Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mid-Week Jaunt to Niagara on the Lake and Buffalo

To celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary, Rich and I decided to take a quick overnight trip to Niagara on the Lake and then visit Buffalo, New York the next day.  Our anniversary landed on a Wednesday, which was great since both locations would be less busy mid-week and we would have an easier time crossing the border.

We have visited Niagara on the Lake numerous times in the past and try to bring our bicycles to ride on the beautiful Niagara Parkway recreational paths whenever we get the chance.  On previous trips, we usually parked our car at Queenston Heights and rode the 15 kilometers to Niagara on the Lake from there.  As its name suggests, Queenston Heights is situated at an elevation much higher than the Niagara Parkway, resulting in a wickedly steep and lengthy hill that needs to be traversed on the way out and climbed on the way back.  This time we decided to give ourselves a break.  We started in a parking lot on the Niagara Parkway close to Fort George and rode back towards Queenston Heights, stopping just before reaching it, in order to visit the historical site of Laura Secord's homestead.

While waiting for our guided tour of the house interior, we wandered through a little museum that detailed Secord's heroic journey to warn the British of the impending American invasion during the War of 1812.  There was also information and memorabilia regarding important feats by other women in this time.  Our tour started out at the front of Laura's house, where we were given more details of the events that led up to her perilous 32 km walk through forest, brush and enemy territories.  We were disappointed to learn that despite the legends, there was no cow involved and she also had nothing to do with Laura Secord chocolates. Once inside the house, we saw the parlour where the drunken soldiers discussed their plans of attack, the kitchen from which Laura overheard these plans, and the upstairs bedroom where her injured husband lay recuperating.

After riding our bicycles back along the Niagara Parkway trail to our car, we drove to John Gate Gourmet Bed and Breakfast where we would stay the night.  From there, it was about a 15-20 walk to downtown Niagara on the Lake where we had a delicious dinner of lamb sirloin on the lovely garden terrace of the Epicurean Restaurant, followed by a show at the Shaw Festival Theatre.  We watched a production of the 1948 Moss Hart comedy "Light Up the Sky" that mocks the theatre world.  The play was not a hit when it was first performed and we found it just mildly entertaining and not very funny.  In retrospect, we should have stuck with Shaw's musical offering and watched Peter and the Starcatcher instead.  At least we had an excellent breakfast the next morning before heading off to Buffalo.  In both presentation and taste, the breakfast lived up to the term "Gourmet" in the name of the B&B.  We started off with  yogurt and granola with mixed fruits served in a beautiful dessert dish, followed by the most delicious eggs served on top of smoked salmon and scalloped potato with tomato and portabello mushrooms on the side.  The breakfast concluded with a slice of homemade banana bread.

Following breakfast, we shuffled off to Buffalo with our first stop being the Pierce Arrow Museum, which houses the collection of antique vehicles (especially Pierce Arrow Town Cars), memorabilia and historic artifacts, accumulated by Jim Sandoro and his wife Mary Ann over the period of 50 years.  Sandoro's interest in the Pierce Arrow began as a child when he used to play around his neighbour's car and learned from him how special it was.  The Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company was established in 1908 and specialized in making these larger, ultra-luxurious symbols of wealth and status that were owned or used by influential people including Presidents Taft and Roosevelt, John D. Rockerfeller, Babe Ruth, Orville Wright, as well as foreign royalty and dignitaries.  The vehicle is noted for its design features including headlights molded right onto the fender, and the "Helmeted Archer" hood ornament.  These opulent cars were popular until just before the Great Depression.

Walking through the museum, we saw different models of Pierce Arrows dating from the 1910s through 1930s including 1918 soft-top convertible seven-passenger vehicle with the word "Pierce" engraved on its grill and even a 1931 Pierce Arrow Tow Truck that looks like a regular luxury town car up to the front seat, but has towing equipment in the back.

There was a model of a 1910 Pierce Arrow Special Touring Landaulet, with a buggy-styled body and a six-cylinder 60 horsepower engine.  It featured a wash basin with hot and cold running water, fold-out steps, a drawer under the driver's seat, a rear seat that folded into a bed, storage lockers mounted on the running boards and a hidden toilet.  The original car was built for George K. Birge, president of the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company until 1916.

There were other vintage cars in the museum, including a burgundy 1913 Baby Peugeot (or Peugeot Bébé) and a gorgeous metallic blue 1963 Corvette Split Window Coupe.  One of the most fascinating items in the collection was the shell of an armoured vehicle that used to belong to the first FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover.  The car was later sold to a farmer who displayed it as a novelty item and encouraged people to shoot at the frame.  You can see the bullet holes covering the back of the car.

 The 1948 "Playboy" car also had a brief but interesting history.  A small 2-seater convertible (only 4.6 feet in length) with a "first of its kind" folding steel roof that hinged in the middle and folded away into the back of the car, it was designed to a family's second sporty vehicle and sold for just under $1,000.  Only 97 vehicles were built between 1947 to 1951 before the Playboy Automobile Company went bankrupt due to lack of sales and lack of capital.  A youtube video shows how the folding roof works.

There were also other automobile related collectibles and memorabilia including examples of hood ornaments, headlights, horns driving attire, vintage posters, paintings and sculptures of cars and drivers, a series of "Motor Maids" books depicting wholesome adventures of girls driving cars, and a "Hitchhiker" board game.

The highlight of the Pierce Arrow Museum was the recreation of a filling station that Frank Lloyd Wright designed on commission in 1927, but which never got built because the cost to construct it significantly exceeded the original budget.  Located in a 40,000 square feet glass and steel warehouse space attached to the museum, the filling station was built exactly to specification based on Frank Lloyd Wright's original drawings.  The result is the ultimate example of the saying "all flash, no function" since the structure is beautiful to behold, but has some fatal flaws that would render it unusable as an active gas station.

The two-story filling station is made with rose-coloured poured concrete that includes an observation deck and customer waiting room with a fireplace on the second floor where customers could wait for their cars in warmth and comfort, while there were restrooms and sleeping quarters in the basement for the station attendant.  It is topped with a copper roof with two 45 feet copper poles rising up on either side of the station, which Wright designed to invoke the impression of Native American totem poles.  Hanging down from the roof are glass enclosures containing the fuel, connected by red, white and blue hoses that hang down in order to dispense "gravity-fed gasoline".  Here lies the two fatal flaws.  First, there was no way to measure the amount of gas dispensed and no valve to stop the flow.  Secondly, positioning an open-flamed fireplace underneath gas tanks would never have passed safety inspections.  So it is just as well that the filling station was not actually constructed to be functional.  Instead, we can just enjoy the asthetic beauty of the design that Wright called "an ornament to the pavement".

A trip to Buffalo is not complete without a visit to the fabulous Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which we have free access due to the privileges on our Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) membership.  We had already made a thorough tour of the permanent exhibits on our previous visit in September 2012, but were anxious to view the new temporary exhibits which are usually excellently curated and very interesting.

Contemporary artist Jeff Koons, known for his stainless steel balloon sculptures, created a new piece out of white plaster which he called "Gazing Ball (2014)".  It is an interpretation of a famous Pablo Picasso painting called "Le Soupe (1902)", created during Picasso's blue period.  Both the painting and the sculpture depict a little girl in the act of either receiving or perhaps giving a bowl of soup to a woman, possibly her mother. While Picasso invokes charity and compassion in his rendering, Koons subverts this idea by hanging three Hermès Birkin bags on the woman's arm–the ultimate symbols of wealth, commercialism and conspicuous consumption.  The blue gazing ball is a recurring theme in Koons' works, as he also did a series where he reproduced famous paintings like the Mona Lisa and Manet's Luncheon on the Grass but then attached a hand-blown glass bobble to each painting using a small rod.  Gazing balls are usually used as lawn ornaments, but Koons says that the blue balls “represent the vastness of the universe and at the same time the intimacy of right here, right now”.  In this particular tribute, the blue ball also seems to reflect on the colours and tones of the Picasso painting, which was loaned to the Albright Knox so that it could be exhibited side by side with Koons' work.

When you first step into the gallery where Dan Colen's colourful paintings are being displayed, you think you are about to see another example of Abstract Expressionist art in the same vein as Jackson Pollack.  Then you start to sniff and wonder what is that sweet smell in the air.  As you walk closer to the "paintings", you realize that they are not created from paint at all.  Smeared on the canvases are wads of chewing gum in all varieties of colours.  Colen's interest is in "finding beauty in the discarded and accidental". Occasionally, he adds other materials to the bubblegum art, including dirt, flowers, feathers and confetti.  A 2008 work called "Scrambled or Fried" has a section that definitely looks like an egg fried over easy.  The frenetic splotches surrounding it might represent the scrambled egg?  The exhibit is named "Shake the Elbow", which is also the name of one of the pieces.  The term "Shake the Elbow" is a gambling term referring to rolling the dice, and perhaps that is what Colen does in his works.  He rolls the dice as he smears his globs of gum and lets chance dictate the results.

A photography exhibit called "Artist to Artist" features black and white photographs taken of well-known artists at work.  It was particularly interesting to see a photo of George Segal setting up his installation called "Cinema" taken by Fred McDarrah in 1964 since we had just passed by the actual work in the Albright Knox's Contemporary Art section earlier in the day.   A photo of pop artist Claes Oldenburg seems to depict him sitting in front of smaller versions of the "food art" that he is known for, including the "Floor Burger" that is owned by the AGO.  Sculptor David Smith was captured in the process of using a welding tool while creating a new piece.

An enormous exhibition of 50 animated short films called Screen Play: Life in an Animated World explores different techniques of animation including traditional hand-drawn cells, claymation, stop motion, 3D, digital modeling, and interactive live simulations.  The one that fascinated us the most was Marco Brambilla's 3D cinematic tour-de-force called "Evolution", which previous a 3 minute continuous loop of images and mini action GIFs from over 300 films depicting the historic struggle of human conflict.  Evolution is the second part of a trilogy that also includes "Civilization" and "Creation".  It was so much fun sitting in the dark room with our 3-D glasses on, trying to identify as many movies as we could. Sitting through a complete loop of the film multiple times, the references we spotted included the Star Wars AT-AT Walkers, Moses parting the Red Sea, the bowler-hat wearing droogs from Clockwork Orange, Gandhi, Elvis Presley in performing the Jailhouse Rock and John Wayne from one of his indeterminate Westerns, since he looks the same in all of them.  There were also plenty of generic explosions, war and battle scenes, and things falling from the sky.  Although you can see an except of this on Brambrilla's website, it does not have the full effect if you cannot see it on a larger screen with 3D glasses on. This was so much fun that I could have stayed there all day had there not been so much else to see.

Using "Single-channel color stop-motion animation", Tala Madani created over 2500 paintings to create the 85 seconds video called "The Dancer", depicting a man performing a mixture of dance and yoga poses.  Lee Lee Nam's "Early Spring Drawing - Battle of Civilization" begins with the serene, tranquil backdrop of a Song Dynasty Master Guo Xi's 1072 drawing called Early Spring, and then slowly introduces modern instruments of war including airplanes, helicopters, bombs and missiles. 

Camille Henrot's film "Living Dying Woman" takes a very unique approach to animation.  She used footage of the iconic 1968 zombie movie Night of the Living Dead and scratched out all occurrence of the heroine Barbara except for her eyes, turning her into a creature that looks like Addams Family's Cousin Itt.  Joshua Mosley incorporates clay puppets, watercolour and ink drawings to create the video "A Vue" about Henry, a park ranger who is torn between his devotion to his job caring for a statue and his girlfriend Susan.  This film has the same melancholy tone, look and feel as Charlie Kaufman's Oscar nominated animation "Anomalisa".  Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg's claymation video called "The Swing" is based on the 1767 painting by French artist Jean Fragonard of the same name.  It starts off by emulating the pastoral setting and lighthearted mood of the original painting, but soon takes a slightly sinister turn as the two lovers depart from the swing and romp in the woods.

We still have more that we want to see and do in Buffalo, so it is fortuitous that it is such a short drive from Toronto.