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The Secret Life of James Thurber: CMoA pays tribute to the Columbus humorist

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There’s a cartoon by James Thurber that sums up the work of author and 40-year Thurber historian, Michael J. Rosen. In the cartoon, a woman receives an eye exam while a doctor points to a line of letters on a classic eye chart. From several feet away, the woman replies, “Certainly I can make it out! It’s three seahorses and an ‘h.’ ”

“I love the woman’s benighted confidence, and how Thurber suggests that our perceptions are always a bit off,” Rosen explains. “Mine have always been, and I’ve harnessed that for much of my work.”

Perhaps you’re familiar with Columbus-born humorist James Thurber from the Thurber House—the home he rented for a period of time which is now a haven for writers-in-residence and literary programs for all ages. But for Rosen, it’s his second home. As former literary director of Thurber House, Rosen’s fascination with Thurber’s legacy is unwavering, to the point that he can recollect key drawings, stories and facts with episodic memory. In correlation with what would be Thurber’s 125th birthday, Rosen is prepping the book release of A Mile and a Half of Lines, an extensive look at Thurber’s artwork that rede ned American humor and cartooning. Thurber’s work will also be exhibited under the same title at the Columbus Museum of Art, reintroducing viewers to his twentieth-century influence.

Illustrations by James Thurber, care of the Columbus Museum of Art

With access to all of Thurber’s images, both published and unpublished, Rosen proposed the notion of the Mile and a Half exhibit in 2015. As Thurber was known to spontaneously draw on scraps of notebook paper, his art was never used with archival consideration.

“I wanted some plastic, inimitable, vintage Thurber that people would know, and I wanted to present a great deal of imagery that people didn’t know,” Rosen says. “So, 125 years after his birth, [Columbus Museum of Art] agreed it was high time to claim James Thurber as one of Ohio’s great artists and one of the nation’s most important creators of the cartoon. Here we are with nearly one hundred drawings appearing at the museum for six months.”

Some exhibit guests may discover that Thurber succeeded Mark Twain in terms of following the humorist pedigree, while others may learn that he was an artist who was almost rendered entirely blind (which prevented him from graduating from Ohio State University.) The crux of Thurber’s drawings evolved from 1927 to 1941, as he attempted to draw with a giant magnifier with white ink on black paper, while lacking some of his sight.

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Unlike many artists in the late period who works in watercolors and oils, “Thurber’s output is exclusively done as spontaneous. He in many ways invented the idea of an unstudied line in art,” Rosen says. “Before Thurber, [a] cartoon was a very well-drawn image, usually with two or three lines that provided to humor. Thurber was the first to draw not beautiful pictures, but the pictures were funny themselves, and the captions dropped to just one phrase or one line. When we think of Twain, we think novels, maybe some essays, things that are in the canon because they’re big. Thurber wrote an enormous variety of different forms in which his art take shape.”

As Thurber lived through Prohibition, the Great Depression and the Cold War, much of his work, while humorous, is based upon resilience. Politically active in the 50s when he was red listed as being a “communist sympathizer,” Thurber declined to accept an honorary degree from Ohio State, as the university prevented free speech on campus. Considering humor as a vital force of the human condition, Rosen regards works in A Mile and a Half of Lines as relevant and engaging, with all viewers approaching the exhibit with different motives.

“It’s both the fact that he was an astonishingly polished wordsmith as well as having the heart of humor at the center of his work, which is, ‘something’s wrong and humor is a mechanism of coping,’ ” Rosen says. “Art helps us translate our experience because it’s in a different medium. There’s appeal for families and then there are those who will look at the cartoons and recognize the poignancy.”

So would James Thurber detest modern technology at 125 years of age? Rosen doesn’t think so, in fact, the real-time social media age would make for good material. “Back in the sixties, he was writing about the culture going at such a fast pace, words were blurring that we couldn’t keep up with things. News was daunting, language was eroding at such a fast pace because of people skipping and being sloppy. I mean he would be writing about the fact that right now, no one does one thing at a time,” he says. “Our information overload has exceeded the capacity of the brain. As a jittery, jumpy person—as he often describes himself and his generation—he would need the tools of humor and the art of writing all the more.”

Throughout his life, Thurber’s influence ventured beyond Columbus, but as A Mile and a Half of Lines resides at the Columbus Museum of Art for six months, Rosen hopes that Thurber’s work finds its way home. “Perhaps his best known work was the autobiographical vignette of My Life and Hard Times, then during his more grim period, he returned to Columbus in his imagination, researched and wrote The Thurber Album, which are portraits of people that were dear to him,” Rosen says. “He’s famous for saying that the clocks that chime in his dreams are the clocks of Columbus.[…] Columbus remained very much the sketchbook on which he could draw.”

A Mile and a Half of Lines: The Art of James Thurber, will be on display at Columbus Museum of Art from August 24, 2019 through March 15, 2020. Visit columbusmuseum.org for information.

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Art After Stonewall showcases defining work by LBGTQ artists

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The idea to curate an exhibition commemorating the Stonewall riots started over dinner. After working together on Shared Intelligence: American Painting and the Photograph, artist and art historian Jonathan Weinberg and Columbus Museum of Art Executive Director Nannette Maciejunes were “being the art geeks they are, when they started talking about doing something else together,” says Melissa Ferguson, CMA’s director of marketing and communications. “They were looking for something relevant and fun to do.”

It was 2011, and with the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots still eight years away, Weinberg and Maciejunes began compiling their wish list of artworks from museums and private collectors around the country. Because it can take a long time for those requests to be granted, they started early, in 2016. They soon realized that they were going to have the largest and most comprehensive exhibition for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, because they were getting all the pieces they requested.

Photo by Diana Davies (all photos provided by Columbus Museum of Art)

Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989 will come home to CMA on March 6, following stops in New York and Miami. CMA curated the groundbreaking exhibit, which ARTnews named one of the best and most important exhibitions of the decade. This expansive survey features more than 200 works of art and related visual materials that explore the profound impact of the LGBTQ civil rights movement on the art world.

“It’s well over 200 objects, and the range of objects in the exhibition and the artists is incredibly broad and diverse,” explained Daniel Marcus, Roy Lichtenstein Curatorial Fellow at CMA, who was responsible for the installation in Miami and New York. “I think people in Columbus will be taken with the depth of opportunity this exhibition affords. There are a range of emotional experiences the show offers; I think it warrants repeat visits.”

Ferguson says that lesser-known artists, such as Vaginal Davis, are represented equally alongside celebrated artists like Keith Haring. “So many artists in the show are under-represented in a way,” said Marcus. “Although I am not sure all the artists would see that as a deficit.” Another notable theme the show highlights is the extraordinary explosion of activism after the Stonewall riots of 1969.

Photo of Daniel Ware by Peter Hujar

“For many of the artists who became activists, the idea of having a gallery or museum career was sort of anathema to how they saw themselves as ambassadors of visual culture,” Marcus said. He explained that this creates a palpable tension in the exhibition that stems from the post-Stonewall politics of visibility. It is a combination of “coming out with sexuality and organizing with other people, and on the other hand, a sort of measured arms-length approach to the official institutions of the art world.”

The exhibition has received critical acclaim in New York and Miami, where it opened in 2019. Although Marcus has worked in the New York art world and has seen his fair share of exhibition openings, he says the Art After Stonewall exhibition opening at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York was like none he had ever experienced, in that it was “kind of like a family reunion.”

“Because [the exhibition] takes us through the 1980s, there’s a perception that many of the artists aren’t still with us, but so many artists are,” Marcus says. “The atmosphere at the opening was totally enthused and a familial scene. It was amazing, especially for us who had worked on the show for so long. It was incredible to see people taking photographs with their own work, especially for the artists who have struggled to gain recognition.”

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat by Tseng Kwong Chi

Just because the exhibition has already opened in New York and Miami, don’t think that Columbus is getting the short end of the stick. In fact, Marcus said the Columbus tour stop and grand finale of the exhibition is really the definitive version of the show, the way it was originally intended.

In addition, it will include several projects that reflect Columbus histories. For example, there will be a section of works by local gay icon and trailblazer Corbett Reynolds, owner of the now-shuttered club Rudely Elegant in Franklinton that was host to many outrageous all-night parties in the late 1970s and 80s.

CMA also commissioned an audio installation from a collective of local artists to reflect on their own community with an eye toward the city’s nightlife. Artists involved include Emma Levesque-Schaefer, Bobby T Luck, Twinkle Panda and Prince Shakur. This project explores the diversity of queer histories and stories in Columbus and will interject a range of voices—including artists, activists, DJs, and dancers—into the exhibition galleries. “We felt it would be important to include Columbus histories in the show because these histories matter to the larger story we’re telling,” Marcus said. “It’s going to be so amazing; minds will be blown.”

Art After Stonewall will be on display at the Columbus Museum of Art from March 6 – May 31. To learn more, visit columbusmuseum.org/art-after-stonewall.

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TBT: The rise and fall of Cooper Stadium

Mike Thomas

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Believe it or not, this year will mark the twelfth season of Clippers baseball in Huntington Park. As Columbus celebrates a decade in its new home for baseball, let's take a look back at the Stadium that gave the Clippers (among other C-Bus teams) their start.

Opening in in 1931 as the home of the minor-league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, Red Bird Stadium (as it was then called) was constructed using the same blueprints as Red Wing Stadium in Rochester, New York. In Red Bird Stadium's inaugural game, the 1932 season opener, more than 15,000 fans watched on as Columbus obliterated the Louisville Colonels, winning 11-2.

Known for its formidably-long outfield, legend has it that Joe DiMaggio and Ralph Kiner were the only players who managed to hit the ball out of the stadium's 457-foot left field.

Another team would make the stadium its home in 1955, when the Ottowa A's relocated to Columbus. The new Columbus team was dubbed The Jets, with the stadium renamed Jets Stadium. And so it remained until 1970, when Columbus officials refused to renovate the stadium at the expense of taxpayers. The owners of the Jets moved the team to Charleston, West Virginia, and Jets Stadium lay dormant for six years.

1977 saw the dawn of Columbus baseball as we know it today, when the International League granted a new franchise to the city and the Columbus Clippers were formed. Named for Harold Cooper, a baseball promoter who worked to preserve the old stadium and bring minor league ball back to Columbus, the home of The Clippers was officially dubbed Cooper Stadium in 1984. The Coop would remain The Clippers' home until the relocation to Huntington Park in 2009.

Aside from baseball, Cooper Stadium played host to many memorable events throughout the years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt kicked off his first campaign in the stadium in 1932. The Columbus Bullies, a professional football team from the American Football league, played games there from 1939 to 1942. The Coop even hosted concerts from acts like Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, and Garth Brooks over the years.

Today, few signs remain of Cooper Stadium's former glory. The grounds are overgrown with weeds and much of the structure has fallen to disrepair. The site has become a destination for graffiti taggers and abandonment tourists alike. Proposed plans from a developer to convert the grounds into a racetrack have apparently stalled, leaving the future of the old stadium uncertain.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PlN_CKTTC8

While thinking back on the history of the Coop is bittersweet given it's current decaying state, there are still plenty of bright spots from Ohio's sports history to enjoy. Visit The Ohio History Connection this weekend to explore their new exhibit titled Ohio-Champion of Sports.

What are some of your favorite memories from The Coop? Let us know in the comments.

Special thanks to ohioexplorationscoiety.com for information about the history of Cooper Stadium.

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Food & Drink

Discount Date Destinations: Happy Hour at The Avenue Steak Tavern

Lindsay Pinchot

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Welcome to Discount Date Destinations, where we’ll bring you the best places in the city to take your date on budget. The restaurants we’ll be highlighting all have that date-night-worthy atmosphere with food and drink specials that won’t break the bank. In today’s installment, we’re heading to happy hour at The Avenue Steak Tavern.

The Avenue Steak Tavern is a Cameron Mitchell restaurant serving upscale American fare and, as the name suggests, great steaks. There are two locations: Grandview Heights and Historic Dublin. Both offer delicious food, classic atmosphere, and happy hour deals every weekday from 4pm-6pm.  My husband and I can walk to the Grandview location from our home, and it’s quickly become one of our favorite date night spots.

When you walk in, The Avenue feels both upscale and inviting, with a beautifully crafted interior and friendly, attentive staff. We enjoyed happy hour in the bar area, where warm wood, red leather, and checkered floors come together to create an ambiance ideal for date night. Another plus: the bar seats are comfortable and there’s plenty of room to spread out and unwind after a day at work.

Atmosphere aside, the best part of happy hour at The Avenue is that the menu is filling and diverse, giving a taste of all the restaurant has to offer from seafood specialties to French fries. The drink specials include discounted wine pours, draft beer, and rotating daily cocktail specials.

My husband and I started with the baked cheese fondue, which is served with crusty sourdough bread and topped with honey for that perfect sweet and salty combination. I got a glass of wine ($6) and he had the Old Fashioned ($7) that’s offered on Fridays, a drink that pairs well with the traditional steak tavern feel. From there, we split parmesan green beans ($4), steak bites ($10), and sliders ($6). Each dish was fantastic, and the portions were more than enough to satisfy. I wish we’d had room to try more, but we were beyond full. As 6pm approached, I noticed that the staff checked in with everyone to take any last-minute food or drink orders before happy hour ended.  

We got in an out of The Avenue For $40...$50 with tip. What a steal!

We’re never disappointed when we visit The Avenue. We can always count on great food and a great experience. I highly recommend their happy hour for anyone looking to enjoy food, drink, and sophisticated date-night vibes without spending a fortune.

Read more: Discount Date Destinations: Saturday Samplings at The Refectory

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