Wowed in Person and in Marble

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Woody Woodburn

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Inspiration in Person and in Marble

Fourth in a series of columns chronicling my recent father-son road trip to the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, NY, and more.

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The New York City theater was, quite honestly, underwhelming.

Located in Hudson Yards, SIR Stage37 seems more like a warehouse than an event site for the prestigious The New Yorker Festival. The ceiling is lofty, but unfinished; the floors, cold cement; the stage, temporary. Seating consisted of a few hundred folding chairs fastened together in rows with plastic zip ties.

As a word to the wise has it, however, don’t judge a book by its cover.

"The Thinker" in bronze by Rodin

“The Thinker” in bronze by Rodin

Or a book talk by its digs.

“Book talk” is actually a misnomer. This was a moderated conversation with three authors. Specifically, two winners of the Pulitzer Prize and this year’s honoree of the esteemed Man Booker Prize.

Indeed, the timing of my trip to visit my Manhattanite son was explicitly chosen so as to attend this discussion featuring Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, and George Saunders. The trio did not disappoint.

To the contrary, I dare say this was the most enjoyable, most enlightening, most inspiring talk by an author – or authors – I have had the privilege of attending. And I have been to dozens.

Lacking the space to delve into their discussion, here are some book jacket-like blurbs about the event’s three protagonists.

Whitehead’s newest novel, “The Underground Railroad,” is the most compelling book I have read this year – perhaps in the past few years. Without question, it merited its 2017 Pulitzer honor.

But here is what really struck me: Whitehead seems as splendid in person as his words are on the page. He was immensely interesting and authentically charismatic, and also humble, seated on stage.

All of the same can be said of Egan, who won the Pulitzer in 2011 for “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” Her new novel, “Manhattan Beach,” is on my to-read list.

Saunders, meanwhile, recently won the Man Booker Prize for “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It is one of the most innovative novels I have ever read.

Saunders, who teaches at Syracuse University, came across as Everyone’s Favorite Professor. He was warm and humorous, affable and insightful. After answering questions posed directly to him, Saunders would engage his stage mates for their thoughts, no small thing.

I am certain that writers and non-writers alike left the warehouse theater feeling inspired to be better at whatever they do, be it selling insurance or playing the guitar, gardening or performing surgery.


“The Tempest” in marble by Rodin

I am confident of this because while I am no artist, I left the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a half-hour subway ride from Sage37, feeling as buoyed as I had been by listening to Whitehead, Egan, and Saunders.

Most especially, I was inspired by two temporary exhibits: “Leonardo to Matisse” and “Rodin at The MET.”

The former features approximately 60 magnificent drawings, in ink and pencil and crayon, by Leonardo da Vinci and Henri Matisse and a handful of other virtuosos. It is difficult to imagine a better example showing that masterful things can be accomplished with the simplest of tools.

Marking the centenary death of Auguste Rodin, more than 50 bronzes, marbles, plasters, and terracottas by the French master are on display. “The Thinker,” in bronze, is an iconic masterpiece in the show but I favored his works in marble.

In “Orpheus and Eurydice,” the ancient Greek lovers emerge smooth and luminous from the raw and rough white rock that remains behind and below them. It is a striking example of Rodin’s words: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.”

“The Tempest,” meanwhile, seems to release sound from stone. Rodin sculpted a shrieking woman, her face and shoulders surging forward from the marble while her streaming braids anchor her – or even pull her back – to the stone. Imagine a female Olympian coming up for a gulp of air while swimming the butterfly stroke.

Conversely, my breath was taken away. Gifted artists, and authors, do that to me.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …