The Nasher Sculpture Center
How often do you get to sit in a work of art? How often do you get to escape into a room that feels absolutely, totally, unconditionally cut off from the world around you, to the point where you feel kind of lost after a while? If your answer is "never," then clearly you have not trekked to the northern end of the Nasher Sculpture Center, where James Turrell's so-called "skyscape" awaits even the most claustrophobic among you and promises something close to nirvana. Since we can no more describe the place than we can say how it makes us feel--chilly in summer, warm in winter, wonderful always--then let the Nasher's Web site do it for us; we will add only that it's the only site-specific creation at the joint, which is fast becoming our favorite local retreat. Says the site about Turrell's creations: They're "enclosed spaces--rooms or free-standing structures--open to the sky through rectangular or circular apertures in the roof.<\f>While they appear to be architectural in nature, these spaces exist solely to create the light effects and perceptual events that constitute Turrell's art. To achieve his optical effects, Turrell coordinates a complex system of lights that run in concert with natural cycles of sunrise and sunset, and respond to constantly changing atmospheric conditions." See? Heaven.
Want to complain that the Polyphonic Spree has an unfair advantage in this category? Go right ahead. List all of the factors that make the Spree lopsided candidates, from the surplus of members (up to roughly 170 now, and that's not including the lion tamer...kidding) to the major-label support of Hollywood Records, to even the band's infrequent local gigs, and we'll offer only one response: All the more reason to see Dallas' colorful conductors when they play here. Always a better band on stage than on CD, the roughly two dozen robed warriors of the Spree are the local group everybody hates to love, but their symphonic bombast, choral shouts and manic crescendos still result in the most invigorating and smile-worthy shows anybody--from a total musical newbie to a hardened snob--can see in this city. Best of all, you still have time to purchase tickets for their annual Dallas Christmas concert. So take the kids, the parents and, heck, your grumpy self to Dallas' best reason to stop saying humbug.
It's a peculiar place, not too far off Interstate 20 in Southwest Dallas, and few Dallasites even know it exists. You drive up the steep driveway, to the top of a hill that used to be the highest point in Dallas County (how it lost that status isn't quite clear; haven't seen any volcanoes or glaciers around here recently). You get out and wander around this quiet place, and pretty soon you're hit with a breathtaking, panoramic view of everything west of the city: from Joe Pool Lake, to undeveloped prairie, to the stacked peaks of brand-new McMansions in the valley below. Not a noise is heard on a hot, windless day except for the muffled drone of I-20. This is "Prayer Mountain," on the grounds of Mountain Creek Community Church, and "anyone from any church" can come here to pray and meditate on the grounds, which include wooden decks overlooking the cliff, picnic tables, a fountain and forest trails. They much prefer, though, that you direct your prayers to "the Lord." Prayer Mountain is open in the evening, too, so people coming home from work can unload their worries here. The best view in Dallas is at its loveliest at sunset, or when there's a full moon. And there are people who live on the grounds and watch the facility, so shake off the urban jitters for a moment and relax.
We've said it before on Unfair Park: To look at a painting by Jennifer Morgan is to be embraced by the artist herself. The incredibly prolific painter has an insane knack for putting herself into each of her works. And neither that skill, nor her raw talent, has gone anywhere despite a transformation in Morgan's work. Over the last year or so, her style has changed from more whimsical, feminine caricatures into a softer, more thoughtful, nature-driven series titled "We're All Pink." The female influence is still present in her newest works, but the images are brave and bold, even more empowered by their natural and animalistic themes. Layer after layer, Morgan paints emotion and energy onto the canvas to create what might appear to be just a moose paired with cherry blossoms or a great ape but is really a very personal portrait. We imagine it's that gentle, almost maternal cradle of the paintbrush that moves through the eyes of her subjects and wraps itself around the viewer of each of her paintings.
Dallas World Aquarium
You need stats? We got stats: 85,000 gallons of "saltwater with marine life from around the world." A 22,000-gallon tunnel that allows you "to experience a panoramic view of reef life." Three webcams placed in with the manatees, otters and exotic birds. The eight-story Mundo Maya "immersion exhibit that takes visitors from the waters of the Yucatan's Gulf coast to the highland rainforests." Got that? What the kids dig most are the sharks and Mexican food and the waterfall. And being on the inside, where it always feels like a tropical jungle, no matter the weather. Last we looked there was supposed to be an aquarium at Fair Park; last we looked, it was as small as your neighbor's fish tank and half as clean. Till Dallas gets something along the lines of, oh, the Shedd in Chicago, this is about as good as it gets.
When you're a kid who just wants to rock, there is absolutely nothing worse than a guitar (or whatever instrument) instructor who wants to make you learn their favorite songs. In fact, we'd probably be crazy-skilled on the piano if we hadn't had to learn "Big Swiss Horn" and "Heart and Soul" instead of songs that truly inspired us. That sort of thing is why musician Marc Solomon created his school of rock. It's one that employs energetic, exciting teachers (you'll most likely have seen them in bands about town) who actually listen to the goals of their young pupils. It's one that teaches the Who, Springsteen, Black Sabbath and the worthy vestiges of new rock. It's also one that's grown so popular that Solomon and wife/business partner Mary Armstrong had to move to a larger space earlier this year. Zounds-Sounds offers rock shows instead of stuffy recitals and, even cooler, a chance for parents to throw up the rock horns right next to, or in support of, their kids.
A good portrait is hard to come by. Olan Mills and its smoky, swirly backdrops just don't cut it. No, environmental portraiture and a more natural expression is so the way to go. A person hanging out in normal surroundings will interact with the camera, not act for it. Conversely, a bride seated on a swing set, or someplace more casual and less stressful than a studio setting, will relax. These are techniques used by a good photographer. But Hal Samples is a great photographer. Though known mostly for gallery showings, Samples also shoots commissioned portraiture. But "commissioned" doesn't mean "less artful." What makes Samples so successful is his ability to expose the inner beauty, the spirit and the soul of his subjects. A combination of childlike enthusiasm and natural charisma exudes from the man, putting subjects--from small children to stuffy businessmen--instantly at ease. It is said that certain indigenous peoples believed a camera could steal one's soul. In this case, Hal Samples doesn't steal your soul with his camera; he coaxes it out of hiding and shows you what it looks like.
The Old Monk
A night out at the bar. You've been knockin' back a Stella or 10 with your gang, maybe playing a little game of "Who Would You Rather?" (Ugh, Barbara Walters.) You're starting to get a little hungry. But you're smart, and you didn't drive to the bar, which means no trip to Jack in the Box for some grease pocket tacos. Better hope you're at the Old Monk, 'cause the Knox-Henderson staple kills every other burger-and-fries-servin' drinking establishment in town when it comes to bar food. Two words: cheese plate. Floppy, frozen french fries don't stand a chance against the Five Counties cheddar, tasty deli meats and tiny little gherkins on the Old Monk plate. If you want heftier fare, the Guinness beef stew will tide you over till you wake up from that hangover tomorrow around noon. And the sandwiches? Oh yes, the sandwiches are big enough for two jonesin' drinkers to feel plenty satisfied. After you've felt the love of the Old Monk, you'll never look at a 2 a.m. hamburger quite the same way. Or ever again.
State Fair of Texas
Come on, do you really want anyone you know to see you gobbling down that third Fletcher's Corny Dog? That's just one of many reasons to wander the vast fairgrounds unaccompanied. It's so much more fun to hit the State Fair on your own than to have to constantly be negotiating: New cars or Polynesian dancers? The cover band at the Chevy Stage or a stroll over to the midway to lose a few dollars whacking moles with a mallet? If you're doing it on your own, you can improvise. Go ahead and try a deep-fried Oreo, then stop in and watch dogs chase Frisbees. Pet the sheep in the livestock pens and feel a catch in your throat as the farm kids cry when they have to auction their prize hogs off to the sausage makers. And if you've never ridden the Texas Star Ferris wheel, well, you never know who you might meet up there in the sky if you're flying solo. Corny, but doggone it, it's so great a place to explore, it's worth walking around the whole place one more time to see what you've missed
Sue Ellen's
This longtime staple and only bar geared toward the ladies on the Cedar Springs strip ranks right up there with old faves JR's and Station 4. What sets this apart from the others is its friendly, welcoming style to anyone who walks through the door. Gay or straight, a good time is hard to miss with DJs spinning radio-friendly tunes for the dance floor or the huge outdoor patio that plays host to live bands throughout the week. While the boys know how to dance, the girls know how to rock. And if one band isn't enough, their occasional mini music fests, Breastfest and GirlJam, are daylong outings worth the time. Kudos to Sue Ellen's for offering a live music scene, albeit a small one, to the Oak Lawn area.

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