Colorado! Part II: Denver Art Museum

Reading this week:

  • Archaeology from Space by Sarah Parcak

Our second day in Denver dawned bright and early. This was because of timezones and such. After hanging out until a socially reasonable hour, we drove ourselves back to my super amazing girlfriend’s sister’s house. Her initial is A, and her fiancé’s initial is also A, so as shorthand I will henceforth refer to them as A&A. Anyways. The previous day they had provided us breakfast, so to appropriately thank them for their graciousness my super amazing girlfriend and I went out and got us bagels at a convenient delicatessen. These were real New York bagels, boiled in real New York water, which is what makes them New York bagels. How often do you think they change out the water, at the bagel shop in Colorado? But with that adventure over and with A&A both having to work (it was Friday), my super amazing girlfriend were on our own to explore the great city of Denver. We decided to hoof it this time since A&A live conveniently close to downtown.

During this whole trip I couldn’t quite put my finger on Denver. I think a major thing I have learned in our trip out there is that I have become quite firmly an East Coast kinda guy, potentially even an East Coast Liberal Elite type person. This is hard to admit. I was born in California and long cherished a notion that I was the bohemian type that you imagined living out there as a Maryland-raised youth. But instead, faced with the trendy stores in Denver stuck between the boarded-up store fronts, I just felt a little out of place. But maybe it was just the lack of humidity. It dried me out man. I like my air moist and my wet bulb temperatures high. This was not a popular stance in Denver.

Shaking Out the Bed by Dana Schutz, 2015

Also not a particularly popular stance, from the people we spoke to anyways, is that the Denver Art Museum is stunningly fantastic??? This is where my super amazing girlfriend and I chose to spend the majority of our Friday. I referenced it last post, but since we have the National Gallery in DC, I just assumed the Denver Art Museum would be a two-bit hokey thing focusing exclusively on cowboy pictures or something. Good thing I got out of my coastal bubble because this place was great! I spent the rest of the weekend talking up the museum only to be met with a general reaction of gentle bewilderment (super amazing girlfriend aside, because she agrees), like maybe I was a little bit off my rocker. Maybe these Denver people are too busy applying chapstick (because of the dry air, you see) to notice.

As to the museum, we were under the initial impression that the entire museum was housed in the shockingly angular building pictured at the top of the post. It certainly looks like an art museum. Woe betide the poor office worker that has to suffer in a corner office in a building like that. We were to find out that building only housed by my estimation about a third of the museum, but even that section alone would have floored me. I have held myself to only about three pictures of art in this post just to keep things reasonable. I took dozens of pictures and that was me trying to hold myself back.

The angular building contained a lot of more modern and contemporary art. I took the picture of Shaking Out the Bed, above, because I admired it size, audacity, and colors. It is like a 6- or 7-foot tall painting. The closeup on the right is me trying to take a picture of the brushstrokes. One thing I’ve come to enjoy about looking at these paintings in person is getting up close and at an angle so I can admire the brushwork that goes into them. There is nothing too crazy in Shaking, brushwork-wise (as far as I can tell), but it’s something you don’t get in the print. Though I do like how Dana clearly managed to pull off in one stroke the essence of the sprinkle or whatever covering that donut. Someday maybe I, too, will be able to paint a donut.

After getting our fill of angles and realizing there was a whole other building to the museum, we took the bridge over to the second part. Turning the corner I stopped in my tracks when we suddenly found ourselves facing down several massive totem poles. We explored this floor and then kept on going up and up and up and slowly came to terms with the scale of the museum. It is big! They have a lot of art! And a lot of different kinds of art! These sorts of art museums are the most overwhelming to me. It is one thing to go to a contemporary art museum or whatever, and get in the contemporary mindset and see a lot of that art. You can categorize it all and the mental load required for analysis isn’t taken up just with grounding yourself. But there was so much stuff and so many different kinds of art that it is taxing just to keep up. So we had a break in the lovely café they have there and my super amazing girlfriend eventually bought one of the mugs they used because she liked it so much.

Puebloan Mug, 1150-1300

Meanwhile I was admiring the above mug. One thing this museum did well was mix different ages of art when appropriate. They had a large section on indigenous art, including a huge wide range of ceramics. Pots on pots on pots man, ancient and modern. I was blown away by the above mug because it looks like something I would use. Like, I’m going to keep an eye out for it at the next art fair we go to. They should have sold it in the gift shop. But nonetheless it is at least 700 years old! Some Puebloan dude (or woman) was enjoying, um. I guess I don’t actually know. Not coffee I guess (bummer for them). Beer maybe? Anyways it is super cool. Art! This is what brings us together!

Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon, 1945

Earlier up at the top I mentioned how I expected this museum to just be cowboy art. Well, they did have a good chunk of cowboy art, and other western art inspired by the American west and southwest. I bought a postcard of the above picture in the gift shop. I liked the colors. But there were lots of dudes on horses and all sorts of cool looking things. But that was the very last section we looked at and by this time we were pretty pooped. So finally we left the Denver Art Museum, blinking in the sun. But our day was not over!

No, the next thing we did was the thing you gotta do when you visit Denver: we poked around the Colorado State Capitol building. This was not quite what I was expecting. You can visit the Maryland State Capitol building and it is sorta museum-like, they have displays and stuff. I was expecting the same in Denver but mostly you just have the run of the building. There are murals and a lot of brass. So that was interesting. But the most interesting part is of course outside, which is the marker that is a mile above sea level, which is important to the mile-high city. Since it is so important we took a picture next to it:

And at that point our day was in fact finally over. Not really, we went to dinner at a lovely Asian fusion restaurant and had more good times with A&A, but the touristy part of the day was over. Eventually we collapsed asleep.

Colorado! Part I

Reading this week:

  • How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

My dad once sagely told me that “you can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose your in-laws.” I know what he meant but in the context of my dad being a married man with in-laws, I’m not sure what exactly he was trying to convey. Anyways this was years before I started dating my super amazing girlfriend of course. She has one sister, and her sister and her sister’s fiancé live out in Colorado. They’re absolutely great and so we went to go visit them over Labor Day weekend!

Back when I was a wee youngin’ (Middle school, specifically), my family undertook a couple of cross-country roadtrips. This means, for most any particular place in the United States, I can say I have been there, though most of the time that is about it. I don’t remember if we did anything in particular in Denver. Getting there this time around was much smoother than driving all the way from Maryland, with our flight landing 45 minutes early and an easy train ride bringing us right into downtown. My super amazing girlfriend’s sister picked us up from there, gave us some coffee, and then loaned us her car and sent us on our way because she had to work. So we went to Wings Over the Rockies.

There was no particular reason we went to Wings Over the Rockies. Perhaps you can tell from the name, it is an aviation museum. The rocket ship it has along with the display on NASA makes it more specifically an air & space museum. My super amazing girlfriend has expressed interest in looking at planes and currently works at NASA so it seemed appropriate. On the particular day we visited it was also hosting a retirement ceremony from the Space Force to lend credence to its space bonafides. It is strange that the Space Force exists and it exists in such a capacity that you can retire from it.

As an air & space museum honestly it was a lot better than I thought it would be. As will be evident in this and later posts, having grown up in easy driving distance of DC I am under the impression that the Smithsonian is the best museum there can be and other museums that cover the same topics are but shallow imitations. But Wings Over the Rockies is very robust and dedicated to its mission of explaining the history of Colorado-based aviation.

One of the particular strengths of the museum was in showcasing call signs. Unfortunately for the public at large, movies such as Top Gun have made the uninformed think that callsigns are cool. In the harsh, cold light of reality, call signs are almost invariably insulting and Wings Over the Rockies preserved them in their full glory. I guarantee LCDR “Manbag” Connor would have preferred to be called something like “Maverick,” but instead that like one time he carried around a carrier bag or whatever has been immortalized forever in this temple of Colorado aviation. I thought it was hilarious and spotting the various call signs was worth the price of admission alone.

I guess to step back for a moment the museum itself wasn’t too large but managed to pack a lot into it. It is housed inside one of two original aircraft hangers from the former Lowry Air Force Base. The main floor of the hanger is packed with a multitude of planes. My favorites tend to be the tiny ones I can imagine owning, though they also had an F-14 and some more exotic historic aircraft which was cool. They also have a series of side-rooms with more in-depth exhibits, like a room full of historic radios and another of very nice aircraft models. Discovering that it is on the home of the former Lowry Air Force Base went a long way in explaining what a giant aircraft hanger and a museum was doing in the middle of is otherwise a quiet suburban community. It also led to the appalling discovery that I was standing in the original home of the Air Force Academy, certifiably the lamest of the service academies:

Those poor zoomies. Anyways. It was a lovely museum and after carefully inspecting all the planes we went across the street to the other old airplane hanger which housed the Lowry Beer Garden. We had some drinks and some mini cheese sticks, marveled at the magic of time zones and early mornings which made us feel very tired despite it only being mid-afternoon, and wondered why all the other people at the beer garden on a Thursday afternoon weren’t at work. We basked in each other’s company and the warm glow of the Colorado landscape, and then went to a bookstore to round out the rest of the workday. Then we had a fantastic taco dinner courtesy of our hosts before checking into the Motel 6 and collapsing asleep, our first day in Colorado successfully and fruitfully completed.

Phillips Collection

Reading this week:

  • Son of Old Man Hat, told by Left Handed, recorded by Walter Dyk

Recently, as part of a lovely Saturday afternoon out and about in DC, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to the Phillips Collection.

The Phillips Collection is a bit outside of our normal museum circuit. This is primarily because it costs money, and in a town like DC that is frankly a very steep hurdle. Specifically it cost my super amazing girlfriend $16 and me $0 because veterans get in for free, and although in the end I offered to go 50/50 on it she hasn’t sent me a Venmo request yet. So there you go.

Also a little outside our usual paradigm is that the Phillips Collection is a Museum of Modern Art. I have a very well documented (on this blog) like of very old things, so the items in this collection are from my point of view young whipper snapper upstarts. The museum itself however is 100 years old so Modern is a bit of a stretched definition. Their collection had a few of the classics too. You got your Van Gogh, your Mondrian, Renoir, Monet, etc. But after cruising around the museum the items I liked best were the most modern. In fact the oldest item I bothered to take a picture of was the below picture from 1922 and that is mostly because it had boats. Specifically, a regatta’s worth:

Small Picture of a Regatta by Paul Klee, 1922
Small Picture of a Regatta by Paul Klee, 1922

To flash forward a bit, when we finally left the museum I overheard a dude on the sidewalk complaining. He said something like “I can appreciate a good scam; if you can roller some paint onto a canvas and sell it as art good on ya.” Look I gotta say a lot of the art doesn’t quite speak to me. They got a room full of Rothkos here and his art has never really moved me. A long time ago now a friend of a friend took us to see a whole mess of his black-on-black works and they were… fine. But like man, first off the joke is old. “My toddler could do that” well they didn’t and if they could you would be a terrible parent because a lot of these oil paints I am pretty sure are toxic and you don’t want your toddler playing with them. Second dude like, clearly some people find meaning in this. Maybe you should figure out what that is.

The paintings I liked best on this trip were the ones where the materials gave them a very different depth and texture than the paintings I am used to. One piece of artwork that I really liked but didn’t photograph was “Untitled 598” by Florence Pierce. I didn’t take a picture because I knew it would be flat and the picture on their website doesn’t do it justice either. The black spot in the middle is like a rough, textured black, but very black indeed. Like you had painted sandpaper with the blackest black. The rest of it is resin put over a wavy metal sheet, so throughout the piece it has different depths and the light travels through and seeks out different paths through it. I found another piece of hers for sale online for $20,000 so maybe I should cash out my retirement, I dunno. Then again my super amazing girlfriend just took a ceramics class, and she brought home a bowl that is absolutely gorgeous because the clay on the bottom wasn’t smooth, and had a spiral pattern from being thrown on the potter’s wheel. When she glazed it the glaze settled into the grooves leaving peaks with different depths of glaze that did nearly the same thing. So maybe I can save the $20,000 (+$450 shipping) and admire the beauty that both she is and brings home instead.

Black Tiles by Kate Shepherd, 2010
Black Tiles by Kate Shepherd, 2010

The next paintings that really caught my interest were by Kate Shepherd. The above one is titled “Black Tiles.” I am very used to the look of oil paint on canvas, but a major thing I saw on this visit was the use of glossy acrylic paints. A lot of the paintings in the museum took advantage of those materials I thought to really interesting effect. In Kate Shepherd’s paintings (the ones on display at any rate), what she has done is used high-gloss acrylic paint and covered a wood panel as a background. She has a series of these and the acrylic gives the wood panel a very shiny, very smooth surface that is the opposite of the texture you see with oil on canvas. On top of that background she paints white lines in geometric patterns. The other paintings that were on display consisted of mostly straight lines, but in “Black Tiles” she uses curvy lines to give a 3D effect. Combined with the glossy background as I walked towards or away from the painting, with the reflected light changing, it gave a sense of motion that was a tad mesmerizing.

The Charming Statesman by Federico Solmi, 2019
The Charming Statesman by Federico Solmi, 2019

Finally and just to round it out was “The Charming Statesman” by Federico Solmi. This is done with white pen on black paper and it took me a second to figure out what was going on. I thought it was by an African artist with African themes and then I stepped back a bit and realized it was ole’ GW (I think?). Quite the effect nonetheless and the horses’ eyes match the peoples’ eyes and there are flags and it speaks to jingoism (maybe?) but through the eyes of like uh, well maybe the horses or something? I dunno dude, it’s art, and I don’t think my toddler could do this. I liked it at any rate. The Phillips Collection is worth a visit, especially if you can get in for free, but even if you can’t. I had a good time.

National Postal Museum

Housed in the old City Post Office Building, my super amazing girlfriend declared this the “prettiest Smithsonian.”

As you can tell from my myriad blog posts, my super amazing girlfriend and I are working our way through all the Smithsonians. This is a wonderful hobby and I recommend everyone take it up. As you can tell from the title, this of course brought us to the National Postal Museum!

I had myself been to the Postal Museum once before in my ongoing quest to visit a bunch of Atlas Obscura places. This museum is lucky enough to house Owney the Postal Dog, who is a 125-year-old stuffed dog that was once an enthusiastic mascot for the postal service, having trained himself to ride the rails and collect various postal badges. My poor super amazing girlfriend has heard me wonder aloud about this several times at this point, but between Owney, my favorite stuffed goat, and the stuffed mascot of our most recent alma mater (I didn’t know about this one until she told me about it), there must have been a trend at some point to hand beloved animals over to taxidermists once they died. It makes me wonder if, as is the case with all fashion, the great wheel of trends will come full circle once again one of these days and we shall see a resurgence of dead animals gracing our hallways. One can only hope (one way or the other). Anyways here is Owney:

Back to the museum! It is split into two approximately equal parts, with one part residing upstairs and the other downstairs. The upstairs part is all about stamps. Stamps are a pretty robust technology and last time I visited I remember not being so interested in the stamps, but this time I had a new appreciation after seeing the exhibit. The postal museum’s stamp collection is very robust, and going through every single stamp they have on display would take quite a while. I petered out after opening two dozen or so drawers and slide-out displays, but all the stamps are very neat to look at, especially the famous ones like the inverted jenny. Appealing to our Global Affairs hearts, the museum also has a robust display of historic international stamps. Speaking of stamps and international stuff, one time long ago I was in Singapore, having ridden a submarine there. We (the officers and crew) didn’t know we were going to go to Singapore before we set off on this underway, and there is no internet on a submarine, so we were entirely unprepared for what we were going to experience. There was a robust rumor going around that there was a place where you could pay money to fistfight an orangutan. That was, again for better or worse, untrue, but what was true is that the ship had to post a special watch at the “Four Floors of Whores” to keep sailors out of trouble. I relate this to say that when me and a group of my friends saw a sign pointing to the “Singapore Philatelic Museum” we had no idea what kind of wild, depraved, or frightening things we would see there and therefore charted a wide path around it. Later, when we learned what “Philatelic” meant, we were embarrassed. Anyways here is a misprinted stamp I liked from the Congo Free State (only about 40 of the misprinted stamps survive):

Once you get your fill of stamps at the postal museum (and who could, really), you head downstairs where the displays are more about the history of the postal service and how the mail is actually delivered. They had a lot of interesting stuff! I kept teasing my super amazing girlfriend that they have a Massachusetts simulation, which is a little faux-wooded are meant to represent the New York-Boston Post Road circa 1673. They have another display on the history of mail trucks, and a riveting portion on sub-contracting. The postal service apparently sub-contracts out a lot of especially difficult mail delivery, and they have displays of people carrying mail via donkey or sled dog and the like. This portion also include a big-rig truck you can pretend to drive, which is a hoot. All in all, quite the interesting portion and gives you a solid appreciation for the mail.

Having learned a great deal about letters, stamps, mailboxes, and all the other bits that make those things useful, we ticked another Smithsonian off our to-do list and re-emerged into the hot DC sun. Then we got out of the sun and onto the metro to go find a nice cup of tea. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Puerto Rico IX: El Final

Reading this week:

  • Ever Green by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy

Loyal reader(s), thank you so much for going on this whole Puerto Rico journey with me. I know I’ve extended it beyond all reasonable bounds but the story reaches its thrilling conclusion here. When we last left our plucky protagonists (my super amazing girlfriend and I) we were just departing Jayuya to head to our final night’s stay.

We stayed in a tiny little lodge overlooking the Cañón Blanco. Cañón Blanco is a short stretch of Río Caonillas that our host told us was only uncovered by Hurricane Maria and has a whole variety of petroglyphs (though they are hard to spot and we didn’t wind up seeing any). I’m a little out of timeline order but although we didn’t see any petroglyphs the Cañón Blanco was still a gorgeous spot. As the name suggests it is a series of cataracts on the river carved out of white stone. It’s actually only about 10 yards off the road but despite that it feels totally cut off from the rest of the world and you can just listen to the water and the frogs and admire the valley and the mountains around you. It was only a short walk from our lodge and along the way we got to admire all the different flowers and trees that populated the valley.

As to the lodge, I just told you in the last blog post how wild I am for integrated farming. So imagine my joy after seeing Sandra Farms when I then came to this lodge which was yet another integrated farming dreamland. The lodge’s host had sculpted the area off the deck into everything I would ever want out of a yard. There were banana trees, papaya, guava, sugarcane, mango, even tomato and pumpkin. It was great and after I complimented her on it, she showed us some spots we missed, explained that she was trying to live off the land, and gave us mangos, which is an A+ garden appreciation interaction if there ever was one. There was even an aggressively friendly cat to top it all off. The night was capped off by a drive up to the top of the mountain where we ate dinner at a restaurant at the end of another ridgeline road with a deck looking down and out over these unforgettable Puerto Rican mountain landscapes. The coquí then serenaded us to sleep.

Our final day in Puerto Rico started late, since we had no reason or desire to rush out of this idyllic little valley. When we finally did get a move on it was an easy drive back to San Juan. The one thing we had missed on our first go around was the Casa del Libro, and given our passion for both books and museums, we could hardly stand to leave Puerto Rico without seeing it. On the day we visited they had an exhibit up featuring centuries of Puerto Rican maps, from the earliest depictions by the Spanish to American army maps from shortly after the Spanish-American War. We spent the last few hours we had in Puerto Rico wandering around Old San Juan one last time, getting ice cream and trying to do some last-minute souvenir shopping. Then it was off to the airport and back home to Tink.

“Vista de la bahía de San Juan,” Peter Schenk, 1625

I am really glad we visited Puerto Rico. It was not what I was expecting. There are the little stupid things, like the fact I really was not expecting there to be mountains in central Puerto Rico. Hills yes, but the mountains? Geology man. More significantly I had really expected more of a Guam vibe, since both islands in many ways have similar backgrounds, joined the US at the same time for the same reason, and are of course both currently US territories. I’m struggling to put it in a way I am comfortable with, because by definition both Puerto Rico and Guam are equally American, but Puerto Rico felt to me with my Maryland background more foreign than Guam ever did. Pontificating out of my ass here, I wonder if the difference is that Guam feels like the US liberated it after the Japanese invaded during WWII, whereas Puerto Rico has only ever seen the US continue the same political limbo it has always left it in. It was also very eye-opening to walk around Ponce and see the impact Maria had and is still having on the island. I said it at the time but I wished I could have seen Ponce even 10 years ago. It was clear before but even moreso now that the US really needs to fix its relationship to its overseas territories. Although it is up to the people in these places, I personally support statehood for all US territories (after significantly improving indigenous rights in the case of American Samoa). Puerto Rico was amazing and eye-opening and I am so glad we went.