Painting at MFA-H

The marketplace bustles. Vendors clutching bags of produce arrange their goods on tables. I see women gossiping and children playing. Across from the whitewashed Town Hall with its olive-green clock tower, a well brims with water as an attendant stands by ready to top off wooden barrels. And, noblemen scurry on horseback — all within a central square flanked by stately homes and with views of a hilltop fortress.   

I imagine taking a step back in time – more than 250 years – to witness this day in the small Saxon town of Pirna, Germany.  

But in reality, I’m actually gazing upon a painting, The Marketplace at Pirna, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It’s so realistic that I can almost hear the merchants’ banter, the well water splashing and the thumping of horse hooves. I can almost feel the sun’s warm glow as it illuminates the ornate Gothic windows on the 15th century tower of St. Mary’s Church.  This view of Pirna – like a vivid postcard or high resolution photograph – was precisely dabbed on canvas by the Italian view painter and old master Bernardo Bellotto in 1753-54. I have admired this painting for nearly 20 years; it inspired me to finally visit the town during my recent trip to Germany.  

I arrive to find that little has changed. Town Hall’s Renaissance and Baroque tower still dominates the skyline. The square’s prominent 1520 medieval building with its peculiar angled roof – now the tourist office known as the “Canaletto House” – remains as well. And, I soon learn Bellotto, nicknamed “Canaletto” after his famous artist uncle, is the town’s favorite son, with his Canaletto namesake and scenes from his paintings emblazoned on everything from wine bottles and chocolate boxes to posters and storefront marquees. 

“The Canaletto House is in the center of the painting, and that’s why everyone calls it that,” tour guide Katrin Peach tells me as we look upon a copy of The Marketplace at Pirna prominently emblazoned on a tourist office wall. “But we now know Bellotto had never been in the house.”

“It was very typical for Bellotto to be interested in the everyday life of a town like Pirna,” Peach explains. “What you can see in the painting is there are rich people and poor people. We can see the marketplace with its fountains. And, everything seems to be natural and idyllic, like looking at the olden days.”

Pirna is in the heart of Saxony, known for its 300-year-old porcelain industry where Meissen’s produces world-renowned dishware and figurines streaked with hand-painted designs. It’s where bike baths gently curve along the glassy Elbe River and where jagged rocky outcrops and plunging ravines  reveal the beauty of Saxon Switzerland’s Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Castle turrets poke above hilly landscapes and clusters of vineyards dot the sloping river valley along a 55 kilometer wine route, where grapes have been harvested for 800 years.

Bellotto, the court painter for Elector of Saxony Augustus III, son of Augustus the Strong, painted more than 30 views of palaces and landscapes in and around the Saxon capital of Dresden. He lived in suburban Pirna from 1753-55, painting The Marketplace at Pirna from a third-level window in a building now housing the busy Café Canaletto within a corner storefront below.The artist also created 10 other Pirna masterpieces, primarily with views of the town’s amber-tinted rooftops as seen from the elevated Sonnenstein Fortress and from across the Elbe River.  

Against a backdrop of well-kept homes along dirt roads, his paintings depict tradesmen and families in everyday life – tending sheep, fetching water and hanging clothes to dry. A prosperous merchant-driven community during medieval times, Pirna today is a small walkable town with quiet cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques. From the tourist office, Katrin leads me to St. Mary’s Church with its vaulted ceiling, gilded Baroque altar and Gothic baptismal font from 1561.  

“This church was built by the Pirna people themselves to show theirs was a powerful city,” Katrin said. “In the Middle Ages, Pirna was more important than Dresden because of its location on the Elbe River.”

We walk along pedestrian streets where I see 16th-18th century homes hued in burnt reds, pale blues and faded yellows and adorned with architectural  accents, including wide bay windows, grinning gargoyles and ornate doors trims.  

We stop at a former Dominican Monastery where three faded 14th century frescoes remain on the chapel’s peeling walls, while the former chapter house is now the town’s museum. Bellotto painted the monastery’s wide roof in one of his Elbe River views.

Spared from damage during World War II, many of Pirna’s medieval buildings remain intact. For that reason, Pirna is a classroom of sorts for studying Bellotto and his use of the camera obscura in scene painting. Like a camera, the instrument has a lens that reflects an image on paper which the artist would trace and later transfer to a larger canvas. Separate images were often combined to create wide view paintings.  

“If we try to understand Bellotto’s painting techniques, we have to go to the marketplace in Pirna. It’s one of the very few places where the architecture still exists,” said Dr. Andreas Henning, curator of Italian Paintings at Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery in the Zwinger Palace.

“Dresden was bombed; all of its architecture was remodeled and rebuilt.” 

Bellotto painted 17 views of Dresden, most of which are now part of the Old Masters Picture Gallery’s permanent collection.  

His precise brush strokes and muted colors so vividly capture the Saxon capital’s vibrant skyline dominated by the pointed three-tiered tower of the Baroque Hofkirche or royal Catholic church, and by the gargantuan stone dome of the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche. Those structures remain today, rebuilt with the help of Bellotto’s paintings after Allied firebombing leveled Dresden in 1945. The landmark Church of Our Lady with its 12,000-ton dome was most recently rebuilt from 45 percent of the 8,500 usable stones found in the rubble. After 12 years of reconstruction, it reopened in October 2005, built to the architectural specifications of the original 1743 church. 

“For the reconstruction of Dresden, Bellotto’s paintings are very important,” said Dr. Henning.  “For example, the colors of the Catholic church where the basement walls were colored with wine. We see that only in his paintings, not in the remaining parts of the church itself.”

Richard Varr is a freelance writer and former Fox26 news reporter.  He blogs at

Infiniti EX35 Journey

My test drive of Infiniti’s revised cross-over SUV, the 2011 EX35 Journey RWD, started on a Thursday afternoon, right after it was delivered to the driveway of my home here in Houston.

Reaching for the keys of the Journey, I was taken immediately by its sculpted exterior design, its color (Graphite Shadow) and its sporty interior with rich (and standard) leather seating.

As you might guess, I was eager to get inside and take it was a spin around the block. But, the Journey’s advanced 297-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine and the new 7-speed automatic transmission (standard features) motivated me to drive out of the neighborhood and on over to Interstate-10. I headed west, out of the city and toward the open road. I wanted to “just drive.” At least for a little while. The Journey proved to be a fun ride. The vehicle’s HP and performance were great, and the ride was quiet, comfortable and smooth.

I liked the size of the Journey too. It wasn’t too big, nor too small; there was plenty of room for me, additional passengers and the “stuff” we’d all love to haul home from a major shopping trip.

The Journey I drove was fully loaded (which I loved). It had, among its features, a RearView Monitor, premium audio system, power-up folding 2nd row seat, Lane Departure Prevention system (LDP), Intelligent Cruise Control (Full-Speed Range), Distance Control Assist (DCA) and Intelligent Brake Assist (IBA) with Forward Collision Warning (FCW).

Next evening, I was having dinner with a girlfriend. I offered to pick her up and do the driving. As soon as she stepped out of the door of her home and spotted the Journey, she smiled. Getting in, she commented, “This is my next new car! I’ve just love it!

”Being the reporter I am, I asked her what she liked about it.

She just laughed, then said, Are you kidding? Everything! Finally, a car that’s perfect for us women. We can enjoy driving and parking this one!”

She was right about both. That night I had to parallel park outside the restaurant we were going to. No problem. Manuvering the Journey alongside the curb was quick and easy! Loved that!

The MSRBP for the 2011 EX35 Journey RWD is $36,350. It boasts 17 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway, but my tracking in both areas proved somewhat higher. I really loved that too!

Editor’s Note: Infiniti offers a full line of luxury performance automobiles that inspire at every turn, including the G Coupe, Sedan and Convertible, M sedan, EX and FX crossovers and the QX full-size SUV. More information about Infiniti and its Total Ownership Experience can be found at

Electronics Police-Mom

Most parents I know set rules around how their kids use “electronic devices” and try vigorously to enforce them. In fact, it has become a point of parental pride to have a policy. It’s like the new “my kids eat organic food” trend. Good parents set limits, limits, limits. 

I admit it; I am an “electronics police-mom” as my children have displayed alarming addictive behaviors, spending endless hours on the Wii, and playstation, with our iPods, Kindles and Macs. 

They are savvy negotiators, our children. My kids are already begging for the iPad2, and I have said strongly – “no way, too expensive.” But, we already caved in on the Kindle for our 13-year-old. Yes, she got her dad’s hand-me-down as we can download via the Kindle app on our iPhones and iPads. But she has one! When they were being released in 2008, we said, “Not for kids, too expensive” and she had one by 2010. A matter of time.

So, we are on the fence – can we keep policing the use of electronics by our kids? Schools are trying. “No cell phones during school hours,” but the kids are texting and reading school assigned reading on Kindles. Since all good parents are electronics police but many of the devices are multi-purpose, what are we supposed to do? And the wild west of trend-setting is coming at us — e-books! Do we limit these or embrace them and the devices that carry the content?

We really want to develop a love of reading in our four children and this seems to be a priority on every good parent’s agenda. But “how to” is elusive. Why doesn’t my second child love to read when it seems everyone else’s children are avid and engaged readers?

When my son was two, he would grab his favorite book, and jump on my lap. We read it in silly voices and never skipped a word or missed a page. It was memorized and cherished, and I felt happy at the prospect of having a good reader on my hands. But, when he went to kindergarten and was required to read every night, he started to protest! And, when he went to second grade and was asked to keep a reading journal, he became a “short-cut taker.” As parents, we needed a strategy! How could we get our son to love to read again?

Since our kids are addicted to electronic devices, could we somehow transfer this love of electronics to a love of reading? Today’s children feel very comfortable with technology, especially their handheld electronics. And, the biggest trend in building reading skills and reading comprehension in the best schools is using a multimedia approach. At many schools, using the computer is a core piece of the curriculum.

So, we danced with the idea of hanging up the police uniform and opening up the electronics usage rules. What did the kids think was a good idea in terms of electronics usage? We were shocked they knew about math apps and state capital apps and Madlibs where you have to insert a noun, verb, adverb, etc. Now, they’ll have to learn what they are! They are also excited to download their favorite books. 

We could not show we were too excited at the prospect of having the “once heavily regulated” devices used for educational purposes, but we are secretly thrilled. If these devices can be used for learning, I can be flexible and allow them to be used for other purposes as well. 

Now “tablets” are the reading devices of the future. Adult books have been moved and consumed at an alarming speed, and young adult content is following rapidly. 

Ink books will always have a place in our hearts as the classic way to read and bond with our kids. But in 2011, we must also embrace technology to keep our kids addicted to reading and learning. They still have to talk to us at dinner; that is our new big rule. It is time for this electronics policewoman to retire and let the cool digital mom emerge. Attention good parents – time to change from limiting electronics to influencing the content!

Eileen Wacker is the author of the new children’s book, “Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue,” the third installment of the Mom’s Choice Award Winning Fujimini Adventure Series. For additional information on the series, please visit

Smither Park

Smither Park

Parks that cater to all ages are always good. But a park that caters to the human spirit is simply magnificent, says Dan Phillips, the Huntsville-based designer of Houston's newest green space, Smither Park. The half-acre site near the Orange Show on Munger Street in Houston's East End will also be the city's first folk art-inspired park, featuring mosaics, assemblage and unique structures. 

Folk art — or “self-taught art” as she refers to it — is a passion of The Orange Show Board Trustee Stephanie Smither who conceived the idea for the park to honor her late husband, John H. Smither, a senior partner at Vinson & Elkins law firm. Having also served on the board of The Orange Show Foundation and as president of the Houston Ballet, John Smither believed in the power of the arts to inspire and enrich lives. 

"Art in all forms represents the conscience of society," he is quoted on a pamphlet describing the park. "Where art flourishes, culture flourishes."

His wife says this project is the first thing that has captured her imagination and excitement since John was first diagnosed with lymphoma 10 years ago.It was in Huntsville that the couple also met innovator Dan Phillips while buying his grandparents' 1914 home, and they began a life-long friendship him.

Phillips, who holds a doctorate in education, is also the founder of The Phoenix Commotion, a construction initiative dedicated to showing that creative, artistic homes can be built from recycled and salvaged materials. He has won an award for his innovative housing from the Institute for Social Invention in London, as well as the 2010 Gold Medal, Edison Green Award from Rutgers University and the Environmental Excellence Award from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, also in 2010. 

“I knew I wanted Dan to be involved in some way,” Smither said. “I was talking to him, and I suddenly realized the self-taught art environments all over the world were all the vision of one person — they weren’t built by committee. So I asked him to be the visionary behind this park.” 

“We live in a culture that is geometrical and standardized and straight and square and perfect. That's a product of a magnificent industrialized revolution that is still ongoing,” Phillips said. “In my mind, there is a conspicuous absence of human nuance and gesture in our environment and in the things that we put together.

“Art is one bastion that holds strong with human gesture,” he said. “This park is going to be a product of those primal murmurs that we all have that we’ve somehow lost track of in our fast-paced standardized world. There’s no way to standardize designing with junk. There will be broken pottery and sea shells and plumbing parts and all kinds of things. It’s the whole world of folk art. I want it to be eye candy that touches deep down.”

Donations of found and salvaged objects are already starting to accumulate at the foot of the park’s signage, Smither said. Anyone who wishes may contribute durable and decorative items such as pottery and china, keys, costume jewelry, marbles, colored or patterned tiles, buttons, interesting metal objects, drawer pulls and knobs, perfume bottles, metal toys, kitchen utensils, brass and copper items, or perfume or other colorful glass bottles — but no beer or wine bottles. Monetary donations can be made via 

As much as the park honors her husband, Smither also wants to encourage others to pay tribute to their loved ones in the park, whether through a financial contribution, purchase of park fixtures or on the 400-foot memory wall that will run along the back of the site. She said she hopes to engage all nine of her grandchildren in the development of the park — including Amon, 4, who insisted a hopscotch court be incorporated into the design. Other family-oriented features will include swings, a 12-foot coin-rolling tower and a meditation garden with a water wall that uses recycled rain water. A serpentine tunnel leading to a mosaic-covered amphitheatre at the end of the park will provide an ideal aisle for brides who want to hold their weddings in the park, or for Quinceañeras.

Architect Ed Eubanks and Steve Goodchild of Goodchild Builders have donated their expertise to bring the park to fruition, and completion is expected in the fall of 2012. 

Girls, Inc. Luncheon

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girly Girl Culture, will be the keynote speaker Thursday, May 5 at the 15th Annual Strong, Smart and Bold Celebration Luncheon. The big event, presented by Girls, Inc. of Greater Houston, is being held at the InterContinental Houston Hotel. Check-in and networking begin at 11:30 a.m., followed by the luncheon and program from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m.

Orenstein has appeared recently on Frontline, The Today Show and Good Morning America and her book was featured by O Magazine as a must-read for 2011.

The dynamic mother-daughter team of Ellen Cohen, former state representative, and Marcie Zlotnik, co-founder and chair of StarTexas Power, are the 2011 honorary luncheon co-chairs.

Ellen Cohen will receive the Strong, Smart and Bold Award, which is presented annually to a Houston woman who has followed her own path, dedicated herself to education, pursued her dreams and achieved her goals while also giving back to the community.

StarTex Power will receive the Corporate Vision Award, which is presented annually to a corporate entity that promotes advancement opportunities for women throughout the company and furthers opportunities for women and girls through its support of youth serving organizations.

Deserving high school girls will be awarded college scholarships valued up to $2500 from the Girls Inc. Scholars and Awards Program. The program’s goal is to inspire girls to succeed in school and to consider a broad range of career possibilities.

Lisa Malosky will serve as the Mistress of Ceremonies. Frances Castaneda Dyess, president of the East End Chamber of Commerce, is the luncheon chair. The annual Strong, Smart and Bold Celebration Luncheon is the most significant fundraiser for Girls Inc. of Greater Houston. Funds raised allow the organization to continue providing and implementing researched-based programs that encourage girls between the ages of six and 18 to fulfill their dreams.

To purchase tables or individual tickets, please call the Girls Inc. office at 713-802-2260.

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