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The mosaic pictured above is called “Subclinical Harpies,” so named for a poem from one of my now voluminous unpublished manuscripts.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.

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