February 26, 2008

Kai-awase Surprise on Native Clams

My search for non-western sources of mosaic art began with an examination of Pre-Columbian masks and artifacts but my curiosity led me to other interesting objects as well. The bright colors and subtle designs of Native American inlay jewelry captivated my interest. There was a long tradition in this art form of decorating the convex side of clam shells to make pendants for necklaces or art objects. Although most museum examples are modern, there appears to be a stylistic relationship with many of the Pre-Columbian pieces I've seen.
I happened to have some spare clam shells in my studio of a fairly substantial size so I decided to make a simple embellishment on them. I soon found that the smallness of the object required thin materials to wrap around the curved surface as thicker glass would create unpleasant-looking breaks from piece to piece. So after applying the ceramic head and hands pictured above I covered the surface with fragments of a pen shell found on Edisto beach. The second, smaller shell was decorated with mother-of-pearl, copper and adventurine.
If one looks very closely at the upraised hands on either side of the face with the pearly blue eyes, you can see very tiny symbols in green. They are ancient zhuan style Chinese characters for the sun and the moon. The sun and the moon together mean "enlightenment."
A note here about using language and symbols in art...although many artists use text in art, I'm of the opinion (probably not shared by many and even running counter to my western art training) that one should be able to read the language used. I believe this because meaning not only enriches the art work but avoids the possibility of using a text that may be saying something entirely inappropriate. I've often seen, for instance, Chinese characters in an art work affixed upside-down or right-side up but saying something ridiculous. I recently saw a website advertising Chinese art scrolls that had chinese characters on their home page that were not only upside-down but were a cropped piece of Chinese communist propaganda from the seventies. But enough of my bugbears and on to my explanation for the objects at hand.
Even though most people would not be turning these shells over, it seemed a pity to leave the underside undressed. An idea for decorating the underside came not from Native America but from 18th century Japan. Imperial Japan of that era had a memory game using clam shells with the underside painted with elaborate decorative motifs. The shells were placed face-down on a playing surface while the "partner" shells which were painted with matching designs were selected one at a time from a container. The object, of course was to find the mate by turning over the clam shells one at a time. The Kai-awase shells, as they were known, were painted in bright colors and elaborate designs on gold leaf.
I decided to try something similar to Kai-awase shells by gessoing the interior of the clam shell and sealing it with amber shellac. I gilded the rim of the shell and rendered my surprise paintings inside the gold border. The dancing man is a dancer from India performing a "Tiger" dance. The nude female figure with the red stilleto shoes is imaginary. They are not nearly as exquiste as the true Kai-awase shells yet they were fun to try...and there is no Japanese language here because it is not a language that I know!

February 25, 2008

Spirit Masks at Verner Awards or No?

I remember reading a popular text on mosaic art with a statement in it that puzzles me to this day. It read, "Mosaic is a European art form. Many cultures have made mosaics but it is a European art form." Although it is true that mosaic art, as many artists and historians understand it, is heavily slanted towards Europe, the pronouncement in this book is something of an oxymoron. Further, since much of my own inspiration in mosaic art comes from non-western sources, I am particularly cognizant of not being entirely mainstream in my interests and influences. Yet these influences are rich with meaning, history and materials and for this reason I seek to share with audiences whenever possible these sources of splendor and wonder which are often neglected in contemporary discussions of mosaics.

To this end I had organized a panel on non-western mosaics for the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA) conference in Mesa Arizona last year. This month I have published a review on Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico in the British Association for Modern Mosaics (BAMM) newsletter. It apparently isn't online yet but one can go to the BAMM website and become a member. In the mean time here is an excerpt of my review:
Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico, by Colin McEvan, Andrew Middleton, Caroline Carwright and Rebecca Stacey is a long overdue study of Pre-Columbian mosaic artifacts. Published by the British Museum and Duke University press in 2006, the book sheds new light on a subject first researched by Elizabeth Carmichael. Ms. Carmichael’s Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico, published in 1970, has long been out of print and this new study successfully brings the subject up to date. New excavations and updated scientific analysis provides a plethora of information on these exquisite objects.

What makes Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico of special interest to mosaic artists is the information on how and why particular materials were used, their origins and ritual significance. Also very useful for visual artists are the illustrations of multiple views of objects and magnified images of their details. The illustrations allow the reader vantage points typically not seen from texts or even first hand as a museum goer. At times we can peer into the open mouth of a decorated beast and see its bejeweled interior. Or we can see its underbelly or view the obverse side. It is the next best thing to being able to hold these artifacts in hand and turn them about to investigate the ingenuity of the Mixtec-Aztec craftsmen.

I truly enjoyed reading this book and perusing the great illustrations. These objects inspired a series of mosaic masks that I am still working on. My latest masks, pictured above, are about the size of a baby's head and embellished with glass, copper, ceramic, gold and semi-precious gems on a ceramic base. I've presented these to the South Carolina State Arts Commission for consideration for their Verner Awards Luncheon. If accepted, they will be on display at that function. If not, they will rest in my utility room until I take them up to an art festival in Westminster, Maryland this summer.

February 21, 2008

Raising Asia

Protecting, supporting

but not needing to grasp

to hold tight

The Mother’s arms raise Asia.

Her golden braids lovingly tied

in a bond tighter than blood alone

In her inspirational book, “Loving and Raising Asia,” author J. Denise Cromwell tells the story of how she and her husband, a young black couple, came to adopt and raise a white child. A young unwed teenage white girl claimed that she was pregnant due to a rape by a black man and Denise and her husband agreed to adopt the girl’s mixed race child. They were faced with a dilemma, however, when the child was born and was not mixed race at all but a white child. Despite having been deceived, the Cromwell’s kept their promise and went through with the adoption, naming the child “Asia.”

I had occasion to meet the author at our local Orangeburg Salon, Rachelle’s Island. Ms. Cromwell was the featured writer that evening and I was the featured visual artist. When we talked about our work, Denise asked me if I would make an art work that featured her story. Generally, I don’t paint upon request unless commissioned to do so (readers can acquaint themselves with my reluctance to do this in a previous blog, “Soutine Heaven Sent”), but this was an interesting story and so I told Denise that I would paint something.

In my painting “Raising Asia,” I eschewed portraiture because I wanted to express something universal about what it means to nurture someone in a such a way as to allow protection with room for growth. I found my inspiration in Denise’s narrative during our dinner talk with the author. When she recounted the story which inspired the book, she began with a premonition she had in the form of a dream about raising a white child. In the dream Denise embraced the child and drew her to her chest. When she came to this part of the narrative, Denise made a gesture drawing her left arm towards her chest and her right hand supporting the imaginary baby. It was a sweeping maternal gesture and its gentleness moved me. The art work attempts to capture this gesture and its generosity.

February 8, 2008

A Painting by Edith Louise Horton

While taking a walk by Summers Park in Orangeburg, just around the corner of my home, I came across the usual pile of debris on the corner from neighbors’ impeccably groomed lawn. I would sometimes salvage house and yard plants from this little pile so I always slowed my pace when passing this spot to have a cursory inspection. On this particular day, the little pile yielded an unexpected treasure. On top of the grass clippings and pruned branches there was a large Victorian mirror in an ebony frame and a painting coated with heavy layers of dust. The ebony frame around the mirror had some substantial chunks missing from it so I decided not to salvage that right away. The painting was in a heavy decorated frame which was also damaged. But the painting - a charming study of grapes and peaches was intact. So I carefully pried the canvas out of the frame and inspected the back. It was painted on a high grade Belgian linen so it was done by someone who had enough training to be cognizant of materials.
I took the painting home, thinking initially of using the canvas to paint over - like Chaim Soutine used to do with nineteenth century paintings in Paris in the 1930's and 40's. But after inspecting the surface carefully, I noticed that it was signed and dated. I couldn’t quite make out the signature but the date was 1901. So I put the work away and then told my husband about my discovery and about the lovely but damaged frame and mirror that was there as well. Although we weren’t certain how we would repair the frames, we agreed that they would be worth going back for. So I headed back out to retrieve them only to find that my hesitation of a mere twenty minutes cost me those treasures - someone had already snapped them up! So the old adage, “he who hesitates is lost” is not for nought.
As an artist, the real prize to me was that little canvas from 1901, which stayed in the corner of my bedroom for months before I decided to take a second look. I checked the red letters of a signature and could finally make them out. It was signed Louise Horton. Curious, I did a google search on the name and came up with a surprisingly detailed genealogy of the Horton family dating back to the seventeenth century. The family had apparently come to American soil quite early on and settled in North Carolina. There were fascinating pictures of generations of this family. One in particular caught my eye. It was Edith Louise Horton, 1879 - 1903. There she was, in a plaid dress and an enormous stylish hat. This fit the 1901 time frame of the painting as did the name. I felt a certain kinship with the woman artist who made this little gem at the turn of the last century. It was a kinship tinged with sadness to discover that she had painted it just a mere two years before she died at the age of twenty four. Death from childbirth perhaps? It was not uncommon back then and it was too early for the great flu pandemic. It was sad to think of a lovely young woman passing away so young. It was sad as well to have found her painting on top of a rubbish heap in Orangeburg. It actually started me thinking in melancholy terms about how my own work might end up in dusty corners of forgotten attics and basements or sold off for a few dollars at yard sales. I suppose that is what inspired me to try to locate a descendant of Edith Louise Horton who might honor her memory.

I found a descendant in James McColl, who was a great great grand nephew of Edith Louise Horton now living and working as a history teacher in North Carolina. We corresponded for a short time by e-mail and when he asked if he could have the painting I agreed to part with it.
Everyone I spoke to about my find and my determination to restore it to its rightful heir thought that I was stupid for doing so. But sentiment and a sense of obligation won out over common sense. “But you found it and it is yours!” one artist protested. “How much are you going to charge him for it?” was an oft repeated question. “He’s going to pay you for it, right?” said others. Although there were those who said that it seemed, “generous” or “very good of me” to do this no one felt that what I was doing was “right” or “ethical.” One artist offered this possibility, “When he comes to your home to pick up the painting, maybe he’ll buy one of yours.” I replied that I had no such expectation. Is it a sign of our overweening market mentality that every human transaction must have a commercial value, or am I just hopelessly out of sync as a business person and citizen of the United States? I wondered that as I protested to all my detractors that asking for monetary compensation for my find felt like asking to be paid for returning someone’s wallet, albeit a valuable in this case one hundred and seven years removed from the original owner.

So when the appointed time came to part with my painting, I arranged a little tea and snack as I sat down with James McColl, who had traveled down from North Carolina for the transaction. He brought books of genealogical history replete with brown toned photographs of women in mutton chop sleeved dresses with narrow waists. I was curious about Edith Louise Horton’s untimely death and to my surprise found out that she had not died in childbirth and in fact had never married. Family history had it that she had died of a heart condition. I was also interested in where the young artist had acquired a knowledge of art materials and techniques. Although the painting is not a master work, there are elements of design, color and a knowledge of optics (the colors of the peach are reflected in the nearby grapes) that belies some kind of professional training. The closest we could come to figuring that out was that Edith had an aunt her went to art school in New York - unusual for a woman in the nineteenth century who may have taught her. There were other rather strong women in this family - a factory owner to name one. And there were political intrigues as well - like Edith’s grandfather who was about to acquire the governship of South Carolina on the basis of the black vote during Reconstruction before he was mysteriously shot!

The young woman painter, Edith Louise Horton, came from an interesting family and left the world too early to make her own mark upon it, leaving unanswered questions about her aspirations and what might have happened had she lived to realize them. Had she wanted to follow in her aunt's footsteps and travel to New York to become an artist? Is that why she didn't marry? I’ve posted her painting here today along with an image of her great great grand nephew pointing to her photograph. Payment is a piece of history understood and the knowledge that an obscure woman’s creative work is kept by someone who has a personal attachment to it.

We never did figure out how her painting came to be on that pile of grass on a sunny day at Summer's Park in Orangeburg. That remains a mystery.

February 1, 2008

Biliary Bacchanal

My recent health woes have presented me with some unusual material for my poetry and painting project. One doesn’t expect songs, poetry and art to emerge from these unpleasantries but sometimes it does. Some of it has, of course, been somber, but there was one little nonsense poem and a painting to go with it that presented itself to me in a rather unusual way so I submit it here. The painting that I’m illustrating this rhyme with is a small oil on wood which I no longer have but am intending to repaint anew for my Monologue book of poetry and paintings.

This little story behind the art began at the Medical University of South Carolina, where I was trying to book my appointment with the pancreatobiliary department. The receptionist seemed to have a hard time pronouncing that word pancreatobiliary. “pan creo what?” she asked incredulously. I sounded it out for her, “p-a-n-c-r-e-a-t-o-b-i-l-i-a-r-y.” “pan crea deo nucleo what?” she asked again getting herself even more confused. I then came up with what I thought to be a clever mnemonic device for her. “Just remember that pancreatobiliary sounds like Pan cries out to Billy and Harry,” I said, more to the effect of amusing myself than anyone else. I don’t know if it helped her remember the name of the department but my newly coined phrase became the opening line for my nonsense poem, “The Bacchanal”

“The Bacchanal”

Pan cried out to Billy and Harry

from his forest apothecary

“I’m mixing herbs for both of you

Come drink them down and when we’re through

we’ll have fine wine and rollick and song

with elixirs and potions mixed thick and strong”
The two men laughed and got their flasks

pulled on tight pants and donned their masks

with beastly horns and feathers of fowl

they set off for their Bacchanal

They frolicked in the woods like naughty satyrs

in choice scenes from Grecian Kraters
They danced to the river with running and leaping

and grinned at a nymph as she was sleeping

Then stealthily they started creeping

to hide behind a rock from which to be peeping

With sniggering mouths and teary eyes brimming

they laughed at a silenus while he was swimming
They took his clothes just for some fun

from where they were drying out in the sun

and hung them high up in the trees

then tied his undergarments around their knees

From off the bank they took his hat

and played with it from where they sat
Then gleefully through the forest they ran

And when at last they greeted Pan

They gave him gold and talked of nonsense

Pan filled their flasks in recompense

and served them comestibles beyond measure

for the rest of the evening of foolish pleasure

-Janet Kozachek
Copyright January 2008