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.

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