Category Archives: Writers

Ellen Voigt: Warren Wilson’s Founder Wins Genius Award

Every residency, Ellen is with us, listening, suggesting, advising and making sure things go well. Without Ellen, and her Southern inflected encouragements, advisements, cautions, Warren Wilson’s program wouldn’t exist. So many of us, thousands! are hugely appreciative of Ellen Voigt’s pedagogy —and Ellen’s poetry. We are thrilled to salute her on this much -deserved award.

For those who do not know that Ellen is also a musician, a pianist, I mention this here. Music before meaning, Richard Hugo tells us . Music in the words and meaning, Ellen Voigt tells us  in her essays like The Flexible Lyric, and poems. Kyrie.

It has been such a privilege to spend five residencies and four semesters at Warren Wilson in the program she created. Those of us who have had  the pleasure of having  Ellen attend their progress and participate in their graduation readings will understand my feelings.

Hurry: Maine Sublime ends October at Olana

Fog Off Mount Desert PDF NGA-1  (Federic Edwin Church, 1850, oil on academy board. 11 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. Private Collection, promised gift, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Maine Sublime: Frederic Edwin Church’s Landscapes of Mount Desert and Mount Katahdin, Evelyn & Maurice Sharp Gallery, Olana. Presented by the Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks & Recreation, Hudson, NY, through Oct. 23.  Scheduled for the Cleveland Museum of Art, Summer of 2014.

Each time I look at Fog at Mount Desert, Frederic Edwin Church’s rocky seacoast, with its plashing foam, I give a start. The 1850 oil painting with its red-tinged shoals, and foaming surf (on loan from the National Gallery of Art) looks so much like a Winslow Homer, so much like Homer’s home territory of Prouts Neck. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this at Maine Sublime at Olana, a show whose intimacy pleases perhaps more than its sublimity.

Church was ten years’ Homer’s senior.  In 1850, Homer, whose link to Maine would become indelible, was a young illustrator in New York likely studying the rising star of American landscape’s every accomplishment.

Remember, American Sublime? Church was still a star, perhaps the star, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts retrospective of 19th century American landscape that traveled here from the Tate in London. The biggest name, the most works (27) in the splendid show that included among so many others, his teacher Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, John F. Kensett, Fitz Henry Lane, Albert Bierstadt – and still, we associate the Hudson River School master with grand vistas of the Middle East, of South America, of Niagara. And, of course, Olana, his Persian-inspired hilltop home and studio on 250 acres, now a historic site. Easy to forget (did we know?) Frederic Church loved and painted Maine.

Fitting, that when curator John Wilmerding proposed Maine Sublime to the Olana Partnership, it was decided to launch the exhibit in Homer territory at the Portland Museum of Art.  If you missed it, Maine Sublime has “come home” to Olana’s upstairs Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery (adjacent to the bedrooms now also on view) where it can be seen through October 23.  It’s a small exhibit, 10 oils and seven pencil sketches and this winnowing is one of its delights. Depth, breadth and finesse mark the selections, which come predominately from Olana’s private collection, with four major loans.  Wilmerding (a major Americanist, and the Christopher Barofim Sarofim Professor of American Art, emeritus, at Princeton University) underscores Church’s affinity for seaward Mount Desert and inland Mount Katahdin, as the exhibit reveals Church’s lesser-known, private side.

Church’s visits to Maine began as a bachelor in the 1850s. When he married in 1860, he took his bride Isabel; his visits to the Pine Tree State stretched half a century.  In 1878, Church purchased a home near Lake Katahdin, the only one he ever owned besides Olana.  He enjoyed Maine like the rest of us: hiking, swimming, camping, fishing, singing. “The piano is a standing resource,” Charles Tracy wrote in his diary the summer of 1855. “Mr. Church’s capacity for entertainment is perfectly inexhaustible.”  Other companions were less formal, often punning on his surname. His friend Theodore Winthrop nicknamed him “Iglesias,” (Spanish for church).

Many of the artist’s trips were working sojourns with colleagues (e.g. Bierstadt,  Kensett, Lane), others sizable friend-and-family gatherings. One senses from the details in Wilmerding’s fine catalog essay, all were restorative and productive.

In Campfire Near Mount Katahdin (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877), we see the wooden Lean-To’s (spelling?) the artist slept under after long nights of tall tales; a blazing fire is seductive.

Wood Interior near Mount Katahdin  (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877) captures the woods near the inland home that Church would purchase; like a number of these works, it was not shown to the public before this exhibit.  The artist’s view from the family retreat, whose placid water and tranquil skies look nurturing, is caught in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake (oil on academy board, 1877-1878).

Unlike his teacher Thomas Cole, Church did not seek allegory in his nature sketches though a spiritual impulse comes through in the meticulous realism. The eye is keen, botanical; often Church penned notes to himself on the drawing paper. Specificities of temperature, time, season; of rock and barnacle… information that would be crucial to completing the studies and beginning new works in his studio at Olana.

 Birch tree Struck by Lightning (pencil on coarse brown paper, 1850) is one beauty. White Chinese gouache has been applied to the trunk that has split, the shading like a  sorrow.  The husband’s self-deprecating wit is revealed in Frederic and Isabel Church on Mount Desert Island (1860, graphite on thin white wove paper): Church has sketched his new bride on a cliff above him facing into the wind, he stands behind, reversing direction to avoid it.

The pleasure of looking at art in suitable quarters: You are able to really see.  See the “small miracles of impeccable technique,” as Wilmerding describes the watery swirls and foam in Fog on Mount Desert (1850, on loan from the National Gallery). These things can’t be simulated digitally or on a poster.

All the sunset and twilight titles in Church’s oeuvre must exhaust a cataloger.  Radiant, irradiating horizons are plentiful in Maine Sublime.  The luminosity that suffuses Church’s art (made possible by the availability of cadmium pigments in the late 1840s) is a necessary pleasure.  Take your pick: The theatrical Twilight, A Sketch from 1858.  Sunset, Bar Harbor, (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1854), which was displayed at PAFA’s American Sublime. Here it is doubly fascinating: it is shown with a pencil sketch of the same subject done the same month and year. This Sunset, Bar Harbor (1854, graphite on tan paper) is extensively annotated in Church’s elegant script for cloud formations and different strata of light. There are other sunsets, twilights, each one transfixes.

Notice how the sensual, often tumultuous arrangements of cadmium hues calm through the years. From the warrior orange-reds lighting dramatic skylines, more lavender, softer yellows enter the later works. Lake and sky reflect and appear to merge in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake from 1877-78, a meditation in oil on paper.

Serenity defines Camp Millinocket on Mount Katahdin (1895, oil on canvas, on loan from the Portland Museum of Art, Maine).  It is Church’s last major work of Maine.  It was a birthday gift for his wife, Isabel, to which he attached this note:

Your old guide is paddling his canoe in the shadow, but he knows that the glories of the heavens and earth are seen more appreciatively when the observer rests in the shade.

Maine Sublime can be seen as part of a Guided House Tour at Olana during its regular open hours but is available for separate viewing only on Saturdays. Reservations recommended. (518) 828-0135.  The splendid exhibit travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art next summer (2014).

Writing the Pleasures at Muse House begins April 3

Still time to join us for:
Delight! Writing Down the Pleasures, Wednesdays 2-3:30 pm. April 3- 10- 17-24; May 1-8-15-22, 2013. Call 267-331-9552 or
 Let’s celebrate the small joys in life!
 This workshop aims to sharpen writing practice by framing  life experiences into 250-400 word essays in your unique voice and style.  The class is inspired by English playwright, critic and author J.P. Priestley, who savored the pleasures of “gin and potato crisps,” of playing with grandchildren, of being recognized!
Each session led by arts critic, essayist and poet Lesley Valdes will include a Priestley reading for inspiration, a prompt to get us going, the sharing of assignments. By workshop’s end, you will have learned the uses of anecdote and imagery. The pleasure of discovery that writing practice unveils.  You’ll have vivid essays of your own.
Muse House Center for Literary Arts, 7924 Germantown Ave. Philadelphia, PA 19118 267-331-9552 or Lesley Valdes at

Follow me on Twitter or…?

Dear Friends,

Sadly, since mid-September I’ve been off the air on WRTI, 90. 1 FM, a part-time gig I was privileged to enjoy for precisely one decade. I thank you for your listening & reading support. This blog & its earlier version (NotesfromPhilly@wordpress) were begun to document the WRTI scripts when they were removed from the radio website in favor of podcasts only.

I’ve plans to expand the blog into a website so please stay tuned.  The hope is to use it to explore my passion for working with writers (and readers!) of all levels.

For the past two years,  I’ve been working with a few individuals as a writing coach in my home studio:  short-story, creative non-fiction, journalism, beginning poetry.  The process is reciprocally invigorating; it takes me back to my days as a piano and music appreciation teacher only now the lessons are literary.

My workshop in the very short essay: Delight! Writing the Pleasures, (based on the miniature reflections of J.B. Priestley) will be offered in January at the Muse House Center in Chestnut Hill; it is also expected at the South Philadelphia (Fuomo) Branch of the Free Library. I would love to see you here,  there or in my Alder Street Studio.

Finally,  I have embarked on Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA Program for Writers in Poetry. For me, a conservatory graduate, Warren Wilson is the Juilliard or Peabody of writing schools, a daunting challenge for the third act of this critic’s life.

Here’s to writing practice!

With cordial thanks, dear readers,


Red-Eye to Havre Grace: E.A.Poe at Live Arts Fest

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental + The Wilhelm Bros & Co. Direction and Stage Design: Thaddeus Phillips; Original Score: Wilhelm Bros. Live Arts Festival, Philadelphia, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Sept 7-16, 2012.

He thought he was going home to New York but Edgar Allen Poe was on the wrong train heading south: a conductor put him off in Baltimore where his death there days later still remains a mystery. Rather fitting for our genius of the ghost and detective genres and so much else. Red-Eye to Havre Grace by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental with the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. is the delight you hope for at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Hard to categorize this imaginative movement/theater/opera which puts a new spin on Poe’s last lecture tour, his daily obsessions. He was calmer at home than on the road, collaborators Thaddeus Phillips, Geoff Sobel and the Minneapolis- based Wilhelms, Jeremy and David, show in this literally non-stop journey through the writer/poet/critic/genius’s attempt to deal with his last work, “Eureka,” his urgent letters home to his mother- in- law/slash aunt “Muddy,” and the hauntings by his child-bride wife, Virginia whose acrobatic affections are delicious.  Red-Eye is poignant and funny and the music- and- movement theater aspects are thrilling. The cast climbs over- under- and- even through a series of doors that function as train compartments, tables, beds and more. Ranger Steve of Philly’s Spring Garden Poe House narrates this imaginary Poe tale. He’s played by the multi-gifted, Jeremy Wilhelm whose operatic voice bursts into Poe lyrics when he’s not playing a mean clarinet accompaniment  to Ean Sheeny as the human and convincing E. A. Poe. There are several surprise moments none so good as Sophie Bortolussi’s first appearance as the ghost wife, which I dare not spoil. Red-Eye to Havre Grace credits Teller for its illusions, and Poe’s death scene is a triumph. Wilhelms’s original score includes the group playing bowed piano:  so spooky George Crumb would approve. Red-Eye to Havre Grace ended Sunday but it should play again and again.

The Island

The Island, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter DeLaurier, The Lantern Theater Company, May 17-June 10, 2012, opening May 23, 2012, for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Two prisoners. Two men shoveling and straining under immense weight.  Two prisoners during their down time rehearsing Sophocles. Doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But Athol Fugard and his collaborators John Kani and Winston Ntshona (pronounce: Chona) knew what they were about  in The Island at The Lantern now. The company which usually does well by the South African playwright outdoes itself in The Island.  Frank X, in the role of John, and U.R as the reluctant Winston, exceed their customary virtuosity. The Island refers to South Africa’s austere, windswept Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment.  Once Antigone,  Sophocles’ play within this play, was performed by Mandela, for other inmates. There are other inside references to the anti-apartheid movement, which Fugard created with his actor-collaborators Kani and Ntshona.

It takes awhile to figure out what Sophocles is doing in this South African prison but we get there and when we do it’s wonderful. The Island honors these men whose anti-apartheid principles have put them behind bars and whose lives are simply our lives in a different time and place. The Island is a tough and sad play and a very funny piece of theater. The way Frank X and U.R.  play off each other, lock horns, Greek theater will not be the same. U.R.’s riff on envy is magnificent. He envies his buddy Winston’s approaching freedom. Frank X’s conversation to the outside world:  replete with wonders.  Peter De Laurier’s direction shows the power of his own fine actor’s timing.  Janet Embree’s lighting heightens 90 powerful minutes of theater.   The Island  through June 10 at the Lantern.