David Bruce: The Funniest People in Art — Language, Lighting


• In the 1970s, Ohio University President Claude Sowle decided to hold public meetings at which college deans would argue for money for their departments. Of course, these were spectacular events at which college deans wore caps and gowns and argued passionately for money. At one such public meeting, Dr. Henry Lin, Dean of Fine Arts, began his remarks by saying, “Ni hao, Dr. Sowle.” Of course, he was speaking flawless Mandarin Chinese, and he continued to speak flawless Mandarin Chinese — which Dr. Sowle did NOT understand — for the rest of his remarks, occasionally using a Chinese abacus to emphasize a financial point. At the end of Dr. Lin’s remarks, President Sowle told him, “Henry, you know I don’t understand Chinese, but I’ve never understood you more clearly than right now — you need big bucks!” (By the way, the late Dr. Lin is the father of Maya Lin, the genius who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.)

• As a child, Oliver W. Harrington, an African American, put out a six-page newspaper, written and drawn by hand, which was eagerly awaited each month by his South Bronx classmates. In one issue, young Oliver wrote about “Jewtown,” a term that was commonly used to denote a part of the Bronx. One of his teachers, Mrs. Linsky, read the issue, then privately explained to him about the evil that lay behind such terms as “Jewtown” and “N*ggertown.” He learned quickly and was hurt when he learned what he had done; after all, his mother was a Hungarian Jew. When he grew up, he became a famous political cartoonist who used his talents to fight for social justice.

• Children’s book illustrator Victoria Chess grew up speaking languages other than English. She didn’t understand English until she was three years old, and she didn’t let anyone know she could understand English until she was four. Why not? People say interesting things in English if they think you don’t know that language.


• Light is very important in art museums. Lots of light can reveal details in a painting, but too much light can damage other works of art, so lighting is carefully controlled in art museums. Because too much light can damage light-sensitive art, sometimes employees of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., cover the skylights to keep light out of certain rooms. When Henri Matisse’s wall-size paper cutouts were displayed, the room was very dark because of the fragility of the paper he used. Also, they were lit for only half of the day. At 1 p.m. the lights went off and the doors to the exhibit closed. By the way, the National Gallery has glaziers — people who replace broken glass panes — on its payroll. After all, the National Gallery has many skylights, the glass panes of which are sometimes broken by stones dropped by seagulls. In addition, the National Gallery makes sure that lots of light is present where visitors enter the museum. It doesn’t want visitors to trip and fall because they are blinded after coming into the museum from the brightly lit outdoors.

• In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jacob A. Riis became famous for his photographs of poor people in New York City tenements. His photographs showed How the Other Half Lives — the title of one of his books. In the early days of photography, getting enough light to photograph indoors could be a problem. He used to make a fire in a frying pan and use it to light his flash powder. If that didn’t work well enough, he would shoot a revolver and use the light of its flash to take his photographs. Occasionally, Mr. Riis’ lighting techniques started fires. He once caught his own clothes on fire, and he twice accidentally set fire to buildings. In addition, when a flash went off too close to his eyes, he almost blinded himself. However, his muckraking photographs, articles, and books led to social reforms to help poor people.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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