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.