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.

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