Readers comments 1-13-17
I was shocked to see the passing of Bill Vaskis. What a wonderful man!
Bill audited many of our courses in art history at Pomona College over the years. He was well-known to our department and to many others in the Claremont Colleges.
Bill’s enthusiasm for learning was infectious; he was always working on a project or planning to travel and he added immeasurably to classroom discussion, even as a community auditor.
Many great interactions between our students and community members resulted and Bill was always there with a smile and twinkle in his eye.
Bill, I will miss you dearly!
George L. Gorse
Viola Horton professor of art history
Music was playing at the farmer’s market as I made my way from the vegetable stand to the hummus guy to the corner coffee house, where an elderly man sat playing an electric piano.
I neared the space where the Prison Library Project usually reserved its booth. Bill Vaskis was a volunteer at the bookstore. Today, as if in mourning, the space was empty. It was the day after New Year.
The streets were wet from last night’s rain and the morning was cold. A thin crowd wandered from tent to tent. The music—a slow, lilting melody—infused the air with yearning. I stood at the corner listening, a mail box and a garbage can standing between myself and the pianist.
I’d gone to the market after mass. I wanted to say Bill’s name silently when the priest paused to remember those who had passed. A chill ran up and down my spine, as if to signal his presence.
The hummus guy, usually upbeat and staccato-voiced, took my money quietly. “I hope 2017 is better than 2016,” he confided, his eyes soft. Something in his look made me believe he was talking about the election: he’s of Afghan decent and understandably concerned. The music was getting to everyone.
Standing at the corner I asked myself, is it a mail box or a garbage can for us? Our lives, I mean. Are we destined for some other purpose, maybe higher or lower, maybe heaven or hell—but intact? Are we postcards on our path to the mailbox?
Or do we argue and love and screw and succeed and fail only to be tossed into a cosmic dust bin with every nameless empire and forgotten civilization that’s gone before us?
Please, let it be a mailbox, I thought. Tell me all this means something: the thousands of students Bill taught, the way I can remember his face clearly, all the things I could have done had I really tried. Tell me it actually matters.
The song filled the streets descending to a close. I approached the old pianist, dropping a tip in his bucket. He asked if I had a request.
“A friend passed. Play something for him,” I should have said, but didn’t. The last piece suited the occasion perfectly. It couldn’t be improved. I complimented him. “It’s a nocturne by Chopin,” he said, then he gave me a short history lesson. “Chopin wrote over 200 pieces, most of them too complex, scattered all over the place.” He waved his long fingers in the air. “He wrote only 18 nocturnes, but they’re simple and beautiful…the only part of his work that moves me. I made a project out of it and learned all 18.”
I glanced at his music: worn, laminated pages with columns of song titles written by hand. No notes. All by memory.
“Why waste time with things that have no interest when you can spend your time on things that are meaningful?” he asked.
Maybe that was the choice. Bill took his message elsewhere.
Philistines at the gate
Why hasn’t Pomona College committed to spending one percent for public art and artisanry in its proposed new art museum building, which is sited to be a gateway between college and community?
Others have already criticized the 1950s shopping center style, the failure to go beyond tokenism in community programming, the flawed animation strategy (unlike the Wellesley College museum with its cinema/café). But let’s look at the fundamental issue of supporting living artists in an art museum. What could be a more authentic demonstration than employing living artists and artisans in an area that is rich with their work? They should be commissioned to craft everything from bicycle racks to stair risers, restroom murals and lighting fixtures.
There is the splendid precedent of the Santa Barbara Court House building. According to Jack Becker, founder of Forecast Public Art, 28 US states and territories have “percent for art” programs, and there are 350 public art programs in the US.
Civilized Claremont has a city policy for mixed-use developments of a certain scale, but no requirement that college master plans include public art. Seattle and the surrounding Kings County and the University of Oregon have been particular leaders on the west coast.
The performing arts center in Eugene, Oregon is a good example, with tile portraits in the restrooms. Instead, Pomona talks about the old-fashioned plop art of the 1970s surrounding the building.
A richly decorated and refined building could attract the patrons that Pomona desperately needs for the museum and has failed to develop under David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, and Kathleen Howe, director of the Pomona Art Museum.
If the college wants to vault to artistic greatness, it should build a comfortable place that attracts a broad conversation with artists and patrons across the region. Remember the legendary and innovative A. Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr., director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut from 1927 to 1944? He and his wife, Helen, attracted leaders of the international art world to Hartford, including Salvador Dalí, Alexander Calder, Gertrude Stein, George Balanchine, Le Corbusier, Cecil Beaton, Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson.
Pomona’s recent fundraising campaign Daring Minds, was phenomenally successful. Let Pomona show a little daring now and convene today’s artistic forces of similar stature at the museum.
But then, this requires a level of social confidence that Pomona apparently doesn’t possess. This is all about an edifice complex that builds the resumes of current administrators rather than a thoughtful appreciation of the dynamic of creating great space for complex uses and real patronage.
Citizen legal action may be necessary unless and until rich, self-funding Pomona, with its rubber stamp board comes to its artistic senses. Citizens unite. This indignant writer even offered to pay for part of the cost of the one percent program, but the college administrators just want to get it done on their watch.
This is apparently one definition of white collar crime, where the best ideas are sacrificed to expedience and the city administration kowtows before a stubborn and belligerent college that hasn’t elevated its vision over a three-year conversation.
Ronald Lee Fleming
Pomona College ’63; FAICP