Invasion of the Asphalt Snatchers

You know that cult classic movie where aliens invade the earth in the form of simulacrums that hatch out of giant pea pods? Well, this is not exactly like that, but it does feel like campus has been invaded by simulacrums driving big excavators, tractors and dump trucks. Their goal? Not world domination, but the transformation of the center of campus into something more pleasing than a poke in the eye. I’m talking about that loop of asphalt that wraps around the admissions building and is the noisy province of super-woofing students’ cars, snow plows, delivery trucks and the periodic MOO!ver transit bus.

That’s all changing, as the front yard of the dining hall and Mather gets a facelift and a positive attitudinal adjustment from “driveway” to “walkway.” The sprawling asphalt is being replaced by narrower paths of paving stones, and accented by a stone-walled embankment in front of the dining hall for sitting on and discussing the finer points of existentialism. The grade will be raised up by the admissions building, for easier entry, and the mishmash of steps, railings, ramps and weeds between the dining hall and Mather will be replaced with green space and paths. It will be nothing less than a transformation, and one much more in keeping with Marlboro’s hill farm roots. You can follow the exciting changes on a webcam mounted on the dining hall, refreshing, so to speak, every two minutes.

I know, I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “But what about four square, that game of strategy and skill, played in all kinds of weather and all kinds of footwear, perhaps the most hallowed of Marlboro athletic traditions after broomball?” The crumbling asphalt in front of the dining hall was the sacred location of countless four square tournaments that went on until it was too dark to see the ball coming at your face. What are you supposed to do, play on the hill farm lawn? It turns out, the landscape architect who designed the changes to the front yard happens to be a hardcore four square player, and he has designed a regulation-size court into the path. It almost seems too good to be true, and I wonder if he is really a simulacrum like in that old movie. If any of the excavator drivers wants to dig a new broomball stadium, I am going to start hunting for giant pea pods.

 

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Celebrating a Little More

Just when all the party tents and flowers and bon mots from commencement were put away, and you thought it was safe to stop making merry for a few days, here comes another Marlboro milestone. Last night a whole boatload of faculty, alumni and staff gathered in the dining hall to toast, roast and generally have the usual good time with Tim Little, who retires this year. Some of the emeritus-ly faculty who came waltzing out of the woods for this event, such as the likes of Tom Ragle, Luis Batlle, Geoffry Brown, Edmund Brelsford, Ted Wendell, Michael Boylen and Jaysinh Birjepatil, gives you an indication of just how big a deal Tim’s retirement is, as if you don’t know.

Tim has always struck me as the product of some kind of magical union between Socrates, Santa Claus and the best storyteller you can imagine. He did not dispel that image last night, even after a toasting and honoring and eulogizing and extolling that would have reduced most mortals like myself to a blubbering mass of schmaltz. I mean, even after being conferred an honorary doctorate, including a Marlboro academic “hood” that appeared to take the combined effort of President Ellen and trustees Ted Wendell and Peter Mallary ’76 to get over his head correctly, Tim was not lost for words. With his characteristic photographic detail and sense of irony, he described the last time he had the honor of wearing such a hood, which he borrowed from trustee Zee Persons to attend the inauguration of the new president of Norwich University. We’re talking Iron Age Marlboro history here, but Tim described it as if it were yesterday’s bridge game or the French Restoration. He will be remembered with the same equitable sense of wonder.

 

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Graduatin’ in the Rain

Here’s a bit of Marlboro memorabilia for y’all. In 1971, that’s right, 40 years ago, Marlboro’s graduating seniors rebelled against wearing gowns for the first time, including those outrageous caps that look like you are balancing an LP on your head. Instead, students wore their usual bellbottoms, tie-died Ts, peasant blouses, plaid shirts and mini, midi and maxi skirts, and were led into the hall by bagpipes. Caps and gowns were reintroduced in later years, just like LPs were, in keeping with longstanding tradition and the words of the 19th-century French writer known as Stendhal, “Only great minds can afford a simple style.” Still, as one graduate pointed out to me before they paraded into Persons Auditorium yesterday, this is Marlboro, and you can wear pretty much what you want.

In addition to being the rainiest commencement in recent memory, this year’s parade was marked by more unique variations on the cap and gown than I can recall from years of yore. Sari Brown wore a traditional pollera in keeping with her field research in Bolivia, and Alexandra Spohrer wore a pleated chiffon dress right out of Grand Hotel, consistent with her study of costume in performance. Devin Green wore his trademark bare feet and Thea Schneider, who studied the physiology of sled dogs, wore an Alaskan Malamute hat that made everyone’s tails wag. There was pretty much every possible departure from the somber academic garb, all the way from elegant lace to the timeless, just-rolled-out-of-bed look highly favored on campus.

Oh, there were speeches of course. President Ellen made everyone feel as welcome as if she were sitting down with us to tea and cider donuts, and senior speaker Jonathan Jones talked about finding family on Potash Hill. Claudine Brown, director of education at the Smithsonian Institution, gave a rousing commencement address, remembering the many turns in her path to professional fulfillment. I found it more than a little auspicious, given the expressive outfits of so many graduates, that Claudine started out majoring in fashion design. But I have to say, the highlight of the ceremony for me was the musical interlude, Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” played by senior Zach Pearson and music professor Stan Charkey on dueling electric guitars. Okay, call me sentimental.

Check here for videos of commencement, to be posted soon.

 

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Wherefore Art

You know, some Marlboro traditions are truly worth leaving behind. Throwing unaware diners into the fire pond, as practiced by members of the Tri-Mu “fraternity” of the 1980s, comes to mind. Maybe singing the national anthem at commencement, as was done until 1970, is another example. Well, I say the tradition of having an “open studio” at the end of each semester, as inspired by ceramics professor Martina Lantin starting last year, is one tradition worth keeping around. At least until someone gets the idea of throwing a random artist into the firepond.

This semester’s open studio, which took place yesterday afternoon, included samples of paintings in upper Baber, and drawings in lower Baber inspired by phrases from Tennessee Williams’ work (in collaboration with senior Elizabeth Hull’s Plan in Theater). It also featured mind-bending sculptures in Perrine, amazing photographs in Woodard, and shiny ceramics in, duh, the ceramics studio. There were even theater students doing dramatic readings of their own plays in Appletree, a real crowd-pleaser even if there weren’t cookies. But my favorite part about these open houses is snooping around from cubby to cubby, seeing what each art student is up to. If you are nosy like me this is a dream come true, to see works in progress, witness the source of an idea, find out who keeps all their materials in a neat line and discover who’s studio looks like the site of an art tsunami.

The open studio also coincided with Lex Kosieradzki’s Plan exhibition, titled “Play Station.” I was grateful to learn that this had nothing to do with the Sony gaming network recently breached by data-thieving hackers. No no. Lex’s work is much more low-tech, with photographs, videos and sculptures that challenge the observer to think about perception and their own role in experiencing art. Large sheets of metal and large tin buckets were available to generate large amounts of artistic noise, and an interactive sculpture that involved geometric sticks, ribbon-bedecked t-shirts and colored duct tape brought out the contortionist in everyone. But my favorite was a tiny booklet of Lex’s “Ideas for Sculptures,” most of them whimsical performance art pieces that might easily go unnoticed, like, “For four minutes, four people blow bubbles in the four oceans.” It was clear that he could be busy for many years to come with these ideas, and I personally volunteer to help him with the bubbles if I get the South Pacific.

 

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Senior Plan Crossing

If you spend a lot of time walking around in the dark at night like I do, you know that there are a few rainy nights in the spring, here in Vermont, when every self-respecting spring peeper, wood frog and spotted salamander comes out in mobs, absolute mobs. They swarm across the roads on their way to vernal pools like ceremonial bathers crowding the banks of the Ganges, like Catholics elbowing into St. Peter’s Square for a Papal Inauguration, like Xbox shoppers on Black Friday. It’s just that same sense of explosive activity that happens this time of year on campus, when every self-respecting performing arts senior on Plan is presenting his music or her play or his dance or her avant-garde live video installation. Just this weekend there were two amazing Plan presentations, enough to overwhelm any spring peeper.

First there was a collection of short plays and poems by Tennessee Williams, peopled by our man Tennessee’s usual cast of dreamers, misfits and fugitives, all directed by senior Elizabeth Hull and performed in Whittemore Theater. The plays were Talk to Me Like the Rain, This Property is Condemned and Lady of Larkspur Lotion, referring to a lotion once used for lice. Now, I’m no Shakespeare but these plays were really artfully done and dug right into Tennessee’s “mystery of life and the meaning in the confusion of living.” Not only that, the actors and actresses actually spoke up so I could hear them. The plays were layered with poems, recited with feeling by senior Christopher Little, like some kind of delicious, wild at heart, layer cake.

The second Plan performance was a circus, literally. No, not the kind with elephants and lion tamers and sword swallowers and the flying trapeze artists. Senior Sarah Verbil’s performance was called “Circus of the Body,” and it started with a circus midway scene outside Persons Auditorium probably not much different than the dining hall any weekend evening: barkers, clowns, face-painting, contortionists, Siamese twins, fireworks and popcorn “free with the price of admission, which is also free.” Sarah’s show was non-stop entertainment, leading off with 11 dancers doing partnered acrobatics like synchronized swimmers on land, but it also had a serious message about body types and bodily self-image. There was a particularly poignant scene where four very different bodies looked at themselves in four mirrors, reflecting on themselves critically in the way everybody does. Unless you are a spring peeper, of course.

 

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