Even with our legendary big skies dulled by the smoke and ash drifting in from the West Coast inferno, there was a beautiful day a couple of weeks ago for a spur-of-the-moment, get-out-of-Dodge, head-clearing drive. We packed a lunch and didn’t decide to drive to Yellowstone National Park or points west until we pulled away from the curb. Either destination was fifty-two miles away.
It was a day of purposeful disconnect, and points west won out and so we drove to Three Forks in search of a herd of steel horses on a hilltop just four miles north of the I-90 exit. We had driven by them many times on trips to Helena, but must have thought they were real—if, in fact, we had even noticed them. Horses on distant ridges are not unusual in Montana.
The horses are blue, although they appear gray from the roadway. And judging by the people we could see who had trekked to the ridge, they are huge—eight feet tall at the withers. They were crafted by Jim Dolan, a sculptor from Belgrade, Montana, and gifted by him to the people. Their ridge home is on land provided by Wheat Montana.
We wondered if their hues would change when the snow flies and drifts against their fetlocks.
Our picnic at Headwaters State Park reminded us of the recreation opportunities afforded those who live in or visit this vast state. Everything was neat and clean; the lawns being mowed as we ate our sandwiches and salads and talked about the thirty-nine horses.
I don’t know what Mr. Dolan had in mind when he sculpted his steel horses. Such is the nature of art. Whatever art may “mean” is held solely by the artist. The viewer (reader, listener) has only a personal sense of interpretation that may well differ from the artist’s intent. The artist knows, we’re just left guessing.
Much artistic expression is interpreted metaphorically—as some sort of mysterious secret needing to be explored. This is an exercise that most artists leave for others to do. Sometimes, after all, a painting is just a painting. If the viewer sees it as something else, so be it. That is not the artist’s fault or responsibility. Make what you will of Andy Warhol’s soup cans, Marilyn and Mao.
An example I cited a few weeks ago in this space was that when Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle (1906), his intention was to promote socialism in a society that cared little for the working poor. The reading public tended to focus on the deplorable sanitary conditions of the Chicago Stockyards.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Lewis said.
For whatever reason, I have long admired the paintings of Franz Kline (1910-1962), an American painter associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Much of his work was expressed in daring slashes of black oil paint in linear designs across large white canvasses. I found an appealing violence in much of his work. I was admiring one such work at the Art Institute of Chicago when my father joined me late that day.
He looked at the painting and said, “I could have done that.”
“But you didn’t,” I said.
I regretted making the comment, it seeming to be perhaps a bit rude. But it did prove the point that art in any of its guises belongs to the person who actually creates the conveyance of expression. (If it’s so easy to make a painting, paint one.)
In 2017, Montana held a special election to fill a House vacancy left by Ryan Zinke, a Trump toady who begged for a cabinet post. The contest between Greg Gianforte (R) and Rob Quist (D) ended as predicted. Gianforte, a carpet-bagging billionaire business developer, faced a spirited challenge from Quist, a talented country singer/songwriter. The campaign sparked a conversation with a republican acquaintance who suggested that Quist was unqualified because “the guy’s never worked a day in his life.”
I took great umbrage that somebody who thinks that his pushing papers around a walnut desk in a corner office is somehow working and somebody who writes and performs music somehow isn’t.
In something of a rage, I suggested that perhaps he should spend a day or so writing a song and see how that works out for him. Or maybe write a play in the style of that slacker Shakespeare. Or write a novel or a sonnet, or emulate Picasso on canvas or Ansel Adams on film. Or act in a stage play or a film. Maybe, I suggested, he could handle a simple haiku or a dirty limerick, even allowing for the use of the storied Nantucket.
The guy was actually offended by my suggestions. Egregiously so.
It’s interesting to notice that art never fails to figure prominently in our daily lives. Most of us watch some television entertainment programs on a regular basis. Banks, hospitals and office lobbies typically have artwork hanging on their walls. Our town squares play host to sculptures. Our libraries are filled with literary works. Most people can’t drive to the supermarket before finding a radio station playing something they like. Others read on a daily basis, or take in a movie, a play or a concert on the weekend.
And yet, funding in the public schools for arts-related activities seems always to be teetering on collapse. In contrast, sports are funded almost lavishly. (How either will survive the pandemic is anybody’s guess.)
What sports and the arts have in common is that they enrich our lives, deepen our understanding of each other, lead to our appreciation of other cultures. In each we can witness excellence, draw inspiration, and behold human achievement with almost disbelieving eyes. Watching Simone Biles performing her jaw-dropping beam dismount is as dramatic as listening to Yo Yo Ma play a Bach sarabande or listening to saxophonist Lew Tabackin take us to new heights in jazz or hearing Dylan Thomas read Do not go gentle into that good night or trying to absorb the depth of beauty and despair of Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. Peter’s Basilica.
And if you ever were witness to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook, I can practically guarantee that you would love the ballet.
What sports and the arts also share is the reality that few of us will achieve any success beyond personal satisfaction in their pursuit. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s perfect.
My boyhood dreams of being a professional baseball player were thwarted by a singular lack of an ability to play above-average ball. And above-average doesn’t come close to what is needed to get to the Bigs. The same could be said about countless other athletic and artistic pursuits.
Most of us share that.
But becoming a concert violinist or a Wimbledon champion isn’t the point of playing music or tennis. At any level, both contribute to our humanity, our gentility, our civility. Making music with an orchestra or playing on a soccer pitch develops skills that will prove valuable throughout one’s life; those are the moments we need to appreciate and encourage and savor.
There is good reason that celebratory high-fives are shared with teammates.
I had a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois who I greatly admired. He was a noted scholar of Nietzsche and Hegel, as well as Marxist theories of art criticism, and I took several courses from him. I admired his assertion that the accumulation of knowledge gains relevance over time and may even one day lead to wisdom. When he wasn’t being a scholar—thinking deep thoughts and writing books in his cramped office in an Ivory Tower—he played in pick-up basketball games every weekday afternoon and played cello in a string quartet. For additional fun, he collaborated on a book of analysis of Richard Wagner’s epic opera, The Ring of the Nibelung.
A flabby body and singular interests, he believed, could only lead to a flabby mind.
Graphic art by Courtney A. Liska
Boules de Picolat (Beef and pork meatballs)
I’m a big fan of forcemeats—pates, sausages, terrines, meatballs. This is my take on a meatball from the Catalan region of France. I served them with a sauce espagnole, mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach.
1# ground beef
1# ground pork
2-3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
2 large eggs
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3-4 Tbs. grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 cup of stale bread, soaked in water, squeezed dry and torn into small pieces
Lightly mix all of the ingredients together until blended. Do not over mix. Shape in 2-3 ounce balls and then flatten into inch-thick ovals. Fry in vegetable oil until crisp and cooked through, 3-4 minutes per side. Remove and let rest, covered, for a few minutes before serving.
This is one of the five “mother” sauces of French cuisine. It is a basic brown sauce whose origins can be traced to Spain. It is made of beef or veal stock, tomato puree, and browned mirepoix, all thickened with a very dark brown roux.
Mirepoix: 4 oz. onions, 2 oz. celery, 2 oz. carrots
2 oz. butter
2 oz. flour
2 oz. tomato paste
Bouquet garni: 1/2 bay leaf, 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme, 2-3 sprigs parsley
1.5 qts. veal or beef stock
Roast mirepoix over medium heat, in a heavy bottom sauce pot with the butter, until golden brown. Add tomato paste and continue cooking for 2-3 more minutes. Sprinkle in flour, and cook until the flour is well incorporated into the other ingredients (about 5 more minutes). Add stock and bouquet garni.
Bring to a simmer, and cook for about 2 hours, reducing the entire sauce down to 1quart. Skim sauce as needed.
Once the sauce is finished cooking, pass it through a fine chinois or sieve a couple of times to insure a smooth, consistent texture.