The arts


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Artist Billy Hobbs (left) and yours truly on the deck of Mitchell cabin. Billy was homeless for more than five years after his 25-year marriage broke up. For a year he spent his days sketching outside the Point Reyes Station Postoffice, which is where I met him. He had been sleeping outdoors when cold, wet weather set in. This prompted my wife Lynn and me a month ago to invite him to stay with us until the weather clears.

Billy is an intriguing artist, so this week I’m posting a small sampling of his drawings.

The Sacred Tree is Not Dead depicts the chief of the Northern Cheyenne, White Antelope, before he was killed by a U.S. cavalry charge despite having been assured he’d be left alone if he flew an American flag on his tepee.

Lao Tzu, a Sixth Century BC Chinese philosopher. Billy calls Lao Tzu one of his favorite philosophers because of his emphasis on slowing down to smell the roses.

How It Really Went Down. Making his last stand on June 25, 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer runs out of bullets and is killed, along with all 200 of his men.

Holding Up a Skull and looking through it was inspired by artist Georgia O’Keefe. 

A Pretty Woman. Billy hasn’t quite finished this drawing, but she’s still haunting.

Donald Trump, one of Billy’s rare political drawings. The president bends over to perform another scene from reality TV.

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Thanksgiving dinner. Lynn (right) and I (left) with Inverness architect Jon Fernandez, his wife Patsy Krebs, and his son Michael enjoying dessert following a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday at Vladimir’s Czech Restaurant in Inverness. Beforehand, a couple of friends at different times expressed surprise that we’d choose Czech food on turkey day, but it turned out to be a good decision. In fact, it was the start of a series of social adventures.

The Michael Aragon Quartet

The next day, Jon and Patsy, Lynn and I headed to Sausalito’s No Name Bar where the Michael Aragon Quartet played its last performance after 36 years of Friday night gigs there. Drummer Michael Aragon, the bandleader, is retiring at 75 for health reasons. Sax player Rob Roth has been there with him 25 years, and keyboardist KC Filson has been there for 10 of them. The regular bass player, Pierre Archain, unfortunately was ill and guitarist Rob Fordyce filled in for him.

Michael is known throughout the Bay Area jazz scene, and the bar was packed with admirers who wanted to catch his last show.

Billy Hobbs

Saturday was wet and cold, which made Lynn and me worry about Billy Hobbs, the homeless man often seen sketching outside the Point Reyes Station postoffice. He sleeps outdoors nearby under an overhang, and periodic gusts of wind can blow the rain in a bit.

So we invited Billy to spend the day with us, and Lynn fixed a second Thanksgiving dinner, this time with turkey. With the storm not abating, we urged Billy to bed down here for the night, and he did.

On Sunday, the storm only got worse. When I drove to the bottom of our fairly long driveway in heavy rain to get our morning Chronicle, I found that the wind had dropped a large, dead limb across our driveway. Thankfully, no car was hit. Several pieces had to be moved, and I got a full baptism doing so.

Lynn, who was fighting a cold, put all of our clothes through the wash while much of my energy was spent carrying armloads of firewood up 50 steps to our house. Now that will get you warm. Billy meanwhile spent most of the day sitting by the fire arranging his sketches, which he hopes to make into greeting cards. 

Another get-together: While we stayed warm indoors, two blacktail bucks with no show of rivalry showed up to dine outside. The deer at left has a deformed right rear leg (probably hit by a motor vehicle) but manages to get around fairly well. And so in the end, it appeared that everyone had a reason to be thankful.

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Gallery Route One’s popular Box Show closed today with a silent auction, drinks, and hors d’oeuvres. A throng of art lovers and curious tourists filled the gallery within an hour after today’s show opened.

A box titled “XXI Century” by Ted Stoeckley, like several boxes in the show, amounted to artistic social-commentary.

“Thinking Outside the Box” by Rich Bolececk and Margaret Boehm.

A visitor studies “Celebrating Their Legacy,” a box by Bruce Burtch.

“Off We Go” by Dennis Ludlow and Prartho Sereno.

“The Bear Valley” by Bernie Schimbke.

“Where Are the Children?” by Suzanne Radcliffe.

More social commentary, “Immigration Policy” by Kieu Lam.

“Sticks and Stones” by Earl Speas.

The annual box show is both an exhibit and a fundraiser for Gallery Route One, and today’s show appeared successful on both fronts. Past Box Shows are archived on GRO’s website.

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Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936)

What happens when a priest loses his faith? Spanish writer, philosopher, and political activist Miguel de Unamuno provides an inspiring look at the dilemma in his short novel, San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, which I just re-read. The book fascinated me when I took a Spanish-literature class at Stanford, and this prompted me to take a second look some 55 years later.

Unamuno was an early existentialist, and often at the core of his writing is the tension between intellect and emotion, between faith and reason. In San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, Unamuno tells the story of a priest, Don Manuel, struggling with that tension. He is intelligent, hardworking, provides volunteer labor, and is so kind that he inspires the members of his parish to be good to one another. Yet secretly he doesn’t believe everything he preaches.

“The imperturbable joyousness of Don Manuel,” says the fictional narrator Angela Carballino, “was merely the temporal, earthly form of an infinite, eternal sadness which the priest concealed from the eyes and ears of the world with heroic saintliness.”

“The marvel of the man was his voice; a divine voice which bought one close to weeping,” the narrator recalls. “How he did love his people! His life consisted in salvaging wrecked marriages, in forcing unruly sons to submit to their parents, or reconciling parents to their sons, and above all, consoling the embittered and the weary in spirit; meanwhile he helped everyone to die well.”

Ironically, Unamuno was known for standing up for his views.

A key section of the novel describes the death of the devout mother of the narrator, Angela, and Angela’s brother, Lazarus, who was a  nonbeliever. “The peace in which your mother dies will be her eternal life,” Don Manuel tells Angela. He then explains to Lazarus, “Her heaven is to go on seeing you, and it is at this moment that she must be saved. Tell her you will pray for her.” When the nonbeliever starts to object: “But…”, Don Manuel responds,  “But what? … Tell her you will pray for her, to whom you owe your life. And I know that once you promise her, you will pray.”

Lazarus, “his eyes filled with tears, drew near our dying mother and gave his solemn promise to pray for her…. And I, in heaven, will pray for you,” his mother replies. “And then, kissing the crucifix and fixing her eyes on Don Manuel, she gave up her soul to God.”

Lazarus later reveals to his sister that the priest had previously appealed to him “to set a good example, to avoid scandalizing the townspeople, to take part in the religious life of the community, to feign belief even if he did not feel any.” Don Miguel was not trying to convert him, Lazarus explains, “but rather [was feigning his conversion] to protect the peace, the happiness, the illusions perhaps, of his charges. I understood that if he thus deceives them — if it is deceit — it is not for his own advantage…. The people should be allowed to live with their illusion.”

Neither Don Manuel’s deception nor his losing his belief in God ever becomes public, and after he dies, his unsuspecting bishop sets in motion the process for beatifying him, hence the name San Miguel Bueno.

In 1901 Unamuno became rector of the University of Salamanca but lost the post in 1914 for publicly espousing the Allied cause in World War I. His opposition in 1924 to General Miguel Primo de Rivera’s rule in Spain led to his being exiled to the Canary Islands, from which he escaped to France. When Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship fell, Unamuno returned to the University of Salamanca and was reelected rector in 1931, but in October 1936, he denounced the fascism of General Francisco Franco and again lost the post. He was placed under house arrest and within two months died of a heart attack.

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Over the weekend I was looking through my bookshelves when I came upon a volume I didn’t know I had: The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird & Wondrous Words by Peter Bowler. An inscription revealed it had been left behind for me by the late Marge Piaggio, who with her daughter Rose had been my houseguest for several months two decades ago.

Galeanthropy

The book was a reminder of how many “big” words I don’t understand. For example, galeanthropy. As it turns out, galeanthropy refers to a mental condition in which one believes he’s become a cat. This rare condition can be manifested by adopting feline mannerisms such as purring, affectionate nuzzling, and pouncing.

And then there’s castrophenia, the belief that one’s thoughts are being stolen by enemies. The illusion, however, is not as bad as nastrophenia, the belief that one’s thoughts are not worth stealing.

Metrophobia

My wife Lynn writes poetry and reads it to me. I enjoy listening to her read a few of her poems — but not too many in succession. I fear this leads Lynn to suspect I suffer from metrophobia, a morbid dread of poetry, which I don’t have. I’ve read that “many people first develop this phobia in school when overzealous teachers encourage them to rank poems according to artificial scales, break them down, and search for esoteric meanings.” Lynn does not do this. She just wants my opinion as I hear the words.

We seldom use the word succussion, which means shaking, although Jerry Lee Lewis originally wrote his magnum opus as Whole Lot of Succussion Goin’ On. He changed it when the League of American Matrons objected because they mistakenly thought succussion referred to “an indelicate form of sexual congress,” Bowler’s book notes.

And what’s a remontado? It’s someone who flees to the mountains and renounces civilization. I’ve known a couple of those guys.

Of course, sometimes a listener’s confusion results from word order, not inadequate vocabulary. In 1957 singers Johnnie and Joe and in 1963 singer Bobby Vinton had hits with Over the Mountain; Across the Sea (“there’s a girl, she’s waiting for me”). One line, oddly enough, seems to contain an off-color double entendre: “Over the river and beyond every cloud, she’s passed the wind that’s blowing loud.” The singers seem pleased that they can hear her cut the cheese.

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William R. Hobbs, a homeless resident of Point Reyes Station.

Over the past few months I’ve gotten to know a homeless man, Billy Hobbs, 61, who hangs out in downtown Point Reyes Station, often at a table in front of the community peace garden or a table outside Toby’s Coffee Bar. He also frequents benches outside the postoffice, the Palace Market, Cabaline, and the yellow hut at the commons. He sleeps outside at night except when it’s raining. Then he sleeps in the post office. (And, no, he’s not the much-publicized drunk who could not control his bladder and bowels while passed out in there.)

Billy has been homeless for almost five years. He held many jobs in his younger days, in construction, painting, and agriculture among others; now he hopes to find parttime work around town.

Billy these days is primarily an artist, and he often spends his days sketching.

A drawing, which Billy is still finishing, of Jesus on the cross.

  

Here Billy shows one of his sketches to another artist, Igor Sazevich of Inverness.

Billy’s sketch of a Buddhist deity.

Billy grew up in Marin County, the son of a well-known attorney, Kendall E. Hobbs. As an adult, he spent several years living in Montana and lived for a brief spell in Mexico. At present, he is hoping to convince county government to provide parttime work for homeless people in Marin County.

Here is a letter he wrote this week to Supervisor Dennis Rodoni:

Dear Supervisor Rodoni,

A Point Reyes Station friend a couple of weeks ago encouraged me to write you concerning this particularly thorny issue. I am not professing to be an expert on any of these issues, but I have been involved with them. 

I grew up in Marin but have been homeless in the county for close to five years now, and I think I have met enough of the homeless people living here in Marin to have a pretty good idea as to what they need and want — things that would make life easier for all of us.

Myth v. Fact. Homeless people are all drug addicts or alcoholics, or just plain crazy, or too lazy to work. Wrong! There are many different ways to become homeless. Nobody that I have  met or talked to wants or chooses to be homeless.

Some just no longer want to be part of a society that can barely recognize their existence. Some are just not willing to admit their problems. Some just don’t know how to ask for help.

Some things that we could come to an agreement on: Do homeless people exist in Marin? Of course, they do. To make things more understandable, here are some steps we can all take. Pay them, like they do in Half Moon Bay, $15 an hour for a part-time garden-growing project, recycling, or cleaning streets.

We just need to give them a chance to feel like they’re part of our community, as well as get more government help. Housing, where is it? Can homeless people get it through the state or federal government? The county needs an aide I can write to inquire about getting on a list.

I know that if we were given the chance, many of us would certainly work in order to get housing or make some money.  I previously worked and provided money to my family. Please give us the chance to prove it! Throw us a lifeline, please.

Sincerely, William R. Hobbs, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 

Or leave a message at the Food Bank in West Marin. Thank you very much.

Billy holds up his drawing of Sir Francis Drake landing in Drakes Bay, where the privateer spent 36 days in 1579.

A science fiction fantasy, which Billy calls “Space Jam,” features an other-worldly musician.

Billy’s sketch of himself.

In his letter to Supervisor Rodoni, Billy points out that not all homeless people are “drug addicts or alcoholics, or just plain crazy, or too lazy to work.” Having gotten to know him, I don’t dispute this fact.

Caveat lectorem: When readers submit comments, they are asked if they want to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. A number of people have said they do. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.

If you like wildlife, state government wants you to kill some of it.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced it will try “to recruit new hunters and anglers throughout the state” because hunters provide 60 percent of the funding for fish and wildlife conservation through license fees and taxes on guns and ammunition, The San Francisco Chronicle reported three months ago. 

That funding has been steadily declining. “Only about 5 percent of Americans 16 and older hunt — a 50-percent decline in just five decades,” The Chronicle explained. “The decline is attributable to urbanization, the rise of media entertainment, restricted access to hunting territory, and a lack of free time. Additionally, hunting declines as the population ages, and as the Baby Boomers grow ever older, the number of hunters will continue to plummet.”

Hunting doesn’t appeal to me. As I see it, the state’s encouraging hunting — accompanied by purchases of guns and ammunition — in order to bolster license fees and taxes makes as much sense as it would to encourage double parking in order to collect more in parking fines.

Solar panels.

The curse of solar panels. Solar panels are becoming popular in Afghanistan, The Economist reported last week, but they’re not being used primarily for homes. They’re mostly used for growing opium to make heroin, which “helps fund the Taliban, as well as pro-government warlords who are scarcely better.” The panels provide the electricity for opium farmers to pump water from deep wells, and that’s lowering the water table, the magazine noted. “Shallow wells have gone completely dry.”

Judaism’s Star of David

Still another, but happier, surprise. In a review of the book Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom, the same Economist also reported that in contrast to historic anti-Semitism, “Jews are now the country’s best-liked religious group — but the warm attitudes transcend philo-Semitism.” What’s happened? “By 2010 around half of all Americans had a spouse of a different religious tradition. Neighborhoods, workplaces, and friendships have become more religiously diverse.” It’s clearly counterproductive to be prejudiced against one’s friends and associates.

The Victorian-era poet Robert Browning (1812-1889).

One of the English poet Robert Browning’s most memorable lines is: “God is in His heaven, all’s right with the world,” which is from the poem Pippa Passes. “But,” as the linguist/journalist Bill Bryson points out in his book The Mother Tongue, “it also contains this disconcerting passage: ‘Then owls and bats/ Cowls and twats,/ Monks and nuns in a cloister’s moods,/ Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.’

“Browning had apparently somewhere come across the word twat — which meant precisely the same then as it does now but pronounced with a flat a — and somehow took it to mean a piece of headgear for nuns. The verse became a source of twittering amusement for generations of schoolboys and a perennial embarrassment to their elders, but the word was never altered, and Browning was allowed to live out his life in wholesome ignorance because no one could think of a suitably delicate way of explaining his mistake to him.”

The rainbow flag of the LGBT movement.

Another racy surprise. Researchers had concluded that gay men tend to have more older brothers than straight men. Harper’s magazine, however, last October reported further research has found that “holds true only for those who are prone to be the receiving partner during anal sex.” Make of that what you will. I won’t hazard a guess.

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Photographer Marna G. Clarke of Inverness (at left) on Saturday opened an exhibit of portraits of older West Marin residents. The display at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station is called Autumn, and Marna explains: “In 2010 I turned 70 and wanted to document that stage of my life. I photographed myself, my partner and both of us in our daily lives…. Surrounded by fascinating, vital and active seniors, I began taking portraits of them as well….

“These portraits are of people I know, some well, others tangentially. They are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, with one in his 60s…. Our youthful ‘Summer’ bloom has moved into ‘Autumn,’ for some more than others. We’re all having to adjust to the changes happening to our faces and bodies. A distillation of our life experiences has been gurgling away for years leaving a wisdom that now informs and guides us.”

Here are a few of the 20 portraits Marna is exhibiting, along with her notes identifying them:

‘ANDREW. Born 1923 in London. Grew up at Grace & Favor House, Windsor Great Park, England. Came to West Marin in 1974. Photo taken in 2010.’

‘SANDY. 1924-2015. Born in Chicago. Grew up in Evanston, Illinois. Came to West Marin in the 1950s. Photo taken in 2006.’

‘JOE. Born 1935, Johannesburg, Transvaal, South Africa. Grew up in Johannesburg. Came to Inverness in 1971. MO. Born 1934, Belgian Congo, now Lubumbashi. Grew up in Johannesburg and Belgian Congo. Came to Inverness in 1971. Photo taken in 2019.’

PAUL. Born in 1951, London. Grew up in London. Came to West Marin in 1993. Photo taken in 2010.’

MURRAY. Born 1942, Cleveland, Ohio. Grew up in Cleveland Heights, Hollywood, Florida, New England. Came to West Marin in 2001. Photo taken in 2006.’

NED. Born in 1947, Cincinnati, Ohio. Grew up in Menlo Park, California. Came to West Marin in 1993. Photo taken in 2019.’

LAURE. Born in 1931, Paris. Grew up in a small village in the middle of France. Came to West Marin in 1972. Photo taken in 2018.’

VAN. Born 1949, New Orleans, Louisiana. Grew up all over (father was a US naval officer). Came to West Marin in 1976. Photo taken in 2019.’

Marna’s photography is straightforward but intense, which makes her portraits quietly dramatic. Visitors this past weekend were fascinated by the exhibition, which will hang in the gallery through June 16.

 

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Inverness artist/architect Igor Sazevich has just published “an art-full autobiography,” and it is indeed a work of art. It describes the joys of architecture, such as designing restaurants for Nordstrom department stores, and the pains, such as doing design work for Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Igor likewise writes candidly about his romantic adventures and his marriage into the Romanov family. His late wife, Natasha, was the niece of Prince Vasili Romanov, the nephew of the last tsar of Russia. She was also a cousin of Andrew Romanov of Inverness.

Igor Sazevich sitting behind Toby’s Coffee Bar.

Igor’s parents were both refugees from post-revolutionary Russia. His father was a sculptor and teacher while his mother designed window displays for San Francisco’s famed City of Paris department store.

At left, a home along the water in Marshall originally designed by Igor for professor/poet Mark Linenthal. At right, Igor’s Cedar Landing building in Inverness. (Photos from Time in My Coffee)

Igor spent much of his adult life working in his San Francisco office and then moving to his Sausalito office. From reading his accounts, one begins to understand just how complicated architecture can be in unexpected ways. For example, after buying what had been a private parking lot, Igor in 1992 built his new office on Sausalito’s Caledonia Street.

When a contractor unearthed human bones, however, it turned out the parking lot had been a Native American burial site some 3,000 to 4,000 years earlier. The discovery prompted the City of Sausalito to halt construction — creating a financial nightmare for Igor. Eventually Igor arranged for a representative of the Native American Commission to conduct a culturally appropriate reburial after which he was allowed to resume construction.

A Mendocino County home Igor designed in the style of a Native American wickiup.

Igor details his problematic dealings with the multimillionaire Cooke, who built the Inglewood arena called the Forum and owned several sports teams, including the Lakers basketball team. While living in Sausalito, Igor received a call one Sunday at sunrise from someone who began, “Good morning, I’m Jack Kent Cooke. You are that famous architect who designed the wickiup I spotted this morning in Sunset magazine?”

“Yes, that’s me,” Igor replied.

“Good. I have just purchased some land next to Sequoia National Park, and you’re the person I need to talk to.”

“Give me a moment,” Igor answered, “I’m just waking up. Are you asking me to be your architect?”

“You heard right, dear boy, and I want you to come down here to Los Angeles and stay at my house to go over the details.” When Igor responded that he’d need to check his schedule, Cooke condescendingly cut him off. “I need you here, dear boy, this coming Tuesday. You’ll be staying the night, but have a bite before you get here. I’ll have my chauffeur pick you up at the airport. Here is my phone number and the office number at the Forum.”

“Give me a moment to talk to my wife,” Igor replied, but Cooke again cut him off: “No time, dear boy. Call with your flight number and the time you’ll be getting in and what you’ll be wearing so the chauffeur can spot you. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, and I’m looking forward to our meeting.” After saying that, writes Igor, “the man on the phone was gone.”

Igor twice flew south for the project and began to design a lodge for Cooke; the multimillionaire, however, again on a Sunday morning called him at home to cheerily announce, “As much as I love working with you, I’m dropping the project and will be selling the property. I also will not be paying you…. If you want, you are welcome to sue me.”

When Igor told the onetime Point Reyes Station attorney John Burroughs about all this, Burroughs volunteered to sue Cooke for him and charge only 30 percent of the take if they won. Because Burroughs misunderstood where the meeting between Cooke and Igor had taken place, he managed to have the case tried in San Francisco and not L.A. After three years of postponements, with no comment Cooke had his lawyers pay what was owed.

Many of the illustrations in ‘Time in My Coffee’ are vertical collages such as this one, which is captioned, “From top: big John Burroughs, Cedar Landing project, headline from Point Reyes Light, Andrew Romanov.”

Igor’s account of Andrew helping him push a 4-inch pipe under Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from one side to the other is another fascinating story. Igor owned bay-front property in downtown Inverness, but it had no place for a septic system. Igor got permission from a neighbor across the street to put a septic leachfield on his land if Igor could pump the sewage to it. To do this, Igor and Andrew pushed a conduit pipe under the roadway. They almost hit an Inverness Public Utility District water main in doing so, but nothing bad happened, and the septic system worked.

Igor also writes about his time in the military where he seemed particularly good at talking his way into better assignments. And he writes about his romantic and sexual experiences over the years. One brief encounter in particular stands out.

While still in high school, Igor was asked by an art student named Virginia to come to her mother’s apartment and sketch her for a class she was taking. After he’d drawn half a dozen sketches and was finishing, Virginia surprised him by uncovering her breasts and then her new lace panties. Igor was worried that Virginia’s mother would come home, but the girl suddenly straddled his lap and began rubbing herself against him. Then, just as Igor thought he would soon experience his “coming of age,” she surprised him again.

“Suddenly she stopped and raised herself slightly, reached under her skirt, and thrust her hand down into the foamy floral lace. What followed was Virginia’s total immersion in satisfying her body. Hers alone; I was only an observer. When she arched back, exhaling, and her spasms pulsed against my leg, I knew our time together was over….

“As we parted by the door, Virginia begged me to forgive her. She was sincerely embarrassed and said she had been afraid of going all the way with me.”

Sexual exhibitionism in order to preserve innocence, wow! That’s a new one.

The first home Igor built for himself and Natasha in Inverness burned in the 1995 Inverness Ridge fire, and he subsequently built another on the same site.

The grandparents of Igor’s wife, Natasha, were forced to flee Russia after the 1917 revolution and moved to the United States. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, Natasha spoke Russian. She also played guitar, sang folksongs, and had an interest in art and design.

Igor met Natasha when he was asked to drive her home to Berkeley after a party. They hit it off, but Igor was drafted into the Army and shipped overseas. When he returned, he briefly dated a woman named Cathy and almost married her. Cathy, however, was an alcoholic, and after seeing the movie Anastasia, Igor broke off their engagement and sped off to L.A. to spend Easter with Natasha’s family.

Natasha as a young woman in her parents’ Los Angeles home.

Natasha too was dating other people, but they reconnected when Igor arrived in Los Angeles. The family all went to a Russian Orthodox church for Easter, and Igor writes that “from some hidden corner, my heritage gripped me.” On the spur of the moment, he suggested to Natasha that they go outside into the church’s garden.  He recalls that “as a soaring chant from within the church, verifying that Christ had risen, arose, I appealed to Natasha to become my wife…. I expected her to laugh it off, but she accepted.”

Natasha in the window seat of the old Inverness house.

The couple lived happily in Sausalito and then Inverness and became the parents of two daughters, Katia and Nina. Natasha, however, died in 2000 of cancer, and Igor’s account of her passing is both moving and eloquent. When her family was present shortly before she died at home, Natasha rose from her bed “and holding onto it declared, ‘Someone bring some glasses and the white wine. I need to make a toast.’

“As we stood there with glasses in hand, Natasha raised her glass too. ‘I just want to toast my family for all the wonderful times we shared, and Igor, without you I wouldn’t be able to stand here to bless you for making our life such an incredible adventure; I love you.’ Glasses clinked, wine drunk, tears shed, I assisted Natasha back into bed.”

The author beside the bay.

“A few years after Natasha’s death, Katia ran into a friend from London whom she had known in India; I met her once at a dinner party. She suggested that Katia introduce me to Marna Clarke, a mutual friend from the ashram — she had been a professional photographer until she sold her equipment and most of her possessions to travel…. I agreed, and Katia arranged for the three of us to take a walk along the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore.

“When Marna and I began dating, we experienced a closeness and eventually a desire to be together. Within two years, she moved up to Inverness Ridge to join me and be my partner.

“We have shaped our lives to blend her artistry as a photographer and my functioning as a painter. We have exhibited together and separately at different local galleries and are members of our community showroom, Gallery Route One, on the main street of Point Reyes Station.

“I still drive down there to have my cup of coffee and glance at the steaming ripples while I contemplate what the day holds for me.” Igor will turn 90 in June.

‘Time in My Coffee’ is available at Point Reyes Books, Gallery Route One, & Book Passages in Corte Madera

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For Valentine’s Day my wife Lynn gave me a book with an intriguing title. It’s Lust on Trial by Amy Werbel (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Dr. Werbel is associate professor of  the history of art at New York State University’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her book explains how 40 years of misguided attempts to maintain New England Calvinism as America’s culture made it possible for almost any works showing a naked body — from fine art, to erotica, to medical texts — to be prosecuted as obscene. Unfortunately, some laws shaped by that era still haunt parts of our country today.

           Professor Amy Werbel 

At the center of her account is a Puritanical, anti-vice crusader from New Canaan, Connecticut, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). He for 40 years wielded so much clout that the 1873 federal anti-obscenity law was named the Comstock Act.                                                  

Comstock helped found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Working with police in the state, the NYSSV seized tons of supposed obscenities, which even included pictures from Paris that were regarded as fine art in France. 

“The leaders of the NYSSV all presumed the existence of a ‘racio-cultural hierarchy,’ with ‘Teutonic/Anglo Saxons at the top,'” Werbel writes. “Given their belief that Anglo-Americans already possessed the greatest culture on earth, it seemed natural to view French influences generally as a form of pollution.”

French Catholicism, in NYSSV eyes, failed to condemn all public exhibition of nude art whereas American Protestantism recognized a social need for enforcing Calvinistic standards of morality.

 

Anthony Comstock in his New York office around 1900. (All photos in posting from ‘Lust on Trial’)

For 40 years as an inspector in the post office department, Comstock “vigorously asserted his power to serve as a Christian censor of morals within a supposedly secular government position,” Werbel writes. Among the “obscenities” Comstock also sought to suppress as supposed threats to morality were condoms, dildos, and birth-control information. He also fought in court to prohibit abortion. Ironically, his opposition to birth control and abortion was largely to insure that couples indulging in illicit sex would pay the penalty of having a baby.

‘Nymphs and Satyr’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873.

In Bouguereau’s “playful” painting, Werbel explains, “the satyr had been caught spying on a group of nymphs who are now taking their vengeance by dragging him into a nearby pond. Satyrs can’t swim, and so his lust has been swiftly transferred into mortal terror.”

The Grand Saloon in the Hoffman House.

Although photos of the painting were ruled obscene in New York in 1883, they continued to circulate. The original painting of Nymphs and Satyr meanwhile hung on the wall of “the Grand Saloon” in the Hoffman House Hotel. The large painting had remained in place despite Comstock telling the hotel’s owner in 1885 to remove it. This was an expensive establishment geared to the wealthy upper class, and Comstock would soon learn that such people could not be successfully prosecuted.

An 1896 cigar label was considered an example of yet another medium being used for disseminating “obscenity.”

Comstock’s primary goal in suppressing all erotic images seems odd today. In his mind, the greatest danger they posed was to inspire lust which, in the case of boys, could lead to masturbation, and he considered self-gratification the worst of sins. We know his thoughts on this because Comstock at the age of 19 made an apparent reference in his diary to masturbating: “I debased myself in my own eyes today by my own weakness and sinfulness, was strongly tempted today, and oh! I yielded…. What suffering I have undergone since, no one knows.”

A year later having joined Connecticut’s Company H in the Union Army, Comstock saw the pornography that other soldiers had ordered through the mail, and he “again recorded giving into the same vices that plagued him in New Canaan.” His diary, two other biographers have noted, was “filled with confessions of guilt and outbursts of bitter remorse during these years.” Nor did “Comstock’s obsession with lust and masturbation” ever change, the book notes.

In the case of girls, as he saw it, the main danger of any lust resulting from obscenities was not that it would lead to masturbation but that it tended to make the girls indecent. When a short-lived American Student of Art magazine published nude pictures of both men and women, Comstock put it on trial for influencing girls to “turn to lives of shame,” insinuating that the arousal of girls “might lead them to prostitution.”

Although Comstock seized hundreds of dildos, they confused him. He believed respectable women were “passionless” and that for any female, arousal depended on “male impetus.” When his investigations turned up a dildo which was somewhat expensive by standards of the times, he wondered who the customers were? “Prostitutes don’t use them,” he reasoned. “The married do not. Their cost being about $6 would seem to preclude their use by the poor and the low.” Werbel writes that Comstock was “entirely unable to fathom that an unmarried woman of means might want to take pleasure from masturbation using an artificial penis.”

Ironically, as the author notes, “one of the most common diseases serious doctors diagnosed among women in the mid-nineteenth century was ‘female hysteria’…. Many recommended curing the problem with induced orgasms, either produced by physicians who massaged the vulva by hand, often on a weekly basis, or hydrotherapy that directed a strong stream of water onto the clitoris.” This was time-consuming, Werbel adds, and ultimately led to doctors inventing the electric vibrator.

 

Figure in Motion by Robert Henri.

Since the reason displays of nude bodies were obscene, as Comstock saw it, was that they inspired lust, arousal was his personal test for obscenity; if something turned him on, it was obscene. When it came time for his defendants to go on trial, juries for their own protection were for years not allowed to see the “vile” evidence that had been seized, and even when defendants were acquitted, they often didn’t get their goods back.

By 1900, however, Comstock’s judgment was being increasingly challenged. After he led a string of raids on “vendors of improper photographs” in Philadelphia in 1886, the vendors argued in court that the photos were high art or were pictures to be used by artists who couldn’t afford a live model.

Even though Comstock argued that the New York Court of Errors and Appeals had found the same pictures to be obscene, the Philadelphia judge quickly threw out the cases. “It seems absurd for New York detectives to come over here and try to demonstrate that recognized works of art are obscene,” he remarked.

When the American Society of Artists publicly protested seizures of art, it declared, “We believe that the study of the nude in art is not only innocent, but is refining and ennobling.”

After Comstock seized art from the Knoedler gallery in New York, The Evening Telegram responded by printing on Page 1 the pictures that he didn’t want the public to see. Comstock then tried to get the district attorney to indict The Telegram but was abruptly turned down.

Other newspapers were also beginning to mock Comstock’s censorship.  Commenting on all this, The New York Times wrote that Comstock exemplified “persons of a low grade of intelligence and a prurient turn of mind.” The Springfield Republican called him “the most preposterous ass that walks on two legs.”

‘Anthony Comstock: The Village Nuisance’ by Louis Glackens was published as a cartoon in a humor magazine called Puck. “While he holds up his hands in protest, Comstock at the same time fixes his gaze firmly at his enticement,” Werbel points out. “The scene is a clear reference to his ineffective campaign to rid shop windows of such suggestive displays.

“At the upper left, Comstock leads clothed horses down a park path, and below that he attempts to serve a warrant on ‘a shameless French poodle.’  On the right… we see Comstock bathing fully clothed and, finally, in the last scene he ‘gets what is coming to him,’ tormented by winged devils in the fiery abyss of hell — in which he wears only a peek-a-boo carnival mask across his ample posterior.”

In his prosecutions, Comstock typically cited England’s Hicklin test for obscenity. If something erotic could disturb even the most vulnerable people, such as small children, it was considered obscene. Not until 1957 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally stop the use of the Hicklin test for determining obscenity. From now on, it ruled, Congress could ban only material “utterly without redeeming social importance.” What mattered was “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.”

It seems significant that when Comstock died in 1915, there was far more sexual material in the country than when he began his anti-vice campaign. Indeed, he “had helped to make figure painters, sculptors, and nude models extremely sexy,” the author observes. Moreover, his prosecutions frequently proved to be valuable publicity for whatever was on trial.

By our standards, some of Comstock’s own standards would be considered immoral. For example, “he viewed child sex trafficking as largely the fault of the victims,” according to the author. He “placed the blame for ‘White Slavers’ squarely on the girls who had ‘already been dragged down to perdition by the perverted imagination.'”

Over several weeks in 1899 alone, a series of girls, who were caught in the nets of traffickers, out of desperation committed suicide (using poison) in one particular tavern, McGurk’s saloon in the Bowery. “Comstock,” the book says, “ascribed their deaths to ‘reading light novels.'”

Werbel quotes Christine Stansell, who also writes about art, as saying one of Comstock’s great unintended accomplishments was to make the opposition coalesce: “The battle to protect free speech linked artists, writers, and professionals of  progressive bent to working-class militants.” These factions Werbel adds, “disagreed on many subjects, but they all wanted the opportunity to be heard, to be read.

“In the following decades, that right waxed and waned both in law and custom, but it has never again been as diminished as during the reign of Anthony Comstock.”

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