Monday, August 29, 2011

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

The Steins Collect
Entrance to SFMOMA San Francisco with Calder Sculpture above

Imagine being a personal friend of Picasso, Matisse, Juan Gris and other avant garde Parisian artists of the early twentieth century AND helping to establish their reputations by buying their art.  That is the story of Gertrude Stein and her family.  The current exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Steins Collect, which I went to see last weekend, is an amazing assembly of much of the art collected by Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife Sarah.  Together with photos and other artifacts (such as African sculptures that influenced the artists) the exhibit functions as a survey of the birth of modern art and insight into the keen artistic sensibility of the Stein family. 

The Steins in the courtyard at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, ca. 1905. From left: Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude Stein, Theresa Ehrman, Sarah Stein, Michael Stein.
Roots in California
One thing I didn’t realize about the Stein family was their connection to California and the Bay Area.  As a child, Gertrude and her family lived in Oakland (it’s amazing to think they might have been neighbors!)  When she came back as an adult and looked for her childhood home, she couldn’t find it, producing one of her most famous out-of-context quotes, “There is no there there”, “there” referring to the missing house in Oakland.  Most of Gertrude Stein’s adult life was spent in Europe, mainly France but also Italy.  Her apartment in Paris, first shared with her brother Leo and then with Alice Toklas, became a center of Parisian cultural life.  Photos of the apartment walls, stacked high with the paintings they collected, are part of the MOMA museum exhibit, allowing one to match the actual paintings on the museum walls to those in the photographs.

Although I was familiar with many of the paintings in the show, such as Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (from the NY MOMA)  and his famous Portrait of Gertrude Stein (which she claimed to have required 80 or 90 sittings) I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, or forgotten.  I didn’t realize that Sarah and Michael had funded an art school in Paris for Matisse to teach at and that they themselves had ambitions as artists. (Two of their paintings are in the exhibit.)  Much of the Stein collection was dispersed after their deaths.  The current exhibit was assembled from collections all over the world.

Ending Soon
The Steins Collect exhibit ends September 5th, so if you want to see it in San Francisco, you must go soon! (It will tour to Paris and New York from there.).  Entry to the show is timed to control crowding and included in the price of museum entry.  We bought our tickets online.  We also got the audio tour. 

Much, Much More

The Flower Carrier, Painting by Diego Rivera
With five floors of art, plus a roof garden, there is plenty to see at SFMOMA and worth a visit at any time.  One of the other current exhibits that we also visited was Selected Histories: Twentieth-Century Art from the SFMOMA Collection, highlighting many of the key moments in the history of twentieth century art, including Diego Rivera’s painting of a man with a basket of flowers, which always reminds me of practicing the piano because a print of it hung above our piano when I was growing up.  Seeing it in real life was like meeting an old friend. 

Lunch and the Gift Shop
SFMOMA has an excellent cafĂ© on the first floor, so you can go early, as we did, take a break for lunch, and then see more.  There is also a huge gift shop with many tempting items, including many with a French theme to go with the current show.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tasmania, Part I: Hobart to Queenstown

A Trip Back in Time (March 1999)
Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania
    [Excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in Australia in 1999.] Last night we returned from a long weekend in Tasmania. The trip was filled with beautiful scenery, outdoor experiences, interesting accommodation, a little history, and all enjoyed in perfect weather. According to our friends in Melbourne, visiting Tasmania is like going back thirty years in time.  Since we already view Australia as a bit of a throwback, it was like going back almost fifty years for us.  The island has almost no freeways, and practically no traffic on the two lane roads.  The rural areas reminded me of visiting northern Wisconsin when I was a child.  It was quite refreshing!

Salamanca Market, Hobart

     We flew from Melbourne to Hobart (the capital of Tasmania) on Friday night.  Our bed and breakfast hosts had offered to pick us up at the airport, for which we were grateful, and gave us a tour of the city on the way to their hilltop home called the Crow’s Nest.  The night was crystal clear and we looked out over the bay and the sparkling city below.  In the morning, we picked up our rental car and before leaving Hobart did a brief walking tour along the wharves, visiting the Salamanca Place Saturday market, which features stalls of fresh produce, unbelievable flowers, and beautiful crafts--many of them made of wood.  We bought some wooden spoons and, on impulse, a metal sculpture of a flying fox at an art gallery.
From Farmland to Forest
Fields of Hops in the agricultural central valley of  Tasmania
    We then made our way north through rolling farmland and stopped for a picnic lunch at Mount Field National Park, where we took a short walk through the rainforest to a waterfall.  The forest floor was covered with giant tree ferns (a plant form that has been around since dinosaur times) and towering above us were 300 foot tall swamp gums--among the tallest trees in the world.  It reminded us a bit of Muir Woods in California.

    As we continued our way to the northwest, the landscape changed to rugged mountains and dense pine forest.  Most of western Tasmania is either National Park or National Forest and we drove through miles of breathtaking scenery along twisty two lane roads without encountering much traffic.  The only signs of civilization were the occasional clearings stacked with beehives.  We later discovered that these were for collecting the rare leatherwood honey found only in these forests of Tasmania.


Denuded landscape near Queenstown
     We finally arrived at our destination, Queenstown, a town almost exclusively dependent on the local mine, one of the largest copper mines in Australia and in the world.  We stayed in the elegant former home of the mine manager, which has recently been turned into a bed and breakfast. One of the other couples staying there had just sailed their 40 foot yacht from Sydney to Hobart.  They told us they had been stuck in a little town on the mainland coast for three weeks while waiting for good weather to cross the Bass Strait.  (The Bass Strait is where all those people died a few months ago in the Sydney to Hobart race and this couple didn't want to take any chances.)  The weather is quite changeable across the strait and they needed three days of good weather in a row.  At night, during the crossing, they slept in four hour shifts so that one person was always awake to sail the boat.  I don't think I'd like to be all alone and responsible for a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean!
    Queenstown’s claim to fame, besides the mine, is that the surrounding landscape--hills totally denuded of all vegetation and scoured down to the bare rock--are a dramatic example of the harmful effects of environmental pollution.  Although the hills were once covered with forest, the trees were cut down to feed the smelting furnaces and the rest burned in forest fires.  Normally forests recover after being cut or burned, but between torrential winter rains that washed away the topsoil and the sulphur fumes emitted from the smelting process, nothing grew.  Although the ore is no longer processed locally and people are much more eco-conscious, the land has still not recovered and probably won’t for centuries.  We could have had a tour of the mine (including a look at the tunnels) but didn't have time.
Making Reservations:  For this trip I made all our reservations through the travel service at the RAC (Royal Auto Club) in Melbourne, which has a reciprocal arrangement with the AAA, of which we are members.

More on Tasmania and Cradle Mountain Park in my September 5 post. 

Tasmania, located at Latitude 42 degrees South, is the southernmost part of Australia

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stone Mountain, Georgia: The Mount Rushmore of the South

Stone Mountain State Park (August 2011)
History, Nature, and Family Fun

View of Stone Mountain and the Confederate Memorial Carving from terrace of Visitor Center
Fifteen miles east of downtown Atlanta, a monolithic granite dome rises out of the Georgia landscape.  Surrounded by woods, streams, and a large, man-made lake, Stone Mountain and the Confederate Memorial Carving on its surface are the center of a popular state park featuring hiking trails; boat, train, and cable-car rides; a ropes course for kids and adventurous adults; miniature and regular golf; two hotels, a campground, and more.  We recently returned from a family reunion in Stone Mountain State Park.  With family members ranging in from ages three to ninety, there was something in the park for everyone.

A Giant Carving

Confederate Memorial Carving on Stone Mountain (L to R: Davis, Lee, Jackson)
The most famous feature of Stone Mountain is the giant carving on the side of the rock depicting three heroes of the Civil War Confederacy: General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (so-named because he was said to stand as firm as a stone wall in battle), and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States.  The entire carved surface, the size of three football fields, makes it the largest bas-relief carving in the world.  The three men are shown astride their favorite horses, Blackjack (Davis), Traveller (Lee), and Little Sorrel (Jackson).  The horses are so big that during the construction of the monument, workers could take shelter from rainstorms in the horses’ open mouths.

A Long History

Reproduction of the head of Blackjack, one of the horses on the monument
The idea for a monument to Southern heroes of the Civil War was launched in 1916 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who bought the side of the mountain and hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum to do the carving.  However, after eight years, he abandoned the project and left to carve Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the Great Depression and World War II halted further work.  It was not until 1958, after the state of Georgia bought Stone Mountain and the surrounding land and turned it into a state park, that the project was resumed and completed by two other sculptors, Walter Hancock and Roy Faulkner.  (The work previously done by Borglum’s team was blasted off the mountain and the new carvers started over!)  The monument was finished and dedicated in 1970 by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Fireworks on the Mountain

Lasershow Spectacular at Stone Mountain
Directly in front of the mountain, the terrace of the visitor center provides the best view of the carving.  Inside the visitor center, we watched a video about the history of making the memorial, got an overview of the impact of the Civil War on the communities around Stone Mountain, and found out about various aspects of the mountain’s human, natural and geologic history. A large lawn slopes down from the visitor center to the base of the rock.  Terraces on either side are dedicated to the states that were members of the confederacy.  In summer, and on weekend evenings, a laser show with fireworks draws thousands of picnickers to the lawn.  While one can rent chairs on the terraces for the evening, we sat on blankets on the grass to watch the performance.

Sky Hike and Other Activities

Traversing a beam at the Sky Hike
For the kids in our group, the highlight of the trip was the Sky Hike, a three level ropes and balancing course.  My personal role was to stay on the ground and take pictures!  Safety harnesses insured that everyone stayed safe as they made their way across various ropes, ladders and narrow plank bridges.  It is not an activity for anyone who doesn’t like heights! [Note: closed toe shoes are required for the Sky Hike.  This prompted a quick trip to Target for the kids to buy appropriate shoes since they had only brought sandals.]  We also played miniature golf and watched a glass-blowing demonstration.  Other members of the group took the train ride around the base of the mountain, went on the “Duck” (an amphibious vehicle tour of the park), rode the cable car to the top of the mountain, and did driving tours.  And everyone enjoyed the swimming pool at the hotel!  It was August, and with temperatures in the nineties and high humidity, the pool was the perfect place to be at the end of the afternoon.

Glass blowing demonstration
Practicalities: A vehicle fee of $10 is required for entrance to the park.  Most attractions in the park (except for the laser show) require a ticket. If you plan to do two or more, it is better to buy a one-day pass (adults $27 plus tax, child $21 plus tax).  If you buy the pass at the hotel, you get two days for the price of one.
We were there on a weekend.  We noticed that lines to get into attractions were much shorter on Sunday than on Saturday, when the kids had to wait nearly an hour to get onto the ropes course.  On Sunday morning, there was almost no wait.
We stayed at the Stone Mountain Inn (a Marriott Hotel), which is close to the Visitor Center and attractions.  At the other end of the park near the golf course is the Evergreen Marriott Resort and Conference Center.  
Historic grist mill at the picnic area

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Carrizo Plain: A Glimpse of California's Past

A Day Exploring California's Grasslands (May 2011)
Beginning in the early 1800's Spanish Missions used the land of the Carrizo Plain for grazing cattle.
In the mid’1800's, when pioneers descended the foothills surrounding California’s Central Valley, they found hundreds of thousands of elk, deer, and antelope grazing on the valley floor.  In some places, there were so many animals that they darkened the plain as far as the eye could see.  Today, the valley is no longer a haven for wildlife.  Instead of animals, there are ranches, roads, and towns spread across the plain. To get a glimpse of what California’s Central Valley was like before it was developed, you can go to the Carrizo Plain, a little known valley where designation as a National Monument is helping to preserve California wildlife in its natural habitat. Both pronghorn antelope and Tule elk have been reintroduced to the area and the herds are growing. It is also home to the endangered San Joaquin Valley kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, which hops around at night collecting seeds, and a variety of other small mammals, reptiles, and birds.

A Haven for Wildlife
Herds of Pronghorn Antelope can be seen on the Carrizo Plain, usually in the morning or evening.  They typically rest during the middle of the day.
Hidden behind the Temblor range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest, the Carrizo plain is a flat valley that follows the San Andreas Fault as it heads north toward San Francisco. (You can pick up a self-guided geologic auto tour at the Visitor Center.  You can see where past earthquakes have actually rearranged fencelines and creek beds!) A visit to the Carrizo Plain is a day’s trip from Bakersfield or, if you want to get up early, from Los Angeles.  We went there recently from our house on Mount Pinos.  We have been to the Carrizo Plain three times, each time in a different season.  Our first trip was in March, and the valley floor was lush with green grass, yellow spring flowers and thousands of migrating and nesting birds.  Our second visit was in November, after the sandhill cranes had arrived for their winter stay in the shallow soda lake at the far end of the valley.  At the end of the day we watched them take off, flapping their wide wings and honking like geese.  On this trip, in May, the spring flowers were gone and the grass had turned golden, but the wild mustard was in bloom and meadowlarks and other birds were busy nesting.  Red tailed hawks perched on poles along the side of the road in between bouts of circling in search of prey.

Springtime is Nesting Time
Bullock's Oriole
Historically, the Carrizo plain has been ranch land, and it is still crisscrossed by fences, and roads are punctuated by cattle guards to keep the cattle that still graze there where they belong.  We entered the Monument from the east end, north of Maricopa on CA 166/33.  The narrow road is paved at first, but quickly turns to dirt.  You can’t drive very fast, but that is fine if you want to look for wildlife or appreciate the scenery.  Absolutely no services are available along the 30 mile road to the visitor center.  We brought a picnic lunch and stopped at one of the two campgrounds to eat it.  Only one other campsite was occupied.  To our delight, a pair of yellow and orange Bullock’s orioles, who had a nest hanging in the eucalyptus tree over our heads, were busy collecting insects for their hungry babies.

Rock Art and a Dry Lake Bed
Soda Lake on the Carrizo Plain is dries up in summer leaving behind crystals of sulphate and carbonate salts.
At the northwest end of the monument is the Goodwin Education Center, which is small, but filled with interesting exhibits and helpful park staff. On previous visits, we had walked from the parking lot not far from there to Painted Rock, once one of California’s most spectacular examples of Native American rock art, but now badly damaged by vandals.  In the past, Painted Rock was open to the public.  Now, in order to see it, you have to go online and make a reservation for a guided or self-guided tour.  On the weekend we were there, it was closed to protect the native raptors which were nesting in the rocks.

Before we left, we stopped at Soda Lake and walked along the boardwalk.  The drainage of the valley is such that the water collects and evaporates, leaving mineral deposits behind.  In winter, Soda Lake is filled with water and provides a home for sandhill cranes and other birds.  In summer, it is a dry lake bed. After leaving Soda Lake, we headed northwest and left the Monument.  As we passed through farmland on our way back to highway 58, we saw a lone pronghorn antelope standing in a field.  Perhaps on another day, we would come back and see a whole herd.

The Carrizo Plain became a National Monument in 2000.
Getting there: The Carrizo Plain National Monument can be accessed either from Highway 33/166 north of Maricopa, or from Highway 58 west of McKittrick. At Traver Ranch, about ten miles from the east entrance you can stop and pick up a map and get other information.  Be sure to have plenty of gas and bring your own water and food.  As we drove along the road through the Monument, we stopped frequently to look at birds and take photos, and rarely met other cars.  That is the attraction of the Carrizo Plain.  While it is not that far from civilization, not many people go there.

Monday, August 1, 2011

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

Where can you see live sharks, colorful coral reefs, an albino alligator, a tropical rainforest, and a penguin colony all under one roof?  At the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  AND, there is much more. The CAS, newly remodeled, is definitely not “off the beaten track” but is a major tourist destination in San Francisco that attracts thousands of visitors every day.  It is a world-class natural history museum, planetarium, and aquarium, all rolled into one.  We went there with our grandchildren last December.  It was the perfect family outing, with something for everyone.

Inside the Planetarium before the show
After entering the museum and getting our tickets for a plantetarium show later in the day, we headed for the rainforest.  This four-story exhibit houses birds, butterflies, lizards, bats, fish, and lush rainforest plants from all over the world in a giant glass dome.  Following the circular ramp we climbed from the forest floor to the canopy at the top, stopping as butterflies flitted around our heads.  Exiting on the top floor, we made a quick trip up to the living roof of the museum, a vast undulating garden of native plants that keeps the building cool and sends oxygen back into the air.  I’m sure it is a great place to relax during warmer weather, but on the day we visited the wind and chilly air made us scurry back inside where we took the elevator down to the ground floor of the museum to see the fish.
One of the main attractions of the museum is the Steinhart Aquarium with its many tanks of fish, corals, jellyfish, and other sea life.  I sat on a ledge at the edge of one huge tank with my granddaughter, who watched with wonder as fish swam by on the other side of the glass just inches away from her face. As you walk through a "tunnel" in the tank fish swim over your head and you feel as if you are really under the sea.  There were also hands-on exhibits where the kids could touch sea urchins and other tidepool creatures and talk with museum staff.

Live penguins in the Africa Hall
The museum is a mix of the old and the new.  I remember my first visit to the old building more than forty years ago, with its taxidermy dioramas and other traditional museum exhibits.  Many of those exhibits (like the Foucault Pendulum which knocks down pegs in a pit as the Earth turns) are still there, but spruced up.  One of our favorites is the African Hall, with its stuffed animal dioramas, always impressive and realistic in their posed arrangements.  But at the end of the room, one is taken by surprise because the animals in the exhibit move!  A live penguin exhibit occupies the end of the room, where African jackass penguins (they sound like donkeys when they call) make their home among giant rocks designed to look like their natural home along the South African coast.
We ran out of energy before we had explored every corner of the museum.  But that is okay.  It gives us a reason to go back another day.

Travel Tip:  After being closed for several years for remodeling, the CAS reopened in 2008 and is immensely popular, which means it can get extremely crowded on weekends and during holiday periods.  Here’s my advice for maximizing the enjoyment of your visit.  1. Buy your tickets online.  That way you avoid having to stand in line for tickets outside when you arrive.  Better yet, go with a friend who is a member. (Every third Wednesday of the month, admission is free.) 2.  Go early.  Lines for everything get longer as the day goes by.  3.  If you want to see a planetarium show, get your tickets as soon as you go into the museum.  They are free, but you have to stand in line and the tickets go fast. 4.  Plan your day.  There is lots to see!
Lunch: The cafeteria in the museum has a good variety of international and healthy food.  The tables inside were crowded, so we ate outside under a heat lamp.  The fresh air was nice, but it was a good thing we had kept our jackets with us.