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Santa Claus ManComing October 2015.

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Posted on September 28, 2015

Santa Claus ManIt’s impossible to say who wrote the first Santa letter, but it was almost certainly from the mythical saint, not to him.

From the earliest conception of Santa Claus in the United States, parents used the voice of St. Nicholas as a means of providing advice and encouraging good behavior in their children. The earliest reference to a Santa letter in America that I could find came from Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, recalling his childhood in 1820s Western New York when he “once received an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels.”

Fanny Longfellow (wife of poet Henry Wadsworth) regularly wrote her children Santa letters, commenting on their behavior over the preceding year. “I am sorry I sometimes hear you are not so kind to your little brother as I wish you were,” she wrote to her son Charley on Christmas Eve 1851.

Soon enough, children started writing back, generally placing their letters on the fireplace, where they believed smoke would transport the message to St. Nick.

By the 1870s, scattered reports appeared of the receipt of Santa letters by local post offices. But with no actual fur-coated toymaker to receive his mail, each January, the department destroyed them.

It was a depressing business. But, officials asked, if mailmen began delivering Santa’s letters, to which other fictional characters would mail be shuttled?

In the face of negative publicity, however, New York City’s postmaster finally relented. Every year, for the entire month of December, any approved organization could answer Santa’s mail. No one volunteered. Then, in 1913, just as the Post Office was about to give up, a man named John Duval Gluck stepped forward. He’d be Santa Claus.

He was also a con artist.

Read the full excerpt at New York Post..

Posted on August 14, 2015

Santa Claus Man Alex PalmerVery excited to share the first review of The Santa Claus Man. Publishers Weekly offered up some kind words about the book, saying, among other things, that "It's a highly readable account of the evolution of one of America's favorite holidays and traditions." The full review is here on Publishers Weekly.

Posted on August 06, 2015

Picasso Sculpture MOMAA new exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) digs deep into an overlooked part of a well-known artist’s oeuvre. Picasso Sculpture, opening September 14, displays the largest assemblage of Pablo Picasso’s three-dimensional works in the U.S. in more than 50 years. The 150 pieces, acquired through loans from private and public collections including Musée Picasso in Paris, spans his entire career, taking up the museum’s entire fourth floor.

“We are actually installing it not in our Special Exhibition galleries, but in our Collection galleries,” says Ann Temkin, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture for MoMA. The reason? “Twice as much space. We wanted people to be able to walk around the sculptures, so they could really be seen in the round.”

In part, MoMA is going big because of the special importance this show holds for the institution. It was MoMA that held the first (and, until now, last) such retrospective in the U.S., with 1967’s The Sculpture of Picasso. At the time, it was a revelation to many visitors that the works existed at all, as the artist had kept his sculpting largely private during his lifetime, surrounding himself with the pieces in his home.

“Now, it’s been 50 years, and there has been a whole lot of scholarship, a whole lot of analysis of how these fit into his work and arc of his career,” says Temkin.

Anne Umland, the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Curator of Painting and Sculpture for MoMA, adds that viewing the collection in 2015 makes one appreciate how “ahead of his time” Picasso was in his choice of materials and artistic approach.

The exhibit is organized into chronological chapters. Unlike his prolific painting, Picasso’s sculptural career can be organized into very distinct periods, with gaps in between. For example, his interest in African and Oceanic art after visiting the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro, as he begins to make sculptures from scraps of wood, “working his way into a new way of thinking sculpturally that was outside the classic traditions,” as Umland puts it.

Picasso never formally trained in sculpture, and his less prescribed approach to the craft makes the works in some ways more accessible than his paintings.

“It’s very graspable,” says Umland, adding that a visitor can “imagine herself making one” of the sculptures—not a sentiment felt by many viewers of Guernica.

Read the story at Rhapsody.

Posted on August 04, 2015

St. Kitts Nevis Killer BeeMonkeys, Lobster and Killer Bee cocktails are all part of an ideal Caribbean getaway to the two-island country called the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis.

Part of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies, the country packs in plenty of adventure, relaxation and culinary riches.

More than just a beach destination, this is a place of rebirth and new beginnings. Formerly a British colony, the sister islands of St. Kitts and Nevis declared their independence Sept. 19, 1983. At the time, the country changed the name of the massive volcano on the western side St. Kitts from Mount Misery to the more alluring Mount Liamuiga (meaning “fertile land”).

And Pall Mall Square, the commercial and administrative center of St. Kitts, located in the country’s capital of Basseterre — and once the location of a slave market — became Independence Square. Even the island itself has two names: the formal name is St. Christopher Island, though it’s widely known as St. Kitts.

Visitors can get a firsthand peek into Kittitian history at Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park ( These defensive fortifications were built by African slaves and used to protect British forces during the 18th century before they abandoned it in 1853. Now protected and designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Brimstone is open for visits every day except Christmas and Good Friday.

Read the full story at the New York Daily News.

Posted on July 30, 2015

Victorian science fictionA new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History investigates the scientific breakthroughs of the nineteenth century—and how they were turned into colorful fiction. Opened this summer and running through October 2016, “Fantastic Worlds: Science and Fiction 1780–1910,” looks at how authors and artists from the past imagined the future, with fantastical conceptions of traveling to the moon, the center of the earth, and into new worlds.

Showcased in the newly renovated Smithsonian Libraries Exhibition Gallery, the show covers a period of unprecedented exploration—across the Arctic and Africa, into the ocean and up in the air—that opened up artists' senses of possibility.

“So many things happened that we now take for granted, but at the time those things were marvels,” says Kirsten van der Veer, co-curator of the exhibit.

Items from the library’s collection, including original works by L. Frank Baum, Jules Verne, and Mary Shelley, reflect how creative minds of the era strove to understand their fast-changing world. These stories, reports, and in some cases hoaxes, found an especially engaged audience among the Victorians.

“The public became interested in science,” says van der Veer, pointing to changes like new transportation and postal systems, a higher degree of literacy and more leisure time for the middle classes. These created a hunger for new ideas, whether based on verified fact or delightful fiction.

Read the story in Rhapsody.

Posted on July 15, 2015

Singer Sewing Machine HistoricThe Singer sewing machine revolutionized the way the world created and repaired its fabric, and transformed not only the textile industry, but also global business itself. But a closer look at the Singer patent model, which is on display as part of the American Enterprise show at the National Museum of American History, proves that the machine's success was not just a matter of a brilliant invention whose time had come.

“Most Americans think that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door,” says the museum's Peter Liebhold, one of the curators of the new exhibition. “In fact, that’s not true. If you build a better mousetrap, it could sit and rot in the corner of your garage.”

For one thing, Isaac Merritt Singer could hardly claim to have invented the sewing machine. It was Elias Howe who created the original sewing-machine concept and patented it in 1846, charging exorbitant licensing fees to anyone trying to build and sell anything similar. But Singer—an eccentric entrepreneur, actor and father of about two dozen children from different partners—came upon a few ways to improve Howe’s model, such as a thread controller, and combining a vertical needle with a horizontal sewing surface.

Read the full story at

Posted on July 07, 2015

Peter J. Cohen CollectionA new exhibit is taking family snapshots, usually squirreled away in storage or buried in drawers, and giving them the gallery treatment. “Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, showcases dozens of funny, striking, and personal photos that look into the past through the surprisingly artistic eye of amateurs.

The approximately 300 photos in the show, which runs from July 11, 2015 to February 21, 2016, come from the collection of Cohen, who a quarter century ago found himself drawn to a set of eight quirky snapshots at a New York City flea market.

“I said, ‘I don’t know why I bought these, but I’m going back next weekend,’” he says.

He did return the next weekend, and most weekends after that for years, buying up loose pictures, then full albums, extending his hunt to antique shops, private dealers, then eBay. His collection now runs to about 50,000 photos by Cohen’s estimate, dating back to the earliest days of Kodak’s box camera in the late 19th century, up to the 1970s.

This volume required some organizing. With the help of an artistically inclined friend of his son’s, Cohen began to devise broad categories for the images, finding some surprising links. There were piles of photos with three women (though few with two or four), and a significant number of people standing in cornfields, or climbing up poles. They made categories for people standing on one leg and women holding weapons. Cohen estimates the collection now has around 75 of these idiosyncratic groupings, though he admits his system is “mainly for my own amusement if anything.”

Read the full story in Rhapsody.

Posted on June 29, 2015

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and CultureDavid Adjaye is known for his innovative architectural designs. He integrates a wide array of influences into his own kind of modernism in projects as diverse as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture—perhaps his most ambitious project to date—expected to be opened next year in Washington, D.C. So it may seem strange that a man celebrated for his buildings would also be curating an exhibition about fabric.

Adjaye is overseeing the newest installment of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s “Selects” series, which spotlights the little-known West African textiles in the museum’s permanent collection. The show spotlights 14 colorful cloths, caps and wraps from communities throughout Africa. It also offers the celebrated architect a chance to explore the surprising connections between textile making and building design.

“What’s interesting to me is this idea of fabric and weaving as a kind of abstraction of making places that people come together in,” he says.

Read the full story at Smithsonian Magazine.

Posted on June 15, 2015

A new group show at Florence’s Gucci Museum showcases the many meanings of a familiar object: the flower. “The Language of Flowers,” which runs through September 20, brings together works of four artists—photographers Irving Penn and Valérie Belin, sculptor Latifa Echakhch, and painter Marlene Dumas. Each work explores the floral motif in a distinct way, infused with each artist’s particular sensibility.

“We may think it’s the most anodyne or saccharine subject, but flowers can do great things,” says Matt Witkovsky, chair of the department of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, which houses Irving Penn’s personal archive of photographs, contact sheets, and negatives. He says Penn’s poppy photos of the late 1960s, featured in the Gucci Museum’s show, give visitors “a reminder of our own mortality. The flowers are seductive, gorgeous in their colors, but they are melancholic,” as Penn photographed them on white background just as the petals began to wilt and fade.

Sharing the mournful theme is Dumas’ painting Einder. It depicts a colorful bouquet set on a dark blue background—the coffin of the South African artist’s mother, who passed away shortly before Dumas created the painting.

By contrast, Belin’s photographs, which inlay the image of an elegant woman into a bouquet of flowers, use flora to create what she calls a “dialog” with the subjects’ wavy hair, makeup, and beaded necklaces.

“For me, flowers are like an ideal baroque pattern,” says Belin. Unlike Penn’s focus on the detail of individual blossoms, the French photographer says she selected flowers with a simple outline to create a sort of wallpaper or “decorative vegetal framework,” as Belin puts it.

Read more at Rhapsody.

Posted on June 05, 2015

1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta World's Rarest StampTo see in person the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta—better known as “the rarest stamp in the world”—is a bit like looking at a red-wine stain or a receipt that’s been through the wash a few times.

The octagonal scrap of magenta paper, bearing a postmark and illustration of a three-masted ship, or barque, isn’t much to look at. But as the only known stamp of its kind, with a strange and peculiar origin story replete with colorful characters and record-breaking sales at auction, well, let us say that there is much more to this unspectacular stamp than meets the eye. Beginning today, the exhibit of the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. explores what the museum's chief curator of philately Daniel Piazza calles its "long, most interesting, circuitous history."

That history began in 1855, when just 5,000 of an expected 50,000 stamps arrived from Great Britain to its colony of British Guiana on the northern coast of South America. Shorted by 90 percent, the local postmaster found himself in a tough spot. If the colony's letters and newspapers were to be delivered, he was going to need some way to show the transaction of postage paid. So he decided to issue a provisional stamp to keep the mail moving until more postage could arrive from overseas. The only place that could create something with enough official cache to do the job in 1850s British Guiana was the local newspaper, the Royal Gazette.

Read the full story at Smithsonian Magazine.

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