Friday, October 31, 2008

Studs Terkel, 1912-2008

Ah, sad news out of Chicago: Studs Terkel died today at the age of 96.

Studs was many things: an actor (most recently in "Eight Men Out," the 1988 movie about the Chicago "Black Sox" scandal of 1919), a disc jockey, an activist and more. But he'll be remembered best for his interviews - radio interviews with just about anybody who was anybody, as well as books of interviews with everyday people: people who lived on a single street in Chicago (Division Street: America), people who worked in all kinds of jobs (Working), people who came through the Great Depression (Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression) and the Second World War (The Good War), race relations in the U.S. (Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession), and many others.

I've been listening to WFMT radio, the Chicago station where Studs had a daily show for 45 years (and was billed in the staff directory as "free spirit"), which is running old interviews by him and reminiscences about him. One of the reminiscers said that Studs had been saying for the last year or so that he was ready to go - he'd apparently been telling everyone, "I ain't buying any green bananas!" But then last week, he said he had to live to see the outcome of the U.S. election. He was living in his own home, and his absentee ballot apparently arrived in today's mail.

Studs was one of my own heroes when I decided to study journalism. The great thing about his interviewing style was that he was fully engaged and certainly brought his own personality to his interviews, but he didn't dominate them. He didn't compete with his interview subjects, and he knew when to listen and let them take flight. As I write this, WFMT is replaying his interview with the U.S. contralto Marian Anderson, and she just spoke, uninterrupted, for at least four minutes.

Someone - it's attributed only to Newsweek magazine - said, back in the 1960s or 70s, that "No journalist alive wields a tape recorder as effectively as Studs Terkel." And it's also been said by several observers that Studs didn't invent oral history - but he might as well have.

I never met him. The closest I came was on a visit to Chicago in 1992, when he was participating in mock soapbox speeches in Bughouse Square, the informal name was given to Washington Square Park where cranks and religionists and labour unionists used to hold forth. The park is across the street from the Newberry Library, which has organized recreations of free-speech gatherings each summer in conjunction with its annual book sale. I took some pictures there, and when I find them, I'll post them, but in the meantime, I'm using the cover of his memoir that was published about a year ago. Another new Studs book - P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening - is scheduled to be released on 15 November.

You can read his obit in the Chicago Tribune here, and I found the following mp3 of his reflections on 40 years of interviews:

Studs Terkel (c) HighBridge - Voices of Our Time
Found at bee mp3 search engine

As Studs used to sign off his WFMT show: "Take it easy, but take it."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ankle biters?

Most gargoyles and other architectural sculptures appear *above* doors and windows, or at rooflines. But when I was in Montreal recently, I saw these two female heads at the bottom of the door frame.

Here's a closer view of the lady on the left:

And the one on the right:

In fact, the figure on the right has a companion who overlooks the steps up to the restaurant next door:

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Merry Madmen of Montreal

What can I possibly add to these pictures? Except to say that they all appear on one building, under windowsills, so they're quite low and easy to shoot... which I did, on my way back to the hotel on the last day of the CWAHI meeting.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dora de Pédery-Hunt, 1913-2008

I spent last Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Montreal at the inaugural meeting of the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative (CWAHI), where something startling, puzzling and disappointing happened.

CWAHI, based in the Art History Department at Concordia University, is a project aimed at bringing scholars together to promote research about Canadian women artists — those born before 1925 and who did most of their work before 1967 and who were overlooked in survey texts and courses on Canadian art history, and who have been neglected by galleries and other institutions and consequently rarely known to the general public.

On the last day of the meeting, I read the Globe and Mail during the lunch break, and saw an obit for Dora de Pédery-Hunt. She died on 30 September at the age of 94. She had been a major Canadian sculptor who produced medals primarily (although not exclusively). You may not have heard her name, but you've seen her work — she sculpted the image of the Queen that appears on Canadian coins minted between 1990 and 2003.

I returned to the final conference session early to mention Dora's death to one of the organizers. Her response threw me: "I'm not going to announce her death," she told me. "It's all I can do to get through this conference." She was clearly stressed, and anxious for the conference to go off without a hitch, which, as far as I could tell, it had done.

But how distracting or disruptive is a simple mention of the death of a leading Canadian artist — and at a conference devoted to the study of Canada's women artists? The mind reels. As I walked away, the organizer allowed as how "that's the kind of information we (CWAHI) need to keep track of."

That's Dora in the picture above in March 2003 when she was presented with the J. Sanford Saltus Award for Signal Achievement in the Art of the Medal by the American Numismatic Society (ANS). (She is flanked by Stephen Scher on the left, who endowed a lecture that is presented every year in conjunction with the Saltus Award presentation, and Robert Wilson Hoge on the right, the ANS's Curator of North American Coins and Currency.)

The Saltus Award citation called Dora "one of the foremost, and most prolific, medallic sculptors of the 20th and now of the 21st centuries," "a premier artist of Canada" and "Canada's grande dame of medallic sculpture."

I met Dora only once, about 18 months ago. I included some of her work on Ryerson University's Kerr Hall in Faces on Places, my book on architectural sculpture in Toronto. (See picture below.)

She had heard about the book and asked to see it. I brought her a copy, and was then treated to a tour of her very cramped apartment in downtown Toronto. It was so full of photographs, sculptures in progress and completed work, that it was necessary to walk sideways. Her niece told me that Dora seemed to have projects planned for the next 20 years when she died.

I won't repeat the story of Dora's life here, which was extraordinary and well told in the obit by Sandra Martin in the Globe and Mail. If anyone from CWAHI swings by this blog, you might want to send an e-mail or letter to be read at her memorial service next month. It would make up for the puzzling refusal to seize the moment during the conference in Montreal.