Snow and Shin Hanga

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Nezu Shrine

I love walking through New York City during a snowfall. Every corner bar aglow with candlelight in the windows becomes an Edward Hopper tableau. As pedestrians hurry past, turning their collars up against the wind and snow, I wonder what’s in their grocery bags and what they’ll have for dinner to stave off the chill. I make a mental bow of gratitude to the people driving cabs and delivering take-out and wonder what they’ll do to warm up when their shift is over. Then I make my own way home, where a tattered but beloved cashmere schmatta and (if I’m lucky) a bowl of soup await.

Winter arrived last Friday with a record-setting snowstorm. When the snowfall was at its heaviest, I was in a Lower Manhattan restaurant with friends, watching the snowflakes swirl among the skyscrapers. By the time we said our goodbyes and parted company, the snow had turned to sleet. Holding the conviviality of the evening as close as a secret, I made my way through ankle-deep slushy puddles and caught the subway back to Brooklyn, where I ate a couple of clementines and sipped mint tea infused with cinnamon. The coziness of the scene was tempered with a touch of melancholy; my husband was working late into the night and I made sure to leave the light on for him before I turned in for the night, alone.

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow at Ukimido Katata

Japanese shin-hanga artists understood the magic of an evening snowfall and the fine line between solitude and loneliness. Shin-hanga, which literally means “new prints,” was an art movement that flourished in the early 20th century in which artist, carver, printer and publisher collaborated to create woodblock prints that honored Japan’s centuries-old ukiyo-e printmaking tradition while incorporating European influences, particularly Impressionism’s attention to light and perspective.

Looking at shin-hanga winter scenes, I can almost smell the wood-smoke-and-snow fragrance in the air and, just as in present-day New York, I wonder about the people I see. Is the kimono-clad woman in Kawase Hasui’s Shiba-Zojo Temple entering or departing the temple—or is does she just happen to be passing by the sacred place on her way from a visit with a friend? Is the lone figure in Snow at Terajima Village (another Kawase Hasui work) focused solely on getting home and out of the weather, or is he strolling slowly to better enjoy the lamplight reflected on the water as snow crunches under his feet?

The pristine beauty of freshly fallen snow never lasts long. But for a few precious hours, the world around us is hushed and still. It is good for us to fall silent, too, and gratefully make our way through the cold to the warm light of home.

Kawase Hasui, Twenty Views of Tokyo: Shiba Zojo Temple

Kawase Hasui, Twelve Scenes of Tokyo: Evening Snow at Terajima Village

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snowy Winter Night Street Scene

Kawase Hasui, Snow in Mukojima

Tsuchiya Koitsu, Snow on Sumida River

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Where it can be found

Jean Dufy, Joséphine Baker et le jazz band (1925)

I stumbled upon the art of Jean Dufy quite by accident: I follow a Twitter account that’s dedicated solely to posting images of art, and one day several of Dufy’s paintings popped up in my feed. I was immediately drawn to the vibrant, saturated colors—which reminded me of Chagall—and the themes of travel and music that recur in his work.

A site dedicated to Jean Dufy tells me he was one of eleven (!) children, born at the tail end of the 19th century. After a stint in the military, Dufy moved to Paris and by the 1920s was rubbing shoulders with luminaries from the worlds of painting, poetry, and music, including Picasso, Braque, Satie, Apollinaire, and Poulenc, not to mention his older brother, painter Raoul Dufy.

In the 1920s and 30s, Jean Dufy lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris and exhibited his work frequently. Throughout the 1950s he was a devoted traveler, painting scenes of Venice, Rome, Athens, and London. Dufy died in France at age 76, just two months after his wife passed away.

I have been looking online to see if any of Jean Dufy’s paintings are on display here in New York City and I’m not having much luck. Happily, thanks to the wonders of technology, we can feast our eyes on Dufy’s paintings in the virtual realm. I think it’s important to appreciate beauty where it can be found.

Jean Dufy, Venise

Jean Dufy, Spanish Steps, Rome ca. 1950-55

Jean Dufy, L’Andalouse

Jean Dufy, Venise, le palais des doges, ca. 1955-57

Jean Dufy, Paris, Montmartre

May: Looking back, looking ahead

Ebbs and flows—of money, of employment, of time—are hallmarks of the freelance life, and I’ve loved the busy-ness of the past six months. Singing has taken me from a film set to Italy to the Caribbean to Canada, as well on short jaunts to the Midwest, South Carolina, the Pacific Northwest, and the Hamptons (and a vacation took me to Mexico for some much-needed R&R). When not on the road, I’ve been onstage or in the recording studio. Yes, 2017 has been fast-paced and action-packed thus far, and I’ve been having a great time going with the flow of busy-ness.

But…(you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) when one’s energies are directed outwardly for too long, it’s absolutely essential to replenish the well, which is exactly what I was able to do in May. Last month, I hung out with friends, ran a 5K, visited the Met and Cooper Hewitt museums, saw a performance of Shakespeare in the Park, went out to hear some great live jazz, and I even saw an opera. It feels so good to be a tourist at home, gleaning inspiration from New York’s endlessly vibrant art and culture.

Shakespeare in the Park; stopping to smell the roses at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; the Jazz Age exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt museum.

Of course, May hasn’t been all leisure. With the help of the nice folks over at Squarespace, I built a shiny new website, which has been on my to-do list for quite a while. And I’m currently doing a lot of preparation and outreach in anticipation of—drum roll, please—the Anzic Records release of THE LATE SET, my new album with pianist Ehud Asherie, due out in October!

The new homepage over at hilarygardner.com!

Looking ahead, I’ve got a few great gigs on the horizon (including an exciting show with Duchess for Lincoln Center Out of Doors on July 28), and I’m really looking forward to summer. I’ve got a whole list of fun summer plans for the months ahead, including a Circle Line cruise, picnics in the park, beach days, beer gardens, and baseball. Summer’s here. Let’s party.

In May, I…
Blogged about: April. The Song Is You (a remembrance of Josh Wolff). Singer-friend Andrea Wolper.

Read: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. A well-written, enjoyable read about a woman who, had she been born in a different time, might have been remembered as so much more than a famous writer’s tragic wife. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I’ve felt a strong inclination toward doing more writing, and this book was just the push I needed to get started.

Watched: Der Rosenkavalier, Lincoln Center HD. A big-screen version of Strauss’ gorgeous opera, with Renée Fleming in her last performance as the Marschallin. Exquisite. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare in the Park. This production was way too heavy-handed with the Trump metaphors (we get it, a megalomaniacal narcissist is running our country and imperiling our democracy), but Corey Stoll is always fantastic.

[UPDATE: In the wake of Delta Airlines, Bank of America, and American Express pulling their support from the Public Theater, I would like to add that I support the Public Theater without hesitation or reservation. Part of what art is meant to do—indeed, perhaps its most important function of all—is to, however provocatively, interpret and portray complex issues that pertain to the here and now. For crying out loud, the whole point of Julius Caesar is that democracy is fragile and can be undone, even destroyed, by violence.]

Listened to: Double Bass Double Voice (Emily Braden, Nancy Harms, Steve Whipple). I saw this trio’s CD release show at the Zinc Bar and was completely blown away by their song selections (everything from Duke Ellington to Stevie Wonder to traditional spirituals to Billy Joel), inventive arrangements, playfulness, freedom, and communication.

North Pole, South Pole

north_pole_MG0233My friend R. is a brilliant guitarist who spends a lot of time on the road. Road trips and trans-Atlantic flights can get long, and musicians tend to be a pretty funny bunch, which is, I suspect, how R.’s “North Pole, South Pole” game came into existence. The game goes something like this:

“Hey, Hil. North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather live in a remote village in Papua New Guinea with all your favorite records OR in New York City, but you’d never be able to hear music again?”

“Okay, North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather write ‘jazz is dead’ 5000 times on a chalkboard OR be forced to transcribe every note of a Shooby Taylor solo?”

And so on.

Now, it’s fun to play “North Pole, South Pole” on an endless road trip or after a couple of beers, but we engage in real-life “North Pole, South Pole” thinking at our own psychological peril. Regarding our life choices as binary, “either/or” propositions can actually leave us with some pretty miserable options:

“I can be an artist and live in abject poverty, OR I can give up my creativity and be financially stable.”

“I can have independence and a strong sense of self, OR I can sublimate my identity and be in a relationship with someone.”

“I can be liked OR I can say what I think.”

“I can have a career OR a family.”

At times, I’ve bought into every single one of the “North Pole, South Pole” scenarios listed above. But, invariably, whenever I start to paint the world in black-and-white, Life comes along and throws a bunch of gray onto the canvas. Free from “North Pole, South Pole” thinking, our choices, our challenges, become about balance. How can we:

weighing_the_balance_587x30…pursue our creative potential while maintaining financial solvency?

…connect wholeheartedly to our partners without losing our connection to our individuated Selves?

…articulate our own needs and ideas with the right blend of assertiveness and compassion?

…navigate the distance between our home life and our life’s work?

Pic2-3aSphereNot surprisingly, the answers to our biggest, most pressing questions can’t be found in a game of “North Pole, South Pole.” Truth, like people, tends to live somewhere in the middle.

What’s your ritual?

z.tharp.creative.habit.50I’ve read a veritable pantsload of creativity self-help tomes. One of the best that I’ve come across is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.

Twyla Tharp doesn’t mince words; she tells it like it is. Over the course of a storied career spanning around 4 decades, Tharp has enjoyed mainstream success the likes of which most of us can only dream about, yet she’s also borne the brunt of some scathing reviews. She’s a creative warrior who knows whereof she speaks on matters of creativity.artists-way

While looking for the magical secret that will unlock my creativity and transform me into a prolific, perpetually inspired artist, I’ve read works by Twyla Tharp, Julia Cameron, and Steven Pressfield.

the-war-of-art

Imagine my dismay when I learned that every single one of the brilliant creative souls listed above has the same thing to say: paradoxically, creative output is the product of a disciplined routine/ritual, applied with focus and faith every day toward a specific goal or set of goals. Shit.

Well, there is good news, here:
1. I was raised Catholic. I love ritual.
2. I thrive on order. I love routine.
3. Inspiration isn’t a capricious imp who visits only a select few. Inspiration can be wooed, courted, and–if need be–willed into existence.

I’ve experimented with a lot of different rituals over the years, none of which have really stuck. I used to run religiously. But then the weather turned cold, and my ritual blew away with the Autumn leaves. I love the discipline of my classical vocalises, but I can’t do those first thing in the morning, and if I should catch a cold and lose my voice–no more ritual, for at least a week, anyway. Julia Cameron is a vigorous advocate of morning journal-writing, but very often my journal entries meander and devolve into to-do lists.

So what can I do every single day, first thing, to get the creative juices flowing? What ritual will remain consistent, rain or shine, voice or no voice? Um, I’m going to go with: Writing My Blog, for $500, Alex!

So there it is: I’ve laid down the gauntlet for myself. Regardless of how few of you might be reading Ad Alta Voce on a daily basis, I will be here every morning. Not only do I get the chance to get the creative wheels turning right off the bat, I get to mull over topics like: music, New York, spirituality, food…all of which invite creativity.

So I hope you’ll join me as I integrate this new ritual into my daily life. I’m fairly certain that performing a daily creative ritual will be transformative. And I want to know what your ritual is. How do you navigate the creative process?

To close, here is a lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert, as part of TED Talks. She speaks at length about “having” a genius, as opposed to “being” a genius. I’ve posted this on my Facebook page in the past, but her message is so powerful I’m including it here, too. Enjoy!