The price of blood

February 5, 2004 at 11:53 pm | In yulelogStories | 2 Comments


I learned about Paul Williams through an article in a shelter magazine. Williams was the “architect to the stars” who at mid-century designed houses for Lucille Ball and other luminaries. He was also the architect of the futuristic-looking Los Angeles airport building. And he was African American. His early childhood sounds nearly Dickensian (orphaned at age 4, brought up by strict foster parents, sent to a white school where he was the only “negro”), and it also has elements of the classic teleology set forth by Giorgio Vasari, the first modern writer of artists’ biographies: young boy with no advantages whatsoever is discovered drawing on a rock, in the sand, on a discarded paper, by a passer-by or other influential stranger who takes it upon himself to mentor the protege, and the rest, as they say, is istoria. Which is a bit like what happened with Williams, who was introduced to the possibility of an architectural career by a builder. Williams had tremendous skill in drawing, sketching, and draughtsmanship. He also felt acutely the prejudice many of his white clients had against Africans, and so he learned to draw upside down: that skill allowed his clients to sit across from him at a table and see his designs, vs having to sit next to him. His high school counsellor had tried to dissuade him from an architectural career thus:

“Negroes will always need doctors and lawyers, but they build neither fine homes nor expensive office buildings.” [his high school counsellor advised] “Who ever heard of a Negro being an architect?”, the counselor added. (…)
(…)
In a July 1937 article in
American magazine titled “I Am a Negro”, Williams acknowledged his feelings about racially-restricted housing that was prevalent in Los Angeles at the time. Referring to a client’s country house in “one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” he wrote: “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, leaving my office, I returned to my small, inexpensive home in an unrestricted, comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles…because…I am a Negro.”

In the same article, he wrote: “Virtually everything pertaining to my professional life during those early years was influenced by my need to offset race prejudice, by my effort to force white people to consider me as an individual rather than as a member of a race. Occasionally, I encountered irreconcilables who simply refused to give me a hearing, but on the whole I have been treated with an amazing fairness.”

Sensitive to clients who might feel uncomfortable sitting next to him, Williams perfected the skill of drawing upside down. This enabled clients review his designs right-side-up as he sketched them from across the table. [More….]


Reading about Williams I kept thinking of a Reconstruction-era painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Price of Blood (1868), on the right. Noble had gone to Paris to study painting in the studio of Eduard Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture, but I don’t know if he came into contact with Manet during his time there. I like to speculate that perhaps they did, that they discussed modern subject matter. Manet painted Luncheon in the Studio in Paris around the same time that Noble worked on The Price of Blood in America, and it always struck me that both paintings have a similar moral-sexual subtext (although Manet’s painting is much better than Noble’s, whose style is mired in conventionalism). Couture had tried to get his pupils to paint history paintings, but perhaps in spite of him, they took modern life as the history that mattered. Manet’s picture shows a young man, Leon Leenhoff, who was quite possibly an illegitimate son born to Suzanne Leenhoff and Manet’s father, a respected judge, and who was passed off as Suzanne’s little brother. Manet later married Suzanne and adopted Leon as his stepson. Noble’s painting shows an equally scandalous — and socially even more corrosive — filial relationship being subjected to an economic transaction that tore America apart. By the early 1860s, Noble would have learned that Couture was most famous for his painting The Romans of the Decadence, and that American artists had already spent considerable energies in building the country up as the new Manifest Destiny course of empire inheritor. Stylistically, Noble might have understood that huge history paintings like Couture’s or Cole’s weren’t going to allow him to proceed, although he clearly had some problems finding a new style. If Manet’s Luncheon is quintessentially “modern cool,” Noble’s picture is still 19th century sentimentally “hot,” but it tells quite a story. We see three men arranged in a shallow plane near the foreground. Only one is seated, a distinctly well-off older bourgeois who could easily have been at home in a Paris apartment. He has a sovereign manner, his casual placement on the chair suggesting ownership and ease, but with a claw-like pinkie resting and simultaneously pointing at a piece of paper on the table. He stares out at you, the viewer, forcing some kind of engagement. In the middle stands a man reading a piece of paper he holds in his left hand, his right hand resting on the table, a hand seemingly ready to protect the pile of gold coins carefully stacked and counted out before him. At the far left of the picture stands a young barefoot man, his feet a marked contrast to the elegant shoes and spats worn by the seated man. The young man strikes a slightly ridiculous pose, and Noble can’t quite pull it off: his expression looks merely annoyed, like a petulant Blue Boy after Gainsborough, when he should be expressing so much more. He is the illegitimate son of the rich seated man, he is of African descent through his slave mother, and he has just been sold to the contract-reading slave trader who is checking the paperwork before counting out the payment. This was modern American history in some parts of the country, and when I saw Paul Williams’s pale skin in some photographs and read about those white clients incapable of sitting next to him, I thought of The Price of Blood.

Tee-Hee Bits?

February 5, 2004 at 7:34 pm | In yulelogStories | 8 Comments

I really feel like getting hammered this evening. Last week, while munching on my favourite confectionary item (hard salted licorice from Holland), I gave a molar the death knell. Low-grade pain for several days now has left me feeling ready to rip any- and everyone’s head off, and this afternoon I had a temporary crown installed. The dentist used plenty of anaesthesia, and I really enjoyed the sensation of being drugged. Unfortunately, it’s worn off now. I’ve heard that it’s not a good idea to mix ibuprofein with wine and that some people have experienced organ failure with this combination, but I couldn’t care less right now: I want relief. A liver transplant doesn’t seem like such a bad thing compared to these revived and irritated nerve endings.

There’s an irony here which doesn’t escape me: last summer I had to get a new motherboard for my iBook, to the tune of nearly CDN$1K. I don’t really have that kind of spare change lying around, and had to swallow very hard to commit to the repair. Hence, I was very pleased to get a call from the computer store the other day informing me that Apple now admits that its iBook motherboards are funky and that the company is starting a procedure to reimburse us iBook users whose computers failed.

So what’s ironic? Just a day or so after learning that I might get my money back, I whack my tooth, and my dentist bill (no insurance, alas) is CDN $1K. (I think I need to address some serious feng shui problems in my living space here…)

And as I said, I’m in a bad mood about this, so don’t comment unless you have something really funny to add.

Meanwhile, my daughter’s choir is giving a special live performance tonight for the Right Honourable Iona Campagnola and other assorted special guests at Victoria’s McPherson Playhouse where Ballet Victoria is premiering Peter Pan. (I’d like to shoot Peter Pan myself, but I’m not the artistic director of a ballet company, so we’ll leave that aside…). I was to bring her to the lobby and then take her upstairs to the reception area, which was tightly guarded, however, by a phalanx of exceedingly nervous and utterly stuck-up society dames ridiculously garbed in off-the-rack evening wear that made them look about as individual as penguins. I hope they were freezing in the pre-performance chill of the theatre. Said creatures seemed afraid that we might pollute the ethereal atmosphere of the mezzanine and coldly told us to wait downstairs. (It’s relevant to know that Viva’s Enriched Chorale is singing for free here, and that they provided the choral backdrop to the recorded music which the ballet is using as its dance score….) Was this gracious? No. These old biddies are the last guardians of an utterly outmoded culture keyed into ossified notions of Old Blighty as defended in the outermost colonial outpost of empire… and they still know, I guess, what’s upstairs and what’s downstairs. I can only keep my fingers crossed that The Great Conveyor Belt gets them.

All I’ve really wanted to work on is the continuation of the Adorno Bits, not Tee-Hee Bits like this, but my life is in bits most of the time: there is so little continuity and it’s all work-run work-run work-run all the time. And so I’ll have to end this note right now because it’s time to go back to the Thee-Ate-Her to pick up the offspring. Then another glass of wine and another ibuprofein to placate the nerves in this bugger of a tooth…

The once-again coming of the ice age

February 5, 2004 at 6:49 pm | In yulelogStories | Comments Off on The once-again coming of the ice age

Doug at The Alders pointed to this a few days ago, on Feb. 2: an article by Thom Hartmann that explains how the malfunction of the Great Conveyor Belt might be the new ice-cold tipping point for global cooling that no one can ignore:

…the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters. Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a whirlpool of falling water that’s 5 to 10 miles across. While the whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).

This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific. Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and salinity) that it often doesn’t surface in the Pacific for as much as a thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it’s known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it arrives near Greenland, it has cooled off and evaporated enough water to become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.

These two flows – warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river – are known as the Great Conveyor Belt. [More….]

I actually remember hearing about this some years ago, but Hartmann’s article spells out new details, for example that the Eastern US & Canada and Europe will be hardest hit.

And now, dear reader, my one and only conspiracy theory, mainly to lighten the mood of this doomsday message: if I heard about it, so perhaps did the neo-cons, who have subsequently begun this take-over of Middle Eastern oilfields to ensure a continued supply of heating fuel, gargantuan amounts of which the Atlantic states will need to stay even moderately warm. Dr. Strangelove, forget the underground bunkers for the chosen few: we’re talking hell-hole size heaters.

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