Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Outsider Artists" from Voice of America




STEVE EMBER:

I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN:

And I’m Barbara Klein with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today, we travel to several countries exploring the world of outsider art. This powerful form of creative expression usually involves art made outside the limits and rules of official culture.

Often, outsider artists have not been formally trained. They use their skills to create visual examples of personal observations, invented worlds, and even severe mental conditions.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER:

The Outsider Art movement has many names and forms. Experts debate about the differences between terms such as Naïve Art, Visionary Art, Folk Art, Intuitive Art and Outsider Art. It would be impossible to explain the entire debate, so we will just tell a few stories about some great artists. The art itself will explain what is special about these similar movements.

BARBARA KLEIN:

Mental health experts helped bring public attention to one form of outsider art. For example, in nineteen twenty-one, a Swiss doctor, Walter Morgenthaler published a book about the art of his patient, Adolf Wolfli. Mister Wolfli was one of the early outsider artists who received popular recognition. During his thirty-five years in a mental hospital in Switzerland, Mister Wolfli created twenty-five thousand pages of drawings and stories.

Adolf Wolfli was a poor farm worker who was placed in a mental hospital in eighteen ninety-five. He soon started making color drawings that he organized into books. For example, around nineteen twelve he finished a nine-book series called “From the Cradle to the Grave.” In this work Mister Wolfli turned his sad childhood into a magical travel story. He included detailed drawings of maps, creatures, rulers, and even talking plants to help capture this imaginary world. In other books, he recreated and renamed the world and universe. He described this world using songs, poetry, and drawings.

STEVE EMBER:

In the nineteen forties the French artist Jean Dubuffet discovered Mister Wolfli’s works and other artists like him. He called this kind of artwork “Art Brut” which is French for “raw art.” He described Art Brut as being created from pure and real creative forces. He saw outsider artwork as being free from the worries of competition and social acceptance that define the official art world. He argued that the official culture of museums, galleries and artists had lost its power.

Art Brut, he said, was still true and powerful art. Jean Dubuffet soon started collecting this kind of art made by mental patients, prisoners and even children. In nineteen seventy-one he donated his personal collection of Art Brut to the city of Lausanne, Switzerland.

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BARBARA KLEIN:

One way to learn more about this movement is to explore its artists. The American Folk Art Museum in New York City has several rich and inventive drawings by the self-taught artist Martin Ramirez. Mister Ramirez was born in the Mexican state of Jalisco in eighteen ninety-five. He left his wife and family in the nineteen twenties to find work in the American state of California.

But the United States was going through the economic problems of the Great Depression. As a result, Martin Ramirez was soon homeless and unable to find work. Police picked him up in Northern California in nineteen thirty-one. He was placed in a mental hospital and told he had a severe mental illness. He spent the next thirty-two years in mental hospitals.

STEVE EMBER:

But there is a happier side to his tragic story. Mister Ramirez might not have been able to express himself in English, but he could do so with his art. In the late nineteen thirties, he started to collect small pieces of paper including food paper packaging, paper cups and book pages. On the large paper surfaces he pieced together, he drew pictures using colors he made from crushed pencils and crayons.

Detail from an untitled drawing by Martin Ramirez
folkartmuseum.org
Detail from an untitled drawing by Martin Ramirez

Over the years, Mister Ramirez drew hundreds of detailed pictures. The horse and rider is one subject he repeatedly drew. He also drew trains and tunnels. His strong repeating lines show depth and motion. Some of his trains come out of mountains, while others go over bridges.

In the early nineteen fifties, a professor of psychology and art named Tarmo Pasto visited Martin Ramirez. Professor Pasto recognized the artistic value of Mister Ramirez's drawings. He gave him art supplies and even organized exhibitions of his work. Most importantly, he made sure Ramirez's art survived and was not thrown away by hospital workers. The extraordinarily skillful and powerful drawings of Martin Ramirez are now a cultural treasure.

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BARBARA KLEIN:

Many outsider artists have very successful careers during their lifetime. The artist known as Mister Imagination was born Gregory Warmack in nineteen forty-eight in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in a poor family. As a young man he made jewelry out of thrown away objects and sold it in local restaurants. One night he was robbed and shot twice in the stomach. At the hospital he fell into a coma and was unable to communicate.

He had a dreamlike vision of a bright light. He later said it represented artists from the past entering his body and mind to guide him. He decided that art would be his life goal and soon changed his name to Mister Imagination. He makes artistic statues from bottle caps and other found objects. They have been shown in galleries and museums across the United States.

These include the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. This museum has more than four thousand pieces by what it calls "visionary" artists. About fifty works are shown at any one time in its permanent collection.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER:

Ku Shu-Lan also enjoyed public recognition of her creations. She was born in nineteen nineteen in the Shaanxi area of China. Like many women in the area, Ku Shu-Lan was very skillful at the art of paper cutting. She often had visions of a magical goddess covered in flowers coming to her in a garden. She said the woman was herself, the paper-cutting goddess. Ku Shu-Lan lived with her husband in a cave carved from earth.

There was not much color in her life, so she made her own. She covered the walls of her home with her richly colored cutouts of this goddess. Some of her images have thousands of finely cut shapes. They are so detailed it is hard to believe the images are not painted. In nineteen ninety-six, Ku Shu-Lan fell and hurt herself. She was in a coma and was not able to communicate for several weeks. Her family started to plan for her burial. But, she later woke up. The first thing she asked for was a pair of scissors so she could start another paper creation.

BARBARA KLEIN:

Other outsider artists use their skills to create entire environments. For example, in Hauterives, France, you can see the Ideal Palace made by a mailman named Ferdinand Cheval. One day in eighteen seventy-nine while delivering mail Mister Cheval found a rock with a strange shape. He decided it was a sign that he needed to make his dream of being a building designer a reality. He spent the next thirty-four years of his life collecting stones and building a wildly imaginative palace building. Mister Cheval mixed periods and styles of Chinese, North African, and Northern European architecture. Today, people can visit this building to experience this mailman's hard work and creativity.

STEVE EMBER:

Helen Martins created a whole other kind of magical environment in the town of Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa. In nineteen forty-five, Miz Martins found that the world looked gray and colorless. She decided she needed to brighten her life. So, at the age of forty-seven she started to glue crushed colored glass in special designs on every surface in her house. Then, she started making statues out of cement material and glass. She read poetry, religious books, and art history to find ideas for her creations. Helen Martins hired two workers to help her create her Owl House and the surrounding Camel Yard.

BARBARA KLEIN:

By the time of her death in nineteen seventy-six, the yard had more than three hundred statues of animals and imaginary creatures. All of them face east toward the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Visitors can enjoy the brightness and color of the universe she created. Like Helen Martins, outsider artists add new life, imagination and skill to the world of creative expression.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER:

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN:

And I’m Barbara Klein. You can read and listen to this program on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Harry Houdini - A Great Magician and Escape Artist - VOA




BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA. Today we tell about Harry Houdini, the great escape artist and magician.

BARBARA KLEIN: It was a hot July day in nineteen twelve. A huge crowd gathered near New York City’s East River. They were there to watch a man whose hands and legs had been locked together. The man was put into a wooden box on a tugboat near the riverbank. The box was nailed shut. Ropes were wrapped around the box. More than ninety kilograms of lead weight were put on top. The box was then lowered into the water.

STEVE EMBER: Time seemed to go by slowly. The crowd was sure the man would soon be dead. But suddenly, there were bubbles in the water. The man swam to the surface, his arms and legs free. When the box was pulled to the surface, it was still nailed shut and the ropes were still wrapped around it. Scientific American magazine later wrote it was “one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.” The man who had just escaped death was named Harry Houdini.

(MUSIC)

BARBARA KLEIN: Harry Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz. He was born in Budapest, Hungary in eighteen seventy-four. His father was a rabbi, a Jewish religious leader. His family moved to the United States two years later. Young Ehrich worked at many different jobs to help earn money for his poor family. But he really wanted to be in show business.

STEVE EMBER: When he was nine years old, he performed a trapeze act on a swing high above the audience. He was “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” Then he read about a famous French magician named Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. It changed his life. Erich took Houdin’s last name, changed the pronunciation and added and “i” at the end. He then began learning magic tricks, and called himself Harry Houdini. He took his act to many places in New York State. For a while, he worked in a traveling circus.

BARBARA KLEIN: At first, Houdini performed regular magic tricks, using cards, coins, and other objects that he would make disappear. But the audience seemed to like it best when Houdini performed an escape. He soon became famous for being able to free himself from danger.

Most of the time, his wrists would be held together by handcuffs. Sometimes chains would be wrapped around his body and locked. At other times, he wore a straightjacket, like the kind used in mental hospitals to restrain patients. He once escaped from a straightjacket while hanging high in the air, upside down, from a crane.

Houdini escaped from milk cans. He escaped from the strongest jails in the United States. No one ever found a pair of handcuffs that would hold him.

STEVE EMBER: But Houdini’s most famous escape was called “The Chinese Water Torture.” First, his feet were locked together. Then he was lowered, upside down, into a glass box filled with water. A curtain was placed in front of the box so the audience could not see how the trick was done.

Several minutes would go by. Houdini’s helpers on stage acted as if something were wrong. The audience feared that the Great Houdini was drowning. They would yell: “Pull him out. Lift him up. He is dying!”

BARBARA KLEIN: But, of course, he was not dying. Finally, the curtain would drop. Houdini would be standing next to the box, free and unharmed.

Audiences around the world loved this trick so much, Houdini performed it for the rest of his career.

(MUSIC)

STEVE EMBER: During Houdini’s lifetime, some people thought it was possible to talk with or somehow communicate with dead people. Houdini hoped this were true. He had loved his mother very much. After she died, he tried to talk with her spirit. But after years of trying, he realized that he was wasting his time. He decided that no one could talk with the dead.

BARBARA KLEIN: But many other people thought Houdini was wrong. They held meetings, or séances, to try to communicate with the “other world.” Usually, people would sit around a table in a darkened room and hold hands. They would close their eyes. The leader of the group, called a medium, would speak out and ask a spirit to come into the room. Sometimes they asked the spirit to speak to them, or to make some kind of sound. Often, the medium would charge money in order to try to contact the spirits.

STEVE EMBER: Harry Houdini knew it was all false. He easily discovered that these mediums were using some kind of trick just to make money. He began to give speeches, telling how the mediums were fooling people. He even spoke before the United States Congress. He said:

JIM TEDDER: “Please understand that I am not attacking a religion. I respect every genuine believer in spiritualism or any other religion. But this thing, wherein a medium communicates with the dead, is a fraud from start to finish. In thirty-five years, I have never seen one genuine medium.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Houdini was so sure that he was right, he offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who could prove he was wrong. No one ever collected the money.

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STEVE EMBER: Harry Houdini had a long career as a magician and an escape artist. He became the most famous magician in the world. He wrote books and acted in movies. He made a lot of money and lived well. He bought a small airplane and flew it himself. His name was always in the newspapers. It seemed the entire world knew the name of Harry Houdini. But Houdini would not live to see old age. His life ended suddenly in nineteen twenty-six.

BARBARA KLEIN: Houdini was resting in a private room after giving a speech at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He had not felt well for several days. A young college student asked to meet the great magician. Houdini agreed.

The young man asked if it were true that Houdini would not be harmed even if hit very hard in the stomach. Houdini said that was true. The student drew back his fist and hit Houdini in the stomach three times.

STEVE EMBER: Houdini had not had time to stiffen his stomach muscles. He fell backward in great pain. Doctors found that Houdini’s appendix had burst. In those days, this almost always caused death. Poisons had been released in Houdini’s body.

He lived for a few more days. Then died on October thirty-first -- Halloween. Thousands of people came to New York City for Houdini’s funeral. He was buried next to his parents on Long Island. Under his head lay a pillow, filled with letters his mother had written to him.

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BARBARA KLEIN: But the story of Harry Houdini did not end there. He had said that no one could communicate with the dead. Yet he had told his wife, Bess, to try to speak with him after he passed into the spirit world. Harry told her two words that he would say to her so that she would not be fooled by some trick. Those words were, “Rosabelle, believe.” “Rosabelle” was the name of a song that Bess had sung many years before. No one but Houdini and his wife knew these secret words.

STEVE EMBER: Bess tried to talk with Harry’s spirit each year on Halloween night. The years passed. Once, Bess said that she thought that one time she had made contact with Harry. But she then said she was wrong. She had been sick. She had heard nothing. Finally, after ten years of trying, something unexpected did happen. Bess gave up. She said that was long enough to wait for any man.

BARBARA KLEIN: Bess was said to have kept a lighted candle by a picture of Harry in her home. Her last attempt at communicating with him was in nineteen thirty-six at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California. She took the candle with her and kept it lit while she called to Harry’s spirit. She tried again and again. When nothing happened, she finally said, almost in a whisper:

FAITH LAPIDUS:“I do not think that Harry will come back to me or anyone. I think the dead don’t speak. I now regretfully turn out the light. This is the end, Harry. Goodnight!”

BARBAR KLEIN: Then she blew out the candle.

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STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Jim Tedder and produced by Dana Demange. Jim Tedder was the voice of Harry Houdini. Faith Lapidus was the voice of his wife, Bess. I’m Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I’m Barbara Klein. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.