March 28, 2008

The Other Side of the Mask, Three

My double-sided mask series concludes for the month with the cement painting and inlay on the obverse side of my recently completed raku pottery shard mask. Instead of tightly fitting the pieces this time, I tinted the cement blue and placed polyvinyl resin triangles sporadically around a central piece of fused glass. Since the glass was pasted onto the opposite side of the forehead of the mask, this left a hollow space behind the flat glass. I made a mental note here that this feature can be exploited in future projects to place objects in the space behind the glass to create the impression of a reliquary. I have to interrupt my pursuit of this project, however, to finish a conference paper, after which my teaching schedule will become busy. I expect to start my reliquary project, God willing, in late May. The preview is tantalizing though.

March 25, 2008

Crab Claws from Bermuda

Knowing that I am a mosaic assemblage artist, friends often give me with all sorts of unusual objects that they have found for me to use in my art work. It can take a while until these things find their way into an assembled art work but eventually they do. Most recently, as I have begun to make mosaic masks again, I have been rooting through all my bags of materials for just the right articles to apply to these faces. It gives me great pleasure, as a hunter-gatherer artist, to find them again and to use them. My most recent mosaic mask uses the crab claws that my friend Mary found on a Bermuda beach (at least I recall that it was Bermuda - as I'm not certain please don't go running off there in search of exotic crab claws just yet). The black, orange and white claws were quite dramatic so I designed the mosaic mask around them - using black enameling on top of a white glaze and lustre glaze. After using the intact claws I used the fragmented ones on the obverse side of the mask - the controlled chaotic side. On this side I have inserted a glass eye that I made with fused glass into an expired bulb from a slide projector. The small objects which appear like beans are actually polyvinyl resin bits from the now defunct Utica Tool company in Orangeburg. All these things are relics from the past.

March 24, 2008

Break Through

In my last blog I posted an art work that was made with fragments from a broken vessel. Over the Easter weekend, there was another studio accident which led to some unexpectedly interesting possibilities. While putting the final touches on a small mosaic mask in my studio, I heard the doorbell ring. As I jumped up to answer it the cleaning cloth that the mosaic was resting on caught on my belt and yanked the art work off the table and sent it crashing to the floor. I picked up the pieces slowly enough to allow my composure to return before answering the door. When I finally did answer the door I explained to my guest my hesitation. Although it is of course not entirely rational, she felt somehow responsible for the broken work so she helped me think up ways that it might be put together again. We both agreed that the hours of labor put into the piece warranted some kind of clever solution for salvaging it as a work of art. The glued pieces could simply be glued onto the surface again but the base section broken off the side left a tell-tale seam on the back of the mask when reattached. My student had the bright idea of cementing over the seam to hide the fissure. I did so later after she had left my studio but I wasn’t happy with the rather obvious patch. So I made a thick coating of tinted cement over the entire interior of the mask.
Then I did something that I had seen done on early African American memory vessels - I pushed objects directly into the wet cement to make a spontaneous design allowing the wet cement to ooze up between the interstices. I used fused glass with gold enameling, costume jewelry, and anything else that was fun and lively. The concave surface offered design possibilities that hadn’t presented themselves in flat and convex surfaces. The other side of the mask was a cave in which objects could grow like stalactites. It was a yin to the yang of the face. It could be a metaphorical other - the things that are in the back of the mind.
Thematically, I kept the first decorated interior related to what was on the surface on the other side. The face of the mask was decorated with white porcelain shards embellished with green heads of dragons. In traditional Chinese folklore, the dragon races through heaven in pursuit of the pearl of happiness. So on the secret interior of the mask I hung several pearls - both fake and real in addition to a ceramic fish - the symbol of prosperity. This completes the mask as an art object - with a decorated side and a secret interior.

March 21, 2008

Mask with Fragments of a Shattered Gift

A good friend of mine from Michigan sent me a gift of a beautiful raku bowl. Unfortunately the bowl shattered in transit. Since both the giver of the gift and the receiver are mosaic artists, however, this was not a tragic thing for our is the art of pieceing together fragments to make a new whole. The fragments of the raku bowl found their way into my most recent mosaic mask featured at right. The base is ceramic with attachments of glass and shells to augment the raku shards. Inspired by my earlier reading of Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico I used small, closely space tesserae, cutting on the bevel whenever I could manage it. So the raku bowl and its kind intent live on. I hope my friend likes it.

March 17, 2008

Reflections on Gericault's Face of Envy, Or: For Everyone Who Wants But Doesn't Get

Gericault’s jealous woman
her eyes askance
obsessively follows goods withheld
The classic face of envy
disconcerting in its human incarnation
For centuries her frozen unsatisfied eyes
glare in perpetuity unfulfilled
Her mouth pulled tight by thwarted desire
a bitter witness to others’ consummations
Vexed at unshared happiness
she ogles the crowning contentment
of rivals to gratification

-Janet Kozachek 2008

This past week, the subject of jealousy was broached a number of times and in various permutations. It seemed to me a great topic to write on and I had an illustration at the ready with a drawing of mine that I had just cleaned up catalogued.

Thinking of the Romantic painter Theodore Gericault, the images that I usually associate with him, other than The Raft of the Medusa, are his luscious renderings of dapple grey and roan colored horses. But late in his short life as an artist, he turned his attention to a series of poignant portraits of the mentally ill. Having a family history of mental illness himself, one wonders at Gericault’s motive for painting these. To exorcize demons by coming face to face with them perhaps?

While in a museum in Lyon, the particular painting from Gericault’s madness series that captivated my attention was the portrait “A Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy.” Making a sketch of this painting at the museum was a strange yet moving experience for me. Of course it would be easier to obtain postcards and catalogues of favorite paintings in a museum, but drawing from a master work is more inspiring and humbling. The act of rendering the picture stroke by stroke integrates the image into the very fiber of one’s being - to be conjured up into consciousness again at some future time in order to mull it over and absorb its saliency.
“The Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy,” has from time to time hovered in my imagination almost like an illustration for a cautionary tale. For with dependable regularity in life, like most people, I’ve been either a target of or a repository for jealousy. On any given day, I can look around this small college town of Orangeburg South Carolina and see the visage of Gericault’s face of envy - that sulking suspicious glare. Worse still, on some days, she stares back at me from the mirror.

I was haunted by envy in the years before graduate school. I was envious of people who had the means to obtain advanced degrees while still young enough for higher education to have an impact on their lives. Two graduate degrees and several years later I am envious of people for whom the same or lesser sets of credentials have secured them the rank, status and security that a position such as full time college teaching grants and which has always eluded me. Oddly enough, it sometimes seems that college teachers envy my free-lance lifestyle. This is probably because a secure paycheck is often paid for with constraints upon time and liberty - not to mention putting up with jealous colleagues. “At least you have time to do your art!” they opine. True, I do have some spare time at this juncture but what most people tend to forget is that when working free-lance, free time means no money. And while short term this is not necessarily a bad thing and it is enviable to have a chance to write and paint, the ramifications for long term underemployment are a bit more daunting.

In a broader context, perhaps the most serious consequence of jealousy is the insidiously terrible stasis that results. It restricts personal attainments and prohibits individual accomplishments. Jealousy keeps a community backwards. For the jealous will do anything to thwart those who appear to be doing better than themselves. I must share here a very colorful illustration of the power of communal jealousy that one of my husband’s English students wrote in a composition paper. “When a crab tries to escape from a pot of boiling crabs," he wrote, "the ones stuck deeper in the pot pull the one getting out back in.”

So now that the disease is identified, is there a cure for jealousy? Perhaps not and perhaps there ought not to be - at least not to the point of total eradication. The wellspring of self-serving competitiveness from which jealousy grows may impart some survival value to the envious. (The aforementioned crabs may just have been trying to hitch a ride on the escapee) But as a maddening obsession that thwarts both individual and social progress some amelioration might be warranted. I cannot make recommendations on anyone else’s behalf, but in my own grass is greener experiences I have found that there are a few salves to the sting of envy.

One is the realization that no matter how qualified for and deserving one is of something, that does not mean that there is an entitlement to it. In fact, the only things that we are probably entitled to are those items covered by legal contracts - and our most serious heart’s desires fall outside that jurisdiction. So, short of becoming an emotional ascetic, the best one can do is to come to terms with the reality of unfairness and make the best of what remains after dissappointment. And after that, to be especially grateful for those things given and obtained without the asking.

Although it takes some stretching if one is unaccustomed to it, nothing expands the parameters of happiness more than joy in the accomplishments of others. It is especially helpful to seek out a community that supports and cultivates the achievements of its members.

On those who inspire envy, most people probably do not fully comprehend their own advantages and as a consequence can appear callous and impervious to the disadvantages of others. Sometimes it is evil. Most times it is ignorance. It nearly always results in fanning the flames of jealousy. In a society such as it is in the United States this is especially heightened by so many inducements to make a conspicuous display of one’s socioeconomic prowess. A funny example comes to mind here of a well-to-do man complaining to me (complaining here as merely a facade for bragging) about losing the instructions to a very expensive camera and having to buy a second camera to get another set of instructions. If I had been more quick witted I might have offered to take the spare off his hands along with a photocopy of the instructions but I just chuckled and gave a slack-jawed stare instead.

Sometimes jealousy is more actively provoked - as in a response from an acquaintance to my news that I had made a few hundred dollars from a recent seminar. She was considering running seminars herself she tells me and charging $3000 each in accordance with the high demand for her expertise. Following my own previous admonitions it should give me great joy if she nets this amount. Initially it does not. In fact if an experimental MRI of my brain were performed to register the response to the $3000 seminar news undoubtedly the reptile portion would be lighting up - that crocodile nature which commands "Go, seek competitor's nest. Dig in sand. Find eggs. Eat them. All of them. After a reluctant tug into higher consciousness, however I find that ultimately it would satisfy me if she conducts seminars that are that remunerative because she probably earned the privilege and because she faces some long term uncertainties.

And this brings me to my final conclusion on the ultimate folly of jealousy. At any given time one can never be too certain about another person’s actual situation in life. The man with the great job? Maybe he hates it and returns home every day to a family that loathes him. The great house? Who knows what kind of mortgage is attached to it. And even if present circumstances are verifiably enviable, the future is yet to come, with all its attendant vagaries of fortune. To paraphrase Sophocles, “One can never count a man’s fortunes until he passes his dying day without pain.”

March 14, 2008

Last Square for Fallen Floyd

Some years ago, when hurricane Floyd grazed the coast of South Carolina, my husband purchased several sheets of heavy duty composition board for boarding up the house. Regardless of the fact that we were well out of harm’s way and far inland, the fear of a repeat of the path of Hurricane Hugo weighed heavily upon his mind. Needless to say, Floyd never made it to Orangeburg and the boards were unused. They were expensive, however, and I could not bear the thought of throwing them away wasted. I therefore had a friend with a circular saw cut them up into stacks of various sized pieces - mostly 12" squares. Over the years, I used them as substrates for mosaics - countless mosaics. I thought that they would never end. Today I used the last one and draw the “Archeology” mosaic series to a close.
In homage to the hurricane that brought these little squares into being I entitled this last work, “Fallen Floyd.” Like a previous mosaic featured on this site, the ceramic relief sculpture of the twisted man is an adaptation of my drawing of a man in that position in Peter Paul Ruben's painting "The Battle of the Amazons." Looking straight onto the surface, his body appears in a position somewhat distorted from the original. Looking at it from the side, however, restores the original vantage point of the figure in the painting.
In the mosaic, the figure is not quite as static as in my previous works and does not rest quietly in the usual position at the center or at the bottom of the square. He is instead thrown up into the upper left corner as if blown off course by a storm. His body rests where I typically would have placed a barrier. This angular figure now becomes the wall.
The pottery shards I used for this work are also much darker than the ones I used for previous mosaics - with black drips in them and swirling sgraffito lines indicative of unrest.
One technical advancement in this mosaic are some more precisely beveled edges on the marble due to my using a wet saw. I just learned how to use a wet saw a few days ago and thought I would use some of the cuts I was playing around with.

March 12, 2008

Forbidden Entry

“Our polished internal shrines often compete with real events as we shape our what’s and our where’s to fit” -Anthony Williams

I completed the small mosaic pictured to the right based on this phrase from the poem “Forbidden Entry” by Professor Anthony Williams. Professor Williams gave a reading of his poetry at a recent community event here in Orangeburg. The poem was a response to a call for poetry using the phrase “Where I Was When....” Professor Williams’ poem about the futility of using negative external events to evaluate individual lives resonated with me because I, too, had some difficulty with the “assigned” topic. Although I didn’t put my ambivalence into poetry, when I recalled major historical events, I realized that they actually did not have great import on my own life nor did my life have any effect on the event. That is why I settled on writing about events of minor consequence that I had personally witnessed. Professor Williams’ words beckoned to me for a visual interpretation - a ghost-like anonymous figure at a casement surrounded by fitted gold-leafed glass pieces. The surrounding area is ceramic tile glazed ivory and white punctuated with strips of black fused glass looking like split timbers.
For the entire text of Professor William's poem click on to
This weekend I will be teaching my second seminar on the direct method in mosaic at The Walnut House in Bamburg, South Carolina this Saturday. The seminar includes all materials, nin for the bargain introductory price of $60. This is a new school in a charming location. For more information call Julia Wolfe at: 803 245-1308

March 11, 2008

Stuff White People Like Blog Revisited

In my previous writing I made two posts about a popular blog that had captivated America’s attention, "Stuff White People Like." Not exactly satisfied with my writing I had removed them. But now finding that they had been referenced I am posting again - consolidating both posts into a final edited version:

While driving around Orangeburg I turned on NPR and listened to a program about Christian Lander’s blog "Stuff that White People Like." I was curious about the site because what I heard on NPR as the purportedly tongue-in-cheek proclivities of the white race in the United States (I’m assuming the United States by the context) didn't resonate with my own experiences. Back home, I looked at this site to see just how far outside the pale (pun intended) I was. Many of the icons of popular culture we are supposed to idolize, for instance I hadn’t even heard of. In fact, out of the seventy-five indices of whiteness that the blog enumerated, although I was close on a number of them, I fully qualified as white on just one - listening to National Public Radio.

Some of the blogs were humorous - like the obsession with bottled water and recycling! But what I found somewhat disturbing was the prevalence of the "Arts" on the site, by which Lander seems to include all artists, writers, musicians, dancers and anyone else who majors in such things in college. Even as a parody, it struck me as unfortunate that such writing conveyed a message that the "Arts" are white pursuits. It seemed ambiguous as well as to who were the objects of the satire: People in the arts and humanities? Or was it really a "modest proposal" approach to satirizing people who believe that these pursuits are irrelevant? Looking at the comments on the blog, it seemed that noone else could quite figure that out either.

Although the blog aims to be a satire, there are many things about the writing that make it not particularly effective as such. For one thing, the title of the blog, "Stuff White People Like," tended to confuse some people and anger others because it was not a parody of "White People" but of a segment of affluent society familiar to the author. "Stuff That Christian Lander Likes," "Stuff That Friends of Christian Lander Likes" or "A Slice of Upper-Middle Class White Society As I Know It," would have been more apropos as titles but would not have garnered the publicity that the more provocative title did. Perhaps this can explain some of what all the ruckus has been about with regard to this blog - confusion and anger due to mislabeling. Defenders of the blog claim that the author was only making fun of himself yet I would have to agree with detractors who quickly pointed out that this claim did not tally with the broad scope indicated by the title. But the title is what brought attention to the blog - which was most likely the intended outcome.

I concluded that "Stuff That White People Like" was another example of that smoldering anti-intellectualism in the United States. I should note here that I am not concluding this from a position of intellectual prowess. The reason I started reading works like Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter was in order to understand more about why there is so much hostility to the arts and humanities. Interestingly enough, according to Hofstadter, I could be in danger of becoming the very worst kind of anti-intellectual there is - a "would be" intellectual.

The reasons that the blog and the kind of attention it sparked seemed to indicate an environment resistant to thinking become apparent when one reads a number of the comments on "Stuff White People Like." It tended to foment discord rather than promote discussion. It provoked emotional response and not intellectual reflection. It entertained without informing.
Another reason for my conclusion that the blog represents an example of anti-intellectual influences in the United States is the frequent use of the words "brilliant writing" to describe the entries. Since the writing is clever at best and silly at worst, it would seem to me that the label "brilliant writing" indicates that people aren’t reading examples of better writing. This is not to impugn the writing skills of the author, however, because I don’t think that he really wrote it with the intent of it being a master work of literature. He wrote it to get attention and succeeded remarkably well in that. I would like to sanguinely believe that he is capable of writing Better Stuff and that people will read it when he does.

March 8, 2008

Permeable Boundaries in a Post Modern World

This most recently completed mosaic, which is still untitled, is one of the subjects for my upcoming conference paper on my figurative mosaics. The paper illustrates the process of creating a body of mosaic works visualizing an overlay of geological and human time, one dispassionate, the other intensely self-conscious. The “Archaeology” series is an observation on the limits of memory, preservation, and on the vagaries of human conquest - both physical and ideological.
Stylistically evocative of dioramas, excavation sites, and crypts, the series was influenced by my visits to Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia Antica, and Xian, China. The aerial orientation in the mosaics reflects that of peering into pits and the resultant flattening out of perspective, both functionally and metaphorically - although this last work is more of a side view. The small scale of the figures and artifacts represented in the work is influenced by an observation of reconstructions and models. How much easier it is to comprehend the enormity of history and civilization through compression into toy-like accessibility!
The thread of continuity in “Archaeology” is, paradoxically, the collapsing walls and disrupted lines of demarcation, representing the real-life collapse of physical and cultural walls in the postmodern era of globalization and the internet. The once-defining lines of culture now become permeable membranes with ancient Chinese script co- mingling Greco-Roman ruins. The balloons with ancient writing on them in this particular mosaic say "The breath of life" and "Life from the swamp." the latter inscription is easy to explain. I originally hail from New Jersey and while I was studying in China I discovered that the Chinese word for New Jersey can be roughly translated as "New Swamp Land." So I made a little stamp with those words to affix to paintings. I made hundreds of such stamps actually for the purpose of printing them on papers. In recent years I found that they made interesting designs when impressed into clay as well.

My paper on this and other mosaics will be presented at the American Comparative Literature Association conference in Los Angeles this April. I've completed all except one of the mosaics and booked my plane ticket. Now all that's left to do is actually write the paper and learn how to do a power point lecture. Yikes!

March 6, 2008

Rubens Rising

In 1598 Peter Paul Rubens collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder on a complex painting, “The Battle of the Amazons”. Rubens contributed the figures and Bruegel painted the richly detailed foliage in the back round. Rubens’ figures are almost unearthly in their luminosity - like wet oyster shells washed up on a beach. Standing in front of this painting about seventeen years ago, I filled some pages of my sketchbook with pictures of the fallen female figures and their male counterparts, also fallen in battle. Rubens must have found the subject compelling, for he returned to this theme again twenty years later to paint a second version of “The Battle of the Amazons,” on his own. Similarly, while cleaning and filing away my old sketches, I used some of them as resource material in my present series of figurative mosaics.
In the original collaborative painting by Rubens and Brueghel, there is a central figure of a woman lying with an arm outstretched - her body arched slightly. The reaching arm was a beautiful extension of the body and had a certain pathos to it - a supplication for her comrades to carry on perhaps. I made a three-dimensional relief sculpture based on this figure for my “Fallen Amazon” mosaic constructed with stone, ceramic and glass. Making a three-dimensional form from a two-dimensional image presents some interesting logistical problems. What exactly is on the other side of the image must be intuited through a general knowledge of anatomy and how something or someone might move in space. There is always a surprise when coming around to that other side and seeing something frontally that was only envisioned from the side.

It has taken a long time to work through this series of mosaics. Several weeks have gone by while I have been making the parts - the figures, the small pieces of pottery, and cutting the stone. It is gratifying to actually begin to assemble all these parts into cohesive wholes.

March 2, 2008

The Temple of Eternal Joy

It was a pleasure to be a participant in the Poetry Workshop at Orangeburg Calhoun Technical College this past Thursday. It was a small milestone for me because it was my first public reading of my poetry and prose. It seemed to go well - but I still came across some need for editorial revisions. The workshop was sponsored by an Arts Participation Grant through the South Carolina State Arts Commission and directed by Professor Tamara Miles, who is also a member of the Orangeburg Writer’s Group. The theme of the poetry reading and performance was “Where I Was When...” Participants were asked to compose a poem about where they were during a significant or historic event. The results were moving, entertaining, powerful and just great fun to be a part of.
Some of the highlights of the event for me were Professor Tom Cassidy’s powerful and well-crafted poem on 9-11 - focusing on small yet salient details - a subtle approach to an enormous event. I also enjoyed not only Julia Garris’s poetry and music but her intense style of delivery as well. As a novice performer myself this was especially instructive for me. (Later, over lunch, we three poets had a lively conversation about the trends over the decades in poetry readings from deadpan deliveries to great histrionics.) Professor Miles produced a synthethis of visual art and poetry in her power point images of the paintings of Vincent VanGogh. Her own poem about VanGogh’s painting of a field with crows read with a rhythm implied by the heavy swirling impasto strokes of paint on VanGogh’s canvas.

My own readings were “The Purple Robe,” an excerpt from my book in progress Another Soul, and a light-hearted poem about where I was in China when the country first opened again to the west. The poem related how, during the early days of China’s reopening to the west, the government spent a lot of energy cleaning up and restoring neglected temples and historic sites for tourists. One of those temples in Beijing, the Yong He Gong, ( sometimes translated as the Temple of Eternal Joy or the Temple of Eternal Peace )was full of Tantric sculptures of gods and goddesses in various sexual positions, including some copulating with animals.

When the temple first opened, guests such as myself, were amazed that these beautifully carved gilded erotic sculptures were seeing the light of day under such an atmosphere of strict totalitarian and puritanical rule. Apparently this was not due, however, to a sudden opening of communist minds, but to a neglect to inspect and see just what these statues were actually doing. When word got back to the authorities in Beijing about the interior decoration of the temple, they ordered the Yong He Gong closed for further renovations. After several months the communist officials perhaps realized that they still needed the tourist revenue that an open Tibetan temple would bring. So after several months of what I imagine to be high-level political wrangling, they re-opened the Yong He Gong, but on their own terms and with a peculiar compromised solution. When I revisited the temple after its reopening I was surprised to find nearly barren corridors with the few remaining statues draped with silk cloth from their chins down to the floor with some suspicious-looking bulges underneath the cloth.

I never returned to the Yong He Gong after that but just recently looked at some web sites about the temple. No reference was made to the Tantric sculptures. Could it be that they are still hidden in the basement?

For a text of the poem, “Where I Was When the Yong He Gong Opened and Was Abruptly Closed,” go to Writersburg Orange.