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.