees We Construct to Conceal our Strange Fruit is a disturbing piece composed of a silver sculpture surrounded by a steel cage with botanical details. Only upon close approach do you detect the poem Strange Fruit by Lewis Allen, made famous by Billie Holiday. The poem is written into the plastic base and only observable from above. The poem gives new significance to the silver chains and the tree motif of the sculpture: slavery and lynching.

Larger still, and entirely made of steel, is Tacitocypriose by Maegan Crowley of Dolores, CO. I liked the way in which this piece depicted the mysteries of botany: how does a plant know to grow its roots down and its flowers up? What happens at the transition between these two growth instincts?

Albert Paley of Rochester, NY is nationally known for his gates and his exterior sculptures. In the current CCCD exhibit, Paley is represented by forged steel andirons and a medium-sized (for Paley) recent sculpture. In Asheville, we already have his weathering steel sculpture Passage at the Federal Building, executed in 1995. If you can’t easily get to downtown Asheville, this grand piece (37 feet high, 23 feet wide and 16 feet in depth) can be seen at a sculpture website.

Different Tempers exhibit runs at CCCD through December 11, with gallery hours 10:00 am to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. The Center is located on the grounds of the Kellogg Center on Broyles Road in Henderson County between Route 64 East and South Rugby Road. Consult CCCD’s website or call (828) 890-2050 for directions.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #459
November 13, 2009

Friday, November 6, 2009


George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and moved to London in 1876. Growing up in an impoverished genteel Irish Protestant family with a drunken father, an opera singer for a mother and the Irish impresario George John Vandaleur Lee as a family friend, Shaw had been steeped in music. From his arrival in London until 1895, his major income came from music reviews. By 1890 he was the principal music critic for The World under the pseudonym Corno di Bassetto.

Shaw wrote plays prolifically but except for the American run of The Devil's Disciple (1897) without success until 1904. (His second play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, might have succeeded but was banned during Victoria’s reign.) His major successes occurred rapidly in the Edwardian era: John Bull's Other Island in 1904, Man and Superman and Major Barbara both in 1905 and The Doctor's Dilemma in 1906. Pygmalion came in 1914 and was commercially successful. After that Bernard Shaw’s witty musical criticisms continued but in reduced volume. In July 1917 he remarked: “As I am only half a critic now, I act up to that character by going to only half an opera at a time.”

His insight into music was remarkable. Upon the centenary of Mozart’s death, he summarized: “Mozart came at the end of a development, not at the beginning of one … in art the highest success is to be the last of your race, not the first. Anybody, almost, can make a beginning: the difficulty is to make an end – to do what cannot be bettered.”

His style as a reviewer was vigorous, opinionated and frequently provocative. In March 1893 he remarked: “The concert began with Schubert’s unfinished symphony, which on this occasion ought to have been his uncommenced symphony.”

Shaw’s reviews praised Mozart, Gluck, Wagner, Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar, and heaped scorn on Mendelssohn, Brahms and all Slavic and Bohemian composers. He had a gift for operatic criticism. In 1894 he presciently stated: “Italian opera has been born again … Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and Verdi … Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals.”

Unlike today, when symphony concerts primarily feature the great works of dead masters, nineteenth-century concerts and operas were largely of new music. The established Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Wagner and the under-forty Elgar and Strauss were all live composers introducing new symphonic works. The critics of England and Germany divided into two camps: those believing Johannes Brahms to be the successor to Beethoven and Richard Wagner to be a vainglorious fool, and those believing that Brahms was trivial and Wagner was the apotheosis of the romantic era. Shaw came down vigorously on the side of Wagner.


Some of his most entertaining comments bear on this contretemps. In an 1888 review of a performance of a Brahms piano concerto, he wrote: “Brahms’s music is at bottom only a prodigiously elaborated compound of incoherent reminiscences, and it is quite possible … to struggle with his music for an hour at a stretch without giving such an insight … as half a dozen bars of a sonata by Mozart.” Much later, in 1936, Shaw recognized that it was unnecessary to be anti-Brahms in order to be pro-Wagner. He footnoted that review in an anthology: “The above hasty (not to say silly) description of Brahms’s music will, I hope, be a warning to critics who know too much. … I had not yet got hold of the idiosyncratic Brahms. I apologize.”

In 1894, Shaw explained why it was incorrect to analyze Ring of the Nibelungen as an opera: “Wagner abandoned operatic composition altogether, and took to writing dramatic poems, and using all the resources of orchestral harmony and vocal tone to give them the utmost reality and intensity of expression, thereby producing … ‘music-drama,’ which is no more ‘reformed opera’ than a cathedral is a reformed stone quarry.” In 1898, Shaw published The Perfect Wagnerite, one of the classics of music criticism. The book contains commentary on both the musically revolutionary Ring and the politically revolutionary Richard Wagner (exiled for a time for his actions and sentiments).

Shaw himself was politically outspoken as a pacifist. In a 1919 article regarding the future of British music, he details the blow to the fine arts that was dealt by compulsory military service in the Great War of 1914-1918. “Consider what the state of music would have been if Sebastian Bach had been engaged in the Thirty Years War?” he asked.

The rest is history: accolades for his drama (the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature) and vilification for his socialism and pacifism. Yet these two aspects of George Bernard Shaw’s character were inextricably entwined. We could not have had one without the other.

Wagner (Clementine Stockar-Escher, 1853)
Brahms (Carl Jagemann c. 1860)
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #458
November 6, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009


Skip Rohde, who is currently serving reconstruction projects in Iraq as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is a many-faceted person. One facet is artistic insight. Another facet is an analytic mind. A third facet is a dedication to his country. A fourth facet is a commitment to serve humanity around the world. Each facet has an internal coherence that appears sufficient to describe a successful life, but we must consider all facets to fully appreciate this admirable artist.

Rohde’s artistic facet showed up early. Skip’s father was a career officer in the United States Navy. His parents found it necessary to provide him with butcher paper for his large-scale crayon artwork. Otherwise, his art would appear on the walls of the many houses they occupied.

Rohde’s analytic facet dominated when he chose to study engineering at Tennessee Technological University. His artistic facet resurfaced and he transferred to Memphis State University as a fine arts major, but he was uncomfortable with undisciplined “touchy-feely” instruction. His view of art is different. “Painting requires an analytic side, and then a lot of trusting your gut,” he has explained. He wanted the formal technique. He returned to Tennessee Tech and completed an engineering degree.

His patriotism surfaced upon graduation. He became a Naval officer, spent several years at sea and then transferred to Naval Intelligence. He studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California and later served in San Diego (where he met his wife Janis, also the child of a Navy family) and other locations including Misawa, Japan.

His service to humanity began during his 22-year naval career. He was a peacekeeper in Grenada and in Sarajevo. Reflecting on Sarajevo, Rohde says, “I think a lot about photojournalist James Nachtwey, who produces photos with a viewpoint. I want to make pictures that make a difference.” From Sarajevo is his “Grand Re-Opening,” demonstrating hope through the gaily-colored awnings at the outdoor restaurant, alongside jarring signs of artillery damage and a yellow tape indicating that the building in the left foreground might fall down at any moment.

Retiring in 1999, Skip and Janis moved to our area. Skip added a BFA in painting (UNC-Asheville) to his BS and MBA, and began working in a roomy and inviting studio in the River Arts District where he creates narrative art. An early critic of the Iraqi War (which he states was promoted through the flawed use of hand-picked raw intelligence against the advice of the professional intelligence community), he drew notice locally with his Bush League political satire series. At the same time, he visited local retirement communities and painted the Old Times series that depicts aging in America. “The Dancers” shows a real couple that met late in life. Dancing dangerously (she in heels) on the side of a craggy hill, the painting is an appreciation of late love.

All these facets then came together, when Rohde was asked to assist in redevelopment in Iraq. Not only did he go, but he later extended his tour and will not be back to stay in Western North Carolina until April 2010.

Recently, he visited home, wife and friends during a two-week furlough. I caught up with him dusting cobwebs from the large windows of his Cotton Mill studio, giving his two dogs the pleasure of visiting the location in which they have spent many happy hours, and stretching a couple of small format paintings that he had brought home in his luggage. He told me “It feels good to be slinging paint again.” One new painting shows a coffee shop with pastries in a display case and a sign “Please Keep Weapons Away from Glass.” An acrylic entitled “Waiting” depicts a woman and her son awaiting action on a visa request.

Commenting on the effect on his art of several years spent improving the infrastructure of a backward and corrupt country, Skip says, “My approach will not change at all, but my subject matter will.” He mused that after he returns in April for good, it will take months or even years for the full experience to be incorporated into his art.

Rohde’s art is direct, clear and concise, leaving little room for ambiguity. “But there is a subversive element that will always come through in my work,” he says. Subversive, perhaps, in the eyes of those who believe in “my country right or wrong,” but profoundly patriotic to those of us who believe in the constant struggle to preserve the best of American democracy while improving the lot of humanity elsewhere. Skip Rohde is a remarkable human being, performing remarkable service and creating remarkable art.

“Grand Re-Opening” 24”x30” oil on canvas © Skip Rohde
“The Dancers” 60”x40” oil on canvas © Skip Rohde
“Waiting” 31”x23” acrylic on canvas © Skip Rohde
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #457
October 30, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009


Western North Carolina may not be Vermont, but our fall colors are certainly superior to what most people see in their Southeastern hometowns. When “leaf time” arrives the bed-and-breakfasts, inns, restaurants and boutiques greet daytrippers from the Piedmont, the weekend crowd from neighboring states, and a liberal dose of tourists from Florida or further afield.

Not surprisingly, galleries and artists want to take commercial advantage of the added traffic of the “leafers.” So the Gallery Guild of Henderson County, in collaboration with the Arts Council of Henderson County, fixed the dates of their “Henderson County Open Studio Tour” as October 10-11 this year. That posed a problem for me, because the “Church Street Art and Craft Show” in downtown Waynesville was held on that Saturday and twenty-seven artists from Black Mountain, Swannanoa, Fairview and East Asheville participated in the “East of Asheville Studio Tour” on the same weekend.

I had to make a choice, and Henderson County won out this year. Having formerly lived in Hendersonville, I am familiar with many of the 26 artists and all ten of the galleries that participated in this year’s self-guided tour. It was too much for one day, so I hopped and skipped about, briefly touching base at familiar territory but also paying attention to new artists and artists who have made recent changes in location or style.

Dave Goldman is an interesting recent arrival in our area. Formerly an oceanographer, he left mid-career in order to paint full time. His work for several years has been primarily “imaginary landscapes and seascapes.” His work can be seen at Number 7 Arts, the co-operative art gallery in Brevard, and at the ®evolving Arts Gallery in Hendersonville. His landscapes are very well painted oils, but I find them a little commercial, intended to appeal to the buyers he meets at Southeastern art festivals that are a regular part of his sales effort. Personally, I was more attracted to his recent mixed media collages, which use darker colors and incorporate found objects such as chains and wires. They are edgier paintings that seem more personal to the artist.

Sue Fazio recently made a major commitment to encaustic painting. If you are familiar only with her earlier oil paintings, I recommend that you consult to see images of her recent work. Fazio is a painter who continues to show admirable development, each year incorporating more of her own sensibility into her painting.

I spent a liberal amount of time that Saturday taking in the quite wonderful “Chair Show” at Hand in Hand Gallery in Flat Rock. This exhibit will stay up through November 29 and is worth a trip. Fine crafters David Voorhees and Molly Sharp, owners of Hand in Hand, invited other crafters and selected artists to submit entries that incorporated the “chair” theme, and the resulting exhibit is full of works that are bubbling with humanity. There are practical chairs such as Mona Grabon’s “Painted Chair” and Kevin Felderhoff’s “Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron Root” bench. There are useless but charming chairs such as Del Holt’s “Beach Chair” filled with sand and an attached starfish. There are photographs of chairs such as Robin Smith’s “Primary Colors.” There is jewelry incorporating tiny swings and chairs by Pegi Pike and Laura Dahl. There are paintings such as Mike Gilboy’s “Power Nap.”

To my mind the finest entries are two “haiku” constructions by Henry Mitchell. Each construction incorporates wood pieces silhouetting a chair, and each includes a haiku, written out in stylized wooden letters that are in the Roman alphabet but shaped to appear like Asian characters. The chair silhouette itself also resembles a Kanji. In “Rocker” illustrated at the right, the second line of the haiku is “arc to arc from rest to rest,” a wonderful evocation of a rocking chair. I will leave the other two lines as an exercise for the reader to puzzle over.

That is what filled my day on Saturday, October 10. What about Sunday? I spent October 11 looking at the fall foliage up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After all, I moved to Western North Carolina not just for the beauty of the arts but also for the beauty of nature.

“Living Well” © Dave Goldman
“Rocker” © Henry Mitchell
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #456
October 23, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009


A new art gallery has just opened in Asheville. Entitled the Echo Gallery, it is a co-op run by its six founding members, all of whom are already well established in working studios in Asheville. These six now seek a retail presence for their work and that of invited guest artists.

Photo artist Laurie McCarriar’s “Reed Creek Flow” is shown to the right. This is typical of her works, which often dwell on the verge, at the interface between water and land, on the French Broad River and its tributaries. McCarriar is a River District Artist, as are painters Genie Maples and Barbara Fisher, both also represented at the new gallery. Ms. Fisher’s new paintings demonstrate a considerable break with her style of recent years, much less geometric and with interesting new gestures. This is an exciting departure by a talented established local artist. A new Fisher painting is shown below.

The other three founding members of Echo Gallery are fine crafters. Lori Theriault describes herself as a ceramist, while Anna Kolosike is distinctly a ceramic sculptor. Susan Webb Lee is a textile artist. The quality of their work is exemplified by “Tree Platter” by Theriault and “Words to Live By,” a recent piece by Lee, both shown accompanying this text.

Yes, a new art gallery has just opened in Asheville, and that is notable for two reasons.

Firstly, it is notable when a gallery opens in the current economy. Gallery retrenchment and gallery closures have been more frequent than gallery openings. Fine art and fine crafts are considered by most consumers to be discretionary purchases, and discretionary spending is definitely hurting in the wake of the financial downturn.

The current atmosphere of uncertainty in the United States is a fallout of the fiscal misconduct and greed demonstrated by leaders of our under-regulated financial system. I was recently in Toronto, where construction proceeds apace in both commercial and not-for-profit sectors. A recent $180M opera house with modernist architecture by Diamond and Schmitt and this year’s Frank Gehry-designed expansion of the Art Gallery of Ontario are the pride of the city. What is the difference between Toronto and, say, Miami? Canadian banks have much higher reserve requirements than American banks, were unable to play frivolously with our money, and therefore have been hurt far less than their American counterparts by the bursting bubble.

Secondly, it is notable that the new gallery is not downtown. The co-op members have chosen a very attractive storefront location in Town Square at Biltmore Park, near the upscale housing development. Whether such a location can generate the clientele and sales that a downtown gallery commands is an open question. The demographics of South Asheville suggest that Town Square may prove just as attractive as Biltmore Village for boutiques and galleries, and these have certainly proven viable in Biltmore Village.

However, tourists visit both downtown Asheville and Biltmore Village on a regular basis. Foot traffic is well established. Whether a new South Asheville shopping area can attract tourists and casual foot traffic, only time will tell. Being close to the new Barnes & Noble bookstore should help.

The Echo Gallery will have a Grand Opening on October 23 from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. The gallery is located at 8 Town Square Boulevard, Suite 160. Call (828) 687-7761 or visit their website at for more information.

“Reed Creek Flow” © Laurie McCarriar
“Big Bang” © Barbara Fisher
“Tree Platter” © Lori Theriault
“Words to Live By” © Susan Webb Lee
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #455
October 16, 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009


The research and writing that goes into New York Times obituaries is exceptional. They are capsule biographies. When someone dies whose path has crossed mine, I nearly always discover something new and interesting about her. So it was that I read with interest Allan Kozinn’s 600-word obit of Wilma Cozart Fine (who died in Harrison, NY on September 21 aged 82) and his much longer appreciation of Alicia de Larrocha (who died in Barcelona, Spain on September 25 aged 86). In the current sorry state of journalism, only the New York Times has the presence to use their music critics to write obituaries of people who figured in the musical world.

I met Alicia de Larrocha only once, although I heard her several times as soloist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Music Director David Zinman was on a quest to conduct every Mozart piano concerto. Over several years, he used many fine soloists. I remember Andras Schiff, Emmanuel Ax, Rudolf Firkušný, André Tchaikovsky, Peter Serkin and Gary Graffman playing Mozart. Others may have included Martha Argerich, Garrick Ohlsson and Andre-Michel Schub, but definitely included Alicia de Larrocha. On one visit, she asked to have dinner with board members and supporters of the orchestra. The “library” of the Rochester Club was the scene, and the diminutive de Larrocha (she was 4’9”) was a most gracious host. She circulated during cocktails, showing great personal interest in her eighteen guests and then held court at dinner. She was the sole focus.

As for her performances, Allan Kozinn states it well: “it was in music that demanded focus, compactness and subtle coloristic breadth that Ms. de Larrocha excelled. Her Mozart performances (were) carefully detailed and light in texture...” Many aficionados will remember her for her fine performances of the music of Albéniz and Granados; I treasure most my memories of her Mozart.

I never met Wilma Cozart Fine, but our paths crossed on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Mrs. Fine was a record producer who, along with her husband C. Robert Fine, ran the classical division of Mercury Records in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Going to class, I would walk past the back of Northrup Memorial Auditorium, then the home of the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), and see several semitrailer trucks loaded with specialized equipment. I would know that Antal Dorati and his orchestra were recording.

Those were the days when Mercury became famous for the quality of its records, using the term “Living Presence” borrowed from a Howard Taubman record review that praised the Fines. A graduate of the University of North Texas in music education and business administration, Mrs. Fine had served as Antal Dorati’s personal secretary at the Dallas Symphony and then the Minneapolis Symphony. Maestro Dorati was highly interested in the technology of recording, and embraced the Fines’ use of new techniques that included microphone technology and the use of 35-millimeter motion picture film to replace magnetic tape, giving their master recordings a remarkable permanence.

In the 1990’s, Mrs. Fine came out of retirement in order to bring back to life some of her 1950’s vacuum tubes and interface the ancient front-end equipment to modern digital recording. She oversaw the remastering of the Mercury Living Presence recordings onto compact disc. We will always be indebted to Wilma Cozart Fine for the quality of her recordings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony and Howard Hanson’s Eastman Rochester Orchestra as well as her Minneapolis recordings. The very best surviving master recordings of the 1950’s and 1960’s are those of Mercury; all other companies’ master recordings have faded with their magnetic tapes.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #454
October 9, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009


Last week’s column drew more comments than anything I have written in years. There seems no doubt among my readers that a Western North Carolina author will win the Nobel Prize in Literature or that Santa Fe will eventually be known as “the Asheville of the West” (although my forecast that visitors to New Mexico will have to bring their own water drew a wry comment that there would be an option of buying water from Coca-Cola). The bulk of the discussion focused on two of my many predictions:

1. The importance of viewing “original art” will diminish as copying technology is refined. Three-dimensional digital scanning will allow texture and brush strokes to be recorded in their entirety. A marking technology will be developed so that these “depth” features can be reproduced in prints.

2. The “genuine originals” of art will be placed in vaults, and will be of value only to scholars and the same collectors who value the handwritten manuscript of a novel.

Robin Rector Krupp pointed out the difficulty of reproducing folk art, where the original may be on tarpaper, corrugated cardboard or reclaimed shingles.

I got an email from Daniel Smith, who paints “hyper realistic original oils” and is represented at Red Step Artworks on 3rd Avenue just off historic Main Street in Hendersonville. He queried: “I wonder now how they will be able to "Capture/Scan" the energy that went into the painting. Although the 3-d repros will look, physically, like the original, some viewers, not knowing they are looking at a repro, will ‘feel’ that something is missing.”

This got me thinking about the noun “energy.” Artists use that word to denote “psychic energy” or “creative energy,” a concept that is alien to the scientist but meaningful to other artists. Perhaps creative energy taps into Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” or perhaps it taps into the primordial quantum entanglement that caused everything in the universe to be part of one master wave function ever since the Big Bang. Whatever the mysterious entity is, there is little doubt that the act of creation leaves behind more than the marks on paper, board or canvas (or shingle, for that matter). We may as well call it creative energy; it is just as real in 2009 as the neutrino was when Wolfgang Pauli posited a particle with zero mass, zero charge and zero angular momentum in 1930.

Daniel and I had a conversation about creative energy. What is there that cannot be scanned? In his art, there is often a pencil drawing under the paint, and sometimes another painting under the new one. I thought of Willem de Kooning continuing to paint on a canvas that his fellow artists thought was finished, until eight months later every square millimeter of the image that they had admired had been covered over.

More profoundly, there can be a separation between conception and execution. The right brain has an artistic idea. The left brain participates in executing the idea, perhaps using freehand drawing or a grid to get started, and then later brush strokes, palette knife and fingers. Artistic energy was expended in the ideation, but more was added in the execution. We talked on, considering examples where the creative energy of two artists becomes combined. I cited Skip Rohde’s powerful “In Memoriam,” that uses Michelangelo’s “Pieta” as its model for an image of a dead soldier on an American flag on his mother’s lap.

Beyond these considerations is the simple fact that the artist has touched the canvas of the original. What did he leave there that cannot be reproduced? His energy. It is a mystery, but I accept it is real. I thank Daniel Smith for bringing this to my attention.

“Caboose” and “Robot” © Daniel Smith
© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #453
October 2, 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009


In my first career, I conducted research and managed R&D in large corporations. Just six years after completing my doctorate, I was one of three editors for a study put together by Ford Motor Company. The other two editors were an economist who directed Ford’s Economics Office, and Frederick Hooven, a very farsighted engineer and inventor who became an important mentor to me. Fred also played piano and harpsichord.

The report on “The Future of Transportation” looked ahead more than thirty years to the year 2000. Responsible for scientific forecasts, I divided technology into three areas: materials, energy and information. I missed the importance of composite materials but my other two forecasts were substantially correct. I predicted that petroleum fuels would be dominant in our society until about 2000 but would have to be superseded by 2030. I predicted that the rapid development of electronics and software would lead to major advances in Information Technology. Advances in computation, communication and digital control would dominate our progress between 1964 and 2000.

The study led to Ford beginning research on sodium-sulfur batteries for electric cars. Believing my own forecast about IT, I shifted my attention to research on artificial intelligence, and then installed one of the first process control computers used in Ford’s manufacturing. Impatient with the slow pace of innovation in the auto industry, I then left for Xerox Corporation.

What does all this have to do with the arts in Western North Carolina? Having once been 67% correct in 35-year forecasts, I wondered if I could predict the 35-year future of the arts. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so here are my major conclusions:

1. A Western North Carolina author will win the Nobel Prize in Literature sometime before 2040.

2. Regional theater will thrive with vitality and new plays, while Broadway will continue staging revivals and dull Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals.

3. “Fusion music” will gradually become mainstream in classical concerts. This genre’s composers combine the best of classical formalism with the highest quality bluegrass, rock or other popular style.

4. A center for serious bluegrass music, Southern Appalachia will become an important source of fusion music.

5. Audiences everywhere will continue to complain about “new music,” even though many of the composers they are complaining about have been dead for more than fifty years.

6. Asheville will in good faith continue to promote a new Performing Arts space with good acoustics, but the opening concert will not occur until 2020, five years after some resident music lover volunteers a naming gift of at least $18M.

7. So long as I perambulate about our area, I will continue to discover the lasting influence of Black Mountain College on every aspect of our cultural life.

8. The importance of viewing “original art” will diminish as copying technology is refined. Three-dimensional digital scanning will allow texture and brush strokes to be recorded in their entirety. Giclée printing (or another marking technology) will be developed so that these “depth” features can be reproduced in prints.

9. Beginning about 2020, prints will replace originals at major museums. The “genuine originals” of art will be placed in vaults, and will be of value only to scholars and the same collectors who value the handwritten manuscript of a novel.

10. Decentralization of the art world will be a result of these improvements in “copying” art and of enhanced communications. The importance of the current major arts centers such as New York and Los Angeles will be reduced.

11. The availability of water will result in a rise in importance of the Great Lakes states and other water-rich locations as business and cultural centers. Water scarcity will limit the expansion of the Southwest. By 2030, visitors to New Mexico will be required to bring their own water for drinking and bathing.

12. After 2035, Santa Fe will be called “the Asheville of the West.”

Have a happy future in the land of the French Broad River and do not complain about last week's rain.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #452
September 25, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009


This column is based on one that originally appeared March 30, 2008 in the Hendersonville Times-News. With some modification, it appears here in order to introduce my broader on-line audience to Veronika Hart’s art and her revised website.

Veronika Hart is a relative newcomer to Western North Carolina. She formerly lived in the metropolitan New York City area, where she exhibited and won awards in the Connecticut suburbs of New Canaan and Greenwich, in Westchester County and in New York City proper. She has also exhibited in Washington, DC. About a dozen of her oils, including several borrowed from their current owners, were included in her first North Carolina exhibit, entitled “Africa: Portraits of Power,” at the YMI Cultural Center in Asheville in the spring of 2008.

Hart spent the first fifteen years of her life absorbing two cultures: Europe and Africa. The interior of her parents’ house in Tanganyika was furnished in a purely European fashion: European books, European art, European furniture. But the moment she went out the door, she was immersed in the sights, sounds and human interactions to be found in East Africa in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At age 15 she moved to Germany to study art. There she encountered for the first time motorcars, electric lights and - even more shocking - abstract expressionism. Feeling no kinship with abstract painting, she shifted her attention in Art School to illustration in order to continue with her realistic brush strokes.

Hart’s fine art pieces are mostly large format oil paintings on canvas, many 50” x 72” or larger, in a style that is termed “imaginative realism.” Drawing upon her experience as a medical illustrator in Europe and her later work creating illustrations for recordings, books and advertisements in New York, she continues to paint in the representational style that she has followed since she was a child in Tanganyika and Tanzania. But her fine art depicts in realistic detail scenes that are purely in her imagination, scenes of African people and animals in symbiotic relationships and sometimes flowing into each other. Her themes primarily reflect issues of contemporary and recent East Africa, themes of peaceful accord, of wildlife conservation, and of the strength of African women.

Painted from a photograph of the three Hart children with two of their African minders, “Ela and Omari” is photographically real, as are some other paintings that we saw last spring. But most thought provoking are those that stray from reality. “Race (Two children with Leopards)” and “Zebra Children” both comment on the threat of modern industrialization to traditional African wildlife. In “Zebra Children,” the two zebras meld into each other, and the two children, protecting the zebras, share body parts with the animals in a natural organic manner. “The Spirit of Mama Simba’s Children” shows a human mother and a lioness merging, protecting a human child and a lion cub that similarly merge.

An outstanding triptych is titled “Finding Balance.” Each panel addresses an environmental concern, and the lush painting of the cheetah, the elephants, and the African buffalo (being ridden by a powerful female) is a thing of joy.

If you missed the YMI exhibit last year, you will want to go online to her website at (Veronika with a "k"), study her art and make arrangements to see it in person. If you did visit the YMI exhibit last year, the website will allow you to rekindle the joy you experienced when you first saw Veronika Hart’s stunning paintings.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #451
September 18, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009


Southern Appalachia is a vast region whose coves and bottomland were settled primarily by Scottish Protestants who chose to live on the fringes of civilization and accepted a harsh frontier life in order to have privacy and independence. These and other Celtic and English immigrants brought with them traditions of song and story telling. Only with the arrival of industry and improved transportation beginning in the 1930’s did the Appalachian culture begin to blend into a homogenized American culture. But there remain vestiges of the old Appalachian culture, including a body of unique poetry. After lecturing on “Appalachian Culture and Poetry” to a 1987 Elderhostel program in Highlands, NC, Marita Garin recognized the need for an anthology of poetry representative of our region.

Garin has spent the majority of her adult life in Appalachia. She raised her children in Johnson City, TN, and later lived in Hendersonville, NC before moving to her present home in Black Mountain in 1988. Between 1989 and 1993, she collected poetry but initial efforts to secure a publisher were unsuccessful. The project was put in storage until April 2004, when she had an epiphany. Listening to the howling wind at the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, she thought: “This is the sound of Appalachia, this is the voice of all the hardship, struggle, heartache, hard work, and determination that comes from living in these mountains.”

Thus inspired, she met success. In 2008, McFarland & Co. published
Southern Appalachian Poetry; An Anthology of Works by 27 Poets. On Sunday, September 6, Malaprop's Bookstore in Asheville had a poetry reading during which Marita Garin told the saga of her editing and five poets each read three or four poems.

Don Johnson is a native of West Virginia who has long taught at East Tennessee State University. The ongoing theme of his poetry is “finding the way home.” Representative was “1946,” a haunting evocation of untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome in a World War Two veteran from Appalachia.

Mary Kratt, now of Charlotte, NC, grew up in Beckley, WV. Much of her poetry is about Appalachian women. The audience favorite was “I’d Have Waited a Lifetime for You, Greer Garson” based on memories of a War Bond rally in Beckley during World War Two.

Gregory Dykes has East Tennessee roots that date from the 1790’s on both sides of his family. Growing up in Jonesborough, he later lived and taught in both Tennessee and Western North Carolina. His poem “It Is...” is a reflection about his grandfather. He states that “If a Southern Appalachian theme does exist ... it is the telescoping of cultural change within the region in the 20th century and the confusion, irony, and ... trauma which come with it.”

Hilda Downer would agree with that analysis. This North Carolinian who grew up in the town of Bandana read her intense poem “So much has come and gone that the Appalachians never existed.” The poem begins:
“There are people living now
fading in and out of composition classes
who have no memories
and no childhood
recorded in black and white.”

and ends with the line:
“We were too easy to kill and already extinct.”

The final poet at the reading was novelist and poet Robert Morgan, now at Cornell University where he heads the writing program. A native of Zirconia, NC, he has in recent years spent time back in Henderson County whenever he can. “Broomsedge” is a poem he wanted to write for as long as he can remember. The 21-line poem delivers a message spoken by the bright grass of worn-out fields. The vivid imagery includes lines such as:
“the broomsedge whisks and strokes bright
rumor from the air, a vowel,
a long slow ease of song below
the threshold of song, an ancient
lull almost unheard ...”

Other poets in the anthology include Fred Chappell, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Nancy Simpson and Ron Rash. Buy Southern Appalachian Poetry; An Anthology of Works by 27 Poets. You’ll like it.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #450
September 11, 2009

Friday, September 4, 2009


Last summer, I spent three weeks north of latitude 45 in the land of my birth, the “True North, strong and free” as Canada’s national anthem calls the country. One week of that trip was north of latitude 50, and stimulated much thought about the “Group of Seven” painters who were inspired by Tom Thomson. This year, I viewed and canoed some of the locations they painted, but also viewed and studied over 400 paintings by these eight painters at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Collection. I could write a monograph about my reaction to their art, and perhaps I shall. In the meantime, I will provide the briefest of introductions for those unfamiliar with these very important painters.

Who were these people? They were artists in a new country who broke with the European tradition of tidy civilized landscapes (cultivated fields, tame rivers, oft-climbed Alpine mountains) to present distinctly Canadian wild landscapes. Backpacking, canoeing and using snowshoes when necessary, they went to previously unvisited locations to depict the light patterns filtered through struggling trees in the thin soil of Georgian Bay, Muskoka and Algonquin Park. They painted the grandeur of pre-Cambrian rock outcroppings in the Laurentian Plateau, the vast cliffs of formidable Lake Superior, the Algoma region, the Canadian Rockies and later the Arctic.

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was a superb outdoorsman, a professional wilderness guide, and a self-taught painter whose bold brush strokes and use of undercolor distinguishes his painting. He inspired the others, but died in a canoeing mishap three years before the “Group of Seven” held its first exhibition, so is officially not one of them. The shed in which he lived has been moved to the grounds of the McMichael gallery. The illustration shows Thomson's "Byng Inlet, Georgian Bay."

Lawren Harris (1885-1970) was the most visionary of the Group. His paintings became more abstract and geometrical with time, particularly after his visits to the Canadian Rockies and the Arctic. In 1932, he discontinued representational painting altogether and became an abstract painter. Along with five other members of the Group of Seven, he is buried on the grounds of the McMichael Canadian Collection with (most appropriately) a triangular rock as a headstone. Harris was an heir to the Massey-Harris fortune. In 1914 he built the Studio Building on Severn Street in Toronto with six high-ceilinged north-lit studios. In this building (which still stands), some members of the Group of Seven lived and painted their large finished oils, working from field paintings that were most often on 12”x12” birch panels. Many of these panels are at the Art Gallery Ontario, where some can be compared with the resulting large final paintings. The illustration shows Harris's 1926 painting "North Shore, Lake Superior."

A.Y. Jackson (1882-1974) continued in the tradition of the Group of Seven long after the other members went separate ways. He was an inspiration to many Canadian artists and the subject of an excellent 1941 documentary film by the Canadian Film Board that shows the artist in his late fifties canoeing to his chosen site for fall colors and then painting in the Studio Building. That 18-minute film is shown at the McMichael gallery.

J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932) was born in England but had embraced his new country. As a senior designer at a Toronto graphic design firm, he was a shy leader who brought together several members of the Group. His death signaled the end of the period when they could be considered a group.

J.H. Varley (1881-1969) and Arthur Lismer (1885-1969) had also come to Canada from England, while Frank Carmichael (1890-1943) and Frank (Franz) Johnston (1888-1949) were born in Canada. Johnston moved to Winnipeg shortly after the 1920 show that gave the group its name, and was replaced by A.J. Casson (1898-1992). Edwin Holgate (1892-1977) and British Columbia artist Emily Carr (1871-1945) shared the inspiration of the Group, and Harris communicated extensively with Carr. "Serenity, Lake-of-the-Woods" is a 1922 painting by Johnston.

The importance of these artists cannot be overstated. Robert Blue (1946-1998) instructed his classes at the Art League of Los Angeles that to understand plein air, they must study the Group of Seven. Serious landscape painters should consider examining this large body of art in Toronto and visiting northern Ontario to paint on location as they did.

Several of the Group served as military artists in the Great War from 1914 to 1918. After their return, the Group rented a boxcar, fitted it out with living accommodation, and until 1923 positioned it on various railroad sidings in the Algoma region north of Sault Ste. Marie. From their boxcar, they would canoe or hike to the sites they wished to paint. The Algoma Central Railway now runs excursions to the Agawa Canyon, so modern artists need not live in a boxcar in order to paint where the Group of Seven painted. It may be a thousand miles from Asheville, but the trip is worthwhile.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #449
September 4, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009


Usually I associate “square holes” with round pegs and not with flutes, but when Leonard Lopatin explained to me how he came to invent the SquareONE Flute, it made sense to me.

Lopatin is no amateur, either as a flute maker or as a flautist. After receiving his degree at the Juilliard School of Music, he promptly became a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, playing piccolo and third flute. He might still be happily making music in New York City thirty years later had it not been for his temperament and his versatility. In addition to being a musician since childhood, Lenny had been a tinkerer. At age twelve, he had taken apart and put back together his first flute. As he told the British Flute Society’s journal, “It was only much later that I realized that this was not something all kids would think to do; it seemed normal to me.”

When he asked his teachers and instrument technicians why flutes were built the way they were, he was not satisfied with all the answers. By the time he was in high school, he was keeping a notebook with ideas related to flute design. In 1978, while touring with the Metropolitan Opera, he had the idea of square tone holes. The concept is appealing from the point of view of physical acoustics. With round holes, the vibrating column of air varies in length across the width of the hole. With square holes, the vibrating column of air has the same length at every location across the width of the hole. Ergo, a flute with square holes should resonate with a purer tone, require less effort by the flautist, and produce less extraneous noise.

There are many flute makers in the world, most of whom create flutes as custom instruments made to order. Since no flautists were ordering flutes with square holes, there was little chance that flute makers would be interested in testing his ideas. Lopatin himself would have to learn how to make square holes and square caps. A flute maker must be a combination of skilled silversmith, precision machinist, acoustical engineer and musician. Becoming one is normally done through a five-year apprenticeship.

After the 1978 Met season, Lopatin used the off-season to begin learning his new occupation. He worked in the newly opened shop of experienced flute maker Bickford Brannen and his brother Robert Brannen in Woburn, Massachusetts. Lopatin returned to New York for one more season at the Met, and then resigned to apprentice full-time at Brannen Brothers, a firm that is now renowned in the industry. Lopatin later struck out on his own as a flute maker, while performing occasionally with the Boston Pops and other groups. In 2002, he moved his machinery from the Boston area to Asheville, where the Lopatin Flute Company now occupies a studio at 122 Riverside Drive in the River Arts District.

Theobald Boehm was the flautist and inventor who changed almost everything between 1831 and 1847. The key system was radically altered. The bore became tapered rather than cylindrical. The walls were reduced in thickness and the hole placement was changed. Albert Cooper and Johan Brögger made minor adjustments in the twentieth century, but the instruments remained close to those of 1850. Lopatin’s instruments may represent the most radical change in the design of flutes since Boehm.

Lopatin makes flutes both of the traditional design and in the SquareONE design using the usual silver or gold alloys. He constructs instruments primarily on commission. He recently began making piccolos using the traditional African blackwood (known as grenadilla). Still a musician as well as an instrument maker, he plays second flute with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and has issued two CD’s featuring performances on his flutes. Squarely in the Holiday Spirit! is a collection of songs and carols performed on SquareONE flutes. Squarely Baroque is a compilation featuring Bach, Telemann and other baroque composers. More information is available at or at (828) 350-7762.

© 2009 Edward C. McIrvine
Arts Spectrum column #448
August 28, 2009