Category Archives: Art and artists

Strokes of Genius

Seven or eight years ago, I received a letter from a longtime friend, a remarkable woman who first came into my life more than four decades ago as my 12th grade English teacher. The letter told a story, one that speaks volumes about the power of art to touch us deeply, unexpectedly, even inexplicably.

The setting is the highly regarded Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Phyllis Levitt, the retired teacher whose story it is, went on what she assumed would be a pleasant but routine cultural outing.

That’s pretty much what it was, she wrote afterwards. Until she turned a corner and one painting stopped her in her tracks.

She wrote that an unexpected wave of emotion immediately overcame her. She found herself bursting into tears, even before she was near enough to see the roughly 28×36-inch oil painting clearly.

She couldn’t say why she reacted that way, or where that extreme emotion came from. She was reluctant to embrace the easy, mystical explanations that might have come to mind when she moved closer to the painting and realized what she was seeing:

“Wheat Fields at Auvers Under Clouded Sky” was painted in July 1890, making it one of the last works created by Vincent Van Gogh. He committed suicide that same month.

Of course, one way to understand all this is that Phyllis had somehow tuned in directly to Van Gogh’s emotional state when he painted the picture. But there’s another way of thinking about it.

The popular image of Van Gogh is that he was a “mad genius,” and that both his life and his art were consumed by his madness. The reality is he was a disciplined artist with a mastery of color, composition and paint.

Looked at the second way, the emotional intensity of his work was anything but a byproduct of a troubled mind. It was the intended impact of a skilled artist whose vision was matched in every regard by his command of his craft.

In its own way, I think, that explanation of the power of the painting is every bit as “magical” as the first. What do you think? When was the last time you saw or heard a work of creative genius not with your eyes or ears, but in your marrow?

“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.’”

–Vincent van Gogh

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First Words

CHILD OF MY CHILD was born in April, 2009, along with its flesh and blood twin, Josephine, 7 pounds, 6 ounces upon arrival.

In truth, we didn’t quite know at the time that a book had been born.

All of our attention was focused instead on one small child who had just reshaped our lives and changed our identities in ways we are still discovering. But it was inevitable that, sooner or later, we would look for a literary response to Josie’s life-changing presence, given our own backgrounds and sensibilities.

For me, Josie’s birth brought the seemingly straightforward passage into grandparenthood. That joy, however, was necessarily tempered by the awareness that her Grandmother Diana, my wife of nearly thirty years, did not live to see our only child become a father. For Sandi, who is now my wife, Josie brought joy as well, along with a flood of questions about the place she would have in Josie’s life as a step-grandmother.

We realized then that being a grandparent in the 21st century brings both timeless joys and sometimes harrowing challenges. Families fracture and recombine, often muddying traditional roles. For some, becoming a grandparent also means becoming a caretaker again.

For some, becoming a grandparent is an insistent call to look themselves or their own children in the face and take account. For others, not being a grandparent is a kind of loss. For many, that grandchild arrives bundled in equal parts hope and fear, because the baby’s parents may have struggled with substance abuse, financial or legal problems, or other demons. Sometimes, people become grandparents, but only learn that fact years later, as one poem here explores.

And, perhaps for all, the arrival of a new generation brings undeniable evidence of aging and mortality. That may be a particularly tough pill to swallow for the millions of Baby Boomers who have aged into this new role (and sometimes bristle at taking on traditional grandparent names).

When we decided to create this anthology and began soliciting contributions, Sandi and I suspected that some of these issues and concerns would be reflected and examined in the work we would receive. The mountain of submissions we received, however, brought many unexpected stories, too—along with much more excellent material than we possibly could use in a single volume. In assembling the collection, we have been blessed to have the always wise, sometimes surprising, sometimes challenging, prose and poetry of more than five dozen highly accomplished writers as our building material.

We are grateful to each of them and proud to include their work in CHILD OF MY CHILD.

That title, by the way, is borrowed from a wonderfully resonant image offered up, in slightly different forms, by two contributors to this volume: Barbara Evers and Karen Neuberg. It is both a powerful image in its own right and a fitting umbrella for the wide range of experience and emotion contained in this book.

A BRIEF NOTE TO JOSEPHINE, FROM DIANA

Kenneth Salzmann

Take this quilt and let it blanket you,

in comfort and in loss.

It was stitched just for you

six generations ago.

Ever since, these colorful threads

have run through the lives

of daughters, then mothers,

then grandmothers, then daughters.

Take this quilt and one day

spread it over your own children

and over their children,

in comfort and in loss.

Everything is changing, and will.

But these ancient threads are holding fast.

child cover (award)0001

Child of My Child: Poems and Stories for Grandparents

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My appearance on “Today’s Authors”

Here’s an excerpt from one of two 30-minute interviews conducted by writer/poet/broadcaster Gary McLouth. . . .

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December 1, 2012 · 1:15 pm