Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

08 MAY, 2015

A Lovely Illustrated Children’s Book Celebrating Trailblazing Jazz Pianist and Composer Mary Lou Williams


How an extraordinary woman transformed bullying into beautiful music and came to lift the spirits of millions.

The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier — a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was “like soul on soul,” aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that “her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless.”

In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams’s uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.

The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter — the talent behind Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison’s dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams — begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as “The Smoky City” for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.


The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn’t see anything but lights out the train window … but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.

She sang the sound of its whistle.
“Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga … Toot! Toot!”

The train went faster, leaving home behind:
“Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!”

Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.

Music was Mary’s most exuberant love — a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.

When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.

As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, “Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!”

But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming — hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.

And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists — the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art — and transmuted the trying experience into music:

Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them “bad sounds” and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.

One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her — a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl’s interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.

Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn’t forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.

“Lord have mercy!” said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.

“Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play.” But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.

Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary’s talent and she became affectionately known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” People even started paying her to play for them — something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children’s book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.

The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.

Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.

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05 MAY, 2015

The Crossroads of Should and Must: An Intelligent Illustrated Field Guide to Finding Your Bliss


“Should is how other people want us to live our lives… Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?,” young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a moving letter to his brother while floundering to find his purpose. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” A century later, Joseph Campbell stoked that hearth of the soul with his foundational treatise on finding your bliss. And yet every day, countless hearths and hearts grow ashen in cubicles around the world as we succumb to the all too human tendency toward choosing what we should be doing in order to make a living over what we must do in order to feel alive.

How to turn that invisible inner fire into fuel for soul-warming bliss is what artist and designer Elle Luna explores in her essay-turned-book The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion (public library) — an intelligent and rousing illustrated manifesto that picks up where Campbell left off, in the spirit of Parker Palmer’s emboldening guide to letting your life speak and Debbie Millman’s visual-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life.

Distinguishing between a job (“something typically done from 9 to 5 for pay”), a career (“a system of advancements and promotions over time where rewards are used to optimize behavior”), and a calling (“something that we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune”), Luna recounts the pivotal moment in her own life when she was suddenly unable to discern which of these she had. As an early employee at a promising startup, she was working tirelessly on a product she deeply believed in, and yet felt disorientingly unfulfilled. She found herself before a revelatory crossroads: the crossroads between Should and Must.

Luna writes:

Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.

Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.

Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous admonition — “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity,” the longest-serving First Lady wrote in contemplating conformity and the secret of happiness, “[and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” — Luna adds:

When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.

She offers a counterpoint:

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own — and this allows us to cultivate our full potential as individuals. To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees, and in so doing, to say yes to what Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.

And yet as simple as Luna’s elegant prose makes it sound, anyone who has lived through this crossroads — she has; I have — will attest that it is anything but easy; the road is strewn with difficult choices. Luna considers the osmotic relationship between Should and Must, even as we turn away from one and toward the other:

If you want to know Must, get to know Should. This is hard work. Really hard work. We unconsciously imprison ourselves to avoid our most primal fears. We choose Should because choosing Must is terrifying, incomprehensible. Our prison is constructed from a lifetime of Shoulds, the world of choices we’ve unwittingly agreed to, the walls that alienate us from our truest, most authentic selves. Should is the doorkeeper to Must. And just as you create your prison, you can set yourself free.

One of the most common ways in which we imprison ourselves is by comparing ourselves to others and, upon finding our situation inferior, placing blame — on circumstances that we feel are unfair, on the people we believe are responsible for those circumstances, or on some abstract element of fate we think is at play. The self-defeating catch is that we often end up judging our circumstances against others’ outcomes, forgetting that hard work and hard choices are the transmuting agent between circumstance and outcome.

Joseph Brodsky captured this with piercing precision in the greatest commencement address of all time, cautioning: “A pointed finger is a victim’s logo… No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.”

Luna touches on this perilous tendency as she considers the origin of Should:

How often do we place blame on the person, job, or situation when the real problem, the real pain, is within us? And we leave and walk away, angry, frustrated, and sad, unconsciously carrying the same Shoulds into a new context — the next relationship, the next job, the next friendship — hoping for different results.

How to get to know Should in the most intimate way possible, so that we can begin to swivel toward different results by moving toward Must, is what Luna examines in the remainder of The Crossroads of Should and Must. In this wonderful Design Matters conversation with one of her creative heroes and influences, Debbie Millman, Luna discusses how the book came to be, the unusual journey that precipitated it, and why her original essay resonated — beyond her wildest expectations — with so many people across so many walks of life:

Must is fantastic, and Must is just on the other side of Should. Should is this world of expectations — it’s like a camouflaged force. That’s one of the tricky things about Should — it can kind of creep in there when you’re not looking. It’s easier — it’s this invisible force moving against us [and] it often comes very early on in life. It can come from the time into which we’re born, the society or the community into which we’re born, the body into which we’re born… It can be a lot of different things that happen early in life [which] really take on that trajectory … and have us often running a different race than the one we were intended to run.

Subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, then explore these ten favorite episodes from a decade of conversations with creative icons.

Illustrations courtesy of Elle Luna / Workman

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01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time


“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.


Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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30 APRIL, 2015

An Adventure in Paris with Pussy and Lovey: Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein Become Babysitters


A positively pleasing illustrated take on a true story.

The fateful first meeting of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas sparked a lifelong romance that lasted not merely until Stein’s death but, as Toklas’s moving memoir suggests, until her own death twenty years later. During their reign as the quintessential Americans in Paris, they became an epicenter of creative culture, around which such rising stars as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald orbited. In 1954, Toklas captured their extraordinary partnership in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook — a delicious memoir in disguise, written in a style similar to Stein’s autobiography and peppered with warm recollections of the couple’s life and love.

Although their story is yet to join the finest picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, a most delightful fragment of it comes to life in Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom: An Artful Adventure with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (public library) by longtime Stein and Toklas collector Hans Gallas. Illustrated by comic artist and New Yorker cartoonist Tom Hachtman, creator of the comic strip Gertrude’s Follies, this marvelous picture book for all ages is loosely based on a chapter from the memoir of Fritz Peters, who went to a boarding school near Paris in the 1920s with his younger brother Tom and did indeed visit with Stein and Toklas one holiday.

The story begins with an affectionate primer on Stein and Toklas and their home in Paris amid “masterful modern paintings that covered the walls, floor to ceiling,” including a “positively pleasing portrait of Gertrude” by the couple’s dear friend Picasso.

Gertrude was a really remarkable writer and sometimes Alice called her “Lovey.”

Alice was a constantly creative cook and sometimes Gertrude called her “Pussy.”

One day, they receive a letter from an American friend asking them to babysit her “beautifully behaved boys, Fritz and Tom,” over Thanksgiving.

“There, there,” said Gertrude, “What to do? What to do? What to do?”

“Lovey,” said Alice, “I’ve heard Fritz and Tom can be a horrible handful. They play pesky pranks at school and are not fond of challenging chores.”

“Horrible handful? Pussy, you mean beastly brats who play pesky pranks and are not fond of challenging chores?

How beastly can the brats be? We have two dogs, Basket and Pépé.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

After some deliberation over Tibetan tea and Alice’s “truly tasty teacakes,” the couple decides to let the boys visit. From the moment they arrive and begin pressing their noses against Stein’s prized art, festive chaos ensues.

After their Thanksgiving feast, appropriately reflective of Toklas’s culinary creativity, the foursome take to the streets of Paris for sightseeing and adventures in Stein’s famous car, Lady Godiva.

Eventually, the boys depart and the couple resumes life as usual.

Then, one morning, Alice discovers a sweet thank-you note from Fritz and Tom tucked behind her favorite teapot and runs to show it to Gertrude, who is enjoying one of her beloved bubble baths.

“Pussy, don’t drop it in the tub,” said Gertrude. “This is one of the nicest notes we have ever received.”

“Lovey, it is positively pleasing, and I think we would make two amusing American aunts,” said Alice B. Toklas.

“Now finish your belated bubble bath, you have some really remarkable writing to do!”

“And you have some constantly creative cooking to do!” said Gertrude Stein.

Complement the altogether positively pleasing Gertrude and Alice and Fritz and Tom with Stein’s loving “word portrait” of Toklas and Toklas’s recollection of the magical moment they first met, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s wonderful illustrated inventory of Stein’s favorite objects.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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