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The National Mall, one day, six stops

By Elise Lundstrom

ArtsPost Staff Writer

Have a day to see the National Mall? It’s a daunting task. There are more than museums, four monument and three government buildings on or adjacent to the Mall. How do you choose what to see? Here is a guide to six must-see museums and their highlights. This tour is designed to take from 10 a.m. to late afternoon. It is fit for all ages and all group sizes. With this guide you will see much of the culture, science and art the institutions on the Mall have to offer. These museums are easily accessible by Metro. Get off at the Smithsonian stop on the Blue Line and walk across the Mall to the first stop.

National Museum of American History

14th Street and Constitution Avenue

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)

Can’t Miss: “The Star Spangled Banner” (second floor)

The best place to start off your whirlwind Mall experience is the National Museum of American History, full of exhibits, permanent and temporary, that will appeal to every person in your group. Highlights include: “The First Ladies at the Smithsonian,” “Within, These Walls,” “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” and “National Treasures of Popular Culture.”

Can’t Miss: You literally can’t miss “The Star Spangled Banner” exhibit; it is right inside the entrance to the museum. Entering the exhibit, you will travel up a ramp, reading about the Fort McHenry and the Battle of Baltimore while audio is played to further illustrate the information on the panels and the videos. The audio includes: “Washington burning,” “Sounds of a ship at anchor,” and “sounds of distant rockets and bombs.” When reading the descriptions of the sound bytes, they seem a little silly, but they are there to keep all of the senses working as you move through the exhibit.

Repeat visitors may remember the previous exhibit included the restoration process on display: women on scaffolding meticulously sewing and repairing the flag for its eventual permanent display. In the current exhibit, the flag is finally finished, behind glass, in a dimly lit, controlled environment room, almost glowing because of the lighting. The intrigue of the restoration is gone, and with it some of the appeal of the banner itself.

Following the actual viewing area for the flag, a large, touch animation table lets visitors interact with different parts of the flag, seeing the stitches up close and reading information about the restoration process (at least that aspect lives on in the exhibition.)

Finally, as you exit the exhibit, information about the creator of the actual flag, Mary Pickersgill, not Betsy Ross, its commissioner Maj. George Armistead, and Francis Scott Key, writer of the song that became the National Anthem, is displayed. This section is accompanied by “a medley of performances of The Star Spangled Banner” audio, easily recognizable and fun to hear spliced together.

There is a reason the “goSmithsonian” guide tells you to “begin here.” Family friendly in its length and interactive features, this exhibit gets you ready to experience all things “American” and showcases a part of American history that is as important today as when it was created during the Revolutionary War, the American flag.

The Kenneth E. Behring Center has undergone many renovations over the past four years, and while they have certainly made the interior space more visually appealing, it is clear that the aesthetics were more important than function in the process. For example, the “National Treasures of Popular Culture” exhibit is much too small to accommodate all those wishing to glimpse Dorothy’s red slippers. The format of the museum has remained generally the same, with escalators on each end of the building and exhibits scattered between and behind them. But don’t let the outside construction fool you: The museum is open.

National Museum of Natural History

10th Street and Constitution Avenue

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (check for extended summer hours)

Can’t Miss: the Harry Winston Gallery

After your immersion into American culture, continue your day on the mall by going next door; the National Museum of Natural History cannot be missed. This museum is chock full of science and fun with its diversity of exhibits, IMAX theater and “Live Butterfly Pavilion.” As you enter, you are greeted by the towering African elephant of the popular Washington phrase, “Meet you by the elephant.” It is easy to get your bearings in the rotunda, as all of the major exhibits are well marked and directions to everywhere you want to go are plentiful. There is something for every science lover here from dinosaurs to Egyptian mummies, to moon rocks.

Can’t Miss: “A Rare Encounter: Together” showcases two of the world’s most valuable blue diamonds: the Smithsonian’s Hope Diamond and the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. The Harry Winston Gallery presents a timeline of each diamond, when and where it passed from owner to owner and how it came by its current cut and owner. The Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond is on display publicly for the first time in 50 years. Both diamonds originated in mines in India, some speculate the same mine, since they are so similar in color and size.

This exhibit is special not only because of the pairing of these gems but because for the first time, the Hope Diamond is displayed out of its original setting. To celebrate the anniversary of its entry into the Smithsonian collection, the Hope Diamond has been removed form the original setting, which is currently on display laying next to the diamond in its display case, and will be placed in a new setting in May. held a design contest and the winning design “Embracing Hope,” is being created by Harry Winston Inc., whose founder donated the gem to the Smithsonian, and for whom the gallery that houses the Hope Diamond is named.

Along with these two priceless diamonds, the gallery has four large mineral samples, quartz, sandstone and others. The gallery is not crowded, and since the Hope Diamond is displayed on a rotating pedestal, there is no need to jockey for position. Everyone can appreciate the value and beauty of these diamonds; however the gallery, and adjacent “National Gem Collection” and “Gems and Minerals” exhibit seemed to be largely occupied by mothers and daughters. All of the visitors were enjoying themselves, and like “meet me by the elephant,” a common joking statement was “I’ll take that one.”

If you are in need of a snack before you venture on down the mall, stop by the Fossil Café on the first floor at the end of the dinosaur hall, or the Ice Cream and Coffee Bar located outside the Atrium Café on the ground floor. They have sustainable treats.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden:

Independence Avenue at Seventh Street

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Sculpture Garden open 24/7)

Can’t Miss: the Sculpture Garden

Tired of being inside? Cross the Mall and walk down toward the Capitol Building until you see a large red jumble of iron beams. That’s Mark di Suvero’s “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore) and you have reached the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This is a great break from reading, and allows your group to enjoy sculpture from some of the greatest artists of the modern era. Start with the silver “Kiepenkerl,” peddler, by Jeff Koons and walk down the stairs to your left as you start your relaxing tour of Hirshhorn sculpture.

As you wind your way along the paths, contemplating the meaning behind each work, and the connection between the titles and the works themselves, take a minute to enjoy the overall atmosphere of the sculpture garden. After the inevitable crowds at the first two museums, this should be a nice break.

At the center of the garden is a reflecting pool and one of the most intriguing works, “For Gordon Bunshaft” by Dan Graham created in 2006. The structure, made from two-way mirror, wood and steel, is a favorite for kids and adults. You look at the glass, expecting your reflection, but you see someone else! You look around to see who this reflection belongs to and it is a person further down the path, undoubtedly looking at a reflection of you. You can walk around the structure, open the door and go inside for a unique experience, or just sit on a bench and watch the laughter and fun. Everyone experiencing this work has a smile on their face.

(Make sure you walk down every path, or you might miss something wonderful.)

Other artists on display in the garden include: Auguste Rodin, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti. The final work as you complete your winding tour of the garden is “Wish Tree for Washington D.C.” by Yoko Ono. During all seasons, current spring budding excluded because of the delicate status of the tree at that time, visitors are encouraged to attach pieces of paper with their wishes written on them to the tree. This iconic sculpture is a must see and experience for all visitors to the sculpture garden.

As you walk up the stairs and out of the official garden, look across the street at Roy Lichtenstein’s “Brushstroke” in front of the Hishhorn itself. The sculpture collection continues around the museum, with plenty of opportunities to sit and enjoy, including in the courtyard around the asymmetrical fountain, and ends with Claes Oldenburg’s “Geometric Mouse” at the entrance of the museum. If your art bug isn’t satisfied, head inside for galleries filled with modern art, otherwise, exit the museum grounds toward Independence Avenue and walk to your left to the next destination.

(Note: please do not touch the sculpture. That includes children and adults.)

National Air and Space Museum:

Independence Avenue at Sixth Street

Open 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (most days March 28 – September 5)

Can’t Miss: “Visions of Earth”

As you enter The National Air and Space Museum, you are confronted with huge hallways filled with aircraft, crowds of people and the feeling of utter chaos. The first floor of the museum is basically divided in two: on the east side, space and rockets, on the west, airplanes and aviation. The second floor is a mixture of the two and including the Albert Einstein Planetarium, the Wright Brothers gallery and many others.

If you don’t enjoy throngs of children screaming at their parents to let them have dehydrated ice cream and let them ride the simulator, this may be a difficult museum for you to enjoy. That said, there is no better place in Washington to experience the history of flight and space exploration.

The Air and Space Museum is trapped in a collision of the 1970s and the 2000s. The Can’t Miss of this museum is a great example of that: “Looking at Earth” on the ground floor on the east side of the building. Need to escape the announcements about how many minutes you have to buy your IMAX tickets before the next show? Duck into this exhibit on how humans have viewed the Earth from the air, and from space.

At the start of the exhibit, “A Bird’s Eye View” shows us the first camera strapped to a pigeon (to take images in flight) as well as cartoons of photographers hanging out of hot air balloons. The exhibit progresses through time to show how we have taken and used images from the air for social, military and scientific research. Satellites are given a large portion of the exhibit, and on display are the TIROS, GOES and ITOS satellites themselves. Finally the “What’s New” section shows new ways scientists are using space imagery.

The exhibit is a mix of 1970s scientist and pilot mannequins and current video and weather technology. A station where you can view satellite images of anywhere on the planet is across from a dusty spy pilot seated on the wing of his jet. Enjoyable and informative, this quirky exhibit embodies the spirit of flight and the spirit of the National Air and Space Museum, without the dehydrated food and mass of people.

National Museum of the American Indian:

Independence Avenue at Fourth Street

Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort”

Continue down Independence Avenue to the next building and you have reached the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum’s exterior immediately informs you that this is not an ordinary museum, its curving and organic stone face keep your eye moving as you walk around to the main entrance courtyard. You are greeted with a natural landscape, pond and sculpture by Native American artists. The large glass doors of the entry seem heavy but swing easily when you pull them open. The interior is bright and airy; the rotunda is open from floor level to the oculus in the ceiling letting in a beam of light.

The American Indian museum features many exhibits on current and past traditions, art and cultures of different groups of native American peoples, including “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,” “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” and others. The exhibits are comprehensive and engaging, if a little heavy on text. But we have so much to learn, we know so little, that the museum feels like it must tell you as much as it can while it has your attention.

Can’t Miss: “Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort” is an exhibit of the Swiss-Canadian Native American installation artist’s works. Jungen is half Native American of the Dunne-Za First Nations and uses found objects to create his environmentally and socially conscious works. In the rotunda, a mobile of his work “Crux (As seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky)” is off to the side, a preview of the exhibit on the third floor. The exhibit is set up like an art gallery, not like the rest of the museum that has more of a scientific and social feel. The six rooms contain many different examples of his work.

Jungen’s work deals with Native American identity, especially related to sports and environmental issues. His environmental works are mainly in plastic, including his “Shapeshifter,” what looks like a whale skeleton made from white plastic chair pieces, and “Carapace,” an igloo-like structure based on Asian temples, created from trash bins. His more socially conscious works deal with the role of Native American mascots in the sports world.

His totem pole-like structures made from golf bags and titled after their years, are particularly striking for their height and their geometric aesthetics. Jungen creates faces out of sports gear and you can’t help but smile initially when you see these works. However, his work deals with issues that are under the surface, just like his meaning is under the surface of his art.

By now you are probably famished. If you made it past the food court trap in the National Air and Space Museum (really, do you want McDonalds?), then eat at the Mitsitam Café. Delicious native inspired dishes abound. Tip: order a few side dishes instead of an entrée to get a taste of all the cultural foods offered.

United States Botanic Garden:

100 Maryland Ave. SW (adjacent to the U.S. Capitol)

Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Can’t Miss: The Conservatory

Now that you’ve been tuned in to more natural aspects of life, walk across the street toward the Capitol to the Botanic Garden. Here’s the reward at the end of your National Mall tour. If it’s been a long, hot day, take some refuge in the cool Garden Court; if it’s been rainy and cold, warm up in the Jungle or the Tropical Gardens. The U.S. Botanic Garden complex includes the indoor Conservatory, the exterior National Garden and Bartholdi Park across Independence Avenue.

The Botanic Garden has many different gardens for all of the different ecosystems found in the country from desert to primeval plants to Hawaii and tropical jungle, and rare and endangered plants. Visitors enjoy wandering through the gardens, stopping to take pictures of the many flowers, especially orchids, and just relaxing in the atmosphere. The walkways can be quite narrow however, so be wary of strollers and large groups. If you get stuck behind a tour group, the best option is to back-track and come back to that area later. Professionals are at stations to provide detailed information about plants and gardening, as well as give tours of the conservatory.

The West Gallery has an exhibit called “Plants and Culture” that allows visitors to smell fragrances that come from flowers and plants, products that come from plants and plants in our everyday lives. The huge metal flower sculptures are fun for all ages, with videos in their centers showing live plants growing as well as other clips.

The conservatory is a wonderful final stop for a tour of the Mall, relaxing, but fun and informative.

Is three better than two?

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer


The world of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

To 3-D or not to 3-D? That was the question when I was on my way to see Disney and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” over spring break this spring.  I had seen “Avatar” in 3-D and been dazzled by the clarity and the believable space James Cameron and his team had produced.  Could Disney really match that? Did I want to wear those glasses, even if it was only for 108 minutes? The answer to the latter was no.

But after seeing it in 2-D, I was left doubting.  Were the little blurs of images I detected gone in the 3-D version?   Did the smoke Absolum blew from his opium pipe billow out into the audience when the glasses were donned? These were questions I needed answered.

Tim Burton brought his signature dark-bordering-on-creepy touch to the much idolized subject of Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice.  Though the movie is titled “Alice in Wonderland,” the story comes from Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” the second installment in the story of Alice Kingsley.  “Alice in Wonderland” is referenced briefly throughout the story as Alice struggles with accepting that what she thought were bad dreams are actually memories of her first experience in Underland. Burton was an excellent choice to bring out all of the more twisted aspects of Carroll’s story.

Little known actress Mia Wasikowska was wonderful as Alice, playing her as a sweet but progressive in her ideas and smart as a tack.  Her accent was lyrical and a pleasure to listen to, and that, along with her iridescent pale skin, made her entrancing to watch.

Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway played the two queens, red and white.  They played to their strengths, Carter as the fiery tyrant and Hathaway as the beloved sovereign. The supporting cast, including on-screen actors and voice contributions, made the experience come alive.  Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Crispin Glover shone in their respective roles.

Opposite Wasikowska, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter was up to many of his usual tricks: the funny walk and head tilts of Captain Jack Sparrow, the smile, voice and far off look of Willy Wonka. That being said, he did it all masterfully.  His deep Scottish brogue when he tells the tale of the Jabberwocky made the audience smile with pleasure and shiver with dread simultaneously.  Depp’s Hatter was endearing and frightening, and every moment was worth watching. His niche character continues to work wonders.

The story of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” are well known to most if not all of America through the books, numerous television adaptations and the iconic 1951 Disney animated film. Thus, the storyline was not going to be a surprise to anyone, and Disney did not take any liberties with the plot.  How they kept us interested, waiting for the next scene, was with the special effects.

The fabulous world of Underland, conceived out of Carroll and Burton’s eccentric minds, is translated beautifully onto the screen.  The fantasy plants and animals are a far cry from the 1951 Disney animated version.  The two queen’s castles, in their respective glory, stand in the landscape as monuments to dreams of little girls everywhere. The desolate areas destroyed by the Queen of Hearts leave you with chills.  The characters, including weeble-wobble Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum played by Matt Lucas, lurching Stayne played by Glover, and the “globe” headed Queen of Hearts are all created by CGI, computer-generated-imagery, but they look as real as Alice.

Now on to the real question: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Oh no, I’m sorry, excuse me: what was the difference between 2-D Alice and 3-D Alice?

After digesting the 2-D version of “Alice in Wonderland,” I decided that I had to see it in 3-D to see if there was any difference in clarity or brilliance of the special effects. So I paid my fee for the 3-D glasses and got ready for the show.

While the difference was not immense, the forest did look deeper, the room of doors more imposing and the Jabberwocky a bit more fierce.  The blurry scenes of the 2-D were now clear and steady and much more life-like. When Alice is running through the landscape between the Red and White castles, it was much clearer what she was running past in 3-D.

The only disappointing character was the Jabberwocky.  It was not nearly as terrible and frightening as the Hatter’s poem described.  It looked like something out of a claymation fairy tale. Even the 3-D and the bellowing voice of acclaimed actor Christopher Lee could not save it.  That scene was the most frustrating of the entire film.  It seemed like an afterthought, like Burton put more effort into the Bandersnatch’s hut than the epic final battle to save Underland.

The difference of 3-D is never that things jump out of the frame into your face, though we all want that to happen because of the way 3-D is advertised.  The Jabberwoky’s tail did not come within inches of my nose. However, it did complement the creative style of Burton and the fantastical world he created.  To truly experience falling down the rabbit hole, it is worth the extra fee and the cumbersome glasses. My only real disappointment was that the Blue Caterpillar’s smoke did not billow out into my lap.

“Last Train” Needed a Different Station

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Last train home

A performance of Last Train Home courtesy Wolf Trap

Have you ever been to a rock concert where everyone sits down the whole time? I hadn’t until I saw “Last Train Home” perform at the Barns at Wolf Trap this Winter.  As the band takes the stage, each member gets his instrument ready; the seven band members say nothing but start in their first number “Tonight,” getting the music going right away. We don’t even get an introduction until after the seventh number. I found myself wondering when songs would end and forgetting what each song had originally been about.

Eric Brace, the lead singer and founder of “Last Train Home”, is the heart of the band, leading them in every number and communicating to the band when each should have their solo.  And solo they did, every musician, perhaps excluding the drummer, had a solo in each song that was performed.  This made every number long, a little too long.  You could feel the disappointment if the crowd, mostly made up of 30-somethings and up, with a  few younger fans sprinkled in, who all seemed to be familiar with “Last Train Home’s” music.

However, the length of the songs did showcase the immense talent pool the band had united for this particular show. The audience had the feeling that this concert is a “jam session” of roots rock at its finest.  As is often the case with “Last Train Home”, the more regular members of the band, Eric Brace lead guitar and vocals, Jim Gray electric bass, Scott McKnight electric guitar and Paul Griffith drums are supplemented by other artists at each venue, some of whom have never played with the band before.

Dave Van Allen, who had worked with the band before and “came all the way down from Pennsylvania,” was on steel guitar; Michael Webb, who has played with many other country music stars such as Shania Twain, played accordion, electric guitar, keyboard and tambourine; and David Coleman played electric guitar.  Peter Cooper, who opened for the band, also played with them in a number of their songs.

“Last Train Home” is a band completely in love with its own music. They seem lost in the music as they play each song.  Most of the songs were slower, which Brace chalked up to the fact the barn had seats and people couldn’t really move around.   Blaming it on the venue? The Barns at Wolf Trap is like a rustic church with its exposed beams and rich red curtains drawn to expose the stage. Perhaps it is geared to those patrons who need to sit down.

This seemed to be both all right and yet disappointing to the audience.  Applause and cheers followed each song, but you could feel a restlessness because standing seemed inappropriate for the venue.

The most memorable song from the night was “Tranquility Base,” about Neil Armstrong, a man who has not talked much about his historic moonwalk since 1969.  Brace said “coagulated into a song” out of questions the band had for Armstrong. During the number a moon was projected behind the band on the wall.

The song left the audience silent for a moment, contemplating the “­­­­­­­glorious, beautiful, frightening or sad” that Armstrong must have seen, then erupting into applause. It left me will goose bumps.

At the conclusion of the show, “Last Train Home” played “Darlin Say” and the crowd, was clapping along, and some stood up and danced to the beat.  The band was coaxed back onstage for an encore of two songs that had most, finally, on their feet.

Overall, the band had some great moments but was underwhelming.  The band’s musical talents were obviously substantial, but the audience wanted more excitement.  The majority of slower, similar sounding numbers gave the performance a drawn out and confused feel.  Perhaps the Barns was not the correct venue for “Last Train Home.”

Peter Cooper was the “special guest” of “Last Train Home,” opening for them with his story telling songs and humor. He delighted the audience with his autobiographical opener “Dumb Luck” detailing some humorous and important events of his early life.

His acoustic guitar seemed secondary to his vocals but complementary.  His work has spoken elements in addition to sung lyrics and the two meld beautifully to make you listen and think about what Cooper has to tell you. “The Man Who Loves to Hate” is one of these songs that really makes you pay attention, and “715 (For Hank Aaron)” is a tale of the struggles the baseball great overcame and notes the illogical nature of racism.

Cooper was a hit as an opener and a musician in his own right. The audience wished his lighthearted and humorous melodies had continued on.

Cooper and Brace have been friends for a long time, share a background in music reporting and reviewing.  They have collaborated in the past and have an album out “Eric Brace and Peter Cooper You Don’t Have to Like Them Both” that has been out for about a year.

Eric Brace and “Last Train Home” will be back in the D.C. area May 21 in Arlington, performing at the IOTA at 9 p.m.

Dead battery irks, but does not ruin Turner to Cezanne

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Why are there people walking around in the gallery with their cell phones? That was the first thought I had when I entered the “Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces of the Davies Collection, National Museum of Wales” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  But this wasn’t disrespectful.  The newest tactic museums are employing to make their galleries more interactive is to have people use their own cell phones instead of renting audio guides.

This exhibit is traveling the country, giving American museum-goers a chance to see works they could only have seen in Wales up until this point.  In the lobby of the Corcoran Gallery there is a video that details the lives of the Davies sisters and their collection, highlighting the works in the exhibit. You can watch the actual installation of the works, while the curator and various scholars inform you about the history of the collection.

The actual exhibit, on the third floor, spans three rooms, the first painted red, the second yellow, the third blue, a play on the primary colors, then further categorized by periods of art the Davies sisters collected, from Academic Salon painting to Beyond Impressionism.

In small print on the first wall of the exhibit is an explanation of this new process.  You call, listen to the message, enter the number of the work you are looking at, and then you can hear extra information about the image.  No speaker phone please, air time charges apply, and your quality of reception is based on your service provider. There is also a special “family” audio program, marked by a paw print, that has more interactive recordings.

The Corcoran emphasized the sustainability of this new practice of using your cell phone, and while I applaud them for trying to find new ways to be environmentally friendly, there were many problems with this new practice. It took me four tries to get the system to recognize the number for Renoir’s “La Parisienne,” and the recording was faint and scratchy.  Some of the recording was a repeat of the video from the lobby, or of the wall text, but there were a few valuable tidbits.

“La Parisienne"

“La Parisienne" by Renoir 1874

For the same work “La Parisienne” I listened to the family audio.  It asked me if I thought the woman in the image was a nice person.  There were bustling street sounds, meant to be the sounds of Paris, and a more formalistic breakdown of the elements of the image.  It was a refreshing counter to the more historical and biographical adult version.  Note to self: listen to the family version.

Also, if your phone is not fully charged, you may be out of luck to hear the audio.  My phone died in the middle of the exhibit. If I had had a hand-held audio guide, I would have been able to listen without fear that my battery would go dead.

While I was frustrated with the audio component of the exhibit, I was impressed with the rest.  The wall colors complemented the works, the galleries were well-lit and there was clear and concise wall text next to each image.  It was refreshing to see someone take the time to put explanatory wall text next to each work, not only next to the works deemed more valuable or important.  This may have been due to the fact that there was no exhibit pamphlet available. Another sustainable move by the Corcoran.

The wall summaries at each new period of art were surprisingly informative, explaining a bit about the sisters’ interest in the period and about the periods themselves. For example, the Davies sisters’ grandfather was a tenant farmer and so they felt a unique connection to the works of Millet.

The final section, “Later Collecting,” was the most intriguing.  It included lesser known works that the sisters collected, which were mainly by British and Welsh artists.  Some included were Agustus John and Robert Polhill Bevan.  This fit well with the National Museum of Wales, whose core objective is the “advancement of the education of the public,” and keeping appreciation of Welsh and British culture alive.  The exhibit was a once in a lifetime chance to see and learn about works that had never come to the U.S. before; if only my phone hadn’t died.

The exhibit runs through April 25. Visit for more information on the exhibit and the gallery.

Who really needs a referee?

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

"Marriage Ref"

Tom Papa addresses the panel during the pilot.

The problem with single people is that they are busy looking for their soulmates. Host Tom Papa instructs them to “Find someone you can tolerate…find someone who you can sleep next to and not throw up and marry them.” A seemingly insensitive comedic introduction to a show about marital problems.

The Marriage Ref considers you an expert on marriage, “If you are, been, just got, or are getting out of marriage.” The pilot’s panel of experts includes Alec Baldwin, Kelly Ripa and the show’s producer Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld and Ripa are both married with and Baldwin is past the “getting out of marriage” phase, having divorced from Kim Basinger in 2002.

The pilot of the show featured the couples we had seen on commercials throughout the Olympics, the Ridolfis whose issue involved a deceased pet, and the Hunters’ disagreement about a stripper pole.

Unfortunately the show was not much more than what we had already seen from the commercials and advertisements that had made us want to tune in. We had already heard many of the wittiest comments and had already predicted the verdicts. The only surprise was the introduction of the “Just the Facts Ma’am,” Natalie Morales, who serves up obscure statistics or facts about the issue at hand. For example, stripper poles are an accepted form of exercise and around 1,000 people have their pets stuffed every year.

Both couples won a second honeymoon, though we were told at the beginning of the show only one would be winning. So no one had the craziest, worst or most complicated issue; everyone is a winner in the end.

Later, in the series premier, it was evident that the show would not be much more than one spouse with a crazy idea and one with a sane argument.

The experts of the premier were Tina Fey, who is married and has a daughter, Seinfled, in a return appearance, and Eva Longoria Parker, who is in her second marriage. They weighed in on three couples from all over the country.

The Rios, who actually brought two issues for the panel and ref to decide, seemed to be a happy couple and experts in fighting. Their issues were titled “The Forbidden Table” and “The Possible Porch.”

Dalia Rios has a formal dining room.  It is only to be used at Thanksgiving and for reflecting. Luis thinks that this is ridiculous.

The panel had some lively discussion on the issue. Fey thought the idea was crazy and that it was like saying: “The bathroom is only for Easter.” Longoria Parker however, confessed that she also had a formal dining room, AND a formal living room.  This resulted in a hilarious debate that centered on the issue: if royalty might be stopping by your house in your lifetime or not.

Dalia also wants Luis to build a “do-it-yourself” porch but he maintains he cannot “do-it-himself.” She berates him for being unable to do what all men should instinctively know how to do, and he shoots back that her comments are sexist. The facts from Just the  Facts Ma’am: studies show that women are better at assembly than men.

The panel was split on both issues but did not address the sexist issues and decided that couples that fight well are happily married.  The wife and husband each “won” one issue, but Papa merely gave the verdict with no helpful thoughts or insights on the deeper issues.

The Ramundos also had a conflict that had to do with gender issues.  The husband Joe is a self proclaimed “metrosexual” who spends more time going to the salon than with his wife and kids.  The couple awkwardly discussed the fact that Paula is not attracted to men who are not “manly men” and that Joe is more of the woman in the relationship.

The panel seemed to regard this as a superficial issue. Longoria Parker though Joe probably “watched too much Jersey Shore” and Tina commented that the problem was probably Joe’s desire for more “shnookie” and that Paula should give it to him if she wants to get her way.

This couple’s problem was uncomfortable to watch.  It seemed like they were not attracted to each other because of this issue. Papa and the panel assumed that we all thought men should be manly but well-groomed.  Though the call went to the husband, the audience was left in a strange place, unsure what to think.

The final couple, after a brief look at the Wizas and their flossing dispute, were the Kohlenbergs, who had an issue about wedding rings. Howard refuses to wear it while “playing basketball,” an image we were privy to that resulted in bouts of laughter and insults from the panel.

The panel sided with the wife solely based on the fact that her husband was a terrible basketball player and no woman would be interested in him after they saw him play.  It was strange to see the panel bully Howard, who seemed uncomfortable and embarassed.


NBC entertains us but ultimately misses the bigger picture with The Marriage Ref and gives us a show void of insight and advice. As Papa said on the pilot, “Is this a perfect system? Not even close!”

The couples and their problems were treated superficially and did not address any of the underlying societal issues that were brought up by the discussion.  Though Papa was fully of generic advice for couples to get over their disagreements, ending the season premier with “Your marriage is worth fighting for! Now kiss and make up!” the show does not deal with love at all.  It merely tells us to suck it up, tolerate each other and get on with our lives; happiness is not THAT important.

The Marriage Ref airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on NBC. For more information visit

Only Angels Have Wings

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

A plane soars through the sky, we hear her engines roaring but we don’t see her.  The fog is too thick. Pilots, mechanics, locals and visitors on the ground look up in frightened anticipation, hoping the pilot can line up for touchdown. Suddenly we see the plane swoop just above their heads, barely missing the hotel, bar, airline headquarters building. A close call, a wrong descent path and another try. All for a steak dinner with the blonde from the boat.

A story of love and danger set in the 1930s South American port town of Baranca, Only Angels Have Wings, keeps us at the edge of our seats until the last line. Using humor, drama, romance and action all rolled into one picture, Howard Hawks keeps us wanting more of everything.

Starring Carry Grant as Geoff Carter, the fatalistic veteran pilot who runs an airline transporting mail over the Andes, and Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, a performer originally only in town for the night who becomes infatuated with Geoff and the world of flying, Angels brings stars of the 1930s silver screen together.

The story line centers around Geoff as he deals with the dangerous consequences of operating his airline, his romantic interests and his own stubbornness. As The Kidd (Thomas Mitchell) remarks to Bonnie, “The only thing I can tell you about him, he’s a good guy for gals to stay away from.” And, of course, that means that no one can.

Under the legendary direction of Hawks, we are shown images of South America in the 1930s, or what Hollywood thought South America in the 1930s looked like, which is remarkably clean and Americanized. Even the rain and mud looks clean. But we can’t have Bonnie (Arthur) and her embodiment of the American feminine getting any dirt on her fluffy white robe.


Arthur plays piano in the hotel bar.

Hawks joins romance and adventure together beautifully.  Arthur and Rita Hayworth glow in the masculine environment of the airline building.  From the interior shots, including a great bar sing-along with everything and everyone perfectly in place, to footage shot from the air following the mail planes banking and turning through the sky, always on the edge of danger, the cinematography was worthy of the Academy Award it was awarded.

Humor is used throughout Only Angels Have Wings in an effective and poignant way. Witty language masks tragedy, keeps social interactions interesting and highlights the relationships between men and women in the 1930s.  One of the exchanges that got the most laughs was between the Kid and Carter about why the next ship heading north is not stopping in Baranca:

“They have no bananas.”

“They have no bananas?”

“Yes, they have no bananas.”

This dialogue is a note on the 1922 Broadway review “Make it Snappy’s” novelty song “Yes! We have no bananas.” It still gets a laugh out of audiences today.

It is no surprise that Angels was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1940, including Best Cinematography (Black and White), and Best Effects/Special Effects.  Hawks’ use of lighting, sound and screen shots warrant those nominations. The scenes where the primary footage is shot in the air of the mail planes is particularly striking; you feel that at any moment they will crash into the menacing Andes mountains.

On the ground, Hawks’ control and minimal camera movement frame every shot perfectly.  You see exactly what you need to when you need to, for as long as you need to.

Originally released in 1939, that same year that brought us Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz, Only Angels Have Wings is on par with its peers, deserving of the tagline of “Powerful as a tropical storm!”

Today we see this movie as a classic old Hollywood movie, but sitting in the theater with Only Angels Have Wings, the audience sees the film at as a commentary on life in the 1930s.  Many of the jokes and issues are relatable to modern life.  Men and women have not changed that much.  Carter and Lee may interact in a similar way today, and airlines in the Andes are still dangerous to operate.

Hawks successfully blends humor, action, romance, drama and adventure together to bring us a vibrant, exciting and enjoyable film Only Angels Have Wings.

(Only Angels Have Wings was part of a Jean Arthur retrospective shown at the AFI Silver Theater on Feb. 24 as part of a series of films shown in conjunction with Montgomery College.  Each film is followed by a discussion led by a film professor from Montgomery.  For more information visit

Life after death: on earth and in heaven

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Cover of "Lovely Bones."

In “The Lovely Bones,” Anna Sebold constructs a gripping story about a young girl murdered in the suburbs in 1973 and what she experiences after having left the world she knew. It is: “The story of a life and everything that came after” according to the tagline.

Susie Salmon, age 14 forever, is a bright and insightful girl in her afterlife, much like she was before she was killed.  She watches as her family struggles with the grief, sadness and rage in the aftermath of her death and the evolution of a new family without her. This process guides the book and makes for compelling storytelling as we wonder if the Salmon family will be able to move on, and if they will be together when they do.

Susie moves frequently from watching her father: a man nearly destroyed by her death; her sister: struggling to find an identity other than the sister of a murdered girl; her mother: driven to distraction and self-revelation; and her killer Len Harvey: a man tortured by bloody desire.  Susie also watches fellow students and other family members as well as the detective on her case. She bounces between them, a wandering soul, and we are curious no matter what she is looking at.

Sebold uses the curiosity of the reader about the afterlife and about the solution to a murder to keep us interested and drawn to the story.  Her images of the in-between, the place Susie goes to after she dies, is both intriguing and comforting to the reader with its colors, familiarity and dogs. You have to have dogs in heaven.

Surprisingly, Sebold has not given heaven any religious connotation.  It is more spiritual in the sense that Susie feels there is a different, bigger heaven than where she is, but she can’t go there yet.  Heaven is more of a place where you have the simple joys that may have eluded you in life. For example Susie has a gazebo in the yard, and she lives in a duplex, things she coveted in life, and a place where you can think about your life, and the world, and the world without you in it.

The murder mystery continues loosely throughout the book, but we are left wanting there to be quicker progress, aching for closure.  In that, Sebold has made us feel what the Salmon family feels: frustration, confusion and anger.  This is heightened by the fact that we see Len Harvey along with Susie, something the Salmons cannot do.

Susie struggles with her inability to help her family and the police catch her killer.  We feel Susie’s detached frustration and when it melts into acceptance that life will continue, we are left relieved and upset.  Our societal conditioning makes us want a perfect ending, and what we get is just as good.

The story orbits around the Salmon family and their relationships and experiences following Susie’s death.  We watch as each deals with loss differently; from grandmother to baby brother, all of their lives are changed forever.  As the years pass, we see them grow both together and apart, lean on each other and push each other away.  In the end, the best way to describe the Salmon family is broken with bandages.

Sebold has woven a story of both fantasy and reality.  Her conception of heaven and her depiction of life, both in heaven and on earth, after death keep us riveted and wanting more.  We could read about the Salmon family’s problems and joys forever; we could read about Susie’s thoughts and experiences in heaven forever.

“The Lovely Bones” is the second work Sebold has published.  She has also written “Lucky,” a memoir about her own rape and her life afterward, and the less well received “The Almost Moon,” about a woman who murders her mother and the 24 hours that come after.

The novel has recently been turned into a movie, directed by “The Lord of the Rings” Peter Jackson. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Susie, and Mark Walburg and Rachel Weisz as her parents.

“The Lovely Bones,” 400 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $7.99/$9.99

If you don’t remember, Time helps

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

All incumbent presidents from Warren G. Harding to Barack Obama have had their portraits, photographs, likenesses or caricatures printed on the cover of Time Magazine.  The exhibit “From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” at the Portrait Gallery selects a few of these to illustrate how each was portrayed and viewed by the public during their presidency.

This small exhibit of 32 Time covers including photographs, collages, paintings and sculpture spans one hallway that separates parts of the 20th Century Americans Gallery.  Though it is brief, and does not include all of the presidential covers of Time, the collection packs a punch.  Each cover, or original art used for the cover, is intriguing and provides a window into public opinion and concern for the time they represent.

Time Magazine cover November 24, 2009.

As you approach the exhibit, you are confronted with a photo illustration from Nov 24, 2008: Obama’s face and hands superimposed on an old photograph of FDR in his convertible, cigarette hanging from his smiling and confident mouth. This image creates initial confusion, seeming to be simply a play on the title of the exhibition. However, by looking to the left and see a copy of the issue and the title “The New New Deal” and reading the explanation of the image, story and note about the 44th president, you come to understand the image.

The exhibit is well laid out except for the panels in the center that hid the artwork hung on either side of them rather than showcasing them.  It is easy to miss the sculpture in the center of the hallway and the cover art on the panels.  This is frustrating, especially in an exhibit so dependent on the chronology of the covers.

Since FDR, every president has been “Man of the Year” at least once. This fact is surprising when first read, however, every president is a symbol of hope at some point in his career. The award was created in 1927 and FDR was the first president to be awarded the honor. Other Presidents have won multiple times, Obama being the most recent, winning in 2008 the year of his election.

Presidents do not have to be “Man of the Year” to get on the cover. Richard Nixon leads the number of appearances with 55 and Ronald Regan follows with 46. Nixon has four pieces in the exhibit, the covers from November 1968 when he was elected, January 1972 when he won “Man of the Year,” January 1973 when he shared the award with Henry Kissinger and April 1973 addressing the Watergate scandal.

The exhibit is well-balanced between idyllic portraits and inspiring depictions of presidents as symbols of hope or strength and caricatures and satirical images criticizing or questioning the leaders of our nation. FDR and Harry Truman are the only two presidents to only have one cover in the exhibit; the other eleven presidents have at least  two and show both the support of and anger with each president.

“From FDR to Obama” has excellent wall text that addressed the cover art itself as well as the events that inspired it and the president’s actions. This nugget of an exhibit hidden on the second floor in a hallway of the National Portrait Gallery provides a reflective look at America’s relationships with our presidents.  While we may remember a presidency for one event or with one emotion, this exhibit shows us that all presidents are loved at one point, they all make mistakes, and each presidency is a rollercoaster of political and personal events.  This chronicle of public opinion show should be visited by history lovers and presidential enthusiasts but also by any American citizens curious about how we portray our political leaders.

“From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” is open until Sep 26, 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery.  Admission is free. Visit for information about the museum and the exhibit.

“The Name of the Band is: Cowboy Mouth!”

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Image of Cowboy Mouth by Guy Aceto, Cowboy Mouth Official Site.

Cowboy Mouth, a band renowned for its live performances, performed Friday at the 9:30 Club and from the moment the band members took the stage, they electrified the crowd with their presence.

Cowboy Mouth began the show with the fury and rowdiness of a true rock band.   Fred LeBlanc, lead vocalist and drummer, dressed in a black Dickies shirt, athletic shorts and no shoes, started out not with music but a back-and-forth chant: “The name of the band is?!” “Cowboy Mouth!” the packed house responded. “The name of the band IS?!” “COWBOY MOUTH!”

The crowd, made up mostly of fans who knew the lyrics and sang along with gusto, was at LeBlanc’s command.  If he asked them to sing, they sang. If he asked them to scream, jump or “go crazy,” they did, and happily, because as you find out: you get what you give at a Cowboy Mouth show.  Rewards came in tossed Mardi Gras beads, picks from the guitarists, thrown drumsticks and, most importantly, great music.

Along with LeBlanc, lead guitarist John Thomas Griffith sang lead on a few songs, the  most memorable being “Everybody Loves Jill.” The song is a list of red things that Jill likes, and during a cult line, “Fred eats with a red spoon!” the audience throws red plastic spoons at LeBlanc onstage.

On bass, Regina Zernay twirled around the stage in her white go-go boots and red pigtails, and  back-up guitarist Jonathon “JP” Pretus played quietly and skillfully on the side, and added a softer back-up voice to many of the songs.

Throughout the performance, LeBlanc stressed the importance of a Mardi Gras mentality intertwined with strikingly insightful messages about life and love.  “Belly” is a song about loving a woman with curves while “all the skinny girls are standin’ in the back of the line,” and “I Believe” has a message about “the power of love” and believing that life can be all that you want it to be.

Cowboy Mouth has a devotion to New Orleans and consequently the Super Bowl- bound Saints.  They sang a version of “I Believe” that is a tribute to the NFL team.  The singers interjected the Saints and their quarterback Drew Brees into many of the songs, which had the audience laughing and cheering all night.  Peyton Manning of the opposing Indianapolis Colts, and originally from New Orleans, got due attention with LeBlanc stating “he better remember where he f***ing came from!”

The pounding and upbeat music kept everyone on their feet, singing, dancing and chanting along, giving LeBlanc the “energy” and “rhythm” that he regularly demanded.  The audience took many of the band’s messages to heart, letting everything go and embracing Mardi Gras in January.  As LeBlanc observed, “You come to a Cowboy Mouth show to cut loose, don’t cha?!”

Junior Brown, renowned for his invention of the “guilt-steel,” a double-necked instrument, half steel guitar, half traditional guitar, opened for Cowboy Mouth.  His husky baritone voice, which at times dipped into bass, was secondary to his masterful guitar work.  Junior switched seamlessly from strumming the top half of the instrument to playing the bottom steel strings. At one point the notes were so high that dogs must have been howling somewhere.

His music was lively, with lyrics mostly about romance. “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” and “Long Walk Back to San Antone” warn about dangerous love and lament love lost.  However, “Highway Patrol” kept the audience amused with its unapologetic words about the duties of a patrol officer.  His mastery of the instrument he invented was apparent and the audience was appreciative.  Every particularly complex set was applauded and cheered and people seemed genuinely awed by his finger work.

Though the pairing of the suit-and-tie wearing, traditional Southern drawl of Junior Brown and the more contemporary rock star qualities of Cowboy Mouth seem odd at first, they complemented each other.  Junior Brown symbolized the traditional Southern music that Cowboy Mouth took inspiration from.  They shared a sense of humor and playfulness in their music that made Junior a great opener for the headliner.

The show was a rousing success, with the audience demanding extra songs from Cowboy Mouth and then an encore following the last number, their best known song, “Jenny Says.”  Cowboy Mouth brought the care-free attitude of Mardi Gras to the audience, while encouraging them not to “sweat the small stuff,” “let go of the things that bring you down,” and to “tilt your head back and scream!”

Cowboy Mouth’s next show is in Newport, Ky., at the Southgate House on Feb. 3. The band continues their tour with Junior Brown until Feb. 10. Fearless, Cowboy Mouth’s most recent album, was released in September of last year.