Contents

 

 

 

Norman J. Olson, US
 

 

 

 

Art Feature

 

from Biltmore to furniture to today

 

Last Friday (January 13), my wife wanted to get away from Minnesota for a couple days so looking around to see where we could fly to… which flights were open for employee pass travel… we decided to go to Charlotte, North Carolina… because we had heard that the Appalachian scenery was interesting and it was a place we had never been…

We started talking about leaving at about 10 a.m. and left for the Minneapolis airport (MSP) around noon for a flight that left at around 2 p.m… it is not unusual for us to make travel plans in this last minute way… and we have had some very interesting experiences going to places that we basically drew out of a hat, as it were…

Doing a quick bit of on-line searching before heading to the airport, I typed into the search engine “day trips from Charlotte…” and the machine came up with one… which turned out to be the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC… a few comments on another web site suggested that there was very nice mountain scenery in the Ashville area, and a friend of Mary’s had suggested that a place called High Point, NC was a national center of furniture manufacturing… and since we have a beautiful wooden table that was made in NC, we were interested to see what was there…

So we got to NC late in the afternoon and stayed at a very cheap hotel ($39) with a very hard bed… we had a rental car as it is hard to travel by public transit in most of the USA, and rates were low due to it being, I think, off season so the car was only $38 for two days… Saturday morning, we took off driving toward Ashville… the drive was very scenic, even though it is dead of winter and the hardwood forests were all devoid of leaves… the grass was still green in many places and some of the shrubbery was green so, it was not quite as brown as Minnesota at this time of year… and while it was very cold in NC, that was equal to it being very WARM in Minnesota… and it was a bright sunny day, so a good day for a road trip…

The mountains around Ashville were indeed very beautiful with indigo hills in the distance… these mountains are not craggy like the Western mountains but high with heavy forest and rounded profiles… I kept joking that I wanted to meet some real Appalachian hillbillies… travel in the United States has revealed I think that the USA is getting to be more and more homogeneous… I mean, the food is the same, the fast food places are the same… the malls and shops are the same… the advertising is the same… the chain stores and restaurants are the same… and the people look and sound the same, if often seems to me from California to Florida and up and down the country… I think this has to do with the ubiquitous media… television is everywhere… I have one and all the channels and shows are the same at home as in the motel in North Carolina… the internet, facebook etc. etc are all the same… all over the country people are hearing the same voices and buying the same products… and the regional voices really are disappearing… both the Texas drawl and the Minnesota “yah sure youbetcha” are not found among the young and will be entirely gone in the future… while it is easy to see this as a culture of blandness drifting from coast to coast, I guess it does make travel easier and change is the norm of the universe, so why not here…

Anyway, driving into Ashville, we saw a sign for a “Farmers Market” so we exited the freeway to have a look… some years ago, we were driving in Hollywood, California looking for the huge farmer’s market there… we stopped to ask two very nicely dressed guys who were walking cute little dogs if they could direct us the the Farmers Market… they were trying hard to be helpful, but had obviously never heard of anything called a “farmers market…” so, they put their heads together and then directed us a few blocks left and right certain that they had figured out our weird request… what we found as we followed their directions was a Ralph’s grocery store… (Ralph’s is a large chain of big grocery stores) to this day, they are probably talking about the hicks from the sticks who referred to the grocery store as a “farmers market…”

The NC farmers market was a serious market for wholesale distribution of locally grown and imported produce… it was pretty slow due to the season but we saw a few stands open selling apples from Pennsylvania and citrus from Peru… we stopped at one of the stands to look at some apples and there was an old guy, who looked like a farmer, in overalls and a jean jacket with a checked cap… he was standing in the door of his shop talking to us and I thought for all the world he was speaking some foreign language because I could not understand and then when I made out a few words, I thought he was maybe a person unable to speak due to some problem… but then I realized that he was speaking English with such a thick accent I could barely understand him… later I found that several of the fruit sellers spoke that way and was delighted to see that the homogenization of America had not completely wiped the amazing Appalachian Southern accent from the map… the apples were excellent…

The Biltmore estate was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the great New York architect who designed the famous Fifth Avenue façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the base of the Statue of Liberty, among many other buildings… the grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the great landscape architect, journalist and environmentalist who also designed Central Park in New York City… I was in the middle of reading a book about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 which both of those architects had worked extensively on… and from the book, I knew that they had both had a hand in the Biltmore Estate which was built for George Vanderbilt… so, was surprised to find that we coincidentally were going to a place that I just happened to be reading about…

The house with towers and turrets, gargoyles and high roofs was built to resemble a French Chateau and really is more like a hotel than a private residence… the most interesting thing about the building is the detail of the craftsmanship of the wood and stone work… showing, I guess, that progress is never an even path onward and upward… and when something is gained, something is, as Joni Mitchell pointed out, “lost…” and so, today houses, even the houses of the very rich, are built of drywall and metal two by fours… stapled together with nail guns… and you would be hard put to even find a craftsperson who could do handmade woodwork and stonework… on the other hand George Vanderbilt, in spite of his millions and his vast country house, died in 1914 at the age of 51 due to appendicitis…

The grounds of the Estate made a very nice park with walking paths and all kinds of shrubs and trees planned by Olmsted to make the kind of civilized “natural” landscape not wild, but not entirely tame either… that he believed made a nice outdoors ambience for people… and it is that… it was winter of course, so the landscape was of necessity subdued with lots of tan and brown… still, it is a lovely park and has a very natural feel without the scariness of the real wilderness… and the gothic mass of the house with its gilded age decorations, looks very interesting from the walkways, like some immense castle seen through the arcing tree branches…

I also enjoyed the tour of the old servants quarters and kitchens of the huge house… had my non aristocratic ancestors been in that place and time, that is where they would have been toiling from dawn to dusk to get the rich folks in and out of their fancy outfits, fed and taken care of… I could imagine the kitchen maids working 14 or 16 hour shifts in the heat of the huge coal fired range, cooking fancy food for the rich folks and plain food for the servants and staff people… a hard and thankless job, I think, with little time off for recreation and the kind of leisure and/or intellectual pursuits that I have always managed to fit into my schedule even when working full time… imagine me, alive back then… child of a drunken farm family, lucky to have a job grooming the riding horses, shoveling their shit or trimming the shrubbery instead of starving on a subsistence farm back up in the hills… or dead at age ten of appendicitis…

Well, interesting to see, I guess how the wealthy used to live and that artists and writers were welcomed visitors at this grand house back in the 1890s and 2000s along with the sons and daughters of the rich… and the portraits by Sargent show, I guess, that art for the rich can be interesting even if it is just portraits of their fancy outfits and unremarkable faces…

Well, after viewing the house and a drive around the lovely wooded park that makes up the Biltmore Estate, we drove across the state to Winston Salem for the night… I imagine that is tobacco country just because Winston and Salem both were cigarette brands back when I smoked… maybe still are… I don’t really know as I avoid tobacco products religiously due to being ten years away from addiction to that nasty cancer causing weed… then on to High Point which does indeed have a furniture store on every corner… unfortunately it was Sunday so most of the stores and outlets were closed and the ones we did look at had only very generic, very beige, very expensive furniture like one would see in any furniture store anywhere in the USA… furniture that ordinary working people want because they think it is what the rich have and I guess that is probably true, although, I do not know any rich people, so really do not know what the furniture in the typical McMansion looks like… I would guess it is very beige… anyway, driving back toward Charlotte, we did come across a warehouse type of outlet that had some really amazing oak furniture at very good prices… which was kind of fun to look at…

Mary had hoped to find a restaurant with some authentic Southern cooking, but all we seemed to find were chains, fast food, and the usual Mexican, Italian and Chinese restaurants you find in Minnesota… funny that most independent restaurants in the USA are Mexican, Italian or Chinese, I think…

Well, anyway, we got a flight back to MSP Sunday evening and having had a nice weekend away, the trip left me feeling glad to be who I am and where I am in the Earth’s time/space continuum… glad that by the time I had appendicitis at age 10, surgery to heal that condition was safe and routine… but also glad that I could go and see the works of the hands of those amazingly skilled people who could carve a gargoyle head out of a block of stone or join wood so well that it looked new a hundred and eighteen years later… and even the painters of the rich who splashed their oil paint around to such lovely effect…

 

Art ~ Four Drawings: A Trip to North Carolina: January 13, 2012

 

 

Biltmore garden party

 

imagine a summer party
on the lawn… in 1897… imagine
the guests in their
tuxedos and ball gowns idly
smoking or talking… imagine
a tired servant walking
around with a tray
of hors devours… feeling
the gravel poke
through the holes in old
shoes… the chafe of starched
cotton on sweaty skin
under a wool jacket… looking
at the rich
girls, so fair in their silks…
knowing that
nobody noticed him
any more than they noticed the stone
man carved at the edge of the cornice…
glad to get
back to the brief camaraderie
of the kitchen… walking half
asleep…
knowing that a hot bed
under the roof would
be more
welcome to his tired
limbs than the softest eider down
of his betters… still
to be idle all day
might be nice… to read
great books like the Boss, paint
pictures like Mr. Sargent,
or look down ones nose at all
and sundry like the pale
young millionaire,
might not be all bad…
might be a lark
so to speak…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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