December 31, 2008

The Empty Room

The eve of the new year arrives, and with it reflections on 2008 and hopes for 2009. 2008 was the year that I had hoped to finish my book of poetry and paintings. Despite slow downs and set backs I managed to do so. But there is still the work of editing and refining ahead - but that now becomes the resolution for 2009.
One tentative editorial change for the book Monologues: Poems for a Hundred Paintings is the title. I was never very happy about it. Dr. Robert Grenier, of the Orangeburg Writer’s Group, offered several insights about the body of work that could be clues as to how to name it. Titles are such crucial things as are introductions. So I have been listening carefully to all critiques. What Dr. Grenier noticed is that the people featured in the hundred paintings (actually 117 now) are very still, almost disengaged with the world. And Monologue was such as active word it didn’t really accurately capture the quiet mood. They are all people seated, usually alone, in the middle of a room. Finally Dr. Grenier also noticed that most, if not all, the paintings looked to be capturing a certain time of day- mid to late afternoon. So for now the new title is Moments in the Afternoon. Or maybe I could copy a phrase I recently read in one of Dr. Grenier’s own essay: A Bit of Room to Breathe. The naming of the poetry is obviously still a tenuous thing.
During the painting and composing process this year, I wondered what would be the most appropriate way to end the book. What would that very last person on the very last canvas be doing and what poetic ruminations should accompany the closing page? Fortunately, the answer came without the current strain of trying to organize, edit and label this whole undertaking. The answer seemed obvious. There would be no one in that last room - with reminiscence about the people of the past who sat in that now empty chair and anticipation of who would come to sit there next and fill the future space.
The poem below accompanies entry number 117, "The Empty Room," my oil on canvas adaptation of a cottage in Great Britain.

Happy New Year to Anyone reading this and allows a room in their soul for good things to enter and a chair in their homes for good people to come in and stay a while.

The Empty Room

Empty Room
with all but light removed
The old timbers rise darkly
against the white-washed plaster
of walls that make echoes
in the solitary sanctified emptiness
of unadulterated space
An unoccupied domain
entices like nirvana
nothing dying, nothing born
in that roaring peace of the void
simple greatness lies
within the mystery of the unanswerable question
Have souls all departed?
Or have they yet to arrive here?

December 28, 2008

Grace and the Art of Marketing

"And the best was yet to come," I mentioned in my last blog. A rather mysterious ending when business and obligations picked up to an extent that made blogging difficult to get to. And the material that I wrote for the last entry about grace has long been lost in the labyrinth of my computer files.
But to pick up where I left off, there were a series of fortunate occurrences and help from family and friends that I wanted to acknowledge and the last one, this one, is dedicated to my sister, Jessie Thompson. I had been preparing for the Arts in Education Booking Conference and was struggling with graphics for my presentation fliers. My sister offered help well beyond what anyone could hope for as last minute rescues go. She came up with a flier that was about ten times better than the one I designed and her husband Ed, ran off a jumbo size poster of it which was rush delivered just in time for my conference. Jess also did book jacket covers for my books in progress so I could have those on display as well.
Walking into the Booking Conference this time around I felt like a well-armed gladiator, with keen graphics and an advertising strategy. It worked. I booked business into autumn 2009 and by the grace of family help and persistence, am now able to continue being an artist for one more year in these uncertain times. Not a small thing.
The drawing illustrating this blog comes from a sketch I made of my sister as she was sketching in the woods behind the house that I spent my young adulthood in and my younger brothers, their teen years. She is accompanied by her faithful white dog Puff. It was created with pencil and my favorite Yarka pastels from Russia.
As I archive my work, I keep coming across drawings of friends and family. I revise, restore and return them to the posers when I can.

November 7, 2008

Grace and a Dancer in a Red Dress

When we returned home from our trip to Charlotte, there was an e-mail waiting for me from the South Carolina State Fair apprising me of two more small art awards - one for a mosaic mask and the other for an oil painting, "Forward Leap." The painting, "Forward Leap," features Zenaida Broom dancing with her figure repeated again in the back round crowd. It was painted spontaneously, the forms somewhat amorphous. I tried to capture in the gestural paint strokes, that incorporeal feeling of people in motion as they dance.
With these two more awards, I had a total of five. But the biggest challenge, and the greatest reward was yet to come.

November 4, 2008

Grace and a Fallen Man

To continue on my previous blogs about fortuitous small awards, I took my cash awards from a county fair and put them towards a trip to Charlotte to see the opening of "The War Against Peace" at the Ciel Gallery. I had participated in this event with two mosaics "Fallen Floyd" and "Kneeling Woman, Widow." When we arrived at the Gallery, I was surprised to learn that one of my mosaics, "Fallen Floyd" won the Best of Show Award. The exhibition at the Ciel was small but noteworthy, with mixed media work on the ambitious theme of war coming from all corners of the country, as well as one art work from Canada. Since my participation in this event was largely due to the grace of the curator, who told me about the exhibition personally and encouraged me to submit my work, I had yet another reason for gratitude.

The following morning, we woke up to the loud blaring of loudspeakers in the square outside our hotel. It turned out to be a rally for breast cancer research. I went down to the rally in the early hours and was handed packages of free gifts and treated to a free massage for being a breast cancer survivor. One more town and another armload of gratuities.

October 24, 2008

Grace and the Argentine Tango

Two friends were lying in the grass one spring day, faces to the sun. One was an artist whose career was beginning to flounder, the other a successful business academician but in a rather stagnant job. "What am I going to do now?" the artist whined, "What do you think would be good second career for me?" "I think you should remain an artist," came the academician’s surprising reply. Then they both decided to embrace a challenge - the academic to shake up the status quo, the artist to distract herself from the vagaries of an uncertain vocation. They made a pact then and there to learn something they both considered beyond their zones of comfort, out of their characters, but challenging and interesting. It would be something that they would agree to tackle for one year, no matter how difficult. The pact entailed a promise to talk each other out of quitting before the year was up. So they shot a metaphorical dart out into the cosmos to see where it would land. Neither of them had ever tried ballroom dancing of any kind but that wasn’t far enough from the boundaries of the familiar for them. No, they went further afield yet and agreed to study the Argentine Tango if the opportunity presented itself. Within days, they ran into someone at an art opening who happened to be studying the Argentine Tango and he pointed the way to weekend lessons, Monday night Practicas and monthly Milongas.
The lessons were challenging, the Milongas riotous yet sublime. A new world opened before them. The academician was humbled by learning new sets of skills and to find out just how much work and sacrifice art entails. The artist learned joy and freedom of expression again. The pair talked each other out of quitting when the steps became increasingly complicated and difficult. They arranged for extra practice, music appreciation tapes and videos. The year passed by. The academic moved on to a better job in another state which led to a second even better job as a director of a business institute. The artist created over two-hundred and fifty paintings of the Argentine Tango and started down a path to creative renewal and a return to the athletic days of her youth. It even spawned an interest in and more lessons in Indian Dance, African Dance, The Contra Dance and ten luxurious lessons in ballet.

The painting of the spinning dancer is one of the hundreds of paintings of the Argentine Tango. It was painted from a performance by the renowned Tango dancer and instructor, Harby Gonzales. The painting recently won a small cash award which, combined with the award for "Cat in an Abandoned Interior" two blogs ago, was thrown directly back into our uncertain economy to fund a trip to Charlotte to attend the opening of "The War Against Peace" at the Ciel Gallery.
Artist’s Note: I am no longer studying the Argentine Tango at present and miss it terribly. But click on the link to study the Tango if your are in the vicinity of Columbia SC and find out where else you can study in the Southeast.

Haiku for Bloody Friday

Bull sits in his pen
Bear groans loudly from his cave
stocks come falling down

October 23, 2008

Grace and a Painting of a Cat on Violet

The oil painting "Cat in an Abandoned Interior," recently won a Best of Show award. It was the beginning of a week long run of fortuitous little painting and other victories that had much to do with the help of friends and family. I had always held that it is prudent not to expect more than what can be achieved by one’s own efforts alone. Anything more than that is an act of grace. But these past few weeks I have had a series of small successes that are in both small and large ways due to the efforts and kindness of others. There were first the five artworks that I had sent out to County, State and out-of-state exhibitions. All five won modest cash awards. Following that came the Arts-In-Education Booking conference, at which I finally won back clients and hopefully have booked teaching jobs through next year - no small feat in the present economy. Because none of this would have happened without helpful interventions I’ve decided to dedicate the next few blogs to those who made opportunities possible.
It begins with "Cat in an Abandoned Interior." The painting is oil on canvas and is unusual in that I began with a violet ground. I typically paint on color grounds but I generally use blues, greens and earth tones. The colors in "Cat..." were painted on in a series of thin washes of colors using a medium similar to that of the painter Titian. In areas where the upper layers of paint are thinner or pulled out with a rag, the violet glows out from underneath. I had painted the face of the cat multiple times, never getting the eyes right, until I finally partially erased them so that they became violet shadows. The image of the cat is a Japanese Bobtail with a tail added..
The night before the county fair I was visited by a friend from Georgia who had always admired the painting and was the impetus behind getting it back from its temporary location in a local establishment. She got it back just in time for me to put it up at the local fair where I was surprised that it was awarded a cash prize along with a second place for a painting of dancers. So this blog is dedicated to Gwen, who took action just in the nick of time.

October 22, 2008

Another Election Year Haiku

Folks vote their money
Percentage polls reflect them
Joe Plumber rises

October 16, 2008

Autumn Haiku

November is near
Elections draw close to us
Acorns fall

October 15, 2008

Poverty and the Plight of the Working Poor

Poverty is something that has always commanded my attention and something that I have wanted to write about. It is a complex subject because it means different things to different people and may manifest itself in various forms dependent upon geography and culture. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that poverty is a form of misery. And it is an insidious form of suffering that leads to social erosion and war.
Before my husband and I moved to the People’s Republic of China a few decades ago, we were considered poor. We lived in the tiniest of two-rooms at the top of a narrow staircase in an old house in Princeton, New Jersey. I was a minimum-wage clerical worker at the local library and my husband had sporadic work as an adjunct professor - paid by the course instead of a salary.
It was miserable. Add to that the medical debt that hovered over our situation and things felt pretty hopeless. These conditions were what made it necessary for us to leave the country when the opportunity presented itself for full time work elsewhere, ironically reversing the course that our immigrant ancestors took.
The truth is, our situation improved considerably by moving to a communist country. We had free medical care, subsidized housing that had adequate space and we had full time remunerative work. We spent the entire Reagan era outside of the United States.
Initially, our stay in a communist country lifted huge burdens. The uncertainties of being the working poor miraculously evaporated. But as guests, our hosts gave us special privileges that the ordinary Chinese citizens could not have. And although our own circumstances were tolerable albeit at times spartan, we would sometimes hear about and occasionally witness what truly abject poverty was. These were times when the curtain of secrecy was temporarily open and I came to know what was happening in the impoverished areas of the countryside. There were still leper communities. There were people so malnourished that their hair would turn white while they were still in their twenties. And parasitic diseases endemic to the third world were rampant. I will not relate some of the horrors that I witnessed at this time. I will expound upon those in my book-in-progress. But the misery of what I saw confirmed for me how necessary it is for a society to have economic safety nets so that whole segments of that society don’t fall into desperation.
By a fortuitous turn of events, my husband and I were able to return to the United States and improve our circumstances. We are middle class. But my previous experiences are never far from my consciousness. And when I see skyrocketing medical costs with large segments of our society uninsured it sickens me. When I see that our country’s leaders do not attend to the problems of the working poor it outrages me. Unfortunately both of these problems are even worse now than at the time they caused me to leave this country two decades ago.
One book that reveals first hand the plight of the working poor in this country is Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I almost could not read this book because I did not want to be reminded of the past or to be fearful of the future. But read it I did and would recommend it highly to anyone who should understand the need for social reform - especially with regard to the minimum wage. For as the author points out through her social experiment as a working class woman, most jobs for the working class do not pay a living wage. As a consequence, survival depends upon acquiring two or more jobs. What this means is that socially as a country, we have moved back to the nineteenth century. We have effectively recreated the circumstances of the industrial revolution - where factory employees worked sixteen hour days six days a week. The difference is that now the work takes place at two to three different locations. We now live in a new gilded age where haves and have nots are even further apart than ever before.
Poverty is a huge subject. One could write volumes on it. I hope that this blog action day on the topic brings attention to the issues and promotes ideas for change. For my small contribution, I made a small painting and a poem to match that was inspired by reading Nickel and Dimed.

White Cigarette Rising over a Ruby Glass

Two companions inhabit a late night room
Tobacco rolled in opaque white paper
and red wine in a translucent glass
sustenance for a second and third shift
and the blessed means of sleep
in an impromptu space called home
Home. A place to temporarily close one’s eyes
shutting out the diaphanous glaze
of a hastily hung drape
street lights peering inquisitively
through the spaces between weakly woven threads
making a shadow puppet of the soul that dwells within
The late late late show, short hours before the dawn
features a puff on a cigarette
and swallows from the red elixir of blinking and nodding
as the little room rattles from passing trucks
and a police siren splits the night air
A belligerents voice howls out
the screech owl of the urban forest;
"Who you lookin at!"
I said "Who you lookin at!"
Sounds of the city, its cries are muffled by alcohol
like a wad of cotton blunting a knife blade
In subdued increments of drowsy exhaustion
her heavy lids meet in the middle of the road
that stops at the smallest fragment of the day.
Fourth shift. Sleep

October 13, 2008

The Return of the Palindrome Pig

In my earlier blog, Sarah Palindrome, an irreverent take on the vice-presidential candidate, I illustrated the text with a naive-looking painting of a pig with a head on both sides of its body. Because I wanted to have a visual representation of a palindrome, I needed to make something with bilateral symmetry. In order to do this I made a stencil by drawing half of a pig onto a piece of paper, folding the other side of the paper in half and cutting out. Since I had a stencil of this strange little form I made several other paintings to try different colors and cut out shapes. Some of them looked like Chinese folk paper cuts so I incised an ancient form of a Chinese character on one - the word for "flying."
I became interested in making quick multiples of the same shape after viewing the Andy Warhol exhibition now on display at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. My original interest at the Mint Museum was their extraordinary collection of Pre-Columbian art but the Warhol exhibit was a pleasant surprise. His large square paintings and silkscreens of Hibiscus Flowers revealed brilliant color harmonies that I had previously not fully appreciated as an aspect of Warhol’s art. So with these impressions fresh to the senses, I made use of that most primitive of printing - the stencil - for an unexpected Palindrome Pig series.
Usually, when making art, my original intentions are supplanted by something else. Maybe this something else this time was a visual manifestation of worries bubbling up from the subconcious after watching so much anxiety-ridden news about the economy. This didn’t become clear to me until an artist colleague of mine said that the two-headed pig reminded her of the current state of the U.S. economy. She may have discovered an unintended truth here in this illustration of a beast that consumes on both sides of its body, produces nothing and has no clear exits!

October 11, 2008

Something Fishy in Obama Campaign Finances

Just yesterday, I visited the website of an old friend from my New York and China days and was amused by a poem he wrote about an unusual place name. Lake Webster in Massachusetts, his website informs us, used to be known by its Algonquin name Lake
Chargoggaggmanchauggaggoggchaubunagungamaugg. I hope I got that right.
On first glance, one could easily mistake this for one of Obama’s sources of campaign funds. I refer here to the recent article in the New York Times submitted by Michael Luo and Griff Palmer concerning the Fictitious Donors in the Obama Finance Records.
My illustration for this is a drawing I did of Courbet’s painting of a freshwater trout. I imagine him feeding at the bottom of Lake Chargogaggmanchauggaggoggchaubunagungamaugg. Although the Obama contributor’s names were somewhat shorter, such as gggjtijtjtjtjtjr,AP, who ostensibly contributed $370.00, they are just as rich in consonants. Some of them are bizarre enough to rival Gogol’s Dead Souls. My favorite, however, is the contributor Jockim Alberton, who the article informs us listed his employer as Fdsa. Public records, we are told, cannot bring such an employer to life. So what is Fdsa? Perhaps it is the elusive Fraud Delivery Service Association.
With friends like these, who needs public financing?

October 9, 2008

Sarah Palin and the War on Terriers

Well ya know, Sarah Palin's recent revelation about Barack Obama’s friendship with an Airedale makes ya kinda wonder about his politics. And with schnauzers in his backyard and a Jack Russell for a neighbor, well, I don’t know about you but its pretty darned clear to me that he’s harboring terriers. With all his wire-haired terrier friends you would think that he hadn’t even heard that there’s a war on terriers goin on! Its just naive! Doesn’t he know that the folks who have endorsed him, like John Kerry, is in fact allied with the Kerry Blue terrier? And what about all those left-leaning New Yorkie terriers who have backed his campaign? But that isn’t all. So far we’ve only been talkin about Barack’s ties to domestic terriers. But his most recent alliances with Scottish Terriers, Tibetan Terriers and Australian Terriers that have come to light raises the really scary question about his willingness to negotiate with terriers abroad without preconditions. And what about his friendship with the Airedale? Some would say it was just a walk in the park with a man’s best friend but you can’t fool me. Gosh darnit, it looks just like another big old terrier. So why hasn’t he come clean about these associations? The public has a right to know. Straight up and face to face cause ya know, no one should ever Bull Terrier the American People. That’s why I’m highlighting these links to terriers and their terrierist organizations so the public can find out for themselves that these are indeed terriers.

October 2, 2008

Pig Lips and Potty Mouths

It has been a long while since I have added to this blog. My time has been taken up by exhibition preparations, finishing up my first book, and being suddenly called to serve as a temporary adjunct professor at the local university. Autumn is also the time of year that yard work becomes particularly time-consuming. All of these pursuits were rewarding but left little time for blogging. And even in those rare moments when I was free, it became hard to know exactly where to begin again with that thread of thoughts for the cyberworld.
Surely there is much to talk about, with our country on the verge of an economic disaster and the public about to make choices in what is the most interesting political race I’ve ever known. But what inspired me to sit and paint in my studio again was a strange little article by Matt Taibbi that a friend sent me a link to recently. Taibbi ‘s editorial, if one can even call it that, was about how the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin reflects a certain segment of the American electorate. He raises some legitimate questions about her seeming lack of preparedness for public office. He is correct as well, I think, when he takes issue with Americans whose tendency it is to vote on the basis of what seems comfortingly familiar to them rather than with a mind towards who actually has the public’s best interest at heart and who has the experience to carry through sound decisions.
The problem I have with his article, however, is in his presentation. Assailing the meanness of what he purports to be the conservative, anti-intellectual right, he rolls out a veritable machine-gun blast of profanity. It strikes me as something of an oxymoron to rail against thoughtlessness by using the language of an inebriated thug. Yet this is not untypical in the world of popular writing - especially in the unregulated cyberworld of You Tube and blogs. And on-line writing is tending to be even more vitriolic as the passions of an election year fire up.
During a long but pleasant day in Charleston, after having caught up on paperwork, shipping, and other duties, I had a chance to reflect on the words and images that articles such as those written by Matt Taibbi conjure up. The phrase that came to mind was one coined by the nannies on those popular television shows "Super Nanny" and "Nanny 911." "Potty Mouth," I believe was their charming epithet for youngsters who could not control dirty language - most likely learned from their parents, perhaps some of whom write for Rolling Stone magazine.
In the course of my painting, I was also reflecting on how easily the popular media distracts our attention from crucial central issues by running us down rabbit holes of political gaffs and trivia. The question of what exactly the phrase "putting lipstick on a pig" meant and to whom it referred is just one instance. So my little painting, "Pig lips and Potty Mouths" sums up my sentiments on media diversions and lack of introspection in popular writing.
Perhaps we would all be served better at this time by reading Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope as well as John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers and Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know & Every Adult Should Remember, and relegate the Potty Mouths to the restroom sidelines.

August 18, 2008

How will Clinton Supporters Vote in November?

“If you’re not for Barack, then get off my back.” I recently saw this emblazoned on a sweatshirt. A drawing I made of an ivory plaquette from the Bargello Museum of Sculpture in Florence brought this to mind again. But the drawing of a man with a spear vanquishing a female enemy that he is treading underfoot reminds me of something else in recent American events. It reminds me of the American media’s reaction to the Hillary Clinton presidential primary campaign. The appalling sexism that surfaced during the Democratic primaries was something that I had wished to comment upon as it was occurring but my lack of research hours made me think otherwise. Although the media was largely silent on the sexism issue, there were occasionally some bold journalists and academicians who came forward, such as Amanda Fortini and Kent Gibbons.Although this would seem like old news, especially for those eager to make the first woman who had a serious shot at the presidency disappear from the public consciousness, the ramifications of that time have yet to play out with November looming before us. For the many Clinton supporters who saw their candidate treated with a negative bias and have yet to commit their new allegiance this autumn, the misogyny that reared its ugly visage from both liberal and conservative camps puts them into something of a quandary. It is an uneasy choice; to vote with those who chip away at women’s rights, or to vote with those who pretend it isn’t happening.

August 2, 2008

“A critic at my house sees some paintings. Greatly perturbed, he asks for my drawings. My drawings! Never! They are my letters, my secrets.” - Paul Gaugin
I am perusing my sketch books, winnowing out drawings I don’t want, and excising others for matting, shrink-wrapping and framing. In doing so, they do lose their context as a visual travel log to places both pedestrian (subways) and elevated (the museums of Europe). Gone as well are the rough stages of mental processes behind the designs for sculpture and paintings - the letters and secrets that Paul Gaugin referred to. So it is with some trepidation that I effect changes in the historicity of my work Making new artwork from compilations of notes from the past brings the old drawings to a present context divorced from the work of the past that it influenced. In other words, an historian would be confused as to why a painting from a preparatory sketch predates the sketch. Yet when the sketch is altered to become essentially a “new” work it has to be dated as such. Perhaps I’ll use a date range.
In any case, there are some reasons why letting go of secret sketches in binders doesn’t bother me as much as perhaps it should. For one thing, it is highly debatable that there will be historians interested in analyzing my creative thought processes. Also, my sketch books are not terribly organized, but rather are amalgams of ideas, complete and incomplete drawings, and are not in any chronological order anyway. As for the destruction of some work that is not satisfying, I think of the painter Georges Rouault, who shoveled buckets of what he considered his weaker works on paper into a wood-burning stove. So winnowing out is not necessarily a bad thing.
Ever the pragmatist, I am using the frames I got from the Artist’s Round Table warehouse event to preserve the drawings that don’t end up in the equivalent of Rouault’s stove. Taking a break from the gallery and arts festival scene, I’m exhibiting these in my studio for a small group of friends and mentors. In going through these old drawings I see that I’ve come full circle in the year that I’ve started blogging - August 7 will be one year exactly. The revising of drawings was exactly what I was doing in August 2007. Drawing was a nice place to start and always a sound place to return to.

July 26, 2008

The Red Thread

This week marked the completion of the seventy-fifth poem for my book of poetry, Monologues: A Hundred Poems for a Hundred Paintings. This project was started in autumn, 2007 and I am hoping to finish in autumn 2008. The project has proceeded more slowly than I had anticipated but the poetry and paintings crept steadily along. The words and paintings come even more slowly now, as I am writing new verse while revising the old and making new paintings to replace those that I was not satisfied with. Many thanks are due to Professor Tom Cassidy of South Carolina State University and Professor Tamara Miles of Orangeburg Calhoun Technical College for getting me this far along and for their literary insights.

The poem and painting “The Red Thread,” is inspired by a German phrase “finding the red thread,” roughly meaning “a thread of continuity” in an individual’s life that ties together and unifies various passions. I am still searching for that red thread myself.
The Red Thread
Baffled before the armoireand not knowing what to wearhe crouches naked on the floorto search for a red thread
A red thread that bindsumbilical cord to motheror spirals upward and outwardlike a ribbon dancer’s gift to anonymous spectators
A thread that could weave his unruly loveinto sensible tweedor a thread free to meander like the vinethat clings to the roots and stems it feeds upon
A red thread to carry aspirationslike the veins that carry his life bloodor messages upon a wirelike nervous impulses conducting themselves across a synapse A thread pluckedlike the straight taut string of a luteor inextricably jumbledlike saffron noodles eaten from a bowl
A red thread that braids togetherthe lines of intertwined impressionsinfluences that tug against his heartinsinuating lines that wheedle the sense out of chaos Janet Kozachek copyright 2008

July 23, 2008

The Common Ground Experience

Once a year in mid summer, artists, dancers, poets and musicians come from around the world to converge upon the small college town of Westminster, Maryland in a feast of the arts known as Common Ground on the Hill. The program is conducted by professor Walt Micheal, who coordinates the music program and Professor Linda VanHart, a jeweler extra ordinaire who rounds up all us visual artists. This was my second year to have the honor of being among the lucky chosen artists.
The first week at McDaniel College I taught a course in Chinese Landscape Painting during which I pulled out all the stops to expose my students to Po Mo (broken ink) style landscape painting, cun fa (cross hatching) landscape techniques, calligraphy, seal carving and a bonus lesson on how to create Chinese glue for sizing paintings. The course was very full but the students were all quite capable as well as courteous - a talented bunch and a joy to teach. The second week was more relaxed - just three students for my “Secrets of the Masters” oil painting materials, techniques, and formulas. This actually worked out well, since I had students grind pigments into paint which proved to be rather time-consuming. I had my students make traditional marble dust gesso panels for these pigments much like the small oak panel that I used for my painting “Reflections on a Tremor” illustrated at right which was part of the Common Ground Faculty Exhibition.
Apart from teaching highly motivated, interested students, the second truly rewarding thing about teaching at Common Ground on the Hill was the opportunity to take courses taught by my colleagues. A knee injury left me having to curtail my dance activities but I did manage the morning yoga class with Laurel Hummel. She is probably the best yoga instructor I know, paying great attention to every student’s strengths and vulnerabilities for a custom made program towards better health and flexibility. I also managed a few classes with yogarhythmics instructor Marya Micheal, a gentle soul and a beautiful person to be around. Lee Francis introduced me to the new generation of slam poets in The Spoken Word. This was a great course for learning how to bring poetry alive as a performance art. Women in the Blues, taught by Scott Ainsley and Lea Gilmore, was a lively and informative introduction to an often neglected history of women’s contribution to the development and proliferation of Blues music. We learned how to sing and compose 12-bar blues music in this class - which was immense fun.
The weekend before the second session of classes was celebrated with the annual arts festival at Carroll County Farm Museum. There were no sales for me at this festival (It appears that arts and crafts shows are not an optimal venue for me) save for a last minute mercy purchase of a small ceramic pendant. The moribund market for art was offset by the interesting artists that I met. I spent two days making drawings and hobnobbing with craftspeople. I was particularly impressed with the Native American potters with whom I shared my tent. My meeting them was the completion of a long ago yearning to meet the potter Maria Martinez. As it turned out my neighbor artist at the crafts festival was Kathy Wan Povi Sanchez - Maria Martinez’ granddaughter. She has kept the coiled black pit-fired pottery art alive. There were a number of charming little black vessels on her table, some with turquoise inlay and all of them burnished to a metallic sheen.
Another highlight of the crafts festival was meeting Tatianna Rakmanina - a third generation milliner from St. Petersburg. I greatly admired her on-of-a-kind handmade hats. Some were so understated they were just embellishments fo wear in the hair. Others were way over the top in decorative design. The latter had broad brims decorated with bows and spots. A number of these bore an uncanny resemblance to the hats worn by characters in Johnathan Green’s paintings. Fortunately Tatianna the hatmaker was fond of my watercolor paintings so we traded paintings for hats.
During the second session of arts immersion at Common Ground I was joined by my husband and we spent some time exploring Westminster and nearby towns. We had a good time and a reprieve from cafeteria food. My class attendance was sporadic this second week but I did mangage to spend three sessions in the Big Song Swap, guided by Rod MacDonald and Bob Lucas. They were wonderful mentors and I learned from them the value of memorizing the songs one writes - something I haven’t done yet. In fact, I found to my own astonishment I had more Chinese poetry and song memorized than English ones. I am still amazed at Rod and Bob’s tolerance for my belting out Peking Opera tunes, although I did also debut one of my blues songs, “Your Mama Has.” I believe what I enjoyed the most about this class and the Common Ground experience in general was its authenticity. Too often we are served up entertainment in the popular media that is fast, easy, accessible, and boring. The songs we shared were rich nuanced and personal.
Perhaps one of the best features of being a Common Ground Artist is the access to concerts. Where else can you hear music from the Southwest, Iceland, Quebec, German folk songs, bluegrass, blues, and strange instruments like the Norwegian Nyckelharpa all in one place? Add to that Walter Linigar’s grand finale virtuoso harmonica performance on the final night and it was a two-week extravaganza to remember. Kudos to Walt Micheal and Linda Van Hart for once again making this a great occassion for the arts.

July 21, 2008

The Long Walk to the Ball Park

The Long Walk to the Ball Park
Picking up where I left off before my two-week gig as a resident artist at McDaniel College, I introduce the second of my mosaic seminar demonstration pieces. I call it “The Long Walk to the Ball Park,” because it reminds me of summers in the New Jersey of my youth. The road to the local ball park back in rural New Jersey in the 1960's was a dusty dirt road where wild blackberries grew alongside fields of queen anne’s lace. The ball park was an adventure whether it was baseball season or not. A vacant ball park was the setting for childhood war games - the dugouts serving as bunkers, the stands city walls to be scaled. And the concession stand had a flat roof suitable for furtive scurrying. This last mosaic reminds me of the overlay of natural and man-made textures on the dirt road to the ball park - or perhaps I just think of these things again because of the summer heat.
The glass in the mosaic are drops from a stained glass window project which required very thick block glass. The blocks had to be faceted by hand chipping out pieces with a hammer and anvil. The multi-colored glass drops fit well onto a flat surface because they have at least one flat edge. Turning the mosaic on its side reveals more keenly the effect of the overlapping wedges of glass. Many of my recent mosaics have this kind of high relief which can almost be read like a diorama. I may even consider displaying them at some point to be viewed from above.

July 2, 2008

Summer Stalactites

During a recent seminar on mosaic art I demonstrated some cutting and compositional techniques. “The Opus vermiculatum technique,” I explained, “sharply defines the edges of forms and creates sinuous lines in the back round.” I then cut angles and wedges in the tesserae, placing them along curves that would allow that to happen. The class was lively and the time went by quickly. I packed up my equipment at the end of that rewarding day along with two unfinished “demonstrator” mosaics. I could have left them in this state and probably should have with so many other immediate commitments looming. But I have some compunctions about leaving things in various states of incompleteness before moving on to other projects. Unfinished mosaics have a particularly strong pull on this compunction - staring down at one from a wall or looking plaintively up from a worktable with their pathetic gaping blank spaces. So instead of doing the “smart” thing and getting my work packed up early for my upcoming teaching at McDaniel College, I had to spend some time to sit down and complete the mosaics before sorting and packing materials for my next group of hopeful students.
As I sat in my studio slowly applying bits of glass and stone to cement backer boards, conglomerations of patterns began to emerge which evoked pleasant memories made rosy by their remoteness. The vertical piec to the left reminded me of family summer vacatons replete with trips to caverns. I had a special fondness for caves, especially those with stalactites. I remember in particular a cave with live dripping with mineral-laden water that formed, over eons, the stalagmites on the cavern floor. The mosaic “Stalactites” is made with chips of clear block glass interspersed between slate and marble tesserae. The clear glass chips represent the water dripping from above. Since glass in not actually a solid but in fact is a super-cooled liquid, its use in this vertical study mosaic is apropos for it represents water dripping over thousands of years - which it is in fact doing.

June 27, 2008

Faded Tiger, Crumpled Lion

Over twenty years ago I collected decorative paper cuts from folk artists in China. Some of these artists used to come to the Beijing Central Art Academy where I was studying back then. Despite the reserve of the professors and researchers devoted to the “high culture” art of calligraphy and painting, their hearts melted at the sight of finely crafted folk art and they practically devoured it. So when the peasants sold their creative paper renderings of fantastic animals and people in traditional garb, I made certain that I got a share of these complex and colorful designs made from scissors and imagination. In the days before “Mad in China” became a household word, these things were rare and precious. I suppose the better ones still are - if you can find them.
I had purchased a set of paper cuts of various felines made by a young woman from Hebei. I later sought to preserve and strengthen them by taking them to a painting scroller to have them glue sized and mounted on backing paper. Unfortunately, during the mounting process, the unstable pigments ran profusely. Although the paper cuts were ruined I kept them anyway. All these years later they resurfaced among my father’s things when he was cleaning out after the death of my stepmother a few months ago. I took the poor bedraggled things home with me although by now they were even more faded and crumpled a bit as well. It occured to me that since they were ruined anyway I could collage them into paintings and reinterpret them. This week I brought them back to a second life as little folk paintings. I retained some of the worn look as I painted over them by not fully delineating the forms and by blurring the back round. They retained a primitive, naive optimism and love for decoration that I still associate with my early days in China.

June 25, 2008

La Mente Malevola

It was Spanish week in Orangeburg. Spanish camp with guest artists was in full swing. My small contribution to the festivities was the loan of some my Pre-Columbian inspired mosaic masks to an exhibition where they were joined by a real collection of Pre-Columbian art loaned by one of the Spanish professors.

The best part for me about this annual summer event was the gathering of artists, teachers and guest dancers at the home of Ellen Zisholtz, curator of the I.P. Stanback Museum at South Carolina State University. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Anabella Gonzales, the guest dancer. Although we were both artists we soon discovered that we were polar opposites in our likes and dislikes, although we were similar in temperament. I loved to cook, she loathed it. My favorite European country was the one that she could not bear...Italy. It was the unprovoked attentions of men, there, that bothered her. I recalled that while walking the streets of Rome unaccompanied the only people who sought my attention were two nuns asking for directions (No matter where I am on the globe people ask me for directions. This is no small feat for someone who gets lost easily. Perhaps I look confident about that). Our differences aside, however, I found her a charming person and very worldly.

The conversation with the Spanish professor on my left was even more lively. He regaled us with tales of life, love and religion. These were such intensely emotional subjects for the group however, that most of them had to be expressed in the Native Tongue. Being a non-Spanish speaker sandwiched between Spanish speakers was awkward at times but every now and then, a phrase would float by that sounded so beguiling I would insist on a translation. While discussing systems of belief, one particularly animated Spanish professor maintained that he did not believe in God, but instead believed in something he called La Mente Malevola - the Malicious Mind. The goal of La Mente Malevola was to play cruel jokes on men for the duration of their lives then finish them off for good once his sadistic pleasure was satiated. “Like a cat plays with the mouse before killing it.” Professor R. said, batting his hand back and forth for emphasis.

The notion of a La Mente Malevola stuck with me for the duration of the week. Although I realized that this expression of a belief in a supernatural force of wickedness was to an extent a tongue-in-cheek, there seemed to be a certain degree of justification for this oddly pessimistic outlook. Anyone with more than one mishap, health problem, or financial downturn may feel that if there is a God, he is definitely not on their side. But how could someone really believe in a wicked force at work in the universe taking the time to torment select individuals? It seemed almost as irrational as believing in guardian angels. Silliness at either pole.

Then I got an unrelenting three-day migraine. It was nearly incapacitating at first, then it mellowed somewhat but hung on in a series of headache aftershocks. It wasn’t enough to put me to bed and excuse myself from working, The lingering nausea and head tenderness just made going about the day unpleasant. Bright lights became eye stabbers and noises were magnified and had the odd effect of being translated from sound to pain. The satisfied eyes of La Mente Malevola glared down upon me from the cosmos and his sadistic grimace was palpable. The only way to exorcise this demon, I figured, was to paint him onto a page then tear him up. So I painted him with acrylics on sized paper. The painting was gaudy and ugly but perhaps apropos for a demon. I cut him into several pieces after he dried and returned to him after my migraine finally lifted. I then returned to my studio without the burdonsome brain cramps that most assuredly La Mente Malevola had sent down to me and glued his parts on to a larger piece of red paper then added more fragments of textured papers to make a collage. I reserved a small rectangular area in the collage for a small painting. I cut small human forms out of black and brown paper and stuck them into the wet paint - hapless beings they were - at the mercy of a ferocious feline desiring to play with them a while before the final kill. Terrible Mente Malevola.

June 23, 2008

Under Bedouin Tents

From the outside, the facade of the building occupied by the twin brothers Stanley and Steven Bush in downtown Elloree South Carolina faded anonymously into the rows of unadorned houses and two-story shops. The downtown looked liked the center of most small towns in South Carolina - sleepy places with a quaint nostalgic charm. If not for the tell-tale cars and trucks, most of these streets brought us back to the late nineteenth century. But when Stanley unlocked the massive padlock on the front door, we entered a world of Middle Eastern dreams. Rich colored fabrics ran in streamers down the walls. The floor was stippled earth red, gold and brown like sand blowing in the wind. Large Bedouin tents in greens and blues invited the visitor into intimate corners to sit and drink good coffee over conversations while reclining on a cushion or a low-slung seat upon a soft silk Persian carpet. A striped canopy overhung a coffee bar. In the more complete second story, the tent was filled with beautiful woven baskets from South Africa. Another Persian carpet graced the floor with soft black, red and white designs. Sequins of gold from a wall hanging rippled in the late afternoon sunlight. There was something truly captivating about being under a Bedouin tent. It felt like being a special guest invited into an inner sanctum. The space beneath the tent was both open yet private - a place to discuss art and ideas. The ideas we discussed that day was how to bring the arts to small towns with large potential in South Carolina.
The Bedouin Bazaar in downtown Elloree was the brainchild of Stanley and Steven Bush. Stanley returned from Saudi Arabia a few years ago where he lived for thirteen years and ran the printing section of a large hospital and befriended King Fahd. In Saudi Arabia, Stanley developed a keen interest and appreciation for the arts of the Middle East. His dream has been to found an arts center that hosts performances, art classes, sells and exhibits art and provides studio spaces for working artists and an Arabic style coffee house. He purchased a large warehouse space in downtown Elloree for this purpose and has been renovating it for the last five years. I had occasion to visit this stunning work in progress and was truly impressed with the design and the vision. With the recent sale of the port in Orangeburg County and our new connection with Dubai, this will be a great opportunity for artists to connect with commercial development. But for now it is a slowly developing dream, with studio spaces yet to be completed, the coffee yet to flow, and the performances still in the imagination. But the space and the excitement is real.
A “meeting under the tent” is tentatively scheduled in Elloree either August or September for artists, administrators, and educators to discuss the future of the Bedouin Bazaar.

June 17, 2008

The Woman Behind the Mask

The Woman Behind the Mask
People who read my writing or look at my paintings sometimes conjure up images of what I might look and behave like. One person who read my essays for a mosaic magazine told me that she was shocked when she met me in person because she had envisioned a dowdy old woman who shuffled along in enormous orthopedic shoes and wore her grey hair twisted into a bun. Actual photographs didn’t help dispel such visions, however. I would try to dress decently and look alert for a photograph but invariably I would end up looking somewhat haggard and without a substantial amount of mental acuity. Part of the problem was that I am a person of perpetual motion and attempts to sit or stand still were awkward at best. Photographs froze my discomfort like an insect in amber - only the insect was better looking. Indeed, this is probably why I had always hidden behind my artwork.

So when an article appearing in a national newsletter required the dreaded portrait photograph - I was hoping to get by with just the photographs of my paintings - I asked various friends to please take a photograph of me, lamely handing them my digital camera. After viewing the results I thought that I would try working with a creative, professional photographer. Working with Rachel Bair Ficek from Bair Prints studio changed everything. The first improvement was the change of environment - I was photographed working in my studio. Someone like Rachel who clearly understood how to pose people in various settings was a big step towards getting decent shots. Then we got creative. I mentioned to Rachel that in my interview I referred to some of the dance and yoga exercises I do to counteract all the time I spend in stillness at the computer or at the work bench. So we did some shots of yoga poses outdoors. Then we did a series of art photographs which were essentially various permutations of my becoming one with the art work. We started with my wearing one of my mosaic masks and doing dance steps and contortions with it. Then we moved on to my storage area where I cartwheeled around the room - obviously seeking to dispel the woman in the orthopedic shoes myth.

I learned a lot about the aesthetics of photography from Rachel this week. I noticed that she did not adjust photographs for lens distortion but retained the bent walls and even celebrated them as part of the reality of looking at the world through the fish eye. It gave me the impression of seeing things from the bottom of a lake. Rachel was also extremely clever at lining up shapes to create lively compositions. Some of this I am certain was a result of a good photography education. The rest was what we all envy - a talent!

June 12, 2008

James Brown's Boots

“The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing”-James Brown
As a volunteer at the local I.P. Stanback museum here in Orangeburg, I was privy to the recent loan of artifacts and documents from the estate of James Brown. While collating the objects and assisting in cataloguing the collection, an intricate mix of items emerged as complex as the man who collected them. The first thing I was struck by was the ordinariness of much of it - as if one would expect even mundane paperwork to look different for the famous from what it looks like for the rest of us. Yet there were albums of family photos, baseball cards, and kitsch knickknacks that I would have expected to find among the household remains of any ordinary person. But these photos, these everyday items belonged to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, which made the most mundane things poignant.
What became evident from the materials that filled James Browns’ house was that he was a man of sentiment, which I somehow didn’t expect from his flamboyant persona. There was a small bible with a leather cover so worn that it wouldn’t close. In a clear plastic bag was a carefully preserved stem of a cotton plant with the balls of cotton still clinging to it. I heard that he had kept a number of samples of these around the house. I later read that James Brown had to work shining shoes and picking cotton as a boy. Perhaps he kept these pieces of cotton plants always near him to remind himself of those early years. Was it a kind of personal vanitas symbol? Or humility? Maybe it was a symbol of conquest over the past. Or was the cotton ball James Brown's "Rosebud?"
I was curious about the Native American rattles, beads and little statuettes. Apparently these were James Brown’s acknowledgments of his purported Native American heritage. There was a nod to his Asian heritage as well in the form of a worn jewelry chest with the Chinese characters for “long life” and “wealth” on it.
Most of the items I saw were personal effects that I probably could not hope to understand. But the items that truly moved me were James Brown’s boots. I saw them as objects worthy of veneration. These were the boots that James Brown danced in. I could not believe that I was actually able to hold one and briefly connect to history. They were exquisite things, black suede with intricate tooling. They curved gracefully upwards slightly at the toe. Silver bands embellished the heel and the toe. For a moment it seemed as if they were alive.
In a moment of synchronicity on the drive home from the museum, I listened to National Public Radio and heard an announcement about the impending auction of the other objects from James Brown’s estate at Christie’s in New York next month. There will be the keyboards, the capes and all those obvious things of the showman. But I appreciated these small intimate things that I was helping inventory - the cotton and the boots. For the showy and extravagant auction in New York will feature those famous objects important to us as symbols of a popular icon. But the stuff of South Carolina were the possessions important to James Brown, the man. Back in my studio I made a little painting in a folk art style, picking up some of the decorative details from artifacts I saw in the James Brown collection here in Orangeburg and what it felt like to touch a beautiful thing.

June 4, 2008

Hurricane Pie

The beginning of June marks the advent of the hurricane season for those of us so fortunate to be in the Southeastern United States. It is a season that has us following weather reports with a heightened sense of scrutiny until the official end of hurricane time, November 1. It occurred to me that the official opening of this volatile season, the first of June, ought to be worth a pagan ritual or two. So I created what I call a Hurricane Pie and invited a small group of friends to partake of the delicacy and toast the season.
The hurricane pie was made with a filling that has a multitude of nuts, dried fruits and a diced apple in a syrupy viscous matrix of brown sugar, rum and eggs baked into a pie shell and topped with a meringue shaped into a hurricane. It was a delicious invention. I’ve shared the recipe below:

Pie Shell:
1. Prepare a 9" pie shell and bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. For a crisp crust add two tablespoons of cornstarch to the flour, substitute apple or other juice for water, and keep the shortening very cold.

Pie Filling:
Cream ½" cup butter or margarine (I use Smart Balance - it works fine) together with 1 ½" cups of brown sugar. Beat in four egg yolks. (reserve the whites for the meringue) Add three tablespoons of flour and one teaspoon of cinnamon. Stir in one cup of cream or half and half. Add one tablespoon of rum. Add ½ cup chopped dates (substitute fresh figs if they are in season - they’re great) ½ cup dried cherries, ½ cup dried raisins, ½ cup chopped pecans and half cup chopped walnuts. To add extra texture and cut down the sweetness add one very finely diced granny smith apple. Fill the pie shell and bake for 30 minutes. When cool top with meringue.

Hurricane Meringue:
Beat eight egg whites. Add one teaspoon of cream of tartar. Whip until stiff but not too dry. Add 3/4 cup of powdered sugar. Beat in two teaspoons of vanilla (If you are going through this much trouble to make something from scratch use a very good vanilla such as Bourbon Vanilla or Tahitian vanilla). Whip the meringue until it stands up in stiff peaks. Slide it from the bowl onto the pie and shape it into a hurricane - with a hole in the middle for an eye. Return the pie to the oven and continue to bake until the meringue topping is slightly browned. Serve warm or cool.

May 30, 2008

Mosaic Mask Lecture

After a long time away, it is nice to get back to posting. With this post, I have completed my digital catalogue of my mosaic masks. The featured mask with this blog, “Looking Askance” was made with fused glass, semi-precious gems and stoneware. It had actually won a local Best of Show award before it was purchased through my gallery in Charleston. I wish I knew who now owns the piece - he was one of my favorites. Another one of my favorite mosaic masks is the one in pink, grey, black and white. The pink stone is rose quartz, which is so beautiful to me I am often tempted to defy my art materials diet to get some more. Perhaps I will by the end of the summer.
June 6 at 10:00 AM, I will be presenting a power point lecture at Orangeburg Calhoun Technical College on my collected mosaic mask works and the process involved in their creation. The lecture is funded in part by National Endowment for the Arts money via the South Carolina State Arts Commission. I hope that there will be a decent audience for all the hard work the director of the project, Tamara Miles, put into this.

May 13, 2008

Ant Farm for a Party of One

Ant Farm for a Party of One
The weekend seminar for mosaics was the most peculiar course I had ever taught. All but two of the students for the weekend cancelled the week before or the day of the course. When I set up my equipment at the school in Bamberg there was only one student there, a soft-spoken anesthesia nurse I’ll call Edith. As I began to introduce Edith to the accouterments of the mosaic artist and time passed placidly by, it soon became clear that there were to be no others in attendance. Even the person in whose honor a birthday celebration was to be held after class that night did not show. So the owner of the school, her sister, me and my one faithful student celebrated anyway with a beautifully prepared dinner and a Mississippi Mud Pie. And quiet Edith had a private tutor for the weekend, access to expensive equipment, and was the new guest of honor at a dinner party. Life should be like that on occasion. I once attended a Tango dance class of only two and ended up having a more or less private lesson. The same thing happened once with a class taught by masters of Southern Indian Dance. I was the only member of the community to show up for this gift and had a great time pretending to be a monkey and dancing with bare-breasted bare-foot men and following the movements of women in creamy pastel saris.Now it was my turn to deliver on this good karma I suppose.
Since there was just one student for my weekend seminar and I didn’t want to hover over her work too much, I made the seminar two days instead of three and worked on demonstration mosaics during the lesson. I finished both of demonstrator mosaics on Sunday. “Ant Farm” in the picture above, demonstrates different cutting techniques for ceramic tiles and stones using the pointed hammer and hardie, tile nippers, and a wet saw.

May 12, 2008

All Work and No Pay Makes For Festival Days

Last weekend I decided to investigate life on the craft circuit by sharing a booth with a purveyor of art prints at the Orangeburg Rose Festival. Although this was a small town arts and crafts festival, the booth set up was a fairly reliable indicator of what goes into setting up a display for an outdoor crafts festival. The easy part of this small town festival was the fee for a space. The fee was $75.00 for a spot on the street for three days and anyone who wanted to participate could do so. Contrast that to the Philadelphia Museum juried craft show that I applied to earlier this year. Philadelphia had a stringent jurying system that required high resolution digital photos, a jury fee of $50.00 and an artist’s statement. That was just the application requirement. If lucky enough to be one of the country’s chosen exhibitors, the booth fee will be $1000.00. Calculate gas to drive a van full of goods there, insurance, hotel and meals and you have a fairly hefty expenditure with no guarantee for a return. I soon saw first hand why craftspeople either love or hate the traveling craft show circuit.
Since I had only fleeting experience with setting up a booth at an arts and crafts fair when I had rented an indoor booth for the South Carolina Arts and Crafts festival in Columbia back in 1995/96, I thought I would re-examine this arts venue in anticipation of the crafts festival I will be taking part in this summer in Westminster, Maryland. The Maryland craft show at McDaniel College will be outdoors under a large canopy so fortunately I will not have to buy a tent.
The tent that my artist friend at the Rose Festival had purchased cost about $1500.00 fifteen years ago. The Friday night before the Festival it took three people and two police officers four hours to set the elaborate thing up. Metal pipes were assembled on the ground. They had to be twisted and turned with mighty hands and hard grips to align the holes for the rods to hang the tent on. After the framework was assembled, a roof was created out of flexible PVC pipe. Then the roof had to be attached to the metal framework and hoisted with telescoping pipes inside the framework pipes. Then the plastic tent form was stretched over the whole skeleton like skin on a reconstructed dinosaur. The zippers were killers. The flaps had to be pulled together tightly while simultaneously zipping them up - which was hard on the hands.
The tent assembly was just stage one of the set up process. The six-foot high screens for hanging the artwork on had to taken inside the tent and put together once inside. We took them out of the trailer and hauled them one by one into the tent. We jostled them like pieces of a giant puzzle to maximize the square footage of exhibition space inside the tent. Once their resting place was established, the projecting feet of the screens had to be inserted into special rubber holders to keep them in place. It was awkward to say the least to balance the screens while getting their “shoes” on. Then plastic key ties were put into place to anchor the screens to the framework of the tent - three for every pole. They had to be passed from a person outside the tent and threaded through to someone inside the tent. Then a series of cement cylinders had to be tied to the corners of the booth to anchor it against what one would assume to be gale force winds by the size and weight of these things. They had to be lifted and tied at the same time. It was challenging to say the least and I would invariably drop one on my foot. When everything was finally stabilized, the pictures were hung on the screens with the use of drapery hooks. I found that the sawtooth hooks on my framed drawings didn’t work particularly well under this arrangement and it required several tries apiece before they were finally affixed to the screens.
Day 2: The Rose Festival
We got to the tent well before the Saturday morning crowds because there was not enough light to hang art work by the night before. After putting the final coverings on the tables and adjusting the pictures and various craft items we sat down exhausted but putting on the best perky faces we could muster for the festivities. I had brought business cards, makeshift fliers and a sign-up sheet for potential students. Should all else fail to produce anything remunerative, then at least I would have made my presence known in Orangeburg for some future opportunity perhaps. Crowds came and crowds went. Most of seemed to glide on by our booth with nary a sidelong glance our way. By the glazed looks on their faces I assumed that visions of corn dogs and turkey legs danced in their heads. Even people who knew me didn’t recognize me. Whether it was poor feng shui in our booth, the current recession, or the laid back atmosphere of Orangeburg, I cannot say, but it seemed that small edible items held sway over collectible art works. Small clothes pins with paint and glitter on them seemed to all the rage as well. My friend who shared the booth with me made $25.00 that day. I made nothing but did pass out business cards and signed people up for mailing lists for future seminars.
Day 3: The Sunday Slowdown at the Rose Festival
The crowds sauntered on by. In the heat of the afternoon, many a festival goer would pause under the outcropping from our tent to chat and drink with friends - their backs to us and their fronts obscuring us from the sight of potential onlookers. Maybe this extra canopy wasn’t the most sound idea. What seemed like every five minutes, a migraine-inducing mini people-hauling trailer would stop by our tent to pick up and deposit festival goers. Why seemingly healthy young adults and teenagers opted to ride this fuming van with a loud lawn mower engine instead of walking the quarter mile stretch of festival road amazed me. For one thing, the noise of the engine made it impossible to speak to anyone within a thirty foot radius of it. But on occasion someone would stop in our booth and look around. By the end of the two day affair I had acquired thirteen names for a mailing. My friend sold about a total of $225.00 of work. I had sold nothing but supposedly had recruited people for my weekend mosaic seminar in Bamburg. But more on that in the next blog.

April 30, 2008

Safe Beneath Her Roof

To explain logical aggregates in Chinese language, when I teach that subject, I often refer to the Chinese character for “safety” or “peace” - a woman underneath a roof. “A woman is safe underneath her roof,” I would explain, while drawing the bao zi gan, the roof symbol, with the symbol for woman underneath.
Although my explanation helped students remember this character and the system of logical aggregates, I was never entirely comfortable with the logic of that explanation. Surely, in many cases, domestic violence for instance, a woman is assuredly not safe under her roof. Still, the symbol is a powerful one, if not for its hope, than at least for its irony. I therefore used this character in one of my mosaic works, “Safe Beneath Her Roof.” I created the mosaic shortly after hurricane Katrina, which brought a portion of my work into the permanent collection of the Gulf of Mexico. Disappointed at the loss, but feeling ambivalent about verbalizing my sorrow at losing art work when others lost so much more, I made a visual memorial instead of a verbal complaint. The mosaic features a small handmade ceramic bowl with the Chinese character an, or “safety” etched in sgraffito on its interior. The bowl is placed underneath a roof-like structure punctuated with debris such as a rusted spike and a broken bottle.
I discussed the mosaic “Safe Beneath Her Roof” briefly during my presentation last Friday at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Los Angeles. I was almost going to eliminate this work from my presentation because it did not dovetail well with the other works in the “Archaeology Series” that I was discussing. It turned out to be fortuitous that I had not left the work out, however, because it resonated well with another panelist’s topic. Professor Victoria Reid, from the University of Glasgow, gave a scholarly yet moving presentation, “The 2003 Heat Wave in France: Representations of the plight of the elderly in literature and film.” The heat wave caused the demise of 19,000 people, most of them older people who died in solitude under the roof of an apartment without air conditioning. Although this is ten times the number of deaths from Hurricane Katrina, the hidden dispersal of the victims led to a surprising silence in the press. The art of literature and film is now beginning to fill the vacancy of that void.
After hearing Professor Reid’s excellent paper, I came to a revelation about the Chinese character for “safe” as I now understand it. I had neglected to realize that the language was a male invention and spoke for the impressions and concerns of a patriarchal society. It is not the woman under her roof who is “safe” therefore, but the posterity of the man to whom she belongs. A wife, slave, mother, or daughter who always remains within the confines of the four walls beneath a roof does not pose a threat. The wife or concubine cannot wander into the arms of a competitor - the genetic and social standing of the man of a household is therefore protected. And in more general terms, both ancient and modern, the woman who is sequestered away cannot harm us. We are all safe from our collective guilt when the woman - especially the elderly woman - withers and dies in a place we can neither see nor hear. We are safe when she is alone under her roof.

April 16, 2008

The Neo-Surreal in the Art of Marcelo Novo

If ART Gallery on Lincoln Street in Columbia, South Carolina is featuring the paintings and prints of one of my top twenty-five favorite artists in South Carolina, Marcelo Novo. It is rare for a commercial gallery to offer an historical perspective on an artist’s work and the curator, Wim Roefs, should be commended for offering such an exhibition. Mr. Novo’s work in the exhibition was produced from 1985 to 1994 and illustrates an unfolding vision of neo-surrealistic figuration.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Marcelo Novo studied with Roberto Aizemberg, who was greatly influenced by first generation surrealist painters. Throughout his own development as a painter, Mr. Novo has retained a dream-like narrative in his work characteristic of that generation of painters. Some of his earliest non-figurative works are reminiscent of the paintings of Yves Tanguy - landscapes of the unconscious replete with monumental sculptures. The silvery grey, black and white modulations in paintings such as “Dale que venga” are exquisitely refined and satisfying.
It is captivating to see the evolution from these early sculptural paintings to the later works when the machines become environments populated by cuneiform figures in a Novo civilization. What particularly attracts me to these forms is the kinship they appear to have to Mayan glyphs - pictures as language. Indeed all these paintings seem to tell us stories - wonderful stories of passion and triumph.
Two drypoint and monotype works that stand out for me are “Untitled (Man Hands Up 1)” and “Untitled (Man Hands Up 2).” There is rich texture and linear detailing of the black forms on a sumptuous ivory paper. Like scrimshaw on a whale tusk, it commands much more than a cursory glance to take it all in. There is a tale that unfolds here - making us wonder just what it is that the raised hands intend. They look too self-contained to be suppliants. Are they crossing themselves to ward off evil? Are they attempting to hide their identities? Or are they making a display of the power of hands that bring art into being?
The opening reception is 5PM - 10PM on Thursday, April 17. The show is up until May 7. Catch it if you can.

April 12, 2008

The Media is the Message

"I want to use wax crayons in my paintings but am not sure how. I was told that I couldn’t do that." One of my students asked me this at our last meeting. I assured her that there really is no such thing as a wrong or right media, only compatible or incompatible ways of using substances. So I thought of a way that wax crayons might work with oil paint and set about to experiment on some panels with my student. I mixed the tube paint with a combination beeswax and damar varnish medium and used a palette knife to trowel this heavy-bodied pigment onto the panel. I then broke off pieces of wax crayons and dropped them into the paint.
"We’ll heat up the paint with a hair drier set on high heat and see if the beeswax in the paint melts with the crayon so that it adheres." I said as I ran upstairs to get a high powered salon-style blow drier that I recently inherited from my step-mother. When I got back down to the studio, I enthusiastically set it on high speed and blew a good many of the wax crayons off the panel. So by trial and error we discovered that the blow drier had to be set on low initially to slowly soften the wax so that it would have a tack to it before melting it into the beeswax-laden paint. The tiny silver, red and green dots of crayon fragments melded nicely into the pigments and we discovered a new way of making what I would like to call faux encaustic. I then sent my student on her way with a dollop of the beeswax and damar.
Afterwards I was confronted with this little demonstrator faux encaustic painting that I wasn’t quite certain what to do with. I then remembered a multi-media mosaic and painting that I had done with pigment and glass some time ago and sought to recreate this effect. I became interested in combining somewhat disparate media after seeing the work of Michigan artist Ellen Stern a number of years ago in an exhibition in Miami. Her painting "Jack" began as an embroidery of a fairy tale, the threads of silk slowly dissolving into paint which then became glass and tile. It struck me as an allegory of a tale retold several times in translation - the same story repeated in a different media, altering the story slightly with each retelling as the various permutations of media reinterpret the narrative. Even more captivating was the subject of this particular narrative being about a vine that grows uncontrollably - like stories running rampant across borders. There was something else that was bold about this simple statement - especially since in contemporary art we rather arbitrarily assign art to "fine art" or "craft" depending upon what is used rather than how it is used. I think Ellen’s piece was a challenge to the notion that what is used in an art work is more important in understanding how to interpret it than what it says.
To try to capture some of the essence of what Ellen was communicating in her multi-media narrative, I decided to compose an art work traveling through three different media: oil and wax, ceramic shards, and glass. It first required fetching a narrow strip of prepared substrate out of my garbage pail and cutting it to match the height of the first beeswax painting. I glued the small painting and its companion column onto a substrate prepared with sizing. After they dried I proceeded to add bits of a broken ceramic vessel to the outside and inside of the painting - it was a tacky little Easter thing I found on the side of the road but it yielded some interesting texture to the work. Then I reinterpreted the colors and patterns of the painting in glass around the outside boundaries. This completed, I then returned to the column and reinterpreted the surrounding glass in oil and beeswax. I call the piece "Media Narrative in Translation I"

April 5, 2008

The Fine Line in Sleeping Standing Up

I made a painting of a man in New York some years ago. His name was Dexter, and he had an expressive face and an unusual ability to remain standing while sleeping. Although I liked how I painted him I was never satisfied by the back round. After moving to South Carolina I painted this back round several times over and was still never satisfied. To settle my frustration, I finally took a utility knife and carved his body out of the canvas and pinned it to my studio wall so that I would no longer be distracted by the failure of the surrounding paint. I then constructed a new canvas and painted him anew onto an entirely different back round - one replete with the angles and textures on the side of a barn at one of the many abandoned homesteads around South Carolina.
Later that afternoon, a friend of mine dropped by the studio and asked what I intended to do with the large cut out of the man pinned to my wall. “Discard it I suppose,” was my somewhat fatalistic reply. Gwen, my friend, wouldn’t have it. “But I really like his demeanor...the expression on his face has such pathos. Couldn’t you make it into a collage?” She asked. I had never made a collage with a piece of a painting before and wasn’t certain that it would work but I told Gwen that I would reserve this portrait and upper torso until I figured out how to use it.
I did eventually use the painting fragment in a large collage - surrounding the figure with red lines, gold leaf and abstractly painted geometric shapes. These embellishments were derived from the Russian icons I had seen when I went on a memorable trip to visit my relatives in Ukraine. The finished collage, which I named “Icon,” served me well. “ Icon” won a significant monetary award which came just in time for me - for two weeks after the award it was discovered that I had breast cancer and as a consequence had to take a leave from my teaching and my studio. There were two ways that one could understand this situation - that my award might be eaten up by illness and therefore diminished, or, that Dexter as “Icon” was the manna from heaven that arrived at the precise moment of need. I chose the latter understanding, gratitude being healthier than despair. I would have to extend that gratitude to good friends, husband, surgeon and radiation oncologist as well.

But what of that other painting? I continued to repaint the back round until I could do no more. The final addition was a row of blue dots at the base inspired by some roadside flowers. The painting was hung in one of my galleries, was returned to me, then was hung in another gallery and was returned to me. Unfortunately this painting, which I aptly entitled “Sleeping Standing Up,” suffered an accident which left a hair line crack in the paint on the upper right corner. It is not very noticeable but this means that I will never be able to sell it through a gallery. So now what? I had considered selling it to anyone who might be willing to pay for material costs and transport. Otherwise, he might end up in a cut and paste yet again. He probably will.

April 2, 2008

Milestone in Monologues

For Shirley:

The Horizontal Reading

Long shadow of a late afternoon
yawns before her
like the mystery in an alley
on a DeChirico canvas
The dark line on the blue horizon
reading from classical left to Biblical right
and back again
shifts along the straight and narrow path
as fleeting light mingles with the stars
of the milky way on her spotted dress

Yellow sun of a brilliant day
opens its eyes before her
like the spotlights on a stage
that follows spinning young dancers
Ascending light draws a reader up a page
from Mesopotamia below to the Orient above
and back again
as flower buds reach
behind the pages of a book
for tessellated words in stone
Back in November of 2007, I wrote a blog about a book of poetry that I was working on. I then wrote a post some time later when the book was about one fourth of the way finished. My book, Monologues: One Hundred poems for one Hundred Paintings, is now halfway completed. In celebration of making it to this milestone I am publishing one of the poems from Monologues and the companion painting.
I anticipate the second half of this book proceeding more slowly because I have identified twelve paintings that I either need to paint over again or substitute with new ones. When I finish six of these and have written seventy-five poems, I’ll mark that milestone by publishing another excerpt. I’m predicting this to come about at some point in mid to late summer.