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.