A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hidden Stars and Veiled Faces

The proper young women of New York’s Barbizon Hotel all had secrets to keep—especially in 1952 when the city’s unsavory night life lured them into its grip. Decades later, a young journalist living in one of the Barbizon’s converted condos sets out to unearth these secrets, discovering that veils can hide more than scarred faces, and that her own secrets have wrapped a web of deceit around her. 

Fiona Davis braids the stories of these women together in her novel, The Dollhouse. Told with alternating points-of-view, the reader travels gracefully between decades and characters, between secrets and truth.

Author Corinne Joy Brown also delves into decades, even centuries, of hidden stories, perhaps never imagining as she was writing Hidden Star, that her novel’s main character (with a shadowy family history of Jewish persecution) would step so readily from the novel’s fictitious pages and into today’s headlines. Another Jewish cemetery vandalized. Muslims reach out to help. Even as themes of racism persist over the centuries, kindness and love come from unexpected places, as the characters of Hidden Star discover.

Corinne wasn’t merely fascinated by the stories of the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who fled to the New World to escape the Spanish Inquisition, she was emboldened and impassioned by these secret stories. Almost 500 years later, her own sister would come into the world during a modern-day Inquisition—the Holocaust.

“Although your mother perished in the Warsaw Ghetto,” Corinne writes in the novel’s Acknowledgments, “she had the foresight to secure you, a child of five, with Christian friends, protected by your blue eyes and a Catholic religious medallion placed around your neck.” Corinne goes on to share that, after the siege on Warsaw, her sister, hidden for months, was brought from Poland to America and then into the arms of Corinne's family. 

Secrets. They have long been the stuff of stories - woven into novels in order to disguise them, or whispered to each other at the dinner table. What, we might wonder, is the one secret my grandmother never told anyone? Or my grandfather? What is the one secret I have never told anyone? Even our characters keep secrets from us. These hidden truths compel us to write, compel us to read, and compel us to imagine a world that is better, kinder. 

NOTE: You may read more about the characters of Hidden Star (First Place Winner of the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Award in Historical Fiction) on Corinne's website. You may purchase Hidden Star here. Read more about Fiona Davis and The Dollhouse on Penguin Random House's author site.

Monday, January 30, 2017

NORTH OF CRAZY WITH NELTJE, Wyoming’s Devoted Patron of the Arts

Neltje, great-granddaughter of book publishing mogul Frank Nelson Doubleday, was claimed by the glamorous life of New York’s wealthiest from her birth in 1934 until she fled the East Coast at the age of 32, packing up her children and moving to a ranch in Wyoming.  Neltje, newly divorced and seeking a life where she could spread her creative wings, quickly claimed Wyoming.

Neltje’s westward journey was not unlike Georgia O’Keefe’s, who found herself drawn from New York to New Mexico the same year Neltje was born.  O’Keefe remained entranced by the pastel-layered landscapes of New Mexico until her death at the age of 99.  Neltje, soon to be 80, has lived entranced on the flanks of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains for more than half a century.

“All of us loved this country,” she writes in her memoir North of Crazy, referring to when she moved west in 1966, “the wildly varied landscape, from mountains to deep arroyos and on to the Power River Breaks: the vast space and far horizons; the way of life; the light on the landscapes….”

The love flowed both ways.  Wyoming quickly fell under Neltje’s spell.  Rural neighbors offered cattle-buying advice, carpentry services, equipment, home canned goods and, more importantly, “…the swapping of a story or a recipe. With this small bit of conversation came a sense of belonging in a community.”

Raised by nannies as a girl, shipped between Manhattan townhouses and country estates, knowing the privilege of private schools but never the security of a parent’s love, Neltje had always yearned to belong, to be more than a belonging. Once, in the Swiss studio of artist Oscar Kokoschka, she felt that sense of belonging and kinship. She carried that yearning with her to Wyoming, splashing her own passion for life across every canvas she would paint.

Long considered one of the state’s premier artists, in a 2010 interview for the UWArt Museum, Neltje confided, “I could not have developed the way I have as an artist if I had stayed in New York.  I came to Wyoming, and I found home.  My passion is a Wyoming passion.  I would live nowhere else.  I come down on the plain and my heart goes, ‘Ah, I am home.”

For years, I had admired Neltje from afar, from when I first moved to Wyoming and learned about the Frank Nelson Doubleday Award (for writing by a woman), and the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award (for writing informed by a relationship with the natural world).  In 1991 and 1993, I received honorable mentions for both awards, but it wasn’t until my 2003 residency at the Jentel Artist Program, located on her 2000-acre ranch, that I met Neltje.

When I first arrived, she was standing on the sidewalk of the main residency house.  She shook my hand. “I just about finished reading In Search of Kinship,” she said, and then she touched her hand to her heart. “You love the land the way I do….”  Her words remain the greatest endorsement I have ever received. (In the photo above, I am standing with fellow resident Leslie, an artist from Milwaukee).

Neltje’s love of the land is vividly evident in her memoir’s Prologue, when she speaks about her cabin at the base of the Bighorn Mountains, and about the waterfalls and the vast canyon walls where she wants her ashes one day scattered.  Look closely at her abstract paintings, or listen to her speak about her art, and you will sense this belonging.

“All these works are drawn from Nature,” Neltje tells us, “and my love of Nature, and that’s Nature with a capital ‘N.’ And don’t ask me to define that because I can’t.  It’s the wide-open spaces. It’s the air we breathe.”

Neltje’s confidence in herself, as a woman and as an artist, rises from the pages of North of Crazy whenever she speaks of Wyoming, and of her art. This confidence, lacking when her life was defined by her relationship to her tycoon and alcoholic father, and her often heartless and distant mother, can be intimidating.  But just as she gazes out her cabin window wondering if “butterflies mate in flight,” you will peer inside the carefully crafted pages of this book and feel wonder.  Just as Neltje delights in the wild flight patterns of a pair of swallow-tails, readers will find delight in the patterns of this tumultuous but beautiful life.

NOTE: Doubleday Publishing (founded in 1897) is now part of the Knopf DoubledayPublishing Group (one of Penguin Random House’s 250 imprints).  Since Doubleday’s founding, the publishing houses have been swallowed up like a whale gulping krill until only “the big five” now remain (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin, Random House, and Simon and Schuster). This consolidation makes literary supporters like Neltje even more vital for writers.  Doubleday was once the largest publishing house in America.  NOTE: Read The Washington Time's book review of North of CrazyNOTE: Watch the UW Art Museum's video interview of Neltje.