RUSSELL-HAMER-oil-portrait-by-artist-Elizabeth-Reed-FACeADE-Project-A portrait of diversity

January 24,2020

Oil on Linen

20 x 24″

ER: What is your Name? What is your nickname? Do you have a childhood nickname?
RH: Russell D. Hamer. Everyone calls me Russ. Some people call me crazy. But we’re divorced now. As a kid, my Dad, Howard, called me Rusty, a moniker which would be more appropriate at my current age.

ER: How old are you?
RH: 73 chronologically. Mentally and emotionally I am only 72 ½ .

ER: What is your favorite saying or quote?
RH: “Gracias a la vida que me dado tanto!” (Thanks to Life that has given me so much! Famous song by Violeta Parra). This is despite the excruciating irony that Violeta took her own life at the age of 50. I also love Einstein’s quote: “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”

ER: Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you call home?
RH: Born in Manhattan USA! Most of my childhood (to age 17) was in suburbia, on Long Island (Syosset.) My sense of home has become complicated: after 25 years in San Francisco Bay Area, that feels like home. But then after 7 years in Sao Paulo, Brasil, that is another home base for me. Boca Raton is my home nominally, but I feel adrift here, without much of a community.

ER: Where are your parents/grandparents from? How did they influence you today? (big question)
RH: My mother, Lili, was born in Warsaw, Poland and was brought over not long before the Nazi regime decimated Europe’s Jews. She was a ballet dancer and instructor, full of joie de vivre. She died at age 56.

Her mom, Rae, brought Lili and her 2 half-sisters (also her 1st cousins – figure that one out!) over from Europe in 1931.

My paternal grandmother was Belle Hammer. She grew up in Brooklyn and ended up moving to Tennessee. Her daughter married and moved to Memphis. Belle moved with them. Most of my life I knew her visiting from Memphis to NY. She was a whiny hypochondriac. Even her children say that. But I remember loving her very much.

My father, Howard, was born in Brooklyn, NY and his heritage traces back to Austria. Also Jewish. He was handsome, a great dancer, sang like Sinatra, and always stressed out due to finances. Insecure. Died at age 46. I was 17. Very traumatic for me, my brother, and Lili of course.

ER: Why do you live here? How did you get here?
RH: David Byrne asked the very same question in “Once in a Lifetime”: How did I get here?
My life veered from San Francisco to Brasil after my Federal Research Grant did not get renewed and my job in 2006 was thus terminated. When I returned from Brasil in 2013, I had to accept the sad reality that I could no longer afford to live in the SF Bay Area ($$$$!!!!). I toyed with the idea of staying in NY, but could find no jobs and NY is very $$$$ also. So, since I knew I’d be returning to Brasil frequently to continue collaborating with scientific colleagues there, and to visit my new family of very dear friends there, So. FL was a more convenient staging area to get to Brasil. I also had friends in Miami and was interested in the research going on at FAU. Plus finding a nice house for just over $200K (couldn’t buy an outhouse in SF for that!) made the decision seem easy.
ER: Do you speak another language?
RH: I am very functional in Portuguese and can get along in Spanish as well. I know tongue-twisters in Italian and Japanese. I can irritate Parisians with my few phrases in French. I know bad words in Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and Finnish (if you can believe that!).

ER: What is your favorite color?
RH: Really? You are asking this? How could anyone have a favorite color OTHER than aqua?

ER: Do you have a pet(s)?
RH: I don’t now. I had the sweetest smooth Fox Terrier, Cookie, between 2000 and 2007 when I left for Brasil. She loved everything and everybody. She loved dogs. Strangers. Rocks. Cats. She didn’t yap-yap like most small dogs. She liked to sleep in on Sundays.

ER: Do you have children? How many? How old are they? Tell us about them.
RH: My one son, Michael, lives in San Diego with his girlfriend, Stephanie, and her dog Daphne.
He is in sales, very stressed out, handsome as all get out, ½ a foot taller than me, sings well, used to play the guitar. I love him dearly.

ER: What is your passion? What are you doing when you are most happy?
RH: I am deliriously in love with music, the arts and especially dance. I miss being in a close relationship with a woman, someone to share life with. Love is where it’s at. And music. And dance. Oh…and cooking/eating gourmet meals. Oh, and traveling!

ER: Do you have a mission? A reason for doing that which is your passion?
RH: My mission is to give love and joy and inspiration to others. That is why I love teaching. And especially teaching dance, which I did for more than 20 years.

ER: What is / was your profession? Is this profession what you were meant to do? Why?
RH: I am a professor, and a research scientist in sensory-perceptual neuroscience. I spent many years researching visual development of infants, and visual brain mechanisms in general. If I had another life to occupy, I’d be a pro-dancer. Or a musician in a Cuban Salsa band or a Jazz group.

ER: What are you really good at doing? Why?
RH: Really good at: teaching, explaining stuff; cooking; dancing; kissing; sharing; seeing the humor in life; Loving those close to me; discovering stuff – science!!

ER: What do you do that might change the world? Why?
RH: Oohhh….this is a hard one. I would hope that my many years of research would have a positive impact on humanity. But who knows. The work may simply get lost in the ocean of research that is being done. At the very least I can be sure that my path through life has left a positive wake in the human stream overall. To me Karma resides in our effects on others.

ER: What makes you feel like part of a community? Why?
RH: I love to have group dinners with conversation and music galore. This is hard to establish in the USA…not as natural in our culture as it is in Latino cultures.

ER: What is the most interesting thing you have ever done?
RH: Going to Brasil, living there, and learning about the culture in a way that tourism cannot give you.
ER: What is your greatest accomplishment?
RH: My son. My scientific output. And the thousands of people to whom I gave the joy of dance.

ER: What are your regrets?
RH: That I never really learned to be a musician. I’d like to write a novel also. And I would have like to re-marry and have one or more children. This is a major regret, since I love children so much.

ER: What are your struggles?
RH: See above! I struggle with time-use and being able to actualize my imagination and passions into concrete projects, like writing or learning music. I have bought a trumpet and am learning. Slowly. But it is a joy!

ER: What are your greatest adventures?
RH: Losing a job in San Francisco, then finding one in Brasil doing the same research, and moving there without hesitation. Choreographing and performing Salsa on stage in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learning to shoot a bow and arrow with my Father at age 13. And how to shoot a high-powered rifle at about the same age.

Learning to Ski at age 42. Leaving the USA for the 1st time on my own to travel for 1.5 months in Costa Rica and Guatemala, again at the age of 42. Teaching Salsa in Sydney Australia. Climbing to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite with my girlfriend. Talk about facing one’s fear of heights. During the final ladder-climb to the peak I began to understand the need for adult diapers. Took us 11 hours, and only 1.5 hrs to descend in terrifying darkness!!!

Cooking a gourmet meal for 30 in my home with 10 different main courses! Tasting my first Premier Cru White Burgundy – manna from heaven. Meeting Juan Formell y Los Van Van from Cuba when they performed in Santa Cruz, CA in 2000. My first trip to Paris. Climbing to the top of the Sagrada Familia Tower in Barcelona. My first steps inside the Vatican Cathedral. An unexpected affair with a South African Flamenco dancer in Madrid, traveling with her to the south of Spain. A fiery woman – gorgeous, talented, a force of nature. Ole! Ay Amor!

Raising my son.

Excerpts from conversation with Russ taped while painting.

Buena Vista Social Club (the song “Chan Chan”) is playing in the background!

ER: What are you doing these days?
RH: Well, I am about to give a 4-lecture course on the Art of the great Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. I am approaching his work, not from the point of view of an Art Historian (which I am not) or of an Art Critic (which I am not), but as a neuroscientist. This surprises people when I tell them this.

The concept is really a natural one, because Magritte’s paintings engage us, fascinate us, surprise us – visually, perceptually, cognitively, emotionally even philosophically – and actually show us directly how our visual brain processes scenes. The surreal effects he creates provide clues to the brain’s priorities – the “brain-rules”, “perceptual rules” used – when we (literally) construct the elements presented to us on a flat 2D canvas into a full-blown rich 3D scene.

The very salience of the surreal effects we perceive are signs of the brain’s internal “battle” between competing perceptual-organization rules. You can think of this as revealing a competition between the well-known Gestalt Principles of perception. These Principles brilliantly organized and codified the phenomenology of perception – how elements of scenes are organized, how proximity and similarity “sticks” objects together, binds them perceptually, either in static or dynamic view, why an occluded object is not perceived as two but remains one object, and many more. But underlying the Gestalt Principles are actual brain mechanisms – neural pathways – which visual neuroscientists have been studying for many decades. And modern imaging methods like MRI and PET and the like are now able to actually reveal the networks of the brain that are used when we view Art.

The Aesthetic Response itself – heretofore the purview of philosophers and psychologists – is beginning to be revealed with these methods, and an “Aesthetic Brain Module” – the Default Mode Network – has been proposed as the locus of positive Aesthetic experience.

Magritte said: “The function of painting is to make poetry visible…to render thought visible.” A famous Vision Scientist colleague of mine once wrote “Visual art obeys the laws of the visual brain and thus reveals these laws to us”.

Ok, jump back in time some. Living in Brasil between 2007 and 2013, I was doing research and teaching at The University of Sao Paulo in the Instituto de Psicologia as a visiting professor. I was teaching graduate courses in sensation and perception and the function of the retina in the eye. Three or four weeks after I got there the students found out that I taught Salsa. “We want a Salsa class!” We started our dance group “PsicoSalsa” on Thursday nights. You can see us on Youtube!
(e.g., )
Two couples even got married after meeting in my class!

I became enamored and involved with my community there. They learned some Salsa and Cuban music which they didn’t not know. Salsa is Cuban, originally from Africa. It evolved organically after the slave trade brought Africans to that part of the world. They brought rhythm and drumming with them. The central rhythm in Cuban music is called the “Clave.” It means the key. There are several different types of Clave rhythms but all popular Cuban music that we call Salsa music is organized around this one set of rhythm patterns. Clave was originally played on hard wooden dowels that the slaves discovered in the bowels of the ships on their voyages to the New World. They used them to start making music, and they are used in every Salsa band today. My students learned about Cuban music and dance from me. Brasilians dance Samba and other dances like Forro, but Salsa was new for them, totally different.

I learned much more about Brasilian music than I ever knew before. It is way more magnificent and diverse than I had imagined. All I knew from the US was the Bossa Nova, Stan Getz. Oh…and I had seen the 1959 film by the French director Marcel Camus called, “Orfeo Negro,” or Black Orpheus, which was filmed in Rio de Janiero during Carnaval. It was a modern tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Beautiful Magical. The storyline. The music was composed by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Unforgettable music. And the actors were literally drop-dead gorgeous.

While living in Sao Paulo I discovered how vast was the range of Brasilian Music. They have their own reggae, they have “MPB” (Musica Popular Brasileira), which itself encompasses a wide range of music that is different than straight Samba. They have music called Axe (pronounced “ashay”) in the Northeast, Bahia, very African influenced and with a lot of intense percussion and energetic dance rhythms. The Northeast, Bahia, is a more “negrified,” part of the country. (Their term)

My paternal grandfather’s name was Fruchter. He abandoned the family to go off and become an artist. It isn’t clear he ever succeeded. My grandmother got very angry and went back to her maiden name, Hammer. One M got chucked sometime after that, so I’m a Hamer.

I am going to give a lecture on Cuban music next Monday. I found this harder to express, and to organize than any of my science lectures. Number one, this music is a passion of mine in an emotional way that is different than science and so I want to present it in a way that transmits this passion to the audience. And to tell the story of the evolution of a whole genre of music you need to put together many strategically-chosen clips of music. They have to have an integral connection that I have to narrate. There is soooo much to choose from. I only have 1 hour 15 minutes to talk. I have been editing Youtube videos into short clips and have to arrange them and decide what to say about each.

As luck would have it, I happen to have a close friend who is a film maker who will help me. We just finished a film on women’s number one tennis players. We interviewed all of the top women tennis players from Billie Jean King to the present day. The film has been shown in 23 film festivals and has won 13 awards. I am the neuroscience consultant and assistant producer.

Music. I would like to write a book about how music has enriched my life. Why it drives me insane and why it is impossible to sit still while it is on. It led me to this new path…a new passion…discovering the neuroscience behind why music moves us so. How we make music. What in the brain controls our understanding of synchronization to rhythm and moving and dancing to rhythm.

You can take a straight neuroscience approach to this. Because now the world of research on the cognitive neuroscience of music is so enormous. So, when I came to Florida – FAU in 2014 – I decided to study the neuroscience of music and rhythm instead of continuing with visual neuroscience.

I wanted to collaborate with a musician who is interested in the neuroscience of music. I met a young professional percussionist, a graduate of Frost School of Music in Miami. He is an expert in Cuban music. He came to FAU and I recorded him playing conga drums and rhythms with the clave sticks. I recorded him used software to analyze the timing of his performance. He is interested in the analysis but has become very popular, therefore really busy, and hasn’t even had the time to come see his own data.

Jim Lehrer had just died. We discussed how the media has changed these days. We have a short circuiting of rational evaluation. It is a mystery as to why this has happened so completely. There are emotional triggers that get you into a defensive state. You become defensive and stop thinking clearly. You can almost see a door close in the brain when you talk to someone who is a fanatic about one thing or another. As you try to engage in a logical conversation you see the glaze go over the eyes and the mind go back to a rote reaction, immune to reason. The use of a phrase can be a trigger, short-circuit thinking and self-evaluation.

That reminds me. I once had an experience with a Jehovah’s Witness and his son. They knocked on my door one Sunday when I was living in Oakland. They were very well dressed and polite and enthusiastic about saving another soul. The father said he had a book for me that would tell me the good news. I told him I appreciated his desire to save my soul but that was Jewish and not interested.

He said, “Oh! That’s ok. I used to be a drug addict!” He said that right in front of his son. I didn’t have a come-back for that. I wondered if he was really teaching this to his son? I didn’t get angry but was insulted and shocked at the lack of awareness of how arrogant this was.

Maravilla de Florida from Cuba was playing on the sound system. Very modern bass. Traditional violins and flute from Cuba’s old Charanga traditions. Old style and new style combined. Love it.


Posted on

August 18, 2020

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