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.