With brush, with bow, with sled

Hyman Bloom's "The Bride."
Hyman Bloom's "The Bride."Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the beginning of local filmmaker Angélica Allende Brisk’s richly rewarding “Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things” a fellow artist recalls walking with Bloom in Cambridge. They came upon a dog turd covered with flies. Bloom stopped and gazed at it and said, “Look at these flies! Look how they glisten!” And the flies became a subject of one of his drawings.

Born in Latvia, Bloom (who died in 2009, at 96) immigrated to Boston with his family in 1920 and pretty much never left, which may be why, after enjoying early celebrity (both Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack proclaimed him the first Abstract Expressionist, a characterization Bloom disavowed), he faded into obscurity. Or it could be because he didn’t care about fame, money, or anything besides painting.


Looking at the canvases on display in Brisk’s film it’s hard to believe that such stunning works are not better known. Bloom had a way with colors that made his canvases glow with an inner light, like stained glass windows. His subjects, as you might guess from the dog-excrement incident, varied from the mystical to the macabre, in many cases combining the two. He passed easily from painting cantors singing in radiant synagogues to decomposing cadavers in morgues. The colors of the latter fascinated him, and he saw in decay the transition of matter into spirit. For most of his life he was obsessed with mysticism and the spirit world. Like William Blake he painted his visions — sometimes the images are ecstatic, sometimes they are terrifying, but they are all beautiful.

Brisk’s film includes interviews with Bloom, his family, and friends such as the renowned Boston painter Jack Levine (the two were once nicknamed “The Bad Boys of Boston”). Art experts analyze his work and impact. With imaginative graphics Brisk explains Bloom’s technique and philosophy. But most important she shows numerous examples of his arresting, visionary artwork. The film helps restore to glory a great artist and one of Boston’s cultural treasures.


“Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things” can be seen on WGBH on Dec. 26 at 10 p.m. The broadcast coincides with the ongoing exhibition “Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death” at the Museum of Fine Arts, through Feb. 23.

Take a bow

Presley Barker, in "Fiddlin'"
Presley Barker, in "Fiddlin'"Courtesy Utopia

If you don’t know your old-time music from your bluegrass, Julie Simone’s irresistible “Fiddlin’” is a good place to start learning. An immersive tour of the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, in Galax, Va., in 2015, it features not just fiddlers but also masters of the dobro, banjo, guitar, and autoharp (be sure to stick around for the end credits, during which a woman produces a mini-symphony with a set of spoons and her bare feet). Hundreds of musicians from all over the world gather in Galax for jam sessions and to compete for coveted prizes.

Many of the participants are old-timers, but some are kids and teenagers, including the frighteningly prodigious 11-year-old guitarist Presley Barker. He is awed to meet the famous local guitar-maker and musician Wayne C. Henderson, whose instruments sell for tens of thousands of dollars to the top names in pop music. They are in high demand; Eric Clapton spent five years on a waiting list before getting his.

But most of those participating in the festival depend on their day jobs. Only a lucky few can make a living with their music, but for all it’s the music they live for. And in at least one case the music is what keeps them alive. Karen Carr, bass fiddler for a group called the Crooked Road Ramblers, eloquently describes her lifelong bipolar disorder (“the highs leave behind a debris field of debt and heartache”) and attributes her survival to her love of old-time and bluegrass music.


“Fiddlin’” is available for streaming on iTunes and VOD.

Go to itunes.apple.com/us/movie/fiddlin/id1483165056.

Cold comfort

Joe Bifelt, in "Attla"
Joe Bifelt, in "Attla"Photo Catharine Axley

The native Koyukon people in the remote village of Huslia, Alaska, (population 226) did not have high hopes for young George Attla. At an early age contracted tuberculosis and underwent years of treatment at a sanitarium 950 miles away, in Sitka. He returned home a teenager with a fused knee and a permanent limp and couldn’t participate in many of the physically challenging occupations of the community, such as fur-trapping and hunting. Having spent his childhood apart from his culture he had forgotten the language and traditions and found himself alienated and alone.

But he discovered that he had the makings of an outstanding “musher,” with a talent for raising and training sled dogs and establishing a bond with his team. This intuitive skill made him a formidable competitor, and in 1958 he shocked his neighbors and the racing world by winning the Fur Rendezvous World Championship. He would go on to win that race 10 times and became an eight-time North American Open champion.


Catharine Axley’s affecting documentary “Attla” relates this inspirational story through rare archival footage and interviews with friends and family. But as the film begins Attla is ailing (he died in 2015, at 81) and is depressed by what he sees as the corruption of his community and the loss of traditional values. Few own dogsleds anymore, or participate in the races, which have become “a rich man’s sport.” To counter these developments, he enlists his 20-year-old grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, an English major in college and a mushing neophyte, and trains him to compete in the world championship dogsled event, the North American Race.

Axley’s film celebrates an athlete who had slipped into obscurity and provides a glimpse into the challenges facing indigenous people who try to maintain their cultural identity in a world that seems to be passing them by.

The “Independent Lens” documentary is available for streaming through Jan. 14.

Go to www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/attla.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.