the art of reconstruction

Just walking around Berlin, history speaks to you in the present tense.

You are aware of the stolpersteine—the small, square brass “stumbling stones” in front of buildings and houses engraved with the names of Jewish families who lived there followed by the date and location of where they were transported during the Holocaust.

Grunevalde is a lovely, upscale suburb on the outskirts of the city. As you walk up the ramp leading to the former freight yard at its train station, you’re aware of hollows in the concrete wall alongside. It takes a minute to register that what you’re seeing in a weird reverse bas relief are crumpled, mangled forms of human bodies… an impression where a head was pitched at a strange angle, a hand reached, or two bodies once huddled close. The effect is sobering to say the least.

This is more than “dark tourism,” it is one of the most unforgettable of the “never forget” memorials I’ve ever seen. It was installed in 1991, and on January 27, 1998, the Deutsche Bahn established an accompanying tribute to Gleis 17 (Platform 17) at the top of the ramp. Here, from the late 1930s to 1945, thousands of Jews waited in long queues here before they were “dispatched” from this platform to concentrations camps. The dates of the transports, the number of people they carried, and their destinations are all recorded on little brass plates at very edge of the track.

And if you go to the Bebel Platz, a large, beautiful square in downtown Berlin surrounded by the state opera, a cathedral, and Humboldt University, you could miss a memorial to “The Empty Library” if you don’t look down. Inset among the cobbles is a strong, clear plexiglass cover revealing a full scale 20K-book library in which all the shelves are empty… faceless mannequins stand zombie-like in a few places. A plaque off to the side explains the infamous book burning event the Nazis staged at this very spot in March 1933.

This is not a morose travelogue, but for a very long time now, I’ve been trying to express a view of what Art can do, beyond amaze us. I’m still not there, but it has something to do with reconstruction… the kind that delivers redemption.

Berlin is, in my opinion, exemplary of what reconstruction of a traumatized place should achieve. The point is not to erase, destroy, or revise history—especially dark, deeply regrettable, horrifically tragic events—but alchemize it through Art.

Wherever there is reconstruction, there was destruction. I believe reconstruction is an artform that is only partially concerned with structure… it is far more focused on meaning and transformation.

When all we do is address the problems on a structural level… we build again, we reconstruct… we cover it with grass… we may even erect monuments, but we put ourselves at great risk of repeating the past… of looping the scenes with the next generation, and the next, if we don’t let the artists do their work.

In the 1990s, I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a place that embodies the complexity of reconstruction. Today, the images of activism that toppled Confederate monuments show the rage no one was prepared to express in those days. After all, the Civil Rights Era had already done all that heavy lifting 25 years earlier, right? Well, to that, I submit that you can judge the mental health of a place by its art, and the most prominent artistic expressions of Richmond’s identity until recently were its Confederate heroes that gave Monument Avenue its name.

Having been raised in the north just a couple hours from Motown, and relocated to Colorado after college in Iowa, I came to Virginia blissfully unaware that some of the people there believed the South would rise again, and still had strong views about “the war of northern aggression.” One silver-haired docent at the Confederate White House Museum told me in a convivial tone that the South only lost because “We ran out of bullets.”

Fast forward to the 2020 destruction of the Confederate statues centering a brick-paved bastion of aristocracy… the sacred ground running through the old moneyed neighborhoods known as the Fan. A stoic Robert E. Lee covered in a riot of spray paint… the same for J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Maury… every monument “rebranded” until you reached the untouched shrine to native son Arthur Ashe, at the end.

By 2021, all Richmond’s confederate monuments were removed, which was the right thing to do… so far. Again, deconstruction is only half the equation. The right reconstruction has everything to do with embodying the wisdom gained, and that must be the bailiwick of art, not policy. I know there is the business-end of this equation, but that’s not the solution. The answer lies in the mind of an artist the Muse calls up for duty at just such a time as this. Could there be any greater example than Maya Lin, the Asian-American sculptor and designer of the profoundly moving Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC?

In 2018, the removal of Ianelli’s 1936 art deco masterpiece* from Bronson Park in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a stellar example of a community trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the decades-long indigenous objection to that colonial cause célèbre—a rifle-toting settler lording in size and manner over the conquered Native American—did not prompt this action. Needed repairs to the fountain were more expensive than removing it, so the can of worms was re-opened. Still, I’m proud of the outcome so far… but there’s more to do… destruction necessarily leads to reconstruction. The right kind of reconstruction repairs a damaged place (and people) with a healing, circumspect beauty.

Today, if I’m at Bronson Park, I feel regret that the Ianelli Fountain is gone, then I feel guilty. I’m a white-privileged, middle-class woman who grew up with fond memories of that fountain… of kids splashing around in the pool, concerts, picnics on the grass beside it. Back then, I never saw the conquered Indian, at least that’s not what that meant to me. But that’s the problem… I wasn’t bothered by the message it reinforced about deplorable aspects of human history because that’s not what the fountain meant to me.

The good people of Richmond—certain ones anyway—saw a hero, a man of great honor and integrity in Confederate General Robert E. Lee sitting 60 foot high on his horse well into the 21st century. They did not see that monument as the festering flashpoint that would be triggered by George Floyd’s murder.

Where, at Bronson Park (or on Monument Avenue or in Minneapolis or or or…) is La Pietá to express what we have learned from the undeniable evidence of an unconscionable (or, at the very least, gravely mistaken) past? …to help us recognize our own unconscious biases before they’re perceived or experienced as racism?

Sometimes it takes a pillage…. or a mandate… but much more effective is a powerful, intrinsic, art-inspired motivation to force us out of the comfort zone of a familiar narrative and up the learning curve. When we know better, we do better. 

Every one of us has a moral and ethical obligation to engage in knowing better, and doing better. It’s not enough to be “Woke” or bumper-stickered or engaged in some form of virtue signaling. None of that conveys what happens next.

Berlin has given the world a model of history, memory, awareness, understanding, accountability, and action welded into an identity that’s palpably, profoundly expressed everywhere with art.

When reconstruction brings that kind of redemption, it is surely the finest work of art.

© L. Seaver, January 2023

* Kalamazoo Removes Sculpture Depicting Armed White Settler Towering Over a Native American | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine

how my garden grows

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The leeks I planted have gone to seed.

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This pleases me to no end because that’s when they’re most photogenic.

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That’s how my garden grows, and that’s also how writing goes. A thing gets planted . . . but it often produces a different yet related outcome . . . like somewhere along the way, the question I was asking changed because of the answer that appeared.

the write stuff

I write every day for a living, and as a hobby, I also write (and take photos).

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If I could do this any other way, I’m sure I would. But perhaps you can relate–knowing what you are here to do brings a kind of peace along with torment . . . the poison and the antidote . . . the creative imperative . . . the sleeping and waking. Elaine Pagels quoted it best here:

“If you bring forth that which is in you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is in you, what is in you will destroy you.”
– Elaine Pagels quoting from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

Becoming

Before it titled Michelle Obama’s book, it was the title that perfectly described the subject of BECOMING MARJORIE, the story of one of America’s unsung heroines of the feminist movement, so that’s what I used! I wrote that biography and launched it in 2017. And today (for the first time), I saw one of the TV interviews done at that time:

character study

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The grove of pecan trees had been planted generations earlier, long before Hodge was born in the shelling shed to Esperanza, who left him there when it was time to move on with the crew to pick the next farm. His mother gave him his first name, although he never used it. Also, the umber cast to his skin that set him apart in Missouri in 1927.

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From Grigg Hamblin, Hodge would inherit the land where the trees had been set out in orderly rows along the floodplain.

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From the trees, he got both a living and an identity. As if he’d been bred for it, and perhaps he was, Hodge was the special kind of being that is a pecan farmer. Atop sturdy, straight legs, he was mostly trunk supporting a thick V of shoulders, muscles knotting his arms down to long fingers. A head of nut-brown curls went uncut during the harvest season when he didn’t even bother to return to the house at night.

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Arizona Hodges Hamblin belonged only to the trees, and that’s how it went until he was almost 30.

© 10/18

selfy-promotion

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I’m storytelling in Cromarty Courthouse Garden, June 23, 2018.

Last month I was invited to read from my own work at the Cromarty Courthouse Museum Garden during Garden Opening Weekend (see photo) in this beautiful village on the Black Isle of Scotland. I’ve written a lot about Cromarty–a search of this blog will reveal that. But I am rarely paid to write in my own voice for my own reasons. Instead, my clients commission me to write, ghostwrite, edit, develop and doctor their books. It’s incredibly satisfying work, especially when my clients are as amenable as David Bland whose book (working titled provided below) is going to change the world. What a privilege to participate in his story.

I felt the same with about ghosting Dr. William Reed’s memoirs, The Pulse of Hope, and every other client I’ve had (see http://www.seavercreative.com).

Vivien, Leeanne and WAR at launchVivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books with William Reed and me, November 2014.

Promoting myself professionally is always awkward for me, so I just avoid it. Every client I’ve had has come to me word of mouth, which is good because I wouldn’t have the first inclination to get out there and find them. But if I did, it would probably be wise to post something like a client testimonial, so here goes:

Leeanne is, to me, much like a sculptor. Underneath the rough layers of my long-winded prose was a much better writer. Leeanne carefully and gently chipped away at that outer layer to reveal the story-teller below. My writing became crisper, clearer, and more purposeful. And I never felt berated, belittled or embarrassed. Try as I might, I could never find fault with her criticism and her suggestions were always on the mark, which is maddening, of course. Every time I sat upon my high horse Leeanne exposed the puny pony I was atop. In a very nice way. It is a rarity to find someone who can both find fault and suggest remedies. We all know the critic who offers nothing better. Leeanne supplies thoughtful criticism and insightful suggestions.

She took care with my work. She honored the time and energy I had spent, and she never diminished the pride I had in my writing. But she showed me where it could be better. That is a powerful talent.

~ David Bland, Author
Smudge: The Narrative Economics of Indian Country
Washington DC, 10 July 2018

BECOMING MARJORIE launched!

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Sharing the stage with (left to right) Rainy Day Books founder and owner, Vivien Jennings, Marjorie’s daughters Barbara and Debbie, the author (me!), and Marjorie’s friend and colleague, Janice Kreamer, Chair of the Kauffman Foundation.

More than two years ago, I began a book commission to capture the story of one of our nation’s unsung feminists–the sort of woman who wouldn’t have even called herself a feminist. It all culminated with an incredible launch week for me full of media interviews and promo stuff from September 19 to 24, 2017.  All those spoon-bending, how-in-the-heck-am-I-gonna-do-this hours spent (and will experience again–I’m already into the next commission) do somehow grow from an idea into the words and they find their pages and get beautifully bound and into the hands of readers.

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The NPR gig: now to remember everything I wrote!

I’m going to give enormous credit to the most amazing artists who comprise 94 Design–Paul and Laura Adams. Their exquisitely art-directed style turned boxes of artifacts into thoughtful visual assets. This is our second book together and I really don’t want to ever try this without them. They make my concept real, and then they make even better than I hoped it could look.

Paul and Laura Adams of 94 Design are the consummate professionals behind the art-directed look.

If you’d like to learn more about the woman who prompted a book to be written about her amazing life and legacy 25 years after she died, she’s here:

BECOMING MARJORIE

http://www.rainydaybooks.com/search/site/Becoming%20Marjorie

 

what he said

the Impotence of Proofreading

Has this ever happened to you?

You work very horde on a paper for English clash

And then get a very glow raid (like a D or even a D=)

and all because you are the word1s liverwurst spoiler.

Proofreading your peppers is a matter of the the utmost impotence.

This is a problem that affects manly, manly students.

I myself was such a bed spiller once upon a term

that my English teacher in my sophomoric year,

Mrs. Myth, said I would never get into a good colleague.

And that1s all I wanted, just to get into a good colleague.

Not just anal community colleague,

because I wouldn1t be happy at anal community colleague.

I needed a place that would offer me intellectual simulation,

I really need to be challenged, challenged dentally.

I know this makes me sound like a stereo,

but I really wanted to go to an ivory legal collegue.

So I needed to improvement

or gone would be my dream of going to Harvard, Jail, or Prison

(in Prison, New Jersey).

So I got myself a spell checker

and figured I was on Sleazy Street.

But there are several missed aches

that a spell chukker can1t can1t catch catch.

For instant, if you accidentally leave a word

your spell exchequer won1t put it in you.

And God for billing purposes only

you should have serial problems with Tori Spelling

your spell Chekhov might replace a word

with one you had absolutely no detention of using.

Because what do you want it to douch?

It only does what you tell it to douche.

You1re the one with your hand on the mouth going clit, clit, clit.

It just goes to show you how embargo

one careless clit of the mouth can be.

Which reminds me of this one time during my Junior Mint.

The teacher read my entire paper on A Sale of Two Titties

out loud to all of my assmates.

I1m not joking, I1m totally cereal.

It was the most humidifying experience of my life,

being laughed at pubically.

So do yourself a flavor and follow these two Pisces of advice:

One: There is no prostitute for careful editing.

And three: When it comes to proofreading,

the red penis your friend.

©2017 Taylor Mali

profound realizations

(Selfy-Portrait)