Glory for Wavy Things

That’s Gandhi’s foot, above. More on that, below. But first: off to Little Italy.

To the Algebra Tea House on Murray Hill Road in Little Italy. You might call it “unique” or “original,” and these words are accurate but they understate the case to the point of insult. To call it a “labor of love” is also true, but the words fall flat in this glorious house of curves.

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It’s a dream of a tea house. Tim Burton might create a movie set tea house that looked something like this. It would have all the wiggles and waves and off-kilter, expectation-jarring, surreal touches … but it wouldn’t be as inviting, as warm and cozy; it wouldn’t have a tenth of the friendliness. It wouldn’t have the unselfconscious grace. It also wouldn’t have the unevenness that charms, the earnest artistic attempts that just go a bit too far, and the genuine, child-like delight in creation. M. C. Escher might have sipped too much caffeine and imagined a place like this. But his etchings of the vision would have been black and white, harsh and angled, dry and sterile, cold.

Ayman Alkayali envisioned a coffee shop as a warm and welcoming neighborhood joint where the owner just happened to be very upfront about his Muslim faith. He wanted a cozy nook where people of all creeds and races could sit at the curving counter, sip espresso and talk freely, and get to know and like each other. He wanted to show the neighborhood that Islam was a warm and welcoming religion; nothing to fear. And so, while several decorations on the walls honor and explain Islam, while he is happy to talk about it when asked, there’s nothing proselytizing, nothing in-your-face, nothing to suggest any conflict among religions. He just wants you to see that Islam is a beautiful faith. That its essence is peace and love.

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That’s a noble idea a coffee shop. It became a tea house because he couldn’t afford an espresso machine. Before he opened, while he worked days cooking in a nearby Italian restaurant, he spent two years renovating the abandoned bike shop. Most of his lumber came from two sources. He got all his Douglas fir beams from building tear-downs in Tremont. From Metro Hardwoods on the West Side, which rescues trees cut down by the city and bound for mulching or landfill, Alkayali got wood that he especially loved. You can see its struggles to grow in an urban environment: it’s knotty, uneven and full of odd bends and turns. One of his benches even had a bullet lodged in it. This wood has more character than forest or farmed wood, he says.

Then there are the other miscellaneous building and furniture materials: tree trunks, bricks, an old pot-belly stove, tin plate ceiling tiles, some aluminum sheeting instead of drywall, fabric remnants—he built the place out of serendipity, you might say. All with his own hands: every waving shelf and curving counter, every off-kilter mirror and neon squiggly ceramic floor tile, every Hobbit-shaped door and Dali-shaped vase, every driftwood door handle and multi-level table. There are some wonderful tables. The woodwork is simply gorgeous.

He also made every ceramic mug himself—pottery was his first love, as an artist. The mugs are a lot of fun. Not a simple cylinder shape in the place! And don’t expect standard serving sizes. Or that the saucers will fit underneath them. He did all the paintings. Creating this place from scratch took guts and demanded one hell of a gamble. His parents thought he was crazy. When Algebra Tea House opened, it was the first Muslim business in Little Italy.

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Algebra Tea House opened in 2001, two weeks before September 11th.

There were some tough years.

It’s remarkable that the place survived. Alkayali worked two and three extra jobs to pay his tiny staff and keep the bank at bay. He didn’t get an espresso machine until 2003.

What enabled Alkayali to survive those first years? When hate was in the street, shouted in through the door? When hours crept by without a customer?

You might be tempted to think that only an iron will could keep going under such hardships. He did have to put up a fight against the city, after they tried to harass him out of business him with baseless inspections. But I think this is a side point: an element of the story, but not its center. More than anything else, I think the key is a radical innocence.

You see, to step inside Algebra Tea House is to step inside a mind. It’s not claustrophobic because it’s such a friendly and expansive mind. It’s utterly original, but at the same time unobtrusive. It’s a warm, accepting mind, a bold but gentle mind. It’s not an iron-willed, single-minded, blinkered mind. It’s a mind that when it sees an obstacle, bends.

Radical innocence is naïveté with a backbone. It is naïveté that doesn’t burn out. Alkayali was simply incapable of believing that the haters were truly hateful, that hate was the true contents of their hearts, that the customers wouldn’t come, and come to like it. Now, in 2018, Algebra Tea House is a Little Italy institution.

Alkayali told me that once, in an art class, the teacher asked him what school of art he followed. Unprepared for the question, he made up a term off the top of his head: curvism.

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Wavy Thing #2: Cleveland Violins.

I first went into Cleveland Violins on the recommendation of my daughter’s violin teacher. That was many years ago, before I moved just three blocks away. It was love at first sight.

There’s something special about a violin workshop. I think it’s the combination of relentless exactitude and graceful bending. No, it’s the music. Any skillful mechanic or artisan knows exactitude and bending. But a violin shop is full of the most glorious music humans have ever achieved—even when it’s silent.

This shop on Mayfield Road is a Cleveland institution. It has the greatest endorsement possible: the world-class fiddlers of the Cleveland Orchestra drive up the hill from Severance Hall in their armored limousines, with their beefcake bodyguards tapping at earpieces to check in with the helicopters circling overhead, as they bring their Stradavarii here for oil change and repair.

That’s a slight exaggeration on my part. The guy at the desk tells me, “We’ve never actually had a Strad here.” He wouldn’t let me take any pictures of the interior, but told me I could lift some from the Facebook page. He explained that there are in fact only a handful artisans in America entrusted with those priceless Stradavarius violins, mostly in New York. But the world-class musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Music do carry their strings up the hill to be cared for in this music-monastic sanctuary.

What I love about the place is the glorious chaos of its window display—cascading waves of cello chassis—and the prodigal curviness of its décor: from the teeniest Suzuki violin to the stateliest, most sonorous, hollow-profound double bass: the tumult of tumbling pregnant bulges of gorgeous wood, and the overwhelming, uncompromising passion for stringed instruments.

Well, if I had a Stradavarius, this is where I’d bring it.

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Wavy Thing #3: Gandhi’s Foot

My friend and co-teacher Roy Isaacs was born to an Indian immigrant father and European-American mother. His wife Shifa has India on both sides of her family and is third-generation Indian diaspora: born in Kenya, raised from age 11 in Wisconsin. They both want to pass on Indian culture to their children, and so it was natural for them a few years back to take their daughter and son to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday.

They had woven a mala, or garland, out of marigolds from a neighbor’s garden, and they intended to hang it around Gandhi’s neck in a traditional act of reverence for people who are alive or not, living or photographed or sculpted. But it’s a larger-than-life statue set on a one-foot rock that’s on a five-foot pedestal, and even the best Frisbee-shot couldn’t get the wreath on the target. So they settled for his foot. Roy points out that this is acceptable because honoring someone’s feet is actually the highest level of showing respect. Since Roy is six-foot-four it was within reach, and with its dynamic arc, that foot turned out to be a very satisfying perch.

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The statue, by Gautam Pal, is the kind of work of art that would inspire reverence like that. Its dominant impression is that of motion. Gandhi is walking. And, it appears, at a pretty good clip. Roy tells me that the statue is in fact more specific than that. It’s Gandhi on the Salt March: a walk of 25 days in 1930 that launched the nonviolent Indian independence movement. Gandhi is, of course, scrawny and half naked. But this sculpture makes him a figure of pure energy, purpose and power. This little man is the breaking edge of a great human wave.

And he’s got a magnificent foot! It’s the best foot I’ve ever seen in a statue. I bet other statues look at it and think, “Why didn’t anyone tell me I could’ve worn sandals? Shoes are so boring! I didn’t know the human foot was so expressive!”

It’s a foot that conveys the dynamic forward motion of the whole work of art. And this is done through the powerful wave that surges out from the ankle, continues up the instep, and launches off into space with that spectacular big toe. If I ever meet Gautam Pal, I’m going to shake his hand and congratulate him for that toe. Never has a toe conveyed such character in a statue.

 

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There are a few more locally wavy things I’d like to mention briefly. It will all make sense at the end. Three of them I plan to write about in future posts:

  • The undulating roof of the Frank Gehry building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University
  • The “Voyage of Life” in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Wade Chapel at Lake View Cemetery
  • The wonderfully imaginative and gently subversive annual festival of Parade the Circle at University Circle.

Also, another wavy thing is the land itself. I wrote about this in another post: the escarpment where the Appalachian Mountains give their last gasp before the flat lands of the lake.

 

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Father Gerard Manley Hopkins (he was a Jesuit priest) 1844 – 1889

“Pied Beauty,” by the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, is my inspiration for this blog post. The poem isn’t about wavy things, but spotted things. “Pied” here means multicolored (the Pied Piper wore such a costume). It’s a poem with its own radical innocence. “Why shouldn’t I write a poem about the beauty of spotted things!” he must have thought to himself. “Why not celebrate the mixed colors of the sky, the dappled cow, the stippled patterns on a fish?!”

 

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim …

And later in the poem he praises whatever combines the opposites: “swift and slow, sweet and sour, adazzle and dim.” And also: “All things counter, original, spare, strange.”

 

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If lovely Father Gerard can praise spotted things, then why can’t I praise wavy things? So here’s my adaptation of that timeless poem, this time for the valleys of the Doan and Dugway.

 

Glory be to God for wavy things:

Algebra Tea House, Cleveland Violins,

For Gehry’s roof, a churning silver sea,

And Tiffany’s river of eternity.

 

Praise God for Gandhi’s foot, forever curled

In endless motion, over a curving world;

Parade the Circle’s undulating whimsy,

Old ladies on stilts, cavorting primly.

 

And for the land that breaks, and folds, and tumbles

Down to the lake. And for the wall that crumbles.

The ancient brick, its edges all ground down:

A traveler from another time, and town.

 

Beware the rigid dogmas, rational excesses,

The point that stabs, the angle that oppresses,

The tyranny of lines that never touch,

And carve the world for us and them so much.

 

Glory to the heart that bends and softens wisely,

The mind that opens imprecisely,

The lives that arc, however slightly,

The spirit that loves wildly.

 

 


Christopher Cotton

Icarus and Moses

 

For my money (being a famous art critic), the finest work of art in Rockefeller Park is M. Frico Motoska’s 1924 statue of General Milan R. Stefanik in the Slovak Cultural Garden.

Stefanik (1880-1919), Slovak national hero, was a true renaissance man: astronomer, physicist, philosopher, pioneering airplane pilot, and, above all, Slovak patriot. He is considered one of the four founders of the modern state of Czechoslovakia in 1919. He was also an remarkable traveler, visiting Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti (where he rescued some Gaugin woodcuts), Japan, the USA (where he traveled with the future first president of Czechoslovakia, lobbying for the creation of that independent state), Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, and trips to Russia which included jaunts in Siberia, diplomacy in St. Petersburg, and a visit with the wise old grouch, Leo Tolstoy.

The man died in an airplane accident in 1919, and the broken wings at his feet in this sculpture are an evocative lament. It’s also an Icarus echo: the pioneering aviator who flew too high; the astronomer who peered into the heavens too deeply. The wings also provide a sort of cup or fountain, out of which the human rises.

medal in front of RAF.jpgBut within the cradling wings, the man rises also out of a rock, a detail which emphasizes his strength and solidity. The rock also unites the art’s form with its subject in a satisfying way, giving the whole work a natural, organic feel. Art rises out of the earth. Or, rather, the earth rises into art.

 

 

 

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Stefanik on Mt. Blanc

 

I assume that the rock also represents Europe’s highest peak, Mt. Blanc. Stefanik, at the time working for France’s premier astronomer, Jules Janssen, climbed this mountain in 1905 to make astronomical observations. He stayed in an observatory built 12 years earlier by Janssen himself—a rickety wooden structure that would collapse the next year. Stefanik’s expedition had intended to stay for two weeks, but due to bad weather ended up being there for three: still the record for Mt. Blanc, as far as I can learn. He was quite hungry, reportedly, when he staggered back down to the village of Chamonix.

 

 

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David was commonly known as “manu fortis”–strong hand

 

Stephanik’s sculpted hands are oversize. A slightly more famous statue with the same intentional disproportions is of course Michelangelo’s David. Art critics believe that the reason is that David was intended to be atop an elaborate pedestal outside a palace. He would have been viewed from distance, and Michelangelo wanted this expressive body part to be visible and prominent. If you put your own hand on your face, with the heel of the palm resting against your chin, your longest finger will reach about half-way up your forehead. David’s middle finger would touch the crown of his head. Stefanik’s hand is not quite so exaggerated. But Motoska’s masterpiece relies on the same theory of sculpture.

 

And these hands are full of character. Not only are they too big for the body, but they are too old for the man. He died at 39, but the hands belong to a much older man. I believe that Motoska was nodding to Stefanik’s precocious wisdom as well as the burdens of his responsibility. It’s a lovely touch. They clench the binoculars too tightly, as if they betray a fear or worry that the stoic face seeks to hide. They humanize the national hero.

The binoculars themselves are an apt symbol for a founder of an infant nation: lowered, as he would never witness up close the future of the state he foresaw from a distance. The combination of mountain-like rock and binoculars remind me of MartinLuther King Jr.’s magnificent “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated. “I may not get there with you,” King prophesied, but “I’ve seen the promised land.” His binoculars too were lowered on that fateful night. King died almost 50 years after Stefanik, but he and the Slovak patriot’s sculptor were both alluding to Moses,who was told: “Get thee up into this mount of Abarim, and see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel.” It is particularly poignant that Stefanik, who had not been home in many years, was literally seeing the promised land of his own people’s free state, when his plane crashed just inside the border.

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Trying to look at the eyes, with my own imperfect pair, I’m frustrated. My cell phone’s camera has a similar weak zoom. I had to bring my own binoculars to take the measure of the man’s face. It’s a strong face: angular, with a sharply-defined chin and deep ridges, and high Slavic cheekbones. The eyes are penetrating. When you stand in their line of sight, he’s a bit intimidating. It’s not a handsome face. Not kind either, but not cruel. Not a man you’d want to tell that you screwed something up. But there’s great intelligence in the face, and strength of character.

And the expression is sad. He is looking down in resignation. He has just taken the binoculars from his face. Has he just realized that he is about to crash? Has he taken on the weight of the country on his shoulders, and just now realized that it is too much for him to carry? Has he seen that his fate is fixed, and now he must accept his death? The hands may show terror, but the face accepts fate.

The hat is historically accurate. Portraits and contemporary photos of Stafinik tend to feature this French military “kepi.” It was part of his uniform as a pilot for the French in World War I. To my mind, it’s not a terribly expressive hat: slightly more interesting than the most boring piece of headgear ever invented, the American baseball cap. But Motoska makes evocative use of it. With the downward slant of the head, the brim of the hat leaves Stafanik’s eyes in shadow pretty much all day. It has the feel of a symbolic echo of his fate. Or maybe it’s a part of the resignation and acceptance of the statue. The shadow of death is already upon the man.

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There is a band of leaves on the rock where Stefanik’s body begins. They wind around the statue from a tree trunk on the back. Going by the distinctive, heart-shaped leaves, I was able to identify them as linden—which should have been easy because that’s the national tree of Slovakia. Significantly, the trunk of the linden tree at the back of the statue forks into two main branches, and one of them is cut just above the fork. That’s Stefanik, I suppose—chopped down when he was young and his nation even younger. The bark has peeled back below the cut, suggesting a traumatic wounding.

 

astronomer.jpgThis statue is the work of a master, and it was done with great care and attention. I imagine Motoska motivated equally by love of art, love of country, and mourning for the man.Interestingly, this sculpture was a controversial addition to the Cultural Gardens. He’s the only soldier. One volunteer tour guide explained to me: the gardens represent different peoples who often have long and bitter histories together. One country’s military hero is another country’s war criminal. That’s why these gardens focus tightly on culture. General Stefanik was originally up the road a couple miles, and when they moved it here they added a granite block highlighting Stefanik’s achievements in astronomy.

The sculpture has flaws, in my opinion. The pedestal is too big, too heavy, too blocky; it diminishes the human figure upon it and contradicts the naturalness of the man rising out of the rock. Any sculpture of a national hero is inherently political; here the pedestal is shouting the national anthem and threatening to drown out the artist’s sweet song. Also, the clothing is too heavy, rigid and unexpressive. That’s partly a problem with modern clothing. What can an artist do with an overcoat?! Thomas Jefferson, in his magnificent memorial, had the good sense to dress as an 18th century gentleman–complete with knee breeches, waistcoat with lots of buttons, the works. But these are minor faults to Motoska’s masterpiece. In this sculpture art and politics harmonize; art and nature harmonize; humanity rises from the rock and takes flight!

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Christopher Cotton

 

Note: the pictures I didn’t take myself come from a website about the Czech artist Tavik Frantisek Simon. He was a good friend of Stefanik’s. The website, tfsimon.com, edited by Catharine Bentinck, has a wonderfully detailed page about Stefanik, with many excellent pictures. The above pictures show Stefanik on both Czechoslovak and French postage stamps, Stefanik the astronomer working in France, and the wreckage (you can read the Czech word “katastrofe”) of his airplane crash.

http://www.tfsimon.com/stefanik-note.htm

 

 

Statue of “Immigrant Mother.” Look closer: she’s crying.

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Yes, it’s true. She’s crying. This powerful statue of an American archetype is part of the Croatian Cultural Garden in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park. The text on the back of the statue reads: “Dedicated to all the immigrant mothers who brought their families to America seeking freedom and a new life. Erected by the Croatian community of Greater Cleveland 2012.” The sculptor was Joseph Turkaly.

The “tears” appear to be courtesy of some spiders and some seeds fallen from the trees. But she has reason to cry. The “all” in the dedication passage has been revoked in an act of cruelty that shames our nation.

If some man, proclaiming his inviolable law, rips the children from the arms of this mother, who is the one that is made of stone?

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P.S.

The sculptor, Joseph Turkaly, was born in Croatia in 1924 and immigrated to America in 1957. He lived in Lyndhurst, Ohio, and when he died in 2007 was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. His grave has one of his most beautiful works–which may be one of the most pious and poignant memorials in the whole cemetery.

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It’s a wonderful sculpture. The angel, with lovely, sweeping wings, is cradling what looks at first like a baby in some sort of swaddling, almost like a papoose. But on a closer look, it’s a gaunt, frail old man, and the papoose is more like a chrysalis. The man is gazing up with with adoration, exhaustion and relief. The angel is looking down with infinite care.  The old man is being born into his new life, a baby angel, and his chrysalis is his own emerging wings.

I never met Turkaly, but after studying this sculpture, I am certain–though I’m not entirely sure why–that he was a kind, loving man with a rich sense of humor.

 


Christopher Cotton