Technique allows ‘peek’ beneath surface of works of Old Masters

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Non-invasive surgery is often embraced by patients – especially the squeamish – as potential benefits include minimal discomfort and trauma, reduced recovery time and no scars or post-operative complications.

Now researchers in England are applying the same non-invasive concept to the examination of the works of Old Masters.

Officials from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology and The National Gallery in London have developed an instrument capable of capturing high-resolution details from beneath the surface of works by such luminaries as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Eyck.

The instrument, detailed in a paper in Optics Express, will allow conservators and conservation scientists to more effectively peek beneath the surface of paintings to learn not only how the artist built up the original composition, but also what coatings have been applied to it over the years.

The latter is important because many great works of western art are covered with several coats of varnish, applied at different times over the centuries. Varnish was applied to protect the paint and make colors appear more vivid but over time it can break down.

The goal is to carefully clean off the old varnish and replace it with new, but to do this safely it helps to understand the materials and structure of the painting beneath the surface. Analyzing the hidden layers of paint and varnish can aid conservation scientists in gathering this information.

Until recently, analyzing the layers of a painting required taking a very small physical sample – usually around a quarter of a millimeter across – for viewing under a microscope. Doing so enables researchers to see a cross-section of the painting’s layers, which can be imaged at high resolution and analyzed to gain detailed information on the chemical composition of the paint.

Because it requires removing some of the original paint, conservation scientists had to operate very carefully, usually only taking minute samples from an already-damaged area of the work.

However, non-invasive imaging techniques researchers such as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), originally developed for medical imaging, have proven useful in art conservation.

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Remebering Julia Peterkin, who brought Gullah to the masses

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My first brush with author Julia Peterkin didn’t come in a literature class, book club or library.

I happened across her wholly by chance a few years back while wandering the South Carolina back country. I was in rural Calhoun County, traveling along seemingly endless miles of blacktop country roads when I came across a picturesque antebellum church surrounded by fields of cotton.

I stopped at St. Matthews Parish Episcopal Church, a structure that dates to the 1850s and, as I later learned, still has a slave balcony, and ambled about. Across the road was a small family cemetery with no more than four dozen graves. As I glanced at each, I came across Peterkin’s marker.

I can’t remember now how I realized that there was something significant about Julia Peterkin, but perhaps that’s not surprising. She had largely slipped from literary consciousness less 75 years after becoming the first Southern writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In retrospect, Peterkin’s life likely had far more downs than ups, a sad testament given her short-lived but important literary efforts.

Born Julia Mood into a wealthy family in Laurens County, SC, south of Greenville, her mother died before she was two. When her father remarried, Julia was sent to live with her paternal grandparents while her two older sisters remained with her father and his new wife.

Her views on race were likely conflicted by the fact that her grandfather’s ancestors had opposed slavery on religious grounds and had illegally taught slaves to read, while her grandmother was descended from a long line of wealthy slave holders, according to Susan Millar Williams.

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Police: Don’t mix bears, booze, dull hatchets and stupidity

black bear

Wise words from officials in North Adams, Mass.:

“The North Adams Police Department is urging everyone to NOT chase bears through the woods with a dull hatchet, drunk,” the department informed residents of the western Massachusetts community through a May 11 post on Facebook. “Yes that really did happen tonight. We understand there are bears in the area. If you see a bear, LEAVE IT ALONE and call us.”

While North Adams authorities declined to identify the intoxicated wannabe frontiersman or his ursine prey, they explained the consequences of such actions while admitting the affair left them just a tad bewildered.

“We certainly don’t need anyone going all Davy Crockett chasing (a bear) through the woods drunk with a dull hatchet,” the Facebook post continued. “It is just a bad idea and not going to end well. It will however, certainly end you up in jail … which it did. The hatchet man was taken into protective custody due to his incapacitation from the consumption of alcoholic beverage. We are still trying to figure out his end game.

As the Boston Globe helpfully pointed out, Crockett, the famed 19th century American backwoodsman, hunted bears with a “team of attack dogs, guns and a sharp knife.”

To paraphrase an old saying, don’t bring a dull hatchet to a bear hunt. Or, better yet: go home, you’re drunk.

SC man upset he can’t get health insurance after getting sick

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When discussing cases such as those of Fort Mill, SC, resident Luis Lang it’s difficult to do so in a dispassionate manner without sounding at least somewhat heartless.

Consider:

The 49-year-old self-employed handyman, who works with banks and the federal government on maintaining foreclosed properties, has bleeding in his eyes and a partially detached retina caused by diabetes. An area ophthalmologist who examined Lang said he will go blind without care.

Lang, however, has no health insurance. He told the Charlotte Observer that he has prided himself on paying his own medical bills.

Apparently, he’s done well for himself, too. His wife hasn’t had to work and the pair live in a 3,300-square-foot home valued at more than $300,000.

Lang’s pay-as-you-go approach to medical care worked fine while he was healthy, but this past February he suffered through 10 days of nonstop headaches and ended up going to the emergency room.

He told the Observer he was informed that he’d suffered several ministrokes.

Lang ran up $9,000 in bills, exhausted his savings, saw his vision worsen and now he can’t work, he told the Observer.

After consuming his savings, Lang turned to the Affordable Care Act exchange, known colloquially in the US as “Obamacare,” after President Barack Obama, who promoted the concept of a health insurance exchange as a key component of his health care reform initiative.

However, Lang found himself out of luck because 2015 enrollment had closed earlier that month. Also, because Lang is unable to work and his income has dried up, he earns too little to get a federal subsidy to buy a private policy.

Lang isn’t exactly owning up to having played a role in his predicament.

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Country churches remain vital, historic part of American life

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There are few places today untouched by “progress.”

Historic buildings may be preserved, but the structures around them are often modernized if not replaced with new edifices. Battlefields are often encroached upon by development, and nature has a way of altering the landscape, as well. Even the rural countryside changes, albeit at a slower pace, as older abodes deteriorate without constant care, and sometimes, over many years, eventually disappear.

Country churches, though, can endure myriad decades and much longer if congregations continue to dedicate their time, talent and treasure toward their houses of prayer.

St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in the rural Calhoun County community of Creston in central South Carolina, is among those that has seen many, many generations of parishioners come and go; yet it soldiers on.

The church was formed around 1776 and is among the oldest continuous Lutheran congregations in South Carolina. The church was formed following a large influx of German and Swiss immigrants to South Carolina earlier in the decade under the promise of available land.

The original structure, built in the 1760s, was replaced in 1826. The current church was built in 1900, and sits along a country road, with only its cemetery and parish house nearby.

Today, despite its distant location, St. Matthews Lutheran Church remains a small but vibrant house of God.

Country churches, and country ministers, possess the ability to connect with parishioners in a way that their counterparts in cities often cannot.

Ministers working in the country or small village have an advantage over those in the city because of the close contact with nature provided by the open country, Ernest R. Groves wrote nearly a century ago in Using the Resources of the County Church.

“In his nearness to his people the minister of the church of the small community … may enjoy an intimate knowledge of personality, just as he is given the conditions for a close contact with nature,” Groves wrote.

“It is difficult indeed to live in the country without discovering much about human motive, the weaknesses and the strength of character; in the city, on the other hand, it is not easy to uncover the deeper life of men and women, because they are hidden in the crowd. Life moves on rapidly and for the most part the relations between persons must be superficial,” he added.

(Top: St. Matthews Lutheran Church, located in Creston, South Carolina.)

Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

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The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Mossad took out Nazi collaborator 50 years ago

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In the 1950s and ‘60s one of the tasks of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, was to track down high-level Nazis and Nazi collaborators who had eluded justice. The Mossad’s best-known success, of course, was the capture of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, in Argentina in 1960 and whisking him back to Israel, where he stood trial.

Less well known is the case of Herberts Cukurs, a noted Latvian who gained fame in the 1930 for his aviation skills, but who went on to aid the Germans in the efforts to rid the Baltic region of Jews and earned the nickname the Butcher of Riga.

Fifty years ago, Cukurs was killed outside of Montevideo, Uruguay, by Mossad agents for his role in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.

Cukurs, born in 1900, was the Latvian equivalent of Charles Lindbergh. He was acclaimed for long-distance solo flights, flying from Latvia to Gambia and Latvia to Japan during the 1930s.

He also constructed at least three aircraft of his own design, one of which he took on a 24,000-mile tour that included visits to Japan, China, India and Russia.

However, Cukurs had a much darker side that came out with the advent of World War II.

Just before war erupted in 1939, the Germans and Soviets had secretly divided up Europe. The Baltic states were to fall under Soviet hegemony.

When the Nazis turned on the Soviet Union in June 1941, Cukurs and many other Latvians saw an opportunity to throw off the Soviet yoke and were only too eager to work with Germans, no matter what the task.

The Germans quickly invaded and occupied Latvia, and Cukurs became a member of the notorious Arajs Kommando, or the Latvian Auxiliary Police, which answered to the intelligence arm of the Nazi SS. The Arajs Kommando was one of the more notorious killing units during the Holocaust and was responsible for many war crimes in Latvia.

Cukurs volunteered to serve as deputy commander of the Arajs Kommando, which actively participated in the murder of at least 30,000 Jews in Latvia and many thousands more in neighboring Belarus.

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