Archive for October, 2010

Strange Shapes, Dissident Colors: Nan Wilson’s It’s About Time

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Currently on display in the Sioux City Art Center, following a three-story trek up a winding staircase, is the immediately startling, virtually indigestible art exhibition of Nan Wilson, a local artist who is presently a professor at Briar Cliff University. The massive paintings were created in the last 25 years, and the last exhibition she had at the Sioux City Art Center was over 30 years ago. With this in mind, it’s as if a creative viral outbreak was unleashed upon the gallery room, with strands of multicolored tentacles snaking across the walls, even dripping from the ceilings.

The paintings all consist of oil on canvas, in some cases oil and acrylic, and in a few of the works there are also attachments to the pieces. The paintings are massive, often 6 feet by 6 feet, in some cases 8 feet by 12 feet. It is hard not to be startled by their shear size. One peers into images larger than themselves. The images sometimes resemble a psychedelic rainbow vortex. One piece, titled “Absolution,” looks like a view in the eyepiece of a microscope. The viewer stares into a world of magnified globular cells and veins. The colors pulsate with an energy that reminds us our cells are in constant state of movement.

One recurring theme in at least 5 of the 11 works is the idea of being veiled or caged, or somehow restricted or enclosed. The theme is represented quite explicitly in the painting “Veiled Perfection.” In the painting, we see a patterned assortment of different colored squares. In front of the squares, attached to the painting, is a copper wire fence, patterned in squares similar to the squares in the painting. Another painting, titled “Captured,” shows tan-colored object similar to a piece from Stonehenge, blended together with an unidentified, plum-colored sphere. Both objects are wrapped in what appears to be metal wire. Yet another painting, titled “Primary Impulses,” depicts a pile of different colored circles. It looks like a pile of stones. Again, the entire pile is wrapped in wire, as if the pile were caged. What does it all mean?

I have my own theory. In the gallery, it says that the title of Nan Wilson’s exhibition refers to the fact that she hasn’t had her work on display in so long, that “it’s about time” she did so. However, I choose to view the gallery as if the paintings themselves were actually representations or meditations about the nature of time. For example, some forms of time, such as the past or what we call memories, are in fact captured and caged in our minds. These forms of time seem to be stagnant, changing only when we ourselves change and then revisit them with a different perspective. The recurrence of the barbed wire could be a metaphor for the way we encapsulate our memories, with the possible suggestion that we ought to revisit our memories, thus freeing them from their enclosure. In other paintings, a more free-flowing display of images spread across the canvas, perhaps suggesting the nature of present time, the way it moves with a tangible force, the way it expands and grows. For example, the piece “Interrupted Symmetry” features the blending of squares and triangles, creating the effect of optical irreducibility upon the objects of the painting. It is at once possible to isolate different shapes within the painting, but it is impossible to reduce the painting to it’s individual parts, and the painting thus has shape but no shape, no beginning and no end. This is suggestive of our experience with present time, the way it has already passed the second we are conscience of its passing, the way it dies and re-creates itself instantaneously, the way it has no true beginning and no true end.

Nan Wilson’s exhibition is a thought-provoking display of strangely colored images that escape easy interpretation. The reaction to her works are perhaps first experience viscerally. The eye is met with a combination of colors and images it is not accustomed to. However, once the sensory data has been half-digested, the mind takes over and creates the meaning that may or may not be inherent within the work. Regardless of the artist’s intent and anyone’s interpretation, Nan Wilson’s gallery offers us an excellent opportunity to exercise our minds, employ our critical thinking skills, and stretch our imaginations.

Robert Cole Currans den Hartog

Friday, October 15th, 2010

“My first choice is to be a political analyst on NPR, but I’ll probably end up going into the U.S. Marshals,” says Robert Cole Currans den Hartog, an eighteen-year-old freshman at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. “NPR is really hard to get into,” he says, “and the U.S. Marshals takes six weeks of training.”

            Currans den Hartog is majoring in mass communication. He has an interest in media and politics, but it seems his true passion and perhaps the purpose for which he was put on this earth is to apprehend dangerous fugitives.

            He tilts his head forward, exposing the black, beady eyes behind his large sunglasses. He gazes intently and says, “The U.S. Marshals are bad asses.”

            According to Currans den Hartog, the primary criteria for a bad ass are more than met by a U.S. Marshal. For example, no bad ass is without possession of a shotgun. Accordingly, a U.S. Marshal packs a 12-guage in the backseat of his black armored suburban, a vehicle Currans den Hartog, a lover of the Old West, dubs “the horse of the U.S. Marshal.” Because most bad asses have a susceptibility to being shot at by dangerous fugitives, they must also wear a bullet-proof vest. Naturally, a U.S. Marshal proudly, albeit covertly, sports a bullet-proof vest while on the job. Lastly, and probably most importantly, a true bad ass has immense power over the average, non-bad ass citizen. According to Currans den Hartog, a U.S. Marshal can arrest anyone.

            Currans den Hartog looks very much a teenager, pale-skinned and baby-faced. He’s about 5’9’’, a bit scrawny and lanky. He has shaggy black hair, moussed to appear wet, slightly parted at the middle. There are faint, blackish hints of a peach-fuzz moustache over the top of his lip, and even fainter traces of hair on the tip of his chin. He’s well-dressed: a white cotton button-up shirt tucked into black slacks. The only item that seems out of place is his large sunglasses, which he wears slightly lowered, resting over the middle of his nose, so that sometimes his black, beady eyes are visible.

            Currans den Hartog was born on Thanksgiving Day of 1992, which happened to be November 28 that year. He is his parents’ first child, and was to be followed six years later with a younger brother. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. His curious last name comes as a result of having an Irish mother and a Dutch father. When the two joined in marriage, they both kept their respective last names, but passed both names on to their children, hence the Irish name Currans and the Dutch name den Hartog.

            Not surprisingly, Currans den Hartog’s father sells insurance in Des Moines. His mother used to practice law, mostly in real estate, until complications evolved with their second child, David.

            “My brother’s autistic,” Currans den Hartog says. “He got diagnosed with Ausberger’s when he was two. Now he’s twelve. It’s severe, but he’s functional.”

            The amount of attention and care required by David forced Currans den Hartog’s mother to quit practicing law and tend to her youngest son. This began a ten-year workless stint that still continues today for her.

            “I love my brother,” says Currans den Hartog, “but I wish he wasn’t autistic. He’s very stubborn and throws several fits every day. He’s ruined lots of vacations.”

            The trouble at home as a result of an autistic younger brother was echoed at school as Currans den Hartog entered Des Moines Roosevelt High in 2006.

            “I didn’t like high school,” says Currans den Hartog. “The majority of people were mean and didn’t talk to me.”

            However, this volatile social climate did not stop him from becoming involved in various extracurricular functions.

            “I was on the debate team and competed against some of the top debaters in the state,” says Currans den Hartog.

            Charlie Bass, also a freshman at Morningside and one of Iowa’s top debaters a year ago, recalls seeing Currans den Hartog at a few of his high school debate meets.

            “He was pretty good,” says Bass. “I remember him have a very distinct vocal utterance and a commanding, emphatic tone of voice.”

            In addition to the debate team, Currans den Hartog also took part in student congress. Serving as an integral member of the Student Congressional Committee, Currans den Hartog was central in advancing some of the committee’s most important agendas. For example, in 2005, he drafted an essay on the eradication of the penny from the United States currency.

            “Pennies are useless,” says Currans den Hartog. “They literally are not worth the material they’re produced on. A lot of people don’t know this, but it costs 1.17 cents to make a single penny.”

            Currans den Hartog was also acute to some of the social problems that plagued his high school.

            He says, “Roughly speaking, Des Moines Roosevelt is about 70% white, 15% black, 10% Hispanic, and 5% everything else. It was probably my sophomore year when I first noticed that some of the teachers seemed to yell at black students much quicker than they would white students. I discussed this observation with some of the other students and they corroborated it. So I wrote an article for the school paper presenting this issue. Let’s just say it was not well-received by some of the teachers.”

            Unfortunately, no faculty of Des Moines Roosevelt High School could be reached for comment on this issue.

            Beyond just the issue of racism, Currans den Hartog also focused his attention on gender inequalities.

            “There was this girl who always wore a beret to school everyday,” he recalls. “Like most schools, Des Moines Roosevelt had a loosely enforced no-hat policy. But this girl was never ordered to take her hat off. Yet any male who wore a hat was promptly instructed to remove it from their head. So I wrote an article in the paper highlighting this observation.”

            Though it would seem sexist to allow the girl to continue to wear her beret while not allowing the males to wear hats of any kind, that’s exactly what happened.

            Despite Currans den Hartog’s numerous successes in Student Congress, his attitude towards his high school days is perhaps best expressed in the final article he wrote for the paper entitled “Goodbye. You Won’t Be Missed.” Currans den Hartog’s articles can be read at

            Fortunately for Currans den Hartog, the transition from high school to college has gone smooth.

            “I love it here at Morningside,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit for me. I fell in love with it right away. The teachers are really nice. I’m making friends. And I love the food. It reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking.”

            Currans den Hartog is currently a movie reviewer for Morningside College’s student newspaper, the Collegian Reporter. He plans on expanding his role into the area of opinion writing.

            “You see,” he says, “my perspective on society is different from most. I occupy the space of an outsider looking in. I’m more jaded and cynical than your average college student.”

            Politically, Currans den Hartog ambiguously describes himself as “very liberal,” though still identifies himself as a Catholic. However, his attendance at Mass has virtually stopped entirely upon attending college.

            “I have better things to do than be told how much of a sinner I am,” he says.

            As for the future, Currans den Hartog plans on completing a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication at Morningside College. It is highly probable that he will end up serving in the U.S. Marshals. Ideally, he would like to be located in the Black Hills and be stationed out of Rapid City.

            “I see myself as a cowboy,” he says. “I love to wear Stetson.”

            After laughing, he goes on, “I’m a modern-day cowboy. I have that desire to be out on the open road.”

            He pauses, then sighs. “I’ve only ever felt at peace in the Badlands or in the Black Hills,” he says. “I just love the untamed West and its beautiful landscape.”

            For future reference, watch out for Currans den Hartog tearing down the interstate in a ’67 Shelby GT-500, his dream car.

            “It’s the car that got me in to cars,” he says. “Mark my words, I’m going to get one. I’ve wanted one since I was 12. I’m going to get it armored. I’m going to soup up the engine. And you better believe it’s going to be in mint condition.”

Review of Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs”

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Ross Wilcox

Review of Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs

Bill Buford’s 1990 investigative book Among the Thugs is a humorous and intelligent examination of English football hooliganism. The inspiration for Buford’s eight year immersion into the hooligan subculture came on a night in 1982 when he boarded a train on his way home from Cardiff, Whales. Buford sat idly in the train, awaiting its departure. All of a sudden, a mob of football supporters commandeered the train. They were loud; they were rude; they were drunk.

Buford, an American journalist living in London at the time, spent the next eight years hanging out with English football supporters. He spent the vast majority of his time with the most wild and crazy hooligans, the supporters of the famed club Manchester United. Buford tags alongside the supporters each Saturday as they march into pubs and consume copious amounts of lager. He observes their disgusting behavior with an honest and humorous eye. He bravely walks with them as they parade down the streets of various cities, stopping traffic and smashing car windows. He is right there on the front lines as the supporters engage in old-fashioned, hand-to-hand combat with rival supporters or innocent citizens. Amazingly, Buford is also present when the supporters defy police attempts to squelch crowd violence. Although the book focuses specifically on English football supporters, the overarching theme extends to crowd violence of all forms: the allure of it, the solidarity that overcomes the individuals, and some of the social factors that contribute to it and perpetuate it.

Bill Buford is an American journalist who has written, in addition to the very popular Among the Thugs, the book Heat: An Amateur’s Experiences as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. He attended the University of California at Berkley before moving on to the University of Cambridge, where he studied at a Marshall Scholar. He lived in England for most of the 1980’s. He is the former fiction editor for The New Yorker, where he is still on staff.

Initially, Buford’s purpose for pursuing the study of English football hooliganism was purely out of curiosity. However, as he got to know some of the supporters, his interest grew as more of the details shaping these men’s lives came into focus. The book is very funny in the beginning, but it starts to take a more serious tone as Buford observes greater degrees of violence, disgusting instances of debauchery, and terrifying moments in which there is literally a war taking place in the streets between supporters and policemen. Though Buford never explicitly identifies a thesis, crowd violence emerges as the major theme of the book.

At the time of its publication, Among the Thugs was a timely and urgently relevant work. The media was having a heyday with English football supporters. Cities were vandalized beyond belief by the supporters. There were deaths due to crowd violence inside and outside of football stadiums. In short, football hooliganism was a societal problem. Buford sought to investigate this behavior, and on page 217 of his book lays perhaps the heart of what he is trying to get at. Here, he is discussing his experiences after being involved with hooligans for several years:

“I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable….This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically-produced drugs.”

For Buford’s methods of observation, he completely immerses himself in the hooligan subculture. There is little to no attempt at achieving a objectivity. The book is written in first-person. We stand in Buford’s shoes. The book succeeds so well in drawing us in because in the beginning, we are in the same position as Buford: we have never seen or met real hooligans, let alone walked and talked and fought and drank and eaten with them. So, as Buford embarks on his journey, we feel as shocked and amazed as he does with each new experience. Buford makes no mistake about it: the reality of this story is filtered through his mind, his emotions, and his perceptions. It is a first-person account of one man’s immersion into a violent subculture, and it reads like good fiction.

Buford didn’t conduct formal interviews with the hooligans as much as he simply befriended them. He didn’t talk with them as much as he conversed with them. He more than observed their behavior – he participated in it. He drank with them. He smoked with them. He traveled with them. He ate with them. He, for the most part, became one of them. However, it should be stated that Buford did not engage in any violence. He was right there as it happened, but he didn’t attack anyone or vandalize anything (at least none that he admits). So in this sense, Buford probably doesn’t qualify as a true hooligan, for a true hooligan, as Buford states, engages in violence because it is a kind of drug for him.

Buford, in most cases, does not hesitate to give his opinion. This is a subjective book and all elements of reality are filtered through Bill Buford. This is why the book reads like good fiction. It doesn’t attempt to be objective. One of the advantages fiction has traditionally had over journalism is its ability to allow the reader to stand in a character’s shoes. Well, in Among the Thugs, Bill Buford is a character and we stand in his shoes. His book employs all the elements of fiction successfully. Is it all true? Who cares? It’s a great story by a talented writer and it is entertaining, engaging, funny, and insightful.

The Big Brother

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

Andy Milian’s wheelchair is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It’s almost more of a mobile bed than a mobile chair. His posture is contorted, a permanent condition as a result of his cerebral palsy. His mother, Lilly, crouches down to his level, puts her face close to his, and says, “Hey, big guy.”

Andy turns his head slightly to the right, so that his cheek lays flat against the cushion behind his buzzed head. For someone not accustomed to Andy’s mannerisms, any response he makes could be either misconstrued or go undetected. Lilly says, “Hey, big guy.” She smiles at her son and shakes his arm. Andy makes a gurgling noise. His eyes look like they’re rolled back in his head. Lilly shakes his arm again and he gurgles. She says this noise is compatible with a laugh.

Lilly’s other children, Bianca, 11, and Marco, 8, are also standing over their big brother. Bianca, a spitting-image of her mother with olive skin, black hair, and coffee-brown eyes, smiles at her brother and says, “Hi, Andy.” Marco is more standoffish. His arms rest behind his back, one of his palms gripping the forearm of his other arm. Lilly says Marco fully understands Andy’s condition, recognizes that Andy is different from other children in several fundamental ways. But she also says Marco has trouble interacting with his brother.

“I don’t like doing baby-talk,” Marco says. “Andy’s twelve.”

Lilly smiles at me uncomfortably. Then she turns to Marco. “It’s not baby-talk, son,” she says. “It’s just the way we have to talk with your brother.”

Marco crosses his arms. None of his friends have ever met Andy, and as far as he knows, none of them have a big brother like Andy.

“It’s weird because you can’t really talk to him,” Marco says.

Andy can’t talk. He has hypotonic cerebral palsy, the most sever and restricting kind of CB. He can only move his mouth, his eyes, and in very limited capacities, his neck and torso. He is also profoundly mentally retarded, having an IQ below 20. The crazy thing is, though three weeks premature, Andy was born seemingly healthy. For the first eighteen months of his life, he was a completely healthy baby boy. Lilly had no idea that the relationship she had to her first-born would change so drastically in a matter of months.

“At first, it was wonderful,” Lilly recalls. “He was so cute. He was so full of energy.”

But then, Andy started getting sick. And he lost control of his limbs. His tiny arms and legs would spasm violently, Lilly recalls.

“Then all of a sudden he couldn’t crawl or move hardly at all,” Lilly says. “We took him to the doctor and they ran tests and discovered he had cerebral palsy.”

Sadly, Andy’s cerebral palsy was a combination of being born 3 weeks prematurely and trauma suffered at birth.

“The doctors screwed up,” Lilly said. “When he was born, they said he had suffered some trauma, but they said he would be fine.”

Obviously, they were wrong. After eighteen months of life, Andy’s development would never become fully realized.

“It was the worst time of my life,” Lilly says of those first weeks and months following Andy’s diagnosis. “I was so angry and I cried at some point every single day for almost a year. I just couldn’t accept that my son could never be like other children. I resented doctors for a long time.”

Lilly and her then-husband, Ernesto, filed a lawsuit against the doctors who delivered Andy and were rewarded amply. Andy would receive all the free treatment he needed. An in-home nurse for Andy would be provided free of charge. The Milians even received a full-sized van complete with an electronic wheelchair ramp for transporting Andy.

“It’s been a blessing to have the care Andy needs,” Lilly says. “I love my son so much, and he is so important to me, and I know without winning that lawsuit I would never have been able to afford the level of care Andy needs.”

I ask Lilly a hypothetical question. “What would your relationship be like with Andy had you not have won the lawsuit?”

The question catches Lilly off-guard. Her eyebrows furrow, and a stern expression of thought spreads over her face.

“I don’t know,” she says. “It would be much more difficult.”

Lilly pauses, then says, “To be completely honest, the help we get makes my relationship with my son easier. It enables me to be a mother to him and still have my own life.”

“How is your relationship to Andy different from your relationship to your other children?” I ask Lilly.

Lilly smiles and sighs. “Well,” she says, “the easy answer is that Andy requires more attention than Bianca or Marco. But to go a little deeper, I guess the main difference is that my relationship with Andy is on a very basic level. Because of his disability, his understanding of things beyond his immediate needs and surroundings is very limited. I’ll never talk to him about what he wants to do with his life, what career he’ll pursue.  I’ll never talk to him about the birds and the bees.”

There is only a trace of sadness in Lilly’s eyes. Today, the often sad truth of her son’s future does not overwhelm her. Still, Andy’s condition is a hard situation for his mother to accept.

“Bianca and Marco can grow up to be anything they want,” Lilly says. “They are both smart and have the potential to do anything. Andy doesn’t have that opportunity. I guess my relationship to him is one of service. I just want to do everything I can to make Andy’s life the best it can be, whatever that might be.”

Today, Lilly is a 37-year-old single mother of three children. She divorced her husband a little over a year ago.

“With my ex-husband gone, Andy is the man of the house,” Lilly jokes.

She is currently unemployed because she is attending Western Iowa Tech full-time. She is pursuing psychology with the hopes of becoming a therapist someday.

“It’s really hard trying to balance it all out,” Lilly says. “I want to do really well in school, and that requires a lot of time, but my children are the most important thing in my life.”

Bianca smiles at this.

Bianca is eleven and is currently in sixth grade. She excels academically and has always gotten A’s. One of her main interests is in music, and she plays the trombone in band. I asked her what it was like to have Andy as a brother.

“It’s okay,” she says, not sure how to take my question.

“Do you love him?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says, nodding her head. “He’s my brother.”

Bianca glances at her brother Andy. He appears to be asleep.

“Do you help take care of him?” I ask Bianca.

“Yeah,” she says. “I talk to him and play with him and help with feeding him and stuff.”

“Do your friends know about Andy?” I ask her.

“Kind of,” she says. “Only two of my friends have ever met Andy in person. But my friend Jessica knows Andy really well.”

I want to ask Bianca what it means to know Andy really well, but I don’t. Instead, I listen to Lilly talk about Andy’s future.

“I don’t know how long he’ll live,” Lilly says. “The doctors didn’t think he’d live as long as he has. There were several times when he was a baby where we thought we’d lose him. But he’s made it this long.”

“We just don’t know how long he has,” Lilly goes on. “It could be really soon. It could be years from now. But however long it is, he’s being taken care of and I’m doing the best I can to make him feel loved.”

Marco has run off to his room to play video games. Lilly and Bianca remain by Andy’s side, quietly watching him sleep. I take a few steps forward and join them. Standing this close, I can hear Andy snoring softly.

“Can he dream?” I ask Lilly.

“I don’t know,” she says.

She puts her arm around her daughter. Bianca gratefully accepts it and leans her head against her mother’s side.

I look at Lilly.

“This is it,” Lilly says. “This is my life. It’s who I am.”