January 28, 2009

Pairs, Pears

There was something warm and inviting about three red and yellow pears in a Jeri Burdick earthenware bowl. The warm yellow ivory of the pears stood in contrast to the cool bluish white vessel. The stem of the center pear seemed to echo the short brown lines decorating the bowl’s surface. I often paint things like that - visual equivalents to homophones. So after looking at this unpretentious bowl with three pears in it for some time as the little scene rested by the window, I decided to paint it.
I have been painting with companion artists and thought that I would take this simple still life to one of them to see if she felt similarly moved by it. She ended up painting another still life set up instead of this restrained one but still enjoyed the Zen-like simplicity of it. When painting the bowl I noticed the turquoise foot and that it was different from the rest all surrounding colors. I thought of the Chinese art principle of guest and host in painting colors. Unlike western painting, where a color is moved around the canvas, insinuating itself into other colors, Chinese painting divides colors into large masses of black or monochromatic colors and small focal points of intense colors. It is called guest and host because the host is represented by the bright spot on the page and the guests the large areas of muted, darker areas serving as a supporting cast of colors. In this case the turquoise patch is host of the painting.
Painting fruit can be useful if one paints quickly enough to eat the still life. I was a little late in getting to one of the pears and found that it was somewhat desiccated. The others were fine. I joked to my companion that under IRS regulations we can only deduct 50% of the cost of meals out of town as working artists, but 100% of studio props used for still life paintings. We are therefore obliged to eat our props whenever possible in order to fall into the higher deduction bracket.

January 25, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year

It is Chinese New Year today - the year of the dependable bull. The new year weekend was kicked off by a Saturday seminar on Chinese Art that I taught at Walnut House in Bamberg. It was a grand lady’s day. My students were treated to lessons in Chinese calligraphy, Chinese Painting, and the delicate art of carving seals (or "chops" as they are sometimes called). My host, Julia Wolfe, and I decided to make this a truly fun experience for the students. For the bargain price of $65.00, they had not only art lessons all day on Saturday but a luncheon of salad, fruits and roasted chicken whipped up by the culinary expertise of Ms. Wolfe. The afternoon featured tea with my gourmet Oatmeal, chocolate chip, cherries in rum cookies.
Today was also a celebration of all things Chinese with a modest cultural exchange. I traded a Chinese calligraphy and language lesson for a lesson in the Wu style of Tai ji quan. The Tai ji instructor knows the Wu style quite well but never studied Chinese Language or Art. I had spent practically all my time in China studying language and visual art but none of those other enticing disciplines like marshal arts, music or the exotic culinary arts. In our old age both I and the Tai Ji instructor want to fill in some blanks in our Chinese education and because we can’t afford each other’s fees, simply decided to swap lessons. It has been fun and a great way to start off the China year.

January 22, 2009

Winter Painting

It has been an unusual winter this past week. South Carolina saw snow. It was just a few inches in the north and only a dusting here in the midlands but it enough to cause delayed openings and school cancellations. The closing of infrastructures seemed nonsensical to this New Jersey lady, until I remembered how unprepared the south is for even a little bit of snow. Better safe than sorry.
The other happy albeit unusual event, was, of course, the inauguration of our new president. It was both a great joy and a great relief to finally have someone I actually voted for in office again, and someone I can actually relate to with regard to his pragmatism and his respect for science and education. For the last eight years, I had the distinct feeling of having to hold my breath while the country ran amok. Finally, with the swearing in of President Obama, I could exhale and at least hope for better times a few years down the road.
A fellow artist and I celebrated in a quiet way. We watched the inauguration, then settled down to paint a still life. The following day we watched the Marx Brothers cavort around in the film Duck Soup. This zany political satire of governments, wars, and political ineptitude served as a catharsis of the inanities we have had to put up with.
Putting the past behind us via the Marx Brothers, my friend and I painted a second still life. These simple acts, painting and watching a film on two quiet afternoons seem so unimportant in the grander scheme of things, but they were small commitments to hope for both of us. My friend is just getting started as an artist again after a ten-year hiatus spent caring for an aging mother. I have only one gallery left which doesn’t carry my mosaics, works on paper, or mid-range to larger paintings with bold themes - it seems the only thing the local commercial market will bear these days is tiny paintings of detailed views of rural South Carolina. (Not that I don’t like doing these from time to time. I just would like to do other things as well) We were both making a leap of faith these days - painting things that it is not certain that anyone will want. It is amazing what not having a market can do for artistic freedom!
Painting a still life is a humbling experience. It is more difficult than working from photographs and painting from imagination. The thing itself is there, calling the artist’s attention to details and colors which shift during the course of the day as the window light changes. One of the most recent still life paintings I just finished had to be painted at 4:00 in the afternoon every day for the fleeting moments when the light made a triangle in the composition and highlighted the copper underneath the tin on the middle-eastern pitcher. The objects I have been painting feature the crafts of other people - things that are one-of-a-kind and made by hand. They are paintings of an artist paying homage to artists. The pitcher in this painting was made by a nineteenth century Persian craftsman. Holding the object in my hands I can feel the dents of wear and see the large copper nails that the object was beaten together with. Lowly object that it was, the maker still gave it a regal bearing, with its spout that is much longer than it has to be so that water poured from it creates a beautiful arch. The small gray object in the painting next to the pitcher is a porcelain vase hand built by the potter Jeri Burdick - my favorite South Carolina Potter. No, maybe one of my favorite potters, period. I like the way the vase is pinched into being - every mark the touch of a talented hand. I also like that the vase was fired in a wood fired kiln, the ashes making a beautiful running glaze. These are the objects of my gray painting - gray for winter and gray for the blank slate upon which new plans can be written.

January 14, 2009

Money Fades Art Endures

"People first, Money next, Things last," the financial guru, Suze Orman used to say. As a creator of art things, this widely touted advice was just the thing that I didn’t want to hear. I generally doubted the soundness of such simplistic advice, though, and in light of the recent economic downturn, realize that it may indeed have been all wrong.
I first suspected that the wisdom of Orman and others was built on shaky ground when a number of truisms she posited didn’t seem to pan out. One particularly amusing one was her admonition to people to embark on the road to financial freedom by getting together all the loose cash hanging around the house and start by investing that - it almost always amounted to $30.00 she confidently pronounced. I decided to put that to the test and began a search around the house for the hidden money. I came up with thirty cents. Right amount, wrong decimal point. So if Orman was wrong about the ubiquitous hidden cash might her other assumptions also be suspect? Perhaps so - especially with the pecking order of Money then Things.
A case in point: Throughout the last decade I saw a measly IRA fund go up and down with market fluctuations creating a net gain of about 0 %. This last week I took a second look, however, at some of the art "things" I purchased a long time ago and how their value has increased over the years. One was a drawing by an art professor from my graduate school days.
My professor at Parsons School of Design had a review of his work printed in a Chinese magazine. He asked me to translate it for him and offered me a hundred dollars or a drawing. I chose the drawing. It is now valued at about $2000 - a twenty fold increase.
Back when I was a translator in China, I set aside a small portion of a meager salary to purchase antique embroideries, which sold for the pittance of about $5.00 a piece. They now sell in the U.S. for between $80 and $300. I regret now selling these for $30.00 in the years following my return to the U.S.
Understandably, it would be a challenge under the present circumstances, to sell and get full market value for anything. Turning value into actual cash is harder than it seems. But it is a buyer’s market. So for those who can invest in art objects, it might not be a bad idea to do so and hold on to them for a while. Given my limited experience with appreciation of art, I wonder at what could have been if I had invested in "things" and then cashed them in at the right time. I wonder, too, at what could have been for many folks who had disposable income but chose to invest it in the stock market rather than pay off a mortgage. Would it not have been better for them to have owned that house thing free and clear?
My recent still life paintings and paintings of homes both lived in and abandoned are a testimony to the allure of ownership of things. The small oil on board is a painting of a small rose medallion vase that I found recently. It is probably a bit more valuable than what I spent on it but probably not by much. In doing the research on the vase, however, it was fun to find out about the iconography - some of which appeared only with magnification. One such symbol is the depiction of a paintbrush across an ink stone along with chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums are a symbol of persistence for their continued blossoming during winter. I like to think that the juxtaposition of those flowers here with a paintbrush indicates the persistence of art - and the desire of artists to create things whether a market will bear them or not.

January 5, 2009

Well into One Hundred

The number one hundred in any kind of undertaking or grouping of accomplishments is a significant number. The number appears in idiomatic expressions such as "I must have told you a hundred times," In a less negative sense and especially in the orient, we see the number one hundred to used to imply a great many things that one should take notice of, like Hiroshige’s One Hundred Views of Edo. In a recent card from one of my brothers, the front depicted a small wren-like bird resting on a snow-covered twig. The attribution on the back of the card read "From the book One Hundred Birds and Flowers in Japan." While studying art in China, I was always amazed at the frequency of the number one hundred in Chinese painting - a hundred horses, a hundred Lohans, etc.
My own book project this past year was the completion of one hundred poems for one hundred paintings, the number perhaps emblazoned on my consciousness by so many years spent in China.
This is my hundredth blog. In keeping with the idea that this should be a significant milestone, it is a good time to take stock of what it was all about and where it is going. What comes to mind first is a lesson that I had years ago from one of my Chinese masters at the Beijing Central Art Academy. Chinese lessons in the arts, in their traditional educational system, were often delivered in rhyme and parable. The lesson I am haunted by the most for fear of not being able to live up to its exhortations, was the parable of the wells. The lesson came from Master Jin, an enormous mountain of a man who specialized in a tiny detailed form of silk painting called gong bi. Master Jin noticed that it was my tendency to explore several avenues of learning at once. Although this is not that untypical of an American multi-tasker, it caused Chinese Masters some consternation. So Master Jin explained the story of the wells to me in order to underscore the folly of multiple superficial pursuits.
Master Jin, speaking in a soft lilting Mandarin began his story:
"There once was a man who started to dig a well in search of water. He dug and dug but never reached water. Exhausted and frustrated, he abandoned this project and proceeded to dig in another location. His hopes there were soon dashed as his second attempt in this new location also yielded nothing. So the man sunk another well in a third location which unfortunately also came up dry. Over the years he continued to dig wells further and further afield but always with the same empty results. Finally, when he was almost ready to give up his pursuit, he returned to the very first well he had begun years earlier. He lowered himself down into the long vertical tunnel and dug again at the base of the well, deep within the earth. He dug and he dug through the layers of clay, rock, soil and sand until, miraculously, water began to trickle in. It was a minuscule amount at first, but soon the earthly flood gates opened and a water-giving well was made."
Master Jin admonished me to remember this story whenever I found myself distracted by the tedium and frustrations of preliminary failures and given to the allure of searching for answers in novel surface pursuits and geographic solutions. It is always a challenge to stay on task and complete what I start - especially when it becomes difficult and I lose faith that my efforts will yield results. I also think of this story in the context of living in a society that virtually encourages fruitless, superficial expenditures of time and energy. We, Americans, are a people of distractions, and labor under the illusion that busy means progress.
Despite my forays into politics and criticism (politicians just made it too easy to resist) the undercurrent(pun intended) of the blog is about a slow return to original sources of artistic inspiration, abandoning what does not yield substance, and completing that which does.
The book of poetry that is in the final stages of completion was the book that I should have written eight years ago. The instruction book in Chinese art and the China memoirs which are only in the initial stages of writing, are the books that should have been written fifteen years ago. Admittedly, making a living and tending to house and home take much time away from creative pursuits - but every day that magical portion of time devoted to passion brings me closer to the wellspring of what is honest and true.
The charcoal drawing featured in this blog is called "The Dutch Woman" It is an aged and completed version of an incomplete line drawing of her younger self that I had started in Holland two decades ago!

January 3, 2009

Modest Morandi

Although I am supposed to eschew the eating of citrus fruits, I always find myself challenged in this regard during the holidays by receiving at least a crate or two full of oranges and grapefruits. I indulge my appetite although I should not and generally pay a price in pain. But this year I managed to at least slow down my consumption somewhat by making paintings of the forbidden fruits before devouring them. The first was an oil on panel painting of a depression-era ceramic mug in juxtaposition with a pale orange. Intrigued by the simple accessibility of the design and the warm, inviting colors, I proceeded to make more of these still life paintings on the theme of a single vessel and one piece of fruit or vegetable; Purple Vase and Green Mango, Pea Green Bowl and Persimmon, Violet Grapes on a Green and White Platter.
I have always been a great admirer of the painter Giorgio Morandi. He is perhaps my favorite of painters. His austere earthen toned still life paintings were, at least spiritually, the inspiration for these spare paintings. Morandi’s greatness was in his ability to capture and hold attention with Zen-like simplicity, using subtle modulations of greys and browns. When I think of a Morandi still life, I think of winter. Winter in South Carolina, however, is more like a prelude to spring, with camellias blossoming, narcissus in bloom and an exuberance of flowering quinces. It is difficult to think in blacks, whites, and greys while immersed in pink and green. My new work in still life painting for winter in the South Carolina is in the spirit of Morandi but with a hearty appetite for color.