December 28, 2009

Eyes of Blue I.O.U

This December one of my commissions was actually an IOU - a painting made as an in-kind service to graphic designer Rachel Bair Ficek. It is nice to have this painting finished and feel that everything is squared away and even for the end of this year. The painting was of Rachel’s two children and her sister’s three children - five little portraits to get right on one canvas. How daunting!
Because portraiture requires accuracy I spent a long time making a transfer grid and preparing a grisaille. For the grisaille I used red and umber earth tones with touches of shell white over a rose colored ground. The painting above is this painting sketch, or underpainting. Besides making certain that everyone is sitting where they ought to be on a canvas, the grisaille also brings out any defects in the canvas such as scratches or uneven paint that has to be corrected. There were two areas that had to be patched and allowed to dry before proceeding.
One by one, the children appeared in full color as I applied pigment over the grisaille. The second child to be completed is the pleasingly plump boy to the right. I found the children’s hands to be very expressive and included them in the painting to add an extra dimension of personality.

December 27, 2009

A Dog Named Bear

A Dog Named Bear
Artists’ work in December often runs towards the small and intimate. It is the Christmas market. Craftsmen busy themselves turning out trinkets. Large and ponderous work falls by the wayside as all hands work for the immediate gift giving market. It is a strange time of year for artists-for-hire; fulfilling the desires of others.
Unexpectedly, I had small commissions and large commitments to complete on short notice. As they were gifts for other givers the subject matter and execution was somewhat outside my usual repertoire. They consisted of two small paintings of beloved dogs for their person companions and one group portrait of five children to be given to their grandmother for Christmas.
It was a challenge at first to become motivated to paint subjects that were of much greater sentimental value to people other than myself, but times being what they were, and still are, I rose to that challenge. One of my subjects was a little dog named "Bear." As I sized up Bear and began to paint his visage on a small panel I reminded myself that although I don’t know him, I could at least do a decent job of making an oil painting of him. In order to interpret the photograph I was given in a more artistic manner, I eliminated some of the floor board lines that were cutting across his body and created deeper shadows along the edge of his form.
As I painted that perky little face I was surprised that I began to see something of a presence of animal consciousness. It was looking at that curious consciousness that pets have when perceiving their person companions and aware once more of the mutual adoration of human with animal. It then occurred to me that I was painting something like a small icon. Little Bear reminded me of how emotionally attached people become to their animal companions despite the folly of investing so much time and heart to a living thing with a limited life span. The painting I had completed the week before was of a deceased pet and poor Bear was also not long for this world so I was told. I do hope that he continues to bring his family joy for just a little longer and that my painting will warm the heart for years to come.

December 12, 2009

Slips Showing

I recently participated in the jurying of an international arts exhibition and wrote a blog about the fascinating process and the extraordinary art work that was included in the entries. I uploaded this writing after I heard that the judging results were officially posted. Apparently at that time not all of them were and I may have inadvertently scooped a part of the show. I had also been interviewed about the exhibition in the mistaken understanding that this was something that everyone had agreed to do for the membership. It hadn’t been agreed upon. I apologize for any inconvenience these slips may have caused. Words cannot express how embarrassed it makes me feel. The only word I can think of to capture the feeling is a non word often uttered by Homer Simpson, "DOH!"
In any case, I’ll publish the article I wrote again some time later when feelings of acceptance and rejection are not so near the surface nerves of everyone’s skin. I’ll add to the article both sides of the art competition equation - with shows that I had been juried into or juried out of. In the mean time, in honor of slips, I am for now posting a revised version of my short piece on Freudian Slips.There is a fine meeting of human psychology and creativity in one of the theories of Sigmund Freud. It is perhaps the only theory (or should I say observation?) of Freud that I actually find so entertaining and amusing that I put it into unconscious practice. This is the serendipitous art of the Freudian slip. These slips of the tongue purportedly point to unconscious desires and feelings about a subject as the speaker inadvertently mispronounces something. Truth? Or is it freudulent ?
So what does it mean when I say to my husband when we get into the car, "You drive, I’ll nagivate.?" Of course anyone can be free to nagivate with a captive audience in an enclosed space on a long trip. What better time to bring to light that laundry list of unfinished business?
Another one of my favorite Freudian slips, albeit unconsciously created, is my reference to our beleaguered utility room. This is the room that most people are familiar with. This is the very room where everything that you don’t know what to do with ends up. This is that limbo space where you put things that you don’t know how to deal with , and would rather not see or have anyone else see . This is where everything that confuses and frustrates belongs - things that one unconsciously wishes to lose - equipment that you can’t figure out or have forgotten how to use. Things that can no longer be matched with written instructions can be put there, and maybe a few hopeless people, too. When my husband asked where such a thing could be put I answered with my characteristic fatalistic charm, "Oh, just put it in the futility room." I am quite confident that I am not the only one in this world with a futility room.
A very odd word construction came spilling out of me when someone described to me a group of language teachers who had gone back to school to retrain in a different field because their university no longer had a use for their skills. I tried to use the word "recycled" but instead the word "resuckled" came out. So is this the fate of people who have lost their usefulness in this world? Send them back. All the way mother’s relive infancy, childhood, adolescence and young adulthood so they can get it right this time. There are definitely those who need to be resuckled.
A woman who was abusing her power of attorney in order to withhold medical information about a sick parent from other family members I was "slipped" into describing as "Sarah’s Power of Eternity." The distress she caused that was described to me most assuredly seemed like it would last an eternity. There is something in the nature of unpleasantness that causes it to seem without end. And it is often the feeling that a reprieve is no where in sight that makes an unpleasant thing all the more intense. That is the power of eternity.
And what of those days spent chasing down information lost to bureaucracy? Or days spent catching up on tedious chores put off? I spent an entire day recently doing both. I described it to someone as a day spent "running errors." I quickly corrected myself and said that I was running errands. These errands including returning an overdue library book, filling a lapsed prescription, tracking down reports that were never faxed to the appropriate office, tracking down a check payment to a credit card company that got lost in the mail and getting the late fee from the said credit card company dropped. On second thought I believe I was right the first time. I was "running errors."
Sometimes errors of the human unconscious can even come from non-human sources - like spell check on my computer. Whenever I type in my description of my art specialty, "mosaicist," I see a red word flashing in the corner of my screen that says "masochist." Et tu PC? Considering the fact that we live in a fast paced, time is money capitalist society, specializing in an art form that slowly pieces together hand hewn chunks of rocks and ceramic does seem to encourage a sort of artistic suffering. My PC also insists that my surname is an erroneous spelling of the word "cheesecake," but I was never able to figure out what the digital unconscious was trying to tell me. Whether digital or human, the hidden truth is uncanny.
My story of slipped truths is illustrated by my painting of a young man sporting a gar fish on his head. Why it strikes me that a gar fish, that useless fossil-like weird thing, should be Freudian I cannot say. Perhaps it is something in the surreal juxtaposition of a man out of water and this fish on his head. Perhaps there is something secretly phallic about the strange shape of the gar. Or perhaps it is meaningless. After all, sometimes a gar is just a gar.

November 19, 2009

Sarah Palindrome: Updated

Okay. The news about Sarah Palin's new book is irresistable and I have to run an updated version of my blog Sarah Palindrome:

Some politicians like to drop the "g" off of words in order to sound folksy, or talk in long meandering sentences that are indeed bridges to nowhere. One politician who often uses those spoken devices is Sarah Palin. (Although it must be noted that towards the end of his own bid for the presidency, Barack Obama started spinnin some folksy banterin around as well). But what interests me about Sarah Palin is that there is a word with her surname already built into it - the palindrome. The palindrome is a rare oddity of language in which a phrase or a word reads the same forwards and backwards...
Ya know...a word that says the same old thing goin away from ya as it does comin right back atcha...words like kook and boob. I was just thinkin how someone could use those if she were in public office. Wow!
If she could get a gig like that just think what she could do. She could put a gag order on anyone in health care thinkin they would advise a pregnant teen on options other then if the teen didn’t want a tot she just shoulda just behaved like a nun. But if the teen did the deed , well, we wouldn’t want a peep out of a provider about any such thing as a morning after pill either unless it’s a dud. Mum is the word on that. Then we can have happy young teens proud of just bein a mom puttin a bib on a baby and a dad cleanin poop outa diapers.
The good thing about livin in Alaska is that you can see Russia on the radar in your own back yard! And its cool in the summer too! But even if it gets to where its 90 degrees at high noon on a winter’s day up there, don’t blame it on man-made global warming. Cause our Sarah of the north don’t believe the stats on that, whether they come from a sir or a madam.
Our Sarah is a master of tit for tat. Just look at the pep rally she has around that book thats poppin off the shelves right now. Now she has a chance to toot her horn too. But ya know, sometimes a person you think is a kook or a boob writes a book or two. Just the right person in office can pop on over to the public library and pop those books off the shelves and pop them right on into a fire. It would be enough to make a soccer mom bob up and down and holler.
Harrah for Sarah Palindrome!

November 5, 2009

The Price of Cultural Ownership: The Guenall Lioness Part II

The Cost of Cultural Ownership
The Guenall Lioness, Part II
After seeing the tiny stone sculpture of the lion-headed goddess some years ago at a special exhibition at Princeton University, I brought out pencil and sketch pad, and began to commit her form to paper. There was something powerful in this ancient figure - a union of a male upper torso with female hips. The hands on those powerful arms folded into fists and pressed together accentuated the solidity of the sturdy well-muscled form.
Recently, my inventory of drawings and search for powerful female figures brought her to the fore again. There is not much I know about her except that she is from Iran and that she was created five thousand years ago. Was she an early object of worship? A venerated warrior?
What does her stance reveal? Is she animal, human or both?
Seton Lloyd, in his book The Art of the Ancient Near East, published by Oxford University Press way back in the 1960's refers to the Lioness as a "monster" which is "...the first and perhaps the most striking of many monstrous forms in which the Sumerians symbolized the malevolence and hostility of nature towards humanity." He is alluding here to the commentary of Henri Frankfort, who studied the object when she was still in the Brooklyn museum: (she) "stands at the head of a long line of monsters which appear in all the great periods of Mesopotamian art and convincingly express the terror with which man realized his helplessness in a hostile universe."
It is interesting to read this early commentary and yet see nothing particularly hostile in this statue in her rather self-contained pose. Hands folded in front of the body is not a particularly threatening posture. One wonders if these men themselves felt disconcerted by a form that was man/woman/animal/human all in one. What does strike me about the pose is that it prefigures the classic archaic pose that is familiar to Egyptian paintings, with frontal upper torso and legs twisted sideways. The mystery of what she actually signifies is equally alluring as the question of what it is that she is doing.
On the latter subject, I had a conversation with my Tai ji quan instructor. He put forward the theory that she is dancing some sort of marshal arts dance. He came to this conclusion by noticing that the fists together across the chest and the twisted torso is almost identical to a position in the Wu style of Tai ji quan. His own instructor had a theory that these movements of Tai ji quan were evolved from ancient goddess dances. It is an interesting theory but might just be as difficult to prove conclusively as the "terror and helplessness in a hostile universe" one.
It is engaging to speculate on whether she is striding or standing at attention with the legs apart. Just for fun I put both fists together in front of my chest, turned my head over by left shoulder and took several paces forward to see what a dance like that would feel like. It did indeed have a powerful effect and felt almost like the determined stride of the Tango.
I am grateful that I went to the museum the day that the Lioness was on display for little did I know that I would never have an opportunity to see her again. Of course I can still look at reproductions but they are misleading for not showing the figure from various points of view and for nearly always depicting the figure almost twice actual size - making her indeed more menacing than intimate. The real Lioness is quite small. At just a few inches high she could fit in the palm of a hand or in a shirt pocket.
What is provocative for me and for anyone else who loves to see artifacts first hand is that because the Lioness was sold to a private buyer for the princely sum of fifty-three million dollars, she is out of the public viewing domain - maybe forever. I was reflecting on this as I reviewed my sketches. Is such a pivotal icon of the culture of humankind a precious part of our collective legacy that everyone should be able to share, or is she another commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder? Does money give a person the right to own history?
I wonder about who the anonymous buyer of the Lioness might be. We only know that he/she is someone in Great Britain. In my flights of fancy I imagine the Queen of England with the Lioness on her dresser next to one of the Queen Mother’s exotic hats. Or perhaps she rests in a red velvet lined case in a secret hideaway owned by Harrods department store. In considering this, I realize, too, that by making drawings of the Lioness from life I share an unusual bond with the mystery owner of the work. Firstly, we obviously share a love for the object. But we share to some degree, ownership as well. This is because I have found that when I sketch a work of art, the slow process of rendering makes that work a part of me in a way that simply buying a reproduction does not. The Japanese potter, Hamada, was cognizant of this phenomenon and consequently made copious drawings of the pottery he saw in museums. He referred to this practice as "devouring" the pots. So, like Hamada, I "devoured" a piece of the Lioness and she resides in my memory. In a metaphorical sense then, I too, am part owner and it does give me a small sense of satisfaction that this particular kind of ownership cannot be sold away. It also gives me some sense of gratification that I captured a side view of Lioness before the opportunity to see that disappeared. Amazing. Only mystery owner and myself can see Lioness’ back.
I wonder about what inspires someone to pay such a large sum of money to own something like this rare statue. Is it simply because one is able? Is it an expression of power? Or is it perhaps for a love of art and ancient history so deep that one would spare no expense for the privilege of forever being able to hold it in the palm of his or her hand at will? Whatever the reason, I hope that Lioness is loved. I will miss her.

October 30, 2009

Where the Lady Wild Things Are

I recently joined the Facebook group "Ladies and Gentlemen." I generally don’t join chat groups. It isn’t because I’m some sort of misanthrope. It is just that they tend to switch from topic to topic too fast for me and sometimes encourage jumping on bandwagons that I don’t wish to ride.
But the discussion group, "Ladies and Gentlemen" caught my eye because it seemed to be an attempt to discuss gender issues. So I took the risk that it would be a ride to nowhere and joined the fray.
One of the topics that didn’t seem to travel more than a few hours, unfortunately, was the observation on the part of the group discussion leader, A.J. Bodner, that there seemed to be a dearth of female representatives in his monster collection (not sure what kind of collection this is - toys?) I wrote in that in my travels here in the U.S. and abroad, I happened to find a number of "monsters" in art and anthropological museums that were female. Many of them, interestingly, were in the mid-east, Eastern Europe and Asia. I had made notes and sketches of many of these and had incorporated them into my artwork. It might be worthy of note that my art work based upon these images never sold. I hypothesized that A.J.’s poor showing of female "monsters" in his collection might have something to do with a lack of commercial viability for creating female gender power images, whether monster or hero.
Needless to say, I fear that I am a flop at Facebook because I want to pursue ideas beyond the point where anyone else might be interested. But the monster sub-topic in Ladies and Gentlemen gave me an interesting idea - a picture book of female monsters! Since I am already in the midst of too many unfinished projects, this one might have to go on the back burner for a while. But my mind is already filling with some hilarious, scary and weird images of female grotesques.
For Halloween, I offer a sketch of the earliest female "monster" that I found. I sketched this from an exhibition of art objects from Princeton University alumnae collections at Princeton University in 1997. It was a small Proto-Elamite sculpture of a lioness goddess - a rare gem that caught my attention. My sketch of this figure, also known as the Guenall Lioness, shows a frontal and side view. I was attracted to the massive shoulders and large fists locked together in what appeared to be a show of strength. What impressed me about the statue was not only her power but the age of the piece. She was carved nearly five thousand years ago - a staggering expanse of time! And I may have to eat my words about female power figures not being commercially viable. When I did some background research on this work, I found that it was sold to an anonymous collector a few years ago for the some of fifty-two million dollars.
Happy Halloween Everyone!

October 28, 2009

In All the World There is No Other

In All the World there is no Other
This past weekend was an emersion in Chinese language and culture. It was a homecoming, of sorts, with plenty of opportunities to speak Chinese and watch a live performance of Beijing Opera. I’m referring to the festivities celebrating the gift of 1500 Chinese films to the University of South Carolina. The new collection, supported by the Confucius Institute and the Chinese National Film archive, is now the largest resource of Chinese films in North America. It will probably take some time to catalogue and digitize, but it will be a great contribution to scholars of cinematic history when it becomes available.
My husband and I attended a get together at the home of Patricia Willer, Assistant Vice Provost for International Programs. There we met scholars and performers from the Beijing Language and Culture University and the National Academy of Theater Arts. The performers were particularly engaging and we were able to discuss a little bit about shared art forms. I am now encouraged to watch some more Chinese films and do some more Chinese reading. Now that my poetry book is finished and I have returned to writing my China books, I found some renewed inspiration for my work.
After a short dedication ceremony at the USC library, my husband, myself, and our guest returned home for a midday break. Usually once we make a 45 minute drive all the way back to Orangeburg from Columbia, there is not much cause to turn around and drive back again for another event but this night was an exception. As part of the celebration, we were invited to return for a free performance of Beijing Opera. That was too nice an opportunity to pass up so we drove all the way back into Columbia for the performance.
The evening Beijing Opera performance by the National Academy of Theater Arts was a spectacular feat of showmanship and artistry with a well-crafted, organized lecture/demonstration. Before the performance of selections from famous operas, the audience was introduced to the traditional musical instruments used in Beijing opera. These instruments included the er hu - a two- stringed bowed instrument held upright and sometimes called by its misnomer "Chinese violin." The others were two percussion instruments; the small gong and percussive clappers, the moon guitar and the suona. (The suona, which sounds somewhat like a crumhorn, is one of my favorite instruments for its vibrant exuberant sound.)
After demonstrating how these musical instruments are played, there was a brief explanation of eye and gesture movements and what they signify. The audience was also introduced to the stock characters of the Beijing opera - the female roles, the young hero, the old sage, the clowns, the warriors. There were interesting subdivisions here. For instance, the female, or Dan roles were further subdivided into warrior woman, young "flower" girl, robust cheerful woman, and old crone. Here is where being a Chinese speaker can be fun and interesting. When the scholar from the National Academy of Theater Arts was introducing the stock female characters, he described the old woman character as "old and ugly." This was transformed by the translator into English as "Well...lets just say that this character is the older woman." Nice homage to American style political correctness here - no one likes to think of their floppy skin as ugly. I suppose its all relative though. And here I was just getting ready to run off to join the opera as the "old crone" character!
The costumes worn by the actors were intensely colorful and elaborately embroidered. Bright red silks with gold trim, elaborately painted faces, bejeweled headdress decked out with long feathers - all enabled the actors to enter the stage with a big bang! And this is where Beijing Opera shines. It is an immediate and sudden transformation onto a higher plane of pure art. And from that higher plane, fundamental truths are revealed about human character in a lively and entertaining way. One feels the pathos and cruelty of war as a general delicately sheds tears into his sleeve for a mother he is prevented from visiting. The sense of suspense is palpable as two men fight each other under the cover of darkness. And a young woman in spring, herself in the flower of youth, softens the heart.
It can be difficult to take everything in at once, because the Beijing opera is concomitantly acting, visual art, dance, marshal acrobatics, poetry and song. In an effort to allow the audience to follow the action, the Chinese characters of the songs were projected onto a screen along with the English translation underneath. One had to keep watching the acrobatics, listening to the music and flitting eyes up and down to the printed words.
In earlier times, I was most attracted to the Beijing Opera for the colorful costumes and the acrobatics. This past weekend, for some reason the poetry and song moved me more. The poetry sung by the warrior character, his face painted black with swirls of white was so beautiful - full of triumphal energy. In a feat of enviable flexibility, he kicked up his heels over his head, singing out a song the last line of which stayed with me well after the performance. The English translation read "I am the one in a million." In perhaps a more literal translation of the pithy Chinese words ( shi wu shuang) he sang out "In the entire world there is no other." The line stayed with me because it reinforced the realization of a miracle in every soul being a unique creation. I am grateful to the Beijing Opera for reminding me of that. Truly, in the entire world there is nothing else quite like it.

October 21, 2009

Sixty Years and Three Parades: Semantics and the Long March of Conservative Reporting on China

Sixty Years and Three Parades: Semantics and the Long March of Conservative Reporting about China
The year was 1984. I was in the People’s Republic of China where I was a graduate student at the Beijing Central Art Academy and my husband was an English professor at Beijing Normal University. The mysterious date made famous by George Orwell’s novel about totalitarianism found us in China, about to witness a parade of thirty-five years of communist rule. Our travels in China for the previous three years had been exotic. We had lived in Baoding, in Changchun and finally in Beijing at a time when China was an exciting albeit a challenging place to live - just opening to foreign markets and foreign education. We felt privileged to have been able to have seen so much of this vast country, to learn the complex language and the fascinating culture.
Subsequent travels could never quite compare to the intensity of the China experience.
It was exciting to actually witness, as a culmination of our China years, the longest, most colorful parade I had ever seen.
Unfortunately I now only have a few blurry photographs remaining from that time ( a valiant search may eventually turn up the rest). These photos of the whole fantastic thing were taken from such a distance that details are hard to make out. But the impressionistic dream-like quality of them matches the fuzziness of a quarter of a century time passed since the event.
But some things remain as clear as if I had seen them yesterday, with the more recent events of China’s 60th anniversary parade bringing them back into sharp perspective.
Before the parade began, my husband and I took our places high in the bleachers overlooking Tian An Men square. In the large square over the far side of Chang An Boulevard we could see thousands of people holding variously colored pom poms. On cue they would hold up pom poms to spell out "1984" in white on green - about a square mile of that famous date in history and literature.
To announce the beginning of the parade, Premier Deng Xiao Ping was driven down Chang An in a long black limousine. He stood upright in the car in a position of great vulnerability to this American’s eyes, ( given our own country’s record of trying to pop off our national leaders). Then Premier Deng announced in his chirpy southern Chinese dialect the beginning of what was to be a short introductory military parade. The military parade had a tank, a missile and contingents from the army and navy. It seemed somewhat obligatory and not particularly memorable. After the military introduction Deng Xiao Ping returned to announce "And now let the People’s Parade Begin!"
With that announcement the square blossomed into vibrant colors. The people in the square held up large swaths of indigo colored cloth undulating in unison to create a giant ocean of waves. Men in turquoise blue silk costumes danced down Chang An Boulevard holding what looked like large tambourines decorated with flames of brightly colored silk which rippled when they swept the air with them. Behind them a man carried a white orb on a stick that was chased after by several people dressed in a dragon costume. The orb was the pearl of happiness which the mythological dragon pursues in heaven but never captures. There were floats of just about every kind. My husband’s students were featured in one that was supposed to represent a giant unfolding lotus. The students, dressed in white, bent backwards in unison to represent the opening of the lotus blossom. From our distant vantage point, they looked a bit like cocktail shrimp but they made a good effort.
Periodically, balloons would fly into the air and packages of gifts would into the crowds. The people’s parade lasted several hours and was packed with colorful floats and exquisite costumes. Nightfall brought out the fireworks display and dancing in the square.
What was interesting for me, and a bit shocking, in my experience of the 1984 parade was that it was followed closely after by a return visit to the United States. I could see the U.S. media coverage of the event that I had just witnessed. What first astonished me was that there was no coverage of the "people’s parade," which was about 80% or more of the event. Instead the entire parade was said to be a "military parade." Pictures of goose stepping throngs in army outfits proliferated along with big red and scary headlines. There were endless news videos of rows upon rows of tanks. Since I only recalled seeing one tank I wondered at the spontaneous generation of several. Looking closely at the news coverage, however, I noticed that the camera panned the same tank over and over again to make it look like several. (If my memory doesn’t serve on this and I can find a photo of more than one tank from 1984 I’ll post it). The text to accompany these images tended to follow suit with strongly worded intonations about the Chinese flaunting their military might. I especially recall the striking lack of color in the reporting - the jargon being as depressing and dull as the flattest and greyest images that could be conjured of the event. I attributed the tone of the coverage and the misrepresentation to the cold war politics of the Reagan era and thought no more of it, except to say that from that time onwards, I took the U.S. media coverage of events abroad with more than a little grain of salt.
Years passed. We moved to Holland. We moved back to the United States. I returned to graduate school in New York. Then the last decade of the twentieth century brought us to Orangeburg, South Carolina. Our new house had been owned by a young couple, a jeweler for several decades before them, and a doctor before her. Now here in Orangeburg there is a peculiar institution of historic preservation by means of shoving your unwanted belongings into crawl spaces beneath the house, never to be retrieved again even by subsequent owners of the house. The clean living young couple who owned the house for a year before us, however, unfortunately threw away tons of vintage medical paraphernalia from 1930's and 1940's. But there were other items that were still retrievable and made for a great archaeological dig in the basement. Local civilizations past emerged; an old target with metal squirrels on springs that I used in a mosaic, a half buried "Colored Persons Waiting Room"sign that I gave to a friend who subsequently used it in a collage. Through the debris I found a box of National Geographic magazines from the 1940's that were in pristine condition. The one from September of 1949 caught my eye. In this issue was an account of the communist forces arriving in Beijing (then called Peiping). The article, entitled "Power Comes Back to Peiping," was written by the former ambassador to China, Nelson T. Johnson, by W. Robert Moore and by the photojournalist David D. Duncan.
The recent news about the sixty year celebration of communist rule in China spurred a desire in me to revisit the events that started the People’s Republic of China. So on a cool October day, I opened the vintage National Geographic and began to read, transported by colorful photographic plates and words of wonder to the events of sixty years ago in China, 1949.
1949 on the streets of Peiping. World War II was over, the Japanese invaders were vanquished and the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists was concluded, with Chiang Kai Shek retreating to Taiwan. There was nothing to do but wait...for the communist forces to march into Peiping. And in they came. From David Duncan’s photographs, we know that they came into a world of exuberant color and a city rich in history. What a tale these three writers told! And with an enthusiasm that required a liberal use of exclamation points!
The writers emanated a sense of awe in relating their tale of Peiping - from its earliest inhabitants through the end of World War II. There was a palpable excitement about their even being in the "God-Emperor’s" city - a city with a long tradition of pomp and grandeur. This was a city described as a "majestic, glittering metropolis" resulting from "genius and work." The writers expressed marvel at the newly opened museums of art and culture: "Where is another people who can display a similar wealth of creative craftsmanship over a space of 4000 years?" they asked incredulously. Their wide-eyed wonder was charming and their attention to exquisite details enchanting.
I learned a few new points of history myself as I read "Power Comes Back to Peiping." There were interesting maps and a detailed history of the structure of the walled cities within the city - five cities in one with nine gateways. I also learned that the strange beast that I thought was a myth, the si bu xiang, was an actual animal. It was a deer that had long been extinct in Peiping but which had apparently been preserved as a living specimen in a zoo in New York. ( The Chinese, who couldn’t figure out how to describe it, simply called it si bu xiang, which roughly means "four things its not like"). As well as a keen interest in history, the writers of ‘49 were fascinated with cultural details and David D Duncan liberally photographed them. The photographs were truly artistic gems. Two of them featured Chinese citizens modeling richly embroidered traditional coats - one a 250 year old imperial yellow silk coat with gold embroidered dragons.
In an almost surreal juxtaposition, the photographs show street vendors and roadside performers distracting crowds in and around the invading army. The "Peiping Bathhouse Guild" puts on a performance on stilts. Vendors selling fragrant pears and plump persimmons tempt shoppers. The photographer himself buys oriental carpets and lets us know that he got them for the bargain price of about $20.00 each! !!! !!! In an oddly anachronistic performance, a Chinese flutist plays "Deep in the Heart of Texas."
It is heart wrenching to read the sanguine expectations for China - the newly opened parks and museums for the people and the promise of a better life - and know what lies ahead. I look at mothers proudly holding their babies and realize that when these babies become teenagers China will be in the grip of the great Cultural Revolution. Will they join the ranks of the infamous Red Guards and do havoc to the country -destroying "the four olds?" It is sad to know that just one year after this article was written, the authors will be separated from the country they were so captivated by with the advent of the Korean war. There will be the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the fifties. There will be purges and crackdowns - culminating in the terrible Tian An Men Massacre of 1989 ( This was a year I was supposed to be working there but for obvious reasons my gig was cancelled).
The United States, in an eerie parallel to the purges of the communist world, suffered through the McCarthy era of the early fifties. In our own crackdown some of the best and brightest in academia and in the entertainment field were purged - blacklisted, forbidden to work and even imprisoned. They were labeled as leftists and had their lives turned upside down and careers ruined. China followed suit in the later fifties by purging intellectuals who didn’t toe the party line from their universities too. Over there they were called rightists. (Maybe our leftists and their rightists should have just switched countries and spared everyone the misery! I did, in fact, know a family of refugees from McCarthy era America who had emigrated to the People’s Republic of China)
There were terrible consequences to these purges. Backwardness, loss of civil liberties, you name it. Since many of our own blacklisted artists and writers were from the African American intelligentsia, the nascent civil rights movement of the 1940's was undermined when these intellectuals left the United States, leaving it to the next generation to pick up the pieces and start over again. Indeed, the "Colored Person’s Waiting Room" sign I discovered in the 1940's strata of my basement dig could just have easily been discovered in the 1960's zone.
Senator Joe McCarthy, and his witch-hunt days, died in 1957. His excesses have most assuredly been discredited. But is it possible that he still casts a long shadow into the present day? Is it even possible that his brand of red scare tactics could rise again? Certainly the fundamental base for reporting on China that has been in place since 1949 could contribute to at least a partial resurrection of his ideas. A friend and former fellow teacher in China gave me a lovely present of a book by John King Fairbank, The Great Chinese Revolution 1800 - 1985. His observation of post 1949 writing about China was as follows:
"Once we reach the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the scholarly literature on China changes remarkably from historical studies to social science studies. China’s going communist spurred a great western effort to understand the new enemy." Fairbanks notes further that the new academic talents on China were recruited from the fields of "geography, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, and social psychology, in order to know the enemy" (italics mine).
I would take issue with Fairbanks’ disdain of these disciplines as necessarily being inherently inferior to history as a means to critical understanding of another culture, but would add that, on balance, voices of artists, writers, linguists, and legal experts should not be so arbitrarily discarded either as valid witnesses to the complex culture of China. But I would venture that soliciting the expertise and commentary from anyone solely for the purpose of finding enemies, ultimately serves no one.
I lived for many years in China, and returned several times as a guide and translator. My educational background and interests are in Chinese language, art, science, and writing, with a healthy love for history thrown into this mix. With this in mind, I look for commentary on China which informs and enlightens. In the most recent coverage of China I don’t find that. What I do find is what John King Fairbanks rails against and what Senator Joe McCarthy would probably find satisfying.
The following comments were extracted from the LA Times and the New York Times. Both of these articles describe the Sixty year celebration parade in China as a "military parade" only. Given my experience with the American press in 1984, I suspected cold war politics still in play so wrote to an American friend on location in China and asked him if the parade that he watched in Beijing was indeed a military parade only, or, as I suspected, a short perfunctory military introduction to a civilian parade. He concurred that the latter was indeed the case. I later checked in with BBC and saw that their coverage more accurately provide readers with the breakdown of civilian versus military in the parade. The BBC also provided very helpful time lines along with facts and figures of China’s development over the last sixty years.
The American journalists, after dubbing the myriad floats, balloons, and dancers a "military parade" in its entirety, they proceeded to describe this event in terms that have a decidedly cold war flavor. In Sharon La Franiere’s and Micahael Wines’ article in the New York Times, October 1, 2009, they describe a "vast display of military power" with weapons, they tell us that "one day could be used to counter American Aircraft carriers." This they’ve-got-the-big-guns-and-they’re-pointed-right-at-us rhetoric rings so big and red and scary it would do Joe McCarthy proud. The language used to describe the parade was almost universally condescending, using phrases like "indisputably retro," and "kitschy." The parade is found to be flawed in the LA Times, as well, for purportedly reusing old material from previous parades. It is, of course, vitally important that the American public know that the reds put on parades that are like last year’s dresses.
Both articles made much out of the "totalitarian" aspect of this parade not being freely open to the public and that most people had to watch it at home from their television sets. Anyone who has lived in Beijing and walked its streets knows that even on a day without the street being taken up by a parade and with every inch of the public square filled with performers, the crowds are such that everyone is shoulder to shoulder. The public could not possibly fit on the side of Chang An street during this parade unless they were perhaps standing stacked up on each other about ten high. I also find this accusation somewhat ironic in that, as a citizen of Orangeburg, South Carolina, I was not allowed to attend the Democratic Primary debate at the local college last year. The public was not invited. Although it was just up the street I had to watch it on my repressed little television in my oppressed little living room. But I think in both cases there was more of pragmatism than totalitarianism in this- in either case there was only so much room for human bodies.
At the Chinese sixty year anniversary parade, Hu Jin Tao, as he addresses the throngs, cannot stand up and wave right to the American journalists. In the New York Times article Hu Jin Tao is described as giving "a bromide-filled speech." (We are never told what the words actually are) and waving "stiffly." Barbara Demick, reporting in the LA Times, describes Hu Jin Tao as looking like "half of a severed statue." As to the parade itself, Barbara Demick occasionally forgets herself and allows for some descriptive and colorful language in her article. She breaks with the droning style with a surprising reference to Zhang Yi Mou’s fireworks display. But she quickly remembers where she is at and what her job is and reminds us that when the parade participants lift multi-colored pom poms it is a "depersonalizing technique." This is the first time I have heard of color pom poms being used as weapons of mass destruction of civil liberties but I am guessing that the conclusion was arrived at through the tautological reasoning that since North Korea had used similar pom poms and North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship, so it must be that their use in a Chinese parade spells out totalitarianism. I am not saying here that China is not totalitarian. I just believe that it did not come via the pom pom route.
What I found ultimately most poignant about the New York Times article was something not
contained in the body of the article itself but it did speak volumes to me. It was a question for reader response set in a column off to the left of the article. The question read, "Can China spread wealth and become a consumer society?" I was saddened to see that question placed where a better question would be "Can China ever become a democracy?" The latter question would come from a free-thinking truly democratic society with a genuine interest in human rights. The former question is one that would only be posited by a society where consumer interests are the greatest priority. I have been hearing several permutations of the first question for decades. I heard it often repeated while in China that "All China needs is a free market system." I would always respond that instituting a free market system in the absence of a democracy where there is rule of law would only result in corruption, exploitation, and environmental pollution. At least Barbara Demick references the severe air pollution in Beijing, and the Chinese attempts to diffuse it at least temporarily through cloud seeding. It was interesting and informative. But does she not make the connection between the free-wheeling unrestrained pursuit of capital through unregulated industry and the air pollution problem? No. We don’t need to turn China into a massive land of consumers fashioned after ourselves. We need to support their civil liberties as we should our own.
One way to support human rights in China is to first have responsible reporting from China that reflects an understanding and respect for its people. A good start would be to assign journalists who speak Mandarin and Cantonese to cover the country. It would also help to break the cycle of cold war political hyperbole in writing. There are enough problems in China to report on them straight, without didactic ideological embellishments. It becomes difficult to take seriously a story that includes the pom pom theory of political repression.
People do have a right to know what is happening in the world in which they live. Borrowing an analogy from our own legal system, we know that it is possible for a guilty person to get away with a crime if the prosecution argues his case poorly. Bias, sloppy detective work, not following due process, can get a case thrown out of court. Similarly, in the court of public opinion, when news comes to us packaged in propagandized form and found to be politically biased, or misrepresenting of the facts, we may very well close our eyes and ears to its message. In this way, any potentially serious news will be thrown out along with the language and methodology that brought it to our attention. We need to have our curiosity abroad represented by people who give us answers rather than serve us agendas.
I am curious about many things in China. I would like to know more about what is happening in Chinese museums, in the field of science. I would like to know about advances in the field of history and archaeology - maybe even writing about it that includes an exclamation point or two.
If the United States continues to dispense people around the world on the basis of their ideological allegiance rather than on the basis of their intellectual acumen, then the worst of what happens in the world in which we live will never be fully comprehended and the best of what happens in the world we will be prevented from even knowing.
In the mean time, in the arena of world news - happy reading in the BBC!
In the process of my background research for this article, I discovered that David D Duncan, the photojournalist who wrote the original 1949 National Geographic article about Beijing at the beginning of the People’s Republic of China is still writing and making beautiful photographs at the age of 94. What enthusiasm and a love for beauty will do!

October 16, 2009

An Architect's Conference Goes For The Green

The painting above, "Inscape," was one of my feature works at the Southeastern Architect’s Regional conference held in Greenville (how apt a name for today’s post, yes?) South Carolina earlier this month. The painting is of a root wrapped around a rock. Through the space we can see an open vista of clean air and green pastures. A second painting of the same art work hangs in my mother-in-law’s room in the Bishop Gadsden nursing home in Charleston. She tells me that it makes her feel peaceful and gives her hope. In her imagination, she flies through the porthole to rest in the sunny grass over the other side.
Despite the uncertainty of our economy, there were elements of hope at the architect’s conference in Greenville. I found to my surprise that there were a number of displays about using green materials in construction and efforts to cut down on waste. The company in the booth next to mine, Green Roof Outfitters, was particularly interesting. They made interlocking squares of drought resistant vegetation set in specially prepared soil. The plants looked like something between sage and succulent and were exquisitely beautiful. These units of plants fit onto rooftops and not only provide oxygen for the environment but cut down the utility bills by about 50%. If we didn’t have a severely pitched roof on our own house I would get them and put edible plants on the lower level accessible trays.
There were many other examples of architects and their suppliers going green. A number of them were using recycled materials in their building products. Reading through the abstracts of the papers that the conference attendees were listening to, I could see that there were new requirements already in place for architectural designers to incorporate renewable resources in their plans. The new buzz word I learned here was LEED, an acronym for Leadership, Environmental Energy Design. Under this program, an architect must obtain a certain number of LEED points in order to maintain his/her license. (If I understand this correctly).
Not to digress too much here, but readers may wonder why, in the first place, a visual artist would be setting up a display at a conference for architects. That in itself is an interesting story.
Due to the economic downturn, there were not enough buyers of booth spaces to fill the conference so the empty spaces were sold off to artists at about 75% off the regular price. A small band of visual artists and art galleries jumped at the opportunity. None of us knew what to expect from this. It was the first time that artists were showing alongside engineering firms, brick making and tile companies, etc. Despite the uncertainty of this venture, however, we felt that we had to brave the unknown. Art, after all, is considered a luxury in even the best of times, so the current downturn has meant difficult times for us. We were there at an architect’s conference bravely pursuing even the hint of a possibility to have our art survive.
After about two days into the conference and sensing the drift (I’m a little slow on the draw here) towards a green economy, I started emphasizing how green was my art. As luck would have it, a number of the pieces I had brought with me indeed used recycled materials. The large paintings used recycled matt board from the framing industry. My mosaics used discarded construction materials. I’m not certain that I actually convinced the three or four architects who stopped by my booth (it was a very slow conference) of the necessity of hiring artists who use recycled materials. But I did realize that it was something that I could indeed continue to develop and do my small part to decrease waste. Dumpster diving here I come!

October 7, 2009

Fishing for Inspiration on a Bass Ocarina

The best dancers can make art from any prop. The two dancers featured above are South Carolina State University instructors of dance Eddie Morris and Brian Williams. I had given them gar fish forms that I had fashioned from markers on foam core cut outs and asked them pose for me in exchange for doing publicity photography for their dance group. I had noted, as had Professor Morris, that the head of the fish was similar in form to a cupped hand or a pointed foot and that the distance from the dorsal fin to the pointed snout also happened to correspond to the distance from fingertip to elbow (ironically a biblical cubit). Watching someone dance with these forms was almost like looking at statues of shiva with his extra arms and legs.
With a knowledge of kinesthetics and both a scientific as well as intuitive sense of bodily proportions, the two talented dance professors intertwined curved arms, pointed hands and feet to make the exquisite balance of forms shown above. What started out here as an experiment became the as-yet-to-be published Dance of the Gar Fish. I had completed a series of paintings on this theme a few years ago but had never fully developed the images of Professor Morris and Professor Williams into a finished work of art. But a chance encounter with them while on a recent shopping trip brought their interpretive dance to mind once more.
I had been working on a large sculptural form that also served as a bass ocarina. The sound was playable albeit reserved and soft. I’ve conferred with a musician here who tells me that getting a full volume sound in a large wind instrument can indeed be very tricky and best left to the experts. So with my large yet ineffectual musical instrument lying bereft of embellishment on my worktable in my basement studio, I left to go grocery shopping. Almost like manna from heaven, I chanced upon both Professor Morris and Professor Williams at the local grocery store and after a brief conversation, had my idea for the decoration of the large bass ocarina.
Returning to my studio to study the large form I realized first that the fipple could accommodate the upturned head of a fish - its mouth gaping. So I painted this on with some white slip and then continued with the white slip around the base of the form to complete a fish body. Using a sgraffito technique, I scraped through the white slip to reveal the red clay body in a fish scale pattern. But how to integrate the dancers? I remembered a reproduction of a piece of temple art from Thailand I saw on a recent work trip to Maryland this past summer. It featured the monkey god, Hanuman, rescuing immortals by letting them ride on his back and tail. With that in mind I painted the dancers performing the gar fish dance on top of this other giant gar fish. The background was painted with black slip to give the whole ensemble a look like a Grecian Krater - even alternating red and white on the figures for contrast like on those ancient Greek vessels.
As of this writing, I have repaired a small chip that came off an area surrounding the fish head on this art piece. I am about to return the Ocarina of the Gar Fish Dance to the kiln for a second firing - this time to add mother-of-pearl to the fish and to select parts of the dancer’s costumes.
Although from an economic standpoint, it would be much better if I had jobs and commissions lined up but at least for now, the downturn has resulted in an upturn of experimentation. I never thought that I would be fashioning exotic musical instruments and have no idea where this might take me. But there was some interest in these at my last two conferences and a new line of work might just emerge from all this.

September 27, 2009

Ocarina Madness

The making and playing of ocarinas can be practically addicting, I now see. Even as I prepare canvases for an upcoming commission and for my spring exhibitions, I still take some time out to create these fascinating objects that function both as sculpture and musical instruments. The pig featured at right plays simple mellow tunes when you blow into its snout. The design is based loosely upon the stylized figurines that used to guard Tang dynasty tombs. The blue ocarina above has unfortunately lost its tone but might get it back again with some tweaking.
Although my major focus as a teaching artist is two-dimensional art (painting, mosaic, Chinese art) I could not resist bringing these ocarinas to the recent Arts in Education Booking Conference. I did learn a thing or two about them in this new public context. The freezing cold conference room seemed to affect their tone and the noise level drowned out all but the shrillest of the whistles. Nevertheless they were great conversation pieces and added some spark to an otherwise sad conference. (With the exception of two artists, no one I spoke to actually booked work at this conference. We are all hoping that our prospective employers are just waiting on funding. ) And there may even be some classroom teachers interested in trying to make them with me for their schools.
Some people have begun to ask me what I will charge for my new ocarinas. I haven’t decided when or if I will sell them or for what price. I suppose I’ll have a better idea when I have made enough of them and can produce a better and more consistent sound. And the more I make the easier it will be to part with them.

September 23, 2009

Whistling a Different Tune

Expecting a political essay? Sorry to disappoint. But for the last few weeks, as I have been commenting on the current political climate, I have also been busy in my studio doing something entirely unexpected. I had set to work trying to tie up loose ends before plunging in to the work for upcoming exhibitions. For a start, there was a small shelf of unfinished ceramics. Mostly they were pinch and coiled pots but there were a few whistles thrown in as well. I glazed the pots and added lids to several of the vessels then fired them in the kiln. After the firing I put aside simple pod shaped whistles to run a second firing with gold and enameling. The gold that I used comes in a liquid suspension that can be painted on then fired to a melting point at which it bonds with the surface glaze. I used it sparingly not only for economic reasons but because sometimes just a touch of something is more powerful than rich ornamentation.
The conundrum of having just a few pieces to put in a kiln is that it feels like a tremendous amount of energy for such a paltry amount of art work so I determined that to keep the world a little greener and my accounts a little fatter, I would have to learn how to make more elaborate whistles and ocarinas to add to the small group. In order to do this I looked at real examples of whistles from Africa and South America, books on Pre-Columbian art, as well as virtual examples on the net and from around the world. I found a large community of ocarina enthusiasts out there - surprisingly mostly from Germany, and not so surprisingly, from Japan. I discovered that the history of the ocarina was pleasantly rich and varied. So I jumped off my painting and mosaic making schedule to try something entirely new.
Making a whistle sounds like a simple thing but it is a far more delicate and complicated procedure than one would think. When making the fipple (mouth piece), for instance, if the angles are not cut precisely there is no sound. And it can be frustrating. You get a sound. Then you try to revise it and the sound disappears. Then you redesign and the sound appears again but only weakly. So you revise again and it totally disappears again. You get the picture. I spent about seven hours trying to engineer my first whistle. At that point I figured that I had to continue because if I had wasted that much time on it I would have to learn how to do it better and consistently in order to justify the time already spent. (Its my logic and I’m sticking to it).
After a number of frustrating failures, I finally did become more adept and faster at it. I now have a collection of handmade clay instruments fashioned into small sculptures in various degrees of complexity. I learned how to create diatonic and chromatic scales. From just a few tweets and toots on small shapes I can now play a simple Shaker melody on the more elaborate ocarina.
I didn’t have a pitch pipe so my ocarinas weren’t set to a standard pitch. They are therefore all solo instruments. But I like that. Each one is designed to play a unique melody. The melody and particular sonority of each work influenced the design painted on it. The one that plays in a minor key has an abstract blue bird on it. The pig plays a simple Asian tune. The classic Italian submarine shape ocarina sports a free form Futuristic black and white design that wraps itself around the sound holes. There is even a fool’s ocarina that doesn’t play if you blow in the mouthpiece but does if you blow on it from the reverse side. It has a sharp taunting high pitch like the laughter of a sea gull and is painted chartreuse green and orange.
The beautiful thing about designing your own clay musical instruments is that they can be designed to conform to your own hands. Many of the pieces that I made recently are shaped precisely to match my grasp. So they feel great to hold.
I’ll be bringing my ocarinas to the Arts in Education Booking Conference this Thursday in Greenville. If I don’t book much work this year at least I can say I had a good time preparing.

September 21, 2009

Gazing into the Eye of Polyphemus

Gazing into the Eye of Polyphemus
I have on display this month at the Ciel Art Gallery in Charlotte the mosaic sculpture, pictured above, of a cyclops ( also known as Polyphemus). This particular work was once described on PBS as "disturbing." The mouth is smooth, fleshy feeling and sensual. It would be kissable but for the distraction of that immense staring eye smack in the middle of the head. The mosaic base is made from ceramic tiles but the eye is a large piece of fused glass that is essentially enameling on top of a melted German marble.
I’ve been very busy lately. With two conferences to prepare for I’ve really been too busy to be contributing to this blog site that very few people actually read. But I had been distracted from my usual commentary about my studio work and the business of being an artist by something that was rather disturbing. I was distracted much like the way someone might be distracted by seeing someone being beaten up by the side of the road on the way to work. What can one do but pull over and either stop the fight or call 911?
What I was responding to was the fallout from all the recent writing about the foibles of South Carolina politicians. Things had been brewing for quite some time - the ironic columns about our governor who went AWOL and, more recently, of course, our congressman’s now infamous yelp on the House floor during President Obama’s health care speech. But what began as jocular jabs about the foibles of South Carolina politicians - Oh you silly southerners and the unprogressive people you vote for ( I actually hadn’t voted for either of the politicians in question) - turned sinister after the publication of writing that was cruel. Responses from around the country in the news media changed from sneering to downright threatening, invoking a darker, waste and burn mentality. A case in point was the reader who wrote, and I am quoting here, "Sherman didn’t go far enough." Well, lest such a nutcase decide to venture hither to burn down our Statehouse, I decided at the very least I could take issue with that.
So I did what every good citizen should do and wrote to the New York Times about the tone of some of these articles they were spewing out and how it would seem to me that writers such as Maureen Dowd were putting a slant on things that were not only inaccurate but counter to President Obama’s call for civil discourse. The letter never saw the light of day of course so I decided to write down my observations in my art blog instead - this way about 30 people could see it rather than no one. My article (see below), discussed how the media can be irresponsibly manipulated by politics (and politicians) which in turn manipulates the thinking of the public. I did this by pointing out numerous errors in fact finding and judgement in the op ed articles "Rapping Joe’s Knuckles" and "Boy, oh Boy" and how they encouraged stereotyping and finding scape goats.
The feverish pitch of politics has died down of late, thankfully. But as I was watching Bill Moyer’s Journal the other night, a discussion of the demise of the political left and the party of labor in America made me think of the recent insanity in that context. The fascism of Joe McCarthy was brought to light again, as an illustration of what happens in America as the left sleeps and the right takes over. It’s the same old mantra that I’ve heard for decades - that we can become a fascist state and that the fascism will come from the far right extremists. That’s funny, I thought, because the fascist-sounding rants that I had been hearing of late came from enthusiastic endorsements of writing from the so-called socially progressive media. So could fascism broad side us from a direction that our eyes have been trained away from? Or is it possible that labor parties are right about the right but it now comes at us still unexpectedly because the left is the new right? A strange thought occurred to me here. Could it be that our country has progressively moved so far to the right in its ideology that there isn’t even a left anymore? Could it mean that the United States, once a county of the left, the liberal, the conservatives, the moderates, and the right is now the land of the right, the far right and the cuckoo? And if this is so, how did we become so monolithic in our thinking - like a smooth talking one-eyed Polyphemus who convinces us to endorse one point of view only.
Let’s begin with how politics have narrowed our thinking by crunching the meaning out of words and by extension the motivation for behaving in ways that those great words would have us do. Take the word liberal. I got a letter recently from Jim DeMint asking me if I agreed with him that we need to take measures to assure ourselves that congress isn’t "taken over by the liberals." I underlined that phrase, wrote that I was a liberal (or at least aspired to be one) and proud of it. I then mailed the letter back to him. Here is in part the American Heritage Dictionary definition of liberal:
"Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes or dogma, free from bigotry. Tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. Broad-minded."
Heaven forbid that our country should be overrun by broad minded, tolerant people with an aversion to authoritarianism. But what I do wish to underscore here is that the recent op ed articles that I had read in the New York Times also did not qualify as tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others. So the trouble is that we have people who rail against those who are themselves not demonstrating the ideals that they profess to hold dear.
My time is too short to enumerate all the other ways our thinking has been narrowed but a very large part of it has to do with the way everything we do is based upon the model of corporate America, especially, disastrously, our education system so I’ll save that for another time.

September 19, 2009

Wearing Glass Shoes

Yesterday, while partaking of my pre-studio morning ritual of tea and my perusal of the New York Times, out of the corner of my eyes I could see the op ed columns. "Don’t go there today Janet," I told myself, fearing that there might be something there that would pop out and bite me. Call it my post traumatic Maureen Dowd stress syndrome. (The lady actually gave me nightmares) But my curiosity getting the better of me, I elected to read the op ed piece "No, It’s Not about Race" by David Brooks.
It was an interesting, insightful piece and I mention it here as worth a gander for anyone who would like an antidote to the op ed pieces "Boy, oh Boy" and "Rapping Joe’s Knuckles." Although I believe that the Peaceable Kingdom tenor may be overly sanguine, it was a refreshing perspective on the current conflicts in the country being played out in Capital Hill as seen through the prism of American history. In his op-ed piece, David Brooks introduces us to the dichotomy of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian politics, with the Hamiltonian representing an educated urban elite (read Pro-Obama) and the Jeffersonian representing rural populist (read anti-Obama). While it is an oversimplification, it is an actual political analysis in the tradition of leaving the "self" out of the interest and remaining true to one’s own voice. (by contrast so many sentences in the Maureen Dowd op ed pieces were prefaced by "Clyburn says..." that one had to wonder whose op ed piece it actually was - hers or James Clyburns’?)
In his article, David Brooks characterizes the populist camp as being rude, ill-mannered and over the top. While I can concur with that I would have to say then, that the populist camp is not isolated to people with anti-Obama agendas but rather stratifies both sides of the political table. Indeed, during the campaign last year one of my Democrat friends sent me a pro-Obama article in the so-called progressive media that was literally laced with gutter profanity (I wrote an article about this earlier called "Pig Lips and Potty Mouths). I agree that we have a problem, but I’m not sure that it is a problem of an urban educated elite versus a populist rural one because each side has its share of highly educated, semi-educated and the uneducated. I’m afraid we would have to add to that a heavy dose of the uniformed as well because people are too concerned about the economic crisis and too pressed for time to sift out fact from fiction in the sea of information on the net and in other news venues.
With regard to Capitol Hill? I would submit that we voted for change we can believe in and got change that we can’t handle - with Republicans being the most monumental of frightened sore losers and Democrats wielding power unwisely for lack of practice.
In any case, with the screech level of opinion editorial writing in the New York Times turned down several volumes, they are back, in my estimation, from the brink of irresponsibility to plain old garden variety bias. Thank you.

September 1, 2009

Beauty Bound, Lost then Found

Once again, the annual international exhibition of mosaic art will take place at the Ciel Gallery in Charlotte, NC. The gallery is small but packs a good punch. It is always fun to be in this show. This year, I have three works in this exhibition which I will discuss in three posts.
The piece I have reproduced to the right is called "Blind Balance" and has a history as rocky as its constituent parts. "Blind Balance" was a part of a one woman exhibition I held at the Rabold Gallery back in 2005. The exhibition was well-received though not well-attended. There were two nicely done articles about the exhibition as well, one in Carolina Arts and the other in the newsletter Groutline, of the mosaic organization I founded some time ago, the Society of American Mosaic Artists. The exhibition, "Reflections on an Imagined Archaeology," displayed one of my most coherent bodies of work, and one which I am still working on today. Needless to say, the work received more in the way of accolades then cash - as not even one work from that exhibition sold. The gallery owner was even more demoralized by this than I was - perhaps because at least at the end of the exhibition I still had my work and the hope of a more successful future. I did not listen to his advice to refrain from making more of these mosaics of ceramic and stone but continued to explore this venue. I actually did acquire a few patrons for this art despite such inauspicious beginnings - but mostly I did them for myself.
After bundling up my commercial disaster but successful intellectual experiment in painting and mosaic, I divided up the work among my other galleries. The gallery to the North eventually gave the unsold pieces back to me after an unsuccessful attempt to find clients for them there. When I got the work back I noticed that one of my favorite pieces, "Blind Balance" was missing. I checked with my other galleries and no one had it. Apparently this caused the owner of the North gallery great distress and she made a desperate search for "Blind Balance," turning her loft gallery upside down for many hours in the process. Although a simple consultation of the consignment sheet would have sufficed for me, this was assurance that the work was indeed gone. Since the piece was not listed on the consignment sheet at that gallery or anywhere else there was nothing that could be done to locate it. I just relinquished myself to the fate of yet another art loss - consigning it to the pile of stolen works and both natural and manmade destroyers of art. I don’t think that in this regard I am necessarily less fortunate than most artists. I take this as the consequence of being prolific - the more art produced the more opportunities to lose some of it. I was therefore resigned to never seeing "Blind Balance" again.
Three years later, however, "Blind Balance" suddenly resurfaced after my gallery in Columbia, SC closed down for good. Since the gallery in the North had delivered my holdings to this gallery, I can only conclude that probably it was with the returned goods and somehow did not get on the inventory list. From Columbia it was taken to Beaufort where it stayed quietly until the Columbia branch of the gallery closed and the Beaufort gallery downsized to accommodate those holdings. Whatever the cause of the mixup, it was good to have the mosaic back again.
"Blind Balance" is a curious mosaic, with a central blindfolded woman balancing on a plate on either side of which are two squares of clay stamped with an impression of a stone seal carved in archaic Chinese script. They read, consecutively, "candor" and "good health." These can be read as candor leading to good health or being diametrically opposed to it. In the context of our current health care crisis, "good health" and being true to oneself and others can be mutually exclusive. This is expressly so when following one’s calling may entail a risk of not being covered by health insurance. Many artists and other self employed people are in this plight, having to weigh following one’s heart against protecting one’s body.
From time to time, I digress from an art blog and veer into politics. My discussion of "Blind Balance" and its implications may be another opportunity to comment on our present health care debacle. It has been disturbing to read about the shouting matches and breakdown of all rational discourse at the recent "Town Hall" meetings across the country regarding plans for universal health care insurance. Universal health care coverage is so desperately needed it is appalling that partisan politics once again came into play. Perhaps the blindfold in my mosaic "Blind Balance" can serve to illustrate the way Americans debate serious issues, refusing to look at facts, each other, themselves, the world.

August 28, 2009

Wings Too Short to Fly With

As an artist it is often necessary to change focus abruptly and expeditiously in order to survive as a creative person. This means switching seamlessly from art teacher to studio artist to entrepreneur. Donning various hats on short order is not always easy - especially when settled into one frame of working mind for an extended period of time. Needless to say, my summer teaching jobs left me inspired but rusty in my own studio. I have often heard it said that teaching art can be so consuming of one’s energy that it can become all but impossible to pursue one’s own creative work. After a long but necessary hiatus from the studio to travel and teach I could sense my lack of concentrated presence as I sat down to get back to my own studio to work.
Indeed, I picked up my clay with my brain commanding me to "create!" "sculpt!" "now!" But all I could do was hold the clay and stare vacantly at the wall.
But then a curious thing happened. Despite being tired a small clay figure arose from my hands - senseless at first and uninspired - but slowly his form took shape. He was a man, sitting up from a long sleep perhaps, with his hands pressed over his ears to block out some cacophonous sound.
I added small wings to his back and made up a preposterous explanation about the sculpture for my inquiring husband.
"You see, it is about an angel distraught at having only very tiny ineffectual wings. He closes his ears with his hands to drown out the other angel’s songs because he cannot fly up to heaven to be with them," I said. Words like that come from a tired person’s mouth. There was a hint of self-deprecating mockery.
The winged man was originally intended to be a fixture in one of my relief mosaics. But there was a problem with his becoming too much a figure in the round and now a free-standing sculpture. Now that he could not be included in a relief mosaic I had to do something else with him. So I created a round pedestal and affixed him to it. The pedestal looked like a lid. But a lid needs a jar so I ended up making that as well - an enormous coiled vessel. I had never made a coiled vessel so large and was surprised that I could do it. It will barely fit in my kiln and I am hoping that it won’t explode when I finally fire it and put this piece together.
My man of the stump wings soon had compatriots - more reclining men that will soon find there way into my "Archaeology" series of mosaics. With these three, this series takes a different turn
The figures are not resting quietly like the previous ones in this series but are in some distress - blocking out sounds with their hands, holding their poor beleaguered heads. Even though they will go their separate ways in finished pieces, I noticed that they look well as an ensemble. So from wings too short to fly with, new directions in art evolve.

August 23, 2009

Teaching That Last Little Bit of Magic in Mosaic

In the course of creating art, there are sometimes phenomenon that are as persistent as they are difficult to explain. This is particularly true when I make my mosaics. Mosaic making is a slow process of assembling items piece by piece. I incorporate a lot of found objects in my mosaics which often slows the process down even more since it might take a while before I find just the right thing to finish a piece. There is some magic to this. When I start nearing the end of a work, with just a few more pieces to go, that last element which ties the work together and fits exactly into a preformed niche, often presents itself to me in a serendipitous fashion. I might find it in an antique store, someone’s attic, or even on the street. It is almost as if the yearning of the incomplete space conjures up just the right thing to fill it.
When teaching, I usually like to be able to explain every thing that goes into an art work. But lately I’ve added an element of mystery to the heuristic process - a blank space in which something wonderful can happen. In my most recent mosaic course, I incorporated the mystery of the desired fill-in-the-black piece when I explained to my students that just at the critical juncture in creating a work of mosaic art, the right piece will appear. To their wonderment, this actually happened. A student working on a rather ordinary mosaic consisting of rather mundane strata of green tesserae was presented with an old porcelain doll’s head by an instructor teaching a class in an adjacent room. While passing through my class, he noticed that her art work needed something and thought that this old doll’s head he had lying around would be just the thing. It was. The head with the green flowers in the hair became an effective focal point for the mosaic. Another student found an effective narrative for her work in a found tile that had a primitive depiction of a man with a club and a reclining woman. She fragmented the tile and created rivers of glass between them. Another student had a green stone in her bag of goods that helped move the green colors around the primitive tile mosaic.
Perhaps there is no real mystery to the phenomenon of the last little bit of magic that goes into a mosaic. It could be that the suggestion of Devine mosaic intervention itself makes students more receptive to exciting possibilities in their art. Or perhaps, staring at the empty pockets of space causes the shape of those spaces to be carried in one’s mind during the journeys outside the studio during the course of the day and therefore easy to see objects that fit the mental template. But explanations can take the fun out of creating, so I just enjoy the seemingly spontaneous discoveries in making art and hope that my students do as well.
The featured mosaic is by my student Karen Murchie.

August 12, 2009

The Secret Abstract Expressionist

The Abstract Expressionist Within
As creative human beings we have two inheritances: our genetic nature and our learned traditions. My featured painting today is a combination of a pedigree of pedagogy and ties to family. The detail above is a section from a large commissioned portrait of my mother as a young woman. The painting is sentimental for its peachy coloring and somewhat whimsical mood of the sitter. It reflects my mother’s tastes and attitudes which suit the predilections of the owner of the painting, my brother.
But there is something beneath the surface - hidden in the corners and backgrounds. It can only be seen if one looks past the subject. The section in the lower right corner of the painting is a window to a different world - a world that is not the rural New Jersey of the subject, but a New York sensibility that began more or less in the late thirties. In order for viewers to see it, I’ve extracted this window and reproduced it separately at the top of the page.
This is the world of my painting ancestors. I am what you would call a third generation abstract expressionist. The color and composition theories that I learned from my educational forebears comes in a direct line from my teacher’s teacher, Hans Hofmann. Hans Hofmann could be considered the father of Abstract Expressionism, and, in a sense, my pedagogical grandfather. His painting schools in both Munich and New York, as well as his writing, influenced a myriad of artists. In preparation for a lecture and painting class I will be teaching at the Columbia Museum of Art on August 29, I have been studying the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1930's, 40's, 50's and 60's. This has meant reviewing the writings of Hans Hofmann, Clement Greenberg, as well as some more recent scholarship. As I reviewed the paintings and read the art once more, it suddenly struck me just how good my fortune was to have studied with these modern masters in New York. It added meaning and reality to words. . It made art history part of personal history. Paul Resika’s visage on the internet, for instance, as one of Hans Hofmann’s more successful protege’s, was not just text and information. I could hear the booming voice, see the eagle eyes, and recall a commanding presence in the New York studio. Abstract Expressionism and its legacy was a powerful developmental force like that upon the development of visual art in the United States. Even if you didn’t agree with the way they evaluated art or all of their precepts and theories, the Abstract Expressionists and their spiritual progeny set some valuable standards for looking at paintings.
Their paintings resisted a narrative interpretation but the artists opened up the canvas to sacred journeys. It is from them that I attempted, and still exhort my own students, to fill every inch of the painted surface with nuance and interest. The freedom from directly copying a model, allowed for greater experimentation with paint as an means to express mood, insight, and perceptions through gestures in paint. It was a dance with the media that was often nature based and more often than not expressed an inner nature as well.
According to Hofmann, a painting should never be flat. The "push and pull" of color against color and shape against shape should create an atmospheric depth on the canvas, allowing the viewer to imagine floating or flying through it to another world. This world could look like mountains, forests, the depths of water. Or it could look like the crystal structure of rocks, the interior of a cave, or perhaps the paint on a weathered door. The painted surface provokes imagination. It is the joy of looking at these richly painted surfaces that still makes me impatient with paintings that look like a mustard stain on someone’s shirt.
In the painting of my mother, there are two hearbeats; the sentimental beat of literal maternal ties and the beat of grandfather Hofmann. Although Hofmann resisted a narrative reading of paintings, there is a way to read this particular painting - an easy reading because it is figurative. The hand of the figure points down to the ground. But what should be ground is atmosphere. It is about the past and about the future that one escapes to -amorphous but real nontheless. The challenge this month is to see if I can make a future for fourth generation Hofmann students.

August 4, 2009

Time for Silence, Space for Inaction

In Chinese calligraphy, there are moments where motion stops. The brush comes to a halt at the end of a stroke. During this pause there is a collection of energy and reorientation before movement begins again. The non-movement is called the dun, and is often preceded by a firm exhalation and planting down of the heel of the brush - almost like the heel of a dancer at the end of one leap and preparing for another. This moment of pause is not without its drama, for it concludes one movement and anticipates the next.
I often think of the dun when I have a protracted flurry of activity in one sphere and have to switch for another - like now when my period of gypsy teaching and attendance at arts festivals ends and I begin to prepare for autumn conferences, solitary studio work, updating records and doing more research for new course offerings. The former is exuberant and the latter quiet and reflective. Plunging from one life into another without a pause, I find to be too disorienting. So the dun as a state of mind as well as physical inaction is important to me. Sometimes a pause is filled with mindless but necessary action - like cleaning up and reorganizing the studio space for the next round of activity. Or I take a useless ride to nowhere.
I often think of the dun when I witness first hand as well as read about the epidemic of texting and twittering in this country. I see the lack of the pauses necessary for reorganizing a life when I read the ceaseless chatter on Facebook. Some of this is fun, of course, but at the risk of sounding like a party poop extra ordinaire, I find that if I don’t ignore most of the invites, I start to feel like a chattering monkey. So I log on and sweep out - probably mortifying cyberfriends with my misanthropic presence and virtual gift refusals. It is tough love, I try to tell myself. They should be finishing that last chapter of a novel, writing a song or a poem, or just luxuriating in a moment of precious silence.
What, I wonder, is so fearful about silence and inaction, that we must fill every hole in the day with activity? Will something or someone we don’t want come in and fill the space or time before we plug it up ourselves?
I taught Chinese calligraphy again for maybe the thousandth time this past summer. And I noticed that my American students had the same problem they always have with it - they don’t know when to stop moving. The movements were difficult but the dun was harder. Eventually they got the hang of it but had to be reminded to alter their speed from fast to slow, to twisting, then STOPPING and PAUSING, then repeating.
So for anyone reading this, I invite you to join me in reflecting upon the seated faceless form I painted and DO NOTHING for five minutes. Then reflect upon what is really important. And share with real friends in real time with real gifts if that is possible. If it is not, then share a heartfelt thought that took some time and intent.

August 2, 2009

The Little Black Pot

The Little Black Pot
Little black pot
embraced by a bear
smoothed into being
by hands warmed in the sweat of the sun
Generation to generation
folded their earthen coils
onto hollow clay
shaping them into vessels
that held the breath of their ancestors
Shaman’s airs created languorous notes
that could not leave the hollows of their heads
Makers of bowls
pressed into existence by hands
widened by what they held
Creators of twin jars
that howled with the waters
flowing through the conduits
that inextricably bound them
Parched lips touched red earth
polished by the round stones
that once tumbled in the bellies of dinosaurs
on their antediluvian journeys
The sojourn of the soul
scratched out a white line
a time line that meandered
across the black and brown clouds
hovering over burned earth
around and around
the world of a polished vessel
Generation to generation
hands rubbed their essence into clay
oil of the flesh
eased its way into the little black pots
Turning, turning
Hand held vessels
blackened by smoke and fire which consumed the air
beneath a nest of gnarled branches and the dung of animals
Hands caressed the surface that soothed the heart
and wiped away the pain of feeling less than yet being more than
a little black pot

The experience of learning a different art form can sometimes have welcome benefits to one’s own art. The course in Tewa pottery I completed at Common Ground on the Hill caused me to revise one of the poems in my book manuscript, Moments in Light and Shadows. I had painted a small canvas from a sketch I made of Kathy (Wan Povi) a year ago and later composed the poem to accompany the painting. The painting and poem are in the chapter of the book called Journeys, which contain images and texts relating to quests for knowledge and understanding. The search is either literal, in the form of people depicted on pathways, or spiritual, in a subject’s exploration of a personal past and aspirations for the future.
There is nothing quite like empirical knowledge as a source for enriching writing or any other art form. After being exposed to the physical process of making the black pottery that I depicted a year ago in the painting and poetry, I was able to revise in such a way as to insert some quirky gems about the process involved in the making of Tewa pottery - such as the use of stones from the digestive systems of dinosaurs for burnishing vessels. The very last line of the poem "... the pain of feeling less than, yet being more than a little black pot," is a somber way to end the verse this time around. It refers to a brief mention during my class about Kathy’s work with women who have been victims of domestic violence, some of who were also creators of blackware pottery. It occured to me in rewriting that the burnishing of these vessels was a way of rubbing out the pain of feeling like an empty vessel or being used as a receptacle for another’s fear and anger. "Yet being more than" offers, however, a ray of hope in the recognition that despite how it is used, there is an intrinsic value to a person’s life that can be grasped and realized by the self.