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Art in Troubled Times

May 8, 2017

What is the role of art, in particular the visual arts, in troubled times? There is no question that we live in troubled, some would say say dangerous, times. Should art and artists be politically engaged or should art provide an escape from the realities of day to day life? Art history provides many examples of both positions. I have struggled with this question for over half a century. This is a video of a talk, recorded by Stephen Scott, that I gave at the Gallery on Queen in Fredericton, New Brunswick on the 7th of April, 2017, on my current thoughts on the subject.

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Back to the Barricades: Part 1

January 12, 2017

I’m having second thoughts about not using art as a social tool to influence society. When I was a young art student and artist in San Francisco. I firmly believed in the ideas Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art. I fancied myself as a socialist if not a Marxist. Mind you this was the early 1960s and I wanted a changed world. Sixty years on I still call myself a socialist, the Marxist me is long gone, and I still want a changed world, but it’s a very different world now and one that is, if anything, worse than that of 1960. Then we were about the enter the era of JFK and now we are about enter that of Donald Trump. I have lived for the last fifty years in Canada and the United States has gone its merry way without me.

The short story is this. After serving three years active duty in US Army, nearly half of it in Korea, in the late 1950s, I went to art school in San Francisco and Bloomington, Indiana getting my BFA and MFA and, annoyed with Vietnam, exiled myself to Canada where I taught fine arts at university for thirty-seven years. Now firmly some years in retirement, I sit and think how wrong I got it all. The world is not a better place and I’m not a better person.

I did think, back in the early 1960s, that art—I was thinking visual art—could be a tool for changing the world to be better place. People, particularly those in power, would look at art and change their evil ways. It didn’t dawn on me that most people in power didn’t look at art in the first place and those that did saw it as an investment rather than an inspiration. History to the contrariety was, of course, right in front of me, Hitler was a big fan of art, but what the Hell. So banging my head on the walls of the orthodoxy of the time, Abstract Expressionism, Colour Field Painting, etc., got me nowhere.

So, I figured there was art and then there was everything else. Art was the beautiful. Hence, the title of blog: Art and Beauty. I taught a course on the subject for over thirty years. I still believe in the beautiful and that’s the art I like looking at and the art, now photography, I want to make, but recent events have made me think that I should have another look at my ideas of half a century ago. Democracy is clearly in danger. America has elected a neo-fascist president, or at least the Elector College has, and those that voted for Trump do not seem to understand the danger to the republic and themselves. They wanted change and they are certainly going to get it.

liberty-delacroix

Yes, a majority of Americans did not vote for Trump, but they’re stuck with him. Still people do have to continue to speak out and not normalize his presidency. Artists, in particular, have a role to play. I am not suggesting that all art need to be political. Indeed, the beautiful can provide a respite from stress of Trumpism, but artists need to take a stand on the side of democracy if not in their works then through their actions and words.

(To be continued.)

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 11 January 2017.

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Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery

July 20, 2015

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Fredericton, New Brunswick
(2 May – 24 August 2015)

Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery
Sarnia, Ontario
(19 September 2015 – 7 February 2016)

Audian Art Museum
Whistler, British Columbia
( May 2016)

Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery opened in 1959. It was the gift of Lord Beaverbrook (Sir William Maxwell [Max] Aitken, 1879-1964) to New Brunswick, the province, where he grew up and first prospered. I cannot think of a comparable gift of this type in Canada. On opening day, he had not only paid for the land and the building, but had filled it with three hundred and twenty-three first class works of art. In addition to his own collection, he also convinced rich and powerful friends, in particular fellow New Brunswicker Sir James Dunn, to donate important pieces to the gallery before it opened. Since then the collection has grown to over two thousand works, that include a second gift of paintings from Lord Beaverbrook.

The current exhibition was initiated in 2009 by Terry Graff, now the gallery’s director, who was at time was its deputy director and chief curator. It took extensive research to put it together. The resulting selection of seventy-five major works from the collection has since toured the United States and Canada and is now being shown at its home, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, for the first time. Graff has added forty additional works to the Fredericton exhibition which now virtually fills the gallery’s main floor viewing space. The impact is spectacular. Never before have so many of the gallery’s finest works been shown at one time.

They range in time from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Lucian Freud and Salvador Dali. It’s hard to pick favourites. Each time I view the exhibition, I come up with another list. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to emphasize British and Canadian art and the Masterworks exhibition mirrors not only his taste, but his predilection for realism. Of course, since Beaverbrook’s death in 1964, the gallery’s holdings have become much more eclectic reflecting the broad nature of art, but while he was alive, he handpicked every work in the collection. Lord Beaverbrook would have approved of this exhibition.

I have a soft spot for British 18th and early 19th century portraiture. There are some beautiful examples in the exhibition by the likes of Ramsay, Romney, Reynolds and Lawrence. The abstract quality of their brushwork within areas of clothing and background is outstanding, and their sheer virtuosity has always amazed me. To pick one, George Romney’s 1776-77 portrait of a young man, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Duke of Lennox and of Aubigny, is a beautiful example in every way. Its portrayal of the young Charles resting outdoors with his dog possesses a beautiful strong diagonally composition combined with a carefully chosen palette. It certainly easily fits the criterion of masterwork.

It’s impossible to describe in a few words the many fine works in this collection. There is an excellent catalogue edited by Graff that covers, in detail, all seventy-five works in the original exhibition. Perhaps, the best known works in the show are Joseph Turner’s The Fountain of Indolence, 1834; Cornelius Krieghoff’s, Merrymaking, 1860; Lucian Freud’s, Hotel Bedroom, 1954 and Salvador Dali’s, Santiago El Grande, 1957, but everything in the Masterworks exhibition is of very high quality. Many of the works were involved in the infamous lawsuit between the heirs of Lord Beaverbrook and the gallery, which has now thankfully been settled largely in favour of the gallery.

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Hotel Bedroom by L. Freud

Central to the suit was the Freud painting that was bought directly from the artist by Lord Beaverbrook in 1955 after it won the second prize of ₤500 in an art competition sponsored by his newspaper, the Daily Express. The painting was part of the original gift to the gallery in 1959. It is now worth many millions of dollars and is considered a key work by the artist. The small work (91.1 x 61 cm), is a haunting self-portrait of the artist is set in a Paris hotel room. He appears darkly in the background, while his second wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, lies in bed in the foreground, her head resting on a pillow.

The work foreshadows the greatness that Freud would eventually attain. Fortunately, Hotel Bedroom is now firmly in the hands of the gallery and will remain in Canada rather than on an auction floor like those few works that were lost to the Beaverbrook Foundation in the suit.

Santiago-El-Grande[1]

The massive Santiago El Grande is only one of three late paintings by Dali in the exhibition. The other two are La Turbite: Sir James Dunn, 1949 and Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn, 1954. These large husband and wife portraits by Dali are fanciful, to say the least. Sir James appears wrapped in a gold sheet every inch a Roman emperor while Lady Dunn is dressed in velvet, seated on a horse with a falcon on her arm. Not surprisingly, the Santiago El Grande is the painting that is the most popular work in the gallery’s collection. It’s not only its size that overpowers viewers, but its composition. You look up, from below, at St. James mounted on horse. It’s painted in a limited blue palette and there are strange details to be found by the careful viewer. The atomic cloud under the horse, the small draped figure, in the right hand corner, Dali’s wife, Gala, and the even smaller figure, in the centre bottom, that the artist says is a self-portrait although this is not apparent. It is a very accomplished piece, perhaps the best late, work by the artist.

While the Masterworks exhibition continues on tour after Fredericton there is other good news from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. It has just announced a twenty-five million dollar expansion of its facilities that will make the gallery the largest in the region. Phase one will encompass new galleries, storage space, an artist in residence studio and a café.

With the work starting almost immediately. The future bodes very well for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the public of Atlantic Canada.

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 May 2015.
* First published in Vie des Arts, #239, Summer 2015, pgs 64-65.

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The Reflective Gaze

April 19, 2015

William Forrestall / Stephen Scott
The Reflective Gaze
Saint John Arts Centre
20 Peel Plaza
Saint John, New Brunswick
7 November – 23 December 2014

Originally published in Vie des Arts, #238 Printemps 2015, pgs 90-91

There is a vast difference in the subject matter and technique of Will Forrestall and Stephen Scott, but they share a common bond in their dedication to realism. They share other things as well. Both live in Fredericton, New Brunswick; they both attended the same art school, Mount Allison University. They are both senior artists and, most important, they are friends who talk to each other about their art and have done so for years.

Will works almost exclusively in egg tempera while Stephen paints in oil and watercolour. Will’s paintings are worked up from preparatory drawings while the majority of Stephen’s paintings, in this exhibition, are plein-air (painted directly from nature). The observation of the natural world is a quality that these two artists have in common. They use the loaded word ‘gaze’ in the title of their exhibition. Gaze is often equated today in a negative sense as in the male gaze, but their meaning is more traditional, referring to a fixed or intent look. Their paintings do reflect their deeply felt philosophy on the nature and meaning of contemporary art.

I have talked to Forrestall and Scott many times about their art, but it is their paintings that speak to me most directly. James Joyce says in his, the Portrait of the Artist: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” In other words, that art can be viewed apart from the artist who created it. This is not to say that the artist’s ideas and thoughts, are not important but rather, that a good art work must stand on its own merits. Forrestall’s lilies and coffee pots take on an importance that belies their mundaneness and Scott’s paintings are more than pictures of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia landscapes. Both artists’s work speaks to the world of universal values.

Image: Stephen Scott

Image: Stephen Scott

I was at this exhibition with two friends, neither one an artists, but they certainly understood the paintings and knew that they represented more than pictures of realistic things. Good art’s parlour trick is to stop viewers in their tracks and give them cause to think about what they are seeing. Realistic painting is a bit of smoke and mirrors. It is an illusion of reality. Will’s flowers and coffee pots are more than they seem and Stephen’s landscape are about more than about place. Painting is a chance for reflection.

3 Lilies 2 coffee makers -green

Image:  William Forestall

 

Will’s, Coffee and Flowers, 20”x40” (2012), offers a chance to reflect on the nature of objects; the coffee pots permanence versus the transience of the lilies. It is a 21st century take on the 16th century Dutch idea of nature morte transcending common still life with an often hidden comment on the fleeting quality of life. Stephen also owes a debt to Dutch and Flemish painters of the same period who brought bourgeois and secular values to landscape painting. Both his painting Storm Front, 14”x21” (2014), and his watercolour Study for Storm Front, 18.5”x25” (2014), are examples of landscape painting that bring universal human values to the genre. The study was done on site and the painting, from the watercolour, in the studio. The location, the Bay of Fundy, is not as important as the image of a coming storm and the change that it will bring. It is something that most viewers will understand independent of the painting’s geographic location.
Forrestall uses egg tempera in a very precise fashion building the painting surface to completion through minute cross hatching, but the detail is united as you stand back from the pictures. His paintings possess a quiet contemplative quality that draws you in and holds your attention. The works in the exhibition, with one exception, are generally larger works than those of Scott’s. While Will’s paintings are realistic they are also abstract.  The lilies in Coffee and Flowers and in Three in Blue, 33”x22” (2011) are in a very different space and scale from their backgrounds, but they are visually logical.

Many of Scott’s paintings in the exhibition are very small at some five by seven inches no more than sketches, really, but they offer an eyeful. They remind me of the best small oil sketches of the Group of Seven. He is able in a few well- delivered brush strokes to capture the essence of a situation. When viewed closely his paintings are totally abstract, but, like Forrestall’s work, when viewed from a proper distance, fall together beautifully. He uses paint as a musician uses notes to build a melody. In music, it’s what’s not there—the silence between notes—that is important. Similarly in Scott’s paintings, it’s what we think we see that’s important. He makes our eyes, and our brains, work to complete the picture.

As artists, Forrestall and Scott have worked for a very long time—between thirty and forty years—dedicated to a continued commitment to realism. Their work is different, but they share a constant belief in realism. Isolation from artistic centres like Toronto and Montreal might be a reason for their devotion to their respective visions. They are certainly aware of what is going in both Canada and the rest of world, but they choose to work near to where they were born and received their artistic training. It’s good to see art that is about quality and craftsmanship and not just about keeping up with fashion.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, February 15, 2015.

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Paring my Nails

February 25, 2015

The other day I was paring my nails and I had a Proustian moment, my very own madeleine. My mind went back to 1962 when I first read James Joyce’s words in the Portrait of the Artist describing his epiphany: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Those words of Aristotelian/Thomistic logic struck me like a thunderbolt then and they still ring true. An art work, while the product of the artist, stands apart from its creator. One cannot exist without the other, but once the artist releases, gives birth, to the work of art, it exists on its own merits.

I have been thinking about this separation of art from the artist for over a half of a century. Certainly the genesis of a work of art exists in the mind of the artist and its execution is by the hand of the artist. However, once it’s done, it stands on its own. Anonymous art works are no less valuable those by a known artist. Art works by a scoundrel, Caravaggio, are no less valuable than those by a saint, Fra Angelico. The history of art is filled with very good art done by very bad people.

Valuable is a funny concept in regard to works of visual art. Is a Gauguin worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No, it isn’t, it is priceless and if priceless, then it is also valueless. The worth of a painting comes when it is seen by a viewer. There is something obscene about the current art market with its ever increasing prices at auctions for art works both good and bad. Of course, art has always been a hobby horse for the rich. People without taste trying to prove otherwise are nothing new, but we appear to have reached a new high (or is that low?) in money chasing art. That is too simplistic as many high end art purchases are investments pure and simple. Investment in art has outstripped other investments many times over. It’s simply buying and selling art like pork bellies only more profitable.

What’s to be gained by the forces of triumphal commodity capitalism in having someone like me go into a museum and look at a painting. Where is the money in that? Actually, the price of looking has gone up since I was young with most art museums requiring hefty admission fees plus even more money for so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. I’ve been to exhibitions recently that ended up costing thirty-five bucks to join the herds in a jam-packed gallery. Lucky me, I have a press card that gets me in free and often to private views of exhibitions, but as a child and young man art museums were generally free. My grandfather would take me to San Francisco’s deYoung and Legion of Honor from about the time I was ten. It was there that I fell in love with paintings. As a teenager, I lived in England and went to public art galleries and museums there and in Paris. Later, as an art student, I went to museums in San Francisco and New York. All without paying a cent.

You are the product of your experiences and I doubt if my life would have followed the course it did had I not gone repeatedly to museums when I was young. It is interesting that fifty years ago, and more, the galleries were often quite empty and I had whole rooms to myself. It’s a paradox that even with high admission charges the museums are more crowded now than then. This seemingly blows my theory that museums are more elitist now, but it’s who doesn’t go rather than who does that matters regardless of the attendance figures that is important. What is more, those that should, don’t and their numbers are increasing. Yes, museums have free days and school tours, but it begs the point that museums are seen by many as elite. That’s a shame.

meaning_meaningWhat drives people to become artists? Why did Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the young artist in question, want to be an artist and not a plumber? Even then a plumber would make a better living than a poet, but a poet’s life was a whole lot better than a plumber’s at least in Stephen’s eyes. Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. Certainly, art offered me a way out boredom and on to a path that I hoped would end in adventure. When I was twenty, I didn’t think of making a living or about saving for a pension plan. I wanted to be an art hero and that’s why I read Portrait of the Artist. If Stephen could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I don’t think I ever became the hero I wanted to be, but my life has been filled with wonders and it wasn’t boring. I’m slowing down a bit now. It is the winter of my life, however, I’m hoping for a couple more springs before the curtain drops.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, February 23, 2015.

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Dead White Male Philosophers

January 29, 2015

I had a second look at the image that accompanied my last post which was a page out of the Modern Library’s edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited, in 1964, by Hofstadter and Kuhns from their chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics concerning what is art. I find what Aristotle had to say about art still holds water. It was written sometime before 322 BC or, to be politically correct, BCE; a long time ago. I first read this text in 1966, forty-nine years ago. I’m not sure which came first, the high-lined or underlined text or why I did either. It’s likely that I underlined the text while I was using the book in a course on art theory I took from Albert Elsen in 1966 at Indiana University while at graduate school and the high-lining was when I used the book as a text in my own course on art criticism that I taught many times during my teaching career. But that’s beside the point. What is important is what Aristotle had to say around two thousand four hundred years ago and how our understanding of the problems of art remains pretty much the same. So much for progress.

Aristotle tells us that all is art: “…whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that are so in accordance with nature…” Makes sense to me. You can’t really have art without the artist. Of course, once you have a work of art, it can pretty much stand on its own without the artist. It’s a chicken and egg thing. The big deal is the idea. Mind you, this is where Plato and Aristotle part company. Is the idea in God’s hands or the artist’s mind? I’ll stick with the artist, thank you very much, and leave God wherever he, she, or it may reside. I really don’t believe that art is several times removed from the ideal. I don’t like the idea (Plato’s in The Republic) of art, and the artist, coming in third place after the idea of a bed.  Art is it’s own thing and certainly not an imitation of the real. And art can be an improvement over nature.

Ideas, even good ideas, are, of course, a dime a dozen or twelve cents Canadian and good ideas that result in good art are rarer still. In Metaphysics, Book IX, 25, Aristotle states the obvious: “…for he who does a thing well must also do it, but he who does it merely need not also do it well.” Therein lies my problem; most of my good ideas, intentions, have gone undone. Which leads up to the last sentence on the illustrated page from his Nicomachean Ethics: “Art, then, as has been said, is a state concerned with the making, involving a true course of reasoning, and lack of art on the contrary is a state concerned with making, involving a false course of reasoning; both are concerned with the variable.” Ah, the variable, but that’s the subject of another whole post. I’ll stick for the moment with the ‘making’.

plato

Aristotle also states in his Nicomachean Ethics, this time in Book II, that: “…we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work.” Yes, too much is too much and too little is too little. What is needed in a work of art is balance. Finding that balance is the difficult part. In my life drawing classes I often had my students erase as much as they could from what they thought was a finished drawing and still have it hold together. The result was almost always a better drawing. The reverse was telling them that they had a certain amount of time to produce a finished drawing, say ten minutes, and then when the time came, tell them to continue drawing. The result of this exercise was mixed. Sometimes the drawings got better and sometimes worse. Believe it or not, my idea for these exercises did come from my reading of Aristotle. Talk about applied philosophy.

If dead white ancient Greek and Roman male philosophers teach us anything it is that the problems surrounding the making of art have changed very little since the fifth century BCE. We, or at least I, have failed to find any solutions. Yes, times and media have changed. I don’t want to debate here about the sex or race of who makes art; only what it is art and what it is that drives human beings to make it. Whether people picked up sticks and drew animals on a wall or whether they make videos, some do it, or did it, better. They made art. Many thousands of years ago or yesterday doesn’t seem to make a difference. The why and what questions remain. I think that art is more than shadows on the wall. There is something in human nature that gives us the will, as Aristotle thought, to do something well. I just wish that I knew more about that something that does gives us the will to make art. It’s all questions and few answers. Damn.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.

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Marginalia: Life on the Edges

January 21, 2015

I am attempting to move my library office from the basement of my house to the first floor. It’s not because I’m getting too old to go up and down the stairs, but because I’m returning the office back to what it was, a guest apartment. The challenge is that the guest room upstairs that will become my office is much smaller and already full of books.

Books, you see, are my problem. I have been collecting books for over a half century. They’re easy to come by and very difficult to get rid of. I don’t seem to be able to throw them away. Can I be sure that my copy of Wordperfect for Windows for Dummies won’t come in handy sometime? Actually I’m just dropping that tome into a blue recycling bag as I write this. There it goes. Painful. Now for rest and it’s a lot. Books to the right of me, books to the left of me, books everywhere and the problem is that rest of the house is already full of books.

My friends, who are keen on technology, tell me I don’t need books anymore as everything is available online. Just throw them out, they say, you’ll be a better man for it and, besides, they add, we might be able to find a place to sit down when we visit your house. They might as well tell me that I could do without sex too. Which may be good advice. At my age too much excitement could kill me. Of course, there is the online sex too, but that leaves much to be desired despite the daily stream of young women who have read my Facebook profile and are dying to meet me.

Every book I own, you see, has a story to tell me. It’s not necessarily the content; it’s more about how I acquired the book. Did I buy it, was it a gift or did I borrow it and forget to return it? Yes, I did buy that copy of the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound at City Lights in San Francisco in December of 1965 when I was home for Christmas from studying for my MFA at Indiana University. How about a copy of Cézanne, a tiny Fontana Pocket Library of Great Art edition, that given to me by a certain Mrs. Lund during a trip on a freighter from Hull, in England, to San Francisco in 1954? We had become friends on the month long trip and we talked about art the whole time. I was fifteen and she was in her thirties. I was in love with her and, besides, it among my first books on art. Throw these two out? Not on your life.

Then there’s the copy of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning that I should have returned to the University of Manitoba’s library by December 28, 1971. I’ve yet to finish the book. Some books take longer to read than others. On the subject of marginalia, there’s my copy of the Modern Library edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited by Hofstadter and Kuhns that I bought in February 1966 for a class in art criticism taught by Albert Elsen at Indiana. I used the book, the same book, to teach a similar course for over thirty years. I couldn’t say the course was as good as Albert’s, and I did keep in touch with him, but it was my best shot. The book is held together with duct tape and every chapter is underlined or marked with a highliner with my ‘brilliant’ remarks on the margins. It’s a history of my teaching career and my friendship with Elsen.

There’s the heavily annotated The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, also from the 1960s, once owned by my late second wife, Candice. I can’t pick it up without thinking of her. She was a brilliant woman. The book is hardly a page-turner, but I often use the book as reference. Now, it shouldn’t take me all that long to go through the thousand or so books in the basement if I continue at this rate.

Visitors often ask me if I’ve read all the books I own. Actually, I have at least attempted to read them all like the before mentioned The Meaning of Meaning. It’s just that some are easier reads than others. My dog and cat are lending their noses as I go through this hopeless task of culling my library. I think their advice is about as good as I would get from any of my friends. My excuse is that we all need history, if we are going to avoid the mistakes of the past, to paraphrase Santayana, and my books are my history. If I stop reading, stop writing, senility will surely step in the fill the gap or, at least, that’s how I view my race to the end of time, my time.

Let’s see, there are first editions, signed editions, rare books, books by friends and hundreds of exhibition catalogues going back over fifty years. I pity my children trying to make heads or tails of my library after I’ve ‘passed’ to that big archive in the sky. They’ll likely give them to the Sally Ann or throw them away. At least, that’s the advice I would give them. On second thought, why not burn my body on a big stack of books or, better still, throw a match into my library with my body sitting at the desk. It would be a Viking literary funeral—dust to dust, rubbish to rubbish.

aristotle

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 19, 2015.