Posts Tagged ‘Olympics’

Hokusai Mackerel and Sea Shells 1840

I don’t have much to say today and am running late plus the Russia-Finland hockey matchup in the Olympics is beginning as I speak.  So I am greatly distracted today.  But t came across this image from the Japanese master Hokusai that I wanted to share.  I had a post several years back that featured the famed waves  for which Hokusai is best known.  They are such strong images of the power and rhythm of nature that it is easy to see why they are his signature works.  But when I saw this quiet still-life of a fish with a few shells from 1840 I truly understood how revelatory this work must have been to the western artists,  such as Whistler and Van Gogh among many others,who discovered it a generation later.

It has a wonderful delicacy in its color and it’s also  simple and elegant, maintaining an extraordinary modernity through the past 170 or so years.  It always seems  like it is in the now which is that intangible that most artists , myself included, seek.  It is unlike anything you would have found in the west in 1840 yet seems totally at home now.  Just a wonderful image to ponder.

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I’m an Olympic junkie.  Summer or winter, it doesn’t matter to me.  I revel in the thrill of this global competition and find myself watching things intently that in other times would not draw even a glance.  Trampolining.  Badminton.  Racewalking. Of course, there is the draw the household names, mainly professional athletes like NBA stars and tennis players.  Or Michael Phelps who has made himself a household name in a sport , swimming, that really only has a huge following in Olympic years.  Hard not to marvel at the accomplishments of these finely tuned athletes on this global stage.

But it is the stories of the other participants, those who most likely will never stand on the podium with medals around their necks, that makes these games so special.  Stories of people who have overcome the greatest of adversities to stand equally alongside the household names.  Simply being there and giving their all is a victory.

Today, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa continues the most unlikely of quests as he runs in the semi-finals of the Men’s 400M.  Unlikely, because he is without both of his lower legs,  born without fibulas in both legs.  Running on carbon fiber blades, Pistorius has trained, raced and fought legal battles over a number of years to simply run in these Olympics.  He doesn’t figure to medal or even make the finals.   The legal battles stem from those say the blades give him an unfair advantage which sounds pretty humorous that anyone is accusing a man without legs as having any sort of advantage.  I don’t want to focus on that aspect of this story however.

For me, this is a story about altering our perceptions of our limitations, both physical and mental.   His journey should be a gold medal  example for any of us who has ever sold ourselves short and taken the easier path because of  limits imposed by ourselves or others.  Watching him makes me wonder how many times I have limited myself, how many times I had listened to those who said that I couldn’t do this or that and gave up.

So, I will be watching today, marveling at a man who had the will to follow his dream, as well as wondering at a world of evolving medical technology that allows a legless man to go from a life in a wheelchair to being able to run with power and grace.  In a world that sometimes seems ugly and hard,  that is a huge change in perception.  Makes me believe we might live in a time of miracles if we decide to look at it that way.

In a story  in today’s Miami Herald, Linda Robertson writes about Pistorius’  mother and how her   perceptions changed Oscar:

Pistorius’ late mother, Sheila, didn’t think Oscar would be able to walk, let alone run when he was born without fibulas. But after his legs were amputated at 11 months and he was fitted with prosthetics, she decided not to give him special treatment. Pistorius recalled Sheila, whom he described as “a bit hard-core and no-nonsense,” once telling him and his brother, “ ‘Carl, you put on your shoes and Oscar you put on your legs, and that’s the last I want to hear about it.’ I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes.”

Put on your legs and run, Oscar.

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I am always intrigued by symbolism and this date, August 1, marks a day and the start of an event in history that was filled with symbolism,  It was on this day, seventy four years ago,  that the 1936 Olympics held their opening ceremonies in Berlin in the Nazi Germany of Adolph Hitler

 Hitler used the event as a world showcase for his vision of Aryan dominance  and coordinated a spectacular ceremony that brought the Berliners to a feverish pitch as theyconstantly thrust their arms forward in the Nazi salute as their yells of “Heil” reverberated throughout the immense stadium.  The Nazis knew how to use symbolism and spectacle, that’s for sure.  Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, was a spectacular documentary of the games put together by the same woman who brought the world perhaps the greatest piece of propaganda ever produced, The Triumph of the Will.  Both films used stark, powerful imagery and pageantry to convey a sense of power that overwhelms the screen.  One can’t watch them withour feeling a bit of awe, mixed with an uneasiness akin to fear.

Now on that day, as the teams of each nation made their way into the stadium they would pass the dais where Hitler and the Olympic officials sat.  Each team would dip their flag in deference to their host and the assembled team members would collectively turn their faces to the right, in the direction of the dais.  Many of the countries saluted in the Olympic manner which is very much like the Nazi salute except that instead of extending the arm forward, one extended their arm to the right.  Of course, the partisan Germans that made up the majority of the 100,000 or so of the crowd that day took this salute to be the Nazi gesture and voiced their pleasure at seeing it.  And to be sure, there were many who chose to honor the Fuhrer with the Nazi salute.  The Bulgarians even goose-stepped their way past the dais.

Symbolic of their opposition to the fascist regime and of what would take place in the next few years, the British assembly did not salute at all, simply turning their heads to the right as they passed.  To the credit of the United States our athletes did not salute as well , instead taking off their straw hats and placing them over their hearts.  And as we passed, our flag was held high, the only flag to do so that day.  It dipped for no one, which brought on a thunderous chorus of  derisive whistles.

Of course, this is the Olympics of Jesse Owens, the black American whose achievements on the track rattled the foundations of Hitler’s idea of Aryan supremacy.  Ironic, that he should strike such a symbolic blow against ridiculous ideas of racial supremacy even as he was being denied many basic rights in his own homeland.

Here’s a bit of the opening ceremonies with narration by Jesse Owens and the sounds and music of the actual ceremony:

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I’m pretty excited because the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics are being held tonight in Vancouver.  Cheri and I have both been Olympic junkies since we were children.  For both of us, it was really sparked by the 1972 Munich games which had great television coverage of the games.  Unfortunately, the horror and the  human drama of the eleven Israeli athletes who were taken hostage and eventually killed by Palestinian terrorists overshadowed the feats of Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut and the controversy of the USA/ USSR men’s basketball championship game which ended with the USA team having the victory gold ripped from their hands by a series of  incredible calls by officials, on and off the court.  To this day, their second place silver medals lay unclaimed in a Swiss vault.

The winter olympics over the years have yielded some of the most memorable moments for us.  There is, of course, the Miracle on Ice of the US men’s gold in hockey at the 1980 Lake Placid GamesTorvill and Dean’s transcendent ice dancing.  Eric Heiden, Apollo Ohno and Bonnie Blair’s exploits in speedskating, not forgetting the failure and redemption of skater Dan Jantzen.  There were the exploits of Eddie the Eagle, the Brit whose Olympic triumph came in the fact that he simply made it to the bottom of the hill each time he took off from the ski jump.

So many memories of triumph and failure.  For Cheri and me, the moment that crystallizes the Olympics into a single moment is the final run by Austrian Franz Klammer in the men’s downhill at the 1976 Innsbruck games.  Klammer was the hero of Austria and carried all their hopes for success in the games.  There may never have been an Olympic athlete with such high expectations placed on a single event.  A sizzling time had been put up on the board by a competitor and Klammer came to the line as the final skier.  With his homeland screaming and ringing cowbells, Klammer unleashed a performance that could be considered as the definition for walking the line between disaster and triumph.  From the very top, he skied with utter abandon.  He flailed and fought his way down the big hill, often off balance with one ski off the ground.  Somehow he made it to the line and Austria erupted when hiis winning time came up on the board. 

That was a triumph of Olympic proportion.

So, for the next couple of weeks we’ll be glued to the games, seeing if there will be a new lasting memory.  A big moment of triumph.  A big moment of failure.  A quiet moment of redemption.   It’ll all be there, I’m sure.

After all, it’s time for the Olympics.

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Songs Sent on the WindIt’s Thursday and I’ve got a thousand things running through my mind already at 6 AM, little bits of thought and images that are vivid and strong but not really forming into one coherent message.

So I am left to try to grasp one straw and hold on tight, hoping it will come to fruition.  Here’s how it goes:

As I said, nothing is forming so I go to YouTube to see if there’s anything that will catch my full attention.  I come across a video of the Killers and an acoustic version of their song All These Things That I’ve Done.  Normally, it’s a big anthem-like song so I’m interested in hearing a different take on the song.  As I’m listening I realize most people will recognize it mainly from a famous Nike commercial called Courage that aired during the Olympics featuring the songs refrain ( “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier“) over rapidly changing shots of athletes in dramatic moments, in victory and defeat, ending with a memorable shot of a sprinter running at full bore- on two prosthetic springs.  

It’s a striking image that always thrills me.  It makes me realize that while I might on somedays yearn for a Luddite existence without modern technology, wanting to smash my computer with a simple whack from my sledgehammer, we are living in a world  of transformative technology, one that allows a person who at one point, not that long ago, would have been wheelchair bound live an empowered life, maybe even a better and fuller life than they had experienced previously.  It has torn down barriers.  It has allowed many to have the tools to overcome obstacles.  For the time being, I am awed.

This all goes through my head in seconds as I hear the refrain of the song and the image of that runner will be with me all day.  Such is the power of imagery.

So, after that bit of thought process here is the song…

Or if you just want to see the ad…

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This is a piece called “Labor to Light”, a smaller piece that is at the West End Gallery in Corning.  It features one of what I call my icons, the field rows running back to the horizon.  To me, they represent the act of labor and its fruits- the work ethic which has been very important to me in this career and something I stress to kids whenever I get to talk to them.  

I remember years ago reading an interview with author John Irving (of “Garp” fame) where he talked about his work routine.  He talks quite a bit about wrestling in his writing as he was a high school and college grappler and he used a wrestling analogy to describe how he approached his writing.  He said that if he wanted to go to the highest level as a wrestler, which would be an Olympic or world  champion, he would have to train harder and longer than the men he would be competing against.  He felt that he was basically competing against every wrestler in the world.  He then turned this to writing.  

He turned his writing into a competitive effort of Olympic proportion, where he was competing with every other writer in the world for each reader that came into a bookstore.  If you were buying someone else’s book, you weren’t buying his and in his mind, he had lost.  So he began to train himself as a writer with the same effort as though he were an Olympic athlete, writing 7-8 hours per day, forcing himself to forge ahead even on days when it would be easy to just blow it off and do anything else.

When I read this it struck a chord.  I realized that in order to reach my highest level I would have to be willing to devote myself to working harder and longer than other artists, be willing to spend more time alone, away from distraction.  It would require sacrifice and hard labor.  But Irving’s example gave me a path to follow, a starting point.

I have since realized that there is a multitude of talented people out there, many with abilities far beyond mine.  But to communicate successfully with one’s art one needs to push that ability fully, in order to go beyond what your mind sees as an endpoint. I see this as my goal everyday in the studio.  Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I come up short but I’m out there competing everyday.

Thanks, John Irving.

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