Saturday, October 10, 2015

Faith & Form

This afternoon we enjoyed Community Day at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Grace Farms is an 80-acre former horse farm operated by the Grace Farms Foundation, which describes it as a place where people can "experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith." The event was one of several this weekend to mark the inauguration of a new facility.

The architecture of the new complex is quite stunning. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA, the main building, known as The River, meanders down the hill in the form of a large, sinuous canopy that "pools" in several areas to enclose programmatic spaces: sanctuary, library, commons, pavilion, court. Its the kind of sinuous modernism I particularly enjoy. My wife described it as "opulent in its minimalism." I quite agree.

Several times during the day, I heard the new facility described as a "gift" to the greater community, and indeed programming for the newly-opened complex already includes use of the sanctuary as the new permanent home of Grace Community Church's Sunday worship services. I had read that the vision for Grace Farms was inspired by the Christian faith, and that it had the intent of house the Grace Community Church, but this last connection was what was curious to me.

I am a Christian and my faith is central to my life. I also value the arts. Since both of these are initiatives of Grace Farms, no problem, right?

In this particular place, though, I was finding it difficult to square faith and art (and more to the point, architecture) in my mind. I was struck by the cognitive dissonance going on in my head as we explored the grounds.

On the one hand, the building is pretty stunning as a work of architecture. Less a building than a pavilion, or even a folly, the architect in me loves the idea of this type of minimalist artistic locus, on the rolling hills, overlooking nature. It's a bit of a romantic notion, I'll admit.

But this is no run-of-the-mill work of architecture. It's a no holds barred, no expenses spared work. I mean, there's hardly a flat piece of glass in the whole place! It takes a lot of expertise and precision, and therefore money, to create something so effortless. Less may be more aesthetically, but it's often more work.

To put it plainly, then, given the extravagance of the building, I couldn't help myself thinking, couldn't the millions and millions of dollars I'm sure it cost be better used elsewhere supporting churches or other faith-based programs? Why spend so much on a facility?

If the complex had been built by a secular arts organization, no problem. But this? Cognitive dissonance.

Here's why I hated that thought in my head, though. Was I suddenly thinking that art and architecture were not a worthy Christian pursuit? The connection between faith and the arts have throughout history produced some amazing things: Cathedrals, Renaissance paintings, Handel's Messiah.

We meandered up the River and found ourselves in the Sanctuary at the top of the hill at the end of the afternoon just in time for a performance.

The first act was a teen pianist who played a Chopin Polonaise. But this wasn't any ordinary teen. The severely autistic teen was a participant in a program called Arts for Healing, where he flourished as a pianist. And that program--the one where this young man had discovered a true gift and a way to communicate and connect with the world when words failed--we were told was going to start being held in one of the brand new facilities at Grace Farms. Warming.

Then out walked the gospel choir. Their performance was amazing, and I found myself particularly enthralled by the woman signing in the choir. Yes, I did mean to say "signing," not "singing." As in, sign language. (As an aside, I've always loved signing choirs. My home church as a teen used to frequently have a signing choir visit, and I was always amazed.) Warming.

Then out came the modern dance troupe. Together with a vocal soloist and gospel choir backup, the dancers interpreted the story from Matthew 28 when Mary Magdalene came to Jesus' tomb only to find it empty and was told by an angel that he had risen from the dead.

That's it. Bingo.

During this performance it hit me. This is why this facility is here; this is what the Foundation is after. This is faith. This is art. In this place full of architects (who like me were probably more interested in the building than the Foundation and its goals) and curious community members the name of Jesus was used unabashedly. Art and faith. Faith and art.

When the choir started their last piece, the young autistic man who had played the piano stood up in his seat and started dancing, unashamed and with what I imagine to be "faith like a child." But he broke the ice. The audience stood, clapping along. It was pretty amazing.

I'm still not feeling entirely squared on this, but I suppose I'm less worried about how much the building cost at the moment. Instead, I hope and pray the facility will be used to provide the opportunities the Foundation seeks: for community engagement with the arts, bound by faith, among nature, seeking justice.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Heads Up

Over the weekend I finished another furniture project which has been a long time in the making: a headboard for our bed. We have not had one since we moved to our "new" house two-and-a-half years ago and got a new bed.

Years ago Kim's uncle, a woodworker, gave us three large flitches of willow. Back in 2009, we built a table out of one of them. It currently lives outside on our deck. The second was split down the middle to make two benches, for said table, but I have never completed that project. Perhaps "someday." The third I thought I might turn into the top for a sideboard, but a suitable design for that never materialized and we do not really have the space for such a piece anyway. We ultimately decided to use it for a headboard and probably about a year ago--I do not remember quite when--I started sanding it.

The piece was rough-cut from a sawmill and had a lot of parallel saw markings transverse to the length of the flitch. It took a lot of sanding with 40 grit sandpaper on a belt sander just to get some of the darkest and deepest marks out of the wood. I had anticipated sanding all of the marks out, but after multiple days of work and learning a bit more about some of the soft spots and other "character" the flitch had to offer after working with it, I decided to leave it a bit rough. (OK, so I'm not gonna lie--part of me was just tired of sanding!) Many of the prominent marks have been diminished, but it still features some sawmill marks and the rough scars of the coarse sandpaper.

I followed up the coarse sanding with 100, 220, and ultimately 400 grit sandpaper to get the piece baby's-bottom smooth. Because willow is such a light wood and our bedroom has predominantly darker furniture (a walnut dresser I refinished a few years ago and our Paul McCobb Planner Group side tables, which, contrary to what this listing may suggest, only cost us $17 for the pair at Goodwill--no Kim, you may not sell them!), I stained the flitch a dark walnut.

After the stain dried, Kim and I rubbed it down with steel wool and then waxed and buffed the surface for a smooth, matte finish. We then mounted it to the wall with a french cleat, which stands it off a bit from the wall so that it appears to float at the head of the bed.

Except for the still-diminishing (though not completely unpleasant) scent of stain and wax, the finished headboard has been a welcome addition to our bedroom!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

I recently re-finished a nice little cabinet (only about 21" tall) into an media storage unit for our electronics and DVDs.

My wife actually saw a corner of this piece sticking out of a snow pile near a dumpster during the winter and we had to wait until the spring melt to pull it out.

The piece is a mix of plywood and hardwood. Though I am usually a wood purist (i.e. I really hate to paint wood furniture) and the cabinet was in surprisingly good shape even after a winter under the snow, I decided to paint the piece. After drying out, this was what we were left with . . .

I removed the retro slanted legs, doors, and hardware and sanded down all of the surfaces. I used steel wool to clean up and smooth out the bright aluminum door rails and rub down the metal handles before spray painting them glossy black. I filled a number of holes and large dents in the body with wood putty.

The exterior of the piece is painted Sherwin Williams Sealskin to match the walls in our family room. To provide a "surprise" pop of color, the inside is Sherwin Williams Cayenne. It took two coats of paint for the exterior and four for the interior. Oh, and the best part: I already had the paint, so there was no cost for this project!

After reassembly, I drilled two holes in the back for cord management and set the unit up in our family room under the wall-mounted TV.

I really love how the piece turned out. The paint took really well to the body and I like that we can finally close up the DVD player and the DVDs (formerly on an open shelf) when not in use. 

Choosing to match the wall color means that this fairly small piece is pretty minimal in the room, but the bright interior really gives it a punch when the doors are open during use.

Overall, a great little refurbishment. Who could ask for more from a grimy snow pile next to a McDonald's!?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Most Inspiring Lunch

Last October I announced on my blog that I had won the Founders Day Instagram Challenge at Yale with my photograph of Timothy Dwight College as viewed from my office. The prize for this particular competition was to be lunch with Yale University's President Peter Salovey for me and a guest.

From left: Nick, President Salovey, and me. I thought it would be fitting to also post this photo on Instagram, #InspiringYale.
On March 24th, my friend Nick and I claimed my prize at a really enjoyable hour-and-a-half long lunch with President Salovey at Mory's on York Street. President Salovey was a gracious host and a great conversationalist. His reputation as a kind and personable individual preceded him and I found it to be accurate.

President Salovey made friendly recommendations concerning certain dishes and told us a bit about the history of Mory's and "The President's Bread Pudding" (which, incidentally, he enjoys...but because it is named in his honor he feels slightly guilty when he orders something else for dessert). Our conversation, which was easy-going and never forced, included topics from architecture on campus to bluegrass music and many things in between. I was pleased that we never "talked shop" about working at Yale.

Overall we had a really enjoyable afternoon with President Salovey. It's opportunities like this that make me proud the be a member of the Yale community.