Posts Tagged ‘Elmira NY’

Lon Chaney- Phantom of the Opera 1925We went to see the classic silent film , The Phantom of the Opera, on Sunday at the Clemens Center, a beautifully renovated  theater in my hometown of Elmira.  The film featured accompaniment from organist David Peckham playing the theater’s newly restored Marr and Colton pipe organ.  It was pretty special when the Peckham and the organ rose from the orchestra pit before the film began , Peckham playing  the familiar theme from the theatrical play of the same name.

The organ’s grand sound really added  a wonderful dimension to the film, bringing life to the sometimes exaggerated  pantomime of the actors.  If you’ve seen many silent films, you’re familiar with this style of acting though I believe this film is a little over the top  with its frantic gestures and grasping of the neck in fear.  As you can probably detect, this is not one of my favorite films from the great Lon Chaney who starred as the Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, although he delivers a strong and compelling performance here.  I found myself identifying more with his character than the wooden stiffs who played the so-called good guys in the film.  So much so that at the end when the mob captures the Phantom,  beating  and throwing him into the Seine as the audience cheered their approval, I felt a real twinge of sympathy for his character.

Lon Chaney made some of the most interesting and powerful films of the silent era before dying at the relatively young age of 47, after a throat hemorrhage  from an infection caused by inhaling painted corn flakes that served as snow on one of his last films.  His ability to transform himself is legendary and made him one of the first mega-stars of film.  I have a hard time watching some of what I consider his best films as they are often grim and filled with base emotion, a quality that is pretty common for the best silent films of the era.

A few years back I wrote here about a couple of his dark movies that featured Chaney as tragic clowns.  Here is what I wrote at the time:

Lon ChaneyI don’t know what made me think of this movie so early this morning.  Something made me think of clowns and how even though their aim is to be comedic and entertaining, they often come across as scary or tragic.

I saw a couple of Lon Chaney silent films a few years back that really reinforce this image.  He Who Gets Slapped and Laugh, Clown, Laugh are anything but laughfests.  Both are grim in nature and filled with tragic circumstances, like many of the films in the post-WW I early 1920’s.

Lon Chaney was a huge star of early films and is pretty much unfamiliar to modern movie fans.  He was known for his ability to transform himself into a wide variety of characters, often contorting his body and altering his face for grotesque effect.  This transformative ability won him the nickname The Man of a Thousand Faces which was also the title of a great film biography of him starring Jimmy Cagney as Chaney.  I recommend this film for those who wishing to learn a little more about an incredible talent.

lon-chaney-laugh-clown-laughChaney is probably best remembered for his classic roles as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but for me it’s these roles as clowns that define Chaney for me.  They are dark films filled with grim  melodrama and tragedy.  They’re sometimes hard to watch.  But they are filled with real human emotion and complexity, so dark that it’s hard to believe that these were popular successes of the time.  Hollywood had yet to perfect the happy ending.

Again, I’m not sure why these came to mind today.

Maybe I’ll be painting clowns today.  Brightly painted sad faces.  Like Red Skelton.  That’s probably another too obscure reference.

Anyway, if you get a chance, and don’t really want to have your spirits lifted, check out these classics from the great Lon Chaney or his film biography, The Man of a Thousand Faces.

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Speaking to Debb VanDelinder's class-- GC MyersI spent several hours yesterday at a local school, Southside High School in Elmira,  speaking to a couple of Drawing and Painting classes, trying to give them an idea of what it is like to be a professional artist.  I was there at the invitation of their instructor, Debb VanDelinder, who is a highly accomplished artist  in addition to her work as an arts educator.   I am not sure if the kids in her classes realize how talented she is and how fortunate they are to have her instruction and advice.   I will have a posting on her work in the near future but you can see her wonderful work at her site, debbvandelinder.com.

I’ve given a number of talks over the years, many of which I have described here.   Speaking to captive high school classes is always a little more daunting than speaking before a group of adults who have made a choice to attend.   There are always a number of kids who are not thrilled to have to sit and listen to an old guy talk at them for eighty minutes and most of the kids who are interested  are hesitant to speak or ask questions.  But both classes yesterday were pretty attentive and when questions were asked, they were insightful, based on keen observations.   I left very impressed with both classes.

My main purpose in speaking with them was to show them that someone with a background very much like their own could follow their dreams, overcome obstacles and attain a degree of success by following their passion.   I tried to really impress on them the need to practice excellence in everything that they attempt, that  by giving a committed effort at every step of their working life, even at that first menial job,  they are setting the groundwork for success at that thing that they ultimately want to accomplish.   Success is usually based on small steps forward and requires consistent effort and commitment, even when the end goal seems nowhere in sight.   Every effort is a rehearsal for  excellence.

I pointed out the many crappy jobs that I held in my own journey but I don’t know that I impressed enough on them that I have had many failures in my life and that  they are to be expected but that there is always some lesson to be learned.  If they recognize that lesson they will move past the failure and move closer to that thing that really seek.  I wish that I had spent more time on that as well as on plain and simple goal setting.

Setting a goal puts you on a  course, if only a vague one. This was personally brought home for me when  I was looking at some old journals that I had kept in high school when I was about these kids’ ages.  I thought I had went through my adult life stumbling blindly until I fell into the good fortune of my life as an artist.  It sure felt that way.  But reading in my journal I came across an entry that laid out a couple of things that I hoped for in my later  life.  At that point I wanted to be living happily with Cheri ( my high school love and longtime wife) in a cabin in the woods and to be an artist of some sort.  It seemed like a small goal to ask for when I had written that over 36 years before.  I had  long forgotten ever writing it, that’s for sure.  I didn’t realize until I came across this that I had somehow lived that dream , that I had subconsciously set a course that would somehow lead me to my goals.

Just having an idea of where you’d like to eventually end up allows your mind to set the wheels in motion.

My hope is that all of these kids set their own goals and somehow attain them.  They don’t have to be huge.  They just have to give them a sense of happiness and  accomplishment.  If only one of these kids gets anything out of the words I spoke that helps them move closer to their own private dreams, then yesterday was a good day.

Thanks, Debb, for allowing me to speak with your kids.  And to the kids, thank you for your attention and questions.  I’m rooting for you.  Work hard and be happy.

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Forty years ago this week, the region where I reside,  the Chemung River Valley, was visited by Hurricane Agnes , a storm that caused devastating flooding  throughout the area, including  the cities of Elmira and Corning.  It’s a study in contrasts in how these two cities responded in the aftermath  of the flood.  Corning, with a unified vision of how it would proceed,  rebounded and has relatively prospered while Elmira suffered missteps and missed opportunities and never really recovered.  There’s a new exhibit that opens this Friday at the Community Arts of Elmira called Agnes at 40: Personal Perspectives that features artists from the area looking back on that time with their work.

My contribution is a painting that I call Deluge.  It’s obviously not a true depiction of the events with its bright orange sky and aqua water.  People who experienced the flood recall all too well the murky brown color of the water and the mud it left in its wake, colors that stained many local buildings for some time after the flood.  My piece is more symbolic than purely representative of my own experience of the flood.  We lived on a country road that ran parallel to the Chemung River and  I remember that Friday evening  from 40 years ago very well.   Going home, we passed through the village of Wellsburg which was perched on the  banks of the river which was lapping menacingly at the lip.  We lived maybe three miles or so from the village and getting home, we decided we might want to shoot back into Wellsburg to grab some extra milk and bread at the store there.  In the several minutes it took to go home and then  go back to the village, the river topped the bank and what looked to be knee-deep water surged across the main drag.

The way our road was situated left us and our neighbors on the road isolated for several days as the three exits from it were under water.  We were islanders suddenly.  We would gather at the Chemung Bridge and watch the water and debris rush by.  Periodically, you could hear large  trees along the riverbank tumble over with a huge crash into the water as they broke loose from their roots.  The sight of the huge trees racing effortlessly in the rapid water still sticks with me.  The other thing that really sticks in my memory is how the bright shine of the water’s surface seemed to go on forever as we would look across the valley, especially when the sky was bright and almost colorless.  The water seemed to run to and merge with the sky.  It was quite beautiful and horrible at once.

We were pretty lucky as we lived well above the flooding so we didn’t feel the personal  losses that so many others experienced.  For that I am grateful.  There are, of course, many other memories and stories  that I could recount but it was that sudden isolation that the flood of  ’72 brought that I chose for my painting.

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When we were driving back from my great-nephew’s birthday yesterday, Cheri mentioned something that a friend had told her earlier this week.  It was a minor incident, one of no great consequence, that happened locally.  Neither of us had heard anything about it nor had we seen it in our local newspaper.

I said that it was the type of thing that you would have seen in local newspapers of the past but which no longer appeared in the new reality of print journalism.  Our local newspaper, the Elmira Star Gazette, which was the first newspaper that Frank Gannett operated on the way to building his news empire, has evolved over the years from an informative, vital chronicle of the local area to  a much leaner, less informative leg of a group of local  newspapers that is more regional in coverage, sharing reporters and coverage.   As a result, there are  fewer reporters covering much greater areas with less space to fill on the pages of each paper.  Local coverage consists of a page or two, at best.

Gone are the little details that newspapers of the past provided, the minutiae of day to day life in a locality that gave the reader a true feel of the newspaper’s area of coverage.  Less coverage of small incidents, minor arrests, social gatherings, small local events, etc.  The type of things that give an area’s readers a sense of definition of what they are as a community.

That’s a lot to lose.

My fear, which is beyond nostalgic longings for a return to some idealized past, is that the generations of the future will actually have a harder time trying to put together the day to day life of any specific area because of the loss of this minutiae  that was in the past always gathered in one convenient source, the newspaper.  For instance, as I’ve written before, I didn’t know much, practically nothing, about my great-grandfather’s life in the Adirondacks in the late 19th and early 20th century.  But by reading the old newspapers of that time and locality ( St. Regis Falls) I was able to get a very good an detailed idea of how that area’s inhabitants lived their lives, their social  and family networks and how they operated and interacted as a community.  It seemed like every little detail was chronicled in some way that I would never be able to find in today’s papers.

It gave depth and detail to a time and place that is a distant point in the past.

With the loss of the newspaper’s effective local coverage, I don’t know if the same could be said today, even with all the awesome sources of information available to us.  There is an enormous amount of data, given all the new technology such as the internet, out there but it’s not unified and day to day in one specific area.

Maybe I shouldn’t care about this.  Who does?  And maybe I’m just plain wrong.  Maybe it will be easier in the future to pull all the data together and get an idea of how specific people lived in specific localities.  I just feel there is a loss here that goes beyond the purely nostalgic, especially when examining the historic anthropology of a given area.

I think a small part of our cultural voice and identity will fade away…

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mark twain on steps at quarry farmWhen I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.

Mark Twain

I sometimes go to quote pages on the net just to read Mark Twain quotes when I need a laugh.  Always been a big fan of his work and his humor.  It was pretty easy because he has a large presence in the area in which I live.  Twain spent many summers here after marrying Olivia Langdon, from a well-respected Elmira family and was buried here after his death in 1910.  The Twains divided their year between their home in Hartford, Connecticut and their summer home here at Quarry Farm, which sat on the side of a hill overlooking the valley in which the city sits.

quarry farm studyIn his study at Quarry Farm, which has been moved to the campus of Elmira College, Twain spent his summer days writing many of his classics.  The family of my grandfather lived at the very base of the hill on which Quarry Farm is located and as a kid I wondered if my grandfather ever saw Twain as he ambled down the hill into the city.  My grandfather at that time was a stagehand at the Majestic Theatre, one of the numerous theaters that once graced Elmira and Twain was a frequent guest to establishments in that vicinity.  Perhaps they nodded hellos on the street.  I could certainly imagine it, whether it happened or not, as Twain says above.

I know that’s a small and inconsequential bond, but it brought the person much closer to a reality when I was younger, made his words seem that much closer to my own existence rather than words in an old library book.  I am gratified that this vague connection is with someone whose words and humor still resonate with people today.

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Jules Breton "Le Soir"My first real exposure to genuine art came when I was a kid in the early 70’s, going to school at Ernie Davis Junior High on Elmira’s east side.  My father worked at the Sheriff’s Department which was just several blocks away so after school I would walk down there to ride home with him.  It beat the school bus ride which could be a real drag because I was the first kid picked up in the morning and one of the last dropped off at night, an hour or so each way.

So after school I would head downtown where I often ended up at the Newberry’s store that had an old pinball machine tucked away in the corner of it’s basement, hidden among the knick knacks and housewares.  Great machine.  Only a dime a play.  Spent too much time there.  More often though I ended up at the old Steele Memorial Library, a beautiful old Carnegie endowed structure that was like a treasure chest.  I spent hundreds of hours there, reading and exploring the stacks behind the reception desk that you entered by climbing a tight cast iron stairway.  What a great atmosphere.

But the other place downtown that caught my attention was the Arnot Art Museum.  It was located in an old mansion and was free to the public at the time.  They had ( and have) a wonderful permanent collection of paintings, a real surprise for a small city like Elmira, and I was mesmerized by the group in the main parlor.  The piece that caught me was the Jules Breton painting above, Le Soir.  It glowed on the wall there and the beauty of the surface and the sense of place and time were palpable.  For a 14 year old, it was heady stuff and often I would head into the Arnot to just spend a few minutes with the Breton and some of my other favorites there.  The Brueghel.  The Millet.  There was a great sense of calmness there and to this very day whenever I enter that place I am taken back to those days as a shaggy haired kid dragging my denim gym bag through the doors to see that Breton painting.

Below are a couple of other Bretons, not at my Arnot Museum…Breton song of the larkJules Breton the weeders

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A Return to RootsI live in a part of New York state that doesn’t normally get a lot of headlines.  We’re somewhat rural with a few smaller  cities scattered across what is called the Southern Tier  that runs along the NY/Pennsylvania border.  

We have Corning which is known for its glass industry including a world-class museum.  There’s Ithaca with  Cornell and Ithaca College.  Then there’s my hometown of Elmira where Mark Twain spent his summers, writing many of his books from his study overlooking the valley, and is buried here.  Home of the late, great Ernie Davis.  We’re also known for our prisons.  I can barely contain my pride.

Then a little east there’s Binghamton.  

It was primarily known as the birthplace of IBM but after yesterday will be known in the national mind as the location of yet another murderous rampage.

14 killed.

I don’t know much about the assailant and I really don’t need to hear a lot.  I’m sure there will be all kinds of new info today and  in the week ahead, all profiling a troubled soul.  Unfortunately, we’ve heard it all before.  Too many times.

I don’t have any answers to the scourge of mass killings.  I have sympathy for the families who lost members.   I have empathy for those who witnessed and survived, many immigrants to this country.  Their terror and bewilderment that such a thing could happen in their chosen home is palpable.

And I have a degree of sorrow and empathy for the killer.  While I can’t understand how a person could be driven to such violence , I can imagine the alienation and rage that ran through his mind.  I don’t know his circumstances or what might have possibly tripped that final switch but he obviously lived in a troubled state of mind without the necessary coping mechanisms.  

That doesn’t excuse or justify his actions.  It only brings to mind the scores of people that live among us with that same anger, that same sense of separation.  The vast majority live this side of the line but more and more cross it and we’re left watching the news, horrified.

And you hope and you pray that this time will be the last.

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992-221-jpegThere is an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira that contains the remains of  my great-grandmother, Nellie Myers.  She died in May of 1933 in Allentown, PA.

I always think of her as Nellie Tobin because,  when trying to find any info on her, her maiden name was the only name that brought anything at all.  Which was practically nothing.  Only a listing or two from her family in some Elmira City Directories from the 1870’s and 1880’s.

My aunt Norma is the only member of our family with any memory of her and that was when she was a young child so there is little known of her except for the circumstances of her death.  A few days after my father was born in Allentown, his grandmother, Nellie, went to the market with his sister, Betty.  Nellie sent Betty into a store and when Betty returned Nellie was gone.  It was discovered she had jumped in the Lehigh River from which she was later fished out.  Most of my aunt Norma’s memory has to do with the funeral and the bloated nature of her body after being shipped back to Elmira several days later.

My family, like many others, is full of folks like Nellie Tobin, family members who are lost in the miasma of memory.  There is little known of them and they are long forgotten.  All that denotes their existence are perhaps a death listing in the archives of an old newspaper and a headstone on their grave, if they’re lucky.  Nellie is only a name on a yellowed index card in the office at Woodlawn Cemetery.

I don’t know why I bring this up today.  Perhaps because Nellie Tobin is, for me, a symbol for the tenuousness of our lives here and how we are all pretty much destined for the anonymity of the collective memory in the future.  There’s a certain sadness in this realization.  To have all the things that  define us as vibrant living beings reduced to a cold line of writing here or there in some archive is a sobering thought, one that makes you reconsider how you live your life.

It’s only a thought.  There’s little one can do but live for today and let that distant future take care of itself.  But for my today, I’ll remember Nellie Tobin and try to imagine her existence.  Maybe she won’t seem so blue…

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Paul Sample CelebrationSometimes you run across work that really hits you and you wonder, “How have I never heard of this guy before?”

The world of art is full of such people, artists who while popular in their time never have made that shift into the ongoing popular consciousness. Perhaps their style was out of step or out of favor in their time or perhaps they just never caught the big break.  One of my favorite examples is the artist Paul Sample.  paul-sample-church-supper

The poor guy doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page of his own.

I first saw a piece of his a number of years ago in a traveling exhibit at the Arnot Art Museum,  in Elmira.  I can’t remember the title or even all the details.  I just recall being struck by the composition and the way he framed the painting with the elements at the picture’s edge (much like he has done in the top painting, Celebration, shown here).  There was an emergence from dark to light that really presented the central part of the scene in a strong way.  

Paul Sample Janitor's Holiday I immediately went home and integrated this idea of his into my own work.  Over the years I’ve come across other examples of his work (I’ve never been able to locate the piece I saw those years ago) and am always visually excited by them.  The compositions have a wonderful triangular quality where everything more less pointed to center of the panel, allowing the eye to settle easily into the painting.  His colors have the richness and dark undertones that  really attract me as well.

As I’ve said, the art world is full of any number of Paul Samples.  They may be less known and less loved than the brighter stars in their galaxy but their work remains alive and vital, full of the potential to influence even to this day.

Give them a chance…

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