Susan Stamberg

An artist friend, Virginia Isbell, once asked me to pose for a quick pastel sketch in her Paris studio. I was flattered — and amazed to be on that side of a work of art. Never have I been looked at so intently, except by a parent or a lover. I was being fixed, examined, absorbed. And, for all the intensity, there was absolutely nothing personal about it.

I was an object to be replicated. Her eyes went from my face to her sketchpad, my nose, my eyes, mouth, chin — sketched in pastel in 20 minutes. It was fun. But it felt as if something had been taken from me.

"Walk softly and carry a big fish" was one curator's take on a humorous self-portrait of a tall woman, holding an enormous yellow fish and a paintbrush, with a black cat lurking below.

Bay area artist Joan Brown's image is the first thing you see at a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition called "Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction." Brown's painting, like so many in this Smithsonian show, is powerful and funny.

In her novel I Always Loved You, author Robin Oliveira imagines a passionate scene between Edgar Degas — a French artist known for his paintings of dancers — and Mary Cassatt — an American painter known for her scenes of family life. The kiss in the novel is pure fiction, but then again, "nobody knows what goes on in their neighbor's house, let alone what happened between two artists 130 years ago," Oliveira says.

Plenty of collectors want to donate artworks to museums, but the museums don't always welcome them with open arms. "We say 'no thanks' 19 times out of 20," says Betsy Broun, director at the American Art Museum. Sometimes the works aren't museum-quality, other times they don't fit with the museums' philosophy.

Duke Ellington didn't consider himself a jazz musician.

He said he was a musician who played jazz. And what a musician: pianist, bandleader, composer of more than 1,000 songs including standards like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Satin Doll" and "Sophisticated Lady."

Seventy-five years ago, on April 9, 1939, as Hitler's troops advanced in Europe and the Depression took its toll in the U.S., one of the most important musical events of the 20th century took place on the National Mall in Washington. There, just two performers, a singer and a pianist, made musical — and social — history.

With sleet, snow and freezing temperatures extending through March, the National Cherry Blossom Festival — which recently kicked off in Washington, D.C. — is decidedly less pink this year. In a few weeks the Tidal Basin will be ringed by rosy, pink blossoms, but until then, we traveled north to Boston, where a show at the Museum of Fine Arts called "Think Pink" explores the history and social impact of the color.

Eight hundred years ago, tea was rare in Japan. It arrived from China in simple, ceramic storage jars. Chinese ceramists churned these jars out with little care or attention; they stuffed tea leaves into them and shipped them off.

The jars were "the Chinese version of Tupperware," says Andrew Watsky, a professor of Japanese art history at Princeton.

You can listen to plenty of actors performing the works of William Shakespeare. But imagine if you could hear the voice of the young playwright himself — or the older one, for that matter — reading his own writing aloud.

Well, we can't take you back that far. But in the early 1960s, when recorded readings by authors were rare, a young couple in Boston decided to be literary audio pioneers.

You won't believe it — I didn't — but the person responsible for keeping each and every shot of a movie in focus never looks through a camera lens.

"No," says focus puller Baird Steptoe. "We do not look through the camera at all."

Steptoe has worked as a first assistant cameraman on films from The Sixth Sense to Thor to last year's Grownups Two. He says he's learned to judge distances — precise distances — with his naked eye alone.

"I mean, I can tell you roughly from you to me right now," he says. "I would say about 2-11."

Pages