Two days at the Festival of the Book as literary smorgasbord

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Smithsonian Arctic specialist Stephen Loring spoke on the topic of natural history as it relates to the human condition. (Photo courtesy Stephen Loring, Smithsonian Institution)

I didn’t know what to expect from the Nick Galifianakis’ presentation held last Wednesday at McGrady’s Irish Pub. I’d never heard of Galifianakis, who illustrates the Washington Post column, Carolyn Hax, which is authored by his ex-wife. I don’t typically read the Post or the other newspapers where it’s syndicated, but I knew by the large and spirited crowd that had assembled to drink beer and eat chicken wings that I’d hit pay dirt.

On a bad day, Galifianakis would be hard to resist. Smart, funny, self-effacing, and when talking about his beloved pit bull, Zuzu, who died in 2010, noticeably affected. He’s also extremely easy on the eyes. While walking us through a slide show of his cartoons, Galifianakis totally charmed the audience. He even managed to carry on a spirited flirtation with a comely divorcée there with her young son. I didn’t stick around until the end of the Q & A to see if he got her number. I hope so; the chemistry was palpable.

Galifianakis began his career as a political cartoonist working for USA Today, but he got “really, really bored with politics” and turned to what has always fascinated him, namely human interactions. He’s interested in origins, which is why Adam and Eve are such constants in his oeuvre. His cartoon characters are based on friends and family. He always writes the captions first, because “form follows function.”

Cartoons enable him to combine his love of drawing with comedy. At the end of the program, the self-taught Galifianakis presented some of his life-drawings. He said one of his greatest pleasures is “to draw on a white piece of paper with a pencil.” Additionally, he likened the process to a form of training. Just as eating and sleeping well are important to an athlete’s regimen, spending time on a classical drawn head helps Galifianakis produce “the three lines that compose the teacup” in one of his cartoons.

Just to mix it up a bit in my literary pub crawl, I moved from relationship cartoons to the Arctic. Renowned museum anthropologist and archaeologist from the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center, Stephen Loring presented, “The Penguin’s Egg: Natural History Collections and Collectors as a Means of Understanding the World and What it Means to Be a Human Being.” The lecture examined how objects collected by 19th century naturalists, most notably Charles Darwin, “reflect as much on notions of humanity as they do on scientific discourse.”

For Loring, stories are a way to perceive and understand history. As a young man visiting the Arctic, he was bowled over by the life stories of Inuit elders. These were the last of the Inuit to have experienced their traditional nomadic existence.

Continuing with the story theme, Loring described several prominent anecdotes from the annals of natural history expeditions, starting with the naturalist Edward William Nelson and the hapless Jeanette Expedition, which was marooned for three years in the Arctic when its ship was caught in ice. Nelson finally managed to bag a Ross’ gull, which he brought back to the Smithsonian, most likely tucked into his shirt. Then there was Syms Covington, Darwin’s “meticulous plunderer” who saved Darwin’s bacon when his precise notes (not his boss’ slapdash ones) provided the necessary data on the Galápagos Finches that form the basis of the Theory of Evolution. And lastly, he touched on the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott Antarctica expedition, during which a number of men died including Scott, but despite unimaginable hardship, an Emperor Penguin’s egg was successfully collected.

Loring also showed a selection of stunning Innu/Inuit tools that vibrate with energy. There was an arrow shaft straightener in the shape of a caribou, and a large fork-like implement used to scratch the ice to imitate the sound of a seal’s claws moving across it, something to lure other seals out from beneath the ice. In each case, the tool embodies the act of the hunt: the hole for the arrow shaft pierces the caribou’s middle, and the ice scratcher is adorned with the head of a seal just as it would look popping up through a hole in the ice.

Other pieces were adorned sparingly with tiny blue beads that represent the meeting point of spirit and real worlds. Acquired through trade, they were so valued that one purchased in 1850 cost the equivalent of a dog team, dogsled, and $1,000 worth of furs and baleen.

From the history-laden Arctic, it was on to a date with Andy Warhol, where Louis Menard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Metaphysical Club, covered a lot of familiar ground in an engaging way, offering up a number of astute observations about the enigmatic Warhol who’s biography presents a “booby-trapped landscape” of misinformation.

It was in Menard’s discussion of Warhol’s ongoing game of brinksmanship with Rauschenberg, Johns, and de Kooning where things really got interesting. A successful commercial artist, Warhol was spurned by this triumvirate of art insiders. Menard showed a series of their works followed by Warhol’s ripostes, beginning with Johns’ painted bronze beer cans and Warhol’s iconic tomato soup. The latter is deceptively facile, yet complex—much like Warhol himself—it’s a bold statement about art, challenging entrenched formal and contextual standards. Next to Johns’ ponderous sculpture that’s weighed down with such portent, Warhol’s soup can’s insouciance hits you like a breath of fresh air.

Warhol’s success at the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better game was part genius and part lucky circumstance. Uniquely positioned as an outside the box, commercial artist, Warhol was free from the recondite trappings of fine art. Furthermore, his years in the commercial art field had honed his eye; he knew what looked good. And plugging away at the drawing board he’d no doubt developed a cynic’s eye for where the commercial side ended and the art began.

In two days at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I learned about cartoons and polar exploration—tasty topics to be sure—but I ultimately found my way back to the modern art world, my truest passion. There and back again.

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