Friday, September 23, 2016

Reunion Time

I badmouth the States in general and Iowa in particular quite a bit.  One has only to look at the huge debacle that is our presidential race to see why, and yet, it has its moments.  I was reminded of this over the summer, when I looked around and had to ask myself if I was in a motherlovin' Miyazaki film.  In the evenings, I'd go outside as the clock crept up on 9 to stroll through fields strewn with fireflies.  In the mornings, I'd go for walks.  These weren't always spectacular, but the morning that I left for AnimeIowa, there was a super-kawaii pink rainbow shining in the sky.  Another morning was layered in fog as I walked around the lake park in Glenwood, where every spiderweb was hung with dewdrops.  It seemed like any minute you might step through into another world.

There's a reason why the word for America in both Korean and Mandarin is literally translated as "beautiful country."  It damn well is.  Case in point: the M_____ family - or those descended from Leland and Elaine, at any rate - decided that this was the year and Grand Lake, Colorado was the place that we should all get together.  If you've never been to Colorado, I'd sum it up as proof that God is an artist and he likes to show off.  When they decided on the end of the first week of August, I didn't think I would be joining, because I had to get back to Mongolia and get my shit together...but then I kept seeing my cousins, aunts, and other assorted familial type people talk about the reunion on Facebook and in group emails, and I thought, "Well, damn.  I don't want to miss that."  So I emailed my aunts who were arranging everything and got myself in on the action.
This involved taking a very long car ride across two states and up over 12,000 feet of elevation with my parents.  I could've made a lot of jokes about taking long road trips with your parents at the tender age of 37, but it's been a month and a half so they've grown stale, besides the fact that it actually wasn't that bad (thanks to several books and my new cat-ear headphones to occupy myself - when my dad's behind the wheel it's nonstop audiobooks and old country music).
Family Portrait, by Uncle John
We stayed at Shadowcliff, a mountain lodge whose roots crossed those of my family tree at some point in the past.  From the room I shared with my aunt and uncle, I could watch a cataract of water tumble over boulders on its way down to the lake.  The internet worked fantastically, which was awesome, because as much as I love my family I would have hated to miss snarky late-night facebook messages from the other side of the world.  And it was perfectly situated...just a short walk down the hill to the main drag of the town, where a certain ice cream shop was selling basil lemongrass ice cream on the waterfront.  The walk back, on the other hand...

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of going to a family reunion, it involves a lot of sitting around and catching up.  Although we are all friends on Facebook, I hadn't seen most of my Dad's family in several years.  Being outdoorsy people who are into all that nature shit (unlike me), several people went out on the lake, and others seized the day with some hardcore hiking.  I spent most of my time battling for the title of "King or Queen of Bad Ideas," with one of my little cousins (he won) and entertaining Bunny, who - after all - only gets to spend a little time each year with her aunt Becky.

There was also the monumental task of feeding a legion.  My aunts assigned meals to different family groups, and for once being single meant that I got the awesome assignment to cook with my cousin Micah and his girlfriend, Nina.  Next-gen single dude, my Uncle David, was also assigned to our group, but he wandered into the kitchen as we were almost finished.  We informed him that since he was late, he could wash dishes.  "I could do that," he said, and apparently meant exactly that - he had that capability, but since we never actually told him to, he didn't.

While we were cooking we made plans to hike up to Adams Falls, which was signposted as being a mile and a half from Shadowcliff.  Since I sacrificed my morning walk in order to cook brekke, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to get my walk in and make the most of the lovely surroundings.  And it was - the waterfall was pretty and I enjoyed talking to Micah and Nina.  They then went on with the loop trail, while I listened to my feet and started back down the trail.  And then started walking back along the highway toward the lodge.  At some point, I realized I was going to have to walk back UP to the aptly named Shadowcliff, and was contemplating how much that was going to suck when my cousin Amanda and her family pulled up and asked if I wanted a ride back?

Family.  It means having someone come along and offer to haul your ass up a cliff.  I love these guys.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Struggle Is Real

I love my family.  When I'm in Mongolia, I miss them like I miss tacos - sure, I can survive without them, and maybe I don't spend every day thinking about how much I want them, but when the craving hits, it's bad.  That said, it is a very real challenge for me to spend three weeks in Iowa.  So this year, I decided to plan stuff.  I started in Kansas City, visiting family when I wasn't in an AP workshop, then headed down to visit Shaggy and the fam before returning to Iowa.  I also convinced my mom that she should travel to Coralville, Iowa with me at the end of that week (aka, my birthday weekend) so that I could attend an anime convention.
I have been curious about what an anime convention would actually be like since my brief adventure with C2E2 in March.  While I was looking into them I discovered there was one happening in Iowa while I was home, so I figured, what the hell.  My mother probably would have been willing to go with me to the actual con if I'd wanted, but instead I got us a hotel with a hot tub and wifi that was just across the interstate from a mall to keep her content (because as much as she enjoyed seeing the cosplayers, I can't imagine spending vast amounts of time there would have appealed to her).
Since we made good time across the state, I was there in time to go to the opening ceremony.  This was kind of campy, but had the benefit of teaching me the con rule: 6-2-1...
6: The number of hours of sleep you should get each night.  Apparently room parties are a thing and go on into the wee small hours of the morning, although why you would want to invite a bunch of strangers into your room to party is beyond me.  I can hardly stand sharing my space with people I know and love.
2: The number of real meals you should eat every day.  So there's this thing called consweet, where they have free pocky and ramen and sodas.  Except pocky and ramen and soda doesn't really fit into any of the major food groups, hence, the need for real food.
1: The number of times you should bathe each day.  I'm not really sure why this needs to be said, especially considering that Iowa in the summer is pretty much as humid as balls, but apparently it does. 

I actually talked to Gameboy about this experience when he got back from his yearly GenCon expedition.  I was curious to know if it was standard for the organizers to lay down the law of the con and tell people to take showers.  He laughed and said he wished someone would tell people at his con to take showers.  And here I was hoping that it was just because anime tends to draw a younger, less worldly crowd.
Hygeine (or the lack thereof) ruined the effect of some of the cosplayers for me.  I am down with all sorts of cosplayers - fat, skinny, black, white, etc, etc - but for the love of all that is good, let them be CLEAN.  I have also come to the conclusion that I am pretty much just fine with never being more than a casual cosplayer.  Countless times I saw someone totally fangirl out and run up to give a cosplayer a hug.  I have some very definite ideas about my personal space, and they preclude having strangers in said space. 
And then there were all the non-anime cosplayers.  Not Deadpool, mind you - Deadpool cosplay works with everything - but the people who were dressed as Disney princesses and DC superheroes (or antiheroes, thank you, Suicide Squad >sarcasm<) boggled my mind.  I mean, I guess any opportunity to dress up is a good opportunity to dress up, but if you like anime enough to go to a convention, wouldn't you dress up like an anime character?  I'm sure this wasn't the only thing going on in Coralville the end of July.
I was possibly looking forward to the marketplace most of all.  You can't get good swag in Ulaanbaatar, so this was one of the first places I went the first night.  I spent a fair amount of time looking around, but finally came to the conclusion that there really wasn't that much that I wanted to spend money on.  I bought a few things - the ninja shoes were imperative, given I was wearing a dress I'd decorated with red Akatsuki clouds the second day - but I actually spent more at C2E2, which wasn't even an anime thing.

The most exciting part of the convention for me was the Doll, Figure, and Model contest.  The immense bunches of crap for sale at C2E2 included several booths selling plushies of different varieties.  At first I was sad that there weren't any anime ones, but I decided this just meant I should make my own.  The little megane guy on the left is mine (Kishitani Shinra from Durarara!!), and trust me when I say he looked a lot more impressive when he wasn't standing next to a 3-foot Lego model of Gundam (and even less so with the first place winner - another large doll dressed in Victorian mourning).  Needless to say, this time I did not bring home a prize, and I didn't actually care.  The judges were SO encouraging - one even suggested that next year I offer plushie making as a panel.  I went to her panel on dolls in anime the next night, and it changed the direction I'll take my lesson in when I start making them with my students this fall.  By the time we got back to Glenwood, I had decided who I could make to compete with the complexity of some of my opponents, IF they have a contest next year and IF I were to attend.  And since coming back to Mongolia (a month ago, if you're wondering), I've basically been sewing nonstop, completing 3 more with another 2 that are waiting for some finishing touches.

At the end of the day, AnimeIowa wasn't the anime convention of my dreams.  This is not to say I didn't enjoy it - I actually had a blast, and it was a great road trip with my mom, who agreed with me that cosplayers don't actually look that out of place in Wal-Mart at 10 pm.  It's just that I've seen more of the world.  At one point in the marketplace, I thought to myself, "Maybe when I move to Japan."  And then I realized that I could actually, realistically say that.  Rural Iowa isn't as far as you can get from Akihabara, but if it's not on a different planet, it's definitely on a different continent.  I'm ridiculously lucky that I have the kind of life where I can decide to indulge my nerdiness by moving to the source.  Not everyone has that kind of privilege.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Get Yo' Geek On

Every once in a while I feel the need to unequivocally declare that I am now, and always have been, a nerd.  That said, I go through phases of different flavors of nerdiness, the way I go through phases where all I want to eat is pho noodles, or Mexican (actually, every damn time I'm home...ask me how many times I ate at Chipotle while I was in Chicago, go on - I dare you).  When I was in middle school, it was Dragonlance.  As a freshman in high school, Star Wars.  Later in high school it was the X-Men.  During my time in Ras Al Khaimah I got hooked on Doctor Who.  There are a few fandoms I haven't gotten sucked into, but they are rare.  Anyways, regardless of my current fandom, being a nerd is sort of my thing, and so when I found out that there was a comic con thing happening in the same convention center as the national art teachers' conference I went to last month, it was only a matter of time before I broke down and bought a pass.
Well?  Have you???
The convention was actually the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo: C2E2, which sounds like a robot from Star Wars and most of the time I have referred to it as "that comic con thing," since that way people actually know what I'm talking about.  Now, a little FYI for all the haters out there who may find themselves feeling salty thinking that I took time off to go to a comic convention...I didn't.  I dutifully walked past all the cosplayers (I'm SO sad I didn't see Captain America and Iron Man in historic civil war garb until the photo showed up on my facebook feed) and the big entrance to the hall with all the booths selling shiny wonderful merch until the last session of my professional development was over, around 20 hours before I flew out of Chicago on the flight I'd booked long before I heard about C2E2.  I'd have to be stupid to miss out on my kickass art teacher workshops, the whole reason I went there.  That means I paid $40 for a pass that I got to use for about 3 hours, but it was worth every penny. 
Lego Rey

A big part of the reason I decided to go was the fact that I've never been to a comic convention.  My certifiable nerdiness notwithstanding, I've just never been in the right place at the right time.  So I decided to carpe the fuck out of my last diem in Chicago and find out what it was all about.  I mean, I had an idea, of course.  Panels and cosplay and all sorts of stuff for sale.  But to see it firsthand?  To experience people walking around in the most unbelievable costumes, with the most beautiful hair and makeup - not because it was their job but just for shits and giggles?  To watch the mania of consumerism unfold in all its geeky glory?  To hear experts in the industry talk about their shit?  In short, to meet with my people?

Totally. Worth. It.

I've got to say that nerds are actually the best.  For being hot as balls and super crowded, "The Floor" (as it is known) was actually a very polite, upbeat place.  People were actually really friendly and basically in a great mood.  I had my backpack on and bumped into more than one person while I was navigating it, and always found my apologies accepted by a smiling face.  If you're reading this back home, this may not seem like a big deal (unless you've been to a Trump rally recently, in which case, my condolences!) but after doing my two years in China I've come to appreciate it a lot.

Then there was the line for churros.  It was ridiculously long, as I figured out by asking the woman who was actually selling them.  I said I'd pass - I was too hungry to wait in the line, and she just handed it over to me to eat while I waited to pay.  Maybe that wasn't being nice - maybe that was good business sense, because by the time I'd made it to the front of the line I was ready for another.  Either way, it was super effective.

One thing that caught my eye while I indulged my impulse shopping (for the bajillionth time that week) was Valiant's superheroine, Faith.  I know it's a thing now, for comic books to have more representation of different races, such as the new Ms. Marvel, who is of Pakistani descent, and I think they've represented characters who are differently-abled.  To be honest, I haven't actually read American comics for a while, so I'm not sure how much they've come to be inclusive of other body types, but I thought it was really cool so see they had a fat woman for a superheroine, in her own limited series.  Like, not cutely chubby...definitively fat.  I only got to read the first issue, so I'm not sure how legit she is - there was one scene where she was defending puppies, which are cute and all (even if they grow up to be dogs) but made me wonder if they'd actually let her be a badass - but the fact that they had her out there with her own cardboard stand-up was definitely a step in the right direction.
For the last two years, my nerd boat has been docked in the harbor known as Anime, so the only panel I actually went to was the Funimation one.  I was actually kind of sad at how little representation anime actually got, both in terms of merchandise and in the convention generally. 
When I messaged the Kawaii Kid about it later, we both agreed that if we combined his knowledge with my mad craftin' skills we'd make a fortune.  But I found at least a few things to spend my cash on.  One of the great things about cosplaying is that it highlights what you may be looking for, so when one of the vendors told me they had the Nendoroid figure of Celty (the character I'm dressed as) I forked out a chunk of change, and then did it again when I found a dakimakura of my favorite male character, Yato.  I bought a bunch of Lego minifigs for Five, who has been amusing us by setting up and photographing tiny adventures with the two she already had - honestly, she only cared about the Batman one I brought her, the others were just bonuses.  The art historian (what little there is) in me loved stumbling across the Ukiyo-Pop booth - BD Judkins takes pop culture icons such as Star Wars and envisions it as Japanese prints from the 1800s - the golden era, one of my favorite art forms!  I ended up buying Deadpool, because OF COURSE I BOUGHT DEADPOOL.  (Hello, ninjas!)  But my favorite find was actually a new game - Superfight.  You remember being a kid and having debates with your friends about who would win in a fight - Batman or Superman?  (If not, sorry, but your childhood sucked).  This game is basically built on that premise.  You draw three character-type cards and three attribute cards, then create your best fighter using one of each.  The difference between some of my other favorite card games (such as Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples) is that you play your character openly and argue for why they would beat the other character.  I've only played it a couple of times, but it's awesome, especially when you get the right group of people together (ie, total nerds).
Far be it from me to belabor the point, but lest anyone have any doubt that going to C2E2 while I was in Chicago for the NAEA conference was work related, it did spur me on to organize my school's first (ever, as far as I could tell) anime night.  I have written ad nauseum about how awesome my kids are, and after experiencing C2E2, I wanted to share the excitement with them.  I teach a LOT of nerds (possibly why I like my students so much), and when I had permission and started telling them about it, the response was fantastic.  We watched a movie, ate sushi, did a trivia quiz, and - of course - had cosplayers, most of whom were hardcore and did a LOT of work on their costumes.  I found it kind of hard to believe that nobody had organized something like this before, especially since the two who got me hooked on anime were actually IN the student council the previous year.  Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and the next time I go to a convention it will be anime-centered to get the most out of the experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Since coming to Mongolia and moving back into a secondary art position, I've been constantly stepping up my game as an art teacher.  I've seen teachers do amazing things with elementary art, but (in spite of teaching elementary students for seven years) it is really not my cup of teach.  In the last four years (sometimes it's hard to believe I have been in Mongolia for four years!), not only have I worked harder IN the classroom, I've participated in professional development outside the classroom - actual, art related PD, by the way, not the typical sort of thing I've attended as part of life in a school that never really applies to me - and, as amazing as it is when you know how little effort I put into my general teacher ed courses at university, I LOVED IT.  So when this school year was in its early months, I asked my principal if I could have time off to go to the national art teacher convention sponsored by my professional association each year, this time in Chicago.

This is not my teaching blog (that's been on hiatus even longer than this one was), so I'm not going to tell you about the conference, other than to say, if you're an art teacher reading this, to try and go, if you ever have the chance.  It was awesome.  This IS, on the other hand, my travel blog, and seeing art is one of my raisons de voyage - it's kind of my thing (along with spirituality, culture, and one or two other things that I won't mention lest I scare off any new readers).  So I watched with interest, as people on the facebook Art Teachers group I subscribe to started posting about different works of art you could see during the conference.

Now, there is a LOT of art in Chicago.  One of the best art museums in the world is right there in the loop - the Art Institute.  Less than a block away is the very famous Cloud Gate (so famous that I didn't even realize it was there and go look at it, which is a shame, because my students keep asking about it...oops).  There are potholes filled in with mosaics and tons of other public art and art galleries and basically, a shit ton of art.  In fact, it's way too much to see if you're going to take your art conference seriously and do any shopping at all (which I for SURE was).  So I narrowed it down to 3 - the Art Institute, the Cultural Center, and the City Gallery.  I'm not going to tell you anything about the Art Institute, which I visited Tuesday after I dropped my stuff at the hostel (which was my first legit hostel stay, and if I trusted that they'd all be that great, I'd never stay in anything else).  It is big and amazing - there was a van Gogh exhibition that I got to see while I was at it - and although looking at its collection online is cheating and not the same thing as standing in front of its works of art in person, you can at least get an idea of what it was like without me attempting to wax poetic about it.  But the other two...they had some unique opportunities.

Wednesday after my preconference workshop for secondary teachers on the national standards and AP (which I'll be teaching next year), I moved to the Chinatown Hotel (actual name, which was weird since it smelled like corned beef and cabbage on St. Pat's), then took the L north of the river to the Water Tower.  I'm sure it is a historic piece of architecture, but I didn't read the plaque outside, because it was 6 by then and it closed at 6:30.  The City Gallery, inside, was hosting an exhibition about Cards Against Humanity, and yes, that was the reason it made my list.

Now, I don't know if you love Cards or not.  When I added my own post about this exhibit to the Art Teachers group, the first comment was that we should, "Boycott that racist, sexist game."  It is true that it is NOT politically correct - unless you can argue that by embracing all stereotypes and being prejudiced against every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc, you are, in fact, supremely egalitarian.  I believe my Dark Lord and Master once made that argument, so that lends it some legitimacy.  That said, if you took it seriously, it could be incredibly offensive.  Fortunately, most people don't take it seriously.  However, it would be equally easy to dismiss an art exhibit about the game, since, if you've ever played it, you know that it has a very basic black-and-white design.  Surprisingly, though, it was a well-curated show - it had a lot of info about the typefaces and graphic design the makers used, and I took lots of photos to show my students the next time I talk to them about text as an element of art.

What really drew me in was the recent stir over their threat to cut up a Picasso print, Tete de Faune.  This year I've been trying to get my students reading more about art topics, and when I came across the story of their Eight Sensible Gifts, I knew this was one we'd read and discuss when we did printmaking.  Basically, for the past couple of years Cards Against Humanity has done a promotion where 150,000 people buy into it and they are given 8 Hanukkah gifts.  This year, one gift was the Picasso, which the participants had to choose to either donate to the Art Institute of Chicago or cut up into 150,000 equal-sized pieces.  After the votes were in, the decision was to donate it, but before that happens they displayed it as part of the show.
The following night was the big NAEA St. Pat's shindig, welcoming all.  I'd signed up for it, but figured I had enough time to hit the Cultural Center first - my last chance to do so without blowing off part of the workshop, and I wasn't going to do that.  But I did want to see Theo Jansen's Strandbeests, which have fascinated me ever since I first came across them scrolling through my facebook feed.
As he puts it, his creations are "new forms of life," the basic material being basic yellow tubes.  Using the power of the wind, they shamble along the beaches of the Netherlands (where I might have tried to find him, if I hadn't been able to see them in Chicago).  You actually can't understand how cool these things are, so I suggest going over to youtube and watching some of the videos.  Otherwise you won't get a proper idea of how plastic tubes and wind can make something that looks so organic (and possibly a little bit creepy, but you know what?  Who cares!)
The actual mechanisms he uses to make the Strandbeests are fairly simple.  Sails, joints, and wind stomachs are basically what it boils down to, and the exhibition was fantastic, with a few different hands-on displays that you could use to get a feel for the structures.  They also had daily demonstrations of actually walking the Strandbeests, but I was too late for that (so sad).  In fact, the simplicity of the structures makes it possible for other engineer/artists to create their own, something that Jansen encourages - he sells books and kits, and the exhibition included mini-beests by others.
This was actually my first time visiting Chicago since I was a kid.  The two times I went with Mrs. Andrew's Bright Ideas class, we visited the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum, both of which were absolutely incredible and left a lasting mark on my impressionable young mind.  Academically, I knew that Chicago was like that, but on an order of magnitude that you can't really understand unless you've been there for longer than 24 hours.  Besides the awesome conference and the fantastic art, this trip also showed me that I need to spend more time in Chicago.  At some point.  Probably not in the near future, though.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Few Well-Considered Reasons to STAY OUTTA THE WOODS

I doubt I would have visited Khuvsgul again if I hadn't won a free trip.  It is, without a doubt, the prettiest place in Mongolia, but I already experienced it, two years ago, in fact.  I've been in Mongolia four years now, and for a city girl, I think I've been an incredibly good sport about the fact that its attractions are almost exclusively in the wilderness, but the fact is that I'm pretty much over it.  When I entered the Harmonic UB photo contest, I was hoping to win first place - not because I wanted the glory, but because it was a trip to the Gobi, which is the only real destination I have left to venture forth to.  Unfortunately - and I know I sound like a baby saying this, but - unfortunately, second place is sort of what I do, so it was a free trip to Khuvsgul for me.  First world problems, I know.

That said, it could have been worse.  The tour company actually put me up in the ger camp that my former student's mother runs, Nature's Door, which is very comfortable, has excellent food, and ecologically sound waste practices (meaning they haul your poop off site for composting so it doesn't pollute the lake, and it doesn't smell very bad because they provide saw dust to dump in when you're finished).  And it is very pretty, don't get me wrong.  But unless I can find time to visit the Gobi, I'm so done with the countryside.  Here's why:

I don't care enough anymore. 

I went to the so-called reindeer festival at the ger camp next door, and it was too much of a bother to sit in the sun, reapplying sunscreen and sweating into my hat to watch the wrestling they'd set up.  Apparently I'd missed whatever reindeer events there were.  I was looking forward to the scheduled Shamanist Fire ceremony, and even came back over at 9 pm to watch it.  But then it turned out that they changed it to 10, and weren't set up until 10:30, at which point they started a BLOODY DANCE PARTY, and I'm not staying up past midnight to watch a bunch of drunk morons dance the macarena OR Gangnam Style.

I could have gone hiking but I don't care enough to deal with the bugs.  In fact, I'm done with bugs in general.  I found three spiders in my bed - THREE!  This has nothing to do with the management of the ger's just a fact of life in the woods.  There will be bugs. 

I don't care enough to want fresh air in more than small doses.  I don't want to say the "A" word, because I feel like the human body is a delicate thing and susceptible to suggestion, but I sniffled and sneezed and scratched my way through the last three days, and I'm starting to feel that mildly polluted air - or even heavily polluted air - is a small price to pay for not having to scramble for tissues for three days straight.

It's nice to go without the internet, to have time to catch up on my reading (which, in my case means binge-reading two books without stopping for breath) and doing some sketches in my travel journal, and feeling closer to that divine being that I believe is out there somewhere watching over us, but I don't care enough to do it to myself on purpose.  Especially when it means dealing with a girl's special time if I can't access shops or flush toilets.  Nature's Door at least has showers, but the last time I went to Khuvsgul I had the same problem and it is JUST NOT WORTH IT, showers or no. 

As I mentioned yesterday, I wasn't really prepared before I went to Amsterdam, and I spent more than a few minutes on the flight over (mostly because Aeroflot didn't have seatback entertainment, those jackholes) worrying that I couldn't hack it badass traveling lifestyle.  I wasn't that excited for Amsterdam, so maybe I was just over the whole traveling thing.  I've had a few existential moments like that over the last couple of years.  Then I got into Amsterdam, and it turned out that, oh yeah, actually, I can.  I'm awesome at this.  I broke my tablet the second night - ha, yeah, that happened - and it wasn't the end of the world, because I don't need to have ALL THE INFORMATIONS! at my fingertips, all the time.  I can get by with a cheap tourist map, my memory of the streets from the previous day, and a couple of notes in my journal.  But that's because Amsterdam is a city, and I am a city girl.  Give me traffic, crowds, pollution and all the wonders of modern technology that go with them - museums!  High speed wifi!  Electric fans!  You can keep the country.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll

When I went to Amsterdam I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.  I chose it as a destination because of the IB training that I've already mentioned a few times, and that was my priority, because I'm planning to leave my current school after this year and want to be as marketable as I can be.  When I chose it, I bought the Lonely Planet guide, and yet, I never actually got around to reading it - it's been a busy spring.  Blondie went there during the Christmas break and hated it - long lines into museums and too many people smoking pot.  Time Lady adored it during spring break, although with it being a busy spring I never got around to discussing its finer points with her.  So I sort of came on this trip a blank slate, and didn't leave with that super excited feeling.  In fact, I was a little apprehensive about being there for two whole weeks.  What if I ran out of things to do!?

Well, fortunately, I am an art teacher, and in a city like Amsterdam that means you will never actually run out of things to do.  The amount of art to see, and art history to experience, is amazing.  Being a seasoned traveler, though, I was aware of the pitfalls of museumitis, and since I had nearly two weeks, I planned my museum-going accordingly, limiting myself to one museum per day, getting up at the buttcrack of dawn to be one of the first to enter and - thus - saving myself from the lines that Blondie mentioned (and being jetlagged meant that this was not actually that extraordinary a feat).  The first stop on my list was a the Rijksmuseum.
I took a Northern Renaissance art history class in university, so the name of the Rijksmuseum was familiar to me (in my professor's rickety, thousand year-old voice), as were many of the artists in the collection.  It's the home of Rembrandt's The Night Watch as well as several Vermeer's.  The thing about standing in front of world-class, super famous art, though, is that it's a little surreal.  And the thing about writing a blog is that the intended audience is not a bunch of art people, and even if it were, I probably couldn't tell you anything about Franz Hals that you don't already know, because I'm not that great a scholar.  What I will be doing, instead, is sharing some art works that made me laugh or got some other sort of reaction out of me.  The detail above is about being inspired by the muse of music.  I found it interesting to see, even in their art works, that the Dutch are much more sexually liberated than some other parts of Europe, because even though there are a lot of pinched nipples in history, how many artists would choose to depict the muse squirting milk over a violin's strings as a way of providing inspiration.  There were other indications of this (such as the "Womb Room"), but let's move on, shall we?

The morning I went to the Rijksmuseum I was able to buy my ticket for the Van Gogh museum at the same time, which saved me from having to stand in line, although I still went ahead and bought the 9 a.m. entry - I figured the fewer people I had to share Vincent with, the happier I would be.  It was interesting to see so many works from throughout his life in one place - to see the transitions he made throughout his career.  I found myself thanking all that is artistic that he moved on from his peasant paintings really quick - I respect his admiration for the home-grown country life and I think he would have appreciated Mongolia for that reason, and who doesn't like a painting of people getting buzzed on absinthe?  However, as I've stated before, I'm kind of a whore for color, so I'm glad he moved on.  His later color schemes were absolutely brilliant.  I also picked up on something I hadn't noticed before - I knew that Van Gogh was inspired by Hiroshige and other ukiyo-e printmakers, but it wasn't until I was looking at some of his sketches that I noticed the similarity of his figure studies to some of the ones that Hokusai did.  So that was fun.  Sorry, there's no photos - I did a few sketches but decided to leave my camera out of it.
Speaking of my obsession with color, this was one of the things I loved the most about the Rembrandshuis Museum as well, which I saw almost as bright and early on day three (it didn't open until 10).  Each room in the house has been carefully curated (with the manifests from when he went bankrupt) so that it looks as it did when he lived there, and it's amazing to really get a feel for where he would have lived and worked.  My favorite thing, though, was seeing the demonstration of how paints were mixed.  Occasionally this comes up when I'm teaching, but I've never really been able to explain it well, because it wasn't something I've ever done or even seen.  They also had a really cool display showing how artist/scientists were working to analyze and recreate his exact colors using the pigments in ceramic glazes, which was really interesting to see.

My last art museum wasn't one that I really intended to visit.  The Stedelijk houses a really great collection of modern art, but my general take on modern art is that it's not worth paying 15 euros to see.  I'm sorry, but although I'm privileged I'm far from rich and I can see contemporary art in my hometown and pretty much any other city I visit, for much less than 15 euros.  However, it was an object lesson in our IB workshop - our instructor felt that it would be a waste to be teaching about the DP art program to a bunch of art teachers and not take them to an art museum, and it's hard to argue with that.  It was kind of fun to be around other art teachers with my new hair, because I'm not the only one with an obsession with color, and I got a lot of compliments.  Our instructor even pointed out that I needed to take a selfie with this piece because of how well it contrasted with my hair. 

In the end, I saw a lot of museums - although not the Anne Frank House, and I feel like this makes me a terrible person, but I'll add it to my list for when I come back to see the tulips and Fabritius - but I feel like I experienced a lot of other aspects of life in the Netherlands as well.  I think I could put together a really awesome, educational trip for my students...if the trust wasn't long gone, because there is no WAY I am taking my 17 year old boys to a city full of pot and hookers when I know they've snuck out.  As it is, I will have to save up for a while before I attempt it again, because I ate way too many meals in Burger King.

Monday, July 4, 2016

A Blue Day in Delft

There comes a point in every trip when you realize you are ready to go home.  I found myself at that point Thursday in Delft.  For starters, it was raining all day, which I will take over sun just about any day (it's cold and wet but precludes me from worrying about an early death from skin cancer).  Then there was the fact that one of the families in the tile painting workshop I did included two "artists" (a mother who seemed to be a teacher and a daughter who was in college), and I swear the mom was overcompensating for something - like, you're on vacation, stop throwing the elements of art around and just paint the bloody tile!  Nobody needs you to prove that you know what you're talking about.  At the end of the workshop I went to find out about having it shipped to the States, and found out it would cost FORTY-FIVE EUROS. 
Let me take a short breather here to mention the fact that pretty much every museum I went to cost bank.  As in, ten to seventeen euros.  The first couple (Rijks and Van Gogh), I barely sneezed at it.  By the time I paid ten (payable only by card) to get into the Oude Kerk, I was using their facilities to take a huge dump as a way of justifying the cost (which amused me but made me realize - knowing as I did that this little revelation would make it into the blog at some point - that I may have been teaching teenage boys too long.  Or living overseas.  Or both).  By the time I got to Delft, the fact that admission to both the Old and New Churches was only four euros seemed like the best deal ever.  Then I got ahold of my senses, and I remembered that I've almost never paid admission to the Nelson or the Joslyn, and I felt a little horrified, but I guess if you come back from vacation with a lot of money you probably traveled wrong.
One of the Prinsenhof's interactive displays

Anywho, I was happy to get on the train to go back to Amsterdam, but I was also happy to get off the train in Delft.  I took two books with me when I moved to Korea the first time, and Girl With a Pearl Earring was one of them.  Vermeer has been one of my favorite artists since I first learned about him in an issue of Reader's Digest sometime in the 90's.  I loved the clarity of the light in his work, something that I've learned to appreciate even more as I've studied and taught art in the decades since.  Even though most of his works show simple daily scenes, there is something breathtakingly beautiful about them.  And Vermeer was from Delft, so Delft was my #1 place I wanted to see outside of Amsterdam.

Basically everything I knew about Delft comes courtesy of that book, which might be problematic for a history nerd like Time Lady, but since I care more about art and storytelling than history, we're good.  The main character's brother works for one of the tile factories, she goes to church, she shops in the markets and mentions skating on the canals.  All those things are still there to experience, but I was glad to come when I did, because 2016 was declared Delft's Year of Vermeer.  When I went to the Rijksmuseum I was disappointed to see that one of their Vermeer's was out on loan - to the Prinsenhof in Delft, as it turns out.  So I was planning to make that my first stop.

Sadly, when I got to the Prinsenhof at 9 that morning, I discovered that they didn't open until 11.  Luckily most points of interest in Delft are a short walk from each other, and the Oude Kerk was literally next door, so I started there instead.  True to my adventurous spirit of showing up and experiencing shit, I had done minimal research before getting there, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Vermeer was actually buried in the Oude Kerk.  His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, purchased a burial vault in the church, and when he died in debt at the age of 43, she had him buried in her vault.  Normally I don't get hung up on famous people's graves, but I admit I got a little teary-eyed, and wished I had flowers to leave.

Since the ticket included admission to the Nieuwe Kerk I figured that was the next logical step.  It's located on the central square, with city hall and the market, so I wandered through the stalls along the way, stopping for a fresh stroopwafel, and let me tell you, warm is really the only way to eat them.
I sat and sketched the nave of the church - I'm trying to do more drawing in my travel journal - but didn't really stay long.  The clock was ticking on toward 1:30, which is when I was told to show up to tour the Royal Delft factory before my tile workshop, so I wound through the marketplace and out the adjacent side of the square to visit the Vermeer Center.
I am a little ashamed to admit it, but the Vermeer Center was actually at the bottom of my list.  My third day in Amsterdam I visited the Rembrandt House Museum, and it blew my mind.  It was incredibly well-curated and had demonstrations in etching and paint mixing, not to mention it was in his ACTUAL HOUSE.  The Vermeer Center, on the other hand, is located in his rebuilt guild house, the St. Lucas Guild.  From what I gather, the actual home Vermeer lived in with his family either can't be pinpointed or no longer exists, but the guildhall makes a great second, and presents things in a distinctly different way than the Rembrandt House.  Rather than seeing the domestic side of his life, the museum focuses on a variety of aspects in his work - his use of light, whether or not he used a camera obscura, his guild mates - the name Fabritius tickled at my brain until I realized he'd painted The Goldfinch, and when I figured out it was up the tracks in the Hague, I started kicking myself for not thinking of him sooner.  It was all very interesting, but not quite on the same level as Rembrandt.

By the time I left, the Prinsenhof was finally open.  The exhibit around The Little Street was very informative and interactive - they even had a small Escape Room set up - and I really didn't give a crap.  I wanted to see the painting, so I kind of noticed what I was walking past, but kept walking.  Honestly, I don't consider myself a great scholar, and I'd be surprised if anyone else did, but I know how to appreciate a painting.

When I was in my IB workshop one of the other teachers mentioned that they didn't think the Prinsenhof was that great, and when you think in the context of the Rijksmuseum and - presumably - the Mauritshuis (which houses Girl with a Pearl Earring, as well as the aforementioned Goldfinch), I suppose it doesn't come out on top.  It doesn't have a collection to compete with them.  Where I think it really shines, though, was in the quality of its presentation.  Since I was going to the Royal Delft factory next, I looked at their exhibit on Delftware, which included technology and multimedia presentations, as well as the giant vase pictured above which you were encouraged to decorate with your own designs, although most people just signed their name.  I enjoyed testing my instincts (because I didn't bother reading most of the labels) about the values of different pieces, and designed a vase with one of their tech presentations.  I honestly don't remember anything that engaging in any of the other museums I went to (other than the Rembrandthuis, because it was seriously my favorite thing. 
After a decently long walk through the drizzle, I made it to my final stop, the Royal Delft factory.  I'm sure most people have seen ceramics painted with shades of blue.  I grew up seeing my grandparents' blue willow china when I went to visit them, and ended up inheriting it when the family got together to clean out the house after my grandma's death.  Although the Blue Willow pattern isn't Dutch, iw was traders from the Netherlands who introduced this aesthetic to the West from China, to the point where I think Delftware is more famous than Ming vases.  What I found most interesting on the tour, though, was their architectural ceramics showroom - it was not Delft blue, because porcelain is not strong enough to use for architecture elements (unless I'm mistaken - I'm not a potter by any means, so I may have that wrong, but from what I remember during my ceramics classes, porcelain is much more fragile than most other clays) but I found it had a lot more variety and creativity in it than the Delftware.
After the tour I was able to start the tile workshop.  I'd already seen a painter at work and realized the way they apply the pattern was very similar to the way we did it for the tiles we'd painted in Les Arts Turcs - charcoal was applied to the porcelain through a stencil and the design was painted directly over it.  Any remaining charcoal burns off in the kiln.  Every piece of Delftware is created with two small brushes - one that has a couple of long hairs sticking forward to paint lines and a short stubby one to fill in areas of tone.  When you're looking at a single tile or a vase, that's okay, but there were other pieces, like a reproduction of The Night Watch, that were much larger.
Try to imagine painting all of those tiles with two small brushes!  The size is similar to the original, but I'm pretty sure Rembrandt painted parts of his masterpiece with bigger brushes.  Royal Delft does reproductions of Vermeer as well, and The Little Street was available for us to paint, but I went for a more traditional windmill scene.  And after I painted the hell out of that windmill, I painted some badass tulips and a little cat.  I would not have made a very good tile painter - you were definitely supposed to paint ONLY what had been designed and not make any little personal touches.  Since I'm not, I slayed with my personal touches.  And because I'd worked so hard and made it so personal, I had to fight not to cry a little when I realized I wasn't going to get to keep it, since there was no way I could pay 45 euros - more than the workshop and the tour combined - to get it sent to my parents' house.  And I guess that's okay - after all, I broke my Turkish tile.  You don't really get to keep anything but your experiences...even friendships don't come with a guarantee...but all the same, if I were doing the whole trip over again, I'd go to Delft on the first day, so that I could remember Fabritius and go back for him and my tile at the end.