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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Lover’s Leap

lover's leap

There are so many places named “lover’s leap” that it’s a wonder any of us are alive to mark the spot. I thought this image might do as the pedestrian suspension bridge across the Mighty Muskrat River between the college campus on the east bank and the county fairgrounds on the west—including eventually the Northwest Iowa Normal athletic facilities. Perhaps there is a story to be spun of love spurned or an unplanned pregnancy or another bit of personal drama that might have lent this label to an unpretentious strand of wood and wire.

Reginald Bush [1869-1956]

reginald bush

[From the catalogue-in-progress for “Landscapes & Livestock”, a loan exhibition for Agincourt Homecoming in the Fall of 2015]

BUSH, Reginald Edgar James [1869-1956]

“Lynemouth, North Devon”


color etching / 6.3 inches x 3.7 inches

R.E.J. Bush showed his work at galleries and exhibitions in London, Paris and Rome, but he also exhibited in the U.S. (St. Louis, Chicago, and Los Angeles). “Lynemouth, North Devon” [previously identified as “Village, Cornwall”] may have been shown at the Saint Louis World’s Fair of 1904— “Meet me in St. Louis, Louis. Meet me at the Fair.” —but its frame also bears a sticker suggesting it had been sold by Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago.

This evocative small etching came to the collection in 1959 from the estate of Miss Rose Kavanagh, long-time principal of Charles Darwin Elementary school.

The Past

As the summer sets and a new academic year shows its first rosy glow—oh, if only that metaphor were true—I prepare my syllabus for the first course in the architectural history sequence. For the forty-fourth time. Shit.


These days, I’ve thought much about the past; it is my job, after all. But this year is compounded with the department’s centennial, an opportunity to test my thesis that we have, during my tenure at least, always been: 1) of the past, 2) in the present, and 3) about the future.

Each year since I began teaching in 1971 has been unlike the one before. Sometimes the change has been cautious, slow, like watching the hands of a clock and knowing that they’ve moved by not being able to say just when or by how much. At other times, the change has been dramatic, drastic, volcanic: violent earthquake, rather than continental drift. Like the year we shifted from the quarter system to semesters. This place has rarely held on to anything out of habit or (dare I invoke the “T” word?) tradition. In five-year chunks, even our students must sense these changes and (I hope) feel they’ve been part of something larger than themselves. I do. I have to.

Since it was published in 1986, I have read (or tried to read) Finite and Infinite Games, a New Age-y book by James Carse. My appreciation for its ideas has grown exponentially since a first encounter in the late ’80s, and now I keep a hardback copy at bedside for handy reference. Chapter 17 is a frequent stop, since its subject is the past and our relation to it. Because of what I do and (particularly this year) when I’m doing it, exploration of that relationship has been an exercise ripe with meaning.

My Deist inclinations often take me to a view of history as cyclic, a clockwork universe where the past repeats itself—or, at least, regurgitates for further rumination. Author Carse offers an interesting twist to the mix, but telling you about that requires a little back story.

The proposition of Finite and Infinite Games is that our lives consist of multiple overlapping games, each with its onset, rules, players, and outcome. I, for example, am a teacher, guiding a class through a body of knowledge and testing their ability to both learn and apply that new knowledge. I play (with varying degrees of enthusiasm, I should add) in several such finite games simultaneously: as teacher, fan, voter, scholar, curator, husband, citizen. In addition, Carse tells his reader that there is also an infinite game—just one—which began before we were born and will continue after our passing from the scene. Its rules, however, are not designed to bring the game to an end and determine one or more “winners”, but rather to change with the tides of time and guarantee that all are able to play and to extend the playing time indefinitely; indeed beyond my own time on Earth. This single infinite games is life, and our relation with the past is key to the way me play.

Finite players regard the past as past. Were it not, another player might be able to use the element of surprise to shift the balance of power and allow another to win. To avoid this possibility—to avoid surprise—players are trained to understand the past as complete and incapable of affecting the course of play.

Infinite players, on the other hand, regard the past as incomplete. They not only anticipate surprise, they hope for it, and are educated to prepare themselves for dramatic, unpredictable circumstance in the course of play. In Carse’s words

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.

Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there. Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished. Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training toward a final self-definition.

Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.

These have become and will continue to be the watchwords of my work. So please remind me of that from time to time.

The geography of paint

The problem with paint is color.


All of its other qualities—cost, coverage, ease of application, durability—are pretty easily resolved by shopping around and seeking advice from friends and neighbors. We’re great fans, for instance, of Farrow & Ball, a British brand that is clay-based, goes on like butter melting into warm toast, smells like freshly mown grass, emits zero EOCs, and washes up with water. You could drink the damned stuff; it’s that safe. Of course, it sells for $85 a gallon. Granted, it covers with one coat, but that’s still a pretty stiff price. On the wall, though, it looks so much like velvet that you’ll want to touch. We’ve used Farrow & Ball just once, and only because two gallons were a gift.

Now that I think about it, manhattans go for a lot more than $85/gallon.

Regarding color, the F&B palette is astounding, but I suspect not to everyone’s taste. Its principal ingredient is clay, after all, from the same pits that Josiah Wedgwood got clay for his Jasperware. So the F&B colors tend toward the earthy: light pastels, but also deep saturated colors that I’ve seen from no other company. My friend Cecil assayed my Victorian color sense this way: “You’re not happy with a color until they’ve added a bucket of shit.” I suppose that’s pretty much what Farrow & Ball have done.

Once again Elliott proves to have been a prophet.


Is there a room somewhere, dimly lit and padded, where a passel of poets imagine the names of colors? Where chips are slipped through a slot in the wall, and in the room’s minimal whiteness, deprived of any view or vista that might cloud judgment or prejudice the imagination, names emerge—as if from a ouija board? I’ve always wanted the job. But my thinking would be colored (so to speak) by Monty Python or J. K. Rowling. What is the color of lark’s vomit, anyway? Or how might colors parallel the taste of Bertie Botts “Every Flavor Beans”? What’s the color, for example, of ear wax?

There’s a geography of color, too. Yes, “heather” is a plant, but one so connected with the Highlands of Scotland as to be geographic, as much as botanical. So, what about “Cactus”? Whole collections of color can imply a particular place: Bermuda or the Caribbean, the Greek islands, the Grand Canyon. Some pigments are geologic and, therefore, geographic. Siena. Umber. My recent encounter with color has been geographic in a cartographic way.

If you happen to own rental property, never, I repeat, never allow tenants to paint their own apartment. Yes, the place probably needs it—housekeeping being what it has become these days—but don’t be seduced by the economy of a discount on rent for the tenant’s own sweat equity. Painterly competence has a broader range than the light spectrum from infra-red to ultra-violet, and like those two “colors” some efforts ought not be seen by the human visual apparatus. Only once has this worked out.

But if you should trust their skill, never, I repeat again, never allow them to choose their own paint colors. There is much to be said for beige, especially after they’ve visited the Re-Store and succumbed to whatever remaindered, rejected, or unclaimed buckets happen to be available that week. A “Martha Stewart Living” label is often more valuable than the contents of the can.

I’ve spent several weekends eliminating the color choices of a previous tenant: one that we call “Don’t-run-me-over Highway-Department Orange” and an olive green last seen in a diorama interpreting the Pleistocene. The orange was especially persistent and could only be suppressed with a less strident variant; something akin to sorbet. Thank goodness it was in a kitchen.

The entry hall requires paint for another reason: Yes, the blue is both dated and “institutional”, but in recent years it has begun to crack and separate from the wall at an escalating rate. Inexplicably, this is occurring on both inside and outside walls, so temperature and moisture differential can’t be the easy answer. But now that I’ve begun to scrape, an unusual explanation presents itself. As the chipping paint exposes underlying plaster, I’m beginning to suspect that the original wall was never painted, nor intended to be.

A hundred years ago we were in the throes of the Arts & Crafts movement, American inheritors of the slightly earlier British phenomenon. Interpreted here by the likes of Elbert Hubbard and Gustav Stickley, the expectation of structural honesty and material integrity led to what might seem affectations or eccentricities today. A simple plaster wall ought, for example, to be kept simple. Not a surface to be painted or papered, the Arts & Crafts plaster wall allowed the character of the plaster itself to be prominent. Fine sand was often added for both integral color and texture; stain, rather than opaque paint, was added in the trough, again for integral rather than applied color.

Through the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early houses, we now know that he often did this with both interior plastered walls and exterior stuccoed surfaces. So, this afternoon, as I exposed more of the entry walls, I believe a one-hundred-year-old aesthetic is revealing itself for the first time in more than fifty years. I can’t find any appropriate on-line images to explain this, so you’ll just have to stop over and look for yourselves.

So my afternoon and early evening were spent as cartographer, removing the smooth sky-blue paint and revealing the coarse, dense plaster base, looking more like burlap than anything else. The oceanic world of blue gradually yields to archipelagos of brown. Island clusters coalesce—the Cyclades, the Orkneys, the Philippines—then land bridges turn them into larger forms. Madagascar becomes Greenland becomes Australia. The growing heat in the hall encouraged thoughts of northerly realms, rather than the tropics, as I plotted transhumance and annual migratory waterfowl.

So much remains to be removed that Asia, Africa and the Americas await the imagination until, alas, Waterworld will have become the desert planet Arakeen. Perhaps it will be cooler then.