Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Two Years to Rio 2016

Oh, happy day. Just two years until the opening ceremonies for Rio 2016. Brazil is going to host a great event.

Let the naysayers keep droning on about woes of South America's first Olympic host duties. Of course there will be bumps along the way, some small and some bigger than Sugarloaf Mountain.

But when the dust settles and everyone eases into their seats 730 nights from now, all will be forgiven and the Games will be brilliant.

As a past tourist who enjoyed Brazil, at this two-year milestone I'm personally more excited about the 2016 Olympiad than any since Athens 2004. Beijing was a wonderful experience, mind you, though at the two-years out marker, it was unclear whether I'd pursue that Games due to cost (as it turned out, a work assignment picked up the tab).

When London rolled around, I just could not get in the spirit until about four months from the opening ceremony. Of course, the 2012 Games are now my favourite, with a very high bar set for Rio. But I think comparing Great Britain's Games to Brazil's will be too apples to guaranas. And like the tiny berries from South America, the Rio Games entice with the promise of sweet, caffeine-infused highs.

Hope to see you at Rio 2016.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Tale of Two Heroes

If you love cinema and you did not yet see it, don't walk -- RUN! -- to experience "Life Itself," the new documentary about the late great movie critic Roger Ebert.

This film is a rare gem incorporating a compelling nonfiction biography, decades of film history (while creating some of its own), excellent storytelling and music, world travel, sly humor and medical drama, love stories (romantic and brotherly love for a pair of foes turned best friends), and several moments that bring a lump to the throats of its viewers.

Upon viewing "Life Itself" for a second time (I hadn't paid to see an in-theatre film twice since "The Social Network"), this blogger found not one but two endearing heroes on the big screen.

Of course, hero No. 1 is Roger Ebert. As noted in my tribute blog post when he died, his writing and reporting style inspired this blogger in many ways.

Like his excellent autobiography on which the film is based, "Life Itself" shares dozens of well-known details about the Illinois native who got started in small town Urbana and grew into role of Chicago icon.

The film is outstanding for reminding viewers of well-known Ebert achievements while revealing many new details about his decades-long career (well, particulars that were new to this writer), such as:

Spoiler Alert!

-- Ebert's heroic "Stop the Presses!" moment when a poorly laid-out newspaper ad inappropriately juxtaposed JFK's portrait with a smoking rifle only hours after the president's assassination.
-- The young newspaper editor Ebert taking to task fellow students, college administration and U.S.
culture in response to terrible racist violence during the Civil Rights Movement (another college era Ebert deed that impresses).
-- The special person Ebert met at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and how his choice to join A.A. inspired several of his closest friends to follow his lead.
-- Favorite Chicago hangouts that are among my favorite places to visit in The Windy City.
-- Passages from "The Great Gatsby" that Ebert enjoyed, and how the Leonard Cohen song "I'm Your Man" saved Ebert's life.
-- Details about Ebert's declining health (previously revealed in an Esquire cover story I read in an airport many years ago) and how he worked to overcome many of them.
-- The prestigious national newspaper that tried to entice Ebert to relocate (which he rebuffed because he was "not going to learn new streets!")
-- Ebert's (and his television partner Gene Siskel's) professional and personal influence on Martin Scorsese during four decades of the director's career.
-- The story of an accomplished filmmaker who, as a young girl, shook hands with Ebert on an awards show red carpet (and how they corresponded years later).

More than one scene or "reveal" moved me close to tears during "Life Itself," including moments David Brubeck's "Take Five" quite the same way after hearing Chaz's very personal story related to this tune.
with Scorsese, Werner Herzog (who dedicated one of his films to Ebert because "He reinforces my courage"), Siskel's widow, and with this film's No. 2 hero, Chaz Ebert, whose remarks about her husband's influence on family, friends and film, as well as his (and her) determination set a high bar for courage in the face of many challenges. She is one brave woman, a strong storyteller, and I will never listen to

Be sure to listen to Terry Gross' "Fresh Air" interview with Chaz and "Life Itself" director Steve James, who is to be commended for excellent work on this documentary (my hopes are for Oscar nomination).

One of the best lines of the film may go up on my office wall, as Roger Ebert explained his drive during the most challenging final years, stating he chose as often as possible to, "zero in on work [because it] makes me feel good, in the zone, [and] it pushes troubles to the back of [one's] mind."

You may chuckle as I did at the gift Ebert's stepdaughter presented him at Christmas, the in-flight prank Siskel played on Ebert, the body part at which "Siamese twins" Siskel & Ebert were conjoined, and how Siskel's name wound up first on the marquee (hint: not at all related to Gene's trips to the Playboy Mansion).

As noted early in this post, "Life Itself" also contains a film history-making little puzzle (figuratively and literally) that may go into cinema trivia books as a memorable object as iconic as the Maltese Falcon, "Rosebud" from Citizen Kane or a Hattori Hanzo sword from the "Kill Bill" series.

One of Ebert's colleagues described the critic's ability to view a film and in 30 minutes bang out a review for the every man, setting a new bar for this blogger (and I suspect other writers as well) to pursue or attain in everyday writing (it should not take me three weeks to post a review!). I am so glad blogging became a new voice for Ebert, who inspired so many. And it's pleasing to the senses the film "Life Itself" cleared the bar and sets some new ones for great documentary film making.

Photos via IMDB; wedding photo by Magnolia; Oriental Theatre photo by Nicholas Wolaver

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Fun With Finster

Private collection not for re-use.
Three months is a long time to pause from blogging.

Unfortunately, the day after the most recent post, my mother died in hospice care while I awaited flights home from Sochi and Frankfurt.

Upon returning to my home state, where my dad was recovering from a January stroke, there were many weeks of anxious work to try helping with his recovery.

Though there were days of improvement, unfortunately he also died, on April 15 (perhaps fitting given his 35+ year career working for the Internal Revenue Service).

It's been a tough many weeks.

Sincere thanks go out to family, friends and readers (some acquaintances, some strangers) who sent notes of condolences.

Finally home in Atlanta for more than a few days, a couple of weeks ago I took some time to explore a North Georgia destination that lingered on my "to do" list for a good long while.

Paradise Garden in Summerville, Ga., is tucked away in the mountains of North Georgia up the highway from Rome and a few clicks south of Chattanooga, Tenn.

For the uninitiated, the Garden in this case is the proper name given to the private residence of Rev. Howard Finster, an Alabama-born minister who, in 1976 (approaching age 60), enjoyed his first "visions" from God telling him to spread His word through art -- 5,000 pieces of art, to be exact.

Finster tackled this assignment in earnest, and by the early 1980s his faith-inspired work made it to the homes of many friends and fans, and onto the covers of music albums by R.E.M., Talking Heads and others, not to mention into the marketing plans for big companies in Georgia and beyond.

He transformed Paradise Garden from a densely wooded patch of swamp into a living work of art, transforming others' trash (and his own tools and collection of bottles, machinery, toys, junk and "stuff") into treasured and unusual immersive experiences, with many bones of his work -- mosaic walls and footpaths, a workshop, chicken coop, garage and corridor of items inspired by and gifted to the Garden -- still on view.

In my part-time P.R. assignment at the High Museum of Art, I take monthly walks over to the Folk Art section to view their large assortment of Finster objects billed as the "largest public collection of objects from Paradise Garden."

Prior to the Summerville sojourn, it was fun to see the easy-to-recognize self-taught objects in the National Gallery of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum and other destination museums in the U.S.

The trek to Paradise Garden taught me a lot -- I recommend a visit. In the new visitor's center attached to a previous Finster workspace, guests should take time to view the videos including interviews with the artist, including an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Out in the Garden, take time to view the fading Keith Haring while it's still there, and also the Cadillac covered with hand-drawn and painted portraits beyond saving but surprising morsels of Finster's handiwork not yet touched by the on-site restoration team.

During the afternoon on site, I learned of two other Finster experiences of note. Sadly, this blog post is too late to preview today's Finster Fest 2014, which continues this afternoon (Sunday, June 1).

But readers have a full-year to trek to the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, which last week mounted a special exhibition titled "Howard Finster: Visions of Coca-Cola" featuring a private collection of Coke-inspired Finster creations, including a few for which there is an Olympic connection.

For five-ringed aficionados, be sure to view the Atlanta Olympic Coke bottle cutout painting (among the first works visible at the exhibition entrance) -- Finster was one of many artists from around the world who created Olympic/Coke bottle folk artwork for the 1996 Games. The exhibition also includes some rarely-displayed items from Finster's studio, including a stool, brushes and other artifacts of his home. For any Finster fan, this is a must-see exhibition.

The downtown Atlanta display also teaches a self-taught technique Finster often employed (Paradise Garden also features more details on this process from a private commission).

To create portraits or patterns he intended to re-use, the Reverend took a snapshot or other image of his subject, drew a paper illustration in his own hand, then created a cutout version he could use to recreate the likeness many times (as I understand it, Finster referred to the cutouts as "dimentions" -- see example in photo at base of this post).

This technique also evolved into some shapes for his more popular works on boards, such as cars, shoes, wagons, dinosaurs or beverage bottles, helping with consistency of form while permitting customization and -- back to the original vision and mission -- an effective manner of spreading God's word across the world.

Finster needed a little help, perhaps, as he eventually created more than 46,000 numbered works, and many thousands more unnumbered, executed before and after his original vision from God, which he saw in the form of a smiley face of paint on his fingertip.

Back at Paradise Garden, Olympic-minded collectors may wish to purchase a fine-art print featuring Finster's non-Coke take on the "OLEMPICS" in the form of numbered prints priced at $500, featuring an Atlas-like figure holding up a globe with hand-written messages about Atlanta's Games.

Not a bad vision for the Olympic world.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver, with thanks to the World of Coca-Cola for a ticket to the exhibition and museum.

Section of Howard Finster's hand-painted Cadillac.
One of two covered wagons on view at Paradise Garden studio entrance.
View from entrance to special exhibition "Howard Finster: Visions of Coca-Cola"

Detail of Howard Finster's 1996 Atlanta Olympic Coke Bottle.
Private collection items on view
in the World of Coca-Cola exhibition.
Example of cut paper "dimention" by Finster.
Paradise Garden includes further examples
of cutouts Finster used to create and repeat
portraits of individuals from presidents
and private commissions to personal
friends and family members.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Non-Olympian "Thanks, Mom"

With a heavy heart I'm posting from Sochi with news my wonderful mother Betty entered hospice care in Oklahoma on Monday night. The news is surprising given her condition just two weeks ago was good. Writing in a fog.
Too many non-Games memories to share, but I will always love that Mom bought me the influential-to-seven-year-olds Lake Placid 1980 Olympic color book when I was in first grade, and she took my sister and I to the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Torch Relay in Edmond, Okla., the fifth-grade summer event that launched my Olympic journeys.
In 1989 we volunteered together at U.S. Olympic Festival '89, and the following summer she drove me to the 6 a.m. flight to Minneapolis for my first paid Olympic gig at U.S. Olympic Festival '90 (setting the course for my college days in the Land of 10,000 Lakes). Neither of us knew that flight would be the first of hundreds for this traveler (hard to know who had more nervous excitement).
It was Mom who first told me the 1990 news Atlanta won the 1996 Olympics, setting another course for nine Olympiads of fun. On Mother's Day 1996 she held the "runner flag" to start my leg of the Atlanta Olympic Torch Relay. 
Before and since her diagnosis of Alzheimer's in 2008, she always supported my five-ringed dreams and every dream. In her determined fight to slow down her condition, we shared dozens of walks and talks -- the above photo from one hike at Lake Arcadia near Edmond -- and it was so fun to show her around D.C., Atlanta and Savannah in recent years. As she did through years of working hard as a self-employed parent (her seamstress business boomed during the 1980s and 1990s in support of my sister's and my dreams), she continued to smile and laugh through each step of her declining condition.
I love you, Mom. Thank you, Mom. I will be home to Oklahoma on Friday, the soonest airlines could arrange passage from Sochi. Prayers appreciated for Mom, my dad and sister at her side, and for many family members, friends and caregivers helping mom. Fingers crossed the journey home will get me there safely and in a timely manner.
The blog will resume in due time. Thank you for reading and for support.
Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Notes on Olympic Presidential Selfies

The following post is in response to Yahoo! Fourth Place Medal's report on flak experienced by Team Canada's Brittany Schussler. I sent this post as a email to Kevin Kaduk, the reporter for the story:

Kevin: Hello in Sochi, where I'm attending the Games as a sponsor P.R. contact (freelance), Olympic blogger and fan.

In response to your story about Brittany Schussler's selfie with Putin, I'm writing to share some perspective as another person who snapped a selfie with the Russian President (see attached) on Feb. 10 at Sochi Media Center. This selfie ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Feb. 15.
Here at the Olympics, it's fair to say many North American attendees are no longer buying the party line back home that Russia and these Games are all politics, gloom and doom.

When Putin visited the Sochi Media Center proving a selfie opportunity for this writer, I was not thinking of gay rights, terrorism, nor any other fear-inspired mainstream message in the USA. I was thinking, "Wow! Here is a world leader, I'm at the Olympics, and this is really cool to witness history in person!"
I suspect Schussler's enthusiastic selfie and Tweet, like my own @NickWolaver, was in response to the adrenaline of the very exciting presidential visit to Canada House (we had the same energy next door at USA House, where I attempted a second presidential selfie).
Would anyone not feel the same if they had the opportunity to pose for a selfie with President Obama, any other world leader or Olympian? The crowd at Canada House was cheering and excited, and Schussler was caught up in the enthusiasm sans politics.
I can appreciate why some in North America are reacting as they are to Schussler's photo -- they are not "in the know" about the positive vibe at these Games that, as in Vancouver, Salt Lake or any other Olympic host city, is very upbeat, relaxed and fun. If they had more information or the first-hand experience on site in Sochi, they might not have such a strong reaction. 

Do I agree with Putin's politics? No. Would I pose for a selfie if again our paths cross in Sochi? Absolutely! And so should Brittany Schussler. We're at the Olympics, he's a world leader of the host nation, and the idea of the Olympics -- as cheesy or old-fashioned as it has become -- remains to put politics aside, if only temporarily.
Photos via Yahoo! screen grab from @BSchussler and by Nicholas Wolaver


Sochi-Milwaukee Trifecta

Some readers of this blog know my home base is Atlanta and home town/family are in Oklahoma.

Milwaukee is where my heart resides since my long-time girlfriend lives there in suburban Delafield, Wis.

Each time we drive by the Pettit National Ice Center in nearby West Allis, there's a five-ringed reminder of Milwaukee's ties to the Winter Olympics.

And it's good to see the Journal-Sentinel's Gary D'Amato in Sochi after shaking hands at the Team USA Media Summit last year.

The Sochi Games includes 15 Wisconsin Olympians, according to this Carnival Cruise Lines gallery of U.S. athletes (see photo atop this post).

The last 24 hours in Sochi yielded a trifecta of other big Milwaukee-in-Sochi connections.

Through our work for the Citi Every Step of the Way program, on Friday we hosted media at USA House to speak with speedskating Olympic Champion Dan Jansen. With a few clicks, anyone may support his charity of choice, Olympians For Olympians, and it was fun to learn more about his Sochi experience and current projects in the Carolinas.

Later that evening, another Milwaukee hero and a personal favorite athlete from Calgary, Albertville and Lillehammer -- Bonnie Blair -- arrived and cheerfully visited with colleagues, friends and fans.

After spotting Blair in the Vancouver Olympic Village in 2010 (she was so friendly then, too), I was very happy to help her snap a few photos with members of the Kellogg's team (for which I am a freelance contributor) who gave an enthusiastic Blair her own Tony the Tiger hat and mittens.

Visiting with Blair I learned she now resides only a mile from my girlfriend, and we've both frequented the same grocers, pizza parlor and Delafield steakhouse -- unbelievable!

Blair also wants folks to know she is new to Twitter and loving it. And her sister's favorite cereal is Frosted Flakes because "They're Gr8!"

Then came the most surprising Milwaukee-Sochi moment, this time with a Grammy Award winning jazz musician.

With the Cultural Olympiad underway across Sochi, the centrally located Winter Theater -- a 75-year-old historic venue at which the International Olympic Committee Session took place -- hosted a Russia-USA cultural exchange concert tied to the U.S. Department of State.

The theatre is down the road from my hotel, so I bought a ticket and enjoyed a great balcony seat similar to the upper rows of Milwaukee's historic Pabst Theater.

Between songs, Milwaukee-born jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch introduced his band then gave a shout-out to Wisconsin.

His on-stage expression was surprise and smiles when the mostly Russian audience reacted to my cheer of "Go Milwaukee!" from the back row.

Who knew two would-be cheese-head Americans were in the house?

We both learned later a young couple from Chattanooga, Tenn., also attended.

After the show, which included mostly new works by Lynch set to debut in a stateside tour this spring, Lynch posed for photos and spoke with a few reporters, sharing that his agent got the call about the Sochi gig awhile ago but he did not plan to attend Olympic events (according to his website he has a Moscow concert on Monday). We agreed to connect again in Wisconsin, and jazz fans there are in for a treat.

Only at the Olympics do these connections seem common and "normal." It will be fun to see a fellow Georgian, bobsleigh Olympic bronze medalist Elana Meyers, compete later this week.

No Oklahoma athletes spotted yet, but on the lookout. Borrowing from Lynch's catalog, "It Could Be" there is one Okie athlete somewhere in Sochi.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

Saturday, February 15, 2014

From Russia With Love

Valentine's Day in the Olympic City was lovely though work-filled before a little bit of fun.

It was great to see the Russian President for the third time in a week when Putin visited USA House, this time all-smiles (he also visited neighboring Canada House).

As they say in the musical from my home state, if we keep meeting like this, "People Will Say We're In Love."

The media relations team for Citi (for which I am contributing a few freelance hours) worked through a busy day of interviews for athletes Evan Lysacek, Erin Hamlin and Dan Jansen to discuss the Citi Every Step program.

My main media hit du jour was with The Weather Channel whose producers invited Lysacek to discuss the men's figure skating finalists.

It was good to see Al Roker again (I only seem to visit his set during the Winter Olympics, starting with Roker's visit to B.C. Canada Place in Torino).

The Weather Channel's on-screen set is in "The Hollywood Squares" media platform near the Olympic Cauldron, and as we exited Evan's Weather interview several other NBC affiliates confirmed on-the-spot interview requests -- a golden afternoon for any Olympic publicist.

Later, back at USA House, I spoke with Lysacek and Hamlin about wardrobe malfunctions for the Winter Games, and their comments are included in the following post written as the next contribution submitted for approval:

You’re a Winter Olympian who reached the pinnacle of your sports career. You have the world on a string!

But what’s to be done when the string on your competition uniform starts to unravel? You don’t want to destroy this sweater!

Wardrobe malfunctions are a reality for elite athletes in Sochi.

Photo via AFP/ScanPix
There are self-inflicted costume issues. Russian speedskater Olga Graf was so elated after earning a medal she unzipped her suit to reveal her “commando” competition style during the first week of the Games.

The word on the street is some of Jamaica’s bobsled team gear wound up in Australia rather than Sochi. Lesson to future Olympians: Pack official gear in carry-on luggage.

Aside from human errors in Olympic attire, according to some Team USA athletes, the accidental wardrobe malfunction can take place in any sport, often at the worst possible time. Who could forget Tanya Harding’s laces going bad in Lillehammer?

During a walk between venues in Sochi, Olympic champion figure skater Evan Lysacek said tears, rips or split pants are the most common for male skater wardrobe woes, while for women’s figure skaters, shoulder strap breaks or the slip of a low-cut top are issues for some. Though Lysacek said he never suffered a wardrobe malfunction of his own, he witnessed a few athletes work through quick fixes.

“I’ve seen others make a quick change,” said Lysacek. “You have to be prepared for anything.”

You’d think that with a custom-designed costume costing thousands of dollars, the expensive threads might stay in one piece and on the athlete.

“I worked with Vera Wang on all of my costumes,” said Lysacek. “They were all one-of-a-kind designs but they fit within with just an inch [of adjustability].”

Lysacek added that Wang personally designed and fitted his uniforms, a special experience with the added benefit of minimizing potential problems.

Sled athletes also face winter wardrobe malfunctions.

Luge Olympic medalist Erin Hamlin, who earned a bronze for Team USA, said in her third sliding run in Sochi she noticed a problem with her “bootie” – her competition shoes.

“They can break and the problem can definitely affect your slide, [so] I always have extras just in case,” said Hamlin. “Though in our sport our scores are not affected by the [cosmetic] design of the uniform, there are other factors that can affect speed for which we are judged.”

Both Hamlin and Lysacek are athletes for Citi Every Step, an Olympic-related program through which athletes invite fans to click their shared support of non-profit sport initiatives. Hamlin is supporting  USA Luge Slider Search while Lysacek designated Figure Skating In Harlem to receive benefits when fans click to direct Citi funds (disclosure: Citi Every Step is a client for which this contributor is providing freelance P.R. counsel in Sochi).

Illustrating Hamlin’s remarks about uniforms and speed, perhaps the worst type of wardrobe malfunction in Sochi is a technical one. On Saturday, U.S. Speedskating announced their athletes want to stop using the 2014 Under Armour-designed suits, now blamed for less-than-stellar times in a sport for which thousandths of a second determine medalists.

At least the speedskaters uniforms weren’t like the see-through yoga pants that earned headlines in 2013.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver except the Olga Graf image via AFP
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