A Message of Love and Pain, with Frida Kahlo

Sunday Spotlight

I used to work at Borders Books & Music in San Francisco, attached to a mall and close to a university. Having just come back from a trip to the Philippines where I tried to hold and maybe rekindle the type of young love you read about, I was more than happy to be buried and surrounded by books.

It was here where I first discovered Frida Kahlo. I don’t remember the first time I started learning about her, but I do remember buying a book of all her paintings. I didn’t know much about Frida, but her work resonated with me immediately even before I knew her story or the stories behind her paintings.

A decade later, I was standing in front of La Casa Azul in the beautiful neighborhood of Coyoacán, about half an hour away from Mexico City. I’ve wanted to visit Frida Kahlo’s home-turned-museum for a long time and standing there, in the middle of the lush foliage and blue walls of the compound I felt like I’ve truly achieved something.

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La Casa Azul, June 2017

Stepping into La Casa Azul felt a lot like stepping into a dream, into the world of Frida. It took me a while to believe that I was really there and I wanted to see everything and do nothing at the same time, for the sheer joy of being in the space. It felt sacred.

There were people in the courtyard, sitting on benches and talking, people milling about, people taking photos. There was also an area off to the side where there was a film showing, as more folks trickled in and out of the space. We headed straight to the museum which led to what became Frida and Diego’s home for awhile.

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These were some of the first few paintings I saw: an unfinished self-portrait sketch made in Detroit, Frida and the Cesarean (also unfinished) and a painting called “Marxism will bring health to the sick” which features Frida wearing a leather corset and a Tehuana skirt.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of Frida’s paintings in person, so seeing these was an ultimate gift. Most of her paintings are also all over the world — in prestigious institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in universities, in private collections and with close friends of hers and Diego’s like Dolores Olmedo. I was planning to visit Olmedo’s museum to check out more of Frida’s work but at the time, the exhibit was under construction.

Throughout her paintings — unfinished or completed — Frida’s lust for life was evident. In spite of her illnesses, the numerous miscarriages she had and the heartaches she’s  had to endure from Diego, she radiated what she painted in the simplest, but also grandest terms: Viva la ida.  Long live life.

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After her (and Diego’s) paintings were also photographs of Frida herself, with eyes that pierced and a stance so bold, so fearless. I stared at one of her photos for some time, one from Lucienne Bloch’s series. In the photo, Frida is looking straight into the camera, her necklace dangling from between her lips. It was evocative, but firm. A quiet, unyielding strength. There’s also photo of her plaiting her hair, naked from the waist up. In another one, she’s on a boat leaning down against the rail, her fingers playing with the water.

Tender, bold and playful at the same time. I thought to myself: How many of us are actually living our lives? How many of us are actually brave enough to stray away from our routines and focus instead on creating our own maps, no matter how arduous?

Eventually, the photos gave way to Frida’s study where her books were (still in their glass shelves), her paint, tools and figurines preserved as if Frida herself would come any minute to paint.

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There were still many people outside in the courtyard even though it was already half past five (the museum closes at 5pm). There were even more people inside the museum still, all of us eager to get a glimpse of the rest of Frida’s house. The line moved an inch and in a few minutes, I was standing in front of her day bed, which was in direct view of the courtyard. I imagined Frida, in her later years, still filled with love, hope and longing, looking out into the sun and the sky.

While I started taking photos of every detail, I realized that she had also put up a series of photos of the most important political theorists of our time: Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

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Frida’s political involvement started early as I recalled reading about The Cachucas, children of the revolution that Frida was a part of along with seven boys and one other girl. Their ideological cocktail was composed of Socialism, Romanticism and nationalism although their passion for poetry and literature overshadowed their politics.

In her diary, she wrote an entry dated 4 November 1952:

Today more than ever I feel a sense of companionship. For 20 years, I have been a Communist. I know. I have read conscientiously [crossed out] the principal origins mixed up with ancient roots.

I have read the History of my country and of almost all other nations. I already know their class struggles and their economic struggles. I have a clear understanding of the materialist dialectic of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-tsung. I love them because they are the pillars of the new Communist world.

As I walked out of the museum, down the stairs which led to an outdoor hallway of her and Diego’s collection of native artifacts, I was overcome with a thousand emotions. I was sad and excited at the same time. I felt small and grand.

Frida was as big as life itself, and I had mine to live fully.

“Pies para qué los quiero,
si tengo alas pa volar?”

(“Who needs feet
when I’ve got wings to fly?”)

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La Casa Azul – Museo Frida Kahlohttp://www.museofridakahlo.org.mx
Calle Londres # 247, Colonia Del Carmen, Coyoacán Delegation, CP 04100, Mexico City

War and Turpentine

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit

…I wonder, time and again, what it is that connects us to our grandparents in this ambivalent way. Is it the absence of the generational conflict between parents and children? In the yawning gap between our grandparents and ourselves, the battle for our imagined individuality is waged, and the separation in time permits us to cherish the illusion that a greater truth lies concealed there than in what we know of our own parents.

It is a great and powerful naivete that makes us thirst for knowledge.

For over a month, I carried Stefan Hertmans’s (translated by David McKay) War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) in my backpack as I traveled from San Francisco to Pampanga, Philippines.

I started reading the book just as I was getting ready for a trip to the homeland, slowly getting to know Hertmans’s grandfather, Urbain Martien. It was inevitable then, that my thoughts slowly warmed to the memories of both my grandfathers, Emilio Cortez and Cornelio Galang, two significant figures of my childhood.

Hertmans’s novel (if it can be called that because it is so much more), is an ode of tenderness, memory and intimacy to an equally tender hero of the author’s heart (towards the end, mine as well) and of the First World War.

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Stefan Hertmans with a portrait of Urbain Martien

For more than thirty years I kept, and never opened, the notebooks in which he had set down his memories in his matchless prewar handwriting; he had given them to me a few months before his death in 1981, at the age of ninety. He was born in 1891. It was as if his life were no more than two digits playing leapfrog.

War and Turpentine (Amazon | Indiebound) is not your typical war novel, nor is it historical fiction. For Urbain was not just a Belgian soldier, held by the crutches of destruction of the First World War; he was also a delicate painter — a dreamer, a creator, an impassioned lover, a believer of all things beautiful.

His life in the battlefield was book-ended by his life as a painter, from A childhood spent watching his father create murals to later years when he would sit and paint for hours, in the quiet of his old age.

His grand passions were treetops, clouds and folds in fabric. In these formless forms he could let go, lose himself in a dream world of light and dark, in clouds congealed in oil paint, chiaroscuro, a world where nobody else could intrude, because something — it was hard to say what — had broken inside him.

More than his paintings, and more than his war years (1914-1918), I was struck with Urbain’s sense of the world. In spite of a childhood ravished by war and poverty, his recollections about his family, particularly his parents, contained a kind of impeccable gentleness. His was of a contemplative, quiet temperament.

#SavetheNEA: A Campaign to Save the Arts

Art + Creativity, Call to Action, Sunday Spotlight

As the plane touched down in SFO from Manila on the eve of March 16th, not only did I step out of the plane with a heavy heart, I was also dumbfounded with recent news. Being away from the States gave me the false idea that for a second, I can get away from Trump. But there I was, waiting in line at the immigration kiosk, reading about the orange bloviator’s latest move: eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among other agencies.

I was jetlagged, already homesick but most of all, I was angry.

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It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand what all of this means. As Trump moves to present his federal budget, he has chosen to eliminate what constitutes 0.002% of the $1.1 trillion budget. While it may seem inconsequential, losing $300 million is a huge blow to folks, programs and projects which have been traditionally underfunded: artists, writers, magazines, libraries, local television stations, radio programs and other projects.

According to the American for the Arts Action Fund:

1) The NEA is the single largest national funder of nonprofit arts in America. NEA grants help leverage more than a 9 to 1 match in private charitable gifts and other state and local public funding.

2) The NEA also has an exemplary partnership with the states, with 40 percent of program funds distributed through state arts agencies.

3) With only a $148 million annual budget, the NEA investments in the arts helps contribute to a $730 billion economic arts and culture economic industry, including 4.2 percent of the annual GDP and supporting 4.8 million jobs that yields a $26 billion trade surplus for the country.

4) For more than 50 years, the NEA has expanded access to the arts for all Americans, awarding grants in your congressional district and throughout all 50 states and U.S. Territories.

5) NEA funding reaches small, rural towns through its “Our Town” grants and specifically helps our wounded soldiers and veterans with effective arts therapy.

And it’s not only the arts that’s losing funding but also a milieu of other agencies as he, unsurprisingly, increases the budget for defense. John Oliver takes a jab:

As a queer Filipino immigrant writer in the Bay Area, this hits close to home. Not only will opportunities be taken away at expanding the arts and uplifting the voices of marginalized communities, it also has far-reaching consequences across the globe. Case in point: my homeland, the Philippines.

Trump’s proposed increase in military spending comes at the heels of a recent allegation concerning US naval officers in the country:

On March 15, 2017, Admiral Loveless, four retired Navy captains and a retired Marine colonel were charged with corruption and other offenses [in the Philippines]. Among the charges includes accounts of “raging multi-day party, with a rotating carousel of prostitutes” and accepting bribes from Leonard Glenn “Fat Leonard” Francis in the form of gifts, luxury hotel stays and prostitutes. “Fat Leonard” is a Singapore-based defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the Navy of tens of millions of dollars.

GABRIELA USA

So what can we do at this point? The most important thing is to 1) reach out to your local representatives, express your outrage/concern and urge them to fight against Trump’s budget and 2) spread the word by telling your friends/family/neighbor/crush/ex-lovers/others and blast it on your all your social media profiles.

After all, John Keating/Robert Williams (RIP) said it best:

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Read more:

14 Authors on the Life-Changing Impact of the NEA (Electric Literature)
Laura Callanan on Inequality and Art
Fighting to Give Everyone Access to Arts and Culture (KQED)
Mike Huckabee: A conservative plea for the National Endowment for the Arts (The Washington Post)

#GetLit: On Art & Generosity, With Seth Godin

#GetLit

The internet is a connection machine. Virtually every single popular web project (eBay, Facebook, chat, email, forums, etc.) exists to create connections between humans that were difficult or impossible to do before the web. (Seth Godin)

Coming of age with the Internet has both ups and downs, but I’m one to take advantage of its offerings specially when it’s in the service of learning, reading and writing. The advent of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) was like Christmas for me, as I scoured the first few listings of available classes online. The best part? They were all free.

A MOOC is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. Made possible with the Internet, it enables different ways of learning regardless of distance and style. As an introvert who is infinitely curious about the world, this was good news to me. Websites like Coursera, edX, +Acumen are all testaments to new and generous ways of learning.

When Seth writes that the internet is a connection machine, he is also referring to the connection economy which is based on two principles: art and generosity. Art is not merely a painting, but “a human act, a generous contribution, something that might not work, and it is intended to change the recipient for the better, often causing a connection to happen.” Generosity on the other hand is replete with kindness and trust:

When someone takes the time to share a finite resource, one that they cannot hope to be repaid for, generosity happens. (Seth Godin)

Combine works of art with generosity, genuine connections happen. As a writer, Seth’s insights are worth remembering; they are good principles to use and guide the work. MOOCs are examples of art and generosity, and of which we can further enable the process of making art and expanding our own capacities for generosity.

Here are a few of free, online courses on literature and writing:

Modern & Contemporary Poetry 
A fast-paced introduction to modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, with an emphasis on experimental verse, from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to the present. Participants (who need no prior experience with poetry) will learn how to read poems that are supposedly “difficult.” Available from Coursera, starts September 10, 2016

Storytelling Fundamentals: Character, Conflict, Context, Craft
A class for creative writers (both aspiring and established), and everyone who wants a deeper understanding of what makes a great story so captivating. You’ll leave this class armed with a tried-and-true framework for writing your own fictional short story, and inspired to put pen to paper. Available from Skillshare

How to be a Writer (A MOOC for kids!)
Writers put words together to tell stories and describe ideas. Language is our tool, and communication our goal. We try hard to be observant, honest, and insightful. Available from DIY

For a list of classes by Seth, check here (not free, but worth every penny).

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Do you know of any free writing courses? Share them in the comments below!

I visited the Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia exhibit over the weekend, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I have never heard of Bonnard nor seen any of his works before, but as of late anything French has been a keen interest. The second part of the exhibit, curated by Esther Bell features the artist’s intimisme, painted works which detail domestic interiors with an intimate subject matter. He depicted scenes at the breakfast table, women reading the newspaper awashed in morning light, tables laden with food. What Bonnard does is capture these moments tenderly, reminiscent of the way the writer Marcel Proust proposed a different way of looking in Alain de Botton’s How Marcel Proust Can Change Your Life.

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The Breakfast Table (ca. 1925, Oil on Canvas)

The effect of these painted works on me was heightened, with Adam Gopnik’s book Paris to the Moon fresh on my mind. I got a used copy at the SF Big Book Sale in April, after seeing Alain de Botton’s (again) praise on the cover. I picked up it in a hurry without reading what it was about, and the book proved to be an exercise in good judgment.

Paris to the Moon details Gopnik’s move to Paris with his wife Martha and his son Luke from New York in 1995. He talks briefly about his childhood, blithely recounting the cardboard Parisian policeman he once had, family vacations in Europe to meeting Martha, who loved Paris as much as he did. I had to heave several sighs of wistful longing. After Luke was born, the family made its way to across the Atlantic to an apartment on the Left Bank street, second floor.

The odd thing in making a big move is the knowledge that your life will be composed of hundreds of small things that you will arrive at only by trial and error, and that for all the strikes and seminars you attend, the real flavor of life will be determined, shaped by these things.

 

My fascination with Paris, and France in general, started with literature (as do other things in my life). It wasn’t too long ago when I regarded France with a bat of the hand, scrunching up the side of my face after rolling my eyes and mouthing “colonizer.” But James Baldwin changed all of that.

When I read one of his books, Giovanni’s Room, I was glued to the characters of David and Giovanni’s lives in the tiny room that was ‘theirs.’  I started reading more about Baldwin after that, wanting to understand why France was ideal for him. When you hail from a Third World Country, it is usually the American Dream that permeates your ancestral and personal ideal. In an interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin states: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. 

Nevertheless, France became a refuge for the writer, while I joined the nameless group of writers who think of France as a sort of literary mecca. While I have never been to the country, I think Gopnik summarizes what draws the Francophile in:

It is not an old or antiquated Paris that we love, but the persistent, modern material Paris, carrying on in a time of postmodern immateriality, when everything seems about to dissolve into pixels. We love Paris not out of “nostalgia” but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look.

 

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The Cafe “Au Petit Pucet,” Place Clichy in the Evening (1928, Oil on Canvas)

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La Place Clichy (1912, Oil on Canvas)

L’intimité de la vie quotidienne, with Adam Gopnik and Pierre Bonnard

Art + Creativity, Book Reviews

A Different Way of Looking, with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton

Book Reviews, Soul + Spirit, Writing

What I know of Marcel Proust: nada. What I know of Alain de Botton: quite a lot, although not personally, but enough for me to dive deep into one of his books, How Proust Can Change Your Life (Shop your local indie bookstore).

One of the things that I’ve truly been enamored with Proust/de Botton’s compendium is a new way of looking: of a character in one of Proust’s essays where he forces a dissatisfied youth to take in Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s paintings of mundane things, not-so-special moments: of bowls of fruit, loaves of bread, kitchen utensils, one reading a book, a mother showing her daughter some mistakes in needlework as opposed to paintings in the Louvre’s “grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyck.” That there is beauty in a lot of things that is already around us, and that we are just plainly inattentive to these details. de Botton points out this lack of capacity of seeing beauty is not due to laziness or inattention, but more so because we are inexperienced with looking. 

The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them. Appreciating the beauty of crusty loaves does not preclude our interest in a chateau, but failing to do so must call into question our overall capacity for appreciation.