Art and About
Engaging with the creative force in everyday life

December 30th, 2007

Too Much of a Good Thing During the Holidays?

Posted by christina in Web Columns

My husband and I love the performing arts — both as participants and as audience members. Our children are now 4 1/2 and 7, and in the last year, we have aggressively started taking them to live performances of theater, dance, music and various other performance arts. They are ready for it, and we have been waiting not-so-patiently for them to be old enough to share in our most favorite activity. Before we had children, if we didn’t have tickets to something clipped to the calendar, then we started to get the shakes. I am pleased to look in my datebook organizer for 2008 and feel the weight of 4 tickets clipped to several of the pages, and the year hasn’t even begun yet.

We live in the San Francisco Bay Area and there is a disturbing trend when it comes to family fare offered during the holidays by our local arts organizations. I don’t quite know when it began because until my children were old enough to be good audience members, I wasn’t keeping tabs on family theater, music and dance events. But now that I am watching the ads, I see that the market for children-friendly shows is stuffed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but a little thin the other 10 months. There are a few theater troupes in our area that offer year-round seasons for families, and I applaud their constant commitment to nurturing the next generation. The organizations that disturb me more include the San Francisco Symphony and ODC Dance, prominent companies offering alternatives to the ubiquitous “Nutcracker,” that cater to families but don’t necessarily have anything to do with the holidays. Therefore, their offerings could be done any other time of year. However, they are choosing to squeeze the non-holiday family attractions into the last six weeks of the year and leave a bit of a drought the other 46. There are several theater companies guilty of the same scheduling glut, most offering a version of “A Christmas Carol” or familial theatrical alternatives.

I’ll start with ODC since this holiday season I attended their “Nutcracker” alternative, “The Velveteen Rabbit.” There is one Christmas morning scene, but other than that, the dance could be produced at any other time of the year. The audience was packed with appreciative young children, parents, and grandparents. Would as many of us turn up during another season of the year? Possibly, and I suspect there would be some drop off in attendance for those who associate the holidays with high-class arts and then feel they have filled their personal quota until next year. But we can’t be the only family who would enjoy seeing “The Velveteen Rabbit” at any other time of year, especially when the holiday calendar is quite so full.

The San Francisco Symphony’s offerings of “Peter and the Wolf” and a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” with live orchestral accompaniment bothers me even more. Why crunch these offerings into December? I believe “Peter and the Wolf” used to be done in the spring around Mother’s Day. I know that because I would sigh when my children were too young to go and say “someday, we’ll go to Davies Hall and hear ‘Peter and the Wolf.’” This year, “Peter” was done the weekend before Christmas when our family had 800 other events going on. The live-orchestra “Wizard” sounds like great fun but not in December. How about offering it around Easter time, when the networks used to air the movie. Technicolor and Easter seem well-suited for each other.

In defense of these organizations and many others, I am aware that a huge percentage of their yearly revenue comes in during the holidays. I am aware that they hope someone who is not a season subscriber will come with their family, fall in love with the organization and be a patron during another part of the year. I do not know how often this phenomenon occurs. But what if the non-subscriber is like my young family, wanting to go to an event together at any given time, but find there aren’t many options in February or May or September?

I also understand that one doesn’t necessarily need to bring children only to family-marketed arts offerings. We bring our kids to plenty of “regular” shows during the year. There is something special, though, about something like “Peter and the Wolf,” or the story of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” which are part of our collective arts culture and need to be ceremonially passed onto the next generation. How about having that ceremony in the spring or fall or summer?

Could the audience and the arts community meet each other halfway? Could families make a solemn vow to attend other performing arts offerings throughout the year, and could these organizations stage some family-oriented entertainment outside of December? If the arts are going to survive, then the children of today need to get into the habit of attending live performance all year long. I understand that the holidays are perfect for special traditions, like going to a fine ballet or concert. Speaking from the experience of taking our children to arts events all year, it actually is a special feeling no matter the time of year. It seems we all could be starting down a dangerous path of teaching our children that arts patronage runs hot and cold in opposition to the weather.

December 23rd, 2007

Simple Gifts

Posted by christina in Web Columns

My daughter’s preschool shares a building with an adult day care facility. The children get together with the “grandmas and grandpas” across the hall for holidays and special occasions. The children usually sing songs and the adults usually applaud appreciatively. One of the reasons we chose this preschool is for this kind of intergenerational interaction.

The tradition during the Christmas season is for the two groups to come together to sing carols. This tradition was honored earlier in December this year. When I arrived to pick up my daughter on Monday, I was surprised to see a note on the door from the teacher that the children were once again singing for the grandmas and grandpas and they would be returning to the classroom shortly. I went inside to stay warm and caught the first wave of preschoolers running back to class. With twinkling eyes and beaming smiles, they held up small red satin stockings and exclaimed, “Look what they gave us!” At first glance, the stockings looked nice enough and I gave a rather pat, “Wow! Neat!” before asking if they had a good time. “A really good time!” one boy answered.

It wasn’t until my four-and-a-half year old, Allyndreth, and I were walking to the car that she held the stocking up as close to my face as she could and said, “Look! My name!” In green letters, someone who knows their way with an embroidery needle had beautifully stitched on her name. That kind of personalized attention put into a gift truly is exciting, especially these days.

I had to reflect on an article my husband told me about in last week’s paper, talking about people who re-finance their homes so they can pay for Christmas gifts. I know credit debt in this country is astounding on any given day, but astronomical during the holidays. I know there are people in my life who sigh about not having the money to give gifts. I know that it is easy to fall prey to the temptation of wanting to show the people we love how much we love them with monetary gifts. Frankly, this is a pretty lazy way to approach gift giving and not very imaginative. Your pocket book may be poor, but your imagination is rich. If a class of preschoolers can get excited about a little stitchery from an acquaintance, then think how your loved ones would feel with a little handmade something from you. You were born with the gift of imagination. Now, use it!

The following list is far from imaginative, but it might get our brains re-programmed to the significance of small, personal gifts. This is not Martha Stewart stuff, folks. This is basic, pure, from-my-heart-to-yours stuff that anyone can do.

Pick a flower, a sprig of holly, or an evergreen branch, tie a ribbon on it and attached a homemade card. Not a fancy, specialty scissors and doodads card but a piece of paper, folded in half with your handwriting on it.

Make a plain-old handmade card with some special words about the person and a holiday greeting.

Bake cookies. Maybe attach the recipe. Draw squiggles around the recipe card or computer printout to put your personal stamp on the gift.

For the more skilled person, stitch someone’s name on a store-bought holiday trinket, like a red satin stocking. For the less skilled, write the name in colorful sharpie in your best cursive handwriting. Stick a candy inside.

Take a photo of something beautiful or a photo of your loved one. Make a paper frame, decorated however you want, and give it to them.

Think about the kids of gifts you used to make in school for your parents and grandparents. If you have children now, think about the kinds of gifts you encourage them to make for relatives. If you do these same projects as an adult and give them to your friends and family, I guarantee they will be appreciated. I also guarantee that they will be remembered long beyond the memory of the monetary gift item.

Open your eyes to the little things around you that could become inspired gift ideas and let the brainstorming begin. Instead of budgeting money, budget time. And it doesn’t even have to be that much time. Don’t we all like to hear when someone says they’ve been thinking of us? We don’t ask, “How long were you thinking of me? A minute? An hour? A day?” It really is the thought that counts.

I wish you all a thoughtful holiday season!

Simple Gifts
by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1848)

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.


When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,


‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.


December 16th, 2007

Enlightening Myself This Holiday Season

Posted by christina in Web Columns

In this season of red and green, I find myself in a Green quandary. It all began when I was watching HGTV’s “What’s Up With That Decked Out Christmas House,” in which the host visits homes all over the country lit to the hilt with Christmas lights. At each house, the homeowner discussed their energy bill for December, and often it was significantly higher than for any other month of the year. One man even had the power company come and install thicker lines to his house to accommodate the December power consumption. My initial reaction to this was laughter and head shaking over their economic choices, followed by distress that these people would rather waste energy and destroy the earth than do something for the good of the planet.

Some folks had chosen to decorate in LEDs (light emitting diodes). The energy savings was astounding, but it led me to thinking about the artistry of this endeavor. An LED may be “good” by allowing a lighting artist to express themselves without ruining their pocket books or feeding the insatiable fossil fuel beast, but the look of an LED display is very different from the look of an incandescent light display. If a holiday lights artist can share their inner voice via LEDs, then more power to them. But what if incandescent lighting is what another person needs to illuminate his point of view?

Honestly, if this were completely an aesthetic discussion, I would solidly come down on the side of incandescent lighting. To me, it is brighter, more colorful, more dramatic, more magical and flat-out more Christmassy. There is one house in my neighborhood that has chosen LEDs. I pass that home and admire their choices, but I don’t have any emotional reaction to the lights. It almost seems to me that if you are going to go to LEDs, you might as well do no lights. It’s a halfway compromise that isn’t worth making, in my opinion.

I respond to the homes with the incandescent displays, and if we got around to putting up house lights this year that is what ours would be. But in an age of global warming and excessive consumerism and waste, I can’t put lights up anymore without guilt, and I don’t allow myself to completely enjoy the incandescent displays of others. This is one artform that, for me, is a tug of war between the emotional and the intellectual. I know in my head we should all be enjoying our compact fluorescents and LEDs this holiday season. I know in my heart that one of the joys of these darkest days of the year is to see the holiday lights start to pop up around town. To me, they are symbolic of the hope, joy, love, peace and faith that inform the celebrations of late December. They are our electrical metaphors of the light we are awaiting with the new life of spring, the birth of a child, the end of a string of bad luck, the return home of a loved one, the restoration of health, or anything else for which we may be holding vigil.

The featured lighting artists on the HGTV program all planned their displays for months, and spent another month or two installing them every year. This doesn’t include the time is takes to dismantle the display in January. In other words, this is the artistic medium these individuals choose to work in and a large amount of mental energy and free time goes into realizing their visions. They all express joy about doing the lights. Most of them may err on the side of too gaudy for my taste, but I will defend their artistry to the end because they have taken the time to share their imagination with the rest of us. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter if their imaginations glowed incandescent or not. But this is not a perfect world, and that is the problem.

Lectures from my arts education background keep popping into my head — learning how to be creative on a budget, finding a way to express yourself using what you have instead of what you want, executing an idea within certain parameters. Holiday lighting artists could impose upon themselves to use only LEDs, and find a way to satisfy their artistic drive using those. An artist who insists on using incandescent could challenge himself to make a splash using fewer lights, rather than attract attention based on sheer quantity. I’m sure the collective creative minds of humanity could arrive at myriad Greener solutions. Would these solutions be emotionally satisfying? For some of us, probably not.

There was a time when film artists mourned the death of silent movies because the public was ready and eager to make the transition to sound. Art behaves as a living organism, changing and adapting through time as is required and necessary to keep it alive. The time of the incandescent dinosaur may be drawing to a close. If that’s necessary to keep the world turning for my great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, then that’s enough for me to start forging an emotional connection with the Greener approach to holiday lights.

December 9th, 2007

Tonight on Unsolved Mysteries: Christmas!

Posted by christina in Web Columns

O magnum mysterium
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum
natum jacentem in praesepio.

Beata Virga, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum
Jesum Christum.

The text of “O Magnum Mysterium” has crossed my path a few times in the 31 years I have been singing in choirs. The translation reads:

O great mystery
and wondrous sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in their manger.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear the Lord
Jesus Christ.

Although I often work with directors who insist we understand the words we are saying, no matter what language we sing in, I hadn’t given this text much thought beyond a simple word-for-word translation. My current choir is preparing a setting of this text by César Alejandro Carrillo for our upcoming Christmas concert and our director, speaking with the awe and wonder worthy of a great mystery, reflected on how truly extraordinary it was that a god made flesh would first be seen by animals. By animals!

I was raised in the Christian tradition so I don’t remember a time I couldn’t recite the story of Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn so Mary had to deliver the baby Jesus in a stable. As a child, I accepted the story. As an adult, I see some feasibility issues and a tremendous willingness on the listener’s part to leap into a serious state of suspension of disbelief. As a storyteller, I have to admire the high drama produced by the contrast of having a long-awaited messiah make his worldly appearance in a stable. It’s a story that keeps the crowds coming back for more generation after generation.

I’ve always imagined the stable and hay, the holy family, the shepherds and the three wise men, but I haven’t devoted a lot of brain cells to the animals. They weren’t blind and deaf. They surely reacted to the interruption of their evening stable-time when these two humans showed up and delivered a baby. They were the only witnesses to the birth. That is truly wondrous.

Whether you look at the story as myth, as fact, or as metaphor, the basic concept of a god appearing to animals first is unusual to a Euro-centrist culture. So unusual, that I think it is downplayed most of the time until you look at a text like “O Magnum Mysterium.”

This week we are decorating our house for Christmas and I spent several hours assembling 21 crèches that I was given by my mother. It is her collection, for which she has no space in her new home, so she unloaded a trunk full of boxes on my doorstep last year. I was honored since I used to love setting up the collection every Christmas season when I was growing up. The crèches are from a multitude of cultures, all hand-made and fairly unique, if you’re used to the one that people light up on their lawns at this time of year. They all have the basic players of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Usually there is a shepherd, sometimes an angel, most of the time the 3 kings are part of the set. A few have a stable backdrop.

All but two of these crèches have animals. The two crèches from African nations have more animals per capita than the ones from Peru, Mexico, nations in Asia or countries of Europe. Since the artists of each crèche give their work the flavor of their heritage, I began to think about the direct relationship between animals and humans as represented in the respective artistry of each ethnic point of view.

I like to set up the crèches, but it is time consuming and I admit that over the years, I have fallen into a pattern for each vignette — the family in the center with the three kings off to the left, a shepherd off to the right (often near a symbolic sheep or two) and if there is an angel, it goes slightly behind the scene, looking on. If there are animals, I usually scatter them about in the background, minding their own business.

This year, though, the abundance of animals in the African crèches made me reconsider my plan. I started to give the animals more and more prominence as I arranged the scene. I put them closer and closer to the manger, putting them in the middle of the action, gazing at the wondrous sight. With each crèche, I strove to bring the viewers attention to the fact that the animals are also key players in this rather bizarre tale. I re-imagined the scene as many ways as I could. I call this year’s installation, “The Cattle are Lowing.”

It’s nice to recognize that even at age 35, the wonders of Christmas still abound.

December 2nd, 2007

The Traditions That Go Back to Childhood

Posted by christina in Web Columns

Some traditions are passed down through the generations. Other traditions are intentionally crafted to suit a certain group of people or situation. And then there are the traditions that sneak up on you, that you may not even notice have been granted “tradition status” until you find them missing one year. We recently discovered that preschool artwork falls into the sneaky tradition category for us.

My son, Tyrian, was the first to enter preschool four years ago. He produced seasonal crafts that would come home regularly, we displayed them for a while and then they went into a box. By his second year, I recognized the rhythm to the crafts, made some mental notes about how Tyrian’s maturing fine motor skills were evident from one year to the next, but I still mostly displayed the art as a token of support. I didn’t have emotional connections to the pieces.

Tyrian moved on to Kindergarten and continued crafting, although usually his creations did not come home until the target holiday was over so displaying them didn’t make much sense. We stored his favorites and are bringing them out this year at the appropriate season. So far he has greeted most of the unburied treasures by saying, “Why did you put that up? I made it in Kindergarten.”

I have been so busy following my son’s journey through school craft projects that I initially didn’t notice that my daughter, Allyndreth, had taken careful notes on what her brother had made in preschool, when he had made it and when she was supposed to make it. Allyndreth is two years younger than Tyrian and started preschool right after he left.

Our first crafting crisis came last Advent season. For two years, my son had made an advent chain of red and green strips of paper leading up to a Christmas bell. We were instructed to tear off a loop for each day of December until the 25th. Our family decided to give the ritual a little more weight, so each day we wrote on the strip of paper something for which the children were thankful. We then taped these strips to the wall so that as the chain was depleting, our gratitude ladder was growing.

But last year, Allyndreth’s class did not make an Advent chain. Its absence was the trigger that caused us to realize we had started a tradition. My husband and I stayed up late on the night of November 30 making two Advent chains to have ready for our children when they woke up on December 1. We were already planning our private Advent chain party for this year when to my relief, Allyndreth came home with an Advent chain from school a full five days early. Glory Hallelujah! Now I just had to make one for my son and our Advent was saved!

Our second crafting crisis came during November of this year. As the leaves turned from green to orange, Allyndreth started talking about making her hand turkey at school. I learned that for Allyndreth, the quintessential craft of her first year in preschool was the hand turkey – a tracing of her open hand on autumn-colored construction paper with feathers glued into each finger slot. An eye placed strategically in the thumb and a small bric-a-brac wattle glued off the tip of the thumb and you’re all set.

Allyndreth was sick the first week of November and fought hard not to stay home from school. When I learned that she was afraid she would miss the hand turkey project, I called her teacher, Miss Susie, and alerted her to the importance of the hand turkey. Miss Susie said they would not be doing hand turkeys while Allyndreth was out. Thanksgiving came early this year. When we were healthy enough to go to school the second week of November, I was certain that this would be the week Allyndreth would make her hand turkey. After all, there were only precious few days before Thanksgiving break.

The days ticked by. No hand turkeys came home. Everyday, Allyndreth went to school and hoped aloud that THIS would be the day they made hand turkeys. By the end of the week, I figured I had to stick my nose into Miss Susie’s lesson planning. As innocently as possible, I asked Miss Susie when they would be making hand turkeys this year. She replied they were going to do some other turkey projects this year. I must have gone pale because she looked at me with great concern. I asked if, by any chance, Allyndreth could privately make a hand turkey. Miss Susie immediately understood the seriousness of the situation and said she’d be happy to pull Allyndreth aside to make a turkey. Three hours later, when I picked Allyndreth up, she came out proudly displaying her Hand Turkey 2007 and Miss Susie said several of the children expressed that they were feeling bereft of hand turkeys and had joined in the fun.

Next year, Allyndreth starts Kindergarten and the amount of crafts she produces will begin to decline. My son, now in first grade, is doing almost no seasonal crafting at school while his attention turns to less-crafty academic pursuits. As I packed up Thanksgiving decorations last weekend, I sighed a little to think that this was probably our last year with a new hand turkey added to our collection. To be honest, I never even saved Tyrian’s hand turkeys from preschool because I was too ignorant to realize I would want to use them again and again as part of our Thanksgiving ambience. He made me a few this year, but he made them with the skill of a seven-year-old, not the whimsy of a preschooler. They are lovely, but not quite the same.

Allyndreth has six more months of preschool and I now know to savor each craft for the time capsule that it is, and for the tradition of fine art that has crept into my life.