Monday, September 17, 2018

Taking a hiatus

Hi everyone. I will be taking a break from writing posts for about a month.

The Amazing Ms. D and I are putting together a project based on our trip to Puerto Rico,.and we have a funding proposal that has to be submitted by Oct. 15.

Please continue to follow me on Instagram (@jonathanlessuck) to see new photographs.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

When in DC stop at the Old Patent Office for some great art


Picture the Smithsonian Institute in your mind. What do you see? The Castle? The Museum of American History? Maybe the Museum of African American History? There is a lot more to it than the “big-name” collections. A recent trip to Washington DC gave me the chance to visit two of the smaller museums in the Smithsonian – The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

These two collections share a home in the Old Patent Office Building. The building originally opened in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office. It served as a hospital during the Civil War, and the Patent Office remained there until moving to a new home in 1932, and the Civil Service Commission and the Government Accounting Office moved in. By the 1950’s the Civil Service commission had moved out and GAO was planning its own new complex and in 1958 the building was transferred to the Smithsonian for use as an art museum. After a renovation, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum moved in.
 
By Wknight94 talk [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), from Wikimedia Commons
During the 1990’s it became clear that there was a need for major repairs, so in 2000 the museums were temporarily closed and the Old Patent Building was shut down. A six-year, total renovation began. The facades and porticos were restored, along with large galleries, tall windows and a block long skylight. The jewel of the redone building is the Kogod Courtyard. A wavy steel and glass canopy enclose the open center of the building, creating a space that is welcoming in all weather. People come from nearby offices and stores to eat lunch. Others use the space and the free WIFI to read, write and do research, or just to update their social media.
 
The Kogod Courtyard

The water feature in the courtyard

I came to the Old Patent Building because The Amazing Ms. D wanted to see the new portraits of Barak and Michelle Obama. I was more interested in the people coming to see them. Barak Obama’s portrait hangs in the Gallery of Presidents, along with those of the 43 men who served before him. Walking through the gallery, it was interesting to see how some of the presidents chose to be represented, especially during the 2nd half of the 20th century. Douglas Chandor painted Franklin Roosevelt at his desk, and included studies for FDR’s hands on the canvas. Elaine de Kooning presented a figurative expressionist view of John Kennedy. Chuck Close gave us a composite of abstract diamonds that he used to form Bill Clinton’s face. Barak Obama chose Kahinde Wiley, a 40-year-old African American artist for his portrait. He positioned Mr. Obama seated on a chair, in front of one of his iconic patterned backgrounds, in this case a large hedge. The painting is so popular that people line up between velvet ropes while waiting for opportunity to take a selfie in front of it.
 
Barak Obama by Khinde Wiley

JFK by Elaine de Kooning

Michelle Obama’s portrait does not hang near her husband’s. It is part of a permanent exhibition highlighting iconic people of the 20th and 21st centuries. This exhibit presents representations in painting, sculpture and photography of major cultural and political figures, arranged by the decades of their significance. In her portrait, created by 45-year-old Amy Sherald, an African American painter from Baltimore MD, Michelle Obama sits in front of a plain blue-gray background. The colors are all softened, looking a little washed out, as is Sherald’s style. Obama’s portrait hangs next to an imposing representation of Toni Morrison painted by Robert McCurdy, and together they command the room.
 
Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald


We also stopped to Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzalez-Day and Titus Kephar. The exhibit’s aim was to expose the hidden nature of African-American’s in the history of the United States. I was particularly taken by Titus Kephar’s work. He has literally played with our view of historic images, hiding one behind another, to show this absence and presence. The one that I found most striking was “Behind the Myth of Benevolence.” Here Kephar has pulled aside a portrait of Thomas Jefferson to reveal one of Sally Hemmings.


Sometimes the crowds and size of the large museums of the Smithsonian can be overwhelming. It is good to remember that there are choices that are not as well know, but that offer art that is just as good, and very thought provoking. It is worth it to leave the Mall and head to some of these smaller museums.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Library of Congress is an underestimated treasure


Most countries have a “National Library.” While the United States does not have a designated one, the Library of Congress serves that role. It is the official repository of printed material and so much more for the country.

Officially the Library of Congress is the research library for the legislative branch of the government. It was established by John Adams in 1800. The library and its collection were destroyed when the British burned Washington DC during the War of 1812. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his collection of over six thousand books to reestablish the libraries collection. By 1897, when the library moved from the capitol building to its new home, it comprised over 840,000 books. Today, the Library of Congress occupies three buildings on Capitol Hill. The Thomas Jefferson Building was built in 1897, is on First street SE, across from the U.S. Capitol, and is the one that most people associate with the library. The John Adams Building is behind the Jefferson and opened in 1939. Finally, the James Madison Building, built in 1976, sits across Independence Ave. There is also the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, in Culpepper, VA. The library is open to everyone. Anybody can come and get a Library of Congress Reader’s card and have access to the entire collection. But remember, this library is a research institution, and all materials must stay in the buildings.
 
Jefferson Building
Neptune Fountain
Start your visit in the Jefferson building. It was built in the 1890’s, at a time when American architects saw their job as celebrating cultural nationalism. The Beaux-Arts facade includes busts Ralph Waldo Emerson, Washington Irving, Goethe, Benjamin Franklin, and Nathaniel Hawthorne Sr. At street level is the Neptune Fountain, modeled after the Trevi Fountain in Rome. When pass through security into the main entrance hall, it is almost overwhelming. This is one of the most opulent government buildings I have ever seen. The walls and ceiling are covered with murals. They are historical and allegorical. Truthfully, between the crowds and distance I had to stand away from many of them, my camera was inadequate for the task.
 
Ceiling of the Entrance Hall

Entrance Hall Gallery

Once you have spent some time enjoying the art work and visiting the Guttenberg Bible, head to one of the several galleries on the second floor. My love of cartography drew me to the Map Exhibition space where there were several maps drawn at the formation of the United States. The second floor is also where you can gain entrance to the balcony over the Main Reading Room. Climb the stairs, past the Minerva mosaic, and enter a space about 30 ft (10 m) above the floor of one of the beautiful library rooms in the world. This is the only place from which you can take its picture. 
 
Buell Map of the United States

Map of Cheasapeke Bay

Travel down to the ground floor, where there are several more exhibition spaces. One is the Bob Hope gallery. This tribute to one of the most famous American comics includes an exploration of comedy through the years, looking at the cultural and political role of stand-up, radio and television comedies and comedians. You will also find the Graphic Arts Galleries, which offer exhibitions of drawings and cartoons. The hallways of the lower level, color coded for location, are lined with glass display cases that are used to show historical photos from the different departments housed in this area.
 
Aim Carfully, Please by Ann Telnaes

Dark Laughter by Oliver W. Harrington (1960) caption "The teacher says that anyone can git to be president. Then how come the whole class falls out laughin' when I tell 'em that's my dream."

If you choose, you may walk to the Reader Registration Room (you have to pass through the ground floor to the back of the building, and then take the elevator up to the first floor) and register for a Library of Congress Readers Card. This grants you access to the materials in the library, and also entry to the several reading rooms in the buildings. Most famous is the Main Reading Room. This majestic room sits under the dome of the building, and is a rival to the British Library. But there are other room dedicated to certain specialties. For example, there is the Hispanic Reading room, home to books from and about the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. Its entrance way is lined with beautiful murals by Cândido Portinari, a Brazilian painter. They cover several themes involving the colonization of the Americas by Spain and Portugal.
 
The Main Reading Room
Entry into the Forest
The Library of Congress is often overlooked by visitors to Washington DC. This was my first visit, and I have been to DC many times, but it won’t be my last.



Getting There:
The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is located on 1st Street SE between Independence Ave and Constitution Ave. The nearest Metro stop is the Capitol South stop which is served by the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Washington DC's U Street - African American history vs gentrification


Most people think of Washington DC as the home of the United States Government. There is more to the city than that. For many decades it was one of the centers of African American culture. U Street was the heart of that community in the capital.
 
U Street row houses
The U Street neighborhood was the largest African American community from the 1860’s through the 1920’s. Its mostly Victorian-era row houses were home to many of the people who filled the service jobs that made sure that government functioned smoothly. It was also home to hundreds of black-owned businesses, including The Industrial Bank, the cities largest African-American owned bank, whose building, designed by Isaish T. Hatton, still stands today.


Pearl Baily christened the area “The Black Broadway,” due to its numerous theaters and clubs. All of the big names in jazz, from Cab Calloway to Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, performed on U Street. At the east end of the strip is the Howard Theater. Built in 1910, it was home to two theatrical organizations and hosted many concerts. Except for the years 1970-74, the theater has continued to be a home to music and theater in the U Street neighborhood.
 
By Dhousch [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
A few blocks away is the Lincoln Theater. Opened in 1922, the Lincoln was a vaudeville and movie theater. It continued as a movie theater through the 1980’s, and it also hosted concerts, and boxing events.  The Lincoln was renovated in the 1990’s and today is serves primarily as concert hall, along with plays and political events.


There are few other remnants of U Street’s days of glory. The Industrial Bank is still in its original home, and Ben’s Chili Bowl draws crowds of tourists. At Edges Barbershop, Darryl still gives cuts to everyone who walks in. The sad truth is that U Street has fallen victim to Urban renewal and gentrification. While there is still a significant population in the area, black-owned businesses have largely been replaced by trendy bars and restaurants. Still U Street is worth a visit. There is the African-American Civil War Museum and Memorial at U Street and Vermont Ave. Over 200,000 black troops served in the Union Army and this museum is dedicated to telling their stories.
 


Darryl with a happy customer

African American Civil War Memorial, exterior


African American Civil War Memorial interior

U Street is also home to almost a dozen murals that explore the lives of African Americans. Paul Robeson gets the largest of the walls, and Duke Ellington looks down on Ben’s Chili Bowl. My favorite is a tribute to Afro-Colombians.


Mural dedicated to Paul Robeson


Mural dedicated to Afro-Colombians

There are also two places in the area that can recommend for refreshments. One is Busboys and Poets, and 14th and V streets. Busboys and Poets is a local chain that is dedicated to Langston Hughes and his experience working as busboy in a Washington DC hotel before he became famous. The food is fresh and delicious and the drinks are strong. They also offer a selection of books for sale that represent a history of African-American politics, literature and poetry.
My other suggestion is Calabash Tea and Tonic, on 7th street, around the corner from the Howard Theater. When you enter, instead of asking what you would like, the staff asks “How do you feel today?’ Then they whip up a mixture of herbs to help make a tea that will help heal you physical and emotional issues.

If you are in DC and you want to spend some time away from the tourist scene, come to U Street. You will find a little bit of African American history and an up-close view of how the city is changing.