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One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

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This summer I have spent a great deal of time in the garden which has been my refuge from the plague, turmoil, and strife.  I keep hoping that the carpenter bees will return, but I have barely seen any hymenopterans at all thus far (aside from little black and brown ants which seem to be as numerous as ever).  That all changed the other day, though, when a magnificent visitor swept into the garden!  A lot of hymenoptera are strikingly colored (as the velvet ants will testify) , however this dapper character looked like a refugee from a 1980s musical video or a disturbing anime.  Not only was this wasp’s jet fighter body the deepest brown (which was so dark it might have been black), but all four of its wings were the same color too! Not only was the whole creature sable, but its dark brown coloring was also iridescent blue/purple–so it gleamed like a blue revolver.  There was one noteworthy contrasting color on the wasp’s face– its huge antennae were fluorescent orange!

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Although the wasp seemed like it was preening on my hostas, as soon as I moved to get my camera it was gone.  So, alas, I have no photos of the strange visitor.  Fortunately though, this wasp was more visually unique than a Dick Tracy villain so I quickly found a match in the rogue’s gallery of wasps online: Gnamptopelta obsidianator, the “bent-shield beseiger wasp”

Now you would think that if crazy creatures like this were flying all over New York City, there would be plenty of information about them online, but you would be wrong.  It speaks of our human myopia that, although I easily found pictures of it, I could barely find out anything about the lifestyle of the beseiger (although one website opined that I had actually seen the lookalike wasp Thyreodon atricolor–so keep that in mind, for what it is worth). According to the internet, these wasps are both ichneumonids– parasitoid predators which lays eggs inside living hosts.  Paralyzed, the hosts still-living flesh provides a decay-resistant larger for the wasp larvae [shudders].

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Whatever you might think about the terrible things this wasp does to make ends meet, there is no denying that it belongs here just for its sheer fashion sensibility alone.  I will keep my eyes peeled for more of these magnificent yet troubling wasps–both in the garden and online.  I still can’t believe we know so little about creatures which literally live right next to us!

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Do you know about Hart Island?  It is a small island, approximately 100-130 acres in size, which lies just off the coast of the Bronx (or actually just off the coast of the larger City Island, which is just off of the coast of Pelham Bay Park).  Since the late 1860s, New York City has utilized Hart Island as a potter’s field (and sometime plague burial site). There are (probably) more than a million people buried on the island, most of them nameless and forgotten indigents whose pursuit of New York dreams ultimately led them to this place of oblivion.  Comprehensive burial records were destroyed by arson in 1977, so the exact number of bodies on the island is now beyond human ken.

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As you might imagine, the history of Hart Island is a cold, sad mirror of the history of New York City (although there are some strange diversions–for example there were underground silos of surface-to-air missiles there during the early Cold War).  The public cemetery started out as a small part of the island but, during times of particular crisis or illness, the grave-trenches grew and the other functions receded til ultimately the whole island became a cemetery.  At present the island is jointly managed by some unfathomable partnership between the Department of Corrections (whose inmates conduct burials and tend the island) and the Department of Parks which was saddled with administrative control of Hart Island by recent legislation (but which lacks the funds & inclination to make it a proper “park”).

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In the island’s recent history, it was utilized as a cemetery for AIDS victims during the first phases of that crisis. In the early eighties, people were afraid and unsure of HIV’s nature and so these AIDS graves are said to be twice as deep as normal.

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The inmates who tend Hart Island are solicitous of their solemn charge (a friend of mine who works as a mouthpiece for the Department of Corrections told me that only the most dependable and responsible prisoners are chosen–and they are actually paid for gravedigging and site maintenance).  To mark the AIDS cemetery the inmates erected a tiny albeit touchingly earnest peace monument, however they have opined that something more fitting should go there.

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That was meant to be the  introduction to my idea, however it took me longer to describe New York’s secret “borough of the dead” than I expected (and I never even got to the part about how the island is slowly eroding away leaving a coastline of human bones).  Thus, come back next time for part two, where we talk about Hart Island’s future.

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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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For many years I studied at the Art Students League of New York, a storied yet inexpensive atelier-style art school/collective which accounts about half to ¾ of all eminent American artists as members, pupils, or instructors at one point or another.  I would work all day as a stupid flunky at a bank and then go to the League and paint for three and a half hours every night.  At the Art Students League, one could find every sort of artist from around the world, from international art superstars to first time hobbyists. I mostly studied with the great portrait painter Ron Scherr who drew young luminaries of contemporary realism to him like a man casting loafs of bread in Union Square park draws pigeons.  There were many gifted Scherr students whose works and careers I need to highlight, but arguably the most gifted draftsperson was my friend Mark Kevin Gonzales, a chess player who grew up in Brooklyn (the rest of us just moved here to make it in the arts) and went to the famous Brooklyn Technical high School.

Since Mark is a native New Yorker, his artwork highlights life in the city, and these particular artworks highlight the animal life of the city, our famous rock pigeons (Columba livia) which throng the city’s parks and statues.  Indeed they are famous urbanites around the world.  The watercolor painting at the top highlights Mark’s mastery of  form shading and color.  The pigeon has been rendered in swift staccato strokes of watercolor (a famously unforgiving media) yet because of his masterful brushwork, the piece has an illusion of three dimensional form and conveys the impression of details which aren’t actually there.  A master’s secret is that if you can get the first few lines exactly right, you don’t have to agonize over a bunch of fussy little lines (but…oh let’s not talk about the years and years of practice necessary to get those big flat shapes to come out exactly right with the flick of a wrist).   The pigeons feathers seem to glisten with shimmering iridescence which is upon close inspection revealed to be a simple wash of viridian.  Its lively eye and cocked head makes the viewer think that the bird is observing the observer from beyond this little square of paper.  I suspect the bird really was observing Mark closely in whatever park he painted this (the poor pigeon probably though he was being sized up by a big weird cat as Mark crouched at his traveling easel).

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The second painting is even more of a quick sketch…but it is also more of a celebration (and a political piece).  This pigeon is strutting his stuff as joyous 4th of July fireworks go off in the background.  Notice how the pyrotechnics have colored the urban bird red white and blue.  Rock Pigeons are not originally from the new world (neither are Mark’s black and Philippine ancestors, come to think of it) but they have moved here to New York and lived here successfully for generations and they have a greater claim to being native New Yorkers than just about anybody.  It is good to see the patriotic national colors fitted out for an existence which is completely urbanized and it is so good to see some of Mark’s playful small works (he usually works in exquisitely rendered large format portrait painting).  You should check out his amazing work in Drawing Magazine or at his website, or just take a gander at his astonishingly lovely drawings and paintings on Instagram…Oh and tell him what a gifted artist he is: he certainly already knows, but it is always still good to hear.

 

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OK, I acknowledge that the last few posts have been a trifle thin.  I promise that I will write a real post about a real subject this week (plus it is still poetry month, and also maybe we can showcase some thrilling flounder art!), however for now I am going to showcase some weird found art (?) from the Brooklyn subway.  I was rushing through my desperate morning commute last week when I saw this amazing advertisement…across the tracks on the opposite platform.  The dominant image–a bright eyed pigeon with a melting popsicle immediately grabbed my attention, but I couldn’t read the infinitesimal copy beneath..and the electrified rails (not to mention the 2 and 5 trains going both ways) stood between me and understanding.  I resolved to look it up on the way home, but every day when I trudged home from my dayjob, broken and lost, I forgot all about it.

Only this week, when I was coming home did I remember to look for the poster, and it was nowhere to be found.  Was it papered over with then next iteration of disposable consumer culture?  And where were the posters next to it?  Suddenly it hit me that I go to work in the last car of the subway and go home in the last car of the subway: I stand at different points ends of the platform in the day and the night and have for years without noticing.  So, I walked to the front (back?) of the station where I found the poster and took a real  photo.  It is advertises life in the city–more specifically a life in the arts (courtesy of New York’s School of Visual Arts).  Look at how alert and happy that pigeon is!  I think he might be enjoying the glorious Fourth of July (which still seems like a dream during this cold, dank April).  i am not sure if the pigeon is really an artist (an expressionist maybe) or just enjoying a patriotic frozen treat.

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This past Friday/Saturday was the annual Pratt Drawathon, a 12 hour event which is one of the highlights of the New York City art year. I should clarify:  the event is not a highlight of the New York art world year. The drawathon is not a place where elite moguls drink wine from airport cups and buy multi-million dollar status-items to embellish their hegemony.  The drawathon is, instead, a draftsperson’s event where Pratt students and other people who love to draw get together and draw all night. Mostly the artists are young fashionable 18-20 year olds with fluorescent hair and strange stylish raiment who struggle away at capturing the likeness of the models within the media rubric of whatever undergraduate project they are currently working on.  Yet the greater New York art ecosystem knows about it too; so you also find peculiar outsiders dressed like janitors who draw like Raphael.

This year, I worked for 9 hours at my spreadsheet-themed dayjob and showed up to squeeze in among the miscellaneous artists and do some pencil sketches to stay limber as an artist (it is also nice to draw naked people sometimes instead of allegorical flatfish).  After midnight the event also features pizza, caffeinated beverages, and live drummers to keep everyone’s energy up. But alas, this year my energy was flagging and my back was sore as I squirmed on the drafting stool. I was feeling sorry for working all day and drawing all night. That’s when I a model I hadn’t seen before came in and gave me a new jolt of energy…not because they were a 19 year old beauty unstained by time’s cruel tutelage (although such models indeed participate in the drawathon), but for the opposite reason.   A man older than John McCain came in and then held stock-still for heroic long poses.  Holding perfectly still sounds easy in theory, but as anyone who has been to Methodist church can tell you, it is exceedingly difficult in practice. Yet the heroic model easily stood like a statue in the airless room.  At one point the man jumped up on a teetering bar stool and stood with his feet close together balanced and motionless for twenty minutes as the assembly gasped and begged him to be careful and not to fall and break something.  “You better draw fast then!” is all he said.

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Not only was this strange muse indefatigable and brave, he was also generous.  After the pizzas arrive the event loses its coherence until about one o’clock when the proctors dragoon it back into shape.  There are always some artists who wolf down their pizza and wait impatiently for things to get started.  The model (who was named Mike) came in and said, I’ll pose until things get started again, if anyone wants to draw.”

One has to be impressed by the fortitude and bravery of anyone who can pose nude in front of strangers at all (I am not sure I could).  To jump into such a career later in life is to truly overcome the prejudices of society and the indignant dictates of the aching spine. Mike seemed like he was having a great time.  He was friends with the models and the artists. Even more, he was a friend to art (though I am, naturally dissatisfied by my drawings…speaking of which,  I am sorry I cut off his feet on this last image–my scanner is only letter-sized).

So am I saying that my hero is a weird naked old man? I guess I am. The combination of strength, fortitude, generosity, and bravery are hard to gainsay.

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I am sorry that these pictures don’t do him justice, but my back was tired from sitting in a comfy office chair all day.   It’s a reminder that life is short, but opportunities are more diverse than you think.  And it is a reminder to get to work! If Mike can pose 12 hours straight, from dusk till dawn, all of us can get out of your comfortable ruts and accomplish anything.

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My office has moved to Midtown (across from Grand Central…more about that later), but I think I like the concrete canyons of Downtown better.  The streets down by Wall Street feel like I always imagined New York felt like when I was little (although so do the brownstone streets of Brooklyn).  Downtown also has unique holiday decorations–those jagged star/explosions.  Whenever I see them, I imagine Batman has just punched the lamppost and an audible “Bap” or “Kapow” is forthcoming.  I guess they are supposed to betoken universal peace or some such thing, but it sure looks like Batman went on a rampage.  Indeed, the whole downtown area sort of has the brooding gritty melancholy of Gotham…especially on foggy or wintry days.

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Thanks so much for your patience while I was working on my art show last week! My first New York solo show was a rousing success (even if it only lasted for a single night). Numerous friends, patrons,and even some strangers showed up to check out the 100 flounder pictures in their fancy Manhattan setting. The fish market was a success as well: far fewer flatfish are back on my walls (and if you reserved a flounder, I am holding it safe in a special secure undisclosed location so it stays fresh until you pick it up). Special thanks to all attendees and well-wishers! I only wish I had had more time to talk about art and the affairs of the world with each of you. Additionally, I really appreciate the emotional support from my readers who couldn’t make it to the Lower East Side. Particular thanks are due to my long-time supporters, Neomys Sapiens, Calender Girl, and above all Mom, who always gets pride of place in any thank you speech! Indeed, thanks to both of my parents for their inxhaustible patience and fortitude. Thanks too to Catinca Tabacaru Gallery for providing a space to grow and experiment (I promised not to use their branding on any promotional materials, but they really helped me out, and their lovely gallery deserves a visit next time you are in the City). My amazing new roommate Stephen Clarke provided this opportunity and did an astonishing job hanging 100 pictures so they look beautiful in a couple of short hours.
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Now I have to figure out how and where to throw the next show. Keep your eyes peeled for art galleries that seem to have a penchant for surrealism, historical tableau, themes of ecology and symbiosis, or fish in general. Here are some images of the show to tide us over till the next time.
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Speaking of moving forwards, I also drew a quick sketch of the solar eclipse as visible from the East River promenade at lunch hour. I didn’t have solar eclipse glasses and didn’t want to stare at the sun too much (also I had to get back to the office), but I think this quick sketch of the partial eclipse is mostly accurate. Hopefully I will have another art show before there is another solar eclipse! I hope to see you at the next shindig, and thanks again!

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Hey everyone, my amazing new roommate works at an art gallery in the city’s hottest art district, the Lower East Side. The famous gallerist who runs the place has embarked on an artistic quest…to Tanzania, but she has generously allowed me to use the space for an evening. I hope you will accept my invitation (above) to a show of my flounder artworks which explore the big-fish-eats-little-fish dialectic of history against a backdrop of larger biological themes.

Because of time constraints, the opening IS the show–we are like a beautiful exotic mushroom which pops-up for a single glorious night–but during that one night there will be glowing multi-media delights to satisfy all aesthetic longings! Since you read this blog, I know you have the most refined and intelligent tastes: I hope you can join me then and there.

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