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Object Lesson
James Prosek on Audubon’s “Scarlet Tanager”

object lesson

I always thought it was because of my love of birds that the work of John James Audubon had appealed to me so much from the time I was five. At Yale, I began to question whether it might have been the other way around.

In Oscar Wilde’s dialogue “Decay of Lying,” one of the speakers says that nature itself is boring—“the infinite variety of Nature is not to be found in nature herself. It resides in the imagination.” Though this may have been a tongue-in-cheek pronouncement, Audubon’s birds are not literal nature; they are nature adjusted through the filter of his imagination.

Each painting is theater on a tree branch; an argument over food, a marital spat, a battle scene against a nosy snake, blurring the thin line between nature and humanity. He created a weirdly anthropomorphic fiction with the birds as his characters, at the seashore, in the marsh, and most of all in the wood and at the wood’s edge. The birds are depicted accurately, yes, and that was his intention. But in the process of making his paintings—shooting the birds, wiring them up in poses that suited him more compositionally than naturally, and drawing and painting them—he created birds, frozen on the page, with major personality.

As an undergraduate I made many visits to the Beinecke to see the two bound double-elephant folios of Audubon’s paintings, printed by Robert Havell in London and colored by hand. Of all the compositions in which the birds are made to fit, their long necks contorted or their wings twisted—the battles with snakes, the raptor erupting in a flock of quail—the single painting that most affects me is that of the scarlet tanager.

The colors of the birds are stunning: rich vermilion in the male, with jet-black wings. My father, who grew up in Brazil, often said that the tanager reminded him of the tropical birds he saw as a child. In New England the tanager seemed an exotic, out of place. Dr. Elliot Coues wrote, “I hold this bird in particular, almost superstitious, recollection, as the very first of all the feathered tribe to stir within me those emotions that have never ceased to stimulate and gratify my love for birds.” Thoreau wrote, “the tanager flies through the forest, as if to ignite the leaves.”

Maybe it is metaphor, then, that good paintings create. But despite what Oscar Wilde said, it helps to have the real bird in the woods to glimpse, if only for a split second, to provide the initial inspiration.


One Evening, Nine Movies

When Jeff Pickett '98 started receiving submissions from alumni for the first (and hopefully annual) Yale in Hollywood Film Festival, he thought he'd be happy if 20 films came in. But word got out, the trickle turned into a flood, and Pickett and his fellow organizers ended up with a pool of 60. They chose nine short films for a November 10 screening before a capacity crowd at the old Silent Movie Theater (which does have a sound system, despite its name) on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

The purpose of the festival, says founding director Pickett, was to “celebrate Yale’s cinematic tradition.” A thriving alumni club has been running panels, screenings, and other Hollywood-oriented events in the area for several years, and a festival seemed the logical next step. Since four relative industry heavyweights sit on the festival’s board—including Bruce Cohen '83, who produced Big Fish and American Beauty—and industry executives and agents were invited, the event also provided exposure for the filmmakers. Still, says Pickett, “for me, it wasn’t so much about networking as about showing interesting works of art and having people discuss them.” (He admits to an additional incentive: “On a sort of shallow level, Princeton had done something like this in L.A., so we thought, ‘If they can do it, then we can do it and do it better.’”)

The strongest films shown at the festival were tight, character-based narratives, such as Coming Down the Mountain, by writer-director James Ponsoldt '01 and producer Josh Newman '01, who have a two-year-old indie production company in New York City. Shot in Kentucky, the film touches on Appalachia’s Oxycontin epidemic but focuses on a single, difficult day in the lives of a father and son.

Two of the best films were about South Asians in America. Mausi, or How an Old Lady Finds Her Way Back to India, is a lush and funny short by Sarba Das '97, a Los Angeles writer and director. In Good Thing, a man of South Asian descent named Juggie longs to travel in Africa but finds himself married and running a variety store in Los Angeles with his pregnant wife. Good Thing was made by UCLA film student Keshni Kashyap; the Yale connection is actor Chayton Arvin '89, who carries the film with a perplexed but piercing hangdog stare.

Other titles were Joe’s Flyin' a-Garlic, a fantastical animation about a jazz piano player born aching for Dreamland; Bracia (Brothers), which recounts two Jewish brothers' attempt to escape from the Lodz ghetto after the mass deportation to Auschwitz; The Old Man and Hemingway, a documentary visit with the 104-year-old captain of Hemingway’s boat; A Spoonful of Sugar, about a teenaged girl who was born with HIV; Next Question, a documentary about high school students doing an oral history of the 1970 Black Panther trial in New Haven; and Filet of 4, a split-screen narrative about two unhappy couples, with time-lapse film and superimposed philosophical musings.

Filmmaker Kamala Lopez-Dawson '85, a festival organizer, says Filet of 4 was shot digitally in three or four days. Then she spent a year editing it. “That movie cost a hundred bucks,” she says. “My last short film cost more than $25,000.” Filet came out of her involvement with a film workshop called Catme, which has half a dozen Yale alumni members.

Everyone involved is hoping to expand the 2005 event. This year, organizers showed a wide spectrum of work rather than full-length features. “We had to get a foothold, obviously.” says Pickett. “But we would love to have more days, more separate sessions, more programming time.” He points out that Alexander Payne’s Sideways, a critically acclaimed Fox Searchlight release, would have been eligible, since it stars Paul Giamatti '89, '94MFA. “Strangely,” says Pickett, “he didn’t submit this year.”

Maybe next time.


Beyond the Bolero

One October evening in 1974, a slender teenager with a tumult of brown curls mounted the stage in Morse dining hall with her guitar. We'd heard she was good—after all, not every freshman gets a solo recital her second month of school. But nothing prepared us for the torrent of virtuosity that followed. Isbin’s preternaturally long fingers explored the neck of her guitar with the ease of a spider checking her web. Those of us in the audience looked at each other with a sudden knowledge: this was only the beginning of what we were going to hear from Sharon Isbin.

It was my good fortune that Sharon and I became friends, granting me a ringside seat to follow her career. Sitting next to Isbin at dinner in those days was a little daunting. Her Yale education (a B.A. in 1978, a Master of Music in 1979) was always being punctuated by mad dashes abroad to win major competitions: Toronto in 1975, Munich in 1976, and the Queen Sofia Competition in Madrid in 1979.

This year marks Isbin’s latest triumph. In January, she becomes the first classical guitarist to release a recording in collaboration with the New York Philharmonic. (She will appear at the Yale Club of New York City on January 21.) The Warner Classics CD features Isbin as guitar soloist in Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, along with concerti by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce and Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos. It is the Rodrigo that has the deepest personal resonance, stemming from a connection made in Madrid after the Queen Sofia competition. “Joaquin Rodrigo heard the live radio broadcast of the Concierto de Aranjuez and tracked me down to invite me to his home,” Isbin recalls. “That was the beginning of a 20-year friendship”—ending only with Rodrigo’s death in 1999.

When Isbin began her career, classical guitar repertoire was largely defined by the works of Spanish and Latin American composers, supplemented by a few refugees from the baroque lute camp. She set out to expand that universe, with disdain for traditional boundaries: working with Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, then traveling to Brazil to explore the Brazilian jazz idiom in collaborations with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida, then winding her way to the Amazon and the indigenous sounds of percussionist and composer Thiago de Mello. Her subsequent folk-inspired anthology, Dreams of a World, won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance” in 2001—making her the first classical guitarist to win in 28 years. Among the world-class composers who have written for her are John Corigliano, Ned Rorem, and Tan Dun.

Isbin grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. She began guitar at the age of nine, almost by accident, while her family was in Italy. For a few years it looked as though she might follow her passion for physics and model rockets, but the guitar won out (although Isbin credits her scientific, methodical approach for much of her technique).

She was already a virtuoso by the time she applied to college, but decided against a traditional conservatory. “I wanted to acquire good writing skills, to study philosophy, literature, and psychology,” she says. She never looked back. Over her career she has found herself organizing festivals, founding and heading the guitar department at Juilliard, and writing extensively about music, including one book and a column for Acoustic Guitar: “All of this has required the kind of skills that Yale was able to give me.” Anyone lucky enough to attend one of her concerts today will hear the same glories we witnessed in the Morse dining hall—only with better acoustics, and 30 years of patina.


Understanding Clarence Thomas

Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas
by Ken Foskett '83

William Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.95

Can Clarence Thomas '74JD and Yale ever make peace with each other? To this day, Justice Thomas has declined to sit for a portrait for the Yale Law School: a small personal protest against an institution in which he felt unhappy as a student and which rallied to his accuser during the terrible battle over his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991.

The Hill-Thomas eruption was almost an intramural all-Yale battle. At the time he was nominated, Thomas was filling the D.C. Circuit seat that had formerly belonged to one-time Yale professor Robert Bork. Anita Hill '80JD was a Yale graduate. So was the closest thing she had to a contemporaneous witness, Susan Hoerchner '80JD. So was the Senate staffer who helped make her a national name, James Brudney '79JD. So was Gil Hardy '75JD, the friend who first introduced Hill to Thomas. (Hardy died two years before the confirmation hearings.) And so finally was George H. W. Bush '48, the U.S. president who chose Thomas and stood by him.

Those seeking a final resolution of the Hill-Thomas battle or deep insight into Thomas’s judicial philosophy will close this book unsatisfied. Despite its title, “judging” is one thing it does not do. Foskett’s hedging approach to the public Clarence Thomas is epitomized almost to the point of parody by his final verdict on Anita Hill’s charges: “Although it was plausible that Thomas said what Hill alleged, it seemed implausible that he said it all in the manner Hill described.”

Foskett, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, has written a reporter’s book about Clarence Thomas: carefully researched, meticulously fair-minded, but ultimately reticent and inconclusive. Still, Foskett was granted impressive, probably unprecedented, access to Thomas and to Thomas’s Supreme Court colleagues. So if in the end the book does not help us judge Thomas, it does help us understand him.

Few Supreme Court justices in American history can have risen as far as fast as Clarence Thomas. He was raised by a grandfather, Myers Anderson, who inculcated fierce independence, fortified by amply justified distrust of whites—“buckra,” he called them, using a West African word for “demon.” Late in his life, Anderson was offered a job opening and closing a rural historical site near his farm: the job would have paid him hundreds of dollars a month for a few minutes' work at the beginning and end of the day. Anderson refused. Never in his life had he worked to somebody else’s schedule, and he would not start in old age.

Anderson had become a Catholic, and so Clarence was sent to the still-segregated Catholic schools of Savannah. He was chosen to desegregate a nearby junior seminary. When Clarence decided against the priesthood at age 20, his grandfather brutally cut him off: “You act like a man. Now live like one.”

As a student, Thomas competed fiercely to overcome the handicaps of his segregated background. He forced himself to speak Standard English, excelled in sports and academics, and kept his temper and dignity despite taunts, insults, and threats. And then a remarkable thing happened: in the spring of 1968, the buckras made one of their mysterious and sinister reversals. After years of discriminating against people like Clarence Thomas, some of their most prestigious institutions suddenly began discriminating in favor of them.

The indigent ex-seminarian was offered a full-tuition scholarship to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Three years later, he was admitted to Yale Law School.

Over the years since, Thomas has often been reproached for his refusal to be more appreciative of the benefits of affirmative action. It is this subject more than any other that fascinates Foskett. While the radical editors of Emerge magazine have damned Thomas as an “Uncle Tom,” Foskett argues that Thomas’s rejection of color consciousness and racial preferences stems from the same spirit of mistrustful independence that motivated Myers Anderson. He quotes from a speech Thomas gave in 1986:

“I have survived the rejection of segregation and the trauma of integration. I have been both deterred and preferred by racially conscious policies. I have been the guinea pig for many social experiments on minorities. To all who would continue these experiments, I say, ‘Please, no more. Please leave me alone. …’

“Equal opportunity was taken away based on pernicious racist assumptions of inferiority, and I categorically reject any promises of advantage based on the self-same obnoxious, though now well-intentioned, assumptions. For me, this concession has been, and will always be, too great a price to pay.”

Some have criticized Thomas’s advocacy of race neutrality as naïve. Foskett vigorously disagrees. He quotes a poignantly realistic speech Thomas gave in 1983: “I opt that we try to adhere to race-neutrality and fairness. … But I choose this option knowing full well that fairness, though an underpinning of this country, has never been a reality. I choose the option with the painful awareness of the social and economic ravages that have befallen my race and all who suffer discrimination.”

But if Thomas carried with him the memory of the past, he was not always alert to the dangers of the present. He did not play the Washington game with tact. He made enemies. And in 1991, those enemies got their chance.

Looking back on it, the whole Hill-Thomas business seems tinged with utter incomprehensibility. What was it all about anyway? Even if each and every word of Hill’s successive versions of her story had been true, what exactly had she alleged? That her newly divorced boss had asked her out? That he'd made ribald comments to her? For this the country tore itself apart? How many of those who wore “I Believe Anita Hill” buttons would turn around seven years later and dismiss Paula Jones as a liar and a tramp?

Foskett offers a full and sympathetic account of Thomas the man. But Thomas is above all a man of the mind—and Foskett, imbued with the beat reporter’s fascination with fact and mistrust of ideas—gives the mind of Clarence Thomas curiously little attention.

Yet Clarence Thomas has emerged as a forceful advocate of conservative ideas on the bench, and a justice who often breaks ranks even with his close ally Antonin Scalia. It’s been calculated that the two vote together only 77 percent of the time—less than such less-famous pairings as Justices Rehnquist and O'Connor (79 percent) and Justices Souter and Ginsburg (85 percent). The legal world is only now beginning to appreciate Thomas’s principles and sense of intellectual mission, and there remains still a great book to be written about Clarence Thomas the jurist—and a great picture to be painted and hung in the halls of the school he has made proud.


In Print

Mary Jane Minkin '75MD, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Carol V. Wright
A Woman’s Guide to Menopause and Perimenopause
Yale University Press, $18

As if hot flashes weren’t enough, the recent abundance of groundbreaking but often conflicting research on menopause and perimenopause has made it difficult for women to know whom to trust as they navigate “the change.” Dr. Minkin, a nationally known expert on the subject, provides an accessible and authoritative guide for the perplexed.


William F. Buckley Jr. '50
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
Regnery Publishing, $29.95

Culling from among the millions of words he has written, the father of modern conservatism has shaped 50 previously published essays—his youthful critique of Yale, a more mature toast to the Class of 1950, his sailing adventures, his journalism, and many others—into a rich account of a remarkable life.


Jessica Warner '91PhD
John the Painter, Terrorist of the American Revolution
Thunder’s Mouth Press/Avalon, $24.95

In 1775, a young Scottish sociopath and would-be revolutionary named James Aitken began his freelance attempt to terrorize and cripple Great Britain, then the world’s reigning superpower, by trying to burn down several port cities—destroying military targets and killing innocent civilians. Warner has written a page-turner about this ultimately inept house painter-turned-incendiary.


More Books by Yale Authors

Bruce Ackerman 1967LLB, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, and James Fishkin 1970, 1975PhD
Deliberation Day
Yale University Press, $30

Carol J. Adams 1976MDiv
Prayers for Animals
Continuum, $14.95

Nancy K. Anderson 1994PhD, Writer and Translator
The Word that Causes Death’s Defeat: Poems of Memory, by Anna Akhmatova
Yale University Press, $30

Harold Bloom 1956PhD, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English
Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?
Riverhead Books, $24.95

Jacqueline Byrne 1984 and Michael Ashley
SAT Vocabulary Express: Word Puzzles Designed to Decode the New SAT
McGraw-Hill, $12.95

Stephanie M.H. Camp 1992MA
Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South
University of North Carolina Press, $39.95

Thurston Clarke 1968
Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America
Henry Holt, $25

Barbara Flanagan 1977MArch
The Houseboat Book
Rizzoli/Universe, $45

Robert Gandossy 1984PhD, Editor
Leadership and Governance from the Inside Out
John Wiley and Sons, $34.95

Paul Goldberger 1972
Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York
Random House, $24.95

Eric Goodman 1975
Child of My Right Hand
Sourcebooks Landmark, $14

Erwin Hauer, Professor Emeritus of Art (Sculpture)
Continua: Architectural Screens and Walls
Princeton Architectural Press, $35

Gary Iseminger 1961PhD
The Aesthetic Function of Art
Cornell University Press, $32.50

Bruce Judson 1984JD, 1984MBA, Postdoctoral Associate, School of Management
Go It Alone: The Secret to Building a Successful Business On Your Own
HarperBusiness, $23.95

B. Cory Kilvert Jr. 1953
Echoes of Armageddon, 1914-1918
Author House, $15

Michael Leahy 1975
When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback
Simon and Schuster, $26

James Lilley 1951
China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia
PublicAffairs, $30

Lisa Lubasch 1995
T o Tell the Lamp: Poemsasch 1995
Avec Books, $14

Bill McGaughey 1964
On the Ballot in Louisiana: Running for President to Fight National Decay
Thistlerose Publications, $16.95

Carol Thomas Neely 1969PhD
Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture
Cornell University Press, $52.50

Peter Perret 1960
A Well-Tempered Mind
Dana Press, $22.95

Deborah L. Rhode 1974, 1977JD
Access to Justice
Oxford University Press, $29.95

Alan F. Segal 1975PhD
Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion
Doubleday, $37.50

Lenore Skenazy 1991 and John Boswell
The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook
Broadway Books/Doubleday, $9.95

Kimberly A. Smith 1998PhD
Between Ruin and Renewal: Egon Schiele’s Landscapes
Yale University Press, $50

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Associate Dean for Executive Education, School of Management, Editor
Leadership and Governance from the Inside Out
John Wiley and Sons, $34.95

Howard M. Spiro, Professor of Medicine Emeritus
The Optimist: Meditations on Medicine
Science and Medicine, $32

Steve J. Stern 1979PhD
Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998
Duke University Press, $29.95

Lawrence Strauss 1972PhD
Opera and Modern Culture: Wagner and Strauss
University of California Press, $39.95

Jonathan Swinchatt 1957BS and David G. Howell
The Winemaker’s Dance: Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley
University of California Press, $34.95

Strobe Talbott 1968
Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy, and the Bomb
Brookings Institution Press, $27.95

Jose Manuel Tesoro 1994
The Invisible Palace: The True Story of a Journalist’s Murder in Java
Equinox Publishing, $14.95

Harold H. Tittmann Jr. 1916, and Harold H. Tittmann III 1951, Editor
Inside the Vatican of Pius XII: The Memoir of An American Diplomat During World War II
Image Books/Doubleday, $13.95

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar, Sociology
World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction
Duke University Press, $16.95

Mark S. Weiner 1998PhD
Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95

Kristina Wilson 1993, 2001PhD
Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression
Yale University Press, $45

William Wise 1945
Christopher Mouse: The Tale of a Small Traveler
Bloomsbury, $15.95

David Wyatt 1970
And the War Came: An Accidental Memoir
University of Wisconsin Press/Terrace Books, $26.95

Terra Ziporyn 1980, Karen J. Carlson, MD, and Stephanie A. Eisenstat, MD
The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health
Harvard University Press, $24.95

Rachel Zucker 1994
The Last Clear Narrative
Wesleyan University Press, $28







“Diplomat” coffee service (1932, Walter von Nessen)

Walter von Nessen designed this coffee service, says Kristina Wilson ’93, ’01PhD, in pursuit of an ideal. “Modernist designers of the 1930s wanted to make Modernism available to the masses,” she says. “They operated under a utopian agenda: lives will be improved by simple things.”

The coffee service is part of “Livable Modernism,” a Yale Art Gallery exhibit of Modernist housewares that were marketed to middle-class consumers during the Depression. (The exhibit runs through June 5.) In that difficult period, some designers saw Modernism’s fusion of industrial materials and simple forms as a way to improve living standards. The Diplomat service epitomizes the use of industrial materials and processes, argues Wilson, a Clark University assistant professor and curator of the exhibit. Made of chrome-plated metal and Bakelite plastic, “it was cut from fluted decorative architectural tubing,” she says, “so they made use of already-made industrial materials. The chrome itself is a new material which screams, ‘I’m modern!’”





William Hodges, 1744–1797: The Art of Exploration
Center for British Art
(203) 432-2800

The display features 56 oil paintings by British landscape painter William Hodges, whose career took him to India under the patronage of the East India Company and to the South Pacific with explorer Captain James Cook.

The Comedy of Errors
Yale Repertory Theatre
(203) 432-1234

Coincidences and confusion are the order of the day in Shakespeare’s comedy of identical twins, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings. Staged in the University Theatre.

Gospel Dreams: The Art of Laura James
Institute of Sacred Music
(203) 432-5180

Self-taught painter Laura James depicts religious subjects and visual dramatizations of bible stories using iconography found in Ethiopian Christian art.

My Heart in Company: The Work of J. M. Barrie and the Birth of Peter Pan
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
(203) 432-2977

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Peter Pan, an extensive display of original manuscripts, photographs, documents, and artifacts examines the life and work of James Matthew Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan and many other novels, plays, articles, and essays.

Napoleon Bonaparte: Legends and Legacies
Sterling Memorial Library
(203) 432-2798

A display of books and documents, commemorating the bicentenary of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, highlights his contributions to military history and theory; French politics, law, and administration; science; and the arts, literature, and culture.


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