September 23, 2020

Intact Musical Chairs: Ceramic Sculpture with a Sound

 In my last blog post about clay projects, I highlighted my ceramic musical chairs that did not quite make it intact through the firing process.  The creative solution to reassemble them, apply marble dust gesso, shellac, and paint, worked out well although it was time consuming.  These chairs made with local clay made it through the kiln and subsequent pit firing intact.  The coloration is from burnished terra sigillata.  

The anthropomorphous chairs also function as rattles, clacking instruments, and ocarinas.  Hence the name “musical chairs.”  The smooth, streamlined forms are in part influenced by Cycladic sculpture.  This also results from the burnishing process.  It is generally easier to polish a form that does not have pronounced  textures or sharp angles.  The pieces above were smoke fired after being kiln fired, which blackened areas in order to create contrast.  The chairs below were kept away from the fire, and so remained clean and oxidized.  I made good use of my Chinese brushwork for the slip decoration on these. 

September 4, 2020

Bicycles and the 2019 National Portrait Gallery Revisited

 Today I was going through the gallery in my smart phone and came across a late nineteenth century painting of a woman bicyclist stopping at a farmhouse to take a drink of water.    We saw the painting in July, 2019,  at the National Portrait Gallery for the exhibition on Woman Suffrage.  The painting was by South Carolina Artist Edward Lamson Henry and is entitled “The New Woman.”  This was an actual phrase used to describe women in the late nineteenth century who were experimenting with newly found freedoms, one of which was riding bicycles.  

This new invention contributed  undoubtedly to better physical health, as these women would be outdoors and taking exercise.  It most likely broadened their social horizons as well for they could travel more expeditiously to nearby towns.

What is interesting about the Henry painting is his apparent lack of sympathy for  “The New Woman,” as she is depicted here as a subject to make fun of.  The cyclist’s proportions are not even exactly human, and her lithe form can be contrasted with the more robust women behind the farmer.  Looking closely at the two women and the man they stand behind it seemed to me that Lamson’s sentiments are with them, and that he desires that the viewers’ also “get behind” the point of view of smirking man and angry women. 

What would anger these women?  Is it envy that this woman gallivanting about on her bicycle is shirking wifely, domestic,  or motherly duties that they themselves might be restricted to?  They almost seem to be saying “How dare she get away with not doing her chores!  I can’t get away with that!”  Interestingly, the museum sign describes these woman as “befuddled.”  They looked a bit more like they were, at least mildly,  pissed off. 

The man scratches his head in histrionic confusion.  What is so “amusing” to Henry?  A woman “out of her proscribed place,” perhaps?

Some time after seeing the Henry painting, I discovered a painting of a female cyclist from the about the same year by Lila Cabot Perry.  An artist friend had posted it on Facebook. The Perry painting was done just after Henry’s “The New Woman” and serves as a significant contrast.  Perry’s cyclist is humanized without being didactic.  One wonders if Perry was perhaps aware of the Lamson work and painted her own cyclist by way of a retort.  The museum sign at the National Gallery informs us that paintings of female cyclists were “relatively rare,” at the time. But the author does acknowledge a proliferation of period posters on the subject.  Why not have displayed some of those?  A cursory online search would also likely have turned up the Lila Cabot Perry painting. It would have been an interesting study to have Lila Cabot Perry’s painting as part of the National Portrait Gallery’s  exhibition as well as E.L Henry’s.  And it might have served to highlight an ideological struggle that we experience even today in the United States: the social progress of women butting up against conservative male derision and conservative female anger.  

For a more amusing artistic cinematic representation of the bicycle in the nineteenth century, I recently watched the 1999 film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Kevin Kline playing a very endearing Bottom.  The film is set in the late nineteenth century - with everyone either in pursuit of, or trying to escape from each other while riding bicycles.  It was more effective than one would think and really amusing.  But I did not need to smirk and scratch my head over it, or get angry over the lack of Elizabethan Costumes.  

Resources for further reading:

August 25, 2020

Musical Chairs

 Finishing my large painted Liberty Snakes brings my blog posts back to the present - almost.  There are some other projects not mentioned since the beginning of the spring lock downs and cancellations.  So to begin again, I return to March.

Our exhibition at the Bassett Gallery in Sumter, SC, had been closed down due to the pandemic.  I had wanted to include some three dimensional work with this exhibition on the theme of chairs.  My vision was to make a series of small chairs that were also musical instruments.  Since I cannot resist double meanings and cheap puns, I called these small chair-like rattles, whistles, and ocarinas “musical chairs.”  With no place to actually take these objects and market them, it seemed a bit frivolous to even think of creating these complex and time-consuming objects.  But I enjoyed the challenge and it gave me a much needed excuse to use up my excess clay.

The clay I used was my locally mined orange-hued Orangeburg material.  

There were some instabilities in this clay as well as some structural shortcomings due to my three year lapse in making clay sculpture.  But the clay that cracked or broke off made for another opportunity to use up excess supplies.

Typically I would just toss something that became damaged in the firing process.  But this time I chose three pieces that were only slightly damaged and repaired them in a way that enabled me to try something new using metal leaf, gesso, and oil paints.  

I first used epoxy to reattach fragments.  I then sanded everything smooth and applied marble dust gesso to the sculptures.  This I sanded the gesso to an egg shell finish and applied orange shellac.  The excess gesso went on a cache of panels that were brushed with shellac and then put aside for some time later.

In the process of repair,  my ceramic sculpture of a divan with a pillow regained its sound.  The pillow is a small flute and the divan itself a bass ocarina.  For the design I used bright colors and metallic paint.  

The obverse side depicts the narcissus then blooming in my garden.

For the rattle chair, I used metal leaf and oils.  The butterfly on the seat of the chair is one that I had espied on a flower during one of my walks in a then lonely and quiet city in early April.  

“The Chair Man Doesn’t Want to Hear it Anymore.”

The structure of the chair was derived from a handmade chair that I had seen earlier in the year at a specialty shop in Virginia, back when traveling was still an option.  It was the most bizarre chair I had every seen, made out of steer horns.  We were told that it hailed from the great state of Texas.  When I  had posted and image of this chair online, a friend observed that it looked like it was "sticking it's fingers in it's ears." By reproducing this in clay and adding a screaming face in the central panel, the sculpture brought this observation to fruition.  

My last painted chair was based upon my study of the chairs of ancient Egypt while at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in January.  The front side of the chair has mice hidden in the abstract design. 

 The obverse side sports a picture of a cat having caught a mouse - a design that I unearthed from an old collection of plates of Egyptian Painting.  My mothers had found these old black and white museum plates ages ago at a yard sale and I was happy to be able to use them as a resource.

August 22, 2020

A Liberty Snake that Doesn't Tread on Anyone


My last Liberty Snake, number 21, is complete.  There were so many people I could have   These painted snakes could have stretched out indefinitely.  I could have made a “Don’t Tread on Children” snake, or “Don’t Tread on Students.”  One for mothers, parent, or first providers.  More minorities could have been included.  For current events, I wish that I had an extra snake for “Don’t Tread on the Postal Service!” And what about the rights of animals?

In the end, I decided to include all the rest in my “Don’t Tread on Anyone” snake.  This snake did not use my large stamps and was instead painted free hand, with intense colors and heavy black outlines.  The inspiration came from looking at the free style quilts of Rosa Lee Tompkins.  I had seen her work in person at some point, but in which museum, I cannot recall.  I had been thinking of creating a more free style snake like this one, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in some way, Tompkins was the goad to do that.  

It is good to bring this project to a close.  When I first began painting these large snakes back in 2017, I found with a certain irony that the image and slogan of the Gadsden Flag that sports the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan had already been  appropriated by the Alt-Right.  This would arguably  cause anyone with a moral compass to immediately drop the slogan, the snakes,  and run with alacrity and all speed ahead in the opposite direction.  In the end I decided that I had just as much right to use snakes as a symbol as anyone else.   Borrowed  snakes aligned with the first few words of a slogan are not, after all,  the flag that is associated with the Tea Party and other dubious groups.  The snake here is freed from his original context and is at liberty to point the way to a higher cause.  In time, I came to think of these as antidote snakes to extreme,  toxic ideologies.  Most of the people spouting these ideologies, and their version of the rattlesnake sign, do so in opposition to civic mindedness and social responsibility (i.e. anti-maskers/anti-vaxxers).  They do so because they have come to misconstrue their own desires with “rights.”  To be precise - their “right” to do anything to anyone, anytime they please.  For example,  so-called “gun rights” advocates I have spoke with did not seem to be really defending the right to bear arms as outlined in the Constitution for the purpose of a well-regulated militia.  They were wanting to acquire any kind of firearm, at any time from anywhere,  for all and everyone, threaten people with them if they desire - regardless of other citizens’ actual rights to public safety.   What they espoused were wants, not rights.  Just as refusing to abide by mask wearing mandates is a want, not a right, and an unseemly one at that.  No one has a “right” to endanger the lives of others.

It has been discouraging these past few years to witness the growth of demagogues who flood the airways and social media with hate mongering and misinformation.  I am at a loss to explain what they profess to be “taking back the country” from.  Decency?  Respect for the common good? I am often discouraged at modus operandi of some purporting to be  “left” or “progressive” vitriol as well.  I tire of the misogynous “Karen” memes on social media.  I am alarmed at the number of people who forget their humanity and wish Covid-19 on others - “just to teach them a lesson,” I sometimes read, in utter disbelief.  I am shocked by the anti-semitism.  The disparagement of working class people is discouraging.

Perhaps in some small way I wish to take back my country, too.  Or to be more precise, nudge it back to some semblance of common human decency, civic responsibility and equal opportunity.  In the mean time, I’m taking my snakes back.


August 15, 2020

A Liberty Snake for the Working Class

 This next Liberty Snake, for the rights of the working class, was created with rollers, stamps and stippling. 

For the first time, I wrote the slogan free hand because my letter stenciling was a bit too large to fit on this nine foot long snake.  All but these last two are twelve feet long.  It seems that I ran just a little short of muslin so made the last two snakes a yard shorter than the rest.  Nine feet is still ample room for rich colors and intricate designs. 

The stamp that I used is a repeat design, which links up to create a larger pattern.  This was printed multiple times over a painted surface with modulated green and blue tonalities.  

After the stamped patterns were completely dry, I repainted the dots in bright blue, orange, yellows and earth reds.  

The  slogan about working class Americans reflects my concern about the staggering increase in income inequality and the disappearance of a living wage.  Would making America embrace fairness be such a bad idea? 


August 11, 2020

A Liberty Snake for Public Health


Liberty Snake number 20.  I had painted other “Don’t Tread On...” snakes in previous years for health related issues, but this year it occurred to me that public health would be especially apropos.  This snake insists on public safety and protection from disease through a viable program for public health.  Why should that not be considered a right? 

The “Don’t Tread on Public Health” painted snake incorporates imprints from a large stamp that I don’t believe I have previously used in this project.  
A close up of the detail in the pattern reveals the individual stamped design - something like stylized scattered wheat.  

While painting the snake eye, I began by outlining with some spikes of orange.  I then realized that I perhaps was unconsciously recreating the now iconic and ubiquitous  image of the coronavirus that constantly before us.  This was brought out with a bit more intent with some modifications.

At the tail end of the snake, there are a few stamps that are not like the others.  This one was actually a form carved on the obverse side of the “scattered wheat” stamp (My frugal nature has me carving both sides of linoleum blocks).  On this side of the stamp, I carved a Chinese seal script character for “Kang,” or “health.”  It seemed a fitting end.

August 9, 2020

Repairing Broken Mosaics

 I had dedicated the summer to finishing my Liberty Snake project.  In so doing, I have also been jotting down some thoughts and observations as to why this took me four years to complete.  Like most projects that require time, multiple steps, and a lot of space, there is much that tends to get in the way of that and thwart the best of intentions to finish.  During the course of completing this art project one thing that needed to be attended to was the repair work on my mosaics.  These took up  space on my work tables for quite some time - space that was needed for rolling out those twelve foot long snakes.  I had delayed repairing these mosaics because of the tedium involved, I suppose, as well as not being able to find the right glaze for the missing or damaged parts of the ceramic pieces on the mosaics.  

Once I had resolved to finish my mosaic repairs, however, progress was steady.  The first step was to clean the broken surfaces. The old cement and ceramic shards had to be carefully scraped off of the substrate.

After cleaning, the holes in the mosaic surface were not difficult to fill in.  It was just a matter of finding the right smalti and ceramic colors and cutting the pieces to refit.  The worst repair problems were the ceramic bullnoses that finished the edges of the mosaic.  These had to be made anew from raw clay, trimmed, then glazed and fired. The newly made bullnose tiles fit fairly well on the mosaic with monkeys.

For the second, larger mosaic, I needed black glazed ceramic bullnose tiles.  Not being able to find my black glaze, I opted for something different.  I painted skulls, bones, and teeth onto the red earthenware with black and white underglaze, carved outlines in sgrafitto, then applied a clear gloss overglaze.

These then had to be attached with thin set mortar, allowed to set up overnight, then grouted the following morning. 

The new mosaic tiles brought the old mosaics back to life,  such as that is in the time of pandemic.

August 7, 2020

A Liberty Snake in Celebration of Immigrants

 “When one learns another language, one acquires another soul”

-Bernard Karlgren

My next Liberty Snake was painted on the theme of immigration.  It sports much more language than the others in this series.  There is the slogan side of the snake, with its “Don’t Tread on Immigrants,” but while completing the design I decided to include the word for “immigrant” in myriad languages within the undulating lines of the patterns on this snake. 

 I chose mostly languages that had physically beautiful scripts, like Bengali, Hindi, and Chinese.   More familiar languages were those using Roman or Greek alphabets.  For most of these I simply used the online Google translator.  

While writing all these scripts it made me almost viscerally aware of the enormity of human knowledge and how much of that is inaccessible without knowledge of the language.  Not only were most of the scripts available not readable to me, there were  many others not even represented in translator.  What about Mayan, for instance?  It was humbling to say the least.  Even with my knowledge of Chinese and a sampling of many others, there is so much more wealth of sounds, knowledge, and culture within humanity, it seems a pity that our life spans are so short as to not be able to acquire and understand more of them.  And how sad a nation that does not value this cultural wealth!
The patterns were painted with acrylic paint, stencils, and linoleum prints on muslin.  The snake is approximately twelve feet long.

August 4, 2020

A Liberty Snake for Teachers

My next large Liberty Snake has been dedicated to teachers.  Notoriously underpaid and undervalued, they are now involuntarily on the front line in a pandemic.  There does not seem to be a consensus on the reopening of public schools in a few weeks.  I am of the opinion that it is not a good idea to do so before mass testing and a vaccine.  

Most of these painted snakes are made with large stamps and stencils in order to speed up the process of painting such a large area.  For this one I took my time and painted it free hand.  The raucus designs were influenced by the flying aces of World War 1, in particular the bright colors and mesmerizing bulls eyes of Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus.  A flying circus it is indeed for educators.  

August 1, 2020

Best Recipes for Fresh Figs: The Sweet and the Savory

While searching for ways to use up my bumper crop of figs, I found that most recipes for cookies called for dried figs.  With a small adjustment, however, I discovered that these recipes could accommodate fresh figs just as well.  It simply required reducing the amount of liquid ingredients to compensate for the juicy figs.  This proved to be especially successful in the Italian cucidati recipe that I found online.  For the fig filling, I just used about 1/4 cup less orange juice than the recipe called for and simmered a bit longer in order to boil down to a paste.  For the lemon glaze, instead of using color sprinkles on top, I used crushed pistachios, which added better flavor.  The dough was enriched with a small amount of marscapone.  These were so decadently rich - they were almost sinful!

After polishing off various kinds of sweets with fig ingredients, I turned to the savory.  Sliced figs can be used as toppings on homemade pizza, fresh in salads,  and cooked into this curried chicken dish as well.

Now that the deluge of figs in South Carolina has waned, I can return to my studio and this blog will become one for visual arts once again.