Sunday, October 25, 2015

Evening as a Work of Art

For better or for worse, I have a tendency to romanticize.

So I can be completely carried away by something as simple as watching what is most likely the last moonflower of 2015 opening on my porch last night. I feel somehow wistful and anticipatory about having to wait another eight months to see one of those big, white blossoms unfurl itself right in front of my eyes.

And smells! It's rare I pass a blooming gardenia or rose bush without stopping to inhale its perfume, which manages to evoke a sense of gentleman callers on soft, summer nights, even though that's obviously never been my experience.

So naturally I am sucked in by an event called "Richmond As a Work of Art," a panel discussion at the Depot on Broad Street, about the city.

Because I absolutely do see this city as a work of art.

Since I'd never been upstairs at the Depot, I was clueless that the exact spot where I was sitting was the point at which the Ashland train would board and unload passengers on the loading platforms on either side. Nor was I aware of the existence of a viaduct that extended from that platform out the back and over Carver to Brook Road.

Truth be told, I find the notion of a train traveling over a neighborhood kind of romantic. You see my problem?

It took a good quarter of an hour for the moderator to get the ball rolling, so I used the time to catch up with an old friend who'd come in just behind me. Finally, we started.

"I'd like to achieve a Republican debate format without the..." the moderator said, trailing off. "Republicans?" my friend joked.

"The hair," Ms. Moderator finished and began the slide show. Explaining that Richmond was built on a grid, she made a case for it being a superior grid to Philadelphia's because ours isn't built around a central point. And then there's the matter of adapting a grid to Richmond's unique terrain.

I give her credit, she'd assembled a terrific panel: Bill Martin of the Valentine, mural artist Ed Trask, architecture critic Ed Slipek, architect Burt Pinnock of Baskerville and, perhaps most surprisingly, Dimitra Tsachrelia, an associate of the NYC firm that's designing the Institute for Contemporary Art a few blocks away.

After Ed Trask made a plea for bringing the viaduct back, Bill harshed his mellow by insisting that we not romanticize the building we were in. The front doors to this very building, he told us, had once been labeled "Whites" and "Coloreds," hardly a romantic memory.

Dimitra, whose honeyed Greek-accented voice had everyone leaning in to hear her pearls of architectural wisdom, had done her homework, learning that on the site of the ICA once stood a train station. She made an analogy about the new building welcoming arrivals just as the old one had.

From Burt, we heard about the renovations of the old armory into the Black History Museum, a project just a few blocks from my house. He also spoke passionately about developing a memorial at the Lumpkin's jail site, preferably a raised pavilion (100 year flood plain and all) that allows sight lines to the ongoing archaeological dig.

Mostly, they all discussed the aspirational nature of building for the future, even when you're building to memorialize people and events of the past and what a lengthy process that's traditionally been. Bill pointed out that it's always the elite few who decide what buildings will look like, not a consensus of citizens.

News to me: the main library is a building wrapped around the original building, a feat praised by the moderator, and one of which I'd been completely unaware. Not that long ago, a friend had lamented the loss of the beautiful Art Deco library when the new one was built in the '70s, and now I wonder if she knows that her beloved library lives on inside those dated-looking walls.

Kind of romantic, right, that older library just inside a newer facade? Or hearing about the city's buildings while sitting on a former train platform, looking out enormous windows where a viaduct once soared over houses?

Okay, maybe it's just me.

Black Iris was hosting Play/Things, a performance by Leslie Rogers and Nelly Kate, pulling from the gallery installation based on their cross country trip this summer, which I'd seen a few weeks ago.

The only problem? The invitation asked that we "joyously abandon romantic notions of journey and catharsis." What? Give up my notions?

Instead, we were asked to revel in the unearthing and production of art, life and mischief, aka performance art, with Nelly doing music for Leslie.

Words can't adequately convey the ruminations on the 9,000-mile journey the two women took, but let's just say it involved apologies - for potholes, for butt holes, for Santa and Santana - from behind an American flag with six silver stars, commentary about older men ogling the two of them showering outside in St. Augustine and the saga of a farmer and closet quilter, a man who took credit for many quilting practices even though he hadn't really conceived of them.

At one point, Leslie went behind a quilt she'd made in a workshop at a Nebraska museum and stripped off her clothes, replacing them with a body stocking complete with penis, a cop jacket and hat and making remarks about police policy ("Did you get your feelings hurt? Shoot. Did they get up again? Shoot." Scary, all of it.).

The piece ended with that character laying down on the map of the U.S. and pulling the American flag up over her. She laid there so long the audience wasn't sure whether to clap or not. Was the performance over? We'll never know because Black Iris started the applause and then people got up to leave.

What can you do after having your mind stimulated with musings on consumerism, feminism and nationalism but seek out food, wine and conversation? Some things call out to be shared.

The first thing I found on arriving in Carytown was a 12-piece brass band playing in front of Mongrel to an enthusiastic crowd. The band members looked young but their sound was fully formed and before long, people were dancing and applauding on the sidewalk.

I found what I was looking for at Curry Craft where I also stumbled into a favorite couple I'd not seen in months. Guilt was induced, hugs were offered and we were soon making plans for lunch and soft openings.

Sipping a Rose made from the mencia grape, I dug into pondicherry escargots, a fantastic hybrid of French and Indian featuring escargots made irresistible with pondi spices and tamarind peanut ketchup, sopping up the ketchup with garlic naan smeared with goat cheese.

It was fusion of the very best kind, enjoyed to a pulsing Bollywood beat and with friends and chef to talk to. I lost them early to the ravages of their last night's 3 a.m. bedtime (amateurs!) but made friends with a Russian (made all the more surprising because the girlfriend who'd just left was from Ukraine) and a girl who invited me to join her for a drink at Portrait House (her boyfriend having gone home tipsy to spoon with the dog).

Fortunately, they left me an excellent conversationalist with whom I could sip Rose, discuss offal and timid diners and finish out my night laughing.

I'm not romanticizing it, but I certainly enjoyed every minute of it.

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