Three lives touched by one war — World War I

In 2015, I was laid off from my newswire job. Unemployment gave me ample opportunity to retreat to the family home to investigate an unexamined chest that, it turned out, held over 2,400 hand-written and typed family letters, postcards, marriage licenses, wills, death certificates, and grocery lists dating back 140 years. The memorabilia spanned two World Wars, numerous marriages — some happy, some not — college days, foreign travel, and even included the ephemera of death — wills, obituaries and lawsuits.

Out of the mass of dimly-penciled letters, stationary inscribed with sputtering ink, yellowing telegrams and official documents came three separate stories, all touched by World War I. One was family, a brother. One was a friend, a girl friend.

The stories were tied together by a young woman named Mildred Chapman. She happened to be my grandmother.

The first story was that of her best friend from college, Sarah Webster.

***

Mildred and Sarah had sung in the choir at Hiram College in Ohio. After Sarah graduated, she went to work at fashionable Halle Brothers department store in Cleveland in 1913. A year later, in 1914, she helped Mildred get her first job there as a telephone orders clerk. Mildred had greater ambitions for working but it was a good start.

Sarah’s life went a different way. Her father died, and she went home.
Three years later, in 1917, Sarah wrote a letter to Mildred saying that she had made up her mind. She was in love and getting married eight days from then in Oberlin, Ohio, on July 11. She wanted Mildred there because she remembered the nights when they would sit on their beds and discuss “our futures, and it seems to always come out differently than we thought.”
Sarah’s husband-to-be was Thomas J. Quayle, a 1st Lieutenant in an Army, that was preparing to go to war in Europe. On April 6, 1917, the U. S. had declared war on Germany.

According a contemporary trade publication, the Hardwood Record, Quayle had worked for the Hudson Lumber Co. of Akron, before enlisting. Born in 1886, he was 31. Sarah was 23.

Mildred mentions not liking him, an impression garnered from Sarah’s earlier not-kept letters, but she changed her mind when she met Quayle, and when she saw how much Sarah was in love.

Quayle had a “fine heavily built figure, not fat. He’s had too much training for that,” Mildred wrote to her mother, Ella, from the wedding on July 11th. “I should say he was playing Yankee with perhaps a little Scotch (Scots) mixed in.” His mother and brother attended as well as “about 60 of Sarah’s relatives.”

“Sarah was an adorable bride,” Mildred wrote. “She wore a short dress as was her veil. The dress had soft creamy net with lace little ruffles here and there. The altar was decorated with palms and lilies, and “The Lohengrin March was played.” Sarah’s only attendant was a “little cousin who carried a basket.”

Mildred Chapman at Sarah Webster’s wedding

Mildred noted that it was a double ring ceremony. She wore her new “shimmy” white dress and carried a basket of “sweet peas and the rings.”

The Webster house had a “mammoth” dining room that held a long table dressed with tall candlesticks with “taller pink candles and a solid silver coffee urn.” It was trimmed in roses with “pink and the red ramblers…and she had just great huge bunches of them everywhere — pink in the room and red in the others.”

After the wedding, the roses were plundered of their petals by Mildred and one of Sarah’s teenage cousins to throw over the newlyweds as they left.

It would be months before Mildred again heard from Sarah, an Army wife, who was moving from base to base with her new husband.

***

When I first started looking into the letters, there was little to no organization. My late father had made a stab at it, sorting them by decade, but he soon gave up. I found the letters from separate decades stuffed in light-weight brown envelopes. Excavating, I discovered postcards written made on wood bark, a letter sent by a distant great-cousin who went to the Klondike during the Alaskan gold rush and came home swinging a gold nugget from his watch chain, and chronologies for family lines that didn’t directly impact my own family.

The earliest note was an invitation a Jenny Lind concert when the Swedish singer was touring the U.S. in the 1850s. Ancestry.com became a good friend along with Google and Bing in the dating.

Out of the masses of letters from the 1900s came the second story of World War I.

***

Mildred’s older brother, Donald Chapman, loved his mother and younger sister and wrote to them quite frequently in a scrawl, which was, at times, unreadable.

At 28, he was working in Detroit, Michigan with automobiles, and expected to be drafted at any time. The Selective Service Act had been enacted on May 18th, 1917.

By November 1917, Donald wrote to his mother, Ella, living in Ithaca, New York, “I have not been called yet.”

In the meantime, he was thinking ahead. “If I do not have to go to war,” he explained, “I can make a lot of money in the spring. Second-hand cars will sell like hotcakes, as they are cutting down on the output of new ones.”

On December 15, he’d taken advantage of an “opportunity to enlist at my trade as auto mechanic… in the Ordinance Dep.” of the Third Division. A day later, he was transferred to a barrack that was “chock-full.” Crowding being what it was, and having some dollars, Donald spent the night at the Hotel Deshler at Broad & High in Columbus, Ohio writing a letter to his mother on its letterhead. “We expect to have in a day or so for some point in the south, and after three week training we go to France to work back of the lines and will be out of danger.”

He asked his mother to send a Christmas card to his girlfriend Maybelle Rahl back in Detroit so she wouldn’t be “lonesome. She has done a lot for me.” Later he would ask his mother to send part of his pay to Maybelle to pay off his debts.

By Christmas he was in Camp Grant, in Rockford, Ill, enjoying holiday dinner, but complaining about Army red tape. “Nothing accomplished in 15 days but get our uniforms and now because some BOB had to go and (get) the measles we ‘five hundred of us’ are quarantined here for two weeks and can’t even go to the Y.M.C.A. or leave our quarters,” he groused. The camp was about “ten miles square, 35,000 men and “cold as blazes.” And, he complained, that they hadn’t been “issued any army shoes yet not lots of other equipment.”

He apologized he couldn’t send his mother a Christmas present but “will send you one from Berlin next year.” He also scolded his mother to make sure she didn’t send him a gift. “Don’t try to send me any Christmas present because I will now you can’t afford it and will be more pleased if you spend what you can on yourself.” He promised Mildred that he would “send you some souvenirs from France,” and in a separate letter to his mother said he hoped that Mildred would get “those fool love ideas out of her head and gets married soon.”

He also commented to his mother that now she could “hang out a service flag. You never expected to do that, did you? Ha ha.” The service flag with a blue star signified that the family had a man serving in the armed forces. If the man died, it would be a gold star.

A few days later in January, with an eye to mortality, Donald took out insurance from the Bureau of War Risk Insurance for $5,000 ($88,113.87 in 2017) to be paid in installments to his mother in case he died.

***

Reading through the letters from 1917–1920, my memory was tickled by something I had transcribed a year before, a letter from Mildred to her mother talking about a wedding. Re-reading it, I realized that I was neglecting another source.

Sarah C. Webster from Mildred Chapman scrapbook copy.jpg

Reaching into a box of scrapbooks, I searched through Mildred’s college years and found a photograph of a tall brunette standing outside a house, surrounded by bushes. Below it was a business card. “Halle Bros. Sarah Webster.”

I finally had a face for the happy bride, now an Army wife.

***

In January of 1918, Sarah Webster Quayle might have been blissfully married, living in Montgomery, Alabama, in a house in town with a “cozy grate fire,” but she assured Mildred in a letter, “I am not going to feel so far away from my friends either as some of married friends have taken themselves.”

Her husband Tom, now senior first lieutenant was very busy with the new troops. “He gets in just once a week from camp now. It used to be twice. I go once in a while to camp but he is so busy there that I try not to bother.” She had made some friends but was still lonely.

“Tell me more about your work,” she urged Mildred who was employed by the Rochester (NY) Parks and Planning. “What a big little ambitious girl you are. I would love to see you and talk over our days that we spent together.”

“I am just as happy as I can be and my only hope is someday you will meet as kind and as good a prince as you saw me take for my very won, amid roses and pretty things.”

Sarah concluded, “Write soon.”

***

Emboldened by finding Sarah, I went back to the family archives. There were two small matching wooden chests in my father’s bedroom. I knew one of them held negatives and slides, already moved to digital.

The other was filled, to the brim, with photographs. Two hours later, I realized that while I’d had 2400 letters, I had at least 1000 photographs of the family and friends. There were daguerreotypes, a single glass negative, and stiff studio photos. There were numerous women in Victorian dress, and men in the high collars of the late 1800s. There were wedding photos and babies. But men in uniform? Mostly from World War II.

Then, out of a messy heap, a photo dropped into my hands, and I realized that I had found Donald. It was of a man in his late 20s who wore the uniform of the American Expeditionary Forces and stood amid trees with a smiling woman.

WWI-1918-Donald Chapman WWI

Donald Chapman in Europe in World War I

On his right shoulder was the patch of the Third Division, blue and white stripes, rendered as grey in a black and white photo.

I knew I’d seen the patch before. I went back to the boxes of letters.

***

By February 1918, Donald Chapman had been sent to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama. Compared with Camp Grant, he loved it.

“The weather is great down here just like June or July up north,” he wrote his mother. He swore that he would never go north again for the winter. Confined to camp under quarantine, he complained “we have not had any pay since we enlisted so I don’t suppose you have received any of my allotment yet.”

He explained in more detail about pay in his letters to his family, written on Army-provided notepaper illustrated with pictures of the troops. “An allotment is made for persons who are dependent on the enlisted man or who are partly dependent.”

“Now as I know you have no income and are badly in need of money that is why I sent it, so get those fool ideas out of your head, and do as I say,” he ordered his mother. “In the army here we have to do as we are told and ask no questions, and that is what I want you to do.”

He also wrote that, “We all wish we could vote for T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt) and get some action… I don’t think T.R. could get elected as dogcatcher. And the mayor of Montgomery is about as popular in camp as a skunk at a tea party.”

Then the troops were moved in preparation to go to France.

In March, on a one-day leave before shipping out, he met Mildred at a Hostess Home in New Jersey, one of the many created by the Young Women’s Christian Associations, as places where soldiers could meet with friends and relatives. The Home (supplied by ‘some wealthy man” her brother told her,) had a “low beamed ceiling, huge red brick fire place (and) hanging baskets of ferns on every cross beam.”

One entire wall of the Home was books. “Each soldier may take one and then he returns it to the Y.M.C.A. in France, and it is given to a returning soldier,” a hostess told Mildred who selected one for her brother since he was expecting to leave the next day.

She wrote her mother that he had lost weight but looked fine and, “he would have come home only didn’t have time.” Donald didn’t tell his girlfriend, Maybelle, about the leave because he didn’t want her to spend the money to visit him all the way from Detroit,” as she would have.

Donald shipped out to France as part of the 3rd’s Ordinance Detachment.

***

Sarah had joined her husband in Petersburg, Virginia, in May and was unhappy there partly because she caught malaria. She wrote Mildred about that time, “We hardly ever saw one another (referring to her husband), but especially in these times we learn to be thankful for very small things, do we not?”

Quayle shipped out June 15th from Hoboken, N.J. on the U. S.S. Leviathan, which was once a German-owned liner, the S.S. Vaterland.

In July, Sarah went to Chicago to see her brother, Frederick, married. The ceremony reminded her of the past. “I could see my own wedding (a year ago) so plainly and how one does remember such things,” she wrote Mildred.

She commented that “I am so glad for everything that has happened, and most of all for the months I spent with one with whom one can be themselves absolutely.”

She had finally received a letter from her husband. “How good it seemed to know he was really some place. Before I felt as if I was writing letters to heaven, and wondered if they ever reach him.”

“I am so proud to give, but it is hard, for it means, separation during the best years of our lives, and I sometimes tremble for him for I so want him, Mildred, to come back to me well and whole.”

“I long for a home, a dear cozy one, where just we two can live and learn to know one another better and you can visit us. What would we do, if it were not for dreams, and hopes.”

“I just hope your brother and Tom and our American boys will come home safe. Aren’t they just splendid?”

***

Donald Chapman ran into his first taste of the war in late May.

In a letter dated a year later, he says he was near the city of Chateau-Thierry, which was being fought over by the French and the Germans who had destructively ransacked it.

Donald came away with postcards the he found when “it was still under fire in July (1918),” and, from a destroyed house, a set of Japanese toys that he sent back to Mildred.

***

I had a face for Sarah Webster Quayle but nothing else. So I went on the Internet to see what could be discovered about her. Ancestry.com gave me a birthdate and her parents courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Archive for Cleveland, Ohio. I found an announcement of her wedding in The Oberlin Alumni Magazine. The chest of photos and several scrapbooks gave me a view of Mildred’s vibrant years at college and her friends, including Sarah. Some papers that I overlooked provided a vivid picture of the death of Sarah’s father and her return home.

***

In August 1918, Sarah was still suffering from the malaria she caught in Petersburg. The war was omnipresent in her thoughts. She had gotten a letter from her husband and wrote to Mildred, “Received the sweetest letter from Tom last p.m. He wanted to say so much to me and couldn’t. They were packing up to leave, finally for the firing line. I am proud that he is there, but just the same, my heart sinks at times, for there are times for all of us, are they not.”

She wrote about what she felt the Army would need after the war ended. “A department, I think would be interesting later on, to teach disabled soldiers — for before long, we will have them being brought back and many of them will have to begin life anew, take up arts and crafts or interesting works.”

Mostly, she thought of her future. “I amuse myself after retiring, picturing that lovely little scene you spoke of; the crackling, roaring fire place. You and Tom would quite agree as to the entire coziness of it for Tom loves a fire place and he always longed for one of our own. There really ought to be a Thomas Jr. Maybe if I hadn’t been so sick.”

Then reality bit hard.

On October 24th, Sarah sent a short letter to Mildred.

“This is to tell you the sad news that my husband was killed in action on September 26. Just received word yesterday.”

“It was such a shock. I cannot think it through and you, dear Mildred, were so near to me that evening, July 11, (Sarah’s wedding) and only Tom knows how I love him and how he loved me.

She ended, “Love as ever, Sarah.”

The death notice was sent to his wife at her home in Oberlin, Ohio. It took a month to arrive.

Quayle was actually killed in action on the 29th, during the Meuse-Argonne drive according to the U.S. Adjutant Generals Military Records, He was buried in a military cemetery 1055, in France.

Thomas Quayle’s death came just over six weeks before the Armistice to end the war was signed on November 11th.

***

Going back to the letters and scrapbooks, I found a large cardboard poster printed “with the Compliments of the Y.M.C.A” that I had overlooked before. I hadn’t recognized what the handwritten name on the top. “Sgt. Don Chapman.” The poster listed the brigades and other companies that made up the Third U. S. Division, and all the battles they’d fought in — Chateau-Thierry, and the Battle of the Marne, Montsec and the Battle of St. Mihiel, and the Battle of the Argonne-Meuse, September 26, 1918.

2016-09-03 16.03.34-2.jpg

A busty woman held a flag with the stripes like the ones on the patch on Chapman’s shoulder. It was a match.

Looking more carefully at the poster I discovered a listing for “Army of Occupation, December 1918 to January 1919.”

The Americans were there far longer according to Donald Chapman’s letters. Like most soldiers through time, all he wanted to do is go home.

***

The War to End All Wars ended but the Americans were still “over there.”
Donald Chapman was sent to Mayen Germany, then on to Anick where he was “billeted” with a German family.

By March 1919, Chapman was in charge of the “machine shop truck and the machine and welding for the Army same as when we were at Chateau- Thierry only it is more peaceful and has work to do.”

That Christmas he received a box of chocolate and a picture of his mother, and of his sister. “I received it all okay and was very much pleased with everything especially the photos of you and Mildred which are fine.” He also teased his sister that she must have gotten his rank mixed up with a Colonel’s “when she sent that silk handkerchief.”

WWI-Mildred Chapman chocolates

Mildred Chapman and her box of chocolates for her brother

He was lucky to have gotten the box. Some of his letters didn’t make it home for months because “we found our mail never got past the organization that our outgoing mail went through. I have written you several letters from Germany that I suppose you never received as it was during the time we were attached aforesaid organization.”

His back mail from home arrived in June, but most of his replies centered around a soldier’s major questions: “When do we go home?” and questions about his pay or “allotment” which was tangled up. It had to do with his payments to his mother of $20 a month ($292.64 a month in 2017).

He ended up ordering his mother to do nothing and cursing the “dirty yellow backed slackers in the office of Washington for the problem.”

“I suppose they will always have damned follies and red tape in the government.”

He also commented, “I think they can send home some of those fellows who are having the big times in the coast towns in France and let the fellows who ate corn willie (canned corned beef) and hard tack for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and who worked every day from 8 to 15 hours seven days a week from July until Jan. and under fire go home, don’t you?”

When his sister mentioned in a letter seeing an aero show, he wished was home to see the airplanes commenting that, “It’s a grate (sic) sight to see about 300 of them in the air as once like I did at Verdun or the Argonne.”
In May, he went to Paris on a three-day pass and spotted General John J. Pershing drive by in his “Locomobile with the four stars.” He also stood “in the spot in the hall where the Germans will sign the peace treaty… also saw several of them (the delegates).”

By late July, life was better. He visited London where there were “hundred of wonderful girls — had a hard time to get away without getting married. I am very much in love with England.”

Then, in late August 1919, Donald Chapman came home. The Salvation Army War Department sent a telegram to his mother in Ithaca saying he’d arrived back at Camp Merritt, New Jersey.

***

After almost two years of unpacking, I had finished cataloging the vast majority of the letters. It was time to move on, to look for work again, to leave the past behind.

However, 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the entry of the U.S. into the First World War. I put the letters and their envelopes with the 3 cent stamps (now 75 cents), the poster, and the photographs into separate notebooks, and turned my attention to finishing their stories.

So what happened next?

***

Sarah Webster Quayle remarried in 1920 to Kenneth Green in Cuyahoga Country, Ohio according to microfilm. She appeared under her married name, Green, in the 1930 census but not the 1940. There were no more letters. The last trace of her was a notecard about a wedding gift she sent when Mildred married.

Mildred Chapman went to work as a storyteller librarian at the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch, and as a salesgirl at the now-defunct Wanamaker’s department store. She married in 1921 in Rochester, N.Y.

Her brother, Donald Chapman, married Maybelle Rahl in July 1920 but they divorced several years later. He married again and had one son. He served in World War II and passed away in Los Angeles in 1963.

1st Lieutenant Thomas Quayle’s body was returned from France to Oberlin, Ohio in 1921. According to findagrave.com, he is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

(This story was first published on Medium.com on Veterans’ Day, 2017, and is re-posted here so it appears on Linked-In. Tish Wells)

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‘Thor: Ragnarok’ – a triumph for comic books

Having just seen Thor: Ragnarok, I came away with a number of differing thoughts.

One was that it was like a series of graphic novels, and took just about as long to watch as it would have to read. Secondly, was how much these fantasy films owe to George Lucas. A third, building on Lucas, is that what had been imagined or sketched out on paper, can now be created on screen. Is this a good thing for sparking the imagination?

Thor: Ragnarok is a long movie with fits and starts of humor, and lots of carnage. I am not sure if anyone who hasn’t watched the other films in Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would quite get the side jokes but the main plot is pretty straightforward. If you have a knowledge of the Norse myths – Odin All-Father, Thor, god of Thunder, Loki, god of Mischief, Hela, the goddess of Death – then you can follow along.

Like storytellers for hundreds of years, Marvel has reworked the Norse gods, first, for their comics books, and then the movies, this movie tells yet another version of the legends. Thor is noble and humorous (thank you, Chris Hemsworth), Loki is untrustworthy but always pulls through (thank you, Tom Hiddleston), and introducing Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett) who pulls off an outfit sleeker than that of Cat Woman (Oops. Wrong comic universe.) Ragnarok is the foretold destruction of Asgard.

There are times in this film that you end up wishing the end of the world would come faster.

I realized roughly halfway through the film that Thor: Ragnarok had the rhythm of comic books. You could break this film up into five or six segments, all ending on cliff-hangers, and have an entire series of printed comics or television programs. I had noticed this happening in an earlier film, but now it’s far clearer.

In the early days of adapting DC and MCU comics for the screen, filmmakers didn’t have the digital means to truly recreate comic book mayhem and magic so they worked around the problem with plot and characterization.

Now they can recreate the fantasy of the comic books and they do with lots of special effects. Some times these effects seem gratuitously long to me.

Special effects bring me back to George Lucas. Known for his filmmaking, Lucas  established Industrial Light and Magic to create the digital special effects of Star Wars in 1975. ILM’s never looked back. These days, there are other special effects groups around the world (and most worked on this film from the credits), but in many ways, Lucas was the one who started it all. When you see digital cities, you’re likely reminded of Coruscant in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). When fire is held in someone’s hand, you can go back to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince‘s sea of flame which was done by ILM. So, thank you, George Lucas, for bringing us on the silver screen what could only be created in our imagination when we read.

Is having a passive visual experience a good thing for the human imagination? I’m sure that debate will rage forever. In the past, new works sprang from reader’s imagination. Shakespeare built on an Italian story to create Romeo and Juliet. The legends of King Arthur were embellished by the monk Geoffrey of Monmouth. Hell was pretty much defined in the Middle Ages by Dante  Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, volume one, The Inferno.

Now writers’ and artists’ imaginations will be sparked by what has been created visually by others, not by what might come from within. Good or bad? Time will tell.

In the less-philosophical world, enjoy Thor: Ragnarok. Stick around for the end of the credits. It’s worth it.

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Divine Felines and #NationalCatDay

Let me turn you on to something.

On October 29, this Sunday, it’s @NationalCatDay which looks like just an excuse to indulge in feline adoration. As if the 74,059,000 owners, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, need an excuse.

I love cats. (I love dogs as well, but I have my finger on the scale for cats. I have friends who have their entire fists on the scale for dogs so we’re even.)

When I went to Istanbul in 2015, I found a city overrun with cats. Respected and loved by the Turks, stray cats fed by the locals (who enjoy mouse policing) and many tourists who enjoy the purr! So I wrote a piece about my trip, including a slide show.

The, in 2017, out came #Kedi, an independent film on what? Cats. The cats of Istanbul in all their glory. Cat lovers it will be released on November 14th on Amazon.com. Just in time for Christmas.

In my piece on the re-opening of the Freer Gallery of Art  here in Washington D.C. where they have a brand new exhibit of “Divine Felines” cats in ancient Egypt.

 

You will l notice that there are two pictures of dogs in this collection. The Freer|Sackler exhibit includes canine influences in Egypt as well.

So now, at the end of this fantastically busy month of October, we have #NationalCatDay, celebrating our feline buddies.

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In honor of that, I’ll share my favorite cat picture of this year: Chunky who has a “taste” for Apple iWatches.

Chunky was up for adoption at the local Petsmart where I volunteer. Lively and a true purr engine, he was taken home by a good family. I only hope they were PC users.

Finally, so sorry not to be updating this blog more often. It’s not that I haven’t written. It just hasn’t been posted. I will attempt to be more timely.

Happy #NationalCatDay !!

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D.C.’s gateway to Asia finally re-opens

It’s been a long two years since the Freer Gallery of Art, the nation’s premier gallery of Asian Art was open on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

“What began as a prosaic need to upgrade mechanical systems in the Freer allowed us to reinstate this building to Freer’s pristine vision,” said Director Julian Raby, of the Freer Gallery. Freer believed in “points of contact… He believed in commonalities – of shared sense of beauty across different peoples. an inspired belief in universalism in art.”

Director Julian Raby of the Freer Gallery of Art

The Freer Gallery was the first museum built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. Detroit industrial  Charles Lang Freer donated his collection in 1906, but the museum first opened in 1923 after his death. The Freer, along with its sibling museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, form the National Museums of Asian Art.

Among the new exhibits at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art are “Divine Felines,” a peek at the cult of the cat in Ancient Egypt from the Brooklyn Museum, “Encountering The Buddha” is a vast expansive look at the many faces of the Buddha and “Terminal” a contemporary exhibit by Sobodh Guptais. Finally, there was “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.”

It’s possible to spend hours browsing the lush displays in “Encountering the Buddha:Art and Practice across Asia.”

 

Heads of the Buddha

Stone heads of the Buddha show the different ways he was conceptualized in different cultures including India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand.

Along with the stunning sculptures and golden art, there is a digital film created for the exhibition of a Buddhist site in Sri Lanka.

There is also the Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room with 243 objects from Chinese, Nepalese, Tibetan, and Mongolian artists.

The Tibetan Shrine room

Don’t overlook “Resound: Bells of Ancient China.” Over 60 bells, some of which date back to the Chinese Bronze age circa 1800 BC, and as recent as 9 A.D. Elaborately designed, the bells range from an inch high to almost three feet.

A reporter tests out the Chinese Bells exhibit

What is the most striking is the interactive aspect of the exhibit. Two tablets on one wall show the difference in the ring of the bells, Chinese and European, through the different pitches.

Bells were used in warfare as well as court music. A wall panel highlights the treasures found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. He was buried with the instruments of his orchestra, including sixty-five bells. Oh, and a number of women who might have been his musicians.

In “Divine Felines,” obviously cats are the masters. The Egyptians revered the cats, given them status as royalty or even gods. Many know of Bastet, the cat-headed goddess or Sakhmet, the lion-headed goddess who is at the door of the exhibition but did you know that there was a feline goddess Mafdet from the 3rd century BC?

According to the exhibit, she was “believed to guard worshipers against snakes and scorpions and to fiercely protect the pharaoh and the gods.”

In the agricultural landscape of Egypt, the cat was revered for its usefulness in killing vermin such as mice and snakes but also for her devotion to her children, and protector of her owners. After death, they were often mummified and buried in coffins.

One word of warning. Above the cylindrical mummy of a cat is explicit detail about the x-rays of the broken bones of the kitten within. The explanations might be upsetting to young visitors. The mummy is from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Not to be neglected, there are several dogs in the exhibit as well. No they aren’t given equal time. The Egyptians prized their canines giving them protective powers and regarding them as guardians of the dead.

But this exhibit belongs to the cats. (Want to see dogs? Go to the National Gallery of Art across the Mall. The Europeans loved their dogs.)

The “new look” at the Freer is aimed at not just exhibiting their collections but exploring of the links between Asia and America.

The Freer Gallery of Art cleaned down to their original terrazzo floors and re-designed the ceilings to provide “diffused and reflected light.” The many changes were discussed in my earlier posting here.

The museum’s exhibits were changed to show they weren’t “just an accumulation of stuff from a certain period. It’s a mini exhibition. Each gallery has a theme and a title,” said Raby.

According to Chief Curator of Persian, Arab, and Turkish Art, Massumeh Farad, even the signage on the items has been changed. Instead of saying, Bowl, ewer or figure, “they have enticing titles that immediately introduce our visitor to the principal idea.”

For example, “A group of 14th century enamel glassware from Egypt is introduced as part of Cairo Nights since they were part of Egyptian banquets,” said Farad.

2017-FS-Lohan-Confucious-1

Details of the only existing work by Fanlong (12th century). A Confucian, a Buddhist Luohan, a tiger, and earth demons.

Lovers of quirky details should check out the wonderful scroll by Fanning in one of the galleries that has a Buddhist Lohan, Confucian scholar and a monkey. Oh, and earth demons. Don’t miss the happy demons.

Among other chances, the Gallery is beta testing a Freer “Highlights Tour” about their galleries. They will be in seven languages:  Chinese, Korean Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Persian and Spanish. They are also introducing podcasting across the exhibitions. One of them is on the Apocalypse “which considers themes of destruction in Asia and how these have served as a means for   renewal  and creation.”

For those with limited time, look for the new red labels to get “a sense of what the gallery is about.” It will be a fast tour of the collections.

Numerous sponsorsworked with the Gallerys to put on the exhibits. Mars Petcare provided for the “Divine Felines”, and the Robert H. No. Ho Family Foundation of Hong Kong for the continuing support of “Encountering the Buddha.”

The museum’s opening was celebrated by having the classical 300 foot facade become a screen for of Freer’s trips and Asian art, a night market in the Illuminations, including dancing and music.

The Freer Gallery of Art is at 12 St SW and Jefferson Drive on the National Mall, Washington DC.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery ,1050 Independence Ave SW
Washington, DC

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A ‘refreshed’ Freer Gallery of Art coming in October

Freer Gallery of Art Director Julian Raby discusses renovations. The Gallery re-opens Oct. 14.

Those into Asian and Middle Eastern art know all about the currently-closed Freer Gallery of Art and its partner, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C.

During a tour of the Freer’s renovations, Director Julian Raby spoke about many changes for the classic Italian-Renaissance building on the National Mall. The museum will re-open with a bang on October 14.

He spoke of taking it in a new direction and refreshing “what we offer in the building.” Raby emphasized that they were eager to “bring back the original aesthetic of the building. This is about taking it back.”

Charles Lang Freer was a Detroit magnate who, in 1905, proposed donating his Asia and South Asia collection to  the Smithsonian, which initially rejected it since they were concentrating on science. Despite this, the Freer Gallery became the first building of the Smithsonian system for fine art opening in 1923. The white-stone building is built around an open-air courtyard which include sculptures and a fountain. The museum houses Freer’s collections including screens, scrolls, jade and his extensive collection of artist James McNeill Whistler paintings, letters and drawings, and the very popular “Peacock Room.

One of the Freer’s new directions is the use of the museum’s display space. Instead of long-standing exhibits, “every single one of these galleries…will be treated like a mini-exhibition; what’s the big idea, what’s the hook title, what are the highlight objects, and how do we talk about these objects for a relevance for today,” says Raby.

Cleaners at work at the Freer Gallery of Art

The original terrazzo floors from 1923 have been “revealed” and cleaned. Raby said, “The (Eugene and Agnes E.) Meyer auditorium is historical… and (has gone) from analog age” to the “digital age. We can simulcast. We can beam into other institutions.” He has kept the original seats to “insure the almost perfect sound quality” of the auditorium the same.

Some members of the Freer have already moved back in. “The conservation department is now in their digs,” said Raby as a woman with a cart holding a mother-of-pearl Asian box moved through the crowd.

While the walls are repainted, the new slate baseboards are still missing since they are “stuck in Customs,” says Raby.

It’s is not only the galleries that will be overhauled. Lee Glazer, Associate Curator of American Art, spoke about the “most popular, the most visited” gallery.

The green and gold-gilt Peacock Room with its extensive collection of pottery is “installed exactly the way he installed them in 1908.” Freer loved things with iridescence on them, and acquired one of the most extensive collections of ceramics in 1907. One is “so covered with iridescent it’s difficult to see.”

An iridescent bowl in the Freer Gallery of Art’s Peacock Room

Interestingly enough, in light of contemporary events, some of the antique ceramics comes from Raqqa in Syria, the self-styled capital of the Islamic State.

Glazer also spoke of a new acquisition drive to buy more blue and white porcelain of the period to “recreate the chock-a-block massing of the Victorian original” display. If they can’t get contemporary pieces, they may do “3-d” clones of objects in the collection, in the hope that someone might donate an original to replace the clone. Raby joked it was part of the “adopt a pot” campaign.

Two small bronze statures, by August Saint-Gaudens, better known from the monument to the Civil War’s 54th Regiment in Boston and the Henry Adams’ funeral homage to his wife, will be reinstalled in the courtyard after being cleaned using new techniques. Using dry ice blasting to take off the aged wax coatings, Labor Supported by Science and Art, and its partner, Law Supported by Power and Love, will be re-coated with thin layers of wax, gently buffed, and then re-installed.

Finally, the two massive 14th century wooden Guardians will return to guard the corridors. Raby said that he’d always wanted to have a kids sleepover Night at the Museum-style “with the Guardians coming to light at midnight. ” He added with a smile, “Spooky.”

Before being taken down during the renovations, a Guardian loomed outside the Peacock Room

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Updated to remove spoiler warnings.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales will make a lot of money but would have made more with a coherent story. The film’s  promise is lost amid various conflicting competing plot lines. It has all the feeling of being written by committee with a checklist of “scenes you must have,” “expensive special effects,” and include all the minor characters as well as the major cash cow – Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp.)

It starts with young Henry Turner (Brandon Thwaites) wanting to save his father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), a.k.a the Captain of the haunted ship, the Flying Dutchman, from eternal death. Henry can do this by finding the Trident of Poseidon which breaks all marine spells.

Over the next couple of hours, Henry works towards this goal. Along the way, he’s tripped up by run-ins with several British officers (all of whom look alike and all want to hang him,) the pirate Jack Sparrow (who is stealing gold and a building, in that order) and Sparrow’s nemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spaniard.

Salazar had wanted, when alive, to rid the Caribbean of all pirates. He dies facing off against a young Sparrow, but lives on magically through the power of the magic compass. Now, through a clumsy plot point,  he’s freed from the watery depths and wants his revenge.

The many plots then descend into an endless tangle of “you must have this scene,” include “these characters,” and have a chase scene (or three), and, don’t forget to include  Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) who was Sparrow’s enemy, then friend, then enemy. Yes, he’s here too, and the opening plot? Oh, that sunk somewhere about the half-hour mark.

The young beautiful heroine, astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is a top graduate of the Caribbean’s 1800s-STEM courses. She’s about to be hanged (probably for spurning the advances of the British officer but that’s unclear) but she escapes the prison and ends up with Sparrow, then is nearly hanged again, and rescued again… She’s around to move things along and be a love interest for Henry as the free-spirited, intelligent Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) was for Will Turner in the first 4 films.

I came away with the definite impression that the writers are going for what they think is the “new spunky young woman” ideal but not making it really work.

All of this decorated with fabulous special effects. The pirate ships are beautiful. When Salazar’s ghostly pirate-hunter smashes down on his enemies crushing them it mind-blowing. The drowned Salazar himself is gruesome. The costumes are good for upcoming Halloween stores including Carina’s corseted gowns (of no particular period.)

So the main story is to find the Trident to save Will Turner? Or is it saving Jack Sparrow from Salazar’s revenge? Or is it making sure Henry and Carina get to get together? Or is it… well, what is it?

Now for the Biggest Fattest Spoiler and Irritation: both the friend who accompanied me and I were waiting for a showdown between the Flying Dutchman and Salazar — two lost ships full of magical dead men with competing purposes – the saving or killing Henry, Carina and Jack Sparrow. Now THAT would have made sense.

Nope. Nada.

Disney had the ingredients and could have made it a worthy next film in the series.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a disappointing, frustrating mess.

Come on folks, get it together!

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Forget lovingly handmade gifts – Amazon wins

This is not a nastygram towards Amazon.com or the USPS. Not at all. It’s is a realization. Only big business can afford to mail stuff, so buy from them.

I just spent $20 to send a package across the U.S. via Priority Mail. The contents are a gift which I hope the recipients will enjoy greatly.

However, if I wanted to have it tracked, that would be extra cash. The cardboard box itself was an extra cost. Insurance would have been even more.

For business, the ultimate lure is no mailing costs and only big business can afford to do that. The rest of us just pay cash or give up.

Frankly, it would have been much cheaper to find it on Amazon, and send it.

I run into this every time I send something larger than a letter, or send a package abroad. Why bother mailing things abroad when I can go to Amazon.com in that country, and just order it up?

The answer to the latter is that sometimes you want to give something that’s unusual. Something not off-the-rack. Something that will be perfect for that birthday boy or girl selected from a small business. In which case,  be prepared to spend as much mailing via UPSP, FedX, UPS (choose your poison) as you would buying that gift.

In the old days (when dinosaurs roamed) there was USPS sea mail. You sent it months ahead of time, and it arrived in time at a reasonable rate. That doesn’t seem to exist any longer.

I wish there was a solution. Why bother thinking ahead to a present that matters if you have to budget in twice the cost?

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