Monday, January 3, 2022



      For some years now I have been challenging myself to read my age. That is, I've been reading the same number of books as the age I turned that year. Of course, for the past two years in lockdown I had little to do but read. This year may be a little more challenging: I’m on the hook to read 73 books. 

       The books I read last year were a pretty eclectic lot. Sticking close to home, I read Florida Scrub-Jay: Field Notes on a Vanishing by Mark Jerome Walters and a mystery written by someone who in St. Petersburg as I do (Gail Massey’s The Girl From Blind River). Other books teleported me to France (It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris by Patricia Engels) Sweden (Anxious People by Frederik Backman), Korea (The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See), Antarctica (Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing), England (The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larsen) and Africa (Homecoming by Yaa Gyasi).  


      Sometimes, I was transported to the past, as with Lauren Groff’s illuminating Matrix, set in a monastery in 12th century England. In , like with Gary Shteyngart’s “pandemic novel,” Our Country Friends, I was in present-day America: All his characters were in lockdown. Talk about relatable. 

     I began my year’s reading with a non-fiction book — It Was All Lies: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump — written by Stuart Steven who was himself once a Republican. Ominously, I finished it on January 6.

    “Stripped of any pretense of governing philosophy, a political party will default to being controlled by those who shout the loudest and are unhindered by any semblance of normalcy,” wrote Steven, lamenting what his former party has morphed into.  “It isn’t the quiet fans in the stands who get on television but the lunatics who paint their bodies with the team colors and go shirtless on frigid days. It’s the crazy person who lunges at the ref and jumps over seats to fight the other team’s fans who is cheered by his fellow fans as he is led away on the jumbotron.”

    Steven wrote that before the QAnon Shaman stormed the U.S. Capitol wearing fur and horns, his face painted with the stripes of the American flag. Who says writers are not prophets?

    Cultish: Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell was another book I picked up to try to understand the current conspiracy mania afoot in our land. The book gave was informative, but I still don’t understand why people won’t take the
vaccine to stay alive.

   To cleanse my palate, I would turn to Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific Scottish writer who is the creator of the No. 1
Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. My favorite was The Peppermint Tea Chronicles from his 44 Scotland Street series which as its review in Kirkus said perfectly was "fragrant, refreshing, and soothing as a cup of - well, you know what."

   In 2020 I had read Autumn, a series of short essays by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knaussgaard that he wrote for his unborn daughter. Last year I continued his seasonal quartet with Winter, Spring and Summer. As the year came to a close, I also read his strange new novel The Morning Star. I can highly recommend the books of essays (although Spring was my least favorite) but I’m still trying to sort out what I think of The Morning Star, which follows the lives of nine characters and their reactions to the sudden appearance of a new star in the sky.

   My favorite book of 2020 was Richard Power’s The Overstory, so in 2021 I eagerly read two more of his: The Echo Maker and Bewilderment. Neither was as satisfying a The Overstory and the latter was, well, bewildering.

   What was my favorite book of 2021? It would be easier to pick out my least favorites because those would be the ones I abandoned. Lately, I have been giving myself permission to bail on books that I find lame. Life is too short — and, there are too many books out there to worry over the duds.

   The shortest book I read last year was the touching (and inspirational) The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, charmingly illustrated by Charlie Mackey, a popular book for those who were tiring of the pandemic. The 128-page gem includes, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard: 

     “Do you have a favourite saying?" asked the boy.

     “Yes" said the Mole.

     “What is it?”

     “If at first you don't succeed, have some cake”

     “I see, does it work?”

     “Every time”

    One of the longest books I read was a Colum McCann’s novel. Apeirogon clocks in at a whopping 480 pages. It’s the story of two fathers — one Palestinian and the other Israeli — who meet while working for an organization called The Parents Circle, comprised of members who have all experienced the unspeakable loss of a child to Mideast violence. They have joined to work for a peaceful solution to the area’s conflicts. It is based on the real-life friendship between between Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan.


     The title refers to a geometric shape with an infinite number of sides, a metaphor for the unending spiral the Mideast is caught up in. Apeirogon has 1,001 chapters, some consisting of only one line, echoing A Thousand and One Nights, the famous tale in which Scheherazade tells stories to stay alive. Like that tale, Apeirogon is about the power of storytelling. The fathers tell the stories of their daughters’ lives and horrific deaths over and over again to keep their memories alive and to make sense of their loss. Reading Apeirogon is heartbreaking but oddly hopeful. Can the answer to the world’s woes really be friendship? “You don’t read Apeirogon so much as feel it,” wrote Alex Preston in the Guardian. Exactly.

     I didn't belonged to a book club when the pandemic hit, but in lockdown, I joined several, organized by family, friends, museums and, in one case, a theater. All virtual, of course. Some of the titles we read I would ever have picked on my own — Circe by Madeline Miller and Refugee by Alan Gatz, for example — but I ended up enjoying them. During lively Zoom sessions, someone would inevitably point out some aspect of the book I hadn’t considered.  One of my favorite online discussions was of a play, Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen, which I read for a play reading club hosted by Stageworks, a Tampa-based theater. Alas, that club seems to have been disbanded. 

     I read The Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer for St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts book club, but the discussion at the last minute was cancelled. Still I was glad I read Scharer’s novel, based on the life of photographer Lee Miller and her stormy relationship with the surreal photographer Man Ray. The Age of Light turned out to be the perfect companion to the Dali Museum’s fall exhibit devoted to the exquisitely beautiful and talented Mille whose real-life story reads like a novel. A Vogue model and later a photojournalist covering World War II (she staged of a photo herself in Hitler’s bathtub, washing off the dirt from her trip to Dachau), she eventually abandoned photography, wrote a cookbook and put up with her cheating husband by drinking.


      I hope she took the Mole’s advice about eating cake


      Speaking of the Dalí, that museum held the only in-person book club session I attended last year. The Dalí Literary Salon, which I help organize twice a year along with the salon’s founder Peggy Silvergleid and the Dalí’s curator of education Peter Tush, met — under safe COVID protocols — in the Dalí boardroom in November to discuss Francine Prose’s Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern. To decide on our 2022 selection, I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein and Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years 1933-1943 by John Richardson (Richardson’s fourth volume on the artist’s prolific artistic and love life). The latter is highly entertaining, written by someone who knew the artist personally, but I’m voting for discussing the Stein. Although Stein certainly is a name dropper and I still can’t get it around my head how an autobiography can be written by someone other than the narrator, her descriptions of the comings and goings in the art salon on the Rue du Fleurus, as seen through the eyes of Alice, her mate, is mesmerizing.

     Throughout the year I got a lot of book recommendations from friends. Jaye turned me on to a book called Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, written jointly by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, two friends of different races us. After Lynn, a friend in Arizona, wrote that she was reading The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, I, too, read all three: Childhood, Youth and Dependency. When two friends who have never met — Diane who lives in Milwaukee and Mary Lou who lives in Cleveland — both urged me to read The Midnight Library, I put it on my list. I had been put off by its goofy premise (trying out parallel lives?) but the book ended up haunting me. Who among us wouldn’t want to see what our lives would look like if we had zigged instead of zagged?


      David, a friend living in New York, encouraged me to read Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone & How We Can Prosper Together. It became  one of many books on race that I devoured last year as race dominated our headlines: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, Harlem Shuffle by Colin Whitehouse and The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett.


    Another topic that appeared again and again on my reading list, not surprisingly, were books about reading (and writing) books: More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers by Jonathan Lethem, The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Books & Libraries, an anthology of poetry edited by Andrew Scrimgeour and How to Live What To Do: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature by Josh Cohen. Cohen, a psychoanalyst and professor of literature, argues that fictional characters from Alice in Alice in Wonderland to John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can teach us lessons for every stage of our lives.

      Some of the books that I read were gifts or loans from friends. Larry passed on his copy of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, once owned by a mutual friend who died unexpectedly last year after what appeared to be a freak accident. Mary Lou sent me Permission to Feel by Marc Barnett to help me deal with the grief I was experiencing over her loss. Carolyn loaned me her copy of All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (we are both shameless fans of Inspector Gamache and Three Pines). Early on in the pandemic, she had given me a mask that read: I’m F.I.N.E., which every Penny fans knows stands for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.

    I had to wait in a while to get a hold of The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, The Promise by Damon Galgut, and Oh William! A Novel by Elizabeth Strout from the library, but some of the books I read this year came right off my own bookshelves, books I had always meant to read, but never had the time, including Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond by Larry McMurtry. Sadly, only a few months after I read McMurtry's reflections on turning sixty, the power of storytelling and the West, McMurtry died. He made it to age 84.

    Another book off my shelf that I read — or more accurately re-read — was my 1930 edition of The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene (who, of course, was a pen name for a number of writers. I read it after I received a request from Sheila Cowley, my editor at Arts Coast Journal, to contribute a piece to Books that Sparked You as a Kid 


    I had read the book, the first in the Nancy Drew series, as a 10-year-old, but in the re-reading, I was shocked by the racism and sexism I found. Nancy Drew, it turns out, as feisty as she appeared to me back in the Fifties, was part of a society that wasn’t very enlightened. Here, in part, is what I wrote in my Arts Coast piece:

  How had I accepted all the racial and sexist stereotypes that had been dropped into my 10-year-old unsuspecting brain? In the 1930 edition of The Secret of the Old Clock, for example, a “colored” caretaker who talks in dialect is painted as a buffoon, and at one point is unceremoniously pushed out of car. And in the middle of trying to track down a missing will, Nancy stops to shop for a new frock for an upcoming party because that’s what girls do, don’t they?  If I had read the 1959 version, I would have been spared that racist scene — in the ‘50s versions all mention of Black people was excised — but apparently I would have been subjected to even more robust sexist stereotyping. In the ‘50s and ‘60s versions, the editors urged the various “Carolyn Keenes”  to portray Nancy as more feminine and less combative.

     The lesson I learned? Question everything you read (no matter how many books you read this year).

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Storyteller Nan Colton – Bringing Famous Women to Life

By Margo Hammond. . .

Nan Colton is a conjurer.  In her remarkable one-woman performances, she conjures up dozens of famous female characters. . . Harriet Beecher Stowe whose book “started” the Civil War. Mina Miller Edison, wife of the inventor. Photographer Berenice Abbott. Or Clio, the Greek muse of history.

In October, she appeared as Agatha Christie, queen of murder mysteries, at the Safety Harbor Library and at the Clearwater Main Library, and as Edith Kermit Roosevelt at Clearwater’s Countryside Library.  In November she portrayed the abstract artist Lee Krasner as part of her monthly Coffee Talks (currently online) at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she is performing-artist-in-residence. Eight days later, back at the Countryside Library in Clearwater, she was British novelist Virginia Woolf.

How does she accomplish these magical transformations?

Not by putting on a prosthetic nose or faking a posh English accent as Nicole Kidman did in the film The Hours. (Listen to the one recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice, available on YouTube, to hear how far off Kidman was from the genuine article).
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Nan Colton, in a black gaucho hat, echoes the photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe that appears on the cover of Jan Castro’s The Life and Art of Georgia O’Keeffe

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Colton’s performances are more subtle. She doesn’t try to slavishly imitate accents. Instead with just a studied tone of voice, a few conscious hand gestures and turns of phrases – and some well-chosen props – Colton makes us believe we are looking at Dora Maar, Picasso’s longtime abused muse and mistress waving her cigarette holder, or artist Georgia O’Keeffe in her iconic black gaucho hat, or the regal Catherine the Great with a crown atop her white wig.

“I don’t do impersonations. I do characterizations,” explains Colton who describes herself as a “playwright, director, storyteller, actress and arts educator” on her Solo Productions website. “The audience has to buy into my performance and then a wonderful communication between us occurs.”

Take that online MFA performance. Colton looks nothing like the craggy-faced Krasner.  But when I peered at my computer screen, there was the Brooklyn-born Krasner, dressed in a shocking pink jacket, sweeping her hands back and forth, telling me about that day in Paris when she learned that her husband, painter Jackson Pollock, had died in a car crash.
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Nan Colton appearing as Lee Krasner in her recent online Coffee Talk at St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts where she is the performing-artist-in-residence

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It was as if the artist was seated just across from me. She explained that a young woman who was in the car with Pollock when he crashed had also died but that his mistress, the woman they had fought over and caused Krasner to flee to France, had survived. She told me how determined she was to work through her grief, that she had moved into the barn where Pollock had his studio. Painting was how she was working through her grief, she said.

Only when I heard Colton say, “Now I am stepping out of my character,” was the spell broken. For nearly 45 minutes Colton had become Krasner but now the storyteller was talking in her own clipped cadence and lilting accent from her native South Africa. Krasner had disappeared.
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Lee Krasner, wearing the shocking pink jacket that inspired Nan Colton’s costume

. . .
As part of the post-show’s “questions and answers with the audience” segment, Colton put on a slide-show with photographs of the real Krasner — black-and-white snapshots with the artist posing with Pollock, shots of Krasner painting in her studio. In one, a colored portrait, she’s wearing the shocking pink jacket which had inspired Colton’s choice of costume.

Colton called her talk Re-Echo in honor of the Krasner painting by that name currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through February 2022, on loan from the Art Bridges Foundation. Painted in 1957, Re-Echo is part of Krasner’s monumental Earth Green series, 17 paintings that were completed after the death of Pollock in that 1956 crash.
. . .

Re-Echo by Lee Krasner, currently on display at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, on loan from the Art Bridges Foundation

. . .
Katherine Pill, the MFA’s Curator of Contemporary Art, describes the piece as “a stunning, pivotal work that epitomizes emotive gesture and form” and one that serves as a reminder that “the male-dominated narrative of Abstract Expressionism still crucially needs to be expanded.”

Colton, who has performed and lectured professionally on stages throughout South Africa, Great Britain and the United States, launched Solo Productions in 1998 when she began her gig as the performing-artist-in-residence at the MFA. The museum commissioned her that year to portray Catherine the Great as part of the MFA’s Russian exhibit. She has offered her one-woman portrayals at the museum’s monthly Coffee Talks ever since.
. . .

. . .
Expanding her reach to corporate events, libraries, schools, universities and retirement communities, Colton currently has more than 45 characters at the ready, but for an additional fee she will develop a new character and script for clients. One of her completed scripts has yet to be performed. She was all set to go when her show was cancelled due to COVID. “But who knows,” says Colton, “Sarah Bernhardt’s Visit to Tampa Bay may have an appearance sometime in the future. The costume is ready!”
. . .

At the start of Colton’s research, all of her subjects pose “challenges or hurdles” for her to overcome, but who has been the most difficult to develop? “For me, that has been Frida Kahlo,” says Colton. Colton was impressed with Salma Hayek’s Academy Award-nominated portrayal of the Mexican artist in the film Frida (“She is simply marvelous to watch”), but her own immersion into Frida’s dynamics left her exhausted. “At the end of her life Frida was filled with both physical and emotional pain muted by drugs and alcohol,” says Colton, “and this is a very dark place to visit.”

Her most enjoyable character to portray? “The one requested and being portrayed that day,” Colton insists.
. . .

Nan Colton has been offering portrayals of famous women in her Coffee Talks at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she is the performing-artist-in-residence, since 1998

. . .
In her online MFA presentation, Colton urged us to go to the museum and see Re-Echo for ourselves – to stand on a white dot in front of the painting where you can hear a recording of Krasner’s own voice discussing the work. Krasner made the recording as she was preparing for an exhibition and the public unveiling of Re-Echo and the other works in the series.

Listening to Krasner in her own words is mesmerizing. (You can also hear Krasner here in a YouTube segment online entitled In Her Own Words – “I think all painting is biographical,” Krasner entones in her unmistakable Brooklyn accent). 

Standing on that white dot, I thought of the voices of all the creative women Colton has brought to life and realized that she adds one more ingredient when she conjures them up in her performances – the power of empathy. Colton really cares about these women and their lives — and it shows.

It is the secret power of all storytellers.


            Nan Colton as Virginia Woolf 

          Nan Colton as Nan Colton

This article originally appeared in Arts Coast Journal on December 2, 2021.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Sense of Beauty


The first piece of furniture I ever bought — I was 12 — was a Mission bench. I paid $5 for it, all of my savings at the time. It is made of oak with a red leather seat and a simple design of vertical slats. It still is one of my most prized possessions.

The Mission style is closely associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, a movement that began in Britain and quickly spread to Europe and America. The movement inspired the Craftsman line of furniture promoted by Gustav Stickley and the Prairie School architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
. . .

The Craftsman magazine, founded by Gustav Stickley, promoted the aesthetics of the American Arts and Crafts movement.

. . .
Like Mission aficionados, the Arts and Crafts folk emphasized simple design and natural materials. Stickley’s pieces were handcrafted and my bench was mass produced, but both were rebelling against the ornate Victorian furniture that prevailed at the time (and which filled my childhood home in Wisconsin where both Stickley and Wright had strong ties).

So when I heard — in 2015 — that Tarpon Springs businessman Rodolfo “Rudy” Ciccarello was building a museum at 355 4th St. N. in St. Petersburg to house his American Arts and Crafts collection, I was thrilled. 

I pictured a small, modest furniture museum filled with dark oak bookcases, tables, chairs and clocks.
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The exterior of the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Image @ MAACM Photo @ Joe Brennan

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Now, six years later, I realize my mistake. Ciccarello’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement (MAACM), which finally opened to the public last month, can hardly be called a furniture museum — and it certainly will never be described as small and modest. Although there is a whole floor devoted to exquisite hand-crafted furniture — everything from linen presses to pianos — the five-story, 137,000 square foot museum (40,000 devoted to gallery space) offers a lot more than cupboards.
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Rodolfo “Rudy” Ciccarello, pictured here, began his American Arts and Craft collection with the purchase at a Boston auction of a Gustav Stickley’s bookcase

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“I became interested in American A&C in the late 1990s,” Ciccarello told the Journal of Antiques & Collectibles in 2016. Ciccarello had grown up around antiques in his family home in Rome, Italy. “The A&C style at once resonated with me and I soon purchased my first Gustav Stickley bookcase at an auction in Boston, Massachusetts. From that auction my passion grew as did the collection. What began as furniture from the movement evolved into all the varied art forms so that now every genre is represented in the collection from pottery to photography to lighting and beyond.”

Indeed. At the MAACM you can peer into a completely reassembled tiled bathroom — the Iris Bathroom, originally installed in an Ohio mansion in 1914. You can walk into a recreation of a wood-paneled Arts and Crafts bedroom, complete a with bed, dressing table and chests of drawers from Stickley’s Craftsman Workshop – plus a dazzling Tiffany lamp encircled with peacock eyes.

There are tiles from a Newport, Rhode Island boathouse and a staircase designed by Louis Sullivan from the Chicago Stock Exchange.
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On display in MAACM’s Architects Gallery – furnishings from a Prairie Home built in the early 20th century in Minnesota and Louis Sullivan’s staircase from the Chicago Stock Exchange

. . .
Two temporary exhibits are on view.  Seventy-five examples of work — from printed books and ephemera to furniture, electric lighting, metalwork and stained glass — by the Roycroft Enterprise, a reformist community of crafters founded in 1895 by Ebert Hubbard.  And a photography display called Lenses Embracing the Beautiful that features photographs taken between the 1890s and the 1940s, including Edward Steichen’s portrait of Auguste Rodin in a pose reminiscent of his famous sculpture The Thinker

There’s a gift shop where every object is something I want to take home and a cafe with signature cocktails.   

That gift shop and cafe were eerily empty when I got my first glimpse of the museum last June, thanks to my friend Carolyn Nygren who, as a member, was invited to come with a guest for a sneak preview. On a Monday afternoon last June, we entered the museum’s soaring Grand Atrium where a large group of mostly older, mostly masked folk, awaited their tour.
. . .

The objects and the structure that houses them at MAACM — like The Medusa Lamp, designed by Elizabeth Eaton Burton, shown here juxtaposed with museum’s iconic staircase — both reflect the aesthetics of the American Arts and Crafts movement. . . simple design, natural materials, utility of purpose and nature motifs

. . .
Whisked into elevators (too few for the eager crowd, many of whom opted to take the stairs), we were treated to a whirlwind walk-through of the museum’s four floors of displays — although not all the galleries were ready yet. A museum curator reviewed for us the history of the Arts and Crafts movement and explained the evolution of the collection from Ciccarello’s purchase of that Stickley bookcase to his establishment in 2004 of the nonprofit Two Red Roses Foundation which has fleshed out the museum’s holdings to over 2,000 objects.

As my eyes took in the dozens and dozens of pieces set on raised platforms or behind glass cases, I found myself looking more and more not at the objects but at the building that houses them. The ultra-modern museum structure, designed by Alfonso Architects, a Tampa-based firm led by Cuban-American architect Alberto Alfonso with apparently considerable input from Ciccarello, is itself a work of art.
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The museum’s ovoid looks like a piece of pottery. Image @ MAACM Photo: @ Joe Brennan

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The white bulge on the exterior of the building — called an ovoid — looks like a piece of pottery. Inside, the thick-coated white spiral staircase resembles the whorls of a rose in designs by Arts and Crafts pioneer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And the multi-color stained-glass skylight echoes Frank Lloyd Wright.

From the use of wood on the floor and walls to the natural light flooding into the galleries (some of them with curved walls, thanks to that ovoid), everywhere you turned, there was a nod to the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement.

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MAACM’s spiral staircase is a nod to the roses in designs by Arts and Crafts pioneer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Image @ MAACM Photo: @ Joe Brennan

. . .

Helen Huntley enumerated the four principles of that aesthetics on my second visit to the museum last month – simplicity of design, honesty of materials, utility of purpose and the incorporation of nature motifs. A colleague from my days at the St. Petersburg Times, Helen, who is a docent at MAACM, had offered to guide me and my friends through the museum, now opened to the public.
. . .

Helen Huntley, a MAACM docent, begins her tour of the museum in front of a modern recreation by Motawi Tileworks of a circa 1910 stained glass window (also on display) illustrating the William Morris poem that inspired the name of the Two Red Roses Foundation

. . .
She began our tour in front of two images of a woman looking up at a Moon and two roses – a small, backlit, stained glass window, made around 1910 – and a larger modern recreation of that window in tile made in 2015 by Motawi Tileworks. The original window, illustrating a 1858 poem entitled “Two Red Roses Across the Moon” by British Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris, was found in a private home in St. Petersburg. The window and the poem were the inspirations behind Ciccarello’s naming his nonprofit foundation Two Red Roses, Helen explained.
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A typical Craftsman bedroom on display at MAACM

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She also answered a question that she said she knew was on a lot of our minds – How did Ciccarello make all his money? Answer, pharmaceuticals. Beginning with a $15,000 investment, Ciccarello, once a consultant pharmacist at the Jack Eckerd Corporation, grew his company, Florida Infusion Services, into the second largest national specialty pharmaceutical distributor in the U.S.

For our tour — each docent fashions their own — Helen told us that she would be concentrating on only a few of the more than 800 objects currently on display at the museum, so that we could take a deep dive into each one of them.
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The Rookwood Ship Mural hangs in the Grand Atrium at MAACM

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First stop – The Rookwood Pottery Ship Mural. Made up of 600 tiles depicting ships in a calm harbor, the mural was designed in 1914, but had never been assembled and installed. In fact, the tiles ended up being separated into two lots. Ciccarello bought one in 2004 and the second lot in 2012. Reuniting and restoring the tiles turned into an eight-year-long project.

How had I missed this massive work hanging over the admissions desk in the museum’s Grand Atrium on my first visit? I never looked up, I guess. Now we were looking down into that atrium at the mural from the second floor.
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On the second floor of MAACM, Mary Corbett views the Rookwood Ship Mural, composed of more than 600 tiles, which spans more than 50 feet span across the wall of the museum’s Grand Atrium below

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The mural is about 50 feet long, smaller than the original mural which was designed to be 70 feet long. During restoration some sections had to be left out because too many tiles were missing or damaged. One set of tiles was left out because it showed only half of a ship and could not be incorporated seamlessly into the final work. 

Helen steered us to that section hanging on a wall just around the corner from where we had been viewing the larger piece. She invited us to examine the tiles up close, pointing to the sign next to them – “Please Touch.” (How often do you see that in a museum?)  So we did, running our hands over the raised piping depicting the ship’s rigging and other textures. The tile decorators created those ridges by squeezing colors from a tube like a cake decorator, Helen said.
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Invited by a sign that reads “Please Touch,” Carolyn Nygren takes a close-up look at a section of MAACM’s Rookwood Ship Mural available for hands-on examination

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Next, she directed us to the Architects Gallery, also on the second floor, instructing us to look thoroughly at a tall Prairie School floor clock, asking us what we saw. “It’s made of oak,” one in our party observed, “and it appears to have been stained.” Yes, Helen pointed out, in keeping with the Arts and Crafts “honesty of materials,” it would never have been painted. “See, you can still see the wood’s grain,” she said. 

She noted the clock’s trapezoid form and urged us to find that form repeated in the table and chairs set in front of it, also made of oak. All of the pieces were originally designed to complement a Prairie House built in the early 20th century in Minnesota, but the owners eventually got tired of the design and redecorated. Luckily they stored the pieces in a barn on the property where they remained untouched until they were auctioned off in the 1980s and later bought by Ciccarello.
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A Tiffany lamp decorated with the eyes of peacocks on display in the bedroom installation at MAACM

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On the third floor we visited the Lighting Gallery, filled with a dazzling array of lamps, chandeliers and lanterns made of glass, copper, wood and ceramics. Electricity was just being introduced to homes in the early 20th century. 

In that gallery we focused on three lamps designed by Elizabeth Eaton Burton (a fourth is on display on the second floor next to the Two Red Roses signage). One, called the Medusa lamp, was encircled with abalone shells and supported by a copper base. Did Burton choose the name because it looked like a jellyfish which often are called Medusas after the mythological Greek figure? Or perhaps the name was inspired by the tangle of cords under the lamp’s shell, resembling the snakes in Medusa’s head. Helen left it to us to speculate.
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The three-handled mug called a tyg designed by Roberta Beverly Kennon is more brightly glazed than her other pieces in MAACM’s display of Newcombe Pottery

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In the Ceramics Gallery on the fourth floor, we stopped to admire another Arts and Crafts object designed by a woman – a large mug with three handles, called a tyg, displayed among other examples of Newcombe pottery. This tyg, designed by Roberta Beverly Kennon, was more brightly glazed than Kennon’s other pieces in the vitrine. It featured three motifs of a rising sun.
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Mary Corbett stops and admires pieces of Newcombe pottery on a tour of MAACM led by docent Helen Huntley, also pictured here

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Helen had us “try out” the mug by pantomiming how we would pass it along to each other at a beer hall. Newcombe pottery was produced in a women’s college (now part of Tulane University) in New Orleans. Men did the throwing while women decorated the pieces (and placed their initials on them, in this case the notorious RBK).
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The reassembled Iris Bathroom, originally built for a home in a suburb of Cleveland, now on display at MAACM

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Before moving on to the final piece Helen had chosen for us, we all took a peek at the 2,000 green tiles in the Iris Bathroom decorated with water lilies and irises and the 19 floor tiles depicting sailing ships salvaged from Arthur Curtiss James’ Rhode Island boathouse (both supplied by the Grueby Faience and Tile Company of Boston).
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The tiles from the floor of Arthur Curtiss James’ Rhode Island boathouse, supplied by the Grueby Faience and Tile Company of Boston, depict the owner’s own yacht, The Aloha, surrounded by 18 sailing ships from maritime history

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Our final stop on the tour was on the fifth floor to view the pianos on display there. The most impressive was a piano built at Stickley’s Craftsman workshop in Eastwood, New York and assumed to be designed by architect Harvey Ellis. Ellis, who worked at the Craftsman workshop for only seven months before his death in 1904, had a big influence on Stickley furniture, introducing decorative touches, like the inlay work that flanks either side of this piano’s front.
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A piano built at the Stickley’s Craftsman Workshop in Eastwood, New York, attributed to architect Harvey Ellis known for his decorative touches like the inlays that flank the cabinet’s front

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Finally, we all headed to MAACM’s cafe for a cup of coffee. Unlike my first visit, it was filled with visitors, including Ciccarello himself who was deep in conversation at the table next to ours. Ciccarello lives in Tarpon Springs, but Helen told us that she often spots the hands-on entrepreneur at the museum. “I once saw him behind the counter in the cafe teaching someone how to work the coffee machine,” Helen laughed.

When I returned home, I found this quote by Gustav Stickley on the Internet. . . 

“When a man’s home is born out of his heart and developed through his labor and perfected through his sense of beauty, it is the very cornerstone of life.” 

Substitute the word “home” with “museum” and the quote perfectly describes Rudy Ciccarello and his collection.


To my blog subscribers who don't live in St. Petersburg: I hope you get to see this unique museum soon. This article originally appeared in Arts Coast Journal

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