Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Inspiration For It All

Ineffable (adj.): unable to be expressed in words. (English)

Growing up, I was privileged enough to live right down the road from one of the best art historians and life-enthusiasts I've ever known: my great grandmother, Marnie Wengren. Gamgam. One of my earliest memories is of a day spent with her in Boston, the first time she brought me to the Museum of Fine Arts. We visited many times over the years, but that day she headed first for the Ancient Egypt exhibition--her favorite. She led me determinedly past the mummies and hieroglyphs, saying there was someone she wanted me to meet. Finally I was placed solemnly in front of an enormous statue of shining black stone: a woman's body with a cat's head.

"This is Bast." She said, like she was introducing an old friend. "Do you know why she's special?" I shook my head.

"Because she has a secret."

She didn't tell me what the secret was, but I've been searching for it ever since. Over the years Gamgam has been a constant presence in my life. She took my sisters and me to the theater, and sent us to art classes--she firmly believed that if anyone is ever really to love art, they have to try their hand at making it too. Tea is always offered, served promptly at four with her signature chocolate chip cookies and proper teacups. She is an unflinching advocate for the Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea,) and a formidable opponent at any card game.

I spent endless afternoons of my childhood browsing her bookshelves, poking through her enormous collection of turtle figurines, and contemplating the Gandharan Buddha that sits in her living room. Her apartment smells sweet, like Carmex lip balm and baby powder, and the sunlight drifts gently through half-drawn curtains. As I got older she took me to lectures on Mary Cassat, documentary films, and could lead me through our beloved MFA even as her eyesight was going and she could no longer see the paintings.

Gamgam instilled in me a deep passion to know and seek out the hidden depths of art, searching as earnestly in the gorgeous oil paintings of John Singer Sargent as in the rather absurd-looking computer-painted chicken I made for her when I was eight. It's that passion that has led me to this year of exploration and self-discovery, looking for the sacred in art around the world. She was absolutely thrilled when I got the Watson, and has had her fingers crossed for me as I wait for a decision from NYU. When I got confirmed at sixteen, she gave me the Saint Christopher medal that I wear constantly around my neck; my first sacred object, the token I took with me to my Watson interview and hold every time I'm on a plane. I've given her paintings, she's given me paintbrushes; we've spent hours talking together about my dreams for the future as an art conservator and her memories from when she worked in various museums and traveled the world.

At twenty-two, most of my friends are astonished that I have a great grandmother--she's ninety-nine, for heaven's sake, and she still makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. I knew when I said goodbye to her way back in July that there was a good chance that she wasn't going to be there when I got back. She knew it too. Now, my worst fears are being realized.

Gamgam is dying.

What was a seemingly harmless problem is no longer, and we only have days left with her. And I'm trapped on the other side of the world. I've been gone for almost nine months but this is the furthest from home I've ever felt.

I know she would never have forgiven me if I had waited at home instead of taking this fellowship. She's read every blog post I've written at least eight times, and we've video-chatted regularly while I've been away. I told her I'd be on her doorstep the morning I got home, and we'd talk about my adventures over tea. She is my rock, the force of nature that has always lived just ten minutes down the road, and the inspiration for all of this; I have never contemplated life without her.

On Monday I got to call her, to tell her I love her. I refused to say goodbye. Instead, I told her about my days in India. I complained about the mosquitos, raved about the food. Finally, I asked her if she remembered that day in the Museum, with Bast. When she nodded, I made her a promise.

I promised I'd keep looking for secrets.


Gamgam died while I wrote this entry today. I don't have it in me to change any of these verbs to past-tense. Please keep her and our family in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Ireland: December in Dingle

Curwhibble (n.): a whatcha-ma-callit; thing-a-ma-bob; whosey-whatsit. (English, obscure)

This post is long overdue and covers oodles of stuff. I ain't even sorry.

Okay, I'm a little sorry. But I'm writing from India! Internet's a bit harder to come by here.

I got to Ireland just before Christmas and spent two weeks exploring the Dingle Peninsula. When it isn't hailing, Dingle is absolutely gorgeous; there are rocky cliffs and beautiful inlets and bays, endless sheep and gently sloping hills. And, as luck would have it, ruins! Well, it wasn't really luck. I did that on purpose. But there are so many ruins that I don't think I could have visited them all even if I had spent the entire year there.

My first stop was Kilmalkedar Church, a Romanesque-style stone church that has lost its roof and is being slowly reclaimed by the greenery. Its holy wells, sundial, Ogham stone and even the church interior are weathered after centuries spent on the coast of Ireland, but the graveyard is still in use and frequented by locals. Kilmalkedar, as it turns out, is a place of pilgrimage--a stop on the Saints Road, which winds its way through the peninsula and stops at various holy sites.

Nearby and another stop on the Saints Road is Gallarus Oratory, a small stone building that was built sometime between the 6th and 12th centuries (I know it's a big window, but that's the fun part of archaeology) and was used as a place of religious devotion and refuge. I visited in the middle of a hurricane, and I can attest to its sturdiness!

Next was the Riasc Monastic Site, which is all that remains of a large community of early Christian monks. All that is left are the low walls of the former buildings of the site, and a couple weathered crosses. Of course, wandering around in places that are so filled with ruins got me thinking about conservation, restoration, and preservation. When I think of ruins I think of abandonment--places that no longer have a use beyond their status as monuments. Although really, these places haven't been abandoned at all. The Saints Road is a popular pilgrimage--some go as far as to call it the Camino of Ireland, and some of its stops have historical ties to other pilgrimages in Europe. Kilmalkedar still serves as an important local landmark; when I was there at least two families came to pay their respects at graves, and it's a well-visited spot on the Saints Road. So who's to say these ruins no longer have a use? They don't seem to be abandoned at all; rather, their purpose has changed over time. And interestingly enough, it's that change that has allowed for their continued existence and use, preserving them through the ages.

I also visited Ardfert Cathedral, which is in Tralee, and has had conservation work done in the past on its stonework. There's even a museum! Of course, since I seem to have developed a distinct ability to visit sites when they're not fully operational or even really open, the museum was thoroughly closed. But there are still outdoor placards with helpful didactics, and yet another graveyard that is a glorious mix of old and new.

Finally I started making my way to Dublin, stopping in Cashel along the way. On the top of the hill overlooking the town is the Rock of Cashel, a castle which not only enormous and beautiful but also home to a very important conservation project in Cormac's Chapel. The chapel is made almost entirely of sandstone in the Romanesque style and is currently the flagship of an effort across Europe to protect and stabilize sandstone structures in wet climates. The humidity and rainy weather in Ireland and other parts of Europe are degrading the stone and introducing microorganisms that further damage the plaster used in wall paintings. Currently efforts are focused on climate control and preventing further deterioration by isolating and protecting the sandstone from the elements, as well as UV irradiation to stop further colonization by microorganisms. In Cormac's Chapel unique wall paintings and carvings have already been lost, but the efforts by conservators will hopefully prevent any further loss in this historic chapel. There are similar projects being implemented in the Rock's Gothic cathedral where there are more wall paintings, but luckily these are not on sandstone and have stood the test of time (and water) better than their Romanesque counterparts.

Next up, January in Dublin. Maybe someday I'll publish a blog post right on time--but today is not that day. Happy six-month blogaversary!