Monday, December 5, 2011


My first cat was Smokey, a gray-striped kitten that I cornered in the silage shed at my grandparents’ farm. I was seven and delighted: it was the first time I’d managed to get my hands on one of those half-wild barn cats. My brother Gary, bent on teasing me, pretended he was going to take the kitten away. I cried, screamed – and held on. Looking back, I’d say it was perfect training for being a freelance writer.

                                  -- From my book Catsong


I have been writing for most of my life. I started freelancing when I was in college, and I haven’t stopped since. Can’t. It’s too much a part of who I am.

One of my first writing gigs was with a local weekly. I covered various commission meetings and did interviews. I didn’t love the first part: once, another reporter and I were so bored at a meeting, we started re-working an amendment to the bylaws that the commission was getting ready to vote on. We were found out – I expect the look of sudden rapt interest on our faces gave us away – but the commission’s officer gave us an approving nod and said our wording was right. So, chances are good that our revision of their revision is still in the records somewhere. I like to think it is, anyway.

I enjoyed doing the interviews, however. I’d always loved listening to people’s stories, and here I was, actually getting paid to do it. I went on to other writing gigs – my long-running arts column at Hartford Woman, my “Making a Difference….” column at Just Cats!, and various assignments with other publications. The law of averages being what it is, some interviews clicked, and some didn’t. But there was always the magic of the unexpected reply – the possibility that your interviewee would suddenly say, “You know, I never thought of that before….”

Time passed, and I got away from journalism. I began writing fiction and published four books. Then, about two years ago, I realized how much I missed doing those interviews. So I started a blog called “Sketch People,” which is essentially a series of conversations with people about what they do. Everybody has a story, writer Paul Gallico said in one of his last interviews, and I believe that. I like finding out about how my interviewees got where they are, what drove them, and even what detours they took on their particular journey. (Sometimes a good detour turns out to be the story.) I never get tired of it. And I’ve learned a lot in the process – not just about the people themselves but also about the dynamics of interviewing. About how terribly important it is for the interviewer to know when to step back and let those people tell their stories.

All those stories have, as it turns out, found their way into a book. Sketch People: Stories Along the Way (Inspiring Voices/Guideposts) will be out in January 2012. I am deeply appreciative of all the folks who took the time to share their stories with me. My appreciation extends to photographer Alina Oswald for her fine, thoughtful work and to my son, Zeke Spooner, for all his behind-the-scenes help.

So, friends and readers, that’s what Sketch People and I are about.

Got stories?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Partners in Crime: Carol & Bob Bridgestock

Carol and Bob Bridgestock know what each other is thinking. They “finish each other’s sentences – annoyingly!” Carol laughs. And when it comes to writing fiction…well, the two of them really do become one person – R. C. Bridgestock, creator of the Detective Jack Dylan mystery series.

He writes the storyline, and she builds it up, fleshing out the characters and bringing out their emotions. It all comes easily to them: both worked for the police department in West Yorkshire, England, Bob as a detective and Carol as part of the administrative support staff. Together, they have almost half a century of police-work experiences to draw upon. Their first book, Deadly Focus, has been called “both witty and harrowing” by British television writer Peter Hammond (“Midsomer Murders,” “Torchwood,” and “Sapphire & Steele”). “[T]he dialogue and characters are great. It also reveals so much about working coppers’ problems with the system…bring[ing] a deeper insight to it without being preachy or pretentious. Most importantly, the police characters are believable and one cares about them,” The second novel, Consequences, will be released this coming spring, and Book #3 is already at the publishers.

“Working as a detective at every rank for 28 years of my 30-year career allows me to utilize my personal experience instead of researching,” explains Bob, who was a Senior Investigative Officer (SIO) in charge of homicide cases as well as a force hostage negotiator. None of the plots is completely based on a real case, but “the books are definitely written from the heart and about what I have witnessed.

“Of course, I recall the sight of a murder scene, for instance, or a mortuary,” he continues. “There are certain things you never forget.” Bob always had a storyteller in him, and he certainly had more than enough material to work with. But what “held me back from writing for so long was that I didn’t want to bring back the pain to the families of the victims by writing about a particular incident.” Then someone they knew came up with the perfect solution: write fiction.

Enter D. I. Jack Dylan and his partner, Jennifer Jones, who are loosely based on the Bridgestocks themselves. Jen’s presence in the books is key: she keeps Jack from being the stereotypical lone-wolf detective “coming home to nothing more than the whiskey bottle,” Carol observes. Instead, “Dylan comes home to a supportive partner in the shape of Jen, and she becomes the rock to keep him anchored.” And while Carol doesn’t “glorify the supporting role a partner plays,” she definitely makes use of her own experiences.

Readers pick up on those things. Carol talks about the e-mails they’ve received from other detectives’ partners…women who say things like “`I felt like that when xxx had to attend a scene and we were supposed to be going out. Then I felt guilty, as I knew they needed him/her at that moment more than I did.’ And the truth is, you know that if you were ever in such a terrible situation, your ‘hero’ is the only person you’d want to be there for you. It’s a tough one, but Bob’s job was obviously a lifestyle, and I tried to make that as easy as possible. The reason is simple -- I love him!”

That’s her part of the story. Bob takes up where she has left off. He talks about learning to deal with death on an almost daily basis: “I saw post-mortems all the time from a professional point of view – looking for the evidence I needed to convict a killer or the reason that someone had died and what weapon had been used, if any….When you have seen hundreds of dead bodies, you do become somewhat hardened to seeing them and learn how to keep yourself detached emotionally. If you allow yourself to get ‘sucked’ into the emotion, then the job is made more difficult.” Still, he admits that giving his consent to his mom’s autopsy “when she unexpectedly died in hospital at the age of 60 was a different ‘kettle of fish,’ as we say in Yorkshire. Knowing what they do in a post-mortem and being emotionally involved…let’s just say it wasn’t an easy decision.”

I tell them how I once heard a detective tell an interviewer that he no longer simply takes walks in the park; no, as he’s out strolling about, he’ll glance over at a wooded area and think, “That looks like a place where someone might bury a body.” Is that a way of thinking that detectives typically fall into? Bob laughs. I could, Carol says, be talking about him. “We walk our dogs regularly through parks, wooded areas, and on beaches nearby,” she goes on to explain, “and he’s always alert to people or what’s going on around us – looking out for the person behaving ‘oddly’ and commenting on it or pointing out areas to avoid if I have to walk the dogs alone. He talks of predators and hunting ground.” And when their daughters were younger, he was “paranoid” about the girls being out on their own in remote areas and gave them emergency money; he’s still very protective of them, even though they’re all grown up with families of their own.

“He has seen the horrendous scenes of a murder,” Carol points out, “heard the perpetrators tell him how they cooked up the idea and enabled their plan, and [he has] seen the devastation it causes to a ‘normal’ family. So he tries to stop that from happening to his own – who wouldn’t?”

But she and Bob bring more to their work than their combined police experience. Both glory in reading. Bob goes for the more factual books. After all his years reading and signing off on page upon page of murder and major incident files – “two van loads of paperwork,” in effect – he finds it difficult reading fiction that’s studded with inaccuracies difficult. Carol likes novels and autobiographies: in fact, she says that the book that has influenced her the most has been The Diary of Anne Frank, which “was written from the heart.” They write daily. Carol also chairs the Wight Fair Writers’ Circle on the Isle of Wight, where they now live.

There are at least three more Jack Dylan novels in the works, “and we see no reason to stop. From one book to the next in the series, Dylan’s experience grows, and he learns more about himself, Jen, and others as well as his job. D. I. Jack Dylan brings a fresh and procedurally correct approach to the investigation of crime, we hope. You get the ‘real’ feelings of the man in charge and his partner from someone who has actually taken charge of numerous real murder inquiries. Therefore, as the reader you can ‘feel’ the emotion throughout the investigation. You travel every step of the way with Jack and also support Jen.”

Any thoughts on who would be playing their lead characters in a movie or mini-series? That’s easy, they say: Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt from “Downton Abbey.” The two actors “play very similar characters in ‘Downton’ as they would as Dylan and Jen. They put their partner’s needs before their own; obviously love each other very deeply; are fiercely protective of each other; and trust each other implicitly.”

Related links:


Monday, September 19, 2011

Goddess Power: Jennifer Jolicoeur & Athena's Home Novelties

When you’re gearing up for a tough battle, it’s always good to “have a strong goddess archetype” working for you, observes Jennifer Jolicoeur. And battle was very much on her mind when she began selling “romantic enhancements products” – sex toys, erotic DVDs, sensual oils, and the like – from her home in Rhode Island in 1998. People – including her own father, a retired firefighter – told her that she was making a very big mistake. She needed a name to rally the troops with. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was just too gentle, too soft. So Jolicoeur opted for a tougher Olympian, and Athena’s Home Novelties sprang into being, much as the goddess of wisdom herself did in Greek mythology.

“I needed the wisdom of Athena on my side to help me impart the knowledge that sex is pleasurable, normal, not something to feel ashamed or embarrassed about,” the entrepreneur explains. She liked the fact that in the stories, Athena is always “using her brain, planning strategy” because she herself was declaring war on patriarchal attitudes regarding female sexuality. “I was going to be fighting the beliefs of men and women -- and organizations – because when it comes to sexuality, people tend to be very judgmental.”

Today, Athena’s is a multi-million-dollar company with more than 1,600 independent consultants -- known as “Goddesses” and “Adoni” -- selling adult-novelty products to women and men at home. “Very similar to the Tupperware parties of the `70s,” Jolicoeur says breezily. “Different plastic.” She herself is the Mother Goddess and president and has three volumes of thank-you notes from some very happy customers. She used to test the products herself, but now there’s a Goddess Advisory Board of 10 women that handles that. “It’s funny,” she reflects, “when you’re testing a toy, your mind is focused on how it works. Is it powerful enough? Is it quiet enough? Do I like the feeling of it --? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to it.”

The Adoni (yep, that’s the plural of Adonis in case you were wondering) or male presenters are a more recent addition. “A few years ago, we had some men come and say they wanted to take part. They were primarily gay men. The women have been very receptive because they [gay men] tend to be very good presenters and very knowledgeable about human sexuality.”

This past February, Athena’s marked another milestone with the release of their first publication, Goddess Bedtime Stories: 21 Stories to Keep You Up All Night. Not all of them are written by heterosexual women -- the anthology includes work by gay men and lesbians -- and the stories run the sexual gamut. About 20 per cent of them, for instance, involve stranger fantasies, which surprised Jolicoeur. But she understands how that particular formula “gave them the freedom to express themselves without fear of judgment.” She herself wrote a more-the-merrier story, “although in my real life, I would never have anonymous group sex.”

It’s all light years away from the time town officials tried to run her business out of Woonsocket. The zoning board actually came into her office, demanding to know whether she was operating a sex ring. Jolicoeur, who was married to her childhood sweetheart and the mother of two children, was “devastated” but managed to show them the error of their thinking. “In subsequent years, my mayor would send me a wreath for my door.” She pauses. “And I would send her a basket of vibrators.”

Athena’s has now become something of a family concern. Her husband, Curtis, a chef,  has chosen to be a stay-at-home dad for the last 13-and-a-half years, giving her more time to build the business up. Her mom heads the accounts payable department. Her dad is now “one of my biggest fans.” And her 83-year-old widower grandfather collects bras for Athena’s Cup, which Jolicoeur calls “my attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records for most bras linked together as a united stand against breast cancer.” Her grandfather “wears the ‘Can I have your bra?’ button when he goes to dances at the senior center. They ask, then bring him a grocery-bagful.”

Once, Jolicoeur had lunch with one of her grandfather’s lady friends – a seemingly typical little old lady with a wig and little old-lady high heels. Evelyn leaned forward and said in a quavery voice, “Jennifer, your grandfather tells me you sell sex toys.”

“I do, Evelyn.”

“Oh, my, there was a time when you could buy them through the Sears Roebuck catalogue, but then they disappeared. And in the `70s, you could find them in the back of the catalogue, but they were loud.”

More needs to be said about those bras. Jolicoeur has received them from the Bahamas, Australia, Ireland, and, of course, across the United States. She has gone to the Emmys four times to collect bras from celebrities. Girl scouts have collected them from their moms, grandmas, aunts, and cousins. “I was asking women to release the bras that no longer serve them,” she says simply. “Practically every woman presses a bra against our chests. It’s such a symbol.”

The bras often have tributes written on them. “Breast cancer survivor 2002.” “Cancer took what God gave me, but science re-made me during mastectomy.” “Mom, can’t wait to have tea in Heaven.” Or one that’s especially heart-breaking, written in big black block letters: “I miss my mom.”

That’s one way in which Athena’s is helping women. It has also provided them with work opportunities. Women in abusive marriages or relationships suddenly have the financial and emotional wherewithal to leave. Another woman joined up “to earn enough for health insurance because she had no health insurance. Women who have suffered severe agoraphobia have become top salespeople. It’s amazing to see women arise from difficult situations and find a place like Athena’s, where they can soar and find empowerment. They are able to find equality financially and sexually.”

In a sense, Athena’s has enabled Jolicoeur to do some transforming of her own. “The whole point of Athena’s was turning my pain into my passion,” she admits. She talks about the old sexual double standards and how when she was 14, her father left her mother for a younger woman. "As a teenager, I was acutely aware of what my mom was going through. I really have come from the place that when people are having great sex, they are less likely to stray….I believe there’s balance when you have god and goddess. And there needs to be a balance in the bedroom.”

Related links:

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Finding Joy: Connecticut Women Artists Talk about Their Craft

(From The Way-Back Files – Hartford Woman, Nov. 1988)

“To struggle for strength,” mused German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 – 1907). “It sounds so dramatic. One does the best one can, and then one goes to bed. And that’s how suddenly one day, it becomes obvious one has achieved something.”

In those few words, the young artist stripped the creative process down to its bones. But elsewhere she wrote of the great joy she experienced in creating art…from simply sleeping in her studio: “To sleep among my paintings is beautiful….Upon waking, I quickly jump up and I look at my work: my paintings are what first meet my eye.”

That same joy tumbles out into the conversations I have with a number of Connecticut women artists in the here and now. “The process is it,” says Milli Silvestri, an actress with the Drama Trio and director of the Poetry Center at Hartford’s Trinity College. Acting is, she adds, “like any other art form. It’s the challenge – the challenge of doing it and being successful at it….The interesting thing about theater is that you’re creating another persona, which gives you the opportunity of actually living the life of another individual – which then, of course, transfers itself to you in the sense that it enhances your life. I think it makes you much more humanistic, makes you look at the world more realistically.”

One aspect of acting that Silvestri finds especially exciting is how she becomes the “instrument” for developing a character: “Unlike other art forms [in which] there’s something outside of yourself that you use…the actor has [only] himself or herself.” After forty-eight some odd years of theater work, she’s still in love with the process of externalizing the internal. Of tapping into her emotions. “The wonderful thing about acting,” she reflects, her eyes large and shining, “is that you get to use them all.”

Hartford artist Irene Doudera and Simsbury writer Kathryn Lord have their own take on what Silvestri says. For Doudera, making art doesn’t mean just venting her feelings – it means realizing them. Realizing herself. “I’ll have feelings that are very, very hidden from myself,” she explains, “but that are very deep feelings and thoughts about the world, the spirit of growing and the spirit of rejuvenation and striving that is necessary in life. Painting brings all this forward, and I can experience it. If I didn’t paint, it would all be underneath. Sometimes she starts out with a rough idea of what she wants to paint; usually, however, she just starts making random strokes the canvas, and “very quickly, they become meaning. Meaning and representation are very important to me.”

Lord, whose work has appeared in Northeast Magazine, Northwest Magazine (Portland, Oregon), The New York Times Connecticut Weekly, and The Christian Science Monitor, says that writing does the same for her. “I think that any art is coming from within the artist. One thing that writing does is give me a fuller accounting of myself.” For instance, doing a magazine article on a very mundane subject -- smelts – brought back to mind how close she’d felt to her family on their long-ago fishing trips. And writing has helped her deal with more complicated feelings or situations, such as her mother’s illness.

“Also, there is great pleasure in the actual doing of it,” Lord adds thoughtfully. “I love it when the words and the ideas and the images come out the way I want….When it all comes out the way I want it, it’s a rush. You’re going after perfection, and you’re never going to get there, but when you get close to it – whoa!

“Maybe you have to be a quester to be an artist – always have to know what’s coming up, what’s in the next pot of paint if you’re a painter or in the next hunk of clay if you’re a sculptor. It’s sort of like pioneers going off, only we’re sitting in one place.”

Short-story writer Thalia Selz finds the creative process (“that delightful business of grubbing around with words”) exciting, too, but emphasizes that the “product” – the story she is trying to tell – is equally important to her. Her need to tell that story interweaves itself with the process, making it impossible for her to separate the two.

“I had a teacher who used to say, ‘What is the story you would write if you could write only one story in your life?’” recalls Selz, writer-in-residence at Trinity College. “Or another teacher would put it differently and make a slightly different point: ‘What is the story you will die if you don’t tell – that you have to tell, or you will die?’

“I can understand writing from that particular base. Indeed, I did write a story that I realized…Die? Yeah, in a sense, I would have died if I hadn’t written it, and it had been waiting for very many years to be written. There are a couple of other stories like that that I feel I’ll really die if I don’t go and tell….I’ll die anyhow,” she laughs, “because one does. But I’ll die sooner if I don’t get to speak.”

She talks, too, about the wonderful sense of liberation that writing gives her, the feelings of joy and release that she has on “a really good day.” She remembers finishing one rough draft in particular: that story later morphed into a novella and was published in both The Partisan Review and The Best American Short Stories before being selected for The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories collection the following year. “I knew it was a very, very, very, very modest rough draft,” Selz says. “But I knew I’d got it somehow…And sometimes I think one reason it was very good, besides all the other reasons, such as my writing about stuff that mattered to me a great deal, was that I wrote it with this feeling of ‘I’m giving it up – here I’m giving it to you. Take it. Quick – catch it before it goes.’”

For poet Clem Young, who teaches her craft at Manchester Community College, “writing is an almost religious experience.” She likes “the feeling you get when you know you’ve done a good job. I like to be free enough to be able to look at the world through a poet’s eyes rather than always rushing around. You definitely look at things differently. It’s like smelling the roses long before you die.” She loves the frame of mind she gets into when she’s writing poetry: sometimes she feels as though she’s working with a Ouija board, especially when something unexpected pops into a poem-in-progress.

Perhaps photographer Mary Klein speaks for all when she says simply, “It’s something you have to do, and I don’t think for most artists it’s anything more than that.” The director of Demeter’s Door, a gallery for women artists in Simsbury, Klein has been shooting photos since she received an Eastman Kodak Brownie camera for Christmas when she was 8. “As far as photography’s concerned,” she observes, “I don’t know that it makes me see things differently. I’ve always seen things differently.

“I zero in on things rather than concentrating on a whole scene….I do some landscapes because there’s a lot of beauty in them. In some ways, [though,] if you’re doing landscapes, you’re working at a disadvantage because a camera takes in everything.” She loves photographing animals because “it’s very thrilling for me to approach an animal, get a response from it, and capture that.” But the what doesn’t matter as much to Klein as the why: she likes to photograph what matters to her than simply point and shoot for the sake of pointing and shooting. It is, she says, “a need to record that which you love seeing so that you can see it again and remember what you love seeing.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

Chicory-Blue Woman: Sondra Zeidenstein

      (From the Way-Back Files – Poets & Writers, July-Aug. 1996.)

       In northern countries only few wild plants flower in November, but the gradually drying stems of the chicory plant persist even in cold winters. The piercing blue flowers appear from late spring right through to late autumn and the strong, deep roots and the flat leaf rosettes protect the plant through the winter. No wonder the chicory was the symbol of perseverance and endless waiting….The growth of chicory on roadsides was regarded as a symbol of its magic.
                                       -- Riklef Kandeler & Wolfram R. Ullrich

Poet and publisher Sondra Zeidenstein knows firsthand about the difficulty of coming to writing later in life. She didn’t begin writing poetry until she was in her late 40s and only then as the result of therapy and a writing workshop that she was taking with poet Honor Moore. “‘OK,’ I said, ‘I will sit down and write for a year and see where I am,’” she recalls. “When Honor seemed amused that one year could reveal much of anything, I said, ‘OK, five years. Then, if I can’t do that, I’ll do something that’s been in the back of my mind and that I know I can do: I’ll start a small press and publish others’ writing.’”

Zeidenstein made good on her word and, in 1987, started Chicory Blue Press, a feminist press, in rural Goshen, Connecticut. She named it for the wildflower that grows in the field at the corner of her street, a plant that appealed to her because of its “very pure, strong blue flower that opens only in the sun and closes at night.”

The first book published by her press, A Wider Giving: Women Writing After a Long Silence, is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays by 12 women who started their writing careers after 45. First published in 1988, the book is now in its third printing. “A Wider Giving came out of my own experience,” explains Zeidenstein, now 62, “as well as a publisher looking for her first book to publish and finding it in the experience of being a late-developing writer.”

Chicory Blue Press followed up with Memoir (1988), a collection of poems by Moore, and Heart of the Flower: Poems for the Sensuous Gardener (1991), which dealt with Zeidenstein’s “other great passion – gardening.” The press has also published a series of chapbooks by women writers over 60. “I’m looking for older women who are writing and who are looking for another publishing opportunity,” Zeidenstein explains. Despite the differences in styles and genres among the writers published so far, “they all have an accumulation of years and issues [that] come from having been around a long time and having a lot to think about.”

The first chapbook in the series, Zeidenstein’s own Late Afternoon Woman, appeared in December 1991. Since then, the press has published six others: Carrie Allen McCray’s Piece of Time (1993), Tema Nason’s Full Moon (1993), Rita Kiefer’s Unveiling (1993), Estelle Leontief’s Sellie and Dee: A Friendship (1993), Anneliese Wagner’s Murderous Music (1993), and Carol Lee Sanchez’s she)poems (1995). Alvia Golden’s Acts of Love is in production, and a chapbook of poetry by Nellie Wong is forthcoming.

All of the chapbooks have a similar format. The poetry or fiction is followed by a five- to eight-page afterword in which the woman “talks about what’s on her mind as a writer.” Zeidenstein debated for some time about whether to let the work stand by itself, then decided that she wanted the authors’ personal voices to come into play “after the creative writing has been read and experienced….What I wanted was to reach the readers of literature, of course, but also people who are writing so that they can be stimulated, supported, encouraged, or get ideas from the writers.” Once she has, say, seven or eight chapbooks out, Zeidenstein intends to put them all together in an anthology format – a weaving together of genres very similar to A Wider Giving.

So far, so good. The response to the chapbooks has been “encouraging.” Two of the books have gone into second printings, and almost all of them have been reviewed in such publications as Poet, Brookline Citizen, and The Women’s Times. McCray’s Piece of Time inspired an entire page of reflections on older women as role models in Gloria Steinem’s Moving Beyond Words (Simon & Schuster, 1994). “Even though this is a small print run and, at the moment, chapbook [format], I think that each of the writers is finding an audience and the work is getting out in a way that it wasn’t before,” reflects Zeidenstein. “So, that is very satisfying to me.”

It’s all the more satisfying because of what she has long seen as a trend in literature: the underrepresentation of older women’s voices. Although she doesn’t have any hard evidence for her belief that commercial publishers are less committed to working with 60- or 70-year-old writers as opposed to up-and-coming 20-year-old ones, she’s pretty damn sure this is the case. “Look at any anthology or listing of books being published,” she insists. “The ration of older female writers being published to young writers of either sex or even to older male writers is quite skewed.”

Part of the problem, of course, has to do with female writers stopping for long periods of time to raise children. But readers still need to hear these particular voices. Especially women readers. “We women enter our older years without having heard from older women what life looks like to them, what their perspective is,” says Zeidenstein. “It doesn’t matter that they write about age or not, but that they write as older and old women. If we don’t have those voices in our literature, it’s as if the cycle in life or the continuity of the generations is broken, and we have a very unrealistic or fragmented experience. And we need the history, we need the voices.”

Zeidenstein’s network is primarily European-American at present: only one chapbook author, McCray, is African-American. She has been reaching out to Native American, Latino, and Asian-American women writers because she has been “very excited” by their work. For her, “it’s not a matter of being politically correct. It’s a matter of wanting some of this writing because it’s meant so much to me as a poet.”

Ultimately, though, what Zeidenstein’s looking for is “recent writing that is also the writer’s strongest writing. I’m also looking for what I call strong, emotionally honest writing. The words can be very simple – they can be the most common words – but if they come from the writer’s authentic feelings, they carry tremendous power.

“The press has found its niche,” she continues. “I see myself, for the near and far future, as doing chapbooks. And though I say I’m looking for writing by women past 60, in my heart of hearts, I’m reaching for women in their 80s – if I can find them.”

Related link:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dreaming in Romanian

(From the Way-Back Files – Woman and Earth, March 1996.)

I am standing in the center of the room, staring up at a woman who seems very tall to my four-year-old eyes. She has thick white hair, glasses, and a navy-blue dress with white polka dots. My father is standing behind me in his work clothes. They are talking; but now, when I try to re-enter that memory-picture, I cannot hear her voice. It’s as though someone has pressed the mute button.

It is my first memory and the only one I have of my Romanian grandmother. And, even though I didn’t know and love her as I did my maternal grandmother, she somehow took hold of my imagination. Her Romanian-ness fascinated me. It was colorful, exotic, and mysterious. All the other Jewish kids I knew were of Russian or Polish descent; and there was no other family member alive to tell me what my Grandma Dena’s homeland had been like. Later, when I grew up and began to write stories loosely based on her life, I went into search mode, pulling together what bits of information I could find. But there didn’t seem to be much about Romanian Jews: the only book I managed to lay my hands on was Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), and the picture he sketched of his father’s Romania was…well, sketchy.

Then, too, there was a curious feeling of disenfranchisement. This was my experience, and yet it wasn’t. Romania hadn’t, from what I could gather, treated her Jews much better than Russia had...although, as poet and Chicory Blue Press founder Sondra Zeidenstein – herself of Romanian Jewish descent – said, they seemed to have had more of a cultural life  than the Russian Jews had had. Still, I had the sense that I imagined my grandmother had had – of being of the country yet not of the country. Of belonging yet not belonging.

Perhaps in Romania it is easy to have this feeling because there are so many different influences at work and no clear definition of what Romanian really is. Originally part of the Roman Empire, it is, as Hannelore Hahn, the President of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG), points out, “the only country in Eastern Europe that speaks a Romance language. And its major influences on its educational system have been the classics and French culture.” To the west, in and around Transylvania, which once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there’s a heavy Hungarian influence; to the north, in Moldavia, the culture and traditions tend to lean more toward Russian-Ukrainian. And the southern part of the country, once a possession of the Ottoman Empire, shows a definite Turkish influence. A Gypsy counterculture (for want of a better word) also exists, although that probably isn’t as strong as it was prior to World War II.

Of that other perennial counterculture, the Jewish one, little remains. Interestingly enough, though, most of the Jews who originally settled in Romania were Sephardic (a term that basically means “Spanish” but that refers to any Jew who follows Sephardic liturgy and traditions) Jews from Spain, Turkey and the Balkans: documents show Spanish Jews living in Walachia as early as 1496, courtesy of the Inquisition. The Ashkenazi (German-speaking Jews) came later. More undercurrents. The country that my grandmother left as a child of 12 in 1896 was a melting pot in which none of these diverse nationalities ever really melted.

It has remained a place of paradoxes, especially for women. Hahn, who traveled there this past May, recalls how an American professor told her, “The women of Romania are alive….[T]hey work often at two jobs, they take care of their children and everything else. Not so the men. Their spirits are broken.” Hahn herself perceived a feminist spark in the universities, where the department heads were men who needed female professors to translate for them because they themselves knew no English.

But it’s also a country that has been brutal to women. Under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the mandatory pregnancy policy led to many women dying from coat-hanger abortions. “And if you got caught having an abortion or using some type of birth control,” says Angela Green, a 27-year-old Romanian woman who has lived in the U. S. for the last nine years, “you would be in prison for a long time. And if you were to go to a doctor because you had an infection from an abortion, or you were bleeding, the doctor wouldn’t treat you unless you signed a paper saying what you had done.”

Green has that same sense of belonging/not-belonging that I have, even though she isn’t Jewish. The country she left behind is still very much “a man’s country” with “a man’s religion” in her opinion. “The man’s up here,” she says emphatically. “The woman’s all low at the bottom. In any discipline you look at, it’s the same way – family, religion, education, careers.” Back in Romania, she would not have had the kind of career she has here, “although there are some women who go to medical school and a few who are good chemists.” Most of the poets, composers/songwriters, and the like are male, she says: she knows of a few female singers, “but where the creativity comes in and the things that women could actually be doing, I mean, I don’t see too many women.” Craftwork does provide a creative outlet of sorts for “the farm women in the villages in the winter,” Green adds, “because there is no farming [then]. They make their own clothes, they make rugs – you name it, they make it. In the village, everything is hand-made, and the woman is the one who is doing that.”

It’s not much of an outlet, but it’s something. And that’s more than Romanian women have in other respects. Few drive. Domestic violence is very common. There are no agencies for battered women to turn to: the only shelter they can hope for is with their families, which may not be all that much help. “I think the majority of women are being abused physically and emotionally by their men,” maintains Green. “It’s a way of life, I guess, and they accept it for what it is. I’ve seen it around my mother, my father, both sides of my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, neighbors, friends.” She tells me how the village priest asked her maternal grandmother if she forgave her abusive husband when he was dying. The old woman, who “had a lot of scars both on her heart and on her body,” shot back, “No! Let God forgive him!” Green says she’s glad to be married to an American man: “I find myself fortunate because I could have ended up with an abusive man…a controlling man.”

The status quo of Romanian women at present is akin to that of American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with some vital differences: there are no feminist literary journals to express themselves in, no strong women’s networks pushing for change. As Green sees it, the networking has to evolve in Romania, not here, to be truly effective. And she doesn’t know a lot of Romanian women in this country who are willing to go back to help get that evolution started.

“Education is the most important thing,” maintains Green. “If you give women the freedom to go and educate themselves – to go to college and learn what they can be – I think a lot of things will be changing. So the opportunity to educate, to have different positions and jobs other than being a housewife and a farm woman is the most important thing.” Under Ceausescu, such opportunities just didn’t exist, she says; and the system hasn’t really changed since the same people are still in power. They no longer call each other “Comrade,” of course. But the basic mindset is still the same, as is the attitude toward women, and it will, she thinks, take a couple of generations to change both.

Green herself can’t escape that sense of being caught between worlds. Most of her family is, after all, still in Romania. “I’m young – I’ll probably make a new family. But it will never be the type of family I would have if I had stayed there. I find myself, I’m losing the tradition. I’m losing a lot of the customs. And I’m actually losing the skill to write and speak the language. I used to dream in Romanian language. I don’t do that anymore.” There was, she adds, a transition period when she dreamt in both Romanian and English. Now she just dreams in English.

I find myself, I’m losing the tradition. Without realizing it perhaps, Green has voiced the dilemma facing Romanian women who have left their homeland: namely, that in order to find themselves as individuals, they’ve had to lose or let go of a tradition that no longer serves them. The trick for Green and her countrywomen is to craft a culture of their own – a new “family,” if you will – using the best of what they’ve brought with them. To learn to dream in both Romanian and English.

                My grandmother, Dena Cohen Banks

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Queen's Scribe: Claire Ridgway & The Anne Boleyn Files

She was standing in a crowd, Claire Ridgway remembers, her eyes fixed on the elegantly dressed black-haired woman standing on the scaffold. It was May 19, 1536, and the woman was Anne Boleyn, condemned to death on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest. As she listened to the queen’s final speech, Ridgway was “completely overcome with horror that this innocent woman was going to be executed….Even now, I can remember being rooted to the spot and being so terrified that I could not speak. I just couldn’t believe that this brutal act was really going to happen before my eyes and that nobody was going to stop it.”

Fortunately, Ridgway woke up before the final bit of swordplay by the French executioner that Anne’s husband, Henry VIII had specially sent for. (Men really don’t know how to give gifts like they used to.) The nightmare left her in a cold sweat…and with a most unusual epiphany. She shook her husband, Tim, awake and told him that she was going to start a website called The Anne Boleyn Files “to educate people about Anne’s real story.”

And she did. The Anne Boleyn Files (TABF) started in February 2009, designed by her husband -- a man who nowadays matter-of-factly refers to himself as an “Anne Boleyn widower.” She “had no idea that anybody would ever find the site,” says the British-born writer, who lives with her family near the Alhambra in Spain. “So it started out just as a diary of my research into Anne’s life, my journey to the truth, and it still is today.” That journey has had an amazing impact on her life: she no longer freelances, and she spends much of her day researching the Tudor period and writing about Henry’s second wife. “I’ve grown so much as a person,” she remarks, “and love the fact that I’m finally doing a job that I love and that I have a real purpose in my life. There’s nothing better than writing an article on Anne and then reading comments from people who really learned something from my work – that is so fulfilling!”

Historian Eric Ives (The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn) has himself called Anne “the third woman in my life after my immediate family,” adding that it “is true once she interests you, fascination grows, as it did for men at the time, and finally for Henry himself.” Ridgway and I discuss this fascination, which has led to so many books (fiction and non-fiction) and dramatizations about Anne. Why, more than 475 years after her execution, does it still endure? “I think it’s a combination of the tragedy of her story, the awful miscarriage of justice she suffered, the love story between her and Henry VIII,…and the myths that surround her,” the writer reflects.

Indeed, it’s a story that has “all the ingredients of a good romance and even a thriller.” Like Ives, she believes that somehow the luckless queen’s “magnetic personality reaches through the ages and grabs us.” The novel that best captures this for Ridgway is Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal (1949), which “really brings Anne to life without maligning her in any way.” And her favorite Anne movie is “Anne of the Thousand Days.” She especially loves “the scene where Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and Genevieve Bujold, as Anne, gives that amazing speech about how it will be her daughter who will be queen and that her blood will have been well spent. I so wish Anne had really had the chance to give that speech!”

Aside from TABF, Ridgway has also written a resource guide to all things Anne Boleyn – newspaper/magazine articles; details about places that figure into her story; podcasts; fact sheets; portraits, heraldry, and crests; archives and documents; poetry, stories, and music; movies and videos; and much more. ((For more information on that guide, check the website.) And somewhere further down the line, Ridgway would like to write a non-fiction account of Anne’s life.

But it doesn’t stop there. She has also created a sister site, The Elizabeth Files, which is – you got it – about Elizabeth I, Anne’s greatest legacy to England. The writer sees the Virgin Queen as being “her mother’s daughter in so many ways. Both Henry and Anne were highly intelligent people, so Elizabeth inherited that from both of them; but she definitely had her mother’s magnetism, wit, charm, perseverance, passion, and hot temper. She also had Anne’s 'way' with men. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that either woman was a ‘tart’ or an outrageous flirt, but Elizabeth knew how to ‘work’ the men she was surrounded by. She was a woman in a man’s world, but she managed to gain the undying loyalty and love of the men advising her. She inherited that skill from her mother.”

You’re bound to take a few hits when you’re in love, and Ridgway has taken them – on the home front, no less: “Researching her [Anne] every working day has obviously made her and her family a huge part of my life and has had a knock-on effect with my family.” She ruefully tells me about the day her kids were making gingerbread men: her youngest boy bit the head off his and exclaimed, “Ooooh, look, Mum, it’s Anne Boleyn!” She is, she admits, “very fond of the whole Boleyn family and get very annoyed when they are maligned.”

Indeed, you can tell from both the tone of the blog and her comments that Anne has become an old friend to her – someone whom she knows almost as well she does herself. That being the case, what sort of woman does she feel Henry’s second queen would’ve become had she been allowed to live out her life? “I think if Anne had been given a chance, she would have eventually had a son,” Ridgway reflects, “and this would have cemented hers and Henry’s marriage. She was a patron of the arts, had an interest in charity, education, and architecture, and so I believe that she would have continued being a good queen and a worthy consort and partner to Henry.”

Related links:


Anne of the Thousand Days

Friday, June 3, 2011

Maggie's Gift: Barb Borkowski

There is, Barb Borkowski says, an old photo of her resting her hand atop the head of her great-grandfather’s collie. “I was two-years-old,” the animal communicator recalls. “I sensed that his head hurt.” Right from the beginning, she was an empath where animals were concerned: “I grew up with several beagles that my dad used for hunting. Spending time with them was my preferred activity. If one of them did not feel well, I felt the discomfort in my body.”

Borkowski, a licensed massage and energy therapist, and Reiki practitioner, owns The Healing Journey in Steubenville, Ohio. “All living things are composed of energy,” she writes on her website. “The life force flows through the body. Stress, illness and emotional conflicts may cause a disturbance in the flow. Energy Therapy assists the body in returning to a balanced state.” Animals aren’t her only clients, however. She also works with people – autistic children, for instance, and adults who are in comas or unable to speak as a result of stroke damage. Reading people, like reading animals, has always come easily to her. When she was a nurse, she “was able to guess what physical problems newly admitted patients had just by looking at them. A few co-workers knew about my ability. Test results always confirmed my initial assessment of the health problems.”

It was a long time before she fully understood this ability of hers, though. A car accident changed all that. Trying to ease the pain, Borkowski began going for massage therapy: and she became interested enough to enroll in massage therapy classes herself. There she learned not only “about the energy fields of all living things” but that “there was finally a name” for what she did.

Borkowski’s work with people “incorporate[s] subtle healing energy with massage techniques. The combination allows the positive flow to enter the body and supports the release of negativity from stress. The result is total relaxation.” So, yes, she does have human clients who come to her for energy therapy on a regular basis. But she’s mostly in demand as an animal communicator. “People tend to seek help for their pets before they will for themselves,” she explains. “The main service I provide for animals is communication. When I make on-site calls, I use Reiki while relaying the information to the owners about their pet. When working remotely, I look at a picture of the animal.” Simply by studying the photo, she can tell what’s bothering the cat, dog, or horse: the info “comes into my mind, and I write it down. The majority of issues are related to the home environment. Animals are very sensitive to human emotions.” So distance healing or communication “involves the pet owners, not just the pets.”

Sometimes she finds that the problem is inadequate nutrition; other times, there’s an underlying health issue. Once, when Borkowski touched a horse, she “immediately felt like I had a stomach ulcer.” A gastroscopy performed a few days later showed that the horse had definite ulceration: she was put on medication and improved rapidly. Another horse wasn’t so lucky. During a phone session, Borkowski sensed that he had stomach cancer, but the owner didn’t look into getting tests done. The horse died a few months later. The autopsy showed that Borkowski’s reading had been all too true.

Most of the people who go to the trouble of consulting an animal communicator do follow through on what she tells them, however. And the animals themselves “desire to be healthy. They are open to healing. When helping them in person, I receive many ‘kisses’ from dogs once their thoughts are told.”

Empaths generally pay a price for their gift, and Borkowski is no exception. Once, she volunteered at a local shelter, and she “could feel all of the anxiety, loneliness, fear, and desire to be out of the cages.” The animals’ excitement at seeing “people arrive with the hope that someone would take them out of the shelter and the sad eyes watching them leave hurt so much. I cried every time I went there.”

“When you are hopelessly lost,” British novelist Elizabeth Goudge wrote, “follow your animals.” To Borkowski, who shares Goudge’s passion for dogs, those words suggest “that people should strive to be more like their pets. The qualities of being non-judgmental, loyal, and givers of unconditional love are admirable traits of our four-legged friends.”

You see, for her, dogs have been more than tried-and-true friends: they have also been teachers who have helped her grow as both a healer and a person. “As an adult, I picked sick pups,” Borkowski reflects. “I did not know at the time they were ill, but I was able to assist with their healing.” So she learned from them in that sense. Her most important teacher, however, was a determined yellow Labrador retriever, Maggie. “I had the privilege of sharing almost 12 years with her. When Maggie wanted something, she stood still and stared until someone noticed. One day, she had a prolonged stare. I tried to figure out what she wanted. She stomped her front paws on the dining-room floor, and these words came to mind: ‘You are supposed to help God’s gentle creatures.’ That was the day I decided to include animal communication as part of my business. Thank you, Maggie….What a journey it has been.”

Related link:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Soul-Catcher: Sally Logue

Inlaid and incised soul-catchers were the most important items used by curing shamans. When sickness was believed to be the result of the soul leaving the body, a shaman could be hired to search for the errant soul which he enticed to enter the soul-catcher. With the apertures at either end securely plugged with cedar bark stoppers, the soul could be safely carried back to the patient and restored.

                                            -- Norman Bancroft-Hunt

She likes to start on the eyes as soon as possible in her portraits, artist Sally Logue explains. “It’s important to get them right. I usually start with a rough outline of the head and then work from the eyes outwards. You’d be taught to work from top left to bottom, gradually building up color and tone, but I like the eyes to bring the portrait to life early on.” They really are “the windows to the soul,” she says, and they speak to her.

They speak to the viewer, too. The animals and birds in Logue’s portraits draw us in with their eyes. A wistful Blue-cream Point Siamese…an elfin Ruddy Abyssinian…an inquisitive Springer Spaniel…two British Giant rabbits looking like they’re chatting companionably over a lettuce lunch…all of them are vivid presences, seemingly ready to step off the pastel paper and become fully dimensional. Logue has a strong rapport with her subjects, and it shows in every pastel-penciled line. The word that keeps coming up in her customers’ comments is “captured,” and they’re not always talking about a physical likeness. More often than not, their remarks have to do with intangibles: “you captured their spirit,” “you’ve managed to capture so much about them…it really does look as if you know Simon and Barney well,” or “her character is captured totally.” Some folks even admit to crying upon receiving a portrait of a deceased pet. “I don’t feel like I’m looking at a portrait and it really brings it home that he is no longer with us,” one customer wrote.

“Someone did a ‘Wordle’ of my customer comments,” recalls the artist, who works out of her home in Cumbria, England, “and you’re right – the words ‘captured’ and ‘likeness’ and ‘absolutely’ came up top of the list, my customers are so kind!”

Her first portraits were for local clients: they’d bring their pets to her, and she’d take photos to work from. “This gave me a chance to study the animals closely and pick out individual characteristics,” she observes. “If you have three similar Black Labs running round your feet, you may think they all look the same; but studying and comparing their photos make it much easier to tell them apart.” Now that she receives commissions from other countries, she often exchanges “several e-mails with the client to discuss their photos and help choose one to work from which brings out that spark of personality.”

Over the years, Logue’s artwork has made some pretty impressive appearances around the world. Her animal portraits have been used by Chelsea Textiles (London, Paris, and New York) in their line of hand-stitched tapestry cushions; they’ve also appeared on a variety of pet gifts in the U. S. In 2009, she was commissioned to do a group piece for the RSPCA Freedom Food Awards. Last, but certainly not least, she designed the Chinese Year of the Dog commemorative coins for the New Zealand Mint. Each coin in the series featured a different breed – Springer spaniel, black Labrador retriever, bloodhound, husky, Newfoundland, Shar Pei, Borzoi, and St. Bernard -- and all but three have completely sold out.

“I can draw dogs with my eyes closed!” exclaims Logue. Her first “commissioned” dog portrait was, she adds, for her future husband: “when we first met 20 years ago, he gave me an empty picture frame and asked me to draw something to fill it! If I hadn’t drawn his dog, who knows which direction my artwork would have taken me?” So, in that respect, she considers her husband her “biggest influence.” Another influence is British artist Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011), who included animals in much of his work. She’s particularly drawn to his “Double Portrait” (1985 -86), which features “a woman curled up with her dog. I love the way he uses color to describe the translucence of skin and the way the dog is always the calming element in his painting.”

Dogs do make up the bulk of her commissions, followed by horses and cats. But birds, rabbits, sheep, pigs, and other farm animals find their way into her work as well. For the  Freedom Food piece, she had to paint “12 farmed animal types, including cattle, sheep, pigs, a duck, a turkey, and a chicken. And a salmon. “You won’t believe how hard I had to persuade them to have the salmon drawn separately from the other farmed animals!” Logue laughs. The salmon ended up meandering along in the lower right-hand corner of the limited edition print, just below the barnyard fowls "despite my trying to convince them otherwise....Farmed salmon don’t jump unless stressed, so it had to appear to be happily swimming somewhere in the picture.  I have to say, I was surprisingly pleased with the result.”

She’s not just an animal portraitist, however. In fact, she loves drawing people, “especially if the photo is full of life.” One of Logue’s favorite people portraits is that of her brother and his wife: “I just love the way Tom is pretending not to enjoy being romantically kissed on the cheek. When you know someone well, it’s easier to get a good likeness.” She gave the piece to them at their wedding reception and told them it was a mirror. Which, in a sense, you might say it was.

Logue can’t really call to mind a time when this passion for art wasn’t a part of what she was all about. One of her earliest memories is of “getting a paint box with lots of wonderful colored blocks. I remember being asked if I would like a paint box or a new dress for Christmas. I think I chose the paint box but ended up with both!” And years later, her very first art homework assignment in secondary school “was to draw a pet! I didn’t have one at the time – in those days, we didn’t even have a picture of a dog in the house – so I had to make it up based on our neighbor’s dog.” The result -- and she still has the sketch book to prove it -- was “basically a hairy rectangle with a head and legs” that earned her a “7/10. I knew I could have done better with a reference source, and from then on, I strived to get 10/10 for my art homeworks.” You can see that same striving in her work today.

She has also made good the early lack of animal companions with “dogs and cats all my adult life.” And the love of that life is Roxy, a Lab-collie cross who came to them from the local animal rescue seven years ago. “Roxy and I enjoy long walks together,” Logue enthuses. “She’s so responsive and quick to learn. She listens to every word, waiting for the ones she understands! I never need to raise my voice to her, she looks so apologetic if she succumbs to temptation and ‘accidentally’ empties a bin. And we curl up together, just like the Lucian Freud painting.”

                                 Sally Logue displaying her work.        

                                            "Phoenix & Dawn" by Sally Logue.

-- To see Sally Logue's pastel portraits, check out her website Pet Portraits by Sally Logue

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Making a Difference: Dr. Andrew J. Ponichtera

"You know, it’s really kind of in between everything,” says Dr. Andrew J. Ponichtera. He’s sitting in his dental office in Weatogue, Connecticut, explaining his specialty, maxillofacial rehabilitation. “It’s a little bit being an artist – it’s a little bit being a dentist – it’s a little bit being a sculptor – it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a little bit playing with models.” He laughs gently at himself, then grows serious. “But the thing is, you really do get to provide a service a service that really is very satisfactory – satisfactory for both you and the patient.”

More than satisfactory, really. For people with some type of impairment – a cleft palate, a missing ear or nose – maxillofacial rehabilitation means the difference between feeling comfortable about going out in public and not. It’s that simple. And that crucial.

Ponichtera came to the field by a fairly straightforward route. He’d always been “a little bit mechanically inclined and liked to play with models and stuff like that.” In college, he hung out with two of his cousins: a dentist and a medical student who eventually became a pulmonologist. Not quite sure what he wanted to do, he began exploring their chosen fields. He quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for pulmonology. Seeing “people that are really, really sick” bothered him, he admitted. He “couldn’t tolerate that emotionally. I just would go home and feel like crying.” Dentistry, on the other hand, “was nice – you got to do a lot of interesting things.” Plus, it appealed to that mechanical side of his nature -- his inner engineer, if you will. “So it became a natural extension, and I decided to go ahead and do that.”

He graduated from dental school in 1977 and started his residency at Sinai Hospital in Detroit. There he met his first maxillofacial prosthetist, a man who was doing “all the interesting things that I really liked to do.” The prosthetist let the young resident spend time with him while he worked with kids with cleft palates or with cancer patients who were missing eyes, ears, noses, or parts of jaws. And Ponichtera, who’d found pulmonology so difficult to handle, had no trouble dealing with people who were disfigured in some way. Here, at least, he could do something, and he “thought that was really cool.” But he wasn’t 100% sure about it as a career choice at that point and ended up going into dental practice instead.

After a couple of years “doing mundane dentistry -- doing fillings and seeing lots of people,” however, Ponichtera was ready to try something different. He got into a three-year program at the Mayo Clinic, one of the few facilities that offered residencies in maxillofacial prosthetics then. “We spent lots of time with plastic surgeons [and with] ear-nose-and-throat guys,” he recalls. “We spent almost six months being residents with those guys. It was interesting, rewarding…a specialty where patients really need your help. So it goes from seeing kids with cleft palates and speech problems to kids with craniofacial dystosis [morphic facial growth, Elephant Man’s Disease being one form] that are missing ears, cancer patients, and trauma patients.”

Ponichtera eventually made his way to the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, where he worked for awhile as part of the craniofacial team for kids. Now working out of his Weatogue office, he does more with “patients that are either missing ears or parts of their face and adults with cancer.” But he doesn’t do it surgically – he does it “with plastic and so-called ‘pieces.’” For the college student who “loved working with putty and being a sculptor, it’s a natural transition. I really like it. It’s a lot of fun.”

There’s more to it than that, naturally. Compassion is key, and Ponichtera has more than most people.  You need, he says, “a certain mentality to see people -- some of whom are grossly disfigured, some of whom really smell” because of necrotic tissue. So it’s a matter of seeing beyond all that? I ask. “You have to do beyond all that,” he counters quietly. “Your staff has to be attentive to that. You can’t yell, ‘Oh, God!’ You just have to accept them as being normal, and everybody here is good at that.” The staff gets involved in other ways, too: “We’ve made some really interesting prostheses, and they end up stitching head bands together to help hold on a facial prosthesis.”

He touches briefly on Frances Derwent Wood, the British sculptor who devised electroplated masks for disfigured soldiers during World War I. This was where maxillofacial prosthetics really started, Ponichtera insists – with Wood and others trying to help men “that wouldn’t have survived before. A lot of traumatic injuries, different weapons….It really came by default into the hands of dentistry.” Now the field is “an acknowledged specialty or sub-specialty of dentistry that’s been around quite awhile. But the bulk of it came in World War I and World War II – a lot of changes, a lot of new techniques.”

Of course, with implants and more sophisticated technology, that picture is changing once again. There’s even talk about doing much of the work via CAD/CAM software. And now, Ponichtera explains, “almost all of the oral surgeons, almost all of the programs are gonna be M. D. programs. They have much more training in facial and plastic surgery, and they’re getting out of the role of just taking out teeth. But there’s still a select population that can’t be treated surgically. And that’s where I come in.”

A lot of kids missing ears get sent over from Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) in Hartford, for instance. He’ll make a diagnostic wax-up or guide for where the implants need to be; later, after Dr. Richard Bevilaequa at CCMC has surgically placed the screw, Ponichtera will “attach a silicone ear to it. Clips in – clips off. We’ve done noses that way – clip in and clip off – and, well, you don’t have to worry about it. It stays on.” In the past, they would’ve had to glue the prostheses on.

Sometimes his creativity really gets a work-out, Ponichtera admits. They’ve had a couple of people come in “who have been missing almost half their face, and you really can’t put implants in because” – there’s a long, thoughtful but matter-of-fact pause – “they’re kinda at the end stage of life. But you can make them a prosthesis, and they become a little more socially acceptable. And that’s kinda cool.”

He shows me a model. “The ear is over here,” he says. “We make it out of wax so that we can basically boil it out.” That leaves him with a model to put the silicone in; the silicone then cures with a little bit of heat. He brings out more forms: one for a patient without an eye an another for a cancer patient missing part of a jaw. (The latter has an obturator for closing the the palate's opening.) He keeps the individual molds in case the patients ever need replacements parts. “I mean, I could make another ear for this patient without his being here. And I have a record of what colors they use….We used to mix up all our own colors.” He laughs. “Like art class. Now they have kits that are available. But I still have my own colors that I like to use. Just gets you a little bit better customization.”

In fact, Ponichtera really prefers doing the whole process himself. He gets a stronger sense of what works for the patient that way. And he’s not above bringing his work home with him. “My wife gets a little bit upset with me at times because” – he chuckles – “I’ll be doing this in the basement for a few hours.”

So, what would Derwent Wood say to it all? “He’d be amazed at how much it had changed,” Ponichtera concedes. “But the principles haven’t changed.” He himself appreciates the technological advancements but still leans toward the hand-crafted. “And that’s what I get out of it,” he says. “It’s like you put your little heart and soul in the whole thing, and it’s yours. And I think there’s more value in it than if it’s just done by computer or manufactured."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Lasting Resonance: Deane G. Keller

(Another from the Way-Back Files – An interview with artist and sculptor Deane G. Keller, February 1982.) 


“Drawing offers a unique record of an encounter with a culture of experience transformed from fleeting moment to lasting resonance.”

                                                                        -- Deane G. Keller (1940 – 2005)

Like a character from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, the figure about to head out over the wind-stirred field seems dwarfed by the vast sky and landscape. Yet that figure in its rough hat and jacket doesn’t strike us as being insignificant somehow. Pausing on the edge of the field, squarely confronting the horizon, it has a certain defiance about it – almost as though it’s striking out against a painfully beautiful, indifferent and unexpected universe. The great horizontals in the painting are, in its creator Deane G. Keller’s words, “broken, brought into focus by one little vertical figure.”

The image is one that repeats itself in Hardy’s novels, which are a passion of Keller’s. “The sense of scale is evident in his work,” the Marlborough, Connecticut-based artist explains, “and to the painter also. The idea under the surface in all Hardy’s work is that man acts out his destiny, defines himself against an expanded landscape.”

Keller, a painter and sculptor whose work has received numerous awards (among them, the Copley Winter Exhibition First Prize in 1969), teaches painting, life drawing, anatomy, and art history at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme. He and other members of the faculty there are intent on reviving the tradition of Connecticut Impressionism. Since June, the majority of the classes have been taught in the new Foundation of the Arts Building: that building sits where the Connecticut Impressionists did much of their work at the turn of the century. Last fall, a film crew shot some scenes near the academy as well as in and around the town itself for a film on American Impressionism being produced by the Smithsonian Institute.

The artists’ colony established there by Florence Griswold in 1885 was one of the earliest in America. They were influenced by the current trends in French painting at the time: rural subjects painted in outdoor settings, unfinished painting surfaces, and “a romantic delight in color.” Among the first artists in the Old Lyme colony were Will Howe Foote and Lewis Cohen, who, working in the Barbizon style, emphasized rich but muted colors and man’s bond with nature. Later, with the arrival of Childs Hassam and Walter Griffin in 1903, many of the painters began experimenting with French Impressionist techniques – short,bright abstract brushwork and flat composition. The revival of this tradition, says Keller, signified “a return to nature as a source of art.”

And that is part of where his sense of connection with Hardy comes in. He has been fascinated with the British novelist’s work since high school – not just with Hardy’s characters but also with his emphasis on man’s mysterious relationship with nature. Keller’s love for the novels has kept pace with his development as an artist. Rambling along the southern coast of England during his last visit…visiting the Roman ruins there (both he and his wife Dorothy, an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, share a deep interest in archaeology)…enjoying “the sense of history underfoot,” he talks now about picking up the author’s trail and exploring the places which “he [Hardy] knew and could describe so well.”

Keller moves over to another painting, one of a green field merging with a yellow wheat-filled one, the sky a rich, subtle blend of grays and purples with duller touches of rose. “Supposedly, Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd lived here,” he says. It’s almost as though he’s talking about an old friend. “And over here” – the artist gestures beyond the fields to a point not encompassed by the canvas – “Bathsheba Everdene lived.

“I drove into this driveway,” Keller continues with a faint smile, “and asked, ‘Pardon me for intruding, but is this where Bathsheba Everdene lived?’ The woman, who was very pleasant and responsive, said, ‘Absolutely. And this is the bay window where she stood and looked out at Oak’s hut.’”

What Keller has done is to translate the images from Hardy’s books into a visual media. The novelist was an artist of sorts himself: like his character Jude in Jude the Obscure, he had been trained as an architect and produced a number of sketches during his lifetime. Perhaps, Keller reflects, this explains why his writing has that intensely visual quality -- and why those “one-shot” images of startling vividness and clarity can make the leap from printed page to canvas so well.

“There was a constant resonance with his own experience and past which kept his work so animated and life-like,” Keller says. “As a painter, I have to deal with form and color. But my painter’s goal is to go beyond the form to the idea. Maybe his way of looking at things has become a vehicle for me – has become a vantage point. Some of his quality of looking at the world is readily adaptable for me as a painter.”

Hardy had a strong feeling for nature’s beauty and aloofness, something that Keller subtly plays upon in his paintings. It’s definitely a soul-met-soul connection: his empathy for the writer comes across both in his art and his conversation. Looking at a third painting – that of a road in Higher Bockhampton that Hardy walked as a youngster – Keller muses, “I daresay it was on this walk, a solitary sort of walk, that he picked up his feeling for nature.

“Hardy was sensitive to all sides – not just to writing – but there are probably images which we will never know. His own private responses to nature, some of which we know from the novels. Some may have taken the form of drawings, like the sketches he did in Cornwall.”

He talks about doing a portrait of Hardy himself and shows me a small preliminary study in oils. The writer’s craggy set face looks out at us with a reflective, somewhat bitter expression, eyebrows permanently arched in wry amusement. In it, we see the man who, “crushed” by the public outcry against his novels, turned to writing poetry. Who viewed life with all its ironies as a general drama of pain, only occasionally lightened with flickerings of happiness.

“He has a broad, broad speculative look,” Keller observes quietly from where he stands. “I would like to have two qualities developed [in the painting]. One is the facticity of the fellow. The other aspect is how very remote, distant he could be as his mind took him through sketches from his own past.”