Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Renaissance Woman with a Feline Twist: Bernadette Kazmarski

I know that depth was invested in the portrait itself, showing in a physical manner -- I always say that I paint until my subjects look back at me -- and perhaps in a spiritual manner as well, recognizable by both humans and animals.
                                                                                  --Bernadette Kazmarski

She didn’t really draw in college, Bernadette Kazmarski says. Oh, she took the required beginner’s art courses, but she was seldom satisfied with the results. “Every once in awhile, I’d hit it,” the Pennsylvania-based artist and writer recalls, “but I wasn’t consistent. I know now it was there in me, but I needed to let go. I was being too logical – ‘I have to draw this line this way. Look how she drew that line.’” So, when she graduated Edinboro State College, it was with an English literature degree, not an art degree. “I specifically changed my major from art to writing because I was afraid I wouldn’t get a good enough grade.”

After briefly doing public-relations work for a mall, Kazmarski got a job as a typesetter, which “got me into graphic design.” She was still doing her artwork, but she wasn’t really feeling like artist.

Then came Sally, a deaf white Turkish Angora in need of a home. Kazmarski had always had cats, many of them fosters, and it was only natural that they found their way into her art. But this was different. She was working from photos of Sally, and the process of tracing them on a light table (a box with a glass top and lights in it, “something like a slide viewer, only bigger”) helped her “keep everything in perspective, literally and figuratively.” She was using rag watercolor paper, and she “just felt the surface and said, ‘I can draw on this. I like this.’ It was an intuitive decision.”

Drawing Sally “totally awakened my visual skill,” Kazmarski insists. She had always been a highly visual person – “I think in pictures all the time” – but she had needed to get out of her own way. “It was during that process and when I finished that I realized why I couldn’t draw before….It’s not what you produce – it’s what you see and what you do with what you see.” She had transcended the technical aspects of her craft: she had “visualized the finished work, and actually created what I had visualized. This is what has to happen for anything I render, whether it’s a commissioned portrait from photographs or a drawing ‘en plein air’ [French for “in plain air” – a technical term for drawing from life].”

She had a similar epiphany while working on “After Dinner Nap,” her pastel rendering of another beloved cat, Stanley. “I looked at the way I handled light, color, and composition, and I was astonished by what I had done….It’s actually going beyond the logical mind and just letting it happen.”

All the elements in her work – paintings, sketches, block prints, photographs – fall together of their own accord, as though Kazmarski has simply channeled them. She is there, yet she is not there, and it is that wonderful contradiction that makes for the magic in each piece. That and the quality of light. You expect a sensitivity to light in artists and photographers, yes; but Kazmarski takes it up a few notches. She uses light the way poets use the rhythm of words. She leans toward Impressionism in that respect. “With the Impressionists, it was all about how the light fell on things, which is certainly how I paint,” she muses. “All sorts of light bounces around in a scene, and their goal was to bring out the color they saw.” It’s a good description of what Kazmarski does.

Her writing has that same textured feeling that her art has. She has a knack for painting word-pictures that draw you in, and nowhere is this more evident than in her blog “The Creative Cat.” It is actually only one of five blogs that Kazmarski does. But it’s the one in which her writing and artistic talents come together right elegantly.

Which is interesting because blogging was one of those happenstance things for Kazmarski: it found her at a Cat Writers’ Association (CWA) conference back in 2007. She had just won the group’s Muse Medallion and the Hartz Everyday Chewable Vitamin Award for her article “Loving Care for Your Older Cat.” She “ was really surprised,” admits Kazmarski, who had been focusing mostly on her art and graphic design at that point. “Sometimes things will happen that will guide you.” She went to the conference, and “everybody was talking about blogging. That’s when I decided rather than work with my clunky old website, I would use my website to display finished work and the blogging for works-in-progress.”

And so “The Creative Cat” was born. Kazmarski plays with the blog, much as she plays with light in her artwork. Sometimes the post will be a discussion of what she’s currently working on “The Portrait”). Sometimes it’s a photo followed by some reflections (“Muted Colors”). And sometimes it’s a personal essay about the cats in her life, past and present (“Cookie & Me, Our 18th Anniversary,” told from Cookie’s point of view).

As Kazmarski sees it, the blog has “become -- and I don’t know if this was intentional – a reflection of who I am.” It allows her to write about whatever happens to be on her mind -- or in her heart – at the moment: her garden, wildlife (her backyard has been a registered wildlife habitat since 2003, and she has been maintaining it as such for 20 years), animal rights, the local library, and, of course, her cats.

She wrote about her beloved Namir at the end of July 2009; then, about a month later, she was moved to write about him and the loss of other feline companions in “Perhaps the Storm Is Finally Over.” Namir had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2005, the same year that Hurricane Katrina hit; by the time he died in 2009, “a lot of things with Hurricane Katrina had been resolved.” So, in Kazmarski’s mind, there was a parallel between what the hurricane had done and what she had gone through with Namir and the five other cats – Moses, Cream, Sophie, Stanley, and Lucy -- who had died in that nearly four-year period. The result was the poignant and powerful “Perhaps the storm is finally over.”

“When a situation presents itself, we never know how it will play itself out,” Kazmarski says, “and that’s true of the animals we take into our lives.” Response to both posts was strong, and she became aware of how important an outlet the blog was for her.

What’s more, “The Creative Cat” has allowed her to weave together her twin passions, writing and art. “I always wanted to be a writer,” Kazmarski muses, “and I figured I would eventually find my way to being an artist. But I always thought you had to be one or the other.” Then she discovered comparative arts – “combining two or more fields into one project or using all “ and she realized that it didn’t have to be an art-or-writing thing. That she could do both, weaving them together, as she does in her recently released Great Rescues (Beauty of a Moment Publishing), a 16-month calendar that is truly a wonderful hybrid -- part almanac, part illuminated Book of Hours, combining exquisite watercolor and pastel "portraits of rescued cats and their stories" with feline facts, quotes, and resources.

At one point, Kazmazrski says, she thought about getting a PhD. in comparative arts and teaching at the college level.  That never happened. But she more than absorbed the idea of living as “a creative person rather than as an artist.” And that is what comes through in Kazmarski’s conversation. She is acutely alive not only to the nuances in her art and writing but also to the need to use both to live whole-heartedly. Spiritually, even. “So I didn’t get there academically,” Kazmarski reflects. “I got there through life experience.”

                                        Self-portrait by Bernadette Kazmarski.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Vet: Tom Morganti

Most people know Tom Morganti as a vet so attuned to the animals he treats, a client once dubbed him “James Herriot.” He does everything he can for his patients, even once bringing a young cat with a prolapsed rectum home with him the night before her surgery so that he could monitor her. And he’s probably one of the few vets who writes sympathy notes when one of those patients doesn’t make it.

But his work at the Avon Veterinary Clinic in Avon, Connecticut is only part of his story. Morganti is also an artist, painting landscapes, some portraits, and, yes, even an occasional animal study. “I don’t have any formal training,” he admits, “so everything I learned about painting, I learned trial-and-error.” He likes abstract art – has even done some abstract paintings – but sees himself as being “more of an impressionist. I’ve always been an admirer of Van Gogh…in all his phases…[and] one of my dreams is to go to Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum.”

He can’t think of a time when he didn’t draw, Morganti says. In fact, he still recalls receiving a copy of The Big Book of Animals from his godmother when he was 4 or 5 and trying to draw the animals in the black-and-white photographs. That, he maintains, is what  “led to everything else.” It’s in the blood, though: his mother, Lois Morganti, was a trained artist, and he remembers “her getting a canvas out and me painting alongside her once. And I got so frustrated, I just gave up.” His voice is ruefully amused. “I was probably 11 or 12. I can still remember the painting – I wish I still had it, it was the first painting I ever did. It was a still life…a pumpkin and something else, like a vase of flowers. It was too much for me – painting was beyond me at that point.”

He didn’t attempt another painting until he was at the University of Connecticut. He sold that painting to the dorm’s cook for $10, and he hasn’t “stopped since.” Since then, he has done some commissions and even illustrated a couple of children’s books for friends: the books didn’t go anywhere, but he takes it all in his philosophical stride. He shows his paintings at the Durham fair every year, and one of his works, "The Black Madonna of Montserrat," was just selected for the New Britain Museum of American Art members' show. He  has also done shows at McLean’s, a local convalescent home and assisted-living facility: in fact, the only one-man show that he has done so far was at McLean’s. The response was “good,” Morganti says, and he sold a couple of paintings.  But his own take on this is a little different than you might expect: “Selling them is hard because you know you’re never gonna see them again. Give them away, you may not see them, but at least you have a chance, basically. Like children that move away….” He laughs. “It’s gone. It’s a one-time thing.”

Perhaps a good part of that attitude stems from the fact that painting is something that he does mostly for his own satisfaction -- a reflection of his soul, as he puts it. It’s not that he isn’t tempted to make it a full-time calling, simply that he appreciates how difficult doing so would be. So he tends to view his art – for the moment, at least – as “a form of therapy…a way of de-stressing, of creating something outside of your work place.” And yet, as he sees it, there is a connection to his work as a vet. “There’s an art side of medicine,” Morganti reflects. “They’re both a combination of left brain and right brain. Not everything is cut and dried, and when you get results of tests back, you have to look at the patient. So that colors your opinion of where you have to go with a case, but it’s really much like art. It unfolds with time…especially when your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong.”

Morganti chuckles, then grows more serious as he gets back to talking about the creative process. “Things unfold as time goes on. So you may have an idea in your head what your final product is going to look like, and as you go, it changes. And you see things that work better….It’s almost like a birthing process: you don’t know what you’re going to end up with when you start out.”

The conversation periodically comes back Lois Morganti, who died in 2007 of lung cancer. Both his sons, Alex and James, have inherited her artistic ability, he says: Alex, the oldest, has even come up with a kids’ book that is “built like a Jacob’[s ladder – it folds out one way, and then it folds out the other way. It’s actually a pretty cool idea.” He's encouraging his son to start looking for a publisher for it.

He himself has found his own way of bringing his mother into his art. The mural-like landscape that he’s currently working on is actually a do-over of a painting of her sons that she was working on towards the end. “She got about a third of the way through and then couldn’t do anymore,” Morganti recalls. “When she died, one of the things she asked me to do was to use that canvas. She said, ‘You either finish it or paint it over.’ So I got some primer and painted it over.” It was, he adds, just too hard for him to try to finish the painting as she’d intended, "so I got some primer and painted it over."

That having been said, Morganti did, he admits, manage to finish a smaller piece of hers…well, almost the way she would’ve. He describes it as a “very primitive” painting of five or six men pushing a boat out into the ocean. “I turned the fishermen into saints, and I put Jesus or somebody standing at the stern. And, in the distance, there’s a sea monster coming out” – Morganti has trouble controlling his laughter at this point – “of the water with lightning bolts. And I thought, ‘Yeah, this is one that Mom would’ve liked.’”


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Always a Gift: Wendy Van Welie & Indigo Images

Photographer Wendy Van Welie isn’t exactly Dr. Doolittle. She has, however, had encounters with wild animals that the good doctor himself might’ve envied. And listening to her talk about her photographic safaris, you realize that it’s really not about being able to speak to the animals – it’s about the animals being able to speak to us in their own “words” and their own way. About our being sensitive enough to listen.

Which Van Welie is. Right now, she’s telling me the story behind the large cheetah photograph hanging in her Indigo Images Photography Studio & Gallery in Granby, Connecticut. In that photo, a mother cheetah relaxes with her cubs, her amber eyes thoughtful, utterly serene…a Madonna in a spotted fur suit. “She was that calm,” the photographer remembers. “She was watchful, though: she was keeping an eye on the babies, she wasn’t moving, she was making sure they were close at hand. But very gentle, very peaceful. She allowed us in. She could have easily taken them and moved off. But she allowed us to just sit with her while she was feeding them.”

The safaris started for Van Welie when she was young – “My dad took us on safari every year. You know, living in South Africa, it was easy” – but she didn’t actually take photography courses until she came to this country years later. “My kids were little, and I struggled with that,” she explains. “I was always a better mom working than not. I needed to build an identity of my own. What I was given was a special skill that made it possible to go back to school.” She enrolled at Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, earning an associates degree in commercial photography while doing work in fashion photography and photojournalism as well.

Flash forward to the present, and you find Van Welie doing many of the gigs you’d expect any commercial photographer to be doing: weddings, graduation photos, and family portraits. But she brings her photojournalistic training to bear on them, drawing out the story or expression that other eyes might have missed. “I love, love, love working with people,” she says. “I have an absolute passion for the craft.”

She’s a traditionalist when it comes to that craft, loving the smell of chemicals and “darkroom stuff.” And while Van Welie appreciates that digital photography enables us to “get those shots we never could’ve anticipated in the past,” she also believes that it makes it “too easy for us to shoot quickly and not anticipate and wait.” She has some concerns about Photoshop as well: “I struggled ethically with that because I just feel that it’s no longer the craft and the art of giving that beautiful shot….those moments that no amount of Photoshop could change. You could extract it – you could do a lot to it – but it’s about catching that moment in space. As soon as you start changing it, it’s no longer that moment.”

Catching the moment…that phrase and variations on it show up a lot in Van Welie’s conversation. It's something that she’s always acutely aware of, especially when she’s on photographic safari with her husband Gordon. For her, “the charm of any experience is the joy of not being able to do it again – [of] knowing that that encounter, no matter how long or how fleeting, is gone, you will never get it again. You may get a different one – you may encounter a different lion, you may encounter a different cheetah, you may encounter a different elephant – but that moment is gone forever, never to be recreated.” The animals are un-posable and inevitably dictate the situation. “They’re going to tell you when they want the camera in and when they don’t. And it’s learning how to step back, give them two minutes, step back in, and get the camera comfortable between you and them.” Otherwise, she cautions, you can kill the moment and the animals’ trust.

Then, too, there’s the matter of having the right equipment and really knowing the animal you’re working with. Otters, for instance, “move quickly – elephants don’t. So, when I’m shooting elephants, I can miss a couple and be patient. You move very slowly with cheetahs. When I’m shooting flying cheetahs, I can’t shoot on schedule. It’s very different.”

Ask Van Welie to name one safari experience that stands out above all the rest in her mind, and she won’t. “When you go on safari,” she insists, “every session is a treasure, an absolute treasure. So I don’t know if I can choose one. Obviously my cheetahs – I just loved, loved the mom and her babies, that was such a perfect environment to just sit and visit….The lions are fantastic to shoot because they’re so lovable. They lick your hand. They’re not as anxious or as high-strung as the cheetah. They linger, so you can get a long session with a lion and be very satisfied with what you get….The zebras are beautiful. I have a passion for the zebra, hence my zebra logo.” Even the elephants, whom she feels “a little wary” around, are fascinating to her.

“We came across a herd of elephants once,” she recalls. “Elephants herd as females, and they bring the little ones in the middle. So, as they move, they have this nursery of babies that are protected by their mums and the grandmums. We got a bit close, and one of the grammies, she came right up to the Land Rover. She was waving her ears, and she was just…she was angry: ‘Do not come any closer because these are our babies. Yeah, these are our babies.’ And they let us stay. We could shoot, but we had to stay far.”

Moments like these -- the times that the elephants, the lions, and the cheetahs allow her into their world-- are always a gift, says Van Welie. Perhaps she might view it differently were she shooting them in a zoo where “there isn’t a place for them to escape to.” But photographing these animals in the wild as she does, she really does feel as though she's on “a treasure hunt – it’s finding them and knowing that you’ll be able to walk away satisfied, even if it was just a glimpse.”

She sometimes thinks of putting together a book of wildlife photos. “It’s ultimately the time involved of just giving the treasure,” Van Welie reflects. “In fact, if I had to choose here and now, I would love to do a book on flowers. I love color, and flowers give that to me. And, again, it’s a little bit like shooting wildlife: every picture is different.” The challenge is trying to capture the way we see a rose, for instance, in our minds, “the feeling of the flower…the essence, the symmetry, and the perfection you get. There is such a wonder in shooting, whether it’s wild animals or wildflowers. And it’s that fleeting moment that is, for me, the treasure.” Her voice becomes more matter-of-fact as she returns to this particular moment. “Yes, I would love to do a book. But I think that the first one would have to be on the flowers.”

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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Modern Herbalist: Sara Thornton

Sara Thornton can tell you how to make two different kinds of wine from woodruff; how coltsfoot helps colds; and how boneset, despite its name, was used not for setting bones but for treating fevers. She knows that bloodroot, like digitalis, is beneficial in small amounts, lethal in large ones. That echinacea, if taken “too long [and] steadily…will basically turn your immune system off, and you’ll come down with the next cold that comes round the pike.” She is well-read and sells herbal supplements, teas, lotions, and the like at her Ravenswood Natural Health store in Simsbury, Connecticut. She has a feline compadre named Flash, and a few hundred years ago, she probably would’ve been executed for witchcraft because of all of this.

But this lady’s definitely not for burning. Thornton’s approach to herbs is not mystical but hands-on and very practical. She draws on centuries of Western herbalism and can discuss famous herbalists like John Gerard (1545 – 1611/12), Nicholas Culpepper (1616 – 1654), and Maud Grieve (1858 – 1941) and their works in such detail, you would swear that she has talked shop personally with each in his or her turn.

Chalk it up to a lifetime of voracious reading and an inquiring mind. Thornton had asthma as a child: at the time, she says, “the only treatment was to give an adult-sized dose of speed to the kid, throw you into some type of steam room – usually the bathroom – and you’d sit there for awhile. You’d be basically high on speed for a week, running around with absolutely no sleep and scaring the hell out of the neighbors.” All that excess energy had to go somewhere, and it found an outlet in reading. Bored with books “about Dick, Jane, Spot, and Fluffy,” she began devouring her older brothers’ and sisters’ books. “When you’re 6-years-old and you’re starting to read John Steinbeck” – her voice starts off matter-of-factly, but laughter soon overtakes her – “you know there’s a problem.” History – and medical practices throughout the centuries in particular -- drew her, and, with “one thing tumbling into another,” she was soon reading about comfrey-root poultices and various other herbs that the Crusaders brought back from the Middle East.

That was part of how it all began. The other part was simply that her parents moved around a lot: growing up, she ended up living in some pretty rural areas, towns that “still had these amazingly backwoods backwards opinions of anything that was female. If you were taken to the doctor at all, it was always ‘Oh, honey, you really just need to get married and have a couple of kids, and you’ll be perfectly fine.’ It was very difficult to find a doctor who wasn’t dismissive of anything that was wrong with a woman.”

So Thornton started looking for self-cures and ended up making “a pretty solid leap to herbs when I was a teenager.” She found that she had an instinctive feel for it. Friends and relatives “would come along and say, ‘Hey, Sara, have you found an ointment for sunburn? I don’t have any aloe.’ Or, ‘The baby has colic – what would you suggest?’ ‘Well, a little chamomile tea.’…I realized that Western medicine wasn’t the be-all end-all and didn’t have the entire answer for every single thing. That I could keep myself pretty darn healthy without having to go to the doctor every time I sneezed.”

At college, it was pretty much the same scenario: the staff at the medical center there showed the same misogyny that Thornton had been all too familiar with growing up. “They were treating women as though they were full of hysteria rather than [having] influenza, sprained ankles, whatever,” she recalls. “So, if I had a new injury, I would look for some alternative treatment rather than running off to the local doctor. Again, it was more out of necessity than anything else.” And once again, friends came to her for herbal teas and remedies for their sports injuries and menstrual cramps.

Then “what seemed to be this really weird bronchitis thing” hit the campus. The center actually stopped dispensing medicine and sent students to Thornton instead, making her an herbal practitioner by default, as it were.

“By complete default!” Thornton laughingly agrees. “I went right over to the health center, and I said, ‘Wait a sec – you told me last year that I was practicing medicine without a license and you were going to have me arrested. And I was doing nothing of the sort! I simply had my own herbs for my own use, my friends would show up, I would give them a cup of tea, and that was it!’” When she questioned the staff about their sudden change in attitude, their response was “Well, we can’t do anything for it, and we know that you keep putting people on their feet.”

After graduating college, Thornton rented an apartment  from a retired English couple.  She was, she recalls, "wildcrafting my own herbs for my cold mix -- mullein, coltsfoot, red clover among them -- and had hung the bunches to dry in an unused closet."  Her landlords, Paul and Joy, dropped by one weekend to take care of a leaky faucet.  Opening the drying closet to shut off the water, the older woman found the bundles of herbs and coldly assumed the worst.   Thornton explained that they were part of her cold remedy: Joy "broke into this RADIANT grin and shouted, 'Oh, Paul, did you hear?  Sara's a WITCH!'  Paul toddled around the corner, peered at me through his glasses, and just beamed....They were so delighted that their tenant was a 'witch,' they dined out on it for a long time."

 in a sense, what Thornton is doing at Ravenswood now is what she has always been doing – listening to people and trying to point them to the right ointment, balm, or supplement. If she has a counterpart anywhere, it is Mrs. Todd, “the learned herbalist” from Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs -- that “ardent lover of herbs, both wild and tame,” who dispenses her remedies to the good folks of Dunnet Landing and who holds her own with the village doctor.

"I moved away from being doctor-centric” – Thornton laughs – “really, really early. It’s not that I feel they can’t do something good, but I don’t feel they can do as much as they want or as much as they profess.” She allows herself one “slightly jaundiced comment”: “When they stop practicing medicine and they get it right, then I’ll go to the doctor more. Because if they’re practicing medicine, then they still haven’t gotten it right.”

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Neck of a Bull: Kenny's Bookshop & Art Galleries

For most of us, the small bookstore where you could lose yourself in browsing is as rare as Thurber’s unicorn in the garden. For Des Kenny, however, this particular unicorn happens to be the family business. Kenny’s Bookshop &Art Galleries, Ltd. in Galway, Ireland, has been selling new, used, and out-of-print books since 1940.

“I’m not sure that it’s a thing of the past,” Kenny says. Granted, in the last 20 years, some small bookstores have gone under, he admits: “The world was much colder than they [the owners] expected, and they didn’t have the stamina, the knowledge to weather it.” But since he started in the business in the mid-‘70s, “the number went from four to 20. Only bookstores were selling books then. Now supermarkets, gas stations, discount stores, and Amazon all have encroached on small bookshops.” To stay on top it all, “you have to be mad and have a great sense of humor and the neck of a bull.”

Kenny’s Bookshop has weathered the changes, though, and it has done so by, in a sense, frequently re-inventing itself. The original store on High Street in the center of Galway offered, as one writer, Michael Kennedy put it, “the comfortably cluttered ambience of a home that prized the importance of written language….Kenny’s was where one might expect to find John Huston perusing an obscure title when he lived outside Galway in the 1950s, or John Ford stopping in while filming The Quiet Man in nearby County Mayo, or J. P. Donleavy browsing on leave from Dublin, as he wrote The Ginger Man.”

The art gallery -- the first commercially built one outside of Dublin -- came later in 1968. In 1993, Kenny’s went online, becoming the second bookstore in the world to have its own website. The idea, says Des Kenny, “ was to allow us to develop our online business while maintaining a retail presence.” Thirteen years later, Kenny’s moved to the Liosbaun Retail Estate on Tuam Road in Galway, the Gallery following in January 2009.

Today, is Ireland’s largest online bookshop, offering nearly a million titles. They are also getting ready to “launch a new website which has 6.5 million books on offer with free postage world-wide and prices that seriously challenge Amazon as well as other major book websites,” Kenny explains. “The site will also be noted for the fact that it will maintain the same personal service that has been our hallmark, continuing our parents’ legacy.”

So, that’s the shop’s past, both distant and not-so-distant. In the present, Des Kenny admits to “wavering between pessimism and optimism….I always think that the worst thing to happen to the book world is the Harry Potter books. Too much media hype. With all this push, all this drive, people tend not to make up their own minds. The whole idea of an individual imagination has not been encouraged, has not been fostered.”

E-books? “They’re fine in their place [and] will find their place,” he says, adding quickly, “It wouldn’t be my cup of tea.” Then he throws out an observation you don’t expect from a bookseller – an entirely accurate observation but an unexpected one, nonetheless. “Books never, never were a major form of entertainment, even in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They would’ve been for a small percentage [of the population] because they were the most articulate.”

That doesn’t mean he sees books as being an endangered species. “With every new technology and invention since the radio,” he comments, “the amount of books published per annum has increased dramatically. In 1980, 300 books were published -- between 2008 and 2009, 2,000 books were published. There has been at least a five – to ten-fold growth in Ireland, a small country.” And while these figures are “specific to Ireland,” he imagines that “it is much the same world-wide, probably even more so in countries where literacy has experienced a dramatic growth.”

And there’s still a solid interest in rare and out-of-print books, which the shop deals in…books that “wouldn’t be on the front desk, but they are accessible to the public.” Book lovers come for them “in waves. Sometimes we have loads, and sometimes we have none…. [For] the person who likes the feel of the book, the way it smells, it’s a tactile thing that can’t be replicated for now, at least. There are still things you can’t get on the Web.”

It’s a business that Kenny loves everything about. “When I open the door in the morning with the key, I never know what to expect,” he says. “It’s a constant flow of customers, new books, and interesting people. A bookshop is the most democratic of stores. It is both the genesis and the flowering of books, it is a place where ideas and imagination are welcome, it is the Mecca of the Imagination.”

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Hands-on Philosopher: Mark Remaly

His fingers move over the woven chair seat like a fiddler’s over his instrument. Only, in Mark Remaly’s case, he’s coaxing forth not music but story. “I don’t consciously think about it,” explains the caner, who owns The Seat Weaver in Westfield, Massachusetts with his wife, Alice Flyte. “But if I run my hands over a chair, I get the feel of it.” Just the day before, for instance, a customer brought a chair into the shop: his hands came across some “dings” in its back, and he guessed that “a grandmother or somebody had pushed it into a sewing-machine for years and years, and she [the customer] said, ‘You know, I think you’re right about that.’” Something in the chair spoke to him, Remaly says, telling him or “releasing” its story.

That’s a pretty common occurrence for Remaly, who has been working his craft since he was 15. Born with limited vision, he attended Perkins Institute for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, and it was in a class there that he learned chair-caning. He discovered that he truly enjoyed working with his hands. “It’s kinda like re-making,” he reflects. “I don’t think of it as art per se because I’m really just following what I’ve been told – y’know, over, under, over, under. But somehow it becomes more than just a bunch of cane. It becomes – hmm-m, what's the word I’m looking for? -- a whole. It becomes strong enough to sit on, it becomes art, it becomes a craft. That’s the thing I think I enjoy most about it: transforming a bundle into something practical, useful, and pretty.”

Enjoy is a word that’s very much at home in Remaly’s conversation, snuggling into this sentence or that. He enjoys the rhythm of the work itself. He enjoys talking with the customers and helping them get “re-connected with their chairs.” And, most of all, he just plain enjoys his life. The fact that he went completely blind eight or nine years ago hasn’t curtailed his enjoyment. Granted, Remaly has had to find “different ways of getting information that I used to be getting through my eyes.” He has “always been more of a hands-on person than a cerebral intellectual,” he says, and the loss of his sight hasn’t changed that: if anything it has fine-tuned his sense of touch to the point where he really is able to pick up on a piece of furniture’s smallest detail – the story in the wood, if you will.

The same holds true for other aspects of his life. He accepts that “we live in a visual world…that 80-plus percent of what people take in is visual. But that doesn’t mean if you don’t see, you miss 80%. There’s something” – he sighs, but it’s a reflective sigh, not a sad one – “that compensates. Touch. And when I say, ‘Touch,’ I mean the air moving by your face when someone moves their hand. To me, that’s touch as well as tactile touching. Or the power goes off: you’re looking to get out of the room, and you feel the wall before you actually encounter it….I knew an English guy, and he used to snap his fingers all the time” – Remaly, getting lost in the story, mimics the gesture – “and get echoes off of buildings and this and that.”

He gets a little blasé about his craft at times, Remaly admits. Then someone comes along and reminds him how unique what he’s doing is “and how much they appreciate it. And that’s a wonderful feeling because sometimes I’m thinking about other things while I’m working, or I’m coming into a difficult part that requires more concentration. It’s never drudgery, but sometimes it gets put in the background until someone reminds me of what I’m doing[, and it’s] ‘Yeah, you’re right, this is unique.’ And quite often I hear, ‘I couldn’t do that,’ and that’s not true. You have to, first of all, want to.”

For someone who insists he’s not cerebral, Remaly can do some pretty sustained philosophical riffs, especially when it comes to his craft. We talk about how there’s a craving in many of us for texture and how a liking for old-time crafts, such as caning, pottery, and quilting, comes out of this feeling. “There’s the enjoyment of the finished product,” he reflects, “but there’s also the enjoyment of just doing it.” Caning is something he’d do “even if money weren’t involved….I get into a state when I’m caning: my hands are busy, [but] my mind is half-busy and has a chance to wander.”

This is a man in love – with his craft, with his wife, with pretty much everything around him. He has learned to get past his blindness. And in doing so, he has become intensely aware of all the so-called commonplace things he might’ve overlooked before. He has not let his blindness be “the end of all existence.

“I just celebrated my 60th birthday in April,” Remaly continues. “I’ve never been in a better spot. I really, really enjoy my life. If someone had told me years ago that at 60, my sight would be gone [with] no chance of it coming back – [that] I’ve accepted it, embraced it, and moved on, I wouldn’t have believed it. I have a wonderful wife, my life partner. I see people all the time at the Y here whom I’m sometimes lucky enough to bring a smile to. There’s no doom and gloom in my life. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody, I’m thrilled to be me. So, that’s how I feel right now, and I don’t expect it to change.”

Photo by Alina Oswald.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bobbie's Earrings

     (This is a little off the beaten path for "Sketch People" -- but, then, so was Bobbie. In a world of pretty faces, she was, to paraphrase the late Jimmy Durante, an original.  So here's to you, Bobbie, wherever you are.--TJB)

My mother-in-law’s earrings are long and dangly. The tops are deep-purple beaded triangles with tiny white-and-purple hexagonal designs and black edges: loops of silver, white, and purple beads cascade down from those edges. They are colorful, exotic, sassy, opinionated, and totally “boss.”

They are very much like my mother-in-law.

Bobbie, like my husband Tim, was strong medicine: you couldn’t ignore either of them. They both had that “in-your-face” quality and could and would verbally flay anyone they thought a fool in twenty words or less. Actually, Bobbie could probably have done it without even taking the cigarette out of her mouth. Bobbie, I once told a mutual friend, would never stab anyone in the back: no, she’d come at him/her right up front, driving a tank and firing. And she could swear more classily than anyone I ever met. One evening, shortly before Tim and I were married, she was chatting with us when the phone rang. Someone from a local theater group was trying to get her to renew her subscription. When pressed for reasons, she bellowed, “Because the last season was such unmitigated shit!” Not just shit, mind you, but unmitigated shit.

She was definitely exotic, favoring colorful Indian-print fabrics, long earrings, and longer scarves. She loved Oriental art (the only business trips she ever accompanied my father-in-law, Bob, on were the ones to San Francisco so that she could scope out Chinatown) and tigers (she had tigers -- painted, china, and toy -- parading all around her house, and all of them were named). She had a playful sense of humor, naming her over-sized fuzzy slippers with the koala-bear faces “Simon & Simon” after the then-popular detective show.

We didn’t always agree with each other-- sometimes we were irritated or downright angry with each other -- but I always knew where I stood with her; and when she left a room, it was as if someone had turned the color down on a T. V. set.

We respected each other. She had been a reporter herself at one time; and while Tim and I were still dating, she secured me my first reporting job with The Farmington Valley Herald, the local weekly that she was an ad rep for. She was always interested in what I was working on, saying once to the room in general (she had a theatrical manner at times), “Tamathy” -- her pet nickname for me -- “is the only writer I know who gets paid for what she does.” She was ready to listen during the slow times, when the only light in the proverbial tunnel was a flickering little match that I was holding up by myself. “I’m a good in-between person, Tam,” she assured me with that light-up-the-room smile of hers. And she was.

But there was another side to Bobbie, I learned. For most of her life, she had battled with manic depression and had had several nervous breakdowns. I never witnessed them -- they’d occurred long before I appeared on the scene -- but Tim had, and he described them to me in detail. With lithium and that particular brand of toughness that was her trademark, however, she finally learned to keep her demons at bay.

There’s a line in the “Anne Boleyn” episode of The Six Wives of Henry VIII in which the condemned Anne, still holding out for her daughter Elizabeth’s rights, says to the archbishop, “I fight, Cranmer. For that is what I am made of. Fighting.” Those words could have been written for Bobbie. For when grief came to her, she wrestled with it, just as she had with her mental illness. The night that Tim’s van hydroplaned into a phone pole, killing him instantly, she and Bob came to me directly so that I wouldn’t have to learn the news from some impersonal stranger in a uniform. She told it to me straight, not letting herself cry until she’d gotten the words out. Then she quickly got a hold of herself and sat down to make a list of things that had to be done.

It was, I think, her only way of bringing order to a world that had gone suddenly, terribly, heart-breakingly wrong. Tim had been her youngest…her “changeling,” as she used to call him, although, in reality, they’d been so much alike, it had sometimes been hard to tell where one left off and the other began.

“I’m tough,” she told one of my friends offering condolences after the graveside service. The “I can take it” was implied if not said. And in the year-and-a-half that remained to her, I only saw that toughness crack a few times. Once was shortly after the accident: the company that Tim had worked for met with me at the house to discuss the benefits package. Bobbie and Bob were there, too.

Now I had a few things that I needed to say to Tim’s manager about some of the company’s policies, which, I believed, had contributed to the accident. Bobbie knew what I was planning to say -- was, indeed, more than ready to cheer me on -- and was seated at the table, waiting. I stood behind her and, placing my hands on her shoulders for confidence, threw my sizable rock into the company pond. In the silence that followed, Bobbie grabbed hold of my right hand and buried her face against it. But not a sound came out of her.

There was another crack on the New Year’s Day after the tragedy. Bobbie had come over to watch a video with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Marissa. I went upstairs to get a book I wanted to show my mother-in-law. Coming back down, I caught a glimpse of the hungry, utterly bereft look on Bobbie’s face as she held Tim’s child on her lap. I closed the book and stole quietly away, knowing that Marissa was doing all that anyone could do to ease that terrible ache in her grandmother’s heart.

Fighting might have been what Bobbie was made of, but even she couldn’t defeat the cancer that later ravaged her body like wildfire. Within two weeks, she was gone. But somehow she has never really felt gone to me -- in a large part, I suppose, because Marissa has grown up to be very like her “Grammie,” both in looks and personality. She even has Bobbie’s singing voice.

But there’s more to it than that. Bobbie was definitely a personality to be reckoned with. A friend of mine who knew her from her ad-rep days with the Herald remembered her coming into the store where he was working “with her fur coat and clipboard. She never asked you what you wanted -- she told you what you needed.”

The fur coat was fake, but the attitude was real. So, on days when I’m feeling a little unsure of my next step -- or need to metaphorically place my hands on someone’s shoulders while I’m taking it -- I don my sassy earrings. The force -- or, rather, The Bobbie -- is with me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pushing the Abstract: Joanne Vallee Brunelle

She hadn’t originally intended to become an artist, Joanne Vallee Brunelle admits. “I wanted more of the art education angle, thinking that it would be an easy deal. Well, it ended up being a double major, more like creating my own major.” Finding it tough enough to finish her art major requirements in four years, she gave up on “the whole education angle, which I’m pretty glad I did.”

Moving toward abstract painting was a gradual process for the Granville, Massachusetts-based artist. She started off “doing a lot of real natural forms, as all college students do – you draw what you know. I went to UConn at Storrs[, Connecticut], and I was surrounded by beautiful countryside, drawing cows and rolling hills and apple orchards and all of that traditional stuff. Still lifes and plants – things that are in your dorm or apartment.” But after awhile, Brunelle grew bored with traditional subjects and wanted to move in a new direction with her art. She began “blowing up” objects, creating what she calls “macroscopic” renderings. So, instead of painting a pile of leaves, she would paint “one giant leaf, a single leaf all by itself, or leaves overlapping but from an exploded type of view. And it kind of brought it into a different plane.”

Oddly enough, Brunelle wasn’t familiar with Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings at the time; once she got a gander at O'Keeffe's"giant kinds of flowers and giant jack-in-the-pulpits and different plants” – she recognized an artistic kindred spirit. The discovery excited her: “I thought, ‘O. K., I’m on to something here – what I’m doing is valid.’”

She began “stretching reality” in her work. She still painted landscapes occasionally, but she was much more taken with abstract art. “I wanted to do something that nobody else had done before,” explains Brunelle, “so I kept trying to push that and find my niche. But in modern art, so many things have already been done, it was kind of hard to find something that was completely unique on the face of the earth.”

Along the way, Brunelle took up picture-framing “because it was arts-related. It was like ‘Oh, I’ll be framing art all day -- I’ll stay in the art world.’” Today, she owns and runs J. Vallee Brunelle Fine Art & Framing in Granby, Connecticut. It has, among other things, allowed her to provide a place for local artists to meet and show their works.

“We had a little workshop yesterday for some of the Granby artists,” she remarks. “Yesterday, it was my turn to host, and I picked the topic of ‘Let’s talk about abstract art’ because I’m the only person [in the group] who does that kind of work.” Some of the other artists even tried their hand at abstract drawing, “and some who had never even attempted to paint like that before” – there’s this sudden, unexpected lilt to her voice – “they did these beautiful paintings.” Brunelle laughs appreciatively, adding that she’d brought some of her own paintings in so that they could get a sense of what she was getting at when she talked about color and composition.

“Y’know,” the artist goes on to explain, “abstract work has really a lot of the same elements as any other painting. You have to have a balanced composition: there’s use of line and form and color and shape to add interest, there’s repetition, there’s rhythm. All the basic elements of a good painting are there, whether it be abstract or representational. You just have to have them, or it’s not a good painting – it won’t be successful.” She sees it as being somewhat akin to James Joyce bending the basic elements of literature in a way that wasn’t “typical, expected, or linear” in Finnegan’s Wake or Frank Zappa using his classical training to create his one-of-a-kind so-off-the-beaten-track-we-ain’t-never-getting-back-on-it music. “It’s the same thing in building a painting as it is in building a story or a piece of music,” she maintains. “He [Zappa] had to have that background in order to do what he did.”

So, yeah, for Brunelle, it is about having those elements – that “interesting composition” -- in place. But it’s also about listening to her intuition instead of having an image set in her mind when she starts out. She tries to clear her head first, same as she would before meditating. And then she “might choose a color – ‘Oh, I really want to use this fluorescent orange today – I really like this color.’ And that’s kinda where I start. I just want to see what this color looks like, and then I let my hand dictate what I’m going to do with it.”

It’s a learn-by-going-where-I-have-to-go approach, and her work bears this out. “Effloresence,” for instance, is an oil pastel with acrylic: the oil pastel is “like a crayon – a drawing – but then I can go over it and do washes with the acrylic paint[, which] gives it a ‘painterly’ look.” Then there’s a collage or what Brunelle calls “a cropped piece,” cut down from a much larger one. She picked out the “relevant” elements – some shimmery plastic wrap from a gift basket, a watermelon candy wrapper, and guitar strings that still move instead of being glued in place – from the original, and the result was “Watermelon Song.”

“I didn’t title it till after it was cropped and done,” Brunelle says, “and then I’m like ‘Oh!’…It wasn’t intentionally made to be that. It doesn’t happen too often where it really comes together.” The collage’s title, like those of her other works, is just “to get you thinking. Because it’s abstract, people don’t know what to think.” Sometimes, though, “the titles have nothing to do with the work” – she laughs that low musical laugh of hers – “I just like the sound of them.”

Photo by Alina Oswald.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From Birds to Big Cats

(This interview first appeared in Just Cats!, Jan./Feb. 2001 as part of my “Making a Difference….” column. --TJB)

As actress and animal-rights activist Tippi Hedren sees it, “My modeling career and my entire acting career were all a stepping-stone to this.” “This” refers to her work at Shambala, the big-cat refuge that she started in Acton, California back in 1981. It is, she adds simply, “the most important thing in the world to me.”

She doesn’t dwell much on either of those previous lives of hers but admits that her roles in movies like “The Birds” and “Marnie” have given her “a sort of window. A person who has celebrity is able to call attention to certain causes.” She finds it interesting that three of the actresses who worked with director Alfred Hitchcock – Kim Novak, Doris Day, and herself – have gone on to champion various animal causes. “I don’t know,” Hedren muses. “Is it because of the honesty of the animals? I don’t want to bad-mouth Hollywood, but Hollywood can be very hurtful. Animals are very honest, and it’s a wonderful thing to know an animal. I love all animals, but getting to know a wild animal is fascinating.”

And she has had plenty of opportunities to be fascinated. Shambala, which officially became a wild-animal preserve in June 1983, thanks to the establishment of The ROAR Foundation (“Actually, we were a preserve before we knew we were one,” Hedren comments with some amusement.), is home not only to lions and tigers but also to cougars, leopards, a jungle cat, snow leopards, a Florida panther, an elephant, several servals, a cheetah, a bobcat, and a liger. The latter, Patrick, is the result of a happenstance romance between a lion and a tigress. “He’s very, very beautiful,” the actress says of the hybrid cat. “He seems to have the best qualities of both.”

Patrick wasn’t born at Shambala – he came there courtesy of a small zoo – but many years ago, a tigon (a cross between a tiger and a lioness) was. They don’t buy or trade animals and haven’t bred any since 1981, Hedren explains, but “we had a birth like this at Shambala because we had two tigers who weren’t getting along, and when they fight, they will fight to the kill.” One of the malcontents was put in with some of the lionesses: it turned out that one of them was in season, and the tiger “was only too happy to oblige.” Ergo, the tigon.

As her conversation quickly reveals, Hedren has developed an ever-deepening love and understanding of the wild cats at Shambala (which, in ancient Sanskrit, means “A meeting place of peace and Harmony for all beings, Animal and Human”). “They’re all absolutely, totally different in personalities,” she enthuses. But that enthusiasm doesn’t blind her to the facts. “Wild animals can’t be tamed, and I can attest to that. So can my entire family.” It disturbs her that far too many lions and tigers “are being kept in people’s backyards without proper facilities. Keeping these animals in 8x10 cages – that is cruel and unusual punishment. Most states don’t have laws regarding the keeping of these big cats[, and] more often, it’s more difficult to get a dog license than it is to have a lion or a tiger in your backyard.”

And the results can go way beyond frightening, as Hedren’s files on accidents involving these “pets” show. A 4-year-old boy in Texas (“Texas is one of the worst offenders,” the actress says.) had his arm ripped off by a big cat: fortunately, the arm was retrieved in enough time for doctors to be able to successfully stitch it back on. A female guide at an animal park in Colorado wasn’t so lucky. While trying to show visitors how easy a particular tiger was to handle, the animal tore off her arm and ate it.

“It is horrifying,” Hedren admits after recounting these tales. “And it’s never the animal’s fault….The wild cat is really an insidious animal. They have a great capacity for love – a sense of humor – and they have their dominancy and insecurity problems. And in a split second, they can kill you.”

Some of the smaller wild cats can be almost as tricky to handle. Tabby, the bobcat-in-residence at Shambala, is too temperamental for anyone to go near. And the servals have “a very strange personality. They can be quite nasty. They are now one of the ‘in’ exotic pets because they’re small. They have these long legs, and they can do these karate chops, and they’re very fast. I’ve only known one serval who maybe you could pet: she jumped up and bit me on the mouth, and that’s the nicest one I’ve met.”

Knowing all this doesn’t dim her love and appreciation for these animals, “all of [whom] have their purpose.” Asked if she has any favorites among the wild cats of Shambala, Hedren replies, “That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. I had a tiger I was very close to…and I had a lion I was very close to….Each animal is a unique experience.”

Related links:


Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Best Curmudgeon Ever

I first saw him when I was in the 4th grade. My brother Craig had just gotten some literature from the newly formed Fund for Animals; and there, in the brochure, was a photo of its founder and president, Cleveland Amory, standing tall and speaking out for the rights of mustangs, seals, and all other creatures who couldn’t speak for themselves. My imagination was fired: that summer, one of my entries in the local 4-H Fair was what I thought of as my “animal conservation scrapbook” with pictures of buffaloes blithely scissored out of an out-of-print history book and literature from the Fund that I’d pilfered from my brother.

Years later, I came across Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas, The Cat and the Curmudgeon, and The Best Cat Ever. I devoured those books, crying at the end of the third one, when Polar Bear, the curmudgeonly stray who’d taken the activist under his paw, died. Some people complained about that last book – Amory went off on tangents, dropped names, yada yada -- but I loved the tangents. They were vivid and peppered with his unmistakable brand of humor. If good writing is, as one of my teachers used to say, like “extraordinarily good talk” – well, Mr. Amory could talk my ear off in print anytime. I never took much stock in the name-dropping charge either. The man simply struck me as being someone with interesting stories to tell, and it just so happened that given the circles he’d traveled in, a lot of famous folks figured in those stories.

So, when my Just Cats! Editors, Nancy and Bob Hungerford, told me to go ahead and set up an interview with him, I was delighted. And scared. I mean, this was Cleveland Amory, published author and former T. V. Guide critic, I’d be interviewing, a man who was capable of tossing off a verbal barb as lightly and easily as a paper airplane. Then, one Sunday shortly before our scheduled interview, I found myself driving behind a ranger with the word “Curmudgeon” embroidered on its spare-tire cover. I laughed aloud: suddenly, I knew the interview was going to turn out all right.

It turned out more than all right. Cleveland Amory was surprisingly easy to talk to. At one point, he frankly admitted that in the beginning, the term “animals’ rights” had made him nervous. “Everything having to do with rights back then,” Cleveland explained, “had to do with blacks, more so than women…and it seemed to me that saying, ‘Animals have rights’ might be construed as being disparaging to blacks, and, after all, blacks controlled a lot of animals in Africa and elsewhere.”

“I’ve always preferred the term ‘animal conservation,’” I remarked.

“I disagree with you there,” he shot back, explaining that the older term focused on wild animals and more or less left the domestic ones out in the cold. Was I smarting from his friendly but firm rebuke? Hell, no. I was exhilarated. It was one of those magical journalistic moments: the interview had stopped being an interview and become a dialogue. I went on to ask him about his personal philosophy, which was, like the man himself, direct and unpretentious. “Simply to be kind,” he replied promptly. “That would solve so much.”

If our first interview was a Bill Moyers-eque exchange, the second one was like a talk with an old friend. “I love the stuff you sent me,” Cleveland told me, referring to my review of The Best Cat Ever and a few other things I’d sent him in the interim. “I think they’re terrific….You write beautifully.”

We talked about the Polar Bear books, and I ran one of his comments by him, hoping to draw some more quotes from him. “Now, the last time we talked,” I began, “you said you were trying to get people to see Polar Bear as he was to you.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “That’s good,” Cleveland finally said. “That’s better than anything I could have come up with, except when I was younger.”

We talked about the cat novel for young adults I’d just finished (Houdini) and – briefly – about the book he was premeditating (Ranch of Dreams, as it turned out). “You’re going to write that,” he retorted. Chuckling, he repeated, “You’re going to write it. I’m the senior writer – I’ve been working in the goddamn trenches long enough.” Shortly after that, he remarked, “You know, I’m sick of talking to you on the phone. Come down to the office here sometime.”

So, early that November, I walked into the Fund’s office. Cleveland looked up and gestured to the wide windowsill to the right of his desk. I hopped up and took out my ice-cream-sandwich-sized tape recorder, only to discover that the batteries had died in transit. I tossed the tape recorder back into my bag and whipped out my steno pad and pen.

We ended up spending over an hour together – partly putting the finishing touches on our interview, partly just visiting. Actually, we did more of the latter. One of Cleveland’s strengths was, I think, that he didn’t stand on ceremony. This lion was comfortable enough with himself that he didn’t have to. Roar, that is. Not about silly formalities. No, he was going to save his roars for what really mattered: his work on behalf of the animals.

He was a generous-hearted lion, too – generous with his time and with his praise. As we chatted, he’d toss off a friendly remark: “You should be reviewing all this – You’re funny – We think alike.” As I rose to leave, he took the Houdini manuscript from me, glanced at it, and said, “I know this’ll be good.” He asked me if I had an agent. When I replied that I didn’t, Cleveland replied, “Well, I think an agent would be very interested in you. Some people are only one-book writers – you’re not. You’re going to be writing for the rest of your life.” And he autographed the copy of The Best Cat Ever that I’d brought along with me: “For T. J. It was a pleasure being interviewed by a writer I know who is just at the dawn of a fine career. Cleveland Amory. Nov. 7, 1994.”

He sat back and eyed what he’d written. “Hmmph,” he said matter-of-factly. “Looks like ‘damn.’” And it did. He handed me back the book, and we shook hands. ‘Call any time,” he told me. I left his office a-glow. It didn’t matter whether anything more came of this – it didn’t even really matter whether I heard from him again. What did matter was that someone who mattered as a writer thought that I did, too.

But I did hear from him a few weeks later, and his response to Houdini was all a writer could ask for:

“…I thoroughly enjoyed Houdini. What a sweet, loyal soul. And what a brave one, to boot.

“Now, mind you, I am a few years older than your target audience. But only a few. So I can safely say you have a winner on your hands.” He went on to make a suggestion regarding one of my secondary characters, then concluded, “Meanwhile, I hope other people like Houdini as much as I – and I look forward to seeing it in bookstores before long. Be sure and let me know your progress. By the way, do you want your manuscript back?

“With warmest wishes,

Cleveland Amory.”

We corresponded fairly regularly after that. He always responded in a warm, friendly fashion to whatever writing news I shared with him, suggesting what he felt was a better title for one of my essays or laughing off a typo in my published interview with him. “A piece of journalism as positive as `Making a difference…' can,” he observed dryly, “can afford one ‘Amry.’”

Then, on July 11, 1995, my husband, Tim, was killed in a freak car accident coming home, and Cleveland’s response showed that he more than lived up to his philosophy of “simply to be kind”:

“Your letter was waiting for me upon my return from a long trip. What can I say?

“’Sorry’ is such an insignificant little word. Yet I do want you to know how sad I am for you. I am also gratified that you were able to take solace from the last chapter of The Best Cat Ever. You are quite right. Tim would most assuredly not quibble over a cat/human distinction.

“I enjoyed your ‘Out-of-Print Cat Books’ article and, of course, I am terribly pleased over the acceptance from Poets & Writers – though I understand full well how this lacks the thrill it might have once had for you.

“In closing, let me add my hopes that with each passing day, you will feel a little better. It goes without saying but if there is anything I can do to help, please do not hesitate to ask.”

We met again at the Fund’s office that Halloween. As usual, Cleveland was down-to-earth and to-the-point. We talked about everything from Tim, our daughter Marissa, and the cats-in-residence to what I was currently working on (“You have a sense of humor,” he remarked approvingly, “and it shows in your writing.”) and finding an agent for Houdini. He took a few minutes out then and there to place phone calls to his various contacts for me, leaving messages like “This is the IRS. Why aren’t you at your desk? I can’t stand this type of dereliction….” He never left his name, but that voice with its Bostonian accent was unmistakable. Besides, I had a pretty strong hunch that the folks who knew Cleveland were used to finding messages like that on their answering machines.

There is one memory-picture from that visit that still makes me smile. At some point during our chat, the phone rang, and Cleveland excused himself to take the call. He didn’t say much, just started chuckling. “Marian!” he suddenly bellowed. “Marian! Come in here and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk!”

There was an ominous silence. Then Marian Probst, his long-time secretary and the Fund’s treasurer “under whose incredible memory for irritating facts he [the author] has, with the patience of Job, long suffered" (The Cat and the Curmudgeon), marched into his office. “Cleveland,” she said shortly, “I was on the phone about greyhound racing. I could not come and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk.” And turned on her heel and marched out.

Cleveland sat there quietly for a moment. Then his desire to share the joke got the better of him, and he turned to me. “Ed’s this lawyer,” he explained. “Very funny guy. Anyway, someone came in to talk to him, looked at his desk, and said, ‘Were there any survivors?’” He chuckled again, shaking his head ruefully. “A writer would have given anything to come up with that….”

The other thing I remember vividly is the book-signing. This time, I’d brought the first two books in the Polar Bear trilogy with me. Cleveland took them and scribbled away for a few minutes, pausing only to ask me our cats’ names or to check the spelling of Marissa’s (“Because, of course, she’s going to read these some day,” he told me.); then he handed them back to me, saying, “There! I’ve signed my name, so you can’t give ‘em away.”

I flipped open The Cat Who Came for Christmas. On the title page, he’d written, “For TJ and Cricket and Kilah and Dervish and Tikvah and Zorro and Woody and Boris and Starfire – and of course Marissa. With love to you all, Cleveland.” But it was the inscription in The Cat and the Curmudgeon that really caught me by the throat: “For TJ and Marissa and in memory of Tim – with special affection – Cleveland Amory.”

I looked up at Cleveland. “He would have been pleased,” I said softly. And that one gesture on his part convinced me more than anything else that Cleveland Amory was a class act.

We continued our correspondence. Sometimes it would be awhile before I heard from Cleveland – there were book tours and, of course, business for the Fund – but he never failed to respond. “I am also pleased over the spirit of your letter,” he wrote shortly after our meeting, “—it seemed much lighter, almost back to the way things were when I first met you. Hopefully, this is a reflection of your true feelings." Or, after those first holidays without Tim: “I thought about you during the Christmas holidays, knowing this was yet another thing to be ‘gotten through.’ But I see by your letter you have come through with flying colors. Not that I doubted you would. But it is nice to have it confirmed.” And the condolence note he wrote me after my favorite cat Cricket’s death was just as thoughtful as the one he’d written me after Tim’s: “Not only do I feel for you but know only too well what you are feeling. The Best Bet, [my essay about Cricket,] however, is a lovely tribute to her.”

There were lighter notes, too, such as when I thought I’d landed a publisher for my novel: “Three cheers, and then some, over the happy news about Houdini. Really, I could not be more pleased and eagerly await my copy. Inscribed, please.” Or when one of my essays had been picked up for Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart: “So here I am again with kudos…even if their title is indeed inferior. This from someone who is quite partial to chocolates.”

We had a brief chat in April 1998, when the Houdini contract fell through. Cleveland was warm and affectionate, assuring me that the publishers had to give me my manuscript back. Then, before he signed off, he said, “By the way, Sally here was asking how you were doing.” I honestly didn’t remember who Sally was – I must’ve met her in passing during one of my visits – but it was such a typically down-to-earth homey Cleveland-ish statement. It was also one of the last things I ever heard him say.

I didn’t hear about his death till the Friday after it happened. A few days later, Barbara Bowen of Bowen Books sent me a copy of Cleveland’s obit from The New York Post. “What a grand and full life he had,” she wrote simply. To me, that was the best – the most fitting – epitaph ever. No living in half-shadows, no simply going through the motions for Cleveland Amory. He had lived his life grandly, fully, no-holds-barred. And how glad I was to have shared a few moments of that life with him.

Not long afterwards, I was working on a crossword puzzle and happened upon the following clue: “Conservationist Cleveland.” Immediately, my mind sped back to that first long-ago interview. I grinned to myself and inked in my “Amry.”

Point for my side, Cleveland.

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