December 16, 2010

Buttons and Baubles

‘Twas ten days before Christmas and all through the state, artists sold baubles in time for the date.

It seems that my fellow artists in South Carolina have been working hard at being Christmas elves during this final seasonal push to make a living at art. Generally at this time, it appears that production craft artists have the edge on fine artists - with scores of small gift items at the ready. Nevertheless, in keeping with the economy, the season, and to give a big “Thank you,” to friends and patrons, I’m throwing a studio party this Saturday, replete with lower cost craft items and discounts on fine art.

As usual, I’m a bit later than my peers on this - but the date is still a personal improvement over the January “Russian Christmas” sale of the previous year. Friends surprised me by turning up at that one. Perhaps they were rested up from the holiday season.

The newest items are hand made, one-of-a-kind buttons. I made about a hundred of these in various shapes and sizes, with both overglaze and underglaze decorations. A number of them were fired twice with gold and mother-of-pearl enameling - what could be more button-like?
I thought of each button as a miniature round canvas - painting them with both abstract and decorative designs. With a teaching schedule that ran to the end of last week, many of these had to be made after work in the wee hours of the evening. I was doubtful that I would make it but here they are freshly popped out of the kiln today.

November 18, 2010

Mid-Autumn Monster Plants and Gender Mojos

The middle of November in the center of South Carolina brings a much anticipated event: the annual migration of house plants from outside to indoors. Not everyone survives the journey, especially those who were the victims of their own success and grew too large and unwieldy for their containers. One such plant is the Devil’s Ivy, aptly named because it cascaded ten feet down from its container then rooted itself into the ground for another five feet. Pulling these botanical wonders back indoors for the winter is a task that is happily put off. The trick is to play chicken with the frost and wait until the last possible moment to lug the heavy ones in. Sometimes the frost wins. Plant life or death for the winter months can also be pinned to the vagaries of having out of town work or a cold on frost day.

The truly problematic plant this year was an overgrown tree philodendron which needed to be repotted in something about three times the size of the original container- something so huge it devoured an entire bag of potting soil. The aerial roots on the plant tangled themselves so profoundly inside the pot that the plant simply could not be removed. The only thing to do was to destroy the pot to free the plant. The plant of course had to be preserved not only for it being such a grand specimen of a tree philodendron but because it came from my late mother-in-law’s home. ( I had over the years become the keeper of all specimens of greenery from friends and relatives who left them at my doorstep like orphans. Okay, some I adopted myself off of street corners and I have even been known to cultivate plants rescued from the cracks in sidewalks).

I tried to pry the plant loose from the pot at first with a wonder bar but to no avail. My husband decided that my continued efforts would break the pot anyway and so he suggested that I just clobber it with a hammer. Easy for someone who did not purchase this vessel to say. But I reluctantly and somewhat tepidly started to fracture the fiberglass pot with the wonder bar. The pace of my efforts seemed to go too slowly for my husband’s patience and he decided to take over the job.

Getting a huge axe, my significant other took the plant outdoors and bid me not to look lest his concentration fail. This caused a feeling of deja vu. I distinctly remember times in my youth when my overlooking the proceedings of males bonding over car repairs was frowned upon. What is it about the scrutinizing gaze of the opposite gender that causes such discomfit? Is it the fear of relinquishing forbidden knowledge? Or is it a feeling that a task can never be accomplished well under the scrutinizing, critical stare of the other. With regard to the other being a member of the opposite sex, this has been known to take on disastrous consequences. I recalled here reading in a book on the history of musical instruments about the bull roarer, a primitive instrument that only men were allowed to play. Women were not even allowed to look upon it under the threat of death! Needless to say, that is a rather extreme example, but certainly points to how serious superstitions about the scrutiny of the opposite gender can be.

One would think such fear of derailing competence the other gender’s watch might be would be confined to the woman’s gaze upon the man’s work. Yet this very noon, as I write this, I found that try as I might, I could not do the necessary repairs on a broken drawer while under my husband’s critical scrutiny and had to wait until some quiet time alone before I could analyze the components, find the right tools and do the job.

But getting back to the seasonal removals of plants, the monstrous tree philodendron was finally released and given a new home. The other large polypodium ferns may just have to survive the winter outdoors - so many leaves, such tangled roots, so little space!

For now, I’m posting my drawing from my notebooks of a cat watching a tropical plant in Italy. And when I finish making my first bull roarer, I’ll post an image of that as well.

November 14, 2010

Two into One

Two Into One

“Whatever the thing, it is always a case of dividing one into two and not combining two into one”
-Qi Zhen Hai

For the past week, I have been preparing documents for an application which entails telling a life story in art and publications. These documents span just over twenty-five years - a quarter of a century! Despite aching muscles from hovering over paper cutters, desktops, and photocopy machines it has been a humbling overview thus far. Yes, I had done a lot of work, but I wish I had done more, done better and organized it all more efficiently.

What has been particularly interesting this past week was the occasion to review very early exhibitions. Had I known twenty-five years earlier that I would be called upon to provide documents of these events I would have been a more diligent archivist. The original invitations and documents from some of these early exhibitions long lost or discarded, I’ve been filling in the blanks by retrieving images from these bygone eras and putting them together in a presentable format with the help of my sister’s superior graphic design skills.

The first replaced piece of history concerns the very first one-woman exhibition I had in the United States. A naive newcomer to the art scene in America, I had no clue as to how a gallery or museum should be approached a gallery about exhibiting a body of work. So my first exhibition was at a dance studio - the Aparri School of Dance in Princeton, New Jersey in 1985 to be exact. I had not even included this exhibition on my resume, but I am now rethinking this documentation because in recent years I’ve been working more frequently with dancers. Now this early liaison makes for a more cohesive narrative.

Mila Gibbons, the director of the Aparri School of Dance passed away a number of years ago and her lively school is no longer in operation.. Madam Gibbons was a fascinating international character and a fluent speaker of French and German. She was old Princeton. Someone who might best be described as a Princeton Brahmin, if such a term even exists. Madam Gibbons had an old-fashioned Victorian sense of propriety that in retrospect was rather quaint. She could meet you for a weekly tea over the period of, say, about a decade, without ever even alluding to previous marriages or unhappy family relationships. Madam Gibbons carried herself with the deportment of a dancer, gliding through a room with consummate posture and head held high. I never saw her in a state that was not well-groomed, well coiffed, and impeccably dressed. This venerable matron could be described as my first mentor in the world of art exhibitions.

And what a pleasant exhibition it was. It provided me with the experience of putting together a body of work for an American audience and some cash in my pocket for my relocation to Europe.
What I would give to have that hand-lettered invitation!

Fortunately, I do have pictorial records of the work from that time. Perhaps the most intriguing examples of paintings from that show was the series of works on paper called collectively “Two into One.” These paintings were completed in China shortly before my husband and I left the country to teach in Holland. I had not put them onto silk scrolls like my more traditional brush paintings and had neither the time nor inclination to frame them. My father came up with the ingenious idea of creating an installation for them made out of four tall wooden doors affixed to one another to form a pillar. This stood in the middle of the Dance floor with the leaves of “Two into One” pinned to it.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed with inks and watercolors onto thin, transparent cafe-au-lait colored rag paper. The paper was created in Hebei province, China and had a deliciously warm cotton blanket like softness. The Beijing Art Academy professor Li Xiao Wen taught me how to use these homemade papers in 1984-1985. With a judicious use of inks and pigments, professor Li was able to create effects on this paper that looked similar to batik. The secret was to paint on both sides of the paper. Professor Li showed me some of his own paintings with lines and highlights on one side of the paper with darker inks and pigments washed onto the obverse side. The effect was that the darker pigments would seep through the fibers of the paper and react with the lighter pigments on the other side to create a crenulated look. I used a variation on this technique to create the paintings I have shown examples of here.

My “Two into One” series of paintings raised some eyebrows in China. It perhaps took some nerve to call the group by a title that had a volatile history. On one thematic level, they were simply naive and childlike depictions. I painted them thinking of the colors and shapes of children’s wooden building blocks. They were for the most part about adult relationships, however. To be specific they represented conditions of war, love, study, worship, commerce, play, meditation, and dance. In addition to the paintings, I carved a series of small stones with comparable images that I printed onto the page below the paintings. A fellow ex-patriot further embellished these with some lovely poetry.

One reason that there was some consternation about this little series of figurative paintings in Beijing was because the heads were floating above the bodies. The second reason had to do with the descriptive phrase “Two into One.” This phrase had a significance with regard to the Cultural Revolution that China in the 1980's was still coming to terms with. During the late sixties the subject of whether “One Becomes Two” or “Two Becomes One” was hotly debated. To a western person, the fact that people were persecuted and may even have lost their lives over what appeared to be a circular argument that would enervate even the most stalwart Sophist, seems a tragic waste. But at the time it was serious business. To oversimplify, “One Becomes Two” was a code for the dialectic philosophy of Marxism while “Two Becomes One” could allude to western style capitalism.

The paintings of “Two into One” were executed in a style that was very different from the one I came to China to learn. Towards the end of my tenure there I think that a western aesthetic began to reassert itself and these paintings were like a Chinese tale told in translation on the road back west. The only time they were exhibited in the United States was through the gracious support of Mila Gibbons at the Aparri School of Dance so long ago. The collection has since been dispersed - sold, traded or given away. In seeing them again I wonder if they were two into one or one into two? Were these figures defined by their enclosures or was the space defined by their dual actions? At least it does no harm to wonder.

November 9, 2010

The Progress of Subclinical Harpies

For a recent article about my mosaic work, I was asked to submit some images of a “work-in-progress.” The author, JoAnn Locktov, was such a thorough and engaging interviewer I was happy to oblige her with this. I turned my attention to my unfinished mosaic made from broken plates, a broken ocarina and various manufactured as well as found pieces. After adhering the central pieces with thinset mortar on to the base, I judiciously placed the other pieces loosely around those to indicate a process of thinking about where they might be cemented. It was the first time I had been asked to send out images of a work in progress and I have to confess it was a little difficult to decide just how unfinished it should be. Too unfinished and it would look confusing to people. Too complete and it would not have educational merit with regard to process. But after reaching what I determined was a mean between these two, I photographed the piece and sent it off to my on-line publishing friends.

It was good that I sent the photos off when I did because as any mosaicist knows, it can sometimes be difficult to actually stop working abruptly on a mosaic. While making this “work in progress” I found that as I progressed a little more, then a little more hour by hour the piece was rapidly approaching completion. And in fact, I did bring the project to completion just shortly after I sent off the documentation of the unfinished work. Ironically, the “work in progress” photos were never published but the finished work was. And since I can not undue physically what is now finished I will instead tell a story about the progress of this mosaic.

The mosaic pictured above is called “Subclinical Harpies,” so named for a poem from one of my now voluminous unpublished manuscripts. It is a mosaic that began, progressed and was completed from a series of accidents and surprises.

The first step towards this mosaic began with a surprise visit from a friend. G had a way of turning up unannounced, which miraculously always seemed to work out because I never had pressing deadlines at the time. So one fine autumn day last year while I was doing some mundane task and waiting for the phone to ring with promises of remunerative work, she came sauntering up the path to my back door. We fell into conversation straight away as if it had not been about a year since we last spoke in person. We had tea and snacks and got caught up with each other’s social and work lives. I confessed that the Great Recession had slowed down my teaching gigs considerably as well as my commissions. But I was proud to also show G that the downturn had some unexpected benefits. The newer, slower pace afforded me the time to experiment with new designs and products. My development of one of a kind musical instruments arose out of the down time. I showed G one of my favorite ocarinas - one with a shape like a partridge wing with coral, pink, light green, ivory colors interspersed with silver gold enameling and mother-of-pearl. But when I handed this lovely instrument to G it slipped from my hands and fell crashing to the floor. Instantly, as all good friends are apt to do, G “apologized” profusely for having somehow mysteriously “caused” the accident. I assured her that it was entirely my own clumsiness and after an awkward pause I picked up the pieces. The ocarina had split along its length cleanly into two pieces. The perennial optimist G, suggested that I consider this little accident as an omen and admonition from a higher power that this ocarina split in two was destined for bigger and better projects. I looked at the two halves carefully and saw that they looked bird-like. I had been wanting to make relief sculptures of harpies I told G, and these would form the base. And as G had inspired more than one above average art project, I felted compelled not to disappoint with the pink harpies.

Several months later I did create female heads and feet to make harpies out of these forms. It took several months, of course, because I had to wait until I had the time and interest to make enough other small items to fill a kiln with. They also required two stages of firing; one for the underglaze and another for the overglaze gilding and enameling.

After the harpies were complete I cemented them to a wedi-board base with thin-set mortar. I also created a frame of ceramic bull-nose tiles painted with the same pink and ivory colors found in the ocarina halves turned harpy bodies. A series of fortunate accidents brought more items into “Subclinical Harpies.” My husband obliged me by letting one of his mother’s ivory Wedgewood plates slip from his hands. The pieces were made into an arch above the harpies. The arms from a broken porcelain doll became the harpies histrionic gesturing appendages. A friend supplied me with a broken plate hand painted with violet and green grapes. It formed the arbor around the arch and the grapes emanating from the ceramic wine glasses on either side of the harpies. I gave the harpies hand made tiles replete with words in ancient Chinese to rest upon. The harpy on the left stands on a tile tilted to the side which reads “Life from a swamp,” and the one on the right rests upon the tile that says “In all the world there is no other.”

As with most of my mosaic work, as the material progress continued, a theme developed as well. The themes that grew from the work were about illusions, accidents, fragmentation and a peculiar reference to chemical paradise in the form of alcohol. On this last reference I had another tool in my arsenal. When I had accidentally broken a tooth and required oral surgery I was given post operative hydrocodone tablets. My post operative pain only required using one of them so I had a whole bottle of these unused tablets. They were a vibrant pink and although I knew that most of this color would be washed away by the grouting process I decided to incorporate the pills as tesserae in the mosaic. I had some compunctions about doing so. Would the message be too offensive to some people? Would addicts try to dig the pills out of the mosaic should it be hung in a public place? And what if I fell off a stool - breaking my foot and ending up waiting several hours in an emergency room with no respite scolding myself for not having saved at least one tablet of pain medication for such an event? Strange how such little objects used for purposes they were not intended for can cause such thoughts to fly. But use them I did although most of the dye was washed out with the grouting.

So that is how a work in progress quickly turned into a finished work. And since these days it appears to be unpopular to be seen as being too progressive, finishing unfinished work is perhaps for the best.

October 31, 2010

Halloween Blog, or Why Chinese Bats are Cute

When I first started my series of miniature paintings, “Twenty-six Days of the Bat” I began by reviewing two sources: images of bats on the internet and my own small collection of Chinese embroidery bats. People generally have mixed feelings about bats. They are those scarey little things of Halloween and vampire lore. But in China bats have always been depicted as a beautiful and auspicious animal. In large part this is due to the fact that the word for bat, fu, also happens to be a synonym for the words for good fortune and prosperity. Hence, a bat will bring good tidings.

After looking at images of bats more carefully, I realized that there is a second reason why Asian bats are “okay” but western ones are scarey. Bats can be broadly divided into two distinct groups, the megachiroptera and the microchiroptera, or megabats and microbats for short. The microbats are more familiar to us in the west and generally have faces with a squished in spade- like nose, little eyes, pointed teeth, and long ears. Conversely, the megabats are large and have a face like a little terrier dog and a look that is somewhat endearing. They are also known as Fruit Bats or Flying Foxes These Flying Fox bats are the ones native to Asia and are about as innocuous looking as puppies with wings. How could they not be the subjects, then, of paintings on vases and embroidered garments made with great love and care?

My bat paintings are half on the megabat side and half on the microbat side. The microbat group were painted naturalistically and the megabats were painted in the stylistic forms and colors of folk art. Happy Halloween!

October 20, 2010

My Bonnie Bonnie Beaufort

My Bonnie Bonnie Beaufort

The second leg of my trip around South Carolina to replenish galleries with new work took place yesterday in Beaufort. I hadn’t been there in six years and I had almost forgotten how beautiful this charming port city is. The reason for my journey was to deliver my new South Carolina architectural paintings, known by consultants, agents and patrons as the Domiciles, to the Pinckney Simons Gallery. In past years, I used to deliver new work to their branch in Columbia, a short forty-five minute commute from my studio here in Orangeburg. But since that branch closed two years ago and everything became consolidated in Beaufort, I had been somewhat remiss in traveling the longer distance there. But after seeing the richly decorated gallery and having a great day in the downtown district, I was glad that I went.

There was much paperwork to update and records to scan, but we got everything done in good time. I managed to pick up a portion of work that had been in storage from Columbia - some of which I had not documented and will post an article about after I finish my archive updating. It felt good to bring in the bright new work and reclaim the familiar old friends.

Generally, I have no trouble parting with my work, but I had a twinge of sadness at relinquishing my triptych of three square buildings, two of which were from Blackville. I have pictured two of them here. The one above is from an abandoned cotton mill in what I believe is Orangeburg County. The buildings had an almost old world, creamy beige adobe finish. There were a number of similar structures at this site and I will be slowly painting them. The sky in the painting pictured above has a touch of genuine turquoise pigment in it, which gives that gem-like glow in the center. The other painting of the square building featured at right was from a street in Blackville. The colors have been altered somewhat to make the facade a more buttery yellow and the sidewalk slightly rose colored. I sometimes see buildings like that in dreams where I am traveling through old towns from the late nineteenth century. Those dreams are not far from reality however, because my travels on assignments do take me through the centers of small towns with these two-story store fronts with facades like miniature golden temples of bygone eras.

These paintings and many other will be part of the open house gallery walk in Beaufort this Saturday, October 23.

October 18, 2010

Dark Bird in the Day of the Double Nines

Dark Bird on The Day of the Double Nine

The picture of the bird at right is a charcoal drawing that I made recently from an observation of one of the prize roosters at the South Carolina Fair. Because I drew him from life and he was a very active chicken, I was precluded from adding many accurate details. It is more a portrait of an impression of this remarkable creature - as they all were. This one was drawn with black charcoals and white chalk on a piece of orange paper - suitable for the October Halloween season. I’m not particularly fond of using charcoal. It is messy, dusty and difficult to control. But it also goes very black and can have a nice velvety effect in a drawing. The bird that inspired this drawing was one of the Polish chickens I saw at the County Fair, and again at the South Carolina State Fair. I do believe that some of these chickens were making the circuit from County to State competition. Can the run for National Chicken of the Year be far behind?

I had originally intended to write a China story to go with this picture. The story was about the Manchurian coal and factory town of Changchun, where I lived with my husband in 1983. But it will have to wait for a future post. In the mean time it is tucked away in one of the chapters of my book Another Soul. Instead, this writing recalls something closer to home yet reminiscent of China.

Things did not go as well as I had hoped at the State Fair on Saturday, October 16. It took a long time to get there, I had a flaming sore throat the whole time, and my photographs came out blurry from the low light exposure (They are still usable but will have to be filled in by painter’s imagination). What compensated me for the trouble was the opportunity to have an outing in the good company of a lady friend and my husband. The weather was fairly nice and the exhibits were fun and captivating. Oddly, the two lady artists in our group spent more time looking at the beautiful colors and patterns found in feathers and fur than we did looking at the art exhibition. In part this can be attributed to our running out of time. We had agreed to meet up with my husband, who had gone into Columbia to sit in a quiet cafĂ© and grade papers instead of enjoy the fair, at the front gate at 6:45 PM. 6:30 PM rolled around quite unexpectedly as we were admiring a particularly decorative bird with an explosion of colors on his wings that looked like the intricately woven patterns of a Persian Carpet.

So in a mad fifteen minute dash we ran through the art exhibition, pausing briefly to admire my painting on paper “Multi-Tasking Mania,” and Nat’s photograph of large yellow floats on a shrimp boat. We then waited outside to meet up. We waited ten minutes, fifteen minutes, then thirty minutes but our ride did not arrive. Forty-five minutes later my flustered husband arrived on foot explaining that he had been in gridlock traffic and had to park about a half mile away. So we trekked out on this cool autumn evening that was a mixture of unfinished business, glorious discoveries, and mishaps. After dinner in Columbia and a late return home I was at least partially resolved to trying the State Fair again. The chickens were still calling to me and I was still curious about all the art I missed.

The next day I was nursing a cold while doing lesson plans for an upcoming residency in Beaufort. The program I was planning included highlights from Chinese language and culture. I decided to check the lunar calendar for upcoming Chinese holidays that I could introduce. I was amused when I found out that Saturday, October 16, was the Day of the Double Nines. Chong Jiu Jie, falls on the ninth day of the ninth moon in the lunar calendar. Because odd numbers are yang (forces that are male, fire, light heat etc), the double nine is a very heavy yang day. It is therefore a day of imbalance during which precautions must be taken to guard against injury and illness. It is difficult for me to read about deeply ingrained superstitions and not start thinking of the possible concordances with real life experience. Of course the superstition made perfect sense to me and it was easy to redefine our own day of the double nines by imbalance; a fire of a sore throat, too many fire birds and not enough watery art, a long wait on a cold night. Obviously we should not have had the representatives of the Yin (the women) separated from the Yang (the man). Otherwise he would have most certainly not ended up caught in traffic. Had we known better we should have all done the traditional thing and eaten cakes while drinking chrysanthemum tea. Next year we’ll be prepared.

October 13, 2010

Two Chickens for Final Hours

This is a quiet but happy day. It is an ordinary one here in Orangeburg. I go about the day, setting out my palette of colors to finish the next painting, letting the electrician in to fix the errant lights and old sockets, sending off pictures for an article and writing one of my own. Throughout it all, because I’m at the computer on and off, I check to see how many miners have been pulled out of the San Jose copper mine. Over half of them at this count. Wow! What a feat of engineering, personal and social skills! I’ve posted my miniature paintings of roosters and chickens in celebration - phoenixes they are not but at least they are exuberant.
Days of more celebration lie ahead, as well as the usual difficulties with such a big media event. But for now, it feels great to be so happy about something.

October 12, 2010

Drawing to Conclusions

In the middle of August I began my painting a day countdown to my September exhibition, which then became a painting a day countdown to my October exhibition. I am now counting down towards my November exhibition. The November exhibition, however, is not really an art show per se as it will not have an opening. It is just basically an increase in the autumn/winter inventory in Beaufort, SC. My painting pace can be moderately slower now as the work towards show season comes to a conclusion and the season of making smaller works for December begins.

Everyone knows of course, the story in the news about the miners in the San Jose copper and gold mine coming to a conclusion ahead of the previously estimated schedule. I marvel at the engineering skills that have gone into their rescue. It truly has been a fascinating story. And in the midst of so much news of chaos, it was always good to read something about coordination and ingenuity. It did make me wonder what it must have been like, though, to be camped out at the mine’s surface for what seemed like an interminable wait. I had been making a miniature painting every evening to count off that waiting time as well. It is a visual tale about waiting told through images of animals - bats, felines, and finally canines. I tried to make each image as different as possible; naturalistic, decorative, and abstract. It was such a good exercise to make these little experiments at the end of the day that I might continue even though the original inspiration for making them is just about concluded.

The last two of the miniature paintings that I’ve posted above and at right were made in part from imagination, in part from notes, and from something in my immediate surroundings. The dog in lavender was painted from a sketch I made years ago of a marble relief sculpture of a dog at the Bargello museum in Italy. The painting at the left began as a simple abstract composition. I later added this small parade of blue canines after studying a batik decorated with a parade motif that I think was taken from a Han ( about 60 AD) stele.

In consideration of Halloween coming, I will post more images of the bat paintings now that I have a small treasure trove of them.

October 8, 2010

Blessed Above the Rest

Blessed Above the Rest

I was about to watch “The Way We Were” as my bi-monthly film treat but decided to switch last minute for a more serious documentary, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” since a fellow artist at the recent annual Artist’s Booking Conference in Columbia recommended it. Always one to have a very odd detail stick in my mind, I recalled the amusing clip from the film of a dog jumping up and down repeatedly from a kitchen floor to snatch glances at the food on top of a table. The family eating this food seemed to ignore the importunate little beast. The little dog inspired me to start my next series of miniature paintings, “Eleven Days of a Dog,” numbers four and five pictured here.

Although the jumping dog in Michael Moore’s film was very funny, the point he was making was of course an unhappy one. The meal on top of the table represented a wealthy life belonging to fewer and fewer Americans and the little dog our determined hope that we too may someday be able to partake of this wealth. There was a pervasive message in “Capitalism: A Love Story” that corporate elites, along with media hype and political maneuvering have indeed manipulated that quintessentially American optimism to their advantage.

Some parts of the film, like the comparison of American society to the Roman Empire in its decadent final era, were a little cliched - even though sometimes it is indeed difficult not to feel that way. Also, Michael Moore’s repetition of his theatrical attempts to confront the powers that be in their corporate headquarters as he did in his previous films wore a little thin and probably should have been dispensed with. The only victims here were unfortunately the security guards trying to do their jobs. Nevertheless, the message of the film was brave and hard hitting.

One interesting segment of “Capitalism: A Love Story” was Michael Moore’s bringing to the forefront a question of the relationship of capitalism to Christianity. According to Mr. Moore and the priests he interviews, Capitalism is not in accordance with Christian principles and is in fact inherently evil. He then seems to propose that in the post World War II decades, and in particular with the advent of the Reagan era, corporate powers and the right wing appropriated Christianity to serve a capitalist agenda. I am not certain that I agree with that time line. Capitalism has had a stronger tie with Protestant Christianity than Catholicism and that tie can probably be traced back much further than the last few decades. It may even have a relationship to doctrines dating back to the sixteenth century. I am speaking here of such things as the doctrine of predestination in the teachings of John Calvin. According to the strict adherents of Calvinism, only a certain portion of the population were selected by God for salvation. The rest were simply damned to Hell and no amount of faith, good works or fine intentions could change that. There was apparently not much room for upward mobility in that faith.

The idea of a select few being graced by God and the damnation of the rest dovetails at least conceptually with the idea of plutonomy. Plutonomy, the rule of a small elite group of wealthy people over the rest of a society, was the description of the preferred state of America that was leaked in a 2005 Citigroup memo to its wealthiest clients. The film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” drops this memo on viewers like an atom bomb with a big red circle on the phrases in the memo alluding to fears of repercussions if the hoi ploi revolt and exercise their one person one vote rights.

It is this over arching belief in being blessed above the rest that seems to be a factor at work in what “Capitalism: A Love Story” illustrates as a mind set of the very wealthy powers that be. Whether this is manifest in a secular or religious way there may be more than a conceptual alliance with the early doctrine of pre-destination and the way this old alliance with capitalism played out in America over the last few centuries. I am condensing a long, complicated history, and drawing upon reading I actually did a long time ago so it would be best to read Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather and other early American theologians for better direct references to this old alliance I’m referring to. But basically it works like this: Given a determination that only a portion of the people are selected for divine grace and entry into Heaven, it became socially expedient to know in this life who God’s preferred were. It could be socially awkward to say the least if you were to wake up one day and find out that a friend or associate of twenty years was among those destined for eternal damnation. But how could one know who was in the Heaven club and who was not? Some early American theologians solved that riddle by maintaining that grace in the afterlife was manifested by material prosperity in this life. In other words, to quote the famous blues singer Billie Holliday, “Them’s that got will get. Them’s that not will lose. So the Bible says and it still is news.”

Many modern protestant sects have disavowed the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination and some have even claimed it to be a blasphemy (Although some recent Southern Baptists have apparently tried to reinstate Calvinism). Yet sometimes ideas so powerful can linger on - becoming hard wired somewhere deep in the social consciousness. We can see it in various modern permutations like in the so-called prosperity gospel that caused people to spend beyond their means. We might even see it in everyday innocent remarks on the occasion of mishaps like, “What did I do to deserve this?” Volumes could be written on this subject but because I only intended a short review I will just say that the idea of Cohabiting Capitalism and Christianity (how’s that for alliteration?) may have a longer and more complex history than that proposed in “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

But perhaps Michael Moore knew some of this and could not delve into it on account of the topic of Capitalism itself being so broad. And there were plenty of other occasions in the film for enlightening material - like the low wages paid to airline pilots and the practice of companies betting against the death of their employees by taking out secret life insurance policies on them called “Dead Peasant” insurance. My favorite part of the film, however, was a clip of the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt a year before his death, calling for a second Bill of Rights for the American People, guaranteeing, among other things, a home, an education and healthcare. We’re still waiting to be blessed with that.

October 5, 2010

The Test

To mark the occasion of my two-hundredth blog, I thought I would write something a little longer than usual. My thoughts in this essay follow the recent Pew study of American’s knowledge of religion . In keeping with the theme, I have posted a picture of one of my recent paintings, “Archangel II.” at right.

On a recent autumn morning before heading off to work my husband told me that he had just taken a test posted on the CNN website on the knowledge of religion and had made a perfect score. I looked at the test and noticed that they gave it the somewhat intimidating title of “Religious IQ.” The article that accompanied the test was the usual forlorn one that Americans write about their sorry level of knowledge as evidenced by their nearly universal poor performance on a “test.” The test that my husband took was the somewhat attenuated version of the 32 question test of religious knowledge used in a recent survey on religious knowledge in America by the Pew Foundation. Nevertheless, according to CNN, most Americans cannot even get more than half the questions on the short version right. I usually have serious doubts about the ability of such tests to actually prove much of anything but out of curiosity I took the test. I made a perfect score.

What was interesting to me here, however, was not that fact that both my husband and I made perfect scores but by the completely opposite reactions we had to our “achievement.” It seemed to make my husband confident about his stature as an educated man and he could barely conceal his glee over the affirmation of intellectual prowess. For me it was merely a possible indication that I done more reading about religion than the average American. But when I read that my score and predilections, according to the Pew survey, put me in the category of 4 % of Americans, I actually got gloomy. I hope this doesn’t mean that ninety-six percent of Americans will disown me. I thought to myself. Just to be certain, I read more about the questions on the extended version of the religion test. I got all those questions right as well. It confirmed my suspicion that I was indeed doomed.

I tried to go about my work that day, but there was a distinct cloud of unease hanging over everything due to the AM religion test that sent my husband off to work in a cheerful mood and me down to my studio in a funk. I suspected that there was more to this than just gender differences and personality. And, after a little more reading and re-examination I assured myself that what was at the bottom of all this uneasiness was an experience of how, in both past and present circumstances, both personal and general, tests have been interpreted. For most of my suspicions about the way surveys and tests are conducted in the United States come not from the test itself but by the way some “expert” or other fills in the blank at the end of the sentence, “The results of this test indicate that you are ........”

My skepticism about the interpretation of tests began ages ago, with an experience in Princeton High School. To start with, I recall a guidance counselor calling me in to her office to tell me that I had scored high on a test for engineering skills and that it indicated that I was “not a normal girl.” ( My mother happened to be very good at taking small machines apart and putting them back together again so perhaps I had inherited some of her “abnormality.”) My later career identity tests rattled the nerves of the guidance counselor even more for the results indicated that the most suitable career for me would be navy officer with army officer running a close second. Neither came to pass, I’m afraid.

But in addition to the humiliation of test pigeon-holing that teenagers then and now are subjected to, students at Princeton High School had the dubious honor of being used for informal psychology “tests” by students in the psychology department of Princeton University. I recall some of their more ridiculous research on peer pressure and self-esteem. I call it ridiculous because questions were posited to students without the students themselves being allowed a chance to explain their circumstances, motivations or actions. There was only one possible explanation for any youthful decision - and that was determined by the researchers. To give an example, I remember that a question was posited by the researchers as to whether or not we might downplay a high test score if everyone else in the class had not performed well. No one answered right away, but one brave boy raised his hand to say that under certain circumstances he might. Without waiting to hear what those circumstances might be, the Princeton University psychology students barked out at him, “That’s peer pressure.” and proceeded to worry him about his low self-esteem. It might be worth noting here that since he was the only student who dared to raise his hand while the rest of us were trying hard to look stony-faced and not even twitch it could easily be deduced that he was in fact the only one to NOT cave in to peer pressure. Had I myself been a bolder student I would have proposed to the Princeton University students that they were confusing discretion with low self-esteem and peer pressure with simple self preservation. But I had no empirical experience from which to draw those conclusions until a few years later in a class in Analytical Chemistry.

While a student majoring in both art and science in college I found analytical chemistry challenging but interesting. I loved the system of equations and the logic of flow charts. But I generally found that my grades hovered around a B and I just managed to keep up. One week, however, I found myself in the unusual position of being ahead of my studies so I decided to do some extra reading in analytical chemistry. The extra reading served me well because the next exam I took seemed to relate more to my extra reading than to our most recent text assignment. In the exam room, I noticed that the other students taking the exam looked confused and that there were not a lot of pencils moving. Had I not done my extra reading I would have been among them.

The following day, when the test results came in the professor announced that the results were very disappointing. Everyone in the class had failed save one person. He explained furthermore that because that one person had earned an “A” he was obliged to grade on a curve and give everyone else a “D” or an “F.” I had found the test challenging but not impossible so I was confused by the outcome. As the professor passed back our exam papers the anger among students grew. All eyes were upon the papers with grades of 40%, 45%, 35% as they seemed to fall on desk tops with a resounding “boom!” Everyone was waiting for the paper that blew the curve to come floating down upon desk of the person who had condemned the class to failure. I was also eagerly looking around to see who it was that messed up my analytical chemistry grade. I was so intent on finding out who it was that I did not notice the paper with the number 96 scrawled in bright red ink at the top lying in clear view on my desk. When I did see it I could not wait to grab it and stash it somewhere out of sight. Of course, if I were the Princeton University psychology department’s ideal of a self-actualized youth with high self-esteem I should have instantly leapt to the top of my desk, waved my paper around and loudly proclaimed victory. It appeared, however, that I had a sudden attack of low self-esteem so I quietly tucked the paper away instead But it was too late. It had been spotted and I heard the words rumbling in low disgruntled tones and spreading with viral intensity around the classroom: “It was Janet.” And I was obliged to sit through that class for the remainder of another two-hour lecture. It may have conceivably been the longest lecture of my college days. I could feel hostile, incredulous eyes burning a hole in my back, from my sides, and from across the room.

Hopefully at this point in my essay I have allowed readers to come to a false assumption. Was I brighter than the other students? No I was not. In fact I failed just as many tests as I made good on. If I hadn’t I would not be an artist today but would have gone on to medical school like I had planned. So what did it mean? It simply meant that on that day, by a strange coincidence, the professor had designed a test that dovetailed with my extra reading rather than the assigned text. And of course anyone with an ounce of intelligence would understand that the circumstances in the above instance warranted discretion rather than a public announcement.

Things are not always what they seem in tests and surveys and their interpretation is largely subjective. Such was the case for the “self esteem and peer pressure” questions, the odd circumstance of a science exam and for the most recent Pew test on religious knowledge. In the latter case I believe that the way the results of that particular test were perceived and disseminated explains why a man with a perfect score would smile and his wife with an identical score would frown, especially with regards to the conclusions that were drawn concerning the beliefs of the test takers.

As an agnostic I was personally rather nonplused at being thrown into the same category as “atheist.” We could not be further apart. An agnostic simply neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. An atheist affirms a belief that God does not exist. One questions, the other answers. One is not committed to a specific dogma or belief, the other is. In this regard, an atheist actually has more in common with a believer than an agnostic does.

When a spokesperson for the Pew foundation was interviewed recently about the results of the religious knowledge test for Americans he made an interesting assumption in his interpretation. Asked about why atheists and agnostics outperformed all others of various religious persuasions on the test, he concluded that it meant that the people in the former group came to their atheism and agnosticism only after studying religion carefully and weighing all the options. That may be so for some people. For me it was entirely the opposite. I was an agnostic well before I studied world religions. It was not a cause and effect relationship. In fact, I had no intention to read about religions in order to “rate” them. And yet the media latched on to this rather utilitarian concept and pronounced it to be so - as if we really were looking at religions of the world like they were themselves a multiple choice test:

A. Christianity - wrong!
B. Judaism - wrong!
C. Buddhism - wrong!
The answer is “D” None of the above!

Further exacerbating the problem of the biased way the test was interpreted was that it appeared that the only mouths allowed to comment on behalf of atheists and agnostics were spokespersons who seemed to be unfavorable to religion. I am not unfavorable to religion I just happen not to belong to any at the present time. It does not mean that I have concluded that I never will belong.

Nor does it mean that I hold myself as more intellectually enlightened than people of faith. So what did the test mean for me? And why would an agnostic make a perfect score? In my case the spokesperson for the Pew foundation came to the wrong conclusion, although that is not to say that he was not spot on with regard to others. But the simple truth for me was that I made a high test score because I read about religions with no other motives in mind other than to enhance my knowledge and understanding of art and in order to enrich my knowledge of the various beliefs of world cultures. And I suppose it helps to have friends from diverse religious backgrounds.

As an artist, it behooves me to understand art history. In the history of art, secular art has been the exception rather than the rule. The church has been a major patron of the arts throughout history, as has the religions of most other cultures. It would be impossible to have a grasp of world art without knowing at least something about the history and beliefs of the religions that inspired and supported it.

In addition to understanding the world of art, a knowledge of religious history supports the understanding of literature, philosophy and ethics. In most religious writing there is at the center a belief in a supreme good, an absolute truth. Much of religious writing is about the striving to be as close as humanly possible to that supreme good or absolute truth. Some of the most sublime writing that human beings have penned is about this striving to be better humans by means of closeness to their God. It is worth reading on that merit alone.

It would be unfortunate if those who misinterpret cause and effect in the recent survey of religious knowledge would use that to dissuade people from reading about religion and theological history. I can easily see how someone with less than ethical motivations might use the idea that knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive as leverage to prohibit religious inquiry. That would be a shame. It would be equally unfortunate if educated people conclude that a low test score on religious knowledge casts too much doubt on the motivations of a group as a whole. One highly educated man I spoke with recently, for instance, concluded that the low test scores among Catholics meant that they are “just believing whatever they are told.” That may be, but it also could mean that the Catholic church has made greater inroads to poor communities than other denominations have - someone working three jobs to support his family will not have the time to sit around and read about Maimonides.

In conclusion, test scores are just indications of the knowledge of people at a particular time and place. How we each got there is a mixture of chance and opportunity. The results are often highly individual and idiosyncratic and should never be used as a tool to embarrass others or define people in accordance with preconceived notions - whether their scores are high or low.
And now that I have clarified this I might join my husband in smiling.

October 2, 2010

A Pearl in an Ocean

The Pearl in the Ocean

Despite the tidal waves of information posted, commented upon and hopelessly lost as the sea of time flows by on the internet, I have always been always able to find small gems in the most unlikely of places. And since I had expressed disappointment and skepticism about social networking, I feel that I should also, on balance, highlight a few of these pearls rolling along in the oceans of data. Any bit of pearly light is as much so for what it inspires as for what it is in itself. For me this little illuminating fragment was my reading in Facebook about someone who had a collection of monsters (toys I presume) and wondered why it was so difficult to find representations of monsters in our culture of the female kind. This started a dialogue which resulted in my writing a chapbook of poetry entitled “My Women, My Monsters,” which I have just begun to send out to publishers. I have also begun to illustrate the book with detailed pencil drawings and hand lettering - almost like the medieval Bestiaries I so loved to see in the libraries in Great Britain and in Europe when we lived there. The illustrations are still works in progress and the writing itself still needs to find an interested publisher. The former is just a matter of time and effort but the latter will be a series of leaps of faith, divisions and revisions.

“My Women, My Monsters” was fun to write, and included a cast of characters that readers found both engrossing and amusing, like Mother Puffer, the Empress of Clones, and The Queen of Bones. The poetry might be difficult to publish, as it may not have a fully defined audience - straddling the boundaries of juvenile fiction and adult satire. But I will continue to work on it and post works from it from time to time.

To end my cycle of small paintings, “Thirty-three Days of the Big Cats,” I am posting number thirty-three, the grey terrible she cat, in keeping with the completion of the book of Monsters.

October 1, 2010

The Finished Collage

October first seems to be a meaningful time to post my now completed collage “Facebook Purgatory.” As the title implies, it is numerically divided into the threes and nines found in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. My original painting that this collage is derived from was a satire on Facebook putting me into a two-week long waiting period before deleting my profile. It struck me as having a purgatory-like judgmental quality. In recent times, however, with the release of the film today, “The Social Network” as well as the news stories of a youth whose tragic death appears to be linked to a form of harassment exposure on the net, it seems as if the social network of cyberspace itself stands in limbo.

The part of Dante’s long poem about purgatory is distinct from his descriptions of Inferno because although it describes sin, they are character flaws - the seven deadly ones to be exact - rather than actions. Figures in Dante are often described as being in strange positions - backwards or upside down, which is why I decided in my collage to take the face icons and turn them upside down. The three large central icons were made from cut out painted paper and the rest were made with carved rubber stamps. Generally when I design a stamp for an art work I keep them for use in future art works. I threw away the face stamps for this art work, not wanting to revisit the theme.

The painting of the she-cat and her two little ones is number thirty-two in my series of paintings of the thirty-three paintings of the big cats. Tomorrow they will end and it will be on to the next cycle.

September 29, 2010

Fair Weather

Nothing can be finer than a fair in Carolina. Even if it has been raining and overcast for two days.

Last year around this time I was a juror for the Mosaic Arts International exhibition held in Chicago. This year I was the juror for the Fine Arts Exhibition at the Orangeburg County Fair. The two jurying experiences could not have been more different. One was highly competitive, international and executed on line. The other was the real time exuberant expression of a local community where everyone wins a place. Although the international exhibition was more prestigious, the local one was more warm-hearted. They were both great experiences in their own way.

There is no greater joy for me in the autumn season than the fairs of South Carolina. The Orangeburg County Fair is a particularly fine one. Since Orangeburg County is largely agrarian, there are no shortages of exotic livestock, plants, fruits and prize vegetables on display. I saw rows upon rows of arfully canned fruits. There were painted goats, angora chickens, roasters with bold stripes of gold and black. There were chickens that sported long thin spikes of white feathers on top of their heads which made them look like Andy Warhol. There was a large deer-like creature which I could not even identify.

Of particular interest to me was the annual exhibition of fine hand sewn quilts. There are seven quilting guilds in Orangeburg County alone, so I was told, which might account for the quilt exhibition taking up one entire building. I have not seen such a fine exhibition of quilts even on the state level so Orangeburg County must be the place to go for afficionados of this art form. It was such a stunning display that I immediately went back to my studio and painted two examples of big cats in quilt form to see if I could manage the style. They could not compare with the great color sense of the quilt makers but at least I gave it a try.

What I found when I juried the fine arts exhibition at the Orangeburg County Fair was that there were more categories of art than there were submissions to fill them. This made some of my choices a little two easy; first and second place, for instance for the two submissions to the category of professional mixed media art. I did take an exquisitely painted miniature icon from the advanced mixed media category and put it into the category of miniature painting, for which there were no entries. I made a note to myself here to enter my own miniature paintings next year.

If the quality of the student art at the fair was any indication, then I was heartened by what appeared to be very hard working art teachers in this county. The oil pastels were especially well executed - with rich colors and details lovingly done.

What a feast of colors, sounds and sights the fair was as the displays were going up! I’m looking forward to going back at least twice with my camera and a sketch book.

September 28, 2010

Magic Herbs Under a China Moon

If I have my calendar right, yesterday was the last night of the traditional Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. I could not let it pass on by without making another small painting in celebration of this time of year. In this painting from my series of small book illustrations, the cat is being ridden by a white rabbit who holds a mortar and pestle. He is known as the Jade Rabbit. In bygone times, the Jade Rabbit was also celebrated at Mid-Autumn Festival for his association with the moon. According to Chinese mythology, the Moon Goddess Guan Yin, maintains her immortality by drinking herbs made by a magic rabbit. Mixing the elixir of longevity also ensured the rabbit’s celestial status which was accorded to him in return for his sacrificing himself in a fire one fine day when the immortals, disguised as beggars, requested food and the rabbit found himself empty handed.

When I lived in China, and for the few years after that when I returned as a guide and translator, the image of the rabbit mixing the elixir of immortality could still be found in shops, museums and temples. I often thought of this figure as an archetype of Chinese civilization’s roots in agrarian pragmatism despite having a pantheon of celestial beings. What other culture would hang the dependence of celestial immortality on taking supplements every day served up by a rabbit? It would of course seem no surprise for a culture that spent thousands of years of developing potable medicines.

Of all the images of the jade rabbit I saw in China, perhaps the one that made the greatest impression on me was a very tiny one housed in the Forbidden City Museum. He was carved out of luminous white jade like the glowing moon itself with eyes that were inlaid with tiny rubies. But what made him memorable to me was not his own shining precious eyes but the pair of eyes that looked upon him and fell in love with the idea of his gift of untiring service to the goddess. But this requires another tale.

Travel to a foreign country has a knack of bringing out the best and the worst in people. In my experience leading several groups to China and back and in living abroad for a number of years I have come to the conclusion that this is because leaving behind the cultural constraints of one’s home country frees people to make new rules for themselves and for the people they interact with. In this sense the foreign land can also be said to bring out the truth in the people who travel to it. For those who carried within them a moral compass, the trip abroad caused no challenges to their judgement. They adapted well, exploring new territory with open minds and natural curiosity. But for others, whose behavior was ostensibly regulated only by the external rules of their own culture, a residency abroad unleashed havoc. Those in the latter group included an American businessman I saw happily stealing the hats off of people passing by him on an escalator in an apartment store. It included enclaves of ex-patriots who, not being obliged by law to be fair to people of different cultures and other ethnic groups, established their own feifdoms of apartheid communities. The most egregious lapses in judgement and ethics that I witnessed I will omit for now, but suffice to say that the people who committed them made the rest of us embarrassed.

My jade rabbit tale is about such an embarrassed woman. On one of my return trips to China, there was a middle-aged couple and their teen-aged daughter in my entourage. Upon their arrival in China the father and the daughter both left any pretense to civility back home in New York. I don’t remember everything the father did but I do remember the daughter’s behavior with particular clarity because it was so outrageous. I recall, for instance, the day she came down to dinner carrying a bottle of wine that she swilled down in its entirety without asking anyone else if they wanted any. She then boorishly belittled the meal set before us by our Chinese hosts. The mother, I’ll call her Mrs. M., was chagrined by her family’s behavior but could seem to do nothing to curtail it. She grew increasingly sullen during the trip as a series of incidents of father and daughter behaving badly stung her own sense of dignity.

One day, the cloud of maternal hurt dissipated for Mrs. M upon a chance encounter with the Jade Rabbit. While we were touring the Forbidden City Museum her eyes fixed upon a tiny white rabbit with inlaid ruby eyes. She asked me what it was and what it was doing with this curious looking stick and a cup. I told her the story of the Jade Rabbit and his tireless eternal mixing of the elixir of immortality for the goddess of the moon. Mrs. M’s face brightened into a smile and she said,
“I want that rabbit.”
Throughout the rest of the trip Mrs. M forgot began to think less about her husband and her daughter’s noxious behavior. And every time she mentioned the little Jade Rabbit she smiled. I am not sure why just the thought of it caused a lightness of heart in her. Perhaps she could vividly imagine being a goddess herself with something or someone working vigorously on her behalf. Maybe the idea of sacrifice and service to a dignified celestial maternal being amused her. Or perhaps the notion that goddesses are works in progress - sustained by daily infusions of magic sustenance gave her hope for herself and her family. I like to think that upon her return to New York she attained something akin to a little magic Jade Rabbit, tirelessly working on the elixir of life.

September 26, 2010

Reflections on the Moon

This week was marked by two holidays; Mid-Autumn Festival and Sukkoth. The first came upon us almost too quickly to celebrate, the latter was passed in a small ceremony at Beth Elohim in Charleston.

When my husband and I lived in China, Mid-Autumn Festival was a major holiday, celebrated with gatherings, dragon boat races (although we never witnessed those) and by eating the sumptuously delectable moon cakes. The moon cakes are a pastry about the diameter of a grapefruit. They are generally filled with a sweetened bean paste and stamped with a design on the top. There were variations of these in China depending upon which bakery in which city made them. I heard that the Shanghai moon cakes were filled with coconut with an egg yolk in the center to symbolize the moon.

Unfortunately there were no moon cakes to be had here in Orangeburg, South Carolina but I did celebrate one of the traditions by making a moon painting. My painting of the blue cat and the orange moon above is not exactly conventional for it depicts the moon that lingers at dawn rather than the full harvest moon seen at night which the Chinese celebrate. But I suppose that Orangeburg requires an orange moon.

Mid-Autumn Festival is a time to reflect upon home - but not the home of a present residence but the “old home” of one’s origins. This could mean the place of one’s birth or the place where one’s ancestors came from. It has been interesting that Mid-Autumn Festival coincided with Sukkoth this year - for both are in many ways holidays of quiet reflection and gratitude - for harvest, for family, for memories.

September 25, 2010

The Tale of the Painted Cat

I once owned a cat from Africa.

Well, no, not exactly. But as I watched the film “Out of Africa” recently it seemed a fitting way to begin an epic tale. For Max was a cat of epic proportions. And we could not be said to have owned him, for he found us one day in Princeton, New Jersey and condescended to share a home with us for the next fourteen years.

I thought of Max when I finished painting number twenty-six in my series of the big cat paintings. While painting the face of the cat as an almost imperceptible mark, I further obscured it by accidently smearing it with blue and red paint. Max the cat had done a similar thing one day when he dipped his head in the blue then the red paint on my palette and roamed around looking like a punk rock cat with two long stiff peaks of pigmented fur arising from his head. I read that cats tend to imitate the people they live with. Perhaps he saw me getting paint all over myself in my studio and felt obliged to follow along.

Max would often do surprising things like for he was no ordinary cat. He didn’t even meow like a regular cat but made chortles, humming, and chirps interspersed with short cat songs of about four or more bars. His fur was not rough like most cats but like the finest silk. Stroking his fur was like stroking the fur of a mink or a rabbit. And this fine fur covered an elegant eighteen pound well muscled generous helping of a cat.

But despite his pleasant singing voice and his beautiful proportions Max was no angel. He had a quick temper and in his younger days would fly up and bite us out of sheer spite if we came home from even a short vacation without him. He was an avid hunter and like most cats would drag his prey home to our back porch in order to display his prowess. But although many cats had the outrageously awful habit of playing with prey before killing it, Max elevated this into a higher level of exhibition sport. He would take his deceased mice and play hand ball (or I guess paw ball) with them against a screen door. He did this by throwing the thing up high into the air, then wacking it into the screen door with a good right hook. Max would then pick it up, throw it up into the air another three or four feet, then wack it into the door again.

I told my mother once about this odd thing my cat did with mice that I had never before witnessed with other cats and I could tell that she was skeptical. Max could sense the skepticism as well and decided to take matters into his own paws and prove his mettle with mice. So one day, dead mouse at the ready, he chased my mother up a sidewalk, throwing the mouse at her all the way up to the back door of her house (I had come to visit with Max). He would pick up the mouse and throw it a good four or five feet where it fell just short of my mother’s running feet. He repeated this action until he came to a closed door at the back of the house, where he stood guard for some time, mouse tail dangling off the left side of his mouth like a cigarette off a mobster's lower lip.

Some days after the intimidating mouse incident I heard my mother say to someone, "You know how Janet exaggerates in order to tell a good story? Well, this time it was true. She has a cat that pitches mice - for several feet!"

But Max’s pranking personality aside, My husband and I often concurred that this stately, unusual creature was a more outstanding example of a cat than we were as people. If he were a person, we mused, then he would of course be some head of state, a Chinese emperor, or maybe a famous athlete. And although as a foundling we did not know his cat lineage, we concluded that such an exotic feline specimen must have been an escapee from a Norwegian Forest or Maine Coon cattery. When he died we put him to rest in a small rose garden and never got another cat, in part because keeping a pet in the manner they should be kept is an expensive thing, but also because we never could find another cat quite like Max.
The little painting at upper left is from my new series of angel paintings that I delivered today to the gallery Nina Liu in Charleston. Some may question why I have given my cat top billing over the archangel but I suppose that the cat was painted with just a little more awe.

September 24, 2010

Angel Number Three

The oil painting above, “Angel Passing the Light of Wisdom,” is the third of my figurative angel paintings for the exhibition at Nina Liu and Friends opening a week from today. The painting is based upon my readings of the descriptions of angels in the classic work, The Celestial Hierarchy by the fifth century theologian Pseudo Dionysius. Pseudo Dionysius himself would probably not approve of this endeavor for on the subject of angels he wrote:

“The word of God makes use of poetic imagery when discussing these formless intelligences but, as I have alaready said, it does so not for the sake of art, but as a concession to the nature of our own mind.”

Nevertheless, the poetic descriptions of the various ranks of angels and their services to mankind have been helpful to me in rendering these images because they hold certain visionary qualities that lend themselves to a visual narrative - both for the figurative as well as the abstract works. The hierarchy of angels as described by Pseudo-Dionysius falls into three categories of ranking in accordance with proximity to God. The first domain, which the theologian describes almost humorously as being in the “anteroom of divinity” consist of the seraphim, the cherubim and the thrones. The second tier of angels are the dominions, the powers and the authorities. At the highest level are the principalities, the archangels and the angels.

As one who was raised in the egalitarian but bland atmosphere of Protestantism, the notion of an elaborate system of intermediaries between mortals and their God is foreign to say the least. It does bring to mind the pantheon of ancient eastern religions. The forward comments in the translation of Pseudo-Dionysius that I have borrowed for this project in fact notes a kinship with the writings of the early Christian church and Hinduism. There is a certain sense of enchantment emanating from these pages. Despite the complexity of the language and descriptions, there is an almost refreshing humility in the concept of mortal eyes and minds not having the moral and intellectual merit to gaze directly upon the almighty and yet the celestial intelligences can be relied upon to interpret divine messages and disseminate ethereal grace. And they do so with such color and personality!

The painting of the large cat about to take a leap is number twenty-five in my “Thirty-three Days of the Puma” series.

September 23, 2010

Impressions of Stolen Icons

The painting on wood above, “Power, giver of courage,” is based on a sketch I made years ago while visiting relatives in Ukraine. The drawings I made of the Russian Icons from that trip brought back a feeling of something stolen. Although the Italians were flattered by artists taking an active interest in their artifacts and applauded people sketching in museums and galleries, the Ukrainians were decidedly suspicious. When I sketched in the museums of Kiev it was soon apparent that making drawings of icons was a forbidden act for the guards would come waving their arms at me and shouting “Nyet! Nyet!” Not knowing any Ukrainian other than a phrase that I learned from my grandmother that essentially meant, “Just a minute,” my response to the guards only further riled them. Ostensibly they were afraid that I was in the business of forging icons, and here I was blithely sketching away and telling them to wait until I was finished.

The original icon upon which this painting is based depicted a regal looking heavenly being holding up two birds, or perhaps minor angels. The drawing that I made this from is black and white and I have long since forgotten how the original icon was painted so I invented colors. The angel looked masculine to me so I named it a “Power” after the second tier of angels in the Celestial Hierarchy. The Powers were described as having “unshakable courage” and being “masculine.”

While painting this small work, I had another rather unusual source of inspiration. A number of years ago, I stayed with an elderly Jewish woman who was a long-time friend of my late Mother-in-Law. She amused me by singing all manner of old ditties from what I assumed to be about the 1920's or 1930's. One of these, “Little Black Me” opened with a line sung in a minor key, “Mother are there any angels black like me?” I remembered the line because the melody had the same opening measures as a Boismortier flute and harpsichord duet. Out of curiosity I did a search on the “Little Black Me” melody and found that it actually dated to 1899 and was written by a Thurland Chattaway. Chattaway had written other songs around that time which advocated desegregation - something unusual for its time.
So with this odd little tune in mind, at least one of my angels became black - I suppose to finally answer the question the song posited.

September 22, 2010

A Celestial Hierarchy

The gallery in Charleston asked if I might like to participate in an art exhibition in October on the theme of Angels. I still had some paintings on this theme from three years ago so of course I said yes. Later, however, I asked if I might deliver the work a little later in the month so that I could add some new paintings. The gallery owner was in a typically Daoist frame of mind, and replied that I should do so only if “it was natural and if the spirit moved me.” Since I hadn’t sold any paintings from my previous exhibition it was only natural that the spirit moved me to paint something new for an opportunity to show it in a more commercially viable venue.

Staring at a blank canvas with the exhortation to paint an angel ringing in my head was not, however, sufficient inspiration. For one thing, although I had a treasure trove of experienced viewing of the angel bedecked icons of Europe at my mind’s recall, there were also images of every Hallmark card there as well. So I set out on a quest towards celestial inspiration of a higher ranking.

To refresh my better memories, I looked back over my travel sketch books in order to mine them for representations of celestial beings and found enough to get some compositions started. The sketches of bas-relief angels from the facades of churches in Italy brought back fond memories of warm sunny days in the hills of Tuscany. The small oil painting above was painted from one of these sketches and named “Seraph Bringing Fire.”

The title of my new painting comes from a description of Seraphim in The Celestial Hierarchy by the early sixth century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. I have South Carolina State University professor Dr. Grenier to thank for his recommendation that I read this intriguing but perplexing work. Certainly it has enriched my new series of angel paintings, as did listening to the compositions for organ that Dr. Grenier just recently finished writing based as well on the descriptions of angels in The Celestial Hierarchy.

I have made three figurative works on the angel theme and several abstract works on paper - some with discernable figures, others without. Many of these will be on view at Nina Liu and Friends beginning October 1 but I will post them here as well along with explanations.

The decorative cat on the left is number twenty-three in my series “Thirty-three Days of the Puma.” I thought it fitting to paint the big cat in a more celestial bearing to announce the start of the paintings of the angels. The design for this miniature is loosely based upon the illuminated illustration of St. Mark in his lion form from the Book of Kells

September 21, 2010

Homeless in a Pink Kimono

In my present two-person exhibition at the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center there is a painting at the top of the entrance stairway which is different from my other work in the show. Made with acrylic paint, collage and printed paper, it rests on the wall rather incongruously alongside a rather staid oil portrait of the Prince of Orange - a permanent fixture in the stairwell of the Art Center. (Too inconveniently located to move, the Prince of Orange presides over all exhibitions, meetings, and displays of talents, regardless of content or subject).

My acrylic collage, “Homeless in a Pink Kimono” is so named for the red print affixed to the bottom of the composition and which reads “without a home.” I created the work shortly after watching the 1959 film “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” by Mikio Naruse. In this respect the art work could be considered a study in Ekphrasis for it pays homage to Naruse’s beautifully understated melancholy work.

“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a film about bar hostesses working in the Ginza district of postwar Japan. It is impressive that Mr. Naruse made this film, as well as a number of others in this genre, that were so sympathetic to the plight of women on their own and trying to make their way in a man’s world. In this film from the 1950's Naruse chronicles the bar maids’ rush against time and money as they compete amongst each other in a race to become married by the time they reach thirty years of age or save enough money to buy their own bar. The story follows the plight of a thirty year old hostess, Keiko, who struggles to maintain integrity among the numerous betrayals, seductions, and pressures of the Ginza world. Her friends steal away her most attractive women for their own bars. Keiko rejects an immodest proposal from a wealthy business man to buy a bar for her in return for her becoming his mistress. Junko, a young bar maid whom Keiko is serving as a mentor, jumps in to take up the business man’s proposal for herself and is later seen happily polishing the counter top in her own bar. At one point in the film it looks as though Keiko has found an honest man to become her husband, only to find that he is already married.

A persistent theme in the film, “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” is the psychological, ethical, and material costs of staying ahead of the competition. The bar maids are constantly pressured into buying expensive perfumes and elaborate kimonos - different ones for every night in order to keep the attention of their male patrons. They are caught in an endless cycle of having to buy, borrow or steal in order to stay in the business just long enough to buy their independence from it. The film is as unsettling as it is entertaining. Was the film an indictment of commercialism run amok? Or was it just Naruse’s cautionary tale about the futility of using up youth and money in a race to win a game with a predetermined outcome?

It is easy to see parallels to Naruse’s women and people in our own society who are strung along in this recession economy with promises of a better life: the adjunct art professor whose university tells her that if she spends on just one more one-woman show she can be considered for full time work, the droves of people who take out loans to go back to school for second degrees for jobs that may not even exist, the self-employed entrepreneur trying to keep up by attending expensive trade shows and purchasing marketing packages. Some expenditures may lead to something, but most are probably just expensive kimonos and perfume.

Despite the sadness of Naruse’s film, “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” there does appear to be a message of hope. Perhaps hope is too strong a word. It is more like a low key sanguine acceptance. Keiko knows that she is now too old to marry and that she does not have the money to buy her own bar. And yet she still ascends the stairs to go to work, meet her friends and colleagues - enjoying the few that are true to her and basking in what remains beautiful in life. The film ends in just such a quiet way, when Keiko reaches the bar at the top of the stairs. She nods to the left, then to the right, smiles and gives a greeting to her patrons. Keiko, the one who loses the race carries on.

Autumn hails a time of competition for artists, with many applications for very few positions. There are competitive publications, trade shows, grants, and juried exhibitions to enter. A few of us will win, most of us will not. If anything can be learned from Mr. Naruse, it is that not winning is not an end to living and that some discretion is necessary in the amount of time and resources one spends on dreams.

For my part, I always enjoy the South Carolina Booking Conference, which I will attend at the end of this week. I haven’t actually booked work there in about three years and the attending artists seem to be a bit fewer each year. (The artist-in-residency work I have secured was from people who have taken the time to study my credentials and program through the Arts Commission Web site) But it is still a nice way to meet fellow teaching artists and talk about their work. But perhaps I am now too old to buy a new kimono for it!

September 20, 2010

Small Art


Smallness in visual art evokes images of exotic Persian miniatures, an exquisitely rendered Chinese fan, a page from an illuminated manuscript, and sumptuously painted portraits on ivory. Gems such as these are more intimate than art admired from afar. They can be possessed and held close to the heart.

But even if small art is not possessed but only shared by their private owners or seen through the glass in a museum collection, they charm and fascinate. The delicacy and intimate scale of these works exerts a hold upon the viewer from behind their glass cases that is quite distinct from that of larger scale works. The consummate care and skill with which an artist rendered images for private use and for which he would consequently perhaps never hear public accolades is enchanting. Modest, lovely, and desirable - small artworks are exciting for prodding the psyche into believing that having is within the realm of the possible.

I have always been charmed by small art - netsuke, snuff bottles, Persian and Indian miniatures, small ivories. It is a sentiment that was never entirely erased by a culture that prefers big and loudly broadcasted statements of art to these tiny whispered secrets. I sometimes prefer the larger works too, but I hold a place in my heart and in my home for smallness.

The two works I have posted today are miniature paintings numbers twenty and twenty-one (the computer was unavailable for uploads yesterday) of my daily work on the “Thirty-three Days of the Puma” series. I was thinking of Persian miniatures and British ivory paintings when I made them. Although these paintings are not nearly as skilled as the works that influenced them, they still, I hope, hold something of their spirit. They are tiny - just three and a half inches tall by five inches long. To paint them I used a Chinese brush made for miniature silk paintings. Since I was trained by a master silk painter in China, I do at least know something of the brush work that is required to accomplish the long sinuous lines. These are particularly evident in the tethers on the big cat at the top.