Thursday, December 29, 2022

Red Letter Poem #142


The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner





Red Letter Poem #142





“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.”  These words come from no less an authority than Leonardo da Vinci.  So here, on the verge of another new year, I offer a few words in praise of making – that most human of activities – where attentive minds and skilled hands echo what was once thought of as ‘the divine work of Creation.’  Starting out with the clutter of raw of materials, vision must first arise, then skill take hold, as clarity slowly emerges – all before some product can be manufactured.  Perhaps we’ve forgotten that the very word is anchored to that Latin root: manū, by hand.  Sad to say, the work of capable hands has been, to a large extent, devalued in our economy, supplanted by the mechanization of production and, more recently, the Amazonification of desire.  But the term should remind us that we were once surrounded by goods made by hand, produced with a craftsman’s pride, and exemplifying the dignity of such labor.


Moira Linehan centers her fourth collection of poems, & Company (Dos Madres Press), on the figure of her maternal grandmother – a talented dress designer and seamstress who left France in 1905 to start a new life on these American shores.  The poems – like today’s “Ars Poetica” – celebrate women making a variety of works by hand.  The writing is rich with detail and the specialized vocabulary of sewing, painting, home-making – all in order to conjure the spirits of these artists and artisans, to make their achievement visible to a contemporary audience.  What we frequently fail to consider is the effect those handmade beauties might have on those who experience them – in their homes, communities, or even museums.   The Arts and Crafts movement, that flourished in Britain and Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, was centered around the need for such work.  They made these their watchwords:  Head Hand and Heart.  It spoke to their belief that such a holistic sense of creativity could revolutionize society and heal its ills.  One of their leading proponents, William Morris, declared: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."  My impression is that Moira’s grandmother would be nodding her approval.  Of course, you’ll have noticed that Moira has titled her piece of handiwork “Ars Poetica”, a term for a poem that attempts to give definition to the art form.  And I believe she is attempting, in this carefully-constructed unrhymed sonnet, to make us feel the “weight, texture, give, nap” of language, almost as if we could touch its materials with our very hands – yet another homage to her forebear.


I hope you’ll permit me yet one more quotation on the subject, again from another craftsman so much more accomplished than I am – this from the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Approaching one new year at the dawn of the 20th century, he wrote this in a letter to a friend: “And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done. . .”.  I could not think of a better wish for you, gentle reader, or for myself.  Though we tend to live our lives as if the year – or the great cycles of years – is given to us outright, somewhere in our minds we know that nothing is promised.  To more thoroughly savor this very day, why not notice one well-made thing close at hand that brings us pleasure.  Or better yet, why not make a new one ourselves – whether it be a hand-knitted scarf, a crusty loaf of sourdough, a well-framed photograph, or a vessel for memory in the form of a well-wrought verse.  Our heads, hands, and hearts cannot help but feel grateful for the effort.



Ars Poetica



Nine-tenths preparation, this artist’s work.

First, fabric between thumb and forefinger,

feeling weight, texture, give, nap. The planning

beforehand. Washing washable textiles


to shrink them before they’re sewn. Laying out

the pattern so the design flows, the plaid lines

match, the dress drapes. Shears sharp so the seams

won’t pucker, twist, ravel. A seamstress’s stress.


Then the fitting, the pinning and re-pinning

those seams. Right shade of thread?  The sewing,

seemingly magic, not one stitch visible.

Each seam, steam-pressed flat till at last the sewn


carries material and a dressmaker’s vision

out into the world, all in one piece, seamlessly.



––Moira Linehan




The Red Letters 3.0


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Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Ellen Cassedy and the 9 to 5 Feminist Labor Movement


Ellen Cassedy, the author of  "Working 9 to 5: A Women's Movement, A Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie," and one of the founders of the 9 to 5 feminist labor movement told me she lived in Davis Square, Somerville, Massachusetts from 1973 to 1979. When, according to her to her," You could get a good part for your washing machine, but that's about it." Now when she visits Somerville she is surprised about how it changed.  The gentrified Somerville impresses her--the new gleaming environs and all the trendy eateries. She reflected, "Imagine you can have a kale bowl in Somerville, now!"

Cassedy was a office worker at Harvard University in 1972, living in an old Victorian with other young women. She recalls, " One day we sat in a circle, and talked about what women needed in the workplace. We pooled our pennies and they sent me to the Midwest Academy of Organizers, and I learned all kinds of things about organizing people." It was until 1998 that the clerical workers at Harvard University won a contract, and then they tried to set standards for female employees.

Cassedy has an abundance of anecdotes about the conditions women faced during this era. She told me one acquaintance of hers went into her boss' office and requested a raise in salary. He told her, " You should see a psychiatrist." Women commonly trained men to be in management positions--that they would be just as competent in. Another comment that male superiors passed around was, "We gave the position to Joe--he bought a new house and has a family to support."  This- in spite of the fact  many of these female clerical workers needed to support a family, through the better income that a better job could provide. Many of these clerical workers had college degrees, and did not think they would spend years in the typing pool.

The Boston Clerical workforce in the 1970s was predominately white. Boston was a white city. This band of organizers insisted that people of color should be treated fairly. When they expanded their outreach to more diverse cities like Baltimore and Atlanta , they were able to reach out to minority workers.

Later in 1980 or so Jane Fonda and her staff approached Cassedy and other organizers, and told these women they wanted to produce a film about their experience. The movie "9 to 5" was a hit, and had a great title song by Dolly Parton. Before they produced the movie Fonda's people asked if any of the women fantasized about killing their bosses. According to Cassedy, seventy per cent did.

The movement was ambitious and created a " Bill of Rights for Women." They came up with 13 rights. They included the right for a job description, the right to say 'no' to anything outside the description, as well as others..Cassedy said they printed a large number of these documents, on old -looking parchment- like paper, and sent it around far and wide.

Cassedy told me she was part of the 'second' wave of feminism This wave , unlike the first wave,  which was strongly connected to Suffrage movement --sprung from the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. During the early days, according to Cassedy, women did not want to be identified as feminist, but they certainly were for equal pay for equal work. Cassedy and her band of organizers had to couch their language, as not to alienate these women.

Cassedy told me how pleased she is with the reaction of younger women to her book and the movement.

After I had left Cassedy told me a young high school student approached her. She overheard our conversations, and told Cassedy that were putting a " 9 to 5" play at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. I could imagine a wide smile on Cassedy's face, as the torch passes on to younger generations.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Somerville artist Jocelyn Shu: Networks of Wire and Text that Open Us to Possibilities...

When I visited the Vernon Street Studios in Somerville for an open house--I came across the artwork of Jocelyn Shu. Shu is an eclectic woman, and in addition to creating art, she is a post -doc researcher at Harvard University. She says her art does not explain, but offers the viewer a chance for discovery.  Shu exudes a lot of energy, and we had a chance to chat about her confluence of art and science.

First off—how has it been for you at the Vernon Street Studios?

I love having a studio here! I’ve been in the building for three years (I found a space here shortly after moving to Cambridge in the fall of 2019 to start a postdoc position at Harvard), and in this time, being a part of Vernon Street Studios has given me the opportunity to be part of a vibrant, creative community. It has been wonderful to have studio visits and develop friendships with fellow artists here, and to meet the surrounding community of artists and art enthusiasts (such as yourself) through the well-attended open studios at this building.

You have a PhD from Columbia University, as well as a BFA in painting and drawing. How does your studies in psychology inform your art?

Since I was a child, I wanted to be an artist and in college, I primarily studied painting and drawing through a joint program with the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. I found that art school fostered a great deal of intellectual curiosity — it was also academically formative for me to be at two different kinds of educational environments — and I came out of undergrad wanting to engage in a deeper level of academic discourse to understand the human mind. I eventually moved to New York City, began studying psychology and working in research labs, then completed a PhD in psychology at Columbia where I conducted basic research on emotions and emotion regulation. Currently, I think psychology informs my art at a more unconscious level. I can see in both my work in science and art, an interest in language and how we cope with uncertainty and change. People often find my sculptural pieces to resemble neurons — that is not something I intended in my art, but I think it is also not a pure coincidence.

I asked you at your studio, " What is the theory of your work?" You seemed to find that an interesting question—so what is the 'theory?'

I thought it was an interesting question as it melds language and thinking from science and art. From the scientific side, a theory is an explanation of how something in the world works. At this time, I don’t think I can translate that directly into my art practice — my art doesn’t seek to explain. Instead, like a lot of art, it seeks to open viewers’ minds to different ideas, possibilities, and emotional experiences. That said, there are broad themes that I’m drawn to in my art practice — the disassembling of language and thought, line, change, beauty.

I have interviewed a number of art therapists over the year. Do you use art in your own practice?

I’m trained as a basic researcher and don’t have experience as a clinician or therapist. However, I have been interested in studying how art can help us manage our emotions, a topic that could inform understanding of why art therapy is effective. As a postdoctoral researcher, I’ve started to conduct some studies that are addressing these questions.

One piece I saw of yours seemed to be a mesh of thin threads—attached to neuron-like images. It seemed to be a network. Can you explain what you were trying to get across?

I think you might be referring to one of my sculptural pieces made of wire, as some of this work takes neuron-like forms. If so, the piece would have been part of a series I’ve been working on for over ten years in which I’ve been cutting text from translated chapters of the Dao De Jing ( Chinese philosophical text)  and attaching the text to wire to form sculptural pieces that hang from the ceiling and walls, and sit on the ground. In this work, I consider the acts of crossing cultures, and of translating and taking apart language. More recently, these pieces have become more autobiographical as I incorporate found materials from my environment into them.

Any upcoming projects, showings?

I’m just about to move to Taipei, Taiwan, where my parents are from and where I plan to spend most of the upcoming year. This is the first time I’ll be living there for an extended period of time and while I’ll continue to work on ongoing research in psychology, I intend to focus on my art practice now. I’m curious how this experience might lead to new bodies of work as I learn the language and navigate cultural differences. I will keep my studio space at Vernon Street Studios and plan to be back for a solo show at the Launchpad space at Boston Sculptors Gallery in October 2023.