Monday, December 8, 2014

Art in the Ozarks, Part 2

The whole point of the trip to NWA was to go to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. B and M and I went twice—on Friday evening and again on Saturday afternoon. My apologies for no decent building photos--it was raining like mad when we were there.

The Moshe Safdie design is quirky and doesn’t really shout Palace of Culture in the way that some museums do. There’s no grand portico and entrance and instead, you enter by taking an elevator from the parking lot down to the lobby level. Once in the lobby, they ask you to fork over your zip code. That’s it. The place is free. They don't even take your photo ID if you use one of the museum's acoustiguides!

"Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand, 1849
"The Lantern Bearers", Maxfield Parrish, 1908
 The galleries are large and handsome; I loved the permanent collection.

"Worth the Wait" by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman
The State of the Art exhibition was fun, too. I was pleasantly surprised to see the work of my friend Nate Larson in the show. State of the Art seems like such a super idea--it makes you wonder why no one had the idea to travel across America in search of cool non-New York art scene stuff previously.

I can't recommend the museum and the exhibition highly enough. 

An unexpected highlight of the trip was the Daisy Air Gun Museum in Rogers, Arkansas. (You didn't think I could skip it, did you?)  The museum is just a couple of rooms worth of stuff but nicely done. The exhibits are mostly you guessed it, Daisy Air Guns, but there were “didactic materials” i.e. text panels that explain the history of the company. Interestingly enough, the company started as a sideline for a windmill company in Michigan but as rural electrification put windmills out of business air rifles became the company’s bread and butter.

I loved the old art from Daisy advertisements. The modeling agency offered the boy in the red vest an actual Daisy Air Rifle and much to his dismay, his mother wouldn't let him accept it.

There was a gift shop, or a gift nook, actually, where they sold seconds of Daisy Air Rifles, ammo, and slingshots too. The clerk told me that they couldn’t ship slingshots to certain states- New Jersey among them. Presumably this is because Gov. Chris Christie makes too tempting of a target.

At the Daisy Air Rifle museum I picked up a rack card for the Rogers Historical Museum and immediately said—lo and behold!—they have an exhibit on Victorian funerals! It was just two blocks away—how convenient.

The funeral exhibit was only slightly larger than the gift nook at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum, and if you were in elementary school you might find it interesting, but it really wasn’t directed at adults.

The museum maintains a Victorian bungalow as a house museum in addition to its modern exhibition space. We took the house tour, but I think our docent would have done better with a different audience. The extremely gracious woman insisted on walking us out to the car in a heavy rain with her golf umbrella. I have to admit, I was a tad scared she was going to get in the car with us. I think it was a slow day at the museum.

We took in a second E. Fay Jones chapel, the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel. Another glass lantern in the woods, it was similar to Thorncrown Chapel. There was no funeral home music—just the sound of heavy rain on the roof. There was no custodian about, so I was left wondering about snow removal. This chapel, built 11 years after Thorncrown Chapel, was more elaborate and therefore probably had a plow on a garden tractor or even a snowblower instead of the plain old snow shovel with wheels that they have at Thorncrown Chapel. 

Of course I couldn’t go to Bentonville w/o stopping in the Walmart Museum, which is behind the fa├žade of the first Walton’s 5 & 10, on the main square in Bentonville. It’s from this little speck of a store that a mighty empire (or cancer, if you prefer) grew.

I know people of my age and socio-economic stratum, whatever that is (as in doofus hipster-wannabes) tend to think that Walmart is a manifestation of hell on earth and that we should steer or our Subarus and Priuses to Mom and Pop stores where the stuff is made in a better class of Chinese prison, the employees belong to the Beer of the Month Club, and so on.

I shop at Walmart from time to time and I’m mostly grateful to Sam Walton & crew for building a better mousetrap. Yes, there are things I’d like Walmart to do differently, but the same goes for Apple, Google, and lots other Fortune 500 companies. What's more, without Walmart, we wouldn’t have the website People of Walmart.

The Walmart Museum is just a few rooms and tells the Walmart corporate story in direct and unassuming way. The largest single display is Sam Walton’s office, displayed just as it was when he died in 1992. It reminded me of seeing John Wanamaker’s office preserved in his namesake Center City Philadelphia department store when I was a kid.  I think Sam Walton’s  office looks remarkably like Jimmy Stewart’s preserved office in the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

The Walmart Museum doesn’t have a gift shop, but there’s a faux 1950s soda fountain, with the friendliest soda jerk-ettes ever.

Saturday night we’d planned to go to the gala tree lighting in the Bentonville town square but it was rained out. We did, however manage to walk through the square on our way to dinner just as the lights were turned on. The lights are great; I can only imagine what all the entertainment and whatnot would have been like.

Dinner was fine, and afterward we had a couple of drinks in the finally open 21C Museum Hotel bar, hosted by Brandon, a bona fide hipster who makes his own mustache wax, and no I am not making that up.  He’s also an Anglican priest (seriously) and through the power of God transubstantiated C2H5OH into the body (or was that the blood?) of Jim Beam through a ritual involving vigorous agitation of a cocktail shaker. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this since his business card identifies him as not only a mixologist and craft cocktailier but also a "retrotender".

After sampling Brandon's handiwork, I was racking some Z’s on my last night in Arkansas when at 2:30 am Sunday morning I was awakened by someone pounding on the door across the hall.  I went to the peep hole and saw a short woman in a stretchy black top, black yoga pants and neon running shoes pounding angrily on the door immediately across the hall from my $299 per night (plus tax and valet parking) room.

GIVE ME MY FUCKING PHONE!!   (This is a direct quote.)

She kept pounding on the door.


Exercise clothes and running shoes. I couldn’t imagine where she would have gone in Bentonville, Arkansas at this hour dressed like that. Hell, I couldn’t imagine where she’d go in the daylight dressed like that. I’m a strict constructionist on this issue—and think that you should only wear workout gear on the way to and from the gym. But it does seem to be the outfit of the moment of women of a certain age and social class. One size fits, or rather more often doesn’t fit, all.

Since I valued my personal safety especially those parts covered by my Lilly Pulitzer boxer shorts, I passed on the opportunity to open my door and offer her unsolicited fashion advice.  Even though she really needed it.

Whoever was in the room must have been completely deaf or be the type of person who starts smoking just for the joy of quitting. She pounded relentlessly but no one opened the door. She wasn’t about to be deterred. 


Good lord, was that her entire vocabulary? She was like a living, breathing Arkansas Chatty Cathy and that little record inside her was stuck.

I said to myself, Fuck this noise. (Another direct quote.)

I picked up the phone by the bed and pushed the button for front desk. A woman picked up.

This is Rick Bryant in 202. There’s some sort of disturbance in the hall outside my room.

The woman said, “Yes, we know, we’re taking care of it.”  I thought, well, you might already know about it, but you’d have a hard time making me believe that you’re taking care of it.

Since World War III was still going on when I hung up, I went back to the door to check out the action.  The woman in the black outfit had been joined by hotel staff and a man who looked like James Gandolfini, only larger and not dead.  He wasn’t wearing a shirt. Not a pretty sight, but, in retrospect, it did add a grace note—make that a few bars, actually---of Ozarks white-trashiness. 

Unlike me, the J.G. look alike (only larger and not dead) didn’t seem to have body image issues. I’m embarrassed to take off my shirt on a New Jersey beach and here’s Large Marge’s cousin in all his shirtless glory in the middle of a donnybrook outside my $299 (plus tax and valet parking) room door.

Have you no pride? Put a shirt on for Chrissakes.

That didn’t happen. So much for the mental telepathy I thought I might have picked up at Christ of the Ozarks.

The J.G. look alike (only larger and not dead) seemed like the type of guy who wears black off-brand underwear. Unless he’s screwing someone who’s not his wife, then he wears the black Calvins that he keeps at the back of his underwear drawer since he thinks they mold his balls into an impressive wad. Were he gay, he’d have been a hit at Ozarks Bearfest. He’d bring not only the love handles but also the boyfriend drama.

Presumably the hotel employees were trying to bring peace to the warring parties. They had that deer-in-headlights thing going on and were not exactly taking control of the situation. The combatants were irate and perhaps irrational. I’m not entirely certain that there wasn’t a film crew for The Real Housewives of Arkansas just out of my field of vision.

Woman: Give me my fucking phone.

Man: It’s not her phone it’s my work phone.

Woman: I just want my fucking phone.

Man: Don’t you touch me. She touched me.

(Yes, this is what they actually said. I took notes.)

Repeat ad nauseum.

The players moved out of my frame but not out of earshot so I went back to bed and covered my ears with a pillow.

This wouldn’t happen at Wynn Las Vegas I thought to myself. Those clowns would have been thrown out in all of about 2 minutes.  And Wynn Las Vegas never has had a coffee stain in in the carpet in front of the credenza. Yes, I was entering the bitchy phase of sleeplessness.

Yeah, we’re handling it." That’s a statement that ranks right up there with “The check’s in the mail” and “Of course, I’ll respect you in the morning” and the famous third big lie that I don't need to repeat here.

I should have picked up the phone and said, "If you’re handling it, why does it sound the same as when you weren’t handling it?"

The noise came and went for a while. A sound night’s sleep wasn’t in the cards.  I wonder if the guy in 'Twas the Night Before Christmas felt this way when he sprang from his bed to see what was the matter? Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, but I was in no mood to dash out a rhyming couplet or two in anapestic tetrameter.

The commotion heated up at 4:00 am so I peered through the peep hole again in time to see the desk clerk unlocking the door across the hall. Two policemen were with her, and the James Gandolfini-doppelganger (only larger and not dead) was there too. Ms. Yoga Pants was nowhere to be seen.

The desk clerk stood sentry holding the door open while the policemen watched the guy dress and pack his black rolling suitcase. He must be better at traveling lightly than I am because it didn’t take long before he was zipping his bag. He was escorted out by the police and the unhappy looking desk clerk.

The situation was finally over. I had to resort to the help of Big Pharma in order to get to sleep.

I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. Not many cost $299 a night (plus valet parking), but there have been a couple. I’ve NEVER have I had my own personal community theater production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before. Especially not with a 2:30 am curtain. 

Perhaps I should have intervened. I’m not sure what I could have done to get them to act like reasonable humans and not like two rude assholes. Perhaps the sight of my Lilly Pulitzer boxer shorts and my "Reason Number 23: Domineering Mother" t-shirt would have been enough to diffuse the situation. But I don’t think so. They were pretty intent on fighting.

When I checked out the next morning, I asked the desk clerk—a chirpy sort and not the woman who was on duty at 2:30 am—what had happened the previous night. The desk clerk  said that they didn’t really know what to do (duh) that the night auditor had to go upstairs and sort it out.

Nice. Mortimer Snerd to the rescue, I thought.

She told me that the police took the woman to jail, since she’d scratched the man. The police took the man to the airport. Frontier justice, Arkansas-style apparently.

Later that day, we spent some time in Fayetteville at a Confederate Cemetery and then flew back to Pennsylvania.

Except for that last night’s stay, it was a great time in NWA. I’d seen lots of great art, some wonderful architecture, met nice people and even laughed at a convenience store called Kum & Go.   Being kept awake by the couple fighting over the fucking phone at 2:30 am. in not something I'll forget. Spending a pile on a hotel does not guarantee a good night's sleep. 

P.S. I wrote the manager of the hotel the day I got home and said that I thought my last night should be comped or severely discounted due to the disturbance that kept me from sleeping. His response was, and I quote:

I would like to apologize for this unfortunate issue, our night audit team is indeed trained to try to defuse the situation and if all else fail as it was the case, then to call law enforcement as they did. Those situation are usually delicate and unlike hotels of much larger size like the one you mentioned we do not have a full security staff and we have to rely on the local police. 

I am at your service to answer any questions you may have and if you find it in your heart to give us another chance, please contact me directly as I will gladly extend a very special rate and a complimentary upgrade (depending on occupancy). 

A very special rate and complimentary upgrade (depending on occupancy).  Wow!

The web site of the 21C Hotels chain advises travel writers and bloggers to contact their Director of Corporate Communications. I wrote to her on November 25 and received an away message. I wrote again two days after her away message said she'd be back at work. She responded the same day and said she'd respond as soon as she was back at work at the home office in Louisville. I'm still waiting to hear from her. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Art in the Ozarks, Part 1

Not too long ago my chums Martha and Bruce and I decided to go to Bentonville, Arkansas.

That’s right, Bentonville, Arkansas. It was a jaunt to see the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. The museum—recently founded by Alice Walton (as in the daughter of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart)—focuses on American art. In addition to seeing the Moshe Safdie designed museum and its permanent collection, we’d get to see the State of the Art exhibition, for which curators visited 44 of 50 states to find new work that was outside the NY/LA art scene. Close friends had visited Crystal Bridges and came back with good things to say, so the three of us booked tickets for The Natural State.

The first thing I had to get used to after landing in Arkansas was seeing the initials N.W.A splashed all over the place. Every time I saw them I thought of the hip hop group from Compton, California rather than Northwest Arkansas. Call me a slow learner.

Instead of staying in the United States of Generica, as in a familiar chain hotel with e-z access to the interstate highway, we opted to spend more than we typically spend on lodgings to stay in Bentonville proper at the 21C Museum Hotel. It’s a boutique hotel/art museum, an unusual concept but certainly better than say a boutique hotel slash slaughter house or a boutique hotel slash bowling alley. At least that’s what I thought when I booked our rooms.

Google maps and my rental car led me from the NWA Regional Airport to the hotel with no problem at all. The non-descript modern building is a block from the super cute Bentonville town square. The hotel looked as if it could have been the headquarters of a specialty software firm, one that say, developed a management system for miniature golf courses or sold software used in the mega church industry. There was no porte-cochere, discreet awning, or sign indicating the place was a hotel. In fact, there wasn’t even an indentation in the curb that would indicate you should pull over there. It was hotel as twenty-first century speakeasy: the folks who know know, and the folks who don’t need to know won’t know.

There were, however, Kelly penguins here and there.

 They were the hotel's thing, as it were.

My first inkling that something was up was that you can’t park your own car. There’s just the valet option, at $12/day plus tipping. Even the over-the-top hotels of Las Vegas have a self-park option. But unlike the 21C, there’s nothing discreet about them---they’re out and proud as hotels, welcoming the hoi polloi, that is, as long as their credit cards aren’t maxed out.

The 21C’s lobby was a minimalist loft-y looking space with polished concrete floors, exposed brick walls and high ceilings. The desk clerk stood at something that looked like long slice of a redwood tree, as if George Nakashima did hotel furnishings. Two clerks laptops standing at a big log. That pretty much sums it up.
The lobby walls are hung with large artwork of the kind I’d associate with hedge fund billionaires, not that I associate with hedge fund billionaires. While it’s obviously popular with some folks, the art was a tad too contemporary for my taste. Don’t stop by if you hope to see a Gainsborough.  

At check in they told me that they’d just had fire in the kitchen—hence the faint smell of a charcoal grill. The restaurant and bar would be closed until further notice.

Ack!!   (That’s a direct quote.)

The last time I stayed in a hotel—let alone a boutique hotel slash museum—that didn’t have a bar was pretty much never. They told me that there were a couple of licensed establishments a block away. And no, they didn’t offer me a coupon for a free drink from my hotel room mini-bar for the inconvenience.  So much for Southern hospitality!

My room was on the second floor. There was a “Pardon Our Dust” sign taped to the wall of the second floor elevator lobby. It briefly occurred to me that it could be art, but my guess was that it was a real sign. I couldn’t figure out where they were working but the hallway plaster was battered here and there and needed a few dabs of paint. I’m all for the 21C’s somewhat minimalist esthetic, but it requires the management to be on its toes maintenance-wise, or else every blemish shows.

The minimalist vein continued in my room which had a view of the roof of the lobby with the Bentonville water tower in the distance.

As soon as I walked in I noticed the stain in front of the credenza as if someone spilled a cup of coffee and the Oxy-Clean was almost, but not quite, up to the task of getting the stain out.

I was reminded of a story told to me by a friend who works in the high end (think the Four Seasons chain) hotel industry. It seems that when rooms are cleaned by the housekeeping staff, a supervisor has to go over them on what they call “pube patrol” to make sure that everything is perfect for the next guest. I looked at the stain and thought, “So much for the pube patrol.”

My bathroom was huge and was tiled beautifully. In addition to fluffy white towels, it was fitted out with the mandatory soaps and lotions of an unknown but expensive sounding brand. There was even a yellow rubber duck for my enjoyment in the shower. It’s obviously meant to be humorous since there was no bathtub, just a shower. I turned it so it faced the wall. I didn’t want any old rubber duck looking at me when I was showering.

Since the restaurant and bar were closed due the fire, I walked into Bentonville to look for a place to eat. I settled on a burger joint. It’s supposed to have NWA’s best burger according to the local magazine. The burger wasn’t that great (as in no threat to In and Out Burger) but the Freedom Fries (Freedom Toast was on the breakfast menu) were very tasty, especially when accompanied by a bit of ketchup from the Paul Bunyan scaled squeeze bottle. Apparently they really like ketchup in NWA.

A bunch of business types in what are now called “dress pants” came in and sat at the table next to my booth. One of them looked a lot like Tony Romo, whom I find strangely attractive when he sports his usual backwards baseball cap look, even if he does play for the Dallas Cowboys. The burger wasn’t that good but the eye candy was excellent.

On my way out, I ordered the small twist cone. It was horrible. I didn’t know that soft ice cream could be so bad. I tossed it into the first garbage can I found. I didn’t need those calories anyway.

I’d scarcely thrown my cone away when a group of about eight thirty something corporate types asked if they could pick me up and take a photo while I held some sort of flower. They were on some sort of team-building scavenger hunt. I said sure.  Unfortunately for them, I didn’t have a business card that started with the letter M, the other thing they were looking for that night.

When M & B arrived at the hotel at 10:45 we made a bee line for a bar suggested to us by the desk clerk. They couldn’t believe we were forking over a pile for a hotel with no bar.

We crossed the town square—complete w Confederate monument—to the nearest licensed establishment. We arrived at that perfect moment between the band finishing and last call. B thinks about 95 percent of live music is too loud.

The handful of people at the bar worked at the place—it was nearly last call after all—and were quite friendly. The guys belonged to the au courant hair and skinny jeans tribe, while the women should have stopped getting piercings a couple of pokes ago. The bartender had a bouffant that would have made Jackie Kennedy proud--when prodded he said he used pomade but didn’t reveal any beauty secrets. Caleb the Dishwasher, who hadn’t cut his hair in three years, was especially engaging. I didn’t think that I needed to ask him if the haircut hiatus included manscaping. He told us the place serves a great breakfast and so we made plans to come back the next morning.

On Friday morning the hotel restaurant was still out of commission. The hotel had put a couple of Keurig coffeemakers on a table in the lobby. They'd also put out a bowl of bananas and apples, and a box of donuts with pink icing and sprinkles. I couldn’t figure out if the donuts were there to be ironic, or if someone really thought the hotel’s guest would want to chow down on some off-brand Krispy Kremes.

After our breakfast at the bar (in theory tasty; in reality cold) we headed out to see architect E. Fay Jones’ masterwork, Thorncrown Chapel, about an hour from the hotel. While we were there to see the Crystal Bridges museum, it was open over the weekend while the chapel wasn’t.

The place is truly spectacular, even on an overcast day. The non-denominational chapel is a glass box whose roof is supported by an elaborate system of small trusses made from what seemed to be 2 by 4s. The chapel’s furnishings are limited to pews, a pulpit, and a piano.

It wasn’t crowded; the two other visitors left shortly after we arrived. The chapel was staffed by a retired pastor. He was engaging and thoughtful, but he didn’t stand up the entire time we were there.  The one sour note—so to speak, was the sound track of music reminiscent of Koch Funeral Home, popular hymns played on the Hammond Organ. How Great Thou Art, indeed.

As we walked to the rental car, we met the property’s handyman. The handyman was itchin’ to chat and we learned all about his snow shovel on wheels. I can’t imagine that it snows much there but he said he was was blessed to have it. I thought he was going to take us to his shed to show it off, but I made sure we said we had to dash before that could happen.

Google Maps told us that Christ of the Ozarks was just a couple of miles away—I don’t know about you, but to me, nothing says Arkansas like a 67’ tall statue of Jesus, so we headed over there right as soon as we left Thorncrown Chapel.

Christ of the Ozarks is on the grounds of The Great Passion Play, a biblical tableau that happens in the summer. The grounds consisted of a bunch of ramshackle buildings, built without benefit of designer, arrayed around a parking lot, built without benefit of contractor. My guess is that the Angel Eddie Joe told some guy in a dump truck to drop concrete blocks and some macadam right there--hence Christ of the Ozarks.

After driving around the parking lot not knowing where to go, we went into the gift shoppe (always open) to ask where the statue was. The two staffers—who by their hair and clothes stopped getting Vogue in, well, um, a LONG time ago, suggested that our very first stop should be the Bible Museum in the back of the gift shop.
Pictures of CHRIST. Look closely.
Interestingly enough it was filled with Bibles and some kooky stuff too.

While M and I looked at the tchotchkes in the gift shop, Bruce chatted up one of the cashiers who urged him to come back in May, to the amplitheater (her pronunciation) to see the show.
The other cashier showed M. and me some pottery made by the now-retired Jesus. It’s a demanding role, playing Christ in The Great Passion Play, she said, “That cross gets heavy!

The Christ of the Ozarks, erected in 1966 by Gerald L.K. Smith, an associate of Huey Long, turned out to be even better than I expected. It’s one huge piece of whackadoodle outsider art; allegedly the third tallest statue of Jesus in the world.  The work has been described as looking like a milk carton with a tennis ball stuffed on top, and whoever it was who said that, well, they were on to something.

The sign at the base of the statue alone is worth the visit.

That’s where I learned that it cost $6,000 to repair one finger. No, no the middle one.

It's not often that I look at a photo and say, "Ozymandias!"

The sculptor, Emmett Sullivan, went on to do Dinosaur World, which, unfortunately we somehow missed.

After our fill of Christ of the Ozarks, it was time for a bite to eat in Eureka Springs, followed by a tour of the Pea Ridge Battlefield.

In case you're not familiar with the Battle of Pea Ridge, it took place in March 1862. Though Union forces were outnumbered by Confederate forces, the still carried the day, cementing the Union's control of Missouri.  We were the only tourists there, though we did run into a guy who was counting deer as a part of a research project.

Dinner that evening was at the Monte Ne Inn, a restaurant recommended by a friend, but also endorsed by Caleb the Dishwasher. It was one of the coolest places I’ve eaten in eons. There’s no menu. They serve one thing, a fried chicken dinner. And that’s bean soup, followed by fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, cole slaw, and hot bread. And the keep bringing the food until you tell them to stop. If you have room, there are homemade cobblers for dessert. The chicken is someplace between quite possibly the best fried chicken you’ve ever had and a religious experience. Yes, it’s that good. We had a great time talking to the owner, who shared the history of the place and what it’s like to own a restaurant that serves only one thing. He seemed like a good egg, and if you’re ever in NWA, make it a point to go there to eat.

OK, this is getting pretty long, so I'll close right here and save Crystal Bridges, The Walmart Museum, and what happens when your hotel room is across the hall from one of The Real Housewives of Arkansas for the next post.