I/Eye: On Photography

On the Pickpocket Almanack, Part I (in which I put down the camera for a while)

Posted in Uncategorized by Sheila Newbery on November 20, 2009

This autumn, I went back to “school”—a school without walls, the Pickpocket Almanack, organized by Joseph del Pesco with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The idea was for museum members to experience a range of what the Bay Area’s cultural life has to offer under the guidance of several artist-luminaries. Each luminary decided on a course description; chose a number of events related to that description in and around the San Francisco area for enrollees to attend (and where they could meet each other); conducted online discussions after each event; and organized an end-of-the-semester class get-together.

There was no homework, there were no exams. It was a chance to meet other people and talk about what we saw and experienced in whichever ‘course’ we elected to attend. It reminded me of the non-curricular art and film program run for teenagers by Ronald Chase, a program that has proved so popular, the alumni regularly return for the Saturday afternoon gallery walks in San Francisco.

The Pickpocket scheme is deftly conceived: it brings audience members and attention to a range of arts events, and, as a school without walls, coaxes each of us out of our own walls. The institutional overhead is minimal (or so I imagine) and the form is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of subject matters and teaching styles.

I signed up for Taking Some Of It In, organized by filmmaker Les Blank. Here was the course description, as it appeared in the Pickpocket catalog:

As a filmmaker, I view everything in the world around me as potential subject matter for a film. I’m looking for things that manage to retain a quality of inspiration that does not fade with time. In the past this has included music like Dizzy s bebop, Ry Cooder and various blues, Cuban, Polish-American polka, Texas-Mexican Conjunto, Appalachian, Serbian-American tamburitza and other world musicians. One of my very first interests was food culture and it still is. My attraction to Alice Waters led to a film about her restaurant Chez Panisse and garlic. The film Yum Yum Yum took me back to Louisiana to indulge in Creole and Cajun cooking. My latest film All In This Tea, ten years in the making, follows rare-tea enthusiast David Lee Hoffman to remote areas of China in search of the perfect leaf. Another film I’ve been working on for 11 years is on Alabama outsider artist, Butch Anthony, who works with found materials and junk to create extraordinary sculpture. For Taking Some of It In, I’ve selected an event connected to each of the afore mentioned interests: music, food, visual art and, of course, documentary film. In all these I hope that, as with the best film, they can be enjoyed repeatedly, like a good Zydeco song or a perfect gumbo.

I’d seen a number of Blank’s movies after arriving in Berkeley some 20 years ago and had admired their thorough-going gentleness in savoring the good things in life (food, music, art), and, too, the intense curiosity they showed in plumbing the remarkable individuals who are involved in seeking out, understanding and producing the good things.

In my next post, I’ll describe one of the events we attended with Les: a lecture by art historian Peter Selz on the Abu Ghraib paintings by Fernando Botero.

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