The Fine Art Mystery of Morsani Mezzanine

Dr. Jay and Ann McKeel Ross Art Exhibit

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A drawing of a robe. Toddler dresses. Abstract boxes in a row. What are these art works hanging unceremoniously on the walls of Morsani Mezzanine? Where did they come from? What do you mean some of the greatest visual artists in the world are on display at the Straz Center?

The Tampa Bay area is a land of many secrets.

Our history holds several little-known treasures: the West Tampa cigar workers who rolled the instructions for the first Cuban revolution into the cigar destined for Havana; Woodlawn Cemetery, which features a fairly nondescript section dedicated only to circus folk, and Keith Richards, whose stint at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel in Clearwater churned out the guitar lick to “Satisfaction.”

Perhaps one of the most enduring and prolific gems in Tampa’s atlas of uniqueness is the University of South Florida’s Graphicstudio, an experiment in art and education started by artist and professor Dr. Don Saff in 1968 that goes strong right now, even as you read this.

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Rauschenberg in his studio with Graphicstudio staff Patrick Foy, Tom Pruitt and Donald Saff, working on In-Dependents/ROCI USA (Wax Fire Works) in 1990. (Courtesy of Saff Tech Arts. Photo: George Holzer)

USF Graphicstudio has provided, over the last several decades, a refuge and workspace for some of the most famous, most promising, most daring visual artists to push the evocative, provocative printmaking form. Graphicstudio holds a well-deserved revered status in the art world as a studio at the forefront of international fine art publishing. One of the first artists to work with them was none other than the innovative genius Robert Rauschenberg.

Although The Stones were making headlines in the ‘60s, the boundless eruption of experimental art flourishing in the United States had a home with a group of artists in New York inventing what would be known as Pop Art. Its purveyors – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg – pole-vaulted into the vaunted halls of fame, fashion, fortune (for some) and made art focusing on popular culture a “thing,” a “happening.” Soup cans transformed to colorful social commentary, collages aping advertising slicks erased boundaries between high and low art, and these artists purposefully muddied the waters around concerns with the interbreeding of politics and mass media, consumerism and community integrity. These artists built the complex platform of cultural questioning that each of us stands on today, and two of these Pop Art all-stars – Lichtenstein and Rosenquist – worked in Graphicstudio.

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But before them came Rauschenberg, whose style, labeled Neo-Dada, built the scaffolding for the later work of the Pop Art movement. Rauschenberg is a legend. There’s no other way to put it. He was the one who reconsidered and reconfigured what constituted artistic materials. He put found objects on painted canvases and threw the distinction between sculpture and painting into a tailspin. Rauschenberg was the guy whose White Paintings – canvases covered in uniform strokes with nothing but white house paint – totally confounded the definition of art, making some people really angry and awakened others to a canvas’s possibility for the artistry in shadows or as a backdrop to the art of life. Rauschenberg’s audacity made people question their fundamental assumptions, which made him both loved and loathed, as most great artists are.

Contemporaries admired him, art historians uphold him as one of the most influential American artists of all time and critics continue to debate interpretations of his kitsch-meets-classical work style that upended the boundaries of what it means to make art. Rauschenberg spent years, from 1972-1987, in and out of Graphicstudio, an effort that resulted in 60 editions of prints that experimented with form and technique. Rauschenberg, with the dedication of USF faculty, staff and students, tested his ideas in photo transfer, cyanotype, sepia prints, printing on cloth and ceramics, new material sculptures and a hundred-foot-long photograph during his tenure with Graphicstudio. His works Made in Tampa Two, Made in Tampa Eleven and Made in Tampa Twelve now hang in the easily accessible pop-up gallery of the Morsani Mezzanine.

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Rauschenberg’s Pop Art contemporary, Rosenquist, noted for his deft and original use of juxtaposition, also has two works from his time with Graphicstudio on display in Morsani: Iris Lake and Discover Graphics Smithsonian. After noticing the Rauschenbergs and the Rosenquists, a leisurely stroll across the Mezzanine reveals the art placards carry one gigantic name after another:

• There are four Untitled works from the master maverick of the Pop Art era, Nicholas Krushenick, whose ultra-bold simplistic color blocks lined with black traces conjure an almost Simpsons-esque aesthetic – only 25 years before Matt Groening became a maverick in his own right. It’s worth noting that during this artistic time period, when almost everyone could be categorized somewhere from Op Art to Pop Art to post-Abstract Expressionism, Krushenick is the only one who defies category. He belongs everywhere and nowhere, which is an admirable feat among the wild bunch of enfants terribles cranking out art in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

Krushenick

• Chuck Close, whose John I and John II appear near the staircase, is one of the last living giants of the age. His singular, mosaic-style of painting meticulous portraits from a grid, often using each 1×1 square as a minute canvas as part of the whole canvas, reinvented the art of portraiture.

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• Miriam Schapiro, the printmaking revolutionary who invented “femmage,” a collage-like style that must include at least seven of fourteen distinct criteria including scraps, sewing, patterns, photographs and a woman-life context, is represented by one of her most enduring works, Children of Paradise, created during her time at Graphicstudio from 1983-1984.

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• Jim Dine, Nancy Graves, Robert Stackhouse and the founder of Graphicstudio himself, Don Saff, all have work on the wall in Morsani mezzanine.

Graves, Dine, Stackhouse

That a collection so impressive, so unique hangs rather humbly in the Morsani Mezzanine raises a very important question: how did they get there? The answer lies with Jay and Ann McKeel Ross. Ann Ross, who moved to Tampa around the time that Rauschenberg was collaborating as set designer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Taylor’s 1957 The Tower, graduated from USF. Ann and her husband Jay loved Tampa, loved this area – and they loved art and culture. In 1968, they helped Saff start Graphicstudio, leveraging their relationships to create a pool of supporters to start a subscription program to help fund the artist residency. The subscribers, now called Research Partners, make an annual contribution to support the research mission. In return, they have opportunities to purchase work from Graphicstudio artists for a special price. (Note: anyone can buy full price Graphicstudio prints and sculptures from the studio’s website.)

A Straz Center trustee, Ann – along with her husband Jay – has been a long time donor to The Straz. She loaned these pieces of her personal collection for community enjoyment and appreciation of the fine work happening at Graphicstudio, which is now recognized as the nation’s leading university-based art research workshop.

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Ann and Jay Ross.

“Ann and Jay are the only collectors that have been members of the subscription program since its inception and therefore have a complete collection of prints and sculptures produced for our Research Partners over the last 50 years,” says Margaret Miller, the director of Graphicstudio. “They have been generous in loaning works from their collection. How fortunate we are to have Ann and Jay in our community. They continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing art and culture in this region.”

We are very proud and honored to be able to exhibit such a high caliber of work in an open community space like the Morsani Mezzanine, and we encourage you, on your next visit to The Straz, to come early and spend some time with the pieces from Ann and Jay’s collection. If you would like to get involved with Graphicstudio, check out their website: graphicstudio.usf.edu.

 

Stay Savvy and Be Art Smart

How to avoid online ticket scams. The lowest-priced tickets *always* come from strazcenter.org.

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strazcenter.org is the ONLY official online ticket seller to Straz Center performances.

Straz Center season tickets are about to go on sale to the public. We feel it’s our duty to remind you to buy straight from our website if you want the lowest ticket prices. The other websites look legit, but they’re tricking you into paying sometimes hundreds of dollars more for a single ticket. It’s a simple scam, and one our audience members fall for year after year. We try to combat this fraud, but we can’t succeed without you being aware of what’s happening.

Strazcenter.org is the only official online ticket seller to performances in our halls. Anywhere else online will be a scalping scam.

The names look real, and theirs are usually the first and foremost to pop up on an internet search for “Book of Mormon tickets” or “tickets Phantom of the Opera” or “tickets to Straight No Chaser.” They are names like tampatickets.com, carolmorsanihall.com, and even strazcentertickets.com. These companies target unsuspecting buyers who click on whatever websites show up first after an internet search – usually the “sponsored ads” that look almost identical to a search result.

Right now, these types of sites are deceiving Straz Center patrons about ticket prices, availability and seat locations. Unfortunately, many Straz Center patrons have been fooled by such scalping scams that run rampant on the internet.

“The leading factor is haste,” says LeeAnn Douglas, digital marketing director at the Straz Center, who sees first-hand the evidence of ticket brokers buying our tickets under several accounts, reselling them online (or selling the same seats to several people) and then hearing the complaints about ticket prices being too expensive or the anger of customers who have been taken in by online scalpers.

“The easiest way to see that our tickets are being scalped is to search Google for an show’s name plus tickets and Tampa and various ticket brokers’ Google ads will pop up. It’s true especially for the blockbuster shows. Click on any one of these ads and you can see that these brokers are selling tickets at three and four times the actual price,” she says.

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A screenshot of the results the pop up when you search “motown tickets tampa.” Our official website (outlined in red) shows up after four ads from ticket brokers.

The ticket broker business of buying performance tickets and reselling them online at four and five times the value tallies millions of lost dollars for patrons and the local economy each year.

Because most of these brokers work remotely in other states and sell tickets from as many venues as they can – not just the Straz Center – the fraudulent resell of tickets results in dollars derailed into other states and patrons taking a hard blow to the pocketbook.

Arts and entertainment patrons, who are unaware that these “ticket brokers” pose as allies of the venue yet, in reality, are poaching and price-gouging tickets, unwittingly contribute to keeping the scalping rings in business. “I had a friend text me that she wanted to see Il Divo but the tickets were too expensive,” LeeAnn says. “When I asked her to send me the link, I could see right away that she wasn’t on our site. I redirected her to strazcenter.org, and she was very happy because she was able to get orchestra seats for a quarter of the price the ticket broker was asking. In the end, she got great seats with a VIP package from our website for the same price that she would have paid a ticket broker for nosebleed seats.”

With the sheer number of brokers nationwide running these companies, it is impossible for the Straz Center to stop them from buying tickets.

But it is possible – and simple and easy – for patrons to stop supporting these businesses. “We need to educate the buying public on how to avoid buying from a broker,” says LeeAnn. “Instead of automatically clicking the top search result, which is always a paid advertisement, they need to make sure they take a moment to look at the search results and find the Straz Center’s official site. Or better yet, bookmark one of the Straz Center’s websites [www.strazcenter.org or https://shop.strazcenter.org], and then any time they want to buy a ticket for one of our events, there is no need to perform a search at all.”

So, if you purchase tickets online, make sure you, your family and friends use strazcenter.org. Otherwise, you will be overpaying to scalpers without even knowing it.

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This is how the Straz Center’s official website, strazcenter.org, appears on a mobile device.

The Straz Center and its arts and entertainment allies continue efforts to fight on behalf of our patrons. A $300 ticket to a Broadway show from a broker could pay for dinner, an overnight hotel stay and a show at the Straz Center price – all money nourishing our local businesses and economy.

The Straz Center’s mission is to inspire audiences and artists to dream and discover, to create and celebrate, and part of our commitment is to make sure audiences know the truth about consumer issues in the arts.

Please help us spread the word about buying tickets directly from our website as we prepare for another spectacular season of performing arts. This way, we can all stay savvy and be art smart.

Local Profiles: Sculpting Out a Future

Jim and Joan Jennewein helped shape the Straz Center in more ways than one.

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YES! by Martin Eichinger is a bronze sculpture that was a part of the original Performance In Sculpture exhibit in Morsani lobby.

In the spring of 1981, a young visionary architect named Jim Jennewein walked across a scraggly five-acre parking lot alongside the Hillsborough River. In his mind, he built a future performing arts center for the people of Tampa Bay. The plans, drawn up by the firm in collaboration with a Canadian team led by Arthur Nichol (who was responsible for the National Art Center in Ottawa), advanced to the final round of consideration for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center project.

By June 1981, the competition stalled out in a two-way tie, requiring then-mayor Bob Martinez to break the draw. He announced McElvy, Jennewein, Stefany and Howard would be the architects with Jim named architect of record. The Straz Center began, slowly, to materialize.

Jim, the son of the great sculptor C. Paul Jennewein, grew up in an environment that nurtured the process of creating three-dimensional art. For Jim, that process included making buildings. His father, whose famous Art Deco sculptures include the Spirit of Justice in the United States Department of Justice and her counterpart, Majesty of Law, created several pieces of distinction for national buildings. Jim’s likeness stands in sculptural from (from the neck down) in the passageway to the White House library, a distinction that happened when his father found himself in need of a male model for the commission.

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C. Paul Jennewein’s Spirit of Justice and Majesty of Law in the United States Department of Justice.

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The Noyes Armillary Sphere, by C. Paul Jennewein, in Meridian Hill Park. It suffered serious damage and is thought to have been removed for repair sometime in the 1970s. Its whereabouts are presently unknown.

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C. Paul Jennewein designed the large circular discs with eagles and fasces on the pylons of each pier of the Arlington Memorial Bridge. (Photo: Flickr user hwro)

Jim and his wife Joan are long-time Tampanians with an equally long track record of community involvement, engaging from the nascent stages of Straz Center planning and staying involved as donors, patrons and members of the Opera Tampa League to this day. Joan, in fact, holds the title of one of the longest-standing members of the Opera Tampa League Board and served as the Opera Tampa League chair from 2008-2011. Both Jenneweins lend their talents and experience in other areas including art preservation and land conservation.

Humble and likeable, the Jenneweins downplay their own involvement in The Straz, and, like many long-married couples, genially share sentences with Jim often reaching to Joan to supply details of their great stories of family, life and work.

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Joan and Jim Jennewein pose next to The Ballet Dancer in Morsani lobby. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

The Jenneweins’ inherited interest in sculpture served the Straz Center several years ago when Jim, a member of the National Sculpture Society board (NSS), pitched the idea of doubling The Straz’s spaces as a sculpture gallery. The idea flew, with Jim paving the inroads to build a partnership between the performing arts center and the NSS. The partnership marked the first time the NSS branched out to a community. The stunning sculptures in the Morsani Hall lobbies, The Conductor and The Ballet Dancer, represent two of the permanent works in this otherwise on-going, revolving exhibition. The works, unlike in a museum, are for sale, and The Conductor was purchased and donated back to the Straz Center, but anyone can buy the other sculptures.

“The sculptures here represent the first continual NSS show outside of New York City and Brookgreen Gardens [one of the largest outdoor sculpture gardens in the world],” says Jim. A new set of sculptures arrived in October 2016 and are on display along the Morsani mezzanine balcony.

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More sculptures from the original exhibit. L to R: Lift Her With Butterflies by Angela De la Vega; Heinrich by Wayne Salge; Ascent by Leo E. Osborne; Dancer by Olga Nielsen.

For 34 years, Jim and Joan have been part of the Straz Center family, part of the first generation of Tampanians to believe in a place to build, share and exchange culture and do the work investing time and resources to make it happen. They have been shaping and sculpting the success of the Straz Center as it, like an evolving work of art, changes shape to meet the growing needs of the Tampa Bay community.

“We are so lucky,” says Jim.

“That’s right,” Joan says. “To have been involved as much as we have, as long as we have. It’s a great place.”

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Guests at the opening reception for the exhibit. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Interested in knowing more about how the Straz Center launched the massive overhaul of downtown Tampa? Check out this recent article by Richard Danielson for Politico Magazine, “How Tampa Turned a Dead Zone into a Downtown”.

The Straz Center Stands with National Endowment for the Arts

The FY2018 federal budget proposes to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Here’s a brief look at the creation of the agency and the reasons why a national investment in the arts makes dollars and sense.

“The Arts Endowment’s mission was clear – to spread this artistic prosperity throughout the land, from the dense neighborhoods of our largest cities to the vast rural spaces, so that every citizen might enjoy America’s great cultural legacy.”
–from National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008

During the desultory years of the Great Depression, 10,000 of the 15 million out of work Americans were artists. Through New Deal programs such as the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers’ Project, these artists recorded, documented and produced the bulk of American cultural achievement and historical record of the time. While this social program provided a historical precedent for federal support of artists, the nation’s leaders began to see America’s need to make a commitment to the bountiful creative expression of such a diverse and talented society without a socio-economic agenda. The time had come for America to put its might behind its artists, the very citizens who created the nation’s cultural heritage.

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On Sept. 29, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, the legislation creating NEH and NEA, into law. (Photo: http://www.neh.gov)

The National Endowment for the Arts, then, emerged as this commitment to the exaltation of the spirit produced by American artists. In his remarks at the signing of the arts and humanities bill in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson noted that to make America great, the fed needed to support the arts:

Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish. … What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.

While the NEA more or less weathered the culture wars headed by North Carolina senator Jesse Helms in the ‘80s and house speaker Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the NEA’s unfortunate position as an easy target for political posturing continues to undermine the agency’s mission as set forth by LBJ.

On May 23, 2017, only a year and a half after the 50th anniversary of the agency, the current president released his budget proposal which outlines his plans to eliminate funding the NEA altogether. He is the only president in history to propose zeroing out funding to the nation’s cultural agency.

Congress ultimately approves or rejects the proposed line items, and Congress gave the NEA a $2 million boost for FY2017—a smart move considering the NEA helps an industry that generates $742 billion to the national economy. So, the people have an extraordinary opportunity to respond on behalf of preserving the NEA by contacting their members of Congress.

(Don’t know your member of Congress? Find her or him here. Don’t know what to say? Americans for the Arts created an easy online form.)

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Third-generation Montana rancher Wallace McRae was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the NEA. (Photo: Tom Pich)

The NEA was a simple solution for the questions of how to preserve the many splendid cultural traditions of this nation and continue to nourish the creative soul of the country. Creating it demonstrated a stunning act of faith in humanity after the harrowing tumult of the early 60s and the American entrance into the Vietnam War.

NEA grants, while supporting high-profile artists and organizations, mostly support rural and inner city areas that lack the economic infrastructure to provide arts development for their people. The bulk of the grants go to small and mid-sized organizations. These grants help foster economic growth and community pride. People understand that arts nourish the greatness of their hometowns as well as their country as a whole.

As for the controlling-government-waste-by-cutting-arts-spending argument, it doesn’t hold. As of now, the NEA gets $150 million in funding (.003 percent of the total budget) yet supports an industry of nonprofit arts that return $9.6 billion in federal taxes. That’s a massive ROI.

In addition to the big business of arts funded partly by NEA grants, the National Endowment for the Arts serves as both repository and springboard for American arts, with some of the nation’s most renowned and gifted artistic geniuses and organizations participating in its development, implementation and execution. The first year of grants included Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, American Choral Society and to the New York City Opera to expand a training program for young singers and aspiring conductors. Over the years, the NEA supported American giants like the Joffrey Ballet and Dizzy Gillespie as well as hometown folk artists like cowboy poet Wallace McRae and programs like the Rural Arts Initiative and Arts Education Partnership. In 2016, the organization announced its new focus on contemporary authors for the NEA Big Read program and was nominated for an Emmy for its digital story series United States of Arts.

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When Black Violin performed at the Straz Center in 2015, they also did master classes and other outreach in the Tampa community. Pictured here is their stop at St. Peter Claver School.

The NEA’s support helps the Straz Center deliver our Cultural Intersections program, a multi-disciplinary series of artists who use traditional, authentic artistic disciplines to transcend cultural boundaries. The NEA makes our work in this endeavor possible, opening our stages in recent seasons to such phenomenal artists as Black Violin, Parsons Dance Company, Celtic Nights, tabla master Zakir Hussein and others. This program includes an outreach arm which also sends our Cultural Intersections artists to the community in master classes, lectures and school visits with subsidized tickets for underserved K-12 students.

As the NEA says, a great nation deserves great art. A great agency doing good work at a great financial return deserves the nation’s support. In the immortal words of this country’s first president:

The arts and sciences are essential to the prosperity of the state and to the ornament and happiness of human life. They have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.
–George Washington

Want more info? The NEA produced this online fact sheet for simple answers to FAQs.

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Tricking Nazis

How artists in a top-secret U.S. Army unit pulled the ultimate fast ones on Hitler

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4th Platoon, Company D was the first group of Ghost Army deceivers to go to work in Normandy. They arrived eight days after D-Day.

In 1943, the good guys in the Great War needed to start thinking outside-the-box if they were going to beat the Axis powers crawling over Europe and Asia.

Thus the creation of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the “Ghost Army,” a top secret U.S. Army special force of 1,100 men. Their mission: stage a bunch of fake but convincing maneuvers to fool the Germans into making bad decisions.

We’re talking about inflatable tanks and rubber weaponry here. Sound effects of gunfire. Flash canisters to mimic artillery. Elaborate stagings of entrenchments that, upon close inspection, were nothing more than collapsible props and P.A. systems. (P.A. systems with a 15-mile reach, yes—but still a giant speaker.) At a distance, however, these scenes appeared to be well-fortified American troops riled and focused for victory. They were distractions from real missions happening elsewhere; they were designed to spread wrong information and confound enemy plans.

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The Ghost Army’s trademark tool of visual illusion was the inflatable M4 Sherman tank. Fully inflated, it was 18’4” long, 8’3” wide, and 7’9 to the top of the turret. It took 20 minutes to inflate.

Often, soldiers in the Ghost Army were tasked to frequent local bars, order food and play “loose lips” to spread false information to spies or Axis informants.

And you know what? It worked.

The reason why such a far-fetched plot to deceive and dis-inform the enemy was so successful resides in the gut, grit, training and talent of the men who pulled off such believable illusions.

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Each halftrack, equipped for sonic deception, carried 800 pounds of audio equipment capable of playing a half hour show from a wire recorder and projecting the sounds as far as 15 miles.

Among those 1,100 soldiers were some of the greatest artists, lighting designers and sound designers trained in American university fine arts programs. Some of the 23rd would become the great marketing masterminds to steer the post-war boom. When America needed people who could break the tactical rulebooks and re-write the art of war, the government called on its most creative citizens. Notable operatives in the Ghost Army included fashion designer Bill Blass, painters Ellsworth Kelly and Art Singer, and photographer Art Kane.

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Two Ghost Army artists sketching inside a bombed out church in Trevieres in August 1944. At least half a dozen Ghost Army artists painted or sketched the badly damaged church.

The only military unit specifically dedicated only to deception, the Ghost Army served a singular, successful purpose in WWII. Their “traveling shows” of military might or of convoys deployed to front lines that didn’t exist threw the Germans off their game. The deceptions saved countless American lives.

The Ghost Army’s last and most successful performance, Operation Viersen, tricked Hitler’s army into thinking two divisions (some 40 thousand men; remember, there are only 1,100 men in the Ghost Army) were at a specific position on the Rhine River. When the Germans advanced on the illusion created by the Ghost Army, the real army of soldiers crossed several miles away, suffering almost no casualties or resistance.

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A hand-drawn map of Operation Viersen, taken from the US Army’s Official History of the 23rd Headquarters Special troops, a document that was classified for many years.

To this day, there is no evidence that the Germans ever figured out a deception unit was operating against them.

The missions, by their nature, drew enemy fire though no one in the Ghost Army was ever issued a real weapon. What stood between these men and live rounds from German soldiers were set pieces—usually the cache of inflatable tanks and rubber airplanes. Not all of the soldiers in the Ghost Army survived. Many were wounded. Their status and missions remained classified until 1996 in case the same tactics needed to be deployed against the Russians during the Cold War.

In 2013, a documentary about the dramatic, dangerous stagecraft of the Ghost Army premiered on PBS in honor of Memorial Day.

For all of those who served, and for those who gave their lives, we honor you.

A Million Little Peaces

The performing arts and conflict resolution

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Amanda Jane Cooper as Glinda and Emily Koch as Elphaba in Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

If the folks at (TITLE) for Dummies® or the Idiot’s Guide™ to (THIS THING) ever wrote a how-to guide on building a better world, certainly there’d be a chapter or two on the performing arts.

Much has been said on the value of elevating culture and artistic achievement as hallmarks of a civilized society (such as Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College after the death of great American poet Robert Frost). We’ve also come to understand the correlation between depriving people of the arts and higher rates of crime, lack of critical thinking skills and violence.

Mounting research proves that engagement in the performing arts improves children’s overall well-being. With the music, dance and theater, they get better cognitive abilities and higher-level emotional development plus experience with problem-solving, conquering fear, collaborating, effectively communicating and accessing creativity to imagine better outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, engagement with the performing arts allows children to develop a critical aspect of their humanity: empathy. And now we have the neuroscience to prove it.

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Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings because we can recognize our own—sort of an I-can-see-myself-in-you situation that breaks down the barriers of self and mistrust that often perpetuate never-ending conflicts.

The performing arts allow us to see things differently, to learn viewpoints of people who are different from us and to see ourselves reflected in the artist’s work, often to some revelatory effect. We learn a little something new about ourselves and our world either by watching in an audience or by performing in a show. These are all good things.

Human beings have four basic psychological-emotional needs: belonging, freedom, fun and a sense of inner power (like accomplishment and recognition). When those needs aren’t met, we experience inner conflict first, then we extend that outward—how far depends on our own emotional intelligence. Some of us are emotionally intelligent enough to resolve the inner conflict well; in the extreme, that inner conflict turns into some man taking over a country by murdering entire sects of other humans. Oh, what a place the world would be if we handled our disputes and conflicts with dance battles such as this:

As humans, our other great pull is to make sense of the world, of our inner worlds and the world happening around us. At its core, art is about the human spirit making meaning of the human experience.

Thus, the performing arts attend to our most powerful psychological and social needs, which makes the arts ideal for conflict resolution—or, at the very least, a non-threatening way to broach tough topics and uncomfortable truths. Music, dance and theater can be very safe avenues to confrontation, building empathy and creating the kinds of conversations that can turn conflict into an opportunity for a community to grow in a positive way.

Around the world, people turn to the performing arts to help them access the often easy-to-see, difficult-to-cross bridges between people on opposing sides of a conflict.

In the greater Boston area, a group of artists, educators, public service providers and academics created Violence Transformed, an initiative to respond to violence in the area, give a voice to victims of violence and try to find ways to prevent violence from happening in home, at school and in the community. Initially a one-time art exhibit, Violence Transformed has grown in the past ten years to become a multi-media event with workshops, exhibits and performances throughout the year. In Papua New Guinea, Seeds Theatre Group works to address the frightening amount of violence against women by engaging communities in theater. In 2014, the company collaborated with UNICEF Pacific for the #ENDviolence against women and children initiative with a music video that went viral. In Jamaica, the Sistren Theatre Collective has been working since 1977 as a group utilizing the performing arts as a community resource to address and confront violence and empower residents of all genders to change their situations, especially in desperate neighborhoods in Kingston.

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We hosted a World Cafe discussion during the It Gets Better residency in March 2017.

Here at The Straz, we’ve collaborated with the It Gets Better Project to address violence against LGBTQ youth (read about our work in this article in the Florida Diversity Council newsletter) and supported veteran PTSD recovery through visual art and movement workshops.

As we move, socially, into more interaction with technology and social media than in actual conversations and person-to-person experiences, we see a growing national discussion about the need for activating empathy—even Forbes magazine published an article examining how lack of empathy damages the reputation and impact of business leaders. Empathy, the article notes, is the strongest skill in successful leadership performance.

From a performing arts perspective, what looks like a world in a million little pieces could be a world in a million little peaces:

“. . . Conflict simply exists as a natural part of life. It is what people in conflict do with the experience that determines whether it will be constructive or destructive.”
–from The Art in Peacemaking: A Guide to Integrating Conflict Resolution Education into Youth Arts Programs

From Fuel to Fine Art

Food’s wild ride in human culture

Somehow, humans went from scrabbling roots and berries and munching bark to inventing cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts and making it look like this:

cauliflower ice crem

Cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts by @helenedarroze. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

We progressed from homo erectus stripping elephant carcasses on the African plains to homo sapiens like chef April Bloomfield who takes a slab of cow, goes into her kitchen, and returns with this:

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Woodgrilled Denver steak with roasted ramps. (Photo from April Bloomfield’s Instagram / @aprilbloomfield)

Humans, when given an opportunity to make art, tend to go for it—even if the raw artistic materials are animal body parts and miscellaneous objects pulled from the dirt.

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Sirloin Steak with Shiso Scallion Mashed Potatoes from Eating Richly. (eatingrichly.com)

Or off trees and bushes:

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Mangoes, figs and blueberries. (Photo from Chef Lauren Von Der Pool’s Instagram / @queenofgreen)

We came across an interesting theory posited by Harvard professor of biological anthropology and noted primatologist (he studied with Jane Goodall) Dr. Richard W. Wrangham in his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The thesis states that, around 1.8-ish million years ago, early humans used fire to cook animal flesh—most likely the first cooked meat was either an accident (someone dropped an auroch leg in the fire) or by coincidence (someone found an auroch carcass burned in a wildfire and was brave enough to taste it—deliciousness ensued).

Herein lies the evolutionary turning point we took to become modern humans. But how? According to Wrangham, cooking released more nutrients in the food and boosted our energy by making those nutrients much easier to digest and decreasing our chewing time to about an hour a day versus 6-10 hours a day. (Note: the 6-10 hour a day chewing investment is based on how much time our great ape cousins, gorilla and chimpanzee, spend masticating their raw food diets today.)

This energy boost coupled with the new free time we had gave us the window to grow bigger brains—and now we had the cooked food to feed that big brain. Eating cooked food improved our immunity to disease because we had more nutrition and gave us more baby-making power because we were more robust. This flashpoint—cooking our food instead of eating it raw—launched the dietary change that would revolutionize our biological evolution.

We changed. Small brains and big guts evolved to really small guts and teeth compared to the size of our huge brains. Thanks to cooked food over a millennia and some change, we morphed. Today, as Wrangham notes, modern humans are adapted to eat cooked food (a talking point he uses as his number one argument against current raw food diet trends.)

For early humans, roasting meat became the norm and people in southern France—France plays a rather large role in the evolution of cooking to an art form—learned to steam food in wet leaves in the Paleolithic period. The results of cooking were so good, humans started to experiment, using the developing imagination function of our growing and ultra-fueled brains. A crude form of bread appeared as cracked grass kernels mixed with water and toasted on hot stones. In time, humans would invent earthenware pottery, and, as they say, we were off to the races evolutionarily with our cooking techniques and handful of devices for aiding in the cooking process.

So, a million-plus years ago, humans had cooking techniques, tools, and imagination—everything they needed to eventually get to a fine-dining world and the emergence of the phrase #foodporn. All it would take would be plant cultivation, domestication of animals and several thousand years of cross-cultural exploration and exchange to trade foodstuffs (how else would Britain ever get anything awesome like avacados and chiles, and we can pretty much thank China for getting it right with the art of food about four thousand years before Christ).

Pleasant Living, the first recorded cookbook, appeared in 4 B.C., written by Archestratus, a Greek, and it’s fun to note that a cook won the first Olympic footrace about 700 years before Archestratus was born. As the centuries passed, humans discovered, cultivated and invented a number of extraordinary culinary attributes that we pretty much take for granted today: farms, livestock, cups and plates, forks and knives, coffee (praise!), drinking chocolate from cacao beans that became eating chocolate (more praise!), booze, vending machines, crude stoves that paved the way for ranges, spice cultivation (which definitely had its dark side, ahem, European colonization), canning, refrigeration, flash freezing, and, solely in the United States, the invention of chewing gum.

Because of cooking’s influence on human evolution and culture, hotels, pubs, cafes and coffeehouses also became a part of the human world, as did cooking competitions, the codification of cooking into “cuisine,” which really is what differentiates between the cook and the chef. So enamored and involved are we with cooking, cuisine, food symbolism and cultural traditions around food that we had to invent one word, “gastronomy,” (originally “gastronomie,” en francais) that would encapsulate the gamut of what we mean when we’re talking about the whole field of food and food history.

As with any art form, presentation and effect are key. Art must move the soul or it is not art. Thus: plating. Here we have the presentation and effect of the food to tantalize the soul to move; if properly engaged by the way the food looks on the plate, the flavors should close the deal, making a meal transform into a work of art.

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Octopus, beetroot, and amaranth by @lvin1stbite. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Ribbons of dark chocolate ganache, pistachio cake, pistachio ice cream, mint, and candied preserved lemons by @nick_muncy. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Furikake granola, whipped foie gras, raw buttermilk, pumpkin vichyssoise, african olive fruit, and anise hyssop by @brad_kilgore. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Wagyu and mushroom glass by @martinbennsepia. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Blueberry sugar globe with lemon jam, violet cream, blueberry compote, and blueberry yogurt sorbet on the inside by @chefsmartone. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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White onion, charcoal mayo, red cress, and onion cream by @connorjlowrey. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Monkfish tataki w/ salted plum puree, chives, and olive oil spheres by @tadashi_takayama. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

Like food? Love gastronomy? Well, guess who’s coming to give us one heck of a food show—Alton Brown with his Eat Your Science tour, April 21.

We love food, too, and are always looking for neat foodie Instagrams and chefs doing the deal with the artistry of food. If you have some foodie blogs or Instagrams you follow, let us know in the comments below.