Book City: What to read to appreciate art & culture

Christopher Shainin, director of the Museum of Northwest Art, on the books he's currently reading, and his favorite art, history and poetry tomes.
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Christopher Shainin, Executive Director of La Conner's Museum of Northwest Art.

Christopher Shainin, director of the Museum of Northwest Art, on the books he's currently reading, and his favorite art, history and poetry tomes.

Christopher Shainin is the Executive Director of the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConner, which he commutes to from Seattle. He combines academic and working backgrounds in art and music, with a Doctor of Musical Arts in Composition and a certificate degree in Arts Management from the University of Washington. Shainin was a Fellow at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, directed the Kirkland Arts Center, co-founded and ran the Seattle Creative Orchestra and is a graduate of the Stanford Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders.

What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Currently I am reading Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman. As the title suggests, the book takes a long look at strategy with examples from the Bible, The Art of War, Napoleon and others, and covers the nonviolence opposition employed by Gandhi and later Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as contemporary business strategy.

I am also enjoying Translating Music by Richard Pevear. He and his wife Larissa Volokhonsky translated Tolstoy’s War and Peace into English, and this short book features his talk given on the challenges of expressing the music, or lack of music, in Tolstoy’s work. As a composer, I am very interested in the musicality of words, but hampered by my limited understanding of other languages. So I read a lot of work in translation. Putting myself in the hands of the translator means letting go of questions of authenticity, just as in a music performance.

Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall is a great new book of poetry from the current Poet Laureate. The easy yet precise language and the breadth of her interests, including 18th century painting, and our country’s tangled race relationships, make it a compelling read.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you'd unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

A book that I keep thinking about and puzzling over is The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Cesares. Written in 1940, this slim fantastical novel explores the concepts of memory and the impact of film on celebrity, and is a love note to actress Louise Brooks. In a somewhat similar vein is the The Opposing Shore (1951) by Julien Gracq, translated from the French by Richard Howard. The protagonist is drawn to explore the misty shores of an enemy country. Both novels are beautifully written.

Any art world novels, biographies, autobiographies that you particularly love?

The most entertaining book I have read on the art world is Eric Hebborn’s Drawn to Trouble: The Forging of an Artist. Hebborn was a forger who fooled major museums with his renderings of Old Masters. The book is hilarious, and also charts his relationships with many personalities including Sir Anthony Blunt, who was the Queen’s art expert and also part of the Kim Philby spy ring. Hebborn explains how he aged his paintings, and remarks on the techniques of the great painters. A gay man, Hebborn was an outsider in many ways who delighted in exposing supposed experts as frauds. He died from a fractured skull on a street in Rome after a night of drinking, and it is unclear whether it was an accident or something more sinister.

Can you recommend a book to help someone appreciate museum visits?

Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met, and Bloomberg news critic Martin Gayford, have recently written Rendez-vous with Art. The book describes their visits to many museums including the Louvre and Prado and expresses their joy in contemplating great works of art. You also learn some interesting details about the longest tenured director in the history of the Met.

Simon Shama’s Landscape and Memory and his series The Power of Art are great ways for the uninitiated to experience the impact of nature on art, in the first example, and the lives of great artists in the latter one, which was also a series on TV.

Years ago, Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New inspired me to learn more about contemporary art. Hughes was the pugnacious art critic for Time magazine, and his full-blooded take on post-war artists is still worth considering.

Is there a book about Northwest art or artists you find particularly appealing/illuminating?

Morris Graves: His Houses, His Gardens, by Richard Svare, is a beautiful book of photographs and reminiscences of homes Graves’ designed and built, here and in Ireland. Mary Randlett’s poetic and stately photographs are reason enough to get this book. They capture the artist and his surroundings in contemplation. 

Completely opposite is the catalogue of a recent exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum, Camille Patha: A Punch of Color. Her paintings are bold, colorful and unnerving, dark and fluorescent. To my eyes, they represent the Miami of the mind.

Are there art blogs or websites that you follow?

The re-launched Artdish is a great resource for Northwest art shows. The Art21 blog is an extension of the TV series. Artsjournal aggregates art news all of kinds from around the world.  

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

Our five year old has been enjoying a number of great children’s books, including William Steig’s Yellow & Pink. Two marionette-like dolls come to life in a field and ask the same kind of questions about their origins that proponents of intelligent design ask. How can impersonal forces of nature have made such complex and symmetrical beings? Steig’s answer is perhaps fun for kids and disturbing for adults.

Have your reading interests and tastes have changed over the years?

I have been forced to read many more business books than I would prefer. My reading for pleasure is therefore channeled into short bursts during breaks. Most of my work reading is done via the screen of my phone, so I particularly enjoy the opportunity to read text on paper.

Do you have a book or two you return to often, that you've re-read over the years?

I don’t typically re-read books, but I re-remember them. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a great read that one should go back to, as well as Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. Both are milestones in the art of the novel, and are wild and woolly rides. Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte is a tortured and brilliant book about a reporter and sympathizer of Mussolini who covers the war on the Eastern Front from the Axis side. It is unclear how much of the book is fiction. There is an incredible scene depicting horses frozen in a lake that stays with me.

Any book you've read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Reading Louise Glück’s poetry is like being electrocuted. Painful and life changing. At the end of the experience you discover a sudden need to play the piano, or haunt a child’s dollhouse. Whatever the obsession, you endure.

What do you plan to read next?

I am looking forward to Ruth Ozeki’s talk at Seattle Arts & Lectures, as I have heard great things about her novel A Tale For the Time Being. Maybe that will be my next read.

What Val’s Reading This Week: Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act, an elegantly-written contemplation on long-term marriage and an involved (sometimes overly so) look at the complications of the British legal system. Set in a London summer of incessant rain, the story line is compelling for the brilliance and vulnerability of protagonist Fiona Maye, a middle-aged, high court judge dealing with both errant husband and the repercussions of a challenging judicial decision.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.